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National Symphony Celebrates 75 Years


The National Symphony Orchestra is celebrating 75 years of making music in nation's capital. So, this season, the orchestra is performing classic favorites along with some world premieres, and featuring world-class guest soloists and conductors.

The National Symphony Orchestra made its debut in 1930 and launched its first full season of 24 concerts the next year. Violinist William Haroutounian joined the ensemble in the early 1960s, and has performed with it longer than any other musician. The Iranian-born Armenian-American says the NSO's renown is fairly recent.

He recalls that the Orchestra was not well known even in the local area 40 years ago. "I remember one of the members one night was stopped for speeding and the police asked him where he worked, he said, 'National Symphony Orchestra,'" Haroutounian says. "The policeman got very angry and said, 'When I ask a question, I want a straight answer.' The guy said, 'I work at the National Symphony Orchestra,' and they didn't believe him. They actually put him in jail. They had to get the manager of the Orchestra to get him out."

The first NSO players were paid $40 a week, and they only performed with the orchestra for five months a year. Haroutounian says musicians had to find other jobs to survive the long months without a paycheck. "NSO's musicians did anything from driving cabs to becoming guards in stores. One guy had a bakery. I, at that time, went to a music festival in Massachusetts in the summer. I was teaching there and doing 7 weeks of concerts of chamber music with people from other orchestras. I did that for 14 years."

Today, the NSO is a full time ensemble of 100 musicians, playing 175 concerts a year, with an annual budget of approximately $30 million. But that didn't happen overnight.

William Haroutounian credits the great music directors who led the orchestra with enhancing its reputation. "When Howard Mitchell, the Orchestra's second music director, left and Antal Dorati took over, of course he was from Europe and he was a big name in the field, so more attention was brought to the Orchestra," he says. "After he left, then we had Mstislav Rostropovich who was a huge name in the field of classical music. As new conductors come in more attention is drawn to them, more people are willing to donate to the symphony. So the symphony season gets longer, the pay gets better. We attract better musicians. We sound better, so we make more records. So records make us known around the world."

With conductor Leonard Slatkin's arrival in the mid-1990s, the National Symphony Orchestra's prestige grew even more. Under his direction, the NSO won the 1996 Grammy for Best Classical Album, Corigliano: Of Rage and Remembrance.

Since Maestro Slatkin took over, the NSO has also placed great emphasis on education and music appreciation programs for children in the local area. Haroutounian says this ensures that, in the future, the symphony will have new musicians and - just as important - new audience members. "We have all the area children come by buses to the Orchestra once a year for what we call the 'Children's concerts,'" he says. There is also a Youth Fellowship Program, which draws talented young musicians from the D.C. metropolitan area. "These are kids who don't have great resources that could be allocated for music lessons," Haroutounian says. "So, if they get in the program, then they get free lessons form the members of the symphony."

The Symphony has also taken its musical outreach on tour, visiting 15 states since 1992.

"Every year the symphony goes on tour in one particular state where they don't have access to classical music too much," he says. "We go there and play concerts for general public, but we, all the musicians, then do give lessons to kids in those cities. We do a master class. We do one on one lessons."

William Haroutounian is an amateur photographer, as well as a professional violinist, and over the past 4 decades has created a unique set of portraits of the NSO. He's captured musicians and conductors on stage in rehearsal, and he's even taken pictures during concerts… when the string section isn't playing. He says he is excited that the NSO is exhibiting his collection as part of its anniversary celebration. "I just enjoyed doing it because, I think, beside the historical value, I think it's just a moment in time that you'll never see again, the expression on their face, or who they are talking to," he says. "You can tell by their expression whether they are discussing something about the music or they were just having a good time. It's very revealing. You can actually look at the picture and know what they were thinking."

The images and the music underscore a very simple fact: the National Symphony Orchestra is just like any other workplace in America. There are friendships and friction, but when the time comes, everyone puts any differences aside, works together and shares the ultimate pleasure of making beautiful music.

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