Marking a milestone

KU Symphony Orchestra tunes up for 100th anniversary gala concert


Kansas University Symphony Orchestra conductor Nicholas Uljanov leads the orchestra during rehearsal last week at Murphy Hall. The orchestra will celebrate its 100th anniversary with a gala concert Tuesday at the Lied Center.

In 1905, one year after the Kansas University Symphony Orchestra was integrated into the School of Fine Arts, the student newspaper lauded the fledgling 20-member group as KU's "best musical organization."

"Whenever a University Orchestra concert is given, every seat is taken and the people go away with no regrets as to the price of admission paid. ... The class of music played by the orchestra is above that attempted by most State University organizations."

At mid-century, the orchestra still lured a full house to its Sunday-afternoon concerts in what was then a brand new Murphy Hall, recalls Robert Baustian, who conducted the group from 1957 to 1966.

"We even went ahead with one (concert) two days after the Kennedy assassination," Baustian says on the telephone from his Santa Fe, N.M., home. "I played Schubert's 'Unfinished Symphony' in tribute to his unfinished life."

"Gosh, I'd forgotten that," says Earle Dumler, a 1967 KU grad who played oboe under Baustian. "I played that concert. That was very powerful."

A long line of conductors has wielded the baton since the orchestra's formal inception a century ago, each striving to provide a powerful learning experience for burgeoning musicians.

Now, as the symphony prepares to mark its 100th anniversary with a gala performance on Tuesday, music faculty and administrators hope to once again fill the concert hall with the kind of eager patrons who frequented orchestra concerts in the group's youth.

"Because of the popularity of bands and marching bands, there is a sense that sometimes orchestral programs get overlooked," says assistant professor of viola Peter Chun. "I hope an event like this can bring that much more exposure to this important group at our university and bring about a renaissance of energy and support."

Growth periods

Maestro Nicholas Uljanov, who took over the orchestra in 2003, said then that it was "not acceptable" for only 200 or 250 people to attend concerts in the Lied Center, which holds 2,000 people.

Since then, he's been working to increase audiences by improving the quality of the 80-member orchestra and diversifying its repertoire.

Kansas University Symphony Orchestra conductors (After 1904 reorganization)

  • Charles Skilton (1904-1914)
  • Joseph McCanles (1914-1916)
  • Wort Morse (1916-1917)
  • Frank Kendrie (1917-1921)
  • Edward Kurtz (1921-1924)
  • Karl Andrist (1924-1925)
  • Karl Kuersteiner (1925-1943)
  • Russell Wiley (1943-1957)
  • Robert Baustian (1957-1966)
  • George Lawner (1966-1985)
  • Zuohuang Chen (1985-1987)
  • Jorge Perez-Gomez (1987-1990)
  • Gregory Fried (1990-1991)
  • Julian Shew (1991-1992)
  • Brian Priestman (1992-2002)
  • Timothy Hankewich (2002-2003)
  • Nicholas Uljanov (2003-present)

"I tell the students all the time we have to feel like professionals," Uljanov says. "Our task is to play this concert at the Lied Center at the highest possible level, as professionals."

Of course, the musicians aren't professionals, which is why the role of the university orchestra has always been twofold: to play beautiful music and train future musicians.

"In many cases you have to instruct them how to play their instruments, or how to play a certain passage, which a conductor of a big professional orchestra doesn't have to bother with," Baustian says. "So you're a total teacher."

The "classrooms" of KU Symphony conductors have grown through the years. The 1904 orchestra, under the direction of dean Charles Skilton, consisted of 20 musicians. A decade later, more than 35 instrumentalists were participating.

In 1926, orchestra membership totaled 45, but nonstudent musicians still were required to buttress the group for large performances. Since 1936, however, the orchestra has been self-sufficient, no longer requiring assistance from professional musicians or faculty members.

Even so, KU faculty members will join the student group for a few pieces on Tuesday's concert.

"This is a special event," says oboe professor Larry Maxey. "It's really unprecedented that we have a chance to sit down and play with our students."

Baustian legacy

Maxey, who's been on the faculty for 30 years, came to KU toward the end of George Lawner's 19-year stint as symphony conductor, which ended in 1985.

"George was here for a long time and did a lot of very distinguished things with the orchestra," Maxey says. "He brought a high level of musicality to the orchestra."

Fine arts dean Steve Hedden remembers an even earlier era in the orchestra's history. As a KU student, Hedden played trombone in the group off and on between 1961 and 1964, during the Baustian days.


Kansas University Archives

The second violins pose for a group portrait of the 1904-1905 Kansas University Symphony Orchestra.

"The man was such a consummate musician," Hedden recalls. "He made every rehearsal invigorating. You were challenged and simultaneously rewarded for a job well done."

Malcolm W. Smith, who studied oboe at KU in the early '60s and is now principal oboist with the Indianapolis Symphony, credits Baustian with laying an "incredible foundation" for his career.

"He was pretty amazing," Smith said. "He treated us all like professionals."

Dumler, too, remembers Baustian as a major influence.

"He taught me how to catch somebody who's on the podium who doesn't know what they're doing because he was really excellent as a conductor," said Dumler, who's in his eighth season as principal oboist with the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra. "There are five instrumental musicians in California who all played under him that all have outstanding careers as professional musicians."

Pleasurable challenge

After Baustian and Lawner came a string of conductors who had short tenures. In 1992, Brian Priestman became the next defining maestro of the orchestra.

Jesse Henkensiefken, a KU graduate student and principal cello in the current orchestra, started playing in the group at the end of the Englishman's 10-year run.

"He was very animated," Henkensiefken said.

Maxey characterized Priestman as "a wonderful character"

"He had great stories," Maxey said. "He had worked with virtually everybody in the profession. He brought a level of professional experience to the position which probably was unprecedented in the history of the orchestra."

If Priestman set a standard, then Uljanov has lived up to it. He took the reigns from interim conductor Timothy Hankewich last year with 17 years of experience conducting leading orchestras in Europe, Russia and South America. He also has extensive experience as an opera and ballet conductor.

"He's a world-class conductor, and, frankly, I find it a bit uncanny that we actually have somebody like that here," Chun said. "It's rare to meet somebody who cares about students so much. He really cares about what they learn in orchestra, what they take away from this institution."

As for Uljanov, he sees the century mark as motivation to advance the educational and musical groundwork laid by his predecessors.

"To be here in the 100th-anniversary season is a great pleasure and a great challenge for me," he said. "I hope that we will do a great job in the coming years to bring the orchestra more to the public attention in Lawrence."


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