By Kyle MacMillan
OMAHA, Neb. — Pablo Casals, Kirsten Flagstad, Jascha Heifetz, Lotte Lehmann, Itzhak Perlman, Lily Pons, Arthur Rubinstein, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Artur Schnabel, Rudolf Serkin, Isaac Stern, and Joan Sutherland.
This star-studded historical line-up would be worthy of a classical-music center like New York or London. But it is actually part of a long list of notable artists who have graced the Tuesday Musical Concert Series, an all-volunteer organization that has operated far from the spotlight, in Omaha. Founded in 1892, one year after Carnegie Hall opened and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed its first concert, the series has overcome economic ups and downs and the vicissitudes of public taste to become one of the oldest and most storied classical institutions in the country.
But after 123 years, declining ticket sales and a lack of fresh leadership have forced Tuesday Musical to shut down. It will present its final concert on Oct. 6 — a free recital featuring pianist Orli Shaham at Witherspoon Concert Hall in the Joslyn Art Museum.
“It’s tragic,” said Shaham, who has appeared on the series twice before, including a duo recital in 2000-01 with her brother, violinist Gil Shaham. “It’s so nostalgic for me. This is an organization I’ve come to with Gil and also in recitals for so many years. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about Tuesday Musical. I remember Gil going there when we were kids, before I was even really performing.”
Although organizations such as Carnegie Hall or the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall get the bulk of the attention in the classical world, unsung presenters in other cities across the country also play an important role in bringing top-notch music to their audiences and giving artists opportunities to perform. A similar group exists in Akron, Ohio, called the Tuesday Musical Association, which began in 1887 and has a history much like its Omaha counterpart. Another one, the 133-year-old Schubert Club in Minneapolis, which merged with the Music in the Parks Series in 2010, has a lively mix of annual offerings and even operates a musical-instrument museum.
“For the artists,” Shaham said, “those places are absolutely as important as the more famous and prestigious places. I was having a conversation with Gil the other day where the two of us were saying that in many ways, it’s so much more rewarding to play in a smaller situation where you might already start to recognize audience members because of how many times you’ve performed there. It’s not your home, but it feels like it is. And these people are so grateful that you are there, as opposed to playing for a faceless crowd somewhere.”
Tuesday Musical began as a way for Omaha’s young amateur musicians to get together and perform informally. It started mixing in professional musicians around 1903, and by 1912-13 had managed to book Eugène Ysaÿe, one of the era’s most celebrated violinists. But it was not until the 1915-16 season that the organization devoted itself solely to presenting artists of national and international stature — its prime mission since.
While the numbers have varied, it has typically presented four or five concerts a season, putting an emphasis on recitals, but also presenting the Quartetto Italiano, Beaux Arts Trio, and other chamber ensembles and even a few orchestras. For much of its history, the concerts have taken place in Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall, a 1931 art-deco theater, renovated in the 1990s, that seats about 1,000 people.
“It was wonderful,” said Noyes Rogers, who has bought season tickets since 1964, when he returned to Columbus, Neb., to open his law practice. “They had as good as you could get. They did five concerts a year. You got your string quartets. You got a good singer. You got a good a pianist and maybe a violinist. And, so, it really kept you in touch with what was going on.”
Mary Ellen Mulcahy, a past Tuesday Musical board member, first attended the series in 1959-60, a season that included such notables as contralto Maureen Forrester and pianist Byron Janis. Enrolled at Omaha’s College of St. Mary at the time, Mulcahy was eligible for a student subscription, which was $15. She remembers the price because she had to get her parents’ approval for the purchase. “My father said, ‘Are you sure you really want to do that? Because that’s a lot of money,’” Mulcahy said. “I come from a very small village. We didn’t have things like that. Plus the fact that I had to take a taxi.”
The organization was administered entirely by female volunteers, who did everything from selling tickets and distributing posters to raising funds and booking artists. Artist selections were made by a program committee with the approval of the board. The Tuesday Musical leadership made a point of keeping up on the music scene by traveling a couple of times a year to New York and attending the Aspen Music Festival and similar events. In addition, Barbara Taxman, who has been a member of the board since 1969-70 and serves as its longstanding program chairman, consulted agents, and sought advice from such visiting artists as pianist Emanuel Ax, who would recommend up-and-comers who had caught his eye.
Setting Tuesday Musical apart from many other series was its personal touch. Concerts were often followed by parties or receptions. Rogers remembers a pleasant conversation with pianist Murray Perahia at one such event. Artists were picked up at the airport and chauffeured around Omaha, and they always received a gift, often homemade brownies or cookies. “There is something really special about the home-grown series,” Shaham said. “Artists come and have this very homey, cozy feeling of a group of people who really care about music and about what it is that you’re doing.”
