Thor Johnson with the orchestra

1951-1984

Thor JohnsonIn 1951, Thor Johnson, Founder and Conductor, dreamed of organizing a Festival for the seldom-heard rich repertoire written for Chamber Orchestras. He shared his idea with classical music enthusiasts Mr. and Mrs. Lorenz Heise, who loved it. After a few years of budget planning and committee meetings, the Peninsula Music Festival was formed, and its inaugural performance was heard on Thursday, August 6, 1953.

Initially, a budget of $10,000 was proposed but needed to be secured before the start of the festival. Though there were mixed feelings about the likelihood of raising that amount of money, an eager team of volunteers went fundraising door-to-door to help fund Thor’s musical dream. Plans were made to start the first Festival performances in August 1953, with eight Chamber Orchestra concerts, including one that was especially geared towards children.

The first Festival performances in the Gibraltar School Gymnasium were a great success and paved the way for future development efforts. Thor Johnson, Lorenz Heise, and Kay Wilson of Ephraim continued to lead the Festival during its formative years.

Until he died in 1975, Thor Johnson had been at the helm with pride for 22 years, guiding it as it became an established Door County institution. The loss of its Founder was particularly difficult, but new leadership was established and carried on that which Thor Johnson had begun in 1951. In 1978, Michael Charry was appointed Music Director, and following his resignation in 1982, Byron Hanson became the Festival’s Music Coordinator, bringing in many Guest Conductors to help lead the Festival Orchestra and bridge the gap until the next Music Director could be named.

READ MORE ABOUT THOR JOHNSON, FOUNDER

Thor Johnson initially received national attention as the youngest American-born and trained conductor of a major American orchestra, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He later achieved international recognition and became known for championing contemporary music.

Thor was born in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, on June 10, 1913. His father was a Moravian minister, and young Thor grew up in a household steeped in the faith and traditions of the Moravian Church. When he was four years old, his father became the pastor of Friedberg Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, one of the largest Moravian settlements in the United States. The Moravian Church is well known for its music, and Thor immersed himself in it. His love of his church’s music informed much of his life. By the time he was in high school, he played violin, viola, and French horn, and when only a sophomore, he was made assistant conductor of the high school orchestra.

Thor received a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of North Carolina in 1934, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and the Order of the Golden Fleece, one of the university’s highest honors. In the fall of 1934, he entered the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor for graduate study. While there, he came to the attention of Serge Koussevitzky, famed conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who recommended him for a grant from the Beebe Fund for American Musicians. He was awarded a full grant for a year of study in Europe, beginning in the summer of 1936. Living primarily in Leipzig and Prague, he studied with distinguished musicians, including Bruno Walter, attended concerts, and met many of the most important figures in the musical world.

Upon his return from Europe in the fall of 1937, he was appointed to a full-time faculty position at the University of Michigan. His title was “Instructor in Music Literature and Conductor of the University Symphony Orchestra.” It was during this period that he began speaking of the importance of encouraging American artists, an interest that stayed with him for the rest of his professional life.

In addition to his busy schedule at the University of Michigan, Thor took over as director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra—the beginning of his professional conducting career. In May 1941, during summer break, he was one of only six students (another was Leonard Bernstein) who studied conducting with Serge Koussevitszky.

The Second World War ended Thor’s stay at the University of Michigan and involvement with the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra, as he enlisted in the U.S. Army in May 1942. During his tour of duty, he directed various army bands and orchestras and had the opportunity to guest conduct the Philadelphia and the Chicago Symphony Orchestras. Upon his discharge in May of 1946, he joined the Julliard School of Music faculty. It was a natural position for a conductor who delighted in teaching and mentoring young musicians.

In December of 1946, while at Julliard, Thor came to national attention when he was appointed musical director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. It was a prestigious position. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra had been led by some of the world’s great conductors, including Leopold Stowkoski and Fritz Reiner.

Thor Johnson was only 33 years old at the time of his appointment, and quite a bit was made of his youth and the fact that he was American-born and essentially American-trained. This was unusual in a time when most conductors were either foreign-born or foreign-trained, or both. His new post allowed him to expand his interest in introducing new music to the public, particularly music of American composers. During his 11 years with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, he conducted the premieres of 120 American and European works, at least half of which he had commissioned. He enjoyed high success in Cincinnati and received numerous awards and honorary degrees. He remained with the Orchestra until 1958.

