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THE FORGOTTEN CONDUCTOR

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If there appears to be a special air of triumph on the faces of these two men -- one a stolid German and the other a dapper Scot -- it's because they had done something that they hoped would put Baltimore on the symphonic map.

Gustave Strube, the first conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and Reginald Stewart, the sixth, were passing the baton on Nov. 19, 1942 -- the evening of Stewart's first concert with the orchestra and the beginning of symphonic music in Baltimore as we know it. The arrival of Sergiu Comissiona was still almost 30 years in the future, Joseph Meyerhoff was a fledgling developer without the kind of fortune that could endow an orchestra, and David Zinman was a kid in the Bronx.

What the photograph doesn't tell you is that the history of the Baltimore Symphony is not continuous -- that the orchestra Strube conducted had ceased to exist the year before and that the one Stewart conducted that night was one he himself had just created.

So different was it in personnel, organization and professional level that newspapers of the day called it the "new Baltimore Symphony Orchestra," often printing new with a capital N. It was Stewart who transformed what was essentially a city band with strings to one that was filled with serious symphonic musicians. And his orchestra is the direct ancestor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary under the direction of David Zinman tomorrow night in the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Nowadays not many people remember the orchestra before the late 1960s, when the charismatic conducting of Sergiu Comissiona and the enlightened philanthropy of Joseph Meyerhoff began to make a national reputation for the BSO. Stewart, who was director of the Peabody Institute from 1941 to 1958 and conductor of the BSO from 1942 to 1952, is largely forgotten. But the Edinburgh-born musician probably wouldn't have minded his obscurity.

"Years ago when the orchestra celebrated another anniversary," says Stewart's daughter, Delphine Kelly, "I asked Daddy if it bothered him that the orchestra whose birthday they were celebrating no longer existed and that his part in creating the modern orchestra had been forgotten. He told me, 'You have to understand that an orchestra needs to steep itself in traditions.' " That's why Stewart posed with Strube -- because he knew a thing or two about orchestras. He created an enduring orchestra in Baltimore in spite of the city's less-than-generous ways toward the BSO.

There had been Baltimore orchestras before Strube's. A professional orchestra had been associated with the Peabody Conservatory from the 1860s to the early 1890s. And in 1890 W. Ross Jungnickel organized an orchestra that gave concerts sporadically until 1899. The biggest problem Baltimore orchestras faced was the Philadelphia Orchestra. That great institution, first under Leopold Stokowski and later under Eugene Ormandy, gave at least six (and sometimes more) concerts a year in Baltimore, making the BSO Baltimore's "other orchestra."

"Even in my time we joked about it," says Peabody director Robert Pierce, who joined the BSO in 1958 and was its principal hornist for 20 years. "We'd go to the men's room in the Lyric and if we found toilet paper, someone would say, 'I guess Philly's coming in tonight.' "

The orchestra that performed at the Lyric 75 years ago was founded in 1916 as a municipal orchestra -- essentially a pick-up orchestra that gave a handful of concerts each year and whose quality was much derided. It was supported entirely by taxpayers' money, which totaled about $50,000 yearly by the time of its demise in the middle of the 1941-'42 season. A Sun editorial from the time that Stewart issued his scheme for a new orchestra called the old one "a fourth-class pick-up orchestra which is gathered after Christmas each year, put through a few rehearsals and pushed out on the stage of the Lyric."

The real power behind the old BSO was not its conductors but the city's director of municipal music, Frederick Huber, a bantam rooster of a man always ready to use his spurs on anyone who crossed his path. The members of the old orchestra, fed up with Huber's imperious, insulting manner, managed to have him blacklisted by the American Federation of Musicians. That action -- in addition to other circumstances -- led to the cancellation of the 1941-'42 season and, in effect, the dismantling of the old BSO.

Stewart, who had arrived from Toronto late in the preceding summer to become director of Peabody, seemed an ideal person to create a new orchestra. Still only 41, he had already had a substantial career as a pianist and conductor.

Stewart had been informed of the old BSO's perennial problems; and when it collapsed, he was prepared. He had spent months studying other orchestras and had a plan ready for Mayor Howard Jackson and other interested parties. He called for an initial season of 20 weeks (in the hope of building to 28 over the next few years), with continued financial support from the city, new contributions from private donors and ticket sales.

But the city and the newly formed Baltimore Symphony Association were able to provide for only 15 weeks. World War II was in progress and some of the city fathers were not sure how much support there would be for an orchestra. Stewart was to struggle 10 years for a longer season. He never made it past 19 weeks. While he was able to depend on city stipends of approximately $50,000 annually, the orchestra's board was never able to meet the $150,000 goal it set for itself each year. Stewart was not wealthy, but he became the orchestra's second most generous patron, quietly paying for tours, for guest soloists and for extra weeks of work for his players.

Because he was Peabody's director and could therefore offer faculty positions to principal players, he was able to entice some great players to Baltimore. But because he was never able to lengthen the season substantially (and thus increase salaries), he was rarely able to keep any of them here.

