Wednesday, March 14, 2012

David Lee, Carolina Soul & The Paradise of Bachelors Record Label

David Lee with the Washington Sound record shop sign, in front of his storage trailer;  

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. Starting March 19th, we will offer new articles and share some new projects related to our mission.

David Lee's Carolina Soul was originally published on August 2, 2011.]


Long-time readers might remember our piece from last year on the Carolina Soul site and the Paradise of Bachelors record label. POB's first release, Said I Had A Vision: Songs & Labels of David Lee 1960 - 1988 was one of our absolute favorite records from 2010--and the release has continued to get some wonderful press, so I'd like to start off the week by sharing some of this information. If we've hit the summer doldrums (August), this record is the best antidote I can imagine. Paradise of Bachelors is now offering a limited edition LP repressing; folks can find the digital download at iTunes or Amazon Music

Here's "You've Been Gone Too Long" by Ann Sexton. As the liner notes explain, "the tune must make any list of curious, 'Jody' genre songs, for its reference to the archetypal male opportunist who, according to Vietnam-era folklore, would latch onto women whose husbands or boyfriends were serving overseas." 

While we are currently in a golden age of reissues and unearthed music, with more and more coming out each week, what sets Said I Had a Vision apart is its combination of context (rural North Carolina, from the civil rights era to the Reagan era), the  quality of its songwriting, and the absolute exuberance of the performances. Many such records have these qualities in unequal parts, but Said I Had A Vision contains songs that exceed the normal obscurity-fetish that similar records often cultivate. After I play this record through, I generally feel like everyone I know needs to hear these songs.

It should be no surprise, then, that the music press has embraced this record and the regional vision behind the Paradise of Bachelors label, which is co-curated by folklorists Jason Perlmutter and Brendan Greaves. I was excited to learn that Wax Poetics had featured Said I Had a Vision in a recent issue; here's Jon Kirby:
A man of faith, [David] Lee's output tended towards the spiritual. And although most benefit from Cleveland County's proximity to Charlotte's Arthur Smith and Reflection Studios, perhaps his most generous offering was recorded on location at Mice Creek Baptist Church, in nearby Gaffney, South Carolina. "On My Way Up" by the Relations Gospel Singers showcases the careening lead of Steve Allen, whose exorcism range leaves church-van tracks through a field of delicate piano and choral support, recalling the fly-on-the-wall intimacy of an Allan Lomax artifact. Much of Lee's color-blind songwriting was realized by the Constellations, a salt-and-pepper ensemble who, during Shelby's annual Art of Sound Festival last October, proved they could still do "The Frog," walking sticks in hand. "They were just like kids to us when they started," revealed wife Nelena of Lee's most allegiant act. "We was just like a big family, rolled up together." With the exception of "northern soul" curiosity Ann Sexton, most on Lee's short-but-sweet roster still reside in Cleveland County, like blue-eyed crooner Bill Allen from nearby Cherryville. "You probably drove past there!" exclaims Lee. "You should have hollered for Bill when you was coming through." 
Further write-ups on the resurgence of interest in Mr. Lee's work has appeared in Our State magazine and The Charlotte Observer. Earlier this year, Mr. Lee was awarded the Brown-Hudson award by the North Carolina Folklore Society, introduced by Mr. Perlmutter and Mr. Greaves. Afterwards, he gave a performance of "I Can't Believe You're Gone" and "I'll Never Get Over Losing You," the latter of which appears on Said I Had a Vision

Paradise of Bachelors will release an LP/download of new material emerging from the South this fall: Poor Moon by the much-loved and critically-acclaimed Hiss Golden Messenger. Also in the works is a release of new and remastered material by Willie French Lowery, a member of the Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina and who has worked previously with the psychedelic bands Plant & See and Lumbee. I'll include a sample of each artist below; you can also follow the latest Paradise of Bachelors news on their Facebook page.

Hiss Golden Messenger from Gianmarco Del Re on Vimeo.


[Discovering Carolina Soul was originally published on September 23, 2010]

The former Washington Sound on Buffalo Street in Shelby, NC; from Carolina Soul

Throughout the sixties and seventies, at least one hundred African-American-owned R&B/Soul record stores thrived in the Carolinas. These retail shops, with their close links to recording studios and local record labels, were on the front lines not only of new musical ideas, but of the civil rights struggle itself. Today, this music's story is being told in a compelling fashion on the Carolina Soul blog/archive, which has spent the last five years locating and documenting the wide array of R&B/Soul music created in North and South Carolina--much of which has never been re-issued since its original release as 45 rpm records.

If you peruse Carolina Soul's extensive discography the material object of the vinyl record begins to stand as a symbol for a kind of rural-urban linkages that revolutionized the last half-century's artforms and its push toward social justice.  This effort to rediscover these recordings, and to tell the stories of these musicians and their communities, is led by Jason Perlmutter (a chemist and local music collector) and Jon Kirby (an associate editor at Wax Poetics). Mr. Perlmutter, in partnership with folklorist Brendan Greaves, has begun the Paradise of Bachelors record label and is currently pressing their first release -- a retrospective of the music released on David Lee's various record labels entitled Said I Had A Vision.

Mr. Lee, who currently resides in Mooresboro, ran the Impel, Washington Sound and SCOP (Soul, Country, Opera, Pop) labels and often contributed his own songs to his musicians. Carolina Soul recently visited Mr. Lee, and, earlier in the year, the folks behind this project spent time talking with some of the artists who worked with him. Here we see the The Constellations, both then and now:


Here, from the Paradise of Bachelors' blog, is a description of the ground-breaking work done by The Constellations:
We spent an illuminating and pleasant afternoon in Mooresboro, North Carolina with the Lees; Harold Allen, Don Camp, William “Butch” Mitchell, and Benjamin and Bryan “Brownie” Guest of the Constellations. Hearing these gentlemen’s stories about unflagging brotherhood, camaraderie, and the timelessness of “love ballads”–in the face of physical threats, racist invective, and a Southern and national climate opposed to their very existence–was truly inspiring. The Constellations were the first mixed-race combo in the area, and they did it as mere kids, getting started in 1958 or 1959 as teenagers and only dissolving upon the departure of members to Vietnam in 1964 and 1965.

In that time, they recorded six energetic sides for David Lee, all of which belie their tender ages, plus two unreleased tracks–”Have You Seen My Baby?” and “I Want to Jerk”–which Mr. Lee sent to Benjamin Guest while he was serving in Vietnam. Those tapes may yet emerge for your delectation…
We can only hope to that some of this music makes its way on to Carolina Soul or onto a newly-pressed piece of vinyl via Paradise of Bachelors.

