An orchestra’s history ‘through one person’s eyes’

Herbert Light began playing violin when he was six years old. | DANIEL RAINVILLE TTN

In his senior year of high school, Herbert Light turned down a basketball scholarship so he could play the violin.

“My senior year I was center on my high school basketball team,” Light said. “[The scholarship] was very tempting, but violin had taken hold by that time.”

And the violin kept its hold on him—today, at 79 years old, Light has been playing the violin for 73 years.

Light began playing violin at the age of 6, but it wasn’t until he started training when he was 13 with David Madison, the  former assistant concertmaster of The Philadelphia Orchestra, that he began to realize the love he had for the instrument.

“The greatest thrill is when emotions crawl up and down your spine because of what you’re playing, and that still happens,” Light said.

His youngest son, Jonathan Light, a freelance filmmaker, wants to capture that thrill in a documentary film called “A Dream Fulfilled.” The film will chronicle his father’s career and the history of The Philadelphia Orchestra “through one person’s eyes,” Jonathan Light said.

Jonathan Light said he had always wanted to complete a piece in “tribute” to his father and his career—despite the fact his father “doesn’t understand the attention,” he said, and was “very puzzled” at the idea of a film about him.

“I never looked upon it as a job,” Herbert Light said in a trailer for the film. “Being in such a great orchestra for such a long time invokes many great memories of wonderful soloists and wonderful conductors.”

He joined The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1960 after finishing his service in the U.S. Army. He had been drafted into the army soon after beginning his studies at the Philadelphia Musical Academy. He decided to audition for the U.S. Army Band in the string section.

Herbert Light was accepted and sent to Washington, fulfilling his army duties through music. He was even able to play for the then-president, Richard Nixon.

Upon White’s return to the Philadelphia Musical Academy, two vacancies in The Philadelphia Orchestra were announced.

“I had to give it a shot,” he said. “This was my lifelong dream. I had been inspired by [Madison] who used to be in the orchestra. He used to take me to concerts all the time, and I just fell in love with the group.”

Without much time to practice, Herbert Light auditioned for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra two days before his audition in Philadelphia, solely as a practice run.

He doubted he would receive the position, but ended up getting offers in both orchestras. He chose his lifelong dream—The Philadelphia Orchestra.

“When I was offered this job and entered the orchestra, it was the greatest moment of my life,” Herbert Light said in the preview for the documentary.

“I have a lot of memories of these greats of the past who are sort of indelibly imprinted in my mind,” he added.

Herbert Light said he once “accidentally” had lunch with famed conductor Leopold Stokowski, who had been guest conducting with the orchestra during a train ride on a tour headed to upstate New York.

“I was late getting into the dining car,” Herbert Light said. “Finally, there was a seat that opened up. I was ushered into that seat, and I looked up and there was Stokowski right in front of me.”

He said he was about to get up to leave him alone, but Stokowski asked him to stay.

“It was legendary,” he added.

Despite his years of experience, Herbert Light remains humble, according to his colleagues. He is well known by staff and patrons at the Kimmel Center, the current home of the orchestra.

“He’s someone you want to have a cup of tea with,” said Richard Montgomery, who has been an usher at the Kimmel Center for 14 years.

“The crowd knows him,” Montgomery added. “Some people want to meet some of the orchestra members. He’s one of the guys I’ll go to.”

“Philadelphia was the place as far as I was concerned,” Herbert Light said. “It’s a wonderful thing to earn a decent living while playing music, and doing what you love. I’ve been very fortunate in that.”

Light has no immediate plans for retirement, but he knows it approaches along with his 80th birthday.

“As our former concertmaster Norman Carol told me once,” he said, “‘There is life after the Philadelphia Orchestra.’”

Erin Blewett can be reached at erin.clare.blewett@temple.edu.

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