What a wonderful work is Barber's First Symphony! I will argue in a moment that it is America's greatest. If I review our program a bit backwards this time, it's because we don't hear this piece often enough—or nearly at all in San Francisco. (The last outing here was in 1963 under Howard Mitchell). But it was worth the wait, not the least because of James Gaffigan's white-hot performance. Indeed, Barber's concluding timpanic growl brought the audience to its feet screaming, a fitting wind-up for a concert of bravos, and reaffirmed our sense that James Gaffigan has become a major conductor.
In recent years a great deal of Paula Robison’s energy has gone into training the next generation of flutists. Knowing her approach to music and many other valuable forms of thought and expression, her teaching is a humanistic education in itself. Still, she finds time to perform and record. Most recently she delighted a New York audience with her talents as a narrator—in French, on this occasion. Narration for her is a passion that goes back to her family origins, as the daughter and niece of theater people: her mother was an actress, her father a screenplay writer, and her uncle a playwright.
It is simple enough to dismiss the once vital Schenectady New York, with the dwindling fortunes of General Electric. The town with a hard-to-pronounce name famously malapropped in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New Yorkwas once the seat of the largest employer and economic force in the upstate New York region. The fates have been unkind, and its poor environmental record coupled with challenges transitioning to renewable energy has dealt a fatal blow.
In planning the Nitrate Picture Show, the richest opportunity to view vintage prints of films on nitrate stock in the world today, the organizers at the George Eastman House adopted the policy of not announcing the screening schedule in advance. One comes to the festival and views what is offered. This idea didn’t come from nowhere, since the founder and first curator of the film department at Eastman, James Card, implemented it at the Telluride Festival, which he co-founded in 1974. I was thrilled with this concept when I first attended the Festival in 2017, and it continues to hold its fascination.
Conflating the myth of Helen of Troy with the story of Norma Jeane Baker, aka Marilyn Monroe, is a terrific idea. Both women were revered for their beauty and lusted after by men far and wide; despite, or probably because of these characteristics, neither enjoyed a very happy life.
Two big hits out of three made for a great evening. Sombrerisimo, a total delight, is choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, inspired by the surrealist world of René Magritte who famously painted bowler hats. The work was made originally for an all-male cast; this version turns it upside down with Shelby Colona, Jenna Marie, Eila Valls, Gabrielle Sprauve, Dandara Veiga and Melissa Verdecia pulling off a bravura number.
Dramatic and innovative, even to the point of changing her name from Angela to something more exotic, Isadora Duncan helped free ballet from restrictions and in doing so became one of the earliest proponents of modern dance. At twenty-one with very little money she sailed on a cattle boat to England and there, at the British Museum, fell for ancient Greek sculpture in a big way. The result was barefoot young women in skimpy clothing dancing with abandon—which drew huge crowds and lots of attention.
Tap dancing was once dismissed as lightweight entertainment, for example Fred Astaire, who delighted zillions of people, great art or not. Then came artists including the astonishing Savion Glover; now there is Dorrance Dance, the company that has won numerous awards for pushing tap rhythmically, technically and conceptually. Founded in 2011 by artistic director Michelle Dorrance who became a MacArthur Fellow in 2015, Dorrance Dance blows the lid off the form.
There's something timeless, solid and reassuring about attending a concert in Pittsburgh. The place seems contented. "The burghers are industrious" is an old fashioned way you might put it. Citizens seem to take themselves seriously. Businessmen still wear ties. Nobody pushes and shoves, the way New Yorkers do in that elbow war of a city. People make time to talk to each other in line.
Nitrate prints from international archives are loaned to the Museum and screened at its historic Dryden Theatre, one of only a few places left in the world where nitrate film can be legally projected due to its inherent safety risks.