Nineteenth Century Evansville was in large part a city of German immigrants. By 1860, 45% of the local population was of German extraction. The Germans brought with them a strong appreciation of music. The first marching bands were established in Evansville before the Civil War. J. S. Baker, a railroad conductor, was the first recorded band leader. As a group, the Germans were more prosperous and more educated than many of the other immigrant groups arriving in the United States at the time. Besides their love of military style marching bands, they also brought with them an appreciation of the German classic composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. In the days before electricity, the only way to enjoy a symphony was to attend a live performance. Many in Evansville hoped that an orchestra could be formed someday.
In 1868 Milton Z. Tinker was hired to be the Director of Music Education for the Evansville public schools. The stern Tinker insisted that grade school children be taught to read music notation and sing on key at the same time they were taught to read and write English. This, as may be expected, generated resistance among the children. “Against their will, he convinced them”, recalled Emily Clifford, a former student of Tinker’s. He remained the music director for the schools for 47 years, until his retirement in 1914, and his education program had a tremendous impact on the musical development of the city. Mrs. Clifford, writing about Tinker many years later, said, “His graduates filled the church choirs with men and women who could read at sight and sing in tune…Do you wonder I call his work the cornerstone of the Matinee Musicale?” The Matinee Musicale was a late 19th century attempt by a woman’s group to bring symphonic music to Evansville.
For Evansville schoolchildren, there had been no escape from Tinker. His music education program was responsible for making just about everyone in Evansville musically literate. A distinctive feature of Evansville’s social structure in the late 1800’s was the popularity of the “Singing Societies” associated with many of the local churches. Regular Sunday afternoon programs were presented by choirs filled with former students of Tinker to enthusiastic audiences, also former Tinker students, who also participated in the singing. The larger Evansville churches of the time competed to see which could have the best pipe organ and player. The combination of the impressive pipe organs and the large choral groups made the Sunday Singing Societies programs popular social gatherings, well attended and remembered by the participants.
In reading the accounts of musical performances from the 19th and early 20th centuries, it is striking how much attention the writers paid to how memorable the performances were. A 19th century appreciator of music might hear a favorite or important composition presented by an orchestra once or twice in a lifetime. A memory of a concert was all that remained. It is no wonder that so much emphasis was placed on a well remembered performance. This was particularly true in the case of symphonic music. The local military style bands could play popular numbers on request. Symphonic music requires a large number of competent musicians, a skilled conductor, and a long period of preparation.
Another problem associated with the development of an orchestra in Evansville was the ability of the community as a whole to provide training on all the instruments required to form an orchestra. The prevalence of the marching bands indicates that there was instruction available for wind and percussion instruments. The local pipe organists provided instruction on keyboard instruments. But instruction for string instruments was a problem. And many string players are needed to form a symphonic orchestra. The struggle to establish an orchestra in Evansville was hampered by the lack of string players.
Tinker himself helped try to form a symphonic orchestra in Evansville. In 1873 The Evansville Symphony Society gave a concert with Tinker and a Mr. C. C. Genung as conductors. These early attempts to form an orchestra were unsuccessful. Tinker’s early instruction in the public schools taught choral music, and it wasn’t until 1917 that instrumental instruction was added to the music program of the school system.
Meanwhile, local organizations brought touring opera and symphonic groups to Evansville. By the 1870’s Evansville possessed an Opera House, and the ever popular marching bands could be enjoyed at Mesker Park or the Apollo open air drinking garden. There was so much musical activity in Evansville, that Mrs. Clifford quotes Frank Gilbert, an earlier local historian, as commenting that “Evansville was always a musical city.” In 1890 a group of Evansville Women established the Matinee Musicale, which utilized local musicians to provide programs of fine art music. The Musicale gave twelve performances a year using local musicians, and was modestly successful during its short life. In a few years, it too failed.
Upon Tinkers retirement in 1914, Miss Ada Bicking became the Director of Music for the schools. Tinker had been known as a kindly but strict disciplinarian, a teaching style that was completely acceptable to the German residents of Evansville. But times were changing, and Miss Bicking tried to instill a love of music in her pupils, using methods less strict. Tinker’s musical program would be replaced with a less demanding one, but the result of his time as music director was that several generations of Evansville residents possessed an extraordinary level of musical education and appreciation.
Tinker’s education program was a key to local interest in fine music. Because of his program, every child in the city had the opportunity to develop whatever music talent they might possess. In recognition of his accomplishment, the city, meaning his former students, dedicated the pipe organ at the Memorial Coliseum in his name. The Tinker Pipe Organ, in deteriorating condition, now awaits restoration at the Coliseum.
In 1917, the school system introduced a formal instrumental music program and hired J. Mitchell Humphreys as the director. Humphreys, a native of Lynchburg, Virginia, had lived in Europe for many years. He received his PhD in Languages from Rostock University in Berlin, in 1903. His dissertation was on the Incan civilization. He was also a violinist of note, and had met his future wife, Johanna Rauscher, at a concert in Vienna where she was the lead soprano in an opera. They fell in love and were married in London in 1906. Hansi, as Johanna was known, was also a well known cellist and soprano in Europe, and had turned down a contract with the opera company in order to marry J. Mitchell, against the wishes of her family.
