Striking a Chord with a Program from the Philharmonic Auditorium, Los Angeles, November 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

There have been several past posts in this blog that have featured artifacts from the Homestead’s collection related to “serious music” concerts put on by impresario Lynden E. Behymer at the Philharmonic Auditorium, situated next to Pershing Square at Fifth and Olive streets in Los Angeles. Tonight, we highlight another object from the museum’s holdings related to that venue, promoter and genre of music, but with an interesting and unusual twist.

The item consists of four pages of listings for performances from the 11th, 13th, 20th and 27th of November 1928 and material on featured soloists, including one who was performing in mid-December and was known as the “wonder boy violinist” whose first public appearance was with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra five years prior, when he was just seven. This was followed the next year by a concert at the Manhattan Opera House and, in 1927, a couple of performances at the Paris Conservatory. It was emphasized that he was not being “forced upon the public” but was continuing his education with “just enough concerts to keep him before the public notice.” This young man who became a world-famous musician was Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999.)

The first concert in the listing was by the renowned violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), who was also a child prodigy in his native Vienna and then in Paris and among whose teachers were Anton Bruckner and Jules Massenet. Kreisler’s first concert in America was in New York when he was just thirteen years old. He left music for a time to study medicine and serve in the Austrian Army before returning to his violin as the 19th century came to an end. In the first years, he achieved fame for his tours, though, after another stint in the army, he resettled in the United States as the First World War erupted. He lived in Berlin when he mounted another tour that took him to Los Angeles and the Philharmonic Auditorium, where he performed material by Beethoven, Debussy, Schubert and Dvorak (the latter two with variations on themes by Kreisler) as well as hos own compositions.

Two nights later, soprano Mary McCormic (1889-1981), who was born Mamie Harris in Arkansas and who was one of the world’s best-known opera singers of the day, performed pieces from works by Mozart, Respighi, Verdi, Puccini, Debussy, Dvorak, Grieg, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, Maasenet and others, with accompaniment by Willard Sektberg on piano. One of the two long essays was about her and it noted that she “is a conspicuous example of what a girl can accomplish with brains, talent and pluck, if she has made up her mind to succeed.”

She was said to be from “the free, untrammelled atmosphere of the boundless prairies where humanity is measured by its own standard, and not be worldly possessions,” this meaning that she did come by the exalted realm of opera the usual way. She was lauded for “her glorious voice, with its swelling cadences, and exquisite timber [!].” Without connections or money “she won out on her own merits,” first gaining recognition with the Chicago Civic Opera Company. After that, she was in Europe, performing at the Paris Grand Opera, in several houses in Italy, and elsewhere and “she returns to America this fall for a brief season of concerts, after which she will return to Europe.”

The third concert was by violinist Alfred Megerlin (1880-1941), who was not as well-known as the others soloists in the document and it is perhaps reflective of this that no program was listed (even his surname was misspelled!), though there is a brief biography of him. It stated that he was a “distinguished Belgian violinist” who joined the opera company orchestra at Antwerp at just fourteen and was a concertmaster of a casino orchestra in France as a young man for six years with extensive touring in Europe under his belt. In 1914, Megerlin came to the United States and, three years later, was appointed concertmaster for the New York Philharmonic, where he stayed for five years, followed by another four years in the same role in Minneapolis. In 1926, he accepted that position for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Los Angeles Times, 18 November 1928.

The last of the performances was by Louis Graveure (1888-1965), a concert singer accompanied on the piano by Blanche Hennion Robinson for the 27 November appearance. He was born Wilfrid Douthitt in London and was an architecture student before he turned to music as his vocation. He made his early appearances under his birth name, including his New York debut in 1914. Yet, soon after he took the moniker of Louis Graveure (his mother’s maiden name was Graveur) and claimed that he was from Belgium, even as reporters insisted he was Douthitt. This reinvention, including a distinctive mustache and goatee, earned him the sobriquet of “The Mystery Man,” and he enjoyed and encouraged the development of his persona.

Graveure was quickly lionized for his talent as a preeminent baritone and married one of his operetta co-stars, Eleanor Painter, in 1916. He toured yearly, recorded frequently for Columbia Records, and enjoyed both fame and wealth. Yet, early in 1928, he shocked the music fraternity with his sudden decision to switch from being a baritone to a tenor, an unheard of move. As the program expressed it, “when, with sensational suddenness, Louis Graveure, the celebrated concert singer, willfully changed his voice from baritone to tenor last winter, he did something absolutely novel in musical history.”

Los Angeles Record, 26 November 1928.

