Mankato Symphony Orchestra History
Meeting the Conductors
Since the Orchestra's creation, each conductor who took the baton has lead the Orchestra to new highs. We commemorate those who have lead us to where we are today as we look to the future and explore new boundaries.
John R. Dennis 1950-1957
Building an Orchestra
Born in 1922 in Minneapolis, John R. Dennis was interested in the violin at a very young age. Beginning at almost four years old, Dennis studied with Donald Mensin at the MacPhail School of Music in Minneapolis. Dennis performed his first concert at the age of six and his violin career continued to elevate as he got older, highlighted by performing in honor of Crown Princess Martha and Prince Olaf of Norway.
Dennis also studied with Chester Campbell at MacPhail, The Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra's’ concertmaster, Harold Ayres, Adolph Pick with the Chicago Conservatory of Music and Jewish Peoples Institute, Imre Waldauer of the University of Iowa, and Raphael Druian, the concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra. Dennis later went on to teach at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa as well as later become enlisted where he was apart of the musical group, Majors and Minors, which played all over the world.
Through the partnership of local high schools, colleges, and musicians, John Dennis became the founder and first conductor of the Mankato Symphony Orchestra. The first official Mankato Symphony Orchestra concert was held on Tuesday, November 6, 1951, at 8:15 p.m. with nearly 1,100 people were in attendance. The National Anthem was performed and a tradition was born, playing the National Anthem at the first concert of the season continues today. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C, Opus 21, was the first classical piece played by the orchestra.
March 23, 1957 was the last concert Dennis conducted. Under his command, the orchestra had gained recognition and had grown to 88 members. Dennis retired to spend more time with his family. On May 3rd, 2014, Dennis passed away, survived by his children and grandchildren.
John W. Shepard 1957-1959
Collaboration for Celebration
John W. Shepard began his secondary education with an undergraduate degree in music performance on violin from University of Wisconsin, Madison. In 1938 he graduated from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, with a master’s focusing on music education. He went on to received his doctoral degree in music education from the University of Illinois, Urbana, in 1954. Shepard played violin and viola in the Peoria, Illinois Symphony from 1927-1929; the Evansville, Indiana Symphony Orchestra from 1934-1936; and tin the Wheeling, West Virginia Symphony Orchestra from 1938-1940. He continued playing the violin while serving in the United States Air Force in the early 1940s. Shepard was the assistant concertmaster for the Indianapolis Philharmonic Orchestra from 1946-1952, and played with the Rochester Symphony Orchestra in Rochester, Minnesota.
Shepard conducted MSO from November 24, 1957, to May 1959. Even though he conducted the orchestra for less than two years, he continued playing in the orchestra until 1972, when he retired. John Shepard passed away in January of 1985 at the age of 78. Shepard is known for his arrangement of faculty at Mankato State and fostering the relationship between the orchestra and college music programs.
Rolf Cramer Scheurer 1959-1968 & 1981-1982
A Conductor for the Music
Rolf Scheurer was born August 20, 1918, in Minneapolis. He was brought up in a musical family and trained by his father on violin and viola. Rolf began studying piano with Walther Fitzner in Minneapolis and French Horn when he attended the University of Minnesota. Scheurer came to the attention of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra Music Director, Dimitri Mitropoulos while at the U of M. Mitropoulos recommended Scheurer to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he was accepted in the study of composition. While at Curtis, Scheurer was asked to teach part time at the Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia. In 1947, he accepted a scholarship position of lecturer while earning his doctorate of music from the University of Iowa, where he studied with Philip Greeley Clapp. In 1951, Scheurer and wife, Gay, traveled to Italy to further his studies with his former teacher, Rosario Scalero. In 1955 Scheurer accepted the position of Professor of Music and Director of Music at Mankato State University.
Scheurer was able to bring a seriousness to the symphony during his time as conductor. His position in both the University and Symphony enabled recruitment from the faculty and department to play in the orchestra which built up the orchestra’s excellence. The University was also able to purchase music for the orchestra which enhanced their repertoire. Scheurer was also the first conductor of MSO to create a schedule of concerts and repertoire. This lead to the player's ability to practice ahead of time and be more prepared for each rehearsal; adding to the excellence of the ensemble.
Scheurer was dedicated to the development of the capacity of the orchestra to play great music as musically as possible and with as much integrity as possible. Scheurer believed that it was important to select music that challenged the orchestra members as well as satisfied the audience. He wanted the orchestra to play the whole work, not just selected movements.
Scheurer stepped down as conductor in 1968 but took the baton for one more season after the death of Hermann Herz in 1981 to lead the orchestra in the difficult transition.
Scheurer claimed that a good community orchestra is based on the enthusiasm of the players: “Amateur enthusiasm is the greatest satisfaction I’ve gained from the last nine years. I’ve acquired it because the orchestra has had it.”