J. Mitchell had funded his European adventures with a family inheritance, but after 10 years in Europe the money ran out, and he returned to America to become a professor of language at Sweetbriar College in Virginia. Johanna found an apartment in Brooklyn and worked in Vaudeville for a few years, occasionally returning to Europe when she could find work. The Humphreys two oldest children were left in Vienna with Johanna’s family.
Hansi tried to save money from her work as an entertainer to buy their passage to America, but somehow her efforts failed and the two children were stranded in Vienna during the First World War, finally arriving in Evansville in 1921. J. Mitchell, perhaps troubled by the long separation from Johanna, finally left Sweetbriar and found work as a teacher in NY.
J. Mitchell’s correspondence from this time period, between about 1912 and 1917, indicates that he could have easily found work as a language professor. He had employment opportunities from a variety of schools around the country, none of which he accepted. Perhaps he preferred to teach music.
By 1917, Humphreys was 46 years old and was experiencing health problems, including arthritis in his fingers, which increasingly hampered his ability to play the violin. The Humphreys decided to move to the Midwest, and after a brief period in Ft Wayne, J. Mitchell accepted the position as the director of instrumental music with the Evansville Public Schools. He had learned of the opportunity from a friend he had known during his time in Paris, now a resident of Evansville.
The Humphreys opened a school of Music and Language from their apartment, and soon drew the attention of Evansville Society.
The Humphreys soon became influential in the cultural life of the city. As a railroad and river transportation hub, Evansville was a stop on tour for many well known music organizations, and it hoped to develop itself into a cultural center between St Louis and Louisville. The Matinee Musicale groups had faded away, and nothing had come along to replace it.
A new art form, the motion picture, was being presented to millions across the country, and its impact was changing the cultural structure of many small towns such as Evansville. The marching bands were disappearing, but there was demand for music at the new movie palaces that were being built in Evansville. Both the Strand and the Victory Theatres were to have house bands that would accompany the film presentations, or supply music for the many touring vaudeville acts that stopped in the city. Besides her credentials as a cellist and a soprano with an European reputation, Hansi Humphreys was also an experienced vaudeville performer.
The Humphreys School became a social center of Evansville. J. Mitchell, with a PhD from a foreign University, and Hansi, who had rubbed elbows with some of the most well known artists in the world, possessed a sophistication that seemed unfamiliar and exotic to the local residents. Hansi in particular was welcomed into the social life of Evansville and was frequently asked to play or sing at the homes of prominent people. She held tea parties at their apartment on Third St., which was described in an early newspaper report as “Bohemian”. At these gatherings, the students and teachers of the music school would perform as the Humphreys Ensemble, and thus Hansi and the young musicians became known to Evansville Society.
At various times, Hansi served as the music director for both the Victory and the Strand theatre house bands. In 1921, the two children left behind in Europe during the war finally found their way to Evansville, and also became part of the Humphreys Ensemble. J. Mitchell and Hansi had 5 children, Mitchell Jr., Hansi (younger), Henry, Minnette, and Siegfried, all of whom played in the family group at one time or another, and all but one of whom went on to successful careers as musicians. As J. Mitchell, in failing health, became more content to stay at home, it was Hansi who became the most active of the Humphreys.
In 1923, Evansville again attempted to establish a full time symphony orchestra. Little is known of this group, called the Little Symphony Society, but it is known that Hansi was one of the driving forces. Conducted by James Gillette, the organist at one of the local churches, the musicians were drawn from the professionals of the theatre house bands, and from the students of the Humphreys school. After two years of performances, this group also failed.
There is some indication that union problems had something to do with the demise of the Little Symphony Society in 1924. The Musicians Union in Evansville had been slow to establish itself in the early part of the century. Many of the professional musicians were part timer players, and had other full time jobs in trades requiring union membership. The musicians were leery of paying dues to two unions. As the local theaters established house bands, however, more of the musicians became full time professionals and the musicians union became stronger. The Symphony Society was comprised of a mixture of professionals, amateurs and students, and the union may not have approved of the professional players donating time to a group seen as being in competition with other music events in the city. When the Philharmonic was finally incorporated ten years later, most observers of the time credited its success in part to the support of the local musicians union.
The failure of the Little Symphony Society postponed, but did not stop progress in Evansville towards an Orchestra. The ever active Hansi developed the musical talent of the church into a performing group that was often referred to as the Trinity Church Symphony.
And the Humphreys Ensemble continued to grow and perform throughout the region, fueled by an increasing number of string musicians trained at the Humphreys School. The school itself became something of a local phenomenon. The students, along with other musically minded community members, would meet on Sunday afternoons for rehearsals and recitals. The attendees were a mixture of Evansville society figures and students of the school. Earl Harper, of Evansville College, and Paul Schmidt, a local attorney, were part of this circle. Both were later to play parts in the formation of the Symphony. Sometimes people driving by on Sunday afternoons would stop their cars and stand on the street listening to the music emanating from the house on Third Street.
