Monday, December 29, 2008

Contagious Good Will

Chestnut, Part I
One bright blue day before Christmas, I turned on the radio in the car and heard Handel's "Messiah," one of those intricate and powerful choruses: "And He Shall Purify" I think it was. Right away, I was filled with pleasure--and regret. I had deliberately chosen not to attend the Richmond Symphony's annual performance of the "Messiah," thinking that I would be bored by this so familiar work.

Possibly the unexpected encounter was half the delight, but I resolved to attend a live performance of the "Messiah" next year--or maybe this Easter, if Richmond is lucky enough to see a good church performance at the work's rightful time of year.

Later in the day, recalling my happiness at hearing at least part of the piece on the radio, I thought that if I were to win the lottery, I would sponsor a RSO "Messiah" performance with free or pay-as-you-wish tickets. (I've never bought a lottery ticket in my life, so don't get your hopes up.) But I did consider calling the symphony to ask how much it would cost to sponsor one. I also wondered how much the symphony would take in if they just ditched the tickets and had an all-donation performance. Would the number of conscientious people of means make up for the number of people attending for free or cheap, who wouldn't have come otherwise?

Chestnut, Part II
On the Saturday after Christmas, my mother took my children and me to an afternoon performance of "A Christmas Carol" by the Theater of the Seventh Sister in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I had deliberately chosen not to attend Richmond Shakespeare's annual performance of the "A Christmas Carol for Two Actors," thinking that I would be bored by this so familiar work.

Guess what? I was re-delighted, of course! And re-regret-filled, since Richmond Shakespeare's (own, much different) version has finished an 11-year run and won't be back, I think.

And: the Seventh Sister production was pay-as-you-wish for its full run.

It was an excellent adaptation for about a dozen actors by TSS Co-artistic Director Gary Smith, using Dickens' original words almost entirely. The costumes were perfect; the set and props neatly, creatively adaptable; the actors enthralling. The house was slightly more than half full.

Smith introduced the performance with an explanation of the relationship between Dickens' message in the story and the pay-as-you-wish approach; that when times are tight, the better response is to open outward rather than curl inward.

There was no mercurial post-play request for donations--not even a discreet but visible donation box in the lobby on the way out. It was as if TSS had complete faith in the power of Dickens' words and their performance to spur people on to longer-term bigness of heart, rather than merely "I'll drop a few more dollars in because I feel good after the play."

I'm very curious about the outcome of TSS's ticket experiment. Did it prove what I wished it would prove, that generosity breeds generosity?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Another solstice come and gone

I got a day of sunshine for my birthday on Monday, just in time to take a picture of the last leaves of the rose.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

"Classics by Candlelight" concert

Just the other night I went to a chamber music performance and already I've lost the program, but in a word: lovely.

This was the second in a series of 3 concerts put on by the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia, two at the 1753 Wilton House and this one at Bon Air Presbyterian. Four musicians played, variously, trios from the span of 19th century.

The program was superbly planned by CMSCVA artistic director and cellist James Wilson-- the pieces increased in complexity of intent, each somehow leading to the next. So even though there were no really big musical ideas in any of them, the sum was more interesting than the total of the parts.

Of course, it helped that the performers were top-notch: besides Wilson, there was Mary Boodell on flute, Erin Keefe on violin, and Catherine Cho on viola/violin. Cho is an assertive viola player; a friend said to me afterwards, "If I were a young person attending this concert, she would make me want to play the viola." Boodell--maybe because she is a Richmonder, unlike the others--was especially good at communicating the music to the audience. There were a few moments when she seemed to be looking up as if to say, "Listen up--Here comes a good part!"

Here's what my memory, with help from Google, can reconstruct:

1. An "Allegro" movement of something by Schubert for violin, viola and cello: playfully charming.

2. Beethoven's Serenade for flute, violin and viola: charmingly playful.

3. Borodin's Trio in g-minor for 2 violins and cello: This was my first time hearing this piece. It's good music for early winter: not quite full of the anguish of the deepest, darkest St. Petersburg nights, but yet cut through with a beautiful chill, brought out by Cho on first violin.

