Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 10, 2014

Mozart and Dvorak

Hartford Symphony Orchestra
through December 7, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

Though HSO Maestra Carolyn Kuan is a multi-talented musician, guest conductor William Eddins did something in the third program of this season’s Masterworks series that Kuan hasn’t done yet in Hartford (but give her time): performed as featured soloist and conductor in the same concert. He also did something Kuan does regularly and well: spoke to the audience.

He opened by leading ten wind instruments from the piano in the HSO premiere of the nine-minute “Homage to Friendly Papageno” written in 1984 by Jean Francaix as “a hymn of gratitude to Mozart.” Sounding like a sprightly mash up of Mozart and Poulenc, it was played with charm and bite, and it led nicely into Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K. 453, in which Eddins led a larger ensemble of winds and strings again from the piano as soloist.

William Eddins
Not rising from the bench or leaving the stage between these pieces, he engagingly discussed the themes from Mozart’s “Magic Flute” quoted by Francaix and Mozart’s pet starling, which loved quoting the main theme of this concerto’s coda but could never get all the notes quite right. From its lively opening Allegro through a flowing Andante and vigorous romp of a finale, the affectionate performance showed why this was one of Mozart’s own favorites among his concertos. The conductor’s clear and decisive head motions complemented the dexterity of his fingers.

A white-hot reading of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 by the full orchestra followed intermission. The dark color of the opening cello chords made clear that this would be a powerfully dramatic interpretation. A warm, loving Poco Adagio, a stately, Czech-flavored Scherzo, and a passionate, intense finale brought the audience to its feet. Here Eddins was a full-body and high-energy conductor (think Leonard Bernstein), who led without a baton or score all evening but with obvious communication skill.   

Music Director of Canada’s Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, guest conductor of major orchestras throughout the world, and at 18 the youngest graduate ever of the Eastman School of Music, this gifted and charismatic musician can’t be invited back to Hartford soon enough.

"Fabulous!" Is Just That…Fabulous

Times Square Arts Center, NY, NY
extended through January 5, 2015
by Jenn Curran

Ten years ago, composer Michael Rheault had a vision. He saw a pair of star-crossed-dressers standing on the deck of a ship. A little bit “Some Like it Hot,” a little bit “Gentlemen Prefer Blonds” and a lot brand new. It was from this idea that the latest Off-Broadway hit, “Fabulous! The Queen of New Musical Comedies,” was born. With his writing partner, Dan Derby, the two men crafted a musical that is two parts throwback and one very large leap ahead. Michael and Dan both live in Greater Springfield, MA.

Our two heroines are Laura Lee Handle and Jane Mann, also known in the dive bar circuit as Mann Handle. The two ladies have found themselves without options, victims of mistaken identity, and a robbery gone bad. This pair of would-be divas land themselves jobs on the cruise ship Queen Ethel May heading to New York City, where they hope to find themselves real employment, men and new shoes.

On the surface, "Fabulous!" is fun and it sparkles with energy. Don’t let the title fool you though; look and listen closely and you will find that "Fabulous!" has a deeper meaning at its rhinestone-encrusted heart.

In the hysterically funny and poignant song “Falling for a Girl In the Closet," the audience sees a very closeted Hollywood movie star fall in love with someone he assumes is a woman. The song is an honest peak into one man’s struggle with his sexual identity.

“This is one of the songs we have re-written the least. We wrote it and haven’t really touched it much since. It just worked from the get go,” said Dan Derby.

Michael and Dan both wanted to create songs you can’t get out of your head. Michael stated, “We hoped to write a show that people left feeling happy, singing a song and believing that the world is a pretty good place. There aren’t a lot of new shows on Broadway like this today.”

According to a very positive review by the New York Times, a sweet and light-hearted show is exactly what Dan and Michael have delivered. When asked about the Times review, both men admitted to serious nerves, but excitement too. “The New York Times can be rough. It was very positive though, and we were elated!” Dan added.

December 5, 2014

Festival of Trees on Safari

Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA
through January 4, 2014

Berkshire Museum’s current exhibits make for a somewhat odd duo -- festive Christmas trees and an African Safari. Odd, but so effective, artistic, fun, and wide open to all sorts of creativity that the Museum is a must see early this winter.

For those who have attended “Festival of Trees” in the past, this very successful annual exhibit is new each year, featuring holiday trees of all shapes, sizes, colors, materials, and (most important) decorations. Dozens of trees are displayed throughout the second and third floors. Coupled for the first time with an equally important exhibit called “Lions & Tigers & Bears: Through the Lens with National Geographic,” the two shows exemplify this season’s theme, “On Safari.”

