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Interview with: Carl R. Cunningham
Date: July 16, 1976
Archive Number: OH033
LM: I’d like to begin the interview by talking a bit about your experiences before you moved to Houston. You worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, I believe.
CC: That’s right, I was there from September 1965 until—I guess—it would be in the May or June, 1966, and that was on the second year of a training program under the Rockefeller foundation, training in music criticism. The first year had been spent at the University of Southern California, and that would’ve been 1964-65. The second year, the five of us who were in this fellowship program, went to work on the various major newspapers, and I worked on the San Francisco Chronicle for that year in practical experience with the editor.
LM: What lead you to the Houston Post?
CC: There were three jobs offered to me. I would say that the reason I did not stay in San Francisco was that there were not jobs available there in my field. However, there were openings on the Houston Post since my predecessor Huard Purcell was retiring. There was an opening on the Dallas Morning News, since John Rosenfield was retiring, and there was an opening on the San Diego Union. All of these became available around December or January. I was notified of the availability for the following fall around that time, and I made a trip to all three cities, and had some opportunity to access the musical life and to meet the people on the newspapers in all three cities.
02:15 I felt that the greatest opportunity and the broadest musical life existed in Houston. Although at that time, I recognized and, let us say, that I anticipated that it would be a more conservative musical environment than I knew in San Francisco.
LM: It was a bit of a cultural shock?
CC: There was a little bit of a cultural shock, which lasted for about three years. While I found certainly a major orchestra here, and a fairly good opera company, and some chamber music that was certainly of significant professional quality, I felt that this city, its cultural and musical interests were quite conservative, very much attune to the 19th, and at best, the very earliest 20th century music. There certainly was not the amount of musical activity here, in some instances. In many instances, I think that the quality of performances, I felt, compared decently with what could be heard in other major cities.
I must say that I found the first two or three years quite hard to stay here. The thing that I did like was—I think I should say—I liked the people. I found them to be very friendly in Houston, and very patient.
LM: While you were patient with them at the same time?
CC: Well, no I think they felt I was impatient. It took certainly a number of years for me to become used to the climate and used to the fact that this is built on a very flat plain. Whereas, I am used to mountains, but eventually I became accustomed to it, and I think, relatively happy here now.
LM: Who was conducting the symphony when you first came here?
CC: John Barbirelli was conducting the symphony. He was the conductor in chief—I believe—was his title. I do not believe he held the title music director at that time, but certainly he had that responsibility, something comparable to that. That was the year that Jones Hall opens, would’ve been the fall of 1966. That’s when I date my knowledge of the city, pretty much from that point, the fall of 1966.
LM: You mentioned a conservatism in the view of music. Was this due to the selection by the symphony company or the audience? What do you attribute this primarily to, the selection of the music?
CC: 05:58 I think in art and in music, in particular, Houston has had its periods of time when the musical and the art leaders have chosen to emphasize trends, either in the 19th or in the 20th century. I believe the James Johnson Sweeney was a very forward-looking person in the field of art here when he was the director of the art division. Leopold Stokowski programmed a great deal of 20th century music during his years with the Houston symphony. That would’ve been 1959 to ’63—I believe.
Sir John Barbirelli is very much of a 19th century man, and he was rooted very much in that tradition. During those years, he had certainly made his career and made his reputation known, and he certainly did perform the music that by and large, he wanted to perform, and felt most comfortable with. That—I think—more than anything, dictated the taste. It was my impression that there were a lot of people who felt as I felt, that we could have a broader balance of 20th century music, especially on Houston symphony programs.
Nevertheless, Sir John Barbirelli, I always credit him with making me appreciate 19th century music again. During my years in college, graduate school especially at the University of Southern California, and during my year in San Francisco, I had certainly become acquainted with and pretty much interested in a lot of trends in 20th century music. Like many people at that time of their lives, I tended to look down on 19th century music and take less interest in it. However, Sir John Barbirelli was really an authoritative conductor of the music of Mahler, Sibelius, Puccini, WC, specially the impressionists, WC and Rebel. I always, looking back, regarded it as one of my great privileges to hear his performances of these works, because I oftentimes now measure other performances against the standard that he set.
09:31 Yes, he was one person who certainly encouraged a certain conservatism in the city. I would say that the same was true of a lot of chamber music. It was to some extent true of Houston opera as well, although Walter Hubert, at that time, had interests and leanings in 20th century music. I believe he felt hesitant to explore them as much as he would liked to have, because he felt the opera company did not yet have the resources to perform a lot of 20th century operas, as they should be performed. He certainly felt that there was some reluctance, a great deal of reluctance, upon the part of the opera audience to entertain new such works. I would say he a fairly ambitious thinking person, and he did some significant things in the inner 20th century opera.
LM: Why did Barbirelli step down?
CC: Barbirelli, why did he step down?
LM: Or perhaps why was he asked to step down?
CC: He—I believe—mentioned it officially that he wanted to spend more time in England, and I think that he recognized that at that point in the Houston symphony development, a younger man with more energy should take over. Now, I do not know whether the impetus for change came from him, or whether there was some encouragement on the part of the symphony board. I would say that he certainly, to my knowledge, had the friendliest relation with the symphony board and the symphony orchestra of any conductor, probably since Earnest Hoffman.
