Music Feature



Dr. Ben, Fondly Remembered, & Maxine, Warmly Embraced

October 13, 2002 - Chapel Hill, NC:


The dedication of the Swalin Lobby and a double bust of Ben and Maxine Swalin took place on the afternoon of October 13 at the BTI Center. The mistress of ceremonies was Betty Ray McCain, former Secretary of the Department of Cultural Resources, for whom a nearby gallery has been named. The speakers included Rev. W.W. Finlator, David Chambless Worters, President and CEO of the NC Symphony, Voit Gilmore, former Chair of the NCS Board of Trustees, Dr. Assad Meymandi, principal benefactor of Meymandi Concert Hall, Maxine Swalin, Principal Clarinetist Jimmy Gilmore, a veteran of the late Swalin years, Bob Doherty, current NCS Chair, Betty Williams, former NCS soloist, H. Gilliam Nicholson, Jr., Chair of the Civic Center Commission, sculptor James Barnhill, and Dr. and Mrs. Albert M. Jenkins who, with Elizabeth Moore Ruffin, secured the "naming rights" to the space. Among the many distinguished guests were a flock of performing artists, more than a few of whom made early appearances or orchestral debuts with the NCS during the Swalin era (1939-72); these included Walter Carringer, Caroline Taylor Craig, Jayne Winfield Ericourt, Bobby Morris and the aforementioned Betty Williams. That this was a trip into the orchestra's historical past was apparent when Maxine Swalin recognized Meredith Stringfield Oates, the daughter of the NCS' founding conductor, Lamar Stringfield (1897-1959). Two archival recordings of the NCS under the baton of Dr. Swalin were played. The Maestro did not live to see the Symphony's permanent home, much less lead "his" orchestra in it, but these recordings--of "Nimrod," from Elgar's "Enigma" Variations, and of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," performed by children (on the tape) and then by the live audience, cued by Williams--allowed him to make his "debut" in the new hall. The orchestra sounded wonderful under his leadership, and it was truly extraordinary to sing once again with Dr. Ben!

The occasion provided an excuse, if one were needed, to recap the early history of the NCS, which owes its existence and present form to work done here starting in the early '30s. Stringfield, a NC native who in 1928 received a major award from the Pulitzer Foundation (but apparently not the Pulitzer Prize in Music, which wasn't officially presented until 1943), returned from New York to the Tarheel State in 1929 and almost immediately began to lay the groundwork for a state symphony. By 1931, Colonel Joseph Hyde Pratt, Professor of Economic Geology at UNC, had formed a committee to consider the proposal, and on March 21, 1932, in Chapel Hill, the first public meeting of the NC Symphony Society was held. Pratt was elected President and it was understood that Stringfield would conduct. A "demonstration concert" was presented by 48 volunteer musicians from sixteen communities on May 14, 1932, in Hill Hall Auditorium; the success of this event led to advertisements for additional concerts. Funding was, however, a major problem, and even a grant of $45K, received in 1934-5 from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, was insufficient to sustain the fledgling group. In 1935, when Stringfield left to become Assistant Conductor at Radio City Music Hall in NYC, the NCS as it was then known effectively collapsed. This was not the last time that economics would threaten orchestral operations in the Tar Heel State. The orchestra broke up into small units, at least one of which eventually combined with a Federal Music Project Orchestra in southern Virginia. A 1937 attempt to salvage a FMPO in NC failed. The future of symphonic music here looked bleak, indeed, but a model had been established, and the experiment had demonstrated that there was both interest and potential support, for in its early years, the NCS had given many concerts before surprisingly large audiences that archival records suggest may have totaled 100,000 people.

