Walla Walla Symphony Orchestra holds its first concert on December 12, 1907.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 10/23/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8342

On December 12, 1907, the Walla Walla Symphony Club Orchestra performs for the first time.  The concert is held at the Keylor Grand Theater in Walla Walla.  Edgar Fischer (1873-1922), one of the orchestra's founders, conducts.  The concert marks the beginning of the Walla Walla Symphony's tenure as the oldest continually operating symphony society west of the Mississippi River.

The concert opened with the overture to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's (1756-1791) The Magic Flute and concluded with the Hungarian Dance Number 5 by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).  Other selections featured baritone Archibold C. Jackson and cellist Erwin Gastel.  The 29-piece orchestra comprised professional musicians and accomplished amateurs.

What Is It?

The Walla Walla Symphony Club, formed on July 1, 1907, organized the event and also held educational events for the general public in the weeks leading up to the concert.  Fischer's topic at one of these meetings was "What Is A Symphony Orchestra?"

Selections from one of the scheduled upcoming selections, Beethoven's Symphony Number 2, were played on piano. 

Local newspapers did their best to help, at times in a somewhat tortured manner.  Under the heading "Symphony Concert At Theater Tonight," the Walla Walla Evening Bulletin explained, "The word symphony has a singular history.  Like many another of our musical terms it was borrowed from the Greek ... in some inexplicable way the word came to be used as a generic term for instrumental compositions ... . Beethoven, the king of composers of this form of music, wrote nine symphonies ... . The Symphony Orchestra will play two movements from Beethoven's second symphony at the Keylor Grand this evening" (December 12, 1907, p. 4).

The Walla Walla Evening Statesman managed more clearly: "A symphony is a composition for orchestra made up of four parts, or movements, which are not only related to each other by the bond of sympathy established by the keys in which they are written, but also by the emotional contents" (December 12, 1907).

Walla Walla residents who had not heard classical music performed formally were given every opportunity to educate themselves for the experience ahead.  For those residents who had enjoyed symphonic performances elsewhere, anticipation built steadily.

Cause for Congratulation

Audience members braved rain and wind to make their way to the Keylor Grand.  The Walla Walla Evening Bulletin described the crowd as "an audience of the usual size that greets any production of musical value in our city" (December 14, 1907).

Noting that Beethoven's Symphony in D Major seemed to be the audiences' favorite, the Evening Bulletin reported, "Considering that the Symphony Orchestra has only been practicing since September the work was remarkably well done and the result a pleasing surprise to the audience, which expressed its appreciation in enthusiastic applause ... . The Symphony Orchestra means much to Walla Walla ... the fact that the city has such a number of capable musicians is a cause for congratulations. Also that it has leaders capable of attaining such results" (December 13, 1907).

In an Evening Bulletin article headlined "Our Symphony -- From A Student's Perspective" an anonymous reviewer noted:

"The soloists were Mr. Erwin Gastel, an eminent violincellist of Seattle, manager of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and Professor Jackson, of Whitman College Conservatory.  Mr. Gastel, though playing under great disadvantage (the piano being so low in pitch as to make the strings of his instrument too loose for accurate fingering, thereby necessitating the repetition of one or two passages) displayed masterful technique and splendid musicianship.  He played three solos ... and with Mrs. Edgar Fischer, two movements from the Rubenstein Sonata for piano and cello.  This, to piano students, was the gem of the concert, Mrs. Fischer surprising even her friends with the rendering of the intricacies of that moderato.  Mr. Jackson was in unusually good voice, singing most delightfully an aria from Massenet's "Herodiade" and a group of American songs, two of which were by local people.  The orchestra was a surprise to all who heard it" (December 14, 1907).

Edgar and Alice Fischer

Founding conductor Edgar Simpson Fischer, a violinist who could speak eight languages, was born in Philadelphia and studied violin in Berlin with noted violinist Joseph Joachim.  He arrived in Walla Walla at the invitation of Whitman College president Steven Penrose (1864-1947).  Penrose was a friend of Edgar Fischer's father, William G. Fischer (1835-1912), a leader of religious choirs and the composer of more than 200 hymns.

During his tenure at the Whitman Conservatory of Music, Fischer met and married Alice Reynolds (1878-1945), who was a piano teacher at the school.  In 1906 the Fischers departed their positions and started a competing school, the Fischer School of Music.  When the Walla Walla Symphony was formed, the board of directors immediately recruited Fischer as its conductor.  He held this post until his sudden death on March 18, 1922.

In 1925 after one season under the direction of Spokane conductor Gottfried Herbst and one concert at which Pullman State College (now Washington State University) teacher Karel Havicek wielded the baton, Alice Reynolds Fischer accepted the board of directors' invitation to become the Walla Walla Symphony's conductor.  She held this position until 1932.

Keeping Time

The Keylor Grand Theatre, built in 1905, held 1,300 people.  Opulent and at the time one of the finest theaters in the region, it was perhaps over-large for a fledgling orchestra in a town that was still busily educating its citizens about the symphonic experience.  The Walla Walla Symphony Orchestra performed at a number of venues in its early years before settling into the Walla Walla High School auditorium in 1925.  The high school auditorium sat 750, making it a more appropriate performance space for the orchestra's usual audience.  Cordiner Hall, on the Whitman College campus, was completed in 1968 and thereafter served as the Walla Walla Symphony's home venue.

The Walla Walla Symphony Club, renamed the Walla Walla Symphony Society, operated continually from the time of its inception, presenting one or more concerts each year, with the exception of 1933 when financial conditions precluded mounting a performance.  Other orchestral societies in the region were founded earlier -- Seattle's came together in 1903 -- but these other groups disbanded for significant periods before later being reformulated.  The Walla Walla Symphony celebrated its centenary in 2007.

Sources: Dan Shultz, A Dream Fulfilled: One Hundred Years of the Walla Walla Symphony Orchestra (Walla Walla: Dan Shultz and the Walla Walla Symphony Orchestra, 2006); "Our History," Walla Walla Symphony Orchestra website accessed October 16, 2007 (http://www.wwsymphony.com/); "Symphony Concert Tonight," Walla Walla Evening Bulletin, December 12, 1907, p. 4; "Symphony Club Concert Excellent," Ibid., December 13, 1907; "Our Symphony -- From A Student's Perspective," Ibid., December 14, 1907; "Symphony Concert Tonight," Walla Walla Evening Statesman, December 12, 1907.

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