Although the calendar says we have nearly an additional month left of summer, traditionally, the summer season ends this weekend, with the Labor Day holiday.
At the end of each summer, I think it's important to look back over what we've done and what we've not done, in covering the arts, the better to do a better job in days to come.
I sit here at my desk, surrounded by 26 pieces which I've written for publication, on the subject of the arts, since the calendar proclaimed summer to have arrived in mid- to late-June. These include 11 columns and 15 reviews or feature stories. I count 17 of those stories as focused on Chautauqua, three on Jamestown, two on the Dunkirk/Fredonia area, two in Canada, one in New York City, and one about television programs - general media, which is basically the same in Maine, or in Texas, or in Hawaii.
Actor Robert Markus, in the title role of the Rock Opera “Tommy” rides a bucking, exploding pinball machine to fame and fortune at the Stratford Festival, in one of the biggest cultural events of the summer.
Let's look, together, at summer of 2013, and see what we can learn from what we've seen and heard:
The three Jamestown-based stories have involved a lengthy review of a visual art exhibit at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, a discussion of a book dealing with Outstanding Women in New York State, which included 12 short biographies by Jamestown City Historian B. Dolores Thomson and six biographies of women from the North County, written by Susan Pepe.
The RTPI piece dealt with an exhibit of winning entries in a national competition called "America's Parks Through the Beauty of Art."
The third piece was a review of Bill Engvall's sold-out performance at the Reg Lenna Civic Center, which was all we were asked to do in covering this year's Lucille Ball Comedy Festival. Since I now have a waiting list of column subjects, as our local arts organizations come back to life after the summer pause, it's clear how much our community's cultural focus shifts out to Chautauqua, during the summer, and away from events in our own cities.
The two North County stories are both reviews of the 1891 Fredonia Opera House's wonderful annual Bach and Beyond Festival, which brings professional musicians from all around the world to offer three performances of music which was either composed by J.S. Bach, which inspired him, or which has been inspired by him.
It's sad, in a way, that June is a period of time in which our teachers, from kindergarten through post-graduate programs, are working 18 hour days, in many cases, dealing with local final exams, state exams, report cards, graduation ceremonies and the rest. Often teachers are the most interested audience for such performances. Still, why look a gift horse in the mouth. Let's be glad we have the festival, and hope we continue to have it, for many decades to come.
NEW YORK CITY
We were delighted to spend a few days in late June in the hot Big Apple, during which we visited the French Consulate, to learn about exhibits of French art which will be visiting our country, during the coming year.
We went to the Great White Way of Broadway, where performances are in their typical summer lull and yet still available by the dozens. There we saw a performance of "The Nance," by Douglas Carter Bean, and starring Nathan Lane, one of the few big name stars who still shows up to perform on Broadway in the summer. That was a treat.
Finally, I succeeded in getting a meeting in Central Park with Jamestown native Ron Song Destro, who is the artistic director of the Oxford Shakespeare Company, and who is rapidly becoming a major player in the international issue of whether William Shakespeare was really the individual who penned "Hamlet," "Macbeth," and all those other masterpieces for the stage. Shortly after that column appeared, Destro presented lectures at both Chautauqua and in Jamestown, so that part of the big city column had some play in our local arts scene, as well.
Each year, roughly from April until the end of October, Canada's two big theater festivals operate four theaters each, with two different quartets of performances per day, except on Mondays. And, people fly into our area from Europe, from Asia and from all over the world to see the brilliant quality of professional theater which is performed there.
For the purists among our readers, we did a column in spring about what plays are available at the Stratford and Shaw festivals this year, and giving information such as driving directions, and similar information, but that was before the first day of summer, so I didn't add it to this column's tallies.
At Stratford, this year, we saw "Romeo and Juliet," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Measure for Measure," "The Thrill" and "Tommy." To my surprise, the most significant to me, of those five, was "Tommy," which raised technical stagecraft to a new height. I rank it as the No. 3 cultural event of the summer. One of the plays I couldn't see, because they were sold out of every ticket while I was there was Friedrich Schiller's 1800 play "Mary Stuart." Ticket demand for that play has been so strong, the festival has recently added an unprecedented fourth series of performances. Scheduled to end in late September, the production will now run through Oct. 19, and since the most recent addition has come within the past week, it wouldn't be a surprise if they made an additional extension, if the members of the company are willing and available.
