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Editor’s Weekly: St. Louisans' love-hate relationship with the arts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 24, 2013: Dear Beaconites --

The regular symphony season has ended, but the Shakespeare Festival, Spring to Dance, Bluesweek and Opera Theatre are just beginning. This week, the Beacon reported on these and more pieces of St. Louis' cultural richness.

The arts are so much a part of life here that we tend to take their world class quality for granted. St. Louisans aren't by nature inclined to brag, but we have every right to be proud of this flowering of creativity in our midst.

Instead, rather than appreciating the arts, we're often indifferent, or even slightly suspicious. In a region that's already divided – by geography, jurisdiction, class, race and more – we sometimes use the arts as yet another way to draw lines.

It's us versus them, however you define those terms. Opera is for snobs. Or country music is for rednecks. Everybody loves Chuck Berry now that he's been around for a few decades, but what about Nelly?

Why can't we simply appreciate art on its own terms -- or react against it – without dragging preconceptions and prejudices into play?

Fortunately, great art is too powerful to be pigeon-holed or ignored. It challenges. It changes perspectives. It transforms.

This week, Beacon associate editor Bob Duffy wrote about the power of art in a reflection on a new exhibition by Yvette Dubinsky. Bob noted how violent change can be -- whether in Syria, which inspired Dubinsky's work, or in Moore, Okla. As conventional wisdom goes, the more things change the more they are the same, Bob wrote.

“We feel and we see, through the intensity of works of art such as these, a possibility of reinterpreting that wisdom, and to say that the more things change today, the less they are the same, and in the aftermath of radical and crippling change, things are never, ever as they were, nor will they ever be the same again.”

Beacon arts reporter Nancy Fowler explored the power of art in her profile of Antonio Douthit, a graceful dancer with a goofy streak. Having spent much of his youth at homeless shelters, he discovered dance at a community center and developed his talent at COCA. “Once I found dance, I knew that was something I had to do,” Douthit said. He's gone on from St. Louis to a successful international career.

Fans of the arts have personal moments of epiphany. For years, I disliked opera, though I'd never actually seen any except the annual televised version of Amahl and the Night Visitors. The whole exercise – singing rather than talking, strange musical forms rather than familiar patterns -- struck me as bizarre. I didn't get it and didn't care to try.

Then, at a funeral in 1993, I encountered an exquisite trio from Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte." Suddenly the intensity of opera made sense. The tone was exactly right for expressing something that I hadn't even realized needed to be said. I stopped thinking about whether I got the music and started letting the music get to me. All I had to do was set aside my preconceptions and respond spontaneously to what I heard.

My favorite moment of this year's St. Louis Symphony season happened during Beethoven's Ninth, the last piece of the last concert and one of the greatest works of art ever created. For this performance, the musicians were dressed in pit-orchestra black rather than their usual formal wear, and they tore into the Ninth with abandon.

At the end of the glorious second movement, someone broke the customary silence with applause. This was no faux paus. This was an intentional statement from someone who claps when the music is good, not when it's done. Quickly, others joined in, spreading enthusiasm through the hall and a smile across Maestro David Robertson's face.

The power of art got to us. And we responded, celebrating a masterpiece in our midst.



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