First youth symphony in U.S. came out of Oregon’s high desert
Every youth orchestra in America can trace its ancestry back to the tiny, dusty town of Burns in Eastern Oregon, and to one gifted, visionary violin teacher named Mary Dodge, founder of the Sagebrush Symphony.
This postcard photo by Rufus W. Heck shows the Sagebrush Symphony
Orchestra members on the float built for them for the Fourth of July
parade in Burns in 1915; the float was placed in a dense growth of
sagebrush for the photo. (Photo: Harney County Public Library) [Larger
image: 1200 x 707 px]
By Finn J.D. John— August 21, 2011
Oregon is the home of America's oldest youth orchestra, the Portland Youth Philharmonic — founded, they claim, in 1924.
But what many people don't know is that the Youth Philharmonic isn't really from Portland, and didn't exactly start in 1924. It was actually founded in 1912, in the town of Burns — a place so far away from the obvious trappings of “culture” as to almost qualify as a howling wilderness at that time.
Before I jump into this story, I have to fill you in on some background details, and forgive me if you already know them.
Homesteaders and culture
The important thing to know is that Portland and Burns were as different in 1910 as they are today, but in very different ways.
This photo, by Rufus Heck, shows the Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra
on its Fourth of July parade float in downtown Burns in 1915. (Photo:
Harney County Public Library) [Larger image: 800 x
Portland was a rough-hewn up-and-coming metropolis, still commonly called “Stumptown,” with the roughest and most dangerous waterfront on the West Coast, a tremendous amount of trade going on and a “better class” of well-mannered citizens who wore nice clothes and appreciated culture. From far away you might have thought it was a logical place for a youth orchestra to arise — but appearances deceive. Although no longer a colony per se, Portland was like a colonial city: The elements of culture were assumed to come from somewhere else — New York, London, Paris. And possession of, or appreciation for, those elements was a mark of status.
But Burns was in the middle of a homesteading boom. A new law had opened up 320-acre patches of the high desert to settlers who would like to come and claim a piece and “prove it up” by living on it for five years. So Burns was full of people who actually came from those revered “culture places,” who flocked to the wilderness to create a community for themselves. And they sure weren't going to create a community in which the best things culture had to offer were reserved only for the “swells.” Like other emigrants before them, they were out to create a Utopia of sorts — and they sure didn't want their children growing up with no culture.
Put simply, Burns was hungry for culture and felt a need for it. Portland was, for the most part, happy with the culture it had. That's why it makes perfect sense that the Portland Youth Philharmonic got started in Burns, Oregon — a town in the desert with a three-digit population, a day's bone-jarring wagon-trail ride from the nearest railroad terminal.
Mary Dodge comes to town
The Sagebrush Symphony and Mrs. Mary Dodge pose with
internationally famous opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink (center)
at the Portland Hotel during their visit to Portland in 1916. (Image:
Harney County Public Library) [Larger image: 800 x 545 px]
The spark that brought those homesteaders' hunger for culture together into the nation's first youth symphony was a woman named Mary Dodge. Dodge was by anyone's standard an extraordinary person. She was a classically trained violinist, an extremely good one. But what was unusual about her was that her talent was linked with a love of children and, more importantly, a deeply democratic view about making music. The idea that a county-wide population of a couple thousand wouldn't have a big enough critical mass of genius musicians to form a symphony would have made her laugh. Music was, she felt, a gift to humanity, and anyone could and should get good enough at it to bask in it and the happiness it brought.
In other words, for all her talents as a musician, her skills and philosophy as a teacher were what really made her extraordinary.
Dodge came to Burns when her husband, bass player Mott Dodge, got a job in Harney County. The arrived in their new home town in 1910.
The Sagebrush Symphony forms
When they got there, Mary Dodge naturally started playing her violin. The town's children found this fascinating, and pretty soon Dodge had a flock of them learning to play in an old photography school which she'd taken over.
She was joined by her husband, who was able to teach kids to read notes on the bass clef, and by a homesteader who happened to be a professional flautist from Italy, who taught the wind instruments and conducted. By 1912 they had put together an orchestra, which they called the Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra, consisting of 30 to 35 disciplined, skilled musicians — many of them still under four feet tall.
By 1915 the Sagebrush Symphony was the pride of Harney County, and they were touring Eastern Oregon on a Chautauqua circuit. The town of Burns was thoroughly energized, and residents raised funds to send them to the state fair in 1916.
On tour in the big cities
Burns still had nothing but wagon trails connecting it with the outside world, so the trip to Salem was a real adventure for the kids. One player counted 14 flat tires on the way from Burns to Bend; the car arrived on its rims. But they got there.
The kids played seven concerts at the state fair, and then headed north to Portland for a week as the toast of the city. The Jaycees got cars to use to take the young musicians on tours of the area, showing them the newly built Columbia River Highway, Council Crest and other local attractions. And, of course, there were several performances. Portland was utterly enchanted.
The kids couldn't know it, but it was their finest hour; it wouldn't happen again. The U.S. was already in the process of getting directly involved in World War I, which shifted everyone's attention off the symphony and onto grimmer events. Then in 1918, Mott Dodge was transferred to Portland, and he and Mary left Burns.
The Portland Junior Symphony Orchestra
Mary had taught her students well; the Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra soldiered on without her for a while, although it never again reached the same levels of acclaim. But some of her students moved with her to Portland, where she opened her own violin school — and, with their help, built another youth symphony, the Portland Junior Symphony Orchestra.
Successful though the orchestra was, there was one more thing Dodge had to do before her creation would be ready for the true international success that was to come: Find a conductor.
So when a professionally trained Russian conductor named Jacques Gershkovitch came to Portland to guest-conduct the Portland Symphony, she talked him into taking over as Junior Symphony conductor. Although he at first protested that he didn't teach children, after hearing them play, he said, in his thick Russian accent, “I take.” And he remained with them until 1953.
Gershkovitch came in 1923 and conducted the group's first performance in 1924, and it's that date that people use to mark the origin of the symphony — as if it didn't exist until a “real” conductor showed up to take over. Certainly this marks the moment the symphony moved up to the big leagues, but using 1924 as its date of origin is a bit of a slap in the face for the people who did the really hard work and beat very long odds to get it to that point — especially Mary Dodge.
But it was Gershkovitch who catapulted the symphony to international fame. Under his baton and that of his successors, the group has performed all over the world, and in the early 1930s was regularly broadcast on nationwide network radio. It's been the model for dozens, perhaps hundreds, of youth symphonies in cities all over the U.S. Its name was changed to Portland Youth Philharmonic in 1978.
And it all came out of a tiny, dusty town in the wilderness of eastern Oregon — with the help of a woman who was probably the best music teacher in Oregon history.
(Sources: Jelsing, Nadine. “Sagebrush Symphony,” Oregon Experience. Portland: Oregon Public Broadcasting, 7-12-2011 (www.opb.org); Avshalomov, Jacob. Music is Where You Make It/II. Portland: PJSA, 1979; Russell, Ronald. A New West to Explore. Boston: Marshall Jones, 1938)
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