Flags from around the world donned St. Catherine University’s campus as students gathered for its annual opening celebration last Monday. A major theme marked the occasion: the university’s sustainability efforts.
Students, faculty and staff gathered inside of The O’Shaughnessy, St. Catherine’s performance venue, which also has taken on sustainability as a key theme for the upcoming season. Anchoring The O’Shaughnessy’s programming is a performance planned for Sept. 30 called, “The [uncertain] Four Seasons,” which reinterprets Vivaldi’s famous set of four concertos in light of climate change based on geospatial data. Irene Greene, The O’Shaughnessy’s executive director, tells me over email that the piece, spearheaded by the Maine-based classical music organization Classical Uprising, was selected to help drive climate action.
“The [uncertain] Four Seasons” is a musical score based on climate data dependent on the location of the performance. It was inspired by a project first performed by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra in 2019. Two advertising agencies — AKQA and Jung von Matt — collaborated with composer/musician Hugh Crosthwaite, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Monash Climate Change Communications Research Hub to develop the score, which debuted in Australia in 2021.
In her remarks at the opening ceremony event, Dr. Emily Isaacson, the director of Classical Uprising, said she and Grammy-Award winning violinist Jesse Irons have been following the project, and decided to present it with CU, but they made some adjustments.
“We realized that listening to 45 minutes of computer generated music is not so fun,” she said to the St. Catherine audience. “And one of the things that I think about a lot is climate paralysis. This issue is so enormous, so emotionally overwhelming, that it’s easier to shut down than to act.” So Isaacson created an arrangement that would help take the audience on a narrative arc — compelling them to act without shutting them down, by combining the algorithmically created data with Vivaldi’s original. For the presentation at The O’Shaughnessy, the evening will include poetry performances by St. Kate’s students, and will be performed by Irons and members of the Minnesota Opera orchestra.
O’Shaughnessy’ programming focus was kicked into gear in part because of advocacy by the students.
As one example, Molly Pierson, now a junior at the university, opened up a conversation in the spring of 2022 with an open letter in the student newspaper that directly addressed President ReBecca Koenig Roloff. “It’s time we take sustainability seriously,” Pierson wrote.
I spoke with Pierson on the phone, and she says that one of the reasons she wrote that letter (as well as a follow-up letter), was that “no one really knew what was going on with sustainability,” she says. “We had one web page, and it looked like it hadn’t been updated in five years.”
Originally from Colorado, Pierson grew up in northern Minnesota. “I guess being surrounded by a ton of nature, it’s just something you always think about,” she tells me.
Pierson’s letter described students feeling frustration around the university’s lack of consistency in its sustainability efforts, and it demanded a reevaluation of St. Catherine’s sustainability plan and goals.
At the opening celebration, President Roloff credited Pierson’s letter to jumpstart a new Sustainability Committee as well as renewed efforts to not only strengthen sustainability efforts, but make them more transparent and visible. “I don’t think I would have stepped in and thought, ‘I gotta get a hold of this thing and get this thing organized’ if it had not been for Molly,” Roloff said.
Pierson now serves on the Sustainability Committee as a student rep, and in her role has been pushing for more food rescue with the university’s dining services. “We rescued about 500 pounds this summer alone,” she says.
Pierson feels there has been great movement. “I was kind of shocked initially, when President Roelof reached out to me that she was so willing to talk,” she says. After spending much of the sustainability’s first year conducting knowledge gathering, Pierson looks forward to taking things up a notch.
Pierson tells me she was greatly impressed by the preview of “The [uncertain] Four Seasons.”
“I thought it was great that they were centering art as kind of a spur to action,” she says. “Music speaks to people sometimes better than words can.”