His family's passion was music. His passion was peace.
Later this month those missions will merge in Walnut Creek when the California Symphony pays tribute to J. Christopher Stevens, the Piedmont resident and U.S. ambassador to Libya who was killed Sept. 11 in a militant attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.
David Commanday, his stepbrother, was preparing to guest conduct the Oct. 18 concert at the Lesher Center for the Arts when he and his family, including Stevens' mother, Mary Commanday, and stepfather, Robert Commanday, of Piedmont, received the news.
"It's a tragic loss for everyone," says David Commanday, who grew up in Kensington and now resides in Illinois, where he is the founding artistic director of Central Illinois' Heartland Festival Orchestra.
The symphony concert will be the second public memorial that week for Stevens, after a service two days earlier at San Francisco City Hall.
When Commanday's father wed Stevens' mother in 1976, Commanday was finishing up at Harvard University and Stevens was in high school, later to enter UC Berkeley. But the young men quickly bonded over beach trips and home improvement projects.
"Chris had a knack for enjoying the good in everyone he encountered," Commanday says. "He was a great man."
Commanday was devastated by his stepbrother's death and began to revisit his plans for the upcoming concert, crafting the program as an homage to the late U.S. ambassador, who grew up loving music. Stevens' mother, Mary, is a retired Marin Symphony cellist. His stepfather, Robert, the founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, was the music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1965 to 1993.
"There were many concerts every week and conversations about music and performances all the time," he recalls. "Music was real and important to him, and he took pleasure in it."
Commanday updated the original program, which explored themes of magic and mystery for Halloween, to feature works that honored his late stepbrother's dedication to "peace, understanding and progress."
To open the concert, he added John Williams' "Summon the Heroes," a "thrilling piece" originally written for the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics that celebrates discipline and idealistic dedication, qualities that defined his stepbrother, Commanday says. The concert will also feature Falla's "Ritual Fire Dance" and Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite."
Commanday is one of seven conductors auditioning for the job as music director for the Walnut Creek-based professional orchestra.
California Symphony Executive Director Walter Collins says it is an honor to be part of a program that celebrates an East Bay native and UC Berkeley graduate who "waged peace" and that uses the healing power of music to bring comfort to Stevens' family, many of whom will attend the concert.
"He was a man who stood for everything related to freedom of expression," Collins says. "He loved the arts, and we want to celebrate his life by performing music at the highest possible standard. Though, as his stepbrother says, I think if Chris had his druthers, he'd want this concert to be in Benghazi or Tripoli so the Libyan people could appreciate the music, as well."
Stevens, a graduate of UC Berkeley, and later of UC Hastings College of the Law, had served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, which sparked his interest in the Middle East. Fluent in French and Arabic, he spent the majority of his 20-year career in the Middle East and North Africa, forming a strong bond with the country's people as he worked to liberate them from the tyranny of Moammar Gadhafi. The exact circumstances of Stevens' death remain a mystery, but his death created an international outcry.
A gathering of music seems a particularly appropriate way to honor him, says Stevens' stepfather, Robert Commanday.
"He was such a happy and outgoing person," Robert says. "It's a great opportunity to join in the general spirit that is coming from all over the world. If you go to RememberingChrisStevens.com you will see letters that show affection for and appreciation of Chris because he was such a positive person. He's kind of become a symbol of what is good."
Guest conductor David Commanday leads "Salute to a Hero" in honor of his late stepbrother, U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 18, Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Center Drive, Walnut Creek. Single tickets start at $35; season subscriptions start at $130. 925-943-7469. www.californiasymphony.org.
The public can attend a memorial service at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 16 in the rotunda at San Francisco City Hall, 1 Polk St., San Francisco. The family has set up the J. Christopher Stevens Fund to support activities that build bridges between the people of the United States and the Middle East. To donate or post a remembrance, go to www.rememberingchrisstevens.com.