Monday, September 14, 2009

Grand Opening performance at Richmond CenterStage

I arrived home Saturday night at 10:45 with a midnight deadline. As I sat down to type, I could hear whine of Richmond International Raceway, so I knew I had some time. (Yes, it was NASCAR for which the Times-Dispatch was holding the presses, not an arts performance.) An hour and a half later, I filed my story.

Naturally, the hardest part was deciding what to leave out. Go read the article, then come back here for a few more thoughts. I'll wait.

If you read the article, you know the Richmond Symphony was performing from the pit, even for their "solo" turns on Shostakovich's "Festive Overture," which opened the program (after the national anthem) and Bernstein's Overture to "Candide," which opened the second half.

Naturally, this dulled the dramatic effect of these two uber-dramatic pieces. In the section of the Shostakovich near the end where the brass return with a proclamatory theme, they were, incredibly, not loud enough. But otherwise, it was a good performance.

At intermission I went to the tech stand to ask about the camera work (you read the article, right?) and happened to find the head video guy, who told me that live video switchers were working with a symphony staff person in a room beneath or behind the orchestra pit. The symphony person had the score and told the video crew when to switch to which cameras, so the audience could see soloists and sections during their action. Why was I so surprised that Richmond could be this professional?

Here's why. Because 15 minutes later, Richmond was infuriatingly unprofessional--at least the audience was.

Richmond Symphony undoubtedly played the Bernstein just as smashingly as the Shostakovich, but it was hard to tell, since the audience talked fully half-way through the performance. Erin Freeman began the piece at some strictly pre-ordained time that should have been the end of intermission, but so many people were still in the lobby (gulping cocktails and buying souvenier T-shirts) that the ushers kept the doors open as they hustled people back to seats. The house lights stayed on, and even though the projected image of the symphony performing was clear, people wouldn't shut up. Emily, my 12-year-old daughter, had to share her Twix with me to calm my rage. Maybe it works for italics, too.

For the second performing group of the night, the curtain rose on eight members of the Richmond Jazz Society, with a beautifully understated setting of strings of little white lights hanging down in front of a blue-lit background. The performance was top-notch and typical -- Sinatra-style, with lyrics including, "CenterStage, the best is yet to come."

The best thing about African American Repertory Theatre portion--which included young people from City Dance Theatre-- was the total coherence of many different parts into a whole. Pastiche? No way.

Also, in case you've never considered how difficult it might be to do a Langston Hughes tribute without overdosing on all the sap that could potentially ooze from the word "dream," let me tell you: it's hard, but I saw evidence that it can be done, with physical action, tight segues and strong voices. So now let's take a poetry break. Here's Hughes' "The Dream Keeper," which AART performed emotionally, but not sentimentally.

Bring me all of your dreams,
you dreamer,
bring me all your
heart melodies
that I may wrap them
in a blue cloud-cloth
away from the too-rough fingers
of the world.

Opera: do people really just go for the costumes and the sets, or do they in fact like the music? There's no real answer to this question, of course, but it's certain that audiences expect the eye candy. Virginia Opera didn't disappoint, bringing in a huge set piece and full dress for their portion of the show. And hey, the music was good, too!

Under the direction of Peter Mark, singers and the symphony performed a duet, a solo and a quartet from Puccini's "La Boheme." The balance of voices and instruments was excellent, with the violins singing out their parts in equal measure. (Can you tell I'm more of an orchestra person than an opera person?)

The paired organization of Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV performed four flat-out different pieces, with live musical accompaniment by the RSO: "We're All in This Together" from "Disney's High School Musical"; a bolero called "Amores" that's part of the play "Boleros for the Disenchanted" by Jose Rivera; "Forget About the Boy" from the musical "Thoroughly Modern Millie"; and "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" from "The Sound of Music." That's pretty much the history of 20th-century music theater in the western world in 15-minutes. Whew!

I am a snob, after all, so I don't like musicals. Or so I thought. The song and dance number from "Millie" pretty much changed my mind. Tap dancing, synchronized desk-twirling, girls in outrageous wigs... What's so wrong about a little fun?

And who doesn't want to cry at the sight of little pretend waifs singing "Castle on a Cloud"? Or jump to one's feet and throw back one's head to "Do You Hear the People Sing"?! Gosh, I have to go out and rent a "Les Miserables" video right now while I wait until next summer for whatever SPARC performs then.

Elegba Folklore Society was next--I also mentioned them in the article, but I didn't mention the stilt-dancer who came on near the end. Having seen an amazing stilt performance at a recent Folk Festival downtown, I thought this one wasn't quite ready to go. The dancer's gestures were subdued (and he had to keep hitching up a slipping mask) and the footwork not confident. But women's dance ensemble and the drummers were excellent. They performed an excerpt from "Marketplace Suite."

I'm going to skip over the Richmond Shakespeare part for now, except to say that I wanted to mention them in the published article in the same context as the "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" performance (buty ran out of room). All the actors wore costumes from markedly different times and places. The effect could have been one of a little provincial theater stocked with costumes left behind from travelling productions, but as the program notes put it, "the costumes reflect the many eras influenced by--or [which] were influences on--William Shakespeare." I became convinced that this was a powerful visual statement of unity--but maybe a little too subtle for people who didn't read that program and don't know that Richmond Shakespeare does really think about these things.

I've only been to two other Richmond Ballet performances--a "Nutcracker," which hardly counts, and a Studio series night a couple years ago. As you know from the T-D piece, their performance of the last section of "Windows" touched me deeply. "Spectacle" is a word I sometimes use derogatorily, but I'd like to rescind all negative connotations for the moment, please. Sure, it's easy to be impressive with lots of people, and beautiful attire, and live music (oh, if only that could be true at every performance!)--but it's also easy, with all those same elements, to be sloppy, or crass. Every element of this performance was attended to with care, knowing that it was a spectacle--something to be seen, something calculated to inspire wonder.

So yes--a whirlwind tour, a traveling circus, a rich-folks dress-up party, a top-down-no-grassroots congratulatory orgy. Whatever it was, I laughed, I cried. It was better than a hole in the ground.

No comments:

Post a Comment