The Camellia Symphony–A Brief History

What is now the Camellia Symphony had a humble beginning in the fall of 1961 when Dick Surryhne (leader of the Sacramento Banjo Band for many years) began gathering a group of orchestral musicians to meet and play classical music “just for the fun of it.” Mel Wesleder led the group in these early days, and Zygmunt Darzell was the concertmaster. Dick served as General Manager. They played every Tuesday evening at Encina High School. On several occasions odd combinations of instruments showed up. Once 17 trombonists and 2 violinists turned out. The group’s first public appearance was on May 31, 1962 at the San Juan School District’s Adult Education commencement exercises. They called themselves The Potluck Symphony.  Later that summer they played at the State Fair.

On September 1, 1962 the orchestra set up a formal organization with a Board of Directors. The members were Ken Trigger, Fay Swan, George Paras, Rev. L. T. Morse, and Dan Backman. The board appointed Zygmunt Darzell as the Musical Director. Maestro Darzell conducted the orchestra through the 1968-1969 season.  Concerts were generally held in the San Juan High School Auditorium. There, on January 4, 1963, the 0rchestra first used the name North Area Community Symphony.  The 1963-1964 season offered a subscription price of $5.00 for the three concerts and $1.00 for students. The Orchestra grew from 27 musicians to 75 in less than a year.

In August of 1963 a North Area Symphony Guild was formed. The Guild’s purpose was to advance the education of the community in symphonic music through encouragement and assistance to the Symphony. Their many activities that would stimulate ticket sales would include wine tasting, gourmet food tasting, ”Tea With Lemon” teas, “Olivera Street North” programs, variety shows, and much more. The orchestra became entirely self-supporting. Its only other income came from actual ticket sales.

By February 1, 1968 the orchestra had changed its name to Camellia Symphony, and its concert held that night in Memorial Auditorium was considered part of the Camellia Festival held annually by the City of Sacramento, which is still known as the Camellia City. Other activities of the annual festival included a parade, a floral exhibit with judging and prizes for Camellia plants and floral arrangements, a folk dance festival, and a formal ball to introduce the year’s local Debutantes. Another Camellia Symphony concert at Memorial Auditorium featured the famous Metropolitan Opera tenor Jan Pearce as soloist.

Over the years CSO has changed to reflect the personalities and abilities of its conductors. Each conductor has contributed to the orchestra’s development. Walter Kerfoot had been a guest conductor in 1969 and was appointed  Music Director in 1970. The season was expanded to four concerts and these were held on Tuesday evenings at Sacramento City College. Season Tickets cost $5.00 for adults, $2.50 for students. Walter also added the free “Pop Concerts” on the lawn at American River College, and in 1974 began the Mothers Day Concerts at the Sunrise Mall, which continued for over two decades.  He engaged local soloists and invited many of the community’s choral groups from large choirs to barbershop quartets, and also a local jazz band, to participate in the orchestra’s concerts. The orchestra was rehearsing in the Band room at American River College, and some concerts were performed there.

The Camellia Symphony’s first Young Artist Competition for local area musicians had been held in 1966, but had not been held again until 1971. From that time through 1986 each year’s winner was featured as a soloist in one of the main concerts.
Dr. Daniel Kingman became the Conductor of the Camellia Symphony in 1979. He made it his mission to program seldom performed American music as well as recently composed music, including some of his own. Under his direction the Camellia Symphony won its first ASCAP award. Composers Norman Dello Joio and William Dawson made cross-country trips to be present at the concerts programming their works.  Dan also continued the tradition of the previous conductors in making use of local talent.

A commercial recording of Dan’s opera “The Hills of Mexico,” which was given its world premier by the orchestra, won the prestigious “INDIE” award for the best classical release of 1986. The Camellia Symphony also had produced fully staged operas, the most noteworthy of which was the production of Moussorgsky’s “The Fair At Sorochinsk” in a version never before heard outside of Russia. The performance received notice in Opera News, the leading opera journal.

The 1987-1988 found the orchestra rehearsing and playing in the auditorium of Hiram Johnson High School. This season, Camellia’s Silver Anniversary, coincided with the 200th anniversary of the United States Constitution. A concert planned for February 27, 1988 coincided with another unique event in Sacramento – the only Northern California showing of the exhibition  “The Harlem Renaissance:  Art of Black America.”  The Camellia organization sought and received a grant to commission and present Duke Ellington’s complete “Black Brown and Beige” as arranged for jazz band and orchestra. Randall Keith Horton, who worked closely with Ellington himself and the Ellington Band during the last years of Duke Ellington’s life, was the arranger. The project had the enthusiastic approval of Mercer Ellington, Duke Ellington’s son.  In Mercer Ellington’s view it represented an interpretation of the work which Ellington himself envisioned but which was never realized during his lifetime. The desirability of such a version of the complete work, not performed in its entirety since the 1940s, was supported by letters from the eminent jazz writers Gunther Schuller and Gary Giddens. The Camellia Symphony thus had the opportunity to perform the first complete performance of  “Black, Brown and Beige” in almost half a century, and the world premier of an expanded version for symphony orchestra and 16 piece jazz band. Three times Dan arranged concert exchanges with conductors of other Community Symphonies, one of whom was also a composer, and one of his compositions was included on our concert.

