A Mom on a Mission: World-Class Music for Everybody

2022-08-05 14:30:41

After Don Shirley carried out along with his trio earlier than an appreciative viewers within the Putnam Excessive Faculty auditorium in November 1965, he didn’t return to his lonely motel room and hit the Cutty Sark, the way in which he did within the film “Inexperienced E book” — at the least not instantly. Thanks largely to my mom, he got here to our home first.

Shirley, a pianist, appeared along with his ensemble in lots of small cities like Putnam, a spot The New York Occasions as soon as described as a “nondescript outdated mill city,” inhabitants 9,000 or so, within the northeastern nook of Connecticut. Some had been within the South, and “Inexperienced E book,” which gained an Oscar for finest image 4 years in the past, captured the bigotry that Shirley, who was Black and homosexual, encountered there.

However one factor the movie didn’t present was how, because of individuals like my mom and a grand however largely forgotten social experiment known as Neighborhood Concert events Inc., run out of a small workplace throughout the road from Carnegie Corridor, he was additionally welcomed in numerous Putnams all through the nation, the place he helped break down all types of boundaries — racial, cultural and musical.

He actually left an impression on 13-year-old me, and never because the austere, dour determine of the movie. The person in our lounge that night time was erudite and chatty — particularly after my mom identified his Phi Beta Kappa key. I bear in mind how, over drinks and my mom’s cheesecake, he expounded on, amongst different issues, “Bobby” Dylan — not shocking, since, together with Beethoven and Brahms and Rodgers and Hammerstein, “Blowin’ within the Wind” was a staple of his eclectic repertoire.

There have been few Black individuals in Putnam, and few individuals of any colour performing and discoursing on classical music. However Shirley wasn’t the primary Black artist to return there. The soprano Dorothy Maynor, who later based the Harlem Faculty of the Arts, had already been to Putnam, as had the baritone William Warfield. (I took an image of him and his accompanist, Willard Straight, in our lounge with my Brownie Starmite digital camera.) All of this happened due to Gert Margolick, who for greater than 30 years was membership chairwoman of the native Neighborhood Concert events group.

My mom, now 98, was not a do-gooder with some hidden agenda on race relations. “By no means crossed my thoughts,” she advised me not too long ago. Her aim was to deliver the best musicians the group might afford to our small city, and listen to classical music carried out dwell regionally reasonably than having to schlep to Boston, Worcester, Windfall or Storrs, 25 lengthy and winding miles down Route 44. And, perhaps, provide some tradition to her three younger sons. That’s to not say that her labors didn’t broaden minds or foster understanding. I’d wager that when Shirley and his colleagues (his group included cello and bass) gave their stirring rendition of “Water Boy” that night time, it was the primary time lots of these available had ever heard a slave music carried out on a live performance stage.

Neighborhood Concert events peaked 40 years in the past or so, then faltered, the sufferer of tv, a altering work power and globalization, which paradoxically imperiled and impoverished small cities, making them extra provincial reasonably than much less. However earlier than the individuals who made it occur are all gone, this system and those that ran it should be remembered, and honored.

Guiding my mom and her counterparts in tons of of locations all through america was a band of cultural evangelists — “missionaries of tradition” was how they noticed themselves — figuring out of 111 West 57th St. who, for greater than 70 years, introduced excessive artwork to the hinterlands. “A Carnegie Corridor in each city,” the group, an offshoot of Columbia Artists Administration, promised. Their territory was all that “flyover” house in Saul Steinberg’s well-known map of america, the one on the quilt of The New Yorker. They offered an important, vanished bridge between two Americas: previously known as “rural” and “city,” and now often called “purple” and “blue.”

Neighborhood Concert events despatched Richard Tucker and Risë Stevens, each stars of the Metropolitan Opera, to Kenosha, Wis.; the cellist Gregor Piatogorsky and Arthur Fiedler, the conductor of the Boston Pops, to Billings, Mont.; the baritone Robert Merrill and the cellist Leonard Rose to Lubbock, Texas; the tenor Jussi Bjoerling and the violinist Yehudi Menuhin to Lafayette, La. And the pianist Vladimir Horowitz to Scranton, Pa., the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne to Greenville, Texas, and dozens of up-and-comers just like the pianist Lorin Hollander, 20 years outdated when he visited Putnam in 1964, all over.

To pay them, native chapters held weeklong membership drives yearly, throughout which volunteers would promote subscriptions to a sequence of live shows. (In Putnam, there have been three performances every year.) That not solely secured the funds but additionally gave issues extra cachet, the pondering went, than hawking tickets on the door. A gala dinner, for which my mom may write and carry out one in every of her personal songs, would kick off the occasion and rev up the troops. Supervising all of it could be the consultant from the house workplace on West 57th Road, most of whom tended to be widows or retired academics or homosexual males within the arts.

