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June 25, 2007

Flying in to Flyoverville

Joe Nickell

Last week, I posted up a link to a piece I wrote for Montana Journalism Review, in which I took issue with New Yorker theater critic John Lahr's assertion that, "If it's not in The New Yorker, it doesn't exist in the culture." My main point was that America is not a homogenous culture; and as such, the culture that The New Yorker documents is only some small portion of what the rest of us experience and value.

The same day that my Montana Journalism Review piece went public, I was alerted by a friend to an essay by Alex Ross in The New Yorker, documenting Ross' whirlwind sampling of a trio of orchestras that don't perform in New York: the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra; the Nashville Symphony Orchestra; and the Alabama Symphony Orchestra.

On the surface, Ross' piece demonstrates what we've been trying to say here at FlyOver: that important art happens outside of the celebrated arts scenes of major cities on the coasts. Ross himself says as much: "I learned what touring musicians have been saying for years: that lesser-known orchestras can deliver sure-footed, commanding performances, and that the notion of a stratospheric orchestral élite is something of an illusion."

Unfortunately, as one reads along, it becomes evident that Ross still suffers from the same biases his road-trip supposedly cured. He mentions in a scoffing tone that, "Orchestras at the level of the Nashville used to be described as 'regional.'" The horror! The injustice!...And yet, a mere two paragraphs later, he declares the Alabama Symphony, "one of the country's most adventurous regional orchestras." (emphasis added)

Huh?

Given the short list of intriguing factoids and subjective assessments that Ross provides about the Alabama Symphony -- anticipated performances of works by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and a host of other young, international composers, all within a concert season that's considerably shorter than that of the New York Philharmonic; and a performance of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony that Ross declares to be "as potent a performance of Beethoven's revolutionary symphony as I've heard in several seasons" -- why isn't it simply one of the country's most adventurous orchestras, period?

The answer, it seems, is that it's still not the New York Philharmonic.

Well, no kidding.

This is the implicit bias that we outside of New York marvel at: It's not in New York, so it's not really worth the serious consideration of the New Yorker - unless, of course, some writer feels like it's time for a little junket out into the wilds of America.

Alex Ross is an open-minded music critic; I've met him and been impressed by both his studied standards and his willingness to listen. But it seems that he is still stuck in an antiquated way of thinking about culture, one that posits that a single standard should be applied to all art everywhere.

Instead of racing through town and trying to judge, on the basis of one performance, whether the Indianapolis Symphony sounds good enough to play in New York, perhaps he should have take a few extra days to get to know the local lay of the land, and to figure out: What does the orchestra do for the people of Indianapolis?

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May 28, 2007

Passing the baton in Missoula

Joe Nickell

This past week, the Missoula Symphony Orchestra named its new music director after a two-year search that included a full season of auditions by five finalists for the position. Although commonplace among most American orchestras today, the search process was probably quite bizarre to locals, who had never before seen a full-time conductor vetted in such a way for the orchestra. (The last time a conductor was hired -- more than 20 years ago -- the job was still part of the duties of a professor at the University of Montana, who was hired through more traditional academic processes.)

The new conductor, Darko Butorac, is at 29 years old less than half the age of the previous conductor, Joseph Henry. He's also less than half the age of some of the members of the orchestra. The 6'4" conductor proudly notes he can dunk a basketball, and is a big fan of the Phoenix Suns.

This is, needless to say, a sea-change for the orchestra (the previous conductor once admitted to having heard OF the Rolling Stones, but was unable to name any of their songs).

There has been much attendant excitement throughout the interviewing and audition process, with good attendance at concerts and much media coverage. The orchestra has sounded markedly better, playing with an intensity and unity that wasn't previously the norm.

On Thursday, I attended an event welcoming our new conductor to the community. The mayor passed him a "baton" to the city, more than 100 people showed up (pretty good for a midweek morning in this small town), and the sense of a New Era for Missoula was palpable.

After the welcoming event, I walked to a nearby coffeeshop with a friend who plays in the orchestra. As we chatted, it emerged that he was preoccupied with a question that has likely crossed the minds of many in this town: What is the real potential for change, now that this new conductor is here?

Ostensibly, theoretically, the sky is the limit. But more realistically, there are issues both practical and philosophical that limit the local orchestra's ability to rise to world-class artistic status.

