Center Finally Presents a Nod to America's Own Culture

A lot of important musicians have appeared at the Orange County Performing Arts Center so far.

There have been such superstar singers as Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price and Kiri Te Kanawa. Violinist Isaac Stern, flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman all have been there too. Not to mention jazz singer Mel Torme and Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

But this week the Center presented a real star, one who would appeal not just to the county's cultural elite but would also bring the average working stiff in on some of the excitement.

I'll go out on a limb and suggest that no one who has played the Center in the 16 months since it opened has contributed as much to his or her field as this singer.

And I'm not talking about anyone in "Aida."

It was the Man in Black, the inestimably influential country singer and songwriter who stepped on stage in hallowed Segerstrom Hall on Tuesday with his customary introduction: "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash."

A former alcohol and drug abuser, Cash has never played a symphony or concerto in his life, unless it was on a record player. Though he stood on the set where Verdi's "Aida" is still running, the closest he has come to grand opera is the Grand Ole Opry.

So his Center appearance this week is significant--far more so than if he had returned to the Anaheim Convention Center, where he last played the county in 1984, or had chosen the Irvine Meadows or Pacific amphitheaters--because it's an encouraging nod of recognition from the standard bearers of the county, a nod to America's own culture.

Along with all the (rightful) genuflecting for Italian opera, German music and Russian dance that have dominated the Center's offerings, it's reassuring to know that there's also room at the Center for music of this time and this country.

Not that there hasn't been any , but the Center's polite contemporary jazz and nostalgic Big Band concerts had none of the down-to-earth, other-side-of-the-tracks flavor of a Johnny Cash show. Instead of focusing on those who have followed the socially correct path to personal and financial success, Cash has based a large part of his career on singing about, and in, prison.

(Perhaps that's why Costa Mesa police, usually on hand at Center events in plainclothes, showed up in uniform Tuesday for greater "visibility." As it turned out, the only policing necessary was to enforce the Center's indoor no-smoking policy and to remind concert-goers not to take beer back to their seats.)

On stage here, Cash sang about lonesome losers and mournful freight trains. He sang about the tragic but honorable cheater who, wrongly accused of murder, decides to go to the gallows rather than admit his alibi: that he was in the arms of his best friend's wife.

His songs, such as "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" speak of--and to--those outcasts and loners for whom the American Dream has become a nightmare, not always through their own doing.

And by featuring gospel music so prominently, Cash's shows remind audiences--even as generally upscale as those in Orange County--of the destitute lives still common to Appalachia and elsewhere and of the downtrodden folks for whom the only prospect of "a better home a-waiting" is the one that waits "in the sky."

Cash has been more successful at getting that message across to middle America than many rock protest singers because while pointing out the country's faults, he always remains a respectful and therefore credible critic. That was proven in the thunderous ovation he received after one patriotic number in which he recounted 200 years of America's successes and failures.

Consequently, his show presented an illuminating, if not always flattering, portrait of America of the here and now, an artistic self-examination that should be a part of any modern arts center's programming.

Cash's concert was presented by an independent promoter who simply rented the building. Still, Center president Tom Kendrick maintains that other middle-of-the-road pop and country performers will indeed have a place at the facility.

At the same time, he acknowledged that their place will always be subordinate to the bread-and-butter quartet of symphony, opera, ballet and musical theater.

In reality, it is the triumvirate of economics, scheduling and competition that governs the Center's booking policy. As Kendrick put it this week: "Let's face it, there are a lot of venues in the country that can handle pop music; there are very few centers that can handle opera, ballet and symphony."

That's understandable. But small as this concession to pop culture may be, it's good to see that music doesn't always have to be from the safely dead and buried past to receive the Center's first-class treatment.

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