A Country Rag
Recounting of a few selected out of many regional events celebrating the Christmas season through various performing arts and by multiply talented and dedicated artists, volunteer and professional.
Asheville NC -- The two-hour Christmas Parade begins a little after 11 a.m. as scheduled. Leading is a police honor guard of four men and a woman all hoisting flags of the United States, North Carolina, and that city, followed by a horse-drawn Biltmore Estate carriage driven by a girl and carrying men in tails and black top hats. Workers for the Humane Society wearing reindeer antlers atop their heads trail walking dogs of all description dressed for holidays and draped in signs saying "Adopt me." Small wrapped festive candies are thrown out to the children and adults sitting up front on the curbs or chairs. Artists with the Center for Performing Arts appear in black with white shirts and top hats, and one cradling a sleeping baby, appear. Next are the Cub Scouts, a little rough-looking in comparison. There are entrants from 105.9 "The Mountain," 96.5 rock radio, Bojangles, Grace United Methodist Church float and members giving out cards with a penny affixed to each for the kids, and live musicians drawn in a wagon from Gift of Music. Then come members of a children's school all attired in tie-dyed t-shirts and a bus full of children waving from Frances Delaney "creating social activists" New School. The Lighthouse Baptist Church has adults dressed in white robes and a large cross with reference to John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.").
Children in the cast of "Sleeping Beauty" represent the Asheville Arts Center. Live musicians perform. Super puppets and the Teacher of the Year appear. The Blue Ridge Roller Girls skate by and the Tech College blares out rock 'n' roll. The King of Glory Church in Swannanoa presents their children with the peace sign followed by little girls dancing to the tune of "We will rock you." Fire engines precede the Enka Jets Marching Band playing religious music like "O Come, Let Us Adore Him," as they follow their troupe of baton twirlers. Flag dancers appear and Berea Baptist Church, with the insignia "Jesus is the reason for the season," pulls a wagon saying, "God's little creation" with a living creche atop. The sounds of "All My Rowdy Friends" approach with members of A Dance Theatre jazz-dancing along. The blonde Miss Asheville and Outstanding Teen drive by followed by CARE Partners. The Erwin Marching Band with "good wishes to our troops" is playing "Hark The Herald Angels Sing," and, my favorite, a lot of variously instrumented drummers falls in behind them.
The Christian Action Kids, Adventure Education TAASC Sport for Kids, many motorcycle riders, Miss North Carolina International, Ingles, 570 radio with blues being played on an electric guitar, Parrot Head Club, the Downtown Alliance, Family Church, Tai Kwan Do, the Arts Center performers, and a good-size clown troupe go by. Etcetera. You get the idea. There are costumed ballerinas dancing in soft shoe and on point, unicyclists, more marching bands, the City Chickens, singers and actors, hoola hoopers, biodeisel vehicles, bicyclists, more single and band musicians. The man standing beside me and I tap, clap and dance as they all pass, then smile and thank each other for being good street neighbors as the last floats pass. The huge crowd of all ages and descriptions massed along blocks of sidewalks on both sides of Patton Avenue begins to drift off and disperse into restaurants, side streets, galleries and shops.
I've stopped, as ever, at Malaprops Bookstore earlier for a breakfast pastry and choose to walk downhill to the Used Bookstore for browsing through their phenomenal array of worldwide magazines, books, regional hardcopy, and a bin of some giveaway books. On my way back to the parking lot, it occurs to me on passing that I've never seen the inside of the antique mart. It turns out to be a huge interior with many and diverse booths and merchandise. There's an excellent sale table way in the back, so I leave with a bag full of treasures like a covered and fluted milkglass dish with hand-painted flowers on top for three dollars and a tallish narrow candle holder containing colored and delicate sand art of desert, cactus, mountains, rainbow, and eagle flying for a dollar and a half. Earlier, the Kress Emporium, which is like a two-story museum of innovatively modern to antique to homespun art planet-wide but concentrating on that region, has left me with a few affordable gifts also for carrying and giving on Christmas day. Going through the parking garage from an unfamiliar entranceway, I get lost on the elevator trying to find my car. A man who joins me laughs and suggests the third floor when I offer the street name, and I find my car there.
