Malibu’s Swift retires-pioneer in symphony scene

James Swift retires as director of the New Valley Symphony Orchestra after 35 years.

Starting out playing music in taverns with his brother, James Swift moved on to conducting through influence of his high school teacher.

By Judy-Anne Goldman/Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu resident James Swift will make his final conducting appearance as music director of the New Valley Symphony Orchestra on Feb. 8. Following the concert, Swift will be saluted at a champagne dinner reception.

From impressed audiences to those who have worked closely with him through the years, Swift’s 35-year impact on the orchestra and the Southern California music community has been enormous.

“We will miss him very much,” said Sarah Fisk, president of the New Valley Symphony Orchestra. “He’s a quintessential musician who is loved and respected by everyone.”

Swift grew up in a musical family in Minnesota. Whether singing, playing the piano or violin, music was an integral part of the Swift household.

“My father played the organ and was a good singer. I took up the study of violin in the third or fourth grade,” Swift said. In high school he began training on the saxophone and trombone. “My brother and I would play in taverns.”

His high school music teacher, Pete Magnel, threw a curve in the musician’s career path. Magnel conducted music-in-the-park concerts and shared the conducting responsibilities with his talented students. Swift filled in for Magnel several times and chose to enter the University of Minnesota’s music program.

The program gave Swift a chance to hear and watch outstanding conductors. His prowess on the trombone and violin also continued to grow. “I played trombone in concert and marching bands,” Swift said. “We played at the Big 10 schools. I got a job with a society band. We played at country clubs, at parties. And I conducted choirs in several churches.”

Constructing a life steeped in music suited Swift. However, with the start of World War II, the musician was given an opportunity to work at Lockheed aircraft in Southern California. During that time he kept a firm grasp on his musical career by taking on an extracurricular conducting job with the San Fernando Valley Symphony Orchestra.

In the early 1970s, Swift helped create the L.A. Solo Repertory Orchestra. “We concentrated on featuring soloists. In the L.A. area there are innumerable fine performers. We had special guests as well as soloists from within the orchestra,” Swift stated.

Swift filled up any free time by participating in the American Symphony Orchestra League and the Association of California Symphony Orchestras, along with his home life in Paradise Cove with his wife and four children.

“It’s interesting that we decided to change the name of the Solo Rep to New Valley. The change was mainly to identify us with the Valley,” Swift said.

Since that time, the New Valley Symphony Orchestra has been dedicated to providing a wide range of symphonic music performed by professional musicians as members and soloists, as well as offering a venue for local composers to perform their works. Concerts take place at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills.

“Our concerts are given absolutely free,” Swift explained. “There’s no reservation needed, plenty of free parking and it’s easy to get to from north or south.”

“Salute to American Composers” will be the theme for the concert on Feb. 8. Swift will conduct Aaron Copeland’s “Lincoln Portrait.” The piece will include a segment narrated by Gail Eichenthal, the “Voice of the Los Angeles Philharmonic” and anchor reporter for radio station KNX 1070.

Other featured selections include George Gershwin’s “Piano Concerto in F Major,” with soloist Dr. Richard Fisk; a Sousa march conducted by Bob Rouse; and the world premiere of orchestra trombonist David Stout’s “Rhythms of the Valley.”

A dinner reception honoring Swift will take place after the concert at a private home in Van Nuys. “It will be a ‘toast or roast,’ ” Fisk said. “It will begin after the concert, about 5 p.m. or 5:30pm. It’s about 15 minutes from Forest Lawn, on the way home to Malibu. The cost is $25, which will include a full dinner of filet mignon, champagne or wine, as well as a contribution for a farewell gift for Jim.”

Although Swift will maintain an advisory role with the symphony, he is looking forward to spending more time relaxing with his family.

“Music is a very rewarding thing for one’s piece of mind,” Swift said. “Looking back on my career, it’s meant a lot of hard work combined with the pleasure of working with many gifted musicians and presenting programs to the audiences.”

The concert begins at 2 p.m., will take place at the Hall of Liberty, Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hill, 6300 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles.

For more information about the February concert and dinner, contact The New Valley Symphony Orchestra at 818.789.5466.