>> Art/theater: Milestones, leadership changes

By Colin Dabkowski - News Arts Critic

In 2012, Western New York's cultural renaissance continued apace, with major developments everywhere from the gritty concrete grain elevators of Silo City to the palatial Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

The year saw a deepening and broadening of the region's grassroots cultural communities, made up of a seemingly infinite array of small organizations, enterprising individuals and pop-up projects that distinguish Buffalo's arts scene from most others in the country. The 11-day Buffalo Infringement Festival, maybe the best marker we have of the growth of grassroots culture in Buffalo, ballooned to some 800 performances this summer.

At the same time, the shining upper echelons of Buffalo's cultural landscape also saw marked progress, with major milestones reached at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Burchfield Penney Art Center and the theater that once housed Studio Arena Theatre.

The cross-cultural groups formed during the funding debate of 2010-11 gathered steam, sharpened their arguments and continued to counter the silver-bullet-obsessed political culture of this region.

Add it all up, and you get the heartening continuation of a trend that began almost a decade ago, when Buffalo's visual arts and theater culture grew tired of living in the shadows and began to stake its claim on the region's identity. As an observer of the cultural scene's growth, I am always wondering about the point at which it will reach a plateau. Judging from this past year, that point remains a long way off.

Some key moments:

The Echo Art Fair, conceived by tireless Buffalo booster E. Frits Abell in 2011 in an effort to build up the region's small community of art collectors, came into its own with an extremely popular and generally well-received event in July in the Larkin Center of Commerce.
The 710 Main Theatre, which formerly housed the defunct Studio Arena Theatre, came back to life over the summer with a presentation by MusicalFare Theatre. Its return as a presenting house holds great promise for the region's off-kilter theatrical ecology, which for the sake of audience-building desperately needs a showcase of 710 Main's size.

Louis Grachos, director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery since 2003, announced he would end his tenure for a new job in Austin, Texas. Former Burchfield Penney Art Center Director Anthony Bannon returned from a 16-year stint at Rochester's George Eastman House to take up his old job.

Molly Bethel, who founded the Locust Street Art Classes more than 50 years ago, handed over the reins of that organization to Liz Van Verth. At Just Buffalo Literary Center, longtime artistic director Michael Kelleher took off for a post at Yale, handing things over to new artistic director Barbara Cole. And Dorothea Braemer, the German-born director of Squeaky Wheel who worked tirelessly to expand that healthy organization, passed the baton to successor Jax Deluca.

Street art was big news this year, with a new mural on Main Street by Max Collins, Ogre and Chuck Tingley as well as work by Collins throughout the area and pieces by acclaimed muralist Augustina Droze, local painter Bruce Adams and a group of anonymous graffiti artists who turned the walls of an old train terminal into an art gallery with their tribute to the late comics artist Spain Rodriguez.

On the theater scene, there were far too many stunning theatrical moments to list. But some highlights include Loraine O'Donnell's punk-rock-perfect performance in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" at the Alt Theatre at the Warehouse; the world premiere of Neil Wechsler's epic "Emperor and Galilean" at Torn Space Theater; and Kristen Tripp Kelley's performances in "Time Stands Still" and "Other Desert Cities" in the Kavinoky Theatre.

Anniversaries abounded, with the Albright-Knox, Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society (recently rebranded "The Buffalo History Museum") and Buffalo Museum of Science each celebrating 150 years. Young Audiences of Western New York turned 50, and Theatre of Youth celebrated 40 years.

The Buffalo-based LehrerDance also had a banner year, playing on the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts prestigious M&T Dance series and heading off to Russia this month for its first international performances. The Springville Center for the Arts, under the direction of Seth Wochensky, continues to stand out as a story of what the arts can contribute to rural communities.

The cultural scene also lost many important figures this year, including theater writer and producer Neil Garvey and Niagara University theater program founder Brother Augustine Towey. The visual arts community mounted the losses of artists Catherine Parker, Olga Bajusova, Lorna Berlin, Margaret Martin and the Buffalo-born Spain Rodriguez, whose retrospective exhibition in the Burchfield Penney Art Center remains on view through Jan. 20.


>> Classical: Old music in a new light

By Mary Kunz Goldman - News Classical Music Critic

This was the year of the new and the different.

I did not make it to all the musical events I might have hoped to. But many of the happenings I did attend will linger in my mind. The imagination behind these events shows a trend toward experimentation in how music is presented and promoted, a trend that, with luck, will help build audiences. With the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra doing much better than most other orchestras, and multiple musical events a week, we must be doing something right.

Here are some highlights of 2012 that stand out.

In March, the wonderful pianist Richard Goode's recital at Slee Hall, a co-production with the Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series, was something I will recall with pleasure. He played Schumann, Brahms and Chopin. The hall was packed with all ages. Goode is always great and on this occasion showed that even established classics, played superbly, can be an adventure.

In April, organist Dennis James came to Shea's Performing Arts Center to join the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in accompanying the 1925 silent film "The Phantom of the Opera." It was the first time since the 1930s that a live orchestra had performed to a silent movie at Shea's and it was spellbinding. James' synchronicity on the Mighty Wurlitzer boggled the mind. It was definitely an event to remember.

