Articles

The Launching of LOIS MARSHALL

In one snowy day in New York — after fifteen years plugging in Toronto — Canada’s brilliant soprano Lois Marshall won a concert contract that will give her a chance to win a place in music’s hall of fame

JUNE CALLWOOD February 1 1953
Articles

The Launching of LOIS MARSHALL

In one snowy day in New York — after fifteen years plugging in Toronto — Canada’s brilliant soprano Lois Marshall won a concert contract that will give her a chance to win a place in music’s hall of fame

JUNE CALLWOOD February 1 1953

The Launching of LOIS MARSHALL

In one snowy day in New York — after fifteen years plugging in Toronto — Canada’s brilliant soprano Lois Marshall won a concert contract that will give her a chance to win a place in music’s hall of fame

JUNE CALLWOOD

10IS MARSHALL, a twenty-seven-year-old Toronto soprano whose voice many feel is one '"of the world’s finest, this winter made her debut at Town Hall in New York, caused some of that city’s toughened music critics to cheer like kids on a sleigh ride and was signed to a contract by the most important concert artist manager in the world.

The steady progress her career has made since the afternoon she won a Toronto public-school singing contest fifteen years ago might indicate that success and glory on the concert stage is a simple matter for a girl with a great voice. This delusion must rank with the one about the world being flat, for few artists have worked so hard or with so great a handicap.

Lois Marshall’s Town Hall debut, like most debuts in that ancient draughty structure, was given in an almost empty auditorium before critics who attended reluctantly and scouts from New York concert managers who expected to offer Lois nothing but their sympathy. Her marvellous voice had already been scouted thoroughly but her heavy limp, caused by a childhood siege of polio, had sent agents away without offering her a contract.

However heartless this may seem their decision was made on a sound business basis. New artists signed by such a colossus as Columbia Artists Management Inc. are sent to small towns who have signed up for a community concert series. Such communities have slender budgets and can afford only the lower - priced performers on Columbia’s lists, the unknowns. Columbia is convinced that these relatively unsophisticated audiences rarely appreciate the fine difference between a good singer and a great one—it was felt they would be untouched by Lois Marshall’s magnificent voice and dismayed by her limp.

Lois appeared in New York because of Walter Naumburg, wealthy philanthropist and music lover who for twenty-seven years has sponsored three

concerts a year so that young artiste can get a mention in the New York newspapers. Without these mentions the artist does not. exist, at all for the radio networks, the booking agencies, the symphony - orchestra conductors, the television producers and the presidents of music clubs that sponsor concerts from Scranton to Sacramento. A singer might, as well sing in an empty wheat field, as far as her future is concerned, as sing to a packed house that contains not a single New York critic.

The debut, accordingly, is arranged for the convenience of these critics. Since it would be impossible to attract a first or second-string critic in music-saturated New York after sundown, the concert is at three in the afternoon. This means that the attendance of the public will be poor, but this is immaterial. The afternoon before Lois Marshall’s debut Mrs. Anna Molyneaux, motherly manager of the Naumburg Foundation, was jubilant because she had been assured of the presence of critics from the New York Times and the Herald Tribune and eight scouts from Columbia.

“Even the Journal American might send a critic,” she beamed.

Mrs. Molyneaux felt, rightly, that, although she had sent out two thousand free tickets to students, singing teachers, meml>ers of Canadian clubs in New York and the British and Canadian consulates, there was no chance at all of getting a good audience. “She’s got two strikes against her,” she explained, whispering so that Lois, leaning exhaustedly against the stege piano, could not. hear. “She’s Canadian and she isn’t known. The house will be awful.”

Walter Naumburg remarked to his wife just before the concert started: “You know, there’ll be no one here at all.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Well, she’s a Canadian and it’s snowing.”

“Of course, dear,” nodded his wife pleasantly.

In a small cold room to the left, of the stage Lois was warming up her voice with scales and other exercises. She was wearing a red velvet evening dress with a simple halter strap, skilfully cut to give the appearance of fitting her through the bodice but actually several inches too big to give her diaphragm room to expand. She and her accompanist, Weldon Kilburn, were not speaking. That morning she and Kilburn, who is also her singing teacher, had done some final rehearsing at Steinway Hall across 57th Street, from their hotel. Lois had been so nauseated by her fear of failure that she sang badly. Kilburn used a method he has been employing successfully for years in such cases and scalded her with invective. Lois resorted to a woman’s trick of silence, but his wrath had cleared away her numb horror and held her nerves together until the time of the concert.

