H. Owen Reed at 103: The Dean of American Composers Celebrates a Birthday

H. Owen Reed, Dean of American composers.
H. Owen Reed, the “Dean of American composers,” turned 103 years old on June 17, 2013.  “In 100 years you can pack in a lot,” he says.

The American composer H. Owen Reed celebrates a birthday this week. At 103 years old, he is surely America’s oldest composer “of note” today. And if you ever played a musical instrument and were involved in a concert band ensemble, chances are you’ve performed his highly accessible and engaging music.

Herbert Owen Reed is a product of the American Midwest – born in 1910 and raised in Missouri not far from Kansas City. His family had musical interests; his father was a country fiddler and his mother played the piano.

Young Owen dutifully took lessons in classical piano as was the custom in many a middle-class household in those days. But he was more interested in popular piano ditties than he was in Beethoven or Bach.

H. Owen Reed, band director, in 1936.
H. Owen Reed directing the band “The Missourians” in 1936.

Reed was also attracted to swing band music, eventually leading several bands of his own. This early interest would inform aspects of his later career as a classical composer, as some of Reed’s most famous and oft-performed pieces are scored for concert bands.

In 1937, Reed received his Ph.D. in music composition from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. Among his teachers was the esteemed Howard Hanson, head of the school and a popular composer in his own right.

Other leading musicians with whom Reed was fortunate to study included the composers Aaron Copland and Bohuslav Martinú, and the conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Reed achieved his big break as a composer at a relative early age. In the late 1940s, following an extended study of Mexican folk music in several provinces south of the border, Reed composed a “Mexican Folk Song Symphony for Band” he subtitled La Fiesta Mexicana.

Just a few years later, this piece would receive its first recording by Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble – and a blockbuster recording it was.

Stunningly recorded by Mercury Living Presence engineers led by C. Robert Fine employing his famed “single microphone” technique, La Fiesta Mexicana burst on the classical record scene and became an overnight sensation.

La Fiesta Mexicana, Frederick Fennell, Eastman Wind EnsembleMusic lovers were dazzled by the color and inventiveness of the score – as well as the sonic power of the recording — an absolutely incredible audio accomplishment in 1954.

Drawing from a variety of authentic Mexican folk melodies, Reed created a highly substantive three-movement symphony, brimming with freshness and imagination throughout its nearly 30-minute duration.

The work was a major trend-setting accomplishment that sparked interest on the part of other American composers who were inspired to pen their own works for concert band.

It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that La Fiesta Mexicana sparked a whole new genre of “long-form” compositions for wind ensemble.

The 1954 premiere recording of La Fiesta Mexicana would be the first of many made of Reed’s score in the ensuing decades – nearly 30 at last count. Nearly all major American wind ensembles – many of them associated with America’s best university music programs – have seen fit to record the work. Concert bands as far away as Japan have issued recordings.

Several recordings of the symphony have been made by the U.S. armed forces bands as well. This YouTube clip of the third movement of La Fiesta Mexicana, recorded recently by the U.S. Marine Band, delivers all of the energy and freshness inherent in Reed’s score.

[I’ve heard perhaps a half-dozen different recordings of La Fiesta Mexicana. I keep coming back to the original 1954 Fennell version as the one that delivers the best combination of artistic interpretation and audiophile sound. Underscoring that recording’s reputation is the fact that it remains commercially available even today, fully 60 years after it was recorded!]

While Reed’s symphonic band scores are the most famous and popular of his musical output, they are by no means the full extent of Reed’s creative energies. He has also composed operas, chamber and instrumental music, and works scored for symphony orchestra (including a youthful symphony).

Reed’s long musical career is also distinguished by the fact that he was on the faculty of Michigan State University for nearly 40 years – from 1939 until his retirement in 1976 (and since then as a distinguished professor emeritus). Many of Reed’s own students have gone on to become well-known composers in their own right. And he is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Work in Musical Composition.

Reed’s appreciation of the musical legacy of the cultures of the Americas has been an abiding interest over the decades. In addition to his music research in Mexico in the late 1940s and again the early 1960s, he has studied the folk music traditions of the Caribbean Basin, as well as the Native American music of Arizona and New Mexico.

At age 103, H. Owen Reed is surely a link to America’s musical past. Yet he is also a man of today who retains a keen interest in “all things musical.” I found this YouTube clip of Reed at age 102, performing the popular American standard Misty, particularly endearing.

So here’s a hearty toast to H. Owen Reed, the Dean of American composers, on the occasion of his 103rd birthday.  Well done, master!

America’s Symphony Orchestras Taking it on the Chin?

JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
Getting it right: Music Director JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
The news this past weekend that the Philadelphia Orchestra’s board of directors has voted to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy is just the latest in a string of ugly news items about the precarious financial state of professional symphony orchestras in America.

That the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra, 111 years old and one of the best-known, best-loved ensembles in the classical music field, should be facing bankruptcy proceedings comes as a surprise to most people. This orchestra, with its stellar roster of past music directors including Eugene Ormandy, Ricardo Muti, and Leopold Stokowski of Disney’s Fantasia fame, would seem to be nearly immune to financial stresses.

But the fallout from the economic recession has affected private and public funding alike, with corporate donors snapping their wallets shut … and many well-heeled retirees and other donors looking at their financial and real estate portfolios and feeling much poorer.

In the new economic reality, the prognosis for the Philadelphia Orchestra and other professional classical music ensembles is grim unless severe cuts are made to operating expenses. But those steps can also be risky. Just a week before the Philadelphia announcement, the Detroit Symphony, another well-established body whose list of past music directors including Antal Dorati, Paul Paray and Neeme Järvi is almost as impressive as Philadelphia’s, nearly went under after proposing more than a 15% reduction in player salaries, plus other concessions.

Rather than agree to their base pay dropping from ~$104,000 to ~$88,000, the musicians went on strike in the Fall of 2010. It was only when the board of the DSO was ready to pull the plug on the orchestra’s existence that the players agreed to come back to work.

On Saturday, April 9, the DSO performed for the first time in over five months, and the musicians are now committed to completing the current orchestral season. After nearly two years of wrangling, it’s the best outcome anyone could have hoped for.

Looking out across the country, it’s difficult to find much good news in the orchestral field; the Honolulu Symphony was recently liquidated and the Louisville Orchestra has also filed for bankruptcy.

But one bright spot is in Buffalo, where the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, under the inspired 11-year leadership of music director JoAnn Falletta and a pragmatic, forward-looking Board led by Cindy Abbott Letro, is weathering the economic stresses with better success. Another venerable orchestral institution, the BPO is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and its roster of past music directories includes such luminaries as William Steinberg, Michael Tilson Thomas and the composer-conductor Lukas Foss.

Considering that the Buffalo urban community is much smaller than many other metropolitan markets like Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco that support professional symphony orchestras, what the BPO has been able to accomplish is nothing short of amazing.

In 2008, the BPO concluded a capital campaign that added more than $32 million to the orchestra’s endowment, and posted a balanced budget in the 2009-10 season. In 2010, it went on tour for the first time in ~20 years. The BPO’s symphony programs are some of the most interesting and inventive being performed by any orchestra in America (I know: I’ve attended several of them). And the orchestra is continuing to release new CDs of fascinating orchestral repertoire on Naxos, the world’s largest classical music label.

Key to the BPO’s success goes beyond public monies, or support from foundations plus a few wealthy individuals. It’s about creating a strong link between the orchestra and the wider community – something easy to talk about, but challenging to accomplish without building strong chemistry and a sense of shared destiny. And in that regard, the attitude, approachability and personality of the music director cannot be overstated.

Richard Morrison, esteemed music critic of The Times of London, writes in the pages of BBC Music Magazine of “the existential crisis that could soon devour orchestras across the world with exemplary management, hard-working musicians, high standards and realistic attitudes.” He can “easily envisage a future in which dozens of ailing cities across Europe and America lose their orchestras forever.”

Not that Morrison is happy about his prognosis: “Some might argue that, in this age of universally-available Internet concerts, the physical presence of an orchestra in any particular region no longer matters. I can’t agree. It would be a tragedy if the opportunity to hear live classical concerts was bestowed only on people living in the wealthiest cities,” he opines.

If the example set by the Buffalo Philharmonic is one that could be replicated in other urban areas, Morrison’s grim prediction could turn out to be wrong. Let’s hope so.

Farewell to an Audio Hi-Fi Pioneer

1812 Overture

Wilma Cozart Fine, audio Hi-Fi pioneer, operating the controls at Mercury's classical record division in the 1950s.
Wilma Cozart Fine, audio Hi-Fi pioneer, operating the controls at Mercury's classical record division in the 1950s.
This past week, the world lost a legend in the audio recording field with the death of Wilma Cozart Fine, age 82. The name may not be familiar to many. But if you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s, chances are your family owned at least one of the recordings Ms. Fine produced for the Mercury label – perhaps the 1812 Overture sonic blockbuster featuring the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (and also featuring real cannons and bells) that would become the first classical album to sell more than one million copies.

