“Don’t write me off!” Maestro Bogidar Avramov urged. And fans of the conductor’s work establishing classical symphonic music as driving force in the Eastern Sierra cultural scene would be wise to heed those words. Looking back on more than three decades of accomplishments, there are many memories, but also visions of the symphony’s future in Mammoth Lakes.
Avramov might be stepping down this year as conductor of the Sierra Summer Festival Orchestra (formerly the Eastern Sierra Symphony), but his presence will continue to be felt, both figuratively and literally. Avramov closes out his tenure as the orchestra’s baton bearer during the festival’s 35-year anniversary, but his christening as an Eastern Sierra musical fixture actually goes back more than 40 years to 1970, when he and his wife, Ilka, bought a condo from realtor and then Chamber of Commerce president Dick Nevins.
Nevins pitched the idea of bringing classical music to Mammoth. Avramov was all for it, and brought the first small 15-piece ensemble up from his working environment in Los Angeles for 4 days of performances at what was then the “new” Mammoth High School.
At that time, Avramov was head of the Loyola Marymont Music Department and conductor of the Beverly Hills Symphony, also known as the “Westside” Symphony, which played the first few years of what would soon become a full-fledged summer music festival. “We played mainly Baroque music in those days, and had to bring in our own harpsichord,” he recalled. By the late ‘70s, a group of community music lovers, who’d been hooked by the early series of concerts, established the Sierra Summer Festival, and turned to Avramov to take the baton as music director and conductor.
It was about this time that Wes Hawks, now the orchestra’s principal clarinetist and woodwinds leader, discovered the festival. “I’d been camping in Mammoth since the early ‘60s, and my wife and I bought a cabin in the Lakes Basin in 1979,” Hawks said. “I remember hearing a concert at Canyon that got rained out, so it was moved inside what was then Warming Hut 2.” A powerful performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #4, with then concertmaster and soloist Sidney Harth, who also led the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was Hawks entre to the organization.
Hawks would later take over the symphony’s managerial duties, which he holds to this day. “Those were the days of the big budget shows, playing music from ‘Star Wars’ with lasers and 2,000 people outside at Canyon Lodge,” Hawks reminisced. Jazz musician Joe Sample, a Mammoth second homeowner, was very supportive and donated both his time and grand piano, which is still used by the festival today.
Avramov said he remembers Best Picnic contests, with painter Bill Kelly and others squaring off for best spread honors, and sleeping bags among the blankets. “I think some of the next generation of classical musicians and supporters were created in some of those sleeping bags,” he exclaimed.
By 1983, the budgets had been cut back, but the interest in the orchestra from local and regional musicians was skyrocketing, thus leading to the inception of the Eastern Sierra Symphony Orchestra. Before long, 20 players were added from Bishop, Lone Pine, Independence and Tonopah. “And that was before Ridgecrest [which increased regional membership to 35] came into the picture,” Hawks pointed out. He is one of two original ESSO members who haven’t missed a single year so far. The other, Bishop resident John Wehausen, plays oboe. His wife Carolyn, an emergency medical professional, has played clarinet. John is also known for his work with Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep.
By the late ‘80s, about 60 pieces of the orchestra were being played by area musicians, a statistic that pleases Avramov, who lauds both the sheer number of fine players and the increasing quality of Eastern Sierra music education. “[The area’s population] is a small jewel, but the quality is amazing,” Avramov stated.
“Wes is one of the most accomplished musicians, and we’ve been privileged to have him on board,” Avramov enthused. “Beside being the backbone of the woodwinds, without his administrative talents, we wouldn’t be able to stage these concerts.”
Which shows still stand out to the two musicians and colleagues? For both, a vivid memory is certainly a 2001 rendition of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, with a visiting choir from Bonn, Germany. “We had probably 125 or 130 pieces on stage, and our biggest audience,” Hawks recollected.
“It might not have been the very best, musically, but it was by far the most grandiose, and the choir was from Bonn, which was the birthplace of Ludwig von Beethoven,” Avramov added.
For his farewell concerts, Aug. 10-11, at St. Joseph’s Church in Mammoth, Maestro Avramov was given carte blanche to pick from his “greatest hits” collection, and went to those he considers the “titans,” for the show, which he calls the “3 Bs” — Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms, and Beethoven.
The entire program, he explains, is designed to be not sad or bittersweet. “It will be a jubilation, a celebration,” he said, thus the 3Bs, who emoted big, thought big and wrote big! “And you have the 4th B … Bogidar,” his wife Ilka quipped.
“The seed is planted, and now we have a full tree and the ground here is very fertile,” Avramov said of his turning over the baton to a new conductor. “We’ve achieved a very high standard of artistry, and the community has acknowledged the orchestra and the SSF as a viable public service.”
And he is seeing future orchestra players already being taught by their musician parents. “It’s being handed down, generationally … the orchestra has become a sort of living organism.”
He is also proud to have introduced listeners to classical music, both new and vintage, they might never have otherwise heard, a fringe benefit of attending the SSF.
Meanwhile, Avramov intends to remain a fixture on the Mammoth music scene. He will remain with the orchestra and SSF as a consultant and a guest conductor now, and also has plans for expanding music education, in his new status as Musical Director Emeritus.
“This is farewell, it’s not goodbye,” he said. “I have visions of how to shape and continue things, and important work in education I would like to focus on. This chapter is closed, but the book is not done yet.
“Time flies, it’s the uncontrollable aspect of life,” the Maestro summarized. “But there is so much to cherish about this area and its people, not the least of which his that the music is alive here.”
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