William Henigbaum

William Henigbaum conducted the Western Carolina Civic Orchestra for more than two decades. He passed away on Dec. 19 at the age of 96.

Last week’s Herald brought the sad news that William Henigbaum, 96, who conducted the Western Carolina Civic Orchestra for more than two decades, died on Dec. 19.

He may be gone, but his musical leadership will not soon be forgotten.

Though he was quiet and unassuming, Henigbaum had a memorable air. During my years in The Herald newsroom, the conductor would climb the long flight of stairs to the newsroom before every Civic Orchestra concert (and well before our weekly deadline) to bring the program information he had typed out on his manual typewriter. The first time I ever saw him was at a Suzuki violin recital. My son, Scott, then 7, was one of Henigbaum’s daughter Cathy Arps’ students, and Henigbaum, along with other Civic Orchestra members, was there to fill out the orchestra sound. Before the recital, Henigbaum was on stage helping out with tuning, and I watched Scott make a beeline for him. Henigbaum accepted Scott’s tiny violin and devoted his full attention to its tuning. He turned the pegs and plucked the strings several times before he was satisfied. Then, with a slight nod, he carefully handed the instrument back to Scott. I was struck by Henigbaum’s patience and commitment to detail, even for a child who was only halfway through the first book and would be on stage for about three minutes; I was even more amazed after I learned about his celebrated musical background.

A professional musician since age 14, Henigbaum moved to Sylva in 1985 after playing with the Quad Cities Orchestra in his hometown of Davenport, Iowa, for 50 years. His tenure there was interrupted only by the four years he spent as an infantry platoon leader during World War II. A second violin initially, he became the orchestra’s concertmaster after the war.

After taking up residence in the mountains, Henigbaum, who had conducted young musicians for years in Iowa, organized a youth orchestra to provide Arps’ violin students with an opportunity to perform in an ensemble.

When she was a child in Davenport, orchestras were “everywhere,” Arps said. A youth orchestra was a great thing for the kids she taught because “playing in an orchestra is more fun than playing by yourself – it’s like a team sport,” she said.

It wasn’t long before Henigbaum found himself conducting the Western North Carolina Community Orchestra, which was founded by James Dooley in 1970, as well as the youth orchestra, and he combined the two ensembles in 1995. He remained conductor until 2012.

Arps inherited more than her talent and love of music from her father – a violin she used when my son was one of her students is one Henigbaum brought home from World War II.

“That violin was liberated,” Henigbaum told me several years ago.

Henigbaum and his infantry platoon were in Italy, bogged down somewhere around Bologna. His group was what he termed a “raider platoon” and patrolled at night. During one patrol they stopped at an abandoned farmhouse, where a soldier found a violin case with a violin wrapped in a gold cloth.

“It had strings and a bow, so I tuned it and started playing,” Henigbaum said. “It was surprising to everyone because they didn’t know I was a musician.”

After the war, Henigbaum stayed in Italy for six months and took lessons – on that violin – at the Cherubini Conservatory.

“It’s an old German violin,” he said. “That’s about all you can say about it.”

When our beautiful Library was dedicated in 2011, Henigbaum, then 90, conducted his orchestra in the 97-year-old former courtroom. In addition to being one of the programs planned to celebrate the opening of the library complex, the event was a celebration of Henigbaum’s birthday and musical legacy.

Current Civic Orchestra conductor Damon Sink said in April that Henigbaum’s many years of leadership and commitment to the Civic Orchestra are an invaluable gift to the Western North Carolina arts community and to the musical life of students and faculty at Western Carolina University.

“The orchestra exists and thrives only because of the hard work of dedicated musicians like Bill.”

Henigbaum himself agreed that the cooperation between WCU, local musicians and the Jackson County Arts Council, which sponsors the Civic Orchestra, was key to the group’s success.

“An orchestra in a community usually has to have a school or university nearby – a place that has facilities,” Henigbaum told me in 2006. “Those are available here, and that’s why the orchestra is here. It’s the only one of its kind west of Asheville, and people come from almost every county to play in it.”

Henigbaum taught music at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., in addition to his performing and conducting career. After moving to Sylva, he performed with the Asheville and Hendersonville symphonies while conducting the Civic Orchestra and giving violin lessons. He retired from both symphonies about five years ago.

In reflecting on her father’s musical legacy this past April, Arps said she thought her father had been the perfect conductor for a group like the Civic Orchestra.

“He is a string teacher and could give all the string players good advice, and from his long experience as an orchestra member, concertmaster and conductor, he could lead all the sections,” Arps said. “He knows so much about orchestra music that he was able to choose music that was challenging but also achievable.”

The late Ray Menze, who was a longtime member of the Civic Orchestra, told me once that Henigbaum’s confidence and competency were “awe-inspiring.”

That same quietness and confidence were hallmarks of Henigbaum’s conducting style. For a story in 2006 I asked one of Henigbaum’s former students, Will Stern (then a violin student at the N.C. School of the Arts) what made Henigbaum stand out as a conductor. Stern spoke of a connection with the players and lack of ego.

“A lot of conductors go so over the top that they lose touch with the players,” Stern said. “Too many conductors think it’s all about them, but for Mr. Henigbaum, it’s all about the music.

“Most teachers have a hard time standing up to Mr. Henigbaum in my personal opinion,” Stern said. “Some teachers talk so much that the violinistic truth is lost in a sea of nouns and verbs. He approached complex technical issues in a simple and straightforward manner – he was all about playing well and making beautiful music.”

It was perhaps Menze who best summed up Henigbaum’s impact on Jackson County’s artistic life.

“He is one of our precious gifts.”

It is sad that we now have to change that “is” to “was.” But it is wonderful that we were able to enjoy Henigbaum and his music for so long.

Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.