Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Take that, Kenny G


Mix the playful spontaneity of Grammy-winning jazz flutist Dave Valentin with the rocking ferocity of Denver-based Dostero and you don’t get a concert. You get a musical event.

A fund-raiser for FutureSelf, the romping annual Valentin visitation on Saturday made us wish we weren’t sitting at tables in the Antlers Hiton ballroom but dancing in a soulful jazz club. The mostly improvised tunes, with Valentin scatting into his flute and the Dotsero dudes playing jazz on the wild side, had us swaying in our seats.

Students from The Conservatory also jammed with Valentin; they were fearless in performing their amazing solos.

Valentin closed the show with this advice to the kids: “Don’t listen to Kenny G. It’ll give you acne!”

After the concert, we caught up with Valentin at the Northside home of Fred Whitacre, the jazz fanatic who annually kidnaps Valentin and somehow gets him to play for us.

As if schmoozing with a Grammy winner weren’t enough ... None other than “NYPD Blue” actor Esai Morales, who had been at the Hispanic Chamber Gala at the Sheraton, strolled in and hugged Valentin.

“How do you guys know each other?” we asked.

They looked quizically at one-another, then shrugged.

They both live in New York City and have known each other for years, but neither remembers how they met.

Strange? Not as strange as two of the most famous visitors to the Springs both ending up at the same party.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

In Memoriam Doug Wilson

Doug Wilson, who died suddenly last week at the age of 53, was one of the finest people I've had the privilege of knowing.

Since this is an arts blog, I should mention that Doug left his mark on the area’s performing arts. A fair number of local musicians made recordings at Acoustic Projections, the studio in his Black Forest geodesic dome. For a couple of years, he did the live recordings of the Colorado Springs Symphony. He did acoustic analysis of numerous buildings in the area.

But I’m writing about Doug because he deeply influenced me, and because I loved him. There’s the matter of my job: Without the experience of writing 100 episodes of “The Golden Age of Pianism” for KCME back in the late 1980s, I don’t know whether I would have bothered to apply for the position as the Gazette’s classical music critic, much less been hired. Doug produced that show, and it almost goes without saying that he didn’t charge me for his time.

His influence on my creative development was just as crucial: In the days before anybody with a computer and a MIDI keyboard could record music, I learned how to arrange and orchestrate songs in Doug’s studio. As an engineer, he was an amazingly resourceful combination of high-tech and low-tech. When I said I wanted my voice to sound like it was coming through a tube, Doug handed me a tube. When I wanted percussion sound like a door slamming, Doug set up a microphone by his door.

(To me, the greatest example of Doug’s resourcefulness was the time he designed and built a printed circuit-board — in his house.)

But as impressive as Doug’s skill and intelligence were, they were overshadowed by his character. He was both one of the most idealistic people I ever knew, and one of the most pragmatic, with a work ethic I can only envy. More than once over the past few years, as Lauren and I have started embracing a lower-energy-consumption lifestyle, I’ve realized that Doug had already done the same thing, or a lot more. We got a Toyota Prius; Doug had an electric car. We cut down on red meat; Doug ate almost none. We got a super-efficient dual-flush toilet; Doug had no toilet at all. (Lauren used to joke that he was a bathroom away from being the perfect guy.)

Of course, a major reason I had to have these realizations was that no one could have been less self-righteous about his virtuousness. All Doug did was set an example.

Thanks for everything, Doug. I’ll miss you.

Atomic Elroy has a tribute to Doug at his blog.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Bill Bowers at the Manitou Art Theater

A one-person autobiographical show is a tough sell if its subject is anything less than a household name.

But any shred of curiosity you feel will be rewarded a thousand-fold by Bill Bowers’ hilarious and poignant “It Goes Without Saying,” currently being produced at the Manitou Art Theater. I left the 80-minute show feeling as though I knew the acclaimed mime personally — and wishing I’d gotten to know him sooner.

