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September 27-October 3, 2006

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Kit Neustadter

Photograph by Michael Amsler
Kit Neustadter framed in the 130-year-old Occidental church that provides the acoustics for the Redwood Arts Council's programs.

Soul Food

Redwood Arts Council keeps chamber music in the fore

'You're talking to someone who never had a music lesson in her life and who can't carry a tune, but was raised in a family where chamber music was played in the living room at family gatherings."

So explains Kit Neustadter, the tireless promoter of classical music and the longtime director of Occidental's 26-year-old Redwood Arts Council, the quizzically titled organization that produces West Sonoma County's longest-running chamber music series. Named over a quarter-century ago for what was to have been an umbrella institution supporting an array of arts and artists, the Redwood Arts Council's one great success has been its music series.

The name stuck even though it suggests something more than a beloved, remarkably successful string of world-class concerts featuring musicians from all around the world performing in downtown Occidental. For Neustadter, who recently spent the evening with a team of eight music-loving volunteers stuffing, labeling, sticking and otherwise preparing over 150 pounds of flyers, posters and brochures, the Redwood Arts Council is a true labor of love, inspired by her lifelong love of music.

"As a kid growing up in Cleveland and St. Louis, there was always chamber music," she says. "When one of my uncles would perform on the violin, I'd end up sitting on the floor with the dogs and the other kids, listening to this wonderful music. I grew to like it, and even as a teenager, instead of going to the mall, all the teenagers in my family would gather at someone's home and listen to chamber music."

Growing up among musicians--musicians who knew some of the great players and composers, and often had them over for dinner and a recital--Neustadter took a stab at learning the recorder, but realized that she was better off as a supporter and fan than as an actual musician. "I never really got the recorder," she laughs. "I still can't get a low C on the thing."

In 1980, working with Council cofounder Janet Green, she launched an ambitious 15-show chamber music series using the acoustically rich, 130-year-old Occidental Community Church as a setting. It soon became a fixture of that small town's cultural life, and eventually began to draw music fans from all around the county and beyond.

The current series, which began last weekend with a concert by the violin-mandolin ensemble Galanterie, will feature a total of nine concerts this year, including performances by the multinational Nobilis Trio, the excitingly contemporary Euclid String Quartet and North Bay master harpist Patrick Ball. Over the years, the series has become more than just an entertaining novelty; it has served as a launching pad for many novice groups, even hosting the now world-renowned Kronos Quartet back when the modern ensemble were still performing Beethoven.

Green eventually left the Redwood Arts Council to pursue other projects, but rather than abandon the mighty little organization, Neustadter elected to forge ahead on her own, with the help of a dedicated group of volunteers. "I couldn't let it go," she says. "How could I? It's just such a wonderful thing to be a part of."

While allowing that selecting, hiring, promoting, hosting and even feeding dozens of internationally assorted musicians each year is a stupefying amount of work, Neustadter says she always remembers why she does it whenever the latest ensemble or soloist sits down and begins to play.

"I love the concerts!" she says. "I used to joke that I do all this just so I can have these great, intimate concerts in my own town instead of having to drive to San Francisco to hear a concert in a giant concert hall. I get a rush from every single concert we produce."

Aside from the personal benefits of having beautiful music played in her virtual front yard, Neustadter says she is motivated to keep going by her belief that chamber music, performed up close in an intimate setting by magnificent performers, can be a life-changing, life-enriching experience.

"Sometimes I wonder how all of this measures up to the kinds of things I could be doing with my life," she muses. "I could be making sure that our environment doesn't turn to complete poison or working to get us out of the war in Iraq or seeing to it that starving people get food, and sometimes I feel a little guilty. Then I hear the music and see the faces of the audiences listening, and I remember that the soul needs nourishment too. That's why I do what I do--because music really does transform and feed the soul. And I'm lucky that I get to be a part of that."

--David Templeton

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