An Early History of The Pittsburgh Camerata, In Reports

This page is devoted to the marvelous diary entries kept by the founding director, Arthur Wenk, during his time with the Camerata (1974 - 1981). I will be adding episodes as they are published in the blog, and eventually the entirety of his remarks will be on this page. I am deeply grateful to Dr. Wenk for sharing these so generously, especially as he had to type them out for me. I personally found them hilarious, inspiring, and encouraging, and I can't wait to meet the writer, who, Lord willing and the creek don't rise, will be present at our Anniversary Celebration/Reunion Concert on March 16 2014.

And in case you are wondering about the title of this page, "In Reports" is somewhat of a play on words. Way back in the 2002 season we performed a setting of Psalm 137 "in reports" from the Scottish Psalter of 1635. Said Psalter published eight metrical psalm settings of psalms with an imitative section, and these were referred to as "in reports." The meaning of the phrase is no longer certain, but there is speculation it comes from the French reporter, meaning to carry forward. So with that in mind, let's carry on...

SEP 1974

After getting organized for classes my next activity was organizing The Pittsburgh Camerata.  The University News Office provided address stickers for all the local newspapers and broadcasting stations (both radio and television) and a list of people interested in musical activities.  We have continued to get calls in bunches as each newspaper comes out in its area.

Some papers printed our release in toto; others, like the Pittsburgh Press, the evening daily, rewrote “from Bach to Bartok, from plainsong to Stravinsky,” as “back to plainsong by Stravinsky,” giving a nice feel of twentieth-century nostalgia and leading to some confused phone calls.  One of the radio stations also got our spot announcement mixed up with that of a Lebanese dance group.

Our first rehearsal, with half the group selected, last Monday night, was the best first rehearsal I’ve ever had with a group.  It was also the first time that I have had tenors present for a first rehearsal.  With the addition of two exceptional tenors who auditioned this morning, we now have five, with the possibility of another.  The chorus reads better than I had dared hope, and already blends well.  The group will probably surpass the Cambridge Singers [my Boston group] simply because of greater experience and of the absence in Pittsburgh of a group like the Cantata Singers to draw off the best voices.  There are three oratorio societies but no small choruses outside the colleges.  We are already negotiating for radio and television appearances.

JAN 1975

The series of concerts by The Pittsburgh Camerata brought us to a variety of concert settings:

1.  A service at St. Joseph’s Church in Bloomfield.  The architecture is American living room but the acoustics are European cathedral.  We perform our entire program within the context of a celebration of the Mass.

2.  Allegheny Regional Branch Library, whose auditorium, shaped like a giant conversation pit, looks as if it would be acoustically dead but actually has a very fine sound.  Even with a chorus of only eighteen, we outnumber the audience.

3.  Taping for WQED.  The program manager suggests we record at First Unitarian Church, which reportedly has very good acoustics.  We arrive to find a hall, like Jacob Morley, as dead as a doornail.  The FM people have carted all their equipment into the building, and it seems a shame to give up the chance for a recording, so we explore a bit and discover a high-ceilinged all-purpose room in the basement which sounds just right, that is, like a church.

4.  Squirrel Hill Library has no auditorium at all, just a room set up with chairs.  There is no place for the choir to go after warming up, so we take the last two rows of seats.  The audience responds well and asks us to return with our spring program.

5.  Carnegie Institute—SRO audience in a hall whose ceiling extends forever and ever, world without end, and whose acoustics sound like the world’s largest bathroom.

6.  East Liberty Branch Library—another small audience for our final performance in another dead hall.

Friday I go down to the WQED studios to help edit the broadcast tape and supervise the intercutting of music with the program director’s remarks.  It’s a hectic time, and when I arrive a hapless announcer is trying to tape a lead-in for a bit of Christmas filler.

“This is WQED-FM, 89.5 on your dial in Pittsburgh.  Since we have a little time left before the news we’re going to play some Christmas music from Salzburg, with Salzburg musicians under the directle [sic] of Hans-Jürgen Schnortzbraucher.”

(You want to run that again, Clark, you flubbed a couple of words.)

“This is WQED-FM, 89.5 on your dial in Pittsburgh.  Since we have a little time left before the news we’re going to play some Christmas music from Salzburg, with Salzburg musicians under the directle of Hans-Jürgen Schnortzbraucher.  I said directle again, didn’t I?  @@#$%A%”

(I suggest substituting the phrase “under the conduction of”)

“This is WQED-FM, 89.5 hah-hah  89 point  hah-hah  oh shit.”

