The Southern Tier Symphony's Founding Music  Director/Conductor is John Whitney


“Taste of Italy” Launches Symphony’s

2011 -2012 Season Opener

by Gary Stith

 Oct. 1, 2011

            The Southern Tier Symphony, under the artistic direction of conductor/founder John Whitney, “tastefully” opened their ninth season this weekend with a program of audience pleasing Italian delicacies.  The theme for the concert was “A Taste of Italy” and featured masterworks by Rossini, Mascagni, Ponchielli, Tchaikovsky, Verdi and Respighi.

            The first of their two concerts was held on Saturday evening in the Wesley Chapel on the Houghton College main campus.  The concert was repeated on Sunday afternoon in the Olean High School Auditorium.

            The walls of Houghton’s grand concert hall seemed to vibrate with the orchestra’s stirring performance of the classic Barber of Seville Overture by Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868).  In his well-crafted program notes, Dr. Robert Debbaut, stated that this “overture has always delighted concert audiences and features the famous ‘Rossini crescendo’ in which the composer takes the same material and repeats it at an ever-increasing volume.”  With the newly expanded thirty-five member string section leading the charge, the orchestra’s performance aptly reflected the composer’s intended energy.

            The Intermezzo from the opera Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni (1863 – 1945) continued to feature the lush sounds of the wonderful string section.  Significantly contributing to the heartrending performance of this second work was the poignant phrasing of the orchestra’s new harpist, Laura Stoltzfus. 

            Third on the program was the charming and delightful Dance of the Hours from the well-known opera LaGioconda by Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886).  The playing of principal flutist, Julia Tunstall and principal clarinetist, Greg Eldred added sparkle to this toe-tapping favorite.

Among the highlights of the evening was the orchestra’s spirited performance of Capriccio Italien, opus 45 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).  From the opening brass fanfare to the tarantella-like closing, this work “pregnant with light, life and beautiful melody” sent the gratified audience into the intermission filled with enthusiastic anticipation.

            The second half of this gratifying evening opened with the Prelude to Act One from the operatic standard La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901).  Italian opera composers are known for their gorgeous and almost entrancing melodies and this familiar work is no exception.  The slightly reduced orchestra performed this work with elegance and precision as the musicians shaped and stretched phrases that clearly reflected the style of the Romantic era for which it is a celebrated example.

            The concert concluded with the majestic Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi (1792-1868). Written in 1924 as one of a trilogy of works about the grand Italian city, Debbaut writes that this classic piece of music embodies  “bombast as well as tenderness and brilliance of orchestration and melodic invention.  In short, here (was) the real masterpiece among many on tonight’s program.”

            All families of instruments in the orchestra returned to the stage and were provided opportunities to shine as the symphony tackled this demanding work.  Especially memorable were the English horn solos meticulously and sensitively performed by Virginia Dodge, as well as the magnificent and thrilling “balcony” brass. Maestro Whitney’s unquestionable interpretative gifts resulted in a performance that exhibited the grandiose and exuberant personality of this concertgoer favorite.  The resulting standing ovation was well deserved and a fitting climax to this marvelous evening.

            The Southern Tier Symphony continues to be recognized throughout Western New York as one of its cultural gems.  Area residents must continue to be proud and supportive of the marvelous contribution that Maestro Whitney and his wonderful band of musicians have added to the artistic tapestry of our region.


Review of Southern Tier Symphony    --  By  Richard G. Frederick
October 2008

             The Southern Tier Symphony exultantly kicked off its 2008-2009 season before a packed house Saturday evening at the Olean High School Auditorium.   The program was decidedly modern, featuring works of the 20th and 21st Centuries. As the title “Made in America” suggests, the musical evening was given over to American composers, including John Whitney, the Symphony’s Music Director and Conductor, as well as his late father, Maurice Whitney.

            The evening began with an audience rendition of “America the Beautiful,” which Mr. Whitney promised would be echoed in the various works of composers during the performance. The opening number by the symphony provided one of the high points of a night of rarefied entertainment, the world premiere of “Enchanted Mountain Fantasy,” by Jacob Pleakis. An Olean native currently writing film scores in New York City, Pleakis created the first piece ever commissioned by the Southern Tier Symphony.

