Thursday, December 29, 2011

10 arts happenings that brought joy in 2011

By no means can I claim to have attended all or even a majority of the notable arts events in town last year: time and budgetary restraints made sure of that. And my occasional traveling took care of some of the rest: for example, I didn't make it to a single event at the Southeastern Piano Festival (but I heard it was great).  Nor did I really attend any theatre or dance events (have I mentioned yet that our household budget was tight this year?).  So while Top Ten lists are very popular this time of year, it would be ludicrous to call this "my top ten," given the relative lack of breadth of the sample. Instead, I can only offer one person's limited overview of some of the events in the arts in the Midlands that brought me great joy in 2011, and here they are:

10. USC Symphony with violinist Vadim Gluzman, Sept. 22: Gluzman's rendition of the Brahms violin concerto was as masterful as any you could hope to hear at Carnegie Hall, Royal Festival Hall in London, or Disney Hall in LA. Even in the quietest passages, his Strad's tone penetrated to the cheap seats in the notoriously mediocre acoustics of the Koger Center with astonishing presence. The "kids" of the orchestra under Donald Portnoy's direction played this "symphony of a concerto" at a very high level, especially considering it was their first concert of the year. Bonus fun was had watching Gluzman join in on tuttis and practically wander halfway into the middle of the violin section, exhorting his fellow fiddlers. 

9. Launch of "Jasper" Magazine, September: Cindi Boiter left "undefined" magazine to launch a new bimonthly arts periodical, "Jasper," with a strong team of contributors. I sure hope it succeeds, as the first two issues look very promising, with perceptive writing, intriguing subject choices, and an appealing look to the eye. Ms. Boiter says the magazine is "committed to comprehensive arts coverage...across artistic genres" and I also hope that will be borne out in issues to come. Their strengths and interests do seem to lie primarily with visual art, dance, and theater, which is perfectly fine--those are all vibrant cauldrons of activity in the Midlands. I'm personally hoping that their music coverage will not limit itself to rock and the club scene but also include the very active "alt-classical" scene here (vividly described by the Free Times in this July cover story) and even...dare one hope?...the best of the more "straight-ahead" classical scene as well. After all, who's really more radical than Beethoven when you get right down to it?

8. Triennial Revisited/Biennial at Gallery 701 CCA (Sept.-Dec.): The retrospective of the Triennial shows of SC artists dating back to the early 90's and the relaunch of the concept in the form of a two-part Biennial show at 701 CCA was a very promising development for the visual arts in this state. The Triennial retrospective, being a kind of all-star selection of already "select" works from past Triennials, naturally was more uniformly impressive. But, whatever the limitations of this space,  the selection process, etc., (see piece by Jeffrey Day in "Jasper"s Nov.-Dec. issue) the two Biennial shows had some very arresting works, especially ceramics (Jim Connell of Rock Hill and Alice Ballard of Greenville), and the gesso-and-graphite black-and-white works of Chapin's James Busby.

7. Opening of Conundrum Music Hall in West Columbia (June): Like my #6 which follows, there is a bit of fraudulence for me to cite this event, in that I still have not made it to a single Conundrum show. (I mentioned those babysitting costs, right?) But it's not because I haven't wanted to. The dreamchild of local arts entrepreneur Tom Law, the alternative West Columbia space has already welcomed a dizzying array of musics, from avant-jazz to experimental-classical to a string quartet from the SC Phil, and much, much more. It's astonishing how busy the space has gotten already. Law's eclectic tastes and interests promise a continually intriguing menu of presentations into the indefinite future. Conundrum is a tangible manifestation of the transformation of Columbia's music scene in the past decade.

6. Columbia Museum of Art opens "Masterpieces of the Hudson River School" Nov. 19: OK, this is also kind of cheating to put this on my list, since I haven't technically "seen it, " i.e., spent time with it (plus it's barely been up a few weeks and will be around till April, so it probably should--and likely will--be on the Top 10 list for 2012). But I had a meeting with museum staff on an unrelated matter earlier this month in the actual galleries containing this show, and thus kind of breezed through with a cursory glance at these works, and a lingering look at just a very few. Well, to quote from a famous "Seinfeld" episode: they're real (masterpieces, that is), and they're spectacular.

5. Calder Quartet, Southern Exposure Series, Nov. 17: This LA-based quartet, as comfortable with thorny modernist scores as with backing The Airborne Toxic Event on David Letterman, riveted the audience at the USC School of Music's recital hall with a superb performance. It was a special thrill to be able to hear one of the first performances of British wunderkind (you can still say that about him, can't you?) Thomas Ades' "The Four Quarters," which had all of Ades' trademark sonic imagination but with a greater mastery of understatement. But the highlight was the Calder's unrelenting performance of Henryk Gorecki's obsessive Second String Quartet. That the hall had not a few empty seats for this (free, for goodness' sake) show was criminal: bad luck/timing or something more worrisome?

