Berkeley Symphony was founded in 1969 as the Berkeley Promenade Orchestra by Thomas Rarick, a protégé of the great English Maestro Sir Adrian Boult. The Orchestra, reflecting the spirit of the times, performed in street dress and at unusual locations such as the University Art Museum.
When Kent Nagano became the music director of the orchestra in 1978, he charted a new course by offering innovative programming that included a number of rarely performed 20th-century scores. He helped the orchestra develop an image congruous with its more serious and sophisticated programming by changing its name to the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, switching the concert dress code to formal attire and moving the orchestra from 750-seat First Congregational Church to UC Berkeley’s 2,015-seat Zellerbach Hall. Within just a few years, an adventurous Berkeley Symphony was born!
In 1981, the renowned French composer Olivier Messiaen journeyed to Berkeley to assist with the preparations for his imposing oratorio The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Nagano and the orchestra, joined by the composer’s wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod, gave a sold-out performance in Davies Symphony Hall. In 1984, the orchestra collaborated with Frank Zappa in a critically acclaimed production featuring life-size puppets and moving stage sets, catapulting Berkeley Symphony onto the world stage.
Berkeley Symphony has introduced to Bay Area audiences works by upcoming young composers, many of whom have since achieved international prominence. Celebrated British composer George Benjamin, who subsequently became Composer-in-Residence at the San Francisco Symphony, was first introduced to the Bay Area in 1987 when Berkeley Symphony performed his compositions Jubilation and Ringed by the Flat Horizon. Thomas Adès’s opera, Powder Her Face, was also debuted by the orchestra in a concert version in 1997 before it was fully staged in New York City, London and Chicago. In 2004, Unsuk Chin’s Violin Concerto received its U.S. premiere with Berkeley Symphony, having previously won one of the world’s most prestigious music composition prizes.
Berkeley Symphony not only premieres new works, but also commissions new music. In 2003, Naomi Sekiya was named the orchestra’s first Composer-in-Residence. Her Sinfonia delle Ombre and Concerto for two guitars and orchestra received their world premieres that year. Other orchestra-commissioned works include Manzanar: An American History (2005) by Naomi Sekiya, Jean-Pascal Beintus and David Benoit; Bitter Harvest (2005) by Kurt Rohde and librettist Amanda Moody; and a fanfare by Rohde, commemorating Nagano’s 30 years as music director.
A New Era
Berkeley Symphony entered a new era in January 2009 as Joana Carneiro became the orchestra’s third Music Director in its 40-year history. Under Carneiro, the Symphony continues its tradition of presenting the cutting edge of classical music, forging new relationships with living composers, including several prominent contemporary Bay Area composers such as John Adams, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Paul Dresher; while continuing to honor our classical past.