La Jolla, Calif. (July 14, 2008) — Thomas Nee, who led the La Jolla Symphony for 31 seasons and in that time transformed the orchestra from a modest community ensemble into a semi-professional orchestra , died July 7, in Encinitas, Calif., after a brief illness. He was 87.
Born in Evanston, Ill. on October 25, 1920, Nee graduated from the University of Minnesota and, following service in the Merchant Marine during World War II, received his masters degree from Hamline University. He studied with composer Ernst Krenek in Minneapolis and spent one year as a Fulbright Scholar in Vienna, where he studied conducting with Hans Swarowsky. He also studied at Black Mountain College with composer Stefan Wolpe, in Zurich with conductor Hermann Scherchen, and at Tanglewood with conductor Robert Shaw.
Returning from Europe, Nee made his career at first in Minneapolis. He was music director of the Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis (1953-67), director and co-founder of the Minnesota Opera (1963-67), and assistant conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra under Antal Dorati (1959-60). He was also music director of the New Hampshire Music Festival from 1960 until 1992.
In 1967 Nee moved to San Diego to become one of the original members of the music department at the newly-founded University of California, San Diego. At that time he took over the small La Jolla Civic Orchestra, and over the next three decades he transformed that orchestra, now named the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra, into an ensemble of nearly one hundred members that draws its performers from throughout San Diego County. During his tenure with the orchestra, Nee led premieres of music by Robert Erickson, Eric Stokes, Henry Brant, Pauline Oliveros, and many others, made recordings, led televised performances, and conducted the orchestra in concert series in Oceanside and Tijuana.
A challenging and exciting conductor, Nee inspired fierce loyalty from his performers, some of whom have been in the orchestra for over forty years. At concerts this last May, the orchestra’s present music director Steven Schick took note of Nee’s central role in the development of the La Jolla Symphony by observing that “We all stand on his shoulders.”
On his retirement from the orchestra in 1998, the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus Association established the Thomas Nee Commission in his honor. This endowment commissions a new work for orchestra each year, which the orchestra performs. In recent years Nee served on the boards of the San Diego Youth Symphony, Musical Merit Foundation, and FAME.
Nee is survived by his wife of 58 years, Mary; three children: Eric, of Palo Alto, Calif., Andrew, of San Diego, and Margarat, of Encinitas; as well as three grandchildren, Alexander, Nadya, and Mischa.
Donations to honor Nee’s memory can be made in three ways: the Thomas Nee Commission (payable to the “Thomas Nee Commission,” La Jolla Symphony & Chorus, 9500 Gilman Dr., UCSD 0361, La Jolla, CA., 92093-0361); the New Hampshire Music Festival (NHMF, 52 Symphony Lane, Center Harbor, NH, 03226); or your favorite music organization.
A memorial service will be held in the fall at UCSD’s music department.