John Orlando

John-OrlandoBy Scott MacClelland

ON THE HEELS of another successful season of Distinguished Artists, founder and artistic director John Orlando was hard at work raising funds for his 2015-2016 season of concerts. He had pinned down valuable donations to produce a fundraising auction. Among the items were an automobile and a piano. “Desperation leads to many interesting developments and talents,” he says wryly.

The desperation is less about raising funds for the next season and more about paying off the remaining mortgage—about half the purchase price of over $100,000—on the Distinguished Artists Yamaha CFX concert grand piano. The piano resides at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz where nearly all of the Distinguished Artists concerts are now performed. “I donated $15,000 myself,” says Orlando.

In fact, he had planned to acquire another Steinway from a dealer in San Jose when he was invited to a Yamaha retailer in Orange County. After 37 years as Cabrillo College’s primary piano instructor, and an even longer career as a concert pianist, he was “blown away” by the CFX and withdrew from the Steinway deal. (Cabrillo College has several fine Steinways.) What struck him—and every other artist who has played on the Yamaha—is the action, which by comparison to most other pianos makes playing almost effortless, and therefore much less fatiguing.

Distinguished Artists Concert and Lecture Series began as a project at Cabrillo College. “Several artists and friends approached me with the idea,” Orlando explains. “One of the first events was a lecture by [retired history lecturer] Sandy Lydon on indigenous peoples of this area.” Composer Fred Squatrito, another faculty member, wrote a guitar solo “dedicated to the memory of people from the San Juan Bautista area, which was played by Benjamin Verdery.” That was in 1985, DACLS’ premiere season. “We’ve put on something every year, a steady parade of stellar artists,” Orlando says. “We had music of all kinds. Now we concentrate mainly on solo piano and some chamber music.”

Orlando was born in San Jose. His father was a farmer, born to an Italian-American family. “My grandmother came from Italy at age 15,” Orlando says. “My father was the youngest of eight. He left the farm and became a barber. Later he had a sporting goods store where the San Jose Hilton Hotel stands today.” When John was nine, the family moved to Gilroy to raise cattle. “It was the most dreary life. We would either run out of water or were flooded. It was one disaster after another. We sold that farm and my father bought an apple farm in Aromas.”

Orlando says both parents loved music, so that calling came to him quite naturally. He was an only child who grew up closer to his mother, Juanita, than his sports-loving father. “Juanita was a runaway born in Oklahoma. Her parents moved to Oregon to escape the dustbowl. They were deeply religious people. Mother was extremely intelligent. She read every book she could get her hands on and committed the Bible to memory. She went to San Jose and met my father at a dance.”

Even as a child, Orlando knew that music would be his life. At age seven, he began to play accordion, then began piano studies in high school. He bought a piano for $50 and practiced on it in back of his father’s fruit stand on the old Highway 101, El Camino Real, a few miles north of Gilroy. “Music was all I thought about.” At San Jose State he majored in clarinet, but piano was a requirement. “I enrolled in Beginning Piano, and by the second year I played a Mozart concerto and Stravinsky with the concert band.” For his first solo recitals he played Beethoven’s “Les adieux” Sonata, the Copland sonata and music from Iberia by Albeniz. This rapid progress emboldened Orlando to enter a competition at Villa Montalvo in Saratoga. “I was runner-up.”

After graduating from San Jose State, he went to the University of Southern California where he took a Doctor of Musical Arts in performance, summa cum laude. In 1968, he entered a competition sponsored by the Fresno Philharmonic and won with his performance of Mozart’s Concerto No. 20 in D Minor. He praises John Crown at USC: “He was one of those people who has a magic touch. He brings the music out of you. He had the ability to liberate you at the keyboard.” He also credits the late Dorothy Taubman of New York, the internationally acclaimed Paweł Skrzypek and HélèneWickett of San Mateo, who has appeared in the Distinguished Artists series. “I studied with everybody I could. Now I’m my own teacher.”

He taught piano at USC and Santa Clara University. The year after his win in Fresno, Orlando joined the faculty at Cabrillo College. (He retired in 2006.) In the 1970s, he served on the board of the Cabrillo Festival, which at the time had a close relationship with Cabrillo College. He personally interviewed and recommended music director candidate Dennis Russell Davies. It was during Davies’ tenure, 1974 to 1990, that the festival made major strides toward its present-day identity. “He became a tremendous force in the community,” Orlando says. “My concept was to move the festival away from the college. Davies expanded it throughout the county.” Thanks to the late Manny Santana, several times president of the festival board, that outreach includes Mission San Juan among its performance venues.

As a performer, Orlando recently enjoyed playing the piano quintet by American composer Arthur Foote (1853-1937) with the Ives String Quartet, and will perform it again this fall with the Akademos Quartet in Poland. Next summer he’ll appear at an international piano festival in Viterbo, Italy.

For next season, its 30th, starting in September, the Distinguished Artists series will include piano recitals by Thomas Pandolfi, Alon Goldstein, Claire Huangci, James D’Leon and Misuzu Tanaka, plus chamber music by the Delphi Piano Trio.