Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 30, 2021

Review: Yiddish Book Center, The Dead Man (radio drama)

Yiddish Book Center, Amherst, MA
through May 9, 2021
by Shera Cohen

I remember, several decades ago, visiting my Bubie (grandmother) on a Sunday; every Sunday no matter what the weather or anything more important to the younger me. I bless those Sundays now. Her tenement apartment was large, even by today's standards. Her radio, to the right of the kitchen, was also large; approximately 4 feet high. This was the radio that the entire proverbial family sat around, kids on the floor, listening intensely to stories. I suppose the radio also broadcast news of the day, comedians bantering, and advertisements. I was too young to remember most of what I heard, but snippets in my brain seem to recall Maxwell House Coffee as the sponsor of just about everything in those days.

Delighting my burgeoning love of theatre was listening to these stories, the short plays with full casts complete with background sound effects. I don't know if "playettes" is an actual word, but it's the best description I can think of calling these mysteries, comedies, dramas, and monologues. I doubt if the younger me would have fully understood the text of the play "The Dead Man". However, the Yiddish Book Center's production was poignant and telling.

The Coronavirus-19 has, for good or bad, brought back many of the older modes of presenting theatre and other entertainment, like music, that doesn't necessarily have to be seen to fully appreciate. The cast of approximately 10 actors spoke with enunciation that clearly created an image of each character to the listeners. The turn-of-the 19th-century European vignette was spoken in English with a Yiddish flavor. 

The crux was the entry of a stranger into the midst of a poor little village. It is not a spoiler to say that the man is G-d's recruiter. He spoke in a deep, dark monotone. Obviously, the director called for the actor's demeanor, although the sound resonated a foreboding and unpleasant image. The other characters are entranced as they see and hear this creation who looks like a man. He talks authoritatively and steadfastly encouraging the villagers to follow him to heaven, yet the words "heaven" or "death" are never spoken. The interaction between the man and his fiancé is the most important segment of the play. The two seemingly have very little interest in each other; perhaps an arranged marriage as was common then?

"The Dead Man" might mean that our physical bodies encase the sounds of our inner beings, our souls. The stranger repeatedly encourages the others to follow him to heaven. I believe that a radio drama permits more interpretation than a play onstage. Perhaps others agree with me, or not.

Direct link to purchase viewing opportunity: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_32SlM0UmQhelujR46s-6hQ

REVIEW: Felix, Fanny, and Frederic, Close Encounters With Music

Close Encounters With Music, Great Barrington, MA
www.cewm.org
April 25, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

Yehuda Hanani
Close Encounters With Music continues to present virtual chamber music concerts from the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington during the Covid pandemic. Their latest program, recorded on the Mahaiwe stage before a small live audience, featured Romanian-born violinist Irina Muresanu, Boston-based pianist Max Levinson, and CEWM Artistic Director and cellist Yehuda Hanani. It is available on the CEWM web site.

The concert’s full title was “Felix, Fanny, and Frederic: Chopin and the Mendelssohns.” In his typically witty and cogent introductory remarks, Hanani made clear that while Felix and Frederic knew and respected each other professionally, their musical and personal temperaments were worlds apart: Felix Mendelssohn was gregarious and comfortable in a wide range of public roles, while the crowd-averse Frederic Chopin channeled all his passion into his music. 

No better illustration of this point could be offered than the fiery performance by Levinson of Chopin’s 1840 second piano sonata that opened the program. The “Grave – Doppio movimento” first movement was alternately warm and turbulent, while the following “Scherzo” offset a tempestuous main theme with a sensuous trio interlude. The famous “Funeral March” was somber and stark, after which the astonishing minute-long “Presto” finale flashed by in a chromatic blur. Hanani then joined Levinson in a charming account of the tender “Largo” movement from Chopin’s sonata for cello and piano.  

Fanny Mendelssohn received “the same musical education and gifts” as her four-years-younger brother, Hanani noted, but “proper roles” for women of her time and class limited her potential as a composer and performer to a small circle of family and friends.  Based on the lovely “Adagio” for violin and piano which Muresanu played with silken tone and Levinson with delicate finesse, Hanani might consider exploring more of the 450 pieces which Fanny wrote.

