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Belleville Philharmonic looks for a new conductor — and a shiny timpani — to open its 150th season

Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Robert Howard, retiring conductor of the Belleville Philharmonic Society, says the dented timpani, at right, needs to be replaced.

When Robert Charles Howard retires as conductor of the Belleville Philharmonic Orchestra in a few weeks, he hopes a certain musical instrument will follow in his footsteps: an aging 32-inch timpani that has lost much of its luster.

“I’ll miss the job, but I won’t miss this,” Howard said with a smile, as he rolled the dented kettle drum back into its place in the instrument storage room at the orchestra’s rehearsal hall in downtown Belleville.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
The orchestra is also hoping to replace dented cymbals and a snare drum.

  Changes are coming for the historic philharmonic society that opens its 150th season in the fall. The orchestra is conducting a search for Howard’s successor -- and orchestra members have launched a $5,000 gofundme campaign to replace percussion instruments that have seen better days.

As he prepares to conduct his final concert on April 30, Howard says he’s confident that the orchestra’s tradition of high quality performance will continue because of the deep support it receives from the community and from its 60 members who volunteer their rehearsal and performance time.

“I’m concluding 21 glorious years of working with the most wonderful people I could imagine partnering with,” he said.

The Belleville Philharmonic performed its first concert in January 1867 and claims to be the second oldest philharmonic in continuous operation in the United States. Many of its first members were Civil War veterans -- German-born musicians who had immigrated to the Belleville area. The New York Philharmonic is the nation’s oldest orchestra; it was founded in 1842.

Howard says the Belleville Philharmonic is a community orchestra in the truest sense.

“Then, as now, we have members of the business community, teachers, medical professionals, attorneys -- any type of profession you can imagine – and, of course, we also encourage youth, as well,’’ he said.

Howard has conducted the orchestra since 1995. He also taught music at St. Louis Community College-Meramec for 31 years. His final concert, a tribute to American composers, will include one of his own compositions. It’s at 7:30 p.m. at Union United Methodist Church, 721 East Main St., Belleville. 

With the exception of the percussion instruments, the orchestra’s members provide their own instruments. The gofundme campaign has raised about $725 toward its goal. In addition to a new timpani, the orchestra would also like to replace dented cymbals and a snare drum.

Howard said the gofundme campaign will help the Belleville Philharmonic do some catching up as it prepares for the future.

“You always make the best of what you have,’’ he said. “Sometimes, you need to get better.” 

Credit Belleville Philharmonic Society
The Belleville Philharmonic Orchestra performed its first concert in January 1867.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.