by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As noted here previously, Adolf Tandler, a violist, composer and conductor from Vienna, came to Los Angeles in the early years of the 20th century to lead an orchestra for the Hotel Alexandria, a showpiece of its time. In 1913, when founding conductor Harley Hamilton stepped down after fifteen years leading the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, Tandler took up the baton and led the ensemble for six years, before forming a “little symphony.”
About three years into his tenure, Tandler led the orchestra in a grand concert, sponsored by the Los Angeles Daily Germania newspaper, at Clune’s Auditorium, built in 1906 by the Temple Baptist Church at the northeast corner of Fifth and Hill streets and replacing Hazard’s Pavilion. Theater impresario William H. Clune leased the venue in 1914 and named it after himself, adding the subtitle of the “Theatre Beautiful.”
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is the program from that 30 April 1916 concern, which the Los Angeles Express of the prior day reported on by stating, “one of the most attractive musical events of the season will take place tomorrow afternoon [it was a Sunday matinee] at Clune’s Auditorium, where a coterie of noted artists and the Los Angeles Symphony orchestra will be heard at a benefit concert, the proceeds to be used in German Red Cross work.
The German Red Cross dated back to the mid-1860s when the Geneva Convention was established and, a half-century later, when the empire mobilized for the First World War, some 5,000 Red Cross women nurses and another roughly 1,200 assistants and 15,000 male nurses and hospital workers were activated for service. By early 1917, the number of Red Cross personnel was almost 180,000, with some 62,000 women nurses and 40,000 male nurses, 45,000 bearers, and many others.
It is notable that, although the German Empire was an enemy of the Allies, principally France and England, this concert was raising funds to assist the German Red Cross, because the United States maintained a firm neutrality from the outbreak of the war and President Woodrow Wilson campaigned aggressively in his 1916 reelection bid to keep that stance. Within a year of this concert, however, German aggression against American ships sailing in Europe led to an abrupt change of attitude and the United States declared war on the empire and joined the Allies.
The paper continued that “it is being made a society function because of the charitable character of the affair, and the elite of Los Angeles have already reserved boxes, loges and blocks of seats.” Six women, presumably all of German origin, were listed as patronesses as were featured artists Helen Thorner and Marcella Craft, both operatic sopranos, pianist Cornelia Rider-Possart and cellist Axel Simonsen. In advertising the three women were given billing, with Craft above the others.
There was at least one local review, written by Edwin Schallert, the prominent Los Angeles Times critic. In his 1 May article, he noted that “a musical programme of unusual interest and excellence was presented at the benefit concert for the German Austro-Hungarian relief.” Schallert added that there was “a large and brilliant audience that demonstrated its appreciation and enthusiasm throughout.”
The critic wrote that “Marcella Craft dramatically sketched the outlines of the opera ‘Madama Butterfly’ [by Giacomo Puccini] in her series of selections, including her showpiece, the entrance aria, and then performed Gounod’s rendition of Bach’s “Ave Maria.” Schallert noted that this was the first performance by the soprano since the previous year, when she was the principal vocalist in the work Fairyland and was featured soloist for a Saengerfest, or vocal festival.
Rider-Possart, though the Express reported that she would perform works of Franz Liszt, of whom she was a specialist, was listed on the program as playing the Piano Concerto #4 in D-Minor by Anton Rubinstein. Schallert praised “the power of her tonal work and interpretation and technical resource.” Noting that Rubinstein’s work was demanding, the critic added that the appreciation of the audience induced the pianist to given an encore.
Thorner, Schallert recorded, “sang a group of numbers that admirably fitted the occasion, including Beethoven’s “Die Himmel Rühmen des Ewigen Ehre” and Elsa’s Traum from Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin.” A third piece, not on the program, was Hugo Wolf’s “Heimweh” and which the critic obseved “was splendidly given” and “struck a particularly responsive chord in the audience.”
As for the cellist, Schallert wrote that “Mr. Simonsen as ever proved his artistic capabilities” with Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidre” for his instrument and orchestra. Tandler and the orchestra opened the concert with the overture from Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nuremburg and performed the conductor’s “Pierrot and Pierrette,” as well as closing with the Star-Spangled Banner.
With regard to the performers, three had direct family ties to Europe. Rider-Possart, was born in 1886 in Dubuque, Iowa, but was of German parentage, and she first came to Los Angeles in 1912, when her parents moved to the Westlake Park district. At the beginning of the next year, she gave her first public performance in the Angel City, and remained in the city for some years, living in the Silver Lake area and teaching piano as well as performing. She lived to her late nineties, dying in her hometown in 1963. The amazing budget classical label, Naxos, has a series of historic recordings by women pianists and Rider-Possart appears in the fifth volume with a rare 1926 non-commercial recording from Berlin of Alexander Scriabin’s Etude #3.