By 1928, the Humphreys group appeared to have a good chance of growing to a full orchestra. However, J. Mitchell Jr. had accepted a position as a violinist with the Detroit Symphony where he remained for the rest of his life. Hansi (younger) married a naval officer and left Evansville. Minnette, taught to play cello by her mother, became a member of the Louisville Symphony. The two younger boys, by 1928, were high school students at Central High School in Evansville. The family, though never prosperous, was well established in the cultural life of Evansville. When J. Mitchell’s medical problems threatened the family with bankruptcy in 1926, friends at the church had organized a benefit concert at the Victory Theatre, the proceeds of which were used to pay medical bills.
Hansi, not quite fifty years old in early 1929, had become a central figure in the music culture of Evansville. Early in the year she underwent minor surgery for a goiter. Although the surgery was successful, she died of complications a short time later. Her unexpected death was a shock to family and friends. The grief stricken J. Mitchell considered leaving Evansville, and applied for a position at a school in Germany, only to change his mind once again. Two of the Humphreys children were still in the Evansville School – perhaps he felt it would have been unfair to move them so far from friends. The Humphreys school continued to operate for many years after Hansi’s death, and provided many musicians to the orchestra. Siegfried was to become the concertmaster later in the 1930s, before leaving Evansville for a career with the Cincinnati Symphony. Henry Humphreys also moved to Cincinnati and became the music critic for the local newspaper. J. Mitchell remained in Evansville and taught violin at the music school he had founded with his wife.
Among the students of the Humphreys School was August Bergman. “Augie”, as he was known to friends, learned to play the violin and was a member of the student orchestra at Central High School. The violin was to become a lifelong passion for Bergman. When the Little Symphony Society was formed in 1923, Augie was one of the violinists, at age 13. Throughout the 1920’s Augie played well enough, even as a high school student, to be prominent in the Humphreys Ensemble. As the group grew in number, he would sometimes be mentioned in newspaper articles as the conductor.
After the death of Hansi Humphreys in 1929, Bergman and some friends from Central high, and from among the Humphreys group, decided to continue playing together informally. The stated goal of this group was to eventually form an Evansville Symphony Orchestra. The small group was to pursue this goal for nearly five years before achieving success.
Occasionally the group would have the opportunity to give a performance, and Bergman would conduct. Bergman would later remember that for two years they only rehearsed, just for the love of the music. Beginning in 1931, the group regularly provided “pit music” for a local theatrical group, the Community Players. Between acts the group would perform the classical pieces they had been rehearsing.
A local attorney, Paul Schmidt, heard them perform. Schmidt, who later became a prominent figure as the director of the local Red Cross during the 1937 Ohio River Flood, was at the time the director of the Evansville Museum. The student group rehearsed in the museum building. As a member of the Humphreys’ circle, he was familiar with the musicians and believed they could be the seed of a full orchestra. He helped them incorporate into a civic organization, called the Evansville Philharmonic Society, with Roger Becker the President, and August Bergman the conductor, August Wessel the Vice President, and Elizabeth Grein as secretary. All of them had been recent students at Central High, except for Miss Grein, who was still a student. With Schmidt’s help, they began an active attempt to build an orchestra. The most striking characteristic of the people who created the Evansville Philharmonic is their youth. Bergman, Wessel, and Becker were recent graduates of Evansville’s Central High. In 1933, William Nation, a charter member of the Orchestra who later became a nationally known concert violinist, was only a junior in High School. They were motivated by their love of music and a desire to see the establishment of a Philharmonic Orchestra in Evansville.
An immediate problem faced by the Philharmonic Society was finding enough capable musicians to fill out an orchestra. Many of the local professional musicians had played with the earlier Symphony Society, and some had played with the Humphreys ensemble. They were eager to participate with the new Philharmonic, but there was a problem. The bylaws of the local musicians union, the American Federation of Musicians Local #35 did not allow their members to play publicly with a non-union band. As a non-profit organization, the new Philharmonic could not afford to pay its own players. Undoubtedly with the help of Paul Schmidt, the new Orchestra was able to make an agreement with the union allowing the professional musicians to donate time. All of the accounts written at the time, and later histories written by the original organizers of the Orchestra, point to this agreement with the union as a key action in ensuring that the Philharmonic did not fade away as the earlier Little Symphony Society had.
In November 1933, an article in the Evansville Courier announced the formation of the Philharmonic Society and the agreement with the union. The first concert was held on January 14, 1934, at the Temple of Fine Arts on Second Street. August Bergman was the conductor and the first piece played was “Overture, Caliph of Bagdad”, by Boieldieu.
