Season’s greetings from all of us at WolfBrown! For this special holiday issue of On Our Minds, we asked the WolfBrown team to think about their most memorable arts experiences of the year. From opera to pop music to theatre for young audiences, these are just some of our highlights from 2016.
We hope you enjoy these reflections, and we invite you to share your own with us by commenting here. Happy holidays, and best wishes for a wonderful 2017!
New Freedom Theatre’s Black Nativity: An African Holiday Musical Play
I attended many great performances this past year, including Cold Mountain with Opera Philadelphia, Friday Night Jazz at the Woodmere Art Museum, Mahler 6 with Sir Simon Rattle conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra, Bruckner 6 with Christoph Eschenbach conducting Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra, and BalletX’s Sunset, o639 Hours.
In choosing the most memorable event, I found myself drawn to Black Nativity: An African Holiday Musical Play, a re-imagined production of the Langston Hughes classic, written and directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj. Maharaj is the new Artistic Director of Philadelphia’s New Freedom Theatre, one of the few remaining professional African-American theaters, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. I was blown away by the high quality of the acting, singing, and dancing, and emotionally drained by the Story of the Nativity, set in war-ravaged Darfur. It was really moving to hear the juxtaposition of a cappella renditions of traditional Christmas Carols and gospel anthems, hauntingly accompanied by a single African drum. This performance reminded me that my most memorable artistic experiences are those which raise our consciousness, challenge our assumptions, and remind us how fortunate we are.
Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture
Over the course of 2016, I spent a lot of time observing arts education programs in public schools, and it was while observing one of these programs that I had my most memorable arts experience. The Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture program, which is designed to teach students about Arab culture, includes a drumming ensemble, and it was while watching this ensemble that I very nearly began to cry.
I try to avoid crying in public, and I particularly try to avoid crying in front of middle-school students because they will laugh at you. But there I was, watching a group of students from very different backgrounds playing together in perfect unison, and I teared up. I don’t know if it happened because the students were so clearly enjoying themselves, or because I was keenly aware of the fact that without considerable philanthropic support these students would never have had this opportunity, or some mixture of the two. But I have thought about that day many times since — particularly during the Presidential campaign and election — and how opportunities to participate in the arts can make us our best selves.
Sia’s Nostalgic for the Present Tour
My ears rang with joy as the Australian songstress’s piercing voice cut through the gentle hum of audience members singing along with her. Known for her songwriting chops and chart-topping collaborations, Sia has certainly made a name for herself in the music industry. Yet this concert, in so many ways, felt more like a performance art piece than your typical pop show. Hidden underneath her iconic, black-and-white wig and whimsically large bow, the Australian songstress belted out her popular hits almost entirely from a far corner of the stage. Defying conventions of most pop concerts, Sia let her dancers take center stage song after song, gracing the stage in perfect synchronicity with the pre-recorded videos projected above them. What could have been a typical pop concert experience was instead a captivating series of performance art pieces, packed with exquisite displays of contemporary dance and electrifying moments of sound and silence. By the end of the night, we had been transported to the far reaches of our minds, where we could convince ourselves that we too were pop stars and dancers just like the ones before our eyes — even if it was just for the night.
When Joseph Silverstein died on November 22nd of last year, it came as a complete shock. It is not as if this great violinist hadn’t lived a full life (he was 83 years old when he died). It was simply that Joey — as everyone called him — was ageless, and he was incredibly active until the moment he died. Indeed, he had played a concert only a couple of weeks earlier and was practicing just a few hours before he was stricken. Like so many musicians, my life was touched in many ways by Joey. He played often with my late brother (including Andy’s final concert), I got to perform with him on occasion, I presented him in concerts annually for years, I attended his masterclasses, and for decades I studied his incredible leadership as concertmaster of the Boston Symphony and later in his role as a conductor. One would think that someone who was so well known by so many famous people would be too busy to be a friend to those less established. But Joey seemed to be everyone’s best friend. He was incredibly approachable whether talking about an arcane bowing with a bunch of students or telling his latest joke for which he was also famous.
