Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Spanish teacher and the rubber duck

When someone you know casually hands you a CD -- especially in the parking lot of a Harris-Teeter -- you think, "I'll listen to this once, dream up something pleasant to say the next time I meet this guy and drop it into the storage closet." Strangely, I didn't.

I listened all the way through "Como estas, mi amigo?" with pleasure. I even listened to a couple of songs twice. Here's an admittedly amateurish video of my favorite, "Pato de hule." That's composer-singer Jay Barron, a Spanish teacher at Providence Day School, onstage, and bass player Isaac Melendez bouncing around in front of him. The title means "Rubber ducky," and it's a tribute to a reassuring bathtub toy:

He created the CD to help beginning students of Spanish wrestle with simple concepts: colors, things found in nature, friendship, a desire to sing. Some numbers are in Spanish and English, some just in Spanish (with occasional spoken interjections in English), and most are rhythmically infectious. Besides Melendez, the album's full of good Latino musicians: percussionist Jaswar Acosta, guitarist Tony Arreaza, sax player Oscar Huerta.

Barron knows which song is his "hit," as he not only made this video at Fantafest last spring -- it's his only video, as far as I know -- but put the tune on the album twice, once in Spanish and once bilingually.

He's giving a CD release concert Saturday at 2 p.m. in the school auditorium at 5800 Sardis Rd. Tickets are $5, and you can get the CD for $10 there or through his Facebook site. Bring your own rubber duck and join in when he does "Pato de hule." I can't get the song out of my ears!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Thanks for 'Frank,' Back Alley Film Series

I would watch Michael Fassbender, one of the greatest actors of his generation, in any film he made. That includes one where he spends the movie inside a giant plastic head, as the leader of a willfully obscure rock band:

This unclassifiable picture also stars Domhnall Gleason as a would-be musician who lucks into a gig with the band -- he replaces a guy who attempted to drown himself, perhaps with reason -- and insists on trying to make the group famous, despite Frank's ambivalence (and possible mental illness) and his bandmates' loathing.

I write this not to recommend the movie to you, although I do, but to thank Back Alley Film Series for giving us a chance to see it on the big screen. It gets one airing at Carolina Cinemas Crownpoint, 9630 Monroe Rd. (at the North Sardis Road intersection), Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

Many people haven't yet heard about Back Alley, an arm of the long-running Charlotte Film Society. Folks may know the CFS for its Saturday Night Cine Club, a mix of foreign and alternative films that didn't get full-run distribution in Charlotte.

Back Alley sprang into being to promote films that didn't suit the Cine Club audience, which is often older and more conservative in its tastes. Back Alley has run an odd but appealing gamut from the restored 1927 silent "Metropolis" to an upcoming 40th anniversary tribute to "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

It brought both of Lars von Trier's recent features, the provocatively thoughtful "Melancholia" and the four-hour "Nymphomaniac," in which a sex addict recounts erotic experiences to the man who saved her after a beating. If Back Alley applied a motto to its overall programming, it might be "Something for anybody and nothing that's for everybody."

The CFS recently embarked on a third project, Charlotte Film Lab, to bring writers and directors to town to explain their philosophy and process. For most of its first 30 years, the society had a sophisticated, almost highbrow tone. Today it appeals to highbrows, lowbrows and every brow in between, and we're better off for it.

P.S. As of Friday night, Back Alley has added one more screening. (The first sold out.) It's at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the same theater. Check it out!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Screen Gems, 'No Good Deed' and the big lie

For the first time in my 27 years as a movie critic at The Observer, a distributor has cancelled every advance screening in North America of a movie that was supposed to be shown to critics that night. This is the trailer for "No Good Dead," the film in question:

The official excuse from Screen Gems -- hold your nose -- is this:

"Screen Gems has decided to cancel the advance screenings of NO GOOD DEED. There is a plot twist in the film that they do not want to reveal, as it will affect the audiences' experience when they see the film in theaters. They apologize for any inconvenience."

Now, if this were true, it would be insulting. It implies that critics are so stupid, careless or mean-spirited that they're likely to give the plot twist away, accidentally or otherwise, and readers have to be protected from them. But movies with plot twists get shown week after week, and that doesn't happen: "The Sixth Sense," a masterpiece with a devastating final scene, got reviewed everywhere with no revelations about the ending.

