“Music…will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.”
The fires of hate burn hot, choking us with the thick smoke of confusion. Who can we trust when our neighbors are killing our nation’s heroes – when we are killing each other? What happened to the hope for a better life than what our ancestors left behind? Burdened with guilt and resentment from a dream shattered by fear, how does a nation reassemble the cultural pieces and resuscitate hope?
These questions have no simple answers, but I found a start – the beginning of a path – on a summer evening on a farm in Auburn, Washington. A small ensemble from the Auburn Symphony Orchestra was performing sunset chamber music that evening, and as it was July, the theme was American Heritage. A small covered stage had been set up in an open meadow surrounded by centennial trees. An antiquated barn served as a quaint backdrop for the musicians while the eager audience of about two hundred assembled on the grass with lawn chairs and picnics.
The performers began with Dvorak’s American String Quartet, a piece composed by Dvorak who, during his time in America, captured the diverse and native flavor of a newly born American culture. More than just exhibiting the perseverance of the American working class in his unique compositions, Dvorak exposed the spirit and unique voices of the Americans whose dreams, freedoms and very lives were being denied them because of hate, fear and greed. This evening the same problems faced a new generation, and they turned to the same skillful artist, whose music transcended human indecency more than a century ago, to begin their retrospective musical tour of American heritage and their search for the missing American Dream.
As the strings began with the first classic notes of Dvorak’s American String Quartet I became intrigued watching the audience. My attention first wandered to the young couple sitting in the back feasting on tofu, strawberries and cheese. The boy, who was of Asian descent, politely offered his African-American lover each Tupperware filled with cleanly prepared food before setting it aside. She thanked him with bright smiles that crinkled her nose and pushed her glasses up while she swayed happily back and forth to the rhythm of the music.
A little further forward sat a family of women, three generations, from the grandmother to the granddaughters. They all sat straight and tall, even on the ground. Each daughter’s jet-black hair was cut into a perfect bob. All eyes were focused on the stage. Next to them, a woman sat in a wheelchair near a picnic table. She also sat up straight and proud. But in addition to her pride, she also wore a benevolent smile as a permanent accessory.
Lying back as the strings finished their final notes, I looked up at the sky framed by trees. A group of birds high in the treetops were arguing and flying about. They were frequently in time with the music, however, so I imagined it was a bird ballet just for me. All too soon, the piece was over, and the dancers were once again bickering birds.
Next was played a compilation of American folk music by a bass and violin. The music had an international twist that left one wanting to belly dance in a barn with a rabbi. The piece was met with smiles all around. A little girl in front of me with porcelain hands like a doll, accented by a small beaded bracelet and a white bow nestled in golden curls giggled and twirled to the Arabian Nights’ twist on Oh! Susannah! The giggles were not reserved for the children, however; a woman of considerable age, sitting in an American flag lawn chair, with perfectly permed hair and the face of a fairy godmother, giggled along with the four-year-old child beside her.
Sadly, intermission was soon upon us, and the music ceased for a time. I seized the opportunity to explore the farm. I discovered that the Mary Olson farm has been a cradle of American hope since its birth in 1879. Converted from a logging mill, it was purchased by Swedish immigrants Alford and Mary Olson.
The Olsons, and their children after them, maintained the more than sixty-acre subsistence farm until the death of the Olson’s last surviving child, Anna, in 1971 – ninety-three years after the Olsons first purchased it. During that time the family had survived four wars (WWI, WWII, The Korean War and the Vietnam War), the Great Depression, 19 presidents and an unprecedented shift in technology. While the family stubbornly maintained the agrarian lifestyle they were accustomed to, they did not embody the conservative isolationist stereotype usually associated with generationally rural families.
Pictures and remains of buildings show that during WWII, when Japanese-Americans were being shipped to camps because of national fear, the Olsons showed compassion. Many of these families were forced out of their homes with nowhere to store their belongings. Everything they owned and had worked for was lost to them. When they returned they would be forced to start all over – every precious memory and heirloom gone forever. The Olsons provided storage for Japanese-American neighbors so that these Americans could maintain hope that they still had a life and a dream to come back to. The same dream the Olsons came from Sweden in search of.
After 1971, the City of Auburn eventually purchased the farm and it is now a renovated historical site where community members can explore local history. But the farm is not just about history. New memories, new stories and new hope are still being created there. A hope I had been witnessing in the eyes of the captivated audience of all ages and backgrounds as they shared in the pleasures of the “universal language”, and a hope I continued to witness as the 1812 Overture began after intermission. A musician dressed like Mark Twain had attached balloons to the front of the stage and was now brandishing a cowbell and a popgun. As the overture reached its inevitable and infamous climax he rang the bell to the delight and laughter of the whole crowd, and then, with the help of a nervous assistant, began popping balloons to simulate cannon-fire.
While this pleased everyone present, one person was particularly enjoying herself. A little girl got up and began to dance in the open grass throwing her arms into the air and spinning around in circles. She had neither dark skin nor white and her beautiful walnut hair flared gracefully as she spun. She smiled without reserve and danced as if everyone was about to join her.
As the performers moved into their final gentle farewell piece the girl disappeared back into the peaceful crowd. Sitting in the grassy field, watching the dragonflies bounce about in the twilight, my head resting on my husband’s warm chest as I listened to the haunting refrain of the strings as they bade adieu, I caught an illusive glimpse of that shattered national hope. Thinking back to that girl, the daughter of love between two races, dancing fearlessly to Russian music augmented by balloons and a cowbell on the farm of Swedish immigrants – I thought that surely this must be the true American Dream.
*Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German citizen that lived during WWII. He was executed shortly before the end of the war for his participation in plans to assassinate Hitler.
About Auburn Symphony Orchestra (From ASO Webpage):
In 1996, Conductor and Music Director Stewart Kershaw assembled a talented group of regional musicians to form a symphony orchestra. The fully professional Auburn Symphony has become one of the most acclaimed orchestras in the Northwest with its core of musicians from the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra. Each year, the orchestra performs symphony programs and chamber ensemble concerts for classical music lovers from throughout King and Pierce Counties and beyond.
To Learn More about the Auburn Symphony Orchestra or to attend a performance click here: http://auburnsymphony.org.
Upcoming Sunset Concerts at Mary Olson’s Farm:
Magical Strings: Thursday July 23, 7pm
Cellists of Auburn Symphony Orchestra: Thursday August 6, 7pm