Striking a Chord with a Program for the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, 11 April 1913

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This latest installment of the “Striking a Chord” series of posts on music history in Los Angeles prior to 1930 highlights, from the Homestead’s holdings, the program for the sixth and final concert of the sixteenth season of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra (LASO), held at the [Temple Baptist Church] Auditorium on 11 April 1913.

The performance was an unusual Friday matinee at 3 p.m. and marked the final appearance as conductor of the ensemble’s founder, Harley E. Hamilton (1861-1933), a critical figure in so-called classical, or serious, music circles in the Angel City from his arrival in 1883 until his retirement three decades later.

An early photo of a fabulously mustachioed Harley Hamilton from the Oneida Community Mansion House, where he was raised and where he lived late in life, as uploaded by Laura Wayland-Smith Hatch to Find-a-Grave.

A prior post on this blog provided some of Hamilton’s history, including that he was born in the Perfectionist communal Oneida Society roughly halfway because Syracuse and Utica in upstate New York and, after that society dissolved in 1881, the violinist joined a minstrel troupe and ended up in Los Angeles two years later. He spent some time in Tustin in what became Orange County, but quickly made his name as a musician and conductor, including the founding, in 1893, of the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra and, four years later, the LASO.

Though it was stated that his resignation from the LASO was because of a need for rest after his 16 years of labor and desire to travel through the music capitals of Europe, it has been suggested that declining hearing was the main reason. In any case, Hamilton was listed as a musician in the 1920 census, but later moved back to the Oneida Community Limited’s Mansion House and remained there until not long before his death.

Los Angeles Municipal News, 2 April 1913.

His swansong included a program that began with a symphonic poem based on Rudyard Kipling’s “The Light That Failed” by LASO first violinist Charles E. Pemberton, who also headed the music department at the University of Southern California, and was followed by Anton Dvorak’s “From the New World” symphony, then numbered as his fifth but subsequently reclassified as his ninth and which abundantly used American musical themes.

Following an intermission, there was the performance of Franz Liszt’s First Concerto in E Flat and a Grand Festival March and Hymn to Liberty by German composer Hugo Kaun (whose son Bernhard was a film composer for such classics as Frankenstein [1931], King Kong [1933], Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times [1936] and Gone With the Wind [1939].)

The featured soloist was pianist Josef Lhevinne (born Levin in Russia) who won renown in his native country before his American debut in 1906 and then moved to the United States in 1919 and taught at the Julliard School (his wife Rosina was a virtuoso on the piano, as well as a teacher of such pupils as Van Cliburn.

Notable among the musicians in the orchestra was the 21-year old Ferde Von Grofe, who, after dropping the “Von” and focusing more on piano rather than the viola he played for the LASO (his grandfather was a violoncello player for the ensemble) was widely known for his compositions and arranging for the so-called “King of Jazz,” Paul Whiteman and his own big band dance orchestra.

Long Beach Telegram, 8 April 1913.

Playing bass tuba in the orchestra was Martin Knoll, who was in his mid-sixties but had been a fixture in the Angel City music scene since his arrival in 1887. Knoll, who lived to be 99 years old, was also the father of Harry Martin Knoll, a musician and the first wife of Josephine M. Workman, granddaughter of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, but who died early in 1908 at just age 26 due to liver cancer.

The orchestra had one female member, harpist Myrtle Ouellet, who also played and taught the piano and, in a January 1910 feature in the Los Angeles Times on women who were expert automobile drivers was highlighted for her skills behind the wheel. There was a sole person of color in the ensemble, Hilario Tomás Espinosa (1868-1919), who played both oboe and English horn. The native of Culiacán, México, who migrated to the United States at age 17 in 1885 joined, as Hamilton did, the band of the 7th Regiment of the California National Guard in 1896, though little is known of his life and work as a professional musician.

With regard to the officers of the orchestra, they included President Victoria Witmer, whose banker brother Henry was also a real estate and street car line developer featured in a post on this blog about the Crown Hill area west of downtown; Vice-President Hattie Sisson Raymond, whose husband Walter built South Pasadena’s landmark Raymond Hotel and ran a famous American excursion company; and treasurer James Slauson, son of the prominent real estate owner and developer Jonathan S. Slauson.

