History of the Altoona
The Altoona Symphony Orchestra is looking forward to celebrating it 90th Season in 2018-19. This is an outstanding achievement in an era when many orchestras throughout the country cannot boast of such a history. Founded in 1928, the Gerhart String Ensemble has grown over the years to become a full orchestra. Once relying on community volunteers, even donating their own money to purchase music, the Symphony now employs over 75 professional musicians. The mission of the Altoona Symphony has always been to provide high-quality music to the residents of Central Pennsylvania. To this end, the Symphony has gained recognition for its musical diversity by performing both classical and popular works featuring talented local artists and nationally acclaimed musicians.
In 1928 a violinist from Altoona, PA named Russell Gerhart had visions of a grand symphony orchestra for his community. He began his work by assembling a small string quartet and worked diligently to grow his quartet into an ensemble featuring twenty-four of his students and his wife. The ensemble’s humble beginnings included just two concerts in Altoona’s Jaffa Mosque, and each member contributed a small sum to not only buy the music but also rent the rehearsal space.
Russell Gerhart stood as conductor for 23 years. Never losing sight of his ultimate goal, Gerhart demanded the best from his ensembles. He played for quality, not quantity, and soon found himself with an audience who appreciated his hard work and vision. He continued to grow the symphony and began inviting guest conductors and musicians in to perform. Russell Gearhart himself even took center stage as a musician on occasion to solo on his violin.
In May of 1951, Russell Gerhart formally announced that he had accepted the post of conductor of the St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra and would be leaving the Altoona region. He went on to conduct there until 1958 when he was invited to Huntsville, Alabama to become their permanent conductor. He remained there teaching and conducting until his death in February, 1972.
The tradition of excellence that Russell Gerhart set from day one has carried through to today. While over 10 conductors have come and gone, all worked diligently to bring fresh and innovative sounds to the Altoona region. The symphony has never wavered from its’ mission of bringing high quality music and education to the community.
Today the Orchestra finds itself for the first time under female direction. Maestra Teresa Cheung has breathed new life into the symphony, and the once dwindling audience has resurged in recent years bringing with it a new murmur of excitement and appreciation for classical traditions. Maestra Cheung has encouraged youth involvement in the symphony and encouraged nontraditional community programming and outreach to continue the Symphony’s growth, and she too has vowed to uphold the tradition of excellence set forth 90 years ago when Russell Gerhart set out to accomplish bringing a grand Symphony Orchestra to the great city of Altoona.