The full trio closed the program with a powerfully dramatic rendition of Felix’s first piano trio. The opening “Molto allegro ed agitato” was commanding, followed by a ravishing “Andante con moto tranquillo,” a light-as-a-feather “Scherzo,” and a muscular, passionate “Finale,” overflowing with what Hanani called Mendelssohn’s “uplifting optimism and unwavering hope.” Sound and video quality were straightforward, conveying a good sense of the hall.


April 29, 2021

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Concert 2

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
www.springfieldsymphony.org
through May 21, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

After presenting short weekly “Homegrown” videos of themselves performing individually at home and several lecture/music education events via Zoom, SSO musicians are now offering a series of three hour-long chamber music concerts. The second one, filmed at Focus Springfield Community TV and available for on-demand streaming at the SSO web site through May 21, featured: a string quartet; two more string players; and three percussionists.

SSO Music Director Kevin Rhodes introduced each of the program’s six pieces with his usual enthusiasm, and program notes by the performers offered additional background information. The string quartet (violinists Masako Yanagita and Marsha Harbison, violist Delores Thayer, and cellist Boris Kogan) opened with an intense, heartfelt account of the “Nocturne” slow movement from Borodin’s 1881 second string quartet. This lovely music was used in the 1953 Broadway musical “Kismet” and the 2006 Disney short film “The Little Matchgirl.”  

Nathan Lassell
Percussionist Nathan Lassell next played an arrangement for marimba of “Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum” from Debussy’s 1906 solo piano suite “Children’s Corner,” producing a delicate, shimmering sound. Violinist Beth Welty and violist Noralee Walker then brought rhapsodic energy to the first movement (“Allegro”) of Mozart’s rarely heard 1783 first string duo and soulful depth to the second movement (“Adagio”). Lassell followed with an exciting set of variations for marimba by Eric Sammut on Astor Piazzolla’s 1974 “Libertango,” accompanied by Robert McEwan on cajon, a Peruvian box-shaped drum played by slapping its front.

The string quartet returned with a dazzling performance of the dramatic last movement of Beethoven’s final string quartet, urgently following every mysterious shift of mood and tempo to its triumphant conclusion. Percussionist Martin Kluger then joined Lassell and McEwan on multiple instruments to close the concert on a raucously rhythmic note with the first movement (just as relentless as its title – “Meccanico” - sounds) of Nebojsa Jovan Zivkovic’s exhilarating 1995 “Trio Per Uno.” 

Acoustics were close and clean, while the videography nicely combined individual and group perspectives on the masked and distantly spaced players. Several top-down shots of the percussion trio were particularly revealing and entertaining.    


April 26, 2021

REVIEW: Haydn & Schubert, Albany Symphony

Albany Symphony, Albany, NY
www.albanysymphony.com
April 24 – May 24, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

This latest program in the Albany Symphony’s current season of livestreamed monthly concerts by smaller ensembles of their members during the Covid pandemic paired two pieces by living composers, including a world premiere, with two works by classic composers. The concert will be available for 30 days on demand at the orchestra’s web site, and the livestream added access to a pre-concert discussion and a post-concert Q&A session.

Recorded at Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs, NY, and led by the orchestra’s longtime Music Director David Alan Miller, the concert opened with the world premiere of Tanner Porter’s “A Flash of Teeth Before the Bite,” which she calls in her program note “a surreal dance for a moment of warning” that evokes “a dog lunging in slow motion.” The 28-member orchestra’s perky account of the colorful six-minute score belied its alarming title with spiky harmonies that often suggested a 21st-century Copland. 

The restless mood continued with Haydn’s “Symphony No. 46,” written in 1772 during his experimental “storm and stress” period. The Albany performance was dramatic in the opening “Vivace” movement, lilting in the “Poco adagio,” swift in the fleeting two-minute “Menuet: Allegretto,” and mercurial in a “Presto e scherzando” finale full of surprises and Haydn’s trademark humor.

