The Symphony of Southeast Texas, based in Beaumont, had performed for sixty-two seasons as of 2014–15. It was long a dream to have a symphony in Beaumont. When the Beaumont Music Commission was founded in 1923, its constitution listed eight objectives, including the foundation and maintenance of the Beaumont Symphony Orchestra. The Symphony of Southeast Texas, as the orchestra is now called, contracted about seventy musicians in 2015 and had an administrative staff and a sixty-eight-member board. It has showcased great popular performers such as trumpeter Al Hirt and great classical artists, including André Previn, Van Cliburn, and Isaac Stern, and has provided distinguished music for East Texans since its founding.
The desire for a symphony in Beaumont bore fruit after the Houston Symphony performed there on January 18, 1950. The next morning a steering committee was formed to lay plans for and arouse interest in a Beaumont symphony. Between 1950 and 1952, committees were formed, procedures determined, and concerts by other symphonies were held. A test performance was held on October 23, 1952, to determine if there was an adequate group of musicians to have an orchestra. Jay Dietzer conducted the concert, which was deemed a success. The Beaumont Symphony Orchestra was officially founded and held its first performance on May 12, 1953.
Dietzer was conductor during the challenging early years of 1953 to 1957. He had previously conducted orchestras in other Texas cities, including San Antonio, New Braunfels, and Abilene. He recruited musicians from all walks of life to form the symphony.
Edvard Fendler was conductor of the symphony from 1957 to 1970. A native of Germany, Fendler was a noted scholar of musical compositions. He spoke English, French, German, Spanish, and Dutch. He had served as music director and conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Guatemala, and as the conductor of the symphony at Mobile, Alabama.
Joseph B. Carlucci, conductor of the symphony from 1971 to 1990, had not only impeccable credentials, including a degree from Yale University and a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music, but personal qualities of charm and diplomacy. He dramatically increased attendance at concerts by broadening the programming to include not only classical music but other genres, including jazz. Like conductors throughout the country, Carlucci held outdoor “Pops” concerts. He forged an ongoing and mutually beneficial relationship between the symphony and Lamar University, from where he recruited students and faculty to play in the orchestra.
When Carlucci retired at the end of the 1990 season, Diane M. Wittry was chosen from among many candidates to become music director and conductor beginning with the 1991–92 season. This graduate of the University of Southern California brought a new look and personality to the symphony—based not least on the fact that she was a woman. In an article in Newsweek, she explained that even in 1994, the 300 United States orchestras had only fifteen to twenty woman conductors. Under her guidance the symphony greatly expanded educational programming. New programs included Adopt-a-Musician, in which musicians travel to schools to give students in kindergarten through fifth grade the opportunity to meet musicians personally, ask questions, and witness a brief performance by a professional musician in a small group setting. The Side-by-Side program allows talented high school and even middle school children to perform next to professional musicians in the symphony. By the early 2000s the symphony performed educational concerts for approximately 10,000 students from more than ninety Southeast Texas schools.
During Wittry’s tenure, in 1992, the name of the orchestra was changed from Beaumont Symphony Orchestra to Symphony of Southeast Texas. The name change reflected that musicians in the orchestra, and the audience itself, come from throughout Southeast Texas.
Christopher Zimmerman became music director and conductor of the symphony in 2001 and served through 2007. Zimmerman, a native of London, graduated from Yale University. He made his professional debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony, and subsequently played with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. In 1989 he cofounded and became music director of the London Chamber Orchestra.
In 2000 the Symphony of Southeast Texas became affiliated with the Southeast Texas Youth Symphony, a full orchestra founded in 1983 for area young musicians. The youth symphony plays two full concerts a year and performs several times at community events. On October 26, 2000, the Symphony of Southeast Texas Chorus made its debut with the youth ensemble.
Chelsea Tipton, II, became the symphony’s music director and conductor at the beginning of the 2009–10 season. Tipton had previously been resident conductor for the Toledo Symphony Orchestra.
One of the keys to the success of the Symphony of Southeast Texas has been the support of the Symphony League of Beaumont. This group, originally organized as the Beaumont Symphony Women’s League in 1955, has sold tickets, procured advertising, arranged lavish social affairs, and raised vast sums of money for the symphony. One of its most successful fundraisers was the “Symphony of Trees,” which from 1979 until the late 1990s featured not only beautifully decorated trees in a wide array of themes, but parties, parades, shops, fireworks and children’s activities. The league’s best-known project is a debutante program that began in 1962. During its seven-month season, which includes trips, parties, balls, and a formal presentation at the symphony, high school girls and their escorts hone their manners and social skills. The league sponsors a shorter program for eighth-grade girls and boys called the Symphony Belles and Junior Escorts. The Symphony League of Beaumont educational projects include the Youth Guild, in which high school students learn more about music and assist with special events. The league also sponsors an annual String Competition, in which the area’s young string students meet and compete. Prizes are awarded in several categories based on age and experience, with two grand prizes awarded for private study.