Conn College celebrates 100 years of performing arts programming with a new Philip Glass concerto
In 1998, not long after he arrived in New London to serve as director of arts programming at Connecticut College, Rob Richter heard references to the department's 50th anniversary. As an alum, Richter was sufficiently familiar with the institution to know it's been around since 1911, and he wondered why there would be an almost 30-year gap between the college's opening and the establishment of a performing arts program.
"I had some students do research, and they found a reference in The Day to an arts season in 1917," Richter says. "It turns out that the 50th anniversary was actually in reference to the opening of Palmer Hall (the campus' primary arts venue) in 1939. That was the start of the performing arts series here on campus. Prior, the college typically used venues in downtown New London."
Indeed, that first year, hallowed locales such as the Lyceum Theater, the Armory and the auditorium in the Bulkeley School hosted concerts by the Boston Symphony Sextet; soprano Carolyn Hudson-Alexander with baritone Frederick Weld; and violin virtuoso Irma Sydell with Conn College faculty pianst William Bower.
Another signficant note about that inaugural season is that it means the department's 2017-18 presentations comprise a centennial season of programming, and the official commemorative concert takes place Saturday in Palmer. It's a very special evening of classical music featuring Boston's A Far Cry, the Grammy-nominated, self-conducting chamber music collective, in performance with esteemed New York City pianist Simone Dinnerstein. The program includes two works by Bach, a piece by Prokoviev and, of historical note, Piano Concerto No.3 for Piano and Strings, a new Philip Glass composition commissioned by Dinnerstein.
The Conn College production is one of only six premiere performances of the Glass concerto.
"Classical music is at the roots of our series," Richter says. "I'd decided we'd just do one event in acknowledgment of the centennial, and to have A Far Cry and Simone Dinnerstein doing a Philip Glass premiere is amazing. We looked into it, and they had one date available where it might be possible. I just said, 'Let's do it,' and it worked."
"Let's do it" is a bit of a catch phrase for Richter — not only a declarative intention of action and commitment, but a sort of a "you don't know till you try" approach that has been at the core of his philosophical stewardship.
"The arts programming started to diversify beyond classical music about 25 years ago, and my goal has been to diversify much more," Richter says. "Originally, the music department was in control of programming, but gradually the other arts departments wanted to support the whole arts curriculum."
Too, by bringing in bigger contemporary names in modern music, dance, theater and so on, the department helps contribute to the financial as well as intellectual health of the college. Income from headliners such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Regina Carter, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Emanuel Ax and the Turtle Island String Quartet, for example, also make it possible to bring creatively compelling but perhaps lesser-drawing performers.
To that end, Richter's track record across the possibilities of theater, dance, opera, indigenous world music, and on and on is remarkable. Many of the artists who come to Conn conduct master classes or Q&A sessions and discussions. And while not every student in any college environment avails his or herself of live productions, Richter says the response on campus has been gratifying.
"Some of the students see it and really get it and are amazed by what we bring; others aren't focused so much on the arts," he says. "And that's okay. Maybe a performance or a personal interaction in a master class touches a student in a big way — possibly lives have been changed, if that doesn't sound too extreme. Hopefully, that will happen again and again."
A Far Cry and Simone Dinnerstein, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Palmer Auditorium, Connecticut College, 270 Mohegan Ave., New London; $28, $25 seniors, $14 students; (860) 439-2787, conncoll.edu.
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