As a closing note, for those who would like to hear these gentlemen put these songs into a more eloquent context than I can provide, please refer to their interview with Frank Stasio on NPR's The State of Things.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

10 Questions for...Timothy Andres

Timothy Andres Photo: Mingzhe Wang
Los Angeles loves young fresh faces. And when they come with talent to match, sparks can fly. Which may just happen again later this month when the not-yet-30-year-old composer and pianist Timothy Andres arrives in Los Angeles for two high-profile performances with two very different local organizations. Andres is a fast-rising star in the musical world having already had his work included in programming from the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009, the year before he released his debut recording, Shy and Mighty, on the Nonesuch label. Press has been glowing, and new commissions are coming fast and furious making his upcoming L.A. appearances a high priority for anyone interested in the next generation of American composers. His music will be included in the latest program from wildUp, L.A.’s new music collective, who’ll consider current music scenes on the East and West Coast on the 23rd and 24th of March at Beyond Baroque in Venice. And on an even bigger note, he’ll appear with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under Jeffrey Kahane on the 24th and 25th of March playing his completion of the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 26 as well as his new piano concerto, Old Keys, a commission of the group’s Sound Investment program. Not excited yet? You should be. Prior to all this, Out West Arts was lucky enough to get Timo to take a stab at the ever popular 10 Questions.
  1. How important is contemporary technology to your creative process?

    I have trouble separating the "creative" process from the day-to-day "getting notes down" process. For me, they mostly happen at the same time; it's not very glamorous. I almost always work directly into Sibelius. I've been composing on computers since I was a kid, so it feels natural. Occasionally I'll start with an audio mockup in Logic. The only thing I'll do by hand is the very outset of writing a piece, sitting at the piano and improvising and occasionally jotting down incomprehensible little notes to myself.

    That's in addition to all the other things computers help to do: recording, editing, playing random keyboard instruments, doing all my design and layout, doing my website, exchanging scores and recordings with fellow musicians—I even read most music off my iPad now, so there are pitiably few hours in a day that I'm not in front of some sort of screen.

  2. What’s your current obsession?

    It's not one that I would have anticipated even a couple of years ago, and that is men's clothing. Out of school I dressed like any number of Liberal Arts College Graduates—that is to say, in striped t-shirts and skinny jeans. When I moved to New York I found myself in a meeting at my record label or something, and all of a sudden it was—I feel like a child right now, and not in a good way. Also around that time a friend of mine bought me a really beautiful jacket, and I realized I had not a single thing in my wardrobe that wouldn't look ridiculous alongside such a garment, so that started me down the path. Now I spend most of my free time trawling eBay or thrift shops, searching for, I don't know, the perfect houndstooth bow tie or something equally foppish.

    There are a number of other things I waste time on including bicycles, cooking, and repeatedly cleaning all surfaces in the apartment.

  3. You’ll be performing alongside the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra on March 24 and 25 in a program that will feature a new commission from you for them, a piano concert entitled Old Keys. What should we know about the piece before hand?

    Here are some things you should know about Old Keys: it's an uncharacteristically neurotic piece for me, full of little details and inflections. It's a piano concerto but only in outward appearance; the piano part is not flashy or even that difficult. The entire thing is basically stitched together out of transitions, or at least each section is agitating to move on to the next; it never sits still and just contents itself with one or two things.

  1. That same weekend, L.A.’s young, fresh family of musicians wildUp will feature your music in a program playing off an imagined East Coast vs West Coast composer rivalry. Can’t we all just get along?

    Yes and no. West coasters, in my experience, tend to be genuinely open minded, which is so great. If there's rivalry it is solely between the East coast and its own self.

    Over here, critics and curators love to repeat that old saw about how today's young composers have no stylistic limitations, how we just "let it all hang out" all of the time, but in reality things are much more like that old Tom Lehrer song "National Brotherhood Week"—everyone comes out to Miller or Merkin to hear their friend's piece and puts on a friendly face for precisely as long as is needed ("be grateful that it doesn't last all year!"). At one of these things someone asked me if I was an "uptown or downtown" composer, which… just… never ask anyone that.

    Competition among composers is a funny thing. If you're, say, a violinist and you bomb an audition, it's easy to say "I had an off day" or "so and so practiced harder" and kind of take the brunt of the blame yourself. Composers are never like that. It's more along the lines of "Orchestra X didn't program my piece because they like that Euro crap/that post-minimalist crap/That New Complexity/That New Sincerity" etc. etc.—they think there must be some terrible extenuating circumstance or conspiracy turning things against them.

    My strategy is to remind myself that "a rising tide lifts all boats". If your friend gets commissioned by the LA Phil, how is that anything other than fantastic? It means the LA Phil is paying attention to your immediate sphere, your field, and bringing that music to new and bigger audiences. And you never know, your friend might drop your name at Deborah Borda or John Adams and they'll end up commissioning you next time.

  2. What music made you want to be a composer?

    At first it was just pure harmony what did it for me. When I learned how to play major chords I thought they were the most beautiful sound imaginable. Somewhat later it was Beethoven, Brahms, and Ravel. Now hundreds of different things make me want to compose.

  3. What’s your second favorite opera after Berg’s Lulu?

    Need you ask? Nixon in China.

  4. When should I clap?

    Whenever the hell you want? As long as it's not during a super beautiful quiet part?

  1. You’re equally well known as a performer in your own right, especially of contemporary music. In what way does xour work as a performer of other people’s music influence your work as a composer?

    The two are linked quite inextricably. I perform my own stuff a great deal, of course, but it will never challenge me as a pianist in quite the way a score from someone else does. Ted Hearne's Parlor Diplomacy totally schooled me on how to play trills, I learned how to hocket and groove from playing Reich and Adams and Brad Mehldau, and Rzewski taught me about playing ridiculous counterpoint with one's forearms. And whatever I'm currently practicing finds its way into what I write, sooner or later—it's just unavoidable. It works the other way, too; I think I get a "leg up" on deducing a composer's intentions by being one myself.

    Playing the piano is also my primary means of discovering new music—I don't listen to contemporary music regularly (though I'm trying to find more time for that) so I'll often find out about a great composer by performing one of his or her works.

  2. You’ve been associated with at least two different larger groups of composers: the six person collective Sleeping Giant and more broadly, a generation of young composers currently living and working in Brooklyn. How important is it for you to be surrounded by a community of other composers in making the music you do?

    The proximity to fellow composers is a nice thing, and the Sleeping Giants are close friends and we love getting drunk together, so that's great. But technically we could collaborate from anywhere in the world—one doesn't need to occupy the same space in order to share work, create work together, critique said work, talk trash, and get silly.

