Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 29, 2015

Tanglewood: Selected Concerts, Part 2

Festival of Contemporary Music
Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 20-27, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

Besides the distinctions noted in the first installment of this three-part series, Tanglewood also features a week-long Festival of Contemporary Music that explores “new” music in more depth than most other summer music festivals do. The 75th anniversary of the Tanglewood Music Center, whose students perform most of the Festival repertoire, lends it a special resonance in 2015. Called fellows during their TMC summer residencies, many of these emerging musicians perform in two or more concerts per day, but always at the highest level of professional skill.

This year’s opening FCM program presented music by five former TMC fellows, and three of the four living composers were present to take a bow after their piece was performed. A TMC- commissioned arrangement for violin and strings by Einojuhani Rautavaara of his violin-and-piano piece “Lost Landscapes: Tanglewood” featured recent TMC fellow Samantha Bennett in an affecting performance. TMC faculty member Emanuel Ax was the exuberant soloist in Robert Zuidam’s colorful “Tanglewood Concerto” for piano and orchestra.

Another program featured pieces by six former TMC fellows, several of whom spoke after intermission about their works. Michael Gandolfi’s entertaining “Carroll in Wonderland” showcased soprano Dawn Upshaw (who also more or less conducted the piece) and three TMC vocal fellows in a delightful “mashup” (the composer’s word) of nonsense verse by Lewis Carroll. The other popular hit on this program was TMC fellow mezzo-soprano Kristin Gornstein’s virtuosic account of a clever original text by Steven Mackey in his “Madrigal” for female voice and percussion quartet.

Michael Tilson Thomas
The blockbuster FCM event was the closing concert, lovingly hosted by rock star conductor, TMC alum, and former Boston Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony since 1995. MTT led brilliant accounts of short but challenging pieces by three of his own Tanglewood mentors in the first half of the program: Leonard Bernstein; Lukas Foss; and Aaron Copland. He introduced the second half -  Charles Ives’s astonishing “New England Holidays” symphony, a work he has championed and recorded – with several of the now unfamiliar hymns that Ives quotes in the last movement sung with spirited assurance by the high-school-aged Boston University Tanglewood Institute Chorus.

Reading from Ives’s own descriptive notes before each movement, he conducted only the first movement himself, while two TMC conducting fellows – Marzena Diakun from Poland, and Ruth Reinhardt from Germany - and a guest conductor led the last three movements. While all three were impressive, Christian Reif, a young German-born assistant conductor with MTT’s New World Symphony, exuded the special charisma of a star in the making as he led the orchestra and chorus in a mesmerizing account of the final “Thanksgiving” movement.

The last installment of this three-part series will appear next week.

July 27, 2015

Paradise Blue

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through Aug. 2, 2015
By Bernadette Johnson

It’s 1949, the place, Blackbottom, a densely-populated Detroit neighborhood where African-American-owned businesses, nightclubs and theaters, which had experienced a growth-spurt in the ’30s and ’40s, are beginning to feel the encroachment of urban renewal. The once-vibrant music scene faces extinction. Blue, the owner of Paradise and trumpet lead in the club’s band has lost “soul” and is ready to sell out. Standing in the wings ready to save the club and its legacy are percussionist P-Sam and a newcomer to the scene, the sultry Silver (De’Adre Aziza).

Neil Patel’s moody set is a partitioned club/bedroom with freestanding doorways and lighting by Rui Rita directing attention from one space to the other.

Initially, the production lacks a bit of momentum as P-Sam (Andre Holland) and pianist Corn (Keith Randolph Smith) discuss the club’s shaky future and Blue’s seeming indifference, and Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd), barmaid/cook/Blue’s girl, later tagged a “go-along girl”, and “prissy little thing,” recites memorized poetry.

Blair Underwood (Blue) leaves no doubt that his character feels the “demons closing in.” Underwood is a strong presence with a determined stride and troubled manner. His anger and frustration are genuine, especially when he picks up his blues horn, and struggles with reaching the pure notes that elude him. He lashes out at everyone, his rage comes to a climax in a fight scene with Holland and Randolph Smith (great direction by Thomas Schall).

