A Brief History of the Coleman Concerts

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The oldest independent chamber music series in the country, the Coleman Chamber Concerts were founded in 1904 by Alice Coleman, a gifted musician with a remarkable vision for the future of chamber music. This was an innovative undertaking at the time, as Miss Coleman later recounted: “In Southern California, the field of chamber music still remained largely unexplored… There followed many conferences with friends, one of whom exclaimed: ‘What! Chamber concerts in Pasadena? It can never be done!’ But, filled with enthusiasm for ensemble playing and realizing the lack of opportunities for others to share its beauties, I proceeded with plans for the concerts.”

The first of “Miss Coleman’s Chamber Concerts” was held on January 25, 1904 at the old Elks Hall on the corner of Raymond Avenue and Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena and showcased the Krauss Quartet (all members of the newly-established Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra) with Alice Coleman at the piano. The Krauss Quartet went on to perform in most of the Coleman concerts for the next six years, and Alice would perform on every program through 1923 and on many others until 1939.

Alice Coleman was well prepared for her role as a leader of musical culture at the turn of the century and fortunately found herself in a city that encouraged both intellectual and cultural pursuits. Born in Nebraska in 1873, Alice moved with her family to Pasadena in 1886. Her father, a newspaperman, obtained a position on the Pasadena Weekly Star and later became the business manager at Throop Polytechnic Institute (now Caltech), where her mother was already teaching both history and English literature. Alice was drawn to music at an early age and was soon recognized as a talented young pianist.

In 1891, at the age of 18, Alice went to Boston to further her music studies. She spent a decade there, giving concerts and studying with B. J. Lang, whom she described as “the foremost musician of Boston.” In 1901 Alice returned to Pasadena where she assumed her position in the community as a pianist, organist, and teacher. Years later Alice wrote about this decision: “In spite of a growing class of pupils and promise for the future in the concert field, youthful aspirations for achievement in the larger music world of the East were replaced by a desire to be identified with the musical growth of my childhood home, Pasadena.”

With the establishment of the Coleman Concerts in 1904, Alice took on an active role as performer as well as concert manager. She attended to every aspect of the series from engaging the artists, planning the programs and finding the concert sites to building audiences and securing financial support. During the early years of the series, the concerts were held in various locations including the Elks Hall, Clune’s Theater, the Shakespeare Club, and the Hotel Green as well as in the spacious homes and gardens of Pasadena’s music enthusiasts. When audience attendance did not meet her expectations, Alice submitted an appeal in the Pasadena Daily News Tournament of Roses Edition on January 1, 1911: “Why should we not make Pasadena a veritable little home of the best in music and the kindred arts? We are close to all that is inspiring and beautiful in nature…. Under the shadow of these grand old mountains we can raise a temple where young and old may gather to enjoy the harmonies of the great masters. Let us cease to lament our distance from the music centers of the East, and stand shoulder to shoulder in making Pasadena a worthy center of Art.”

In 1912 Alice married the well-known tilemaker Ernest Batchelder, who supported her ideals and talents. Alice moved into Ernest’s house above the Arroyo Seco, where some of the Coleman Concerts were held. A son, Alan, was born to the Batchelders in 1914.

By the 1920s, growing prosperity and a renewed interest in the arts led to the expansion of the Coleman Concerts. Alice Coleman secured support from both local and national benefactors, including astronomer George Ellery Hale, then at Caltech; railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington; and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, founder of the chamber series at the Library of Congress. As attendance rose, the Coleman concerts moved to the 500-seat Culbertson Hall at Caltech in 1924, and then to the newly-built Pasadena Playhouse in 1927―where they remained for 37 years. In 1965 the Coleman Concerts moved to the new Beckman Auditorium at Caltech.

The late 1920s witnessed the first appearance of national and international artists on the series. As chamber musicians began to tour the western part of the country, Alice was among the first to present them. The Flonzaley Quartet, considered among the finest in the world, performed on the series at that time as did the Pro Arte String Quartet of Brussels (four times), and the London (22 times) and Roth (eight times) Quartets. Other favorites with Coleman audiences included cellist Gregor Piatigorsky who appeared five times on the series from 1934 to 1945 as well as the famed Budapest Quartet which performed 15 times between 1935 and 1965.  More recent favorites include the Emerson, Guarneri, and Juilliard Quartets.

In 1932 the Coleman Chamber Music Association was incorporated as an educational, nonprofit organization, and in 1947 Alice Coleman’s desire to foster young chamber artists came to fruition with the founding of the Coleman Chamber Music Auditions (later the Coleman Chamber Ensemble Competition).  Piatigorsky returned to Coleman three times as a Competition judge.  Competition winners who have returned to perform on the series include Eighth Blackbird and the Calder, Colorado, Pacifica, and Tokyo Quartets.  The Competition was placed on hiatus in 2016 due to a loss of infrastructure.

Coleman’s friends and patrons have commissioned several works for the Series.  In 1952 Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco premiered his Piano Quintet No. 2, Op. 155, “Memories of a Tuscan Countryside” with the Hungarian String Quartet, a work which had earlier been proposed by Harlow Mills. Coleman’s 50th anniversary was in 1954, and two commissions dedicated to the memory of Alice Coleman Batchelder debuted: Paul Creston’s Suite for Flute, Viola and Piano, Op. 56 and Ernst Toch’s String Quartet No. 13, Op. 74.  The Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation of the Library of Congress also commissioned a work in honor of Coleman’s 50th Anniversary, for which Leon Kirchner premiered his Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano with Paganini String Quartet members Henri Temianka and Lucien Laporte.  In later years commissions and premieres by George Heussenstamm, Karl Kohn, and Harold Owen would follow.  For Coleman’s Centennial Concert in 2004, Joan Panetti premiered In a Dark Time, the Eye Begins to See for Piano Quintet with the Tokyo String Quartet, commissioned by the Music Accord consortium, of which Coleman was a member.

Coleman joined with the Pasadena Art Museum in 1964 to create Encounters, which was conceived as “a meeting, face to face, of the outstanding composers and performers of today with those who seek to gain insight into original and difficult works in contemporary idiom. To encourage rapport between composer and listener, the setting will be informal, the composer will speak, and programming will allow for the replaying of some works.”  Leonard Stein was the music director and the Encounters committee was chaired by Harlow Mills.  The Pasadena Music Teachers Association became a co-sponsor in 1965, as did Caltech in 1970.  Participating composers included Milton Babbitt, Luciano Berio, John Cage, Ingolf Dahl, Morton Feldman, William Kraft, Ernst Krenek, Harry Partch, Mel Powell, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Morton Subotnik (himself a Coleman Competition winner in 1951).  Caltech hosted Encounters from 1971 to 1973, during which time Lou Harrison premiered his opera with puppets, Young Caesar, and Olivier Messiaen performed a duo recital with his wife, Yvonne Loriod.  Leon Kirchner, György Ligeti, Terry Riley, and Toru Takemitsu also participated.

What Alice Coleman might have thought of Elliott Carter is almost deliciously unknowable.  What is known, though, is that her legacy includes the hundreds of thousands of her friends and neighbors in Pasadena and southern California who have heard and appreciated the music and the genius of nearly 500 composers (thus far), including her sister, at the concerts that today bear her name.