Move Over, J.T.: “Carolina’s Calling Me”

Are you sick and tired of being sick and tired from North Carolina’s political implosion? Worn out with the shame and sorrow caused by the UNC athletics cheating? Yeah, me too. We’ve just elected the alpha dog of meanness to the US Senate;  the “Carolina Way” turns out to be an ugly scam. Every day it looks worse. But you know what? Leave the rotten athletics out of the picture, and the Carolina we love is still there.

This hit home last night at a swell concert at Carolina Performing Arts. A sold-out concert at Memorial Hall, that special place preserving the memory of the founders and shapers of the oldest state university in the country (something not even the ravening destroyers of the current General Assembly can take away). A concert of hot music and smart lyrics by–yes!–two bands that got their starts at UNC-Chapel Hill. The four members of Mipso graduated just this past May; the founding members of the Steep Canyon Rangers are Class of 1999.

Mipso at the Longview during Raleigh's IBMA bluegrass fest in October. L to R: Jacob Sharp, Wood Robinson, Libby Rodenbough, Joseph Terrell. Photo: Dan Schram.

Mipso at the Longview during Raleigh’s IBMA bluegrass fest in October. L to R: Jacob Sharp, Wood Robinson, Libby Rodenbough, Joseph Terrell. Photo: Dan Schram.

The  Mipso quartet are all North Carolina bred and born. They jumped into the river of music as it came to them, and in the manner of bands like The Stray Birds or the Black Lillies or Chatham County Line, they are weaving the strands of Americana into fresh songs for this century. In some ways, a better comparison might be with Tift Merritt, that Carolina almost-alumna with the big heart and the poetic lyrics riding on her sweet tunes. As did Tift, the three men of Mipso studied writing with the great writer-musician Bland Simpson, and you can hear the connection in the simplicity of their stylings and the plain honesty of their songs.

Mipso larks about on stage, making jokes and inserting funny musical quotes, and are clearly amazed and delighted that their dream is coming true–they’ve been touring this country and Japan since graduation–and (gasp) that they been able to buy a mini-van. “It’s silver, a Honda Odyssey. It’s got, like, 18 cup holders!” Success is measured in many ways, and one of them is whether you can fit coffee into a moving vehicle packed with four musicians, their kit and all their instruments, including a stand-up bass.

But for all their fresh youth, there’s a lot of wisdom in their songs, and a purity of emotion that is well-served by their near-grass instrumentation of guitar, mandolin, bass and fiddle, and their three- and four-part harmonies. (Last year, guitarist Joseph Terrell won a song-writing contest at MerleFest (honoring Merle Watson, who died before they were born), and the band has been invited to play there in 2015.) They played older songs and ones not yet recorded, but the touchstone for the evening was “Carolina Calling,” from their 2013 album Dark Holler Pop. You can hear it, and see a charming video of its being recorded, on their website. It may not overtake James Taylor’s 1968 “Carolina in Mind,” but it stands a chance, and, you can dance to it. “Must be Carolina calling me, reminding us of how we ought to be…”

The Steep Canyon Rangers at a previous MerleFest. Photo: Greg Lawler.

The Steep Canyon Rangers at a previous MerleFest. Photo: Greg Lawler.

Mipso reveled in joy of coming home to a packed house as long as they could before giving the stage over to the “one of our favorite bands!” the Steep Canyon Rangers. Now based in Asheville, that six-man troupe is 15 years more polished–I mean, suits and all, y’all–with a big sound genealogically much closer to classic bluegrass than Mipso’s. Success is not so new to them (they’re Grammy-winners; they’ve recently been touring big venues with Steve Martin and Edie Brickell), but they haven’t forgotten where home is, either. Lead singer/guitarist/founder Woody Platt sneaked  a line about goin’ to Caroline into “Old 97,” while fiddler Nicky Sanders drove the train. Mad props to Sanders for mad fiddling! He danced all around the stage, sawing the strings off his bow, but he was wearing soft shoes, so you couldn’t hear his feet. But, drummer Michael Ashworth has a “box kit” with which he could make as much clacking clogging sound as needed. Mike Guggino blistered his mandolin, going far into high lonesome territory. Graham Sharp’s banjo bubbled through every song, and his deep voice gave serious resonance to the vocals, where Charles Humphrey’s bass doubled it. (If you missed their triumphal return to UNC, or even if you didn’t, you can catch them tonight, Nov. 15, on A Prairie Home Companion, beginning at 6 EST. Maybe they’ll play their new song “Radio” on the radio. They’ll also be playing Raleigh’s  Lincoln Theater Jan. 24.)

It was a smashing set, but the sweetest song came at the end, when the Rangers invited Mipso back for an encore, and the younger musicians placed themselves next to the older, fiddle by fiddle, bass by bass, mandolins in tandem, and guitars together. Tall Woody Platt stepped back and let shorter Joseph Terrell lead the singing on a beautiful gospel-inflected tune. When the two front men left the stage, their arms were wrapped about the other’s shoulders, one reaching down, the other reaching up. That’s the Carolina way.


Without the consolidated University of North Carolina, we’d be in a world of hurt. Here are a few completely random observations about its limitless value.

