For 2016 the APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenters) Conference offered a broad array of performers and entertainment to behold, not only for those members of the organization looking to fill out their calendars for the upcoming year – at arts facilities, festivals, colleges and universities and the like – but for aficionados of the performing arts in general. As the world’s largest networking forum and marketplace for performing arts professionals, APAP features more than 3,600 presenters, artists, managers, agents and emerging arts leaders from all 50 US states and more than 30 countries convening in one place at one time to both celebrate the disciplines they have dedicated their professional lives to, as well as discuss in many forums and panels the issues which impact the production and presentation of culture, both in the US and globally. While the Conference program unfolded over January 15-19 at the New York Hilton Hotel, the showcase performances which energize and thrill both members and general audiences alike took place over a longer period, from January 12-21 (with some showcasing performers in residencies extending for a week or more beyond), and could be seen at a great number of sites around New York in addition to the Hilton.
While there is certainly an overwhelming abundance of selection of performances all over, with more than 1,000 showcase performances happening at venues throughout the city, one can easily simply remain at the conference headquarters at the Hilton and see lots of acts – as many people do, roaming from showcase to showcase in the suites on the second, third and fourth floors of the hotel. One thing I noticed is that there seemed to be a proliferation of musical tribute acts on hand, undoubtedly due to the fact that it’s easier for arts venue organizers to project the kind of audience, and attendant revenue, that there will be for varieties of music that are already well-known and loved by the public – in addition to familiar genres being less of a challenge to market. Maybe the best example of such a phenomenon has been the theatrical success of so-called jukebox musicals, and one of the most prominent of these, “Jersey Boys”, has spawned not only touring productions but also a singing group constituted of four stars from the original Broadway cast; now performing as ‘The Midtown Men’, their act includes Bob Gaudio’s Four Seasons chestnuts as well as “the ‘60s Biggest Hits” in a slick show that they performed on January 17 at Stage 48. Other acts in this vein appearing at the Hilton were Hotel California (“A Salute to the Eagles”); the Ultimate Garth Brooks Tribute, featuring Shawn Gerhard; the Piano Men – a Tribute to Elton John & Billy Joel; What’s Going On – the Marvin Gaye Experience featuring Brian Owens; Hair Metal Time Machine; the McCartney Years; Paul the Beatle (yes, two Macca manqués were at the Hilton); the New York Bee Gees; Abbamania; Forever Ray – A Tribute to the Music of Ray Charles; Fleetwood Maxx; and the Dizzy Gillespie? ? Afro Cuban Experience.
In a few cases there is a familial relationship between the tribute act and generative artist, with progeny extending the legacy of their parents. A full page ad in the conference guide featured Lorna Luft, who sings “the Judy Garland Songbook,” and the twin sons of the late Ricky Nelson, Matthew and Gunnar, are on the road with a show called ‘Ricky Nelson Remembered’; hearing them play favorites like “Garden Party” and “Travelin’ Man” at the Hilton showed that they have indeed inherited the mellow vocal attributes of their father. While all of the aforementioned acts demonstrate the durability and market for certain music, they also reveal that it is usually more cost-effective to license the name and material of a given artist even when he or she is still alive and active (and moreover in many instances the quality of the tribute performer is contemporaneously better than those artists they cover, as age can often impair a performer’s skill – especially in voice – in the decades beyond their heyday). Perhaps the ultimate commentary on the subject of tribute acts was occasioned by the recent death of David Bowie, as there was a lot of chatter among attendees about the inevitable Bowie interpreters there will be in the near future; although I would expect anyone essaying his persona to skip the rather lugubrious material of his latter-day catalog, there were enough stylistic “Changes” throughout his long career to sustain a good number of completely different acts.
Of course during APAP there are normally some legendary musicians and singers performing at the Hilton or at other venues in the city, though this year there seemed to be fewer than previously. Maceo Parker, sax man for James Brown, was at the Blue Note, and Micky Dolenz played at the annual APA brunch showcase at B. B. King’s (unfortunately I arrived too late to hear him – although he was the headliner, he took the stage first in order to travel to an evening gig he had the same day in Connecticut). The venerable pianist Peter Nero (with 68 albums and 2 Grammy Awards on his resume) put on a commanding, relaxed and swinging performance at the Hilton late Sunday evening, delivering a repertoire including a suite from “Porgy and Bess” with dry humor, and accompanied by upright bassist Michael Barnett. Devotees of spoken word performance appreciated the Baylin Artists showcase by Julian Sands, whose ‘Celebration of Harold Pinter’ gave us a moving account of Pinter’s brilliant poetry (much less well-known than his drama).
Being a musician, composer and performer myself, I am usually more drawn to artists and styles with which I am unfamiliar, and in fact that describes most of the work that is presented. Returning this year with their “ethno-chaos” was DakhaBrakha, the Ukrainian ensemble notable for their inventive vocals, distinctive instrumentation, powerful rhythms and sonic dynamics. Canadian composer/performer Bria Skonberg led a polished quintet (piano, drums, upright bass and clarinet/sax) with her smoky vocals and smooth trumpet playing, fashioning updated versions of traditional jazz. The Firey String Sistas! – featuring not only a cellist and violinist, but also a pianist, drummer and upright bassist – put on a soulful set at turns both rocking and elegiac. Each of these acts were at the Hilton, but a few blocks away, at Beethoven Pianos, the “duo-duel” of Matt Herskowitz and John Roney were showcasing their group Piano Caméléons, an exhilarating concept wherein the two virtuosos take on and enhance classical and jazz masterworks by Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Peterson, Brubeck and others, playing at once against, sequentially, and with each other by employing improvisations, counterpoints and alternately completed phrases.
