THE SIXTIES: TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY
Mrs. Nelson had a dream. She dreamed that there should be a music scholarship competition for the talented young people of San Luis Obispo County. To make her dream come true, Alice Parks Nelson needed several things: the cooperation of area music teachers, a sponsoring institution, and an orchestra of substance with which the winning competitors could perform and be recognized. All of these things, seemingly so formidable, were actually nearer at hand than she could have known.
Over at the Community Orchestra, meanwhile, there were other people with some formidable problems, namely, finding a Conductor, a Concertmaster, and a Manager. (Lucian Morrison had left for a sabbatical in Europe following the 1959-60 season, while Concertmaster Lois Morgan moved away and Manager and former Concertmaster Norman Babcock decided to hang it up.) After much discussion, it was decided to approach the Santa Maria Community Orchestra and its Conductor, Loren Powell.
Powell was a fine musician, having been a violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and with MGM, and a conducting pupil of Sir Eugene Goosens. A novel agreement was worked out whereby Powell would conduct both orchestras, using the same music, and they would present their concerts together, first in one city and then in the other. Harry Tarr would be Concertmaster for the San Luis Obispo concerts and Wesley Foxen of Santa Maria for the concerts there, with each orchestra contributing a “half” Manager.
This arrangement was admittedly clumsy and it was mainly Powell’s vibrant personality which held it together. The instrumentation of both orchestras was greatly improved, nonetheless, and printed programs–not mimeographed–became standard. Business sponsors were also listed for the first time. Most importantly, perhaps, the Spring concert of 1961 featured a student soloist, Karen Banham of Atascadero, a high school senior and a pupil of prominent North County musician and teacher Dorothy Renton. She played the Warsaw Concerto.
The efforts of others had brought Mrs. Nelson’s dream much closer to reality. Now Alice took the initiative. First she enlisted the Monday Club to sponsor her music competition. Then she got her husband, businessman Stanley Nelson, to head a committee to incorporate the Community Orchestra. As shrewd as she was civic-minded, Mrs. Nelson not only included civic leaders on the committee but also a fine young lawyer, (later Judge) William Fredman, and the two most respected long-timers from the orchestra, Howard Barlow and Captain Arthur Druet. On September 7, 1961, the San Luis Obispo County Symphony Association officially came into being over dinner at the San Luis Obispo Country Club. Senator Vernon Sturgeon spoke, and the Association’s first President was Dr. John H. Woodbridge. Then, on June 7, 1962, John Visser of Arroyo Grande soloed in the opening movement of Mendelssohn’s G minor Piano Concerto as the first winner of the Monday Club Music Scholarship Award.
Despite some initial misgivings, the orchestra prospered under the new system. That same June 7 concert also included Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, complete, to be followed in the Autumn by Haydn’s “London” Symphony and Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with John Visser. Dr. Allen Miller and Emanuel Heifetz (distantly related to Jascha Heifetz) each took a turn as Concertmaster. Fred Artindale switched from viola to cello, however, so Principal Viola duties were shared by Hancock College’s Christopher Kuzell and Luke Morrison, returned now from Europe. Most significantly, four concerts per season became the norm.
It all seemed almost too good to be true, and sadly, it was. On Saturday, May 15, 1965, while conducting the dress rehearsal for the season’s last concert, Loren Powell collapsed on the podium and died the same evening. The following afternoon a stunned and sorrowful band gathered to play their concert In Memoriam, with violinist and Association President Dr. Robert Butler pressed into duty on the podium all knew should remain empty.
Mercifully, summer was at hand and there was time to think. The fledgling Cuesta College now became the Symphony’s sponsor, its President, Dr. Merlin Eisenbise, and his lovely wife, June, the Symphony’s enthusiastic supporters, and the College’s one-man music department, Dr. Earle Blakeslee, the Symphony’s new Conductor.
Dr. Blakeslee was educated at the Eastman School and USC, and he had some decided ideas. Singers would now perform regularly with the Symphony, including soprano Mary Hanson and tenor Hendrik de Boer, a professional singer who had “retired” to his Atascadero dairy ranch and who also served as Association President. Youth, too, would be served with the founding of the County Youth Symphony in 1966 and the big orchestra’s Symphonies for Youth series in 1967. Then, in 1968, the orchestra moved into the newly opened Cuesta Auditorium.
Dr. Blakeslee’s wife, Diane, also had some decided ideas, only hers were about money. She became very active in fundraising, helping to launch the first telethon in 1966 and almost single-handedly obtaining the Symphony’s first grant from the County in 1969. Alice Nelson and June Eisenbise had some ideas, too, and on May 1, 1969, they co-chaired the founding of the Symphony Guild.
The deal with the Santa Maria Symphony had evaporated, of course, with the death of Loren Powell. Dr. Blakeslee’s leadership was a little sterner than Powell’s, but the orchestra responded and prospered anew, quickly outgrowing any need for the other group. Donna Weiss took a turn as Concertmaster, and there were soon enough violas, including Cal Poly dean David Cook, that Luke Morrison could switch back to violin. Lucy Noble had already taken up the cello so she could join Evard in the orchestra; now Cuesta’s Joe Brundage also joined the cellos, and trombonist Dr. George McGinnis served a term as Association President. About the only sad news was that the redoubtable duo of Barlow and Druet were gone, one transferred and the other retired.
As all things do, nonetheless, this period too came to an end. Following the 1969-70 season, Dr. Blakeslee, like Luke Morrison ten years before, left for an extended stay in Europe. As with each previous transition, there were troubles. Soon, however, there would also be new opportunities.
Copyright (c) 2000 by Edward Lowman