Reading Symphony Orchestra Celebrating 100th Anniversary

In 1913, a group of Reading-area musicians rehearsed in an unheated hall that was so cold the delicate brass instruments, as susceptible to a chill as their human owners, went sadly out of tune.

Imagine fingers so frozen they could hardly press a string or hold a drumstick.

They were paid the handsome sum of 50 cents per rehearsal and $2.50 per concert, and even that was hard to come by.

Led by conductor Harry Fahrbach, a former dance- and theater-orchestra leader, they were the first incarnation of the Reading Symphony Orchestra, now celebrating its 100th anniversary season.

Those first hopeful, earnest conveyors of classical music would be astonished to learn that the RSO, under its current music director Andrew Constantine, has a budget of $1.2 million and, according to Executive Director Joseph Tackett, is one of only two orchestras in its budget class to be debt-free.

There are 70 contracted musicians in the RSO this season, and the staff now includes Orchestra Manager Donna Kline, Development Manager Kyle Scroggs, Operations and Youth Orchestra Manager Jeff Rutter, part-time bookkeeper Robin Whaling and part-time librarian Anne Weiser – a smallish staff, but undreamed of by the RSO founders.

Like arts organizations from time immemorial, the RSO struggled to survive in its early days. A Citizens’ Committee was appointed on Oct. 13, 1913, by the RSO organization (made up of the musicians and conductor) to obtain public support.

On Sunday, Nov. 30, 1913 at 3 p.m. – flouting the Pennsylvania Sunday Blue Laws, which forbade selling tickets to any gathering on Sunday – the RSO performed its first formal concert at the Hippodrome on Penn Street, a vaudeville theater. (Sunday was the only day when there were no vaudeville performances.)

There were 48 players, most of them from Berks County, including concertmaster Otto Wittich. The program included the Overture from the opera “Ilka” by Albert Franz Doppler; Symphony No. 8 (“Unfinished”) by Franz Schubert; Serenade for Strings No. 2 in F Major by Robert Volkmann; and Suite from “The Nutcracker” by P.I. Tchaikovsky.

There were four concerts that season and in subsequent seasons for many years. Programs during this time were a potpourri of overtures, symphonies and concertos interspersed with solo instrumentalists and shorter concert pieces. Soloists were usually local.

Fahrbach led the RSO for 10 years in spite of difficulties in finding rehearsal and concert locations, funding and musicians.

The next conductor, Walter Pfeiffer, solved the musician problem by convincing the board to import players from Philadelphia. But the equally important problem of funding was solved in 1926 by the formation of the Reading Musical Foundation, an organization that still provides funding, not only for the RSO, but for many other musical performing and presenting groups, as well as for music scholarships.

In 1931, the RSO hired conductor Hans Kindler, first cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. During his tenure, the audiences for the RSO concerts grew, due in part to the orchestra’s performances of children’s concerts in the public schools. By then, the problem of where to practice and perform was solved by having the RSO settle into the Rajah Theatre (now the Sovereign Performing Arts Center).

By the end of Kindler’s tenure, celebrated names such as pianists Walter Gieseking and Guiomar Novaes were beginning to appear on the programs.

Subsequent conductors Andre Polah and Saul Caston brought more musicians in from Philadelphia. When Alexander Hilsberg took over in 1945, he used only 16 musicians from the Reading area; all the rest came from Philadelphia.

During Hilsberg’s tenure, more well-known soloists were playing with the RSO. Among them were pianists Gary Graffman, Menahem Pressler, Susan Starr and Peter Serkin, and cellist Leonard Rose.

In 1960, RSO bass player Wesley C. Fisher became the RSO’s manager and continued in this capacity until 1985.

When Hilsberg died of a heart attack in 1961, his assistant conductor, Louis Vyner, took over. He was a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music with a degree in conducting and had memorized more than 60 programs. Half of his musicians were from Berks County.

In 1966 the RSO expanded to five concerts per year, and after that, the number of concerts fluctuated between five and eight.

Vyner’s successor, Sidney Rothstein, who took over in 1976, was to be the RSO’s music director for 30 years. Under his leadership, the RSO entered a period of unprecedented growth.