Fortunately, there's a space right in front of the Haen Gallery so I'm able easily to enjoy the exhibit/reception of work by G. C. Myers and compliment the owner on his consistent choices of excellently unusual, break-out art and artists who are always in attendance too. This time, Mr. Myers presents an introductory lecture and dialogue after which red and white wine, crackers and cheeses, small desserts, bakery breads and spreads are served buffet-style. With the handout of Myers' statement and background that I pick up on the way out, there is a printing of his poem dated November 2008 and entitled "Now..."
Now is a powerful time.
Now is a time for action, to move ahead with all intent.
We cannot stop on our chosen path now and peer back into the mist behind and try to retrace our steps -- the past tells us only how we came to this point. Now.
Nor can we pause on our way and look to some far and distant point ahead of us. That lies too far in the future and is nothing without our action. Now.
We have charted our course and we must focus on the path immediately before us, to make each step with all determination because now is a time for action.
This is what I see in much of this work, moments caught just as a decision is made to proceed ahead. I see a lot of determination in this work, perhaps shaped by the time in which most of this work was created, a time of renewed political spirit among many who have decided that this was indeed a time for action, a time to stand up and be heard.
The time is now.
The drive home is uneventful and it seems fairly soon that I'm back sleepily in Jonesborough after nearly ten hours "on the road."
Elizabethton TN -- Milligan College has advertised widely and well its "Yuletide Jazz" concert and the parking lot is full when I arrive, but fortunately there's a space left on the side street leading up to it. Up to it is right too. It's quite a hike in a circle winding upwards onto a hilltop to get to the front doors of Seeger Chapel, the institution's beautiful site for many performances with an ample stage and large audience sections, including a balcony on three sides, and all graced by artfully famous, storied stained glass windows. There turns out to be an overflow crowd for the free performance by the Jazz Ensemble featuring Dave Morgan, whose wife is an alumni and former professor of the College, on vibraphone and vocals. You really haven't lived until you've heard and seen excellent jazz played on a vibraphone. I didn't know that previously, but I do now. Mr. Morgan might be considered an elderly gentlemen by some just passing but ... he's really in his prime and a total joy to watch and hear musically. It also turns out that the band director, Rick Simerly, plays a mean trombone. I've not before particularly liked or appreciated that instrument, but his mastery is ... soooooo oooo unusual and good that I have a whole new perspective on it. And, of course, his ability to keep the musicians together during their pieces with enthusiasm and comraderie is also excellent.
At the very beginning of the concert, all the lights go out, the crowd hushes, and we begin to hear brass playing individually from different places in the auditorium, including the balcony where I am sitting in the middle. Then percussion comes in from the stage. And finally lights come on as the electric guitarists start playing. I never heard jazz on that instrument before either and also enjoy that experience. The acoustic and electric pianist is Mark Thie, the same marvelous one who played at the Blue Plum Festival so entertainingly. Finally, the rest of the brass comes on stage and everyone in the ensemble plays. The group is all male and wearing black suits with white shirts. Despite being completely Caucasian, no one anywhere could deny honestly and knowledgeably that they have a lotta soul. Rick Simerly explains during a pause that they started practicing for their first concert of that type after eight years of other jazz work together in August 2008. They all felt it to be a strange but necessary time of year to be playing Christmas carols and met every Monday night thereafter for at least two to three hours to create the musical event gratis, but with donations requested without any hard-sell, that we are so fortunate to witness and enjoy this evening. Everyone in the audience loves it all with frequent and enthusiastic applause and cheers, and a standing ovation at the end. We file back to our cars and out through the seasonally lighted stone entrance/exit back onto Milligan Highway.
Johnson City TN -- Ballet being a somewhat esoteric taste and skill, the beautiful old Veterans Administration Memorial Theatre on the ETSU campus with its semi-circular balcony boxes is only about three-quarters full with an audience variously attired, including a few little girls in long holiday dresses and shiny black patent leather shoes. As part of his introduction, the wonderfully talented middle-aged man (David Clinkscales), who plays Scrooge to a humorous and antic "T," explains mime to the children and assures them their hearing has not become impaired upon its appearance on stage. Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" is presented in four colorfully and diversely costumed scenes by dancers of the City Youth Ballet of Johnson City, which includes six athletic and graceful teenage men and a few younger boys. The performing even includes some tumbling acrobatics by two girls particularly and three superb and outstanding ballerinas (Christa Rockney, Hannah Dunbar, and Edith Dunbar) en pointe representing the spirits of Christmas past, present and future in white, green, and black. There is a fair division between toe and soft shoes throughout. The sets include swirling smoke where appropriate and the dancers stay in sync when needed in duos to ensemble, receiving an enthusiastic and long standing ovation before the curtain comes down.
