GENERAL ARTICLES

Music by Adaskins

Fiddle or cello, oboe or tin whistle, piano or voice, the six Adaskins can oblige—They're Canada's most musical family

D. M. LeBourdais July 15 1945
GENERAL ARTICLES

Music by Adaskins

Fiddle or cello, oboe or tin whistle, piano or voice, the six Adaskins can oblige—They're Canada's most musical family

D. M. LeBourdais July 15 1945

Music by Adaskins

D. M. LeBourdais

THE WAYS of fate are mysterious. A lad in Riga longed to be a musician, but his parents decreed that he must be a woodworker.

“Learn an honorable trade,” they said. And they sang psalms to purge him of his terrible temptation.

Later, when he had become a soldier of the Czar, he dreamed of being a bandsman. But the army needed woodworkers, and a woodworker’s pay was better than a bandsman’s. So once more the yearning toward music was stifled.

But Nature has a way of gaining her ends. That woodworking soldier of the Czar was destined to become the progenitor of Canada’s outstanding musical family. Many a time before his death in 1937 he could be seen proudly sitting in the front row at concerts where his sons or their wives were performing.

Samuel Adaskin, who, with his wife, a former schoolteacher, and his son Harry, one year old, came to Canada from Riga in 1902, was a man of ideals. He may never have thought of it in so many words, but he knew that ‘‘where there is no vision the people perish.” That was the legacy he left to his sons. They have not failed him, and his philosophy lives on in them.

He had not entirely missed in his ambition to be a musician. Although long past the best age for learning, he had bought a violin and taken some lessons. But he gave up when his sons’ playing put him hopelessly in the shade. Part of his first wages in Canada— earned as a foundry worker—went for violin lessons for Harry; Murray and John, born in Toronto, in turn followed Harry in a musical career. Indeed they did more than that: they both followed Harry’s example in marrying wives each of whom in her own right is a first-rate musician. The frustrated woodworker-musician could then look with pride upon six of his name who were top-ranking musical stars.

Drawing comparisons between these Adaskins is a difficult thing to do; but it is probably safe to say that Harry is the best known, perhaps because he has been at it longer. Selling papers on the Toronto streets, to eke out what his father could afford to pay for lessons, Harry was something of a boy prodigy. His first fee was earned at the age of 12, when he played a violin solo at the closing exercises of Moulton College. He had been promised one dollar, but did so well that he was given two. At 14 he was teaching others to play, among them, a year later, his brother Murray, who by then was 10.

In those days there were many more opportunities for young musicians to make money than there are today, Harry declares. Every movie show required at least a pianist. Many had orchestras of from two or three pieces up to such elaborate musical aggregations as Jack Arthur’s at the Regent Theatre. Harry earned $30 a week, at different times, playing for Jack Arthur—when he wasn’t making more money playing elsewhere. Money-making, however, was never his main objective: it was merely a means toward the furtherance of his musical career.

He was a member of a small orchestra, playing in a restaurant, in 1923 when he met Frances Marr for the first time. Frances, whose father is a physician at Ridgetown, Ont., had come to study piano with Paul Wells in Toronto. She made her living playing mostly at movie theatres. When she met Harry she was subbing at the restaurant for a pianist who was ill. She had often heard of Harry Adaskin as a rising young violinist, and was naturally intrigued. Their marriage, in 1926, seems to have been one of those things that are written in the stars. Harry married Fran, her mother says, because she was so useful to him; and with this Harry agrees. He admits that the cleverest thing he ever did was to marry Frances—which would seem to make the thing unanimous.

Certainly they make a great musical team, as anyone who has ever heard them play together can con-

Fiddle or cello, oboe or tin whistle, piano or voice, the six Adaskins can oblige—They're Canada's most musical family

firm. And those who have heard them are legion, for Harry and Fran have toured Canada several times with recitals and have built up an enthusiastic following. Frances is much more than an accompanist, although that is an art in itself. She is an artist in her own right.

