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New Haven's International Festival of Arts & Ideas is a precocious teenager, in pursuit of "serious fun"

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas

June 16-30 at various venues throughout downtown New Haven. A full schedule of the dozens of festival events can be found online or at the Arts & Ideas information booth on New Haven Green during the festival. Many events are free; ticketed indoor events range from $35-$50. A three-show pass costs $90 ($100 for "premium" reserved seats) and a "See Everything Package" is $545 ($680 premium).

Click here to see some of the festival's featured performers


New Haven's International Festival of Arts & Ideas turns 17 this year, and like many 17-year-olds it's blending signs of maturity and responsibility with an impulsive zeal and youthful frenzy.

Arts & Ideas has had its awkward phases — the awkward growth spurt of the mid-1990s, for instance when funding was plentiful and the whole state wanted a piece of what had rapidly become one of the premiere summer arts festivals on the East Coast.

In recent years, under the stable leadership of Mary-Lou Aleskie, the festival's longest-serving Executive Director, and her brilliant Director of Programming Cathy Edwards, Arts & Ideas can be said to have settled down. It can't risk some of the extravagances of festivals past, but it's more than balanced that with a more assured sense of itself as a unique platform for its carefully chosen artists. Whether a given event is part of a national tour (like the 2012 fest-opening Sing the Truth! female vocalist extravaganza of Angelique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright), a first-time-in-the-U.S. occurrence (The National Theatre of Scotland's The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart) or a piece developed in a different region of the U.S. (choreographer Kyle Abraham's multi-styled The Radio Show, inspired by the closing of the black community radio station WAMO in Pittsburgh), it will play differently in New Haven than it will anywhere else.

At Arts & Ideas, acts that would be shunted into conventional concert halls can be seen live and for free on New Haven Green. (Besides Sing the Truth! on June 16, there's Asphalt Orchestra, June 17, Carolina Chocolate Drops, June 23, Red Baraat and Noori, June 24, and Roseanne Cash's "The List" concert, June 30.) Shows that may benefit from greater discussion and explanation are afforded supplemental events. On June 28, the opening day of the Contemporary Legend Theater's one-actor-plus-one-musician adaptation of King Lear, spoken in Mandarin, Arts & Ideas holds a discussion of "The U.S.-China Literary Landscape" with playwright David Henry Hwang and novelist Ha Jin.

"New Haven's in a great place, because of its proximity to New York," explains Edwards. "For the artists, it's also a great entry point into the United States. It's a gateway for international artists. The networks we are part of have grown stronger over the years. We have a lot of recognition nationally and internationally." New Haven is also a culture-savvy city of profound ethnic diversity. It's up for any arts challenge, and eager to build support for deserving new artists. "When you feel there's a resonance in your community," Edwards says, "you can make amazing connections."

As an example of how Arts & Ideas events can have "a New Haven context, a national context and an international context," she mentions Jack Hitt, the New York Times Magazine writer and This American Life radio personality, whose one-man show Making Up the Truth was commissioned by Arts & Ideas and had its world premiere at Arts & Ideas a year ago. "We're so happy that Jack Hitt's piece was at the Spoleto Festival this year," Edwards says of the show's subsequent move to one of the largest and best-known arts festivals in the country.

This year, Arts & Ideas has united two artists who've each played the festival separately in the past: former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky (who's previously brought his "Favorite Poem" project to Arts & Ideas and also read from his translation of Dante's Inferno) and New Haven-born jazz bassist and bandleader Ben Allison. Pinsky and Allison first performed together at a private fundraising event for Arts & Ideas, which inspired them to collaborate on a full-length concert, which can be experienced 8 p.m. on June 27 as part of Arts & Ideas' "Music at Dusk" series. ("Music at Dusk" is the new name for Arts & Ideas' Courtyard Concerts, which, after a spate of weather-related shifts and cancellations in recent years, have been moved safely and securely indoors to Yale's Morse Recital Hall. The other Music at Dusk concerts are Punaladas — an Argentine tango group consisting of four guitarists and a singer — on June 26 and the interfaith sacred-music Yuval Ron Ensemble June 28.)

"Artists are looking to build relationships," Edwards continues. "It's exciting that we're premiering the National Theatre of Scotland, but it's not crucial to us that we have the premiere — we loved that piece anyway." Arts & Ideas had already looked for the right vehicle with which to introduce the Scottish company to Arts & Ideas audiences. This project, which involves a script by prolific playwright David Greig and takes place inside an actual pub — in New Haven's case The Wicked Wolf Tavern on Temple Street — seemed ideal. It was one of two David Greig scripts done at Scotland's Edinburgh Festival (the world standard in cutting-edge performance festivals) last summer, which led a critic from the U.K. Telegraph newspaper to exult over "how teeming with imaginative life a stage can get, with little or no scenic design." Arts & Ideas is supplementing this site-specific multi-disciplinary journey — in which the performers spin tales, sing and interact with the audience, in service of a grand spiritual statement — with a tasting of several varieties of Scotch at Mory's restaurant on York Street on June 22.

