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 (as it was originally called) was a model of positive town/gown interaction. In fact the bass player was Ken Broun who was the current mayor of Chapel Hill. 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 fine orchestral music together in a 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 consisted of short, light works and occasional excerpts from symphonies, followed by receptions.
In the spring of 1989, Edgar Alden, retired UNC violin professor and former 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.
Since 1993, the orchestra has been directed by Professor Donald Oehler, Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a devoted supporter of amateur musicians. Under his enthusiastic "can do" leadership, the orchestra has expanded (now over 100 musicians) and its repertoire has become much more ambitious. Concerts feature the best of the orchestral repertoire plus commissioned works and premieres by local and national composers. We present four well attended concerts each academic year including our standing room only fall children’s concert. Our winter concert features soloists from the orchestra's increasingly experienced membership in addition to spotlighting regional professional musicians.
Players range in age from graduate students to spirited octogenarians, their day jobs reflecting the unique academic community in which the ensemble serves. Membership has always been open without audition to all who love to play their instruments and are dedicated to performing the best of orchestral repertoire. The musicians provide a set donation to cover the budget costs of the orchestra.
A satisfying function of the orchestra since almost its inception has been the sponsorship of an annual concerto contest for regional pre-college musicians. Winners receive cash awards and, more importantly, have the opportunity to perform in the orchestra's spring concert. Many of our previous winners are now accomplished musicians or students at nationally ranked conservatories.
In keeping with the amicable town and gown relationship fostered by the founders, the ensemble rehearses and performs in the University’s Department of Music facilities. A strong relationship has developed between the orchestra and the University with the orchestra presenting programs that feature University music students, sharing its library with the Department of Music, and contributing to a scholarship fund for the Department. In turn the University offers for a small fee, facility space and additional music for programs and performances.
In 2002, the Board decided to adopt our present name — the Chapel Hill Philharmonia. Our informal and undisciplined small reading orchestra of 33 years ago has morphed into a large and increasingly sophisticated community cultural resource that one can learn more about at our web site (www.chapelhillphilharmonia.org). However, we remain unique in the Southeast as the only non-auditioned amateur group that "pays to play," and our concerts still are free! We are a tax-exempt organization with financial help from an increasing list of patrons, local businesses and charitable organizations. Two recently established funds, endowed and non-endowed, help insure our long term financial security. We look forward to what the next third of a century will bring musically with a continued appreciation of the ongoing support of our community and the University.
Richard L, Clark, MD
Past-president of the Board of Directors, Principal Cello and founding member
March 1, 2016