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  • Writer's pictureCraig Birchfield

The Pied Piper of the Purple Sage – Part 2 9/20/2014

There is something in the human psyche that loves a story about someone with such uncommon belief and vision that they can accomplish what the experts, skeptics, pragmatists and naysayers say is impossible and do it with panache. A stuttering shepherd named Moses leads a rag-tag slave race to the promised land, Babe Ruth points his bat a the stands and proceeds to hit a home run there, John Kennedy challenges a nation to put a man on the moon in ten years when the technology does not even exist to accomplish such a feat and we do it in nine years and change and Mary V. Dodge decides that young children in one of the most rural and remote small communities in the nation are capable, with her mentoring and encouragement, of playing great classical music and doing it well. She succeeds years before any major American city is able to launch a junior or youth symphony. If you don’t think that is awesome and emotionally stirring then you better take your pulse to see if your heart is still beating.

Continuing with our tale from last post, when local cattle czar and community booster Bill Hanley saw how successful the children of Mary Dodge’s Sagebrush Symphony were at wooing the crowds in the eastern Oregon cities he determined to bring the young ensemble to the cultural hub of Oregon: the Salem and Portland corridor. The charismatic Hanley and fellow businessmen were able to raise $2000 in funds from the community to underwrite the expedition. Expedition is the proper term here because in 1916 the North Pole was only slightly more remote from urban civilization than was Burns, Oregon. What passed for roads in Harney county were nothing more than the cowpaths made by cattle drives and the nearest train station to connect with Salem was in Bend, Oregon – 131 rough and rugged miles away. One intrepid driver reportedly had fourteen flat tires making the trek with his load of mini-musicians. At the state fair in Salem the ensemble played seven concerts in two days and walked away with a $100 prize. The red carpet was rolled out for them in Portland and they played to packed houses and generated enthusiastic reviews. They even played a private concert for an appreciative international opera diva. For Mary Dodge it was the experience of a lifetime.

Unfortunately, World War I and its impact on resources interrupted the symphony’s burgeoning career and concert demand for the children soon dried up like the surrounding sage brush. In 1918 Mott, Mary’s husband was transferred and the couple moved back to Portland but then Mott’s job was eliminated and the couple soon separated. Mary rebooted her career as a private music instructor, opened a music school and was hired by Irvington Elementary School as a music teacher. As demand for her services increased she caught a new expanded vision. Instead of the pool of a few hundred children to draw from she had in Burns, in Portland she had potentially many thousands of eager young musicians. She began an advanced ensemble that rehearsed in her attic.

Today, in the early 21st century, the ranks of conductors and musical directors for major American symphonies are still male dominated but early in twentieth century female conductors were non-existent. The glass ceiling was a foot thick. Though some have suggested that Mary felt overwhelmed by the task of helming a serious symphony especially since she had no formal training as a conductor, I find that very unlikely given the woman’s track record as a human dynamo. It is far more likely that she realized that for her fledgling junior symphony to be taken seriously in the rarefied world of classical music it was absolutely imperative that she find a male conductor with a serious pedigree. She kept her eyes open for a likely candidate. Russian musician Jacques Gershkovitch arrived in Portland in1923 to guest conduct the Oregon Symphony (then called the Portland Symphony). After seeing him conduct Mary approached Mr. Gershkovitch, who had limited English, to come hear and possibly direct her Junior Symphony. Although he was initially hesitant and insisted that he did not teach children, she prevailed on him to at least come hear her ensemble and as he listened in her attic he was profoundly impressed by the young players and applauded them. Mary extended the baton to him and he accepted the commission with the simple phrase, “I take.” Gershkovitch was himself a skilled teacher, conductor and expected his charges to work with diligence and purpose. Mary’s intuition about the man was correct and under his baton the symphony prospered and grew. Mary stayed on as assistant conductor and the administrative force behind the organization that she had birthed. One year after the passing of the baton the Portland Junior Symphony gave their first concert. There was a general sense of shock in those who heard it that children could truly play this well. In 1924 there was not another junior or youth symphony in America but there certainly was one in Portland, Oregon and they were good. By the 1930’s they had a national radio hook-up and were being heard throughout the nation. Later came national TV, international touring and a name change to the Portland Youth Philharmonic.

It is almost a cliché that those who are the most visionary in launching a new work are often the least recognized once it takes off. Mary saw her roll with the symphony diminished and she resigned once the work was firmly established. She went back to teaching music, her first love, and became a force behind the scientific study of bowing techniques. She also continued in her conviction that any child could learn music and that desire, work ethic and proper technique and training trumped native talent. In 1954, the thirtieth anniversary of the symphony and shortly before she passed away, she was invited to a special rehearsal where she was honored for her contribution to the symphony. Accolades can fade and awards tarnish but there is true value if we make the world a bit better place. Mary Dodge invested herself in hundreds of young people and those young people it turn touched thousands of lives. I believe that makes her a hero.

Keep practicing,


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