First Night | Program Notes
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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

First Night

Posted By on Wed, Jan 6, 2010 at 10:41 AM

Though I'm still waiting on final attendance figures from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, I feel pretty confident that the latest iteration of the community New Year's Eve celebration drew well.

For one thing, the big, multi-venue Downtown party didn't officially begun until 6 p.m. -- but when I went to the box office at 5:45 to inquire about the free vouchers needed for certain events, all but two of those performances were already sold out. And the venues for those events (music, improv comedy, etc.) included such large halls as the Byham and the August Wilson Center.

Indeed, in a few spots you might have been forgiven for thinking attendance was too good. In its efforts to attract the cold-averse (especially in the wake of two rainy or frigid First Nights running), the Trust has brought more events indoors. But because there are only so many real performance spaces available Downtown, a few of those thrust into service were marginally serviceable.

And so at the Trust's own new education center, on Liberty Avenue, the Andean music ensemble Musuhallpa performed in a glorified hallway. The group was wonderful, but even a few dozen listeners taxed the space, and even at that had to keep adjusting to make room for newcomers or departing visitors to a crafts station down the hall.

Though the streets didn't seem especially crowded during my own First Night stint (6-8:30 p.m.), the gathering for Musuhallpa made you believe that there were enough people gathered indoors at any given moment to justify the Trust's prediction of 30,000 attendees.

Still, most of the performances I attended had plenty of room. The 7th Avenue space where WYEP hosted a lively set by Meeting of Important People, for instance, was probably bigger than necessary (though admittedly, it was only 6:30, a little early for rocking out, perhaps especially at alcohol-free First Night). At the newly relocated Toonseum, and the unnamed space at 820 Liberty that hosted a fabulous collection of salvaged-tree art by locals Urban Tree Forge, crowds were small but appreciative.

In the unlikely office of Catholic Charities, a wonderful set by AppalAsia (which fuses American roots music with Asian sounds), was well-attended in a way that was cozy, not stifling. Soul sing-songwriter Joy Ike had a nice crowd at Space Gallery, even though folks had to stand, while others wandered about the current exhibition there.

Meanwhile, over at Future Tenant, folks sat attentively for poetry readings offered by the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange. That surprised me a little: I didn't know how poetry readings would go over at a sprawling community event just raucous enough to both start and end with fireworks. Moreover, the big parade on Penn passes right outside Future Tenant's door. But as I arrived at the gallery, minutes after the parade ended, a crowd of some 40 occupied folding chairs as poets read for about 10 minutes each. 

Though the charms of some First Night staples (like guys carving ice with chainsaws) continue to elude me, it's nice to see there's still room for variety.

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