Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 24, 2015

Camelot


The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through April 26, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

To step in for the ailing star of a show on opening night must be a nerve-wracking feat, but that’s what understudies are for, and Troy Bruchwalski rose to the occasion with a finely nuanced portrayal of King Arthur in the national tour of Lerner & Loewe’s beloved masterpiece "Camelot."

Based on T. H. White’s novel The Once and Future King, "Camelot" tells the legend of 16th-century King Arthur of England and his Knights of the Round Table, who became known for settling disputes not through war but through law, and whose good deeds attracted recruits from far and wide. After the famously virtuous Sir Lancelot arrives from France, his growing love for Arthur’s Queen, Guinevere, and the treachery of Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred tear the peaceful kingdom apart.  

As Guinevere, Mary McNulty has a warm stage presence and a glorious singing voice. Tim Rogan makes for a dashing Lancelot. However, opening night showed some misses in the comic potential of his introductory number, “C’est Moi,” and his top notes are strained in his big ballad, “If Ever I Would Leave You.”

Comic relief is well provided by Mark Poppleton, who does double duty as Arthur’s mercurial teacher, the magician Merlin, and as King Pellinore, a dotty more or less permanent house guest of Arthur and Guinevere. The most fully realized performance is that of Kasidy Devlin as a deliciously wicked Mordred. The men and women of the ensemble are versatile and seamless.

The resourceful scenic design by Kevin Depinet gets maximal value from sliding panels that move unobtrusively on and off stage with scene changes. Costume design by Paul Tazewell is tasteful and period appropriate. Michael McFadden’s direction keeps the action moving forward at an exciting but never frenetic pace.

The tag line for this production is “Camelot…the story as you’ve never seen it before.” An apter line might be be “as you’ve never heard it before,” since musical director Marshall Keating has only four other musicians with him in the orchestra pit. The interplay of guitar/lute, cello, and reeds is the most delectable feature of this "Camelot."

April 20, 2015

South Pacific

Westfield Theatre Group, Westfield, MA
through April 25, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

In a program book note, director Bill Stroud cites the line “Most people live on a lonely island” from South Pacific’s signature ballad “Bali Hai” as a touchstone for his moving production of this 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, which highlights the darker side of the story and gives its lighter moments an antic edge.

Based on James Michener’s short story collection “Tales of the South Pacific”, the show focuses on two romances: between a middle-aged French-born owner of an island plantation, Emile de Becque, and an Arkansas-born nurse, Nellie Forbush, on a World War II military base in the South Pacific; and between American lieutenant Joseph Cable and the dark-skinned daughter, Liat, of local entrepreneur Bloody Mary. Another entrepreneur, Seabee Luther Billis, provides comic relief.

The large cast of 29 singing actors is consistently passionate and engaged. Drew Gilbert’s Emile has a quiet dignity and emotional transparency. Few scenes are more powerful than the devastation in his eyes at Nellie’s last departure in Act I. Amy Meek is a touching and resilient Nellie, who makes her struggle to accept de Becque’s mixed race children poignant and believable.

Matt O’Reilly brings anger and manic intensity to Cable. Even his big ballad, “Younger than Springtime,” expresses more angst than romance, and “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” is contemptuous of his privileged and prejudiced upbringing. Ryan Peloquin’s Billis is hilarious as “Honey Bun” and affectingly tender in his scenes with Nellie, but more unhinged and dangerous than usual in his interactions with his officers and fellow sailors.

The standout vocal performance is Jami Witherell’s forceful Bloody Mary, whose melting “Bali Hai” and feather-light “Happy Talk” are musical highlights. And her comic timing with Billis and his mates is a hoot. The choral work of the ensemble is impressive throughout, the men in “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and the women in “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair.”

The hardworking eleven-piece band at stage left is appropriately bedecked with nurses’ or sailors’ caps. This entertaining South Pacific will delight and instruct audiences of all ages.

April 13, 2015

Viennese Choral Spectacular


Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
April 11, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

Before this concert of music by three great composers associated with “the inspiring musical city of Vienna,” as SSO Maestro Kevin Rhodes called it in his “Rhodes’ Reflections” column in the program book, Rhodes made an unusual request. He announced his intention to play the two pieces on the first half of the program without a pause between them, and asked for no applause until the second piece had finished, so the works could “play off against each other.” The audience fully complied with his request.

