Ellsworth Peterson playing organ in a church

Festival of the Arts celebrates ten years of bringing the world’s music to Georgetown

Music can take us places that are otherwise inaccessible. It can bring us to laughter and move us to tears. It can intensify our joy and comfort our sorrow. It can turn an ordinary day into a miracle, if we have ears to hear.

-Dr. Ellsworth Peterson

Visitors to Ellsworth Peterson’s childhood home in Georgetown might have heard him diligently practicing piano. Like many children in the 1940s (and now), he had piano lessons. But while many piano students learn a bit and then move on to other interests, perhaps playing for personal pleasure as adults, Dr. Peterson’s lessons started him on a musical journey that has enriched not only his life but the lives of students, colleagues, family, and many, many people living in and near Georgetown.

The same visitors, a few years later, might have seen Dr. Peterson tuning the family’s radio to hear music from faraway places: “I listened avidly to the few radio broadcasts then available in Georgetown—the New York Philharmonic concerts, the Bell Telephone hour.” He saved his money to buy 78 rpm recordings that brought more of the world’s great music into his home.

But even at this time, Georgetown, still quite a small town, had its own music scene, and Dr. Peterson participated in it, playing oboe in the Georgetown High School band and continuing to study music, encouraged by Iola Bowden, professor of piano at Southwestern University. Dr. Peterson graduated from GHS in 1951 and won a scholarship to Southwestern, where he added organ to his instrumental repertoire.

Readers who know Dr. Peterson might be thinking, “Wait—I’m quite sure Dr. Peterson taught at Southwestern.” Indeed—but his musical journey took him a far distance from Georgetown before it brought him home again.

Ellsworth Peterson

The World Beyond Georgetown

Dr. Peterson’s study of piano and organ combined with “a strong interest in the church,” he says, and resulted in a plan: to study organ and choral conducting at Union Theological Seminary in New York and then to pursue a doctorate at Harvard so that he could achieve his “ultimate desire to teach music history in college.” But first he took a slight detour, serving in the military for two years. Even in this, his travels had musical overtones—he played oboe as a soldier in the Eighth Army Band in Korea.

In 1965, Dr. Peterson got a call from home—specifically, from Southwestern University. Would he be interested, now that his program at Harvard was wrapping up, in coming back to Georgetown to join SU’s faculty as the Margarett Root Brown Professor of Fine Arts? He and his wife, Suzanne, whom he had met at Union Theological, packed up the house and moved to Texas, where they settled to teach, raise three daughters, and invite many students to join the musical journey. Carrying out their interest in church music, Dr. Peterson and Suzanne also served for thirty-five years as organists and choir directors at First United Methodist Church during his tenure at SU. “Understanding music, both as a performer and a listener,” Dr. Peterson says, “has so greatly enriched my life that I want to help others have similar experiences.” And so he has.

Bringing the World to Georgetown

As a teacher, scholar, and performer during his thirty-seven years of teaching at Southwestern, Dr. Peterson guided students to shape their own musical journeys. And he continued his own, traveling, for example, to Thailand to hear and study a kind of music quite unlike that to which most American ears are accustomed. These travels in turn enriched his teaching. Dr. Peterson organized, for example, a Brown Symposium that brought to campus not only musicians and dancers from Bangkok but also scholars from around the States who spoke on Thailand’s art, poetry, and history. This event enriched the cultural life of SU and of the whole community, since the Brown Symposia are open to the public.

Ellsworth Peterson playing the organ

In other symposia, Dr. Peterson has brought to Georgetown the music of British composer Benjamin Britten, one of his favorite composers; of French organist and ornithologist Oliver Messaien, who incorporated birdsong into his complex works; and of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose works bear the mark of Russia’s turbulent twentieth-century history. Not only did the Brown Symposia organized by Dr. Peterson feature music’s global diversity, but the musicians themselves, not to mention the scholars who spoke in conjunction with the performances, came from distant cities and nations to share their gifts.

