A History of
the Idaho Falls Symphony
BY LOWELL JOBE, AUGUST 2009
In the spring of 1949, a group of Idaho Falls musicians gathered to begin rehearsing the Messiah for a December performance with the Idaho Falls Community Chorus, directed by Marcell Bird of the school music department. Under the auspices of the Idaho Falls Music Club, the Idaho Falls Symphony was formed. Professor Harold Mealy of Idaho State College was asked to audition musicians and place principal players. Marcell Bird directed forty-four musicians in the first symphony concert on April 26, 1950 at the O.B. Bell Junior High Auditorium.
Professor Mealy then became the conductor and served until the end of 1960, when he left on sabbatical leave for Europe. During these years, the symphony presented three to five concerts per season, with many nationally recognized artists such as Joseph Schuster and Grant Johanneson appearing. From 1951 to 1963, one concert each year was a Community Concerts Association performance. The first annual Youth Concert on May 5, 1953, featured LaMar Barrus, a l7-year old violinist, and Carol Jaeger, a l6-year old pianist. On January 21, 1954, Community Concerts presented the Idaho Falls Symphony in its first performance in the new Idaho Falls Civic Auditorium. The Idaho Falls Music Club sponsored the first Children's Concert by the symphony on February 17, 1955. In 1957, the Symphony Auxiliary was formed to increase support for the orchestra. A cooperative relationship between the Idaho Falls and Pocatello orchestras began in 1958, with the orchestras sharing musicians and conductor, and presenting similar programs.
In June 1961, Robert Lentz, timpanist of the Salt Lake Symphony and founder/conductor of the Utah Youth Symphony, became conductor of the orchestra in Idaho Falls. He served until 1965. New auditions resulted in Mrs. Jean Collard being named Concertmaster and she continued in that position until leaving for a two-year residence in England in 1988. The orchestra continued to grow as did its audiences with major performances of Elijah and A German Requiem being especially memorable. In 1961, the Idaho Falls Symphony Society was incorporated, by-laws formulated and a board of directors elected, with Lowell Jobe as President. A unique feature of the bylaws was the right of orchestra members to approve retention of the conductor on a year-by-year basis, as long as the musicians remained unpaid.
LaMar Barrus, first Youth Audition winner and new faculty member at Ricks College, became the next Idaho Falls Symphony conductor, serving from 1965 to 1970. During that time, world renowned bassoon soloist George Zukerman and many soloists from Utah were featured, as well as Idaho Senator Frank Church narrating Copland's A Lincoln Portrait.
In the spring of 1970, the Idaho Falls Symphony secured a matching grant from the Idaho Commission on the Arts to start an In-School Music Program for training string players in grades 3 to 5. Betty Benthin Petree was selected as project director and was assisted by several symphony string players, who used a modified Suzuki teaching method. After several successful years, this program was adopted and expanded by District 91 schools. Master classes and workshops for school musicians were also sponsored by the Idaho Falls Symphony Society, with matching grants from the Arts Commission, using guest soloists brought in for symphony concerts. The Symphony Society's share of funding was obtained by sponsoring performances by groups such as the Utah Symphony and the Lawrence Welk Stars. Another major accomplishment for the Symphony Society was the upgrading of acoustics in the Civic Auditorium through new baffles and improved speakers.
In September 1970, Dr. Donald McGlothlin, new head of the Idaho State University Music Department, became the Idaho Falls Symphony conductor. He remained until 1972, when he left to take a position at the University of Florida. His successor, Dr. James Schoepflin, assumed the position until leaving for Washington State University in 1976. During these years, world-famous violin prodigy Eugen Sardu and Viennese cellist Wolfgang Hertzer appeared with the symphony.
Mel Flood, formerly an instructor at ISU, was chosen as the first resident Conductor-Music Director in 1977. He originated the season opening "Celebrity Concert" concept with "Doc" Severinsen of The Tonight Show and then pianist/composer Roger Williams. Eugen Sardu returned to appear as a soloist and the orchestra expanded its audience by giving concerts in Arco, Salmon, Blackfoot and Montpelier.
Carl Eberl, formerly of New York, was named conductor from among a field of three finalists and served from 1980 to 1988. Celebrity artists Peter Nero, The Dukes of Dixieland, Ferrante and Teicher, Peter Duchin and repeat appearances by "Doc" Severinsen and Roger Williams highlighted concerts during these years. Notable among the works performed was the monumental Symphony No.1 by Gustav Mahler. A workshop for orchestra members was presented by several principal players from the Teton Music Festival Orchestra prior to their orchestra's appearance in the Civic Auditorium.
With Carl Eberl's departure for Oregon, the Idaho Falls Symphony Society created a Conductor Search Committee and decided to hire guest conductors for the following season, featuring former or current area musicians as soloists. Dr. Kevin Call, of Ricks College, conducted concerts one, two and five, and Dr. Thom Ritter George, of ISU, conducted concerts three and four. Five finalists out of 115 applicants were chosen to audition with the orchestra and be interviewed by the Search Committee. John LoPiccolo was selected as the new conductor and the decision was approved by the majority of regular symphony members.
Mr. LoPiccolo increased the visibility of the symphony in Eastern Idaho by establishing the Idaho Falls Symphony Chorale, adding annual Pops and July 4th concerts and setting up corporate sponsorships for all symphony concerts. Some of the world's finest musicians performed with the orchestra, including David Heifetz, Mischa Dichter, Alexander Toradze, Stephanie Chase, David Hickman, Gary Karr, the Chestnut Brass, and guest conductor Gunther Schuller. Three annual children's concerts continued to bring the Nutcracker and other performances to 5,000 - 6,000 students from area schools. Several Symphony Balls were added to those held during Carl Eberl's tenure.
Upon John LoPiccolo's resignation, effective at the end of the 1998-99 season, a Conductor Search Committee selected three finalists to audition for the position. Dr. George Adams, Music Director-Conductor of the Natchitoches-Northwestern Symphony Orchestra, was selected to assume the position in April 1999.
Now celebrating 60 years, the symphony has gone from employing a part-time conductor, through an eighty-fold budget increase, to a full-time Music Director-Conductor. Yet, the Idaho Falls Symphony remains basically a volunteer orchestra composed of people from all walks of life, with some traveling over seventy-five miles for rehearsals and concerts. It is one of very few orchestras in Idaho not affiliated with a college or university and is proud to serve the city of Idaho Falls and its citizens.