Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Birmingham ... Venues, Audiences and Politics

Birmingham, Alabama

Whoever she was, and whatever else she accomplished in her life, Alys Stephens was the woman behind creation of the Alys Stephens Center for the Performing Arts and the Jemison Concert Hall in Birmingham. This means she probably paid for a good chunk of it.

It is among the most beautiful performance complexes in the United States, and the Jemison is one of the most acoustically exacting spaces for choral music. Alys's life-size portrait hangs in the entry. Garrison Keillor, Diavolo Dance Theater, and River North Dance will grace the center's stages in 2006-07.

The scene at Monday night's continuation of the Great Southern Sing-Out Tour by the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus was another of high emotion for artists and audiences.

The guys are starting to hit their stride as the rhythm of the tour develops and sinks into their bones.

Yesterday's drive from Nashville to Birmingham was uneventful -- save for the truckstop in Decatur that was overrun by occupants of three motor coaches stopping for lunch.

Birmingham, the Pittsburgh of the South, is an old industrial city shaped by the steel mills fed by underground limestone and iron ore. From his perch atop Red Mountain, the Vulcan (the largest cast metal statue in the world) watches over the city with -- for some inexplicable reason -- his butt hanging out of his tunic. This of course required all three buses to climb the mountain for a 30-minute photo op.

Last night's audience was, to say it mildly, enthused. And moved. The music resonates, particularly when you have never heard any of it before. "Marry Us" received a mid-concert standing-O.

"Not In Our Town," possibly the most powerful piece -- and this contention has strong competition -- related the 1993 incident in Billings MT when the Ku Klux Klan announced its presence. A cinder block was thrown through the bedroom window of a small Jewish boy who had placed a menorah there. Although not 100 Jews lived in Billings, thousands of menorahs appeared in windows of homes and businesses all over the city. (You can Google for the details.)

Two groupies from Nashville drove down for last night's show.

There is a Baptist convention here at the Sheraton Hotel, making for a few interesting moments in the elevators and other public spaces.

We head in an hour for Jackson MS for tonight's concert at the Municipal Auditorium.

As I gaze at the countryside, my thoughts are with my mother in Minnesota who, on Sunday, kicked off her campaign for the Minnesota Legislature. She is the Democratic endorsed candidate for State House District 19A.