Below is a summary of the highlights of the Portland Symphony timeline beginning in 1923. For a comprehensive narrative on the history of the Portland Symphony Orchestra and Merrill Auditorium featuring a searchable digital library of 2000+ concert performances, copies of 1500+ original concert playbills and seven decades of pre-season brochures, and several hundred photographs, please visit PSOHistory.org, curated and authored by Hank and Sue Schmitt, with technical website assistance from their daughter and son-in-law Val Schmitt and Rob LeVine.
A group of leading Portland musicians comes together to form a musical organization. Invitations for membership are sent to interested parties throughout the area.
January 18, 1924
The newly formed group, the Amateur Strand Symphony Orchestra, holds its first rehearsal with 75 instrumentalists. “Portland Symphony Orchestra” was suggested for the name, but rejected as being “too imposing for this tenuous new adventure”! Arthur F. Kendall begins his term as the first conductor (1923-26).
February 24, 1924
The first concert is given at the Strand Theatre.
April 24, 1924
A committee comprising Henry C. Cook, Mildred M. Dugan, Carroll Brow, Arthur H. Stevens, Clinton W. Graffam Sr., and Hiram Gratrix meet at the Strand Theatre and vote to organize into a corporation called the Portland Orchestral Society “to advance and encourage the study and appreciation of music; to demonstrate to and educate our citizens about the advantages and value of good music to the community; the giving of private and public concerts; and to otherwise fulfill the offices usually devolving upon and fulfilled by such an orchestral body.”
The first appearance of the Portland Orchestral Society.
The organization became known as the Portland Municipal Orchestra, and comprised 65 musicians.
Charles Raymond Cronham, Portland’s Municipal Organist, serves as conductor. He extends rehearsals and the concert schedule, and inaugurates out-of-town concerts.
The first concert of the Portland Municipal Orchestra is given, not in Portland, but in Bridgton at the Town Hall. The 65-member Orchestra arrives to find the hall locked up, and the custodian off fishing! Eventually, the hall is opened and the concert goes on, though somewhat late. The orchestra follows this debut a few days later with their first Portland performance.
December 25, 1927
The orchestra participates in the Portland Music Commission’s Christmas program.
The orchestra gives a concert at Bowdoin College. Transportation of the entire orchestra and all the instruments, including two pianos, is furnished by public-spirited citizens. Among the 82 players were men and women of some 20 professions, and boys and girls, the youngest of whom was 14-year-old Katherine Hatch (later Graffam), who went on to serve as the principal cellist for 30 years, as the orchestra’s historian, and as music critic for the Gannett Newspapers. In the trumpet section was William Vacchiano, who went on to be principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic.
April 26, 1932
The Portland Symphony Orchestra is incorporated.
Charles A. Warren, school music supervisor for Brunswick, becomes conductor.
Paul E. Melrose, Warrant Officer and Band Leader, 5th U.S. Infantry Band at Fort Williams, serves as conductor.
The orchestra engages its first paid conductor.
The tenure of conductor Dr. Russell Ames Cook. Dr. Cook, from Boston, was the first out-of-state conductor, who also taught at Waynflete School. Friendly and polished, he made firm connections with many of the leading families in the city, and was able to interest them in giving substantial support to the orchestra. This initiated the steadily increasing list of public donors, supporters and volunteers who have played a tremendous part in helping the symphony achieve its present high standing in the life of the community and the world of music.
The orchestra institutes Young People’s Concerts and the Portland Pops, and the Women’s Auxiliary (later the Women’s Committee, and then the Friends of PSO) is established, boasting an initial membership of 15.
The orchestra performs Oedipus Tyrannus by John Knowles Paine, born in 1839 on Oxford Street in Portland, in observance of his centenary.
Under the guidance of Mrs. Guy Gannett, the 24 members of the Women’s Auxiliary spearhead such activities as selling tickets, seeking sponsorships, and fund-raising by telephone.
During the years of World War II, a tremendous influx of people into Portland from the South Portland Shipyard and other war industries make both the orchestra and its audiences flourish. All concerts open with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
March 22, 1942
The first rehearsal of the 65-member Student Philharmonic Orchestra, created and conducted for 32 years by Clinton W. Graffam Jr., is held at the Chestnut Street Church. Mr. Graffam, whose father was one of the PSO’s founders, was a PSO oboist for 53 years.
