The Roanoke Symphony Orchestra is the largest professional orchestra in Virginia west of Richmond. The organization we know of today as the RSO was founded by Gibson Morrisey and a small group of dedicated music lovers in 1953 -- Morrissey served as the group's conductor until his death in 1975. Although the RSO has enjoyed a rich and vibrant history during the 60 years since Morrissey and his friends organized the Roanoke Symphony Society, the community of Roanoke, and Big Lick before it, enjoyed a deep commitment to symphonic music-making in the Valley from as far back as the turn of the 20th Century, and before.

THE EARLY YEARS - Roanoke's Civic Orchestra

Around the turn of the 20th century, Roanoke's "serious music" consisted primarily of small affairs -- touring soloists and local musicians in recital. A local violinist, Holland Persinger, led attempts at assembling an orchestra in Roanoke. Despite the desires of a few thriving musicians, the journey to form a symphony orchstra, supported by its community, would prove to be nearly impossible with the depressed state around World War I. The early days of classical music in Roanoke were conducted under difficult circumstances.

In 1932, Roanoke's first Symphony Orchestra was founded under the sponsorship of the Thursday Morning Music Club (still in existence today). The group's conductor was Hazel Burnham, a professor of violin and music theory at Hollins College -- a place where a long relationship with Roanoke's orchestra would begin. During her three year tenure, Burnham not only conducted, but introduced the community to many classical works by women. The consisted of 45 members who rehearsed regularly in the ballroom at the Patrick Henry Hotel, and gave their first public performance on Sunday, December 11, 1932 at the Academy of Music. The concert also included the Roanoke Choral Club performing part II of Bach's Christmas Oratorio led by Professor Erich Rath, also on the faculty of Hollins.

Soon the musicians decided to organize themselves and administrate the orchestra. An executive board was created and a strong effort was mounted to enlist wider support from the community. The group's name was established as the Roanoke Civic Orchestra. The RCO performed four concerts in the 1932-33 season. Burnham left Hollins and the Roanoke area in 1935; replaced by Arthur Talmadge. Talmadge became a major figure in the musical life of the Roanoke Valley through his involvement in chamber ensembles and solo recitals. With several smaller groups of musicians and soloists performing regularly, the orchestra itself almost went into dormant state for a few seasons -- performing somewhat irregularly through 1941.

It was then that the orchestra withdrew from the sponsorship of the Thursday Morning Music Club -- the Roanoke County Federation of Women's Clubs was enlisted as the group's main sponsor. Regular performances took place again, but only for one more year. By 1942, times would begin to change drastically. The course of life in Roanoke was altered as the orchestra's men of enlistment age, and members of their audience, became part of the war effort. The 1942-43 season was never heard, and it would be years before a Roanoke orchestra would take the stage again.


Gibson Morrissey returned to southwest Virginia in 1952 having traveled extensively during the previous 10 years. In the fall of 1952, twenty years after Hazel Burnham conducted the first notes of Roanoke's first symphony orchestra, Mrs. Harry Dixon and Gibson Morrissey organized the Roanoke Symphony Society, an autonomous organization sponsored by volunteers and supporters to administrate a new "Roanoke Symphony Orchestra."

Morrissey travelled to West Virginia to meet Dr. Helen Thompson, the Executive Secretary of the American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL) in order to start an orchestra in Roanoke. She assisted in the start-up by sending John Edwards, president of ASOL to aid in the organization's launch. Dr. Thompson assisted in the start of the Women's Auxiliary. Morrissey invested his own funds to attract and hire musicians and with the assistance of Reva Dixon, The Thursday Morning Music Club agreed to support the new RSO.

The debut performance of the RSO was on March 31, 1953 at the Jefferson High School Auditorium. Over the following 23 years with Morrissey as conductor, the Roanoke's orchestra secured a new foothold, saw the birth of the Roanoke Youth Symphony, the introduction of the Symphony Ball fundraiser, and the inaugural performance of the RSO in the newly constructed Roanoke Civic Center auditorium in 1971. Morrissey's RSO was the beginning of the "modern era" orchestra in Roanoke. Morrissey served the RSO until his death in 1975.


