OAKLAND -- Oakland Community Orchestra conductor Gil Gleason wasn't letting anything slip by at a recent Friday morning rehearsal at Leona Lodge.
"It's a relaxed and recreational atmosphere, but I remind people that when we play, people are going to be listening to us," said Gleason, who has been conducting the orchestra for the past 50 years.
"He expects good music out of us," said Gleason's wife, Karen, who plays violin.
Gleason took over OCO, which is funded by the Oakland Department of Parks and Recreation, in 1964. At the time, there were about a dozen instrumentalists -- today, the orchestra has 46 regular players who faithfully show up for Friday morning rehearsals. The orchestra also performs in the spring at retirement centers and in the fall at Oakland elementary schools.
"When I took over the orchestra, I'd never held a baton in my life," said Gleason, 81, who was a professional violinist with the Oakland Symphony for 35 years before retiring in 1999.
"Madi Bacon, who was the conductor of the San Francisco Boys Chorus for many years, gave me a bloated recommendation, and I fibbed a bit about my conducting experience."
A public performance and reception will be held at 1 p.m. May 9 at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts in Oakland to celebrate the orchestra's 50th anniversary under Gleason's baton. Gleason was born in New Jersey and came to California in 1960.
He began playing the violin when he was 8 years old, but didn't turn professional until he was 31.
"I had no intention of being a professional musician, but I came to it because of my God-given talent and the encouragement of family and friends," said Gleason, who earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1958 from Oberlin College in Ohio.
He said before he joined the Oakland Symphony, he was living "hand-to-mouth," making money from playing bridge and giving tennis and violin lessons.
In 1966, Oakland Parks and Recreation asked Gleason to form a second orchestra that would rehearse in the evenings, as working people couldn't make it to the Friday morning rehearsals.
The evening orchestra lasted for about seven years before it was dissolved because of conflicts with Gleason's symphony schedule.
Karen Gleason recalled clearly that the evening orchestra's first concert took place on April 1, 1966, at the Kaiser Center.
"I know the date because that was the night that Gil proposed to me," said Karen Gleason. The couple married in the fall of that year. They have three children and five grandchildren.
OCO is a nonaudition orchestra, meaning anyone can join. "Anyone can join who doesn't make a mess of things," joked Gleason, who said he's got some "rough edges" and has ruffled a number of feathers over the years.
Karen Gleason said OCO is important to a lot of people in different ways. She said one elderly member told her it was his reason for living -- the thing that kept him going.
Florence Wong, who plays cello, joined OCO a couple of months ago.
"I'm a pianist, but I wanted to play orchestral music, so I started learning the cello more than a year ago," Wong said.
"I love the music and the people -- Gil is wonderful and has a great sense of humor.
Although I'm new, I feel welcome and not intimidated. The key is to do what you can -- and don't do what you can't."
Betty Deruysscher has played the upright bass in the orchestra since her retirement 14 years ago.
"We try to make it work, sometimes we're not all together and sometimes we're pretty good," said Deruysscher, who enjoys the children's reactions when they play at local schools. "The kids are so enthusiastic -- at Christmastime, they'll sing along to 'Jingle Bells' and sometimes send us thank-you letters."
"A couple of violinists reached their 100th birthday with us," Gleason said. "Concert mistress Priscilla Magee, who plays violin, and first clarinetist Phil Stephens are both in their 90s."
Gleason also earns a bit of money by "strolling" with his violin at local retirement and assisted living centers. That money goes directly to a nonprofit called the Friends of Ruwenzori Foundation, which he and his wife began in 2004 to combat HIV/AIDS in Uganda.
"To know Gil Gleason is to know a passion for music, generosity and a heart that seeks to bring a better life to people near and far," said OCO member Bennett Price.