Walker Art Center

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The Technical and the Transcendent

By Philip Bither

As art world VIPs and Twin Cities visitors alike filled the William and Nadine McGuire Theater on the Walker’s opening weekend, the whimsy and “dark intrigue” of the space (as the Los Angeles Times would later say) enchanted audiences, and the response from performers was uniformly enthusiastic (Bill Frisell told me it didn’t feel like a new theater but one that had been “broken in” long ago). But it wasn’t in the triumph of a perfectly executed performance that the magic of this theater became most real for me; it was in a mistake, a moment of humanity witnessed up close by audiences.

After Meredith Monk and Theo Bleckmann flawlessly performed three excerpts from Monk’s Facing North to a hushed, reverent crowd, they began their deceptively simple but truly complex vocal work Hocket. A few seconds in, Theo started on a wrong beat and Meredith waved her arms and then faced the audience with a smile: “Hold it. Start over.” Warm laughter flooded the room; rigid shoulders lowered as the relieved audience seemed to settle comfortably into their seats. It was like hanging out with friends in your living room, or being with family and playing music together, or experimenting with something and realizing it was time to start over. The theater had, in a matter of seconds, been transformed from a temple of excellence to the kind of artist-centered, audience-friendly place we’d dreamed of.

It was the first of what I’m sure will be many happy accidents, many perfect mistakes that will transpire there in coming years. “History in the making” is an overused cliché, but during those first eight days in the McGuire Theater I couldn’t help but think it true. These performances were indescribable, often emotional, sometimes even spiritual in feeling. Just as I believe the Auditorium (now the Cinema) still carries the memory of Merce Cunningham and John Cage collaborating there in 1972, this new stage is already home for the ghosts of creativity who inaugurated it this past April: Philip Glass sounding the first notes in the space, a series of mesmerizing solo piano Études; Tibetan nun Choying Drolma (who sang with Steve Tibbetts) and Monk witnessing each other’s work live for the first time; Indonesian contemporary dancer Mugiyono Kasido in a riveting, first-ever U.S. appearance; Frisell and lap-steel guitarist Greg Leisz offering a masterfully subtle version of Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now”; Pakistan’s Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali giving an ecstatic two-hour performance; and so many others. Just a few days after the opening weekend, 75-year-old Ornette Coleman performed brilliantly with Bang on a Can All-Stars—until 2 am—to conclude a historic three-day festival in his honor. After years of exacting research, consultation and negotiation with acoustic engineers and architects, and precise construction, I had little doubt of the McGuire Theater’s technical capacities. What I didn’t know—but where my hopes were confirmed during this week of diverse and moving performances—was that the space would transcend the technical to become, so quickly, a place with true history and heart.