Throughout his career, Rothstein was also music director for the Honolulu Symphony, the Charleston (W. Va.) Symphony Orchestra, the Florida Symphony Orchestra in Orlando and the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut.

But he was especially devoted to the RSO, even moving to Reading in 1988. He now resides in Wyomissing.

One of the first things Rothstein did was to persuade the RMF to allow the RSO to conduct its own fundraising campaign, something that had been forbidden up until then.

He personally visited CEOs of some of the area’s leading corporations, asking for their support and often getting it. From 1976 to 2001, the RSO budget grew from $76,000 to more than $1 million, he said in a recent interview.

Asked to list milestones reached by the RSO during his 30 years, Rothstein was quick to say that these achievements were not his alone, but happened because of the cooperation of staff and many volunteers, including the RSO board of directors.

He listed increased rehearsal time and the use of bowings tailored to the abilities of the RSO string section; labor agreements that allowed most of the musicians to commit to the RSO so membership would be stable; and the holding of more stringent and formal auditions, all of which improved the quality of the music.

During his tenure, the RSO began expanding its professional staff to run the business end of the enterprise. A series of managers/executive directors was hired: LoisAnn Oakes (1985-1986), Janice Strait (1986-1987), Gerald Wingenroth (1988-1990), Stuart Weiser (1990-1992), Peter Kucirko (1992-1999) and Charles Weiser (1999-2010).

Beginning in 1989, concerts were held on Saturday evenings instead of Sunday afternoons. Beginning in September 1999 and ending in April 2002, “Symphony Sundays by Sovereign” were added to the Saturday-evening schedule, with performances at the Scottish Rite Cathedral in West Reading, a benefit for the orchestra as well as the audience, allowing the musicians to become better and more flexible with two performances of each concert.

In 1988, the RSO Youth Orchestra was begun, with RSO cellist Peter Brye as its conductor. That organization has grown to three performing groups. The former Women’s Committee of the RSO became the coed RSO League in 1995 at Rothstein’s suggestion and is active in fundraising and other events.

In 1989, the RSO began giving Kinderkonzerts for children and their families, and the first New Year’s Eve concert was given on Dec. 31, 1992. In December 1990, the RSO collaborated with Berks Ballet Theatre in a full production of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.” All of these have become annual traditions.

Rothstein also was known for his innovative and challenging programming. During his tenure, the RSO performed symphonies by Gustav Mahler, commissioned new works and regaled audiences with edgy compositions by contemporary composers like John Adams and John Corigliano.

He brought soloists like pianists Santiago Rodriguez and John Browning and violinists Aaron Rosand and Charles Rex, who became audience favorites, returning several times. He also gave solo opportunities to both local musicians and up-and-coming young artists.

When Rothstein stepped down in 2006, the RSO embarked on a formal search for a music director to replace him. During the 2006-07 season, a candidate for the position conducted each of the six subscription concerts. That spring, it was announced that British conductor Andrew Constantine, formerly the associate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, would be the new music director.

Constantine brought with him a reputation for musical excellence built in England, where he conducted, among others, the Royal Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras, and elsewhere in Europe.

Highlights of his five years with the RSO have included a performance of Michael Dougherty’s “Hell’s Angels for Bassoon Quartet and Orchestra” in 2008; Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” with the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and the “Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra” by Philip Glass in 2009; and his ongoing effort to help audiences appreciate British composers, particularly Sir Edward Elgar.

In the summer of 2009, the RSO gave its first free Fourth of July concert at FirstEnergy Stadium, complete with fireworks. This event was repeated in 2011.

Note: Information for this story came from the following sources: two articles from the Historical Review of Berks County – “A Symphony Is Born” by Donald Radcliffe Shenton with Otto Wittich (Fall 1957) and “History of the Reading Symphony Orchestra” by Rebecca Baker Worley with Brent G. Worley (Winter 1987-88); the archives of the RSO website; and interviews and email correspondence with Charles Weiser, Dr. Thomas B. Souders, Sidney Rothstein, Penelope Proserpi and Joseph Tackett, as well as my own observations as a music critic for the Reading Eagle over the past 27 years.

Contact Susan L. Peña: life@readingeagle.com.

Copyright © 2010-2017 Andrew Constantine
Conductor