    The Brooklyn/Greater NY area really comes in handy for performing. I love playing with groups like Metropolis Ensemble or ACME, chamber ensembles, bands, bandsembles (that's French), just any random and interesting gig that comes my way. Since college, my M.O. has been to stay as busy as possible at all times, and living in the midst of such an active community has allowed me to support myself doing just that. I'm grateful for it literally every day.

  3. What’s the next big thing we should be looking for from Timothy Andres?

    Some things I'm particularly excited about this Spring: playing a solo "opener" for the Brad Mehldau trio in Denver, then giving a full recital at Le Poisson Rouge here in New York, leading into my London début at Wigmore Hall in June.

    Also some new pieces in the works for next season that I'm thrilled about: a solo piece for the amazing young pianist Kirill Gerstein, a quintet for Jonathan Biss and the Elias Quartet, my first choral piece (!) for Present Music in Milwaukee, scoring a documentary, perhaps a song cycle, and some big new collaborative works with the Sleeping Giants.

    And a bit down the road, my next album—a collaboration with the wonderful young orchestra Metropolis Ensemble.

What We Talk About When We Talk About The Rural

Cast-iron stove reclaimed by David Lundahl from a local farm;  the foundation for a new sculpture

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. Starting March 19th, we will offer new articles and share some new projects related to our mission.

What We Talk About When We Talk About The Rural was originally published on August 15, 2011.]


While working on an Art of the Rural project at New Light Studios in southern Wisconsin, the self-created arts environment of David Lundahl (who, despite physical and economic hardship, rebuilt a dilapidated dairy farm into a vibrant arts space) I had a moment to learn that some of my comments after the recent Talk of the Nation piece on rural America were printed in The Daily Yonder, and that TOTN's Blog of the Nation gave The Art of the Rural an enthusiastic mention. It's an honor on both fronts, and timely, as I spent a good part of the drive up to New Light Studios thinking about the TOTN piece and its reception. 

If folks haven't had a chance yet, I'd encourage a listen--and also a perusal of the TOTN comments section both there and on the Blog of the Nation follow-up.  Very quickly, the real concerns over the loss of rural posts offices were either swept off the table by some commenters ("These towns have no other buildings they can't meet in front of?") or subsumed into predictably digested political rhetoric ("If you want rural America to have stuff like P.Os., health clinics, and communications access, you'd better vote for a "big-government" Democrat."). 

Of course, this is the level of discourse on a number of internet forums and comments pages--a gruesome spectator sport all to itself. What's different here is that, in my opinion, the Talk of the Nation piece was not entirely successful in its communication of the diverse set of complexities enmeshed in contemporary rural life--and it almost entirely ignored the question of rural arts and culture, the very fabric that unites these communities. 

While NPR consistently provides some of best broadcast news and commentary to be found anywhere, and while (contrary to aforementioned political rhetoric) both my conservative and liberal friends seem to value its in-depth coverage (see the reports from the GOP straw poll in Iowa), I left the rural segment of Talk of the Nation discouraged on a basic level. Here's a portion of my reaction published in The Daily Yonder:
More than anything, I wish the NPR producers had the foresight to keep Dee Davis [President of the Center for Rural Strategies] on the line with Neal Conan for the whole segment, so that he could have helped contextualize the excellent perspectives of the guests.

This is telling: culturally speaking, as Americans, do we all assume we "know" the rural equally well? Do we admit that the "face" of rural America is changing, that there are many people in cities who identify as "rural," and that rural youth have a stake in these discussions?

Neal's language during the transitions spoke (alternately) to all the old assumptions about rural America: it's either a pastoral or a broke-down ghetto. The guests offered perspectives that challenged this, but I worry that the format of the segment and Neal's questions may, in the end, not have done the work of challenging his listeners--something NPR is generally adept at doing.
Writer and producer Mary Phillips-Sandy has added a much-needed critique of that use of language on her excellent A Lot of Consonants blog:
One of the things that stood out to me was the host’s use of the word ‘heartland’ as a synonym for ‘rural America.’ It’s a common idiom and a disingenuous one. Where is this heartland, exactly? Does the expression mean a geographic center or an emotional center? If the former, it fails to include all the parts of rural America that exist at the nation’s edges and farthest-flung points. If the latter it is patronizing, because it locates rural America in the realm of abstract sentiment, instead of on a map, right there, or right here.
An emotional center, in the realm of abstract sentiment: this eloquently gets at how Americans with little direct rural-experience can sometimes describe and qualify non-metropolitan life. If we think about this from a literary perspective, the use of "heartland" is simply an updated term for "Arcadia," that place of the literary pastoral invented by Theocritus--writing from the library in Alexandria, ca. 300 B.C. For this poet, it was a place of shaded groves of song and love, a landscape of man's communal experience with nature. 

In actuality, Arcadia was a rocky and barren region where very little grew. Two millennia later, we find that readers (and nations) need to have a pastoral myth, a place to invest the unalienable values of their people. And, updated in the modern age, they also need to view their Arcadia simultaneously as back-woods region where acts and sensibilities that would not be tolerated in urban centers can somehow be found permissible (consolidated schools, drastically insufficient health services, mountaintop removal, and so on).

Whether the author is Theocritus or a speech-writer for any of the forthcoming 2012 campaigns, this language ignores one basic and inseparable fact: the rural and the urban are intimately connected.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Suzan Hanson, Roberto Perlas Gomez, and Chorus Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/LBO 2012
Surrealism was the theme for the second production of Long Beach Opera’s 2012 season, a double bill of Martinů’s The Tears of a Knife and Poulenc’s The Breasts of Tiresias. The company, and its artistic director Andreas Mitisek who also served as conductor for the evening, went for the laughs on Saturday during the first of two performances at Long Beach’s Center Theater. This wasn’t a bad strategy for two reasons. First, surrealist works, such as the source materials for these short operas, often rely heavily on humor and ironic juxtapositions to make their points. Second, as my fellow-blogger George Wallace pointed out, Long Beach Opera has a more consistent track record with comedies or at least comic interpretations of more dramatic works. (Vivaldi’s Motezuma, Kurka’s The Good Soldier Schweik, and Shostakovich’s Moscow, Cheryomushki come immediately to mind.) And within this framework, this current production does achieve some level of success if it does so by overlooking the darker, more inherently complicated aspects of both pieces.