A native Mississippian who grew up in Ft. Worth, Texas, Wilma Cozart graduated with college degrees in Music and Business, then went to work in the late 1940s for the newly reorganized Dallas Symphony as personal secretary to the orchestra’s new music director, the fiery Hungarian conductor Antal Dorati. The Dallas Symphony managed to secure a recording contract with RCA Victor – highly unusual for such a young ensemble – and proceeded to release a number of praised recordings including the Bela Bartok Violin Concerto #2 with Yehudi Menuhin.

When Dorati took up a new position as music director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Cozart decamped to there as well. Shortly thereafter, she was retained by Mercury Records in New York City to manage the label’s newly formed classical record division.

Using her orchestra management acumen, Cozart, all of 24 years old, snagged a recording contract for Mercury with the lauded Chicago Symphony Orchestra – the first of several exclusive contracts she would negotiate with orchestras in Minneapolis, Detroit and Rochester.

The debut classical recording produced by Mercury’s sound engineers led by C. Robert Fine was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and it caused a sensation in the music world when it was released in 1951. It was widely praised as the best-sounding classical recording made up to that time, with the New York Times reporting that the realism and clarity of the recording made it seem as if the listener was “in the living presence of the performers.” Sensing the marketing power of this description, Cozart would adopt the “Living Presence” moniker for the entire Mercury classical catalog.

The secret to making the Mercury classical records was simple in concept yet quite challenging to implement: A single microphone was painstakingly tested for positioning in the auditorium above and in front of the orchestra at the precise location where the sound would “bloom” most naturally. (Later, when stereophonic disks were introduced, three microphones would be used during recording and then mixed down to two channels.)

Cozart, who married Robert Fine in 1958, learned the craft (and art) of record production from the ground up. In the end, she and her team would release several hundred Mercury classical recordings before the label was acquired by Dutch-based Philips.

It is difficult to cite another instance in which a classical record producer such as Ms. Fine has had such a positive impact on the reputations of the conductors and performers being recorded. Indeed, the enduring popularity of conductors like Antal Dorati, Paul Paray, and Frederick Fennell and his Eastman Wind Ensemble would not be nearly as potent without the documentation of their art as taken down by Fine and her production team.

As the years have ticked by – with new technical innovations introduced and thousands of new classical records produced – the Mercury recordings have retained their reputation as examples of exceptional clarity and realism in sound. For many, these recordings remain the audiophile standard against which all other sound production quality is judged.

But the story doesn’t end there. The pioneering efforts of Ms. Fine would have an interesting “second act” more than three decades later. It was to her that Philips turned in the early 1990s to undertake the endeavor of remastering and transferring nearly the entire Mercury classical catalog to CD. And this was no mere “symbolic” or cameo effort on Fine’s part, either. The original Mercury mixing equipment would be repaired and brought back into production for the project. Ms. Fine performed the digital editing herself – nearly 50 years after she had done it (in analog) the first time around!

And again, the critics swooned.

What is the legacy of Wilma Cozart Fine? It’s not just that she was a pioneer in classical music’s Hi-Fi wave – or that she was the first woman to break into a male-dominated field. It’s that she and her team brought the world some of the best classical recordings ever made …and set a standard for excellence that has yet to be surpassed nearly six decades on.

Risë Stevens: A Living Legend

Risë Stevens poses with a young Gen-Y fan, New York City (2006).
Risë Stevens poses with a young Gen-Y fan, New York City (2006).
Risë Stevens as Carmen, her signature role at the Metropolitan Opera for 20+ years.
Risë Stevens as Carmen, her signature role at the Metropolitan Opera for 20+ years.
Risë Stevens (c), honorary chairperson of the 2004/05 Career Bridges award program supporting promising young opera singers at the outset of their careers.
Risë Stevens (c), honorary chairperson of the 2004/05 Career Bridges award program supporting promising young opera singers at the outset of their careers.
This past week, a living legend in the world of the arts has celebrated a birthday. When Risë Stevens was born in Bronx borough 96 years ago, New York City was very much like it is today … the largest city in the United States, with a rich ethnic diversity including many first-generation immigrants. A city of amazing contrasts, from dirt-poor neighborhoods to districts of fabulous wealth and style.

Miss Stevens’ background was typical of many. Her father was a first-generation Swedish Protestant, her mother a second-generation Russian Jew. Growing up on the tough neighborhood streets of the Bronx, the bright lights of Manhattan must have seemed a world apart rather than just a few short miles away.

In her rise to the top of the billboards at the Metropolitan Opera, Stevens would have her share of luck – the onset of World War II in Europe gave American-born soloists their best chance ever to star in the limelight. But it also took years of practice, sheer hard work and “paying her dues” on provincial stages in places as diverse as Prague and Buenos Aires. Much of those early years are recounted in her biography Subway to the Met, published in the late 1950s.