On opening night of the1990 – 1991 season Nan Washburn made her debut as the Camellia Symphony Orchestra’s new Music Director and Conductor. On the flyer promoting the 28 th Season we found out that Ms. Washburn was already the holder of seven ASCAP awards for adventuresome programs and that she was quickly establishing herself as one of the most imaginative and dynamic conductors in Northern California. She, too, had been instrumental in performing contemporary American music, but critics had hailed her as bringing “the joy of discovery” in her presentation of often forgotten musical treasures. Nan was also noted for her sensitive interpretation of the works of women composers. She had received the New York Women Composers Award for Distinguished Service to Contemporary Music and she led the Camellia Symphony to five more ASCAP Awards. By the end of her term Camellia was performing at Westminster Presbyterian Church.

The 1996 – 1997 season featured guest conductors who were finalists in our search for a new conductor. The winning finalist was Eugene Castillo. Under his direction the orchestra continued its programming of adventuresome music. During Eugene’s tenure the orchestra received five ASCAP Awards. An outstanding event was a concert celebrating California’s Sesquicentennial, and The Millennium.  A project proposing a work for orchestra by a Chinese composer and including a group playing ancient Chinese instruments was submitted and received funding. The Chinese Community and the Coalition of History Associations of the county were highly supportive.  Camellia Symphony Association received the Arts Business Council Award for an Arts Organization with a budget under $125,000 at the beginning of the 2001 – 2002 season. At the end of the 2003 – 2004 season Eugene left Sacramento to begin his duties as the Director of the Philippines Philharmonic Orchestra.

During the 2003 – 2004 season, a new conductor search was held, and Dr. Allan Pollack was selected as Camellia Symphony’s Music Director and Conductor. The concert venue moved to the historic Veterans Memorial Auditorium in down Sacramento where the audience doubled in size over the years. Most recently CSO moved to a new intimate and acoustically sound venue, The Center at Twenty-three Hundred. Under Maestro Pollack’s leadership CSO has developed into one of the finest orchestras in the region with programming that includes four season concerts and four free family concerts as well as ongoing collaborations with Camerata California, The Strauss Festival, St John’s Lutheran Church and many others. CSO continues to give back to its community and provide a musical forum for musicians who play for the shear love of the music.

For our 50th Anniversary Season the Camellia Symphony begins a new era of classical music with the hiring of a new music director and conductor, Dr. Christian Baldini and the start of a new performance venue, Sacrament City College: Performing Arts Center.

We’d love for you to join us for the next 50 years—they should be amazing.


Timeline of Activities:

1962 –  Formation of the Potluck Symphony  Dick Surrynhe, Founder  Mel Wesleder, Conductor

1963 –  Now North Area Symphony   1968 – 70 Camellia Symphony    Zygmunt Darzell,  Conductor

1970 – 1979  Walter Kerfoot, Conductor  First Mother’s Day Concert and Young Artist Competition

1979 –  1990  Daniel Kingman, Conductor  First ASCAP Award,  Operas, and our 25th Anniversary

1990 – 1996  Nan Washburn,  Conductor  Five ASCAP Awards, American women’s compositions

1996 – 1997  Season of Discovery   Four Guest Conductors   Five Concerts

1997 – 2004  Eugene Castillo, Conductor, Five more ASCAP Awards for “Adventuresome Programming,” some of it in celebration of California’s Sesquicentennial, The Millennium, and our 40th Anniversary.

Camellia Symphony Association received the Arts and Business Council Award for an Arts Organization with a budget under $125,000 in the beginning of the 2001 – 2002 season.

2004 -2012  Dr. Allan Pollack took the baton in our new venue, The Veterans Memorial Auditorium, and continued the pre-concert lectures, which now follow a short performance by the Camellia Juniors and a silent auction that can be attended by the audience early birds.

2012 – Dr. Christian Baldini takes the baton and begins a new era of classical music for the Camellia Symphony Orchestra with a new performance venue at the Sacramento City College: Performing Arts Center.