History of the Kansas State University Orchestra

The Kansas State University Orchestra had its beginnings only four years after Kansas State was founded in 1863, evidence of a strong belief in music education and in the necessity for the performance of classical music. The College String Band gave performances in 1867 and 1872, but we have no surviving evidence of other performances by this group. Founded at Kansas State Agricultural College in 1882, the College Orchestra has continued without interruption since that time. A picture of the Orchestra in 1888 shows a motley ensemble of five violins and one each of viola, cello, bass, flute, piccolo, cornet, euphonium, valve trombone, and bass drum.

KSUSO - 1888

In the early years of its history, the College Orchestra played each morning for Chapel exercises in Anderson Hall. The Orchestra’s chief function was to accompany hymns sung by the choir and the "grand chorus" of the remaining 400 students at the daily Chapel exercises. The Orchestra had by this time also performed selections from The Creation by Haydn and several lengthy pieces that have long since passed out of the orchestral repertoire.

The Orchestra evidenced a high level of competence by the first decade of the Twentieth Century with an all Wagner concert in 1908, playing music from Lohengrin, Götterdammerung, and Tristan und Isolde. By 1910 the College-Civic Orchestra had grown to forty-two members, including twenty-four strings. The Annual Spring Concerto of 1915 presented many works that would still be familiar to today’s audiences--selections from Aida by Verdi, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 and Piano Concerto No. 1, Valse Triste by Sibelius, Marche Militaire by Schubert, and selections from Wagner’s Lohengrin. The Orchestra was also involved with Gilbert and Sullivan productions from 1913 through the 1930s.

Both college students and townspeople comprised the Orchestra from 1905 to 1913. A photo dated 1909 shows an orchestra of at least fifty players. One function of the Orchestra during that time was to accompany the Choral Union. The Orchestra reverted to a membership of college students from 1913 until after World War II. In 1940 there were fifty-five members, still sitting in the old string seating arrangement of (from left to right) Violin I, Cello, Viola, Violin II. Evidently World War II took its toll on the Orchestra; the Royal Purple of 1945 carried a headline, "Orchestra is Small." Despite the lack of string players in 1945--only nine--the group continued to rehearse, but there was no orchestra concert. When Professor Luther Leavengood came as the new head of the Music Department in 1945, he reinstated the College-Civic Orchestra at KSAC. This town-and-gown union soon provided twenty-seven string players and a full complement of winds and brass. Professor Leavengood also changed the old string seating arrangement to the modern one: Violin I, Violin II, Viola, Cello.

In December 1904, the old Auditorium, which seated twenty-five hundred, was dedicated. In 1911 the Minneapolis Orchestra presented a concert in the Auditorium, the first orchestra other than the College Orchestra to perform there. The current conductor recalls being inspired and excited by the Children’s Concerts in the old Auditorium, performed by the Kansas City and Dallas Symphony Orchestras.

In January 1965 two music students set fire to the old Auditorium, for years derisively called the "old barn." This arson destroyed the Auditorium, valuable music libraries, and instruments. After the old Auditorium burned, the Orchestra performed in either the Union Ballroom or the Chapel Auditorium and rehearsed in the Military Science garage on the north side of the campus. The K-State Orchestra has rehearsed in a large ensemble room in the McCain Music Wing and given concerts in McCain Auditorium since the building was completed in the fall of 1970. That year the Minnesota Orchestra (formerly the Minneapolis Orchestra) presented two dedicatory concerts for today’s McCain Auditorium, an echo of its 1911 performance in the old Auditorium.

---David Littrell

Special thanks to Byron Jensen (Ed.D. KSU) and Lyndal Nyberg (M.M. KSU) for their help in preparing this history of the KSU Orchestra. Dr. Jensen's doctoral dissertation was a fascinating and lengthy history of the Department of Music at Kansas State University.

KSU Orchestra Conductors
1882-1886 William L. Hofer
1886-1904 Alexander B. Brown
1904-1919 Robert H. Brown (son)
1919-1928 H.P. Wheeler
1928-1945 Lyle Downey
1945-1948 Luther Leavengood
1948-1949 Thomas Steunenberg
1949-1953 George Leedham
1953-1966 Luther Leavengood
1966-1975 Paul Roby
1975-1976 Paul Tarabek
1976-1980 Mischa Semanitsky
1980-1981 Morris Collier
1981-1985 Ralph Winkler
1985-1990 Adrian Brytten
1990-2018 David Littrell
2018- Rachel Dirks