The Wacoan editorial team keeps an ongoing short list of potential Wacoans of the Year, and it’s often the city’s new ventures and organizations that bring many candidates to the forefront. But what about Waco’s historical endeavors that have provided the foundation for the growth, vibrance and success our city experiences today? When should we pause our recognition of innovation and reward a legacy of excellence? Well, in this case, when one incredible chapter ends and a new one begins.
In 1962 the Waco Symphony Orchestra was revived by Baylor University’s School of Music dean, Daniel Sternberg. Sternberg also founded the Baylor Symphony Orchestra in 1944. Over the last six decades, the Waco Symphony has only been led by two conductors, and until this year, it only had one executive director. In 1987, Sternberg retired, and there was a changing of the guard. Originally, Susan Taylor worked part time for the symphony, selling concert tickets out of her home. But when the dean retired, the symphony opened its office in the St. Charles Place building downtown, and Taylor was tapped to serve as its first-ever executive director. That same year, Baylor professor and conductor-in-residence Stephen Heyde became the symphony’s new conductor.
With Taylor and Heyde at its helm, the Waco Symphony has transitioned from an assembly of largely outsourced musicians to a true community orchestra, and over the years, it’s attracted world-renowned soloists, including Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Renee Fleming, Emanuel Ax, Andre Watts, Henry Mancini, Burt Bacharach, Doc Severinsen, Art Garfunkel, Chris Botti and, who can forget, Yo-Yo Ma. The symphony only managed to secure Yo-Yo Ma after Taylor spent 15 years persistently reaching out to his manager.
During his tenure at Baylor, Heyde and the Baylor Symphony Orchestra have received many accolades. He co-founded and is a past president of the College Orchestra Directors Association, and in 2018, he received the association’s lifetime achievement award. Baylor Symphony Orchestra was named The American Prize first-place winner in orchestral performance five times in the past seven years, most recently in 2020 for its 2019 performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection.” For the same performance, Heyde received the nationally acclaimed 2020 Arlin G. Meyer Prize in Music Performance from the Lilly Fellows Program.
“Great collegiate orchestras are becoming rare. They’re expensive, and there has to be a deep commitment from the university to maintain an excellent orchestral program. The Baylor orchestra is blessed to have that support. It can play all of the great literature from music history and play it exceptionally well. Stephen Heyde has built it up over many decades of work and sweat and toil. The Baylor orchestra is at the peak of its existence as far as quality is concerned.”
— Dr. Gary Mortenson, dean, Baylor University School of Music
For 34 years, Heyde and Taylor have partnered with the symphony association’s board of directors in its mission to provide quality orchestral music in Central Texas. This past August, after 44 years with the symphony, Taylor decided it was time to retire. Waco native Carolyn Kannwischer Bess stepped into the symphony’s executive director position in September. Bess was previously with the Dallas Museum of Art and helped build its Arts & Letters Live series.
As 2021 comes to a close, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to commemorate Taylor’s years of steadfast leadership. And while Heyde hasn’t quite decided to pass the baton yet, together he and Taylor have guided the evolution of our community orchestra. As our coda to this dynamic partnership, we’re honored to recognize Susan Taylor and Stephen Heyde as our 2021 Wacoans of the Year.
Taylor and Heyde married four years ago, a second marriage for both. Wacoan writer Kathleen Seaman met with the couple at their home to talk about the Waco and Baylor symphonies, their commitment to Waco, and a generous community that wants to hear great music played in its hometown.
“Susan has dedicated a big part of her life to this organization. She brought it up from infancy into a mature organization that has weathered having to cancel the season because of the pandemic. It has good support, good engagement with community. That kind of stability does not happen by accident, and I think her steady hand, her networking, her relationships with people in the community, the respect and affection that people have for both her and Stephen have been an essential part of sustaining this organization.”
— Dr. Heyward Green, current board member & former board president, Waco Symphony Orchestra
WACOAN: Susan, your career with the symphony was over 44 years. Had you always planned to work in music?
Taylor: I didn’t know anything about music. I was an art history major. I graduated from the University of Texas. I went to Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri my freshman year.
I went to [Southern Methodist University] my second year.
I was dating somebody at UT, so I transferred to UT my junior year. I got really into art history in college and just absolutely loved it and then minored in studio art.
WACOAN: What career did you have after college? Were you involved in the arts?
Taylor: [After graduation], I stayed in Austin because my husband was still in school, and I got a job. I wanted to work in my degree in some way. I got a job at the Texas Education Agency. About five artists were there; it was so fun. We used to be the artists that would draw [curriculum materials] to teach in a classroom on an overhead projector.
I did get a lot of art-related work there, but it was more cartoony stuff, you know, stuff for kids. I worked there for about four years. Then I came to Waco, and I wanted to do something in the arts. I moved [to Waco] from Illinois when I was in third grade, so I consider myself from here. I came back to Waco right when I was pregnant with my first child, and my husband, at the time, got a job here with an insurance company. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t want to work while the kids were young.
I found a job at the [Art Center of Waco]. It had just opened downtown [in its original location] as a studio. It was before they got to be over at the [McLennan Community College] campus. They had been open about a year, and I went and applied and asked if they needed a receptionist. I wasn’t really a painter to try to put stuff up [for exhibit], but I wanted to be around the artists. And it was part-time; I could work half a day.
WACOAN: How long were you with the Art Center?
Taylor: Not real long. I just had one child when I worked there, and when I had my second child — they’re three years apart — I didn’t want to put both in day care, so I quit. But it was excellent to be there at that time because it was new to Waco and all the artists would come in, and I got to know the director very well.
WACOAN: How did you end up at the symphony?
Taylor: I don’t think I had a job anywhere for a while when I was raising my kids, but there was a job opening that was for selling tickets to the concerts. It was [previously done by] an older lady that worked out of her home. The symphony didn’t have an office or anything back then. The conductor was [Daniel] Sternberg, and he ran the whole show.
