116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
“A city without music would be a city without a soul,” Gazette columnist Nadine Subotnik wrote in 1946. She was writing about the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra, now known as Orchestra Iowa, then in its 25th season.
The orchestra is celebrating its 100th season this year into next.
The idea for the orchestra started in 1922 when well-known flutist E.A. Hazelton dropped into the office of Dr. J. Lynn Crawford, according to a 1928 Gazette story.
That conversation led to the forming of two musical groups in 1923: the Cedar Rapids Choral Society and the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra.
The Gazette reported on Feb. 13, 1923, that the “Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra was organized last night in the Chamber of Commerce. Forty leading musicians of the city attended the first meeting and took part in the first practice. ”
“With the promise of others to join, the orchestra will probably consist of more than fifty pieces,” the story added, saying it already included “the best players in our city.”
In March 1923, Coe College professor Joseph Kitchin was named the orchestra’s director. Its first performance was April 13, 1923, in Coe’s Sinclair Memorial Chapel.
The all-volunteer orchestra had 48 musicians for that first concert, 17 of them women. The program included an oratorio by the Choral Society under the direction of Coe professor Marshall Bidwell. The concert received a favorable review by Coe piano professor Max Daehler.
Ernest A. Leo, honored for 50 years of teaching music in Cedar Rapids, also praised the choral society and orchestra at a gathering honoring him in April 1923.
In May, the choral society and the orchestra gave their first “pop” concert at the city auditorium.
On Dec. 18, 1923, the two groups presented Handel’s “Messiah” in the Coe College chapel. A Gazette reviewer praised the vocals, adding, “the work of the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra cannot be too highly praised. It was not merely good support for the chorus and soloist, but was an integral part of the whole.”
Finding a home
The symphony organization became permanent March 17, 1924.
There was no oboe player for the symphony’s 1925-26 season, so Crawford, who played the cello and flute, traveled to Chicago each week to take oboe lessons. Bidwell, an expert organist, took up playing kettle drums that season, too.
In 1928, orchestra members embraced the coliseum in the new Veterans Memorial Building, knowing it offered more room for performances.
Fifty-five musicians performed in the first series of concerts in the new space. Many of the musicians were professionals who gave up being paid to be part of the concerts.
Financing was usually handled through fundraising campaigns, season tickets and contributions. But when finances were tight in 1936, during the Depression, the symphony charged for a star concert as a season opener. The rest of the season’s concerts were free.
The orchestra still existed on a volunteer basis in 1946. Symphony members that year were music teachers, doctors, dentists, lawyers, bookkeepers, office workers, real estate agents, students and farmers.
In 1952, the orchestra’s president, Otto Amboz, asked the American Orchestra Symphony League to critique the orchestra. The review was not favorable, and it led Kitchin to search for his own replacement.
A pay scale was instituted, and Kitchen hired Henry Denecke, who became the orchestra’s first salaried director. Denecke stayed until 1969, bringing talent from the University of Iowa and expanding the concert series.
Richard Williams came next. He significantly increased audiences, and the budget expanded. The American Orchestra Symphony League designated the symphony as Iowa’s first “metropolitan orchestra,” allowing it to apply for grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The symphony also found a new home in 1976 in the restored Paramount Theatre downtown.
Christian Tiemeyer took the orchestra’s helm in 1982. In his 22 years with the orchestra, he instituted the Pops! Series, the Discovery Series and the Showcase Chamber series, offering operas and opening the Symphony School of Music. He retired in 2005, succeeded by Maestro Timothy Hankewich.
The Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra celebrated its 66th year in 1988, making it the oldest symphony west of the Mississippi. In it 75th season in 1996, the orchestra had 72 members and was operating in the black with a $1.3 million budget.
After the flood of 2008 swamped the Paramount Theatre, the orchestra began touring the state, leading to changing its name to Orchestra Iowa.
Musicians in the first Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra were:
First violin: Mrs. E.W. Richardson, Mrs. James Taylor, Charlotte Devolt, Mrs. E.G. Stucker, George Kovarik, Anna Weber, Dorothy Montgomery, Agnes Balcar, Hartzell Jones
Second violin: Faith Heller, H. Tranberry, Fannie Fine, Mabel Dutton, Elizabeth Havlik, George Swab, Julius Pityer, Bessie Victorine, Helen Cahill
Viola: Dr. Freeman McClelland, Chester Hauser, Joseph Tlapa
Cello: Joseph Hicksa, Dr. J. Lynn Crawford, James Taylor, Maxine Boegel, Eleanor Montgomery, Mrs. J.L. Ingram
Bass: Frank Zbanek, Donald Horan, Charles Halicek
Flute: E.A. Hazelton, A.C. Fisher
Oboe: Dr. T.F. Suchomel
Clarinet: E.W. Richardson, A.L. Seifert
Bassoon: Carl McDonald, L.A. Eike
Trumpet: Stanley Vesely, Pattee Evanson
Trombone: William Vesely, Frank Hayden, R.H. Ransom
French horn: Charles Tichy, A.J. Smetna
Piano: Mrs. L.B. Graham
Timpani: Joseph Benz
Percussion: F.H. Hall, L.C. Haagenson
Source: Gazette archives