In the early 1950s, Thor founded two music festivals that became synonymous with his name and continue to thrive. They are linked by Thor’s devotion to Moravian Music. The first, the Early American Moravian Music Festival, came about as a direct result of Thor’s love of Moravian music, particularly not well-known music. He directed the first festival, held in 1950 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, home of the headquarters of the Moravian Church in America. The weeklong festival featured instrumental and choral works, some of which were discovered in the Moravian Archives. It was a resounding success and led to calls for an annual festival. However, it was discovered that the stored music was so badly in need of cataloging that further festivals needed to be postponed.

After three years of work on the archives, the second Early American Moravian Music Festival and Seminar was held in Bethlehem in 1954, and the third in Winston-Salem. The festivals were held every few years at various locations, always with Thor directing. The last one he directed was in DePere, Wisconsin, in 1974. The festivals have continued intermittently ever since. Besides presenting interesting and exciting music, they give Moravians and others a greater appreciation of their musical heritage—just what Thor wanted.

The second major festival founded by Thor is the Peninsula Music Festival in Door County, Wisconsin. Lorenz Heise, a businessman from Milwaukee and summer resident of Door County, traveled to Winston-Salem to hear the first Early American Moravian Music Festival. He was so moved and excited by what he heard that he approached Thor about coming to Door County to do something similar. Thor was enthused and told Heise to get it started, and he’d come. Heise returned to Door County and spread the word. Meetings and fundraising followed, and by 1953, the Peninsula Music Festival, under Thor’s baton, played its first concert. It was a 35-40-piece chamber orchestra of outstanding musicians recruited by Thor. That year’s budget was $10,000 for eight concerts performed in three weeks. The first concert featured what would become Thor’s hallmark—the premiere of a work composed for the Peninsula Music Festival. Thor refused compensation for his services, although he was always given some token of appreciation.

Thor came to love Door County and built a summer home on the shore of Green Bay. He liked being a local community member and involved in local activities. Despite performing in a school gymnasium, the Peninsula Music Festival enjoyed success initially and always played new pieces, frequently from American composers. Its soloists were handpicked by Thor—rising stars whose fees were still affordable. Many went on to become internationally famous.

Over the years, the Peninsula Music Festival has thrived and now performs in a state-of-the-art auditorium. Still, Thor’s influence is apparent in the number of new and unfamiliar works presented each season.

In 1958, Thor left the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and accepted a position as full professor and Director of Orchestral Activities at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. His presence attracted many gifted students, drawn by his ability to inspire and demand excellence. In addition, he accepted a great variety of national and international guest conducting assignments, including yearly appearances at the huge Mormon Tabernacle for the Salt Lake City Oratorio Society’s performance of the Messiah.

Thor’s interest in young musicians was instrumental in accepting the job as Director of the Interlochen Arts Academy and conductor of its orchestra in 1964. He was well known for his ability to get gifted young musicians to reach their potential, and enrollment at the Academy climbed under his directorship. After three successful years at Interlochen, he left to become the musical director of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, where he conducted the Nashville Symphony in its regular and young people’s concerts. He also conducted the Nashville Youth Symphony. During his years in Nashville, he presented numerous well-known soloists and rising young stars. He continued his tradition of premiering new music.

On January 16, 1975, Thor Johnson died as the result of complications from surgery to remove a brain tumor. He was 61 years old. The love and respect with which he was held were obvious from the memorial services held for him on January 26. At the same hour, simultaneous services to celebrate his life took place at Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem (where he was buried); Belle Meade United Methodist Church, Nashville; the Moravian Church, Ephraim (Door County), Wisconsin; First Congregational Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Interlochen Arts Academy.

Over his lifetime, Thor Johnson has received eight honorary degrees and uncounted standing ovations. But he is best remembered in the words of his biographer: “…by the countless audiences who had been touched and blessed by his music, the thousands of orchestra members, and choral singers whom he instructed and inspired to bring this music to life, and the hundreds of young musicians he encouraged, nurtured, and helped with unselfishness and joy.”

