Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 27, 2008

The Caretaker

Berkshire Theater Festival, Stockbridge, MA
through June 28th
By Eric Johnson

As subtle as a sledgehammer; that’s how this show comes across. The harshly lit, rubble strewn attic set assaults the eyes and the loud, discordant jazz interlude music assaults the ears. The performances of the three actors seem barely in control as they disgorge dialogue at an almost suicidal cadence.

Director Eric Hill’s choices are sound ones and the total commitment to these choices by the cast and crew is what makes this production work.

James Barry (Mick), Jonathan Epstein (Davies), and Tommy Schrider (Aston) are fully believable as they portray their respective characters, all of them severely damaged in one way or another by life and circumstances. One never questions the authenticity of these individuals as the details of their lots in life are revealed. Kudos to this talented ensemble cast on a job well done.

The attic set by Jonathan Wentz is a study in disheveled detail. One will notice a vast collection of cast-off junk forming a perimeter around the stage as well as several bits of newspaper that appear to have fused into the floor which adds a particularly nice touch.

Matthew Adelson’s use of mostly harsh white light is the perfect choice to add to the general feeling of discomfort and chaos. The costumes by Yoshinori Tanokura work very nicely with the other elements while not attracting undue attention. One might say the costuming is the only aspect of the production that may be deemed subtle.

J Hagenbuckle’s “avant garde” soundtrack, with percussion that sounds like a hammer on steam pipes and a generous dose of dissonance, certainly enhances the overall distress level.

All of these elements, designed to assault the senses, come together as a nicely executed production of Harold Pinter’s work which keeps the audience on the edge of their seats physically and emotionally.

May 23, 2008

Gliere, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall, Springfield
May 17, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

During the pre-concert talk, Music Director Kevin Rhodes described the opening piece as "good, clean fun." Indeed! "The Russian Sailor’s Dance" (from "The Red Poppy") by Reinhold Gliere (1875-1956) began with fortissimo umpah, umpah and never slowed. Triple time! Syncopation! In the midst of such excitement, there were strains of Russian folk music, a partial phrase from perhaps "The Volga Boatman" and fragments of a particular tune, one of many, that claimed the public’s affection at the beginning of World War II for lively, heroic Russian songs. The program, billed as "A Russian Spectacular" was off and whirling.

Into "Serenade (for Strings)" by Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), seduced by the first notes, light, fanciful, strings dancing, tending an invitation, "Come into my music. You’ll like it." Six bass fiddles! During the second movement, the more familiar waltz dominated. The lilting melody encouraged visualization of dancing couples affecting the exaggerated posture of professional dancers – hesitating, dipping, swaying. The Elegie was appropriately reflective, the serenade melody renewed. Music swelled – climbing, climbing – such suspense before unwinding and culminating in a reverie. A similar mood continued in the fourth movement, evolving into a happy mode underscored by lush violas. According to the program notes, the composer wrote, "...I am terribly in love with this Serenade." Peter Ilyich’s "Serenade" is pure, refreshingly devoid of maudlin sentimentality.

"Symphony No. 1 in D Minor" by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) opened assertively. Soon the ascension of violas, higher and higher, was continued by the first violins. Trumpets startled with sharp punctuation. There was slashing, crashing, then melodic teasing, a fitting score for a 1940's Warner Brothers’ pot boiler. Throughout this substantive work, drama prevailed, culminating in the final movement with cymbals, snare drum, trumpets, the pageantry of a militant processional, providing Springfield’s incomparable Maestro Rhodes with an arobic workout and the audience with an infusion of Russian soul.

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
May 21, 2008
By Bernadette Johnson

Academy Award-winning Olympia Dukakis is Flora “Sissy” GoForth, a formerly glamorous American widow sequestered in her mountaintop villa on the Italian Riviera who is frantically dictating her memoirs to her secretary, both day and night. She has two deadlines, one with her publishers, the other with death. Confronted by her own mortality, she lashes out at all around her, in particular her secretary, “Blackie” (Maggie Lacey), a prim and proper Vassar girl.

