Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 30, 2020

"Spotlight on Broadway" Website

Shared with ITS by Michael Moran

If you're passing the time glued to your computer, perhaps now is as good a time as any to connect remotely with something we all love: The Theatre! More specifically, the theater buildings themselves. I happened to run across this website, filled with pics of (I believe) all of the Broadway theaters, inside and out. The rest of the site has interesting articles about Broadway history as well. I had a blast browsing through it and perhaps you will too!

https://www.spotlightonbroadway.com/theater-architecture

March 10, 2020

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Beethoven & Tchaikovsky

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
March 7, 2020
by Michael J. Moran

Though SSO music director Kevin Rhodes had planned this program, guest conductor Daniel Hege, who directs the Wichita (KS) Symphony and Binghamton (NY) Philharmonic orchestras, embraced it enthusiastically for a memorable SSO debut.

In a pre-concert talk, he called the opening work, “Radiant Circles,” by Augusta Read Thomas, “a ten-minute crescendo” and “less a traditional piece than a sonic experience.” He also cited a strong jazz influence in all the African-American composer’s music. Hege led the SSO in a vibrant account of the colorfully orchestrated 2010 score, which features unusual instrumental combinations, including vibraphone, glockenspiel, and crotales (tuned bells).

Photo by Angelo Xiang Yu
Next came the grandest of all violin concertos – Beethoven’s – in a thrilling rendition and sensational SSO debut by 29-year-old soloist Angelo Xiang Yu. Trained at the New England Conservatory, the Mongolian-born, Boston-based violinist received both an Avery Fisher Career Grant and a Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award in 2019. He described the “challenge” of this concerto to Hege’s pre-concert audience as its requirement throughout of “perfect intonation and beautiful sound.”

That he achieved both tonight was evident in the standing ovation he received after a broad 25-minute opening “Allegro ma non troppo” movement, to which he added hushed delicacy in a radiant “Larghetto” and dazzling finger work in a headlong “Rondo” finale. Conductor and ensemble provided vivid support.

The concert ended after intermission with Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard first symphony, which he nicknamed “Winter Daydreams” and gave titles to the first two movements. While this early work lacks some formal cohesion, it abounds in the melodic invention of his popular mature symphonies. The opening “Reveries during a Winter Journey” is melancholy and folk-like; “Land of Gloom, Land of Mist” is tender and haunting; the Scherzo third movement is elfin and sprightly; and the Finale builds from a slow start to a triumphant close. Hege’s leadership and the SSO’s playing were inspired, especially in the galvanizing Finale.

Noting the concert’s place in observing the SSO’s ongoing celebrations of women composers and Beethoven’s 250th birthday anniversary, Hege also praised the high quality not only of the musicians but of Springfield’s Symphony Hall, insightful reminders from a welcome visitor.

REVIEW: Stageloft Repertory Theater, A Little Night Music

Stageloft Repertory Theater in Collaboration with the Greater Worcester Opera, Fiskdale, MA
through March 15, 2020
by Jarice Hanson

Photo by Tatumn Coraccio Photography
Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are always peppered with edginess and wit, often making it difficult for less experienced singers to articulate rapid-fire tongue twisters and pointed barbs. In Stageloft Repertory Theater’s collaboration with seasoned opera veterans from the Greater Worcester Opera, these difficult lyrics come trippingly off the tongues, and humor and double entendres delight the appreciative audience.

Musical Director Aldo Fabrizi conducts the excellent three-piece orchestra with aplomb, and the vocalists rise to the occasion of telling the almost mythic story through allegory and expression with the dignity and poise representative of 1900’s Sweden. This production has a talented cast, most of whom have very impressive credentials and experience. Only space limitations prevent a listing of the entire ensemble, but it would be negligent not to mention both Elaine Crane in the role of Desiree Armfeldt and Todd Yard as Fredrik Egerman for their exceptional grasp of character and outstanding voices. There is chemistry between the two that underscores the story’s development, and they light up the stage individually as well as in the scenes they share.

Director Richard Monroe moves his 17 actors around the small stage with precision and poise. The very clever set, designed by Scott Taylor and Aldo Fabrizi, complete with movable panels is highly functional and appropriately spare. Elaine Crane’s costume designs add a layer of elegance, and Ezekiel Baskin’s lighting design creates an illusion of a much bigger stage and establishment of scene.

The intimate Stageloft Theater is a wonderful location to see a play and, in this case, to appreciate the natural voices of the performers without microphone distortion or over-amplification. Stageloft Repertory Theater has the ambitious goal of producing a new show every month, and the way they succeed is by partnering with other companies. If this production, featuring the talent of the Greater Worcester Opera, is any indication of the quality of the work, it is undoubtedly a venue to consider. Hopefully, these two artistic organizations will continue to collaborate on many future projects.

REVIEW: Theatre Guild of Hampden, Mamma Mia!

Theatre Guild of Hampden, Wilbraham, MA
www.theatreguildofhampden.org
through March 15, 2020
by Michael J. Moran

The Theatre Guild of Hampden has transformed its new home, the Red Barn at Fountain Park in Wilbraham, MA into an immersive theater-in-the-round, with four resourceful musicians split at opposite ends of the stage and dressing rooms behind curtains in the four corners of the building which are shared by the 24-member cast and various props which they entertainingly move on and off stage between scenes.

The Guild’s reimagining of this rustic space proves surprisingly hospitable to their exuberant production of the ultimate feel-good musical, “Mamma Mia!,” of which Wikipedia says at least seven versions are presented somewhere in the world on any given day. Director Mark Giza and stage manager Jan Plumb have ingeniously used every square inch at their disposal, with the ensemble dancing around the actors just offstage and often providing harmonies, seen or unseen, from their dressing rooms.  

