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The Symphony at 75

By Judy Hamilton

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The diamond anniversary is usually associated with 75 years of marriage. The one being celebrated by the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra represents a different type of marriage, one that began with a chance meeting in 1939.

According to a 1982 account in The Charleston Gazette, William Wiant, a professional musician in need of a job, and Helen La Hon, a noted local singer, happened to meet in front of the Ruffner Hotel.

La Hon informed Wiant that the Charleston May Festival organization was looking for a new conductor. Wiant had recently left Huntington after founding a symphony orchestra there. He decided to apply. Wiant was hired. On Nov. 14, 1939, he conducted the first concert by the Charleston Civic Orchestra in the new Municipal Auditorium, and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

That history has been filled with many more meetings of minds with the goal of musical enrichment for citizens, employment for musicians and friendships among like-minded people.

Those ensuing 75 years will be celebrated at a gala Saturday at the Clay Center, where the contributions and leadership of Patrick Bond and the McClaugherty family will be honored.

Wiant's tenure as conductor was short-lived; he was drafted into military service in 1942, according to an article by H.G. Young III in the West Virginia Encyclopedia.

Antonio Modarelli, conductor of the Wheeling Symphony and former conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, became conductor, and the Civic Orchestra was renamed the Charleston Symphony Orchestra in 1943.

"To attract musicians during the war years the orchestra entered into an innovative alliance with the local chemical industry, which agreed to recruit and hire chemical engineers and chemists who were also symphonic musicians. This successful partnership garnered national attention," Young writes.

Among the other conductors who led the orchestra in the 50 years were Geoffrey Hobday, from 1954 to 1963, and Charles Schiff, from 1965 to 1977.

"Under the leadership of board president and Charleston attorney John McClaugherty, the orchestra experienced unprecedented growth in the final two decades of the 20th century," Young notes.

"Sidney Rothstein was appointed as conductor in 1980 and was succeeded in 1984 by Thomas Conlin, and Grant Cooper in 2001. Reflecting its expanding role throughout the state, the name was changed to the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra in 1988."

Young's article lists the accomplishments of the orchestra: The season grew to a nine-concert and three-concert pops series, a resident string quartet was created, operatic productions were staged, the Symphony Chorus was formed, and a new venue -- the Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences -- was built for its performances.

Although the Clay Center was John McClaugherty's vision, Sallie McClaugherty "was her husband's right hand and left hand," said Helen Lodge, who serves with Sallie McClaugherty on the orchestra's board of directors.

John McClaugherty died in 2003, just four months before the opening of the Clay Center.

"Sallie can stand on her own too," Lodge said. "When you lose someone as vibrant as John, she made a commitment to herself to get up every morning and continue. John's tenacity in getting the Clay Center was probably unequaled, but Sallie has worked just as diligently but more delicately. She's just a wonderful individual."

Pat Bond became involved in the symphony about 25 years ago, when it was observing its 50th anniversary, remembered Dr. Dan Foster, also on the symphony's board.

"He became Mr. McClaugherty's protégé for a number of years," Foster said. "He did a superb job of guiding the symphony during challenging times after Mr. McClaugherty's death. He provided leadership for at least six years and set the stage for where the orchestra is going now.

"The key is Pat's close tie with John McClaugherty, which makes them the perfect duo to honor. He enabled the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra to move in a very positive direction where orchestras in other parts of the country were not. John McClaugherty set a spark, and Pat Bond made sure it didn't go out."

Bond and McClaugherty also are perfect examples of how friendships are made and fostered through symphony ties, according to their friends Lodge and Foster.

Lodge first met Sallie McClaugherty in the early 1970s, she recalled, through their involvement with the West Virginia Symphony League (then called the Women's Committee), which supports the orchestra through various fundraisers. "In the 1980s, our seeds of acquaintance grew into a very close friendship," Lodge said.

"She never loses her cool," Lodge said of her best girlfriend. "As a leader, this is remarkable because people can disappoint. She's also very modest and thanks people for what they do. She listens to people. She does her own analysis and comes up with a plan of action. Once she becomes involved, she is totally immersed in it."

Foster has similar warm friendship feelings about Bond: "Pat and I are personal friends. Our families grew up together. We've worked together a long time on the symphony."

Regarding the impact of the orchestra on the Charleston community, Foster said, "We are incredibly blessed to have the quality of orchestra we have here in Charleston. Speaking as a physician at CAMC, it makes it easier for us to attract professionals to our city. If we didn't have it, it would be a lot harder."

"A symphony is not just doing concerts," McClaugherty said. "It has an education outreach. It gives children an opportunity to have their lives enriched by music. We used to have just one children's concert a year, but Grant Cooper said, 'Give me a child who benefits from three concerts a year and I'll make a music lover of them.'"

Bond echoed the sentiment that bringing the joy of music to young people and enjoying music as a family has been an important part of his involvement.

"There have been so many wonderful things that have occurred," Bond said. "When we had Yo-Yo Ma come and I was able to have my children meet him, that was really special. That was the only concert in our history that we did midweek because Yo-Yo Ma doesn't do weekend events so that he can be with his family."

In addition to Ma, Young cites in his article many other highly recognized soloists and conductors who have performed with the orchestra in its 75-year history. They include Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, James Galway, Emanuel Ax, Marilyn Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Doc Severinsen, Henry Mancini, Dave Brubeck, Peter Nero, Victor Borge and Arthur Fiedler.

Young writes: "The orchestra premiered several works including Poem for Orchestra, the orchestral debut of 17-year-old George Crumb. The West Virginia Symphony celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1989, with a five-city tour culminating at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington."

The "Diamonds are Forever" cocktail hour starts at 6 p.m.; dinner is served at 7 p.m. at the Clay Center. Dress is black tie. Tickets cost $175 and may be purchased at wvsymphony.org. Gala sponsorship opportunities are available. For more information, contact Kortney Major, donor relations manager, at 304-561-3514.

Reach Judy E. Hamilton at judy.hamilton@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.


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