Let's get one thing straight right now: John Farrer is certainly not retiring.
But his role as full-time music director of the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra is coming to an end after 39 years. Farrer gives his last concert at the podium for the BSO on Saturday evening, repeating two works from the first time he worked with the orchestra as a guest conductor in 1970.
At 72, Farrer has reached an age at which most people do retire. But it's in their golden years that conductors typically experience their greatest artistic triumphs, built on a foundation of decades of experience and the wisdom that is gained as a result.
So why is Farrer leaving? Well, no one's really talking about it, at least not publicly: Either the question is ignored and the conversation changes to the future, or the answer is some version of "it's complicated." But it does seem a shame to lose a beloved conductor who's just hitting his stride.
When reached for comment by phone, Bryan Burrow, president and CEO of the symphony, declined a request for an interview, saying he'd prefer to respond to questions about Farrer's departure in writing. His email, sent to Californian Lifestyles Editor Jennifer Self on Wednesday, said:
"John Farrer mentioned to several board members six or seven years ago that his interest was to conduct for five more years or so. In the summer of 2012 the board and John sat down to discuss and define what this means. In September of 2012 a five-year agreement was reached to accommodate a smooth transition."
Farrer declined to comment on Burrow's account, though he did confirm he will be paid through 2017 and will hold the title of music director emeritus/conductor laureate. He will have no official duties with the BSO after Saturday night, he said, and he declined to discuss his financial arrangement.
Though he no longer will be working in front of Bakersfield audiences, Farrer will be anything but idle. He's still the music director for both the Roswell and Santa Maria symphony orchestras, and is president-elect of the Conductors' Guild, scheduled to serve as its president in the 2015-17 term, and will continue to lead conducting workshops around the world. With all the globe-trotting, will he and his wife, Bonnie, herself a respected performer and teacher, continue to live in Bakersfield?
"The truth is, it's up in the air," said Farrer, who noted that his wife will not travel with him most of the time.
"Bonnie loves her teaching and she has wonderful students," the conductor said.
Wherever the Farrers land, the conductor doesn't expect to be home much. He's received invitations to lead conducting workshops in Brasilia, Brazil; London; Paris; Venice (Italy); Port Elizabeth and Capetown, South Africa; and in Pasadena in 2014 and 2015, and those represent just the first wave of calls.
"We were told by those in Italy that there was nothing in Italy like (this workshop) and it was very much needed," Farrer said.
Farrer started his full-time relationship with the BSO in 1975 after a search to replace conductor Alberto Bolet. Principal clarinetist Mary Moore, who also serves as the orchestra's operations manager and is the longest-serving musician in the ensemble, recalls the respect Farrer showed the musicians, almost all of whom were local, from the very beginning.
"When he came, he decided to do the best he could with what he had and that's how he built this orchestra," Moore said. "He favored the locals before the imports -- that's rare, especially with conductors of his generation."
Moore said Farrer began collaborating with the principal musicians -- the ones who lead each section -- immediately and took his time in making any substantive changes.
"He didn't reaudition the (musicians) for five years," Moore said. "And then it was only to make sure everyone was in the right place -- he didn't replace anyone."
Farrer lists many accomplishments during his tenure with the BSO: expanding the orchestra's activities to include concerts for children; concert series for chamber music, contemporary music and Baroque music; concerts in Kern County's smaller communities; the annual "Nutcracker" ballet partnership; and Academic Decathlon concerts, pops concerts and many other activities. But Farrer's most important accomplishment is the orchestra itself.
"He developed a core sound with us," Moore said.
"I'm going to be handing (the orchestra) over to other people," Farrer said. "But the musicians are able to retain what they learned with me -- that's my monument."
"I don't mean that to sound egotistical," Farrer said. "If you haven't made any mark after spending almost four decades with an orchestra, you just don't know what you're doing."
Moore said the orchestra musicians have planned a reception for Farrer after the final concert -- she described the event as a last public showing of respect for the conductor.
He actually is getting one more public showing after that: The California State University system and CSUB will award Farrer an honorary doctor of fine arts degree at this year's commencement on June 13. Farrer said he received a call from CSUB President Horace Mitchell's office in December of last year asking for his curriculum vitae -- the academic world's term for a resume. Farrer said Mitchell himself called in February of this year to let him know he had been awarded the honorary degree.
"I was just flabbergasted," Farrer said.
According to CSUB spokeswoman Colleen Dillaway, an honorary doctorate is only awarded to those nominated by someone within the CSU system -- usually a faculty member. Nominees are then discussed by an executive committee of the university's academic senate, which looks at a nominee's accomplishments on the world stage, eminence in his or her field, international recognition, and demonstrated intellectual and humane values.
"This is the highest degree that the CSU system can confer on someone, so we take it very seriously," Dillaway said.