The half-century mark is proving to be a crossroads for the Camellia Symphony.
And in choosing Christian Baldini recently as its new music director, the venerable Sacramento orchestra is heading down the road toward the young and the new.
For the Camellia, it is a bold move that is sure to energize the volunteer orchestra. Baldini, 34, has already gained a loyal following among fans and musicians for the work he has done as music director of the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra a post he will continue to hold.
In September, Baldini takes over the 75-member Camellia Symphony from outgoing music director Allan Pollack, who led the orchestra the past seven years. For the 2012-13 season, the orchestra also will introduce a new concertmaster and a new venue to its loyal fan base.
The orchestra has signed Baldini to a one-year contract, but their hope is that he will stay for several years, said Walter Johnson, principal trombone player with the orchestra and one of four members of the music director search committee.
"We wanted to make a statement by choosing someone that is forward-looking and dynamic, but at the same time has a commitment to the region," said Johnson.
Pollack, who was well-liked by Camellia musicians, told the orchestra he was leaving earlier this year. Pollack, the music director of the Mendocino Music Festival, said he wants to concentrate his conducting duties closer to Berkeley and Mendocino, where he has homes.
The orchestra publicized the part-time conducting position earlier this year. Many applied, some from as far afield as South Korea. Despite the large talent pool, the orchestra grew keen on the idea of choosing someone close to home who would be committed to keeping a local presence.
"We were concerned with Alan's commitments that there were opportunities missing in having an active presence with the community, the board and financial development activities," said Johnson.
"We felt that Christian offered a nice combination of someone that was inspired and has a forward-looking outlook and we were confident that Christian would be engaged in the community for a number of years."
The news that Baldini was coming on board at Camellia was well received by some musicians, including Melissa Lyans, a violist with the orchestra. Lyans has performed with the UC Davis Symphony since 1999 and the Camellia since 2007.
"I was thinking of not returning to the Camellia this year, but when I heard Christian was coming I changed my mind," said Lyans. "He knows his stuff. He's really personable and he makes an effort to connect with every musician, and he makes the same connection with the audience."
The Argentine-born Baldini studied conducting and composition at Argentina's Catholic University, where he later founded an orchestra and a chamber ensemble.
In 2003, Baldini moved to the United States to earn his master's degree in orchestral conducting at Penn State. Along the way, he earned several awards for conducting and compositions, including winning the 2006 Sao Paulo Orchestra International Conducting competition.
Baldini has conducted the UC Davis Symphony since 2009 and has brought a fresh approach to programming there. He is not shy about bringing in masterworks from Latin American composers. In the orchestra's 2009-10 season Baldini put Piazzolla's "Oblivion" on a concert program and added Ginastera's "Estancia" at a subsequent concert. Both composers are Argentines.
"I have a lot of energy and a lot of desire to make music and share it with more people, so this was just a perfect fit for me," said Baldini via phone from England, where he is visiting this summer. "One of the things I found interesting about Camellia is that they pride themselves on performing new repertoire."
Camellia has a history of performing and also commissioning new works, especially during conductor Nan Washburn's tenure with Camellia from 1990 to 1996.
During Pollack's tenure, the focus shifted from programming new music to performing and mastering the warhorse works of the classical repertoire and pairing those works in crossover programs that included jazz or blues.
Baldini said the Camellia's outreach programs appealed to his idea of what an orchestra can do in the community, especially regarding its junior orchestra.
"After every concert they do a free family concert, and that community service aspect is something a lot of orchestras do not offer. I've been trying to do something like this at UC Davis, but it is not easy there because you're performing at a concert hall that is so expensive and you run up against some budget concerns."
Baldini was also emboldened to take the music director position when he saw the orchestra was to perform an all-American music program including Charles Ives' Second Symphony for 2012-13.
"Ives is one of my models as a composer who thought out of the box and was not concerned about being published or being performed," Baldini said. "He was just following his own voice and that's something I respect a lot."
The orchestra will have a new concertmaster this year Dagenais Smiley, who takes over for former Camellia concertmaster Nicole Makram. Baldini and Smiley will be introduced to Camellia fans when the season opens Sept. 15, with Smiley performing Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1.
In 2012-13 the orchestra will perform all of its concerts in the recently refurbished concert hall at Sacramento City College.
That 620-seat venue, known as the SCC Performing Arts Center, recently received a $13 million face-lift.
The art deco theater reopened to little fanfare in the spring. Its remodeling transformed it into a multifaceted performing arts center whose features include a full audio and lighting system, a large stage that can accommodate a full orchestra and variable acoustics for high-fidelity sound for live performances and recording.
The Camellia has spent many years looking for an adequate performance space.
"We looked at that venue eight years ago when it was in desperate need of a face-lift and had to take a pass," said Roberta McClellan, executive director with Camellia. "Timing is everything."
The timing of performing in a new venue with a new music director will likely prove key to the Camellia's plans on keeping its fan base while building on a new one. The new theater is expected to offer much better acoustics for orchestral music than Sacramento's Memorial Auditorium, the hall that served as the Camellia's home for many years, and one with notoriously subpar acoustics for orchestral music.