Christopher Flanders (Kevin Anderson), a good-looking young poet and mobile sculptor who has earned the nickname “Angel of Death” due to his reputation for bringing “comfort” and companionship to rich dying ladies, gains access to the villa, but is unwelcome. “Passports expire; so do invitations,” GoForth reminds him. “Sissy GoForth is not ready to go forth yet.”

Realism and symbolism are interwoven throughout the play, and the audience is never quite sure who the characters really are or what they represent. One thing is certain. For a play with such a morbid theme, the laughs just keep coming. Dukakis gives a superb performance. She is callous and sarcastic, and her delivery and sense of timing are impeccable. From her sickbed (deathbed), she shifts into high gear effortlessly when she realizes there is a young man, possibly a last chance for love, on the premises. Her hysterical take on a Kabuki dancer (in full regalia) is priceless.

It is Dukakis who keeps the tone light. Anderson is at his best (read that “funniest”) as the neglected uninvited houseguest who is denied food. At more serious moments, talking about his life and his role as a “helper,” his delivery was sometimes flat and at times, his words were unintelligible (acoustics?).

Scenic designer Jeff Cowie offers an imposing three-villa set separated by semi-sheer curtains against a mountainous backdrop. A terrace in front of the main villa, complete with bridged ravines, provides the main setting. The constancy of crashing waves sustains the mood.

May 19, 2008

“Happy Days - A New Musical”

Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT
through June 29, 2008
By Shera Cohen

Expect the expected at Goodspeed Opera House for their run of “Happy Days – A New Musical.” For the millions of baby boomers and their parents who loved the TV series, this is a step back in time to fun of the fifties, rock ‘n roll, perfect families, and poodle skirts.

The musical’s title is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, the production is “new.” But there is nothing “new” about “Happy Days.” That’s quite alright. There’s Richie and his buddies, Mr. & Mrs. C, Joanie and Chachi, Arnold’s hangout, and dialogue that’s “really cool.” While not a series regular, Pinky – the hot chick in pink – plays a major role in the musical. Of course, there’s Fonzie. Ronny Howard was credited as the show’s star, but it was Henry Winkler who stole the show. Well, there’s no pretense this time. This play belongs to The Fonz.

Joey Sorge and Sandra DeNise (Fonz and Pinky) create characters, both rough on the outside and fragile on the inside, who are perfect together as they sing to or about each other. Sorge’s “Heartbreak” and DeNise’s “Message in the Music” offer examples of the singing and acting skills of the duo.

There is next to no story. Audience members could have easily turned on a “Happy Days” rerun on “Nick at Nite.” Important is the energetic, athletic, youthful cast of what seem like a dozen “American Idol” top winners, on a colorful and brightly lit set. Put together, these elements make for wholesome entertainment.

Many actors take double and triple roles. While not on the “star” list, Matt Merchant is particularly noticeable as Elvis and later as a tough guy wrestler. Merchant creates caricatures that don’t need to sing very well, but his voice is one of the best onstage.

It is obvious that the actors were cast to look like those on TV. At times, the musical even makes fun and inside jokes about the series. It’s doubtful that the balcony of school kids “got” all of the humor. What they got was a look at times when the worst problem of the day was which plunger to purchase or picking a favorite song on the jukebox.

Beethoven's Missa Solemnis

Hartford Symphony, Bushnell
May 16 and 17, 2008
May 16, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

During the concert preview of Beethoven’s monumental Missa Solemnis, Music Director Edward Cumming was moved to remark that it is the single most difficult score he has ever and may ever conduct. That well may be true but with baton in hand, he conducted the assemblage – the full Hartford Symphony, four soloists, and in tandem with Music Director Richard Coffee the 150+ voices of the Hartford Chorale and CONCORA – with a disciplined passion for the demands of the music’s exalted moods. Mouthing the Latin words, exuding love of the score, Cumming belied any difficulty inherent in conducting this complicated, multi-faceted work.

