associated on that occasion to the City where I have the privilege to live. … The seven weeks I spent in Santa Fe … were in fact, the first period of real happiness I found in America. … Mr. Lansing Bloom [then editor of the New Mexico Historical Review] put at my disposal the beautiful St. Francis Auditorium of your State Museum. There I had peace, quiet.”
Two decades ago, Agate Beach (by then subsumed into the adjoining town of Newport, Oregon) became home to an Ernest Bloch Festival. O’Connor was among the musicians who participated in its first installment, and he was invited to return as the festival’s director, a position he held from 1990 to 1994. “It was a really amazing setting,” O’Connor recalled, “especially in comparison to our land-locked situation here in New Mexico. Newport has the ocean on one side and the Yaquina Bay on the other: two totally different aquatic environments. Bloch’s home was situated on a high bluff with a sheer drop-off to the water — a log-cabin house with a huge fireplace, with a direct view to the ocean, a great place to watch storms. It was a perfect place for him in that it was a geographic representation of who he was: stormy, emotional, temperamental. There’s a bronze plaque by the roadside that marks Bloch’s home. His presence is still very much acknowledged there.”
The Concerto Grosso No. 1 (a second would follow in 19521953) became a popular favorite. Within a year of its Cleveland premiere it was conducted by the composer (leading the San Francisco Symphony) and by an A-list of other conductors: Frederick Stock with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky with the Boston Symphony (in both Boston and New York), Fritz Reiner with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and Ernest Ansermet with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. It has been recorded 44 times, beginning as early as 1929, and a 1959 recording by Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra was legendary in its day. Nonetheless, the work’s repertoire status has unaccountably faded in recent years.
“The piece has somewhat slipped away,” O’Connor said, “and in general Bloch hasn’t gained the reputation of being a major composer. Maybe, in all fairness, that was because the bar was set too high. I do have some faith in the collective wisdom of the audience, which identifies the best pieces and sees to it that they are repeated because the public loves them. Those pieces generally do deserve it. Bloch was a conservative composer. He wasn’t ‘cuttingedge’ for his time. In that sense, he shares something with Samuel Barber, whose music has been enjoying a resurgence of popularity in recent years. But the Bloch Concerto Grosso is an immediately compelling piece — very dramatic, with a strong sense of big things happening.”
Congratulatory letter to Bloch from New Mexico governor Richard C. Dillon, 1926