No, it's fair to assume this movie simply stinks. Screen Gems must suddenly have realized that and decided negative response would be so great that the film is better off with no advance publicity. Poor suckers determined to see it will still spend their money on opening weekend; by the time word of mouth spreads, Screen Gems may have recouped its cost.

Studios sometimes decide not to schedule any screening at all, because they don't need reviews (usually, in the case of a huge action movie or a sequel), because the target audience for that film seldom reads reviews, or because the movie is trash. Screenings can even be set and cancelled because the film isn't opening here, after all, or the studio later decides to screen only in North America's top 10 markets. (We're about number 20.)

But I've never been invited before and been told on the day of the screening not to go. The only reasonable conclusion is that "No Good Deed" must be one bad dud.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Gimme shelter! (Opera Carolina version)

This is a video of Marcello Giordani singing "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's "Turandot" five years ago at the Metropolitan Opera. He will sing it at Belk Theater in January in Opera Carolina's new production. But he may be rehearsing it here in an abandoned hosiery factory.

Singers don't mind suffering for their art, but blocking a show in an unheated building in January takes dedication too far. Opera Carolina learned that last year while preparing Puccini's "Il Trittico" in NoDa. (Its shop and rehearsal space are in the empty factory near the Amelie's building, the one with "Chadbourn" written on the smokestack.)

I didn't sing in that show, but I'll be in the chorus of "Turandot." So I'm grateful that OC is looking for a place warmer than Carl Icahn's heart this time around. The cry is out for help: Who wants to host N.C.'s oldest opera company, as it prepares Puccini's last and greatest opera?

For more than a decade after Belk Theater opened in 1992, OC rehearsed in a small rectangular room behind the stage, one where passers-by at Fifth and College streets could look in and watch. Blumenthal Performing Arts decided to convert that space to a black box theater (the Stage Door Theater) and gave Opera Carolina the boot.

The company moved around (notably to the gym and community hall at Avondale Presbyterian Church) but has rehearsed for the last couple of years in the dusty space at the back of the Chadbourn plant, where it builds sets and stores costumes. Giant fans make that room tolerable in hot weather, but when the frost comes....

That's why the company recently asked choristers if we knew of any place that can host staging rehearsals for a couple of weeks: "A first-floor, gymnasium-type room would be adequate, as we anticipate bringing portions of the scenery in for rehearsal. If a piano is not available, we will bring one of the opera's. The period is from January 4 through the 18th. We are prepared to pay something for a facility, but free is always good also."

So there you are. If you have a good idea, e-mail director of production Michael Baumgarten at Don't make us put Marcello Giordani at Trade and Tryon streets at Christmas with a sign around his neck reading "Will sing for shelter."

Monday, August 25, 2014

Farewell to a music master

I found out about Marc Setzer's retirement dinner too late to attend. That may have been a good thing, as I'd have been pressed into the impromptu chorus singing "The Lord Bless You and Keep You," and I don't know the words.

That number was sung as a benediction at the ends of concerts and graduation ceremonies Setzer conducted, and the metaphor is a happy one: Music can serve as something that comforts and sustains us through life. It's also a song of goodbye, and that fits: Setzer, who taught choral music for 35 years, retired from South Mecklenburg High School this spring. Here's a a video of that song at his final South Meck performance in May:

Former students gathered Saturday night at Stone Mountain Grill in Ballantyne to see him off. Bill Smoak (class of '88) wrote in an e-mail that "Many alumni shared humorous stories and anecdotes. Most common and powerful, however, were the serious and often emotional stories about how Mr. Setzer not only taught them choral lessons but also life lessons...they have carried with them to the present day." (To see the Facebook page for the event, including video, go here.)

Dozens came back to honor him. Patricia Davis, a violinist who has played everywhere from the American Symphony Orchestra to the pit orchestra for "The Phantom of the Opera," was there. So was Metropolitan Opera tenor Tony Stevenson. Not everybody who attended makes a career in music, of course: Jeep Bryant, executive vice president for marketing and corporate affairs for Bank of New York Mellon, came too. (He's on that company's Global Diversity Council, and few organizations are more diverse than a high school chorus. Maybe he learned one of those life lessons at South Meck.)

