FlyOver: November 2007 Archives
I tend to see the breakdown of mainstream media and the continued pace of globalization as part of the general breakdown of cultural divides and geographic monopolies. Thanks to the ubiquity of internet technology, talent, intelligence, and creativity are no longer solely concentrated in the traditional hubs of culture, like LA and New York.
Of course, LA and New York will always be LA and New York, and I wouldn't have them otherwise. But smaller places are also experiencing surges of creativity (like Chucktown, S.C.), as the means of communicating change, as lifestyles change, and as our definitions of creativity itself change.
To put it in more socio-economic terms: The United States continues to de-industrialize its workforce. Media paradigms continue to fragment and diversify. Communities, organizations, and institutions continue to be plural and multicultural. And there is movement away from the idea of mass culture (what might be in retrospect a historical anomaly) and toward one that is more in line with people's real lives.
We were all these things all along. These changes affect the arts and the people making art, too. Now you don't have to pay NYC apartment prices to be an artist. You can live anywhere. And with the country's push over the past 40 years to make art accessible to everyone everywhere, we are now seeing, as critic Doug McLennan puts it, the rise of an arts culture.
But now, Flyover country is benefiting from global communications and "quantum computers" (these are what allow us to buy computers with hundreds of gigabytes for relatively little expense instead of the big bucks for just two or three gigabytes less than a decade ago). Throw in a little bit of luck and pluck and a group like the New Music Ensemble of Grand Valley State University in rural Michigan is able to get the attention of the New York Times.
Cross-posted on Unscripted.
The Moscow Ballet presents the Great Russian Nutcracker twice at the North Charleston (S.C.) Performing Arts Center next week.
I've seen it before. I didn't like it.
Not because it was performed poorly. This ensemble boasts world-class costumes and choreography. Its dancers are beautiful, graceful, poised, and powerful -- everything you'd expect from an esteemed Russian ballet.
What I didn't like was their interpretation.
After complaining to people who know a lot about dance, I was told to shut it. The Moscow Ballet's take is standard, up there with the best dance troupes in the world, like American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Theatre.
I guess I'm in the minority. So what's new? Bottom line: In this version, The Nutcracker is a political message.
In the traditional interpretation, a young girl named Clara, led by her toy Nutcracker, helps defeat the Rat King. Then she gets to romp through a world of fairies, toys, candy, and more.
In this re-telling, though, a child's whimsy is turned into a Utopian fantasy. Warring factions stop fighting. All is peace and harmony.
Moreover, Clara, whose name is now Masha, is not a girl. She is a nubile teenager bashfully coming of age. And Drosselmeyer, who is typically her godfather, turns into a kind of matchmaker. He doesn't give her a toy nutcracker to play with. He gives her a strapping young lad in tights to play with instead.
One can't help noticing the sexual implications of Masha's new man-doll.
Which isn't the problem. What I disliked was the mushy we-are-the-world pap of the work's second half.
See, the first half builds up to the second: the dances of coffee, of chocolate, of tea, and so on. Then the climax: The Nutcracker Prince dances with the Sugar Plum Fairy. Clara's a kid. Having her watch all the exotic dances, and the grown ups dancing, makes sense.
But turning her into a teenager obscures all that. The Sugar Plum Fairy doesn't get the guy. Masha does. Meanwhile, the exotic dances become a multicultural love-fest, with each country getting its own mascot (sheep representing France, if that makes any sense).
I know, I know. But I don't like my Christmas stories transformed, oddly, into a make-love-not-war manifesto. Peace on Earth was enough for Jesus. Me, too.
Cross-posted on Unscripted
It's no doubt very uncool of me to talk about Gilbert & Sullivan's HMS Pinafore. It's probably equally uncool (or worse -- take a deep breath here -- unhip) to say that I enjoyed watching the production, presented by the Charleston Concert Association, at the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium in Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday. And it might be downright corporate (the most charged and disparaging of all alt-culture calumnies!) for me to say the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (America's conservators of English light opera) did a good job.
All of which would reveal that I have spent way more time that is called for as the arts editor of City Paper thinking about Tuesday's performance and far less time than what is alt-culture proper thinking about the alt-culturally appropriate subjects of art-making, and about the radical, subversive, underground art forms, like graffiti "performances" art or street-dancing "events."
