The Walla Walla Symphony

Celebrates 100 Years

Dan Shultz


The longstanding relationship between the Walla Walla Symphony, oldest continuous symphony society west of the Mississippi, and Walla Walla College is unique within the circle of Adventist colleges. For most of 100 years the community orchestra and the college have worked together in ways that have benefited both musical entities.


Walla Walla College was in its 16th year when the Walla Walla Symphony Club presented its first concert with an orchestra of 30 in December 1907. It was truly a pioneering venture, given the existing musical scene in America. Though there were thousands of municipal bands, nationwide, fewer than 50 orchestras existed and many of those would be short-lived.

It was the orchestra's good fortune to have as its first conductor Edgar Fischer, a youthful musician who had studied in Europe and been a violin student of Joseph Joachim, a student of Felix Mendelssohn and friend of Johannes Brahms. His vision and tenacity, in the face of financial problems and uneven support from the community, helped the orchestra survive in its early years.


Even though the symphony was a marvelous opportunity for musicians at WWC, they did not participate until 1913. The reasons may have been the college's rigid dawn to dusk schedule, the distance to Walla Walla, or the fact that the concerts were given in a local theater, a place not viewed with favor by church leaders. Interestingly, Lloyd Biggs, a ministerial student and violinist, was the first WWC person to join the group.

By 1921, when Victor Johnson, a versatile string player, came to teach in the WWC music department, a number of Adventist musicians were playing in the WWS. One of Johnson's first moves as he arrived was to arrange violin study with Fischer and join the orchestra. He enjoyed the lessons and playing under Fischer and was devastated when Fischer died suddenly in March of that first season.

Following two years of interim leadership, Fischer's wife, Alice, became conductor and led for the next eight years, through the orchestra's 25th anniversary concert in 1932. By then, the Great Depression was deepening and concerts were suspended for one season.


At the end of that time, Alice Fischer recommended that Victor Johnson, who had just returned from Washington, D.C., where he had been teaching for the past 7 years at Washington Missionary College, be asked to lead the group. He accepted.

For the next two years he led the orchestra while chairing the WWC music department, leading its orchestra, teaching full-time, and directing a community chorus. As he started his third year, his teaching load at the college expanded to include directing the band. Just prior to the first concert in that season, he became seriously ill and had to step aside.


In the decades since Johnson's high-profile involvement in the orchestra, large numbers of WWC teachers and students have played in the orchestra, been soloists, and served as concertmasters, principal chairs, and members of the board. The orchestra, which has become an ensemble known for the quality of its performances, has provided an unparalleled opportunity for WWC musicians to play major orchestral works, showcase their talents, and interact with many nationally and internationally known soloists and composers.


During the orchestra's first century, four Walla Walla College faculty members served for a total of 19 years as concertmasters. Julian Lobsein was the first, serving from 1946 to 1948. John J. Hafner served from 1960 to 1965 and Glenn Spring from 1965 to 1975. Lyn Ritz, present concertmaster is in her second year in that position.


Many college faculty and students have been featured as soloists. String soloists have included Virginia Gene Shankel, Julian Lobsein, Melvin A. Johnson, Pamela Hitchman, Penny Schwarze, Ingrid Spring, Alice Massey, Glenn Spring, Kathleen Spring, Karin Thompson, Sam Johnson, Benjamin Gish, and Lyn Ritz.

Pianists have included Sterling Gernet, Gem Fitch, Laurel Ann Johnson, Larry Sprengel, Leonard Richter, Debra Richter, Cynthia Westerbeck, Joel Dickerson, and Kazumi Masuko. Melvin West, Lanny Collins, Kraig S. M. Scott were soloists on organ and Richard D. Randoph soloed on harpsichord.

In addition to the many who have sung solos in choral works, Gladys Manchester Walin, Ruth Havstad, John T. Hamilton, Doris De Chenne, Sonja Gourley, Doug Johnson, and Reginald Unterseher were featured as soloists with the orchestra. Charles Bell, Sherrick S. Hiscock, III, Peggy Bell, and Joseph Brooks were featured as woodwind soloists and Carlyle Manous as a soloist on French horn.

Numerous college and affiliated elementary and academy choral groups have been featured with the orchestra, in addition to numerous students from the college's piano and string preparatory programs.