Monday, May 26, 2008

Oberlin Weekend, Part I

Talcott Hall (college domitory), built in 1887.

This year is the 175th anniversary of the founding of Oberlin College, the 150th anniversary of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, and Clara's 25th college reunion. We arrived in Oberlin on Friday, and Clara reported to 25th reunion headquarters at Talcott Hall, which was her freshman dorm. Talcott belongs to what Oberlin architectural historian Geoffrey Blodgett calls Oberlin's Stone Age—a period from about 1885 until about 1910 when the college's erected massive gray stone buildings in the Richardsonian style. Like most of the campus, Talcott is full of memories, some of which are second-hand and predate my own time at Oberlin. After serving in World War II, my father-in-law returned as a student to Oberlin (where his father was the dean of the Conservatory of Music) and met my mother-in-law, who was living in Talcott. After an evening date, he drove her back to Talcott in his jeep. Having promised to deliver her to the door, he drove the jeep up the front steps of the building—the center railing may have been installed there to prevent such stunts in the future. That happened in about 1946, forty years before I graduated.

As a student at Oberlin in the early 1980s, I felt as if my mind were expanding by orders of magnitude. I learned Latin and Greek there, I studied history with one of the leading medievalists in the country, I attended hundreds of concerts and spent hours in the superb little Allen Memorial Art Museum. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was living in a world where I belonged. I began to be myself.

Pictured at left is the Allen Memorial Art Museum (1917), designed by Cass Gilbert, who also designed the Minnesota State Capitol. The museum is one of the finest college art museums in the country, with a collection that includes works by Monet, Rubens, Reynolds, Hobbema, Cezanne, Mondrian, Modigliani, and many others. The canvas by Sir Joshua Reynolds is the artist's own copy of his famous "The Strawberry Girl," the original of which I saw at The Wallace Collection in London a year ago. The Allen also owns Michael Coxcie's portrait of Christina of Denmark, which I mentioned in a blog post about the Holbein exhibit at the Tate in London in late 2006.

Another treasure I discovered on this visit was this watercolor that John La Farge painted in Tahiti. La Farge also designed stained glass windows for the Minnesota State Capitol. After his wife's suicide, historian Henry Adams left his home in Washington, D.C. and traveled with La Farge to Tahiti, where he consoled his grief among the tropical landscape and lovely brown-skinned naked women. Adams was so enamored of Tahiti that he wrote the "memoirs" of one of the island's queens. Meanwhile, both he and La Farge sat and painted Tahitian scenes such as this one in the AMAM (with a slight reflection off the glass). I wish I were imaginative and persistent enough to write a historical novel about Adams and La Farge in Tahiti.

Finney Chapel (1902), designed by Cass Gilbert.

For me, one of the high points of reunion weekend was a Sunday night concert in Finney Chapel by the Oberlin Orchestra, conducted by David Zinman (Class of 1958). The concert featured Dvorak's Eighth Symphony, which is one of my favorite pieces. The orchestra was amazing. The symphony includes wonderful opportunities to showcase various instruments, and we were particularly impressed by the young flute player, Brandon George, whom we met after the concert. Sitting in Finney Chapel, listening to Oberlin's brilliant young musicians, I felt very happy and very humble and very much at home. I was back in a place that, perhaps more than any other place, defined who I am.

3 comments:

Jim H. said...

In three years of high school band and orchestra, hardly a week went by without our director raving about Oberlin's music program. He leaned hard on the top musicians (I wasn't among them) to apply to Oberlin. Maybe he was on commission, but your story of the concert at Oberlin made me recall that old director's love of the place.

Shan said...

So the big question is, are Will and Peter going to continue the Oberlin tradition?

Rob Hardy said...

Shan: Will is already talking about going to Oberlin.

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