4. Edward Arron & Friends "Wadsworth" Series Concert at Columbia Museum of Art, May 3: The world-class chamber music series at the Museum formerly curated by Charles Wadsworth is alive and well under cellist Arron's leadership, and is in fact generally more programmatically intriguing since he took the reins. The players and playing is almost always at a level one would hear at Lincoln Center or any major-city chamber venue, but last May's concert stood out, a world-class Dream Team of American string artistry, Naumburg-prize-winners sprinkled among them: Yehonatan Berick and Carmit Zori, violins; Hsin-Yun Huang and Nicholas Cords, violas, along with Arron. If you were not reduced to tears by their committed, passionate readings of Mozart and Dvorak string quintets, you surely must be one of those Easter Island stone statues. Or a Republican presidential candidate. Or both.

3. South Carolina Philharmonic with Jennifer Frautschi, violin (September 15): What a week that was for world-class violin soloists in town(see #10)! Morihiko Nakahara certainly "gets it" about the role a conductor has to play in a community like this if an orchestra's going to survive, much less thrive; but lest ye think he's merely about the marketing and being the genial "be-everywhere" public face of the SCP, this concert was a reminder of the ways in which he has musically transformed this band. Frautschi's scintillating Korngold concerto with the orchestra's lush and agile accompaniment was a delight in itself: but it was the committed and heartfelt Tchaikovsky "Pathetique" Symphony that could not help but win over any listener. Sure the strings are undermanned, but MN wrung every ounce of passion and sound from them. And the winds, so pivotal in this work, are a great strength of this orchestra. Heck, the very opening of the Tchaikovsky was a bracing reminder that, oh yeah: quite possibly the greatest American bassoonist around today happens to live in our town. And more good news, thanks to ETV (see #1 below), you can hear this concert right now if you're so inclined.

2. JACK Quartet on Southern Exposure Series, USC (April 15): If I think about it, I'd probably have to say that every year since I moved here in 2004 Southern Exposure would have presented the "concert of the year" in my estimation. 2011 is no exception. It says a lot about the band, the piece, and the audience that a concert series has built over time, when a performance of Xenakis' "Tetras" brings a packed house to its feet in Columbia, South Carolina. That's exactly what happened last April, for a string quartet in which it's rare at any moment for any player to be playing their instrument in anything approaching the "conventional" method. But the logic, rigor, and emotional arc of this masterpiece is undeniable, especially in the hands of such masterful advocates as the JACK Quartet. Their star is continually rising: I can hear the refrain now, years from now,  "Did you know they once did a concert here in Columbia? Blew the roof off the joint." JACK Qtet has released a DVD of the Xenakis quartets; you can get a taste of what you missed here on YouTube.

1. SC Legislature Smacks Down Gov. Haley's attack on Arts Commission, ETV (June): The legislature's rebuff of the Governor's cynical and shortsighted attacks on these small but vital South Carolina institutions (by resounding margins) was easily the best news of the year for the arts for a couple of reasons. Of course, the veto overrides preserved (for the moment) funding for the good and often overlooked work that the Arts Commission, for example, undertakes in underserved corners of the state. But above and beyond that immediate effect, the debate over this issue mobilized arts supporters around the state to positive action, a stance of fierce advocacy; it also crystallized for many the real value of the arts to both the quality of life and actual economic well-being of the state. Also, and not unimportantly, at a time when the Palmetto State has become a laughing-stock for much of the country (see Daily Show's "Thank You, South Carolina" feature), this moment was one where South Carolinians could stand proudly, in contrast to the sad situation in Kansas, for example.

Other Events On The Midlands Arts Scene That I Loved in 2011: 

Artista Vista (April)
ACME Ensemble on Southern Exposure Series (September)
"Cendrillon" by Massenet, Opera at USC (February)
David Yaghjian, "Everyman Turns Six" show, ifArt Gallery show at Gallery 80808 (August)
Greg Stuart plays John Cage at 21 Sounds Series, The White Mule (June)
"Who Shot Rock?" exhibit at Columbia Museum of Art (beginning of year through May)
"Castelli's Cabinet" exhibit at McMaster Gallery (November)

...and much, much more...

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Belated happy 100th, Bernard Herrmann!

The centennial of Bernard Herrmann's birth took place last June, and as you can plainly see, I haven't exactly been keeping up with this blog so it's not surprising that it's taken me this long to post something in tribute. Herrmann is one of my favorite American composers...not just favorite "film composer" but one of my favorite composers period. There's no question that his work raised the art of film scoring to a new standard, at least for awhile. I'm not so sure about the period we are in now...there certainly are some great craftsmen working in the genre, but I'm not sure how many are as willing to push their comfort zone to create something truly original that ultimately becomes inextricably linked with the film itself in one's memory. Then again, how many composers are given that latitude in scoring a film today? Even Herrmann, as is well known, eventually ran up against that barrier, and even with Alfred Hitchcock himself despite a long string of successes.

