When Community Concerts Brought Don Shirley to Small Towns

After Don Shirley carried out together 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 “Green Book” — a minimum of not immediately. Thanks largely to my mom, he got here to our home first.

Shirley, a pianist, appeared together with his ensemble in lots of small cities like Putnam, a spot The New York Occasions as soon as described as a “nondescript old mill town,” inhabitants 9,000 or so, within the northeastern nook of Connecticut. Some had been within the South, and “Green 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, due to folks like my mom and a grand however largely forgotten social experiment known as Community Concerts 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 definitely 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 keep 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’ in the Wind” was a staple of his eclectic repertoire.

There have been few Black folks in Putnam, and few folks of any colour performing and discoursing on classical music. However Shirley wasn’t the primary Black artist to come back 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 Community Concerts group.

My mom, now 98, was not a do-gooder with some hidden agenda on race relations. “Never crossed my mind,” she instructed me lately. Her aim was to carry the best musicians the group may afford to our small city, and listen to classical music carried out reside domestically fairly than having to schlep to Boston, Worcester, Windfall or Storrs, 25 lengthy and winding miles down Route 44. And, possibly, 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.

Community Concerts peaked 40 years in the past or so, then faltered, the sufferer of tv, a altering work pressure and globalization, which paradoxically imperiled and impoverished small cities, making them extra provincial fairly 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 the US was a band of cultural evangelists — “missionaries of culture” was how they noticed themselves — understanding of 111 West 57th St. who, for greater than 70 years, introduced excessive artwork to the hinterlands. “A Carnegie Hall in every town,” the group, an offshoot of Columbia Artists Administration, promised. Their territory was all that “flyover” area in Saul Steinberg’s well-known map of the US, the one on the duvet of The New Yorker. They supplied a significant, vanished bridge between two Americas: previously known as “rural” and “urban,” and now often called “red” and “blue.”

Community Concerts 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 previous 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 collection of live shows. (In Putnam, there have been three performances every year.) That not solely secured the funds but in addition gave issues extra cachet, the pondering went, than hawking tickets on the door. A gala dinner, for which my mom would possibly write and carry out one in all 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 lecturers 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 simple. However my mom had her methods.

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

Above all, sound constructive. “I’d try to use words like ‘exciting’ or ‘thrilling,’” she recalled. “If they saw how enthusiastic you were, they thought they were missing out on something.”

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 offered 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 full of Community Concerts 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 following yr. From underneath 400 members when she took over within the early Nineteen Sixties, enrollment mushroomed to greater than 1,000. Small surprise that the senior vice chairman of Community Concerts 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 throughout 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.

Community Concerts was created within the late Nineteen 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 mentioned, “could probably sell munitions to the Society of Friends” — the group took off within the frenzied, affluent years following World Warfare 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 atmosphere of entrance-board examinations” and concertgoers had been “musical wine tasters who, instead of drinking the enticing beverage, prefer to take a swig, roll it around on their tongue, look wise and spit it out.”

Someway French had divined that the common Community Live performance patron paid consideration for 17 minutes and appreciated her music recognizable. That meant uniform, accessible packages decreed from on excessive. This tremendously irked intellectual critics like Virgil Thomson of The New York Herald Tribune.

“There are only five piano sonatas by Beethoven that the central offices will accept without a row,” he huffed in 1951. “Any Bach suite is frowned upon, if played entire. Mozart and Haydn are discouraged. The Schubert sonatas are out of the question. Even Brahms is thought to be more appropriate for New York than for out of town. A little modern music, if short and not too ‘advanced’ in style, will sometimes be passed.”

Performers, too, had gripes. The pianist Seymour Bernstein, who toured with a trio within the Fifties, nonetheless recollects 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 almost first rate,” as she put it.)

Lorin Hollander, who’s now 78, was a toddler prodigy when he started enjoying for Community Concerts in 1958 at age 14; he has fonder reminiscences of this system. “Some of my most emotional, most freeing, most daring, most creative, most — I’ll use the word ‘inspired’ — performances took place in such a milieu where I did not have to concern myself with ‘what are the critics going to say?’ or people who had heard these pieces 50 times,” he recalled.

“I gave my all at every concert and didn’t think, ‘Well, this is a small town, I can just simply do this,’” he mentioned. “I performed no differently for the audience in Putnam than I did for the audience in Carnegie Hall.”

The after-parties at our residence started when my mom discovered to her horror that one other pianist, Eugene Listing (who had performed for Churchill, Truman and Stalin at Potsdam), had been noticed following his efficiency consuming forlornly by himself at one in all Putnam’s greasier spoons. From then on, at all times with my physician father in tow (“So they wouldn’t think I was a groupie or designing woman or something”), 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 performed. Hungry, drained and possibly a bit lonely, they often accepted.

Dorothy Maynor’s sole request was for a cup of scorching soup, panicking my mom momentarily in that pre-microwave period. (“All I had was something frozen, and I remember trying frantically to defrost it,” she recalled. “I didn’t want to give her Campbell’s.”) When 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 positive to have each milk and ginger ale and, at his request, a lady his personal age to speak to. (The daughter of one in all my father’s colleagues match the invoice.)

However tv inexorably seduced folks into staying residence. The night time in 1964 when Don Shirley appeared in Brigham Metropolis, Utah, as an example, he needed to compete with the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” By then, the dowagers who initially ran the associations had disappeared, and lots of the girls who would usually have changed them had joined the work pressure. The group in New York fell behind the altering occasions, sluggish to incorporate much less rarefied fare. When Jim Stoner, about to turn into the group’s regional consultant within the Midwest, first visited the headquarters on West 57th Road in 1990, he recalled, it was “a complete 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. “Every year it got harder and harder to get the same people back,” my mom recalled. By the point she stepped down within the late Nineteen Eighties, chapters had been dying off by the handfuls, as Putnam’s did quietly a couple of years later. Those 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 packages as soon as thrived, opiates now do. Within the late Nineties, Columbia Artists Administration offered off the operation, which blew up altogether within the arms of its short-lived successor. Some regional variations stay, however nothing of remotely comparable scale or ambition. Just a few years in the past the headquarters constructing was changed by yet one more dissonant high-rise.

Sending big-city artists into small cities within the Jim Crow period generally 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 far more warmly in different elements of the nation, and he may carry himself far more flamboyantly. “Dr. Shirley came strolling in with a mink-lined coat and the biggest diamond ring you ever did see,” Phyllis Singer wrote in The Waterloo (Iowa) Courier in October 1965. “It kinda made me wish that I had taken another piano lesson or two.”

A month later, he was in Putnam. My brothers and I’d have dressed up for the event, as we at all times 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 arms on the keyboard, a behavior I observe to this present day. By that point, we had been youngsters and had been allowed to remain for your complete program, fairly 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 am not moved to sadness, even by so-called sad music, but a Negro spiritual really cries tears) to overabundant joy and exuberance,” he wrote. “I cannot see how anyone who truly loves music could have failed to find a soul-stirring response to this exciting program.”

Multiply that form 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 understand what that small workplace on West 57th Road, and folks like my mom, gave to this nation. Now take all that away — and behold the void.