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.
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.
But neither scenario was to be. In 1985, the board won the suit and retained ownership of the building, which allowed them to continue running the conservatory as an independent, nonprofit institution. But by the early 1990s, the Milford facility had become a financial "albatross," according to Crow. So it was sold, and students were shuffled over to the University of St. Thomas's music department. Meanwhile, the student body had shrunk from about 75 in the mid-'80s to a few dozen. The school's fortunes continued to decline after the move to St. Thomas. Enrollment was scant, the curriculum bare-bones.
"It's had a rather rocky history for the last ten [years]," acknowledges board member Sharon Hill Adams, who was heavily involved in the sale of the Milford building.
Adams wouldn't respond to questions surrounding Jeanne Kelly's unceremonious departure, deferring all comments to Crow. But she does concede (in so many words) that the conservatory seems locked in a perpetual search for a reason to exist.
"We've been trying to move it into this century so that we can go into the next century," she says.
Kelly had hoped to do more than simply play catch-up -- and for a while, she was on her way. Today, she recalls how the job pretty much fell in her lap.
"I had lunch with Tom Crow, and I found out that there was a conservatory," recalls Kelly. "They called me the next day and asked me if I'd like to study voice, and I asked, 'How many students do you have?' And they said, 'Oh, about five.' And I asked, 'Five, for the whole school?' It was the whole school."
Not long after, Kelly was offering her services and laying out her philosophy to the board, promising big changes that inspired enthusiasm -- and a bit of controversy.
"Jeanne had this wealth of ideas on ways to broaden the conservatory's appeal," Crow says. "I think at the beginning there was a question of whether to do this or not, but I think we had worked through that, and I think everybody on the board supported her vision."
Signing on in January 1996, Kelly promptly set in motion a monster effort to rejuvenate the conservatory. After obtaining a grant from the New Jersey-based National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts, Kelly, with the board's blessing, went about transforming the conservatory into an institution open to all who wanted to learn, not simply a sparse upper echelon of talent. Although the $5,000 grant was tiny, it was a start, and with the conservatory's $60,000 annual operating budget, Kelly believed she had a good shot at establishing and maintaining one of only two guild-funded institutions in Texas (the other is in Nacogdoches).
"Their idea of a conservatory was to cater to the elite talent, and that just wasn't going to work," Kelly says. "A community music school serves all ages and all levels of talent. That is the mission, regardless of age, race, creed, whatever."
During her abbreviated tenure, Kelly moved the school off the University of St. Thomas campus and into St. Matthew Lutheran Church on Main, which provided ample room for classes and recitals. Enrollment grew to more than 100 students in 1997.
"Toward the end, we passed more than 500 people through the doors in some shape or form," Kelly says. "It was truly starting to do something within a year."
Kelly started a flute choir, a children's opera and a chamber music ensemble. The instructors she was able to lure to the conservatory were -- like their boss -- passionate and well-trained (she held auditions for teachers). Kelly worked tirelessly to boost the school's profile in Houston, using free performances and other outreach efforts, including sing-alongs open to anyone in the community.
"Jeanne had the people interested in making music. The woman was a fantastic mover and shaker," says Peterson, who worked for Kelly as a piano teacher at the conservatory. "Her message on the answering machine was just really positive. It made you want to come over there."
By the beginning of this year, though, Kelly had run into resistance from board members. By spring she had notified them of her intention to resign. They quickly called an emergency meeting, agreeing that it was only proper to persuade her to stay. But when Kelly showed up at a subsequent meeting, nothing occurred to convince her that she wasn't wasting her time.
"I did my research," Kelly says. "I contacted the [community schools] guild; I contacted other community schools of the arts and told them what was going on. I came [to the meeting] with [a proposal], and four of [the board members] didn't even show up."
Realizing her hands were tied, Kelly resigned on May 31. Her departure prompted the exit of board president Rutherford and board member Herb Karpicke, the principal of the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. While Rutherford is reluctant to discuss the episode ("It's water under the bridge," she says), she does concede a lack of foresight on the board's part. "It was a change," she says, "and change is sometimes difficult."
For his part, Crow maintains that money was the principal reason for Kelly's falling-out with the board.
"Jeanne felt that the board was more concerned about the future financial condition than she was," Crow says dryly. "The expenditures were running between $20,000 and $30,000 beyond the [annual operating bud-get], which was a level that we felt that we could not sustain."
But Kelly says her last-minute proposal was aimed at persuading the board members to devote more personal attention to the school, rather than at demanding more money for operations.
"I spent very little money in relation to what we accomplished in a year," she says, adding that so far the board has been content to sit on its finances like some stubborn, myopic goose smothering a golden egg.
Annie Shouse Nance, a former student at the conservatory and a Kelly supporter, says the dispute was over control. "They were interested in just having board meetings and not supporting a different vision for the school," she says. "Jeanne was dealing with a dinosaur. I don't think that there was vision or a plan -- except to caretake. They had no interest in helping her."
And it was that indifference to her efforts that angered Kelly most.
"Nancy and I tried very hard," says Kelly. "I remember I had this great open house with the children's opera and the flute choir, and some of the board members didn't even come. It was a very painful experience for me. Houston was really ripe for a place like this."
Since Kelly resigned, all but one of the programs she initiated has been discontinued, says Crow. The school is no longer based at St. Matthew, and many of the instructors hired during Kelly's tenure haven't heard from the school since she left.
"We are sort of operating at a minimal level now," Crow says. "We're teaching lessons, and the flute ensemble is still going. It's the one [group] that actually pays for itself. We still need to figure out how much of this momentum we can maintain while keeping overhead low."
All of which is news to conservatory treasurer Charles Tucker. As far as he's concerned, things are at a virtual standstill. "At the moment, we are essentially not operating," he says.
Although it's been a few months since she left Houston, Kelly is hardly philosophical about her experience at the conservatory.
"It was a joke," she fumes. "They had an excellent opportunity to have a great school, and they fought it every inch of the way. They were doing absolutely nothing to run the school. Now, unfortunately for the people of Houston, they are back in control.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.