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All, Arts, Entertainment, Literary Arts, Music

Art’s Plea: Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

The Kentucky creative economy – wait: there is such a thing? A whole economy, that is? Yes and it’s, “alive and well,” as they say, but also largely misunderstood. And that’s been researched, quantified and all done up in a nice package presented by the Kentucky Arts Council.

UnderMain thought you might like to peruse this portrait of the arts production happening all around you, every day, here in the Commonwealth.

Dive in!

Arts, Entertainment, Music

Thinking outside of the chamber

Richard Young was in the thick of it, hunched over a cellphone at the bar in Natasha’s. The news was challenging.

With only three weeks until “showtime,” the director of the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington had suddenly found himself not only in search of an essential Steinway Concert Grand piano, but after getting word of complications with the original plan, also attempting to find accommodations for the festival’s five-member Ensemble-in-Residence

As it turns out, each dilemma has been resolved. More on that a bit further down the page.

But these crises did serve to remind that the business of organizing and overseeing a ten-day music festival not of the rock, folk or country variety, but instead focused on chamber music in 2014 is not for the faint at heart and certainly requires a tolerance for change.

“This is about something that is quite old,” Young observed. “I mean – it’s about chamber music. While it can be and often is a very progressive art form, most people know it as Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven quartets, that sort of thing.”

Now in its eighth year, Young’s fourth as director, the festival gets underway on the evening of Thursday, August 14 with a free public concert by WindSync – the aforementioned Ensemble-in-Residence – with beer and barbecue on the lawn of Loudon House, home of the Lexington Art League.

And you can read plenty into the selection of this particular group and that particular opening night format. The message? You don’t necessarily have to be a classical music aficionado to find something interesting, perhaps amazing in the performances slated for locations in and around Lexington between the 14th and 24th of August.

While the young, energetic Houston-based ensemble will offer its own performances in various more casual settings around town, the group also will integrate with the festival’s traditional concerts in the formal setting of the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion.

“After we brought Richard Young aboard as festival director, we had numerous board discussions about bringing our product—chamber music—to the community in a casual manner. And we did so with the enthusiastic endorsement of our board,” said Charles Stone, founding chairman of the festival board. “What sets our festival apart in our mind is our cutting edge presentation and programming. And what we look to do soon after we finish one year’s series is imagine how we can make it newer, bolder the next time,” Stone continued, describing a governing body willing to take risks by supporting new approaches to presenting chamber music to a Lexington audience “We are comfortable to embrace a room full of new ideas.”

Under the direction of Young, a 2011 graduate of the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music (Double bass), programming has steadily progressed and expanded.

In 2012, two years into his tenure as director, he experimented with staging surprise chamber music performances around the city several weeks prior to the opening of the festival.

These “pop-up” performances are now a staple. And there is method in this madness.

“Chamber music is such a niche thing. You like it, you hate it, or you don’t know about it. I think one of the main reasons it doesn’t have a broad audience is its exposure,” Young said. “You say ‘classical music’ and people think of either opera or symphonies. I don’t think a lot of people think of chamber music because it just doesn’t have a lot of exposure. It’s very hard to passively gain a new audience. The pop-ups are very intentional, targeted, focused. We see pop-ups as our way to do that.”

The street-performances have given the festival something of a gritty edge. Young recalled one pop-up concert in 2013 at the corner of North Limestone and Loudon. “People brought out old couches; everyone just sitting out on the street corner listening to chamber music and drinking beer in the middle of the afternoon. Cars going by, people walking up asking ‘what’re you doing?’ Experiments like that have left us with this Yin and Yang – weird, pop-up, gritty non-traditional things and then very formal, super high quality innovative programmed concerts in a hall that is perfect for chamber music.”

Innovation has been a consistent thread since the festival’s founding in 2007 by Stone and Lexington native Nathan Cole, now first associate concertmaster with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and artistic director of the Lexington festival. For example, Lexington’s is the only chamber music festival that commissions a new piece of music every year, according to Young.

“This year’s programming is more new music than old music,” Young said. “It’s very progressive.” In addition to a menu of compositions by lesser-known artists, “We’re playing a piece by Jeff Beal, composer of the themes of the Netflix series House of Cards and HBO’s Carnivale and Rome.”