The Mass in D Major, Opus 123, "Missa Solemnis" is a Mass set to music – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei – and requires soloists to perform seemingly impossible vocal gymnastics. The distinctive voices of soprano Inna Dukach, mezzo soprano Janine Hawley, tenor Steven Tharp, and bass Kevin Deas were reverent, supplicatory, solemn, joyous, earning heightened appreciation for the wondrous dexterity of the human voice. At times, the chorus sopranos sustained notes that trailed away like a bell: reverberations disappeared into nothingness.

The combined sounds of singing voices and musical instruments, including organ and percussion, enveloped the audience with the brilliance of Beethoven’s genius – variances of harmony, tempo, and subtle surprises that appealed to the soul and the mind. During the Credo, Beethoven acclaimed his admiration of Handel, his favorite composer, by incorporating into the score slightly tweaked phrases from The Messiah. In the Sanctus, there was "Hosanna in the highest," and during the Agnus Dei, "For He will live forever and ever!" Composed during his last years, Beethoven (1770-1827) considered the challenging Missa Solemnis his greatest musical accomplishment. He imbued the notes with his evolving spiritual belief, his awe of and deep love for God.

With the entreaty, "Grant us peace," the final concert of the 2007-08 Masterworks Series came to a hushed conclusion. Within a few moments, the audience was on its feet applauding and cheering, blessing the musicians with multiple curtain calls.

May 15, 2008


Greene Room Productions, Monson
through May 16-18, 2008
May 14, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

"My no good, dirty rotten pig-stealing great-great-grandfather!" is the rationale spouted by Stanley, the hero of "Holes," for being wrongly accused, convicted and sentenced to a juvenile detention center preposterously named Camp Green Lake: there is no lake, no lanyard-braiding, no s’mores. Further, the camp uniform is an orange jumpsuit, the camp talisman is a long-handled shovel, and every day every "camper" has to dig a five by five foot hole. The soil is the desert sand in the wilds of West Texas, the home of rattlesnakes and poisonous lizards. Stanley’s orientation is brief. Because of the camp’s remote location, there are no fences; to run away would be tantamount to running into death.

"Holes" began as a novel (1998) by Louis Sachar; the book won many awards including the National Book Award. The play premiered in 2002 and the 2003 movie starred Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight and Shia LaBeouf .

The cast is huge – 32 characters – ranging from children to the middleaged. There are, seemingly, separate story lines, that begin in 19th century Latvia, switch to Texas at the beginning of the 20th century, and come together in today’s West Texas. There’s a gypsy, Madame Zeroni (Deb Sprout) and the pig-stealing ancestor as a young man (Kasey Greene). There’s Sam, the onion man (James-Ethan Linton) and schoolmarm Katherine Barlow who transforms herself into the outlaw, Kissin’ Kate Barlow (Emmy Cote).

Most of all there are the delinquents – Xray (David Clark), Magnet (Jin Choi), Armpit (Joe Masterjohn), Zigzag (Jacob LaPierre), Zero (Josiah Durham) and Stanley (Paul Adzima) – each one a full-fledged character. Adzima is outstanding. Produced and deftly directed by Erin Greene, the all-volunteer crew and cast have created a polished production

As farfetched as it may seem, "Holes" and the perennially popular, "The Christmas Story" (think Red Ryder BB gun) are similarly engaging. Both pass the family entertainment litmus test. However, "Holes" exudes non-stop energy.

May 11, 2008

A Little Night Music

Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA
Now through May 17, 2008
May 9, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

If the meanings within the song, "Send In The Clowns" have eluded you, the answers await within the musical now glowing at Exit 7 Players theater. At the core of this engrossing marriage of lyrics which along with the spoken word propel the plot forward, is love that reveals its link with the four basic emotions: mad, glad, sad, and afraid.

