The Springfield Symphony Orchestra (SSO) came to life in the spring of 1934 after a group of Springfield High School students approached their music teacher, James Robertson, about forming a civic orchestra. With Robertson as the conductor, the orchestra performed its first concert on February 26, 1935, in Clara Thompson Hall, on the campus of Drury University. In 1936 a Board of Directors was formed, and beginning in 1943, orchestra members began receiving payment for their services – 50 cents an hour!
In 1942, the Symphony joined 39 other orchestras from across the country in founding the League of American Orchestras, formally known as the American Symphony Orchestra League. The League of American Orchestras is still the largest and most prestigious international body representing the orchestral industry today.
On March 19, 1950, Robertson left Springfield to take over the orchestra program at Wichita (KS) University and upon his departure; David Blumenthal became the second conductor of the SSO. Blumenthal believed strongly that the SSO’s purpose was to offer the city the best symphonic music possible and to allow the musicians of Springfield an opportunity to participate in a community orchestra. Blumenthal served as conductor until 1955 when he left Springfield to further his education back East.
Following Blumenthal’s departure, Chester Moffatt was elected by the board to assume the post of conductor. A native of Plato, MO, he taught high school music in Plato, Conway and Buffalo prior to coming to Springfield in 1941 at which time he joined the staff of the Springfield Public School system as the music instructor for Jarrett, Reed and Pipkin Junior High schools.
In 1956, the Women’s Division of the SSO was established. This dynamic group of volunteers is alive and well today in the form of the SSO Guild, and has been instrumental in many major fundraising projects for the Symphony throughout its existence.
In 1961 a permanent Springfield Symphony Endowment was established for the purpose of investing funds to provide for future needs. Currently the endowment stands at over $2M.
Following the Symphony’s departure from the campus of Drury University, concerts were performed in both Central High School’s auditorium as well as in the Evangel University Chapel Auditorium. Upon the completion of the new Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts in September 1992, the Symphony moved into the new facilities and has performed its subscription concerts there ever since. Through the Symphony’s history, various locations have been utilized for other performances such as chamber orchestra concerts and the annual Young People’s Concerts.
Following Moffat’s resignation for health reason in 1966, Charles Hall was named interim conductor of the Symphony. Twenty-three applications were received for the permanent position and, after researching all the candidates, the search committee recommended that Hall be retained as the permanent conductor of the orchestra.
Under his leadership the first annual Young People’s Concert were presented, the first Young Artists’ Competition was held, the Lester F. and Hanna R. Strauss Music Camp Scholarship Fund was established, the Summer Park Concerts were started and the Ensembles-In-Schools program was also launched. All of these programs, with the exception of the Summer Park Concerts, are still an important part of the Symphony’s mission today.
Following Hall’s resignation in the summer of 1978, Charles Bontrager of Hamilton, Ohio, accepted the position of the conductor. Bontrager was the first conductor in the Symphony’s history to lead the orchestra on a fulltime basis. During his tenure as conductor, the first Carols of Christmas holiday concert was performed. In 1982 Bontrager was instrumental in working with others in the community in establishing the highly acclaimed Firefall celebration. The Springfield Symphony held the distinction of being the only group that had performed in every Firefall from its beginning and the Symphony’s annual Concert in the Sky® accompanied by the fireworks, was the highlight of the daylong festivities.
At the conclusion of the 1993-94 season, Bontrager announced his resignation and the next season saw six guest conductors appearing as finalists for the position of conductor. On June 30, 1995, Apo Hsu was named as the new music director/conductor of the Symphony. The first woman to lead the orchestra, Hsu remained in the position of conductor through the 2002-03 season.
Upon Hsu’s announcement of her pending departure, a national search for her successor was launched in the summer of 2002. One hundred eighty-three applicants from 35 states, the District of Columbia, and five foreign countries expressed interest in her position. Through a lengthy process of elimination, the search committee narrowed the applicants to six finalists who appeared with the orchestra during the 2003-04 season. At the conclusion of the season Ron Spigelman was chosen as the next music director/conductor of the orchestra. With the beginning of the 2004-05 season, Spigelman joined the organization as the seventh conductor and in August 2005 the Spigelman family moved to Springfield, at which time he became the first resident conductor in ten years.
Under Ron Spigelman’s leadership the Symphony became more involved in serving the underprivileged and underserved individuals of the Springfield community through outreach programs including two annual, free matinees and a casual, informative event each Thursday before a subscription concert that showcases the guest artist(s) and the music that will be performed, previously known as Coffee & Classics and now known as Behind the Baton. At the conclusion of the 2011-12 season, Spigelman announced his resignation and a national search to find his successor began.
During the 2012-2013 season, the search for a new music director/conductor began. Six finalists were chosen and each one appeared with the orchestra throughout the season. After an evaluation process, Kyle Wiley Pickett was named as the eighth music director/conductor of the Symphony.
Currently our eighth conductor, Kyle Wiley Pickett, has worked to integrate the community directly into SSO concerts. One notable example is our Salute to Veterans concert in November of 2014. Pickett interviewed local veterans about their war experiences and then played the interviews between pieces, creating a unified work of music and words.
Always striving for new ways to enhance and contribute to the city of Springfield, the Symphony is thrilled to be ushering in a new era in its long and illustrious history; one it hopes will bring an unprecedented level of arts accessibility and relevance to the community.