The first piece on the program was the quick 20 minutes of music that make up Martinů’s The Tears of a Knife. In it a young woman, sung by Ani Maldjian, falls in love with the corpse of a hanged man. Despite her mother’s pleas that she instead marry a neighbor, who turns out to be Satan, she goes ahead with her plan. She is eventually disappohnted by the one-way affair and kills herself hoping to be reunited with her lover in the afterworld. She is, only to discover that he, too, has actually been Satan all along. The troupe including Suzan Hanson as the girl’s mother and Robin Buck as Satan reached for the humor in this scenario, but it never seemed to connect in Ken Roht’s attractive staging. Part of the issue here was the diluted sound of the chamber sized orchestra which, as with previous LBO performance in the Center Theater, keeps them at the rear of the stage behind a scrim. The jazz-influenced score doesn’t have a lot of time to make its impact, and musically the performance seemed dull and unfocused.

Luckily, Poulenc’s adaptation of Apollinaire’s play The Breasts of Tiresias, which was both longer and larger, seemed a more natural fit for the resources at hand. Poulenc's sly wit shines through in what is often very accessible, tuneful music that Mitisek and the orchestra had a firmer grip on. Maldjian returns to play Thérèse, a woman so enamored with feminist ideals that her breasts turn into balloons and float away turning her into Tirésias. Her husband, Buck again, is so frustrated by this and his inability to meet the cultural imperative of procreation, he elects to generate 40,000 of his own offspring through the miracles of modern science. Hilarity ensues and there is a requisite happy ending. Roht’s staging comes alive with a chorus that at times appears as party goers and then later surfaces as a legion of infants who write novels about Mme. Butak among other artistic endeavors. Roht is a choreographer by trade, and the sense of movement and physical space is strong. There are some video elements designed by John J Flynn that are projected behind the cast, including images taken from Magritte, in case we failed to get the point otherwise. The cast is more certain in these proceedings including a wonderful duet between Doug Jones as M. Lacouf and Benito Galindo as M. Presto. All of this is wrapped up in candy colored outfits and scores of balloons for a conclusion that may be a tad more crowd pleasing than it needs to be. Long Beach Opera has managed a view of surrealism that is very much tuned into the humor found in the strange and unreal, but not always so in touch with the scary and dangerous side of the same coin. The program repeats on the 17th of this month.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sing a Song

Jessye Norman, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Meredith Monk rehearse John Cage's Song Books with members of the San Francisco Symphony Photo: SFS 2012
Talk about a quick turn around. After a rather stodgy and dreary opening to the San Francisco Symphony’s latest iteration of the American Mavericks Festival on Thursday and Friday, the ensemble returned Saturday with a superb second program, likely one of the best you’ll see anywhere this year. The material was no different, 20th-century masterpieces from American composers including John Cage, Lukas Foss, Henry Cowell, and Carl Ruggles. What was new was a spirited attitude that injected some life and a whole lot of fun into what the cutting edge was. The show’s highlight was the first half of the evening dedicated to John Cage’s Song Books from 1970. The piece is a daunting collection of 90 short works that are equal part theater and music. Most of these consist of instructions to perform certain acts that may or may not make sound, and Cage was often indeterminate about both text and musical content, allowing for extensive borrowing from just about any source a performer might choose. One song instructs the performer to select a seat in the auditorium using random lines on a transparency and a seat map. Once the seat is selected, the performer leaves the stage to deliver a gift and then return. The singers are miked and perform both standard vocal lines in some works and combinations of guttural or chirping sounds at others. There are recitations of various texts and and every day noises like card shuffling and chopping vegetables as well.

One smart move on this evening was that the Symphony hired three legendary vocalists, Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk, and Jessye Norman who accompany the handful of orchestral players who would wander on and off the stage. The second smart thing they did was to hire young stage director, Yuval Sharon, to construct a large scale staging for the performance. Sharon brilliantly organizes the stage around three screen-covered huts at the rear of the space and then allows the songs to unfold often simultaneously in an organized chaos Cage would have approved of. (The photo above is from the San Francisco Symphony's own site taken at the final dress rehearsal performance.) At the beginning of the performance from the dark, one heard cooing and then La Barbara’s face appears on the left screen projected from a live video camera somewhere yet to be revealed. Slowly the curtain on the second hut raises to reveal a bedecked Jessye Norman in a flowing gown singing the music of Satie. Cage provided songs that used electronic processing of Satie’s music, and, though restrained, it provided a most royal entrance for La Norman. Soon the stage is filled with players dressed either casually or in tails. Some sit at one of three table engaged in any number of tasks including reading and tearing paper or moving around other objects. Two pianos rest at either side of the stage and and are periodically played and then abandoned. There are neon lights that flicker on and off and eventually Monk strolls onto stage chirping and clicking as she slowly strolls or waddles around the space. Monk will later try on a dress and has one of the more humorous parts of the evening reciting lines about the kind of government "we need" that directly references the work of Thoreau.

The players come and go as Cage’s songs start and stop, all playing out simultaneously one against the other. Michael Tilson Thomas joins the fray at one point picking at the strings of a piano and throwing paper. The vocalists move about and amid the organized chaos creating some beautiful images. Some are projected on the screens of the huts such as barren trees or maps of Concord, MA. Other images are ironic living ones like seeing Jessye Norman peck away on an amplified typewriter. (The performance generated video projections reveal that the text she composes is in French.) If you have ever loved Ms. Norman in performance, this unexpected, unusual turn to the music of John Cage will make you do so all over again. All of this bustling hour-long activity from the basketball dribbling to the electronic blips and whirs drove right to the heart of Cage’s project, recognizing the music in everyday sound around us all. Sharon’s staging captures that wonder on the largest possible scale by creatively playing out these individual songs one atop the other in a continuous cascade. Not everyone in the audience could relate to this sophistication and there were some boos and a handful of walk outs, but that’s as it should be. This music should strike some nerves, and it certainly did on Saturday.

This magnificent theatrical opening was a tough act to follow. But when the orchestra returned with Tilson Thomas, the events of the first half of the evening had lit a light under them and they dug into the following discordant early 20th-century works with real zest. Lukas Foss’ Phorion, an orchestral deconstruction of a Bach solo violin partita sparkled. This nearly deranged ten minutes was followed by Henry Cowell’s 1928 Piano Concerto with its percussive, nearly hammering playing. Soloist Jeremy Denk proved as adventurous as the soloists in the first half of the evening, bracing his forearms and elbows as they repeatedly crashed against the keyboard for this rhythmic rocker of a piano concerto. The evening ended with Carl Ruggles Sun-treader from 1931 with its cacophony of crashing brass and discordant, sometimes wailing strings. It was a great show that tapped directly into that maverick spirit the series is purportedly all about. All of this material will be repeated here in San Francisco on Wednesday and lucky audiences in both Ann Arbor and New York in the coming month.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Remeber the Mavericks

Lou Harrison from the Eva Soltes documentary Lou Harrison: A World of Music
The San Francisco Symphony is in the midst of their 100th anniversary season which has been filled with exciting programing and great reminders of its past at every turn. The orchestra has a history of coveted relationships with local 20th-century composers and some of these ties are featured prominently in their current American Mavericks series, which kicked off this week in a series of programs that the group will take on tour in Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Carnegie Hall under music director Michael Tilson Thomas. It’s music most American symphonies don’t play every day, which is a plus even if the opening program, which I heard on Saturday night felt more like a flashback than looking into the future.

