The Springfield Symphony Orchestra is the largest MA symphony outside of Boston.
The SSO has a rich history that dates back to 1944, and began with the Symphony’s first Conductor – visionary Alexander Leslie.
The present-day Springfield Symphony Orchestra grew out of a strong interest in the community and the vision of Alexander Leslie, the Symphony’s first conductor. In the early 1940’s, Leslie was the conductor of the Pioneer Valley Symphony, an amateur orchestra located in Greenfield. After several favorable reviews, especially an article that appeared in The New York Times in February 1943, Leslie decided that he might be ready to assume the leadership of a professional orchestra, and Springfield, without an orchestra, seemed an obvious place to start. As a result of discussions with Willard Clark, music critic of the Springfield Daily Union (and the man known at that time as the "Prime Minister of Musical Culture" in Springfield) and members of the Tuesday Morning Music Club, the cultural leadership of the City added its support to the project.
With favorable and enthusiastic community support, Leslie went to work assembling a first-class ensemble. After almost a year of preparation, the SSO gave its first concert on March 5, 1944 in the Municipal Auditorium to the standing ovation of a capacity audience of 3,400. The Office of War Information recorded the program for re-broadcast overseas. Critical reviews in the local press were very favorable and the orchestra was off to a brilliant start.
Leslie, along with others instrumental in establishing the orchestra, realized that the community needed much more than just a symphony. They knew that the City also needed music education beyond what was offered in the schools. That realization led Leslie to establish the Young People’s Symphony in 1944 in collaboration with the Springfield Public Schools, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and the Springfield City Library. For fifty years, the Young People’s Symphony has provided meaningful musical education for thousands of aspiring music students.
Leslie knew that choral music was an important part of any advanced musical community. In recognition of that fact, the Springfield Symphony Chorus was organized when he invited 150 voices to join the Symphony in a performance of Brahms’ “Schicksalslied” on April 22, 1945, Since then, the chorus has performed with the orchestra on a regular basis and has allowed the symphony to present a wider range of offerings to its audience. The tradition established by the Springfield Symphony Chorus continues the City’s legacy of quality presentations that began with the Handel and Hayden Society in the early nineteenth century.
The founders of the SSO realized from the outset that if they were to survive longer than previous orchestras in the City’s history, the organization would need strong and sustained support. Toward that end, Mrs. Douglas Wallace, a member of the Board of Directors, organized the Women’s Symphony League in 1948. Mrs. Wallace served as the League’s first President.
After the untimely death of Alexander Leslie, Richard Burgin, Concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, finished the remainder of the 1954-1955 season. That summer, the Board of Directors appointed Robert L. Staffanson as Director.
Staffanson began his formal musical training in San Francisco where he studied violin and conducting. He furthered his education at Montana State University School of Music, where he received a Bachelor’s of Music and a Master’s of Music. After completing his formal education, he served as conductor of the Billings Symphony Orchestra, while there he developed a youth program and a Symphony Chorus. Under Staffanson’s baton, the Symphony continued the tradition of excellence established by Alexander Leslie. Many important, internationally recognized soloists performed with the SSO, including one of the great American “pianists of the day, Gary Graffman. Through Staffanson’s effort the SSO broadcast a series of concerts on WFUV-FM in New York City.
Continuing the SSO devotion to education, Staffanson initiated a series of discussions prior to each concert in 1956. The following year he organized the SSO Woodwind Quintet, which performed at Carnegie Hall in 1959. By his 14th and final season he had expanded the school outreach program to 80 concerts.
With the 1970-1971 season, Robert Gutter assumed the podium of the SSO. Upon graduation from New York’s High School of Music and Art, Gutter was appointed Principal Trombonist of the National Symphony, a position he held for five years. While in Washington he also launched his conducting career, gaining critical recognition from Paul Hume, Music Critic of the Washington Post.
Prior to his appointment in Springfield, Gutter served as Conductor of the Washington Collegium, the Des Moines Symphony, and the Springfield, Ohio Symphony. After his first appearance here, Paul Conway of the Springfield Daily News commented that, “Robert Gutter showed himself to be an exceptionally fine musician with a sure knowledge of what he wants from his orchestra.”
In later years Gutter received praise from Musical America, which stated that “Gutter has built the Springfield Symphony Orchestra into a major ensemble ...” During his tenure Gutter was recognized for his innovative programs, which led to the commissioning of several works by major American composers, including: Ned Rorem, Michael Colgrass, and Gunthur Schuller.
In 1983, Robert Gutter resigned from the orchestra and was followed by the gifted young African American conductor, Raymond Harvey. Under Harvey’s leadership, the orchestra performed a wide range of repertoire that it had not played; his unusual and interesting programming helped to bring the SSO to new heights musically.
In the early 1990’s, as the nation’s economy and that of Massachusetts went into recession, the SSO struggled for its own financial and musical future. The orchestra re-structured itself from top to bottom, with a shorter season, a smaller staff and a revitalized board; the orchestra also undertook its first endowment campaign.
Following Maestro Harvey’s move to the Fresno Philharmonic in 1993, the SSO undertook a search for a new Music Director, the fifth in the history of the SSO. Mark Russell Smith, the unanimous choice of the search process, led the SSO from 1995 through 2000. The orchestra continued to grow as a brilliant musical ensemble under Smith’s charismatic leadership, as did attendance and support.
As one of the bright lights among young upcoming American conductors, Maestro Smith moved on to a larger regional orchestra, the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, in 2000. Following the search process – the SSO received nearly 175 applications for the Music Director’s job! – Kevin Rhodes was engaged as the sixth Music Director of the SSO. Under his inspired and dedicated leadership, the SSO has become a superb leader of the cultural life in western Massachusetts.
- For more information about the early history of symphony orchestras in Springfield MA (pre-dating the SSO), click here to view a blog post (published 3/5/16) by the Springfield Museums!
- Click here to view details of a new memoir, published by Robert L. Staffanson (Springfield Symphony Orchestra Music Director & Conductor, from 1955 to 1969)