Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 14, 2018

SSO: Vivaldi Four Seasons

Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
February 10, 2018
by Shera Cohen

Many years ago, when eager to find a dance critic for Bravo Newspaper, two prominent dancers told me, “Just write the review yourself.” I didn’t feel comfortable doing what they suggested, considering that my knowledge of dance is somewhat limited to only what I like. “That’s exactly what we are saying,” repeated the dancers. “Say what you like, and you have a review.”

Classical music, for me, falls in the similar category of not knowing the subject matter very well. Admittedly, my understanding of music far exceeds that of dance. Yet, I can’t quite define words like fortissimo, and others with Latin roots. That said, this “review” is one for people who like, even love, music but are by no means an expert. I am guessing that this is a large group who made up the near-full house at Symphony Hall last evening.

Caroline Goulding
My guess that the primary reason for the near-full house at Symphony Hall was the performance of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” Many of us have heard segments of this popular classical music. However, the SSO and solo violinist Caroline Goulding had their work cut out for them, playing all four movements in full. Goulding stood for the program, instrument in hand, looking at her sheet music on the stand in front of her, literally putting her entire body into the concert. This petite young woman brought each season to her audience with unexpected power.

As much as Vivaldi was the “draw,” Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Op. 92 was so mesmerizing that, frankly, I forgot to take my usual review notes. Occasionally closing my eyes brought the piece even closer to my soul. I was unfamiliar with this particular Beethoven work. Yes, I liked it. I loved it.

Some other notes on my symphony experience…

Venue – Symphony Hall is the acoustically and aesthetically premiere venue in the Pioneer Valley. If you’ve never visited, take a short walk-about at an SSO concert, especially to the second floor Mahogany Room.

Text Messages – A new element for some audience members to enhance their symphony experience are tidbits of information displayed on Iphones simultaneous with the notes performed on the stage. Not being technologically savvy, I did not participate, but many did.

Program Book – It’s chockfull of information on the selections, soloists, conductor, and composers. No worries, a “Jeopardy” quiz will not follow. However, given some insight adds to the enjoyment and understanding of the classical music.

Apparel – Remember the years when it was mandatory to wear your best duds to the symphony and similar cultural happenings? While I think it’s lovely to dress up to add a bit of elegance to your evening, the dress code has changed.  I don’t recommend cut-off holes in the knees jeans, but just about anything comfortable goes.

Advice to the novice classical music listeners – several SSO concerts remain in its 2017/18 season. Check their website, then check them out.

Sister Act-The Musical

The Opera House Players, Broadbrook, CT
through February 25, 2018
by Rebecca Phelps

Hats off to The Opera House Players as they celebrate their 50th anniversary of producing and performing quality and affordable musical theatre in northern and central Connecticut.  Although sad to leave their home of the past 15 years in the historic Broad Brook Opera House, they plan on returning to their original location in Enfield, CT next season and continue their mission. For all its quirkiness and theatrical challenges (virtually no wing space, no access to backstage without passing through the audience, no orchestra pit) the Opera House is homey, comfortable, rife with charm and historic interest, and there is not a bad seat in the house.

The show “Sister Act,” is not to be confused with the movie of the same name. The musical has a completely different score. The songs are much more Broadway and less Hollywood, with no shortage of rousing numbers, just made for harmonizing and choreographic opportunities for women in habits.

Depending entirely on its actor/singers to carry the energy and character development, there are minimal sets or technical aspects. With a somewhat slow start, the musical picked up speed, and by the finale the audience was on their feet with enthusiasm and appreciation for the obvious energy, fun and talent displayed by the cast and this heart-warming tale of forgiveness and redemption.

Especially notable were Mother Superior, played to a the hilt by newcomer to Opera House Players Jenna Levitt; and Tracy Funke as Sister Mary Patrick -- a real scene stealer with her high energy and exuberant dancing. Dennis J. Scott portrayed the perfect villain and his side kicks made equally entertaining back-up singer/dancers. Jim Metzler was hilarious as the deadpan Monsignor; and as Deloris, Nikita Waller’s vocals were fabulous, sensitive and not overplayed. The skillful five-piece pit band lead by Kim Aliczi did a stupendous job of providing all the high powered momentum without drowning out the performers.

“Sister Act” was an evening of pure, unadulterated fun.

February 3, 2018

SSO: Mozart Piano Concerto

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
January 20, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

For the fourth concert in the SSO’s 74th season and his own 17th season as their music director, Kevin Rhodes notes in his “Rhodes’ Reflections” column in the program book, he chose three musical pieces whose “power, drama, and turbulence” reflect the revolutionary politics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in which they were written by the three greatest composers of the day.

Haydn’s symphonies and string quartets are staples of the classical repertoire, but his twenty-plus operas are almost never performed. So it was a rare pleasure to hear as the evening’s opener the overture to his opera “The Desert Island,” in which two sisters are stranded for 13 years on a deserted island before they’re rescued. The brief but tempestuous score received an aptly dramatic reading from Rhodes and the SSO.