(Does this go on often, I wonder?)

“You should have seen us the week they sent over a whole carton of Japanese folk music for us to air.  We decided that accuracy of pronunciation was less important than stylishness, but everybody kept cracking up over transliterations like “Yakomashi Takomitsu and his Mountain Playboys.””

We call in the program director to add a few translations as filler, but even Jack (“One Perfect Take”) Sommers keeps stumbling over the “tirra lirra’s” in the Carol of the Birds.

1 APR 75

Next week the Camerata begins a number of performances of “Songs of Love and Innocence.” Once again I have had the folly to schedule a whole program of twentieth-century music, but the chorus has worked with greater consistent effort and discipline than any other group I’ve directed, so I think we’ll pull it off.

14 JUN 75

At the end of the month The Pittsburgh Camerata will conclude its first season with a madrigal program for a Diners Guild banquet at the Hyeholde Restaurant.  “But at the Hyeholde, food and good karma rule.  $12.50 per person, plus a voluntary 15% service charge.”  During this year the group has sung twelve performances of five programs, not counting taping sessions for broadcast over WQED-FM.  Since the last Chronicle the Camerata performed “Songs of Love and Innocence” in the echo chamber at Carnegie Institute, in the church basement recording studio for WQED, in Frick Art Building, and outdoors in a forty-mile-an-hour wind for the Three Rivers Arts Festival.  The next day the group sang the Bach motet “Jesu meine Freude” in a new church in Garfield, and repeated it last Tuesday before an overflowing audience at Frick.  The chorus gave its best performance of the year and the audience gave the longest ovation I’ve heard in Frick.  Next year Bea Holz will conduct the group in my absence; I’m already plotting programs for the year after.

Information about the above-mentioned Bea Holz can be found here.

8 NOV 76

How We Nearly Become a Corporation

At the gentle urging of the new choral and orchestral director at Pitt, The Pittsburgh Camerata has severed its informal ties with the university and leaped into the big-time.  After two years of singing for small audiences in function rooms of out-of-the-way branch libraries, the Camerata is going to perform for hundreds of cheering fans in a genuine certified concert hall.  Where are these fans going to come from?  Watch:

First you form a parent group called The Friends of The Pittsburgh Camerata.  Then you go downtown to the City/County Building to register the name with the Prothonotary’s Office, and spend educational morning learning about the local bureaucratic system.

You:  Hi.  I’d like to register with the Prothonotary.

Clerk:  You can’t do that here.

You:  But I was told ...

Clerk:  Sorry, buddy; you do that in Harrisburg.

You:  But ...

Clerk:  Beat it, kid.

So you wander around asking people and they say maybe Mr. Kinsky can help.  Mr. Kinsky is the Oldest Living Bureaucrat and is reputed to understand the Whole System.  Mr. Kinsky isn’t available right now so you take a seat and read the New York Times. Finally he appears.

Mr. K:  What seems to be the trouble, sonny?

You:  I want to register as a non-profit organization.

Mr. K:  You mean as a fictitious corporation?

You:  No; it’s real, it’s real.

Mr. K:  We’ve got lots of fictitious corporations down here.

You:  Well, how did the Renaissance and Baroque Society do it?

Mr. K:  Let’s take a look.

You push down a deserted corridor, and Mr. Kinsky pulls a huge, dusty volume from the shelf and turns to the R entries.  Form 1875 they appear ain a bold, copperplate calligraphy with a goose quill pen, which continues until 1945, when the previous Oldest Living Bureaucrat dies at age 89, to be succeeded by generations of ballpoint scribblers.  Renaissance Ball and Gasket Company, Renaissance Rubber Bands, Renaissance Novelties.  Ah, here it is.  Charter 1969.  Stat II Vm 7 Sec 13Q WRM 33.  You follow Mr. K. back to the original clerk.

Mr. K:  Bring us Stat II Vm 7 Sec 13Q WRM 33, would you?

Clerk:  Sorry, that’s down in the basement.  (A secretary takes the slip and puts it on a dumbwaiter, then hollers down the dumbwaiter shat to arouse the sleeping bureaucrat in the basement.  A few minutes later she returns):  Not here.

Mr. K:  Well, maybe it’s upstairs.  (You climb the stairs, walk along an overhanging gallery and Mr. KI hands the slip to another secretary, who goes down a long tunnel of filing cabinets mumbling abbreviations to herself.  She returns empty-handed.)

Sec:  Not here.  Try downstairs. (You return to the first clerk.)

