Nine decades, eight conductors, dozens of guest artists, a myriad of concert programs and thousands of musicians have led to the moment when John Devlin’s downbeat will strike up the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 1.
Sunday’s Music Under the Stars concert is a fitting time to begin the 90th anniversary celebration, with the orchestra’s ninth music director.
It was on June 30, 1929, a summer Sunday afternoon, when 40 members of the newly formed orchestra performed on the clubhouse porch at Oglebay — the very spot where this year’s veranda party precedes the concert.
During that first concert, Enrico Tamburini conducted Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No 5; Mozart’s Overture to Don Juan; the Intermezzo from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2; Schubert’s “Moment Musical” Op. 94, No. 2; along with several other pieces.
But the orchestra’s story began a year earlier, in 1928. The seed was planted at an informal recital at the home of Eleanor Caldwell when the idea of a Wheeling orchestra was suggested. Then, on June 7, 1929, the Wheeling Symphony Society met at Vance Memorial Church, and the orchestra was formally organized.
The relationship between Oglebay and the WSO goes back to those early days. Caldwell, considered the founder of the Wheeling Symphony, was also chair of Oglebay Park’s music committee. Decades of programming at the park followed, along with financial support from Oglebay and the Wheeling Park Commission.
The term, “Music Under the Stars” was coined by Henrietta Romine, who supervised many of the Oglebay summer concert programs during the 1930s. Caldwell credited Romine as being a leading force in promoting Oglebay concerts.
Devlin is anxiously awaiting Sunday’s downbeat — his first as music director — at Oglebay Park’s Anne Kuchinka Amphitheatre.
“I am incredibly excited to be conducting my first concert as music director of the Wheeling Symphony on such a special occasion: the 90th anniversary of the organization,” Devlin said.
“Wheeling is a city with a deeply rooted history, and the orchestra is such a large part of that story. We will be performing in the same space at Oglebay where the orchestra first played so many decades ago. Throughout the evening, musical tributes will be paid to that first concert and to those decades that followed.”
The program will open with Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5, the first piece ever performed by the WSO, Devlin noted.
“For this and for several of the other pieces on the program, we are pleased to welcome members of the Wheeling Symphony Youth Orchestra to the stage. This ‘side by side’ experience for our students will be one they never forget!
“We will then be joined by the band Hit Play as we present special arrangements of great popular music through the decades. The first half will close with Gershwin’s iconic Rhapsody in Blue, with piano soloist Nate Strasser, himself a native of Wheeling.
“The second half will open with an important artistic moment, the premiere of Strasser’s new piece, For the Love of Music, commissioned by the WSO for this anniversary concert. Then, as the show comes to an end, Hit Play will return with hits from the ’90s through today,” Devlin shared.
Strasser is no stranger to the Wheeling Symphony.
“I’ve been attending Wheeling Symphony concerts since I was 4 or 5. At first, it may have been a stretch for me to stay awake for a full concert, but that obviously changed as I got older! My love for the symphony and symphonic music led me to a love for John Williams music and other symphonic film music, which eventually led me to pursuing the film scoring program at University of Southern California,” Strasser said.
“My composition, For the Love of Music, is intended to be a musical encapsulation of my musical journey from that first time I heard the Wheeling Symphony up until present day. The piece opens with a big fanfare meant to capture the audience from the first note, much like the first time I heard the Wheeling Symphony in the magnificent Capitol Theater.
“The other theme comes in about [one minute, 30 seconds] into the piece. It represents my musical journey from starting piano lessons, composing my first piece, etc. This theme starts very small and grows throughout as my love and appreciation for music matured over the years and the role the Wheeling Symphony had in cultivating that love,” Strasser explained.
“My hope is that music lovers from all walks of life can relate to the message of this piece as I consider this not just my personal story, but global message of how music can inspire, heal and bring people together,” he said.
Devlin added, “We know that this will be an unforgettable evening of music, but also of celebration. Please join us as the WSO turns 90 — I look forward to seeing you at the symphony!”
“What all of our music director candidates [last season] consistently said is the reputation of the Wheeling Symphony is what drew them to apply. The reputation has been built over the last 90 years. It’s a very good, high-quality regional orchestra. We share our principles with the Pittsburgh Opera and Pittsburgh Ballet … which gives us a very high standard of musicianship,” said Bruce Wheeler, WSO executive director.
“Having a world-class orchestra in Wheeling is an achievement for the whole community and reflecting back on what this means for the city is the purpose of this particular concert,” Devlin said. “However, over the course of the season, we hope to offer a glimpse of what the WSO might look like come its 100th!
