Due to a typographical error, Phyllis Joyce Hudson was misidentified in an appreciation of the late violinist Milton Schwartz in the Feb. 6 Style section. She is a pianist and singer. (Published 2/11/03)
On Jan. 31, 1930, an ad hoc group of musicians, provisionally known as "The National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C.," took the stage of DAR Constitution Hall and played its first concert. A 21-year old violinist named Milton Schwartz was among them.
"This was to be the first symphony orchestra Washington had ever had," Schwartz recalled decades later in a private memoir. "There were to be three trial concerts before a season date was set, to see and hear the audience reaction." The response was favorable; the National Symphony Orchestra announced its first formal season for 1931-32, and Schwartz began an association with the ensemble that continued until his retirement in 1981.
Schwartz, who died Monday in Potomac at age 94, was believed to be the last surviving member of the original NSO. He helped the orchestra grow from a small, scrappy band that played a single concert at Constitution Hall every Thursday afternoon for five months of the year (the duties also included three rehearsals, all for a weekly paycheck of $40) into a gleaming ensemble of 100 full-time musicians that toured the world and had its own home at the Kennedy Center.
As Schwartz told it -- and, by all accounts, he told it well -- the story began one night in front of the Earle Theater (renamed the Warner in 1947), where he was serving as concertmaster for an orchestra that accompanied silent films. "I was standing on the corner of 13th and F streets between shows, watching the world go by, when this seedy-looking person in an old coat and battered hat approached me," he wrote. "I thought, 'This must be a handout.' He said, 'Permit me to introduce myself. I am Hans Kindler.' He was a famous cellist and the first chair of the cello section of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I had heard of him and heard him play. He was indeed very fine.
"He continued, 'I am here to form a symphony orchestra. I just heard you play and I like you very much. Would you be interested in joining my efforts?' Well, talkies were taking over the film industry. The handwriting was on the wall. Soon afterward I was out of a job. At about that time I received a call to attend a rehearsal for what is now the NSO."
Kindler, who had already made a name for himself in Washington by conducting the world premiere of Stravinsky's "Apollon Musagete" at the Library of Congress, served as the NSO's music director from 1931 until 1949. As Ted Libbey observed in his authoritative history of the orchestra: "Suddenly Washington had a musical life. It was scarcely on a par with New York, which had boasted the Philharmonic for 90 years and the Metropolitan Opera for 50. But it was a lot more exciting than being merely another stop for touring virtuosos. Sylvia Meyer, the principal harpist, felt almost embarrassed by the attention the NSO got in its formative years. 'The newspapers had so much space to give us!' she remembered, noting that there were five dailies and their music critics did not have much else to write about."
Still, as Schwartz recalled them in his memoir, the early years of the NSO were "rough and primitive." "The long months without a paycheck were somehow gotten through. Some of the musicians had to drive cabs or become salesmen. Occasional engagements like weddings or at the Washington Cathedral were like drops of water on the desert. An occasional quartet concert or solo engagement in wealthy patronesses' homes helped a little, but it was tough sledding." Every year during the winter holidays, the ensemble would tour New England. "It was tantalizing to see all the shop windows aglow with festive merchandise for Christmas and we with no money to spend. Our hotel accommodations were such, at times, that we'd have to move to another hotel because of no heat and bedbugs."
Schwartz played under Kindler for 14 years. But the conductor was not an easy man. "There were different concertmasters and assistants nearly every season because they couldn't stand Kindler or Kindler was dissatisfied with them," he recalled. In 1945, Schwartz resigned and took a position at the Capitol Theater, which he described as "one of those ornate movie palaces with vaudeville and a good orchestra." The salary was $100 a week, with extra pay anytime Schwartz was called upon to play a solo.
"The conductor was a wonderful contrast to Kindler, a kind and genial man," Schwartz wrote. "I held that position for eight full years. During that time Dr. Kindler died and Howard Mitchell became the second conductor of the NSO. Well, the handwriting was on the wall again, this time for the Capitol Theater. On our last day there I called Howard, who was the cellist in our Washington String Quartet and a good friend. He said, "What luck! It happens that your old place is available. Love to have you aboard." The very next day I was rehearsing with the NSO again."
This time, Schwartz stayed put, a fixture among the first violins for the next 28 years, as the orchestra played throughout Europe, Asia, South America, Mexico, Canada and most of the United States. Mitchell was music director until 1969, to be followed by Antal Dorati. In 1977 the cellist, conductor and recent Soviet emigre Mstislav Rostropovich took the helm and brought unprecedented attention to the NSO.
By then, however, Schwartz was beginning to think about retirement. He was already in his seventies and had been playing professionally since he was a small child, when local theaters in his Brooklyn neighborhood had billed him as the "Boy Wonder." After he left the NSO in 1981, he devoted much of his time to travel, painting and socializing with former colleagues, with whom he was a favorite. In 1998, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, the orchestra dedicated a performance to Schwartz.
He sold his only violin when he quit the orchestra. "I've been playing since I was 3," he explained to his sister, the pianist and signer Phyllis Joyce Hudson. "It's time I relaxed."