Best of Nashville 2009: Arts and Entertainment 

Best Actress:
Martha Wilkinson

It wasn't a prolific year for Wilkinson as far as quantity was concerned, but her brilliant performance in Tennessee Rep's production of Sweeney Todd once more stamped her as a local treasure. She's an incredibly versatile actress, and her turn as Mrs. Lovett brought lushness to a somewhat cartoonish character—delivering jokes with coquettish charm, ratcheting up the drama when pertinent and singing with high class. It was quite possibly the apex of her already distinguished Nashville career—so far. MARTIN BRADY

Best Solo Art Show:
Hunt Slonem at The Rymer Gallery

Hunt Slonem is one of the highest-profile painters working today: He's the subject of three published books, his works have been bought for the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and his splendid lifestyle has been written up on Gawker. April's full-scale Slonem show at The Rymer was something of a coup, and it also justified the hype. On display were dozens of gorgeously colored, hypnotically patterned oil canvases that offered visionary takes on monkeys, rabbits, birds and butterflies. No show this year was more joyously invested in the sheer sensual pleasure that vivid color and rich texture can create. These costly canvases suggest that living with beauty is the ultimate luxury. EMILY BARTLETT HINES

Best Art Crawl After-Party:
The Rabbit

The Rabbit is a multimedia enterprise—part magazine, part social network, part event promoter—and it all amounts to possible upstart competition for the dear old Scene. In addition to the release parties for the magazine that feature bands and art installations (the latest at the Mercy Lounge), they've hosted after-parties for the First Saturday art crawls at Rabbit HQ—i.e., the house a couple of the ringleaders rent. They make sure the Art Crawl can go on all night if you need that. DAVID MADDOX

Best Show For Art Wonks:
Chuck Close at the Frist Center

The Frist's exhibit on Chuck Close's prints was a bit challenging for a non-artist, crammed with lots of information to wade through on every one of the many printing techniques Close has used. And he went way beyond printing, trying out every imaginable method of producing artistic multiples with ink or paint, often done to the extreme—for instance, silk screens built up from 126 colors. The amount of calculation and raw artistic chops required to create these works is mind-boggling. If you took the time to get into the details, the impact was overwhelming. DAVID MADDOX

Best Duo Art Show:
Lain York and Richard Feaster at Zeitgeist

Opening a few weeks ago, this show was one of the last we could consider for the Best of Nashville issue, but it was obvious from the promotional postcards alone that this two-painter exhibit would be a contender. With Cluttered Landscape, Lain York takes his familiar style to another level yet again, creating a number of pieces that crackle with newfound punk-rock simplicity and directness. Richard Feaster's The High Window is the strongest collection the painter has shown in Nashville. Displayed together, the entire gallery is a noisy monologue on the limitless possibilities of art unfettered by self-consciousness and free from professional abstractions. JOE NOLAN

Best Going-Away Gifts:
Erika Johnson

One of the pleasures of the Nashville art scene in recent years has been watching Erika Johnson develop as an artist. This summer she left for Pittsburgh, and celebrated her departure with a show at Twist. She filled the gallery with odds and ends she accumulated over the years as part of the scavenger practice that goes into her installations. She invited people to take the items from the gallery, as long as you filled out a form explaining why. It was typical Erika stuff, letting you in on parts of her life but asking in return that you think about your own life. The night of the opening, she did a performance in which she gave away a few choice items: She provided a little story behind each piece, then picked people out from the audience and drew them deeper into the life represented by the objects. DAVID MADDOX

Best Converted Tire Disposal Warehouse:
Open Lot

Just when you thought the potential for gritty, glamorous, idealistic art environments had run out due to a lethal dose of speculation, sterile civic projects and economic desperation, a new crop of young artists has leased a tire disposal warehouse off Douglas Avenue in East Nashville, converted it into studios and set up space for exhibits and performances. Open Lot's openness is apparent in the resident artists, who include painters and potters. Beyond that, early programming has reached past the group's immediate circle to include video and music bills. They are still working on establishing their programming rhythm, and people are just figuring out where it is, but Open Lot has the potential to fill the gap left by the Fugitive Art Center as a venue founded on a sense of community with the aesthetic sophistication to help shape the local culture. DAVID MADDOX

