A Brief History of the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra
By Theodore G. Mihran
February 14, 2001
The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra gave its first concert on Tuesday evening, February 5, 1935, sponsored by the Schenectady Chamber of Commerce. It was conducted by Kenneth G. Kelley, Supervisor of Music in the Schenectady public schools. The concertmaster was Anthony Stefan, who later became its conductor. In a pioneering broadcast on May 7 the second concert was beamed to South America on General Electric stations W2XAF and W2XAD, making it one of the first American orchestras to be heard overseas via short wave radio.
The personnel of the orchestra, then as now, is drawn from the local community, and is comprised of both paid professional and non-paid amateur musicians, such as teachers, engineers, physicians, and local business people. Among our outstanding alumni are Kenneth Schermerhorn, conductor, and Simon Ramo (the “R” in the TRW Company name), engineer. Congratulatory letters from Schermerhorn and Ramo were featured in the 50th Anniversary Program issued in the 1984-1985 season.
Percy Grainger, pianist and composer appeared as guest soloist and conductor on April 27, 1937. The Schenectady Choral Society conducted by Rufus Wheeler also participated in the concert. In 1943 Anthony Stefan became the permanent conductor, and the concert site was shifted from Mount Pleasant High School auditorium to the Erie Theater. In its gala 10th season pianist Claude Frank and violinist Joseph Szigeti were featured soloists with the orchestra.
In the following years many nationally known soloists played with the Symphony: violinists Albert Spaulding, Micha Elman, Berl Senofsky, Misacha Mischakoff, with two appearances each by Ruggiero Ricci and Joseph Szigeti; and pianists Mme. Amparo Iturbi, Alec Templeton, Leon Bates, with two appearances by Percy Grainger.
Many local musicians have soloed with the Symphony, including pianists Juana Fromageot, Stanley Hummel, Pola Baytelman, Findlay Cockrell, and violinists Marianne Pashler, Earl Hummel, George Green and Michael Emery. Numerous local vocal groups have appeared with the Symphony, including the Octavos, Schenectady Choral Society, Mohawk Valley Singers, and choruses from Union College, Skidmore College, SUNY at Albany and Oneonta, as well as high school choruses. Also, the Schenectady Civic Ballet Company and the Orlando School of Dance have been guests. Recently, many outstanding high school pianists and violinists have had the opportunity to solo with the Symphony.
In 1956 the League of the Schenectady Symphony was formed and has become a major contributor to the financial stability of the orchestra. The League sponsors an annual Children’s Concert and hold musical previews prior to all concerts. Beginning in 1964 they have sponsored the Anthony R. Stefan Scholarship Award competition for high school musicians. Recently, the addition of a Mentoring Concert gives high school players the opportunity to join regular Symphony musicians in a concert. In 1995 the Louise DeFeo Parillo Piano Competition was established for pianists from age thirteen through high school.
In 1964 Anthony Pezzano became the conductor of the Symphony, and in 1983 in its 50th season Charles Schneider was appointed conductor. Michael Emery has been concertmaster since 1980, and has appeared often as guest soloist with the Symphony.
Since 1979 the Symphony has performed most of its concerts in the historic Proctors Theater in downtown Schenectady. Recently the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra has been named as the Resident Symphony of the Proctors. In past years the Symphony has given outdoor Pops concerts at Union College and in Schenectady’s Central Park. The concert season consists of four concerts a year, plus a Children’s Concert, and most recently, a Mentoring Concert. Occasionally, a Pop concert is scheduled.
The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra has become a valuable and treasured musical asset in the Capital District of New York State.