Ask all the North Carolinians you meet, and a high percentage of them will tell you that they heard their first live classical music when they went to school at one of UNC’s branches.

The underwater archeology department at ECU is working on the ship of the most famous pirate of all, the dangerous and wily Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. If you think rural eastern NC doesn’t love its major university, you have never crossed the border into the Pirate Nation.

Whenever I need to acquire some horticultural fact, I turn to “the people’s university,” our land grant college NC State, with its incredible Cooperative Extension network. http://gardening.ces.ncsu.edu

Recently in the fabric store in Carrboro, a young man came in, looking for just the right interfacing. All the women in the store wanted to know where he’d been so long–turned out he’s doing his senior year of high school at the UNC School of the Arts, where he’s studying costume design. “It’s one of the top schools for it,” he said. “I want to go to college there, too, because I’m sure I’ll be able to get work with a degree from there.”

Study the rosters of major dance companies. In many, you’ll find dancers who received their training at UNCSA.

I’m a UNC-G alumna. Back then, the former women-only school still did not have any sports but intra-murals, and everybody got along just fine.

Recently, the students at ASU voted in droves, despite all attempts to deter them.

Before ECU had a medical school, people in the whole eastern swath of the state had to go to Raleigh or UNC Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill.

While on the topic of medicine–UNC’s the place where a skinny girl from Burgaw can rub shoulders in the lab with a Senator’s son, and receive a doctorate in neurobiology on her way to becoming a medical doctor. At NC State, she took a triple major and double minor in sciences, and when she got into medical school, she found she was far better prepared than her cohort who’d been to “the best” private schools.

Walker Percy went to UNC.

Today at the Farmers Market in Durham, there was an info table about AgrAbility, http://www.ncagrability.com. A cooperative project utilizing the resources of NC A&T, NC State, ECU and other organizations, its focus is helping farmers and gardeners keep on keeping on despite arthritis and other disabilities. Since the only thing more important than art is food, locally grown, I say, thanks to the university system.

INTO THE WOODS: A Grimm Fantasy Musical at PlayMakers Rep

Lisa Brescia and Carey Cox as The Witch and her daughter Rapunzel. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Lisa Brescia and Carey Cox as The Witch and her daughter Rapunzel, in the PlayMakers Repertory Company’s staging of INTO THE WOODS, the 1987 Sondheim/Lapine musical. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, che la diritta via era smarrita.        –Dante.  

(In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.     –Durling translation.)

I think kids now get their lessons in the darker, less manageable aspects of life’s passions and exigencies from other sources, but one of my literary primers was the set of Grimm and Anderson tales that I received long before I could read it for myself. I pored over those baffling stories again and again with fascination and horror, many years before learning about metaphors or Dante or Jungian archetypes. The idea of archetypes–universally shared symbols and stories–was having a heyday in the 198os, and, like the magic beanstalk, up sprang Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical of and about a certain set of archetypal stories.  A mash-up before mash-up was cool, Into The Woods, utilizes well-known characters from several fairy tales, but mixes together their stories, then turns them inside out and upside down–the better to eat you with, my dear.

The PlayMakers Repertory Company revival of Into The Woods is, in a word, enchanting.

The enchantments in fairy tales can all be broken, but the spell of PRC’s Into The Woods,  may be immutable. Directed by Joseph Haj, it is a fine piece of work by all involved. I can’t find a damn thing in November 8′s opening performance to quibble about, except for the fact we don’t get to actually see the giant whose voice we hear (Kathryn Hunter-Williams). The storyline is super-smart without being full of itself. Its humor makes most of its hard truths go down like candy (although those two-timing princes will always break a girl’s heart). The band (led by Jay Wright; music supervision by Mark Hartman), perched high above the set’s treetops, does a brisk job with Sondheim’s darkly shaded tunes, without escalating the volume too high. Sondheim’s catchy, incisive lyrics often amaze with their piled-up rhymes, and the cast handles them well, sometimes beautifully. The actors wear headset microphones, but the sound system and its operators were all working correctly on opening day, and every word was clearly audible. Bill Brewer’s brilliant costuming is a delight throughout, and on the bodies of lesser actors, could easily have been the main attraction.  Marion Williams set, with its dark wood enclosed by towering, skewed, bookcases and thousands of books, literally visualizes the play’s kernel: life is bounded by our stories.

The cast is large and, uniformly, up to the challenges of multiple stories intersecting more or less simultaneously. When everyone sings his or her own story at the same time, you may think you’ve strayed into a Robert Altman film. But it’s a lovely device, the strands of words braiding together like Rapunzel’s hair, long and strong enough to pull us up into the tower of song. Guest artists Lisa Brescia and Garrett Long are both superb, as The Witch and The Baker’s Wife, respectively, and PRC company member Julia Gibson stands out as Jack’s Mother. Caroline Strange gives Cinderella a gallant heart and quite a backbone, while fellow MFA candidate Gregory DeCandia demonstrated conclusively that the big bad Wolf and Prince Charming share one skin.

