There was a good turnout of music lovers and friends in the auditorium of the North Carolina Museum of Art to celebrate the long and productive life of Maxine Swalin (1903-2009). Paul Green, Jr., delivered a fond remembrance of the extraordinary achievements of her life in advancing classical music and its education in North Carolina.* It covered the troubled birth of the North Carolina Symphony during the Depression era in 1932 and its miraculous rebirth tended by Benjamin Swalin and his indomitable wife, Maxine. An anonymous donor funded this off-series concert presented by the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild. The Swalins were friends of Giorgio Ciompi, founder of Duke University’s treasured Ciompi String Quartet, so it was apt for that ensemble to present this musical commemoration.

The String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11, of Samuel Barber (1910-81), was composed near Salzburg, Austria, in 1936, during a European tour the composer made with fellow Curtis music student and companion Giancarlo Menotti. It is rarely heard in its original form in two movements: a short “Molto allegro” followed by a deeply moving “Molto Adagio” and ending with a short repetition of the opening movement. Arturo Toscanini was shown the work and encouraged the arrangement of the slow movement for a full string orchestra. In this form, the “Adagio for Strings” is often played to honor the passing of a prominent person.

There is much to savor in the original quartet version of “Molto adagio” which was so eloquently presented by the Ciompi Quartet. The tempo and the breathing quality of the pacing were perfectly chosen. Intonation was excellent and phrasing was aptly chosen as the lyric line was taken up by first violinist Eric Pritchard and passed, in turn, to violist Jonathan Bagg and cellist Fred Raimi. The closely matched harmonization between them and second violinist Hsiao-mei Ku was moving. The work’s mood of deep spiritual reflection or timeless reverie was superbly conveyed.

The later years of composer Roger Hannay (1930-2006) were closely associated with the music department of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. This concert was the last of a series of four in which Hannay’s completed four string quartets were presented at NCMA concerts.

The program notes for this concert quoted the composer, from his My Book of Life (1968), about how his String Quartet No. 1 (1962, Work No. 30) came about. He had endured a performance of a new string quartet by a South American composer in which he “found the writing to be utterly ineffective, weak, and boring.” He began to imagine the opening measures of his own effort. His completed work was premiered by “the Franklin String Quartet at Bennington College in New York in the 1964 season.” Hannay writes he “was not happy about the Coplandesque folklorism of the scherzo” but came to believe his original idea worked best. It is in four movements, I. Tempestuous, II. Allegro, III. Adagio, and IV. Allegro furioso and these tempo designations are very apt. This was the work’s first performance by the Ciompi Quartet.

Hearing a new work for the first time, it is hard to always pick out the important lines and structure. Hannay’s score is demanding and makes use of a wide palette of string techniques including swirling strings in the opening and slashing strings in the finale. Fascinating harmonics, a fine low solo from the cello, slow pulsed “heart-beat-like” pizzicatos from the viola, fleeting atonality, and intense pizzicato episodes, were just some of the features noted. All four musicians played with fine tone and with great precision. I look forward to another chance to hear this work.

Many older Triangle music lovers have fond memories of the Ciompi String Quartet’s complete traversal of the quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) given over several seasons at Duke University and repeated in the NCMA’s auditorium. This was when Bruce Berg, who succeeded Giorgio Ciompi, led the ensemble. The Ciompi Quartet has never lacked for mastery of an interpretative point of view in the core works, and such was the case for the superbly focused presentation of the composer’s Quartet No. 13 in B-flat, Op. 130. Beauty of tone, fine intonation, and convincing phrasing were the order of the day. This piece gives the performers choices for the last of the six movements. Beethoven’s original version ended with a very long and massive fugue. His publisher Artaria managed to convince him to write a shorter “Allegro” which is what the Ciompi played for this concert. The craggy and elaborate “Grosse Fugue” was published as Op. 133. It can be, and is, played alone, but during the 1970s onward many ensembles began reverting to Beethoven’s first thoughts.


Paul Green, Jr.’s Remarks on Maxine Swalin

The NC Symphony is the jewel in the crown of musical culture in North Carolina and has been since the 1930s. However, I’m not sure everyone appreciates the whole story of the remarkable couple that made this happen, Ben and Maxine Swalin. Ben passed away twenty-two years ago but Maxine lived on until year before last. She was the grande dame of musical North Carolina, revered and venerated to age 106. (No, that “106” is not a misprint.) She was a good 50 percent of the couple that gave us that astonishing treasure, the NC Symphony.

The NC Symphony was originally the brain child of six remarkable people in Chapel Hill, the McCalls, the Burnhams and the Greens. The Greens were my parents and the only participants in this cabal who were not professional musicians.

As many of you know, the NC Symphony got its first incarnation in 1932 when the Pulitzer Prize composer Lamar Stringfield was persuaded to move to Chapel Hill (in fact into my parents’ house) and got WPA funding to realize the dream of a symphony orchestra for all of North Carolina. This early incarnation lasted for only 3 years, killed off by the Great Depression. In 1935, when Music Department head Glenn Haydon (father of my childhood playmate) hired Ben into the UNC Music Department, Haydon didn’t immediately realize what a formidable camel he had invited under the tent flap. Ben not only burned to conduct his own symphony orchestra, but he also snuck under that selfsame tent flap his remarkable wife. Maxine arrived with strong musical credentials of her own, including a 1928 degree from Juilliard.

These two proved too much for the faculty conservatives and for the Carolina voters, who were being asked to underwrite a symphony orchestra as an official state function. When the new bill authorizing the appropriation was introduced into the Legislature, rural elements immediately began referring to it, both affectionately and teasingly, as “The Horn Tootin’ Bill.” But by that time, Ben and Maxine had softened everyone up with a large dosage of the world’s greatest music, played by pickup groups, travelling by flivver all over the state, and bearing the name North Carolina Symphony.

Maxine’s specialty was outreach to North Carolina children and I’m not sure I’d want to be a resistant parent of a little child who had been softened up by Maxine Swalin to insist on the best in music. Also, as an accomplished pianist, she assisted in rehearsals and played the harpsichord, piano and celesta for compositions that called for those instruments. She had had piano ambitions from early childhood and it is touching to read about her later regrets at not eloping with Ben before rather than after he ran off to Vienna for his year of doctorate studies. But it worked out OK – she nailed him when he returned.

The NC Symphony was an unusual animal from the beginning. The idea was to bring great music to everyone in the state, rural areas especially included. It clearly became Ben’s show, but there is no way he could have done it alone, and in fact I don’t think he could have done it at all with anyone at his side but Maxine. To be sure, he eventually had a staff to pay the bills and make the publicity, but he also had Maxine, who in her lovely quiet way turned out to be a force of nature, a phenomenon to be reckoned with.

Maxine was not only an accomplished musician and a beautiful person, but also a fine painter. And, a few years before her death Maxine wrote a wonderful privately-printed autobiography. It is touching and distressing to read there how desperately the Swalins wanted to hatch children of their own, but were biologically unable. Well, we are all the real Swalin children – a corny thought perhaps, but very true.

In this era of great celebrity conductors and celebrity soloists, it is quite wonderful to see – in the lobby of Meymandi Concert Hall – a statue not of a great composer, nor of a great soloist, but of a great couple.

In the old days, the late Giorgio and Adriana Compi were very good friends of Ben and Maxine; and today, we hear this other North Carolina musical treasure, the wonderful Ciompi quartet, the same folks who played at Ben’s memorial service, and whose recitals Maxine never missed.

April 17, 2011