52 years later, still on the bandwagon

Times Staff Writer

The Pasadena Symphony is a Southern California success story, starting -- just as the Long Beach and Pacific symphonies did -- as a volunteer, nonprofessional community orchestra. Over time, through a series of changes, including convulsions at the top, it has grown steadily in status, stature and budget, until it now holds a respected position in the musical community and draws a robust audience.

No one person has lived through it all (the orchestra was founded, after all, in 1928), but violinist Betty Sirri has seen a lot.

The 74-year-old has played in the symphony for 52 years, in the violin section, the backbone of any orchestra.

“I was just married and had started in graduate school,” Sirri says. Her teacher recommended that she join the Pasadena Symphony “because it was good. Dr. Richard Lert was the conductor.”


In those days, the orchestra rehearsed in an elementary school auditorium on Lincoln Avenue.

“It’s not even there anymore.”

And because the orchestra wasn’t unionized, the conductor could rehearse as long as he wanted.

“For the ‘Messiah,’ we would be there rehearsing until midnight, even though we did it twice every year.”

Lert was the orchestra’s second conductor. Reginald Bland founded the group just before the Great Depression and stayed until 1936. (Its budget that year was all of $7,000. It’s now $2.38 million.) Lert stayed at the podium for 36 years.

Daniel Lewis was appointed in 1972, and during his tenure the orchestra became a unionized ensemble. In 1983, however, Lewis left in a huff, bitterly criticizing the board for unsophisticated musical taste and insufficient financial support. Jorge Mester, the current music director, started a year later.

For all that, Sirri has only praise for all of three of the conductors with whom she has worked:

“Dr. Lert was a really big part of this orchestra, the major part of this orchestra,” she says. “His ‘Messiah’ concerts were very well known. Dan Lewis brought it to another level. He was serious, intense, but I loved working with him.


“Jorge is a great person to work with. He really generates a lot of excitement and has a wonderful sense of humor. He’s a wonderful musician.”

Sirri sits in the second violin section -- the supporting actor role of a symphony -- which prompts some people to wonder if that’s where people who aren’t good enough to be first violinists wind up.

“Some people feel it’s important for them to play the first violin,” Sirri says. “I haven’t felt any stigma in the second violin section. I just love being in an orchestra. I love to be in the middle of this big sound.”