Simonsen, who was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1881, made his first appearance in Los Angeles in his late twenties. He became a member of the Brahms Quartet, which included Tandler, and continued performing and teaching until his death in 1944. He was married to Helen Thresher, the musician daughter of George P. Thresher, vice-president of the Los Angeles Building Company. Thresher was the first to buy a lot in the exclusive Westmoreland Place tract in the city and the family home was next door to the exuberant and eclectic mansion of tract developer Elden P. Bryan. Simonsen lived in the house with his wife until the family sold the house in 1941 and then lived in La Crescenta for the remaining three years of his life.
Helen Herbert was born in Budapest, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878, and migrated with her family to New York when she was ten years old. Though she was invited by Oscar Hammerstein to sing for the Metropolitan Opera Company, she turned down the offer to marry a doctor, Moses Thorner and raise her daughter, who became a pediatrician. Helen, however, continued to sing and toured widely for many years, including after she and her family moved to Los Angeles in 1914. Her first major local concert was at the Trinity Auditorium, situated at Grand Avenue and Ninth Street, that November. Helen also taught at Marymount College, an all-women’s Catholic school that later became part of today’s Loyola Marymount University, and then lived in Santa Barbara and Bakersfield, where she was part of both cities’ musical communities and she died at the latter in 1963.
Craft, however, did not hail from or have parents from Europe. She was born in Indianapolis, where her father, Hiram, was a government storekeeper and later was a bookkeeper. When he was in the Grand Army of the Republic during the Civil War, however, Hiram was a musician with the 57th Illinois Regiment. He followed that with regular service in the 98th Regiment of Ohio Volunteers (that being his home state) and was in Sherman’s March to the Sea campaign. Sarah Marcia, born in 1874, was the only child of Hiram and his wife Louisa, and, when she was twelve years old, the Crafts came to this region during the famed Boom of the Eighties and settled in Riverside.
There, Marcia, as she was then known, graduated from Riverside High School and already gained local renown for her remarkable voice, to the extent that a community subscription was organized to help her continue her studies in Boston, where she and her family lived. In the first years of the 20th century, she ventured to Italy to continue her musical education and garnered significant attention in that opera-obssessed nation.
By 1905, she was in Berlin, where she established herself as a major operatic figure, both in the capital and in the Bavarian capital of Münich. She was such a popular performer that Kaiser Wilhelm II took a personal interest in her singing and she was one of only three American women to be given the title of “kammersaengerin,” our court singer to the emperor’s household, the others being the renowned Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Lotte Lehman. An obituary for Craft stated that Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand stayed in Sarajevo an additional day to hear Craft sing in Giuseppe Verdi’s classic “La Traviata,” but he was assassinated that day, setting off World War I.
With the outbreak of the war, Craft, after five years in Münich which established her as an opera prima donna and with a farewell performance of “Madama Butterfly” given there before her departure and a presentation of a diamond necklace from the Kaiser, returned to America that fall and to greater Los Angeles. She appeared frequently in performance, including the aforementioned Fairyland opera at Clune’s Auditorium in June 1915 and the saengerfest the following month at the Shrine and Trinity auditoriums. She also performed that spring at the Easter sunrise service in Riverside, at which she appeared several times. Craft even turned down a $10,000 offer to star in movies just after her appearance at the grand concert.
Craft did return to Germany in 1922 and remained there for most of the next decade performing and teaching, though she did come back to Riverside briefly in the mid-Twenties. She came back to the region for good in 1932, though it is not known whether the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were involved in her decision. Settling again in Riverside, she established that city’s opera company and remained its director for a quarter century.
In 1956, she returned to Münich and it was said that she was frequently recognized by those who remembered her career decades before, while the gold chair said to be used by the Kaiser from the royal box at the city’s opera house was given to her to take back to her modest home. She suffered a series of strokes shortly thereafter and spent her remaining days in a Riverside rest home before her death at the end of 1957.
It was reported that she mastered some thirty operatic roles during her lengthy career and that composer Richard Strauss was so impressed with her that he rewrote his famous “Salome” for her voice and supervised her training for the role. She was best known for her star turn as Violetta in “La Traviata” and that opera was performed as the Riverside company completed its 25th season and Craft retired, two-and-a-half years before her death.
With regard to the German Red Cross benefit performance, it is unlikely anyone performing or attending would have any inkling that, just under a year later, the United States would declare war on Germany and a powerful anti-German sentiment would pervade the country. This program, then, is an interesting document, not just about the serious music scene in 1910s Los Angeles, but in the context of the war.