4. A trio for violin, viola and cello by Carl Reinecke: This piece gave each voice more rhythmic independence than the others, and the melodic interplay was a little more complex. According to Wilson, it doesn't get played so often... but I don't know why not. For a trio, it's got substance.

Step right up, it's "Richmond in Ragtime"

The chapter is an underappreciated literary device. At least, I failed to appreciate chapters until I began to read a book without one; then I realized how humbly crucial they are for showing the forward trajectory of a narrative and clarifying the relative importance of events and characters.

I had been floundering through the fascinating, well-written, but chapterless "Richmond in Ragtime: Socialists, Suffragists, Sex and Murder," by Harry Kollatz, Jr., when I went to a reading by Mr. Kollatz-- a performance, to be accurate.

He read several vignettes from the book, at times to the accompaniment of the Happy Lucky Combo.(This is probably the riskiest thing an author can do: have live, unrehearsed musical back-up to his reading. But when it works, it's delightful, as this was. Note: I am related to the accordionist.) And Mr. Kollatz, also an actor, is an excellent reader.

As he described the attractions of the 1909 state fair (first airplane flight in Richmond, pink popcorn, "huchy-kuchy," distilled spirits, etc.) I began to understand that the book "Richmond in Ragtime" is itself a carnival, a lit-up, cacophonous, sweat-steeped scatterment of sideshows and flapping tent doors.

In this one!: a quartet of underage drinkers "offering to put down 15 cents and the promise of a dollar next weekend" to purchase gin rickies!
In that one!: a 3,000-year-old mummified Egyptian princess rescued from a blazing dormitory!
And here!: muckraking ex-Mennonite gadfly Adon Yoder, editor of that weekly scourge of City Hall, "The Idea"!
What have they to do with each other? Who knows?! Who cares?!! Lay your money down and snap the dice across the felt!

I know from peeking into later vignettes that "Richmond in Ragtime" does have recurring characters and a few threads of plot (not that the book claims to have one). I still wish Mr. Kollatz or his editors had formed chapters with his material. But whether or not there's a main attraction around the next dusty corner, it was helpful to think of book-as-carnival; somehow understanding the form of a thing inclines me to like the thing.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

What This City Needs is a Ferris Wheel

A few years after we moved to Richmond, we attended a low-key carnival shoehorned into a spot between the flood wall and the canal near the turning basin. (Back then, it was a dingy parking lot and dumping ground for construction and railroad materials; now it's a multi-million-dollar condominium.)

The most memorable feature of the day was the witheringly hot blacktop on which we stood in line with 2-year-old Emily for this little ride or that little ride, only to have her nerve give out when it was finally her turn. Then, at last, we boarded a Ferris wheel, and that's when I fell in love with Ferris wheels.

As small as it was, that wheel lifted us up above the baking asphalt, above the flood wall, high enough to catch a breeze and see the city stumbling away in all directions from the river's banks. At the zenith, we were about the same height as the cars on the Downtown Expressway, rushing past not too far away--yet I felt in a different world: they had somewhere to go, apparently, and quickly; I had only a circle in which to go, and another, and another, none of them taking up any time at all, it seemed.

Ever since then, I've been convinced that Richmond's Canal Walk needs a permanent Ferris wheel. Sedate, tastefully lit, operated by someone's grandpa (who only smokes on official breaks, not while buckling children into their seats, which I've seen happen at the State Fair), accompanied by live big-band music at twilight on summer weekends, powered entirely by the James River....

This is on my mind because I recently learned that Kings Dominion is opening a "new" Ferris wheel this coming season--24 gondolas, each seating 6 people. (It's coming from the former Geauga Lake Amusement Park in Ohio, also the original home of KD's "new" Dominator ride.) We get up to KD once every two or three years; I dread it every time but often end up having a good time in spite of myself.

Next time we go, I'll make it a point to become good and irritated at the heat, the crowds, the cartoons, the plastic and the noise; that'll make the Ferris wheel ride all the better.