Somewhere in Middle America
-Kathryn J Bacasmot
Living on the East Coast for the past five years has given me plenty of practice in verbally defending my home state, Nebraska. I have honestly grown to relish the laundry list of questions, the looks of disbelief, and the subsequent thinly veiled attempts to recover and come off sounding politely intrigued: “You’re from where? Oh…really? I thought you were from somewhere around here! So…what’s Nebraska like? Is it next to Tennessee? I’m horrible with geography” (self-deprecation = extra point).
Casual observation might leave a monotonous first impression as seemingly endless rows of corn, soybeans, or just vast plots of flat earth, grate on the eyeballs of the I-80 driver. I might have even heard it compared to the constant drip from the leaky upstairs bathroom faucet. But, I like to think of my Nebraska as a long, stunning, piece of minimalist music. It is the land that forces you to really stop and look – the kind of looking that goes beyond just seeing. You cannot rely upon it to tell you everything. You have to bring something of yourself to it, and it meets you halfway.
Omaha, my hometown, is exceptional, for a city of its size (roughly 500,000 within the city limits and 800,000 in the greater metro area), for its love of the arts. I was fortunate to see, and meet, musicians like Yo Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, and Joshua Bell, as a kid. Additionally, there was KVNO, the local “classical” station, which was on in our house nearly 24/7.
KVNO, like the state from which it broadcasts, has an aura of immediate accessibility thanks to the casual, down-to-earth, demeanor of its disc jockeys. Unlike some of the more, shall we say, “self-consciously sophisticated” mannerisms displayed on the airwaves in some major urban centers in which I have lived, the announcers at KVNO spoke about classical music in the same tone that one would speak about the weather report, or the traffic. To me this still seems right. Classical music, after all, is not an exotic bird of paradise, but something familiar to those of us who love it. It is something we carry around with us like an old, beat up, paperback, copy of a favorite book nestled in a backpack.
So, by the time I heard From the Top broadcasting on the airwaves, my hometown classical radio station had already primed me for talking about Chopin and tennis in the same breath and tone of voice. I certainly was already familiar with Christopher O’Riley, who I had heard perform the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Omaha Symphony Orchestra when I was twelve years old. In fact, he was the reason I decided to become very serious about music, taking it from a thing I loved to a lifelong passion, and bringing the New England Conservatory of Music (his alma mater, and now mine, too) to my attention. If you would have told me as a teenager that I would become a colleague with the pianist I admired, and an employee of the show I adored, I would have looked at you like you were nuts. But, fast forward a decade and both have become true. Let that be a lesson to you, kids: nothing is impossible.
Now it has all come full circle. From the Top has traveled to my hometown, Omaha, Nebraska, and taped a show that will be broadcast on the radio station on which I heard my first From the Top broadcast. Christopher O’Riley was on stage, just like when I was twelve, but this time he knows my name.
Young Nebraska musicians continue to derive all they can from the rich arts community amongst the Great Plains, just like I did back in my student days. They, too, benefit from the down-to-earth spirit transmitted through how classical music is spoken about, and in being able to have accessibility and immediate community with local professional musicians pursuing vibrant careers.
And in a way, aren’t young “classical” musicians like Nebraska? They are sometimes glossed over, or outright forgotten about, in favor of their peers pursuing more attention grabbing, flashy, things like football. Yet, their musical lives have unfathomable depths to reveal if the time is taken to stop and listen – the kind of listening that goes beyond just hearing.
Be sure to tune-in to From the Top’s broadcast from Omaha, NE the week of September 21. Also available online at www.fromthetop.org.
Kathryn J Bacasmot is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, freelance writer, and former From the Top employee. She received her Masters in Musicology at the New England Conservatory of Music with her thesis on Björk Guðmundsdóttir and aspects of the female experience in her fifth studio album, Medúlla. In her spare time she works hard to dispel East coast myths and misconceptions regarding her beloved hometown, Omaha, NE. Visit her blog at: http://piecesofmoments.wordpress.com/