Say the words mountain music to someone, and it’s a safe bet their brain will conjure up banjo pickin’, fiddle playing, and perhaps a few scenes from Deliverance.
But there’s another type of mountain music that has been echoing through the hills of Hendersonville for four decades. Instead of bluegrass, think Beethoven, Bach and Brahms.
Since 1971, the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra has been bringing the world’s finest classical compositions to Western North Carolina audiences. The orchestra is currently celebrating its 40th season and planning a special anniversary concert for June 2.
Sandie Salvaggio-Walker, who today serves as the orchestra’s house manager and previously was its general manager for 12 years, has been with the HSO from the very beginning. When the orchestra made its debut in December 1971, a 25-year-old Salvaggio-Walker was right there on stage, singing as a member of the Mothers Four quartette.
Salvaggio-Walker says Hendersonville may be a small mountain town, but it fosters what she considers to be a big-city orchestra. “We can match up with anybody,” she says. “Dr. Thomas Joiner (music director and conductor), who is a professor at Furman, has really brought it up. This symphony is quite phenomenal.”
HSO President Donna Hastie knows a thing or two about big-city orchestras. An enthusiastic symphony supporter who sheepishly admits she can’t play an instrument, Hastie served on the boards for the Atlanta and Marietta symphonies in Georgia before moving to Flat Rock nine years ago. Hastie says a city of Hendersonville’s size is blessed to have a quality orchestra like HSO.
“We are one of the maybe three smallest cities in the United States that has a full symphony orchestra,” Hastie says. “Our orchestra musicians are all professionals. The majority of them play in the Greenville Symphony, the Asheville Symphony and the Brevard Symphony. They love to play.”
Hastie says the orchestra is not only toasting 40 years of longevity, but it is also recognizing 40 years of support from the local community. A typical HSO concert draws an average of 600 people, but the HSO has played before as many as 1,200. That kind of support, along with generous financial contributions over the years from individual supporters and businesses, has enabled the HSO to thrive.
Another music lover, Bill Humleker, has been active with HSO for 20 years and is currently chairman of the 40th anniversary celebration committee. He says he enjoys all music, “from Ronstadt to Rachmaninoff,” and for him, an HSO concert is the equivalent of pure joy.
“It just does something for me. It stirs my soul,” he says. “It’s something that many of us have in common. It speaks to something within us. It is absolutely remarkable a community of our size can support a 70-piece orchestra.”
Humleker has twice been involved in the search for HSO’s music director. Both times, he says, the quality of the HSO was never more evident than when the board began reviewing the applicants.
“It has always surprised and delighted me that we’ve never had trouble finding someone of the finest quality and someone who is willing to lead a small town orchestra,” he says. “In many ways it’s a more personal experience for the maestros. In a big city they may not know their musicians very well. Believe me, they know them here. We can offer things for our maestros that the big cities really can’t.”
For Salvaggio-Walker, the symphony has been and continues to be a major part of her life. In addition to singing with the HSO at its first concert and making guest vocalist appearances over the years, her son, Bart, was in the first strings symphony.
She says what impresses her most about the orchestra is its commitment to educating young people about music.
To foster an appreciation for music in WNC students, the orchestra sponsors an annual young artist competition; provides music scholarships; performs concerts every year for third- and sixth-graders; and sponsors a summer string camp. Two other major educational components are the Hendersonville Symphony Youth Orchestra, which provides middle and high school students with orchestra performance opportunities, and Sinfonetta, a beginning strings orchestra.
“The education has been the number one priority, I have felt, through all these years,” she says. “The orchestra started the string program in the schools. My memory of the orchestra is seeing how the education has evolved.”
Like most things that reach major milestones, the HSO was hatched from a dream. A handful of musicians, some of whom had retired to Hendersonville after playing in other orchestras, met at the Hendersonville First Baptist and began toying with the idea of starting a local orchestra.
