Friday, October 5, 2012

Artistic Seeds Strengthen Community Roots

Some people really get off on conflict. They love an adversarial approach to any topic. Whether watching an opera or a Presidential debate, they often feel compelled to declare someone a winner and, as a result, someone else a loser.

If I've never particularly liked the term "culture wars," it's because culture is like air and water to me.  It feeds my mind, nurtures my soul, tickles my fancy, delights my ears, strengthens my vocabulary, and broadens my sensitivities. From the very beginning, I had no problem describing myself as a "culture vulture" (someone who seeks out, consumes, enjoys, and thrives on interesting bits and artifacts of culture; someone who attends opera, film, concerts, and theatre as if they offer an unending banquet of life lessons).

Although Jonathan Chait's fascinating dissertation in New York Magazine on how film and television instill liberal values among viewers (The Left-Wing Conspiracy is on Your Screen) is an amazing piece of writing, even more astonishing is the research he cites showing how the introduction of television novelas into local cultural landscapes affected birth rates in specific areas of Brazil and India. A cultural landscape that is rich in possibilities broadens one's palate for knowledge, increases one's willingness to take risks, and helps people recognize opportunities for further learning.

Let me give you an example of how this works. Although I've been a resident of the State of California for the past 40 years, I had no idea there is an official state song. With lyrics by a Los Angeles-based clothier named Francis Bernard Silverwood and music composed by Abraham Franklin Frankenstein, I Love You, California was written in 1913 and introduced by none other than opera's Mary Garden!

Sheet music for I Love You, California
Here are Silverwood's delightful lyrics:
"I love you, California, you're the greatest state of all,
I love you in the winter, summer, spring and in the fall,
I love your fertile valleys; your dear mountains I adore,
I love your grand old ocean and I love your rugged shore.

Where the snow crowned Golden Sierras
Keep their watch o'er the valleys bloom,
It is there I would be in our land by the sea,
Every breeze bearing rich perfume.
It is here nature gives of her rarest,
It is Home sweet home to me,
And I know when I die,
I shall breathe my last sigh
For my sunny California.

I love your redwood forests,
Love your fields of yellow grain,
I love your summer breezes
And I love your winter rain.
I love you, land of flowers;
Land of honey, fruit and wine.
I love you, California;
You have won this heart of mine.

I love your old gray missions,
Love your vineyards stretching far.
I love you, California
With your golden gate ajar.
I love your purple sunsets,
Love your skies of azure blue,
I love you, California;
I just can't help loving you.

I love you, Catalina,
You are very dear to me,
I love you Tamalpais,
And I love Yosemite.
I love you, land of sunshine,
Half your beauties are untold,
I loved you in my childhood,
And I'll love you when I'm old."

* * * * * * * * *
How did I learn about this song? It wasn't part of the score for an old Broadway musical. Nor was it sung as a specialty number in someone's cabaret act. Instead, it became the inspiration for a young composer whose orchestral essay, Calafia, received its world premiere during a recent concert by the student orchestra at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

When I first started browsing through the Conservatory's 2012-2013 schedule of concerts and master classes, I looked for performance dates by the institution's student orchestra (I've often found the acoustics in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall to be warmer and more brilliant than those of San Francisco's Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall).

The program item which immediately caught my attention was a performance of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D Major ("Titan"). Also on the program were André Jolivet's Concerto for Percussion (featuring Masako Iguchi as solo percussionist) and a world premiere performance of a new work by Louis Cruz. The only recognizable names on the program were Gustav Mahler and the evening's conductor, Alasdair Neale.

Alisdair Neale and Masako Iguchi rehearsing Jolivet's Concerto
for Percussion at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music

An exceptionally talented young man, the 21-year-old Cruz belongs to a string quartet (Le Coucher du soleil) that won the inaugural San Francisco-Shanghai International Chamber Music Festival. Cruz is also the youngest recipient of the prestigious Jim Highsmith Competition.