The period of time from 1962 through the spring of ’68, spring of ’67, I guess it was—was I think a relatively stable and peaceful time for the Houston symphony in the inner relationships. I think that he was generally admired and well liked in Houston, although I believe that audiences were beginning to feel that we should, as I’m saying, perhaps get on with a slightly more modern repertoire and a younger person who had more energy.
LM: Was there a significant change in the programming once he left?
CC: With any conductor, there’s a change. Now, Sir John Barbirelli did not leave. He diminished the number of programs here, and he was retained as conductor emeritus until his death in 1970, and was indeed engaged the following season. He died in the summer of 1970. Yes,
13:30 Andre Previn changed the programming, I would say, to some degree. Under Previn, he introduced some early 20th century Russian music, Shostakovich, and some Prokofiev. He was also rather found of Rachmaninoff’s music, and he has maintained the special interest in the music of Vaughan Williams. As to whether this represented a change from Sir John Barbirelli, I don’t know, because he certainly also played a good deal upon Williams and . . . on his programs, on those composers. Previn did do the music of some American composers. We had a little bit more Copeland and William Schuman. In some instances, he had some prodding from the critics to do this.
LM: Anyone in particular?
CC: [laughing] I think that if you look in biological you will find, as far as that. I would not say that there was a—I personally felt that Andre Previn’s programming did not get down to a lot of what one might call the meat of repertoire, as a person of his technical musical abilities might have. He certainly is a very able conductor, and he had a fondness for work for a brilliant effect. I personally felt that he favored music that was rather superficial in its content.
The conductor who followed him briefly for a year and part of another year in 1969-70 and for some concerts in 1970, ’71, Antonio de Almeida, was to my mind, the conductor who knew best how to put a program of music together, that had very fascinating new relationships. He could make you see the relationship between a piece of music that came from the early 20th century, to a piece of music that would either extend back 40 to 70 years, or something that would be very modern. His programs, on paper, were really fascinating document. He was not a musically talented conductor, and the technical level of the orchestra was certainly well below that before or since. The musical inspiration that he generated in the act of conducting was not very high, but he was an intelligent man, and extremely knowledgeable musical scholar.
17:36 I think that Lawrence Foster has given us, in the years since he’s taken over, the proper kind of a balance of musical repertoire that we should have. With some noteworthy exceptions, I have been more satisfied with what he has brought to the symphony audience this year. He has also—I think—proven to be a genuinely musical conductor, with a good deal of the musical feeling that I missed in Previn’s conducting. Certainly, he is as technically skilled as Previn. He has also grown and matured over the five years—maybe it’s six now that he’s been here—so that he is now becoming certainly a very decided asset to Houston symphony in that avenue of an artistic director.
LM: You’ve touched on some of points in the questions I’m going to ask you now, but perhaps we could tie it together in a neat package.
LM: As a critic, what do you look for in a conductor?
CC: Well, I suppose at various times during the ten years I’ve been doing things here, I’ve looked at different qualities. I think early on, I tended to be a very intellectual critic, academic to the point of annoying my readership sometimes, because I used to become quite annoying when performing groups, performers who conductors would omit repetitions of certain sections in the scores. I used to hear about this a good deal in the back flack that comes our way.
I think certainly, as I have had the opportunity to hear more and to grow in my work, I have certainly become more interested, and I think I always have been interested, in the musical quality and my mood by what I hear. Certainly, we are all offended by sloppiness in a performance, but sometimes even a sloppy performance can be an exciting performance if one feels that there is a quality of inspiration in the music, and it’s communicated. I think that what I most listen for is for something to be said to me, for a point of view that be taken that stimulates my imagination, my thinking, my response to the music.
It’s entirely true that a very good performance or a very bad performance is going to produce a very readable review. It’s going to pull the adjectives, and verbs, and the sentiments out of you. A perfectly respectable, dull performance is going to bring about a perfectly dull review. It certainly does not inspire you too much in the way of praise or blame, and those are the hardest performances to review.
LM: Do you sit there with paper and pad while the music is going on?
CC: At one time, certainly, early on, I tended to take notes, and sometimes I still do. More and more, I tend to simply listen and record my impressions. Some people wonder how I can do that; however, that’s the way I work, and I guess whatever value it has comes out on paper, and it can be judged for its merit or lack of it.
LM: The critic’s critic.
CC: Yes, indeed.
LM: During the years that you have been here, the symphony has gone through some growing pains or pains in general. One of them occurred in ’69 with the wage disputes. I think you were active and involved in that experience?
CC: I’ve been actively involved, yes and no, for them. Some people feel I’m too actively involved with them. There have been—I believe—four contracts negotiated—well, let us say—let’s see, 4—’67, ’69, ’71, ’73. This present one that is not yet negotiated is the fifth. Yes, I have been actively involved in reporting them, and as I mentioned, some people feel I have been too actively involved.
23:29 I was rather appalled and certainly disheartened to see that the minimum wage of musicians, the weekly minimum wage, at the time that I arrived, was around $150 for a period of certainly less than full annual employment. I cannot quite recall the number of weeks they were employed now, but it was somewhere 30 and 40, I believe. Their annual minimum wage was somewhere around $4,000. Remarkably, their minimum annual wage has risen, I believe at the end of the contract just expired, to about $14,000. I certainly must have some envy for the salary increases, the percentage of salary increases they have earned as compared perhaps with a lot of others of us who have worked through that 10-year period.
