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Entertainment Highlights: A Musical Guide to America

  • The Flatlanders, who are (from left) Butch Hancock, Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, are to perform at the Tupelo Music Hall in White River Junction, Vt., on April 12, 2013. (Courtesy photograph)

    The Flatlanders, who are (from left) Butch Hancock, Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, are to perform at the Tupelo Music Hall in White River Junction, Vt., on April 12, 2013. (Courtesy photograph)

  • The Flatlanders, who are (from left) Butch Hancock, Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, are to perform at the Tupelo Music Hall in White River Junction, Vt., on April 12, 2013. (Courtesy photograph)

The composer and singer Gabriel Kahane was born in 1981, long after the Federal Writers Project, an arm of the Works Progress Administration during Roosevelt’s New Deal, closed its doors in 1943. But as composer-in-residence for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, charged with creating a piece that would center on the WPA, Kahane became fascinated by the Federal Writers Project’s most enduring legacy, the American Guide series.

Between 1935 and 1943, writers of all stripes fanned out across the 48 states, and New York City and Washington, D.C., to describe and commemorate each state’s unique history and culture.

The guides included photographs and line drawings, and were written by authors who would go on to fame on their own. Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothy West, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, John Cheever, Studs Terkel, John Steinbeck, Nelson Algren, Richard Wright and May Swenson were some of the young talents employed by the project.

Kahane’s musical interpretation, Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States, will have its world premiere next Friday, April 19, at Spaulding Auditorium at the Hopkins Center, as part of a performance by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra will also play Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Kahane will sing and speak the libretto while the Orpheus, which doesn’t rely on a conductor, plays behind him.

“They’re one of the two or three best chamber orchestras in the country,” Kahane said. “What they have that’s unusual for any orchestra is an incredibly rhythmic discipline. They feel and listen to where the beat is. Because this piece is hyper-rhythmic and comes out of my life as a pop songwriter, that vigilance about rhythm is so crucial.”

Kahane started by picking up the guides to Massachusetts and Connecticut in a book store while doing an artistic residency at Yaddo, near Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “As I researched the period more and more, the most extraordinary thing were these guides,” Kahane said in a phone interview from his home in New York City. “It’s an incredible literary trove.”

He didn’t read all the guides cover to cover, which would have been a Herculean task, but he did delve into all the different subjects they cover, state by state. Anything that struck him he underlined and then transcribed into a computer. From there he picked out the words and images — a hobo song, the origins of town names — that he turned into the libretto. Hundreds of thousands of words were distilled to some 4,000. The idea was to let the language and often poetic sensibilities of the Guides speak for the era, rather than imposing an external vision on them.

“Anytime you’re doing a period theater piece with music, do you use the sound world of that time or do you try to filter that sound world through the present?” Kahane said. The music suggests the era without being a literal pastiche.

The son of pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane, Kahane has made a name for himself as a composer who draws on a variety of influences, from classical to jazz to the American Songbook. His 2006 composition Craigslistlieder is a playful, witty song cycle that set Craig’slist ads to music.

Last year New York’s Public Theater commissioned his musical February House, about a boarding house in Brooklyn that was occupied for a time during World War II by a stellar cast of renters that included Gypsy Rose Lee, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Carson McCullers, among others.

Kahane worked on Gabriel’s Guides for some two years, and came away with an appreciation not only for the guides’ “incredibly high standard of prose,” but the scope of the program as a whole. “There was such a broad vision to have undertaken this project in order to try to capture the flavor and look of America ... with an attendant fear of that disappearing.”

He found himself moved by some guides, such as Oregon, Ohio and Kansas, that he hadn’t necessarily expected would affect him as someone whose life has been largely spent on the two coasts, and is now living in Brooklyn, the new U berBohemia. “They burst with a kind of pride for the enterprise they were undertaking,” he observed.

Despite the vigorous opposition in some quarters to Roosevelt’s New Deal, the state guides represented a moment “when the country was able to come together,” Kahane said.

