Making "Good Music": The Oregon Symphony and Music Director Jacques Singer, 1962-1971

By Long, Genevieve J. | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Making "Good Music": The Oregon Symphony and Music Director Jacques Singer, 1962-1971


Long, Genevieve J., Oregon Historical Quarterly


Show me an orchestra that likes its conductor and I'll show you a lousy orchestra.

--Goddard Lieberson

A conductor is exactly that, do you know what I mean? Like a conductor of electricity. He does not originate the electricity of the music, but that current must pass through him.

--Jacques Singer

WRAPPED IN A LONG CAMEL-HAIR COAT, Jacques Singer arrived for his first rehearsal with the Portland Symphony Orchestra looking to one musician every inch the New Yorker. It was February 1962, and Singer was serving as guest conductor. Tall and craggy, Singer had a habit of raking his hands through his curly black hair when he was excited or frustrated. Some of the performers were dubious of his ability to lead an orchestra. "He looked so wild," recalls clarinetist Cheri Ann Egbers. "I thought, 'This is the conductor?" (1) Singer's first Portland performance, however, was a success. "Never has the orchestra been more responsive to a baton," wrote music editor Martin Clark of the Portland Oregon Journal. The orchestra, conductor, and soloist received "a tremendous ovation:" Two months later, in April 1962, the Portland Symphony's governing organization, the Portland Symphony Society, chose Singer as the organization's next permanent conductor and music director.

Jacques Singer, who Oregonians came to know for his exciting conducting style and gregarious nature, helped bring patrons together in efforts to raise the orchestra's status. His efforts made the Portland Symphony well-known throughout the Pacific Northwest and improved its standing in the ranks of American orchestras. Although not the sole architect of changes in the 1960s, Singer's presence as a leader and community figure drew attention--and much-needed funds--to the organization. His volatile temperament, however, led many musicians under his baton to call him difficult, even abusive. Many challenged his conducting skills and musicianship, while others supported him in a controversy that divided the organization. Ultimately, Singer's problems at the podium led to his highly publicized dismissal, a decision that placed the Oregon Symphony at the center of civic debate.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The Portland Symphony Orchestra, forerunner of the Oregon Symphony, gave its first concert under that name on October 30, 1896. Orchestras and amateur musical societies had previously performed in Portland under various names, and they continued to do so after the Portland Symphony's 1896 debut. In 1911, the Portland Symphony Society reorganized on a more permanent basis, rotating conducting duties among five musicians. By 1918, audience interest had grown to the point that local business leaders convinced the Portland Symphony Society to choose a permanent director, and the symphony appointed a talented local musician named Carl Denton. (2)

By the 1950s, Oregon was home to enough ensembles that International Musician, the journal of the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada, dubbed it "the Athens of the West." (3) That statewide interest in music was a boon to the Portland Symphony, helping boost box-office receipts and making it possible to hire more musicians. Because of that interest, the Portland Symphony's first music director, Carl Denton, saw increases in ticket sales and was able to add to the number of orchestra musicians during his 1918-1925 tenure. His successor, Willem van Hoogstraten (1925-1938), conducted the orchestra in performances that were broadcast nationally on the radio and commanded attention from musicians and the public alike. The Great Depression, however, ushered in nearly thirty years of financial instability. In 1938, the Portland Symphony board voted to suspend operations due to lack of funds; van Hoogstraten left, and the musicians joined smaller groups and a Works Progress Administration (WPA) orchestra. It was not until 1947, when the Portland Symphony Society reorganized after the hardships of World War II and gained financial support from audience members and the musicians' union, that the Portland Symphony Orchestra was able to perform again. …

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