FOUR DECADES OF GREAT MUSIC
The 2001-2002 concert season marked Annapolis Symphony Orchestra's 40th anniversary. On the occasion of the Gala Celebration, Lillian B. Wray recalled our history:
An Affair of the Heart,
The small booklet bearing the printed headline "Joint Concert" is faded and dog-eared, embellished with a hand-scrawled notation, "May 22, 1962." The first sheet of the interior text contains a short write-up on the Annapolis Choral Society and then the following, regarding the other half of the partnership:
No bells, no whistles, no hoopla ... just 42 musicians playing symphonic music in their first public concert at the local college auditorium. But even that milestone has what Hollywood would call a prequel.
Annapolis in the 1960's was a simpler place: the skipjack fleet still tied up at the City Dock; traffic jams were rare and most "tourists" were USNA alumni or family members and young ladies who came to visit midshipmen. In 1961 John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as America's 35th president. Annapolitans were humming Henry Mancini's Moon River, watching "Gunsmoke,' reading To Kill a Mockingbird and trying to get tickets to see West Side Story. In March they learned that the president had authorized the Peace Corps, a new group for overseas service; in April headlines proclaimed the world's first orbital space flight by a Russian cosmonaut, and in May the US successfully rocketed Cdr. Alan B. Shephard, Jr., aloft for a suborbital flight. Far from the headlines, but in a move that would change the cultural life of a capital city, the leaders of a small group of local musicians who had informally played together for pleasure approached Kenneth W. Page, director of the band and orchestra program at Annapolis High School, and asked him to be their director.
It was serendipity. Area newcomer John E. Bornhoeft, an active retiree in his 70's and violinist who had played with community orchestras in the New York area before moving to Annapolis in 1960 had "missed his music" and "tried to find out if there were other musicians in town." Speaking to an Evening Capital reporter years later, Mr. Bornhoeft recounted his quest: "I found a cello player and we started doing duets, then we were joined by another violin player, and then-it was a quartet. That's how it grew." And with Mr. Page's involvement, the original group which had included Gilbert McNew and Naval Academy Band personnel grew quickly, adding talented young Students and in 1962, mature students from a Board of Education adult education course designed to help amateur musicians gain proficiency in orchestral playing.
The energetic Mr. Page quickly began to fashion an organized community orchestra and turned to Mr. Bornhoeft during the first full season, 1962-1963, to take over the management of secretarial and financial affairs for the group, now known as the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Page reportedly called Mr. Bornhoeft the "founding spirit" of ASO.
The year 1963 also marked a cultural milestone for the Annapolis community. A concert at Francis Scott Key Auditorium featuring both Jean Ressler's Choral Society and the new orchestra captivated and inspired Beth Whaley, who was then president of Colonial Players. According to later news reports, she said, "When you think of all the different kinds of talent this town has to offer ... we could get them all together and have a sort of fine arts festival. The rest was quickly history and the annual ASO "Pops" concert at the City Dock became a favorite event among festival-goers.
By the 1964-65 season the orchestra was formally and legally affiliated with the Choral Society. For several years the combined group presented a five-concert season called "Musical Annapolis," opening with such choral-orchestra pieces as Mendelssohn's Elijah and Mozart's Requiem and then presenting two choral and two symphonic concerts.
During this period, names that were to become much admired began to appear in the ASO player's list: Peggy Peach, Alice Kurs and John McCarthy, along with AHS student Ralph Gambone, who would later be the leader of both the US Naval Academy and US Navy Bands.
But the orchestra could not live on applause alone. The ASO music director and musicians performed without remuneration, but there were high rental fees for pianos and special equipment. Fees for outstanding guest artists were a burden for a small orchestra, not to mention the cost of musical scores, technical assistants, mailing and advertising. In 1966 a concert was imperiled and The Evening Capital lent editorial support, writing in November, "...right now the orchestra lacks funds to put on the concert planned for March 5, 1967 ... At a time when the city is attempting to erect a cultural center, and encourage art in its many forms, the Annapolis Symphony should be generously supported by those of us who are grateful for its services to the community."
Early in 1967 Ken Page made a personal appeal to the community for both financial and logistical support. Annapolis did not let him down. The March concert was presented with Cuban violinist Guillermo Perch as guest artist. Also in response to the appeal the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra Association, Inc. was formed by several local businessmen and women. The officers elected were Philip Richebourg, president, Major George Hall Duncan, first vice president, George Missel, Jr., second vice president, Philip Richman, secretary, S. Garland Hamner, treasurer, and Col. J.L. Dickey, business manager. George E Towner was named orchestra representative and Kenneth W. Page, conductor. Directors named were Mrs. Lawrence T. Haugen, Elmer M. Jackson, Jr., Herbert L. Kinsolving, Malcolm B. Smith, and Mrs. Robert E. Maersch. Also in April, the new board of directors voted to withdraw from the Annapolis Symphony, Choral Society, Inc., to facilitate the operation of each organization from the standpoint of economy and efficiency.
