Viroqua, Wisconsin has been increasingly recognized as the small town that could… a place where time and time again, creativity, chutzpah, and community have coalesced to add lasting value and vitality to the town. The opening of Pierce Hill Performing Arts this summer will follow the same “can do” spirit of the community, delivering premier musical performances and culture to our rural landscape.
The PHPA project is spearheaded by Wyatt and Monika Sutherland, Viroqua residents known for bringing rigor and excellence to all of their endeavors, so it is no surprise that the inaugural season of the Pierce Hill Performing Arts will be permeated with artistic excellence and delight.
Located on the Sutherland’s picturesque property just outside of town, PHPA aims to unite the tranquil beauty of the natural setting with the magic of exceptional music — an effort to cultivate lasting experiential imprints for audiences and performers alike. As a non-profit 501(c)3 organization, PHPA will also strive to generate funds for scholarships to support young people who wish to attend a music camp or participate in a national level music competition.
Though the venue —a beautiful, Amish-built barn— went up in a few short months, the dream of PHPA has been percolating for much of Wyatt’s lifetime. It began when he was a young boy of 9, growing up in a family living below the poverty line, and his mother took him to a concert featuring the legendary cellist Janos Starker. The performance moved Wyatt so deeply he knew with immediate certainty that he wanted to pursue the cello. Supported by his mother who needed to work two jobs in order to pay for a cello, maintenance for the instrument, and lessons, Wyatt took up the cello and quickly showed great promise, but financial limitations added extra challenges to his path.
Wyatt was fortunate to have not only the support of his hard working mother, but help from a larger community as he received lesson scholarships from teachers, and family friends and local organizations helped subsidize the cost of attending summer music camps. These gifts from others left a strong impression and a deep-seated commitment to someday help others achieve their dreams.
At age 11, Wyatt attended the Sewanee Summer Music Festival in Sewanee, Tennessee —a gorgeous, lush, hilly region of southeastern Tennessee. This was his introduction to the union of music in a beautiful natural setting and it was here the link between Wyatt’s love of music and natural beauty was born— an impression that has remained to this day. Over the years, Wyatt studied at a number of prominent music festivals— Aspen, Tanglewood, Norfolk, and Blue Hill. Each time, he had incredible musical experiences, playing with and being coached by many of the great masters in the classical world (Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, Gunther Schuller, the Tokyo String Quartet and many others). Each time, as his connection and experience with music grew, so did the imprint of the beautiful surroundings.
On his first date with Monika (now his wife of more than 28 years), lying on a blanket and enjoying a can of Fosters beer in a park in Bloomington, Indiana, Wyatt articulated his dream of someday having a barn in a beautiful rural setting where nature and music could come together. More than 30 years later, that dream is finally coming to fruition —his magnum opus.
There were many steps along the way, but each one has nourished the roots of PHPA. The early years of the Sutherland’s marriage were spent in the Chicago area where their four children were born alongside Concerts Under the Dome, a highly acclaimed and awarded concert series that presented chamber music concerts under the dome of Ascension Church in Oak Park, IL. The series ran for 10 years and brought renowned artists from all over the world including Joshua Bell, Edgar Meyer, Janos Starker, Cleveland Quartet, Boris Berezovsky, and many others.
In 2005, the Sutherland family moved to Viroqua, drawn by the beautiful landscape of ridges and valleys, the wonderful community, and the Waldorf school. The move also gave Wyatt the opportunity to pursue another dream— building his dream house. The design and building of the house took several years and was a hands-on family affair that involved all six of them. The result is an exquisite labor of love that sits in harmony with nature, is comfortable for the family, fully reliant on alternative energy and includes a small concert/music space included in the design. Building the home was another step towards PHPA, which shares the same beautiful landscape.
With the house built and all four Sutherland children off to college in the summer of 2017, the time for Pierce Hill had finally arrived. The past year has been spent building the barn and attending to every detail. Passionate about sharing his admiration of great musicians with others, Wyatt reaches out to his renowned musician friends and also listens extensively to find new outstanding ensembles around the world. Wyatt believes strongly in community and has asked some local Viroqua vendors to feature some excellent local food, local organic soda pop and micro brewed beer made specifically for PHPA. With this care and attention to detail, PHPA is a gesture of love: love of artistic excellence, love of natural rural beauty, love of food, and the desire to share these wonderful things with the community.
The inaugural season of PHPA will feature four concerts — two classical concerts and two Newgrass/Americana concerts, all with highly acclaimed and nationally recognized musicians. The first, Noah Geller & Friends is scheduled for Sunday, May 6th. A classical chamber concert, the performance will bring together acclaimed chamber musicians from around the country to perform two landmark works: Brahms’ String Sextet No 2 in G Major and Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence. Other performances include the Indie-Folk/Americana band River Whyless on Saturday, June 23rd, Chicago Harp Quartet on Sunday, July 29th, and “Yahoo Music’s Top 10 Bands to Watch,” The Accidentals on Saturday, August 4th. (To learn more about the musicians or to purchase tickets please visit the PHPA website.
Wyatt is happiest when he is able to create memorable experiences to share with others. He recognizes that when we commune in the presence of artistic excellence and pastoral beauty, a quiet and internal shift takes place. He also hopes that PHPA will inspire and support young people in a similar way that he was inspired on that day hearing Janos Starker perform live for the first time at age 9. (Note – After graduating from high school, Wyatt went on to study with the great master cellist at Indiana University School of Music.)