Diane Walsh
Seasoned American pianist Diane Walsh next made her SSO debut in Mozart’s tumultuous twentieth piano concerto. She echoed the almost frightening power of the orchestral introduction with the force of her opening solo in the “Allegro” first movement, then rendered the contrasting radiance of the “Romance” with lyrical breadth, and the dark energy of the closing “Rondo” with brilliant urgency. The stunned audience rose to its feet in appreciation not only of Walsh’s virtuosity but for the equally impassioned playing of the SSO and leadership of Rhodes.     

The program closed after intermission with a visceral account of Beethoven’s third, or “Eroica” (Heroic), symphony, revolutionary for its new harmonies and unprecedented scale (twice as long as most earlier symphonies). From the brisk opening notes through the somber “Funeral March,” the scintillating scherzo, to the triumphant theme and variations of the finale, Rhodes and the orchestra inflected the music with shifting but always forward moving tempos that hammered home the still shattering impact of this two-hundred-year-old masterpiece. 

In a tradition continued from the start of this season, Rhodes announced that audience members in the balcony could again receive “real time notes” about the Eroica on their cell phones while the music played. The large number of young people present seemed delighted.

HSO: A Scottish Fantasy

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
January 19–21, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

For the fourth “Masterworks series” program of the HSO’s 74th season, guest conductor Stefan Sanderling took his listeners on a musical journey through Scotland.

The concert opened with “An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise,” which the Boston Pops commissioned Sir Peter Maxwell Davies to write in 1985. Born in Manchester, England, Davies had lived in the Scottish Orkney Islands since 1970, and after depicting a local wedding and its drunken aftermath, this 13-minute piece concludes with the next day’s sunrise, “denoted,” in Davies’ words, “by the entry of the bagpipe.” Kilt-clad Manchester (CT)-based piper Mike MacNintch processed dramatically from the rear of the Bushnell’s Belding Theater to the stage, and the delighted audience rewarded him, the HSO, and Sanderling with a standing ovation for their vivid performance of this colorful score.

Gareth Johnson
The evening’s second soloist, violinist Gareth Johnson, was next featured in a riveting account of Bruch’s 1880 “Scottish Fantasy,” whose four movements quote several Scottish folk songs. With technical flair and an interpretive maturity beyond his thirty-two years, the accomplished soloist captured all the piece’s varied moods, from the poignancy of the opening “Prelude,” the buoyancy of the surging “Allegro,” the ardor of the lyrical “Andante Sostenuto,” to the bracing grandeur of the “Finale.” HSO principal harpist Julie Spring excelled in her featured role, while orchestra and conductor provided exemplary support.

Intermission was followed by a thrilling rendition of Mendelssohn’s third symphony, inspired by his 1829 visit to Scotland and nicknamed the “Scottish” symphony by the composer himself, who quotes not a single folk tune in its four movements, which are played without pause. From the brooding opening and stormy development of the “Andante…Allegro,” to the exuberant high spirits of the “Vivace,” the sublime rapture of the “Adagio,” and the lively excitement, then majesty of the finale, Sanderling drew passionate, committed playing from all sections of the ensemble.

Son of the late legendary conductor Kurt Sanderling, whose gravitas he mixed with a lighter touch, Stefan Sanderling made a distinguished HSO debut with this program and, from the audience’s warm reception, he would be welcome to return anytime.

February 1, 2018

Something Rotten!

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through February 4, 2018
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Imagine Shakespeare with punky dyed hair, ever-so tight black leather pants, shirt open to the naval who could pass as Sting’s identical twin. He is one of the 30 or so characters in the hilariously funny “Something’s Rotten” […as “in the state of Denmark”]. The title is an instant clue that, to some degree, “Hamlet” will be significant. But, you say, I don’t like Shakespeare, don’t understand it, haven’t read a play since high school, and left my Cliff Notes at home. Not to worry. Playgoers familiar with The Bard have a slight edge up on appreciating “Rotten,” however, the humor is accessible to everyone. It also helps to be a Broadway buff.

Written by brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, their story’s leads are brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom, poor wannabe playwright contemporaries of Shakespeare. While the latter is #1 on the Best Seller list, Nick & Nigel have yet to even make the bottom of the list. “Rotten” is their journey from obscurity to continued obscurity. Sounds like a downer. Ah, but there’s the rub – this show is the exact opposite. In fact, it is one of the most sidesplitting musicals I’ve seen. The N&N duo are so na├»ve and sweet at the center of the saga, while most of the uproarious comedy surrounds them.

Rob McClure (Nick), Josh Grisetti (Nigel), and Adam Pascal (Shakespeare) star. McClure is a slight man with a loud voice whose character has big hopes. We love him. Grisetti plays nerdy to perfection. It’s not until Act II that the audience is given the opportunity to hear his magnificent tenor voice. Pascal portrays pompous with a capital “P.” His lines and lyrics are so fast that you might have to strain your ears a bit to catch up with his words, but it’s worth the effort. Pascal’s “Hard to Be the Bard” is my favorite.

