By HELEN DALRYMPLE
Free chamber music concerts are a long tradition at the Library of Congress, dating back to 1925 when, at the invitation of then Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge created the Coolidge Foundation in the Library to continue the series of concerts she had sponsored in northwestern Massachusetts for several years.
Mrs. Coolidge later recalled: "The only equipment for such a prospect seemed, at that time, to be an upright piano upon which, in the basement, music might be tried out or practiced. However, when the following spring, I sent to the Library two chamber music programs, Dr. Putnam borrowed from the Smithsonian Institution a delightful little auditorium in the Freer Gallery, and there my Pittsfield players opened a series of three concerts, which later led to the establishment of the Coolidge Foundation. The little Coolidge Auditorium [also given by Mrs. Coolidge] was built into a corner of one of the courts of the Library, a fund was accepted by President Coolidge [no relation to Mrs. Coolidge], and our first Washington Festival was given in October 1925."
The Coolidge Auditorium, now with a capacity of 485 seats, is famous the world over for its acoustics, especially for chamber music. It is also renowned for the caliber of musicians who have played there, and for the newly commissioned works premiered there, thanks to the generosity of patrons who continue to contribute to more than 35 separate funds to support all aspects of music creation and production at the Library.
For many years, Library concerts were particularly identified with string quartet performances, notably those of the Budapest and the Juilliard quartets. These programs are the result of a second major benefactor of music at the Library -- Gertrude Clarke Whittall -- who donated five Stradivari instruments to the Library (three violins, viola and cello) and set up a foundation to pay a professional string quartet to give regular free public concerts on the instruments and to purchase rare manuscripts of chamber works. She later gave money for the construction of the Whittall Pavilion, where the instruments were stored and displayed before the room was renovated.
The Budapest Quartet had established itself as one of the world's leading ensembles in the 1930s and was invited to the Library to perform on the Stradivari instruments. As Harold Spivacke, then chief of the Music Division, explained: "String players always need time to get used to another instrument. ... They played well, but it was the old story -- they didn't like to perform on unfamiliar instruments. So we did a little thinking. Suppose we had a quartet in residence here, and the players had time to make friends with these beautiful instruments? ... [After the first concert] we offered the Budapest a contract to play a total of 20 concerts at the Library in the spring and fall."
Thus a tradition was born. The Budapest Quartet remained as quartet-in-residence for 22 years, until 1961, when the Juilliard String Quartet was selected to succeed them. The Juilliard was the creation of William Schuman, then president of the Juilliard School of Music, who chose 26-year-old violinist Robert Mann to organize the group in 1947. After a summer of rehearsals, Schuman knew he had found what he wanted. "It was greater than anything I'd ever dreamed of: because here were four men absolutely on fire with what they were doing."
Founding violinist Robert Mann retired in 1997, after 50 years of performing with the quartet.
"The Juilliard had made a unique contribution to contemporary and classical music with their performances and recordings of Bartok, Schoenberg, Beethoven, Debussy and Ravel," said Jon Newsom, chief of the Music Division. "Nobody else came close to the Juilliard in being able to cover this repertoire with such energy and competence."
As they settle into their comfortable seats for a performance of the Juilliard String Quartet this month in the recently refurbished Coolidge Auditorium, concertgoers may not be aware of the long history of concerts at the Library nor of all the steps that go into bringing a group of performers to the stage of the Coolidge.
The music scene is much different today than it was 30 or 40 years ago, according to Mr. Newsom, who is ultimately responsible for the concert series. "It is harder and harder to keep up with who is doing what in the world of music," he said.
"We start thinking about the artists we want to perform at the Library at least two years in advance," Mr. Newsom added. He is assisted by the members of the concert office staff: Sandra Key, administrative operations specialist; Anne McLean, Michele Lambert Glymph and Norman Middleton, concert producers; and Donna Williams, concert assistant. Other members of the Music Division staff, Elizabeth Auman, Vicky Risner, Raymond White, Wayne Shirley and Walter Zvonchenko, contribute their ideas and expertise for special programs.
And on concert nights, other division staff members pitch in to help organize the volunteer ushers, staff the "will call" desk, distribute tickets to standby patrons and take tickets at the door.
The concert office staff keeps abreast of the top performing groups through its contacts with other arts presenters and artists' managers, by attending showcases and professional events such as the annual Chamber Music America meetings and Association of Professional Arts Presents (APAP) and by drawing on their own experience accumulated through the years.
"There's a 'buzz,' and you book by 'buzz,' notes Ms. McLean. "If you're in the business, you hear inside [about top performers] before other people know outside."
"Plus just your own experience," added Norman Middleton, "being in arts management."
"That comes from being a performer, too, and having the background as a performer and working with other performers for years," according to Ms. McLean. "You can tell when someone is at the level that the Library should be presenting."
The Library's music program has always included the commissioning and performance of new music as well as presentations of the classical repertoire. Works by Copland, Bartok, Schoenberg, Busch -- and this year alone, Elliott Carter, John Zorn and jazz pianist Cecil Taylor -- are among the artists whose compositions have been commissioned by and performed for the first time at the Library of Congress.
