Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 17, 2019

Review: The Bushnell, The Book of Mormon

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through October 20, 2019
by Jarice Hanson

Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Irreverent, hilarious, and sophomoric, “The Book of Mormon” has become a cult classic. With book, music, and lyrics written by Matt Stone, Robert Lopez, and Trey Parker, the show won the 2011 Tony for Best Musical on Broadway and since 2012, has spawned touring companies all over the world. The company presently performing at the Bushnell is an energetic, fully committed group of 34 actors who obviously revel in presenting this over-the-top show with tunes you might be appalled to learn, linger in your head for days.

There is not a weak performer on stage, but magic happens between Liam Tobin (Elder Price) and Jordan Mathew Brown (Elder Cunningham), two devout Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda to convert the natives to what they passionately believe is the true religion. These two charismatic actors work brilliantly together. Once in Africa, they find poverty, a sadistic war lord, and a group of jaded villagers who have been the target of do-gooders for years, with no appreciable improvement in their lives. The Mormons are ill prepared for the horror of life in Uganda, and thus, the set up for whether redemption may or may not take place that fuels the through-line of the story. Elder Cunningham, an inveterate liar, becomes an unexpected hero when he converts Nebulungi (a stunning Alyah Chanelle Scott) to Mormonism, having found a way of expressing the idea of the Church of Latter Day Saints without ever reading or understanding many of the core beliefs.

Audiences should realize that this type of show—especially with authors who are known for their irreverent and non-politically correct animated television show, “South Park,” will contain possibly offensive language and situations. Indeed, at least two audience members left during Act I, but the comedy comes from satirizing religion and youthful passion for doing what you’ve learned is the “right thing.”

What makes the show a real winner is the music. When Tobin sings “I Believe,” he is so convincing that the audience can’t help but better understand a young man’s zeal for making a difference in the world. When Brown sings “I Am Here For You,” his compassion for his new friend shines through. Big production numbers are plentiful but two standouts are “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” (with guest appearances by Lucifer, Hitler, Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Darth Vader), and “I Am Africa” (Mormon and Villager ensembles) in which true compassion for humanity triumphs over cultural materialism and religious fervor.

The production was appropriately summed up by one of the audience members who said, “It’s just so good to feel free to laugh this much.” That’s a tribute to a great show that understands its mission.

October 15, 2019

PREVIEW: Classical Music World Premieres, Tres Classique

Kimball Towers, Springfield, MA
October 16, 2019

There will be a world premiering of the musical works of composer Timothy Ballan, on October 16 from 5:30-6:30pm at Kimball Towers located at 140 Chestnut Street in Springfield. These solo and chamber works were each written within the past year, most written specifically for performance by the Très Classique ensemble.

Of his compositions, Ballan says that “Each of the pieces is evocative of traditional Americana, whether in the landscapes and times they bring to mind or the folksong-like melodies around which they center."

The pieces on the program are as follows:

1. Vocalise (for solo wordless voice)
2. Glances Through an Arboretum (for flute and piano)
3. American Folk Song (work for solo piano)
4. The River (for flute and piano)
5. The Hidden Thought (art song for piano and voice)
6. Five Songs for the Countryside (five-movement work for solo piano)

Timothy Ballan is a composer and writer who has been teaching piano in Western MA since the age of 17, and currently lives in Agawam. He holds a Certificate of Piano Pedagogy from Valley City State University, and national certification in piano pedagogy from the Music Teachers National Association.

In his compositions, Timothy is mostly influenced by Western and non-Western folk music, melodic cinematic music, and minimalism. The scale of his nearly 100 works ranges from solo to symphonic.

Très Classique is supported by grants and donations, most particularly the Springfield Cultural Council, to bring live classical music to underserved neighborhoods.

REVIEW: South Mountain Concerts, Emerson String Quartet

South Mountain Concerts, Pittsfield, MA
October 13, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

All the ingredients for chamber music heaven came together in this concert: arguably the finest string quartet now before the public; three cornerstones of the string quartet repertoire over three centuries; and ideal acoustics in a storied venue.

Formed in 1976 and named after American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, three of the quartet’s founders are still members: violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, who alternate first and second chairs, and violist Lawrence Dutton. In 2013 founding cellist David Finckel was succeeded by Paul Watkins, to whom the program notes attribute “a profound effect” on the ensemble, infusing it “with a warm, rich tone and a palpable joy in the collaborative process.”

The concert opened with first violinist Setzer leading a relaxed performance of Mozart’s late (1789) Quartet in D Major, K. 575. An arrestingly gentle opening “Allegretto” set the stage for a lyrical “Andante,” a lively “Menuetto” and trio, and a serene “Allegretto” finale. The Emersons’ trademark technical precision was enhanced by a sweet and singing sound.

