In December 1954, cellist Alvin Dreger received an unexpected phone call from a colleague in Montevallo.
“Let’s organize a symphony orchestra in Huntsville.” The voice was that of conductor Arthur Fraser. Letters were mailed and more phone calls made; two months later, the Huntsville Civic Orchestra met for its first rehearsal.
“I loved those early concerts in the gym at Huntsville High School,” remembers Betty Lawson, age 90, “and I’ve been a symphony subscriber ever since.”
Huntsville warmly welcomed its orchestra from the beginning. But Fraser and Dreger could hardly have guessed that, 64 Decembers later in 2018, the HSO would be preparing to fill a 1,900-seat concert hall to capacity in a New Year’s Eve spectacular featuring John Williams’ scores to the popular Harry Potter and Star Wars film series.
“It’s a source of pride in our community, and it’s a world-class orchestra,” says Gregory Vajda, HSO Music Director since 2011, and an internationally recognized composer and conductor. “The music we create is meant to reach everyone who hears it.”
Mayor Tommy Battle has described the orchestra as a necessity for the city and the experience of live orchestral music as entertaining and enriching. He believes the HSO offers something for everyone and is a place where all are welcome.
“A symphony is one of the three essential top performing arts organizations (symphony, ballet, opera) that add to both the growth of the knowledge class and economy of a city,” said Mayor Battle. “A vibrant arts and culture scene will attract more smart talent, and that helps us grow our economy and make Huntsville a more dynamic and interesting place to live.”
Putting an orchestra on stage requires a lot of capital. “It’s a big operation. Centuries ago, many orchestras were the property of bishops or barons,” says Curtis Lindsay, HSO General Manager and a symphony musician. “But gradually society has come to take a different view. We now see the orchestra and its music as civic investments, assets in which we all can participate and share.”
The HSO belongs to everyone: skilled musicians, generous patrons, concertgoers, and thousands of children who benefit from outreach performances and music education programs.
“We live in one of the most outstanding small cities in the United States,” Lindsay adds. “The presence of the orchestra is both a cause and an effect of that. Absolutely anyone can attend an HSO performance and expect to be awed and moved.”
The history of the HSO is intimately connected to Huntsville’s role in aerospace and defense programs and to the diverse population and economy these institutions have beckoned to the Tennessee Valley. From the very first symphony season, scientists and engineers were found in the audience and in the orchestra itself.
“The music we create is meant to reach everyone who hears it.”
Like most orchestras, the HSO is a nonprofit organization which relies on community engagement. Since 1960, the members of the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra Guild have worked tirelessly to fundraise through events like the annual Symphony Ball and Crescen-Dough Auction. The Guild is also central to the organization and production of Young People’s Concerts attended by thousands of fourth graders each season.
The HSO is steered and supported by a committed 50-member Board of Trustees, and is staffed daily by seven full-time and five part-time employees. Some of its 70 or so musicians are local to the area, while others travel from as far away as New York City or San Francisco. Candidates audition to fill vacancies as they arise, and the process is intensely competitive. Enthusiastic audiences keep commuting musicians eager to return one season after another – as does Huntsville’s lively and eclectic food scene, from deep-fried soul kitchens to authentic Vietnamese fare. (Musicians get hungry, too!)
Sharon Hicks, Director of Education, oversees the HSO Symphony School and its highly successful Third Grade Violin Program. Its teachers bring instruments and beginning violin lessons to classrooms in Huntsville and surrounding communities each and every semester, empowering young people and even creating a few future musicians.
“It’s our joy and our privilege to plant these vital seeds,” Sharon says, “and we hope that the music and its positive effects will last a lifetime. What I most look forward to are the smiles that light up the room when the children draw their bows across the strings for the very first time.”
Collaboration with other local nonprofits and performing arts groups is key. The HSO has recently worked with the Huntsville Botanical Garden, Huntsville Community Chorus, the Huntsville Master Chorale, Fantasy Playhouse Children’s Theater, Theatre Huntsville, the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and Buckhorn High School. Each December, the orchestra collaborates with Huntsville Ballet Company in a full production of The Nutcracker – a favorite holiday tradition.
“A symphony is so many things,” Maestro Vajda notes. “It’s when all these different elements come together that we get something truly special.”