Happy Birthday

Welcome to this week’s column as ”the Critical Eye” moves into our 35th year of examining the arts, both locally, and on a national and international scale.

Each year since March of 1980, we have spent a week looking at our coverage over the past year, and commenting on the state of the arts, to give readers the benefit of our experience. Considering that since a year ago we have published 117 articles, some of which included as many as six reviews of different productions, and we’ve been doing roughly that much, each year since 1980, you can say what you want, but it certainly adds up to a great deal of experience.

Let’s look at the statistics from the past year, and then I’ll just chat with you a bit about my”take” on it all.

LOOKING BACK A YEAR

I have spread around my desk the 117 pieces of writing from the past year, and arranged them into categories. Obviously, this is arbitrary. If actors from SUNY Fredonia give a performance at the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, is that a Fredonia article or a Jamestown one? So, we’ll play it by ear, with the realization that no one’s life hangs on our numbers, and nothing satisfies a troll, so it’s pointless to try.

Taking this in the order they fell out of the giant plastic envelope in which I keep them, I count 17 pieces written at and about Chautauqua Institution. The newspaper’s policy is that we only review productions which repeat. So, except for the rare occasion when a performance in the Amphitheater is repeated, such as when the Mormon Tabernacle Choir gives two identical performances, or a few years ago when the Institution presented ”Carmina Burana,” once in July and again in August, we don’t get to comment on Chautauqua Amphitheater performances. We do plays and operas, and an occasional interview with a morning lecturer or artistic adviser who is considered of unusual note.

Film and television are among what I have come to call ”the take-home arts.” Whether you live in the heart of one of our cities, or out along a rural road, you can watch these television shows, or rent, purchase, or download these films. Books are the other take-home art, for obvious reasons, and we’ll get to them, soon.

We wrote 12 pieces on film or television. Many were tribute to figures who made a major dent in the American consciousness and have now died. In the past year, we’ve lost Shirley Temple, Sid Caesar, Jean Stapleton and Richard Griffiths. I would have dearly loved to have written a piece on Phillip Seymour Hoffman, for example, whose tragic death was only a few short weeks ago, but it came when my available news space was already promised to other subjects. I take my promises more seriously than a sense of general newsworthiness. Hoffman’s death has been marked in print and on television and radio on a national scale. Our opinion does not substantially affect its impact, while a lack of our attention on a local company working to give a concert or perform a play could determine the success or failure of the effort.

Other film and television examinations included the experiment by the NBC network to present ”The Sound of Music” in live broadcast. That piece brought to my mind the enormous duality of American thinking. If I write a review to say – truthfully – that an actor sang off pitch or a director allowed a play to be timed too slowly, I get a dozen phone calls and other contacts to insist that everyone who performs should be treated as a genius, whether they are one or not, and that students, even as old as college, should never be confronted with anything but wild praise, and yet the Internet is full of people who preach hatred and violence, and who suggest that Carrie Underwood deserves to be killed by wild animals because the ”critic” didn’t like her performance as well as she enjoyed the performance of Julie Andrews. This is a curious world.

Remaining film and TV reviews included”Burton and Taylor,” on BBC America, ”The Office” on HBO, ”Hyde Park on Hudson,” on feature film, ”Salinger,” the feature film documentary about the author of ”Catcher in the Rye,” ”The Butler,” ”Lincoln” and ”Inside Llewyn Davis,” all on feature film.

We wrote five pieces on visual arts. These included the recently-ended photo show at the James Prendergast Library, a column which was shared by the Kim Zarney exhibit at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, and the Carl Chierenza exhibit at JCC’s Weeks Gallery, the ”America’s Parks” exhibit, at the RTPI, the Audrey Kay Dowling exhibit at the 3rd on 3rd Gallery, and the exhibit of Love Canal paintings at Dunkirk’s Adams Gallery.

We wrote two reviews of performances at the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Jamestown. There was a change of leadership in the Unitarian presenting program, and a change from classical and folk music to jazz. As it happens, I was unable to accept two invitations from the new leadership, after which there were no more invitations. I wish I could be all places at all times, and I know it gets frustrating when I am occupied elsewhere when someone wants coverage, but I sincerely do the best I can.

There were seven pieces on things of personal concern to myself. These include the anniversary column for last year, my evaluation of the state of the arts in 1986, which I wrote because rehearsing ”The Dining Room” for the Chautauqua Gurney Players took up so much time I couldn’t research a different column, a piece on the history of Christmas Carols, to celebrate the holiday, three columns made up completely of ”Winks,” and a discussion of a visit which I made to the French Consulate, in Manhattan, to which I was invited to promote a traveling show of French paintings, throughout the U.S.

