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 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 and Jeff Barker, three “finalists” were selected and auditioned by the orchestra membership. After the auditions, Dr. Jeffery Jacobsen was offered the position and he graciously accepted the baton.

2013 found us again in transition as Dr. Jacobsen resigned from the orchestra at the end of our 2012 season. With the departure of Jeff, we invited guest conductors to lead each of our concerts this season. Barry Peters graciously offered to conduct the fall concert, Timothy Perry came back to conduct the winter concert, and Brian DeMaris conducted our spring concert.

Subsequently, Dr. Tim Perry was hired and has again proved to be an outstanding Music Director. During his “second term”, Tim has significantly improved the orchestra. The number of musicians has grown and the performance level of the orchestra has improved markedly. Our concert audiences have likewise grown during this time.

As planned. Tim retired after the spring concert of the 2018-2019 season.

As part of a search for a new Music Director, the Board invited two candidates to lead audition concerts during the 2019-2020 season. The fall and winter concerts were performed as scheduled with each of the two candidates conducting one concert. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 spring concert was cancelled.

The Board of Directors selected Evan Meccarello as our new Music Director. The Board has been working hard with Maestro Meccarello to plan a 2020-2021 season with several contingency options that meet CDC, other federal, and NY State regulations.

As of July 2020, we are confident that the BCO will return to the concert stage as soon as it is safe for the orchestra members and our loyal audience.

In 2020, the orchestra’s 35th anniversary season, the musicians on stage include members who have played from the early years of the orchestra. The group includes even a few founding members. As we enter our 36th season, whenever it is safe to do so, the number of musicians who have been playing since the earliest days of the BCO 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 36 years ago.

David L. Banner
Revised 2019-02-07

Historic BCO Brochures

 Historic Brochure - Asher Raboy   Historic Brochure - Fitzroy Stewart