Kenneth V. Sanford 1968-1970
The Civic Orchestra- A Community Treasure
Sanford earned his undergraduate and master’s of music from the University of Michigan. While at Michigan, Sanford studied with Elizabeth Green. His career took him to Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, Barrington, Illinois, and Ferndale, Michigan, then to Mankato State. Sanford played violin in MSO before taking the baton.
While in the Mankato area, Sanford committed himself to promoting interest among local youth in learning to play stringed instruments. Sanford was dedicated to the recitals the MSC string quartets would play. With four concerts a day, every Friday, for five months it was estimated these small concerts reached at least 4,000 children in the region. Thus, the Music Appreciation at the Elementary School Level (MAESL) was born in 1969.
Sanford’s goal for the orchestra was to expand the personnel of the orchestra to include more people from surrounding areas, not just the central Mankato area. By his second season, there were 66 players in the orchestra who were professionals, amateurs, and students.
Concert attendance was also on the rise, in 1969 audience members reached 500. To Stanford’s credit, he directed the orchestra into “a cohesive unit capable of tackling the most arduous works successfully.”
Hermann Herz 1970-1981
A Flourishing Orchestra
Herz was born and educated in Munich, Germany and graduated from the State Academy of Music as a pianist. He held positions at the Munich Opera in Berlin and at the St. Gallen Municipal Theater in Switzerland before immigrating to South Africa. There, he conducted opera, ballet, symphony, and radio concerts in Johannesburg and on tours.
In 1948, Herz came to the States where Serge Koussevitsky engaged him for that summer for the opera department at Tanglewood, Massachusetts. This was followed by a position as musical director for television opera in New York and a recording assignment for Mercury records. In 1950, Herz became conductor of the Duluth Symphony Orchestra. Herz was continuously a guest conductor and lecturer.
Herz accepted a faculty position at Mankato State in 1970. While working with the Symphony, Herz commented on the enthusiasm that civic orchestras have saying: “they play because they want to play; they don’t have to be there” also commenting on how he worked the players hard and they played well.
Herz contracted program notes out to a company in New York, rather than write them himself, furthering his efforts to bring the best to Mankato. Herz was also commented on being conscientious about the length of programs. Selecting a combination of music that intertwined challenge and ease for both the players and listeners. Herz stressed, “ Music is enrichment for a fuller life for a significant proportion of the population.”
Jere Lantz 1982-1983
The Bridging Maestro
Lantz is a native Pennsylvanian with degrees from Yale University. Lantz’s career proves impressive and expansive. His conducting career has taken him to New York, Arizona, California, all over the Midwest, as well as working with China’s professional orchestras.
When Lantz accepted the position in Mankato, he had been the Music Director of the St. Cloud Civic Orchestra and the Kenwood Chamber Orchestra, as well as Associate Music Director of the Minnesota Opera Company. He was in great demand as a guest conductor and lecturer as well.
Lantz acted as a bridging conductor as Scheurer finished his interim term and another conductor was being searched for. However, that did not stop Lantz from bringing his creative talent, engaging personality, and disciplined artistry to the orchestra.
Lantz proved that he mastered all genres of music, being able to bring the piece’s essence to the audience whether it be an aria or a jazz chart. Lantz is also remembered for bringing a closer connection between Rochester and Mankato, making both cities have a deeper appreciation and support system for each other.
Dianne Pope 1983-2006
A Wonder of a Woman
Pope holds degrees from Drake University and Kent State University. She studied with Herman Genhart as well as in Vienna and Salzburg, Austria. She was studied in vocal performance as well as the French Horn, but conducting was her true passion.
In Pope’s 23 years with the Orchestra, she was the catalyst for many extraordinary changes. Funding increased during her years as well as concert attendance, performance space, and reach of education. Pope proved fruitful and was the cause of West High School, Mankato, receiving funding for a stage expansion as well as outdoor band shells. Pope was thrown into the duty of MEASL and provided the organization with rejuvenated care and commitment.
Pope went above and beyond to try to connect the audience, public, and performers. With the tradition of an annual pop’s concert, holiday concert, and commissions, Pope encouraged the engagement of the audiences as well as the surrounding community. The pop’s concert proved fruitful and reached a greater audience, opening new audiences up to classical music and the orchestra. Pope included Handel’s Messiah for several years as a tribute to earlier years when it was perform each holiday season. This nod to the past shows a care a respect for where the Symphony has been and where it will go.
Each season, Pope planned to feature a local artist or artists. A subscription concert usually included a standard symphony, a well-known overture, and a concerto that featured said local artist. This programing allowed for entertainment for the whole family.
On top of featuring local artists, Pope commissioned a new work from a composer who lived in or came from the Mankato area every two years. Pope proved dedicated to including the community into its orchestra.
On May 1, 2006, Pope finished the last concert of the season and the orchestra had to say goodbye to Pope. The search for someone as caring, committed, compassionate, eager, and fruitful as Dianne Pope commenced.
Kenneth Freed 2006-present
To read about Freed, click here.