Luis Herrera de la Fuente 1978 – 1988
With the encouragement of several key musicians and the enthusiastic response of the audience to a guest conducting engagement, Luis Herrera de la Fuente was welcomed as Music Director in the 1978-1979 Season. A native of Mexico City, Herrera had been the conductor of Mexico’s National Symphony Orchestra and was respected for his expertise in music, art and architecture. Audiences enjoyed his elegant conducting style (usually without a baton and from memory) as well as his choice of concert repertory. His programs offered a rich selection of masterworks balanced with pieces from a variety of composers and eras. Guest conducting in Europe brought national and international praise for the conductor who was called “…one of the world’s superlative musicians…” by a music writer in New Orleans.
Herrera shared the podium with several guest conductors each year, and on February 11, 1979, Joel Levine made his first appearance with the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra as a guest conductor for a Classics Series concert, featuring the Erick Hawkins Dance Company. The performance opened with “Rounds for Orchestra” by David Diamond – a selection Levine reprises on January 11, 2014 with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. In the 1980-1981 Season, Levine was named as Associate Conductor for the orchestra. His myriad duties included conducting performances for the Classical series, education and tour performances, Pops concerts and performances with Ballet Oklahoma.
The next several years were seasons of growth and prosperity for the city and the orchestra. Major fundraisers known as “Odyssey” were launched by the Women’s Committee and the lavish events raised enough to retire the accumulated debt. Extended outreach to develop corporate sponsorships, board restructuring and other measures of prudent management made by the new managing director, Patrick Alexander, balanced the annual budget and stopped the accumulation of additional deficits. Improvements were made to the acoustics of the Civic Center with the purchase of a new concert shell to surround the orchestra on stage. Huge efforts were made to invigorate ticket buyers, patrons and general public. And Maestro Herrera spent these years building the quality of the orchestra bringing many talented, new musicians into the ensemble. By the end of the decade nearly 75% of the musicians in the orchestra had auditioned from out-of-state and transplanted their lives to Oklahoma City. The orchestra’s reputation as a “stepping stone” job was both a positive and a negative for the community.
Dissatisfaction with the concert hall was a constant theme of the era. Ideas were discussed by the board of directors and in the local media. The nearby Center Theater was a place of keen interest with renovations of more than $2 million suggested. There was also a faction of patrons who advocated for the building of a new performing arts center. This suggestion brought lively debate about a location for a new construction. The question of whether or not to abandon downtown Oklahoma City was percolating and factored into the larger discussion among community leaders about the future of the city, which eventually led to the historic MAPS vote of 1993.
The list of guest performers featured by the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra throughout the 80s is a “Who’s Who” of entertainers. Pavarotti, Itzhak Perlman, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, John Houseman, Placido Domingo and many others highlighted the Classics concerts. Legendary performers including Mel Tormé, Tony Bennett, Henri Mancini and Bernadette Peters were among the headliners of the Pops series.
In 1986, the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra was operating at a $2.8 million annual budget but again, the regional economy was slowing. Despite record numbers of contributors and ticket buyers, total income was declining as gift amounts were reduced and ticket prices held steady. That season saw reductions of 8% in overall spending including cutting the administrative staff from 12 to 8 and limiting the number of extra players engaged for concerts. Long overdue pay raises for the musicians were becoming a concern and clouds were gathering again for the orchestra in Oklahoma City.