Mary V. Dodge (birth name Mary B. Thompson) was born in Arkansas in 1876. When she was five years old, her father died, causing her and her sisters to be placed in an orphanage while her mother finished nursing school. Dodge became interested in music while attending a Catholic boarding school, and later became a musician and teacher in Boston and New York City. After Mary moved to Portland, Oregon, where her aunt owned a boarding house, she met and married her husband, civil engineer and double bass player Mott Dodge. Soon after they married, Mott was transferred to Harney County for a work project.
In 1910, they settled in Burns in an engineering camp known as the "Boston tents". Mary and Mott had one child, Glen, who learned from his mother how to play the fiddle starting at a young age. A classically trained violinist with a "love of children and... a deeply democratic view about making music", Dodge began teaching local children how to play string instruments, first in resident tents then in a photography studio. With assistance from parents and a professional flautist from Italy, who taught the children how to play wind instruments and conducted, Dodge assembled a small orchestra. According to former violin student Ruth Saunders, "All of the sighing, tooting and drumming soon made the citizens aware that something was going on, and due to her powers of persuasion, they found themselves devoting their time, talents, money and children to the creation of the Sagebrush Orchestra."
The orchestra's first concert was held in 1912 at Tonawama Hall in Burns. With funds provided by rancher Bill Hanley, lawyer and artist Charles Erskine Scott Wood, and additional Burns businessmen, Dodge purchased musical instruments for the children and expanded the orchestra to thirty to thirty-five members. By 1915, the orchestra was touring throughout Eastern Oregon on a Chautauqua circuit. With $2,000 in funds raised by the aforementioned businessmen, the ensemble visited Western Oregon in September 1916 and performed seven concerts within two days. Now known as the Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra, the ensemble won $100 at the Oregon State Fair in Salem and performed several concerts in Portland, including one at the Imperial Hotel and one for opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink at the Portland Hotel. During the symphony's week-long tour, one Oregonian reporter wrote: "The journey of the little people is considered one of the finest exhibitions of community spirit ever shown in this state." Schumann-Heink planned to support the orchestra's efforts to tour, and promised to host a benefit concert the following year. However, the nation's involvement in World War I interrupted plans for additional tours. The orchestra disbanded in 1918 when Dodge relocated to Portland.
Mary initially returned to Portland with Mott for a work transfer, but when the job fell through the couple separated and Mary remained in Portland. Now a single woman, Dodge changed her name to Mary V. Dodge, the "V" standing for "violin". She opened a violin school and became music director of the Irvington Grade School orchestra. With the hope of creating a permanent youth symphony, Dodge began hosting rehearsals in her attic. However, due to gender inequality in the United States at the time, Dodge knew that a professional male conductor would need to lead the orchestra.
Dodge approached Jacques Gershkovitch, a Russian immigrant in Portland guest conducting the Portland Symphony (which would later become the Oregon Symphony), about the orchestra after seeing him conduct. Though Gershkovitch first explained that he did not teach children, Dodge insisted that he come listen to the youth ensemble she had assembled. One orchestra member recalled: "I well remember the excitement of that night when Gershkovitch climbed the stairs to Mary Dodge's attic, where we had assembled to play for him. He listened as we played our hearts out. He applauded us and said that if we got the missing instruments, he would take us on." In an attempt to hand over the baton to Gershkovitch, he simply stated "I take." Initially, Dodge remained as associate director of the orchestra; she also assisted with sectionals, appointed a board of directors, and designated the ensemble as the Portland Junior Symphony Orchestra in 1924. The original board of directors established the mission of the orchestra: "to encourage appreciation and rendition of orchestral music by young people, to give public symphonic and popular concerts, to discover and develop latent talent among the children of Portland." Six years later, Dodge resigned while the orchestra was financially sound. She continued to teach and became increasingly dedicated to a scientific approach to bowing. Dodge died in 1954.
