Symphony Founders Norman Walters, Matilda Dedrick
and Curt Bowman, 1958
It's a Wonderful Symphony:
How a Community Volunteer Orchestra
Became a Top-Rated Organization
The history of our Santa Cruz County Symphony is a little like the popular movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This is a tale about how different Bedford Falls would have been if George Bailey had not been around to make a positive influence on people’s lives. Even the smallest act became magnified into something of huge importance, bringing richness into his small town.
If Major Matilda Dedrick were still alive today, we could say the same thing about her determination to create a symphony orchestra for Santa Cruz. Her work—along with that of Dave Owen, Jim and Jo Rogers, Curt Bowman, and Norman Walters—seemed like a small enough task at the time. But today, what started as a relatively unpolished group of community musicians has grown to become one of the highest-rated for its class in California. It makes everyone proud.
First Symphony conductor
Detlev Anders, 1958
The Santa Cruz Sentinel put out a call for prospective orchestra members, and 38 of them showed up at the organizational meeting on March 10, 1958. A total of 70 expressed interest in playing with the group. After ten rehearsal dates, with Detlev Anders of the San Francisco Symphony leading, the orchestra held its first concert on May 27. They played to an enthusiastic Civic Auditorium crowd of 2000, which gave a standing ovation halfway through the program and made cash donations as they left.
Post-concert news articles quoted several attendees who exclaimed it was “inspiring,” “a milestone,” “a real thrill,” and “terrific.” In a fit of optimism, pharmacist Melvin McRae exclaimed, “We won’t have to worry about juvenile delinquency when we can offer young people this.”
The news spread as far away as Grand Rapids, Mich., prompting Ned Colby, concert master for its local symphony, to write, “If there is an opening in the violin section, I’d like to be dealt in.”
The original musicians made it special
Today, the orchestra is composed of professional musicians. But in those early days, it really was a “pick-up” community group with local people such as Paul Sandas on the violin, Wally Trabing on the tympani and percussion, Symphony founder Matilda Dedrick on the violin, Sister Joan Louise on the contra bass, and William Doyle on the French horn.
Musicians from the early days included
Paul Sandas (violin) and Wally Trabing (tympani)
Viennese Ball, 1969
As a young boy, Paul had taken violin lessons from a San Francisco teacher who had a vacation home in Santa Cruz. He could not afford a good violin, so his teacher lent him an instrument of his own. Upon the teacher’s death, attorneys for the estate contacted Paul’s parents and said they could purchase the violin for $500 if they wished to keep it. This was the violin that Paul used for his Symphony performances. Many years later, he learned that it was a fine Italian instrument that appraised for $70,000!
Santa Cruz Sentinel columnist Wally Trabing didn’t have perfect pitch, so he couldn’t always judge how far to push his tympani pedals. But he had a bright idea. He determined how many books he could put under the pedals for each note, so his foot would go only so far. Bill Doyle, who also was a biology professor at UCSC, remarked that Wally sat nearby in the orchestra and often pounded away on his drums. “But I got even with him,” Bill said. “I’d turn my French horn toward him and give a nice blast whenever he got too loud.”
The Symphony matured quickly
As the organization matured, it grew to become a cultural resource for young people. In 1965, the Santa Cruz County Youth Symphony was organized as a separate non-profit organization with cooperation from the County Office of Education. The Youth Symphony continues to serve as a vital training ground for young local musicians, many of whom have gone on to have careers as touring professionals.
Youth Program, 1970s
Boardwalk Concert, 1970s
Street Concert, 1970s
The Symphony’s Youth program has been an important asset to local educators. Since the mid-1960’s. Symphony musicians visit elementary schools county-wide, giving live demonstrations and providing the children with a rare opportunity to ask questions of symphony players. The students are then treated to a free concert at the Santa Cruz Civic or Mello Center in Watsonville, featuring guests of varied arts disciplines and musical styles. Youth Symphony players join the adult symphony onstage, making up the largest philharmonic on the central coast.
Arriving in Santa Cruz in 1971, Maestro George Barati brought the orchestra up several notches in quality. It was he who first attracted professional musicians who were paid for their services. He was convinced by board member Bud Kretschmer to lead the Symphony, even though the Maestro thought it wasn’t up to his standards at the time. (In his memoirs, the Maestro claimed that Bud was the key reason he stayed in town.)
1972, Maestro George Barati with pianist
Maestro Kenneth Kline
“Barati worked with Bartok, and he led the Honolulu Symphony and Opera for 18 years, so leading a community orchestra was a step down,” said Michael Stamp, former executive director of the Symphony who also played the viola in the orchestra. “But having George Barati here helped us to attract seven strong candidates for his replacement once he left. It was a sign that we were gaining credibility.”
Encouraged by Maestro Norman Masonson, the Symphony League formed in 1966 with Marian Mee as its founder and first president. Its goal was to raise money to support the orchestra, a task it’s performed very well. Last year, the League raised $75,000 through its traditional themed ball, holiday home tour, and silent auction and fashion show.
“This year, we’re going to turn old musical instruments into art objects,” said Gene Wright, League president. “These will be sold or auctioned. We even have a piano and a trumpet, so we’re expecting a fun and successful event.”
As its popularity grew, the Symphony made strides to make the concerts accessible countywide, with performances held in about ten venues.
