History of the Rome Symphony

Edith Lester Harbin

Top photo: Paul Nixon and his symphonic band

As the Oldest Symphony in the South, the Rome Symphony Orchestra has a long and rich history of providing music to Northwest Georgia. Mrs. Edith Lester Harbin, founder of the Rome Music Lovers Club (1904) and the Junior Music Club (1917), created the first Junior Orchestra in Georgia in 1919 with twenty-eight members. In 1921, Paul Nixon, a trained cellist, returned from service in World War I, and Mrs. Harbin’s students combined with Mr. Nixon’s Orchestral Band of Lindale, to form the Rome Symphony Orchestra. According to an editorial in The Baltimore Sun from June, 1923, “It was the first and only symphony orchestra in the South”. Soon after, Shorter College faculty members and violin students of Arthur Talmadge joined the Orchestra, and the RSO performed its inaugural concert under Mr. Nixon’s direction on May 11, 1922 with a program of Strauss Waltzes and the Overture to Weber’s “Der Freischutz”, amongst other selections. The concert took place during Rome’s first observance of Music Week, and the soloists were Mrs. Taul White and Mr. M. G. McWilliams.

Paul Nixon continued to conduct the Rome Symphony Orchestra until the early 30’s, and was presented with a citizenship award by the Rome Chamber of Commerce for his contributions to the artistic level of music in Rome. While the symphony did not perform during the years of World War II, music and music education were still prominent in Rome through the efforts of the Music Lovers’ Club and Shorter College.

The Rome Symphony Orchestra was reorganized in 1944 by Dr. Wilber Rowand, Jack Kranyik, and Helen Dean Rhodes. Ms. Rhodes continued to conduct concerts for the next 28 years. Also at this time, the Symphony Guild was organized to assure public support of the Orchestra.

When Louise A. Hoge became president of the Music Lovers’ Club in 1948, her main goal was to raise funds to purchase a concert grand piano for club programs and concerts in the Rome City Auditorium. In addition to accomplishing this objective, Louise Hoge served as concertmaster of the Rome Symphony Orchestra for 35 years, from 1947-1982. Upon Helen Dean Rhodes’ retirement as Conductor in 1976, the baton was passed to John Carruth, who led the orchestra until his retirement in 1995. The orchestra experienced tremendous growth under Mr. Carruth’s direction, growing, modernizing, professionalizing, and becoming the organization that is known and loved today.

Helen Dean Rhodes

Dr. Tristan Foison became Music Director in August, 1995. In October 2000, Philip Rice was selected and served as Conductor and Music Director through 2007. The 2007-2008 season utilized guest conductors as a search began for a new conductor. In July 2008, Dr. Richard Prior was named the new Music Director and Conductor. From 2015 – 2017 Dr. Sam Baltzer served as Artistic Director and Conductor.

The current roster of professional musicians hail from Rome and the surrounding areas, as well as from throughout Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. The RSO is currently led by Maestro Jeffrey Dokken, and is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2021.

Edith Lester Harbin and youth orchestra