Fifty years old this month, the Santa Monica Symphony has come a long way from its beginnings as a modest ensemble of mostly community (read: non-professional) players to its present state as one of the best of our local, mixed-professional, city-named orchestras. Its anniversary season opener is tonight at 7:30 in Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.
Music Director Allen Robert Gross' first program of 1995-96 reflects his eclectic tastes. It offers the premiere of a new work by Southland composer Maria Newman, titled "Bledsian"; a concerto for erhu (the two-string Chinese fiddle) by Zhanhao He and Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World."
Soloist in the concerto, titled "The Butterfly Lovers," is the Shanghai-born Jiebing Chen.
The music director describes the current orchestra as "an extraordinary musical collaboration of the best area amateur players, outstanding students and some of the finest professional musicians (and in Los Angeles, this means 'world class')." Sheila Wells, president of the symphony board--and for 25 years a player in the orchestra--says that the 80-member ensemble is divided equally into these three categories, making possible the orchestra's modest 1995-96 budget of $80,000.
The original Santa Monica Symphony conductor, Jacques Rachmilovich, was succeeded by Arthur Lange in 1948, then by Peter Meremblum (1957) and Victor Bay (1965). After Bay's retirement in 1981, Yehuda Gilad led the orchestra for the next decade. Gross, a member of the music faculty at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, begins his fifth season in Santa Monica tonight.
Though the orchestra's concerts in 3,000-seat Civic Auditorium have always been admission-free (and steadily well-attended), the quality of the playing has risen measurably over these five decades.
The 51st season continues Dec. 10 when Gross and the S.M. Symphony is joined by the conductor Alexander Treger and the Crossroads Chamber Orchestra; pianist Chester Swiatkowski playing the G-major Ravel Concerto, on a program also offering a work by the late Cuban composer, Julian Orbon, March 3, and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with soloists Gwendolyn Lytle, Jacalyn Bower-Kreitzer, Jonathan Mack and Louis Lebherz, and combined choral organizations, April 28.
PROGRESS REPORT: According to Michael Blachly, director of the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts, there is an end in sight to the long-term refurbishment of Royce Hall, the center's flagship auditorium. "The twin towers of Royce have now been retrofitted," Blachly says, announcing that the rest of the historic building, damaged in the January, 1994, earthquake, will undergo "seismic reconstruction" beginning immediately. Target date for moving in and re-tuning the 1,800-seat hall: January, 1998.
BRIEFLY: Upcoming Nov. 5: The 1911 organ saved from St. Paul's Cathedral on Figueroa Street when the cathedral was razed in 1980 is now restored and enhanced, and will be dedicated at its new home, St. James Episcopal Church, 3903 Wilshire Blvd.