Sunday, November 23, 2014

Musical Chairs

Last year Maestro Raffaele Ponti and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra initiated a "musical chairs" program for young musicians in our community.  Local students were invited to attend a symphony rehearsal and sit with "their" instrument's section.  It's a wonderful way for kids to get an earful of what their instrument sounds like in the hands of a professional musician--and a great way to build the audience of the future.

This year the musical chairs program has been extended to adults in the community.  The best part is that non-musicians--like me--have the chance to participate.  Last month I listened attentively to a talk the Maestro gave entitled "The Psychology of Music: What Instrument are You?"  He asked us to think about the personality traits he attributed to the musicians who play particular instruments. Then he invited us to come to a rehearsal of the CSO for its first concert of the season and to sit with the musicians whose personalities most resemble our own.  Score!

Bright and early last Saturday morning, I nestled in next to the timpani in the back row of the orchestra.  In his talk, the Maestro said that percussionists spend their lives thinking about things they can bang, scrape or pluck and that they tend to be quirky, fun and patient.  While I can't say that's how I would describe myself, I often find myself smiling at the percussionists' contribution to a concert. And so percussion it was for me.  (I note that Raffaele's description does seem to fit timpanist Fred Eckler like a glove.  When I asked how he came to play percussion, he shared that he went to a performance by a sound effects guy at Radio City when he was six years old.  "I fell in love with noise," he said.) 

The first thing that struck me from my seat on the stage was how loud it was when the musicians were warming up.  Once the Maestro was ready to start, concertmaster Stewart Kitts stood and said, "Let's tune."  With that, Raffaele took his position at the podium, greeted the musicians (about half of whom were new to the CSO), and announced that the morning rehearsal would focus on Dvorak's Symphony No. 7.   He raised his arms and they were off.

What a treat it was to be able to really see the way the Maestro interacts with his musicians.  I was struck by the crispness of his arm movements and the multitude of expressions that crossed his face.  At one point he put his fingers to his lips as if shushing a small child.  Other times he almost danced. The orchestra played the piece once through without much in the way of interruption.  Then it was time to mold the performance to fit the Maestro's interpretation of the music.

Maestro Ponti commented that he wanted the opening notes to create a sense of mystery, singing the melody to make his point.  At one juncture he said to the violins, "Take your panic out of this rhythm and let it relax."  When they arrived at the third movement, he announced, "Now for a little Czech dancing."  He asked the winds for "a little more soul" and the strings to "give it a bit of air."  When they reached the rousing finale, a section that Dvorak had labeled "poco animato," Raffaele exhorted the musicians to "take the poco out."  They played fast and furiously and with the passion of people doing something they love.

During the break, Raffaele chatted with us about his approach to rehearsals.  He works first on the "architecture" of the music, then on the tempo and nuances.  He doesn't play it safe, pushing the musicians to play at the tempo he wants in the performance.  There's no time to work up to it really, with rehearsals starting on Saturday for the Sunday evening concert.  He talked about the challenge of convincing the musicians that his interpretation is best.  (A couple of times he asked the musicians to forget about the recordings of the music they had heard.) 

Then it was back to work, with the musical chairs participants now listening from the audience.  There's no doubt I have a greater appreciation of what goes into the performance having had the chance to sit amidst the musicians.   And having identified myself with the percussion section, I will now be rooting for the CSO to perform works that require lots of banging, scraping and plucking.

The CSO intends to offer more opportunities for community members to get up close and personal with the symphony in this way.  If you get an invite, jump on it.  It's an experience you won't soon forget.   

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Touring South Beach's Art Deco District

I never thought I'd be one of those tourists getting off a bus and gawking at the sites around me.  And yet I found myself doing just that last week when I went with a group from the Visual Arts Center to South Beach to tour the Art Deco district.  The event was part of our 2014 Fine Arts Festival entitled "Sensuality Meets Symmetry: Art Nouveau to Art Deco."  (Art Deco being, of course, the "symmetry" part of the equation.)  It was a blast. 

