The Jefferson City Symphony had its beginnings in the 1920’s when a small group of local musicians got together to practice and play for church events. Their first appearance as a group was at the Easter Sunday service at the First Baptist Church in 1923. Among the musicians performing were Dr. Richard P. Dorris, Dr. Stanley P. Howard, Dr. Channing Ewing, Foster McHenry, and Miss Irene State. They soon enlisted other interested musicians – Clyde Humphrey, Freddie Williams, and Joe Taylor to name a few. Beginning a family tradition, Carl Burkel, Sr., a carpenter, and Louis Burkel, a shoemaker, played violin in this orchestra.
Dr. Dorris, a cellist, was conductor until Dan Markham, instrumental music teacher in the local secondary schools, joined the group as conductor. It was difficult for the orchestra members to get together, but they managed to do so and became known as the “Little Symphony” of Jefferson City.
Mrs. Fred Reagle, historian of the Little Symphony, remembered well one trip some symphony members made to Sedalia in the midst of a terrible dust storm. “We wanted to get there early for a practice session, so some of the women decided to take their evening dresses and change when we arrived. Others of us wore our evening clothes and bundled up in coats.” Not all plans work out, and the musicians arrived in Sedalia barely in time for the concert. Mrs. Reagle laughed, “We were the funniest looking symphony you ever saw. Some in street clothes and others all dressed up. But we gave a good performance.”
She recalls another time the Little Symphony played a concert at Hermann. “Most of the members worked, so it was impossible to drive down to Hermann. To get everyone there we chartered a coach on the Missouri Pacific Railroad. The train took the musicians to Hermann, they played their concert and then came back to Jefferson City on the train late that evening.” The Little Symphony was disbanded during World War II because many of the men were drafted into military service. The instruments and equipment that the group had acquired were kept at the schools to be used by students. During the war years, some of the musicians formed string quartets to play for receptions and events at the Executive Mansion.
In 1948 a group of musicians led by Lucille Turner, Bob Mansur and Lawrence Woodman led the movement to reorganize the orchestra. It started up again as the Jefferson City Civic Orchestra, conducted by Carl Burkel. Bob Mansur was the first symphony president. “It began as a fun thing,” said Mrs. Fred Reagle in an article by Sue Norfleet, women’s editor of the News Tribune, on November 10, 1975, the 25th anniversary of the first concert of the new orchestra. Mrs. Reagle was concert mistress, as well as historian of the “Little Symphony.” The orchestra performed its first concert at the Evangelical Church (now the Central United Church of Christ) with Elaine Updegraph as guest soloist. One of the orchestra members was a trumpet player from the Phil Spitalney All-Girl Orchestra. The concert was free, and the audience was asked to support the group in its efforts to become part of the cultural fabric of Jefferson City.
The first practice sessions were held in the ballroom at the old Central Hotel (now demolished) and attended by about a dozen musicians. “We were all interested in music and wanted to play, so we got together to practice. We got together with the Morning Music Club, and its members sold tickets to the performances. A season ticket for three concerts cost only one dollar,” Mrs. Reagle recalls. There were about 35 persons taking part in the symphony’s first concert. “We looked fairly good on the stage” she said.
Attempts were made to include programs by the orchestra in a concert series proposed by the Civic Music Club in this city. This was not to be, however, and the orchestra concerts became a part of the Jefferson City Community Concert Association, a subsidiary of Columbia Artists. The Community Concerts, including performances by many well known artists, were organized by Pauline Wilcox, a representative of Columbia Artists. She organized a ticket sales drive, and the orchestra, re-named the “Jefferson City Symphony,” gave concerts in the Junior College Auditorium (subsequently known as the Public School Resource Center, and most recently as the Miller Performing Arts Center). Lawrence Woodman was the first president of the symphony board. Currently the Jefferson City Symphony is the only community orchestra in the nation that is part of this concert series.
The piano concerto competition, a yearly event in the symphony schedule, began as an award program for a concerto performance on any instrument. It was found to be too difficult, however, to judge a contest among different instruments. Consequently the entries have been limited to piano. This competition has been a part of the symphony season from the beginning of the collaboration with Columbia Artists.
Richardson Auditorium was built at Lincoln University in 1958-59. With its large seating capacity and excellent acoustical design, this auditorium became the primary venue for the symphony’s concerts. The symphony had rehearsed for many years at Shaw and Son’s music store. After the new Senior High School building opened in 1963 the rehearsals were moved to the choir room there.
In 1983 Carl Burkel organized the Symphony Choir to perform with the orchestra on its November concert. This was a very popular, well attended performance. The next year Carl enlisted the help of Patti Johnson to manage and promote the choir. Subsequently this choir performance has become an annual event in the concert season.
Carl was a legend in local music activities. He was music director and conductor of the new symphony from its beginning until his untimely death in December of 1995. In addition to his work with the symphony, he was director of choral music at Jefferson City High School, was organist and conducted the choir at the Central United Church of Christ, and a frequent guest organist at many churches in the community. His last performances as conductor were in October 1995, the first concert given by the Jefferson City Symphony as part of the Lincoln University Share in the Arts Concert Series, and the November 1995 Community Concerts Association concert.
Following the death of Carl Burkel, Dr. John Taylor of Lincoln University conducted the spring concert in 1996. He continued as music director and conductor through the next two concert seasons. Dr. Taylor left the orchestra in 1998 to accept a new position in Chicago. J. Patrick Healy was conductor for the 1998-99 season and the November 1999 concert. Dr. Steven Houser conducted the February 2000 concert. Dr. David Rayl from the University of Missouri-Columbia conducted the April concert of that year. Dr. Houser became permanent music director and principal conductor in the 2000-2001 symphony season.
By Jerrold Scarlett, July 2001 with contributions by Robert Mansur, Donald Gentzsch and Stephen Houser;
edited by Charles Turner