Aziza is sultry and seductive as the enigmatic Silver, who leaves Corn and P-Sam mystified and entranced, Blue suspicious, and Pumpkin scandalized but curious. Randolph Smith is wide-eyed and mesmerized in a delightful bedroom scene between him and the seductive Aziza. Lloyd’s performance is spot-on as Pumpkin comes out of her shell and finds her voice. Her discovery of a gun in Silver’s belongings sets the scene for an ultimate confrontation.

Dominique Morisseau’s “Paradise Blue,” the middle play in a three-part history-based series, laments the “slum clearance” that led to the destruction of the Blackbottom neighborhood and the Paradise Valley cultural district. Who were the victims in this saga? These were black musicians struggling to earn a living while yet saving their “soul.”

July 24, 2015

Sunday Tanglewood Lawn Afternoons

Tanglewood: Lenox, MA 
through August 23, 2015
By Mary Fernandez-Sierra

For some Tanglewood fans, sitting in the shelter of the comfortable shed is the best way to enjoy a concert. There are also those who long for lovely outdoor landscapes to match the music they hear…and who relish the feeling of symphonies wafting around them on the wind.

The lush greens lawns of Tanglewood and the trees gracefully shading everywhere provide such a sensuous setting. One has the choice of the loveliest seats of all, by setting up one’s own space (often picnic-style) on the lawn. It’s there that, for many, the music comes alive in the sweet sunshine and open air.

The Sunday afternoon program on July 19 featured two Mozart works: Symphony No. 35 in D, K.386 “Haffner;” and Symphony No. 36 in C, K.425 “Linz,” as well as Schumann’s Piano concerto in A minor, Opus 54. Sir Neville Marriner conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and it was a treat and a joy to be present.

Paul Lewis, playing the Schumann piano concerto, was the jewel in this lovely musical setting. Mr. Lewis stated in an interview that the concerto was like a love-letter from Schumann to his wife Clara. Judging by the hush as he played, and the tumultuous applause he received afterward, the listeners on the lawn (as well as those in the shed!) fell in love, too.

This particular concert was a true midsummer idyll; even the storm clouds, hovering on the outskirts of the Tanglewood skies throughout the afternoon, politely gave way, and did not intrude with rain until the concert was over.

Sunday concerts start at 2:30 pm; the gate opens at 12 noon. Arrive early to discover the best lawn places… and to enjoy the magic of a Sunday Tanglewood lawn afternoon.

Tanglewood: Selected Concerts, Part 1

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA 
June-July, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

A survey of four concerts at Tanglewood so far this season brings to mind at least two distinctions that set this summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra apart from many other music festivals: the diversity of its programming; and the wide age range of both its performers and its audience.

Before the official BSO season opened in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, for example, Keith Lockhart led his Boston Pops (which includes many BSO members) in a wide-ranging program entitled “Simply Sondheim” of mostly vocal selections by the greatest living composer/lyricist for the musical theater, Stephen Sondheim. Featured Broadway stars Kate Baldwin and Jason Danieley were both in glorious voice, but the six Tanglewood music fellows who joined them were equally impressive at the start of their promising careers. Special kudos go to baritone Davone Tines for his comic and dramatic turns respectively in “The Woman’s Mine” from “A Little Night Music” and “Losing My Mind” from “Follies.” The music thrived from the full symphonic treatment rarely accorded to Broadway scores.

In the more intimate Ozawa Hall, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players (nine BSO members) and pianist Randall Hodgkinson opened their concert with a 2014 BSO commission, “Why Old Places Matter,” for oboe, horn, and piano by 32-year-old former Tanglewood Music Center fellow Eric Nathan, who took a bow after the lively performance of this charming piece. The program concluded with sparkling accounts of Nielsen’s Quintet for Winds and a chamber arrangement of Brahms’ orchestral Serenade No. 1.

Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood
At “85 years young” (according to the program notes), legendary American pianist Leon Fleisher was the star of another Ozawa Hall concert, which also featured his wife and piano-duo partner Katherine Jacobson. After glowing accounts by Fleisher of short pieces by Bach and Debussy, the duo offered lovely four-hands renditions of Brahms’s first set of “Liebeslieder” Waltzes and Schubert’s Fantasy in F minor and closed with a shattering version of Ravel’s “La Valse.” It was heartening to see so many students in the audience whom Fleisher may have taught in his many years on the Tanglewood Music Center faculty.