Repurposing many familiar “earworm” hits by the Swedish pop band ABBA as its score, the show follows 20-year-old Sophie to a Greek island where her mother, Donna, runs a tavern and will soon host her daughter’s wedding. Without telling Donna, Sophie has tracked down and invited three older men, one of whom is likely her father, to the ceremony. “Mama Mia” debuted in London in 1999, on Broadway in 2000, and on screen in 2008 (with a 2018 sequel). In other words, just about every musical-theatre lover has already seen “MM.” Yet, it is still a winner that everyone should enjoy. Yes, “The Winner Takes It All.”

Carina Savoie’s clarion singing voice and fine acting chops make her an endearing Sophie. Kiernan Rushford’s Donna turns wistful charm to youthful energy when lead-singing with her girl group, the Dynamos. As her band mates/sidekicks, Jami Wilson’s hilarious Tanya sounds and looks like a young Joan Rivers in “Does Your Mother Know,” while Kathy Renaud’s scene-stealing Rosie is a hoot whenever she appears, but especially in her big number, “Take a Chance on Me.”

Michael DeVito is charismatic as Sophie’s fiancé, Sky, and music director Mark Cloutier does a double star turn as one of Sophie’s might-be dads, British banker Harry. Choreography by ensemble member Dina DelBuono is elastic and energetic.

For sheer fun and joy, this spirited production would be hard to beat. Unfortunately (as Giza quipped in his welcoming comments, “We’re hotter than Hamilton!”), the entire run is currently sold out.

March 2, 2020

REVIEW: Majestic Theater, The Pitch

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through April 5, 2020
by Konrad Rogowski

“The Pitch,” Stan Freeman’s first play, being premiered at the Majestic Theater, is a classic mix of what the public sees and hears about career making, or career breaking, moments in sports, and what really occurs in the shadows of some public figure’s lives, moments that oftentimes define the direction of those lives.

Photo by Kait Rankins
So it appears to be for Vern, played by R. Steve Pierce, a promising young pitcher who blows his first, and only, outing with a major league team by throwing only one pitch, a pitch that loses the game and hurls his career, his marriage, and his health into a 50-year downward spiral. And that would have been the end of his story, until a young writer, portrayed by Julian Findlay, starts to dig into Vern’s past, only to find too many unanswered questions as to the real reasons for Vern’s disintegration.

To solve this life-long question, the writer engages an older sports writer and long-time friend of Vern’s, featuring John Haag in the role, to help unearth the truth, only to find his writing partner becoming increasingly evasive and resistant as conflicting stories start to mount, and Vern’s public history make less and less sense.

What is ultimately discovered and made public then creates the second wave of trauma for those who are left to expose the story, as the issues of personal loyalty, ethics, the right for the public to know, and the burden of profiteering off of other’s personal misfortunes all land at the feet of the two writers.

The interaction and conflicts between the two leads are credible under Danny Eaton’s direction, with flashbacks that illuminate the past and help build the tension as the pieces of Vern’s private puzzle fall disturbingly into place.

February 27, 2020

REVIEW: The Bushnell, Jesus Christ Superstar

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through March 1, 2020
by Sharon Smith

50 years is a long time for a show to be around, especially one that, for many, is so closely tied to the era in which it originated (1970-71.) But unlike the similarly themed “Godspell”, the music of which leans heavily on the sound of flower power, Jesus Christ Superstar relies on the power of rock, and that foundation opens up many more opportunities for reinvention.

It is Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s interpretation of the Gospel accounts of the last days of Jesus, told primarily from Judas’ point of view. This actually makes for a title character who is somewhat detached from the proceedings, and not nearly as magnetic as one would expect. After all, the tale is told by a detractor.

Fortunately, James Delisco Beeks, as Judas, is a powerful and effective performer. From questioning follower to outright betrayer, his passion and confusion are powerfully expressed in such numbers as “Heaven on Their Minds” and “Damned For All Time/Blood Money" and “Superstar.” Jenna Rubah, as Mary (Magdalene), has only one solo, the top-ten song “I Don't Know How to Love Him” but her presence and emotional connection to Jesus is felt throughout. As it is a show that is sung-through, without spoken dialogue, she gives an emotional performance through movement and physicality.

Since the music is so familiar, having been presented in multiple forms over the years, from concept album to (most recently) live TV, this production wisely chooses to let it stand on its own and concentrates on updating and reinventing the packaging. The choreography by Drew Mconie, and executed by the impressively large ensemble, is energetic, physical and modern, in numbers like “What’s The Buzz” and “The Temple.” Inventive use of props gives the dances an extra visual flourish.

The staging, set in an abandoned cathedral, has rock concert influences, and combined with the spectacular lighting, reinforces that impression. The choice to have Jesus and Judas play instruments reinforces the musical theater/concert hybrid. Some choices work better than others: the costuming is fairly contemporary and, in the case of a few fashion and style choices, slightly jarring and a bit distracting.

For those not familiar with the show, or the New Testament of the Bible, the visually stimulating staging, fast pacing and lack of dialogue may leave one a bit confused as to who is who and what is happening. But the constant throughout the night is the revolutionary score of Webber and Rice. In that regard, the show really is like a concert because one can sit back and enjoy the music and the sights, with little regard for the story, and still be entertained.