"We could make this one of the greatest orchestras of the world with the very musicians we now have if we could work together longer," Stewart told The Sun in the spring of 1944 at the beginning of one of many frustrating fund drives.

Nevertheless, Stewart's first few years were -- deservedly -- greeted with great fanfare. Tall, good-looking, with his chesterfield coat slung over his shoulders like a cloak and his slouch hat set at a rakish angle, he cut a --ing figure. "Energetic Conductor Almost a Superman" declared a Sun headline over a story about Stewart's first rehearsal. The newspapers also paid attention to the conductor's beautiful wife, Ruby, and his two pretty teen-age daughters, Delphine and Ursula.

He brought important soloists to Baltimore and his festivals -- such as one that was coordinated with Peabody in 1946 and played the complete works of Brahms -- earned national attention. It did not hurt that he was also a good conductor. According to BSO clarinetist Gordon Miller, whom Stewart hired in 1946 and who still plays in the orchestra, "Stewart was the best conductor this orchestra had until Zinman came." And Ignatius Gennusa, who retired in 1970 as principal clarinetist and who played under Stokowski, Reiner, Ormandy and Mitropoulos, says, "I'd place Stewart right up there with those guys." Other alumni of the Stewart years are somewhat less flattering, but all of them agree that he was a fine man and a sound, always prepared musician.

The successful new orchestra and its young conductor were the subject of an article in Newsweek and of an Associated Press story, reprinted all over the country, whose headline read: "Baltimore Symphony Upsets Theories in [Its] Swift Success." Stewart was granted any number of honorary awards by the city, and Mayor Howard Jackson called the BSO's tours with the conductor -- the orchestra's first outside Maryland -- "the best advertising medium for Baltimore I know of."

Such successes -- and Stewart's influence upon Peabody was equally beneficent -- did not go unnoticed by other institutions. In 1945 Stewart was offered the presidency of the Juilliard School and in 1947 he was offered the music directorship of the Houston Symphony.

It's easy to understand why Stewart turned the other jobs down. In 1947 things seemed to be going his way. He had just taken the BSO to Carnegie Hall, for the first time, earning warm reviews. But immediately after he had turned Houston down, his board informed Stewart that the orchestra's weeks had to be cut back from 19 to 16 weeks. Twelve musicians -- five of them first-desk players -- resigned. Stewart would have to resume his Sisyphean labors to put an orchestra back together.

Stewart tried everything to help the orchestra raise money. Such famous friends as violinist Jascha Heifetz and pianist-composer Percy Grainger were enlisted to issue appeals. He got Eleanor Roosevelt involved. Nothing worked.

One reason for Stewart's inability to gain a foothold for the BSO was the continued presence of the Philadelphia Orchestra. "The Philadelphia concerts were like gold," says Weldon Wallace, a former Sun music critic. "Tickets were usually passed down from generation to generation. If someone who was a series subscriber died, there was an avalanche of calls to the box office on the outside chance that tickets had become available. That orchestra's concerts were the musical and social events of the year."

If the Philadelphia Orchestra was the orchestra of the WASP upper and middle classes, much of the money that was eventually to help the BSO was -- like the Meyerhoff fortune -- new money that had been earned by Jews of Eastern European descent.

"Most of the older money in town -- the WASP money -- had never been interested in the BSO," says one longtime orchestra board member. "But the Jewish fortunes that were to help make the orchestra a fine one were still in the process of being made during Stewart's time."

Another part of the problem may have been Stewart's Britishness. Except in his first years in Baltimore, Stewart was never perceived by the public as a glamorous, exciting figure. Americans then (as perhaps now) liked their conductors to be soul-searching (German), passionate (Russian or Italian) or elegant (French). But British conductors have never had the success they deserved here.

In any case, Stewart never succeeded in getting the city to support its own orchestra. In the end, the Baltimore City Council and a new symphony board president, Alan P. Hoblitzell, combined forces to take the orchestra, which Stewart had loved and nourished like an ailing child, away from him.

Stewart had thought about quitting during the 1950-'51 season when he was informed that the season would be cut back again. After having struggled to get the season back up to 19 weeks, it was cut to 17 weeks. Stewart was persuaded to stay but had to deal with what may have been the greatest mass exodus of players in any orchestra's history -- 30 players, or 40 percent of the orchestra, had to be replaced. Then, after putting the orchestra back together, he had to deal with Hoblitzell and the City Council.

On Hoblitzell's first day on the job, it was widely rumored that he pointed to Stewart's name on a piece of BSO stationery and joked, "We won't be seeing that name around here much longer."

"Whether or not it was true, Daddy had heard the story and was hurt by it," Delphine Kelly says. "It was clear to him that the board thought they could do better with another conductor."