Miss Stevens’ rich mezzo-soprano voice, coupled with her highly attractive physical appearance, made her a natural for several femme fatale operatic roles such as Dalila in Saint-Saens’ Samson & Dalila, Giulietta in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann and, most notably, the title role in Bizet’s Carmen. But early in her Met career, management seemed disinclined to cast her in this role, perhaps because several other stars were already filling the honors there. Not willing to accept this situation, Stevens did a true star turn, getting herself cast opposite Bing Crosby in the Hollywood blockbuster movie Going My Way in which, as Father O’Malley’s erstwhile neighborhood chum and now star of the opera, she sang the famous Habañera from the opera Carmen.

That seemed to do the trick, as the American public now clamored to see her sing the role. Dutifully, the Metropolitan Opera cast her as Carmen within the year, and for the next two decades, Stevens would practically own the role at the Met. (And it was as Carmen that Stevens made her last performance before retiring from the Met stage in 1961.)

The number of people who were introduced to the world of opera through Miss Stevens during the 1940s and 1950s is astonishingly large. Her compelling portrayal of Bizet’s cigar-factory worker temptress has been cited as THE defining catalyst for opera lovers in countless postings all over the web (you can read some examples here, here and here).

But beyond the limelight and the marquee board, there is another reason why Risë Stevens has been loved by so many: she has always been true to herself, and to her art. You can see that in how, despite the fact that she probably made more money starring in just three Hollywood films than she made in her entire career on the opera stage, she left Hollywood and returned to opera because it was her true love.

… You can see it by her loyalty in promoting the art of opera and her beloved Met Opera company. Even today, she remains on the board of directors of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, making her association with the company more than 70 years running.

… You can also see it in her compelling “up-from-poverty” personal story … and in her long and loving 65+ year marriage to her Viennese-born Hungarian husband, Walter Surovy.

And you can see it in the genuine interest she takes in people of all backgrounds and generations. Unlike so many stars who, once they are famous, become absolute personality horrors – full of arrogance and snobbery — Risë Stevens has never lost her connection to the “real world.” My own two daughters have carried on a correspondence with their “Miss Risë” for 15 years, who they’ve come to regard as a kind of special relative who lives far, far away and is larger than life in some respects.

From them, and from so many others: Happy Birthday, Risë … and may you celebrate many more!

Happy Birthday to a Renaissance Man

Previn in younger days
Previn in younger days
andre-previn-at-801André Previn turned 80 years old earlier this month, which gives us cause to reflect on the incredible life of this highly interesting, very creative man. In his musical life, he’s demonstrated a versatility and catholicity that surpasses even Leonard Bernstein’s reputation.

Born in Germany, raised in the United States and truly a citizen of the world, Previn has lived out his life in the European capitals of London, Paris and Berlin … and here in the U.S. in places as diverse as Hollywood and Pittsburgh. A true wunderkind, he burst onto the musical scene back in the early 1950s, recording fine jazz piano arrangements that were released on 10” RCA Victor 78-r.p.m. and LP records … then soon migrated over to MGM Studios, writing musical scores for more than a dozen Hollywood films.

I own a few of Previn’s early jazz albums. His song arrangements are little gems – each one their own special musical adventure. Listen to his rendition of Stella by Starlight, for example, and you’ll immediately understand his special way with the music.

Previn’s pop music career masked the fact that he had studied classical music at the Paris Conservatory, and in San Francisco under the tutelage of the great French conductor Pierre Monteux. By the 1960s, Previn had moved from pop back to his classical roots, issuing a series of critically acclaimed recordings with the best symphony orchestras of London. His interpretations of the symphonies of Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Sir William Walton … along with recordings of the important British choral masterworks Belshazzar’s Feast and The Rio Grande remain touchstone performances, nearly 40 years on.

In his later years, in addition to guest-conducting the world over, Previn has penned a steady stream of memorable compositions, including several concertos for his ex-wife, the celebrated violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Even more impressive is Previn’s foray into the world of opera. His 1998 composition A Streetcar Named Desire has received more than 20 productions – an almost unheard of feat for a contemporary opera. And today, he’s busily at work writing a new work for the Houston Grand Opera to premiere next month, based on Noel Coward’s 1938 play Still Life (later made into the movie Brief Encounter).

At age 80, André Previn shows absolutely no sign of slowing down. And why should he? Musically speaking, he still has much to say … and the arts world is richer for it.

Happy Birthday, Maestro!