Promoting residents of locations like Putnam on what was identified (earlier than the Beatles confirmed up) as “longhair music,” was not straightforward. However my mom had her tips.

Pitch over the telephone, she advised her volunteers, by no means by mail or in particular person, the place individuals may really feel cornered. Communicate to wives, not husbands: In that point and place, “tradition” was their area. Inform people who, at $9 for your complete sequence — that’s actually what they charged, at the least once we had been rising up — it price little greater than a film. Go straightforward on the sopranos, who appeared stuffy. Promise individuals they’d be residence by 10. Be ready to take heed to individuals’s issues, at the least for some time, earlier than making your transfer.

Above all, sound optimistic. “I’d attempt to use phrases like ‘thrilling’ or ‘thrilling,’” she recalled. “In the event that they noticed how enthusiastic you had been, they thought they had been lacking out on one thing.”

Each night time after dinner all through that marketing campaign week my mom would make her calls from the kitchen, doing her homework as my brothers and I did ours. Possibly an hour later, she’d triumphantly inform my father she’d bought one other 5 or 10 subscriptions. She invariably outsold everybody else, securing the free tickets she promptly handed out to nonetheless extra potential members.

Our home was stuffed with Neighborhood Concert events paraphernalia, together with the Columbia Artists roster from which, as soon as the receipts had been tabulated, my mom and her fellow officers — the board included executives on the native textile mills; the Schaefer beer wholesaler and his musician spouse; and the editor of The Windham County Observer — would decide the performers for the subsequent yr. From beneath 400 members when she took over within the early Nineteen Sixties, enrollment mushroomed to greater than 1,000. Small surprise that the senior vp of Neighborhood Concert events on the time, John Mazzarella, as soon as requested my mom to go on the street for him and got here as much as salute her when she retired. However other than that — and the time through the 1979-80 season when John Raitt (Bonnie’s father) hauled her onstage and sang her a love music — she remained largely within the background.

Neighborhood Concert events was created within the late Twenties by Arthur Judson, a musical agent and a founding father of CBS, and popularized by the musicologist Sigmund Spaeth. Underneath the management of Ward French — a person who, as somebody as soon as stated, “might in all probability promote munitions to the Society of Associates” — the group took off within the frenzied, affluent years following World Conflict II. French’s aim was to democratize classical music — to create one thing totally different from the snootiness of Manhattan, the place, as he put it, recitals had “the long-faced ambiance of entrance-board examinations” and concertgoers had been “musical wine tasters who, as a substitute of ingesting the attractive beverage, want to take a swig, roll it round on their tongue, look smart and spit it out.”

One way or the other French had divined that the typical Neighborhood Live performance patron paid consideration for 17 minutes and preferred her music recognizable. That meant uniform, accessible applications decreed from on excessive. This vastly irked intellectual critics like Virgil Thomson of The New York Herald Tribune.

“There are solely 5 piano sonatas by Beethoven that the central workplaces will settle for and not using a row,” he huffed in 1951. “Any Bach suite is frowned upon, if performed complete. Mozart and Haydn are discouraged. The Schubert sonatas are out of the query. Even Brahms is considered extra applicable for New York than for out of city. Slightly trendy music, if quick and never too ‘superior’ in fashion, will typically be handed.”

Performers, too, had gripes. The pianist Seymour Bernstein, who toured with a trio within the Nineteen Fifties, nonetheless remembers the paltry pay, poor acoustics, overheated resort rooms, treacherous journey and clueless locals who, at receptions after the live shows, bored them with small speak and bogarted the canapés. Then there have been the “nightmarishly poor pianos,” usually shared with highschool bands. When he got here to Putnam, the pianist Malcolm Frager introduced, to the mortification of my mom and her colleagues, that he was dropping an emphatic piece by Prokofiev for one thing higher suited to the rickety native piano. (My mom promptly started the drive that procured one thing sturdier — “a secondhand Baldwin that was virtually first price,” as she put it.)

Lorin Hollander, who’s now 78, was a baby prodigy when he started enjoying for Neighborhood Concert events in 1958 at age 14; he has fonder recollections of this system. “A few of my most emotional, most liberating, most daring, most inventive, most — I’ll use the phrase ‘impressed’ — performances occurred in such a milieu the place I didn’t must concern myself with ‘what are the critics going to say?’ or individuals who had heard these items 50 instances,” he recalled.

