Friday, November 16, 2007

Quality Circus

I'm a circus fan. I see a lot of shows. So I view them with a certain level of honest critique. I don't just think it is neat to go see a circus. Well, alright, there IS that. If you can't get excited and drawn into wonderment by attending the circus, what CAN you find interesting in life? Still, I want something more. I want a show that speaks to me, offers some artistry, is well produced.
Every circus has its own unique character. So it may be unfair to compare one to another directly. Perhaps the better question is, "Do you do well what you are trying to do?"

This year I have (thus far) seen the following shows: Ringling's 137th Edition Red Unit ("Bellobration!"), Zoppe Family Circus, Cirque Shanghai, Kelley Miller Circus, Carson and Barnes Circus, The Midnight Circus, CircEsteem's Spring student circus, some local small shows with a circus oriented nature (including Ottavio Canestrelli's "A Clown Without a Circus"), and now the Ringling Gold Unit ("An Upside Down World.") The theme of the latter is not heavily emphasized as it was when the unique act of ceiling walkers highlighted the 134th Edition. This act (which I could happily watch many more times) is just one among many on the Gold Unit show. But, perhaps, this is the better brilliance of the production.

It may be something about the intimacy of one ring. (And this Ringling show actually does maintain a ring!) There is a certain immediacy and closeness which draws one into the experience and gathers your attention effectively. But, this alone won't make a show top notch. There needs to be a flow, a drama, a comedy to be a fit. This circus has that in a way that none other I have seen this year provides.

Unlike the other Ringling offerings currently running, the Gold Show (despite its entitlement) does not seek to provide some sort of story line running thread or even an overall thematic context. Rather, the show's characters speak for themselves. Yes, character is the key. From the initial introductions of Ringmaster Jon Weiss to the extended European style clowning entrees of Tom Dougherty (and his traditional American style clowning complement Mitch Freddes); the beauty, grace, and strength of Sylvia Zerbini, the costuming of their teetherboard team, or the "businesslike" attire of contortionists. The real story and connective tissue is, then, in the acts themselves, each speaking something of its own particular nature.

I think my favorite piece was a lovely elephant act. Not the kind of thing one typically thinks of with Ringling. Rather than a large procession of pachyderms, or even a trio tramping around with their tricks, a single bull did the job. It started out with a young girl in pajamas laying on a sofa at the end of track space. Tired, but still awake, she discovers a little stuffed animal elephant inside the ring, perched on a small tub. She enters the ring, retrieves it, and returns to the couch to sleep. Here begins a dream sequence where subtle blue lighting accents an entering elephant at the portal opposite end. Complete with extended tusks, and enveloped in fog, it sports a beautiful woman who then presents the glittered animal through delightful poses and fanciful moves. This tender piece is circus as ART! It is something which relates well to the imaginations of children "of ALL ages", 1 to 100. It is the kind of thoughtful thing which can recapture an audience that has grown apathetic or lost high expectations.

Also of note was a clowning act by Tom Dougherty, based upon his antics in finding a fancy hat to play "Ringmaster", and the cadre of backup singers who appear to announce his placement of the hat. It takes other hilarious twists and turns, including an illustration of what might happen to your cell phone if you let a clown get his hands on it. I am gladdened to see Ringling enabling such serious humor and giving it the time it needs to develop. I don't know whether the act can communicate as well to the larger performance space required of the Blue show, but it certainly would be great to see this survive as Dougherty moves to that unit next season.

Perhaps everything was not ideal on this show. I could certainly find room for improvement in places. And, obviously, a number of the acts (and much of the music) is recycled from former Ringling productions. But this does not in any way stale with this presentation. Instead it received new life! The show, then, has all the excitement which you'd expect from Feld. To boot, this circus runs well and tight. There is an intimate, charming aspect to it. It connects with an audience on numerous levels. And you certainly have FUN!

There still remain some "new cirque" productions which I intend to witness before the year ends. But, as far as something in the more traditional vein goes, this show, now reaching its end run, has been the best of the year I've seen. Indeed, the Gold Unit's "Upside Down World" may not quite be on the same level as Barnum's Kaleidoscape was, but it's quite possibly the next best thing that Ringling has had to offer since.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Wednesday Night Jazz

There aren't enough good clarinetists in this city! At least not that I know of. Where are you hiding, if you're there?

One of the best to be heard, however, is Kim Cusack. With a sound somewhere between Pete Fountain and Benny Goodman, he's an expert interpreter of the tunes which were popular in even the early part of LAST century. But, of course, many of these songs (especially those of dixieland heritage and 30's-40s big band era) have become lasting standards, if not always played as often as once was the case. Cusack is presently leading a quartet at Andy's on Wednesday evenings (the early set) through December. His inclusion of guitarist Andy Brown as part of the group adds an extra element of excitement that isn't particularly common in instrumental combos of this kind. (Well, that is, if you can find this sort of small group highlighting clarinet anywhere else, anyway.) So check them out and hear something unique, worthwhile, of lasting traditional jazz.

