Founded as the Charleston Civic Orchestra with William Wiant as its conductor, the symphony gave its first concert at the Municipal Auditorium on November 14, 1939. When Wiant was drafted into military service in 1942, Antonio Modarelli, conductor of the Wheeling Symphony, became conductor. The following year the name was changed to Charleston Symphony Orchestra. To attract musicians during the war years the orchestra entered into an innovative alliance with the local chemical industry, which agreed to recruit and hire chemical engineers and chemists who were also symphonic musicians. This successful partnership garnered national attention. The orchestra’s first manager, Helen Thompson, a second violinist in the orchestra, was active in the founding of the American Symphony Orchestra League, became its first full-time executive secretary in 1950, and maintained the league’s office in Charleston for 12 years. Following Modarelli’s death, Geoffrey Hobday led the orchestra from 1954 to 1963, followed by a silver anniversary season of guest conductors (1963–64), Charles Gabor (1964–65), Charles Schiff (1965–77), and Ronald Dishinger (1977–79).
Under the leadership of board president and Charleston attorney John McClaugherty, the orchestra experienced unprecedented growth in the final two decades of the 20th century. Sidney Rothstein was appointed as conductor in 1980 and was succeeded in 1984 by Thomas Conlin, and Grant Cooper in 2001. Reflecting its expanding role throughout the state, the name was changed to the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra in 1988. The season grew to include a nine-concert subscription and three-concert pops series, establishment of a resident string quartet, staging of operatic productions, founding of the symphony chorus, extensive statewide touring, including a second home in Parkersburg, a late summer festival at the Snowshoe resort, and a new home in the Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences. In 2015 the symphony moved its offices from the Clay Center to Charleston’s West Side.
Over the years many highly recognized soloists and conductors have performed with the orchestra including Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma, James Galway, Emanuel Ax, Marilyn Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Doc Severinsen, Henry Mancini, Dave Brubeck, Peter Nero, Victor Borge, Arthur Fiedler, and others. The orchestra premiered several works including Poem for Orchestra, the orchestral debut of 17-year-old George Crumb. The West Virginia Symphony celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1989, with a five-city tour culminating at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
Conductor Grant Cooper retired at the end of the 2015-16 season. The orchestra search committee narrowed 167 candidates for conductor to six finalists. Cooper continues to conduct the Pops series, while each of the six finalists will conduct one classical performance during the 2016-17 season.
An earlier symphony orchestra, organized by music educator W. S. Mason and others, served Charleston as early as the 1920s and perhaps before.
Visit the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra website.
This Article was written by H. G. Young III
Last Revised on June 15, 2016
Blachley, Frederick J. O. Grass Roots Symphony. Musical America, (Feb. 1947). Condensed as "Music by and for the Whole Town", Reader's Digest, (June 1947).
Furry, Shirley. "Charleston Symphony Orchestra," in Robert Craven, ed, Symphony Orchestras of the United States: Selected Profiles. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.
Griffith, Ann B. West Virginia Symphony 50th Anniversary Commemorative Issue, Booklet. West Virginia Symphony, 1989.
Cite This Article
Young III, H. G. "West Virginia Symphony Orchestra." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 15 June 2016. Web. 28 July 2016.