Guest Artists for 2014 include Composer-in-Residence Adam Schoenberg, harpist Allegra Lilly, and soprano Karen Slack. Returning artists include pianist Alessio Bax, violinist Akiko Tarumoto, cellist Priscilla Lee and Burchard Tang, viola.

Plans call for the more casual events to include the free WindSync concert at Loudon House, a limited-seating brunch at Greentree Tearoom featuring WindSync, and a “laid back” concert by various festival artists at Natasha’s Bar & Bistro.

You can see evidence of this merger of traditional and progressive in a revised festival schedule. “Instead of this being just Friday, Saturday and Sunday concerts out at Fasig-Tipton, we’re doing Wednesday, Friday, Sunday – really pulling it apart so if you come to Lexington to come to the festival, no matter when you come there is something going on,” Young said. “We’ll have a public event every day.”

A first this year will be a lunchtime coffeehouse conversation at Common Grounds on High Street in downtown Lexington featuring composer-in-residence Schoenberg as well as other festival artists.

And there is a place for visual art in the scope of the event’s offerings. The “automata” sculpture of Lexington artist Steve Armstrong was commissioned to be auctioned in support of the festival’s future.

“That the board is so bought-in to trying new things, whether it be commissioning new music every year, commissioning a piece of visual art every year, to doing these very odd programming decisions like playing on the corner of Lime and Loudon, a spot that most people would not associate with chamber music, is incredibly helpful,” Young said. “They have been very open to letting artistic director Nathan Cole, board president Charlie Stone and me try and do something really new and exciting. If something goes wrong, it’s not going to destroy the organization. We just won’t do that next year.”

There have been a few clunkers. Master classes were not well-attended. Open rehearsals were tried. But while perhaps interesting in concept, in practice it just didn’t work. “They’re trying to rehearse, and you can’t hear them talking, so it was sort of awkward,” Young observed.

The open rehearsals have evolved into the Cabaret Concert scheduled for August 21 at Natasha’s. “It’s not as formal. You can sit and have drinks, eat and listen to some amazing music. If I were going to pick my ideal setting for listening to chamber music,” Young said, “that would be it.”

A new addition to the program is an Ensemble-in-Residence retreat with the North Limestone MusicWorks program.

Shaping programming – extending it beyond the formal and inherently rigid confines of the concert hall – to a younger, more casual audience in more accessible, less costly venues is, in Young’s view, essential to the survival of a genre that he believes is afflicted by “self-image crises.”

“I mean, the Philadelphia Orchestra went bankrupt. The Philadelphia Orchestra went bankrupt,” he repeated for emphasis. “That should be a wake up call to anyone that you need to think about what you’re doing.”

In arguing that interest in classical music is, in fact, not in decline where new things are tried, Young cited steady annual growth in audiences turning out for Lexington Philharmonic concerts and the Chamber Music Festival. “I think quite the opposite. I think it’s growing. More people are getting interested. Cincinnati Symphony, for example, does this great show, Lumenosity in the middle of the park right in front of Music Hall and if you saw a picture of it you would be flabbergasted. It’s a sea of probably 5,000 people. I think audiences diminish only if you become complacent.”

I asked Richard Young to talk to me about the music itself, in the context of the unstable, troubled world in which we live today. An opportunity to escape for a little while? Or to better connect with reality?

“Chamber music has a very strong ability to allow you to escape, but also to focus on some of these things that are happening. There is a great piece, Quartet for the End of Time (Oliver Messiaen, 1941) that we played two years ago that was written in a WW II prisoner of war camp. It doesn’t get more powerful than that. There is another, On the Transmigration of Souls (John Adams 2002) composed in tribute to those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. So yes, it has the power to distract, but I think it also has the power to take those issues, embrace them, look at them and give people a new way to experience and to think about them.”

Chamber music pokes at the emotions, Young said. “If you dig down and listen to it, it ranges all the way from really, really funny to really, really depressing. I think you can experience chamber music on multiple levels.”

Watching music performed on a more intimate scale can be as entertaining as listening, he noted. “If you have a great chamber music group, just watching them interacting with each other is something you’re less likely to get in the symphony hall.”

Ensemble-in-Residence WindSync, he noted, plays completely without music. “It’s engaging to watch a two-hour program played from memory by people who have played it a thousand times and know what to expect from each other and when to interact. And when you watch them communicate with each other without talking you can really see the power of chamber music.”

