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Shelby Mack / The Bakersfield Californian

John Farrer leads the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra in a concert at Bright House Networks Ampitheatre in 2012.

In the minds of many residents, John Farrer is the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra. In his nearly 40 years wielding the baton, the conductor has become the chief ambassador of the city's cultural crown jewel, setting the artistic agenda, raising money, attracting celebrated guest performers, deepening the orchestra's commitment to education -- all while keeping a watchful eye on the bottom line.

But his legacy is the orchestra he will be leaving behind.

"The level of artistic quality that the orchestra has reached -- that's my proudest achievement," Farrer said.

When he leaves, Farrer will have led the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra for 39 years, and his stamp on the orchestra -- how they play, the sound they achieve -- is indelible. A few of the original orchestra musicians are still playing; many of the rest grew up under Farrer's leadership, in many cases starting as students, and are now senior members of the orchestra.

Farrer took over the orchestra in 1975 from Alberto Bolet, a fine conductor, but one who did not quite connect with the musicians. Longest-serving musician, principal clarinetist Mary Moore, said she and her colleagues were impressed with Farrer's willingness to work with the orchestra.

"I think that's what we saw right away," Moore said. "We felt respect right away."

Big presence

Moore noted that from the beginning, Farrer was a calm and confident conductor with a clear technique.

"It is not showy; it is precise and you know exactly what he's going to do," Moore said. "His rehearsals are so planned -- we never waste time."

It is not unheard of for a conductor to "clean house" when taking over an orchestra, something that happened when Theodore Kuchar took over the Fresno Philharmonic in 2001, replacing many longtime Fresno area musicians with performers from Los Angeles and San Francisco.

"It was a good orchestra, and it was always a good orchestra," Farrer said about the BSO. "But you have to work with an orchestra slowly to develop the habits that lead to good performances."

Farrer said the BSO musicians had to perform in spite of the competing interests of day jobs, a limited rehearsal and concert schedule and other challenges.

"On top of playing in an 'acoustically challenging' environment," Farrer said, referring to the Rabobank Theater, formerly known as the Civic Auditorium.

Farrer said it was during the 1978 rehearsal and performance of Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture that he and the orchestra truly came to a musical understanding.

"I could just hear the balance between sections, intonation, coordination," Farrer said.

"It did not require replacing players."

In 1975, the then-34-year-old Farrer was responsible for conducting five subscription concerts a year, working on a budget of $35,000. At its zenith, the orchestra performed 30 times a year, including seven subscription concerts, with an operating budget of $1.2 million.

Strong leadership

Right away under Farrer's leadership, music education became a priority.

"When I started, the children's concerts were really nothing," Farrer said. "Parents would just drop their kids off for dress rehearsal and then pick them up -- we didn't really attempt to teach them anything at all."

That focus on education led to semi-annual Young Person's Concerts, a partnership with local school districts, reaching thousands of schoolchildren each year. Along with educators such as CSUB music professor Jerome Kleinsasser, Farrer started the Academic Decathlon lecture concert to prepare high school students for the music part of the competition. As many as 2,000 high school students from around the state used to attend this one-of-a-kind event. The BSO also formed a partnership with Community Connection for Child Care to provide music education activities for young children during Sunday afternoon concerts.

Farrer also pointed with pride to the annual "Nutcracker Ballet," a co-production with Civic Dance Center. Thirty-five years later, the annual ballet is still a holiday hit, and continues to provide the increasingly rare opportunity for dancers and audiences to enjoy a ballet danced to live accompaniment.

Tough times

Budget cuts have claimed almost all of the performances that had been added over the years: the Academic Decathlon concert; some of the Young Person's Concerts; the New Directions Concert series, which promoted contemporary music; chamber music concerts; the summer Bach Festival; the holiday pops concert; the summer pops concerts; and, until this year, the 9/11 memorial concert. Gone too are the outreach concerts -- performances in Ridgecrest, Delano, Taft and Arvin to bring orchestral music to outlying areas.

"I know the board will restore things as money allows," Farrer said.

None of this would have been possible without the orchestra musicians, who have thrown themselves into these events, for pay, sure, but also for the love of performing all kinds of repertoire. That's a testament to their professionalism and their support of Farrer and the orchestra.

Using a history of the orchestra provided by Kleinsasser, one can see that Farrer's musical choices were largely conservative -- a large number of orchestral "war horses" -- but included a lot of crowd-pleasing music, such as movie scores, "light" classics and pops music. He also made opera, choral masterworks, 20th century works, the occasional world premiere and even commissions for new music a regular part of the concert season.

The list of guest artists is impressive, including not only some of the foremost performers in their respective fields, but also some guaranteed crowd-pleasers: classical guitarists Christopher Parkening and the Romero family; classical and jazz performers Benny Goodman and Doc Severinsen; opera singers Benita Valente and Roberta Peters; pop performers like Chet Atkins, Buck Owens and Judy Collins; pianists Andre Watts, John Browning, Richard Goode; guest narrators Leonard Nimoy, Tippi Hedren, Ned Beatty. There are many more.

Historic firsts

One of Farrer's recent coups for the orchestra, with support from Farrer's wife, pianist Bonnie Bogle Farrer, was getting the BSO included on the gold medal tours for the winners of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

The challenge for the BSO going forward is to rebuild its audience, one that is both shrinking and aging, and restore its finances, which have been hit by mergers, changing corporate giving priorities, increased competition for fewer dollars and cuts in local government support. The BSO has been able to stay in the black, but with a dramatically reduced budget -- estimated for this year to be between $760,000 and $800,000 -- and a severely trimmed concert season.

If the money can be found, the BSO can look to Farrer's own work as an example of what to do -- connecting with other organizations, creating a far-reaching presence in the community, and finding more opportunities for the orchestra's own musicians to perform.

As for Farrer, his role as leader of the Bakersfield Symphony might be winding down, but he's not retiring. Now 71, Farrer said he will continue to conduct the orchestras in Santa Maria and Roswell, N.M. He will continue his conductors' workshops in California, London and Paris, with invitations to open more in other parts of the world. He is also in the middle of a recording project with the New Queen's Hall Orchestra of London.

"I will continue my professional life full-bore," Farrer said. "I feel I'm at the height of my powers -- I'm conducting the best I ever have in my life."