Striking a Chord: A Program for the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Los Angeles, 1 April 1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As covered here in a previous post, the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Los Angeles was the first all-female classical music orchestra in the United States when it formed in the fall of 1893 and played its first concert the following spring.  The ensemble’s first director was Harley Hamilton, who also worked with long-time music impresario Lyndon E. Behymer to form the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra five years later.

Hamilton continued to wield the baton with the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra for fifteen years, retiring in 1913.  His successor was Henry Schoenefeld, born of German parents in Milwaukee and who studied in Weimar.  He led a German orchestra and a choir in Chicago and then came to Los Angeles where he was a choir director before being hired to replace Hamilton.

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Fri__Apr_1__1927_ (1)
Los Angeles Times, 1 April 1927.

Schoenefeld was an active composer, with an opera, a pair of symphonies and a good deal of piano pieces to his name and he taught at the University of California, Los Angeles and had a private studio at his home, as well.  The post from a little over a year ago featured a 9 February 1927 program from the first concert of the season with wrappers and eight pages, including a brief history of the orchestra, names of the players, lists of supporters, and advertisements from local businesses.

Today’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s holdings is a single-sheet two-sided program for the last performance of the season, held at the Philharmonic Auditorium at Fifth and Olive streets across from Pershing Square on 1 April.  The front has a panoramic photo of Schoenefeld and the ensemble on stage along with quotes from reviews from three local papers, the Examiner, the Express, and the Herald.

Times, 1 April 1927.

Among the accolades were the first paper’s observation that “great literature of the orchestra was read with scholarly understanding”.  The Express noted that the performers “added new prestige to this community” with its February opening concert.  The Herald blared that “much praise can be legitimately bestowed upon each  faithful member of this fine ensemble” for its “constructive and educational” performance.

This last concert of the season was to feature pianist Joseph Fogel as soloist.  Born in Russia, but an emigrant to Los Angeles as an infant with his family, he was a child prodigy, performing at eight at a conservatory-sponsored concert.  Intellectually precocious, Fogel completed high school at 12 before leaving for New York and then Paris to further his musical education, including composition.  Favorably received in concert halls in France, Germany, Portugal and Belgium, Fogel returned to Los Angeles a couple of years prior to this concert.


The program, always subject to change, was to include an overture by Felix Mendelssohn, Mozart’s “Concerto for Piano, A major,” a suite by Schoenefeld, and a piece for piano and orchestra by Camille Saint-Saëns.  Fogel, for reasons not mentioned in the coverage of the Los Angeles Times and who went on to teach piano until his death in 1976, was unable to perform, however, so the soloist was vocalist and soprano Marjorie Dodge (1892-1941).

Dodge was a native of Chicago who sang around the country with orchestras and opera companies and came to Los Angeles from Utah in 1922 with her husband Squire Coop, who led an oratorio society.  After spending most of the Twenties in Los Angeles with some renown, she and Coop divorced and she returned to her native Chicago for the rest of her life.


The program included the Mendelssohn and Schoenefeld pieces, but, with the change in soloist, a recitative and aria from “Der Freischütz” (The Marksman), an 1821 opera by Carl-Maria von Weber was substituted for Dodge’s inclusion, while the Mozart piece was changed to a symphony in D major, though which was not specified in the press coverage.

As noted above, nothing was said in the brief coverage in the Times about why Fogel was not able to perform with the orchestra, with an article the day of the concert merely stating, “conductor Henry Schoenefeld has selected an excellent program for the closing concert of the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra at the Philharmonic Auditorium tonight.”  The piece did note that “founded in 1894, the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra has achieved success in the cultural and educational field of music” and added that it was “the first and only strictly women’s symphony in the country.”

Times, 15 July 1925.

The brief summary of the concert in the Times noted:

The Woman’s Symphony Orchestra gave a well-balanced program at the Philharmonic Auditorium last night, in which Marjorie Dodge again displayed the richly melodious quality of her voice to advantage, and Conductor Schoenefeld presented two short orchestral numbers of his own composing, which were received with marked enthusiasm.

The review added that the ensemble played the Mozart symphony in memory of Walter Henry Rothwell, the first music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which celebrated its centennial this year and which was founded by William Andrews Clark, Jr., son of the Montana mining mogul, United States senator from that state, and builder of the Los Angeles, San Pedro, and Salt Lake Railroad.

Times, 2 April 1927.

On 12 March, just a little under three weeks before the concert, Rothwell was driving alone to the beach to relax and, feeling unwell, pulled his car to the side of the road and shut off the engine.  When another driver pulled up, he found the conductor sprawled against the car seat with his head flung back.  It was determined that Rothwell, died of a massive heart attack and it was believed damage was caused to his heart from intensive and stressful work.

It turned out that Squire Coop, Marjorie Dodge’s husband, was one of the last people to speak to Rothwell, as Coop was then director of the Philharmonic Chorus, which was part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  The two were planning a Beethoven memorial concert in honor of the centennial of the master’s death.

Times, 13 March 1927.

There is also an application on the program for that last concert of the season with an opportunity to subscribe at one of three support levels: associate for $3.00, which allowed for four reserved seats; sustaining at $10.00, which provided for a dozen seats; and patron, which, for $25.00, brought either a dozen box or loge seats or 32 reserved seats for the show.  There were more seats provided for these than in the February concert program, suggesting that attendance was not what was hoped.

This artifact, along with the February 1927 program, is an important artifact for serious music in Los Angeles as the city’s arts and entertainment scene continued to develop and grow, as well as for its particular reference to the nation’s first all-women symphony orchestra in the nation, which seems to have lasted into the 1950s.


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