Situated in the Panhandle Plains of West Texas, Amarillo is home to the only professional symphony in the Panhandle region. The symphony’s beginnings stem from a twelve-member group of musicians known as the Philharmonic Club. These “Original 12,” headlined by Miss Grace Hamilton, began playing special concerts for residents in their homes beginning in 1924. Hamilton led the Philharmonic Club for a year and then, from 1925 to 1926, Hall Axtell took over. By 1926 the Philharmonic Club had a full-time conductor, Ellis B. Hall, who stayed with the Philharmonic until 1936. Hall was paid five dollars a week for his services.
By 1932 during Maestro Hall’s reign, the Philharmonic Club grew to a fifty-six member orchestra which played six concerts in one season; for five dollars, one could attend the entire season’s shows. The club also changed its name during this time to the Amarillo Philharmonic Association. After Maestro Hall ended his position with the Philharmonic in 1936, the orchestra quit playing in residential homes. The struggle to keep the fledgling orchestra alive became difficult during the Panhandle’s drought. Adding to its problems, after Maestro Hall left in 1936, every conductor up until Robert Louis Barron held only one or two-year positions. In the span of a decade, the orchestra went through six conductors. To be a Philharmonic musician was to volunteer one’s services. Musicians were not paid until the 1960s, which made it difficult to keep good quality players. Barron stayed on for eight years, struggling through droughts, dust storms, the Great Depression, and World War II. Bankruptcy and budget deficiencies plagued the orchestra, and the board of directors began to consider disbanding the Philharmonic.
After Barron’s eight years were over, however, things changed dramatically for the Philharmonic. A new musical director, A. Clyde Roller, came on board in 1948. Roller, Lee Bivens (the president of the orchestra), and Edward Melin (a violin teacher) recruited musicians to play in the Philharmonic. They wanted nothing but the best and sought musicians from all over the state of Texas. Their goal to turn the Philharmonic Club into a symphony required money. They found their solution by forming the Amarillo Symphony Guild in 1955. The Guild is a non-profit organization that depends on donated funds, which are then used to support the symphony. Now that orchestra members were paid, their loyalty and their commitment to the symphony improved, and Maestro Roller helped refine the group’s sound. Melin, who became the executive director, scouted new ways to attract money for the orchestra. He held fundraising drives and educated the community about the importance of the symphony, and he succeeded in bringing in a strong financial foundation that sustained the symphony. Even with the financial turnaround, the symphony was in serious debt by 1969.
By the late 1960s, the Philharmonic had changed its name to the Amarillo Symphony, and in 1968 it began playing in the Amarillo Civic Center Auditorium where it remained for almost four decades. Once again keeping the symphony alive would require drastic measures. Maestro Roller retired in 1963, and the new conductor, Thomas Hohstadt, took over for a period of eleven years. Maestro Hohstadt, along with Grand Chairman Pete Gilvin and the Symphony Guild, held an auction. Governor John Connally and a host of others auctioned off an array of unusual gifts, including anything from antique cars to a Santa Fe Railroad caboose, with astounding results. Not only did the auction succeed in paying off the symphony’s debt, it secured a net sum of $120,000, all of which went into a trust fund. By 2007 this trust fund had grown to more than $5 million and was one of the largest orchestra endowments in a city the size of Amarillo.
The symphony moved to a new venue, the Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts, in 2006. Conductor James Setapen led the symphony from 1988 to 2007. He integrated a unique artistic quality and organization into the symphony that has made the Amarillo Symphony a distinctive orchestra that encompasses different arenas of musical production. Besides the symphony, Amarillo has hosted a string quartet since 1981. Known as the Harrington String Quartet, named after patron Sybil B. Harrington, it features faculty from nearby West Texas A&M University. To further involve the university, students as well as alumni play with the orchestra on occasion, and some of the principal players in the symphony instruct at West Texas A&M. In addition, the Amarillo Symphony hosts the Amarillo Youth Orchestra, founded in 1987, where young students are featured as performing artists. In the early twenty-first century the Amarillo Symphony continued to grow and expand its musical influence in the Panhandle Plains and globally.
In 2007 Kimbo Ishii-Eto took over as the sixteenth conductor of the symphony, and the 2008–09 season marked his first full season in residence with the symphony, which had more than seventy-five musicians. The symphony’s 2011–12 season included up to eight concerts scheduled from September through April as well as three performances featuring the Harrington String Quartet. In addition to the seasonal concerts, patrons can attend other special concert events, Christmas concerts, and school-time performances. Ishii-Eto was set to leave his position as conductor and musical director at the end of the 2011–12 season.
Jacomo Rafael Bairos was selected to be the seventeenth conductor and music director after a two-year search that involved more than 200 applicants. He established the first Composer-in-Residence program for the symphony and fostered community partnerships through collaborations with local artists. He was also a guest conductor for orchestras both nationally and internationally. Bairos helped introduce a music educational program known as Class Act, designed to present lessons and lectures to schools throughout the Panhandle.
In 2015 the Amarillo Symphony consisted of eighty-five musicians. The symphony’s programs included a seven-concert season, educational concerts, and sponsorship of the Amarillo Youth Orchestra.