When Tennessee musician Charles Faulkner Bryan came to Cookeville in 1935, he found a small town in a rural area much like any other American community during the Depression -- lacking in cultural activities, because they were too expensive to maintain. Hired just a year out of the Nashville Conservatory of Music, Bryan ran Tennessee Tech's music division; he was, in fact, the only music professor at the time.
But that didn't stop him from forming a student orchestra and other ensembles or directing a Glee Club and marching band, all of which performed throughout Middle Tennessee during Bryan's four years at Tennessee Tech.
Just a few years after leaving Cookeville, Bryan went on to become Tennessee's most distinguished composer -- in 1942, the first Tennessee composer whose work was premiered by a large professional symphony orchestra and, in 1945, the first Tennessee composer to win a Guggenheim fellowship.
Small wonder, then, that about 50 years later, when a new name was being considered for the Tech Community Symphony Orchestra, Bryan's name arose.
July 26 is the centennial of Bryan's birth, and later this year, the Bryan Symphony Orchestra at Tennessee Tech University will commemorate the occasion during the first subscription concert of its 49th season, on the eve of another milestone for the symphony -- its 50th anniversary season in 2012-2013.
"We have such a terrific heritage," says BSO Executive Director Gail Luna. "The fact that we're coming up on our 50th year in this community, and that we're working very hard to ensure that we're in Cookeville for the next 50 years, speaks to the determination of people here to support great music."
One way BSO supporters and organizers are ensuring that legacy of great music is by organizing a fund-raiser that has the potential to be the biggest and most successful event ever held on behalf of the symphony.
Wine on the WestSide, Cookeville's first Tennessee wine-tasting festival, is set for 2 to 7 p.m., Saturday, June 25, on the WestSide. Advance tickets are $25 and available at www.wineonthewestside.com. If tickets are still available, the cost goes up to $35 at the gate. Designated drivers can buy a discounted ticket for $10.
The festival, which also benefits the WestSide Business Association, is the latest in a long line of unique events that improve the quality of life in Cookeville.
"When I tell people about Cookeville, I always explain that our orchestra is just another part of this town's unique culture," says BSO Board President Mike Porten, city president of Regions Bank. "Whether it's music or art or theater, it's just what people who live here have come to expect. I've never seen anything like it. For Cookeville to have a symphony orchestra is amazing – and the fact that Cookeville's been able to sustain it for so many years means it's going to be around a lot longer."
Visit the Cookeville History Museum for a good look at what the music scene used to be like in these parts. There's been orchestral music in Cookeville for most of the past 125 years, ever since a group of local musicians formed an orchestra in about 1886. From the early part of the 1900s, Cookevillians subscribed to various performance services that brought touring musical and theatrical productions to town, usually about four times a year.
But there wasn't a resident professional symphony orchestra in Cookeville until the early 1960s, when Tech President Everett Derryberry and First Lady Joan Derryberry summoned alumnus James Wattenbarger back to campus as chairman of the Music Department. In his first year – an amazing feat for a young faculty member made possible with the support of the Derryberrys and like-minded community supporters – Wattenbarger formed the Tech Community Symphony Orchestra, which performed its first public concert in March 1964, at the tail end of the 1963-64 academic year.
The first couple of years, the new symphony orchestra was only able to produce two performances a season, but that number grew quickly – especially after the formation of the Symphony Guild, which raised money to help bring in guest artists and pay the salaries of the musicians from the state's more established professional symphonies who supplemented the university's music faculty. The TCSO alternated between three and four concerts a year from its third through 27th season, growing to five performances a year starting in 1990 and, beginning in its fourth decade, to six public performances – plus two private concerts for schoolchildren.
Growth is important; money raised during Wine on the WestSide is going to support a lot of significant work by the Bryan Symphony, including its goal of contributing to music education and appreciation for youngsters. Those efforts have taken a lot of forms over the years – from broadcasts on public television affiliate WCTE to musical instrument "petting zoos" at local festivals to concerts on the TTU campus.
The education initiative likely to bear the most fruit, however, is the BSO-sponsored Community Youth String Orchestra, which has just concluded its fourth season. About 30 children ranging in age from 8 to 12 are members of the CYSO's "Prelude Strings" and "Chamber Strings" ensembles, learning to play violin and cello, read sheet music and perform together as a group. The aim of the CYSO is sowing the seeds for the creation of a high school-level youth orchestra – the first such group in a generation.
It's all about continuing to cultivate great music in Cookeville, says Luna.
"How amazing is it that a town of Cookeville's size can support not only a professional symphony, but all the other smaller ensembles that perform on campus and in town, plus the performing and visual arts? I can tell you that it's rare," she says. "And that says a lot about the people of this community."
Current BSO Music Director Dan Allcott came to Cookeville in 2003 from Atlanta, where he was principal conductor of the Atlanta Ballet, a post he held for a number of years even after joining the Tennessee Tech faculty. Allcott is the symphony's fifth music director, and he brings a musical aesthetic to programming that audiences appreciate.
"Any music director who is sincere has to try to program what he thinks is appropriate and what calls to him and what calls to the community," says Allcott, who's beginning his ninth season in Cookeville, the second-longest tenure among BSO conductors. "In my case, because my training and professional experience included opera and ballet, along with symphonic work, it was natural to try to include staged productions in our repertoire.
"To me, the most important part of our work is contributing to a strong arts ecosytem," he says. "Here, we have the university and the BSO, which are two important linchpins in the cultural arts in this region, because there's great music here, and there's great music education here. We're putting out music educators who are incredibly strong because of the way our orchestra and the TTU Music Department work together."
The BSO, which is supported in part through its partnership with the Tennessee Tech Music Department, relies on grants and other forms of professional fund-raising, as well as ticket sales, for its annual operating budget, and that's due to an increasing focus on the public-private partnership by the BSO Board of Directors.
"Our goal with Wine on the WestSide is raising a larger percentage of our operating budget," says Luna. "More funding buys us the flexibility to enhance our programming -- to bring in more expensive productions like opera and to hire more musicians for the larger pieces and to support youth initiatives like the Community Youth String Orchestra. What we want to do is build on our funding base to be able to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. If we didn't have a board with vision – a board that genuinely wants to look to the future – we couldn't have grown the way we have over the past 48 years, let alone what this orchestra might grow into someday."