As the Las Vegas Philharmonic kicks off its 20th season this week, a look back through the orchestra’s first two decades reveals that its history has been as interesting as any piece of music its members have performed.
Take the Philharmonic’s beginnings, set against a backdrop of the impending demise of the Nevada Symphony Orchestra and the forced cancellation of a Fourth of July concert over a labor dispute. Philharmonic co-founder Harold Weller — then a UNLV visiting professor whose resume included conducting “The Nutcracker” for Nevada Dance Theatre — recalls that he thought it absurd for a city such as Las Vegas to not have an Independence Day symphonic concert.
In just nine days, Weller and Richard McGee — who would become the Philharmonic’s founding conductor and associate conductor — recruited musicians to perform what the program called “a star-spangled Fourth of July spectacular” under the name The Las Vegas Philharmonic.
As the 2018-2019 season dawns, here are some memorable tidbits from two decades of beautiful music, based on information from the Philharmonic and news reports.
The first performance of the Las Vegas Philharmonic is on July 4, 1998, a hastily arranged holiday concert at Hills Park in Summerlin. Audience response is so good that Weller — then coming off a 15-year-run as musical director and general manager of the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra — and local arts patrons and Lady Luck hotel owners Andrew and Susan Tompkins are inspired to make the Philharmonic permanent. On May 8, 1999, the Philharmonic plays its first official concert at UNLV’s Artemus Ham Hall.
The Philharmonic’s premiere season includes four performances at Artemus Ham Hall, as well as three “soirees,” intimate receptions and recitals held in private homes.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (“Ode to Joy”) is performed at the second season finale with the UNLV Master Chorale. The Philharmonic and the chorale will again perform the piece on May 11, 2019.
On Sept. 21 and 22, 2001, the Philharmonic plays its first pops concert. “Pops at The Rio!” features several selections from movies, including themes from “Gone With the Wind” and “Batman.”
On Oct. 5, 2002, the orchestra performs “Javelin” by Las Vegas-based composer Michael Torke. Current music director and conductor Donato Cabrera has scheduled three more Torke works for the Philharmonic in recent years, reflecting its fondness for contemporary American and regional composers.
The Las Vegas Philharmonic Chorus, created to accompany the orchestra in Mozart’s “Requiem,” makes its debut.
As Las Vegas gears up to celebrate its 100th birthday, the Philharmonic books three original pieces by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Walker — who attended the final rehearsals and concert premiere of his work, “Hoopla (A Touch of Glee)” — the Philharmonic’s own McGee and the University of Texas at Austin’s Dan Welcher.
Las Vegas officially marks its 100th on May 15, 2005, and on July 4, 2005, the Philharmonic presents the world premiere of “Las Vegas Rhapsody” by McGee, the orchestra’s associate conductor and education director, and narrated by Mayor Oscar Goodman.
On July 1, 2007, David Itkin succeeds Weller as the Philharmonic’s conductor.
The Philharmonic receives a jolt of Hollywood star power when actor Stacy Keach narrates a performance of Arthur Honneger’s “King David” on May 10, 2008.
The Philharmonic moves beyond the primarily masterworks and classical programs it had been offering by unveiling a pops series.
Longtime Philharmonic concertmaster De Ann Letourneau (violin) and principal Andrew Smith (cello) perform Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin and Cello on Feb. 27, 2010. They’ll again perform the piece during an all-Brahms program on Feb. 9, 2019.
17-year old guest conductor/composer/classical music phenom Alexander Prior joins the orchestra for an evening of romantic music on Feb. 12, 2011. Today, Prior is chief conductor of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.
On March 24, 2012, the Philharmonic performs its first concert at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts. The program: Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, which the orchestra also performed at its May 1999 premiere concert.
Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh narrates “Lincoln Portrait” by Aaron Copland, and Mayor Carolyn Goodman and former Mayor Oscar Goodman narrate “The Night Before Christmas” at holiday concerts.
On Jan. 18, 2014, guest conductor Donato Cabrera conducts “Battle Born: Nevada Proud!” as his first audition to replace outgoing conductor Itkin. Cabrera — who spent a good chunk of his childhood in Las Vegas — is named the Philharmonic’s musical director/conductor starting with the 2014-2015 season.
In October 2014, the Philharmonic leaves the concert hall to perform Beatles tunes with members of Cirque du Soleil’s “Love” at the Life is Beautiful festival in downtown Las Vegas.
The Philharmonic unveils its Spotlight Concert series of chamber music performed in intimate settings.
EGOT-winning (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) performer Rita Moreno joins the Philharmonic for its annual holiday concerts, narrating Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”
The Philharmonic presents “Copland in Mexico,” a collection of pieces by Aaron Copland and Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas.
The Las Vegas Philharmonic kicks off its 20th season on Saturday. The season’s performances will include the score of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” to video accompaniment, a 100th birthday tribute to Leonard Bernstein and evenings devoted to Brahms and movie composer John Williams (who has guest-conducted the Philharmonic a time or two).
The 20th anniversary season will include both new pieces and a few selections from the orchestra’s first 20 years. The schedule:
■ Sept. 15: An opening night 100th birthday tribute to Leonard Bernstein (“Overture to Candide” and “Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’ ”), as well as Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Opus 18” with pianist Joyce Yang, and Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture — Fantasy.”
■ Oct. 6: The Philharmonic salutes Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann’s score to “Psycho” when the thriller is presented with a live orchestra’s accompaniment.
■ Nov. 3: Philip Glass’ newest work, “Piano Concerto No. 3” (which was commissioned by a consortium of orchestras that includes the Las Vegas Philharmonic) with pianist Simone Dinnerstein, Mozart’s “Overture to Cosi fan tutte” and “Symphony No. 40 in G Minor,” and Bach’s “Concerto for Keyboard No. 7 in G Minor.”
■ Dec. 1: “A Classic Holiday,” a celebration of holiday classics with vocalists Kristen Hertzenberg and Travis Cloer that will end in the Philharmonic’s traditional audience singalong.
■ Jan. 12, 2019: “The Music of John Williams” will include selections from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Star Wars,” “Jurassic Park,” “Hook,” “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
■ Feb. 9: “An Evening with Brahms” will include “Academic Festival Overture, Opus 80,” “Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Opus 98” and “Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor, Opus 102” with violinist and Philharmonic concertmaster De Ann Letourneau and Philharmonic principal cellist Andrew Smith.
■ March 2: The members of the American trio Time for Three will perform with the Philharmonic.
■ April 6: “Music Unwound: Dvorak in America” will include Dvorak’s “Scherzo Capriccioso, Opus 66” and “Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Opus 95, ‘From the New World,’ ” as well as “The Hiawatha Melodrama.”
■ May 11: The Philharmonic’s 20th season finale, “Ode to Joy,” include Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concert in E Minor, Opus 64” and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Opus 125, ‘Choral,’ ” with an appearance by the Las Vegas Master Singers.
For information or tickets, visit the Las Vegas Philharmonic’s website (lvphil.org) or call 702-258-5438.
Contact John Przybys at jprzybys @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.