On a recent weeknight at a Raleigh bookstore, Ari Picker was back from a national tour, singing and strumming acoustic guitar with a French horn player from Lost in the Trees, his orchestral folk-pop ensemble, along with N.C. Symphony's star cellist Bonnie Thron, a violist and a violin player. They were there to help the violist, Katie Wyatt, raise support for a groundbreaking classical music education program for poor, young children in Durham that begins this month.
A few days earlier, wearing sunglasses and standing in a gallery at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, the outsider artist and fictitious funk/soul persona known as Mingering Mike had come down from Washington, D.C., to kick off the Triangle's biggest exhibition of the fall: a mixed-media celebration of vinyl albums. New York-based DJ's Piotr Orlov and Dave Tompkins spun the tunes, while Raleigh artist and record producer David McConnell and Merge Records co-founder and Superchunk bassist Laura Ballance hung out.
Scenes like those are increasingly common in the Triangle these days: not only cross-pollination of musical styles and artistic media, but with all the traditional walls knocked down: Cross-venue as well as cross-genre.
Despite the economy, there's a swirling of new arts activity lately, a stirring in the air that tells us something vital is taking shape. Sure, some of the bigger institutions have had to scale back programming but, underfoot, local groups have responded with a street-level nimbleness.
You can find it in collaborations like New Music Raleigh, a spinoff of the N.C. Symphony, which champions the works of living composers, including local ones, and proves there's an audience for contemporary classical music that you might actually call hip. There's the merger of two opera companies into a single force. Local bloggers are starting to write about culture, there's a new artists' network (Triangle ArtWorks), and a new glossy magazine covering the gallery scene (artsee).
Art galleries and little theater companies come and go, but at least three new galleries have opened in downtown Raleigh (although the longtime Somerhill closed in Durham), and believe it or not there are more than 40 theater groups in the Triangle.
Meanwhile, the big-box venues are bringing top-notch talent here. The universities have put together creative and, at times, unexpected programs. Duke Performances has lined up local freak-folkers Megafaun to team up with a brass band and others to interpret Alan Lomax's collection of Southern sounds for a live album to be recorded over three concerts at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham later this week.
Among the largest organizations, the N.C. Symphony - though concerts featuring guest artists remain scaled back - will find no less enthusiasm in music director Grant Llewellyn's and resident conductor William Henry Curry's plans for a season structured around four key composers: Tchaikovsky, Mozart, John Adams and Gustav Mahler (Mahler will bookend the season).
The Mozart concert in December will feature collaboration with PlayMakers Repertory Company for a semistaged production of the play "Amadeus." Next month Curry leads the orchestra in a concert tied to the N.C. Museum of Art's Norman Rockwell exhibition - each movement of the piece titled "Rockwell Reflects" will reference a painting. Speaking of which, in November the museum will open its renovated old building with an unprecedented five new exhibitions at once.
It feels like an invigorating season lies ahead, with the promise of more surprises in unexpected places yet to be discovered.
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