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Beacon blog: Vera Parkin: One wonderful reason for arts education

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 10, 2011 - Vera Parkin is both consummate professional and a sprite, the sort of person who makes you not only listen but also smile when she sits down at the piano to play. In December, when she jumped in sort of at the last moment to accompany chorus rehearsals for the Beacon's production of H.M.S. Pinafore on New Year's Day, we producers breathed a collective sign of relief, along with our listening and smiling.

Slipping with the greatest of ease into harness with the incredible team of Amy Kaiser and Richard Ashburner, who brought the artists of the chorus together and conducted and organized them, Vera made magic. As all inspired music staffs must do, she helped to bring a sense of order to the proceedings and to conflate a slew of individual voices and personalities into one great, lyrical, melodious, physically expressive acting and singing machine.

In their custom-made H.M.S. Beacon straw hats, the crew and the sisters, cousins and aunts created a sensation. Vera was part of that success, and provides one strong reason to genuflect at her virtual shrine. Another reason is her selflessness and generosity. When honorarium time came around to acknowledge her professional assistance, she graciously refused, saying she had had such a good time with all of us she wouldn't think of taking our money.

However, she said, she wouldn't object to our helping to sponsor the Community Music School's St. Looey Chamber Blitz. We jumped at the chance. A group of us at the Beacon see chamber music as an art form that needs constant care and feeding, so the opportunity to provide such assistance in a financially modest manner was welcomed warmly.

The blitz commenced Friday evening and ran through Sunday, when a special world premiere of a work called "Dedication: The Musings of Clara Schumann," created and performed by Chicago actress Betsey Means, was presented at the music school at Webster University. Clara Schumann, wife and widow of Robert Schumann, close and loyal friend of Brahms, was incredibly talented and courageous. She lived in the 19th century and was performing and composing at a time when women were discouraged - if not warned off entirely -- from such public displays of talent and accomplishment.

As good as the Euclid Quartet was (and they were quite good), my greatest enthusiasm was reserved for what Vera called the "Girl Groups," a rock 'n' roll reference more applicable to the Shirelles and the Chantels than to these classically inclined trios. It is pretty to think that Frau Schumann would be pleased with their talent and accomplishment. The two ensembles, made up of students of the Community Music School's Preparatory were among the stars of the Friday evening concert at the Sheldon Concert Hall.

The first group's members were Michelle Baker (violin); Emma Kinsley (viola); and Emilee Graham on the double bass. They played the Serenade in C-Major for String Trio, Opus 10, by Erno Dohnanyi. The second group, with Erica Westenberg on violin, Shelby Nugent on the French horn and Rachel Robin on piano, performed Johannes Brahms's Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano in E-flat Major, Opus 40. I found their playing enchanting and inspiring.

But today, I find myself wondering if I could quantify their music making with a number big enough to satisfy a member of the Missouri Legislature. Unlikely. There is no scale to measure music or painting or sculpture or architecture, only the sort of intuition that comes from making or hearing or seeing. There is no way to gauge the pleasure music brings, nor can one set a meter on your soul when it fills with amazement from a close encounter with Vermeer. You cannot put a grade on learning to listen and to look.

Nevertheless, according to a report filed in the Beacon Wednesday (Feb. 9) by my colleague Dale Singer, some Missouri officials want some sort of quantification of value. "Practicalities" must be considered.

Baloney. Here's hoping the Missouri Alliance for Arts Education's clarion call for support of arts education programs will be heard everywhere in the state, and that anyone who has ever seen a child's delight in a picture she has made or a song he has sung will respond to the alliance's alarm.

Singer quotes Robert Gifford, a retired music professor at Southeast Missouri State University and chairman of the alliance:

"We feel that the arts should be considered a basic source of every child's education in Missouri and should get the same emphasis as other academic areas, like math, science, communication arts, foreign languages and other core subjects in the curriculum. When push comes to shove, or financial cutbacks happen, the arts are among the first things to go."

And with them go not only a world enlivened and enriched by the big picture blessings and thunderous challenges of great art, but also the individual riches provided so memorably by the Michelles, the Emmas, the Emilees, the Ericas, the Shelbys, the Rachels, and, yes, the incomparable Veras, in our midst.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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