A History of the BCO – A Personal Remembrance

For many years, amateur musicians enjoyed performing with the Binghamton Symphony and Choral Society founded in 1955 by the late Dr. Fritz Wallenberg. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Binghamton Symphony was evolving from a “community” orchestra into a fully professional organization. Several players from the Binghamton symphony, including me, left. We left for a variety of reasons including avoiding unionization, increasing performance pressures, and the turning of music making into a business which was unacceptable to many of us, as well as other personal reasons. Those players as well as other musicians around the region felt disenfranchised. Among those "musicians without a country" as I liked to think of ourselves was a man named Dr. John Hagopian. The mere mention of his name probably brings smiles to many faces for John was certainly a vivid character whom you either loved or hated and certainly remembered. He was of Armenian descent and embodied most of the Armenian stereotypes that first come to mind. Primarily, he was passionate and obstinate. John would call me on the phone, rarely identifying himself before the tirade began about the unacceptability of having nowhere for us to play. I wasn't alone. John shared his complaint and dream with anyone who would listen. John coined the phrase "a great longing and a heartfelt need."

During the winter of 1983, John, Tony DiOrio, Bernie Shifrin, Tom Kowlaski from SUNY and I sat down and started to map out a strategy for starting an orchestra. We put together a mailing list and summoned all interested people to a meeting in the classroom building at SUNY. We created a survey, primarily to determine what night potential players were available, their interest in musical styles, and other information possibly useful in creating an orchestra structure.

The first order of business was to set a rehearsal night. As I recall, we were about split down the middle regarding our availability on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Through some process lost in the dim, dark past, Thursday night was selected as a rehearsal night. Bernie was instrumental in procuring the use of Binghamton High School as a rehearsal venue and rehearsals were scheduled to begin in the fall of 1984. The orchestra was actually operated as a night school class through Binghamton High School District and tuition was paid by members. The instructor’s salary was then returned to our conductor as a portion of his salary. Speaking of conductors, a young man named Asher Raboy (brother to Nathan Raboy who is currently well known to the local musical community and now a member of the BCO Board of Directors was selected as the first music director and conductor.

While there were several of us involved, I still fondly think of John as "Father of the BCO." Cecily O’Neil (then Cecily Kinsley) and Lori Cyr were on the Board of Directors from the first moments of birth and with Lori’s organizational and decision making skills, boundless energy and “Sergeants” training took the newly hatched baby and ensured it a future. Lori and Cecily almost single handedly managed the group and did about 99% of what was needed to stage our concerts, do fund raising, and the incredible number of other behind the scenes jobs.

Rehearsals began with John Hagopian reserving "last stand, second violin" for himself. After John's untimely death, as I recall we symbolically left an empty chair in that spot in his memory.

The orchestra performed its first concert on November 18, 1984. The program included the First Serenade of Brahms and the Gershwin Piano Concerto in F with Cynthia Petersen as soloist. I can still hear Asher muttering under his breath as he walked off stage about that being the very last time he'd ever perform Brahms without more violas! The concert had moments of brilliance, Chris Lewis King's trumpet solo in the slow movement of the Gershwin being among them. The piano soloist was stunning (I guess Asher really called in some favors). Coupled with that were the disasters, including my own screw up in the Brahms that prompted Asher to restart one movement.

And, as is so often said: "the rest is history." Fitzroy Stewart replaced Asher Raboy as music director for the 1987 -1988 season and led the group through several successful seasons. In fall 1994, Dr. Timothy Perry assumed the podium and for the next ten years stretched the group by greatly expanding its repertoire and performance abilities.
Tim was succeeded in by an amazing young woman name Cayenna Ponchione in the fall of 2005 to start our 21st season. Cayenna continued to stretch the group by commissioning new compositions and bringing unusual soloists to perform with the BCO.

After Cayenna left at the end of 2010, the BCO experienced a season of guest conductors while we searched for a new Music Director. The search committee initially considered over forty candidates for the position from as far away as Korea and Germany. Through the tireless work of the search committee under Carol Smith and Jeff Barker, three “finalists” were selected and auditioned by the orchestra membership. After the auditions, our current Music Director, Dr. Jeffery Jacobsen was offered the position and he graciously accepted the baton.

In 2004, at the orchestra’s 20th anniversary, about half of the players on the stage had played with the orchestra those first 20 seasons, many of them founding members who remember that first concert! As we enter or 29th season, a large number of active BCO musicians have been playing since the beginning in 1984. This truly vindicates John Hagopian's passion in pushing so hard for our founding and supports the "heartfelt need" portion of our marching orders now almost 30 years ago.

David Banner
September 2012

Historic BCO Brochures

 Historic Brochure - Asher Raboy   Historic Brochure - Fitzroy Stewart