The group was beginning to attract the attention of other prominent music lovers, among them Earl Harper, the president of Evansville College. Harper had also been a part of the Humphreys’ circle, and sometimes conducted the Humphreys Ensemble. Evansville College offered classes in music, but did not have a music department. James Gillette, who had been the conductor of the earlier Little Symphony Society, taught Organ and Music Theory at the College. Harper wished to establish a music department at the college, and saw an opportunity to advance his plan while helping the new Philharmonic. He hired Gaylord Browne to be the head of the Evansville College music department, and offered his services to the Philharmonic part time as the conductor, the Philharmonic to provide a portion of his wages. Although Bergman was officially the conductor, he selflessly stepped aside in favor of Harper’s plan, which would provide the Philharmonic with a professional conductor. By the middle of 1934, the Philharmonic had incorporated as a non-profit organization. The two key events that insured the success of the Philharmonic had occurred: The support of the Musicians Union ensuring that the best local musicians could play with the orchestra, and the support of Evansville College, which provided a professional conductor, and by lending the prestige and money raising power of the college, insured the support of the community.
Both of these facts must have been clear to Bergman, Wessel, Backer and the other young musicians who had worked so hard to realize the dream of a symphonic orchestra for Evansville. They had worked towards this goal for nearly five years, and as the dream came to fruition they must have had mixed feelings as the responsibilities were passed to others older and better placed socially. Nevertheless, they supported the changes that came with the involvement of the college and the new conductor. Every organization develops characteristics of behavior that are passed along and become distinctive parts of its culture. A distinctive feature of the Philharmonic culture was established by the young founding members of the orchestra.
The quality of the orchestra was always to be their first consideration.
Gaylord Browne was a native of New York City. He had been recognized as a violinist in Chicago early in his career. He came to Evansville from Valparaiso University, where he was head of the violin department, and where he had conducted the school symphony. In 1940 he travelled to Boston to study with Serge Koussevitzky.
The hiring of Browne was another crucial step in ensuring the success of the new Philharmonic. The Head of Evansville College, Earl Harper, had for some time been interested in creating a music department at the college, and also wished to see the new Orchestra succeed. He had been a part of the social circle centered around the Humphreys School, and had shared in the dream of seeing the establishment of an Evansville Orchestra. The University was to pay half of Browne’s salary and provide half of his time to the Philharmonic. This was a workable arrangement in 1934, although as time passed, Browne found the workload to be burdensome.
The Orchestra that Browne assumed control of in 1934 was limited in size and repertoire. It operated on a very small budget, and deficiencies in musicianship and number of players had to be tolerated. During Browne’s time as conductor, there were a limited number of performances and few guest artists. Guest artists were often orchestra members, such as William Nation, a charter member, who later found national recognition as a violinist after leaving the Philharmonic. Shirley Lang Snethen, also a charter member , was often featured as a soloist on piano, and later become active on the Philharmonic Board. Siegfried Humphreys, J. Mitchell and Hansi’s son, was the concertmaster for a couple of years in the late 1930’s before moving to Cincinnati and becoming a violinist for that symphony. The Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra was featured on national radio broadcasts in the late 1930’s, providing some indication that its skills improved throughout Browne’s tenure.
The Philharmonic Board notes for the late 1930’s reveal a concern on the part of the Board, and particularly conductor Browne, that the number of musicians needed to be expanded. The musical staff of the Philharmonic was drawn from several sources. Many were instructors and students from Evansville College. A few were promising High School students. Others were professional musicians, union members drawn from local bands, such as the house bands for the local theaters. With the coming of motion picture sound, and the corresponding decline in the popularity of vaudeville, the local professional bands began to disappear, which affected one of the talent pools the Philharmonic had drawn from. In addition, the distinctive emphasis on music in the Evansville schools had relaxed considerably since the retirement of Milton Tinker many years before, which led to fewer students with an interest in music arising from the public school system.
A solution proposed by Browne in 1939 was to try attracting talented musicians from among European refugees who had come to the east coast (particularly New York City) to escape from German occupied countries. Browne was sent to New York to locate some musicians, with the promise that every attempt would be made to find them local employment in Evansville. Two refugees, a Dr. Vogel and a Mr. Stern were brought to Evansville with this understanding, and both were assisted in finding employment in local businesses. Unfortunately, Dr. Vogel’s employment ended after the first Christmas holiday, and soon Mr. Stern also was left unemployed. The U.S. economy was still depressed, and no other work could be found for Dr. Vogel and Mr. Stern. After some heated correspondence between Dr. Vogel, Browne and the Board, Vogel became disgruntled and left Evansville.
The outcome of the attempt to expand the Orchestra was disappointing to the Board, which initially had been excited by the possibility of attracting European musical talent. The Board was also very distressed by the plight of the unfortunate Dr. Vogel. Vogel blamed Conductor Browne for not living up to the bargain that attracted him to Evansville. The Board decided to abandon the idea of placing refugee musicians in Evansville and looked for other ways to expand the Orchestra. Browne, who was acutely concerned that the lack of musicians was hampering the development of the Orchestra, placed three proposals before the Board for solving the problem. The first was to continue looking for 15 to 20 unemployed musicians and attempt to find local employment for them, with the stipulation that this time only Americans be considered. The second was that the Board compress the Orchestra season into eight weeks, and hire professional musicians to fill out the orchestra for a three performance schedule. The third proposal was that the Board hire four musicians to form a string quartet, the members of which could supplement their incomes by teaching stringed instruments to local students and helping to further train the weaker string players in the orchestra. The Humphreys School had been a primary source of string players for many years, but J. Mitchell was in declining health had become less active as an instructor. Browne also mentioned, in these discussions, that he was finding it increasingly difficult to devote the proper amount of time to the orchestra due to the increasing burdens of his job for the College.
