Season Preview 2015: RI’s Can’t-Miss Picks
Another summer, another embarrassment of riches when it comes to performing arts in the Rural Intelligence region. As usual, there’s enough theater, music and dance (and just about everything else) to go around. Though we know the winter months offer their own pleasures, the arrival of the long-awaited spring weather provides the perfect excuse to start mapping out our own summer schedules. There are the events you anchor a night (or a week, or a month, or a season) around, and the ones you slip in to your schedule spontaneously, or as part of a decadent double-header. Fortunately there’s plenty to choose from. Here’s our annual list of 30(ish) can’t-miss picks from around the region. Now that you’ve dug out from the winter, it’s time to dig in. —Jeremy D. Goodwin
Man of La Mancha at Barrington Stage Company
June 10 - July 11
Barrington Stage’s season-opening musical has become an event not to miss, particularly after the celebrated New York run of the production of On the Town that delighted us two seasons ago. Julianne Boyd directs this musical take on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, starring BSC’s Jeff McCarthy, who is equally able to knock us dead as a cross-dressing southerner (Southern Comfort) or the demon barber of Fleet Street. Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Pittsfield, MA.
Thoreau or, Return to Walden at Berkshire Theatre Group
June 18 - July 11
David Adkins has earned his place as one of our perennial favorites, with too many memorable roles at BTG to count. Adkins wrote this brand new, one-man play about the great Massachusetts individualist and nature-lover. It’s sure to go well with a leisurely hike in the Berkshire hills… but don’t worry, if you head back home afterward and turn the air-conditioning on, we won’t say anything to Mr. Thoreau. The Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, MA.
You Are Nowhere at Mass Live Arts
July 9 - 11
We were happy to see the arrival of this company two years ago, providing a Berkshire pipeline for selected plays pulled right from the burbling New York City underground. This is a co-commission by MLA, coming after its January premiere in PS122’s influential COIL festival. This piece is by Andrew Schneider, a multimedia artist who has been known to spin theater, video, sound, dance and inventive devices (see: the Solar Bikini) into a unique, immersive experience. The Daniel Arts Center, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Great Barrington, MA.
Kinship at Williamstown Theatre Festival
July 15 - 25
With a penchant for new works and old classics and the juice to lure stars of stage and screen, WTF always stirs up a fascinating mix. So here comes the festival debuts of Cynthia Nixon—who hopefully will forgive us for always thinking of her as Miranda, though she has a Tony award for best actress (Rabbit Hole) in addition to her Grammy and two Emmys — and fellow Emmy-winner Penny Fuller. This American premiere looks at the politics of love and journalism. Nikos Stage, ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, Williamstown, MA.
Mother of the Maid at Shakespeare & Company
July 30 - September 6
Everbody’s buzzing lately about Tina Packer’s book, Women of Will, which follows up on the theatrical version we caught in Lenox before it went to New York. But she’s back onstage for this story about the mother of Joan of Arc. (And given Packer’s status as a force of nature, it’s likely to make us see Joan as a chip off the old block.) Emmy winner Jane Anderson, a veteran of Mad Men and Olive Kitteridge, penned this intriguing new work that Berkshire Playwrights Lab first brought to the area with a reading last summer. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, MA.
A Moon for the Misbegotten at Williamstown Theatre Festival
August 5 - 23
We love when the great concert singers of our time swing by this neck of the woods to multitask. Last year, opera star Renée Fleming sang with the Boston Pops while preparing for her theatrical debut at WTF. This year, none other than Audra McDonald will be in town for a concert at Tanglewood and a role in this classic by Eugene O’Neill. With six Tony Awards to her credit though, McDonald is no newcomer. With a terrific cast and design team on board, this take on O’Neill’s late work is music to our ears. Main Stage, ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, Williamstown, MA.
Red Velvet at Shakespeare & Company
August 6 - September 13
Since John Douglas Thompson caught the attention of the theater world with his Othello at Shakespeare & Company in 2008, we’ve watched carefully to see how the company would feature him each season. He’s back in town this year for the regional premiere of this imaginative telling of the story of Ira Aldridge, who in 1833 became the first African-American actor to play the Moor of Venice in England. Talk about the perfect combination of actor and role. Packer Playhouse, Lenox, MA.
