Austin Symphony tries out 15 new selections this season

12:00 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017 Austin360
A reproduction of the program for Austin Symphony’s first concert in 1911 alongside the brochure for its 2017-2018 season. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Could it be true that this season the Austin Symphony will perform 15 works it has never before played? After all, the ensemble goes back to 1911. That is a lot of concerts, almost all of them consisting of at least three or four musical pieces. Surely, the major works of the classical repertoire have been performed here at least once?

“It’s part luck that so many pieces this season are firsts for the Austin Symphony,” music director Peter Bay says. “I try to include works that are well-known to everyone as well as works that aren’t. Sometimes, the selection of the soloist triggers ideas for the rest of the program, such as (pianist) Anton Nel’s interest in playing Mozart as well as something on harpsichord for our first concert.”

Just how would the symphony staff know what has been played during the past 106 years? Turns out, hundreds of printed programs have been preserved and are stored, high and dry, in a narrow storage room just off the entrance of the symphony’s offices on Red River Street. New public relations expert Rachel Santorelli, who comes to Austin from the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, gave us access to the trove, which includes reproductions of the inaugural program from April 25, 1911.

About the size of a Catholic holy card and printed on gray stock, it announces that the Austin Symphony Society will be led by Dr. Hans Harthan at the Hancock Opera House, a grand venue formerly located at West Sixth Street and Congress Avenue. The second page lists the new society’s “patronesses,” which include some Old Austin surnames, such as Pennybaker, Ramsey, Hancock, Brush, Bremond and Bickler. The list of musicians includes, even then, four women. The group’s first piece ever? W.A. Mozart’s Symphonie in C No. 28.

Taken as a whole, these preserved programs provide a rare look at Austin’s cultural, economic and creative evolution.

By 1913, Harthan had been replaced as conductor by professor William Besserer. He was followed by Frank LeFevre Reed in 1917. Sadly, the record falters for 20 years after 1918, so we don’t know from the extant programs what was played during those decades. The archives pick up again regularly after Dec. 12, 1938, and are fairly complete through last season.

Back then, the orchestra played in Gregory Gymnasium at the University of Texas. Yes, where the Longhorn volleyball team now tears up the competition. It is certainly a loud place now, but who knows what the acoustics were like in the 1930s? The orchestra had grown in size by then, and the repertoire, then as now, included a lot of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. Each concert was given only once.

Shakespeare-quoting Mayor Tom Miller served on the board of directors, along with power broker Walter Long and architect Charles Page Jr. By then, the Austin Recreation Department was on board, as were musicians from the newly formed UT College of Fine Arts. Henrik Buytendorp conducted the group from 1938 to 1949.

The first paid advertisement arrived on May 29, 1940, and the business that claimed the honor was J.R. Reed Music Co., then located at 805 Congress Ave., phone number listed as “3531.”

Soon came ads from the Austin National Bank, American National Bank and Capital National Bank, cementing the symphony’s long and enduring relationship with the banking community. Why? To borrow a phrase attributed to bank robber Willie Sutton: “Because that’s where the money is.”

Later programs list, presumably for free, the city’s music and dance teachers. By 1940, some of the concerts were being presented at UT’s Hogg Auditorium, a much better arts venue than the gym. The program for April 16, 1940, contains the first detailed notes about the composers, in this case Rossini, Bizet, Saint-Saens and Liszt.

A note on longevity: In 1941, Jane Sibley moved to Austin to attend UT, right where the orchestra played. The longtime symphony doyenne still attends performances when she can.

A concert on March 19, 1943, was held at Camp Swift near Bastrop. The program lists 26 orchestra members then serving in the armed forces.

By the late 1940s, the term “patronesses” had been replaced by “patrons.” An inserted form lists several levels of financial support: “Sustaining ($100 or more), Patrons ($25), Honorary ($15).” Season tickets went for $5. The first guest musician honored with a program feature was Metropolitan Opera baritone Lawrence Tibbett, who sang on March 8, 1946.

Remarkably, Ezra Rachlin, who looks dashing in his regularly published photos, conducted the ensemble from Oct. 23, 1949, to Oct. 8, 1970. Maestro Bay is expected to beat his 21-year record in 2019.

The printed programs during this period date the orchestra’s debut to 1937, not 1911. It appears that during the intervening years, performances were irregular. The group was reinvented in 1937. Suffice it to say, the symphony has been playing regular seasons, despite financial ups and downs, for 80 years.

During the 1950s, the symphony became more closely associated with going out and fashion. One advertiser from this time was a boutique called Marie Antoinette, which promoted itself without irony as being “For Women of Exacting Taste.” Later the Scarbrough’s department store contributed full-page ads of stylish nightlife apparel.

Children’s and youth concerts came on strong in the 1950s when the symphony moved to the City Coliseum, a hangarlike structure located on the current site of Butler Park. One can only imagine the acoustics. The Junior League of Austin and Austin Public Schools backed these shows.

In 1959, the symphony moved semipermanently over to the space-age-inspired Municipal Auditorium, later renamed Palmer Auditorium — I can attest that the acoustics there were dreadful — which was completely redone in the 21st century as the excellent Long Center for the Performing Arts. The symphony spent more than two decades at UT’s modernist Bass Concert Hall before moving back to the South Shore, to the Long Center.

On Jan. 26, 1959, Drusilla Huffmaster was the soloist. She played several pieces, including Rachmaninoff’s famed Piano Concerto No. 2. The program announced that this was its first performance in Austin.

At the time, KHFI-FM and KUT-FM broadcast the symphony’s concerts. In a first, a free pops concert was announced for March, 17, 1958, and radio listeners were asked to send in their requests.

Another note of longevity: Pianist James Dick was the featured soloist on Feb. 12, 1962. Still performing, he oversees a small classical music empire at the Round Top Festival Institute, halfway between here and Houston.

Various people, including Austin Opera co-founder Walter Ducloux, filled in as conductor during the 1970s. Curiously, composer Aaron Copland is listed as conductor for Oct. 31, 1971. That must have been a special event.

The printed programs became more lavish and contextual during the mid-1970s, when Akiro Endo was the regular music director. He lasted until 1981. The next year he was replaced by Sung Kwak, who preceded Bay. He came aboard officially in 1998 after a well-remembered season of public conductor auditions.

Bay looks back over the decades of repertoire with some puzzlement.

“I have no idea why such pieces like Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto haven’t been played by us until this season,” he says. “My guess is Rachmaninoff’s Second and Tchaikovsky’s First are so popular, they are repeated time after time much to the neglect of the other works. I suppose some might suggest the ‘neglected’ works aren’t as good, but I disagree.”

Nevertheless, Bay strongly supports the inclusion of audience favorites, known as “warhorses.”

“There are members of our audience who have never heard them performed live before,” he says, “and we grow as musicians and listeners to find something new in works we seem to know inside out. That’s a big part of the joy of music-making. But it’s also important to look to new works and unjustly neglected works and composers as part of that artistic growth. It’s easy to forget Beethoven was once a contemporary composer, whose works weren’t always understood by the audiences and critics of his day.”

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