He'd led the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra in about two-thirds of Saturday's program before -- in 1970, as guest conductor -- but on his last night as BSO's music director of 39 years, John Farrer got the first of several standing ovations before a note was ever heard.
An audience of more than 800 at downtown's Rabobank Theater beamed, bravoed and repeatedly took to its feet to praise the man many credited with preserving and transforming BSO from a local group with the best of intentions to a world-class orchestra.
"Some of you will see, there's emotion in my voice as I speak, because this is John's last concert. This is John's orchestra," said longtime Bakersfield attorney Milt Younger, past president of BSO's board of directors, repeating the last sentence for emphasis. "This is one of the finest community orchestras in the country and it is so primarily because of John's dedication and talent."
Younger and Mayor Harvey Hall joined Farrer onstage before the concert and Hall presented the conductor with a key to the city.
""What a nice beginning, a standing ovation for Mr. Farrer. Thank you for doing that," said Hall, who told the audience he'd like to call Farrer "Mr. Music."
"I said to him, 'They love you,' and he said, 'I think so,' " Hall said.
"I promise you we will play some music before the evening's out," Farrer joked after getting the key to the city. "All I can say is, it's been a great pleasure to work with this wonderful orchestra. Over 40 years, we had some great adventures together."
Retired elementary and middle school teacher LaVaughn Holland was a second violinist with the orchestra before its 1950s name change, when it was still the Kern Philharmonic.
"I used to play for it when it was the Kern Philharmonic. It was great then and it's better now," Holland said, citing Farrer's "love of the orchestra players and their love of him."
Her husband also identified Farrer's bond with his players as a key reason for their success.
"He's a natural. He gets a better sound. Happy musicians play happy music," Jim Holland said.
Bass trombonist Norm Campbell said Farrer makes the job fun and challenging.
"He's got a fantastic mind, he knows a lot about the history of the composers and the music and the time periods, and he brings that into the rehearsal so he can shape what he wants from us. It's just, we are his instrument and he's done an absolutely fabulous job," Campbell said as he and other brass players welcomed ticketholders before the show -- a BSO tradition that spotlights a different section before each performance.
Listeners felt the same when the orchestra began its roughly two-hour program, consisting of Richard Wagner's Overture to "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" ("The Mastersinger of Nuremburg"), Max Bruch's Violin Concerto in G minor and the Symphony No. 5 in E minor by Tchaikovsky.
The Tchaikovsky and the Bruch were works Farrer had directed in 1970, and Ron Reimers, who shouted "Bravo" after the Tchaikovsky concluded the concert, said he'd never heard it better.
"It was so sharp and crisp. Electrifying. Really electrifying," Reimers said. "He's going to be dearly missed and these young conductors are going to have their hands full."
Award-winning violinist Bella Hristova joined the orchestra as soloist during the Bruch, and explained afterward what Farrer's support meant.
"With soloists, he's always right there with me and so we have that trust. That's very comforting to have onstage," said Hristova, who played a second solo piece, a traditional Hungarian dance, that wasn't on the program.
When the ensemble finished the Bruch, BSO president Bryan Burrow's son Braeden, 9, climbed the stage to present Hristova flowers -- another tradition. That felt a little "weird," Braeden said, but he loved what she'd played.
"Her hands were fast as lightning," Braeden said.
Farrer will continue to hold the title of music director emeritus/conductor laureate -- and will conduct at BSO's Friday gala at Cal State Bakersfield -- but his departure has already generated interest from 158 applicants around the world.
Yet no matter who is chosen, second violinist Andrea von Schriltz said Farrer's memory will live whenever BSO plays.
"He even told us at our rehearsal. He said, 'If you want to see John Farrer, this is the orchestra.' This is his monument, the orchestra," von Schriltz said, echoing Younger's words. "It just means a lot to all of us that he's been so influential to music in this town, and to see who's going to come in next, it's bittersweet."