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Ashland Symphony Orchestra History

(1925-1949)

The Ashland Symphony Orchestra (ASO) has had a rich history over the past eighty-four years. The first known attempt at forming a local orchestra was announced in the January 14, 1925 edition of the Ashland Times-Gazette. The article stated that, “a careful check has been made of Ashland musicians, and it is expected a forty piece orchestra can be made. This is not to be a church orchestra, a lodge orchestra, or a dance orchestra, but an Ashland orchestra made up of Ashland’s best musicians.” The organizers were Mrs. Robert Smilie, Jacob Heitz, local band director, Mrs. J.A. Chater, local violin instructor and Louis E. Pete, city schools music director.

An Ashland Times-Gazette article dated May 17, 1947, included the following news item:

    “Twenty-two years ago tonight, May 17, 1925, the first concert of the Ashland Symphony Orchestra was given in the Church of Christ. Mr. Louis E. Pete was the conductor and Mr. Paul S. Bishop, baritone, was the soloist.

    “The second concert was given by the orchestra on May 18, 1926 in the Church of Christ.

    “The third concert was given May 24, 1927 in the new McDowell Auditorium under the auspices of the Ashland Musical Club. The committee from that club included Mrs. Guy C. Myers, Mrs. C.C. Patton and Mrs. D.R. Frazer. The orchestra was assisted by Mrs. R.R. Haun, soprano, and Miss Mabel Zehner, pianist.”

A review for the ASO’s third concert stated “An hour of the higher and more exquisite music was brought to local lovers of the symphony last evening when Ashland’s own symphony orchestra directed by L.E. Pete accomplished a feat of musical performance which was almost breathtaking in its excellence. The Musical Club can surely feel that its efforts in sponsoring the concert were well repaid.” Due to the irregular schedule of one concert per year for a period of three years, it is generally recognized that the Ashland Symphony Orchestra was not established as a permanent group until the 1936-37 season.

On September 24, 1936, the Ashland Times-Gazette published the following news release:

    “Ashland is to have its own civic symphony orchestra, composed of Ashland instrumentalists [and] assisted at concerts by talent from the Cleveland Orchestra; it was announced today by Louis E. Pete, who has been named to organize and direct this new musical venture. Pete, director of music both at Ashland High School and Ashland College this year, has sent out letters inviting musicians to meet with him Monday night in the high school music room to discuss formation of the organization.”

The first concert was held Saturday, January 10, 1937, in McDowell Auditorium attended by more than 1,150 patrons. The program included:

    Strauss: Overture to Die Fledermaus

    Schubert: Unfinished Symphony

    Weber: Invitation to the Dance

    Rimsky-Korsakov: Excerpts from Scheherazade

    Schuetky: Emittee Spiritum Tuum

    Sibelius: Finlandia

The Ashland High School and Ashland College Choirs joined the orchestra on the last two compositions. The orchestra was soon recognized as a “high quality” group and reached a highlight when, in 1939, Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9” was performed with the assistance of a community chorus and was broadcast for a national audience on the Blue Radio Network of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). During this entire period, the orchestra was making regular broadcasts both locally and coast-to-coast at Ashland’s radio stations WATG, now WNCO, in its then spacious polycylindrical studio, which was built specifically for the orchestra’s broadcasting activities; these early concerts were heavily supported by the Myers and Miller families. It is believed that the final concert was presented February 22, 1943, and then disbanded due to World War II.

After the war ended, several attempts were made to re-organize the orchestra, but efforts resulted in only one concert that was presented on May 1, 1949 under the direction of Pete. Television and the nation’s fascination with early television performers are believed to have caused a lack of interest and attendance.


(1970-1976)

Dr. Glenn Clayton’s efforts as president of Ashland College from 1948-1977 are recognized as being extremely instrumental in the formation of a new orchestra in 1970. With the aid of Calvin Rogers, a music professor at Ashland College from 1947-1984 and Dr. Eunice Kettering, chair of the college Music Department at the time, it was felt that because no community-based efforts had been successful, the concept of a dual partnership with the college to form an orchestra would be appealing to community leaders.

