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On July 4, 1959, Robert Cole, Tulare Union High School’s orchestra conductor, asked Adele Luker of Porterville for her help in starting a community symphony. On September 22, 1959, Adele Luker, Grace Vaznaian, Pat Hillman, Eleanor Heiskell and Ursula Bisconer formed the Tulare County Symphony’s “Organizing Committee” with the purpose of promoting and fostering symphonic music, furthering adult participation in musical activities, and educating young musicians from Tulare County.
Musicians from Tulare County were notified of the plan, and the committee won the approval of the Tulare Union High School District’s Adult Education Department to organize a class. This allowed them to use the Tulare Union High School Auditorium for rehearsals and concerts. Cole had earned his M.A. Degree in music from the University of Southern California in 1958 and became the first conductor of the all-volunteer Tulare County Symphony Orchestra in 1959.
On April 8, 1960, the Tulare County Symphony Orchestra performed its first concert at Tulare Union High School Auditorium. Tickets were sold for $1, and the concert finale was from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” The next year, the orchestra performed its first season consisting of three concerts, two in Tulare and one in Visalia, and during the 1961-1962 Season, the orchestra performed in Tulare, Visalia and Porterville. After the first concert in 1960, a 25-member board created the Tulare County Symphony Association. Later that year, 10 women began the Tulare County Symphony Women’s League.
In 1963, Robert Cole took a job at North Hollywood High School but continued to commute back and forth from Los Angeles. During this time period, he brought musicians from the Los Angeles area to Tulare County as well as ballet troupes to perform at Christmas time. In 1973, Cole moved to New York to conduct the Buffalo Philharmonic. During the 1973-74 Season, Cole remained as conductor but brought in a number of guest conductors to perform, including Edward Nord, who was chosen as the Tulare County Symphony Orchestra’s second conductor. Nord was based in Los Angeles and also served as the assistant conductor of USC’s Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Orion Chamber Orchestra. In 1977, Nord accepted the position as assistant music director of the Birmingham Philharmonic.
Lawrence Sutherland of Fresno became the symphony’s third conductor. At the time, he was the band director at California State University, Fresno, and the principal trombone player with the Fresno Philharmonic. He also had a doctorate in conducting. In 1979, Sutherland held the orchestra’s first performance in the new College of the Sequoias 400-seat theater, and the following year, a pops style concert was held at the Visalia Convention Center to benefit the Symphony and the California Shakespeare Festival. For its first 25 years, the Tulare County Symphony Orchestra was considered simply a community orchestra and continued to hold four concerts each year along with occasional children’s concerts and the “Symphony Under the Stars” pops fundraiser.
The season expanded in 1985 when David André was chosen as music director and became the first resident conductor since 1960. André had a doctorate from the University of Washington and had been the music director for the Port Angeles Symphony in Washington and later the Maui Symphony. He expanded the 1986-1987 Season from four to seven concerts, including the annual fall Pops Concert at Mooney Grove Park. That season, the Symphony also started to sell reserved seating, and Anne Bernardo was hired as the Symphony’s first professional manager. Andre was also responsible for creating the Tulare County Symphony Youth Concerts that still serve thousands of elementary school students annually in Visalia, Tulare, and Porterville.
Under André’s leadership, the symphony became much more than a community orchestra, and in 1989, the orchestra traveled to the Azores for a two-week performing trip courtesy of the Azorean Regional Government with help from Tulare’s Sister City Foundation. “That’s truly when the orchestra became a real symphony,” said violinist Virginia Gurnea. “It was the best thing that could have happened.” On July 14, 1990, the symphony performed in Sequoia National Park as part of Yosemite and Sequoia’s Centennial Celebration. The concert was the first for Lori Anderson as concertmaster after Adele Luker, the orchestra’s original concertmaster, retired. Both Luker and Grace Vaznaian, founding instrumentalists of the symphony, retired at the end of the symphony’s 30th Season leaving violinist Virginia Gurnea as the only remaining founding musician.
In 1991, André was named an American cultural specialist, which allowed him to conduct orchestras in foreign countries. In 1995, he conducted in Russia, and because of his contacts around the world, he was able to bring a variety of world class soloists and conductors to perform in Visalia. The Symphony also became known for performing world premieres, including Alan Hovhaness’ violin concerto in 1993. The prestige of that concert lifted the musicians’ playing level, and the Tulare County Symphony Orchestra became one of four California orchestras out of 150 to receive the highest rating from the California Arts Council that year, which helped the symphony earn a National Endowment of the Arts Grant the following year. In 2000, the Symphony moved from the L. J. Williams Theatre to the newly renovated 1,200-seat Visalia Fox Theatre. Concert performances were also changed from Sunday afternoons to Saturday evenings.
At the end of the 2007-2008 Season, David André announced his retirement as conductor of the Tulare County Symphony Orchestra. Florence Kabot, then president of the Tulare County Symphony Association, turned to the Association of California Symphony Orchestras (ACSO) and consultant Jim Medvitz for help in choosing a new music director. The association received 127 applicants, many with doctoral degrees in orchestral conducting, from around the world. Sixteen applicants were selected to be interviewed over the phone, and then nine were asked to send DVDs of a performance. Finally, six of the applicants were invited to conduct a concert during the 2008-2009 Season.
From these six finalists, Dr. Bruce Kiesling was chosen on July 1, 2009 to become the Symphony fifth music director and conductor. Before coming to Tulare County, Kiesling was the resident conductor of the Greensboro Symphony and music director of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra in North Carolina. Kiesling is an accomplished pianist and also composes original music for motion pictures. He lives in Los Angeles where he works on films and for five years conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) Program. He currently is assistant conductor of the Pasadena Symphony and Pops and music director of the Pasadena Youth Symphony. In 2015 he began teaching at UC Santa Cruz as the orchestra director.
Under his leadership, there have been numerous “sold-out” concerts. He has also resumed the annual holiday concerts and established the very popular movie night concerts. Kiesling has a tremendous depth of musical knowledge, is a highly skilled conductor, and has taken the orchestra to the next level.