Classically Trained: 'Walking encyclopedia' pops conductor celebrates 20 years

COSTA MESA — Richard Kaufman's life between his beginnings as a musically inclined 7-year-old to today is a showcase of many accomplishments.

This week, the Pacific Symphony is celebrating one of them: his 20-year tenure as its principal pops conductor.

It was a schoolteacher's intuition that seems to have started it all. The teacher noticed that Kaufman could sing along and "play the rhythm sticks well." His parents were notified of the good news.

It was a comment they took to heart. So, naturally, Kaufman's parents took the route of many eager to get their children musically involved: They handed their 7-year-old a violin.

"I walked into my house one day after playing football," Kaufman, 62, recalled. "My mother said, 'This is Mrs. Hewitt. She's your violin teacher.' And I blinked, and here I am conducting the Pacific Symphony."

The musician from west Los Angeles, who now lives in Encino, graduated from Cal State Northridge. While there, he left his mark as the composer of the then-young university's alma mater, "Hail to the Matadors." It's still played today.

Soon after graduation he began working for Burt Bacharach. This led to more music gigs in conducting and playing, including playing violin for nearly a decade in the studios that record scores for films.

A little-known fact about studio work: The musicians generally play with the film being projected on a large screen behind them. Playing the film helps the conductor synchronize the music.

Kaufman remembers such sneak-peek access while recording "Animal House," the college cult classic with John Belushi that, in actuality, was a revolutionary score in terms of how to write music for comedy. He said many musicians, instead of taking breaks, watched the playbacks and laughed at the antics freshly enhanced by their newly recorded music.

He can still hum the Elmer Bernstein-penned theme for Faber College, whose school motto is "Knowledge Is Good."

Recording "Jaws," by John Williams, was another highlight of his studio days.

"It was an exciting experience and it was a real event," Kaufman said." A lot of people consider it one of the best scores ever, and working with John Williams — it doesn't get better than that."

Kaufman later became a music coordinator for MGM. For 18 years, he supervised the studio's film and television projects. He mentioned his work for "In the Heat of the Night," a crime television series that took place in the South.

The series needed music from a bar jukebox. Kaufman was called up to write some. Today he laughs that from his creative mind — as a violinist from west Los Angeles — came such county western tunes as "My Love Gave You a Reason to Live; Your Love Gave Me a Reason to Die" and "I Love My Truck."

Kaufman even gave the stars some makeshift music lessons. Sometimes actors like Tom Hanks have to pretend to be musicians.

"Tom would come to my house every day for about three months to learn to look like a violinist for a movie called 'The Man with One Red Shoe,'" Kaufman said, adding that he also taught Jack Nicholson to look like a violinist and pianist for "The Witches of Eastwick."

His long tenure with the Costa Mesa-based Pacific Symphony started with a letter. After his work with the orchestra and pop singer Andy Williams, he wrote the symphony asking to be considered as the pops conductor. It worked.

"For any conductor to have the opportunity to work with a great orchestra, it's an amazing experience," he said. "To be able to work with this orchestra, with these musicians, is really extraordinary, both personally and professionally."

Kaufman said he loves the group's versatility.

"You give them classical music, film music, Broadway — whatever it is — they're just fantastic. They were then, and they always have been. And they get better and better, which is a tribute to Carl St. Clair. He's the visionary, the point of the arrow in all this. Carl has made this orchestra what it is."

St. Clair called his colleague and friend a "walking encyclopedia of popular music."

"As difficult as it is, Richard has crafted season after season of creative, exciting, brilliant pops concerts … there is no one I know who has a broader and deeper knowledge of pops repertoire and composers than Richard," St. Clair said. "Plus, he has the uncanny ability to bring it all together with imagination, flair, wit, humor and just plain fun."

Kaufman — who also works nationally and worldwide as a guest conductor for ensembles like the Chicago Symphony, London Symphony and even the Malaysian Philharmonic — said one of his most memorable moments these past 20 years brought him to a standstill.

On his birthday, no less.

The Pacific Symphony was about to play the world premiere of music by Mark Isham from the Robert Redford film "A River Runs Through It." After talking to the audience, Kaufman went to the podium. It was very quiet and he waited a few extra seconds to "let the silence sort of settle."

"And just as I was going to give the downbeat … my wonderful 8-year-old daughter in the audience, in that moment of silence, she yells, 'Happy birthday, Dad!'"

He stood there with his life passing before his eyes.

"The audience applauded, the orchestra started to play 'Happy Birthday,' very spontaneously. I just stood there and thought, 'Well, I guess I'll just stand here.'"

Little Whitney Kaufman — now grown up and an accomplished actress — asked her dad after the concert if it was OK that she told everybody of her daddy's special day. His reply was two words: "Just once."

Surprise birthday encores aside, Kaufman expressed gratitude for a lifetime of musical opportunity with the Pacific Symphony and beyond — opportunities that, fortunately, are still going strong.

Better yet, Kaufman's parents, Walter and Margye, who nurtured his elementary talents from rhythm sticks all the way to professional violinist and worldwide conductor, are in attendance this weekend for his 20th anniversary.

"How many podiums are there to conduct on, to stand on, in front of how many orchestras? To have those opportunities, it's been a great part of my life."

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. E-mail him story ideas at

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