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A small town has room for symphony

Marshall, Mo., is home to about 12,000 people and one renown, its 43-year-old orchestra.

June 03, 2006|From the Associated Press

MARSHALL, Mo. — They come from towns better known for hog farms and meatpacking plants than as fertile ground for musical virtuosos.

Doctors, lawyers, teachers, housewives or third-shift workers, they share a commitment to orchestral and symphonic performance that makes this central Missouri town a regional center for classical music.

The Marshall Philharmonic Orchestra just completed its 43rd year. Historians have traced the roots of organized bands in the town to 1871. Since 1934, residents have paid a 1/10 of a cent "band tax" to support the orchestra and a municipal band.

"We have factory workers, we have high school kids," said Norma Jeane Ferguson, the principal bass player and an original member. "There's just a love of music in this town."

The orchestra emerged nearly half a century ago after banker Catron Gordon shared his vision with Harold Lickey, a high school chemistry teacher and part-time musician who wound up as the group's musical director and conductor.

They began modestly, performing in each other's living rooms before moving to the Bueker Middle School stage, the philharmonic's current home in the town of about 12,000 people.

"Everybody kind of laughed," said flute player Mary Lou Porter, an orchestra member since the early years. "They just kind of scoffed at him."

But Lickey persevered, recruiting music teachers and students from nearby colleges. Lickey died in 1990 after suffering a heart attack at a performance.

"He was an inspiration to all of us in town," said jazz pianist Bob James, who has collaborated with Quincy Jones, David Sanborn and Lee Ritenour, and wrote the theme song for television's "Taxi."

"I fed off his energy," said James, a Marshall native.

Half a dozen times each year, the symphony performs selections by Bach, Mozart and others. During its season finale in April, it presented a pops program featuring the work of Jerome Kern, Stephen Sondheim and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The influence of Marshall musicians extends into the town's middle and high schools, with many musicians moving on to earn degrees in music education and take teaching jobs throughout Missouri, sowing the seeds planted generations ago.

Marshall for years has touted itself as the nation's smallest city with its own symphony. The designation may be apocryphal -- contenders include the Red Cedar Symphony in Rice Lake, Wis., population 8,350 -- but no one can deny that Marshall is mad about music.

More than just the brass and woodwinds, a Marshall Philharmonic concert is a testament to the ties forged in small-town America. The recent pops concert included a slide show of third- and fourth-graders' artwork from Marshall Elementary School. During intermission, performers mingled with their friends, family and neighbors in the middle school hallway.

"If you're from Marshall, you know just about everyone on the stage," said Charles Ferguson, Lickey's successor.

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