Chapter III – Third Decade 1985-1995
The “Khuner Period” Continues
The third decade began in the fifth year of Jonathan Khuner’s 12-year tenure as Music Director (1980 to 1992). Under his tutelage, the Prometheus Symphony thrived. The programming was rich and diverse and our musicianship improved. His exacting rehearsals and extraordinary musicality pushed us to new performance levels. Karla Lemon continued as our Associate Conductor for a couple of years, helping bridge the gaps when Jonathan had to be elsewhere (he was already a prompter and conductor with the San Francisco Opera, where he still serves today).
Opera for Us
Jonathan shared with us his passion for opera. In addition to his regular gig with the San Francisco Opera, he worked with the emerging Berkeley Opera. He brought us exceptional vocalists, mining the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program for extraordinary young soloists who sang arias to the Prometheus accompaniment. Among them are several who have since become opera superstars — Ruth Ann Swenson, Nancy Gustafson, Pamela South, James Patterson and Ravil Atlas. He also drew on Bay Area talent, like the magnificent bass-baritone David Tigner, and soprano Sara Ganz, now at Mills College. One of our more singular achievements was the 1986 West Coast Premiere of the comic opera, The Three Pintos, by von Weber and Mahler (Mahler completing the unfinished effort of von Weber). The production, with the Berkeley Chorus Pro Musica, made the papers; although the reviews of Mahler and von Weber’s composition, and of our production efforts, weren’t exactly glowing, we sure had fun!
The Proof is in the Playing
One thing about playing in the Prometheus – we never get bored!In the having fun category, we didn’t stop with opera. A big hit (the audience gave us rave reviews) was the Children’s Concert on “Music and Animals” at Lawrence Hall of Science. Perhaps the most magical was when we were the “pit orchestra” for the Berkeley Ballet Theater’s Nutcracker Ballet in December 1990 at Julia Morgan Theater. The most moving and memorable was the premiere of the “Holocaust Memorial Cantata” by Bay Area composer Aaron Blumenfeld, with the Five Penny Opera Chorus at the Temple Beth Abraham, in April 1987.
Jonathan’s programs were a great deal more than opera selections. We ran the gamut of classical music, from Bach to Schoenberg. Each season he presented a “3 B’s” concert – Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Big productions with full chorus and soloists provide lots of excitement for us and our audiences, and in this Jonathan excelled. In his last two seasons, Jonathan did that twice with the Oakland Symphony Chorus. In April of 1991, we presented Beethoven’s Mass in C. The soloists included soprano Jillian Khuner (Jonathan’s wife), mezzo-soprano Dawn Jensen, tenor Richard Walker, and bass-baritone David Tigner. In March of 1992, we did Honegger’s The Story of King David, a Symphonic Psalm, narrated by David Tigner, with Charmagne Bill, soprano, Christine Calan, contralto, and Richard Walker, tenor. Both productions were in the beautiful and historic First Presbyterian Church on Broadway.
Jonathan also drew professional instrumentalists for concerto performances, such as David Sprung, principal horn with the San Francisco Opera; cellist Emmanuel Vacakis; and violinist Stefan Hersh, then concertmaster of the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, now a nationally known chamber musician, soloist and purveyor of fine violins.
Discovering Teenaged Talent
This decade saw the start of one of Prometheus’s most rewarding activities. In 1989 we launched our Youth Concerto Contest. The inspiration of Dorinda Chase, a music teacher and our principal clarinetist for many years, the competition serves two purposes: giving aspiring young musicians the experience of auditioning, and the winners the opportunity to perform a concerto with a full orchestra in a concert hall. Each year we invite Bay Area musicians, 18 years of age or younger (some as young as 11), to audition. The level of talent we discover has never waned, exemplified by the 2015 winner, 17 year-old violinist Charissa Leung, whose rendition of Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor on January 25, 2015, is a fitting addition to our 50th Season celebrations.
In the first competition, the winner was Ilana Blumberg (Thomas) whose career as a professional musician has taken her across the country to play with several prestigious orchestras and chamber groups. The second year, our winner was the remarkable cellist, Julia Tom. After attending Julliard, she embarked on an extraordinary international career, now with Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Amsterdam Ensemble after playing with top music groups throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Featuring Our Own
Prometheus members as soloists were an important element of Jonathan’s programming. Among those was oboist Keith Sklower (now in his 33rd year with Prometheus) who performed Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin in 1985 and 1990 and the Sinfonia Concertante for Four Winds and Orchestra in 1988. Ron Cohen (principal trumpet with Prometheus since 1981) performed Hertel’s Trumpet Concerto # 1 in 1990. Elizabeth Baker was our concertmaster when she soloed, and at the same time was playing with the San Francisco Symphony. She is now with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Felix Khuner Joins Us
The Khuner Period included Jonathan’s father, Felix, who played violin with Prometheus, after retiring from an international career that included the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera and California String Quartet. He would whistle the part of any player who was missing from rehearsal, while quietly coaching from the very back of the violin section. On April 12, 1992, we dedicated a memorial concert to Felix Khuner that Jonathan conducted. We also honored him by naming our youth concerto contest the Felix Khuner Young Artist Concerto Competition.
We always are searching for a concert venue. Our third decade found us on the move — Calvin Simmons Theater, St. Francis De Sales Cathedral, the Greek Orthodox Church, Piedmont High School, Laney College, Armstrong College, John Muir School and First Presbyterian Church of Oakland. But we had a rehearsal home, the benefit of again being a class at Merritt College.
1992 – a Time of Change
Jonathan’s farewell concert with Prometheus was June 7, 1992, when we played the spectacularly challenging Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. Also featured were the two winners of the third annual Concerto Competition. John Kendall Bailey, on oboe d’amore, is now well known in the Bay Area music world as conductor of choral and orchestral groups and as pre-concert lecturer for the Oakland East Bay Symphony. The second winner was Sophia Kessinger, now a violinist with the New York City Opera Orchestra.
GEORGE THOMSON, FIFTH Music Director (1992-1997)
The Orchestra auditioned a number of conductors before choosing the multi-talented George Thomson to take up the baton for the 1992-93 season. He brought wit and a special brand of musicality, and an exceptional resume as performer and conductor. He played viola and conducted with many Bay Area groups – including cutting edge new music with EARPLAY and the Berkeley Contemporary Opera and the very opposite on the historical spectrum with the Philharmonica Baroque and American Bach Soloists, playing on 18th century period instruments. He was principal violist with the Carmel Bach Festival for the same years he conducted Prometheus.
George’s first Prometheus season continued our tradition of a “three B’s” concert, and also ran the gamut from Bach to Hindemith. See the Fourth Decade chapter for more about George’s tenure.
♫ Longevity notes
During this decade, several players were added to our “honor roll” of loyal veterans who still play in Prometheus. Bruce von Kugelgen, principal trombone and long-term Board Treasurer, joined us in 1991. Adrienne Chambers, principal horn, and Allen Habel, clarinet and former Board member, both came in 1992. Thomas Hart, contra bass and past Board member joined in 1993. J.P. Young, violin, joined in 1994.