Portland has a top-quality professional orchestra, which performs in a premier classic concert hall possessing excellent acoustics. About 100 years ago Portland didn't even have an amateur orchestra, but would a decade later, comprised of good and pretty-good players that would perform in what was then a large public assembly and meeting hall not designed for musical performances.
THINGS-PSO is a reference history that traces the metamorphoses of both that fledgling amateur orchestra and the cavernous City Hall Auditorium where it would perform most of its concerts over the years. Emerging would be the top-quality professional Portland Symphony Orchestra and handsome Merrill Auditorium that Portlanders now take pride and pleasure in enjoying. While this text focuses on the PSO, woven in are selected events and highlights involving the overall Portland music scene over several hundred years.
Of major significance, this THINGS-PSO history provides detailed chronological information concerning an almost-100% complete list of concerts performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra and its predecessor ensembles up until its 90th season... a long history. Searching for and sequencing thousands of diverse published sources, also more than one hundred interviews, enabled this first-ever-compiled multi-decade text to be written. Now finally available in one location are details about every musical work known to have been performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra through this period, and also other descriptive information about more than 2200 PSO concerts. Previous to this project, no complete chronological list of PSO concerts had been developed. Now the PSO has such information, and it is easily located within a new PSOHistory.org website. This text has a word-search capability to aid internet visitors. Exhaustively discovering and recording "details" was my objective. While some readers may find "too much detail", at least it's now all on the record.
Also on the PSOHistory website, a companion linked to the Portland Symphony Orchestra's primary PortlandSymphony.org website, is the first-ever-assembled chronological line-by-line list of PSO concerts. PDF-scans of many original concert programs can now be accessed and downloaded with the proverbial "click of a mouse". Official lists of PSO musicians were printed in most of those concert programs, and PDF-scans of those can likewise be downloaded. Also accessible on PSOHistory.org are pre-season brochures covering eight of the Symphony's nine decades. And if historical picture images are of interest to website visitors, more than one hundred from during the PSO's lengthy history are also displayed. The website is solely the responsibility of the PSO subscriber and volunteer author (Henry A. Schmitt); while PSO offcials read parts of the THINGS-PSO history draft, neither it nor PSOHistory.org has been edited or censored by the organization. Thank-you's go to the PSO, however, for graciously agreeing to have its www.portlandsymphony.org website linked with the independent PSOHistory.org website.
Sources of information for this THINGS-PSO have been many. Incredibly helpful were many old scrapbooks that were thoroughly and lovingly assembled by PSO players and conductors. Especially noteworthy were those of longtime PSO cellist Katherine Hatch Graffam and conductor Dr. Russell Ames Cook. Also invaluable was generous access to a thorough and well-preserved 10-volume scrapbook collection compiled by Harold M. Lawrence, Sr., still carefully retained by his family, that started with Day#1 in 1924 of the PSO-forerunner Amateur Strand Orchestra. Extensive memorabilia from the estate of former subscriber Frances Small, contributed by her family to the PSO, included many programs. Early on when I hadn't yet found much about the PSO in the 1960s, Lennie Nelson lent me a bound book of concert programs from his three-year tenure as Symphony president; at the time they were like found-gold to me as they contained details about three dozen PSO concerts-- Hoo-Ray!! A bit later, longtime PSO violist Elizabeth Miller thoughtfully handed over her decades-long collection of concert programs that started in the late 1960s, a collection that now resides among the PSO Archives. Another longtime PSO violist, Pamela Doughty, lent her also decades-long collection of pre-season PSO Brochures. All of those were scanned. The respective help from the two violists was HUGE on both occasions, at those times filling important holes and providing details about many mysteries I was facing regarding almost fifty years of Portland Symphony happenings.
Stepping up shortly thereafter to fill in some other gaps of concert programs, longtime PSO violinist Joanne Woodward came forth with two large boxes containing programs from more than three-plus decades, and also a dozen brochures, as well as numerous clippings that had not been spotted elsewhere. That was followed when longtime PSO principal bassoonist Janet Polk also came to the rescue, with a large box of programs that filled some other gaps. Longtime PSO subscribers and other PSO musicians who had saved programs lent those so that pdf-scans could be made, filling additional gaps. Those finds came from longtime PSO'ers-- oboist Stephanie Burk and principal violist Laurie Kennedy; oboe and English horn player Julie Verret; former PSO violinist Elise Straus-Bowers; bass clarinetist John Korajczyk; longtime violinist Luis Ibáñez; and a Symphony contrabassist since 1980, Ann Metcalf—who many times encouraged me throughout this project’s 2 & ½ year time span. Had I been the Symphony's music director, all those PSO veterans would have been promoted on the spot..... and each moved ahead three stands! As for those loyal subscribers who helped, all of them would have their seat positions immediately moved to the front row of the Grand Tier at Merrill Auditorium!
Memorabilia lent by longtime PSO French horn player Nina Miller, also by violinists Joanne Woodward and Cornelia Sawyer -- plus a trove from violist Laurie Kennedy, early-on provided significant additional perspectives on "what happened and when" during their long careers with the Symphony.
Also referenced from other sources were many thousands of documents: newspaper articles, PSO Archives containing decades of Board and committee minutes and correspondence, PSO Archive files and board minutes, Maine State Agency folders, resources of The Portland Room of the Portland Public Library, Maine Historical Society documents and collections, blueprints and other architects' drawings, City of Portland records, private files belonging to numerous individuals, and several books. Much information was ascertained thanks to Google, Inc. --- I'm glad I was researching in the digital search-engine age.
