Sounds of the holidays: ASO concert to feature native nonagenarian on harmonica, drum circle and youth choir

By Cherie Hicks

A 95-year-old Altoona native who has never played a major venue will be featured on the harmonica in Saturday’s holiday concert by the Altoona Symphony Orchestra.

Mary Beth Flickinger will play “Silent Night,” accompanied by the full orchestra, a piano and a solo cello, said Maestra Teresa Cheung.

“She always carries a harmonica in her purse and when she feels joyful, she takes it out and plays it,” particularly if someone is celebrating a birthday, Cheung said. “She’s a long-time supporter of the orchestra, she’s an icon, one of the treasures of Altoona. She loves music so much I thought I’d bring her in as a guest.”

Only limited tickets were available earlier this week for the popular annual concert, which also will feature a guest conductor, the Altoona West African Drum Circle and the All City Youth Choir.

Flickinger, who lives in an assisted-living facility near Pittsburgh, has played the harmonica since 1930, when she was 8 years old growing up in Altoona, said her daughter, Maureen Verzella, who has played the violin for the ASO for 40 years.

“There were free harmonica lessons at the post office and she and her brothers took these lessons, and they went on with other children to play in local churches and various places around Altoona,” said Verzella. “She just always played. She did it for her own enjoyment mostly.”

Today, she plays for residents of nearby nursing homes or for concerts at her housing facility.

“But this will be her first big concert,” Verzella said of her mother. “I’m probably more nervous than she is.”

Cheung noted that while Flickinger isn’t a professional musican, she’s responsible for a few.

Verzella grew up in Pittsburgh after her parents moved there when she was 3. But she returned to her native Altoona with her husband, Tom, 40 years ago for work. She is a retired music teacher from the Altoona Area School District, and her husband is a retired music teacher from the Tyrone Area School District.

Cheung said “Silent Night” is a popular arrangement and Saturday’s presentation “is going to be very touching.”

Other special moments, she said, will come when the All City Youth Choir joins the symphony in a number of popular holiday favorites, including “Let It Snow,” “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman.” The choir is under the direction of Teri Myers, Jamie Hillard and Kristin delGiudice.

“This is the second year that these three dynamic ladies have helped put this together,” Cheung said. “Last year, seeing all these kids coming from all over Altoona, it was just a fantastic experience for them and we decided to do it again.”

Cheung said she is driven to feature the children’s choir because of her own experience at the age of 12 of being on stage with a professional chorus and orchestra.

“To this day, I still remember how the light hit me on the face and the warmth of the sound and amazing vibration and feeling I had during that performance,” she said. “I vowed to recreate that experience for children. There’s nothing else like the sound of an orchestra. You can tell the first time a child is singing with the orchestra by the light on his face.”

The concert will open with the ASO playing a “Christmas festival” of music featuring “Joy to the World,” “Deck the Halls,” “God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen” and more. Scattered throughout the concert will be other selections, including “Overture to Miracle on 34th Street” by Johnnie Vinson; “Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson; “March” from “Nutcrack-er” by Peter Tchaikovsky; and, “Flight to Neverland” from “Hook” by John Williams.

After intermission, the symphony will play Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus Overture” under the direction of guest conductor Timothy Farrand. Cheung met the Penn State student two years ago who was an interim conductor at the Pennsylvania Chamber Orchestra for a semester, and the pianist began studying conducting.

“He’s been doing a lot of things to help me during rehearsals and I thought it was perfect for him to have an opportunity” to guest conduct, she said.

Cheung also will present the Altoona West African Drum Circle under the leadership of Yamoussa Camara for two songs.

“I’m always looking for the opportunity to bring in community musical groups for fun and camaraderie,” she said.

A couple of concert selections have “very, very strong and rhythmic drum beats, and I thought it would be so perfect for them.” Ad-ditionally with Camara from Ghana, “we’re merging cultures together,” Cheung said.

In all, the seasonal concert will feature a “lot of iconic music that guests will enjoy,” she said. “A lot of entertaining music with just beautiful melodies.”

Mirror Life Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.

If you go

What: Altoona Symphony Orchestra’s Home for the Holidays concert

Where: Mishler Theatre

When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

Admission: $10-$32, plus fees

Tickets/More info: Mishler box office at or 944-9434