The opening of the National High School Orchestra and Band Camp in 1928 probably raised very little interest among the general public; the name of the place certainly gave no hint as to what it would become in the future, and who would want to give up a restful Sunday afternoon in exchange for a drive on dusty gravel roads to sit on a rugged bench to hear a hundred high school kids struggle to play Dvořák’s “New World” symphony?
However, a celebrity conductor or two would lend luster to the concerts, and both Ossip Gabrilowitsch (conductor of Detroit Symphony) and Howard Hanson were brought in to lead concerts that first summer. Hanson spent part of his visit working on his “Romantic” symphony that would provide our radio broadcasting theme three years later, and Gabrilowitsch’s wish that the camp could operate every week of the year instead of only in the summer would prove to be remarkably prophetic.
Those first guests may have drawn some attention, but the visits by John Philip Sousa in 1930 and '31 were riotous by comparison and drew thousands to see a living legend on the podium. Each of the next thirty summers would present some important musicians such as Walter Damrosch, Frederick Stock, Percy Grainger and Paul Whiteman, but they seem to have been considered only “frosting on the cake” as the Camp concentrated mainly on developing its purpose as a training ground for music and eventually the full spectrum of arts media.
The 1961 performances by Van Cliburn and Herb Shriner provided another prophetic moment that would lead to the announcement of the “First Interlochen Arts Festival,” a ten-day event that began the closing weekend of Camp in 1964. It featured five performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra, a full range of allied music events, and produced a deficit of nearly $30,000! A far more conservative plan was announced for 1965 and for 1966 we were already committed to hosting the first conference of the International Society for Music Education to be held in the western hemisphere. Since it would include performances by ensembles from Europe, Asia and America, a separate Interlochen Arts Festival was probably out of the question.
The Interlochen Arts Festival moniker all but disappeared for a few years, but we had opened the door to a new era of presentations that would eventually fulfill that prophetic moment of 1961 - Van, the classical pianist, and Herb, the Hoosier comedian, would come to symbolize the combination of classical and popular entertainment that would constitute the year-round branch of ICA that would offer everything from Benny Goodman to Asian acrobats, and from Marcel Marceau to Garrison Keillor, plus Shakespeare, student music theatre and other special performances. There’s much to come as we celebrate a Golden 50th Anniversary for Interlochen's presenting arm -- little did Ossip realize where his remark would lead.