This lady was going to retire, and it was just the ticket sales. I had a phone in my house to answer, a separate symphony phone, but never had an office. Just reported to the board. Didn’t really do much. They didn’t have an executive director. No staff. They called me the executive secretary, and I did that out of my home while my kids were growing up.
Heyde: I will tell you something interesting that she’s forgetting.
Taylor: I probably am. That’s why I’m retired.
Heyde: Her father was the one that talked to her and suggested, ‘You know, you might look into this.’ It was on his encouragement, and he was one of the early presidents of the Waco Symphony Association.
Taylor: Yeah, and treasurer for many years. My mother was head of the [Waco Symphony Council] at one point. They were members of the symphony. Of the things they did when we moved to Waco [when I was a child], I remember they always had a concert at Waco Hall on Monday night. They started going to that, and their friends were going, so I knew there was an orchestra here only because I’d see [my parents] go off to the concerts. I was still in junior high and high school.
That was an interesting thing because they didn’t do anything with music when they were in Illinois. They probably didn’t have an organized orchestra there, but it got to be part of our family. ‘Oh, we’re going to this concert.’ It taught me about the symphony. I never went, except for the fourth-grade class [field trip] that Dr. Sternberg conducted.
WACOAN: To your point about your parents attending the symphony or not in Illinois, I feel like the Waco Symphony is one of the oldest and original options for nightlife in Waco. If someone was looking for culture, the symphony was probably an obvious option at the time.
Heyde: I think that’s correct.
Taylor: That’s true. The Art Center hadn’t started when I was that young. It was just the symphony, and it’s been around a while.
Heyde: Certainly, the Hippodrome hadn’t been renovated. The [Baylor] School of Music had things going on, but people didn’t really identify that as community music. Maybe if there was something they were interested in, the School of Music [was an option], but Waco has changed a lot, hasn’t it?
Taylor: The way the symphony started, [Sternberg] was the conductor of the Baylor Symphony at the time. He wanted to get an orchestra started, so he went straight to the chamber of commerce and said, ‘We need to start an orchestra. This community needs a community orchestra.’
He rounded up 20 or 30 donors from the community so they could start a season. Sternberg hired the musicians and got the soloists and dealt with Waco Hall. [Pianist] Van Cliburn came the first year, and that was huge to our success.
Heyde: There was a Baylor connection. [Former history professor and master teacher Robert Reid was Cliburn’s cousin.] The dean had made his acquaintance.
In 1958, this was before the symphony started, Van Cliburn went to Russia and won the [International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition], which was worldwide news.
Taylor: He was a hero all over the world.
Heyde: He was like a sports hero. People didn’t consider that America could have great art or great artists, so the fact that one of our Texas boys went over there and slayed all them Russians and came out first in the Tchaikovsky competition was really, really, really important.
Now you say Van Cliburn, and people might not even know who that is, or maybe [they know] at least there’s a competition in Fort Worth, [the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition], which is one of the most important piano competitions in the world, so that name lives on. He’s gone, but he was like a rock star.
Taylor: He was like a rock star, and Dean Sternberg had that connection, and he was going to try to use that connection so he could open the Waco Symphony’s first year with the biggest pianist in the world. And he got him to come, so that was a coup.
They sold out every seat, and it just took off. Now they had a way to get people to be donors each year and then the ticket sales, of course. They started having a season in ’62.
Heyde: Waco actually had another orchestra in the ’40s. It lasted for 11 years [from 1939 to 1950]. It was conducted and started by a man named Max Reiter. He also started the San Antonio Symphony. He started these orchestras because he needed someplace to conduct, so Waco had a symphony for 11 years. This is the second iteration of the symphony.
WACOAN: When did you make the transition from executive secretary to executive director?
Taylor: That was after 11 years. The board of directors at that time sent me to a music conference.
Heyde: The League of American Orchestras.
Taylor: It’s for conductors, it’s for volunteers, it’s for musicians. It’s a huge conference every year, and they sent me to that to learn some stuff, which I needed to do.[Professionals at the conference] advised me and some of my board members to get an office.
When [the board] promoted me to executive director, they said, ‘We need an office.’ It’s in the St. Charles Place building. It’s been in the same building ever since I started as executive director.[In the beginning,] Sternberg was just doing it out of his office at Baylor, and he would hire the San Antonio Symphony [to play in Waco]. Was it San Antonio?
Heyde: It varied. Sometimes Dallas and sometimes San Antonio. But it wasn’t a local orchestra in the beginning.
Taylor: He just brought them in for the afternoon.
Heyde: There may have been a couple of players. In fact, when I came to town many years later, in 1984, I played under Dean Sternberg in the Waco Symphony. We would have a couple of local rehearsals that were just the barest number of local people. It was hard to even recognize the music because all the parts weren’t there. Then the day of the concert, a bus would roll up, and the San Antonio, or sometimes Dallas or wherever, symphony would get off, and we had an orchestra. We would play with them, but it was not a local orchestra.
Taylor: When Stephen came in, he wanted to change it to a local orchestra. He made sure we hired more local musicians that would be qualified to play.
Heyde: Without lowering the standards of the orchestra.
A professional orchestra usually rehearses four or five times before they play a concert, but they were doing it on one rehearsal. [With more local musicians], we would have four rehearsals with a complete orchestra which could really settle, and all the parts were covered that way. I’m not saying that the orchestra replaced a professional orchestra, but we did have the advantage of more rehearsals, and over time, I think it really helped us develop.
Taylor: It’s helped the product a lot, and people want to be cheering on their people.
WACOAN: When did you become the executive director?
WACOAN: And when did you become the conductor?