Moving ahead to a century later (1878), the program’s first half ended with a glowing account of Dvorak’s Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 51 with Drucker as first violinist. A sunny opening “Allegro ma non troppo” precedes a melancholy “Dumka,” or Slavic lament, a graceful “Romanza,” and a rousing “Allegro assai” finale, partly in the rhythm of a fast Czech dance called the skocna. The players captured the full range of the quartet’s shifting moods with unerring accuracy.

Intermission was followed by a gripping rendition, with Setzer back in the first violin chair, of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 5, in B-flat Major, Op. 92. Though written in 1951, it was not performed until after the death of Stalin in 1953. Selzer asked the audience to imagine the quartet’s effect on its first listeners, after a period when Shostakovich and other Soviet artists were routinely persecuted for their work. The Emersons played the three continuous movements – an earthy “Allegro,” a haunting “Andante,” and a stark “Moderato” – with eerie intensity.

The first season in the second century of this iconic chamber music series founded in 1918 by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge could not have ended on a higher note.

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Rhapsody in Blue

Hartford Symphony, The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
October 11-13, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

To launch the HSO’s 76th anniversary season and her own 9th season as its Music Director, Carolyn Kuan selected an all-American program which fittingly began with the traditional season-opening singalong national anthem, backed by a projection of the American flag behind the stage of the Belding Theater at the Bushnell.

The concert proper kicked off in high gear with Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide Overture.” In an elegant, refined account, Kuan’s careful balancing of orchestral sections at a barely restrained tempo revealed more inner detail than often emerges in a live performance of this exuberant score, but with no loss of the requisite excitement.

Kevin Cole
Long recognized as one of the world’s leading Gershwin pianists, Kevin Cole next played  an energetic rendition of that composer’s virtuosic “I Got Rhythm” Variations, followed by an even more bracing presentation of his jazzy “Rhapsody in Blue.” Kuan and the musicians supported him with panache in both works, particularly principal clarinetist Curt Blood’s sinuous take on the opening clarinet solo in “Rhapsody.” Standing ovations brought Cole back on stage for two solo encores: his own dazzling embellishments on Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm” and, one more time, “I Got Rhythm.”

In a brief interview by Kuan between pieces, Cole told her that he had probably played “Rhapsody” over a thousand times by now. Even more remarkably, he has been deaf in one ear since 2018.

The concert closed after intermission with a vibrant account of what many critics consider “the great American symphony,” Aaron Copland’s third. Written in 1944-1946, it incorporates the composer’s famous 1942 “Fanfare for the Common Man” in its last movement. Committed playing by all HSO sections under Kuan’s dynamic leadership, from a spacious opening “Molto moderato,” through a forceful “Allegro molto,” a brooding “Andantino quasi allegretto,” and a stirring final “Molto deliberato – Allegro risoluto,” made a strong case for the piece.

The American theme of this program was also appropriate to follow the third annual naturalization ceremony in which this year ten Connecticut residents became new citizens of the United States on the Belding stage just before the Saturday concert.

October 8, 2019

REVIEW: Playhouse on Park, Nunsense

Apologies to Playhouse on Park are in order. Due to technical difficulties, this review is posting much later than expected. Luckily, there is still time for readers to see this production!

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
through October 13, 2019
By Stuart W. Gamble

Dan Goggin’s silly, infectiously funny musical comedy “Nunsense” has found a welcoming home at Playhouse on Park. Goggin’s show first premiered in 1986, winning the Outer Critic’s Award, was filmed for TV’s A&E Network featuring actress Rue McClanahan, and has spawned four sequels. But it’s always good to go back to the beginning.

The cast of Nunsense
The Little Sisters of Hoboken, NJ are having a fundraiser to pay for the burials of four of their sisters, who are among the 52 of their fellow sisters who’ve perished from tainted vichyssoise. Heading the Order is the imposing Reverend Mother Mary Regina (Amanda Forker) who is ably assisted by Mistress of Novices, Sister Mary Hubert (Brandi Porter). In addition, there’s the nuns’ chauffer and physical education teacher Sister Robert Anne (Lily Dickinson), ever-forgetful Sister Mary Amnesia (Hillary Ekwall), and blithe Sister Mary Leo (Rachel Oremland). Despite some obstacles along the way, these habited ladies reach their goal.

First of all, the multi-talents of these five performers must be praised. Since “Nunsense” is a pastiche of musical numbers and comedy routines, its structure is a bit loose. While most of the numbers are tuneful, they are mostly unmemorable. The comedy also runs the gamut of outrageously hilarious to utterly lifeless. Examples of the former include the conclusion Act I when Reverend Mother inhales a bottle of “Rush” found in a student’s gym locker, which causes her to slur her speech, literally fall and not get up. The other is Sister Robert Anne’s shtick that includes stand-up jokes and imitations of “The Wizard of Oz’s” Miss Gulch (riding in on a bicycle and a witch’s hat), Cher, Judy Garland, and even Katherine Hepburn. The low points include Sister Amnesia’s sadly unfunny puppet routine with her lips moving to boot. Perhaps it would have worked better with only the puppet visible to the audience.

