Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 27, 2014

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 23, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

The concluding Tanglewood weekend featured one of the splashiest programs of the entire 2014 season. It opened with Berlioz’ “Roman Carnival” Overture, closed with all three symphonic poems in Respighi’s Roman Trilogy, and even Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” which preceded intermission, was connected to Rome by Paganini’s several brief periods of residence in the Eternal City.

Frequent Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) guest conductor Charles Dutoit got the program off to a lively start with an exuberant account of the tuneful Overture. Steeped in the French tradition, the orchestra and their leader indulged this colorful score’s every opportunity for instrumental display, but always with elegance and taste.  

Charles Dutoit
Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein then took the stage to deliver a knockout performance of the Rhapsody. Gerstein’s youthful experience as a jazz pianist may have inspired his freer than usual approach to the notes, but it nicely reflected both Paganini’s style of virtuosic showmanship as a violinist and Rachmaninoff’s as a pianist. Dutoit and the BSO were in total rapport with their soloist, from the music’s witty quotations of the “Dies Irae” plainchant to the soaring lyricism of the famous eighteenth variation.

The second half of the concert was devoted to a rare and spectacular rendition of Respighi’s iconic cycle of tributes to the city he loved. Dutoit programmed the individual pieces not in their order of composition but for maximum dramatic impact: first, the garish but glitzy Roman Festivals; next, the haunting and poetic Fountains of Rome; and, finally, the towering, majestic Pines of Rome.

Detoit led his musicians almost without pause, remaining onstage until the end, thus emphasizing their unity of spirit and sound. Dutoit has an instinctive feeling for this flashy repertoire, and the huge orchestra -- including multiple keyboards, an enlarged brass choir downstage right, and an offstage trumpet -- expressed its varied colors with unfailing technical command and surprising emotional depth. 

The imaginative and intelligent programming by maestro Dutoit of this and the next afternoon’s season-ending Beethoven program (why aren’t the kindred Choral Fantasy and Ninth Symphony paired more often?) only enhances the joy of hearing music in world-class performances at this uniquely appealing venue.

Jonny Lang/Runaway Saints

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
August 21, 2014
by Eric Sutter

Denim-clad alt-country band Runaway Saints debuted their sound at Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center to an enthusiastic response. These Nashville, by way of Providence, RI, songsters sang about loves lost, found, and shared in an acoustic folk-rock/country format. The band opened with the love song "Caroline." Stand-outs in the course of the evening included "Loretta Lynn," about missing her voice on the radio; "California's Girl," about losing a woman to the Golden State, and a rave-up rootsy rock song "We Got Love" with mandolin, guitar and banjo. "Headed Home" carried it full circle to their next day's gig back home in Pawtucket.

This stop at Mahaiwe was important because it was the last venue on their current tour to feature Jonny Lang. Jonny Lang's new century sound is a slight departure from his 1997 debut blues-rock style. Part blues-rocker and soul singer, his approach added a sweeter soul sound to his vocal. Always edgy and passionate, Lang projected a strong stage presence with tribal inspired rhythms that resonated in the soul. The scorcher "Blew Up (the House)" was electric. "Freight Train" was powered by his frenzied lead electric guitar delivery. The Tinsley Ellis cover, "A Quitter Never Wins," harkened back to the debut album "Lie To Me."

The title cut of Lang's 2007 Grammy winner, "Turn Around," expressed turning life around in its lyrics. Rhythm guitarist Akil Thompson turned out a great solo on "Red Light." Lang showcased nice guitar tone throughout. Stand-out funky keyboardist Dwan Hill also hit the mic on Stevie Wonder's "Livin' For The City.” Lang found his true voice on his own "Fight For My Soul" from his first studio album. This time around, a fresh, crisp joyful sound filled the hall with spirited passion. Connecting effortlessly with the audience, Lang performed  "Wander This World." His encore was the familiar "Lie To Me" featuring a subtle acoustic guitar with a break-in by his blues band in a full tilt finale. Right on!

August 22, 2014

Bard Music Festival

Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
August 8-17, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

Over two weekends every August for the past 25 years, the Bard Music Festival has focused on a single composer, along with predecessors, contemporaries, and successors who influenced or were influenced by that composer. What distinguishes Bard from other music festivals is the annual publication by Princeton University Press of an accompanying book with essays contributed by scholars who also participate as speakers and panelists at festival programs.

The 2014 festival, “Schubert and His World,” presented 14 concerts, two panel discussions, and several film showings. Most evening concerts featured orchestral music played by members of the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bard President and ASO Music Director Leon Botstein in the acoustically excellent 900-seat Sosnoff Theater of the distinctive Richard B. Fisher Center designed in 2003 by Frank Gehry. Daytime concerts offered mainly chamber and instrumental works in the 200-seat Olin Humanities Building auditorium, where the panels were also held.  

