Cultural Icon Williamsport Symphony Orchestra Celebrates History
By Erica L. Shames
This year, the Williamsport Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 50th anniversary, a milestone for any organization, but particularly noteworthy for a world-class cultural organization with a vibrant past.
Arts and culture impact our lives in complex, subtle and interrelated ways. First, there’s the economic impact on the local economy—attracting visitors; creating jobs and developing skills; attracting and retaining businesses; revitalizing places; and developing talent.
Then there’s the health benefits. One study in the United Kingdom found that those who had attended a cultural place or event in the previous 12 months were almost 60 per cent more likely to report good health, compared to those who had not.
Similarly, studies show engagement in structured arts and culture improves the cognitive abilities of children and young people. And a number of studies have measured the positive impact culture has on people suffering from specific health conditions, including dementia, depression and Parkinson’s disease.
Overall, though, the benefit to a community with access to a quality symphony orchestra has esoteric, intangible, even feel-good elements that speak to pride and status. “The symphony is considered a major contributor to the quality of life and rich cultural offerings in our region,” notes Janet Harris, WSO’s executive director. “Music is a universal language that pulls a community together and offers something for everyone.”
The current Williamsport Symphony Orchestra was started in 1966 by Lewisburg violinist Dorothy Baumwoll and semi-professional oboist Dr. William Barrison. They solicited musicians from four counties to launch the Susquehanna Valley Symphony Orchestra. Functioning under a volunteer management, the SVSO braved numerous crises to stay alive. Music industry professionals and corporate sponsors began to take an interest in the SVSO. In 1984, the SVSO hired Rolf Smedvig as music director. Once the principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Smedvig founded the Grammy-winning Empire Brass Quintet.
In 1984, the SVSO’s name was changed to Williamsport Symphony Orchestra. Smedvig passed the baton to Robin Fountain in 1992. Under Fountain’s leadership, the WSO became a full-fledged semi-professional orchestra, and Fountain worked to make the WSO a stand-out orchestra in a small city. He moved on in 2007, however, and after a year-long national search Tomasz Golka became music director in 2008. In 2010, the 44th season, Maestro Gerardo Edelstein became WSO’s conductor and music director. A native of Argentina, Gerardo Edelstein, has conducted symphony orchestras, choirs, ballet and opera in Europe, Asia, South America and the United States. Critics and audiences have hailed his performances as “powerful, profound and exhilarating.”
In addition, Mr. Edelstein is director of orchestral studies, music director of the Philharmonic and Chamber Orchestras and artistic director of the Music at Penn’s Woods summer festival at Penn State University.
Through the years
Since 2001, the WSO has given its first television broadcast, finished a successful endowment campaign, resumed its summer concert series Pops in the Park, created The Billtown Brass and moved its headquarters to the 2100-seat Community Arts Center, as well as receiving nationwide recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts and the League of American Orchestras.
“We were very excited to be awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that allowed for the commissioning of a new symphonic composition in honor of our 50th anniversary,” said Harris.
Composed by Christopher Theofanidis, the commissioned work will premiere May 16th. A teacher at the Yale Graduate School of Music, Theofanidis’ work has been performed by The London Symphony, New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He teaches at the Yale Graduate School of Music.
The WSO’s performer roster swelled to an unprecedented 350 musicians and choir members on the CAC stage for the Mahler performance last February 14. The Williamsport Symphony Orchestra continues to enrich and support the economic and cultural growth of the region.
“We’ve been told,” notes Harris, “that having a high-caliber symphony in Williamsport is an important tool in recruiting staff and executives to the area. Our performances attracts people from across the country and Canada, who enjoy the concerts as well as our restaurants, stores and amenities.”
Dollars and sense
Michael and Lyneah Hudock serve as the honorary Chairs of the WSO’s 50th Anniversary. As part of fundraising efforts, the WSO encourages everyone to contribute $50 in honor of this milestone year. Donor names will be included in a special page of each concert program.
“Fundraising contributes over 60 percent of our revenue, and we are very grateful for the support of our donors and grantors, including the Hudock Capital Group, our Season Sponsor for a number of years,” said Harris.
Harris says donors help keep ticket prices affordable, and free tickets are offered to children and students for every performance in the balcony section and in the orchestra section one hour before each performance. Orchestra seating for children and students purchased in advance are $5.
The Williamsport Symphony Youth Orchestra, now in its 27th year, provides a performance medium for aspiring musicians from middle school to college age. WSYO is under the leadership of Dr. William Ciabattari, assistant professor of music and director of bands at Lycoming College. The newly formed Williamsport Symphony Junior Strings, under the direction of Mr. Matthew Radspinner, orchestra and strolling strings director at Williamsport Area High School, offers another performance medium for young students.
“Attending the symphony is a great date night or evening out with friends,” encourages Harris. “You can get away from the daily routine, relax and be transported by live symphonic music. My day is successful when I can interest someone to come to a performance for the first time and later they tell me it was ‘magical.’ As Maestro Edelstein has urged, ‘Unplug your technology and come hear the live music!’”
If you go
There are two concerts remaining in the WSO’s season: Broadway Celebration March 18 and the Happy 50th Concert May 16.
For tickets or concert information, call (800) 432-9382 or visit WilliamsportSymphony.org.