Oh, and as promised: Transylvania University stepped forward to provide accommodations for the five members of WindSync. And a 9-foot Steinway Concert Grand was secured from a generous Cincinnatian.

All is well as August 14th approaches.

Photo courtesy of Mary Rezny

All, Arts, Entertainment, Literary Arts, Music, Uncategorized

Transy’s Polashek publishes writers’ block battering ram

polashek_student

“Why isn’t there a word rhythm dictionary?” Tim Polashek once wondered.  He no longer asks. No need. The Transylvania University Assistant Professor of Music got busy responding to his own question, resulting in publication of The Word Rhythm Dictionary: A Resource for Writers, Rappers, Poets, and Lyricists (Rowman & Littlefield), a 689 page gold mine for the creative-yet-stumped.

“I really just see this as another tool. Tools matter in that they offer different perspectives and methods, and can shape direction of creativity,” said Polashek. “For example, some computer programs allow easy reversing of melodic motives. Others don’t. This affects creativity. I’m constantly asking myself and students how a given tool shapes creativity, and to be objective about the tool.”

Rhythm rhymes are defined in the introduction as consisting of two or more words with the same rhythm, sharing the same number of syllables “and relative positions of primarily accented, secondarily accented and unstressed syllables.” Unlike traditional rhymes, rhythm rhymes need not have matching vowel sounds.

Polashek said the book is an expression of his longtime interest in the relationships between music and speech as well as the pitch and rhythms of spoken speech.

He has created a series of computer programs to help him manipulate and search for words with certain properties for creative projects. “For example, show me all the words that have two ‘t’ sounds and a ‘z’ sound.  Or, show me ten words that are five syllables long that have accents on the third syllables.”

Has also has written programs to generate nonsensical text with certain musical properties. “So, when I got around to actually writing the dictionary, I had a lot of software tools to help me.”

The typical rhyming dictionary groups words based on vowel sounds and is primarily concerned with the vowels at the ends of words. The Word Rhythm Dictionary takes a different approach, grouping words by several properties:  syllabic stress (primary, secondary, and unstressed) which determines the rhythm tendencies of the word; within these groups, secondary sorting occurs by vowels; and by consonants. “So as you read the rhythm rhyme-groups there is movement along a timbre/word sound similarity continuum,” he explained.

How might a lyricist or poet use the Polashek dictionary? The author suggests three methods: thinking of a word, then browsing a list of words with identical rhythms; coming up with a poetic foot and then searching a list of words that rhythmically match; or establishing a musical rhythm and then browsing a list of words that rhythmically or lyrically fit.

The approach, said Polashek, makes it easier to locate words that feature similar sounds, matching meters, and rhythmic grooves, from traditional rhymes like “clashing” and “splashing,” to near rhymes like “rollover” and “bulldozer,” “unrefuted undisputed” to pure metrical matches, like “biology” and “photography.”

“Upon observing a couple of words in the same group, some interesting scene or semantic concept might pop into mind that will generate a line of poetry or a lyric, perhaps reflecting some subconscious things that the writer had been considering—a linguist Rorschach test, perhaps?”

Arts, Entertainment, Literary Arts, Music, Uncategorized

Cross-pollination on the rise in Lexington

Broken Queen – Photo by Mark Cornelison

This is not to suggest that it hasn’t always been there, but networking or “cross-pollination” among various arts disciplines seems to be happening with more frequency lately in Lexington.

As some wise person once said: “more ‘o that!”

Writing in ACE Magazine several years ago, Candace Chaney noted Lexington’s rich literary history and the presence of a serious, if struggling, theatre community and suggested that cooperation and collaboration between the two might give rise to homegrown playwrights. This inspired idea remains a long way from yielding onstage results – although we have seen growth and development in local theatre production. But the concept has taken hold in other areas and we think it’s worth noting.

Recent examples include the mid-June production at the Downtown Arts Center of The Broken Queen, a multi-disciplinary collaboration between Blackbird Dance Theatre and a reunion of the Lexington band Chico Fellini.

And Story Magazine has launched its “Story Sessions” series – intimate concerts that engage a variety of talents and skills ranging from music and sound production to communication and publishing.