They have made dramatic increases. They certainly feel that their salaries are below orchestras that are of comparable quality in cities that are of comparable importance. The cities most frequently cited by Houston symphony musicians are Minneapolis where the Minnesota orchestra resides, Pittsburg, St. Louis, Cincinnati. Washington D.C. used to be cited. I hear it cited less frequently. These are standard cities used for comparison. The Houston symphony musicians also feel that this is the 5th largest city in the United States, and that salary-wise their orchestra ranks about 16th.
While I believe their statistic concerning the size of the city and it’s rank is true, I believe if they were to compare the whole metropolitan area—which encompasses a great many suburban communities in the Gulf Coast area—and the size of the population, I think we are about 12th or 13th in metropolitan area. Then perhaps it is not inappropriate for us to be the 15th and 16th, is so inappropriate for us to be at that salary rank. At the same time, I believe that a city such as Cincinnati is considerable smaller than Houston, and its orchestra ranks far higher on the salary scale.
The Cincinnati symphony goes back to the first part of this century or perhaps even earlier, but I believe it was formed about the year 1900. It has had an unbroken existence since that time. The Houston symphony claims to be in its 61st or 62nd year or season. Actually, the Houston symphony as an orchestra existed from 1913 to 1916, when the orchestra had to be disbanded because of the First World War. The orchestra did not again resume activities until about 1931 or 1932, so its life as an orchestra has not only be interrupted, but its total years of performing music to the city have been far fewer than some of these other orchestras in these other cities.
28:12 The Houston symphony society maintained itself as an organization, which occasionally sponsored concerts during the interim between 1916 and 1931. Our musical life has been shorter and therefore, perhaps because it has been shorter, it has been more superficial than in some of these other cities where more people take a more genuinely appreciative attitude towards the orchestra than in this city.
LM: According the research I’ve done, it appears that one of the most critical periods in negotiating for wages occurred in ’69, and—I think—that was shortly before General Hirsch, Maurice Hirsch, resigned.
CC: That was one of the more critical ones. I believe that each negotiation has been more critical than the last since I’ve been here. Certainly the 1969 period was the noisiest. That was more due to the dismissal, the firing of Andre Previn. I think then the wage contract, the union wage contract, and I believe that at that time, the musicians and the city itself had cause to feel that a few people were taking responsibility for things that should have been brought to the attention of a larger body. Previn’s dismissal was decided by four people, as it eventually came out, and there was a great human cry, because he was certainly was a widely known person, and a very popular person with a lot of people.
31:06 They were not necessarily the people who were going to go out and subscribe to symphony concerts or give $1,000 to support the symphony. They were the people who thought Andre Previn represented a new and—what should I say—younger attitude on life, and he brought a spirit of youth to the symphony, but they didn’t necessarily go out to hear him conduct symphonic concerts. The subscriptions for years show that during his two years as conductor, the symphony society lost about 800 subscribers. The subscriptions did not begin to build up until Vons Foster came back, came into the picture a couple of years down the line.
LM: Was his dismissal justified, do you think?
CC: That’s a hard question to answer.
LM: That’s opinionated, I realize, but—
CC: There was a breakdown in communication on both sides. I believe that Andre Previn, my contacts with him, indicated that he was very much interested in himself and in the promotion of his own name, and having the symphony suddenly grow to be a supporting organization and a vehicle which could do a lot of things that he wanted to do. He spoke about world tours or tours to bigger cities and things like that, things that would certainly add to his name as a symphony conductor.
He was at that time just starting out a career as a symphony conductor, and I believe he had expectations which it was not possible to realize, because there was not the broad financial support, nor was it broad on his interests in the symphony conscious that he was conducting here. We did not have the packed houses, and the symphony society was simply unable to provide the money and was unwilling, I gathered, to try to gain the influence that he might have wanted. These are things that grow slowly, and they grow as an organization grows. That organization grows as its board, as its orchestral membership grows and perfects itself and is the conductor comes and builds with the community.
All of these things happen together, and then an orchestra is ready for a world tour or something like that. Other orchestras have done this over the years. I would say certainly the Los Angeles Philharmonic is one example of an orchestra that is pushing for main major statue than it has ever had. Zubin Mehta has been there since the early 1960s, if not as far back as 1959. He certainly built with the community before the orchestra began going on world tours, and now that he’s going on to the New York Philharmonic, he will have completed—I believe—17 years in Los Angeles, still a young man.
35:29 Previn wanted to do these things in Houston after only two years. More time was needed. There was lack of communication. Certainly, he was a young man with ambitious, progressive ideas, and he was indeed dealing with a board and a managerial structure that was quite conservative. I believe that both sides allowed things to happen that should not have happened, and the break was inevitable. It’s hard to answer that question by saying whether his dismissal was justified. I think it would be more appropriate to say that it was the marriage that was not designed to work, that could not have worked.
LM: It appeared from the paper that the real directing force behind the symphony was General Hirsch.
CC: He was indeed, and he certainly was the spokesman. Once again, I believe there was a very closely held group of major supporters who determined the course of the orchestra. At the same time, they were the people who were providing a lot of the support for the orchestra and doing a lot of the work to keep it alive. People tend to complain that they don’t have a voice in the affairs of the symphony, but one wonders if they are doing the work or are willing to do the work if they do get the voice. There’s no question about the fact that General Hirsch was indeed a spokesman for the symphony, and he could be an eloquent and impassioned spokesman for the symphony. He provided excellent copy, as we say.
