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Meadow Brook Remembered

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Beatriz Budinszky (Staples), now retired,  became a member of the Detroit Symphony’s violin section in 1964. She has been an active member of the orchestra participating on the Artistic Advisory Committee and the Volunteer Council.  Bea completed her master’s degree at the University of Hartford.

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As do most major American orchestras, the DSO, at one time, was fortunate to have a beautiful summer home.  On the grounds of Oakland University, Baldwin Pavilion was given to Oakland University by Matilda Dodge Wilson with the intent that it would be the summer home of the DSO and the nucleus of a major performing arts center.  Nestled amidst gently rolling hills, the pavilion is a natural amphitheater with superb acoustics in a picturesque setting.

The vision and dreams of the founders became a reality very quickly.  Just five months after the groundbreaking ceremonies in February of 1964, the first concerts took place.  By 1966, the festival already had expanded to eight weeks.  There was a music school with internationally acclaimed artist teachers – in addition to DSO musicians – and Meadow Brook became a cultural center for the community and the entire region.  Along with Mrs. Wilson and many generous donors, there was an immense and well-organized volunteer structure.  Opening nights were truly special occasions.  The chairman of the festival would welcome the audience and acknowledge the hard work of the men and women who worked so diligently to develop an audience base.  Similarly, DSO musicians have always been aware of the vital role of volunteer organizations and are most appreciative of their efforts. There was a sense of pride and accomplishment shared by all.

The DSO would move to Meadow Brook for the entire summer season.  After the dreary atmosphere – and at best mediocre, acoustics of Ford Auditorium – this was a wonderful change.  Each week we performed two or three concerts with different repertoire.  The festival boasted a star-studded roster of soloists, artists of the highest caliber of international renown, along with young talent emerging on the musical scene.  The DSO’s then-current music directors predominated, in addition to distinguished guest conductors.  Some of the legendary artists who stand out in my memory include, among many others, Claudio Arrau, Alfred Brendel,  Vladimir Ashkenazy, Henryk Szering, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Gidon Kremer, Mstislav Rostropovich, Leonard Rose, Lynn Harrell, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Maureen Forrester and Jessye Norman.

The educational component was an important part of the institution.  The music school, headed in 1966 by Robert Shaw, offered unique opportunities for serious instrumentalists from all over the world.  The fine orchestra and chorus performed the great orchestral and choral repertoire under Robert Shaw, James Levine and Roger Wagner.  The faculty included DSO teachers and well as visiting artist/teachers.  The famous Istomin-Stern-Rose trio had a three-week chamber music residency program.  During those weeks, Messrs. Istomin, Stern and Rose also appeared as soloists with the DSO.

The 1966 season featured a week dedicated to the world premiere performances of three commissioned works by the Meadow Brook Festival.  Then music director Sixten Ehrling was a champion of contemporary music and his programming, financed in part by a $20,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation,  reflected this.  The second half of the concert was balanced with some of the well known and spectacular works of the 20th century.  The composers of the commissioned pieces and a number of critics from near and far were present.  The DSO received very favorable press reviews, one of them heralding the DSO as a “leading exponent of contemporary music.”

In general, attendance at the concerts was very good.  Audience surveys indicate that most people select concerts based mainly on a particular soloist, then the program and conductor.  The combination of a balmy summer evening, beautiful music and a star soloist guaranteed  a sell-out event.  Such was the case when a young, lanky Texan made his debut at Meadow Brook in 1966.  Van Cliburn was catapulted into instant fame when he became the first American to win the Tschaikovsky International Piano Competition in 1958.  During the height of the Cold War, the significance of this resonated far beyond the music world.  All four of his concerts drew capacity audiences.  The music soared and the excitement was palpable.  It was an unforgettable evening.

The tradition of presenting operas in concert version was started in 1972 with a spectacular performance of Aida. During one of the coldest summers on record, the Ethiopian princess portrayed so magnificently by Martina Arroyo had to wear a fur coat.  Other operas performed were Fidelio, the Barber of Seville and the first act of Walkure.

In the early 80’s, the festival also added a visiting orchestra series that featured one of the great American orchestras towards the end of the summer.

Orchestra musicians were featured soloists at times.  Gordon Staples, my late husband who was concertmaster of the DSO at that time, performed the Berg violin concerto during the subscription season and then repeated it at Meadow Brook in August 1967.  The  second performance coincided with that infamous day, 8/23/67, when  rioting erupted in Detroit.  At the time, Gordon was living very close to the epicenter of the uprising and almost could not get out of the area as streets were cordoned off and buildings were set on fire.  Finally, he arrived at Meadow Brook, quite shaken, a nerve-racking experience for him and a difficult time for all that will never be forgotten.

Three years later, I had the privilege to be in the audience – I was out on maternity leave, after the birth of our first son – when Gordon played a lovely performance of the Bruch violin concerto under the baton of Arthur Fiedler.  As orchestra musicians, we are very much aware of the unique power of music to stir the emotions.  For sure, nothing equals being enveloped in the midst of a great surge of orchestral sound but you can never get carried away and forget that after the most heavenly passage you might have a really tricky entrance or that you might have to find a note in the stratosphere of the fingerboard.  Concentration is essential.  At no time can you allow your mind to go into “neutral.”    However, on this occasion, while listening to the sweet and lyrical quality of the performance, my thoughts drifted to my infant son. Might he inherit some of his father’s talent and more importantly, would he love music and would music be part of his life?  Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that many years later he would be a member of the DSO.

Miriam Fried, in one of her frequent appearances at Meadow Brook, played the Brahms violin concerto with us in 1980.  Of her many fine performances, this one I will never forget.  She was in the late stages of her pregnancy with her second son.  A few decades prior to this, it would have been unheard of to see a pregnant woman on stage, but fortunately times had changed.  It seemed as if Miriam not only played for the audience, but for that special baby inside her womb.  It was a truly inspiring performance.  Surely, the good Lord must have been smiling at them.  Miriam’s son, Johathan Biss, grew up to be a talented pianist who made his debut with the DSO two years ago.  In all fairness, it must be mentioned that Jonathan’s father, Paul Biss, is a fine musician and pedagogue in his own right.

Vladimir Ashkenazy became artistic advisor of the Festival in 1974.  He was also connected with the school and was a favorite and frequent soloist with the DSO.

Paul Paray, the venerable former music director of the DSO made his final guest conducting appearances in ’75 and ’76, on both occasions performing his signature French repertoire.

As the decades passed, there were new faces and new trends.  The festival was nine weeks long and classical series were still the core, but popular, non-classical series kept increasing from year to year.

Neville Mariner was artistic director of the festival in the early 1980’s.  Just recently, he was in Detroit guest conducting the DSO.  Sir Neville reminisced with great fondness and a tinge of nostalgia about the glory days of the Festival, what it was and what it could have continued to be.

Through a confluence of unfortunate decisions, the Meadow Brook Festival, as we knew it, slipped away from us.  Surely we are pleased that we can return there as guests for two weekends of concerts. Ultimately, what matters most is that we continue to bring live, classical music to the public, whether it may be in Detroit or in the suburbs.  In today’s fast-paced society, with all its technological wonders, it is the arts and our capacity to enjoy the arts that brings balance to our lives.  We are grateful for the profound and spiritual sustenance that music bestows on us, as all the arts are an essential part of a civilized society.