In 2016, a mere three years from now, the Hastings Symphony Orchestra will be celebrating its 90th consecutive season of performance in Hastings, Neb. Not many orchestras, large or small, can make this claim; Hastings even boasts one of the oldest continuous orchestras in the United States. So how has this small group lasted so long? In short, dedication. Unlike most orchestras, HSO could afford to continue during the Great Depression because it was largely run by volunteers. Today the roughly 70 members remain involved not for the money but for the experience itself. They largely consider every Thursday rehearsal and Sunday concert worthwhile—even those who drive from Lincoln and Omaha to attend.
The main reason members remain committed is love of the music. Violist Dottie Ladman said, “I do it because I love it. I love playing. It gives teachers the opportunity to keep playing, and it’s a good outlet; it feeds my soul. When you play classical music, there’s a depth to it you can’t get anywhere else. Music reaches a part of your soul that nothing else can.”
And Ralph Southern, principal clarinet and member for nearly 40 seasons, said that he likes playing in an orchestra partly because of the unique challenges this type of ensemble presents. For example, orchestral playing differs from playing in a wind ensemble like a band because the sound balance differs due to the different instrumentation in an orchestra. What makes the orchestral experience most rewarding for Southern, though, is the literature. Above all else, he remembers the different pieces HSO has performed and the guest artists it has performed with, which includes works ranging from operas like “Hansel and Gretel” and “Amahl and the Night Visitors” to Brahms’ “Requiem,” a beautiful piece that includes a choir. He said the nearly 40 years he has spent with HSO have been worthwhile “just to be a part of that literature,” pieces he would not have had opportunities to play outside the orchestra.
Like Southern, principal flute Deb Johnson also appreciates the many opportunities HSO has given her, opportunities she knows she would not have found in a larger city. Her memories with the symphony orchestra are unique in that she has experienced the orchestra in many different capacities—including as an audience member, solo performer and president of the HSO board. Johnson has grown up with the orchestra; she remembers dropping a dime into the box when HSO was still known as the “Dime” Symphony for its ten-cent admission fee. She has served in so many different capacities, she said, because she considers it her duty to “give back” to an organization that has granted her so many enriching experiences. “I grew up with that orchestra, I felt it was part of my responsibility to give back,” she explained. Some of her most rewarding experiences were as a soloist with the orchestra when Jim Johnson, the conductor until 2002, led the orchestra. Her solo experiences include playing the “Pied Piper” fantasy concerto in 2000. “When you get challenged, it keeps you playing.”
The performers appreciate the camaraderie just as much as the music. Because of the people Ladman shares these experiences with, she doesn’t mind driving from Lincoln to attend rehearsals and concerts—even though it usually means returning around midnight on a weeknight. The group of Lincoln members have a tradition of carpooling to Thursday night rehearsals and renting hotel rooms at the same hotel for concert weekends. Those traditions, to her, make the trips worthwhile. “Concert weekends,” she said, “are a fun time, a social time.”
The members likewise agree that the atmosphere of the orchestra is positive and encouraging. Southern explained that although the orchestra is “not satisfied with mediocrity,” neither is the atmosphere tense as a larger orchestra’s might be. “People have such a refreshing attitude,” said Chantry Nelson, principal oboe, who has also performed with the Lincoln Symphony and Omaha Symphony orchestras. “They seem to enjoy coming to rehearsals; it’s not just a job to them.”
Part of the orchestra’s uplifting atmosphere comes from its current conductor, Dr. Byron Jensen, strings instructor at Hastings College, who has continued HSO’s musical tradition since 2002. Nelson commented that Jensen excels at nurturing people—a skill vital for a small-town conductor to have. In addition, she said, his love for the musical repertoire shines through. “He’s kind and effective,” Ladman said. Without a conductor like Jensen, the orchestra would not have the same nurturing atmosphere that it does. He challenges his members while supporting them to ensure that they don’t fail; he understands that, while most members strive for excellence, they enjoy the orchestra because it’s not as demanding as a professional orchestra would be, and he leads them to accommodate that desire. He knows that the members enjoy the camaraderie just as much as the music. “Orchestras are families,” Nelson explained, “and HSO is a family that gets along most of the time.”
HSO has always sought to give its members this type of musical outlet. It originated in 1925, when Frank Noyes organized the 25 members, and they performed their first concert on May 26, 1926. In its second year, it adopted its nickname of the Dime Symphony, which gradually helped it gain enough popularity for “Life” magazine to feature it twice, once in 1938 and again in 1954. Since then, aside from changing conductors, it has remained mostly the same. Its primary goals stay constant: the orchestra focuses largely on outreach, as central Nebraska is an area that remains largely unexposed to classical and symphonic music. One way it makes this music accessible to the public is by free concerts. Every year the orchestra likes to give two free concerts, one in September in Chautauqua Park’s historic outdoor pavilion and another to conclude the season in May. For the latter, the orchestra often travels to schools in the surrounding area, including Clay Center, Kearney, and Grand Island, in addition to performing concerts for schools in Hastings. This is especially important because these children may not otherwise have the opportunity to hear such music. Ladman, a music educator, loves teaching because she wants to give the musical opportunities she had as a child to others, and the symphony orchestra performs in this capacity for much the same reason. Many of the orchestra’s members are Nebraskan music educators, and the orchestra has always maintained close ties to Hastings College. Given this nature, then, it is no surprise that the orchestra dedicates so much time to educational outreach.
And the audience returns because they appreciate the opportunity to listen to classical and symphonic music in their hometown. Ladman thinks that the audience returns because “something we did touched [them].” Nelson thinks it’s important that orchestras perform because live performances create a completely different feel from recorded—“canned,” as she called it—music. For her, the beauty of a live performance stems from its brevity, the knowledge that it will only exist for a fixed period of time. In addition, the knowledge that a live performance has flaws makes the performance more human as well. Recorded music sounds flawless because the musicians play the same piece many times over, and then someone, often a mixing engineer, splices it together. The ability for orchestra and audience to share in a fleeting, fully human experience creates the bond between the two. As Southern pointed out, recordings can’t capture everything in a live performance, most notably that finite connection between the performers and the audience. If HSO did not perform, members of the Hastings community would have to go to Kearney or Lincoln for this same kind of experience.
But this may have been how the orchestra originated—Ladman mentioned that people hunger for beauty, and Frank Noyes established the orchestra partially to fill that need. And so HSO continues today to reach people who would not normally have that type of exposure to classical music, from schoolchildren to the elderly. HSO understands this need for beauty and has gladly helped fulfill it in Hastings for almost 90 years.
Hastings Symphony Orchestra will commence its 88th season on Sept. 15 in Hastings’ Chautauqua Park with a tribute to Leroy Anderson and Morton Gould. To learn more, visit www.hastingssymphony.com.