Melissa White
Next came George Tsontakis’s 2003 second violin concerto, which the Greek-American composer and Bard College music professor described in the pre-concert talk as a “democratic concerto,” where the soloist blends in with the accompanying chamber orchestra. Rising African-American violinist Melissa White brilliantly captured the shifting Messiaen-like flavors of its four imaginatively titled movements: (1) “Surges (among stars);” (2) “Giocco (Games);” (3) “Cantilena (Heart);” and (4) “Just Go!” 

The concert closed in a mood of classical calm with a bouyant rendition of Schubert’s 1816 fifth symphony, which exuded Mozart’s strong influence on the nineteen-year-old composer. It featured a graceful opening “Allegro,” a flowing “Andante con moto,” a brisk “Menuetto: Allegro molto,” and a whirlwind “Allegro vivace” finale.

The musicians were masked except for woodwind and brass players, acoustics were full and clear, and videography was creative and engaging. Miller’s livestream pre-concert conversation with Porter and Tsontakis and their post-concert answers, plus White’s, to audience live chat questions were informative and entertaining.


REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Sunday Serenades

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
www.hartfordsymphony.org
through June 10, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

Having presented virtual hour-long “Spotlight” concerts this past year by HSO ensembles and virtual “Masterworks In-Depth” conversations led by HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan about music they would have played live this season but for Covid, the HSO is now offering a new virtual “Sunday Serenades” concert. Entitled “Sculpture and the Symphony: From Prometheus to Piazzolla,” it was filmed at the Wadsworth Atheneum’s current exhibition “Paul Manship: Ancient Made Modern” and will be available on-demand at the orchestra’s web site through June 10, 2021.

It features eight HSO musicians, led by concertmaster Leonid Sigal, who chats with Wadsworth curator Erin Monroe between musical selections about how those reflect themes in Manship’s bronze sculptures. For example, what Monroe sees as the “sensuous [and] risqué” interpretation of Greek mythology in Manship’s 1914 “Centaur and Dryad” finds a parallel in Astor Piazzolla’s “Milonga sin Palabras” (“Song without Words”), a wistful seven-minute tango rhapsody hauntingly played by violinist Sigal, violist Michael Wheeler, and cellist Jia Cao.

The three compact movements of Samuel Barber’s 1928 “Serenade,” the 17-year-old composer’s first published work, similarly updated this classical music form with modern but lush post-Romantic harmonies in a glowing performance by Sigal, Wheeler, and Cao, with violinist Lisa Rautenberg and bassist Edward R. Rozie, Jr. 

A 1954 arrangement by Austrian musician Franz Hasenohrl reduces Richard Strauss’s 1895 orchestral tone poem “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” to five players and ten minutes (from fifteen) in his “Till Eulenspiegel another way!” This light-hearted parody of a medieval German folk hero was hilariously played by Sigal, Rozie, hornist Barbara Hill, bassoonist Pinghua Felix Ren, and clarinetist Curt Blood.   

Just as Manship’s gilded Prometheus at New York’s Rockefeller Center brought fire to humankind, Beethoven brought new light to music in masterpieces like his solo piano “Eroica Variations” on a theme that he used in multiple works. Sigal led Rautenberg, Wheeler, Cao, and Blood in a brilliant world premiere of his own colorful chamber arrangement. 

The Wadsworth acoustics were intimate against the striking background of Manship’s 1917 “Four Elements.” The musicians clearly felt the same “energy” that Sigal said they’ve found at past “Sunday Serenade” concerts with audiences at the museum.    



April 22, 2021

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Spotlight Series

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
www.hartfordsymphony.org
through May 9, 2021
by Michael J. Moran
 
The sixth episode in the HSO’s monthly virtual “Spotlight Series” of 60-minute concerts by HSO ensembles recorded at Hartford area venues is now available on-demand at the orchestra’s web site through May 9, 2021. Filmed at the Connecticut Historical Society and entitled “Spring Strings,” it featured eleven HSO musicians, divided into three separate groups, playing music by six diverse composers written or arranged for strings.
 