The moment we rolled into town, I knew I wasn't in Kansas any more.  Latin music blared all around us.  Beautiful young people strolled the streets (many wearing swimsuits -- and we're not just talking the women).  Restaurants beckoned from every nook and cranny.  And then there was the gorgeous Art Deco architecture we were there to see.

We started at the Miami Design Preservation League's Art Deco Welcome Center right on Ocean Avenue (and just steps from the beach). Our tour guide, Maureen, gave us an overview before we started the tour proper.  I never knew that Miami Beach had no beach when it was first developed.  It was just mangroves and water.  So all of South Beach is man made (as, Maureen aptly pointed out, are many of the women's bodies!) Or that during WWII, the Army Air Corps rented the hotels on Ocean Avenue to house more than 500,000 cadets who came through the training program there. (The local golf courses were turned into landing strips for the training exercises.) 

The information came at us fast and furiously as we walked around Ocean Avenue.  Our first stop was Beach Patrol Headquarters built by Robert Taylor in 1934.  It's a terrific example of Nautical Art Deco, with porthole style windows, a captain's bridge, piped railings and curved air vents.  Before the MDPL built its headquarters between Ocean Avenue and Beach Patrol Headquarters, it apparently looked like an ocean liner that had run aground.  (I'm not sure why that was an appealing design style!)

The Congress Hotel is still in business and is now comprised of four separate buildings with different architectural styles. The original building is straight up Art Deco, with its ziggurat (step down) details and "frozen fountain" reliefs.  Other Art Deco features include "eyebrows" over its windows and many geometric patterns.

Maureen explained a bit about what it means for a building to have a historical designation.  "The facade is all," she said.  Preservationists realized early on that the Art Deco district needed to thrive economically in order to survive. And so while owners of historic buildings are required to keep the exteriors as they were originally constructed (with repairs made using authentic materials), they have the freedom to do whatever they want in the inside.  As a result, you might stand across the street admiring a perfectly restored Art Deco building and then wander in to find decor like this tropical beauty.

While South Beach is known for its Art Deco, there are other styles of architecture there as well.  This Mediterranean Revival home is the third most photographed residence in the United States (after the White House and Graceland).  But it's not the Moorish influences found in this building that create its fame.  It was here that designer Gianni Versace was gunned down in 1997.  The building was sold in 2013 for $41.5 million and made into a luxury hotel.  There are bouncers at the door to make sure you don't get any further than the entryway without a reservation.  (If you're interested in seeing some photos of the interior, check out this article from the New York Daily News.)

The Miami Design Preservation League guides did a wonderful job sharing a bit of South Beach history with our group.  I feel like I've just scratched the surface, though.  In addition to the Art Deco tour we enjoyed, MDPL offers self-guided Art Deco tours, guided MiMo tours (MiMo being Miami Modern) and even a South Beach for Foodies tour.  And of course they host the annual Art Deco week-end, which will be held next year from January 16-18.  As our favorite former governor of California would say, "I'll be back." 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Tragedy Through the Eyes of Children

There's no shortage of novels about WWII.  But trust me when I say that "All the Light You Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr is one WWII story you don't want to miss.  Once again, I listened to this book on audio.  And once again, I longed to have the book in my hands within the equivalent of the opening pages.  Doerr's writing is incredibly beautiful and poignant and captures a time when world events overtook the plans that people had for their lives.

The book begins with an introduction to our two main characters. The year is 1944.   Marie-Laure is a blind 16 year old French girl.  She is is alone in a house in Breton with Allied bombs exploding on the streets outside.  Werner is an 18 year old German boy who has been conscripted into the Reich.  He too is in Breton and is also caught in the bombing.

From there the story weaves back and forth between the two young people's lives over the previous ten years.  We learn that Marie-Laure is a motherless girl who lost her sight when she was six years old.  The bond between Marie-Laure and her father is touching beyond words as he teaches her to navigate the world around her.  He carves a miniature version of their neighborhood in Paris with details like benches and storm drains to help her learn the streets.  He encourages her curiosity and cultivates her independence.

