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Conductor In Orchestra

OUR MISSION

  • To bring symphonic music to Coastside residents

  • To provide an opportunity for the joint music-making of local players

  • To encourage the appreciation of orchestral music in children and youth.

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The Coastside Community Orchestra is governed by a five-member board and is offered as a class under the auspices of the Half Moon Bay Parks and Recreation Department. 

PLAYING ON THE COAST SINCE 1983

History of the Coastside Community Orchestra

By Michaele Benedict
Written in 2013 to commemorate CCO's 30th birthday; revised 2022, with permission.

In spring of 1983, a violinist, a flute player, a pianist and a Methodist minister thought it would be a fine thing to have a community orchestra. They placed an ad in the local newspaper and the Coastside Community Orchestra (CCO) was born.

Claudine Schwarz-Minton, first concert master and board president, noted that the earliest form of the orchestra was a youth ensemble which rehearsed in the Cunha Intermediate School band room. She, along with co-founder and flutist Sara Lomax, and first conductors Robert Smith and William MacSems, were all public school music teachers in robust elementary-through-high-school music programs which were beginning to be downsized.

 

The four founders grew to an ensemble of nine, and the group played its first concert in a Christmas tree field off Highway 92. Today, the orchestra, a non-profit, non-audition group, has 40-60 active members. CCO members perform two or three full orchestra concerts each year, often interspersed with chamber music concerts, and/or other formal or informal performances.

Since its founding, CCO has included, at various times, 300+ players ranging in age from twelve to eighty-plus and ranging in ability from novice to professional. Guest musicians have made the number even higher. The group has funded thousands of dollars of music awards to young musicians in the community. Some of these scholars have gone on to careers in teaching and music, and several have joined or soloed with the orchestra.

First Concert, First Members

Lomax recalled CCO’s first concert, “which was behind the former Obester Winery in a Christmas tree field on Highway 92.  I remember straddling a small Monterey pine between my feet as I played.”

“I remember playing percussion standing in the dirt between two Christmas trees,” co-founder Carole Tillotson said. “I played cello parts on the piano for at least two years, then Melinda Wagner (a professional cellist who lived on the Coastside and later was president of the San Francisco chapter of the Musicians’ Union) played the concerts for free.”

 

“The first group (of the CCO) was very small,” Lomax said. “We played middle school arrangements of Handel’s Water Music and rehearsed in the Methodist Church’s old Social Hall.” 

 

Tillotson, who later moved to Colorado, listed the earliest CCO members: Jim Tillotson on viola; violinist Christy Zarate; Pastor Tom McArthur’s daughter Tracy, who played clarinet; Lomax; Schwarz-Minton, who taught music on the Coastside; Derek Evans, who played clarinet with the orchestra for 25 years; and Joe DeFelice, who played with the orchestra until his death in 2001 at the age of 86.

Flutist Carol Martin joined the group that first year and has played ever since. Another player from the first year, Valerie Kruger, French horn, has played a variety of instruments with the orchestra, as has conductor Smith. Derek Evans remembered playing Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” at the first concert.  He was still in high school at those first orchestra meetings.  Several years later, he married cellist Donna Musick and retired from the orchestra to raise a family. He designed one of the orchestra’s logos which replaced a silhouette of a conductor with a small group of players.

Two other musicians of the original CCO group, Jim Tillotson and Christy Zarate, played locally and abroad with the Peninsula Scottish Fiddlers.  Other members were April Hacker and Aaron Allen.

First Conductors

One of the two original conductors, William MacSems, received his Master of Arts degree in music composition from San Francisco State University and studied composition with Gottfried von Einem at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, Austria. He was a founder of Pacific Opera Theater on the Coastside, Half Moon Bay High School band director for many years, and played trombone and piano.

Conductor Robert Wayne Smith received his Master’s degree in music education at West Texas State University and studied conducting with the distinguished conductor Olaf Christensen. For years, Mr. Smith was in charge of young musicians at Cunha Intermediate School, and later at Half Moon Bay High School.  He was a founding member of the Pacific Coast Ragtime Orchestra in 1983, playing bass, and played with show bands and orchestras in the San Francisco Bay Area while he was teaching at Cunha. He taught and played all the instruments, specializing in trombone, guitar and violin. April 16, 1988, was named Robert Wayne Smith Day by the Half Moon Bay City Council.  ​

From 1991 to 1996, he lived in Chicago, where he played with the University of Chicago Symphony and did workshops with the American Conductors’ Guild.

Co-founder Sara Lomax earned her Master’s degree in flute performance from the Kansas City Conservatory of the University of Missouri. She was a public school band director for 33 years until her retirement in 2005, teaching on the Coastside, in Pacifica, and in San Carlos. She was a founding member of Pacific Coast Ragtime Orchestra, as were several CCO members.

The Timpani

Players often use their own instruments, apart from piano, the occasional harpsichord, and the timpani or kettle drums. When The Cabrillo Unified School District, which had sponsored the orchestra, eliminated its adult education program, CCO no longer had access to the Half Moon Bay High School timpani, which are fundamental to most orchestral music.

