The Champaign-Urbana Symphony is the professional orchestra in residence at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The mission of the CUSO is to enhance the quality of life in the community by providing symphonic music of the highest caliber through live performances and music education in the schools, the concert hall, and the community.
After careful planning—and much hard work—the “Champaign-Urbana Civic Symphony Orchestra” was founded on February 13, 1960, by its Board of Directors. The Board was composed of the founders: Wendt, Papp (who served as treasurer), and Roberts (vice-president). They were joined by Joe Armstrong, John Dimond (president), Doris Dodds, H. I. Gelvin, Stanley Rahn (secretary), Donald Richmond, Verrollton Shaul, Audrey Stewart, Hugh Wales, and Ruth Youngerman. Bernard Goodman, well-known as a member of the Walden String Quartet and as conductor of the University of Illinois student orchestra, accepted the position of conductor and the charge to assemble a local orchestra.
Clarity of Purpose
The vision of the founding board was to “fill the need for good orchestral music, to encourage and stimulate interest in good music and musical activities in both young and old, and to engage in other types of community efforts devoted to the furtherance of music.” This vision remains remarkably consistent with the mission of the CUSO today: to enhance the community through exceptional live performance, music education, and community outreach.
From the beginning, Maestro Goodman and the board strived to create and foster the best local symphony possible. To that end, they resolved to create a truly professional orchestra. That meant that musicians would be paid for their service and required to attend every rehearsal and concert. This was important because other local groups failed when good musicians bypassed rehearsals and were not prepared for public performances.
The First Concert
The Magnavox Corporation was the first CUSO corporate sponsor. Their $1,000 contribution would be equal to about $7,150 today. The first concert was performed in Smith Music Hall on October 20, 1960.
The program opened with A Roman Carnival by Hector Berlioz. This was followed by Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, brilliantly played by Theodore Lettvin and the orchestra. Lettvin had gained international acclaim following an extensive European tour, and Goodman was fortunate to engage him for this opening concert. After intermission, the orchestra performed Debussy’s Clouds and Festivals. The program concluded with Igor Stravinsky’s suite from the ballet, The Firebird.
The News-Gazette called the first concert “a magnificent success.” Lettvin, when told that the musicians played as an orchestra for only a few weeks, remarked that it was “the finest small symphony orchestra” he had ever heard.
Lettvin was not exaggerating. The first audience realized that this was a well-disciplined and talented group of musicians. All of the principal players were experienced professionals: Homer Schmitt, concertmaster and Robert Swenson, cello (both members of the Walden String Quartet); Charles DeLaney (whose flute concerts had drawn critical acclaim in Europe); Robert Gray, trombone; Edward Krolick, bass; Sanford Berry, bassoon; Haskell Sexton, trumpet; and Austin McDowell, clarinet, were only a fraction of the talent that Goodman had assembled.
The founding board members were thrilled with the CUSO’s debut and continued their efforts with increased enthusiasm.
At 94, Ruth Youngerman still had a twinkle in her eye when she told the story of going back to sponsors and donors for the second season. “They just didn’t understand that we wanted their continual support. In their minds, they already contributed money. But, to be fair, the orchestra was a new idea and most people assumed that it was just for one season. We quickly realized that it was going to take a lot of work to keep the Symphony going year after year.”
Almost immediately, the women on the Board: Doris Dodds, Martha Wendt, Audrey Stewart, and Ruth Youngerman began working with the wives of their fellow Board members to form an auxiliary. At first they held orientation meetings and named Ruth as the temporary chair.
Over the next few months, the group held dozens of addressing parties to help the Board secure subscribers for the upcoming season. At the time, all subscribers were “members,” and each member received a pair of tickets to each concert.
The 1961-1962 brochure noted that “. . . your subscription to the Champaign-Urbana [Civic] Symphony represents an investment in your community that becomes a re-investment in your future, as well as that of your children.”
The Guild is Born
In the Spring of 1962, The Guild of the Champaign-Urbana [Civic] Symphony Orchestra was officially founded during a special Board meeting in the Mural Room of Hotel Tilden-Hall. Jean Edwards was elected president. The group charged themselves with “clerical and financial work in connection with the performances of the Symphony” as well as sponsoring an annual fundraising event.
That same year, after a season of great concert reviews and much excitement, the Board announced that it did not have sufficient funds to present its first youth concert. The Board had hoped to present a live symphonic performance for all of the local junior and senior high school music students to in an effort to advance their music education.
The Board appointed a seven-member committee to investigate options for a project to fund the youth concert. The committee was composed of Guild and Board members.
The committee planned the first CUSO gala. It was “An Evening in Old Vienna,” which made a huge splash in the papers with its pre-WWI Austrian-themed pageantry. Proceeds from the event helped to fund the first youth concert—called the Young People’s Concert & KinderKonzert—in 1964.