Taylor: We came on at the same time because Sternberg retired. That’s when we got Stephen for the conductor, and they moved me up to executive director. Before that, when we had the San Antonio Symphony come in, my only other job besides selling tickets was manning the box office.
Every day that we had a concert, I would go open the box office at 1 o’clock and sell tickets at Waco Hall to people who wanted to purchase single tickets the day of. I was able to watch the orchestra rehearse when the San Antonio Symphony was still coming in because they’d come in and do that afternoon rehearsal. I would also man the box office at night for the concert until it started, and then I’d go, sit and listen to the concert.
I’m not a musician; the only time I heard a live orchestra until I got to college was when the fourth and fifth graders from all the schools around here got to come to a symphony orchestra concert. Dean Sternberg started it, and Stephen still does it.
Heyde: It’s about 6,000 school kids. Dean Sternberg started those concerts back in the ’40s. When he retired, I took over the program. It’s been an important thing until the last two years. It’s sad to realize that last year’s fourth graders, this year’s fifth graders, never got to come to Waco Hall [because of the pandemic].
It’s not just the music or the orchestra. It’s getting out of their neighborhoods, seeing a university, seeing a big facility. It opens their eyes. It’s very exciting, and along with it, they’re going to learn something about the orchestra and about music. But it’s the whole experience that is very special, and I regret that there have been kids who normally would have come twice didn’t come at all. This year again, we’re doing a virtual one.
But I talk to people in the community all the time, like Ann Harder, [former KXXV news anchor and current host of ‘Traveling Texas with Ann Harder’]; she remembers going to those children’s concerts. So many people tell me, ‘Well, I remember Dean Sternberg conducting the children’s concerts.’ I think it’s an important thing and look forward to getting back to live performances with the kids.
There’s a tremendous amount of organization that goes into it. When I took over, the Junior League of Waco was doing it, and then at some point, it started being organized by the Waco Symphony Council, [an outreach and service organization that supports the orchestra]. And they do a wonderful job. I’m so appreciative because there is no way in the world I would have time to organize all that.
Taylor: It’s a wonderful outreach, of course. The reason it’s the Baylor Symphony Orchestra [that performs for the children’s concerts] is because it’s during the day — some of [the Waco Symphony musicians] are from out of town, have day jobs and also the cost. Stephen uses the repertoire for the children’s concert to be studied by the Baylor Symphony kids while they’re normally in class anyway, so there’s no charge for the musicians, and it’s an experience for them to see Stephen and the Waco Symphony [Council] reach out to these students.
Heyde: It’s so easy for arts organizations to turn inward. We have to work on turning outwards. That’s going to be our future audience, but it’s not just that. The real reason is we want them to experience the magic and the joy and the majesty of music. And that’s a start.
WACOAN: Can we talk a little bit about your musical background, Stephen? You were a musician before you were a conductor.
Heyde: That’s right. How far back do you want to go?
Taylor: A very, very musical family.
Heyde: My parents were missionaries to India, so I was born in India. They had a cranked-up Victrola [record player]. They used to play records all the time, and every musician’s mother says this, but I would cry when the record was done until she would put it on again. But my family was musical. My mother was a music major. My father was not, but he was a very gifted musician.
I was a violin major in college, and after I went back to my hometown [of Butler, Pennsylvania,] and taught in the high school there for four years. Then I auditioned and was accepted to teach at West Virginia University on the violin faculty there. I was the assistant orchestra director, and I’d always enjoyed conducting. I wasn’t the main conductor, but it was a very wonderful learning experience working with a mentor of mine.
I spent nine years at West Virginia University, and then I heard of a job here, so I applied. I came to Baylor and auditioned here and was hired on the violin faculty. I was an assistant professor of violin. That was in 1984, and I’ve been here ever since. It’s been a wonderful, wonderful job, but the dimensions of the job opened up in 1987 after Dean Sternberg retired, and they asked me if I would also conduct the Waco Symphony.
The two [symphonies] are really wonderful because they’re the same and they’re different. With the Baylor Symphony, there is this great wave of young talent and very enthusiastic, maybe for the first time experiencing some of these pieces in an orchestra. But boy, we’ve been blessed because the students at Baylor are just terrific, and we’ve attracted some of the best college-level talent in the country. That’s really helped me build that program. Not just me — the administration, all the faculty. They help recruit the students to their studios. They nurture them, and then I get to work with them in orchestra.
Then on the other side, Waco Symphony has given me access to working with professional musicians. You have to work quicker. You have to be very organized because you’ve got four rehearsals, and then you play. But also, all the great guest artists we’ve had over the years, and that’s been a lot due to Susan.
Taylor: When I go to conference, they say, ‘Oh, you got Yo-Yo Ma? You got Itzhak Perlman?’ Well, it’s kind of normal, without looking stuck up, but we have a great audience that will fund it. They know an artist, and they’ll say, ‘We will help you get him here.’ Or her here. They give over and above because they want to see it, and it’s wonderful for Waco.
Heyde: For a city this size to have the fine orchestra it does is very unusual. A lot of that we owe to the talent in the city, the faculty of the music school at Baylor, but also the [Dallas/Fort Worth Professional Musicians Association]. They came up with the idea that we could use 20 of these really gifted music students at Baylor in the Waco Symphony. And we pay them. It’s a decent wage. It’s not a professional wage, but they get to sit in the orchestra, many of them next to their teachers. They learn from them, and they sit on the same stage with some of the greatest artists in the world when they come in. It’s a fantastic opportunity, and I think it’s helped build the Baylor Symphony as well. It’s been a real blessing to Waco Symphony and to the students of Baylor to have that opportunity.
