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The FIFTH ROW - Stuart Weber
Many old theaters I have played in across the country share a remarkably common story - they have been saved from the wrecking ball by a few volunteers dedicated to preservation, and to bringing live entertainment back to their community.
As compelling a story as that is, my fascination in these historic theaters was to discover what unique qualities they may offer as a recording space. My interest in producing another studio recording was all but gone when this theater recording project came to mind. I learned long ago that focusing on the sound coming off the guitar is not as important as listening to the room in which the guitar is being played. We may perform from stage, but our ears have to be in the house. The Fifth Row, to be precise. Each theater has its own unique sound quality, an acoustic fingerprint that, with careful microphone placement, can itself be captured and preserved.
Each selection on this album was recorded in a different historic theater throughout the Rocky Mountain Northwest. The theaters represented on this CD are in various states of revival. Some have undergone exquisite restoration, while others are searching for the financial means to pay for the expensive renovations. Their architectural styles vary as well, from 17th century European, to Art Deco; from Egyptian, to Swiss Chalet. Some are grand, some are humble, and all have a story to tell.
I limited my geographic scope to a five state area in the Rocky Mountain region. Here, the explosive growth of the late 19th century and early 20th century saw a crop of opera houses spring up to cater to the interests of citizens far removed from the cultural amenities of the Eastern states. In the “boom” half of the familiar cycle, these gems were the real gold mines. Unfortunately most of these original houses are gone, many to fire, others to neglect and hard times.
A second surge of theater construction in the 1920’s was in direct response to the burgeoning movie craze. These palaces were often intended for multi use, able to accommodate the talkies, but also equipped with deep stages and towering flies to hoist sets for plays and musicals that traveled through town.
Another factor in my choosing the theaters of the Northern Rockies was purely logistical. I live in Montana, and the location recordings required a considerable amount of equipment, which meant driving. The long distances between these theaters gave me plenty of time to reflect. I was crossing the same ground that Vaudeville acts of 125 years ago traveled as they made the mining town circuit. The similarities don’t go much beyond that, however, since I am speeding down a modern highway in my air-conditioned Jeep, listening to a mix in surround sound. Yet there is a connection.
My art is my work.
The process was relatively simple. After setting up mics and levels in the late afternoon, I ate an early dinner, drew my hotel curtains closed, and was in bed by 7:00 p.m. Up at midnight, I began pacing myself so that by 3:00 a.m., when the recording light went on, I would be playing my best. I am not a night person by nature, but I discovered early on in this project that, while theaters may have been designed with acoustic excellence in mind, they were built long before the rumble of heavy truck traffic and the drone of modern society penetrated their walls. If my recording was going to succeed, it would have to be while the town slept. While taking every precaution to avoid street noises bleeding into the theater, I did nothing to filter out the creaking and popping noises the theater itself made as it cooled in the night air. In fact I welcomed them.
I worked alone, with theater doors locked, and all the lights off except for a lamp on stage that I could guarantee was quiet. Virtually every theater manager warned me of spirits that roamed the balconies and projection rooms, but I had no such encounters. In the dead of the night I pushed myself hard, through take after take, searching for my best. If they were present, they at least left me alone, possibly recognizing that I had my hands full wrestling with my own demons, seeking perfection. The truth is, I loved working in those spaces.
Bourée alla Polacca Georg Philipp Telemann
Recorded at the Ellen Eccles Theatre in Logan UT
Hailed as the “crown jewel” of the Cache Valley, the Eccles grandly reflects the power of performing arts houses to galvanize community. First erected in 1923 for a quarter of a million dollars as the Capitol Theatre, its stages and sophisticated fly system, outstanding acoustics and opulent interior played host to such popular acts of the day as Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers and George and Gracie Allen.
As times changed, the Capitol screened movies as well, the breadth of its offerings prompting city boosters to boldly claim Logan as the “Athens” of Utah. The advent of television dealt a blow to the Capitol, as it did to so many other great performing arts centers, and the theater fell into neglect. In the early ’90s, area philanthropists raised some $4.3 million to restore the building, upgrade its facilities and add an adjacent community center.
