Corning's Memorable Maestro
Charles C. Corwin
The Corning Philharmonic
Of the three musical institutions that Charles Corwin gave to Corning, the Corning Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra was the most ambitious and, for the musician himself, the most exacting.
After the demise of the Musical Art Society around 1925, its orchestral members had continued to play together informally. Meanwhile, the local high schools were turning out a number of young instrumentalists who had served in their school orchestras but after graduation had no chance to concertize.
To fill this expanding need, Charles resolved, in November 1933, to form a public classical orchestra. In order to guarantee its stability, he turned to Mr. Meadley of the Chamber of Commerce for counsel and backing. Meadley and Corwin, after contacting leading musical, business, and professional persons of the Corning area, decided to set up a formal society to sustain what was first called "The Corning and Painted Post Civic Orchestra." Dr. E. J. Lewis was elected president of the board; Meadley, the secretary; and the following were named directors: Mrs. Walter Kaubisch, George Pratt, William C. Droege, A. O. Carpenter, Dr. Kent W. Phillips, W. C. Thompson, Howard Dexter, Dr. W. W. Shaver, Earl Breon, and Charles Corwin himself. These officers voted to organize the ensemble at once, so that it could present two concerts during the coming year.
The first step was to recruit players. To do this, the officers extended personal invitations to the ablest Bostelmann graduates and other known musicians. Among the alumni of the Conservatory who accepted enthusiastically were: Clarence Aldam (viola), Miss Isabelle Blair (first violin), Miss Luella Blair (piano), Mrs. Martha Drake McCarty (first violin), Attorney George Pratt (first violin), and Attorney Ransom Pratt (cello). To these and other practiced local volunteers, Corwin, who of course had been designated conductor, added some current and past members of his C. F. A. student orchestra, like Miss Charlotte Wolcott (second violin), Miss Dorothy Batchelor (harp), and Miss Helen Austin (string bass). Youngest to sign up was Nicholas Bacalles (second violin). He was fourteen and in the eighth grade, Junior High. The total charter membership of the new orchestra was 41.
Maestro Corwin started rehearsals without delay. The Corning and Painted Post Civic Orchestra made its debut in the C. F. A. auditorium on Sunday afternoon, February 25, 1934, with George Pratt as concertmaster. Corning thereby became one of the increasing number of smaller upstate communities to boast of its own symphonic ensemble.
At the outset, the Civic Orchestra invited donations but charged no admission. Generous citizens paid off the small initial debts. In 1938, however, the board of directors inaugurated a family-membership plan. Only on July 30, 1953, however, did the organization's 800 supporting members vote in favor of legal incorporation as the "Corning Philharmonic Society," the title adopted fifteen years previously. From the start, both Maestro and instrumentalists had donated their talents, so the CPS was registered as a nonprofit corporation.
Under whatever title it played, the Corning Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra served its audiences a substantial classical and light classical fare. Maestro Corwin deftly tutored its players, of varying experience, in the execution of pieces of increasing complexity. He saw to it that the programs were agreeably diversified. At times the orchestra would alternate with a choral group, some of the choristers doubtless past members of the Musical Art chorus. At other times, there would be a featured soloist, usually but not always from Corning or Painted Post. Occasionally Corwin himself was organ soloist. Those concerts would be given in Christ Church.
Gradually the amateur players began to feel a little bit more like professionals. In 1948 they had the pleasure of listening to themselves for the first time on the radio. Corning Station WKNP had taped their concert of the previous evening, and broadcast the recording on the following day. Mr. Corwin also took them "on tour." They performed in Addison and at the Bath Veterans' Facility. The greatest thrill, however, was the invitation to play before New York State Governor Thomas E. Dewey when he did the honors at the dedication of the new Corning Glass Center on May 19, 1951. Ever backed by devoted local supporters, the Philharmonic increased in size and skill as the years passed. Thanks to the untiring attention of its conductor, it became able to execute fairly demanding scores with consistent skill.
After World War II, however, Corwin-the-untiring began to tire. In 1947, now nearing his 64th birthday and completing his 25th year at Corning Free Academy, he decided to resign from school work. The generation-gap was widening between him and his adolescent students, and he felt that he had given as much as he was capable of in that sphere of musicianship.
Everybody connected with the Southside school system regretted his decision, but they resolved to give him a memorable sendoff. The editors of the Stator, the Academy yearbook, dedicated the 1947 issue to Mr. Corwin, and spoke of the musical traditions that he had established among them. The faculty and the school district officials, in their turn, honored Charles and Ena at a farewell dinner served at the picturesque O'Brien's Restaurant near Waverly. At the close of the banquet the school officials gave the retiree an appropriate gift.
Although Corwin had resigned his scholastic position, he had no intention of giving up his connection with Civic Music, with the Philharmonic, or with the Christ Church choir. But the last word was not to be his. By 1953, which marked the twentieth year of the orchestra, his health problems had increased so much that he could no longer continue as its music director.
Parting with his Philharmonic was bound to be traumatic, but he was determined that his last concert would be flawless. Presented at C.F.A. on Monday, May 4, 1953, it featured as guest soloist Mr. Lee Cass, a fine bass-baritone from New York. The conductor planned the program with special care. Typically, he saw to it that many of the numbers, both instrumental and vocal, would appeal to the children in the audience; and he arranged for trombonist Campbell Rutledge to give them oral "program notes" on these selections. Typically, also, he chose some rather difficult compositions to challenge his players—especially Rimsky-Korsakow's "Scheherazade" suite. (To his delight, they did Rimsky credit.)
The modest maestro would have been content to let a well-executed concert express his adieu. But that, of course, would not suffice. After the last scheduled number, Mr. Rutledge rose once again, to declare the Philharmonic's sadness at parting with its founding conductor. Deeply touched, Corwin turned back and launched into a single instrumental encore. Then he laid his baton on the shelf of the music stand and signaled his players to disperse. At that, the capacity audience gave him a standing ovation.
On May 6, 1953, Charles and Ena Corwin were guests-of-honor at a dinner given to them at Corning's Baron Steuben Hotel by the Corning Philharmonic Society's officers and music-makers. The speakers had warm praise for their conductor's faithfulness to his task and the benefits that both he and his wife had conferred upon their fellow citizens, the young people in particular. In reply, Corwin said that his own reward was the satisfaction of having provided local musicians with a perennial opportunity to "keep playing."
The Evening Leader also applauded. Commending Mr. Corwin for having directed the ensemble so long without remuneration, the editorialist said, "He has been a strong master of the baton, and those who played under his direction found him to be a hard taskmaster, one who sought always to achieve perfection and found it hard to take anything else. His life was his music and his music was an inspiration and a great contribution to the cutural life of this community. We all owe Charles C. Corwin a debt of gratitude far beyond ability to pay."
If the honoree was gratified by such tributes, he deserved to be. They assured him that he had largely accomplished the educational aims of his
© 1993, Robert F. McNamara