In May of 1970, Ashland College hired a director to lead the orchestra.

“President Glenn L. Clayton has announced the appointment of Harold Leighton Weller as director of the orchestra and instructor of music at Ashland College. In his new post, he will be responsible for the development of a community orchestra. ‘With Weller having been appointed to the Ashland College faculty, we are hopeful that many members of the community and area will want to get involved and perform in a community orchestra,’ Calvin Rogers said.”

The first concert of the inaugural season, 1970-71, occurred on April 29, 1971. The program included:

    Beethoven: Overture to Egmont

    Bach: Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra

    Henry Criz, violin

    Dvorak: Symphony No. 8

The orchestra was funded mainly by the college through the budget of the Music Department. Additional support came from the local community through ticket revenue and contributions. A group of individuals from the community was loosely organized in the early 70’s as members of the "League," which provided financial support for the orchestra. The League at that time included both husbands and wives and was the precursor to the current Ashland Symphony Orchestra’s Board of Directors. During the 1972-73 season, the Ashland Symphony League was officially formed for the purpose of promoting the orchestra in Ashland and to sponsor social events associated with the orchestra. Mrs. Sarah Rowan was elected the first League president.

The orchestra flourished under Weller from 1970-1977 as evidenced by the growing number of musicians and season ticket holders. The symphony was viewed as a very successful operation under his directorship both artistically and financially. However, by 1976, the financial position of the college had become critical due to the end of the Vietnam War and the declining student enrollment. The college Board of Trustees, recognizing that the orchestra had ample support from the community and having built a foundation for the symphony, was compelled to withdraw only its financial support.


(1976-1981)

During the 1976-77 season, Weller was given notice that his directorship would no longer be considered part of his faculty position and at the end of that season, the symphony would no longer be funded by the college. After much discussion, an ad hoc committee of the newly formed symphony board decided to continue at its current level of programming five concerts per season. A civic organization was formed to continue the orchestra with the official name as the Ashland Symphony Orchestra Association. Harry Hull was elected as first Board President, Barb McGovern was hired as general manager and Jane Lightner served as executive secretary. Legal procedures were adopted with a charter, and an IRS determination as a “non-profit organization” was granted.

Before leaving Ashland, Harold Weller conducted the first two concerts: November 1, 1977 and December 6, 1977. A guest orchestra, The Ohio State University Orchestra, conducted by Marshall Haddock, presented the third concert on January 31, 1978. The final two concerts featured guest conductors. Dr. Jan Roshong, assistant professor and director of bands at Ashland College, served as principal conductor for the March 14, 1978 concert, and Calvin Rogers, music professor at Ashland College, served as guest conductor for the May 16, 1978 concert.

In the summer of 1978, Mrs. Sarah Rowan founded what is the current version of the Ashland Symphony Women’s League (ASWL). Its purpose, then and now, is to assist the Ashland Symphony Orchestra in fund-raising, ticket sales and to make the community aware that the orchestra is a civic organization. An agreement was made with Dr. Clayton for the college to provide in-kind support to the symphony to ensure a successful future. This agreement still presently exists: use of Hugo Young Theatre, office space and utilities, college instruments, music stands, orchestra shell, theater lighting equipment, services of the maintenance department, and the availability of graphics and printing services. In exchange for this in-kind support, highly qualified music students would be permitted to perform with the orchestra and could earn academic credit for this experience.

The ASO Board appointed the previous season’s guest conductor, Dr. Roshong, to take over Weller’s position for the 1978-79 season. Roshong conducted three of the four concerts that season. By mid-1979, the board realized that Roshong was not the best person to lead the organization due to his other responsibilities at the college, which did not allow him the necessary time to provide the direction and vision necessary for the orchestra. At the conclusion of the season, they accepted the resignation of Roshong in August, 1979. The Board Executive Committee then contacted Calvin Rogers who accepted as conductor until the end of the 1980-81 season, at which time he resigned as he had been awarded a Fulbright Award to Korea for the upcoming year. Once again, the board formed a search committee to locate a new musical director/conductor for the symphony.