PREVIEW: Mt. Holyoke College, The Big Broadcast

Chapin Auditorium
Mt. Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA
March 7, 2020

The Jazz Ensembles of Mount Holyoke College present the 15th edition of The Big Broadcast! on Saturday, March 7 at 2PM & 7:30PM. Snow date is Sunday, March 8. Created and directed by Mark Gionfriddo, who is also onstage as “Matt Morgan”, The Big Broadcast!  is a re-creation of a live 1940's radio show featuring the Mount Holyoke College Big Band, Vocal Jazz, and Chamber Jazz Ensembles performing well-known tunes from the swing era and the American songbook. WWLP-TV meteorologist Brian Lapis is emcee “Fred Kelley” for his 13th consecutive season. Mount Holyoke alum, bassist and singer Caitlin Jaene Mercer, will join The Big Broadcast! as special guest. 

Mount Holyoke College music faculty member Mark Gionfriddo originally created The Big Broadcast! for a small cabaret group he directed, and incorporated it into the concert season at Mount Holyoke College. This year’s program will include: Benny Goodman's "All The Cats Join In"; "It's Been A Long, Long Time" by June Christy and Stan Kenton; the Glenn Miller classic “A String of Pearls”; Peggy Lee’s “Black Coffee”, and a rare radio rendition of “On The Atchison, Topeka, and The Santa Fe” by the Andrews Sisters, which was never officially released.

Tickets (general admission): $25 premium front and center seating, $20 regular seating. Senior Discounts: $10 in advance and $15 at the door. Students: $10.

For phone orders, call 413-545-2511. Doors open one hour prior to each performance.

Chapin Auditorium is fully accessible.

REVIEW: South Windsor Cultural Arts, Alexi Kenney & Renana Gutman

Wood Memorial Library & Museum, South Windsor, CT
February 23, 2020
by Michael J. Moran

Alexi Kenney
The opening measures of Mozart’s rare two-movement Sonata, K. 304, told the capacity audience at South Windsor’s historic Wood Memorial Library that they were hearing a major talent in 26-year-old California-born violinist Alexi Kenney, eloquently supported by Israeli-American pianist Renana Gutman, his frequent recital partner since he first met her as a student ten years ago.

In helpfully engaging pre-concert remarks, Kenney had identified “lost love” as the unifying theme of this imaginative program’s five works. The recent death of his mother was palpable in Mozart’s somber opening “Allegro” and restrained “Tempo di minuetto.” The dark, rich tone of each musician’s instrument gave both movements tragic weight and solemn beauty.

The final movement, for violin and piano, “Praise to the Immortality of Jesus,” from Messiaen’s 1941 “Quartet for the End of Time,” written while he was a French prisoner of war in German captivity, next portrayed divine love for humanity, even to the point of death. Kenney and Gutman performed this ethereal music with luminous intensity.

Schubert’s Variations on “Trockne Blumen [Withered Flowers],” the eighteenth song in his cycle “Die Schone Mullerin [The Miller’s Daughter],” followed in an arrangement for violin and piano that Kenney had argued works as well as the original for flute and piano. The duo’s dramatic account of this virtuosic 22-minute showpiece, which traces a forsaken lover’s surrender in death to his beloved’s rejection, made it hard to disagree.

After Kenney’s post-intermission comments introducing the program’s second half, he joined Gutman in an evocative rendering of Stravinsky’s arrangement for violin and piano of a plaintive aria from his opera “The Nightingale” in which the bird restores his beloved master, a Chinese emperor, to life.

Enescu’s 25-minute third sonata, subtitled “in the popular Rumanian style,” depicts the composer’s love for his homeland as remembered forty years after his lost childhood. Kenney and Gutman played its three challenging movements with technical finesse, rhapsodic nostalgia, and deep sensitivity to its mystical rapture.

An encore performance of Clara Schumann’s first Romance, a tender birthday tribute to her composer-husband, Robert, shifted the concert’s focus from lost to found love and brought it to a ravishing close in the mellow Wood acoustics. SWCA, a nonprofit, volunteer-supported organization, has sponsored this free concert series for 39 years.

February 25, 2020

Review: Tales of Two Women: Lizzie and Jane

“Pride and Prejudice”
Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
www.playhouseonpark.org
through March 8, 2020

“Jane Eyre”
Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
www.hartfordstage.org
through March 14, 2020

By Shera Cohen

Lizzie Bennet and Jane Eyre are approximately the same age, intelligent and clever, and live in England, albeit a few decades apart, but that is really no matter in the productions of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” at Playhouse on Park and Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” at Hartford Stage, respectively.

Back-to-back performances in one weekend are a theatre-lover’s dream come true. The plays, obviously based on the famous novels of the same names, bring required high school English class assignments to life. Lizzie and Jane take steps off the page to the stage, seemingly with ease. If only Austen and Bronte could experience their works, having been adapted and molded by Kate Hamill (“Pride’) and Elizabeth Williamson (“Jane”) for today’s audience, they would be ecstatic. The authors of these two, now classic, 19th century books shunned the mores of their female peers; wanting more than a life of boredom, seeming content, and marrying up. In her own way, Lizzie and Jane demand respect.

Photo by Meredith Longo
The contrasts of the primary character, her setting, and those who surround each are distinctly opposite. Austen’s story of brightness and gaiety is oftentimes outright funny. The plot instantly reveals that Mrs. Bennet’s (well-acted by Maia Guest) sole mission in life is to find husbands for her four daughters, especially the single-minded Lizzie. While Mother Bennet sees no problem in marrying off Jane (the pretty one) and eventually Lydia (the young one), she has given up on Mary (the plain one, charmingly depicted by Jane Bradley). Lizzie becomes the challenge.

