A Mother on a Mission: World-Class Music for Everyone
After Don Shirley performed with his trio before an appreciative audience in the Putnam High School auditorium in November 1965, he did not go back to his lonely motel room and hit the Cutty Sark, the way he did in the movie “Green Book” — at least not right away. Thanks largely to my mother, he came to our house first.
Shirley, a pianist, appeared with his ensemble in many small towns like Putnam, a place The New York Times once described as a “nondescript old mill town,” population 9,000 or so, in the northeastern corner of Connecticut. Some were in the South, and “Green Book,” which won an Oscar for best picture four years ago, captured the bigotry that Shirley, who was Black and gay, encountered there.
But one thing the film didn’t show was how, thanks to people like my mother and a grand but largely forgotten social experiment called Community Concerts Inc., run out of a small office across the street from Carnegie Hall, he was also welcomed in countless Putnams throughout the country, where he helped break down all sorts of barriers — racial, cultural and musical.
The pianist and composer Don Shirley, shown here in his apartment above Carnegie Hall, Manhattan, once visited the home of the author after taking part in a local concert.Credit…Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
He certainly left an impression on 13-year-old me, and not as the austere, dour figure of the film. The man in our living room that night was erudite and chatty — especially after my mother pointed out his Phi Beta Kappa key. I remember how, over drinks and my mother’s cheesecake, he expounded on, among other things, “Bobby” Dylan — not surprising, since, along with Beethoven and Brahms and Rodgers and Hammerstein, “Blowin’ in the Wind” was a staple of his eclectic repertoire.
There were few Black people in Putnam, and few people of any color performing and discoursing on classical music. But Shirley wasn’t the first Black artist to come there. The soprano Dorothy Maynor, who later founded the Harlem School of the Arts, had already been to Putnam, as had the baritone William Warfield. (I took a picture of him and his accompanist, Willard Straight, in our living room with my Brownie Starmite camera.) All of this came about because of Gert Margolick, who for more than 30 years was membership chairwoman of the local Community Concerts organization.
My mother, now 98, was not a do-gooder with some hidden agenda on race relations. “Never crossed my mind,” she told me recently. Her goal was to bring the finest musicians the organization could afford to our small town, and hear classical music performed live locally rather than having to schlep to Boston, Worcester, Providence or Storrs, 25 long and winding miles down Route 44. And, maybe, supply some culture to her three young sons. That’s not to 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, it was the first time many of those on hand had ever heard a slave song performed on a concert stage.
Community Concerts peaked 40 years ago or so, then faltered, the victim of television, a changing work force and globalization, which paradoxically imperiled and impoverished small towns, making them more provincial rather than less. But before the people who made it happen are all gone, the program and those who ran it deserve to be remembered, and honored.
Guiding my mother and her counterparts in hundreds of places throughout the United States was a band of cultural evangelists — “missionaries of culture” was how they saw themselves — working out of 111 West 57th St. who, for more than 70 years, brought high art to the hinterlands. “A Carnegie Hall in every town,” the organization, an offshoot of Columbia Artists Management, promised. Their territory was all that “flyover” space in Saul Steinberg’s famous map of the United States, the one on the cover of The New Yorker. They provided a vital, vanished bridge between two Americas: formerly called “rural” and “urban,” and now known as “red” and “blue.”
Community Concerts sent Richard Tucker and Risë Stevens, both 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 like the pianist Lorin Hollander, 20 years old when he visited Putnam in 1964, all over the place.
To pay them, local chapters held weeklong membership drives every year, during which volunteers would sell subscriptions to a series of concerts. (In Putnam, there were three performances each year.) That not only secured the funds but also gave things more cachet, the thinking went, than hawking tickets at the door. A gala dinner, for which my mother might write and perform one of her own songs, would kick off the event and rev up the troops. Supervising it all would be the representative from the home office on West 57th Street, most of whom tended to be widows or retired teachers or gay men in the arts.
Selling residents of places like Putnam on what was known (before the Beatles showed up) as “longhair music,” was not easy. But my mother had her tricks.
Pitch over the phone, she told her volunteers, never by mail or in person, where people might feel cornered. Speak to wives, not husbands: In that time and place, “culture” was their domain. Tell people that, at $9 for the entire series — that’s really what they charged, at least when we were growing up — it cost little more than a movie. Go easy on the sopranos, who seemed stuffy. Promise people they’d be home by 10. Be prepared to listen to people’s problems, at least for a while, before making your move.
Above all, sound positive. “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.”
Every night after dinner throughout that campaign week my mother would make her calls from the kitchen, doing her homework as my brothers and I did ours. Maybe an hour later, she’d triumphantly tell my father she’d sold another five or 10 subscriptions. She invariably outsold everyone else, securing the free tickets she promptly handed out to still more prospective members.
