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Music Notes: Sarah Zelzer starts her own series 

In a 1984 Orchestra Hall program book, a note from the president of the Orchestral Association, the Chicago Symphony's managing organization, paid tribute to Sarah Zelzer on the occasion of her retirement.

Mrs. Zelzer is the widow of Harry Zelzer, who in a career spanning four decades had been Chicago's most important (and successful) classical music impresario. He was head of Allied Arts Corporation until he turned the company over to the Orchestral Association in 1978; after his death the following year, Mrs. Zelzer ran Allied Arts for the association until she decided to leave.

"We are deeply grateful to Mrs. Zelzer for her commitment to Allied Arts," read the program-book note. "Now she has decided to pursue other interests. . . . She will be missed."

Other interests, definitely. Missed? That's a different matter. Starting this weekend, the Sarah Zelzer Foundation (established by her with money inherited from her husband) kicks off the 1987-88 Zelzer Series--directly in competition with Orchestra Hall's Allied Arts bookings. The season begins this Sunday, September 13, with the first attraction in the Zelzer Piano Series--the fine Spanish pianist Joaquin Achucarro, starting at 3 PM.

The announcement of the Zelzer Series last year--ten months before the first concert and about two months before Allied Arts released its fall schedule--raised quite a few eyebrows in the local music business. It brought out into the open the less-than-warm feelings that had been brewing between Mrs. Zelzer and the Orchestral Association management in the years since her husband's death, friction brought to a head after Zelzer's good friend Chicago Symphony Orchestra manager John Edwards died in 1984. Today, Sarah Zelzer refers to Orchestra Hall as a "jungle" of infighting, but she maintains that her main motive in going into competition with Allied Arts was a feeling of indebtedness to the people who attended a 1985 testimonial dinner in Harry Zelzer's memory given by the American Conservatory of Music.

"Harry hated testimonial dinners, things like that," Sarah Zelzer says as she sits in her spacious Lake Point Tower apartment, with a spectacular view of Lake Shore Drive and a collection of musical memorabilia. "But I went because they were going to raise money to put on a small concert series in his name." The dinner raised about $30,000, but the projected series fell through; "I owed it to those people who gave me the money," she says today--even though she is among the first to admit that the success of her series is chancy.

Chicago, after all, is "not a producing town," she notes; especially with the cutbacks in the last several years of arts education in the schools, the audiences for serious music are certainly not expanding. Furthermore, unlike most of the big nonprofit corporations that have replaced individualists like Harry Zelzer and Sol Hurok, the Zelzer Foundation will not engage in fund-raising or subsidy seeking, she emphasizes. She blames the music business's heavy reliance on donations for the spiraling increases in artists' fees: "If there's more money to be made, they're going to ask for more." She prefers to work the way her husband did when he ran Allied Arts--bargain with the managers and make (or break) your nut at the box office, counting on well-known performers to bring in enough money to offset possible losses on less-famed artists.

"It's nothing new," she says in her distinctive, Ruth Gordonish voice--raspy, high-pitched, with a pronounced New York accent that she swears she doesn't know how she got (born in Philadelphia, she was raised in Chicago). "I ran across a few letters from 1935, '36, '37; I said to John Edwards before he died, I said, John, we were protesting about high fees then. We could use the same letter now, just add another digit, change the name of the artist and change the date and we don't have to dictate another letter. . . . My own series, some of it will pay out, just like anything else, and some of it will not."

She anticipates that her better-drawing artists will be people like Alicia de Larrocha (who plays Sunday, November 8) in the Piano Series; the masterful violinist Pinchas Zukerman in the Concert Series; the Warsaw Ballet, making its debut in this heavily Polish city on Sunday, October 18; and a Sunday, November 15, program of Gershwin music featuring Mel Torme, Peter Nero, and Leslie Uggams. The rest of the Zelzer Series performers, though perhaps less famed, all come with solid artistic credentials: Achucarro, Mitsuko Uchida, the scholarly Charles Rosen, Philippe Bianconi, Susan Starr, Sergei Edelmann, and David Bar-Illan in the Piano Series; the Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company and the Belgrade State Folk Ensemble; and, in the Concert Series, Maurice Peress conducting a re-creation of the famed 1924 Aeolian Hall Concert by the Paul Whiteman Band (at which Rhapsody in Blue was introduced), followed by the superb I Musici chamber ensemble. (For detailed performance schedule and ticket information, call 922-2110.)

Handling such an eclectic array of performers is nothing new to Sarah Zelzer, who as office manager for her husband's company ("I should never have let them find out I could type," she giggles) worked with now-legendary artists ranging from Artur Schnabel, Arturo Toscanini, and Andres Segovia (who drew only about 400 people when the Zelzers first promoted him, Sarah says) to Judy Garland. ("I became very fond of her," Sarah recalls. "She had a phobia about almost everything, she'd get nauseous in the dressing room; Harry told her I had had some problems with nausea too, and we became good friends. I sat with her backstage between shows--her manager, who was also her husband, asked me not to let her leave between shows to make sure she showed up.")

All the Zelzer Series programs are being held at the Auditorium Theatre--partly as a way of emphasizing the break with the Orchestra Hall management, and partly to fill the void left by the Auditorium's decision not to present its own concert programs. For Sarah Zelzer, producing at the Auditorium means coming home: that grand old theater housed Harry Zelzer's first season in 1934 (the year after he married pianist and music teacher Sarah Schechtman), though he subsequently moved his operations to the Civic Opera House and Orchestra Hall. And it is very much on Sarah Zelzer's mind to pay tribute to her husband's legacy.

For example, she says with a wink and a dig at the folks running Allied Arts today, "For years, the Society of American Musicians contest winner appeared on our [Allied Arts] series as an extra. If I stay with this next year, I will probably resume that, because Orchestra Hall has not put on the last winners [since she left]. I think it's important: it was something Harry promised to do. You see, my husband always kept his word, and I'm the same way. In deference to my husband and what he stood for in this community in culture, I want to continue if I can. Hopefully I will be able to continue. I don't know. We hope."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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