The opening piece was Schubert’s “Unfinished” eighth symphony, the only work on the program without voices. No sooner did the closing notes of the slow second movement fade quietly away in this expansive, deeply felt performance than Rhodes cued the Springfield Symphony Chorus, seated behind the orchestra before the concert, to stand and begin singing Schubert’s Mass No. 2, a work of youthful exuberance by the 18-year-old composer that was given a lively, probing rendition by the orchestra and chorus. Its five short movements also featured distinguished contributions from three soloists: soprano Mary Wilson; tenor William Hite; and baritone David McFerrin.

Intermission was followed by a virtuosic reading of “Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven),” a work of astonishing maturity based on a medieval hymn celebrating the Virgin Mary by an even younger 15-year-old Mozart. Wilson and the chorus each sang in three of its four short movements, easily meeting the music’s frequent technical challenges. 

Nadine Shank
The concert closed with Beethoven’s “Fantasia for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra,” in some ways “an early study for the Ninth Symphony,” as the program book notes, but rarely heard because of its unwieldy performance requirements. With the chorus already on stage and with the SSO’s principal orchestral pianist, Nadine Shank, on hand, Rhodes led a rousing, vibrant account of this engaging piece, which was warmly received by the audience, especially for the power and finesse of Shank’s playing. 

Apart from the absence of texts, which should always be provided for vocal works (printed or inserted in the program, or projected over the stage), this concert was a “spectacular” success.

Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty


Hartford Symphony Orchestra
April 9-12, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

In a program like this HSO concert, which included a symphonic poem, a complete ballet, and a suite from another ballet, it may seem ironic that dancers accompanied the orchestra in the symphonic poem and in the suite, but not in the complete ballet. Thus does unpredictable HSO Maestra Carolyn Kuan tweak the expectations of her audiences with delightful results.

Saint-Saens first set his “Danse Macabre” for voice and piano in 1874 to a poem by Jean Lahor about death as a fiddler leading skeletons in a midnight graveyard dance. While his later orchestral version, which opened this HSO program, features a solo violin, the missing text cries out for expression through ballet. So, Kuan invited Katie Stevinson-Nollet, Artistic Director of Full Force Dance Theatre, to choreograph a dance accompanying the orchestra, and four of her dancers depicted death and three skeletons with aptly ghoulish make-up, costumes, and gestures. The stylized dance ritual eerily enhanced the haunting orchestral account.

Prokofiev’s 1929 ballet “The Prodigal Son” is much less familiar than the biblical story that inspired it, but its ten short movements, lasting just over half an hour, depict the tale with a winning combination of the composer’s youthful brashness and his mature serenity. Kuan sharpened the edges of the HSO brass during the son’s rowdy adventures and deepened the lush tone of the strings during his seduction by a siren and in his moving return to his father’s home, Prokofiev’s favorite section.

After intermission Kuan jettisoned the preview of Mahler’s fourth symphony (to be performed by the HSO in June) listed in the program for some engaging banter instead with Stevinson-Nollet and her dancers, along with Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory’s Artistic Director Victoria Mazzarelli and Principal Ballet Master Tim Melady and a dozen of their student dancers, and demonstrations by all the dancers.

The orchestral performance of six excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” that closed the program was grand and colorful, while the dancing by exquisitely costumed Nutmeg students in three movements was elegant and poised.

Both collaborations further rewarded Kuan’s outreach efforts with a younger, more diverse audience.

April 8, 2015

The Pianist of Willesden Lane

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through April 26, 2015
by Bernadette Johnson

One needn’t be an accomplished musician or even an aficionado of classical music to be fully enraptured by the virtuosity of Mona Golabek, the sole performer in this musical recounting of the life of Lisa Jura, one of three daughters in a middle-class Jewish family in wartime Vienna.

Golabek is not an actress, but she has taken to the stage to recount a story that is near and dear to her—that of her mother’s painful separation from her family via the Kindertransport, a World War II program to relocate Jewish children, unaccompanied, to the relative safety of England, where they were placed with relatives, host families or in group homes.

No, Golabek is not an actress (a drawback at times, since words are lost due to her soft-spokenness), but rather an expressive storyteller who uses great music—Grieg, Mozart, Debussy, Chopin, Beethoven et al.—to convey the heartbreak of separation, the pathos, the joy, the drama, as well as the conviction, that defined Jura’s life journey.

“Hold on to your music. It will be your best friend,” Jura’s mother told her, and Jura shared the power of these words in the piano lessons she passed on to her own daughter, sharing the dreams and the hopes that sustained her despite the fears and the hardships.

With the help of a Steinway concert grand, Golabek seamlessly pieces together the narrative and music of her mother’s life.