Performance at the Fox Theatre in Watsonville in
Many enjoyed the Pops for Pops Concert at Henry Cowell Parkin the early 1990s
“We were like a gypsy band,” said Nancy Meyberg, who served as publicity director for many years. “We played at Holy Cross Church, Mission San Juan Batista, Henry Cowell Park, Cabrillo College, the Cocoanut Grove, First Congregational Church, Twin Lakes Church, the Fox Theater in Watsonville, and even Croscetti Hall at the fairgrounds. Sometimes the critics showed up at the wrong venues. The acoustics weren’t always great, but people came because they loved the orchestra.”
The annual Pops for Pops Concert every Father’s Day made the Symphony even more accessible, introducing a broader audience to the talented musicians as they played to a picnic audience at Henry Cowell Park.
More change was in store
After settling in at the Cabrillo College Theater, it seemed as if the Symphony had a sort-of permanent home. However, the college had priority on calendar dates, which put the orchestra at a disadvantage. In addition, seating was limited to about 500. It became painfully apparent that Santa Cruz County had no performing arts facility that combined a proper sound system, reasonable acoustics, concert hall seating arrangements, and sufficient capacity. After the earthquake in 1989 closed several venues, the Symphony had little choice but to move back to the Civic Auditorium, with concerts at the new Mello Center in Watsonville serving the South County communities beginning in 1994. In fact, the Symphony was involved in building the Mello, including initial grants from the Packard Foundation to help fund an expansion.
Still, playing at the Civic was no picnic. The site had been created in part for basketball games, and its acoustic tile ceilings and hardwood floors did nothing to enhance the instruments’ sound quality. But Rick Larsen, facilities manager for the Civic, was determined to make it work. In three phases, he and his crew, with the advice of acoustician Red Wetherill, installed an acoustic wall behind the orchestra, acoustic panels for the back wall (which came from the old Fox Theater), and acoustic “clouds” that came from Davies Hall in San Francisco. All together, the installations greatly improved the musical richness. The gift of a permanent Steinway piano in 2006 took the Symphony performances up another notch.
When the Symphony was first organized, musicians paid for the chance to play! Their membership dues were $1 each, plus a 25-cent contribution at each rehearsal.
Symphony musicians at their day jobs in 1966
Top: Albert Pori, middle: Mary Chenowith, bottom: Ralph Fingal
Challenges were met and overcome
The Symphony’s evolution wasn’t always smooth. As an arts organization, its funding depends on donor generosity, which often depends on the overall economy. Sometimes financial management has been a learning experience, as well. Jan Derecho, former and current executive director of the Symphony and a member of the Cabrillo Chorus, recalled some particular challenges.
“We were in financial crisis not long ago, and our current conductor, Larry Granger, believed that increasing the quality of our orchestra would be a key part of attracting grants and other funding,” she said. “After a lot of hard work, he submitted tapes to the California Arts Council and achieved a ‘4-rating’ for us, which is the highest ever given to any orchestra of our budget size. The community also came together to help us cure our deficit in a time when orchestras in major cities were closing down. It was a wonderful day when we had a party to celebrate burning the debt.”
The Symphony has been blessed with conductors who continued to help the orchestra improve. After Detlev Anders, music directors included Norman Masonson, George Barati, Kenneth Klein, and Mitch Klein, along with Joann Falletta and Ed Houghton, who were interim music directors. They Symphony’s current director, John Larry Granger, impressed the selection committee right from the start. During his interviews, he showed a passion for quality, great musical knowledge, high standards for himself and his musicians, and a disarming wit and charm. It was great benefit to attract him from Orange County’s South Coast Symphony in 1988.
Maestro Granger immediately challenged the musicians to stretch their talents. For his opening concert, Larry brought in the brilliant pianist Leonard Pennario, who so impressed the audience that they howled and stomped, demanding two encores. It only got better from there. Over the years, Larry has leveraged his contacts to attract many other notables such as Jon Nakamatsu, Stephen Prutsman, Norman Krieger, Awadagin Pratt, Anton Nel, Sheryl Staples, Jennifer Frautschi, Lazlo Vargas, David Shifrin, William Bennett and John DeLancie.
“Larry has been an incredible leader for the Symphony,” said Linda Burroughs, former board president. “It has evolved into such an outstanding asset for Santa Cruz, and I speak for the entire board when I say that it’s a labor of love for everyone who is involved. We are privileged to support an outstanding organization while enjoying live performances of some of the world’s best music.” But classics aren’t classics by themselves. The Symphony has brilliantly partnered with groups such as the Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus, Santa Cruz Youth Symphony, ZunZun, Santa Cruz Ballet Theatre, Watsonville Taiko, the Klein International String Competition, the Watsonville Community Band, KUSP radio, and many others. For the last two years, The White Album Ensemble has presented a wildly popular program of Beatles’ music in a cabaret setting. Who says symphony orchestras have to be stodgy?
“The fact is, we are not a roses-and-violins kind of orchestra,” said Nancy. “This is Santa Cruz. We’re young, athletic, and dynamic. We appreciate innovation, and we don’t like the same old stuff. That’s why our posters and program books —and even the musical pieces themselves—have blended a classical approach with a modern twist. We are very accessible to young people and families, and we’re very big on the educational aspect so people understand what they’re hearing. We’re very proud of who we are and how we got here.”
Rowland “Reb” Rebele, longtime Symphony sponsor and former board president, said, “The biggest blessing in my life is seeing the orchestra develop so well over the years, despite the typical financial and organizational challenges. But so many people cared about the Symphony, and they stepped up to help us through to the next level. Santa Cruz is a very small community to have an orchestra of this quality, and for that, we are extremely fortunate.”
Indeed, the founders would have been proud.