BY SUSAN SCAFFIDI Contributing writer
Two premieres, two pianists, lots of singing and four birthdays mark the 81st season of the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra, which opens Oct. 6.
The first birthday to celebrate is the orchestra's own -- its 80th.
"I have to say, we're very excited about the 80th birthday for the Bakersfield Symphony," said Bryan Burrow, a BSO board member who stepped in as interim executive director and director of development in August.
"It's pretty incredible that this orchestra has been around for so many years, through so many economic crises."
The BSO began as a night class, a community orchestra rehearsing on the Kern County Unified High School District campus, under the direction of Harold Burt. By 1932, however, the class had become a formal orchestra, known as the Bakersfield Symphony, and moved to the Standard School auditorium. That Bakersfield Symphony continued performing regularly until World War II forced the orchestra into a hiatus.
The orchestra was revived in 1946, but reorganized under the newly formed Kern Philharmonic Society and renamed the Kern Philharmonic Orchestra, performing first at East Bakersfield High School before moving to the Harvey Auditorium under the direction of Edouard Hurlimann for 23 years, followed by Albert Bolet.
In 1974, the orchestra moved to the Civic Auditorium (now the Rabobank Theater), and John Farrer became its conductor. The orchestra was renamed the Bakersfield Symphony in 1982. During Farrer's tenure, the orchestra has expanded its season of concerts, instituted concerts for grade school students, sponsored separate concert series for new music, Baroque music and chamber music, and has presented the "Nutcracker" ballet each December with Civic Dance Theater for the last 35 years.
The BSO will celebrate its birthday Saturday by performing works from its first concert in 1932: the Hungarian March from "The Damnation of Faust" by Hector Berlioz; the Symphony No. 8 in B minor by Franz Schubert, and the Concerto in A minor by Edvard Grieg, with guest soloist Michael Brown.
In November, the orchestra will perform the world premiere of Christopher Gunning's "Hector's Return." PBS fans have heard Gunning's work on such series as "Poirot" and "Rosemary and Thyme." The orchestra will follow with a performance of Ferde Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite," accompanied by a synchronized photo essay of the canyon by James Westwater and Nicholas Bardonnay.
Bitter rivals during their lifetimes, Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner will be linked together all year as performing ensembles celebrate the 200th birthday of both composers. The BSO and guest soloists will perform orchestral and opera favorites from both. More singing is on the program in March, when the Masterworks Chorale and CSUB Singers join the orchestra for Karl Orff's cantata "Carmina Burana," one of the most famous of all choral works.
April brings two new sounds to the orchestra's program: new music by CSUB professor Doug Davis and the Concerto for Harmonica by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Robert Bonfiglio, called "the Paganini of the harmonica" and the leading performing of the Villa-Lobos concerto, is the guest soloist.
The season will close in May with yet another birthday, Benjamin Britten's 100th, and a performance of the English composer's "Four Sea Interludes" from his opera "Peter Grimes." The BSO will perform the 2010 work "Fanfare" by Estonian composer Mihkel Kerem, then conclude as it began, with a piano concerto, the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Johannes Brahms, performed by guest soloist Roberto Plano.
Burrow noted that each concert has something extra, part of a new campaign to build the BSO's audience.
"The concerts are always better attended when there is a soloist or special guest or special presentation. We said, 'Let's have something at every concert,'" Burrow said. "So when people come, it's an experience, not just sitting listening to music."
Burrow said the orchestra has other plans to revitalize itself, including debuting a new logo and website, expanding its Young People's Concerts and adding pops concerts, such as the one recently performed at the Bright House Networks Amphitheatre. Burrow said a Broadway-themed concert is scheduled for April 6, co-sponsored by San Joaquin Community Hospital.
Are the new ideas -- photo essays, non-traditional instruments, pops concerts -- a compromise, a concession to modern culture?
"It goes along with who we are," Burrows said. "We provide great music to the widest possible audience.
"So we are living our mission."