Like every small-town orchestra today, the first of these issues is the size of the orchestra's budget. Though I've never heard a member of the MSO complain seriously about the pay they receive -- which, in most cases, is less than minimum wage -- it's clear enough that the orchestra is unable to attract professional musicians to this town based on its compensation package; it must instead rely on the charity of whatever players are available and willing. Fortunately, the the University of Montana has a strong music faculty, stacked with pro-level players who are willing to play in the orchestra simply for the experience. However, that faculty can't fill an entire string section -- or even a flute section.

The bigger issue, however, is philosophical. The MSO remains fundamentally a community orchestra, meaning that part of its goal is to provide members of the community with an opportunity to play orchestral music. There are players in the orchestra who likely could pass no professional audition; but they are provided with the priceless opportunity to participate in the glorious experience of playing great classics of the repertoire through their participation in the MSO. These are our doctors and receptionists, our busboys and businesswomen. Some make up in extra effort and preparation what they lack in professional training and experience; but some simply can't.

Thus it's safe to say that, in the foreseeable future, the Missoula Symphony Orchestra will not rival the Berlin Philharmonic on purely artistic standards.

My friend in the orchestra wasn't frustrated by this limited potential of the orchestra. Rather, he seemed more worried about the unrealistic expectations of members of the community who might suddenly lose sight of what the orchestra is really about. He worried that a coinciding push for a new, multimillion-dollar performing arts center in Missoula might further feed the fervor.

He has a point. The value and success of this orchestra to this city cannot -- SHOULD not -- be gauged solely on its ability to play music flawlessly. Rather, its most important role is to engage the community in great music, draw it into interaction with the artistic process, and provide a forum for townspeople to share as actors and audience in the sacred social ritual of performance.

The Missoula Symphony Orchestra has a new leader. I just hope that boosters of the orchestra don't allow the buzz to obscure the true value of this band to this town.

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April 23, 2007

Rock in the Outback

Joe Nickell

This past week I had a chance to chat with a trio of music critics who are currently in the process of putting together a book proposal. Their idea: profile the local music scene of one town in each of the lower 48 states. As luck would have it, they chose Missoula as their first stop. I wrote a story about their project for the Missoulian; you can read it here.

I can only hope they complete the book, as it seems like a great antidote to the L.A- and New York-centric attitudes of most rock writers and publications.

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April 4, 2007

Ranking classical music concerts?

John Stoehr

One of my goals in covering the Savannah Music Festival, an annual event that's fast gaining national attention, is to rank the classical music concerts that I saw. It sounds kinda silly, I know, but if the AP can rank college football teams and the New York Times can rank books, I figured why not rank classical music concerts in order of worst to best.

Why rank classical music concerts? Because it's fun, for one thing. For another, classical music is often spared this kind of treatment, because (a) editors and reporters are too skittish about criticizing it and (b) classical music for too long has been considered too high-minded for this kind of thing. The result is the impression that classical music isn't meaningful enough to argue about. Well, I think it is. As long as the fight is civil. And I think it's important enough to make an argument for what concerts were worthier than others. And, of course, here's plenty of room for discussion. There's no telling where things will go when people disagree with passion.

11. Mark Padmore
Despite an extraordinary voice, Mark Padmore's one-and-a-half-hour performance of the entire length of Schubert's "Winterreise" was disappointing. The English tenor should be praised for his strength, endurance, vocal expression and knowledge of the repertoire. But as a musical experience, the recital was mediocre due to a combination of flawed equipment and ambition outstripping ability. The performance called for a fortepiano, a much quieter keyboard instrument than the modern-day piano, but none could be procured. Accompanist Kristian Benzuidenhout used a Steinway, but he performed it with the lid up, which overpowered Padmore. Though an excellent concert tenor (he is respected for his interpretations of Bach and other baroque composers), Padmore could not embody the narrator's voice in each of the 24 songs. He himself said a vague sort of narrative provides the audience with helpful "benchmarks" as the music went along. Padmore's strength as a concert tenor, however, revealed his weakness as a singer acting the part of a character. His lack of stage presence made the performance long on German and short on sustained interest.

