Evening Entertainment

‘Multifaceted musician’ Ben Folds to bring pop, rock and orchestral tones to virtual Chautauqua performance


This year has given Ben Folds plenty to sing about. 

Folds, American singer-songwriter, recorded his latest single “2020” in Sydney, Australia, where he has been since early March. Folds was in the middle of an Australian orchestral tour when COVID-19 reached the continent. 

In just under two-and-a-half minutes, Folds put the events of the year to a tune. 

“Don’t it seem like decades ago / Back in 2019 / Back when life was slow,” he sings on the track released on June 25. “We’re just halfway done / 2020, hey are we having fun? / How many years will we try to cram into one?”

Folds, musician, composer and record producer, will perform “An Evening with Ben Folds” at 5 p.m. EDT Friday, July 10, on CHQ Assembly’s Video Platform

“We seem to be currently reliving and cramming a number of historically tumultuous years into one,” Folds told Rolling Stone. “For a moment it was all about the 1918 pandemic. Then we began seeing hints of the Great Depression before flipping the calendar forward to the Civil Rights protests of the Sixties. Running beneath this is the feeling that we’re in the Cold War, while seeing elements that brought us to the Civil War rearing their head, making us wonder if we’ve learned a damn thing at all.”

Since the release of his first album in 1995, Folds has become the musical Everyman. He has released pop and alternative rock albums with his band, Ben Folds Five, multiple solo albums, a classical piano concerto and collaborations with artists ranging from Regina Spektor to “Weird Al” Yankovic. 

He has many roles outside of music, but even within music, he has a band, he tours with other musicians and he’s also one of the most popular performers with orchestras right now. He is just so versatile in everything that he does.”

But wait, there’s more. 

He is also an author, photographer, a judge on NBC’s a capella show “The Sing-Off,” the first-ever artistic adviser of the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center and an advocate for arts education and music therapy, serving on the distinguished Artist Committee of Americans for the Arts, and as chairman of the national ArtsVote 2020 initiative.

Vice President of Performing and Visual Arts Deborah Sunya Moore gave his versatility the benefit of the doubt, telling Folds he can play “whatever he wants” in his virtual Chautauqua performance.

“I have always been so interested in him because he is such a multifaceted artist,” Moore said. “He has many roles outside of music, but even within music, he has a band, he tours with other musicians and he’s also one of the most popular performers with orchestras right now. He is just so versatile in everything that he does.”

Folds started his orchestral run after the release of his latest album in 2015, So There, which features eight chamber rock songs with the Brooklyn-based orchestra yMusic, as well as Folds’ “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra,” performed by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. It reached No. 1 on both the Billboard classical and classical crossover charts. 

In 2016, Folds told the Aquarian the album was his way of changing his sound without losing his voice.

“If someone becomes famous for something that they do, they have command over that,” Folds said. “Then it comes to writing a classical piece, and they start to imitate Chopin, or they imitate whomever, and they suddenly lose their own voice. I think my audience recognizes that they can hear all my melodies in the piece, so it does have my voice in it.”

After his performance, Moore will host a 20-minute Q-and-A where audience members can submit questions for Folds at, or on Twitter using #CHQ2020.

This program was made possible by The Watters Family.

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis to Present Second-Ever Performance of ‘Ever Fonky Lowdown’

Music Director Wynton Marsalis, center, plays the trumpet alongside the combined Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in playing the National Anthem before playing Marsalis’, “The Jungle,” during the concert on Tuesday, Aug 20, 2019 in the Amphitheater. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER



To Wynton Marsalis, playing jazz is like playing basketball: Anyone can put the ball through the net if they work at it, the same way anyone can solo over a blues progression so long as they practice their scales.

These pursuits don’t belong to any single person or group; the only barriers to entry are the ones people put on themselves.

“You say, ‘Hey, man, can I play with y’all?’ ” said Marsalis, an American trumpeter, composer, educator and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. “You see people with a ball standing around, but you don’t know them. But you want to play. So you ask them if you can, and after you play, they try to assess: Can you play?”

Marsalis’ comparison of an art form to a game is one he returns to in his full-length composition, “The Ever Fonky Lowdown,” which had its world premiere at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2018.

At 8:15 p.m. Thursday, August 22 in the Amphitheater, Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will perform “Ever Fonky” for the second time ever, as part of the Week Nine theme “Exploring Race and Culture in America with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center.”

“(‘Ever Fonky’) features four soloists and a spoken word portion by Wendell Pierce, the actor,” said Damien Sneed, a pianist, organist and conductor who worked with Marsalis on the piece. “It has three female soloists: Camille Thurman, a young singer named Ashley Pezzotti and Christie Dashiell, who was featured on the NBC television show, ‘The Sing-Off.’ ”

Pierce will play a character named Mr. Game, a musical master of ceremonies and self-described hustler, who serves as one of the vehicles for Marsalis’ critiques on culture and society.

While not performing in the piece himself, Sneed said he has helped Marsalis as a coach for the “Ever Fonky” vocalists.

“It’s very interesting because the fourth soloist is the guitarist, Doug Wamble,” Sneed said. “So he’ll be singing some of the songs, like ‘I Wants My Ice Cream.’ (‘Ever Fonky’) deals with a lot of issues that people don’t talk about, such as not liking people who are fat or black or Jewish. The words in the libretto could be considered politically incorrect.”

The work is a continuation of a decades-long tradition by Marsalis to compose pieces that deal with issues like race, democracy and social consciousness.

“Each time it’s a different configuration or theme,” Marsalis said. “ ‘The Ever Fonky Lowdown’ uses an abstract version of the language from my album Black Codes. It’s a kind of funk baseline, something that uses funk principles, with really abstract melodic language on top of it.”

Marsalis said he looks to his past compositions, like his Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz oratorio Blood on the Fields, in order to find inspiration for his newer works.

A major theme in “Ever Fonky” is the rejection of pinning all of society’s ills on one group or person.

“Why does (President Donald Trump) come to make the whole trajectory of a nation different?” Marsalis asked. “We were better before him. All the problems we see — the housing problem, the segregation of our schools, Bush’s technological eavesdropping, which Obama maintained — they don’t have anything to do with Trump.”

Marsalis said “Ever Fonky” — which will also feature dancers Ian Klein, James Cabrera and Muata Langley — is highly complex.

“It’s by design that it’s like that,” he said. “I have a bunch of postcards that I put the (opera) on, like 70 of them. It’s still a little long, but I don’t know what to cut. I went through it time after time — I was looking at the chords last night. Even the notes I have for it are extensive.”

Marsalis said he “doesn’t know if (Chautauquans) will learn anything” from “Ever Fonky,” but that he’d like to provoke them to “think that we have to participate in the future of our country.”

“It’s going to cost us,” he said. “It won’t be free. It won’t just be getting online. It’s going to cost something.”

Award-Winning Latin Pop Songstress Gina Chavez to Bring Bilingual, Upbeat Sounds to Amphitheater


Gina Chavez always knew she was meant to perform; she has always loved singing, and even at age 5 would toddle up to strangers in restaurants and tell them jokes she’d heard from her dad. What she never expected, though, is how much of an impact she would have on people all over the world.

At 8:15 p.m. Monday, August 19 in the Amphitheater, Chavez will bring her Latin-inspired, bilingual, upbeat music to the Chautauqua stage.

“Sonically, we are pretty varied,” said Chavez, a 10-time Austin Music Award winner. “Sound-wise, we do everything from introspective songwriting to indie pop to Latin dance band, and we like to take audiences on a journey — and a journey that takes you from your head to your heart to your hips, and everything in between.”

Chavez has been on plenty of journeys herself, having toured to 14 different countries and all across the United States. As someone who is half-Mexican and a self-described “Catholic lesbian from Texas singing in both English and Spanish,” Chavez has sometimes been wary about how she will be received when she tours, given the charged state of the modern political climate. However, whether she sings and plays in a big city or a small town, she has found people everywhere who relate to her, her story and how she is openly herself.

She fondly recalls, for example, a married couple who told her they were the only lesbians for the next 50 miles, and a boy who had written on his phone, too nervous to even say it aloud, “I’m gay, too.”

