Calvin E. Simmons
Calvin Eugene Simmons (April 27, 1950 – August 21, 1982) was an American symphony orchestra conductor. He was the first African-American conductor of a major orchestra.
Life and career
Simmons was born in San Francisco, California,1950. At the age of 9, Simmons entered the Bay Area's musical scene and began living his dream of becoming a world-class musician. He had been taught the piano from an early age by his mother, Matty. By the age of 11, he was conducting the San Francisco Boys Chorus, started by Madi Bacon, of which he had been a member. Madi gave him the early artistic freedom to assist with the chorus that would serve him and others for years.
After working as assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta, Simmons became musical director of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra at age 28; he led the orchestra for four years. He continued to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic, both at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and at the Hollywood Bowl. He would be supporting Carmen McRae singing jazz one night, and then conducting William Walton or Holst's The Planets a night or two later. He was the first African-American to be named conductor of a major U.S. symphony orchestra and a frequent guest conductor with some of the nation's major opera companies and orchestras (e.g. the Philadelphia Orchestra and others). In addition, he was the Music Director at the Ojai Music Festival in 1978.
He made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera conducting Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, returning the following year. He was active at the Glyndebourne Festival in England. He collaborated with the British director Jonathan Miller on a celebrated production of Mozart's Così fan tutte at the Opera Theater of St. Louis (USA) shortly before his death. He remained active at the San Francisco Opera all his adult life, supporting General Director Kurt Herbert Adler, first as a repetiteur and then as a member of the conducting staff. He made his formal debut conducting Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème with Ileana Cotrubas. His later work on a production of Dmitri Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District drew national attention.
Simmons died in a canoeing accident at the age of 32 near Lake George in New York. After a large public funeral at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, he was buried in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma, California.
At a memorial concert held in Oakland's Paramount Theater a few weeks later, he was remembered for his talent, his quick wit and sense of fun, and his ability to get on top of any score quickly.
The Calvin Simmons Middle School in Oakland is named for him, as is the grand ballroom of the Oakland Marriott Hotel.
The short story Addio San Francisco which appears in the anthology Murder at the Opera, (Mysterious Press, 1989) was a story written by Simmons with editor Thomas Godfrey under a pseudonym.
The Oakland Symphony Orchestra was reorganized in July 1988 as the Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra. Simmons has been honored by the naming of the Calvin Simmons Theatre at the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center in Oakland, California.
His death inspired Lou Harrison to compose the Elegy, To The Memory Of Calvin Simmons, and Michael Tippett to compose The Blue Guitar, a sonata for solo guitar, and Robert Hughes to compose Sop'o muerte se cande, for high tenor and orchestra (1983, 2013). John Harbison wrote Exequien for Calvin Simmons. Simmons conducted Harbison's Violin Concerto shortly before his death.
- Wolfe, Rinna Evelyn, The Calvin Simmons Story: Or, Don't Call Me Maestro, Muse Wood Press, Berkeley, California
- Archive article at The New York Times dated, August 23, 1982 and September 9, 1982.
- Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma, California web link below http://www.cypresslawn.com/notables_simmons.html
- The posting of his bio by John T. Griffith on Find A Grave at link below http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=7680460&pt=Calvin%20Simmons