Happy New Year to all our faithful readers. It's time for our final column of 2012, which is one of the three per year which we spend examining our past coverage and looking out at a new year of the arts to come.
It's a bit startling to look over a year of one's own life, spread around into various stacks. It turns out that - if I haven't misplaced one or more pieces from the past year - I have spent the past year writing 131 separate pieces for publication. Some of them contained as many as five separate reviews, bringing the total to very close to 200 reviews of performances, exhibits, publications and the like.
It's a bit difficult to categorize them, because some deal with as many as three or four different categories. When plays that had their very first performances as part of the New Play Workshops at the Chautauqua Theatre Company, for example, were transferred to Broadway and we traveled to New York City to see the results - does that count as a Chautauqua write-up or a New York City write-up?
Playwright Kate Fodor — shown here with Ethan McSweeny, Chautauqua Theater Company resident director — took one of her plays to Broadway after a debut at Chautauqua and had a world premiere of another play at Chautauqua.
But, if there is one thing that writing this column for well more than 30 years has taught me, it is that people who want to be positive will see the positive elements of almost anything, and people who want to be negative will find complaints in performances by the Heavenly Host. So, let's wade into the stack of paper, and see how the arts have progressed in our little corner of the world in the year 2012.
I am very fond of the Lake Erie Shore of our county, although I don't live there, and it requires additional effort to cover events that take place there. I'm certain that we have not failed to review any event for which we received a specific invitation during the past year. Events in the north county tend to fall into three categories: events that take place at the State University of New York at Fredonia, events at Fredonia's 1891 Opera House and those that take place elsewhere.
I have on my desk 12 pieces that I have written about one of those three categories.
At the university, I wrote reviews of "Stage Door," the spring performance by the Fredonia Dance Ensemble, the grim play "High Plains Fandango," the musical "Chicago" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "The Piano Lesson." I always need to point out, when I write about the program, that it's an academic establishment's responsibility to present productions that will expose their students to new challenges and that will require new techniques of stagecraft, and that is more important than that they entertain. I do think the university meets their responsibilities to a very high degree, and I applaud their efforts.
From the 1891 Opera House, there were six pieces. These included one overview of their 2012-13 season of presentations, two reviews of concerts in the Bach and Beyond festival and three of the high-definition showings of classical arts. Two of those were operas, performed live from the stage of the internationally celebrated Metropolitan Opera, and one was pre-recorded from the British National Theatre. In my lifetime, our culture has progressed to the point that I can listen to the finest singers in the history of the world, at 4 a.m., any night of the year if I wish, while wearing my pajamas if I take the trouble to pre-arrange the opportunity.
The Met, as it is commonly known, is designed to perform for the elite, by the elite. They hire only the most respected and best-trained singers in the world, a world-class orchestra for accompaniment, and the most talented designers and stylists in the contemporary world.
The ceiling of their grand theater in New York City's Lincoln Center is pure gold leaf. The chandeliers are Austrian crystal, and the lobby is graced by two giant original paintings by French painter Marc Chagall.
The company fills the nearly 4,000 seats in their auditorium on a regular basis at prices that sometimes slip up into four figures to the left of the decimal for each seat. The fact that they share their performances with us at prices between $10 and $20 is astonishing. This year, we reviewed "Enchanted Island" and Thomas Ades' recently composed operatic version of Shakespeare's "The Tempest." I wish we could have heard and written about every single one that they showed.
Eager to see how the digital, high-definition equipment worked on a theatrical production, as well as a musical one, I reviewed the performance of "Frankenstein," from the National Theatre of England, which I found quite stunning in its dramatic power. None of the high-definition presentations had the same power as a live performance by the same artists, but it was one heck of a lot better than nothing.
The remaining north county piece was a review of the exhibit of paintings at the Octagon Gallery of Patterson Library, in Westfield, by Fredonia resident artist Alberto Rey. The painter's capturing of the great beauty of a number of natural waterfalls in our county was well worth the drive to Westfield.
Chautauqua Institution brings to our area professional performances and exhibits at a quality comparable to what could be seen and experienced in any of the major cities of the world.
It is, therefore, perfectly reasonable that writings from and about Chautauqua fill the lion's share of our coverage. In fact, we wrote 25 pieces about elements of Chautauqua. It is ironic to me that there are elements at Chautauqua that could be more frequently represented in what we write, but that choose not to make the effort to open their programs to our coverage. Nonetheless, those programs that are cooperative provide much rich ground, from which we can learn and teach about the arts.
Chautauqua Theater for the past seven years has been open and eager for coverage, and once again, they received the majority of it. In 2012, we did a preliminary overview of the entire season before the gates admitted their first visitor.