Except for two actors, the remaining six portray over a dozen characters with gender and age-switching fast and furiously behind the curtain, onstage, and in the aisle directly in front of the audience. Many times an actor dresses and speaks as one character on the right side of her body and the left side as the man. However, rest assured, there is never confusion as to who is who in this pseudo combination of any Shakespearian comedy and/or Moliere farce.

A special bravo to Matthew Krob as Miss Bingley (a zaftig gentile lady), Winkham (a slippery military officer), and Mr. Collins (a prissy preacher). Kimberly Chatterjee and Nicholas Ortiz, our flirtatious lovers bring Beatrice and Benedict of “Much Ado About Nothing” to mind, offering proof that the woman is of superior intellect and the male the well-meaning dullard.  Chatterjee and Ortiz create a nice match as they coquettishly play the game of teasing the other into an admission of their character’s love.

What makes “Pride” run like a well-wound clock are Kate Hamil’s adaptation and Jason O’Connell’s direction. The costumes, set design, English accents appropriately depict the early 1800’s. Ratcheting up the humor a few notches are the dance interludes between scenes; you know, those boring 30-seconds when sets are changed. Not at POP! The actors dance and audience stomp their feet to Bee Gees’ disco. “Pride and Prejudice” takes very little seriously.

Photo by T. Charles Erikson
For the most part, “Jane Eyre” lives in a dark, shadowy place with black silhouettes. The set is stark, and huge drawing room doors connote the many rooms and floors of the house. But darkness is even more than Jane Eyre would hope for. In few words, looks, and stances actress Helen Sadler, seated in a dark blue matronly dress at a small desk, narrates Jane’s story. It is a harder story to hear than for her to tell. Jane expects so little; anything can mean a lot. Yet Sadler slowly creates an intelligent and subdued wont in Jane’s demeanor and words, that she is due more than scraps of an existence.

“Jane Eyre” is a love story classic with a capitol “L”. Yet, trust is an equal partner for both lead characters. Chandler Williams begins his relationship with Jane as happenstance, then feigned gruffness, an awkward yearning, and eventually love. Williams is superb as the brooding, enigmatic Rochester. It doesn’t hurt that he is a Colin Firth look-alike and sound-alike.

The story is as much a mystery as it is a romance. Elizabeth Williamson directs her own adaptation of Bronte’s book in small bits and pieces strung together prudently with the sliding doors to create scenes.

“Pride and Prejudice” and “Jane Eyre” were written in the 19th century. These characters and stories are apropos today; women are recognized as stronger than even they thought they were. Standing up for oneself isn’t a concept; it is a conscious action.

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Love on Broadway

Springfield Symphony, Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
February 22, 2020
by Lisa Covi

The latest program, “Love on Broadway,” by the Springfield Symphony showcased four vocalists for an enjoyable evening of selections from the 1950s-2000s. It was nice to see that the orchestra section of Symphony Hall was crowded, but not quite full of appreciative music lovers. The setting was relaxed, with audience members eager for the return appearances of Emma Grimsley and Jane Rhodes performing with two “bari-tenors” new to the annual themed program: Stephen Mark Lukas and Nathaniel Hackman. Conductor Kevin Rhodes' usual enthusiasm included his personal touch since he is married to Jane Rhodes and first met Emma Grimsley as the infant daughter of opera singers performing in Switzerland.

The concert opened with the only purely instrumental piece of the evening, “Carousel Waltz” from Carousel. Unfortunately, the prominent percussion section was slightly out of time with the rest of the orchestra, especially considering the necessity for snare drum. In contrast, the orchestra blended well for most of the evening's 20 selections and sound levels allowed for the vocalists to prove their musical and dramatic flair.

Grimsley performed a variety of ingénue parts with a lyrical soprano voice. She delivered a soaring melodic interpretation of “I Could Have Danced All Night” backed by wind instruments that supplied an almost choral accompaniment. Jane Rhodes provided strong comedic renditions notably channeling Lucy to Kevin Rhodes' Schroeder from You're a Good Man Charlie Brown. This song was a late addition to the program but tied in neatly to this season's tribute to Beethoven's 250th birthday as the lyrics float on top of “Moonlight Sonata.”

Ms. Rhodes excels at the spoken passages of her musical numbers particularly the rhythmic bridal part of “Getting Married Today” from Company. Rhodes and Grimsley performed the favorite “A Boy Like That” from West Side Story which contrasted the strong distinct tones of each vocal line against Bernstein's lovely oboe lines. The men's duet “Agony” from Into the Woods was tuneful and humorous. Nathan Hackman demonstrated his rich chest voice with a resonant vibrato in “If Ever I would Leave You” from Camelot and “Lucky to Be Me” from On The Town. In his upper ranges, his voice was sometimes difficult to distinguish from the horn section. Hackman and Stephen Mark Lukas achieved an optimal blend on the unusual melody “Lily's Eyes” from Secret Garden. Lukas' comedic duet with Grimsley, “The Song that Goes Like This” from Spamalot, was the most entertaining performance of the evening and elicited laughs.

The sole detractor from a pleasant evening occurred in the audience. The pervasive odor of alcohol, the knocking over and stepping on plastic cups and a late-coming, early-leaving couple reeking of cannabis was reminiscent of the neglectful intemperance of an arena rock concert. However, the majority of the audience was friendly, personable and considerate of fellow audience members. The enthusiastic applause filled a quiet winter evening with love and happiness in Springfield's Courthouse Square.

February 18, 2020

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, The 9th Annual 10x10 New Play Festival

Barrington Stage Company, St. Germain Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through March 8, 2020
By Jarice Hanson

For the last nine years the annual theater extravaganza in the Berkshires has been kicked off by Barrington Stage Company’s “10 X 10 New Play Festival.” While these ten-minute plays are often fast-paced and favor comedy, this year’s festival may be one of Barrington’s best.