Jazz, dance, world music and events such as the "Motown Sound" symposium have been added to the concert schedule in the last two years in an effort to reach out to an even wider audience and to encourage younger patrons to attend concerts at the Library.
"We don't want to present someone here that anyone local is presenting. This is a very strong part of the mystique of the Library's series -- the image," says Ms. McLean. "We try to keep it burnished and polished as much as we can by bringing in people who have not appeared in Washington before, foreign artists, or brand new groups like Opus One who have never played together before."
Once Jon Newsom, in consultation with the concert staff, has decided which artists should be invited by the Library either to create a new commission or to perform, the work has only begun. Ms. Key determines how much money is available (all concert production costs, as well as some staff costs, are supported by private funds), from which funds they should be drawn; then she relays that data to Mr. Newsom.
Ms. McLean, Mr. Middleton and Ms. Glymph negotiate contracts with artists and managers (including broadcast rights when the concert will be broadcast or cybercast), with Ms. Key providing oversight and advice.
As the most senior member of the team, Sandra Key keeps in touch with longtime donors. A staff member of the division since 1963, she remembers when Mrs. Whittall came for tea in the afternoon.
"Mrs. Whittall was in her 90s," Ms. Key observed, "but she was still very independent. The Library would send a car to the Shoreham where she lived to pick her up, but she would often get impatient and just take a cab instead. She was a tiny woman, very frail, but you could hear her coming down the hall to the division [which was then located at the end of the corridor just past the Coolidge Auditorium] because of her high-heeled shoes.
"And then she would go right into [then Music Division Chief] Dr. Spivacke's office without stopping, asking 'Where's Harold?' as she walked past. It didn't matter whether he had someone else in with him or not!"
The schedule for a concert season -- which normally runs from October through December and February through May -- is eventually finalized by negotiated contracts and then all of the other details that make the series successful must be taken care of by the concert staff: drafting promotional materials for the season and for each concert; writing the concert season brochure and working with the Library's Graphics Unit to produce it; researching and writing program notes for each concert (usually written by Mr. Middleton); rental of musical instruments when necessary; initiating payments to the artists; advertising; completing applications for work visas for foreign artists; organizing rehearsal times; moving pianos and carrying chairs and music stands up and down stairs; consulting with the Library's recording engineers (all concerts are recorded for the Library's recorded sound archives); producing both live and delayed radio broadcasts and cybercasts; overseeing sound, lighting and other technical equipment installations; working with TicketMaster for the distribution of tickets to the public; keeping track of reserved tickets for artists, guests and major donors; and a myriad of other details too numerous to mention.
Once the artists arrive to rehearse or perform, "we all three do whatever we have to do to ensure that everything goes smoothly," said Ms. Glymph.
To illustrate the point, Norman Middleton recounted the story of renting a baroque string bass for one group last year at the last minute. "I had told them months before, after calling around town, that we couldn't locate such an instrument for them in the Washington area and that they would have to bring their own. But they didn't. We finally got one of the National Symphony string basses to rent us his own on the spot. The musician drove it to the Library in his own car an hour and a half before the concert."
"I've had to go out to buy things like a bow tie, a pair of socks, a gallon of apple juice for performers," adds Ms. McLean.
"We have to do that," said Mr. Middleton. "They get all these perks before and after the Library of Congress gig. That's one thing about these jobs that people forget; that it's still show business, even though it's classical music. We have to lead our professional lives the way others in the 'biz' do, but within the context of a federal agency."
For the concert office staff, the job is anything but a standard eight-hour day. Calls at home at midnight are not unknown and 14- and 16-hour days are frequent during the height of the season.
"We go the extra mile because that's part of the feeling you want to create for the artists. You want the artist to feel thrilled to be playing in the auditorium. The auditorium itself is the jewel. It's all over the world acknowledged as one of the finest venues in which to perform. There's a magic about it 'out there,'" said Ms. McLean.
"People ask us if they can come and perform," she continued. "We have gotten some great artists, including Mitsuko Uchida, who will play with the Brentano String Quartet in May, because of that draw. She is very, very famous and would never ordinarily play in a hall this size. But she wants to perform here. And a part of the way that we keep people wanting to come back is that we go that extra mile."
Asked what her favorite part of the job is, Ms. Key responds: "It's all good; there's no bad. It's like going to a new job in the evening -- a public relations job, ensuring that things are in place, providing support to colleagues. It gives me renewed energy. It's show business!"
The lights dim in the Coolidge Auditorium, the performers walk out onto the stage, and the music starts.
It's concert night at the Library of Congress -- brought to you by the Music Division, with a lot of help from all their friends and supporters both inside and outside the institution.
A future story will cover the role of the Library's recording engineers in ensuring that future generations will be able to listen to recordings of the live concerts that are as close as possible to what the listener heard in the auditorium.
Ms. Dalrymple is senior public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.