We did a feature story about "The Philadelphia Story" and a review of their production of that play. There was a column about the company's first commissioning of a brand-new play by top playwright Kate Fodor. The play was called "Fifty Ways," and there were interviews with the director and the playwright, plus a review of the performance. There were reviews of "Muckrakers" and "Everything is Ours," and finally a review of their concluding Shakespeare production, "As You Like It," as well as a column, in which I spent the day trudging in the footsteps of the actor playing Orlando, the male lead in the play, as he went from rehearsal to varying classes and assignments.
Finally, we wrote two columns about plays that had their origins at Chautauqua, which successfully transferred to New York City: "Close Up Space," which ran at New York City Center in February, and "Rx," an earlier work by Kate Fodor, which was directed in the city by Chautauqua's resident director, Ethan McSweeny.
The company's artistic director, Vivienne Benesch, did much of the leg work to make our trip to New York possible, and to get us access to talk with leading actors and other artistic contributors. In December, we even got to do a review of "The Heiress," a play on Broadway, which featured two actresses with ties to our county: Jessica Chastain, and Judith Ivey. Both are excellent artists, and their performances were most noteworthy.
Chautauqua Opera received a column sharing the facts of their impressive young artists program, including interviews with a number of the young singers who studied at Chautauqua. There was a second column featuring interviews with the professional singers in the cast of "Manon Lescaut," plus reviews of that production and the only other opera in the 2012 season, a single performance of "Lucia di Lammermoor," which took place on the stage of the giant Amphitheater. Back in May, there was a column dealing with the production of John Corigliano's opera "Ghosts of Versailles," which was staged at the Manhattan School of Music by the opera company's artistic director, Jay Lesenger. That was thrilling.
The Chautauqua lecture stage boasted several world-famous names, and we prepared for weeks for our appointments with them, only to have two of the three make themselves unavailable. We reviewed the lecture in June by Julie Andrews and her daughter, Kate Hamilton, although both decided at the last minute that they didn't think they would bother with the small-town press.
Cartoonist Jules Feiffer was perfectly agreeable to talking with us, but he is well into his 80s, and when the day arrived for his lecture, we arrived at Chautauqua to learn that he was "not available," and a substitute would do the lecture.
Our one success in the lecture arena was with Norman Lear, creator of "All In the Family," and dozens of other successful television series. We did an interview, and we reviewed the lecture.
Atop all that coverage, there were a few one-shot coverages of events at Chautauqua, as well. We did an advance column about a medieval singing ensemble called "Good Pennyworths," which performed before the opening of the season at Fletcher Music Hall. We also reviewed their performance.
We did two interviews with young music students who performed on the "From the Top" radio series, which recorded one episode on the Amphitheater stage.
There was a phone interview, which ran on Aug. 18, with contemporary composer Michael Colina, whose violin concerto, "Baba Yaga," was performed by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra shortly after that.
Finally, there was a review of three plays written by regular Chautauquan David Zinman, who nearly every season has some of his work performed after the regular season has ended.
Readers know by now that I am a retired teacher, and one of my greatest regrets about my teaching career was the vast amount of learning that did not take place in my classroom, because in order to learn anything of substance, a student would have to overcome enormous pressure from our society and our culture, which ridicules and insults learning.
Our good neighbor Canada has created two bastions to learning, where art and culture are revered and encouraged, and that causes me to sing their praises whenever the opportunity presents itself. We did an advance column demonstrating how to attend the Stratford and Shaw festivals, plus columns with multiple reviews of their 2012 season of productions.
At Stratford, we reviewed "The Pirates of Penzance," as directed by Chautauquan director Ethan McSweeny, plus "Cymbeline," "The Matchmaker," "Henry V" and "42nd Street."
At Shaw, we reviewed the pithy musical show "Ragtime," plus "His Girl Friday," "Trouble in Tahiti," "French Without Tears," "A Man and Some Women" and "The Millionairess."
Finally, we reviewed two outreach productions from the Stratford season: The film version of The Tempest," starring Christopher Plummer, and the Broadway production of "Jesus Christ, Superstar," in a column which included both a review of the production and an interview with Bruce Dow, a young man with a comic genius who has won the hearts of the Stratford audience, season after season.
We wrote five pieces about the arts in Buffalo. I know a substantial number of folks from Chautauqua County travel frequently to Buffalo, and the larger city's productions put our local performances into perspective, so I think some Buffalo performances are mandatory to any arts column in our area that takes itself seriously.
We did a column in April about the University of Buffalo's production of C.S. Lewis's "The Screwtape Letters." I didn't get to review the performance, because it conflicted with a local production, but the interview with the actor was fascinating.
There was the interview in October with the production company of American Repertory Theater of Western New York, regarding their production of an original take on Bram Stoker's classic "Dracula."
There was a series of interviews in June, regarding the JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Competition, which is held every other year, in a joint effort by the Buffalo Philharmonic and WNJA/WNED Public Radio.