            The work opened quietly, with echoing sounds of wind swirling in the morning, followed by the statement of the main theme moving back and forth among the woodwinds, brass, and strings. It ended rather cinematically, with what the composer described as “an exciting and exuberant finish.”

            Mr. Pleakis was especially thrilled with the premiere occurring in his hometown, and lauded the Southern Tier Symphony for their “incredible” rendition of his work. He garnered two standing ovations, one following the premiere performance, and the second at the end of the evening when Mr. Whitney invited the composer to conduct a reprise of the piece as an encore.

            The following two selections were highly entertaining, but served to vary the program from its tumultuous beginning. Maurice Whitney’s “Variations on a Theme By Handel” was light and whimsical, featuring some fine clarinet/flute duet work as well as solos by the oboe and brass players. John Lloyd’s “A Hectic Overture” lived up to its name with a lively romp through the orchestra sections. I suspect this one was as much fun to play as to listen to.

            John Whitney’s “Coming of Age,” a 2003 commissioned work, was next on the program. The distinctive major theme raised thoughts of the Far West. It was tuneful and big – what Mr. Whitney calls “power music.” It was also full of surprises, such as “quotes” from well-known pieces and eclectic sounds from instruments like the wood block.

            The final piece before intermission was also written by a local composer, the Symphony’s timpanist, Moses Mark Howden. In “Trek to Gongga Shan,” Mr. Howden set out to demonstrate the merits of the timpani as a solo instrument. One cannot help but be impressed by his virtuosity on the large drums.

            The best known of the evening’s composers was featured after intermission. Joan Tower’s “Made in America” was commissioned by 28 orchestras and performed in all 50 states within two years of its premiere in 2005. Ms. Tower has artfully woven melodies from “America the Beautiful” throughout her 13-minute work. The middle of the piece included exciting, technically challenging, fast-paced playing from all sections of the orchestra before ending on a familiar note.

            James Beckel’s “The American Dream” was a brief and brassy piece meant for popular entertainment. It succeeded.

            “Sleep,” by Eric Whitacre brought on a chorus of about four dozen high-schoolers from five local schools. They performed the beautiful piece artfully, with the accompaniment of horns from the orchestra. They remained for the final number, an arrangement by Maurice Whitney entitled “From Sea to Shining Sea.” Following a rousing ovation, the audience was once again thrilled by the encore as noted above.

            The Southern Tier Symphony, now in its sixth season, has developed noticeably as a fine regional orchestra. Musicianship seems to have steadily grown within, and Mr. Whitney has offered more challenging pieces for the group’s audiences. He should also be lauded for his efforts to interest young listeners in the symphony. In addition to the choral feature, nine young musicians from Houghton College entertained audience members with pre-concert music as they entered the hall. Ably conducted by Brian Casey, the group performed “Mouvements Perpetuels” by Francis Poulenc.

            It is difficult to imagine a more varied and entertaining evening of good music anywhere between Buffalo and Pittsburgh.

Southern Tier Symphony “Fabulous” in
French Season Finale
May 2008  

The Southern Tier Symphony, under the artistic direction of conductor/founder John Whitney, triumphantly closed their fifth successful season this past weekend with a program of audience accessible gems by French composers entitled the “Fabulous French.”  The first of their two concerts was held on Saturday evening in the recently renovated Wesley Chapel on the Houghton College main campus. This reviewer was in attendance.  The concert was repeated on Sunday afternoon in the Olean High School Auditorium.

The program opened with the Rakoczi March from The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869).  Described by Dr. Robert Debbaut in the concert program notes as an “orchestral tour de force in miniature,” its powerful use of orchestral colors and sheer energy proved to be the perfect opener for this enjoyable evening.  The glitteringly resonant string section and the punctuating brass especially served up a wonderful “appetizer” for all that was to follow.

