About Greater Bridgeport Symphony - A Brief Retrospective

Looking back to 1945....

we find more than the usual number of significant endings and beginnings that impacted humanity internationally:

  • World War 11 ends in Europe, and the United Nations Charter is signed;
  • Soviet troops liberate Auschwitz,
  • Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major by Serge Prokofiev is first performed

Locally 50 years ago, lower Fairfield County residents were heralding another birth -- that of its orchestra, known now as the Greater Bridgeport Symphony.

The process actually began in the 1930s, during the Great Depression when music pulsated from a State Street building next to City Hall, where Frank Foti conducted the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Symphony Orchestra, formed for unemployed musicians who previously played at local theaters. Such a musical outlet gave hope to people in this manufacturing city during economically difficult times.

The late Greater Bridgeport Symphony Violist Sylvio Risi remembered those days well.

Playing the violin in the WPA orchestra was his first job. He recalls being compensated "the magnificent sum of $21 a week." When the Depressionended, the WPA, which funded the orchestra, was dropped from the federal budget, and the orchestra disbanded. War had been declared, and many of the musicians, like Mr. Risi, joined the armed services to defend their country.


The Works Progress Administration under the baton of Frank Foti in 1936...

was the precursor to the Greater Bridgeport Symphony Orchestra. Many of its members continued to perform with the GBSO.

It wasn't until 1945 near the end of the War when rumors circulatedthat the Bridgeport Musicians Union was interested in organizing again. At the same time, a Westport-Norwalk group went public about their concern to form an orchestra. And a third group of Bridgeport music lovers, led by the late businessman and community leader, Louis J. Standish, Jr., announced their plans to start an orchestra, as well. They were lookedupon by many as dreamers.

Mr. Standish, known later in his life as "Mr. Symphony,"approached the two other groups and proposed that they work together towards launching onesymphony orchestra. He contacted singer and Westport resident Carlyle Bennett for someassistance after learning that Mr. Bennett had loaned his estate to a local not-for-profitgroup for a Gilbert and Sullivan production. Not only was Mr. Bennett excited about this new regional orchestra known as the Fairfield County Symphony, he also enlisted the assistance of many of his Westport friends, who became the strength of the Symphony in itsinfancy. Mr. Standish then convinced Mr. Bennett to become the first President of theBoard.

Labor was long, arduous and sometimes painful. The name was changed,and finally in 1945, the Connecticut Symphony was born. Now the nurturing be searching for a conductor, finding musicians, locating a concert hall, selecting the music, providing for rehearsals and handling all the innumerable details necessary for the smoothfunctioning of the orchestra's premiere performance.

At last on February 26, 1947, the Connecticut Symphony Orchestra -- 80 people strong -- under the baton of its first maestro, Redding resident and CBS staff conductor Daniel Saidenberg, debuted at the Klein Memorial Auditorium.

The assisting artist on English horn and oboe was a bearded young man named Mitchell Miller, who later shortened his name to Mitch and gained "sing-along" fame.

Successful? Artistically, yes. Financial success, however, was not as easy. The budget was lean, and the till did not fill with easy money. (The highest single ticket price advertised available two nights before the premiere was $3.60 a seat.)

One idea to raise funds to support the winter concert series was the concept of a summer "pops" concert series that would feature famous performers from opera, Broadway, concert halls and records. Yet, how to get the stars and where to hold the event were the big questions.

Who else to shepherd that task than Fairfield resident Elizabeth Lennox Hughes, until her retirement in the early 1940s, one of the country's foremost concert and radio contraltos, who recorded for 12 different companies, including Edison and Columbia, and sang with the Philharmonic.

Her contacts were in the thousands, and she shared her knowledge of how to build a concert series and how to scout performers with the Connecticut Symphony.

Mayor Hugh C. Curran (center) welcomed the newly-appointed GBS Conductor Jose Iturbi in 1967 with a key to the city of Bridgeport. legendary Opera star Marian Anderson of Danbury (second from left) and stage producer Jean Dalrymple participated in the gala program.