June brought Nickel City Opera's production of Puccini's "La Boheme." It was a delightful production, set a record for NCO ticket sales and shows the five-year-old company is on a steady artistic ascent.

In October, the Community Music School held a unique event at Kleinhans Music Hall's Mary Seaton Room to celebrate the 88th birthday of the school and of famous vocal coach Andy Anselmo. Cabaret acts flew in from New York, including Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano ("The New York Nightclub World's Most Celebrated Team"), and Anselmo's current protegee, Caroline Jones. Anselmo recently retired to Buffalo and now that he is not going to New York as much, New York is coming to him. And to us. He makes the city richer by his presence.

October at the BPO was dominated by a memorable visit by Three Dog Night. Band mainstay Cory Wells is from Buffalo, and this was an event that you heard talked about a lot around town. The philharmonic's rock-themed concerts are not to everyone's taste, but they draw big crowds and are doing a lot to get new audiences into Kleinhans.

The Metropolitan Opera is starting 2013 with Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda." The opera, about Mary, Queen of Scots, is new to them. Buffalo beat the Met to the punch by staging "Maria Stuarda" in November at St. Joseph's University Church. Beyond the music, it was beautiful to behold, with glorious costumes and staging.

November brought another event that had Buffalo buzzing: Veteran poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a famed Soviet dissident, came to read his poetry in conjunction with a BPO performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13. Not only was the occasion odd and arresting, but there was that beautiful Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 2, with Michael Boriskin as soloist. The piano concerto had never been performed with the BPO and it's a marvelous piece. Boriskin played it with energy and wit.

Speaking of zesty soloists, cellist Zuill Bailey gave, in December, one of the top BPO performances of the year. His unorthodox, passionate approach to a Haydn concerto – a piece that, in other hands, could easily have been staid and conventional – was impressive and showed that it's possible to put old music in a new light.


>> Music: A state of flux

By Jeff Miers - News Pop Music Critic

The Buffalo music scene, a protean conception during the best of times, certainly took on an even more polymorphous state during 2012. Everything felt like it was up in the air, the wheel captured in midspin, and the future as unknowable as the present was slippery and tough to define. Was the scene about to explode, or putter out completely? It was sometimes hard to tell.

None of this was helped by the announcement near the end of the year that Mohawk Place, the fabled downtown independent music club, would be closing its doors in the early days of 2013. Losing one of its hubs, a cornerstone of its essence, is a major blow to the music scene. Mohawk will surely be missed on an emotional level, for several generations of club-savvy music fans and musicians. But it will also be missed on a more practical level. Who or what will step in to fill the 'Hawk's role as a small club capable of attracting up-and-coming bands and seasoned cult artists who most likely couldn't fill the larger Tralf Music Hall or Town Ballroom? What club will be the new home of indie-rock in Buffalo? 2013 will tell.

Adding to the state of flux has been the completion of the move of the Buffalo Place Thursday free concert series from Lafayette Square to the Erie Canal Harbor Central Wharf. The move has been healthy for the downtown area surrounding it, certainly, and the gorgeous space is able to accommodate the large crowds that assemble for the weekly series and the several Buffalo Place Rocks the Harbor weekend shows scattered throughout the summer. I see the move to the harbor as positive and a harbinger of good things to come – perhaps among them the construction of a permanent outdoor amphitheater on the site. Last summer also marked the maiden voyage of the Outer Harbor concerts, with acts like Girl Talk, on Fuhrmann Boulevard, at the former site of the Pier. That said, the clubs surrounding Lafayette Square that routinely enjoyed runoff business during the former Thursday at the Square series – and Mohawk Place was prominent among this group – certainly suffered from the move.

Musically speaking 2012 was a banner year in Buffalo. A healthy scene grew and flourished in Allentown, particularly around the hub connecting ?Nietzsche's, Duke's Bohemian Grove Bar, Allen Street Hardware and the Bend. Here, a fascinating commingling of jam band music, funk, jazz, hip-hop, neo soul and DJ-based sounds birthed a bit of a live music renaissance. On any given weekend, one could casually saunter between the four clubs forming this Allen Street nexus and hear brilliant original bands, top-flight improvisation, a mind-up DJ, an open jam session or a touring legend. On these nights, it was easy to believe that our scene was abundantly healthy, and that Buffalo is home to some of the finest musicians in the country.

However, in terms of the "big shows" – the major arena star-turns and outdoor "shed gigs" – 2012 was a bit of a disappointment. Our region remains a secondary market for big tours. If we were hoping for a Radiohead date, for example, we hoped in vain. Toronto remained the go-to spot for some of the hippest shows on the 2012 touring circuit. We did get some big names at First Niagara Center – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, who never skip Buffalo; Rush, who rarely do; and Roger Waters, who was bringing his "The Wall" tour back to us for its second sellout performance – were highlights for rock fans.

Country music lovers might see 2012 differently – if rock, alternative music and indie stuff was a precious commodity, country music was everywhere, from Darien Lake to downtown, with big names like Eric Church, Toby Keith, Brad Paisley and Jason Aldean entertaining full houses throughout the year.

All told, however, 2012 should be remembered as a year that was far better in the live music clubs than it was on the big concert stages. Kudos to the Buffalo musicians who helped to make it so.