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The Musical Patriot

Yankee Prof Takes on Dallas

by DAVID YEARSLEY

Three weeks back, the Musical Patriot took aim at the modern phenomenon of the Arts Center, discharging several rounds in the direction of Dallas. Those sent over the heads of Los Angeles and New York were taken in good part. Not so in Texas, where the Dallas Observer website inaugurated a series on “People Who Hate Dallas” in my honor. Needless to say, I’ve been dining out on this honor since, and so I feel owe it to Arts Centrists of Dallas  to offer them one more expression of thanks.

The press information emanating from  the backers of this outsized complex describe it as an “arts destination,”  scheduled to open in October. Indeed, it is a destination rather than a “district” in the older, more vibrant sense of that term—that is, a quarter of a city with a human flavor because people are living in it. It is indeed a “destination”—a place one goes to, or more accurately drives to, and then leaves. Dallas’ mall for high brow entertainment — entertainment I gladly consume at other venues, albeit less grandiose ones — costs a billion dollars-plus and boasts a new opera house and performance square designed by Norman Foster; a theatre by Rem Koolhaas, a smaller “performance hall” by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. These flashy buildings take their place not so far from Meyerson Symphony Hall and the art museum.

Now,  a real city has to have its Lincoln Center, and if it can outdo that half-century old standard, all the better. I’m not accusing Dallas or any other art-proud place or potentate, from Louis XIV to Frederick the Great and beyond, of being philistine. Rather, I’m asserting the obvious fact that a sprawling campus for the arts is meant to make a statement to the world, not just be a nice place to go to the theater.

But these Legolands for star architects are often chilling places – and, in case of the Dallas center, this is not just because of the lethal Texan air-conditioning. Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz is another jamboree for the same architectural elite, and  provides a good comparison. This glitzy, overpowering array of buildings and spaces was seemingly unpacked and dropped down from the sky. None of them seem to have been built for the people who use them.  The Potsdamer Platz — in contrast to the Dallas project it is a mixed-used development — arose in the No-Man’s Land between East and West Berlin south of the Brandenburg Gate as an unambiguous signal to the world about the outcome of the Cold War, and how the West won it. It is all steel and glass, with a few bricks thrown in as a post-modern reference to the colorful old district of the 1920s. But the new Potsdamer Platz is sterile and overwhelming.  Even the teetertotters for kids in the central open area are a good ten times larger than the than human-scaled ones kids know and love. This playground, like the entire project, is a gimmick, whose appeal lasts a couple of ups-and-downs. Then the teeter-totters, like the development as a whole, begin to feel oppressive and gloomy. Potsdamer Platz is anything but uplifting.

Will Dallas’s grand scheme fall victim to the same command approach to architecture, entertainment, and the arts?  It certainly looks that way to me, as I survey plans and images, and examine the statistics that show that Dallas’s downtown is hardly experiencing a renaissance of urban life that will provide a viable context beside the roads ringing it. That the arterial—the Woodall Rodgers Freeway—running alongside  the arts center roads is sunken and will be covered with a deck of grass, to be kept green by untold gallons of water in the hot Dallas summer, hardly integrates the complex with any real urban life. 

Some proud residents of Dallas took great offense at my polemic, but let me assure them that my critique was aimed at the  brave new world of urbanism on steroids, not on whether they wear a cowboy hat to the opera house or not.  As curator of my great grandfather’s Stetson, I think it a fine object to be seen with at the opera, and I plan to wear this very heirloom when I next go to the Met. My hat-loving Norwegian ancestor was the first elected sheriff of Dunn County, North Dakota, as nimble on the fiddle as he was with a shooting iron. And he was gifted with the perfect name for lawman: John Bang.  I know he’d back me up in my digital range war with the posse now marauding at the perimeter my virtual ranch.  

Many assumed an anti-souther bias on my part.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, as my dear cousins in Monroe, Louisiana will gladly testify, too. The Musical Patriot, like the Musical Republic he defends, recognizes no borders.

I was surprised to see that so many of the irate D-towners have such a tin ear for irony. Given the money spent on concert hall and opera house, let’s hope that their hearing is better equipped for symphonies and songs.
Also delivered to my digital door were plenty of grass-fed slabs of anti-academic sentiment vilifying the pretentious prof from Ithaca, apparently a pipe-smoking irrelevance, snoozing on a sherry-stained sofa in his Ivy league faculty lounge. My gleefully sophomoric comments about Longhorn bulls on viagra, and their human masters in big hats and big hair, were duly withdrawn in my response, but according to the dictates of my favorite rhetorical trope. So, while I’ve got your attention, class—and before I doze off again and set my tweed jacket alight with the embers from pipe dangling from my half-opened, drooling mouth and engulfing me in flames—put down your iPhones and iPods, and let me remind you of one of my favorite rhetorical device: apophasis.

As for the Mega-Projects of our present epoch: The Chinese have their National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing.  It’s even more grandiose than anything Dallas can throw up, but both complexes share a kindred ideology.  The mania for bigger and flashier—and costlier!—is not without its dangers for the arts and for people.

If forced to choose between big boxes like WalMart and their high-art and high-concept counterparts, like Winspear Opera House  in Dallas, I’ll take the latter any day.  But the arts center and the mall share a disturbingly similar vision of “city planning,” even if it is one seen from opposite ends of the economic spectrum. The Dallas Center for the Performing Arts is so much larger than life that it almost makes me want to stay home and listen to my iPod instead. Almost …

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu