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Wednesday, March 31,2010

Local, vocal, plural

Partnerships, singers dominate Wharton’s upcoming season

by Lawrence Cosentino
The Wharton Center for the Performing Arts has to live up to the big “s” on its new glass façade, but it’s not easy. Even the biggest classical, jazz, world and dance acts are usually less lucrative than Broadway shows, and some are downright loss leaders.

Still, Wharton Center executive director Michael Brand is using a trick or two to keep the performing arts plural for Wharton’s 2010-2011 season.


To start with, the Wharton Center’s Detroit connections will help keep symphonic music and opera resounding in the Great Hall.


The Detroit Symphony Orchestra and its new music director, Leonard Slatkin, will take an Oct. 7 hayride down I-96 to perform Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique. “Lots of horns — I like that,” said Brand, a former trumpet player. Superstar violinist Sarah Chang will do the solo honors.


Wharton has hosted the Detroit Symphony twice in Brand’s six-year stint as director, but those were one-shots, and he’d like to make it an annual visit.


The Detroit-Lansing axis strikes again March 27, when the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings hook up with local legend Ralph Votapek on piano for a romp through Mozart and Stravinsky.


After a one-year absence, the Michigan Opera Theatre renews one of the most spectacular Detroit-Wharton partnerships of recent years on April 21, 2011, with a fullscale production of Mozart’s "The Magic Flute." Wharton’s other major classical visitor next season is the male chorus Chanticleer, with an early-music-tinged Christmas concert Dec. 5.


On the jazz side of the tracks, Brand is for saking the horn and sax men and betting on the star power of vocalists, who often draw ticket-buyers from beyond the jazz world.


The major exception to the rule is the biggest jazz star to appear next season, guitarist Pat Metheny (Oct. 17). Metheny has opened a lot of bags in his long career, from atonal shock waves to impressionistic lyricism. This time he’s working out a “solo” concept called Orchestrion, in which he runs a huge battery of acoustic instruments from his stool.


Metheny has withdrawn from two Wharton Center engagements in the past owing to last-minute routing changes, but Brand thinks he’ll succeed where his predecessors failed.


“Everybody here’s betting that he ain’t gonna show up,” Brand said with a laugh.


Saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins didn’t confirm in time for the season announcement, but Brand still hopes to snag him as an added date. Butch Thompson’s New Orleans Originals (Jan. 21) rounds out the instrumental jazz lineup (unless 80-yearold Rollins comes through).


From there on, it’s mostly mouth. Breezy vocalist Tierney Sutton will bring her standard-focused band Oct. 1. Soulful firebrand Dee Dee Bridgewater, who tore up last summer’s Detroit Jazz Festival, will sing the music of Billie Holiday on Feb. 18. Bridgewater is one of 11 artists and theater companies that will stick around for residencies as part of the Wharton Center’s Institute for Arts and Creativity.


Two of next season’s vocalists slide over the rainbow from jazz colors into world music: sultry, Israeli-born Yasmin Levy (Feb. 24), who blends a ululating voice with Middle Eastern instruments, and young singing phenomenon Somi (Oct. 28), who calls her mix of African, Latin and jazz “New African Soul.” Brand booked Somi after a Wharton staffer heard her at B.B. King’s Blues Club in New York and got her proverbial socks knocked off.


Neither Levy nor Somi are easy to classify, but they’re officially part of Wharton’s world music series, along with Bayanihan, the National Folk Dance Co. of the Philippines (Nov. 4) and the frenetic Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista (April 6).


Brand is also continuing Wharton’s longstanding practice of showcasing the diversity of dance next season.


Ballet Hispanico hits the stage Feb. 15; the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre arrives March 1; and the Russian National Ballet Theatre will present “Romeo and Juliet” on Jan. 7.


The River North Chicago Dance Co. comes March 31, with a new dance honoring the 85th birthday of Miles Davis, commissioned in part by the Wharton Center. In life, Davis was a trumpeter, composer, painter, writer and major badass, and now he’s the subject of a dance.


If that doesn’t put the “s” in “arts,” nothing does.

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