Sunday, July 26, 2009

Art in the Provinces

My father just wrote to me to say how much he enjoyed Sinclair Lewis's Main Street. He thought I might find something in common with the main character, a librarian from St. Paul who marries a doctor from Gopher Prairie and moves with him out to small-town Minnesota (Sauk Centre to be precise) where she tries to influence the reading tastes of the town.

I don't find this area to be terribly provincial. People are particularly well read, and I don't get much time to read, and I read slowly, and I don't ever look down on anyone for that. I don't know much about classical music, either, but I do have some good CDs and have attended concerts in LA, Chicago and New York. And so it is that every once in awhile, I'm treated to a scene worthy of Sinclair Lewis.

One of my favorite books is Willa Cather's My Antonia. There is a wonderful scene in there where the narrator of the book, Jim Burden, and the hired girl Lena, who has made her way as a seamstress, meet up when Jim is in college in Lincoln, Nebraska. Jim begins by saying that whenever he smells lilacs he thinks of going to the theater in Lincoln with Lena that spring. At the theater they're treated to what is clearly a horribly acted, miscast play, a version of Dumas' Camille. Nonetheless, never having seen "real" theater before, they're utterly captivated. Jim says of the woman playing the lead, "I suppose no woman could have been further in person, voice and temperament from Dumas' appealing heroine than the veteran actress who first acquainted me with her. Her conception of the character was heavy and uncompromising as her diction; she bore hard on the idea and on the consonants. At all times she was highly tragic, devoured by remorse. Lightness of stress or behaviour was far from her. Her voice was heavy and deep: "Ar-r-r-mond!" she would begin, as if she were summoning him to the bar of Judgment. But the lines were enough. She had only to utter them. They created the character in spite of her."

And of the music, Jim narrates: "Between the acts we had no time to forget. The orchestra kept sawing away at the Traviata music, so joyous and sad, so thin and far-away, so clap-trap and yet so heart-breaking. After the second act I left Lena in tearful contemplation of the ceiling, and went out into the lobby to smoke. As I walked about there I congratulated myself that I had not brought some Lincoln girl who would talk during the waits about the junior dances..."

Thursday night we paid too much money to go to an outdoor concert at one of the nearby colleges. It was a performance of Civil War-era music, interspersed with Looney Tunes and Three Stooges shorts set in the Civil War. The musicians were the local faculty classical ensemble.

The music was not Civil war-era. There were two pieces by Dvorak written in the 1890s. One I knew very well, and so my ear was quite bothered by the sawing away of the cellist and one of the violinists. The very large mezzo-soprano did a very dramatic rendering of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home."

But the concert was made very enjoyable-- for me at least-- by the audience, particularly three drunken members of the audience, one a man in a cowboy hat, and two women, one more drunk than the other.

When the cellist came out at first for the first piece (ca. 1892), she began by saying she would not be in her usual spot because she was working hard to keep the instrument in tune despite the humidity. "This afternoon at rehearsal, my D string was just wild!"

To which the cowboy loudly whooped, "You G string? Did you say you lost your G string? Whoo hoo!"

She played the piece, just fine, and when it was over the very drunk woman said very loudly, "Wow. I bet she could play Chopin."

To which the cowboy replied, "Oh, you're going to hear all sorts of good music tonight, alright. All sorts of good music."

A few numbers later, a pianist took the stage, James A. The cowboy knew the man: "Piano Jim! There's piano Jim! Oh boy, he's good. Wait until you hear this."

Piano Jim was probably the best of the musicians, but he was having a bad night. He started the first piece and after about 30 seconds, cowboy said, "This sounds like something from the Wizard of Oz, don't it?" It very soon afterward left the "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" theme that was faint to say the least. The song took off, but Piano Jim had a little difficulty keeping up with it. Afterwards, despite the very enthusiastic applause, he somewhat stormed off the stage, disappointed and frustrated with himself.

There were other, less memorable, outbursts by the trio of fans during the first act. Every time one of them made noise, a very indignant 13-year-old girl in the front row with her parents would turn around and glare. She was no doubt a student of one of the musicians, and had seen how classical audiences, outside or no, were supposed to behave during performances.

After the break we moved back and I got an Adirondack chair to sit in. I was behind some very well-behaved Asian girls who may have been on campus for a camp. It was dark enough to show the Looney Tunes short, which one of the girl taped in almost its entirety on her tiny digital camera. As I watched, the three Asian girls took an average of 5 photos a minute of the performance. I would have to say their experience was almost completely mediated by their digital cameras.

By the time the Three Stooges started, the mosquitoes had arrived. I have never understood what makes the Three Stooges funny, and so, eaten alive under the darkening Minnesota sky, we decided to forego the last tune.

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