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January 19, 1999

Mobile and the Arts:

An Overview by Ernie Pinson

It has been my pleasant task to attend and review for The Harbinger ten artistic performances in the city since Sep 15. It seems only fair that some kind of summary be due to Mobilians from us in terms of both quality and variety of those performances. It also seems necessary to establish some credentials. You probably need to know that I live in Mississippi some 70 miles away, and hence owe no person or company or staff/board member either praise or condemnation. Indeed, I do not know any performer or director personally, nor do they know me. I have a degree in literature and my wife has two in music and art.

First, the drama. The four plays I have seen (two were musicals) at the Mobile community theaters deserve the highest praise. The bench mark to which I compare them favorably is the Mississippi Theater Association's (MTA) competitive convention held last year in Gulfport and this year in Jackson, MS. I have seen some excellent productions there (notably The Greenwood Mississippi Theater), but the Oliver performed, observed just recently at the Joe Jefferson playhouse, was among the best I have seen ever, given the restrictions of a community theater. Rejoice oh ye theatergoers; they deserve your support. And The Mobile Theatre's production of Nunsense Jamboree was, in my opinion, equal to or better than the television production on TNN.

Second, the Chamber Music Series. This series is somewhat different in that it draws from all over the United States and Europe for its artists, and Mobile is fortunate in obtaining some of the best performers in the world. The ones we saw demonstrated great technique (The Amadeus Trio), superior musicality (Amsterdam Guitar Trio), and excellent variety (The Meliora Winds). Sitting in the Mobile Library building, we have heard the Dutch, the Russians, and New Yorkers -- this is a truly cosmopolitan series that one could as easily find in Chicago, London or Berlin. On the whole, the series has presented fine musicians and engaging performances.

Third, the opera. The Opera and the Mobile Symphony are different from the guest chamber music series. They are large undertakings in themselves, and it is laudable that Mobile sees the importance of the arts enough to support these musical icons. Both the symphony and the opera are made up primarily of local musicians with occasional soloists brought in from other locations. And yet, their performances have been solid. Please understand that my vision is limited here because only one opera has been performed so far this season. But the Mobile performance of La Traviata clearly compares favorably with the five operas I saw in New Orleans. While New Orleans may have more money, better facilities, better production sets, and perhaps the better opera orchestra since it uses the Louisiana Philharmonic, the acting, singing, and directing I observed in the Mobile performance certainly equals New Orleans. My concern with the Mobile performance is a more general concern with opera in the south whereby acting seems to be given a distant secondary role to virtuoso singing. The general result is excellent music, but imbalanced opera.

Fourth, the symphonies. Among the symphonies I have seen along the coast and in nearby cities (Jackson, Tupelo, Montgomery, Gulf Coast Symphony, Louisiana Symphony) I would place the Mobile Symphony among the best, but not "the" best. The competition is keen; the funds may be scant, but the interest seems deeply rooted. For example, the Mobile Symphony opening night and the recent Louisiana Philharmonic performance were near sellouts in the Saenger Theater.

Fifth, areas not assessed. I have not yet had the chance (having been just five months on the scene) to review ballet and other dances, music at the Eastern Shore Art Center, any museums, architecture, art galleries, or historical monuments. I intend to do that soon, and perhaps if The Harbinger is still willing, I can address those arts in May.

In general terms then, the arts are planted, fertilized, and blossoming in Mobile. The visual arts (ceramics/sculpture/paintings) in general along the coast seem likely to be more advanced than the performing arts (concerts, opera, drama); visiting guest artists have been outstanding in the chamber series, second to no one; and the two community theaters are among the highest quality when compared to Gulfport, Biloxi, Jackson. I would also like to praise this year's Christmas attraction at Bellingrath Gardens. What a delightful display of color, design, and balance all can enjoy no matter one's age, income, or cultural standards.

The Harbinger, P.O. Box U-980, Mobile, AL 36688-0001