Mesabi Community Orchestra was formed in 1978 by a small group of musicians who were interested in making music together and doing it well. The group performed with the Virginia High School orchestra in the spring of 1978, then gave its first performance as Mesabi Community Orchestra on December 4, 1978 at Mesabi Community College. For the first time since the Range Symphony disbanded 30 years previously, the community could count a community orchestra among its assets.
The first director of Mesabi Community Orchestra was Jeanne Santa Doty, who was in the process of revitalizing the string program in the Virginia Public Schools. Over the years, MCO has also been directed by Christine Moroni, Dr. Benjamin Smith, Jeralyn Spampinato, William Lavato, Sheila Wilcox, Josh Aerie, Dr. Sergey Bogza, and Benjamin Nilles. The orchestra has performed across the Iron Range, including in Virginia, Aurora, Babbitt, Chisholm, Ely, Eveleth, Gilbert, and Hibbing.
Throughout its first 30 years, Mesabi Community Orchestra was supported by Mesabi Community College. The college paid the orchestra’s director, and provided rehearsal, performance, and office space and clerical support. The college also sponsored the Mesabi Community Band and East Range Choral Society (now Range of Voices). MCO became incorporated in 1984 and received its 501(c)(3) tax exemption in 2001. In 2007, Mesabi Range College withdrew its financial support. When the college expanded its engineering program, it was no longer able to provide rehearsal space.
The loss of the college’s support freed the orchestra to choose its own path. MCO began applying for grants, participating in Give to the Max Day, soliciting contributions by businesses and individuals, and carrying out other fundraising activities. MCO acquired new rehearsal space in the Eveleth-Gilbert High School band room. It began performing in the Iron Range’s historic and acoustically excellent auditoriums – Goodman Auditorium in Virginia, Hibbing High School Auditorium, Chisholm High School Auditorium, and Washington Auditorium in Ely. The orchestra began recruiting from a larger geographic area, and auditioning and hiring principals and assistant principals to lead its string sections. The orchestra’s budget grew substantially.
In 2012, the orchestra began performing as Mesabi Symphony Orchestra. The members of the orchestra adopted this name change to better reflect the level of artistry they have committed to achieving.
In 2013, MSO’s artistic director and conductor, Josh Aerie, moved out of state and the orchestra undertook a national search to find a replacement. Dr. Sergey Bogza became MSO’s eighth conductor in July, 2014. Two years later, Dr. Bogza left Minnesota to take a position with Milliken University in Decatur, Illinois. Once again, MSO conducted a national search resulting in Benjamin Nilles becoming the artistic director and conductor of MSO in July, 2016.
In 2014 MSO introduced a new performing group, Mesabi Chamber Ensemble, a low pressure learning experience for less experienced string players and those who are returning to playing after a hiatus. Mesabi Chamber Ensemble is directed by Sheila Wilcox, an experienced string instructor and the orchestra teacher in the Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert School Systems.
The 2017-2018 season was MSO’s 40th anniversary season on the Iron Range. MSO presented seven concerts in Virginia, Hibbing, Ely, and Superior Wisconsin. Its April, 2018, concerts featured a collaboration with the University of Wisconsin – Superior choirs and orchestra. MSO now employs an executive director, Rena Hartman Routhage, in addition to its artistic director and conductor, Benjamin Nilles. MSO’s budget is over $85,000 annually.