There are three reasons for this. First, the diminutive Bowers is one of those bigger-than-life personalities whose aura you simply want to bask in: His energy seems boundless; his smile seems lit from within. Second, he’s a world-class performer, in whom tremendous physical discipline coexists with a total lack of inhibition. Finally, Bowers’ life — at least in the form it takes here — has had the kind of narrative thread that the more aimless among us are forced to admire even as we envy.

Only the first and last segments of “It Goes Without Saying” are silent, and both are symbolic. In the first, the series of invisible doors and windows he must navigate to reach the audience foreshadows the coming story's twists and turns. This is classic mime technique made artful by Bowers’ skill.

In the show’s last segment, the classic technique is expanded to tell a magical tale of a Montana farmer and the moon that has been Bowers’ spiritual companion since childhood. This was one of the highlights of “Under a Montana Moon,“ Bowers’ previous show at the Manitou Art Theater, but it’s even more beautiful when we have a deeper understanding of its creator.

In between, Bowers proves himself to be a skillful speaker as well — though movement is an integral part of every sketch.

The early sketches revolve around his Montana childhood. Silence came naturally to Bowers: “”I have been a mime since before I knew there was a word ‘mime,’” he says. The Montana of his youth was even emptier and quieter than the Montana of today. His father, who was probably clinically depressed, “could go for days without saying a word.”

Among the highlights here are his love of Barbie dolls and his discovery of high school drama club, “which I like to think of as gay Head Start.”

Like many gay actors, Bowers ends up in New York. He talks about his numerous appearances on “All My Children,” beginning with “the faceless creature in Dixie’s nightmare,” to seven years touring the country in rented cars as Slim Goodbody, America’s Health Hero, to two years as Zazu in the Broadway production of “The Lion King” — “I’m spray-painted blue and I have a bird stapled to my head” — which come to an abrupt end when one day when, as he puts it, “my hands explode.”

What anchors the humor is the nearness of pathos, as in a skit that begins with a young Bowers pretending to be figure skater Peggy Fleming and ends at his grandmother’s funeral. The most touching, even harrowing, segment is Bowers’ recounting of his partner Michael’s death from AIDS — but even here, Bowers never loses sight of comedy, as in his description of Michael’s four-foot-tall German mother, “straight from the Third Reich. … Inga mostly sits by the window, smoking and hating my guts.”

(Honest, it’s funny the way Bowers tells it.)

Connecting the segments are several recurring images, including the moon, the Heyokah — a type of Native American shaman — and the Trail of Tears, the infamous Nez Perce winter trek that passed through the area that would become Bowers’ boyhood home.

“It Goes Without Saying” is a unique and remarkable evening of theater.

Bowers will repeat the show today and Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. He will also present a workshop in physical theater Saturday from 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Workshop tickets are $25. All events are at Venue 515 at the Business of Art Center, 515 Manitou Avenue. Call 684-4729 or click here for more information.

Turned Away

I'd intended to blog about the Metropolitan Opera's broadcast of Tan Dun's "The First Emperor" at Tinseltown — but alas, Saturday's broadcast was sold out, and Lauren and I were turned away at the door.

On one level, that was irritating, because I really wanted to see the opera (the Met isn't exactly known for producing world premiers) and because we had to overcome a lot of psychological inertia just to get out of the house voluntarily when the temperature was nine degrees. But it was also gratifying to know such an event, with a completely unknown opera, could sell out here, even in one of Tinseltown's smaller theaters.

We've learned our lesson: Next time we buy tickets in advance.

The December 30 broadcast of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" also sold out at Tinseltown, and at enough other locations around the world that the performance will be re-broadcast at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, January 23rd. However, from the listing of theaters here, it doesn't appear Tinseltown is taking part in this broadcast. The only Colorado theater listed is Colorado Mills Stadium 16 at 14500 W. Colfax Avenue, Suite 600, in Lakewood.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

More on the Met Opera Broadcast

[Friday’s “Go!” will contain a the short review of Saturday’s Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcast. Here’s more about the experience.]

My first pleasant surprise at the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of “I Puritani” occurred even before I sat down: It was the difficulty my wife and I had finding a place to sit down.