This is not the first time Tilson Thomas has brought American Mavericks to the stage in San Francisco. The first was in 2000 and this reprisal run contains almost exclusively works the orchestra has performed under him before with a few new commissions from well-established figurds like John Adams and Meredith Monk. And as Tilson Thomas acknowledged from the stage prior to the start of the evening, the term “maverick” has meant different things at different times. (Or as the 2008 election taught us, it may have no meaning whatsoever.) And on opening night the word's meaning was definitely a historical one with works from composers who were outliers in the world of art music in their own times if not quite so much now.

Two of the works on the program were further outliers in that they were orchestral transcriptions or adaptations of better known solo piano works. The night started with Copland’s Orchestral Variations, a 1957 arrangement of his earlier Piano Variations now for a small ensemble. Tilson Thomas mentioned his own close relationship with the composer and noted that in his later years, Copland had given him his blessing on developing a further large-scale orchestral expansion of the work that Tilson Thomas described as “just something we do.” The work’s brief 10 or so minutes do still maintain the sort of angular and percussive sound Copland had cultivated prior to completing the later music he would be most remembered for. Still, the piece felt like a curiosity or an abstraction of a much more substantial work in a modern day equivalent of those opera transcriptions for piano and organ that were so popular during the 19th century. This same unsettling feeling also plagued Ives' A Concord Symphony which closed the evening. Ives’ landmark A Concord Sonata, written nearly a century ago, is undoubtedly a piece that may be the well-spring of all 20th-century American art music. In the hands of a performer like Aimard it can still stun an audience into silence. The love of the piece was so strong for composer Henry Brant, that he spent decades working on an orchestra transcription of the work, which was completed in 1994. In this format it still fascinates with its references to popular culture of the late 19th century fused to the most unexpected music that deconstructs this material as quickly as it picks it up. But there is still something lost here, the broader orchestral palette of sounds abandoning a kind of unity in the original piano sonata.

In between these two orchestral oddities, was Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra. Harrison was another local composer that Tilson Thomas noted had a long-standing relationship with this orchestra. (There's been a lot of reflection on Harrison here lately in the wake of the recent opening of Eva Soltes's excellent documentary on the composer Lou Harrison: A World of Music that is still playing in town.) The concerto incorporates Harrison’s interest in Asian music and instrumentation in an odd combination of percussion players alongside the organ, played here by Paul Jacobs, which sometimes serves as a point of contrast. It’s not unpleasant, but it could also sound like Messiaen played by your high school marching band. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. And while this program seemed appropriately historical for the occasion, none of it seemed particularly compelling in the here and now. These were memories of Mavericks past, not those still pointing the way to the future.

Recording of the Week

Do you really need another set of the Beethoven symphonies? I was skeptical too, I admit, but if it's this recent release of the live recordings made by the Vienna Philharmonic under Christian Thielemann from 2008 through 2010, you might just. The recordings have been released already in DVD and Blu-Ray formats in 2011, but Sony has put together this single set now for those not inclined towards high end home theater systems.

Poor Beethoven. You'd think the most famous name in music had fallen upon the hardest of times. His music apparently now requires entire months of radio programming to convince people to appreciate it. Concert programmers as recently as last week were still trying to explain why his music even matters. How things got this bad for the old man are unclear. But listening to a recording as good as the Vienna Philharmonic's recent symphony cycle under Christian Thielemmann reinforces how inane this kind of marketing blather is. These performances do all the explaining anyone could need.

These are big-boned Romantic performances that make the most of the Vienna players' polished, exacting sound. It's almost as if Harnoncourt never happened. But this sort of fleshy Beethoven, popular half a century ago never really went away on world stages, and Thielemann taps into this with interpretations that are bright sounding, and often muscular. There is nothing retro about this work, however, and the symphonies sound as fresh and lively as ever. Thielemann has a strong sense of dynamics and pushes tempi in both directions but never to the point of losing the bigger picture.

And if you are looking for an argument for why buying physical recordings still matter, this is it. A digital download may be infinitely more portable, but it isn't as much fun to peruse as this white, cloth-bound set with individual paper sleeves for the discs. It's a lovely set and includes a bonus DVD with interviews and excerpts from the DVD releases as well. Help yourself. You need an Easter gift.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Abner Jay: The Last Southern Black Minstrel Show

Abner Jay, April 8, 1982, San Jose Flea Market; selection of a photo by Jon Sievert

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. Starting March 19th, we will offer new articles and share some new projects related to our mission.

Abner Jay: The Last Southern Black Minstrel Show was originally published on March 3, 2011.]
In this post, and the previous post below, we're considering the life and music of Abner Jay--a figure whose art cuts across so many themes central to the American experience: race, class, regionalism, history, and place. Mississippi Records has just released Mr. Jay's final recordings, entitled Last Ole Minstrel Man.

I've heard from a number of folks in the two days since the previous post, readers who have been bowled over the emotion, creativity and cultural import of Mr. Jay's work. Today I'd like to share more information and links. Beyond that, the best thing to do is to sit down with his records, turn off the phone, and just listen.

Abner Jay was born in Fitzgerald, Georgia in 1921, into a family of sharecroppers. Though various internet sites tell the story slightly differently, Mr. Jay's grandfather--and perhaps his father--had been slaves. The legal terminology, however, is of less import than the realities of those early years of his life. Amoeba Records' blog offers a generous transcription (from the current release's liner notes) of Mr. Jay's own recollection of this time period:
"Abner was a slave sixty five years after the slaves were freed, because Abner grandpa and Pa love the slave life. Abner was hired out to white plantation owners when he was at the age of six. Abner worked as a slave side by side with his grandpa, a former slave. Abner could not and did not receive his pay until after he was twenty one years of age. Abner ate and slept in the barn with the mules. The White folk would hand his food out of the back door to him in a pan, mostly left overs and the food the white folk dogs wouldn't eat...

