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Kenneth Pasmanick

Oral History Interview with Kenneth Pasmanick (1924–2013), undertaken by Anne Steptoe at his home in Washington, D.C. on July 28, 2009. At Dumbarton Oaks, Kenneth Pasmanick was a docent (1999–2012).

AS: Okay, I am Anne Steptoe and I have the pleasure to interview Kenneth Pasmanick who is a docent here at Dumbarton Oaks and was the principal bassoonist at the National Symphony Orchestra. We are at his home in D.C. on July 28th, 2009. Let’s start by how you came to Dumbarton Oaks to be a docent.

KP: I met David Keogh, a dentist, who urged me to come to Dumbarton Oaks as a volunteer. I was interviewed by Chris Blazina and it was an awesome place. This was around, let me think, I would say it was around 2001. And I was there for quite a while, and I’m still there and I love the place. I remembered the feeling of awe. That experience was like a rapture walking into that Music Room. I mean there’s so much history hitting you in the face, and I saw the virginal, and I saw the harpsichord, and I knew that Kirkpatrick had played there and Wanda Landowska, who was at that time world famous as a harpsichordist. I personally didn’t care for her playing – emboldened to say because it was so brittle. But Kirkpatrick was fabulous and I went to several concerts there. For me, the most overwhelming experience musically was when this person came into the hall for rehearsal with us. I was in a little chamber orchestra. We were all members of the National Symphony and Paul Callaway of the Washington Cathedral was going to conduct us. If I recall correctly, this singer, a soprano, was going to sing excerpts from The Magic Flute of Mozart. Now who can dislike Mozart? Anyway, this woman came into the room and standing next to the conductor said, “I want to apologize right off the bat for my voice. I’ve just come from Australia and my throat is dry and I’m sure I’m not going to be able to sing very well, but I ask for your patience with me.” And she started to sing, and it was breathtaking. I found tears coming down my face. It was just overwhelming. It was so beautiful. Mozart of course, for me, is exquisite and this voice building it was so marvelous. I had played the Magic Flute several times with the Washington Opera Company. And so I was so smitten with it all, and I had some wonderful things to play on the bassoon. And it was just a thrilling experience. Who else?

AS: Of course, that turned out to be Joan Sutherland.

KP: Yeah, I think that’s her name. She was extraordinary.

AS: What year was that?

KP: I’m not good at that. But I would guess its – why do you not have those programs available?

AS: I think they’re in the Archives, although I couldn’t – I work for the archivist, but I’m not intimately familiar with the Archives myself. I think that what we’re trying to go back and collect now are impressions and what it was like to be there that weren’t necessarily recorded on the program.

KP: I see. Well, you know, people ask me over the years, as they have other musicians, “Why do you need a conductor? I see you just looking at the music.” And I said, when you drive a car, do you not see what’s on the side? On the right, on the left, what’s going on in back and what’s going on in front? You see it all. You can’t be a musician without peripheral vision. And so they get an idea of what I’m talking about. Anyway, I would be turning and be seeing these treasures in the Music Room. I’d come home just thrilled, and my wife would say, “Gee, you look like you could light up a room you’re so excited.” I’d tell her about –

AS: Did you play concerts after you were a docent or these were earlier?

KP: This was before. I became a docent around, let’s see, this is 2009 – maybe 2002 or 2003. And I’m talking now about the mid-1960s, I think.

AS: Was this still when Mrs. Bliss was alive? Do you ever remember interacting with her?

KP: I think she was still alive.

AS: Because I know she was a great patron of the concerts.

KP: Yes she was. She hired Nadia Boulanger, who was the foremost pedagogic person to conduct, and it was only because – let me start over. Mrs. Bliss asked Igor Stravinsky to write a work to celebrate their anniversary – their 50th. And he decided to do that, and when it was finished she asked him to come over and conduct it. He was ill, so Nadia Boulanger conducted it. It was a symphony in E♭. I love Stravinsky. He was – there was a lot of devil in him. And he wrote the kind of piece – just joyful and wonderful and disjointed, as music often is. He went through phases. He was like a tailor. He would go through different styles. I loved the woodwind quartet. I loved the  L'Histoire du soldat, which is very worth hearing. So many good things. But anyway, Leontyne Price sang there with us. Jennie Tourel, who might be known to you. She was famous, in any case. Ralph Kirkpatrick, yes, he was just a wonderful harpsichordist. And Alexander Schneider, who played violin in the Budapest String Quartet.