The three founders believed that a local symphony orchestra would have to be truly professional to prosper and grow. That meant that members would have to attend every rehearsal as well as concerts and to be paid for their services. (This was an important stipulation because previous local orchestras had failed when good players bypassed rehearsals and were insufficiently prepared to play the public performances.)
Both Wendt and Papp were members of the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, which was very interested in the venture, and with whom a wage scale for players was determined. The local union also agreed to pay each player a small concert fee from the Recording Industries Music Performance Trust Fund.
The founders realized that the success of an orchestra depended to a large extent on the conductor. They felt that one of the biggest hurdles had been passed when Bernard Goodman approved the founders’ plans and agreed to assemble a local orchestra. Goodman, in his role as conductor of the University of Illinois student orchestra and as a member of the Walden String Quartet, had received critical acclaim as a musician and a conductor. Due to his knowledge of the available area music talent, he would be able to pick his players from the music school faculty, the Graduate College and also include many talented townspeople.
The founders, with the help of Professor Duane Brannigan, Director of the University of Illinois School of Music, and Verrollton C. Shaul, Music Director of Champaign Unit 4 Schools, the founders secured the use of Smith Memorial Hall for the Orchestra’s performances. Rehearsals were held in the high school band room.
Having disposed of the main physical problems, it was now time to attend to legal matters. Attorney Donald D. Richmond handled the founders’ application for non-profit corporation status, and on February 13, 1960, the Illinois Secretary of State signed the registration papers. The Champaign-Urbana Civic Symphony Orchestra, as it was first named, was registered under the “General Not-for-profit Corporate Act.” Under the articles of incorporation, it stated that the purpose of the Corporation was to “provide cultural and educational musical concerts for the general public in and around the area of Champaign and Urbana, Illinois.” It also allowed the corporation to solicit funds for carrying out this purpose. This was the next and greatest hurdle.
Roberts had visited a Champaign businessman, Mr. H. I. Gelvin, who had many local interests. He listened to a brief description of the founders’ plans, but his first reaction was decidedly negative. However, later in the day, after thinking it over, he changed his mind and sent a check to Roberts for $500, with his best wishes for a successful project.
That check was most timely, for on the following day, the founders had an appointment with Colonel Anderson, Manager of the Urbana Division of the Magnavox Company. The colonel had been an active worker for the Fort Wayne Symphony, and from this experience he advised the trio, quite frankly, that they would undergo great opposition in raising the amount of money he knew was needed from the Champaign-Urbana community. However, when he was shown Mr. Gelvin’s check, his attitude changed, and the Magnavox Company decided to contribute $1,500.
On May 24, 1960, the first meeting of the Symphony Board of Directors took place, and plans for the 1960-1961 concert season were drawn up. The first symphony Board was composed of the founders, Wendt, Papp and Roberts, joined by Joe Armstrong, John Diamond, Mr. B. L. Dodds, H. I. Gelvin, Stanley W. Rahn, Donald D. Richmond, Verrollton C. Shaul, Mrs. C. E. Stewart, Hugh G. Wales and Mrs. W. M. Youngerman. Officers were Diamond, president, Roberts, vice-president, Papp, treasurer and Rahn, secretary.
While Bernard Goodman was arranging auditions and assembling what one reviewer later called “A high-spirited, hard-working group” of sixty musicians for a two-concert season, the board members were assembling potential member mailing lists, printing subscription forms, contacting patrons, sponsors, contributors and soliciting new subscribers. The board could not sell tickets for concerts in Smith Memorial Hall. This restriction necessitated careful wording of the first mailings for officially the orchestra did not exist.
Over 300 members resulted from the first subscription drive, and individual contributors filled Smith Memorial Hall for the first concert, which took place on October 20, 1960. Twenty business firms bought advertising space in the program brochures, which contained the list of all contributors who had helped make that performance possible. In addition to the usual concert information such as listing the players by instrument, they included program notes prepared by Scott Goldthwaite. Urbana Senior High School students generously ushered for the concert.
The program included “A Roman Carnival” by Hector Berlioz. This was followed by Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto, performed by Theodore Lettvin. Lettvin had gained international honor following an extensive European tour, and Goodman was fortunate to engage him for this opening concert. After intermission, there were two nocturnes, “Clouds” and “Festivals,” by Claude Debussy. The program ended with Igor Stravinsky’s suite from the ballet, “The Firebird.”
For the second concert, an all Tchaikovsky program held on April 20, 1961. Goodman invited as guest soloist Mischa Mischakoff, former concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony, who performed the composer’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35. It was another evening of musical beauty which prompted one reviewer to write that “it must be a proud reality indeed for those who worked so hard to bring to the community an orchestra of which it can be justly proud.”
