photography by Paul Bostrom

On May 11, 1965, at May Hall Auditorium, Ken Anderson and conductor Jay W. Erwin introduced the Lakeland Civic Symphony and gave Lakeland
its first live orchestral performance. Erwin, the owner of a local music store, and Anderson, a professor at Florida Southern, simply wanted to bring symphonic music to the city. Which it continues to do, now under the music direction of Maestro Mark Thielen who, becoming the conductor in 2000, has been a part of the symphony for 37 years. First introduced as Lakeland Civic Symphony and renamed in 1987, today it is known as Lakeland’s Imperial Symphony Orchestra (ISO).

Initially designed as a volunteer orchestra, the ISO has widely grown, bringing in musicians from all across Central Florida. In those first performances, a glass jar would sit at the front of the concert hall for donations. Now primarily funded through grants, corporate sponsors, and individual contributions, this past April, ISO’s board of directors was able to make the monumental decision to pay their musicians.

“It’s huge, because it’s one more way as an organization for us to say we value the time these people have put in,” says the ISO’s Executive Director Amy Wiggins. “Most of our experiences throughout our lives with performing arts are through a child’s dance recital or church productions. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that some of the musicians we hear on the radio, or people on stage with Hozier, have trained almost as long as doctors have, if not longer. There is a value to their art. So we’re really honored as a nonprofit and arts organization to be able to pay our musicians
this year.”

No doubt the ISO has long been one of the most prized and professional engagements of live music throughout the city limits. In just this past 2014 – 2015 season, the ISO celebrated its 50th anniversary. As a nod to its first ever performance, the ISO’s anniversary concert of last season included Beethoven’s “Overture to Prometheus,” Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, and selections from My Fair Lady, identical to the one performed at May Hall in 1965.

2016 – 2017 SEASON
Every season, the ISO hosts nine programs, including their Masterworks and Tea & Symphony series. But this symphony orchestra goes well beyond a set list of performances and seeks to instill in the community an educated, enriched culture.

Masterworks is a series of professional concerts performed throughout the year, by far the ISO’s most highly anticipated events. Live performances include collections of classical pieces featuring highly accomplished guest musicians. For the first of the Masterworks series, the ISO performed Rossini’s Barber of Seville and Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Masterworks’ remaining concerts include A Victorian Holiday (an annual classical Christmas concert, performing Leroy Anderson’s famed “Sleigh Ride”), A Romantic Symphony (Tchaikovsky’s amorous Sleeping Beauty Suite with guest conductor Kira Omelchenko, and a special piano solo performance by Robert Fleitz of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 in C Minor), and Pines of Rome with guest cellist Byron Hogan.

A symphony accompanied by tea, this pre-concert lecture shares the life of the composer and the key influences at the time their pieces of music were composed. Located in the rehearsal facilities, guests gather with tea and refreshments and learn the history of composers and music in the upcoming Masterworks Series.

Tea & Symphony revels in the significant impact audiences experience during a concert when listeners are more well-informed of its history. A recent evening of Tea & Symphony featured Antonin Dvorak’s From the New World. “When he [Dvorak] left Europe and came to America,” Wiggins shares, “his only idea of what he would find was what he had heard on the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show on the radio. But when he got here, he learned of the Native American culture and he experienced African American spirituals, and those were the things that influenced him to write New World Symphony. So if you listen to New World Symphony with that in mind, you’ll hear it in a totally different way.”

This fall, in partnership with Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, the ISO hosted a series in Munn Park, called Music Munn Days. Each Monday during lunch hour, the ISO presented live performances with new musicians each week in October. The series included a range of genres from Bluegrass, jazz, and even a DJ for a Halloween block event.

In addition to an already packed season, this year the ISO premiered their Songwriter Session Series, debuting with local recording artist Michael McArthur. In September, a live, packed concert featured McArthur’s original songs arranged for a symphony. The addition of the ISO, accompanied by his band, only bolstered McArthur’s knack for blues, resulting in an unbelievable concert blend.

Covering a wide range of works, classical, current, and iconic, all of ISO’s efforts connect the community to music, seeking actively to instill this in the young and old.

The ISO performs four “School Day” concerts a year in partnership with the Polk County school system. At these yearly concerts, fourth- and fifth-grade students are able to experience a live performance in a formal setting, and see firsthand the variety and features of instruments that make up an orchestra. “We show them, ‘This is a flute, or violin, and this is what noise it makes, and this is how you make that noise,’” says Wiggins. “This year we have an acting troupe called Really Inventive Stuff, who will perform the story of Antonin Dvorak as he came to the new world (this season’s first Masterworks concert).” The ISO will then follow in featuring Dvorak’s iconic New World Symphony.

“The biggest hurdle we have for these enrichment concerts,” Wiggins says, “is transportation funding. Though this year the school district was able to write a special grant, so we’ll be able to pack every one of those concerts.”

The ISO also plays a key role in an active strings program for the Polk County school system, something many elementary schools lack throughout the state. Considering the nation’s weary wrestle to keep the arts in education, with programs like School Day, local efforts seem to surpass the norm.

“The symphony can be intimidating to those who don’t know about it,” says Wiggins. And, quite possibly, to some it’s simply foreign.

A study in the past year by the National Endowment for the Arts found some of the main hindrances that keep people from regularly attending the arts are a lack of time and access, both of which are hard to argue in a city where everything is 10 minutes away. Other common misconceptions can easily sway many from ever attending a live orchestral performance. “Some may think, What if I have to cough or have to pee?” Wiggins says. The idea that symphonies are “stuffy” is common and easily deters many from engaging in what may be some of culture’s most enriching experiences.

ISO has subtly interwoven an engagement in arts within the structure of our city. Whether it be a Monday afternoon stroll in the park, a pop performance set to strings, or learning the history of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2, there is something to be said for the value of Lakeland’s culture of song. And something to be said of an Imperial Symphony Orchestra that has kept that alive in a city for over 50 years.



For more details on the ISO musicians highlighted in this feature, pick up the latest copy of The Lakelander November 2016.