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Martinez Music Forum: A Brief History in Grace Notes

Written by Harriet Burt

Longtime resident Dolly Boyer cheerfully reminisced  about her seven decades of life in Martinez about six weeks before her death in August, 2008 at age 93.

 “And on Fridays we’d walk down the street to the Music Forum concerts at the Congregational Church,” she recalled.  To be precise, it was on the second Friday evening of each month that the Boyers and others from Martinez and neighboring communities would gather in the church’s Pilgrim Hall to enjoy live performances of mostly classical music performed by leading professional musicians from Martinez and throughout the Bay Area.

Doris Brill, local violin and piano teacher until her untimely death in 1980, was a good example of the caliber of musician who relished the chance to perform at the Martinez Music Forum.

A graduate of Stanford University who had played in the university orchestra, holder of a Master’s Degree in Music from Mills College and a violinist for many summers at Monterey’s famed Bach Festival, Brill came to Martinez as a kindergarten teacher in the early 1950s.  Married to Martinez schools music teacher, Alex Brill, she developed an active roster of private music students.  As her husband noted, Music Forum was for her a double blessing.  It gave her the opportunity to play in public the chamber music she loved so much as well as a chance to encourage her students to excel and to participate in the annual Music Forum scholarship competition with other students of other teachers.

Carol Baier, a 55 year member of the Forum and one of its current active members agrees that the opportunity for musicians to perform and the chance to encourage young musicians have been the galvanizing purposes of the organization all these many years.  She played the piano and violin in and  organized many concerts over the years.

Martinez Music Forum started out as a music section of the Martinez Woman’s Club possibly as early as 1915. In 1924 according to some records the section evolved into a music club still affiliated with the larger group.  Records are not clear about the activities of the study section but it is known that Harriet Kelly, later administrative assistant to the county’s Chief Probation Officer and a gifted pianist herself, was a member of the group and organized some of the first scholarships for music students for which Music Forum later became known. 

According to Baier, the women met in each other’s homes at first.  Eventually the studies evolved into performances and concerts at which the officers presided attired in long formal dresses.  After the concerts,  tea was served from a silver plated tea service adorning a lace table cloth brought back from China by member Louise Ayer.

In 1932, the section broke off amicably from the Woman’s Club and formed the separate Martinez Music Study Club to learn more about the history of music and the lives of the master composers.  It is not clear in the records when the group’s name changed to Martinez Music Forum and when the books were put away in favor of public concerts featuring professional performers.  But shortly after the end of World War II, the group held a festive “burning” of the mortgage to its very own Steinway grand piano. Pilgrim Hall in the basement of the First Congregational Church at Court and Susana Streets had become the regular venue (for a rent of $5 per month) every second Friday of each month of the year and the Forum had already boasted a choral group which performed at the 1939 World’s Fair at Treasure Island under the direction of Ethel Buxton.

The membership always consisted of energetic music lovers such as Kenneth and Louise Ayer Woodford,  Jack and Ellen Coburn, Ray and

Dorothy Taylor, Margaret Kalsbeek, Elsie Sears, Louise Plantfeber, Lynda Court, Nellie Katharine Seth, Josephine McTaggart, Evelyn Zufall, Nova Walter, Barbara Kamberg, Estelle Waite,  and currently, Virginia George, Jackie Heath, Scott and Holly Parker and Sandra Hall to name a few.

Energetic members such as Helen Cartwright worked during World War II to bring Works Project Administration (WPA) orchestras and choruses to concerts at the Junior High auditorium.  The Diablo Symphony, the Bach Choral Society of San Francisco, music departments of the College of Pacific, San Francisco State and the local community colleges performed for Music Forum as did many other Bay Area musicians of regional and national repute.   In recent years, well-known Bay Area bass John Minagro who took part in the recent Martinez Opera production of Madama Butterfly, has performed at Music Forum.  Past and present local resident musicians such as bagpiper Scott Parker, singer Kathleen Delzell who, also  produced a number of popular Forum shows, Brill, violinist Joseph Micanek, jazz pianist Jack DeGraaf who arranged music for Hank Gallagher’s popular local dance band and many others played for the public through Music Forum.  One of its most popular concerts was presented by Tom Taylor, eldest son of members Wakefield and Carmel Taylor, who played the guitar and sang his own folk compositions. 

But playing and enjoying fine music, however gratifying for performer and audience, always served an ulterior motive for the Forum – to raise funds for scholarships for graduating Alhambra High School students to pursue their music education and for elementary, junior high and high school students to use to defray the cost of music lessons.

For local musician and third generation resident Charlene Marchi the Music Forum scholarship program and the support of Forum members encouraged her to pursue music seriously as a student and professionally because her success in the Music Forum Scholarship competition helped her parents to see that music was her gift and worth supporting.

Marchi remembers as a small child eyeing the piano in her parents’ living room wondering if her mother was right that tunes could be played “by ear.”  Successful at that, she eagerly accompanied a friend to her lesson at local teacher Barbara Kamberg’s home who before long convinced the Marchis to agree to lessons for Charlene. In a few years, she received a coveted invitation from the formidable Harriet Kelly to participate in the Music Forum competition held on a Saturday in May.  Her first attempt, playing “The Flight of the Bumblebee” wasn’t a winner as she couldn’t “stay up to the tempo.”  But in 7th grade she won a scholarship for more lessons and in 9th grade another for her performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C# Minor.”

For Marchi, a graduate of USC’s prestigious music program, a credentialed teacher and a well-known singer, pianist and organist at several churches in the area including St. Catherine’s and Unity Center, Music Forum’s programs to encourage youngsters to pursue music as their career and their bliss truly changed her life.

“It gave you a boost…a feeling of confidence. It inspired us to go on in music.”  And, she points out, the greatest effect of the Music Forum scholarship program was its effect on the musicians’ parents.

Marchi says of her participation and her success, “It helped my parents realize there was something in me that made music so important” that she needed to be encouraged and supported in pursuing it.

As the years passed, the coterie of dedicated music teachers such as Kelly, Kamberg and Brill dwindled to a few such as Carol Baier so the nerve-wracking, inspiring, and for some triumphant scholarship competition followed by the annual concert of scholarship winners at the Junior High auditorium passed into history.  Now the Forum raises funds for school music programs each year principally from its annual holiday concert, A Christmas Gift to the Community, held each December at the Congregational Church featuring church choirs from the community and a number of soloists and local groups such as Spinning Wheel.

Some members such as Virginia George, current president, were themselves winners of the Music Forum Scholarships given to students in each grade level who won the year Forum competition. 

George, one of several children in a musical family and now an attorney affiliated with the John F. Kennedy University Law School, is aware of the changes in how Music Forum supports music education in Martinez from the days of the annual competition to an annual gift to the school district’s music programs. 

“Although the procedures of the Music Forum have changed, the goal is still the same and it’s a very, very important one — that young music students continue to pursue their music education formally or informally.  The vehicle of getting there has changed. However we are still promoting music education to the young people of our community which is vital to them not only as students of music but also as students with a broader educational purpose, ”  says George.

For the better part of eight decades, Martinez Music Forum has brought the sound and the joy of music to the community, a chance to share their gift by dozens of talented professional and amateur musicians playing for the sheer love of it, and a valuable life benefit to generations of local youth. 


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