Yet, the piece continued, Graveure, “who will prove to the music lovers of Los Angeles in a recital at Philharmonic Auditorium on Tuesday night, November 27, that his supreme artistic gifts as a concert baritone are carried forward in the same lofty fashion as a tenor, is the first case on record of an artist who was notably a baritone becoming notably a tenor.” It was added that “during the magical process of elevating his register it was necessary for Graveure to keep three full octaves going.” He would even sing three roles as the leading tenor at the Berlin Stadtische Opera and follow with evening recitals as a baritone and gave up a repertoire of some 800 pieces in the later register “and has since acquired an entire new one in tenor.”

It wasn’t just his register that transformed, but also Graveure’s appearance, as he shaved off his beard, keeping a trim mustache instead, and forewent the hats that covered his receding hairline. A Los Angeles Times feature by Isabel Morse Jones on the singer’s metamorphosis showed then-and-now photos as well as cartoons demonstrating how the performer went from a “Low C” in 1918 to a “High C” a decade later. In speaking with Graveure about the change in register, Jones recorded that he informed her that a singer should be well versed with notes below and above the core of the performer’s range, adding that the key was “the knowledge of the two principal movements of the throat muscles, which, if simply understood as the expelling and swallowing functions, will naturally open the throat and allow for easy and free tones.”

Los Angeles Express, 28 November 1928.

Graveure told Jones that it was actually his fourth transformation, with his original range being as a bass baritone, and she stated “singing tenor will give Graveure a new means of expression in opera” as “he will be able to sing the heroic roles rather than the villain-baritone roles allotted to his former voice.” It was noted, however, that “this reason and that of higher remuneration paid a tenor” were equally important in his decision to change. Moreover, it was expected that “the public will see a more human and inspirational facet in his art” and that he would perform more frequently with his wife, who was living in greater Los Angeles while he toured in Canada.

In her review in the issue of the Times from the 29th, Jones wrote that many in the audience asked “had he really changed to a full tenor or was he still a baritone with a high range?” She said that skepticism remained until the fourth song, a piece by Johannes Brahms, followed by an aria from La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini, after which “the audience was warmly enthusiastic in its appreciation.” The reviewer was especially complimentary of Graveure’s renderings of pieces by Cesar Franck, Hermann Bemberg and Ernest Chausson, in which “nuance, subtlety, indefinable but clearly existing vibrations of intuitive rightness in these beautiful songs made that group unforgettable.” She concluded that “for finished performance there is no man singing on the American concert stage who can measure up to Graveure. He is the singing intelligence of the day.”

Times, 29 November 1928.

Jones also had high praise for Blanche Robinson’s accompaniment, noting “she should have shared in the applause for she contributed largely to the singer’s triumph.” The encore included “witty comment” by the soloist and it was noted that Graveure’s final piece, an aria from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto “sent the audience away convinced that Louis Graveure had truly becomes an operatic tenor.”

The Los Angeles Express, however, had a decidedly more mixed view of Graveure’s radical reinvention. It reported that “the new tenor was received cordially by a capacity audience” and that “judging from applause, the curious, at least, were not disappointed.” The unnamed reviewer professed to be unimpressed with the visual transformation of the singer, but professed that “Mr. Graveure also as a singer lost something of his Samsonian stature and power and magnetism. To sum up here, he is not as good a tenor as he was a baritone, and at times, he lapsed into specific baritonism and then does some of his best singing.” It was added that there was too often “a laboriousness and a lack of color which is distressing to one who cannot forget the unmarred elegance and unblemished lustre of yore” and that the performer “has descended somewhat from his intellectual pedestal” to the world of “slushy sentimentalities,” though there were highlights

The program listing for Graveure’s concert, as they all do, includes the caveat that it was “Subject to Change” and, in fact, it was nearly completely transformed. The only holdovers were the Chausoon piece and the finale as the printed program included works by Handel, Dvorak, Donizetti, Gounod, Purcell, Massenet and Elgar, but the as-performed set list included the aforementioned pieces and others by Schubert, Bizet, and Fay Foster (1886-1960,) who was the only woman composer on the program.

Finally, there are some pencil notes on the program, some of which apparently had nothing to do with the concerts, but there is one that reads “Lusty replica of Art bounced into the family today Hallelujah!” At first glance that reads like a somewhat ambiguous take on one of the performances, but it might also be something totally unrelated to music and be the recording of the birth of a baby!

In any case, the program is an interesting document for a series of concerts at the Philharmonic Auditorium in fall 1928, including the remarkable performance by Graveure, who, by the early Thirties, divorced from Painter, moved to Berlin and found success on stage and in film until the Nazis seized control of the opera company. He left for France and then England, where he remained through the World War II years. Graveure returned to America after the conclusion of the conflict and mounted an unsuccessful comeback. He moved to Los Angeles in the late Fifties and taught voice until his death at age 77 in 1965, by which time he was so forgotten that no obituary could be located for him.

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