A NEW BEGINNING: The Oklahoma City Philharmonic
Music Director 1988 – present
Joel Levine, as associate conductor of the OSO, he was on contract with the organization as were all the musicians of the orchestra. He had made Oklahoma City his home and believed strongly that the community should have a professional orchestra. When he learned that the OSO was closing, he decided to act and promptly went to reserve an organizational name with the State of Oklahoma to support his idea. The "Oklahoma Philharmonic Society" (OPS) was born in August 1988. “After I got the articles of incorporation in hand, I started making calls,” said Levine. He reached out to music lovers who were community leaders interested in helping assemble the business leadership necessary to support a major undertaking. Levine was determined to make a new beginning.
Three of those calls were to members of the Oklahoma City Orchestra League; Jane Harlow, Berta Faye Rex and Priscilla Braun. The three had been dedicated community volunteers for years and were ready to talk about new ideas. Local businessman William “Bill” Cleary stepped forward to help address the issues of creating a business model for an orchestra that needed to match the resources of the city.
The group worked quickly to marshal financial support for the new orchestra, now called “The Oklahoma City Philharmonic.” Contracts were negotiated and signed in September 1989. From that time to the present, the OKC Philharmonic has had a positive and mutually supportive relationship with the AFM both locally and nationally.
The first concert of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic was performed to a packed house at the Civic Center Music Hall on October 16, 1989. As a salute to the deep and respected history of orchestral music in Oklahoma City, Joel Levine opened that first concert with the National Anthem played by bassoonist Betty Johnson. Johnson was just out of high school when, more than 50 years earlier, she was selected as a member of the original WPA orchestra program in Oklahoma City – The Oklahoma Federal Symphony Orchestra.
The program book for that inaugural performance acknowledged a deep debt of gratitude to various people and organizations. First of all, the musicians of the orchestra; they not only joined the new orchestra but also donated their services for the opening concert to ensure a solid start in the community. Next, the corporations and organizations who took a leap of faith with the fledgling organization: First Interstate Bank of Oklahoma, N.A., Kerr-McGee Corporation, Oklahoma Gas & Electric, Oklahoma Publishing Company, Southwestern Bell Telephone, Allied Arts Foundation and the Oklahoma City Orchestra League. The concert was dedicated to them. And finally, a modest list of the new board of directors and administrative staff quietly recognized an exceptional group of people who worked unceasingly to bring the orchestra into being.
The inaugural season included performances with acclaimed guest artists: pianists Jose Feghali and Alexander Toradze, violinist Mark Peskanov, noted announcer and radio commentator Martin Bookspan narrated Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait and other selections, cellist Paul Tobias performed, and the season finale featured Itzhak Perlman playing the Brahms Violin Concerto.
Milestones started piling up for the new orchestra as Levine, together with Executive Director Alan Valentine, sought opportunities for partnerships and performances. A Pops Series was introduced in the 1989-1990 Season. The Philharmonic’s annual Christmas show was launched in 1991 and continues to delight audiences every season. And a Family Series started in the 1991-1992 Season. A performance in October 1993 with the tour of Moody Blues is still recalled by patrons as a first-rate musical event.
A longstanding challenge for all performing arts in Oklahoma City was the poor acoustics of the aging theater at the Civic Center. In fall 1993, the Philharmonic leadership joined with City officials and civic groups to develop a plan and then push for a “Yes” vote for 1-penny sales tax increase known as the Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS). Designed to collect a capital improvements fund, the tax was earmarked for nine specific projects (including a multimillion dollar renovation of the Civic Center). The MAPS passed with a narrow margin of support and plans for building and renovations began as the fund was collected.
In April 1995, Oklahoma City was targeted with a treacherous act of domestic terrorism that rocked the nation. The Philharmonic joined in the community mourning the victims of the Murrah Building bombing. Performing at the internationally broadcast “A Time To Remember” Memorial Service, the musicians had the chance to reach out with their art in an effort to comfort and strengthen the community. The subsequent CD release of the music from the service sold internationally.
The 1995-1996 Season was highlighted by several extraordinary events starting with a performance with cowboy-musician Michael Martin Murphey that was broadcast on the PBS series “Austin City Limits.” In February 1996, Joel Levine directed a magnificent, fully-staged opera, La Boheme to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Puccini’s masterpiece. Fall 1996 continued to offer amazing opportunities as the Philharmonic welcomed the legendary pianist, Van Cliburn. And showing the versatility of the orchestra, the Philharmonic was featured on the national CBS broadcast of “Home for the Holidays” starring Kathie Lee Gifford.