“It’s one thing to sit in the studio and talk about making music in a professional setting, but it’s an entirely different matter, and of much greater value, to be out there in that professional setting making music with a person who has great expertise and can show you the ropes as a professional musician. It’s one of the reasons that so many Baylor School of Music graduates have gone on to earn jobs in professional settings as performers. They’ve had those experiences while at Baylor thanks to the Waco Symphony.” – Dr. William May Jr., former dean & professor of music education, Baylor University School of Music
Heyde: All those things work together to create something special. But it’s almost unheard of for a community of our size to have Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Emanuel Ax, Yo-Yo Ma, Renee Fleming. And over the years, literally the greatest artists in classical music have played with our orchestra on the stage of Waco Hall. I think that’s important for Waco.
There’s a lot of misconceptions about Waco. I think it’s a lot better now with Magnolia, but there was a time there when bad things had happened, and we were kind of stigmatized. People didn’t know what to think of Waco, Texas. To hear that, ‘Wow, y’all have a symphony orchestra and Yo-Yo Ma played with you?’ That is much more what our community is about.
Also, frankly, the Waco Symphony has been very important for attracting talented people to the community. If you’re going to have these big corporations that are coming in, they want to know, ‘What are the amenities here?’ And a surprising number of people really are interested. They want some cultural outlet. They want to be able to go to an art center. They want to go to a symphony orchestra and hear great music well played and with the greatest artists. I think we have a role to play in promoting the community in that way as well.
Taylor: And the reason we can do that is because we have people in the community that will pay to have us be able to bring those people here. We have a 50-member board, which is very unusual, but it works. Everybody on the board is required to pay a certain amount to be on our board, and people that have money in the community want to be associated with something like the Waco Symphony, and they’re so willing to help get those [musicians] to Waco. We try to find them, and if we say, ‘Well, they’re $100,000,’ to the board, they say, ‘Don’t worry. We’re going to get it.’ Then they raise the money. It’s a great group of people who love music.
Heyde: Waco is generous. It’s a very generous community, and there are some people with means who really value making the community better. It’s not just the Waco Symphony. You see them supporting the library. You see them supporting the zoo. The things that make a community really special to live in. It’s not food, water, shelter, but it is about a quality of life. They do it mostly anonymously, and they want to see their community, many of them their hometown, be a place that really reflects a quality of life that is uplifting. We’re very grateful.
WACOAN: As you said, Dean Sternberg previously ‘ran the show,’ so when he retired and one of you became the executive director and one of you the conductor, how did that affect the distribution of roles?
Taylor: Before he retired, we didn’t really see each other much. He was over at Baylor, hiring the musicians, doing all the publicity. I didn’t really see him much except just to report on the tickets or something. This changed my job a lot.
For me, I was grateful to the board for sending me to the conference every year to learn what other orchestras in the country are doing. What do we need to do to keep up with everybody and make our orchestra successful? I focused on that a lot. Us coming together was something we both had to kind of learn.
And Stephen — and I’m not answering for you — but being that he was at Baylor and combining that with Waco Symphony, which is another totally different job, he had to adjust to the two jobs, which I think is a big step.
WACOAN: Is it a package deal to be conductor of both orchestras?
Heyde: It’s not, and whatever the two entities decide to do in the future is up to them. [The Waco Symphony conductor] being at Baylor saves the orchestra money.
Taylor: They don’t have to bring somebody in from out of town to conduct for Waco Symphony — because there’s not going to be many people in Waco that could conduct.
Heyde: They’d have to pay a bigger salary, but also travel expenses. There are a lot of visiting maestros where [the organization has] an apartment for them, and they have to maintain all that. None of that is involved here, and I think that’s been an advantage.
There have been a lot of benefits to Waco Symphony from Baylor. There’s been a lot of benefits to Baylor from the Waco Symphony. For instance, we have a great orchestral library at Baylor. Most of the standard orchestral works are in that library, and it’s just because every time Baylor played a piece that we had to buy, we’d put it in the library, but same thing with Waco Symphony. And that saves a lot of money, too, because music is getting very, very expensive to rent. That’s just one advantage.
The fact that we have a playing outlet for our faculty and for our talented students at Baylor, but also inversely, [the Baylor faculty and students are] a pool of highly gifted people that can form the nucleus of the orchestra.
When you were asking about roles, I think this is important. We quickly understood, and it was pretty clearly outlined, I’m responsible for artistic matters. The executive director was the organizational manager, and those two things don’t exist in a vacuum. I may want to do a series of pieces that would involve lots of players and lots of expense and have to buy new percussion instruments. That all has to go by the executive director, and I think in that regard, we were a good match because I would share my dreams with her, and then she would share reality with me. And it’s not that she didn’t dream, too, because it’s obvious if you’re going to bring in the artists that she’s secured for the orchestra, that was a big dream and some money to raise. But I think that she is the more pragmatic one, and I’m more of the dreamer.
Taylor: But I think that should be your role. It’s worked perfectly because he’ll get all excited about something, and not just to me, to the board. I always want to listen, and then I get the pencil to the paper.
Heyde: And the other thing, when we started, we were both relatively inexperienced. This is the first professional orchestra I’d ever had. I have my university orchestra, but we kind of wandered through some things ourselves and probably made some mistakes, but you learn from it.
It’s been a great joy over the years to watch Susan understand the scope and dimensions of her job and to fulfill it so effectively. To the point that I know she’s had offers to go elsewhere to other communities and probably bigger salaries, bigger orchestras because she is really nationally recognized as an executive director. That’s been really fun to watch and see how that’s happened.
Both jobs are all consuming. Many years later when we fell in love and got married, she saw the hours that I put in.
Taylor: I might not see him for three days. He’s in his office back there studying scores.
Heyde: People don’t understand what you have to do so you can get in front of an orchestra and do it. But I also have had an insight into [her job].
It’s a job that is almost limitless. I laugh [when] people say, ‘It’s a symphony. You don’t even play during the summer. Why do we need an office? Why do we need all this work?’