From Thor Johnson, American Conductor by Louis Nicholas, The Music Festival Committee of the Peninsula Arts Association, 1982

THE MORAVIAN CHURCH CONNECTION

Ephraim Moravian ChurchThe Peninsula Music Festival was founded by Lorenz Heise, Kay Wilson, and conductor Thor Johnson – all Moravians. Thor Johnson was born in Wisconsin Rapids in 1913 and grew up in a family of Moravian ministers – his father was born in Sturgeon Bay. His life was filled with music that was cultivated in Moravian congregations. At age four, the family moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, home of one of the largest settlements of Moravians in the United States. Before returning to his Wisconsin roots, Thor Johnson’s career took him to the podium of two major orchestras (Cincinnati and Nashville Symphonies) and holding faculty positions at Northwestern University and the University of Michigan. He was an instructor at Juilliard and director of the Interlochen Arts Academy.

The Moravian Church has a liturgical form of worship that puts music at its center, therefore playing an important role in the service. The early American settlements (Bethlehem, Lititz, and Nazareth, Pennsylvania) incorporated solos and anthems that were often elaborate and performed with accompaniment into the church services.

In 1937, thanks to a grant from the American Philosophical Society, scholars could, for the first time, examine the entire musical material preserved in the libraries of the Moravian Church housed in Pennsylvania. The study aimed to determine which music pieces were composed in America and to finally catalog this music. Of course, the need to find an audience came from discovering the rich resources of American music. Thor Johnson was happy to agree to serve as the director of the first Early American Moravian Music Festival. Thor Johnson continued to serve as music director of the next ten Early American Moravian Music Festivals, including the last one he directed before his death, held in De Pere, Wisconsin, at St. Norbert College in 1974.

A Wisconsin resident, Lorenz Heise, who was also the son of a Moravian pastor, happened to attend that very first Early Moravian Music Festival. A native of Green Bay, Lorenz Heise’s father was the pastor of East Side Moravian Church. On a business trip to Cincinnati, Lorenz Heise stopped by the symphony offices and introduced himself to Thor Johnson. They became lifelong friends. Lorenz asked Thor if we would consider coming to Door County to create a similar music festival. Thor Johnson agreed. The year was 1950.

August 6, 1953, the Peninsula Music Festival began in the gymnasium of Gibraltar School. Its traditions, founded in the Moravian Church and the model of the Early American Music Festival, have continued, giving performances of many great works by American composers and numerous Czech composers.

Though the Peninsula Music Festival has grown in size, stature, and artistic integrity over the years, it is important to remember the history and roots supporting an organization of such distinction.

Victor Yampolsky conducting the orchestra

1985-2022

Victor YampolskyIn 1985, the Festival’s Board of Directors appointed Victor Yampolsky as its new Music Director and Conductor. Under Maestro’s 34 years of leadership (1985-2019), the orchestra grew from a chamber ensemble into a full Festival Orchestra with a roster that will proudly showcase eighty orchestral musicians during The Symphony Series August 2-20, 2022.

Since the summer of 1991, symphonic concerts have been held at the Door Community Auditorium, praised as a “uniquely intimate and acoustically outstanding jewel box of a Concert Hall.” – the DCA was built specifically for the Festival Orchestra and is ideal for symphonic music. Although long-time Festival patrons may have nostalgic memories of un-airconditioned summer nights on folding chairs in the Gibraltar Gymnasium, all now greatly appreciate the comfortable seating, air-conditioning, and ideal acoustics that make PMF so proud to be in residence at the Auditorium every summer.

In 1998, PMF added some small chamber music concerts performed by orchestra members to its winter offerings. Now called February Fest, these boutique events bring members of the Festival Orchestra back together, along with some notable guest artists, so patrons can enjoy specialized concerts in a more intimate setting at the Kress Pavilion in Egg Harbor.

Upon the retirement announcement of Maestro Yampolsky in the spring of 2019, a special committee was formed, and the international search began to name PMF’s next Music Director and Conductor of The Symphony Series. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic of March 2020 halted this process and caused the decimation of multiple PMF seasons.

Read More About Victor Yampolsky

In 1985, the Festival’s Board of Directors appointed Victor Yampolsky as its new Music Director and Conductor. Under his 34 years of leadership, the orchestra grew from a chamber ensemble into a full festival orchestra with a roster proudly showcasing eighty orchestral musicians during our Symphony Series.

