One Grand Finale

Vanguard closes 54 seasons of legendary chamber music

By Rusty Pate

Diving into classical music can seem like a daunting task for the novice. With centuries of pieces, composers and musicians to choose from, figuring out where to start can overwhelm even the most steadfast of music lovers. Mozart alone composed more than 600 works spanning opera, piano concertos and masses, just to name a few.

Even once a composer, piece or style is chosen, the sensory-overload experience of complex and challenging musical movements requires attention to detail that seems lost on many a modern music fan.

For those willing to challenge themselves, Dayton has a vibrant and plentiful selection of high art music offerings. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a city of Dayton’s size that offers a philharmonic, opera, ballet and contemporary dance.

The city has also has hosted the Vanguard Concert series for 54 years, spanning more than 250 performances and featuring more than 1,200 musicians from all over the world.

The Vanguard is unique for many reasons. First off, keeping anything going for that long is an accomplishment. Fads come and go. Interests shift and change with the culture. To last through 11 presidents requires not only a great product, but also a committed and focused execution.

The series has a long list of champions, benefactors and administrators over the years, but Vince and Elana Bolling were always the lynchpins holding all the moving parts together.

The couple met at The Ohio State University. Their mutual love of music sent the duo anywhere great musicians performed: Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland and New York to name a few.

It was during a 1962 trip to New York when the idea that would become Vanguard first began to crystallize. After watching a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, they began to ask themselves if Dayton could bring in that same level of quality talent.

Vince, already a lover of chamber music, began to throw the idea around New York’s top musical artist management firms, expecting to be laughed out of every office. However, the response turned out to be quite different.

“They were absolutely floored that a young couple like this would be getting ready to start into something that’s considered one of the most significant kinds of music that you can put together,” Elana says. “You get the very best musicians. They play with small groups, and they’re very dedicated people.”

Within a day, he had contracts in hand for six of the day’s best small ensembles. When they returned to Dayton, they took the idea to Thomas C. Colt Jr., the director of Dayton Art Institute.

Virtually everyone told the Bollings that pulling off a series of events of this magnitude would take several years to pull together.

“We were quite young,” Elana says. “Most people involved in serious music thought we were a little cuckoo.”

The first season kicked off just six months later.

The complete story of the Vanguard Concerts has been captured in George W. Houk’s 2012 book “Innocent Impresarios.” In it, he chronicles the beginning of the series and every performance of their first 50 years.

Houk was there at the very beginning of the series. He and his wife Pamela shared the Bollings’ passion for music and were among the first to not only purchase season tickets in 1962, but to also sign up as guarantors. This meant a small group would help make up any potential deficits if the cost of the event was greater than ticket sales.

“Only once in the entire history of Vanguard Concerts has Vince ever had to ask the guarantors to pony up anything at all,” Houk says. “I think it was like $30 apiece in maybe the second or third season.”

It was an undertaking the entire Dayton arts community seemed to rally behind. That first season set some lofty standards, bringing in some of the most renowned players in the field—the most famous being the Juilliard String Quartet.

However, the series not only brought in well known heavy hitters—they also booked up-and-coming acts that would eventually become world famous in their own right such as the Tokyo String Quartet, The Claremont Trio and the Escher String Quartet.

The latter two groups will be featured in the upcoming season—the final to be performed at the Dayton Art Institute. Both Houk and Vince are holding out in hope that a new venue might be found for future installments.

“A lot of people,” Houk says, “have been asking ‘what’s going on? You didn’t do any concerts this fall. Are you closing it down? What’s happening?’”

While nothing official has been announced, negotiations are ongoing with multiple parties.

“We are still planning to continue Vanguard,” Elana says. “We are looking into other venues. We haven’t given up on the fact that Vanguard can continue.”

Still, this season marks the end of an era, as the beautiful auditorium at Dayton Art Institute offers a perfect aesthetic complement to the powerful and stirring music the Vanguard concerts have consistently brought to the area.

