In the late 1960’s, the existence of separate Philharmonic groups in Wilkes-Barre and Scranton reflected the ideological separation between their namesakes. Though just a few miles apart in geography, there was little communication or shared resources between these two cities nestled in the valley of the Susquehanna River. For many local music supporters, the cooperation of the two orchestras seemed like an impossible dream, but the visionary boards of these two groups saw enormous potential.
What started as a few casual conversations between friends in early 1969 slowly began to pick up steam, and by October of that year an exploratory committee of the two organizations had defined a cooperative mission and the goal of a joint orchestra offering four performances in each city for the 1970-71 season. A press conference in January of 1970 announced the formation of the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Philharmonic for a two year trial period, and was cited by one television editorialist as a milestone not only in the development of the performing arts, but also as the first real breakthrough in cooperation between the two cities and other areas of the region.
This new regional Philharmonic continued under the baton of two directors, Scranton’s Beatrice Brown, one of the few female conductors in the country at the time, and Wilkes-Barre’s Ferdinand Liva. The resignation of Brown in 1971 led to a search for a new conductor, and Polish-born maestro and Pittsburgh Symphony conductor, Thomas Michalak was hired as the first official Music Director after the Philharmonic’s incorporation. The first performances were held on October 21st and 22nd, 1972 at the Irem Temple in Wilkes-Barre and the Masonic Temple in Scranton, with a program including Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor.
Under the direction of Michalak, the orchestra grew into a cohesive unit, and in 1979, he was succeeded as Music Director by Harvard University and Peabody Institute of Music graduate, Hugh Wolff. The Philharmonic’s reputation and prestige soared under Wolff, highlighted by a statewide Public Television performance of the commissioned work, The River Flows, in 1982, a piece composed to celebrate the Commonwealths tercentennial. The early 1980’s also saw the rise of the Philharmonic’s ability to attract world-class guest artists, including Wolff’s mentor, Mstislav Rostropovick, arguably one of the twentieth century’s greatest cellists.
In 1986, Wolff was named the Music Director of the New Jersey Symphony, and the board’s search for a music director led to the appointment of London-born Hugh Keelan, a Cambridge University graduate. Under Keelan’s direction for fourteen seasons, the NEPA Philharmonic became one of the country’s best regional orchestras with a remarkably broad repertoire. The Philharmonic’s growth continued under the tenure of Maestro Clyde Mitchell, and later under the appointment of current Music Director, Lawrence Loh, former Associate Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and current Resident Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Today, as the only fully professional symphony in the region, the NEPA Philharmonic regularly performs in two facilities, the Scranton Cultural Center at the Masonic Temple and the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts in Wilkes-Barre, each with a seating capacity of 1,800. The organization is comprised of a 20 member governing Board of Directors, and five full-time and three part-time employees.
As the only arts and education organization in Northeastern Pennsylvania to successfully develop a multi-county base of support, education is an integral part of our mission in the community. Each year the Philharmonic introduces classical music to thousands of children and other new audiences through innovative programming like the Crescendo Family Concert and our Young People’s Concerts, which offers a coordinated multi-disciplinary educational program. The NEPA Philharmonic also offers open rehearsals with an educational component, a piano competition and special events for families.
The concert series include classical and pop-themed performance programs, Independence Day concerts offered free of charge to the community, and holiday performances incorporating local choral and dance groups.