BY LEO ARTS WRITERS
Did the events and performances of 2006 make any difference in the overall vitality of Louisville’s arts scene? If so, how? Those who write about the arts for LEO took those questions to heart and surveyed the offerings served up to the public in 2006. Per usual, it was a smorgasbord, with fare ranging from the highbrow, such as Louisville Ballet’s showcase of pieces in its “Four for All” program, to lowbrow, such as the new city-sanctioned space for graffiti art on East Market Street. This range of choices encapsulates Louisville’s best attributes: a mix of creative organizations and events to serve almost any taste.
That’s quite a feat considering that just a year ago the Louisville Orchestra was on the brink of bankruptcy. The months that followed revealed no panacea for all that ails the orchestra, but there were positive developments that seemed somewhat miraculous: The musicians agreed to a contract that reduces wages and benefits considerably, thus allowing the orchestra to reorganize. And Brad Broecker, a Louisville arts heavyweight who’d built up the Broadway Series, took the reins of administration and led a bold effort to increase the orchestra’s visibility, audience and earnings.
LEO would love to see that kind of drive behind arts in all corners of the community, with matching resources and audiences to promote excellence. That’s the jumping off point for various assessments by LEO writers about the Year in Louisville Arts: 2006. —Elizabeth Kramer
The return of Jorge Mester: The Big Event for the Louisville Orchestra was bringing former music director Jorge Mester back to the symphony he once so ably led. (Mester succeeded Louisville Orchestra founder Robert Wagner in 1967 and lifted the group to what many believe are the finest notes it has ever produced.) After a long period of financial turmoil, dwindling audiences and uninspired performances, and in the midst of what seemed to be an interminable (and fruitless) search for a new director, the orchestra’s search committee suddenly pulled a conductor out of the hat. In a surprise announcement in August, Mester was signed to guide again the musical fortunes of the Louisville Orchestra. He has already conducted one concert here and will be more fully involved in upcoming seasons.
Now, the music is better, the audiences are enthusiastic, and the symphony seems to be surging back to life.
Now if they only had a new place to play. That’s No. 1 on my wish list. — Bill Doolittle
Playing the repertory, right up to the minute: The Louisville Youth Orchestra has certainly achieved what its founders hoped: an opportunity for the area’s top school-aged musicians to play in a first-class, fully instrumented orchestra. (Three orchestras, in fact, from novice to most accomplished.) With full string sections, the orchestra can play music from the entire classical repertory — from Ludwig von Beethoven to Ferde Grofe.
That repertory expanded this season when the orchestra performed a new piece by Joan Tower called “Made in America,” one of just four youth symphonies to premiere the work. Under the baton of director Jason Seber, they nailed it. (Note to veterans of Youth Orchestras
past: On the same November program, the LYO also performed the exotic “Capriccio Espanol.” At the end the kids were thrilled with their performance, just like we were — a few years ago.) — Bill Doolittle
“Mors et Vita”: The musical event of Events was the Barry Bingham Jr.
Memorial Concert — not because the social register was out in force to honor the late Bingham, but because of the music. With a full orchestra, full chorus and four outstanding vocalists, producer Deborah Sandler and director James Rightmyer were able to present a major work called “Mors et Vita,” by Charles Gounod — and brought down the house at Comstock Hall. “Mors et Vita” is almost unknown in the classical repertory, but Bingham asked that the piece be performed as a free concert for the public after his death. Sandler said she could find no record of “Mors et Vita” being played previously in the United States. But after its success here, the 1885 piece might finally find its way into further performances. — Bill Doolittle Soprano singing in “Lucia”: Audiences raved about the raving Lucia di Lammermoor after soprano Angela Gilbert lifted the famous role of Lucia to spectacular heights during Kentucky Opera’s December staging. Ms. Gilbert carried the notes to the furthest reaches of cavernous Whitney Hall and delivered the drama of the tragic Lucia, finally gone mad with romantic despair, treating opera lovers to both the music and the acting. It was further proof that in classical music you usually get what you pay for. The highly acclaimed Gilbert commands a far higher fee than Kentucky Opera can normally can afford, but she and tenor Scott Ramsey were hired through the first grant from Campaign for Artistic Excellence, founded by Louisvillians Ian and Roberta Henderson. —Bill Doolittle
For love of musicals: I confess, musical theater wasn’t one of my favorite things. But after this year, I now appreciate them for what they are — dramatic candy. And I’m a woman who loves candy! They may not be brain food, but they stick like taffy to teeth. Standouts this year include Music Theatre Louisville’s presentation of “Brigadoon”
on a pleasant late summer evening at Iroquois Park. With a superb sound system, lavish sets evoking the Scottish Highlands and bright kilts and finery, this production was a treat for the eyes and ears.
