The Waco Symphony Orchestra is a music organization that brings enrichment to the Central Texas community. The Waco Symphony Orchestra Association, Incorporated, as we know it, began its concerts in 1962. However, an orchestra conducted by Max Reiter began in 1939 as an experiment that laid the foundation for the Waco Symphony Orchestra's classical performances today.
Born in Trieste, Italy, in 1905, Reiter began his musical career as assistant of the Opera of Berlin, and conducted orchestras in other musical centers of Europe. Fleeing from Hitler’s inferno, Reiter went to New York City in 1939 with a dream to land a job as a conductor. After denial from jobs in New York, Reiter collected contact information from musicians in Southern cities, purchased a bus ticket, and headed south.
Waco was a scheduled stop on Reiter’s bus. While waiting for his connection to Fort Worth, Reiter wandered along the nearby streets and noticed a sign that read, “H. Novich, China.” Recognizing the name from his list of contacts, Reiter introduced himself to Miss Mary Novich, stating that he wanted to start a symphony. At once, Mary and her sister Rae put together a list of local patrons of the arts. Patrons of the arts assured that the Baylor University School of Music faculty and students would support his endeavors, and the university offered Waco Hall as a performance venue.
With much enthusiasm, the new symphony orchestra set the date of its debut performance for April 20, 1939. In the weeks leading to the opening, Baylor faculty and students and local and amateur musicians practiced to play as a single unit. Excitement was in the air. On the evening of the debut concert, Reiter gave the eager audience a bow and raised his baton to bring ninety musicians to attention. Reiter’s orchestra gave their all as they played through four pieces of music that demonstrated the musicians’ disciplined sound and dynamic range. The final piece, Johann Strauss’s Tales from the Vienna Woods, left the audience with a lighthearted touch that rounded out the evening perfectly. At the end of the final piece, well over 1,500 people remained to cheer, yell bravos, and give their approval for the work of the symphony and to plea for continuation of the organization.
The establishment of a permanent symphony was quick in coming, as local patrons of the arts successfully harnessed the momentum of the opening concert. On May 2, 1939, the Waco Symphony Society was born. Reiter led the symphony to perform for four splendid evenings a year for eleven seasons. In 1950, Reiter relinquished his role as conductor and left forthcoming seasons unplanned.
In 1961, after a decade of no symphony performances in the city, members of the Chamber of Commerce met with Daniel Sternberg, dean of the Baylor University School of Music to speak about reintroducing a symphony. On April 24, 1962, the Waco Symphony Association, Incorporated, was established. Patrons of the orchestra enjoyed the first season of the Waco Symphony as it put on three concerts, including a successful performance by Texas pianist Van Cliburn. Maestro Sternberg led the Waco Symphony Orchestra to success, putting on classical as well as pops concerts, accompanying musical guests, and leading the local debut of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Sternberg conducted with energy until the end of the orchestra’s twenty-fifth season. For his farewell concert in 1986, Sternberg put on an all-Beethoven concert.
To build on the success of Sternberg, principal second Stephen Heyde, stepped in as conductor. Heyde pushed the musicians to their potential by adding extra rehearsals, and added more local musicians and faculty, and students of the Baylor music school to create an ensemble of which Waco could feel a sense of ownership. While under Heyde’s leadership, the Waco Symphony Orchestra founded the Waco Symphony Youth Orchestra to give young musicians of Central Texas opportunities to perform. Heyde led the Waco Symphony through their fifty-fifth season and continues to lead a group of musicians that breathe life into pieces of music.
Over the years, the Waco Symphony Orchestra has attracted world-class talents such as Frank Sinatra Jr., Art Garfunkel, and renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma to perform for the community. Many years of sold-out shows, holiday concerts, and subscription season performances have brought beauty and tranquility to audiences, and the ensemble continues to serve as a fixture in the cultural life of the community.