The Board was reluctant to adopt the last two of these ideas, for the particular reason that it would fundamentally change the nature of the orchestra from a volunteer, community organization, into a more cosmopolitan one. This illustrates a central conflict that has been present throughout the life of the Philharmonic – how to balance the desire for the Orchestra to remain a local effort, with the equally strong desire for the Orchestra to become the best amongst its peers. The Board meeting notes are mute regarding the decision taken to solve this problem, but it is clear that the situation remained unresolved.
The problem of finding an adequate number of musicians only got worse as the country began to mobilize for the coming world war. From the beginning, the Philharmonic had been staffed by volunteers, both professional and amateur. Recognizing that the musicians had expenses relating to performing in the Orchestra, the Board had, on occasion, divided any excess funds from ticket sales among the players, based on a scale that paid more to the professionals, and the least to the high school students, with deductions for missed rehearsals. In 1935, for instance, $194 was divided up by the musicians. In 1940, $550 was available to divide among the musicians. But by 1940 the Board was forced to consider whether it would be able to maintain its status as a volunteer organization or would have to hire professional musicians. The American entry into the Second World War further complicated matters by drawing musicians away from the orchestra, either into the military, or into defense related industry. In addition, Browne’s, dual position as head of the music department and conductor of the Philharmonic had proven to be too much work, and he decided to find a different job. He left Evansville College and the Philharmonic in 1943 to work for Republic Aviation in the Personnel Department. The Board was now forced to look for a new Conductor.
Because of the war, many musicians who might have joined Philharmonic were now unavailable because they were either involved in wartime production, or had been drafted into the military. Attendance at concerts was low for a variety of reasons mostly related to the war. Even rehearsals were a problem. Extra gasoline had to be requested in order for the musicians to be able to travel to the rehearsal site, and the younger players needed permission slips from the Board to be able to stay out after curfew time. After Browne left the orchestra, the Board was faced with the difficult task of finding a new conductor.
George Dasch began his career as a musician with the Cincinnati Orchestra in 1895 as a violinist. A resident of Chicago at the time he was selected to conduct the Evansville Philharmonic, Dasch was an experienced conductor of small town orchestras, having been associated with the Evanston, Joliet, and Waterloo, Iowa Symphonies. Dasch agreed to conduct in Evansville on a part time basis, teaching at Evansville College, and rehearsing the Philharmonic one day a week, and commuting from Chicago by train. Although Board notes from this period have not survived, it is likely that the Board felt fortunate to have found Dasch. He was highly experienced, and as the conductor of a Chicago metropolitan orchestra was fairly well connected. Since the military had swept the country of younger men for wartime service, it was unlikely a better candidate was to be found. In spite of his status as a part time conductor, Dasch was able to have a favorable impact on the Philharmonic during his nearly ten years of association with Evansville.
During this period the Evansville Musicians Club also became a key supporter of the Philharmonic. A women’s organization, the Musician’s Club originated in the early 1920’s to promote music events in Evansville. The Club presented a concert series of guest artists each year and had been responsible for bringing many top performers and symphonic organizations to the city. During the war, the Philharmonic and the Musician’s Club contracted to pool their resources in view of the difficulties faced by both organizations in mounting performances. Since the Musician’s Club had a good deal of experience in booking outstanding professional artists from around the country, the agreement turned out to be very advantageous for the Philharmonic. Guest artists became a feature of nearly every performance, and after the war, the top names began to attract a wider Evansville audience to the Philharmonic. In 1953, at what is regarded as the most significant concert of Dasch’s tenure, Marian Anderson, the famous African- American Contralto, sang with the Philharmonic.
After the end of the war, Dr. Dasch signaled his intention to retire at some point in the near future. Bill Knapp, long time clarinetist for the Philharmonic, described Dasch as a “kindly gentleman, mild mannered and loveable”, an appraisal agreed to by all. He continued his weekly train trips to Evansville for many years after the war, but finally age and poor health persuaded him to curtail his activities. April 21, 1952 was declared George Dasch Day in Evansville. It was the date of the final concert of the season, with Morton Gould as the guest artist. During the intermission, Dasch was honored by his Evansville friends. Shortly afterwards, he notified the Board of his decision to retire after the next season.
