Friday, December 28, 2007

Cultural Reverse Snobbery

#339 Cultural Reverse Snobbery

For those of us raised in a tradition of Euro-centric cultural snobbery, this may amount to treason.

But the highlight of the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors was a two minute snippet that happened almost accidentally.

First, let's clear up one dispute. People from Washington often talk of some kind of cultural rivalry with New York. Most New Yorkers, informed of this sub rosa war will respond by saying "what rivalry?" But the Kennedy Center Honors and the center itself were created to foster this deep south notion. It's a nifty hall, really. And it's close enough so the Washington political elite can pop in when they need a dose of something snooty, or to be seen among the great pretenders who hang out there.

The honorees this year included the director Martin Scorsese, who certainly deserves a salute from his peers and fans and anyone who's ever seen any of his movies.

Another was Dianna Ross, who didn't have to do anything but sit there and wave as a short roster of singers performed her hits -- all of them better than the originals, and some of them a LOT better. Dianna has about doubled in size from her prime. And her appearance on "American Idol" last year had to be the worst moment of her professional life.

For those Euro-centric cultural snobs, there was Leon Fleisher, an extraordinary piano pounder, all the more interesting because he had to fight physical disability at the peak of his fame, because he IS Euro-centric, but American Born and pals with the late Leonard Bernstein, who should have been charged with the attempted murder of Beethoven. Yo Yo Ma did a lot of the speaking for Fleisher, and while Ma is better known for playing irreplaceable 17th century cellos masterfully, then leaving them in taxi cabs, his verbal portrait was touching.

The longest and most elaborate tribute was for Steve Martin who is way smarter than he seems, and way more talented than many of us remembered. And this leads to the first thought, the one that started this little rant.

Martin plays the five string banjo, bluegrass style. This is not a state secret, but it isn't something you hear a lot about, either. His banjo mentor is the fellow generally regarded as creator of the style and it's foremost artist, living or dead, Earl Scruggs, who at the time of the broadcast was mere weeks away from his 84th birthday.

They brought him to Washington to play a song at this shindig. His theme, and probably the second-best known song in the genre, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." (The best known is Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky.")

So here's Earl, walking onto the stage. Arthritis in the shoulders, it looks like -- they're hunched, which they didn't used to be. And with that characteristic unsmiling, un-cultured, un-cultural, un-showbusiness deadpan, starts playing the song at abut 650 miles per hour, which is almost as fast as he played it 60 years ago, and not one bad note. Flawless.

Now THAT's an artist. And THAT was the highlight of the whole over-long program designed so that Washington could say to New York "Hey, we're here, too."

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.

©2007 WJR

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