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Our History

A Silver Annversary and Golden Memories

It all started on Friday, December 9, 1983, when a capacity audience gathered at The Village Church in Rancho Santa Fe for a performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria for chorus, soloists and a small Baroque orchestra. Little did they know on that pre-holiday evening full of music that this concert would be the impetus for the founding of a new professional orchestra in San Diego.

A call to Donald Barra
Some in that audience, including Charles Dierenfield, pastor of the Village Church, and his wife, Rachel, and Eloise Thomas, impressed with conductor Donald Barra’s performance, thought about the feasibility of having a high-quality professional orchestra in North County. A steering committee was formed, including Elsie Weston, former president of the San Diego Opera board of directors, and they approached Barra about that possibility. They received a positive response, and the ball started rolling!

San Diego Sinfonia…no, wait…it’s the San Diego Chamber Orchestra
It was immediately determined that the new orchestra must be willing to perform before audiences in multiple venues in the county in order to sustain financial stability. The initial name selected for the orchestra was San Diego Sinfonia. Then, an unexpected occurrence precipitated a name change to the San Diego Chamber Orchestra, the name of a previous non-profit organization that had not been functioning for years. That board, under the guidance of board member Marge Belliaeff, a colleague of Barra’s at SDSU, voted itself out and the new board in, thus avoiding a long and expensive legal procedure to become an accredited nonprofit organization. So, San Diego Chamber Orchestra was the name!

And so it came to pass
The first concerts occurred in the spring of 1984, with performances on the SDSU campus, at the Old Globe, La Jolla’s Sherwood Auditorium and the new Fairbanks Ranch Country Club.

In the ensuing 24 years, through the generosity of so many wonderful supporters and the participation of highly talented musicians, the orchestra has enjoyed an enviable reputation in the San Diego area. Some of the highlights through the years:

  • Internationally-acclaimed guest soloists Roberta Peters, Mischa Dichter, Eugene Fodor, Robert Merrill and Jerome Hines
  • Appearances on CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt and NPR
  • Regular broadcasts on local radio stations
  • Multiple recordings on CD, including a 1993 Grammy Award for “Classical Producer of the Year” for Producer Michael Fine
  • The Carnival Concert Series, the Family Classics, Annual Benefit concerts
  • The classroom workshops and other education outreach programs (always a focus for the Orchestra)
  • Highly acclaimed performances of Handel’s Messiah
  • Expansion to other venues, including downtown at St. Paul’s Cathedral

The baton was passed…time marches on
After Maestro Barra’s retirement in 2005 and a season of various conductors auditioning for the position of conductor/artistic director, Jung-Ho Pak was selected to lead the Orchestra, beginning with the 2006-2007 season.

Highlights of Maestro Pak’s tenure

  • Ground-breaking Frances Hunter Music Memory program rolling out this fall to elementary schools throughout the county
  • Television documentary/broadcast rolling out this season
  • Televised concert with several well-known pop and rock bands in support of music education rolling out this season
  • Honored with opening the newly restored Balboa Theatre downtown
  • Young Professionals Advisory Group formed
  • Media Advisory Group formed
  • Twenty percent increase in overall attendance at all venues last season; all concerts at downtown venue sold out
  • Eighteenth-century adaptation of Messiah performances highly popular, selling out in two of the three venues last season

Turning his exciting and revolutionary vision into two highly successful years, the Orchestra is poised for its 25th season, a season that promises to be the best ever!

Quotes from Orchestra supporters
 “One of our original goals was to make classical music accessible to folks in North County. As the population was growing older, traveling downtown for beautiful music had become less appealing; thus, our message of ‘Great music always near you’ struck a chord with many people,” said Elsie Weston, long-time supporter and board member.

 “I had the distinct honor of being involved from the very beginning in 1984 and  of observing the growth and the many challenges involved in forming an orchestra.  It was an exciting time, but sometimes the project seemed impossible to implement.   With the leadership of our maestro, Dr. Donald Barra, we never lost confidence in our vision that we could make beautiful music accessible to North County and use this orchestra to educate our children.”

“What a thrill for me to see the implementation of "Music Memory" in our schools and to observe the tremendous success of the San Diego Chamber Orchestra over the last 25 years!!!” Gayle Gillies Mize, Founding president of the San Diego Chamber Orchestra board. 

 “The SDCO has a dynamic, a spirit, an ambiance that takes their performance way beyond what is written in the score. They bring Heart to music.  As a member of the audience I cannot help but be deeply affected by their music.” Dick Pinney, guest

"Midweek, I need an escape. Tueday night concerts at the Del Mar Country Club transform my week.  It is amazing what a tuxedo, good friends and beautiful music can do for you!"  Dr. John McHugh, guest

“Transcendent is the best word for me to describe the San Diego Chamber Orchestra experience under the artistic leadership of Conductor Jung-Ho Pak.
They perform with unfailing musicality, and one is swept along in their fresh interpretation of classical music.” Laura Robinson, Board Member

“Recently I came across this quote and it reminded me why I enjoy Jung Ho Pak and the San Diego Chamber Orchestra, and why I have been a subscriber for the past 15 years…’Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life’ by Berthold Auerbach.” Ani Lanuza, Guest

“Jung-Ho Pak’s energy breathes new life into chamber music. The San Diego Chamber Orchestra performs with flair, talent and endless charm.”
Jenn Piscopo

Past Presidents
Gayle Gillies, 1984-85
George Goudy, 1986-87
Ray Sparling, 1987-88
John Feighner, M.D., 1988-90, 1996-97, 2002-03
Charles Dierenfield, 1990-93
Jack Charney, 1993-95
Michael Davis, 1995-96
Walter Bregman, 1997-2000
Bill Weber, 2000-02
Elsie V. Weston, 2003-05
Gay Hugo-Martinez, 2005-07
Gary Phillips, 2007-08
Gay Hugo-Martinez, 2008-2010



Corporate Support

Foundation Donors

$40,000 and above
The James Irvine Foundation
The Parker Foundation

$20,000 and above
Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation

Maestro's Circle

Susan Childs
Samuel Simon Dychter, M.D.
Frances Hunter
Gay and Albert Hugo-Martinez
Claude and Bobbi Kordus
Judith A. Moore
Sue and Bill Weber

Major Government Support

Major funding provided by the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture

San Diego Community Enhancement Program (Pam Slater-Price, Ron Roberts)

San Diego County Community Projects Grants Program (Pam Slater-Price)