Canvas, Script, Score

Western artist Maynard Dixon sits for a portrait in words and music at the Tucson Museum of Art

Harry Clark is a cellist, not a visual artist, but he does create portraits: performances that draw together musicians and actors to tell the story of some remarkable arts figure.

Almost (but not quite) all of Clark's subjects have been composers, and those portraits are the backbone of every Chamber Music Plus Southwest season. A new season is about to begin, but with something unusual: a portrait not of a musician, but a painter.

Western artist Maynard Dixon is Clark's latest subject. Clark, as cellist, will perform a new score by Tucson guitarist-composer Brad Richter, and he's assembled a script drawn mainly from Dixon's writings, to be read by actor John Schuck. Schuck has most recently made sporadic apparances on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, but he's probably best remembered as Rock Hudson's police sidekick in the 1970s TV series McMillan & Wife. He's also been spending a lot of time in revivals and tours of such musicals as Annie, 1776 and Annie Get Your Gun.

Schuck won't be singing, just speaking in the Maynard Dixon show, which is titled Go Ask the Little Horned Toad. It's being presented in conjunction with an exhibition of Dixon's work at the Tucson Museum of Art, the organization that commissioned the performance.

"At first I was a little hesitant, because it was a little off my beaten track and I knew who Dixon was, but I didn't know anything about the man," Clark admits.

So Clark consulted a couple of Maynard Dixon biographies, and sifted through the Dixon ephemera at the Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery. "So looking at all this Dixon stuff, including many letters and poems in Dixon's hand, gave me an insight into the guy," Clark says. The poems were important, because Dixon tended to reveal far more about his inner life and character through poetry than he did through his letters.

Clark notes that Dixon, born in 1875, was self-taught, except for an unsuccessful three-month study stint in San Francisco, and he declined to make the then-obligatory educational trip to Europe. "He was the first major Western artist who hadn't had European training," Clark says, likening Dixon to a home-grown America-obsessed composer of the same era, Charles Ives.

One of Dixon's first commissions took place here in Tucson in 1907, creating a mural at the train station. His payment included two train tickets to anyplace in the United States, so Dixon headed east to New York City, spending several years there illustrating Western books and meeting such characters as Annie Oakley and Will Rogers. After a while he came back west to focus on painting Western scenes on canvas and walls. He spent his last few years in ill health, wintering in Tucson.

Today Dixon is regarded as one of the most significant Western artists, but he found only limited success in his lifetime. The Tucson Museum of Art has mounted a Dixon exhibition, A Place of Refuge: Maynard Dixon's Arizona, which runs through Feb. 15. Clark's portrait, on the other hand, will be performed one time only, this Saturday night, Oct. 25, at the museum.

Brad Richter wrote and adapted the music for the show. Usually, though, Chamber Music Plus focuses on the work of some safely dead composer, and that will hold true as this season progresses back at the company's regular home, the Berger Center for the Performing Arts.

On Nov. 30, the subject is an iconic American composer in Copland and Me, with Armin Shimmerman, of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, reading the words of catty Copland cohort Virgil Thomson, while Clark and pianist Sanda Schuldmann play music of Copland and his contemporaries.

Jan. 4 brings Beloved Brahms, with Edward Herrmann portraying a Viennese critic who was one of Brahms' strongest champions. (Interestingly, both the Copland and Brahms shows are narrated from the points of view of music critics.)

Feb. 9 brings a classical-music take on the Love Letters shtick, featuring Michael Learned of The Waltons. The season ends March 22 without any actors at all; Clark and Schuldmann and friends will play jazzy music for cello and piano by Claude Bolling, George Gershwin and Astor Piazzolla.

Earlier this year, it seemed that this season might have to be Chamber Music without the Plus--no actors, because the union Actors Equity briefly blacklisted the organization for supposedly not following Equity rules for certain kinds of performances. Actually, Chamber Music Plus pays its actors more than Equity scale, but confused union bureaucrats decided that Chamber Music Plus wasn't doing things by the book. Luckily, the organization is back in Equity's good graces.

"I've been forbidden to talk too much about it," Clark says, "other than to say that it was a misconception about what we were doing here. Once they understood what we were doing, they said as long as we maintain the same format it's not an Equity issue."

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