IT TAKES about eighty minutes to drive from Cupertino, where John Anderson was born, to Monterey, where he works. Easy, right? But John’s path to Monterey was vastly longer and more convoluted.
Music is his life—as it is with his wife Cheryl, both teachers and performers. He was the only child to a couple who were not musical, “not in the slightest,” he says. His parents met during the war when his father was a shipyard welder and his mother an assistant tasked with tempering the welds with water. (After the war, he went into the grocery business while she remained a homemaker.)
Anderson was hired to teach music at Monterey Peninsula College in 1989. At the time, he was a sabbatical replacement at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and shopping for a permanent position. Cheryl was teaching choral music at Atascadero Junior High School. “For a couple in music the hardest is to find jobs in the same place,” he says.
Once settled in at MPC, “things were coming along all right, but they weren’t gratifying my appetite to perform. Because of the strike or lockout that resulted from an earlier conflict between the Monterey Symphony, and a newly competing orchestra, several local musicians were left with nothing to do. So I got together with John and Jane Orzel and we organized a performance of Mozart’s Gran Partita for large wind band. Everyone we asked said yes. That first time was so much fun, we decided to do another, and the foundation for Ensemble Monterey was laid. And it morphed into what it is today, really out of the enthusiasm of the musicians themselves.” (At that same moment, Cheryl Anderson secured her choral position at Cabrillo College; the couple now make their home in rural Watsonville.)
Anderson attributes his career in music to “really good teachers.” In the third grade, a violinist came to class and invited the students to meet her in the gym. “There, she asked me what instrument I would like to play. I said bagpipes. She agreed and said that the bagpipes were already ordered, but while I waited for them I needed to play flute.” Soon, the flute took center stage and he has spent much of his musical career playing it. “My high school music teacher would teach all day then, at night, give private lessons to everyone for free. I fell in love with performing.” He continued his studies under a scholarship at UC Los Angeles where he took his BA. “My flute teacher there, George Drexler, was a stickler on rhythm.” Anderson studied conducting with Clarence Sawhill and sang in the opera workshop with Jan Popper. He began his masters-degree studies there, then went into the Army as a second lieutenant at the Armed Forces School of Music at Norfolk. (He had prepared for this move in the ROTC.) “Discipline and training were rigorous.” While there, he met Cheryl who was teaching in elementary school.
“When I got out of the Army, in 1975, Cheryl and I got engaged.” They lived in the Los Angeles suburb of Reseda. “I finished my masters, and we both got public school, junior high teaching jobs in the inner city.” He taught in East LA, “on the border between the barrio and the ghetto,” he says. She taught at Pasteur Junior High.
In 1977, with the help of his teachers, Anderson was accepted into the doctorate program in conducting, at Greeley, Colorado. “They really stressed performance and playing and I did a lot of flute and conducting.” In 1980, “I got my first college job at Lexington, Kentucky, at Transylvania University, a small liberal arts college. It took some getting used to because initially they couldn’t understand me and I couldn’t understand them,” he says. “But we got along fine.” He remained there for five years, conducting and teaching theory and music history. That was followed by three years at Indiana State University, Terre Haute. “Cheryl was doing course work in Cincinnati and was called out twice for sabbatical replacement work at Colorado State College and at the University of Northern Colorado. We traded weekends getting together, one on the plane one week, the other on the next.”
Then came San Luis Obispo and finally MPC, where, for the past 16 years, he has also served as chair of the Division of Creative Arts. “Now we have a flourishing orchestra and concert band, plus the jazz band. For a small school, I think we do a good job serving the community.”
In reflecting back on twenty-five years of Ensemble Monterey, Anderson began by commenting on “the ineffable spirit of the group, which I hope is still somewhat playfully unconventional.” In an early season, they did an organ and brass concert at Carmel Mission. “I have a memory of then-principal trumpet Charles Old walking back from the organ position after playing the Purcell Trumpet Tune and Aire. It was dead-on perfect! As he was returning to his orchestra seat, to a standing ovation, he had a look of satisfaction on his face. I knew then that we were on to something.”
Anderson also recalls a time when the lights went out in the MPC Music Hall. “We were doing a Mendelssohn string symphony that night. Suddenly we were in total darkness. We kept on playing for a few bars but then had to stop. After a few moments I noticed that many, if not most of the audience had turned on their flashlights. Obviously they had them in order to find their way to their front doors in Carmel, which has no street lights. I asked them to come down and surround us, which they did. We completed the concert with our illuminated audience. Everyone who was there still remembers it vividly!”
And he has “fond” memories of JS Bach’s B-Minor Mass in Santa Cruz with Ensemble Monterey and Cheryl’s Cantiamo! Chorus. “As we reached the intermission the audience leapt to their feet in a prolonged standing ovation. I took a bow and went off stage, but they continued for a good five minutes. But it was only the intermission! The reason, of course, was not me or the performance, although I thought it was quite good. The reason, as always, was Bach. Great music always wins!
Our interview gave Anderson pause to think back over his entire career, which included several summers as principal flute at the Breckenridge Music Festival in Colorado during the early and middle 1980s. “My last, and related, recollection is of my beloved conducting teacher Clarence Sawhill, and his final lesson. ‘You will have great power,’ he told us, ‘but never think for a second that it comes from you!’ We have revered the music ever since.”