Waiting for three o’clock Lois had more to think about than her program of twenty songs in (ive languages, a program which included some excruciatingly difficult selections. One of her most: stubborn faults had been her overdramatic delivery of a song; intent on the emotion in the music she would close her eyes, clench her fists with her thumbs stuck rigidly upward, distort her face and weave all over the stage. By conscious effort she had learned to stand still, keep her hands quiet. During rehearsals for the Town Hall debut, however, Kilburn had commented caustically that her thumbs were turning up again and Mrs. Molyneaux had suggested mildly that she try to remember to keep lier eyes open. Lois tried not to think about the long limping walk to the centre of the stage.

Beyond the cold footlights eight school children were straggling in, their coats wet from the damp snow. The audience numbered around three hundred and fifty, which delighted the stage doorman. “This is a pretty good crowd,” he assured a reporter who was appalled at the sight of twelve hundred empty seats. “I’ve seen an audience of thirteen at a recital here.”

When the time came Lois walked across the stage and stood beside the piano, waiting calmly and with no trace of agitation while Kilburn sat down, settled his music, and poised : his fingers. They exchanged a glance, j she nodded and he began to play the j opening bars of a sixteenth-century English song. Lois gripped the edge of the piano with her right hand, held her left arm crooked and began to sing in a sweet clear voice without a tremor of nervousness.

The first set contained four of these early English tunes. When she had finished the applause was remarkably warm for such a small audience. She bowed, smiled her rare warm smile that makes her look ten years younger, and moved off the stage. The next set was Schubert, including Gretchen am Spinnrade, and the first half of the program ended with Laudamus Te and Et Incarnatus Est from Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. The first is sung by mezzo sopranos and the latter by coloraturas; musicians in the audience were dumbfounded to find them on the same program. Lois has a phenomenal range, spanning from F below middle C to F above high C. She sang the Mozart excerpts with extraordinary passion, her head back and her eyes closed through the most beautiful passages. When she finished there was a moment of stunned silence before the applause began. An usher brought two bouquets of roses down the aisleand handed them to Lois over the footlights. One was from Mrs. Molyneaux and the other from the Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto.

During the intermission Lois draped a white wool stole over her bare shoulders and read some of the goodluck telegrams which had been arriving at Town Hall all that day. She chuckled over one her sister Jean had signed with the name of her cat, Noni. She and Kilburn spoke very little.

The second half of the program started with an aria from Puccini’s opera Turandot, then seven Spanish songs by De Falla and three songs to poems of James Joyce by Barber. The last was a concession to Naumburg rules, which insist that each artist include an American composer’s work in the debut program. The hearty applause encouraged Lois to sing two encores, one in French and one in English and both in a happier lighter vein than the heavy works of her program.

Afterward Mrs. Molyneaux was incredulous. “John Briggs, of the Times, stayed for the encores and the critics never, simply never, stay for the encores. And Peggy Hicks, of the Herald Tribune, applauded enthusiastically. If Lois doesn’t get good reviews I’ll shoot*them.”

Lois, who has earned up to five hundred dollars for a single singing engagement, wryly received the total box - office receipts of thirty - seven dollars and fifty cents.

The scouts from Columbia Artists Management Inc. decided the night of the concert to reconsider their stand. Her voice had been even more impressive in New York than it had been in Toronto and William Judd, a Columbia vice-president who hadn’t seen Lois before, observed that her limp hadn’t been as distracting a factor as he had expected.

Arthur Judson, honorary president of Columbia Artists Management, a founder and stockholder of CBS radio network and a former manager of both the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra during the Stokowski regime, decided to take on the management of Lois’ career himself. Nothing greater could have happened to Lois, because Judson’s recommendation on an artist is accepted without question anywhere in the world. Countless fine musicians of international fame have pined in vain for his sponsorship.

To circumvent the problem posed by Lois’ disability Judson decided to reverse the success formula of his organization and start Lois at the top, with guest appearances with the major symphony orchestras and choral groups and radio and television appearances. When her reputation was firmly grounded she could safely tour the sticks without confusing her audiences.

The next morning the reviews were so remarkable that musicians all over the city discussed them. “Miss Marshall’s vocal technique is of the sort not often heard nowadays . . . Such a voice is not screamed away in six months through sheer lack of skill. It seems more likely that she has started a long and distinguished career,” commented the Times. “She is one of the most superb singers this reviewer has ever heard,” said the Herald Tribune.

While her voice is becoming internationally known, Lois herself is not known well. Slightly over five feet tall, with long dark hair, heavy arms and shoulders, a singer’s deep chest and beautifully expressive brown eyes, she is intensely preoccupied with music. She gives an illusion of coolness to strangers. Her gaiety and humor—her specialty is Cockney dialect jokes—are reserved for people she likes and trusts.

