Aboard The Point Counterpoint II

by Allan Appel | June 20, 2007 2:06 PM | | Comments (1)

IMG_1899.JPGIMG_1893.JPGThese are the boats of summer 2007 in New Haven — the bowsprit and head rigging of the schooner Amistad giving a gentle nudge to the stern of Point Counterpoint II, the unique music barge, home of the American Wind Symphony Orchestra, designed by Louis Kahn, and both docked at Long Wharf, but only temporarily.

On Thursday afternoon Amistad leaves on her historic transatlantic voyage marking the bicentennial of the end of the international slave trade, and there will be all kinds of events leading up to the 2:30 p.m. sendoff.

The 195-foot long, 38-foot wide music barge lingers longer with Arts & Ideas tours of the gun metal grey craft Friday and Saturday from 12 to 1:30, and three free concerts: the first off Long Wharf tonight at 6 p.m. and then two off Quinnipiac River Park in Fair Haven at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Given New Haven’s profound connection with architect Louis Kahn through his first major building, the Yale University Art Gallery, and his last, the British Art Center, one member of the Independent picks these concerts and tours of Point Counterpoint II as a high point of the 2007 Arts & Ideas Festival

IMG_1895.JPGFor those who can’t get inside the barge, here’s a brief tour that a reporter, along with New Havener, Patti Langdon, a retired research administrator at the Yale School of Medicine, recently took.

In the dark pilot house of the barge we learned from Cathleen Boudreau (the owner, along with her husband and orchestra conductor Robert Boudreau) that a first version of the barge to play genuine water music on the Thames, in England, was built by the Boudreaus and architected by Louis Kahn in 1961. From where does the name Point Counterpoint II derive? Because it was constructed at the “Point,” the location in Pittsburg where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers join to form the Ohio. “Counterpoint” because the barge is a vehicle for music. And “II” because after the first barge proved inappropriate for navigating the canals and locks of America, the Boudreaus commissioned a second barge from Kahn. He designed it in the early 1970s specifically to tour the country playing American music on the occasion of the bicentennial, 1976. Kahn, however, died in 1974, two years before it was completed.

IMG_1902.JPGWhen the music begins on the water, a large canopy will rise over percussionist Brian Frazer of Buffalo and the 39 other members of the American Wind Symphony Orchestra. (When the boat travels, or is transported, down the navigable rivers of America, to Europe and Asia, the canopy is shut down tight over the main deck.) But in the dramatic moment of rising, you might notice that the underside of the canopy shows a ceiling of pyramid shapes very similar to the pyramidal ceiling at the Yale University Art Gallery building, which was Kahn’s break-through creation. He found the style - what architects call his “language” - of monumental shapes after a trip to Egypt in the early 1950s. More on this toward the end of the tour.

How did Frazer and other orchestra members come on board, that is, join the orchestra? “Robert (Boudreau) was giving a program at my school, the State University of New York at Fredonia,” Frazer said, “and my teacher knew him, and he gave me an audition. And voila!”

Frazer, who hails from Buffalo, is enjoying his second tour on the barge. “We’ve done more than a dozen concerts so far from Texas to New Hampshire, and it’s great meeting all these different people. It’s also great to be a percussionist, because Robert is a real entertainer, and he has us running around from one instrument to another.”

IMG_1900.JPGMost modest-sized symphony orchestras have perhaps three percussionists out of a total of sixty musicians, Frazer explained, but out of the 40 members of the American Wind Symphony Orchestra, there are six, a much higher number percentage-wise. “Hey,” said Fraser, “a lot of times, in other ensembles, we just hit the triangle one or two times and then sit down. But not here. This is a busy show for us.”

And in part it’s because the Boudreaus commission many new works of music for the orchestra, many tailored to the percussionists.

The barge carries and feeds only about twelve people in its galley, and the musicians like Frazer travel to the concert cities in a number of vans owned by the Boudreaus.

IMG_1897.JPGThe barge is about art beyond music as well, and on each tour a resident artist and poet are always among the crew. Beneath the large orchestra space, in fact, there is a below-deck gallery that features both work owned by the Boudreaus and some for sale by the resident floating artists and others. They like to show and to collect art from the locales where the barge is traveling.