The Symphony in D minor by Belgium born composer Cesar Franck (1822-1869), claimed by the French as one of their own due to the fact that he was schooled at the Paris Conservatory, is considered by many as his masterwork.   A standard in the orchestral repertoire, the chromatic harmonies and unusual modulations pose their share of challenges to any ensemble embarking on a performance of this magnificent work.  The performance was full of its intended Romantic drama as it was masterfully interpreted by Maestro Whitney.

The Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld by German born composer Jaccques Offenbach (1819-1880), who was also schooled at the Paris Conservatory, is from what is probably his most famous operetta.  Based upon a satire about Olympian gods, this light-hearted work is always a delight for listeners of all generations.  Among the most outstanding moments was the lyrical violin solo performed by concertmaster, Kim Whitney, as well as the exquisite cello solo played brilliantly by principal cellist, Bryan Eckenrode.  Two other individuals whose masterful, though less obvious, performances added to the zest and richness of this delightful overture were timpanist, Moses Mark Howden and Jim Caneen on tuba.

The final two pieces on the program were the Pavane for a Dead Princess and the classic Bolero, both by French impressionistic composer, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).  Once again, Dr. Debbaut writes that though the title of the Pavane “suggests a somber subject, the work itself is rather wistful and airish, almost as if the spirit of the princess is dancing before your eyes.”   Adding to the sensitive performance by the entire ensemble of this delicate masterpiece were memorable passages played by principal flutist, Julia Tunstall and harpist, Elizabeth Munch.

Bolero was an exercise in instrumentation and sonority written during Ravel’s student years at the Paris Conservatory.  A full seventeen minutes in duration, it is based upon a Spanish dance form and consists of a single theme passed amongst the instruments of the orchestra, as a snare drum relentlessly punctuates the bolero rhythm.  Percussionist, Paul Haag deserves individual recognition for his steady and extraordinarily precise snare drum performance throughout the entire duration of the work.  This audience favorite gradually built to a tumultuous finale and an exultant climax to this pleasurable concert. 

 The Southern Tier Symphony continues to be one of the treasures of our region for which area residents should be exceedingly proud and supportive.  This reviewer hopes their presence will be heard on our various concert stages for a great many years to come. 

-  Gary Stith, reviewer
(email concert reviewer at

Southern Tier Symphony “Premiere Pops” 
Special to the Olean Times Herald
March 2008

    Fans of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Leroy Anderson, and the Lone Ranger were treated to an exciting evening of music Sunday by the Southern Tier Symphony.

    Now in its fifth season, the Olean-based symphony under the baton of John Whitney presented a program of light classics and familiar tunes.

    The evening began with a spirited romp through Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.” The opening was all cellos, followed by cascading violins, thundering brass, and woodwinds trilling, all leading up to trumpets sounding the familiar theme, and it’s off to the races!

    The second piece provided a contrast. Don Gillis’ “Short Overture to an Unwritten Opera” is a quirky short piece with a plethora of twists and turns. The orchestra paid homage to Leroy Anderson, whose birth centennial is celebrated this year, with two tunes — “Blue Tango” and “The Syncopated Clock.”  The first half of the program also included a Gershwin medley from “Porgy and Bess” and a “Salute to Cole Porter.” Both medleys were arranged by the talented conductor of the orchestra.

    The second half of “Premiere Pops” featured a special treat for lovers of what some commentators have labeled “America’s classical music” — jazz. Mr. Whitney, an award-winning jazz pianist, led a trio through “Second Time Around” and “Stella by Starlight.” Dan Hull, a veteran Buffalo-area drummer, and James Kurzdorfer, the original bassist with the popular jazz fusion group Spyro Gyra, rounded out the ensemble.

    The trio was also featured in the context of the orchestra in W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues March,” “Funky George,” a jazzed-up version of a familiar George Bizet theme, and the closing “Four Seasons Suite,” a David Wolpe arrangement for orchestra of four popular songs dealing with winter, spring, summer, and fall.

    That wasn’t all, of course. What is a pops concert without an encore? It would be like winter without snow in the Southern Tier.