“We are championing American music of all types — on both our classical and our pops series. We will feature soloists that embody the future of classical music, including two from our very own orchestra. We are going to offer the audience an unexpected element at every Masterworks performance, and we will continue to bring music out of the concert hall and into the community through WSO on the Go, Symphony on Ice, our educational series and some new initiatives that will be rolled out over the course of the year.
“I am excited to collaborate artistically with the musicians of the WSO, and to work with the community, board and staff to shape the future of what our organization can be for the people of Wheeling who love this orchestra,” Devlin said.
• Early concert venues included The Capitol Theatre, the Virginia Theatre, St. Michael’s Theatre and Madison School Auditorium.
• After just one season at The Capitol Theatre early in the symphony’s history, the orchestra returned to that venue for the 1961-62 season where it has remained, with the exception of a few seasons at John Marshall High School Center for Performing Arts when the Capitol was closed for restoration.
• World-famous guest artists over the years: Benny Goodman. Yo-Yo Ma. Jerome Hines. Van Cliburn. Marian Anderson. Roberta Peters. Robert Merrill. Rudolph Serikin. Eleanor Steber. Itzhak Perlman. Yehudi Menuhin. Artur Rubenstein. Arthur Fiedler (guest conductor). Andres Segovia. Lorin Hollander. Peter Nero. Carlos Montoya. Jean-Pierre Rampal. Judy Collins. Skitch Henderson. Gary Morris. Michael Martin Murphey. Kathy Mattea.
• In the summer of 1937, Antonio Modarelli conducted 12 Sunday afternoon concerts and six Thursday evening performances at Oglebay — attended by 14,000 music lovers.
• Prior to Eleanor Steber’s Metropolitan Opera competition win, she performed on July 21, 1938, with the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra. Steber was featured at the Aug. 20, 1964, Music Under the Stars concert conducted by Robert Kreis. Kreis was auditioning for the position of music director at the time, which he eventually won. Steber returned in January 1976 with guest conductor Arthur Fiedler.
• The first symphony ball, organized by the Women’s Auxiliary, was held in 1949 and termed a “success” in the program booklet for the Feb. 7 concert. Waltz and swing music were conducted by Earl Summers Jr., played by his dance band in the Pine Room at Oglebay. The Viennese Winter Ball — a change in theme and format — was launched in 1981.
• A young Leonard Bernstein conducted the Wheeling Symphony on Feb. 7, 1949.
• The first concert of the Wheeling Youth Orchestra was held on May 8, 1952.
• During the 1973-74 season, the WSO received the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers Award for adventurous programming. Music Director Jeff Holland Cook accepted the award at the American Symphony Orchestra League convention in Memphis, Tennessee.
• Many Wheeling-area musicians have been part of the orchestra: Clara Little Ceo, pianist, and her husband, Stefano Ceo, band director at Triadelphia High School and musical director of the Wheeling Youth Symphony; Sylvan Sax (known as the most youthful member, on one occasion served as concertmaster at the age of 14); Earl Summers Sr. and Earl Summers Jr., whose names are synonymous with the orchestra’s history; Ray Ponzo, violinist; Antonio Luigi Salvatori, brass player; the Gerrero family — father Henry, sons Richard and Robert, violinists (Richard became a member of the WSO at the age of 14); Elaine Young, pianist; Thelma Gitlan, Douglas Haigwood, Jack Randolph, Augusto Paglialunga, vocal soloists.
• Music conductors through the years: Enrico Tamburini, 1929-36; Antonio Modarelli, 1936-47; Henry Mazer, 1947-1960; Henry Aaron, 1960-64; Robert Kreis, 1964-72; Jeff Holland Cook, 1973-85; Rachael Worby, 1986-2003; André Raphel, 2003-17.
Sunday’s anniversary celebration begins at 5 p.m. with the Wheeling Symphony Auxiliary hosting the annual veranda reception on the Burton Porch at Oglebay Park, at the original location of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra’s first concert. (Ticketed event)
Beginning at 6 p.m. in the Formal Gardens, attendees can enjoy dinner concessions, food trucks, a $5 ice cream sundae bar, free Budget Saver Twin Pops and activities for children.
Wheeling Country Day School’s choir will perform at 7 p.m.
The concert begins at 7:30 p.m.
In case of inclement weather, check Wheeling Symphony’s website and Facebook page for more information. The concert is free.
Source: Historical facts and photos courtesy of “For the Love of Music: A 75-Year History of the Wheeling Symphony,” by Edward C. Wolf and Margaret Brennan.
• After nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigal has joined Weelunk as managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.