Live performance as community

Nurturing the Arts:

Liisa Kissel, Music: Live performance as community

By Allison Teague

SOVAL-02.feat.nurturing-kissell.5112013_023It took the Grafton Music Festival only three years to rise to the status of go-to music festival, held in tandem with the annual visit of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra & Fireworks, itself a Grafton staple of the past 23 years.

Grafton resident Liisa Kissel, president of Grafton Music Festival, Inc., serves with a board of three to get the job done. She explains that her lifelong love of music, something she shared with her late husband, informs everything she brings to GMF.

“Just listening to the live performance, (and) to classical perfection is so beautiful and dramatic,” she says. She adds that she gets very emotional about the sound. “For me, it’s an essential part of being a human. Life would be so much poorer without it.”

This year’s 5th Annual Grafton Music Festival is July 3-6 in a large tent on the ball field in the center of town, and is aimed at generating additional interest in beautiful, musical, Grafton.

Samirah Evans and her Handsome Devils play Friday, 7-9p; the Starline Rhythm Boys — a rocking honkytonk rockabilly band — play Saturday from 2-4p, followed by the Compaq Big Band (we’re talking 15 horns and a cookin’ rhythm section) with local Alstead singer Rebecca Holtz from 6-8p.

As with the Festival’s first year, organizers have scheduled a concert Sunday morning in the White Church, where the acoustics are perfect for classical, jazz, and swing.

Anticipating some 400 visitors over the course of the event, Kissel says a flood of volunteers attests to how well the community has received the Grafton Music Festival. Every year she sees more return — and new ones are quick to tell her how much they enjoy the Festival.

New on tap: a series of occasional expert talks on music, with live demonstrations. Seth Knopp, Yellow Barn’s artistic director, kicks off this “Open Ears” series June 18.

“In Grafton we have a great natural soundscape … and composed music is an extension of the natural sounds. It’s just essential beauty, and a dimension to our lives which is very important,” Kissel says.

“I think it’s another outlet for one’s emotions. We need to express who we are and what’s going on inside. Even if (those) emotions aren’t articulated, you need to be aware of your feelings and emotions and reactions,” she adds.

Grafton itself takes center stage thanks to the Grafton Music Festival. Whereas in the festival’s inception, which incorporated a craft show with vendors, this year Kissel promises something a little bit different: a focus on food. Look for local flavors from Grafton Village Cheese Company, Rushton Farm ice cream, Blake Hill Preserves, and a bounty of baked goods.

Kissel said she started playing piano when she was in her late 40’s, thanks to Susan Dedell, who directs the Brattleboro Concert Choir and lived on Kissel’s property for a time.

“She used to practice piano in my barn, and when she graduated to a Steinway, we brought her piano here” — where it sits in a spot overlooking Kissel’s country gardens that surround her home in Grafton.

Kissel describes herself and her late husband as enthusiastic listeners and concert goers. The pair enjoyed subscriptions to concerts in Germany before they moved to Boson in 1981.

And she credits her grandmother, who loved the opera, for nurturing this passion in her.

“We gathered in the evenings and sat knitting and listening to the radio” — opera and classical programs, Kissel explains. She fondly recalls tuning in Enrico Caruso, Maria Callas, and Jussi Björling, among others.

“There was no (live) classical music where I grew up. We lived on a farm outside a small town,” she says. She recalls bicycling to a larger town nearby for a touring symphony. Hearing Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40 in G minor” blew her away, she said.

And via such bicycle trips and other excursions into a love of music, the Grafton Music Festival bloomed.

Kissel delights in describing how her community here worked out how to leverage the popular VSO concerts on Grafton Ponds, expanding offerings to a three-or-four-day annual celebration of mixed musical experiences showcasing artists from Vermont and across New England.

The key, she said, was in leveraging the VSO doing concerts for upwards of 2,500 each July 3 at the Grafton Ponds, in a big tent with fireworks, part of the VSO’s popular summer tour. All that remained was to add a program of high-end jazz, rock, blues, folk, and swing — and stir.

“It seemed like a natural extension, and a really good fit for a town like ours. It’s a historic town known for its beauty and aesthetic values,” Kissel says.

Operationally, GMF came out of a working group consisting of Windham Foundation personnel and community members. As someone who regularly attended music events and knew how to make things happen, it was natural that, in 2009 Kissel landed a place at the table in the office of former Windham Foundation Chair John Bramley.

“John Bramley was very enthusiastic about the idea, and had always had this vision of having more events in Grafton and of bringing in more arts and culture in town in addition to what we already had here,” Kissel recalls.

The Grafton Music Festival incorporated as a not-for-profit in 2011, with Kissel as its chair.

Looking ahead, Kissel knows that the GMF is more than just a concert. Like music itself, it’s about connection, she says.

“In Vermont, small towns and small communities are struggling … having a hard time finding their way in the changing economy. Perhaps retaining young people or attracting people through the arts is a vital part of making these towns a better and more interesting place to be for different generations and people from different backgrounds,” she says

“We’re certainly trying to contribute to that and see this as regional effort.”

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