And the singing wasn’t bad either! Unforgettable performances include Dewey Caddell’s poignant rendition of “Come to Me, Bend to Me” and the dance solos of Robert McFarland and Amanda Lee Anderson. Other musical gems include anything done by Clarksville Little Theater, a diamond in the rough.
The As-Yet-Unnamed Theatre Company’s presentation of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” had many rousing performances, especially the frightening “Madame Guillotine,” led by Gary Tipton. Edward Adamson’s portrayal of aristocratic Percy Blakeney, aka The Scarlet Pimpernel, was top- notch. I hope to hear Jennifer Poliskie’s beautiful voice again. — Sherry Deatrick
More love. Another standout was Actors Theater of Louisville’s season
opener, “My Fair Lady,” directed by Amanda Dehnert, who originated
this new version of the musical while associate artistic director of
Trinity Repertory Company. The production displayed a new dynamism by
immediately smashing the musical’s traditional staging — both
onscreen and onstage. With many Trinity Rep actors from Dehnert’s
original cast, this production transformed the stage of the Pamela
Brown Auditorium into a rehearsal space, complete with bare floors,
exposed brick, a piano and actors milling about while warming up
their vocal cords and stretching their limbs. While “My Fair Lady”
has been a crowd-pleaser for decades, this rendition was one of the
finest musicals Actors has staged in some time. — Dana Feldman
But seriously, folks: Turning to more serious drama, the ATL
production of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” was easily the best
of 2006. Filled with Vodoun imagery, Citizen Barlow’s ritual journey
to the City of Bones sent chills down my spine. Pat Bowie’s reading
of Aunt Ester, the 285-year-old crone, was sheer genius. Plot plays
second fiddle to myth here, a hallmark of great drama, as it calls to
the ancestors who live within us.
Another ATL highlight was the flawless presentation of Chaim Potok’s
“The Chosen,” ostensibly a heartwarming story about two Jewish boys
but really a heated tug-of-war between proponents of Zionism and
those who question the wisdom of establishing a Jewish state before
the Messiah has appeared. —Sherry Deatrick
Homecoming, part I: Of all the major performances I’ve seen, the
Louisville Ballet’s premiere of “Liturgy” was one of the most
mesmerizing. In early November, Wendy Whelan, a Louisville native and
New York City Ballet principal dancer, along with fellow principal
dancer Albert Evans, performed this intricate and physically
demanding piece by resident NYC Ballet choreographer Christopher
Wheeldon. It required dancers to bend and wrap around each other in
ways that seemed to defy physics and push the limits of the body,
into complicated geometry while maintaining constant grace amid the
steady yet frantic rhythms of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, for Violin,
Strings, and Percussion. The dancers elicited a highly deserved
standing ovation. It’s too bad the house wasn’t completely full; it’s
a shame for any arts or dance devotee to have missed this. —Elizabeth
The debutante of dance: The crown goes to Empujon, the new
contemporary dance troupe headed by Louisville Ballet dancer David
Ingram. He debuted his company and choreography in the gallery space
at the 21C Museum Hotel in August, to a standing-room-only crowd.
(Granted, that’s not much of a stretch as the space isn’t large
enough to accommodate a dance area and an audience. But there were
more than 150 people there to witness this significant event.)
Ingram’s pieces, performed by a talented company that included many
Louisville Ballet members, always maintained fluidity, even amid some
of the more jagged movements and a piece that incorporated a singer
and cello. At the foundation, all of his work included movements that
evoked emotion. The debut was promoted as a vehicle to “tease the
audience into a planned summer 2007 season.” LEO looks forward to
seeing what Ingram and company present once the weather warms. —
The new mistress: She’s visually stunning and pretty easy (yes, you
can stay the night for a price). She is the 21C Museum Hotel, an
unusual combination of hotel and contemporary art venue that opened
in March, to much heralding here and far beyond. The renovated
buildings at Main and Seventh streets gained notice from national
newspapers and magazines and a “Best of the Year 2006” award from
Interior Design magazine. Its rotating permanent collection is always
worth a look, since it’s practically guaranteed to prompt discussion,
and the temporary exhibitions, such as this fall’s offering of works
by John Waters, are thought-provoking. —Jo Anne Triplett
Homecoming, part II: Internationally known abstract artist Sam
Gilliam made his hometown one stop for his retrospective exhibition.
