Excerpt from “Calvin Simmons: Arts Heroes of Black History” by Joshua Kosman
Even in the world of classical music, where brilliant prodigies show up now and again, Calvin Simmons stood out. A gifted pianist and an even more resourceful conductor, he seemed to be in touch with his own musical genius from an early age. His passion for music was intense, his tastes diverse and far-reaching. As a protege of Kurt Herbert Adler, the San Francisco Opera's fierce general director, he was a fixture at the company throughout the 1970s - coaching singers, accompanying rehearsals and charming everyone in sight with his exuberance and wicked sense of humor.
In 1979, at the improbable age of 29, he was named music director of the Oakland Symphony, becoming the first African American to lead a major U.S. orchestra. And just three years later he was dead, the victim of a freak canoeing accident in upstate New York.” If there were ever a conductor here marked for success," Chronicle Music Critic Robert Commanday wrote in his obituary, "it was Calvin Simmons.” A San Francisco native, Simmons graduated from Balboa High School and received his earliest musical training here in the Bay Area.
He sang with the San Francisco Boys Choir - primarily, he said later, because it gave him an extra opportunity to play the piano. But he also took up conducting under the tutelage of the group's founding director, Madi Bacon, and that inspired him to explore new musical directions.