Editorial: The musical miracle that has become the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra | Editorial

As David Stewart Wiley reflected on his 25th season as conductor and music director of the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, he had much to be grateful for – especially for the support from patrons and audiences. as the symphony embarked on “a journey of re-emergence and reopening”.

The culmination of a quarter-century with the symphony coincided with RSO’s return to live concerts after the financially perilous long hiatus from live shows caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Performing arts organizations everywhere had the question of whether audiences would return once restrictions were lifted and large gatherings allowed. The answer turned out to be a resounding yes.

“We had full houses, we knocked it out of the park with our pop season,” Wiley said. The latest show in the 2021-2022 pop series, a tribute to the music of the Eagles, drew 2,000 people.

People also read…

Compared to other Roanoke Valley arts organizations, RSO has arguably been the hardest hit by the pandemic, with operating budget cuts and full-time employee layoffs that exceeded 60%. These cuts, while painful, were necessary to keep the symphony viable without revenue.

Wiley praised RSO Executive Director David Crane and his staff for weathering the pandemic crisis.

“We have a great team. I don’t think we would have weathered the pandemic as well if we didn’t have the team in place,” Wiley said. “A lot of it is about anticipating and dealing with unforeseen circumstances. It’s an interesting new world.

From small rooms to full rooms

He particularly highlighted how RSO staff had to rethink their marketing and outreach efforts. “We need to make it so compelling and be so creative now, with digital marketing and other ways of connecting with people, involving them in what we do.”

A closed venue operator grant has allowed the non-profit symphony to rehire staff as it prepares for a return to live venues in 2021 after a year of virtual performances.

“We started small in the fall because we were still coming out of the pandemic, so it was 12-20 players for some gigs,” Wiley said. At the end of the year, RSO assembled a massive 70-piece orchestra for a performance of Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s much-loved ‘From the New World’.

Wiley said he thinks celebrating the 25th season is really about the return of the orchestra. As a conductor, he is just an enabler for the incredible musicians who are part of the symphony.

The 2022-23 season, which kicks off Aug. 27 with a free “Symphony Under the Stars” concert at Elmwood Park in Roanoke, will be RSO’s 70th.

The Star City Orchestra began as a grassroots effort under volunteer bandleader Gibson Morrissey, with its first-ever concert taking place on March 31, 1953, in the auditorium of Jefferson High School.

The venture continued despite some skepticism, some of which was revealed in how rival newspapers at the time reviewed the show. The Roanoke World-News called the “near-professional” performance a “miracle”, while the Roanoke Times claimed that “any performance would have been a complete triumph”, but Morrissey “made it a true musical triumph”.

Community love and support

Three years later, Gibson founded the Roanoke Youth Symphony Orchestra, which he also led until his unexpected death in 1975. Considered a Roanoke legend, Gibson is to this day still the only historic Roanoke figure honored with a statue made in his image – a small one, which stands inside the Berglund Performing Arts Center.

Clarinetist Jack Moehlenkamp received what was called a “battlefield promotion” to bandleader upon Morrissey’s sudden death. He led RSO until the organization made the leap from community to professional orchestra in 1986. An endowment from Roanoke philanthropist Marion Via enabled the nonprofit organization to hire its first paid conductor, Victoria Bond, the first woman to receive a doctorate in conducting from The Juilliard School in New York.

Bond, who also directed Opera Roanoke, left in 1995 and went on to make a name for himself as a conductor, composer and lecturer. A 1994 Roanoke Times editorial credits him with helping to build “a growing reputation for the Roanoke Valley as a place where the arts in general are enjoyed”.

A series of gigs that doubled as public auditions, involving five contestants, resulted in Wiley’s hiring in 1996. Wiley proved an excellent choice for Roanoke and has since overtaken Morrissey as musical director who led our symphony the longest.

During his time as a conductor, RSO performed with artists like Sir James Galway, Bruce Hornsby, Bernadette Peters, Aaron Neville and many more. Lately – well before the pandemic brought live music to a halt – the symphony has moved from booking big name names to concentrating its musicians’ talents and strength in its local programming, a strategy that is working very well. .

“This community clearly supports and loves its orchestra and choir,” Wiley said.

Star City indeed appreciates the arts – and art comes in many forms, orchestral music being one of them. That this former railway town spawned a rambling citizens’ symphony that still delights listeners 70 years later is indeed a miracle and a true musical triumph.