Cast of "Oy Vey Maria"
Photo by Emma Rothenberg-Ware
Since theater always shows us the funny side of the world in which we live, it’s not surprising that so many of the ten minute shows deal with the effects of living in a more technologized world. Gender issues and social change permeate a number of the plays, and the show concludes with an almost Borsht Belt treatment of the birth of Jesus. Situations veer from auditions for a five second play festival to Bob’s Discount Bungee Jump, to a serious and dramatically satisfying school Active Shooter drill.

The talented cast includes Doug Harris, Maya Loren Jackson, Peter Maclin, Keri Safran, Kenneth Tigar, and Peggy Pharr Wilson. Half of the plays are directed by Julianne Boyd, and the other half by Matthew Penn. The actors move sets on and off of the stage while lighting and music serve to signal transitions between plays, and while it was a little difficult to understand how the transitional music fit the tenor of the plays, the music keeps the mood light and the audience engaged.

The playwrights involved in this project have a wide range of backgrounds and theatrical experience; the number of awards they have collectively won boggles the mind. These are not first-time authors. Instead, they seem to be masters of the craft and the clever situations along with tight dialog. The writers know how to reach audiences with warmth and meaningful messages.

The “10 X 10 New Play Festival” also allows Barrington Stage Company to announce their summer seasons for both the St. Germain Stage, and the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage. This summer, expect to see two musicals (“South Pacific” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’”) on the mainstage along with two additional shows, and the St. Germain Stage will include five plays, one of which is a world-premiere co-conceived by Joshua Bergasse and Mark St. Germain, and a youth theater production of “The Supadupa Kid,” also a world-premiere. In short, look for a summer packed with song, dance, heavy drama, and lots of laughs at BSC.a

February 17, 2020

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Romeo and Juliet

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
February 14-16, 2020
by Michael J. Moran

For the fifth Masterworks program of its 76th season, HSO assistant conductor Adam Boyles selected four works by three 20th-century composers and one 21st-century composer to observe Valentine’s Day weekend from diverse perspectives.

Like last month’s, this concert also opened with two HSO premieres. First came young Guyanese-British composer Hannah Kendall’s 10-minute 2017 tone poem “The Spark Catchers.” Inspired by Lemn Sissay’s 2012 poem of the same name, the title refers to how “matchgirls” in 19th-century London caught wayward sparks when making wooden matches.

The vivid score closely follows the poem’s text, printed in the program book, and Boyles and the orchestra captured its festive spirit with gusto (as the HSO continues innovating with technology, it was instructive to watch a frontal view of Boyles projected behind the Belding stage during this piece).

Scott McIntosh
Next up was French composer Henri Tomasi’s exuberant but rarely heard 1948 Trumpet Concerto. HSO principal trumpet Scott McIntosh made dexterous use of two mutes to shade his rich, clear tone from bright to smoky in the mercurial opening “Allegro & cadenza,” bluesy “Nocturne,” and rambunctious “Finale.” Conductor and ensemble offered lively accompaniment.   

McIntosh then took a looser, jazzier approach to Walter Gwardyak’s lush arrangement of “My Funny Valentine,” from the 1937 show “Babes in Arms,” by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. His opening duet with principal bass Edward Rozie, Jr. was especially fun.

The program closed after intermission with a brilliant account of excerpts from Prokofiev’s 1935 ballet “Romeo and Juliet.” Unlike many other conductors who present this music, Boyles followed the sequence of movements in the full ballet rather than reshuffle their order for dramatic effect. His selection was also far more generous (a full hour) than usual.

This was easily the finest performance yet led by Boyles since he began his HSO tenure three years ago and one of the best ever by all the musicians, with whom he has clearly established a deep and warm rapport. They responded to his clear, dynamic leadership with playing of technical polish and profound emotion. Highlights among the 18 selections were: an ardent and sensuous “Balcony Scene;” a viscerally terrifying “Duel” (between Tybalt and Mercutio); and a meltingly compassionate “Juliet’s Death,” with its perfect closing notes of consolation and hope.

February 11, 2020

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Mozart’s Concerto for Flute & Harp

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
February 8, 2020
by Michael J. Moran

In a pre-concert talk, SSO music director Kevin Rhodes said he’d been planning this “dream” program around Mozart’s flute and harp concerto, showcasing two instruments rarely given featured roles, since 1984. In the fifth concert of the SSO’s 76th season, two rising stars also performed three solo works among five pieces “with more variety and styles of music,” according to Rhodes, than the orchestra has ever offered in one concert.

First up was a true rarity by Beethoven, a 10-minute suite with the improbable title “Music for a Ballet on Horseback.” Commissioned for a 1791 production in his native Bonn, the eight brief numbers already show the 20-year-old composer moving in new directions, like the commanding horn fanfares of the “Hunting Song” and the tender “Romance” for pizzicato strings. The musicians performed it with affectionate flair.   

Emmanuel Ceysson
Next came a radiant account of Debussy’s lovely 1903 “Sacred and Profane Danses,” with guest harpist Emmanuel Ceysson adding delicacy and shimmer to the lush SSO strings. The French-born soloist had just travelled to Springfield from New York after playing that afternoon in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, where he is principal harpist. This hectic schedule never ruffled his professional poise.  

Guest flutist Denis Bouriakov then joined Ceysson for a magical rendition of Mozart’s concerto. Now principal flutist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Crimea-born soloist has worked with Ceysson in the Met Orchestra and as a duo. Their close rapport produced a lively opening Allegro, a hushed Andantino, and a rollicking final Rondeau-Allegro, enthusiastically seconded by conductor and ensemble.

