Thursday, June 30, 2011

An Open Air Concert in Rome

Steve and I heard the strains of music before we located the source.  Was it a live band or a recording?  As we entered the Piazza Navona after an early dinner of pasta and wine, we saw a crowd gathered in the square and realized people were listening to a symphonic band, in uniform, playing Nessun Dorma, an aria from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot.

(I just realized now that Nessun Dorma means “none shall sleep.”  This amuses me because when we heard the song, we had been awake for about 33 consecutive hours, if you disregard the hour or two of restless sleep we got on the plane from Chicago to Rome and some nearly comatose minutes during dinner when I almost nodded off at the table.  Thank goodness for espresso.)

A local symphonic band performs in Piazza Navona on Saturday, June 18, 2011.
We made our way around to the front side of the band and stood, enjoying the unexpected free concert in the open air on a warm June evening, and I was reminded of last summer’s Vintage Band Festival in Northfield.  I thought about texting our friends and fellow travelers Lee and Laurel to alert them to the concert, but I didn’t want to break the spell of the moment.  We learned later that they were somewhere in the crowd, also enjoying the music.

I noticed that one of the uniformed members was not with the band, but was watching with the crowd.  Steve approached him during a break in the music and asked the name of the band.  It was La Banda Musicale della Guardia di Finanza, or the Financial Guard Band of Rome.  Maybe the band members would like to come to Northfield in 2013 for the next Vintage Band Festival?  According to the website, the band was founded in 1926, and it has traveled abroad several times, most recently in 2002 when it performed a concert at Ground Zero in New York.

We stayed for a few more songs, savoring the moment of tranquility in a day filled with activity.  Then, after a stop for gelato at Gelateria Della Palma (our second visit of the day), we felt the jet lag begin to overpower us, so we returned to our room at the Hotel Abruzzi and its view of the serene Pantheon.  We soon fell asleep, charmed by the everyday wonders of life in this ancient city.
The view of the Pantheon from our room at the Hotel Abruzzi.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Gone to Lake

I will be on a blogging vacation until the end of the month.  Happy summer!
My great aunt Rosalie Riggs at the lake, summer 1917.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Musical Hilarity in Oregon

Louisa leaves in 13 days for the Northfield Youth Choirs’ trip to Oregon.  Thirty-eight members of the Anima and Troubadours choirs will participate in the prestigious Pacific International Children’s Choir Festival (PICCFEST), held on the campus of the University of Oregon in Eugene. 

The June 20-29 tour kicks off NYC’s 25th year.
While at the festival, they will perform as a solo choir and will participate in a 200-voice festival choir that will sing for the opening of the world-famous Oregon Bach Festival, an adult choral and orchestral festival in Eugene that overlaps with the children’s festival.

They also will get to visit a Yo-Yo Ma dress rehearsal and meet youth from four other choirs: the Cantabella Children’s Chorus from the San Francisco Bay area, the Centennial Children’s Chorus from Fort Collins, Co., the Oregon Festival Choirs from Eugene, and the Portland Symphonic Choir from Portland, Ore.

They’ll have time for sightseeing in Seattle and Portland and along the Oregon coast before and after the festival.  Louisa’s already psyched about a stop at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, known as the largest used and new bookstore in the world.

It occurred to me the other day as I looked over the trip itinerary that although Louisa’s not exactly tracing the steps of her great-great grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, she is, while on a choir tour, once again making a connection with of one of G. Oliver’s musical adventures a century earlier.

Last spring, her NYC choir went on a tour to Omaha, where 120 years earlier G. Oliver had played first cornet at Boyd’s Opera House as a member of the National Salisbury Orchestra (for more on this, you can read my April 17, 2010 blog post, Fresh Spaghetti and Sweet Music in Old Market Omaha).

G. Oliver’s Omaha gig is listed among his accomplishments in his entry in the 1941 edition of Who’s Who in Minnesota.  Another accomplishment on the list has to do with Oregon; specifically, winning second prize at a national Elks music contest in Portland, Ore., in 1912.

The mention of this Elks contest puzzled me for some time.  Was it a solo contest or a band contest?  Had G. Oliver been an Elk?  It wasn’t until I did some research in Havre, Montana, a few summers ago that I figured it out.  G. Oliver was living in Havre in 1912, directing the city’s adult band and a boys’ band.  He also played in a number of other bands, including the Kalispell Elks band, organized by his architect friend, Marion Riffo.  Riffo lived in Kalispell but had an office in Havre and designed some buildings there.