Today most people who know Herrmann's work know it through those scores for various Hitchcock films, most notably "Vertigo" and "Psycho," and that's understandable given that those are not just some of Herrmann's greatest scores, but also two of the most accomplished and visionary films for which he wrote music. For this Happy 100th post, however, I'd like to pay tribute to some of my favorite Herrmann scores for non-Hitchcock films (or in one case, TV), to encourage everyone to seek out more of his work.

Number one among these "other" Herrmann scores would be the achingly romantic score for "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" in 1947:

A close second would be for the score to Francois Truffaut's film realization of "Fahrenheit 451," especially the Prelude and that otherworldly glockenspiel part:

Herrmann did an enormous amount of work for television, especially the CBS network, in the 1950's and 60's. Part of that included incidental music for a number of "Twilight Zone" episodes. Everybody knows the famous "ticking clock" Twilight Zone theme which was written by Marius Constant, not Herrmann...but to me the original Twilight Zone theme music which Herrmann did compose and which was used only in TZ's first season is far creepier, far more chilling. See what you think:

Let this be a jumping-off point for you to explore more of the vast body of work by this very significant American composer...including the concert works he composed. And, since I just love the guy's music so much, I'll relent and include one Hitchcock-film excerpt here, one of my very favorites if perhaps not quite as famous as Vertigo or Psycho...the Prelude from "The Man Who Knew Too Much":

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"Don't miss" show at Sumter gallery closes 4/22

This is the final week ahead for two wonderful exhibits at the Sumter County Gallery of Art that really captured my imagination on a visit back in early March. Joe Walters is a South Carolina artist based now in the Low Country who has been recently creating numerous wall-mounted sculptures, assemblages really, that seem to replicate thickets of branches, leaves, bird eggs, and the like from natural models, but carry their own abstractions with them. Some of these are combined here to form triptychs, making larger statements. Jeffrey Day wrote an excellent piece in the Free Times some weeks back that gives you a really good sense both of what Walters' art is like and the kind of career he is having, what makes him tick.

Across the hallway, in the other gallery space of roughly equal size, is an equally evocative show by North Carolina artist Anne Lemanski. Lemanski's work, too, is essentially sculpture, but she seems to come out of more of a craft tradition, having studied at the Penland School in North Carolina. (I asked Jeffrey Day recently about where the dividing line into "craft" can be located, especially when talking about pieces that don't have any clear link to functionality...he laughed heartily and gave me one of those "you don't want to open THAT can of worms" looks.)  Most of her work here consists of fantastical animals, some more realistic than others, composed of various materials (leather, paper, even industrial plastics) sewn together; the animals (more specifically the manner in which they are depicted) are meant to evoke larger political/sociological/ecological questions in the viewer. A good example is her coyote made of Mexican serapes:

 More intricately--and intimately--spectacular, is the array on the far wall of the space entitled "A Century of Hair 1900-1990."  Lemanski uses her same painstaking techniques of assemblage to portray women's hair styles from each decade of the century, and as the gallery's own notes on the exhibit describe, "embedded in each sculpture is a commentary on the culture of the time: how women were regarded and the challenges they faced in each decade." Much more on Lemanski and her working process from Verve Magazine here.

Directions to the Sumter County Gallery can be found here. I had not been to the gallery prior to this visit, but found that combining a drop-in at the gallery with a walk around the nearby Swan Lake Iris Gardens makes for an extremely pleasant half-day trip. Meanwhile, I look forward to seeing more work from these two Carolinas artists in the years ahead.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Council nixes city arts czar

Columbia City Council has put the kibosh on Mayor Benjamin's plan to hire a Cultural Arts Director for the city. Given current economic conditions, this decision shouldn't be too surprising to anyone. Still, it was a kind of double-whammy for the arts in Columbia yesterday: renowned poet and professor (and Emmy-award-winner) Kwame Dawes announced he is leaving USC next year for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Dawes, the founding director of the now-defunct USC Arts Institute, made it pretty clear that the defunding of the Institute was a major factor in his decision to leave. The decision left Provost Michael Amiridis scrambling a bit to defend the decision to defund the Institute, while trying to acknowledge the loss to the University that Dawes's departure represents. Of course, to be fair, Amiridis is in a thankless position in these times of economic duress to the university. But the question of whether funding came down to "production vs. promotion" of the university's arts offerings is a more complicated question than Amiridis' summation to the Daily Gamecock would have you believe. Speaking of the Daily Gamecock, I think they've got it right on this.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

SC Phil brings its own front and center

From local TV station WACH, here is a nice little piece on this Saturday's South Carolina Philharmonic concert, which features concertmaster Mary Lee Taylor Kinosian and principal oboist Rebecca Nagel in the Bach Double Concerto for violin and oboe. For as much pleasure as Midlands music audiences get from visiting guest artists passing through town to perform on our various concert series, it's always worth reminding ourselves (especially in the current economic/political climate) that this area is home base for a significant number of high-level musicians. So bravo to the SC Phil for programming this...they're keeping this idea alive next season as well, I see...with solo turns scheduled for principal clarinetist Doug Graham and principal trombone Brad Edwards.