On my way back to the car, I notice another with bumper stickers reading, "Marine Corps," "Korean Vet," and "Bark less, wag more." Further along, one sports "COEXIST" spelled out in symbols of the world's major religions (with a cross for the "T" for instance) and "Support Individuality." Mine can be located among the many other red compacts of various make by the Asheville-originated sticker with a lotus and saying, "May respect and tolerance increase," and one from the Appalachian Fair reading, "Peace Corps." Finding my way out of the labyrinth that is the VA complex of many roads and builsing, the grace of form, dress and expertise lingers in my mind as I pass lighted Christmas decorations on houses and yards along the old and curving two-lane Jonesborough Highway. Nearly losing control as the car skids and swerves suddenly, I snap to attention thinking it's developed a flat tire, but it turns out to be ice over a flat bridge after that snowy day. Before settling in to home, I save a lot of money at 24-hour Ingles grocery store by purchasing nearly everything on sale at half-price or less, more than compensating for the $10 ballet ticket price and not even taking into account savings that afternoon from art gathered at the GoodWill Store for fifty percent off their original low prices and including a matted cross painted a few decades ago with delicate innovation on dark blue silk by an orphaned Czech teenager, now glassed, framed and hanging near the multiply-decorated and festively diverse Christmas tree. I turn on the little mini-stereo to start seasonal "praise music" playing and fall asleep soon thereafter to a kaleidescope of holiday sounds and scenes now, in memory, and yet-to-be here on planet Earth, the third one from our particular sun in a very crowded galaxy amidst a magically populous and universal mystery.
Elizabethton TN -- The following evening, Sunday, Milligan College's Music Department puts on yet another well-rehearsed and coordinated blow-out performance, which entitled altogether "A Milligan College Community Christmas." The suggested donation of five dollars goes to 13-year-old Small Miracles, "a therapeutic horseback riding center.... Of their current 50 clients about two thirds... have some form of disability. The other third is comprised of young people with behavioral issues...." Seeger Chapel, with its beautifully-storied stained glass windows and near-wraparound balcony, is nearly full, so the collection is probably substantial, as some of the audience contributes quite a bit more and there are probably some who have nothing to give this year too. Dr. David Runner on the organ opens the program and then the full orchestra conducted by Dr. Kellie Brown joins in. The awesomely talented Rick Simerly again leads the brass ensemble prior to a procession up each of two aisles by the choir dressed in black suits for men and long black dresses for women all singing to accompaniment, "O Come, All Ye Faithful." After a few more chorals and carols, the audience is invited to stand and sing a medly of familiar songs which we all do with gusto led by Dr. Brown who turns to face the deep pews. Dr. Donald Jeanes reads the Christmas story from Luke and, as the choir sings and orchestra plays, ushers provide light for the medium-sized white candles with their little paper drip-catchers we've all been given. The audience rises to sing "Silent Night" and then the choir, mostly smiling and grinning, files out again to everyone loudly singing "Joy to the World." The man beside me helps me on with my politically-correct fake fur jacket, and we all amble toward the lobby where the singers are standing to receive and give thanks and praise.
HAPPY CHRISTMAS AND MERRY NEW YEAR!
Graphic: Steve and Tava Cook's Jonesborough Art Glass Gallery, watercolor by Nancy Earnest
Johnson City TN -- The City's "Holiday on Main Street ... A Taste of the Season" coincides with its monthly First Friday downtown art exhibitions and receptions. Featuring fifteen shops and businesses which provide gourmet treats for those who buy a $15 ticket, proceeds benefit the Downtown Alliance which schedules and coordinates regular street festivals among other events during the year. Blown-up old photographs of Johnson City are featured on walls and portray the dress and manners of a bygone black and white era when department stores advertised sale of the latest in "bloomers," "silk stockings," "hankies," and "frocks." Steve Cook's unusual neon and glass art is on display prominently within the new Arts Council rooms, and another favorite I discover is the work of Lydia Ann Wilson. There are hors d'oevres like baklava and little fruit-sweetened cheesecakes, crackers and chicken liver, and punch and wine in the lobby with plenty of people milling around and some vendors with display tables. Four women playing flutes entertain with Christmas carols followed by three older women singers who sound wonderful. At the Nelson Gallery, Val Lyle's multi-media explorations and Bill Lea's photographs are knock-outs for me, but there are many worth mentioning whose artistry is on display there. The owner is offering fig and champagne jams to go with the crackers in baskets and other delicacies and delights. There are couches and tables set off for relaxing and angled stands of various media. As ever, First Friday is a joy and a pleasure in learning, remembrance, and people met.
