THE KALAMAZOO SYMPHONY UNDER THE STARS
~ September 11, 1962 ~
When magnetic maestro Gregory Millar took the helm of the
Kalamazoo Symphony in 1961, a sense of excitement was in
the air. Kalamazoo was buzzing about his triumphant audition
concert with the symphony on November 14, 1960, and his
auspicious debut as the KSO's new Music Director & Conductor
on October 15, 1961, that launched the 1961-62 Season.
"It was clear to the orchestra and its patrons that a
new era was beginning."
-Zaide Pixley, GREAT ENSEMBLE, The Story
of the Kalamazoo Symphony, 1997, p. 59.
Gregory Millar, a gifted conductor, violinist and operatic tenor, trained a U.C. Berkeley, and
organized his own orchestra, The San Francisco Little Symphony in 1951. He also conducted
operas in the Bay Area during the summers, and sang in clubs. In 1960, Millar was chosen to
become one of Leonard Bernstein's assistant conductors of the New York Philharmonic. During
those years, Gregory developed great contacts with classical, popular and jazz artists on both coasts.
It was Maestro Millar and Kalamazoo businessman and benefactor Irving S. Gilmore who came up
with the idea for the Starlight Symphony Concerts.
"The Starlight Concert Series were a highlight of the decade. The idea was hatched
by the new conductor and one of the Symphony's most generous patrons, Irving S.
Gilmore... an ad hoc committee with great zest for the task took charge of the series."
-Pixley, GREAT ENSEMBLE, p. 62
The first Starlight Committee was made up of William J. Lawrence (Chairman); John M. Vahey
(Ticket Co-ordinator); J. Joseph Brogger (Advertising and Publicity); Don Wagner, Irving S.Gilmore,
Alfred B. Connable, Elton W. Ham, and Clark den Bleyker.
and Al Connable (right) after her performance of Gershwin's
Rhapsody in Blue, with the KSO on September 11, 1962, the first
Starlight Concert that launched a decade of memorable symphony
pops concerts on the top deck of Gilmore's parking lot in downtown
Owner and proprietor of Gilmore Brothers Department Store, Irving offered the top deck of his
nearby Auto Park on the corner of South Street and Farmers Alley as the location, which proved
to be ideal. The stage was built on the South Street end of the lot with the audience seated facing
off today by members of the Symphony Society jazz concert committee for their special September
11th "Starlight Symphony" pops and jazz program by the orchestra, Bobby Davidson's Big Band
and soloists including Max Roach, drummer. Positioned on the upper deck will be a full-sized band
shell, 50 tables, and grandstand seats for a total capacity of 4,600 listeners. Tickets for the program,
first public appearance of the orchestra this season, are on sale at Gilmore's, Vahey Music Store and
many other merchants' places. Shown above, from left, are Clark den Bleyker, manager; Irving S.
Gilmore; Gregory Millar, conductor; William J. Lawrence Jr.; Alfred B. Connable; J.Joseph Brogger,
and John M. Vahey.
-Gazette photo, Wednesday, August 29, 1962
The photo below shows the September 11th concert in progress. This picture of the Auto Park was taken from the roof of Gilmore Brothers Store and offers a dramatic panorama of the downtown area.
This Photograph Was Made from Roof of Gilmore Store, Looking Southward Across Deck Toward Stage. -Gazette photo
MAX ROACH, World's Greatest Jazz Drummer
Winner of all International Jazz Polls
Playing "Jazz Concerto" by Peter Phillips
ALICE MULLEN, Pianist,
"Rhapsody in Blue"
The Starlight Symphony series started with a single concert on a clear
and chilly September 11, 1962, at 8:30 p.m.
Soloists also appearing
with the Kalamazoo Symphony under the baton of Gregory Millar
were KSO Concertmaster, Voldemars Rushevics performing "Gypsy Airs" by Sarasate,
and Bobby Davidson's Big Band performing Peter Philllips'
"Variations on Theme of Thelonious Monk" (World-Première)
The OTHER world-première performed that evening ALSO by New York composer Peter Phillips (b. 1932), featured drummer Max Roach, performing the "Concerto for Jazz Drummer, Percussion and Symphony Orchestra". This work stretched the orchestra players who were unfamiliar with jazz improvisation. The audience was challenged to hear a symphony orchestra in a new way.
In a September article, Kalamazoo Gazette reviewer Mr. Larry Pratt raised some interesting questions:
"... did the Germanic composers exploit [symphonic] sound to its very end?"
Could classical groups incorporate improvisation into a composition and
create 'classical jazz'? "Beethoven himself was a great improviser..." said
Gregory Millar. "... I believe this concert will be important."
-Larry Pratt's interview with Gregory Millar,
Kalamazoo Gazette, September 2, 1962.
-It is interesting to note that when band leader Paul Whiteman commissioned George Gershwin to compose his "Rhapsody in Blue", he was interested in creating a similar genre--"symphonic jazz". Please read our recent blog post in Alice's Archives 2, "The Story of George Gershwin" by David Ewen.
