Symphony North History
From Early Years to Present
The Early Years (1975-1976)
Symphony North was created from the vision of Shirley Schulz. Mark, her high school aged son played the violin, but there were no orchestras in the area high schools at that time. So in October 1974, Shirley established a steering committee to discuss the organization of an orchestra for Northwest Houston. From this committee, a list of 30 interested adults and students was compiled.
By 1975, rehearsals began and were held once a week at Resurrection Lutheran Church. The first official Board of Directors meeting for Symphony North was held during the month of May 1975. Officers were elected and discussion was made regarding bylaws, which were eventually compiled. An Auxiliary Club was formed in 1976 to raise operating funds for the orchestra, but was unable to locate major funding. The auxiliary eventually disbanded due to lack of interest.
Performance & Rehearsal Locations
As early as 1975, there was discussion of affiliation with North Harris County College or Cypress Creek Community Center, but funds were not available. Symphony North continued to perform at Resurrection Lutheran Church.
For a few years, the orchestra moved its rehearsal location to Cypress-Fairbanks High School, but returned again to the church. Symphony North eventually relocated rehearsals and performances to the auditorium at North Harris County College. In 1989, there was another relocation to Cypress Creek Christian Community Center.
The move to the more heavily populated FM 1960 area was deemed vital to the orchestra’s growth. Symphony North moved once again in May of 1994 to a new musical home: Kinsmen Lutheran Church on Champions Forest Drive located in Greenwood Forest Subdivision.
A move to Northwoods Presbyterian Church on FM 1960 occurred in September 1996. There Symphony North enjoyed is longest stay at any venue: twenty-five years. The orchestra personnel grew to the point where there was literally no capacity left on the stage to seat one additional player. On many occasions the string bass, percussion, and harp would be placed on the floor next to the stage. Symphony North simply outgrew the stage area at Northwoods.
So, in October of 2021, Symphony North moved to its new venue at Salem Lutheran Church in Tomball, Texas.
There have been seven conductors for Symphony North. The first was Bill Wilson who conducted the orchestra from 1975 to 1977. Auditions for a new conductor were held in the summer of 1977, and Herman Barlow was selected as the second conductor. Dr. Barlow conducted the orchestra from 1977 to 1983. He resigned due to increased responsibilities at Houston Baptist University.
In June 1983, Andrew Levin, fresh from Rice University, became our third conductor. Previous to Symphony North, he served as co-conductor of the Campanile Orchestra, assistant conductor of the Opera Workshop at the University of Houston, and Conductor of Opus 1, a chamber orchestra he formed while residing in Southern California. Andrew received a Master of Music degree in Conducting and Piano at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music under the instruction of Dr. Samuel Jones. His Bachelor of Arts in Music was from California State University in Los Angeles. For Symphony North, Andrew was the first conductor to promote the orchestra to the community as a whole, and the orchestra enjoyed expanded musical experiences, as well as growth in membership.
Around this time, the original Board of Directors became less active in supporting the orchestra. Because of decreased board involvement, an all-players Board was created. An immediate result of the new Board was that Andrew became the first contract employee of Symphony North. Andrew enjoyed a successful tenure with the orchestra, and resigned to pursue a Ph.D. in conducting at Ball State University in May of 1990.
Auditions were held over the summer of 1990, and James Hagberg was chosen as the fourth conductor to direct the orchestra. James began his music career as a violinist performing at the Sioux Youth Symphony and the Sioux City Symphony Orchestras. He received his bachelor of Music in Conducting in 1982, studying under Dr. Samuel Jones of the Shepherd School Music at Rice University. Also in 1982, he became the founding conductor of the Brazosport Symphony Orchestra and music director for the Brazosport Music Theater. James conducted Symphony North until the fall of 1994 when he resigned to become the fulltime director of music for Kinsmen Lutheran.
After an extensive search and interview process, Marcelo Bussiki became Symphony North’s fifth conductor. Marcelo, a native of Brazil, pursued his DMA in Conducting at the University of Houston while he was the conductor of Symphony North. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Orchestral and Choral Conducting from the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janiero School of Music in Brazil. He was also the Conductor for the Houston Civic Symphony and the Conductor/Music Director of Orquestra Sinfônica da Universidale Federal de Mato Grossso in Brazil. He resigned in May, 1996 to conduct the Brazos Valley Symphony.
Dr. Reynaldo “Ron” Ochoa was the Symphony North Conductor from the 1996-97 season through the 2016-17 season. He held the longest running term, which was for twenty years. The orchestra flourished during Dr. Ochoa’s tenure. He took the orchestra from a fledging community orchestra to one that was renowned in hosting world class musicians for numerous concertos. As a classical symphonic conductor, he was always prepared; always knew the literature; always stressed tuning, phrasing, and timing; always stretched each orchestra member to play beyond their individual capabilities; and always sought to find the finest soloist to perform concertos with the orchestra. Since Dr. Ochoa was so widely known in the music industry, he attracted these world class soloists, which was a delightful experience for all involved with Symphony North. Above all, Dr. Ochoa was masterful in teaching stylistic phrasing. Symphony North musicians greatly benefited by adding these multitudinous phrasing styles to their interpretive knowledge base. Dr. Ochoa took time off during the 2016-17 season due to health reasons and resigned at the end of the season. We will miss Dr. Ochoa and wish him the best.
The seventh conductor for Symphony North was Michael Astwood. Mr. Astwood retired from Texas public school teaching in 2013. Over the course of 35 years, he taught a variety of music courses, including orchestra, band, music theory, elementary strings, general music, and class piano. He returned to teaching in the fall of 2016, working half time as the Advanced Placement music theory instructor and assistant orchestra teacher at Kingwood High School.
Mr. Astwood has one publication to his credit – the orchestral transcription of the Clifton Williams Paso Doble “Laredo.” In 2007, he was listed in that year’s edition of “Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers.” The following year, the Clear Creek High School Orchestra, under his direction, was named “Best Orchestra” in a high school musical at that year’s TUTS “Tommy Tune” Awards.
Mr. Astwood has a long association with community and semi-professional orchestras. He played string bass in the Lubbock Symphony and the Pasadena Philharmonic and served as guest conductor of the Kingwood Pops for their 2010 “Fiesta” concert. Mr. Astwood was also the founder and conductor of the Kingwood Camerata Orchestra (2011-13.) Mr. Astwood holds the Bachelor of Music Education and Master of Music degrees from Texas Tech University. His post-collegiate conducting instructors were Gary Lewis and Bruce Woods. He is an active member of the Texas Music Educators Association and the Texas Music Adjudicators Association.
At the beginning of the 2022-2023 season, Symphony North Board’s appointed a Conductor Search Committee after Michael Astwood, Symphony North’s conductor for seven seasons, resigned at the end of the 2021-2022 season. The Committee collected numerous curriculum vitae from interested candidates. From those candidates they then conducted initial phone interviews, followed by in-person interviews. From that process two very strong candidates were selected to be guest conductors for the 2022-2023 season. At the end of that season, the playing members of Symphony North voted on those two guest conductors. Dr. Karl Blench won the majority vote and became Symphony North’s eight conductor starting June 1, 2023.