But where would these concerts take place? The answer: at FairfieldUniversity, then a young school with only 400 students and four buildings, but boasting a property expanse totaling nearly 200 acres. The Very Rev. James H. Dolan, President of the University, donated the campus, and Mr. Bennett paid for the construction of the bandshell on the site for the pops concerts. The contribution from Fairfield University was its gesture of cooperation in promoting recreational and cultural activities in the community.

However, it was through Mrs. Hughes' efforts as Program Chairman of the Pops and the Symphony concerts that the summer series, "By the Stars, Under theStars," began in 1948, and continued to be successful as "Music Under theStars," drawing crowds of as many as 12,000 people from every walk of life and of every age for nearly 15 years. They sat in boxes, on bleachers, in reserved seats and on blankets in the outer field. Many people brought picnic suppers with them to hear Johnny Mathis, Eartha Kitt, Vic Damone, Paul Whiteman, Eileen Farrell, Lily Pons, Hildegarde, Andre Kostelanetz, and other famous stars of that time.

The inaugural series was such a hit that the deficit was wiped out by a $1,000 profit that enabled the Symphony to finance the following winter season.

And in those early years every president who served the Symphony left his or her mark on it and the Pops series. In addition to building the band shell, Mr.Bennett improved the university field, added dressing rooms for the stars, restrooms forthe concert goers and a roof on the shell for the musicians.

When Herbert L. Cohen, violinist and attorney, served as second President of the Symphony from 1949-52, his legal expertise saved the Symphony thousandsof dollars when he was able to have the federal tax on concert admissions eliminated.

Left to right: GBS Conductor Jose Iturbi, Henry B. du Pont, III, GBS President, and guest composer Bruce Sutherland at the opening of the Symphony's 25th season in the fall of1970.


Yet growing pains in the Symphony's early development took its toll....

resulting in cancellation of the final concert of the 1950-51 winter series, as well asthe 1951-52 series. But the Pops in the summer of 1952 again made it possible to eliminatemost of the debt, and again, in 1953 , the Pops turned a $17,000 profit allowing the Symphony enough money to meet anticipated deficits. Corporate support for the concerts,too, helped the Connecticut Symphony stay on course, especially the financial support ofthe Bridgeport Brass Company, whose President, Herman Steinkraus, also was the third President of the Symphony from 1952-56. Mr. Steinkraus and his right hand, Harold Dow, maintained the success of both the winter and summer series.

The Connecticut Symphony's 10th anniversary concert at the Klein in1955, also featured the debut of the orchestra's Music Director, Jonel Perlea, a widely known Romanian, who made his American debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1949. Mr. Perlea came to Bridgeport because of an unusual sequence of events beginning in 1952. That year a conductor backed out of a contract over a disagreement about program selections. Another Maestro was substituted at the last minute. Elizabeth Hughes complained to her friend, impresario Arthur Judson that she didn't want to be left without a conductor after an agreement with his office and the Symphony had been signed, and off-handedly asked if Perlea was available for the following summer. She had recently met him at a party in NewYork. The following July, Perlea gave up two weeks of his European schedule to be at theFairfield campus for a single appearance. Two years later he accepted the Symphony's offerto be its Music Director.

As years passed, financial woes continued to plague the Symphony. By 1957, the deficit was $11,500, the musicians demanded a new wage scale before they would play, and no Pops concerts were planned. Then by 1962, mostly because the weather provedto be neither predictable nor dependable, the regular Pops concert series, billed as a losing proposition, was discontinued. And in 1962, winter concerts took place on Sunday afternoons at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford.

Left to right: GBS Conductor Gustav Meier, featured guest artist, the legendary clarinetist Benny Goodman, and Robert S. Tellalian, former GBS President, in the Green Room, prior to a Symphony concert in 1977.

It was a sad time at the end of the 19th season of the Connecticut Symphony orchestra when friction and fragmentation intensified among many of the people responsible for the Symphony orchestra's birth. A monumental dispute over operating policies resulted in the resignation of seven influential board members, many from the Westport area, a week after the meeting of its new Board, headed by President Louis J. Standish,Jr.

