Musicians Emergency Fund, Inc. (MEF) was founded in 1931 to provide performance assistance to professional musicians during the Great Depression. Among the early organizers were Mrs. Ernest Schelling, Mrs. Ernest Hutcheson, and Olga Samaroff Stokowski, with Walter Damrosch named as Chairman of the Board. His Executive Chairman, Mrs. Vincent Astor (later remarried as Mrs. Lytle Hull), stood midstream in a long career as one of New York’s most caring and persistent promoters of musical life. The Advisory Board consisted of Mrs. August Belmont, Cornelius N. Bliss, Fritz Kreisler, Clarence H. Mackay, Ignace Paderewski, Frank L. Polk, Marcella Sembrich, and Arturo Toscanini, with Paul D. Cravath as treasurer.
To generate projects that would offer jobs to unemployed musicians, MEF formed committees to explore ideas and started a fund drive to set them in motion. In 1933 MEF began to sponsor a series of 13 Russian operas in collaboration with major symphony orchestras. In 1941, a decade after MEF was founded, came another opera initiative, spearheaded by the Hungarian-born pianist Yolanda Méro-Irion, MEF’s first Executive Director, and Mrs. Hull. This was the New Opera Company, a launching padfor New York City Opera in 1944.
During World War II, MEF’s programs included concerts at military bases and free musical instruction for servicemen. With MEF out of the opera business, Mmes. Méro-Irion and Hull turned their attention to setting up the Hospitalized Veterans Service. Though music was first seen as recreation, it soon emerged as effective therapy. Thirty years later, the Hospitalized Veterans Service was taken over by the government’s Veterans Administration. In 1982, MEF joined New York University in sponsoring the first International Symposium on Music Therapy.
In 1984, under a new Executive Director, Marie M. Ashdown, MEF plunged into the business of presenting gifted instrumentalists and singers in concert at Alice Tully Hall with orchestra. Singers chosen by MEF’s auditions program included Olga Makarina, Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, Alan Held, and John Horton Murray. After a decade or so, when entrées for singers had turned into a kind of revolving door, Ms. Ashdown changed the direction of the auditions, channeling financial support to the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and to regional companies that could offer performance opportunities to jump-start careers.
For instrumentalists too, opportunities were growing scarcer. Returning to MEF’s original mandate of work opportunities for classical musicians, Ms. Ashdown proposed a series that in 2002 became the Junior/Senior Concerts. In these events, held in high-profile venues, established teaching artists perform together with members of the pupil generation as colleagues. Many participants in MEF concerts already held, or soon acquired, the distinction of world-class performers. Looking back for a moment to February 8, 1932, we can recall that one of the largest musical events in New York history was an MEF concert at Madison Square Garden with Ignace Jan Paderewski, attended by 16,000. In much more recent times, the names of such artists as Gary Graffman, Michael Tree, Jaime Laredo, Joseph Silverstein and Pamela Frank are but a few examples. As well, MEF has introduced important premieres by such eminent composers as Huang Ruo and, in the May 5, 2013 concert, Jennifer Higdon.
In 2008, two past MEF award winners—soprano Renée Fleming and clarinetist Anthony McGill—were chosen to play during the U.S. presidential inauguration ceremonies in Washington. McGill now also holds an endowed chair as principal clarinet with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Other distinguished alumni include the pianist/conductor Li Jian, who won MEF’s first instrumental award in 1989, performed in numerous recitals and orchestra concerts for MEF, and in 1991 he became its Artistic Director, serving with distinction until the end of 2012. After Li Jian stepped down from that post, having meanwhile been appointed Director of the piano department at Shanghai Conservatory, the title of MEF’s Artistic Director and Concert Coordinator fell to cellist Arash Amini, another distinguished MEF award winner.
Musicians Emergency Fund, Inc. is a privately funded, 501(c)(3), nonprofit foundation.