IMG_1898.JPGBehind Patricia O’Leary, an Arts & Ideas docent-in-training from Orange, is a painting by the Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman.

IMG_1899.JPGBack on deck, six-year-old Andrea Grant and her eight-year-old sister behind her, Alexis, were practicing briefly on one of the orchestra’s harps, as Boudreau pointed out that the seats for the musicians were at different levels, constructed on poles so that the height might change depending on the demands of a particular piece of music. The seats, like everything else on the barge, were especially handcrafted, as much works of sculpture as utilitarian.

In front of these seats the drums and the xylophone that Frazer and others will be playing take center stage. “Nobody’s a wallflower in this orchestra,” said Boudrea, but she did ask the kids, who were there with their mom because their school, Mustard Seed, in Hamden, had the day off, to lay off the harp.

IMG_1903.JPGFor an architect such as Bruce Wujcik, of New Haven, who also took the day off from work, to see the barge, likely the room of greatest interest was a space in the stern where the Arts & Ideas staff have created a small exhibition that contains Louis Kahn’s early drawings for the barge(s) as well as some photographs.

“Look at these drawings,” he said. “I mean they are beautiful in the classical sort of way. And for me also, the great thing about the barge is the way Kahn solved the technical problems. How he designed a boat that could handle the locks and the canals. The way the roof, the canopy rises for performance, and then hinges down so neatly.

IMG_1904.JPGAmong the drawings, some pencil, some colored crayon, there are telling quotations from Kahn about his only nautical commission as well as his take on architecture in general. One says, “I know absolutely nothing about boats and barges,” but then on the program for the concerts, Kahn seemed to have specificed that his credit line should read “Barge Architect.”

The Kahn quotation you read on entering says, “I don’t like to see space nailed down. If you could move it and change it every day, fine.”

“Then take a look at this photograph (above),” Wujcik said, enthusiastically ushering a reporter to an historic photograph of the first barge Kahn constructed for the Boudreaus in 1961 for the water music tour of the Thames. “Talk about Egyptian influence. I mean look at that thing. All you need is slaves and oars and Cleopatra.”

IMG_1905.JPGThe American Wind Symphony Orchestra concert aboard the Point Counter Point II on June 23rd will be the 50th anniversary, to the day, of the first concert given by the Boudreaus on The Point in Pittsburgh. For more information about the boats of summer in New Haven, visit here.

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Posted by: Isaiah D. Cooper | June 22, 2007 10:48 PM

I performed with the American Wind Symphony Orchestra in the summer of 1979. We toured the Great Lakes starting in Pittsburgh and its surrounding communities for four weeks from late May until late June, continuing to Racine, Manitowoc, and Two Rivers, Wisconsin, Bay City and Detroit, Michigan, Duluth, Minnesota, Windsor and Toronto, Ontario (among others) and ending in Erie, PA in late August.

The musicians were from schools from around the country and were very talented. We performed constantly. The orchestra was divided into a number of brass and woodwind chamber groups which traveled via van from town to town in advance of the Point Counterpoint II. A different chamber group stayed onboard for intensive rehearsals during the transit between each major performance location.

My brass trio stayed onboard for a transit across Lake Superior. During these few days we ate fresh lake fish (bought from some fisherman we encountered), goat raised on the Boudreaus' farm, and I swam in the bone-chilling waters of Lake Superior one very hot day. My brass trio also got some intensive coaching time with Maestro Boudreau during those days on Lake Superior.

I also visited and sat in with jazz musicians in many of the communities we visited. While we were in Pittsburgh, Maestro Boudreau had a terrific jazz drummer from Pittsburgh who had performed with Dizzy Gillespie join the orchestra as a soloist. I joined him for a jam session at a local club in Pittsburgh one Sunday afternoon.

The constant effort to perform at the highest levels and the struggle to conquer challenging new music helped me and the other members of the orchestra to mature as musicians. This was an important part of my training as a professional musician. See my bio at http://www.cooperlaw.net/bio.html to see where this lead me.

I am still in touch with a number of the musicians I performed with that summer.

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