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Connecticut's Musical Roots Began With Voices, Instruments Weren't Allowed

By STEVE METCALF, Special To The Courant

The Hartford Courant

February 23, 2014

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Are we inherently a musical state?

At the very least, we seem to have always been a state that likes to sing.

During the Colonial and Revolutionary days, we did most of our singing in church. And we took our church singing very seriously.

Connecticut folk, never reluctant to take strong positions on any topic, debated for several decades the proper way to intone the hymns and psalms, with rival camps sharply differing on which method praised the Almighty more effectively.

Even the question of exactly how to produce a suitable vocal tone was deliberated. A 1782 guide to the chorister's art set down some firm guidelines:

"Let the voice be clear and smooth as possible, neither forcing the sound through the nose, nor blowing through the teeth with the mouth shut…A trembling in the voice is also carefully to be avoided. Let all be done with ease and freedom."

As for instruments, our 18th-century forebears, with their clergymen nodding in approval, initially forbade them in church, evidently on the grounds that they could lead to impure thoughts. A few early Connecticut Blue Laws actually sought to ban instrumental music altogether.

But from these austere beginnings, the performance — and more to the point, the enjoyment — of music in our state rapidly flowered.

As the 19th century unfolded and the young republic prospered, a growing number of homes featured string instruments and keyboards — spinets, virginals, and for those who could afford them, early pianos, all imported, of course, from Europe.

Towns, even the smallest of them, formed bands for parades and holiday celebrations.

Singing societies, by now embracing an expanding and increasingly homegrown secular repertoire, sprang up.

Musical instruction became a badge of cultivation, especially for young women.

And churches relaxed their early prohibitions and became important centers of musical performance. For example, Hartford's First Church of Christ —- today known as Center Church, on Main Street — established a formal concert series as early as 1822. The Passions of Bach and the oratorios of Handel were heard, along with humbler anthems and chorales. Almost miraculously, the Center Church concert series survives to this day, nearly 200 years later.

By century's end, Connecticut's musical life was positively teeming, especially in Hartford and New Haven.

Among the many milestones:

In 1890, the Hartford Conservatory was founded. One of first formal performing arts schools in the country, it became a beacon of musical study and performance, for years even boasting its own orchestra. It remained a constant in Hartford's musical life for more than a century.

The following year, the Musical Club of Hartford, an institution devoted to the propagation and appreciation of classical music, held its first meeting. This lively, high-minded group is still with us today.

In 1894, in New Haven, the state's first all-professional orchestra (and only the fourth in the country, the others being New York, Chicago and Boston) made its debut. The esteemed composer and organist Horatio Parker, now chiefly remembered as the teacher of Charles Ives, stood on the podium and led an inaugural performance that included Beethoven and Mendelssohn. It too still flourishes. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, that same year, across the yard, Yale University handed out its very first bachelor of music degrees — four of them.

New Beginnings

In the 20th century Connecticut's musical life took on a more cosmopolitan tone. And one development in particular suddenly and almost single-handedly lifted our musical performance life out of its earnest but somewhat provincial status: the 1930 opening of the Bushnell Memorial.

Built with funds provided by Dotha Bushnell as a living shrine to her father, the Rev. Horace Bushnell, the brick Georgian Revival building, with its surprisingly frisky Art Deco interior, became an instant magnet for world-class musicians of all stripes. From almost literally the day it opened, its main 2,800 seat auditorium (now named Mortensen Hall) would come to host virtually every important classical instrumentalist, singer, ensemble and conductor in the world, in some cases many times over.

From the beginning, the flagship attraction at the Bushnell was its visiting orchestra concert series. At the outset, the series was simply called, with Depression-era self-effacement, "the concert series." Decades later it was officially renamed the "World Symphony Series." In between it had a glorious run. In some seasons, the series would feature as many as a dozen orchestras, although six or eight was more typical. The series quickly became known worldwide as one of America's premier showcases for touring orchestras. The so-called Big Five (the orchestras of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Boston) came often, with Boston alone making more than 30 appearances. From abroad, the Vienna Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Concertgebouw and dozens of other celebrated European nameplates wheeled into town, with the musicians often scrambling onto their waiting buses just minutes after the final note had sounded, usually headed to New York to perform the same program the very next night at Carnegie or Town Hall. Stokowski, Koussevitzky, Toscanini, Karajan, Ozawa, Bernstein — the roster of conductors scarcely excluded a single big name of the 20th century. Ditto for the soloists: Heifetz, Rubenstein, Cliburn, Perlman, and on and on.

It's difficult to adequately convey the centrality of the series, during its heyday, to Hartford's cultural identity. Families passed subscriptions down from one generation to the next. Concertgoers organized dinner parties prior to the concerts, and repaired back to their suburban homes for post-concert cordials and conversation. Well into the 1960s, some subscribers donned formal wear to the concerts, and not just on opening night.

