The Tacoma Symphony was a perfectly respectable community orchestra when Harvey Felder took over as musical director 20 years ago. He leaves it a perfectly respectable professional orchestra.
Being a change agent is never a good way to win a popularity contest, and Felder ruffled many feathers as he began raising the symphony’s level of musicianship.
Felder — whose final concert is Saturday — is an important transitional figure in the symphony’s almost 70-year history. Replacing longtime director and larger-than-life figure Ed Seferian, Felder oversaw a period of great change that board president Dick Ammerman described as “somewhat traumatic” in a recent profile of Felder by The News Tribune’s Rosemary Ponnekanti.
When he was hired, the orchestra was a mix of professional musicians, semi-professional ones and talented amateurs. But under Felder’s leadership, all members would either have to show proficiency or significantly up their level of performance to avoid being replaced. Within five years, there was almost 67 percent turnover.
Making tough personnel decisions was a big part of the task Felder was given when he was hired by a symphony board that wanted someone who could take the orchestra to the next level. He has delivered on that mission; his successor — Sarah Ioannides — will reap the benefit of the years he spent improving the orchestra to the point that it can handle even the most challenging works.
Besides improving the orchestra’s musicianship, Felder worked at broadening its appeal to the public. He added pops-style concerts and began performing at what is now the Washington State Fair. He connected with audiences from the podium, explaining the music and chatting in a friendly, accessible way that was unusual at the time.
His proudest achievement was launching Simply Symphonic, an award-winning educational series for schoolchildren that gets kids excited about music. South Sound teachers and students loved the program; we hope Ionannides will continue it in some form.
Felder now moves on to direct orchestra studies at the University of Connecticut, as well as other work. He will be remembered here for his intensity and passion for excellence, for the connections he made with audiences and schoolchildren and, most importantly, for reshaping the Tacoma Symphony into an orchestra the community can be proud to call its own.