The Southern Tier Symphony is entering its 18th season!
The group’s pre-history began two years before its first season in 2003-04, when John Whitney moved back to his native New York from Central Florida University, where he had taught for nearly two decades. In his first year as a music instructor at Olean High School, Whitney was asked to conduct a Christmas concert put on by an established performing arts group in Wellsville. In the months following that concert, he was contacted by several of the players in the group about the possibility of forming an area orchestra.
After speaking with business people in the Olean area, Whitney decided to take the plunge. Planning for the group took place during 2002-2003, with the first concert scheduled for the fall of 2003. “We found our first ‘angel’ in local banker Jim Kelly,” Whitney remembered. “He was instrumental in getting the initial financing and non-profit status put together.” Ironically, Kelly passed away on the day of the symphony’s first concert.
With the initial organizing behind him, Whitney turned to the task of recruiting musicians. He used word-of-mouth as well as contacts he had made with musicians throughout western New York and Pennsylvania. “They all do it for the love of the music, and the challenge,” he stated. “It’s certainly not for the money.” He noted that the musicians are paid only a small stipend to cover their expenses. In recent years, he has developed a network of music-lovers who house the out-of-town symphony members when they come in for the rehearsals and the concerts.
The orchestra’s musicianship has expanded exponentially since the beginning. “We have some of the original players,” Whitney says, “but we have many newer ones from a wider geographical area.” He pointed to commuters from as far away as Toronto, Canada, Buffalo, Owego, Rochester and Ithaca in New York, and Warren, Coudersport, and St. Marys in Pennsylvania. Closer to home, Whitney’s wife, Kim, a talented violinist, has been Concertmaster since Season Four.
A variety of guest artists have also served to inspire the regulars in the orchestra. Whitney listed cellist Julie Albers, violinist Erin Keefe, trumpeter Mark Ponzo, and Gail Williams (who plays French horn with the Chicago Symphony) among recent guests. The group was also fortunate enough to attract the services of Lin He, a “very flashy” violinist who was Concertmaster during Season Three while he was a resident instructor at Houghton College.
The Southern Tier Symphony has its home base in Olean, but has been peripatetic in its concert offerings. Whitney schedules three full orchestra concerts year, along with some smaller chamber events (“Bach’s Lunches,’ as he refers to them). There are two performances of each concert, with one at the Olean High School Auditorium, and the second in another venue. For the past six years, Pitt-Bradford’s Bromeley Family Theater has served as a site for two of the three annual events.
“We looked for a place to offer concerts consistently and try to build an audience there,” said Whitney, “and the Bromeley is a great hall. Everyone who plays there loves the marvelous acoustics.”
Whitney encouraged music lovers with variety. After receiving a grant during the third season, the orchestra was able to mount a collaboration with dancers recruited from the American Ballet Theatre and the Boston Ballet. “We also used local school kids–16 of them—for some Shostakovich dances. It was a huge artistic challenge, but we got a lot of different people involved."
The orchestra has also used young student musicians on occasion. In one concert, featuring “Pictures at an Exhibition,” the Symphony sponsored an accompanying student art competition.
One of Whitney’s favorite memories was his ability to commission an original piece for the Symphony’s sixth season. “Not only was it wonderful to have a piece especially written for our little group,” he said, “but the best thing was the composer.” The commissioned piece was titled “Enchanted Mountain Fantasy.” Its composer was Olean High School graduate Jacob Pleakis.
“The audience was so enthusiastic that we invited the composer to direct a second playing of the piece as an encore,” Whitney remembered. “No one complained that it was too long.”
Unfortunately, we lost our founding Music Director/Conductor, John Whitney, in November of 2014. During the 13th season we invited guest conductors to conduct the concert series for the season as a Music Director/Conductor Search Committee was formed. The 14th season entertained auditions from three conductor candidates at the end of which, Benjamin Grow was selected to lead the Southern Tier Symphony.
Our Music Director/Conductor, Benjamin Grow, will begin his fourth season at the podium this year. He has brought a number of soloists to the orchestra, and has guided the orchestra through new and challenging repertoire.