Friday, August 28, 2009

Taking Bethel Woods: Celebrating Woodstock’s 40th Anniversary - Part 2

In addition to the opening of their Woodstock museum, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is celebrating Woodstock’s anniversary with a series of concerts in their outdoor pavilion all summer long. Various artists who performed at Woodstock have been making the trek back throughout the summer, in addition to newer acts who want to celebrate the freedom and love of music that the Woodstock festival stood for. And somehow, out of all the concerts on offer this summer, I wound up seeing quite possibly the most bizarre one: The Boston Pops with special guest…Arlo Guthrie. Because when I think of a large symphony orchestra, I naturally make the connection to folk singer Arlo Guthrie.

The grounds of Bethel Woods are gorgeous and immaculately maintained, leaving you to merely imagine the amount of filth and debris that were left behind after the Woodstock festival. To get to the pavilion, you have to walk a long, winding path through their field, which is lined with various vendor stands and places to eat. The gates to the grounds aren’t opened until an hour before show time, which is a bit of annoyance when it’s a nice day and you’d like to wander around, take some photographs, and enjoy a meal before your concert. But evidently this is all done in the name of reducing the amount of litter and keeping the grounds maintained.

The pavilion itself is covered with a roof, but open on the sides, so you feel like you’re at an outdoor concert, while still being protected from the elements (which is fortunate considering it poured rain during the Pops/Guthrie show). The seating is comfortable enough for outdoor seats—better than a baseball stadium, worse than an actual theater—and while there are three different tiers, all at different prices, you get a pretty clear view of the stage from any seat. Then there is lawn seating available in the field behind the tiered seats, which offers no roof covering, and the brining of your own food and lawn chairs is prohibited, which seems to sort of defeat the point of getting lawn seats.

The Boston Pops performed a series of pieces from noted American composers, primarily Aaron Copland and George Gershwin. It was no surprise that their performances were fantastic, but I was a bit disappointed in their somewhat uninspired choices of compositions. I understand that a big part of the Woodstock anniversary celebration is to also celebrate all things American, so I have no problem in having a lineup of works solely by American artists, but there could have been some more creative choices made. From the Copland repertoire, both “Hoe-Down” and “Simple Gifts” were performed, which are his best known and most overused pieces (even if you think you don’t know them, trust me; if you heard them, you’d recognize them). From Gershwin they performed “An American in Paris,” which is a beautiful piece of music, but after “Rhapsody in Blue” is probably his most recognized piece. I suppose the Pops are trying to cater to their audience by offering music they’re familiar with, but I would have liked to have seen (or heard, rather) a few less traditional tunes thrown into the mix.

And then there’s Arlo… I admit, I am not an Arlo Guthrie fan, but mainly because I’m just not that familiar with his work, not because I actually dislike him. I know “Alice’s Restaurant” is his most familiar song, though he didn’t perform it. He stuck to mostly morose, ballad-type songs, since he had the Boston Pops playing back up, and those songs just naturally lend themselves to an orchestra. While he sang, Guthrie would either strum on his guitar or play the piano (he would alternate based on the songs he chose), and would often take time in between number to talk and joke with the audience. On more than one occasion he accused himself of being a less than excellent singer, which I would have to agree with. While there’s no doubt he is musically talented, his voice lends itself more to the talk-singing protest songs of the ‘60s rather than any of the true melodies he performed. He only performed two tunes I recognized, “City of New Orleans” and “This Land Is Your Land” (written by his father, Woody Guthrie), and the entire audience gladly granted his request to sing along on those numbers. But the highlight of his performance was when he stopped in the middle of a song, distracted by his train of thought, and proceeded to tell a stream of consciousness (and hilariously paraphrased) story of Joseph (as in the Bible) and his brothers and how it is possible for one person to make a huge difference in the world. I left the concert with no doubt that the man is a skilled musician and entertainer, but it might be best to leave the actual singing to those who can.

Check out my entire photo collection of the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not surprised about the selections: the Pops focuses on the lighter works that everyone knows, leaving the BSO to handle the more challenging material.