Engagements at Barrington Stage Company
August 13 - September 6
This looks to be an intriguing way to round out the summer season. Described as a pitch-black comedy, it examines the all-too-familiar plight of the defiantly single gal who is surrounded on all sides by the engagement parties of her friends. The world premiere treads this familiar ground from a decidedly Millennial point of view. St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, Pittsfield, MA.
Art Garfunkel at Infinity Hall
We were crushed when Simon and Garfunkel canceled their 2010 date at Tanglewood, when Garfunkel was in the midst of some protracted throat issues. He’s back on the road though, and the Rural Intelligence region is soon to get a double dose—before his November show at the Mahaiwe, he’ll be at this even more intimate space. Hey, we’re not complaining. (I promised myself I wouldn’t include any puns about “Bridge Over Troubles Water” here, but you get the picture.) Norfolk, CT.
Boston Pops: Simply Sondheim at Tanglewood
Though some fans of the Pops will no doubt plan around its appearances at Tanglewood on Parade or the epically popular Film Night, this early season treat is a boon for theater lovers as well as Pops fanatics and their families. We love hearing the Pops take a spin with classics from the Great American Songbook, so an evening dedicated to Sondheim looks delectable. Koussevitzky Music Shed, Lenox, MA.
Mark Morris Dance Group at Tanglewood
June 25 - 26
This appearance became a favorite early-season activity, so we’re glad to see it return after a year off in 2014. The exciting program this year looks forward and back (but still kinda forward), with the world premiere of a BSO/Tanglewood Music Center commission, plus Cargo, which made its world premiere on the same stage ten years ago. Tanglewood Music Fellows will accompany the dancers with compositions by J. S. Bach and Darius Milhaud, respectively. (Though, with respect, we don’t expect Mr. Morris to dress up for the occasion.) Ozawa Hall, Lenox, MA.
Dressing and Dancing at the court of Louis XIV at Aston Magna Festival
June 26 - 27
Though we loved the chance to hear a commissioned work by red-hot composer Nico Muhly for Aston Magna’s anniversary season last year, we’re also intrigued when it presents wheelhouse programs like this one. Though this early music festival keeps a lower profile than others in the RI region, it’s well worth a visit even if you don’t know your harpsichord from your forte piano. (But you do, right?) Olin Hall, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY and Daniel Arts Center, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Great Barrington, MA.
Solid Sound Festival at MASS MoCA
June 26 - 28
How fortunate we are to be the home base for Wilco’s biannual summer festival. Well, given how well MASS MoCA runs these things (additional festival facilities are even built into its big-deal expansion in the works), the good fortune runs both ways. This is something to build your weekend around, with two headlining shows by the Chicago band and a deep, deep undercard. Not least, the festival also shows North Adams at its best, with local restaurants, galleries and everybody else getting in on the fun one way or another. (My favorite extracurricular Solid Sound-related event from past years might be DJ Spooky spinning a set under the marquee of the Mohawk Theatre.) North Adams, MA.
Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga at Tanglewood
“What do you want to do this weekend, honey?”
“Let’s go see Lady Gaga at Tanglewood.”
Yes, it’s true. While the incomparable Lenox venue has hosted Tony Bennett in the past (his show last August was a winner), this will mark the local debut of Lady Gaga. While she’s not likely to put her “Poker Face” on, her standards collaboration with Tony is no bluff. They launched the project at the Montreal Jazz Festival last year, released an album, and we’re happy to see they’re back on the road and heading this way. As of this writing there are a handful of (obstructed view) seats available inside the Shed, but lawn tickets can be had for $30. Koussevitzky Music Shed, Lenox, MA.
Toshi Reagon at MASS MoCA
Reagon has a great lineage — she’s the daughter of two co-founders of the Freedom Singers and Sweet Honey in the Rock, and her godmother and namesake is the late Pete Seeger’s wife. But her sights on this evening will be on the love songs of Prince and Michael Jackson. This program was assembled for an appearance at Joe’s Pub in New York, so we’re glad for the chance to experience it out in MASS MoCA’s courtyard. North Adams, MA.
Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at Tanglewood
Though its once-familiar jazz festival is no more, Tanglewood sets its sights on booking a few high-profile jazz shows throughout the summer. Wynton and the JLCO are the perfect match for this venue. He stopped off at Symphony Hall two years ago for his terrific devotional program (complete with gospel choir), but this Ozawa Hall appearance will be a much cozier affair. Don’t sleep on this ticket. Ozawa Hall, Lenox, MA.
Yo-Yo Ma with Mike Block, Monika Leskovar, Giovanni Sollima and the Boston Cello Quartet, cellos at Tanglewood
Yo-Yo Ma is not only the most uproariously popular guest soloist with the BSO, but perhaps the biggest gentleman as well—check him out taking photos with the young music students and fans when he’s on the grounds as an audience member. He uses Tanglewood as a laboratory for his wide-ranging musical interests, be it the Silk Road Project or this celebration of the cello. We don’t know quite what to expect from this all-cello program, but can’t wait to find out. Ozawa Hall, Lenox, MA.
Graham Nash at Mahaiwe
Nash is a believer in second careers—he’s a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee twice over, with The Hollies as well as Crosby, Stills and Nash. This puts him somewhere in the “legendary” category, so it should be a particular treat to stroll down Great Barrington’s Main Street (with no shade from the now-departed pear trees, alas!) and catch his distinctive tenor at the Mahaiwe. Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington, MA.
Harlem Quartet at Music Mountain
Harlem Quintet showed its versatility when it was a very welcome guest with jazz great Chick Corea at Tanglewood a few summers ago. Here, the young group on the rise gets back to its roots, presenting a fascinating program that ranges from Beethoven to Dvorak to a 1925 piece by the Spanish composer Turina. A great excuse to visit this somewhat tucked-away gem of a venue. Falls Village, CT.
Bang on a Can Marathon at MASS MoCA
An annual highlight of the season, this 12-hour event caps three weeks of music making by the best and brightest young players in new-music, working with some of the most accomplished composers and bandleaders in the field. Recent years have included visits from forward-looking musicians ranging from Steve Reich to Wilco’s Glenn Kotche. Though the Marathon is the most boisterous and accessible way to take a dip into “contemporary classical” music, do yourself a favor and visit the museum during the weeks prior to catch gallery recitals by BOAC fellows and faculty.
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord at Chester Theatre Company
June 24 – July 5
Over at Barrington Stage Company, Mark St. Germain has given us a taste for probing one-act plays (Freud’s Last Session, Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah) that imagine meetings between historical contemporaries. This piece by Scott Carter, longtime producer of HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher, goes a step further, riffing off Sartre’s No Exit by planting Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy in a hell of their own making. Each of the three writers penned an alternative version of Biblical stories, and now they’re stuck in one room with all the time in the world to sort out their different perspectives on life, love and God. Chester, MA.
The Wreckers at Bard SummerScape
July 24 – August 2
This French-language opera, written in the early 20th century, borrows for its source material the little-remarked-upon stories of poor English villages whose residents made a practice of extinguishing seacoast beacons and thereby prompting ships to wreck upon the rocky shore. (The part-time pirates would steal the cargo and murder the crew, apparently. With the American Symphony Orchestra on board, this is an intriguing choice for the summer series at Bard—though it probably won’t inspire you taking to any seaborne vessels anytime soon. Sosnoff Theater, Fisher Center at Bard, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.
Audra McDonald at Tanglewood
The chance to see Broadway legend and Grammy winner Audra McDonald onstage at Ozawa, performing a hand-selected program of tunes and accompanied by her intimate combo? Yes, please. McDonald is also in town to star onstage at Williamstown Theatre Festival, but does us a solid by booking this concert as well. It’ll be just like cabaret… where the singer has won 6 Tony Awards and the venue is one of the most beautiful on the continent. Ozawa Hall, Lenox, MA.
Paul Taylor at Mahaiwe
July 9 - 12
How great is it that a residence by the world renowned Paul Taylor at the Mahaiwe is now a no-biggie annual event? This year’s schedule offers a veritable orgy of dance, with five performances and six different pieces, including “Company B,” “Eventide” and “Esplanade,” three dances from different points in Taylor’s career that meditate upon American life. And there’s plenty of time to wash up and recover from your July 4 barbecues before heading on down. Mahaiwe Center for the Performing Arts, Great Barrington, MA.