Best Retrospective Exhibit:
Paint Made Flesh at the Frist Center

When Frist Center chief curator Mark Scala set out to organize the expansive figurative painting exhibit Paint Made Flesh, it's unlikely he knew he was about to score a hat trick. The challenging show attracted local audiences and media attention while simultaneously gathering kudos on a national level. More importantly, the exhibit is arguably the most articulate, personal vision the curator has organized, examining the role the figure and body continue to play in contemporary art while also illustrating a unique perspective on how ideas about beauty transcend the attractive as well as the fashionable. JOE NOLAN

Best Arts Conference:
Paint Made Flesh Symposium at the Frist Center
The Frist has added its fair share to Nashville's growing scene in the last decade, but this year's Paint Made Flesh Symposium also created a context in which to discuss and reflect on the city's best museum show of the year, and to learn about current and historical trends regarding the place the figure occupies in contemporary art. Surprising, engaging, funny and informative, the symposium was a hit. We'd love to see more of the same from the Frist in 2010. JOE NOLAN

Best New Website for Reading Local:
Humanities Tennessee's Chapter 16

Humanities Tennessee, the fine folks who bring us the Southern Festival of Books each year, have decided to join the herd on this whole Internet thing by launching a website devoted to the literary life of the 16th state. Chapter 16 (get it?) will have reviews of new releases, author interviews and a calendar of book events statewide. Its mission is to cover most every book with a Tennessee connection, including poetry, children's literature, even academic tomes. There will also be a database with information on Tennessee writers past and present. The site's still under construction, but there's already a good bit of content to check out at MARIA BROWNING

Best Place to Study the Craft of Writing Without Threat of Pretense:
Music City Romance Writers

The notion that a romance writers group could consist only of frustrated hausfraus is shattered when you attend a meeting of the MCRW. Granted, their gatherings are held in a retirement home, but this group, which counts genre-fiction stars J.T. Ellison and Sherrilyn Kenyon among its members, couldn't be more vital—or more accepting. "When you're writing in a vacuum it can be very challenging, and the group is a great place to connect with writers at all stages of the journey," says MCRW member Rae Ann Parker, who writes teen fiction and mysteries. Along with monthly meetings that feature workshops and speakers, the MCRW, a chapter of the Romance Writers of America, also sponsors book signings, retreats and writing contests. PAUL V. GRIFFITH

Best Study of Rioting in the Streets:
Clay Risen's A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination

MBA grad and longtime Scene contributor Clay Risen, currently the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, grew up listening to his parents' recollections of the urban riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Mom and Dad's memories clearly made an impression on young Clay, because Risen has produced a first-rate history of that tragic time. A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination is a brilliant examination of the violence, and it also offers a fresh analysis of the reaction to the unrest within the Johnson administration. It's a smart, engrossing read. MARIA BROWNING

Best Music Book by a Local Author:
Barry Mazor's Meeting Jimmie Rodgers

Barry Mazor's Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America's Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century is not a biography of Jimmie Rodgers, it's a biography of Rodgers' music, tracing its influence through the 20th century and into the 21st. Mazor does something that too few music writers do, examining how the music has become a part of our general culture. After all, Rodgers isn't the Father of Country Music because he was born in Mississippi—it's because of the way his songs continue to resonate and influence other musicians. BETSY PHILLIPS

Best Socially-Conscious Classical Programming:
ALIAS Chamber Ensemble's "Emerging Voices" Series