Kalamazoo Gazette reviewer Larry Pratt gives an evocative account of the evening in his article
"Thousands Hear Jazz Symphony" in the September 12, 1962 issue, excerpted here:
"What happens when Beethoven meets Gershwin outdoors, downtown,
and upstairs? It's cool man. Real cool."
"The new sort of entertainment format was displayed here Tuesday night
when the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra played a special pre-season
pops and jazz concert..."
"The unusual scene was the roof of the Gilmore parking deck, smack-dab
downtown. Crowd estimations range from 2,500 to 3,600. It was probably
the biggest group ever to hear the orchestra."
"People also listened from the ground, sitting on car fenders, standing by curbs
along South Street and Farmers Alley, relaxing in lawn chairs on the roof of
Grant's or working in the offices of surrounding buildings, where lights glowed
into the night."
-Larry Pratt, Kalamazoo Gazette, September 12, 1962
'Gypsy Airs' Was Played for Large Audience as This Picture Was Made
-Kalamazoo Gazette photo
For that first concert, a wooden stage was cobbled together, lights were strung across the platform, and Alice's red taffeta gown was a distinctive and elegant contrast to the white dinner jackets worn by the male orchestra members, and the white blouses of the female players.
Gilmore's Auto Park offered a 360º view of Kalamazoo's cityscape. The American National Bank Building was lit up at night, and Gilmore Brothers Department Store, the Industrial State Bank, and The Upjohn Company buildings served as a backdrop-- urban ambiance under the stars... with a full moon.
TUESDAY NIGHT'S MOON SHINES BRIGHT OVER CONCERT SCENE
Audience Attentive as Lights of Upjohn Building Glow in Background
Around 3,000 concert-goers filled the chairs and bleachers or sat at candlelit tables...
50 Tables Faced Orchestra; Refreshments Were Sold
KSO founder Leta Snow (in the white coat) enjoys the concert.
-Kalamazoo Gazette Headline, September 12, 1962
The concert was met with enthusiasm-- and controversy. The "way-out" compositions of Mr. Phillips had a mixed response, and only tepid applause. Larry Pratt opined that the Phillips Concerto for Jazz
Drummer actually had a dampening effect on the natural impetus of Max Roach's talents as drummer.
"The concerto does not demand from the drum soloist the full range of his capacity." -Larry Pratt
After they finished with the Peter Phillips Variations on a Theme of Thelonious Monk, Bobby Davidson
and his band men launched into an encore of their signature nightclub jazz, and the crowd cheered.
In his September 12th review, Larry Pratt was politely supportive of the idea of the "wedding of jazz
improvisation with classical music", and felt the Kalamazoo Symphony "deserved to catch the bridal
bouquet". When the piece called for the orchestra to join the soloist Max Roach in improvising, Pratt
said that it was "the sort of performance that would have to come out very good or very bad. It was
very good, and the orchestra deserves a lot of the credit."
In the Kalamazoo Gazette's "Voice of the People" column, audience members expressed divergent
opinions on the concert as well:
William H. Bowden wrote with measured enthusiasm: "Although some parts of the music selections
were new to many of us, I think that the combination of symphony-jazz has much to offer."
Paul Dean expressed his disapproval: "... to allow the programming of such a distasteful display of art
for the general symphony-attending public is most discouraging." -Thursday, September 13, 1962
* * * *
For her part of the program, Alice received notes from well-wishers both before and after her performance of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.
and Roslyn Frantz Millar (r.) after the concert.
giving it a try. What a perfect opportunity to share this momentous occasion with friends like Jack
Blanke, Principal of Northglade-North Westnedge Elementary Schools, and his wife Joanne.
What was originally billed as a "pre-season" pops concert in advance of the 1962-63 concert season,
the overall success of this first Starlight Concert was undeniable. The committee met days after the
concert and made the decision to expand the idea of this first undertaking, and set about planning a
series of four concerts on Wednesday evenings in July. They carefully reviewed the problems they
had encountered with that first concert, namely chilly September weather, amplification problems,
and band shell construction delays. They vowed to improve conditions for an even better experience
for the Starlight audiences. The following year's series commenced on Wednesday, July 10, 1963.
This inaugural Starlight concert on September 11, 1962, launched an exciting decade-- a unique and
unforgettable part of Kalamazoo Symphony history, unmatched in previous or succeeding decades.
The series of four weekly concerts in July from 1963-1972, helped the KSO grow in ways unimaginable ten, or even five years earlier. Such was Gregory Millar's vision for the Kalamazoo Symphony.
wife Dori congratulate Alice backstage after her performance.
TO BE CONTINUED... More Starlight Concert articles will be presented here on Alice's Archives!
Watch for title tabs to appear as new articles are posted. All photographs, reviews, editorials and
other memorabilia are from Alice's Archives. We wish to thank the Kalamazoo Gazette for their
generous coverage of the Kalamazoo Symphony, and for permission to quote from their articles.