In 1993, the Capitol was reborn as the Ellen Eccles Theatre in honor of an early Logan arts patron and philanthropist. With its baroque styling, the Eccles makes a perfect architectural fit for a 17th century work like “Bouree alla Polacca.” To avoid losing the tone to the grandeur of the building itself, the piece was played with Stuart sitting before dropped curtains just on the lip of the stage’s apron, urging sound up into the house.
One of the most sophisticated remodels on the Fifth Row tour, the Eccles presented 20th challenges like fire alarms. Seven small alarms scattered throughout the building emitted low, regular beeps that would doubtless be audible in the recording. Aided by an electrician and even the town’s fire marshal, the inventive tech crew built small temporary foam boxes around the alarms to muffle their interference during this wee-hour solo performance.
Humoreske Antonín Dvořák
Recorded at the Wilma Theatre in Missoula MT
Built in 1920 by Wild West show producer William “Billy” Simmons to honor his wife, vaudeville performer Edna Wilma, the eight-story Wilma Theater was for a while the tallest structure in all of Montana. With business speculations in Montana, Alaska, Idaho and Oregon, Simmons wasn’t a man to think small, and accordingly demanded that the Wilma not only be the biggest thing in an already big state, but that it be the West’s best homage to the great halls of European culture.
Known as “the Showplace of Montana,” the Wilma opened its doors with a grand performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and was also one of the west’s first mixed-use buildings, a phrase fashionable now but just good business practice back then. The theater has 1,067 seats and originally housed 12 apartments, a restaurant and barbershop, two storefronts, 50 offices and an enclosed Olympic-sized swimming pool. Its Louis XIV styling—replete with a hand-painted ceiling and black marble walls—reflects the opulence of Simmons’ vision and makes it a perfect place to perform such romantic work of Europe’s late 19th century as this light-hearted piece composed by the great Czechoslovakian artist Antonín Dvořák.
Taking a work composed for one instrument and translating it to another is a difficult homage of its own. Stuart took on this transcription of the familiar piano composition on a dare from a fellow musician over a couple beers. Harmonies that are easily reached on piano are simply not always available to the guitar. In this arrangement of “Humoreske” the guitarist must rely upon the instrument’s character and timbre to represent a composer’s intent, rather than a meticulous reproduction of the music as written for keyboard
Sacajawea Stuart Weber
Recorded at the Fort Peck Theatre in Fort Peck MT
In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided to save the people of Eastern Montana from the ravages of the Great Depression—he authorized a dam. For the next seven years, the labor of creating the largest earth-filled hydroelectric dam in the U.S. created a boomtown out of sleepy Fort Peck. At its peak, some 11,000 workers, led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, labored on the massive project.
Eleven thousand working people and their families need many things, entertainment among them. And so the Corps quickly erected a temporary facility to serve as a movie theater, and some 70 years later it is still the main draw in downtown Ft. Peck. Integrating the Arts and Crafts tradition inimitable to any WPA project with the incongruous styling of a Swiss chalet, the Ft. Peck Theatre screened films 24 hours a day, seven days a week during the dam’s construction peak. It opened in 1934 with Miriam Hopkins and John McCrae starring in The Richest Girl in the World.
Recording at Ft. Peck, Stuart chose to instead reflect the story of perhaps the strongest girl in the world, Sacajawea. This eponymous piece is intended to be a “bookend” to the music of Clark’s slave York (“Walk Away”). Unlike York, able to just freely slip out in the night if he chose, Sacajawea has her infant son and her husband with her. Sacajawea has not seen her people since she was captured in a raid as a little girl. Stuart envisions her climbing to the crest of a hill, scanning for familiar landmarks.
