A YEARLONG SERIES USJ's On The Move Highlights Cultural Fusion.
Musically speaking, the tidy West Hartford campus of the University of Saint Joseph might be the best-kept secret in the greater metro area. That's about to change. On the Move, the Autorino Center for the Arts and Humanities' first yearlong, thematically programmed season strings together eight musical events, aligning the university's social justice mission and message of diversity with contemporary sounds.
First up is Daniel Salazar Jr.'s Guitar Under the Stars (Saturday at 6:30 p.m., free), which takes place outdoors on USJ's central quad, featuring a coterie of Latin American players and musicians from the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.
"When I first started a couple of years ago and saw this quad, I thought it was this beautiful, magical outdoor space," says Autorino Center director Steven Raider-Ginsburg. "We have 750 parking spots and a number of people in walking distance who live near here. It seemed like a great resource for open, free community events."
Additional fall performances include Hartford resident Carlos Hernandez Chavez and Tierra Mestiza (at "Noche Latina," Oct. 6,7 p.m., $5); Latin Grammy nominees Flor de Toloache with Meriden's Mariachi Mexico Antiguo (Oct. 20,7:30 p.m., $25-$30,); and globe-trotting NYC ensemble Red Baraat (Dec. 1,8 p.m., $25-$30).
The spring semester offers Romance De La Guitarra (Feb. 14,8 p.m., $25 to $30, with Salazar Jr.'s ensemble); Gullah party band Ranky Tanky with the hard-charging Hartford Hot Several (March 2,7:30 p.m., $25 to $30); the return of family-friendly folkies the Okee Dokee Brothers (March 24,1130 a.m., $30 to $35); and local spiritual/fusion group the Afro-Semitic Experience (April 14, 7:30 p.m., $25 to $30).
And music is one spoke in the On the Move programming hub. There's theater (notably, "Star of the Sea," by Galway City's Moonfish Theater, on Oct. 11 and 12, and the world premiere of Samite's "Resilience" on March 23); film (a three-day Spanish Language Film Festival on Sept. 26, Oct. 9 and Oct. 17); dance (the annual 5x5 Contemporary Dance Festival on Nov. 4); and literature (Writers-in-Exile: City of Asylum, a series of lectures and workshops, from April 23 to 27).
Raider-Ginsburg's mission, since arriving on campus in July of 2015, has been "to create increased vibrancy for the student population, a higher caliber of socially connected events."
"Everything I bring in, I look at 50 percent of what the content is and the communities that it's connecting to," he says. "The other 50 percent is just pure artistic excellence: Is this something that is going to knock our socks off?"
The seeds of "On the Move," a theme that deals with migration, globalization and population, he adds, were planted two years ago.
"It's just being alive and aware in a contemporary world: What are we talking about? What's on the front of mind?"
Before coming to US J, Raider-Ginsburg co-founded the Hartford-based theater company HartBeat Ensemble and served as its artistic director. Coming from a theater and social justice background, he says, "puts me in a unique position where I'm not just presenting. I'm producing creatively."
Each show presents opportunities to develop deeper questions. In 2016, Raider-Ginsburg focused on pairing cultural events with individual academic departments. "D- Generation: An Exaltation of Larks," a puppet-theater production about Alzheimer's Disease and dementia, partnered with USJ's nursing program. Hand2 Mouth's play "Pep Talk," which deconstructed locker-room bravado, was held in conjunction with the athletics department.
Last spring, the semester-long American Roots Festival featured performances by roots musician Jenny Scheinman, Martha Redbone's Bone Hill Band, Irish supergroup Runa, Jayme Stone's Lomax Project, the Legends Live On! (with Michael Allman, Jeff Pitchell and Claudette King) and the Healing Blues Band, a unique songwriting and performing partnership between blues musicians and homeless citizens.
The Gullah band Ranky Tanky, top, plays March 2, and Guitar Under the Stars with Daniel Salazar Jr. is Saturday.
One internal challenge for the Autorino Centeris the lack of performing arts majors at US J (there are dance and theater minors, and music lessons are available), a situation that necessitates partnerships with other area schools.
"The Hartt School is just down the street with an incredible community division. We just have different strengths," Raider-Ginsburg says. "We have a commitment to the liberal arts. Our mission talks about the development of the whole person. This is an important aspect of involvement, for students to have exposure and at least learn how to appreciate the arts. That's not naturally built-in as a value."
Throughout each season, Raider-Ginsburg engages with US J professors, enlisting them to interview visiting artists and write program notes. He also meets with artists and links up with faculty members and administrators to find out what's being taught on campus.
"Being at an educational institution and having that in the forefront of my community means knowing what the questions are, the active intellectual questions that students and faculty are diving into," he says. "They are able to put their research lenses directly onto the projects."
Flor de Toloache, a band that fuses Mariachi music with American jazz, and Red Baraat, which mingles Indian- and Pakistani-influenced dancehall music with New Orleans funk, are typical examples of what Raider-Ginsburg calls cultural "border crossing."
"They're making some really beautiful cultural fusion and connections," he says. "They're super-talented."
Many US J events feature pre- and post-show discussions. There's a new membership program, with prime seating for $15 (rather than the usual $35). Alums and Sisters of Mercy receive additional discounts.
The Bruyette Athenaeum, the building that houses Hoffman Auditorium and the Art Museum, Raider-Ginsburg says, is the university's "welcome mat" to the surrounding areas.
"People who live around here can get a pretty cheap all-you-can-eat meal at the dining commons. That's open to anybody. It's a great inexpensive date."
GUITAR UNDER THE STARS takes place on the Central Quad of the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford Saturday at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free, usj.edu/arts