The Ladies Music Club of Oklahoma City organized the first ensemble to use the name Oklahoma City Symphony Orchestra. Active from 1924 to 1931, this orchestra was an amateur organization supplemented by a small number of professional musicians. Under the direction of Fredrik Holmberg, dean of the School of Fine Arts in the University of Oklahoma, the orchestra had begun to receive recognition for its quality when it fell victim to the Depression economy.
The Oklahoma Federal Symphony Orchestra, commonly shortened to Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra and later referred to as the Oklahoma City Symphony Orchestra, was licensed in September 1937 under the Federal Music Project (FMP) of the WPA. It gave its first public performance in Oklahoma City on 3 January 1938 under the direction of Ralph Rose. Consistent with its mission of serving the entire state, the orchestra performed frequently in outlying communities.
Victor Alessandro succeeded Rose in October 1938 and commenced a vigorous program of strengthening the orchestra, despite the demise of the FMP in 1943. He pursued an extensive performance schedule of regular subscription and outreach concerts that combined traditional repertoire with lighter music and featured the work of American composers. He also initiated regular, nationally broadcast radio concerts on the Mutual Broadcasting System and directed the orchestra in its first recordings.
In 1951 Guy Fraser Harrison became the third conductor and continued to build the orchestra, ultimately receiving national recognition. Harrison continued his predecessor's approach to programming, dedication to American music, and regular radio broadcasts. His main new initiative was in expanding educational concerts. In 1968 the orchestra became a full-time, professional organization.
The orchestra had barely survived dissolution in 1945 as a result of the loss of public funding. Uncertain finances and declining attendance, problems shared by orchestras through the United States, remained constant concerns. After Harrison's retirement in 1972 the difficulties increased steadily. Ray Luke, the orchestra's associate conductor, served as interim conductor for the 1973-74 season and was succeeded by Ainslee Cox, whose tenure from 1974 to 1978 was marked by increasing experimentation in attracting audiences, adventurous programming, and continued financial worries. In 1975 the orchestra's name was officially changed back to The Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra.
Herrera de la Fuente became conductor in 1978, remaining until 1987. De la Fuente reemphasized the orchestra's long tradition of high-quality performances of major repertoire. Despite considerable artistic success, the orchestra's financial condition worsened, so that an unresolved contract dispute and strike resulted in its demise on October 31, 1988.
The Oklahoma City Philharmonic Orchestra was created in late 1988 as a completely distinct organization. Joel Levine, associate conductor of the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra, became conductor of this new, part-time orchestra that included many of the former orchestra's members. Levine continued the tradition of regular and educational concerts and introduced more contemporary music into the orchestra's repertoire.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Mabel Hovdahl Alexander, "Musical Imprints on the History of Oklahoma 1922-1973" (M.A. thesis, University of Central Oklahoma, 1992). "City Orchestra Serves State's Cultural Needs," Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 23 March 1986. "Orchestra Born in WPA Era," Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 3 July 1988. "Prominent Oklahoma City Women Put Over Successful Symphony Orchestra Campaign." The Oklahoma Woman 2 (December 1927).
Sion M. Honea
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