Bach wrote this concerto in 1729 for the renowned Collegium Musicum series in Leipzig, which he had taken over from Telemann some time before. It's a good month for Bach in Columbia: on Palm Sunday, April 17, at 4 PM the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Choir will join forces with the SC Philharmonic for a performance of the St. John Passion. This is not one of the free concerts at the cathedral, tickets are indeed required for this: all information including a link to a ticket order form can be found on their website.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Art vs. missiles: by the numbers

Sometimes you just have to put these things in perspective by looking at the numbers.

National Endowment for the Arts budget for FY2011 as proposed by President Obama: $161.3 million. This figure was cut to $124 million by the House, led by Republicans supposedly in the name of fiscal prudence. The Senate has rejected these cuts.

Cost of Tomahawk missiles fired by the U.S. in basically one day as military action against Libya commences: $66 million. This is calculated using an extremely conservative estimate of each Tomahawk's cost at $600,000; it is said about 110 such missiles were fired in this assault.

[Update March 23: this ABC News report cites a study that indicates that the total cost of putting in place and enforcing the no-fly zone in Libya could cost between $30 million and $100 million per week. I offer this information not to take a pro-or-anti-intervention stance as regards this action; but I think when citizens debate whether our supposed current fiscal crisis warrants drastic cuts to NPR or the NEA or their outright elimination, I think they are entitled to be given some facts that put these dollar amounts in a real perspective and context.]

Monday, February 14, 2011

Welcome addition to Columbia BBQ scene

Last Friday three friends and I convened at True BBQ out in West Columbia's "Triangle City" to check out this relatively new addition to the area barbecue scene. I'm happy to report that we were all in agreement that it is indeed a worthy newcomer. True BBQ is an "a la carte" place, not a buffet, but if you get a large chopped BBQ plate I guarantee that you are not going to be leaving the place hungry. You order at the counter and they bring it to your table; the place is small but reasonably pleasant as you can see, with a lot of windows and light:

 A smoker sits out front, permeating the air around the structure with enticing 'cue aroma. "True" offers your basic 3 kinds of sauce; but they're served in a little plastic cup on the side, so presumably you could ask for a couple and see what you like best (I just tried the SC mustard style which was good if a little sweet; they also have eastern NC vinegar style and---though it shouldn't even be dignified with a mention---a tomatoey-ketchup based "Western" sauce...maybe it's good but I don't think one should put that style sauce on pork bbq). The best news, though, is that the BBQ is good enough to eat with no sauce: chopped a bit more coarsely than one usually finds around here, with a nice bit of "brown" and a truly smoky flavor.

Ordering a BBQ plate gets you a big portion of hash and rice; my experience matched that of other early reviews I've seen of the place, in that there seems to be general agreement that True BBQ makes some of the very best hash in the area. I had collards and slaw which were serviceable, there are many of the other standard sides and I look forward to trying those. They also do lots of other main dishes, too, ribs, chicken, and also they have some desserts which none of the four of us could even think about after stuffing ourselves.

Like many of your best barbecue places, "True" is only open 3 days a week, I believe; forgot to take exact note of the days and can't verify it as of this writing as their website is not yet totally functional. But I believe it's Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Great spot to dash out to for lunch on those days, better still if you can take a nap afterwards or even take the whole rest of the afternoon off. You might need to. Very friendly folks running the place, and I look forward to going back many times. We needed another good BBQ place within quick access of central Columbia; please give these folks a try and let's keep them in business!

True BBQ is at 1237 D Avenue in West Columbia.

photo: True BBQ

Friday, February 11, 2011

Where in SC is Dr. Seuss' "Iota"?

We have a giant hard-cover compilation of many of the Dr. Seuss classics in one volume, a gift that was given to us upon the birth of our son; bedtime reading has been drawn from that volume on many an evening. Our now three-year-old boy is pretty obsessed with a few favorites: The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (not limited to holiday time), The Sneetches (a classic anti-racist parable), Green Eggs and Ham, and the Sleep Book (a good inducement to wind down for a fidgety little guy). But last night we revisited one story that we'd only looked at a couple of times before: "If I Ran the Zoo." Full of fabulous made-up animals, I always take special note of this tale because in it, Dr. Seuss name-checks our home state:

In the Far Western part
Of south-east North Dakota
Lives a very fine animal
Called the Iota.
But I'll capture one
Who is even much finer
In the north-east west part
Of South Carolina.

Now, aside from noticing the use of the same "finer...Carolina" rhyme made famous in Gus Kahn's song "Carolina in the Morning" (which debuted in 1922, when Theodore Geisel was 18 years old), the other aspect of this verse that got me thinking was wondering just where exactly that "north-east west part of South Carolina" would be. Looking at a map, I think you might find that "much finer" Iota (or some other animal...not really clear whether Seuss is referring to a finer Iota or just a finer animal in general) right around Gaffney. Maybe in the shadow of the giant peach off I-85.