Arts & Ideas prides itself on such connections and juxtapositions, bringing local and regional resonance to national and international performance events. The Yale International Choral Festival, which Arts & Ideas is hosting June 19-23, features members of the Yale Glee Club and Yale Alumni Chorus (the latter performing with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra) as well as choral groups from China, Indonesia, South Africa and the U.K. The new group Yale Choral Artists will open the Choral Festival and will also join the Yale Collegium Players in the Arts & Ideas presentation of three dance pieces by Mark Morris, with the choreographer himself conducting the orchestra.

Composer David Lang, a co-founder of the influential Bang on a Can new-music movement, first appeared at Arts & Ideas years before he won a Pulitzer Prize and began teaching at the Yale School of Music. The Bang on a Can All-Stars played Arts & Ideas last year. "I really like Arts & Ideas," Lang says. "I like the range. There are things that are obviously blockbusters and things that are obviously esoteric, and everything in between." Lang deplores the "snobbishness, consumption, erudition" which many concertgoers feel they have to bring to a "classical" concert, and loves the openness and accessibility of Arts & Ideas. "Anything that builds a wall is a shame, a tragic roadblock. The message of Bang on a Can is that composers can communicate between people directly. When I imagine an ideal world for my music to be living in, it's a place like Arts & Ideas. I love that so many different types of people come out to it."

This year at the festival, Lang is world-premiering a new theater/music piece starring the medieval-minded a cappella vocal group Anonymous 4, June 29 & 30 at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Called love/fail, the piece attempts to place the epic romance of Tristan and Isolde in a realistic, human-scaled modern context.

Love/fail is one of the closing events of the festival. One of the opening weekend's events, June 17 on New Haven Green, is Asphalt Orchestra — a band that grew out of Bang on a Can, which combines cutting-edge percussion and brass sensibilities with marching-band sass. According to David Lang, Asphalt Orchestra can "move, walk around, change their shape based on where the audience is. It's all incredibly democratic. No hidden tracks."

Even acts that haven't been extensively retooled for New Haven consumption, or are making their first big splashes in the city, benefit from Arts & Ideas' acute festival consciousness.

For the Carolina Chocolate Drops, playing the International Festival of Arts & Ideas has the same excitement as when this singular, historically minded yet immediate and accessible band plays anywhere else. The last time the Carolina Chocolate Drops played Connecticut, the band had to win over fans of tour mates the Dave Matthews Band. This time, they might be fighting a "cultural" tag.

But the four-member African-American string band — which won a Grammy last year for their 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig, and released their newest CD, Leaving Eden, in February — persevere with a simple, direct approach and an ingrained need to entertain. "The main thing," said Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder Dom Flemons on the phone while en route to a gig in Philadelphia last week, "is figuring out what you do with the situation you're given."

The band isn't afraid of mixing modern elements into a style largely drawn from string-band folk/jazz strains of North and South Carolina in the 1920s.

"We like to keep it a small organization, more peaceful," says Flemons, who personally handles the work of several players by playing not just four-string banjo and guitar but percussion (his first musical interest) — including bones and quills — plus harmonica, kazoo and jug. Speaking of a track on the new album, Flemons admits "I didn't like 'Ruby Are You Mad at Your Man' at first. To me, it sounded a little too fusion-y. I had to acquiesce to the feelings of the other people in the band. That's an important thing about working in a collaborative effort. It goes back and forth. You have to keep pretty realistic. Personally, I like a good stitch job on a quilt. I don't like to see the seams. We try a lot of things. If it doesn't work in any sort of way, we won't put it out."

The Carolina Chocolate Drops play for free on New Haven Green on Saturday, June 23, during the second weekend of Arts & Ideas 2012. As an opening act, the festival has wisely enlisted the Bridgeport-based "Gypsy swinging serenading" ensemble Caravan of Thieves, who've played the festival twice before — as one of the local afternoon free concert attractions on New Haven Green and as the house band for the multi-styled Chautauqua! spectacle by the National Theatre of the United States of America.

"You have to keep an eye on the ultimate prize: making good music."

Expand that ideal to include theater, dance and circus arts (tightrope-walking icon Philip Petit, who traversed the space between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, gives an Arts & Ideas talk on June 16, while the heady modern circus troupe Circa, from Australia, performs June 26-30), and you've got the fertile, well-tilled, community space in which to achieve that supreme goal.

Arts & Ideas is a bright-eyed teen that has hope, optimism, spirit and daring. It's heading out of the house for some serious fun.

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