After the retirement of George Dasch, the Board once again faced the task of finding a new conductor for the 1953-54 season. No longer burdened by the constraints of the wartime economy, the Board looked for a younger, more aggressive conductor. The Philharmonic now had many years of experience with guest artists, and had been able to attract top talent. The Orchestra was still basically an amateur organization. Many of the founding musicians remained. August Bergman, August Wessel, and Roger Becker still played with the orchestra and were active on the Board of Directors. The Philharmonic was still a community organization, and Evansville had reason to take pride in the fact that a small town orchestra was competent enough to attract high quality guest artists. But the Board felt that a major step forward could be taken by the selection of the new conductor. No one was unhappy with service of Dr. Dasch, but he was only present a day or two at a time, and had been unable to exert the full influence of a professional conductor. Meeting notes from the early 1950’s indicate that the Board wished to hire a conductor that would take responsibility for improving the orchestra. The Board would take responsibility for financial matters, and the conductor was to be responsible for the music.
There were several candidates for the conductor’s position, among them Wesley Shepard, Dasch’s assistant conductor. The other candidates were eliminated for a variety of reasons, and Shepard had himself removed himself from consideration. The Board enlisted the help of Thor Johnson, the conductor of the Cincinnati orchestra in making a final decision. A young conductor named Minas Christian was selected for the 1953-54 season. Christian, born to Greek parents, had been raised in Kansas, and at the time of his selection was the conductor of the University of Arkansas’s Symphony Orchestra, where he also taught violin. The agreement with Christian was similar to that enjoyed by Gaylord Browne. Evansville College was to pay half of the conductor’s salary, and Christian would teach violin at the college.
Christian came to Evansville full of energy and immediately placed his stamp on the Philharmonic. He personally and privately auditioned each member of the orchestra, and eliminated musicians, some of whom were charter members, that he felt were not proficient. Many of the eliminated players were also either students or faculty at Evansville College. He then took the step that the Board had been unwilling to take many years earlier, and selected musicians from outside the community, primarily from Indiana University in Bloomington. Lincoln Hale, a member of the Philharmonic Board, was the president of Evansville College at the time. Board notes indicate that before the retirement of Dasch he had considered severing the ties between the College and the Philharmonic. Unhappy with the controversy surrounding the personnel changes, Hale informed the Board that the college would not retain Christian as an instructor, and would no longer be associated with the Philharmonic.
The Philharmonic Board was now confronted with a variety of problems unlike any they had faced before. Christian, unlike the kindly Dr. Dasch, had an abrasive personality and had quickly become unpopular with some musicians and Board members. The influx of new musicians did not help the morale of the Evansville players. The withdrawal of support from the College immediately created a financial problem, since they had paid half of Christian’s salary and provided some administrative services. The new conductor would not back down. He felt the changes were necessary in order for the Philharmonic to continue to attract the high quality guest artists that were starting to consider Evansville a worthy venue. Mr. Bernard Schultz, later to be the Director of the Board, endeavored to solve the financial problems. He was able to find enough support to make up the shortfall by canvassing local businesses for extra contributions. At that time, the Philharmonic performances were held mainly in the Memorial Coliseum. The Vanderburgh County Commissioners decided to allow the use of the Coliseum offices by the Philharmonic. The Board now had to decide whether or not to support Christian’s program.
The first concert of the newly formulated orchestra in September 1953 tilted the balance in favor of the new conductor. Under Christian’s direction, the quality of the Philharmonic was significantly and noticeably improved. The Board was happy with the result and never considered removing Christian. In time, relations with Evansville College would be mended, but the orchestra would never be the same, and musicians from outside the community have played an increasing role ever since.
The Board had always been aware that a city the size of Evansville would find it difficult to fill the roster of a symphony orchestra from within the community. Only the largest metropolitan communities are able to find enough musicians of high quality from within their ranks to form a full sized symphony. The Board had tried to import musicians into the community prior to the war, with poor results. When the war ended in 1945, the Board had moved to hire more professional musicians. The new conductor desired to obtain the best musicians from whatever sources he could find them. Realizing that this had become a necessary step, the Board supported Christian.
The final result of the controversy was that, unlike the conductors before him, Christian was now able to devote all his time and energy to managing the Philharmonic. He was no longer tied to responsibilities at the College, and he enjoyed nearly complete artistic control of the orchestra. Under his direction, the Philharmonic activities expanded dramatically throughout the 1950’s.
An early action of Christian’s was to request that the Board expand the concert season from four concerts to five. Under his influence the Board also planned a series of youth concerts. Christian also suggested changes to the Philharmonic bylaws to encourage greater participation by Board members in operational matters. Board minutes indicate that Christian’s first years with the Philharmonic were times of great change and reflect the creative energy he put into his work. The Board had given him a considerable amount of power and he found ways to use it.
Christian took a keen interest in youth activities. An aggressive program of youth concerts was initiated in the early1950’s, and by 1958 the Board had plans for a youth orchestra, which operated for several years. Gaylord Browne’s idea of a professional string quartet was also revived and brought to fruition in 1958. Christian was instrumental in the formation of the Civic Chorus in 1955.
He was given further time to exert his creative energy when the Board hired Seymour Sokolof as the first business manager of the Philharmonic. Mr. Sokolof’s tenure was short: he was forced to resign later in the year due to health problems. He was quickly replaced by John McLane, who had previously worked for the Evansville newspaper.
Christian also hosted a weekly radio program. He frequently reminded the Board that this was volunteer work for which he received no compensation. The newly revitalized Philharmonic inspired new interest from the community, and attendance improved significantly.