AS: These were all around the mid-1960s?

KP: Yes. Howard Mitchell who started out as the solo cellist in the National Symphony when it was a very young orchestra, and then became finally its conductor – that was after Kindler – Hans Kindler. And Mitchell was not a great conductor, but almost adequate. I wouldn’t talk like this, except he’s gone.

AS: He conducted at Dumbarton Oaks?

KP: Mitchell? Yeah. He also – just a little bit–but he also played a Hindemith cello concerto, which is a very fine work. He really stumbled over that. Paul Callaway was the conductor. And Paul Callaway was the chief musician at the Washington Cathedral – the National Cathedral. What else can I tell you?

AS: I wonder if you, having attended these concerts in the mid-1960s – that was a very different era, I think, of Dumbarton Oaks, than I’ve seen now. From what I understand, there were very much society events.

KP: It was indeed. I had to listen to rehearsals, in those days – yeah, it was very hoity-toity. Hoity-toity.

AS: So, you would be playing for the who’s who of Georgetown and of Washington, DC.

KP: I suspect. Exactly

AS: I don’t know if there are any particular – if you had any interaction with them –

KP: Well, there are people on the National Symphony Board who were very well heeled or they wouldn’t have been on that board who came to those concerts. I was a fairly prominent member of that orchestra and – I mean when you walk on stage with something as big as a bassoon, and there’s one right behind you that I turned into a floor lamp.

AS: That’s neat.

KP: Isn’t it nice?

AS: It must make you stand out, I guess.

KP: Yeah. In any case, I got to know some of these people. We were friendly. We had kind of a relationship over the years. And among them, there were some people that became very good friends.

AS: And they were all patrons of the Dumbarton Oaks concerts?

KP: Not all, but some.

AS: Speaking of the National Symphony Orchestra, you are, I think, the perfect person to ask about the relationship between Dumbarton Oaks and the National Symphony. It sounds like you came to know of Dumbarton Oaks through the National Symphony. Is that fair?

KP: I think that’s a reasonable assumption – playing those concerts. I spoke in hushed tones in that place and, yeah, I was amazed by it all.

AS: You said that the same people who were National Symphony musicians knew people at Dumbarton Oaks, or was there a formal relationship there?

KP: No. It was very casual and very singular.

AS: Did Dumbarton Oaks have a place in the Washington, D.C. music community that you know?

KP: No.

AS: It’s an isolated place.

KP: Yeah. The attitude now has changed markedly. They want people to come in, which is a big change. My feeling when I came into the place to be a volunteer was, don’t come and see us – we’ll let a few people come through – let me see your nails and hair; you need a shave. I make fun, but it had that feeling.

AS: This was in the 1960s too?

KP: Yeah

AS: And do you remember a moment when that changed? A decade when that began to be different? Or was it not really until you came back to be a docent?

KP: I think it was more when I came back. The head of the docents had a lot to say about the attitude of the docents, how they felt about it. And Chris Blazina, who’s been with the docent program with some time – very hard-working, dedicated person. And it’s become very professional, even though it’s voluntary. And she has a wonderful grasp of how to deal with kids and how to keep them interested and how to arouse their curiosity, and so on. And she’s very good that way – and how to talk to adults about these things and ask them questions so that it heightens their curiosity about what they’re looking at. And that’s fun.

AS: Shall we talk a little bit about the docent program and your experiences of that? I wonder what you recall about the docent training process. You talked about your hiring a little bit, but the training experience?