Since the 1980s, we've grown accustomed to hearing contemporary female composers like Joan Tower or Ellen Taaffe Zwilich represented in the classical concert hall, but the number of women composers active throughout the history of Western music may still surprise many listeners. That's why ALIAS Chamber Ensemble's artistic director Zeneba Bowers conceived a project to highlight works by women from the 1690s to the present. From Lili Boulanger and Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn to some names you've probably not heard before, Bowers and her fellow ALIAS members have uncovered a wealth of repertoire she says will last well beyond the group's two-year "Emerging Voices" series—which continues through spring of 2010. Russell Johnston

Best Nashville Symphony Performance:
Ax Plays Brahms

This February 2009 program exemplifies the Nashville Symphony's emerging status and its intriguing creative balance: The headlining hook comes from an internationally revered, Grammy-winning pianist, Emanuel Ax, playing a sterling concerto from the Old World repertoire; but the warm-up opens minds with modern-day works by living American composers, including a world premiere of a Rob Mathes concertino inspired by a Wendell Berry poem, a shimmering and intensely gorgeous piece by Leanna Primiani, and a mixed-media arrangement by Cindy McTee pairing the orchestra with computerized blips, beeps and other electronic sounds played on a laptop. MICHAEL McCALL

Best Premiere by a Local Composer:
Michael Alec Rose’s “Pastoral Concerto”
To be fair, I didn’t hear every local premiere this past year, but Michael Alec Rose’s “Pastoral Concerto” certainly was an outstanding piece. Soloist Peter Sheppard Skaerved, a Grammy-nominated English violinist who leads the Kreutzer Quartet, seemed to inspire a high level of playing from the student orchestra at Blair School of Music (where Rose teaches)—I found some moments of interplay between soloist and mallet percussionist especially memorable. Sheppard Skaerved has also inspired a creative flowering for Rose himself, who has written 11 works for the violinist since 2006. The concerto achieved a fine balance of natural lyricism with the complications of a contemporary musical vocabulary, and we even got to hear the composer’s take on a contra dance. Russell Johnston

Best End of a Classical Music Era:
Leonard Slatkin's Season Finale With the Nashville Symphony

After three years helping guide the Nashville Symphony through the transition after Kenneth Schermerhorn's passing, conductor Leonard Slatkin went out...well, let's not say "with a bang," but definitely in grand style. The symphony achieved a string of successes under his baton, from the gala opening of the Schermerhorn Center to the orchestra's first Grammy award. In his last concert as music advisor, Slatkin tackled an ambitious pair of works featuring full chorus, four guest soloists, and heavy-duty philosophical themes of struggle and redemption. Powerful readings of Samuel Barber's under-performed Prayers of Kierkegaard and Beethoven's ever-rousing Symphony No. 9 brought the symphony's "Slatkin Era" to a rich and satisfying conclusion. Russell Johnston

Best Diva Appearance:
Renée Fleming at Ingram Hall

How often does a real live internationally renowned opera diva come into Music City and perform her signature selection of lieder and art songs? Like, never? The gracious and beautiful Fleming's April appearance at Ingram Hall was one of the most important classical music events of the year, not only because she's a top-rank soprano, but also, it turns out, because she's an incredibly cool lady and a homegrown American opera star to be cherished for her down-to-earth approach to life and art. MARTIN BRADY 

Best Temporary Theater Venue:
Writer's Stage's Charlotte Avenue Location

Playwright Jim Reyland caught a break last fall when some kindly developers told him he could use a vacant office building on Charlotte for his theatrical endeavors—and rent-free, to boot. So Reyland marshaled friends and family and turned an accounting firm into a very functional and welcoming performance space, which has since hosted play readings, full-blown theatricals, cabaret and improv comedy. Reyland's motivating goal was to present his own original scripts, which he continues to do, but meanwhile a lot of different groups and individual artists have also benefited. Reyland & Co. will present the last show at the space, Article 4, Nov. 4-14, before moving in January to a much larger space in a converted church just a few blocks away. MARTIN BRADY

