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On Our Minds: Holiday Edition 2017


Season’s greetings from all of us at WolfBrown! Once again, we asked the WolfBrown team to reflect on a particularly memorable cultural experience from the last year to share with our readers. From ballet, to music enjoyed at home, to observing creative play, you’ll find just a few of the experiences that stood out in this holiday issue.


We wish you happy holidays and a wonderful 2018!


Dennie Palmer Wolf

Transform, Invite, Beckon 

When asked to write about my arts experience of the year, I scanned all my ticketed and curtained and framed events of 2017. But behind me there was the clack, snap, and slide of two boys building with MagnaTiles  (translucent jewel-toned geometric shapes that cling together in improbable shapes due to embedded magnets.) So here I am, against the rules, declaring their play my art experience of the year — because it made so clear what I want from a play or a painting:


To Transform and Release: The chance to make a physics-defying structure, pushes back the ordinary socks-before-shoes world, creating a flow of experience out of time, place, and body. Once there is a steep, pitched tower five floors high, no one can even hear that voice calling out for the third time that dinner is on the table.

To Invite:  The boys are brothers. In the presence of the tiles, the younger one can amaze the older with his ideas, the younger has to ask the older for help in execution. They are, for those minutes, bound together: two minds, four hands. Not rivals, only paired gravity defy-ers.

To Beckon:  Within the compass of only a few minutes, the building beckons in Luke Skywalker, bots, plains walkers, invented wizards, tempests, and villains. They assemble, aggregating into a mixed, fantastical heritage, drawn from every book, film, and outdoor game — culture at its most crowded and raucous.

Come 2018, that’s what I’m looking for. Bring it on. Make it happen.


Alan Brown

Indelible Moments

2017 was a year of enormous change for me — most notably a torturously long and complicated process of buying and selling real estate. Happily, I am now a resident of Detroit, and eager to figure out how I can contribute to the cultural renaissance of this great city. For the next year, I plan to get reacquainted with the City where I grew up and visit as many arts programs, urban farms, parks, and community events as possible. My view of the meaning and impact of the arts continues to evolve, informed not only through our research partnerships with arts organizations, foundations, and agencies, but also as a caregiver to my very elderly parents, who still live in the house where I was raised in the suburbs of Detroit. Through their profound mental and physical challenges, they continue to enjoy classical music, although getting out to concerts has become less and less feasible. Earlier this year, with the kind cooperation of Christopher Harding, chair of the Piano Department at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, two PhD students in piano performance came to my parents’ home to play a recital for an audience of four. My father, who is mostly blind and partially deaf, sat close enough to the keyboard to feel the young musicians awaken the giant in a Steinway grand piano. A free flow of conversation with the young artists deeply enriched the experience. For as long as I live, I will never forget the look of utter contentment on his face during the last Rachmaninoff piece. For the year to come, I wish you many of these unexplainable, indelible moments.


Steven Holochworst

National Take a Stand Festival 

Without question the most memorable performance I attended this year was that of the orchestra at the National Take a Stand Festival. The orchestra was comprised of students participating in El Sistema-inspired programs of music education across the country, programs that typically work with under-served children of color. Students were selected through competitive auditions to join the orchestra, and after a week of rehearsals, they performed in Walt Disney Concert Hall under the direction of Thomas Wilkins and Gustavo Dudamel.


Together with my colleagues Dennie Palmer Wolf and Judy Bose, I have spent the past five years studying the ancillary benefits of participating in these programs. That work requires assessing students one at a time using a combination of paper-and-pencil and computer-based measures. As the students will (quickly) tell you, the measures are boring, but their routinized nature is necessary to producing credible results. That said, as I listened to the performance I was reminded of the limits of such measures, which fall utterly short of capturing the joy exhibited by the students as they played, or the pride on the faces of their families as they listened. Anyone attending that performance would have received tales of the demise of the American symphony orchestra with skepticism. Indeed, they would have been forgiven for thinking that the future of those orchestras was on stage.


