by Michael Bowen

David Dutton has a push-me, pull-me relationship with the Royal Fireworks Concert that he helps put on every year. "Year after year, we say we're not gonna do it," he says once again, "we're getting too old -- blah, blah -- and then we meet somebody in the street and they say, "Do you know how much you did for us?' Mrs. Cowles used to pull that on us all the time. We'd be walking down the street and she'd pull us over and say, 'Oh, that was so wonderful!' You know, you can't argue with Margaret Cowles, there's no way."

You can't argue with Spokane's 25-year attendance record at the RFC, either. Concert-goers -- even the ones who aren't there purely for the music of three centuries gone by -- vote with their feet, and tens of thousands of them show up every July in Riverfront Park. You can't argue with the folks who come up to Allegro co-founder Beverly Biggs after a concert to express how profoundly Allegro's Historic Homes concerts have affected their lives. You can't argue with the woman who chose to sit down on Thanksgiving Day a decade ago and give thanks for what was closest to her heart -- a certain outburst of Baroque music accompanied by all those twinkly lights in the sky. You can't argue with success.

Still, our culture's not-so-fine treatment of the fine arts is reflected at Allegro HQ. The organization's banner fills the front window of a rundown brick house on the South Hill. The building needs paint; the front walk needs weeding. Inside, however, there are gleaming wooden floors. Beverly Biggs, who, with David Dutton, is co-founder, producer and artistic director of Allegro and what has morphed into its Royal Fireworks Festival, beams with Southern hospitality. Her pride is evident as she escorts a visitor on a tour of the partial remodeling that's in progress. Musty archives are stuffed into what used to be closets and laundry rooms. No matter. Bev Biggs remembers when they didn't have this home. She remembers back to the early '70s, when what was then Connoisseur Concerts couldn't buy any media coverage.

"I think the breakthrough was Expo '74," she says. "Up until then, we didn't get a lot of press. We did 21 concerts during Expo, and we sort of became known then." Eagerly, she shows off her only copy of the Royal Fireworks first program from July 1978: music by Telemann, Susato, Purcell -- excerpts from music for The Faerie Queene -- and even a Beethoven military march.

Dutton chuckles over the memory: "We used to type all that stuff up on an IBM Selectric," he says, "and then take it to Kinko's -- or whatever there was before Kinko's."

Back in the beginning, in 1970, there was Connoisseur Concerts. "We ran it for 15 years," Dutton says, recalling that, "1985 was the tercentenary of Bach. We did 47 events that year -- we killed ourselves, just about. And we were paid $5,000 for the year, for both of us."

It was a turning point, with the group going into abeyance for a year and a new organization, Allegro, emerging from the Connoisseur chrysalis (although Connoisseur Concerts continues with its Mozart in the Park and Bach Festival).

Through the years, however, the summertime crowds for the Royal Fireworks Concert grew and grew and grew.

Biggs remembers an incident that clearly delights her. "One year," she recalls, "one of our trustees leaned over to me and said, 'Bev, isn't it wonderful what a little fireworks show will do to swell the ranks of classical music lovers?'"

While they both laugh, Dutton says, "We don't hold any illusions -- we know that probably half the people that are coming are coming to see the fireworks."

Biggs adds that "We have gotten letters from folks who have brought their young families for the fireworks, expecting to sit more or less politely through the concert. But after they've done that year after year after year, they write and they say, 'We started coming for the fireworks, but now we come for the music.'"

Getting such a turnout hasn't always been easy. Both Dutton and Biggs insist on authenticity, and that involves making sure that Spokane's Royal Fireworks are in synch with Handel's Royal Fireworks Music.

Dutton laughs: "I think we are probably the only crazy people in the world who will actually choreograph the fireworks to live music."

"And that leads to our very best-ever story," enthuses Biggs. Seems that one year about a decade ago, all was going well until Biggs checked in with an assistant.

"I dialed her up and said, 'Helen, how's the sound in the Clock Tower Meadow?' And the only words I heard before the phones went dead were, 'Bev, there's no sound whatsoever in the Clock Tower Meadow.' "

This was bad: Without sound in the meadow, not only would much of the crowd not hear the concert, but the fireworks technicians wouldn't be able to hear their cues. Biggs was starting to panic: "Of course, we don't know if there's any sound in the main meadow, but what we do know for sure is that there's no sound in the Clock Tower Meadow. So I lobbed the ball of no-sound-in-the-meadows into the court of the sound crew, and I figured they would solve it as best they could. I didn't have a whole lot of time, because I'm up and down and on the stage, thanking sponsors and presenting the Bravo Award. So I found a flashlight and I took it over to that area, sort of the top of the Lilac Bowl."

By flashing intermittent lights at the men who were shooting off the fireworks, she found that -- if she held the flashlight just so -- she could signal the pyro crew, who were about a quarter-mile away.

"I couldn't fire each individual cue, but I could fire each section, and I knew the sections in my head. So we come up to the part where we start to fire the fireworks, and I give him the first cue, and the fireworks start to fire -- and what I discover is that with the fireworks going off, from that position, I can no longer hear the music. So I'm standing there, singing Handel's Royal Fireworks Music at the tempo that I hope David is conducting it at. But the trick is that we fire the fireworks to three different movements, and I don't know how long the delay between movements will be. Well, somehow, we did it.

"And afterwards, people exclaimed, 'Oh, the music and the fireworks worked so well together!'"

After her laughter dies down, Biggs says that she loves to hear such displays of appreciation.

"In Spokane," she says, "people are not embarrassed to be genuinely enthusiastic about what they really like. They don't feel obligated to pretend to be blase or overly sophisticated -- they're willing to directly connect with what they like."

Of course it's in Allegro's best interest if that kind of direct connection translates directly into contributions that sustain the artistic enterprise. So what have the two learned about fund raising over the years?

Dutton responds immediately: "Talk to her. Everybody in town says that Beverly is absolutely the best at fund raising of anybody here."

What's her secret?

"She's from North Carolina," he chuckles.

Despite the little joke, Biggs is feeling down. "It has just almost become too difficult," she says. "I've been through three recessions now, and this is the longest, and this is the deepest. So you ask me that particular question at a time when I am discouraged -- and I've been doing this for 35 years."

So it's a broke arts festival?

Not if Biggs can help it. She regrets that she can't work harder.

"It's a moot point whether I can put in the 80-hour weeks I used to," she says. "I don't have that kind of stamina any more. I can do two 80-hour weeks in a row, but I can't sustain that kind of pace. You can't crowd into a 40-hour day the development and the recruitment...."

Alerted to her mistake -- she'd meant, of course, to say 40 hours per week -- she breaks up in laughter.

"You can't crowd into a... day," she continues, "the development and recruitment and nurturance of stakeholders, and the development and building of a strong organization, and the fund raising, and the marketing and public relations, and the artistic vision, and the caring for all the details that go into the artistic vision. And therefore, if the legacy is going to roll on for future generations, it will be because there are enough people in the community who are willing to become active members."

Biggs and Dutton haven't lost touch with everything that makes all their work worthwhile. When asked to complete the statement, "It isn't a concert unless..." Biggs has an answer ready: "The audience's hearts should sing; they should sing just like ours do. Their toes should wiggle in their shoes just like ours do.

"Someone should be moved to tears, someone should be moved to laughter. Someone's life should be changed for the better every time you play."

On Sunday around 10 pm, 40 thousand someones, at least temporarily, will be changed for the better.

Publication date: 07/24/03

Wallace Huckleberry Festival @ Wallace

Fri., Aug. 19, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sat., Aug. 20, 7 a.m.-3 p.m.
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.