Coming up later this month, on June 27, is the Lexington Art League’s CSA LIVE: An evening of story and song, billed as a convergence of Lexington’s literary, music and visual arts scenes.

These productions and events join The Carnegie Center’s Carnegie Classics, and Balagula Theatre in inviting varieties of artists to share talents and skills in collaborative settings.

This departure from limiting our arts scene to the pitting of one discipline against another to grovel for scarce financial lifeblood is healthy and promising.

The question is, what does it take to establish a “go to” network to enable vital communication between, perhaps, a videographer and a sound-designer, or a performance artist and a sound and lighting talent? Is this a function of some independent non-profit? Or should our municipal government establish such a role?

Wouldn’t it be great if we figured out how to sustain arts production in Lexington?

Please offer your thoughts on our Facebook page.

Thanks!

Arts, Entertainment, Music

Bob Bryant: Our Music Scene from a bassist’s eye view

IMG_3516When touring artists find themselves in need of a bass player while performing in Lexington the “go to” musician is Bob Bryant. Bob has held down the bottom for everybody from Alex Acuna, Rosemary Clooney and Al Hurt to Bela Fleck, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, J.P. Pennington and Larry Cordell. He’s a regular on the WoodSongs Old Time Radio Hour and is often found performing as a duo with one of a couple of other local masters, Jay Flippin and Ben Lacy. 

Bob has played in all sorts of venues and in all sorts of situations. He has a unique “bassists’ eye view” of the Lexington scene.

UnderMain asked him to share some observations. Here are Bob’s thoughts:

Hopefully, slipping into the membership of Lexington’s “Old Guard” is a good thing in terms of music affairs. Regardless of where I’ve lived or worked, Lexington has always been considered home for me, and never have I lost focus on this community or it’s musical well being.

When asked to compose a couple of paragraphs on the topic, initially the task appeared a struggle in any attempt to display an honestly positive overall outlook. My concerns were (and are) a conspicuous digression in the manner many venues (among the many exceptions) treat musicians as the new norm.

More discouraging by observation is the often belligerent status of the new generation audience. I am often amazed by the ‘party’ atmosphere amidst spectacular musical performances that would never be tolerated in other nearby cities, and traditionally would not have occurred locally.

Though great news to follow, it’s a shame to lose sight of just how amazing the storied tradition of Lexington’s music scene had been until just a couple of decades past. It was truly something, with ‘great’ bands slamming on every street corner while others participated in the “New Circle shuffle,” traveling from one beltway venue to another.

And this is not to mention a bustling recording scene: red-eyed musicians at 8:00 a.m., recovering from their 5 night  stand, sipping coffee, smoking cigarettes, participating in pre-production plans for an all-day session, just to depart directly back to the bandstand, and then do it all over again.

Such meetings took place in a control room including a 2 inch tape recording deck, a mixing console big enough to sleep 4, and a room full of outboard gear so hot the AC ran full out in the dead of winter. The cigarette smoke was unbearable. And the coffee was awful no matter which studio you were working. Those days are history.

On the other hand, all is not lost; not by any means. Extraordinarily talented young musicians continue the tradition of uncanny musicianship known to this unlikely expanse. We should all be so proud of them as they thankfully persevere in this relatively new hostile environment (which incidentally includes Pro Tools).

In addition to the youngsters are other categorical heroes, for example, the relative unknowns. Such is the case of University of Kentucky PhD candidate, Jay Crutcher. Jay’s newest upcoming solo album features some of the finest performing/producing I’ve ever heard.

Another new mover and shaker is UK orchestra conductor John Nardolillo, who has taken the organization to inclusion among the nations absolute elite. Most concerts are free to the public; just show up!

And of course to weigh in on behalf of the previously mentioned ’old guard’ there is the formidable Jay Flippin legacy (of which I am a grateful member). The pianist, a true national treasure, not only raised an entire brood of young music students into career-minded professionals, but serves as the standard for all musicians to aspire. The Jay Flippin/Gail Wynters duo is an unimaginable treat of true greatness!

There is plenty for which to feel positive; amazing musicians-young and not so young, in or out of the spotlight. Helpful would be a little less chaos in the listening rooms, a little more support from (some) venue operators, and acknowledgement of a great future as all these artists are eager to share their gift.