LM: His view of programming for the symphony was conservative. Would that be correct to say?
CC: I don’t necessarily know that General Hirsch dictated programming for the symphony or that any of the board members dictated programming for the symphony. Certainly, several people from time to time will talk to a conductor. I remember Lawrence Foster mentioning at one point at which time Ima Hogg had expressed an interest in hearing a piece of music, and he certainly ceded to that gesture. It was a piano concerto, and I wish I could remember what it was. It was something that happened his last season. A pianist returned to Houston, and on his previous experience, Miss Hogg had mentioned her interest in hearing him play that concerto, and I believe that Lawrence Foster did certainly encourage and grant that request.
She didn’t live to hear that, but that is an example of a great many requests that a conductor will hear from individual board members. However, I do not believe that General Hirsch ever sat down and blue penciled slated programs for the Houston symphony. I believe certainly he left that up to the conductors, and what the music we heard was largely their choice. Their choice was determined in part by what they wanted to conduct, in part by what they felt the Houston symphony audiences were ready to hear.
LM: General Hirsch had spoken several times of stepping down before he actually did. I was wondering if these events that occurred in ’69 had anything to do with it, as far as you know.
CC: Well, I believe that in 1969, there was mutual feeling that there should be a change in the leadership of the symphony society. He had provided a continuity for 14 years, and I believe they felt at that time, just as they felt that a younger conductor was needed on the artistic side, I believe they felt that younger people should be encouraged to come in and take over the board activities. Also, that period of time, I would say certainly his last five years and especially at the point of about the early 1970s, became a time when orchestra budgets all over the country were escalating, because orchestras members were demanding a 52-week season, a full annual employment, and shocked orchestra budgets up perilously high.
41:29 Most of the major orchestras also have the requirement of raising $2 million to match the Ford Foundation grant, which I believe was granted to 69 orchestras in various amounts. The major orchestras mostly got grants of about $2 million, some less, some more, and our Houston symphony had to match that with another $2 million. That was a very large funding requirement in those days, and I’m sure it would be now. It required an enormous effort on the part of a lot of people, so that the days of an orchestra being supported by a few major donors are over, and those days began to disappear certainly around the 1970s.
There is no longer much personal wealth to pay off a deficit of what is now $1.4 million. Nobody can write a check for that amount, and it has to be done through the combined help of government, foundations, and corporations. At that point, the Houston symphony went out and certainly sought the leadership from corporate executives. That was the point at which Dr. Charles F. Jones came in to succeed him, and he was at that time, I believe—I’m trying to remember—he was a very high executive in the Exxon corporation. I’m not exactly sure of his title, so I can’t remember what it is.
LM: If someone’s interested enough, they can check on it. You mentioned before they thought that a change was needed. Are you speaking of the membership in the society?
CC: The membership in the society, particularly the executive committee, yes.
LM: Was there a notable change in the direction that the symphony when Jones took over?
CC: Well, at various points in the symphony things have changed. Perhaps not so much when one looks over the history of relationships between board and orchestra over the past ten years, one sees certain patterns. However, certainly at the point when Andre Previn came in, there was a change toward younger people on the artistic side, younger conductors, younger soloists performing with the orchestra, and this certainly was the beginning of a period of greater interest in 20th century music. At the time that the board changes came in the beginning of 1969 and ’70, along in there, certainly there was, as I have already intimated, a greater interest in seeking wider support in the community, and in seeking assistance from the corporate element and the industrial element in Houston.
45:25 At the time of the change in managers in 1973, now this is another significant element. I would say that there has been a change certainly in an attempt to seek new ideas of publicizing the orchestra and in circulating the orchestra more widely in the community. However, this has all been a growing process throughout the past five years, so one cannot necessarily point to dramatic changes that one can attribute to this person, that person, or the other. It has all been a rather gradual and growing process.
I would say, in general, this orchestra and its policies, and its outreach to the community is just now beginning to match and to imitate some ideas that are being explored in other communities. I would say over the past three or four years, it has begun to do that. This in part has to do with the fact that Houston is geographically far separated from the rest of the United States, as I’m sure that people who have discussed many areas of our community life have noted. We are very far south. We are a great distance from other cities of comparable size, of cities who have orchestras comparable to ours. I wouldn’t say there was a dramatic change, no, but there has certainly been a gradual change.
LM: To close off our talk on this aspect of the interview, is there a certain style which the symphony has now acquired through Lawrence Foster, a bit distinct? You mentioned that we are removed from the other areas of the country. Is there a personal style that he has brought to the office to which could be distinguishable from the others?
CC: Well, I would say probably the major conductors and the elder statesman had more of a personal style than the younger men who have succeeded them. In the case of John Barbirelli, he was the one that I certainly became acquainted with when I came to Houston. I mean—his style was the first one that I became familiar with. I always felt that at that point in his career, Barbirelli was letting the music speak naturally for itself, that he was up there, and that it came across. When he had a wonderful performance from Sir John Barbirelli, the conductor did not seem to be a barrier to the expression of the music. Sir John Barbirelli was also a string player, a cellist, and he is credited with giving the Houston symphony strings the great warmth of tone which is noted even when they perform elsewhere. When conductors come here frequently, this is a characteristic, this is the special characteristic quality of this orchestra, and it has remained.
