Essays on Faith, Family and Culture

The Jewels in Our Midst: In Praise of Local Arts and Culture

I don’t know what impetus pushed me out the door last night. Boredom, the arch-enemy of creativity, crept into my work, and thus I found myself seeking any excuse to drive from my farm into town.

I love my farm. I love the life that I live, the quiet, the solitude, the peace. But six days out of seven, it’s just my husband, my cats, and myself. Social media helps break the isolation, a little. However, all the funny memes, status updates, and pictures of friends cannot suffice forever.

A good friend of mine, a professor back in New York and one of my mentors, accepted a position at a university in a rural area of Pennsylvania. This was a woman with season tickets to Lincoln Center, who took me to one of my first performances at that revered institution when I turned 20. I remember how she fretted about her move. It wasn’t the lack of services or moving to a new place that bothered her: it was her worry that she wouldn’t find “culture” as she called it in farm country.

She moved and found to her delight that culture wasn’t far away at all. There was Philadelphia only an hour’s drive away and the Philadephia Orchestra; there were concerts, lectures, and art exhibits on the university campus and at nearby museums.

I didn’t worry quite as much as my friend did about finding live performances and ‘culture.’ I love listening to classical music, but I often prefer my favorite recordings and the radio to live concerts. I enjoy Medici TV, the arts streaming video service, and I get my fill of ballet and opera there.

But sometimes, the radio just doesn’t satisfy. Neither does video. The main problem with both is that we lock ourselves into a cultural bubble. I listen endlessly to my favorites: Mussorgsky, Beethoven, Bach, Jenkins, Einaudi, Dvorak. I discover nothing new.

The music director at my church, Dr. Lisa Kinzer, is also the chair of the local university’s music department, and we are blessed to have a large, interesting, and culturally diverse university smack in the middle of our rural area. She mentioned briefly a week or two ago that she would be performing in the faculty spring recital, and yesterday, a reminder popped up on Facebook (before it crashed and took the world’s outrage with it) (I survived the Facebook outage of 2019!).

So, on the spur of the moment, feeling restless and vaguely unsettled, I mumbled to my husband that I’d decided to go to the concert. I hopped into my car and found myself searching for a parking spot at Longwood University. Finding parking at Longwood is a favorite local sport, sort of like a treasure hunt but on wheels. For a large and wonderful university, it lacks even a single guest visitor spot, and I couldn’t figure out if the parking garage was open or closed.

I finally tucked my car into a spot that may or may not have been a visitor spot, crossed my fingers, and hiked to the campus.

I made my way to the Wygal Building, where I had taken a few voice lessons back in 2016 with one of the professors. I sing with my church choir and love to sing. I’ve enjoyed choral singing as a hobby since my teens, and those lessons were a gift to myself. And probably to my congregation, who may be thankful that I improved, even if ever so slightly.

Anyway, I digress.

I found a seat in the recital hall and waited. I noticed that 99% of the audience was students and the remaining adults in the concert hall, professors and faculty at the university. The concert included three composers I was familiar with: Shostakovich, Hindemith, and Menotti.

But what a gift! The world premiere of a new work by one of the professors, Dr. Gordon Ring. Normally, I dislike modern compositions, but his “Whistler” Portraits for Solo Piano were outstanding. A hint of Debussy colored the last piece – I heard chord progressions similar to La Cathédrale engloutie

concert
Dr. Lisa Kinzer playing the premiere of Gordon Ring’s “Whistler Portraits for Solo Piano.”

Watching the concentration on my friend’s face as she played Ring’s “The Gold Scab” reminded me of why I love live performances and what a treasure we have in Longwood University’s music department. Here I was, seated in a small theater, with astonishingly talented musicians introducing me to new pieces.

Not only was my friend, the pianist, a delight, but all of the musicians. The clarinet soloist. The violinist Naima Burrs– I could write pages about her playing. I typically dislike the violin but she made me love it. Her playing with sublime, sweet, and exuberant, especially in the Peter Schickele piece “Serenade for Three.”

The surprise of the evening was my “discovery” of the well-known modern composer Arvo Part. Part is an Estonia composer who invented tintinnabuli, a form of music inspired by Gregorian chant. The lights dimmed, and as the chords droned and chanted with clarinet, saxophone, and organ, a video projected onto the screen above the stage. Scenes of stars, outerspace flowed by, and then…a butterfly. I was mesmerized by the tiny butterfly amidst the stars of space. I felt hypnotized, wonderfully freed by the droning, strange music.

I loved it.

I would never have discovered that I loved this strange, new-to-me music if I had not picked myself up off the coach, switched off my Netflix binge of Russian Dolls, and took the time to leave my house for a change.

A few miles away from the concert hall, seeders churn fields into life. Logging continues apace on tracts of loblolly pine that roll into enormous fields filled with black Angus cattle. Newborn calves nurse from patient mamas. Pickup trucks, tractors, and hay bales abound.

In the midst of this rural life, in the middle of what many would deem “nowhere”, I found incredible cultural richness. You do not need to be in the middle of one of the great cities of the world to enjoy the finest music, art, theater, and dance. Locally, one may find such treasures whether you are in Philadelphia or Farmville.

Get out. Get to a concert, a performance, an exhibit. Explore local arts and culture!

 

 

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