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Cue Sheet – May 2006

LEFTOVERS

    In yesterday’s post about the Mariachi Cobre/Tucson Symphony concerts, I didn’t find an appropriate opportunity to praise two particular elements.
    First, nine members of the mariachi group opened the concert with an a cappella performance of the national anthem (yes, in English); with its combination of near-barbershop harmony and mariachi heart, not to mention excellent vocal technique and musicality, it was by far the most beautiful and stirring rendition I’ve ever heard of that song, which I absolutely detest.
    Second, whatever you may think of Ernesto Portillo Jr.’s skills as a columnist in the Arizona Daily Star, there’s no denying that he was an excellent master of ceremonies for the concerts. He was funny, personable, yet to-the-point. Somebody should make this guy the host of a TV variety show.
    Nevertheless, I can’t resist sending you to this wicked, wicked parody of Neto’s column that Renée Downing wrote for the Tucson Weekly a few years ago. One Star staffer told me at the time that half the newsroom personnel thought it was terribly cruel, and the other half deemed it brilliant.

tucson-arts,

BROWNING THE AUDIENCE

    Over the weekend I attended two cultural events that drew disproportionate numbers of Hispanics. One was the Borderlands Theater production of the bilingual play El Deseo/Desire; the other was a performance by Mariachi Cobre with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. Wouldn’t it be grand if that sort of turnout could be sustained through the season?
    Anglos have outnumbered Hispanics in Tucson since the middle 1890s; the local Latino population stood at only about 36 percent in the 2000 census. But even given that ethnic balance, there’s no way that Latinos constitute one-third of Tucson’s performing-arts audience.
    I’m not sure that anyone has ever conducted a thorough study to determine why the local Hispanic arts audience is so small and what might be done to build it. There’s a danger in generalizing about the group, of course—we’re talking about people of different ages, incomes and cultural backgrounds; some belong to families who’ve lived here for generations, and others crossed the border last week. Even so, they have one big thing in common: their absence from the theater and concert hall.
    Borderlands Theater does the best job of attracting a Hispanic audience; indeed, it’s the only company in town with much Latino pull. Part of the reason is that it presents plays revolving around issues of immigration and cultural difference, hires a fair number of Latino actors, and employs Spanish in its shows, ranging from a smattering of Spanglish to the true bilingualism of El Deseo/Desire. Even so, the big Hispanic turnout for opening night last Friday seemed unusual even for Borderlands. Perhaps Borderlands and a new, competing troupe doing more plays predominantly in Spanish would cultivate a steady Hispanic audience, although such fare would lose the monolingual Anglo members of the core theater audience.
    It seems patronizing, though, to belive that only Hispanic subjects will draw a Hispanic audience. I enjoy plays about people and subjects that have nothing at all to do with me, and I must say that I rarely recognize myself in the characters on any local stage. So why would Hispanic-friendly theater have to be some sort of cultural mirror? Well, perhaps that’s what it takes to draw people who have little local tradition of arts attendance, whether the reasons are economic or cultural. Maybe only when they get into the theater habit will they start taking a chance on the Neil Simon and Noel Coward frippery draped across too local theater schedules.
    Attendance at this past weekend’s concerts involving the Tucson Symphony was quite a differerent phenomenon. Nobody in the hall was there to hear the TSO. It was a special concert revolving around Mariachi Cobre, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Monsignor Arsenio Carillo, and raising money to renovate some facilities at St. Augustine Cathedral. So the audience consisted of fans of mariachi music in general and Mariachi Cobre in particular (the group originated in Tucson before becoming the “house band” at Walt Disney World’s Mexican pavilion), members of the Hispanic Catholic community turning out to support the honoree, and families of the kids in the school mariachi and ballet folklorico groups that participated in the performance. The Tucson Symphony had little impact as a backup band for the mariachis, and its couple of solo numbers—Chabrier’s España and Moncayo’s Huapango—didn’t represent its normal Beethoven-centered programming. There’s no way a special event like this will recruit a new Hispanic audience for the TSO’s regular fare.
    Next season, the Catalina Chamber Orchestra is engaging guest conductor Enrique Bátiz in an effort to draw a Hispanic audience. Even if Bátiz does lure some curious Latinos, I’m not sure that this one-shot deal will have any lasting audience-building effect. After all, from its inception the Catalina Chamber Orchestra has been led by a Latin-American conductor, Enrique Lasansky, so putting a Hispanic role model on the podium doesn’t seem to be what it takes to get Latinos into the audience.

tucson-arts,

BULLETIN: SKY NOT FALLING

    Allan Kozinn of the New York Times is fed up with premature reports of the death of classical music:

