Special Collections of the ODU Libraries

Virginia Symphony Orchestra Records, 1921-2018, undated | Special Collections and University Archives

By Sonia Yaco; Susan M. Catlett; Kathleen Smith; Lou Sundberg; Kristen Sundberg; Kelly C. Barbour; Mel Frizzell

Collection Overview

Title: Virginia Symphony Orchestra Records, 1921-2018, undated

ID: 00/MG 81-A

Primary Creator: Virginia Symphony (1920-)

Extent: 67.1 Linear Feet

Arrangement: The collection is organized into three series: Series I: Organizational Records; Series II: Multimedia; and Series III: Oversize.

Date Acquired: 04/02/2004. More info below under Accruals.

Subjects: Arts--Virginia, Orchestral music--Virginia, Orchestral musicians--Virginia, Virginia Symphony

Forms of Material: letters (correspondence), minutes (administrative records), programs (documents)

Languages: English


Consists of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra organizational archives, the Virginia Symphony Board archives, artifacts concerning premieres and other notable performances, and season programs.

Scope and Contents of the Materials

This collection consists of materials related to the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and its predecessors, including its board of directors, committees, conductors, and musicians. Some of the records include administrative materials, correspondence, publicity, new clippings, newsletters, concert programs, calendars, photographs, multimedia, reports, contracts, financial records, and membership information.

Oral history interviews with key musicians and local supporters of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra have been digitized and are available in the Old Dominion University Digital Collections.

Collection Historical Note

The Norfolk Civic Symphony Orchestra, the historical antecedent of the Virginia Symphony, played its inaugural concert on April 21, 1921 under the direction of Walter Edward Howe, the orchestra’s first conductor. At that time, the Norfolk Civic Symphony Orchestra was the only symphony between Baltimore and Atlanta. The original ensemble of about 40 volunteer members grew so rapidly that balanced instrumentation was achieved during the 1921-22 season. By 1926 the ensemble had played under the direction of five conductors: W. Henry Baker, Bart Wirtz, Arthur Fickenscher, and Frank L. Delpino, in addition to the first conductor, Walter Edward Howe.  Among the milestones of this early period were the formation of The Norfolk Orchestral Association, Inc. and performance of the first choral work, the Mendelssohn Symphony No. 2, Lobgesang. 

In the pre-World War II period, many “Firsts” took place with the orchestra.  An admission charge was first instituted in 1929; until then an offering had been taken at the door to finance the symphony’s operation. A Women’s Committee was appointed, and in 1935 it conducted the first organized membership campaign for season subscriptions.  With the 1934 arrival of Henry Cowles Whitehead to conduct the symphony, concertos began to be performed regularly.  The first Young People’s Concert was presented to 1,500 school children in 1936, initiating a tradition which continued until interrupted by World War II.

At the time of Edgar Schenkman’s arrival to direct the symphony in 1948, the orchestra had grown into a semi-professional group poised to perform at a higher professional level.  Because he was hired to direct the Civic Chorus as well as the orchestra, the organizations merged to become the Norfolk Symphony and Choral Association in 1949, and regular performances of choral works were programmed.  In the Schenkman era (1948-1966), the women’s group officially became the Women’s Auxiliary; a Youth Orchestra was founded; a Community Music School was established; and a trust to benefit the symphony was established in the Norfolk Foundation.

Russell Stanger became the music director in 1966 and held the position until 1980.  He appointed the first African-American orchestra member in 1966 and organized a new choral group, the Tidewater Choral Association in 1967.  Chrysler Hall was opened in 1972, and the symphony began performing in the new hall. The symphony was not a fulltime professional orchestra at this time, and in 1972, the Norfolk Musicians Union staged a month-long strike, which was settled for base pay of $1,000 for 60 concerts and rehearsals annually.  During this period, the difficulty of recruiting and retaining professional musicians was first acknowledged, attributed to the fact that the positions did not offer fulltime employment.

In the 1970s and 80s, a series of mergers took place or came under investigation.  Merger with the Peninsula Symphony was investigated in 1972 and took place finally in 1979.  The symphony and the Virginia Opera investigated a joint contract with musicians in 1976.  The current organization, officially named the Virginia Orchestra Group, was formed in 1979 from a merger of the Virginia Philharmonic (previously named the Norfolk Symphony), the Peninsula Symphony, and the Virginia Beach Pops.  Later, in 1989, a study was done to assess the viability of merging the Norfolk and Richmond symphonies.

A major advance was made in 1985 when many of the musicians were offered a three-year contract placing them on salary for the first time.  This was a central element in the board’s process to upgrade the orchestra.  After short directing tenures of Richard Williams (1980-1986) and Winston Dan Vogel (1986-1990), JoAnn Falletta was appointed conductor and music director of the Virginia Symphony in 1991.  Since then the orchestra has released several recordings and has performed both in Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.  It is recognized now as one of the nation’s leading regional symphony orchestras.

Subject/Index Terms

Orchestral music--Virginia
Orchestral musicians--Virginia
Virginia Symphony

Administrative Information

Repository: Special Collections and University Archives

Accruals: Future accruals expected.

Access Restrictions: Open to researchers without restrictions.

Use Restrictions: Before publishing quotations or excerpts from any materials, permission must be obtained from Special Collections and University Archives, and the holder of the copyright, if not Old Dominion University Libraries.

Acquisition Source: Virginia Symphony Orchestra

Acquisition Method: Gift. Accession #A2004-2

Related Materials:

Virginia Symphony Foundation Records (MG 81-B); Virginia Symphony League Records (MG 81-C); Virginia Symphony Society of Greater Williamsburg Records (MG 81-D).

Oral history interviews with key musicians and local supporters of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra have been digitized and are available in the Old Dominion University Digital Collections.

Preferred Citation: [Identification of item], Box [insert number], Folder [insert number and title], Virginia Symphony Orchestra Records, Special Collections and University Archives, Old Dominion University Libraries.

Processing Information: The collection was reprocessed by Mel Frizzell, Special Collections and University Archives Assistant, from June 2017 to January 2018.

Box and Folder Listing

Browse by Series:

[Series I: Organizational Records, 1921-2018],
[Series II: Multimedia, 1921-2016, undated],
[Series III: Oversize, 1929-2011, undated],

Browse by Series:

[Series I: Organizational Records, 1921-2018],
[Series II: Multimedia, 1921-2016, undated],
[Series III: Oversize, 1929-2011, undated],

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