In Memory: Thomas Nee established symphony’s stature

Thomas Nee, who came to the UC San Diego Music Department in 1967 and almost immediately became artistic director and conductor of the La Jolla Symphony, which grew into the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus, died July 7 in Carlsbad. He was 87.

Nee grew the Symphony and Chorus into one of San Diego’s premiere musical institutions. He also was credited with helping to turn the UCSD Music Department into an innovative and prestigious center of musical learning.

Nee’s direction of the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus drew praise for its combination of works from the traditional repertoire with works from new composers, some of them very young.

According to a memorial posted at the UCSD Music Department Web site, Nee, along with founding faculty Will Ogdon and Robert Erickson, was mentored by composer Ernst Krenek at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minn. Nee advocated Krenek’s free approach to music and education.

The La Jolla Symphony and Chorus later premiered some of Krenek’s works.

“That trio created a regional movement in contemporary American music at UCSD that was highly spiritual,” said Cecil Lytle, pianist and emeritus music faculty in her online comments. “Tom believed in learning by making music. For him, music was never a theoretical or historical exercise, but these elements were ensconced in how he conducted a piece, how he asked a horn section to play a passage.”

The Tom Nee Commission was created in his honor and is awarded each year to a graduate-level composer whose new piece is performed each spring by La Jolla Symphony and Chorus.

Nee retired from UCSD in 1991.

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 master’s degree from Hamline.

Nee spent one year as a Fulbright Scholar in Vienna, where he studied conducting with Hans Swarowsky. He also studied at Black Mountain College in North Carolina with composer Stefan Wolpe; in Zurich with conductor Hermann Scherchen and at Tanglewood music center in Massachusetts with conductor Robert Shaw.

Nee was music director of the Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis from 1953 to 1967. He also directed the Minnesota Opera from 1963 to 1967 and was music director of the New Hampshire Music Festival from 1960 until 1992.

Nee chaired the department of music at UCSD from 1971 to 1974.

“Tom Nee guided and developed the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus from a small civic group to a full symphony orchestra and chorus that is dedicated to championing contemporary music and placing it in its rightful position alongside the classics of the symphonic and choral repertoire,” said Steven Schick on the Music Department memorial page. Schick was named artistic director of the symphony last year. “In the process he inspired fierce loyalty among the musicians and developed an informed and adventurous audience. The symphony stands on Tom Nee’s shoulders. None of what we have accomplished and hope to accomplish in the future would be thinkable without Tom’s leadership and artistry.”

A memorial service will be held this fall at the UCSD music department.

Donations to the Thomas Nee Commission may be sent to 9500 Gilman Drive, UCSD 0361, La Jolla, CA 92093-0361.