Best Shakespeare Shake-Up:
Richard the Third
at the Troutt Theater
Nowadays it's common to see Shakespeare's plays dressed up in '60s tie-dye or even Nazi SS gear in order to engage the dwindling attention span of a modern audience. It's rare that this kind of revisionism goes beyond well-meaning gimmickry, but Nashville Shakespeare Festival's production of Richard the Third at the Troutt Theater took the practice to a new level. By setting her telling of the notoriously difficult play within a 1920s burlesque show, director Denise Hicks dissolved confusing plot twists, added a touch of whimsy to the dark proceedings, poetically recalled The Bard's own love for the play-within-a-play, and created opportunities for revelations like Brenda Sparks' show-stopping musical number. Bravo! JOE NOLAN

Best Local Premieres:
Tennessee Women's Theatre Project 

Since its inception, TWTP has made a commitment to local premieres. They went one better in the past year with the U.S. premiere of Susan Coyne's Kingfisher Days, while also presenting Lisa Kron's Well to Nashville audiences for the first time. Other companies—notably Actors Bridge Ensemble and GroundWorks Theatre—have also fed our heads with interesting and fresh scripts not too far removed from their New York debuts, but TWTP artistic director Maryanna Clarke seems to have a knack for unearthing high-quality, under-the-radar fare that offers surprises and also directly suits her company's mission. MARTIN BRADY

Best Stagecraft:
Actors Bridge/Belmont University's Arabian Nights

This fall 2008 collaboration by Actors Bridge Ensemble and Belmont University at the Troutt Theater proved to be a showcase for sensual and alluring design elements, starting with Paul Gattrell's fabulous set, featuring a front thrust, impressive ribbon-clad pillars and ornate angular platforms. In addition, the 16 players performing Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of ancient Middle Eastern folk tales were elegantly fitted into June Kingsbury's sumptuous, colorful costumes. Richard K. Davis' glittering lighting schemes—with shifting shades of aquamarine and magenta, plus a glorious crescent moon—provided a thoroughly exotic aura to an all-around impressive technical effort. MARTIN BRADY

Best New Theater Building:
Amun Ra Theatre Playhouse
Amun Ra Theatre artistic director jeff obafemi carr recently caused quite a stir recently when he camped out on his theater’s rooftop to raise operating funds. That successful and imaginative publicity stunt should help provide some financial stability for carr’s theater group, housed in this former pool hall in the shadow of Mt. Nebo Baptist Church in North Nashville. Cozy and functional, the building is uniquely situated and rife with potential for presenting intimate original and alternative fare, with or without an African American slant. MARTIN BRADY

Best Children’s Theater Production:
Nashville Children’s Theatre’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Director Julie Brooks probably had her hands full pulling together the disparate elements of this multimedia revival of the Roald Dahl classic. That was her problem, of course. The rest of us enjoyed the live action, integrated seamlessly with prerecorded video sequences; the goofy music derived from various sources and quirkily connecting the scenes; and the strange costumes and flying set pieces. The top-flight cast—Patrick Waller, Brian Webb Russell, Bobby Wyckoff, etc.—certainly didn’t hurt, either. In an offbeat twist, the Oompa Loompas were hand-and-rod puppets. This production wasn’t like the movies at all, but was quite interesting regardless. In fact, some grownups might’ve enjoyed it more than the kids did. MARTIN BRADY

Best Original Play:
Trish Crist’s What
There were a handful of worthy original plays mounted locally the past year, but for economical craft, intellectual acuity and writerly playfulness, Crist’s collection of short scenes was hard to beat. Recalling the spirit of Seinfeld, What managed to engagingly evoke modern life, with all its sincere emotion and pregnant moments that remind us how precious—and also how funny and scary—the human experience can be. The production was also her inaugural effort as new head of Rhubarb Theatre. MARTIN BRADY

