Remembering the Orchestra, the Peninsula Symphony – Part 3

By Mary Urbach

In the early days of PSO we were the only game in town other than the two professional orchestras, San Francisco and San Jose (which was a minor orchestra at that time). Our orchestra was reasonably good, and we always had a well-known nationally and sometimes internationally known soloist featured at each concert. Guild members belonged to the socially elite of the peninsula. There was prestige attached to being an important part of the support of the orchestra. The annual fund-raising Viennese Ball organized by the Guilds was a gala party, complete with gorgeous gowns and formal wear. Teenage boys, costumed as pages dressed in pink and white satin jackets and pantaloons and donning white wigs, escorted the guests. The symphony performed Strauss waltzes for the dancing guests. While the volunteer Guilds promoted PSO, sold subscriptions and produced the fund-raiser, the conductor Aaron Sten was the only paid staff. But times changed, as you can imagine, along with the waltzes, gowns and pages.

As time went on the Viennese Ball made less and less money and was finally discontinued. Other fund raising events had to be pursued. Typically professional as well as non-professional orchestras only receive about one-third of their operating expenses from ticket sales. But other demographics also changed. More “community” orchestras came into being, along with a multitude of other artistic performing groups, including opera, theater, dance and many smaller, sometimes very good artistic organizations. Compounding this was the gradual loss of the large female volunteer pool, as many women decided to have careers and often managed motherhood on top of pursuing higher education as well as professional careers. The Guild population, about three hundred in 1970, gradually shrank to a few dozen members. New volunteers were hard to come by, and the remaining ones were getting older.

This demographic change was starting to happen in 1984, when our current Music Director and Conductor, Maestro Mitchell Sardou Klein, became our new leader upon the retirement of Aaron Sten. Maestro Klein (Mitch is what we call him, but certainly not out of irreverence) has been our leader for twenty years. It is generally acknowledged that since he became our conductor, over time he has brought the orchestra to a significantly higher level of performance. That is not to say that we are competing with San Francisco Symphony. Of course not, as we only rehearse once a week. On concert week, though, we have two rehearsals and two concerts. We usually have an hour rehearsal with our soloist. If we get lucky, occasionally we have a second one-hour rehearsal.

Since we all play for the love of music (most of us were not paid) we are technically a community orchestra. But that diminishes the quality of our current day performances.

Most people have day jobs and some are music teachers. Many members have music degrees, but preferred to have a better paycheck in another career. Under our new conductor our programs expanded to a collaborative concert annually with the Stanford Symphonic Chorus in the beautiful Memorial Church on campus in November. We also added a family concert primarily for the educational benefit of children, and a free summer Sunday pop’s Concert in the Park. Seven programs (about thirteen concerts) makes for a full schedule for working folks. Mitch is beloved by all members of the orchestra, a gentlemen and a scholar, always thoroughly prepared for rehearsal and patiently insistent on getting our focused attention. In music performance you only get one chance to get it right. If you miss, the moment is gone. Today a small paid staff and some of volunteers manage the office on a budget of about $300,000. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have this experience, which has become a major blessing in my life.

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