As the so-called voice of the radical chic, urban hipster underground, pop avant-garde, liberal watchdog community, I'm supposed to speak for Charleston's arcane pop-culture obsessed bourgeois bohemians. I am, as David Brooks might say, the Defender of the Bobos.
Well, maybe not. But here's another thing and stay with me here: In pointing out the irony of the being an editor at Chucktown's Rock 'n' Roll Rag and being one who enjoyed himself when the Captain of the Pinafore was scolded for his pottie-mouth (at one point he said "damme" -- gasp!), I'm reminded of something Gary Giddens, the long-time jazz critic for the Village Voice, was once asked by a reputed English jazz historian, who was inexorably ensconced among the old guard of music writers in the 1960s.
Giddens recounts this experience in his terrific book of vignettes, essays, and profiles called Visions of Jazz . The critic in question pointedly demanded to know what kind of jazz he liked. Giddens' response: "Anything good."
Apparently, this sage historian heaved a harrumph "worthy of a Dickens or Austen dramatization." He said that he, on the other hand, knew what he liked. His taste, in other words, was unlike his guest's. While Giddens expressed a sensibility of relative taste -- that is, what he liked depended on . . . -- the historian's sensibility was buoyed by the supreme confidence of certainty. What was his favorite jazz: "The '20s," he said, which indicated "culture by the decade," Giddens wrote.
This scenario should be familiar to anyone who's been at a party where they've met new people. In the interest of feeling each other out, people tend to ask about taste: in movies, music, books, and whatever. These tastes, especially when you're young and still trying to figure out who you are, are hugely important, because they define you, at least you think they define you. They don't, of course, but such wisdom comes with time. Usually. As Giddens' jazz historian exemplifies, a sensibility of absolutes starts in adolescence and carries on into the twilight one's old bugger years.
Back to Pinafore. If I were more like Anthony Lane, one of the film critics for The New Yorker, I'd pan anything that didn't live up to my personal hierarchy of taste. Movies that don't count are movies that have been popular, successful, or that have been around a while. Gilbert and Sullivan have endured since the late 19th century. Their operettas, like Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance, are perennial favorites. They are goofy, cheeky, and the humor, though not outdated, is a bit quaint. But they continue to please, as the large crowd at the Gaillard attests. So if I were more like Giddens' old fart jazzbo or like Mr. Lane, I'd lambaste Pinafore on principle alone. The problem with that approach is that it's criticism based on politics and ideology, not taste and the individual's experience with the art.
In other words, the terms of interaction (between the art and the person experiencing the art) are dictated by that person. I don't think art should dictate the terms either, but there needs to be a balance between the two. Art has to be taken on its own terms, not my terms. I didn't create it; someone else did. As a critic, it's my obligation to experience the art independent of my own ego -- a chore that's sometimes difficult to do. It's my job to assume it's possible to get beyond my ego, that there is an external reality beyond my own making.
Pinafore's terms are simple: A sailor falls in love with the captain's daughter. The conflict arises when we learn that, according to the social values of the musical, it's total taboo for a "lowly" sailor to hook up with a woman born of a "higher station." The taboo comes from all that twinky English caste-system crap, which is totally discredited by Enlightened democratic idealism, but still, these are the terms of Pinafore, so I have to deal with it.
The resolution to the conflict comes when Little Buttercup (who, it turns out, was the wet-nurse of both the captain and Ralph, the starry-eyed sailor) reveals that the two boys were switched somehow in infancy and they grew up in the wrong stations. In short, they were living a fallacy, existing in the wrong part of an already determined class hierarchy.
It's an absurd premise, but fun to watch unfold -- especially with Sir Joseph, the boor and clown. (There's a long sequence involving ever-larger bells; it's funny in the world of G&S). The plot becomes even more nonsensical when you realize that the captain ends up marrying Little Buttercup and in effect marrying his mother-figure.