Benjamin Franklin Swalin was the person who led the attempt to revive the orchestra in 1937, efforts that were to prove successful in 1939-40. Born in Minneapolis in 1901, he joined the Minneapolis Symphony when he finished high school, playing with that group at intervals while attending the Institute of Musical Art (now known as the Juilliard School) and Columbia University, where he earned his undergraduate and masters degrees. It was during this period, at Juilliard, that he met Maxine McMahon. After further study in NY, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna. In 1937, recruited by the distinguished musicologist Glen Haydon, Swalin was appointed Associate Professor of Music at UNC. In 1939, he, Maxine (by then Mrs. Swalin), Pratt playwright Paul Green and others had raised enough money to form a new orchestra. (Voit Gilmore recounted the tale of Green co-signing with Swalin a bank loan that got the NCS moving again--the amount of that loan was $200!) The original name of the orchestra was retained and the charter, which had lapsed, was revived. Under this reorganization, Pratt was appointed President, Swalin was appointed Director, and a new personnel system was implemented in which, according to papers of the NCS Society, "small units of players were organized in each city of the state where musicians of sufficient talent were in residence." The first performance by the reorganized orchestra was on March 16, 1940, in Jones Auditorium on the campus of Meredith College.
From this point forward to the Swalins' retirement in 1972, the history of the NCS is "the story of the indomitable spirit and vision of Benjamin Swalin" (NCSS Papers), aided and abetted by his co-worker and spouse, Maxine. For the first six years, he drew no salary from the orchestra but lived instead on his income as a professor. Working without administrative or clerical help, the Swalins literally handled everything.

In 1942, the NCSS itself reorganized, this time on a cooperative and truly statewide basis. Committees formed local chapters to finance performances, the orchestra reciprocating with free children's concerts. Swalin's suggestion to Governor J. Melville Broughton led to Senate Bill No. 248, the "Horn Tootin' Bill," the approval of which, on March 8, 1943, marked the first time in America that an orchestra was recognized as a state agency and placed under state patronage as an educational institution. Later in Swalin's tenure, the second major financial boon for the orchestra was assured when he himself led efforts to match a Ford Foundation grant; the resulting million-dollar infusion, received in 1971, provided the underpinning that helped ensure the orchestra's future. (The tale of what the NCS did with that first endowment is best reserved for another day.)

In 1972, following a bitter struggle, Swalin retired. His replacement was John Gosling, who departed in 1980. A lengthy search for his successor resulted in the orchestra being headed for a year each by Lawrence Leighton Smith and Patrick J. Flynn, both of whom served as Principal Guest Conductor. The appointment of Gerhardt Zimmermann as Music Director effective with the 1982-3 season launched a new era for our orchestra. Zimmermann's local debut occurred at the first of a series of 50th anniversary concerts during which the program of the very first concert, on May 14, 1932, was repeated. In the audience were several veterans of that long-ago debut, and sharing the podium with Zimmermann was Dr. Swalin, for whom the concerts marked a final farewell. It is the latter's many contributions--and Maxine Swalin's, too--that were recognized and celebrated in Meymandi Concert Hall and the Benjamin and Maxine Swalin Lobby on the afternoon of October 13. Bravo!

The NCS does not have an archive of its own, and there is no full-length biography of Lamar Stringfield, but documents relating to Stringfield's work with the NCS may be found in the North Carolina Division of Archives and History, where other NCS papers also reside. Some of Maestro Swalin's scores and lecture notes are in the Semans Library at the NC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. The Manuscripts Department of UNC's Wilson Library has other Swalin papers, and recordings of selected NCS performances during the Swalin years are housed in the NC Collection there. Programs from the early years of the NCS may be found in the Library of the Music Department of UNC-CH. Dr. Swalin's book, Hard Circus Road: The Odyssey of the North Carolina Symphony, was published by the North Carolina Symphony in 1987 and is currently available from the Chapel Hill Museum; for information, call 919/976-1400. Swalin's The Violin Concerto: A Study in German Romanticism (1941) was reprinted by Da Capo Press in 1973. Maxine Swalin's An Ear to Myself (1996) is currently out of print but may be found in area libraries.

Note: This article is based in part on the author's brief history of the NCS that originally appeared in Symphony Orchestras of the United States - Selected Profiles, ed. Robert R. Craven and published by Greenwood Press in 1986.