Pittsburgh's weird concert boat could soon be dismantled
By ELIZABETH BLOOM, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Jul. 15, 2017
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Point Counterpoint II, a 195-foot-long, self-propelled, otherworldly concert boat, has brought music from the rivers of Pittsburgh to small towns throughout America to the great capitals of Europe for 41 years.
Soon, however, it may be headed for a new destination — a shipyard in Louisiana — and a new destiny, as a regular old crane barge.
Yo-Yo Ma, the world's most famous cellist, and Robert Austin Boudreau, an eccentric 90-year-old conductor who lives on a farm in Mars, are trying to save it from that fate.
Point Counterpoint II is a true Pittsburgh story, featuring cameos by H.J. Heinz II, U.S. Steel and the vessel's designer, Louis Kahn, one of the greatest architects in American history.
Boudreau, the boat's owner, is the music director of the American Wind Symphony Orchestra, which has performed on Point Counterpoint II since 1976. He's tried to find a new owner for two decades.
"It's getting to be 50 years old," Boudreau said by phone from Manistique, Mich., a stop on the AWSO's current and perhaps final tour. "And boats don't last forever."
So Ma has tried to drum up interest in Point Counterpoint II. After an article about Kahn appeared in the New York Review of Books in June, the cellist submitted a letter to the publication to make his plea.
"Robert Boudreau just turned 90," Ma wrote in the as-yet-unpublished letter. "He and his wife, Kathleen, have decided that they cannot keep running the barge, and he cannot find a new guardian for it . I humbly ask that your readers join Robert and me in finding a new home for Point Counterpoint II."
Ma, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., and Boudreau, who grew up on a chicken farm in Massachusetts, have never met; they spoke for the first time by phone last year. Yet Ma has become a major champion of Point Counterpoint II and of Boudreau.
"Think Bamiyan Buddhas and Palmyra in our country," Ma wrote in an email to the Post-Gazette. "Where else does a floating performing arts stage that is also an art gallery exist? Is there an angel in our great country that is willing to come forward to keep this national treasure intact and continue the work of one of our great visionaries?"
Point Counterpoint II has been in this situation before. In fact, Boudreau's first farewell tour for the boat was in 1997.
"It's kind of a family joke that he's on his 20th annual farewell tour," said his son, Josh Boudreau.
It has entertained suitors throughout the years, in New York and Chicago and Kahn's native Estonia. The barge is currently moored in Ottawa, Ill., where potential buyers have expressed interest in taking it over. But if those plans fall through, and nobody else steps up, it'll head to a shipyard in Houma, La., where its acoustical shell will be dismantled and it will be repurposed as a derrick barge, Boudreau said.
"That would be a tragedy," said filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn, the architect's son, whose Oscar-nominated film about his father's work featured Point Counterpoint II. "We have to avoid that at all costs."
Tom Michlovic, who is the AWSO's past or current board president, depending on whom you ask ("Robert still thinks of me as president"), said the organization has tried to sell the boat for somewhere in the $1 million-$1.5 million range.
"It's a priceless thing," said William Whitaker, curator of the architectural archives at the University of Pennsylvania, where Kahn studied and taught. "This is one of the great artists of the 20th century. It's impossible to put a price on that."
Boudreau, a Juilliard-trained trumpeter who moved to Pittsburgh to teach at Duquesne University, started AWSO in 1957; Heinz was his first major patron. Boudreau first asked Kahn to design a boat for an AWSO tour on the River Thames, although that vessel was abandoned after one summer. They teamed up again to produce Point Counterpoint II, a more sophisticated and ambitious project, for America's bicentennial.
"He understood the purity and the beauty of the idea, and he couldn't say no to this wonderful, inspired, somewhat eccentric man, Robert Boudreau," Nathaniel Kahn said.
Point Counterpoint II appears in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1989. (American Wind Symphony Orchestra)
The elder Kahn died in 1974, shortly after finishing his design. The construction of the Point Counterpoint II project went on without him, thanks in large part to U.S. Steel, which donated materials during a steel shortage, Boudreau said.
Kahn is best known for his land-based works, such as the parliament house in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif.
In contrast with those serious, sturdy structures, Point Counterpoint II, Kahn's only remaining piece of maritime architecture, is a more playful project. Furnished with a concert stage, theater showroom and art gallery, the self-propelled boat looks like a cross between a spaceship, a flute and a clamshell; the 75-foot-long stage is opened by hydraulics. The vessel's circular doorways are reminiscent of the stops of a flute, perhaps a reference to Kahn's daughter, a flutist.
"This boat captures his joyful nature better than any of his other structures," Nathaniel Kahn said. "So the idea that this would be lost would be a tragedy for those who knew and loved him, but it would be a great loss for the culture of America."
Point Counterpoint II made its concert debut in Biloxi, Miss., in May 1976. During its illustrious history, it appeared at the French Revolution bicentennial, graced the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Statue of Liberty and, in 1989, traversed Soviet waters in Leningrad.
But the spirit of the boat was in America's waterways, in towns such as California, Pa., Old Saybrook, Ct., and Jeffersonville, Ind. Like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, it brought music and art to small towns without their own orchestras. The AWSO's rotating cast of young adult musicians stayed with host families in town, and in turn, the townspeople would turn up with lawn chairs and picnics for concerts.
"Its life is really in moving along the American waterways and connecting people of diverse circumstances around art, which is really beautiful," Whitaker said. "The question is, is there a way to sustain that and keep it going into the future?"
Like Point Counterpoint II, Boudreau is headed for a new chapter. He insists he is not retiring and described, in vivid detail, his plans to turn a large farm in Pine into an agricultural center and performing arts center serving low-income people and minorities.
At age 90, with all he's done so far, who on Earth would doubt him?
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com