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Museum event: College Night at the MFA

Joanna Newsom, Indian Art, Tasty Desserts, and More Highlight a Free Event

By Sarah Dupuis

MFA College Night

Museum of Fine Arts

Thursday, Sept. 28

Swarms of college students crowded the steps outside the Museum of Fine Arts’ main entrance last Thursday night, honing in on the front door and eager for their chance to squeeze inside. At the Museum’s second annual College Night, “free” was the adjective of the evening, and students from all over the Boston area came to collect the various giveaways offered. Last year the event lured upwards of 1,500 students from more than forty colleges and universities, and this year continued the trend. With an enticing assortment of desserts, a local DJ, the chance to check out the MFA’s exhibitions, hourly raffles and an outdoor concert — all for free — the irrepressible crowd outside the building was justified.

Once inside the building, attendees showed their student IDs and entered the College Night lottery. Prizes included a Tivoli radio, a two-gigabyte iPod nano, an MFA gift bag and a collection of CDs by artists who have performed at the MFA, including Cat Power, Petra Haden, Matmos and Joanna Newsom, who performed later in the evening.

“The event is for raising awareness of the museum. We’re building a new wing, which is really exciting, and we hope people will come see the new art,” said Patty Dickerson, an employee of the MFA. Students poured in to the many open galleries, particularly the special exhibition Domains of Wonder: Masterworks of Indian Painting, on tour from the San Diego Museum of Art’s South Asian collection. The event brought a number of new museum-goers who will continue to explore new exhibits over their college years.

The museum’s Garden Court terrace was swankier than might have been expected for college students paying no entry fee. Light green tablecloths adorned with scattered white candles gave the room the feel of a chic caf , but the electronic down-tempo musical selections of DJ Yamin were well-suited to the College Night audience. Ironically, the biggest turnoff in an otherwise lovely room was the crowd: students literally waited ten minutes each before they could walk down the stairs to the terrace, and getting out was just as difficult.

“It’s very poorly organized,” said Kristen Ferraro, an RA at Merrimack College. “Trying to funnel everyone through that one little door? Not a smart idea.” The impatience of the crowd was assuaged, however, when free SmartWater and a delicious collection of catered cookies rewarded the wait.

The most memorable and anticipated part of the evening occurred in Calderwood Courtyard, and featured a live performance by acclaimed singer-harpist-songwriter Joanna Newsom. Tickets to the show were free but limited, and so many students who came explicitly for the musical performance but were turned away were somewhat sore.

Opening act Chris Brokaw was the first to appear on the small outdoor stage. Brokaw, who played with Newsom in Berlin two years ago, started his set with a dry, enunciated cover of Lisa Walker’s “Crooked.” His set featured a handful of instrumental pieces combined with various sound effects and an electronic tambourine sound. The most interesting tune performed was the politically charged “Eyes of a Host,” in which Brokaw sang, “here in the Union, we lay on our backs and shoot stars …” before plunging into a distorted electric sound for the chorus. His set was well suited for a humid New England fall night, and the outdoor atmosphere was perfect save for the lack of visible stars in Boston.

A hush fell over the audience when Joanna Newsom entered the courtyard. Dressed in the kind of flowing blue dress she’s known for, Newsom apologetically told the audience she hadn’t been speaking much today and hoped we’d put up with her still-healing voice. Perhaps the sickness leant itself to her performance, because the emerging sound was unlike the childish tones heard on Newsom’s last album release. There was a new mature elegance to her voice, although the songs were unmistakably Newsom. After opening with “Bridges and Balloons,” a song off 2004’s “The Milk-Eyed Mender,” Newsom told the audience she’d be playing a lot of new songs this evening. No objections. Her set list included the new songs “Emily,” “Sawdust and Diamonds,” “Cosmia,” and the fifteen-minute-long “Skin.” Newsom also catered to devoted fans of her old material and played “The Book of Right-On,” “Sadie,” and “Peach, Plum, Pear,” although she forgot the lyrics to her older material on more than one occasion. She later chalked this lapse up to infrequency of performance, but did not seem embarrassed — the audience was supportive and right with her throughout the set.

The most exciting part of Joanna Newsom’s music is watching it move through her. As the songs change dynamics and emotion, Newsom is brought along, alternately violently and placidly. When she becomes passionate, the harp seems to direct her with its strings and not the other way around. At other times, she seems to gather little stones or berries from the strings of the harp, gently plucking as though reaching for a Faberge egg. When she’s having fun, she has all the funk of an upright bass player, and her harp solo breaks have all the soul of an old jazz standard. And then there’s that voice: caterwauling and yodeling about birds and trees and flowers before shooting up into an operatic vibrato and finally settling on a pure, low, sultry tone.

Her internal musical diversity is offset by a genial personality. Throughout the show, Newsom sipped a concoction for the health of her throat from a wine glass. “I’m drinking the craziest thing ever right now,” she told the audience after completing her second song. “I can’t tell if it’s making me better or worse. It’s not that crazy: it’s, like, lemon and honey … but a lot of lemon and a lot of honey.” She paused to sip. “There’s gonna be a lot more hilarious rapport like that throughout the night while I rest my voice. Stay tuned.” And the audience did.

After the musical performance ended, attendees shuffled out of the courtyard and exited down the same steps on which they originally congregated. The evening’s success was evident from the murmurs of huddled students — “this is why we go to college in Boston,” one proclaimed. The MFA appeared to have met its goal of acclimating students to its galleries and events, and those in attendance at College Night to enjoying a unique and memorable evening.

Luckily, for those who missed out last Thursday, the MFA is always free for students with an MIT ID card, and the museum’s special exhibits change regularly. A calendar of events and exhibition listings can be found on the MFA’s website at http://www.mfa.org.