Two rarely heard 20th-century masterpieces completed the program after intermission. Bouriakov was dramatic and incisive in Leonard Bernstein’s “Halil” for flute and orchestra, a rhapsodic tribute to a 19-year-old Israeli flutist killed in action during the 1973 Yom Kippur War (with whom two current SSO members had performed, Rhodes revealed). Ceysson was protean and riveting in Alberto Ginastera’s colorful, evocative 1964 harp concerto.

Standing ovations for the accomplished virtuosity and youthful energy of both 30-something soloists, an enchanting flute-harp encore of the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Gluck’s opera “Orpheus and Eurydice,” and many post-show audience comments like “one of the best ever” confirmed that Rhodes had finally realized his 36-year-old dream.

February 9, 2020

REVIEW: TheaterWorks, The Lifespan of a Fact,

TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
through March 8, 2019
by Jarice Hanson

Every once in a while what is seen on stage mimics real-life so closely that an audience member feels it necessary to either laugh, or curl up in a fetal position. In the very clever, “The Lifespan of a Fact,” now playing at TheaterWorks, the emphasis is on the laughter, but the honesty of the theme does elicit some cringes. However, in the hands of a talented production team and three excellent actors, this play definitely resonates with today’s preponderance of “alternative facts,” “misinformation,” and “true-ishness.”

The plot is based on a true story involving an author and the young intern assigned to fact-check a 15-page magazine essay. The play uses the names of the real duo who engaged in the controversy which took place over a seven-year period, though the play compresses the time to five days. The writer, John D’Agata, played by Rufus Collins, and the intern, Jim Fingal, played by Nick LaMedica, are the odd couple who contrast in both appearance and belief. Though the script was adapted from the co-authored book by the real D’Agata and Fingal by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, a third actor to play the fictional magazine editor, Emily Penrose, was added to heighten the contrasts among belief, journalism, honesty, and fictional interpretation of the “facts.” In this role, Tasha Lawrence has the difficult but very effective role of representing both the harried editor and the audience, all of whom are necessary to interpret the events as they fold into each other and the stakes are raised.

The pace of the 75-minute story continually builds to a suspenseful conclusion in part to Tracy Brigden’s wonderful direction as well as the skill of these actors who are fully committed to the difficult dialog and passion of the characters. Obadiah Eaves’ sound design incorporates split -second timing of cell phone and computer sounds to seemingly regulate the heart-beat of the piece reflecting the passage of time.

This show captures contemporary reality and reminds us that whether something is fact or fiction—there can be many ways to tell a story to make an impact. Each decision has weight and the ultimate interpretation, no matter how controlled, is less than certain. The humor in this play is sincere and honest, but the meaning is heavy and it packs a wallop. Kudos to this cast and production team for brilliantly interpreting a show of depth, in a way that reminds the audience every person plays a part in understanding the “facts.”

February 2, 2020

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Joshua Bell & Alessio Bax

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
www.hartfordsymphony.org
January 31, 2020
by Michael J. Moran

Bell & Bax
Only a handful of classical superstars can attract arena-size audiences, and violinist Joshua Bell is one of them. This may explain why he appeared with rising Italian-American pianist Alessio Bax in the Bushnell’s Broadway-size Mortensen Hall, rather than in its smaller Belding Theater. But this larger-than-life duo made the bigger hall’s acoustics sound surprisingly intimate.

Their concert opened with a dazzling account of Schubert’s lively 1826 Rondo Brillante in B minor. Bell shaded his tone from silken in the quiet Andante introduction to almost rough-hewn in the following dancelike Allegro. Bax echoed Bell’s every tonal shift, right through the 15-minute piece’s closing mad dash.

Next came a mercurial performance of Cesar Franck’s 1888 Sonata in A Major. The duo captured the varying moods of this 28-minute masterpiece’s four movements with unerring accuracy, from a radiant opening Allegretto, a turbulent Allegro, a lyrical Recitativo-Fantasia, to a jubilant closing Allegretto.

Intermission was followed by a bracing rendition of Bach’s 1723 fourth violin sonata. Here Bell produced a lighter tone appropriate to the Baroque period of the work’s origin. An affecting Siciliano preceded a brisk Allegro, a lush Adagio, and an intricately fugal closing Allegro, voiced with passion and precision by both players. 

The final work was Ernest Bloch’s 1923 suite “Baal Shem,” subtitled “Three Pictures of Hassidic Life.” In spoken introductory comments, Bell translated the titles of its three movements as “Contrition” (Vidui), “Improvisation” (Nigun), and “Celebration” (Simchas Torah). The duo played this rhapsodic work with drama and finesse, Bell bringing opulent intensity to the sinuous Nigun. 

A standing ovation from the enthusiastic audience brought the musicians back on stage for two encores. Exuding the same boyish and self-effacing charm as when he launched his career as a teenager over 30 years ago, Bell introduced them by identifying legendary Belgian violinist-composer Eugene Ysaye (for whom Franck wrote his sonata and who taught Bell’s teacher Josef Gingold) as the inspiration for this program. 

The duo brought youthful brio to Wieniawski’s showpiece “Scherzo-Tarantella” (also written for Ysaye) and touching tenderness to Bell’s own arrangement of Chopin’s lovely E-flat-Major Nocturne, Opus 9.

January 22, 2020

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, The Four Seasons

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
January 17-19, 2020
by Michael J. Moran
For the fourth Masterworks program of the HSO’s 76th season, music director Carolyn Kuan selected three works written over 300 years on three different continents, but all with roots in the baroque era.