“I’ve been so heartened … to play these shows and to have people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you,’ ” Chavez said. “ ‘Thank you for bringing diversity to our community, thank you for sharing who you are, thank you for giving us a place to be different.’ ”

A native of Austin, Texas, Chavez grew up not knowing much about her Mexican heritage, and Spanish was not her first language. It was not until a study abroad trip to Argentina that she began to take a deeper interest in Latin music and began performing it. When she started singing in Spanish, she found that it was like unlocking another part of herself.

“Sometimes I love singing in Spanish because … it’s almost like, more than thinking about what I’m saying, I think I’m feeling it — I’m emoting it,” Chavez said. “There’s something just so much more visceral about the Spanish language.”

There are many different types of Latin music — Chavez’s style is a fusion of many, with an especially strong Afro-Cuban influence.

“There’s something about (it) that makes you want to throw everything aside and join people dancing, and just let loose a little bit,” Chavez said.

Chavez will perform at Chautauqua during a week themed “Exploring Race and Culture with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center.” The messages in Chavez’s music speak to this theme a great deal — especially in that Chavez finds the differences between races and cultures to be not so different after all. Everywhere she has traveled, people have been much the same on the most basic levels: the same desires, the same needs, the same struggles.

“We’re struggling so much right now with ‘different,’ ” Chavez said. “We’re all the same in our hearts, where it matters. People are people everywhere.”

In an America where the immigration debate, in particular, still rages on, Chavez finds this message to be more relevant than ever.

“On stage, I don’t get up and preach, but I do want to spread a message that you being able to be you matters, just as it matters for your neighbor to be able to be him or herself,” Chavez said.

Most importantly, Chavez hopes the Chautauquans will have a good time; she puts her all into every concert she does, whether the house is packed or the audience is small, and hopes the experience she and her band create is a fun one. Chavez aims to bring light to audience members’ hearts, and perhaps give them a slightly different way to look at the world.

“The best thing we can do for the world is live our hearts and be human to each other,” she said. “Music, for me, is a way to reach people. Music is a vehicle, and it’s one of the most important vehicles we have.”

West Coast Folk-Rock Band Dawes Returns to Amphitheater


When the members of folk rock group Dawes set out on their current tour, “An Evening With Dawes: Passwords Tour,” they had the perfect opening act in mind: themselves.

It’s not an exaggeration — the band performs two complete sets a night with no opening act for a maximum-Dawes evening. Chautauquans can catch “An Evening with Dawes” at 8:15 p.m. Friday, August 16 in the Amphitheater.

The band currently consists of singer and guitarist Taylor Goldsmith; his brother, drummer Griffin Goldsmith; bassist Wylie Gelber; and keyboardist Lee Pardini.

Gelber said the decision to tour solo had a lot to do with a desire to do the group’s extensive six-album discography justice.

“Just for the sake of keeping it interesting for us and people at the show, we like to play weirder, deep cuts off each record,” Gelber said. “As we added records (to) our own catalog, it became harder and harder to represent all the songs we wanted to play and be able to mix it up every night and still play the songs we knew people definitely wanted to hear. … You don’t want to extend (the set) too long if people have to sit through an opening band, … so we decided to try it without an opener and just do a two-set thing where we can really stretch out.”

Gelber has enjoyed the opportunity to perform new sets every night featuring songs from all of the band’s eras.

“It always kind of keeps me on my toes,” he said. “I can breathe new life into songs that otherwise I might get sick of playing. When we sprinkle them in randomly, they get fun again.”

Dawes formed in Southern California, and its West Coast roots are evident in the group’s sound. In a 2018 NPR Music review of its most recent album, Passwords, writer Stephen Thompson described Dawes as specializing in “smooth and ingratiating California folk-rock that never bothers to hide its big, beating, bleeding heart.”

Passwords, which came out in June 2018, explores the national political and social divisions of the last few years.

“We’re living in such a unique moment in history,” Taylor Goldsmith, the group’s songwriter, said in a recent press release from Dawes’ management, Q Prime. “Many of these songs are an attempt to come to terms with the modern world, while always trying to consider both sides of the story.”

Looking back at the 10 years that have passed since the band formed and released its debut album, North Hills, Gelber said that although their sound has progressed, the first record still holds up.

“We played a set at Newport (Folk Festival) a couple weeks ago and it was just that record only and … we were like, ‘Wow, that record made an OK set,’ and we realized, that was our set for a couple years — those were the only songs we had,” he said. “So, it was fun to do that again and realize, ‘Oh yeah, that still sounds pretty good.’ ”

Gelber is excited for Dawes to return to the Amp for the first time since 2011, when the band opened for Alison Krauss.

“The space will definitely determine the setlist,” he said. “We try to treat each show like its own thing.”

Life on the road is far from glamorous, so Gelber said he and the rest of the band spend most of their time looking forward to their shows.

“The time we get on stage every night is our most enjoyable time of the day,” he said. “Most of your life on tour is just kind of sitting around in different rooms or on the tour bus. … You’re just sitting in a parking lot in Cincinnati being like, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ But every show day is a good day.”

Chautauqua Opera & CSO to Perform Numbers from Great American Songbook in Opera Pops Concert

Chautauqua Opera Company Young Artists close their season with a pops concert Saturday, August 4, 2018 in the Amphitheater. RILEY ROBINSON/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In the final Chautauqua Opera Company performance of the season, the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the Chautauqua Opera Young Artists will join forces to perform beloved musical numbers — and a world premiere.

At 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater, the Young Artists will be joined by the CSO, led by guest conductor Stuart Chafetz, in the annual Opera Pops concert.

The concert will feature songs from well-known musicals like Man of La Mancha’s “The Impossible Dream” and Rent’s “Seasons of Love.” Also included are some less familiar musical numbers like “What more do I need?” from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Saturday Night and “Being alive” from another Sondheim musical, Company. The concert will begin with a medley of songs from French musical composer Michel Legrand.

Finally, the singers and musicians will give the world premiere of “When I’m away from you” by Gilda Lyons, Chautauqua Opera’s composer-in-residence, which will be performed by Young Artist Lauren Yokabaskas, soprano.

This eclectic blend of popular music, Chafetz said, will come to life on the shared stage.

“When the orchestra is involved, it adds a whole new dimension,” Chafetz said. “It becomes that much more intense for everybody — when you have the whole Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra behind you while singing these pops Broadway standards, it just adds so much more beautiful collaboration.”

Chafetz, known for his dynamic performances at the conductor’s podium, is the principal pops conductor of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. As a CSO timpanist and frequent guest conductor for pops concerts, he said he has a passion for popular music.

“When you hear music that you know and love, it adds that much more,” he said. “It puts smiles on people’s faces and brings back memories.”

For Chafetz, popular music brings more than smiles — he said it makes classical forms like opera and symphony accessible to a broad audience.

“To me, it’s so much fun and so relatable to the audience,” Chafetz said. “I just feel so much commitment to popular music and getting people excited about coming to the symphony orchestra who normally wouldn’t come. That has been a real passion of mine, to engage people that wouldn’t ordinarily come.”

Chafetz, the CSO and the Opera Young Artists have each been rehearsing for the collaborative concert this past week. Even in rehearsals, Chafetz said, the performances are powerful.

“When the entire opera department is singing, there’s nothing like it,” Chafetz said. “We had rehearsal … and I was amazed at the sheer volume and classical training. It’s just that much more in-tune, that much more projection. It just sounds so good.”

The Young Artists began rehearsing the music this week with stage director Andy Gale and choreographer Teddy Kern. Gale said the Young Artists worked diligently to prepare the music throughout the season, prior to working with himself and Kern.

“The singers have been coached in the repertoire while they are doing hundreds of other things, like art song recitals and three operas,” Gale said. “And then we come in and get to know them and put it on its feet.”

While the Young Artists are not in full costumes and makeup, they work on staging and movements. Kern said for some songs, the story requires dance and specific movements.

“Andy and I collaborate to prepare where the dancing movement will go,” Kern said.

This concert is in conjunction with Week Seven’s theme — “Grace: A Celebration of Extraordinary Gifts.” Gale said the concert program would be an excellent way to transition from Week Six to Week Seven.   

“We looked at that, and we liked thinking about grace,” Gale said. “We thought that was an interesting title that would allow us some flexibility with the song choices.”

He said the event involves teamwork from both Chautauqua Opera and the CSO.

“It is, by very definition, a collaborative event,” Gale said. “And we are a good team.”