Now, Previn, as I mentioned, it came to my way of hearing in kind of a hard brilliant sheen to the orchestra. He got more precision out of it, so that it was a cleaner sound. He was here for two years. If he had stayed for a longer period of time, perhaps the tone of the orchestra would’ve changed. During the one or two years since then, we had a succession of conductors, and I don’t believe that the orchestra was affected to a sizeable degree by that.
50:10 Since Foster has come, I believe he has carried on some of the traditions of Previn and some of the those of Barbirelli. He has always said that he has tried to keep the warm sound, but to get everyone to play together. He has tried to keep the warmth and the cleanliness. Lawrence Foster and I have had a great many discussions over the years, and some of them sharp, but ultimately, friendly. He has acknowledged the fact that part of the Barbirelli sound consisted of the fact that he allowed certain sloppiness’s to persist, and this produced a certain individuality, a certain sense of self expression among the string players, and this contributed to the warmth of tone, rather than having everything dictated precisely from above.
Nevertheless, I would say he has perhaps given the—I believe, previously I used the notion of a slightly meatier quality in the music, and I believe the orchestra has a meatier sound. Now, he has made certain replacements, especially in the woodwind and additions in the woodwind and the brass sections of the orchestra, and this has affected the tone of the orchestra, so that it has more body in these areas. It is at this point, a little bit hard to define a specific Lawrence Foster sound. I think because he is too young, and it is not to say that what he is doing is bad. It is just that it takes a great many years of working with an orchestra to establish your own style.
Over the past three years, especially—I think—I have begun to notice a certain relaxation in his conducting that has allowed more freedom of expression and the beginnings of a style that one day will be called Lawrence Foster style. I would say that that is yet to come. Certainly the orchestra is probably playing at its finest under his direction, when they have the opportunity to perform and rehearse in a long continuous period. As our present season is set up in Houston, we alternate opera, ballet, and other performances with those by the Houston symphony, and the Houston symphony as an organization does not get to sit down and work out, so to say, for a long period of time together.
They are sometimes playing under another conductor in opera, another conductor in ballet. They’re off on a tour. They’re divided up into subgroups, and things like that, so that as a unit under his direction especially, they don’t get a long period to rehearse and perform together. When they do, the performance level is indeed quite high, as was indicated by the extended period—it must have been six or seven weeks this spring at the beginning of their tour at the end of March, through much of April and May—in which he had the orchestra directly under his command. They came back, and especially at the end, and their ability to perform together, and to listen and hear, and anticipate what each other is going to do, and this proved quite high. Have I answered your question or talked all around it?
LM: Yes. No, I think you answered it. We could talk a few minutes about the opera.
CC: Yes, that’s also a colorful topic.
LM: Yeah, some people include it in that area, although I know some that resent that. What was the quality of the opera under Walter Herbert?
CC: Well, I think the opera was generally regarded as a rather middle class opera company, regional opera company that did not have a great deal of performing luster. Many people attributed it to performances under Walt Herbert’s direction that were no always greatly inspired. Walter Herbert was an extremely hard working, knowledgeable, and shroud director of the opera company. He established the company here in Houston. Actually, it was founded by Alba Lobit. He was the first general director of the company. The things that he brought to Houston were number one, a rather broad repertoire of standard works; two, a financial stability.
The opera company always prided itself on the fact that it paid its bills. It never operated in a deficit, and has attempted to remain out of debt. It has occasionally incurred minor temporary deficits. Some opera board members might have a heart attack if I were to call their deficits minor, but in comparison to what the symphony has, I would say they are minor deficits, and they make every effort to erase them. This is the fiscal legacy of Walter Herbert, because he believed that they should stay within its budget.
57:09 When I speak about the broad repertoire of standard works, that is to say that he brought opera in Italian, French, German, Russian, and occasionally, even in English. He did not limit himself to a German repertoire or the Italian repertoire, so that there was a rather wide variety of works that were presented here, and so there was an education function that went on. Because he insisted upon staying within the budget, and because he was the kind of a man that lived within that budget rather than pushing the budget higher and higher, then we got a lot of second class singers, and rather poorly prepared productions, things that sometimes looked a bit dingy, or more than a bit.
LM: Some of your reviews were quite pointed.
CC: Yes, so the artistic standard of the company was not as high as it might have been, but he built the audience here, and when he left, certainly Houston had heard a great deal of opera. I don’t feel that Houston had developed an appreciation for what is really a fine performance of an opera. I feel that Houston opera board members tended to be a bit chauvinistic about their company in comparison to what was being achieved in other areas, at greater cost.
LM: Can you give me an example of that, specifics?
CC: Well, certainly the Dallas opera has throughout its history, put on lavish productions. It has concentrated on the Italian repertoire and has only in recent years branched out into French and German opera, very extensively. It hired first class major singers, and gave thrilling performances that were, for the most part, brilliantly conducted by their director Nicola Rescigno.
