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William Hudson, longtime conductor of Fairfax Symphony, dies at 89

William Hudson, Fairfax Symphony Orchestra conductor. (Dennis Whitehead)
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William Hudson, a pianist and conductor who led the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra for 36 years, establishing it as a leading regional orchestra in the capital area, died July 12 at his home in Vienna, Va. He was 89.

The cause was atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, said his former wife, Denise Battistone.

In 1971, Mr. Hudson, then a new member of the conducting faculty at the University of Maryland, won an audition to take over a struggling, unpaid, 60-piece occasional orchestra. The FSO had been founded 14 years earlier by a local violinist, Dorothy Farnham Feuer. The group’s early support had come from the Fairfax Women’s Club, and Phil Fuller, director of the Fairfax High School Band, led the first performance at Annandale High School.

By many accounts, those early FSO performances were unimpressive. Symphony members were known to bring in punch and homemade cookies to entice listeners. “Ranger Hal,” a local TV host, led one program that also included a puppet show. “Some children threw up with overexcitement,” The Washington Post reported. “In the melee, music was lost, and so was one soloist — locked in the men’s room.”

Indeed, in a sweeping 1968 study of smaller orchestras published by the American Symphony Orchestra League (now the League of American Orchestras), the music service organization could offer no more support to the group than a suggestion that the FSO merge with some other local orchestra, effectively ending its life.

But the appointment of Mr. Hudson turned things around quickly. For the first time, auditions were held to select the musicians in the orchestra. By 1977, the FSO was made up of 110 musicians — almost double its original size — and players were paid for every concert in which they participated.

A violist, Lisa Baltzer, recently recalled the excitement of a developing orchestra for a release published by the FSO, in an obituary for Mr. Hudson released by the orchestra: “I well remember the challenge — and a sense of accomplishment — of our first performance of Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird,’ Strauss’s ‘Till Eulenspiegel’ and Mahler’s first symphony.”

Joseph McLellan, the longtime chief music critic of The Washington Post, heard the FSO in 1989 and admired what he called Mr. Hudson’s “personal touch in each of these works” noting that it could be heard in “details of tempo, dynamics and phrasing, but above all in orchestral balances that often brought out interesting, rarely heard inner voices.”

“All the music demands solid orchestral technique, virtuosity in some solo passages, plus considerable collective power,” McLellan continued. “The Fairfax Symphony is capable of meeting these requirements, and did so last night.”

As the FSO’s reputation grew, it was increasingly able to engage leading soloists, including the singer Ella Fitzgerald, the pianists Leonard Pennario, Peter Serkin and Jorge Bolet, and the cellist Janos Starker. In an interview published by The Post in 1985, Starker said that the orchestra’s recent development had been “incredible” and that the company was then “among the top three community orchestras in the country.” (He declined to name the others.)

In 1990, the FSO moved to the 1,850-seat Center for the Arts at George Mason University, where it remains today, under the direction of Christopher Zimmerman.

William Lee Hudson was born in Newport News, Va., on Jan. 31, 1933. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1957 from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree from Yale School of Music and did conducting studies at the Tanglewood music festival in Massachusetts. In 1970, he joined the University of Maryland faculty, where he remained until his retirement from teaching in 1999. He has no immediate survivors.

Mr. Hudson left the FSO in 2007. “I hope we are all able to somehow do the best we are capable of doing,” he said in an exit interview. “I’ve never been satisfied with any concert I’ve conducted. I’m always rather depressed after a concert because you know what it should be like and it never is, really. But we try to get as close as we can to what the composer wanted, whatever that is.”

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