KP: The training was very demanding. I think we met a couple times a week, maybe two or three times a week. And we had lectures with the heads of departments. They were learned in their field. The pre-Columbian people knew what they were talking about. They could discuss a piece and its history and its aesthetics and all that. It was very exciting. I was – in 1959 the National Symphony took a tour of all of Latin America starting in Mexico and going down the west coast into Panama, and then going through – let me think – what’s next going south? Chile and we went to Peru and Argentina and we came out through Paraguay and Uruguay and then Brazil. It was fascinating and fabulous: three months – a tour of three months. I remember Fanny and I – my wife and I – discussing the ramifications of that three months away from my children and her. And I said, well Fanny, I’m going to buy us a house. We had a two-bedroom house and it was inadequate. And she bought us this house. And this is 1969.

AS: That was your first interaction with pre-Columbian –

KS: Yeah I went to fincas where I could dig and find pieces–I found a pipa–a little pipe. It was pre-Columbian. And other shards, pieces of pottery. And I went to all the museums. There was a gold museum – museo de oro – a gold museum and – there was a floor made of skulls, believe it or not. A lot of gold. It was exciting, to say the least. Anyway, I had that feeling of what a thrill of seeing the pieces for the first time. So when I came back, it wasn’t long after that that those pieces at the National Gallery of Art arrived–In the basement, neglected. And that’s what had Mr. Bliss order a museum wing just to take care of his collection.

AS: This is the exhibition at the National Gallery?

KP: No, it was at the National Gallery – a lot of wonderful pieces that Bliss owned but had no place to show. This was before the wing that now holds them.

AS: Right, the Johnson –

KP: Yeah, and that is so gorgeous – inside, outside, all that glass. Gorgeous. Anyway –  what?

AS: Well, back to your experience as a docent. I get the feeling that there are a lot of interesting individuals and groups that come through Dumbarton Oaks. I wonder if there are any particularly memorable groups that you led on tours.

KP: Some of the groups were strictly garden people, and they wanted to know everything about the gardens and they were gardeners on a high level. And I didn’t do any gardening work while I was playing Beethoven and Mozart, so I – and I felt at a loss, but I tried.

AS: There’s a lot of garden clubs and things like that that come through.

KP: Oh yes. And people who love roses. I remember one group that I took through – and this is true what I tell you. It’s true. I said, “Do you see this Ingrid Bergman rose?” That’s what it’s called. An Ingrid Bergman rose. And I said, “You know, when the National Symphony moved to its present site in the Kennedy Center – we were before that at Constitution Hall, which was a horrible place for music. It was just awful. And here we were in a new hall. And Antal Doráti was the conductor at the time had a press conference. And he spoke to a few members of the orchestra – I was pleased to be one of them – and to people from various cultural entities. And it was very gala and festive. And they had shrimp trays and lobster trays and any kind of drink you could think of. And I took advantage of all that largesse and I got a little tipsy. The room – the building, rather, was new to me at that time. My wife and I felt it was time to leave. We didn’t want to overstay, and since the building was new to me, I wasn’t sure where I could find an elevator to go to the parking garage. Finally, we found one. And the door opened on the elevator and I look at this woman–a beautiful woman, and I say to her, “Are you Ingrid Bergman?” And her head goes down and she says, “Yes.” And I said, Ms. Bergman, may I kiss you? And she said, reluctantly, “Yes.” And I kissed her on both cheeks and that was that.”

AS: It was a lucky time to leave.

KP: So, that’s my story of the Ingrid Bergman rose. But anyway, what can I say?

AS: So, you also did a lot of school groups coming through.

KP: Oh yes. With the children, some are very interested and some are not. It’s so important not to be a naysayer, but to encourage curiosity. “What do you think this is?” “What do you do with that?” “What would you do if you had it?” It was a lot of fun.

AS: These are local area schools?

KP: Yes. Some from out of town. Hagerstown, Benson, Baltimore.

AS: I wonder – oh yes. You were involved with the docent program for about five years?

KP: About five or six years.

AS: In that time did you notice, were there any major initiatives or changes to the program?

KP: There have been changes in emphasis, I would say, and changes for the better. I tend to speak colloquially. I don’t want to worry about trying to sound erudite and I want people to remember something. So, I made it a point not to overload visitors, but to pick out a few pieces and really let them become familiar with them. And always to say please come back. I think I was a decent person at communicating in a friendly way.

