Birmingham Civic Symphonic Orchestra

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The Birmingham Civic Symphonic Orchestra in 1936

The Birmingham Civic Symphonic Orchestra was a professional symphonic orchestra founded in 1932 by Dorsey Whittington and serving as the city's pre-eminent ensemble until 1941.

Whittington assembled about 20 musicians to rehearse for a special June 7, 1932 performance at Phillips High School. An enthusiastic response led to a larger symphony-size roster taking the state on November 8 of that year for a full-length concert benefiting the Birmingham Community Chest.

Building on that successful performance, the Birmingham Music Club voted to sponsor the orchestra, donating $100 for the purchase of music and securing tympani and other equipment. The Birmingham Civic Symphony Association was incorporated in 1933 as a chapter of the Alabama Federated Music Clubs with J. J. Steiner as president.

The budget for the 1934 season was set at $7,000 for four concerts at Phillips High School. Violinist Ottokar Cadek was recruited to serve as concertmaster and associate conductor. In addition to three full-length programs of classical music, the orchestra presented a pops concert. Each program included a work by an American composer. One work featured that year was the first performance of the Negro Folk Symphony by Tuskegee Institute professor William Dawson. The orchestra concluded their season by traveling to Tuskegee to perform the work on campus on May 5. (The "world premiere" of the piece was conducted by Leopold Stokowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra on July 31 of that year.)

By 1936, the orchestra numbered as many as 80 players, and performed a full schedule with a budget of $410,000. The ensuing years brought a number of noted guest performers to Birmingham to play with the orchestra. Throughout the 1930s the organization served the community with weekly open-air concerts at the Avondale Park amphitheatre on Sundays. During World War II however, the group suspended its performances.