Directors of the symphony included the officers as well as Dr. Norman Bridge; Leslie Green Huntington, whose husband Howard was the son of the powerful transportation and real estate tycoon and books, manuscripts and art collector Henry E. Huntington; Florence Green Bixby, who, with her husband Fred, owned the Rancho Los Alamitos, the ranch house, gardens and outbuildings of which are a historic site near Cal State Long Beach; Louise Eshman Kerckhoff, wife of William, a prominent utility executive; and many others.

Los Angeles Municipal News, 9 April 1913.

Associate members for the 1912-1913 season included mainly women, including those associated with the board as well as some men, and among the prominent surnames as Blach, Barlow, Baruch, Bilicke, Botsford, Brainerd, Brunswig, Childs, Clark, Cohn, Doheny, Garland, Guasti, Hancock, Huntington, Murphy, Otis, Sartori, Sherman, and Mamie Perry Modini-Wood, this last being a Los Angeles-born (she was daughter of lumber magnate William H. Perry) operatic soprano. Some of the associates were also special contributors.

Assisting Hamilton as concert master was first violinist Arnold Krauss, born in Bucharest, Romania and who played throughout Europe and America before a long career in the Angel City music world including fourteen years working under the LASO’s conductor. As to the venue, the [Temple Baptist Church] Auditorium, located across the north end of Central or Sixth Street Park, later known as Pershing Square, was a prominent venue for live theater as well as music for decades. Its manager was the omnipresent Lynden E. Behymer, who had a prominent hand in so much of the cultural activities of Los Angeles for decades.

The extensive program notes for the concert were written by Waldo F. Chase, a 61-year old pianist and organist who was born in San Francisco and came to Los Angeles in 1897. He was a composer as well as a church organist and teacher and his noted include examples of scores as well as great detail about the pieces. Chase lived to the hoary age of 104 and died in Whittier, where he long lived with his daughter, a high school business teacher.

Also included in the program was “General Information,” with admonitions about promptness of arrival, decorum during the performance (no talking and removal of hats), where the parlors were situated, how advance tickets could be purchased, carriage arrangements, and how to obtain subscriptions to the program notes. Lists of main pieces played over the fifteen preceding years, as well as works available in the LASO library also were provided in the publication.

Los Angeles Times, 11 April 1913.

As to press coverage, there was a good deal of attention paid to Lhevinne’s appearances in the Angel City prior to the LASO concert and including the lauding of his “stupendous technical accomplishment” as well as his “finished musical qualities.” A short piece called “Musical Aims of Los Angeles” and which appeared in newspapers around the country observed that, while Los Angeles only had 300,000 residents, it “supports a symphony orchestra and has done so for 15 years,” thanks to Hamilton’s leadership.

Yet, it was noted that “it is the ambition of Los Angeles musicians to make their city the center of American music” and “it is pointed out that California is particularly rich in romantic folklore of Indian, Spanish, and American origin, particularly suited to operatic treatment.” Notably, John Steven McGroarty’s Mission Play, was completing its second season at the mission town of San Gabriel and was certainly the theatrical embodiment of that “romantic folklore.”

The Long Beach Telegram of 8 April observed that, with Lhevinne’s spotlight with the Liszt concerto being “sufficient to call out a large crowd,” it was noted that another reason to attend was “that this will be Harley Hamilton’s farewell for a year as he goes to Europe for a much-needed rest.”

The next day’s edition of the paper added that he was also taking “an opportunity to study the symphony work of the old world” having during his tenure with the LASO “raised the standard of symphonic music to a high pinnacle in Southern California.” This longer article went into some detail about the works in the program and concluded that the prior fifteen years of the ensemble was educational, inspirational and educational.

Times, 12 April 1913.

The Los Angeles Express of the 9th reported that the Monday Musical Club, meeting at the home of music store owner George J. Birkel, paid tribute to Hamilton and adopted “resolutions of appreciation” for his many years of service to the LASO, recording that he “has accomplished more than any other person in the cultivation of all that is best in music in Los Angeles.”

The same day’s Los Angeles Municipal News paid a lengthy tribute to Lhevinne, who “astonished and delighted” those who heard him at the Auditorium in an earlier recital, but it did aver that he had become “overtrained” in his technique and interpretation, though the piece claimed that “many listeners would not detect” this condition.

