Mercer's Flourishing Arts Scene
By Stacey Norwood

“To create, to discover, to inspire” is both the mission and the means propelling the arts at Mercer.

John Rutter’s Requiem begins softly, on a haunting, almost hesitant note. Just a few beats in, however, the music begins to quicken, and the tapping of the lone timpani is joined by the melancholy yaw of the strings. Within the space of a heartbeat, the swell of the singers’ voices ascends on the music, a celestial choir of many imploring the divine for the intercession, and seeking the comfort of perpetua luceat – perpetual light.

Rutter’s remarkable work – notable for its rich themes explored through traditional Latin liturgy, English psalms, and selections from the Book of Common Prayer – is one of the composer’s most beloved pieces. Since it was first published in 1985, the ambitiously conceived choral and orchestral mass has been performed countless times by some of the world’s most renowned musicians and singers.

On Feb. 19, 2017, Rutter’s Requiem became part of the Mercer’s pantheon as well.

Townsend School of Music’s February 2017 performance at Carnegie Hall

“Those of us who have spent our careers doing music don’t rely on the cheering of an audience to determine the worth of a program … but that was incredibly gratifying.”

Performing on one of the most revered stages in the world, the Mercer Singers and the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings Ensemble were joined by Mercer Singers alumni, musicians from the Chancel Choir of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, the Choral Society of Middle Georgia, and the Chancel Choir of Shallowford Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. Dr. Stanley L. Roberts, director of choral studies and the Arthur Lowndes Rich Professor of Choral Conducting at Mercer, conducted the piece. It was one of three musical components of the gala concert presented by the University and Townsend School of Music.

The musicians and vocalists introduced the gala concert on the Perelman Stage in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium, the cornerstone venue where Stravinsky played to a U.S. audience for the first time and Maria Callas brought down the house on her farewell performance tour. From Leonard Bernstein to the Beatles to Benny Goodman, Carnegie Hall has played host to the world’s finest musical talent, so even performing in those hallowed halls is no small thing. But when the Mercer-led musical collective made its debut, they played to a full house, and when the final refrain of Requiem was sung, the performers received a standing ovation.

“They were on their feet cheering,” says Dr. David Keith, dean of Mercer’s Townsend School of Music. “Those of us who have spent our careers doing music don’t rely on the cheering of an audience to determine the worth of a program … but that was incredibly gratifying.”

The Magic of Art

Eric O’Dell has a favorite saying he likes to repeat to his students: “Art no easy; art no cheap; art hard work.”

A Mercer alumnus, O’Dell earned his Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree in 1992. After receiving his Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) from Florida State University, Eric returned to Macon in 1994, and served as an adjunct professor at Mercer before joining the Arts Department faculty in 2013 as an assistant professor.

Passing on “the magic of art” that he first discovered at Mercer as an undergraduate, is part of Eric’s continuing mission — both as a teacher and a working artist.

The discipline of creative expression in any form requires hard work and a deepening commitment to edification for its own sake, Eric maintains. But at its best, he says, art is a breathtaking, illuminating force of nature capable of uplifting — even transforming — humankind. “Art is a deep and abiding connection to the community. It’s really easy to treat art cheaply if you keep it about the individual.”

Over the years at Mercer, O’Dell has taught classes in drawing, art history, art appreciation, art criticism and 3D design. As a drawing professor, he has led multiple summer sessions in Rome, Florence, Paris and Athens as part of Mercer’s Study Abroad program. In addition, he is also an ongoing instructor for Great Books, an eight-course program that serves as a general education track in the College of Liberal Arts (CLA).

From Descartes to Shakespeare and Goethe, to classic works by authors as diverse as Flannery O’Conner and Karl Marx, Great Books provides students with a grounding foundation in religious thought, philosophical thinking, political debate, and the discoveries of science — all keystones of manifesting the creative spirit and the study of art.

“Remember when God said to Moses, tell them that ‘I Am’ sent you? Art is about that ‘am-ness’ — who and what you are in this world,” O’Dell says.

“Whether it’s music or art, a good color or a good composition can move thousands of people. Art is a distinctly human thing.”

And so uniquely elevating to the “inward places of the soul,” as Plato called it, that a person can spend an entire lifetime attempting to decipher and describe the nearly inexplicable alchemy that occurs through its creative expression.

“Music unlocks the mystery of life for many in a way that words cannot. It has transformative powers that move us from our daily existence — which can be full of detours and potholes — to a sense of hope and well-being,” Dr. Keith says, adding, “Our goal is for our students to grasp essential music skills, and also to instill a desire to use those gifts to make the world better through those gifts.”

Forging New Paths

In April 2015, the Mercer Board of Trustees undertook the usual business of passing an operating budget for the coming academic year, discussing the important points of holding down tuition where possible, and increasing the resources and infrastructure needed to support the University’s ever-increasing undergraduate enrollment.

