The McKendrean Magazine for McKendree Univeristy - Summer 2023

The True Hett Experience

Gary KarasekFeature by: Hailey Rose ‘24 

Located on McKendree’s magnificent campus, The Hettenhausen Center for the Arts serves as an amazing venue for performing arts from dance and drama to musical renditions. With a 488-seat auditorium, students, visitors and locals alike are all welcome to enjoy an array of encapsulating experiences. My own exciting experience with Ethereal Visions: A Sight and Sound Creative Journey began before even entering the Hett. I noticed an art installation—a spectacular sculpture—outside the front doors and knew right away it was going to be an unforgettable performance. 

A Warm McKendree Welcome 

As I opened the doors, a warm welcome radiated from inside by staff and student workers—familiar and friendly faces. Stopping by the box office, I grabbed a ticket, which is free to all students, and looked around to see the transformed lobby, decorated with shimmering silver streamers, which were attached with bells, and local artist and architect Gary Karasek’s intriguing art tucked inside. Gary’s work strives to form creative objects, spaces, and places using various mediums—paintings, sculptures, and even architecture.  

The Astounding Auditorium 

Entering the awe-inspiring auditorium, I heard beautiful musical arrangements echoing from the pit where the Belleville Philharmonic set the stage for an epic creative encounter. While the orchestra continued playing, I viewed the stage where a broad, blank canvas waited to be filled with vibrant, colorful paints prepared on carts located on each side. Above the canvas, a quote was projected, “Enigma—something that is mysterious and seems impossible to understand completely.”  

With anticipation building, music director and conductor Dr. Robert Hart Baker introduced The Philharmonic Society Orchestra of Belleville—a non-profit organization—with interludes of their rich history. Dating back to 1866, the group was formed by local businessmen and soldiers, who sought out to restore civility and revive the culture of the community after the Civil War. By 1867, they took part in the very first of many performing seasons. Performing ever since, they’ve been acclaimed to be the 2nd oldest continuously performing orchestra in the country, just behind the New York Philharmonic. This year marks their 156th concert season transforming audiences to new places in each performance. 

In this showcase, they planned to play “Enigma Variations,” a musical puzzle constructed by Edward Elgar, which added to the sensory stimulation of not only abstract sights but also intricate sounds. The extraordinary experience was brand new to the Hett because of its interactive design. Audience members could decide their path by staying in the auditorium, exploring the lobby, or venturing backstage.  

Let the Show Begin! 

As artist Gary Karasek first took in the melodies, he began his music-inspired masterpiece one color at a time. The melodies shifted as each piece represented one of Elgar’s thirteen friends, capturing their character through an arrangement of notes. Each variation played continuously changed in sound, tone, and feeling. I began my journey by taking in the original sounds played by the orchestra while watching Gary take his first paint strokes. I noticed, one-by-one, the crowd began to embark on an artistic exploration plotted from the auditorium to the lobby, through the Hett halls, and backstage. 

Curious, I joined in beginning at the lobby. Finding my way through the shiny streamers tasseled with bells, art instillations of all mediums each had their own display. I found fascinating sculptures, which were similar to the one showcased just outside the front doors. Down the halls, framed mixed-media pieces and incredible paintings were showcased on my way to and from backstage. 

Sneaking backstage, I was transported to an all-new world where Gary’s illuminating art lit the path. The art was projected on nearly every surrounding surface and came alive through animation, painting a world of vibrant, moving landscapes. As these scenic landscapes developed behind the scenes, I knew a real-life painting was beginning to come to life just behind the curtain. A bench was set in the center of the stage for the crowd to sit and enjoy the artistic world created by Gary.  

As I looped around and ended my invigorating exploration, a table with pieces of Gary’s art was available for the audience to take a piece from his practice painting the night before as a souvenir of this sensory experience. Situated next to the table of souvenirs, a board of his initial vision was set up, mapping out an idea of his real-time creation. Returning to my seat, I saw the resemblance on stage and was truly speechless by the development of both the musical composition and resulting abstract illustration. It was a Hett experience like never before.  

Your Performance Awaits! 

The Hett continues to put on one-of-a-kind performances year-round and are shows you won’t want to miss. Exciting experiences are right around the corner. The best part? Students are free! Go to the next Hett event and enjoy the truly interactive and immersive experiences first-hand. Learn more or find tickets to your next favorite show at the Hett by calling (618) 537-6863 or visiting