The Chapel Hill Philharmonia: the first twenty-five years

In early 1983 Joel Carter, retired choral director at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Ed Jackson, an amateur French horn player, with the encouragement of other Chapel Hill instrumentalists, including Susan Strobel and Jerry and Barbara Hulka, organized a community-based recreational reading orchestra. From the beginning the Village Orchestra was a model of positive town/gown interaction -- in fact the bass player was Mayor Ken Broun. The orchestra's first conductor was George Taylor, violist of Duke's Ciompi Quartet. Thursday evening rehearsals in Hill Hall were special times for the approximately fifty founding members, primarily amateur musicians from Chapel Hill and Durham. Many had not been able to play regularly in the Triangle, and the opportunity to play orchestral music together in friendly atmosphere under professional leadership was highly motivating. With Taylor's imminent departure to the Eastman School of Music, the baton passed to the husband and wife team of Brent Wissick, UNC faculty cellist, and Ruth Johnson, professional violinist and Suzuki teacher. Brent and Ruth emphasized the recreational aspects of the musical experience. They established the tradition of twice yearly performances, termed "open dress rehearsals" or informal "publick actes," avoiding the stressful "C word" (concert). Small but enthusiastic audiences in Hill Hall auditorium consisted almost entirely of close friends and family members. Programs were dominated by short, light works and occasional excerpts from symphonies, followed by receptions.

In the spring of 1989, Edgar Alden, retired UNC violin professor and Music Department chair, became conductor. His wife Dorothy, also a fine professional violinist, became principal second violin. The Village Orchestra grew and for the first time tackled entire symphonies. Performances were now called "Musical Evenings" and the orchestra began to attract attention beyond the confines of the "Village" of Chapel Hill. Membership, as it does today, consisted almost entirely of amateur musicians with widely varying levels of expertise. Players range in age from teens to octogenarians, and their day jobs reflect the unique academic community in which we live. Membership is open without audition to all who love to play their instruments, and are willing to donate a modest sum each semester to help pay the conductor and cover music costs.

Since 1993 the orchestra has been directed by Professor Donald Oehler, UNC-CH faculty clarinetist and a devoted supporter of amateur musicians. Under his enthusiastic "can do" leadership, the orchestra's repertoire has become more ambitious. Recent concerts have included commissioned works and premieres by local composers and orchestra members. We no longer avoid the "C word." This season we performed four concerts, including one for a young audience. Our winter concert usually features amateur soloists from the orchestra's increasingly experienced membership of over 80 instrumentalists.

A satisfying function of the orchestra since its inception has been the sponsorship of an annual concerto contest for local pre-college musicians. Winners receive cash awards and, more importantly, the opportunity to perform in the orchestra's spring concert. Many of our previous winners are now accomplished professional musicians or students at nationally ranked conservatories. In keeping with the amicable town/gown relationship fostered by the founders, the Music Department continues to graciously provide practice and performance spaces in Hill Hall, and to make available sheet music, stands, and percussion instruments. The orchestra in turn encourages select UNC students to participate and schedules an annual "Diva Fest", affording UNC voice students a chance to rehearse arias with a live orchestra. We also contribute each year to a Music Department scholarship and donate new sheet music to the university library.

In 2002 the Board decided to adopt our present name -- the Chapel Hill Philharmonia. Our informal and undisciplined small reading orchestra of 25 years ago has morphed into the larger, more sophisticated community cultural resource that you hear today, and can learn more about at our web site ( However, we remain unique in the Triangle as a non-auditioned amateur group that "pays to play," and our concerts are still free! We are now a tax-exempt organization and receive financial help from an increasing list of patrons and charitable organizations. We look forward to what the next twenty-five years may bring and appreciate the continued support of our community and UNC-CH.

Richard L, Clark, MD, President of the Board of Directors
May 4, 2008

History Links

Composers performed 1983-2007
Concerts 1983-2007

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