Corey Wilkes is one of the hot young lions on the Chicago jazz scene. His abilities on trumpet are quickly earning him well deserved renown. He leads an outstanding quintet which follows upon Cusack's group (and moves things up a few decades in the process.) With a tight band and some excellent players all, it is something truly notable in the current available musical offerings ongoing. If Wilkes and his cats (most significantly saxophonist Marquel Jordan) are as on as they were last week, you won't be disappointed.

Finally, the aforementioned Andy Brown celebrates the release of his debut CD, simply entitled Trio and Solo, with a live performance at Katerina's tonight (Wed, Nov. 14) featuring none other than his trio and solo offerings. Brown is a quite adept instrumentalist with an interesting musical voice. He's been quietly building a reputation as someone solid, and thus finds himself regularly featured at the key clubs with the better bands around town. Yet his cool demeanor, which is an asset in his sound and work, can let him pass under the radar screen if you aren't paying close attention. So make sure to see what he's all about and drop by the release party, buy his disk, or both!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Climate of Concern

The Chicago Sinfonietta offers innovative and interesting programming, providing new twists on the old and creative programming anew. On Monday evening, October 29, I attended their concert at Orchestra Hall entitled "Climate of Concern." Part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, it sought to explore environmental issues through music. The concept intrigued me enough to check it out.

Often, I enjoy listening to works which I have not previously heard. So the first half of the program was enticing. It began with a premiere performance of the Fanfare for Strings and Timpani, by Fred Onovwerosuoke's. The program notes state that it, "... draws from the warrior dances of the Urhobo people of Nigera." Sadly, my late departure to the event made me miss the piece, billed as, "... a celebration of life; of a people's accomplishments, and their hopes and aspiration for the future." Though, I was assured by the lady who sat next to me that night, it was fantastic.

I did arrive in time to catch Global Warming by Michael Abels. With a decidedly Southwestern sense of sound, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked. I don't know why I should say, "surprised" other than that I may always worry a tad about what a contemporary work has to offer. Yet this had a traditional, folksy, and even Copland-esque sensibility which I found satisfying.

The highlight of the evening followed. Native American flautist R. Carlos Nakai was featured in the Two World Concerto of James DeMars. Nakai's unique instrument with it's haunting sounds and pitches pitted among the swirling sounds of orchestration certainly did work wonderfully as a sort of tone poem. One movement, titled "Lake that Speaks: trembling of beings and things," brings forth infrequently heard colors influenced by the landscape of the composer's Minnesota home. This was a case where it was also intriguing to actually see the music being played, and what instrumentalists needed to do for production of the required soundscape.

Beethoven's 5th Symphony was the more well known work on the program to balance things out. I hadn't heard a live performance of this all too familiar piece in some time. Boosting interest and adding another perspective, a touted video presentation on our environment was to accompany the final movement. Paul Freeman had his orchestra offer a light, sensitive rendition of the symphony which brought attention to insightful playing in parts that I had never so closely noticed before. Really, I became enraptured by this. What it lacked in bombastic dynamism which one might be more accustomed to, it there enabled a natural beauty to proceed. This was the real statement on the environment, I thought, one which music alone could provide.

In contrast, the Bill Foster video presentation paled. Really, I thought it detracted. High tech morphs from scenes of natural beauty to industrialism, pollution, and automotive seemed all too obvious and ideological. This proved a disappointment. Better, I imagined, had the wonderful nature photographs (largely drawn from a collection of Linda and Thomas Litteral) spoken solely.

Actually, I truly thought, at its completion, that this was a case where it would have been better to just leave well enough alone, allowing the music to speak for itself and enabling us to draw from it what we will via individual insight and reflection, rather than trying to make an overly obvious statement through the addition of video. It isn't that there is inherently anything wrong with the visual image possibly helping to bring out another aspect. It can be done effectively at times. Still, I recall what my freshman year of high school music teacher told us about not trying to force some imaginative image in your mind's eye to match the music. Certainly, there are tone poems and such. Music can have a great effect to make us feel something beyond itself. But that's the thing! Music can do this without any need for assistance. It is a language beyond words. And even one picture can easily obscure rather than elucidate that communique with unnecessary cluttering chatter. Here is where a mere program book commentary to get us thinking about how the music speaks to a topic (as was extensively well provided already) would have done much more good, ultimately.