Born in 1884 to a Jewish family in Irkutsk, Russia, Gershkovitch grew up listening to chamber music and was sent to Saint Petersburg in his late teens to study at the Imperial Conservatory. Gershkovitch arrived with "17 rubles in his pocket and his flute under his arm", where he auditioned and was awarded a scholarship. There he learned from respected Russian composers such as Alexander Glazunov, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Nikolai Tcherepnin, and completed coursework in opera and ballet production. In 1913 he graduated with honors in flute and conducting, and was awarded the Schubert Scholarship for a year of study under German conductor Arthur Nikisch in Berlin. However, World War I forced Gershkovitch to return to Irkutsk and enlist in the military. Gershkovitch began his conducting career as head of the Imperial Russian Army's military symphony orchestra, a position he held through the revolution. In 1918 Gershkovitch married in Irkutsk and established a successful fine arts conservatory and symphony orchestra, which continued under the Bolshevik regime. Gershkovitch and his wife left Russia for China in 1921, where they befriended composer Aaron Avshalomov. Ballerina Anna Pavlova offered Gershkovitch an assistant conductor position with her orchestra, which was touring throughout the Orient. Gershkovitch settled in Tokyo to undertake the newly organized Tokyo Symphony Orchestra until the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 "disorganized all the business and musical interests of the city". The couple fled Japan and arrived in San Francisco in November 1923. The couple eventually made their way to Portland in 1924; it was here that Gershkovitch was approached by Dodge to lead the Portland Junior Symphony. Gershkovitch taught flute and conducted the Ellison-White Conservatory's student orchestra, at the time directed by Jacob Avshalomov, until PJS duties required his full attention.
The symphony performed for the first time on February 14, 1925, at the Lincoln High School Auditorium (which later became Portland State University's Lincoln Hall), playing two movements of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. Legend says that at the ensemble's first rehearsal Gershkovitch introduced the composition and said, "You play, or I keel you", in his heavy Russian accent. Concert attendees reportedly surged the stage after the debut concert to congratulate the musicians, Gershkovitch and Dodge, who was present and called to the stage. One reviewer for the Oregon Sunday Journal wrote the following day that the "audience that almost filled the auditorium to capacity broke into storm upon storm of applause". According to Ronald Russell, author of A New West to Explore (1938), the audience "had experienced a new emotional thrill, and forthwith became strong advocates and supporters of the junior symphony cause."
In spring 1924 the orchestra gained national attention by performing at the National Federation of Music Clubs convention in Portland. The Sunday Oregonian reported that convention attendees were "so deeply impressed that they declared it unhesitatingly the most wonderful organization of its kind in the entire country." The second season premiered to a capacity audience on November 25, 1925, with the 75-member strong ensemble performing Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in its entirety along with "In the Village" from Ippolitov-Ivanov's Caucasian Sketches, the waltz from Rebikov's The Christmas Tree and the march from Wagner's opera Tannhäuser.
Early in the organization's history, the Portland Junior Symphony consisted of a full symphony orchestra, a chorus, as well as a ballet unit. According to Wither Youth (1935), approximately 350 young artists participated in these groups each season (around 100 in the orchestra, 150 in the chorus, and 100 in the ballet). Membership was granted on "merit, ability, seriousness and interest", and there were no tuition fees for participation (this has since changed). Orchestra members were also encouraged to take private lessons. The minimum schedule for participants included two rehearsals during each week of the eight-month season along with dress rehearsals prior to performances. Three or four concerts were presented each season, many at Portland Public Auditorium (now known as Keller Auditorium). The organization was sustained financially through concert admission and donations—instruments, funds towards scholarships and the general endowment, and music for the association's library were also accepted to ensure longevity.
