Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Harrisburg Symphony's 82nd Birthday

The Harrisburg Symphony in 1931
Yesterday was the 82nd Anniversary of the 1st Concert Ever given by the Harrisburg Symphony and it was held at the William Penn High School in uptown Harrisburg on Thursday, March 19th, 1931, at 8:15pm.

This photograph - as far as I know, the earliest extant photo of the orchestra - was taken at the 2nd Concert Ever given by the Harrisburg Symphony in November, 1931, also on the stage of the William Penn High School.

That March concert was not the first time the orchestra got together – since the fall, they had gathered to “read through” or rehearse a variety of music ranging from Strauss Waltzes, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Liszt’s Les preludes, Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Meistersinger Overtures to three Beethoven symphonies – the Eroica, the 5th and the 9th (at least a part of it). Curiously, they also read through a little-known symphony by Vassily Kalinnikov (the original list referred to it as No. 2 in G minor, but No. 1 is the G Minor Symphony and it was that one the orchestra performed during the 1939 and 1947 seasons).

These initial exploratory rehearsals were held in the music room at J. H. Troup’s Music Store which, until the early-70s was a fixture on the southeast corner of Market Square, opposite the church. It was there the initial meetings had been held in 1927 when the idea of forming an orchestra in Harrisburg was first being discussed.

It all happened because three pianists sat around a kitchen table in the Emerald Street home of Mary Barnum Bush Hauck who was having coffee with her guests, Alice Decevee Mitchell and Jacques Jolas. Mrs. Hauck was a well-known piano teacher in town and Mrs. Mitchell, a former Juilliard student, was the daughter of the piano and theory teacher and soon director at the recently established Harrisburg Conservatory of Music, located at 607 N. 2nd Street which still stands as an apartment building between State & North Streets. (This should be a separate topic: according to Cornelius Rodgers’ 75th Anniversary history of the orchestra, the conservatory had a “large concert hall beautifully decorated and outstanding in its acoustics” which “at the height of its success [had] more than five hundred students from Pennsylvania and surrounding states.” I can find a reference to an organist who had “recently graduated from the Harrisburg Conservatory of Music” in a 1918 newspaper archive, listed on-line.)

Mrs. Mitchell attended Juilliard when she was 17 and later returned home to teach at the Conservatory. She later married lawyer Ehrman B. Mitchell and their home, Beaufort Farms on Lingelstown Road north of town, became a center for social and musical (as well as equestrian) activities in the area.

Jacques Jolas was an American-born pianist who, during a 1927 tour, performed at the J.H. Troup music room with a “Franz Liszt Chickering Piano” and following his tour, he returned to Harrisburg where he met several other musicians and music-lovers in the city.

It was over coffee at Mrs. Hauck’s that Jolas asked the inevitable question “why can’t we start an orchestra in this town?”

The first doubt was finding a conductor. Jolas had a young friend in New York City he thought would solve that problem: George King Raudenbush.

Then, with some of Mrs. Mitchell’s connections from her Juilliard days, a committee was formed to explore the idea. Jolas decided to settle in Harrisburg and teach piano.

By 1929, John Erskine, president of the Juilliard Foundation, came to town with pianist Olga Samaroff who, born Lucy Hickenlooper in San Antonio TX, had gone on to become a leading pianist in early-20th Century America, recently divorced from a young conductor whom she had discovered and promoted named Leopold Stokowski (perhaps you’ve heard of him?). Together, they spoke to the assembled guests “about the cultural value of a symphony orchestra to the community and what it would mean to young musicians.”

Erskine also stressed that “while the primary function of the Juilliard School of Music was to train professional musicians, it should also lay the foundation for audiences everywhere in the country.”

Erskine selected Jolas as a representative of the Juilliard Foundation in Harrisburg and to form (and head) the Harrisburg Music Center whose purpose was to create an orchestra. The Juilliard Foundation had set up similar organizations in Atlanta, Nashville and in Iowa, New Mexico and Ohio as well.

By the summer of 1930, in the midst of the Depression, Jolas gathered some musician-friends to “round up” other players for the orchestra and eventually they had 68 members by the time they began their “preparatory rehearsals.” The players requested, apparently, a conductor from “out of town,” given their previous experiences with “local conductors” which “had in several instances led to failure.”

The question was, given the economic situation, was there sufficient interest to support an orchestra?

Olga Samaroff and John Erskine returned to Harrisburg to give benefit recitals, as did now-resident Jacques Jolas.

One of the violinists went door to door and sold 200 tickets herself. Other members of the orchestra or the founding committee like Mrs. Hauck (who sometimes spent two hours explaining the orchestra and why it was important) had done the same: tickets cost $2.

And so George King Raudenbush was invited to come in from New York City to conduct the first official public concert given by the Harrisburg Symphony at 8:15 Thursday evening, March 19th, 1931, at the William Penn High School Auditorium.

