The Oakland Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1933 under the leadership of conductor Orley See, the Symphony presented four concerts in the lobby of the Oakland YMCA as its first season. See conducted until his death in 1957, at which time Piero Bellugi was appointed music director. In 1959 Bellugi was replaced by Gerhard Samuel, who provided artistic leadership until his resignation in 1971.
Under Samuel, the Symphony season expanded from eight to twenty-four concerts, and the organization established a national reputation for innovative programming and community involvement. In Samuel’s first year he supervised the formation of the Oakland Symphony Chorus, which grew to 120 voices and performed with other Bay Area orchestras, including the San Francisco Symphony.
In 1964 Samuel oversaw the creation of the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra, one of the Oakland Symphony’s most successful ventures. Composed of seventy-five teenaged players, it made five commercial recordings and toured internationally, winning the Silver Medal at the Herbert von Karajan Festival in Berlin. It performed in schools and for community organizations, and regularly commissioned and premiered works – projects it financed through volunteer activities. In 1976 it became the first youth orchestra to win an ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) Award for services to contemporary music, an honor the Youth Orchestra later repeated twice.
In 1966 the Ford Foundation undertook a national program of matching grants to selected cultural institutions, with the aim of enabling them to achieve long-term financial stability through the building of a substantial endowment fund. The Oakland Symphony was one of sixty-one American orchestras selected, and received $1.35 million, the largest grant available to orchestras of its size.
In 1971 Harold Farberman replaced Samuel as music director. Under Farberman the annual subscription series grew from twenty-four to thirty-three concerts. The Symphony introduced its Pops Series and mounted a program of concerts directed at young people, with educational programs in schools. The Symphony also undertook free concerts in public places and campaigns to reach out to diverse ethnic populations. The latter included sponsoring the Minority Orchestral Fellowship Program, that offered young string players from nonwhite backgrounds the opportunity to play one year with a professional orchestra. The Symphony won its first ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming in 1977.
In 1972 the Association acquired and renovated the 2,998-seat Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland. An art deco masterpiece later declared a National Historic Landmark, the Paramount acted as a drawing card in itself. Following its opening, the Association sold nearly all its house on subscription, and sold out the majority of its individual concerts.
But even with the house full, the Paramount proved a financial burden. In addition, the Association financed the renovation costs with a $1 million loan. In 1975, rather than continue absorbing the Paramount’s operating losses, the Association transferred the theater to the City of Oakland for $1, in exchange for forty years free rent. To payoff the remaining renovation loan, the Board converted its Ford Foundation grant funds earmarked for endowment into operating funds. Later it began to invade its Ford matching funds, a step repeated across the next decade until the Symphony endowment was exhausted.
When Farberman resigned at the end of the 1978-79 season, conductor Calvin Simmons was appointed to take his place. Simmons had already served as guest conductor with a number of the world’s leading orchestras, and was the first recipient of the Leopold Stokowski Conducting Award. As a black conductor his presence enhanced the Symphony’s prestige among Oakland’s growing minority population. Simmons also added to the Symphony’s reputation, nationally, as his career as guest conductor with other orchestras and opera companies was on a meteoric rise. His presence was surely a significant factor in the institution’s increasingly successful pursuit of foundation, state, and national grant monies. Under his baton the Symphony won the second of its ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming in 1981.
Simmons’s untimely death in 1982 left the organization with a leadership void at an extremely difficult point in its history. Debts were mounting, while attendance figures remained essentially stable. Leonard Slatkin, conductor of the St. Louis Symphony, stepped in as artistic consultant for the year between Simmons’s death and the appointment of his replacement Richard Buckley, who assumed leadership in 1983.
Under Buckley the Symphony continued expanding its season offerings. The Symphony received favorable reviews, though its subscription sales stayed flat and single ticket sales were in decline. In 1985-86 the musicians went on strike, leading to the cancellation of the season’s October opening. The strike was not resolved until well into November. Its settlement included significant increases in orchestra services and player earnings. At the same time, the board was undergoing a radical and controversial reorganization that alienated some long-time supporters and left board structure chaotic. In spring 1986, the Symphony announced expansion to its largest season ever, with services added to its existing programs at Moraga’s Rheem Theater and Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. It also announced its decision to shift its main subscription series to its former home, the Oakland Auditorium theater, now known as the Calvin Simmons Theatre.
A month after announcing that expansion, management cut that season almost in half, citing financial crisis. A season cutback of that magnitude required player concessions on the contract signed less than eight months earlier. But management and players were unable to reach a compromise: on August 8, players filed an Unfair Labor Practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board; on August 21, management filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the Federal Bankruptcy Code. On Friday September 12, musicians’ representatives and the management/board negotiating team held their only meeting to negotiate the issues. With the musicians unwilling to accept management’s position, representatives of the Association board voted to file for liquidation of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Association under Chapter 7 of the Federal Bankruptcy Code. Despite the financial and management difficulties of its later years, the Oakland Symphony was for over half a century a significant cultural force in the state and the region. In its earlier years, critics applauded its adventurous programming; the quality of its musicianship received frequent acclaim. Its elementary school outreach/education program reached over 20,000 children annually in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties; many of those children came from minority and/or disadvantaged backgrounds. The Symphony was praised for its minority services, including its Festival of Black Music and its Minority Fellowship Program. The Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra and the Symphony Chorus drew praise for the quality of their work and for the models they established for other institutions.
Various entities of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Association survive, including the Youth Orchestra, the Chorus, and its volunteer auxiliary the Oakland Symphony League, now separately incorporated. The musicians have also incorporated, retaining the Oakland Symphony name. They have mounted several benefit concerts, and are trying to revive and restructure an orchestra in Oakland.