Gershkovitch, known for his discipline and high performance standards, conducted the orchestra for twenty-nine years, gaining national attention for the ensemble and pioneering the youth orchestra movement. By the 1930s, PJS concerts were broadcast nationally on the CBS Radio Network. In 1956 and 1958 both NBC and CBS transmitted broadcasts of the orchestra's programs across the United States, and three transcribed programs were broadcast overseas from Voice of America in Washington, D.C. Gershkovitch was also responsible for adding a Preparatory Orchestra (later renamed the Conservatory Orchestra) due to increased membership. Gershkovitch tried to incorporate at least one American composition in each concert. He had a distinctive personality and way with words, using expressions such as "More nicely, can't you more?" and "Debussy is beauty, French beauty" (as recollected in one former student's diary). For twenty-five years, David Campbell served as Master of Ceremonies for the Children's Concerts since Gershkovitch "never gained a command of English sufficient enough for public use". Gershkovitch's often-quoted philosophy was that he did "not teach music", but rather he taught "young people through music". Though there were times he desired to conduct professional ensembles, Gershkovitch's primary concern was educating the youth. Apart from music education, Gershkovitch stressed the importance of proper conduct, manners, and "values in life and art" in order to build character. Following Gershkovitch's death in 1953, guest conductors led the orchestra for its thirtieth season—one conductor was Jacob Avshalomov, a Columbia University teacher and PJS alumnus who had studied under Gershkovitch while a student at Reed College (1939–1941).
Jacob Avshalomov was born on March 28, 1919, in Tsingtao, China. His father was Aaron Avshalomov, the Siberian-born composer known for "oriental musical materials cast in western forms and media", and mother was from San Francisco. Jacob received musical instruction from his father at a young age. At age eight, Avshalomov visited Portland from China with his parents, who were guests of Gershkovitch for several months in 1927. Aaron Avshalomov had become friends with Gershkovitch in the Orient (when Gershkovitch and his wife met Aaron, Jacob was three years old). However, because they did not hold permanent visas the family returned to China. Jacob graduated from British and American schools before age fifteen, then worked as a factory supervisor in Tientsin, Shanghai and Beijing over a span of four years. Avshalomov was also active in sports and won the diving championship of North China. In 1937, Avshalomov assisted his father in Shanghai with ballet production and working on scores. He then enlisted with a British volunteer corps following Japan's invasion of China during the Second Sino-Japanese War, and eventually returned to the United States with his mother in December 1937. Avshalomov spent a year in Los Angeles, followed by two in Portland, Oregon, then two at the Eastman School of Music. During World War II he lived in London, where he conducted a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's St John Passion.
Known for encouraging international tours, Avshalomov became the orchestra's second conductor in 1954. During his forty-year tenure Avshalomov produced several recordings, several of which included pieces commissioned by the orchestra, making PJS the first known recording orchestra in the Pacific Northwest. He led the ensemble on its first international tour in 1970. The orchestra became known as the Portland Youth Philharmonic in 1978. 1984 marked the orchestra's sixtieth anniversary as well as Avshalomov's thirtieth year as conductor. Avshalomov retired in 1995 after an estimated 640 concerts and 10,000 auditions.
Huw Edwards, born in South Wales, moved with his parents to England and sang in choirs as a child. He witnessed his first opera (Giuseppe Verdi's Un ballo in maschera) at eleven years old when his parents took him to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Seven years later, he was on that same podium conducting W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's operetta H.M.S. Pinafore. Edwards has been conducting since age seventeen, when he became music director of the Maidstone Opera Company in England, a position he held for six years. Edwards attended the University of Surrey, where he conducted the college orchestra along with an ensemble that he formed on his own. At twenty-three years old, he won a conducting competition which sent him to the University of Surrey in England and Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Edwards moved to the Pacific Northwest after he held a lecturer position at Northwestern University in Chicago, where he was also a doctoral candidate.
Edwards become music director of the Portland Youth Philharmonic in 1995. In 1997 he was honored by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) for his programming. Edwards also made five recordings during his tenure and led the orchestra on two international tours: Canada in 1998 and Australia/New Zealand in 2000. PYP represented the United States at the Banff International Festival of Youth Orchestras in 1998. Edwards established a peer mentoring program which partnered orchestra musicians with low-income students with little access to music education. From 1998 to 2005, he was a faculty member at the Marrowstone Music Festival. In 2002 Edwards left PYP for a position with the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra, which he also held until 2005. Edwards was appointed music director of the Olympia Symphony Orchestra in 2003.