‘Two banjos and a Voice’: Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn Return to Chautauqua


Béla Fleck maintains there’s a distinct difference between being active in music and being “all fired up.” The guitar sparked his interest, “but when I got my banjo, I got all fired up,” Fleck said.

Dubbed the “king and queen of banjo” by Paste magazine in 2015, Fleck and Abigail Washburn return to Chautauqua at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater, as part of the husband-and-wife duo’s two-week summer tour of the northeastern United States. All net proceeds from merchandise sales at tonight’s concert will benefit Chautauqua Institution Arts Education programs.

Fleck last performed at the Institution in 2017, co-headlining an Amp performance with his band, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones and the Chick Corea Elektric Band. And in 2015, Fleck and Washburn shared the Amp stage with the Punch Brothers. 

“Béla and I definitely have a bond, other than our marriage, that probably even started with the banjo and our love for it,” Washburn said. “We come from very different styles of playing the banjo, but one thing we decided right at the beginning when we started making our first record together, six years ago now, we decided that the banjo is enough, that we both are in love with the way the banjo sounds and that we want to share that with the world.”

The Fleck and Washburn Friday concert follows Thursday evening’s Our Native Daughters performance to create “a perfect weekend that blends a little folk, bluegrass and rock together,” said Deborah Sunya Moore, Chautauqua’s vice president of performing and visual arts. 

Though Our Native Daughters members — Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell — are not scheduled to perform with Fleck and Washburn tonight, Washburn said she and Fleck share a deep history with Giddens, who is a “dear friend,” and have built connections with Kiah, McCalla and Russell as well. During Washburn’s years with Uncle Earl and Giddens’ time with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the two would often find themselves in the same places. Similarly, Fleck said the Flecktones would often tour with the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

“Rhiannon and I keep threatening to do something together,” Washburn said. “I know it will happen someday, and it’ll be a neat thing.”

Washburn described her and Fleck’s 2015 Chautauqua performance as a “dream gig,” and said she considers tonight’s performance a highlight of their tour. The duo will perform selections from their 2014 debut album, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn, their 2017 record, Echo in the Valley, as well as pieces that may be unfamiliar to the Chautauqua audience.

“I find it deeply fulfilling and meaningful that I get to look at the world around me and feel the things inside of me that have made me who I am,” Washburn said. “Then I can piece it all together — in one way or another — and sew these tapestries of sound that I get to share with people. Those tapestries help us understand each other and connect and process the world that we live in and bring, hopefully, more beauty to how we live our days.”

Such “tapestries of sound” are woven by the duo’s richly blended playing — a combination of Washburn’s African clawhammer style of banjo playing and Fleck’s more contemporary pluck.

“We had to figure out right away how we were going to make the sound of two banjos and a voice enough,” Washburn said.

In all professional endeavors — whether creating music with Washburn, the Flecktones, The Sparrow Quartet or New Grass Revival — Fleck said he tries to be as honest in his music as he can.

“It’s not about how I can get as many marbles out of the game before people stop coming to the shows,” Fleck said. “It’s about presenting an honest picture of my musical perception of the world and what I can do with it, what I can create with it.”

For the banjo skeptic, Washburn said its sound is “warm and intimate,” and Fleck concurred.

“If you’re afraid of the banjo, and you’re not sure you’ll like it, give it a shot,” Fleck said. “If you don’t like this show, then you don’t ever have to go to another banjo show again.”

Our Native Daughters to Bring Message of Hope and Remembrance to the Amphitheater


The first time Amythyst Kiah heard a black person playing the banjo, she was listening to Rhiannon Giddens perform with her band, Carolina Chocolate Drops.

“That was my first exposure,” Kiah said. “(I) found out, ‘Wow, there was a whole tradition of this.’ ”

Ten years after picking up the instrument, Kiah joins Giddens on tour as one-fourth of the Americana folk group, Our Native Daughters.

“It’s a huge deal because this is a person I looked up to,” Kiah said. “To have been following her career for so long and to actually work with (her) has been pretty amazing.”

Our Native Daughters will perform at 8:15 p.m. Thursday, July 25 in the Amphitheater. They will play songs from their debut album, Songs of Our Native Daughters.

The quartet formed in 2018, when Giddens invited Kiah, Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla — all banjo-playing, multi-instrumentalist women of color with backgrounds in blues and folk — to collaborate on the record.

Songs was released in February, by Smithsonian Folkways. Giddens produced the 13-track album with American fiddle and banjo player Dirk Powell.

The album explores themes of inherited trauma and the legacy of slavery in North America, specifically from the perspectives of black women.

Songs covers the peril of the transatlantic slave trade, working through that struggle of coming out of bondage and then … no longer being in chains (but) still having this crushing societal oppression because of your ancestral past,” Kiah said.

Kiah said Songs also carries a message of “hope for the future.”

“(It’s about) seeing … that black people can overcome some of these societal pressures and expectations, and also seeing other people rallying who want equality for all,” she said. “It will be an emotional rollercoaster to say the least — for everyone involved.”

The banjo is featured prominently on the album. Kiah said another central theme of the project is reframing popular conceptions about the instrument.

“The banjo has been synonymous with bluegrass music, with white (musicians), and it’s associated with a certain kind of music and a certain demographic,” she said. “(But) its roots are spread out more firmly than that.”

She said her favorite part of creating Songs was collaborating with three other musicians who could relate to her experience as a woman of color in the Americana music industry.

“To sit down and have that moment of, ‘I 100% understand your experience and what you’ve gone through,’ … is priceless,” Kiah said. “And it’s something that I think a lot of (white) people in Americana probably take for granted.”

Our Native Daughters’ tour around the East Coast, which started Tuesday, is the first time all four members have performed together since recording the album last year.

“We can finally have that live face-to-face engagement with the audience, and really see and feel their response as we go through the songs,” Kiah said. “That’s really exciting for me to be able to share that.”

She hopes Songs of Our Native Daughters can be a vehicle for conversations about racism and inequality in 21st-century America.

“We have a hard time talking about racial issues because people either get so upset they don’t want to talk about it, or people get defensive,” Kiah said. “So through our music we’re hoping the conversation can be had, because … that’s going to be the only way to move forward.”

‘This American Life’ Host Ira Glass Shares Life Lessons on Powerful Storytelling



Great stories happen to those who can tell them. With a sense of humility and some self-deprecating humor, Ira Glass does not consider himself one of those people.

Glass, creator and host of NPR’s “This American Life,” spoke to his storytelling process with a mix of audio and visuals at 8:15 p.m. Saturday, July 20 in the Amphitheater. Under Glass’ editorial direction, “This American Life” has won the highest honors for broadcasting and journalistic excellence, including six Peabody awards.

We all know people who anything happens to them and they tell you a great story,” Glass said. “I am not one of those people at all.”

Glass started at NPR as a 19-year-old intern and never looked back — except on Saturday to reflect on seven lessons he’s learned over the years. They’re not the only seven, nor are they the most important. Some were “hard fought knowledge,” others, just for fun. All were worthy of sharing.

His first lesson was “how to tell a story,” where Glass argued it’s not always the content of a story that matters — with a strong narrative and forward motion, banal events can become compelling tales.

“At the heart of what we’re doing is narratives; we’re telling stories,” he said. “In fact, the things that made us different from other public radio shows is that we were doing journalism, but the journalism was all narrative; we were telling stories about people where things unfold.”

Glass played the first example from “This American Life,” a story told by the mom of a 13-year-old girl who loved watching “Saturday Night Live,” which inspired her to want to dress up like Hillary Clinton for Halloween — the red blazer, make-up and all.

After seeing her daughter in make-up, the mom said, “Wow, you look so much better.”

Immediately understanding her words’ repercussions, the mom feared for the worst — everything from an initial meltdown to long-term therapy. Luckily, the outcome was none of the above. Her daughter simply replied, “I don’t think you’re supposed to say something like that to me.”

The story was complete at that point, but complete isn’t enough for radio.

“That’s really not enough if you want the story to be satisfying,” Glass said. “Somebody has to have a thought about what the thought means, some idea about what the story is. The thought doesn’t have to be the most profound idea in the world, it just has to be kind of interesting.”

Glass followed up with the teenage daughter in a phone interview to see if her mom’s comment left any permanent damage. She said although she doesn’t consider it a big deal, she would definitely use it against her mom as leverage, if needed.

Glass is not claiming this method is his own invention. When it comes to telling good stories, Glass is comforted to know that he and Jesus had the same set-up.

