Under the Beams

A harmony of history and hospitality lures artists and audiences to an acclaimed concert series
Liz Mumford is a founding member of the Under the Beams concert series.

Liz Mumford never set out to be a concert promoter, but back in 2001, when her friend Teresa Cheung asked her to help find an interesting venue for a Japanese pianist who was a guest artist with the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra, the New Harmony native was happy to oblige.

At the time, Cheung was associate conductor with the Philharmonic, and her boss, Maestro Alfred Savia, had conducted a dedication concert by invitation of New Harmony philanthropist Jane Owen in a rather unusual venue, the five-story Rapp-Owen Granary, built in 1818 by a community of fervent believers with an apocalyptic view of the world.

Mumford, a member of the Evansville Philharmonic Chorus, suspected, as Cheung and Savia did, that the building with its soaring, wood-beamed ceiling and thick walls of stone and clay bricks would be both an acoustically and aesthetically ideal setting for a piano recital.

But the one element missing was a piano. Undaunted, Mumford and the Philharmonic staff arranged to lease a $65,000 Steinway piano from a source in Nashville, Tenn., and convinced a moving crew to carry it up the granary’s twisting staircase. As Mumford recalls, 10 movers spent a day wrestling with the 9-foot-long grand piano as she nervously watched from an upper floor. Glancing up at the ceiling, an idea for how to promote the concert came to mind, and it stuck: “Under the Beams with Yasuko Furukawa.” The event was such an inspired success that Mumford and a friend, New Harmony Theatre supporter Jerry Wade, began talking about what they could do next. Mumford says they almost simultaneously had the same thought: “Why don’t we leave this beast of a piano here and put together a concert series?” And that, says Mumford, is how New Harmony’s acclaimed “Under the Beams” concert series was born.

Thousands of music lovers have traveled to New Harmony in the ensuing years to enjoy what Mumford calls “world-class music” in the river town of less than 900 inhabitants. The list of performers is impressive and wide-ranging, from popular blues vocalist Maria Muldaur to Chinese classical pianist Chu-Fang Huang, a finalist in the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Two years ago, the concert series included the John Jorgenson Quintet, known for its French gypsy jazz, and the Brazilian samba vocalist Vera Mara. On March 14, The Lovell Sisters, a bluegrass trio who won A Prairie Home Companion’s National Teen Talent Competition in 2005, will perform at the granary; on April 4, this season’s finale concert features a nine-piece swing band from Chicago, Speak Easy Swing.

The venue is small –– it only seats about 230 people –– but is immensely appealing for both audiences and performers. Because it’s an intimate setting, the musicians who perform there often engage in conversation with the audience during their performances, offering insight and anecdotes. “It’s like a house concert,” says Mumford. “You can expect the musicians on stage to interact with the audience because of the small size of the room.”

The setting was the perfect environment, for example, for the January concert by Memphis musician Gary Hardy (named the Beale Street Entertainer of the Year in 2007 and 2008) and his band, Memphis 2; Hardy offered a primer on the history of blues music between songs and continued the conversation with guests at a post-concert reception at the New Harmony home of technology entrepreneur and art and music enthusiast Kent Parker and his wife Laurie, both members of the Under the Beams steering committee.

Fellow steering-committee members Molly Felder and Mickey Grimm –– professional musicians who moved to New Harmony in 2002 and were featured in the September/October 2008 issue of Evansville Living (“15 Minutes”) –– say a key to attracting top-notch performers is New Harmony’s hospitable citizens, who support the series in a multitude of ways, from baking cookies to serve during intermissions to hosting tours of the town’s historic sites and modern architectural landmarks. “We really roll out the red carpet,” Mumford says.

New Harmony’s inspired history as a 19th century setting for two utopian communities helps, too. Among the places where the Under the Beams guest artists are often taken on starry evenings is the Roofless Church, a landmark structure designed by internationally acclaimed architect Philip Johnson in 1960 to commemorate the town’s religious roots. Seeing a piece of work in a small Indiana town by a man who was known for his big-city modern skyscrapers leaves an impression. “Their reaction to seeing it and to the stars above is priceless,” Mumford says.


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