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Ham For The Holidays 

Suggestions for artistic gift-giving

While it's true that I'm making a list and checking it twice, don't get the idea that I'm gung ho-ho-ho about Christmas. Nurtured in the cozier confines of Chanukah, I have nonetheless absorbed a distillate of the Yuletide spirit as ordained by American commerce.

Yes, as a performing arts junkie -- and a wide-eyed materialist -- this is the season when I proclaim my reverence for DVDs, CDs and the almighty coffee table book. Blessed it is to give and to receive, particularly if thou canst contrive the appearance of giving with the same largesse that you hope is lavished upon thee.

PBS Basics Whether you're pruning your own gift-giving budget or trying to drop subtle hints to intimates and kinfolk that will yield maximum bang for the buck, you'll benefit from a couple of precepts. First, if you're casting a fond eye on a coffee table book based on that knockout PBS miniseries, here's the drill: Wait a few years until the price drops -- precipitously. Sure, go ahead and tell somebody with cash-ola to burn that your heart is set on Broadway: The American Musical ($60; see the Books Gift Guide for details). But if you check out Media Play and the like, you'll find Jazz: A History of America's Music by Ken Burns (Knopf), which not long ago went for $60 in hardcover and $30 paper, now reduced to as little as $19 in hardcover. That's a buy.

DVDs My other tip for low-cost highbrow gifts is for opera fanciers: Forget about multi-disc CD sets with libretti sized like cocktail napkins. Go with DVDs that package entire operas -- and convenient supertitles -- on a single disk. They're cheaper than the audio sets, and they sound every bit as good.

Best of all, you can experience an amazing array of operas that good ole Opera Carolina may never get to in your lifetime. Among those I've particularly enjoyed this year are Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele (Kultur, $30), the French version of Verdi's Don Carlos (Kultur, $30), Strauss's Elektra (Image, $30) and Berlioz' Damnation of Faust (Arthaus, $40).

Nothing wrong with preserving the pleasant memory of operas OC has presented in Charlotte. There's a wondrous version of La Traviata with gorgeous Angela Gheorghiu (DGG, $25), and you can catch Renee Fleming in Le Nozze di Figaro (Kultur, $30).

Theater lovers aren't nearly as blessed as their opera brethren, but there's one standout offering for 2004: the newly released DVD of HBO's landmark adaptation of Tony Kushner's Angels in America (two disks, $40).

Hooked On Paper Some people, like my wonderful daughter, actually prefer the compactness, the lightness and the malleability of paperbacks. You're lucky if you have such scholars on your list, and you come out ahead of the game when you yourself are hooked on paper.

I'm happy to report that the fetching book edition of Martin Scorsese's captivating PBS series, Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues (Amistad), is available for the holidays in both hardback ($28) and paper ($15). I'm also content to tell you that some of the books I consult the most, namely my guides to recorded jazz, classical music and opera, are only available in paper.

While I often consult the discographical information in the Penguin Guide to Jazz, I put much greater reliance on the judgments I find in the All Music Guide to Jazz (Backbeat, $33). I do prefer the tuxedo bird for classical music, primarily because the Penguin Guide to Compact Discs & DVDs ($25) is more comprehensive than its competitors. In significant ways, Gramophone's Good CD Guide ($28) is more convenient. Artists are indexed, DVDs are given their own section, composers are introduced with biographical snips from the Grove Concise Dictionary, and the whole kaboodle is updated and reissued every year.

For theatergoers, I'd recommend The Tale of the Allergist's Wife & Other Plays by Charles Busch (Grove, $14.50). In one subversive volume, you'll find not only the comedy Actor's Theatre will be doing later this season but also Psycho Beach Party and the inimitable Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.

Finally, what the hell, a hardback. Now that you or someone dear to you has been wowed by the high-priced show, pick up the high-priced coffee table treasure by Mel Brooks and Tom Meehan: The Producers (Talk Miramax, $40). Subtitled "The Book, Lyrics, and Story behind the Biggest Hit in Broadway History! " -- and immodestly sub-subtitled "How We Did It" -- the book delivers an exciting and engaging account of how a Broadway show gets up on its feet. You also get Brooks' annotations in the margins of the script, including pearls that had to be cut from the final version and slop that just didn't work.

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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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