Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sweet and lowdown in Vancouver

One night in October, after a lengthy set of various jazz, show and choral favorites, renowned pianist Tom Rheingans banged out a flaming rendition of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” His hands were reflected in the black wood of the baby grand, like there were four hands playing. It sounded like it. Afterwards, the wowed audience exploded in a standing ovation. The sixth season of Live At the Fries was underway.

Live At the Fries is a performance series that showcases Rheingans and featured guests. This season is the first under production and promotion guidance of the Arts Equity theater company.

The Fries Auditorium, on the Washington State School for the Blind campus, was built around 1915 and is fashioned after something like a dance hall. It’s bright, classy, moderate-sized and distinctly old-fashioned ambiance is perfect for a piano performance that harkened back to the early part of the 20th Century.

“Acoustically, it’s the best venue in Vancouver,” Llewellyn Rhoe, founder of Arts Equity, said of the Fries.

Rhoe said he met Rheingans when they found they, as artists and promoters in Vancouver, had something in common. “We introduced ourselves and said we needed to sit down and talk because nobody else was crazy enough to buy a full page in the Vancouver Vanguard,” he said.

Afterwards, Rhoe frequently used Rheingan’s music to underscore Arts Equity’s productions. “We had a fairly regular decompression session, ‘What did I think of the performance’ over the years,” Rhoe said. He said future collaborations with Rheingans are in the works. In the meantime, he’s handling much of the less celebrated handy work for Live At the Fries.
“I’m a producer,” said Rhoe. “My direct involvement in it is making sure that the performer just has to perform. It’s a good working relationship,” he said. “They’re rare.”

“It’s certainly a relief,” Rheingan said about Rhoe’s contributions to Live At the Fries, “because I can focus a little bit more on my playing.”

Rheingan said he hopes their collaboration will expose their arts to each others’ audiences. Arts Equity’s theater activity is on temporary hiatus while they work on locating a new performance venue. “It’s a good time to concentrate on writing,” said Rhoe.
Each performance of Live At the Fries is a collection of songs related to a certain theme. The first performance, titled “Sweet and Lowdown,” focused primarily on the works of George Gershwin, though not exclusively. “I always mix a few things in,” Rheingan said. “It’s a theme that you play off of, but then ... there’ll be some other things.”

Under an outline of the New York skyline, which was projected on the red curtain backdrop, Rheingans opened the set playfully with Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” on solo piano. It’s a song that’s usually the show’s closer, he said.

He wasn’t alone for the entire show. During the first half, he brought out Asia Smith, a young singer whom he has worked with since 2007. Also appearing in the second half of the show, Jones added an old-fashioned lounge essence to the performance, cooing sultrily in Gershwin’s “Summertime” and belting out hope and inspiration in John Kander’s “Maybe This Time.”

Rheingans was also joined by Heritage High School Women’s and Men’s Ensemble, under the direction of Joel Karn. The men and women’s choirs performed together and separately, as well as for one number sung a cappella. The women’s ensemble, which won first place at the State Solo/Ensemble Competition three years in a row, performed a rousing rendition of Moses Hogan’s gospel number, “Music Down In My Soul.”

Rheingans said past shows have incorporated different kinds of guests, from Irish musicians to belly dancers, to accentuate the eclectic nature of his sets.

“My hope is to add something to the offerings of Vancouver,” he said. He said part of the nature of the series is to expose audiences to his guests and to The Fries, perpetuating interest in Vancouver’s culture.

“There needs to be more,” he said, “and I’m trying, hopefully, to fill a need.”

Newcomers may find that watching even a single performer can make for thorough entertainment. Listening to the performance of a piano player is impressive enough, but seeing one in person adds a dimension of respect for the craft. Seeing his hands fly across a staggering performance of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” is as humbling, both for those who never play piano and, especially, for those who took a year of it in college and still can’t play “Chopsticks.”

Add in some high-end, complimentary refreshments provided by Trader Joe’s, and it’s a fine evening out for anyone. This season of Live At the Fries will run until May with the next set, “The Christmas Sojourn” on December 5. For more information visit

Adam Stewart is a cultural go-getter and Arts & Culture writer for The Voice.