An esteemed professor, conductor, and violinist – Victor Yampolsky serves as the Carol F. and Arthur L. Rice Jr. University Professor in Music Performance at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music; Conductor Laureate of the Peninsula Music Festival in Door County, Wisconsin; Music Director Emeritus of the Omaha Symphony, and Honorary Director of the Scotia Festival of Music in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Born in the Soviet Union in 1942 to the great pianist Vladimir Yampolsky, young Victor began studying violin with renowned pedagogue Mikhail Garlitsky (1949-1961) at the Central Music School in Moscow and the legendary David Oistrakh at the Moscow Conservatory (1961-1966).

On May 15, 1965, he joined the Moscow Philharmonic as violinist and assistant conductor under the direction of renowned Maestro Kyrill Kondrashin. From 1968 to 1972, he commuted to Leningrad for his second conducting degree under Maestro Nicolai Rabinovich of the Leningrad Conservatory.

Yampolsky eventually emigrated to the United States in 1973, where a recommendation from conductor Zubin Mehta led to an audition for Leonard Bernstein, who then offered Yampolsky a scholarship at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. Two weeks later, Victor accepted a position in the violin section of the Boston Symphony (1973) and was later appointed the orchestra’s principal second violin (1975-1977).

In 1977, Yampolsky became the Music Director of the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the conductor of the Young Artists Orchestra at Tanglewood. Two years later, he was appointed Adjunct Professor of Violin and Director of Orchestras at the Boston University School of Music. Since 1979, he has participated in the Scotia Festival of Music in Halifax as a violinist, conductor, and teacher.

Yampolsky was appointed Director of Orchestras at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music 1984. Other posts include Principal Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Johannesburg, South Africa (1993-94) and the Omaha Symphony Music Director (1995-2004). In 2002, he led the Omaha Symphony in its debut recording (Take Flight) and the following year in the world premiere of Philip Glass’ Second Piano Concerto, which received an award from the Nebraska Arts Council.

Maestro Yampolsky has conducted over 80 professional and student orchestras worldwide, including engagements in the United States, Canada, Spain, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, Chile, Israel, and the Czech Republic. Engagements stateside and abroad include concerts with the New Mexico Philharmonic; Sewanee Summer Music Festival, Tennessee; Illinois and Elgin Philharmonic Orchestras; Green Bay Symphony, WI; Richmond Symphony, Virginia; KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic and the Cape Philharmonic, Durban and Cape Town, South Africa; and the Stellenbosch Chamber Music Festival in South Africa. He’s toured Israel with the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra, directed the Conductors Guild Workshop with the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, and conducted the RCO Chamber Orchestra in Houston, TX, and the Wintergreen Music Festival in Virginia.

Eventually, after 40 years away from his homeland, Yampolsky triumphantly returned to his native Moscow to conduct the Svetlanov State Academic Orchestra, present conducting master classes at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and conduct the KMV Philharmonic in Kislovodsk, Russian Federation.

In recent years, Yampolsky has appeared with the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic, PA; the Nashville Symphony; the L’viv Philharmonic; the Ukraine National Symphony in Kyiv; the Weidner Philharmonic in Green Bay, WI; and the Wroclaw Philharmonic in Poland.

A dedicated educator, Yampolsky continues to conduct master classes worldwide at the State Conservatory of St. Petersburg, Russia; Stellenbosch Conservatory; Cape Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, Cape Town; Emory University, Georgia; and the Universities of Akron, Victoria, Nevada, and Western Ontario, Canada.

Other activities include time as a guest panelist for the League of American Orchestras Conductors Continuum Committee, adjudicating the Prokofiev International Conducting Competition in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Len van Zyl conducting competition in Cape Town, South Africa, and maintaining a visible presence with the Conductors Guild and CODA Associations.

Yampolsky has recorded for Pyramid and Kiwi-Pacific Records and has been awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Doane College in Crete, Nebraska. Victor and his dear wife Carol split their time between Evanston, Illinois, and Toronto, Canada, where they enjoy visiting with their two children and extended family.

Conductor and Piano

2022-Present

Rune BergmannPost-COVID, with renewed hope and excitement, the Festival resumed the selection process when the Festival Orchestra returned for its residency at the Door County Auditorium in August of 2022.

On December 9, 2022, Peninsula Music Festival announced the appointment of Maestro Rune Bermann, who brings an unparalleled performance worthy of big-city venues to the picturesque Door County Peninsula.

In celebration of its extraordinarily high standard of artistic excellence and the presentation of unparalleled musical experiences in near-perfect settings, Festival administration, staff, and countless volunteers continue to dedicate themselves to assuring the great success of this “Tradition of Distinction!”