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Remembering 40 Years of SFCMP

 —  Articles

As part of the 40th Anniversary Season, we’re publishing a series of reminiscences in each concert program from the many people who have been involved with SFCMP over the years. We’ll begin with some of the stories that were first published in our 30th Anniversary Season program book, and reprinted at last month’s opening night concert. (photo: SFCMP in 1989)

Jean-Louis LeRoux, Founding Director:

I can see in my mind, as if it were yesterday, the three of us, Marcella DeCray, Charles Boone and myself, walking along a street of the East Bay after a concert of new works organized by Charles (Bring Your Own Pillow) in which Marcella and I had been participating, and discussing the program. I remember stopping all of a sudden and saying, “There is no other concert of contemporary music except these ones. Milhaud is gone, the Mills Performing Group is no more, and I think we should organize your idea, Charles, in a more professional fashion.”

This is how the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players was born, but for a while we kept the original B.Y.O.P. name. Charles left almost at once to spend long years in Europe, and we were left to our own devices, Marcella and I. In a very short time the non-profit corporation was registered in Sacramento by Marcella, and a series of concerts in the Grapestake Gallery on California was planned. Of course, we needed some money. The San Francisco Foundation listened to our plans and we were on our way. Marcella, with the help of Larry Campbell, kept my wild dreams on a more realistic basis. And we played the music of the timee and we had a small audience and we were full of energy and enthusiasm. We progressed from the Mayers’ Gallery to the Museum of Modern Art. We weathered crisis with the assistance of a wonderful board and we survived and grew…

… We believed then and still believe today in that famous line of one of the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela: ‘No hay camino…’ And we kept on going forward without really knowing where to, with the help of a great board and of an extraordinary group of dedicated musicians, the ‘Players’. I won’t mention any name, the list would be too large, but I am immensely grateful to all. Along the way, we had some incredible landmarks – I am thinking of the Webern-Varèse-Zappa concert and of the mega-productions – three-ring circus in the Museum. We never lost our faith in Music, the greatest invention of mankind…

Jane Roos, first Board Chairman:

Early in 1978, Jean-Louis LeRoux, the Music Director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, whom I knew only through his wife, Marta Bracchi-LeRoux, asked me to help in putting together a Board of Directors for the organization. The ensemble had just received a grant from the San Francisco Foundation and a Board of Directors became a requirement for the funding. By May 6, a remarkable group from the musical world of San Francisco was assembled for its first meeting, including Agnes Albert, Charles Boone, Larry Campbell, Susan Wanty and Alexander Fried, in addition to Jean Louis and Marcella DeCray. Two members, Gunther Schuller and Alan Stein were unable to attend, and Frances Varnhagen joined shortly thereafter. That was truly a memorable moment and the beginning of organizational growth.

The prime charge for a board is fiscal responsibility for the organization. Consequently some of my most memorable moments involved depths of despair over financial crises, especially at the beginning, or heights of delight over exciting concerts and rave reviews, but all were associated with a sense of accomplishment and fun.

The event featuring Frank Zappa on Feb. 9, 1983, conducting music of Varèse, his favorite composer, was a special high point, both exciting and scary, as we rented the San Francisco Opera House for a concert to be conducted in part by Zappa and hosted by Grace Slick. The hall had never been so full of rock fans giving Zappa traditional rock concert ovations. When he walked on stage, he responded with great dignity to the shouts from the audience and then hushed the crowd with, “Let’s get serious,” while his enormous body guards on the front row stood up facing the audience. He turned to the musicians, raised his baton, gave the beat audibly, and conducted the first piece – Ionization – with strict marking of time. It was a daring, exciting venture for a small organization – fiscally especially – but in the end was a rewarding experience financially, and gave the Players a lot of exposure.

Another long remembered occasion was the recording of the first record by the Contemporary Music Players, which, to save money, was done at Roos House after a concert, and between midnight and six AM, to minimize street noises. All appliances were turned off, including the furnaces, to eliminate other vibrations and sounds; the recording equipment filled the hall, and all went well until the musicians got numb with cold and the flute was too cold to stay in tune. With the help of hot water and a little heat, the recording was successfully completed.

The concerts at the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with the educational department of the Museum provided the opportunity to stage a lot of remarkable events. One, also to raise funds, assumed a carnival atmosphere with various groups of musicians stationed around the galleries, along with coffee wagons, food stations and beverage carts. The audience sauntered from one performance to another, timed so that one could hear all the mini-concerts.

Another kind of memorable event took place at a point when financial disaster loomed. During a concert intermission in the Green Room, Board Member Claire Harrison Reed gave a stirring spur-of- the- moment plea for help. Several hats were spontaneously produced and passed in the audience with remarkable results.

Finally, there have been many memorable moments musically. From the earliest concerts there was always a focus to the programming and a very intelligent kind of neutrality in the choices, which distinguished the pieces and made them unforgettable experiences. Along with an emphasis on American works, contemporary music from all corners of the globe jostled for the audience’s attention, and some musicians were even brought to perform here, from such disparate places as Canada, South America, and Yugoslavia. Hans Werner Henze’s Voices became the experience for me that was the real turning point in my interest in contemporary music. Very early, Jean-Louis LeRoux dared to play Polish pieces, the music of Henryk Górecki, Genesis I. We were treated to wonderful performances of Morton Feldman’s The Rothko Chapel, Aaron Copland’s Sextet, and the unforgettable partially staged performances of Pierrot lunaire by Schoenberg, which was repeated many times and became for a while a sort of signature piece for the Players. How rewarding it has been!