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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: Cleland starts Vancouver symphony

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: August 12, 2023, 6:10am

At 5 years old, Walter Cleland began playing the piano and didn’t stop until he died in 1995. Music filled his life.

Born in Kearney, Neb., to a farmer and his schoolteacher wife, the boy’s parents never realized that his perfect pitch would lead him from the heartland to the Pacific Northwest to start the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

According to the University of Chicago, perfect pitch, or what science terms absolute pitch, is the ability to hear a sound and identify its exact note, or in singers, the ability to produce the note without hearing it. Few achieve absolute pitch with ear training. A rarer few — perhaps one in 10,000 — have innate absolute pitch. While this is an often-quoted number, some scientists think the number may be as high as 4 percent of the population.

Cleland received his early education in a one-room schoolhouse near his father’s farm and a Bachelor of Arts in music in 1931 from Nebraska State Teachers College at Kearney (now the University of Nebraska). Afterward, he spent four years in Broken Bow teaching and, during his summer vacation, worked on a master’s degree at the University of Iowa. Eventually, he moved his family to Iowa City to attend full time. While working on his degree, the university appointed him assistant band director.

In 1940, the United States Census listed the Clelands and a son living in South Bend, Ind., and recorded his job as a public school music teacher. The family then moved to Vancouver, where he subbed in the Vancouver schools. The following year he went to McLoughlin Junior High as band director, then to the old Vancouver High School, where he rose to head band director.

Building a Vancouver orchestra became Cleland’s main interest. His group spent years performing in the First Presbyterian Church, finding rehearsal space mostly at schools. Cleland served as the church’s minister of music, choir director and organist. He also led the Brahms Singers on tour and conducted the Westwinds Community Band.

He’d connected with the Brahms Singers when they invited him to play the piano for a musical about Johnny Appleseed by renowned Oregon voice actor Dallas McKennon. Soon Cleland discovered there was no Appleseed overture. He wrote one.

This occasion helped establish the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Cleland recognized that a whole symphony couldn’t be written because there weren’t enough strings. To get them, he started the Vancouver Symphonette (a small ensemble that plays quick, well-known classical standards and salon music). Despite the humble name, the orchestra grew and added one soloist each season.

To retire, Conductor Cleland had to replace himself. He posted his position, receiving several eminently qualified candidates. One was Salvador Brotons, a conductor at Portland State University. The Catalonian conductor and composer came to the United States in 1985. He conducted the Barcelona Conservatory Band, gained a Florida State University doctorate and was the university’s orchestra assistant conductor.

For the 1990-91 season, Cleland gave each of his top three candidates a shot at the unpaid top position in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra before an audience of doubters. However, when the votes were counted, Brotons won the job, which he continues today.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

Columbian freelance contributor