LIMA — “Taken as a whole,” the Lima Times-Democrat wrote on Jan. 7, 1916, “the affair was the greatest social landmark in Lima’s history … “
The “greatest social landmark in Lima’s history” was a dance at Memorial Hall called the “Ball Poudre,” and was, according to the newspaper, “graced by the presence” of former governor and Dayton newspaper editor James Cox as well as more than 200 couples, who had paid $3 each to dance to the music of a 60-piece Lima symphony orchestra.
Cox, who made an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1920, praised the symphony noting, in the words of the Times-Democrat, “It is always to the advancement and betterment of the city … that an interest in high-grade classical music … be stimulated by a nucleus of artists.”
A love of music, however, was not enough to keep the orchestra together.
In 1945, two world wars and the Great Depression later, the idea of a permanent Lima symphony was revived and, in January 1953, the Lima Symphony was officially organized. “The orchestra broke up occasionally from lack of support,” a longtime member told The Lima News in 1973. “Sometimes we practiced in people’s homes because we didn’t have any money. We were never paid for our work — we played for the glory of it.”
That all changed in June 1967 when Joseph Firszt was appointed conductor and music director, replacing Henry Plukker, who resigned after a single season with the orchestra. Firszt would stay 29 years.
Firszt recalled in a May 1995 interview with the Toledo Blade that when he arrived in Lima after leaving a position as conductor of the Lexington, Kentucky, orchestra, there was temporarily no functioning orchestra. “The musicians had all resigned in protest to the previous conductor,” he told the Blade.
Under Firszt’s leadership, the symphony came a long way. “Though the orchestra had its beginnings as far back as 1945,” the News wrote in December 2003, “by the time he arrived in 1967, the organization had virtually disintegrated. Firszt had to send out invitations and track down musicians to put the orchestra back together.” The orchestra would grow from 50 volunteer musicians playing “for the glory of it” to 75 paid musicians.
“More importantly,” the News noted, “he took the orchestra into the community, performing free community concerts, student performances and other programs. With his flowing white hair and European manner, Firszt became the image two generations would most associate with arts in the region.”
In June 1967, Lima’s new symphony conductor arrived with impressive credentials. Joseph Teodor Firszt was born Nov. 1, 1926, in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. He was the son of Josef and Wladyslawa Baczundksz Firszt. “Born in the U.S., Firszt spent the first eight years of his life in Poland, where he first studied music under the tutelage of his grandfather, the patriarch of a family of musicians,” the News wrote on June 6, 1967.
At the age of 13, the News noted in a story from September 1977, Firszt was playing violin “as the youngest member of the Pittsburgh Opera. Then I was with the Pittsburgh Orchestra,” he told the News.
Among many other achievements, the News wrote in 1967, “Firszt has appeared as a violinist and violist with many symphony, radio concert, tour, chamber and opera groups, as well as soloist in the U.S. and abroad. He has made disc and radio recordings here and in Europe as well as producing radio and TV programs in this country and overseas.”
Firszt arrived in Lima with his wife, Alma Lundgren Firszt, who was head of design at a Berea, Kentucky, firm specializing in handwoven goods. The couple were the parents of twins, Anya and Jan. When Alma Firszt died in 1978, he married the former Norma Willis, who was principal flutist with the orchestra.
The Lima Symphony Orchestra had found its man — and Firszt had found a challenge. “It makes the community a better place to live,” he told the News. “The job of the symphony is to expand and challenge the horizon of the mind and spirit, to provide entertainment, and to prove there is more to life than meat and potatoes.”
Firszt would do that for nearly three decades. “In his tenure in Lima,” the News wrote in 2008, “Firszt also served as director of the Council for the Arts of Greater Lima and helped initiate a range of community programs, including the Lima Area Youth Orchestra and concerts in the parks and schools. He helped build an audience for the orchestra by mixing classic repertoire with more accessible works and luring world-class visiting artists to join the symphony in performances.”
In October 1995, the 68-year-old Firszt stepped down. “The decision came as the result of some personal problems, including the recent death of his wife (Norma Firszt died in August 1995), as well as suggestions from the symphony board. Firszt said the board did not actually tell him to quit, but its suggestions were enough to let him know the time had come,” the News reported Oct. 31, 1995. Firszt told the News he was OK with the decision, adding, “when it’s time, it’s time.”
Firszt, however, did not go home and sit on the couch. In November 1996, Firszt married professional singer Pamela Hoiles in a ceremony at her home in Manchester Center, Vermont. “In his later years, Firszt traveled the country as a guest conductor,” the News wrote in 2008. “He even became the first American conductor to perform behind the Iron Curtain when he returned to his native Poland near the end of the Cold War.”
On a memorable night in November 2003, Firszt returned as a guest conductor of the Lima Symphony, now under the baton of his successor Crafton Beck, who would remain with the symphony until last year. “I’m very eager to get back to see some of my old colleagues and some friends,” Firszt told the News prior to the concert. “And to make a little music together.”
Plagued by failing eyesight in his later years, he eventually was left almost blind. “Yet he had memorized dozens of scores and still cherished the chance to talk and teach music,” the News wrote.
Firszt died on Aug. 9, 2008, at Otterbein-Cridersville.
“He was so incredibly talented and gifted,” longtime Lima Symphony Orchestra member Erin Grim told the News just before the orchestra’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2007. “He had the audience wrapped around his fingers. Everybody loved Joe. When people mention the Lima Symphony, they mention Joe. He was the Lima Symphony.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.