Did you know that Provincetown used to have a symphony?
The Provincetown Symphony Orchestra, sometimes called the Provincetown Symphony Society, was founded in 1955 by the conductor Joseph Hawthorne. The group gave several concerts each summer.
Joseph, who went by Jo, was the son of the artists Charles Webster Hawthorne and Marion Campbell Hawthorne; the school founded here by his father at the turn of the century is widely credited with establishing the Provincetown art colony. Jo, who was born in 1908, grew up spending his summers at his family’s home on Miller Hill Road. Instead of painting like his parents, Jo pursued music from a young age, playing the violin and viola. “Two painters in the family were enough,” recalls Jo in a 1977 issue of the Provincetown Advocate Summer Guide.
Jo’s daughter, Nancy Dickinson, who married painter Edwin Dickinson’s son, Edwin Constant Dickinson, says that “Jo gave Edwin Dickinson violin lessons and received a Dickinson drawing of the southeast corner of Jo’s family home at 1 Miller Hill in return. There’s a rain gutter dangling along the porch, in need of repair.”
Jo studied at Princeton, then with Nadia Boulanger at the Conservatoire Américain in Fontainebleau, France, and finally at the Juilliard School in New York City. In addition to the Provincetown Symphony, he was the conductor of orchestras in Dallas, Chattanooga, Toledo, and Duluth.
In forming the Provincetown Symphony, Jo Hawthorne was said to have recruited professional musicians from all over the country. A 1956 issue of the Advocate lists 28 musicians in the orchestra (though these changed from year to year) who hailed from “the Boston Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, Cleveland Symphony, Minneapolis Symphony, and the Symphony of the Air.”
Nancy Dickinson, who was a teenager at the time, doesn’t remember it quite that way. She says that Jo “hired young New York City musicians, giving them a chance for a several days’ gig in Provincetown.”
Few are left to remember otherwise. Salvatore Del Deo, whose late wife, Josephine, was president of the Provincetown Symphony Society for many years, believes all of the musicians have since passed away.
Concert programs in the Provincetown History Project show that the orchestra played wide-ranging repertoire — from avant-garde works by contemporary composers to Baroque pieces with harpsichord. Legendary cellist Bernard Greenhouse, who lived in Wellfleet, performed a concerto by Luigi Boccherini with the symphony in 1967.
“There was a children’s concert before the performances for adults,” Nancy Dickinson says. “It was actually a dress rehearsal that served to delight and encourage a new generation of music lovers.”
She also remembers her father recording performances of the Provincetown Symphony with a newfangled microphone, though the Independent was not able to find any extant recordings. “During summers, Jo hand-copied — that is, with a broad-nibbed fountain pen — the scores for the musicians, as buying or even renting them was expensive,” Dickinson says.
The artist Chaim Gross designed the logo for the Provincetown Symphony, which shows a mythical bird holding a flute. Chaim’s daughter, artist Mimi Gross, says she remembers her father was friends with Jo Hawthorne.
According to Jo’s other daughter, Caro Hawthorne, who was a child at the time, the concerts were originally at town hall, but as that venue became less viable, the symphony would play chamber music at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
“As the audience was dwindling, several artists, friends of my father — Varujan Boghosian, for one — went door to door selling tickets in person to help keep the symphony going,” Caro says. “But it seemed that fewer and fewer people were interested in classical concerts.”
Though the Provincetown Symphony is said to have flourished from 1955 to 1967, it actually continued, in some form, beyond that date. According to Caro Hawthorne, Jo helped with the acoustical design of the Province Lands Amphitheater in the National Seashore, and the symphony performed at least one concert there in 1969, as evidenced by a concert program.
A 1956 issue of the Advocate quotes Jo Hawthorne as dreaming about an outdoor home for the orchestra: “A shell on the dunes, some day — it isn’t impossible. Another Tanglewood here on Cape Cod; the sweep of dune and sea for a background.”
Why did the Provincetown Symphony Orchestra die out? It seems that, even then, interest in classical music was fading. Plus, putting together a crackerjack group of musicians and soloists each summer was a daunting and expensive enterprise. Jo Hawthorne himself died in 1994.
The memory of the Provincetown Symphony draws attention to a current lack of such a group on this end of the Cape. Toward the mainland, there is the Cape Symphony and Cape Cod Chamber Orchestra. But there’s nothing quite like that out here.
Maybe someday, a young conductor — a Jo Hawthorne type — will dream of a Tanglewood on the Outer Cape and revive the Provincetown Symphony Orchestra.