But the biggest crowd so far at Ozawa Hall turned out for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, whose leader, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, was also a genial host. Their repertoire included both classics, like Wayne Shorter’s ballad “Contemplation” in a touching arrangement by LCJO saxophone player Ted Nash and original compositions by band members like trombonist Chris Crenshaw, who also joined fellow trombonist Vincent Gardner in showing off their vocal chops.

The second installment of this three-part series will appear next week.

July 22, 2015

Museums of the Berkshires

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue 
by Shera Cohen

A wedding checklist can also be useful in assessing the many museums of the Berkshires. Recently, I had the opportunity of a lengthy visit to four of these sites: Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MASS MoCA in North Adams, and Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. The members of this prestigious quartet are within a relatively short distance from each other. And, yes, at each a visitor will find somethings old (Berkshire Museum’s mummy), somethings new (MASS MoCA’s floor to ceiling contemporary art), somethings borrowed (Van Gogh pieces at Clark’s special exhibit), and something blue (just think of Norman Rockwell’s “Triple Self-Portrait” and you’ll recall that his shirt is a blue). Okay, the last is a bit of a stretch.

Berkshire Museum

Berkshire Museum
Every summer, this museum mounts a touring exhibit sure to wow. A past show that I adored was on frogs -- tiny multi-colored frogs. I don’t even like frogs. “Immortal Present: Art and East Asia” (through September 7th), spanning several galleries on the second floor with works by 20 contemporary artists, include paintings, photography, video, sculpture, screens, and mixed media. Needless to say, Asian art dates to 600 BC, so there is more to see than one would imagine, oftentimes the new replicating the old, side by side.

Yes, “Immortal Present” is the summer draw. However, equally impressive to me are the ongoing exhibits that bear repeated visits; i.e. Hall of Innovation (famous people and facts on Pittsfield), Objectify (a walk through the museum’s own collection of various genres), and the aquariums (just sit a while and enjoy, nothing more to say).

Clark Art Institute

In July, 2014, Clark’s completion of its huge renovation and addition opened the world to perhaps one of the top rated museums in the country. “Van Gogh and Nature” (through September 13th) features dozens of the masters’ works. While many (myself included) think of Van Gogh as a man whose paintings reflected his depression, to some degree, that is true. Yet, so many pieces in Clark’s exhibit are delightful and joyous -- as they are in nature. Some words to readers -- while a picture may be worth 1000  words, don’t ignore the text, usually written directly on exhibit walls. You will learn a great deal which will assuredly add to the experience of the exhibit tour.

Clark does not place the onus on their changing special exhibit to draw visitors. A walk through numerous maze-like halls and galleries, one can enjoy art by some of the most famous and greatest, particularly Impressionists; i.e. Manet, Renoir, Degas, Cassatt. Space for America’s best includes Homer and  Remington.


Nothing is small at MM except its name. Big is beautiful in the eye of the beholder -- or not always beautiful, but fun, weird, unique, curious. In the case of MM’s name exhibits was art in each category or combination of categories, depending on your tastes. All of the featured arts are still alive and working. Yes! Let’s support living and breathing talented men and women. Hmm, I was sidetracked. 

A visitor immediately walks into Clifford Ross’ Landscape Seen & Imagined, which is the most accessible exhibit in the building. A continuous loop video of colored glass moving throughout water was exquisite. It’s Super, Man (with scattered images of Dan Quayle,  remember him?) was in the bizarre category. Liz Deschenes’ huge geometric blocks sitting or floating in one gallery might fit under the heading of strange. My favorite was Jim Shaw’s Entertaining Doubts paintings and sculpture. Yes, definitely entertaining, simple, yet imaginative. I liked it, but I’m not sure why.

Norman Rockwell Museum

Photo by Sarah Edwards
Ever hear of the name Roz Chast? Me, either. Chast, however, should (or perhaps will) be as well-known as Charles Schultz. The current special exhibit, Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs, is a hoot, a laugh-out-loud look at contemporary cartoons -- single drawings, strips, full pages, and her entire book which happens to be a cartoon autobiography. Trust me, you have seen the award winning of this New Yorker cartoonist many times. You, again like me, just didn’t know her name. Rockwell Museum offers that opportunity, to learn and laugh at some of the best cartoon drawings and scripts of this era. The exhibit closes on October 26th.