Setzer's celebrated brother Phil came through Charlotte last September with the Emerson String Quartet, in which he plays violin. I wrote a story then about the world traveler and the fixed point, the Grammy-winner who makes a living mostly on the road and the pedagogue who has quietly shaped generations of musicians along Park Road.

Phil gets more ink and more dough for what he does, yet the thing that struck me most about the interviews was how happy each man seemed. Both have influenced innumerable young musicians; both have shared the joy of making music, whether as a professional or as an amateur.

Phil gets to hear a roar of approval and satisfaction more than 100 times a year at his concerts. On Saturday night, Marc drew an audience that showed him a different but perhaps deeper and longer-lasting kind of love. He leaves big shoes to fill. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A death in the online family

If you're a regular reader of Arts a la Mode, you already know what I'm about to tell you. If not, you're never going to be. After seven years, the website has shut down.

Founder Ann Marie Oliva has been running it since the beginning, and I understand her exhaustion: I used to see her covering movie screenings and plays and wondered how she did that in addition to keeping the site going and having a busy life. (She's also a writer in other fields, most notably drama.)

She wrote a lot of pieces for her own site, though other contributors weighed in: UNC Charlotte theater professor Mark Pizzato and Limestone College theater professor Tim Baxter-Ferguson did some of the heavy lifting. Their work was always contemplative and occasionally made me see movies or plays in a new way.

And now that stops. Although the site remains up for a while, and you can browse the back catalog of reviews, no new ones will be added. A one-paragraph farewell on the home page will remain the last posting.

​A friend​ asked half-jokingly if I was happy to have less competition. But I never did consider Arts a la Mode or Charlotte Viewpoint or even Creative Loafing competition. Maybe I would if I covered banks or schools and wanted desperately to be the first person to share some tidbit of news. But criticism is one of the few areas in journalism where, to use an old economic phrase, a rising tide really does lift all boats.

The more people read about the arts, the more they're likely to attend performances. The more performances they attend, the more local companies thrive. The more those thrive, they more they can do material that stretches them artistically and challenges audiences -- and the more interesting a critic's job becomes.

The flip side is also true: Silence an advocate for the arts, and you may lose a reader whose life could have been transformed by a cultural experience, the way mine has been changed many times. That's a sad thing indeed.

Monday, August 18, 2014

I miss CAST. I wish more people did.

I'm putting together the fall-spring arts calendar for 2014-15 this week, and I realize the hole Carolina Actors Studio Theatre left when the board shut it down in June. The company that did more plays than any other in the 2013-14 season won't be around to bring us the likes of "Angels in America." (The photo is of J.R. Adduci as God in "Steambath" from a few seasons back.)

Post-mortems don't interest me. I don't care whether the board acted precipitously, whether money could have been raised to move the company to a different venue, whether local producers were interested in chipping in but told "no dice," whether founder-producer Michael Simmons (pictured below, rehearsing "August: Osage County") was right or wrong in his battles with the board. I've heard all of these things and more.

I would have been interested in writing about the crisis, if anyone had asked for help or attention before the company shut down. But I'm reminded of a sign on the wall of the American Red Cross office on Park Road: "He who conceals his disease cannot expect to be cured."

The indisputable thing, however, is this: Audiences failed CAST. I can't remember a single opening night where every seat in the small theater was full. (Or any night, period, on the occasions I went after opening or saw a show twice.) Despite a strong, two-decade track record, despite generally positive reviews, despite advance articles explaining what shows were about, theatergoers didn't make CAST a habit.

In 35 years of writing about Charlotte culture, I have occasionally lamented the timidity and lack of adventurousness of local audiences. Year in and year out, from the Charlotte Symphony and Opera Carolina down to small drama companies, people generally buy tickets to see what they know and skitter away from anything they don't.

Cultural groups often tell me they're trying to build trust. If audiences like a Blumenthal tour of "Wicked," maybe they'll trust the same programmers if they import a terrific but less-known "Peter and the Starcatcher." If they take to "The Nutcracker" at Charlotte Ballet, maybe they'll take to an unfamiliar work by Jiri Kylian. Sometimes this philosophy works; more often, it doesn't.

In CAST's case, it never seemed to. The company had a small, loyal following -- I often saw the same faces at shows -- and occasionally scored a blockbuster hit. But the people who flocked to see "August" didn't come back in force for "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" two months later. So if we're asking who really killed Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, and you never bothered to find out how good they could be, the answer is: You did.