Our house was filled with Community Concerts paraphernalia, including the Columbia Artists roster from which, once the receipts were tabulated, my mother and her fellow officers — the board included executives at the local textile mills; the Schaefer beer wholesaler and his musician wife; and the editor of The Windham County Observer — would pick the performers for the next year. From under 400 members when she took over in the early 1960s, enrollment mushroomed to more than 1,000. Small wonder that the senior vice president of Community Concerts at the time, John Mazzarella, once asked my mother to go on the road for him and came up to salute her when she retired. But apart from that — and the time during the 1979-80 season when John Raitt (Bonnie’s father) hauled her onstage and sang her a love song — she remained largely in the background.
Community Concerts was created in the late 1920s by Arthur Judson, a musical agent and a founder of CBS, and popularized by the musicologist Sigmund Spaeth. Under the leadership of Ward French — a man who, as someone once said, “could probably sell munitions to the Society of Friends” — the organization took off in the frenzied, prosperous years following World War II. French’s goal was to democratize classical music — to create something different from the snootiness of Manhattan, where, as he put it, recitals had “the long-faced atmosphere of entrance-board examinations” and concertgoers were “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.”
Somehow French had divined that the average Community Concert patron paid attention for 17 minutes and liked her music recognizable. That meant uniform, accessible programs decreed from on high. This greatly irked highbrow 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 in the 1950s, still recalls the paltry pay, poor acoustics, overheated hotel rooms, treacherous travel and clueless locals who, at receptions after the concerts, bored them with small talk and bogarted the canapés. Then there were the “nightmarishly poor pianos,” often shared with high school bands. When he came to Putnam, the pianist Malcolm Frager announced, to the mortification of my mother and her colleagues, that he was dropping an emphatic piece by Prokofiev for something better suited to the rickety local piano. (My mother promptly began the drive that procured something sturdier — “a secondhand Baldwin that was almost first rate,” as she put it.)
Lorin Hollander, who is now 78, was a child prodigy when he began playing for Community Concerts in 1958 at age 14; he has fonder memories of the program. “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 said. “I performed no differently for the audience in Putnam than I did for the audience in Carnegie Hall.”
The after-parties at our home began when my mother learned to her horror that another pianist, Eugene List (who had played for Churchill, Truman and Stalin at Potsdam), had been spotted following his performance eating forlornly by himself at one of Putnam’s greasier spoons. From then on, always with my doctor 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 they would like some nourishment and conviviality once their labors were done. Hungry, tired and maybe a bit lonely, they usually accepted.
Dorothy Maynor’s sole request was for a cup of hot soup, panicking my mother momentarily in that pre-microwave era. (“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 still recalled her cheesecake. For Hollander, still underage when he came to town, my mother made sure to have both milk and ginger ale and, at his request, a woman his own age to talk to. (The daughter of one of my father’s colleagues fit the bill.)
But television inexorably seduced people into staying home. The night in 1964 when Don Shirley appeared in Brigham City, Utah, for instance, he had to compete with the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” By then, the dowagers who originally ran the associationshad disappeared, and many of the women who would normally have replaced them had joined the work force. The organization in New York fell behind the changing times, slow to include less rarefied fare. When Jim Stoner, about to become the group’s regional representative in the Midwest, first visited the headquarters on West 57th Street in 1990, he recalled, it was “a complete wreck,” with carbon paper, index cards and maps with pins on the wall.
Meanwhile, deindustrialization was sapping a thousand Putnams of their economic bases, cohesiveness and aesthetic aspirations. “Every year it got harder and harder to get the same people back,” my mother recalled. By the time she stepped down in the late 1980s, chapters were dying off by the dozens, as Putnam’s did quietly a few years later. Those that held on for a time did so by bringing in more novelty acts: Beatles impersonators, Chinese acrobats, cowboy ensembles.
Communities already in decline lost still more when the concerts disappeared. Richard Kogan, a concert pianist and psychiatrist, put it bluntly to me: Where the programs once thrived, opiates now do. In the late 1990s, Columbia Artists Management sold off the operation, which blew up altogether in the hands of its short-lived successor. Some regional versions remain, but nothing of remotely comparable scale or ambition. A few years ago the headquarters building was replaced by yet another dissonant high-rise.
Sending big-city artists into small towns in the Jim Crow era sometimes swept them into troubled waters. In the early 1960s, the pianist Gary Graffman and the soprano Birgit Nilsson refused to perform before segregated audiences in Jackson, Miss. But for all the bigotry Shirley had to navigate in the South, he was received much more warmly in other parts of the country, and he could carry himself much 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 would have dressed up for the occasion, as we always did, in sports jackets and ties. Also at my mother’s insistence, we’d have sat on the left side of the auditorium, the better to see his hands on the keyboard, a habit I observe to this day. By that time, we were teenagers and were allowed to stay for the entire program, rather than having to be driven home during intermission.
After Shirley and his men left town, John Meyer, moonlighting from his day job as a pathologist at the local 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 kind of experience by three or four concerts annually in hundreds of communities before tens of thousands of families like mine for 70 years, and you realize what that small office on West 57th Street, and people like my mother, gave to this country. Now take all that away — and behold the void.