The Roxborough Orchestra would not exist without the desire and vision of Giuseppe Agnello to found an orchestra for and by the local community. Giuseppe, also known as “Joe”, has since moved from the area after handing the baton to Dr. Fawzi Habboushe, but is still involved in the life of the orchestra.
Following a distinguished career as a Philadelphia-area violinist and music teacher, Mr. Giuseppe Agnello, a Roxborough resident, formed the Roxborough Symphony Orchestra in the summer of 2003. To recruit orchestra members, Mr. Agnello posted notices in the windows of area businesses. He then arranged the orchestra’s first rehearsal in the auditorium of the Salvation Army building on Ridge Avenue. The orchestra held its first concert on January 31, 2004, with Mr. Agnello conducting. Since then, the orchestra has performed concerts at the Roxborough Presbyterian Church, the Worship Center, Leverington Presbyterian Church, and Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, with conducting assistance by Dr. Fawzi Habboushe. In 2013, Mr. Agnello retired from his position as Conductor and passed the baton to Dr. Habboushe.
The following excerpt from a 2006 article tells a little more about our founding:
2006 Chestnut Hill Local
Had ‘captive audience’ in prison;
Making beautiful music for more than 60 years
by CASSANDRA SLAVEN
Imagine making a living doing what you are most passionate about, and being fortunate enough to do what you love for more than 60 years. That is exactly what Giuseppe “Joe” Agnello has done…
Agnello, a life-long musician and Roxborough resident has been a musician, music director at a local prison, teacher, piano tuner, conductor and founder of the Roxborough Orchestra. As he prepares to pass the baton this year, the third season of the orchestra, to Roxborough Orchestra co-conductor and Philadelphia Doctors Chamber Orchestra conductor, Fawzi Habboushe, Agnello will have yet another title: Founder and Conductor Emeritus.
Giuseppe Agnello and Betty, his wife of 36 years, have lived in Roxborough for nearly 34 years. Born in Johnstown, PA, Agnello started playing music in 1935. He moved to Philadelphia to attend The Curtis Institute of Music, but when he arrived, he got a good job in the shipyard, and because he was making money, he forgot all about Curtis. Everything was going fine, but “then Uncle Sam got me.”
It was during his time in the Air Corps that Agnello began playing with what was once called the second best band in the United States. “There were two groups, and all the members were pulled from many different symphonies and places,” says Agnello. “The first group played soft dance music for the officers and chapel programs, and the second group played the jitterbug stuff.” With enthusiasm Agnello talks about the occasions when the two groups got together. “The conductor, who was with MGM and RKO, would lead the combined group, and we would do special numbers all over the world,” he explains. Agnello was the youngest in the group. “They were all big shots, and I was just a young nobody.” Before the groups broke up, they were slated to take Glenn Miller’s place.
Had Agnello been able to stay with the Air Corps, he would have retired from the military, but he was transferred to the infantry, where he served out his time in active combat. When his duty ended, the military paid for him to return to college, and he graduated from the Philadelphia Music Academy.
He played with several symphony orchestras and went to work as a music teacher at the Claymont Special School District in Delaware. He left the school district to work as the music director at the penitentiary in Graterford because the pay was much better. It was there that he directed a 65-piece concert band, a 30-piece junior band, a 20-piece dance band and a 30-piece choir.
Agnello, who has a sharp sense of humor, enjoyed that job because “I had a captive audience.” Though he earned more money at the prison than teaching school, after four riots his wife Betty wanted him to leave. While he was the music director at the prison, he held a piano tuning class and continued a piano tuning business after leaving the prison. He retired from his business, but continued to give music lessons to individuals.
Agnello once had the opportunity to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra but turned it down. His reason is simple: Betty. “My weekends I devote to my wife,” says Angelo. “The Philadelphia Orchestra is always on the road, and music and marriage don’t mix.”
Agnello started the orchestra because it seemed as though every neighborhood in the city had one, except Roxborough. He wanted to give something back to the community before he passes on. “If you have a gift or a talent, you should share it before you leave this world, especially with young people,” says Betty. Agnello and his wife both feel the Roxborough Orchestra isn’t just a group of musicians, but a family. It seems as though the residents of Roxborough have connected with the orchestra also, because they have been very responsive, both young and old. This is probably due to Agnello’s insistence that the music not be too heavy, but a variety of waltzes, marches and show tunes.
“To tell you the truth, my whole life has been exciting,” Agnello insists. “When I first went into the Air Corps, all I did was play violin, take a couple of showers a day and shave every day. We played music constantly. Then, when the groups broke up, I went into the infantry with no showers and no shaves! Then I went overseas, had frozen feet, got shot in the leg, lost some of my hearing from firing rifles, and I was wounded in the Black Forest and fought all across Europe. My entire life has been memorable.”