Berkeley Symphony was founded in 1969 as the Berkeley Promenade Orchestra by Thomas Rarick, a young protégé of Sir Adrian Boult, the great English maestro. Reflecting the spirit of the times, the Promenade replaced tuxedos with informal street dress and performed in unusual locations, including the University Art Museum. When Kent Nagano took over the orchestra in 1978, he charted a new course by offering innovative programming that included a good number of rarely heard twentieth-century scores. Under Nagano the orchestra also took measures to develop an image congruous with its more serious and sophisticated programming, first switching to formal concert dress and then, in 1981, changing its name to the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. In 1989 the orchestra moved from 750-seat First Congregational Church to UC Berkeley's 2,015-seat Zellerbach Hall.
Among the twentieth-century composers Maestro Nagano programmed during his early years with Berkeley Symphony was Olivier Messiaen. Impressed with the tapes of the orchestra's performances of his works, the French master agreed to come to Berkeley in 1981 to assist in the preparation of his imposing oratorio The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ. His wife, the renowned pianist Yvonne Loriod, accompanied him and joined the orchestra for a sold-out performance at Davies Hall. Two years later Messiaen and Loriod returned for the West Coast premiere of From the Canyons to the Stars, also performed at Davies Hall.
In 1984, Berkeley Symphony presented an evening of works by Frank Zappa with augmented orchestra, life-sized puppets and moving stage sets. The performances brought the orchestra international attention.
Maestro Nagano and the orchestra have also championed several young composers who have gone on to international prominence after being introduced on our stage. Celebrated British composer George Benjamin, who subsequently became composer in residence at the San Francisco Symphony, was introduced to the Bay Area by Berkeley Symphony, as was Thomas Adès, whose opera, Powder Her Face, was performed here in a concert version in 1997, well before its much-heralded performances in Brooklyn, London, and Chicago.
The orchestra has received numerous ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music, including five out of the past six seasons. But Maestro Nagano has underscored his commitment to the old masters through offering cycles of Bruckner, Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann.
Berkeley Symphony recorded William Kraft’s Horn Concerto on Harmonia Mundi in 1993 and Jeff Beal's improvisational jazz trumpet concerto Alternate Route for Tri-loka in March 1994. In 1995 the orchestra recorded CDs of music by Peter Scott Lewis and Frank Martin with New Albion Records. The Lewis disc, Where the Heart Is Pure, was released in January 1996; the Martin disc, featuring violinist Stuart Canin and soprano Sara Ganz, was released in August of the same year.
Berkeley Symphony's most recent CD is The Butterfly Tree, released in 2003. The recording features Jean-Pascal Beintus’ musical rendition of the two years Julia Butterfly Hill spent on a tiny platform 180 feet up in a redwood tree that was slated to be felled. The story is narrated by Ms. Hill and sung by folk music legend Joan Baez. Also on the disc is Beintus' charming setting of The Brementown Musicians, narrated by noted Bay Area actress Joy Carlin.