10. Bach's St. Matthew Passion
The three-hour performance of Bach's celestial St. Matthew Passion by two period-instrument ensembles, two choirs and a handful of soloists under the baton of the esteemed Martin Haselbock, maestro of Musica Angelica and the Wiener Akademie Baroque Orchestra, was an ambitious undertaking that never lived up to its hype. The period instruments were muted by the dry acoustics of the Lucas Theatre. Some of the vocalist appeared to be pushing while others sounded resonate and clear. Bottom line: The oratorio is a religious work that would have sounded glorious in a church, not a former movie theater. A lack of theatricality also made for a tedious experience. After some time passed, it felt like I was merely being sung at in German, not witnessing Christ's death and resurrection. An inconsistency of logic was also distracting. The musicians performed on the instruments of Bach's day, but the soloists were dressed (the men in white tie and tails) as if entertaining at a ball in 19th-century Vienna. Plus, Haselbock demanded the air conditioning be turned off. Not good.

9. Sensations I
Violinist Daniel Hope assembles an ad hoc ensemble of world-class musicians to perform a series of chamber music called "Sensations" that he creates every year. These musicians don't play together often, but when they do, they bring a clearly visible vacation vibe with them. It's apparent to the audience they are having fun and that they are experiencing the novelty of live performance as much as we are. That said, the result of not playing together often is what you'd expect when the normal pressures of performing aren't there: a lack of focus, evident in the quintet arrangement of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata. The upside is a willingness to take risks. The downside is that sometimes those risks don't pay off. In fairness, this was the first of the "Sensations" concerts. The series usually improves as the festival continues. This year was no exception.

8. Ivan Moravec
Moravec long ago earned every laurel any one concert pianist could earn. It was a pleasure to see the Czech pianist and master of subtlety recall all the wisdom and skill he has amassed over his 50-plus year career. The recital, the first of the classical music concerts at this year's music festival, began softly and built up to a powerful dynamic, but it took the entire first half of the concert to get there. He finally revealed his strength in Debussy and Chopin, but by that time the end of the program was on the horizon. One felt compelled to show appreciation more than passion. It was one of the few recitals in which the audience did not stand to applaud.

7. Sensations IV
By the time of the fourth installment of "Sensations," Daniel Hope's crew was really cooking with gas. Their performance of Vaughan Williams' Piano Quintet in C minor can compete with any other chamber music concert in the country. It was that good. That's due to Hope's leadership and his colleague's willingness to stretch. Still, you get a sense that maybe that was luck. Sometimes it feels like they themselves don't know how a concert is going to turn out, because there is simply not enough time during the festival's short 18 days to work out all the kinks in ensemble playing. That, as I've said, can be a good thing. It can also be a bad thing. That lack of certainly can lead to delightful highs. This concert had plenty of those, making it easy to overlook minor flaws.

6. Borodin Quartet
Simply put, the Russian music (Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich) was better than the German music (Beethoven). Perhaps that's because the Borodin Quartet is Eastern European, soulful and sophisticated. It originated in Soviet Russia. The lone remaining member, cellist Valentin Berlinsky, knew Shostakovich personally. So it's no surprise the quartet really knows how to evoke the contained inner turmoil of Russian music. Their performance style -- romantic, gypsy-esque, schmaltzy -- didn't work as well (to my ears) for the Beethoven quartet. What detracted from the concert experience was the quartet's reluctance to tell the audience what happened when (I think) a string broke on the viola during the Shostakovich. The audience was never told. All we heard was a scratching noise followed by the rapid exit of the violist. A warmer style of interaction would have been warmly received by the audience.

5. Philippe Entremont and Sebastian Knauer
The first half of this recital featured Entremont alone and it was ecstasy. He performed some of the best-known piano sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven and it felt like I had never heard them before. They were so fresh and enlivened and -- corny, I know -- free. Entremont is powerful when he needs to be, really nuanced when the moment calls for it. The variations of tone, texture and pacing were like storytelling. This first half was the peak for me. Perhaps this is why I didn't get much out of the second half in which Entremont was joined by Sebastian Knauer to play Brahms' Sonata for two pianos. It's a bombastic work and that might be the cause of my indifference. But I think (once again) a lack of air conditioning made the performance difficult to enjoy. The air was hot and muggy. Brahms' Sturm und Drang felt oppressive, not inspiring.

4. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featuring Daniel Hope
Daniel Hope must have been exhausted by the time he performed Brahms' monster Violin Concerto today. As associate artistic director of the music festival, he designed all the classical music programs. Since arriving in Savannah more than two weeks ago, he has rehearsed virtually nonstop with people he doesn't normally play with. Together, they have performed music that takes a tremendous amount of skill, artistry and focus. Some of that was missing for the Brahms concerto. Little things that would ordinarily sound right sounded a little off. The fierce double-stops of the first movement require a huge amount of strength and power, but Hope just didn't seem like he had enough gas in the tank. The concerto's sweet moments, however, redeemed whatever weaknesses he had. In fact, Hope sounded sweetest during the cadenza and other moments when he played alone. Which brings to me to orchestra. No matter where the soloist goes, the orchestra has to follow. Spano seemed to be conducting in the other room sometimes, forcing Hope to rethink his artistry when shouldn't have needed to. Something that no one could have controlled was the dry acoustics of the Lucas. It dampened poor Hope's sound even more. No matter how hard he bowed, the sound failed to pop. The dry acoustics, however, benefited the ASO's superlative performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's exotic "Scheherazade." You could hear clearly the discipline of the string section and the clarity of the woodwinds' articulation. Bottom-line: The second half of the concert was highlight of the festival. Conclusion: Dry acoustics are evidently good for Russians, bad for Germans.

3. Morris Robinson
Billed as a night of art songs and negro spirituals, Robinson's recital turned out to be so much more. He sang old Appalachian folk songs like "Black is the color of my true love's hair," bringing new meaning and fresh insight to the old tune. Same with "The lass from the lowcountry," which originated in some far away place, but in Robinson's hands felt like a song with roots right here Georgia and South Carolina. What's more was a tone of artful defiance. Robinson sang Charles Brown's "The Barrier," touching on issues of race, power and shame. Next was Margaret Bonds' setting of Langston Hughes' trio of poems, "The Dream Keeper." The most powerful was "I, too," in which the narrator sings over angry and dissonant chords: "I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother ... Besides, they'll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed." Though the message was universal (triumph in the face of adversity), it is grounded in the specifics of the African-American experience. Robinson never pandered, but he was never pedantic either. He was proud. I loved it. So did the audience. It responded with (this is no exaggeration) with whoops and hollers. For a charming little voice recital, the audience was downright raucous.

2. Isabel Bayrakdarian
This woman is the total package: an incredible soprano, wonderful actress and a charming speaker to boot. The program showed the breadth of her knowledge, the depth of her artistry and an aim to be entertaining, even if that means a joke comes at her own expense. She is the rare diva who doesn't take herself too seriously. Bottom-line: Her recital, with pianist husband Serouj Kradjian, held my attention from beginning to end. I think the reason (I've been preoccupied with this) is that her dexterity, nuance and power combined with an actor-like stage presence, which was evident in her ability to shift from character to character in songs with more than one voice. It was like watching a mini-opera unfold. It was divine.

1. David Finckel and Wu Han
This husband-and-wife duo is what I hope the future of chamber music looks like. As co-directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Finckel (cellist) and Han (pianist) make chamber music feel alive by showing us the humanity behind the music. They did this in part by looking at each other -- a lot. With intensity. And with a sense of fun. They gave the impression that the stakes of what they were about to do were high. Their program covered the history of Western music. Han often spoke between pieces about history, style, technique and even how harmony changed as cultural sensibility changed, from baroque (Bach) classical (Beethoven) to romantic (Schumann) to the 20th century (Debussy, Britten). It never sounded pedantic or elitist or boring. The reason talking before playing often fails is because musicians, while great performers, are often terrible public speakers. Not so of Wu Han. As for Finckel, he played the silent straight man to Han's witty shtick. He said everything he needed to say with Jack Benny-like panache. All of this, however, is ancillary to the performance, which was exceptional. Finckel is a powerhouse of technique, range and expression. Han was like his Ginger Rogers, doing everything he did, just backwards, so to speak, and in bright red heels (with black velvet stockings, I might add). They played not as two but one.

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March 23, 2007

Opera in the Outback

Bridgette Redman

While interviewing the director of an upcoming opera at Michigan State University, we got sidetracked into a conversation about how exciting cultural events are constantly taking place outside of the major cultural centers. Next weekend, MSU is performing the university premiere of a Spanish-language opera, Florencia en el Amazonas.