In early July 1912, G. Oliver and four other men from Havre played in the Kalispell Elks Band for the Elks State Convention.  A week later, they traveled to Portland, Ore., for the National Elks Convention (also known as the Elks’ Grand Lodge Reunion).
A postcard from the 1912 event where G. Oliver performed in an Elks band.
According to a Portland Oregonian article from July 11, 1912, the barbecue at Oaks Amusement Park was enjoyed by 20,000 Elks (of the human variety, that is).  I’m not sure what they barbecued – I hope it wasn’t elk.  The band contest was held outside in the early evening.  The Wagner Band of Seattle took first prize, the Kalispell band placed second, and the Fifth Infantry Band of California came in third.

When the music program concluded sometime after 9 p.m., people left the park and crowded into cars to return to the city.

The Oregonian reported, “Nearly every car resounded with singing and hilarity on the way in.  They were extremely weary but happy crowds that piled off the car in town and mixed with the thousands of other celebrators on the street.  The outing went off without an accident to mar the pleasantry.  Although the police were on hand, they had nothing to do.  With all the hilarity, there was no trouble of any kind.”

The festival Louisa is attending won’t involve quite so many singers, and, if for some reason police officers do attend, I hope they’ll have nothing to do but enjoy the music.  I expect a big part of the fun for the NYC singers will be meeting youth from other towns who share a love of music, and of performing.
Louisa’s bio from the NYC tour brochure
I’m thrilled for Louisa and the opportunity awaiting her.  I’ll be eager to hear about all the singing and hilarity of her trip when she returns.  If she’s lucky, she might even meet an Elk.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Historic Downtown Crookston Revisited

A year ago my parents and I traveled to Crookston, the northwestern Minnesota town where my musical great-grandparents, G. Oliver and Islea Riggs, settled at the turn of the last century.
Dad, G. Oliver, me and Mom at the start of our three-day adventure last June.
Our trip had many great moments, including – not necessarily in this order – sampling the chocolate covered potato chips at Widman’s, finding photos of G. Oliver’s bands at the historical society, and marveling at the downtown architecture.

Crookston has the largest concentration of late 19th and early 20th century commercial buildings in the region, and its downtown business district is on the National Register of Historic Places.  Many of those buildings were already built when G. Oliver and Islea arrived in 1898 or were erected during G. Oliver’s time as bandleader.
The former Palace/Wayne Hotel before its demolition.
One building has been torn down since our visit, the Palace/Wayne Hotel.  It’s now a parking lot.  Built in 1891, it met the same fate as another grand building I didn’t get the chance to see in person, the Grand Opera House, which also was built in 1891 and was destroyed by fire in the 1980s.

During our walking tour of Crookston last year, we stood in front of the empty parking lot where the opera house once stood, and I tried to imagine what it had been like for G. Oliver to perform there.  I tried to picture what it had been like for the whole town to come out, twice, to hear John Philip Sousa's band perform on its stage.  The architecture of the parking lot didn’t do much to stir the imagination.

I’ve recently learned that another one of Crookston’s historic buildings, the Union Building, 111 W. Robert St., is a potential candidate for transformation into a parking lot.

Preservation advocate Kay Hegge, whom we met during our visit, is hosting a party June 16 at the three-story brick building.  The event is billed as a chance for people to see the building’s beautifully restored tin ceiling before Kay moves her shop next door and the building goes on the auction block.  Unless someone steps in with money and a plan, the county may take possession and tear it down.

I know it’s not easy, especially in these economic times, to advocate for preserving buildings like the Union and the Palace/Wayne Hotel.  But I also know it is possible for towns to find ways to re-purpose their historic commercial spaces, turning them destinations for locals and tourists alike.  I’ve seen it done.

I wrote a travel piece for the Star Tribune about Crookston last summer, and I have since written several travel pieces about towns like Crookston that are noteworthy in large part because of their historic buildings.  Those that have found inspiring ways to revitalize their downtowns through art and cultural efforts include Faribault and Fergus Falls.

Crookston possesses something no other town has: its own rich cultural history, which happens to entwine with my great-grandfather’s career as a music man.  I remain hopeful that its residents will value that past as they evaluate and act on opportunities for its future.