As the third season rolled around the board’s efforts were augmented by the support services of the Symphony Guild, which was organized in May 1962. The guild, under the direction of its first president, Mrs. James R. Edwards, staged a Viennese Ball at the Champaign Country Club. Mr. Goodman conducted a 20-piece orchestra. Proceeds from the first affair funded the first youth concert. High school students served as Ladies in Waiting and Aides.
Another popular innovation was a pre-concert lecture sponsored by the Education Committee of the guild. As new members were elected to the board, new ideas for marketing helped the membership grow.
The fourth season was marked by the orchestra’s first Youth Concert which took place in the University Auditorium. This was a goal toward which the board had been working ever since the inception of the Symphony. An educational committee had been organized, consisting of representatives from the Symphony Board, the Symphony Guild and the music departments of area schools. The concert was directed specifically toward students in the fifth, sixth and seventh grades.
In 1969, the ninth season, the orchestra moved into the new Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. The future of the symphony was enhanced to an immeasurable degree by the availability of the magnificent facilities at Krannert.
Paul Vermel (1974–1994): Paul first studied conducting, organ, harmony, and theory in his native Paris. There, he studied organ with André Fleury, and conducting with André Cluytens. He came to the U.S. in 1949 to study at the Juilliard School and the Tanglewood Music Center as a student of Jean Morel. After finishing his studies, he was appointed to the Juilliard faculty. In New York, he became music director and conductor of the Hudson Valley Symphony, the Doctors’ Orchestral Society, and the Brooklyn Community Orchestra. For eight years, he was music director of the summer opera and musical theater program at Green Mansions in the Berkshires. Vermel then moved to California to become music director and conductor of the Fresno Philharmonic. He also taught at California State University and conducted opera extensively. Moving back to the east coast, he was appointed director of the Music in Maine Project and conductor of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. From 1974–1994, he was Professor of Music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and conductor of the University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra and the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra. In 1994, he became Music Director of the Northwest Symphony Orchestra, stepping down from that position after the 2012-2013 season. He also served as Music Director of the North Suburban Symphony from 1996 to 2007. He continues as Music Director Emeritus of the Northwest Symphony Orchestra, which is working with the next generation of conductors through The Paul Vermel Conductor Apprenticeship Program and continuing the Paul Vermel Young Artist Award program, an annual competition for artists from the Chicagoland area in high school or younger, for a chance to perform a solo with the orchestra. Among his many awards and honors are the Koussevitzky Memorial Award for outstanding conductor at Tanglewood, the American Symphony Orchestra League Recognition Award, and, in conjunction with the national Orchestras-On-Tour Program, the Bell Telephone Award for outstanding achievement in and contribution to the arts. He also was honored with an American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Award for Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music. In 2009, he received the Max Rudolf Award from the Conductors Guild, given biennially in recognition of outstanding achievement as a conductor and pedagogue, and significant service to the profession in the realms of scholarship and ensemble building. Vermel is married to Carolyn Paulin, a college lecturer, choral conductor, and freelance classical music radio producer. They returned to Maine in the summer of 2014 and live in Scarborough.
Steven Larsen (1996–2012): Steven is a native of Chicago and a graduate of Northwestern University, where he received that institution’s first Master of Music in Orchestral Conducting degree. From 1976 to 1982, he served on the faculty of the American Conservatory of Music. A significant portion of his career has been devoted to opera. For thirteen consecutive years, he led productions for Chicago Opera Theater, ending his tenure there in 1992 after serving as Artistic Director. For three seasons, he held the position of Music Director of the Opera Theatre of San Antonio, and served as Interim Artistic Director for the Dayton Opera. For six years, he taught at Chicago Musical College as a lecturer in Opera Performance. Guest conducting engagements have taken him to the opera companies of Honolulu, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Detroit, Westchester, and Dayton. He was music director and conductor of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra for 16 years and has been the conductor of the Rockford Symphony Orchestra (RSO) since 1991. The Illinois Council of Orchestras has recognized his work with both orchestras by twice naming him “Illinois Conductor of the Year” and he received that recognition again in 2016. A recipient of many awards, in 2005, along with his wife Martha Bein, Larsen received the Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center’s Star of Excellence Award.
- The Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra (CUSO) is founded (as the Champaign-Urbana Civic Symphony Orchestra) on February 13.
- The first CUSO concert is performed in Smith Music Hall by its first Music Director & Conductor Bernard Goodman on October 20. Renowned pianist, Theodore Lettvin, is the soloist of the evening, joining the orchestra to play Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. The News-Gazette calls it “a magnificent success.”
- John Dimond is the first CUSO president.