Sarah Caldwell’s Boston opera company is about the same age as the Houston opera company, and she has been the most innovative of all regional opera directors in the United States. John Crosby, Santa Fe opera is another example of a very innovative and forward looking opera company. It is about the same age, perhaps a little younger, than Houston opera. All of these companies have incurred huge deficits and have been right on the brink of fiscal chaos at some time, point, or another in their lives, in their periods of existence, whereas, Houston opera has maintained careful control.
60:40 Now, David Gockley, since he has come in, has worked from the—what should I say—the borders or the limitations, the guidelines set up under Walter Herbert’s administration, toward a great many more innovative things and vicious things. As yet, he has not accomplished some of the things that have been accomplished in Boston or Santa Fe, in terms of the kinds of works he has presented, but he has gone a long way. I think at this point in his career, he’s doing a very fine job.
We have had our personal difficulties over the years. I have certainly had my disagreements with some things that have happened since he has come to Houston; however, he has stuck with it, and he has proven himself. He has had—I think—he has had to deal with a very powerful board, and—I believe—a board that has often disagreed with him rather strongly on the issues. His task of building and bringing Houston opera to its present level has been quite a challenging one.
LM: Some of the differences you mentioned in your viewpoint and his, did this involve programming, the type of operas brought here? If so, I’d like to find out what you see as the weaknesses.
CC: I think my major sources of annoyance with David Gockley have been that he allowed himself to be promoted as a new guiding light in Houston before he had accomplished a lot of these things. Now, one can begin to see them happening, and they are very definitely a fact by now, and he certainly does deserve courage for the things that he has accomplished at this point. However, shortly within a few years after he was here, things were beginning to appear in print that would credit him with everything Houston had in the way of opera, and Walter Herbert’s name was not even mentioned.
Now, granted Walter Herbert kept a very stable company, but it was my feeling that Walter Herbert handed a very sound opera company to David Gockley. David Gockley had the opportunity of a lifetime to build, and he certainly has built, but I believe that it was wrong for David Gockley to be credited as the builder at the point in which he was being credited with that. Now, I think he does deserve a great deal of credit, and I’m happy to see him getting it, and I hope that he will be willing and will make certain that Walter Herbert also gets remembered for the fact that Walter Herbert handed him the company.
64:48 With respect to programming, David Gockley has not done the artistically significant things that the director like John Crosby has done in Santa Fe or Sarah Caldwell has done in Boston. For instance, Sarah Caldwell has bought major productions of works by Schoenberg’s Moses and Aron was certainly an example of one of her major productions, her American premier of the complete Berlioz The Trojans was a major production, Roger Sessions’s opera, which she did this year in Montezuma with work by a major American composer.
This year in Santa Fe, John Crosby is doing a new production of Virgil Thompson’s The Mother of Us All. I just cite these as a few examples of leading major operas that we don’t hear, but are brought out by these directors. David has not yet gone quite that route, although he had brought out new composers, significantly Thomas Pasatieri, who is a young man who is certainly very skilled and some day may be certainly a very important figure in American opera. Right now he is very young and doesn’t have a very individual style. We presented his opera The Seagull here. I would say that that was a fairly timid modernist step.
David chose to present Berg’s opera Lulu here in a production in which it got a lot of publicity for the wrong reasons, I felt, but that was certainly a major catching up step with one of the certainly most important 20th century opera proposals. This year he commissioned an opera by Carlyle Floyd which I do not think lived up to its expectations. He tends to go with trying to support new and not necessarily totally recognized works in his programming, which is good because it helps younger people get a platform on the opera stage, and that’s one way of doing it. It’s a matter of growth, I would say. He recognizes that he is working within a very conservative board environment, and he has to be careful and to build meaningfully and carefully. This will take time. It will take years. I think he recognizes some things that Andre Previn did not.
LM: Has he improved the quality of the imported talent?
CC: 68:46 Oh, I would say he has improved the quality of production greatly, yes indeed. David Gockley opera produced under his direction was the addition now, yes, does meet certainly a very decent standard, and oftentimes a quite exciting standard. It is well rehearsed. The cast often are quite decently unique and sometimes brilliantly chosen, and things are getting better and better all the time. He too, was a very young person, who came in to a very big responsibility, and he had to grow into those boots very fast, and he’s done it. This opera company will be a major company and is certainly being recognized as a major force in the American opera right now. It’s happening right now in Houston. In the next years—I think—will be quite exciting for opera in here.
LM: As a critique, how do you review the American series here as a student?
CC: I think it is a wonderful series. During its first year or two, it had some problems, and some of those problems remain. He has introduced many fine young singers to his student performance series, and he has built an audience, and he has built an enthusiasm for opera in English. I enjoy going to the Saturday night operas. Many of those singers in the American series are now graduating into the International series and begin accepted. He is building careers, but most of all, I think he is building an understanding of opera through this opera in these series. I had my doubts about it. I suppose creative fellows have our doubts when these things start, and basically, it was a tradition of enjoying opera in its original language.
We, and—I guess—to some degree England, are the only two countries that hang onto this tradition of hearing opera in the language it was written in, rather than our own language and wanting it that way. David has gradually worked through all the difficulties of preparing an opera in English, to the point where he is assembling good casts, better conductors. He is resolving some of the problems of having to teach the chorus to sing the opera in two different languages, and he is also beginning to attack the problem of acquiring a good English translation of the opera. I think this is an area in which there is more that can be done, but he has certainly made giant strides. There are times when I felt that the opera in English is better than the International series in the original language.
