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Local touch adds extra value to the offerings at the Touhil

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 3, 2009 - The 2009-10 schedule for the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center has been revealed and it's loaded with significant headliners. Sonny Rollins, Lily Tomlin, George Jones, The Chieftains and more promise quality performances and good audiences.

But the Touhill also partners with local groups that have a national and international reach. These tickets are generally less expensive, and they offer a wide variety of entertainment.

For many years, the Center for International Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis has focused on presenting the performing arts of four countries -- China, Greece, Ireland, Japan -- and a whole continent -- Africa. A new partnership status with the Touhill not only gives the group access to the facilities, which it has had before, but puts it in the Touhill marketing materials and makes these shows elegible for inclusion in a Choose Your Own subscription package.

Terry Williams, who is the senior coordinator of the International Performing Arts Series says that "from the beginning of the series, we have invited exceptionally talented singers, dancers, musicians, actors and other artists" to represent their cultures. This has meant that artists from "all over the world" have appeared before St. Louis audiences.

This season, people can sample Chinese opera, Thai dance, Greek songs and music from Japan, Newfoundland and Mali. With the partnership, these programs should have a larger stage, more promotion and the addition of an education component through what's called the E3! program at the Touhill.

Explore-Experience-Engage -- "E3!" -- lets audience members engage in a pre-show discussion designed to provide insight that carries into the performance itself. Then, afterward, they can participate in additional discussions that may include the artists who had just performed.

Also gaining partnership status with the Touhill is The Ambassadors of Harmony . This 160-man a cappella chorus from St. Charles is the 2009 International Chorus Champion, having won the gold medal at the Barbershop Harmony Society annual chorus competition this summer in Anaheim, Calif.

In June, the Ambassadors offer a concert entitled Voices in Harmony that features the chorus and its quartets: Crossroads and Vocal Spectrum, which are also society champions. Then the chorus puts on five shows in mid December.

"We don't want our audience to go away just thinking they've heard a great concert," says Denny Wofford, president and show chairman of the group. "Rather, we want them to feel they've been part of a wonderful experience, that brought them into the music, and told them wonderful stories, related from the heart."

And the chorus finds a good fit at the Touhill Performing Arts Center.

"When we first visited the AB Theater, the feeling we all had was nothing will be second-rate here," continues Wofford. "That has proven to be true for the past several years. We all look forward to the opportunity to perform there, and always come away from the experience feeling as though we've been part of something very special."

From its beginning, the Touhill has been the home of and a partner with Dance St. Louis , committing to raising the profile of dance.

"By insisting on the beauty and perfection of the Touhill environment for an art form such as dance, it slowly makes everyone aware that St. Louis is the center of dance in the Midwest region," says Michael Uthoff, director of Dance STL. Showcasing artists in a perfect environment, Uthoff said, makes certain that "audiences enjoy them, and the entire population has an opportunity to view the best there is without having to compromise at any level."

A flexible subscription option - "Choose Your Own" or "CYO" - lets patrons decide which performances are best suited for their personal schedules and, perhaps most important, budget. People who purchase four or more shows get at least 10 percent off ticket prices, and the selection includes offerings from the Arianna String Quartet.

Christian Cudnik is a free-lance writer.