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June 2012 Archives

June 15, 2012

The Black & White of Memphis

The Dresser will make this short but she wants to go on the record to say how much she enjoyed Memphis, the 2010 Tony Award-winning musical that is currently working on a four city tour: Washington, DC (June 12-July 1), Kansas City, MO (July 10-July 15), Las Vegas, NV (July 17-22), and San Diego, CA (July 24-29). She attended the opening night performance (June 12, 2012) at DC's Kennedy Center.

While she doesn't think David Bryan's music has the catchy tunes of say, Meredith Wilson's The Music Man, which is currently playing at DC's Arena Stage, the singing performances of Felicia Boswell as the black nightclub singer Felicia and Julie Johnson as Huey's Mama were standouts. Johnson's powerhouse rendition of "Change Don't Come Easy" caused this critic who rarely stands at the end of a show to rise energetically when this singer with a huge voice made her bow.

photo-gallery-009.jpgBryan Fenkart as Huey puts on his best performance as an actor. The character Huey is a very funky white country bumpkin who makes folks turn up their radios. He is hilarious but also rather stupid about how the world really behaves. The character Huey is a strange counterpoint to Felicia, a classy black woman with tremendous talent and little opportunity to succeed in a backwater place like Memphis in the 1950s where white and black mixing is forbidden. Needless to say he falls in love with her but why she reciprocates is hard to fathom. In the end, she succeeds and moves to New York while he stays tied to the apron strings of Memphis.

What the Dresser loved best was the dancing. Such numbers as "Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night" put the lyrics and beat into visceral context for anyone who is a fan of social dancing. Most of Sergio Trujillo's choreography mixes jitterbug and Lindy Hop with hip-hop, break dancing, and odd gestures similar to what Twyla Tharp does with her choreography.

The Dresser also finds Memphis an interesting story to contemplate as the literary community in the Nation's Capital prepares to welcome Natasha Trethewey, our 19th Poet Laureate and the youngest person to hold this office. Trethewey's ghazal outlines the kinds of problems black and white couples from the south experienced well beyond the 1950s.

MISCEGENATION

In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;
they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.

They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name

begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong - mis in Mississippi.

A year later they moved to Canada, followed a route the same

as slaves, the train slicing the white glaze of winter, leaving Mississippi.

Faulkner's Joe Christmas was born in winter, like Jesus, given his name

for the day he was left at the orphanage, his race unknown in Mississippi.

My father was reading War and Peace when he gave me my name.

I was born near Easter, 1966, in Mississippi.

When I turned 33 my father said, It's your Jesus year - you're the same

age he was when he died. It was spring, the hills green in Mississippi.

I know more than Joe Christmas did. Natasha is a Russian name -

though I'm not; it means Christmas child, even in Mississippi.

by Natasha Trethewey
from Native Guard

Copyright © 2006 Natasha Trethewey

June 29, 2012

Turn on New Lights: Bach Opens for Moravec

As a college student who intended to be a creative writer, the Dresser dreamed about getting beyond words. This dream evolved later as she became aware of the writing philosophies Gertrude Stein and the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets but, essentially for the Dresser, getting beyond words seemed best accomplished through the nonverbal medium of dance. What brings up these thoughts was experiencing New Lights, an annual concert presented by the National Orchestral Institute and Festival at the University of Maryland Clarice Smith Center for the Arts June 28, 2012.Moravec-NOIsmall.jpg

The idea of this annual concert is for students to experiment with ways to connect audiences to classical music. The premise is that not enough people in the general population appreciate classical music and therefore, finding new ways to communicate this art form need to be developed. Therefore these young and accomplished musicians decided they wanted to present Paul Moravec's Brandenburg Gate, a three-movement piece that probably few listeners, even those familiar with contemporary classical music have heard.

What was important to these enthusiastic musicians was to immediately engage the audience and change the dynamic from passive to active. Without spoken introduction and relying on a handout that provided background on what this concert would entail, some of the members of the orchestra, forming a "flash mob" entered the Gildenhorn Recital Hall clapping a rhythmic pattern that the handout explained was represented in the first movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #2. Then immediately and without any conductor appearing to lead the orchestra, the seated musicians and those standing and singled out for solo parts began playing Bach's familiar Brandenburg Concerto #2 in F Major. What was unusual about this performance was that a vibraphone substituted for the trumpet solo. The Dresser was immediately mesmerized by the confidence and flair of these performers.

Mind you, Dear Reader, these were the first steps toward introducing Moravec's Brandenburg Gate, which Moravec modeled after Bach. Step 3 came without pause and slid gracefully from Bach into John Cage's String Quartet in 4 Parts, a celebration of the four seasons (I. Quietly Flowing Along--Summer, II. Slowly Rocking--Autumn, III. Nearly Stationary--Winter, IV. Quodlibet--Spring) in which Cage wanted to create a work that would praise silence without being silent. During this part of the concert, live violins played from an upper balcony behind the Dresser's seat, making her wonder where these musicians were.

Seamlessly Step 4 moved to Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel ("Mirror(s) in the Mirror") in which it was much clearer that musicians were playing from various balconies flanking the main audience seating. The handout explained that the orchestra was creating for the audience facing mirrors with this on- and offstage performance. Pärt took his inspiration from Renaissance chant music and while this composition has sung element, it is lyrical and suggests song lyrics could easily be added.

Step 5 brought the NOI performers and audience together in improvised vocalization. The handout "strongly encouraged" audience members to select any tone and sing it until the breath runs out and then repeating but picking another tone until four minutes pass.

Step 6 brought Moravec's Brandenburg Gate. The Dresser was impressed not only in the grand sweeping style of Moravec's music which seemed inter-galactic (an audience member insisted there was a connection to Gyorgy Ligeti's sound track for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey) but also how the orchestra got to this rhythmic, regal composition in one seamless flow through a chronology of unexpected sound. Moravec who came on stage for a talkback after the performance was tremendously pleased. While noting that Bach stands with Dante and Shakespeare in their timelessness as artistic greats, he said, this concert had Bach opening for Moravec.

In Anne Pierson Wiese's poem "The Distance," the poet tackles the communication issue of art relative to what an artistic work like a poem (or a musical composition) must say to reach across the distance between people (think: performer and audience) to be successful. This is what the Dresser as a student struggled with but could only articulate the issue in terms of getting beyond words and the structure words represent. The 2012 New Lights concert altered its usual playing field by proceeding without the structure of a conductor, mingling players with audience, and asking for audience participation in a nontraditional way, making for a satisfying and engaging experience.


THE DISTANCE

My mother read me poems before memory,
so maybe that's when it began,
the certainty that seemed already in
place at the time of my first memory--

or at least the two coincided exactly:
the earnest sound of her voice reading
fell like rain on the unmoving
earth of my conviction that poetry

was the highest object of humanity.
It was shocking how she allowed spaces to fall
between the living words--spaces that started small
but lengthened to such silent immensity

that a poem became the distance
between what we must say and what we can.

by Anne Pierson Wiese
from Floating City

Copyright © 2007 Anne Pierson Wiese

About June 2012

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