New Orleans Friends of Music - History
World-Class Music . . . for a Song
A cultured city without chamber music? Unthinkable, said Dr. Ernest Bueding when he arrived in New Orleans in 1954.
He had begun a chamber society in Cleveland, his previous home, and exacted a promise from his friend and colleague, Dr. Joe Meyer, that if he accepted a job at Louisiana State University Medical School as head of the Pharmacology Department, Meyer would help him start a similar series.
“Ernest was the brains behind the whole thing, and I was a front man,” said Meyer who became the first president in 1955. “He was also an excellent musician and knew practically all the chamber music in existence.”
They brought together a group of friends and colleagues who gathered their friends and spouses who loved fine music.
“This was a time of energy, vision and enthusiasm,” said Dr. Emmanuel Farber, a founder and early president. “We believed we were making an enduring contribution to the community, and we were determined to accept only the finest performances.”
Attorney René Lehmann drew up the legal papers and then housed the Friends office for 20 years. The late Ruth Farber was treasurer and carefully monitored the money to insure high-quality performers within budget. Irving Paley, a founding board member, directed public relations, and Dr. Morris Weisler, a New Orleans internist, headed subscriptions. Dr. Peter Hansen, chair of Newcomb College’s Department of Music, began the group’s 45-year association with Tulane University.
Then with a grant from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation of the U.S. Library of Congress, the city’s first chamber-music series began.
Fittingly, the series was born on the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, January 27, 1956. The first concert was pure Mozart, of course, performed by the Budapest String Quartet.
“People everywhere were marking Mozart’s birth, but New Orleans may have had the world’s best concert that night – the ultimate in expressing appreciation for Mozart’s music,” Meyer said. “The Budapest was in its prime, and they were playing all Mozart.”
Newspaper columnist Ewing Poteet wrote that the Friends had obtained “the most widely publicized and most successful quartet now before the public for their opening attraction.” He also said that this concert was the first time in more than a decade that “any quartet playing other than by local ensembles” had taken place in New Orleans.
“This was our most memorable concert, because it was the first,” Weisler said. “The hall was filled.”
That year, the series price was $5 for three concerts. Today, it’s $125 for seven concerts with an occasional bonus event, costing not much more than a movie ticket. Yo-Yo Ma, Jean-Pierre Rampal and Julian Bream are among the artists who have played in Dixon Hall for more than two generations in this series, produced entirely by volunteers. Only a handful of groups present a chamber-music series without a single employee. From selecting the artists to taking tickets, most every task is handled by a member of this board of directors.
"A love of music has driven us,” said Peter Hansen, who was actively involved with the Friends of Music for more than 45 years before his death. In 2000, he won the Classical Arts Lifetime Achievement Award from the Big Easy Entertainment Awards. His late wife, Doris, was an excellent violinist, music teacher and a faithful Friends volunteer and subscriber. In their honor, the Friends of Music has established the Peter and Doris Hansen Society, a donor group in support of the Friends.
In 56 years, only 20 people have served as president, and several have served multiple terms, including John Batson, Larry Lehmann, Dr. Stuart D. Farber, Dr. Morris Shaffer, Milton G. Scheuermann and Dr. Fred Kushner. Board membership, too, can last for decades.
“This continuity may be one reason for our success,” Batson said.
Liliana Schor headed hospitality for more than 20 years, making sure that guest artists are delivered, entertained and fed. Anne Bradburn served as treasurer for 12 years. Today, the Hospitality Committee is headed by co-chairs Barbara Knill and Marjorie Weiner who have served on this or other committees for a number of years. Sharing her husband’s love of music, Margie Scheuermann was a board member for nearly 40 years and handled subscriptions for two decades. Harvey Green took over the massive responsibility as Program Chair from Peter Hansen, and has been planning yearly programs ever since.
Two Friends founders went on to launch other chamber societies. After moving to Johns Hopkins University in 1960, Bueding inaugurated the Shriver Hall Concert Series, while Meyer founded the Houston Friends of Music in 1959.
Through the years, the New Orleans group has dealt with both temperamental and generous musicians, missing instruments, emergency rooms, the Cold War and, yes, dogs.
"The appearances of the Borodin Quartet brought two of our most memorable moments," Cohen recalled. "In the middle of its 1971concert, a small dog wandered on stage. At this time on campus, dogs were almost as numerous as students and it was a warm night, so the doors were open. This severe Russian group totally ignored the dog until someone came to remove it.”
In 1973, the quartet returned. And, in the middle of their performance, a small dog walked on stage. And, once again, the group ignored it. However, the headline in the Times-Picayune read the next day: "Borodin Quartet and Dog Return."
And the Friends of Music not only survived but thrived after Hurricane Katrina, being the first organization to perform in the totally restored Dixon Hall in early 2006, less than six months after the storm flooded the concert hall.
Dogs and hurricanes may come and go, but one thing is constant: Chamber music thrives in New Orleans.
“I sell tickets at every performance and see students and young people coming to our concerts,” said Lizbeth Turner. “I have a sense that there will always be an audience for fine classical music. Our future is bright.”
For generations to come, New Orleans Friends of Music will continue to bring the world’s finest chamber music to the Crescent City for the price of a song.