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Peoples’ Symphony Concerts –Frank Salomon’s revelation of music for the people


Photo:Courtesy Town Hall

Peoples’ Symphony Concerts are not really advertised, yet the performance series at their two venues -- New York City’s Town Hall in the daytime and Washington Irving High School at night -- are usually sold out, thanks to their largely subscription-based, enthusiastic and loyal audience.

Inspired by life lessons learned through intimate contact with the greats in the world of classical music, impresario Frank Salomon’s continued mission is to make these great values accessible to all audiences, as he says: “in the good old-fashioned, socialist spirit.” The idea that everyone who longs to hear great concerts should be accommodated, no matter what their income can afford, is the message that drives Peoples’ Symphony Concerts since it’s founding in 1900. The target audience is old and young alike, and performances are especially geared towards low-income music lovers who appreciate the privilege of hearing a premium selection of artists, among them some superstars of the classical music scene who make it all possible by playing for a fraction of their regular fees. It is the ethical principle that all should be able to benefit their cultural appreciation that has allowed this very established series to hold its own.  Classical music, often scrutinized for belonging only to its elite establishment, is clearly not tied to this particular stigma any longer, at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts.

Concerts are presented in three different series’.  The Arens and Mann Series take place on Saturday nights at Washington Irving High School and the Festival Series is held on Sunday afternoons at historic Town Hall,  a hall where Isaac Stern, Janet Baker and many other great artists made their NY debuts. The two Saturday night series as named for Franz Arens, the original founder of Peoples’ Symphony Concerts and for Joseph Mann, who served the organization in a management capacity for some fifty-nine years, presented such legendary artists as Claudio Arrau, Gina Bachauer, Josef Szigeti, and Isaac Stern. After his death in 1973, Frank Salomon became Peoples’ Symphony Concerts’manager. 

              Frank Salomon - Photo:@getclassical

When the series started in 1900, concerts were held at the old hall at Cooper Union, and were established with a mission to “bring the best music to students, and workers at minimum prices.” These concerts were underwritten by sponsors like Nora Godwin, Henry Clay Frick, William K. Vanderbuilt, Mrs. Otto Kahn, and Solomon and Danile Guggenheim. The first President of the Peoples’ Symphony was Severo Mallet-Prevost. In 1918, the orchestra that gave the series its name was retired because of its immense cost; only the chamber music and solo recital programs continued.   In the 1970s, the Festival Series was moved from Washington Irving High School on Saturday nights to Town Hall on Sunday afternoons helping to serve those audience members unable to go out in the evenings as well as families.

At Peoples’ Symphony Concerts, single tickets are $13 each, but six-concert series tickets are sold at a price of $37 for both the Arens and Mann Series’, and $39-$59 for the Festival Series.  This low fee for six concerts usually buys just one ticket at most other concert halls, so the subscription is very worthwhile for patrons, even at the risk of missing a date or two. If that happens and a subscriber cancels, a last-minute ardent patron may even get lucky with the added availability. “We often experience a standing room rush, says Salomon during our interview in his modest managing office, home to ‘Frank Salomon and Associates’ on the 7th floor of an unimposing building on W 27th street. A small conference table surrounded by a few office staff sections seems to gain in dimension as soon as Salomon introduces himself, sits down, and begins to share some of his anecdotes, spinning a narrative spiked with many names of great musicians who have touched his life during his long-lasting career, and opened many doors for him. Without his great talent to connect his backstage friendships with the artists’ performances on stage, the modern history of Peoples’ Symphony Concerts would be unfathomable. The artists in Salomon’s life are irrevocably connected with his vision for the series, which is one of few that advocate the importance of making music programs inexpensive and accessible.

Salomon recalls his parents’ firm roots in German Academia and medicine, before they found themselves arriving at Ellis Island as Jewish immigrants in 1935. Emotively, he describes how hard it had been for them to build their new lives in their American exile after his father, a sociology scholar and a polio victim, had been engaged to join the newly-formed Graduate Faculty of The New School in New York by co-founder and President Alvin Johnson, a man famed for having saved many Jewish Scholars’ lives. His mother was a medical doctor but did not practice in the U.S and his great-aunt Alice Salomon founded what is believed to be the first school for social work in the world in Berlin, now, the Alice Salomon University.  Salomon recalls attending, as a five-year-old, a dinner in her honor at a major hotel in New York and wondering all evening whether he would be allowed to take home one of the little American flags that served as table decorations.  After all the speeches, he did pay attention when three musician friends of his great-aunt came out to play – the Busch-Serkin Trio.  Who could have known that eighteen years later, that little boy would start a thirty-plus year relationship with Rudolf Serkin and a still-active fifty-plus year relationship with the Marlboro Music School and Festival in Vermont that would change his life. He describes his parents’ worldview, and a milieu in which culture in general, but especially music and theater, played a vibrant role in setting the tone for his later involvement with the performing arts.

Salomon is not a musician himself, except for a stint as a member of the Interracial Fellowship Chorus, while completing his liberal arts college degree at New York University, but he always showed a knack for organizing concert events. He arranged interviews for the conductor of the choir and reviews of their concerts with the New York Times and radio station WQXR, and helped to arrange the choir’s performances, forging an early connection with the Town Hall venue. Yet after his reserve program in the National Guard at age 22, Salomon was still undecided about which direction he was heading for. It was 1959, and Eva Simons, wife of the president of the New School, Hans Simons, had started to present a concert series there with Alexander Schneider, the energetic virtuoso violinist of the famed Budapest Quartet, and an active force in the classical music world. “Schneider wanted the concerts to be available for everybody, charging only 1 Dollar per ticket,” remembers Salomon. Schneider had also been a principal figure at the Marlboro Festival, and when Mrs. Simons volunteered there in 1958, they both got Rudolf Serkin to agree to perform a benefit recital  for the two organizations at the New School. Salomon was hired to help promote and organize the event. “There was such an overflow of audience for Schneider’s regular $ 1 concerts, that two performances had to be scheduled – one was held at 3 and one at 9. Hard to imagine, Serkin had agreed to play his immense program- the Waldstein and the last three Beethoven Sonatas, twice the same day!” Salomon shares in amazement. This remarkable benefit concert on May 17th, 1959, an exception to the usual $1 per seat policy, made a substantial profit for both the New School and the Marlboro Festival.  It also marked Salomon’s official entry into the music business.

