Each May is Jewish American Heritage Month, a month where we celebrate Jewish Americans who have helped weave the fabric of American history, culture, and society.
This year, the theme is Jewish contributions to American music, which provides the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives an opportunity to shine a light on a unique local group of musicians in St. Paul, Minnesota who have been making music for 90 years.
The St. Paul Jewish Community Center (JCC) hosts the JCC Symphony Orchestra, one of the oldest community ensembles in the country dedicated to classical repertoire. Founded in 1928 as The St. Paul Junior Symphony, conductor Peter Lisowski initially created the group as an opportunity for young people to play music.
In 1932, the JCC (then known as the Jewish Educational Center) became a sponsor of the orchestra and rehearsals began at their facilities on Grotto and Holly in St. Paul. The group changed their name to Center Symphony Orchestra, only later to become known as the St. Paul JCC Symphony Orchestra.
The early years focused on opportunities for practice, so it wasn’t until 1931 that the orchestra gave their first public concert. Over the years, the orchestra averaged around three concerts a year with around 40-60 members, and performed a large range of both Jewish and secular music while also spotlighting soloists or vocal performers.
Founder and conductor Peter Lisowsky was born and raised in St. Paul but trained on the violin in various cities around the world, with stints with the Capitol City Symphony in New York, the Olympia Theatre Orchestra in Stockholm, and during World War I conducted the orchestra at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois.
He was violinist with the Minneapolis Symphony until 1938, when, after ten years conducting the Center Symphony Orchestra, he decided to turn all of his attention to conducting. Lisowsky’s time with the Center Symphony Orchestra was very successful as the group thrived. Lisowsky passed away in 1970 and was buried in the Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
An announcement about the orchestra’s rehearsal in the Pioneer Press in 1944 noted “Membership in the ensemble is open to every person, regardless of age or religious affiliation, who is interested in instrument playing, and who desires to acquire a standard orchestral repertoire. The personnel already includes amateur and professional performers upon a wide variety of instruments, and one objective of the season’s work is the preparation of a public concert program.”
An early press release boasts “from this organization many have ascended to the Minneapolis Symphony, the Minnesota Symphony, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Rochester, New York orchestras.”
The St. Paul JCC Symphony Orchestra continues its hard work, having just this year celebrated their 90th anniversary. The group is still comprised of non-professionals, showcasing musicians of all ages and backgrounds, all dedicated to performing classical music.
The orchestra is currently led by conductor Amir Kats in his sixth season with the orchestra. Their next concert takes place on Wednesday, June 6th, 2018 at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul and will feature Israeli vocalist Shuly Nathan.