Clerk:  Naw, that’s gotta be in the basement.  (The first secretary repeats the routine with the dumbwaiter, with the same result as before.)

Clerk:  Oh, here it is; it was right behind the counter all the time hah hah.

Mr. Kinsky leads you past the broken Xerox machine, past the cigar stands, through the lower arcade and the grand gallery to another Xerox machine where you copy the articles of incorporation of the Renaissance and Baroque Society and think him for his trouble.  You walk several blocks to the store that sells legal forms and purchase the appropriate blank.

Then it’s off to the Law School Library to look up statutes concerning non-profit corporations, where you learn that in Pennsylvania any five natural persons, all of them of age and three of them residents of the Commonwealth, can form a corporation for any purpose not inimical to the interests of the community.  At the next rehearsal you persuade five members of the Camerata to serve as Directors, take the document to be notarized, send it to Harrisburg, and three weeks later find out that it has been rejected because you didn’t include the $75 filing fee.

But after all, it doesn’t take a corporate charter to produce hundreds of cheering fans, it take publicity.  So you call the Pittsburgh Dance Guild, the Recorder Society, the Clef Concert Association, the Renaissance and Baroque Society, the Flute club, the Tuesday Musical Club, the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society, the American Guild of Organists and WQED-FM and say, please can we borrow your mailing list?  (Only you’re not as blatant as that; what you really say is, “We have this marvelous brochure that we’ve printed up; may we have permission to send it to your members?”)

Meanwhile you create a brochure, poster, press releases, and tickets, doing you own artwork to save money, take it to a printer in Squirrel Hill, and a week later lug the sixty-pound box of 3000 mailers, 300 posters, 600 tickets and 150 news releases home on your back.  Meanwhile you discover that WQED-FM has a mailing list of 45,000 people and calculate the number of years of teaching at Pitt would take to pay the postage on that many fliers.  Instead you decide to purchase an advertisement in Pittsburgh Magazine which, as it happens, goes to those very 45,000 listener/readers, and spend an afternoon learning about magazine advertising, layout, design, artwork, camera-ready copy, typography, and getting an art student to do it for free for the experience and an entry in his portfolio.

You spend another morning downtown at the Main Post Office learning about bulk mailing permits, minimum number of pieces, banding by zip code designation, red labels D for all five-digit designation, green 3 labels for first 3-digits the same, yellow C labels for mixed city, orange S labels for All State, minimum balance to be maintained in postal deposit, filing forms in duplicate, $60 fee, 7 ½ cent rate per piece, rubber-stamp cachet, and hike across town to get a rubber stamp made up.  Later on you try (unsuccessfully) to persuade your singers that the way to spend Election Night is handwriting 3000 addresses from mailing lists onto mailers, hand stamping the mailers with the rubber cachet, sending press releases to 150 local newspapers and radio stations, and sorting, banding and labelling according to zip code designation. Fortunately a few members of the AC come through and you devote twelve straight hours to the project.  Then you try (again with limited success) to persuade the singers (who are there to sing, not to run publicity campaigns) to put up 300 colorful posters all over Pittsburgh (during the next week and a half you do most of it yourself) and wait for hundreds of cheering fans to start sending in their $10 checks to receive their handsome gray tickets to the 1977 season.

 

11 MAR 77

The third concert by The Pittsburgh Camerata, “Twentieth-Century Choral Music by American Composers,” had the best publicity to date: notices in all the local papers, listings in both university calendars, repeated announcements over several radio stations, and a sky-writer.  The result, a record low attendance of twenty-five souls, which only goes to show that once people decide to avoid a concert of twentieth-century music, nothing will deter them.

The concert was a lively affair, notwithstanding. When I arrived for the warm-up, the pianist who was assisting us in two of the pieces informed me that the piano had been sabotaged, as indeed it had.  Half a dozen notes, once depressed, maintained their melancholy state despite all efforts to release them.  Fortunately we have a piano technician in the bass section who took the piano apart, removed extra matchbooks, screws, lollipop sticks, washers and other paraphernalia from its innards, and lightened the instrument’s spirits a bit, but by the intermission, those half dozen notes had gone back being depressed again, so that the entire second half—Copland, Ives, and Thomson--was accompanied by a multiple pedal-point obbligato.  Conducting from the piano, I would end each piece by giving the choral cut-off then reaching across into the piano and swatting the reluctant dampers into submission.  Our final concert will be performed a cappella, thank goodness.

