When Tacoma Began to Sing its Own Tune

May 1, 2013

Remembering the Birth of the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra

University of Puget Sound sponsors May 4 concert
Celebration of the university's 125th anniversary continues

TACOMA, Wash. – The entwined history of University of Puget Sound and the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra—a tale about the kindling of Tacoma’s love of classical music—will be remembered at the orchestra’s season finale concert on May 4.

As part of its 125th anniversary celebrations, Puget Sound is co-sponsoring the concert and sharing the story of the orchestra’s roots, from its early days at the university’s School of Music to its lively six decades of growth in arts-hungry Tacoma.

The See Change II concert, with guest conductor Paul Haas leading works by Alexandra Bryant, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Johannes Brahms, will be held at 7:30 p.m., on Saturday, May 4, in Pantages Theater in downtown Tacoma.

Keith Ward, director of the university’s School of Music, and John Hickey, executive director of community engagement, will take the stage to remind the audience of the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra’s (TSO) beginnings and its evolution under legendary conductor Edward Seferian. Puget Sound also will have a table in the lobby to share memorabilia from the orchestra’s early days and to mark the celebration of Puget Sound’s 125th anniversary.

Ed Seferian, a celebrated professor of violin at what was then called the College of Puget Sound, is regarded as the father of the TSO for his success in turning a young campus orchestra of townspeople and students into an admired symphony.

The foundations of the orchestra began in 1946, when 30 volunteer musicians from the College of Puget Sound began playing together. At the time Tacoma was largely served by visiting Seattle musicians and locals who performed as the Tacoma Philharmonic Orchestra.

During the 1950s the 30 college musicians evolved into the CPS-Tacoma Symphony Orchestra—an amateur ensemble of local citizens and students. But the musicians were unpaid, funding for publicity was scarce, and the orchestra struggled to attract audiences. By 1957 a local rival, the Tacoma Civic Orchestra, had folded, while the Tacoma Philharmonic had long ago disbanded as an orchestra and become a sponsor of local concerts.  

In 1959 Edward Seferian, a graduate of The Juilliard School and virtuoso violinist, who had played for Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman, moved from New York to join the college’s faculty and to lead the CPS-Tacoma Symphony Orchestra. His widow, Jan Seferian, says when she was asked to help raise money for the orchestra, she discovered just how poorly known it was.

“I went out to visit businessmen to try to collect $100 donations, and they didn’t even have any idea that we had a symphony orchestra here in Tacoma,” she said. “They were so surprised. But they were very generous.”

The orchestra’s popularity grew as Seferian and the board of directors raised artistic standards, broadened publicity and fundraising, and kept the concert doors swinging with free admission for all. Through his New York connections, Seferian brought in a host of international stars, including names such as American violinist Michael Rabin, celebrated soprano Evelyn Lear, The Romeros guitar quartet, and flamenco dancer José Greco.

“Each step that the orchestra took forward, Eddie expected more,” Jan Seferian said.

During Seferian’s leadership, from 1959 to 1994, the TSO transformed. It became a professional orchestra with paid musicians, and served its community with performances at local schools, special summer and youth concerts, and collaborations with the Tacoma City Ballet. That progress continued under current conductor Harvey Felder, whose artistry, professionalism, and passion has helped to craft the TSO into one of the finest professional symphonies in the Northwest.

Throughout his time at TSO, Seferian remained a dedicated and revered teacher at the university.  In June 2003, when the charismatic Seferian passed away at age 72, The News Tribune wrote:

“The often-joking-cigar-smoking-sports-car-speeding-heavy-jowled-teddy-bearish Armenian American left more of a mark on Tacoma as a whole than perhaps any musician in its history.”

As the TSO developed its own momentum, University of Puget Sound continued to provide young musicians to the orchestra, as well as create its own campus Symphony Orchestra and seven other musical ensembles. Hundreds of local citizens also studied music through the university’s 34-year-old Community Music Department. Today at least a dozen current TSO musicians have been affiliated with Puget Sound’s School of Music or Community Music Department.

 “We’re proud to be a part of Tacoma’s rich culture, not only through our early relationships with the TSO, but with Tacoma Art Museum, Museum of Glass, and Double Shot Theatre Festival,” said John Hickey, in the Office of Community Engagement. “Tacoma supports a wide array of bold and diverse arts, and we share the city’s enthusiasm for all that this brings to our community.”

For more information and tickets to the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra’s See Change II:  http://www.tacomasymphony.org/index.php/concertsandevents/TSOClassicsIV/

Photos on page: Top right: Ed Seferian conducting in his early days; Top left: Bethel Schneebeck, Ed Seferian, and José Greco; Above right: Tacoma Symphony Orchestra in 1981; Above left: Ed Seferian teaches a violin student, 1959.

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