It was odd, seeing Elevator Repair Service’s Arguendo at the Arts & Idea festival on Wednesday, then seeing Reggie Wilson’s Fist & Heel troupe perform Moses(es) on Friday.
Arguendo dramatized an actual Supreme Court argument about whether dance is a legitimate form of communication and therefore subject to Freedom of Expression protections.
Moses(es), a dance, could not have delivered a clearer message in any medium.
From its opening minutes, when Wilson quietly and smilingly surveys the audience before introducing himself (followed by more succinct intros from each one of the dancers). Moses(es) presented statements of freedom and identity. Even the most tightly choreographed scenes had an implicit independence to them. The members of Fist & Heel comes in all shapes, sizes and ages. Their movements are not idealized or formalized. They dance with a shared exuberance.
Honestly, if I’d seen Moses(es) described at length in words without seeing it, I’d have shrugged or rolled my eyes. It’s modern dance with a gospel theme. It’s based on a popular 20th century literary treatment of the Moses tale (Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain, published in 1939). Its musical score derives from the most obvious folk tunes (“Go Down Moses”) and some of the best-known names in musical history (Louis Armstrong). Could such a show possibly have depth?
Depth is exactly what Moses(es) had. Depth and clarity and originality and charm and grace and glory and righteousness. It had the spirit of Zora Neale Hurston and an invigorating ensemble feel. It had onstage guidance and beatific grins from Reggie Wilson. It proclaimed freedom and community at every turn. Take that, Supreme Court justices!
Just the logistics of presenting an outdoor show by the New Haven Symphony Orchestra and jazz diva Dianne Reeves were staggering to witness. I was told that every switch on the electrical board was in use.
Whatever it took was worth it. The sound quality was amazing. Hearing the NHSO warm up and do its introductory number, I feared that they’d drown out the strong yet subtle Reeves. But when she joined them, the mix was elegant, nuanced in both foreground and background. It didn’t hurt that both Reeves and the symphony are keen interpreters of Gershwin. Standards ruled the set. How risky is it to choose “Stormy Weather” for an outdoor gig?
When it was announced, it seemed that this would be the NHSO’s one shot at an outdoor summertime New Haven gig. The symph used to do a whole outdoor series, years ago, then regularly got featured at city-sponsored concerts. The Arts & Ideas festival seemed to be it this year. But it was just announced that NHSO ensemble members will play at the first of several New Haven Jazz Festival concerts on New Haven Green this summer, on Aug. 2, when the headliners will be the Brubeck Brothers Quartet.
The NHSO runs a full concert season indoors, of course, and they chose Saturday’s Green gig to tout its newly announced “Pops conductor,” Chelsea Tipton II. Tipton will continue to reside in Beaumont, Texas, where he’s the music director of the Symphony of Southern Texas, but will journey to New Haven for four Pops concerts next season, including Broadway and Big Band tributes. Tipton was making the most of his time in town this weekend, meeting as many people as he could in the VIP tent next to the stage, and even waving a baton during the Reeves show.
While waiting for Arts & Ideas shows to start, I like to test some of the longheld beliefs about the festival.
For years, this phrase has emblazoned programs and peppered the pronouncements of festival boosters: “80 percent of our events are free!”
So, during the Sunday night intermission between Bronze Radio Returns and Brandy Clark on New Haven Green, I did the math.
I calculated this several ways. First, I counted each concert or play (or tour or talk or whatever) as a separate event, and came up with 129 free events and just 16 ticketed (i.e. not free) ones. That’s a higher than anticipated average of 89 percent events.
Since most of the ticketed events have multiple performances, I redid the calculations as if each performance was a unique event. That brings the 16 (ticketed) number up to 45, the 129 (paid) number up to 134, and the percentage of free shows to 75%.
One show was both free AND ticketed: Compagnie Barosolo’s Ile O, which had a ticketed/ pay what you can circle of benches right around its central pool, but was otherwise able to be seen by hundreds who stood outside that enclosure for free.
You could argue that the concerts on the Green aren’t free for everybody because of the patron/VIP area that’s fenced off at the front of the stage. But those are people who’ve chosen to pay, by giving donations of money or time or other support to the festival. There are a number of ways to pay if you want to: All the “Ideas” events are free, but an “Ideas Fast Pass” ($50, $45 for seniors, $35 for students) guarantees you a seat by letting you into the lecture halls before the general public.
