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

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.

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.

First Night relies very heavly on such grass-roots arts involvement rather than such monumental institutions as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Museum of Fine Arts, or the American Repertory Theater. Most of the performers involved need the exposure. But there is also a genuine air of celebration for celebration's sake about the event. ``The old story of the juggler of Notre Dame is not for nothing,'' observes singer-educator Phyllis Curtin, who presided over the event's kick-off presentation in 1975. ``He had no gifts to give, so he juggled -- that was his gift. Nobody is doing this because it is a party. It's something that comes out of what makes you an artist in the first place. ``This is just our joyful noise that we make.''

The joyful noise of First Night started on a small scale, when fabric artist Clara Wainwright and her husband, sculptor Bill Wainwright -- both seminal figures in this city's visual-arts scene -- got together with composer Paul Earls, his wife, Zeren, and artist Larry Burgess and persuaded city officials to help them establish a unique arts celebration. Since that time, the event has been criticized by some arts observers as a giant promotional scheme; and some artists have complained that their ability to present serious art in the time and space allotted was severely cramped. ``It's not what we really do,'' comments the Boston Ballet's artistic director, Bruce Marks. ``It gives some taste of what we do, a sampler with some of our most interesting dancers. Sometime I'd like to have [a large theater] to put something on.'' Nevertheless, Mr. Marks, who directed Ballet West in Salt Lake City for nine years and was principal dancer and choreographer at the Royal Danish Ballet, sees the event as something ``exciting to be a part of.''

Witnesses of this excitement are just as likely to see some second-rate performances as some splendid ones. But the obvious popularity of the occasion and its ability to reach out to new audiences have pretty much smothered all controversy. First Night may be considered a carnival by some local artists, but it is generally acknowledged to be a pretty classy carnival, even by its strongest critics. There's a tendency ``to look at it as a great civic event . . . and the arts side gets overlooked,'' says festival cofounder Zeren Earls. But she points out that the participation of a major cultural figure like Phyllis Curtin shows that First Night's seriousness of purpose is recognized in many quarters. ``I consider [it an] inspirational program,'' Mrs. Earls adds. ``People are getting such a treat . . . . What a way to start the new year!''

Indeed, visitors and newcomers to Boston comment, with some wonder, on this city's alternative to the mobs in New York's Times Square. All night, Boston's streets swarm with remarkably well-behaved crowds who endure long lines with relative good cheer. A major drawing card for these crowds is Boston's considerable arts infrastructure, enriched by an intense concentration of universities that attract some top figures in the arts (Ms. Curtin, for example, is dean of the Boston University School of Fine Arts). In the music world, this city's profusion of ensembles -- from those concentrating on early music to the most contemporary compositions -- holds a special position. All of which helps to make First Night a rich, if somewhat chaotic, cultural offering. ``It's a logical and exhilarating thing to put arts on with New Years Eve,'' Curtin says. ``But for a whole city to do it! To see all this richness displayed in one city at on time!'' To her and many others First Night is a glorious celebration for artists and for the city, one that gives revelers something more to cheer than the change of the hour at midnight.

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