Also with the Buffalo Philharmonic, there was a series of interviews with composer Eric Ewazen and one of the trombonists for whom he created a concerto grosso for three trombones and orchestra. We also reviewed that performance.
Finally, there was a review of the re-opening of the theater which was once Studio Arena, which took place back in September. The theater is currently operating, using the name of its mailing address: 710 Main St. Its operations are under the control of Shea's Performing Arts Center. We reviewed a performance there by film and television star John Lithgow. He performed a one-man show in which he recalled his life on the stage and screen. The title was "Stories by Heart."
OTHER CITIES, OTHER SUBJECTS
We reviewed a production in Olean by the Olean Community Theatre of the musical "Guys and Dolls." We did a review of a performance in Erie by the Erie Renaissance Singers, which featured performances by a number of Chautauqua County artists, including the temporary conducting of the ensemble by Ripley resident Steve Woods, who conducted due to the illness of the singers' regular director.
We did our annual self-examination column, during the last week of March. It was our 32nd such a look back.
There was an exploration of the Lake Arts Film Festival, which was presented at sites in Jamestown, Chautauqua and elsewhere. We reviewed the Kaleidoscope performance, in which the United Arts Appeal invites all the agencies that receive financial aid from their efforts to show the public how very much they're getting for their support. There was one performance in Fredonia and one in Jamestown.
Last week, we did our annual study of the ceremonies and traditions of the holiday season. Some readers are kind enough to share how much they love those columns, and others are happy to share their lack of fondness for them. Ah, well. You can't please everyone, now, can you?
In Jamestown, we focused the vast majority of our efforts. In late July, for example, we did a phone interview with Paula Poundstone, who was coming our way to perform in the Lucy celebrations. We did a review of her performance at the Reg Lenna Civic Center, as well.
We made a special trip to New York City to interview Daniel Ulbricht, one of the professional dancers who later came to Jamestown to perform the ballet "Nutcracker," together with a cast of what seemed like several million local artists. I never fail to marvel at the quality of the artists who come to town to perform for Chautauqua Region Youth Ballet, and to marvel further at how much we under-recognize the quality of artists who perform daily for audiences of thousands in New York City, along with additional little performances at places such as the White House. I guess that just isn't as "cool" as we are.
For Jamestown Community College, we did a review of their spring production of "The Glass Menagerie," a fall column about the coming of "Legally Blonde" and a review of those efforts. There was also a review of their Jazz Festival.
Individual performances by groups in Jamestown brought a review of "Godspell" at the Spire in downtown Jamestown. We also reviewed a performance of "Tuesdays with Morrie" at the Spire, and we did a column featuring interviews with the leading actors in that production, as well. There was the production of "The Raven," as well.
St. Luke's Episcopal Church, which has long hosted performances by a wide variety of local and invited artists, took the harness and presented both a concert and a series of play performances. J.S. Bach's "Magnificat" was most successful, as were performances of Neil Simon's play "God's Favorite," a humorous examination of the Bible's Book of Job.
First Covenant Church did their annual production of "The Living Christmas Tree," which is always a holiday treat for the community.
The Robert H. Jackson Center hosted author Phillip Hoose in February, and we did a column about his books on the Civil Rights Movement. We also read the book and prepared a column about the book by Ishmael Beah, who was scheduled to speak at the Jackson Center on the subject of young boys forced to be soldiers in the civil wars of West Africa, but when the author had to cancel his appearance due to ill health, we had to withhold the column.
Finally, we wrote a column about our own venture onto the stage, as a fundraiser for the scholarships given annually by the National Society of Arts and Letters. Jill Keating and I did a performance of "Love Letters," which audience received very kindly. I'll be back at the Jackson Center Jan. 12, once again trying to support NSAL's scholarships for young artists.
We're running out of space, with plenty of pieces yet to go: there was a column and review of Tom Morgan's memoirs, done at the Lucille Ball Little Theatre as a fundraiser. There was "The Sound of Music," "Ring of Fire," "Panache," "Forbidden Broadway," "The Little Mermaid" and "It's a Wonderful Life" there, as well.
There was a column and a review about the concert given by Helga Hulse, in honor of her 90th birthday, and a heartfelt column in tribute to Murray Bob, in support of the annual Bob Memorial Lecture, supported by a fund created by library supporters to preserve his memory.
There were reviews of the Twelfth Night, Melodies and Memories, and Celebration of Life concerts by organizations from the Community Music Project, and a column and review of the performance by Serendipity, which is a women's ensemble, not part of the CMP umbrella.
Add to those five columns about films or television series, and a lengthy list of reviews of concerts sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation and another list from the Jamestown Concert Assn., especially a triumphant return by young organist Josh Stafford, fresh from his studies at Yale.
I'm glad the column has taken on a tone of desperate rushing, because that is the kind of year it has been. I thank you for sharing it all with me.