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Commentary: Art matters

One of the main reasons for heading to California for a vacation was so my partner (and Beacon bookkeeper) Martin Kaplan could participate in a reunion of performing arts alums from Palos Verdes High School, from which he graduated in 1978. Marty described the rehearsals that occupied him last Friday and Saturday as "surreal." It felt, he said, as if he'd been catapulted backward in time, to the 1970s, when he was a student at PV High School, and during rehearsals it seemed very little had changed.

Last Saturday evening, after a festive dinner on the grounds of the high school - whose great lawn affords a grand view of the Pacific just to the west -- everyone gathered in the multipurpose room for the show. The participants, except for non-alums who'd been recruited to fill out the instrumental combo, were PV alumni, and all had been members of one vocal or theatrical group or another. Some, indeed, performed in several of the ensembles.

The reunion show was a hit. It was genuinely good, not the sort of show one describes as simply fabulous for reasons of nostalgia or to protect the delicate sensibilities of middle-age performers who perhaps should not have taken once again to the stage.

These men and women were terrific. They were much more than good sports who had the moxie to get out there and deliver an entirely respectable "Fugue for the Tinhorns" from "Guys and Dolls" and other classics from the American musical theater repertory. Marty, for example, was a member of the school's Jazz Chorale. It reprised songs in its repertory from the 1970s, some of which were sung at the Montreaux Jazz Festival, yes, that Montreaux festival, the one in Switzerland. The sound that chorus leader Gary McRoberts brought forth from his former students in "My Funny Valentine" delivered chills to the spine.

I'll assume you get the picture. In tight focus, it reveals not only talent but also commitment to the performing arts. At PV High and at schools all over the country, programs are so robust the teens who attached themselves to them went well beyond messing around on stage to mounting skillful shows and concerts that dazzled audiences. That happened three or four decades ago - and again last Saturday night.

The Performing Arts Tribute Reunion show stands on its own as a triumph of musical ability and steadfastness to an ideal, that artistic development and presentation and expression matters to producers, performers and audiences.

Further in the "matters" department is this: art in the public schools is not a frill, not "extra-curricular" and, thus, expendable. Arts education, as the Palos Verdes High School performing arts alums demonstrated, is part of a dynamic notion of the necessity of developing the whole child as he or she passes through kindergarten and on to the senior year of high school.

Arts education has certainly a practical side you can present to the bean counters - whether one is being taught singing, or how to play the oboe, or how to dance or how to work together as an ensemble - this particular pedagogical activity teaches discipline.

But for us to value it genuinely, something as demanding and expensive as arts education has to be something as exquisitely, intellectually magical and transforming as calculus or botany or poetry. It must, at an early age, inform those kids who are out there singing and shuffle-balling and cracking wise and making us laugh and cry with the knowledge that the arts are transfiguring. In almost indefinable ways embracing people as performers and recipients, art makes us better. It is, in fact, a sinew of civilization.

The teachers honored Saturday night - Warren Balfour, Bob Engle, Phil Nash, Don Marino, Gary McRoberts, Chip Hipkins - know all about what I wrote just now, and they used the reunion performance's epilogue as a bully pulpit for stressing not simply the value of arts education but the necessity of it. While quite aware of the crunch in the availability of funds for arts in our society in general and in the schools in particular, they called the audience to action, to demand that school budgeteers not be allowed to trim the arts, using the idea of "frill" as justification.

Toward the end of the evening, questions and comments were solicited from the audience. One middle-age guy stood up and said he'd been pretty much of a screw-up in high school; and with the kind of eloquence that comes with speaking from the soul, he told the story of his auditioning for one of the crack PV singing ensembles.

He did poorly in the audition, he said, and his voice cracked with emotion.

Addressing his teacher, he said, "You let me in anyway. And you changed my life."

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.