It's a show that has created a lot of buzz for them within the opera community all around the world. In addition to several performances with preview lectures by the composer, Daniel Catán, they will be webcasting live the April 1 performance. They've also opened up a blog that all cast and crew members were invited to contribute to throughout the process.

Director Melanie Helton has had several conversations with the composer in the weeks leading up to the performance. One of the things that he told her was that the New York Metropolitan Opera already has plans to program this opera in the next couple years--after they find the perfect soprano. Helton pointed out that Lansing audience can leave "with the idea that they've got a little bit of a jump on the Met."

Not that I need to tell the audience of this blog that exciting cultural events are taking place outside of New York.

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March 20, 2007

A different approach to reviewing classical music

John Stoehr

So much of a review is spent on exposition, it occurs to me now that I've covered a recital by acclaimed pianist Ivan Moravec without filing a review for the print version the next day. I took a digital camera with me instead. I thought I was going to take a few snaps, but then realized I could do so much more. So during the intermission (this recital was last night), I decided to capture some of the recital and post it to my blog. I don't know if I was doing something I shouldn't have. I didn't ask for permission. And then I asked three different people to give me their thoughts on the performance. I think I might be on to something far more interesting than a print-only review. Instead of spending so much time of exposition, I can devote time to analysis, interpretation and commentary -- the things beyond the news, as Mitchell Stephens pointed out in his homerun article for the Columbia Journal Review last month. One of the people I interviewed was a 13-year-old pianist named Sharon Mays. She gave me her perspective. This approach might be just the thing for engaging the music and the community at the same time.

Here's the post:

I ran into Sharon Mays at the Ivan Moravec recital tonight. Her father does all the recording for the Savannah Music Festival, which will later be heard on Georgia Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio throughout the year. Sharon, a 13-year-old pianist, just won the Georgia Music Educators Association's piano competition for 8th graders in December. Given her prestige, I thought it would interesting to have Sharon blog with me later in the week to give us her perspective on what's happening at the Telfair Academy, where all the chamber music is taking place. She hasn't committed yet, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I also asked her to tell me what she thought of Moravec's recital and what she expects to hear in upcoming classical concerts (she gets to go to all of them thanks to Dad). For Sharon, Moravec had "a great dymanic range."

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February 20, 2007

Newspaper Marches

Bridgette Redman

The most common reaction I got to that phrase was, "What's a newspaper march?"

It's a reaction I could relate to--I certainly hadn't heard of one before, and I was a member of a marching band for three years. What I discovered was a pretty fascinating piece of cultural history. The most famous march of the genre was the one written by John Phillip Sousa for the Washington Post in 1889. Since then, composers have created more than 300 marches named after and dedicated to newspapers in towns across the country.

The Advocate Brass Band has researched some of the history of newspaper marches, digging into the Library of Congress to find scores. They've put together several CDs of them that they offer for sale.

What I find most fascinating about this piece of cultural history is the intensely local nature of the composition. It's music written for a particular place and for a particular organization. It's music that has meaning for a group of people because it is about their hometown, about the newspaper that comes to their doorstep every morning.

While most of these were written in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they've continued to be produced throughout the years. The newspaper I write for commissioned composer John Moss to write one for its 150th anniversary. It premiered at Michigan State University which was also celebrating its 150th anniversary. You can read what I wrote about the Lansing Concert Band's recent performance of it here. The Lansing Concet Band's director talked about how important it was for that march to become a part of their repertoire. Aside from it being a great concert march, it was something that uniquely belonged to their city.

For me, it was yet another confirmation that art, good art, happens everywhere. Site-specific art doesn't have to belong only to the metropolitan areas. It can belong wherever people create.

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February 19, 2007

Good reads

Joe Nickell

Call it the curse of topicality. The week that North Carolina's Council of State is forced to vote on changes in lethal injection protocols, a regional company stages Dead Man Walking. Read about how this all came together, here.

There's a fun interview with poet Andrei Codrescu at the Idaho Statesman site; check it out here.

Apparently Monet plays well in the outback: the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors bureau announced that "the Monet in Normandy exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art injected almost $24.3 million dollars in tourism revenue into the Wake County economy - more than double the initial projection." Just think....with all that money, maybe they could buy a Monet of their own! Anyway, read about it here.