And in today’s era, in which we’re told that the country is deeply and perhaps hopelessly divided, Kahane added, “certainly one of the impetuses to me in a kind of quixotic, stupidly idealistic way is to try to bring the country back together.”

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Gabriel Kahane performs at 8 p.m., April 19.

Tickets are $25-$40; Dartmouth students $10; 18 & under $17 and $19.

Best Bets

Fittingly, for such an outsized state, Texas has produced an outsized share of musical talent: Willie Nelson, Bob Wills, Leadbelly, Waylon Jennings, Janis Joplin, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle and Freddie Fender, to name but a few. And tomorrow night a trio of exceptionally gifted Texan musicians will be in residence at Tupelo Music Hall in White River Junction.

The Flatlanders, also known as Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmorerand Butch Hancock, have been at the forefront of what’s called alternative country since the 1970s. And separately and together, they’ve played with anybody and everybody of distinction in American music. This tour has already taken them to Toronto and their next stop after Tupelo is Carnegie Hall, so the fact that they’re in town is a big deal. The show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $45.

∎ On Saturday night, the Hot Club of Cowtown sashays into Tupelo for a show beginning at 7 p.m. They fuse jazz and Western Swing into a captivating, infectious, danceable whole. Tickets are $25.

∎ The trials and tribulations of the dating and mating scene are spoofed in the musical I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, which is having a weekend performance at the Newport Opera House. Its jokes about boring first dates, chick flicks, expectant parents and new romance made it a hit off-Broadway from 1996 to 2008. The book and lyrics were written by Joe DiPietro and the music by Jimmy Roberts. Both shows start at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday. Tickets are $12 and $16 for reserved seating.

∎ The Main Street Museum in beautiful downtown White River Junction hosts two musical acts this weekend. Tomorrow night, the punk rockers Moxley Union take over the joint; and on Saturday, it’s time for Spooky Motion at a Distance, a group made up of Jason Smeltzer on theremin, Mitch Thomashow on synthesizer, Quinn Thomashow on guitar & vocals, and Peter Thomashow on guitar. Einstein coined the phrase “Spooky motion (Action) at a distance” to describe how quantum particles interact with each other at a speed faster than light. Sounds like some mind-blowing music will be going on... Tickets are $10 to $15 per person, $5 to $10 for museum members.

∎ May Erlewine & Seth Bernard will perform in concert for MountainFolk on Saturday at the Tunbridge Town Hall at 7:30 p.m. The duo from Michigan’s U.P. (Upper Peninsula) write about everything you’d expect from a singing and songwriting pair: love, loss, resilience, the land. Although they’ve played in Vermont before, this will be their first appearance at MountainFolk. Check them out at www.sethandmay.com. Advance tickets are priced at $15 ($20 at the door) and available at the South Royalton Market, The Tunbridge Store and on-line at www.mtnfolk.org.

Looking Ahead

Shaker Bridge Theater puts on its last production of the year beginning Friday, April 19 and continuing through May 5. North Shore Fish, by Israel Horovitz, is about a fish processing plant in Gloucester experiencing the pains of being taken over by foreign investors. When the factory is sold to a fitness club, the town is in an uproar over what will happen to the workers. Written in 1989, the play deals with the life and death of the American factory worker, a long, slow decline that’s played out over the last 30 years. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 adults, $20 students with ID.

∎ As part of its Best in Show Film Festival, the Dartmouth Film Society will be presenting a slate of films from the Fespaco African Film Festival April 19-21. It’s safe to say that African films get pretty short shrift in American movie theaters even though Fespaco, held biennially in Burkina Faso, is one of the largest film festivals in the world. The four feature films being showcased at the Hop are from Morocco, Mozambique and Senegal. The subject matter is as varied as immigration to the U.S. and Europe, the treatment of women, and the Moroccan underworld. For $30 you can buy a passport guaranteeing entry to all four movies; otherwise, tickets are $10 per film. Find more information at https://hop.dartmouth.edu.