May 19, 1942
The first concert by the Student Philharmonic is given at Portland City Hall Auditorium before an audience of 1,200. The soloist was 15-year-old Cape Elizabeth pianist David Baker, who played the first movement of Mendelssohn’s G-minor concerto. The concert was sponsored as a benefit for the War Service Department by the Maine Federation of Music Clubs. In place of an admission fee, concert-goers donated sheet music and phonograph records, which were to be distributed to members of the Armed Forces throughout Maine.
December 7, 1943
On the second anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the orchestra gives a concert with uniformed soloist PFC Leonard Pennario, who receives a tremendous reception following his performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor.
Richard Burgin, Concertmaster and Associate Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, becomes conductor. He was particularly effective in improving the string section.
Rouben Gregorian serves as conductor. A graduate of Central College in Iran, he was the co-founder and past conductor of the Tehran Symphony Orchestra. In Portland, he finalized the enactment of a fully paid orchestra in 1959, and inaugurated young artists talent auditions in 1960.
Arthur Bennett Lipkin, from Philadelphia, becomes the first resident conductor. He is the first to commission new works. During his tenure, Youth Concerts were begun, and the orchestra was involved with the Voice of America broadcasts, including the broadcast to Kyoto, Japan, on November 16, 1965, featuring a world premiere by Walter Piston.
Paul Vermel’s tenure as conductor. Mr. Vermel conducts a five-day Canadian Tour, and inaugurates outdoor concerts and concert previews. During this time, Portland City Hall Auditorium is renovated and redecorated, and the Community Orchestra of the Portland Symphony is born.
The orchestra changes its name from the Portland Maine Symphony to the Portland Symphony Orchestra.
The 50th Anniversary Season poster is created by artist Robert Indiana. The Willamain McPhee Thaxter Memorial Composition Fund is created for commissioning new works. Commissioned works by Walter Piston and Elliott Schwartz are premiered. The PSO Women’s Committee publishes Portland Symphony Orchestra Cookbook, which goes on to sell 45,000 copies over five printings.
Bruce Hangen’s tenure as Music Director and Conductor. Under his leadership, the PSO develops a national reputation for its artistic quality. Larger and broader audiences are developed through a variety of programs, and summer concerts become established events for Maine residents and visitors. Expanded education programs attract children of all ages. Performances of works by many contemporary composers are given, and eight works are premiered. Mr. Hangen also creates and develops the Portland Symphony Chamber Orchestra.
KinderKonzerts for pre-school and primary grade children are inaugurated. James Barbagallo wins the PSO/Unionmutual Piano Competition.
SuperBand production is given at WGME 13. The PSO commissions Grisaille by composer Barbara Kolb.
The Portland Youth Wind Ensemble and Portland Young People’s String Consort are formed.
“Magic of Christmas,” conceived by then-General Manager Russell Burleigh, debuts at Portland City Hall Auditorium. Guest narrator Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz) narrates “A Visit from St. Nicholas” at two sold-out concerts. The Christmas Chorus (now the Magic of Christmas Chorus) makes its first of 20 consecutive “Magic” appearances (and still counting!).
Symphony by the Sea at the Atlantic House is held. The PSO commissions Ode to Lord Buckley by David Amram.
Angela Cheng wins the PSO/Bookland Piano Competition.
Candlelight Concerts are held at the Eastland Ballroom, and “Picnics & Pops” outdoor summer concerts are begun.
The 60th Anniversary Season poster is designed by Chris Van Allsburg. Symphonie Fantastique, a diamond jubilee celebration with jazz great Lionel Hampton and pianist James Barbagallo, is held at the Portland Expo. A residency with pianist Lorin Hollander is held, and the world premiere of Ned Rorem’s Organ Concerto, commissioned by the PSO, is given.
Pops concerts are expanded to pairs. Summer concerts are held in Cape Elizabeth, Portland, Ogunquit, Old Orchard Beach, Bridgton, Bath, Auburn, Kingfield, and North Conway.
Tenure of Music Director and Conductor Toshiyuki Shimada. He is credited with tightening the orchestra’s grasp of symphonic masterworks and deepening its commitment to youth and family programming, while building higher on the firm musical foundations left by his predecessors. Under his guidance, the PSO was one of 23 American orchestras receiving an award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) for adventuresome programming of contemporary music.