They have no idea what goes into it. She’s writing grants and looking at places that might be able to fund our budget or investigating an artist that I might want and trying to talk to the artists’ managers or a million other things to try to excite the community to support the orchestra. It’s a job where there’s always something more to do.
“She wore a lot of hats. Ultimately, she had to make sure the symphony was being financed and funded, so the job entails a lot of business sense but also the ability to be personable. She had to work with volunteers and with her volunteer board. She had to work with managers for booking concerts and the artists. Musicians are not always known for being the easiest to deal with. She managed a lot of different aspects and oversaw a lot of programs through the years, and she did it very gracefully and quite successfully.” – Marsha Green, former board president & board member, Waco Symphony Orchestra
Taylor: I loved it, and I have been blessed to have been in this job for almost 45 years and that my father gave me the opportunity, not even knowing I would be around this long. He’s passed away now, but I had no idea I would do this because I knew nothing. And I think that’s what made it so exciting. I was learning every day. My gosh, what [Stephen] does and what the musicians do — I can’t even imagine it. It made me really appreciate classical music and the people that play it and conduct it. It made every day a joy.
In all these years two things [have been true]. I’ve always gotten along with the board presidents. A whole new president every year and they have been wonderful people to work for.
And always, every day when I get up to go to work, I think, ‘What a gift God has given me that I just can’t wait to get to the office.’ It’s because there are so many things to do. It’s great, and that’s what I hope our new ED can enjoy.
And it is just fabulous to work with him. A lot of conductors can be kind of mean. I’ve never worked for one, but you see them. They have temper tantrums. But I always assured the artist, I said, ‘You will love our conductor.’ We’re really blessed that we work so well together because he’s just so easygoing.
Heyde: To a point. As a conductor, we’re not always gentle. I’m glad she doesn’t see that, but you have to set high expectations, and I do, but the wonderful thing about a good orchestra is that there’s a momentum that is established. The players start to take pride [in the work], and they’re the ones that complain, ‘It doesn’t sound like we’re with the cellos there,’ and that’s good because it is their orchestra as much as mine.
We’re very fortunate to have reached that position where they care so much. I played many years in orchestras myself. You hear sometimes things in the string section or playing the instruments that you don’t necessarily hear up front, and that’s very helpful. They know that I want their input, and it’s been a great joy to work with them.
Let me just comment, we’ve been so blessed with the presidents and all the leadership. It’s not every orchestra in the world that has such an active and successful council whose sole function is to really support the symphony, financially, but also to generate enthusiasm.
Taylor: They’re volunteers.
Heyde: And the different programs that they’ve established, like the Belles and Brass program. We haven’t done it during COVID, but we were involved in adopt-a-school with [Waco ISD], and we adopted several music programs in schools. At least two of [of the programs] bought children instruments, bought them accessories. They need reeds, valve oil, rosin. Whatever they need.
I’m proud of the orchestra, and I’m proud of the association because it’s not insignificant to buy a kid an instrument. You cannot learn to play on a bad instrument, and you cannot learn to really understand and appreciate music. These aren’t Stradivarius instruments we’re buying, but these are good, functional instruments. We give it to the school district, and they maintain them. It’s like trying to play basketball with a deflated ball. You can’t do it. I’m really proud of that aspect of the association.
We’ve had wonderful leadership. We’ve had wonderful, wonderful donors who believed in the vision. We’ve matured. We will always accept suggestions from people, and sometimes we can bring those to fruition. Just this last concert, we had twin pianists. They were brought to my attention by a board member. I think that’s great. They were exquisite, and [the board member] wanted to hear those people with his home orchestra.
“Technically, he’s very sound, but above and beyond that, he’s very passionate about the music. He insists on very high standards, and the orchestra really responds to him. As the conductor, he’s sort of the chief ambassador for the orchestra. He is out in the community and meeting people, and I think it’s something he does very naturally. He connects with people in a very positive way, and the benefit filters down to the orchestra.” – Mark Whitney, double bass player & personnel manager, Waco Symphony Orchestra
Taylor: Until I retired this last August, I was probably one of the longest-serving executive directors at one orchestra. [Other orchestras] can’t keep an executive director for more than three years normally. It’s moving up the ladder, just like in any job, and I never wanted to move up the ladder or to some other town because I wanted to stay here. I’m loyal to the community. My family’s all here, so I really didn’t want to ever leave, and that’s unusual.
Heyde: I think that’s the secret sauce. Susan was committed to the community. She was from this community. She wanted to get better at her job, and she did. She got really, really good at it because she cared about the community.
This organization that she told you about, League of American Orchestras, I don’t agree with all of it. They tell you, if you’re a conductor, you should spend no more than six or seven years someplace. If you’re an executive director, same thing. Move on. And I don’t think that was either one of our approaches.
We admire Waco. It was a wonderful community to raise our families. It’s a very special place, and I wanted to stay here and try to build the orchestra, and she wanted to build the association. I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve had the success we have. It’s about the willingness and the desire to see Waco have things.
Here’s a quick example. Scott Drew [and the Baylor Bears men’s basketball team] win the national championship. The symphony was looking for somebody to narrate a piece. He’s so busy, but he’s a community guy. He cares about Waco. And that was eye-opening to me. He agreed to do it. It was outside his comfort zone. He and his daughter were up there, just doing a great job of reading this narration, and I thought, ‘Isn’t that wonderful?’ It’s a beautiful thing.
Scott Drew has made a commitment to the community, and you see other people all over the community who made that commitment. Scott’s had great success building that program and he could go other places, but he’s here with us, and he’s willing to do something so onerous as to go to a symphony concert and stand in front of a bunch of people and read poems. I thought that spoke a lot about him, but throughout this community, we have people like that.
