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Boston's cultural alternative to New Year's Eve carousing

By Christopher SwanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 30, 1985


It started in 1976, when a handful of artists wanted an alternative to drinking and dancing and partying in the new year. Last year, more than 300,000 people decided to come along for the ride. The music they heard along the way was a far cry from ``Auld Lang Syne,'' accompanied by the popping of champagne corks. Boston's 10-year-old First Night celebration is part arts festival, part Mardi Gras.

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This year 1,000 artists -- musicians, poets, painters, dancers, sculptors, composers, jugglers -- will perform at 35 sites. Ping Chong and the Fiji Company, a multimedia theater troupe, will bring performance art from New York City. Boston Ballet soloists will execute two pas de deux. The John Oliver Chorale and Orchestra will present Benjamin Britten's ``The Burning Fiery Furnace'' as a semistaged church pa rable. On the lighter side, there will be several jazz performances, from swing to contemporary, New Orleans-style to Argentinian ``salsa.'' The evening will end with a celebratory fireworks display over Boston Harbor.

Every year the city becomes literally alive with arts events, as small as church organ recitals and as large as full-scale symphonies. And the excitement of it all reaches far beyond Boston. Eleven other cities will mount similar events this year. Every state in New England has followed in Boston's footsteps. A private organization in San Francisco contacted festival organizers here and said it would be starting a similar celebration next year; and visitors from Charlotte, N.C., are coming to draw blueprints for that city.

The reasons that so many cities are jumping on the bandwagon are considerable. According to the Boston Police Department, there were only two arrests for public drunkenness among the more than 300,000 First Night celebrants last year. ``It's incredible,'' comments James Dorsey, press secretary to Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D). ``Hundreds of thousands of people have a good time celebrating the new year in the heart of the city without getting [drunk] to do so, and understanding that the spirit of the new year is a joyous celebration.'' From 1 p.m. until midnight on New Year's Eve, strollers in this city encounter ice sculpture, costumed revelers, parades of giant creatures; they queue up for concerts by some of Boston's best, if not best-known, cultural organizations. And they enjoy an encounter with the arts that some of them seldom have otherwise, since First Night attracts a segment of the city's population that seldom attends cultural events regularly. The First Night format makes it easy for participants to see a variety of events throughout the evening in this compact, walkable city.

Prepurchased lapel buttons costing $4 each allow the wearer entrance to the more than 100 performances. This year, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Mozart's ``Requiem'' will provide evening's larger musical works. Brahms and Dvorak and other works by Mozart will be presented on a smaller scale by such performers as the city's respected Apple Hill Chamber Players. These and other artists look at First Night as an opportunity to spread the word about their frequently underfunded troupes.