    Mr. Whitney labeled the encore “The New York Fantasy.” Without giving away the secret of the finale, suffice it to say that it revealed another hitherto hidden talent of the evening’s maestro.

    The evening was full of surprises, and that should come as no surprise. The wonderful thing about a pops concert is that it’s supposed to be about unexpected themes and pleasant shocks of recognition. The music is never lugubrious but always light. The whole object is to have fun, and this extends to orchestra members as well as the audience.

    Of course, it helps to have great musicians in order to pull this off. And the Southern Tier Symphony has its share of those. The group has never sounded better.

    If the inclement weather kept you away from last evening’s performance, take heart. The same concert will be performed this afternoon at 3 p.m. in the Bromeley Family Theater on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. Pack up Granny and the kids and attend. It is definitely fun for everyone.

Southern Tier Symphony “Musical Portraits”
Sparkle in Season Finale
Special to the Olean Times Herald
 May 2007

The Southern Tier Symphony, under the artistic direction of conductor/founder John Whitney, triumphantly close their fourth successful season this weekend with a program of audience accessible gems all based upon musical portraits or pictures.  The first of their two concerts was held on Saturday evening in the newly renovated Wesley Chapel on the Houghton College main campus. The concert will be repeated on Sunday afternoon in the Olean High School Auditorium at 3:00 PM.

The program opened with the exotic Overture to La Sultane by French Baroque composer Francois Couperin (1668-1733).  Originally written for harpsichord, the composer weaves alluring melodies gleaned from the music of the Turkish invaders of the era and seeks to depict a musical portrait of a regal sultan from Arabia. Fellow French countryman Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) scored this keyboard work for orchestra and adds the multicolored sounds of percussion to enhance the original setting.  The orchestra’s polished handling of this transcription was evident throughout the performance, but especially incontestable in their masterful handling of the fugal section.  This was a first hearing of this piece for the reviewer, but was found to be wonderfully effective and deserving of more frequent performances.

The Variations on a Rococo Theme by Russian Romantic composer Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was written in 1876 after the composer’s visit to Italy.  As the title implies, it consists of a set of variations based upon a melody intended to depict the style of that transitional era between the Baroque and Classical periods and features cello soloist.  As Robert Debbaut writes in the concert program notes, the piece maintains the musical portraiture theme of the concert “with variants on the central subject, somewhat like Andy Warhol’s multi-colored four frame impression of the actress Marilyn Monroe.”   The playing of internationally acclaimed cello virtuoso, Julie Albers, was a treat for all in attendance.  Her elegant, lyrical, and fluid phrasing combined with her apparent effortless technique was exhilarating.  Her impeccable artistry was sensitively supported by the strings and woodwinds, and balance was carefully maintained throughout.  The instant standing ovation and subsequent solo encore added an additional luster to the evening.

The concert concluded with Maurice Ravel’s monumental orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition by Russian Romantic composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881).   Originally composed for piano, this programmatic multi-movement work is based upon the composer’s impressions of a collection of paintings by his long-time Russian friend Viktor Hartmann (1834-1873).  Principal trumpet Paul DeBoer’s majestic  rendition of the recurring Promenade theme launched the performance of this popular work.  The performance of Tim Martin’s mournful alto saxophone solo followed by Lauren Yu’s gorgeous bassoon virtuosity all enveloped by luscious strings were of major orchestra caliber.  Equally impressive were the bold, confident statements made by the brass, as well as the glistening and never overbearing percussion.  Maestro Whitney’s unquestionable interpretive gifts resulted in a series of contemplative and reverent musical moments, all culminating in a glorious finale as the orchestra exploded with the familiar strains of the Great Gate of Kiev.  Those in the audience could almost imagine fireworks sparkling above the stage as the final exuberant chords brought the concert to its finale and the audience, once again, rose to their feet.

            The Southern Tier Symphony continues to be one of the newest jewels of the region for which area residents should be exceedingly proud and supportive.  This reviewer hopes their presence will be heard on our various concert stages for many years to come.