By Rachel Dragos
With 48 consecutive seasons, the Knox County Symphony has proven itself to be the pinnacle of culture and community within Knox County.
At the forefront of the lifelong dedication of the symphony’s members is Professor of Music Ben Locke, who is in his 30th season as the music director of the orchestra.
Between the four most veteran members ﾗ concertmaster Dina Snow, principal violist and Adjunct Professor of Harp and Piano Janet Thompson, associate principal violist and Professor Emeritus of Classics Bill McCulloh and Locke himself ﾗ there is over 100 years of dedication to the group.
“It’s one of those things I just can’t imagine not doing,” Snow said. “It’s kind of like a family ﾅ from the people we met when we first started to some of the old professors who have played and since passed away.”
Professor Emeritus of Music Paul Schwartz started the orchestra in 1965 as a place for his daughter to play the cello in a high-caliber artistic environment. Schwartz, who became Kenyon’s first full-time faculty member in music in 1947, is credited as the pioneer of the Department of Music at Kenyon.
After Schwartz’s retirement, the orchestra was under the direction of a number of leaders. Locke took over the direction of the orchestra in 1984, when he began teaching at Kenyon.
The orchestra, comprised of both Kenyon students and community members, plays four concerts a year. A board, working in conjunction with Locke, is responsible for the scope and finances of the organization. Each year, the board presents several fundraisers, the most famous of which is the annual gala.
Thompson has played in the orchestra for 20 years, saying, “It keeps you active, and you understand what the students are going through when you keep yourself active.”
McCulloh played for the orchestra when it first began in 1965 for 13 years. After his retirement in 1999, he began to play with the group again.
“It’s the only time in the week when I’m officially on campus. ﾅ It’s been one of the important ways of still being in the community,” McCulloh said.
Associate Professor of Mathematics Bob Milnikel has played the clarinet in the orchestra for the last nine years.
“It’s good to get to know students in a different context ﾅ and let them see the faculty as people who have lives outside of the classroom ﾗ hobbies, interests, as well,” Milnikel said.
According to all of the veteran members, the single most important factor in keeping them coming back year after year has been Locke’s direction.
McCulloh said, “In addition to [Locke’s] musicianship, there are two things, for me, that stand out: one is his humanity and the other is his humor.”
As for Locke himself, even after 30 years, his love for his job is still immediately evident.
“I surprise myself that I’m in my 30th season.” Locke said. “That’s always been in my personality, though. It’s always been about determined long, slow growth. I feel that that makes the best opportunity for arts to flourish.”
When Locke first began conducting the orchestra, much of the local talent went untapped. About half of the personnel were hired professionals, who came in just for concerts.
“About five or six years in, I started to rethink that sort of thing,” Locke said. “I got behind the idea that we needed to invest our musical focus and efforts into developing our own musicians.”
Magic McBride, president of the Board of the Knox County Symphony Association, reflected Locke’s vision for the Symphony.
“It’s getting better and better every year,” McBride said. “It’s expanding in terms of its scope. It’s tremendous that it not only offers performance to the community, but so many educational opportunities.”
Although she does not play in the orchestra, McBride has served on the Board for the last decade. She spent four years as vice president and has served as president for the last four years.
“I can’t imagine a community without it,” she said. “What would all these musicians do?”
For Locke, the orchestra is a bit of a dream come true.
“Sometimes it’s a moment of realization in myself,” Locke said, when asked about his favorite part of the job ﾗ a question he found difficult to answer. “I think about growing up on a farm near Toledo, and my parents, who loved classical music, and they would play some of the great literature, like Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 ﾅ and here I am, [what feels like] one day later, and I’m playing this piece,” Locke said. “I didn’t have to be director of the [New York] Philharmonic in order to play decent music and have it played well enough for the audiences to pay money and continue to support it. It’s sort of a miracle.”