Victoria Plettner Saunders 


Some of the more inspiring arts moments I’ve had this year have been in non-traditional settings… on the beach, in an airport, on a college campus lawn… but the most inspiring was Wonderspaces, a “pop-up arts celebration” with work that ranged from room-sized installations to virtual reality films. The whole thing took place in a big tent on a vacant lot here in San Diego. There were 20+ interactive experiences like Illegal Arts’ The Last Word in which everyone was invited to put the “last words” they would have liked to have told someone but didn’t get the chance to on a small piece of paper and roll it up. We inserted our roll in a metal grid on the wall; co-mingling it with others’. It was as powerful to put mine in the grid as it was to read others’ anonymous words and feel at one with my fellow life travelers. In Matthew Matthew’s On a Human Scale, there was a series of video screens with faces of everyday New Yorkers; each one singing one note when a visitor to the installation plunked a key on a small piano. There were no instructions. People interacted with each other as they engaged with the installation figuring out how to make it work and then sharing surprise when they did. One of the joys of these exhibits was the collective experience I had with others as we interacted with the works. It inspired me to imagine arts venues in a new light. I’m on a team developing an Arts Master Plan for San Diego International Airport. Airports are looking for ways to create unexpected moments and unusual experiences for travelers that take their minds off the stresses of air travel or provide them with activity while they wait. My experience with Wonderspaces inspired me to think about art in airports in ways that reach beyond the permanent collection and surprise us with a creative encounter in an unexpected place.


Joe Kluger

Opera Philadelphia: We Shall Not Be Moved

I attended many great performances this past year, including Geoff Sobelle’s Home at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival (full disclosure, directed by my daughter-in-law Lee Sunday Evans), Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole at People’s Light, and Mahler Symphony No. 3 with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra.


The event that moved me the most, however (despite its title), was Opera Philadelphia’s world premiere of We Shall Not Be Moved, one of the centerpieces of the Company’s inaugural 12-day opera immersion festival. This groundbreaking chamber opera chronicles the challenges facing five fictional teenagers, who take up temporary residence in the now abandoned West Philadelphia home of MOVE, the black liberation organization, on whose compound a police helicopter dropped a bomb in 1985, killing 11 people, including five children. Their ghosts help the teenagers confront their demons and fears, in a dramatic story that is told through a musical gumbo of gospel, funk, jazz, R&B, hip-hop, classical styles, and spoken-word poetry with modern and hip-hop choreography under the inspired direction of Bill T. Jones. The Opera, which was repeated as the initial installment in a multi-year relationship between Opera Philadelphia and New York’s Apollo Theater, moved The New York Times to include it as one of the best classical music events of 2017. I moved to Philadelphia in 1985, shortly after the actual MOVE bombing on which this opera was based. With so many compelling artistic experiences here, I see no reason to move again.


Thomas Wolf

Why Don’t They Sing 

What can a grandparent say, when his granddaughter sings with the US National Children’s Chorus at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome?  Of course, that cultural event was my favorite of 2017!  But since bragging about grandchildren is probably the least popular form of conversation (for those having to listen), let me make a larger point.  Having watched as those children rapidly mastered music-making by singing, I wonder why we put such emphasis on instrumental training for the young.  Parents so often default to instruments — piano or guitar or violin or (please save me!) drums.  The recent growth of El Sistema programs in the US that put kids into orchestra settings, only exacerbates the trend.  But think about it!  Those young people experience the double whammy of having to learn about music (how to read it, how to count beats, how to be expressive) AND struggle with the technical issues associated with playing an instrument.  No wonder so many become discouraged.  Kids who sing in a chorus can rely on instruments they have been using for years — their voices — while concentrating on the music itself.  If as a result, they are bitten by the music bug, then that is the time to introduce them to an instrument. HAPPY HOLIDAYS!


Alan Kline

San Francisco Ballet: Sensorium 

Last March, WolfBrown’s Bay Area team attended San Francisco Ballet’s Sensorium. There is a specter of expert exclusivity that haunts classical arts, so an event targeting new audiences felt appropriate for this non-connoisseur. Despite barely knowing George Balanchine’s work, I found myself captivated  by the way the small movements in his choreography of Diamonds broke traditional ballet’s lines and flow. Often prestige prevents audiences from acknowledging personal taste, but it only took this small  point of connection for me to recognize my own preference for the modern and non-literal in ballet.


