Article first published in Vol. 13, 1995.
By Gina Moeri
Conducting two orchestras in cities hundreds or even thousands of miles apart is not easy. But it is not unique to Gurer Aykal, current director of the El Paso Symphony Orchestra, who flew in from Turkey to conduct the orchestra his first year. In the 1930s, another conductor flew almost 1,300 miles between El Paso and Louisville, Kentucky, to lead both symphony orchestras.
The city’s first attempt at forming an orchestra came in 1882, after other orchestras were founded in various Texas cities in the 1880s. The McGinty Club, a group using volunteer musicians, played for several years, disbanding in 1905.
A second venture came with guidance from Peter Gustat, who emigrated from Italy in 1886. Shortly after arriving in El Paso, Gustat began directing weekly concerts in Cleveland Square, just west of the downtown library. Each concert aroused more enthusiasm and the band grew to 45 members, large enough to justify the name “symphony.” Gustat presented the city’s first official symphony orchestra in 1919.
The Federated Women’s Club and other music lovers helped with contributions to support the new orchestra. When Gustat left El Paso for Florida in 1924, El Paso Symphony Orchestra was left with a sound foundation and was on its way to success.
But the Great Depression hit cultural activities hard, and the symphony was forced to disband. Conditions were not promising for an incoming conductor. However, the success of the El Paso Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s was made possible by a young conductor by name of H. Arthur Brown.
In his youth, Hine Arthur Brown studied violin under Moritz Rosen for 13 years. Through arduous practice and commitment, he received a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music in New York City.
At Juilliard, Brown studied under famous musicians such as Paul Kochanski, Albert Stoessal and Rubin Goldmark. Brown proceeded to win the American Scholarship and the opportunity to further his studies in Fontainbleau, France. While in France, Brown practiced under the famous Nadia Boulanger.
Upon returning to New York City in 1930, Brown was given an opportunity to go to New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (now NMSU) to be a violin teacher. John Erksine, head of the music department at Juilliard, had arranged for the position and established certain conditions for Brown and the college.
Brown’s salary was a major concern. The Juilliard School would pay for Brown’s first year in New Mexico. During the second year, the college would pay a portion of Brown’s salary, and if the college was satisfied with Brown, they would then begin paying his full salary at the start of his third year.
Erskine’s other concern was that Brown should be able to conduct an orchestra. The New Mexico college was rather isolated, so it was agreed that the orchestra would be in nearby El Paso. The Texas community did not realize at this time what a major change was about to take place with its symphony.
Brown found dispirited musicians, unable to make enough money to feed themselves and their families and ready to move on to other jobs. But the young conductor began to interview musicians for the reformation of the orchestra. Many musicians from El Paso and its surrounding communities were eager and restoring the symphony.
Brown conducted his first concert of the El Paso Symphony Orchestra on January 26, 1931, in the Scottish Rite Auditorium. El Pasoans were extremely impressed and realized how such an event could aid in the growth of their community. During the 1931-1932 concert year, 250 season tickets were sold, enough to fill the Scottish Rite Auditorium. The season ended with an orchestra of 60 members.
In 1933, Brown was to move to Louisville, Kentucky, where a group of musicians were waiting for him to be their conductor. He had made many friends with the musicians in the EPSO, and the concerts were going so well that Brown agreed to fly into town and continue to conduct the performances. (His schedule of flying between the two cities made national news in the New York Times dated Nov 19, 1933).
The quality of the orchestra continued to improve over the next few years. John Heiden, a former podiatrist and 17-year member of the EPSO, recalls Brown being a very understanding and patient man. “He had a way of coaxing music out of us very gently,” Heiden fondly remembers. “He was a very nice man and a fine conductor.”
The 1936-1937 season began at a new location, Liberty Hall. This was a time of great celebration as the orchestra had come a long way in 20 years and now had 72 members.
The Symphony was asked to perform for large occasions and, in 1938, it presented a Sun Carnival concert for 2,500 people. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite was among the evening’s favorites. Brown used no score as he conducted the performance, a custom for which he became known.
Every performance was better than the previous one, and the quality of music improved. “He showed us what it was like to be obsessed with music and performing,” Heiden says. The audience could see this concentration in Brown’s very physical conducting and his musicians’ energy.
Brown gave his final concert on March 26, 1951. Brown had worked with the orchestra for over 21 years. the Denver Post once wrote that some 1,500 people remained in line for five hours in hopes of obtaining tickets to watch Brown’s performance, even though the tickets had already been sold out. Brown had grown to be an exceptional conductor.
The success of the El Paso Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s was possible because of H. Arthur Brown, who helped the organization coalesce, grow and triumph. John Heiden says, “Brown helped instill more of a love of music within all of the symphony’s members.” His legacy lives on today.