It all began in the 1950-51 season when a local musician, Robert Staffanson and his wife Anne “Frankie” Staffanson, wanted to develop a venue where local musicians could perform and share their love of classical music with the Billings Community. With sponsorships from local businesses, revenue from fundraising events and individual donations by musicians and music lovers, their dreams became a reality.The Billings Symphony Orchestra began with 55 performers. The introduction of the Chorale in 1952 rounded out the musical sound Staffanson wanted to achieve. The orchestra and chorale often sold out, playing two concerts on a performance weekend, initially at the Senior High Auditorium and then at the Fox Theater, which after renovations became the Alberta Bair Theater in 1987.The inclusion of guest artists such as, Ampara Iturbi, a pianist from New York who performed Grieg’s Piano Concerto, began in the early 50’s. Staffanson’s tenure with the symphony lasted five years.The Springfield Massachusetts Symphony discovered him in a conducting competition and he was hired as the resident conductor. He currently lives in Bozeman, Montana where he is associated with the American Indian Institute. He has published a book chronicling his life’s passions. “Witness to Spirit: My Life with Cowboys, Mozart & Indians.” It can be purchased through Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, Inc. He and the many hard working volunteers established the building blocks for the Billings Symphony Orchestra and Chorale that thousands enjoy today.
Replacing Staffanson in 1955, George Perkins (1923-2014) directed the Billings Symphony Society (later known as The Billings Symphony Orchestra and Chorale) for 29 years. The orchestra went through a trying time when a proposal to pay orchestra members divided the symphony and the city. During this time, a portion of the players remained with the Billings Symphony under Ernest Hagen, while others formed the Midland Empire Chamber Orchestra under Perkins. The decision to pay the orchestra was made after the 1965-1966 season when the two orchestras merged with the aid of a local mediator and became The Billings Symphony Orchestra and Chorale. Although musicians could not live solely on their orchestra salary, they were attracted to the area by teaching opportunities, outside work and collegial relationships with local musicians. Some lived in the homes of musical friends for weeks or months until they could find suitable living situations. Perkins enhanced the tradition of up-scale performances, showcasing classical talent and setting standards for the future.
During Perkins’ time, Board Member and banker, Al Winegardner conceived of and promoted the beloved Symphony in the Park in 1973. Sponsored initially by First National Bank, then Norwest Bank along with the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch, and now by Wells Fargo Bank, Symphony in the Park remains a community tradition that continues to bring the excitement of live music free to the public.
Uri Barnea was the BSO&C’s first full-time music director from 1984 to 2004. Under his baton, performing works from classical literature and new composers, the symphony showed exceptional growth in outreach, performing in such schools as, Red Lodge, Hardin, and Sheridan WY. These expeditions introduced symphonic music to a new group of listeners who otherwise would have great difficulty attending season performances in Billings. Thus began the staple of the Explore Music! program.
Barnea’s vision to attract a younger audience and make a night out at the symphony a special occasion led to the elimination of the Sunday afternoon performances. He wanted Saturday night to be symphony night. To support this transition he invited special guest artists and conductors to the stage and introduced contemporary works. He began each season concert with an educational introduction specific to the evening’s program Concert Cues was born. His famous tag line of “See you at the symphony!” remains in the community’s minds still today.
May 2005 brought a new vision to The Billings Symphony Orchestra and Chorale in the form of its first female music director, Anne Harrigan. She has continued to propel the BSO&C into the 21st century by blending popular music with the classical repertoire for which the symphony is known. By incorporating programing that highlights local artists (Ellen Moak), and world class soloists (Midori), and by consistently increasing the complexity of the selections and networking with the visual and performance arts, the BSO&C has grown into the premiere symphony in Montana and Wyoming.
Harrigan has expanded the Explore Music! program by taking the annual Family Concert to local communities. She introduced the Kids’ Conducting Contest at Symphony in the Park. She visits local high schools and colleges giving students the opportunity to learn more about the symphony and its components. In 2012, she conducted the Montana All-State High School Orchestra. In 2015, she was involved in the Montana Association of Symphony Orchestras’ (MASO) competition; the winners to be featured in February’s performances of “Around the World and To the Stars.” It is her goal to continue to make a musical impact on the lives of the people in Montana and Wyoming.
Anne Harrigan and Dr. Steven Hart, director of the Chorale, have collaborated to open new doors of the community to another aspect of what makes the BSO&C special. The Chorale has remained both an integral part of the symphony and developed a performance schedule of its own. This has resulted in the November, 2015 Chorale performance of “A Time of Grace” and Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony” with the orchestra in April, 2016.
The Billings Symphony Orchestra and Chorale’s mission statement, “To Enrich Lives Through Music,” supported by the efforts of the community, conductors. performers and staff over 66 years remains the driving force behind the organization’s success. From Staffanson’s first vision to form an organization where music could live and grow, to Perkins’ formidable composure during the symphony unrest, from Barnea’s love of the symphonic literature, to Harrigan’s love of people, the BSO&C with 87 orchestra and 59 chorale performers will continue to grow to enrich the lives of the community. Join us as we make our 66th season the best one yet!
written by Michelle Dawson with Dale Peterson and Eloise Kirk, 2015