(1981-1995)

On July 1, 1981, board president James Thomas announced that the Dutch-born assistant conductor of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Albert-George Schram, had been named as music director and conductor of the ASO. Schram’s previous assignments also included being conductor for the University of Washington Symphony, assistant conductor for the University of Victoria Symphony and musical director for a 23-piece show group in Canada.

Schram’s first concert with the ASO occurred on October 16, 1981. The orchestra experienced significant growth under the direction of Schram. Some highlights of Schram’s 13-year tenure included the 1983 performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor and two fully-staged operas, Hansel and Gretel in 1988 and Madame Butterfly in 1991.

Schram had unequaled support from the symphony’s board of directors and was able to share his passion and vision to keep the organization alive and thriving. Also key to the success of the orchestra was the work of two outstanding general managers, Barb McGovern from 1977-1984 and James Thomas from 1984-1998, and musician personnel director Ron Marenchin from 1981-2003.

In 1994, Schram was offered a position as full time musical director and principal conductor for the Lubbock (Texas) Symphony Orchestra and made the decision to leave the ASO at the end of the 1994-95 season. In order to find the best artist to replace Schram, the board formed a search committee to review applications. Five candidates were selected from a pool of 125 applicants. Each guest conductor selected the program and soloist of their choice within the budget established by the ASO board for the 1995-96 season. Following each of the concerts, the musicians and audience had the chance to evaluate the candidates. The board took these comments into consideration in the selection process.


(1995-Present)

Following the final concert of the season on April 20, 1996, the board met and unanimously voted to offer the position of musical director/conductor to Arie Lipsky of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. In addition to the Buffalo Philharmonic, Lipsky also served as director of symphony, chamber orchestra and opera productions at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he received a Masters of Music with Honors. He had also conducted for the Ohio Light Opera Company and served as guest conductor for three of the leading orchestras in Israel.

The Ashland Times-Gazette’s headline of the review of Lipsky’s first concert on October 26, 1996 read, “Lipsky Leads Symphony in Triumph.” And so it has been for the last fourteen years.

In an interview in 1999, he reflected on the reasons he chose to accept the position:

    “I saw it as a big challenge. I’m at the stage in my life when I’ve decided I would like to have the artistic direction of a symphony. I’ve become very attached to the ASO and the community and am becoming good friends with the people here. One of my goals is to make music fun for the musicians and the audience. But I also plan to take every musician to their utmost limit and then push their limit further. I am convincing the ASO that we should consider pieces that would be done by any other symphony. Some of the programs we have recently done, you would find at major concert halls. Our audience is sophisticated enough to appreciate pieces they’re not familiar with. I find it challenging to program… we must balance the classical and the light. We need to not only challenge the musicians, but also please the audience.”

The future of the Ashland Symphony Orchestra looks very promising under the artistic leadership of Maestro Arie Lipsky. James Thomas, late former ASO general manager, commented in 1997, “Musically, the orchestra is at the best quality in many years. Lipsky is taking the orchestra to a new level.” Larry Hiner, former ASO general manager, says “During my tenure, the musicianship and the programming has improved immeasurably. I am thrilled when I get the opportunity to sneak out into the audience during a concert to listen and to realize that this professionalism is actually occurring Ashland, Ohio, a little town of only 22,000 people.”

Now, more than ever, the ASO needs the support of the community. This, with the support of the ASO Board of Directors and dedicated administrative staff should position the organization for continued growth and maturity for years to come.

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    401 College Avenue
    Ashland, OH 44805
Ohio Arts Council
University Hospitals - Samaritan Medical CenterSponsor of the Ashland Symphony Orchestra