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With an Indomitable Spirit, Santa Maria Philharmonic Society Keeps Focus on the Music

Drawing strength from challenges of the past, newly rejuvenated orchestra builds a foundation for a brighter future

The Santa Maria Philharmonic Society’s Yuletide Brass and Organ Concert will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4, at First United Methodist Church of Santa Maria. Click to view larger
The Santa Maria Philharmonic Society’s Yuletide Brass and Organ Concert will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4, at First United Methodist Church of Santa Maria. (Andrea de Anda photo)

[Noozhawk’s note: This article is the first in a series sponsored by the Hutton Parker Foundation.]

Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Relax.

Now picture Santa Maria. What do you see? What do you hear?

Chances are pretty good your first thoughts weren’t the notes of classical orchestral works floating on the air past stained-glass windows of historic houses of worship.

But for 90 years, that’s precisely the experience the Santa Maria Philharmonic Society has provided, from string quartets presenting baroque masterpieces to some three dozen paid, professional musicians performing complete symphonies.

Through the leadership of a board made up largely of musicians, the Santa Maria Philharmonic provides a half-dozen major performances each year. It also partners with North County school districts to deliver music education to thousands of students.

“I can’t stand the thought of not having the music here for the kids, the community, for me, too,” said Lynne Garrett, a Santa Maria Philharmonic board member and its principal violinist.

“I don’t think a town of 100,000 people should be without an orchestra.”

It was, of all people, G. Allan Hancock who spurred into being the original orchestra in 1925. The Rancho La Brea heir, entrepreneur and philanthropist was also a cellist who performed with the Los Angeles Symphony.

“Since Day One, our mission has been to bring live, quality music to the community, and to bring educational programs to and support the growth and development of young people,” Garrett told Noozhawk.

The nonprofit, volunteer-driven Santa Maria Philharmonic evolved from presenting an amateur symphony to today’s collection of professional musicians. Despite economic downturns, the occasional internal strife and lack of a permanent performance venue, the society never allowed its community to go without classical music for long.

The current iteration was rebuilt largely through the efforts of three musicians: Garrett; violinist Jed Beebe, who happens to be a Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge; and Carol Houchens, who has been a flutist with the organization since she was a child.

Lynne Garrett, the Santa Maria Philharmonic’s principal violinist, doubles as a board member of the organization — as do several other musicians. “I can’t stand the thought of not having the music here for the kids, the community, for me, too,” she says of her commitment. “I don’t think a town of 100,000 people should be without an orchestra.” Click to view larger
Lynne Garrett, the Santa Maria Philharmonic’s principal violinist, doubles as a board member of the organization — as do several other musicians. “I can’t stand the thought of not having the music here for the kids, the community, for me, too,” she says of her commitment. “I don’t think a town of 100,000 people should be without an orchestra.” (Andrea de Anda photo)

“We love it,” Garrett said. “It’s very gratifying to know we’ve kept it alive and we’ve brought it back.”

The trio was joined on the board by go-getters, including Larry Hill, a trumpeter and longtime member of the U.S. Air Force Band; conductor and composer David Rackley of Orcutt; and Gina Oh, an amateur cellist and mother who juggles shuttling her own four young musicians to lessons with coordinating the society’s music education program for thousands of children throughout the Santa Maria Valley.

“They are so incredibly supportive of our students,” Niccole Wiseman, coordinator of curriculum and instruction for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, said of the society.

“The fundraising they did to provide The Nutcracker this year was much appreciated by our schools and our students. The community support that went into giving this opportunity for our students who don’t often have the opportunity to attend such things is unbelievably special.”

Two major sponsors largely funded the symphony as it made the transition into the 21st century with the addition of John Farrer, of the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra, as its conductor.

“From that time, it really became something other than a community orchestra,” Garrett said. “In the orchestra world, we split hairs. This orchestra is now a paid, professional group, a regional orchestra based in Santa Maria.”

Professional musicians began traveling from as far away as Los Angeles and Bakersfield to perform in Santa Maria’s premier orchestra. Programs features world-class performers, including Van Cliburn International Piano Competition winners.

“John Farrer brought a higher level of professionalism and music making to Santa Maria,” Garrett said.

John Farrer has been music director of the Santa Maria Philharmonic for more than a decade. The conductor also works with orchestras in Bakersfield and Roswell, N.M. Click to view larger
John Farrer has been music director of the Santa Maria Philharmonic for more than a decade. The conductor also works with orchestras in Bakersfield and Roswell, N.M. (Andrea de Anda photo)

In 2007, the society hired George Majoue as conductor, executive director and, it turned out, outgoing advocate of the philharmonic orchestra.

“We loved George,” Garrett exclaimed. “He was the face of the orchestra.”

Then came the Great Recession, and the Santa Maria Philharmonic lost its major supporters.

“Those donors who really drove this organization into the 21st century kept it going for the first half a dozen years couldn’t do it forever,” Garrett said. “They backed off and hoped the community would come to support the organization, that the board would come to bring the support in.

“Everybody suffered, and this community took a pretty big hit in that slump. We made it through, even through slow times.”

To save its budget, the society reduced Farrer to music director.

“We brought in smaller orchestras, local conductors, whatever we could to stay in the limelight, so we could carry on,” Garrett said.

They put together chamber concerts which, through their very nature, required fewer musicians. Musicians began taking on dual roles, like violinist Jim Riccardo of Atascadero who has also served as conductor on occasion.

“The cuts and changes also meant the board has taken on a different role than is typical,” Garrett said. “Board members are planning programs, scheduling venues, organizing volunteers.

“People have no idea how much work it takes to put one of these performances together. We’re doing our own advertising and marketing.”

Violinist Jed Beebe is the Santa Maria Philharmonic’s board president — as well as a Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge. Click to view larger
Violinist Jed Beebe is the Santa Maria Philharmonic’s board president — as well as a Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge. (Andrea de Anda photo)

In 2013, as the budget hit a new low, the society let Majoue go, closed its office space and moved supplies into a storage unit.

“We had an implosion,” Garrett recalled. “Luckily, we weren’t in debt, but we had no income at that point.”

Still, they soldiered on. They presented two full concerts that year while they reorganized and rose again.

“Since that time, we’ve slowly and carefully built back to where we are,” Garrett continued.

Now, the society is built on a foundation of Central Coast musicians, many of whom also perform with the San Luis Obispo Symphony, Lompoc Pops Orchestra and Santa Barbara Symphony.

“This community is rich with music,” Garrett said. “We want to be a regional orchestra. We want to make the best orchestra we can, but we want to do it with local players as much as possible.”

The Santa Maria Philharmonic Society has also partnered with conductor Brian Asher Alhadeff.

“He thinks big,” Garrett said. “At our last concert, be brought in the Allan Hancock (College) Choir. At our international concert, he brought in Ballet Folklórico​. It was an invigorating, colorful performance.”

                                                                 •        •        •

The Santa Maria Philharmonic Society will present its Yuletide Brass and Organ Concert at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4, at First United Methodist Church of Santa Maria, 311 S. Broadway. The program features organist Adan Fernandez, Vines Festival Chorus and classic, seasonal narration by Mark Booher. 

Click here for more information about the Santa Maria Philharmonic Society, or to purchase tickets. Click here to make an online donation.

Noozhawk contributing writer Jennifer Best can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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