Maestro Victor Vener is frustrated.

Born and raised in Pasadena, as were his parents and children, the 60-year-old Vener has led the California Philharmonic Orchestra since he created it 10 years ago. It is truly a “family affair,” as his son, Andre C. Vener, is president and CEO, and his daughter, Sabine, plays violin in the orchestra.

Still, he can’t understand why Cal Phil always seems to get second- or third-place treatment after the Pasadena Symphony, led by Jorge Mester, and the Pasadena POPS orchestra, headed by Rachael Worby.

Because Cal Phil performs at the LA County Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, Vener believes they are not understood as a Pasadena organization — by both the community and the press.

He’s hoping all that will change with their second season of the “Ambassador Series”: 10 concerts that began on Oct. 29 and will continue through April 29 at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena. Vener moved his orchestra there last year after waiting six years for the venue to reopen.

At 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Cal Phil is set to perform its Holiday Spectacular with well-known songs from “Hänsel & Gretel” and “The Nutcracker” as well as “The Festive Sounds of Chanukah” and a sing-along with the Hallelujah Chorus.

PW: How did Cal Phil begin?

Victor Vener: Cal Phil was conceived in Pasadena by me with Pasadena residents as the first board of directors and organizers. And then we happened to go to the Arboretum. We had our offices in Pasadena for three years, at Marengo and Colorado. Then we were offered a better deal in San Marino. … We actually have the most professional performances of any Pasadena art group, but people in Pasadena don’t realize we are a Pasadena arts group. Because we are not called “the Pasadena something” and our business office is not in Pasadena, they don’t think we are a part of Pasadena. Half of the board, the music director, artistic administrator, director of development, everybody is from Pasadena on the team, but when we talk to people, they refer to us as “that group from Arcadia.” So I would appreciate it if you could get the word out that Cal Phil is Pasadena! And I founded the Pasadena POPS! So the whole thing is rather silly, but it’s very political and very gossipy. There is all this memorabilia that says “Victor Vener, Founder of the Pasadena POPS.” But when you go to their Web site, my name is not on it. That’s rewriting history.

How did Cal Phil become involved with the Ambassador?

We knew that if we were going to have a successful series in Pasadena, it needed to be in this location. … The Pasadena Civic was too big. So, even if you have a sellout at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and move all those bodies into the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, it would be 30 percent empty. … [We want] to get the excitement of a full house. … We want the common person to experience it, but we want them to experience it first-class. We want to serve the poor man on the street a steak; we don’t want to serve the rich guy a hot dog. So that’s our mental idea of really great music and well-done concerts. And [the Ambassador] is the best place. There wasn’t another place at that time, in our minds, in Pasadena that would work.  

Are you originally from Pasadena?

I was born at the Huntington Hospital in 1945, educated at Arroyo Seco Elementary, McKinley Junior High, Pasadena High and USC. I even marched in the Tournament of Roses Marching Band as a high school student. I am total Pasadena. So are my mother and father. I am a second-generation Pasadena guy.  Total native. Except for when I briefly lived in Europe, Texas and Canada, I’ve always lived in Pasadena — never Arcadia or San Marino. Here’s another thing people don’t know… I grew up on 785 S. Orange Grove Blvd. … My paper route went from Grand Avenue to Green Street. My entire pre-teen and teen years were spent playing on these streets.

At one of your previous concerts, you mentioned your late brother, Tom, who was handicapped and was the great inspiration for you to go into music.

We were good citizens and went to the Pasadena Public Library. They had a listening room with LPs and they would give you a headset. You would sit down at the turntables. Tom would show me all of these record jackets, telling me I gotta listen to this one and that one. So it’s a real Pasadena thing for me. My education, and half the time I was going to USC, I was living here and commuting. So Pasadena is really my place. I just wish we could get some advocacy for Cal Phil.

How can you do a better job of getting Cal Phil’s message out there?

There are two issues here. The auditorium really needs PR, in my opinion, because back when Herbert Armstrong built this thing, money was no object. … Everything was first-class, world-class people, including Frank Sinatra, Pavarotti, Pearl Bailey. And they spent vast amounts of money on public relations, articles, magazines, newspapers and getting people to understand what it was. And that’s part of the problem now that [Ambassador owners] Harvest Rock [Church] and Cal Phil do not have the economic engine to do the kind of reopening that was done for the opening. You have to get people of a certain age that actually experienced it, that have not moved away or passed on. People either move out of the area, change their lifestyles or die. It’s just so important to get this across. … I have musicians who will swear up and down the Ambassador is the best place they have played. They have said that their experience is that the Ambassador is acoustically superior to Walt Disney: warmer in sound, easier to hear, a better artistic experience. Now there are others that say Walt Disney is the cat’s meow. And they are really quite different. For me, it’s very warm stew, the tones blend , very warm and intimate, and Disney Hall is like a great soup. You can see more clearly and taste more clearly what you are eating. And it tastes real yummy. And it really isn’t a stew, it’s a soup, but made from the same materials. It’s just how it is cooked and how the flavors develop together.

What are Cal Phil and the Ambassador’s goals?

The idea of doing good, whether it’s for the victims of a disaster, or spreading spiritual beliefs, or taking a beautiful temple like this and allowing everybody of every persuasion to come and experience it in a non-threatening, artistic way. That’s a real gift that the church is giving the community, and for Cal Phil to take the risk to pay for. And to promote it is also a gift to the community. We would like the community to understand that it is here for them and they
really ought to experience it. This is truly historical. It’s not a hundred-year-old building, but it’s a historical part of the city of Pasadena artistically. So that is part of our mission. We have been able to work with Harvest Rock, to preserve and keep this place going. They are doing it in a spiritual way and we are doing it in a community service/performance way, but we are both reaching the public through this facility. 


The Holiday Spectacular is at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Ambassador Auditorium, 131 S. St. John Ave., Pasadena. For more information and a schedule of concerts, call Cal Phil at (626) 300-8200 or visit www.calphil.org.