Twenty-five years is not long as the lives of musical institutions go. But because the Shriver Hall Concert Series is so important to music in Baltimore, its 25th anniversary -- which will be celebrated Saturday with a gala concert by the Kronos Quartet -- deserves celebration.
It is no exaggeration to say that the continued health of the Shriver series -- which presents several recitalists and chamber music groups each season in Shriver Hall on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University -- is as crucial to Baltimore as that of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Recitals and symphonic concerts are complementary experiences. Orchestral music offers drama of gigantic scope: energy, tonal color and variety of sound that a single instrument or a single voice cannot begin to match. A recital, however, is an intimate, personal experience that offers another kind of excitement -- one that serious listeners can't afford to do without.
But the recital seems to be a dying form: Television has addicted audiences to visual stimuli; marketing techniques have created superstars with such huge fees that they can no longer give solo recitals outside major cities such as Chicago and New York; the big halls -- such as Meyerhoff -- that are now built cannot be filled by most recitalists; and there is a preoccupation with bigness that seems to pre-empt the intimacy of smaller artistic forms such as the recital. If it were not for the Shriver series, Baltimore would have almost no recitals.
The history of the series goes back to a November 1965 flute recital by Jean-Pierre Rampal at Shriver. There was an enthusiastic audience response -- Rampal was then beginning to reach the height of his fame -- and several people, most of them members of the science faculties at Hopkins, realized that a new chamber music series would fill a gap. The Peabody Conservatory's Candlelight Series had been declining for years (it was finally discontinued in 1968) and the Lyric Theatre played host ever more rarely to visiting recitalists.
"We had a very large audience in the early years because there was no competition," says Dr. Albert I. Mendeloff, Shriver's board president and a professor of gastroenterology at Johns Hopkins. "There was then nothing in Columbia, and because the Kennedy Center had not yet been built, people would come from as far away as Washington."
The driving force behind the new series was Dr. Ernest Bueding, a professor of pathobiology at the School of Hygiene and Public Health. Bueding was an amateur musician who was a veritable Johnny Appleseed when it came to creating chamber music series. At earlier academic posts in New Orleans and Cleveland, he had founded those cities' major chamber music series.
"Ernest wanted to bring good music and the greatest artists here," says Walter Hartman, who has been a member of the board and of the music committee almost since the beginning of the Shriver series. "He had been educated in Germany and his tastes -- old-fashioned and European -- reflected that education. He liked music up to Debussy and that was it. But within his boundaries, he was very musical."
For the first five years, the series was operated by the University's Office of Special Events. But in 1971 Jeanne Feinberg was hired to run it and her name soon became all but synonymous with the Shriver series. (She retired in 1983.) Like all administrators who run important operations on shoestring budgets, Feinberg did almost everything. She prepared the stage, planned the advertising, sold the tickets, made sure that Shriver's beautiful German Steinway -- which was a present to the series from her husband -- had been properly serviced. What's more, she fed and cared for the visiting artists.
"She was a great cook and with young people like Murray Perahia -- well, she just mothered them and took them under her wing," says Mendeloff.
She also instituted a number of innovations: one concert each year by a promising young artist who has not yet achieved a major career, and the Piatigorsky Memorial Concerts, which showcase cellists. (The former is supported by the Yale Gordon Trust and the Piatigorsky concerts by Dr. and Mrs. Daniel Drachman.)
The Shriver series brought many great stars and chamber music groups to Baltimore -- pianists like Maurizio Pollini and Rudolf Serkin, violinists like Elmar Oliveira and Henryk Szeryng, cellists like Janos Starker and Mstislav Rostropovich and string quartets like the Cleveland and the Guarneri.
But more impressive still is the series' success with younger, more obscure artists. If an investment counselor or a stockbroker had a record as good as Shriver's in predicting success, he or she would be turning clients away. The Shriver series was one of the first to offer engagements to such unknowns as the pianists Murray Perahia and Richard Goode, and the soprano Dawn Upshaw. That Perahia -- now America's pre-eminent pianist -- continues to return to Shriver every few years at a much-reduced fee is a testament of his gratitude to the series.
Much of the original success in finding superb young artists can be attributed to Bueding.
"He was a good friend of Rudolf Serkin and of Alexander Schneider," Mendeloff says. "Ernest spent at least two weeks at the Marlboro Festival [in Vermont] every summer and he was great at picking these guys there and getting them started. Helping to develop young artists is something we've tried to continue. And Dawn [Upshaw] has a soft spot for us because of that. Let me tell you that it's helpful when you negotiate a contract. People like to come home to where they got a start."
The series has changed somewhat in recent years. Because it is self-supporting -- the John Hopkins University contributes an office and, of course, the hall -- it can no longer afford such superstars as Pollini and Rostropovich.
"It's frustrating because there's a limit to what we can pay," Hartman says. "Since the early days, the fees have gone sky-high. It's a problem to get artists who are good who do not charge $20,000 or $25,000."
The series has also had to change in terms of the repertory its visiting artists offer. The offerings of the series during the 20 years that Bueding had been its guiding light reflected his tastes: There was a great deal of Austro-Germanic music and very little by such composers as Liszt or Rachmaninov. (It is astonishing, for example, that in 25 years of visits by prominent pianists, Shriver audiences have yet to hear a performance of Liszt's Sonata in B minor.)
"Ernest stayed away from the programs of older artists," Mendeloff says. "But with younger ones, he could be positively ++ schoolmarmish. 'You can't expect to have a professional career if you play pieces like that,' he would say. Since his death [in 1985] we have tried to loosen up the repertory some."
Mendeloff hopes to use the receipts from this Saturday's gala to begin building an endowment for the Shriver series.
"It's really the only way we assure our continuous existence," he says. "It's always a struggle from season to season.
Marking the 25th
What: Performance by the Kronos Quartet and anniversary party afterward outside Shriver Hall.
Where: Shriver Hall on the Homewood Campus of the Johns Hopkins University.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Tickets: $35 ($20 for students).