Monday, October 12, 2009

Maxine (and Ben) Swalin's legacy: A symphony

Generations of North Carolinians and newcomers alike may take it for granted that the North Carolina Symphony has always been there, and always will be -- an assumption that ignores the fact of the symphony's fragile beginnings and its fragile finances that threaten its future. But the symphony story is worth telling and retelling as a reminder of how many good things in North Carolina are the result of a few individuals' inspiration and hard work that resulted in an institution that we can't imagine not existing.
So when Maxine Swalin died last week at 106, it was an occasion to remark on how far the symphony has come since the days in the 1930s when she and her husband Benjamin Swalin, who taught in the music department at the University of North Carolina (decades before the legislature would rename it UNC Chapel Hill), took on the symphony as their personal project and campaigned for its survival. They reorganized the symphony, begun in 1932 but on the brink of oblivion, sold subscriptions to its performances one by one, traveled on intercity buses to promote its future, helped persuade the NC General Assembly in 1943 to pass the "horn tootin' bill" that gave the symphony annual financial support and over the decades built the symphony into a nationally known and acclaimed organization.
The genius of the symphony, from a North Carolinian's point of view, is that it brought classical music into public schools from one end of the state to the other, playing in tiny auditoriums and drafty gyms and wherever its schedulers could find a place to introduce children to fine music. There are a number of blogposts where the Swalins are recognized for all they did (Benjamin Swalin died in 1989).
Here's the symphony Web site's tribute. I particularly liked its last paragraph noting that the lobby of Raleigh's Meymandi Concert Hall is dedicated to the Swalins, and features a statue with these words by former Gov. Terry Sanford: "But for Ben Swalin, the North Carolina Symphony would not be. But for Maxine, Ben would not have prevailed. Bravo."


Steve said...

I remember the symphony visits as a major highlight of elementary school. The teachers prepped us about some of the music and the orchestra's instruments, as well as general etiquette at a classical concert. It helped reinforce my interest in music in general, but it did even more in helping learn how to act in public.

I don't guess they have the time or money for educational experiences like this in school today. Things like science, history, music, and life lessons aren't on the standardized tests.

Anonymous said...