IDAHO HISTORY: Boise has played host to great performers

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANJune 22, 2014 

Famed pianist Paderewski

Famed pianist Paderewski played in Boise in 1908.

PROVIDED BY ARTHUR HART

Boise’s geographic isolation has often proved to be an advantage as well as a disadvantage.

The nearest cities larger than Boise, or nearly as large, are all more than 300 miles away: 340 miles to Salt Lake City, 429 miles to Portland, 427 miles to Spokane and 422 miles to Reno. In 1890, when Boise became capital city of the new state of Idaho, with an official population of only 4,028, Salt Lake had 45,000, Portland, 46,385, Spokane, 19,982, and Reno, 43,355.

Boise has always been a convenient halfway point between Salt Lake City and Portland, and theatrical companies, circuses and performing artists that might not have come here otherwise found Boise a convenient break on a long trip. To encourage them to stop in, fine theaters were built by two businessmen: Peter Sonna built an opera house above his new hardware store in 1889; James A. Pinney built the Columbia Theater in 1892 and the big Pinney Theater in 1908. Both men served Boise as mayor, Pinney for an unprecedented five terms.

Great names, some with international reputations, performed in Boise more than once. The renowned contralto opera star Ernestine Schumann-Heink sang at the Columbia Theater on April 25, 1904, and gave a benefit performance for local disabled veterans of World War I on July 10, 1925. This was a touching occasion, for most knew that the great singer had sons in the U.S., as well as the German, armed forces in that brutal “War to End War” of 1914-19. Schumann-Heink sang in Boise for the last time on April 27, 1928, when she was 67, at Boise High School. She died in 1936.

Great orchestras visited, too. In 1908, the Chicago and New York symphonies appeared, the former at the Columbia Theater on April 4, and the latter on June 9 at Riverside Park with Walter Damrosch conducting.

Among the instrumentalists who came here was one of the most noted violinists of his day, Eduard Remenyi, who performed at the Columbia Theater on Sept. 17, 1896. The Hungarian musician had a lifelong influence on Johannes Brahms, who as a young man accompanied Remenyi on the piano and picked up Hungarian musical themes he would later develop into some of his best-known works.

Jan Ignaz Paderewski, Polish pianist, composer and statesman, performed at the Columbia Theater on Feb. 10, 1908. He gave up music in World War I to work for Polish independence from Russia and in 1919 was elected premier of the new Polish Republic.

Nobody living in Boise today could have attended these performances, but through the magic of YouTube you can dial up those artists on your computer and listen to your heart’s content, as I do often. Many readers, however, will recall Boise’s banner music season of 1940. A highlight of was the March 7 concert by the great contralto Marian Anderson. On Feb. 6, world-famous composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff performed at the Pinney Theater, the site of which is now a parking lot.

Stage stars, direct from Broadway, also played at the Pinney in 1940: Eva Le Galliene in Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” on Jan. 24, and Gertrude Lawrence as the lead in “Skylark” on Sept. 6. What a year it was.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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