The OKC Philharmonic moved to temporary spaces while the Civic Center was under renovation from 1998 to 2001. Warmly welcomed on the campus of Rose State College, the Philharmonic offered concerts in the new Performing Arts Theater in Midwest City. During those years, the Philharmonic expanded educational outreach programs including the inauguration of an annual “Side By Side” concert and developing the new “Instrument Playground.”
Returning to the Civic Center for the 2001-2002 Season seemed like another new beginning for the Philharmonic. Levine credits the renovation of the Civic Center with securing the future of the OKC Philharmonic. “This would not be the organization it is today without MAPS and the Civic Center renovation,” said Levine. “Performing a great concert would mean nothing if the audience couldn’t hear it – or is so uncomfortable that no one enjoys it. The renovation made our efforts more meaningful.” Audiences loved the new theater and in the next several years the array of international talents performing with the Philharmonic grew to include Ray Charles, Yo-Yo Ma, Olivia Newton-John, Ben Folds, Joshua Bell, Renee Fleming and others.
A successful endowment drive plus corporate and foundation support allowed the OKC Philharmonic to return to the tradition of playing a free, outdoor concert to celebrate Independence Day. “Red, White and Boom!” started as an annual tradition in July 2007 with Joel Levine conducting the orchestra in a patriotic pops concert. The event brought back an OKC tradition that ended with World War II and now draws nearly 15,000 to enjoy music under the stars with family and friends. Later that season, the Philharmonic played a key role in a statewide centennial event that celebrated the 100th Anniversary of statehood. In a spectacular evening that featured an array of Oklahoma star-power, Joel Levine and the Philharmonic provided the backbone of the production with the orchestra performing throughout.
The Philharmonic with the OKC-based indie rock band, Flaming Lips, were invited to collaborate in a performance in June 2010 for the U.S. Conference of Mayors that was held in Oklahoma City. The fully-enthusiastic group of musicians who performed exemplified the orchestra’s exceptional versatility to a packed house of visitors from across the country.
The links between the Philharmonic and area organizations, especially universities and schools, are myriad. Members of the orchestra teach and hold key positions in Oklahoma music colleges and public schools. Various Philharmonic music programs for students reach thousands from early elementary children through graduate degree candidates. Partnerships between the orchestra and Lyric Theatre, OKC Ballet, Canterbury Choral Society, BrightMusic, the OKC Arts Council and others have created a network of performing artists who are dedicated to raising joy and inspiring the community.
Other advances for the Philharmonic in recent years include a successful campaign to build endowment funds, the addition of an education staff position, the extensive use of new media for outreach and communication, and acquisition of some exceptional instruments for use by orchestra members. All these advances have been accomplished while maintaining balanced annual budgets and continuing to grow and treasure the positive relationships among the musicians, board, staff and audience of the Philharmonic.
The OKC Philharmonic looks to the future by growing a grassroots outreach that focuses on bringing music into people’s daily lives. Programs that put ensembles into workplaces, healthcare centers and public places are increasing, as well as programs that put music into the hands of adults and children. Founded in 2007, the Society of Strings (SOS) is the outgrowth of a Philharmonic program that teaches adult beginners to play string instruments. The group has grown to involve more than 100 people and adds new members every year. The “Instrument Playground” brings a variety of orchestra instruments to youngsters at community festivals and concerts, libraries and schools. This hands-on experience has led to music lessons for many children.
Reaching out to the young professionals in the area, the Philharmonic Associate Board spearheads “Overture” as a way to bring new patrons to the orchestra. Overture expands the concert experience with social activities and networking for OKC’s up-and-comers. Members of Overture who joined with little or no experience with the performing arts have become staunch supporters and advocates for the Philharmonic in Oklahoma City.
As with orchestras throughout the history of classical music, the Oklahoma City Philharmonic exists to respond to the needs of the people and the overall community. It is the community that sets the direction for the future of its orchestra. We celebrate and mourn with music; we mark important occasions and great events with music. We also seek personal inspiration and joy, as well as social connection and sheer entertainment from our music. There’s a unique place in the pantheon of musical styles for a community-centered symphony orchestra, providing a lynchpin for a city’s cultural life. The Oklahoma City Philharmonic is honored and proud to hold that position in our city for now, and for the future.