One of the paradoxes of Youngstown is that it is a gritty, industrial, working-class town and a city where the arts have long flourished. It is evident in the spaces that have been set aside, like the Butler and Stambaugh Auditorium, and the performance home of the Youngstown Symphony, the former Warner Theatre, now part of a beautifully restored DeYor performing complex.
For the Youngstown Symphony, it all started when two brothers, Michael and Carmine Ficocelli, recruited twelve young musicians under the age of 16 from the Youngstown Schools, where they taught music. They formed The Little Symphony Orchestra in 1926, broadcasting their first concert on WKBN that year. It wasn’t until 1929 that they gave their first public performance. The Ficocellis continued to lead the orchestra until 1951. John Kruger became the third conductor that year, and shortly after changed the name to the Youngstown Philharmonic Orchestra. Under Kruger, the Philharmonic added a chorus, and a Youngstown Symphony Youth Orchestra, continuing the tradition of young musicians that were the orchestra’s roots.
It was under John Kruger that I first encountered what was then the Youngstown Philharmonic during elementary school. We rode the bus up to Stambaugh Auditorium, dressed up in nice clothes for Youth Concerts, where we heard pieces like Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, that introduced us to the different instruments in the orchestra.
In 1965 Franz Bibo succeeded John Kruger in what was a pivotal period in the orchestra’s history. It was during this time that the name was changed to the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra. Bibo pioneered the staging of locally produced operas. Most of all, it was under his leadership that the Youngstown Symphony and the Symphony Society acquired and renovated the Warner Theatre, restoring its glory as the renamed Edward W. Powers Auditorium. The Youngstown Symphony is one of the few orchestras of its size to have its own performing space. He led the orchestra until 1980. We went to several concerts as college students, most memorably a lavish production of The Nutcracker.
The next 25 years saw a succession of four directors. Peter Leonard came as Music Director in 1980. When he left three years later, Youngstown native John DeMain served as Acting Music Director until 1987. DeMain was born in Youngstown in 1944 to a steelworker father and travel agent mother. He was a piano prodigy at age 6 and sang in Youngstown Playhouse productions in his youth before going to Juilliard. His real career has been in conducting with a Grammy winning performance of Porgy and Bess, and premieres of Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place and John Adams’ Nixon in China. Friends of mine in Madison, Wisconsin rave about his twenty-five year tenure there and all he has done with their orchestra. Youngstown was fortunate to acquire his services when he was in his forties and establishing an international reputation.
David Effron followed from 1987 to 1996, during a time when the Symphony Board led a campaign for a $3.5 million endowment. Isaiah Jackson succeeded him in another nine year tenure through 2006. For many rock aficionados, his tenure is remembered for a joint effort with a re-united Glass Harp on October 22, 2000 at Powers Auditorium, “Strings Attached.”
Since then, the orchestra has been led by Randall Craig Fleischer. Under Fleischer, the orchestra has continued its work with young musicians, filling the gap where music education in the schools has ended and taking Young People’s Concerts to the schools. They have inaugurated a Stain Glass Concert series of free informal concerts at various houses of worship around Youngstown, including St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital. They have performed with a variety of popular musicians including country artists Rachel Potter and Patrick Thomas this past Christmas.
In 2016, the Youngstown Symphony celebrated its 90th year. The Vindicator published a special section on September 16, 2016 highlighting its history and current programs. Under Maestro Fleischer, the Youngstown Symphony appears to be a vibrant organization, continuing to inspire young musicians. Who knows who the next John DeMain will be?
More information about the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra including their current concert schedule may be found at their website.
On a sad note: since this aricle was first written, Maestro Fleischer passed away on August 19, 2020.