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The June Festival

The week Maestro Zerrahn's artistes came to town

by Jack Neely

You don't think of classical-music festivals as controversial. But in Knoxville 110 years ago, everything was controversial. When several well-heeled citizens sponsored a June Festival—with the centerpiece an extravaganza of orchestral music—some alert Knoxvillians smelled a subversive elitist conspiracy.

Chief among them was that new daily called the Sentinel, which even refused to run advertisements for what it called the "alleged festival." Knoxville needed more factories, they said, not more culture. This high-falutin festival, according to the Sentinel, was nothing more than a sneaky way for McArthur's Music House on Gay Street to interest people in music and, thereby, sell some pianos.

Fortunately, Knoxville had three dailies in 1889; the other two were more tolerant of classical music. The Journal happily ran full-page ads for McArthur's, and gave generous coverage to the festival, which it headlined as "Music For the Masses." The Tribune's coverage was even more extravagant, hailing the festival as "the greatest array of soloists ever heard in concert in the South." The Tribune and the Journal predicted that tens of thousands would come from all around to see some of the greatest classical performers of the day.

The June Festival held something for everybody: a tennis tournament on Hill Avenue; an elaborate series of rowing races on the river downtown; and, at Elmwood Park, a fabulous dog show. All that sort of thing we'd seen here before. But music was the main reason for the June Festival. The formal performances would be at Staub's Opera House on Gay Street; cheap-ticket shows would be at Elmwood Park, beside a small lake in the country three miles east of town; the amphitheater there, they predicted, would seat 10,000. Elmwood, not yet known as Chilhowee Park, was accessible only by horse-drawn carriage.

The group hired to perform for the festival was unlike most of the theater troupes that hauled their props off the train at Depot Street for a three-night stand. This one comprised some of the finest classical and operatic performers in America, several of them known around the world. Emma Juch (pronounced Yook) was a well-known Vienna-born soprano, and the star of the whole show. Not quite 29, she was at the height of her career; later that year, she would found the Emma Juch Grand Opera Company.

The diminutive Giuseppi Campanari was a 33-year-old Italian cellist attached to the Boston Symphony. After switching back to singing, his first love, Campanari would later be known as one of the great Italian baritones of his day, and a pioneer of operatic recording. His appearance in Knoxville is an eyebrow-raiser. Some opera-music sources suggest he wasn't singing professionally in 1889; his debut at the Met didn't come until 1893. But he was here in 1889, sure enough, and already hailed as "the Greatest Of Baritone Soloists."

Adele Aus der Ohe, the 24-year-old German billed as "the greatest living pianiste," had been a longtime pupil and, allegedly, mistress of the late Franz Liszt. Jules Perotti, at 48, was a popular European tenor. And at age 30, Irish-born Victor Herbert was known as one of the world's finest cellists; it would be years before his fame as a composer of sweet operettas like Babes In Toyland. In 1889, his 28-year-old wife, Therese Foerster—a former soprano for the Vienna Court Opera and now a star soloist for the Met, was as well known as her husband. Conducting the whole show, in a Prince Albert suit with high collar, was German-born Carl Zerrahn; at 63, he was one of the best-known conductors in New England. He came with 40 members of the Boston Symphony.

That was the estimable group that arrived on the train on the morning of June 10, with little idea of what to expect.

Knoxville greeted them in high style, draping downtown in red, white, and blue bunting. "Gay Street is dressed in holiday attire from the river to the railroad," wrote one reporter. Some fans bore shields printed WELCOME; some shields had likenesses of famous composers. The Tribune threatened to publish the names of every downtown business that didn't deck itself out for the occasion. However, comparing the "artistes" to the exotic contestants in that week's dog show, the Sentinel ridiculed the very idea we'd make such a big deal of a bunch of foreigners.

The weather was on the Sentinel's side. That afternoon, it began to rain. It rained pretty hard, in fact, coming down "with undiminished violence" for over two hours, a storm of Wagnerian proportions. The elaborate banners and festoons, dyed in cheap carmine, bled onto the sidewalk.

By evening, the banners were faded and the sidewalks were "stained with the gory-colored dye...discoloring the shoes of pedestrians until they had the appearance of having been dipped in the life-giving fluid itself." Gay Street looked like a bloodbath.

About 1,000 spectators at the 8:00 show tracked the "vermillion hues" of Gay Street into Staub's Opera House to hear Beethoven's "Leonore Overture," at least that part of it they could hear over the thunder outside.

When the relentless rain dampened Tuesday's festivities as well, the Tribune fretted, "The elements seem leagued against Knoxville's Music Festival." It was especially a problem at the outdoor shows—but perhaps not the only one. The Sentinel reported that, at the first performance at Elmwood Park, the delicate Miss Juch was so offended by competing with a dog show that "she was obliged to seek her carriage for an early return to the city."

A large park crowd attended a 50-cent performance at the park for an act from a Hector Berlioz opera, perhaps attracted by its title: the Damnation of Faust. However, impatient with the lengthy piece, a large number of them left before it was half finished. Even the Journal admitted the audience hubbub "ruined" the performance.

Most of the performances, however, got rapturous reviews from both the Tribune and the Journal. Campanari's rendition of a Rossini aria, the Tribune reported, was "rich, mellow, and entrancing." The Journal hailed Aus der Ohe's performance of a Liszt piece as "a combination of a zephyr and a tornado." Miss Juch was divine, of course—"improved," even, from the last time she sang here, last year. Rossini's "William Tell Overture" and Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" were predictable favorites. Victor Herbert even flattered his Southern audience with a rendition of "Swanee River."

Offering little review of the performances, the Sentinel slyly divulged that several of the high-toned musicians had spent more time at the Knoxville Brewing Company than anywhere else in town, and that their ungentlemanly conduct at restaurants was "cruelly unbecoming."

A letter to the paper, signed GRUMBLER, echoed the Sentinel's assessment. Dismissing Conductor Carl Zerrahn as "a foreigner from Boston," the letter-writer decried the "lack of dignity and respect for the people who cordially receive them" and that some of the musicians stared at members of the audience. He wrote that Maestro Zerrahn showed "open contempt" for us, suggesting even that the first two rows of people in the audience should get up and find another place to sit, to give the orchestra some more room. "Though musical culture may begin and end in Boston, common courtesy is not beyond the comprehension of a Knoxville audience," the writer concluded.

The Journal, however, claimed the artistes were charmed with Knoxville, "stuck on the town and its people." Maestro Zerrahn and company did indeed stay a day longer than they planned, and gave two extra full performances. By the time they caught the train north, they'd given eight lengthy shows here, performing more than 60 individual pieces.

According to the Journal, the June Festival had offered "nothing commonplace, nothing ordinary; everything was exquisitely beautiful and superlatively grand." The Festival was "perhaps the best music ever heard south of the Ohio River." The Tribune assessed the festival as a whole as a "great success," in spite of the weather.

The Sentinel, of course, termed the June Festival a "dismal failure." Refusing to apologize for its lack of support, editors declared, "The Sentinel could not have rescued the affair from the failure to which it was doomed."

One paper would report empty seats at Staub's; another would report an overflow crowd for the same performance. Despite tens of thousands of words of descriptions in the three dailies, it's impossible to know what the June Festival of 1889 was really like. It's safe to say we haven't seen anything quite like that one since.