Almost as revelatory as the dance, were the engagement activities that peppered the War Memorial Opera House. From posting an Instagram photo in a tutu, to getting hair arranged in a proper ballet bun, each of my colleagues found a different activity memorable. For my part, I was deeply flattered when a ballerina told me I was one of the most stable partners who had supported her in an on pointe turn that day. I saw her comment was a gift that I would take with me, just as my colleagues would be taking home photographs and new skills from their experiences. I realized on-site engagement is much more successful if it is presented as an opportunity to receive something.


I was lucky to see many beautiful performances that inspired and moved me this year. Sensorium stood out, however, because it helped me better understand my own relationship to the arts and gave personal insight into audience experiences for the field as a whole.


Megan Friel

Boro-Linc: Elena Moon Park and Sonia De Los Santos

Over the last year, I’ve spent many hours observing community programs in each borough of New York City as part of our work with Lincoln Center Education’s Boro-Linc program. On January 20th, as many in the city were glued to inauguration night coverage, I was in a school auditorium suspended in the warm and playful energy of the dance party and sing along that Elena Moon Park and Sonia De Los Santos were leading. Children danced at Elena Moon Park’s feet and ran up and down the aisles laughing as they learned the steps to “Diu Diu Deng,” a Taiwanese train song. Parents and children sang together as Sonia De Los Santos taught the lyrics to “Esta Es Su Tierra” or “This Land Is Your Land.” In a room where the audience was as diverse as the musical selection, I watched as families pointed out familiar elements of their own culture to their children and learned new traditions together. Observing families share an evening of music, dance, and play with their neighbors affirmed my belief in the important role the arts play in holding space for these moments. The feeling in that room on that night that stayed with me for a long time and as I watched parents thank the school’s director for hosting the event as they left, I knew that I was not the only one that felt it.


John Carnwath

The long, spidery legs of impact

I’ve been thinking a lot about the long-term, cumulative impact that arts experiences have on our lives lately as part of our work for the Canada Council for the Arts. We’ve developed sophisticated methodologies for measuring the initial response to a performance or work of art — what we’ve sometimes referred to as the initial “imprint”–, but art affects us on so many levels and in so many ways that fluctuate over time, that the idea that the total impact, experienced over time, would be a fixed quantity is increasingly troubling to me. One article I recently read criticized the “objectification” of impact, and that really gets to the heart of what bothers me about the concept of impact. The arts affect us in many ways—yes—but “impact” is a construct that we have developed as a sort of shorthand to talk about the multiple ways in which we are affected, as though it were something fixed, knowable, and measurable.


In trying to think of performances and art works I experienced in 2017 that made a particularly strong impression on me, I was initially inclined to think it wasn’t a very eventful year in terms of the arts for me. Could any of those works claim a spot beside the truly transformative arts experiences I recall from my youth? But then I realized that I only grew to appreciate some of those early experiences later in life, and as I was lost in those memories, I remembered — seemingly out of the blue — the sculpture of a giant spider that looms over the entrance to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. How had I forgotten that when mentally reviewing my most memorable arts experiences of 2017? Standing 30-feet tall, with a bulging sack of white spider eggs, Maman by Louise Bourgeois is simultaneously repulsive/hostile/terrifying and comforting/protecting/nurturing. I doubt I will ever forget that sculpture, and yet, at least for a while, it was completely absent from my mind.


In light of these tricks of the mind, how does one begin to compare arts experiences that are so distant in form, place, and time, particularly given that I — the person observing them — have changed so much over the years?


These were just some of the many artistic highlights of the year for us. We look forward to creating many more memories with you in 2018


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One Response to On Our Minds: Holiday Edition 2017

  1. How wonderful, all of these comments. I especially like the one by Dennie Palmer Wolf, as we all marvel at these new “toys” which we never had; of course stubbing one’s toes at midnight goes with the territory (damn – they didn’t finish picking up the pieces they were working with last night). As a singer, in a family of professional musicians (our grandmother said I had no talent – and wasn’t our mother fortunate), I get to sing on a regular basis (and with orchestras) all the famous composers (thank you Thomas Wolf for allowing some of us to sing for our supper).

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