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James Nelson Cain: former SLSO music manager

In Obituaries

11:28 am on Wed, 10.26.11

When classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who was known for his frequent "retirements," left St. Louis off his 1974-75 "comeback" tour, James Cain, then manager of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, flew to Columbus, Ohio, and cajoled the pianist into adding the city to his schedule.

James Cain

It was the kind of diligence Mr. Cain had shown since he began his 46-year career managing music organizations as the 18-year-old founder of the Columbus Chamber Music Society.

"Music was his world," said Ann Williams Bugg, Mr. Cain's colleague when the two worked at CASA. "Without knowing it, he really influenced the music that's played in this city."

The lifelong impresario died Thursday from complications of throat cancer at the Charlevoix Healthcare Center in St. Charles. He was 81 and had lived in Olivette for 42 years before moving to St. Charles 18 months ago.

Music As Religion

James Nelson Cain was born Jan. 6, 1930, in Arcadia, Ohio, the eldest child of Gladys and Alfred Cain's three children. He grew up in Columbus, Ohio.

His mother was a violinist with a local non-professional orchestra ensemble. By age 14, he was working as an usher and self-described "water boy" for the Columbus Philharmonic. He was paid in part by free admission to the concerts. He became a frequent guest at Philharmonic conductor Izler Solomon's home, where groups of orchestra musicians would gather to perform. He would leave just in time to catch the last bus home.

He had just graduated from West High School and was preparing to enter Ohio State University when he founded the prestigious Columbus Chamber Music Society (now Chamber Music Columbus). The society was originally named Prestige Concerts and there was plenty of prestige from the very beginning.

He recruited the Walden Quartet, whose original members all played in the Cleveland Orchestra, for the society's inaugural season in 1948. Mr. Cain scored the coup through John Garvey, with whom he had studied violin. Garvey was principal violist in the Columbus Philharmonic and had just been invited to join the quartet.

The result was a series of five performances that established Prestige Concerts as a presentation organization. It was an auspicious beginning to a career dedicated to music.

"Music was his religion," said his wife Marthellen Jones Cain, a music major whom he'd met and soon married while working at the campus radio station, WOSU-AM.

She was the station's receptionist and he had a program called Records in Review where he played the latest classical releases and discussed music. The radio program also helped him publicize Prestige Concerts.

Mr. Cain had studied violin, piano and cello, but he earned a bachelor's degree in history from Ohio State University.

After graduating, Mr. Cain continued to lead the Columbus Chamber Music Society until 1962, when he was named director of the Aspen Music Festival in Aspen, Colo. He moved his family to New York, where he would return during the winter recruiting musicians and instructors for Aspen's summer season.

Showcasing Superstars

Mr. Cain's next move was to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1968, where he served as manager for 13 years. He could often be seen in the lobby before concerts extending a hand to patrons before taking his seat in the audience.

In 1969, Mr. Cain helped the symphony create an outdoor summer concert series with Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. With a backdrop of the Vietnam War, student revolution and Watergate, the classical series evolved into one of the most renowned music festivals in the nation. During a 12-year run, it drew stars from every music genre: from Joan Baez and James Taylor to Janis Joplin and B.B. King.

Mr. Cain became vice president of the St. Louis Conservatory and Schools for the Arts in 1981. Two years after joining CASA, he founded the Great Artists Series and the Mae M. Whitaker International Competition, which attracted classical musicians from all over the world.

At both the symphony and CASA, he brought in classical superstars, including celebrated "Pops" composer Richard Hayman; violinist Isaac Stern and cellists Leslie Parnas and Yo-Yo Ma, whom Stern was credited with discovering; violinists Pinchas Zukerman and Jaime Loredo, and pianists Joseph Kalichstein and Emanuel "Manny" Ax.

In a 1988 interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Ax, who performed at both the Symphony and CASA, called Mr. Cain a ''very enlightened man.''

Most classical stars presented a particular challenge.

"Jim always said to me, 'We have to get across to these classical musicians that we are really in show business,'" Bugg recalled. "He knew how to program the music so people would keep coming back."

Mr. Cain not only enticed stars to perform in St. Louis, he was sometimes the reason they became stars.

"He discovered talent, young talent like violinist Nigel Kennedy and pianist Pamela Mia Paul, and gave them opportunities and a platform to perform in the public eye," his wife said. "He nurtured talent."

Mr. Cain retired in 1994. He remained one of the Symphony's best customers and spent more time cooking and reading one of his favorite subjects: biographies of conductors.


Mr. Cain has been duly recognized for his contributions to classical music.

During the 2003-2004 season, the Chamber Music Columbus Endowment Fund was created; it was christened the James N. Cain Legacy Society.

In 2008, he received the alumni award of distinction from the Humanities Department at Ohio State University for outstanding achievement.

Mr. Cain was preceded in death by his parents and his brother and sister, Richard Cain and Peggy Coup.

In addition to his wife Marthellen Cain, he is survived by his children, Nelson (Carol) Cain of McKinney, Tex., Richard (Nikki) Cain of Quincy, Ill.; Jennifer (David) Meyer of St. Louis and Elizabeth (Kevin) Zenk of Ballwin; seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

At Mr. Cain's request, no services will be held.

Memorials contributions may be made to the Saint Louis Symphony, Columbus Chamber Music Society, Ohio State Alumni Association, Alzheimer's Association, American Cancer Society or the American Heart Association, in care of Alternative Funeral & Cremation Services, 2115 Parkway Dr., St. Peters, Mo. 63376.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service. To reach her, contact Beacon contributing editor Richard H. Weiss..

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