Of course, there are numerous galleries full of Norman Rockwell’s own captivating, familiar, sometimes under-appreciated art; i.e. the permanent collection and the 323 Saturday Evening Post magazine covers. Perhaps more than any other museum in this country, visitors point to the paintings saying, “I know that one,” “I remember that,” or “I saw that magazine in the attic.”

Even in the Berkshires, the weather can be bad -- perhaps especially in the Berkshires in the summer. I can’t think of a better thing to do on rainy or sweltering hot days than visiting a museum. Besides the wonderful art, a plus is the AC.

Lost in Yonkers

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through August 1, 2015
by Jarice Hanson

Barrington Stage is rapidly becoming the place where audiences find intelligent interpretations of shows they may think they already know. Barrington’s production of "Lost in Yonkers" breathes new life into one of the most familiar of Neil Simon’s work.

Director Jenn Thompson has found the beauty of the original writing and has trusted an exceptional cast to deliver the heart and pain that portrays three generations of a family. This production makes the audience members realize what a craftsman Simon is, and how his words are timeless when actors fully commit to the script. Too often this playwright's works are delivered at rapid pace while actors reach for the laugh lines. But in this production the pacing is slower, and as a result, the lines have far more potency. What emerges is a sense of what family is, and what we most remember about our own family relationships.

Photo by Kevin Sprague
There’s not a single weak member of the cast, but special mention should be made of Lynn Cohen in her portrayal of Grandma Kurnitz, a mean spirited matriarch who “could tell if there was salt missing from a pretzel.” Paula Jon Derose as Bella captures the naiveté and awkwardness of a girl destined to always be child-like; and the boys, portrayed by Matt Gumley as Jay, and Jake Giordano as Arty, steal scenes and work together like veteran stage pros.

This "Lost in Yonkers" is deeper and more meaningful than any of the five (yes, five) previous productions this reviewer has seen, and it sets a new standard for finding life in older scripts that some have deemed “of their time.” Apparently, the audience agreed as they leaped to their feet in a standing ovation to honor the actors in this wonderful production. For those who don't necessarily enjoy Neil Simon, or think they can’t find something new in his work, they will not be disappointed by this loving offering of a classic tale from Barrington Stage.

Newport Music Festival

Newport, Rhode Island
July 10-26, 2015
by Michael J. Moran

If you tell someone you’re going to the Newport Music Festival, they’re likelier to assume you mean the folk or jazz festival in August than their less famous classical music sibling in July. But as it celebrates its 47th season, this venerable event also offers far more programming than its two counterparts, with 66 concerts of music from the Romantic Era and beyond presented by more than 100 performers from 17 countries in 12 venues over almost three weeks.

Opening weekend featured a stunning Newport debut in the Breakers by Finnish-born Metropolitan Opera soprano Soile Isokoski. Her silken tone, clear enunciation (in five languages), and nuanced acting skill conveyed a vast range of emotion in music by Grieg, Wagner, Strauss, Sibelius, and Bernstein. From the sweet yearning of Grieg’s “Solveig’s Song” to the haunting depths of Wagner’s “In the Greenhouse” to the childish playfulness of Bernstein’s “My Name Is Barbara,” Isokoski communicated with total empathy and flawless technique. Finnish pianist Ilkka Paananen accompanied with warmth and flexibility.   

Another highlight of opening weekend was a blazing Newport debut in an all-Chopin recital by seventeen-year-old American pianist Eric Lu. Walking on stage at the Breakers, he looked like a modest teenager, but once his fingers hit the keyboard, his complete focus on the music was riveting. A selection of nocturnes and mazurkas, a waltz, and the Ballade #4 made an enticing first half, but the full cycle of Preludes, Op. 28, which followed intermission, showed off both the intimacy and the high drama of Lu’s playing. More surprising than his technical proficiency was the interpretive maturity of his performances. This is a pianist to watch. 

This weekend also presented the first installments in several series of concerts which will continue throughout the festival honoring Mozart, Sibelius, and Nielsen, both of whom were born 150 years ago. Festival veterans Eric Ruske and Thomas Hrynkiw impressed in an arrangement by Ruske for French horn and piano of Mozart’s fourth horn concerto, while Hrynkiw brought Nielsen’s rarely heard “Suite for Piano” to virtuosic life.

The beauty of the performance venues, including the Chinese Tea House and several mansions, and a stimulating mix of new and returning artists make the Newport Music Festival a uniquely rewarding attraction.