The really interesting tidbit about "If I Ran the Zoo" (written in 1950) is that it seems to be quite possibly the first printed example of the use of the word "nerd." And here he is:

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Kansas edges out South Carolina

In what might be called a "race to the bottom" when it comes to state arts funding, Kansas seems to have "won" for the moment.

I heard positive things about yesterday's Arts Advocacy Day at the State House in Columbia, though nary a word from the hollow shell that remains of what once was our "newspaper of record," McClatchy-owned-and-gutted "The State." As for Kansas Governor Brownback's move, I do not know whether or not South Carolina's governor Nikki Haley has that kind of executive power; from what I'm given to understand about the relative lack of power vested in the executive branch in this state, I rather doubt it, but I certainly could be wrong.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Variations Sunday; Stravinsky Monday; Advocacy Tuesday

A busy three days ahead starting Sunday, and that's not even counting watching the Super Bowl...

Sunday afternoon, Feb. 6, at 5 PM, I'll be doing a slightly-under-an-hour recital at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia, just across Sumter Street from the State Capitol building. The interior of the sanctuary at Trinity has recently undergone a magnificent renovation and it's a great place both to listen to music and in which to play music. I'll be doing three pieces that all deal with the concept of "variations" in music, and are each almost exactly the same length, about 16-17 minutes in each case. I'll be opening with the famous D minor Chaconne from the 2nd Partita for solo violin by J.S. Bach, in the arrangement by Johannes Brahms for piano, left hand alone.  (See Bach's manuscript original of the opening, above). The program closes with Beethoven's next-to-next-to-last piano sonata, in E Major, Op. 109. That sonata's final movement is one of the most sublime sets of "Theme and Variations" that Beethoven ever wrote, a real journey of the spirit made more poignant by LVB's hearkening back to a Baroque-and-earlier tradition of repeating the theme after all the variations have concluded.

In-between this Bach-and-Beethoven sandwich is a remarkable work by USC's own John Fitz Rogers, the "Blue River Variations," penned in 2003 for the virtuoso USC piano professor Marina Lomazov and later brilliantly recorded by her. I wrote the liner notes for that recording, which you can read here. It's a major work, also a powerful emotional journey, and superbly written for the instrument. I hope more pianists take up its cause. This has been a big year locally for Rogers: in November his Concerto for Two Pianos was premiered by the SC Philharmonic and the same week, at the same place where my recital will be taking place, the Trinity Choirs and the SC Phil under the direction of Jared Johnson premiered Rogers' 7-movement offering for the reopening of the Cathedral, Magna Mysteria, indeed Rogers' magnum opus to date.

Then, Monday evening at 7:30 PM at the USC School of Music, speaking of John Fitz Rogers, it's another evening of the superb series he curates, Southern Exposure. This installment is an all-Stravinsky affair, as a co-production with the school's Chamber Innovista series, so the concert will feature many of the stellar faculty we are lucky to have in this town. I'm particularly excited to hear the neoclassic Octet, written in 1923 and a shock in its own way to many listeners who were just beginning to try to come to grips with Stravinsky's revolutionary works of the 1910's, including Rite of Spring. Of the Octet, Aaron Copland said:

I can attest to the general feeling of mystification that followed the initial hearing. Here was Stravinsky . . . now suddenly, without any seeming explanation, making an about-face and presenting a piece to the public that bore no conceivable resemblance to the individual style with which he had hitherto been identified. . . . No one could possibly have foreseen . . . that the Octet was destined to influence composers all over the world.

After all that music on Sunday and Monday, time for some political activism on Tuesday. As mentioned in my last post, the South Carolina Arts Alliance is organizing an Arts Advocacy Day at the State House beginning at 11:30 AM.  This is a chance for all of us to stand and be counted when it comes to the kind of South Carolina we envision for the future.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Arts Commission supporters to Haley: not so fast

Response to Governor Haley's "State of the State" proposal to zero-out funding for the South Carolina Arts Commission came swiftly and is continuing steadily. A subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee held a public hearing last week that was packed with arts supporters, including SC Philharmonic conductor Morihiko Nakahara. More hearings of the full committee lie ahead, and the process will be continuing through June as the full legislature slogs through the tough budgetary decisions that must be made, but the preliminary indications from this January 26 hearing were encouraging.

