On hearing Messiaen in Greenfield, Iowa

Olivier Messiaen’s 1941 Quartet for the End of Time is not often played for audiences, even in the largest and most sophisticated musical markets.

It’s more than 45 minutes long. It is physically and emotionally demanding for the performers, and intensely transfixing for audiences, but only if they’re willing to forget everything they know about compositional convention in classical music. The piece is a modernist experiment in the removal of time or tempo as an important element in music; as such, there’s not much to hang one’s ear on or tap a foot to.

Written for the musicians incarcerated with Messiaen at a Nazi POW camp in Germany, the quartet creates a powerful and emotional picture of life when it seemed that civilization might be coming to an end.

So why did 80 people from Greenfield, Iowa, a rural town with a population of less than 2,000, show up at the town’s Warren Cultural Center on a Monday night to listen to a University of Iowa student quartet perform this piece-and then leap to their feet in appreciation?

There’s clearly a hunger in communities across Iowa and America to hear quality live performances of music that challenge the listener. But it’s not likely that small-town venues like the Warren can afford to bring these performances to their stages. If performed by a professional quartet of any repute and supported by ticket sales, each of those 80 audience members would be charged $150 just to cover the expense of the quartet. Supporting the venue adds 50 percent of that charge to the cost of the ticket, for a final ticket price of $225 per person.

Fortunately, this quartet was supported by a University of Iowa Outreach and Engagement grant, which made the performance free to the community. This grant program provides vital touring performance opportunities for student groups on the verge of making their own careers as chamber musicians, and helps achieve the mission of a public university by engaging people through the arts. An example of the latter: On the way to each performance venue, the UI students stop at elementary and high schools to provide educational programming and master classes before their evening performance.

Small-town America already faces so many immediate challenges; the desire for quality entertainment could seem trivial in comparison. But it’s not trivial at all. In fact, it’s what keeps successful small towns alive-bringing people together, educating the public, and creating civic pride.

When I asked Warren Cultural Center Director Ken Sidey about the people who supported the renovation of their 1896 opera house so they could bring performances to Greenfield, he described them as a small group of committed people who just wouldn’t let the idea go. They knew that Greenfield’s survival depended on having both economic and cultural resources for its residents. The town now proudly describes itself as a destination for culture, art, and commerce.

I think they’re onto something.

Kayt Conrad is administrator of the Division of Performing Arts at the University of Iowa.