Former Springfield Symphony Orchestra conductor releases memoir

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Robert L. Staffanson conducted the Springfield Symphony Orchestra from 1955 to 1969.

(single sign-on photo)

In the fall of 2003, Robert Staffanson, conductor of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra from 1955 to 1969, returned to Springfield with his wife and family to help the SSO celebrate its 60th anniversary.

Around this time, he recounted many happy memories of his time in Springfield and alluded to many other interesting aspects of his life, including his childhood on a Montana horse ranch and his more recent work as a defender of the Native Americans.

Staffanson, 93, wrote an autobiography titled “Witness of the spirit, my life with cowboys, Mozart and Indians, scheduled for publication on Tuesday, December 22. In the book, Staffanson traces his unlikely path from the Montana prairie to the podium of a prominent New England orchestra to a Blood Indian medical camp in Alberta , in Canada.

Memories begin in 1921 at an outdoor horse ranch along the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana. Staffanson describes “… living conditions as early as the 19th century: a small three-room house with no heating or running water, electricity, radio, telephone or daily newspaper. Conditions that would be intolerable today for American millennials. For me it was paradise. “

He learned to handle horses early on and describes an occasion in his sixth year when his father gave him the task of bringing back two shackled wild foals from the open range across the Yellowstone River in ferry and bring them back to the family ranch for training. Ridden safely on a saddled horse, with the dashing foals harnessed to a reliable 1,700-pound workhorse named Diamond for the white star on his forehead, the 6-year-old guided his equine quartet for several miles through the treeless meadows where he felt completely “at home.”

Music was part of life from the start.

“I knew how to sing before I could walk,” Staffanson wrote. Her mother sang in the house, most often hymns she had learned in the church where her father was pastor. His father played the violin in country dances when he was young and filled the house with Scottish / Irish violin tunes in the evenings. The boy imitated his father’s style of violin, refining his technique as he grew and expanding his repertoire to include classical literature as well.

Absorbed by ranch life and reinvigorated from birth by the great freedom of Montana’s “big sky country”, the music began to call Staffanson louder than horses.

“During my teenage years, music started to dominate my mind,” he wrote, “and I somehow knew my years in breeding were limited.” In high school, he performed in a band, sang in church, and played tenor saxophone in a dance band, performing big band acts in the style of swing-era stars Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and others. The dances started at 9 p.m. and ended between 2 and 3 a.m. There was no alcohol in the dance hall, and the patrons, herding families and businessmen, came dressed in their best Sunday clothes and danced until the early hours of the morning. ‘Good Night Ladies’ signaling the end of the fun. Staffanson packed his horn and made it home in time to run in the horses for the day’s work, have breakfast and start a new day of sleepless work!

In 1941, he enrolled in the University of Montana Music School, heard his first real symphony orchestra, and began studying the violin in earnest. He also took voice lessons and was chosen as the principal tenor in an opera. All of these experiences will inform his later direction.

When the United States entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, complications from hernia surgery prevented Staffanson from serving in the military, and he returned to college to complete his studies. undergraduate studies and eventually marry his high school girlfriend, Frankie Ann Smith.

“We got married in December 1945”, he wrote, “… (and) since then we have not only been soul mates, but also partners in my musical career and in my work at the named after traditional Native Americans.Our love has continued to grow over more than seven decades.

Ann Staffanson, Kristin Staffanson-Campbell and Robert Staffanson all of Bozeman, Mont. during a visit to Springfield in October 2003.

Staffanson’s first experience in conducting a symphony came soon after. As the first violin of the University Symphony, it was Staffanson’s responsibility to conduct a concert when the conductor had contracted mumps the day before.

“I stepped on the podium with no experience conducting a public performance,” he wrote, “… something fortuitous happened. We not only made the concert a success, but we played it well, receiving a good response. This one performance, performed under duress, was the genesis of what would become my career as a conductor. “

He recounts his enthusiasm for conducting, his success in founding a symphony orchestra in Billings, MT, and his participation in 1953 in the very first American Conductors Symposium with the Philadelphia Orchestra and its legendary conductor Eugene Ormandy.

After Staffanson conducted the string section of the Philadelphia Orchestra in Barber’s “Adagio”, Ormandy told him, “I put my faith in you to become a great conductor.” Staffanson’s near future was thus ordered.

“It was like receiving an anointing from God. I don’t remember any post-symposium activity, nor how I got home. I remember receiving ‘the best press’ finally catapulted me into one of the first managerial positions on the East Coast. “

That position was, of course, the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, whose founder, Harold Alexander Leslie, had passed away suddenly. Staffanson, 34, quickly found himself on the podium of one of America’s top regional orchestras, conducting in a venue his mentor, Ormandy, called “one of the top ten in the world.”

The next third of the book is devoted to Staffanson’s adventures in Springfield – his adaptation of the open range to the eastern city, and the growth and deepening of his musical spirit.

“I believe that great music is a primary force. It takes us beyond the limits of our world into the realms of the pure spirit: a harbinger of what can happen to us.”

What was immediately to come for Staffanson, no one could have predicted. He and his wife returned to their native Montana in the summers after the symphony. During one of those summers in the late 1960s, two Piegan Blackfoot friends, Nora and Willie Spanish, invited Staffanson to join them at a Blood Indian Medicine Lodge in Alberta, Canada.

He was the only non-native in the camp. Willie and Nora had to arrange special permission from their hosts Frank Red Crow and Pat Weasel Head to bring her in.

“I felt like a kid in” The Chronicles of Narnia “by CS Lewis or Dorothy falling from the sky in Oz. Everything was new, but strangely, I had a sense of belonging, like returning to a house in childhood long forgotten. “

A period of stories, ceremonies, observation and participation followed which radically changed the course of Staffanson’s life. He returned to Springfield after that memorable summer, knowing his stay in the East was drawing to a close.

“Quitting music created trauma with deeper physical ramifications than I expected, but it was offset by the challenge of solving a problem as old as America.”

His wife Ann’s reaction was overwhelming.

“Few, if any, women would willingly leave this life (in Springfield) for news in the West for just an idea, with an uncertain future, without prestige and without security. What she did was a testament to her commitment and commitment. understanding the intense inner strength that drove me to abandon a profession I knew, and in which I succeeded, for an idea to solve America’s oldest moral problem: its indefensible treatment of Native Americans. “

“Mainstream society failed to understand the rich cultures it bulldozed, relegating Native Americans to the bottom of human status and largely forgetting about them.”

Back home in Montana, Staffanson co-founded the American Indian Institute and became a renowned advocate for Native Americans and Indigenous peoples around the world.

“If we remove layers of ego, self-interest, prejudice, greed, hatred and the will to dominate,” Staffanson wrote in the last third of his memoir, “we find that human beings have everywhere the same basic needs and aspirations. The essential aspects of each of us are in all the others, and the differences are minor compared to the commonalities. If we could just understand this premise, all barriers between us would fall. “

Staffanson’s story is inspiring, conveying strong values ​​and a depth of sentiment sufficient to propel a human being on an amazing and fulfilling trajectory. Over 50 photographs enhance the experience of the book, and some familiar faces can strike a chord in the memory of former SSO customers.


“Witness to Spirit” is published by Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing, Inc, in Deadwood, Ore., And is available in both hardcover and paperback. It is available online via and

About Roy B. Westling

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