Art in The Middle of Nature – Southern Montana, U.S.A

The pianist Stephen Hough sat before a large window, stroking the trembling, purple chords of Liszt’s “Transcen­dental Etude no. 11,” subtitled “Evening Harmonies.” As I looked past him onto an expanse of southern Montana ranch- land at dusk, I saw clouds boiling down from the Beartooth Mountains. Lightning accompanied Hough’s fortissimos. After the concert, as the small audience drifted outdoors, a last spasm of sunset lit up the hills a gaudy yellow. First one rainbow, then a second, arced across the charcoal sky.

The weather makes its presence felt at Tippet Rise, a vast yet intimate new arts center draped across 10,260 acres of pasture and canyons. The complex, which opened last June, springs from a dream shared by the married, culture-loving philanthropists Peter and Cathy Halstead of a place where landscape, art, and music could coexist in utopian harmony. The scion of a banking family and the daughter of a liquor tycoon, they met as teenagers, attended the same col­lege in New York City, and have spent much of their 36 years together giving away their money. To create their high-country arts Eden, they bought up seven ranches in Stillwater County, where a few thousand sheep, several hundred cows, and a small team of cowboys still roam; Tippet Rise remains a working ranch. The Halsteads also built the music barn where l saw Hough play and a few artists’ cottages, then filled them with pianos — and not just any pianos, but gorgeous, pre­cious Steinways, some dating from the 19th century.

two-disks

Visitors to Alexander Calder’s Two Disks, on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C.

The instruments have drawn international virtuo­sos far from their usual circuit. “This is the best collec­tion of Steinways anywhere—better than Carnegie Hall or the Southbank Centre in London,” Hough told me at his cottage, a few dozen yards from the music barn’s stage entrance. For his recital, he had chosen to play CD-18, a 1940 masterpiece that was originally owned by the legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz and later acquired by the equally prodigious Eugene Istomin.

The Halsteads’ boundless funds have yielded a minor populist fantasy in a plutocrats’ retreat. Two- hour van tours of the sculpture park are free. Concert tickets cost just $10, and another $15 will buy a pre- performance barbecue buffet good enough to satisfy’ the Halsteads’ exacting friends. Most of the cur­rent programming is scheduled during the warmer months, though the founders hope eventually to keep the center active year-round.

This sublime but peculiar enclave is especially improbable in terrain that’s remote even by Montana standards. Small-town classical-music festivals (like the one in Ojai, California) and expansive sculpture parks (such as Storm King, in New York’s Hudson Valley) are typically within striking distance of major cities or resorts. Fishtail, the town closest to Tippet Rise, consists of little more than a general store.

Because on-site accommodations are available only to visiting musicians, most out-of-towners stay in Red lodge or Billings, both about an hour away — close, by Montana standards. You’re more likely to spot a mountain lion than a concert pianist in this part of the country.

But the brisket line turned out to be heavily popu­lated with retired orthopedists, insurance moguls, and hobbyist ranchers who sit on the boards of their hometown chamber-music societies. The Halsteads may have wanted to bring art to the people, but mostly they’re bringing their people to the art.

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