David Van Vactor

Guiding The KSO Toward Maturity

When Lamar Stringfield closed the 12th season of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra (1946-1947), he had brought the group to the brink of a great leap forward. The search began for a conductor who could lead the KSO through a period of expansion and artistic growth.

It was an early dream of members of the symphony board that somehow the orchestra and the University of Tennessee could join forces for each other’s mutual benefit. The orchestra needed a distinguished, academically qualified conductor, and the university was ready to establish a department of music in the College of Liberal Arts. Public interest and speculation ran high as many worthy candidates for the dual position came for interviews.

In midsummer 1947, the speculation came to an end; it was jointly announced by the symphony board and the university that the eminent conductor-composer-flutist David Van Vactor would take over the helm of the orchestra and organize a department of music at the university. His arrival marked the beginning of 25 years of growth, achievement, and recognition for the KSO.

David Van Vactor was born in 1906 in Plymouth, Indiana, where he began his study of the flute. He was talented in several fields, and honors in the sciences led him to Northwestern University, where he began premedical studies. But the lure of music and his increasing proficiency as a flutist persuaded him to switch to the School of Music at Northwestern. In 1929 he went to Vienna to study flute with Josef Nierdermayr. At that time he also met Virginia Landreth of Chicago.

In 1931 Mr. Van Vactor went to Paris to study with world-famous flutist Marcel Moyse. He also studied composition with Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas (the latter composer is famous for his work The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). On his return from Europe in May, Mr. Van Vactor married Virginia Landreth and soon began a 13-year engagement as a flutist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In time he became an assistant to conductor Frederick Stock, and his reputation as a composer of stature took hold. In 1937 his Symphony in D won the composition competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic, and in 1939 it was premiered by that orchestra with Mr. Van Vactor conducting to favorable reviews.

From 1936 until 1943 he taught theory at Northwestern University and conducted the Chicago Symphony’s chamber orchestra. After that, Mr. Van Vactor spent five years as assistant conductor of the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra. At the same time, he served as a faculty member at the Kansas City Conservatory of Music. He continued to write a full range of orchestral pieces, along with works for chorus and solo voice, and for band.

When Mr. Van Vactor arrived in Knoxville in late summer 1947, he immediately began to staff his department at the university; and, as one fine musician after another arrived to join the faculty, the KSO began to enjoy the luxury of having superb musicians in every section of the orchestra. Among the first faculty members were violinist William Starr, who was named concertmaster of the orchestra, and his wife, Constance, a fine pianist who also played viola in the orchestra. George DeVine and his wife, June, played in the orchestra (both were bassoonists), and Mr. DeVine also served as librarian and wrote program notes for all the orchestra’s concerts. Following the inauguration of the KSO’s Chamber Classics series in 1981, Mr. DeVine continued to write the notes for the Masterworks series through September 1987. He passed away in summer 1999 at age 84.

Under Mr. Van Vactor’s direction, a music appreciation series called Concerts for Children was begun in 1949. A symphony publication noted that by 1955 this series had brought symphonic music into the lives of over 84,000 school children from the Knoxville area. It was organized by Miss Evelyn Miller and sponsored by the Federated Women’s Club and area music clubs. Symphony members help the children prepare for the concerts by writing booklets that outlined ways in which the upcoming concert music could be integrated into every school subject. At the concerts, the children saw live performances of music geared to their interests. They were able to see and hear each instrument, learn about the various sections of the orchestra, and gain insight into the music while enjoying the total production. This program won national recognition, and its educational materials were used as prototypes for other such concerts.

Young people were encouraged in their musical efforts through the Competition for Composers and Soloists. The winners’ compositions were orchestrated by Mr. Van Vactor and then performed at the Concerts for Children. These concerts were an absolute delight to the composers and their young audiences. Many winners went on to achieve considerable status as soloists and composers.

Mr. Van Vactor felt that the symphony had an obligation to develop musical abilities within the community. The KSO offered talented music students and local musicians (who were also doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, housewives) a chance to play in an orchestra as nonprofessionals. Thus, they would have the opportunity to learn from the professional musicians on the university faculty.

An extraordinary scholarship program for young musicians was initiated. Through the years, one of Mr. Van Vactor’s favorite projects was the encouragement of young talent through grants for study with outstanding teachers. In his early years as a conductor of the KSO, he and Mrs. Van Vactor paid for many grants personally. They also purchased many instruments for deserving students. At the heart of all the scholarship help was the hope that fine young performers would stay in the Knoxville area and be a constant source of resident talent for the symphony. Mr. Van Vactor often pointed out that his efforts to recruit young musicians were as intense as those employed by the university to recruit gifted athletes.

Another achievement that Mr. Van Vactor spoke of with great pride was the orchestra library he founded in 1949. As the KSO performed each new piece of music, the scores were purchased rather than rented. This practice initially caused some fiscal concerns for some members of the Board and staff, but it proved to be an economical course in the long run with the gradual acquisition of an immense asset – a performance library that is enhanced in value and utility with each passing year.

In March 1952, a women’s auxiliary was founded to support the symphony. The Van Vactors brought expertise in organizing the guild and its projects from their work with the famous Chicago Symphony Women’s Association. In 1981 the Women’s Guild changed its name to the Knoxville Symphony League. One of the League’s first goals was to raise $10,000 for grants to young people in all the musical arts. College students were awarded their tuition or limited financial assistance to study. High school students were offered lessons and an opportunity to play in the student orchestra at the university. Even some grammar school students of unusual talent were assisted.

The 20th KSO season (1954-55) marked the first time that an opera featuring all-local singers and musicians had ever been given a fully-staged production in Knoxville. The opera selected, Richard Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, opened to standing-room-only crowds at UT Alumni Auditorium. The performance was so well received that the orchestra and singers staged Giuseppe Verdi’s tragic opera La traviata the following season.

Mr. Van Vactor’s own immensely popular cantata, The New Light, was given its first performance in December 1954 by the symphony and the University of Tennessee Chorus, directed by Ambrose Holford. Performances of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah also became a December tradition for a number of years for the orchestra, area soloists, and massed choirs of civic, college and church groups.

By the arrival of the 22nd season (1956-57), the orchestra had gained national recognition. It had been offered a tour of Central and South America, it had presented internationally known soloists, and it was at last proficient enough to perform the full range of symphonic works. Accordingly, the support of the community was firm and enthusiastic. One impressive display of the orchestra’s musical maturity came on March 26, 1957, when the KSO participated in East Tennessee’s first live performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (“Choral”). Also featured in this grand undertaking were Christine Cardillo, soprano; Ambrose Holford, tenor; Edward Zambara, bass-baritone; Barbara Blair, contralto; and the Knoxville Choral Society. It may be noted in passing that many members of the orchestra had never before played the work, nor had numbers of those in the audience ever heard it performed live. The packed house added excitement to the occasion. Another highlight of the impressive 22nd season came when the orchestra and UT Opera Workshop collaborated to present two fully-staged sold-out performances of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel. The production was scheduled again in the 27th season (1961-1962), the orchestra’s first season in the newly-constructed Knoxville Civic Auditorium, followed by three performances at educational concerts to enthusiastic schoolchildren.

The 23rd season (1957-1958) was highlighted by numerous awards for the orchestra and its conductor. Mr. Van Vactor was awarded a Fulbright grant for concerts for children in Knoxville and in Frankfurt, Germany, and he received a Guggenheim Fellowship to write a proposed opera, The Trojan Women. The orchestra itself won a three-year grant from the Ford Foundation for an American Music Commission Series, providing funds for the recording of three symphonic works.

The following season, the KSO was asked to take part in a film commissioned by the United States Information Agency for use throughout the world. Entitled Symphony Across the Land, it was directed by Le Roy Prinz (director of South Pacific and The Ten Commandments). The film featured music written by American composers, including Mr. Van Vactor, who had just completed his Symphony No. 2. The brochure for the premiere of the film noted: “Recognizing that the battle for men’s minds has extended into cultural competition, the purpose of this film is to correct the misconception that much of America is a musical desert. Such orchestras as those of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia have, of course, received worldwide recognition. Symphony Across the Land, therefore, features other orchestras from wide geographical areas, each of which represents an important aspect of American music.”

In the 26th season (1960-1961), the orchestra began its Connoisseur Concerts to include additional performances of contemporary music (a series lasting beyond Mr. Van Vactor’s tenure, until spring 1975). During the 1960s, the orchestra also collaborated on several impressive operatic programs. In the 29th season (1963-64), the symphony combined forces with the Barter Theater of Abingdon, Virginia, to present William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, complete with Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music, in celebration of the quadricentennial of the playwright’s birth. Critics called this one of the most dazzling performances ever offered to a Knoxville audience. In spring 1966, and again in 1967, the Knoxville Symphony Society presented six operas performed by the Metropolitan Opera National Company: Georges Bizet’s Carmen, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella, Madama Butterfly and La bohème by Giacomo Puccini, Verdi’s La traviata, and Wolfgang Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. The 1967-68 season was highlighted by the KSO-sponsored arrival of the Boston Opera Company, with Sarah Caldwell conducting performances of Verdi’s Falstaff and Puccini’s Tosca.

In its 35th season (1969-70), the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra had a momentous occasion to observe: the 200th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, born December 17, 1770. The musicians honored the master composer in a truly momentous way: over the course of that season, they performed all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies. The orchestra also presented tenor Richard Lewis inFidelio; and pianist Rudolf Firkusny, long a KSO audience favorite, joined with the master’s Emperor Concerto.

By the time he left the KSO in 1972, Mr. Van Vactor had developed every facet of music throughout the community. The list of national and international soloists presented with the orchestra during his tenure was impressive, and a tremendous range of musical works had been added to the KSO repertoire. Following his retirement, Mr. Van Vactor was made Composer Laureate of Tennessee by the Tennessee General Assembly, the only person ever so named. He returned to the KSO podium during the 50th anniversary season in December 1984 to conduct a concert that opened with his fanfare, Salute to the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, commissioned for the occasion, and concluded with Peter Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, the work with which Mr. Van Vactor concluded his very first concert with the KSO on October 21, 1947. Mr. Van Vactor passed away in 1994 at his home in Los Angeles, where he and his wife Virginia had moved to be near their daughter, Adriaen. He was 87.

This chapter, David Van Vactor: Guiding the KSO toward Maturity, is substantially reprinted from Fifty Years of the KSO: A Legacy of Symphonic Excellence published in 1984. Edited and revised by Rudy Ennis. © 1984 and 2010 Knoxville Symphony Society. All rights reserved. No portion may be reproduced in whole or in part without written consent from the Knoxville Symphony Society, 100 S. Gay Street, Suite 302, Knoxville, Tennessee 37902.