Arts Commission Executive Director Ken May's address to the panel is worth reading in its entirety. He focused on the arts' role in education and the economy, and made clear that the Commission's work benefits many traditionally underserved corners of the state:

It is also important to note that private investment in the arts—by individuals, corporations, and foundations—is almost exclusively local and is not equally distributed. This is why the Arts Commission’s investment of grant funds statewide is so important. In poorer communities it helps to fill a gap in local funding, and in communities with more resources, our investment helps to leverage additional local contributions. Last year, across all programs, we awarded more than $2.2 million in grants. These awards went to schools, arts organizations, and other community groups and were spread broadly around the state—more than 340 grants in 41 counties. These grants helped local groups raise more than $91 million in matching funds—a return on investment of better than 40 to 1.

May later added, "I don’t think it will help our image at all if we decide to be the only state in the nation that says no to any investment in the arts for all of its citizens." But sadly, South Carolina is not the only state where arts funding is under attack: Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas has proposed privatizing that state's arts commission and to provide no state funding for it whatsoever.

Back home here, the South Carolina Arts Alliance is spearheading an Arts Advocacy Day at the State House next Tuesday, February 8, with arts supporters gathering at the Capitol in the morning followed by a luncheon with legislators at the Capital City Club. Details here; also join the Alliance's Facebook page to find out lots more specifics about the events of that day. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Nikki Haley's State of the State: from bad to worse?

Last night South Carolina's newly-inaugurated Governor Nikki Haley delivered her first State of the State address to the assembled houses of the state legislature, and to the people of the state. The backdrop for this speech of course is the looming $829 million shortfall in the state's budget; so this address provided Gov. Haley her first opportunity to give some indication of specifics in how she plans to grapple with this budgetary crisis. Nearly the entire first half of the speech was given over to some general expressions of optimism in facing challenges, pledges of openness and transparency in governance and promises to work constructively with the legislature (trying to set herself apart in style at least from her predecessor Mark Sanford), and standard boilerplate pro-business and shrink-government rhetoric, complete with the obligatory Ronald Reagan quote. This part of the speech was capped off with another burst of optimism:

With commitment from the public, creativity from our cabinet heads, courage from our legislature, and a chief executive willing to lead the charge and make the tough decisions, there is no limit to where we can take South Carolina.

Then, finally, it appeared the Governor was ready to lay out some specifics. What would be the very first proposals (with dollar amounts attached) uttered from the Governor's lips, this chief executive willing to "make the tough decisions"? Well, we were told that the Department for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services was being moved "from a privately leased space to offices sitting empty in a government-owned building," and that would save $700,000. Over four years. Uh, okay, Governor, that's nice but...we're still waiting, what's the first thing on your mind for bringing our budget under control? OK, here it comes:

We will not please everyone with the decisions we make but we must make decisions that do the least amount of harm and have the best long-term effect. And the reality is the role of South Carolina’s government in the year 2011 can no longer be to fund an Arts Commission that costs us $2.5 million. It cannot be one that funds ETV, costing taxpayers $9.5 million.

And with that, along with the balance of her speech (which essentially punted most hard decisions down the road and/or to the legislature), Nikki Haley gave us a pretty clear indication that "making the tough decisions" to her means picking off the least powerful constituencies in crunching the budget numbers, which have a tiny impact on the overall budget picture yet will hoodwink her more credulous Tea Party followers into thinking she is actually doing something serious about government spending. By putting the Arts Commission and ETV at the head of her "to-do list" (together amounting to one-and-a-half-percent of the budget deficit), the Governor brings into question her seriousness about the whole enterprise, the relatively-inexperienced politician's depth of understanding about the state, and her grasp of plain old common sense, as in: slashing a giant agency's budget by 30% may cause great pain and hardship, but dialing a small agency's budget down to zero means you had better think long and hard about the disappearance of that aspect of your state's existence. As I write this on the morning of the 50th anniversary of JFK's inaugural, let's just say that Nikki Haley's speech last night could be called "Profiles in Courage--Not."

I would call Gov. Haley's proposal to end funding for the Arts Commission penny-wise-but-pound-foolish, except it's not even penny-wise when you are talking about such a small amount! And what the state gets for this tiny investment! The SCAC has helped bring the arts, an essential part of the human experience, to South Carolinians for over 40 years, including to those who live in rural locations, to those of modest means, who would otherwise have little access. Far from being some kind of sinecure for so-called "elitist" arts, the SCAC is heavily involved in preservation and promotion of folk arts, traditional arts, which are so central to South Carolina's history and culture. A glance at the list of recent grantees will give you a sense of how broadly the Commission impacts the cultural vitality of this state. (Full disclosure: I received an Artist Fellowship from the Arts Commission in 2008). 
And the same goes of course for ETV. Destroying these aspects of our state's life gains so little relative to our budget woes; yet it would immeasurably desiccate the depth of experience, the quality of existence available to our state's citizens, who are enriched by these agencies' works regardless of whether they live in a larger city or rural area, whether they are rich or poor. SCAC and ETV make South Carolina a better place to live, which also means a better place for people to choose to relocate to, a better place for companies to choose to operate in.