In another notable item of business, the board also authorized a new Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) degree in the College of Liberal Arts to augment the existing B.A. degree. It was an important step in preparing Mercer to invest in what economist and author Dr. Gerald Gordon calls “the currency of the 21st century.” Gordon, who also serves as the president/CEO of the Fairfax County, Virginia, Economic Development Authority, defines that currency as “creativity.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by other modern-day leaders of industry.

“We need people who think with the creative side of their brains — people who have played in a band, who have painted,” said Annette Byrd, an executive for GlaxoSmithKline. “It enhances symbiotic thinking capabilities, not always thinking in the same paradigm, learning how to kick-start a new idea, or how to get a job done better, less expensively.”

“We need people who think with the creative side of their brains — people who have played in a band, who have painted.” 

From a dollars-and-cents perspective, the arts directly generated $166.3 billion in economic activity in the U.S. in 2015. According to figures provided by Americans for the Arts, related nonprofits and arts and culture-based industries generated $63.8 billion in spending, plus an additional $102.5 billion in event-related expenditures by their audiences. That translated into:

  • 4.6 million full-time equivalent jobs
  • $27.5 billion in federal, state and local government revenue
  • $96.1 billion in household income.

Years in the making, the B.F.A. directly positions art students at Mercer to competitively enter the workforce. Developing this enhanced educational track also recognizes the confluence of a rapidly evolving global economy, the impact of emerging technologies and the powerful sway that dynamic design and artful innovation holds over even the most mundane aspects of life — and at diverse touchpoints. The influence of those skillsets can range from how developers render websites for businesses to connect with customers, to how architects direct function and flow in living and work spaces, to the influx of “virtual reality” rapidly populating every conceivable, consumable media platform.

Along with more traditional B.A. degrees in Studio Art, Graphic Design and Art History, the interdisciplinary B.F.A. program offers Mercer students access to new career and life paths with opportunities to develop polished portfolios and seek internships in private and public sectors.

The new B.F.A. offering is also a powerful recruitment tool, says Art Department Chair Gary Blackburn. He adds the intensely focused coursework and thought leadership in and outside the classroom that are part and parcel of the interdisciplinary visual arts program also compels students to explore new creative directions and fine-tune highly competitive proficiencies in drawing, printmaking, photography, digital media, public art installations, performance, videography and ceramics.

Even as the B.F.A. program takes flight, leadership in CLA is already eying potential academic expansion. Dr. Anita Olson Gustafson, dean of the College, says they are “exploring the option” of adding an M.F.A. program and weighing the resources and investments that would be required versus the growth and benefits it would bring.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) defines a 21st Century liberal arts education as “an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g., science, culture and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest.”

Moreover, the AACU contends, “a liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.”

Noting her zeal for “the humanities” and predisposition towards the liberal arts, Dr. Gustafson maintains students who are exposed to the idylls of such an education — particularly in the kind of small-classroom settings for which Mercer is renowned — does indeed offer daily opportunities to learn to think analytically as well as creatively, as well as shape and hone students’ foundational communication skills. For Mercerians actively pursuing careers in the visual or performing arts — or simply being exposed to both through elective classes and an abundance of opportunities to plug in through CLA — “there’s no limit to what we can do.”

Distinguished University Professor Robert McDuffie performs with the McDuffie Center students during a recent recording session.

Hitting Just the Right Note

That same fervor and spirit is alive and well at Townsend School of Music, which continues to rise on the tide of national recognition and gain prestige for its award-winning student body, as well as its artist faculty of 15 adjuncts instructors, 15 full-time professors, and 10 Distinguished Artists currently in residence at the McDuffie Center for Strings.

Additionally, the School offers aspiring musicians the allure of not only state-of-the-art performance facilities and studio space, but also a globe-trotting tour of festival performances, concert series and special performances for the School’s three collegiate choirs, the University Wind Ensemble, University Orchestra, Jazz Ensemble, Jazz Combo, Percussion Ensemble and Flute Choir.

“We want you to become the best musician you can be, but we also want you to become the best person you can become.”

At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, courses of study at the School range from performance-based to music education, and a unique, ecclesiastical emphasis is available at the graduate level through the Townsend-McAfee Institute’s Church Music program. Degree options for undergraduates include a Bachelor of Music in Performance (B.M.), Bachelor of Music Education (B.M.E.), or Bachelor of Arts in Music (B.A.). Graduate studies include a Master of Music in Performance, Master of Music in Collaborative Piano (vocal and instrumental), and a Master of Music in Conducting.

To help nurture student musicians pursuing their degrees, Townsend School of Music touts such feathers in the cap as its designation as an All-Steinway School, ensemble rehearsal rooms with recording capability, numerous practice rooms, labs, working classroom space, and the Neva Langley Fickling Hall in the McCorkle Music Building. The 200-seat recital hall features outstanding acoustics, Dr. Keith says, and is equipped with a pipe organ and professional-level audio and recording equipment.