To journalists who feel like they get nothing out of interviewing kids, Glass said they are just asking the wrong questions. For his second lesson, Glass described the experience of interviewing Joseph “Joe No Love” Kendrick, a 14-year-old who refused to believe in love because he witnessed the downfall of one too many middle school relationships.

I really don’t think it would be worth all of the pain,” Joe said in a recording of “This American Life.” “Some people commit suicide over it, and I just don’t think that’s a good thing to get caught up in.

Glass then shared a video of interviews with some of Kendrick’s classmates. Just asking the students about their thoughts on love resulted in hours of unedited content.

“They just poured out their hearts; which I have to say points to why it is so much easier to interview kids than adults, why it’s actually better if you interview kids than adults,” Glass said. “With adults, it takes much longer to get to that point. Adults, we are guarded, we learn to be guarded, where as kids, they’ll say what they think.”

Children have a sense of urgency that can create a story out of nothing, Glass said.

“Kids are constantly getting into situations where they have this feeling of ‘OK, I’m doing this for the very first time and what happens now is going to affect who I am for the rest of my life,’ ” he said. “The stakes in their lives are just very, very high.”

Glass caught up with Joe 10 years later. With a girlfriend and a new outlook on life and love, the only thing Joe agrees with his younger self on is that “suicide is not a good thing to get caught up in.”

His next lesson, “How do you know if your kid will grow up to be a mascot?” was self-explanatory. If a child pretends to be a dog to the extreme that Navey Baker did growing up, there’s a good chance they will grow up to be a professional sports mascot. A really good one.

For his fourth lesson, Glass said “it’s normal to be bad before you’re good.”

When Glass started as an NPR intern in 1978, he was intimidated by his superiors’ skills.

“I remember thinking these people had some magic power that I didn’t have,” he said. “It was like they were on the other side of some wall that I was never going to get across. I just had no idea how you could get from where I was — incompetent — to where they were, which was grossly competent.”

Glass played a kitschy clip from his early years at NPR. He visited an Oreo production factory, and for the first time, he thought he nailed a story. Audio of his timid, 20-something self came over the Amp speakers, which ran through his visit in a condensed, lackluster fashion — something he now seamlessly describes in vivid detail.

“I bring this up to say it’s normal to be bad before you’re good,” he said. “I wish somebody had told me that. I felt terrible for years. All you can do is just make a lot of work. You have to be disciplined, you have to put yourself on a schedule, you have to make work regularly, you have to show it to people, get their reactions and think about their reactions.”

To improve, Glass paid NPR reporters $50 to read his work and tell him what he was doing wrong.

“There are things I learned, through that, that I continue to do to this day,” he said. “It was so much cheaper than grad school.”

For the record, he is still appalled some of the reporters actually took his money.

For the fifth lesson, Glass said his motto is “failure is success.”

According to him, the process of choosing stories and creating content for “This American Life” is utter “chaos.”

“We consider tons of stuff, it’s a mix of pitches from journalists and random people write us,” he said. “I would say most of the best things we do come when someone on staff gets obsessed with something and wants to know everything about it.”

Glass is often asked how he gets people to say such personal things on-air, and the truth is, most of the time, he doesn’t.

“Most stories we try die in the process; it’s inefficient by design,” he said. “We run thing after thing after thing waiting for lightning to strike and because we come out every week, we need lightning to strike every week. The fact is, lightning is not going to hit you unless you spend a lot of time in the rain.”

But because quotes are the most important element of any radio story, Glass keeps looking.

“In a radio piece, you are peculiarly dependent on the quotes,” he said. “In a print piece, you don’t need that, but in a radio piece, you really need the person to be able to talk about what happened to them and ideally, with feeling, because a story is an engine for feeling.”

In his next lesson, “amuse yourself,” Glass said the lack of humor in news stories is a “failure of craft.”

Sometimes a story delivers a laugh on a silver platter, like when a hotel clerk’s response to Beto O’Rourke running for president was none other than “Yas queen.” Other times it’s folded in the narrative, such as when one of Glass’ reporters, Chana Joffe-Walt, claimed a lawyer spoke in such a way one could “hear his bow tie through his voicemail.”

“Funny moments make a story more interesting, they keep you tuned in and also, if you travel the world, you’ll notice even in very sad and dark situations, weird, funny and inspiring things happen,” he said. “What it is doing is reaffirming that the world is a place where surprise and pleasure are possible — it makes things hopeful.”

In his final lesson, Glass candidly discussed the state of news media and the threat of the misleading, non-factual information plaguing the internet.

The radio example he played started with a political fight about immigration in Homer, Alaska, right after the 2016 presidential election. Liberals on the city council proposed a resolution that would welcome immigrants to Homer, including undocumented immigrants and Muslims, but Trump supporters on the city council took it as a direct threat.

“It became the most bitter political fight anyone in the town could remember,” Glass said. “It turned people against each other in a very ugly way. It led to a recall election. They had their own email scandal.”

Everyone in Homer took sides, except for 27-year-old Ben Tyrer. Before the disagreement, Tyrer had no interest in the news, so when he tried to educate himself on the immigration issues taking over his town, he found himself overwhelmed.

“His understanding was that publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post had a bad rap, so he didn’t really spend too much time there,” Glass said. “He would go to a site like the BBC, but worried maybe they were giving him a liberal bend. So then he’d go to a site like this conservative Canadian one he found, ‘The Rebel,’ but he knew he couldn’t fully trust that either.”

Tyrer read about “no-go” zones in France — neighborhoods where Muslims don’t allow non-Muslims — and about crime waves sweeping Germany and France due to Muslim refugees.

And after a week of this, Tyrer came to his conclusion: Allowing immigrants into Homer was too dangerous. However, thanks to Glass’ reporter, Brian Reed, Tyrer found out a majority of the stories he read were either exaggerated or completely false.

The no-go zones in France? They didn’t exist. Other than the crime of crossing the border or overstaying a visa, there was also no evidence of an increase in crime by immigrants in Germany in 2015.

“It had never hit me so starkly,” Glass said. “We all know that there is a massive machine out there that is churning out non-factual stories, but at the fact-based media where I work, we don’t even bother to check those out because there are so many of them and so they just stand there, uncorrected.”

Glass said “alarmed” doesn’t begin to capture how much the fake-news epidemic worries him, but feels people need to stop attributing the problem to the current administration.

“This is a seismic moment in our country that we are living through,” he said. “President Trump, like President Obama, is going to be out of the White House someday. As a non-partisan journalist, I have no position on that at all, but this information ecosystem I’m talking about, this will be around for the rest of our lives.”

The culprits of the misinformation see fake news as an information war. And the lesson, according to Glass, is that it’s time journalists did, too.

“We need to treat this as a war,” he said. “We need to flood the zone with money and new ideas about how to reach people and what to reach them with, and with new, original content that is targeting an audience that is not buying fact-based information right now. I believe this is a moment that requires a strategy that is yet to be inflicted by a team that has not yet picked up arms.”

But there’s good news. Television has “never been better.”

You can’t even watch all the stuff your friends tell you to watch,” Glass said. “Television is so good. If the people who ran television ran our climate policy, it would be fixed. If the people who ran ‘Fleabag’ were running our Iran policy, they would have denuclearized eight years ago. I’m sure of it.”

Award-Winning Storyteller Ira Glass to Speak on Creative Process

Ira Glass

Ira Glass has made storytelling his life for the last 20-odd years — and this weekend, he will speak on the storytelling process at Chautauqua.

Glass will speak at 8:15 p.m. Saturday, July 20 in the Amphitheater. His talk, “Seven Things I’ve Learned,” will share lessons from his life and career — anecdotes on creativity, passion, failure and success. He plans to use audio clips, music and video to walk the audience through his storytelling process.

Glass is the creator, producer and host of “This American Life,” a weekly radio show and podcast with over 2.2 million listeners. Since he created the show in 1995, Glass has hosted nearly 700 episodes. The episodes focus on nonfiction storytelling, as well as essays, short fiction, found footage and whatever else demonstrates the facets of “American Life.”

Stories are everywhere, Glass said, but it takes great determination to tell those stories in an engaging way.

“It’s hard to make something that’s interesting,” Glass told The A.V. Club in 2003. “It’s really, really hard. … It’s like a law of nature, a law of aerodynamics, that anything that’s written or anything that’s created wants to be mediocre. The natural state of all writing is mediocrity. … So what it takes to make anything more than mediocre is such an act of will.”