- The Guild of the CUSO is organized. Its first president is Jean Edwards. Today, the Guild is composed of more than 150 members. This group of dedicated volunteers raises funds in support of the CUSO and works to promote music education through its In-School Concerts and Illinois Summer Youth Music (ISYM) scholarship programs. The Guild donates funds to the CUSO, raised through its In Good Taste parties.
- W. J. Roberts is the second president of the CUSO.
- The CUSO holds its first gala, a Viennese Ball at the Champaign Country Club.
- The CUSO embarks on a South American Tour.
- The first Young People’s Concert and KinderKonzerts are performed in the University Auditorium.
- Hugh Wales is president of the CUSO.
- Richard B. Cogdal is president of the CUSO.
- Earl Finder is president of the CUSO.
- The CUSO begins performing in the newly constructed Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
- Kurt Schmidt is president of the CUSO.
- The CUSO performs its first “Pops” concert.
- Richard Tryon is president of the CUSO.
- The CUSO performs its first concert with a full chorus.
- Leonard Slatkin guest conducts the CUSO. He is now the Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
- Paul Vermel becomes the second CUSO Music Director & Conductor.
- Case Sprenkle is president of the CUSO.
- Edwin A. Scharlau, II is president of the CUSO.
- Daniel Richards is president of the CUSO.
- Famed violinist Shlomo Mintz performs with the CUSO.
- Carl Altstetter is president of the CUSO.
- Oboist Blaine Edlefson is the first musician to celebrate 20 continuous years with the CUSO.
- Jack Waaler is president of the CUSO.
- The CUSO performs Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana for the first time.
- The CUSO celebrates 25 years.
- Judi Hoffman is the first woman president of the CUSO.
- Theodore Lettvin, the first soloist to perform with the CUSO, returns to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
- The CUSO performs Handel’s Messiah in its entirety for the first time.
- The CUSO performs its 100th concert.
- Acclaimed violinist, Nadja Salerno, performs with the CUSO.
- The CUSO is designated as the professional orchestra in residence at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
- David Thies is president of the CUSO.
- John Kemp is president of the CUSO.
- The CUSO is honored with an American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) award for “Adventurous Programming.”
- The CUSO performance “Celebration” is broadcast nationally on NPR.
- James Kaler is president of the CUSO.
- Jane Brockway is president of the CUSO.
- Kenneth Kiesler is a CUSO guest conductor.
- Peter Baksa is president of the CUSO.
- Steven Larsen joins the CUSO as its third Music Director & Conductor.
- Jeffrey Farlow-Cornell is president of the CUSO.
- Steven Larsen is the winner of the Illinois Council of Orchestras (ICO) “Conductor of the Year” award.
- The CUSO performs its first outdoor “Symphony at Sunset” concert.
- Bill Volk is president of the CUSO.
- The first percussion soloist performs with the CUSO.
- The CUSO is the winner of the ICO “Community Relations of the Year” award.
- The first tuba soloist performs with the CUSO
- The CUSO performs its 200th concert.
- Sam Krug is president of the CUSO.
- Steven Larsen is the winner of the ICO “Conductor of the Year” award for the second time.
- Howard Osborn, the last remaining musician from the first CUSO performance, retires.
- The CUSO performs Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s Messiah—in German.
- S. Byron Balbach, Jr. is president of the CUSO.
- The CUSO Guild is the winner of the ICO “Guild of the Year” award.
- Garrison Keillor performs with the CUSO in its benefit concert.
- The News-Gazette calls the CUSO “a community resource worth supporting and enjoying.”
- Seven-year-old piano prodigy Emily Bear performs with the CUSO.
- Gilbert Papp and Ruth Youngerman—both founding members of the CUSO Board of Directors—are named honorary chairs of the Anniversary Committee.
- The CUSO celebrates its 50th anniversary season! As part of the celebration, the CUSO commissions four original fanfares by Illinois composers.
- The CUSO holds a gala, A Viennese Ball, at the iHotel to commemorate its first gala and to mark the end of the 50th anniversary season.
- Kip Pope is president of the CUSO.
- Maestro Steven Larsen retires after serving as Music Director & Conductor of the CUSO for 16 years.
- Kip Pope is the winner of the ICO “Board President of the Year” award.
- Stephen Alltop becomes the fourth Music Director & Conductor of the CUSO.
- Jeffrey Farlow-Cornell is the winner of the ICO “Executive Director of the Year” award.
- The CUSO Guild is the winner of the ICO “Guild of the Year” award.
- Marilynne Davis is president of the CUSO.
- Associate Principal Violist Lois Gullerud, the longest-playing member of the CUSO, retires after completing her 50th season (2014-15) with the CUSO.
- The CUSO is awarded one of only five nationally awarded Music Alive grants from the League of American Orchestras and New Music USA, pairing composer Stacy Garrop with the CUSO in a three-year composer-orchestra residency program.