Jerry Kessler may have missed his calling. When I told him he could have been a comedian, he quipped, “I’ve never done stand up, but I’ve done a lot of sit down.” Instead, he entertains an audience with melodic cello notes paired with brass, woodwinds, and other stringed instruments. A lawyer by trade, Jerry equally identifies as the conductor and director of the Topanga Symphony Orchestra (TSO), a post he has held since TSO debuted in 1982.
TSO traces back to Gretel Stanley, professional flutist. She lived in Topanga 41 years ago, and by chance made the acquaintance of Jerry Kessler, who was conducting the Hollywood Chamber Orchestra at the time. Jerry brought Gretel in as a substitute soloist, and that began a long and fruitful friendship—and planted the seed that would soon grow into the TSO. During rehearsals, Gretel talked of Roger Bobo, a tuba player for the LA Philharmonic who also happened to be the director of the Topanga Philharmonic. At the time, the orchestra performed but once a year, a benefit concert for the now defunct community center preschool. It was proposed that Jerry helm a new and separate orchestra to be able to offer additional shows throughout the year; the rest is, as they say, history.
Today, the community based orchestra provides a remarkable opportunity for aspiring and experienced musicians to work together, as well as offering canyon residents and guests exceptional entertainment.
The TSO has been performing non-stop since its inception. Says Jerry, “We have not been stopped by fires, earthquakes, riots, or floods.” He backtracks to mention only one time when power was lost due to flooding, and a concert did indeed have to be canceled. Covid slowed them down, but orchestra members persevered with some audience restrictions. The Topanga Community Center is TSO’s home, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“My cello hasn’t been outdoors since it was a tree,” Jerry informs me.
He prefers an indoor location for performances, adding, “Brass works outside, but woodwinds’ sound dissipates, and unless you have a very well built shell the sound goes up into the trees.” Due to space limitations on stage, the TSO is a smaller ensemble of roughly 45 people depending on any given piece and its instrumentation. The musicians play standard symphonic pieces and additionally feature works by, as Jerry deftly puts it, living composers. Bill Marks, Harpo’s eldest son, for example, has written works performed by the TSO. Jerry has even commissioned work. He tells me how Thomas Pasatieri, an American opera composer, wrote a piano concerto that premiered in Topanga before being performed around the world.
If you are a music aficionado, you don’t have to travel far: the TSO performs three to four times a year in our own backyard. Concerts are always free, and well behaved children are welcome.
It is the little ones Jerry hopes to inspire, for his love of music began at the age of 7, when he started cello lessons. By age 13, he began learning to conduct. A highlight of his early musical career came in 1962, when as a cellist and charter member of Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra, Jerry played Carnegie Hall. He still remembers a piece of advice given to him by his one time teacher, Pierre Monteux, conductor of the San Francisco and Boston symphony orchestras, and late—in his 90s—conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra: “The conductor is there to help the orchestra.”
When I asked Jerry about his own leadership style, and how it has evolved through the years, he summarized, “How do you carve an elephant out of a bar of soap? You cut away the parts that don’t look like an elephant.”
Being a conductor means being able to communicate to a group, and to edit where necessary. Being a director? That requires a certain amount of administration and handling numbers, namely, the money and the people. Jerry is the final word as far as selection of pieces and of orchestra members, and he makes sure he works within the board’s budget. The people are what keep him coming back.
“We have members coming from as far away as Anaheim and Santa Barbara,” Jerry says as he launches into a story. “Martin Kamen was a violist and internationally famous biochemist; he would come down from Montecito, stay with me and my wife, and play in the orchestra. I once asked him if he needed the sheet music for Brahms’ Third Symphony, which we were rehearsing. You know what he told me?” Jerry continued, “I played it in 1935, what the hell do I need the music for?”
Kamen not only had an encyclopedic knowledge of the classical repertoire, he co-discovered the isotope carbon-14, the basis of carbon dating. The year was 1940.
Jerry tells me there are a great many generations playing side by side in the TSO. In fact, his own daughters have performed: Jennifer Kessler on french horn, and Amy Neyer on flute. The musicians are the heart of the symphony, and the camaraderie between the members is evident as they coalesce the sounds of their individual instruments to create something new.
What would he tell those who have never properly heard classical music?
“Come”, says Jerry, “If in doubt, sit near the door. If you like it, come hear us again. The symphony is a great place to be introduced to some of my best friends.”
He is referring to Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, and Tchaikovsky.
The Topanga Symphony Orchestra will be performing on October 29, at 3 p.m. The afternoon will feature a contemporary piece by William Foster McDaniel, “The Jericho Overture,” Schumann’s “Overture Scherzo and Finale,” and after intermission, Beethoven’s “Violin Concerto” featuring soloist Ken Aiso.
Some say classical music attunes you to the voice of your own soul, if you get still and listen. “Just listen” is the same advice Jerry would give to new musicians. “Listen to as much music as you can, and not just of your own instrument or favorite genre,” he says, adding, “If you want to play, listen first, then practice.”
All TSO shows are free, but the costs associated with performing need to be covered somehow. The TSO board of directors, currently presided over by Jeanne Mitchell, is the business backbone of the orchestra. Jerry humbly praises them for the work they do to keep the TSO running smoothly. They raise both funds and consciousness, and they welcome assistance. To learn more, or volunteer time, energy, or financial resources, visit www.topangasymphony.com