A Brief History of the
Schenectady Symphony Orchestra
The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra gave its first concert on Tuesday evening, February 5, 1935, sponsored by the Schenectady Chamber of Commerce. It was conducted by Kenneth G. Kelley, Supervisor of Music in the Schenectady public schools. The concertmaster was Anthony Stefan, who later became its conductor. In a pioneering broadcast on May 7 the second concert was beamed to South America on General Electric stations W2XAF and W2XAD, making it one of the first American orchestras to be heard overseas via short-wave radio.
The personnel of the orchestra, then as now, is drawn from the local community, and is comprised of both paid professional and non-paid amateur musicians, such as teachers, engineers, physicians, and local business people. Among our outstanding alumni are Kenneth Schermerhorn, conductor, and Simon Ramo (the “R” in the TRW Company name), engineer. Congratulatory letters from Schermerhorn and Ramo were featured in the 50th Anniversary Program issued in the 1984-1985 season.
Percy Grainger, pianist, and composer appeared as guest soloist and conductor on April 27, 1937. The Schenectady Choral Society conducted by Rufus Wheeler also participated in the concert. In 1943 Anthony Stefan became the permanent conductor, and the concert site was shifted from the Mount Pleasant High School auditorium to the Erie Theater. In its gala 10th season pianist, Claude Frank and violinist Joseph Szigeti were featured soloists with the orchestra. In the following years many nationally known soloists played with the Symphony: violinists Albert Spaulding, Micha Elman, Berl Senofsky, Misacha Mischakoff, with two appearances each by Ruggiero Ricci and Joseph Szigeti; and pianists Mme. Amparo Iturbi, Alec Templeton, Leon Bates, with two appearances by Percy Grainger.
Many local musicians have soloed with the Symphony, including pianists Juana Fromageot, Stanley Hummel, Pola Baytelman, Findlay Cockrell, and violinists Marianne Pashler, Earl Hummel, George Green, and Michael Emery. Numerous local vocal groups have appeared with the Symphony, including the Octavos, Schenectady Choral Society, Mohawk Valley Singers, and choruses from Union College, Skidmore College, SUNY at Albany, and Oneonta, as well as high school choruses. Also, the Schenectady Civic Ballet Company and the Orlando School of Dance have been guests. Recently, many outstanding high school pianists and violinists have had the opportunity to solo with the Symphony.
In 1956 the League of the Schenectady Symphony was formed and has become a major contributor to the financial stability of the orchestra. The League sponsors an annual Children’s Concert and holds musical previews prior to all concerts. Beginning in 1964 they have sponsored the Anthony R. Stefan Scholarship Award competition for high school musicians. Recently, the addition of a Mentoring Concert gives high school players the opportunity to join regular Symphony musicians in a concert. In 1995 the Louise DeFeo Parillo Piano Competition was established for pianists from age thirteen through high school.
In 1964 Anthony Pezzano became the conductor of the Symphony, and in 1983 in its 50th season, Charles Schneider was appointed conductor. Michael Emery has been concertmaster since 1980 and has appeared often as a guest soloist with the Symphony.
Since 1979 the Symphony has performed most of its concerts in the historic Proctors Theater in downtown Schenectady. Recently the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra has been named as the Resident Symphony of the Proctors. In past years the Symphony has given outdoor Pops concerts at Union College and in Schenectady’s Central Park. The concert season consists of four concerts a year, plus a Children’s Concert, and most recently, a Mentoring Concert. Occasionally, a Pop concert is scheduled.
The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra has become a valuable and treasured musical asset in the Capital District of New York State.
Kenneth G. Kelly
Seasons: 1-6 (1935-1940)
Kenneth G. Kelley organized the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra in 1934 and was its conductor for the first six seasons. Mr. Kelley was then the supervisor of music in the Schenectady Public Schools. When he left for Boston University in 1940 he had established a firm foundation upon which the future of the Symphony could be built with confidence and success.
Seasons: 7-29 (1940-1963)
The Schenectady Symphony flowered under the leadership of Anthony Stefan for 22 seasons from 1940 to 1963. Mr. Stefan was a charter member of the Symphony and was its concertmaster for the first six seasons. Mr. Stefan was a teacher of music in the Schenectady school system.
Seasons: 30-48 (1964-1982)
For 18 seasons Anthony Pezzano conducted the Schenectady Symphony, developing its capability and extending its repertoire to include the symphonies of Brahms and demanding contemporary works. A native of Schenectady, Mr. Pezzano attended local schools and earned a B.A. degree in Music from Ithaca College. Until his retirement in 1983, he taught music in the Schenectady Public Schools.
Seasons: 49-85 (1983-2018)
Charles Schneider recently retired at his 35th season with the Schenectady Symphony. A native of Albert Lea, Minnesota, his extensive credits include conducting the National Orchestra of Monaco, Bernstein’s “Westside Story” at Lincoln Center, and the National Orchestra of Bulgaria. In addition to the Schenectady Symphony, he was also the Music Director of the Catskill Symphony Orchestra.
Seasons: 86 to present (2019 to present)
Glen Cortese was named Artistic Director of the Schenectady Symphony beginning with the 2019-2020 season. He has been music director of the Western NY Chamber Orchestra since 2005 and was music director of the Greeley Philharmonic for 12 seasons and the Oregon Mozart Players for 9 seasons. He has appeared as a guest conductor both in the United States and abroad with the Symphonies of New Jersey, Florida Philharmonic, Austin, Mexico City Philharmonic, North Carolina, Colorado Springs, Bangor, Meridian, Queens, New Amsterdam, The New Orleans Philharmonic, the International Chamber Orchestra, the Belarus State Philharmonic, Sofia Philharmonic National Romanian Radio Orchestra, Noorhollands Philharmonisch, Orquesta Sinfonica Carlos Chavez, San Francisco Conservatory, Cleveland Institute, and the Altenburg Landeskappele Orchestra. Mr. Cortese covered as assistant conductor to the New York Philharmonic in 1990-92 for Zubin Mehta.
Broadcast to South America
The SSO’s first concert in 1935 included paid and volunteer community musicians, under conductor Kenneth Kelley. The second concert was beamed to South America on GE stations W2XAF and W2XAD, making it one of the first American orchestras to be heard overseas via short-wave radio. The Chamber of Commerce received many letters from people all over the Americas, offering their congratulations and thanks for the broadcast. Here are just a few of them!
Now, with the opportunity to stream music over the internet, such a broadcast might seem a minor feat – but we are proud of the role we’ve played in creating a space for people to hear live classical music, both here in Schenectady and around the world.
We are still composed of a mixture of paid and volunteer musicians and our news page for information about upcoming auditions for both paid and volunteer members. We hope you will continue to join us this season as we celebrate making music with and by your friends and neighbors.