In the Fall of 1952, having completed a master’s degree at the University of Iowa, Hagen joined the Wartburg College faculty and brought his young family to Waverly. Soon after he arrived, the “finest thing that has ever happened to Wartburg’s music department” was announced—accreditation by the National Association of Schools of Music. However, there was no orchestra.
So Hagen began recruiting players. “He recruited tirelessly,” said Carla Larson, long-time symphony supporter and wife of tenor Dr. C. Robert Larson, who joined the faculty the same year as Hagen. “He fervently visited area towns and communities and got together quite a respectable group.”
The symphony appeared first as a chamber orchestra in the 1952 Christmas at Wartburg performance. Accepted into the American Symphony Orchestra League, the orchestra played its first concert in Knights Gym Sunday evening, May 24, 1953. Musicians—16 college students and 38 community members—wore “a glittering array of formals and tuxedos.” They came from Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and 14 Iowa communities to play a program that included Bach, Grieg, and Schubert. The Waverly Chamber of Commerce presented a certificate of merit to the orchestra during intermission, and more than 500 people applauded enthusiastically.
Hagen moved on in 1959, becoming director of the Casper (Wyoming) Civic Symphony, organizing the Casper Youth Symphony and founding the Jackson Hole Fine Arts Festival (now the Grand Teton Music Festival) and several festival orchestras. Tragedy struck in 1973. Hagen lost his eyesight as he was composing an opera based on the novel “Giants in the Earth.” With the aid of special magnification devices, Hagen orchestrated the opera, which has been performed in concert version but awaits a fully-staged performance. Hagen died in 2000.
Seven passionate conductors followed Hagen.
Dr. Robert E. Lee (1959-64) smiled when he recalled taking the podium for the first time. The program was ambitious, perhaps too ambitious, with a Beethoven concerto, a Shostakovich prelude, and a Bizet symphony. Lee didn’t know it was one of the first complete symphonies the orchestra had performed. During the second movement, he called out rehearsal letters to get everyone on the same page.
“…I didn’t know the orchestral repertoire that well,” said Lee, whose background was band. “We made it through that first concert and continued to build the orchestra and play some nice things.”
Before Lee left the podium, he arranged for Hagen to return to conduct a tenth anniversary concert of Grieg, Haydn, Mozart, and Vivaldi, on February 2, 1964.
Dr. Franklin Williams (1965-79, 82-84) faced conducting challenges with insight.
“My first shock was that we barely had enough strings to make a quartet at rehearsal. But musicians would come from all over to play on Sunday, so we’d have a rehearsal before we played the concert. I always said it was coronary time for me.”
His first concert featured Rossini; the second, Shostakovich in a strenuous, sometimes raucous piece.
“I kinda’ went off the deep end. With small strings you can’t do the large romantic pieces because you can’t balance the winds and strings. I love Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach, but I wanted to do something different.”
Lathon Jernigan (1979-82, 85-87) drove from the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls to conduct the orchestra. He led the musicians through challenging and rare pieces, including Bach’s “Concerto for Four Harpsichords.”
“It was tricky finding four harpsichordists,” Jernigan said, “but we had two from Wartburg and two from the University of Northern Iowa. The community really seemed to appreciate those programs.”
Dr. Janice Wade (1987-2011) founded and conducted the Des Moines Community Orchestra and served as concertmaster of the Bijou Players, a silent-film touring group before arriving in Waverly. She created memorable Wartburg Community Symphony concerts using the silent film of “Phantom of the Opera” and films starring Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino. Another concert performed Holst’s “The Planets” to a 3D video of NASA planet photos. Using professional and semiprofessional musicians, Wade strengthened the quality of the Wartburg Community Symphony and arranged two cruise bookings.
John Bentley (1964-65) and Walter Temme (1984-85) each served one year as conductor.
Dr. Daniel Kaplunas (2011-2015) formed the Wartburg Chamber Orchestra as an avenue for students and community members to perform and grow, then become members of the Wartburg Community Symphony. He inspires students as musicians and composers. Audience numbers are increasing as Kaplunas draws local artists and music groups into concert programs. At his strong suggestion, the board established a Wartburg Community Association Endowment Fund to ensure the symphony’s future.
The Wartburg Community Symphony Association’s mission has always been to provide symphonic music to the greater Waverly community and professional experience for music students. Association membership is open to all dues-paying individuals. The association’s board of directors consists of college and community members. Although the conductor/music director is responsible for musicians and music goals, directors are involved in things such as budget, development, event management, fundraising, membership, and publicity. This governance structure distinguishes the Wartburg Community Symphony from the college’s other music organizations.