AS: By changes in emphasis, you mean changes in the style of –

KP: Yeah, it was much more formal. Now, with so much information on the wall for these pieces, we’re more reduced to saying, “If you have any questions, I would be happy to try to answer them.” Before, you could tell them the whole thing – the story about the piece. So, that’s a big change – a big change. In the Byzantine wing, it’s more possible to tell people things. It’s a wonderful collection of Byzantine artifacts. Yeah, that’s what I remember. I can’t get specific about how things – you know, how things change sometimes; it’s very gradual. I don’t say, oh listen to this; we’re going into another phase.

AS: Well, I think one thing that tends to change over the years is how – and you already touched on this – is how Dumbarton Oaks interacts and reaches out to the public – or not.

KP: Okay, I’m a volunteer, as is my wife, at the Phillips Art Gallery. We were there only a couple of times a month, and they would hand information about the other museums and art galleries in town. And if people asked where is the this or the that, we could give them a sheet of paper with that information. There was nothing about Dumbarton Oaks. And I asked Chris Blazina, “Why don’t we tell people about Dumbarton Oaks? It’s so unique.” And she said, “Well, we’re working on it.” And I think they were talking about it.

AS: And I think it’s – just now we’re getting a brochure made up – changing as we speak.

KP: Right. Exactly. But now it’s not surprising on a Sunday afternoon in nice weather to have hordes of people to come into the garden – and how deserted the galleries are.

AS: Beautiful. Did you ever attend any of the concerts in the gardens?

KP: No.

AS: Because I understand that they took place.

KP: Well, it’s obscure. And that’s why it’s so important to look in the Archives to see if there’s any information. It seated fifty people, is my understanding. And they could somehow cover the pool – either drain it or cover it – and I got the idea that they did string quartets there and they did theater. But I’m not sure. And I’ve heard different opinions.

AS: I wonder, while we’re talking about concert locations, if you might talk about the acoustics in the Music Room, because that’s an unusual setting, is it not?

KP: Yes, it is. They are not ideal. They are not terrible, C+. It’s because the surfaces are so hard and it’s not built for, really, for playing. I mean a string quartet wouldn’t be that bad, but it’s louder than it would be in a different kind of setting where there is absorbable material that can soften things. On the other hand, it’s so exotic and wonderful. I should think a string quartet would be just thrilled to play.

AS: It’s a beautiful and historical place to play – that’s certainly for sure. I meant to ask you earlier if you – you’ve had a chance to watch the concerts in that room from the sixties to really recent years.

KP: I watched and played in the sixties and seventies.

AS: Yes. And, given that span of time, have you seen a change in the type of performer and program that Dumbarton Oaks puts on?

KP: Well a lot of it is chamber music, string quartets. There’s one group, I think they are from France, and they played Baroque instruments and a copy of an early bassoon. I got tickled hearing, because it’s a good thing that it became obsolete. And I could understand it. Those instruments were built to be performed at in a small room. In the 1600s, 1700s, audiences were all invited, and they were very few. They might have fifty people at most – would be an audience. So the instruments didn’t have to be efficient in projecting sound. And so the violins played very quietly and the bassoons sounded like the tea was ready. But they played an instrument, it was a conically bored horn – I think it was an animal horn. It was called a cornetto. And it had a tiny little mouthpiece, I mean tiny. And I couldn’t  - with all my experience blowing into instruments  - I couldn’t understand how this man was producing all this wonderful playing. It was like a soprano trumpet. And you really had to be a knowledgeable musician to get what you wanted out of that. It was quite wonderful. The concerts, I think, all through these years have been varied in a nice way. Singers, less singers now, we haven’t had a vocal kind of concert for a long time. And we did have some famous people as I have mentioned. But now it’s mostly instrumental.

AS: Is there a tradition of these kinds of educational instrumentals? With a lot of historical instruments that you are talking about, that are rare instruments, is there a component to that?

KP: I’m not sure I understand what your question is.

