In the first week of November, I got an email from an angry Lansing culture lover.
“I need to clone myself,” the reader complained. “I can’t go to all of these things.”
Her frustration was well founded. That Friday (Nov. 10), the Michigan State University Broad Art Museum held a grand opening for a spectacular new gallery featuring hundreds of artworks from its historic collection, an event 10 years in the making. That same night, New York City jazz drummer Sylvia Cuenca capped a weeklong residency at MSU by joining its nationally acclaimed jazz ensembles for a big-band blowout. To top it all off, the Lansing Symphony Orchestra and three MSU choirs — more than 300 musicians in all — teamed up for a full-throated, overwhelming performance of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” at the Wharton Center.
This was no freak convergence. From funky, grassroots block parties to sunny summer festivals and hoity-toity gala events, the cultural scene in Greater Lansing provided a strong argument for new cloning technology all year.
One weekend in June, music lovers who didn’t want to miss anything good were caught in a real bind. In addition to East Lansing’s Summer Solstice Jazz Festival, with national star and local hero Michael Dease topping a bill that featured a panoply of top artists, the eclectic Fledge Fest crammed the weekend with a wild slate of hip-hop, punk, soul, spoken word and even belly dancing. That same weekend, Lansing’s Mighty Uke Day festival moved its plucky, populist energy from Old Town to East Lansing’s University United Methodist Church, cramming the venue with joyous jams, flash ukulele eruptions, workshops and other events.
While putting together this year-end arts recap, I swore to myself I wouldn’t invoke the current dustup over Detroit Free Press writer Nancy Kaffer calling Lansing a “sad little town,” but damn! If that’s sad, paint a big fat frown on my little clown face and I’ll wear it all day.
Sometimes one event alone confronted the culture lover with a frustrating bounty of choices. In April, a resurgent Capital City Film Festival commandeered the vacant Sears building in the Frandor Shopping Center for an ambitious 10-day slate of films. The 30,000-square-foot space left room for plenty of bells and whistles, including a global art exhibition, poetry, Aztec dancers, musical events and appearances by many of the filmmakers.
Filling a defunct Sears store with cinema magic is a hallmark Lansing move. Throughout the year, there was hardly a building, park, café or oil change place in the area that wasn’t liable to burst out with art or music.
The dusty pillars holding up Interstate 496 as it soars over the Grand River and the River Trail became a gallery of colorful faces, courtesy of Lansing muralist Brian Whitfield. More than 2-and-a-half miles of the River Trail have become an ever-evolving gallery of public art, thanks to the Lansing Art Gallery’s annual ArtPath project.
In August, “Mother Tree,” a spectacular metal sculpture by St. Johns artist and “Metal Masters” TV show contestant Ivan Iler, was erected in a prime spot along Kalamazoo Street in Hunter Park.
Sometimes calling a venue a “damn barn” is not a putdown, beginning with the “damn” part. In a quick four years, the annual Dam Jam, held at the Brenke Fish Ladder, has become a paragon of informal, Lansing-style music ecstasy. This year’s event brought a more eclectic slate than ever, highlighted by an uplifting set from hip-hop master Ozay Moore.
For the “barn” part, the Mid-Michigan Bluegrass and Folk Jam series combined performances by top musicians like Joel Mabus with homegrown picking sessions at the Woldumar Nature Center’s itchy hayloft all year.
Even the Broad Art Museum, arguably the most elite and academic of local arts institutions, completed a major pivot toward its populist roots with the November opening of the Center for Object Research and Engagement, or CORE. The new gallery is packed with 300 objects from the Broad’s permanent collection, including art inherited from its predecessor, the Kresge Art Museum.
The project satisfied a lingering public hunger to see the museum’s rich collection on permanent display, but the Broad did not neglect its primary mission to present new and sometimes unsettling ideas and experiences.
Among many provocative and absorbing exhibits at the Broad this year was “DIGEST,” a probing wad of sculpture and audio-visual media centering on the life and poetry of Ohio death-row prison inmate Keith Lamar, who was both the subject and a co-creator of the exhibit. True to the Broad’s ongoing pivot toward closer community engagement, “Resistance Training,” which opened in September and runs through February, tosses a lot of balls in the air, from exhibits on groundbreaking moments in Spartans sports history to eye-popping sculptures made from discarded basketballs and metal bleachers.
There were opportunities to see plenty of art in a wild variety of themes and mediums at lesser-known galleries scattered throughout Greater Lansing, from Old Town’s MICA Gallery on Turner Street to the Art Williamston gallery’s year-old, fledgling space in the Williamston Middle School.
Libraries continued to serve as hubs for all kinds of quirky art and music events.
