Orchestra Spotlight:
Dayton Philharmonic

Orchestra Spotlight: The Dayton Philharmonic

The Dayton Philharmonic celebrated their 75th anniversary in 2008 and released an anniversary CD (featured here on our Spotlight), but their big celebration was in 2003, when they moved into the new Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center that March and started performing in the breath-taking Mead Theater. In honor of the occasion, they published a commemorative book full of historical photos and the history of the orchestra. I attended the ROPA conference in Dayton in August 2009, and the delegates were given a tour of the arts center. Spectacular, gorgeous, and envy were the predominant comments / emotions.

Mead Theater Mead Theater at the Schuster Center for the Performing Arts - photo credit Jon Neidert (click to enlarge)

Built in a block that formerly housed an empty department store, the Schuster Center was designed by architect Cesar Pelli & Associates of New Haven CT with a very futuristic motif. It includes a 2300 seat Mead Theater, a smaller theater, a restaurant opening into the Wintergarden complete with palm trees set against a block-long, glass-enclosed atrium, and a tower with offices and condominiums above.

The interior was designed to celebrate the role the Wright Brothers played in Dayton's history. The very top of the hall’s dome has a fiber-optic replica of the galaxy, known as the Starfield, as it appeared to Orville and Wilbur Wright the night before their first flight, December 16, 2019. The width of the Starfield is the exact width of the Wright Flyer’s wingspan, and the length from the Starfield to the back wall of the hall is the distance of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. The hall has hundreds of fiber-optic lit crystal knobs lining the entryways and corridors that carry the star theme throughout the hall, for a spectacular yet warm effect.

The DPO was founded in 1933 by Paul Katz, a Dayton violin prodigy who would lead the orchestra for several decades. On their tenth anniversary, they moved from the Victoria Theater into Memorial Hall, and throughout the 40s and 50s the DPO grew in number of musicians and concerts offered. By the late 1950s the DPO was presenting 12 Young People's concerts, causing traffic jams downtown because of all the school buses. Much of the DPO's growth was owed to the generosity of Miriam Rosenthal, who died in 1965; the Miriam Rosenthal Trust Fund continues to support many of the DPO's activities, including its 75th anniversary CD recording. The Dayton Philharmonic made its first recording in 1967 as a fund-raiser for the National Audubon Society.

After 42 years of service, Paul Katz stepped down from the podium in 1975 and, after a search, the baton passed to Charles Wendelken-Wilson (aka Maestro Two-Ws), assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony under Erich Leinsdorf and principal conductor of the New York City Opera. In 1983 the DPO released a commemorative album celebrating their 50th anniversary, Enriching your life with music, and the League reclassified the DPO as a "regional" orchestra (up from "community" orchestra).

In 1987 Isaiah Jackson, former associate conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic, was named the third music director of the DPO. In 1988 the Dayton Concert Band came under the auspices of the DPO and was renamed the Dayton Philharmonic Concert Band -- they continued to give concerts until just recently. This year also marked the 50th anniversary of the Dayton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, celebrated with a performance at Carnegie Hall.

During his seven years as music director, Maestro Jackson forged alliances with the African-American community in Dayton with a new series called "Focus on Our Heritage" featuring Andre Watts, among others. Curtis Long joined the DPO as Executive Director in 1994 and served in that capacity (renamed President) until 2008, when he was succeeded by current President Paul Helfrich.

A music director search resulting in five finalists from 200 applicants culminated in Neal Gittleman accepting the position in 1995: "My mission as the DPO's next music director is to take a very good orchestra and make it a great orchestra."

The DPO launched SPARK (School Partners with Artists Reaching Kids) in 1997 -- a unique program that provides intensive musician interaction with the same classes of children over six years. Gloria Pugh, Director of Education, will be presenting more details in a forthcoming Polyphonic article. The DPO offers more educational programs than any other orchestra in the country -- over 1,000 educational performances a year!

The DPO recorded its first CD in 1999 with the premiere recording of Tomas Svoboda's two piano concertos, with the composer and Norman Krieger at the piano; the CD was released in 2001. Also in 1999, in honor of the Dayton Peace Accords, the DPO welcomed the Sarajevo Philharmonic for an historic Concert for Peace as they began a two-week USA tour.

In 2004 they recorded a CD of flight-related pieces by William Bolcom, Steven Winteregg, Michael Schelle, and Robert Xavier Rodriguez, honoring the Wright brothers' first flight.

The current economy has been difficult for Dayton, as for so many other orchestras, but their 2010 negotiations are concluding with mutual cordiality and an understanding of what must be done to continue the excellence of the orchestra in demanding times.

This spotlight features 7 voices from the DPO:

On Page 2, Neil Gittleman, Music Director, gives his overview of the DPO as he enters his 15th year with the orchestra, lauds the musicians as their greatest asset, and describes the various concert series offered by the DPO.

On page 3, Chad Arnow, Bass Trombone and member of the Players' Committee, talks about the current issues facing the musicians of the DPO, and the relationship of the musicians with management and music director. He also tries to explain the amazingly complicated world of DPO musician contracts -- 9 contracts specifying specific seats in the string section and various principals and assistant principals -- each with a different guarantee!

On Page 4, Paul Helfrich, President, gives a history of Dayton and its current economic situation (late 2009), describes the governance structure of the orchestra, and explains how it was possible for a regional orchestra like Dayton to build such a beautiful hall and make recordings (another coming out in 2011).

On Page 5, John Kurokawa, Principal Clarinet and Chair of the Players' Committee, gives his insights on intra-orchestral politics, discusses those blue denim shirts, and concurs with Neal Gittleman that the musicians are what make the DPO unique.

On Page 6, Wendy Bohnett Campbell, President of the Board, talks about Dayton, why she loves living there, and its economic structure. She is quite proud of the Stained Glass series she helped start, in collaboration with area African-American churches.

On Page 7, Gloria Pugh, Director of Eduation, describes in detail the remarkable education programs presented by the DPO -- they present more educational concerts than any other orchestra in the USA! In particular the SPARK program should be of interest to every orchestra -- Gloria and I are working on a detailed article for Polyphonic explaining in depth how SPARK works.

On Page 8, Colleen Braid, Assistant Principal Viola and a SPARK musician, describes how she puts together the programs she presents to the children.

Ann Drinan, Senior Editor, March 2010

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