“Rotten” is a rare musical. Just when you think you’ve seen the absolute funniest section of a song/dance number and you think the piece can’t possibly be better, it tops itself. “A Musical,” the show-stopper in Act I, and “Make an Omelette,” the Act II show-stopper are perfect examples. “Rotten” is jam-packed with hummable songs (ballads, country, gospel, and lots of rock), rapid-fire tap-dancing (the dance-off between Nick and Shakespeare is a hoot), colorful period costumes, and musician quartet (sounding like a full orchestra).

Kudos to the Bushnell on its opening night full house for a relatively new musical.

January 29, 2018


TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
through February 18
by Jarice Hanson

Director Rob Ruggiero has crafted an intimate look at personal relationships in the fascinating “Constellations” currently playing at Hartford’s TheaterWorks.

Upon entering the theater, composer-musician Billy Bivona is playing electric guitar, creating music that compliments and underscores the shifts of emotion and energy generated on the bare circular arena stage.  A bright circle of light above the stage dims and the theater ceiling explodes with light, giving the illusion of the cosmos.  From the moment the actors begin to speak, you know this 75 minute one-act is going to be unique.

Photo by Lanny Nagler
Allison Pistorius (Marianne) is a Cambridge University theoretical physicist who explains many of the themes of the show that bridge the worlds of theoretical and quantum physics by translating them into questions of free will versus destiny and fate.  M. Scott McLean (Roland) is a beekeeper who expounds on the lifecycle of the bee and the specialization that is integral to the maintenance of hive life.  These two gifted actors guide us through the multiverse—the hypothetical set of possibilities that make up what we, the audience, recognize as love, loss, mortality, and possibility.

Don’t let the scientific jargon fool you.  This play focuses on how we make decisions and live with the consequences. The play is described as a romance, but the rapid fire dialogue draws the audience to these characters in an almost dizzying fashion.  We become a part of their universe, and in so doing, explore why we exist and the existential dilemma of finding our purpose in a world that will go on without us, whether we want to admit it or not. 

The brilliantly crafted script is by Nick Payne, a British playwright who won the London Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Play in 2012 with “Constellations.” As I watched, I felt that it was part scripted play, and part performance art.  Bivona’s ethereal electric guitar music (a brilliant addition by Ruggiero) so tunes us into our senses, the words and gestures of the actors become extensions of our sense of self.  This intelligent, accessible portrayal of a romantic relationship is what romance is all bout—the transformation of what we say into what we can feel.

January 15, 2018

Steel Magnolias

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
through Jan. 28, 2018
by Stuart Gamble

Photo by Curt Henderson
Probably I’m one of the few people who has not seen the entire 1989 film version of “Steel Magnolias” (I have seen PART of it though), so Playhouse on Park’s current production of Robert Harling’s comic gem was a totally new experience. This all-female show perfectly defines ensemble piece, allowing each actress to display her comic, and dramatic skills.

Set in the fictional town of Chinquapin, Louisiana in the 1980’s, the audience first meets Truvy Jones (Jill Taylor Anthony), owner of the hair salon where the play’s entire action takes place. Annelle Dupuy (Liza Couser) is Truvy’s nervous new assistant. Frequent customer Clairee Belcher (Dorothy Stanley) is Chinquapin’s former First Lady and high school football aficionado. Soon-to-be bride Shelby Eatenton (Susan Slotoroff) and her controlling mother M’Lynn (Jeannie Hines) are being coiffed on Shelby’s big day. Last, and certainly not least, is Ousier Boudreaux (Peggy Cosgrave), the most sharp-tongued of these Southern Belles.

The women in this production are all first-rate and full of charm and elegance. The play’s focal-point is the mother/daughter conflict between Shelby and M’Lynn. Susan Slotoroff’s Shelby is the play’s lifeline, whose radiant smile and positive view of life shines brightly on all. Jeannie Hines’ M’Lynn’s understated calm has its cathartic release in her moving monologue in the final scene. Liza Couser’s pitiable Annelle  achieves a fine balance between humor and pathos. Jill Taylor Anthony is a warm, serene Earth Mother among the drama that blooms around her. Peggy Cosgrave’s prickly, yet ultimately compassionate, Ousier spouts some of the play’s funniest lines including, “I’ve been in a bad mood for forty years!” Despite delivering some witty lines, actress Dorothy Stanley’s timing is a bit off, causing the show’s pace to slow down ever so slightly.

Director Susan Haefner has created a bright and delightfully funny show for all to enjoy. David Lewis’ scenic design highlights this warmth and realism in the beauty salon through the use of period driers, hairspray cans, and actual hair strewn over the stage. Kate Bunce’s colorful costumes add to the ambience of the 80’s. The show’s Dialect Coach David Alan Stern merits special attention for not only coaching these Steel Magnolias, but also the film’s stars as well (his website is listed in the show’s program).