Tulsa Youth Symphony Stays Strong with Support

Contributing Writer

Tulsa has reason to be excited over the inaugural concert of the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, which is attempting to bring orchestral classical music back on a regular basis for the first time since the Tulsa Philharmonic folded, and no one is more excited than Ron Wheeler.

Since 1972 Wheeler has been conductor of the Tulsa Youth Symphony, which, in its early years, was an adjunct of the Tulsa Philharmonic. Even though the Philharmonic is little more than a treasured memory, it excites Wheeler to once again lead a feeder orchestra with the hope that its musicians will some day be playing with the big boys in the Tulsa Symphony.

Wheeler has been intimately associated with music in Tulsa since 1962 when he joined the Tulsa Philharmonic, playing the violin under Maestro Franco Autori. He teaches Conducting and Music Fundamentals at Oral Roberts University and is conductor of the ORU orchestra. He has been associated with music camps and festivals in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, California, Oregon and North Dakota. He knows both music and young musicians.

Despite the failure of the Phil, the Tulsa Youth Symphony, which actually consists of two orchestras with 70-75 musicians in each, has managed to continue training young musicians with never a skip in its beat.

“We got tremendous help from Mrs. Hete Barthelmes, whose foundation gave us about $300,000 to keep things rolling,” says Wheeler. “She started the foundation right about the time the Phil went under. In today’s economic climate all fund-raising is a challenge for the arts, and her gift certainly helped us keep going.”

The Youth Symphony has been tremendously helped by the fact that its current quarters, at 1409 S. Elwood Ave., have been donated by benevolent supporters. “Not having to come up with rent money is an enormous blessing,” says Wheeler.

The Tulsa Youth Symphony was begun in 1963 when a Tulsa Philharmonic committee headed by Bonibel Lester put together an ensemble patterned after a similar orchestra in Wichita, Kan. Originally, the Philharmonic provided funds for the fledgling orchestra, but as the Philharmonic’s financial woes mounted the Tulsa Youth Symphony was thrown more and more on its own resources. Mrs. Barthelmes’ gift has given them a solid base of about $16,000 a year in interest and, along with other, smaller gifts, the orchestra has been able to thrive.

They have even added the second orchestra. “The first orchestra,” says Wheeler, “is made up of extremely talented high school students. The Concert Orchestra was begun in 2003 and designed for younger or less advanced players. Naturally we want them to go on to the Tulsa Youth Symphony and, if they want, a professional career. We have alumni of our orchestra playing in some of the finest orchestras in the nation.”

Both orchestras, augmented by the Oral Roberts University Oratorio Chorus and Orchestra, will begin their 2006-2007 season at the Union Schools Performing Arts Center at 6630 S. Mingo Ave. The concert, which will be held at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 4, will begin with the Youth Concert Orchestra playing the Overture to Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi, Jacques Offenbach’s Can-Can and a medley of Christmas music arranged by Mark Williams.

Then the Youth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by both Wheeler and his assistant conductor Richard Wagner, will conduct Aaron Copland’s Outdoor Overture, Two Swedish Folk Songs by Johan Svendsen and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Procession of the Nobles from Mlada.

Then the Youth Symphony and the Oral Roberts University orchestras will join to play the Danse Bacchanale from Camille Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah’, John Rutters’ “What Sweeter Music and Candelite Carol” and a medley of carols arranged by Randol Bass.

“Our next concert,” says Wheeler, “will be February 26 thanks to a generous gift from Patti Johnson Wilson.”

Wheeler hopes the day will come soon when the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra begins to give the Youth Symphony some of the help it used to get from the Philharmonic. He ought to be in a position to know if it will happen. In addition to his duties with the Youth Symphony and the Oral Roberts Orchestra, he is a violinist with the Tulsa Symphony and a member of the artistic advisory committee.

Updated 11-24-2006

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