"Abner start singing on the public for the white plantation owner when he was eight. Abner start playing banjo at the age of ten, and became a one man band and bone player at the age of fourteen. Abner would play in the rich homes for the plantation owners when they wanted to entertain."
Mr. Jay later toured with minstrel and vaudeville shows, eventually striking out as a young man on his own--a one man band. Along the way he became friends with Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, James Brown and, according to some sources, Elvis. He was also the agent and manager to the phenomenal gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. In the final decades of his life, Mr. Jay traveled from town to town in a mobile home that could convert into a performance stage

Again, Chris Campion so clearly articulates the many attributes of the sound that might surprise attendees of a local fair or flea market:
Jay finger-picked a bittersweet but heartfelt comic blues on a long-necked, six-string banjo that he said had been made in 1748. It had been passed down to him by his grandfather, Louis W Jay, born a slave and later to teach Abner many of the traditions he made it his mission to keep alive.

He was almost certainly the last living exponent of the 'bones' - a musical tradition that involved playing percussive rhythms using various cow and chicken bones that had been dried out and blanched in the sun. Jay claimed to have a repertoire of over 600 songs, which he sung in a bone-shaking basso profundo voice, the legacy of a battle with throat cancer that almost felled him in his twenties.
He would perform field songs, minstrel tunes and Pentecostal hymns interspersed with his own nuggets of homespun philosophy, off-colour yarns and side-splitting one-liners. 'What did Adam and Eve do in the Garden?' runs one. 'Eve wore a fig leaf... and Adam wore a damn hole in it.'

Jay's own compositions were decidedly secular in nature and found him musing on atypical themes such as depression, the Vietnam war and substance abuse. Titles include 'The Reason Why Young People Use Drugs' and 'The Backbone of America is a Mule and Cotton'. 'I crave cocaine,' he moaned during crowd favourite 'Cocaine Blues', exaggerating his diction for comic effect. 'But I can't find nothing here in Atlanta. Cos those hippies dun used it all up... I want sum'tin to pep me up!'
For more information,  The Down Home Radio Show features Eli Smith's interview with Eric Isaacson of Mississippi Records; the two discuss the label's release of The True Story of Abner Jay as well as the true story of the record label itself, which has become a faithful steward of many later Abner Jay re-issues.

Here's a rare gem: an excerpt from Mr. Jay's final performance at the 1993 Grassroots Festival in Trumansburg, New York. We see in this personal rendition of "St. James Infirmary Blues" what Mr. Isaacson means when he says that people called Abner Jay "the black Bob Dylan." Even more forcefully than Dylan, Abner Jay stood with one foot in a lost, folkloric America and the other in the ground of rock 'n' roll, radio, and television. The great achievement of his music is that these contradictions are fused together in ways that can be  both deeply-moving and profoundly unique.  

We learn that he passed away days later, on his way back home.


selection from the cover of Mississippi Records' recent Abner Jay release

Folk music is high class music--of course a lot of low class people singin' it. Matter of fact, most so-called folk singers don't even look like folk. Folk songs tell true stories, but terrible stories--'cause folk are terrible. Terrible songs make big songs. Why do you think kids like rock 'n' roll ? Because it's terrible. You think they're gonna listen to the Philadelphia Symphony, 101 Strings? Why do you think I like cocaine?

Tomorrow we will write more extensively about Abner Jay (1921-1996), a multifaceted musician and artist--and the self-proclaimed "last great Southern black minstrel show." His music (and his life story) was complicated and unconventional, but also singularly brilliant. 

Here Chris Campion of the Guardian writes of Mr. Jay:
Rather than cocaine, he used to claim that the secret of his eternal youth and vitality was lying on his belly drinking water scooped out of the Suwannee River in his home state of Georgia. And at least two of his albums (privately-pressed and released on his label Brandie, named after his wife) feature a photograph of him doing just that, along with the tracklisting, which he customarily scrawled over it in marker pen.

Jay was himself born near the source of one of the tributaries of the river in Irwin County, Georgia (in 1921). He started performing in medicine shows at the age of 5. In 1932 he moved on, to the Silas Green show, a travelling minstrel show and vaudeville revue that had also once employed Bessie Smith. Aged 14, he became a one-man band.
Enjoy these two selections from The True Story of Abner Jay, an earlier record re-released by Mississippi Records:

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Responding To The Kansas Arts Veto

Kansas Governor Brownback signing the 2012 state budget; John Hanna

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. Starting March 19th, we will offer new articles and share some new projects related to our mission.

Responding To The Kansas Arts Veto was originally published on June 21, 2011. To learn more about how national foundations only give 1% of their funds to rural America, please see our article here.]
As many of our readers have heard, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback used the power of his line-item veto to erase funding for the Kansas Arts Commission from the 2012 state budget, a move that effectively shut down the organization and fired its staff. By deleting this state-sponsored entity, Governor Brownback also shut the door on matching funds The National Endowment for the Arts would have granted to the Kansas Arts Commission. 

Today we'd like to offer some viewpoints and commentary on this issue and its devastating repercussions for rural communities. We'll begin with this recent NPR report by Elizabeth Blair, aired on Morning Edition last week. Ms. Blair's piece is an excellent introduction to this debate, and to the contrary opinions by some in the arts community that suggest private funding would be a more effective and more liberating avenue. Below is an excerpt:
Private dollars have been really good for the Topeka Civic Theatre and Academy where Shannon Reilly is artistic director. The company is celebrating its 75th year. "Through most of that history we've been funded solely through ticket revenue, donors and corporate support," Reilly says.
Reilly says for the most part, they have avoided government grants and that has worked to their advantage. "More and more I've seen that arts organizations ... receiving tax dollars were constantly under fire about their programming and what they were doing," Reilly explains. "I like being responsible to my donors and to the people who were investing in what were doing more than a larger tax base."
While this model is certainly attractive, only at the close of her piece does Ms. Blair allow for this harsh reality: private funding for the arts is likely to replace (or exceed) public funding only in urban areas. We can turn to this Kansas Citizens for the Arts press release for further analysis of the rural dimension to Governor Brownback's arts veto: 
“With a stroke of his pen, the governor cost the State of Kansas $1.2 million,” said Henry Schwaller, chairman of the Kansas Arts Commission. “On July 1, nearly 200 local arts organizations and artists will lose critical support for local arts programs, operational funding and professional development. Without this support, jobs in the arts are at risk, and artists and arts organizations will lose the important infrastructure that has been created largely because of the funding and expertise of the Kansas Arts Commission.
Kansas Arts Commission grants were crucial to many organizations, particularly those in rural areas. If an organization received funds from the Kansas Arts Commission, donors were more likely to contribute to that organization, which leveraged additional dollars for the organization and its community. Because few foundation or corporate donors provide money for operations, the Kansas Arts Commission’s main grant program, Operational Support, was an important way organizations covered general expenses such as rent, utilities and salaries. Many organizations, particularly those in rural or impoverished areas, will find it difficult to replace the lost state and federal funds and will either restrict or eliminate important community programs, cut staff or close their doors.
The horrible irony here is that Governor Brownback's veto will disproportionately affect the life of the rural communities from which he has drawn overwhelming political support. His gambit overlays a national "culture wars" argument on the local arts programming in towns far removed from urban centers.  As The Kansas City Star writes in a recent editorial, Governor Brownback is "hoping to make points with conservatives nationally," while ignoring the local and regional dynamics:
As was the case with Brownback’s misguided attack on public broadcasting, he’s applying a national conservative cause to his home state, without considering the damaging impact on rural areas. Public broadcasting provides one of the only sources of news and information in the sparsely populated western half of the state. Urban areas, the target of this notion, have other options and can replace public funding. The elimination of public arts funding, again, isn’t likely to hurt the Kansas City area as much as Lincoln County, Kan.
As rural developers know well, while technology makes it possible to create new business in the high plains, new business will consider quality of life as much, perhaps more, than tax advantages. Brownback has handed surrounding states an effective tool to beat Kansas communities looking to attract doctors and needed professionals.
In the space of this site, we've tried to document and also to complicate the notion of "the rural arts," but Governor Brownback's arts veto sets a giant and unmistakable corrective in the midst of this project. While we can turn to The Daily Yonder and The Rural Blog for their excellent and consistent coverage toward defining what's at stake in the organizing "rural" moniker, there's another dimension to the other half, the "arts" definition, that we at The Art of the Rural have been perhaps slow to cover--and it lurks beneath the articles excerpted above.

