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Beacon blog: Fluent in universal language of music

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 10, 2011 - Three years ago, when the Beacon was in its infancy, my friend Marc Thayer offered to send videos and articles to us from northern Iraq for publication on our site. We were so glad to have these dispatches. "Letters From Iraq" sounded so exotic and interesting, and so right in the middle of the stage of international theater that we were pleased to offer his work to our readers. It was right in line with what we were trying to do then, and try to do now -- and that is to approach news from many sides, the human side being one of the most significant.

Marc's offer filled this important, human niche. So much of the news that was flooding into America was grim and frightening, and while Marc's dispatches offered not Pollyanna, all-is-well dissemblances, they absolutely did offer a contrasting view, one that had little to do with international politics and everything to do with individual accomplishment and diplomacy on a basic, human, person-to-person level.

Thayer is a virtuoso of diplomacy played in that key. He was headed to the Kurdish lands of northern Iraq to deliver music supplies such as strings for violins, violas, cellos and string basses, and musical scores, along with a portfolio of knowledge and encouragement.

Once back at home, Marc resumed his full-time job working for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra as director of its education and outreach efforts. On top of that, he acted as surrogate older brother or even father to young musicians who came from Iraq to study in St. Louis. He arranged for schooling and introduced them to Americans both in concerts and in social situations.

Thayer and I have friends in Illinois whose lives are inextricably bound up with classical music. Nevertheless, for years, they have invited friends over to hootenannies, where folks sit on hay bales and folding chairs in their backyard, and eat fried chicken and barbecue and play and sing and listen to hear music that is decidedly not classical. It is music, however, that has percolated up from the hearts and souls of Americans. These hootenannies are great fun, and the music ranges all over the place. Fundamentally everything that goes on that afternoon in that backyard is authentic and representative of our culture.

The foreign visitors love the experience, and the American hosts and guests love the guests. From time to time, a feature of them has been extraordinary fiddling by Thayer, who plays the violin not only beautifully but also with the ineffable quality we often express with the word soul. If anyone ever played music with skill and with soul, it is Marc Thayer.

Sunday afternoon at 3, Thayer will say goodbye to the St. Louis Symphony, which has been his professional home for the past nine years. The Youth Orchestra will play, and there could be no better traveling music for Thayer than that. His job at Powell Hall has been vice president for education and community partnerships, which really doesn't adequately describe Marc or his work. As long as I have known him, he has been in the business of enriching lives with music, and clearing obstacles out of the path so that people from all sorts of backgrounds can come together and learn about one another in the magnificent world music creates for us.

Recently, Thayer told the Beacon's Nancy Fowler, "The arts are a wonderful way of getting to know people from other places and different kinds of people, in which it doesn't have to be about religion or politics. Music is a universal language, and art and dance are universal languages. You can work together and perform together and communicate with each other even if you don't speak the same language or have the same religion. We're all the same; we all have 90 percent in common."

Thayer may be leaving 718 North Grand Blvd., but he certainly is not abandoning this universal language. He is to be director of education for American Voices, the group with which he has worked in the Middle East and Southeast Asia for the past five years in addition to his duties with the orchestra here. His goal is to help American Voices develop a presence in America. He hopes to bring visitors and activities from abroad to help to expand the American consciousness of the arts in faraway places and to continue his teaching abroad, which includes developing new music programs.

All of us who try to speak the universal language and like to speak it with Thayer and friends should rejoice that although he is leaving Powell Hall he remains in St. Louis. He will begin a graduate program at Washington U. in its ethnomusicology department, focusing on the languages and music of the Middle East.

Accomplishment breeds accomplishments

Adam Crane also speaks the universal language, and when he was in California a few years back, working for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Los Angeles, he put it to use rescuing a man whose life had spiraled downward into disaster. His name is Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, and like so many schizophrenics he had landed on the street. Many of these beleaguered homeless persons are extraordinarily accomplished: Ayers had studied music at Juilliard and was accomplished as a player of a number of instruments. He had lost pretty much everything except his virtuosity with the universal language.

Crane, who was working in public relations for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, befriended Ayers, introduced him to the orchestra and to L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez. That introduction led to a series of articles and then a book and then a movie, "The Soloist."

You couldn't fault Crane for staying in Los Angeles. He was working for a fine institution and making a name for himself, both at work and in the world of motion pictures. Yet in the summer of 2008, about the same time his colleague Marc Thayer was in Iraq, he came home to St. Louis. There were lots of reasons for his return, personal and professional. One of the most compelling was his desire to work for his hometown's orchestra.


There is no single reason for the fact that the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra -- our orchestra -- is mightily on the ascendant, as noted by anyone who was in the jam-packed hall last weekend for the premiere of Christopher Rouse's Symphony No. 3, as well as by the critic Alex Ross writing in the New Yorker. But no one can discount the value of the intense young fellow Crane, who is something of a p.r. genius. His genius is in enthusiasm and the power to imagine and to execute new ideas. Unlike some p.r. folks, he is not afraid of taking risks, and he is well acquainted with that estimable quality called candor. Journalists like that.

Newswomen and newsmen are sometimes allergic to public relations officers -- or affect being so -- but I cannot imagine anyone's being allergic to Adam Crane. Perhaps that's because, as critic Sarah Bryan Miller wrote, he is a mensch. Perhaps that is because his devotion to his family is palpable; perhaps it's because he is a straight shooter with the press and tells the truth; because, usually, or at least most of the time -- eight times out of 10 -- he returns phone calls; because he likes to hang out with journalists; better still, he loves the company of musicians. He plays the cello. He is absolutely fluent in the universal language.

And he is not going anywhere but up. Last week, Symphony chief Fred Bronstein announced that Crane is to be given additional responsibilities, some of which used to be Thayer's territory, as head of a new department, External Affairs. Crane will be responsible for oversight of "institutional communications, education programs, community engagement activities including Community Partnerships, and government relations." Sounds formidable. Crane is something of a thoroughbred and can be jittery: he exhibited that tendency last week before the announcement of his promotion, which becomes official on Monday.

But further down in the announcement, Bronstein said, "Since joining us in August 2008, Adam has done a remarkable job directing our public relations efforts... he has dramatically raised the visibility of the St. Louis Symphony locally, nationally and internationally, working most effectively with all constituencies across the institution. Adam is supremely prepared to step into this enhanced role."

Bronstein asked everybody to congratulate Crane. Herewith: Congrats, Adam. And congratulations to Marc Thayer, too, for following his star. Both men understand, intuitively perhaps, but emphatically, that among things that truly matter in this world, music is high up there on the list, So, too, are all the men and women who make it heard. These are the men and women who spend their lives speaking the universal language, with eloquence and dedication and hearts full of joy.

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.