The concert opened with two HSO premieres. First up was the 2009 “Suite for Lower Strings” by Clarice Assad, whose prolific output mixes classical and jazz elements with the rhythms of her native Brazil (her father is renowned guitarist Sergio Assad). Each of the suite’s five short movements reworks one or more themes by Johann Sebastian Bach with respectful delight. Kuan and her musicians gave the 13-minute piece an engaging spin.    

Next came the inventive 1953 “Variationes Concertantes” by Argentine master Alberto Ginastera. Written in the theme and variations form popular in the baroque era, the 12 variations in this 25-minute work feature brilliant solo passages for many instruments. Kuan took the opportunity to regale the amused audience with “little-known facts” about the soloists who would be playing them, from principal trumpeter Scott McIntosh’s snake whispering hobby to principal clarinetist Curt Blood’s woodworking skill (he even built her podium).     

From the lush opening duet by cellist Peter Zay and principal harpist Susan Knapp Thomas to the virtuosic final variation for full orchestra, conductor and orchestra met the work’s frequent technical challenges with aplomb and rendered its folk-influenced yet expressionistic harmonies with intense commitment.

The program closed after intermission with a lively account of Antonio Vivaldi’s beloved baroque masterpiece, “The Four Seasons.” Written in 1725 for string orchestra with harpsichord accompaniment, it consists of four short (10-minute) concertos of three movements each, named after the four seasons of the year. It was instructive to read how closely the four anonymous sonnets published with the music, and included in the program book, reflect the vivid colors of the music. 
Randall Goosby

Rising American violinist Randall Goosby was a riveting guest soloist in “The Four Seasons,” and his duets with Zay, concertmaster Leonid Sigal, and harpsichordist Edward Clark were special highlights of the performance. A standing ovation led to a dazzling encore of the Presto from Bach’s first violin sonata.

Playing publicly since age nine and still in his early twenties, Goosby has the technical chops and magnetic stage presence for a major career.

January 21, 2020

Review: Playhouse on Park, Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical

Playhouse on Park, Hartford, CT
through February 2, 2020
by Lisa Covi

On a wintry day, Playhouse on Park seems set for the pedestrian experience of a musical matinee. A bus rolls up with a mainstay of theater support – the group audience, which enters a stylishly decorated black-box set for an afternoon of Rosemary Clooney's “adult bio-musical” by co-authors Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman. Named after her 1951 hit “Tenderly,” one would expect a similarly haunting story of her struggles with mental illness in the face of a rags-to-riches career during the waning days of pre-rock ‘n roll Hollywood. Then something surprising happens. Between vaguely familiar performances of Come On-a My House, Hey There, and Straighten Up and Fly Right, materializes an extraordinary and intimate production.

A cast of two actors populate and embody the principal family members and stars of Clooney's universe. Around the satellite of Susan Haefner’s Clooney, her costar Samuel Lloyd Jr. alternately plays a psychiatrist, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Jose Ferrer, in addition to sister Betty and her mother. At one point, he portrays her therapist reenacting key moments in Clooney's life and career. Lloyd even pulls off a rendition of White Christmas' duet Sisters complete with choreography and fans made out of patient file folders. Lloyd is in fine voice as male and female.

The musical backdrop, under the director of Robert Tomasulo, is performed with a three- piece band occasionally visible behind the picture window of the set. Haefner's bearing and vocal phrasing provides the lush contours of Clooney's passage from star-struck ingénue through marriage and family years and the return from hospitalization and revival of her career. The arc of the star's story sounds familiar, but Clooney's unique grit, humor, and unprepossessing work ethic emerge in concert with vignettes provided by Lloyd's cast of supporting characters. The one-room office set is lit from all angles, providing a wide variety of indoor and outdoor scenes. The costumes and props are simple but evocative.

As with many biographical dramatizations, the second part of the script fails to match the substance of the events leading to the climax. As a story of healing, self-acceptance and realization, the play struggles with the denouement since the conquest of suffering and addiction is rarely as compelling and straightforward as Clooney’s characters in movie musicals. At the talkback, Haefner explained that the authors are more eager to license the production for widespread availability than to bring it to New York (still a possibility). Another note for Broadway is that the casting seems slightly mismatched. Although he brings an impressively wide range of characterizations to the role, Lloyd does not fully equal Haefner's highly dynamic stage presence.

Photo by Meredith Longo
This loving exposition of her talent and heart sticks closely to Clooney’s biographies as source. Her brother Nicky has expressed a desire to extend the influence of her existence and joins her family and foundation endorsing this work. This production stirs our souls with the vibrancy of vocal performances and reminds our conscience of the private challenges public celebrities face at the depths and summits of their careers.

January 19, 2020

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, Pike St.

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through February 8, 2020
by Jarice Hanson

In a power-packed 80 minute performance the effervescent playwright/actor Nilaja Sun captivates the audience with a highly original story about three generations of a Puerto Rican family on the Lower East Side of New York City. Among the characters she brings to life are Evelyn, a single mother, her handicapped teen-aged daughter, her womanizing father, and her PTSD-afflicted Navy Seal brother. Cameos “appearances” (since they are all played by Sun, herself) include a 95-year old Holocaust Survivor neighbor, an Asian shopkeeper, and more.

Pike St. is funny, heartbreakingly sad, and deeply touching. Inspired by the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, Sun wrote the piece to honor those people whose lives were changed by catastrophic events of nature. Directed by Ron Russell, who also designed the achingly effective sound for the piece, the almost-bare stage serves as a canvas for Sun’s portraits of family, place, and time. The story is highly original and painstakingly constructed so that the final scene is never telegraphed, but somehow, inevitable. Sun is one of those unique performers who touches the audience with the sound of her voice and the energy appropriate for a woman whose last name is “Sun.”