By the late 1980s, however, with the wider culture fragmenting and the sheer cost of the orchestras skyrocketing (the fees sometimes ran to six figures for a single night), the series began to teeter. Empty seats began to appear, as a new generation of ticket buyers gravitated to touring Broadway musicals and one-night pop/rock acts. The series quietly expired after a final performance in 1999.

But if the series' demise had an undeniably sad ring, there was at least one silver lining: One of the factors that had contributed to its decline was the corresponding rise of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.

The HSO had been formed in 1934. Its early years were bumpy. During the war, the HSO suspended concerts altogether — most of the musicians were in uniform — and the future of the orchestra was, to say the least, uncertain. Even after the orchestra rallied in the late '40s, Hartford's elect — many of whom fancied themselves discerning music lovers even if they really didn't know Schubert from Shinola — tended to scoff at the HSO, regarding it as a bush-league arriviste in comparison to the pedigreed ensembles of "the series."

But the HSO was quietly becoming a very good orchestra. Recordings made in the late '50s and early '60s for the Vanguard label (yes, our local orchestra had a major record contract) reveal a surprisingly accomplished ensemble. And a visit to Carnegie Hall in 1970, under then-music director Arthur Winograd, drew from the New York Times' critic this rather astonishing assessment:

"… there can be no hesitation in calling this one of the great orchestras in the country, just below the level of the Big Five."

Today, such a remark might seem a tad over-exuberant, but it's also true that the HSO had become, and remains, a distinguished regional orchestra, presenting dozens of concerts a year and forming the centerpiece of Hartford's and the state's musical life.

Our "serious" musical heritage, however, has certainly not been exclusively symphonic.

In fact, two of the most notable musical events in our history were, in several senses, operatic.

Indeed, if there is one single moment that would qualify as the highlight of our far-flung musical narrative, it would have to be the cold night in February 1934, when the Wadsworth Atheneum presented the world premiere of the willfully inscrutable opera "Four Saints in Three Acts." The enterprise was conceived and overseen by – who else? -- the museum's fearless, wizardly and now legendary young director, A. Everett "Chick" Austin. With music by the cannily self-promoting American Virgil Thomson, and libretto by the Paris-based literary expatriate Gertrude Stein, the premiere briefly shone a national and even international light on the city.

Even though, 80 years later, we tend to be more fascinated by the occasion than the work itself, "Four Saints" does remind us that Hartford has, at least when it applies itself, been more than just a cultural rest stop between New York and Boston.

A different, but related, kind of musical notoriety was ours in 1981, when the then-director of Connecticut Opera Company, George Osborne, mounted what he plausibly billed as the largest indoor operatic production in history. Connecticut Opera had been formed in 1942, making it the country's sixth-oldest professional company. It had historically presented (at the Bushnell, of course) three or four productions per season, often featuring celebrated singers, but sometimes introducing us to promising newcomers with names like Sills and Domingo. Osborne had taken the reins of the company in 1979 and had quickly established himself as a resourceful Barnum-like promoter and buzz-creator. Osborne decided to mount Verdi's "Aida" in the Hartford Civic Center coliseum, then primarily known as the home of the Hartford Whalers of the National Hockey League. The production featured a cast of more than a thousand people (most of them local citizens recruited as non-singing extras), along with dozens of circus animals including elephants, camels, horses, a battery of publicity people and at least one python. A capacity audience of more than 10,000 people — including many opera novices who were deeply appreciative of the company's decision to permit beer and nachos to be consumed at their seats — attended the opening night. Three subsequent performances drew another 25,000 or so. The event was accorded worldwide press coverage.

Classical Casualties And Births

The past 10 or 15 years or so have been turbulent for the classical music scene in Connecticut, as they have been everywhere. But turbulent and bad are not necessarily the same thing.

There have been casualties: Connecticut Opera, for instance, shut down in 2009. But Connecticut Concert Opera, Connecticut Grand Opera, Opera Theater of Connecticut, and an upstart new entity called Hartford Opera Theater, have survived, or sprung up or even expanded.

Other new entities include the Hartford Independent Chamber Orchestra (HICO), Richard P. Garmany chamber music series at the Hartt School, and the Generous New Music ensemble. And speaking of new music, our proud and venerable bastion of the new — Real Art Ways — continues to stretch and challenge and stimulate, as it has for 35 years. Our colleges and universities — notably Wesleyan, UConn, Yale, Trinity, Hartt and many more boast vibrant concert series, along with student and faculty performances of every style and genre. And, of course, Connecticut's rich history of singing continues, thanks to ensembles including CONCORA, Voce, the Hartford Chorale, CitySingers, and so many others. Concert series presented by area churches are a long-held, and still-thriving tradition in our state.

From 1982 to 2001, Steve Metcalf was the Courant's full-time classical music critic, the first person to hold that position in the newspaper's history. Information in this article was gathered from the Courant's archives, Internet sources, personal interviews and previous articles written by Metcalf.

Read more today in our Sunday Arts section (G1) about great classical music figures with close ties to Connecticut.