Decrescendo

The music has all but stopped at the once-proud Houston Conservatory

Jeanne Kelly is a pistol, a boundless bundle of energy and ideas whose persistence can be daunting to less-motivated individuals. It was that galvanizing enthusiasm that won over Tom Crow, chairman of the music department at the University of St. Thomas, who recommended that Kelley be hired early last year to revive the moribund Houston Conservatory of Music.

Evidently, the rest of the conservatory's seven-member board shared Crow's opinion. Either that, or they saw Kelly as a person with a vision -- any vision -- for their school, which had, to say the least, seen better days.

Founded in 1917 by Clarence Hammond, a renowned pianist and teacher whose grandfather was director of the Royal Orchestra of Berlin, the Houston Conservatory of Music was once among the most prestigious institutions of its kind in this part of the country. The school became a vital barometer of the performing arts in Houston under Hammond's direction, and it remained a respected institution in the city's arts community well into the succeeding decades.

But this year, as the conservatory marked its 80th anniversary, there was nothing to celebrate. These days, the place is little more than a brittle receptacle for past glories, its reason for being whittled down to a handful of scholarships and a board meeting every few months.

For all intents and purposes, the conservatory is inoperative, its student body too minuscule and scattered to count, its staff negligible, its facility nonexistent. It's been years since the school has offered a degree program -- longer, actually, than most on its current board of directors can remember. So far, those same board members have been at a loss for ways to return the conservatory to its previous station as both a place of instruction and a haven for musical appreciation.

Perhaps, they suggest, time has simply passed the place by.
Such self-serving fatalism might carry a bit more weight if Jeanne Kelly hadn't swooped in like a whirlwind to wind back the clock. Kelly took over as executive director of the conservatory's day-to-day operations last year, and with remarkable efficiency proceeded to turn the place upside down. Within months, the conservatory was being transformed for the better. By this May, student enrollment had increased more than tenfold, and the teaching staff had grown from a smattering of St. Thomas faculty recruits to more than ten instructors from across the city. Kelly even found a new home base for the conservatory at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in the Museum District.

Before moving to Houston with her husband, Kelly was the chair of the voice department at the prestigious Levine School of Music in Washington, D.C.; she had also served as conductor of the Naval Academy's women's glee club. From every angle, her credentials were impeccable. She had the track record to justify her tremendous self-confidence.

"She's very energetic," says Crow, "a real go-getter."
But the conservatory's reawakening was short-lived. After barely a year and a half, a disgruntled Kelly abandoned her post, taking her supporters with her. Two members of the conservatory's board, including its president, Nancy Rutherford, resigned in protest, and by this summer the conservatory had returned to its previous state of inoperative limbo, with Crow as the board's new president.

"They really had great hopes that it would work," says Crow of those who left. "[But Jeanne] expected the board to conform to her expectations, and we did not share them."

Obviously, the "we" that Crow is referring to are those board members who didn't see eye-to-eye with Kelly, the ones Kelly not-so-lovingly describes as "idiots."

"I have a lot of passion for what I do, and they just didn't have any energy or passion," Kelly says from her new home in northern Virginia, where she is again working for the Levine School. "I knew what I was doing; I had an idea. They don't know what they want. That was the big thing."

There was a time, years ago, when those who ran the Houston Conservatory of Music knew exactly what they wanted.

"The conservatory was just a wonderful thing for the city. It was a fine school," says Mary Peterson, a local pianist and instructor who studied at the conservatory in the '40s and '50s.

In the 1930s, responsibility for the school fell into the hands of Clarence Hammond's son Mozart, so named because he was born the evening his father performed a Mozart concerto with the Chicago Symphony. The conservatory continued to flourish into the '60s under the direction of Mozart Hammond, himself a well-respected musician, instructor and high-profile member of the Houston arts community.

"There were more than enough students to offer full-fledged recitals," Peterson remembers. "They offered a preparatory diploma -- in fact, I have one."

Peterson was long gone when the school's precipitous slide began, an unfortunate decline that paralleled the swift deterioration of Hammond's health. Maestro Hammond's death in 1982 prompted a court battle between his heirs -- the Blocker family of Austin -- and the school's board. The lawsuit centered around the conservatory's facility at the time, a stately old building at 1105 Milford in Montrose. The Blockers wanted to deed the building to their daughters, but they also entertained the notion of handing it over to Rice University's Shepherd School of Music. Rice's financial stability and stellar academic reputation, they felt, would ensure the conservatory a future more in tune with Hammond's plans.

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