LONG before “the big project” got started in Clark County, classical music filled Linda Leonhard’s car as she drove through the countryside.
She saw the farmers working the fields and watched the corn pushing through the ground, while listening to the strains of the violin and cello and oboe.
But it wasn’t until a couple years ago that someone other than Leonhard thought to weave the dusty, gritty farming life into the melodic, polished symphony world.
The idea came from Ohio State University, and since then farmers and musicians have planned a performance unlike anything ever done before in Ohio.
On Nov. 19 and 20, the symphony orchestra in Springfield, Ohio, in tuxes and under dim lights, will play music about prairie farms and plows and loving the land. Above them, three movie screens will unveil an intimate glimpse of the county’s agriculture – the hogs fighting for the trough, the combines churning through the corn, the farmers’ weathered faces laughing, the kids showing lambs at the county fair, the fields coated in snow, the cats lapping leftover milk, the late nights working in the shadow of a tractor’s headlights.
FFA’ers and 4-H’ers and grandpas and the pet dog will be emblazoned across the tractor-trailer-sized panoramic screens, while the orchestra plays below.
And there will be a photograph of Leonhard’s three children there, too – playing their string instruments, in the middle of their cornfield.
“I easily see the fusion,” Leonhard said. “The idea is so fresh.”
THE project, now called Growing Together: Agriculture and the Arts, hasn’t been an easy, quick or ordinary undertaking.
There have been countless meetings, focus groups and workshops. Photographers, reporters and Farm Bureau members volunteered and took thousands of pictures. Area farmers snapped their own shots and sent them by the hundreds.
The result was almost 4,000 pictures that photochoreographer James Westwater sorted and set to music.
One piece, called Symphony to the Prairie Farm, will even use a moldboard plow, a disc blade and buffalo bones for percussion.
THE hardest thing is explaining farming to nonfarmers, said Ohio State’s Denny Hall, project director.
“Every time you try to do that, the words get in the way,” he said.
So why not use the expressive and emotional power of music and photographs, he asks.
Not only will it show nonfarmers the beauty in agriculture, but it will also remind farmers of what’s in their backyards.
Hall grew up on a farm and was even an extension agent for a while, but he still wondered why the photographer he was riding with wanted to take a picture of a plain, white barn.
But then the photographer showed him “its glow” – the way the stark barn reflected the color of the sky.
He’s never looked at barns in the same way since.
You get used to the view outside the back door and inside the barn and you forget it’s beautiful, Hall said.
PAIRING agriculture and the arts isn’t that far-fetched, said the symphony’s executive director David Deitrick.
Both livelihoods are all-consuming, he said; that dedication is the same, whether it’s to the land or the concert hall.
“You love it. You live it,” he said.
Only recently did Deitrick realize a number of his season ticket holders are actually farmers.
But they are still mostly separate communities, he said, and it’s exciting to bring them together.
“In today’s society, the more we get together and try to understand each other, the better,” he said.
EVEN from the beginning, the project proved to be a major production.
USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education stepped up with a $104,500 grant to fund it and Westwater, an artist known for setting pictures to a symphony orchestra, came on board.
Word spread and soon the New York Times ran a story on it, Paul Harvey talked about it on News and Comment, and it hit the Canadian airwaves.
In Tokyo, the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service field office heard about it and asked for details. Word spread and soon came a $10,000 Foreign Agricultural Service grant to get video copies into 100 field offices around the world.
Putting the program onto DVD has always been a priority, Hall said. Although it won’t be a taping of the actual performance, it will be similar, he said. Photographs will be set to music and there will be in-depth looks at four farm families.
He hopes to have it ready by January.
Thinking even bigger, he’d also like to take the show on tour and perform it with orchestras across the country.
WESTWATER has photochoreographed this sort of thing for years, other times honoring Native Americans’ closeness to the earth and highlighting an Amish community in Minnesota.
This performance, however, is especially compelling because it pairs two struggling lifestyles: farming and the arts.
“Farmers and nonfarmers will be together looking at photography and music with new eyes,” he said.
“They say a picture is worth a thousand words. And we have close to a thousand photographs.”
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
Get the details
What? Growing Together: Agriculture and the Arts
When? Nov. 19 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 20 at 3 p.m.
Where? Kuss Auditorium
Clark State Performing Arts Center, Springfield, Ohio
Prices? Tickets are between $27-$37 for adults and between $15-$25 for students.
Ordering? Call the box office at 937-328-3874