Native to Taiwan, Mei-Ann Chen wanted to be a conductor since she was ten years old. She began playing violin and piano starting at a young age and collected batons, believing that "different pieces needed different kinds of batons". In 1989 Chen attended a concert in Taipei by the American Youth Orchestra, a touring ensemble of Boston's New England Conservatory. The day following the concert, Chen played for conductor Benjamin Zander in a closed basement hotel bar and was offered a scholarship immediately. She performed with the American Youth Orchestra before being invited to attend the Walnut Hill School, a preparatory school linked to the New England Conservatory, two months later at age sixteen. For more than three years Chen lived with a couple in Boston she referred to as her "American parents" (Mark Churchill and Marylou Speaker Churchill, the latter of which was once a member of the Portland Junior Symphony). Chen continued her undergraduate and graduate work at the Conservatory, and became the first person to graduate from the institution with a double master's degree in conducting and violin performance. Chen remained in Boston for nine years until she attended the University of Michigan to obtain a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in conducting.
Chen became PYP's fourth conductor in 2002 after being selected by a committee of "musically inclined" parents, a member of the orchestra, and representatives of the Oregon Symphony and Portland Opera. She conducted both the Philharmonic ensemble as well as the Conservatory Orchestra. During her five-year tenure with the organization, PYP debuted at Carnegie Hall, received its third ASCAP award in 2004 for innovating programming, and began collaborating with the Oregon Symphony (Chen was the ensemble's assistant conductor from 2003 to 2005) and Chamber Music Northwest. In April 2005 Chen became the first woman to win the Malko Competition, the "world's most prestigious prize" for young conductors. She also won the Taki Concordia Fellowship in 2007, an award established by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop to support "promising" female conductors. Chen was presented the Sunburst Award from Young Audiences for her contribution to music education and was named "Educator of the Week" by KKCW.
While conductor of the Philharmonic, Chen set up a box in her office so that students could leave notes for her about themselves. One musician of the orchestra felt that Chen was "kind of formal" during rehearsal but felt "like a big sister" once practice ended. Chen has been described as a "firecracker: small, bright and full of ka-boom", and her enthusiasm at times caused her to lose her breath. One board member of the organization praised Chen's attitude and felt that her lack of ego was a "rare quality in top symphony performers".
Chen turned down a position with the Oregon Symphony to continue work at PYP. In 2007 she accompanied the orchestra on an international tour to Asia, where her parents saw her conduct for the first time. The Philharmonic offered a total of six performances between June 29 and July 17 in Kaohsiung, Tainan and Taipei, Taiwan as well as in Seoul and Ulsan, South Korea. Though Chen initially thought she would remain with the Philharmonic for ten years, she left in 2007 to become assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony. She said of her departure: "The musicians at PYP have become my kids. When I look back, these five years will always be the most memorable time of my musical career." Guest conductors during the 2007–2008 season included Ken Selden, director of orchestral studies at Portland State University, former Seattle Symphony conductor Alastair Willis, along with former PYP conductors Huw Edwards and Chen herself.
David Hattner was chosen from a field of candidates to be the conductor and music director of PYP in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Hattner was a clarinet student of Robert Marcellus. Before joining PYP, he had conducted Camerata Atlantica, the Garden State Philharmonic Orchestra and the Oklahoma Chamber Ensemble, and guest conducted the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, Ensemble Sospeso, International Contemporary Ensemble, and the Massapequa Philharmonic Orchestra. Hattner also participated in the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen three times, where he studied with Murry Sidlin and David Zinman. He has been the principal clarinet with the Cascade Music Festival Orchestra in Bend, the Key West Symphony Orchestra, the New Jersey Opera Theater, and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. Hattner made his Oregon Symphony debut in January 2011. In addition to conducting and clarinet performance, Hattner has participated in multi-media work with silent film both nationally and internationally. PYP began offering Chamber Orchestra concerts during Hattner's tenure.
Today the Portland Youth Philharmonic consists of four ensembles: the Portland Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, the Portland Youth Conservatory Orchestra, the Portland Youth Wind Ensemble, and the Young String Ensemble. Each group is selected in open auditions in the spring and fall and is highly selective.
