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Music to their ears: 5 years after crisis, Peninsula Symphony thrives again


Audrey Daniel/Peninsula Symphony
Peninsula Symphony, led by conductor Mitchell Sardou Klein, center, is celebrating its 70th season. The symphony’s offices are located in downtown Los Altos.

Five years ago, the venerable Peninsula Symphony was in deep financial trouble, its bank accounts drained by a corrupt executive director. Many seriously questioned whether the beloved ensemble could continue.

Five years later, the answer is a resounding yes. The Los Altos-based symphony, now in its 70th year, is not only surviving, but flourishing both artistically and financially. In fact, thanks to two major benefactors, the 90-member symphony has more money in the bank now than it did prior to Steve Carlton’s well-publicized misdeeds.

Two years ago, the symphony received a generous bequest from Los Altos resident Marguerite Louise Szekely, who died in 2016. And just last year, the symphony benefited from another bequest, “a windfall,” as one member put it.

That means symphony members can focus on what they love best: creating great music.

They’re coming off a well-received classical-jazz collaboration in January with jazz greats David Benoit, Chris and Dan Brubeck (sons of jazz icon David) and local pianist Taylor Eigsti.

Next are concerts set for Friday and Saturday featuring top-10 classical Billboard flutist Emi Ferguson and pieces by Vivaldi and Dvorak. Friday’s concert is at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, Saturday’s at Heritage Theatre in Campbell.

Challenges remain: The logistical one, according to Los Altos Hills resident Alan Bien, the symphony’s board chairman, is finding appropriate concert venues.

Even the annual free summer concert in Los Altos, scheduled June 22, is in flux because its usual location at the Hillview Soccer Field is unavailable this year. Symphony supporters are working out the logistics for an alternate location at Grant Park.

The symphony also is among several groups missing out on the Flint Center at De Anza College while yearlong quake safety retrofit work begins in June and runs through June 2020.

Reaching a younger audience

The other, longer-term challenge is finding new generations of fans.

“We’re trying to attract a younger audience at this point,” said Bien, who has played cello in the symphony since 1975.

As part of its outreach to attract new followers, the symphony has scheduled a “Bridges to Music” family concert at Aragon High School in San Mateo April 7. The idea behind the free concert, according to symphony officials, is to feature engaging and interactive pieces written to help young people learn about the orchestra and the instruments, and have the opportunity to meet the musicians and see their instruments up close.”

This year’s event, titled “Orchestral Pictures,” will include a special recital by Marilyn Mindell Piano Competition winners.

Sheri Frumkin, the current symphony managing director, described a donor’s decision to make what turned out to be the symphony’s second major donation in five years.

“She believed in making an impact in a particular area and what appealed to her about (Peninsula Symphony) is the accessibility at a large scale she felt (the symphony’s) music, programs, maestro and outreach programs offered,” Frumkin said of the benefactor.

“She thought the deal for residents to get such high-quality music at a reasonable price, and not have to go to San Francisco or San Jose, was true quality. Our music was organic, high quality and intimate.”

The symphony’s season will conclude May 17 and 18 with concerts featuring mezzo-soprano Renee Rapier and Alex Zhou, the 2018 Irving M. Klein International String Competition winner. Scheduled are pieces from Mahler and Tchaikovsky.

Frumkin promised “an exciting new season ahead” with “a lot of great programs in the works.”

“At this point, we are very financially stable,” beamed Bien.

As for Carlton, he served time in state prison for a host of crimes, including embezzlement, fraud, tax evasion and forgery. He was sentenced in 2015 after being convicted of stealing or losing approximately $700,000 in symphony assets.

For all the ups and downs of its finances, the nonprofit symphony has long benefited from stable leadership. The orchestra is on only its second musical director/conductor since its founding in 1949. Mitchell Sardou Klein is in his 33rd year with the organization, succeeding founding conductor Aaron Sten.

The symphony’s administrative offices are located at 146 Main St. in downtown Los Altos.

For tickets and more information, visit peninsulasymphony.org.

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