Wilmington Symphony Orchestra Musical Beginnings

by Sep 24, 2019Attractions & Entertainment, Sponsored Content, The Blog, Wilmington

When violinist Gaile Zack and her family moved to Wilmington in 1971, she couldn’t find a home for her music. Having played in community orchestras in Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee, Zack quickly realized that although Wilmington had many community offerings, live classical music wasn’t one of them.

Zack then met Virginia Kusler, another violinist who had also recently relocated to the Port City, and the two women began performing together. However, Zack still missed playing with a full orchestra, and she set out to find a way to make that a reality.

Thanks to two local musicians, Wilmington Symphony Orchestra has been a favorite cultural attraction in Wilmington since 1972

The duo’s first order of business was to acquire the musical scores needed to assemble Wilmington’s first community orchestra. Zack and Kusler approached Spike Feenstra, a local music librarian who had belonged to a local orchestra in the 1930s. Feenstra held the scores that remained after the orchestra disbanded, but he resisted lending them to the two women. Refusing to accept defeat, Zack and Kusler decided to appeal to his sweet tooth and baked Feenstra a homemade cherry pie; their final attempt worked, and Feenstra bequeathed them the scores. 

Once Zack and Kusler acquired the rights to the music, all efforts turned to garnering the support and assistance necessary to build a successful orchestra. The pair reached out to UNC Wilmington’s newly appointed Music Department Chairman, Dr. Richard Deas.

“Rather to our surprise, he was interested and suggested that we meet,” Zack says. “When Virginia and I went to his office, there was another man there who Dr. Deas introduced as faculty member, Bill Adcock, ‘the conductor of our orchestra.’ Our non-existent orchestra!”

After spending several months spreading word of the orchestra around town, 33 volunteer musicians officially became the UNCW Community Orchestra. Under the direction of Professor Adcock, rehearsals began in the fall of 1971, and the orchestra presented its first free concert to the public on February 20, 1972, at Kenan Auditorium.

The orchestra’s success grew over the next several years, and performance numbers doubled from two to four per season. When it became apparent that many in the community perceived the orchestra to be a student organization, Zack and her cohorts approached then UNCW Chancellor William Waggoner about changing its name. Waggoner supported the decision, and the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra was born.

Conductor Adcock led the orchestra for more than a decade before his death on April 7, 1982. Under the musical leadership of Dr. Joe Hickman, the orchestra continued to grow in size and skill during the next four years. In 1986 Dr. Steven Errante took over as conductor, a role he still holds today after more than 33 of service. 

Wilmington Symphony Orchestra remains one of the community’s most valued cultural assets

 The orchestra continues the mission of founders Zack and Kusler by providing audience members with a place to enjoy classical and pops concerts and by providing local musicians a place to showcase their talents.

“We’re still a community orchestra, paying our musicians very little but welcoming mostly local players instead of a whole orchestra coming from other towns,” Zack says. “Our audiences always enjoy looking up on stage and seeing people they know — doctors, dentists, teachers, friends, neighbors and local students.” 

Loyal patron and long-time board member Carole Ellis has attended WSO concerts since the orchestra’s inception. She says one of the elements she has most enjoyed is getting to witness the organization’s incredible growth in size, proficiency and musical repertoire over the years. “The WSO, along with its youth ensembles, is a community arts treasure of which we can all be very proud,” she says.


Wilmington Symphony Orchestra / wilmingtonsymphony.org

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