Further afield there was a Sunday afternoon program presentation entitled ‘Norway Now 2016 – Performing Arts from the Northern Latitudes’ at Scandinavia House, located on Park Avenue & 38 Street, on January 17. This diverse event served several purposes, including networking, discussion of issues relating to cultural exchange and commerce, exploration of possible collaborative projects and exposure for various Norwegian entities. Hosted by the Royal Norwegian Consulate General, Performing Arts Hub Norway, and FuturePerfect Productions, speakers included presenters from American arts spaces PS 122 and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, as well as Norwegian representatives from groups such as Jo Strømgen Kompani, De Utvalgte, Carte Blanche, NONcompany, Transiteatret-Bergen and Verdensteatret; other Norwegian arts groups in addition to the above screened clips of their work and also made samples available to attendees.
As always, one of the highlights of APAP is the Annual Awards Ceremony and Luncheon (Sponsored by IMG Artists) which took place at the Hilton Grand Ballroom on Monday. The legendary Ben Vereen addressed the attendees and honorees, who were selected from nominees put forth by their peers for having had a significant impact on the industry and on the communities they serve. Noting the achievements of those being honored was APAP President and CEO Mario Garcia Durham, and the Awards went to M. K. Wegmann, President & CEO of National Performing Network (NPN), who received the FAN TAYLOR DISTINGUISHED SERVICE AWARD FOR EXEMPLARY SERVICE TO THE FIELD OF PROFESSIONAL PRESENTING; Dr. Charles “Chuck” Davis, Founder and Artistic Director of African American Dance Ensemble and DanceAfrica America was given the AWARD OF MERIT FOR ACHIEVEMENT IN PERFORMING ARTS; Jedediah Wheeler, Executive Director for Arts and Culture Programming at Montclair State University was awarded the WILLIAM DAWSON AWARD FOR PROGRAMMATIC EXCELLENCE AND SUSTAINED ACHIEVEMENT IN PROGRAMMING; and Sheila M. Smith, Executive Director, Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, received the SIDNEY R. YATES AWARD FOR OUTSTANDING ADVOCACY ON BEHALF OF THE PERFORMING ARTS.
Once the luncheon concludes attendees repair to the booths in the Expo Hall – located in Americas Halls I and II and the Rhinelander, respectively – where arts organizations and agencies meet with presenters for any final deal-making or networking. While most showcase performances taking place at or after this time are going on at venues besides the Hilton, I had received an email from Nicholas Cotz, Producing Director of ALL FOR ONE, a theatrical production company specializing in solo plays, inviting me to a combination showcase/meet-and-greet cocktail event at the Presidential Suite on the 44th floor of the Hilton. Since I have conceived, written and performed one-man pieces in the past, I was intrigued. ALL FOR ONE develops their own productions, as well as programming for various solo artists, and they presented a fascinating selection of six shows for the upcoming 2016/2017 season: unFramed; Absolutely True Stories From the Road; Cuckooed; The Purpose Project; 8 Stops; and The Boy Who Would Be Captain Hook. The full bar made for a convivial atmosphere, and after pizzas were ordered in the party went on well into the evening.
The following night I decided to check out the Igor Butman Quartet showcase at Le Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street in the Village. I had seen Butman perform with his group a few days earlier at the Hilton, but this downtown showcase would feature more musicians sitting in with him, in a more relaxed nightclub atmosphere, so – as opposed to jumping in and out of one showcase after another, as one is wont to do at the Hilton – I figured it would be a better show; I was right. For those unfamiliar with him, it is fair to say that the diminutive Butman is something of a National Treasure in Russia; on the cover of his promotional materials there is this quote: “May be the greatest living jazz saxophone player, who happens to be a Russian” from none other than the saxophone-playing former US President Bill Clinton. Butman is a master musician, and the great and fearsome big band he helmed at APAP previously played well-arranged standards, but for this year his smaller group highlighted a different facet of his leadership, with arrangements allowing the individual players and guests (as well as himself) more room to shine. Particularly noteworthy was the extremely talented young singer/pianist Oleg Akkuratov, who I didn’t realize was blind until he was led from the stage to make way for a guest pianist. His temporary replacement, Yaroslava Simonova, is herself visually impaired, and quite accomplished as a player, singer and composer. Also sitting in with Butman’s regular foursome (which includes Anton Baronin on piano, Sergey Korchagin playing upright bass and Eduard Zizak on drums), was the powerhouse trumpeter Vadim Eilenkrig, who’s built like a linebacker and has the muscle, balance and finesse in his technique to match. The audience, which contained a sizable Russian cohort, was also treated to an appearance by a special guest – the great Jose Feliciano, who had been sitting in the audience for most of the night; besides telling some rather ribald stories, his warm delivery fit in well with the assured backing of Butman and crew.