Ah, but Freudian psycho-analysis and the paradigm-changing three-headed notion of human consciousness (Id, Ego, Superego) hadn't yet seized popular imagination (his Interpretation of Dreams came out in 1899; Pinafore in 1878), so such dark implications of Oedipal constructs like a man marrying his mother-figure didn't mean as much to Gilbert and Sullivan's contemporary audiences. Even so, why bother with Freud? All's well that ends well. There's a triple wedding at the end. Even Sir Joseph gets hitched (to his cousin whose name is Hebe!?).
But I have to wonder: Maybe Pinafore subverts the status quo instead of reaffirming it. Perhaps by resolving the class conflict with such an absurd notion (a kind of deus ex machina) that Ralph and the captain were switch in infancy only illustrates how arbitrary the whole English caste-system was. Class was not just economic in English history, but almost genetic. The kind of person you were was determined by your place in society.
If Ralph is really "high born" but doesn't know it, class becomes merely about appearances, not about substance, a notion that may have struck people in Victorian England, though perhaps only unconsciously, as an act of socio-political radicalism. If that's the case, then my enjoying the operetta as the art editor of City Paper might not be so uncool after all. Who knew taking Pinafore on its own aesthetic terms would boost my alt-culture street-cred? Who knew I could like sweet Little Buttercup's sweet little aria and still be the Defender of the Bobos?
Cross-posted on Unscripted.
Finding young people (that is, folks under 40) at a concert by any American orchestra is a challenge. More often than not, a gaze across the audience will show a tide of silvery gray heads, the dedicated season-subscription holders, the ones who go to every concert no matter how many times they nod off during the middle movements of Mozart's Jupiter.
The die-hard fans are getting older but the next generation, the so-called Junior Boomers or Gen-Xers, are not stepping up to replace them. That's the conventional wisdom anyway, like going to concerts is some kind of cultural obligation. Hence, their donations or their season subscriptions are also not being replaced. Among art lovers, especially among Boomers, there's a tendency to blame. But the problem isn't that Junior Boomers or Gen-Xers are getting coarser, more in thrall to popular culture, or less sensitive to the joys of high art.
The problem, from the perspective of American orchestras, is that there's more competition out there, more culture being created by more arts organizations. There's never been a bigger, more dynamic cultural menu to choose from.
That said, the Charleston Symphony is doing something right. Friday night was the second in a series called Backstage Pass in which the orchestra presented music you don't typically hear in mainstream Masterworks programming. The theme was music written by Hispanic composers or composers enamored by the sounds and rhythms of the Hispanic diaspora. The concert was just over an hour (a very nice duration, I think, quick and fresh). It started with Fandango by Spanish composer Roberto Sierra (the only one on the program who's alive). I missed most of this one and so can't say much about it (I got there late, sorry).
I suppose in offering a concert of music that you haven't heard before you're going to run into a few duds. That was the case of Darius Milhaud's Le boeuf sur le toi, or Bull on the Roof. I normally like Milhaud and his blending of a Brazilian vibe with a keen Parisian sophistication. But this one was dead in the water: a string of cha-cha motifs punctuated by thorny modernism. I appreciated hearing the piece, don't get me wrong. I just won't seek it out again.
Silvestra Revueltas' mariachi-style composition brought my attention back into focus. Scott Terrell, who conducts the series, noted a strong streak of Stravinsky in the composer's work. It was hard to miss. His Eight for the Radio (meant to imitate the sound of turning the radio dial, with sudden shifts in tempo and form) had a kind of laid-back Margaritaville feeling with a intoxicated avant-garde edge. Call it Rite of Spring Break.
My favorite was The Three-Cornered Hat by Manuel de Falla. It was written in 1917 and it had a wonderful blend of Mexican flavors and that Frenchness you find in the work of Debussy and Ravel -- tall harmonies, shimmering textures, dancing to a South-of-the-Border beat.
I counted at least a dozen or so young people (these being under 30) in a crowd of about 250-300 at the Sottile Theatre. It's small number, but the nature of the concert suggests having a dozen or so young people is advantage the Backstage Pass series has over the Pops series, where you'll find plenty of children and their parents and grandparents.
The nature is curiosity. Terrell curated the programming to entice your curiosity. For this series, you won't hear any of the Three B's: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. In fact, this series, and its indie-music sensibility, would quickly remind you that Beethoven is dead and has been dead for a good long time.