The good news is that, apparently (I've only read Haley's speech, did not hear it) her proposals to end state funding for SCAC and ETV were met with significant groans from legislators, indicating there is still substantial support for these agencies (and understanding of how much bang-for-the-buck they deliver for South Carolina) among the Legislature. (You may recall it was just 8 months ago that the Legislature had to override Mark Sanford's veto of funding for SCAC). In the days ahead, I'll link to methods for contacting your legislator to express your support for these embattled agencies. In the meantime, if you would like to express your support of the Arts Commission and ETV to Governor Haley directly, this page shows you how to do so via either snail mail, fax, or e-mail.

The issue cuts across (or should, anyway) party lines. As Rep. James Harrison, Republican from Richland County, put it at the time of the last veto override to preserve SCAC funding: "The arts is one of those quality-of-life issues. Even in these tough economic times, there's a place for arts in our budget."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

January concerts in the Midlands

The blanket of ice coating the Midlands after this latest storm should melt away just in time for the beginning of a very busy concert schedule in the second half of January, as the season really resumes in earnest. For the insatiable music-lover, an appealing fortnight awaits:

Saturday, January 15, Koger Center, Columbia: The South Carolina Philharmonic resumes their season, and they're not tiptoeing back into it either: a season of heavy-hitting masterworks continues with Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, the "Eroica," the symphony that blew the lid off Classical form and proportion, declared the 18th century definitively dead and pointed the way musically for much of the century to come. The orchestra sounded really impressive at the last concert in November; if you have not heard the work Morihiko Nakahara and this group have been doing lately, you definitely owe it to yourself to check them out. This is not only not your father's SC Philharmonic, it's not even your 4-years-younger-version-of-yourself's SC Phil.

Tuesday, January 18, USC School of Music Recital Hall: Charles Fugo, Columbia's poet laureate of the piano, does his annual solo recital at the university; this year's installment includes Chopin and Ravel among others. Here is an account of mine from 2007 of just one of the several memorable performances of Fugo's that I've managed to catch.

Thursday, January 20, Camden (Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County): SC native Claire Bryant, an up-and-coming cellist on the New York scene, has launched her own Charles Wadsworth-like series in Camden and Aiken, bringing other rising stars of the chamber music realm to our area for a chance to hear masterworks of the genre live. These are always integrated into extensive educational-outreach activities by the musicians. Bryant, who could be recently heard with the ACJW ensemble at Carnegie Hall led by Simon Rattle, is bringing a program this time around that will include works by Ravel, Bartok, Poulenc, and Paul Schoenfield.

Tuesday, January 25, USC School of Music Recital Hall: Serena Hill, who was heard last November in Dominick Argento's one-woman monodrama "Miss Havisham's Wedding Night" with USC Opera, will be doing a faculty recital at the School of Music, where she is currently adjunct faculty. Ms. Hill is also on the faculty at Coker College as well.

Friday, January 28, Arts at Shandon: Peter Kolkay and Friends at 7:30 p.m. at Shandon Presbyterian Church at the corner of Woodrow and Devine streets in Columbia, more or less catty-corner from the Whitney Hotel. The renowned bassoonist (a regular with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and associate prof at USC) gives his take on Bach's 3rd Cello Suite in C Major; that alone is a not-to-be-missed proposition. But the "Friends" in this concert also are powerhouses in their own right: the aforementioned Charles Fugo, and USC oboe prof and SC Phil principal oboist Rebecca Nagel. The justly-famous Poulenc trio for these instruments is also on tap, works for bassoon and piano by Weber and Bourdeau; and most intriguingly, the premiere of a new work for bassoon and oboe by Reginald Bain of the USC faculty. It's titled "A Mathematical Offering," in 10 very short movements.

Sunday, January 30, Richland Co. Public Library: This show is for the wee ones in your family...Opera for Kids, operated by FBN Productions, under the leadership of Ellen Douglas Schlaefer (Opera at USC's director for several years now) has been bringing live opera into classrooms all over this state and into neighboring ones as well, for quite a few years now. Often they present a well-known children's tale using famous opera music adapted for the purpose; last year they did a Pinocchio which delighted our then-2-year-old; this time around it's the Three Little Pigs. Performers are mostly twenty-somethings, enthusiastic aspiring opera artists on the front end of promising careers; if past performances are any indication, grownups will be tickled by the show nearly as much as their giggling offspring. This free show for the general public is at 3 PM in the Bostick Auditorium of the downtown public library on Assembly Street.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

LA Phil at the movies: reax

I wasn't able to make it to our local theatre for last Sunday's Los Angeles Philharmonic live broadcast, but here is some of the nationwide reaction to the event. Most of these focused on the question of whether an orchestral performance could be as compelling in this format as opera performances, specifically some of the more successful of the Metropolitan Opera's HDTV theater broadcasts. At the New York Times, Vivien Schweitzer speculates that "broadcasts might encourage orchestras to ditch the formality of 19th-century tails for contemporary attire." In her review, she gets quickly to the central question:

As with the Met broadcasts, the Los Angeles simulcasts offer listeners outside major cities a chance to enjoy first-rate live cultural events. What remains to be seen, as in the opera world, is how people with access to both will pick a format.
Tom Huizenga's blog for National Public Radio gathered feedback from several of their producers nationwide, who in turn reported on fellow audience members' opinions. The consensus here as elsewhere seemed to be: the orchestra sounded great, Vanessa Williams as host was dreadful, and the jury will be out for some time on whether this has a future. Brian McCreath of WGBH quoted a couple of fellow attendees who made the interesting point that they "missed the physical experience of a literally vibrating concert hall, something that simply doesn't translate, even with the best in surround sound technology."