This would be the irreducible political element, voluntary or not, that always coheres around the reception of the rural arts. What we find here is an amalgamation of regional assumptions, as well as preconceived notions about the "place" of the arts; in many respects it's a remnant of the politically polarizing climate of post-9/11 America. To return to the dreaded red-state/blue-state mindset (as I intimately learned while living in Boston), a great deal of people from the larger urban and suburban centers of America implicitly view arts-making as a "blue state" activity, complete with its own ideologies and politics.

What the Kansas arts veto makes abundantly clear is that even some public leaders from the interior of this country--despite a wealth of evidence beneath their noses--have refused to challenge this cultural orthodoxy, despite how reductive and just plain-wrong it might be. This is not a Republican vs. Democrat or conservative vs. liberal argument, but a case of recognizing that the arts are vital to all communities, and that they can speak for a range of viewpoints and cultural histories beyond the boogey-men of Robert Maplethorpe nudes or Chris Ofili elephant dung paintings.

In turn, those of us making art and working to ensure its reception need to continue to stress its "site specific" nature, and we need to welcome work which challenges our own political and cultural orthodoxies. 

In closing, we will offer an excerpt from last weekend's Kansas City Star editorial by Joyce DiDonato, arguably the most acclaimed opera singer in contemporary classical music. Born in Prairie Village, Kansas, Ms. DiDonato has spoken up for her home state in interviews around the world, and in the press following her award of the illustrious Gramophone "Artist of the Year" in 201o. (Her broken-leg performance of The Barber of Seville has become the stuff of opera legend.) 

Here is an excerpt from Ms. Didonato's eloquent response to Governor Brownback's decision:
This is the Sunflower State that I have proudly boasted about across the world, fearlessly defending it even in the face of harsh quizzical looks from the most skeptical of folks (“You live where?”). It’s the state of my first piano recital and choir concert. The home field of my artistic curiosity and education. The homeland that taught me to freely dream big and without limitation; one where the arts were once alive, vibrant and supported.

I’ve welcomed the assumption of being an unsolicited but mightily proud artistic ambassador for Kansas to the great cities of the world. Now, for the first time, I feel shame. Eliminating a state arts commission is an ignorant, short-sighted, fearful and unspeakably damaging act to the spirit and soul of this great state.

I’m not a politician or historian. I’m a humble opera singer, a home-grown product of an agricultural state that used to value the arts, like all great societies and cultures of the past. But my anger rivals a good ol’ western Kansas Category 5 tornado’s destructive force when I begin to think of where I’d be without an education fueled by the arts that informed my way of thinking. Or without a community theater, choir or art exhibit that gave me true solace and an emergency exit from some of the great crises in my life. Or without that musical outlet that helped me understand myself and the mystery of life a little better.

No One Gets Away Clean

The cast of Ricano's Timboctou Photo: Steven Gunther 2012
Hot on the heels of one big ambitious Spanish-language theater production at REDCAT comes another. Timbotou, a world premiere production developed in a collaboration between the CalArts Center for New Performance and the University of Guadalajara Foundation, takes its constituent parts from materials much closer to home, though. The play written by Alejandro Ricano and directed by Martin Acosta, like its cast and creative team, lies on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, incorporating elements from communities on either side of this imaginary division of space into a vision that emphasizes the inter-relatedness of all its elements. Acosta and his design team have created an arch, visually compelling world that shoots for some ideological heights even if the bare knuckle storytelling in the two hour intermission-less performance is frequently far more pedestrian and earth bound.

Timboctou refers to an imagined place, the one farthest from wherever its characters are at any given time, that would provide escape from the particular stressors or crises at hand. And there’s a lot of the world the characters in this world would want to get away from including drug trafficking, government corruption, global warming and murder. The play is episodic and focuses on several sets of loosely interrelated characters, whether enacting or coping with the consequences of various illegal activities. Dany, played by Mario Montano Mora, and his twin Chucho, an equally humorous Axel Garcia, open the play trying to dump the corpses of several murder victims in the parking lot of a McDonald’s restaurant in Tijuana. Their highly choreographed movements stand in contrast to the darkly comic banalities of their debates about the spelling of “sabes” in a warning note to accompany the bodies they are to dispose of.

Axel Garcia and Mario Montano Mora Photo: Steven Gunther 2012
The tone here sharply emulates the kind of banter Quentin Tarantino’s entire career is based on, and Ricano’s script is funny if far less sharp and effective than that. Soon the story spins into various directions looking at closely related plots that impinge on Dany and Chucho’s world including the visiting Spaniard they meet earlier in their travels and later the vacationing San Francisco college students who will accidentally kill him during a drunken beach brawl. It’s a structure that calls to mind another film, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic with its network of lives created and destroyed by the illegal drug industry. There are comical, incompetent government officials, stiff DEA agents, and mourning family members that populate Timboctou. Some of their vignettes work better than others but all share the same gabby, comical tone.

