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Willson gives $100,000 to symphony

ALBANY — An Albany philanthropist has donated $100,000 to the Albany Symphony Orchestra to help underwrite the 2011-12 season that gets under way Oct. 8, symphony officials announced Wednesday.

“I am choosing to support the symphony because it is a valued asset for a community of our size,” Jane Willson, a longtime patron of the Albany Symphony Orchestra and the arts in this region, said in a statement released by the symphony. “I would encourage others to do the same.”

Willson, who owns the pecan mail-order business Sunnyland Farms, is known throughout the state for her philanthropic efforts.

“I have always loved going to the symphony, and I believe it is important to support the arts and culture of Albany’s community,” Willson said. “It is invaluable to the future of our city.”

Karen Allen, the symphony’s executive director, said the gift will go toward operating costs for the orchestra’s 48th season, which includes six concerts.

“The symphony thrives on the support and generosity of community-minded people,” Allen said. “We are very grateful to Mrs. Willson for her dedication, her vision and her leadership.”

The symphony opens its season with a celebration concert at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Albany on Oct. 8. The performance features symphonic gospel arrangements with the full orchestra and the combined choirs of Mount Zion and Sherwood Baptist churches of Albany. Guest conductor for the concert is Henry Panion, best known for his work as conductor and arranger for music legend Stevie Wonder.

Violinist Randall Goosby, the 15-year-old winner of the junior division of the Sphinx Competition, will also take the stage as guest conductor.

The symphony returns to its home, the historic Albany Municipal Auditorium, for the remainder of the season, which continues its theme of spotlighting Albany cultural institutions through music.

The symphony is utilizing guest conductors for the first half of the season after its board suspended music director Claire Fox Hillard for the remainder of the calendar year following his arrest in Camilla on a vagrancy/prowling charge. Hillard also has resigned his position as conductor of the Meridian, Miss., symphony.

When The Albany Herald inquired Wednesday afternoon whether the incident with Hillard had impacted donations, a symphony representative who answered the phone said Allen was in a meeting and would not likely be available to give an answer before this morning.