Jane E. Hunter is appointed General Manager (later, Executive Director) of the PSO.
A residency with violinist Stephanie Chase is held. The first of three Family Concerts is presented. The PSO’s biennial piano competition is named in honor of Portland piano teacher Priscilla Morneault. Pianist Jeannie Yu wins in the inaugural year.
The Orchestra holds a two-day residency in Greenville.
Gregg Pauley wins the final PSO/Priscilla Morneault Piano Competition.
Concerts are run out to the Portsmouth Music Hall and Waterville Opera House.
Portland City Hall Auditorium closes for renovations. The PSO performs at the State Theatre, Cumberland County Civic Center, and Sonesta Hotel.
The three youth ensembles join the USM Music Department. The PSO Women’s Committee nets $98,000 at “Channelside” ShowHouse. PortTix, the box office at Merrill Auditorium, opens.
Gala concert re-opens Merrill Auditorium.
A two-day residency with a concert, open rehearsal, KinderKonzerts and master classes is held at UM-Machias. Classic Encounter debuts, and the first summer concert is given at the Great Waters Music Festival in Wolfeboro, N.H.
Violinist Itzhak Perlman opens the 75th Anniversary Season. A free outdoor concert is given in Payson Park. The second University of Maine residency is held, this time at UM-Presque Isle. The Friends of PSO publish a second cookbook, Concert in the Kitchen. Mozart & More concerts are performed in Rockland and Camden. Classic Encounter concerts are given in Portland, Rumford and Lewiston. The Education Programs are expanded to include the Overtones Project, with PSO musicians coaching Portland middle school students.
The Magic of Christmas celebrates its 20th year with 14 hugely successful concerts, filling Merrill Auditorium to nearly 99% capacity! Tchaikovsky Competition winning pianist Brigitte Engerer wows Portland with her performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and several other wonderful soloists took the stage with the PSO as well. Three Mozart & More concerts are performed in Rockland. The Overtones Project continues to grow, and more than 33,000 children attend PSO KinderKonzerts and Youth Concerts.
Toshi Shimada announces he will depart at the end of the following season, the PSO initiates a search for his successor which generates over 200 applications.
Toshi Shimada, Music Director and Jane Hunter, Executive Director, both step down after 20 years and 19 years, respectively, of artistic and administrative leadership. The Toshi Shimada Guest Artist Fund is established. Seven guest conductors perform during this season: Leslie Dunner, Randall Craig Fleischer, Alexander Mickelthwater, David Alan Miller, Robert Moody, Edwin Outwater, and Peter Rubardt.
Ari Solotoff is appointed Executive Director. The second and final season of the Music Director search sees nine guest conductors lead the PSO: Emil de Cou, Arie Lipsky, Lawrence Loh, Jonathan McPhee, Daniel Meyer, Robert Moody, Edwin Outwater, Arthur Post, and Markand Thakar.
On May 30, 2007 the Portland Symphony Orchestra names Robert A. Moody as 12th Music Director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra.
Joseph Silverstein serves as Artistic Advisor during the PSO’s 83rd season which culminates with Robert Moody leading the PSO in performances of Rumba Sinfonica with guest ensemble Tiempo Libre, a Podium Prelude Concert featuring Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 with all seats priced at just $25, and the season finale.
Robert Moody’s inaugural season with the PSO brings the addition of a fourth Sunday Classical series concert, spectacularly successful Pops! programs including a Beatles tribute with Classical Mystery Tour, a season finale pairing Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra with a Senegalese drumming concerto, all to critical and audience acclaim. Bruce Hangen returns to lead Magic of Christmas, and opera superstar Renee Fleming makes her Maine debut with the PSO in an endowment benefit concert, a first for the orchestra. A painting is commissioned from artist Debra Yoo, which is used to create the inaugural season commemorative poster.