And then something strange happened. Across the centuries, imagining a woman he couldn’t possibly have ever known, Stuart fell wildly, passionately, helplessly in love with her. And so he wrote this love song using lingering chords punctuated with tamboura, all supporting a whispering, simple, melody.
Passacaille Sylvius Leopold Weiss
Recorded at the Wyo Theater in Sheridan WY
Imagine the opulence of opening night in 1923 at the decadent Lotus Theater! Live canaries trilled from cages hung above the proscenium. Flowers growing in their beds lined the stage. Lighted aquariums brimming with exotic fish glowed in the dark. That first audience was in for a night of spectacle that none soon forgot.
Variously home to traveling Vaudeville performers, full-scale theatrical productions, musical concerts, baby “contests” and song festivals. The Lotus welcomed the talkies in 1929 and flourished, adding an Art Deco marquee and changing its name to the Fox-Lotus in the early ’30s. But Hollywood-style glamour wasn’t to be its for long. In 1935, the theater closed for a fast week-long make-over from Egyptian-style art house to new-school Western luxury, its walls trimmed both inside and out with rough-hewn wooden slabs, and adorned on three sides with murals celebrating the romantic glory of the settled frontier. Tourist dollars beckoned, businessmen took note. Dude ranching had come to Wyoming.
Now hailed as a “Western Theater for Western People,” the theater prospered until the early 1940s, when it once again changed. This time, the house re-opened, styled in the new streamlined look of post-Depression era. Accordingly it had a new streamlined name: The WYO. That took, and for the next 40 years, the WYO functioned as an ad hoc community center for the good people of Sheridan. And then, as with so many of the historic houses on Stuart’s tour, it closed, the community rallied, a nonprofit was formed, money was raised, the house was renovated and its doors reopened.
For a theater in the heart of Wyoming, Stuart chose a work that greatly contrasts the western motif. “Passacaille” by Silvius Leopold Weiss, is in the late Baroque style and is one of over 600 pieces written for lute by Weiss. This contemporary transcription by classical guitarist Christopher Parkening is a wonderful example of the great American virtuoso’s gift for playing to the strengths of the guitar.
Texas Girl at the Funeral of her Father Randy Newman
Recorded at the Central City Opera House in Central City CO
Built in 1878 by Welsh and Cornish miners in the gold rush town of Central City, this opera house was designed by noted Colorado architect Robert S. Roeschlaub, with elaborate trompe l’oeil painting by San Francisco muralist John C. Massman. In keeping with Central City’s boast that it had the “richest square mile on Earth,” it was only fitting that the town should also have a grand building for the arts.
The thing about gold rushes, of course, is the emphasis on speed; as everyone rushes quickly in to mine the metal, it rushes just as quickly from their hands. And so the old story is told again, and the Central City Opera House fell into disrepair, closing in 1927. Three resourceful matrons set about making the restoration of the Opera House their project. The building reopened with none less than Lilian Gish performing Camille on its stage in 1932, launching a summer festival program that is indelible today. Since Gish’s portrayal of the fainting Camille, such notables as Beverly Sills, Jerome Hines and Helen Hayes have graced this historic theater.
Located at least “a thousand miles from the sea,” as the lyrics mourn, the Central City Opera House proved to be the perfect place to perform “Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father,” a work long locked away in Stuart’s head. Sandwiched on Randy Newman’s best-selling 1977 Little Criminals album between the ubiquitous hit “Short People” and “Jolly Coppers on Parade,” “Texas Girl” has a tune that Stuart often harkens but has never had the right venue in which to interpret it. “At first it seemed odd to me” Stuart admits, “to have a song, from so long ago elbow it’s way into my consciousness when I was so focused on preparing the music for this CD.” The song repeatedly nudged its way into Stuart’s consciousness during the project. “When you can’t get something out of your head,” he says, “sometimes that’s a sign that you shouldn’t.”
