Maestro Klein’s 30 years with Peninsula Symphony

Mitchell Klein

Mitchell Sardou Klein is the man who has made the Peninsula Symphony what it is.

This community orchestra, which plays mostly in San Mateo but also in venues stretching from San Bruno to Cupertino, is celebrating this season its 30th year under Maestro Klein’s music directorship.

The symphony had been founded in 1949, and was under the leadership of founding conductor Aaron Sten for 35 years — “a length of service that seemed like an eternity to me,” said Maestro Klein of his thoughts when he was hired on the retirement of that venerable figure in 1984.

I first heard the symphony in the 1970s. It was then an amateurish band. I did not hear it again until after Maestro Klein had been in charge for over two decades. The improvement was enormous. This is a largely volunteer community orchestra that, at its best, verges on professional standards. I’ve heard the players dive enthusiastically in to a variety of works, with special skill at some 20th-century pops, such as Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and William Walton’s “Crown Imperial.”

Klein, who had already guest conducted the orchestra prior to his hiring, almost immediately on his arrival began to expand the symphony’s musical services.

“Our repertoire diversified quite a lot,” he said, moving from “just four pairs of concerts with very traditional symphony repertoire” to one “including newer works, jazz, dance, pops, ethnic music. We quickly added a Family Concert, and a summer outdoor Pops concert, to give ourselves a chance to play for different audiences in much more informal settings.”

Today, the symphony also collaborates annually with the Stanford Symphonic Chorus for a holiday concert, and runs an extensive musical education service, from elementary school programs to high school master classes and annual young musicians’ competitions. Young soloists are a regular feature of Peninsula Symphony concerts. Maestro Klein is director of the Irving M. Klein International String Competition, named in honor of his cellist father. Each year’s winner plays a concerto with the symphony. Tessa Lark, the 2008 laureate, in the Bruch Violin Concerto was a highlight for me.

Of course, Maestro Klein feels pleased to point to all the more senior and celebrated soloists who have also played with the Peninsula Symphony, including the renowned pianists Jon Nakamatsu and Garrick Ohlsson, and more diversified soloists such as guitarist Angel Romero, singer Marni Nixon (famous for her movie dubbing work), and jazz pianist Taylor Eigsti.

“Many of these amazing people came to be dear friends,” he said, “and their returns to our stage are like family reunions.”

Maestro Klein attributes the confidence he brought on his arrival here to his experience as associate conductor of the Kansas City Philharmonic. Although he had never had a podium of his own, his three years at Kansas City, he said, “gave me a very comprehensive picture of how a major symphony orchestra operates, and enabled me to expand my repertoire and my experience as a conductor in a very rapid fashion.”

The robustness that he has brought to the organization helped the Peninsula Symphony weather the storm that hit a year and a half ago when an unscrupulous executive director made off with the orchestra’s entire endowment and operating funds. The fellow had even neglected to book the usual hall for the fall concert, but a replacement venue was found and the show went on.

It is this determination, even more than the legal conviction of the culprit or the rebuilding of the orchestra’s management, that marks the strength of the Peninsula Symphony. Not only did a quick whip-round raise enough funds to send the season on its way, with enough added later to keep it going, but symphony management proudly reports that attendance was up that year nearly 40 percent over the previous season. In the following year — the current season — it continues to exceed expectations.

This is also an orchestra that gave its scheduled concerts the weekend after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, despite canceling a rehearsal the evening of the quake, with a soloist — Claude Frank for Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto — stuck in New York, who still managed to get here on time.

Maestro Klein credits the musicians for the orchestra’s achievements.

“They bring the deepest level of joy and dedication to every rehearsal and performance, and there are still many in the orchestra who have been around a lot longer than I have. We can count on the fact that our loyal and growing audience is there every time, with open ears and minds, and playing for them is what inspires us,” he said.

This weekend — Friday evening at the San Mateo Center for the Performing Arts, and Saturday evening at Flint Center in Cupertino — brings a particularly clever programming idea: all seven continents in music. Yes, there is music from Antarctica, Vaughan Williams’ symphony depicting that icy realm. There will be indigenous North American music by Copland, South American by Villa-Lobos and European by Sibelius. And there will be music by visitors in the form of Saint-Saëns in Africa, Borodin in the steppes of Central Asia and local composer Ron Miller in Australia.

It sounds like it will be great fun, with a lot of good music.

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