 

8 JUN 77

Last night The Pittsburgh Camerata closed its season with a program of amatory madrigals, well-received by an audience of seventy-five whose size must be attributed in part to the distribution of free tickets hither and yon a week before the concert.  With this program I bring my choral conducting career to a close.  It has been my experience that you can’t be a good choral conductor and be good at very much else.  During the past year the fragile equilibrium among performance, scholarship and teaching has been strained, if not lost altogether, by the eleven concerts (not counting repeat performances) in which I took part.  There is a certain satisfaction in knowing that I can go into any city in the country, start a small chorus, put on interesting concerts, and lose six hundred dollars.  The Camerata (“farewell all joys”) simply provided too much competition for Debussy (“thus sang her first and last, and sang no more.”)

 

1 NOV 77  Camerata Redux

One of my problems with The Pittsburgh Camerata last year, apart from losing $600, was the amount of time I had to devote to managerial responsibilities.  A few weeks ago a group of old member met with me to work out a scheme whereby I would assemble a chorus (which meant finding a dozen new singers), prepare the music and direct the concerts, while a Committee of Six would take care of everything else.  We have arranged for the local YMCA to take us under their tax-shelter and at the moment one committee member is seeking to raise our $450 budget through contributions, rather than trying to solicit memberships, as we did last year.  If he succeeds we should be able to offer free concerts, which should increase the size of our audience.  Starting so late meant putting a program together overnight instead of a year in advance, and preparing the Christmas concert in ten weeks instead of the usual fourteen, but the new ensemble seems to be a strong one musically and we should be able to bring it off.  The first concert, “I Sing of a Maiden,” is set for December 13.


1 JAN 79

Christmas is my favourite time of all the year, and I take delight in being able to spend Monday evenings from September to December preparing a program of choral music to celebrate the season.  This year the major work on the program was Palestrina’s double-chorus mass, Missa Hodie Christus Natus Est.  To forestall the inevitable problems involved in rehearsing double-chorus music, I enlarged the Camerata to thirty-two voices.  Nonetheless, for our second performance a lead alto was on call as a resident physician and another had already departed for a ski trip.  Since they were both in the same section I had two members of the Alto I group double in both sections and placed the altos in the center of the group to conceal this vocal juggling act.  Then two basses failed to show up, for what turned out later to be legitimate emergencies, in addition to another who was out of town on business, as a Chorus I bass was asked to switch sections and sight-read the Chorus II music.  In spite of all the improvisation the concert came off well and produced an unsolicited testimonial from a faculty member in the religion department.

The final performance, with the chorus back to full strength, was the finest I’ve ever had the pleasure of conducting, with our largest audience ever no fewer than 113, not all of them friends and relatives.

MAR 79

One of the great strengths of The Pittsburgh Camerata is its ability to adapt quickly to unfamiliar situations, an ability which has been put to the test more than once during the current season.  At one performance of the Christmas concert there was no dressing room large enough for the whole group to line up in so we found ourselves assembling just offstage around an enormous pillar.  I told the singers to file around the column then onto the stage.  One tenor raised his hand and asked, “How many times around?”

We’ve been doing a lot of eight-part music this year, and for security against sickness I enlarged the group to thirty-two voices but there was still one Christmas concert in which three people were absent from the same section and one bass had  to read a new part at sight.  The recent winter concert featured a snafu by the scheduling people that put us in Frick Auditorium at the same time as a Taiwanese acrobatics demonstration.  After much hollering into telephones by secretaries from all parties (and a characteristic attempt at compromise—couldn’t we sort of join forces?) we agreed to perform our concert in the Frick Cloister, a wide corridor surrounding a glass-walled inner court.  Folding chairs were set up in two wings and the chorus formed concentric semicircles in the interstitial corner.  Many nonmusicians in the audience preferred this setting to the concert hall.

The following week the group gathered in the KDKA television studios to tape the concert for a program called “Not Just Sunday” (broadcast only on Sundays!) for the sake of millions of viewers who celebrate the Sabbath at 7:30 a.m.  The contrast between the overly reverberant cloister and the acoustically dead studio could not have been greater, but the singers accommodated my adjustments in tempo and dynamics.

Searching for new worlds to conquer, the Camerata is bound for Cleveland to sing its spring concert at Trinity Cathedral.  One of the tenors has access to an antiquated church school-bus; the group can look forward to an interesting trip (in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse:  May you live in interesting times.) 

16 JUN 79

The final series of performances by The Pittsburgh Camerata, which concluded its current season with a concert at the Three Rivers Arts Festival last weekend, included a trip to Cleveland and an appearance at Trinity Cathedral.  While there were a few singers who questioned the value of spending seven hours (round trip) on a cramped church school bus in order to sing for thirty-six people, most were enthusiastic about the trip and eager for more.