"A Little Night Music" bursts open with a Greek-like chorus of five superb singers: Harrison King III, Mary Annarella, Michelle Liaszenik, Katie Clark (who knows how to sell a song) and at the performance I saw, Director Robert Laviolette filled in for laryngitis-silenced Ken Hebert. They deliver Stephen Sondheim’s intricate lyrics and music at a steady clip – the Sondheim signature: do not to fret if there’s not time to catch every word.

A plot synopsis can only hint at the rampant hanky-panky, the desperate longings, the pain of betrayals. An aging attorney, Fredrik (winningly portrayed by Phil Prather) has wed Anne, a mere girl (the delightful Stephanie Devine). His former lover, Desiree (Roxanne Labato, a polished pro), is a worldly courtesan, and her current amour Count Carl-Magnus (forceful Andy Banas) is jealous and his wife Countess Charlotte (Mary Fernandez-Sierra who almost steals the show) grows a spine, sort of. When she describes her pain as a betrayed wife in, "Every Day A Little Death," the destructive power of adultery is laid bare. Featured in the large cast is the young love-starved seminarian Henrik (an endearing Michael Holt), perky Petra (Jami Wilson), winsome Fredrika (Sara Banning) and her weary grandmother Madame Armfeldt (Esta Busi). Zack Parizo, Aileen Terzi, Sarah Dion and Marc Parsons perform their supporting roles with imbedded characterization.

Act One ends with all liaisons poised to implode during Act Two – a weekend in the country at Madame Armfeldt’s palatial mansion (designed and painted by Ken Samonds). Costumer Maryann Scognamiglio has created a symphony of beautiful, lush costumes. that reflect early 1900 styles.

Kudos to Director Robert Laviolette and Musical Director Bill Martin for bringing in an intricate, tricky, first-rate show in keeping with the Exit 7 Players commitment to present quality performances. Their "A Little Night Music" is a community theater triumph.

May 9, 2008

Bazaar Productions Produces Berkshire Fringe 2008

Jeffrey Weiss

While many are not yet aware of Berkshire Fringe, this troupe of young actors, crew, and teachers launch their fourth summer season. Featuring groundbreaking original works of theatre, dance and music by emerging artists from across the U.S, the festival takes place at Simon's Rock College, Great Barrington. The action-packed three-week festival also includes :30 Live!, a free pre-show music series featuring performances by sonic innovators; EarlyStages, a showcase of new plays by local young playwrights; Friday Films, a late night series of new films; and many other special events including post-show artist discussions and free community workshops. On any given day from July 16 - August 4, audience members may attend up to three diverse performances in all price ranges from free to low cost.

A perfect example of the sort of entertainment to expect is their first play “Miracle Tomato.” Hundreds of tomatoes fall from the sky. Creator Jessica Cerullo recounts the rich and prolific history of the tomato in this sobering and hysterical comedy that examines cultivation, mass consumption, and the changing dynamics of food and family.

May 8, 2008

Jesus Christ Superstar

Bushnell, Hartford
May 6, 2008
By Bernadette Johnson

There’s something to be said for the tried and true. Doubtless, it was this that led to the choice of Ted Neeley for the lead role in the current tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s timeless rock musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Neeley, who at age 65 is almost twice the age Jesus was when he died, was nominated for two Golden Globe awards for his groundbreaking performance as Jesus in the 1973 film version and has played Jesus in thousands of performances on and off for decades. A legend is a legend. But is it enough?

It took Neeley a while to hit his stride, his voice a little scratchy and rough during Act I, but he was up to the task in Act II, hitting the high wailing notes of “The Temple” and “Gethsemane,” demonstrating that he still possesses a great vocal range.