 Frank Salomon - Photo @getclassical

Introduced to Rudolf Serkin by Mrs. Simon, Salomon started at Marlboro as a part-time employee the following year, alongside bassoonist Anthony Checchia, who had taken over Marlboro’s fast-growing administration. Marlboro became more than a job; it marked for Salomon a lifelong commitment, a family, and an inspiration all at once. Salomon still works closely with Anthony Checchia, whom he describes as a dear friend: “I joke that we have been married to each other even longer than we have been married to our spouses, whom we both met at Marlboro.” Salomon describes Marlboro in the times of its veteran founder, Rudolf Serkin, with great admiration. “He had intuition, and a great vision,” he says. “It came to me when we were celebrating Marlboro’s 60th anniversary that the way music is approached there, it’s about life lessons just as much as it is about music lessons. Playing Chamber Music together requires you not only to know your own part but the entire score. You have to learn to listen – and to compromise. You have to be able to forge many voices into one to become a true vessel for the composer’s vision. You have the chance to discover the music constantly anew and with that it’s just as much about self-discovery. “

Salomon explains the unique situation that Marlboro offers, distinguishing its atmosphere from the usual rush and lack of rehearsal times at other places, and explaining how it presents a tranquil, lush environment in which it is possible for artists to explore the music intensively. “Sometimes musicians work the entire seven weeks on one piece and you discover much more than the notes and the necessary technique to master the piece. It is truly about music and its humanity and to my knowledge unmatched by any other institution.”

Another human aspect of Marlboro that makes it dear to so many is the feeling of belonging to a larger family that one experiences while attending the festival. “Serkin himself had six children and his family helped create a feeling of extended family. One of the greatest things for everybody is gathering together in the common dining hall, where many generations share meals and mutual communication. And then of course, there is the idea, started at Marlboro, of young artists playing together with the master rather than being coached by them – like an apprentice in medieval times, learning by doing.” t It is not hard to imagine that this creates an exchange that can truly inspire, and translates into a new generation of confident and creative performers.

In 1964, one thing led to the next and Salomon started his own management company whose roster of pianists alone includes masters like Leon Fleisher and Richard Goode. “All influences in my life came together and the fact that I knew all the fantastic talents through Marlboro helped me to become a better manager and administrator. Alexander Schneider had performed at Peoples’ Symphony as a member of the Budapest Quartet, and got friendly with my predecessor at Peoples’ Symphony, Joseph Mann. Mann came to the Schneider concert series and we got to know each other.  He invited Schneider each year to come with  artists of his choice including pianists Peter Serkin, Rudolf Serkin’s son, and Murray Perahia, alongside other Marlboro musicians.  When his health started to fail, Mann asked me to succeed him and we worked together on the 1972-73 season until his death in 1973.”Salomon developed a true passion and what he describes as a ‘peripheral vision’ for recognizing true talent in performers who can communicate the composer’s intentions from their hearts, and make them come to life for others, without putting themselves into the foreground. Schneider himself had become discouraged with the business side of the music industry, and wanted it to remain a passion. Opportunity amalgamated Salomon’s different hats of manager, administrator, and producer.  In his case, his aspiration to make a difference in people’s lives through music unites on one small calling card with a big reach; he brings with him a slew of world-renowned artists who bring in the crowds as well as many new talented performers, and he is able to do this at Marlboro, New School Concerts (the former Schneider Concert Series), and Peoples’ Symphony Concerts.

Newly renovated Washington Irving High School Concert Hall, Photo: @getclassical

“Our audiences are enthusiastic and artists enjoy performing here, for a crowd of 1300-1400 people, just about every time. It is thanks to these great artists, who are the nucleus that helps to sell the tickets and pulls the audiences in, and make it possible to present also young and new artists. Who does not want to hear Radu Lupu at his only New York recital, this year, here, at Town Hall? It works thanks to these great artists, who are funding Peoples’ Symphony Concerts by accepting minimal fees…because they believe in our mission: in the value of presenting great music at affordable prices,” says Salomon.

Salomon’s understanding of the different needs and preferences of his audiences goes even further, and does not stop at the wallet: “Seats at Irving High School are unreserved, so people can sit together, even if they come last minute. Town Hall concert seats are upholstered and reserved, and cater to an audience that prefers the afternoon,” mentions Salomon.

Salomon loves his big names, most of them old friends, but in the end Peoples’ Symphony Concerts are just as much about the young artists who yet have to build their reputation as they are about the greats.  Salomon takes enormous pride in that: “People buy their tickets because of the names they know – but are often taken by surprise when they hear a new talent and enjoy the performance just as much or more. There is something exciting in the air – introducing something new.”  One of such up-and-coming talents to mention is the Israeli Chamber Project. The young ensemble will perform at Town Hall in 2014.

Audience members have credited Peoples’ Symphony with great things. “One woman in the audience, who had recently lost her husband, told me: ‘You people with your wonderful concerts I am able to attend, you keep me alive,’” shares Salomon, beaming a bit.  A precious critique indeed and an inspiration to plan the next concert!



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