Book Review – Carmel Impresarios: Dene Denny & Hazel Watrous

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David Gordon has written a valuable and eminently readable book that is a history of two extraordinary women, Dene Denny and Hazel Watrous, without whose influence the Carmel Bach Festival, the Carmel Music Society and the Monterey Symphony wouldn’t be the significant organizations they are today. It is also a record of how these women were important movers and shakers among a group of artistic people who helped preserve the natural beauty of Carmel and resist unchecked commercialization of music, theater, art and real estate development.

One of David Gordon’s unique gifts is that he can discuss or write about any subject and make it instantly intelligible and compelling to a wide audience that can vary from the most casual reader to those with a professional knowledge equal to his. Gordon gives us a mini history of California, from the heady era of the 1849 Gold Rush, when it took seven months to travel from Missouri to San Francisco, up to the period from 1900 to 1960, during which Carmel was developing from a Bohemian community of writers, artists and musicians into the idyllic town we all know and love today.

This book helps to explain how Carmel’s Bohemians managed to preserve and extend the town’s natural beauty and cultural significance without being corrupted by over development and commercialization, such as has happened, for example, to potentially idyllic beach towns like La Jolla, Laguna Beach and Morro Bay.

Gordon gives us a picturesque glimpse of Carmel’s early residents from the 1920s. They were writers, poets, artists and musicians who were strongly motivated to promote community-based theatrical productions, poetry readings, and intimate concerts. Strongly influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement, the early residents of Carmel tended to build rustic homes, varying from the most modest cottages to the elaborate stone mini castle that became Robinson Jeffers’ “Tor House.”

Community Theater, in which Denny and Watrous were intimately involved was truly a community effort in which a large number of the residents were involved in set design and construction, the making of costumes and ultimately the selection of its actors, producers and audience from the community. The chapters about the “theater wars” between competing theater groups, plus the two suspicious fires that kept burning down Edward Kuster’s Theater of the Golden Bough, make interesting reading.

Carmel residents resisted the efforts of outsiders to bring syndicated theater productions to Carmel and thus continued the healthy development of local and experimental community theater in at least three separate theatrical venues, one of which, the Denny-Watrous Gallery, is described in detail in Gordon’s book as an important venue for art, music and theater for almost 40 years. In the early 1930s Denny and Watrous also resisted the efforts of Community Concerts (a division of Columbia Concerts, Inc.) to bring packaged music to Carmel. Community Concerts, based in New York City, operated by sending salesmen to communities all over the United States offering a plan to develop a body of subscribers to raise money for a concert series, with the ultimate size of the amount raised each year determining the association’s budget for artist fees for the following year.

The Community Concerts package for a new season might include one illustrious artist like Heifetz or Rubinstein who would receive an artist fee somewhere between $1500 and $2000, while the remaining entry-level filler artists for the season would be paid entry-level fees of $200 – $500 (remember, this was during the worst years of the “Great Depression”). If a “filler” artist consistently received rave reviews and asked for an increase in his artist fee, he would be let go and replaced with a new entry-level artist willing to accept the lower fee.

It is significant that Denny & Watrous were not disposed to accept such a package from Community Concerts, and instead Denny became herself a skillful concert manager, not only for concerts in Carmel, but also for an important concert series in San Jose. Although Denny understood that at least one great and distinguished performer was needed to promote an upcoming season, she usually delivered several, and virtually all the great artists of the caliber of Heifetz, Milstein, Horowitz, Gieseking, etc., appeared on subsequent Carmel Music Society’s seasons. However, rather than unknown filler artists for a few of the remaining concerts in its seasons, Denny demonstrated in the early years an uncanny skill in cultivating artists and luring them to Carmel either for the regular subscription series or for summer concerts. Artists, such as members of the Penha Quartet, pianist Ralph Linsley, the Neah-Kah-Nie String Quartet, tenor Roland Hayes and many others, performed in Carmel for modest fees.

