Published: Apr 20, 2008 08:34 AM
Modified: Apr 20, 2008 08:34 AM
A symphony of successes
Maxine Swalin marks century of life in art, music
The notes aren't quite as easy to read as they once were, and "It's a little harder to do this" -- she spreads her arms wide and brings them back again, fingers tickling invisible keys, as if she's playing a passage that takes her to both the high and low ends of the piano keyboard -- but then that's hardly surprising.Maxine Swalin will turn 105 on May 7. In honor of that milestone and of her life's work on behalf of the people and the arts in North Carolina, two public celebrations will be held this week in Chapel Hill. On Tuesday, a public reception will open "Art Is Just Around the Corner From Music," an exhibition of Swalin's paintings at the Chapel Hill Museum.And next Sunday, cellist Nancy Green and pianist Frederick Moyer will perform works by Franck and Rachmaninoff in "A Tribute to Maxine Swalin," a free public concert at Memorial Hall on the UNC campus. In addition to being world-class musicians, Green and Moyer are grandchildren of the great North Carolina playwright Paul Green, who with his wife, Elizabeth, was a close friend and supporter of Swalin and her husband, Benjamin, who died in 1989.The Swalins built the modern North Carolina Symphony from the ground up in the late 1930s and 1940s (an earlier incarnation had collapsed after just three years) and, against steep odds, made it into the nation's first state symphony orchestra. The Swalins arrived in Chapel Hill in 1935, shortly after the original symphony dissolved, when Benjamin was appointed to the faculty of the UNC music department. He swiftly fixed on the idea that, in spite of the fate of the original attempt, a state symphony could succeed, and he set his considerable skill and determination to making it happen. With a loan of $200, he and Maxine and a few others scraped together some instruments and recruited a handful of musicians from various quarters. The new North Carolina Symphony Orchestra gave its first formal concert on March 16, 1940, at Raleigh's Meredith College. Then they hit the road. They took the music to the people, especially schoolchildren, roaming from one end of the state to the other, playing in every auditorium, school gym or cafeteria they could find."Those were good days," said Maxine, sitting in her sunlit home in the Morgan Creek neighborhood Thursday. "We went everywhere. One time Mr. Swalin was late in arriving. He needed to get dressed for the concert, and so he rushed in and opened a door he thought led to a dressing room -- but it led onto the stage. There he was trapped in plain view, yelling for someone to help him."Benjamin was the conductor and music director, and Maxine did just about everything else -- played piano and harpsichord, arranged lodging and food and other logistics, maintained correspondence, evaluated performances and provided invaluable moral, musical and organizational support."But for Ben Swalin, the North Carolina Orchestra would not be," wrote the late Gov. Terry Sanford. "But for Maxine, Ben would not have prevailed."With her help, he did, and over the course of many miles and many years -- the Swalins retired in 1979 -- they made the North Carolina Symphony a national treasure. In 2001 the lobby of the Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh, the symphony's home stage, was named the Swalin Lobby, its centerpiece a large bronze sculpture of Benjamin and Maxine."I am very, very grateful and so glad the symphony progressed the way it did," Maxine said. "There's no reason it shouldn't continue to have a national reputation."These days Maxine -- born just a few months before the Wright Brothers got their spindly contraption off the ground at Kitty Hawk -- says she feels fine, "except when I have to walk alone; I get a little tired then." "I like to get in a friend's car and wander around Carrboro," she said. "I love that little town. It's a choice one."She also still plays the piano -- and plays wonderfully, said Marsha Warren, a longtime friend and former head of the North Carolina Writers Network and the Paul Green Foundation. Warren is among those who have been helping Betsy Moyer, Green's daughter, organize the celebrations for Maxine this week."Betsy and I were at Maxine's house about a month ago, and Maxine sat and started playing," Warren said. "It was lovely. Betsy said, 'Oh, Maxine, that was beautiful. Was it Schumann?' And Maxine got that twinkle in her eye and said, 'No, it's something I just made up.'"Maxine said she's looking forward to the concert by Green and Moyer in Memorial Hall on Sunday."They are wonderful musicians," she said. "I heard their tape when it first came out, and I was so convinced of their artistry I ordered several more as presents."Maxine is an ardent supporter of the planned Arts Commons, which will transform the northwest quadrant of the UNC campus into a new center for the arts. The renovation of Memorial Hall was the first step; new buildings, facilities and performance spaces are in the works."A revolution is coming in the university," she said. "Each department will be interwoven with the others. A person will be able to study in one department and yet get great exposure to the others, for a refined, open, unified education. It will be great opening into the heart of the university."Warren said that sort of grand view is precisely the quality that allowed Benjamin and Maxine to envision the North Carolina Symphony and then to bring it to life. "She is a true visionary," Warren said. "She's always observing, listening, processing and thinking about what could be. "A year ago she had a little infection, and she was in the hospital. She was sharing a room with another patient who was being visited by a pretty lively family, with several little children chattering away there on the other side of the curtain. Maxine lay there for a while, and then she said, 'Listen to that. I'm just listening to the timbre of those voices and wondering what those children will one day be doing with those voices.' That's classic Maxine."
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2008 The Chapel Hill News