Oversized gilded frames form the backdrop to a simple set consisting of gold-trimmed black steps and platforms that Golabek ascends and descends as she addresses the audience. These frames become screens on which Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal have skillfully projected historical scenes that underscore the narrative. Unfortunately, the projections are less clear from the back rows of the theatre.


The best vantage point for fully appreciating Gobalek’s piano renditions is definitely house center, where one can watch her fingers as they fly over the keys.

April 2, 2015

Blood, Sweat, Tears, Earth, Wind, Fire


Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
March 31, 2015
by Eric Sutter

Shifting rhythms and superb vocal dynamics combined to make this rock n' soul extravaganza kick out joyous and positive musical exuberance backed by the grand Springfield Symphony Orchestra. A star of the evening was the brass section, which performed back up to every number from ballads to mid-tempo rock excursions to complex jazz/funk workouts with room enough for numerous solos.

Conductor Mitch Tyler proved magnificent as he led the orchestra in the classic Chicago hit "Beginnings" with vocalist Jean Meilleur and Sunderland, MA trumpeter Jeff Homes. David Blamires shifted to lead vocalist for Earth, Wind & Fire's hit singles "September," "Let's Groove" and "Sing A Song." Incidentally, Blamires' jazzy soulful vocals were featured when he was a member of the Pat Metheny Group from 1986-1997.

 Meilleur hit his high mark with BST's heavy brass gospel rock "And When I Die," accompanied by some fancy bowing on the violin by concertmaster and first violinist Masako Yanagita. Chicago's 1970 hit "Make Me Smile" closed the first half of the concert with a crescendo of strings, woodwinds, percussion and brass.

 Blood, Sweat & Tears "Spinning Wheel" lit up the ready audience for part two. Vocalists Stephanie Ann Martin and Kathryn Rose showed off their skills on Chicago's ballad "If You Leave Me Now," creating beautiful female harmony. Blamires funked out to "Got to Get You into My Life" with smooth horn accents. "Boogie Wonderland" upped the fun with disco sound for dance enthusiasts. The poignant Chicago ballad "Color My World" soothed the audience with its memorable piano solo introduction by John Regan and flute solo by Albert Brower. The Grammy winner "After the Love is Gone" kept the good vibe.

A dynamic battle ensued in Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4" between first violinist Yanagita and the "Jeans n' Classics" band guitarist Peter Brennan -- it was a draw! The closer was the traditional "God Bless The Child" with nice sustained notes. The band yielded to horns galore blowing encore of the spirited funk of "Shining Star" to end the Pops season with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.

March 16, 2015

Saint-Saens & Brahms

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
March 12-15, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

How often does a guest conductor not only lead the world premiere of a new piece of music, but dedicate it to the orchestra performing it, and write the piece himself? Not very often, but that’s exactly what happened when Gerard Schwarz opened the sixth concert of this season’s HSO Masterworks series by leading the orchestra in his own “Symphonic Poem No. 1,” dedicated to them and their Music Director Carolyn Kuan.

According to the composer’s program note, the ten-minute piece “uses two themes…one is a slow melody in a…romantic style and the second is more agitated and angular.” Strings and brass were most prominently featured, but all sections of the orchestra proved their mettle in a taut performance that highlighted both the drama of the score and the mutual respect and affection between the musicians and the composer/conductor.  

Another personal connection was the conductor’s son Julian Schwarz, the soloist in a fiery account of Saint-Saens’s first cello concerto. This brief (twenty minutes) but virtuosic showpiece also marked the 23-year-old cellist’s orchestral debut at age 11 with his father conducting the Seattle Symphony, of which he was then music director; they later also recorded the piece. Their long affinity for it elicited a performance showcasing Julian’s technical proficiency, his interpretive maturity, and the orchestra’s vibrant playing. Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard “Pezzo Capriccioso” for cello and orchestra was a delightful encore.

Brahms’s second symphony is usually presented as the lightest of his four symphonies, but Maestro Schwarz’s dynamic baton also found in it some of the passion and power of the first and even the tragic grandeur of the fourth. In the opening “Allegro,” the quiet melancholy of the main theme led into a more urgent than usual climax; the pensive slow “Adagio” was disturbed by troubling thoughts; both trios in the livelier “Allegretto” were uncommonly perky; and the “Allegro” finale was an unabashedly joyful romp. This gentle piece has rarely sounded so hefty and dramatic. 


This is the second Schwarz family concert with the HSO in three years, and this winning program inspires hope that it won’t be the last.