Big Dance Theater in Alan Smithee Directed This Play: Triple Feature at Jacob’s Pillow
July 8 - 12
Fresh from its U.S. debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, this piece by rock-star choreographer Annie-B Parson (directed by Parson and Paul Lazar, the directors of Big Dance Theater) takes a postmodern view of 20th century history and the creative process, with fragments of film scripts, novels and other found text assembled into what the company calls a “kinetic collage of political rhetoric, pathos, paranoia and suburban love.” Please sir, may I have some more? Doris Duke Theatre, Becket, MA.
Daniil Simkin’s INTENSIO at Jacob’s Pillow
July 22 - 26
This startling program boasts four world premieres by four noted choreographers, performed by ballet heroes from the American Ballet Theatre and Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal including the great Daniil Simkin. Expect to elbow your way past plenty of pilgrims from out of town when you pick up your tickets to this one. Ted Shawn Theatre, Becket, MA.
La Otra Orilla at Jacob’s Pillow
This world premiere dance comes courtesy of a Montreal company with a deep love of traditional flamenco, seasoned by music from the mountainous Andalusa region of southern Spain. No mere traditionalists, though, La Otra Orilla present this electric, crowd-pleasing style through a contemporary lens. Doris Duke Theatre, Becket, MA.
Lar Lubovitch Dance Company at Kaatsbaan
This New York-based company, perhaps best known for the Othello-based dance it crafted in collaboration with American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet, has been going strong for nearly 50 years. Though the program on this evening is yet to be announced, we look forward to what Lubovitch has in store for this visit to the Hudson Valley. Tivoli, NY.
Pam Tanowitz and FLUX Quartet at Bard SummerScape
This Bessie Award-winning choreographer is known for combining classical dance styles with contemporary forms of movement. The program this evening includes a piece for nine dancers with live string-quartet accompaniment, and the world premiere of a solo to be performed en pointe by former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Ashley Tuttle. A full meal indeed. Sosnoff Theater, Fisher Center at Bard, Annandale-on-Hudson.
Man of La Mancha: Courtesy Barrington Stage Co.
Shakespeare & Company: Kevin Sprague
Audra McDonald: Autumn DeWilde
Mark Morris: Amber Star Merkens
Wynton Marsalis: Danny Clinch
Boston Cello Quartet: Jesse Weiner
Yo-Yo Ma: Todd Rosenberg
Harlem Quartet: Paul Wiancko
The Wreckers: Todd Norwood
Big Dance Theater: Mike VanSleen
Daniel Simkin: Ken Browar and Deborah Ory
La Otra Orilla and Pam Tanowitz Dance: Christopher Duggan
Lar Lubovitch: Yi-Chun Wu
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Basilica Hudson’s 24-Hour Drone: A Sound And Social Scene
Photo by Matt Charland
By Jamie Larson
A whisper, a warning, a quick snap or an unceasing tone — sound is elemental. Starting Saturday, April 25, at 3 p.m., the waterfront industrial cathedral that is Basilica Hudson will become a “temple of sound” as it embarks on a super collaborative, inaugural event, the 24-Hour Drone: Experiments in Sound and Music.
Drone, simply defined, is a tone or group of tones held for a long period of time, occasionally shifting and evolving, a sound that some find is a mind-altering, meditative experience. From Saturday to Sunday, the Basilica drone event will feature well-known names from the noise, music and sound art world as well as more conventionally understood musicians and even performances on instruments used in religious worship like gongs and Tibetan singing bowls.
Basilica cofounder and celebrated musician in her own right Melissa Auf der Maur admits the Drone may seem like an unusual season opener for the venue. But after five years growing the former glue factory’s reputation as a premier arts and culture venue, it’s time for something truly different to set the tone.
“We were inspired to open our season with an experiment, which represents the heart of our organization,” says Auf der Maur, who runs the Basilica with husband and fellow artist Tony Stone. “This event is the most cutting-edge example of our love of sound and space.”
Auf der Maur said the idea for the event came to her before she even owned the space, when overlooking the imposing Basilica with Bob van Heur, organizer of Le Guess Who?, a four-day experimental sound and music festival that takes place each November in the Netherlands. He also is now the co-host of the Hudson 24-Hour Drone.
