The Danville Symphony Orchestra is the creation of two community-minded musicians. In the summer of 1967,
Harry and Gail Adams, two local music lovers, vacationed at Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan.
They returned home to Danville, pondering: Why couldn’t a city like Danville have an orchestra?
Dining at the popular Connor’s Restaurant on East Main Street, they began to compile, on a paper napkin, a list of local musicians who might be interested in playing in a symphony orchestra. The first players to come to mind were the members of the Danville String Quartet: Madolyn Norman, Mary Brandt, Earle Roberts, and Ann Stifler.
Then they added private music teachers to the list and a small cadre of music students at Danville Junior College where Harry was teaching a music class. Mary Miller, founding president of the college, was very supportive, saying. “I will see to it that we have an orchestra.” A determined builder of the junior college, there was little doubt that she would bring this idea to fruition. Her purpose was two- fold: community cultural enrichment and the opportunity for college students and area musicians to perform.
First concert program. Courtesy DSO archives.
A notice appeared in the Commercial-News on September 22, 1967: “DJC is going to have an orchestra.” Three months later the orchestra made its debut. In December of 1967 the orchestra, now officially named the Danville Civic Symphony, made its debut with fifty-three musicians playing in the first of two concerts for that season.
Harry Adams, who was an enthusiastic and creative thinker, as well as a musician and good-humored businessman, became the first conductor of the new orchestra. Concerts were free in the early years. Gail, his wife and a flutist, did all the essential behind-the-scenes work, obtaining sheet music, locating outside musicians, publicizing the concerts, helping in every possible manner.
In 1970, the Danville Junior College Symphony Board of Directors was formed by local prominent businessmen, ministers, community leaders and doctors. Hunger for quality live performance grew. Music teachers sent their best students to play with the orchestra and then joined them. By its sixth season in 1973, the Symphony had garnered “great cooperation” from the District 118 Schools, the City Recreation Department, and local businesses. Pride grew as the orchestra grew.
The quality of the performances improved; the opportunity of attending a symphony concert locally became appealing to area music lovers. The social aspect of supporting a real symphony grew. Youth Concerts were established in 1971 with pianist Mark Ferrell as the initial student winner. Often the winners performed with the orchestra as guest artists.
Viennese Ball program. Courtesy DSO archives.
The Viennese Ball, a formal affair as a fundraiser, was first held in March 1971 at the college. It became a much-anticipated event in the social life of Danville. Tickets for the 1972 Ball were $10 a couple. The Symphony Guild was founded in the autumn of 1972 at the request of the symphony’s board of directors. The Guild was immediately popular, with over 250 members, indicating that interest in the symphony was greater than had been realized.
The possibility of selling tickets for the concerts was appealing, both to establish value for the performances, as well as to offset some of the considerable expense of the performances.
In 1975, Carol Smith applied to the Illinois Arts Council for a Technical Assistance Grant for Audience Development. It was awarded and Michael Brotman, director of Krannert Center, was sent by the Arts Council to assist the symphony in their efforts to become more professional and to reach a larger audience. Mr. Brotman and his publicity manager, Jerry Tessin, conducted a day-long study session with the Symphony and Guild boards. The decision was made to have one paid concert that spring with William Warfield as the guest artist and promote it enthusiastically. The concert was very successful, with record attendance.
The symphony was renamed the Danville Symphony Orchestra and the concert season introduced that fall featured paid subscriptions. Income from tickets sales allowed the symphony to feature several guest artists. The concept was well received and concert attendance swelled.
Over the next few years, concerts featuring nationally known artists kept the concert audience at its peak. Artists appearing during that period included Yo Yo Ma, cellist; Shlomo Mintz, violinist; Carol Wincenc, flutist; and the Canadian Brass Quintet. Stars of the Metropolitan Opera appearing included Roberta Peters and Eileen Farrell. Featured dancers from the Cincinnati Ballet thrilled the audience.
Pops concerts were also introduced during that period with one concert each season featuring a well-known artist. These artists included: Dave Brubeck, jazz pianist; Benny Goodman, clarinetist, jazz and swing musician; Doc Severinsen, trumpet; Peter Duchin, pianist; Bobby Short, Manhattan cabaret pianist who grew up in Danville; George Shearing, jazz pianist; Carol Lawrence, Broadway star; and Roger Williams, popular pianist.
With the advent of ticket sales, the symphony began paying the musicians.
The Guild introduced the Allegro Auction in 1974, which raised several thousand dollars in support of the orchestra. The Symphony Belles, a group of seven talented Guild singers, was formed to promote the event and the orchestra at community service clubs. The auction continues to be the major fundraiser for the orchestra to this day.
In 1973 the Guild, working with the symphony, initiated free in-school concerts for all fifth and sixth grade students in the Danville Junior College area. The schools were sent lesson plans in advance of the concerts so the students were well prepared for the concert. The schools bused the students to Danville High School for the concerts. The sixth annual Children’s Concert held in February 1980 brought elementary school children from 39 area schools into the Danville High School auditorium to experience symphonic music, many for the first time. The Children’s Concerts continue to this day, introducing the pleasure of beautiful music to fourth and fifth graders in a sixty-mile radius of Danville.
Through the efforts of the Guild, the orchestra received several prominent awards including Illinois Orchestra of the Year, and the Governor’s Award for the Arts, both statewide awards. The Business Committee for the Arts Award, a national award the symphony received, is given annually to one arts organization in the country with a budget under one million dollars. The DSO was the first orchestra and first Illinois arts organization to receive this honor, which came with a cash award of $5,000. This award recognized the extraordinary support the symphony received from business and industry in the Danville area as a result of a marketing campaign called Symphony Means Business.
Names from the ranks of local residents who played in the early concerts include: Earle Roberts, Linda Dietzen, Donald Colby, Ann Stifler, Mary Brandt, Madolyn and John Norman, Gene and Gladys Adam, Everett Oliver, Carol Clary, Theresa Chestnut, Marilyn Palmer, Frederick Kreidler, Bill Cunningham, Jim Gill, Larry Voorhees, David Parks, and Carol Douglas.
DSO Music Directors 1967-Present
1967-1973 Harry Adams, founder
1974 Peter Nero, Donald Miller,
Richard Aslanian, guest conductors
1975 Richard Aslanian
1976-1984 William Handley
1985-1989 Eduardo Ostergren
1990-1993 Jeremy Swerling
1994-1998 James Ball
1999-Present Jeremy Swerling
Over the past half-century, many musicians have enriched the lives of our local music lovers. Many friends of the Symphony have given their support in many ways. We are fortunate to continue to enjoy the beautiful music of our very own symphony orchestra, which would not be possible without the support of the many individuals, local businesses and industries that have supported the organization for so many years.
Graciously compiled by Sybil S. Mervis & Carol T. Smith