AS: I guess you were talking about some rare or historical instruments –

KP: Oh you mean like the cornetto? I gave a paper to my colleagues there about those early instruments and explained the size of the concert hall and the makeup of the audience was such that instruments didn’t have to do extraordinary things to be heard. And it was when Beethoven started becoming famous and when the public was welcome because it was now a means of making wealth. They were charged for entering the concert hall, so the more the merrier. And Beethoven wanted to be, you know, recognized. In Mozart’s time, it was still small audiences. So, when Beethoven became popular, they had to change the harpsichord into a piano. The early pianoforte was kind of half way between piano and a harpsichord. And then it became a piano that had this projection that was quite magical and that was appropriate for a big a hall. I did play for over two thousand people.

AS: By comparison, Dumbarton Oaks would be a small venue.

KP: That’s why they could play those ancient instruments.

AS: I think – make sure I haven’t – I did mean to ask you – well no I think we –

KP: Let me go back to something. Strings on violins and cellos were gut strings, made of cat gut. When they had to have more volume out of them in these bigger halls, they switched to metallic, long strings and it made all the difference in the world. And that’s what they had to do. The bassoon, the oboe, the flute – they all changed. Early flutes, fancy flutes, where made of, oh my goodness, there were gold flutes and so on. The materials had to keep up with the times.

AS: Do you see a fluctuation in concerts with historical instruments? You talked about the varied nature of the concerts, singers versus historical instruments, very different things. Were they changing who attended these things? Were they members of the musical community or the public?

KP: I, you know, I have to imagine. I don’t have any first hand information, hard information, but it seems to me, when my wife and I go to a concert there, these people are well educated in general and somewhat sophisticated, concert-goers. Beyond that I can’t say. I go if it’s something that I really want to hear and not tired of having heard it over the years. And people like the concerts. They really like them.

AS: Have any of the concerts – or as a volunteer, did you interact with any of the Dumbarton Oaks Directors? Were any of them hands-on enough that –

KP: No, only the person in charge of the concerts.

AS: So, that would have been? Let’s see –

KP: Valerie.

AS: Yeah.

KP: Very nice person. I don’t know if she’s still in that position.

AS: Still involved, I know.

KP: I think she did the contact work and maybe even selected the groups, proposed them. I don’t know.

AS: Well, you’ve answered – you’ve anticipated some of my questions and answered them very completely. And, unless you have other things to add, I wonder if I may ask a sort of summary question of you. Is there anything I missed?

KP: I don’t know how to summarize what I said.

AS: Oh no, I wouldn’t have you do that. I wonder – In some ways you’ve had a unique position because the parts of Dumbarton Oaks in which you’ve been involved are unique really. I mean the Friends of Music Program and the docent program are some of the only things that Dumbarton Oaks does to really engage with the Washington community and community outside the scholarly one which resides here and is really the center of Dumbarton Oaks. Because you come to the institution from that perspective, I wonder if you have any idea how these programs have maybe changed Dumbarton Oaks or impacted the research centers there or how they could in the future?

KP: How they’ve impacted?

AS: Yes. I mean is there a communication between these types of events and the scholarly centers?

KP: I think the museum director is a very nice guy. I’d better not say any more. He’s a very nice guy and it’s a very refreshing change. I am not crazy about this introduction of putting pieces, historically different, in the mist of a collection. For instance now you can walk into the gardens and you seem something stuck in there, nothing to do with the garden at all. It’s a piece of sculpture of some sort.

AS: You are talking about the modern art installation?

KP: Yes. I don’t care for it.

AS: It’s caused quite an uproar I understand among the visitors.

KP: Yeah. I don’t understand it, and I’m not crazy about it. Beyond that, I just think the pieces there are what make it, and they are plenty good and they don’t have to be enhanced by some kind of foreign intrusion, aesthetic intrusion that doesn’t make sense. That’s my view.

AS: And others share it, that’s what we’ve heard. Well thank you for meeting with me today, I really appreciate it.

KP: Oh, it’s a pleasure. I wish I could have been more loquacious.

AS: No, no, no, you were fine.