Some WSO History

Many of the WSO concerts feature guest artists – most recently the saxophone-viola performers and before them, the Williamsport High School Chorus. It is interesting to note how “guesting” with the orchestra occurred early on, specifically during the period that temporarily ended the WSO in 1957.

In 1950, the first “highly rated professional singer” soprano Dorothy Sarnoff (1919-2008) appeared with the orchestra. Time magazine described her as “one of the most personable and best equipped singers the U.S. opera has turned up.” She studied in Paris until the war interfered and brought her back to New York City. With the orchestra conducted by Osborne Housel in the High School auditorium (sited in what is now Penn College’s Academic Center), she drew upon her performance with the Philadelphia Opera Company of La Boheme and sang “Addio” as well as several other pieces.

Sarnoff appeared with opera companies (both Philadelphia and New York) and also on Broadway including as a member of the original cast of The King and I. After retiring from performing, she became a pioneer of the self-help movement, working as an image consultant; published several books and offered personal assistance to a number of public figures, including Danielle Steele and Paloma Picasso.

Then in 1954, a baritone associated with the Metropolitan Opera appeared with the symphony. Ten years earlier, Hugh Thompson (1915-2006) was the winner in the annual Metropolitan opera auditions. With the WSO, he sang pieces from The Magic Flute and Otello in addition to several others.

A graduate of Juilliard, he was on the original roster of the then-new New York City Opera before shifting to the Met where he remained from 1944-1953. Like Sarnoff, post-retirement he began a second career as a director and an academic.

Local guests also graced the stages in a variety of school auditoriums: the local “stars” included contralto Elizabeth Sims, pianist Mary Landon Russell, organist Frederick Snell and violinist Donald Freed among others. Mr. Freed was a student of Conductor Housel, beginning his studies at the age of seven. He also followed his teacher decades later to a position with the Williamsport School District, serving as Supervisor of Elementary Music. In addition, groups who sang with the orchestra included the Williamsport Consistory Choir, the Choirs of Christ Church, the Williamsport Civic Choir, and the Susquehanna Valley Chorale.

Thus, a standard practice with symphony orchestras has been part of the local scene, enriching the concerts and pleasing the audience. The March concert will continue the practice as it features Broadway talent.