Musical Society celebrates a century of nurturing young talent

To those who believe a music teacher’s pronouncement that “a world without culture and music is chaos,” the Pacific Musical Society is a bastion of hope.

It is one of The City’s oldest and most important organizations supporting young musicians, and it is celebrating its centennial this month.

With its large annual competition and awards for the winners, the society has played a historical role in the careers of some world-renowned musicians hailing from San Francisco, including violinists Yehudi Menuhin and Ruggiero Ricci, and pianists Leon Fleisher and Ruth Slenczynska.

Slenczynska, a famed prodigy in Europe almost eight decades ago, is taking part in the Society’s centennial gala in the Fairmont Hotel on Saturday, playing Brahms and Chopin. Performing with her will be perform 10-year-old competition winners pianist Elliot Wuu and violinist Kevin Zhu.

The world-famous mezzo Frederica von Stade — known as “Flicka” by her fans and the thousands of young musicians she has supported over the years — is lending her name and talent to the centennial gala, and she speaks of the society in glowing terms.

“God bless the Pacific Musical Society and every organization that champions the nurturing of young musicians,” von Stade said. “In Alameda, where I have lived for the past 20 years, there was a gentleman who taught music in the public schools and he always said that a world without culture and music is chaos. His son is one of our most treasured musicians, the cellist Emil Miland.”

The teacher Emil Q. Miland, former coordinator of music for the Alameda schools, lamented the dismantling of his three decades of work in the district after Proposition 13 passed in 1978 and severely cut school funding.

Over the years, von Stade has worked with young musicians around the Bay Area, not only in The City and Alameda, but also in Berkeley and Oakland.

“In the last several years,” she said, “I have had the joy of working with many young musicians through the Young Musicians program at Berkeley and the St. Martin de Porres School in West Oakland, where I’ve helped start a choir and now a program for violin. Music has offered these kids discipline, order and the supreme joy of expressing themselves freely. This gift is immeasurable and sacred; may it continue forever!”

Pacific Musical Society Vice President James Meredith is artistic director of the Sonos Handbell Ensemble and a faculty member of the UC Berkeley Young Musicians Program.

“As a teenager I was encouraged and helped by several people to pursue my dream of being a musician,” he said.

“Their support made a huge difference in my life. Big theatrical or sporting events can be thrilling, but when you listen to a 10-year old performer, expressing something that such a young life could not possibly have had the experiences to reflect, when they reach in and grab your heart, you know something truly wonderful has happened. That’s why we have music, to speak to us when words fail.”

The Society is headed by Halim Habiby, and the coordinator of the annual competition is soprano Marcelle Dronkers, who will also perform at the gala.

The 2010 competition gave 25 awards of cash and performance opportunity in instrumental, piano, vocal, and composition categories to contestants between ages 8 and 25.


Pacific Musical Society Centennial gala

Where: Gold Room, Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason St., San Francisco
When: Saturday, 5 p.m. (silent auction), 7 p.m. (dinner), followed by the concert
Tickets: $150 members, $175 nonmembers
Contact: (415) 545-8863,