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Monday, August 8, 2022

Under the Beams

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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The reputation of the concert series has grown since its early days, Mumford says, and now the agents of artists from around the world contact the Under the Beams steering committee, inquiring as to how their clients may be included. “That’s quite different than those beginning years,” says Mumford, “when we were searching for performers and practically terrified to make those initial calls trying to book musicians.”

She credits a number of people for the series’ success, including Alfred Savia, who brought the Philharmonic’s chamber orchestra to New Harmony for the early fundraising concerts that helped the Under the Beams organizers buy that leased Steinway piano. Savia has likened the Rapp-Owen Granary to European concert halls where the works of such masters as Ludwig van Beethoven were first performed. In a 2003 Under the Beams concert conducted by Savia, the 23-member chamber orchestra performed chamber music written by Beethoven. That particularly delighted Jane Owen, who, through her interesting family connection to the town, had discovered that New Harmony was one of the first communities in the United States to hear Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” after it premiered in 1824.

The 93-year-old Owen has played a key role in the restoration of significant landmarks in New Harmony, including the Rapp-Owen Granary, which was built by members of the first utopian community that founded the town in 1814. Led by George Rapp and known as the Harmonie Society, they believed the second coming of Christ was imminent. The granary, built in 1818, was constructed to hold a year’s worth of grain to sustain the community during what they believed was a biblically prophesied year’s worth of famine and drought.

But the Harmonists left the town in 1824 after selling it to Robert Owen, a visionary social reformer who set out to create a model community where education and social equality would flourish. The granary would eventually become the laboratory of Owen’s third son, geologist David Dale Owen, who founded the U.S. Geological Society there. The granary would go through a series of uses, including as a woolen mill and a flour mill, before falling into disrepair. In 1941, an Owen descendant, Kenneth Dale Owen, brought his young bride to New Harmony. As she later recalled for a historical account of the town, Jane Owen fell in love with the dilapidated old structure, eventually convincing her husband to buy it. In 1948, she hosted in the granary what was described as the “dandiest square dance you’ve ever seen.”

But it wasn’t until decades later that the granary would undergo a massive multimillion-dollar restoration, paid for with private and public gifts and grants. Among the supporters of the restoration project were Liz Mumford and her husband, Bishop, who plays a key “behind the scenes” role in the concert series and whose ties to New Harmony extend all the way back to 1825, when his ancestor Thomas Mumford Sr. came from England to teach manual arts as part of Robert Owen’s New Harmony experiment.

The Rapp-Owen Granary, which is owned and maintained by the non-profit Rapp Granary-Owen Foundation, was re-dedicated in 1999 and has served as a conference hall, attracting organizations from around the nation. It’s also become a favorite venue for weddings, receptions, memorial services, “and, of course,” says Mumford, “the Under the Beams concert series.”

One of the great joys for the Mumfords has been to bring their three children, now ages 13, 14, and 16, to the granary for those intimate concerts. “They’re all involved in music and play instruments,” says Liz Mumford. “I know that what they’ve seen there has influenced them and that they will carry that with them their entire lives.”

She’s also pleased when she hears from grateful concert patrons, many of whom travel from far and wide to attend the Under the Beams performances and then return again. “Under the Beams is just one spoke of the cultural wheel of New Harmony,” says Mumford. “It’s brought many new people to town to experience the music, and then they come back to take another look at this gem of a town on the banks of the Wabash to see its art, its gardens, its architecture, and to learn of its history. It’s a town like no other in the region.”

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