The founder and first conductor of the KSO was Bertha Walburn Clark, a handsome, snowy-haired woman who was a cultural force in Knoxville for nearly 70 years. Born Bertha Roth in Ohio in 1882, she shared with her German parents a great love of music. They gave her professional training in violin and voice, and she maximized her natural talents with disciplined practice. In 1902 Miss Roth graduated from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Emerging from this training in music, she would maintain high standards as a teacher and conductor, and she would expect her student and orchestra musicians to follow suit.
A year after her graduation from the conservatory, she and her family moved to Knoxville. Along with her sister, Olive, she opened a violin and viola studio at 708 North Third Avenue. There were more than 70 music studios listed in the Knoxville directory at that time, but Miss Roth’s exceptional talent brought her recognition, both as a violinist and as a teacher. She was frequently invited to perform at area churches and clubs, and a 1903 newspaper review said that she had “captured our city” with her voice and violin.
Music was always at the forefront of her life. Her marriage to a painter and craftsman, Randall Walburn, and the arrival of their children Elsa and Lenore, took their place alongside her music career. Mrs. Walburn always had opportunities to work. She once said, “Every important occasion in life must have music; you can’t live without it.”
One such occasion was the gala 1910 opening of the Atkin Hotel (it stood at the current location of the Regas Restaurant parking lot), which would become Knoxville’s most fashionable place to dine and take tea. Owner C. B. Atkin, a connoisseur of classical music, invited the city’s best musicians, including Mrs. Walburn, to perform. Charmed by the violinist’s performance and her beauty, Atkin extended her performing engagement indefinitely. To bring variety to her dinner music, Mrs. Walburn recruited three of her advanced students to form a string quartet. Prominent local musicians like Harold Clark, Harry Shugart, George Peters and Pearl Hawkins eventually expanded Mrs. Walburn’s ensemble. Miss Pomeroy Graves and other area music teachers supported the group in spirit and supplied students and funds when they were able.
The small ensemble that delighted Knoxville audiences also proved popular with sophisticated visitors to the city. Conductor Walter Damrosch was in town waiting to give a concert with his own orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, when he dined at the Atkin Hotel. After listening to the ensemble, he sent the following note to Mrs. Walburn: “Usually when we are away from New York, we hurry through our meals to escape the hotel music, but we have stayed on here half an hour to listen to your orchestra. I have never heard a woman get such tones from a violin.” The composer Victor Herbert was another musical great who complimented Mrs. Walburn’s music, especially her rendition of one of his own works. Despite this gratifying recognition, Mrs. Walburn was aware in those early days that her “orchestra” was woefully incomplete. Filling out the sections with the needed instruments was her first goal. Since the ensemble had started as a string quartet it was in need of woodwinds and brass. Finding capable musicians was difficult; anyone who qualified by training or talent and could read music was invited to join. No one was paid; in fact, the members of the orchestra paid dues of 50 cents each month to buy their music.
While the orchestra was a decidedly amateur group, its members were very dedicated to their music. Believing as she did that “music is as vital to a community as the flow of commerce,” Mrs. Walburn strove to ensure that the orchestra would flourish. She knew that the presence of such a group could foster and encourage the development of musicians in Knoxville. By giving her pupils and local musicians a place to exhibit their talents, she was able to upgrade performance standards and generate community support.
To this end she dedicated her life. The orchestra had to make do with rehearsal and concert halls that had poor acoustics. Through weekly rehearsals, she coaxed the best from each player and gradually refined the orchestra’s performance. She demanded a lot, and she was never satisfied if the orchestra didn’t play up to her expectations. The musicians respected and admired her for it, feeling that the hard work was well worth it. One musician recalls that the thrill of playing together and hearing those wonderful tones resonate around the room was reward enough.
Another person who enjoyed playing in Mrs. Walburn’s “Little Symphony” was the valued flute and cello player Harold Clark. Mrs. Walburn and Mr. Clark made many public appearances as a violin-flute duo. Following her husband’s death, Mrs. Walburn married Mr. Clark in 1921. It was a long and happy marriage centered around the music that both partners loved. Mrs. Clark’s daughters by her first marriage, Elsa and Lenore Walburn, received extensive musical training. Elsa played the piano, often with the orchestra, and Lenore was a cellist. Lenore’s son, Keith Walburn Bryan, now music professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, became an excellent flutist and appeared twice as soloist with the KSO, once during the orchestra’s 50th season celebration in 1984-85.
Mrs. Clark’s orchestra gave its first public concert in 1925. A series of three programs was given in 1926 under the billing The Walburn Clark Little Symphony. The first, a free concert, was given by the 25-piece orchestra, with guest soloist, cellist Louisa Knowlton, in the drawing room-like atmosphere of the Farragut Hotel (today a mix of Gay Street retail stores and residences). One week later, surrounded by soft lights and cut flowers at the same location, the orchestra gave a benefit concert. This began a tradition of charity concerts that gave the orchestra an opportunity to be seen and heard, and such events encouraged the community’s good will and support. Early benefit concerts were given to support The Sunshine Society (1930), The News Sentinel Empty Stocking Fund (1931, 1933), St. John’s Orphanage (1936), and the East Tennessee Cancer Clinic of St. Mary’s (1937).