Though not sold out as the previous week’s “Magic Flute” had been, Tinseltown’s theater No. 2 was basically packed, without two seats together between the two front rows and the last row. The Met seemes to have scored a bull’s-eye regarding the willingness of audiences to sit in a movie theater to watch live opera broadcasts.

Aside from a couple of early burps, the sound was strong and vivid. The high overtones that make a human voice ring were clearly audible, and the imaging was good — you could your eyes and hear the physical proximity of one character to another. There was plenty of variety of the camerawork — there are at least 10 cameras for each broadcast — and the chosen angles were mostly satisfying and occasionally inspired: For instance, at one moment in Act 1, a from-behind view highlighted the interplay between baritone Franco Vassallo and conductor Patrick Summers during a lovely rubato. I could quibble about some of the close-ups during choruses and ensembles, but it would be mere quibbling.

The non-music extras were mostly well-conceived. Beverly Sills was a perfect choice as commentator: She not only has the instant credibility of having been one of the greatest singers of this repertoire; she’s also a charming and articulate advocate, who helped illuminate what’s best about Bellini’s score without trying to gloss over the story’s inherent weakness — or, as she put it, “This whole opera is kinda nutty.”

Renee Fleming seemed out of place as the production’s equivalent of the sideline reporter. When Fleming asked soprano Anna Netrebko how she felt after singing Act 2’s monumental mad scene, it sounded just as stupid as it has every other time a sideline reporter has asked that question. (Though the iridescent Netrebko managed to sound charming with her response — “Tired, thank you.”) I expect Fleming to make a more positive impression as a singer in February’s “Eugene Onegin.”

There was also a brief feature on Netrebko, one on mad scenes in opera — hearing such sopranos as Sills and Sutherland only intensified the impression that Netrebko’s voice is pure but relatively bland — and even the operatic equivalent of a trailer: a preview of Saturday’s opera, Tan Dun’s “The First Emperor.”

The experience wasn’t perfect. The Met had a countdown during the final ten minutes of each intermission — an excellent idea, but one that doesn’t help you if you leave the theater to get food etc. before the countdown begins. And the 11:30 a.m. starting time forces you either to eat a very early lunch or to rely on Tinseltown’s concession stand, which is not exactly cuisine of operatic grandeur.

But the amazing thing is how many things went right in a new and fairly experimental venture.

There’s only one potential downside to this new era in opera broadcasts: It could conceivably decrease the audience for live opera productions in some of the cities that host the broadcasts. Some people may choose to support a great broadcast production instead of a good-to-excellent live production.

But I doubt that this will happen. First, neither the sound nor the overall feeling of the broadcast actually matched a live performance. Second, there’s the nature of the Met productions. I didn’t hear nearly enough opera when I lived in New York, but this “I Puritani” production was typical of what I remember: Some great singers in the principal roles, coupled with boring direction. The opening scene, for instance, in which the chorus members stood like statues while Bellini’s lively music danced around them, bordered on ludicrous. So on an overall artistic level, competing with the Met is by no means impossible for smaller companies, provided they have some imagination.

See you Saturday — weather permitting.

NY Times review of opening night

Philadelphia Enquirer review of the broadcast

Friday, January 05, 2007

Congratulations to the Rep

The Rep - the Fine Arts Center's performing arts department - won two of the Denver Post's 2006 "Ovation" awards, given to the region's best theater productions.

"The Pirates of Penzance" won the award for Best Musical, and Chris Sheley, the show's set designer, won the award for best set design. It may have been his unforgettable electric-powered pirate ship that put him over the top.

In the reader's choices, "The Pirates of Penzance" finished third, behind Score Marketing's "Urinetown" and Creede Rep's "Sweeney Todd." In the Best Actress in a Musical category, Amy Sue Hardy finished fourth for her performance as Mabel in "The Pirates of Penzance."

Buntport Theater's "Something Is Rotten," which was produced here by TheatreWorks in October, won the award for Best Comedy.

Complete results here.