Among the secrets to the Austin Symphony’s longevity: its fiscal austerity, its capable leadership and its willingness to disappear for a long time.
One could argue that each of these traits came with a double-edged sword. We’ll get to that debate soon.
As we look at the Austin arts groups that have survived for many decades — last week we examined the 111-year-old Austin Art League — it’s natural to turn our attention next to the 109-year-old Austin Symphony, or as it is sometimes known, the Austin Symphony Orchestra (ASO).
Here’s what I wrote in 2017 about the printed program for the first concert on April 25, 1911: "About the size of a Catholic holy card and printed on gray stock, it announces that the Austin Symphony Society will be led by Dr. Hans Harthan at the Hancock Opera House, a grand venue formerly located at West Sixth Street and Congress Avenue. ... The list of musicians includes, even then, four women. The group’s first piece ever? W.A. Mozart’s Symphonie in C No. 28."
I continued: "By 1913, Harthan had been replaced as conductor by professor William Besserer. He was followed by Frank LeFevre Reed in 1917.
"Sadly, the record falters for 20 years after 1918, so we don’t know from the extant programs what was played during those decades. The archives pick up again regularly after Dec. 12, 1938, and are fairly complete through last season."
At the time that I wrote about those "silent decades," it seemed exceedingly strange that nobody had saved their programs for 20 years. Nobody?
Then we dipped into Newspapers.com. Actually, the municipal symphony did not perform for all of those years. Austin enjoyed tunes from the University of Texas Symphony and traveling ensembles.
Also, something called the Majestic Theater Symphony Orchestra performed periodically during shows at the Paramount Theatre, but I strongly suspect this was a theatrical pit orchestra and not a producer of ongoing, standalone concerts. In 1934, the Austin Little Symphony gathered together some amateur musicians, but it disappeared quickly.
So no Austin Symphony for two decades. It took the combined efforts of top city leaders to bring it back, sometimes a more difficult task than founding a group.
That mystery is somewhat compounded by that 1918 end date.
The likely answer: World War I.
Then the Great Depression.
Austin hosted a large German population who were considered by some of their neighbors suspect in their loyalties, even if their families had arrived in the 1840s. The German language was discouraged in public places. And the symphony, here and elsewhere in the country, was closely associated with the German community.
Interesting, then, that an ensemble using the name Austin Symphony came back to play in UT’s Hogg Auditorium on the eve of World War II.
The group has, however, persisted to this day, in part because its leaders have proved to be so budget conscious. Ours is a part-time orchestra, at least for the musicians, and their rehearsal time is strictly limited. Musicians have argued persuasively for decades that this deal lowers the overall quality of the performances.
Yet full-time orchestras are expensive. And while its leadership has proven time and again a prodigious ability to raise money, it’s not enough for the three elements that often define a symphony of the first class: recording, touring to other cities and performing year-round.
Fiscal leaders point out that the musicians often teach as well at area universities, schools and studios; the part-time arrangement gives them maximum flexibility. Also, full-time symphonies located in mid-size arts markets like Austin seem always in danger of collapse — witness the modern history of the San Antonio Symphony. Financial angels must regularly step in to save it.
The Austin Symphony has been slowly adding concerts. For the 2019-2020 season, for the first time, it had planned a summer festival and limited Sunday matinees. That promise was cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic.
And then we had the leaders.
The late, indomitable Jane Sibley for decades ruled the symphony’s board of directors with an iron fist — sometimes clad in a velvet glove — and kept the ensemble from expiring on more than one occasion. She also teamed up with the Jare Smith (Ballet Austin) and late Jo Anne Christian (Austin Opera) to lobby tirelessly and effectively for the Long Center for the Performing Arts, named for super-patrons Joe and Teresa Lozano Long.
The new venue, along with the hiring of widely admired music director Peter Bay, helped transformed a rather tepid orchestra into one that is consistently exciting, ambitious and, while it could always be better — who couldn’t? — it has evolved into a lasting musical treasure.