Cruz composed Calafia in approximately two weeks early in 2012 and named his orchestral essay after the fictional Amazonian queen for whom the state of California was named. As the composer explains:
"The treatment of this theme throughout Calafia, sincere at moments and alienating at others, is used as a means to reconcile the extremities of the 'Golden State.' Whether viewed in terms of geography, demographics, politics, economics, culture, or in terms of the West as a goal represented by the conclusion of western expansion, as the unattainable object of desire, California certainly is a subject of radical variation. Perhaps the diametric qualities of California are best exemplified in two sculptures by James Earle Fraser. One, 'Pioneers,' shows courageous explorers trekking westward 'breaking soil for the seeds of future civilization,' while 'The End of the Trail,' a work put on display during the 1915 exposition in San Francisco, portrays a despondent Native American hunched over atop his doleful horse, both exhausted from their diminishing resources.  As a native Californian, I hope Calafia portrays a fragment of the state's extremities."  

Composer Louis Cruz
I found Calafia quite charming, offering samples of the jolly kitsch of the state song's original sound as well as sweeping portions that filled the hall with a grand sense of majesty. Cruz is certainly a talent to watch as he matures.

* * * * * * * * *
While conservatives angrily continue to pursue culture wars aimed at destroying America's separation of church and state, those who work in the arts see culture as a powerful economic engine, a prodigious job creator, a source of continuing community pride, a means of fostering understanding, and an opportunity to celebrate diversity.
Those who doubt the power of the arts to strengthen communities should listen carefully to the lyrics from "Make Our Garden Grow." The following clip is from the New York Philharmonic's 2005 concert performance of Candide starring Paul Groves, Kristen Chenowith, Patti LuPone, and Sir Thomas Allen.

Of the art forms with the richest community outreach, few can compare to community dance groups that reflect ethnic folklore, music, and dance. Each year, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival produces an amazing program in June. Later this month, the talented and adventurous kuma hula of Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu has a special treat in store for his loyal audiences at the Palace of Fine Arts.

Patrick Makuakāne has added a new hula to the program for The Hula Show 2012 that was inspired by the birth certificate controversy surrounding President Barack Obama, Noted for his "hula mua" (hula that evolves) style of choreography, Makuakane is well known for combining traditional hula movements with non-Hawaiian music (opera, electronic, dance, alternative, and pop). His new hula is conceived as a satirical response to the Donald Trump and Tea Party induced birth certificate controversy that surrounded President Obama’s initial presidential race.

Kumu hula Patrick Makuakane

Makuakāne was born within 20 days of President Obama (and at the same hospital in Hawaii). When the President's long form birth certificate was released to the media on Wednesday, April 25, 2011, Patrick examined his own birth certificate and compared it to President Obama’s. As expected, Makuakāne’s birth certificate was of the exact same origin as the President's. “I knew that President Obama was a citizen, but I wanted to compare our certificates to see how similarly they looked. They were exactly the same," notes Makuakane. "If Jon Stewart were to create a hula about the birth certificate controversy, this would be it.”

* * * * * * * * *
Those of us who grew up watching the Igor Moiseyev Ballet perform on The Ed Sullivan Show have fond memories of watching Russian dancers performing the kazatsky. In 1964, Jerome Robbins staged a memorable bottle dance for the wedding scene in Fiddler on the Roof. In recent years, filmmaker Roxy Toporowych has spent a great deal of time working on Folk! (a documentary about the evolution and preservation of Ukrainian dance in the United States and Canada.

Poster art for FOLK!

Having grown up in Cleveland's large Ukrainian community, Toporowych attended dance school as a child and was well aware of the Kashtan Dance Ensemble of Cleveland. As an adult, she became more acutely aware of the legacy of Roma Pryma Bohachevsky and the cultural importance of such folk dance troupes as the Virsky Dance Ensemble of Ukraine and the Voloshky Ukrainian Dance Ensemble of Philadelphia.

Toporowych's documentary covers a lot of ground, from the early waves of Ukrainian immigrants who settled in areas like Cleveland and Alberta, to the way in which Orlando Pagan (a ballet dancer of Puerto Rican origin) was chosen to succeed Bohachevsky as the artistic director of the Syzokryli Ukrainian Dance Ensemble of New York. In addition to traveling to the Ukraine to visit her ethnic roots, much of Toporowych's film focuses on the preparations for the Syzokryli's New York performance which took place two years after Bohachevsky's death.

Those who love folk dancing will have a grand time watching Folk! which, in addition to some wonderful performances, includes magnificent costumes, Kruno Spisic's inspiring music, and a devoted crew of Ukrainian folk dancers with fascinating back stories (click here to order the DVD). Here's the trailer:

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