Timboctou, which is mostly in Spanish and uses projected supertitles on the walls of the set, is at its best when it unhinges itself from all this wordplay and runs with the surreal imagery that fills its physical space. The set is dominated by a mountain of rusty office chairs that at one point takes off in motion and becomes a shifting metaphor for a number of issues in the play. There’s use of performance generated video feed which is fed into a small monitor suspended from the ceiling throughout most of the performance. The stylized choreography of the opening scene remains consistent over the show's running time as well. There are also repeated references and visual projections of polar bears, creatures that Dany and Chucho imbue as inhabitants of the world farthest from them, but one still endangered by the global warming destroying their habitat. The twins see themselves in these endangered animals struggling in an increasingly hostile habitat. Later the bears actually arrive and dance to Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga”, an aria best known for its use in the 1711 opera Rinaldo.

Ricano and Acosta have an eye for the absurd and a visual language to go along with it. There’s power in Timboctou that suggests the show has something to say and places to go. But the evening still wants for more consistency and a looser, less narratively driven structure, which tends to dilute and reduce the power of its impact. Still the show offers a lot to think about and represents REDCAT’s commitment to theater events without any other comparable home in town. The show runs through Sunday the 11th downtown.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

In the Wings - Mar '12

Timothy Andres
OWA is back from the recent cold and snow on the East Coast to sunny everyday Los Angeles and looking forward to a busy March. What to do? Here’s my list for the picks of this month in performing arts around town and beyond. Interestingly the two events I’m most anticipating involve composer Timothy Andres who has been seen on local stages before and will be all over the place at the end of the month. He’s one of a number of young composers whose music will be featured in the latest program from wildUp, entitled “Craft” on the 23rd and the 24th. Director Christopher Rountree and his fellow young musicians have selected a program riffing on the contrast (or lack thereof) between East and West coast composers programming them side by side for these evenings at Beyond Baroque in Venice. Meanwhile, Anders will unveil a major new piano concerto commission entitled Old Keys for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra as part of their Sound Investment commissioning project on the 24th and 25th. And just to cap off LACO’s big month on the 7th, music director Jeffrey Kahane and his players will celebrate his 15th anniversary with the group in a concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Frances-Marie Uitti Photo: Francesca d'Aloja
Probably the other major musical event this month will be the inaugural Piatigorsky International Cello Festival that will welcome over two dozen cellists from around the world for two weeks worth of concerts, master classes, and other events in a large collaboration between LACO, the L.A. Philharmonic, and the Colburn and Thornton Music Schools. There’s a lot to choose from including performances from Mischa Maisky (17th), Alisa Weilerstein (18th), and Ralph Kirschbaum (15th) with the L.A. Philharmonic under Neeme Järvi (a different work and soloist is featured in each program.) There are also two group shows worth checking out including a performance of all six of Bach’s unaccompanied Cello Suites with 6 different soloists on the 11th and another program that closes the festival on Sunday the 18th at WDCH featuring music by Adès, Stravinsky, Bach, Rachmaninoff and others played by 9 different soloists. And speaking of internationally known cellists, REDCAT will welcome Frances-Marie Uitti for a program of late 20th century works in a rare L.A. appearance on the 23rd.

Jessye Norman Photo: Carol Friedman
Of course if you want 20th century music there are other opportunities to consider. The Southwest Chamber Music collective will continue its John Cage 2012 festival with programs on the 3rd, 4th, 10th, 11th and 24th all around town covering a wide variety of the composers works in his centenary year. Monday Evening Concerts will offer avant-garde works on the border between jazz and everything else in a program including works by Peter Ablinger and Stefan Wolpe on the 26th. Also at REDCAT this month will be another adventurous evening from the California E.A.R. unit who'll collaborate on the works of Morton Subotnick on the 24th. Meanwhile, there's plenty to see in San Francisco where Michael Tilson Thomas will lead two weeks of American 20th century music as part of the wide ranging “American Maverics” festival which will repeat at Carnegie Hall later this season. Music by Harbison, Ives, Foss, John Cage and others will be performed by the likes of Jessey Norman, Joan La Barbara, and Meredith Monk who will collaborate on selections from Cage's Song Books on the 10th. The SFS has created a festival pass as well that can get you into the shows for relatively little and it breaks my heart that I’ll only get to see the shows on the 9th and 10th but there are many other worthwhile events including an appearance by the PARTCH ensemble on the 11th.

There’s other music of course. The L.A. Philharmonic will offer a program with Osmo Vänskä leading Sibelius 6th symphony on the weekend of the 23rd. Ute Lemper and the Vogler Quartet will grace UCLA’s Royce Hall on the 29th with more early 20th century cabaret music. And as we head into April the Los Angeles Master Chorale will perform Bach’s St. John’s Passion on the the 31st and April 1st at WDCH. The Philharmonic Society of Orange County will welcome three big guest ensembles including the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra on the 13th, the Takács Quartet with Garrick Ohlsson on the 20th and Marin Alsop with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on the 28th. And there will be two major opera openings in the region with San Diego Opera reviving Donizetti’s Don Pasquale starring Danielle de Niese and Charles Castronovo on the 10th and Long Beach Opera offering a puckish 20th century comedy double bill with Poulenc’s The Breasts of Tiresias and Martinu’s The Tears of a Knife on the 11th and 17th. (Castronovo will also give recitals in Orange County on the 30th and April 1st.)

from Ballet Preljocaj's Snow White Photo: JC Carbonne
On the theater front, Pasadena’s A Noise Within will offer two new productions. First up will be Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra starting on the 3rd which will be followed on the 17th with Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Corneille's The Illusion. REDCAT will present the world premiere of a new work from Martin Acosta called Timboctou starting on the 3rd. Dance at the Music Center will host visits from Evidence starting on the 9th and Ballet Preljocaj who will give three performances of their highly regarded production of Snow White the 23rd through the 25th. The Center Theater Group will have new shows in all of their houses including the Green Day musical American Idiot at the Ahmanson starting on the 13th, Beckett’s evergreen Waiting for Godot at the Mark Taper Forum on the 14th, and on the 9th at the Kirk Douglas Theater the excellent American Night, a comedy from L.A.'s own Culture Clash that received its premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010. And speaking of OSF, I’ll be reporting on some of their early productions for the year as the month closes including Mary Zimmerman’s staging of The White Snake but will share more on their great season a bit later on. Down in San Diego the Old Globe has productions of O'Neill's Anna Christie to consider on the 15th and a new musical version of A Room with a View from the 2nd. And don't forget South Coast Repertory's latest revival of Donald Margulies Sight Unseen which starts on the 11th. And won't you please go see Ms. Sandra Bernhard as she returns to the area at La Jolla Playhouse from March 14 - 17. Of course there's plenty more so stay tuned for further detail as the month goes along and always check out the calendar section for selected upcoming events.