Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Happy National Park Week

It’s National Park Week – which means that all of our nation’s 397 national parks are offering free admission April 21-29.  The purpose of the week, according to the National Park Foundation, is to celebrate what we all have inherited as Americans – 84 million acres of the world’s most spectacular scenery, historic landmarks and cultural treasures.”

The National Park Service says it’s a time to “engage families and communities in America’s Great Outdoors, reconnecting them with nature and creating close to home opportunities for people to get outside, be active, and have fun.
Our June 2008 trip to Yellowstone National Park.
It’s a worthy mission.  We aren’t able to get away to any of the parks this week, so I will have to visit virtually by looking back at some of our family vacation photos.  Steve and I have made a point over the past several years to include national parks on our list of places to take our kids before they graduate from high school.  We started this even before Ken Burns’ PBS series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, aired in 2009.

We are more museum-goers than campers – except for Sebastian, the Boy Scout, who likes both history and camping – but we do enjoy hiking the trails and staying in historic lodges in or near the parks.  Our family has been to the Grand Canyon, to Yellowstone and Grand Teton, to Yosemite and Glacier; we’ve been to several historic sites and historical parks, like the one in Boston; and we’ve been to a couple of national military parks, Shiloh and Vicksburg.

It’s hard to pick a favorite of the places we have visited because they all have unique characteristics, but I have to admit that I have a special place in my heart for the rugged, remote beauty of Glacier National Park in Montana.

Our family at Glacer's Iceberg Lake in August 2009.
My dad’s brother Bob and sister Dana both worked at Glacier during college, a fact I didn’t know until a few years ago.  But the Riggs family’s connection to the park actually goes all the way back to the early years of the park, which was established in 1910 as the country’s 10th national park.

My great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, moved to Havre, Montana in 1911; the town is east of Glacier and is a stop on Amtrak’s Empire Builder route.  The original Empire Builder was the flagship train of James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railroad, and Hill’s son Louis W. Hill was a huge promoter and developer of Glacier National Park.

G. Oliver got to know Louis Hill through his involvement in the Montana Cowboy Band, which Hill hired in November and December of 1912 to help publicize Montana as a destination for travelers (and later brought to St. Paul for the Winter Carnival).  G. Oliver also may have known Hill through his involvement in the Kalispell Elks Band.  Marion Riffo, an architect who designed many buildings in Havre and Kalispell, formed the Kalispell Elks Band in March 1912, and G. Oliver was one of about 35 members.  It was this Elks band that played for the opening of the Glacier Park Lodge (then called the Glacier Park Hotel) on June 22, 1913.

The Minnesota Historical Society has a great photo of the band members in their white uniforms, standing in front of the hotel’s former entrance arch (it’s from the Louis Hill photo collection).  I couldn’t find G. Oliver in the photo, so I’m not sure if he was present that day; I need to do more research.  I do know that G. Oliver played with the Elks band two weeks later at the State Elks Convention in Kalispell.

The historical society library has a few other photos of the band in its collection, and the band is also mentioned briefly in the book, A View with a Room: Glacier’s Historic Hotels and Chalets by Ray Djuff and Chris Morrison. If G. Oliver was there that day, I’d be curious to know what he thought of the event.  And if he wasn’t there, I wonder if he regretted not going?

When we visited Glacier in 2009, we stayed at the park’s slightly younger hotel, Many Glacier, which opened to guests in 1917 and has an amazing view.
Many Glacier Hotel at Glacier National Park
The view from the other side of the Many Glacier Hotel.
The next time we visit – and I do hope there’s a next time – I’d like to try out the Glacier Park Lodge.  Its 100-year history is fascinating and worth appreciating, during National Park Week or any other time of the year.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Magic of Massed Performance

I’m sure most of the 800-plus band and choral students involved in last night’s 2012 Missota Conference Music Festival – including my daughter, Louisa – weren’t aware of how impressive it was to see them all gathered in the Northfield High School gymnasium before the finale concert.  After a long day of practicing, performing, listening and waiting, they were ready to go home. 

I’m sure not every parent in attendance appreciated the coolness of the event, either.  Some might have preferred to stay home – it was a Friday evening after a long, busy week, the school was crowded, and – gasp – they had to pay to attend (note: the cost was the same as any high school sporting event – I’m just sayin’).

Music students from eight schools, including Northfield, assemble for the concert.
Where’s Louisa? She’s in the center of the massed band, warming up on her French horn.
But I loved it, from the moment the massed band played the opening notes of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” until the closing notes of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”  performed by the combined ensembles of the massed choir, the select choir and the select band. 



Sure, the trumpets in the massed band weren’t spot-on (there were 14 students on the trumpet 1 part and 44 trumpets in all), the clapping by the massed choir in the gospel song wasn’t uniform, and a couple of the select choir’s songs sounded similar to my untrained ears, but hey – there were 800 student musicians from eight schools gathered in the gymnasium!  That’s 800 students who share a passion for music – what’s not to love about that?  What about that doesn’t deserve accolades and inspire optimism for our future?
Participating schools were Academy of Holy Angels, Chanhassen, Chaska, Farmington, New Prague, Northfield, Red Wing and Shakopee
It inspired me because it shows that the teaching of music and art in the schools continues to be valued and continues to make a difference in kids’ lives.  The students may not remember this concert as the No. 1 highlight of their high school career, but the encouragement and dedicated effort by teachers and staff that made the event possible will surely have a lasting impact, regardless of whether the students continue to pursue the arts after high school.