I better not start mentioning names because there’s no way I could name all of them. But there are so many people in this community who would have many opportunities elsewhere, but they care about who we are, where we are, what kind of city we have, what kind of community we have. That’s just so wonderful, and I think that’s what Susan tapped into.
WACOAN: Changing directions a little bit — Stephen, you were awarded the 2020 National Arlin G. Meyer Prize in music performance. The award was for the performance you led of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection’” for the 2019 President’s Concert, and I believe you accepted the award in October.
Heyde: Yes. The Lilly Foundation is a big foundation, and it’s dedicated to encouraging expressions of faith in the college system. This was an award for a musical performance or musical creation that reflected your personal faith. I am a Christian, and certainly, Baylor has allowed me and afforded me that opportunity to be a Christian and not something one has to hide.
I performed the Mahler’s Second Symphony, called the ‘Resurrection,’ several times with the Baylor Symphony. It’s a spectacular piece. The students were fantastic on it. It’s a big piece, big orchestra, two female soloists, mixed chorus.
You don’t have to be a classical musician to be affected by music. It is deeply, deeply touching, and it deals with all the great things about what it is to be human — death, perhaps, hopefully, life after death, and its resurrection. To be in a position where at Baylor we could explore those aspects of that piece, I think enhanced the whole piece.
We could talk about some of the Bible verses that Mahler actually wrote in the score. ‘What is he trying to imply to this section of music?’ It brings a more complete and more thorough and more honest understanding of the music. Had I been in a secular institution, and I worked in secular institutions previously, it’s simply a piece of music. You can’t touch on any of those more deeply important elements that do reflect the basis of the Christian faith in this case. I think it’s freeing to teach in a place where I can go there. I’m not saying that every rehearsal became a Bible study. It didn’t. But if I was so inclined to share something that Mahler wrote, I could just do it. ‘What do you think that indicates he’s saying we should do with this piece at this spot in the music?’ I found that really wonderful.
I was grateful for the recognition. I don’t accept it for me. In my acceptance letter, I mentioned this, I accept it on behalf of the administration that created that environment. I accept it on behalf of the university that created that environment. For the students who invested in the music and the students who were willing to consider some of the deeper elements.[The award ceremony] was in Boston on October 8th. The foundation said, ‘We know there are concerns about traveling right now. If you want to just send us a letter,’ they said they would read it for me, so I sent them my letter. But the point is that I was grateful that we were picked out of international submissions for this honor. It’s not a Stephen-Heyde honor. I was part of it, but it’s about the whole environment, the freedom that you get to explore some really important issues, and to do it from the perspective of faith is quite remarkable and important.
WACOAN: Another award that Baylor Symphony has won several times is The American Prize in Orchestral Performance, and it won it last year also for the Mahler performance.
Heyde: I have to tell you that the motto of the Baylor Symphony is ‘Integrity with humility,’ so again, we don’t coast on five American Prizes, but it’s given to the outstanding orchestra in our division. The Baylor A Cappella Choir won it last year, too, [in the collegiate choral division]. It’s just been verification that we’re on a process and a system that is working, and I try to continue to remember the second half of our motto.
This is no disrespect to Dean Sternberg or anybody else, but Baylor was not known for a great orchestral program when I came here, and that’s been my life’s work to build that, but I’ve done it with so many other people. It takes a team to do it.
“I am of the lasting opinion that a fine music school has to have a fine orchestra, without question, because it does so many other things. Not only does it play as an orchestra, but it also accompanies the opera, and it also accompanies the choirs. It plays a very important role in the school. Under Stephen’s leadership, we indeed have a terrific orchestra.” – Dr. William May Jr.
WACOAN: How has your approach been different than Dean Sternberg’s?
Heyde: I think there were several things. One, he was the dean of the whole School of Music. He built a great school here. He didn’t just build one program. The orchestra, though, takes a lot of extra work because you need lots of strings to have a good orchestra. There’s a band in every high school; there’s not an orchestra in every high school. So you get a lot of competition for that [string player]. It’s almost like athletic recruiting. They get a lot of offers, and it takes some financial resources to be able to compete for those string players.
The other thing is, I had lots of help. I think it’s fair to say you cannot have a great school of music if you don’t have a fine orchestra. You need a fine band program, fine choir program, fine academic program, but if you’re going to talk about the great canons, almost like the plays of Shakespeare, you have to talk about the symphonies of Beethoven or the symphonies of Brahms. You can’t talk about the great artworks if you’re not going to include certain masters, and it’s the same thing in music. Until you have an orchestra there that can bring these things to reality and people experience playing them and hearing them, then you’re not really a great school for music. I think there was that awareness that we needed to improve in that area, and I had a lot of help in doing it.
It’s been difficult, but it’s been a joy. Mostly the joy because of the interaction with my colleagues in making it happen, but also with these very, very special students. Over the years, thousands of them.
I had a rehearsal today [with] 64 fine string players in the Baylor Symphony. Sixty-four. Sixteen first [chairs], 16 seconds. Those are the dimensions of the Berlin Philharmonic. Nine violas. We have 17 cellos, nine double basses. That’s really dedicated recruiting by each of those teachers.
At a time in America where things are getting so tight financially, the university’s made a commitment that we are going to support having an orchestra. It’s a significant commitment, but because we do, it can unlock so many other things of the curriculum.
I loved my first orchestra at Baylor. Loved it. And it was filled individually with some really wonderful people and some wonderful musicians, but there just weren’t enough of them. To have now 64 strings, that’s what the Dallas Symphony has. Maybe more than Dallas Symphony has. It just opens the door that we can do literally any piece in the repertoire we want to do. And we have a second orchestra, [Campus Orchestra] and it has 46 strings in it. So, I think Baylor has established itself, and The American Prize has been recognition of it as among the best orchestra programs in the country, and that is very satisfying.
