The Story Of The Salisbury Symphony
12:00 pm
Fri February 10, 2012

The Story Of The Salisbury Symphony

The Salisbury Symphony practicing. Photo: Marshall Terry

Saturday night the Salisbury Symphony is performing a concert. That's right, the Salisbury Symphony. The small town about 40 miles north of Charlotte has had its own professional orchestra for more than 40 years. And it was started by a sort of "Johnny Appleseed" of symphonies.

It's Sunday night and the symphony's string section is crammed into a small room at Catawba College for rehearsal. Maybe not the most ideal day or time to practice, but when you share musicians with other symphonies in the region you have to be flexible.

"Our orchestra improves by our willingness to schedule around those other orchestras," says conductor David Hagy. "As a result we get to use those musicians from Greensboro and Winston Salem who really are quite fine. "

Hagy has been at the helm for 25 years. The Salisbury Symphony typically has around 60 or 70 musicians. The Charlotte Symphony can have up to twice that many. But Hagy says his symphony definitely holds it own.

"Most of our community residents would say they we're better than them all the time because they have a sense of ownership with this orchestra," says Hagy. "And they're very proud of it, so they're always going to say that it's better."

Salisbury has a population of about 34,000 people. There are other cities with similar populations that have orchestras, but Salisbury stands out because it's surrounded by several larger cities with symphonies.

Mary Messinger. Photo: Marshall Terry

Mary Messinger describes herself as the "mother" of the Salisbury Symphony

"I don't play anything," Messinger says. "I just love music."

In 1966, Messinger was a housewife with a mission.

"I felt that even though we were a small town we needed music," Messinger says. "Music makes a community. So some of my friends we got together and we raised some money and we hired a director."

A director with an impressive resume. His name was Albert Chaffoo, and he was from Iraq. Chaffoo attended the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Military School of Music in London. Then in Iraq the government appointed him director of music. In the 1940s, Chaffoo formed the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra, which today is called the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra.

Chaffoo and his family emigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s, and he went from organizing a national symphony in Iraq to setting up orchestras in small town America. There was Defiance, Ohio, Hickory, today's Western Piedmont Symphony, and then he ended up in Salisbury.

"He loved a challenge," says Chaffooo's son Richard Chaffoo. "He loved creating. His real creative juices were creating something from scratch."

Albert Chafoo

That's Chaffoo's son Richard Chaffoo, who for a time played cello in his father's orchestra. Today he's a plastic surgeon in southern California. He says another reason his father chose Salisbury was the chance to become a music professor at Catawba College. That's where the Salisbury Symphony is based. Chaffoo says his father was passionate about teaching no matter the age of the students and was proud of a summer youth program he organized.

"He would take these kids from various ages," Chafoo. "They'd start out not being able to read music at all, probably no exposure to music. And at the end of the six week course they'd give a concert. And the parents were just amazed."

But Chaffoo did upset some in the community. He put the president of nearby Livingstone College - an African-American - on the symphony's board. He also had black musicians in the orchestra.

"That's the kind of man my father was," Chaffoo says. He was really ahead of his time. He was very much for the underdog and for what was right or what should be right and righting wrongs."

Perhaps it's because he grew up Catholic in predominately-Muslim Iraq.

"He used to say 'we had to hide the Christmas tree,'" Chaffoo says.

Chaffoo retired in the early 1980s and eventually followed his son to California.

He died two years ago. But Chaffoo returned to Salisbury for the symphony's 40th anniversary concert and conducted two pieces. He was 90 and had to use a cane to get on stage.

He received a standing ovation says the symphony's executive director Linda Jones. And then left the stage on his own.

"It was a wonderful illustration of how music can empower a person," Jones says. "There's an old man hobbling up to the stage with a cane and there was this young man, vibrant leaving it."

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