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Volume 26, Number 5 — May 2019

Bristol Music Club celebrates 100 years

Rosa Ponselle, soprano from the Metropolitan Opera Company, performed in Bristol.
Rosa Ponselle, soprano from the Metropolitan Opera Company, performed in Bristol.
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By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | September 30, 2014

It was 1914 when Mrs. Madeline Bennett organized The Bristol Music Club. Her first report, which is in the club's scrapbook, reads as follows:

"On Thursday, Aug. 12, 1914, at the invitation of Mrs. Madeline Hobson Bennett, who is an ardent music lover, a small number of musicians met together at the home of Mrs. Noah St. John, on Penn Ave., and formed what will be known as The Bristol Music Club. More definite plans for the work of the club will be made at the next meeting, which will be next Thursday at the home of Mrs. John R. Dickey. Mrs. Bennett feels much encouraged at the enthusiasm with which her idea was received and all hope that this small gathering may lead to a large and influential music club for Bristol. Those present were as follows Mrs. K. A. Grandstaff, Mrs. James Brewer, Mrs. Noah St. John, Miss Lottie Hobson, Miss Carrie Norvell and Mrs. Madeline Bennett."

"This "small number of earnest women of vision, hope, and faith, who were willing to devote a part of their time to artistic culture' did meet on that Thursday, and Mrs. Dickey was selected as the club's first president," says Nancy Estes, club member. Dickey later was voted honorary president for life. Bennett, who organized the club, was voted an honorary member for life in consideration of her valuable work and loyalty.

Estes "became involved with the club because of my sons. Two of the boys took piano lessons and participated in the District Junior Festivals. One son stopped lessons after a few years, but my second son took lessons for 12 years. He also participated in the scholarship auditions. When the boys were in high school, I started taking piano lessons after a lapse of many years. My teacher was a TBMC member and suggested that I join. Remembering the support the club had given to my boys, I did join with the hope of helping other children. And it is a fun group of people."

The club met twice a month originally, which changed to monthly in 1934. Dues were $1. They have grown by small increments to $35 today. Paying dues was only the beginning; active members were required to participate by presenting research or performing. At the beginning, prospects had to audition to be considered for membership, to ensure they had enough musical ability to appear in some capacity on the program. That requirement has fallen away. Today's club requires a love of music and a willingness to learn and work.

One hundred years later, the club is still thriving, still learning about music and still supporting young musicians. Its goal when it began was "to study and interpret the best music and its relevant literature, to elevate the musical taste of our community, to encourage musical development among the young people of the community and to serve our community through music in all ways we can."

A typical meeting in the early days of the club included a program about a particular composer or type of music and a performance. Usually the programs ran smoothly, but occasionally outside forces caused problems. "For example, on Dec. 14, 1916, the program was modern German music," says Estes. "But because of World War I, the members of the club had difficulty getting the music for the program, and some pieces had to be substituted."

Another difficulty was when assigned presenters were absent. To resolve this problem, fines were established. In 1915 the fine was 50 "for nonperformance of assigned work," unless a substitute was found. By 1925 the fine had risen to $5 and continued until 1931.

"Of course there is always a need to raise money," Estes says. "The club sponsored a Valentine's Day party and silver tea in its early days. In 1945 it held a Tag Day to raise money for instruments and records to place in hospitals for wounded veterans." The club also collected "playable Victrolas, combination radio and record players, records not more than five years old, orchestral instruments and pianos for distribution in army camps and naval bases as part of a project to assist our boys in the all-out effort for victory over the Axis powers," according to its scrapbooks. It also sponsored a benefit recital featuring Martha Christin Flynn, mezzo-sporano, during WWII to purchase instruments for hospitals.

Public concerts were a large portion of the club's beginning. In 1920, club members formed the Concert Artists Course and brought to Bristol some of the world's greatest artists. Some of these included Rosa Ponselle, soprano from the Metropolitan Opera Company, Olga Samaroff, Vladimir Horowitz, Mischa Elman, Josef Hoffman, Louise Homer and many others. The concerts were discontinued in 1933 because of the Depression. A new concert association began in 1935 and had sponsored more than 50 concerts by 1949.

The club presented programs at the Veterans Administration hospital in Johnson City, Tenn., and a series of opera stories that were broadcast by radio station WCYB. The club brought in groups such as the Cleveland Symphony to perform for school children.

In 1920 the club began a Most Improved piano contest for children in the city. "The children were judged in the fall and again several months later," Estes says. "A $5 gold piece was awarded to each winner."

"For 100 years The Bristol Music Club members have worked to make Bristol "A Good Place to Live' musically," Estes says. "Today with our club programs, District Federation Festival, scholarship benefit, scholarship auditions, support of The Paramount Chamber Players, and the young artists at the Paramount's Tunes at Noon, we are continuing their legacy."

The District Federation Festival "is designed to give musicians of all abilities the opportunity to perform and receive a yearly evaluation in a non-competitive environment," Steve Fey, president, says. "Usually some 90 students from our region participate each year. To be eligible, the student's teacher must be a member of the club and have a junior music club that is affiliated with the Bristol Music Club." The club sponsors seven junior music clubs.

Throughout its history, the club has managed to keep its focus on its original goal promoting music and encouraging young musicians.

