75 years of ‘building community through music’
By Kim Davenport
Dreams of a professional orchestra for Tacoma—one which both serves its community and puts the city on the artistic map—date back to the 1890s. Early civic boosters knew that before Tacoma could truly become the City of Destiny, musical achievement at the highest level was a necessary part of the landscape.
Several early efforts to sustain an orchestra in Tacoma ultimately failed, in spite of ample musical talent and appreciative audiences. It was not until December of 1946 that a performance of Handel’s Messiah at the College of Puget Sound (CPS) would establish an ensemble which would grow and change with our city for the next 75 years, ultimately becoming the orchestra known today as Symphony Tacoma.
That first concert was led by conductor Raymond Vaught, professor of violin at CPS. The school’s music department invited “all people in the community with any instrumental talent” to consider joining the orchestra. Over the next decade, the orchestra presented three concerts per year, with College of Puget Sound students performing alongside community members.
In 1959, violinist and conductor Ed Seferian joined the faculty of the University of Puget Sound and took the reins of the UPS-Tacoma Symphony. Seferian was adamant about two points: Concerts would have free admission, and the orchestra would regularly feature internationally renowned artists as soloists. This unique combination would set the Tacoma Symphony apart from its peer community orchestras around the nation.
Throughout the 1960s, the orchestra performed in a variety of community venues, from churches and school auditoriums to the large stage of the Temple Theatre. It was there, in the spring of 1971, that the ensemble performed for the last time as the UPS-Tacoma Symphony. By the next season, the name was officially changed to Tacoma Symphony Orchestra. During the 1977-78 season, thanks to the collective efforts of the Tacoma Musicians Union (Local 117, American Federation of Musicians), orchestra members were paid for the first time.
In 1983, the renovated Pantages Theater opened, becoming the new home for the Tacoma Symphony. By the late 1980s, free admission was no longer possible, but Seferian had successfully overseen the orchestra’s transition to a professional ensemble with widespread community support and a stunning historic theater to call home. In March of 1994, Seferian conducted the orchestra for the last time, stepping down after 35 years.
On September 30, 1994, Harvey Felder took the podium as the new conductor of the Tacoma Symphony, a position he would hold for 20 years. Maestro Felder brought to Tacoma a professionalism, charm, and compelling artistic vision that continued to raise the profile of the orchestra. His mission was to create a “Tacoma Symphony sound,” one defined by artistic vitality and rhythmic precision. Felder, passionate about youth education, greatly expanded the Symphony’s Youth Concert program. He also oversaw the development of the Tacoma Symphony Chorus (now Symphony Tacoma Voices) and expanded the number of concert offerings each year. Upon his departure in 2014, Felder was given the title of conductor laureate.
In 2014, Symphony Tacoma welcomed music director Sarah Ioannides, whom the Los Angeles Times called “one of six female conductors breaking the glass podium.” Building on the work of her predecessors, Ioannides has continued to expand the orchestra’s education programs. She has also championed new works, often through collaborative projects with other artistic organizations in the Tacoma community.
As Ioannides begins her eighth season as music director, the orchestra’s core season includes six main-series classical concerts, holiday choral pops, an annual performance of Handel’s Messiah and a spring choral concert. With a stated mission of “building community through music,” Symphony Tacoma celebrates this Diamond Anniversary Season and looks forward to many more years of sharing music with the people of Tacoma.