“We are interested in the power of sound on its own, outside of music,” Auf der Maur continues, adding she hopes future drone events will run 48 hours. “This is a way to analyze the essence of sound. The power of sound has a history of use in rituals, to help people transcend. There is a metaphysical effect.”
Photo by Bill Stone
A ticket to the 24-Hour Drone gives you a pass to come and go during the event but there will undoubtedly be diehards there for the duration. Food will be available for purchase: dinner Saturday night (the bar will be open) and brunch Sunday morning. The performances will take place in the center of the Basilica’s massive 7,000-square-foot hall and attendees will surround them. People are encouraged to bring mats and anything else needed to remain comfortable during the long-duration experiment.
Some of the most well-known and influential names in noise music as well as local artists will perform in the Drone. The lineup boasts Prurient, one of the genre’s biggest names; Montreal-based futurists SUUNS; Patrick Higgins of ZS, polyglot NYC composer and out-of-the-box classical guitarist; Arone Dyer, of musical duo Buke and Gase; and Randy Gibson, a minimalist composer/performer who creates enveloping and ritualistic works in Just Intonation and many more.
Picture by Matt Charland
One of the more structured, though no less experimental, performances on the schedule will be when the Drone intersects exactly with the 150th anniversary of the very hour President Lincoln’s funeral train stopped in Hudson on April 25, 1865. Organized by local historian Carole Osterink, a reenactment at 8:45 p.m. will set forth from the outdoor grounds of Basilica, cross over the train tracks, and honor Lincoln’s passing with a dirge, sung by women dressed all in white. The original event was reportedly described by the train commander as “one of the weirdest ever witnessed.”
After this beautiful and bizarre temporal convergence, Bobby Previte, a legendary percussionist and exceptional composer/orchestrator in the thriving jazz and experimental music scene will conduct an ensemble of Hudson Valley musicians back in the Basilica. The performance will feature his drone-inspired interpretation of Aaron Copland’s masterpiece, “Lincoln Portrait,” to be narrated by local musical wizard Brian Dewan.
Dewan, who will be performing at different points during the event, will play an instrument he created with his cousin, Leon Dewan, called a Swarmatron. The eerie electro-Theremin-like instrument, which Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor popularized on his Academy Award-winning soundtrack for The Social Network, is controlled by moving one’s hands over two bands of eight-track ribbon. The device seems well suited for Drone and Dewan, who is better known for his often comic rock-folk. He’s contemplative about his part in the unique event.
“I like the idea that in a drone, which is such a static thing, all the action is in the slight variation. The trick is to have it always mutating,” he says. “[24-Hour Drone] is not a focused experience. It’s more of a sound and social experience than a concert. You’re just steeping in it.”
Saturday, April 25, 8 p.m. - Sunday, April 26, 3 p.m.
$15 Early Bird Tickets, $20 at the door
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The ‘New Brooklyn’ Redux, But This Time In Music
Looking out from Dope Jams, a vinyl mecca that moved from Brooklyn to Oak Hill, NY at the base of the Catskills.
By Jaime Lowe
It’s official: Brooklyn has migrated. These days, Brooklyn is more than just a borough in New York. For better or worse, it’s an ethos that has seeped into the suburbs, retail awareness and — most significantly to Vassar professor Leonard Nevarez and writer Piotr Orlov — into the countryside, where urbanism has impacted the music and community of Hudson Valley and upstate New York.
“There’s a huge rich scene — this area has championed people like Pete Seeger, so folk is a big part of the foundation,” says Nevarez, chair of the sociology department at Vassar who studies and teaches about musical urbanism (he also writes about it here). That foundation fosters a more palatable and more accessible community — a folk-based Americana revival that complements artisanal, DIY, homespun sensibilities.
But can there be — and is this recent influx of ex-Brooklynites evidence of — a New Brooklyn? “There’s been a more visible stream of musicians moving to places like Hudson, and Kingston and New Paltz are bubbling with musical activity as well,” Navarez says.
The musical migration of artistic communities, micro-scenes, and the exodus of artists from major cities will be the subject of a panel on Wednesday, April 8 at Vassar featuring Navarez and Orlov, who calls himself a techno analyst, media forager, editorial voice and digital strategist on his blog, Raspberry Fields. Hua Hsu, an associate professor in the English Department at Vassar College, will also be joining the discussion.
