Lynchburg Symphony Rises to the Occasion
As musicians tune their instruments on stage, a palpable excitement grows among the audience. The lights dim. The performers silence their instruments. A young conductor takes the platform and raises his baton over the sound of hushed anticipation.
With a swift stroke of that baton, Dr. Christopher Swanson leads the Lynchburg Symphony Orchestra into its 35th year with a bang.
LSO is a Hill City tradition. Founded in 1983, the symphony was established with a vision of cultivating musicianship through performance of timeless works. Today, the orchestra is blending old with new, staying true to its roots and its core mission while innovating for the future.
In the Beginning
LSO came from humble beginnings, starting as a small orchestra under the umbrella of the Fine Arts Center. The musicians enjoyed the ensemble and believed it could grow into something more. With a spirit of innovation—and a desire to expand the symphony—the group ventured out to become its own entity.
“We decided to head out on our own and form the Lynchburg Symphony Orchestra,” said Bruce Habitzruther, who served as Conductor and Music Director in 1983. “We put together a cracker jack board and received great financial support from the community.”
In the earliest days, LSO performed one concert per season at the Fine Arts Center. Gradually, they expanded to five concerts per season. “We had at least one major soloist—many of national stature—perform with us each year,” said Habitzruther. “We also had an annual ‘Pops’ concert that was funded by two special donors for 16 years.”
The LSO is comprised of 50 musicians who primarily live and work in Lynchburg. They are Lynchburg’s private music teachers, working and retired school teachers, and local band and orchestra directors. Several members have been with the LSO since its inception 35 years ago. As positions open up from year to year, the group eagerly welcomes young musicians into the orchestra.
The result is a thriving ensemble of talented musicians that make up the heart and soul of the symphony.
“One of my favorite memories was performing at Lynchburg City Stadium for one of our annual ‘Pops’ concerts. Over 4,000 guests attended, and one of the Lynchburg Hillcats players in attendance commented that he wished the baseball team could draw a crowd this size,” Habitzruther chuckled.
“It was an honor conducting the dedicated musicians throughout the years,” Habitzruther said. He served as Conductor and Music Director at LSO for 30 years, until he retired in 2014, in order to fully devote himself to the Lynchburg Symphony Youth Orchestra and Junior Strings, which he and his wife, Ellen, founded in 2001.
Rising to the Occasion
During the summer of 2014, a young music professor from Longwood University joined the LSO board. Dr. Christopher Swanson quickly fell in love with the organization and assumed the role of Conductor and Artistic Director.
He came with a vision of collaboration and revitalization that helps find a balance between preserving the symphony’s past and looking out for its future.
“I have always drawn my inspiration from collaboration,” said Swanson. “I enjoy the process of getting to know another person or another organization and letting them get to know me and the orchestra. I also love to find out how other people feel about music.”
Over the past two seasons, Swanson has dedicated himself to enhancing the symphony through collaboration with other arts organizations, universities and individuals. One of the first collaborative projects he led was with students at T.C. Miller Elementary School for Innovation.
“We asked the kids to listen to music that we were going to perform and create art based on what they heard,” recalled Swanson. “During the concert we projected giant images of their art above the orchestra as we performed. I will never hear Pictures at an Exhibition the same way again!”
At its core, the LSO has a goal of serving the Lynchburg community. The symphony accomplishes that goal by providing high quality orchestral music in a series of live concerts. With a new generation comes new opportunities, and Swanson has a plan to make the symphony even more relatable for audiences both young and old.
“Some people feel like if they don’t know anything about classical music, they shouldn’t come to a concert,” notes Swanson. “Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that one doesn’t need to be educated in music to appreciate good music. One only needs an open mind and perhaps a little sense of adventure.”
Adventure is definitely in the repertoire this season. LSO is creating programs that audiences will love. Families will hear music that they recognize, and they may also hear something new along the way.
“We have a spectacular season planned for our 35th year,” said Swanson.
“We will be celebrating music from the cinema and pairing it with great classical masterpieces of the symphonic repertoire. Some musical highlights that I am really excited about are Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ ‘Fantastic Symphony’ by Hector Berlioz, and music from ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and from ‘Star Wars.’”
Collaboration is vitally important to Swanson. It allows him to tap into local talent and to expose the symphony to an even broader audience. But that’s not the only reason that collaboration is so significant to him.
“The biggest reason is simply this: I love to make music with other people,” said Swanson. “For me, there is no greater joy than to bring a large group of people together to explore a great work of art. In this, we not only learn about the music itself but we learn about each other and ourselves. So, whether we are working with a group of opera singers, or ballet dancers, or a children’s choir, we will all gain from making music together. With that, the community wins every time.”
A Major Scale for the Future
LSO’s 35th year officially begins on June 10, 2017 when they’ll perform an outdoor concert at Riverfront Park that will feature American music, patriotic medleys, a hip hop symphony, and a fireworks display.
“We are very excited about the American Music Concert on June 10, hosted by the Academy Center of the Arts,” said Linda Edwards, who serves as the President of the Board of Directors for LSO. “BWXT is our generous sponsor, making the event free to the public!”
Edwards is also looking forward to LSO Night at the Lynchburg Hillcats on July 16. “Our Maestro, Dr. Christopher Swanson, will sing the National Anthem accompanied by LSO brass players, and he will throw out the first pitch.”
In the coming years, LSO is looking forward to performing in a spectacular restored venue downtown. When the renovation of the Academy Center of the Arts Historic Theatre is completed in late 2018, the LSO is planning to come home to the Academy, performing in the majestic, historic venue for many seasons to come.
With a strong focus on collaboration and exciting opportunities ahead, the LSO has a strategic plan to ensure they are a fixture in the region for years to come.
“Orchestras in the United States have gone through major changes, particularly in the past 5 years,” Edwards explained.
“Our Board of Directors has encouraged a diversity in the orchestra’s sound and audience appeal. We believe that a symphony orchestra has to prove its value each and every day to the community that supports it. This is a challenge we take seriously.”
LSO has accepted the challenge and risen to the occasion.
Today, the symphony is an integral part of the dynamic arts scene in Central Virginia. Lynchburg is proud of the LSO and—with a rich history of 35 years of music—this is just the beginning.