So next April 13, the Sunday after Easter, we’ll be performing a half-hour program at National Cathedral in Washington in the morning, and are trying to line up concerts for that afternoon in Washington and appearances along the way in Somerset and Gettysburg.

JAN 80

As director of The Pittsburgh Camerata I get a fair share of telephone calls from peculiar women wanting to audition.  One peculiar lady even turned up unannounced in my office last week, clad in a fur coat and reeking with perfume.  She giggled her way through the fifteen-minute audition—I always give them an audition; you can never tell when a great soprano may turn up unexpectedly—and left.

So when the telephone rang and a female voice launched into an improbable tale, I prepared to listen patiently.  She had sung in the Manhattan School of Music and was now a musicology student at the University of Michigan.  Her aunt had recently died, leaving $20,000 to her mother, who had generously given half the sum to my caller.  She had no need for so much money herself since she held a fellowship at the university, so she was planning to distribute $5000 among three Pittsburgh performing organizations, including the Camerata, which she had seen during a WQED fundraising campaign.  I invited her to attend a rehearsal, and offered to send her a schedule of the year’s concerts.  I also explained that the $1500 she planned to give the Camerata would enable us to make a record, a project I had had to shelve for lack of capital.

Well, the following Monday she didn’t visit the rehearsal, nor the Monday after.  I thought I would call her but found no listing in the telephone book.  Finally my note listing the Camerata schedule was returned by the postal service, who claimed the nonexistence of the addressee.  While the postal service may not have the last word, I am assuming for the moment that we have been involved in some strange prank.  Since nothing was asked of us, it hardly constitutes a con.  Pass it off as the transference of wishful thinking.

Not all my calls come from peculiar women.  Just after typing the above I received a long-distance call from an old friend who bet that I couldn’t remember the words to McNamara’s Band.  Old friends and others are warned that they are bound to lose this kind of bet, but I welcome all calls.

 

 

Late Spring 1980

After a year and a half of trying unsuccessfully to persuade the local news media that their readers/listeners/viewers were dying to hear about The Pittsburgh Camerata, we finally got the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to run the following, rather heavily-edited, feature article, tucked away on a back page.  (Will fax the article)

On the Saturday after Easter the Camerata piled into a yellow sawed-off school-bus emblazoned St. Michael and All Angels Lutheran Church and took off for York, Pennsylvania, near Gettysburg, where members of a local Lutheran church served us supper and put us up for the night.  The parish hall was full of awards and other memorabilia associated with local scout troops.  (When was the last time you saw a sign proclaiming “Brownie Power”?)

In the evening we performed a concert of Easter music for the patients at a nearby Lutheran home.  The auditorium, maintained at 80 degrees for the comfort of the residents, had low ceilings, a tiny stage, and infinitesimal reverberation time.  We sang very fast, lest anyone pass out before we finished the program.

Next morning the singers turned out at 6:30 for breakfast and the long drive to National Cathedral, arriving just in time to sing the half-hour prelude to the eleven-o’clock service.  The sheer size of the building tends to awe singers and spectators alike, and gives one the impression of performing in an enormous cavern.  The service itself followed with full panoply:  a first-rate men and boy choir, fine organist, and a festive celebration of the Eucharist by the bishop.

In the afternoon the chorus performed its entire program at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, an edifice which rivals Sacre Coeur in Paris for bad taste on a truly monumental scale.  Ordinary adjectives fail to capture the effect of the place on the casual visitor.  One marvels that anything that ugly could be so overwhelmingly, monstrously, huge.  The acoustics, however, compensate for all deficiencies of taste.  Specifically, a grand pause in Bruckner’s motet Christus factus est pro nobis obediens finally made musical sense, as a triple forte diminished-seventh chord reverberated endlessly about the chamber before achieving resolution.

Since many of the singers had never visited the city, we took a detour past monuments and cherry blossoms before heading back to Pittsburgh, indebted to the first tenor who doubled as bus driver and tour guide.

Although we’ve heard no more from the phantom donor whose contribution could have subsidized a recording the Camerata has decided to go ahead anyway, operating, as usual, by our bootstraps.  After the current round of concerts, including three performances in Pittsburgh, one at a community concert series in Butler, and a special performance for the opening of the Folger Exhibition at Carnegie Library, we’ll spend two evenings reviewing music from the entire season, then get together for a recording session to capture it all on virgin vinyl.<