Gordon Getty Receives European Culture Prize at Vienna Gala

Janos Gereben on October 29, 2019
Gordon Getty and Daniel Hope at the Europäisches Kulturforum award event | Credit: Johannes Zinner

Editor’s Note: Gordon Getty is a funder of SFCV.

At a dazzling cultural event on Oct. 20, celebrating the Vienna State Opera’s 150th anniversary, there was some “local news” — local, that is, to San Francisco.

Along with film legend Sophia Loren, soprano Nina Stemme, designer Vivienne Westwood, and baritone Thomas Hampson, San Francisco composer and philanthropist Gordon Getty received a European Culture Prize, presented by another (part-time) "local," New Century Chamber Orchestra Music Director Daniel Hope.

The setting was a gala celebration. The star-studded evening included performances by the Staatsoper Orchestra, conducted by Simone Young, as well as by Hope and Austrian singer-songwriter Ina Regen. The evening also included a surprise appearance by the legendary mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, who presented an award to Nina Stemme.

(The opening of the Staatsoper, on May 25, 1869, with Don Giovanni, was a memorable event, though unfortunately neither of its two great architects attended the gala evening. Eduard van der Nüll killed himself because of the malicious, spiteful criticism the building was receiving from the friendly Viennese. The other, August Siccardsburg, weakened under the constant bombardment, died a few days after van der Null’s funeral.)

Hirschfeld cartoon of Getty at Davies Hall where Getty’s 80th birthday was celebrated in 2014

Berlin resident Hope had an easy hop over to Vienna to present the award to Getty, who made the flight all the way from his San Francisco home.

The European Culture Prize has become one of Europe’s most distinguished awards, acknowledging extraordinary achievements in arts and culture. The award was launched by the European Cultural Forum in 2011.

Hope’s presentation — in the awkward translation from the German, which referred to the speech as an “emotional eulogy” — spoke of Getty as “so sensitive, so devoted, so completely dissolved in sound .... His love is in classical music and, moreover, he has been supporting young artists and cultural institutions worldwide for decades.”

Getty — whose manifold contributions include the creation of SF Classical Voice, with the late editor Robert Commanday, and continued support for this publication — has invested millions of dollars over decades in causes of music education, performance, and facilities. In fact, Festival Napa Valley, long a Getty beneficiary, hosted a trip to the Vienna event, itself a major fundraising opportunity.

Regardless of what kind of reviews his works received, Getty has been a stalwart supporter of music journalism, including his key participation in a consortium of funders to pay the salary of one of The Boston Globe’s music writers, Zoë Madonna. Beyond the specific action, this is pointing to an intriguing model at a time news organization no longer support staff music and arts writers: the foundation-backed critic.

As he was being feted on his 80th birthday in 2014 in Davies Symphony Hall, it was little noted that Getty’s $9 million gift made possible the hall’s crucial acoustical renovation by Kirkegaard Associates in 1992, and that was just part of San Francisco Symphony’s share of Getty’s support.

Getty, who will turn 86 on Dec. 20, was raised in San Francisco, attended St. Ignatius College Preparatory, University of San Francisco (later gifted with $15 million to establish a college for top students to study the arts, sciences, and humanities), and earned a B.A. in music from the SF Conservatory of Music (where he serves on the school’s advisory board and makes regular, major contributions).

Singers from San Francisco were in the cast of the Getty opera when performed in Munich

Getty has said of his philosophy: “I like to give a lot to many organizations — so much that if we skipped a year, they wouldn’t be broke. A lot of our recipients are surprised to receive our check. They haven’t asked for it. We’ve heard about them and we send it to them.”

As the fourth child of J. Paul Getty, he assumed control of the oil tycoon’s trust on his death in 1976 and sold Getty Oil to Texaco 10 years later. He created new businesses after that, maintaining an approximately $2 billion net worth since.

In addition to business, Getty’s major attention is on classical music; his compositions include the opera Plump Jack, many piano pieces, lieder, and choral works. His one-act opera Usher House was performed by SF Opera in 2015.

Aspiring to become an opera singer, Getty studied in the mid-1970s with Louise Caselotti, a mezzo-soprano who had been Maria Callas’s voice teacher (1946–47). He and his wife have underwritten productions of SF Opera and the Russian National Orchestra, among others. Getty’s opera The Canterville Ghost was premiered in 2015 by the Leipzig Opera. The documentary Gordon Getty: There Will Be Music chronicles his relationship to music as composer and benefactor.

Getty is also a fundraiser for local and national Democratic Party candidates, and has contributed to the campaigns of Nancy Pelosi, Willie Brown, Gavin Newsom, and John Kerry.