“Lions & Tigers & Bears...” (it’s difficult not to follow with “oh, my”) is a compelling look at wildlife photography featuring 50 photos from three of National Geographic’s top photojournalists — Michael “Nick” Nichols, Steve Winter, and Paul Nicklen. Observe the profound impact of visual storytelling with stunning images of these massive animals. Interesting reading on the displays’ signage is the story of a photographer’s harrowing experience sinking into quicksand, and a head-on shot of a majestic tiger.

In touring the Museum, trees seem to be situated around every bend and in every corner -- some larger trees stand alone, some in a mini-forest scene, and dozens of tiny trees which have been decorated by elementary schoolers on festival scaffolding. The latter is titled “The Kid Zone.” The “stars” of the show are the ornaments, all made and carefully placed by numerous Pittsfield community groups, senior centers, schools, clubs, farms, art agencies, health programs, and other non-profits.

Nearly any ornament that one can imagine dons the trees. Yes, there are the traditional decorations, and they are lovely. Especially fun are ornaments depicting a safari and wild animals made from paper mache, clothe, drawings, cutouts, and stuffing. Visitors can expect to see lots of wonderful trees with animals incorporated into the designs.

The two exhibits are sponsored by many businesses in and nearby Pittsfield. The proceeds benefit Berkshire Museum’s education program.

November 24, 2014

Death and the Maiden

Panache Productions, Springfield, MA
through November 23, 2014
by Phil O’Donoghue

Ariel Dorfman’s play “Death and the Maiden” is not an easy play to watch. Set in the aftermath of Chile's dictatorship rule in the 1990's, which included kidnappings and torture on a daily basis, Maiden is just one story about those abuses; but one story can be a harrowing experience.

Panache has gained a well-earned reputation for choosing plays that are challenging. Maiden is a complex play about Paulina, a victim of torture and interrogation. Her husband, Gerardo, works on a Human Rights Commission of the play’s unnamed country. The visitor, Roberto, is a seemingly innocuous man, eager to help, and is just as eager, if you believe him, to see his country’s past abuses made right.

When the play starts, Paulina seems to be a nervous, slightly scattered woman. Gerardo is solicitous to his wife, yet concerned that her frail condition will upset his career. When Paulina hears Roberto’s voice, her persona takes a sudden turn. She is stunned, shocked, and finally, determined. Paulina knocks Roberto out, ties him to a chair – and the play begins.

Believe it or not, there is a danger of the script being, what some critics of the original Broadway production referred to as, somewhat of a light play. There are lines where the audience nervously laughs, almost making the situation absurd. Thankfully, this community theatre's experienced director and cast walks that tightrope with ease. Marge Huba’s Paulina is overpowering in her rage and her need for vengeance. Hal Chernoff, as her husband, makes his character change into a weak, helpless onlooker – making his audience understand how a country can bend so easily under a forceful personality. Mark Ekenbarger, in the role of Roberto, shows a wide range of emotions. He is terrified at first, but ultimately almost contemptuous of Paulina. It is a fascinating standoff.

Kudos to Panache, its director, cast, and crew for undertaking this difficult production. It makes for an interesting and thought-provoking evening.

November 18, 2014

Fiddler on the Roof

Broad Brook Opera House, Broad Brook, CT
through November 30, 2014
by Jennifer Curran

"Fiddler on the Roof," that classic and beloved musical, stands the test of time for a simple reason: it’s got a heart of gold. So, too, does Broad Brook with it current production. "Fiddler" is filled to the brim with sweetness and gentleness that has seep into the boards of the stage and reaches up to the open beamed ceiling.

Inside the playbook was a small note sharing that Director and Musical Director John DeNicola had been hospitalized and therefore others had stepped in to finish his work during those incredibly trying final weeks of rehearsal. And they did, with rousing success. 

Brad Shepard’s Tevya is a gentle giant with a humanity that stretches right out to the back row. Could this be his best performance thus far? Anna Giza, always a terrific performer, is a Golde worth sparring with and falling in love with. It could have been, and often is unfortunate, to play the conflict between these two characters. Shepard and Giza never let the audience forget that these two characters love each other. It’s more than a song; it's how they treat one another with playful jabs. Such nuances, which may be over-done in lesser productions, are underlined with true affection. The relationship between his man and woman is clear and important, raising the stakes for the audience and adding that extra dimension to a marriage whose lasting power exists for more than mere tradition.