But even if mediocrity is the natural state of writing, Glass told A.V., the natural state of the world is excellence — a planet of stories waiting to be told.

We live in a world where joy and empathy and pleasure are all around us, there for the noticing,” Glass wrote in his 2007 anthology, The New Kings of Nonfiction.

At roughly 60 minutes each, episodes of “This American Life” are longer than many of the “binge-worthy” media  — 30-minute Netflix shows, 5-minute YouTube videos, and 280-character Tweets. Glass said in an interview with The Buffalo News last week that the division between these two media types is more nuanced than people often realize — we still want a “nice story.”

“The idea that we have these really short attention spans because we’re all on our phones all the time is a really incomplete reading of what’s happening and a primitive reading of what’s happening,” Glass told The Buffalo News. “The greater truth is we’re all pretty flexible, and it’s nice to have something to read when you’re in an elevator or waiting for your food. And it’s also nice to settle into a nice story.”

Glass’ visit to Chautauqua is a long time coming. Deborah Sunya Moore, vice president of performing and visual arts, said Glass was the very first evening entertainer booked for 2019 — over a year ago. She said his passion for storytelling made him uniquely suited to open Week Five: “The Life of the Spoken Word.”

“Very early on, we knew that we were going to have a theme on spoken word, and as soon as we started talking about that, we agreed that perhaps the special entertainment that weekend would not be a band — it would focus on the spoken word. And the main name we thought of, of course, was Ira Glass.”

Glass is a “main name” of storytelling after decades of work. In a 2009 interview on storytelling that has since been featured in the viral video, “The Gap,” as well as several other videos now available on YouTube, he advised young storytellers to keep practicing their craft.

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions,” Glass narrates in the video. “And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s going to take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just got to fight your way through.”

Anniversary in the Amp

Doreen Rao leads the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in a concert featuring the works of Bach and Bernstein at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater. Submitted photo.

Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus opens 75th season in concert with CSO

Lauren Hutchison | Staff Writer

Doreen Rao

The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus will celebrate its 75th anniversary with Chautauqua in its season-opening-concert featuring Bach’s “Magnificat” and Leonard Bernstein’s “MASS.” Doreen Rao will conduct the chorus and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater.

“Chautauqua is an exquisite intersection between the arts and spirituality,” she said. “It just exudes the kind of an enlightened energy that makes listening to and making beautiful music immediately understood in so many different ways.”

Though Rao and the chorus have visited Chautauqua every year since she became the chorus’ music director in 2008, this is Rao’s first time conducting the CSO.

“There is a vibrancy in the orchestra that I think comes from reuniting every year as a community of musicians,” Rao said. “That combination of orchestra and chorus is, to me, the most exciting place to be. It doesn’t get better than that.”

Tonight’s concert opens with Benjamin Britten’s “Fanfare for St. Edmundsbury,” a work for three trumpets. Rao said she hopes to have the musicians play in different areas of the Amp for the fanfare.

“My goal with this piece is to help the listeners be surrounded by the three trumpets that define the music of Bach’s ‘Magnificat,’” she said. “At the same time, the music of Britten, in a spatial sense, provides the listener an opportunity to prepare themselves to receive the music of the evening.”

Once the invitation to listen is delivered, the concert continues with the air from Bach’s Orchestral Suite in D Major, BW 1068, which will help to create the stillness of a listening space, Rao said.

“This is created by the lyricism and the melodic beauty of that movement,” she said. “It prepares us, then, for the complex counterpoint that we will hear in the ‘Magnificat.’”

Bach composed “Magnificat” after his appointment to the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, Germany. “Magnificat” was originally intended to be a Christmas piece, but Bach revised it so it could be performed throughout the year.

Rao said the piece is full of wonderful, virtuosic counterpoint and rhythmic dance forms. Its florid musical ideas are exchanged between the orchestra and chorus in a concerto-like format. The piece is challenging for vocalists, because Bach wrote the vocal parts instrumentally.

The choral movements are interspersed with arias, duets and a trio. Soloists for this evening’s performance of “Magnificat” include soprano I Leah Schneider, soprano II Tony Arnold, mezzo-soprano Natalia Kojanova, tenor Jeffrey Thompson and bass Brian T. Zunner.

Thompson is a guest soloist with the chorus and will perform the tenor aria “Deposuit potentes” and alto-tenor duet “Et misericordia.” He has performed with the chorus before and said it is a mature-sounding choir that interprets nuances wonderfully and blends beautifully. He described “Magnificat” as “Bach at his best.”

“It’s harmonically and rhythmically perfect,” he said. “The marriage of that music and the text is perfect and uplifting. It flows just beautifully.”

He will perform “Et misericordia” with Kojanova, who said she enjoys the duet for its sad, melodramatic qualities.

“When you’re happy, it’s generally just one feeling,” she said. “When you’re sad, you can be sad in so many different ways.”

Following “Magnificat,” Rao will lead the orchestra and chorus in Bernstein’s “MASS,” which she edited to shorten the piece and to make it more feasible for school, church and community choruses to perform.

Rao said “MASS” and “Magnificat” complement textually and contrast stylistically.

“Bernstein is saying much the same thing as Bach through his great faith, but uses a 20th-century language, representing American diversity in song styles and a broad sweep of compositional elements,” Rao said.

“MASS” premiered in 1971 during a tumultuous period in American history. Rao said these conflicts are juxtaposed with Bernstein’s personal struggles with his faith and reflected within the text of a Catholic mass.

“He used (the mass) as a unification device to explore the tremendous conflicts of doubt and faith that were occurring at that period of American history and continue, in many ways, to define the problems that we face today,” she said.

“MASS” includes an important role for tenor and guest soloist Joseph Mikolaj, who acts as celebrant throughout the piece. Mikolaj was raised Catholic, which he said helps him have a deeper insight for the role. He enjoys the musical style of “MASS,” which he said has roots in classical music as well as popular music.

“It carries an energy that it borrows from the pop music, but it also carries a weight that, I think, creates something quite brilliant,” he said.
Mikolaj said he’s never heard anything quite like “MASS.”

“I’d like for an audience member to sit down and try to find one thing to hold onto, one thing to take from the piece, because it’s so powerful and can be so moving,” he said. “Be ready. Be forewarned.”

Schneider performs the soprano part in “MASS,” in addition to her aria, duet and trio in “Magnificat.” She said the soprano in “MASS” performs without paying attention to the chorus, creating chaos.

“The soprano represents all that is secular,” she said. “She’s not exactly a character as much as she is representing a feeling.”

Schneider, a soloist and music educator, joined the chorus in 2006 and has enjoyed both performing in the chorus and learning new teaching methods from Rao’s example.

“(Rao is) such a vibrant conductor with lots of energy,” Schneider said. “She really knows exactly how to produce results from singers in the most effective way.”

Kojanova first started singing as a soloist with large ensembles when she joined the chorus three years ago. She said it is incredible to work with the chorus and with Rao.

“She brings so much — everybody says so,” Kojanova said. “Even in concerts, the music changes every time, growing better and better.”

In addition to her work with the chorus, Rao is an associate professor of conducting at the University of Toronto. She is also the founding artistic director of the CME Institute for Choral Teacher Education.

In the near future, Rao looks forward to a new focus in her career, with conducting in the forefront and a continued dedication to music education.

“My career is the bridge between performance and education,” she said. “That is where I live. That is what I love.”

“The Personal and Political in Bernstein’s MASS
Scott Slocum Interviews Doreen Rao

At the heart of MASS was Leonard Bernstein’s passion for peace.  Intended to be ecumenical in both a musical and religious sense, Bernstein used the Latin text of the Catholic Mass as the basis for this monumental and original work.  The mass form unifies the edgy and appealing popular song forms that question the values of faith contrasted with the expressive concert melodies that symbolically reference faith beyond doubt.  The musical tensions created by this mixture of diverse song styles mirrors the tensions of an American period of political unrest.  Bernstein’s prayers for peace and quest for renewed faith heard in his lyrical melodies and probing rhythms in MASS reflect a time in history, not unlike the world today.  Doreen Rao’s concert adaptation, taken from the original full-scale theatre production, celebrates Leonard Bernstein’s life-long dedication to the music education of young people and his passion for peace. 