Elana says the musicians became more than just entertainers.

After the concerts, late suppers are hosted at different members’ homes. In fact, when Chamber Orchestra Kremlin was first contacted to be part of the upcoming season, they were excited to return to Dayton because of those parties.

“We consider our musicians our dear friends and honored guests—not as people we hired to come and play music,” Houk says.

The series also featured a special outreach program that greatly affected the larger community.

Vince, along with fellow DAI member Vivian Himmell, would take the musicians to area schools. It was something that organizers and musicians looked forward to every year.

“The musicians would do master classes, workshops, mini concerts, Q&A sessions and get these kids excited about chamber music,” Houk says. “We began to see more young people coming to our concerts as a result of these outreach programs.”

Elana cites it as among her favorite memories in the 20-plus years they were able to do it.

“The kids just ate it up,” she says. “They had such interesting conversations. The musicians were very open and it was a great experience. It’s a very exciting thing for young people to be able to hear such talented people of their age. We loved doing that. I think a lot of the young students can remember the concerts they had with great appreciation.”

When asked about the upcoming concerts, Elana’s excitement is palpable. The first show, on March 5, features Chamber Orchestra Kremlin. Formed in 1991, they have performed nearly 2,000 concerts and released 30 albums. Led by conductor Misha Rachlevsky, the average age of its members is under 30. They have been praised by The New York Times, among many others, and have a repertoire of over 1,000 compositions.

On April 10, The Claremont Trio hits the stage. They were the first piano trio to ever win the Young Concert Artists International Auditions. Elana says that balancing the well known established acts along with the brightest young stars was always a goal of Vanguard. The Claremont Trio is an example of that.

“We brought them here, and everybody went crazy over them,” Elana says. “They were constantly on our series. They’ve won all kinds of major prizes as young people.”

The season then wraps up with the Escher String Quartet. Forming just over a decade ago, they quickly turned heads in the art music world. They were awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2013 from the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

“They are fabulous,” Elana says. “We had them last season. They are considered one of the top young quartets on the playing surface, not only here, but in Europe.”

Houk said he believes chamber music offers music lovers a unique experience in the world of classical music.

“The reason I like chamber music is the intimacy between the performers and the audience,” Houk says. “It should always be played in a small hall. You are not far from the performers. There’s immediacy in it that really draws you into the music. You see the interaction between the musicians, which is exciting. It’s almost as much of a visual thing as an auditory thing—to watch the musicians interact and handle their instruments is really a very exciting thing to me.”

While fans will certainly look forward to the upcoming season, the bittersweet thought of the event moving to a new venue or perhaps ending altogether, makes this an especially emotional and nostalgic time for those who have loved the series and what it has meant to the community.

“Dayton got to have a wonderful reputation,” Elana says. “The musicians would talk to each other and say, ‘You’ll have a wonderful time in Dayton. The people are great, and the hall is wonderful.’ All the people we met, all the people in the community that came forward, helped and were enthusiastic—it isn’t that easy to start something from nothing. We had some struggles in the beginning, but the city and people who supported us stayed right with us and helped us along the way. It was a great honor for the art institute. It’s only the very finest museums that can afford to have a series. That was one of the reasons we actually started Vanguard. It’s one of the finest auditoriums in this country. That was part of our interest in maintaining it. The music was number one, but having it at this facility was very important.”

The Vanguard Concert series will take place at Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park North. The first concert will be on March 5 at 8 p.m. and will feature Chamber Orchestra Kremlin. The second concert will feature The Claremont Trio on April 10 at 4 p.m. The series finale will take place on May 15 at 4 p.m. and will feature The Escher String Quartet. Season tickets for all three shows are $75 for adults and $60 for students. Individual concert tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students. For more information, please visit daytonartinstitute.org/events-activities/musicconcerts/vanguard. 

Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pater at RustyPate@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at RustyPate@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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