The highlight of weekend #2 was a concert presentation of Schubert’s rarely performed 1823 opera “Fierrabras,” whose title character, a brave and selfless Moorish knight, survives political conflict at the hands of Charlemagne and a romantic rivalry for his daughter. The gorgeous music, trimmed from its original “heavenly length” to just over three hours, was thrillingly rendered by Botstein and his forces. All the vocal soloists were good, but tenor Joseph Kaiser brought special conviction and beauty of sound to the title role.   

Another festival highlight was a “Schubertiade,” or “evening of music making and socializing with friends,” genially hosted by pianist Piers Lane as Schubert’s friend and host of many Schubertiades, Josef von Spaun. Lane not only introduced a revolving cast of singers and instrumentalists but made amusing and informative comments on the music, some of which he also played at the keyboard. His titanic account of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A Major, D959, in a different concert was particularly moving.

Other performances of special distinction were a sensitive unabridged reading of Schubert’s second Piano Trio by the young Horszowski Trio, and the ASO’s lively playing of Luciano Berio’s imaginative Rendering, a post-modern “restoration” of another “unfinished” Schubert symphony. Among the many singers who performed, baritone Andrew Garland and mezzo-soprano Teresa Buchholz were standouts. But the protean Bard Festival Chorale under James Bagwell seemed especially tireless and omnipresent.

With a packed schedule at the festival, time to visit such nearby attractions as the historic town of Rhinebeck and the homes of Hudson River School artists Thomas Cole and Frederic Church is often scarce, but the natural beauty of the Hudson Valley is its own reward.

August 19, 2014

A Hatful of Rain

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through August 30, 2014
by Walt Haggerty

Photo by Emily Faulkner
How could a play first produced in the 1950's be as timely, riveting and shocking today as when launched - perhaps even more so?

The focus of Michael V. Gazzo’s flawlessly written “A Hatful of Rain,” as produced by Berkshire Theatre Group, is on Johnny Pope, a veteran who has become a drug addict, initially because of medication prescribed during his recovery from wounds received during the Korean War.

The role of Johnny Pope, as unforgettably portrayed by Tommy Scheider, travels a tortuous path of taut desperation, loss and ultimately, hope. As Johnny’s pregnant wife Celia, Megan Ketch is equally brilliant in her confusion and frustration, attempting to learn what has happened to her husband and their marriage.

Greg Keller, as Johnny’s brother Polo, is outstanding as the brother who always has to settle for second place, but is always there to comfort, support and rescue other family members. Stephen Mandilo, as the mostly absent father, gives vent to his disapproval by blaming Polo for Johnny’s desperate situation, without ever accepting, or even recognizing, his own failures.

The trio of menacing drug dealers deliver portrayals of consummate evil in action: Triney Sandoval, ironically identified as “Mother;” the kingpin, Chris Bannow, as “Apples;” and Cornelius Davidson, as “Chuch." Their participation at times provides flashes of sardonic humor as well as terror. Davidson’s role, as a mistreated African-American and reluctant participant, is the most sympathetic. “Mother” specializes in terrorizing, while Bannow’s “Apples” is frighteningly bizarre. In a scene showing the group, accompanied by an out-of-control Michelle McGregor, as Putski, all are in “high” humor until terror comes dangerously close to boiling over.

The fine-tuned, meticulous direction of Greg Naughton deserves much of the credit for this exceptional revival of what should deservedly rank as one of the peaks of this theatre season. The Berkshire Theatre Group must be commended for bringing this amazing production to the region. Hopefully, future audiences will fill the theatre, which was regrettably well below capacity on opening night. This cast demands "Standing Room Only” attendance, and those who do attend will be greatly rewarded.

August 18, 2014

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA
through September 14, 2014
by Jarice Hanson

Though the title may reference Chekhov, there is only a wink and a nod to his work in Christopher Durang’s comic treatment of the master’s works. Add the skill of a talented director (Matthew Penn) and a stellar cast, and this production will have future audiences giggling and guffawing at squabbling siblings, pop culture, repressed desire, and libidinous lust. This show leaves no doubt as to why Durang won the 2013 Tony for Best Play with this gem.

In the Shakespeare & Co. production, director Penn has used his knowledge of how to interpret the work in an intimate setting, emphasizing the tensions between characters while allowing the audience to participate as voyeurs. An actor’s director, he trusts his actors’ instincts while giving them original bits to allow each one to shine in their own special way. The director’s note in the program states, “This play’s popularity is a credit to Durang’s wonderful ability to make theatrical moments simultaneously funny and touching…” Definite agreement here. Yes, the material is wonderful, and yes, the director has an expert touch, but in this case, each member of the ensemble deserves to take a bow for creating such memorable performances.

Vanya (Jim Frangione) is a cerebral, repressed 50-something man who lives with his despairing adopted sister, Sonia (Tod Randolph) in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Masha (Elizabeth Aspenlieder), their movie star sister “adored by many and loved by few,” comes for a visit with her sexy boy-toy (Mat Leonard). Newcomers Angel Moore as Cassandra the fortune-telling, voodoo practicing cleaning lady, and Olivia Saccomanno  as Nina, the innocent young neighbor, add wonderful layers of comedy and sweetness to advance the story. This talented ensemble take their audience on a hilarious, but heart-felt journey as each character comes to terms with who they are, and what they mean to each other.