The L.A. Times itself put a positive spin on the new endeavor, perhaps offering part of an answer to Schweitzer's big question:

Although the Phil declined to provide overall ticket sales figures, attendance appeared to be strong at theaters in many areas of metropolitan Los Angeles and elsewhere. At the AMC Burbank 16, 274 of 294 seats were sold for the screening. At the Regal Cinemas LA Live Stadium 14 in downtown Los Angeles, a mixed-age audience that filled more than two-thirds of the seats clapped and cheered loudly as Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra's charismatic 29-year-old conductor, led the orchestra through Adams' "Slonimsky's Earbox," Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 1 ("Jeremiah") and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.
    At the multi-screen Edwards Irvine Spectrum 21 and IMAX complex, a theater with about 225 seats sold out in advance, leaving a few stragglers who arrived at the box office Sunday afternoon scrambling to make a last-minute trip to another showing in Aliso Viejo.

If nothing else, that might indicate that such broadcasts might have a local impact, that is for audience members who live far enough away from the live venue for getting there to be a hassle (or who prefer the $20 admission to full price tickets for in-person attendance), yet who may feel a "home team" loyalty to the orchestra in question.

The two remaining installments of "LA Phil Live" will be March 13, and June 5. Again, our area's venue for this is the Regal Cinemas at the Village at Sandhill complex, in the northeast fringes of the city. And if you made it out there for this event last Sunday, I'd love to hear your thoughts: the performance, and especially the sound quality at the theater, as well as an estimated number of attendees.

Friday, January 7, 2011

LA Phil (and Dudamel) live at the movies in Columbia

Press notice on this series somehow didn't make it here, or maybe I just missed it: the Los Angeles Philharmonic and their dynamic, charismatic conductor-slash-media-sensation Gustavo Dudamel are doing three live concerts simulcast throughout movie theaters in the US and Canada, much like the similar venture of the Metropolitan Opera. The first of these will be this Sunday (January 9) at 5 PM local time, and like the Met broadcasts, the Regal cinemas out at Village at Sandhill will be showing these LA Phil broadcasts.

The main feature of the program is Beethoven's 7th Symphony, but also John Adams' "Slonimsky's Earbox" and Leonard Bernstein's "Jeremiah" Symphony as well.

Info on the series here;  link to buying tickets online for the Columbia (Sandhill) venue here.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Good news for USC to start the New Year

In my "pre-relaunch" post just before Christmas, I mentioned the demise of the USC Arts Institute (which officially closed up shop on Dec. 31) and wondered whether the university would still somehow find a way to keep Jeffrey Day on board to continue compiling the excellent newsletter he had been distributing via listserv. The newsletter (and Arts Institute's calendar) provided centralized information (both the who-when-where variety and also more in-depth background info) about all the arts doings at the University of South Carolina. This included instrumental music, opera, theater, the visual arts, the events at McKissick museum, and even worked in some arts-related aspects of other academic departments at the university.

The university has faced tough sledding in this economic climate as regards funding from the state; it looks to face potentially even tougher sledding once Nikki Haley assumes the governor's office nine days from now. A public university's role in the community (the city where it's located but also the state as a whole) goes beyond the education it provides its students in the classroom. The resource of talent a university gathers together, both academic and artistic, is one that can be drawn on by anybody in the community. Nowhere is this clearer than with the arts, considering that most of USC's arts offerings are free to the public or relatively low-cost. Anything that can make this point to the community with maximum impact is of vital use, to the community of course but also as a very pragmatic tool for the beleaguered state university as well, as it continues to make its case with legislators and the governor. The Arts Institute's newsletter provided this impact, more strongly than if each arts school or department relied only on its own listserv to get the word out. Plus, the Institute and the newsletter helped to work against the balkanization of the arts that often happens within the academic setting.

So it bodes well for USC and for Columbia that the new year brings this good news: in spite of the Arts Institute's demise, Jeffrey Day will continue to compile the centralized newsletter of USC arts events in 2011. To whomever at USC is responsible for keeping this going, I can only say: "Smart move." The link at right (USC Arts Calendar) takes you to a handy tool for your cultural-events attendance plans; but by all means, go to this link to sign up for the newsletter. Let's hope this excellent news is but the start of a wave of positive developments for the arts in this city, region, and state in 2011.