∎ Stand-up comic and Boston native John Pinette brings his “S tay Hungry Tour to the Lebanon Opera House on Saturday, April 20, at 8 p.m. He’s riffed on, among life’s other oddities, why turnips exist, scanning your own groceries, all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets and the eternal question, “how big is the small size?” Tickets are $45.75 and $35.75.

∎ Russell Roderick, a comedian/hypnotist and professional sword swallower (are there amateur sword swallowers?) will be at the Claremont Opera House on Saturday, April 20, at 8 p.m. Roderick hypnotizes members of the audience to do just about anything he tells them to do. So if he tries to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, snap out of it! Tickets are $20.

∎ You’ll want to watch out for the young Cuban jazz pianist, Alfredo Rodriguez, coming to Spaulding Auditorium at the Hop on April 25 at 7 p.m. He was first noticed by Quincy Jones, who calls him one of the best musicians he’s ever worked with. Rodriguez has been likened to such greats as Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk, which is exalted company to keep. Tickets are still available: $17-$30.

∎ Paula Poundstone talks about everything under the sun: cats, kids, lawyers, lube racks, more cats. You may know her stand-up work or you may know her from NPR’s Saturday morning show Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me. One of my favorite Poundstone moments on Wait, Wait was when she took on Michael Pollan, the estimable if occasionally preachy writer about food, agriculture and nutrition. Pollan tried to tell her that a Ring Ding is not food; Poundstone insisted it is. Guess who won the argument? She’s coming to Chandler Music Hall in Randolph on Saturday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $34 advance, $37 day of show.

Folk Music

The Sunapee Community Coffee House features two New England singer/songwriters tomorrow evening, starting at 7 p.m. First up is Annalise Emerick, working in the rich American folk tradition, who did a reverse migration from what you’d expect; instead of leaving Boston for Nashville, she did it the other way around. Then Laconia singer/songwriter Abbie Morin brings her poetic songs to the stage.

Bar And Club Circuit

Salt hill in Lebanon welcomes Jim Hollis tomorrow evening at 9 p.m., and Frydaddy on Saturday evening at the same time. If you’re going to be in Salt hill in Newport tonight or over the weekend, you can take in musical performances by Sean Wyatt tonight at 8:30, Dave Bundza tomorrow night at 9 and Arthur James at 9 on Saturday. Is Salt hill in Hanover your main stay? Then settle in this evening for a set of traditional Irish music at 6 p.m. And Poor Howard plays at 9 p.m. tomorrow, and then the Squids come in at 9 p.m. Saturday.

∎ Over at the Canoe Club in Hanover, Jonathan Kaplan will perform folk and blues piano starting at 7 p.m. this evening.

∎ The Woodshed Wailers start wailing at 5 p.m. tomorrow at Jesse’s in Hanover.

∎ Neutral Ground takes center stage tomorrow evening from 9 p.m. to midnight at the Seven Barrels Brewery in West Lebanon.

∎ Tomorrow night, the Chris Kleeman Blues Band rolls into the Skunk Hollow Tavern in Hartland at 9 p.m., and next Friday, April 19, the ever- popular Sensible Shoes hold court.

Open Mics And Jams

Colatina Exit in Bradford holds an Open Mic night Tuesday from 8 to 11 p.m.

∎ Seven Barrels Brewery in West Lebanon hosts an Open Mic Night Wednesday at 8 p.m.

∎ Salt hill in Lebanon has an Open Mic night this evening at 8 p.m., while Salt hill in Hanover hosts one Monday at 7:30 p.m.

∎ Greg Brown hosts Open Mic night every Wednesday from 8:30 p.m. on at Skunk Hollow Tavern in Hartland.

∎ Shepard’s on Route 4 in Quechee brings on talented local musicians at their Open Mic nights on Tuesdays, starting at 6 p.m.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.