Chapter I – First Decade 1965-1975
The “Hunt Decade”
Prometheus Symphony Orchestra was a child of the ’60s. Those of us who admit to being old enough to remember will recall that these were creative and tumultuous years that changed the fabric of our society, mostly for the better. It was exciting, sometimes rather scary, and never dull! What a perfect time for the birth of an orchestra – which began with a motley crew of volunteer musicians pulled together by the inspired genius of one Dr. Randolph Hunt (Music Director and Conductor 1965-1975).
For the first 10 years of our existence, the “Creatures of Prometheus” belonged to Randy Hunt. He was an enthusiastic teacher of choral music at Merritt College. And he wanted to stage operas. That required an orchestra. So he simply created one, made it a Merritt College class in 1964-65 (when the college was one building on “Grove Street”, now MLK Way), which gave us a place to rehearse. Now, 50 years later, we again are hosted by Merritt College (returning in the ‘80s).
Thinking that “Merritt College Orchestra” was a bit boring, Randy gave us the colorful title of Prometheus. Prometheus was the Greek god of fire (hence our flame logo), but he was also credited with bringing music to mere mortals. We’re happy to continue that legacy, bringing music to our community. The newly christened Prometheus Symphony Orchestra began its odyssey with a rigorous performance schedule, which Randy continued throughout his tenure as conductor of the orchestra, which lasted until 1975.
A showman at heart, Randy not only presented concerts but also took us on more theatrical adventures. Our first production was Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel, in collaboration with the newly formed Oakland Ballet, led by dancer and choreographer Ron Guidi. We performed at what is now Calvin Simmons Theater at Lake Merritt. A big stage, a big hall and a standing room only audience. Ah, those were the days!
Randy delighted in semi-staged opera productions – such as Madame Butterfly in July of 1967. With the San Francisco Lamplighters, venerable interpreters of Gilbert and Sullivan, Prometheus was the pit orchestra for their fully staged Oakland performances of Die Fliedermaus. In the cast was Randy’s wife, the gifted contralto Marcia Hunt. Their daughter played viola in Prometheus as a teenager and became a professional violist, but then changed course to become the renowned Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, luminous mezzo-soprano who performed at the Met and on other major opera and concert stages around the world.
Music Critic Paul Hertelendy, in a complimentary review of an operatic potpouri that Prometheus staged in 1973, said:
“An opera gala in Oakland? You’d better believe it, and a richly imaginative one, too, assembled by Randolph Hunt…. On two consecutive nights the crowds piled into the Oakland Auditorium Theater [now Calvin Simmons Theater] for this cornucopia of staged excerpts with some of the best professional singing talent that the Bay Area currently has to offer. It was colossal. In fact it didn’t end until three hours later, after highlight glimpses of 15 operatic staples, with a dozen singers, the Prometheus Orchestra, two insertions by the Oakland Ballet and a gamut running from grand opera to operetta…. Conductor Hunt has a sixth sense for accompanying vocalists, of a sort often missing in the biggest opera houses; and his amateur orchestra [Prometheus] responded very warmly.” (Oakland Tribune June 8, 1973)
With Randy, we blossomed into an established orchestra, performing symphonic standards as well as choral works with the Merritt College Chorus, including the Requiems of Mozart, Brahms and Faure, and Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” Hertelendy wrote about our bravery in the face of adversity:
Hunt’s players are a devoted crew blending students and non-students, some of whom commute from as far away as San Francisco, Richmond and Pinole for weekly rehearsal. Some of the veterans stuck out unprecedented adversity under fire, particularly that time [in 1967] when young vandals threw rocks through the windows during an unnerving evening rehearsal at the old Merritt campus [on Grove] The members play on for no more reward than the magic of communal music….”
Among the musicians who came for that first decade’s magic was a teenaged violinist Eric Hansen. Eric’s father, Robert Hansen, the long-time conductor of the Golden Gate Park Band, played trumpet. Eric, of course, came back to Prometheus in 1997 to be our Music Director, which he still is today.
♫ Longevity notes
Prometheus has a happy tradition of orchestra members staying for years. Two current members of Prometheus joined in its first decade: bassoonist Bonnie Bogue joined in 1966 (celebrating 49 years this 50th Season), and violinist Ralph Anderson in 1974.