The HSO String Quartet (violinists Lisa Rautenberg and Martha Kayser, violist Nicholas Borghoff, and cellist Jeffrey Krieger) opened with a sprightly account of three dances that British composer Edward German wrote for an 1892 production of the Shakespeare/Fletcher play “Henry VIII:” courtly in the first; stately in the second; and dashing in the last. They followed that with a dramatic rendition of Philip Glass’s somber 1983 second string quartet, whose ten-minute length consists of four short movements merging subtly into a seamless whole.
 
The A Piacere Quartet (violinists Jaroslaw Lis and Deborah Tyler, violist Michael Wheeler, and cellist Jia Cao), whose name translates to “At Your Pleasure,” next gave a luscious performance of the “Andante” slow movement from Florence Price’s 1929 string quartet in G major, in which the nostalgic main theme reflects the composer’s African-American heritage. The same ensemble played George Gershwin’s lovely “Lullaby” with similar warmth and affection.   
 
The committed performance by the Mosaic Trio (violinist Lu Sun Friedman, violist Pat Daly Vance, and cellist Peter Zay) of the first two movements of Beethoven’s string trio in C minor captured exactly the qualities promised in Vance’s spoken introduction: “nervous energy and angst” (in the “Allegro con spirito”) and “contemplation and hope” (in the “Adagio con espressione”). Zay’s virtuosic arrangement of “Hedwig’s Theme” from the John Williams score for the film “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” drew an alternately delicate and driving account from the Trio.
 
The CHS acoustics were clean and straightforward. The formal attire of the masked and distanced musicians suited the historic setting. HSO Artistic Operations Manager Colette Hall offered enlightening introductions to several of the pieces and enthusiastic welcome and closing remarks.

April 13, 2021

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Concert #1

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA

www.springfieldsymphony.org

Through May 21, 2021

by Michael J. Moran

 

Following short weekly “Homegrown” videos of themselves performing individually at home and several lecture/music education events via Zoom, SSO musicians have now launched a series of three hour-long chamber music concerts. The first one, filmed at Focus Springfield Community TV and available for on-demand streaming at the SSO web site through May 21, featured three SSO ensembles: a string trio; a string quartet; and a percussion trio.

 

SSO Music Director Kevin Rhodes introduced each piece with his trademark ebullience, noting how happy the musicians were to be playing together after a year apart. Program notes by the performers offered additional background information. Since they couldn’t observe his 250th birthday anniversary in live performances last year, the first three pieces were early works by Beethoven.

 

The string trio (violinist Beth Welty, violist Noralee Walker, and cellist Joel Wolfe) started with a robust, sinewy account of the energetic opening movement of the 23-year-old composer’s first string trio, which already sounded bigger than similar works by his older contemporaries. The string quartet (violinists Masako Yanagita and Marsha Harbison, violist Delores Thayer, and cellist Boris Kogan) next presented an intense, urgent rendition of the dramatic first movement of Beethoven’s fourth string quartet, written with growing maturity five years later.

 

The percussion trio (Martin Kluger, Nathan Lassell, and Robert McEwan) then played Kluger’s imaginative arrangement for two marimbas and nine other percussion instruments of the somber slow movement from Beethoven’s fourth piano sonata. The result was surprisingly delicate and ethereal, with the main themes played on the marimbas, and the non-pitched instruments supplying what Kluger calls “sustain” and “depth” contrast.

 

The string trio returned with a lilting performance of Zoltan Kodaly’s brief 1905 “Intermezzo for String Trio,” reflecting the folk music he was then collecting in his native Hungary. The concert ended with the world premiere of Kluger’s own “Sudoku 75” for three percussionists, each playing nine instruments. Inspired by the number puzzle which Kluger began playing daily during the pandemic, the gradually accelerating piece brought the program to an exuberant close.

 

Acoustics were intimate and clear, while the videography mixed group shots with revealing close-ups of the masked and distantly spaced musicians.