For the next two years the ASO brought a three concert series with guest artists to the community. Most concerts were sponsored by local organizations such as Wroxeteron-Severn School. A Friends organization was firmly in place and a cellist, Alice D. Burt, who would later become the first woman and only orchestra member to serve as board president, joined the ASO. Mr. Bornhoeft, approaching 80, was still playing his violin.
The snowy January 26, 1969 concert under the direction of Ken Page featured guest soloist Philip Highfill playing Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto in C Minor for a house of some 900. The Evening Capital review was a rave, "… the ASO has come of age. It is a permanent musical force in the community that we can all be proud of." The final concert of the season was under the direction of guest conductor Vernal Richardson. In May, tragedy struck and the entire community was shocked by the news of Ken Page's death. It was the end of an era, but the foundation was in place for a stunning future.
The 1969-70 season was scheduled with guest conductors, one of whom was concert pianist and Peabody professor Leon Fleisher, known throughout the world for his recordings and solo performances with legendary orchestras. Now refocusing his musical energies because of a painful muscular condition in his right hand, the man who had made his Carnegie Hall debut at sixteen agreed to become music director for the ASO.
The next eleven seasons were remarkable period for both the orchestra and its audiences. Mr. Fleisher recruited many of his gifted Peabody students into the ASO ranks and attracted superstar friends as guest artists. Isaac Stern, Eugene Istomin, Andre Watts, Jaimie Laredo, Charlie Byrd and the maestro's daughter, harpist Deborah Fleisher, were among the visiting luminaries. With patience, skill and understanding he made changes, hired assistant conductors and instituted a system of auditions for orchestra members.
Herbert L. Kinsolving was elected president of the ASO board in 1974 with seven-term president Phil Richebourg becoming first vice-president. By 1979 Joseph Sachs chaired the board and bassist Fred G. Geil was serving as the orchestra's representative to it, a post he would hold for years. Governor and Mrs. Harry Hughes headed the list of honorary patrons and the Friends of the ASO conducted various fundraisers, including a book, record and instrument sale. A young Peabody graduate, Peter Bay, was appointed assistant conductor.
The 1981-82 season was Leon Fleisher's last. Board president Alice D. Burt praised him in the program book as a "great musician and a great human being" and predicted that he'd be "a hard act to follow." Over 100 applications were received for his position, including one from Peter Bay. As Maestro Fleisher departed he was named conductor and music director emeritus, and an endowment fund was established in his honor.
The following year-long search season brought five guest conductor candidates to Annapolis and ended in May 1983 with the announcement of the well-respected Mr. Peter Bay as the third ASO music director. Also assistant conductor of the Richmond Symphony, Mr. Bay had been a resident conductor of the Aspen Music Festival since 1980 and had guest conducted many groups, including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Mr. Bay hired Deborah Freedman, a multi-degreed music scholar, conductor and French horn player as his assistant conductor, and Betty Wright Baird became ASO president in 1984. Audiences soon noted innovation and new community outreach. On March 25, 1985, a unique concert honored the Banneker-Douglass Museum, a new addition to Annapolis cultural life. The legendary Todd Duncan who created the role of Porgy in 1935 and sang it for 1,800 performances was honored with a selection of music from Porgy and Bess. Mr. Duncan then narrated A Lincoln Portrait and the second half of the evening featured the remarkable Ethel Ennis in concert with the orchestra. An extra concert was added in May when the ASO joined the University of Maryland Chorus in a special production of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky.
Soon all focused on the 25th Anniversary season, a multi-event "Silver Jubilee" celebration chaired by John y Talley and supported by scores of volunteers. Annapolis artist Nancy Hammond created special artwork for the 1985-86 program books and events: a large silver star blazing a crisscross trail across a rich blue sky. Mary Felter wrote historical materials and dozens of press releases. A display of portraits of orchestra members was created by photographer Stan Stearns and a multi-media presentation was produced. Harrison Sayre and his committee scheduled two children's jubilee concerts. A Silver Jubilee Send-Off aboard the Harbor Queen preceded the season, which began with a concert dedicated to Ken Page. The second concert was dedicated to the memory of John Bornhoeft, who had died in 1982. The grand finale was the April 13, 1986 concert at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore. It opened with the world premiere of An Overture (on a text by Oliver Wendell Holmes) by Elam Sprenkle, commissioned by Mrs. Eliot H. Bryant. A symphonic work for orchestra and male chorus, it featured the ASO with the US Naval Academy Glee Club. The other showstopper was Concerto for Three Hands on Two Pianos featuring Leon Fleisher and his wife, Katherine Jacobson. Also in 1986 the Peggy Peach Fund was established in memory of the musician and board member who had devoted so much of her life to the orchestra.