Conductor Doreen Rao, Music Director and Conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus will conduct her newly edited concert edition of Bernstein’s MASS at the Chautauqua Institution Saturday, July 23.   The concert edition was carefully adapted for the benefit of community, school and church choirs to enjoy the study and performance of this great 20th century classic from the lengthy full-scale theatre production for singers, players and dancers.

Interviewer Scott Slocum is a member of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus.  Scott is a therapeutic masseuse and dancer who sings bass.  The following interview is extracted from a recent discussion between Scott and Doreen Rao in Doreen’s Buffalo home.

SS– I understand that Bernstein MASS was written as a dedication to John F. Kennedy after his death.  I thought it was ironic that President Nixon did not attend the 1971 Bernstein Mass opening of the J. F. Kennedy Center out of a suspected conspiracy that Bernstein was going to try to embarrass the United States Government.  I’m also impressed that Bernstein took the traditional Mass form and developed it in a uniquely contemporary manner.

DR– Bernstein’s music flew in the face of the political climate of the time.  He was considered a subversive by J. Edgar Hoover, and MASS was considered by some critics as a total travesty — a vulgar mélange of ideas.   By others, MASS was considered Bernstein’s greatest composition.  These were not easy times.  Has anything changed?

By using liturgical form alongside American popular song, Bernstein achieved a ‘crossover’ composition that philosophically speaking, united the Church and the people.  He used a liturgical ‘mass form’ to portray faith and hope alongside doubt and despair through the juxtaposition of concert and popular musics.

SS– A garden image comes to mind — the idea of one who knew very intimately how

“life” worked and could bring it forth and cultivate it through the use of sacred tradition set forth in a modern language with modern images – the cultivation of a ‘new’ tradition.  What a wonderful experiment.

DR– It was a glorious experiment.  Perhaps an experiment for all time.  I think Bernstein set the tone for what could be understood as an essentially American musical experience.  By developing an interdependent relationship between the sacred and secular; the concert stage and popular music; celebration and lamentation; faith and doubt, Bernstein was able to portray the relationship between musical styles within the context of a unified work made whole through the mass form.

SS- The thing that really impresses me about that imagery, and the way that you’re putting it, is that contrasting and diversified ideas reflect one another — one face reflects the other somehow — that’s a new and tasty idea, for me.

DR-  Formal religious practice and the liturgical framework for religious faith can provide comfort and assurance.  I think that what Bernstein suggests in MASS is that religion should not be separated from the daily experiences of life.  In MASS Bernstein brings street life to the Church and Church life to the street; the music symbolizes the tensions between doubt and faith.

SS- I think it’s very beautiful if you don’t have to go to church to find church – in this way, you’re always at home.

DR– When I think of the tensions often felt between the experiences of faith and doubt, I remember the ancient Irish saying: “the whole world is sacred.” I think we go to church to be in church, but Bernstein’s music suggests that we can also be ‘in church’ at home, and we can be ‘in church’ in music, and we can be ‘in church’ in a loving relationship.  This I believe is the partial essence of Bernstein’s message.

SS– That’s wonderful. It would seem that because Bernstein showed the “sacred in the secular,” and the “secular in the sacred,” he did a service to both.  MASS ennobled popular music and brought social relevance to the ancient mass form.  How enriching.

DR– In MASS, Bernstein uses a liturgical form to organize popular song forms. And while he borrowed a fair amount of material from his previous theatre works (including West Side Story and the Skin of Our Teeth) the Catholic Mass sung in Latin unifies Bernstein’s effort to portray his own struggles with sustaining faith in God during troubled times in a uniquely original work.  It’s important to remember that the use of these compositional devices like borrowing old material is not unique to Bernstein specifically or to twentieth century composers generally.  J. S. Bach was doing this long ago.  As a devout German Lutheran living in eighteenth century Leipzig, Bach often borrowed material from his previous compositions (cantatas, motets for example) and often used secular melodies (medieval street songs) as the basis of chorale harmonizations and choral counterpoint. As in Bernstein’s MASS, Bach transformed secular melodic fragments (songs) and previously composed materials into works like Magnificat and Mass in B Minor.

So the idea of the ‘secular in the sacred’ can be found throughout music history. Bernstein brought it to America in a form that we consider very “20th century,” but that particular distinction goes way back in music history. This can be found most brilliantly, I think, in the music of J.S. Bach.

SS– That’s wonderful. It’s exciting to know that what’s impressive about Bernstein has been going on at least as far back as Bach.

DR– The thing is, Bach composed in a compositional language unique to German Lutheranism during Bach’s lifetime.  Bernstein used the compositional language of 20th century American song.   While the way Bernstein composed MASS was new in many respects, philosophically speaking, the practices of stylistic variation and borrowing previously composed themes is not new.

SS– That’s a good point.

DR– If I may cautiously approach a comparison of Bernstein with Bach.  We know that Bach’s music is an absolute manifestation of his faith.  His biblical scholarship and unquestioning religious faith are deeply embodied in his compositions.  There is not a note Bach wrote that was not a symbol of his faith.   I think in some ways, the same may be true of Bernstein.  Bernstein felt very much that the African-American traditions — the Negro spiritual and gospel singing for example, were the spiritual essence of American music.  MASS was for Bernstein, a manifestation of his own religious struggles. Every note of this work is deeply rooted in Bernstein’s commitment to diversity and peace making.  As Bach’s cantatas and passions were a celebration of Christian faith, I see  MASS as a celebration of Bernstein’s faith in American diversity as unity.

SS– Tell me about your experience of adapting and editing the Bernstein MASS into a shortened concert version.

DR – I undertook this project a number of years ago in anticipation of Leonard Bernstein’s 90th birthday.   This newly adapted and edited version of Mass seeks to honor the composer’s life-long commitment to music education and bring what Bernstein biographer Humphrey Burton called “Bernstein’s most original work” to school, community and church choirs unable to produce the original full-scale theatre production.  I worked diligently to assure that the work’s liturgical form and dramatic intent were carefully preserved.  Every note of this edition is pure Bernstein.

I have always been a great lover of the work of Leonard Bernstein — certainly his compositions and his conducting, but most importantly, his teaching.  Bernstein was the quintessential American music educator, not only as a teacher to generations of young people, but through his compositions themselves.  His music is a way of investigating the world around us. His music broadens our understanding of the Torah, the Bible and also points to the ethical and moral dilemmas of cultural confusion and societal conflicts today.  It is an investigation of life from historical, sociological, anthropological and purely musical perspectives.

The choices that Bernstein made musically in his theater work, symphonies, and in MASS teach us about life in a new voice.  While the music is often very beautiful in and of itself, his works are not just about music for it’s own sake.  Every note of Bernstein is in some way provocative and challenging.  It evokes intellectual curiosity, emotional response and seems to serve as a form of social inquiry.

I’m drawn to Bernstein’s music because it teaches me not only about music, but also about life itself.  Bernstein was not afraid to examine doubt.  He grappled compositionally with the conflicts that people have always stayed away from.  Bernstein’s music allows us to sit still with conflict and examine our faith in relationship to the suffering and doubt that surrounds us. I have always been drawn to the process of examining, investigating, questioning, not because there is one answer, but because I think as human beings we need to be comfortable with the notion that there may not be an answer to every question.  We need to view doubt without fear.

Bernstein’s music explores all this from a broad, existential perspective.  This comes across in all his music. His melodic material, based as it is on what we would call “popular tunes,” is a perfect example of how gloriously beautiful simple melody can be, in both a harmonically tonal and atonal context.  In other words, turning a melody around on its head and doing something really ‘strange’ with it, then stating it again in the original form demonstrates a kind of non-duality.  Bernstein twists his ideas; he turns them around and examines them from a multiplicity of compositional and social perspectives. Bach did the same thing.  I like that.

SS– Me too. Me too.

Still rockin’, after all these years

Tommy James

Tommy James and the Shondells, Felix Cavaliere’s The Rascals share Amp stage tonight

Patrick Hosken | Staff Writer

In the late 1960s, Tommy James and the Shondells and Felix Cavaliere’s The Rascals, then known as The Young Rascals, could be found at the top of the charts in America. The latter scored big with their soulful hits “Good Lovin,’” “Groovin’” and “People Got to Be Free,” while the former rocked and rolled with “Hanky Panky,” “Mony Mony” and “Crimson and Clover.”