Harry, who plays a Guadagnini violin, is perhaps most widely known as one of the originals of the Hart House String Quartet. This famous group was organized in Toronto in 1923 merely for mutual pleasure and without any thought that it might develop into one of the best-known quartets in the world. The leader and first violin wns Gaza de Kresz, Harry was second violin, Milton Blackstone played the viola and Boris Hambourg, the cello. After they had played together for some time they gave a concert on a Sunday evening in the Hart House Theatre. It proved such a success that Hon. Vincent Massey, who was in the audience, proposed that the quartet continue as a permanent organization. Four thousand dollars was subscribed there and then; but the money was returned later Continued on page 20

Continued on page 20

Continued from page 19

when the Massey Foundation undertook sole sponsorship.

Harry remained with the Hart House String Quartet until 1938, resigning to devote his full time to concert work and teaching. In the 15 years that he was with the quartet, he made two European and 12 transcontinental tours, covering both Canada and the United States. It is not out of place to say that the quartet added lustre to the name of Canada, to which Harry Adaskin contributed his full share.

We left Murray Adaskin when he was Harry’s pupil at the age of 10. In no time at all he was playing the violin in movie theatres, but studying hard and keeping his eyes on the top rungs of a musical career. Soon he was playing in the strings section of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, then under the baton of Lugi von Kunitz. Murray was so young at the time that his first pair of long pants was bought so that he might not seem out of place among the orchestra players on the platform of Massey Hall. He was to remain a member of the orchestra for 10 years.

Family Composer

AT 18 he was leader (succeeding Harry) of the orchL estra in the old Comedy Theatre, for the Cameron Matthews players. He led the orchestra at the Empire Theatre for four seasons, and it was said that many people went to the show chiefly because the music was so good. Radio came in and he was kept busy with different programs. Then came, an engagement to play at the Banff Springs Hotel, which he continued until the war closed that great hotel. He continued, however, to play for the Canadian PacificRailway at their Royal York Hotel in Toronto.

He had formed the Toronto Trio in 1934, consisting of himself as violinist, Louis Crerar, pianist, and his brother John, cellist. The trio has been heard in concert programs in many Canadian cities and can be heard every week, over the CBC network, from the dining room of the Royal York. It is still as originally organized, except that Cornelius Ysselstyn succeeded John and later Joyce Sands succeeded him.

Murray seems to be the only composer in the family. When he was a member of the CBC String Orchestra he wrote “A Serenade for Strings.” This gained him a scholarship in composition. Since then he has written various pieces of serious and light music. His “The Shepherd,” written to words by William Blake, has been sung by his wife, Frances James; while his “Waltz to Naomi” has been performed both in concert and over the radio by his sister-in-law, to whom it is dedicated.

Murray and Frances James first met at Banff in 1930. Shè had sung there at the Music Festival in 1928 and in the years following. They were married the next year and spent their honeymoon at Banff, amid the mountain scenery they had come to love so well. The hotel management marked the occasion by assigning them the royal suite, which may have been prophetic; for they were later to become the entertainers of royalty when the King and Queen visited Banff in 1939.

Murray’s marriage to Frances James brought to the Adaskins a member of an old New Brunswick family. She Ls descended from Anne Faucght, the first girl baby born at Saint John after the landing of the Loyalists in 1783. Her father, the late Fred James, was a wellknown Saint John newspaperman, who later moved to Montreal, where Frances grew up. She studied at the McGill Conservatory, where she was a scholarship pupil for four years. Her first engagement outside Montreal was at the Banff Music Festival, but she had previously been a soloist in St. James’ Church, Montreal, when only 16 years of age. Before that she had sung in a children’s choir from the age of nine.

She has a fine full soprano voice. “Musical brains, technical skill and depth of temperament”; “sound musical scholarship”; amazing command of pianissimo,” are some of the critics’ comments on her performances. She Ls an earnest, conscientious artist who is never satLsfied with merely good enough. It was therefore not strange that she was selected by Sir Ernest MacMillan, head of the music department of the University of Toronto and conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, to represent Canada, as the first exchange artist, at a concert given in Washington, D.C., by the Chamber Music Guild on Dec. 5, 1944.

She has appeared as soloist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Mendelssohn Choir. She sings frequently over the radio and was chosen by Dr. Healey Willan to sing the leading role in the first radio presentation of the Canadian opera, “Transit Through Fire.” In the Handel oratorio series for the CBC, Continued on page 30

Continued on page 30

Music by Adaskins

Continued from page 20

Sir Ernest MacMillan chose her for t he leading role of no less than six of the 12 oratorios. She gave the first performance in Canada of the difficult Paul Hindemith song cycle, “The Life of the Virgin Mary,” for the Society for Contemporary Music of Toronto, in which her performance was exceptionally fine. Unlike many other singers, her ambition does not run to grand opera; she wishes to perfect her art on the concert stage. It is not invidious to say that she holds a leading place among Canadian singers and one need not be a prophet to predict that Frances James will yet establish a firstranking international reputation.

