Woodstock Symphony Orchestra
In 2018, the orchestra was officially renamed the Woodstock Symphony Orchestra, due to its increased size, skill and focus of its repertoire in recent years. But in 1980 this orchestra was born as the Woodstock Chamber Orchestra.
The idea for the Woodstock Chamber Orchestra came from three local musicians, Judy Leopold, Ellen Ohm and Jeannette Ellis, who thought that an arts community like Woodstock could foster a small orchestra. They contacted musicians they knew and put together a small group which held its first rehearsal on January 27, 1980 — not coincidentally the 224th anniversary of the birth of Mozart. Melissa Sweet, the flutist for the new orchestra, brought in her husband Al not only to play second flute but to be the manager of the orchestra as well, a task well-suited to his IBM management skills.
The orchestra’s first music director and conductor was Henry Bloch, with the late Kurt Grishman serving as assistant conductor (as well as playing in the violin section). The new orchestra’s first complete season was 1980-81. Within a few years the WCO was performing five concerts a season in local churches, most often St. John’s in West Hurley. The repertoire grew to include major symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, as well as works for orchestra and chorus, often with the Woodstock-based Ars Choralis, (initially reconstituted as the Woodstock Chamber Chorus). Around this time the orchestra became sufficiently successful to pay the musicians rather than asking them to volunteer their services.
From the early 1990s to 2005 the orchestra flourished under the direction of a new conductor, prize-winning cellist and classical guitarist, Luis Garcia-Renart, who also taught at both Bard and Vassar and worked with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. Under Garcia-Renart’s direction the orchestra built on its tradition of premiering new music by local composers with works by Joan Tower, Kyle Gann, Benjamin Boretz, Richard Teitelbaum, Jay Ungar, and Peter Schickele, among others. During this time the orchestra also expanded its venues to include the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, Holy Cross Church in Kingston, and Olin Hall at Bard College.
After Garcia-Renart’s retirement from conducting in 2005 the Woodstock Chamber Orchestra held a conductor search season, screening candidates from around the country, and even some from outside the U.S.A. David Leighton was selected; his experience with vocal and choral music particularly enhanced the WCO resulting in several concert-version opera performances, and utilization of the fine Kingston High School chorus. The new concert venue of Pointe of Praise in Kingston was added to the orchestra’s venues.
2009 brought the retirement, after thirty years of service, of the late Al Sweet from the position of Executive Director. That job was filled over the next few years by Natalie Robohm, Maria Todaro, and since 2012, Dana White-Marks. The orchestra at this time also began performing at the newly refurbished Woodstock Playhouse (fulfilling one of Al Sweet’s dreams).
The orchestra launched another conductor search, occupying the 2016-17 season, choosing Jonathan Handman as the next and current music director. In his first seasons, Maestro Handman has drawn on some of the orchestra’s traditions (including soloists from within the orchestra like last season’s Greg Dinger, guitar, and this season’s Allison Rubin, oboe). He is also bringing new ideas to the orchestra (last season’s bluegrass-orchestral fusion and this season’s "Woodstock and Beyond" concerto competition).
A graduate of the Eastman School of Music (trombone performance), Oberlin Conservatory (music education, cello) and SUNY Fredonia (orchestral conducting), Handman brings a wealth of experience to his new position, having taught for twelve years at Arlington High School in LaGrangeville, NY, where he conducts two symphony orchestras and directs an extensive chamber music program. He is also co-founder and Artistic Director of Stringendo, Inc., an award-winning music school dedicated to nurturing and developing string players throughout the Hudson Valley. As a young musician he also played in the cello section of the WCO in the 1990s! You can read Mr. Handmans full biography here.
Dana White-Marks, violist, string teacher and conductor, continues to serve as the Executive Director of the WSO. Her success with the orchestra includes attracting high caliber players, improvements in the program booklet’s design and many ideas for both public relations and fundraising which she has brought to fruition: the Grandioso Raffle, book sales at Hannaford’s and Barnes & Nobles, and more. Her efforts have led to the Chamber Orchestra becoming a Symphony Orchestra. These efforts are truly appreciated by the Board of Directors and the orchestra’s members, many of whom also have the pleasure of knowing her as just another highly-qualified player in a viola section!
The Woodstock Symphony Orchestra will continue to draw on its history while forging a new path of quality and innovation.