Immediately succeeding Morrissey, RSO clarinetist Jack Moehlenkamp was selected to lead by his colleagues. Professor Emeritus, Dr. Moehlenkamp served on the faculty at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg from 1951 until he retired in 1989. He taught at the Roanoke Youth Symphony's Summer Music Institute for a decade more, a duty he fulfilled to the delight of students and faculty alike. After serving in the U.S. Army Air Force Band, Moehlenkamp graduated from the University of Kansas. He entered Yale University and studied piano, clarinet, and composition, notably under Paul Hindemith, where he received his Masters of Music Degree 1951. In 1953 he married Betty Sue Stoneback, and they spent the next year in Paris France where he studied French piano music at L'École de Musique. In 1963, Dr. Moehlenkamp was awarded the Doctor of Musical Arts Degree from Eastman School of Music where he studied piano, composition, and played first clarinet in the highly respected Eastman Wind Ensemble under conductor Frederick Fennell. Moehlenkamp also studied in Munich and Salzburg before settling in Lynchburg where he joined the LSO in 1970, and served as its conductor from 1972 to 1974. He was the RSO's Principal clarinetist under Gibson Morrissey, and at a crucial time in the RSO's development, led the RSO until the arrival of music director Victoria Bond.


In 1986, RSO President Tom Rutherfoord and then Publisher of The Roanoke Times, Walter Rugaber, were seeking ways to fund the orchestra and to continue it's artistic growth. They found a Roanoke area patroness who agreed to pay a new conductor's salary for 10 years. A search committee of the RSO Board reviewed conductor resumes and ultimately invited three finalists for the job. New York composer and conductor Victoria Bond was selected, and began her tenure with the RSO.

Bond immediately took a high profile in the community while simultaneously beginning to improve the RSO's artistic quality. It was also during this time that a full-time manager was hired -- Marguerite Fourcroix -- to raise funds and manage the organization's office operations. Victoria raised the profile of the RSO, and with Marguerite's assistance, secured the support of families and corporations that continue as patrons and vital supporters today.

Victoria's tenure ended in 1996 and she returned to the New York area to continue a career in composition and conducting.


In 1996, following a two-year conductor search which drew hundreds of applicants from around the world, the RSO and Chorus found conductor, composer, and pianist David Stewart Wiley. Entering a new era of artistic growth and vision, the RSO's Maestro made his debut in October of 1995, and became the RSO's fourth music director in 1996. Since that time, the RSO has been recognized nationally for its remarkable artistic achievements, its innovative education programs and its unique outreach to diverse audiences.

For a more in-depth look, please see Maestro David Stewart Wiley


In addition to RSO Principals, a diverse roster of guest artists have performed with the RSO. Acclaimed classical soloists have included Sir James Galway, award winning pianists Awadagin Pratt, Jon Nakamatsu, Christopher O'Riley and Norman Krieger, clarinetist Richard Stolzman, violinists Natasha Korsakova, David Kim, soprano Leontyne Price, cellists Julie Albers and Zuill Bailey, jazz greats Billy Taylor and Marian McPartland, guitarists Glen Campbell, Liona Boyd and Chet Atkins, trumpeter Doc Severinsen, headliners Roberta Flack, Mercedes Ellington, Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett, Lou Rawls, Willie Nelson, Bruce Hornsby, Al Jarreau, Olivia Newton John, Michael McDonald, Wynonna, Aaron Neville, Art Garfunkel, The Moscow Ballet, Kool and the Gang, The Moody Blues, Cirque de la Symphonie, Jeans n' Classics, and Bernadette Peters. The RSO performs as the orchestra for Opera Roanoke, and the RSO remains a vital source for performance and collaboration with presenting organizations in Virginia's Blue Ridge. 2014 marks the RSO's 40th Anniversary of live radio broadcasts on WVTF, and has presented hundreds of concert intermission and podcast features by David Stewart Wiley with WVTF hosts.

Milestones for the orchestra include a public performance and private recording of Quincy Jones' Black Requiem with Ray Charles, the orchestra's first (live) recording. Boston Pops Maestro Arthur Fiedler led the RSO as a guest conductor early in its history. There have been several professional CD and film recordings released during Wiley's tenure: Beethoven's Symphony No.9 in 1997, followed by "American Piano Concertos" - a special recording project with the RSO and pianist Norman Krieger (in 1998), as well as the RSO's 2007 Delos International release of "Zuill Bailey Live with the RSO" featuring French cello concertos. In 2012, RSO musicians participated in the film score recording the Jane Seymour film "Lake Effects", featuring music by Kaz Boyle and David Stewart Wiley, conducted by Wiley. The RSO has performed world premiere events with composers as diverse as former composer-in-residence Margaret Brouwer to Billy Joel. The RSO has achieved national recognition in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, on the "Today Show," and "NPR's Performance Today." As the largest professional orchestra and chorus in western Virginia, the RSO serves the largest geographic audience of all orchestras in the state. The orchestra tours to many locations and has gained significant support and new audiences from communities throughout western Virginia, making it "Virginia's Orchestra."


The 2013-'14 season includes a Masterworks Series, a Picnic at the Pops Series, Destination Concerts, as well as Regional & Touring Performances and Special Events.