Men like Chan Harbour, Jim Stokes, Marty Irving, George Wilkins Sr., Duane McKibbin, and Johnny McCloud were instrumental in founding the HSO and contributing to its early success. The main catalyst for the orchestra’s creation was Harbour, a music lover who moved to Hendersonville from Ohio and organized the group that got the symphony rolling.
Stokes, who taught band for 20 years at Hendersonville High, served as conductor for the symphony’s first five years. He recalled Harbour as a “frustrated French horn player” who simply loved symphony music. One day Harbour approached Stokes with a vision.
“Chan walked into my band room one day and asked if I would help him start a symphony,” Stokes says, still chuckling at the memory. “I thought, ‘I don’t know about this.'” A month later he came back, and he had 30 people he had rounded up at the First Baptist Church and away it went. He got everyone together.”
The first concert, held on December 6, 1971 at Hendersonville High, played to a near-capacity crowd and was met with standing ovations and received a positive review in a newspaper article the following day.
One attendee said “It’s the greatest thing that happened in Hendersonville in a long time.” Another said, “I hope this symphony orchestra becomes a permanent organization in Hendersonville.” The very next day, Chan Harbour announced plans for a spring concert.
From those humble beginnings, the orchestra has grown to include 70 musicians, all of whom must audition to join. The musicians range from high school students to people in their 80s.
Stokes said the early orchestra was nothing like it is today. “We had a real mixture of people. It was like a community group,” he says. “It was a non-paid group of people who just wanted to play, and we had a mixture of instruments that wouldn’t fit the norm of today’s symphonies. For instance, we had one person who played saxophone.”
Salvaggio-Walker marvels at how the orchestra started out so small and has grown so big over four decades. “Have you ever had a dream that really came true?” she asks. “There are some people who are no longer with us, and their dream came true. We are carrying it on, and it was an honor to know some of these remarkable musicians and the vision that they had for us.”
For years the orchestra lived a nomadic existence, playing and practicing at Hendersonville High School, area churches, and various other venues. In 2008, it found a permanent home inside Blue Ridge Community College’s Conference Hall.
People may not realize the HSO is a completely professional orchestra, meaning everyone from the maestro on down earns a paycheck for performing. Like any nonprofit, the HSO has seen its share of lean times, but it’s always managed to forge ahead. The last few years, Hastie acknowledges, have been hard on all nonprofits, the HSO included. As the economy soured, some donors and foundations that the symphony traditionally relied on steered their money away from the arts and gave it instead to human service agencies.
Hastie says the HSO is still going strong thanks to a conscious decision by the board to trim costs before the economy took a nosedive. That was no easy task considering a single concert can cost $48,000. Hastie jokes, “We panicked early to avoid the rush.”
Hastie says of HSO’s fundraising efforts, “It’s hard work and it requires being tenacious. There’s no silver bullets out there and no easy, big money. You just have to be very persistent and consistent in what you do for fundraising.”
A major help to the symphony is support from the Community Foundation of Henderson County. Various endowments have been created through the foundation to help support the orchestra’s mission of enriching “the Hendersonville community with live symphonic performances and instrumental music education for youth and adults.”
“Our symphony has survived with a close association with the Community Foundation of Henderson County,” Hastie says. “Some of these endowments were from people who just loved music. Others were created for specific chairs in the orchestra.”
But it’s more than money that has allowed the symphony to enjoy 40 years of musical excellence. Salvaggio-Walker believes one aspect of the symphony’s success is its board. The people who serve on the 22-person board, she says, do more than occupy chairs around a conference table.
“A working board is what the symphony has,” she says. “On this board, you work. You get out there and raise money and do whatever you have to do. That’s why we’ve made it for 40 years.”
All concerts are at 7:30pm in the Blue Ridge Community College Conference Hall in Flat Rock. The HSO encourages patrons to wear dress clothes, but not formal attire. There is no reserved seating, and doors open an hour prior to the concert. Pre-concert discussions with the conductor and guest artist are held from 6:30-7pm in a BRCC Conference Hall classroom.
For ticket information, call 828-697-5884 or visit www.hendersonvillesymphony.org