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Arts & Culture

OREGON EXPERIENCE: Sagebrush Symphony

OPB | Oct. 20, 2009 9 p.m. | Updated: Dec. 5, 2013 11:14 a.m.

In 1910, classically trained violinist Mary Dodge arrived in the high desert country of Harney County with an intense love of music and the desire to share that love with the local children. Her determination and drive built an orchestra that gained statewide fame. “Sagebrush Symphony,” the next episode in Oregon Public Broadcasting’s OREGON EXPERIENCE series airing Monday, November 9 at 9pm, tells the forgotten story of a woman who changed Oregon’s musical history

Mary and her husband, Mott moved from Portland to Burns where Mott, a civil engineer, had gotten a job on an irrigation project. Raised and educated on the East coast, Mary had taught school in Boston and New York before moving West, and was soon giving lessons to anyone who showed an interest. She was the “Pied Piper” as her granddaughter describes her in the program.

When the children’s talent began to emerge, Mary decided to form an orchestra. Within five years, the Harney County Sagebrush Symphony was touring the towns of Eastern Oregon and gaining the admiration of all who heard their performances.

In 1916, the opportunity arose for the symphony to perform in Portland and Salem, so the residents of Burns raised $2,000 to send 30 children and their chaperones on a trip of a lifetime.

During their weeklong tour, the children were front-page news. “The journey of the little people is considered one of the finest exhibitions of community spirit ever shown in this state,” wrote an Oregonian reporter.

But back home in Burns, World War I disrupted plans for future tours. In 1918 the Dodges returned to Portland where Mary was appointed music director at Irvington Grade School. She also gave private lessons and opened her own violin school. Several of the original Sagebrushers followed her to Portland to continue their lessons. 

With so many students, Mary formed an “advanced orchestra” that practiced in her attic. She was determined that the group would become a permanent young people’s symphony, so she persuaded a visiting professional conductor, Jacques Gershkovitch, to take the baton and lead the orchestra to the next level of excellence. Mary’s orchestra would become the genesis of the Portland Junior Symphony — now called the Portland Youth Philharmonic — America’s first youth orchestra.

“Sagebrush Symphony” tells this forgotten chapter of Oregon’s musical history with archival film, photographs and interviews with people whose lives she touched.

Watch the complete program online anytime after the broadcast at

http://opb.org/oregonexperience.

About OREGON EXPERIENCE
OREGON EXPERIENCE is an exciting history series on OPB-TV that brings to life fascinating stories that help us understand who we are and that reinforce our shared identity as Oregonians. The series, co-produced by the Oregon Historical Society and Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), takes advantage of the extensive film, video and stills from the archives of OHS and OPB, and draws upon the expertise of OHS researchers and historians. Each half-hour show features captivating characters — both familiar and forgotten — who have played key roles in building our state into the unique place we call home. Funding for OREGON EXPERIENCE is provided in part by Ann & Bill Swindells Charitable Trust, James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation and Oregon Cultural Trust. The OREGON EXPERIENCE Web site is opb.org/oregonexperience.

About OPB
OPB is the largest cultural and education institution in the region, delivering excellence in public broadcasting to 1.5 million people each week through television, radio and the Internet. Widely recognized as a national leader in the public broadcasting arena, OPB is a major contributor to the program schedule that serves the entire country. OPB is one of the most-used and most-supported public broadcasting services in the country and is generously supported by 120,000 contributors.

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