Best One-Man Show:
Kevin Thornton's Sex, Dreams and Self-Control

Actor/songwriter/band frontman Kevin Thornton has successfully performed this show in other cities—testament to his ability to tap into a national audience for his offbeat, self-absorbed, music-laced monologues sketching out his early life growing up gay in Indiana. Bongo After Hours Theatre proved to be an agreeable spot for the launch of this frank and funny piece of raw ego-tripping, strewn equally with elements profane and poignant. MARTIN BRADY

Best Road Show:
(Tie) Avenue Q & Jersey Boys
This is pretty much a TPAC toss-up. Jersey Boys was a glitzy, fantastically directed and performed journey through the lives and careers of the pop group The Four Seasons, featuring the great music of songwriter (and occasional Nashville resident) Bob Gaudio. But hats off also to TPAC for bringing us Avenue Q, an irreverent, hysterically funny puppet-and-people romp through a contemporary, Sesame Street-style neighborhood where we learned important lessons such as "Everyone's a little bit racist" and "It sucks to be me." Somehow, fittingly, Gary Coleman was there too. MARTIN BRADY

Best Promotion of the Bard:
Nashville Shakespeare Festival 

NSF deserves recognition for keeping its stock in trade—the Bard—in the public consciousness. The community-centered "Shakespeare Allowed," which continues to present at the public library, offered average citizens the chance to perform Shakespeare's great works in a supportive setting. Plus the company mounted an unlikely yet totally inventive version of Richard the Third, put the Bard on trial (about time!) in the original Shakespeare's Case, then finished the theater season with a flourish with two well-received productions at Shakespeare in the Park. In a stressed-out economic climate, that's an admirable effort. MARTIN BRADY 

Best Downturn Fundraising:
Tennessee Repertory Theatre 

The Rep looked the recession in the eye, and—so far, anyway—it was the recession that blinked. In these troubled times, no one's out of the woods yet, but when the Rep needed $100,000, by golly, they went out there and got it, by making an effective appeal to the theatergoing community. The company also held a fundraiser at Mercy Lounge with cool contributions from Nashville music artists and also involved themselves in various arts-and-crafts-style moneymakers. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. (And, as far as we know, no one's had to take their clothes off yet.) MARTIN BRADY 

Best Musical:
Sweeney Todd

Tennessee Rep turned TPAC's Johnson Theater sideways for its galvanizing mounting of the Sondheim classic. London looked foreboding and foggy per Gary Hoff's compressed set, and a small but mighty cast acted, sang and played stagehands as well in a marvelously brooding production that was daring in conception and right on the mark in execution (and we're not talking about what the Demon Barber did to his victims). Fabulous lead players—Lane Davies, Martha Wilkinson, Brooke Bryant, Zachary Hess, Patrick Waller—were backed by an equally sharp supporting cast, and Tim Fudge's melancholy musical direction maintained the play's necessary grimness, with occasional passages of beauty. MARTIN BRADY

Best Community Theater Production:
ACT 1's The Mikado 
This one came as somewhat of a surprise. In truth, in the comparative history of Gilbert & Sullivan, the ACT 1 production was fairly lo-tech in all respects. But director Bob Fish made strong casting choices with the likes of James Rudolph, Daniel Sadler and Whitney Rose Cone. Meanwhile, the show was infused with a wry spirit and benefited from a giddy ensemble feel that evinced consistent warmth and laughter. MARTIN BRADY

Best Theatrical Impersonation of Jesus:
Ben Van Diepen 

Boiler Room Theatre's revival of Jesus Christ Superstar was a flawed but tantalizing effort that transported its audience back to the hippie era. Still, anyone who saw the show had to admire Van Diepen's performance as Jesus. His singing and acting were fine, but the way he effected his crucifixion was pretty special. Theatergoers are still scratching their heads trying to figure out how he endured up on that cross, with nothing visibly holding him up save his own physical determination. It looked really real, too, with the nails in his hands and feet. Hosanna! —MARTIN BRADY