Laura Ann Warner has been an active member since her retirement in 1993 and was a sustaining member for years prior to that. "Music was my chosen profession and remains a great love," she says. "Membership in the music club seemed the most appropriate avenue to satisfy my desire to contribute to the community in a volunteer capacity.

"The club has not changed significantly during its long history, but each year it comes closer to realizing its objects of studying the best music and its relevant literature, offering those opportunities to the community and encouraging musical development of the young people in our area.

"My favorite job has been working on the scholarship committee because it has kept me in touch with young student musicians. These years have been challenging, inspiring and most rewarding. The wealth of exceptionally talented and dedicated young musicians in our area never ceases to amaze me. It is thrilling to follow their progress as they mature and to rejoice in the effect they are having locally, nationally and even internationally. I am exceedingly grateful, too, for the increasing generosity of the community's support, which has created a win-win combination for musical elegance, excellence and impact.

"Membership in TBMC has given me a nucleus of friends with similar interests and goals, but more important, TBMC has greatly enriched the community and significantly increased opportunities for young musicians. I anticipate nothing but more success in the next 100 years."

If you wish to join the Bristol Music Club, all that is needed it to have a love of music and a willingness to learn and work. If you have those interests, contact Steve Fey at 423-764-7176 or The club meets on the second Thursday of each month at 10:30 a.m., from September through May. Meetings are usually held at the State Street United Methodist Church.

Craig Combs originally began the Paramount Chamber Players so his family could hear him play.

"In 2004, I had just moved to London and knew how difficult it would be for my family to hear me play while I lived in Europe," Combs says. "I decided to start an ensemble in Bristol to resolve that issue. However, I quickly discovered a gold mine of talented musicians and interest in the community for the idea. After only two to three years, the effort quickly became a bona fide nonprofit with a mission to share chamber music in the communities of and surrounding the Tri-Cities. Since then, the group has expanded to include some artists who come regularly from outside the area to assist us in delivering the highest quality of music making. We are very proud of our community involvement, which is exemplified in our collaborative relationship with The Bristol Music Club, when we jointly present The Paramount Chamber Players Award. And, the group continues to morph as we encounter new opportunities and exciting adventures. For the future, I can envision a concert series with more concerts, house concerts and a summertime festival of great chamber music."

When Combs and the Paramount Chamber Players celebrate their 10th anniversary in October, one of the pieces they will play is "Rhapsody in Blue" by George Gershwin which was one of the pieces Combs performed when he won the Bristol Music Club's scholarship competition in 1977. While it's the same piece, it is a new arrangement created especially for the chamber group.

They also are performing the world premiere of "Second Sight," a commissioned piece based on the poetry of Dr. Sam Miller.

"Dr. Sam Miller was a great supporter of the arts of all kinds in the region," Combs says. "He was a contributor to The Paramount Chamber Players from its first year and attended many of our concerts. Shortly after his death, we were playing at his church, Sinking Spring Presbyterian Church, and found it a good opportunity to honor his commitment to the arts by dedicating the concert to his memory. At that concert, his son, Don Ault, gave me a copy of Dr. Miller's published book of poetry. As I became familiar with the poems, I discovered his work captured an overt straightforward quality that I think exemplifies the culture of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia quite nicely. When the idea of a commission came up to celebrate our tenth anniversary, it was an obvious choice. Dr. Miller's poetry coupled with the music of Ann Holler, Evelyn Pursley-Kopitzke and Kenton Coe, makes a world premiere that is and was truly born and nourished for our region, a performance art of our community."

The chamber group has been working closely with several area composers since their first call for compositions in 2006. Holler and Pursley-Kopitzke were among the composers who answered that first call. Since then, they have worked with both the chamber players and Combs personally collaborating on performances in the Tri-Cities and in London where Combs lives. "Kenton Coe is likely the area's most well-known composer of music," Combs says. "I had wanted to work with him for a while, and in 2010, he arranged a couple of his songs for us to perform. The experience was so gratifying that I wanted to repeat it again."

The Paramount Chamber Players celebrate their anniversary with three concerts. The first is Oct. 24 at First Presbyterian Church in Kingsport, Tenn., at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 26 they perform at Sinking Spring Presbyterian Church, Abingdon, Va., at 3 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 25 is a very busy day in their anniversary celebration. They perform around noon in various downtown Bristol restaurants and other local venues. Prior to the Oct. 25 concert at the Paramount Center for the Arts at 7:30 p.m., there will be a pre-concert birthday celebration for VIPs and dynamic contributors, the folk most responsible for making their community service possible. TriSummit Bank and The Trust Company have underwritten the concert and host the pre-concert birthday celebration. And after the concert, The Bristol Music Club hosts a public reception in the lobby of The Paramount Center. "It will be a lovely day of chamber music in Bristol," Combs says.

"I encourage everyone to take a chance and come hear us play," he continues. "The tenth anniversary concert will be a great microcosm of the type of experience we have provided over the last 10 years. We will perform the world premiere of a commissioned work with new sounds painting the beautiful words of a local poet. Juxtaposing the erudite with entertainment, we will also perform some of the most enjoyable jazzy, theatrical American music available. It is a unique opportunity to hear the breadth of artistry coupled with sheer entertainment that The Paramount Chamber Players offer. We hope that it may very well bring you back for more."

There's More:
>> Scholarship program helps young musicians

Mrs. John R. Dickey

Mrs. Madeline Hobson Bennett