Notes on the Ninetieth
When you stay current with the world and move gracefully with the times, a ninetieth birthday is something to truly celebrate. Which is why the Corning-Painted Post Civic Music Association, Corning Civic Music for short, is marking their ninetieth season with encore presentations by some of the most popular performers to grace their stage.
Back in 1928, audiences took a lot on faith. A group of music lovers, many of them housewives married to Corning executives, went door to door soliciting subscriptions to enable them to offer performance contracts to traveling classical musicians. Affiliating with the Chicago-based Civic Music Society, they hosted performers that agency sent, often based on travel schedules to larger cities in the northeast. “Can you imagine?” board members ask now. “They went to their friends and neighbors and said ‘trust me, we don’t know who’s coming, or what they’re playing, but we know it’s going to be good.’”
So they did. And it was. The first year, 116 charter subscribers funded a three-concert season. Admission was limited to those who bought season tickets. An early coupon book from those days bears the message, “The number and variety of artists and attractions presented during the season depends on your work.” They took it seriously. Getting enough subscriptions was a challenge requiring the enthusiasm of thirty to forty board members, plus additional volunteers with energy to persuade friends and neighbors to embrace the plan. They were convincing, and it happened. “Back in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, to get enough money to pay someone to come to our little valley and have fabulous music...” Kate Gerwig, a board member, marvels.
An area native who attended concerts with her parents, it was, she says, “kind of cool, being a kid, getting dressed up,” and going to hear some music. Then, when she was about eight, one concert made a huge impression. There were dancers from South America in bright, flowing costumes and music she recalled from a record her parents had played. “I was completely engaged,” she says, recalling her awestruck realization when she made the connection between live performers and the recording.
Changes over the years include the disbanding of the original booking agency—the group now works directly with agents—to an increase from three to six performances annually—two are classical, two jazz, plus two others, often highlighting an emerging artist at the beginning of a rise, like Joshua Bell and Diana Krall. The number of board members has decreased, and the organization no longer maintains a campaign headquarters but has become a virtual grassroots effort.
Shedding the sense of exclusivity that goes with subscription tickets, the group began making single tickets available for purchase in the early years of the new millennium. When extra seats are available, single seats are sold (there are 750 seats in the auditorium at the Corning Museum of Glass), but with a single ticket price of fifty dollars, the taste of a good concert often entices attendees to spring for the $125 season ticket. Can’t make a performance? The group will make your seat available to a young person to raise interest in the fun of becoming part of tomorrow’s audience, so your ticket always advances the cause of good music.
The auditorium’s acoustics and intimacy have created memorable audience experiences, notes Amy Van Sickle, a board member specializing in marketing. “At times the artists have come down into the audience and danced with the patrons. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band will do a Mardi Gras march through the auditorium. It’s common that performers reach out to the audience and have a conversation with them from the stage. And when the Blind Boys of Alabama came into the audience and sang to people there, everyone had goose bumps.”
Part of the success of this musical enterprise has been providing great experiences for the performers as well. When scheduling allows, visiting artists might get a tour of the area, or a dinner is arranged with several board members. Every year at least one artist is scheduled to visit an area school. “The educational outreach is essential,” says Mary Jane Todd Eckel. “Especially as music programs are getting smaller in area schools. We’re exposing students to world class musicians and maybe piquing their interest.”
A president’s job includes introducing performers and helping to fill special requests. Mary Jane recalls a sudden whirlwind tour of shops selling towels when one group urgently requested black hand towels. For some reason, they had to be black to mop their faces during a performance.
Past president Bob Paul speaks of several unforgettable experiences he had offstage. Once, while tiptoeing around the backstage area allotted to pianist Emanuel Ax, thinking the artist might want some quiet time pre-performance, he was invited in for a lively conversation and the discovery of shared experiences. Another time, he was moved to come upon a performing group in a protective, prayerful huddle around the headline vocalist, who was unwell. Afterward, she gave a sterling performance—few people apart from Paul and her band knew she was ailing. “Most performers are really warm,” he says. “They love what they do and they’re thrilled for the opportunity to do it for an audience.”
And the audience responds. Often the artists will emerge after a concert to meet and mingle. “We do the live performance experience very well,” says Mary Jane. “Today's culture does not easily give opportunities for live performance. We have a world-class auditorium—musicians rave about the acoustics. And we pride ourselves on bringing world-class talent into the small community of the Southern Tier.”
Find out more at corningcivicmusic.org or call (866) 463-6264.