She was only two when she developed polio and it wasn’t until she was eight that she recovered enough to go to school, wearing braces on her legs. During her early years at home she listened to the opera recordings her brother Fred had collected and learned to sing along with them.

Her singing voice impressed the music teacher at the Wellesley Orthopedic School, Miss Elsie Hutchinson, who gave her extra coaching. When Lois was twelve she won a Toronto public-school singing contest. When her father, a department - store employee, died a few years later he was still carrying in his wallet a newspaper clipping of this early success.

Lois sang at a Christmas party the Rotary Club gave crippled children the year she was fourteen and a member of the club decided to sponsor some singing lessons for her. He consulted Miss Hutchinson, who delightedly shopped around for the right teacher and settled on Weldon Kilburn at the Royal Conservatory. After a few months the Rotarian lost interest and Miss Hutchinson helped with the lessons. Money was a scarce commodity in the Marshall home—Lois’ widowed mother was trying to raise seven children. Kilburn himself, struck by the girl’s passionate feeling for music, gave her a free lesson every week.

“Her voice was high and small, very breathy, with no middle voice at all,” recalls Kilburn. “With a little kid though you can’t judge by the voice. She had musical intelligence and a turbulent musical personality. 1 knew a coloratura soprano wouldn’t express anything for her so we worked on the middle register. When her low notes came in R was like striking oil.”

Kilburn worked Lois like a tyrant,

shouting at her mercilessly whenever he suspected she wasn’t doing her best. For two years she sang only scales and exercises; her first pieces were Mozart and Handel, a classical forced feeding Lois credits with developing the sharpness with which she sings each separate note instead of sliding over them as many singers do.

For many years Kilburn refused to permit her to sing in public; he wanted her to wait until her voice was ready. She needed the five and ten-dollar fees she could pick up at club luncheons singing Victor Herbert and Sigmund Romberg to pay for lessons on Bach and Mozart, so she sang without telling him. His fury when he found out was impressive.

When Lois was ready for her first Conservatory recital she was thrilled that Sir Ernest MacMillan and Lady MacMillan attended and spoke kindly to her afterward. Sir Ernest invited her to make her debut the following season with his Toronto Symphony Orchestra at a secondary-school concert. The day before the concert Lois suffered a calamity that is the nightmare of all singers: laryngitis. She listened to the program on her radio at home, tears pouring down her cheeks.

Kilburn had begun a struggle that was to last several years to have Lois make fewer gestures while she sang. The sensitive feeling she has for musicshuts out the audience for her and her unconscious gyrations on stage were startling. After a concert it was impossible for Kilburn to convince her that she had behaved so dramatically.

He finally implored all Lois’ friends to go backstage after every performance and mention casually that she should try to stand still. Lois promptly

became more docile, but it was months before she would admit to Kilburn that her new attitude was due to outside advice, and years before Kilburn admitted that it had been prompted by him.

Some singers can sing Ave Maria and count the house, but Lois is hardly aware she is on a stage. One evening when she was singing the St. Matthew Passion in Massey Hall the audience was following the words in the program and Lois was lost in the beauty of Bach. At a very dramatic part in the score three thousand people simultaneously turned a page in their programs. 7’he sound pierced through Lois’ spell and so terrified her U at she nearly fainted before she remembered where she was.

In her late teens Lois took a business course and went to work for Eaton’s mail order. She took her lessons after work and spent some lunch hours rehearsing in Heintzman Hall across the street. Then she was accepted into the Royal Conservatory’s senior school for a three-year course. .She was named the outstanding graduate in 1950, which won her a thousand dollars presented by the 7'. Eaton Co. to pay for a musician’s debut every year.

The debut in Eaton Auditorium cost her eleven hundred dollars, in advertising, programs, brochures, rent and other expenses. Because she was already a name singer the house was sold out and she made a few hundred dollars profit out of the venture. That same year she won a thousand-dollar scholarship given by Canadian Industries Ltd. through its Singing Stars of Tomorrow broadcast series. The week she won this award settled a problem that had been bothering some people: Was she physically able to stand a busy concert season?

Lois opened the week by singing on three successive nights the soprano solo work in the Mendelssohn Choir’s Bach festival in St. Paul’s Cathedral, Toronto. She sang the St. Matthew Passion, the B Minor Mass and the Magnificat, which represents an astonishing achievement by itself since Bach is notoriously thoughtless of the frailties of the human voice. Over the week end Lois sang twice more, once with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at a Pops concert and the second time in winning the Singing Stars series. Scattered throughout were almost constant rehearsals.

