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Sweet June of festive bounty

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 22, 2011 - Slowly but with magnificent assurance June can call itself Festival Month in St. Louis, and if the promotional powers that be in this region need something to ballyhoo nationally and internationally, our schedule of festivals is certainly worthy of a quite honest and unequivocal presentation.

But as much as these cultural resources provide an opportunity for attention-getting from afar, we need to understand thoroughly, and to embrace what this effulgence says about us, and about the bulging cultural muscle we've built steadily here in the past few decades. What it means is this: Although there is much to be done in this region on many fronts, wrongs to be set right, and injustices to be mediated and social problems to be addressed aggressively, we are doing lots of things right, and our friend June is one of them.

Naturally, I'm going to take note of the fact there is a newcomer to the scene, and that is the Beacon Festival, our organization's way of having serious fun. The second Beacon Festival had a fine run early in June, and in its upstart way joined other festivals on the cultural highway. Ours was a week and a day of modestly scaled concerts, field trips and exhibitions, and it specialized in taking participants places most of them had never been before. By visiting relatively unexplored places we hope to reinforce and, yes, to ballyhoo our philosophical notion that this region claims important geography in the world of wonders.

Another festival is a sweet memory now, and that is the region's Shakespeare Festival. On Sunday evening in the Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park, Petruchio demanded one last time that Katharina kiss him. "The Taming of the Shrew," star of the 2011 festival season set attendance records, with more than 63,000 visitors attending. Festival management announced next year's play is to be the demanding and prodigious "Othello."

The success and moxie of this festival takes your breath away. I remember sitting with the then-banker Crosby Kemper III in a Vietnamese restaurant on South Grand Boulevard years ago as he sketched his vision of a free Shakespeare festival in Forest Park for the critic Philip Kennicott and me. Kemper's enthusiasm was infectious, but even so, I was skeptical. A Shakespeare Festival? Outside in June? In St. Louis, Mo.? Free? Yes, yes, yes and yes. Eleven years of memorable productions and a fervent following are proofs of Kemper's own brilliant pudding. He is now the innovative director of the Kansas City Public Library. Mailings from it indicate his literary and cultural courageousness are still very much in play. Lucky for us he applied it to June and St. Louis.

June 6 rang out with a partnership of Opera Theatre of St. Louis and the Beacon, when we presented young singers to the public in another free-for-all-comers music series. It is "A Little Lunch Music," and for three Mondays during the opera season, great singers and great accompanists sing in churches and meeting houses around the region.

Like Shakespeare, Lunch Music concerts have faithful and exuberant followings. This series concluded on Monday at the Bonhomme Presbyterian Church in a feast of operatic and popular music. We Beaconians feel privileged to be associated with the three-decades old concert tradition.

Opera Theatre's main season is in its final week as well, and closes on Sunday evening at 7 o'clock with the high notes and high jinks of Gaetano Donizetti's "The Daughter of the Regiment." Although way down on my list of entertainments, "Daughter" provided considerable comic relief in a season that otherwise was positioned in a stratosphere not of high Cs but of ambition and searing emotional and artistic seriousness.

A fresh, youthful and lusty cast, conducted by superstar conductor and historian Jane Glover, brilliantly presented the lessons of "Don Giovanni." On other nights, anyone who in the house for a performance of "The Death of Klinghoffer" was an attendant of history, for not only was the opera magnificently performed but also it served to revive a compelling work of art that had been cut from the mainstream for far too long.

All of us who stuck with "Pelleas and Melisande" were rewarded with the flinging open of a window for a penetrating view into the darkness of the human soul, and with music as rapturously beautiful as any ever written. Respectful cheering is offered herewith for all concerned.

Circus Flora is another jewel in the cultural diadem June wears so confidently. Each year, the circus returns with another new story that carries forward the action, the enormous, unremitting, high-flying, comedic action, of the circus forward. Flora the elephant, for whom the show is named, lives now in an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, so the weight she carried is borne by all the multi-talented and dedicated members of the troupe. I've never been able to get enough of this show and the small, one-ring ensemble tradition it maintains.

Its ringmaster and proprietor, Ivor David Balding, and his wife, Laura Carpenter Balding, keep all the dingbats in the air so gracefully one forgets their jugglings involve animals, performers, crew members and administrators who, themselves, are involved in split-second businesses that, taken together, give ever new meaning to the word complexity. Not to mention the word thrill, and not to mention the word fun, of rather glorious sorts, for boys and girls of all ages. 

During the midsummer afternoon Tuesday ominous threats of more rambunctious and destructive atmospheric phenomena were treated to prominence in the weather media. As if to prove the prognosticators wrong, Zeus, Aeolus, Zephyrus and all others who toss tornados and hailstorms and dangerous weathers at us provided cooler temperatures -- and one of the most magnificent and richly colored cloud formation and cloud-to-cloud lightning exhibitions I've ever seen. Art geek that I am, I conjured up Rothko and Tiepolo and Rembrandt as this cumulonimbus continued its astonishing evolution, but then lost track of art history and stuck with nature in such abundant visual magnificence.

I was among a group hanging out in the back lot of the circus in Grand Center, and our little clutch of men and women sat mesmerized by this display. Our view of the sky was to the east. A couple of circus folks climbed up on a trailer to get a better view. As we watched, we could hear the circus audience clapping and whistling and bravo-ing its appreciation for the performance. It was almost as if the ovations were leaking through the big top to be shared with nature and the magnificence of its sky.

Collisions of art and nature are not uncommon, but as commonplace as they may be from time to time they are awesome in the true sense of the word. And this circus-cloud phenomenon, at once beautiful and ominous, set me to thinking about our radiant good fortune in this region, where on any given night in June anyone putting herself or himself in the way of artistic richness and beauty is almost certain to be rewarded.

What resources we have here! There is the richness of the varied landscape; the issue of a rich prehistory revealing itself more and more all the time; mature institutions that perform and exhibit abundantly; a treasury of rivers so magnificent there's a move in play to rename ourselves "The Great Rivers State"; parks and gardens; plus all that music and art and architecture to hear and to behold. It is an embarrassment of riches. Not to appreciate them and to celebrate them as a manifestation of our own greatness is an embarrassment of a quite different color, and it's a condition we need to change.

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.