“This event is inspired by and addressing that trend,” Nevarez says. “We’re also interested in talking about how the entertainment options have expanded — even things like an electronic music dance festival is up near Albany.”
EDM isn’t what normally emerges from the rural landscape, Nevarez acknowledges. “We hear that the Bohemians are aging out, into their 40s and 50s and are leaving the city. New Paltz has become a cluster of Indie rock, and it’s where Team Love Records relocated from the city. There are shows that have a much younger profile and are linked with the contemporary indie scene through singer/songwriter Conor Oberst. There’s also the type of music playing out of The Chance Theater in Poughkeepsie — like working class metal.” According to Nevarez, there are at least three different overlapping scenes.
Basilica Hudson, a space that influences performers.
As an ex-Brooklynite population moves north, does the culture shift with the new creative sensibilities? Nevarez thinks it goes both ways. “The larger issue here is that the Hudson Valley is now being absorbed into the NYC metropolitan economy. People have urban ties. For a certain kind of professional class, creative class, freelance class, their work is still centered in urban economy; the style of life and the style of work is very much an urban milieu.” But it’s now an urban milieu with rural twist.
“Americana music certainly strives to convey a kind of solitary atmosphere. It conveys an intimate communion and feel. More than a few artists have moved up here to commune with the rustic architectures and landscape.”
And does the environment affect the way musicians create, the communities they build and the sound that emerges?
“I tend to think the environment doesn’t influence choices as much. This is not native, these are not generations of people with a tradition,” says Nevarez. But it is a place that offers space and time to contemplate expression. “I think in the Basilica Soundscape festival, where they encourage artists with this fantastic industrial space, the space dictates what people are doing.”
So maybe it’s not a New Brooklyn, but a Brooklyn that’s expanded Upstate, a place where an industrial warehouse won’t sell so quickly to real estate developers for hundreds of millions of dollars?
“It’s hard for anyone to root their cultural practices in direct rural practice. People have more choices now. But that’s the big question, why a musician would want to live and work in a rural place? It’s a place to focus on music and to get away from distractions.”
Photos courtesy of Kate Glicksberg.
Looking for the New Brooklyn:
Creative Migrations and Musical Landscapes in Upstate New York
Wednesday, April 8 at 8 p.m.
Taylor Hall 203
Vassar College, Poughkeepsie
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BSO’s Free Chamber Concert Is A Tease To Tanglewood Season
Poring over the 2015 Tanglewood season brochure is a pretty delicious activity, but it also leads to jonesing for the Boston Symphony Orchestra to get here already. You’ll have to wait until June for the entire orchestra to arrive, but a healthy contingent will be giving a (free) concert this Sunday at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield.
The BSO Community Chamber Concerts were created to provide relevant and engaging free chamber music concerts performed by BSO musicians in communities limited in access to the BSO. We’re lucky enough to have the BSO as our neighbor during the summer, so for those of us in the Rural Intelligence region, these spring chamber concerts, going on their fifth year, are really more of a warmup (and tease) to the season that starts in little more than three months from now.
“The Community Chamber Concert in Pittsfield is special, in that it allows the BSO to continue to personally and musically connect with the Berkshires area community during the ‘non-Tanglewood’ season, ” says Jessica Schmidt, the BSO’s director of Education and Community Engagement.
On Sunday at 3 p.m., six members of the BSO will offer the Moazart Quintet in E-flat for horn and strings and the Brahms String Quartet No. 2 in A minor. The program will last approximately an hour and will be followed by a coffee and dessert reception for the audience and musicians.
Short, sweet, and a welcome harbinger that Tanglewood season is, indeed, on its way.
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MASS MoCA Keeps It Fresh With Festivals…Bluegrass and Otherwise
Fans gather at the 2013 FreshGrass festival. Photo: Danielle Poulin
By Jeremy D. Goodwin
So it came as no surprise when the institution announced it was converting another old factory building into a gallery dedicated to the large-scale work of German artist Anselm Kiefer, including a sculpture made from undulating waves of jagged concrete.