LM: One last question now, I’m sure as a critic you get to meet many of the international stars when they appear.
LM: How do they impress you? Are they rough, or are you rough on them, or how does the conversation go? Do you ever get feedback on your remarks in the reviews from them?
CC: 72:48 As a critic, I try to maintain a certain distance from the performers I am reviewing. There are many times when I would like to meet a performer and interview him, and I would certainly like to have an interview in the paper to tell the public about them. However, there have been occasions when I have met performers before the fact, and I been sorry that I did, because something has been said. It is not necessarily that they said something against me, but sometimes they pass a remark about the conductor they’re working with or such-and-such a singer, or such-and-such a stage director, or, “Did you know the sets are falling down in this production and it’s going to look terrible?
I always say to myself, this is information that I don’t want to know beforehand. I’m not supposed to know that. I’m delighted to hear it sometimes, fascinated, or other remarks will be passed, or I will get an impression that I wish I didn’t have, since I’m going to have to review this person. I have adopted the practice of trying to keep my distance from people that I am reviewing. More frequently, I will do a telephone interview with a person, where there is a certain distance between the two of us personally, rather than doing a personal interview when they arrive on the scene.
When possible, since we presently have two people who are reviewing music on the Post, when possible, I try to interview those people that the other person will be reviewing, and vice versa, so that we do get the interview in the paper. Yes, sometimes I have met international stars, and some of them are very gracious and very nice indeed. Some of them, quite frequently when there is an adverse comment, they will feel the need for a rebuttal, and that will be forthcoming. Once that has come, usually things are fine, because it’s off both of our chests. I don’t know of any lingering grudges that are held. Maybe there are, but yes, indeed, there are some sharp remarks made in return.
LM: I suppose one of the reasons I asked that question to being with, is I read in one of your bylines was an interview with Norman Treigle, and it seemed to be very warm as if you all had been well acquainted with one another. I didn’t know if that was misleading or not, or if that was typical of your relationship with the major stars?
CC: Over the years, Norman Treigle and I, indeed, got pretty well acquainted, and indeed he was certainly a good singer. I highly respected him. However, I’m trying to remember, indeed, our first encounter. I had made some remark about his French, his mushy French diction, and I believe it was in his Faust of 1967, the spring of 1967 year. I reviewed the performance, and I mentioned that in the review. Norman Treigle comes from New Orleans, and naturally he’s very well versed in French.
76:45 There was a party after, I guess it was one of the succeeding performances, there was a cast party given by the president of the opera board, and they kindly invited the critics, and so I went. Mr. Treigle reminded me of all of these things in no uncertain terms, and we’ve been generally good friends since then. I guess, I believe, the interview that I did probably was some years after that, ’69 or ’70, I believe.
LM: That takes us to the last aspect of ballet. Again, what was the quality of it when you first arrived with Dallas as support?
CC: There was none. One of my first memories of Houston was the fact that Houston ballet had just seemed to explode again. They have just severed their relationship with their first director Tatiana Zemenova. This had happened before I arrived. I remember having been invited to a gathering of several of their board members which I involved a briefing on the situation, and I learned that they had just lost a Ford Foundation grant, because they had not met the requirements of the grant, and because they no longer had a director, and things were generally in a muddle. I thought well, I thought of a lot of other things.
They got reorganized under Nina Popova in 1967, and have built a regional company which has indeed known its explosive moments, and has known its ups and downs. I’ve talked about financial crises in the arts, and Houston ballet has had more financial crises than I think, more so than widely publicized, of financial crises than any other organization. It has also been my impression that over the years of building the company, they have just seemed to pour a great bucketfuls of money into the company, and one was not aware that a great deal was coming out.
Now, one has to remember that the Houston ballet chose to allow itself to be formed at a point in our civic and our nation’s economic history when the competition from highly skilled professional touring groups was very high, and was very keen. It cost a great deal of money to get such an organization going and to get a certain sense of stability. They have now been through two permanent directors—well, no, I should say one permanent director, Nina Popova and the acting artistic director James Clauser, and now they’re starting with Ben Stevenson. They hope to gain that stability at this time.
80:55 Ballet groups are more material, volatile organizations than any other, and that has been a general observation I have had during my years as a critic, so I guess I have learned to live the with the ups and downs, and not to be too terribly shocked by them. To get back to the problems with building your ballet company, they have to build an interest in dance down here, and they have to build a willingness on the part of dancers to come down, and stay, and to work with this company.
This is kind of a special problem, in that there is less annual employment available to dancers than there available to musicians, so that a violin player who comes down to be a member in the Houston symphony, can expect to pick up a lot of jobs on the side and find year round work. A dancer cannot yet. A contract is not that long, and then they face all the cultural shock problems that I faced, and you can see where there can be a large turnover, as indeed, there has been as the company is growing. This has been an element that has affected stability.
Ballet companies, to put on a production, require frequently a new choreography or a choreographer to come down and work. It requires very flimsy looking, but expensive costumes that have to be sewn, because dancers are very athletic people. They are stretching their limbs so that what looks to be a very slender looking tutu, probably has got some kind of elastic armpits so that they won’t get ripped out when the dancer reaches high, and all of these things add significantly to the costs. Plus, the turnover requires them to be relearning their repertoire with a new core of dancers each year. Just the whole business of trying to build a season, to build an audience with a company that is a small region company, this has required a tremendous amount of funding over the years.
