The Performing Arts Series is celebrating its 100th anniversary; we should be celebrating, too


With the start of the new semester, comes the opening of the 2019–2020 season of the Middlebury Performing Arts Series. This season is going to be spectacular, with old favorites such as cellist Sophie Shao (her 12th consecutive season at Middlebury) and pianist Paul Lewis (for his 22nd Middlebury performance); internationally renowned groups including the Grammy award-winning Takás Quartet; new faces like the series’ first quartet in residence, the Heath Quartet; two world premieres, including a new piece by Music Professor Matthew Evan Taylor; and much more. For the 100th consecutive year, Middlebury is in for a treat. 

Yet, I get ahead of myself. I, who has an aversion to all things popular and current suitable only for someone four times my age, find all the aforementioned performances thrilling. This, of course, may not be the case for others at the college. While classical music, for instance, is not particularly in vogue this century, one might wonder whether it is still worth all the effort, time, and money invested in bringing such art to Middlebury, Vermont for the 100th year? What is the benefit that we gain from the Arts at Middlebury? 

Of course, we should all be able to agree that there is merit in bringing something fresh to our lonely corner of New England. While it still may be deceptively warm and pleasant, we ought not forget how forlorn the campus can get in the bleak month of January, when even the sun has decided it could find more interesting places to spend its time. Middlebury is, in more senses than one, remote, and the arts, whether formally part of the Performing Arts Series or in any other association with the Mahaney Arts Center, bring us a taste of the outside world. This year’s Performing Arts Series artists hail from over a dozen different countries, bringing Irish guitar music, Nordic World music, Bach, Bartók and Jazz to our doorstep. That’s not to mention “SEVEN,” a ground-breaking play coming next March based on the experiences of seven women bringing change to their homes in Pakistan, Nigeria, Ireland, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Russia and Cambodia. That’s a nice journey outside of our insulated pocket of Vermont. 

This year’s Art at Middlebury will also, as always, present different voices from throughout time as well. The Museum of Art’s exhibit, “Votes… for Women?” will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote in the US. Dr. Elizabeth Otto will discuss gender fluidity and avant-garde modern design in her talk titled “Queer Bauhaus” on Sept. 11. The Heath Quartet will present six Bach concerts throughout the year to celebrate the composer’s 250th birthday and the vocal ensemble Stile Antico will breathe new life into renaissance women at their Nov. 9 concert. This year’s art comes from many stretches of the human experience. 

While the arts’ origins bring novelty to our campus, its content is even more valuable. Art gets at the core of human experiences. We will see struggle and pain in “SEVEN,” a desire to shape the future in “Votes… for Women?,” dreams and other worlds in Professor Lida Winfield’s dance “IMAGINARY,” love and fear in the J-term musical “Light in the Piazza,” and so much more. These are the subjects we find compelling in art, of course, because these are the themes we find compelling in life. 

In a sense, these pieces of art are snippets of life experience, from across time and space, that we can relive. Through them, we can better understand what moves people and why the world beats to the rhythm that it does. Hopefully, it better prepares us, when our chance comes, to contribute our part to the world, as Walt Whitman said, to “contribute a verse.” To this end, the art brought to Middlebury might be as important a part of our education as anything else.