One of the most interesting aspects of Gordon’s book is the complete listing of the Carmel Music Society and Monterey Symphony seasons from their inception up to the present. Considering the population base and demographics of the Monterey Peninsula during the period that Denny & Watrous were most active (from the 1920s to the 1950s) they achieved an astonishing track record of enriching the cultural vitality of our community.

Perhaps the greatest Denny-Watrous achievement was their being the guiding spirit and inspiration for helping the Carmel Bach Festival evolve from a few concerts in a four-day period to the world-class annual two-week festival it has become today. The festival was originally a community effort with local singers in the chorus, local players in the orchestra (initially with a piano on stage filling in the missing parts) and volunteers helping with the advertising, promotion, box office and hospitality.

For most of us only familiar with the Carmel Bach Festival during the past twenty years, Gordon’s complete history of the earlier years of the festival under the guidance of Ernst Bacon, Gastone Usigli and Sandor Salgo is full of detailed information and fascinating photos that help bring the past to life.

Yes, the festival has changed significantly over the years. Sandor Salgo retained the volunteer singers from the community in the chorus, but added the Chorale, a group of professionally trained singers. Salgo replaced pianist and MPC faculty member Angie Machado, who for twenty years had coached the chorus gratis, with his wife, Priscilla, and the orchestra was no longer open to locals, but rather to outside professionals contracted not for scale but for housing and a per diem for meals. From a festival conductor’s point of view, the contracted professional orchestra players owe the conductor greater allegiance and loyalty that promotes a higher level of discipline and precision. Since, as is common with all festivals, the CBF orchestra is a pickup orchestra with an extraordinarily complicated and heavy rehearsal schedule, the high standards of artistic excellence it achieves every summer are amazing.

The Monterey Symphony indirectly owes its beginning to an orchestra that was convened each summer during the early years of the CBF as a “festival orchestra,” but officially it became the Monterey County Symphony in 1946. It, too, has changed over the years, and Gordon chronicles its various stages of development and succession of conductors until it reached its present day high standards. When I first heard a Monterey County Symphony performance in 1959, it still retained some aspects of a community orchestra. In the string section you could observe local dentist Vernon Brown, local violin teachers Mildred Kline, RoseMarie & Owen Dunsford, music writer Nathalie Plotkin and Shelia Webster, the sweet lady who lived on Scenic Drive and regularly walked her dog around Carmel Point. Today the Monterey Symphony’s players are professional non-locals who regularly play in other nearby orchestras and commute for rehearsals and performances – what some refer to today as a “Freeway Orchestra.” Moving in this direction was necessary to achieve the high standards of perfection audiences with immediate access to commercially produced recordings on You Tube and iTunes have come to expect.

If there is any aspect of Gordon’s book that is missing, it might be an assessment of how the evolution from fragile, scratchy 78 RPM shellac recordings of the 1920s to our instantly accessible and ubiquitous recorded music on CDs, YouTube, FM radio and iTunes today has totally transformed both the music industry and our audiences. Everything you could possibly want to hear (and a lot that you wouldn’t) is instantly available anywhere you have an Internet connection. I can listen to virtually anything on my desktop, laptop, iPad, iPod and even on my iPod Nano wristwatch (with Bose headphones, naturally). Commercially produced recordings are, after scrubbing, editing and adding ambient reverb, near perfect and produce an high expectation of perfection among audiences that didn’t exist 100 years ago.

And then, there is “Pop Culture,” which has grown exponentially and has diminished almost to the point of extinction many subscription audiences for serious music. The miracle of the Carmel Bach Festival, the Monterey Symphony and the Carmel Music Society surviving this onslaught is heartening and we hope they will last forever.

You will enjoy David Gordon’s well-written account about how Dene Denny and Hazel Watrous were the right people in the right time and in the right place to achieve great things and inspire institutions with amazing durability that are still enriching our lives today.

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Archived in these categories: 20th Century, Baroque, Carmel Bach Festival, Carmel Music Society, Monterey Symphony, Orchestral, Vocal ensemble.
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