Symphony No. 50--The roots and genesis of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra
Brooklyn-born Aaron Copland won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1945 for his ballet, “Appalachian Spring.” Eighteen years earlier, Lamar Stringfield of Asheville had won a fellowship from the Pulitzer Prize jury for “the student of music in America who may be deemed the most talented and deserving.”
Stringfield, the committee noted, already had forty-one compositions to his credit, “many of which have been constructed by the use of folk music that has been preserved by the mountaineers of Western North Carolina.” The fellowship would yield his orchestral suite, “From the Southern Mountains.”
Stringfield was ahead of the curve.
“It is surprising that Stringfield’s name is not better known and his influence better acknowledged, in Appalachia at least,” wrote Douglas Nelson in his 1971 Chapel Hill dissertation, “The Life and Works of Lamar Stringfield (1897-1959).”
The Asheville Symphony acknowledges Stringfield as it opens its 50th anniversary season, September 18. Included with the program will be a book of memories, written by Arnold Wengrow from interviews with long-time participants.
Stringfield had been alive when the new Asheville Symphony had begun as an application for incorporation in 1958. By the time of its first concert in 1961, he was already two years dead.
The new organization took its name from the one that Stringfield had organized in 1927, when he had twenty-four musicians combine for a big, conducted sound. Five years later, he left to establish the North Carolina Symphony, the first state symphony in the country.
Stringfield’s historic achievements depended upon the development of great musicians, the presence of strong conductors, and an inclusion of contemporary orchestral music—principles that the current Asheville Symphony carries forward.
The roots of this movement rest in Asheville.
A local genius' raising
Stringfield and his bunch played instruments a lot when he was a boy here. During World War I, when he was twenty, he played cornet and flute for the North Carolina Regimental Band, composed mostly of boys from Western North Carolina.
“The bandsmen,” Nelson writes, “served also as first-aid litter bearers assigned to the Medical Corps with the duty of picking up the wounded.” Joseph DeNardo, Stringfield’s bandmaster, recalled in an Oct. 22, 1967 issue of the Asheville Citizen-Times that the band members had brought in casualties from the front in France at the rate of one every fifteen minutes.
It was during this period—when a release from horror was necessary—that Stringfield switched from cornet to flute, made remarkable progress in his playing, and began composing music.
He asked DeNardo, “If you take mountain music, would it be all right to put it into art song?”
Stringfield subsequently studied in Paris and conducted in New York. He won a prize for his flute and string quartet piece, “Indian Legend,” based on Cherokee themes. He performed Charles Griffes’ “Poem for Flute and Orchestra” at the Institute of Musical Art (now Julliard), featuring an American work for the first time in the school’s history.
To Asheville to start a symphony
On June 1, 1927, the announcement: “Come to the Plaza Theatre,” appeared on invitations from Stringfield for the first performance of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra. Among other things, he’d be conducting, “Mountain Song” from his suite, “From the Southern Mountains.”
Stringfield went on to pioneer many fields of musical endeavor: a folk institute, music therapy, collaborations with vocal mountain music, an amateur symphony orchestra, and a national symphony society. In 1942, he put his effort—seventy-six hours a week—toward ending World War II by working in an airplane factory.
The post-war period was Stringfield’s time of decline. He applied for teaching jobs, and was denied because he didn’t have a teaching degree. He continued to compose music, including songs for Hubert Hayes’ outdoor drama, “Thunderland,” but failed to get good income from it by promoting his song, “Daniel Boone,” as a pop single.
His health worsened. He began to feel hopeless about his influence. At the same time, the incorporation papers went in for “The Little Asheville Symphony Inc.” (“Little” was removed from the name in 1961.)
Stringfield died on January 21, 1959, and is buried in Riverside Cemetery.
The symphony’s rebirth involves personal stories
When John Bridges, 29-year-old theater and music enthusiast, returned home from New York City in 1956 and stepped off the train at the Asheville depot, he soon found himself in the midst of a renaissance.
Musicians hungry for an orchestra were gathering in the basement of Beth Ha Tephila to perform what they could: suites and overtures. The funding drought of the 1930s and ‘40s had made Lamar Stringfield’s 1927 Asheville Symphony Orchestra a long ago idyll.
“The first concerts that I heard were dreadful,” Bridges recalls about the mid-50’s get-togethers. “But we said, ‘We’ve got to get it started.’… It was more like a club. We had to beg people in advance, ‘Please come,’ so we could have a few people in the audience.”
Within a short time, the growth of what would become the current Asheville Symphony started.
Margaret Ligon, head librarian at Pack Memorial Library, hired Bridges to direct programs from the newly renovated basement in the library on Pack Square. His friendships led him to Joe Vanderwart, a pianist; and Helen Sorton, who would become the nascent group’s executive director.
Vanderwart knew all the musicians. He played in ensembles in people’s homes as well with the infant orchestra in spaces provided by the synagogue, the Asheville Middle School, and the First Presbyterian Church.
Asheville was his second chance at being a music maestro.
Vanderwart's former life
In the 1930s, Vanderwart had made a living playing piano with groups in Bavarian living rooms. Then, in 1939, the Nazis notified the Jews in his town to report to a center.
“He knew what it meant,” Bridges says about his friend, “but he went anyway. When he got there, the man in uniform who was checking everybody in was one of the people he had played concerts for.”
Without showing any signs of recognizing Joe, the officer told him, “You’re not in the age group. Go quickly.” Joe left and hid until he could get passage to New York, where he made ends meet by selling vacuum cleaners.
Joe met Jeanette Goldberg in New York. In the 1950's, they moved to Asheville, where Joe was employed in the lumber business.
Helen Sorton, a string bass player, came to Asheville after having served as the publicity chairman of the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte. She established a regular schedule of what was at first called the Asheville Little Symphony. She persuaded city manager, Weldon Weir to give her an office in City Hall.
She initiated a fund-raising drive, which in turn compelled the symphony’s improvement. In 1961, the group hired Thomas Cousins, a composer and Brevard College instructor, to serve as the first continuing conductor. The word “little” was dropped from the symphony’s name.
The triumph, including the inaugural concert, Oct. 17, 1961, was the result of a new level of interest, organization, and funding in town. Talent had resided for a while.
Grace Potter Carroll, a pianist who had studied with Theodor Leschetizky, Paderewski’s teacher, taught select students in Asheville. Handel’s “Messiah” and the Rhododendron Parade involved large choruses and bands.
Frank Rutland, one of the symphony orchestra’s founders, took time off from his career as a chemist to play violin in small groups; and Jane McEntire, who worked for Hayes & Hopson Auto Supply, performed as a contralto.
At at least one of the small group performances, Lamar Stringfield, the genius of the earlier symphony, showed up. Arnold Wengrow, a symphony historian, has tracked down the diary of the then conductor, Sol Cohen, to the University of Illinois with the help of archivist Ryan Ross.
“The largest group yet,” Cohen wrote on Oct. 27, 1958 about that night’s rehearsal. “The little room upstairs in the Presbyterian Church completely filled. No Frank Rutland, no music, so I asked Lamar (Stringfield) to take over.”
When Stringfield left, Cohen took over. “I had to despite my resolution to quit,” he wrote.
“Well, it was rather a triumph,” he noted, “and Agnes (Whitman), who was there as acting concertmaster, was sweetness itself. Love apparently ruled, and I have never felt such a sense of power. Mozart g minor, Bach, all went with rhythmical precision and a dynamic force that was new to me. . . The whole evening was a revelation of harmony and joy.”