And perhaps that is why the memorial concert given at Tanglewood on July 24th of this year was so remarkable. It captured all of these aspects of Joey. It had a star-studded cast of performers as one would expect, but it was also an evening brimming with love and affection. There were brief comments interspersed throughout the concert, but mainly it was about the music and about Joey himself. How wonderful to hear him playing in an audio clip which was accompanied by a video of still photos from Joey’s life and as the grand finale, a video of Joey soloing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The definition of a memorable arts experience in my mind is one that moves you at the time AND one that you remember long after. This concert offered the extra gift of giving me a perfect way to remember Joey as well.
Online Time Capsule: Live from Lincoln Center
I love asking people, “Of all the arts experiences you’ve ever had, which one do you remember most vividly?” My own answer to that question invariably takes me back to January 22, 1979, when, as a young singer, I sat in a dorm room watching Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland sing a joint recital, Live from Lincoln Center, simulcast on PBS and FM radio. Some 37 years later — late one night this past summer in a hotel room somewhere — I discovered a bootleg video of the entire broadcast on YouTube. There, an audience of one, I was ripped back to a time and place long abandoned. In the blink of an eye, the operatic icons were once again in peak form. It was so unexpected, which I suppose had much to do with the extent to which I was immobilized and utterly transfixed. The world stopped for two hours. It didn’t matter that the quality of the video was terrible; the audio was just good enough to trigger the musical memory of a defining moment in my teen-aged world. The thrill of hearing their shimmering voices had not diminished, but multiplied. In a world that offers such guilty pleasures so freely, I dare not listen again.
Crowded Fire Theater’s I Call My Brothers
When I think back on the performances I saw this past year, the ones that stand out to me the most are the ones that were unapologetically challenging and painfully relevant. These performances left me feeling confronted, engaged, and motivated to take action or make a change. I recall most vividly Crowded Fire Theater‘s production of I Call My Brothers this past April and how I left that experience feeling truly stunned and shaken, deeply impacted in a way I never expected going in. I gained a new level of understanding of the mechanisms of Islamophobia and what it looks and feels like from both inside and out. I gained a glimpse into the fear and paranoia that can be evoked by the persecuting gaze of others, whether real or imagined. And perhaps most provocatively, I got a deeper look into my own subconscious and my own assumptions in the wake of recent events. The performance left a lasting impression on me. And, more broadly, I was reminded of the power theatre has to promote understanding and belonging, build empathy, and connect us to one another. I hope to see many more examples of this kind of work as 2017 unfolds.
Dennie Palmer Wolf
The New Victory Theater: Chotto Desh
It was a school performance of Chotto Desh (at the New Victory Theater, New York), Akram Kahn’s solo piece about coming of age as a Bangladeshi-American boy caught between his hard-working family’s push for responsibility, duty, and working in the family restaurant and his own emerging desire to become a dancer. I was seated in the back row of the orchestra along with other visitors and administrators, a sea of middle schoolers spilling out in front of us. To my left, people chatted as long-term NYC schools colleagues. So I turned to a woman beside me on the aisle and asked what school she came with. “None…I saw the performance last week and it was so spectacular I had to come again before it closed. I talked my way in, I don’t think they let the public into these school performances.”
She rushed to explain, “I taught for 30 years in the schools so many immigrant students who were making their way between their families’ way of life at home and the new selves they were becoming. I watched them balancing, always balancing. The show was ‘that’ danced out — two languages, two ways of being, two lives, one known and one coming. I laughed, I wept the other night when I saw it for the first time. I promised I would get back here. I have to say, in the wake of the election, I wanted it broadcast on the night sky where every single would-be deporter would see it on their walk home from work.” Just then the house went dark, to the yelps and cheers of a young audience.
Yes, the performance was remarkable — the physical boy-dancer climbing and running through the projected scrims of his grandmother’s folk tales, the tumult of traffic recalled from trips back to his father’s urban Bangladesh, and the shadows of the giant chair on which he struggled to “be still”, even as he wanted to dance.
But, in truth, my sense of amazement was spiked the instant the teacher beside me confessed to talking her way in. It amped up with each groan from the audience, as they heard off-stage parental voices calling out, “Sit still, be respectful, we work hard for you, pay attention, help out…” It climbed as the audience cheered for the hero who shadowboxed like a demon behind his bedroom door even as he pretended to answer “dutifully” to his downstairs parents. And I loved the gasp when, in the talkback, the athletes in the audience learned that two dancers had to share a week of performances, so arduous was the role of the dancer-soloist. Pitcher, point guard, quarterback: take note. This was theater in public. There was company both on and off the stage.