The paper wondered if he was aiming for “perfection plus” in “a straining for original and bizarre effects” through shifts in accent and an “eccentricity in phrasing” including “taking liberties” with pieces by Brahms and Chopin. It concluded that the maestro was “searching for new difficulties in problems he has already completely mastered” even if he was deemed likely the greatest pianist at the time.

With respect to the LASO final, the Municipal News wondered “whether the organization will be kept together after he leaves or whether it will be allowed to disband,” though it added that nothing definite had been determined and “there is every reason to believe that it will continue.” This was, in fact, the case, and the baton was passed from Hamilton to Adolf Tandler, as a prior post here featuring a December 1914 program of an LASO concert discusses.

Los Angeles Record, 12 April 1913.

The Los Angeles Times of the day of the concert added that Hamilton’s extended European excursion also included the fact that “his talented daughter will study art” in addition to that well-earned R&R. The paper’s review by Hector Alliot, a booster of an operatic festival mounted by Behymer the preceding winter and who was a curator and director of the Southwest Museum until his death in 1919, began by observing that

Audience and players combined to make the sixth and last symphony concert of the season one to be long remembered by all.

It seemed as though the members of the orchestra attempted their utmost as a token of love for their leader who, after sixteen seasons, laid down his ivory baton.

Following the Dvorak symphony, Alliot recorded that “during the intermission . . . Harley Hamilton was repeatedly called to receive a large laurel wreath and the heartfelt good wishes of his friends, admirers and co-workers.” When the Liszt concerto ended, it was reported that Lhevinne “received the most flattering ovation a soloist has ever received here” and was called back to the stage ten or more times, while he played three encores.

Alliot allowed that the virtuoso was among the very few musicians of the time who “combine ability unsurpassed and lovable personal qualities.” Once the Kaun works ended, “Harley Hamilton bowed and slowly retired, followed by the applause of the standing audience and the strains of his orchestra.”

The Los Angeles Record, in its brief review, observed that, while the concert should have been about the orchestra and the retirement of its conductor, Lehvinne’s rendition of the Liszt concerto was such that “he was the sensation of the afternoon and, in many respects, of the whole musical season.”

Express, 26 April 1913.

Extolling his generosity in offering the trio of encores, the paper concluded that the pianist was such that “his art is indescribable, and incomparable.” The orchestra was lauded for its rendition of the Dvorak symphony, while Pemberton’s symphonic poem was “very musical and effective” and that last word was used to describe Kaun’s works.

Hamilton’s retirement was not quite in effect after the concert as there was a testimonial to him by both the LASO and the Los Angeles Woman’s Symphony Orchestra, held at the Auditorium on 2 May with the Times of 27 April noting that “this concert is unique as bringing together two organizations, which have been under the able leadership of the same conductor.”

The paper added that the combination of the two ensembles was due to the work of Cora Foy, president of the woman’s orchestra and whose sister Mary has been featured here previously, she being a “great admirer and friend of the maestro.” Works from Beethoven, Chopin, Grieg, Mendelssohn, von Weber and Wagner were to be on the program for that performance. Three days later, the paper added that the concert “is for the benefit of the Harley Hamilton testimonial fund to be raised prior to Hamilton’s departure for Europe for a year.”

The Vancouver [British Columbia] Sunset reported that Hamilton was also presented with his baton by the orchestra’s board of directors, who also gave him “a purse of $4,000, and in addition they also lifted a $2,000 mortgage on Mr. Hamilton’s home, a debt incurred through his financial support of the organization he led. The piece concluded,

The Hamilton activity in Los Angeles has been a more than worthy one, his ideals always being of the highest, and his striving ever in the cause of only what is best in music. Personally, Harley Hamilton is one of the most popular musicians on the Pacific coast.

Another notable summary is that of the Express of 26 April which opined that “this testimonial [of 2 May] is not only a tribute to a deserving conductor, but a tribute to the men and women who have managed to keep alive the symphony work in the past.” Beyond this, the performances of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra from 1897-1913 were reflective of the evolution and advancement of classical music in a city that was undergoing tremendous growth and the development of arts and culture and this program is emblematic of these conditions.

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