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Concert series offers world-class entertainment at budget-friendly prices

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photos courtesy of the University Concert Series
  • Published: Sept. 20, 2010
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Bonnie Raitt was part of the University Concert Series in 2009. Another country star, Leann Rimes, kicked off the 2010-11 season.

Guest artists of the University Concert Series perform in noted concert halls, entertain royalty and tour worldwide. They appear on national television and sell thousands of CDs. And, like master violinist Itzhak Perlman, they perform in Columbia.

The Concert Series is a big deal in entertainment value, offered by an MU entity that has been serving the public for more than a century.

Consider this comparison: In New York, tickets to the musical Mamma Mia! cost $175 for orchestra-section seating. The same-section price to see the touring group in Columbia is $52. With free parking. No wonder the directors of MU’s Concert Series expect both Jesse Auditorium performances of the musical to sell out.

Fun from day 1

MU’s oldest music fraternity, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, founded what would eventually be the University Concert Series in 1908. A strange performance by Russian pianist Vladimir de Pachmann on Feb. 21, 1908, was the inaugural event.

Pachmann, a showman known as much for his bizarre on-stage behavior as for his concert tours of Chopin’s works, would gesture, mutter, grimace, grunt, talk and sing during performances. Today’s music reviewers might make a connection to Tourette syndrome, but audiences then loved him.

With the founding of the College of Fine Arts, Phi Mu Alpha turned over control of the Concert Series (CS) to the university in 1924.

Classical music dominated the series from its inception through the mid-1980s. Early patrons had multiple opportunities to hear the St. Louis Symphony, which performed three times in the 1909-10 and five times in the 1923-24 seasons. Still a series regular, the orchestra will bring the spirit of St. Louis to Columbia for a holiday concert Dec. 8, 2010.

Legendary names have filled CS performance slots for decades: violinist Efrem Zimbalist in 1912-13, and violinist Fritz Kreisler and Polish pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski in 1915-16. Pianist-composer Sergei Rachmaninoff packed Brewer Fieldhouse in 1935, and Jascha Heifetz — possibly the greatest violinist of the 21st century — made his third CS appearance in 1942.

Cellist Pablo Cassals (1925), pianist Vladimir Horowitz (1932), baritone Nelson Eddy (1932) and many noted opera singers performed at Mizzou through the years, followed by Mel Torme, the Righteous Brothers, Smokey Robinson, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and other big names.

Applause, applause

Band photo

Mannheim Steamroller's holiday performances have become a staple of the University Concert Series. Mizzou alumna Almeda Berkey (second from left), BS '68, MA '70, plays the harpsichord and synthesizers with the ensemble.

Bringing top talent to a small town is expensive. When Director Michael Dunn took over in 1992, the Concert Series had a serious budget deficit. He developed a marketing plan to fill more seats by playing to the changing tastes of audiences.

Dunn expanded the early all-classical music performances to as many as 34 annual events with a greater variety of entertainment choices: pop, rock, country, jazz, Broadway, classical and international music, as well as dance, acrobatics and comedy. The new infusion of headline entertainers, musicals and family-friendly performances helped sell tickets. 

The Concert Series continues to seek input from audiences about entertainment preferences. Surveys distributed at fall concerts ask patrons to peruse lists of possibilities and rank their favorites. The CS staff considers the top 50 or 60 performers and checks available dates and prices for booking. 

Most performances draw full houses or are declared sellouts. This year, based on early sales, Dunn predicts tickets will sell out for David Sedaris, Avenue Q, Monty Python’s Spamalot, Mannheim Steamroller, MU alumnus Neal E. Boyd (2008 winner of America’s Got Talent), the Five Browns and Mamma Mia!

Classical music events remain the most difficult to fill but are important accompaniments to MU’s teaching mission in the performing arts. MU students, who receive discounts up to 50 percent off ticket prices, purchased 4,500 tickets last year.

“This is a pivotal year for us. We have to increase funding for the classical and fine arts performances,” Dunn says.

Although the Concert Series is 95 percent self-supporting, it relies on some outside revenue to help cover operating expenses. An annual fundraiser, Wines and Champagnes of the World, helps. This year’s event is Sept. 24 at the Tiger Hotel.

Tales of the rich and famous

Bill Cosby

Comedian Bill Cosby, a University Concert Series performer, is known for requiring junk food and a TV in his dressing room.

Among the perks and pains of staffing the Concert Series events is rubbing shoulders with the stars, Dunn says.

In contract negotiations, the artists or their tour managers send lists of needs for the acts and for the personal comfort of performers.  The staff disregards any requests for alcohol in dressing rooms but otherwise tries to be accommodating.

Some of the demands are memorable. Kenny G needed fresh sushi on a Sunday.

Comedian Bill Cosby thought his wife’s contractual request for healthful food was a hoot; he changed that to hamburgers and fries. Cosby also needed a cable TV hookup in his dressing room so he could watch a Final Four basketball game.

Dunn doesn’t begrudge the stars their requests. “These people are away from their homes for weeks, so this becomes home for them,” he says.

But still, some requests are just strange. Judy Collins wanted a roasted chicken, and it had to be carved in her presence. Bobby McFerrin needed a hotel room with a window that opened. Pianist George Winston arrived a day early so he could rehearse from midnight to 3 a.m.

CS staffers learn to handle emergencies, such as locating a dentist to repair a child actor’s front tooth damaged in a playful summersault.

On the other side of the extreme are performers such as Perlman, David Sedaris and Garrison Keillor. International star Perlman is easy to accommodate; Sedaris and Keeler stay hours after their performances to sign books for fans.

Artful outreach

To spread access to the live entertainment, the Concert Series donates thousands of tickets each year to area schools and organizations; and sponsors and donors cover the cost of $5 tickets to bus school students to Jesse Auditorium for daytime performances.

Sometimes the performers will go to their audience. CS performers travel to about 10 schools to give mini-performances, workshops and master classes at no cost to the schools, thanks to funding from grants, corporate sponsors and donors.

Last season Ladysmith Black Mambazo — an African a cappella group — stayed an extra day to perform for 1,600 area school children, thrilling about 30 kids with the opportunity to perform on stage with the group; and the Gilbert & Sullivan Players gave a master class for MU music students, which the Canadian Brass and wind players from the St. Louis Symphony also have done in recent years.

This season, two school-time performances in Jesse Auditorium will offer inexpensive, 45-minute opportunities for field trips. Cirque Imagination: Montage will demonstrate its circus artistry for school children on March 22, and Jigu! Thunder Drums of China will perform Nov. 11.

Also for children, the Missoula Children’s Theatre will hold auditions, casting and rehearsals, at no cost, for area youngsters seeking one of 50 to 60 spots in the March 11 productions of the musical Wizard of Oz.

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012