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SJ Chamber Orchestra Starts 25th Season

In Music
The Chamber: The Trianon Theatre has been the San Jose Chamber Orchestra’s home for 25 years. Photo by Michelle Longosz.

The Chamber: The Trianon Theatre has been the San Jose Chamber Orchestra’s home for 25 years. Photo by Michelle Longosz.

Twenty-four years ago, Metro columnist Sammy Cohen was a drummer in the Musicians Union, and Barbara Day Turner was a harpsichordist and conductor with superb contemporary music chops. They were friends, and after running into each other at the opera one evening, they contemplated forming an official San Jose chamber orchestra to focus on new music, since the town offered nothing of the sort.

Turner wasn’t sure if Sammy was serious, and, as such, thought nothing of it—at least not until she woke up one day and found the whole proposition announced in one of Sammy’s stories, including her contact information. The pesky columnist had gone public with the idea, urging Turner to get cracking.

After receiving numerous calls in response to the column, Turner decided to move forward with the concept, making the ensemble primarily string-based. The San Jose Chamber Music Society agreed to sponsor a debut concert in the spring of 1991 at Le Petit Trianon Theatre. For that first concert, the group performed a program including Stravinsky’s Birth of Apollo to a sold-out crowd, with violinist Pat Strange as the concertmaster.

This weekend, the San Jose Chamber Orchestra begins its 25th anniversary season with Simply Strings, a strings-only program held at the same venue—Le Petit Trianon—it has performed in since 1991.

When the orchestra started, the neighborhood surrounding Le Petit Trianon—on Fifth Street, just a few steps north of where City Hall now sits—was riddled with drunks, addicts and transients. In 1991, the Trianon building still included single rooms for rent. All the rooms that are now offices were then used by transients, with the building partly operating as a boarding house of sorts. What’s more, there was only one bathroom in the whole place, so if a hundred people attended a concert in the theater, they had to share the same facilities with all the single-room tenants.

“There was a little kitchen upstairs, where people who lived there would cook,” Turner remembers. “Sometimes in the middle of a concert we would be greeted with a wafting scent of bacon. Or something else being cooked that would actually fill the hall.”

In the early years of the orchestra’s residency at Le Petit Trianon, other wacky events unfolded. One time, during a premiere of Michael Touchi’s Concerto for Harpsichord, an apparently homeless man walked into the hall and sat on the stage.

“I was in the middle of a cadenza,” Turner recalls. “He walked in the side door and went to the middle of the stage and just sat down on the edge of the stage to listen. Full orchestra, full audience. And when it was done, he applauded and he left.”

Turner spent the first few seasons building a financial foundation for the ensemble and didn’t start commissioning pieces until at least five years in. Half of the orchestra’s seasonal subscribers have been there since the beginning. And to this day, Turner still prioritizes contemporary pieces, avant-garde ideas, world music and anything off the beaten path of dead Western European composers.

After all, when one considers Bach’s time—or Mozart’s, Chopin’s or Liszt’s—the tradition was to emphasize music that had just been recently composed, not to rehash what had been already been done.

“I feel very strongly that the movement toward making a ‘museum’ of so-called Western Classical music is just kind of wrong-headed,” Turner says. “If we remember just even the basics of music history, when Mendelssohn discovered works by J.S. Bach that had been shelved after Bach died, he feared for his reputation when performing them. That’s how strong the preference was to perform newly written music.”

This Sunday’s season opener features guest violinist Stephanie Chase. The program includes the world premiere of Joel Friedman’s Movable Home as well as Suite for Lower Strings by Clarice Assad, the eldest daughter of the famous Brazilian guitarist, Sergio Assad. The official 25th anniversary performance takes place next March.

The San Jose Chamber Orchestra starts its 25th season on Oct. 11 at the Trianon Theatre, San Jose.

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