Spanish Creek Stuart Weber
Recorded at the Washoe Theatre in Anaconda MT
Unlike other theaters on this disc, the Washoe was built solely to be a grand home for cinema. Erected in 1936 and imbued with the state-of-the-art acoustics of its era (now known quaintly as “Mirrorphonic Sound”), this Art Deco palace has been named by the Smithsonian as the fifth most remarkable theater of its kind in the nation. Most Depression-era dream houses have since been razed, but the Washoe lives on, its delicate silk curtain—adorned with paintings of stags—too fine even for curators to tamper with.
Within this early 20th century architectural masterpiece, Stuart chose one of his own compositions, “Tango on Spanish Creek.”
From the rugged, snow-packed mountains known as the Spanish Peaks, a handsome stream tumbles down through the high meadows, maturing in size and stature, eventually reaching the Gallatin River. On its way, Spanish Creek passes through the Flying D Ranch, across miles of pristine native grasses and past thousands of roaming bison. It is easy to forget which century you belong to in this timeless setting.
Like the stream, this music covers a varied terrain, from the opening refrain of lumbering bulls to the frothing stream racing downhill. It is a landscape in tone and tempo, a tango wannabe, a wind that dances alone.
Evening in the Country Béla Bartók
Recorded at the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride CO
With its backdrop featuring an improbable Venetian scene with vague Western flavors—gondolas meeting high granite peaks—the Sheridan was built by miners in 1913. This intimate house of 240 seats has been so tastefully renovated as to preserve the patina of nearly a century of service. The opera house currently occupies a huge space of civic pride for the active citizens of Telluride who continue to raise money for its renovation, while using the space for their robust plein air painting competition, Young People’s Theater productions, Wild West Days, and concerts and performances.
As a result of its small size there was only a fourteen millisecond delay for the sound coming off Stuart’s guitar to reach the microphones recording the room - half as long as the average delay time of other theaters on this tour. In addition to its cozy acoustical parameters, the seats were temporarily removed prior to this recording, exposing the lively warm tones of the wooden floor.
The mountain hamlet of Telluride with its intimate theater seemed like the perfect place to record this reflective piece by the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. “Evening at the Village” was composed for solo piano at the same time miners were laying the foundation for this Opera House. “This piece laid on the guitar really well,” Stuart explains. “There are limited opportunities to expand the guitar’s repertoire: you can compose for it, or you can take music that’s already proven to be great, and adapt it for the guitar through the transcription process.” That’s what Stuart has done here.
Jefferson Waltz Stuart Weber
Recorded at the Opera House Theatre in Philipsburg MT
The oldest continuously operating theater in Montana, the Opera House Theatre was opened in 1891. One of the only privately-owned theaters on the Fifth Row tour, the Opera House Theatre was renovated in 1919 to provide better acoustics to an audience rabid for the talkies. Amazingly, such ancient renovations remain an aural marvel, and are indeed pleasurable to today’s modern audiences.
Reflecting the new world on the old, Stuart used the Opera House Theatre to record one of several pieces commissioned for the 2004 bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, “The Jefferson Waltz.” This piece focuses attention on the mastermind behind the Corps of Discovery, President Thomas Jefferson, who Stuart imagines alone, at home at his Monticello estate.
The expedition’s first shipment of artifacts from the unexplored territories, including a live magpie, has just arrived. While the expedition toils through tremendous hardships across uncharted lands in its quest to reach the Pacific Ocean, Jefferson muses longingly over the “boys in the field” and the great adventure they must be having. He is pleased with his choice of leaders and giddy with personal triumph. Now, well into his second glass of port, he quietly breaks into a meditative waltz, pausing to pore over the new detailed maps spread before him. Eventually he draws the curtains closed and retires with the promise that, in the morning, he will return to the pressing matters of State.
Of the piece, Stuart says simply, “I’m catching him in that very unpresidential moment when he is waltzing in ecstasy.”
