The Abilene Philharmonic Association unleashes the power of music to entertain, educate, and inspire through live symphonic music and community engagement.
The Abilene Philharmonic is the oldest and most established performing arts organization in Abilene. Its history traces back to September 1950, when community supporters organized a musical group called the Abilene Symphony Orchestra with Jay Dietzer, a recent graduate from the University of Texas, as its first conductor. Concerts were held in the old Abilene High School, now Abilene Heritage Square.
The first program was presented on December 2, 1950 with works by Beethoven, Schubert, Grieg and Wagner. Mrs. Ross Tippett, who played cello from the very first concert, recalls the opening season “audiences of under 100 persons and any warm body could play then.” Mr. Dietzer remained with the orchestra through three seasons.
A Women’s committee, a forerunner to the Abilene Philharmonic Guild, appeared in the second concert season with Mrs. James Murphy as the first president. This women’s committee was established to assist with fundraising and “Friend-raising” efforts. Julius Hegyi, former concertmaster of the San Antonio Symphony conducted the next two seasons (1953-55).
Walter Charles was named Musical Director and Conductor of the orchestra during the 1955-56 season. The budget of the organization doubled this year to a total of $15,000. Five concerts, a community “Messiah” and youth concerts were part of the schedule. The Student Concert lecture program to better prepare the students for concert listening was also started this season by Mrs. Patty Taliaferro.
At the beginning of the 1960-61 season, the Abilene Symphony Orchestra and the Abilene Civic Music Association merged to form the Abilene Philharmonic Association (APO). This same year Leo Scheer took the position of conductor and during his five year tenure, the APO managed to get into the black. The orchestra experimented with producing musical comedies and also instituted the Abilene Music Awards to encourage young musicians.
George Yaeger, Associate Conductor of the San Antonio Symphony, took the helm as the fifth conductor of the APO in 1966. He continued to expand orchestra operations by instituting the well-received Pops Concert Series and by tailoring the Student Concert program to younger audiences. He secured a grant from the Moody Foundation in Galveston to finance specially designed youth programs instead of concert rehearsals for the children.
In 1970, the orchestra, under Conductor Yaeger, moved into the Civic Center. To open this outstanding facility, the Philharmonic presented Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, featuring a 300-voice choir made up of students from the three local colleges. Yeager, who served on the Civic Center Planning Committee, suggested the extension of the stage which moved the orchestra eighteen feet closer to the audience. This was done to prevent losing sound up through the stage ceiling, thereby enhancing the already nearly perfect acoustics.
The APO ticket sales and budget continued to increase until 1974 when San Angelo asked the orchestra to assist their Symphony in eliminating a deficit. A merger was worked out which allowed the two communities to upgrade their artist budget, eliminate the deficit, sell more tickets and obtain bigger name artists, such as Roberta Peters, Mary Costa, Jose Greco, Peter Nero and Ferrante and Teicher. This merger would stay in place until it was dissolved in 1978. In 1976, the APO budget was just under $90,000, making it an urban orchestra. It was one of the few, and perhaps the only urban sized orchestra which operated in the black.
In 1988, Mr. Yaeger ensured the future of the orchestra by helping establish the Abilene Philharmonic Foundation. The Foundation was established with 68 gifts totaling $332,430. In 1991 and 1992, the Foundation gave $299,000 to the Community Foundation of Abilene to invest and endow for the Philharmonic. All funds are to be used for the support of the charitable or educational purposes of the Abilene Philharmonic Foundation.
In December, 1994, the APO received a bequest of $614,775 from the Frances Davis estate and passed this gift to the Foundation. To this date, gifts continue to grow the endowment and secure the future of the APO.
Mr. Yaeger retired after the 1992-1993 season, and was honored with the title “Conductor Laureate.”
After a two-year search, 147 applications and many audience surveys, the APO Board of Governors named Shinik Hahm as the next Music Director and conductor beginning in the 1993-94 season. During his ten-year tenure, the organization was converted from a community orchestra to a professional orchestra. Maestro Hahm resigned in 2004 and a conductor search began during the 2004-05 season.
Music Director David Itkin began thrilling Abilene audiences in 2005 and continued building on the orchestra’s history of presenting the highest quality artistry, inspiring repertoire, and innovative production. Under the direction of Maestro Itkin, the APO has become the premier performing arts organization in the Big Country. He has masterfully assembled this orchestra of very talented musicians and has set a precedent for superior artistic quality. The orchestra is made up of musicians from all over the state and auditions for all placements are done through a blind process to ensure the best quality while maintaining a fair and unbiased audition process.
The 2020-21 Concert Season marked the 70th Anniversary of this historic orchestra.