We’re halfway through our 20th anniversary season of summer concerts at the NCMA. It seems an appropriate moment to take stock of what’s been accomplished over the past couple of decades and what the future may have in store. I’ve had the pleasure and challenge of building the program from the ground up, and it’s been quite a journey.
I joined the Museum in the fall of 1996 just after the amphitheater had been built and named after its benefactor, Joseph M. Bryan, Jr. I’d spent the previous two years as programming director of an 18-day festival of southern music and culture at the Atlanta Olympics. Before that I served as founding director of the Folklife Section of the North Carolina Arts Council. The office was created with the help of Larry Wheeler, now director of the NCMA, during his stint as deputy secretary of the Department of Cultural Resources.
Larry was excited about the new performing arts facility but needed someone to program and manage it. I had a lot of experience with major festival productions but had never produced a concert series that depended on ticket sales to pay its way.
It didn’t take long to get schooled in the financial risk-taking inherent in presenting live music, especially in an open-air venue that’s exposed to North Carolina’s stormy summer weather. We tried a few things during the first season that would seem to be a good fit with the Museum’s affiliation with the fine arts, including a couple of concerts with the North Carolina Symphony and a modern dance performance produced in collaboration with the American Dance Festival. They were great events but left us badly in the hole.
These wakeup calls persuaded me to fall back on the folk and traditional arts that I’d spent most of my career promoting, first in my work with the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife, which has been held annually on the National Mall for the past half century. I found it thrilling that the nation’s most prestigious cultural institution had come forward with such a finely curated presentation of the country’s indigenous music, dance, craft, storytelling, and culinary traditions, and it remains a touchstone of my work at the NCMA.
A special free concert by Angélique Kidjo rounds out the 20th anniversary concert season on September 23.
I’ve always been partial to forms of cultural expression that are deeply rooted and reflect the essence of a people and place. The first NCMA concert to attract a capacity audience (3,000 at the time), early in the first season, featured some brilliant musicians and dancers from Ireland and Scotland. The emcee was Fiona Ritchie, host of NPR’s The Thistle and Shamrock, and the show’s success inspired us to produce an annual Celtic music event called Celtic Wonders. We took a similar approach in highlighting the rich music traditions of New Orleans and Louisiana’s bayou country. Our annual Louisiana Dance Party presented top Cajun and zydeco bands, including Beausoleil and Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas, and iconic New Orleans musicians Allen Toussaint and Dr. John.
Our interest in roots music isn’t limited to traditional music but embraces artists who have built on their cultural foundations to push musical boundaries in surprising and wonderful ways. We’ve helped re-establish a local audience for great bands such as Los Lobos and The Mavericks who draw deeply upon their Latin heritage.
And we bring a global perspective to our programming.
One of our most memorable and influential events was Africa Fete in 1999. It featured an all-star cast of African artists, including Senegal’s Baaba Maal, South Africa’s acclaimed bandleader and singer Oliver Mtukudzi, and Mali’s celebrated master of the kora Toumani Diabate, who was accompanied by the American roots artist Taj Mahal. We’ve continued to present important African performers, including the Senegalese musical giant Youssou N’Dour, making his first appearance in North Carolina. We’re honored to end our anniversary season this summer with a special free concert by Africa’s premier diva, Angélique Kidjo.
France was the focus of our 2000 season as the Museum mounted a blockbuster exhibition of the sculpture of Auguste Rodin. It provided the occasion to present an authentic French circus by Les Colporteurs and to feature jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. We celebrated the conclusion of the exhibition with fireworks and a free concert by the wonderful Paris Combo, who have made several return visits by popular demand.
Other standout world music concerts include the appearance of Cuban singer-bandleader Compay Segundo, a star of the Buena Vista Social Club project; and a performance by supergroup AfroCubism, which brought together legendary musicians from Cuba and Mali.
Scottish indie band Belle & Sebastian is coming for a sold-out concert on July 31.
A spring highlight was Four Voices, who are Joan Baez, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers.
Mipso kicked off the 20th anniversary season with a May 6 appearance.
Coming August 12: Superchunk
Fundamental to our mission is a commitment to providing a platform for outstanding North Carolina talent.
Fundamental to our mission is a commitment to providing a platform for outstanding North Carolina talent. We’re especially privileged to have had a close relationship with Doc Watson, the incomparable guitarist and singer from Deep Gap in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We organized a special tribute to Doc shortly after his death in 2012. Other North Carolina legends who have graced our stage include Earl Scruggs and Etta Baker, as well as younger traditional artists such as Sheila Kay Adams, the Red Clay Ramblers, Riley Baugus, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, David Holt, and Bryan Sutton. We’ve also been pleased to catch the Avett Brothers on their rise to national fame, and to lend the stage on multiple occasions to homegrown singer-songwriter Tift Merritt. She’ll be with us again this summer along with Tar Heel artists Mipso, Mandolin Orange, Rhiannon Giddens, and Superchunk.
Speaking of singer-songwriters, we’ve welcomed some of the best: Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jeff Tweedy, Glen Hansard, Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, Neko Case, Brandi Carlile, the Indigo Girls, Bruce Hornsby, Iris DeMent, and more.
The series has taken a turn toward bigger productions and more indie rock in recent years. This has been made possible through our partnership with Cat’s Cradle, the famed rock club in Carrboro, North Carolina. Without the support of the Cradle and its owner, Frank Heath, it’s doubtful we could have taken on the likes of Wilco, Sheryl Crow, or this season’s co-bill with Andrew Bird and Scottish indie band Belle & Sebastian.
I’ll conclude my survey of the first two decades of concerts at the NCMA with a look at our Music-Movie Combo—a live performance followed by a film on our large outdoor movie screen.
The concept formed almost accidentally in the second year of the program when we had the opportunity to show the classic Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night. It’s not generally known that the film was produced by an American named Walter Shenson. We had the good fortune of persuading Mr. Shenson to bring his personal 35mm print to the Museum (it was otherwise unavailable) and conduct a Q&A after the screening. We opened the event with a performance by the Charlotte-based Beatles cover band The Spongetones. Altogether it made for a terrific evening and inspired other imaginative music-movie pairings.
The combo format reached its zenith in 2014 when the incomparable Lisa Fischer, who has been the principal backup singer for the Rolling Stones since 1989, performed her first major solo concert before a screening of the Academy Award–winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom. Ms. Fischer is one of the stars of the film.
As we look ahead, we’ll strive as always to present distinguished artists from home and abroad in a manner that honors the high standards of the North Carolina Museum of Art. We’re grateful for the public support we’ve enjoyed over these two decades, and we’ll continue to work hard to enrich and energize the NCMA experience with great live performance for many years to come.
George Holt is the director of performing arts and film at the NCMA.
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