Covering more than two-and-a-half acres, the gardens at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens have roots dating back to 1903, literally. Featuring reflecting pools, mature live oaks, antique ornaments and hundreds of vibrant azalea bushes, the gardens have inspired and influenced visitors for more than a century.
So it only makes sense that local singer-songwriter Lee Hunter (formerly of the band Tammerlin) sprouted an idea about the Cummer more than three years ago: Put together a concert of original music that would celebrate this collection of historic vegetation as well
as the St. Johns River. The gardens are on the riverbank.
Hunter brought the proposal to museum director Hope McMath and the rest – as they say – is history.
On Sunday, June 7, A Vision Awakening: A Celebration of the Cummer Gardens & the St. Johns River will be performed in its entirety at Terry Gallery, which overlooks the gardens and the river.
Hunter, the project’s founder and organizer as well as producer, composer and musician on the accompanying record, which was released in April, will be joined by Philip Pan, Barbara Colaciello, Kevin Bodge, Lis Williamson, Lon Williamson and Gabriel Valla.
The evolution of this all-encompassing musical project has been wrought on a long and winding road.
“I knew that I wanted to work with Charlotte Mabrey and Philip Pan,” Hunter says of early contributors to A Vision Awakening and some of the area’s most esteemed musicians. “They were already on board. The three of us were the core creators of the concert performance.”
Remember, this was back a few years ago when the idea was fresh and the musicians weren’t quite sure how or what they were going to coordinate. So they took to museum records — specifically, the letters and diaries of Ninah Cummer, the property’s original matriarch, for inspiration.
“We dug through Ninah’s archives, not really having a direction for the show, but feeling that we would find our direction through the research,” Hunter explains. “We learned that Ninah had a deep sense of community and of responsibility to her community. She was bright, dedicated and quite a leader and visionary for the city.”
Once the trio had a basic idea for content, they invited actors Kevin Bodge and Barbara Colaciello to join. In September 2013, the troupe presented the first performance of A Vision Awakening, which included original music and spoken word featuring text from Cummer’s speeches, garden journals and other writings.
“To be clear, the only music that I wrote for the project is a song called ‘St. Johns River Dream,’” Hunter admits. “Charlotte created a multiple percussion arrangement to accompany a poem. Gabe Valla wrote the beautiful transitional guitar parts to accompany the narration. The rest of the music is either traditional or was written by others.”
And the project proved so powerful that approximately $10,000 was raised through private donors and a fundraising event at the museum to record, mix and master an accompanying record.
“Holly Keris, the Cummer’s head curator, contacted me in the summer of 2014 asking permission to use a recording of the concert for the upcoming Reflections exhibit celebrating the St. Johns River that was coming up in February 2015,” says Hunter.
As is true of many creatively shaped projects, the main problem was funding. “I told her that I’d be happy to give permission, but there was no recording. She asked me to put a budget together, which I did. She and Hope felt very strongly that the CD needed to be done,” says Hunter. “It’s not every day that an art museum wishes to produce a CD of performance art.”
In January 2015, Hunter and her team got to work recording the album at Gatorbone Studios in Keystone, which is owned by collaborators Lis and Lon Williamson.
“The album has been received very positively. It plays constantly in the gallery,” says Hunter. “When we first proposed the concert idea, we had no idea that any of that was planned. It has been kind of magical the way all the threads have been woven together, how perfect the timing seems to have been.”