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History's Headlines: 20th century greats performed at Allentown's Miller Symphony Hall

By Frank Whelan, Historian
Published On: Apr 05 2013 10:49:33 PM CDT
Updated On: Apr 06 2013 04:55:20 AM CDT
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

At its last meeting of the year on December 14th, the Allentown Rotary Club was offered a special treat in the form of a seasonal concert by the Allentown Music Club.

Along with the usual holiday favorites, two gifted, young exchange students-Eric Dong and Phoebe Tsai -performed violinist/composer Fritz Kreisler’s lush “Liebesleid” and “Schon Rosmarin.” At the conclusion the audience rose in a thunderous standing ovation for the pair of talented young musicians.

Interestingly Kreisler himself had stood on the stage of what is now Miller Symphony Hall in 1920 and played those two pieces, among others, for a capacity crowd. In that same year, violinist Jascha Heifetz, a 20 year old newcomer, enthralled an audience from the same stage that same year.

“I have often heard wonderful playing,” one Allentown music lover said after she heard Heifetz perform on April 15, 1920, “but that word loses force and meaning tonight.”

How was it that Kreisler, the most popular violinist of his time, and Heifetz, regarded by many as the greatest violinist of all-time, happened to be in Allentown in the same year? Well it was apparently thanks in part both to circumstances of the times and the belief of the city’s vibrant music community that the region deserved to hear the best.

World War I and the Russian Revolution had shattered Europe and sent many musicians across the Atlantic.

Kreisler, who had made his American debut way back in 1888, was very familiar to American audiences. Receiving a wound while serving with the Austrian Army in the very early days of World War I, he arrived in America in November of 1914 and remained until 1924. He fled Europe for good at the start of World War II and became a U.S. citizen in 1943.

Heifetz and his parents had fled his native Lithuania for America at the start of the Russian Revolution in 1917. In 1925 he became a U.S. citizen. A child prodigy, he once told comic Groucho Marx that he had been earning a living playing music since the age of 7. “And I suppose before that you were just a bum,” the comedian quipped.

The day after Heifetz's appearance, the Morning Call gave credit for his appearance in the city, the last stop on his cross country tour, to Miss Elloda Kemmerer. The Morning Call called it her triumph.

“On all hands she was congratulated for her enterprise and her confidence in the city’s support…” the newspaper noted. Kemmerer was later to become president of the Allentown Music Club and a fixture of the region’s music scene for many years.
Anticipation over Heifetz’s appearance had been building in the city since it was announced. By the evening of the performance, 1,800 were on hand at what was then called the Lyric Theater. About 150 chairs were added on the stage.

Heifetz arrived in the city with his accompanist Samuel Chotzinoff, who was later to become his brother-in-law.

“As the two took the stage all eyes were upon them,” noted the Call. The concert began with a sonata by Handel. It was followed by Henryk Wieniawski’s “Concerto in D. Minor.”

One newspaper critic, recalling Heifetz had played it in his first American concert, called the piece “a composition to test and exhaust the instrument’s and the player’s capabilities.” The young violinist polished it off handsomely. “How he did play that ground old resonant Stradivarius!” wrote the Call.

Wieniawski was just a start. Schubert, Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn, all fell before his magical violin’s bow.

The audience was described as transfixed with silence as Heifetz played, apparently not wanting to miss a single crystal clear note. When he completed a piece the hall echoed with the audience’s vigorous applause. “And at the close of the concert,” noted the press “they tendered the bashful, young virtuoso one of the greatest ovations ever received by mortal man in this city.”

Following the concert, Allentown’s E. Lehman Ruhe, among the city's leading musical lights, was invited to meet Heifeitz’s in his dressing room. “I have heard all the best violinists who have played in this country during the past 60 years and I could always find words to praise them,” he said. “But I do not know what to say to you young man, tonight.” Heifetz lowered his eyes and after a moment of silence said, “That is the finest compliment I have ever received.”

Although Heifeitz's violin was not to be heard in Allentown again the stage was not silent. Later that year Kreisler arrived in the city. Although a known commodity he was loved for a style that was wonderful if not Heifeitz’s. If the Russian was a master of technique, Kreisler was a champion of flamboyant gesture.  In fact his performance has come to represent a time and place like no other- pre-World War I Vienna.

But not everyone on his 1920 tour wanted to be reminded of the violinist’s ties to America’s recent enemy. Under pressure from the American Legion Post in Louisville, Kentucky, his concert in that city was cancelled.

Kreisler found a better reception in Allentown where he was surrounded by a large crowd after his concert. Among those who introduced themselves was John Johnson, a local violin maker. After telling him how much he enjoyed his playing, Johnson was stunned at Kreisler’s reply.

“I know who you are Mr. Johnson. I played one of your violins, it was very fine.” It seemed an Allentown student had traveled to Vienna years before hoping to study with Kreisler. But quickly aware that he could never play like the master, he gave up and asked the violinist to at least play his Johnson violin. And Kreisler, holding a little bit of Allentown in his hands, did