Tuscarawas Philharmonic is a Resident Company at the Performing Arts Center
This year, the Tuscarawas Philharmonic proudly commemorates its 85th season as a prominent arts organization in the Tuscarawas Valley. Concurrently, Eric Benjamin will turn the calendar on his 25th year as the organization’s conductor and music director. All in all, the Philharmonic has plenty to be proud of.
The orchestra was formed in 1935 by Gilbert Roehm, a young conductor and violinist who was visiting a friend in the area. When Roehm realized local schools were graduating students with music skills and interest who then had no outlet for their abilities as adults, he decided to settle here permanently and fill the void. He opened a private studio in Dover and got to work establishing small ensembles in surrounding towns.
In May of that same year, Roehm combined the ensembles to form a full orchestra, and the group met weekly for music study, lectures and rehearsals. According to an article in the Cleveland “Plain Dealer,” Roehm brought together “school music teachers, housewives, newspaper reporters, lawyers, businessmen and professional musicians,” because he believed, “If given the chance, the people, America’s everyday citizens, would enjoy the world’s best music.”
The group called themselves The Tuscarawas County Philharmonic Society and gave their first concert on August 2, 1936, at Tuscora Park. The Philharmonic eventually made Dover High School auditorium its home and would perform concerts there each year, with repeat performances around the county.
Within just a few years, the ensemble grew to 70 members, and concerts were increased to six a year. Community funds from surrounding towns supported the group, as did a federal arts grant and efforts by the newly formed Philharmonic Society of Tuscarawas County. They purchased a camp at Leesville Lake, where they held summer programs to teach music, drama, and art. The orchestra organized a board of directors, began inviting guest artists to perform, and helped develop a music appreciation program in local schools.
After continued growth and success with his venture, Roehm resigned in 1964, and the board hired Eugene Kilinksy of Cleveland Heights as the new conductor and music director. Kilinksy continued the work of the organization for four years and was replaced by Robert Cronquist of the Mansfield Symphony Orchestra.
In 1975, Margery Kent Henke, graduate of the Peabody Institute Conservatory of Music and a pioneer in her career, assumed the leadership of the orchestra. As music director and conductor, she guided the Philharmonic to an extended season, instituted a regular “pops” concert, invited quality guest artists, and programmed challenging repertoire. She also created both adult and children's choruses. Henke led the orchestra until her death in 1996.
During Henke’s illness, Eric Benjamin stepped in at the request of the board and then general manager, Melanie Winn, to serve as guest conductor. And in 1997, Benjamin assumed the role as conductor and music director of the Tuscarawas Philharmonic.
Under Benjamin’s leadership, the orchestra has expanded its presence in the community with at least eight performances each season, including two free concerts. He continued the annual pops concert at Tuscora Park and now leads the orchestra and adult chorus in performing Handel’s Messiah as a gift to the community as well. As the organization has developed, so has its concert programming, which now includes not only classical music, but jazz, pops, Celtic and country concerts as well.
In 2010, the now professional ensemble moved from its long-time home at Dover High School to the Kent State Tuscarawas Performing Arts Center, and since then, guests have included Franc D’Ambrosio, the Canadian Brass, Nashville performers, a Beatles tribute band, jazz and classical musicians, and many others who have helped demonstrate the orchestra’s versatility.
Some guest performers have returned for repeat appearances, a testament to their admiration for the ensemble, and Benjamin is particularly proud of the orchestra’s relationship with pianist Orion Weiss. While still a junior in high school, Weiss performed “Piano Concerto No. 2” by Dmitri Shostakovich in 1998. Soon after, he was called on short notice by the Baltimore Symphony to perform the same work, and Weiss has since gone on to an international career as a recording artist and concert soloist. He still returns periodically to perform with the Philharmonic.
Upon Winn’s retirement in 2016, Sallie Stroup was hired as executive director, and she has continued the task of assuring the orchestra remains relevant to the community. The Adult Chorus has expanded and now performs twice each season. The Children’s Chorus has grown from being a traditional Christmas feature to a nearly year-long ensemble under the direction of Laura Barkett, and the group now performs for a variety of community events apart from orchestra concerts.
As education has become an increased focus of the organization, orchestra leaders have instituted new programs to include an annual high school honors band that attracts more than 65 students from area schools, a performing arts camp that attracts as many as 100 young musicians to study at the Performing Arts Center, and a new children’s chorus festival that will debut in the spring of 2021.
Also new is the orchestra’s involvement with Link Up, an educational program from Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. Local elementary school music programs are partnering with the Philharmonic to teach music to more than 2,000 students in grades three through five.
Now in his 25th year, Benjamin continues guiding, and expanding upon, the dream of a young violinist whose idea of an orchestra took hold and has touched countless lives for generations. Much has changed in these last 85 years, but some things remain timeless—the love of music and a community’s need to claim ownership of its own source of artistic expression and creative learning. The Tuscarawas Philharmonic looks forward to many more years of performing great music and providing valued educational opportunities for the community.