Having conducted ballet repertory previously, in 1934 Gershkovitch was approached by Willam Christensen of the Portland Creative Theatre and School of Music, Drama, and Dance to collaborate. Gershkovitch suggested that the Portland Junior Symphony and the ballet studio perform portions of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker as part of Portland's annual Rose Festival. 5,000 spectators attended the Rose Queen coronation ceremony at Civic Auditorium to witness the production, which featured 100 ballerinas and dancers. The production was deemed a success for all involved and established Christensen as "Portland's leading ballet teacher". Gershkovitch and Christensen collaborated at the Rose Festival the following year (1935), performing Coppélia twice to enthusiastic crowds.
In 1998, PYP was the sole representative of the United States at the Banff International Festival of Youth Orchestras in Canada. The orchestra's Carnegie Hall debut was in 2004. In October 2010, PYP returned to Burns to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the establishment of the Sagebrush Symphony. A special performance honored Mary Dodge, the history of the organization, and music educators with music by Howard Hanson and Charles Ives.
PJS made its first international tour to England, Italy and Portugal in 1970. Subsequent international tours included Japan in 1979, Austria and Yugoslavia in 1984, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany and Hungary in 1989, Japan and South Korea in 1992, and Germany in 1994. Prior to the 1984 visit to Europe, the orchestra celebrated its sixtieth anniversary by performing at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City alongside the New York Philharmonic. The concert consisted of three pieces performed by PYP under the conduction of Avshalomov ("Dance of the Clowns" from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's opera The Maid of Orleans, the first movement of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, and the fourth movement of Avshalomov's own symphony, The Oregon), a performance by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein's leadership, and finally Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet conducted by Bernstein with a combined ensemble 210 musicians strong. The orchestra traveled to Australia and New Zealand in 2000 under the leadership of Huw Edwards, performing Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10. In 2007, PYP performed six concerts throughout Taiwan (Kaohsiung, Tainan, and Taipei) and South Korea (Ulsan and Seoul).
In 1993, ASCAP honored PYP with its award for "Adventuresome Programming of Contemporary Music". ASCAP awarded PYP with second and third awards in 1997 and 2004, respectively. In 2010, PYP received the Oregon Symphony's Patty Vemer Excellence in Music Education Award. Created in memory of Patty Vemer, once the director of music education at the Oregon Symphony, the award "honors those who have made significant contributions to music education and their community and who have served as an inspiration to their students". This marked the first year the award went to an organization.
Notable alumni of the orchestra include Robert Mann, who helped found the Juilliard String Quartet, and Eugene Linden, founder and conductor of the Tacoma Philharmonic Orchestra. Additional students of Gershkovitch that later became professional musicians include Jesse Kregal, Marilynn (Nudelman) Kregal, Barry Lamont, Beverly LeBeck, Frederic Rothchild, Warren Signor, and Jacob Avshalomov himself.
Other professional musicians that were once part of the orchestra include Glenn Reeves, later a principal violist for the Oregon Symphony, Brian Hamilton, who became a cellist player for the Tacoma Philharmonic Orchestra, and Marion Fox, who also later joined the Oregon Symphony as a violinist. Harp player Frances Pozzi and Earl Rankin later became staff artists for KOIN and KGW, respectively.Oregon Composers (1994, Albany), conducted by Jacob Avshalomov
Portland Youth Philharmonic: Live in Concert (1996, Portland Youth Philharmonic), conducted by Huw Edwards
Fountain of Youth (March 27, 1998, Portland Youth Philharmonic), conducted by Edwards, recorded live at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
The Territory Beyond (2000, Portland Youth Philharmonic), conducted by Edwards
Reaching New Heights (2002, Portland Youth Philharmonic), conducted by Edwards
With Jacob Avshalomov
Portland Youth Philharmonic (1992, CRI)
Music by Avshalomov, Harris & Ward (1994, CRI)
Jacob Avshalomov: Symphony of Songs, etc. (1995, Albany)
Avshalomov: Fabled Cities (1998, Albany)