In the early years, the pre-Philharmonic first performed in the Temple of Fine Arts. The enthusiastic response to the first concert convinced them that they would need to find a bigger hall. The first official performance of the newly incorporated Philharmonic under Gaylord Browne occurred in the Reitz Memorial Auditorium. For many of the first years, space at the public high schools was utilized for rehearsals and performances. High school auditoriums were frequently used for concerts throughout the 1930’s and 40, with the Memorial Coliseum being used for concerts expected to generate higher attendance. In the 1930’s, a radio broadcast heard nationwide originated from the Coliseum.
In 1953, the Marian Anderson performance, one of the last under conductor Dasch, had been held in the Coliseum with 3,000 in attendance, the largest crowd of the early Philharmonic.
Prompted by the renewed interest in the Philharmonic after Christian became conductor, the Board decided to hold all future concerts in the Coliseum. Attempts were made in the mid 1950’s to improve the acoustics by building a shell on the stage, which endangered the Orchestra members when a large piece fell from above during a rehearsal. The Board soon discovered other problems with the Coliseum. The stage was too small to hold the Orchestra and the Chorus, and the audience could not see the stage well.
In the 1967, performances were moved to the Vanderburgh Auditorium, where the Philharmonic remained for the rest of Christian’s time with the Philharmonic. However, the conductor still preferred to rehearse in space provided by the high schools.
Christian served as the conductor for 26 years, and during his time many notable guest artists performed with the Philharmonic. Pianist Van Cliburn performed twice, and in 1971 Aaron Copland was a guest conductor, performing his own work. The list of guest artists for Christian’s tenure is a catalog of the musical talent of the time. Roberta Peters, Itzhak Perlman, Beverly Sills, and Yo-Yo Ma are just a few of the names that passed through Evansville. Correspondence available from this time indicates that Christian was well respected and was on familiar terms with many of the guest artists. Evansville had reason to be proud of its Philharmonic Orchestra.
During his long tenure, Christian had many fine achievements to look back on. But by the late 1970’s he had become increasingly unhappy with the Board’s attempts to modernize the Philharmonic. He was not particularly fond of the “Pops” concert programs, and in particular disliked playing at the Mesker Park outdoor auditorium. Never one to hide his opinions, he became more argumentative at Board meetings. Christian had been so careful in the beginning, auditioning each musician personally. But by the 1970’s he selected musicians based on other people’s recommendations, and the lack of attention could be heard in the music. Attendance at Philharmonic events began to decline. Nearby Owensboro, KY had recently established its own symphony orchestra, and Christian may have blamed his problems on this unwanted competition. He was unhappy with Evansville players who were also members of the Owensboro Symphony, and discouraged efforts to coordinate concerts so that the Owensboro programs did not conflict. The bad feelings finally simmered to a boil.
In 1979, in a dramatic move, the Board asked for Christian’s resignation. Christian was bitter over his dismissal. Nevertheless, following the tradition of others in the Philharmonic, he agreed to complete the current season. The music always came first.
The Board now faced the worst crisis of its existence. The Philharmonic was $70,000 in debt, and it was questionable whether it could continue as a civic organization. Christian’s removal was widely criticized by the press, and the Board was accused of having acted rashly and in secret. The morale of the musicians was low. The Board seriously considered shutting down the Philharmonic. Gilbert Graves, the Board president, was later credited with saving the situation. He organized a meeting of local prominent people and businessmen and explained that Evansville was about to lose one of its brightest cultural jewels unless financing could be found to cover the budget shortfall. By end of the meeting, Graves had been promised enough funding to continue operations. The next order of business was to find a new conductor. Shirley Lang Snethen, who had been the pianist for the first concert in 1934, was asked to head a search committee. It was decided to use the upcoming season to audition a series of guest conductors. Stewart Kershaw, who was the last conductor auditioned, was selected in April of 1980.
Kershaw was born in Oxford, England in 1941. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and at the time of his selection was the music director for other orchestras in Paris, Stuttgart, and Kyoto. He had previously conducted mainly for ballet, and his wife had been a dancer. He was hired on a two year contract, and the Board was aware that he would probably not be a permanent fixture in Evansville. Nevertheless, Graves stated that “We were lucky to get him”, and expected him to rebuild the Philharmonic.
Kershaw faced a situation similar to that faced by Christian in 1953, and applied a similar solution. Another influx of performers from outside of the community resulted. By the time of the first performance under Kershaw, new musicians composed one third of the orchestra. Charles Schuerger, a Board member at the time, was later to comment that from among the fine conductors considered for the position, Kershaw was chosen because it was felt that he had the charisma to unite the orchestra using persuasion and charm. Kershaw was able to make the difficult changes without the turmoil that had occurred in 1953.
