CMA's Viva and Gala series comes home to Gartner

"A hallmark of all the performers in the series is the question, How do you present the tradition?" That's how Massoud Saidpour, the Cleveland Museum of Art's director of performing arts, music and film, describes the criteria he and colleague Tom Welsh use when they put together the annual Viva and Gala series. "We are looking for masters of their tradition who are daring and who are willing to stretch."

You could call the series Adventures in the Evolution of the World's Music.

Take season opener Puerto Plata (Oct. 6, Cleveland Museum of Natural History). Jose Cobles was just beginning his career as a musician, on a guitar he bought with a tin can of saved coins, when he was nicknamed "Puerto Plata" for the town of his birth. Cobles plays son, bolero and meringue, but not the brassy style heard in clubs: no horns, just guitars (including the higher-tuned lead instrument, the requinto) and hand percussion. It has a pastoral quality.

"We're bringing Puerto Plata during the Gauguin exhibit," says Saidpur. "This kind of music was being played when Gauguin was in the Caribbean." (Puerto Plata replaces the Narasirato Pan Pipers, whose season-opening plans were waylaid by the rickety economy.)

Pianist Frederic Rzewski — a virtuoso who came of musical age in the improvisational zeitgeist of the '60s — takes tradition another way (Mar. 19, 2010, Gartner Auditorium). He's always kept a repertoire of master piano works at hand, but he can't seem to leave the music alone: He's known for improvising even on canonical music. In Cleveland, he'll play Mendelssohn's "Songs Without Words" and his own variations on the Latin-American people-power chant, "El pueblo unido jamás será vencido," or "The people united will never be defeated."

That cultural adventure is nowhere near the kind of assimilation evident in Evan Ziporyn's Gamelan Galak Tika (January 8, 2010, at CMNH). The Chicago-born founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars went to Bali and found traditional music that serves as an outlet for his minimalist inklings. He plays like a master, but he's another musician who can't leave tradition alone. Somewhere in his 30-person ensemble you might even hear an electric guitar.

Among the season's other noteworthy experimenters are John Zorn of Masada Sextet fame, now with the New Masada Sextet (March 26, 2010, Gartner), which continues the melding of chamber music, death metal and jazz. Cyro Baptista (of Beat the Donkey) is in the percussion section.

In the category of "doing it wrong," there's Stephen Scott's Bowed Piano Ensemble (April 22, 2010, Gartner), a choreographed group armed with string loops that are pulled across the piano strings for a bowed effect. Their movements around the open piano are meticulously choreographed so that the half-dozen or more players don't get tangled up. They'll screen a bird's-eye view on a couple of giant TVs.

For a complete listing of Viva and Gala performances or to subscribe, call 216.421.7350 or go to

THANKS to the continued renovation of the Cleveland Museum of Art's facilities, this year's Viva and Gala calendar comes to a turning point: Gartner Auditorium re-opens February 28, 2010, with a champagne bash featuring Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester. Raabe's band is a slick revival of German cabaret jazz that was played between the world wars. Tickets cost $125, but it'll be one of those Cleveland nights you won't want to miss.

With the re-opening of Gartner Auditorium, the Viva and Gala Around Town series won't be so "around town" anymore. Saidpour says he has mixed feelings about the homecoming. It will be convenient to have their own hall with familiar acoustics and none of the logistical details — like unfamiliar parking or seating arrangements. But Saidpour says he'll miss the range of venues that took audiences into corners of Cleveland some had never visited. He says performers love performing around town, especially in the PlayhouseSquare theaters. And in some cases — like the Ash Wednesday performance of Arvo Pärt's Passio in the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus — the venue shaped the performance in profound ways.

Saidpour says that once Gartner opens, the remainder of the 2009-10 season performances will take place there. In coming seasons, though, watch for occasional forays into some other sympathetic corners of the city.

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