Musically, these five women can truly sing and dance angelically: Sister Mary Leo’s graceful ballet moves, the four Motherless Nuns snappy tap dancing (in colorful blue, green, black, and purple tap shoes from Costume Designer Lisa Ann Steier), and Sister Amnesia’s lovely soprano. Three numbers stand-out: Sister Hubert and Rev. Mother’s duet “Just a Coupl’a Sisters,” Sister Robert Anne’s show stopper “I Just Want To Be A Star,” and especially Sister Hubert’s grand finale, the Gospel-inspired, high-spirited “Holier Than Thou.” Congratulations to Director/Choreographer Darlene Zoller and Musical Director Melanie Guerin for bringing this wonderfully, feel-good show to local audiences.

REVIEW: South Mountain Concerts, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble

South Mountain Concerts, Pittsfield, MA
October 6, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

Chamber music concerts most often feature duos, trios, or quartets. This one presented an unusual program of one string sextet and two string octets, including the acknowledged masterpiece of the genre and a brand new piece commissioned for the current ensemble.

Founded in 1958 by conductor Sir Neville Marriner and now led by Music Director (and violinist) Joshua Bell, the London-based Academy of St. Martin in the Fields orchestra formed its chamber ensemble in 1967, according to their program notes, “to perform the larger scale chamber music repertoire with players who customarily worked together.” The performers at South Mountain are all principal players of the orchestra.

Only two days after giving its world premiere in Columbus, Georgia, the ensemble opened the concert with British composer Sally Beamish’s 18-minute Partita for String Octet. She writes that since a partita is “traditionally a suite for a solo instrument,” she treats the eight musicians as both “a single entity” and “an ensemble of soloists.” Incorporating subtle quotes from Bach, Handel, and Mendelssohn respectively, its three short movements sparkled with grace and stylistic variety in this nimble performance.

The program’s first half ended with a heartfelt account of the second string sextet by Brahms. Completed in 1865, the piece recalls the composer’s deep infatuation of several years earlier with the young soprano Agathe von Siebold. From a glowing opening “Allegro non troppo” through a delicate “Scherzo” and tender “Poco adagio” to a life-embracing “Poco allegro” finale, the ensemble was deeply engaged.

Intermission was followed by a stunning rendition of Mendelssohn’s octet, which quotes the same Handel theme as Beamish does. Dating from 1825, when the composer was only sixteen, its most famous movement is the fleet “Scherzo,” which these musicians played exactly as Mendelssohn specifies: “Allegro leggierissimo” (as fast and light as possible). They were equally commanding in the brisk opening “Allegro,” the radiant “Andante,” and the exuberant closing “Presto.” 

The scenic Berkshire setting in the wooded hills of Pittsfield and the warm acoustics of the 101-year-old concert hall has attracted discerning audiences since 1918 to this celebrated early fall chamber music series established by legendary music patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.

October 7, 2019

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Opening Night

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
October 5, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

To open the SSO’s 76th season and his own 19th season as its music director, Kevin Rhodes notes in the program book, that he selected three pieces only because he “really wanted to play each one for an opening night.”

After a lively sing-along season-opening “Star-Spangled Banner,” the concert proper began with the Overture to Johann Strauss, Jr.’s famous operetta “Die Fledermaus,” named after a character who attends a costume party dressed as a bat. Orchestra and conductor played this appropriately festive opener with a uniquely Viennese effervescence that he likely absorbed from his frequent work in the Austrian capitol with the Vienna State Opera.

John Novacek
Making his second appearance with the SSO since 2016, American pianist John Novacek then gave a thrilling account of Rachmaninoff’s rarely performed first piano concerto. Written when the Russian composer was only 18 for his 1891 graduation from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the piece was soon overshadowed by his hugely popular second and third concertos. But Novacek’s powerful advocacy made a strong case for it, from the dramatic opening and emotional turmoil of the first movement, to the lyrical beauty of the second, and the “virtuosic-ally” impetuous finale. Rhodes and the SSO supported him with equal intensity and conviction.

Novacek rewarded the audience’s standing ovation with a delightful but knuckle-busting encore, his own “Intoxication” rag, which packed more notes into two minutes than even Rachmaninoff at his most demanding.

The program closed after intermission with what Rhodes called “an insanely beautiful work,” Czech composer Dvorak’s eighth symphony. Written in 1889, its four movements progress from a turbulent “Allegro con brio” through a quietly adventurous “Adagio” and a melancholy “Allegretto grazioso” to a jubilant closing “Allegro ma non troppo.” Under the maestro’s kinetic baton, the musicians delivered an exhilarating rendition of the colorful 36-minute score.

For this concert, the ever-innovating Rhodes swapped the locations on stage of the cellos and second violins, which were now at stage right, across from the first violins, and moved the bass section to the center rear, launching the new season with a rebalanced SSO sound.