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Lone Star Classics: Texas Symphony Orchestras

The Austin Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Austin perform Handel’s <I>Messiah</I> at the Riverbend Centre, a large performance hall on the grounds of Riverbend Church that hosts everything from fashion shows to bluegrass.

The phrase “Texas music” evokes myriad images: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Buddy Holly, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Bob Wills and Willie Nelson, Freddie Fender and Selena—but Leopold Stokowski, best known to Americans as the conductor in Walt Disney’s Fantasia?

In fact, the maestro led the Houston Symphony from 1955 to 1961, a position also held by such luminaries as André Previn and Sir Thomas Beecham.

Classical music has been part of Texans’ heritage since the days before the Republic. It is unclear when symphonic music was first heard in Texas, and although speculation is plentiful, documentation is sparse. According to The New Handbook of Texas, in 1838 a theater in Houston brought in an orchestra and singers from Europe, and beginning in 1877, German singing societies in the Hill Country did likewise for their biennial festivals.

The drive for homegrown orchestras took off at the turn of the 20th Century as part of a general effort by Texas cities large and small to improve their cultural offerings and appear less provincial. Besides organizing literary societies and little theaters, civic boosters founded symphonies in Dallas (1900), Austin (1911), Houston (1913), Amarillo (1924), Fort Worth (1925), El Paso (1930), Midland (1936), Tyler (1936), and San Antonio (1939). These groups performed a few concerts each season, sometimes outdoors, sometimes at local schools and colleges. Most went on hiatus during World War II when their players joined the services.

Classical music flourished again after the war as part of another general cultural upsurge. The most famous moment for Texan-tinged classical music came at the height of the Cold War, when Van Cliburn, a young pianist from Kilgore, won the First International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, in 1958. His triumph was marked by a ticker-tape parade through Manhattan, the first ever given to a classical musician, and a recording of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto that became the first classical record to sell a million copies.

Texas Symphony Orchestras

Dallas Symphony Orchestra Under the baton of Andrew Litton, the Dallas Symphony presents more than 200 performances each season. Write to the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, 2301 Flora, Dallas 75201; 214/692-0203;

Houston Symphony The 2004-05 season, with music director Hans Graf, offers some 170 performances between late August and June. Write to 615 Louisiana St., Ste. 102, Houston 77002; 713/224-7575;

Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Under the guidance of music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and based at the acclaimed Bass Performance Hall, the 2004-05 season runs Sep. 17-May 15, with some 70 performances. Write to 330 E. 4th St., Ste. 200, Fort Worth 76102; 817/665-6000;

Austin Symphony Orchestra The 2004-05 season, with music director and conductor Peter Bay, offers some three dozen performances from July to April. Write to 1101 Red River, Austin 78701; 512/476-6064 or 888/462-3787;

San Antonio Symphony After having to cancel the 2003-04 season because of financial difficulties, the San Antonio Symphony returns triumphantly in 2004-05, under music director Larry Rachleff, offering 78 performances in downtown's beautifully restored Majestic Theatre. Write to Box 658, San Antonio 78293-0658; 210/554-1010;

Abilene Philharmonic Orchestra 325/677-6710 or 800/460-0610;

Amarillo Symphony 806/376-8782;

Brazos Valley Symphony Orchestra (Bryan) 877/462-2870 or 979/845-1234;

Clear Lake Symphony 713/639-0702;

Corpus Christi Symphony Orchestra 361/882-2717;

East Texas Symphony Orchestra (Tyler) 903/526-3876;

El Paso Symphony Orchestra 915/532-3776;

Galveston Symphony Orchestra 409/765-1894 or 800/821-1894;

Garland Symphony Orchestra 972/926-0611;

Irving Symphony Orchestra 972/831-8818;

Longview Symphony Orchestra 903/236-9739;

Lubbock Symphony Orchestra 806/762-1688;

Midland-Odessa Symphony & Chorale 432/563-0921;

Plano Symphony Orchestra 972/473-7262;

Symphony Arlington 817/385-0484;

Symphony of Southeast Texas (Beaumont) 409/892-2257;

Valley Symphony Orchestra & Chorale (McAllen) 956/393-2293;

Waco Symphony Orchestra 254/754-0851;

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