Werner and his sister Jutta are orphans who lives in Children's House in a German village.  Their mother is long dead and their father died working in the mines.  The reader is told that, "As long as the mines have been in existence, they have made orphans."

Through a series of events, Werner learns that he has a talent for repairing radios.  He and Jutta listen to broadcasts from far away places as Jutta dreams of Paris and Werner dreams of the world of science.  His talent becomes known to those in the Nazi high command.  Although Werner is not a Hitler youth, he is faced with a choice of going to work in the mines or going to an elite school to hone his skills in service of his country.

"All the Sight We Cannot See" tells of the difficult choices people are forced to make in a time of war.  There are acts of bravery, large and small.  There are moments of happiness and moments of great sadness.  Doerr's handling of his characters and their relationships has catapulted this book to the top of my list of favorite reads.   Don't miss it.

Julie Lamana also uses a child as her narrator in the young adult book "Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere,"  When we first meet Armani, she is on the cusp of her tenth birthday in the ninth ward of New Orleans.  Armani and her family are also on the cusp of a devastating experience:  Hurricane Katrina.

I loved the way that Lamana let us into Armani's world.  We learn that Armani "always liked the way Saturday mornings smelled" because that was the day her mother baked pies.  And that one of her favorite pastimes is "the business of swinging" on the front porch swing with her grandmother.  It's an innocent world that is about to change forever.

Once Katrina hits, both New Orleans and Armani's life becomes a free-for-all.  The family climbs into the attic to get away from the "wall of churning black water" that bears down on their home when the levee breaches.  From there Armani and her family listen as "the sound of everything we called home [was] washed away."  And that's the easy part. 

Lamana does not shelter Armani and her family from the horrors residents of New Orleans experienced during and after Katrina.  There's more death and destruction than any child should have to see.  Ultimately, though, the book has a sense of hope and optimism that reflects the resilience of New Orleans itself. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Let's Look at Titles with Dorothy Howe Brooks

Jane Spencer with Dorothy Howe Brooks
Not being an artist, I have never faced the task of coming up with a name for a piece of art. I can appreciate the challenge, though, as I often struggle to come up with titles and subheadings when I'm writing a feature for Florida Weekly.  And so I was interested in poet Dorothy Howe Brooks' insights on the art of naming an artwork at the Visual Arts Center last week.  It was loads of fun.

By way of introduction to her subject, Dorothy talked about the difference between titles of poems/other forms of literature and titles of artwork.  In literature, the titles are front and center.  They are cues that give the reader a sense of what is coming up and influence whether you want to forge ahead into the writing.

In art, titles tend to be secondary.  When you walk into a gallery, it is the artwork that beckons.  When a work grabs your attention, you go closer to get a better look.  Then you might look at the wall card to find out who painted the work and what it's called. A good title will enhance your appreciation of the work.  A bad title runs the risk of turning you off.  

O'Keeffe's "Red Hill and White Shell"
The most common type of title is fact-based. "This is a painting of xxxx," the artist tells the viewer. This approach establishes a context and can be particularly illuminating for more abstract works. Dorothy used Georgia O'Keeffe's "Red Hill and White Shell" as an example.  Most everyone recognizes the nautilus shell, but the fact that the background is a hill often eludes viewers until they learn the name of the work.  The title adds to the viewer's experience as it piques their curiosity as to whether such a hill really exists in nature. 

Patricia Anderson Turner's "Mud cookies" 
We talked a bit about how a factual title can establish the political context of a work. Sue Taylor shared how struck she had been by Patricia Anderson Turner's social commentary pieces, particularly her “Mud Cookies.”   At first glance, you see a colorfully dressed woman holding some disks.  The title was intriguing, however, and led both Sue and me to read Patricia’s explanation of the work.  We then learned that the disks are “cookies” made out of mud that Haitian women feed their children.  This was a very powerful use of a fact-based title. 

Dorothy categorized other ways to title works for us.  A title can focus attention on a particular aspect of a painting.  Monet’s “Impression Sunrise” draws our attention to the glimmering light as the sun rises on the day.  A name like “Harbor at LeHavre” (the original title of the work) is informative, but doesn’t share with the viewer what really struck the artist about the scene.

