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Reminiscences of Maywood Courtright

Changes in the Symphony

Bands which marched in parades and played concerts in the park on Sundays and holidays were common all over America but orchestras were very rare, except in the larger cities, before the development of instrumental music programs in the schools began to turn out orchestra players in sufficient quantities to make symphony orchestras possible. Before 1910 or ‘20 nearly all of the personnel of American orchestras had been trained in European conservatories, mostly those of Germany, Austria and France. When I first arrived in Muskegon I kept hearing about Beerman’s band. Beerman was a German musician who had arrived in Muskegon a little before the Franco-German war of 1870. He opened a music store on Western Avenue where he gave lessons on band instruments, his students later forming the nucleus of the famous Beerman’s Band. His son Fred, was a talented pianist and his father sent him to Germany to continue his studies there hoping he would become a concert pianist. Unfortunately Fred enjoyed carousing and never got very far. When his father died he returned to Muskegon and took over the music store, the only one of any consequence in Muskegon. When I knew him he was very fat, always had a cigar in the corner of his mouth, but he was still an excellent pianist tho he practically never made use of his accomplishment. He let one of his employees, Charlie Sutton, run the business. He didn’t try to keep the band going.

It must have been about 1928 or ‘29 that the clarinetist whose name I can’t recall, decided to try to form an orchestra. He started by calling a number of musicians who were friends of his and asking them to come to his house for a meeting. It seems to me he name began with H so I’ll call him Harris. He was a graduate of the U. of Mich. and had been there at the same time I had. He was an excellent clarinetist. As a result of the meeting the first Muskegon Symphony was formed, at least we called it a symphony, altho a number of instruments were missing, there were no oboe or bassoon players, for example, and instead of a string bass we had a man who played sousaphone. We elected a board of directors from the orchestra members - I was one of them - and we made plans for hiring the Majestic Theatre stage for rehearsals and concerts. Charlie Sutton was asked to be director; he had access to a fair sized orchestral library and could buy music at wholesale thru Beerman’s music store. I was as enthusiastic as Harris was about forming an orchestra and did more than my share of telephoning to get more string players, arrange for rehearsals, write program notes, move the piano, any little job that needed doing. The only job I didn’t like was selling tickets. Francis Martin was concertmeister and his brother Alvin sat next to me at the first cello desk. The Martins were all very small. When Francis sat on an ordinary sized chair his feet barely touched the floor. When he and I walked out on a stage together, as we frequently did, it was a case of Mutt and Jeff.

The Majestic Theatre, located on the north side of Western Avenue between Jefferson and Third, had the largest stage in Muskegon before the new Muskegon High School was built next to the Hackley Vocational School, another of Charles Hackley’s gifts to the city. All important stage shows, concerts and lectures were booked there. It was there that I witnessed Pavlova in her famous “Dance of the Dying Swan.” It was not long after the symphony started using it for rehearsals however, that it was converted into a movie theater and we had to look for other quarters. When Charles Sutton died Fred Beerman was asked to act as conductor, tho some of the older members who were long-time residents of Muskegon were afraid he might not be reliable because of his reputation for heavy drinking. He never failed to show up for rehearsals and concerts, however, and it was evident that he knew his music. It was during the period that Beerman was director of the orchestra that I was studying music in New York and I took advantage of my situation to ransack the music stores in search of second-hand orchestral music. My best bargain was the Beethoven First Symphony, score and parts for 60 players for $6. We played it under Beerman and I, after I had a capable high school orchestra, practiced it in class tho we never performed any of it except the slow movement in public. Beerman improved the orchestra also by importing players from Grand Rapids for at least the final rehearsal and the concert. It was no longer necessary to substitute a trombone for a bassoon or a tuba for a bassviol.

Whe Fred Beerman died the Muskegon Symphony broke up. For two or three years there was no orchestra. Then one day I got a telephone call from Palmer Quackenbush, the new orchestra director in the Grand Haven school system, asking me what I thought about the idea of organizing another orchestra. I was all for it but we agreed that we would have to draw members from all of the small towns around Muskegon if we were to have a full-fledged symphony. Since I knew most of the musicians in Muskegon, Muskegon Heights and North Muskegon I did most of the telephoning to sound them out about the new orchestra. I don’t remember that anyone turned me down. Quackenbush got in touch with musicians around Grand Haven, Holland and other small towns. The new Muskegon High School building was completed by that time with a large auditorium and that was where our concerts were performed in Muskegon. Each program was also performed in Grand Haven the night after the Muskegon concert in the Grand Haven High School auditorium. Palmer was made conductor and I became assistant conductor and acted as librarian. I usually conducted one number at each concert.