In 1987 Anna E. Greenberg became president of the ASO and began a series of administrative initiatives to better serve the many audiences of the orchestra. With neither staff nor office, the daily work of the ASO was performed entirely by members of the board and volunteers, most from the Friends group. Mrs. Greenberg persuaded board member Patricia Edwards to accept a newly created position: executive director of the ASO. Part-time at first, Mrs. Edwards established an office in Maryland Hall and with keen writing and organizational skills mastered the unusual business of running a symphony orchestra. Mrs. Greenberg and Peter Bay soon expanded the concert season, the ASO budget nearly doubled, ticket sales boomed, and a program of salary enhancements for the musicians was adopted. Special events were inaugurated including the Mardi Gras Ball, pre-concert Symphonic Suppers, and an annual party to honor ASO donors.
More changes lay ahead. The 1989-90 season was Peter Bay's 11th and last with the ASO. Another suspense-filled music director search was to follow.
In 1991, ASO president James W. Cheevers announced that Gisele Ben-Dor, resident conductor of the Houston Symphony, had accepted the ASO baton. Born in Uruguay of Polish parents, she was a graduate of the Rubin Academy of Music in Tel-Aviv and of the Yale School of Music. Multi-lingual, she was a veteran of the international concert circuit and brought unusual and sophisticated programming to her fascinated ASO audiences. Education concerts for elementary school students began in 1993 under the direction of Pamela Chaconas, and soon planning was underway for the release of the orchestra's first CD. That milestone and others were part of ASO's 35th anniversary, celebrated during the 1995-96 season.
The anniversary year opened with the world premiere of the Annapolis Overture by David Ott, an American composer whose work had been performed by the orchestra in 1993. Annapolis Overture had been commissioned by executive director Pat Edwards and her husband Arthur. It was dedicated to the orchestra. Also on the program was the venerable Leon Fleisher, who was later mobbed by a host of friends and well-wishers at a festive reception following the Saturday concert. Two education courses presented through Maryland Hall complemented the anniversary season, but there was a downside. Pat Edwards announced her retirement plans. While juggling such chores as concert production, advertising, marketing and coordination with the board, Mrs. Edwards had lobbied for other positions: an office/ticket manager and Pamela Chaconas as education director. According to a tribute from ASO president Mitchell Nathanson, "she has professionalized all of us. Pat defined the position of executive director as we evolved into a business. "
Jane Kenworthy became executive director in 1996, bringing tremendous energy to the position and valuable experience as a grant writer and fundraiser. She was soon involved in plans for a new Holiday Pops Concert, free pre-concert lectures, Board and Union negotiations, and the search for a music director to replace Gisele Ben-Dor. During this period, forte! the young patron's group of ASO began.
Even before the 1997-98 search season ended, many concertgoers had pinned their hopes on a contender from Detroit, Dr. Leslie B. Dunner, conductor, composer, music educator, and performing clarinetist. With a conducting resume that swept from one corner of the globe to another, a wall full of citations, proclamations and awards, advanced degrees, recordings, and great personal charisma, he became music director in 1998, and the refrain, "We were lucky to get him!" continued to grow. "Adopt-a-School," the Music Van, and the annual instrument drive are ASO milestones already associated with what will eventually be known as the Dunner Years.
At the start of the 40th anniversary season, Tonya Robles was hired as executive director. She came to Annapolis all the way from southern Spain (courtesy of her U.S. Navy husband) and brought experience in education and outreach program development from the Baltimore and San Antonio Symphonies. The administrative staff has continued to develop in scope and professionalism with the addition of personnel and positions.
During an anniversary year it's possible and proper to look to the future and to the past simultaneously, noting the struggles and successes that have brought the ASO to where it is today. Dr. Dunner, his talented musicians and the entire ASO "family" have inherited a proud legacy of achievement and seem poised to extend it to even greater success, united by "wonderful dreams" and the 1666 words of Samuel Pepys, "Musick is the thing of the world that I love most."
—The writer extends thanks to Mrs. Ruth Page