Musician—and Inventor

Harry insists that John is the most talented of the Adaskins. Although John undoubtedly has great musical talent, it has always been a tossup with him whether he would be a musician or an engineer of some sort. When he was only a toddler he made a train out. of an old alarm clock—and the darn thing ran! As a schoolboy, he built radios and sold them. He is the only member of the family who can take a motor car apart and put it together again; in fact, he is the only Adaskin who cares to bother with a car at all. He holds patents on a number of motor car gadgets. He once owned an interest in a superannuated airplane and learned to fly solo after only five hours, two minutes of instruction.

But that isn’t part of the story of the musical Adaskins. John can play any wind instrument, from a tin whist le to an oboe, but the trumpet was his first love—not counting a bugle he played when he was a boy scout. When he was forced to give up trumpet playing, because of the danger of rupture, his teacher broke down and cried.

John then turned to the cello and made such progress that within a year, at the age of 17, he was playing with the Toronto Symphony. (Murray was there at the time, but Harry had already left.) John played first cello in the CBC String Orchestra for years; and the cello seemed to be the

instrument with which he might make his name. Harry says that John’s cello moves him as no other playing can do.

In the winter of 1928-29 Hans Kindler, the famous Dutch cellist— later conductor of the Washington Symphony—heard him play and at once offered to give him lessons if he would spend two years in France. John was thrilled at the prospect. He had saved $2,500, but would need another $500 before he could undertake the trip. During the following summer he was leading a dance orchestra at the Royal Muskoka Hotel (playing the trumpet and the tenor saxophone), when he mentioned his financial problem to a broker guest.

“My boy, that’s easy! Just leave the matter to me,” the broker assured him; and John, with a musician’s naïve faith in the financial wizardry of the brokerage fraternity, left it to him.

Then came the crash; and with it went John’s hope of going abroad to study. *To make matters worse, he was persuaded to borrow $1,500 and sell short in an attempt to recover his losses. A temporary rally cleaned him out again.

By this time radio programs were keeping him pretty busy. Then it was that his interest in the mechanical side of things came to the fore. Playing in various radio orchestras he became aware of how bad the mechanics of orchestra reproduction really were. He found himself more often in the control room than in the orchestra; and eventually he was offered a full-time job with the CBC. Here was his opportunity to combine both his talents. He became the CBC’s first producer, organizing and handling all its musical and dramatic auditions in Toronto, as well as producing all types of programs. Of these, “The Magic Carpet,” a series of dramatized fairy tales, is his favorite.

He remained eight years with the CBC, leaving when he decided to organize his own business in 1943. Operating under the name John Adaskin Productions, he is responsible for a number of the best-known radio programs heard weekly over Canadian stations.

One day in 1929 John Adaskin had agreed to play the cello for some charitable event if a suitable accompanist were provided. Naomi Granatstein, whom he had not met, was suggested as his accompanist and he was taken to her home for a rehearsal. Sceptical of her ability to meet his requirements, he tried tricks that would have knocked out anyone who was not a really good accompanist, but the young lady was equal to him. That caught his interest. Then he wondered if she could dance. Would wonders never cea.se! She was almost as good a dancer as a pianist. He kept coming back for more music and more dancing. There was only one end to such goings on. And so they were married.

Naomi had already achieved an independent musical reputation, however. Asa member, with Etta Coles, of a two-piano team, she had given recitals and played with symphony orchestras in a number of cities in eastern Canada and the United States. In 1934, the year she and John were married, she made her New York debut, taking the professional name of Naomi Yanova, under which she has since been known.

Since the team was dissolved in 1938, Naomi has played a number of solo recitals, notably one at Eaton Auditorium in Toronto. She has also given many radio performances, including the first. Canadian radio performance of Shostakovitch’s Concerto, She has played as guest artist with

the Toronto Philharmonic Orchestra, Andre Kostelanetz conducting.