At the Library of Michigan downtown, a dedicated team of history fanatics and photo buffs won statewide acclaim for “By the Yard,” an unusual exhibit of 50 panoramic photographs, many more than a century old, painstakingly culled from public and private collections all over Greater Lansing and beyond.
Capital Area District Libraries celebrated its 50th birthday with a series of cultural events, culminating in a swinging set by Detroit bassist Marion Hayden and her all-women jazz ensemble, Straight Ahead.
The jazz presence in Greater Lansing, home to MSU’s stellar Jazz Studies program and many homegrown talents, is gloriously disproportionate to the genre’s popularity (in other, less enlightened places, of course). Moriarty’s Pub on East Michigan Avenue celebrated an incredible nine years of weekly jazz nights on Tuesdays. The region has no less than three summer festivals dedicated to jazz, bookended by East Lansing’s Summer Solstice Jazz Festival in June and Old Town’s Michigan JazzFest in August. Saxophonist Phil Denny’s Smooth Jazz Fête, a destination event for smooth-jazz devotees across the land, voo-voo-vooed back to life in 2023 after a pandemic hiatus in 2020 and 2021 and a disastrous rainout in 2022.
A determined knot of smaller venues stayed active all year and kept visitors guessing what form of wonderment would come next. REO Town’s cozy arts and entertainment gem, the Robin Theatre, kept up a busy schedule of performances, ranging from “The Voice” finalist Joshua Davis to Roochie Toochie and the Ragtime Shepherd Kings, a raucous crew that deployed toy instruments alongside fiddle, mandolin and pedal-steel guitar.
A tiny sample of the eclectic artists who played at Old Town’s bustling UrbanBeat this year includes jazz singer Sunny Wilkinson, Ann Arbor’s Dave Sharp Worlds Quartet with guitarist Elden Kelly (who, sadly, departed Lansing for Memphis this year) and MSU’s phenomenal new saxophone professor, Walter Blanding.
MSU’s blue-chip College of Music exploded with a more diverse and inventive slate of artists and composers than ever. Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz visited the school for an ambitious residency in October that saw several ensembles perform her dynamic and vivid music, including a spectacular percussion concerto with MSU percussion Professor Gwendolyn Dease. Jazz Studies kept up its own vigorous round of events, including concerts led by half a dozen stellar guest artists in residence. Bruce Forman, a weathered guitarist with a dual background in jazz and “cowboy” music, was roped into service in February. Pianist Geoffrey Keezer did a stint with the jazz program in October.
The Lansing Symphony rolled into full juggernaut mode, as anyone whose hair was singed by “Carmina Burana” last month can attest. On June 2, virtuoso pianist Clayton Stephenson and the orchestra gave the world premiere of “The Fourth Pedal,” a grand finale for the orchestra’s departing composer in residence, Patrick Harlin.
The Wharton Center didn’t neglect the core classics. Cellist Alisa Weilerstein, among the world’s top classical musicians, dove headlong into Bach’s cello suites in January.
The year had more than its share of fond reunions and bittersweet farewells. Lady of the Lake, an all-female folk band formed in 1983 by Karrie Potter Richards, Pooh Stevenson and Wanda Degen, reunited for a 40th anniversary concert in April at University United Methodist Church, mixing Appalachian, Celtic and folk music on virtually every instrument a human being can pluck, bow or strum.
“Turning Heavenward,” a choral concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, bid a melancholy farewell to Stephen R. Lange, the church’s longtime organist, choir director and minister and director of the Lange Choral Ensemble, who died in January.
The Earl Nelson Singers, a Lansing institution for 60 years, ended its long and distinguished run at a Feb. 26 farewell concert at Friendship Baptist Church. Founded in the 1960s by MSU music student Earl Nelson, the group brought a rich heritage of Black spirituals to diverse mid-Michigan audiences and became the nucleus of a tight-knit musical community, but it was time for the group’s 87-year-old director, Verna Holley, and her 90-year-old husband to get some rest. For now, there’s no one to take their places, but the group’s members, many of whom had been participating for more than 50 years, haven’t ruled out a resurrection.
Grewal Hall at 224, a new mid-size music venue on South Washington Square in downtown Lansing, hosted its first shows in October after construction delays postponed its originally slated June opening.
To top it all off, the city of Lansing broke ground in June on a long-anticipated downtown performing arts center, meant primarily to capture national traveling acts with a performance hall that can seat 1,400 people.
By the time the hall is up and running in 2025, mere cloning might not be enough to catch all the music and art burgeoning in Lansing. Watch this space for tips on how to build a personal army of android replicas.
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