The woman behind the amazing concerts at Boulder Public Library
When Juliette León Bartsch was growing up in State College, Pa., she recognized herself as a “library junkie”—she was used to being kicked out at closing time. Yet she discovered the Boulder Public Library quite by accident. Brand new in town in 1999, she opened the door of a building on Canyon Boulevard, and heard a film going on in what turned out to be the library’s Canyon Theater. She caught the scent of books and glimpsed an art exhibit on the walls.
“I came in and thought, ‘This is the place for me,’ she says. “I couldn’t believe the books, art and music were all in one place.” Within a month the library literally became the place for her when she landed the job of concert series coordinator.
In its 39 years, the library’s music program has evolved from one recital by Boulder pianist Larry Graham to a sprinkling of concerts in the ’90s to about 50 concerts a year, with more than 10,000 people now attending. Its mission, Bartsch says, is to enrich the cultural life of Boulder residents, extend the library’s offerings, and bolster circulation when concertgoers check out books. Most concerts are on Sunday afternoons and at noon on weekdays, to fit as many people’s schedules as possible. Bartsch began the Third Tuesday concerts, for instance, to draw downtown workers, homeschooled students, parents or caregivers with young kids, “differently abled folks” and seniors by the busload.
The second Wednesday of every month brings one of Bartsch’s favorite programs—Morning Music Meditation, an hour of improvisation by a rotating pool of musicians playing piano, guitar, and other instruments from oud (a Middle Eastern lute) to didgeridoo. Audience members are welcome to read, knit or meditate, and the players often wander through the audience.
“People love it, finding the experience to be centering or healing,” Bartsch says. “It’s really a unique aural experience. There are few things more beautiful than the sound of a didgeridoo being blown above your head when your eyes are closed.”
’Cripple Creek’ in Pakistan
Bartsch, 45, could hardly be better trained for what she does. She spent her childhood performing musical theater, and summers in the Chautauqua (N.Y.) Opera Program. She earned a B.A. in voice performance and theater at Penn State University in State College, and continued her voice study at The Manhattan School of Music. Along the way she sang with Fred Waring’s Band, crammed into an apartment with New York City Ballet dancers, and worked at CBS, where she was a research assistant on 60 Minutes, assisted David Letterman (appearing in skits) and babysat Joan Rivers’ Yorkie, Spike. Together with two other women she met in the Ars Nova Singers, she formed an a-cappella trio called Voxy that does gigs at Shine and The Laughing Goat. She’s taught voice lessons, led choirs (including one for city employees) and directed musicals, even in Pakistan.
Bartsch and her husband, Jonathan, met in Pennsylvania, married in 1995 and lived in Peshawar, Pakistan, from 1996-98. Jonathan was working on a conflict-resolution Ph.D. program. Juliette taught English to Afghan refugees; some of the women in the camps had been TV newscasters, engineers, math professors and architects before the Taliban took control. She also taught music and art at the American International School. “I had my students perform the song ‘Cripple Creek,’ with no idea I would one day live and raise children in Colorado,” she says. “We put on full-scale musicals outdoors under colorful Pakistani tents, replete with live camels.”
But living in the Northwest Territories got increasingly dangerous, and if they went into Kabul “we could have been executed for a five-minute curfew violation.” They moved to Boulder after Jonathan accepted a job offer from CDR Associates, a conflict-resolution firm.
Making Things Happen
The Bartsches currently live in Boulder with their 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. During the 2013 flood, the mudslide that killed their next-door neighbor, Joey Howlett, drove them from their longtime home in Jamestown. “Things happen to many of us overnight,” Bartsch muses. “Having to flee and do the best you can just makes you realize how life rarely proceeds as planned, and how good people are.” They don’t know when they will move back to Jamestown, but “that has been our home. We love Jimtown.”
Meanwhile, Bartsch revels in the opportunities she has to help make things things happen on the stage of the Canyon Theater, for both audiences and artists. “I relish being able to bring musicians together to present something that hasn’t been performed before, or running a songwriting workshop for kids,” she says. “We have a great ‘town and gown’ relationship with faculty members at the CU College of Music, and are pleased that we are able to present many fine performances by faculty and students. Bartsch is also involved with pilot programs like the Colorado Music Party, which sent 120 Colorado bands to this year’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, and its local offshoot, the Hill Music Summit, that happened in Boulder in May.
“You can’t just keep topping the ‘wow’—you have to do things differently,” Bartsch says. “We are finding new ways of looking at, creating and presenting art and music.”
(Photo at top: The Colorado Chamber Players have performed regularly at the library for 14 years. Thanks to the generosity of the Boulder Public Library Foundation, all concerts are free, and Bartsch is able to pay professional musicians a good honorarium, attracting performers with national and international reputations.)
The Canyon Theater is at 1000 Canyon Blvd. It has 200 seats, a new sound system and six new spots for wheelchairs. As of late May, recorded concerts were about to start being broadcast on community Channel 8. For complete information on the Boulder Public Library’s music program, visit www.boulderlibrary.org. To learn about appearances by Voxy and the Amelie Trio, for which Juliette León Bartsch is chanteuse, check the groups’ Facebook pages.