The Board, although endorsing the personnel changes, still clung to the idea of keeping the Philharmonic a community organization. Kershaw agreed with this idea, believing that more cohesion exists in an orchestra with permanent long time members. Relying on the University of Indiana musicians meant that the personnel would be changing continuously as college students graduated and left the area. It was hoped that the University of Evansville would provide musicians with local ties. Kershaw, no doubt mindful of this issue, commented in 1983 that U of E had promising students that could help achieve less reliance on Bloomington for musicians. The conflict between the desire to remain a community organization, and the desire to have an orchestra that is the best in its class, continues to this day.
Beginning in 1967, the Philharmonic’s home had been the Vanderburgh Auditorium, a modern hall considered an improvement over the aged Memorial Coliseum. However, Vanderburgh was known to possess faulty acoustics, and the new conductor took an interest in improving the sound quality. A two piece shell had been installed on the stage to help project the sound, but in 1983 an engineering firm was employed to suggest improvements. The county appropriated $160,000 to spend on a new shell in 1984. By this time some in the community were beginning to look at the old Victory Theatre as a future home for the Philharmonic, an idea that was quickly endorsed by Kershaw.
In 1984 the Philharmonic celebrated its 50th anniversary. On the program that year was a composition written by Henry Humphreys, the son of J. Mitchell and Hansi. Henry had become an influential music critic in Cincinnati. The guest artist for the harp solo in the piece was Elaine Humphreys Cook, J. Mitchell and Hansi’s granddaughter. J. Mitchell had passed away in 1948. August Bergman died after a prolonged illness in 1967. He remained a performing member of the Philharmonic until the end of his life. The Philharmonic had been his lifelong passion. Gaylord Browne moved to California and passed away in 1974. August Wessel had passed away in 1982. Roger Becker was still alive for the 50th anniversary, as were some of the other charter members, all of whom had reason to be very satisfied with what they had conceived and built.
After staying with the philharmonic for more years than many expected, Kershaw finally resigned his position in 1988. The Board had hoped he would remain long enough to rebuild the Philharmonic, and indeed, he had.
In 1989, after a year-long search for a new conductor, the Board named Alfred Savia as the Philharmonic’s fifth Music Director. A native of Livingston, New Jersey, Savia is a graduate of Butler University’s Jordan College of Fine Arts and had studied conducting with Franco Ferrara and Otto Werner Mueller. Savia came to Evansville with many years of conducting experience having worked with the Omaha Symphony, Florida Philharmonic, New Orleans Symphony Orchestra, the Florida Symphony, and the Orlando Opera.
Unlike the previous two conductors, Savia inherited an organization that was well funded and operationally sound. Under his leadership the organization expanded its activities to include a youth orchestra program in 1993 (realizing Minas Christian’s dream), a Music Alive residency with composer David Ott in 1994, the formation of the Eykamp String Quartet in 2002, annual performances of Handel’s Messiah and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet in collaboration with the Evansville Dance Theatre. Savia’s energy and passion inspired other program initiatives including Gospel Night concerts, Family/Casual Classics Series, Side-By-Side concerts with the youth orchestra and professional orchestra, fully staged operas, outdoor concerts, and chamber orchestra performances in Vincennes and New Harmony, IN.
In 1998, the Philharmonic returned to the hall in which the Little Symphony Society had started: the newly restored Victory Theatre. Restoration of the Victory included special attention to perfecting the acoustics of the theater, as well as restoring it to its original aesthetic grandeur. Restored at a cost of nineteen million dollars, it reopened in 1998 with a performance by the comedian Carrot Top, much to the chagrin of the Philharmonic Board which had wanted the reopening reserved for the Philharmonic. (Carrot Top’s appearance was criticized by some as inappropriate for so grand a venue. And yet, the first performances in 1921 were provided by a dimly remembered silent film and four vaudeville acts.) Nevertheless, the Philharmonic returned to the Victory on September 26, 1998 under the baton of Alfred Savia in a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 “Choral” with the Evansville Philharmonic Chorus.
During Savia’s tenure guest artists appearing with the Orchestra have included Joshua Bell, Emmylou Harris, Jon Nakamatsu, Marvin Hamlisch, Leila Josefowicz, Edgar Meyer, Rosemary Clooney, Jon Manasse, Sandi Patti, Alexander Toradze, Amy Grant, and the Eroica Trio to name a few. One of Alfred Savia’s goals is to indentify emerging talent by engaging young guest artists whose careers are on the rise. For example, on Opening Night of its 75th Anniversary Season (Sept. 12, 2009) the Philharmonic featured Yeol Eum Son of Korea, the Silver Medalist from the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition.
Over its 84 year history, the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra has grown to become one of the finest regional orchestras of its kind in the country reaching thousands of audience members young and old. The Orchestra continues its Classics and Pops series to critical acclaim, the Evansville Philharmonic Guild continues to host its ever-popular Young People’s Concerts for grades 3 to 5 and Lollipop concerts for pre-school and kindergarten-age children, chamber ensembles perform outreach programs throughout the region in 2007 the Philharmonic formed its newest volunteer group, the Crescendo Club and in 2016 the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra incorporated Tales & Scales, an innovate troupe, into their already well established educational programming as a way to extend the orchestra’s outreach and to engage the community in the powerful experience of live symphonic music.