***This article appeared in the October 24th edition of the Spartanburg Herald Journal and was written by Linda Conley***Broadway stars, famous composers and world-renown musicians have come through the doors of Converse College in Spartanburg.
Some were students who went on to stardom, such as Lily Strickland, a 1904 graduate and female composer whose music was performed by legendary artists Paul Robeson and Burl Ives.
The tradition continues today with graduates Kimilee Bryant, who has performed on Broadway in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” and Tharanga Goonetilleke, a native of Sri Lanka, who recently received a contract with the New York City Opera.
Local audiences have packed the school’s Twichell Auditorium to see violinist Yo-Yo Ma, opera singer Beverly Sills and performer Tony Bennett.
All of the students, stars and the community have helped to make music part of the heart and soul of Converse. This year is the 100th anniversary of the School of Music, known now as the Petrie School of Music, and the college will celebrate with a free concert titled “The Sounds of a Century” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Twichell Auditorium.
When the small women’s college opened in 1890, its founders couldn’t have imagined the impressive reputation Converse would achieve in the music world. Former deans, professors and students said 100 years of hard work is the reason for the success.
“Distinguished alumni, performances, teaching and leadership bring so much attention to the music program and are what sets it apart in the world of music,” said Dr. Joseph Hopkins, former dean of the Petrie School of Music and current dean of the Samford University School of Performing Arts. “Converse focuses on the preparation of leaders. Put that together with the Petrie School of Music, and you end up with people doing much more than filling a hole in society. They know how to make a difference where they are.”
Early musical roots
When the college opened 120 years ago, three of the first faculty members were instructors in the Department of Music. Historians said music was emphasized because cultural entertainment was important to the Spartanburg community and with the college’s founder, Dexter E. Converse.
Audiences frequented the local opera house to see the popular musicians of the day, so implementing music into the curriculum was a logical choice.
The founders wanted the music program to rival the education received at conservatories in the North. Music also was a popular field for young women to pursue at the time, and they came from across the region to attend Converse. By 1910, a School of Music with its own dean was created to give the young college a strong music program.
“Graduates received more distinction from graduating from a school of music,” said Jeffrey Willis, Converse director of Archives and Special Collections. “Our students took great pride in that they were graduates of a professional school of music.”
Residents also benefitted through concerts and programs. The Converse Choral Society and musicians from around the area formed an annual music festival and later expanded it to include guest artists. The New York Symphony was among the regular entertainers featured during the annual event known as the South Atlantic States Music Festival.
“The music festival aimed to be an international music festival and drew performers from major music centers in the United States and Europe,” Willis said. “Converse drew some of the biggest stars. When the college opened, an auditorium was included on the second floor of the main hall, but the festival caused the college to outgrow the auditorium and a major auditorium was built.”
Spartanburg’s entertainment mecca lasted almost 20 years, but had to be scaled down because of the Depression. A smaller music festival was organized in the late 1930s featuring Converse students and local musicians. Famous musicians made guest appearances occasionally, but the event wasn’t as large.
The beat goes on
Economic woes during the Depression didn’t stop the School of Music. Courses were added including, applied music, theory and composition. The bachelor of art’s degree with a major in music was created in 1932. By the late ’30s, Converse was the first in the South to add a music graduate program and began awarding a master’s degree in applied music and composition.
Course offerings expanded in the ’40s and more teaching positions were added in the ’50s. The curriculum also was revised to give students more choices and flexibility.
Dr. Henry Janiec was hired as part of the faculty in 1952 and later became dean from 1967 through 1994. He continues to live in Spartanburg and attends concerts and programs regularly.
“I was dean of the School of Music for 27 years,” he said. “When I die, they can put on my tombstone “at least he can keep a job.’”
Janiec said he received so many opportunities during his tenure that there was no reason for him to leave the college. Part of his responsibilities included conducting the local symphony. He was also given time to conduct the Charlotte symphony, opera and at the Brevard Music Center.
“My colleagues in the School of Music were marvelously trained and knew how to teach,” he said. “We constantly worked on broadening the program. Converse was one of the founders of the National Association of Schools of Music in the country, and the only one in the east. Here was little Converse with good leadership, terrific teachers and the students went on to accomplish a great deal.”
Ross Magoulas, associate professor emeritus of voice and opera, was one of the few male students to graduate from Converse in the 1950s. The college was accepting male students at the time, and Ross chose Converse because he wanted to attend a smaller school.
“Students got a lot of individualized attention and the faculty was so genuine and interested in the progress of its students,” he said. “There was a time during the Depression that the college was able to stay afloat because of the School of Music.”
He said the college remains highly visible in music circles because it has a good reputation for training students. He said that is why graduates have been able to pursue careers on the stage and with international symphonies.
In 1982, Magoulas returned to campus as the director of the opera program and stayed for 10 years. He retired later and went back home to Charleston.
“We put out a lot of good students, and the Converse name spread around the world,” he said. “Spartanburg is very fortunate to have the concert programs given at Twichell because that was the place to perform. Twichell still has the wooden acoustics and is an incredible place to perform.”
For the love of music
Time will tell what the next 100 years will bring for the music school. Recent changes have placed the Petrie School of Music, the Department of Art & Design and the Department of Theatre & Dance under the School of the Arts. Administrators said the idea is to allow more students the opportunity to take advantage of the various art programs.
“People have a deep love and affection for the Petrie School of Music,” said Richard Higgs, dean of the School of the Arts. “There was some real concern when the change was made, but I function as an administrator. My goal is not to take away, but it is to build up more.”
The community will continue going to Twichell Auditorium to see Ballet Spartanburg, the Spartanburg Symphony Orchestra and other programs.
Higgs became the dean a few months ago and wants to make Converse one of the top three schools on every student’s list. He said achieving that goal will make it possible for the college to continue attracting the best and brightest students. And college officials believe those students will be as successful as the ones before them strengthening Converse’s reputation in the music world.
A recent success story is Natasha Senanayake, a junior from Sri Lanka, studying music composition.
She had been in college for only one semester when the Sri Lanka Symphony Orchestra contacted her to write a piece for its young soloists concert.
“The music society is small in Sri Lanka and everyone knows everyone else,” she said. “Someone mentioned my name and I was commissioned to do a piece. I was very excited to do it, but I didn’t expect it to come so early in my career.”
Senanayake worked with Dr. Scott Robbins, special assistant for enrollment to the dean of the School of the Arts, to work on the piece. She said Robbins told her the opportunity was too good to pass up. They worked on it during the spring semester and it was performed later by the symphony.
“The most thrilling part was the first rehearsal because I actually heard an orchestra playing my piece,” she said. “The audience received my piece well and I got a lot of good reviews. It was very exciting.”