The [campus] orchestra came about years later. Those kids in the second orchestra just warm my heart. They want to be challenged. The other day, I was trying to get more sound out of them, so I changed the bowing. Bowing is [indicated on sheet music by] a little table [mark] or a ‘V’ [above the notes]. If there’s a table you move [the bow] down, and a V you move the bow up. For every moment of the piece, you have to have a bowing.
Taylor: So the musicians move together.
Heyde: But also, they affect positively and correctly the musical intentions. But I changed the bowing, and afterward, a cellist came up to me, who’s a pre-med major or something, and he said, very respectfully to me, ‘I just want to say that I really detest that bowing that you did. I just think that ruins the piece.’ And I said, ‘Thanks for saying that.’
Actually, he was quite right, but for me, that’s commitment. You know, it’s hard to walk up to an old guy, a professor, and say, ‘I detest that bowing you did.’ He felt so strongly about the music that he would say that to me. And he was right. We changed the bowing and came up with a better one. Then I said, ‘Now, you know that I’m in charge of this.’ He said, ‘No question.’ But that’s the level of students, and that’s been a great joy to watch.
I take great satisfaction in the fact that at one point we had The American Prize five out of six years. They just came out with a new one [in 2021]. We didn’t win. We came in second, but it’s not about winning. It’s about the recognition of the students and the faculty and our effort and what we’re trying to achieve. When people hear the Baylor Symphony, they think it’s quite remarkable because it can sound like a professional orchestra, and it’s [because of] those kids and their teachers.
Now everyone is saying, well Susan’s retired now. When are you going to retire?
Taylor: That was her next question.
WACOAN: Yeah, let’s go with that.
Heyde: I don’t know.
Taylor: He is younger than me, so he has some time.
Heyde: But I do feel it because everything’s more difficult than it was. A lot of times it’s my eyes. I just can’t see the way I used to see, so it’s going to happen. I never want to be a liability to the program. I hope I’m not yet, but I can see that it’s getting a little harder to do it.
Also, we want to travel. We want to do those things while we’re still young enough to do it. But it is so difficult to think of not having an orchestra to conduct.
Taylor: He loves it, and he doesn’t really have other hobbies that would satisfy him as much.
Heyde: I’ve got to find them that’s all.
Taylor: I hate to have him quit when he comes in and says, ‘Rehearsal was fabulous!’ I want him to be happy, whatever he does.
Heyde: When you’ve done it as long as I have, you know how to make an orchestra better. To start a piece and start to work on it, and you know what has to be done to make it better. Then to walk out and have the students experience all the glory of that piece or all the significance of that piece is really a kick. Plus, it’s so fun to conduct.
Taylor: I can’t tell you the number of letters that he’s read to me from students over the years. Twenty years later or 15 years later from when they were in college about how much the pieces that they played meant and how they still remember that wonderful time.
Heyde: That’s the best part of being a teacher. Every teacher gets those, but it’s very gratifying. But the real gratification is just to experience the sound of an orchestra. There’s no sound like it. I like bands, I like choirs, and you combine a choir with an orchestra, you’ve really got something, but my point is, the beauty of that sound speaks to my soul like nothing else. I’m sure the band speaks to [the Director of Bands] Dr. [Eric] Wilson’s heart the same way.
Taylor: He’s exactly where he needs to be.
“He demands a lot from the students, but he demands just as much from himself, if not more. His musical journey is a very rigorous one, and he’s always trying to improve the quality of the orchestra for the sake of the students and for the sake of paying good service to the music itself. We’re given these historical documents, and it’s each generation’s responsibility to take those historical scores and bring them to life because music that’s articulated on paper makes no sound at all. It’s the musicians that bring it to life, and Stephen is deeply devoted to doing justice to these historical documents through live performances.” – Dr. Gary Mortenson
WACOAN: When did your personal relationship develop?
Taylor: Well, it was so fun getting to know him and know each other in the workforce because we just got along great. You can’t not like him. We stayed good friends up until about four or five years ago. He got divorced. My husband passed away after I had divorced and lived single for quite a while. We just were together all the time because we had to be for work, and we kind of said, ‘Oh, do we want to have a date?’
Once we decided that this is what we wanted and to be together forever, it happened pretty quick. Maybe a year or two. We’ve been married four years, last August. When we realized that this was something that we wanted to pursue, we had families, kids and grandkids, that we had to talk to. We didn’t want to rush into it, but it’s just been four years.
WACOAN: Did it change the working dynamic at all?
Taylor: And we talked to the board about it before it happened. They know both of us so well, and I said, ‘Look, we’re going to keep everything professional. Don’t worry about that at all.’ And it’s been the same.
Heyde: For many years, we were just friends, and we had the perfect relationship for this job. And that’s where it stopped. But the basis of that relationship was good communication, trusting one another, which has transformed recently into a very good marriage. I think those are the same things. You want to like the person that you’re married to, you want to communicate with them, you want to trust them.
Taylor: We’re just such good friends. It really didn’t change much as far as getting into the business.
Heyde: Even after we were married, she was quite capable of saying, ‘We can’t afford that,’ from the orchestra’s point of view.
I think people realize that she did a fine job [as executive director], but I don’t think that they are aware of how really respected she is around the country. People can’t get over the fact that we’ve had just a parade of really spectacular, significant artists, and they’ve come and enjoyed it. And it’s because Waco is so warm.
Taylor: They do. The artists will say, ‘Love the conductor. Thank you for driving me around town.’ We are friendly. We treat them well. I could write a book about my experiences with the soloists.
WACOAN: What are some of the stories that would be in that book?
Taylor: We took the violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg horseback riding. She’d never ridden a horse. Took her to the rodeo.