Mulcahy, who drove a modest two-door Oldsmobile at the time, remembers picking up soprano Kathleen Battle after her recital in 1982-83. The famed singer was a wearing an eye-grabbing fuchsia silk taffeta dress. “She leaped into the front seat with that fabulous dress,” Mulcahy said, “where it poofed up so that she literally couldn’t see out the front window. She was in great form with a glorious voice at that time, and would say spicy things about anybody in the opera world. She was quite open.”
Board members had to be ready for anything. When violinist Pinchas Zukerman arrived one afternoon in 1973-74 for a concert that evening, he and his accompanist first wanted to play tennis. Taxman jumped into action, getting her husband to come home early from the office so they had enough players. The four were still on the courts at a local park at 6 p.m. “I said, ‘You have to stop playing now, because those ladies will kill me if I don’t have you back at the Joslyn all cleaned up.’” Taxman said. “We finally dragged him out of there and went home and changed clothes.”
She became friends with some of the performers who came back more than once, such as pianist Malcolm Frager. She first met him in 1975-76, when he had just come from a concert tour in South America. He went to check into his hotel, which was overbooked and did not have a room available, so the desk clerk offered to secure him a room elsewhere. “He looked at me,” Taxman said, “and he said, ‘Did I hear you say you had a couple of boys away at school?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Do they have beds in your house?’ I said, ‘Come on.’ And after that, then, every time he came to town, he stayed with us, and I adored him.” Tuesday Musical presented him for the last time in 1989-90 as a substitute for an ailing pianist; Frager died just a few months later.
During the early decades of its existence, the organization was the only presenter of top-quality classical music in Omaha, and its concerts attracted more than 1,000 people. “So, they kind of had a monopoly,” Rogers said. “For people who really wanted to hear some music, that was it.” But the series began to face some of the same challenges as other classical organizations across the country — declining ticket sales and an aging audience. Concert attendance dropped to 500-600 by the 1980s and plummeted to 250-300 more recently.
Tuesday Musical was in some ways a victim of Omaha’s cultural success. Opera Omaha and the Omaha Symphony became professional organizations in the 1970s and evolved into strong regional institutions, and an array of other cultural organizations came along, giving people many more entertainment options. In 2005, the Holland Performing Arts Center opened with a sleek, 2,000-seat concert hall that became the symphony’s home. Omaha Performing Arts, which began around the same time, presents a varied season of Broadway, jazz, and dance events there and in another theater.
Aside from falling attendance, the biggest reason for Tuesday Musical’s demise was a lack of new leaders who were willing to pick up the reins and guide the venerable organization into the future. By the 1980s, few members of Tuesday Musical’s board were under the age of 70 and, the average age has only increased since. “The main thing is we didn’t have people who wanted to do what we do,” Taxman said. “About five of us have been doing all the running around, putting up the posters, picking up the artists, and getting the ads in the paper – all the stuff you have to do.”
The organization went on hiatus in 2014-15 and then voted to end its operations with this final concert on Oct. 6 — what Taxman called a “bittersweet” decision. “I’m going to miss it terribly and the people that I knew,” she said. “But it’s also time.”
Although a handful of its counterparts in other cities are still functioning, Tuesday Musical’s demise is the latest evidence of changes sweeping across the American classical music scene. Most symphony orchestras remain vibrant, and a few hundred chamber music societies exist across the country. But according to William Capone, managing director of the Arts Management Group in New York City, colleges and universities have largely given up presenting classical music during the past twenty years. That change, he said— plus the near-disappearance of independent presenters like Tuesday Musical —means that recitals are becoming nearly extinct.
“It’s definitely a sign of the times,” Shaham said, “that the way we get our live music has changed, and the people who put the things together for live events have different priorities and different ways of working than they used to. It’s frustrating for any community when that kind of avenue shuts down. At the same time, I see in many places a lot of signs for hope, where one particular series shuts down but another with some different concept starts up.”
It is certainly possible that some innovative classical organization will rise up in Omaha to take the place of Tuesday Musical. But for now, its end leaves a big gap. While audiences can still attend Opera Omaha, the Omaha Symphony, and an occasional classical offering by Omaha Performing Arts, there is nowhere else to consistently hear top-level recitals or chamber-music concerts in the city.
“I’m really sorry to see it go,” Capone said. “It’s so unfortunate, and it’s a big loss to Omaha, because it was something that distinguished that community and made it a little more special than those around it.”
Kyle MacMillan recently marked his 25th anniversary as a music critic and reporter. After serving 11 years as fine arts critic for the Denver Post, he is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and writes for such national publications as Opera News and The Wall Street Journal.