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The Altoona Symphony Orchestra Turns 90

Shirley Pechter, who performed at age 8 with the ensemble that later became the Altoona Symphony, looks at the orchestra's 90th anniversary program.
Teresa Cheung
Altoona Symphony

This Saturday, the Altoona Symphony Orchestra will officially open its 90th anniversary season with a concert at the Mishler Theatre in Altoona.

And there is a woman who was there at the start back in 1928. Shirley Pechter, now 97 years old, was part of the Altoona Symphony at the very beginning, when it was just a small group of musicians. Pechter spoke with WPSU's Story Corps in Altoona in 2013. 

"Russell Gerhart was the violin maestro in Altoona," Pechter said.  "And he started what he called an ensemble, which was a group of six of his students."

That group, the Gerhart String Ensemble, founded in 1928, eventually grew into the Altoona Symphony Orchestra. When she was just a little girl, Pechter said, she got her chance to play with Gerhart and his group.

"His wife, Martha Gerhart, used to play the piano for accompaniment, and was ill," Pechter explained. "And my mother said my daughter can sight read.  I'll bring her, and we'll see if it'll work."

"Shirley Pechter was 8 years old when the Altoona Symphony was founded," said Teresa Cheung, music director and conductor of the Altoona Symphony. "[Pechter's] mother was one of the string quartet players in the quartet that was the beginning of the Altoona Symphony."

Russell Gerhart conducted the Altoona Symphony when the orchestra played its first concerts at Altoona's Jaffa Mosque, with the musicians helping to pay for the rehearsal space.

He led the orchestra for more than 20 years, leaving Altoona in the 1950's to take the post of conductor of the St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra. Gerhart later conducted in Huntsville, Alabama, where he remained until his death in 1972.

The Altoona Symphony Orchestra relied on volunteers at the beginning. But 90 years later, it employs over 75 professional musicians.

Cheung and her orchestra chose to dedicate this anniversary season to Pechter.

"She's always been a very strong voice, a supporter," Cheung said. "She was on our board, you know. A great donor. And then always there for concerts."

The opening concert of the symphony's 90th anniversary season, among many orchestral works, features music by a living composer: "Homage," op. 31 by James Cohn.

"He's an American composer," Cheung said. "And he is still with us. He is going to be at our concert. And, most importantly, he is also 90 years old," she said with a smile.

To kick off the 90th anniversary season, the Altoona Symphony is is bringing in a world famous soloist: pianist Misha Dichter. 

"And of course as you know Misha has performed with every single great orchestra in the world," said Cheung. "And I thought it's only fitting for us to celebrate 90 years of our anniversary with someone like that."

She said when you work with a world famous artist like Dichter, it's customary to ask him what he would like to play.

He chose to play the piano solo in the "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Cheung thought that music was just perfect to celebrate an anniversary.

"Because it's a rhapsody done on the theme of Paganini," she said, "meaning a composer giving tribute to someone who has come before him."

Cheung said, in that way, this music by Rachmaninoff reflects what she's trying to do with this anniversary celebration.

"To give tribute to people who have come into our lives, and come into the symphony's life," Cheung said.

Conductor Teresa Cheung and the Altoona Symphony will open their 90th anniversary season on Saturday, celebrating the musicians and supporters that have made those 90 years possible.

The first concert of the Altoona Symphony's 90th anniversary season, with guest soloist Misha Dichter, beginsSaturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Mishler Theatre in Altoona.

Kristine Allen is Program Director of WPSU-FM. She also files feature stories for WPSU on the arts, culture, science, and more. When she's not at WPSU, Kris enjoys playing folk fiddle, acting, singing and portrait-sketching. She is also a self-confessed "science geek." Kris started working in public radio in college, at age 17, and says she "just couldn't stop."
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