The University of Southern Mississippi Symphony Orchestra is the oldest orchestra in Mississippi. The first Orchestra at the University of Southern Mississippi was organized in 1913 to accompany performances of the choir. A ten-piece ensemble, it was short-lived, probably because it did not perform traditional orchestral literature. Therefore, Southern Mississippi Symphony Orchestra recognizes the 1920 College Orchestra of the Mississippi Normal College as its true predecessor. Directed by Margaret Gillard, the orchestra consisted of nine violinists, one bassist, and single players of the cornet, horn, and trombone. A pianist supplied missing parts. Little is known about the music that this orchestra played, no programs being extant. In 1924, Hazel Horton Read took up the baton and led an ensemble that was smaller by one; there was no trombonist. One may presume he graduated. No orchestra existed for the next five years until 1930, and little is known about the ensemble from that year until the 1950s, a few photographs being the only proof that the orchestra even existed.
In the early 1950s the orchestra played one concert a year, with about nine rehearsals. In 1954-1956 it played three concerts a year. By the late 1950s the orchestra gave an average of four concerts a year, plus a regional composers' concert. The orchestra met one evening a week for two hours. Conductors in the 1950s and 1960s were Joshua Missal (1951-52), Roger Phelps 1952-54), Roger Phelps and Dr. William Presser (1954- 56), Dr. William Presser (1956-60), Rey Longyear, first concert of Fall, 1960 season, Felix Ponziani, through Spring, 1960, Dr. William Presser (1960-61), James Hanshumaker (1961-62), and Harold Avery (1962-63).
During the fall of 1953 Roger Phelps led the orchestra. Frank Earl Marsh, the department chairman, created a chamber orchestra for Dr. William Presser to conduct. Presser also conducted Naughty Marietta and other such works. Dr. Presser conducted the chamber orchestra from 1953 until 1955. It was disbanded in 1955.
By 1953, Dr. Marsh was too ill to continue as oratorio or opera director, but never missed directing a performance of Handel's Messiah until Warren Joseph, choral conductor, came in 1958. Robert Waterstripe conducted the Brahms Requiem in 1954 for Marsh, and in 1955 Presser conducted Mendelssohn's Elijah (These two programs listed Marsh as the conductor.) After Elijah, the spring oratorio concerts were dropped and an opera conductor was hired.
For several successive years in the late 1950s the orchestra gave a series of three annual concerts devoted to music by regional composers who were "required to be present." Dr. Presser was in charge of these concerts and rehearsed the orchestra, but did no conducting on these programs. They had conductors from Memphis, Jackson, Mobile, and Birmingham. They also had guest composer-conductors. This was the highlight of the 1950s for the orchestra. The orchestra had about 12 conductors for these contemporary music programs.
There was also the South Mississippi Youth Orchestra, consisting of students of high school age. Around 1954 Frank Crockett was hired at Southern to start strings in the public schools. In a few years he had a fine youth orchestra. Each year he asked Dr. Presser to write a work for him. He wrote an easy string work, Prelude to Autumn, and two works for full orchestra, which both won the NSOA award, and three other works. (Frank Crockett went on to become the State Supervisor of Music for the state of Georgia).
During the sixties, Dr. William T. Gower directed the orchestra, and its personnel included several whose names are familiar to Southern Miss concertgoers. Nationally acclaimed composer James Sclater was the principal clarinetist in the orchestra and Dr. Tom Fraschillo, currently the Director of Bands at Southern Miss, was a member of the percussion section.
In 1967, trumpeter Carl "Doc" Severinsen, the famous former band leader on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, made a guest appearance with the orchestra, performing the Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra by Floyd Werle, the principal composer-arranger for the United States Air Force Band. Opera occupied much of the orchestra's time early in this decade, the ensemble being in the pit for several productions, Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona, Rossini's Barber of Seville, and Puccini's La Boheme among them. Rudolf Firkusny, the renowned Czech pianist, performed Schumann's Concerto in A minor in the winter of 1972, a year that Dr. Gower also brought forth the USM Summer School Symphony Orchestra.
Beginning in 1974, the podium was occupied by a variety of conductors, James Yestadt, David Foltz, Joe Barry Mullins, and Vernon Raines all traded the baton within a four-year period. Alexander Toradze, silver medal winner of the 1977 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, appeared with the orchestra. In 1978, Ronald McCreery became Music Director. McCreery, an influential figure in the history of the orchestra, encouraged the development of orchestras and the teaching of string instruments with the successful University String Development Project. A two-day conference that focused upon promoting orchestral playing and music education in elementary and secondary schools, this event was forerunner of the USM All-South Honor Orchestra Conference. McCreery remained in his position as conductor of the orchestra throughout most of the 1980s.
Dr. Jay Dean became the Director of Orchestral Activities at Southern Miss in 1988. With his appointment the Southern Mississippi Symphony Orchestra has grown significantly over the last two decades, and with each year it reaches a higher level of artistry. Recruiting new students is a major part of the orchestra efforts. The orchestra is truly an international organization, which includes over eighty musicians from the United States and fourteen other countries. This number grows each year. In addition to the musicians, it employs one of the largest and most professionally directed collegiate administrative staffs in the country. As Director of Orchestral Activities, Dean selects works for each program with the aim they be educationally and technically purposeful for the musicians and aesthetically pleasing and interesting for the audiences. Under Dean's leadership the orchestra has continued to present some of Mississippi's most outstanding musical performances. In addition to playing an entire season of symphony concerts each year, the orchestra is involved in children's concerts, ballet, opera, and pops concerts.
Internationally known artists appear with the orchestra on a regular basis, artists such as Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Doc Severinsen, Ray Charles, John Browning, Jean Pierre Rampal, Denyce Graves, Christopher Parkening, Edgar Meyer, Roberta Peters, Sir James Galway, Joshua Bell, and Placido Domingo. Because of the regular appearances of these artists, the orchestra's motto is "We bring the world to Mississippi!"