I think the ballet company is now beginning to finally come out of the end of the tunnel, so to speak. It’s has pretty well established its audience and established its series, and we hope that with their new artistic direction and a new building they’re going into, that there will be a degree of stability there. No, it is not yet a very great company, and I don’t feel that it has had many great inspired moments in its history. It has certainly had some nice, fresh ballets. It has not yet been lucky enough to find its John . . . ballet found, and that relationship existed for many years, and a great company was built. Now, maybe this will happen with Ben Stevenson, and certainly hope that it will.
LM: You mentioned a change in the artistic direction of the company. Were there serious weaknesses in it in the past under—?
CC: Well, as I understood, Tatiana Zemenova was, and still is because she is still teaching in Houston, a strong disciplinarian in the classical Russian style. As I gather, the boards have simply felt that they wanted to go to the point of producing a company that could perform. I do not know that much about the history of the organization under her, because I was not here at that time, but one of the things that I heard said was that there were not a great many performances done under her tenure, that she was not necessarily certain that her dancers were yet ready to perform. Now, that should be checked more closely in the archives of the Houston Ballet Foundation, in the years prior to 1966.
When Nina Popova came in, she was very strongly oriented toward the style of George Balanchine, and we had a good many Balanchine works done. She established, certainly worked toward good performing discipline, and once again, she found that the quality of dancers that she was able to attract down here and to hold served as limitations on what she could do with them and the number of dancers that were available. Naturally, it’s like growing and adding members to a symphony orchestra, the more you add, the bigger your budget becomes, at the same time, the more you can do. There are certain checks and balances that work there to keep the company at a certain size or to encourage its membership to have a company of various size and quality.
87:54 At one point, it was—I think—felt that she, once again, was emphasizing classical repertoire, since George Balanchine’s works are rather strongly classically oriented, and there was perhaps an urge for more modern works. I am not certain that that was the main reason. I believe that they felt that under her direction, the company had grown, and a certain number of things had been accomplished, and that to go the next step, another director would be required. Now, Houston ballet did certainly signify to James Clauser last February ’75 that he would be acting artistic director, and that they would be seeking a permanent artistic director.
At the time that Ben Stevenson was announced, there was a rather emotional rupture, several months. Once again, that is not uncharacteristic of ballet companies, because the artistic temperaments are rather high in these organizations. I think some of us felt that it was not so much that a new person was brought in, but the entire announcement was timed rather badly, and timing, the whole handling of it was awkward. Houston ballet people have stated that it was simply the march of events necessary for them to do it on the schedule that they did it, and I’m certain that they know their own reasons better than I do in terms of my vantage point. Certainly, Mr. Stevenson is admired in many parts of the world, and I think it remains to be seen what can be accomplished here under his direction. We’ll simply have to wait and see what he produces.
LM: What about the material he’s working with, the individual dancers here?
CC: Well, now he is going to make significant changes in the next year. He’s bringing in 17 new dancers. He is only keeping 11 of those who were here before, so the look of the company will be quite different. I’m told that the quality of the company should be better than it has been in the past. Once again, we’ll have to wait and see the dancers. [laughing]
I can’t quite answer that question.
LM: Well, to close the circle completely, what does it take to be a critic?
CC: I’ve had that question asked very many times. I’m not certain that I know. I trust that, above all, it takes an interest in music and a certain love of music, and a fascination with music. You do have to like it to absorb the amount that a critic absorbs all the time. I suppose it does require a certain objective standpoint or a writing ability, the ability to put your thoughts down clearly and succinctly, and in a style that is interesting to your readers. More than that, I guess, it’s important to have a point of view that comes from certain knowledge and experience with music. I think the interest in music is the main thing that a critic has to have, just as anyone who involves himself with that profession of music. I would say perhaps those three things.
Critics like musicians, are certainly not made overnight, and we all grow, and we mature, and we learn from each performance that is heard. One of my favorite dictums, I guess, every one of us brings a certain experience with music, and when we go to a concert experience, it is the thing which helps us decide whether we liked that concert or whether we didn’t. We take individual concert, and we add that to our store of knowledge and experience in music, and we judge whether or not we liked that concert on the basis of what we know about music. We all have different opinions and different viewpoints, and different backgrounds in music. Those are, in a sense, rather separate things, because they’re quite personal.
94:10 Now, many people regard a critic as a judge. He’s getting out, and evaluating music, and judging it publicly and saying it was so-and-so, and it wasn’t so-and-so, and many people regardless of perhaps telling them whether or not it was or bad, I like to think that actually a critic is being judged, rather than judging, and it is his readers who are judging him. They are either agreeing or disagreeing with him. They are either taking something meaningful from what he writes or else taking nothing, and depending upon the amount that they’re taking from what they read, they regard that the week is good or bad. I tend to feel that this is where the judging takes place. Over the long term, a critic is regarded as a valuable person or not a very valuable person in the community by a large segment of that community, and that’s something that takes place over a long period of time.
LM: Well, we’ve been talking for quite awhile.
CC: Yes, we have.
LM: I want to thank you for your very generous contribution of your time.
CC: Thank you much. I’ve enjoyed it. I hope all came out.
LM: I’m sure it will.