JCS standouts included newcomer Corey Glover, lead singer of the rock group Living Colour, in a riveting, heartfelt performance as Judas, and Tiffini Dodson as a tender, solicitous Mary Magdalene. Glover owned the stage from the first notes of “Heaven on their Minds” and never gave it up, culminating his performance with a heart-wrenching “Judas’ Death.”

As Caiaphas, Darrel R. Whitney’s shockingly deep basso profundo tones are rich and ominous, and Craig Sculli is intriguing as Pilate. Adding comic relief is Aaron Fuksa, whose Herod performs his campy routine in multicolored bathrobe and fluorescent Crocs.

Favorite moments included the disciples’ recreation of the poses of DaVinci’s “The Last Supper,” which the audience immediately recognized and reacted to, and the leper scene, where a sea of dark cloth, leaving only hooded heads visible, convulsed and undulated, a writhing mass of suffering humanity.

Strategic lighting (especially beams of white light that appear to trap Judas and prevent him from escaping his guilt), striking audio and visual effects throughout, a simple set (a few platforms and a catwalk bridge), fabric drops, monochromatic costumes, wonderful energy and great sound combine to make this a truly memorable performance.

Blithe Spirit

Suffield Players
Mapleton Hall, Suffield
through May 17, 2008
May 1, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

All hail the incomparably gifted Noel Coward – dramatist, actor, writer, composer, lyricist, painter, and wit, knighted by Queen Elizabeth – whose impressive body of work lives on, including his bright comedy "Blithe Spirit," the latest star in the Suffield Players’ crown.

Charles (Christopher Berrien, so suave, whose glides and dips are reminiscent of Jackie Gleason), a novelist, is married to Ruth (Becky Schoenfeld, rather uptight), his second wife, while above the mantle hangs a picture of his first wife, Elvira (Rayah Martin, once a vamp, always a vamp) who has been dead and gone for seven years but not forgotten. Because Charles’ new novel’s plot will include the occult, he invites the eccentric Madame Arcati (Kelly Seip, delightfully dotty) to conduct a seance. Other guests are Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Bruce Showalter and Cynthia Lee Andersen, whose marriage must be a perfunctory bore). Forever one misstep away from a pratfall is the always-in-a-hurry maid, Edith (Brianna Stronk).

Throughout this three-act sophisticated romp, Coward’s impeccable dialogue entertains. Simple laugh lines include such non-sitcom words as didactic, puerile, obtuse, umbrage, and phrases such as "threw in the sponge and not the gauntlet" and "Concentrate! Think of nothing!" The cast spits out bantering at a steady clip and has a jolly good time doing so. Oh yes, they’re frightfully British, swig many martinis, and the real world is turned on its ear by the spirit world.

Veteran Seip squeezes every possible laugh out of the flighty Madame Arcati. Equally adept at comedic timing is Stronk whose previous roles include strong dramatic performances as Laura (The Glass Menagerie) and Catherine (The Heiress).

Director Robert Lunde works the Suffield Players magic on their latest arresting set -- the livingroom in a English country cottage designed by him and Konrad Rogowski

The history of "Blithe Spirit" invites name-dropping. At its 1941debut in England, the great Margaret Rutherford was Madame Arcati; on Broadway that same year, Mildred Natwick did the honors. Both actresses reprised their roles in the British and American film versions; and Natwick also in the 1956 U.S. television version. Although born 67 years ago, the play is ageless.

May 2, 2008

"How I Spent My Summer Vacation Last Summer...and How I Will Do Nearly the Same This Summer"

by Shera Cohen

It's all in the numbers. Take seven women (a motley group of divorced, married, single, and widowed) from the Atlantic coast (Maine, Boston, Springfield, and North Carolina). Add 22 cultural events. Mix with three essential take-along items - food, event tickets, and bug spray. Leave behind six important items - dogs, cats, men, plants, mail, and computers. You are now ready to vacation in the Berkshires. And, think of the number of dollars saved in gas because everything is situated close together.

