Vanguard’s Season Climaxes with Julliard String Quartet
By Joe Aiello
The American College Dictionary defines vanguard as “the leading position in any field.” When Dayton area native Vince Bolling and his transplanted New York wife Elana created Vanguard, a chamber music concert series held in an art gallery and museum, it certainly wasn’t a new idea. But operating one without the sponsorship of a museum, a university, a music school or club definitely was a new idea. And Vanguard became the leader in a field they had created.
I spoke with George Houk, author of the book Innocent Impresarios, which is scheduled for publication later this year. It is a history of Vanguard Concerts’ fifty years of bringing world-class chamber music to the Dayton Art Institute’s Renaissance Auditorium. Here’s what I learned.
In the spring of 1962 Vince, Elana and their three children were settling into the business and cultural life of Dayton. Vince was the young chief executive of a family-owned energy firm and Elana volunteered as a docent at the Dayton Art Institute. And while it was certainly not an economically challenging time for Dayton, the city did still face its share of problems.
The Bollings were a twenty-something couple looking for fine music wherever they could find it. They both loved chamber music, described by Houk as “… more cerebral than most large-scale works. It requires one to listen closely — and the musicians to listen closely to each other.”
The Bollings wondered why Dayton didn’t have a regular chamber music series rooted in its fertile cultural soil. So, they decided to start one themselves, not knowing the challenges they would face in creating the Vanguard Series and in guaranteeing its continued success.
“The Bollings came back from New York in the spring of 1962 with contracts for Vanguard Concerts’ first season,” states Houk, “but with no audience, no venue, no financing, no volunteers, and no idea of what lay ahead in terms of preparing program notes for each concert, accommodating visiting musicians, planning post-concert receptions and suppers, selling tickets, and many other details.”
The Bollings “were told it would take three years of careful planning, publicity, audience building, and structure. They found the perfect venue, they recruited volunteers, they spread the word, they got an audience, and their presentations were applauded by the music writers of the daily newspapers. And they did it in six months.”
But it wasn’t easy.
“Some of these fifty years have been financial successes, some not,” notes Houk. “The challenge has been to fill at least 350 seats in the 500-seat DAI auditorium. In good times, more often than not the house was full or nearly full. In difficult times, it’s been hard to fill half the seats. The loss of full-time music writers […] had posed a publicity problem.”
However, 50 years is still a good, long haul. “And while there must be other series around the world that have been operating for more than fifty years,” remarks Houk, “such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Library of Congress in Washington DC, we know of none that have run that long without a sponsor such as a museum, a university, a music school or a club.”
One causal factor in all this might be the fact that Vince Bolling inaugurated the series with The New York String Sextet, British counter-tenor Alfred Deller, pianist Beveridge Webster, the Trio Italiano d’Archi, Violist Paul Doktor … and the world-renowned Juilliard String Quartet! How? By persuading their agents to give him unsigned contracts with which he could convince Dayton Art Institute Director, Thomas C. Colt, Jr., to provide the Renaissance Auditorium as a venue for the non-profit concert series, in exchange for Vince and Elana guaranteeing an annual contribution to the museum.
The Juilliard String Quartet is the series’ most frequent guest performing group, with eleven performances to date. The Beaux Arts Trio and the Claremont Trio have each made eight appearances, Russia’s Chamber Orchestra Kremlin made six and Pianist Christopher O’Riley made five. Many others have made three or four appearances.
As to the Vanguard Series’ longevity, Houk attributes it directly to Vince and Elana Bolling: “They believed that quality sells. From the start, they presented only the most highly regarded chamber musicians — ensembles and soloists — that they could find across the world. They did their homework — listened to tapes and CDs, sought opinions and carefully balanced each season with a variety of forms and musical eras from ancient music to avant-garde works. Many among their audiences became close friends who have remained with them through the years.”
But… “The ultimate problem ahead is an aging audience,” remarks Houk. “Not a few Vanguard regulars are in their nineties. One sees few young faces in the audience. The biggest challenge ahead is how to bring a younger cohort into the world of chamber music.”
So, what does the future hold in store for Vanguard?
“As Vince Bolling has said,” replies Houk, “fifty years is a long time to be doing the same thing. Who will take up the baton when the Bollings, now in their seventies, decide that it’s time to hand it off? Until a successor appears, all bets are off.”
(On Saturday, May 19, the Juilliard String Quartet will make its twelfth appearance since helping inaugurate the series 50 years ago. Tickets are $30 for adults or $20 for students. The show starts at 8p.m. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.daytonartistitute.org and click on the events and activities link.)
Reach DCP freelance writer Joe Aiello at JoeAiello@DaytonCityPaper.com