Her musical career has lately been interrupted by a maternal interlude, j Tamar Adaskin, born in October, 1944, is so far the only child of any of the three couples. Harry and Frances have adopted Gordon, now 14, Harry’s half brother by his father’s second marriage.

Family Fun

This does not complete the story of the Adaskins. They are a many-sided family. Between them they represent every type of musical entertainment. Harry is a clever radio commentator and raconteur. For three seasons his program, “Musically Speaking,” was a CBC feature; and for the past, two I years he has been the intermission j commentator on the New York Phil| harmonic Orchestra program on Sunj day afternoons over CBC stations. I And if he wished he could entertain an j audiencewithsleight-of-hand tricks. He says he likes contemporary painting j and books, travelling, breakfast in bed—and talking; and he hates work and regular hours. About a year ago he announced that he was through with Brahms and Beethoven and other 19th century romantics; henceforth he would • devote himself to modern music. He believes that no country can be great that does not produce its own music for its own times. This was a fine break for some of our rising young composers, such as Hector Gratton, Barbara Pentland and John Weinsweig, many of whose compositions Harry has given their first performance.

Harry’s Frances, who provides such a faithful piano background for his violin (and for many other musicians at different times), has a rich sense of humor. As a member of Town Tonics she has convulsed audiences in many eastern cities with her imitations of a little girl at the piano. But she really brings down the house with her burlesque of a Victorian opera singer.

Strange as it may seem, it is often harder to do a good burlesque than to sing straightforwardly. And it points up Fran’s ability that after one of her burlesque performances she was seriously offered a scholarship in singing by Ferrari-Fontana.

Frances admits that she likes coffee, contemporary music, and making over old clothes; while she hates people who say, “Won’t you play something for us?” .

Murray does clever character imitations, notably a mirth-provoking one of Charlie Chaplin. In Chaplin character he has conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in its Christmas Box performance, which runs largely to comedy. (John often plays a toy trumpet concerto for the same performance.) In addition to composing music, Murray writes an occasional humorous skit. His first published piece was a short article spoofing Harry because of his alleged food fads. Unlike Harry, he loves to get up early and have a big breakfast. He claims to be a good cook. The proud possessor of a Stradivarius, he denies that it plays itself.

Music is a hard taskmaster and those who would get to its top must not be afraid of hard work. This means endless practicing; and some of the problems of couples, both of whom are musicians, can be imagined when each must practice for hours on end. Harry and Frances have overcome the difficulty by Harry practicing in a soundproof retreat in the back of the house, while Fran plays the piano in the living room. How Murray and his Frances manage is still a mystery.

Musicians must continually take lessons. When they get to the point

where they have nothing to learn their case is practically hopeless. Harry, Frances Marr and Murray have studied at different times in Paris; and they continue to take lessons wherever some competent teacher is available. Frances James has recently studied in Boston with the great American tenor, Roland Hayes. As we have seen, music began to lose out to radio production with John when he realized that he would not be able to study abroad under Hans Kindler.

The Adaskin wives, while devoting almost all their time and thought to music, are nevertheless good cooks as well. None, however, can equal Frances Marr in concocting leftovers into delectable dishes that intrigue the palate and defy identification. Naomi is modest in her culinary claims; in fact, she complains that she can’t use a knife without cutting herself. Frances James declares, on the other hand, that Naomi belittles herself; but Frances doesn’t say anything about her own kitchen skill. It is certain, however—and not entirely due to Murray’s vaunted cookery competence —that the Murray Adaskins do not suffer from lack of suitable sustenance.

The six Adaskins have appeared together on the platform only once; and that was at Owen Sound in 1942, when they gave a concert in aid of the Kinsmen Club’s war work. (They had to rehearse after midnight because, what with radio programs and other engagements, it was the only time that they could all be together.) The first part of the performance was devoted to serious music; hut after the intermission the Adaskins let themselves go, drawing upon their humor and fun to keep the audience in continuous gales of laughter. They wound up with their song, “Never Forever” (music by Harry, words by John), sung by Frances James, with Frances Marr and Naomi Yanova at the pianos; while Harry, Murray and John played a string accompaniment.

Taking it all in all, it is hard to say whether the Adaskin boys or their wives are chiefly to be congratulated each would say that the other was. But it can safely be said that Canada is to be congratulated on such a talented family. And Samuel Adaskin would have been well content.