Al Booth is desperately seeking a white knight for a damsel in distress–or at least that’s the impression he’s trying hard to convey. The damsel, in this case, is the Talman Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert, a weekly event at the Public Library Cultural Center that regularly draws a standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 and is broadcast live on WFMT to an even wider audience; Booth is its creator and guiding spirit.

Regarded by zealous fans as indispensable, the free concert series–one of the few of its kind in the world–has played host over the years to musicians of assorted nationalities and instrumental specialties. Among the 500 or so alumni are winners of prestigious competitions such as the Tchaikovsky and the Naumburg, proteges of the likes of Yehudi Menuhin and Alfred Brendel, and a gratifyingly large number of talented local performers.

Yet by early next year, the popular lunchtime series may be a thing of the past, one of the first casualties of the looming recession. Talman Home Federal Savings and Loan, which has sponsored the series since its inception 13 years ago, has notified Booth that it’s pulling its funding.

“I was totally unprepared when Talman officials told me about it over lunch in early November,” Booth says reproachfully. “Six weeks’ notice is way too short. The timing couldn’t have been worse.” After all, he says, he’s already extended invitations to performers for 1992 dates.

“Al is trying to portray us as the heavy in this whole thing,” counters Jim Sherman, Talman’s director of corporate communications and one of the honchos who broke the bad news to Booth. “He knew this was coming.” From his company’s point of view, the cutback is an unfortunate consequence of the federal regulators’ demand that savings and loan associations increase their capital requirements. Talman is financially sound, Sherman says, but it’s paying for the sins of its less cautious brethren.

The decision to part company with the Hess series was made carefully and reluctantly, he stresses, and Talman will continue to subsidize the annual “Do-It-Yourself Messiah,” a generous four-year music scholarship, and ethnic music festivities organized by the Old Town School of Folk Music. “We are honoring our three-year contract with WFMT,” Sherman adds, “which includes the broadcast of the Hess concerts.” They’ll also consider leaving the piano, a pricey Bosendorfer grand, if Booth finds another backer. Nevertheless, the decision may tarnish Talman’s reputation as an exemplary corporate supporter of the arts–especially considering that the amount involved is a relatively modest $50,000 a year, about one tenth the average compensation of senior managers in the S and L industry.

Besides disappointing the city’s classical music aficionados and musicians everywhere, Talman is also relinquishing the cachet of being associated with a civic tradition inspired by one of England’s eminent musicians. Myra Hess was an immensely popular pianist and teacher and a compassionate patriot as well. During World War II, when her native London was virtually shut down by the constant threat of Nazi bombers, she resourcefully organized a noontime recital series. Almost every day between 1939 and 1946, the sound of music filled the main hall of the National Gallery. Even the blitz didn’t put a stop to the merry music making; the audience and musicians simply repaired to the basement. Recitalists included not only celebrated refugees from the continent but also hundreds of promising conservatory graduates whose careers in music might otherwise have been aborted by the war.

In 1941 Hess was made a Dame of the British Empire for both her illustrious pianism and her effort in boosting the nation’s morale. When she died two decades later, her will stipulated that her entire estate be used to spur on new generations of British instrumentalists in all corners of the United Kingdom.

A musical education was something Al Booth could not afford in his youth. He studied voice at the Chicago Musical College during the Depression, but dropped out to make a living and ended up in the real estate business. Through it all he kept a keen interest in music and musicians, and in the early 70s, disillusioned by the Nixon-Vietnam era, Booth and his wife moved to London. Shortly after settling in, they discovered at a neighborhood church an endearing local custom, the sing-along Messiah. Then at a library near his office they learned about the Hess legacy through wartime newspaper accounts. “I thought both would be naturals for Chicago,” he says with relish.

In 1975, back in town, Booth approached Margaret Hillis, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, about a sing-along Messiah in Orchestra Hall. “She was all for it. And with her on board, we got backers.” Their collaboration started a trend, widely chronicled and enthusiastically embraced by cities across the country. Its success convinced Booth to pursue his other idea.

“Once again, Margaret helped out by agreeing to be the artistic advisor. Then I found out that the hall in the Cultural Center was available, and they told me if I raised the money, I could use it,” he recalls. “I wrote many letters to corporations; all the replies said no. Then I spoke with Tom Willis, the Tribune’s critic. As it so happens, he used to turn pages for Dame Myra when she gave recitals downtown. He wrote a very favorable article about what I wanted to do. And the next day I got a call from Talman offering to put up money for a six-month trial.” The inaugural Hess concert, headlined by then-newcomer Jo Ann Pickens, took place on October 20, 1977. (Around the same time, Booth established the International Music Foundation, a not-for-profit outfit devoted to outreach projects at public schools to heighten youngsters’ appreciation for classical music. “We have to create audiences, not just performers, for the future,” he explains.)

For now, Lois Weisberg, the city’s cultural commissioner, says she and her colleagues are committed to the survival of the concerts. Booth himself has been on the phone, frantically looking for other corporate donors to replace Talman. He believes he’s on the verge of a long-term commitment from one major local organization. Some Hess partisans have also offered to help out with small donations, but “it wouldn’t be right for us to accept $20 here and there from concertgoers,” says Booth. “The government could help out; instead it’s pouring billions into the military, into the war machine.”

Many Hess regulars, he says, can’t afford the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the Lyric Opera. “The idea is that there should be more high-quality free events in a world-class city like Chicago, not less.” With a smile, he adds, “I suppose part of it also has something to do with the fact that I ran out of money while trying to get a musical education.”

Until further notice, the Hess concerts will continue to take place Wednesdays at 12:15 PM under the ornate Tiffany dome in the Preston Bradley Hall at the Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; they’re broadcast live on WFMT. For the latest concert schedule, call 346-3278; to find out more about the International Music Foundation’s activities, call 670-6888.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.