Although the early 1960s were tumultuous, the Symphony Guild created the optimism and action needed to balance the down times. The Guild was the most active it had ever been and provided the major source of support for the Symphony. Boasting more than 200 members, the group raised money through myriad projects, such as glamorous balls,dinner dances, fashion shows, auctions, antique fairs, bridge parties and afternoon teas.They also took charge of membership development and subscriptions, and sold advertisingfor the Symphony program. This, too, was the period when the Greater Bridgeport Symphony Youth Orchestra was formed in June, 1961 by members of the Symphony Guild. This was a most unusual connection because the GBSYO was born out of the Symphony, with young members being chosen from elementary through high schools throughout southern Connecticut.

Another change occurred when Mr. Standish announced that the Symphony would not renew the contract of Jonel Perlea, who had led the orchestra for a decade, but instead would invite guest conductors for the next season's concerts. (Perlea had become partially paralyzed from a stroke, and was forced to conduct with his left hand.) in order to clear the deficit, the Symphony Board at that time also discontinued ties with the Fairfield County Symphony Chorus and ceased youth concerts in some communities because of dwindling attendance. The Board also changed the name of the organization yet again to the Greater Bridgeport Symphony to identify it more closely with "the largest city name in the area it serves."

GBS gala performance honoring Leonard Bernstein, for the benefit of the Rehabilitation Center of Eastern Fairfield County, in the summer of 1978. Left to right: Leonard Bernstein warmly greeting Milton Cohen, GBS Vice President.


The Symphony's fortunes took  brighter turn....

for its 20th anniversary season, as the guest performers included famous soprano Eileen Farrell, then 19-year-old violinist Itzhak Perlman, and internationally-known Jose Iturbi, who performed the dual role of piano soloist and guest conductor.

Mr. Iturbi signed on as permanent conductor in 1967, and continued until 1972. A native of Spain, Mr. Iturbi was given a scholarship at the age of 15 by the city of Valencia to go to Paris for study at the Conservatoire. After graduation, he became professor of piano virtuosity at the Geneva Conservatory. Shortly after that he became a musician of international stature. He made his American debut in 1929, and from1935 until 1943, he was conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic, and guest conducted most of the world's major orchestras. Mr. Iturbi headed for Hollywood during the1940s and appeared in numerous MGM movies, bringing the classics to mass audiences, before arriving in Bridgeport. His recordings of Chopin's "Polonaise in A Flat" and Debussy's"Clair de Lune" each sold over a million discs, in the era when very few recordings hit seven digit numbers in sales.

Because of his international reputation and Hollywood exposure, Mr. Iturbi drew concert goers in droves. But ticket sales, then as today, amounted to only one third of the orchestra's budget, and money woes continued to paint a bleak picture for the Symphony. The deficit was $30,000 in 1968. Lou Standish came through with a personal loan for the symphony.

Then an angel in the form of the late Henry B. du Pont, III, the new treasurer of the Greater Bridgeport Symphony, tried his wings and flew. Henry worked out of his office at Remington, and his wife, Joan rallied their friends together to try to gain support for their community orchestra.

Young Henry B. du Pont, IV and his monther, GBS Chairman Mrs. Henry B. du Pont, III enjoy a toast with Maestro Gustav Meier during a back stage reception at the Klein after asuccessful Pops concert in June of 1983.

Approaching Mayor Hugh Curran for assistance, Mr. du Pont and the City of Bridgeport, through its Commission on the Arts, each donated $25,000 in a challenge gift, to the Greater Bridgeport Symphony Society to spur a fund drive to pay off the deficit, provided that an additional $50,000 was raised by the Symphony Society in a special gifts campaign. Through Mr. du Pont's efforts, and the Symphony's fund-raising, there was another reprieve. In two years that money not only rid the Symphony of debt, but also created a surplus of $7,000 that would establish the beginning of an endowment fund. (After Mr. du Pont's tragic death in 1976, his wife, Joan du Pont was named Chairman of the Board, and the family continued to provide financial support to the Symphony.)

As the Symphony's 25th anniversary approached in 1970, Mr. Standish commented: "We are one of the few symphonies in the U.S. today that is financially solvent. It is a tribute to a mature city that is willing to support a worthwhile project which 25 years ago so many did not think was possible. It is the sign of cultural development of the area."

In 1971 Mr. Iturbi announced that he would retire from the Greater Bridgeport Symphony at the end of the season, in the spring of 1972.


