The Marin Music Chest

In 1936, a newly formed group called the Marin Music Chest had approximately 8,500 members. Why would you care to know this? Because in 1936, the county’s population was only 43,503. Which means nearly 20 percent of residents here belonged to that one group. Today, only the Democratic Party attracts a greater share of Marinites. No nonprofit comes close.

Furthermore, in addition to its population, today’s Marin differs significantly from the county of 1936. Back then Highway 101 was a two-lane paved road and the Golden Gate Bridge hadn’t been completed. Getting to San Francisco was quite an endeavor; heading there for an evening concert was more adventure than cultural enrichment. However, a statuesque retired opera singer, then living in Kentfield, worked to change all that.

Seventy-five years ago, Maude Fay Symington—born in San Francisco and famed throughout Europe as a Wagnerian soprano—founded the Marin Music Chest along with other Marin music lovers. “It was an organization that brought world-renowned musicians to Marin County,” says John Rando of Lucas Valley, this year’s president of the organization’s board of directors. Performers included operatic tenor Tito Schipa (in 1934), popular baritone Nelson Eddy (1935), cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (1949) and violinist Isaac Stern (1957).

Rando remembers going door to door with his father soliciting Music Chest memberships. “People were charged what they could afford, whatever they felt membership was worth. It could be a dollar or one hundred dollars; remember, the Great Depression was still not over.”

He recalls membership reaching between eight and nine thousand before it trailed off with the opening of the bridge and the outbreak of World War II. “Once people were members,” Rando adds, “they’d pay just a quarter for concerts at various Marin venues, the most popular being outdoor summer concerts at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre in the San Rafael community of Dominican.”

It was in 1906 that Maude Fay Symington made her European debut as Marguerite in Faust at the Munich Royal Opera; in 1916, she debuted at New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera House.

Soon after leaving the stage, she married naval captain Powers Symington. In 1927 the couple settled in Kentfield (though their home no longer stands, Kentfield does have a Fay Drive). “Aunt Maude was larger than life,” says grandniece Molly Arthur of Tiburon. “I’m proud of her legacy and what it’s meant for music in Marin.”

In addition to arranging concerts, for the past 75 years the Marin Music Chest has been annually offering scholarships to as many as a dozen deserving young local musicians. “Over 50 years ago, I won a $200 scholarship,” says Michael Gerling of San Rafael, “and it definitely encouraged me to pursue a career as a concert violinist.” He was a senior at Tam High School at the time, playing on a violin his father purchased for him at a San Rafael pawn shop.

“I went on to play 44 years with the San Francisco Symphony, as well as stints as a violinist with the Marin Symphony and the San Francisco Opera.” Gerling’s history with the Music Chest is long and varied: in 1951 famed pianist Artur Rubinstein autographed his program after performing at Forest Meadows, and today Gerling serves on the organization’s board of directors.

After 40 years of concerts, the Marin Music Chest made the scholarship program its primary mission. “This year we’ll make 14 awards ranging from $700 to $1,000,” says Rando. “One group of recipients ranges in age from 9 to 13; the other is from 14 to 19.” Besides Gerling, past recipients now on the group’s board include violinists Dan Smiley and Mariko Smiley, both of Mill Valley; bass player Charles Chandler of San Francisco; and cellist Hai-Ye-Ni of Philadelphia.

The Marin Music Chest celebrated its 75th anniversary with performances at the Marin Art & Garden Center in Ross on August 31. Current scholarship winners are available for luncheon and evening appearances; for a booking, call John Rando at 415.479.2314.

CAPTION: Above left: Retired opera singer, Kentfield resident and a Marin Music Chest founder Maude Fay Symington in 1933.
Above right: Internationally known cellist Gregor Piatigorsky surrounded by Marin Music Chest posters for years gone by.