At an even more intensive level, the McDuffie Center for Strings offers conservatory-level master classes, private instruction and coaching sessions. Housed off-campus in a renovated historic structure on College Street, the McDuffie Center operates as a special institute within Townsend School of Music and caps enrollment at 26 students: 12 violinists, six violists, six cellists and two double bassists.

Remaining faithful to artistic pursuits that are “fundamental to our humanity,” mentoring young instrumentalists and vocalists “to achieve at their highest levels,” and positioning students to pursue successful careers in music, is the demand of every instructor and staff member under his leadership, Dr. Keith says. It requires a fine balance between designing a curriculum that offers a core comprehensive study of musical skills and nurturing the development of a “world view” through rigorous educational requirements, he adds.

“We want you to become the best musician you can be, but we also want you to become the best person you can become,” Dr. Keith says.

Setting the Stage

“The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” Shakespeare famously wrote in Hamlet, revealing not only the namesake character’s inner dialogue, but also the powerful exchange that can occur between a performer and his or her audience.

It’s the kind of “reciprocal relationship,” that appeals to Mercer Director of Theatre Scot Mann. No stranger to Shakespeare, Mann has been cast in and directed numerous productions written by the bard, appearing in productions mounted by the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, New American Theater, New American Shakespeare Theatre, and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.

Like Eric O’Dell, Mann is a Mercer alum who sought a graduate degree elsewhere, then returned to his alma mater to pass on the gifts of mentorship and artistic collaboration that had been shared so generously with him when he came to campus as a student, he says — one of them being a unique specialty in combat choreography.

A certified sword master, in-demand stunt professional, and president of the Society of American Fight Directors, Mann teaches Mercer students the finer points of stage combat and movement, as well as acting, directing and improvisation. Mounting a handful of productions every year — as diverse as James and the Giant Peach, She Kills Monsters and Merchant of Venice — the Mercer Theatre Department offers students the chance to put their behind-the-scenes skills and front-of-house talents to good use.

Every performer, of course, requires a stage, and Mercer has invested in venues that serve not only the needs and interests of students, but also benefit the Middle Georgia community.

The Tattnall Square Center for the Arts, located on the perimeter of campus in the heart of the College Hill Corridor, is housed in the renovated rescue of a century-old church. Opened in 2014, the multi-purpose arts space holds classrooms, studios, and expansive, temperature-controlled storage space for costumes and props used in Theatre Department productions. The painstakingly restored venue also opens its doors to community organizations for lectures, arts events and seminars.

On an even more ambitious scale, the historic Grand Opera House, located in downtown Macon, has been operated by Mercer since 1995. In its original heyday, such greats as Sarah Bernhardt, Pavlova, Will Rogers, Charlie Chaplin and Houdini wowed Macon audiences at The Grand. Today, the venue continues to attract touring Broadway shows, as well as offer Mercer students performance and stagecraft opportunities through the Mercer-staged operas and musical theatre productions. Since 1986, The Grand has served as the home stage for The Nutcracker of Middle Georgia, one of the most well attended and cherished annual arts-related events in the area.

Hitting Just the Right Note

Two other large-footprint developments in the works continue to deepen Mercer’s ties to Macon and increase the likelihood that President William D. Underwood will see, in the relatively near future, his personal vision for the downtown area come to fruition.

“What I think downtown needs is to be filled with creative young people with tattoos and nose rings,” the president says.

Mercer is planning a major revitalization of the historic Capricorn Studio, a venture that was co-founded by the late Mercer alum Phil Walden. Walden’s brainchild took off, and the label is credited with the rock-and-roll rise to fame of the Allman Brothers Band, Wet Willie, Elvin Bishop and the Marshall Tucker Band, among others.

The label disbanded more than a decade after it was first launched in 1969, and the crumbling Capricorn building remained vacant. For years, the former epicenter of Southern Rock continued to fall into disrepair until it was rescued by NewTown Macon in 2010. The nonprofit group purchased the building with a grant from the Peyton Anderson Foundation and is helping to lead the charge to renovate the historic structure and transform the facility as an anchor for the largest market-rate residential development ever conceived in downtown Macon.

Mercer has committed to raising an additional $2 million to complete the restoration, which will be re-envisioned as Mercer Music at Capricorn, offering music students recording and rehearsal space. It will serve as an incubator for music talent in the community, host offices and meeting spaces for arts organizations, and include a two-story interpretive area that tells the story of Capricorn and Macon’s rich and influential music history.

Just a few blocks away, on Second Street, plans are underway to wholly remodel and re-envision a historic building as a visual arts gallery and multi-functional space that will include working studios for art students. It’s a passion project for O’Dell, who has occupied his own painting studio space just around the corner since 1994. It’s a renaissance he’s hoped for and waited on for more than 20 years.

President Underwood takes a pragmatic view.

It is “enlightened self-interest” for Mercer to invest in the kinds of projects and arts programming that forge lasting connections with the community it calls home.

“The better Macon is, the better Mercer is.”

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