The program consisted of
Gluck: Iphigenia in Aulis: Overture
Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, “The Unfinished”
...after intermission...
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A Minor (with Jacques Jolas, pianist)
Fauré: Pelleas et Melisande: Prelude & Spinning Song
Dvořák: Two Slavonic Dances (in A-flat Major; in G Minor)
Sibelius: Finlandia

A month later, the Wednesday Club staged two benefit performances of Humperdinck’s opera, Hansel and Gretel with members of the orchestra, in what was also another first: the first time an opera had been performed in Harrisburg entirely by “local talent.” The event raised $1,000 for the fledgling orchestra to which the Wednesday Club added an additional gift of $300. This may not sound like much according to today’s finances, but during the Depression, this was a considerable amount of money.

Following that first concert, an unnamed critic from the Harrisburg Patriot wrote:

= = = = =
“George King Raudenbush, despite his very youthful appearance, proved that he is an able and understanding leader, with perfect confidence in himself and his ensemble. The ensemble work was exquisite and the players followed him to a man. The orchestra proves its skill as an organization in classical music. In the very first number, Gluck’s overture to the lyric tragedy, Iphigenia in Aulis, the orchestra gave instant indication of a unity of attack which promised much for the concert and that promise was fulfilled.”
= = = = =

Mr. Rodgers does not quote further from the review, but I would assume (or at least hope) he stayed for the rest of the concert.

A much more extensive review (or at least as quoted) came from William Britton in the Harrisburg Sunday Courier.

= = = = =
“So overwhelmingly impressive was the first public performance of the recently organized Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra in the auditorium of the William Penn High School last Thursday night, that he who should presume to review in spirit of captious and carping criticism might be justly charged with hypercriticism. It was indeed, such an extraordinarily successful orchestral debut as to be placed beyond the domain of ordinary criticism, by reason of the amazing and astonishingly [sic] excellence which characterized the performance in its entirety[.]

This new orchestra proved by the triumphal performance of Thursday night, that it is indisputably worthy of the whole-hearted support of those who have the well-being of the city in their heart. It seems hardly credible that the orchestra that gave this astonishingly meritorious performance could have been assembled, drilled and appear in a notably worthy performance with the comparatively few months that conductor Raudenbush has been in command of this musical force.

During this critic’s long musical life he has had the opportunity to hear many orchestras in their inceptyion and after thay have gained fame, yet he has never heard one composed of the players of a single community display such remarkable, such extraordinary proficiency and finish of performance, as did the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra last Thursday night.”
= = = = =

And from the Harrisburg Evening News, either a brief quote or a more succinct comment:

= = = = =
“Mr. Raudenbush directed understandingly and the orchestra responded with a confidence that was a tribute to his leadership.”
= = = = =

(And, yes, at the time, Harrisburg had essentially three newspapers: The Patriot (the morning edition), the Evening News and a separate Sunday paper, the Harrisburg Sunday Courier. Imagine that!)

Raudenbush, a violinist born in Jersey Shore, PA, of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, studied in Detroit and New York City where he became a member of the New York Symphony Orchestra (which, incidentally, had joined with the New York Philharmonic Society on March 20, 1928, to form what we now call the New York Philharmonic) where he continued playing under maestro Walter Damrosch until 1934. (It is interesting to note that HSO conductor Larry Newland, music director here from 1978-1994, was a violist and Assistant Conductor under Zubin Mehta with the New York Philharmonic.)

In 1934, Raudenbush also left his position as assistant concertmaster of the NBC Orchestra, to devote more time to conducting his orchestra in Harrisburg. He also proceeded to help organize the York Symphony Orchestra and conducted it for its first season as well. He retired from Harrisburg at the end of the 1949-1950 season.

The 2nd concert - the start of the first full season of the orchestra in November, 1931 - included

Beethoven: Coriolan Overture
Mozart: Symphony No. 35 in D, "Hafner"
Lalo: Symphonie espagnole (with Sadah Shuchari)
Stoessel: Lullaby
Stringfield: Cripple Creek
Grainger: Tune from County Derry; Country Gardens
Tchaikovsky: Marche slav

In subsequent concerts that season, Jolas returned to play Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto, and there was Dvořák's "New World" Symphony and Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite (the ballet had been composed only 22 years earlier, so this would have been relatively new music for the time).

Even after the concerts moved to the Forum, the first rehearsals for each program were still held at the high school well into the 1960s. I remember observing many rehearsals there when I was in middle school then (that’s the 1960s, not the 1930s, thank you).

And so the orchestra continues today, under Stuart Malina, in what can only be described as on-going healthy circumstances with a bright future for the arts in Central Pennsylvania, not that ever-necessary contributions couldn’t be better. But that’s always the case for the Arts, regardless of the economy.

Happy Birthday to the Harrisburg Symphony – and many more!

Dick Strawser

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