Climbing out of the subway later that evening I wanted to tune in that night sky broadcast and watch another performance that would catch off guard all who would seek to deport others, and leave them humbled, amazed, and generous by the time they reached their own doorstep.
Machine de Cirque
My daughter is a professional circus artist, and I have seen many circuses. And yet, my most memorable arts experience this year was by a circus company, Machine de Cirque. What moved me about this company was the connection the five performers made with the audience and with each other. They spoke to us; they came off the stage to interact. They clearly had fun with what they did on the stage, and we laughed with them. They worked as a team, caring for and supporting each other. And (surprisingly, last to come to mind) the quality and technicality of performance was breathtaking.
Street Performers of San Francisco
I stumbled upon one of my most memorable recent arts experiences quite by accident on my way to work. A street musician was playing trumpet on Market Street in San Francisco — I didn’t recognize the piece, something classical — and nearby a homeless man was dancing with remarkable commitment and grace. Being late for work, I couldn’t stop and watch for long, though in retrospect I wish I had. In that moment it struck me that regardless of how much funding is cut and which organizations come and go, we really don’t have to worry that the arts are going to go away. It is in fact remarkably difficult to prevent someone from dancing or singing, and the desire to create, experience, and share through art is seated deep within us. I find both beauty and hope in that thought, and I’m thankful to those street performers for that moment.
MAKE: A Labor of Love and Spirit
It’s a random weekday evening in downtown San Francisco, and I’m standing in a concrete stairwell that smells of greasy fast food, waiting for the doors to open and the show to begin. Although I don’t know anyone, it is easy to strike up conversation by simply saying, “Hello, my name is…” — perhaps because we all aren’t sure exactly what we’re going to see, and yet are in high spirits about it nonetheless. The line starts to move, and we make it upstairs into the re-purposed gallery turned black box performance space. After paying a small donation, I wander in and take a seat in the round.
The room is small and close; the heat from all of us rushing in fills the room immediately. The performance has already started, and the room is quiet except for four performers, each attending to a discrete task: one is singing — a big booming voice that is part prayer, part call-to-action — while carrying around a 20-pound bag of flour; another is hurrying back and forth with a Dixie cup to fill the big plastic tub in the middle of the room with water; a third is bent down in one corner absorbed in crushing sugar cubes one by one; and the fourth is working with oil in the opposite corner.
More audience members filter in as these activities continue, and we all fall into a trance, tracking the rhythms of each performer in their obsessive task. At some point, the song and action change, and the other performers join in the singing. One performer sprinkles yeast into the water, and others adjust their tasks to focus on the tub. The sugar is brought over and added to the tub. After a few moments, the oil is also offered up to the tub. Then the flour bag is opened, and handfuls are thrown into the mix. Flour dust flies everywhere, creating momentary clouds that dissipate into the front rows. The smells permeate the room. The performers gather around the tub, all eventually lending their hands in the effort to mix the concoction within. The singing ebbs and flows as voices join and retreat. Each performer remains independent, concentrating on her or his task, even as they work together towards a common goal — mixing the dough.
After a while, the dough is ready for kneading, and each performer approaches this new task from a different perspective. One takes a big piece and carries it around the space, holding and shifting it as if it were a fidgety child. Another takes pieces of dough and starts to cover herself in it; first one arm, then another, and then up her arms to her neck and face. She is fascinated by the process but also a little scared, and seemingly powerless to stop it. She eventually manages to extricate herself from her doughy confines to join the rest of the group.
At some point, each performer takes smaller pieces of dough, kneading and shaping them into little rounds. They place the individual pieces on sheets of wax paper laid out in front of each seat in the front rows, until all sheets are full. One performer then looks up and counts the number of people in the room, places more pieces of wax paper down on the floor, and they go back to shaping and distributing. Sooner after, that same performer looks up and says, “Take this; this is for you.” And we do. It ends when every last person is holding a piece of wax paper with a raw piece of dough created by song and movement, shaped out of prayer, love, pain, fear, hope, and grace.
I walk the empty streets of San Francisco, holding my wax paper-wrapped dough, heading home to rise.
These were just some of the many artistic highlights of the year for us. We look forward to creating many more memories with you in 2017!