There were seven pieces about the presentations of the Jamestown Concert Assn., and six reviews of the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown. I count four pieces about performances by the Community Music Project, which haven’t been shared with other categories. These three organizations are core of locally presented performing arts. For most of the years I’ve been writing this column, the regular employees of the newspaper considered feature stories and subjects other than hard news to be something they hoped not ever to have to do, so organizations competed fiercely for what I was able to do for them.

This view of the news changed so completely, about five years ago, I am constantly astonished by what I don’t have to do, and what I don’t get to do, now.

Our research shows that many people from Chautauqua County travel to Buffalo regularly to enjoy the arts. The largest number who do so go to the Broadway-style shows at Shea’s. The second largest number attend performances by the Buffalo Philharmonic. Other theatrical and musical organizations follow in number. In the past year, I wrote a column about the BPO’s selection to perform at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, a review of the actual musical program which they took to Manhattan, and reviews of ”War Horse,” ”Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” ”I Love Lucy: the Musical,” ”The Book of Mormon” and ”50 Shades: the Musical,” at Shea’s. Although the smaller theater groups are my personal favorites, I only attended one performance by them, in the past year: ”August: Osage County” at Kavinoky Theatre.

The fact that the winter of 2013-14 has been so severe is one reason their number has been so small. The column of interviews and the review of the performance of ”I Love Lucy: the Musical,” led to my great day of fun, running around Jamestown with the cast of that show, which was a bonus from that coverage. While interviewing the BPO’s music director, JoAnn Falletta, I was able to invite her to come to Jamestown, to be 2013’s Murray L. Bob Lecturer at the James Prendergast Library, which she did do, and which was a big bonus from that piece.

Canada is a country which in some ways is so much like our own country that people often forget that the money is different, it costs more postage to send a letter there, and you need a passport or a similar document in order to go there. Oh, yes. They actually do have a queen. Really. I’ve been accused by readers of having made that up. One thing Canada does better than we do, on the average, is the arts. We did one column about how to participate in the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, and one set of six reviews of plays from each of their 2013 seasons, so you could choose what to see, if you went. I see one of my duties in this job to keep you informed of what the possibilities are, so even if you can’t or you don’t participate, you make an informed decision on the subject.

Dunkirk and Fredonia drew us up to the Lake Erie shore for 12 different pieces. The university and the 1891 Fredonia Opera House were the main draws. At the university, we reviewed the Fredonia Dance Ensemble’s performance last February. We interviewed Dr. James Ivey and his talented students about their coming performance at the Jackson Center, in Jamestown. We reviewed ”School for Scandal,” ”Stop the World, I Want to Get Off,” ”The Diary of Anne Frank,” ”Moon Over Buffalo” and the performance in Rosch Recital Hall by Metropolitan Opera Star Dawn Upshaw.

At the Opera House, we reviewed two of the ”Bach and Beyond” Festival performances, the concert by crooner Michael Civisca and the high-definition showing of the live performance of ”The Nose,” by Dmitri Shostakovich. The ferocity of the past winter prevented at least two more coverages up there.

Jamestown Community College got reviews of excellent productions of ”Wait Until Dark,” and ”Anything Goes,” and I did an interview with Michael Kelly, who retired after nearly 40 years as the coordinator of music on the campus. I drove to Buffalo to do an interview with Westfield-born actor Tim Newell, because he was about to perform his one-man play about comic Jack Benny, in the Scharmann Theatre, because I wasn’t able to honor the college’s request for a review, because I had already promised to review the German brass musicians who were performing that same evening in Jamestown.

Among books and music recordings, there were six columns. I think literature is one of the most important art forms, and I think anti-intellectuals are constantly plotting to destroy reading altogether, and it is crucial that we read, and we encourage our youth to read. On the other hand, if I don’t read a book today, I can read it tomorrow, while if I don’t see a play today, there may not be another performance to attend, so the performance columns assume a greater urgency, which is not accurate. Among the books with local connection have been the book about Notable Women in New York History, published by the American Assn. of University Women, containing articles by two county writers, ”Come Home America,” both a recording and a social movement by SUNY Fredonia alum Marcus Goldhaber, ”Ball of Fire,” about Lucille Ball, and ”50 Classic Motion Pictures, by Mayville resident David Zinma. One of my favorite columns of the past year dealt with ”The Cave and the Light,” which deal with the constant struggle between believers of Plato and of Aristotle, and ”The Circle,” which imagines a day in the not very distant future, in which the computer has taken over our lives, far more effectively than the telescreens of George Orwell’s ”1984.”

