Distinguished Gentleman

ae distinguishedFounder John Orlando has guided the Distinguished Artists series through 30 years of performances

When John Orlando started the Distinguished Artists Concert and Lecture Series, he didn’t know it would still be going 30 years later. He didn’t even intend to create a series, exactly. The pianist and longtime teacher just wanted to provide a performance space for some friends who had expressed a desire to come to California and play a concert. When another friend called and wanted to be involved, Orlando put the first event together.

“I put three concerts together and made a program,” he says. “That was the birth of the series, and we’ve had a season every single year.”

Combining concerts, lectures and art, the series has taken on a life of its own, Orlando says, attracting top-tier talent and gaining widespread recognition. Part of the draw is the new, state-of-the-art Yamaha CFX concert grand piano that artists can’t wait to get their fingers on, and part of it is the beauty of the Peace United Church, where the series is generally held.

“It just seems to fall into place every year with better and better performers,” he says. “I’m called by some of the world’s finest musicians who want to play in our series, and who want to play on our piano, which is one of the finest in the world.”

For Orlando, highpoints of the last 30 years include one of the very first concerts, a collaboration between classical guitarist Benjamin Verdery and local composer Fred Squatrito, who created a special piece inspired by San Juan Bautista and the indigenous people of the area. Historian Sandy Lydon was on hand to talk about the local history. The event was confirmation for Orlando that the series had great potential.

“We had a marvelous converging of these different elements,” Orlando says. “It was such a success, and so well received. I think that’s what launched our commitment to having a series of concerts on a regular basis.”

Over the years, the series has played host to Chamber Orchestra Kremlin with pianist Sara Buechner, in what Orlando calls one of the most exquisite performances that has ever been presented in Santa Cruz, as well as several Van Cliburn Piano Competition winners, including Benedetto Lupo from Italy. Yevgeny Sudbin, who is considered one of the greatest pianists of the 21st century, gave the inaugural performance on the CFX, and commented on what a superb instrument it is. “And he plays in the finest concert halls in the world,” says Orlando.

Along with the many highpoints of the series, there were low points as well when Orlando questioned whether he could keep it going. Once there were even employees that were siphoning funds from the series, giving rise to legal action. In the end, the funds were replaced, and the series survived.

“We’ve had our ups and downs,” says Orlando, “but we’re getting more and more support from generous people in the community, and the arts council.” He believes the quality of the artists in the series is the highest it has ever been, and that artists are willing to work with the festival on affordable fees because they want to be part of it.

For the 30th anniversary, Orlando has created a full program of concerts including a collaboration between Santa Cruz County Poet Laureate Ellen Bass and Ukrainian pianist Inna Faliks in the spring.

On Sunday, Oct. 26, Orlando performs with the Ives Quartet. The piece they’re performing is “Piano Quintet, Op. 38” by Arthur Foote, an American contemporary of Brahms and Schumann. Orlando describes the piece as both beautiful and formidable, and says that it’s exciting to play a masterwork that is almost unknown.

Also on the program are two pieces by 20th century composers: “Three Rags for String Quartet” by William Bolcom and “String Quartet No.9” by Quincy Porter. Just in time for Halloween, Bolcom’s rags are titled “Poltergeist,” “Graceful Ghost” and “Incineratorag.”

With a reputation for spotting emerging talent, Orlando has devoted countless hours to the series, and calls the experience a “wonderfully fulfilling endeavor.” He is most satisfied, however, with the fact that he has been able to share music with an appreciative local audience.

“Without the audience,” he says, “we wouldn’t exist.”

John Orlando will perform with the Ives Quartet at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 26, at Peace United Church, 900 High St., Santa Cruz. $30. 539-0000.

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