Special appreciation is extended to the MaineToday Media organization that owns, manages and publishes Portland's primary newspaper, the Press Herald (which throughout this text is often referred to using the conversational abbreviation label spoken each morning in our home, the “P-H”). The P-H and its former companion newspaper, the Evening Express, are referenced literally hundreds of times in this THINGS-PSO. Were it not for information read in those articles this history of the Portland Symphony Orchestra would be lacking many, many, important details about its concerts and activities. During most of the Portland orchestra's first nine decades, the cornerstone entity of Guy Gannett Communications's media holdings was the P-H, and in addition to chronicling details about the PSO, Mr. and Mrs. Gannett were longtime key supporters and significant contributors to Portland's symphony.
Google-discovering old articles in other Maine newspapers frequently also yielded new information and good perspectives about PSO concerts. Particularly helpful were stories carried by the Lewiston-Auburn Sun-Journal, the Phoenix, the York County Coast Star, the Bangor Daily News and various-region issues of the Forecaster.
Delightful and informative personal get-togethers and discussions with four PSO music directors were highlight experiences. Paul Vermel, Bruce Hangen, Toshi Simada and Robert Moody each provided valuable insights and fun tales; Portland has been privileged to have benefitted from the talents and good will provided by each to the PSO and the community. Past PSO President Jerry Newbury, whose search committee found Mr. Vermel in the late 1960s, cheerfully gave me perspectives about PSO happenings earlier in that decade.... and proved to be a great guy - to boot!
In addition, interviews were also held with many former and present board members, architects and others involved with the Merrill Auditorium restoration. Particularly helpful were four long individual interviews with a triumvirate-plus-one of people key to the Merrill Auditorium, as we enjoy it today, finally "happening". I owe special thanks to Peter Plumb, Earle Shettleworth, Holmes Stockly and Larry Kirkegaard for each patiently and meticulously explaining detailed chronologies of critical events. Jane Moody's 10-page summary of Merrill-related events, retained at the Brown Research Library, provided a valuable chronology that frequently needed re-checking whenever I became confused about the timing of Merrill-related events--- which happened often. Finding her summary also led Sue and me to meet a delightful and classy lady during a delicious lunch with her... AND Jane treated us! Wow!
Meetings with Portland City officials resulted in their lending important background facts, perspectives and nuances. From virtually all the people I met also came many delightful stories - many of which, but not all, are contained in the Anecdote addendum. Past and present associates at Greater Portland Landmarks deserve special credit for having been the first to alert me to important issues about which I, as a newcomer to the area, was totally ignorant; early on, materials in GPL's files directly pointed me in many significant directions.
Many PSO players (both former and current) were generous with their time to meet with me, and getting to know them certainly adds to Sue's and my enjoyment when we attend Portland Symphony Orchestra concerts. Retired PSO staff members shared insights about events during the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, filling in many gaps - which were great aids to my researching. Stories they told are retold in the Anecdote Section. Conversations (and repeat-conversations) with all the living former PSO conductors were truly special. Many thanks go to Paul Vermel, Bruce Hangen, Toshi Shimada and Robert Moody. The music director tenures of those four combine to account for sixty percent of the years the Portland Symphony Orchestra has existed.
Five previous PSO managers and executive directors separately chatted with us in various sessions (four were in-person sessions), and their collective help with perspectives was super. The quintet was comprised of Andrew McMullan, Andy Holmes, Russ Burleigh, Jane Hunter and Ari Solotoff. Thanks to you all!
Our daughter, Valerie, as well as my childhood sweetheart and subsequent longtime wonderful bride of Fifty Years, Sue, were of great help as I wandered first through MS/Excel and then MS/Word software adventures. Oh, how glad I am to have had their assistance in untangling all kinds of mischievous tricks my PC played on me (and Sue caught a number of spelling errors that Microsoft's spell-check feature failed to spot--- So There, Bill Gates!). Their patience in proof-reading and re/proof-reading everything were also great aids, way above and far beyond any reasonable family call-to-duty. They're both super important to me in so many ways (Big-Time thanks, VJ and SuzyQ!).
Affectionately saved until last to receive plaudits, Lisa Dixon French and the current PSO staff consistently provided invaluable help, encouragement and mentoring. They likely never realized how privately pleased I always was the many times they bewilderingly looked at me and said "WHERE did you ever learn THAT?!" Past PSO President Debby Hammond was incredibly helpful, and always encouraging and friendly (as she always is to everyone with whom she comes in contact). Another past president, Gordon Gayer, thoughtfully and carefully guided me through the intracacies and challenges of the mid-2000 period that led to the PSO's financial turnaround, a success that will hopefully continue paying dividends to concertgoers and musicians for a long time to come.
Since moving to the Portland area late in 2011, I've greatly enjoyed my journeys into the Symphony's past and gaining understandings about its current culture. This started off as only a casual project, solely to satisfy my personal curiosity. As it kept expanding it enabled me to meet many delightful people. None of this would have ever occurred were it not for that opening night, when hearing the Portland Symphony Orchestra for the first time, Sue and I silently looked at each other and smiled. Those smiles signaled mutual individual conclusions-- "Hey! This is a GOOD ORCHESTRA".
We are delighted that we moved to Portland, and in the years to come look forward to enjoying many, many more quality times with the PSO. And also in the years to come, I look forward to learning additional information concerning the history of the orchestra, and from time to time intend to add some of those items to THINGS-PSO. While continuing to serve in the role of PSO Historian, and annually updating the chronological line-by-line list of PSO concerts - plus adding respective PDF-scans of concert program segments for the PSOHistory.org website, I am now retiring as an author. I leave chronicling the text writing(s) about the PSO's Second Ninety Years' History to others who will follow.
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