Palmer Quackenbush had been a violin prodigy and had been concertmeister of the Grand Rapids Symphony while he was still in high school. He had been chosen for the job in Grand Haven when the school board there decided to develop a string program and an orchestra as well as a band.

During the first few years we ran the new orchestra, which we decided to call the West Shore Symphony, in the same manner as we had the former Muskegon Symphony, with a group of players making up a board of directors. We had to do everything, sell tickets, have programs printed, pay bills, find places to rehearse, write program notes (I usually did that), dicker with guests artists, everything connected with managing an orchestra. Some of us felt that all of those chores could be better taken care of if the orchestra had a board made up of people from the community were were interested in music but not members of the orchestra. I was much relieved when the new board took over my job of writing program notes and selling tickets. The orchestra improved right away as a half-dozen or more players from the Grand Rapids Symphony were hired to fill in where we were weak. Palmer Quackenbush was very much disappointed and hurt a few years later, however, when the board hired the assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony, Tauno Hannikainen to conduct the West Shore orchestra. Palmer acted as assistant conductor and rehearsed the orchestra except for the final rehearsal the night before the concert when Hannikainen came up from Chicago. After a couple of years as assistant conductor Palmer resigned his job in Grand Haven and I never heard of him after that.

The West Shore Symphony had its best years under the baton of Tauno Hannikainen. At least a dozen players were hired from the Grand Rapids Symphony to beef up the string section, double reeds (oboe and bassoons) and french horns. We began to sound like something and the morale improved. John Wheeler, a new organist and choir director at the Congregational Church was made assistant conductor and he assigned me to the first chair in the viola section where I remained until I retired. We usually had a nationally known soloist for each concert series, a singer, violinist, cellist or pianist as a rule.

After Hannikainen moved back to Finland a series of conductors were hired, a German violinist from Chicago who had played the Beethoven violin concerto with us once or twice, a professor of music from Ann Arbor and several others. After I left Muskegon, John Wheeler was made director and the symphony reduced in size to save the expense of hiring players from Grand Rapids.

Alfred Torgeson, the viola player with whom I had played quartets and quintets for so many years, died shortly before Hannikainen became director of the orchestra and his wife asked me to get a group together to play a movement of a quartet at his funeral. Al had requested it. The funeral was at 2 pm so I had to get permission from Mr. Booker to leave my class at high school for an hour and also find three others who could get off work for an hour or so. It was after Al died that I was given the first chair in the viola section. I eventually sold my cello. Harriet Risk, my best cello student who know teaches cello at the university in Ft. Worth, Texas, borrowed it when she entered music school at the U. of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After finishing college she got a scholarship to study cello in Vienna where she bought her own cello. Harriet married a horn player with a doctor’s degree in musicology whom she had met at the music camp at Interlochen and they both applied for scholarships to study in Vienna right after the second World War. It was the time when congress was giving money away right and left to try to get the European countries ruined by the conflict back on their feet. They spent a year in Vienna.

John Wheeler, who followed Ted Cook as organist and choir director at the Congregational Church, was much more active in promoting music in the church and the community than his two predecessors had been, was the best pianist in Muskegon. His first appearance with the orchestra was in a performance of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” while Quackenbush was conductor. He was always extracting money from the church board to pay instrumental musicians to accompany the choir in such works as the requiems of Gabriel Faure and Brahms, cantatas, oratorios and masses which are much more effective with orchestras than with pipe organ. I played viola in a Brahms piano quartet with Wheeler at the piano, Warner Gelombec, a Jew, on violin, and Maynard Buck, Catholic, playing cello at an evening service. Nearly all of John’s special musical presentations were on Sunday evenings and we generally rehearsed on Sunday afternoons. A new Congregational Church was built during Wheeler’s first years in Muskegon and the old one in the downtown area torn down. There was more room in the new one for an orchestra and choir.

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Quartets and Other Musical Groups
We Buy Our First House for $2,500 and Remodel It

Last modified on 16 April 2018 @ 23:31