Arts advocates in Kansas were relieved to learn that Gov. Matt Blunt has included money for the arts -- a little over $8 million -- in his annual budget recommendation. Though it's a pitance, some had feared the gov was going to stiff the arts completely. Read more here.

Floridians, apparently, love Florida -- Richard Florida, that is: "The Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has picked Tallahassee and two other communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers, Charlotte, N.C., and Duluth, Minn./Superior, Wisc., as the launch sites of the new Knight Creative Communities Initiative. It's a partnership with social theorist Richard Florida, author of 'The Rise of the Creative Class,' and Leon County's business, education and government leaders to enhance the area's economic base beyond government and education." Read more about it here.

Finally, at risk of self-promo, here is a review I wrote of the most recent performance by the Missoula Symphony Orchestra. I've gotten notes of thanks and praise from members of the chorus and the audience; I've also gotten angry letters telling me I need to show "fealty" (!?!?) to the orchestra and that reviews like this "will shut down this valued institution." So I guess a mixed-bag performance inspired a mixed-bag review which resulted in mixed responses!

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February 14, 2007

"Critiquing the Critics"

John Stoehr

Curt Holman, a 2005 fellow of the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at the University of Southern California and writer for Creative Loafing in Atlanta, has thoughtfully pointed out a cover story, published in Time Out New York in December, that turns the tables on Big Apple critics. Anyone who reads Art.Rox ought to check it out. The book critics section is particularly interesting.

What's also interesting is the thinking expressed in the introduction. Writer Nathan Huang cleverly notes that critics give readers a lot to talk about, even if readers have no intention of experiencing the theater, concert or performance in question. One purpose of criticism, in other words, is providing readers with information with which to take action. But isn't another purpose to contribute to the ongoing dialogue of a community?

As Huang writes: "We live in a city that churns out massive amounts of art and entertainment, then proceeds to talk about it endlessly. At times it doesn't even matter if you haven't seen, read or heard something, as long as you can gab about it--and our local critics provide the handiest cheat sheets."

Even if a city doesn't churn out as much culture as New York (and let's face it, name one that does), culture still plays an important role in the lives of everyday people, even if they themselves don't know it. Here in Savannah, where I'm the arts and culture reporter for the Savannah Morning News, people love -- and I mean love -- high school and college football.

There is an Southern adage worth remembering -- you don't get married in the fall, you don't die in the fall, you don't do anything in the fall except watch football. The result is people are gabbing about football endlessly come autumn. But why can't they also gab about the arts? Their children are involved in all sorts of cultural activities, in school and in other organizations. I suspect parents don't talk about the arts at least in part because such talk would be considered haughty and highfalutin.

Case in point, I was reading the New York Times while waiting for my lunch yesterday. The waitress came by with my order and patiently waited while I moved by newspaper. She said: "I don't want to put this on your New York Times," with a tone of voice that suggested I was some fancy-pants Yankee doing something regular folk, like her, don't do.

But when it comes to the arts, people in reality are very engaged; they just don't talk about it. In my view, that's where we as arts journalists can play a critical role -- by normalizing what they already experience and giving them the vocabulary to use in talking about it. Perhaps someday even a place like Savannah will talk about the arts as endlessly as we do about sports.

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Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007)

John Stoehr

Gian Carlo Menotto, the founder of Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C., one of the country's premiere arts festivals, died on Feb. 1, 2007. He was 95. Yesterday, festival administrators released an official statement (see below). His passing is an occasion to reflect on the impact an internationally acclaimed composer and conducter can have on a small American city. Since a bitter dispute with his board 14 years ago, Menotti had had little to do with Spoleto USA, focusing more on his other festival in Spoleto, Italy. But in the wake of his death, reports Dottie Ashley of the Charleston Post and Courier, the two festivals may once again work together.

February 13, 2007

Dear Friend of the Festival,
All of us associated with Spoleto Festival USA are saddened by the death of Gian Carlo Menotti, who passed away on February 1, 2007.