When I was younger and had a little bit more energy, when the guest artists would come, we’d entertain them with those kinds of things. We kind of quit because when they get into town, I’ve learned, the majority are trying to focus on what they’re going to play. I usually don’t do much of the talking unless they initiate it.
Heyde: Quite a lot are very friendly, but we try to be respectful of what they need. Then you get some like Yo-Yo Ma who could not be more friendly.
Usually, if you’re going to have an artist come, you have a rehearsal or a time where the conductor and the artist just talk through the piece. They may play it for you so you can see what kind of retard they want. They’re going to take a little time here, and then they’re going to push the tempo here. All those things so you don’t find them out with an orchestra in front of you. So, I showed up for my hour with Yo-Yo Ma about Dvorak’s ‘Cello Concerto,’ and we just started talking.
Taylor: They just gelled.
Heyde: I looked [at my watch], and I said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, but we’ve not talked about the piece, and the orchestra is out there ready to go.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry. It’ll be fine. I know it.’ And it was just the most spectacular experience of my life. He was so easy to follow and so obvious.
A couple of years later, I still hear him on interviews talking about finding people who loved and valued great music in Waco, Texas, of all places. Some of our subscribers have heard interviews with him where he mentions Waco, and I think that that speaks volumes.
The orchestra [players] for Yo-Yo Ma, they were like teenage girls in 1964 with The Beatles. They had to get his autograph, and he was so patient and talked to everyone. For a classical musician, it just doesn’t get any better than Yo-Yo Ma, and yet he was so giving. Not an ounce of frustration. And you know that’s his life everywhere he goes. He’s kind of mobbed. Perhaps not like a football star or a rock star, but as close to it as anybody could be.
Taylor: We tried for 15 years to get him here.
Heyde: Again, it’s the relationships that the executive director develops with the artist managers, their representatives. They knew Susan. They’d send other artists to us. We’d treat them well. We gave them a good experience. The orchestra was good. So, suddenly, one day out of the blue, Yo-Yo Ma’s agent called her.
Taylor: But I’d asked for him every year. ‘No, he’s already booked.’ Finally, it paid off.
WACOAN: Beside Yo-Yo Ma, who have been some of the other guests that have stood out?
Heyde: I would say certainly Itzhak Perlman, the great violinist. Joshua Bell’s another favorite. Emanuel Ax, great pianist. Several great pianists because we always have violinists and pianists every season. Renee Fleming, a soprano. For our pops concert artists, we had a wonderful evening with Henry Mancini. We had a wonderful evening with Burt Bacharach. We had a wonderful evening with Art Garfunkel.
Taylor: Tell her some funny things about those. Henry Mancini was here when the Branch Davidians were here. On that Saturday, I had to take him out with his band to the Branch Davidian compound.
Heyde: It hadn’t burned yet. It was like a carnival out there.
Taylor: Shirts and everything you could buy.
Heyde: Wooden cutouts of David Koresh that you could put your face through. In retrospect of what happened, it’s very sad.
Taylor: They wanted all kinds of funny T-shirts. I bought 20 or 30. They said, ‘OK, now just pack it up, and send it to my agent,’ and they’d reimburse us. I got them packed up and ready to mail. They left on Sunday, and Monday is when the compound burned.
Heyde: Suddenly, everything changed. She called and said, ‘You still want them?’
Taylor: They wanted them.
Heyde: For people our age, Simon and Garfunkel were big. It always seemed like Art Garfunkel was so tall.
WACOAN: But Paul Simon is just short.
Heyde: Yeah, Simon’s really short and made Garfunkel look tall. We didn’t realize, and this average-looking guy comes in, but he also had that really unique hairstyle.
Taylor: I didn’t pick him up at the airport. At the hall, I go to meet him, and I went to the dressing room and knocked on the door, and he turned around to open the door. He was bald. Totally bald. I didn’t say a word.
WACOAN: But you were surprised.
Heyde: Yeah. This is a guy who could walk through any airport in the world and never be recognized. Then the night of the concert, suddenly he puts on a wig, comes out and there’s Art Garfunkel.
Then there are artists that’ll come to town, and they’re having a toothache, so she carts them off to the dentist. Then [the artist] swore, ‘Boy, that’s the best dentist I ever went to. Better than any in New York City.’
Taylor: You just have to do that stuff. Drive them out to the mall. One of them wanted a shirt. [Jazz musician] Doc Severinsen wanted a shirt, and I had to take him to the mall. Was he the one that wanted the soul food?
Heyde: She called, and [a restaurant in East Waco] stayed open for Doc Severinsen.
Taylor: After the concert and after the reception, we go over there, and they cook dinner for him at 10 o’clock at night. About four or five board members came, sat there talking to him and eating.
Heyde: Henry Winkler, ‘The Fonz,’ that’s another guy that everybody recognizes. He was going to narrate a piece, ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ and walked into the rehearsal, and the orchestra were like little kids.
We sent a driver up to Dallas to pick up him and his wife from the airport, and he was very interested in West. He wanted to get some kolaches. He went in there, and our driver said, ‘You wouldn’t have believed it.’ Hundreds of people. Everybody came to see Henry Winkler, and he said before it was over, Henry Winkler had ended up buying kolaches for everybody in the place. He was so nice.
That’s the thing I think is fair to say. The big ones are human beings, and they’re really, really good people. That’s been our experience.
WACOAN: Is there anything else I need to know?
Heyde: I just think both of us feel we’ve been so fortunate. We’ve been really blessed. Both with the jobs that we’ve had, but the relationships that we’ve built over the years with people in the community, with the musicians, certainly with the artists.
Henry Winkler called me after the concert. Nobody does that. He’s back in LA and called, ‘Hey, Steve. This is Henry. I just want to say how much I enjoyed Waco. It was just so much fun.’ He didn’t have to do that. They’re really nice people, and I’m grateful that we’ve had this lifetime of really rich relationships.