Calvin Simmons, one of the first African Americans to lead a major symphony orchestra in the United States, was born in 1950 in San Francisco. Simmons joined the San Francisco Boys Chorus and by the time he was 11, and through the encouragement of their director, he was occasionally conducting them. At the age of 22 he became an assistant conductor of the San Francisco Opera, receiving the Kurt Herbert Adler Award. He made his debut with the Metropolitan Opera conducting Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel and was music director of the Ojai Festival in 1978. Simmons was the assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta when he was appointed music director of the Oakland Symphony in 1979.
Simmons was very adept at coaching opera singers. Here are a couple of videos of Simmons coaching singers in a master class setting.
Here is a wonderful video of Simmons brilliantly conducting members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for an hour-long James Galway TV special.
While visiting friends near Lake Placid in 1982, Calvin Simmons drowned in a freak canoeing accident. The news was a devastating to the musical community and his death was reported around the world. Beverly Sills was quoted in the New York Times, ‘’I am absolutely heartbroken at this terrible news. Calvin had so much to offer. I just can’t take it all in.’’
Simmons’ death inspired prominent composers to write works dedicated to him. Lou Harrison composed Elegy, To The Memory Of Calvin Simmons.
The British composer Michael Tippett wrote a sonata for solo guitar, The Blue Guitar.
And John Harbison composed Exequien for Calvin Simmons.