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The world’s stage

UMass’ Fine Arts Center brings global acts to  the Pioneer Valley

One thousand, five hundred people rose to their feet inside the University of Massachusetts’ Fine Arts Center’s main concert hall — clapping their hands, cheering and calling for more music — and just as some began to scamper toward the exits, the explosive sound of a synthesizer drove them back to their seats.

Herbie Hancock’s quartet had returned to the stage to play an encore, nearly 2 1∕2 hours after its show began on an October night in Amherst. Hancock — a 73-year-old pianist and composer, considered by many to be a modern jazz legend — grinned as he began playing his keytar, a handheld keyboard/synthesizer supported by a strap around his neck.

The loud, funky rhythms vibrated all over the large concert hall as Hancock and bassist James Genus conversed on stage with their instruments, causing some attendees to break into dance. Less than an hour earlier, the same crowd had sat silently, transfixed as Hancock’s fingers danced across a grand piano.

The show had taken sudden, unexpected turns all night long. During classics like “Watermelon Man” and “Cantaloupe Island,” Hancock switched back and forth between his piano and synthesizers — often playing so fast that he popped into the air, as if he was going to fly off his seat.

During “Come Running To Me,” Hancock soulfully sang using a vocoder, a vocal synthesizer that inspired technology like AutoTune. Three of the musicians then left the stage for a solo performance by African guitarist Lionel Loueke. He dazzled the audience by simultaneously playing the guitar, hitting it like a drum and using his voice as a second percussion instrument.

In some ways, the concert was a microcosm of the types of shows the Fine Arts Center offers each year. Located in the center of the UMass-Amherst campus, the 38-year-old venue aims to bring to the Pioneer Valley a variety of musical genres and other acts from around the world, said Shawn Farley, the center’s director of marketing.

“That’s probably what the Fine Arts Center can really hang its hat on,” she said. “It’s (about) being a part of ... the global community and understanding the different expressions that are out there. When you understand different cultures and people through the arts, you understand them on a whole other level.”

That diversity is evident from a quick scan of the venue’s upcoming performances.

Sweet Honey in the Rock, an a cappella group of African-American women, will be in town tonight, to perform songs by legends like Odetta, Miriam Makeba and Abbey Lincoln.

Then, on Nov. 14, the Fine Arts Center will be filled with the sounds of the Japanese drumming group Yamato. And the Parsons Dance Co. will perform the following week, on Nov. 23.

Farley said that the Fine Arts Center has full-time curators who specialize in particular performance styles and are constantly on the lookout for popular acts that are touring.

It helps, she said, that Amherst is geographically located between New York City and Boston; the venue will sometimes be able to catch the artist mid-week, in between city shows. Other times, the Fine Arts Center collaborates with other New England venues to create a regional tour for an artist, she said.

And the artists that do come draw crowds from all over western New England, she said.

Of the 30,000 people who attended shows last year, 68 percent were from Hampshire County, 13 percent were from Franklin County and 6 percent from Hampden County. The other 4,000 attendees came from southern New Hampshire and Vermont, the area surrounding Hartford, Conn., Worcester County and the Berkshires.

There’s often a mix of ages, too, said Farley. Shows are attended by a collection of college students, local residents and families, she said.

Concert experiences also vary based on the performance. The Hancock show was the kick-off event of the season and featured a large pre-party in front of the building, complete with live jazz and free refreshments.

Shows that are long enough to have intermissions will feature paid concessions before and in the middle of the show, said Farley. Usually, the musical genre or culture of the artist will determine what’s on the menu, she said, but the concert hall will always alert guests beforehand once they purchase tickets.

The number of seats in the venue changes, too, depending on the show. The hall can fit up to 1,850 people, but sometimes is reduced down to 1,000, said Farley. It has stadium-style seating with balconies occasionally utilized.

The concert hall’s tall cement-like walls provide a somewhat cold exterior. But there’s comfortable seating inside and it’s easy to see and hear what’s happening, even from the back levels.

Tickets can be purchased online or at the box office, which is located inside the building and toward the back on the right side (if you’re entering from the Massachusetts Avenue side).

The Hancock Concert, with tickets ranging from $30 to $75, was on the pricey end for Fine Arts Center shows, said Farley. Typically the venue tries to bring in big-name acts for a more affordable price.

For instance, tickets for the three aforementioned concerts start as low as $15 and that dips even lower for student and youth discounts (Greenfield Community College students could get in for $10). The Fine Arts Center’s website, http://fac.umass.edu, has pricing information, including how to buy packages for multiple shows.

Before the Hancock show, the lobby was packed as concert-goers, dressed in a mix of casual and formal wear, stood chatting with friends and drinking wine.

Everyone had the same idea to go the bathroom before the show — so the lobby’s one set of single-room facilities had a very long line. Guests would be better off entering the concert hall, past the ticket stalls, and going to rest rooms near the seat entrances; there was barely any wait there.

There is free parking on evenings and weekends in lots along Massachusetts Avenue (the street most Franklin County drivers will eventually find themselves on when they take the UMass exit off Route 116). It’s directly across from the U-loop in front of the Fine Arts Center — a short one-minute walk.

Traffic was light on the Sunday night of the Hancock show, but again, that varies based on the event, said Farley. It’d be wise to keep an eye on possible university attractions happening on the night of a concert.

On Oct. 26, for example, attendees who saw mezzo-soprano singer Stephanie Blythe left campus around the time that UMass students were flocking in costume to an electronic/rap concert at the Mullins Center — which is located on Commonwealth Avenue, a street that intersects with Massachusetts Avenue.

For a full list of upcoming shows, go to http://fac.umass.edu and click on the “Calendar” menu option. You can also learn more about the Fine Arts Center’s performing arts shows and art galleries on the website.

Staff reporter Chris Shores started at The Recorder in 2012. He covers education, health and human services. He can be reached at cshores@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264. His website is www.chrisshores.com.


A conversation with Herbie Hancock

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

When jazz pianist Herbie Hancock used to ponder the future of music technology, he dreamt of a special box. It would possess multiple slots, each containing a different synthesizer, and he could use it to rotate between different kinds of sounds during a single performance. Decades later, Hancock, who today plays with a platoon of iPads and small devices strapped … 0

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