“I gave my all at each live performance and didn’t assume, ‘Properly, this can be a small city, I can simply merely do that,’” he stated. “I carried out no in another way for the viewers in Putnam than I did for the viewers in Carnegie Corridor.”

The after-parties at our residence started when my mom discovered to her horror that one other pianist, Eugene Checklist (who had performed for Churchill, Truman and Stalin at Potsdam), had been noticed following his efficiency consuming forlornly by himself at one in every of Putnam’s greasier spoons. From then on, all the time with my physician father in tow (“So that they wouldn’t assume I used to be a groupie or designing lady or one thing”), she’d head backstage at intermission to ask the performers whether or not they want some nourishment and conviviality as soon as their labors had been carried out. Hungry, drained and perhaps a bit lonely, they normally accepted.

Dorothy Maynor’s sole request was for a cup of sizzling soup, panicking my mom momentarily in that pre-microwave period. (“All I had was one thing frozen, and I bear in mind making an attempt frantically to defrost it,” she recalled. “I didn’t need to give her Campbell’s.”) Once I met him 30 years later, the pianist David Bar-Illan nonetheless recalled her cheesecake. For Hollander, nonetheless underage when he got here to city, my mom made certain to have each milk and ginger ale and, at his request, a lady his personal age to speak to. (The daughter of one in every of my father’s colleagues match the invoice.)

However tv inexorably seduced individuals into staying residence. The night time in 1964 when Don Shirley appeared in Brigham Metropolis, Utah, as an illustration, he needed to compete with the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Present.” By then, the dowagers who initially ran the associations had disappeared, and lots of the ladies who would usually have changed them had joined the work power. The group in New York fell behind the altering instances, gradual to incorporate much less rarefied fare. When Jim Stoner, about to turn out to be the group’s regional consultant within the Midwest, first visited the headquarters on West 57th Road in 1990, he recalled, it was “a whole wreck,” with carbon paper, index playing cards and maps with pins on the wall.

In the meantime, deindustrialization was sapping a thousand Putnams of their financial bases, cohesiveness and aesthetic aspirations. “Yearly it obtained more durable and more durable to get the identical individuals again,” my mom recalled. By the point she stepped down within the late Eighties, chapters had been dying off by the handfuls, as Putnam’s did quietly just a few years later. People who held on for a time did so by bringing in additional novelty acts: Beatles impersonators, Chinese language acrobats, cowboy ensembles.

Communities already in decline misplaced nonetheless extra when the live shows disappeared. Richard Kogan, a live performance pianist and psychiatrist, put it bluntly to me: The place the applications as soon as thrived, opiates now do. Within the late Nineties, Columbia Artists Administration bought off the operation, which blew up altogether within the palms of its short-lived successor. Some regional variations stay, however nothing of remotely comparable scale or ambition. A number of years in the past the headquarters constructing was changed by one more dissonant high-rise.

Sending big-city artists into small cities within the Jim Crow period typically swept them into troubled waters. Within the early Nineteen Sixties, the pianist Gary Graffman and the soprano Birgit Nilsson refused to carry out earlier than segregated audiences in Jackson, Miss. However for all of the bigotry Shirley needed to navigate within the South, he was acquired way more warmly in different components of the nation, and he might carry himself way more flamboyantly. “Dr. Shirley got here strolling in with a mink-lined coat and the most important diamond ring you ever did see,” Phyllis Singer wrote in The Waterloo (Iowa) Courier in October 1965. “It kinda made me want that I had taken one other piano lesson or two.”

A month later, he was in Putnam. My brothers and I’d have dressed up for the event, as we all the time did, in sports activities jackets and ties. Additionally at my mom’s insistence, we’d have sat on the left facet of the auditorium, the higher to see his palms on the keyboard, a behavior I observe to today. By that point, we had been youngsters and had been allowed to remain for your complete program, reasonably than having to be pushed residence throughout intermission.

After Shirley and his males left city, John Meyer, moonlighting from his day job as a pathologist on the native hospital, praised him in The Windham County Observer. “The moods ranged from heartbreaking (ordinarily, I’m not moved to unhappiness, even by so-called unhappy music, however a Negro non secular actually cries tears) to overabundant pleasure and enthusiasm,” he wrote. “I can not see how anybody who really loves music might have didn’t discover a soul-stirring response to this thrilling program.”

Multiply that type of expertise by three or 4 live shows yearly in tons of of communities earlier than tens of hundreds of households like mine for 70 years, and also you notice what that small workplace on West 57th Road, and other people like my mom, gave to this nation. Now take all that away — and behold the void.

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