At the Lyric Theatre (on the southeast corner of Gay Street at Cumberland Avenue where First Tennessee Bank stands today), in May 1930, The Young Business Men’s Club of Knoxville put up $100 to sponsor a benefit for the orchestra itself. This was done to encourage the community’s support, which up to that point had been sporadic and limited. All three balconies of the Lyric Theatre were packed on that hot afternoon, but the anticipated financial support was not forthcoming. The audience was behind the musicians in spirit, but the Depression had cut back everyone’s ability to give. Still, recognition by the business community boosted the orchestra’s morale.
With the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933, this region’s economy and its orchestra both received an important boost. Engineers and administrators from all over the country arrived here, and their numbers included several professionally trained musicians. These newly settled TVA employees were delighted to find an orchestra willing to include them, for many were far from home and lonely without their families. A number of them brought administrative skills which were soon utilized to reorganize the management of the orchestra. In those days, all orchestra personnel helped with the behind-the-scenes preparation for each concert. But over the years, Mrs. Clark assumed the burden of managing the total operation. She arranged the programs and concerts, hired and hosted guest artists, purchased or rented music scores, designed and printed tickets and programs, rented halls, led rehearsals, supervised ticket sales and publicity and smoothed ruffled feathers along the way.
In 1935 a board of three directors was elected from the members of the orchestra to manage the group’s business affairs, freeing Mrs. Clark to concentrate on conducting the music that would help carry them through trying times. Chartered with the state as a nonprofit institution, the group acquired its official name, Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. For the first time, the conductor was paid ($50 per concert), formal auditions were held and the orchestra members no longer had to pay dues. The KSO held its first official concert on November 24, 1935, performing for an audience of 300 at Church Street Methodist Church. Miss Evelyn Miller (who later founded an annual Young Pianist Series of concerts that still continues today) was the featured soloist, playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, K. 466, which she reprised with the orchestra during its 50th season celebration. Miss Miller passed away on February 5, 2006.
When World War II broke out in 1939, it put some unusual pressure on the KSO. Katherine Moore noted the problems in a 1942 Knoxville Journal article: “The effect of the present war has been keenly felt by the orchestra. Many members are now serving in the armed services, new musical instruments are heavily taxed, transportation is an increasing problem…But the members of the orchestra, the Society, and the governing board all hold to the belief that when hearts are heavy and troubled and war clouds hang low, music becomes a solace and refuge and refreshes and renews hope and courage.” Despite these pressures, the orchestra continued to grow without incurring deficits. All the years of hard work had begun to pay off and success followed Mrs. Clark’s orchestra into the 1940s. Fifty musicians now swelled the ranks of the symphony, which was playing two or three concerts each season to an annual audience numbering 700. Guest artists of considerable stature, including Wiktor Labunski, Eugenia Buxton, Signe Gulbrandsen, Karl Kuersteiner, and Gloria Perkins, appeared with the orchestra.
By summer 1941, the orchestra had achieved artistic success and financial stability fully deserving of civic support, and it received just that with the formation of the Knoxville Symphony Society. The Society was organized to provide business management and financial support, with its prime objectives being “to sustain symphonic music in Knoxville, to provide an outlet for local talent, and to present symphonic programs to all music lovers.” It promised to underwrite the affairs of the symphony by seeking sponsors and raising funds and to broaden the KSO’s audience by promoting ticket sales. The first concert to take place under the auspices of the Knoxville Symphony Society was held on that infamous day, Sunday, December 7, 1941. Just hours before the concert, the terrifying news of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor had spread across America. Concertgoers found solace and refuge in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the orchestra piece that was to become the universal symbol of Allied unity, purpose and victory during the next four years. It was an uncanny coincidence that Mrs. Clark had planned to perform the Beethoven masterwork on that particular day, and the need for inspiring music heightened its impact. One can imagine the emotional effect that swept through the Bijou Theatre when the audience begged for an encore and the orchestra responded with the thrilling strains of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
When the war came to a close, Mrs. Clark decided to step down as conductor. She urged the board to search for her replacement and in 1946 relinquished the baton to Lamar Stringfield. She and Mr. Clark continued to play in the orchestra until 1962, she as principal violist and he as a cellist. She served on the Society’s Board of Directors until her death in 1972 at age 89. Mr. Clark made a gift to the Society in 1986 of his very fine cello and collection of bows, passing away in 1988 at age 94. Today, Mrs. Clark’s grandson, flutist Keith Walburn Bryan, and his wife, pianist Karen Keys, both of whom have performed as soloists with the KSO, remain committed to the orchestra’s future. The couple has permanently endowed, in their names, the orchestra’s principal flute chair.