In 1986, I was a newcomer to the Norwalk area. I auditioned to play in the Norwalk Symphony and was invited to substitute as the second flute player. The Symphony was playing in the auditorium at Brien McMahon High School and I remember there being a “larger than life” woman who was president of the board. She wore these amazing hats and would give enthusiastic reports to the audience of how the renovations at the City Hall were coming along and when the Symphony would be able to perform in its new home. That woman was Dr. Susan Weinberger. How excited I was to connect with her again once I became Interim Executive Director. I have subsequently learned that the NSO played a critical role in financing the renovations of the concert hall, a fact which seems to have been forgotten in many circles. I have asked Dr. Weinberger to put down on paper for us the story of her association with the Symphony and the role it played in those years. Here is her story:
Norwalk Symphony – Looking Back
Dr. Susan G. Weinberger
I grew up in Brookline, MA. I had two cousins on different sides of my family who were violinists with the BSO. I spent all my summers at Tanglewood, still one of my most favorite music venues.
My husband, children and I spent two years from 1969-1971 in Great Falls, Montana where he was a Pediatrician in those days, for a mandatory service in the U.S. Air Force Medical Corps. I was so happy when we decided in 1971 to move to Norwalk, CT where we still live today. The first question I asked: “Is there a Symphony in this town?”
I found a beloved all-volunteer orchestra with an incredible history. I was totally enamored with their story. I immediately jumped on board and offered my help. Where else but in Norwalk can you attend a symphony concert and be kissed by the ushers when you arrive?
The Norwalk Symphony was founded in the office of a local Doctor in 1939. Dr. Louis Simon was a skilled surgeon but also a musician. As the principal violist, he played in the Orchestra for 42 years. In those days the all-volunteer orchestra included members who were doctors, dentists, laborers and lawyers.
The most amazing accomplishment was the list of incredible performers who played with the Symphony just to get to be known and for no or very little remuneration. The list was long and included as examples:
Yong Uck Kim
The first concert in America totally devoted to Charles Ives was performed by our Symphony.
During my tenure on the Board, all meetings took place at different Board members’ homes. We would sit over coffee and dessert and solve the issues facing our orchestra. It was an honor when I was asked to become the President of the Norwalk Symphony Society. I also thought it was a daunting task. Six individuals preceded me for the entire 46 years of the orchestra’s history, none of whom are alive today. They were dedicated, committed and at least as far as I know the last three on this list (if not all) were members of the orchestra:
Dr. Theo A. Langlie 1939-43
Marion Hamilton Diller 1943-53
Iden Kerney 1953-58
Dr. Lou Simon 1958-74
Marvin I. Gruss 1974-80
Mary Castellion 1980-85
I became President in 1985 and served for 4 years. Those were very important years and a turning point for the Symphony. We had spent all years since 1939 in the Norwalk Concert Hall on East Avenue, the home of Norwalk High School. The auditorium had a history of being an elegant and acoustically superb hall, one of the best in CT. But soon after my tenure began, we learned that we would be displaced to an ugly auditorium at Brien McMahon High School on Highland Avenue with unattractive interior and very hard seats. We had no choice. We even sold soft pillow seats emblazoned with the Symphony logo as a fundraiser like the famous ones sold by Tanglewood to ensure that if we had to be at other than our auditorium, seats might be comfortable.
We had been displaced. I vowed that we would raise the money and return to our home that we loved. In 1988, a $1 million dollar renovation that included a $450,000 gift from the U.S. Surgical Corporation and the remainder from the CT State Bonding Commission, allowed us to return home to begin our 50th year. It was, for me an incredible dream come true. The orchestra had not played in the Hall until the night before the opening. Our daughter, Lisa and I were the only two people in the audience for the dress rehearsal. The chairs had all been donated by friends of the Symphony as a fundraiser. The orchestra began to play and all I could do was cry. The opening the next night included a posh, black tie event in the Community Room. It was a remarkable and incredibly memorable event I will never forget. The beautiful program not only included ads that were taken out by many individuals and businesses, but a lovely letter of congratulations from Former Mayor Frank J. Esposito. He wrote on that occasion, “the symphony has become one of the finest community orchestras in the land.”
Social was the name that best described the NSO in those days. After each concert, people would host after-concert events for dessert at their homes. These were the chance to talk about the concert and revel in the gratitude for what we had in Norwalk. We even had pre-concert dinners at different homes to raise money for the concerts. Beef Bourguignon was the dish I made over and over for these wonderful events.
It should be noted that for the first concert in May, 1939 and for the 50th concert in May, 1989, Gliere’s Russian Sailor’s Dance and Strauss’ Beautiful Blue Danube were played. Maybe again for the 75th in May 2015? As I wrote on the occasion of the 50th, “as surely as the composer must compose, and the musician must play, there are those who hunger for the sound of music.” I sure do.
The Norwalk Symphony played a vital role in the renewal of that wonderful landmark in the mid-1980’s and we are again poised to play our role in the renewal of the economy of Norwalk and its environs!