This play is currently being produced in theatres around the country, and undoubtedly will be produced for years. Kudos to Shakespeare and Company for presenting such a memorable production, and for capping off their summer season with heart and warmth.

Dancing Lessons

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through August 24, 2014
by Jarice Hanson

The standing ovation for the world premiere of Mark St. Germain’s "Dancing Lessons" was well deserved. Yet, upon leaving the theatre, overheard was a wide range of comments by patrons that expressed divergent views on what worked in the production and what didn’t. There is a lot to like in this new work. John Cariani is quirky and compelling as a professor with Asperger’s Syndrome.  His charm and honesty provides much of the heart of the story. Paige Davis as an injured dancer clearly expresses frustration and anger as she faces a future she can’t control. 

Director Julianne Boyd weaves contemporary music into the fabric of the story to create a metaphorical dance of two people as they get to know and trust each other. One of the major challenges for a work dealing with autism is how to impart the peculiarities of the neurological condition to the public, and in this production, the writer, director, and actors are most effective when autism is shown, rather than described.

There are moments of brilliance in the script, but the play suffers from trying to cover too much territory. Short, staccato bursts of dialog at the beginning of the show are intended to set a pace, but they fail to establish a rapport with the audience. At times, information on autism becomes didactic, and a litany of names of famous people who may have been autistic seems unnecessary to establish the fact that autistic individuals can be brilliant. Clues to the dancer’s back-story are delivered through phone messages from someone who sounds like a character from "The Prairie Home Companion." Surprisingly, the ending, though not particularly original, works well and leaves the audience with a message of hope for these two individuals trapped in worlds they can’t control.

"Dancing Lessons" is appropriately titled, and the characters’ relationship creates a compelling story that touches our humanity and is ultimately moving. If some of the “extra information” embedded in the script were eliminated or downplayed, the basic questions of what we as individuals control, and what circumstances in our lives we would change if we could, are strong enough for the story to stand alone. As a new work, "Dancing Lessons" may not be perfect, but this production shows great potential for a script that will be produced often, and will touch many.

August 14, 2014

Glimmerglass Festival

Glimmerglass Festival, Cooperstown, NY
July 11- August 24, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

Alice Busch Opera Theater
Glimmerglass’ 2014 season presents three “beloved audience favorites after each underwent several revisions” and a revised version of a recent premier. All four productions can be seen in one weekend during August in the ideal acoustics of the 900-seat Alice Busch Opera Theater.

The newest piece is Tobias Picker’s opera “An American Tragedy,” based on Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, commissioned and first presented by the Metropolitan Opera in 2005. Dreiser added a wealthy love interest (Sondra Finchley) to the real-life story of Chester Gillette (Clyde Griffiths in the novel and opera), a poor factory worker in upstate New York with no assets but his good looks, who was convicted of murdering his pregnant lover Grace Brown (Roberta Alden) in 1906 and executed in 1908.

The shorter revision heightens the personal drama of the three principals but loses some of Dreiser’s broader focus on class. Most of the cast are current or past members of Glimmerglass’s impressive young artists program. Baritone Christian Bowers was a suave and callous heartthrob as Clyde, while soprano Vanessa Isiguen was a poignant Roberta and mezzo-soprano Cynthia Cook an aristocratic Sondra. Veteran opera conductor George Manahan led an incisive account.

Like “Tragedy,” Francesca Zambello’s delightful production of Strauss’s “Ariadne in Naxos” was reset from central Europe to a barn in upstate New York, where a burlesque troop and an opera company must provide simultaneous dinner entertainment. Featuring local children and farm animals, the cast was headlined by soprano and 2014 artist in residence Christine Goerke, who was a hilarious Prima Donna and a ravishing Ariadne. Soprano Rachele Gilmore was lively and moving as burlesque queen Zerbinetta, and Kathleen Kelly conducted a vibrant rendition.

But Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” offered the breakout performance of the season in soprano Yunah Lee’s elegant, heartrending portrayal of Cio-Cio-San. Young artist mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi was a compelling Suzuki, and tenor Dinyar Vania as Pinkerton and baritone Aleksey Bogdanov were other cast standouts. The leadership of Festival music director Joseph Colaneri and the stark sets by Michael Yeargan were cathartically effective.

A dark and dramatic production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” (which conductor Doug Peck notes that Rodgers instructed his orchestrators to “treat as his own Puccini opera”) completed the Festival line-up. Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, last year’s riveting Flying Dutchman, was an equally riveting Billy Bigelow, with a strong Julie Jordan from soprano Andrea Carroll and a brilliant Carrie Pipperidge from young artist soprano Sharin Apostolou.

Such nearby attractions as the Baseball Hall of Fame, scenic Otsego Lake, and the Fenimore Art Museum, this summer featuring tie-in exhibitions on Madame Butterfly’s Japan and the Gillette/Brown case, offer worthwhile diversions from the ample Glimmerglass schedule.