“She’s as strong as a horse,” Ezra fichabas, director of the Conservatory’s Concert and Placement Bureau, cheerfully advises anyone who questions Lois’ endurance. Schabas booked Lois on three concert tours of western Canada and one of the Maritimes and discovered her capable of standing the rugged routine of touring.

Weldon Kilburn made all these tours with Lois as her accompanist and they emerged with a high appreciation of the musical intelligence of Canadian small towns, the direct opposite to Columbia’s opinion. “They have wonderful taste,” Kilburn insists. “We never sang down to them. Lately we notice they are favoring the modern composers.” Lois refuses to do what she calls junk music, like Danny Boy. Once when she replaced Eileen Farrell on a few hours’ notice at a TSO concert the Globe and Mail observed that she sang “a far superior set of songs than scheduled for the guest star.”

In recent years Kilburn has mellowed toward his prize pupil and only uses the tirade as a method of teaching in cases of emergency, such as just before the Town Hall recital. Their present relationship is easy, affable and full of gentle ribbing.

Following her recital in Town Hall, Lois had remarked in a toneless tired voice, “I’ll never have anything to do that will be as hard as this and now that it’s over I don’t know what to feel.”

Kilburn eyed her for a moment and then patted her shoulder. “You were hot stuff, kid,” he assured her, and she laughed.

The two New York reviews— “Extraordinarily gifted,” said the Times; “She has everything,” said the Tribune —meant that Lois’ concert career could be transplanted to the United States without losing any of its Canadian bloom. Lois had reached the ultimate success she could achieve in Canada— she had won every major award for singers, sung all over the country and was earning as much money as she could ever hope to make from concert singing here. This year her Canadian earnings would have been about eight thousand dollars if she hadn’t gone to the States.

The morning after the Town Hall debut Columbia Artists Management, Victor Records and the CBS radio network were all trying to reach Lois to sign contracts or arrange auditions. Judd, a Columbia vice-president, was

assigned to deal with her and he finally located her in Ottawa, where she had gone to sing the Messiah. He was only temporarily crestfallen when Lois cannily refused to sign a contract until she got a lawyer’s opinion.

“I’ve always heard so much about what can happen to an artist who gets lost on Columbia’s list,” explained Lois worriedly. “I don’t want that to happen to me after all the years I’ve spent getting this far.”

A giant organization like Columbia, the biggest concert bureau on the continent, can swallow whole orchestras without a trace. It can sign on an unknown artist and send him on a tour of small towns season after season, eventually exhausting his repertoire, his stamina and his ambition. The artist pays his own expenses, his advertising and his accompanist’s fee. Columbia provides the bookings and sets the fees, taking fifteen to twenty percent off the top as its commission. The system makes successful musicians richer and obscure musicians broke.

Lois couldn’t help thinking, as Judd talked about the contract, of the experience of Betty-Jean Hagen, gifted violinist from Edmonton who had preceded her through this same pattern. Betty - Jean also won a Naumburg debut, got good reviews and was signed by Columbia. She found herself in a trio, touring the small centres endlessly. She recently got out of her contract and is still trying to pick up the pieces of her career.

But Lois had also heard of the very different experience of Dr. Leslie Bell and his Bell Singers, who had signed with Columbia more than a year ago. Columbia had great difficulty in persuading anyone to hire a girls’ choir. “They probably thought we were a home-and-school aggregation,” concluded Bell dryly. The Bell Singers became Class B artists in last season’s concert series, accepted reluctantly in a few centres to fill out the season cheaply. Bell made no money on that tour, but picked up a following. The following season the Bell Singers were in great demand. Duluth, Minn., sold out its concert series on the strength of a return visit from Bell and the group now has more bookings than it can handle. “You make your own success,” observes Bell.

Lois flew to New York to sign with Columbia at seven in the morning after a performance of the Messiah the night before. Seventy of Columbia’s representatives from all over the country had been collected in New York to hear the new talent signed this season. For two weeks they listened to four concerts a day, Lois Marshall among them. The Canadian girl scored the biggest success of them all — the problem of the limp was fast evaporating in the face of her beautiful voice.

For many years Lois was unable to bear any reference to her limp and Kilburn was present at all her interviews to parry any questions about it. Music critics on a Toronto newspaper poured acid on her agony by writing erroneously that she made her debut with the TSO on crutches. She has also read that she sings from a wheelchair, a phrase that appealed to the dramatic sense of someone who had never seen her sing. One reporter wrote that as a small child Lois crawled from her couch to the piano to be near her beloved music. All these stories are untrue.

Lately she has been able to talk about her handicap with considerable composure. “I’ll never be able to sing opera, but there are other things I can do so I just concentrate on them. 1 must admit it bothers me when I am crossing a stage, but 1 just have to get along and forget it.” ★