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Home / Life! / Music / Victor Vener, Cal Phil and Pasadena POPS founder, dies at 78

Victor Vener, Cal Phil and Pasadena POPS founder, dies at 78

by Staff
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Pasadena lost one of its greats on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023, when conductor Victor Vener passed away at the age of 78. 

A Pasadena native, Vener took an entrepreneurial approach to music, founding numerous high-profile musical institutions and concert series throughout the region, including the California Philharmonic, Pasadena POPS, Chamber Orchestra of Pasadena and Burbank Symphony. A pioneer in creating outdoor concerts, Vener established music venues in local destinations including Santa Anita Race Track, The Arboretum, Descanso Gardens, Rose Bowl, Burbank’s Starlight Bowl, Pasadena’s Ritz-Carlton and Hilton Hotels and the steps of Pasadena City Hall. Vener’s efforts brought work to thousands of AFM Local 47 musicians throughout his 50-year career leading ensembles throughout the Southland. His robust organizations involved their communities deeply, bringing together well over 100,000 audience members, 10,000 donors and supporters and thousands of volunteers, as well as community leaders from across the spectrum and family and friends who helped him realize his vision of bringing live performances of great music to a wide audience.

Vener’s most recent orchestra, the California Philharmonic, was the first non-resident ensemble to program subscription series concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall, beginning in 2003. Cal Phil performed there every summer through 2019. Cal Phil also was the first ensemble to program a subscription concert series at the newly reopened Ambassador Auditorium. Other notable locations Cal Phil performed at included the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Pasadena Civic Auditorium.

Thousands of eager music lovers enjoy a picnic concert by Maestro Victor Vener and the California Philharmonic at The Arboretum in Arcadia during the 2007 Cal Phil Festival on the Green season. | Photo courtesy of André Vener

Known for speaking to the audience throughout his concerts, a way of presenting music which he pioneered on the West Coast, Vener attracted thousands of devoted fans who enjoyed his unique mix of classical and popular music. His ensembles were renowned for featuring a wide range of guest artists including classical performing and recording artists, pop sensations and non-musical talent including noted dancers and actors. All of this was in service to his personal mission of including his “Four Essential Elements”—entertainment, enlightenment, education and excitement—in all of his programs. He deftly mixed styles and genres as a way of creating connections across musical boundaries that music lovers from across the spectrum could navigate to broaden their musical horizons. Whether aficionados or novices, everyone was enlightened, educated and informed through Vener’s engaging talks—joyfully learning something new about the music, instruments, composers, musicians and/or featured artists.

Vener traveled the world studying with some of the greatest conductors of all time such as Herbert Von Karajan and other luminaries, and his conducting lineage stems back to legendary conductors Arturo Toscanini and Karl Orff, among others. Vener earned his Doctor of Musical Arts in Conducting from the University of Southern California, the institution where he also earned his bachelor and masters degrees.

Throughout his professional career, Vener, who conducted his first professional performance at 25 years of age, garnered a reputation as a masterful music director, conductor and academic who exuded infectious enthusiasm and wit as he effectively merged entertainment with musical enlightenment. His conducting prowess took him around the globe, leading concerts in Canada, Switzerland, Germany, China and The Netherlands, as well as in Texas and California. Among his many distinctions, Vener was awarded the Fromm Fellowship to Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony, the Gold Medal of Special Merit from the Austrian Federal Capitol of Vienna, the Pasadena Arts Council’s Gold Crown Award, California Arts Council’s Artist-in-Residence for the City of Pasadena, as well as commendations by the U.S. Congress, California’s State Senate and Assembly, City of Vienna, Austria and the County of Los Angeles.

| Photo courtesy of André Vener

Prior to devoting his life to conducting, Vener was a top-tier hornist, performing with orchestras and opera companies in both the US and Europe including serving as founding Principal Horn of Orange County’s Pacific Symphony and Principal Horn stints with the Badische Staatskapelle in Germany, Orchester Musikkollegium Wintertour in Switzerland, the Pasadena Symphony and numerous other orchestras. He was also an in-demand studio musician in the entertainment industry. His playing can be heard on numerous recordings and soundtracks including film and TV scores, most notably on the score to “Rocky.” Maestro Vener was also a lifetime member of Professional Musicians AFM Local 47.

Vener was born to parents Abraham Israel Vener and Dorothy Mepham Vener on June 18, 1945 in Pasadena’s Huntington Hospital. He got his start as a musician as a boy, when his brother Tom Hanafin taught him to play the trumpet. At 13, he took up the horn, his primary instrument, excelling to the point of making the position of Solo Horn for the California All-State Orchestra at age 17. After graduating Pasadena High School as a Bulldog, he entered the University of Southern California in 1963 on a full scholarship, where he earned his Bachelor of Arts in music performance on the horn and music literature. After performing as a hornist in Europe, he returned to USC to earn both a Master of Arts in conducting and opera. With his MA, Vener taught at the college level at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. After his stint teaching, he returned to USC to earn a Doctor of Musical Arts. During his eight years at USC, he marched as a drummer in the USC Trojan Marching Band. 

Victor led a full life outside of music as well. He was both a Life Scout and Sea Scout, following in the footsteps of his brother Tom, who as a disabled person founded handicap scouting programs in the Boy Scouts of America. Vener’s son André continued the family tradition by becoming an Eagle Scout. Vener led an active life as an avid skier who earned medals in his ski club, pursued a highly successful business career in printing for a decade in which he was featured on the cover of Xerox Magazine and was a Rotarian, earning the distinction of Paul Harris Fellow. 

Vener is survived by his wife Patti Carmalt-Vener, son André C. Vener, daughter Sabine Vener, stepsons Zachary Carmalt and David Kessler, daughter-in-law Amanda Vener, son-in-law Randy Banis and grandchildren Ava Vener, Alexa Anassian, Shant Anassian, Jameson Carmalt and Shane Melton.

There will be a grave-side service for Maestro Vener at noon on Wednesday, at Mountain View Cemetery, 2400 N. Fair Oaks Ave, Altadena. Before the service begins, the Cal Phil String Quartet will perform as guests arrive. Music starts at 11:30 a.m. To reach the family, share a favorite photo of the Maestro or send condolences, email maestrovictorvener@gmail.com. To RSVP, visit victorvenermemorial.com.

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