At 8:15 p.m. tonight, both groups will rock the Amphitheater with a nostalgia-dipped concert.

James picked up his first guitar when he was in fourth grade and was playing in his first band by the time he entered junior high. It was that band, The Tornadoes, that recorded a cover of an old tune called “Hanky Panky” in 1964, a recording that propelled James to success, thanks to heavy play on Pittsburgh radio stations two years later.

By 1969, James had assembled a new group — the Shondells — and hit No. 1 on the charts once again with a new song, “Crimson and Clover.” Behind the scenes, however, trouble loomed over the band.

The group’s label, Roulette Records, had ties to the Genovese crime family in New York City, a story James didn’t feel comfortable discussing publicly until the release of his autobiography, Me, the Mob, and the Music, came out in 2010.

“We couldn’t talk about any of it,” James said. “While we were having hits, we had to deal with this.”

The book, James said, initially was conceived as a musical memoir. When laying down the groundwork, however, he realized he needed to tell the full story of his time at Roulette Records, a label he managed to leave in 1974.

James currently is recording music for the movie adaptation of his book with the original lineup of the Shondells.

“It’s so nice to back in there,” he said. “We’ve all stayed best friends, and we lost our drummer, but the three remaining ones get together on a regular basis.”

Cavaliere, too, is still spending time in the studio these days, having released two albums with Booker T. & the M.G.’s guitarist, Steve Cropper. Since he moved to Nashville, Tenn., Cavaliere said, he’s been looking to write his own new music, but he hasn’t had the time due to constant touring.

“There’s great camaraderie among the musicians down there. It’s nice when people kind of know what it’s all about,” Cavaliere said. “Musicians are a rare breed.”

Cavaliere’s The Rascals that tour today are different than the ones who scored big with radio hits in the late ’60s, but they’re just as talented, Cavaliere said.

“All of us really love getting on that stage and playing, even after all these years,” he said. “We don’t enjoy the travel, but what you get there (onstage) is straight-out rocking.”

For both James, 64, and Cavaliere, 66, the most important constant through all the years of recording, touring and playing music has been the fans. Cavaliere said he treasures this appreciation and tailors the live show around it.

“We go backwards in time,” he said. “Our Internet was music; we connected to each other through music. That’s kind of what we do, reconnect them with their youth.”

This includes playing their hits, in addition to a large medley of other songs from the era.

“The last one that we do, I call a ‘retrospective of our time,’ and we come back to “Good Lovin,’” Cavaliere said. “I link the songs together to show that it’s all connected.”

Though the manner of making music is so much different today due to technological improvements, James said, the relationship between the performers and the fans has stayed the same.

“Our fans are so very important to us because they’ve kept the engine in the car going for all these years,” James said. “Honestly, they are the lifeblood of our career, and they always have been.”

James also said he’s excited to play with Cavaliere, a friend since 1966 with whom he doesn’t often get to share the stage.

Tonight’s show is the first time both James and Cavaliere will play at Chautauqua, so audiences can expect much enthusiasm from the performers.

“The audiences, after a certain point in time, become extended family. I look out into the crowd now and see three generations of fans. It’s incredible,” James said. “Live shows are very important to me. It’s important to talk to fans and say hello and get reacquainted.”

That mesmerizing moment

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Guest conductor Christopher Seaman leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in its Tuesday night performance in the Amphitheater. Photo by Greg Funka.

Violinist Kwuon, guest conductor Seaman join CSO for a concert of Wagner, Prokofiev and Dvořák

Lauren Hutchison | Staff Writer

Joan Kwuon
Joan Kwuon

Violinist Joan Kwuon loves the thrill of performing for a live audience and having an active dialogue with an orchestra.

“It never gets old,” she said. “That moment, being surrounded by the sound from the orchestra and contributing the solo line is really quite mesmerizing.”

Kwuon will join guest conductor Christopher Seaman and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater for a concert featuring works by Richard Wagner, Sergei Prokofiev and Antonín Dvořák.

Kwuon made her CSO debut in 2009 with the Jean Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47, in a performance guest reviewer Anthony Bannon said “(found) tempest inside tenderness.”

She originally was scheduled to perform the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63, in 2008, but was unable to appear due to a family emergency. Tonight’s concert features the same concerto, chosen simply because it was a good fit for the musicians and the program, Kwuon said.

She said she enjoys the concerto for its wide range of harmonies and textures.

“The concerto has a lot of flavor,” Kwuon said. “(Prokofiev) is very generous with expression.”

The first movement begins with the solo violin, which sets the mood. Kwuon described the movement as light, reflective and a bit sad. The second movement becomes arching, lyrical and romantic, with fireworks and long, spun phrases above the orchestra’s part. The concerto concludes with a vibrant dance featuring castanets, conjuring images of Spain, where the concerto premiered.

Seaman described Prokofiev as a composer with a very strong personal flavor.

“Prokofiev has this marvelous mixture of elegance, charm and an incredibly dry wit,” he said. “By adding Prokofiev in the middle of the Wagner and the Dvořák, we’ve stirred a little bit of a different spice into the mix, which gives us a very good balance as a program.”

The concert opens with Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The piece is among Wagner’s most popular overtures and preludes. It features marvelous melodies and a big finish, Seaman said.

“It’s a wonderful starter,” Seaman said. “The opera has a huge amount of humanity, which comes out in the prelude.”

Tonight’s program concludes with Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88, which Seaman described as a masterpiece. Dvořák had an inexhaustible supply of melodies, as evidenced by the six themes in the first movement — most symphonies feature only two.

“It’s an absolute delight to play — sunshine from beginning to end, with a couple of clouds passing in the second movement,” he said.

After Chautauqua, Seaman will guest conduct in the first of two Australian tours this year. He recently recorded Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “London Symphony” and “Serenade to Music” with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, where he just concluded his 13-year tenure as music director.

Kwuon recently had her South American debut in Caracas with the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra. She will appear at the Great Mountains Music Festival in South Korea later this summer and in chamber music concerts at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where she is the artistic director of the violin conservatory’s preparatory division. Kwuon also is recording Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas No. 9, Op. 47, and No. 10, Op. 96.

A century of show business

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Submitted photo.

Circurious makes its Chautauqua debut

Suzi Starheim | Staff Writer

One hundred years of American entertainment will be featured at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater with the arrival of Circurious to the stage as part of the 2011 Season special Wednesday-night Family Entertainment Series.

Circurious, a touring production of Cirque-tacular Entertainment, combines the idea of “going to the circus” with entertaining and athletic performers such as contortionists, singers, dancers, aerialists and acrobats, to entertain audiences of all ages.

Tad Emptage, producer and talent coordinator of Circurious, said the show will be approximately 80 minutes long and consist of 14 performers, all world-class athletes.

These performers, along with a host, will take the audience through time, decade by decade, beginning with Harry Houdini in 1911 and moving through Buffalo Bill, the United Service Organization, the war era and even highlighting the fun and novelty of the 1950s. Throughout the entire show, the host will include fun facts about American show business to educate the audience while the performers amaze with daring acts, Emptage added.

While each time frame is a small part of the whole show, Emptage said, each decade is separately contained and easily identifiable against the others. This is especially evident with the 1950s hula-hoop performance, he added.

Also encompassed throughout the show are more serious topics, and Emptage said the one he is looking forward to the most is a body balancing act from the Vietnam era. In creating this act, Emptage had to figure out “how to approach a volatile time in America’s past and treat it with respect and honesty.”

Because of acts like this, Emptage said, the show is good entertainment for all ages. It will entertain both adults and children, and Emptage is excited to see grandparents laughing alongside their grandchildren.

“It is actually an adult show that the children will enjoy,” he said. “What we did when creating the show was to make sure we had something that appealed to everyone.”

Emptage said this will be the first time Circurious has performed in Chautauqua, and he is excited to perform in the Amphitheater because it is outdoors. The Amphitheater also can house more guests, and with more guests comes more energy from the audience, he added.

“The energy that you get from the audience is what feeds you the most as an entertainer,” he said.

“It’s one of the differences between movies and the live theater,” Emptage said. “It’s something that we share together. It’s not passive; it’s active. It’s something that can only be experienced live.”

Classical Folk: Seaman to lead CSO through variety of cultural styles, atmospheres

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Christopher Seaman

Lauren Hutchison | Staff Writer

Christopher Seaman was music director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra for 13 years but has never been to Chautauqua — until tonight.

