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Embracing the Past – Pointing to the Future
Brief History of South Bend Symphony Orchestra Association

The South Bend Symphony Orchestra began in 1932 as an all-volunteer organization. Now in its 83rd season, it has become a well-recognized, professional Midwestern orchestra and is well on its way to being “South Bend’s” orchestra.

From humble roots
A local string ensemble conceived the noble idea for the South Bend Civic Orchestra in the early 1930s. Its instructor, Edwyn H. Hames, nurtured this small and growing bank of musicians as the first music director, a position he held for 40 years. Hames’ tenure is considered one of the longest in American Symphony Orchestra history. 

The original orchestra, all volunteers, was made up of musicians, business people, and teachers. During the early years musicians also provided funding for rehearsal space and music. In 1935 Mrs. E. M. Morris (Ella) was asked to form a fundraising committee (all men), which soon became the first Board of Directors. While the Board raised money to cover operational costs, tickets to these early shows were free and seating was “first come, first serve.” Mrs. Morris and her daughter, Mary Lou Morris Leighton, each in her time, was chairperson of the Board.

As the orchestra grew it moved from venue to venue performing in spaces such as the Progress Club, University of Notre Dame, Central High School, O’Laughlin Auditorium at St. Mary’s College, John Adams High School, and lastly the Morris Civic Auditorium known now as the Morris Performing Arts Center. After Mr. Hames retired, a search committee appointed Seymour Z. Rubenstein as Music Director and Conductor.  Before Mr. Rubenstein moved on, he co-founded the Midwest Pops Orchestra with Mrs. Robert Helper, another community leader.

A period of growth and professional recognition
In 1975 Herbert Butler took up the baton as Music Director/Conductor for a period of eight years. This was a time of tremendous growth in artistic performance, attendance and visibility in the community and surrounding area. Music education programs were added. Between 1973 and 1983, as the orchestra grew in stature, its budget did as well, up to f $100,000 annually. Tragically, Mr. Butler, a resident of Kalamazoo, Michigan, was killed in a bizarre auto accident on his way home from a rehearsal. The baton was then passed to Kenneth Keisler who established a “core” of musicians and principal players, who were competitive on a national level.

Mr. Keisler also established the SBSO’s first Chamber Orchestra. In 1988 the Chamber Orchestra was endowed and continues to perform today as the June H. Edwards Chamber Orchestra in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at the University of Notre Dame.

The merger of the Midwest Pops and the SBSO was accomplished in 1981 and, for the next 10 years, Newton Wayland, nationally recognized pianist, arranger, and conductor, became the first permanent SBSO Pops conductor. Mr. Wayland offered a wide variety of musical entertainment with many concerts being performed at Century Center.  Since Wayland’s departure, the Pops concert series has been conducted by the current Music Director Maestro Tsung Yeh.

One of the finest regional orchestras in the country
Currently in his final season at the South Bend podium, Maestro Yeh has helped to build the SBSO into one of the finest regional orchestras in the central United States. He has an enormous following both here and abroad and has overseen great growth, with many changes in the structure of the orchestra, which now boasts 75-80 contract musicians.

Forty of these musicians are recipients of endowed orchestra chairs, as a result of Vision 2000, an aggressive endowment campaign to ensure the success and stability of the orchestra for years to come. The campaign also created endowments for the chamber music series and the summer chamber music academy. The second phase of the campaign, Special Gifts, added endowments for the Music Director and the music literature fund.

Maestro Yeh, a winner of the ASCAP award for contemporary programming, is committed to performing the literature of American composers, playing a representative amount of new music as well as old masters.  He has introduced the Family Concerts and collaborates with several performing arts organizations in interdisciplinary music presentations.

The SBSO has, over eight decades, hosted a multitude of critically acclaimed guest soloists, the majority of whom have played for Maestro Yeh. A sampling includes: Van Cliburn, Yo Yo Ma, Marian Anderson, Peter Peers, Artur Rubinstein, Dame Myra Hess, Glenn Gould, Yefim Bronfman, Peter Serkin, Christopher Parkening, Robert Merrill, Robert Bonfiglio, John Browning and Lang Lang.

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