The Speed Art Museum was one of only four venues that featured the
show, which covered his 45-year career. The Corcoran Gallery of Art
in Washington, D.C., originated the retrospective, with more than 40
“greatest hits” that included his drapes, collages and constructions.
This exhibition illustrated Gilliam’s inventive techniques, which
prompt viewers to look at color, shape, texture and space in new
ways, and why he is one of the masters of contemporary abstract art. —
Jo Anne Triplett
Surviving on the scene: “Emerging” artists in Louisville have started
to receive a healthy amount of attention. But after the first “buzz”
is gone, some artists hit the hard wall of reality (especially in a
limited market like Louisville). Those who meet this title with
discipline, growth and maturity — such as Sarah Lyon and Letitia
Quesenberry — often outperform the original scene that launched them.
Lyon’s work in The New Center’s “Nowhere” exhibition, organized by
the Speed’s Julien Robsen, seemed perfectly suited to the theme of
the show. In fact, her large-scale photographs seemed to do most of
the heavy lifting on that front. Without them, the exhibition, which
went to Graz, Austria and was on display in Louisville in the spring,
conveyed few serious impressions of what kind of place Louisville
really is. Lyon seems blessed with an eye for the overlooked, ignored
and shut out. You walk away from the photos humbled by how little we
look and how often we see even less. (An exhibition of new works from
Lyon opens Jan. 5 at Zephyr Gallery.)
While the word “ideas” is a buzzword in the Louisville art scene, it
too often is used to imply that emotional expression, material
sensuality and artistic skill are somehow suspect, passe or
reactionary. The result can be art that is better in theory than as a
comprehensive human experience. Enter Letitia Quesenberry — who, yes,
has a lot of ideas — and demonstrates a high degree of skill and
extreme sensitivity to the use of her materials. Her show at Zephyr
in April showed that drawing is too often underestimated as a medium.
In her hands, you have to take it seriously. —Bruce Linn
Taking it to the streets: The Experimental Urban Art Project, one of
the few legal graffiti art sites in America, opened in October.
Spearheaded by artist Jeral Tidwell and sponsored by the Mayor’s
Committee on Public Art, there is an ever-changing wall of color
bordering Market Street between Hancock and Jackson streets. If
Tidwell has his way, it will be part of the national — nay,
international — graffiti circuit, drawing the best the field has to
offer. The project has already spawned an offshoot; in early December
the “Fleur de Lis on Main” condominium development held a 10-day
Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax: Meanwhile, Louisville plays host
to events with speakers from the arts world beyond our borders and
some who used to live within them. One noteworthy event — let’s call
it the “under-the-radar” event of the year — was the Hite Art
Institute’s October lecture by David “Jelly” Helm. Helm made his
career in advertising, working on accounts for Nike and the like, but
during the lecture, it was the artists in the audience he won over.
You see, Helm is an articulate spokesman for ethics in advertising
and a champion for creative integrity. His get-out-the-vote campaign,
“We decide,” was moving. At turns charismatic, earnest and self-
deprecating, he made you start to believe the system just might be
saved from within. On top of that, it was a homecoming: Helm received
his undergraduate degree from the U of L’s Hite and fronted the band
Led Pelvis in the mid-1980s, which played often at the legendary
Tewligan’s Tavern. —Bruce Linn
The year also witnessed a changing of the guard, as it were, of some
of Louisville’s arts administration corps. Besides the changes at the
Louisville Orchestra, the Kentucky Opera bid farewell to Deborah
Sandler and welcomed David Roth to the position of general director.
It also saw Scott Dowd take over as director of marketing and
communications from Steve Kelley, who consistently demonstrated his
passion for the art form while in Louisville. After Kelley took a job
with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Dowd took over that role after
also working with the orchestra as a consultant during the past year.
This is just one sign of increasing cooperation between the
organizations that could help strengthen both.
And over at Actors Theater, the community saw the retirement of long-
time managing director Sandy Speer, who is rightly credited for his
work with Jon Jory to build the organization into the behemoth it is
in American theater today. His replacement, Jennifer Bielstein, comes
from Chicago, where she has been heralded for increasing
subscriptions. —Elizabeth Kramer