Seaman will conduct the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater.

“I know that (Chautauquans) are a wonderfully appreciative audience, a cultured audience and an audience with a lot of musical background,” he said. “I’m delighted to visit. I do think that it’s going to be marvelous.”

Seaman just concluded his tenure as the RPO’s longest-serving music director and was honored with the lifetime title of Conductor Laureate. More than 40 of his fans will ride a bus from Rochester to Chautauqua to see their favorite conductor.

Tonight’s program was devised to contain a variety of different styles and atmospheres, Seaman said.

The concert opens with Hector Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival Overture.” Seaman said he has an affinity for the piece because Berlioz was a redhead, and so is he.

“He always did the unexpected,” Seaman said. “He broke all the rules, and yet, was incredibly, musically effective. He had a wonderful sense of drama and color.”

That rebellious originality, as Seaman dubbed it, comes through in the first few seconds of the piece, which starts out as a wild carnival and stops abruptly. With a few trills in the wind section, the piece continues with a solo for the English horn.

Following Berlioz’s overture is another piece by a French composer, Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane, Op. 50. Seaman described Fauré as a man with true grit — a military hero who sparked the resignations of several professors when he was appointed as director of the Paris Conservatoire.

A pavane is an ancient dance, typically composed in memoriam. Fauré’s “Pavane” was written with parts for a chorus, too, but is seldom performed with one, because of its “stupid” lyrics, Seaman said.

“Fauré was obviously sending it up, but like a lot of great composers, what actually comes out exceeded his intentions,” he said. “What we actually have is not just a little send-up, a little parody, a little bit of satire, but the most beautiful, simple, touching dance in 4-time, in the style of a pavane.”

After the pavane, the CSO will perform “The Moldau” by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. The piece is part of six symphonic poems titled “My Fatherland” and is named for a river in the Czech Republic.

“The Moldau” traces the career of the river, beginning as a small stream and broadening as it goes through different scenes, including a village wedding and a moonlit landscape, and past the ghosts of an ancient army.

The piece builds as the river goes through Prague, where Seaman conducts regularly.

“When I am in Prague, I always go over the Charles Bridge and look at the river,” he said. “The melody of the piece comes into my mind, and I get a big lump in my throat.”

Once the river runs its course, the program continues with British composer Edward Elgar’s “Chanson de matin,” or “Morning Song,” which Seaman called a “delicious little piece,” full of genuine, if dated, sentiment that gives it a nostalgic air. Elgar is famous for his large, important works, but his smaller salon pieces are charming, Seaman said.

The song is followed by another British composition, “Fantasia on Greensleeves” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The piece is based on the well-known tune “Green-sleeves,” which is sometimes rumored as being written by King Henry VIII, but because of its modal scale, its origin is probably a folk song, Seaman said.

He said the piece is beautifully set, simple and touching.

Tonight’s program concludes with the “Firebird” suite by Igor Stravinsky. Seaman called the suite a brilliant orchestral showpiece. The suite is part of Stravinsky’s larger ballet of the same name and is based on a classic Russian tale of good and evil.

Though Stravinsky’s music was experimental, he never stopped sounding Russian, Seaman said, because of his link with traditional Russian folk songs and the modes and rhythms they use.

“Firebird” is popular because of its fantastic colors and great story, Seaman said, but it’s also very organic in the way its sections are linked together and is filled with intellectual unity.

“It hits to the brain as well as the heart,” Seaman said.

The British-born conductor reflected on his career in the United States, where he has held positions as music director of the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra in Naples, Fla., and conductor-in-residence of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in addition to his long tenure at the RPO.

“America has been very good to me, and I really am very grateful,” he said. “And it’s still being very good to me, I might add!”

In addition to his regular appearances as guest conductor at orchestras around the world, Seaman also is working on a book about conducting.

“The book is for people who go to concerts, do not have college training and would love to know more about what a conductor does,” he said.

Seaman will conduct with the CSO again on Thursday with guest violinist Joan Kwuon.

Full of character

Jarrett Ott, playing Gianni Schicchi, leads fellow cast members of the School of Music’s Voice Program in tonight’s performance of Puccini’s comic opera Gianni Schicchi. Photo by Megan Tan.

School of Music’s ‘Gianni Schicchi’ has a Chautauqua spin

Leah Rankin | Staff Writer

Magic flutes, valkyries, rampant consumption — some themes in opera can be hard to relate to, and not just for the audience.

Singers, like actors, perform best when they can lose themselves in a character — when they can find that common thread that connects them with their role. But how do you find something in common with a 13th-century family in Florence?

If you’re stage director of the School of Music Voice Program, Jay Jackson, you transport that Florentine family to a 1950s Chautauqua. The Music School Festival Orchestra concert at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater will showcase Jackson’s updated interpretation of Giacomo Puccini’s comic opera, Gianni Schicchi.

“Some of the references (in Gianni Schicchi) don’t have a connection to our day and age,” Jackson said.

This interpretation will be “immediate to the audience and something they will be able to connect with,” he said. “The Chautauqua spin on it will make the comedy exponentially more.”

In the original opera, the scheming Gianni Schicchi tricks the Donati family into bequeathing everything in the dying Buoso Donati’s will to him. The Donati family trusts Schicchi to imitate Buoso, who has left all of his money and possessions to a monastery — or in this production, to the Chautauqua Institution. But Schicchi goes back on his word, claims the fortune for himself and makes himself at home in Chautauqua’s Packard Manor.

Schicchi is played by Jarrett Ott, a graduate student at the Curtis Institute of Music, and in order to fall into character, Jackson told him to think of a combination of Big Daddy from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and Boss Hogg from “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Ott said it’s easier to relate to characters like these, especially when there are only three weeks to rehearse.

“Character development is very important on your own time,” Ott said, “because it’s hard to cram all these (practice) sessions into such a short amount of time.”

Jackson said it is crucial that the voice students in Gianni Schicchi learn the original Italian libretto. That way, they can easily perform the opera again in the future. The audience will never hear the singers proclaim, “Oh, Chautauqua!” but they will read it in the English supertitles above the stage.

Inexperience is the biggest hurdle when working with young artists, Jackson said, but it allows him to experiment with ideas he would be hesitant to try with a professional troupe.

“It becomes my summer laboratory,” Jackson said. “These kids are willing to do anything.”

Jackson said that every rehearsal is a discovery process, and that students are given support in every facet of the performance. Jackson directs the cast, while the singers receive instruction from Voice Chair Marlena Malas and support from the Chautauqua Opera Company. There are seven professional coach accompanists, a coach to help with Italian pronunciation and MSFO music director Timothy Muffitt attends rehearsals to work out the musical kinks.

“The orchestra is as integrated into the entire product as in any piece of music,” Muffitt said. “It’s not merely a foundation in Puccini’s music.”

Muffitt said the greatest challenge for the MSFO is to learn an accompaniment role — how to move with the singers in a supportive way. Muffitt explains the process as “turning the orchestra into a vocal organism so it breathes the way the singers breathe and phrases the way the singers phrase.”

For the cast, the intense process has transformed the family onstage to a family off the stage.

“They are all a family in the story line,” Ott said, so connecting and building friendships in between rehearsals is just as helpful.

Shaking students out of their comfort zone also is an integral part of the learning process, Jackson said. While the Metropolitan Opera House seats about 4,000, the Amphitheater seats 5,000. This could be an opportunity for these singers, who may very well go on to grace the greatest opera stages in the country, to perform for one of the largest audiences they ever will have, Jackson said.

Jackson said the trick to getting singers out of their comfort zone is to make a situation even more awkward. The confidence and energy he draws from the singers makes the whole experience more relatable.

“If you whittle it down to the most personal level and build it around the seed that you’ve planted,” Jackson said, “the opera doesn’t seem so grand and old-fashioned.”

That’s a good thing, Jackson said.

Telling the cast members in Gianni Schicchi to envision themselves as Gene Kelly in An American in Paris or a retired Mafia Don or even the dad in “Leave it to Beaver” breaks the barrier between high, unattainable art and an experience with which singers and the audience can connect.

Tonight’s all-opera concert also includes Beethoven’s “Fidelio Overture” and Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten, conducted by the David Effron Conducting Fellow Sarah Kidd.

Tonight, it’s all about drama.

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