"Study in Blue and White" by Dana Cooper
Other types of titles might reveal the artist’s inspiration in a common narrative (a myth, perhaps, or a historical event).  Or it might focus the viewer on a craft element of the work, like Dana Cooper's "Study in Blue and White."  A title can name an emotion being expressed by the artist (an approach Dorothy does not favor because it seems to dictate what the viewer should feel).  Finally, an artist might go with “Untitled” as the name of her work, leaving its interpretation wholly to its audience.

Carol Fogelsong's work
 Then the real fun began as Dorothy showed us some works without revealing their titles and asked us to suggest names.  First up was this work by Carol Folgelsong.  We quickly realized how hard it is to develop a good title (particularly, as one artist suggested, for a work you didn’t create). Suggested titles were “Flight’s End,” “Captured,” and “Out of Reach.”  We talked about how the bright colors evoked a happy, whimsical feeling that was contrary to some of the names we’d come up with.  (FYI, Ms. Fogelsong named her painting “Lost and Found.”)

Becky Donatucci's work
We also brainstormed to come up with a name for this painting by Becky Donatucci.  So many different types of titles could work for this one.  A fact-based title could name the cemetery or what is presumably a church.  You could call it something like “Blue Door” (an approach many people favored).  Someone suggested “Before and Beyond,” a title that uses a metaphor.  Another person proposed “Perspective of Shadows,” drawing focus to the craft element of the work.  Ms. Donatucci went with this approach, titling her work “In the Shadow.” 

The session was engaging and thought-provoking and lots of fun.  I surely will pay even closer attention to the titles of artwork in the future as I consider what they add to my experience.  Let the viewing begin!       

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Table at Ringling International Arts Fest

Moses with puppeteer Laura Caldow

I have a crush.  His name is Moses.  He is a table puppet.

Perhaps a bit of an explanation is in order.

Last week was the 6th Annual Ringling International Arts Festival.  The Festival welcomes performers from around the world to introduce Southwest Florida audiences to dance, theater and music productions that push the envelope a bit.  I was able to make four of the seven shows.

Tangram was a combination of juggling and dance that left me a bit baffled.  Keigwin + Co. featured a contemporary dance company whose work was beautiful and funny and thoroughly engaging.  (Just to give you a sense of how contemporary the choreography was, several pieces featured a mattress as a prop that the dancers jumped over and fell on during the course of the dance.)  "The Intergalactic Nemesis - Book 1:  Target Earth" was part old style radio show (complete with a Foley artist), part sci-fi, part graphic novel.  It was very creative, and I enjoyed it more than I expected.

Then there was "The Table" by Blind Summit.  Blind Summit's mission is to "present new puppets, in new places, in new ways, to new audiences."  Traditionally, the mention of a puppet show calls to mind Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop.  With the hilarious "Avenue Q," though, the art of puppetry has been elevated to adult theater.  I also was fortunate to see "The Winged" at last summer's ACCT WorldFest hosted by Venice Theatre. It was a beautiful performance featuring lifesize puppets by Armenia's Yerevan State Puppet Theater.  I am now wide open to being entertained by a puppet, and Moses captured my heart.
Moses post-performance showing off for his adoring fans

From the opening moments of "The Table," I was in.  Mark Down, director of the show and one of the puppeteers, explained a bit about table puppetry and how the show came about.  As Mark went through his explanation, Moses warmed up, rolling his neck and shaking out his body.  The audience was in the palm of his little hand.

Table puppets are different from hand puppets or life size puppets or marionettes.  They require three people to operate.  Mark was responsible for his head and left hand (and the hilarious dialogue).  Laura Caldow was bent over during the entire show manipulating Moses' feet.  And Sean Garratt was in charge of Moses' right hand and his rear end (which got in more than a little gyrating).

