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Art and music: MPO/BMS and Bob James share approach

Posted Monday, April 18, 2011, at 12:20 PM

Top: A selection of drawings by Bueker Middle School students. The students created art that was inspired by the final piece in the Marshall Philharmonic Orchestra's spring concert, "The Great Steamboat Race," by Robert W. Smith. A photo gallery showing all the student work is available at www.marshallnews.com/gallery/mpo-bms-art2011.
Middle: For the first time, the BMS Singers joined the orchestra on stage, singing "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" by Johann Sebaastian Bach, accompanied by featured performers, Harmonium Brass.
Bottom: Harmonium Brass, which includes Paul Copnhaver, Chris Farris, Brandon McDannald, Larry Bennett and Allen Lawless, perform as featured artists during the MPO's final concert of the 2010-2011 season Sunday, April 10.
Music makes life better. Art makes life better. And when music and art come together, the results is often an experience that is better than better (to indulge in a wee bit of hyperbole).

Marshall Philharmonic Orchestra patrons know what I mean. And so do Bob James fans.

Every year the orchestra teams up with Bueker Middle School art teachers and students to create a performance in which music inspires art and art enhances music.

BMS students create visual interpretations of a piece MPO will perform, and at the concert, their work is displayed on a big screen while the orchestra plays. The effect is striking.

This year, the music was "The Great Steamboat Race" by Robert W. Smith. Students brought to life the story inherent in the music with their portrayals of steamboats, rivers, bridges, smokestacks, musical instruments and, in an effective and whimsical tough, verbal art -- when melodic percussionist Jane Huff struck a bell to represent a boat's bell, a colorful image with the word "Ding" appeared.

The melding of music and art is something professional entertainers do all the time, but its often a collaboration of musician and artist. Sometimes, though, the musician and artist are the same person.

I didn't realize it until last summer, when I was looking on the web for a phone number, that Bob James is not only a world-class jazz pianist but is an artist, too.

When I talked to him last summer, I asked him about how the two creative worlds work together for him.

He said he has done artwork for concert backdrops and has created artwork for recordings. "Dancing on the Water" is my favorite. He said he came to the visual arts relatively late in his career.

"It was dormant most of my life. I discovered it a few years ago," he said. "I started out doing it for fun."

What helped him, too, was the emergence of accessible computer tools for creating art and editing photos.

"A lot of creative things I can do with a computer I wouldn't have taken the time nor did I have the skill to do with pencil and paper," he said. "My art interest is relates to collage."

But he downplays his abilities as a visual artist.

"I definitely would not consider myself an artist," he said. "I'm very happy to be a piano player, and occasionally I like to make pictures."

Still, what he does with art enhances what he does with music. I recommend taking a look at his gallery, and look at "Dancing on the Water" while listening to "Dancing on the Water." Like the MPO/BMS collaboration, the result is more satisfying than the sum of the parts. And that's saying something.


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Eric Crump is a former editor of The Marshall Democrat-News. He lives elsewhere now but still loves Marshall and Saline County. He's trying to catch up on all the stories he should have written while he was on staff.
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