Having a dozen or so young people at this kind of concert means they actively sought out the music. They didn't go out of a sense of obligation (thanks for the pops tickets, Grandma!) or out of a sense that classical music is high-class stuff and I want to appear like a high-class kinda guy. No, they went because they were curious and I can't think of a better way for classical music to once again mean something in people's lives.
Cross-posted at Unscripted.
Arts organizations are always talking about how to cultivate new audiences. A tried-and-true strategy has been the Theory of Exposure: Get the art in front of people, especially youngsters, and they will acquire a taste for the art.
That kind of thinking has been around at least since The Muppet Show first aired in the late 1970s. Opera advocates rejoiced when Beverly Sills starred on the variety show. They predicted a new generation of opera lovers (and, more importantly, opera patrons) who would be inspired by Sills' powerful performance and magnetic personality.
The same went for the other art forms: jazz (when Dizzy Gillespie and Lena Horne were each guests), musical theater (Liza Minnelli, Zero Mostel), ballet (Rudolf Nureyev), and classical music (Liberace).
Well, maybe not Liberace (too many sequins, too much lowbrow appeal, some might say), but you get the point.
Not coincidentally, the 1970s are the years in which we began to see the seismic de-escalation of federal art-funding, the beginning of the America's still-felt de-industrialization and the so-called Culture Wars: Nixon's Silence Majority, Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, a nascent "men's movement," Jimmy Carter, the squishiest of Democratics, getting even squishier when he got run off by a killer bunny rabbit.
Anyway, with the Muppet Show, you had a faint glimpse of the New Deal's middlebrow dream: high art marrying popular entertainment. For those concerned about high art's losing cultural authority, and tax dollars, to the increasing dominance of popular entertainment, the thinking was: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Now comes Paul Potts.
You'll remember he's the bashful, painfully insecure lad with bad teeth who wowed the judges on Britain's Got Talent when he did his Pavarotti impersonation, singing Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" (you'd know it if you heard it).
He was greeted with deafening applause. Even the evil Simon Cowell smiled. Again, Simon smiled, with delight even. The burst of beauty that came out of that rather un-beautiful mouth inspired some 30 million hits on YouTube.
We haven't heard much from them yet, but it's not hard to imagine back-office talk from the ideological descendants of the people who were ga-ga for Beverly Sills hoping for the same from Paul Potts. And now with his new CD, appropriately titled One Chance, and his reprisal of Puccini Tuesday (Nov. 6) on Oprah Winfrey's special YouTube webcast, people have even more reason to keep their fingers crossed: Maybe this adorable schlub really can fuel new heights of interest in opera, whet their appetite for high art, for this valuable tradition.
Similar predictions were made when Luciano Pavarotti joined Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras to record The Three Tenors in Concert. Listeners loved the recording and critics did, too. Soon you heard predictions of (and maybe hopes for) a surge in opera's popularity, for tickets to see the Met, the Houston Grand and so on.
But that didn't happen.
What did happen was a surge in record sales: The Three Tenors is among the best-selling classical music recordings of all time. So consumers did, indeed, go ga-ga for opera, but it wasn't for opera categorically; it was opera particularly, the feeling of that historical moment in which the most famed tenors sang to an audience of thousands during the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the birthplace of opera. (it's easy to surmise that record sales soared based solely on the Mediterranean mystique of it all).
Back to Potts: He's an able singer. But what makes him appealing is his touching personal story, which is a product of television, a completely different medium from live performance: A former cell phone salesman who looks like he still lives with his mother faces the pressure of competition (and the dread glare of Simon Cowell) to achieve the dream of singing opera.
The underdog wins, the meek inherit the earth, and all that heartwarming stuff.
Good story, good TV, good YouTube? All a resounding yes. But is it good for opera? Maybe. I'm not convinced opera categorically will benefit from his unlikely success. If the medium is the message, it's best to remember that sometimes the message is unclear. It seems opera companies, or any other arts organization, would be better served if the focus remained on the art, not on an entirely different medium.
Cross-posted at Charleston City Paper's Unscripted - JS