A few years ago, as I drove through the Black Hills of South Dakota early in the morning after a light snow, the strains of Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus wafted out of the car radio. Somehow, the majestic choral piece echoed the spectacular scenery around me and conveyed the music through my eyes as well as my ears. The result was a far richer experience than either sight or sound could have provided alone.
This synergy is the principle behind the art of JAMES WESTWATER, an art form he calls "photochoreography." Westwater has joined with symphony orchestras around the country to produce his unique shows integrating large-scale panoramic photography with live classical music; on Saturday night, he brings his images to Spokane for the next Spokane Symphony SuperPops concert at the Opera House.
The music and photographs selected reflect Westwater's appreciation for the land and people of the American West, a relationship inspired in part by his parents during his childhood in Columbus, Ohio. "Part of it is just a love for the West, a love of nature and the out-of-doors," he says. "My parents loved to travel, and they weren't ones to leave us kids at home when they did."
At the age of 13, Westwater received his first camera and began to document the family trips through the American landscape and across Europe. After a wide and varied education that culminated in a multidisciplinary doctorate, he embarked on a career in photochoreography -- literally, dancing with light. Early performances with the Columbus Symphony grew into a schedule that now includes dozens of engagements each year with orchestras all over the country.
During each performance, Westwater projects his panoramic photographs on three large screens positioned above the orchestra. As the orchestra plays each piece, Westwater mans the projectors, changing the images on the screens according to emotions of the music. "It is performing photography," he says. "Most photography is static. Here, there's movement. It's cinematic in a certain sense; it's music for the eyes."
While Westwater's photographs appear overhead, Fabio Costa will lead the Spokane Symphony through compositions by American masters including John Williams, Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland. "I'm drawn to the music of Copland," Westwater says. "One of his hallmarks is the simplicity and dignity in his work. He captures and conveys the spirit of the people and the land. I think it's important, especially at this time, to reaffirm the simplicity, dignity and majesty of the land and people of this country."
As a special local touch, Westwater supplied digital cameras to several local fifth-grade students and asked them to document their lives and their communities. These photographs will be shown during two special kids' concerts that will be part of his engagement here; they are also available for viewing at Westwater's Web site (http://members.aol.com/jwestwater/spokane.html). Another local group, the Frog Island Singers and Dancers of the Kalispel Indian Reservation, will perform a prelude to Westwater's Reflections of the Spirit in the first half of the show.
Although some musical purists may disapprove of Westwater's approach, he believes strongly that combining the two art forms does not detract from either one. "The music comes first, so there's an integrity there," he explains. "Then I create something visual. I try to convey to the audience part of what I feel about the subject matter. Values are important to me -- closeness to the earth; being guided by a spirit or creator; and that the land and the people living in balance and harmony are both manifestations of that spirit."
The Spokane Symphony's concert with James Westwater, "Symphony of Sound and Light," is at the Opera House on Saturday, Nov. 10, at 8 pm. Tickets: $15-$35. Call: 624-1200.
Tempestuous, tubercular love
A week later, on Friday, November 16, manifestations of the bohemian spirit will take shape on the Opera House stage as the Spokane Symphony presents a concert version of Giacomo Puccini's beloved opera, LA BOH & Eacute;ME. Leading the cast as the tragic heroine, Mimi, is soprano Gitta-Marie Sjoberg, who performed a series of songs by Wagner with the orchestra in last week's Classics concert. Joining her will be tenor Tonio Di Paolo as Rodolfo, the poet; Stephen Powell as the painter, Marcello; returning Spokane native Heather Parker as Musetta, Marcello's love interest; local bass-baritone John Frankhauser as Colline, the philosopher; Randy Wagner, also a Spokane native, as the musician, Schaunard; and bass Richard McKee of New York singing the roles of Benoit and Alcindoro. The Spokane Symphony Chorale and the Spokane Area Children's Chorus will take the choral parts.
Puccini's opera debuted in 1896 and soon made its way to stages across Europe and North America. The libretto is based on a novel by Henri Morger, Scenes de la Vie de Boh & eacute;me, originally published serially in the late-1840s and later adapted for the stage. The story follows a group of young bohemians, starving artists living in a garret in Paris during the 1830s. Flaunting convention, the artists eke out a meager living while following their creative dreams, encountering poverty, love and tragedy with humor, friendship and a love for life. The story has been told and retold, most recently in the film Moulin Rouge and the Broadway smash Rent, and each time it has touched audiences deeply.
"I think people can relate to the characters," suggests Frankhauser, a 20-year resident of Spokane who has performed many times with the Spokane Symphony. "They are all strugglers, disdaining and snubbing convention, and yet banding together to support each other while going against their society's expectations. They are the counterculture types of their time, but they don't take themselves too seriously."
Baritone Randy Wagner, who is director of Choral Activities at EWU and making his Spokane Symphony debut, agrees: "The characters are youthful and easy to relate to," he says. "It's such a wonderfully human story. These are real people." Add to these characters Puccini's melodies and orchestration, and you have a winning combination, Wagner says. "Puccini captures such wonderful emotions in this setting. He created beautiful melodies for each character. The music is lush and fun."
Both men are enjoying their roles as young bohemians; this is the first time each has sung the complete role. "[Colline] is an unusual role for me," Frankhauser says. "Basses are usually either the sinister villain or the noble gentleman. We don't often get to play just an ordinary guy."
Wagner enjoys the interplay between the characters. "They're always picking at each other, calling each other names, arguing, having fake sword fights, but it's just lighthearted fun."
Ultimately, tragedy brings sobering changes to the characters, but they are able to reach new levels of tenderness and spiritual understanding, says Wagner. "It makes you laugh, it makes you cry. It's all about love and people trying to follow their dreams."