"Sing joyfully to God, all the earth. Serve the Lord with gladness. Praise His Name for the Lord is gracious. Alleluia!" -- Jubilate Deo by Mozart
Greeneville TN -- I've been curious about the Niswonger Performing Arts Center for quite awhile. The newish building is an architecturally interesting two-story oval brick set back from the street with a flashing neon sign there announcing its current and coming attractions, which include internationally popular singers and musicians. On Thursday evening, they host "Coming Home for Christmas," presented by the Greeneville High School Choral Department. The two-hour presentation is free to the public with donations accepted but not pushed. After the easy half-hour drive from home on a rainy night, I find the public parking areas full, even though I'm twenty minutes early. There's space left on the side streets, though, and I end up walking a block down hill to the wide, glassed entrance area. Two tastefully decorated trees flank the doors, and a woman in the lobby profers a five-page listing of hymns and carols scheduled, which includes some lyric translations, names of those appearing, and sponsors from individual to organizational to corporate.
There are five choirs totally 187 singers altogether, performing singly and in groups: Women's Show (11), Mixed Show (28), and Advanced (64), the Vocal Jazz Ensemble (10), and the Chorale (84). I'm fortunate to find a seat mid-center below the balcony and behind an awesome-looking sound system run by a young woman in black shirt and pants with a blonde ponytail. A middle-aged man with a gray one nearly reaching to his waist is ready behind a camera stand to begin filming and talking meanwhile with those who are obviously acquaintances and friends. A very humorous recording announces the usual admonitions about cell phones, pagers, and the location of emergency exits, and a new one about crying babies. I notice a small red-headed one a few rows in front of me, but he's quietly enthralled by the near-capacity crowd and two white-lighted trees on stage left and right composed of long angular limbs. Later perhaps the mosaics, abstract spheres of the universe, and outsized snowflakes projected onto the walls also distract him.
The Mixed Show Choir files in from behind the opened curtains to arrange thmselves on four tiered steps and Whitney Ball takes her place at the grand piano mid-stage up front. Conductor Kathryn May raises her arms and the sounds of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" fill the auditorium increasingly as The Chorale walks, also carrying battery-lighted white candles, in from side doors to arrange themselves on the aisles and steps. I'm fortunate again to have a superbly-ranged soprano standing to my left and overriding, to my ears, the symphonic sound of God's natural musical instrument tuned, trained and harmonized by so many gifted practitioners. They are all wearing long, black satin-type dressed with low bodices and straps for women and black suits with white shirts for the men. Of course, the lights have dimmed and the invitation is irresistable. Fifteen unusual songs -- including Strommen's "Bring a torch, Jeannette, Isabella!" -- follow by variously numbered arrangements of the singers. Two are accompanied by percussion and one by two guitarists. The final "Magnificent Horses" features bells and is a virtuoso voice piece performed with joyous perfection.
Following intermission, The Show Choirs, dressed colorfully in changing informal clothes, sing, dance and mime delightful versions of familiar seasonal songs. My favorites are "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," sometimes hilariously off-key by the women, and "White Christmas" by the Men's Show Choir, which manages to be nearly sexy in its delivery. The finale of "Joy To The World" with kettle drums, trumpets and trombones involves all of the singers in their black and white plus alumni from the audience on stage in a somewhat tumultuous reunion and celebration before the lights come back up and we, the appreciative crowd, having offered a long standing ovation, file out ourselves and back to our vehicles. A woman during the break with a wonderfully pronounced backcountry accent has told me, before leaving to join three younger black men who are apparently friends, that two to four inches of snow is forecast but flakes haven't yet started falling, so the drive home with choirs and chorale mind-echoing is pleasant and a bit dreamy.
At sunrise, I discover the predicted snow has apparently bypassed our area.
As all of the above events mean to say and convey,
text and graphics c. Jeannette Harris and A Country Rag, Inc., December 2008, 2012. All rights reserved.