At the Shaw Festival, we saw "Our Betters," "Peace in Our Time," "Trifles," "Enchanted April," "Guys and Dolls" and "The Light in the Piazza." All were beautifully staged and intellectually exciting.
It's a case of brilliant artistry in literally gorgeous locations, and my only regret is that I probably won't succeed in getting back up to see more of the festivals' opportunities. I'll try my best, you can be sure.
Our coverage of the 2013 Chautauqua season began with our annual "Critic's Picks," in which we chose which performance we would most look forward to attending, and was completed by our recent news coverage of concert pianist Claudia Hoca's serious automobile accident, while driving home from a performance with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra on the evening of Aug. 13.
Individual coverage included an interview with composer Michael Colina, who created a cello concerto to be performed by cellist Sharon Robinson, who gave the work its world premiere on Aug. 20. A second was a very positive review of a performance given in support of the Chautauqua Women's Club Scholarships, by pianist Jon Nakamatsu, who packed Elizabeth Lenna Hall on one of the most beautiful afternoons of the summer.
Chautauqua Opera was covered by two columns, one giving advance information and interviews with the cast and artistic company of the comic opera "Falstaff," and the other giving interviews and information about "Peter Grimes." These were, sadly, the only two full productions of 2013. We also eventually reviewed each of the performances.
The former opera was funny and very well sung. Presenting "Peter Grimes" in the Amphitheater was a courageous act, by company Artistic Director Jay Lesenger. It's is a difficult opera to present, which requires artists capable of very demanding singing, plus it is written on a grim subject which doesn't play to the "I'm on vacation, so I don't want to have a serious thought" mentality. Famed journalist H.R. Mencken is often attributed the quotation, "Nobody ever went broke, underestimating the intelligence of the American public," although I have also seen it written "the taste of the American public."
Fortunately, Chautauqua Opera seemed to have touched something vital in their audience with their "Grimes" production, and I rank it No. 2 of the artistic triumphs of this summer.
I have heard it said that Chautauqua audiences in the Amphitheater have a gate pass which entitles them to attend everything which is performed there, so they tend to drift in and out of performances without a thought of how their comings and goings are affecting other members of the audience, not to mention the performing artists. One person said, "Those people would walk out in the middle of the second coming," but it didn't happen at "Peter Grimes" in July. It was a thrilling evening of artistry.
As always, in recent years, we were unable to establish any contact with the Chautauqua Department of Dance, despite many attempts, so while we always enjoy their performances, we have nothing to share about their summer.
If we were able to choose what we covered, during a given Chautauqua season, we would definitely review some of the performances of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra on a regular basis. We attended one performance during this past summer, in relation with the Colera/Robinson concert, and we reviewed the musicians as they accompanied the two productions of the opera company. But, the orchestra has just completed its second season without a music director, and we feel the effects of that circumstance ought to be examined, but it hasn't been possible, as things stand.
The theater company is the element of the Chautauqua structure which makes coverage easiest and most effective, and it should be no surprise that they got the lion's share of the coverage. Just as a passing observation, I must say that while the young actors of the Conservatory company are always talented and diverse, this season they were the most uniformly good looking of any season I have covered since the company was founded 30 years ago.
We did an advance column which included interviews with the cast of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," plus interviews of that play, the New Play Workshop "Dark Radio," the current hit play "Clybourne Park," the New Play Workshop "Transit," and the best Shakespearean theater which I have ever seen at Chautauqua, "The Comedy of Errors," which had so many strong elements, I had a miserable time deciding which elements to include in the review and which would need to be left out. My original intention was to pick the top three events of the summer, but that "Comedy" would be a very close No. 4.
Without a doubt, the triumph of the season was "The Romeo and Juliet Project," which put together the talents and energies of all the performing arts departments at Chautauqua. The play "Romeo and Juliet" was brilliantly combined with the works of many composers who wrote operas and ballets on the same plot, and each main character was played by an actor, a singer and a dancer. It brought to bear all the audience's senses, giving depth and meaning far greater than is possible from even the most brilliant production of a single artistic approach.
Chautauqua Theater Company's artistic director Vivienne Benesch did a masterful job, not only in combing through the huge amount of material which was available, and trimming it to a workable length, but in navigating among the politics and the emotions involved with different organizations who typically do a degree of competing for budget and for audience support. I expected it to be good, but I didn't expect it to be as extraordinary as it was.
People who attended that performance will be remembering it for many decades to come.