Best Arts Package Deal:'s Arts A La Carte
Have you been saying for years, "I really need to check out the ballet," yet you sit at home Friday nights watching Law & Order reruns? Are you a closeted opera fan? Still never seen a show at TPAC? Has the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee got a deal for you! Through its one-stop arts and entertainment website, the foundation is offering a hellacious bargain: the Arts A La Carte package features three vouchers redeemable for one performance each from the Tennessee Repertory Theatre, Nashville Ballet and Nashville Opera, all for $99 (plus a small handling fee). We're guessing that's less than your monthly cable bill. And if you think your 52-inch TV is high-def, wait till you experience the arts in non-simulated, real-time, 3-D live action. Not only will it get you off the couch, it'll do your soul good. For more information, visit JACK SILVERMAN

Best Film Podcast:
The Film Talk

If you've never been accosted after a press screening by Nashville critic and filmmaker Jett Loe, who has the boundless enthusiasm of Tigger pouncing on Piglet, the podcast he co-hosts with Irish author Gareth Higgins is the next best thing. Week after week, they re-create the kind of animated conversation that makes you feel like an eavesdropper in a theater lobby. Their guests are consistently entertaining—David Thomson, Francis Ford Coppola, Glenn Kenny—but the real show is the byplay between two pals who remind a lot of listeners why they first fell in love with movies: so they could talk about them afterward. Go to JIM RIDLEY

Best Film Series:
International Lens

With Vanderbilt's Sarratt Cinema back in play, a crucial missing puzzle piece has been placed in the city's moviegoing options. Sarratt was many Nashvillians' first exposure to the Nouvelle Vague, midnight movies or early American independents: Now, through this series, the college cinema is bringing in films that either haven't shown here before (e.g., Jacques Rivette's The Duchess of Langeais) or haven't been shown here since Joe B. Wyatt was chancellor (e.g., Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun). Tough to say which is better: that every screening is authoritatively introduced by a Vanderbilt faculty member, or that all the screenings are free and open to the public. Cheapest date in town, y'all. See the schedule at JIM RIDLEY

Best Night at the Movies:
Lawrence of Arabia at The Belcourt

As the Oscar buzz is set to begin in earnest, we're looking back on a pretty good year for movies. If I didn't know better, I'd be rooting for an epic tale of imperialism, hubris, prejudice and cruelty that takes place in a Middle East divided against itself along tribal fault lines. Sounds positively contemporary doesn't it? If you saw the brand-new, spotless print of David Lean's classic at The Belcourt you'd be forgiven for thinking you were watching the best movie of the year and not a decades-old gem. It was the crowning jewel in a year of stellar programming at The Little Theater That Does. JOE NOLAN

Best Collective Film Effort:
Brent Stewart/Michael Carter/James Clauer

They're all friends, they're all from Nashville, they've all worked with Harmony Korine, and they've all demonstrated their talent over the years with a variety of short films. Now they're all pooling their talents to work on each other's feature projects, at a planned rate of one per quarter. And they're doing it without funding, stars, or any of the excuses people use to explain why they can't make their films. First up is Stewart's drama The Colonel's Daughter, already completed and getting submitted to festivals; Clauer has a script ready to shoot, and Carter has his own long-gestating project. And then there's Carter's son Jeremiah... JIM RIDLEY

Best Little-Known Library Feature:
Movies at Main

Deep in the catacombs of the Nashville Public Library—OK, on the entrance level around the corner—resides the Popular Materials staff and a treasure trove of DVDs and VHS tapes, everything from Samuel Fuller's Underworld, U.S.A. to Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman. Any of these might be projected each month in the library's surprisingly large auditorium as part of its free "Movies @ Main" series. And staffers Bill Chamberlain and Clint Tatum have gone beyond the call of duty, supplementing each feature with podcast interviews with the likes of It's Alive director Larry Cohen. Between this and Sarratt's International Lens screenings, a cheapskate cinephile can do all right in this town. JIM RIDLEY


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