Some thirty years ago, Mr. Menotti founded Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston as the "new world" counterpart to the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. In his opening statement in the very first Spoleto Festival USA program, Mr. Menotti remarked, "Just as the composer - without being able to define 'inspiration' - knows when he is inspired, I knew that Charleston would be the town of my choice as soon as I set foot in it, and Charleston, with its enchantment, will confirm to the beholder the wisdom of this choice." His vision was for the festival to be "fertile ground for the young with new ideas and a dignified home for the masters." We embraced his vision and Charleston lived up to his expectations as the perfect setting for the festival. All of the artists and all of the members of the audience, board and staff since 1977 have in some way benefited from his inspiration.

During the festival this year, we plan to celebrate the life of Gian Carlo Menotti. Please continue to check www.spoletousa.org for additional programming if you would like to join us in remembering this remarkable composer and friend of the arts and artists.

Sincerely,

Joseph Flummerfelt
Artistic Director for Choral Activities

Emmanuel Villaume
The Christel DeHaan Music Director for Opera & Orchestra

Charles Wadsworth
The Charles E. and Andrea L. Volpe Artistic Director for Chamber Music

Nigel Redden
General Director

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February 13, 2007

Percussionist banging out new direction in Lansing

Joe Nickell

It's usually the artistic directors, conductors, and other artistic staff that get the limelight in any performing arts organization. The administrative staff is respected and appreciated internally, but are rarely seen as anything but paper-pushing employees outside the organization.

Yet, an organization can live and die by its administrative staff. It's something that the Lansing Symphony Orchestra appears to have in mind when they selected their new executive director this month. David Gross, a percussionist for the Grand Rapids Symphony has been selected to be the next executive director.

He's a man who has learned from the administrative tragedies of others. As a professional musician he witnessed the labor disputes that caused the downfall of the Kansas City Philharmonic. Still a staunch union man, he's built a career by learning how to successfully negotiate contracts in ways that keep both musicians and the organization healthy and functioning.

In this story, Lawrence Cosentino of the Lansing City Pulse captures the importance of such skills to an organization in his profile of the incoming executive director.

At a time when arts organizations are spending more of their salary budget on administrative positions than on artists, it's always refreshing to see an organization that hires an artist who is also a capable administrator.

(Thanks to Bridgette Redman for pointing us to this story)

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Music News - Criticism Archive



February 12, 2007

Grammy, Schmammy

John Stoehr

We love the Grammy Awards in Georgia. So much so that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent its excellent hip-hop reporter, Sonia Murray, to blog in Los Angeles live from the event Sunday. We have good reason to be excited. Many of last night's winners -- Ludacris, Ciara, Third Day and T.I. -- have ties to the Peach State.

But the record industry hasn't realized how archiac it has become in the wake of new technologies. However stylish it might be, the award show seems almost quaint compared to its former self 20 years ago.

In 1987, bands like Poison were selling millions of copies of hair-metal hokum (remember "Look What the Cat Dragged In"?). The same record today -- featuring that bedroom anthem for the ages, "Unskinny Bop" -- would be lucky to sell a few hundred thousand. Indeed, the standards of being a hit have changed so much that selling a million records would be considered a smash.

Pop music critics have been bemoaning the vanilla flavor of the Grammys for years, but now in the wake of internet downloading (legal and otherwise), in which music is measured in megabytes not physical CDs, the critics have quantifiable evidence to support long-held charges of irrelevance. Fewer and fewer people are buying records. Why then is there so much to-do about the Grammys?

Perhaps it's denial. But it could also be the force of nostalgia. David Marchese, from Salon, reports the Grammys -- that bastion of the young and hip -- were headlined by Earth, Wind and Fire, the Police, Lionel Ritchie and the Eagles. The president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Neil Portnoy, gushed over his youthful excitement after seeing Elvis perform on TV. He thought, "I want to be a record executive."

Let's see, Elvis has been dead for how long?

The foundation of the record industry was poured during the heyday of Elvis and the Beatles. The industry controlled the artists, the recording technology and the means of distribution. It had a lock on everything and all was good. And when MTV came along, things got even better, as long as the MTV was the gatekeeper in charge of who gets in and for how long.

That's no longer the case and will not be the case again, as Mark Swed notes in Sunday's Los Angeles Times. You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. The irony is that newspapers like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and my own paper are hoping coverage of the Grammys will attract younger readers. But they are not buying records. Baby boomers are, and they are already reading the papers. Georgia newspapers are rightfully cheery about Georgians being in the national spotlight, but that spotlight won't be there for long. It's just a matter of time.

-- John Stoehr

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