December 1992

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Corning's Memorable Maestro

Charles C. Corwin



Robert F. McNamara

Ch. 1, Ch. 2, Ch. 3, Ch. 4, Ch. 5

Chapter Three

Music Master to the Community

Now we must return to those three musical activities "out of school," which would establish Charles as a major local cultural leader.

While Corwin appreciated the opportunity to raise youngsters in the love and practice of good music, he also wanted to provide adults of the community with a chance to listen and to perform. To this end, he actively promoted a trio of musical enterprises: the Musical Art Society (1915); the Civic Music Association (1928); and the Corning Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra (1933). All three ventures involved administrative as well as musical skills, but Charles happened to be gifted in both respects. Mr. Sherman L. Howe, the superintendent of schools who had engaged him in 1922, once commented, "Mr. Corwin combines fine artistic temperament with unusual business ability. In my experience, this is a rare combination."

The Musical Art Society came into being soon after Charles's arrival in Corning in 1915 or perhaps even late in 1914. Details of its foundation are not at hand; but the founders, led by Charles and Ena, were chiefly interested in providing local musicians with ongoing opportunities to sing and play together. The 50 vocalists who joined were all women: many, no doubt, choristers of the vicinity churches. The orchestra of 20 or more players was made up in large measure of teachers, students and alumni of the Bostelmann Conservatory. Ena Corwin was, of course, a pioneer member of the chorus. From the outset, the society engaged as its choral and orchestral director Charles Corwin. This was the earliest evidence of Corning's appreciation of the musicianship of the new organist of Christ Church. For the next decade, in a community where live public music was scarce, music lovers of the Corning area could look forward to at least one ambitious musicale each year. Presented in the Corning Opera House, the concerts were also dressy social events.

The next musical league of which Corwin was a prime mover was the Corning and Painted Post Civic Music Association, a guild pledged to bring to Corning each year a series of concerts by noted recitalists and musical ensembles.

The Civic Music Association was actually a branch, at the start, of the Civic Concert Society, a national programming institute that worked out of Chicago. Dema Harschbarger, its executive, had long dreamed of providing America's smaller communities with an inexpensive opportunity to hear outstanding vocalists and instrumentalists. As initially conceived, the local affiliates would solicit subscriptions for a "blind season." That is, the year's performers would not be selected until the funds subscribed had been delivered to the central office. While this arrangement required an act of faith on the part of subscribers, it was intended to prevent deficits, and did so.

In the autumn of 1928, a certain Mr. Wright, representing the Chicago headquarters, paid a visit to Mr. Elmer E. Meadley, secretary of the Corning Chamber of Commerce. Wright's proposal that Corning join the Civic Music movement won the secretary's immediate interest; it sounded like a worthwhile civic undertaking. But what of the musical aspect? Meadley at once telephoned Corning's "top authority in music," Charles C. Corwin. When Corwin heard the plan described, he, too, found it not only esthetically appealing but practicable.

Steps were therefore taken immediately to follow through, and the organizing committee authorized Meadley and Corwin to sign the contract of affiliation. The new Corning branch thus became the 130th affiliate in the nation and the third in New York State. At the organizational meeting, the 116 charter members elected Ena Corwin to the CMA presidency, a post she would grace for the next six years. The membership soon launched its first annual drive for subscribers.

Enough people from the Corning area signed on to finance a three-concert season. Although "pig-in-a-poke" programming was in the long run abandoned, none could complain of the way it functioned that initial year. Guest artists at the first concert, on December 3, 1928, were Gladys Swarthout, soprano, and Paul Kochanski, violinist. Miss Swarthout was a youthful and stunning mezzo from Chicago's Ravinia Opera Company. Charles was very pleased with her performance."Keep your eye on her," he advised friends after the recital. "She is going places!" As a matter of fact, Swarthout made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in the fall of 1929, and was a popular Met star for the next 16 seasons.

The Civic Music Association has functioned ever since Elmer Meadley and Charles Corwin signed the initial contract. It thus qualifies as the community's oldest continuing cultural organization. Still a volunteer effort, and still supported by annual membership campaigns, it has weathered the Great Depression, three prolonged wars, and the present spiralling recession. When the Chicago mother-society collapsed, the Corning CMA found other agents, although it retained its old name, only slightly altered on incorporation to the "Corning-Painted Post Civic Music Association, Inc." Normally it presented three programs per year, sometimes in the old Opera House, by now renamed the State Theater, but usually on the stage of one of the three local high schools. Like the Musical Art events, these could be black-tie affairs. When the Corning Glass Center opened in 1951, Civic Music transferred all its performances to the Center's more ample auditorium.

CMA has sought to provide a nice variety of musical delights: vocal and instrumental, operatic and balletic, classical and jazz, solo and ensemble.

Symphony orchestras have won the greatest general favor. Corningites have had the pleasure of hosting such outstanding ensembles as the Boston, BBC, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, National, and Philadelphia orchestras, directed by conductors like Barbirolli, Boulez, Dorati, Ehring, Kindler, Mitropoulos, Muench, Ormandy, Previn, Sevitsky and Szell. In the 1970s Boris Goldovsky brought three operas to town. The dance has been represented by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (with Alicia Markova), the New York City Ballet, and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Ensemble. There have been many instrumental soloists: pianists like Claudio Arrau, Robert Casedesus, Josť Echaniz, Philippe Entremont, Peter Nero, and Rudolf Serkin; violinists like Eugene Fodor, Nathan Milstein, Ruggiero Ricci, Isaac Stern, and Efrem Zimbalist. Choruses featured by the Asociation have been the Robert Shaw Chorale, the Vienna Boys' Choir, the Don Cossack Choir, and the Roger Wagner Chorale. A long line of distinguished vocalists have trodden the Corning Boards, among them Victoria de los Angeles, Jerome Hines, Anna Moffo, Jarmila Novotna, John Charles Thomas, Jan Peerce, Helen Traubel, and Richard Tucker.

Two of the guest artists had special Corning connections. Alice Tully, dramatic soprano and philanthropist, was a native of the Crystal City. William Warfield, the noted black bass-baritone, had been a regular visitor to Corning in his youth; and around 1940, while a student at the Eastman School of Music, he had performed as a guest soloist at Christ Church. At whose invitation? Charles Corwin's!

In recent years, the officials of the Civic Music Association have sought to balance these predominantly classical programs with an occasional variant, like Peter Schickele (P.D.Q. Bach), the Marian McPartland Jazz Piano Duo, the Newport Festival All-Stars, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

A rich fare, surely, for music-gourmets!

Had Mr. Corwin lived until 1975, he would have been especially pleased with the annual youth program that CMA inaugurated that year. its purpose was to acquaint fourth- and fifth-graders with their musical heritage.

Corwin's role in Civic Music was, of course, consultative rather than performing. From the start, however, and as a long-term member of the CMA board, he gave it constant support. When the formation of the association was first announced in 1928, its founders had stated, "The sponsors of the Civic Music Association believe that high-minded citizens desire good music and believe in its sound moral influence on the community." Whether or not Charles or Ena Corwin composed that sentence, it expressed their lifelong conviction. Still flourishing today, the Civic Music Association, in large part their creation, remains one of their most valuable contributions to social enrichment.

© 1992, Robert F. McNamara
Ch. 1, Ch. 2, Ch. 3, Ch. 4, Ch. 5
Index to articles by Robert F. McNamara
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