A Brief History of the Virginia Symphony
In 1871, Irene Leache and Anna Cogswell Wood came to Norfolk to establish an all-girls school dedicated to educating the daughters of the city’s most prominent families – The Leache-Wood Seminary. The two quickly realized there was a void in the Norfolk Art’s Community and expanded their mission to bring cultural activities to the city. When Leache died in 1900, Wood established the Irene Leache Memorial Foundation to honor her friend.
This organization became the catalyst for what is now the Chrysler Museum of Art by encouraging an appreciation of fine arts and literature and working to gather enough works to establish a museum. Wood enlisted the support of the seminary alumnae before returned to Florence to begin sending artworks back to Norfolk. In 1917, the Norfolk Society of Arts (NSA) was born from the Irene Leache Foundation and was solely focused on bringing the arts to Norfolk. Its main goal was to stimulate and further the interest in art in Norfolk and to establish an art museum.
Concurrently, as art was being collected for a Norfolk Art Museum, there was another move towards cultural enrichment. Three musicians, two with some professional background and the other a music enthusiast and amateur musician, shared a vision for an orchestra.
Walter Edward Howe was the organist at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and Marian Carpenter Miles was a performing violinist who had moved to Norfolk with her husband John B. Miles where he retired after World War I. Combining their professional backgrounds with the passion and added zeal of music enthusiast Dr. Robert C. Whitehead, a leading physician of the city, the determined trio set out to establish an orchestra. It was the spring of 1920 and they assembled a group of other interested musicians and began rehearsing in the Monroe Building in Norfolk. With avowed purpose, they focused on acquiring a music library, obtaining instruments, finding a place to play and even put together a financial plan. After months of planning and practice, the group, by this time called The Norfolk Civic Symphony Orchestra, made its debut with a public concert on April 21, 1921. At its debut performance, there were 43 musicians with Mr. Howe conducting and Mrs. Miles as concertmaster. Dr. Whitehead, also the orchestra’s business manager, played the viola. An enthusiastic crowd of nearly 2,000 people attended the concert.
Today, our newest Music Director, Eric Jacobsen leads the charge in delighting audiences year-round with concerts ranging from Beethoven and Philip Glass to the music of Harry Potter and Star Wars. Each season the orchestra performs Young People’s Concerts for more than 25,000 elementary school students in all 11 school districts. VSO professional musicians also coach music educators and individual students across the region, adding value to under-resourced public-school programs. As well, the VSO’s health and wellness programs provide interactive musical activities for seniors living with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, while the annual CommUNITY Play & Sing-Along brings together people from all walks of life to join in building community through music. We are proud of our unique partnership with Old Dominion University to enhance the student learning experience through side-by-side orchestral and vocal performance opportunities with our professional musicians.
As the largest employer among the arts organizations in a region of over 1.7 million people, the VSO generates $16 million for the local economy annually by engaging residents and drawing visitors to our local venues. Because of its exceptional national reputation, the VSO attracts highly trained and educated employees to live, work and serve the people of this region. The VSO Chorus, founded in 1991, expands the orchestra’s repertoire and provides a unique volunteer experience for nearly 100 members of our community.
As we look to the future, we invite you to participate with us. While today we cannot see the Virginia Symphony Orchestra of the next 100 years, we do know it will be one we make together. With continued innovation in our programming, our talented, professional musicians and most importantly the ideas and support of the many people and organizations we serve, we look forward to the next century of building community through music!