I know this because I know my history – my personal history as a former high school and college band member, but also my family’s music history.  I have met elderly men who once played for my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, in the St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band, and they’ve told me with emotion in their voices how much that experience they had as young boys influenced their character and their approach to life. 

So when I saw those student musicians in the gym, I also saw all those students who came before them, and when I saw those guest directors step up on the podium – including Timothy Diem, director of the University of Minnesota marching band and assistant director of the U of M bands; and Timothy Mahr, director of the St. Olaf College Band – I saw my great-grandfather, and I saw my grandfather Ronald, and I saw my great-uncle, Percy.

It was easy to make the connection to my grandfather, Ronald, because some of the students who participated last night were from Farmington High School.  Ronald was the band director in Farmington from 1933-36, and 76 years ago, on April 17, 1936, Farmington High School hosted a similar festival.

Five hundred band and choral students from six schools participated in the Mississippi Valley League Music Festival that day: Cannon Falls, Farmington, Hastings, Lake City, Wabasha and Zumbrota.  Ronald directed the Farmington band in its afternoon performance, and G. Oliver directed one of the massed band pieces in the evening finale concert.  Another guest conductor was James Robert Gillette, director of the Carleton College Symphony Band.

A St. Paul Dispatch photo and article previewing the festival.

One of the massed band pieces was directed by my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs.
Afterward, an editorial in the Farmington newspaper called it a glorious event, and the description could just as easily apply to the event I attended last night:

“Performing before a jammed auditorium, the massed glee clubs and massed band, made up of six schools, sang and played with rare skill and splendor ... there was no competition between schools, no prizes; hence all the schools went home feeling they had gained – and not lost – something.  We who attended the grand festival caught the spirit of cooperation from the young artists, and we came away with a feeling that it was fine and good to have been there.”

I would conclude there, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that one of the Farmington students in that 250-member massed band at the 1936 festival was a flute player named Eleanor Johnson.  I’m grateful that she had a positive experience in the band.  You see, Eleanor was my paternal grandmother; she married Ronald 1 1/2 years later, after he had moved to Thief River Falls to direct the high school band in that northern Minnesota town.
Eleanor Johnson Riggs, 1919-1980
You just never know where the music will lead you.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

April is for the Arts

April has been a busy arts month so far, with no signs of slowing down.

Last week, I attended the Evening of the Arts at Elias’ elementary school.  He sang a song with the fifth grade choir in the Bistro Cafe (also known as the media center), and then we wandered around and found his pieces of art on display.

Here is one:

The title of Elias’ painting is Bluebane.
And here is Elias with Tim the Evil Dictator.  Elias made the snowman and wrote an entertaining story told from Tim’s point of view.

I especially like Tim’s evil eyebrows.
 Click here to see more photos of the event on Northfield Patch.

Louisa also has art on display this month; hers is at the 2012 Northfield All-School Art Show at the Northfield Arts Guild Gallery.  She and I stopped in Monday after her voice lesson to see her self-portrait and her letter “L” painting.  The inspiring show is filled with artwork by kids as young as kindergarten up through high school.  It runs through April 28.  You can find more information about it and the NAG’s Imagination Celebration here.

Tuesday night, Sebastian performed a solo on his viola for the 25th Annual Northfield Middle School Solo and Ensemble Festival.  All eighth grade orchestra students were required to perform; it was optional for the sixth and seventh graders.  Seb said he received positive and helpful comments from the judge, including the suggestion that he try playing with a metronome.

He told me this in the car, as I drove him home.

“Well, I suppose we could buy one,” I said.

“Mom, you don’t need to buy one,” Seb said. “You can just use the computer.”

Shows how old-fashioned I am.  It never occurred to me that you could use an online metronome. There’s even an app for it!  I tried one version and found it annoying.  But, like I said, I’m old-fashioned.

Louisa participates Friday in the 26th Annual Missota Arts Festival, which is hosted this year by Northfield High School.  The all-day event involves bands and choirs from eight schools and concludes with a 7 p.m. grand finale concert in the high school gymnasium.  The concert is open to the public; tickets cost $6 for adults and $4 for students.  As a member of the Northfield Fine Arts Boosters, I plan to help out for a few hours in the hospitality room, where directors and clinicians can get lunch and coffee.

No one in the family is in a play or musical this month, but Louisa and Seb are helping backstage at Paper Daddy, which opens this weekend at the Northfield Arts Guild theater.  We plan to see it next weekend; this weekend we’re going to The Last Five Years, a Merlin Players production at the Paradise Theater in Faribault.  The show was written and composed by Jason Robert Brown (the same guy who wrote 13, which Seb performed in last summer at the NAG).  The Last Five Years is directed by Juliana Skluzacek, who will soon direct Steve in the Merlin Players’ next production, A Year with Frog and Toad.  That show runs in June; rehearsals start next week.

The month will conclude with three music events featuring three different family members: the Northfield High School/Northfield Middle School jazz band concert on April 26 (Seb), the I Cantanti concert on April 29 (Steve), and the Northfield High School band concert on April 30 (Louisa).

It’s a good thing April only has 30 days, or we’d surely cram in another arts event or two before May begins.