You can also lease canvas chairs at the Green for $10 each, or sit on the metal bleachers for $20, but I’m gonna argue that doesn’t make the Green concerts any less free.
This isn’t how it started, you know. Arts & Ideas always had free events, but they weren’t such a high percentage for the first two or three editions, back in the mid-’ 90s. The festival was founded on three model of European arts festivals, which tend to be indoor, ticketed affairs spread out over several weeks. But organizers soon learned that New Haveners wanted was a party on the Green. Budgets and aesthetics were revised so that many more things happened on the Green. Meanwhile, whole areas of the festival grew of their own accord: bike tours developed by local cycling activists, foodie activities due to the region’ s culinary prowess, special art gallery events at a time of year when the Yale galleries were previously subdued for summertime.
This year’s festival program lists 15 Ideas talks plus six more labeled “Impossible Ideas,” 9 events comprising the Alan Berliner film festival, 15 Noon to Night concerts, five days that the Haven String Quartet Truck was on the road, 8 Family Stage shows, two afternoons of the Pizza Fest charity event, one weekend of Box City, two screenings of the Children’s Film Festival, 18 gallery toys, six matter classes with dance, theatre and music artists and 20 walking tours.
Now, it’s indisputable that the festival used to be larger, back when the state and federal governments and private foundations had more money to give to such endeavors. But there remains an overwhelming number of options for those who want to experience Arts & Ideas without spending a dime.
A prime raison d’etre for the festival is how it acts as an economic stimulant for the city at a time of year when downtown businesses otherwise have trouble bringing in fresh customers. When you’re downtown, you dine, park, shop. The city wants you to spend money while you’re at Arts & Ideas. But it doesn’t insist you spend money on Arts & Ideas. On 75 to 89 percent of it, anyway.
If Arts & Ideas needs a new sponsor sometime, they should call up Yamaha. They should tell the company that every keyboard seen on the stage at a major A&I weekend concert on New Haven Green (so far at least) has been a Yamaha. That runs the gamut from the Motif ES7 used at the fest-opening Ruben Studdard/Lalah Hathaway show to the grand piano played during the Diane Reeves/New Haven Symphony Orchestra set to the S90 ES in Brandy Clark’s band. A key ingredient, Yamaha.
Brandy Clark spent the first three songs of her Sunday night set unabashedly hawking her merchandise. She announced that “one thing I know about you people in Connecticut,” based on a gig she’d had at the Oakdale recently, was that we love to buy her merch. She told us of T-shirts, her new CD, signed photos …
It all seemed rather shameless, until she sang a few songs and you realized how much of the Brandy Clark repertoire dwells on themes of poverty, insecurity, cries for attention and convenient objects. Of course, the props in her songs tend to be beers, joints and handguns, but on Sunday night CDs and T-shirts would just have to do.
Clark might also have been pushing merch sales because, compared to the other Green shows at Arts & Ideas 2014 thus far, attendance was on the light side. That means thousands rather than tens of thousands. Connecticut has hordes of country music fans so the booking itself was a smart one. Many blamed the lower numbers on unforeseen bad timing: the concert happened just as the United States was battling Portugal in the World Cup. Local bars were jammed. The New Haven Green? Could’ve been fuller. Festival announcers at least had the presence of mind to update the crowd on the soccer game’s score.
This was the first big show on the Green this festival to be broken into two distinct sets. Ruben Studdard and Lalah Hathaway had alternated songs or duetting, in front of the same backing band. The New Haven Symphony played a bit, then invited up Dianne Reeves as the featured vocalist. But Brandy Clark and the Hartford-rooted Bronze Radio Return were a genuine double bill, with an intermission. After the gloriously long sets of Studdard/Hathaway and Reeves/NHSO, such a conventional two-set format made Clark’s show seem brief.
Not that she didn’t provide variety. She opened with a slightly sped-up version of one of her signature tunes (and T-shirt slogans!), “Crazy Women,” then did some of her more depressive material, then dismissed the band for a bit so that she could do a solo acoustic mini-set of songs she’d written that had been made famous by other artists (including Miranda Lambert and Darius Rucker).Then the band came back for more, including a Delbert McClinton cover. The line at the merch table was dozens strong by the time Ms. Clark sauntered over there to sign autographs.