Photo by T. Charles Erikson
As patrons take their seats, she sits quietly on stage, focusing on breathing and slowly, she transforms herself into Candi, the non-communicative handicapped daughter of our protagonist; from that point on, the actress’ energy never waivers. Watching her connect to the audience is like participating in a master class in acting. Her rapid "nuwyourican" speech gives way to the various characters and she connects with the audience in a call and response pattern that pulls everyone together and readies the audience for a non-stop ride. It’s impossible not to like her as a performer and we collectively laugh and sigh with recognition about the flawed individuals she creates. Sun connects with the audience in a way that is almost magical, and the Hartford audience was not disappointed. They hooted, they sighed, and they rewarded her with a long, strong, standing ovation.

Nilaja Sun is a “performer’s performer.” Her writing is fresh and her performance is controlled, energetic, and she makes every word clear and understandable. Her critically-acclaimed Off-Broadway hit No Child… was recognized with 21 awards, but she is also known to television audiences and she has worked as a teaching artist in the New York and Connecticut school systems, where, you can imagine, she must be an inspirational teacher and coach. She is undoubtedly, a performer not to be missed.

January 18, 2020

REVIEW: Valley Classical Concerts, Matt Haimovitz & Simone Dinnerstein

Valley Classical Concerts, Sweeney Concert Hall, Smith College
January 12, 2020
by Michael J. Moran

Haimovitz & Dinnerstein
Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo recently won acclaim for a recital program featuring music by George Frederic Handel and Philip Glass, so why shouldn’t the duo of cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Simone Dinnerstein do the same with a program of Beethoven and Glass?

Both at the height of distinguished careers, equally at home with new and older music, and noted for an independent streak in how and where they perform, their juxtaposition of Beethoven’s last two cello and piano sonatas with two Glass pieces for solo cello and solo piano gave Beethoven a 21st-century cutting edge and Glass a firm grounding in classical rhythm.

Written simultaneously with the fifth sonata in 1815, as Beethoven was approaching his final decade, the fourth sonata defies convention with only two movements, each with a slow introduction and a faster main section. The duo played it with dramatic intensity.  

Haimovitz then performed Glass’s second Partita for solo cello, of which he gave the world premiere in 2017. In seven short movements totaling about 25 minutes, all with predominantly slow tempos, the partita displayed little of the minimalist repetition on which Glass’s early reputation was made. Haimovitz rendered it with affecting emotional conviction.

Intermission was followed with an equally gripping account by Dinnerstein of Glass’s “Mad Rush” for solo piano. Written in 1979 for the first public appearance of the Dalai Lama in the United States, the piece was of indeterminate length to accommodate the speaker’s unpredictable schedule, but its published version lasts about 15 minutes. Dinnerstein alternated its contemplative and declamatory passages with passion and sensitivity.

After closing the concert with Beethoven’s fifth sonata for cello and piano, highlighted by a rapturous central Adagio, the duo’s three encores showed how a third composer influenced both of these successors: a lively Allegro from Bach’s second viola da gamba sonata; a moving transcription of his 25th Goldberg variation; and a rhapsodic “The Orchard,” from Glass’s music for Jean Genet’s play “The Screens.”

The warm acoustics of Sweeney Concert Hall at Smith College in Northampton, flattering the deep, mellow tone of Haimovitz’s cello and the rich, dark resonance of Dinnerstein’s grand piano, added sonic luster to this rewarding musical afternoon.

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, All Beethoven!

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
January 11, 2020
by Michael J. Moran
Mark Russell Smith

The fourth program of the SSO’s 76th season launched the orchestra’s yearlong celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday anniversary and welcomed back to the podium Mark Russell Smith for the first time since his tenure as their music director from 1995 to 2000.

The concert opened with the Overture to Egmont, a play by Goethe for which Beethoven was commissioned to write incidental music in 1809. Featuring the full drama of his mature style, it depicts the struggle of a noble Dutch Count against a despotic Spanish Duke, perhaps reflecting as well the composer’s personal battles against his increasing deafness and in support of human rights. Smith and the SSO gave a thrilling account of this explosive score.

Reducing the orchestra’s size by several players, Smith devoted the rest of the evening to Beethoven’s first two symphonies. Written in 1800, when the 29-year-old composer was still establishing himself in Vienna, the first symphony extended the symphonic model he had learned from his studies with Haydn, its inventor, by beginning to break its rules.

While in the standard four movements, the rhythmically ambiguous openings of its first and last movements puzzled many early listeners. And though called a Minuet, the boisterous third movement displays little of that dance’s traditional grace but rather presents the first example of the livelier Scherzo form that Beethoven himself invented.  

The second symphony, dating from 1802 and played after intermission, also retains the classical four-movement format, but its slow opening is more expansive than in its predecessor, and the playful third movement is actually labelled “Scherzo.” Smith took all the repeats in both symphonies, but his fleet tempos, even in the slow movements, drove them urgently forward. Heard after the Egmont Overture, these early works suggested not so much the fledgling composer he still was as the pathbreaking Beethoven to come.

Now holding three positions in the Minnesota-Iowa area, the busy maestro’s clear rapport with the musicians, many of whom joined the SSO after his tenure, drew playing that was consistently crisp and bracing. His warm reception from the large audience, many seeing his energetic leadership for the first time, indicated that he should revisit his Springfield home more often.