Then came the infamous November City Council meeting, which was extensively reported in the local press. It was well-known that Stewart drew two salaries because he had two separate, if related, jobs: the directorship of Peabody ($16,500) and the BSO music directorship ($500 per concert for a total of $15,500). His BSO salary was hardly extravagant. Thor Johnson, his counterpart in Cincinnati, was earning more than $20,000 for a somewhat longer symphony season. Star conductors like Bruno Walter and Fritz Reiner were earning in the vicinity of $2,000 per concert; Arturo Toscanini received $6,000 per concert.

But attendance had begun to suffer at the concerts -- mostly at the Sunday evening concerts which had to compete with several popular TV shows. There was feeling among several people on (( the board -- though such feelings were not shared by orchestra musicians -- that a conductor whose only responsibility was the orchestra could do better than Stewart had. Other board members just believed that it was time for a change.

Alan Hoblitzell died several years ago, but his son Alan Hoblitzell Jr. says, "I'm sure my father never had any negative personal feelings against Reginald Stewart. After 10 years he just felt there should be a change."

Nevertheless, the way in which Stewart resigned -- or, more likely, was made to resign -- was badly handled. The City Council, perhaps inspired by the symphony board, used the two salaries as an excuse to call a meeting with Stewart and Hoblitzell. Several councilmen wanted to know why Stewart was making so much money by playing to "half-empty houses" and why he didn't put some of his salary back into the orchestra. Stewart was too proud to say that he had been putting a substantial portion of his salary back into the orchestra, and Hoblitzell never came to his defense.

When one councilman said, "I hear reports that there has been a falling off of support of the orchestra and Mr. Stewart is the cause," Hoblitzell said only that the "figures have disturbed me."

The next day the papers were filled with stories about the meeting. There was a rehearsal that day and violinist Dorothy Gennusa remembers going to see Stewart at the break.

"Have you seen the papers -- what do you think?" he asked her.

"I didn't know what to say to him," Ms. Gennusa says. "All I could think was that this dignified man had to put up with this nonsense about justifying why he was worth what he was worth. Suddenly, I blurted out: 'Why, I think it was like the crucifixion of Jesus Christ!'

"I'll never forget that moment as long as I live. There was a dead silence. He had tears in his eyes. Then he said, 'I suppose you may be right.' "

Two months later Stewart submitted his letter of resignation, which was also released to the newspapers, giving as his reasons the financial difficulties of the orchestra, competition from out-of-town orchestras and the repeated failures to extend the season and thus keep players from leaving. In spite of Stewart's popularity with the orchestra -- almost every musician signed a petition to the board to ask him to reconsider -- Hoblitzell responded by telling the papers that "there are a great number of musicians who eye Baltimore as a good spot" and that "many conductors would welcome the chance" to succeed Stewart. According to a Sun editorial, Hoblitzell was saying that "orchestra conductors are a dime a dozen and that there will be no trouble replacing Mr. Stewart."

Although he remained in Baltimore for seven years as head of Peabody, Stewart was not asked to guest-conduct the BSO until nearly 10 years after his resignation -- and then only as a last-minute replacement for another conductor. Stewart was not a demonstrative man. But in an oral history he taped in the late 1970s for his grandchildren, the conductor described the seven years after his resignation as "a traumatic and chastening experience." For four years after he left Peabody, he guest-conducted all over the world, finally settling in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1962 as a member of the piano department at the Music Academy of the West, where he remained a beloved figure until his death in 1984.

"He had a habit of never speaking about bad things and he rarely talked about Baltimore," says the well-known pianist Mona Golabek, who was Stewart's favorite pupil in Santa Barbara. "He was a proud man -- he knew how good he was -- but he also knew how boring it is to talk about oneself."

Hurt as he may have been by his loss of the BSO, Stewart fared better than the orchestra. Hoblitzell was board president for only one year and was instrumental in hiring Stewart's successor, Massimo Freccia, a Florentine who had been music director in New Orleans.

"Stewart had a better baton technique and was much more articulate than Freccia," remembers oboist Wayne Raper, who left the BSO to play for the Philadelphia Orchestra and is now assistant principal oboist of the Boston Symphony. "Most of the players had the feeling that the board hired Freccia because he was flashier. But Freccia knew only about three programs and was over his head once he got beyond that. Stewart was always well-prepared and the repertory was large. Freccia was just passing through; Stewart really cared."

Then came several seasons of Peter Herman Adler -- years in which, say BSO members from that time, the orchestra actually got worse. Comissiona's arrival as music director in 1969 and the arrival of Meyerhoff on the board finally put the BSO in a position to finish accomplishing the tasks that Stewart had set himself nearly three decades before. But it was very much Stewart's achievement that there was an orchestra -- and a fairly good one -- in Baltimore at all.

"After many years in music, you really don't remember how 'good' a conductor was," says cellist Richard Kapuscinski, who played for Stewart and who also played in Cleveland under George Szell and in Boston under Erich Leinsdorf.

"What really matters is how honorable, how responsible and how decent he was. I remember Reginald Stewart very well."

STEPHEN WIGLER is The Sun's classical music critic.

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