Mission Accomplished: OSU Alum Remembers Life in Army Orchestra
In the 1950s, when the world was still reeling from the horrors of World War II, the United States Army sent some GIs on a special mission in Europe. But instead of patrolling once Nazi-occupied cities or ferrying aid to rebuilding areas, these soldiers wielded violin bows and trumpets and played Ravel, not Reveille.
Mel Ponzi, an OSU alumnus and chair of the OSU Alumni Hyperactive Band, remembers the high art and high jinks of his nearly two years with the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra as though they happened yesterday.
“It was a fantastic experience,” said Ponzi, a Painesville, Ohio, native, of his time with the orchestra, which this year celebrates the 60th anniversary of its establishment as a U.S. Army unit.
The Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra is so far the only orchestra in U.S. Army history. It was founded in 1952 by Samuel Adler – then an Army corporal, today one of America’s most highly decorated composers - with the support of Seventh Army Special Services and European Command. The orchestra’s mission was unique: to build good will in Europe for the United States. Ponzi uses plain language to describe that mission.
“Propaganda. We were trying to cement relations all over Europe with the populace there and bring more good will,” Ponzi said. “The American soldiers back then were big drinkers and womanizers, and we had to prove to them that there was more to the Americans than what they saw.”
The orchestra got off to a slow start as an informal assemblage of musicians Adler managed to wrangle from U.S. Army bands around Germany. Adler conducted the group in mainly European orchestral repertoire on a well-received concert tour of Germany, but the impending Army discharge of Adler and other musicians threatened the orchestra’s existence. Circumstances – including a visit to the Pentagon by the esteemed conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos – resulted in the formal military establishment of the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra. That paperwork put the orchestra on the U.S. Army’s books and, since the draft was still in effect, helped to ensure that the Army would be able to keep the group afloat by routing a stream of musicians to play in it.
In 1956, Ponzi, then a recent music education graduate of The Ohio State University and a tuba player in the band at West Point, received orders to go to Stuttgart, Germany, to join the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra needed a double bassist. At that time, Ponzi hadn’t touched the bass in over a year, but he brushed up on his technique and jumped in.
Almost immediately Ponzi joined the orchestra on a tour of France, Germany, and Italy. Ponzi played under conductors who would go on to enjoy spectacular musical careers. Henry Lewis, who had been a double bassist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and who later founded the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and served as music director of the New Jersey Symphony, was the Seventh Army Symphony’s conductor when Ponzi joined the group. Ling Tung led the orchestra at its peak membership. After leaving the Army, he played the violin with the Philadelphia Orchestra and built Wyoming’s Grand Teton Music Festival into one of the most prestigious summer music festivals in the U.S.
“Ling was a real task master, and consequently, we had a very fine orchestra back in ’56 and ’57,” Ponzi said.
Other conductors who are today well known would also stand on the podium of the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra, including Antal Dorati (eventually the principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), who guest conducted the Seventh Army Symphony in 1957, and Kenneth Schermerhorn, who later led the Milwaukee and Nashville Symphony Orchestras.
Touring was the mainstay of the orchestra’s existence, and Ponzi says Europeans received the orchestra enthusiastically.
“When they knew that we were coming, we played basically for standing room-only audiences almost everyplace we went,” Ponzi said.
Ponzi says playing with the Seventh Army Symphony wasn’t all serious business. He remembers one tour to France, where he and some fellow musicians ducked out on uncomfortable straw mattresses and spent the night at a hotel. He remembers the dramatic moment when Russian soldiers pulled down window shades on a train as it carried members of the orchestra into East Berlin. Then there were the shenanigans Ponzi’s fellow servicemen – virtually all in their 20s and most of them unmarried – pulled with members of the opposite sex. And there was a steady stream of practical jokes.
For ten years, the Seventh Army Symphony performed hundreds of concerts throughout Europe until, in 1962, the Army decided to disband the orchestra. A Feb. 6, 1962 story in The New York Times reported that officials of the John F. Kennedy White House had said the U.S. Army’s decision to discontinue the orchestra “never came to President Kennedy’s desk for his attention,” but that the White House would not interfere with plans to shut down the orchestra. That story also reported the Army’s reasons for ending the orchestra: finding qualified musicians to play in the orchestra was difficult, the orchestra had completed its mission to build “community relations” throughout Europe, and its personnel were needed elsewhere for combat support. Thus the Seventh Army Symphony went quiet.
But not forever. In the years since 1962, Ponzi and other former Seventh Army Symphony musicians have performed reunion concerts, including the most recent one in 2006, which Ponzi helped organize, at Cowan Hall on the Otterbein University campus in Westerville, Ohio. Ponzi says that 55th anniversary performance was probably the orchestra’s last. And, he says, last August’s Seventh Army Symphony reunion (without concert) may even prove to have been the final purely social gathering of the orchestra’s former members.
“There probably won’t be any more reunions because everybody’s getting too old,” Ponzi said.
Since 1972, Ponzi has been living and working in Columbus, directing his musical energies to organizing performances of the OSU Alumni Band’s Hyperactive Band. He’s just one of hundreds of former Seventh Army Symphony members who have kept their hands in music throughout their lives as amateur performers, music educators or high-level professional performers. And he’s proud to have been a part of a mission that put America’s cultural awareness, rather than its military might, on display for all the world to see.
“They did find out early on that we knew more about classical music than they thought we did,” Ponzi said. “Because originally when this orchestra started, they were under the impression that all the Americans knew were Country and Western and Rock ‘n’ Roll. And when they found out that there was a group of Americans that knew something more than that, it was fantastic.”
Some historical information for this story was drawn from John Canarina Uncle Sam’s Orchestra: Memories of the Seventh Army Symphony (Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 1998).