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Forte! A Celebration of Student Excellence...
Sanders Theatre, October 25
Larry Summers has started selling himself as an art lover. If this sudden conversion, coming from a president who has earned a first class Philistine reputation, strikes you as a weak attempt at spin, his glorified talent show last Friday proved that you’re absolutely right.
The ridiculously named Forte! A Celebration of Student Excellence in the Arts, a two-hour pageant of Harvard’s most prominent—if not most talented—arts students, was just as much fun to mock as its goody-two-shoes hype would have led you to expect. Mr. Ex-Treasury Secretary showed us what selling out is all about.
What led Summers to cast himself as an arts aficionado? Freshman Parents’ Weekend, of course. This sold-out show was teeming with parents, their unwilling first-years in tow—during the first act, that is. The benches were notably less crowded after intermission.
In fact, Forte! did not just bore its audience to death; it tried to dupe it. Many of the showcased “students” weren’t students at all. Of the 37 listed in the program, 19 were undergraduates and 18 were recent (or not-so-recent) graduates. That’s a phony count of 50 percent.
In the program, Summers wrote—in red ink, so he must have meant it—that “Excellence in the arts is a distinctive characteristic of a great university.” If Forte! was out to prove this, it might have been more successful if it had restricted itself to performers who were still actually part of the university. President Summers, were you worried you weren’t going to fill up two hours if you didn’t supplement the student offerings with work from outside? Trust me, that wouldn’t have been a problem.
Things started off badly before we even set foot in the theater. Some bureaucrat at Mass. Hall was under the impression that an audience is a big child in need of a little finger wagging, so tickets to the show came with a little slip of paper telling us to get to Sanders 15 minutes before the show begins or we might lose our seat. We should have been so lucky.
The show was a piecemeal assortment of a few lucky performers and artists that the powers on high chose to participate. Generally speaking, these people are pretty good. Maybe not the “Traditional Scottish Fiddle Tune” duo, but Summers only presents performers with solid credentials.
Thus, we got knock-out freshman violinist Stefan Jackiw (remeber that name), as well as some seriously glamorous Chopin played by campus celebrity Berenika Zakrzewski ’04, in a sparkling full-out ball gown and a liter of hairspray.
But we also got spoken word weirdness, a student’s original classical composition (which was nap time in the mezzanine), and—the evening’s absolute low point—a performance described as “drawing upon...works by Sam Shepard, T.S. Eliot, Jose Saragamo and David Foster Wallace.” Maybe its subtle, subversive point was to prove that name-dropping doesn’t cut it where theater is concerned. During these pieces, the best seats in the house were those from which you could observe Summers trying his best not to squirm.
Forte! got so bad, eventually, that it got good. It entered the realm of comedy when a screen came down to flash a slide show of stale VES pieces that were seen in the Advocate a few years ago. In front, a tuxedoed undergrad pulled out a cello and gave us some Bach. What a creative way to celebrate the arts!
The evening ended, predictably enough, with a performance by Kuumba, the university’s we’re-culturally-diverse showpiece. (As member Savannah J. Frierson ’05 put it last year in a Crimson opinion piece, speaking of another Harvard performance: “we were there only to show diversity and prove that Harvard has indeed become a welcoming institution for all kinds of people.”)
This raises the question of these performers’ motivations. Summers didn’t put together this deplorable show on his own. Kuumba conductor Sheldon K.X. Reid ’96 agreed to be a part of it, as did countless other student wannabe artists whose presence in this piece of propaganda seriously put their artistic integrity in doubt.
The only artists with an excuse were the musicians, who should never miss a chance to perform in front of an audience, as these opportunities are rare, and vital to their craft. As for the rest of the artists, one might suggest that they find a genuine venue and stop pandering.
One of the few acts that managed to avoid embarrassment was the guitar duo of Michael Ramos ’04-’05 and Dan Tinkoff ’04. Recruited from the Harvard Jazz Band and told to put something together, they decided they needed to go with a standard for the parent crowd. Their hackneyed choice was Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm,” but against all expectations, they did a splendid job with it. They were just two guys onstage making great music and having a great time.
What do you know? Forte! managed to produced excellence in the arts, albeit just for one short act. It wasn’t worth the two hours of typically Harvardian self-promotion that made up the rest of the show, perhaps, but it was a moment of redemption nonetheless.
—Crimson Arts critic Eugenia B. Schraa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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