Being a table puppet can be exhausting
"The Table" was commissioned by the Jewish Community Centre in London to celebrate the Passover Seder.  I hope they knew what they were getting into!  The show is done improv style, so there is no script that explains Moses' role in the bible.  Sure, there were some references to Deuteronomy and Moses climbing Mount Nebo and "epic biblical puppetry," but most of the show was pretty random.  At one point Moses raised the question as to what made him a "Jewish" puppet.  He is, as he pointed out, made of cardboard.

Throughout the show, Moses blatantly flirted with a woman in the front row.  I can't remember her name, so I'll call her Eileen.  Eileen caught his eye from the start, and he heckled her and asked if she would be willing to "give it a go" (with much suggestive hip waggling).  It was truly hilarious. And then the plot thickened.

It turned out that Eileen has some experience with"string puppets" (marionettes to us lay folks).  When Sean went offstage looking for a ladder (don't ask), the puppeteers needed a third to keep Moses in action.  After much prodding, Eileen came onstage, only to pull Moses' hand right off his arm.  This was definitely not part of the plan, and the puppeteers were besides themselves laughing as they tried to work out how to move forward.  

Getting acquainted with Moses (with Laura and Sean)
After the show, the audience had a chance to get up close and personal with Moses.  I deliberately waited until the end so that I could get to know him a little better.  (You might notice that I have my hand on his little bum.)  I learned that the show started at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (no surprise there) and that a particular puppet head can be used for approximately 25 performance.  (The body can usually go for 100 performances unless an unwitting audience member rips part of it off.)  The cast was personable and enthusiastic and clearly loved the reaction that their show had received. 

"The Table" was truly a fun and unique afternoon of theater.  It was a reminder to be open to experiences that might sound a bit out there.  You never know when you're going to fall in love. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Psychology of Music: What Instrument are You?

I've recently started going to the quarterly talks benefiting the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra known as "Medical Grand Rounds."  I will admit to being a bit apprehensive about attending given my total and absolute lack of knowledge about neuroscience and physiology.  (The mere fact that I am writing those words is remarkable in and of itself.)  But I was interested, so decided to check it out.  The sessions are fascinating.
Dr. Tony Gil with Maestro Ponti
Last week-end's talk featured Maestro Raffaele Ponti, who spoke about the psychology of music.  Dr. Tony Gil introduced the subject with some "basic" information about "your brain on music."  The fact is that listening to music that you enjoy -- be it Rachmaninoff  or the Rolling Stones -- triggers the release of dopamine in your system.  Dopamine is the "feel good" chemical that is your body's reward for doing something you enjoy (more traditionally, eating and sex).  With that background in mind, the Maestro took the podium.

Maestro Ponti 
Raffaele began with a basic introduction to an orchestra. (I for one always appreciate a bit of "classical music for dummies.") An orchestra has four sections:  strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. A musician's choice of instrument depends in part on his or her physical attributes. Having short arms is a bit of an impediment to being a trombone player, for instance.  But once you've gotten past these physical aspects, Raffaele posits that there is a connection between a musician's personality and her instrument.  Here's a quick and dirty summary of his take on the topic.

Strings:  Violins are the core of the orchestra since they create the melody.  Violinists are often high strung and have large egos. Violas, on the other hand, are the "unsung heroes of the string section."  Their larger, darker sound bridges the gap between the violins and the rest of the orchestra, but they don't get any glory.  The bass, too, is a supporting instrument, so bass players are generally team spirited.  Everyone loves the cello, which does get some solos, so people who play this instrument have personalities that fall somewhere between those of violinists and violists.

Woodwinds:  Oboes are used to tune the orchestra, so oboists tend to think they always do things right.  Flautists and piccolo players are a bit flamboyant and love the attention they garner with their solos. Clarinetists get the chance to play a lot of notes, and they tend to love the technical aspects of music.  The bassoon is an instrument you almost never actually hear, so their players are content to be an important--if invisible--part of the team.

Raffaele showing off his honorary
MD (music director) white coat
Brass:  As a trumpet player turned conductor, Raffaele made no qualms about saying that trumpet players are the troublemakers in the room.  They tend to have big egos and want to be heard (literally).  "There's a reason you put them in the back of the hall," he said.  Trombonists, on the other hand, tend to be very easy going, and tuba players are just nice people.  (They would have to have a bit of a sense of humor, too, to be willing to schlep their instruments around.)  One of the roles of the French horn is to merge the woodwinds and brass sections.  The fact that the bell of the French horn actually points away from the audience says it all.

Percussion:  Percussionists spend their lives thinking about things that they can bang, scrape or pluck to make music.  They tend to be quirky and fun but patient since they are always setting up the next instrument to play.  (Pianos are technically considered percussion instruments since music is made with the strike of the hammer.)

Raffaele had encouraged his listeners to think about which instrument best suits their own personalities as he talked.  For once, I wasn't the only person making notes.  And here's the exciting news:  Medical grand rounds attendees have been invited to sit in "their" instrument's section at the CSO's rehearsal on November 15th.  It's an adaptation for adults of the CSO's "musical chairs" program.  Needless to say, I am all over that.  I won't, however, reveal what instrument I've selected until I share the experience with you here.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Drag Queen Bingo at The Bottom Line

Me with Bootsey (who bears
a striking resemblance to Dame Edna)
Life in Southwest Florida has something for everyone.  There's art and music and a full array of outdoor activities. There are gator hatchings and roller derby and pirate festivals. And then there's Drag Queen Bingo with Bootsey Cloverdale and Lady Licious.

Every Sunday afternoon at The Bottom Line bar in Fort Myers, people gather to be entertained by these drag queens extraordinaire. My friend Kathy Grey had been invited to check it out and asked me to tag along.  Why not?  I'd heard about this phenomenon and was eager to see what it was all about.  

We settled into our seats with Kathy's friends, waving more than a little smoke out of our eyes.  Although the game is advertised as starting at 4:00, that's really when people arrive to get lubricated for the bingo.  Bootsey roams the floor with a cart selling bingo cards and working the crowd.  You can tell from this picture that she is quite shy and reserved.

 Like any bar, there are a number of big screen TVs.  A couple were showing football games.  Other had NASCAR on.  And then there were several screens airing what I eventually figured out was the Mr. LA Leather 2014 competition on ReelGay TV.  I was definitely not in Kansas anymore.  

When it was time for the game to start, Bootsey explained the rules for people--like me--who were virgins to the experience:
1.  Whenever they call out a number that's on the "O" line, you are required to raise your arms above your head in a circle.  You will be punished if you do not do this.  (There was talk of having to go onstage and do 50 reps on the thighmaster.)  They are serious about this.  The first time an "O" number was called out, I went for my camera instead of following the rules.  Bootsey walked right up to me and I was sure I was heading for the stage.  Luckily, I got a pass as a newbie, but I whipped my arms overhead as mandated the rest of the time.  
2.  When you have one number left to get a bingo, you yell out, "I'm coming!" 
3.  If you get a bingo, you run onto the stage and spank Lady Licious vigorously.  
4.  If you incorrectly say you have a bingo, you must don the pink dress that's hanging onstage and wear it the rest of the night.  
5.  You must curse the people who get a bingo because they have made the rest of us into losers.
Periodically, the ladies would take a break from calling the bingo game to do a song or two.  There was, for instance, a song whose tune was taken from Mary Poppins' "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."  The refrain had been changed, however, to "Super trashy, cheap and nasty, country bitchy drag queens."  (Try it and you'll find it's actually quite catchy.)  I would say that Julie Andrews would be shocked, but she did do Victor Victoria.  Lady Licious' contribution was to the tune of Tina Turner's "Private Dancer," only she needed a private bathroom.  It was not what you would call a tasteful song. 

Kathy doing her first jello shot
After being there for three hours and playing four games of bingo, I hit the road. It was definitely a fun--and different--way to spend my Sunday night.  The only reason I won't be going back soon is the smokiness of the bar.  It's been a long time since I've had to air out clothes when I got home from a night out (and I definitely haven't missed it).  Still, I'm happy to be able to take drag queen bingo off my bucket list.