Al Booth Memorial Dame Myra Hess Concert Review – Forceful Personality Still Making an Imprint

Al Booth, founder of the International Music Foundation, would be 99 years old today


Had he not passed away nine years ago Al Booth would no doubt have been at the Dame Myra Hess concert this week, file folder under his arm and sharing gravely voice special hellos with regulars and newcomers alike. 


Described by those who knew him best as a man with passion and unrelenting will to put his visions into place


He’d be 99 today. By the estimation of both Ann Murray, since 2001 the Director of the International Music Foundation (IMF) that Booth founded, and Vermeer Quartet violist Richard Young who also serves as concertmaster at the International Music Foundation’s Do-It-Yourself Messiah event and IMF Board Member, Al Booth would heartily approve of what he would see and hear.


Al Booth envisioned the Dame Myra Hess concert series as a venue for up and coming musicians


For starts, that the Dame Myra Hess Concerts are continuing would likely be deeply satisfying to Booth, who started the Dame Myra Hess concerts to create a venue for up and coming classical musicians to show off their stuff.  More than most, Booth would likely grasp the sweat and tears that make this so, especially since the trying economic downturn in 2009 that set so many arts organizations back.   These concerts not only continue but thrive, simulcast each week on WFMT and usually with a capacity crowd attending the live performance in the majestic Preston Bradley Hall of the Chicago Cultural Center. 


The Avalon Quartet started in 1995 and has had the same member for the past decade. Photo: Eliot Mandel


This week’s Dame Myra Hess concert featured not a newcomer, as is the norm, but rather one of the groups Booth’s International Music Foundation helped nurture in its earlier days, the Avalon String Quartet.   


The Avalon Quartet often performs in Chicago venues, such as the Art Institute and the Rush Hour Concert series. Photo: Eliot Mandel


Avalon’s violist Anthony Devroye explains, “We’ve known the International Music Foundation for years and have played concerts for them many times.  We love working with Ann (Murray) and her staff.  When she said she was trying to schedule the Al Booth Memorial Concert in his honor and asked us to participate we said of course we’d be honored to do so. 


"Petit Avalon" is the nickname for the happy meetings of the young children of Avalon Quartet players, who are all close friends as well as being musical colleagues. Photo: Courtesy of Avalon String Quartet


“I asked Ann what sort of music Al liked and she thought about it and then said , ‘He liked things that are sweet’.  Our program was the perfect expression of that.  Schumann’s “String Quartet in A Major, Op. 41 No 3.”  was a love poem from Schumann to his wife, biggest fan and performer of his work, Clara.  This love letter to Clara came to mind immediately.  Then, we chose Britten (“Three Divertimenti”) who was just a few years older than Al and like Al a pacifist during the Vietnam War and an iconoclast of his time.”


Avalon Quartet played works by Britten and Schumann at the Booth Memorial Concert. Photo: Amy Munice


Anthony Devroye, Violist with the Avalon Quartet, says their group has always enjoyed working with the International Music Foundation. Photo: Amy Munice


The reaction of the crowd in Preston Bradley Hall to the performance was warm and appreciative.  This past month many other Schumann works had been performed, but as Ann Murray had quipped the week before, “Schumann is like jello; there is always room for more.”


Al Booth with Ann Murray


Avalon’s choice of Britten, a perceived kindred spirit to Booth, was dead-on accurate to the Al Booth described by those who knew him.  Ann Murray shares, “Al had very strong humanitarian values that he acted upon.  He organized to stop the war in Vietnam, he brought students from Soweto to what is today called the Roosevelt University's College of the Performing Arts, and he tried also to get children out of Bosnia when that war was starting.


“Every time he saw something on TV that gave him a pang he’d come to the office the next day and would be on the phone to sort it out. ..He was then relentless going after these goals, a fabulous model to follow. 


“For example, when he saw a piece on ABC about youngsters in Soweto who played string instruments and were only able to practice in a men’s bathroom in some civic center he came into the office the next day and was off with it.  He first called Harry Porterfield, then he was calling ABC in New York.  He gets the video.  He starts talking about getting some of the kids here to Chicago.  The Chicago Musical College (former name of Roosevelt University's College for the Performing Artsagrees if money can be found.  Al then gets a CSO member, Richard Ferrin,  to go to Africa and pick the two students who would come.  He finds a philanthropist to pay for it all. Then, a first student, a cellist named Daliwonga, shows up in Chicago and Al meanwhile is collecting used musical instruments and getting them shipped to Soweto. 


“He figures out just what needs to be done and how and then badgers until it is done. That’s what he was like and that why he achieved so much—he had a relentless personality and that’s what you need if you are going to make change in the world…Once he had a bee in his bonnet he went at it full bore and kept at it, sometimes driving those around him crazy but he would not be pulled off it unless and until he was convinced it couldn’t be done.


“When he couldn’t get the kids out of Bosnia it had taken quite a lot for him to convince himself that it couldn’t be done.  He was Jewish and of an age that made him very alert to the similarities of attempted genocide in Bosnia with the Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany.  He was thinking kindertransport and he very much wanted to do it.”


Richard Young, IMF Board Member and Concertmaster for the D-I-Y Messiah


Vermeer Quartet member Richard Young and longtime associate of Booth echoes Ann’s description of Al, and in fact had titled his memorial tribute to Al “..Just Get it Done!”  Young recounts, “Al was a big ideas guy and he just would not accept that these big ideas wouldn’t be done quickly.  He was very confident…he could sweet talk anybody or talk tough, whether it was a Lasalle Bank executive or the second violin of the Do-It-Yourself Messiah orchestra.  He was impatient with people not seeing the big picture as he did re: the arts in Chicago or the arts in general.”


That big picture view continues to shape the arts scene in Chicago and beyond, where the Do-It-Yourself Messiah model has been copied and where top talent musicians perform who can count a past Dame Myra Hess concert as one of their earlier career milestones.  Last year the IMF events included 52 Dame Myra Hess concerts, 176 concerts in the schools to bring music to students who otherwise would have negligible arts’ exposure, and two Do-It-Yourself Messiah concerts. 


Young points out that Murray’s expertise in putting a strong structure into place is really what carries Booth’s legacy forward, as well as the efforts of Ann Murray’s International Music Foundation team members such as Maria Valdez in making the school concerts happen. 


Indeed, if you are looking for a place to put your charitable dollars to work the International Music Foundation’s events—Dame Myra Hess concerts, school concerts, D-I-Y Messiahs—all seem to telegraph not only that very good Booth vision that spawned them but also the careful and able custodianship that continues to this day.    Recently the International Music Foundation announced an initiative of $2,000 Dame Myra Hess concert sponsorships.   If you are looking for oomph from your charitable giving that is an astoundingly high return-on-investment!  You can see this joy at weekly Dame Myra Hess concerts in Preston Bradley Hall of the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Washington Street, every Wednesday at 12:15 PM.   Tip: Get there early—the seats fill fast.


For information on upcoming concerts visit the Dame Myra Hess pages on the International Music Foundation website.


And keep alert to hear of next year’s Al Booth Memorial Concert—the 10th such tribute and the centennial of his birthday.

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