In past years, my Summer Vacation article has read like a diary. To make life easier on the reader, the following is an alphabetical list of our arts' experiences, followed by a look at some of this year's plans.

Berkshire Choral Festival, Sheffield

I don't know why I hadn't attended a BCF performance until recently. Perhaps I thought that Sheffield was a distance; it isn't. Knowing that the Springfield Symphony is the "backup" should have indicated that this was the place to be. Each week, 200 or so amateur choral singers descend on the Berkshire School to rehearse for 6-days, perform one concert, and return to their homes throughout the world. The next week, it happens again with a different group, conductor, and music. We heard Dvorak's rarely performed spectacular "Stabat Mater." I'll attend two concerts this July including my favorite, "Carmina Burana."

Berkshire Fringe, Great Barrington

New to the Berkshires, Fringe is experimental, novel, and avante garde music, theatre, and dance. I applaud the trio of young producers who have created workshops, free concerts, children's shows, and extremely low-admission theatre for audiences of all ages. I saw two plays, both one-acts; a stand-up comedy-ish play and the other an excerpt of seven vignettes taken from "365 Days/365 Plays." What I didn't see included "Lounge-Zilla" and the chamber opera "Venus in Furs." Fringe asks its audience to "alter your view," and it certainly offers many ways to do just that. This summer, we'll spend an entire day participating in play readings, hearing a free concert, and attending a play. Long day, but I'm sure, worth it.

Berkshire Scenic Railroad, Stockbridge

Maybe it wasn't exactly "art" but it was fun. Adult women riding the rail felt like many steps back in time. At least the train and tracks were older than we were. This 1920s passenger coach traveled 20-minutes back and forth, so we saw the same view frontward and backwards. We heard a voice giving us facts about the area. The ride was bumpy, the squeaks loud, and the seats hot. The kids alongside us didn't care. Nor did we. The end of the run was the Railway Museum to see memorabilia and photographs. This is a weekend journey only, also along a 90-minute route.

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge

BTF has two theatres and just because one is bigger than the other in no way reflects on the quality of acting, directing, or production values. About to celebrate its 80th year, they will have to perform quite well to outdo their 79th. At the Unicorn Theatre, where more experimental plays take place, was "My Pal George," a political satire and guess who George was? "The Two-Headed" had one of the oddest titles yet was one of the Unicorn's best dramas staged in many years. On the Mainstage, "Morning's at Seven" starred a bunch of TV actors, and that helps to bring in new audiences, but "names" were not important for this delightful tragicomedy set in the 1920s. On this summer's calendar is "The Pageant Play," "A Man for All Seasons," and "Noel Coward in Two Keys."

Chesterwood, Stockbridge

This is the home of the man who created the Lincoln statue. Chesterwood is, essentially, a tour in three parts. There's the guided tour of the sculptor's studio and home which includes information on the process of creating such large pieces. Follow with a self-guided walk through the beautifully landscaped acres of property to see modern sculpture with price tags in the hundreds of thousands. Finally, look closely at the prolific work of Andrew DeVries. Since we wanted to see more DeVries, we ventured to his studio in downtown Lenox. The floating bronze dancers seen throughout the Berkshires are his pieces.

The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown

One of the most beautiful museums in New England, the Clark is renowned for its on-going collection and special touring exhibits. Monet was the "star" at this visit. Titled "The Unknown Monet," participants could easily trace the progression of his work from a caricaturist to one of the most justifiably famous Impressionists through dozens of paintings. Monet is in good company, alongside pieces by Degas, Pissarro, Cassatt, and especially prominent at the Clark is John Singer Sargent. Numerous special events, free concerts, and lectures take place all year. It's worth stopping by the delightful Moonlight Café straight out of the 1950s.