Percussionist Bob Wylie researched and purchased the orchestra’s new timpani, with additional gifts from Chevron and from violinist Bobbie McKinney. Wylie also donated his drum set and cymbals to the orchestra. Half Moon Bay Parks and Recreation took over sponsorship of the group and, for several years, provided storage space for the large drums.


“It’s a one-way ticket, Kay!”

William MacSems retired and moved to Sacramento in 1986. When fellow conductor Robert Smith moved to Chicago in 1991, bass player Kay Raney, who had been CCO’s assistant conductor, became conductor of the orchestra. Over the next 18 years, he not only led the group, but composed many pieces which the orchestra premiered.

Raney received his Master’s degree in music composition from San Jose State University. He taught in public schools of East Palo Alto from 1958 to 1968, and in Pescadero from 1968 to 1990. His compositions included two musicals for children’s theater, concerti for clarinet, tuba, violin and viola, brass quintet and cello. He also composed chamber music, songs, incidental music and scores for a number of productions.

In early years, CCO members would meet informally in December to play and sing Handel’s oratorio, The Messiah, sometimes with Raney taking many of the solos in his gravelly bass. In 1986, the orchestra invited San Francisco Opera Chorus assistant conductor Sanford Dole to lead a sing-along “Messiah” at Coastside Lutheran Church. A video of that performance, attended by some 300, still is aired by the local media. In 2002, the orchestra played the oratorio with soloists at the Sanchez Center for the Arts in Pacifica.

On Raney’s tenth anniversary as conductor, the orchestra presented him with plane tickets to Salzburg, birthplace of Raney’s favorite composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. When Raney teared up at the news of the gift, one irreverent orchestra member, Alex Weiss, called out “It’s a one-way ticket, Kay!” But of course, it was not.

​The orchestra also presented Raney with a golden baton when he had to retire from conducting duties because of illness, but he still managed to play bass viol, his original orchestra position, in a concert shortly before his death in 2009.


Coming Full Circle

The CCO board convinced its original conductor, Robert Smith, who had by then returned to the Coastside and retired from teaching, and fellow CCO co-founder Sara Lomax to take up conducting duties in 2008, bringing the orchestra full circle. He has since retired from conducting, and continues to play in the orchestra. 

For its first eight years, the orchestra rehearsed at the Community United Methodist Church. In another full-circle coincidence, the 2012 Summer Strings program again rehearsed in what had been the church Sunday School/Social Hall.  However, that the historic structure—originally a station of the Ocean Shore Railway prior to 1906-- had been moved a mile south to Higgins-Purisima Road in Half Moon Bay.

CCO membership has been amazingly stable over the years. Many of the instrumentalists have played with the group for ten years or more, and several since its first years. There have been marriages, births and funerals observed within the orchestra membership. As the number of players has increased, concert offerings have become even more varied and sophisticated.


The Children

When CCO was part of the Cabrillo Adult School, it rehearsed in the Half Moon Bay High School band room and gave its concerts in the high school multi-purpose room. Sometimes orchestra members would bring their children, always welcome, to concerts dressed in pajamas, with pillows in tow. The children would stretch out on the floor below the stage and doze off to the strains of Haydn and Mozart.

When budget cuts eliminated the Cabrillo Adult School, CCO came under the wing of Half Moon Bay Parks and Recreation and began rehearsing at the Ted Adcock Center. Some children’s concerts have been held at elementary schools or as far abroad as Skyline College in San Bruno, and others at the Adcock Center, or Methodist Church.

In addition to two or three full orchestra concerts each year, musicians have performed in chamber groups and in various offerings for children. These events have sometimes included an instrument “petting zoo”, where children are encouraged to try out the instruments themselves. (Orchestra members, however, could sometimes be seen hiding their valuable violins and bringing out more durable “pets”.) The drums and trumpets were always the favorites at the petting zoo.

Over the years, CCO has presented annual music awards for local students in 3rd through 12th grade.  Recipients are nominated by public school counselors and teachers, and private music teachers. Past recipients have used their awards for everything from instrument repair or replacement, music lessons, music camp and assistance with college costs. The orchestra has also assisted local schools with fill-in musicians for musical productions; repaired and replaced instruments; and provided tickets for classrooms to attend children’s symphony concerts in San Francisco.

The Top Four

CCO’s Top Four, the composers whose works they have performed most often, are Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Saint-Saëns, with Handel high in the running if the “Messiah” sing-alongs are included. However, a glance at decades worth of concert programs shows an impressive variety which includes works of living classical composers as well as those of Leroy Anderson, Richard Rodgers and the Beatles, since pops concerts have been part of the orchestra’s offering.

 

Mission

The Coastside Community Orchestra is governed by a five-member board. The orchestra’s bylaws state its objectives: To bring symphonic music to Coastside residents; to provide an opportunity for the joint music-making of local players; and to encourage the appreciation of orchestral music in children and youth.

 

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