    Moaning about the state of classical music has itself become an industry. But as pervasive as the conventional wisdom is, much of it is based on sketchy data incorrectly interpreted. Were things better in the old days? Has American culture given up on classical music?
    The numbers tell a very different story: for all the hand-wringing, there is immensely more classical music on offer now, both in concerts and on recordings than there was in what nostalgists think of as the golden era of classics in America.
    Aside from the missing comma in that last sentence (what's wrong with the NYT's fabled copy editors?), Kozinn marshals some heartining evidence. A bit of it, though, probably won't withstand close scrutiny.
    "On Apple's iTunes, which sold a billion tracks in its first three years, classical music reportedly accounts for 12 percent of sales, four times its share of the CD market," he writes. Well, iTunes' idea of "classical" includes a lot of crossover crud, and its "top classical downloads" are usually dominated by Andrea Boccelli. If the crossover material were dumped into its own category, where it belongs, I suspect the iTunes classical sales figures would be far less encouraging.
    Later: "The American Symphony Orchestra League puts the number of orchestras in the United States at 1,800 (350 of them professional). The 1,800 ensembles give about 36,000 concerts a year, 30 percent more than in 1994. And in the most recent season for which the league has published figures, 2003-4, orchestras reported an 8 percent increase in operating revenues against a 7 percent increase in expenses, with deficits dropping to 1.1 percent from 2.7 percent of their annual budgets from the previous season."
    Well, I'd like to see the numbers of concerts adjusted to exclude the growth of pops programs, which have almost nothing to do with classical music anymore, and I'd also like to be sure the numbers don't include little hour-long string-quartet concerts for children sponsored by your local orchestra; these are important, but they inflate the figures if what we're really talking about are traditional full-length concerts of classical music.
    Also, using a nationwide budget figure is very misleading. When you look at orchestras community by community, some are doing very well, others are tanking, and a lot are struggling with issues peculiar to their own markets. Furthermore, any deficit is bad for an arts organization. A deficit compromises an organization's programming, employee security and standing in the community. So deficits are down from 2.7 percent to 1.1 percent? Well, that's like being told you have cancer in only one lung, not both. You still have cancer.
    Otherwise, Kozinn makes several interesting points, although his essay is, of course, New York-centric and does not fully reflect the realities in the rest of the country.

Classical Music,

FIRST BASS

    When bassist François Rabbath was in Tucson a few months ago, I snagged him for a profile that now appears in Strings magazine:

    “It’s a dream to write music for him because there’s virtually nothing he can’t do,” says composer and bassist Frank Proto.
    “He has a Middle Eastern approach to Western music, which I find refreshing,” says University of Arizona bass professor Patrick Neher. “It’s very emotional. He can really jerk your tears like no one. He approaches all music that way. He loves every note, and he projects that love into what he does.”
    They’re talking about François Rabbath, the closest thing to a true guru the double-bass world has yet produced. Musicians make pilgrimages to his home in Paris or invite him to workshops in North America to learn the unorthodox practices that allow Rabbath to be a player of deep expression and astonishing technique, even at age 75.
    Rabbath understands the appeal of his life story—the self-taught bassist from Beirut traveled to France, decided he had little to learn from the Paris Conservatory, and became a sideman for the likes of Charles Aznavour, then a member of the Paris Opera Orchestra, a composer of genre-melding music, and a performer who can master the most difficult new scores in days. He’ll happily settle back and recount all this, but before long it’s clear that he’d rather talk about music itself, and the people who play it.
    You’ll find the rest of the story here.

Classical Music,

BACK BURNER

    Forget theater as a gourmet meal. Here’s a play about a would-be cooking-show host that’s more like a TV dinner:

    Playwright Jim Brochu became a good pal of Lucille Ball in her last years, and it's easy to see why they got along so well. Brochu's Cookin' With Gus, now playing at Invisible Theatre, could double as an episode of I Love Lucy.
    This is a good thing if you're in the mood for sheer frivolity, but not so great if you want your comedy to be driven by character rather than situation.
    You can read the rest of my review here.

tucson-arts,

EMPANELED

    Yesterday I went to Phoenix to serve on an Arizona Commission on the Arts panel evaluating grant applications from music organizations. The commission staff seemed pleased with how well we panelists worked together; most of us had done our homework, and we made our way through the 40 applications thoroughly but efficiently, dispatching them in about three and a half hours, not counting the lunch break.
    We were warned not to “rewrite” the grant applications, judging the organizations by what we thought they should be proposing rather than what they actually requested funding for. Not every panelist complied. One among us frequently suggested that the organization’s educational component should be more extensive, even if the funding request had nothing to do with educational programs. Education is a wonderful thing, but really, that’s not the core mission of many arts producers or presenters, and funding for a group’s main programming shouldn’t hinge on such extras. Fortunately, the panelist merely presented those pro-education comments as gentle encouragement, and didn’t penalize anyone for perceived lapses.
    In the beginning, I was concerned that another panelist’s praise for one applicant’s “audience diversity” signaled that a lack of diversity would count against other groups. Welcoming a broad spectrum of people into the arts is what most of us hope to do, but we can’t impose “diversity” on groups serving homogenous communities. So a music presenter in Sun City is patronized almost exclusively by elderly white people, and elderly white people constitute its board of directors; well, that’s who lives in Sun City. Before the group’s audience and board can be diversified, we’ll need somehow to move younger and browner people into Sun City, and it’s not up to an arts presenter to re-engineer community demographics.
    Again, that turned out not to be the idée fixe I’d feared. All in all, we were pretty kindly disposed to most of the applicants. That wasn’t true of panels judging certain other categories; one person told me that her panel had given very low marks to fully one-third of its applicants.

tucson-arts,

About Cue Sheet

James Reel's cranky consideration of the fine arts and public radio in Tucson and beyond.