Some people seize retirement as an opportunity to pursue a passion, as Dr. Peterson has done through his committed efforts, over ten years, to establish the Festival of the Arts in Georgetown and to invite people from near and far to join him in bringing a world of music to Georgetown. One such person is Philip Smith, music director at First Presbyterian Church. “I was greatly influenced by him,” Mr. Smith says, despite having studied music at SU after Dr. Peterson’s retirement. “Dr. Peterson’s support and cultivation of music and the arts in Georgetown is something truly amazing.” In addition to his composing, arranging, conducting, and other church activities, Mr. Smith has worked with Dr. Peterson to form and conduct chamber choral groups that “preview” music by the festival’s composers in the fall preceding the main event. “He is an incredible teacher and musician and one of the most knowledgeable people I have ever met.”

Dr. Peterson invites people to enjoy and understand music, he says, “by providing pre-concert lectures and writing program notes for musical performances in central Texas.” He also teaches in Georgetown’s Senior University. Retirement has not ended Dr. Peterson’s musical reach and may even have extended it, in particular through the vehicle of the Festival of the Arts.

Festivals of the Arts brochures

The Festival of the Arts

Dr. Peterson marks his tenth year as the festival’s artistic director, in fact. A brief look back at the festival’s themes demonstrates just how well traveled, musically, our city is, thanks to the festival. Past festivals have brought George Friderik Handel, of Messiah fame, from his adopted home of England. From Germany have come Johannes Brahms and Felix Mendelssohn, and from neighboring Austria, Joseph Haydn and Franz Schubert. At one festival, Antonín Dvořák’s works represented what is now the Czech Republic, and at another, Aaron Copland’s music celebrated our own nation’s heritage. Musical ambassadors from France include Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Francis Poulenc; and last year, esteemed Russian composers Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Anton Arensky visited our fair city by means of the musical legacy they left to the whole world.

Not only do scholars and noted musicians come from near (as in the celebrated Miró Quartet, based at the University of Texas) and far (as in Jan Swafford, scholar and teacher at The Boston Conservatory), but they come from right here in town, as well, to learn about, play, and enjoy the music featured in the festivals. Students and faculty from Southwestern perform, and on Saturday evening of the festival, a free concert in the park brings in local symphonic groups and GISD students. “One of my greatest thrills,” Dr. Peterson says of last year’s festival, “was in hearing students from the choirs, bands, and orchestras of Georgetown High School and East View High School, over 250 in all, performing together with the Round Rock Symphony the 1812 Overture of Tchaikovsky.” A fireworks show, generously supported by The Williamson County Sun, ends each concert in the park, and especially in the case of the rousing 1812 Overture, what could be more fitting?

Planning the Festival of Arts with Ellsworth Peterson and committee of volunteers

Planning the Festival of Arts with Ellsworth Peterson and committee of volunteers

This year, Spain comes to Georgetown, with the music of Isaac Albéniz, Enrique Granados, and Manuel de Falla. And not just the music but also spirited dancing, stories told in film and puppetry, lectures, and—of course—fireworks. Much work and many people make the festival happen each year, but behind it all is a vision of music as a passport to other lands, other times, and other cultures—and all of this brought into the heart of our community.

Jan Swafford, scholar and musician at The Boston Conservatory, visited Georgetown to lecture during the Brahms festival in 2011. He later commented that the festival “is a treasure for the town and the whole region. It’s beautifully conceived and organized and, best of all, presents music performed at a very high level in the context of community, which for me with the best and most appropriate way to experience music. . . . Bravo to Ellsworth Peterson and his forces—many of them inspired by him to come to music in the first place—for creating this splendid institution.”

It’s hard to say it better, but one other comment bears repeating: Music can take us around this world, and we can chase it to Thailand, or Germany, or Russia. But for the benefit of those who can’t afford to rent a villa in Spain this year, the Festival of the Arts brings Spain to the beautiful campus of Southwestern University and to San Gabriel Park. So you don’t need to travel far to join this musical journey!

Plan your musical itinerary by learning about the events of this year’s festival, ¡Olé! In Georgetown: A Spanish Fiesta (with a French Twist), at www.gtownfestival.org.

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