I think we allow computers to take over more and more of our lives with equal wisdom to the frog in the classic myth, who agrees to ferry a scorpion across a river, because he’s sure the scorpion won’t hurt him.

That leaves the remaining category, which of course is no category at all. We wrote one column or article each about ”Twelve Angry Men,” and ”The Dining Room,” and ”Rebel Without a Cause,” and ”Annie” at Olean Community Theatre. It really isn’t far, nor a difficult drive, yet relatively few of our readers enjoy that company’s productions. We reviewed the excellent recitation with music of ”The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” by poet and storyteller Paul Leone.

We wrote a single piece about the Living Christmas Tree, and about both ”The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” and ‘Freud’s Last Session,” both by Winged Ox Players. We wrote once about the Bemus Point Methodist Church’s production of ”It’s a Wonderful Life,” and one about St. Luke’s Festival Choir’s performance of ”Ode for St. Cecelia’s Day.” The Lucy folks only invited us once – to the performance by comic Bill Engvall, which we enjoyed.

We wrote one piece about the library’s program to make the public more aware of the realities of Islam. There are whole television networks, determined to spread every lie and invention they can think of, to make us so afraid that we’ll watch their network and vote for their political party. It’s good that an occasional voice of sanity will speak out.

We did one interview and one review of JoAnn Falletta’s fascinating evening of chat at the library, we reviewed the community orchestra, once, and we did a preview of the fall arts season, back in early September. We did a column and a review of ”The Winning Streak” at the Spire, performed by Theatre for a Cause.

If we left anything out, I sincerely apologize. I sit surrounded by well over 1,200 pieces of newsprint, and the ease with which one might blow off the desk or stick to another piece, or slip under a desk calendar is beyond imagination. I think it gives you a grasp of what is happening in our community, in the field of the arts. In the words of Mrs. Willy Loman, ”Attention must be paid.”

HOW TO

If you wish to have an exhibit or a performance reviewed, all you have to do is to phone me at home, write me a note or send an email to pjcritic@yahoo.com. There is no charge. If I have already committed the evening of your performance, I will regretfully tell you so. If I’m available, I will want to discuss with you how I can get into your performance. I’d like to be able to buy tickets to everything I see, but if I did, I’d be bankrupt. Think about adding up the admission prices of everything listed above.

I always find it hard to believe, but there are some people who are afraid to be reviewed. Trust me, everything I write gets reviewed, some fairly, and some unfairly. But, I put my name on what I say, and stand by it. I can truthfully say I have never written something negative about something and hoped it would hurt someone’s feelings. I nearly always feel that I hope my reaction will help them to do it better, in the future. It’s wrong to be afraid of the truth.

If you look into a mirror, and the reflection shows that your tie is straight and your teeth are free of spinach, but the mirror lies, then you go through life looking like a bozo. That faulty mirror does you no favors. I have had a good education. I’ve been attending music performances and theatrical performances all my life, and exhaustingly so, for the past 34 years. My opinion isn’t flawless, but it’s consistent and positively intended. I’m willing to tell you what I think, and why.

If you want to be the subject of a whole column, I’m always looking for new subjects. It’s not unusual that a person or a group asks for a column, and then there is some change – perhaps the singer they were planning to sponsor becomes ill, and is unable to perform, for example. Then, I may be looking for a column subject at the last minute. Usually, though, people have booked columns well in advance. My deadline for columns is a week in advance. If you can’t get the information to me by then, I can’t write about it. This isn’t a whim, it’s fact.

This is a small community, and many of the things people say get back to me – and to everyone else in town, as well. Many people are certain I don’t like one or another organization or individual, because I don’t write about them, but they don’t ever ask to be written about. There are a few organizations which feel they are too good to request a review, and who think that our ”news sense” ought to make us want to review without being asked.

That is such a slap in the face to the other organizations and individuals who value what they do, as much as you do yours. The idea that one organization’s activities ought to be able to just push other groups’ work out of the newspaper is wrong. If you bring Luciano Pavarotti to town – whom I’ve selected to use as an example, because he’s dead, so I can’t be accused of favoring him or picking on him – we’ll write a news story about him. But, if you want his performance reviewed, you have to ask, so if John Smith is singing at the same time, he gets equal opportunity.

If I were the president of an institution or an organization, and I paid a salary to one or more individuals to get the word out of what I’m doing, and those publicists gave away the opportunity to have their information published free of charge because they find it convenient to send out information on Monday for the following Saturday, but our deadline is Saturday, not Monday, I would find myself a publicist who could work in the real world.

I love the arts and I love the community, and I love being able to do things for both. All-in-all, it’s been a great 34 years.