Founded in 1910, San Francisco's Pacific Musical Society has helped launch hundreds of teenage and preteen musicians on great careers.
One of its earliest competition winners, pianist Ruth Slencyznska, is preparing for a return appearance in the concert hall where she made her debut. The venue is Paris' famed Salle Pleyel, where the Sacramento-born musician gave her first concert in 1932, at age 7. An icon of the Musical Society, the pianist will play again in Paris next April, at 90.
Talk of history and very young musicians mixed freely at the group's 104th annual gala earlier this month in the Metropolitan Club. Members heard performances by current awardees, and talked about past San Francisco beneficiaries including Slencyznska, violinist Lord Yehudi Menuhin (who received the first award), pianists Leon Fleisher and Ray Bogas, pianist and presidential press secretary Pierre Salinger.
Society board member John Bernstein asked patrons and supporters for more contributions, citing the history of his father Martin Bernstein. He said, “At the time this society was founded, my dad was getting music education in New York public schools, learning about classical music then was a matter of course. Because he was big for his age, it was suggested that he play the double bass, he did and became a valued member of the New York Philharmonic.”
Public schools today, Bernstein said, do not provide music education, and organizations such as the Musical Society must take up the slack.
Hundreds of young musicians vie each year for society awards, with top prizes currently at $4,000. A total of $35,000 is presented to 34 winners showing excellence in piano, instrumental, voice, and composition.
The gala honored Sheri Greenawald, director of the San Francisco Opera Center, another organization helping young singers and artists in the renowned Merola Opera Program.
A gala concert featured impressive, mature performances by 14-year-old violinist Kevin Zhu, a winner of the 2010 competition who took first prize in the junior division of the 2012 Menuhin International Violin Competition in Beijing (the youngest ever); 11-year-old pianist Caroline Hsu, a winner in this year's competition who played Chopin and Beethoven; and mezzo Mariya Kaganskaya, top winner in the ages 19-25 category, who sang Tchaikovsky, Handel and Bernstein.
Among the organization’s upcoming projects is “Living Legends,” an effort to produce and preserve video interviews with great musicians in the Bay Area and elsewhere, being spearheaded by pianist and teacher Jim Meredith, the group’s vice president and founding director of the Sonos Handbell Ensemble.