The PSO presents a truly extraordinary 85th anniversary season. Concerts feature collaborations with Portland Stage, Portland Ballet, Choral Art Society – and notably with Figures of Speech Puppet Theatre on an exceptional reinvention of the 30thannual Magic of Christmas. Celebrated guest artists include mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile and percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie among others. The season closes with a bang – a Pops! finale featuring Portland’s favorite disco party band Motor Booty Affair and Robert Moody in full disco-era regalia, as well as two performances of the titanic Mahler Symphony No. 2 – Maestro Moody’s favorite work to conduct. Technological innovations include the launch of Online Insights, a series of informational webisodes, and the release of the PSO iPhone application with support from the Maine Arts Commission. New audience engagement initiatives include Afterglow, a post-concert social event, and a “Student Rush” ticket discount program. The PSO is named a “Community of Honor” for Ford’s Made in America collaborative commissioning project in April 2010, and is also honored to receive the Governor’s Award for Nonprofit Excellence from the Maine Association of Nonprofits.
The season opened with a collaboration with New England Rehab Hospital and Maine Medical Center focusing on music and healing featuring violist Harold Lieberman. A new work by composer Del Case was commissioned for our KinderKonzert series, based on the true story of Abbie Burgess, a heroic girl who kept Matinicus Lighthouse burning during an 1856 nor’easter. November brought a whirlwind visit with the energetic trio Time for Three who performed at King Middle School, taught a Suzuki workshop, played at private donor event targeted to an audience of young professionals, appeared on 207, performed their Sunday Classical concert and played an encore after-concert for musicians and audience members. What incredible energy and passion for music! Speaking of passion, in January we held an educational, multi-perspective panel and community dialogue on Bach’s St. John’s Passion – often a controversial piece for communities – with Robert Moody, Rabbi Carolyn Braun, and Reverend Frank Strasburger, moderated by Bob Keyes of the Portland Press Herald. And another kind of passion entirely inspired our first public proposal of marriage at the PSO Pops! Motown tribute concert around Valentine’s Day. (She said yes!)
This season also brought Lisa Dixon as Executive Director, and marked the launch of a Strategic Planning process, involving over 100 members of the PSO family and community members, designed to establish a blueprint for sustainability and future growth.
The PSO’s 87th season opened with a pair of concerts featuring world-class pianist Awadagin Pratt playing the beloved Beethoven “Emperor Concerts.” In October, the US Naval Academy Glee Club joined Maestro Moody for a Pops concert to remember, with President and Mrs. Bush (#41) making a surprise visit to enjoy the stirring military music. At Halloween, the PSO donned their scariest costumes to present our very first family-friendly Discovery Concert (“Symphony Spooktacular”) to a sold-out crowd. Magic of Christmas returned in December, featuring the high-flying aerialists of Cirque de la Symphonie. Christopher Warren Green, conductor for the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, was a guest conductor in January, and in February romance was close at hand with the performance of suites from “Romeo and Juliet” and Mozart’s dreamiest Piano Conert, No. 21. Two centennials coincided with the season’s finale: the mighty Kotzschmar Organ, and season sponsor LL Bean. The Kotzschmar, and Portland Municipal Organist Ray Cornils, were featured in this last concert, with symphonies from Jongen and Saint-Saens, before it was temporarily dismantled and shipped to Connecticut for 2 years of pampering and some well-deserved refurbishing.
Robert Moody’s fifth season as Music Director of the PSO featured many “fives,” including a well-received performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The season opener coincided with sponsor Verrill Dana’s 150th anniversary, which made for a festive beginning to the PSO’s 88th season. October brought a “Cello-bration” with a concert that opened with a piece for 15 cellos (including Music Director Robert Moody) and continued to feature two solo cellists with a PSO connection, Joel Noyes and Brian Thornton. The celebration of the cello also brought the first-ever PSO Community Cello Choir, bringing cellists of all ages and skill levels together for a Sunday afternoon concert on the Merrill stage. To celebrate Mozart’s 256th birthday in January, PSO Concertmaster Charles Dimmick performed the master’s Third Violin Concerto to great acclaim. The classical season ended in May with Mahler’s emotional Fifth Symphony. A second Discovery Concert was added in the Spring (“Carnival of the Animals”), featuring four-legged, feathered, and scaly special guests, brought to Merrill Auditorium by the Chewonki Foundation and Smiling Hill Farm. Finally, we announced the hiring of Assistant Conductor Norman Huynh.
Eckart Preu began his inaugural season as Music Director and opened the season with Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony.