Had they had a crystal ball in 1947, the Shreveport citizens who shared a dream of organizing a local symphony orchestra would doubtless have been elated to know that it was being celebrated in 2017, seventy years later, as Louisiana’s oldest continually operating professional orchestra. Music Director Michael Butterman, the fourth in the Symphony’s history, has assembled an exciting array of concerts for the 2017-18 season which include musical genres from classical to Broadway to rock. Salutes to Leonard Bernstein and John Williams alternate with selections of Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms, while the music of the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, and Pat Benatar among others will also rock the stage. Broadway stars Sutton Foster and Eric Bergen will appear, as will perhaps the most eagerly awaited guest, Shreveport native John-Henry Crawford.
One of America’s most accomplished cellists, John-Henry Crawford began studying the cello at age five in the Centenary Suzuki School founded in 1977 by his mother, Laura Crawford. His CSS teacher was Kristina Vaska-Haas, also a SSO cellist. A bonafide prodigy, Crawford was awarded the Nina and Billy Albert Fellowship at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia when only fifteen. As first prize winner of the Greenfield Concerto Competition, he made his solo debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2011. He was one of only two U.S. cellists out of 25 selected worldwide to compete in the XV International Tchaikovsky Competition in St. Petersburg, Russia. To date, he has performed in at least twenty-five states and a number of foreign countries, including France, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, Canada, Belgium, and Switzerland. But Crawford has always made a point of periodically returning to the Shreveport area, appearing several times with the Symphony as well as performing recitals at Centenary, Northwestern, and other local venues. Performing on a 200-year-old European cello handed down to him by his Austrian grandfather, the late Dr. Robert Popper, Crawford will be performing a Cello Concerto by Friedrich Gulda, and the SSO will perform Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, “The Great C Major” in January 2018 at the RiverView Theatre.
Having a one-time Shreveport student performing with them is one of the long-term goals of the Symphony. Back in August of 1948 as it was first being organized, the board declared to The Shreveport Times that the symphony “will be open to young musicians developed in schools and colleges of this territory, broadening their opportunities for musical experience . . .” From the outset the longevity of this institution was promoted by the realistic vision of the Shreveport Symphony Society. The officers of the board, President Mrs. Luther Beene, Vice-President Ralph A. Squires (music professor at Centenary), Secretary John Shuey, and Treasurer Richard W. Norton, Jr. (who quickly established a 10% endowment fund) realized that they wouldn’t immediately have the funds to establish a major professional full-time orchestra right off the bat. Instead, they began with four principles: 1) the orchestra would be formed from residents of the Ark-La-Tex area; 2) it would operate on a modest budget the first year; 3) membership and voting rights in the Society would be open to the public; and 4) the Symphony and Society would devote special attention to bringing an increased appreciation of music to the Shreveport area. They found their first music director in John Shenaut, then a professor at Northwestern in Natchitoches, but formerly a member of the Chicago Civic and Sioux City, Iowa symphonies. So limited were funds for salaries that Shenault lived with the Nortons until a new day job as music professor was found for him at Centenary. In turn, he auditioned and selected fifty musicians with day jobs of their own to form the new orchestra. Shreveport supported its new orchestra from the start. An editorial in the August 1948 Times praised its establishment as an example of “Cultural Progress”, while then-Mayor Clyde Fant announced that the week of November 7th – 13th would be “Shreveport Symphony Week”. That first season consisted of only three concerts, the first held at C.E. Byrd High School. Season tickets, sold at all music stores, were $4.00 for adults and $2.00 for students. A special pleasure was its second concert, devoted to Christmas music, which featured Logansport-born soprano Eunye Register, soon to audition for the San Francisco Opera, and a chorus of 560 students from local high schools, including those of Bossier City, Oil City, and Vivian, as well as Byrd and Fair Park.
Nearly seventy years later, the Shreveport Symphony still performs in the neighborhood of 200 educational concerts per year as well as a program expanded to ten concerts featuring national stars. Shreveporters today can still take to heart the words of Mayor Fant in 1948, “to take an active interest in furthering the efforts of this worthy organization which is striving to make its fine music an uplifting force in our daily lives, by attending its programs and influencing others to do likewise.”
The Centenary Suzuki School
Suzuki schools, which specialize in the violin, viola, and cello, are based on the teachings of Dr. Shinichi Suzuki (1898 – 1998). Dr. Suzuki believed very young children could learn music just as they learned to talk—and with the same success. Every child was to be encouraged and allowed to learn in his/her own unique way and time, supported by positive feedback and a nurturing environment. The “Suzuki method” starts each child as young as possible—Suzuki’s first pupil was three—and scaled-down musical instruments are provided to the child with which they begin to mimic the music they hear from their teachers and on recordings, such as CDs. The process builds pitch memory, allows students to play a variety of genres, and results in the development of a rich tone and personal style. Parents are expected to engage in the process as well as teachers. Only when students have mastered basic posture and technique are they introduced to reading music on a page. From there, their knowledge and performances grow increasingly sophisticated.
In 1977, Laura Crawford brought the Suzuki method to Centenary College in Shreveport, recruiting an initial group of ten students and their parents. Today, the Centenary Suzuki School has an enrollment of approximately 165 students and a faculty of seven trained Suzuki teachers. Over 1500 alumni have passed through the school, many of whom have become honored professionals in the field of music and some of whom have become international stars of the concert stage.