By Kate Mullaney Shirley, for RealWV
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Under a sunny blue sky and across the river from the Capitol building, hundreds of locals descended on the University of Charleston’s lawn on Sunday, June 4 for the sweet sounds of an annual tradition: Symphony Sunday, sponsored by AVN Corp.
This year marked the 40th anniversary of the event, which is a summer staple in the Charleston area.
“We like to call AVN Corp. Symphony Sunday our gift to the community”, said Amanda McDonald, the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s marketing director. “It’s a thank you to everyone who has supported the orchestra throughout the years.”
Sami Koontz of Dunbar has lived in the area for most of her life, but experienced the event for the first time this year.
“It was lovely to see so many people come out and support the show,” Koontz said. “You could tell it’s a traditional event for some attendees.”
Others, like Erin Deegan Conner, were returning to the event for the first time since the pandemic. “I grew up in Cross Lanes, and I think I probably went to Symphony Sunday when I was a kid,” she said.
However, Conner only became a regular attendee when she returned to the Charleston area after college. “I went to every Symphony Sunday for about 10 years,” said Conner. “This is the first one that I’ve come back to. I’m so excited!”
Before the WVSO’s featured performance at the end of the night, the stage hosted other community musical groups. This year’s lineup included community bands and ensembles as well as vocal groups like womanSong and barbershop ensembles.
The event included the next generation with a performance by the West Virginia Youth Symphony and a dedicated children’s area. This year, children painted a broken cello that, instead of being thrown away, was reimagined as a canvas for community art. As dusk settled and night fell during the symphony’s mainstage performance, children danced on the lawn to the music of Leonard Bernstein, Henry Mancini, and John Williams.
“It’s so wonderful to see the community come together both on the stage and on the lawn to celebrate the start of summer and the Symphony’s place in the community,” McDonald said.
This AVN Corp. Symphony Sunday, however, marked not only the start of summer, but also the start of a new era for The West Virginia Symphony Orchestra.
After an extensive search process, the WVSO announced that Maurice Cohn would be its newest Music Director and Conductor on Sunday morning. Cohn, originally from Galesburg, Illinois, was previously Assistant Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
No one in attendance could miss the big news: Cohn’s smiling face was printed on yard signs dotting the lawn and on stickers sported by WVSO supporters at the VIP party.
“We were overjoyed to see the response when Maurice Cohn was named the 11th Music Director of the WV Symphony,” said McDonald. “We had six amazing candidates throughout the year, so we would’ve been so blessed to have any of them, but we are thrilled to have Maurice with us.”
A community commitment was important to the WVSO in their search process. “Maurice will be moving to Charleston in September,” confirmed McDonald.
Cohn led the WVSO musicians – who, according to McDonald, were “very happy with the final decision” – through a program filled with popular hits from stage and screen, designed to appeal to a broad audience.
Microphone feedback caused a slight technical issue, but Cohn and the musicians were unfazed. The more important feedback came from the crowd. “Maurice Cohn led the symphony beautifully and he felt comfortable and confident speaking to the audience,” said Koontz.
The WVSO looks forward to its 85th season this year, which includes a variety of classical and pops performances and a collaboration with Mountain Stage. AVN Corp. Symphony Sunday is an opportunity for locals to experience the symphony outside the Clay Center so that maybe, they’ll venture inside. “Now that I know what I have missed over the years, I want to attend more of the upcoming concerts,” said Koontz.
Cohn’s optimism for the future was clear at the concert’s conclusion, just before a Sousa- and firework-filled sendoff. “I can’t wait to meet you all and make music with all of you,” Cohn said to the crowd and the orchestra. “It’s the honor of my life and I’m really looking forward to it.”