Cranwell Resort, Lenox

No, we didn't have massages or play golf; although both would be nice. We did, however, laugh continuously to Capitol Steps. The satirical, nationally known comedy troupe began their annual summer tour at Cranwell last year, and they are a welcome addition. For those who like current event reports edgy, risqué, humorous, and with music, Steps outdoes Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. The quintet pens offbeat and topical lyrics (and there is an abundance to choose from in this political year) to Broadway tunes. Certainly, our President was the butt of many jabs. They'll still have Bush to bash this summer when I attend.

Jacob's Pillow, Becket

It was nice to sit in the Pillow's barn on a comfortable day. Yet, even when the temperature is in the 90s, I have always seen a full-house. This is the arts venue where more teens (and younger) attend than any other. Bravo to our next generation of art lovers. The Royal Danish Ballet presented a world premiere. Set against backdrops of art or simply the back of the stage, the dancers paired, worked in trios, quartets, and ensembles in seven pieces. While I don't excel at understanding dance, I had no trouble here. The ballet was light and humorous. I will be seeing the Hofesh Shechter Company.

Mass MoCA, North Adams

MM has become a staple for tourists. It's no wonder, with their mix of music, dance, film, and huge pieces of modern sculpture and other art forms. Sometimes the canvas stretches the entire length of a wall, other art hangs above your head, and there might also be a dinosaur-size can opener in an exhibit. Creators are professionals from New England to the Netherlands. Admittedly, I sometimes question why a 36-foot watercolor with thousands of dots is called art. But, I will not define "art" for anyone else. "Band on a Can Festival" was such a success that it continues this summer.

The Mount, Lenox

You thought there was nothing to do in the Berkshires on a Monday. Wrong. For the past 15 years, The Mount Lecture Series has presented afternoon talks by authors of recently published biographies. It matters little if you have heard of either the author or his/her subject. The lectures are conversational, insightful, and entertaining; the Q&A is lively. Frances Kiernan spoke about Brooke Astor - an anti-Astor who gave her money away in the true definition of philanthropy. For our second lecture, Judith Farr's talk on Emily Dickinson proved that Farr was enthralled with Dickinson, as we were with both women. I will see three authors in July and August, as the series runs for two months.

Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge

Is there an American alive who does not know at least one of Rockwell's works? Probably not, and hopefully not. This prolific artist (in my humble opinion) was never given due credit as a consummate talent. Perhaps his stories were too familiar that we took him for granted? Maybe we saw The Post or other media with his cover art and dismissed the extraordinary skills? Whatever the case, this museum is dedicated to Rockwell, along with touring exhibits of his contemporaries. Participate in gallery talks, listen to concerts, let the kids join workshops - there is something to do 24/7.

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox

I admit it without shame - S&Co. is my favorite place in the Berkshires, and perhaps in the whole USA. If they had more plays, I would be there all summer. A misnomer about S&Co. is that they only perform works by the Bard. That's the case about half the time. The other half are all in plain English, some familiar plays and some brand new. Extremely skilled directors to watch for are Jonathan Croy, Michael Hammond, and Tina Packer. All three are equally talented actors. The requirement of all at S&Co. is multi-talent from acting to directing to mopping the floor. No prima donna's here. There's just too much to write about S&Co. See my website instead. As for this year, there's "Othello," "All's Well that Ends Well," "The Ladies Man," "The Mad Pirate & the Mermaid," "The Goatwoman of Corvis County" and free Shakespeare lectures.

Tanglewood, Lenox

What can I say about Tanglewood's music, conductors, orchestra, soloists, concert halls, outdoor setting, and even the gift shops, that many others have not already written? All of the accolades are true. On any given week, you can attend as many as four concerts as well as public rehearsals. And on any given week the performers are the Boston Symphony, the Boston Pops, a guest orchestra, and do not forget the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. The latter are students who perform and sound every bit as wonderful as the pros. Again, just check my website for many Tanglewood review. The writing might seem repetitious. After all, how many superlatives are there? As for this summer, we will go to just about anything, because everything is "a winner."

Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown

Experience one of the best no-cost activities in the Berkshires - Williams College Museum. But it's on a campus and only students are allowed. Nope. It's for everyone. Considered one of the finest college art museums in the country, there are 12,000 works. Huge eyeball sculptures greet you upon entering. Once there, the large staircase is backed by a rainbow of vivid colors. A photo exhibit from the 1920s was the summer attraction. Yet, on every day but Monday, the public can enjoy Mary Cassett's pastels and Winslow Homer's seas, for example.

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown

I hadn't been to WTF to see their new, modern, comfortable theatre. The venue doesn't change the quality of the productions, but amenities are appreciated. Oftentimes, the play selections have been old chestnuts, or at least, the tried and true. I'd never seen better productions of "Hedda Gabler" or "A Doll's House" anywhere. Falling in the chestnut category was "Blithe Spirit." TV's Wendie Malik was a great plus for the play. Later on we saw the drama "The Corn Is Green" starring mother and son, Kate Burton and Morgan Ritchie. This was truly one of WTF's best in recent memory. Our plan is to attend "Brokology," "A Flea in Her Ear," and "The Understudy" this summer.

Whew…exhausted. Yet, we didn't see everything; there's Barrington Stage, Berkshire Museum, Mahaiwe Theatre, Berkshire Botanical Garden, and Colonial Theatre. I hope to fit each in this summer. You might think that all we "do" is culture. Well, almost. We always wedge in time to shop at the Lee Outlets, walk through the Town of Lenox, and sit on the rocking chairs of the Red Lion porch. After all, we could use a rest.

Jacob's Pillow photo of Rasta Thomas of Lar Lubovitch Dance Company by Erin Baiano.

Norman Rockwell Museum image "Clash of the Titans" ©2008 Stephen Bodner. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

May 1, 2008

Respighi, Fuchs, Montague, Elgar

Hartford Symphony Orchestra
Bushnell, Hartford
April 30, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

Suddenly, organist Edward Clark’s thundering chord opened the latest program in the Masterworks Series, a reverberation that if created within dimmed light and long shadows could inject fear into one’s marrow . But in the lighted safety of Mortensen Hall, with the joining of throbbing cellos and the sweetness of violins, the Cantico of Ottorino Respighi’s (1879-1936) Suite in G Major for Organ and Strings became more celestial than sepulchral.

The composing of "Canticle To The Sun" by Kenneth Fuchs (b. 1956), a concerto for horn and orchestra, was inspired by the "virtuosic playing" of Timothy Jones, principal hornist of the London Symphony Orchestra. The evening’s world premiere featured internationally acclaimed soloist Richard Todd whose burnished French horn shone with the brilliance of a jeweler’s window and sent forth enriched variations of tunes based upon the Protestant hymn, "All Creatures of Our God and King." At times, the dialog between soloist and orchestra seemed to be spontaneous, as if the magnificent horn was saying, "Listen to my thoughts!" and the strings, eager to understand, were responding, "Is this what you meant?"

"Behold a Pale Horse" for organ, two trumpets, two horns, two trombones and a tuba by Stephen Montague (b. 1943), was inspired by The Apocalypse as described by John in the Book of Revelation. Maestro Edward Cumming read aloud: "And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hellfire followed with him. And Power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with all the beasts of the earth." For the next fifteen minutes, the eight musicians roiled the score into a cacophony of awesome magnitude. The terror banished in Respighi’s Cantico was transferred with a vengeance into this blaring assault that manifested mental images of a violent end of this world.

Variations on an Original Theme, "Enigma," Opus 36 by Edward Elgar (1957-1934) tapped into what oxygen remained in the hall. According to the composer, the theme is silent but is suggested through a series of clues. We can speculate all we want but we’ll never know what Elgar had in mind. The composer created musical mini portraits of his friends, hence a smorgasbord of orchestrations: if some friends were delightful and some weren’t, the overall effect was charming.