But a bluegrass festival? That was a bit of a surprise when FreshGrass debuted in September of 2011. Yet the growing success of the event, in tandem with the much higher-profile Wilco bonanza known as the Solid Sound Festival, is living proof that this museum has become a first-class performance venue. And its specialty is exceedingly well-run festivals.
Joe Thompson has led MASS MoCA toward a new specialty — exceedingly well-run music festivals. Photo: Olympia Shannon
“We’re interested in new ideas and the formation of culture today,” the museum’s founding director, Joe Thompson, says. “We just think American roots music and bluegrass is going through a really interesting and lively and idea-filled moment right now, and that’s very much what MASS MoCA is about.”
This year’s FreshGrass festival runs Friday evening through Sunday, featuring headliners Emmylou Harris, The Infamous Stringdusters, David Grisman Sextet, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Sam Bush and the duo of Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. (Talent in previous years has included lots of other big names in the field, like Yonder Mountain String Band, Del McCoury Band, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Trampled By Turtles and The Devil Makes Three.)
FreshGrass is no boutique event. It has quickly earned a place as a major bluegrass and roots-music festival in the region. This reckoning is based on the names it draws as well as its burgeoning popularity. The first year, the event — conceived in July and hurriedly executed just two months later — sold a disappointing 400 tickets. The next year, that number jumped to 1,600. In 2013 the attendance total shot up again, to 4,000.
“Because it’s made a little bit of a splash in that world, there’s a lot of enthusiasm from artists and their agents and managers,” says Ollie Chanoff, an associate curator for performing arts at MoCA. “Whereas we were hustling to book acts the first couple years, now we have a lot of people contacting us and asking to be on the festival.”
An unidentified band plays a pop-up set in one of the MASS MoCA galleries during the FreshGrass festival. Photo: Bill Wright
This museum has long had a sharp eye for forward-thinking live music. It’s the longtime host of the Bang on a Can music institute and festival, and has hosted concerts by Beck, Kim Gordon’s new project Body/Head, Marc Ribot, Jeff Mangum and Talib Kweli, to name some examples from just the last few years.
But the story of MASS MoCA’s burgeoning sideline in big festivals starts with Wilco. When that Chicago-based band created its first-ever festival around the MoCA facility in 2009, the museum folks got their first taste of five thousand people walking around the grounds at once. Thompson says he was initially concerned about the “beer at the threshold” issue — how to encourage a boisterous, hands-on attitude outside at the performances and vending areas, but still enforce proper museum etiquette inside the galleries.
As for those beers (and waters and iced coffees), concert-goers placed them on tables set up outside the main gallery entrance. But moreover, Thompson says, Wilco’s audience — and later, the FreshGrass crowd — proved to be model candidates for recruitment into the world of contemporary art.
“The audience is just a spectacular audience to have in a museum. They were not only engaged and intensely inquisitive and curious but they were also deeply respectful of the art as well as the music,” Thompson says. “Every museum sits around thinking about how to attract an ever-widening and ever-more-diverse audience. It’s easy to talk about, it’s hard to do. Having six or seven or eight thousand people a day come in to your galleries, people who may not have spent a lot of time in front of contemporary art before — that warms a museum director’s heart.”
The music is hot, but the vibe is casual. Photo: Danielle Poulin
Of course, MoCA has done more than just pull off the three Solid Sound and four FreshGrass festivals. Each one received conspicuously positive audience reviews, and with good reason. As the headline to one review in Metroland described it, they were each “a civilized affair.” From the free water to ample wi-fi to a range of reasonably priced, tasty food and drink options sold by locally based vendors, music festivals at MASS MoCA have been very fan-friendly. This is accomplished with help from a veritable army of volunteers, as well as support from Wilco’s Easthampton-based management team and FreshGrass producing partner Manitou Media, now known as Freshgrass, LLC.
Thompson says he expects an attendance this weekend of 5,000 to 5,500 festival-goers. With three years’ distance, and lots of intervening success, Thompson aptly sees the first year of FreshGrass as an investment in something bigger.
“Even though it was a financial black hole,” he says, “the quality was great. The musicians were coming up to our staff and our board and saying, ‘We know this must be tough financially, but please do it again. We know there’s an audience out there.’ That turned out to be true.”
FreshGrass Bluegrass Festival at MASS MoCA
Friday, September 19—Sunday, September 21
1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams, MA