On Saturday night, my wife and I were guests of our friends Jim and Betsy Easton, at a performance of Handel's Messiah. The concert was a joint production of the Rockford Symphony Orchestra and the Mendelssohn Club chorus. The four professional soloists from out of town sang beautifully, but it was the orchestra and chorus that made greatest impression made on us. I congratulate RSO conductor Steven Larsen for a fine performance but even more for making great strides in improving the quality of the ensemble. The playing was tight, and Larsen kept up a sprightly tempo appropriate for Baroque music. The Chorus (directed ably by Marti Bein) were impressive both for their power (when it was called for) and for their controlled restraint.
My wife and I used to be active concert-goers in Rockford. Our children were all taking music lessons, and we frequented concerts given by the Mendelssohn Club and at other music venues. In those days we did not often attend the concerts of the Rockford Symphony Orchestra, because, although there were many fine players, the ensemble was sometimes painfully inadequate. Over the years, I had been impressed by the RSO broadcasts on WNIU Radio, though the recording quality was less than stellar. Now, we are resolved, when we are in town, to attend as many RSO concerts.
Rockford, as many people are aware, has been listed as one of the most miserable cities in America. While there are plenty of reasons to criticize Rockford--high rates of crime and unemployment, the frighteningly bad system of public schools, and the lack of civic pride displayed by wealthy people who prefer to give their money to Chicago--the music scene here is something to celebrate. If you have a taste for the various types of pop music, Rockford has many fine musicians. For "classical" music, the Mendelssohn Club has maintained high standards for over a century, and the dedicated teachers of the Rockford Music Academy (founded by our late friend Eleanor Stanlis), have been training young musicians for over 30 years. I am very happy to report that the Rockford Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Steven Larsen, in reaching this high level of professional maturity, has become one of Rockford's most telling answers to our misery index.
Why do I write about this on a website that goes around the world? One obvious reason is to give credit when it is due, but there is also an important social, even a moral message. The great civilizations of Europe were not created (though they were often sustained) by massive empires but by city-states. Athens and Florence were small towns, agitated by the frictions and conflicts that can make small-town life unpleasant, but their peoples loved their cities. If some portion of the people of Rockford could learn to love their city and serve it, with the intensity and dedication displayed by the RSO and Mendelssohn Club, Rockford would not be losing its best and brightest to Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.