History and Annual Report
The Racine Symphony Orchestra, one of the oldest symphony orchestras in Wisconsin, in continuous operation since its founding, was established in 1932 by Frederick Schulte (1891-1966), a composer, conductor, and bandmaster who taught in the Racine public schools for 36 years. He served as its first conductor for 25 years.
In the early years, the Orchestra played four annual concerts per year at the Main Street Theater. The board was elected from among the players, who selected the music and the guest artists, sold the tickets and the advertising in the programs, and solicited donations. At the end of the season, any excess of income over expenses was distributed among the musicians, including the conductor, according to the number of rehearsals and concerts they attended. In 1957, when Schulte retired and funds were needed for a salary for a new conductor, the distribution of dividends ceased, and musicians were not paid for their services again until the mid 80s. A young (19 year old) Isaac Stern played with the Orchestra in 1941.
The name Racine Symphony Orchestra was adopted in 1935. The Orchestra membership was entirely male until 1938, when the board allowed “women musicians into the Orchestra, if necessary.” If no Racine musician was available to fill a vacant position, musicians from Milwaukee or northern Illinois were invited to join the Orchestra. During World War II, a shortage of players led to the inclusion of high school students in the Orchestra, although it was expected that they would relinquish their positions as the former musicians returned from the service.
A constitution and by-laws were adopted in 1936, and incorporation as a non-profit organization followed in 1938. The RSO was a charter member of the American Symphony Orchestra League in 1942 and later joined the Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra League. In 1967, the RSO joined the newly organized Racine Arts Council. In 1960 the Board was expanded to 15 members, with the majority being non-musicians, although the by-laws stated that not less than four members must be active playing members of the Orchestra. In 1964, the Symphony Guild was established to promote the interests of the Racine Symphony Orchestra.
Dudley Powers was hired as the RSO’s second conductor in 1958. Powers was on the cello faculty at Northwestern University and was music director of two orchestras in northern Illinois. In 1970, a friend of the Orchestra, Walter Smolenski, invited his friend Arthur Fiedler to conduct the Orchestra. Powers remained conductor of the RSO until 1974.
Stephen Colburn became the Orchestra’s third conductor in 1976. Colburn was principal oboist of the Milwaukee Symphony until 2010. Roberta Crawford was assistant conductor from 1983 until 1989.
David Becker became music director and conductor of the RSO in the fall of 1989. A violist, Becker was a member of the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and conductor of the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra and associate conductor of the Madison Symphony.
Alexander Platt joined the Orchestra as music director/conductor in 1993. A graduate of Yale University and King’s College, Cambridge, Platt presently is the Music Director for Maverick Concerts, the Wisconsin Philharmonic, the Marion Indiana Philharmonic, The La Crosse Symphony Orchestra and the Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra.
The sixth and seventh conductors to lead the Orchestra were Andrew Massey and Richard Carsey. Massey, a composer and conductor, began his career with the RSO in 2006. Massey was music director/conductor for the Symphony’s classical and holiday pops concerts and was Resident Conductor of The Milwaukee Symphony. Additionally, he was Music Director of The Toledo Symphony, Rhode Island Philharmonic, Fresno Philharmonic, Oregon Mozart Players and Michigan Chamber Orchestra. Massey currently is Conductor of Orchestras at Middlebury College.
Richard Carsey joined Massey in 2006, splitting the conducting duties of the RSO. Carsey was artistic director/conductor for the Summer Pops concerts. Carsey enjoys a varied career as a conductor, pianist, orchestrator and actor. He was the music director of the National Tour of A Little House on the Prairie. Carsey completed his Broadway debut as music director of Minister’s Wife at Lincoln Center. Carsey was the touring music director of the national tour of the Phantom of the Opera.
Pasquale Laurino, the current artistic director/conductor, has celebrated over 30 years of conducting and playing music throughout the Midwest. Laurino conducted the world premiere of the Milwaukee Ballet’s critically acclaimed Peter Pan and Skylight Theatre’s performance of Cosi’ fan Tutte. Born in Brooklyn, NY and trained as a violinist and conductor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Indiana University, Laurino begins his sixth year conducting the Orchestra in the 2015-16 season.
With an annual grant of $1500 from the Western Foundation for several years beginning in 1952, the Orchestra gave scholarships for private lessons to local high school students, and later local adults, on the condition that they would play in the Orchestra. Current second violinist Gregory Burns took advantage of that in the mid-sixties. The Junior League of Racine helped establish an annual concert for all the fifth graders in the Racine Unified School District in the early 60’s. The 50th anniversary of the Concerts for Fifth Grade Students was celebrated in 2012. Auditions were held to select a student soloist to perform with the Orchestra at these concerts. Current principal horn Erwin Lackner won that honor in 1963. From 1995 to 2009 concerts were also performed countywide for third grade students.
The concerts were moved to Memorial Hall in 1938 and have since been held at sites throughout Racine, Kenosha and even Milwaukee. Concert space has been found at schools like Prairie, St. Catherine’s, Washington Park and Horlick, Jerstad, and Starbuck Middle School auditoriums. Over the years, the Orchestra has played a number of times at Carthage College and UW-Parkside. Churches are also a favorite place to play; many Masterworks concerts were and continue to be held at Holy Communion Lutheran, St. Mary’s, St. Luke’s Episcopal, St. Patrick’s, First Presbyterian Church, Parklawn Assembly of God, Milwaukee and St. George’s in Kenosha. Within the community, concerts have been held at the Masonic Center, Wingspread, Golden Rondelle Theatre, Racine Theatre Guild, Great Hall at DeKoven Center and Festival Park/Hall, both inside and out!
Since its establishment, over 400 concerts have been held by the Racine Symphony Orchestra. In 1932 there were just two concerts; some seasons there have been as many as eleven. In recent years the RSO has performed between five and six a year. In the summer of 1988, the Orchestra inaugurated its Lakeside Pops series at the new Festival Hall on Racine’s lakefront. The RSO’s Masterworks series was initiated in 1991, with five concerts given in the Prairie School Theater. The Orchestra’s 2014-15 Season consisted of three Masterworks concerts, three pops concerts and seven educational programs.
These seven music education programs reach and teach “students” from preschool through senior citizens. The annual Young Artists’ Competition (YAC) invites 9th-12th grade music students to compete for scholarship cash and the featured soloist position at a concert. Every year the RSO hosts 1800+ students at the Concerts for Fifth Grade Students. A visiting Artist in Residence each year actively engages with community members, visiting preschools through high schools and after school programs, entertaining and educating in the process. The Middle School Mentorship Program, commencing its third year in 2016-17, matches Orchestra musicians with middle school instrumental music students. Up to a dozen high school instrumental string students, selected by audition, participate in the week-long Side-by-Side Youth Invitational. Last, the High School Choral Invitational draws choral arts students from throughout Racine County to perform at the traditionally sold out Holiday Pops Concert. A local music expert leads Preconcert Conversations prior to Masterworks Concerts, providing the audience background on the concert repertoire. In totality, these programs reach more than 2300 eager learners each year; that number continues to grow.
A decade ago the Orchestra seemed to be in good financial shape. The economic woes of 2007 precipitated a fiscal crisis and revealed problems. Through active Board recruitment and dedication by the Board and staff, the organization will wrap up its second strategic plan in 2015-16. With the next three-year strategic plan for 2016-19 set, the transition was seamless. As the RSO celebrates its 85th year, the Orchestra looks forward to bringing excellent music and music education programs to the Racine community.
Written by Ellen Schmidt
Revised and updated by RSO Staff