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Open Ears: The Groundbreaking, All-Too-Brief Life of Calvin Simmons

About Open Ears: So many people who made invaluable contributions to classical music were underappreciated in their time, or have been nearly lost to history. That’s why KDFC is starting Open Ears, a series of stories about composers, musicians, and conductors who deserve more recognition. You can learn more and explore other articles here.

A ghostly image of a tuxedo-clad Calvin Simmons resides under the freeway at the intersection of Grand Avenue and the 580 Freeway in Oakland. His portrait in a rapidly fading mural is one of only a few reminders in Oakland of this incredibly gifted and exceptional man. Simmons was born in San Francisco in 1950 to a musical mother who enrolled him in the SF Boys Chorus. He became the first African American to lead a major American orchestra when he was named music director of the Oakland Symphony in 1979. He was 28 years old. His tenure ended tragically when he died in a boating accident in 1982. In his short life, he frequently guest-conducted orchestras across the country and around the world, including the LA Philharmonic. He made his podium debut at the Metropolitan Opera in performances of Hansel and Gretel in 1978. At the time of his death, he was scheduled to conduct Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte with New York City Opera. With Oakland’s Calvin Simmons Theatre shuttered now for years, his legacy is in danger of going the way of that fading mural.

President and General Manager of the Oakland Symphony, Harold Lawrence, with Calvin Simmons | Photo by Mary Morris Lawrence

Explore the incredible story of Calvin Simmons here and see him in action coaching opera singers in some ancient videos.

Written by:
Dianne Nicolini
Dianne Nicolini
Published on 06.18.2020