This doubling echoes that of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (see my CVNC review), which PRC is performing in rotation with Into The Woods. You can double up and gorge on both the plays on Nov. 22 and Dec. 6, or you can see them on adjacent days through Dec. 7. It’s really a wonderful combination.

Some believe that humans are storytellers; others believe that the stories tell us. Whichever, there’s definitely a symbiotic relationship going–each requires the other, just like the cozy library needs the dark woods for its material, and the selva oscura requires the library to reveal its meanings.

Jessica Sorgi as Little Red Riding Hood and Gregory DeCandia as the Wolf, in PRC's INTO THE WOODS. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Jessica Sorgi as Little Red Riding Hood and Gregory DeCandia as the Wolf, in PRC’s INTO THE WOODS. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Curlew River: Benjamin Britten’s musical drama in a new, powerful staging at Carolina Performing Arts

And you know that she’s half crazy 
But that’s why you want to be thereLeonard Cohen, “Suzanne,” 1966

We tend to think of the multi-cultural impulse in art making as being something quite recent, but, of course artists and other culture-makers have been mining the art of others forever. The 20th century British composer Benjamin Britten, for instance,  jumped the gap between Western church music and Japanese Noh drama with his 1964 Curlew River: A Parable for Church Performance. It has been given a new staging by a consortium of producers: Carolina Performing Arts, teamed with CalArts Berkeley, Lincoln Center, and the Barbican Centre, London. The extraordinary visual design by Netia Jones supplements the haunting music and transportive singing. The work permeates your senses with the help of clouds of incense; it etches your heart with sorrow and hope that there might truly be solace in knowledge despite the bitterness found in the pursuit of it.

This beautiful, honest and highly unusual production repeats in UNC’s Memorial Nov. 7 at 8 p.m.

In the 1950s, Britten traveled to Japan, where he saw a performance of a Noh play (belonging to the category monoguruinoh, the drama of madness), in which a mother, mad with grief and fear, searches for her lost son. He was deeply moved, and with his partner, tenor Peter Pears, and librettist William Plomer, began to create the work that became Curlew River. (Curlews are curved-billed shore birds that feed on things not visible from the surface, and are abundant in East Anglia, where Britten spent his youth.) Many Japanese aspects of the Madwoman’s story were anglicized, others mirror English and Christian traditions–both use symbolism, like the river and the cross(roads) that has emerged from the human psyche around the world. The river here both divides and connects worlds and their spiritual pursuits. And like a river, the music flows seamlessly between the Western and the Eastern, while the English libretto sometimes swirls into Latin ecclesiastical chants, with the occasional outburst of the more ancient Greek cry: Kyrie eleison!

Lord have mercy, indeed. Any one part of this production could flatten you. The design creates what is essentially a thrust stage that is also a projection screen. Upstage, at the end of the long pier/path/river, a simple boat form is moored–it also receives projected video and still imagery. All is black, white and shades of gray. As in the physical staging of the singers, ceaseless motion contrasts with perfect stillness. To one side the six musicians (flute, viola, harp, horn, percussion and double bass) of the Britten Sinfonia perform the exquisite score with its thrilling combinations of tones and styles and textures, while in the central area, the Britten Sinfonia Voices sing the chants and choruses. On one side of the stage area runs a path of rocks, over which the chorus crunches as they enter and leave, and on which they stand motionless when not singing. Their stillness on the uneven rocks was profoundly affecting.

Ian Bostridge, tenor, as The Madwoman in Curlew River. Photo: Mark Allan.

Ian Bostridge, tenor, as The Madwoman in Curlew River. Photo: Mark Allan.

The Madwoman is sung by tenor Ian Bostridge, whose range includes high attenuated keening but also a kind of deep howling that belies his slender frame, and which he punctuates with icily articulated demands. Our attraction to the Madwoman is only increased by Ian Scott’s bold lighting choices, which keep Bostridge’s face in shadow until nearly the end.

Mark Stone, baritone, is outstanding as the The Ferryman, very clear in his singing and commanding in his stage presence. Like all Ferrymen, he has a certain distance on the travails of all who pass his way. “What is the use of tears/Whom can your weeping help?/No, rather say a prayer/That in the other world/The soul of your child/May rest in peace.”

Jeremy White as The Abbot, and Neal Davies as The Traveler are also very fine. When 13-year-old David Schneidinger sang as the Spirit of the Boy, holy doves flew into my heart. Or perhaps they were curlews, with their instinctive knowledge of lives present but unseen.

But I think you could hear Britten’s music without the singing or the amazing visuals and still go on the same journey–the sounds propel you along a definite path through the labyrinth of emotion. Another thing that interests me about it, is that it somehow seems well-fixed in its time–50 years ago the same boundless longing gave itself voice in many kinds of music. However, none of them are out of date.

 

No use crying, talking to a stranger,
Naming the sorrows you’ve seen.  
Too many sad times, too many bad times,
And nobody knows what you mean.

Ah, but if somehow you could pack up your sorrows,
And give them all to me,
You would lose them, I know how to use them,
Give them all to me.

(From “Pack Up Your Sorrows,” by Richard Farina and Pauline Baez Marden, on Richard and Mimi Farina’s 1965 Vanguard album Celebrations for a Grey Day.)

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