Huge kudos go to the beautiful, rich voices of Kaytlyn Vandeloecht (Tzeitel), Stella Rivera (Hodel) and Madeline Lukomski (Chava). Also of note in this charming production is Gene Choquette as Lazar Wolf. Every scene that he is in has its own energy and lightness; Choquette brings out the best in his fellow actors. 

This is a "Fiddler" that is endearing and delightful. With a delicate ballet routine performed quite beautifully by Randy Davidson (Fyedka) and Madeline Lukomski (Chava), this production runs lovingly. If comedy is hard, ballet is certainly a way to raise that barre. Well done, Broad Brook and get well wishes to John DeNicola.

Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
through November 16, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

The second program in the HSO’s Masterworks series this season focused on music from the German tradition, but with an unusual (and educational) twist. The season’s closing concert next June will feature Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, and this was one of several earlier programs in which Music Director Carolyn Kuan is finding connections to that work in other repertoire.

She led off with a dramatic performance of Brahms’ alternately turbulent and consoling Tragic Overture, which he wrote as a darker companion to his jubilant Academic Festival Overture in 1880. Kuan’s leadership and the orchestra’s playing were taut and incisive.

Before the next work on the program, Richard Strauss’ tone poem Death and Transfiguration, the musicians played an excerpt from the third movement of Mahler’s Fourth. In spoken comments Kuan noted that the composers, born four years apart, were lifelong rivals, or “frenemies,” whose music influenced each other’s. After this preface, the HSO’s sublime rendition of the Strauss, which depicts an artist only finding his ideal after death, made it sound more Mahlerian than usual, from the vividly painful climaxes to the transcendent hushed conclusion. Brasses, woodwinds, and two harps were particularly evocative.

Martina Filjak
Intermission was followed by a riveting account of Beethoven’s fifth and last piano concerto, nicknamed the “Emperor” presumably for its grandeur but also because it was written in Vienna during 1809, when Napoleon was conquering the city. The young Croatian-born soloist, Martina Filjak, met its considerable technical demands with dazzling virtuosity. She also scaled its interpretive heights with maturity and balance. Orchestra and conductor were with her all the way, strings providing a warm bath of support in the slow movement and the whole ensemble opening and closing the piece with appropriate pomp and circumstance.      

Responding to the audience’s enthusiastic applause, Filjak then offered something completely different as an encore – a quiet “study for the left hand” by Scriabin. The delicacy of her playing here in contrast with Beethoven’s massive sonority was impressive. The early return of this rising star to Hartford would clearly be most welcome to her many fans at this concert.

November 17, 2014

The Yeomen of the Guard

Valley Light Opera, Academy of Music, Northampton, MA
through November 16, 2014
By Mary Ann Dennis

Gilbert and Sullivan’s "The Yeomen of the Guard," is a favorite of both author and composer, as well as the VLO family. Although the darkest of the G&S operas, pointed satire and punning one-liners abound. There are plenty of topsy-turvy plot complications and many believe that the score is Sullivan's finest. The plot involves ever-changing emotional balance of joy and despair, love and sacrifice.

It is said that the sign of a great director is in the casting. The VLO's perfect cast gives an almost perfect rendition of this masterpiece, giving full vocal and histrionic justice to both text and music. Jacqueline Haney’s direction is spot on and musical director Aldo Fabrizi shapes the decrescendos with great sensitivity including outstanding acapella pieces.

Phoebe, played by Kate Saik, opens the show with a solo and literally sets the tone from the start. Saik embraces this character from head to toe, moving about the stage through intentions, not just blocking. Jonathan Klate as Jack Point, in one of the most difficult roles, does a wonderful job as he plays a subtle account of this sad, lonely, self-mocking clown. Jonathan Evans, who performs Fairfax, sings some of his moments with such a sweet falsetto. He has a beautiful tone, especially in his wooing Elsie. Not only can Elaine Crane, who plays Elsie, sing, but she brilliantly “takes on” the emotions needed for this demanding role. The stunning contralto, Dame Carruthers, played by Kathy Blaisdell, has all the right stuff; a rich voice and a magnificent stage presence. Michael Budnick, who plays Wilfred the Jailer, is hilarious in his conflict. Although he doesn’t have the pipes of the rest of the cast, he makes it work.

The chorus is tight in their vocals and diction. The stunning set and lights complement the show perfectly. Elaine Walkerk and Laurla Glenn's set and costumes bring authentic early 1500’s to life. Seems like it would take years to make just the costumes.

For G&S fans and for those who are not, this production of "Yeomen" is a must see.