Gustav Meier, a Swiss-born professor of music at Yale University.....

who had been a guest conductor on several occasions, was announced as Mr. Iturbi's successor. Gustav conducted his first concert here as Music Director in the fall of 1972, and has remained GBS Music Director and Conductor for the past 41 years. In addition he was the youngest full professor ever appointed at the Yale School of Music, where he remained for 12 years; he taught at the Eastman School of Music for three years, and last spring retired after 19 years as professor of conducting and Director of Opera and University Orchestras at the University of Michigan School of Music. Since 1980 he has headed the prestigious Young Conductors Program at Tanglewood Music Center, which attracts the cream of international conducting students. The key to the success of any symphony is the conductor and the GBS has been fortunate to have Maestro Meier at its helm. As Joan du Pont said recently: "People don't realize what a gem we have in Gusty."

The mid-1970s to the late 1980s, under the presidency of Robert S.Tellalian, was a period of stability and growth. The Symphony flourished with many new programs: outdoor Pops concerts; GBS Chamber Series; Artists in Residencies; and Children's programs.

GBS founder and Honorary Chairman Louis J. Standish, Jr., known to many people in Greater Bridgeport as "Mr. Symphony," congratulates opera star Frederica Von Stade afterher performance with the GBS in October 1988. The opening of the 43rd season was a special Carlson Festivals Biennial Program.

One important expansion was a competition for young instrumentalists, conceived and created by Ruth Carlson Horn, a former Vice President of the Symphony and one of the original members of the Board of Trustees. Named in honor of her parents, William and Frances Carlson, who were actively involved in the formative years of the Symphony, the Carlson Horn Competition continues to be open to instrumentalists who are residents or students of Fairfield and New Haven Counties - ages 13 to 18. Since 1973 it has recognized many gifted young musicians and has often given them the opportunity to perform with the orchestra, its impact on young artists is demonstrated during the GBS Jubilee Season when past winners have been invited to perform as featured guest soloists at four concerts on the Symphony's subscription series.

It wasn't until the late 1980s when the recession hit Connecticut hard, its corporate funding dropped and the city of Bridgeport stopped its annual contribution, that the Symphony found itself once again battling to remain financially solvent.

"The economic slow down was also compounded by 'cocooning' (the stay-at-home syndrome) a trend which effected orchestras around the country," recalls Jena Maric, GBS Executive Director since 1988. She also emphasizes that ticket sales and public support have not kept pace with escalating concert production costs.

People who manage the business of orchestras ask themselves time and again how they might develop new audiences and connect with people - entice them to hearlive classical music - especially in this time of CD's and DVD's, and concerts on gigantic TV screens reverberating off the walls of multimedia rooms in homes around the county.

"The orchestra world is now going through what opera went through a while back," says Ms. Maric, "Now opera is having its resurgence. Let's hope it's the symphony's turn next."

One way to help create a renaissance is for audiences to show their enthusiasm for live performances. Although symphony veterans applaud in a typically polite manner when it comes to showing appreciation for GBS performances, perhaps some whistling and vociferous bravos would be in order for the conductor and the musicians - and a few uproarious sounds for those managers and directors and volunteers, too.

That kind of support lights fires under everyone with a keen interest in symphonic music. And the backbone of the Greater Bridgeport Symphony, the faithful, who volunteer so much of their time and experience, will again be stimulated to rise above the ebbs and flows of the tides to survive the down times again, and to celebrate the next 50years.

- Patricia Coffey, 1995

The Symphony 's sold-out benefit performance on January 4, 1992 -- dubbed "The Maestro & Midori" --celebrated Gustav Meier's twentieth season as GBS Music Director and featured reowned violinist Midori, who had just turned twenty in her only Connecticut appearance of that year.

Thank You to Our Sponsors

   

Connect with the GBS
Address: 446 University Avenue, Bridgeport, CT 06604
Telephone: (203) 576-0263 | Fax: (203) 367-0064 | operations@gbs.org
Box Office Hours: Monday through Friday, 1:00PM - 6:00PM
© 2013, Greater Bridgeport Symphony. All rights reserved. Site developed by Innova Digital Systems, LLC.