orchestra playing onstage
Music director David Milnes conducts the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. Courtesy: UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra

Most members of the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra don’t have plans to pursue music professionally. Many are students working toward science, engineering or business degrees. The handful of music majors are, for the most part, double majors (or sometimes even triple). 

You wouldn’t be able to guess it by looking at the ambitious repertoire that Cal’s largest student orchestra chooses to tackle. Consider this: The orchestra regularly performs Gustav Mahler’s famously lengthy symphonies in tandem with a contrasting, contemporary piece. (Even professional orchestras, when performing Mahler, choose to keep it as the sole work on a program.) 

The UCBSO came together roughly a century ago, first as Berkeley’s community orchestra, then as a semi-professional orchestra in the ’40s, with several San Francisco Symphony members joining. When UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall was completed in 1958, the orchestra became more formalized, as it finally had a permanent home.

In 2020, in-person rehearsals became evening Zoom guest lectures and “studio classes,” where students (full disclosure: I was one of them) played — or at least attempted to, given laggy internet — for their sectionmates and exchanged feedback. 

As COVID-19 cases went down, the musicians slowly returned to the stage: first to the breezy outdoor Greek Theater, then back to the orchestra’s Hertz Hall home. In summer 2022, the orchestra toured Europe, culminating in a sold-out performance at Vienna’s Musikverein that raised funds for Ukrainian refugees.

UCBSO director David Milnes isn’t completely sure of the orchestra’s founding date. Digging through archives, he’d found programs dating from 1926 that reference the orchestra’s founding three years earlier, in 1923. Either way, the UCBSO is celebrating its (probably) 100th anniversary this weekend with a special program consisting of Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (with UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ narrating), Bela Bartók’s Dance Suite and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony

Berkeleyside spoke with Milnes ahead of his Nov. 3-4 concerts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What’s the most rewarding aspect of working with Cal students? 

It’s a very big university, so there’s a great pool of talent, which is, I think, not the case for some of the private, smaller universities that have orchestra programs. 

When I first came in, it took a little while to figure out how to do it, because we would have rehearsals and nothing much happened, and then suddenly, they were springing to action in the last week. I realized that Berkeley is made up of students who are excellent test-takers and the way they do it is they study at the last minute. It was almost hardly worth having rehearsals that weren’t at the last minute! So, we increased the number of concerts and we reduced the time in between them. We prepare some programs just as quickly as the San Francisco Symphony sometimes, and everyone involved is interested in getting things done efficiently and at the highest possible artistic level. 

You’ve been with the orchestra for nearly three decades. How has it evolved? 

Well, it wasn’t very big in the beginning, I think, because they only gave two concerts each semester. A lot of people who were used to having more activity didn’t play in it. It turned out there was this pool of players across the campus who weren’t participating and gradually, as we increased our energy and our activity and and found that we could play the most exciting and hard pieces like Mahler’s Ninth and Second symphonies — all those big pieces we play that hadn’t been played by our group before — we attracted more and more people who were very equipped to do hard things. 

Some people actually do come to Berkeley just to study in some other department so that they can play in our orchestra. I’ve heard that a number of times over the years, including graduate students, law school, people in physics — they get into all the different schools around the country in their discipline, but they choose our school because of the orchestra. So that’s great and brings highly motivated people. 

Could you share your process of putting together the Nov. 3 and 4 program? 

The main pieces are decided by consensus. The orchestra members have their interests and it’s part of keeping everybody happy. When we play what people want to play, that usually means they’ll play better. We’re playing Beethoven’s Seventh this week, because that was voted upon in a survey. 

The Bartók [Dance Suite] was chosen because it was written in 1923, so it’s the hundred-year piece. It itself was an anniversary piece to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the merging of Buda and Pest [to create Budapest]. I looked at all the pieces written in 1923, it’s the coolest one, and we’ve played it before, so it works. 

I love Benjamin Britten, and actually, orchestra members have been asking to play [the Young Person’s Guide] for a while.

How did the collaboration with Chancellor Carol Christ narrating the Britten work come about? 

I was at an event with the chancellor, and I went up to her and asked her if she wanted to do it, and she jumped at it. She’s been a friend of the orchestra for a long time. She was a music major in college and says she practices the piano every morning before going to work. She attends our concerts fairly regularly, she’s a big supporter, she’s given us money and has also put in her will a bequest of her very beautiful viola that she owns that will be given to the orchestra whenever that time comes. It’s a very beautiful relationship we have with her. This is her last year, and we are just delighted to have her on the stage with us. 

In addition to having her appear with the orchestra like this, we’ve discussed the possibility of her conducting a small piece in an orchestra concert, and we’re looking forward to working that out with her.

"*" indicates required fields

See an error that needs correcting? Have a tip, question or suggestion? Drop us a line.

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...