Toccata - Darkness Stuart Weber
Recorded at the Panida Theatre in Sandpoint ID
The Panida is a stellar example of communal ingenuity and artistry coming to the fore. Designed in the decorative Spanish Mission style and still boasting its love seats for canoodling couples, the Panida was saved from disaster by the citizens of Sandpoint, who rallied to raise funds to restore the failing theater in the mid-’80s. A proud plaque adorns the theater’s entrance, proclaiming, “Built in 1927—restored by the community in 1985.” A clever amalgam of its geography, the name results from Sandpoint being in the PANhandle of IDAho, and the theater is an active 550-seat venue even today.
Italian for “touch,” a tocatta is traditionally performed with much flourish on a keyboard or a lute. Tocattas are characterized by the rapidity and dexterity of the artist’s movements and, when performed all alone in a 1927 vaudeville theater like the Panida, a tocatta is a terrific way to mask with a guitar the sounds of nighttime trains rumbling across nearby tracks.
“Darkness” is the result of one of Stuart’s many periodic sojourns into the back country, where the soul can be rejuvenated by the sheer lack of human significance among a vast wilderness. This is grizzly country, and we no longer occupy the top of the food chain. This short, intense composition attempts to capture the feelings of anxiety that well up as darkness falls and the distinct sounds of rustling from the nearby woods occupy our imagination - which is, of course, why humans have always had the wise urge to gather.
Walk Away Stuart Weber
Recorded at the Wilson Theater in Rupert ID
To round the corner in downtown Rupert, Idaho and lay eyes on the Wilson Theater is like coming up on a meticulously restored model T parked along the curb. “Wow!” is the normal response. Intended mainly as a movie house, this triangular theater opened its doors to a packed house of 770 local patrons on August 20, 1920. Its ongoing restoration follows a unique path from the other theaters on this tour - it is progressing from the outside in. The façade of the theater was completely restored, the box office and lobby partially done. As you progress towards the heart of the theater, the stage creeks with age, and faded murals are visible on the sagging plaster walls. The proscenium is a sleeping beauty waiting for the kiss of restoration to reach her.
The music selected for the Wilson is another from a collection of compositions inspired by the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804. The setting is a summer night, and York sits alone on the banks of the Missouri River as the moonlight reflects off the water. Behind him, asleep in his tent he hears the faint snoring of Captain Clark, his master. There have been several such evenings on this long journey, and every time he imagines himself getting up, wading across the water, and slipping away into the night. Lately he sees himself walking into an Indian camp and living out his days a free man. No longer a slave. But he is also proud of his roll as a member of the Corps of Discovery; he was on an epic journey and he knew it. Eventually, as he has every night, he rises and returns to his bed.
Using musical references of American folk music, including the famous spiritual “Wade in the Water,” which York himself would have been familiar with, Stuart captures the pain and promise that York must struggle with as slave on this historic mission.
America the Beautiful Samuel A. Ward
Recorded at the Ellen Theatre in Bozeman MT
When it was opened in 1919, the Ellen boasted a banquet hall and a confection stand. The Gem Theater Company that built her felt so extravagantly about the project that they installed private boxes that were never intended to be used; their mere grandeur was enough. The Ellen hosted live elephants on its stage in a particularly ambitious staging of Kismet. Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen autographed the dressing room walls after performing there. The movies changed daily and the 1925 Wurlitzer could be heard there for more than 70 years.
Today, the Ellen is closed, its lobby dark. The lustrous red and gold stage hangings, its grand five-pod chandelier and its memories remain within; but, this intermission is not due to any physical defects. One hopes, that, over time, the Ellen will return to her former grandeur and fully serve the local community who anxiously awaits her revival.
No melody speaks more reverently of homeland than “America the Beautiful.” Composed by Samuel Ward in 1882, this iconic national hymn has stirred our hearts through legendary performances by American artists such as Ray Charles, Marian Anderson and Elvis. Stuart chose this work to perform on the stage of the Ellen, in his hometown. “Of all the theaters on this tour, the Ellen strikes me as the most proud. From any seat in the house, it’s the theater that, on the surface, has remained ageless. But when you peek behind the curtain, the reality of her neglect shocks you.”