Paul Phillips conducting the Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra in 2009.
Photo credit: Angela Brimberry
Paul Phillips led the Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra and Chorus as Music Director for 23 years, from 1994-2017. Under his direction, the PVS reached new artistic heights, representing Massachusetts in the Ford Made in America Project, taking part in the American Composers Orchestra’s Earshot program, and receiving the New England Public Radio Arts and Humanities Award for Outstanding Organization in 2013. The PVS receiving three ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming and was profiled three times in Symphony Magazine while led by Phillips. Additionally, it premiered dozens of new works along with many Massachusetts and East Coast premieres, and hosted many guest composers, including Samuel Adler, William Bolcom, Peter Boyer, Joseph Schwantner, George Walker, Gwyneth Walker, Robert Ward, Ted Wiprud, and William Perry, who composed numerous pieces premiered by the Pioneer Valley Symphony. Phillips spearheaded collaborations with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Hampshire Choral Society, Commonwealth Opera, Amherst Ballet, Old Deerfield Productions, and other arts organizations throughout the region. Memorable PVS performances under his baton included all of the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies; symphonies by Berlioz, Mahler, and Shostakovich; the Verdi, Brahms, and Fauré requiems; The Rite of Spring; The Planets; Carmina Burana; Ellis Island: The Dream of America; Belshazzar's Feast; A Sea Symphony; and the operas La Traviata and Cavalleria Rusticana.
The origins of the Pioneer Valley Symphony date back to the late 1930s, when a group of friends in Franklin County began meeting weekly to play music together in Shep Raymond’s cabin atop Shelburne Mountain. These musicians named themselves the Greenfield Civic Orchestra once they began making occasional public appearances, and it is this group that became the nucleus of the orchestra founded in 1939 as the Pioneer Valley Symphony.
One of the violinists in the fledgling Greenfield Civic Orchestra was Harold Alexander Leslie, who had returned to his native Greenfield after graduating from the New England Conservatory. After attending a concert by the Albany Symphony, he decided to found a symphony orchestra in Greenfield, and began scouring the hills for musical talent. On 23 May 1939, a rehearsal of the new orchestra was held, and on 10 December of that year, the group gave its first performance, having increased in size from 22 to nearly 50 musicians. By 1941, the PVS had grown to nearly 80 musicians, and was reviewed in the New York Herald Tribune on 29 April 1941 by Virgil Thomson, who wrote, “Five public concerts have been given this season, three in Greenfield, one in Northfield, and one in Brattleboro. I heard the concert in Northfield last Saturday night. The program was distinguished, the playing admirable. Mr. Leslie is obviously a conductor of talent and a musician of sound knowledge…Rarely have I heard an amateur orchestral concert so glowing with musical life…His orchestra, his audience, and himself were all as clearly representative of the New England musical tradition as anything could be.”
With funding from the PVS, Leslie studied conducting one summer at Tanglewood with Serge Koussevitzky. After leading the PVS for its first six seasons, from 1939-1945, Leslie yielded the baton to Werner Josten of Smith College, who led the orchestra from 1945-50. Cellist A. Kunrad Kvam, a Peabody graduate then teaching at Dartmouth College, served as conductor of the PVS from 1950-52, leaving to accept a position in New Jersey at Rutgers University. Russell Stanger (1924-2015), a protegé of Koussevitzky and Leonard Bernstein, became the fourth conductor of the PVS in 1952 and remained in that position until 1956, when he won the Eugene Ormandy National Conductors Competition in Philadelphia and proceeded to become the associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic (1960-62) under Bernstein, associate conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony (1964-66), and music director of the Norfolk Symphony (1966-80).
Nathan Gottschalk (1915-2001), who had performed as a violin soloist with the PVS on 20 February 1954 under Stanger’s baton, succeeded him as music director in 1956. A graduate of Juilliard, Dartmouth, Yale, and Boston University, Gottschalk spent a year as assistant concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra early in his career, later serving on the faculty at Dartmouth, Oberlin, the University of Hartford, and the State University of New York at Albany. When Gottschalk retired in 1993, after having served as the PVS music director for 38 years, five candidates to succeed him were chosen from 80 applicants and invited to guest conduct the orchestra during the 1993-94 season, with Paul Phillips selected as Gottschalk's successor in May 1994.