Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 30, 2010

Close Encounters with Music

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
April 24, 2010
by Terry Larsen

A life spent in the company of the most gifted artists of the day endowed Frederic Chopin with a unique perception that informed his profound understanding of the evolving sensibilities, techniques, and elements of style of the period. A list of Chopin's associates is a veritable Who's Who of the greatest literary and musical figures of the early 19th Century. Music drawn from this rich web of associations served as the basis for a recent program sponsored by the Close Encounters with Music series at the Mahaiwe.

After informative remarks by Artistic Director Yehuda Hanani, pianist Adam Neiman played works for solo piano by Chopin including a Ballade, two of his Nocturnes, and a nocturne by John Field (a proponent of the genre). Neiman's sure execution was tempered with exquisite attention to melodic line and beautifully shaped phrases. His playing was inspiring throughout the evening, whether as soloist or in ensemble.

Three Caprices for two Cellos by Auguste Franchomme, one of Chopin's two piano teachers, were beautifully played by Maestro Hanani and Amy Gillingham. Violinist Stefan Milenkovich joined Neiman and Gillingham for Johann Hummel's Trio in A major. A tour de force in its own right, the three players played masterfully. Hanani and Neiman were at there very best in the playing of Chopin's last work the Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor (played the composer's own funeral). Hanani has truly mastered this exhausting score and made it his own. Neiman was responsive to the needs of every moment, playing in true partnership with the robust sonority of the cellist.

Finally, music by Paganini made its appearance in the form of excerpts from Introductions and Variations, Opus 38, and Violin Concerto No. 2, Opus 7 played by Milenkovich. The extreme technical demands and special techniques of these works are outrageous. Milenkovich introduced the pieces by saying, "they are insane!" He then proceeded to show that he was more than up to the task of conquering the technical challenges while bringing out the good humor in the pieces.

April 28, 2010


TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
through May 23, 2010
by Jarice Hanson

Has anyone, or everyone, ever realized that what you think of yourself may not be what other people think? This is the premise of "Souvenir," a play based on the real life of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York socialite who thought she had a beautiful operatic voice, when in reality, she couldn't product two consecutive notes in tune. While she regularly performed for friends and fans who stifled their laughter and applauded her wildly, no one would tell her the truth. Enter a young pianist/composer named Cosme McMoon who becomes Madame Flo's pianist. Madame Flo hears the music in her head. Cosme can't get his own compositions performed. Together they experience triumphs, disappointments, and most of all, they build an enduring friendship.

The production features two accomplished, flawless performers. Neva Rae Powers channels Florence with impeccable comic timing, spasmodic jerks to emphasize high notes, and a likability that gives credence to the implausible, but true story. Florence may be foolish, but she's no fool. Edwin Cahill is an accomplished vocalist and pianist whose insights into Cosme's life allow the character to grow into someone who the audience likes and understands. Together, they become friends who protect and support each other. Those watching them truly care.

While the audience at TheaterWorks is supposted to laugh at Florence, it is painful when her onstage audience laughs at her. Act I shows how the two meet and negotiate their relationship. Act II focuses on Florence's Carnegie Hall debut, complete with a costume change for every song.

Stephen Temperley's clever script is as touching as it is genuinely funny, and director Michael Evan Haney has found the right notes on which to build this unusual musical comedy. In the warm, intimate TheaterWorks space, these artists provide an evening of laughter, comedy, and heart.

The Fantasticks

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through May 23, 2010
by Jennifer Marshall

"The Fantasticks" began off-Broadway in 1960, offering 17,162 performances; by far the longest-running musical of all time. This delightful, simply told tale is about young love and romanticism and how those feelings must be tempered, often by deceit. It's laced with good humor and sung with unforgettable tunes, including the classic "Try to Remember."

The Majestic has once again triumphed by including this classic in its season. Under the direction of Rand Foerster and performed on a minimalist set designed by Greg Trochlil, this well-cast production amuses and humbles its receptive audience from the opening tableau. Enter the Narrator/El Gallo, played by William Thomas Evans, whose dark presence commands the respect of the audience and fellow cast mates. With a debonair stature and romantic vocals, Evans is believably able to seduce and win favor of the young Luisa (Emily Reed). Reed has the requisite acting ability to portray a silly, romantic girl accompanied by an excellent soprano voice. Matt (P.J. Adzima) assumes the role of the innocent with calm and warmth, and an awkwardness that only comes with first love. Adzima's vocals are able to shine in Act II as he matures from boy to man. The young lovers never overshadow each other.

The Fathers (Mitch Giannunzio and James Emery) are equally convincing, manipulative, and quirky. Additionally complimentary were their harmonies in "Never Say No," which enlightens the audience as to their scheme to make their children fall in love. Of necessary mention is the Mute (Tom Knightlee) who never falters in the roles of wall, rain, and snow. Although this role doesn't give Knightlee much chance to shine, he appears to have completely surrendered to the poetry and the loveliness of this musical.

Kudos go to the orchestra, under the musical direction of Amy Roberts-Crawford. The well blended team is solid and in perfect synch with the singers - a task too often failed.

The Majestic's performance of "The Fantasticks" leaves the audience remembering their first kiss; their first love; and that first scary, unknown, amazing feeling that can only happen in a forest in September.

April 12, 2010

David Bromberg/Angel Band

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
April 10, 2010
by Eric Sutter

"Swing Sweet with A Little Back Beat" opened the evening with the Angel Band singing sweetly. Three part female harmonies, solos and excellent musicianship from the band accompaniment of acoustic guitar, bass, fiddle, mandolin and rub board combined to give a pleasing sound to the ears of all. The Angel Band is comprised of Nancy Josephson, Aly Paige and Kathleen Webber who focus on a gospel tinged conglomeration of original music with roots in folk, blues and country. By the second number, "We're All in the Same Boat Now," the audience was captured. The back-up band shined -- especially Christie Lenee with a couple of acoustic guitar solos. One song, "Hope Is on the Way" for Haitian Children Relief, has already been picked up by the Jacmel hip hop group for its video shoot in Haiti.

The David Bromberg Quartet opened the second half with "Sweetheart, I Beg You to Come Home." Multi-instrumentalist Bromberg is proficient at playing assorted guitars, mandolins and violins in an eclectic Americana style. His rag tag combination of bluegrass, folk, blues and rock n' roll won over the audience as he shifted from acoustic to electric guitar. An ode to the traveling life, "Summer Wages" featured harmony singing with Bromberg's strangely unique lead voice. "Fiddle Tunes," with three fiddlers including Bromberg, got toes a tappin' with hot pickin' all around. A guitar showpiece, "Somewhere over the Rainbow" with an innovative solo adaptation by Bromberg, was spectacular and left the audience spellbound. His versatility showed as he electrified the blues of "Drown in My Own Tears" and gently played "(What A) Wonderful World." He showcased "Sharon" from 1972 in which the electric slide guitar cried his name "David" as if it was Sharon speaking to him. The troupe's encore was "It's Over Baby" with typical Bromberg humor. A second encore was an unplugged "Roll on John" by the quartet singing in a living room style, up stage and center.

Jeffrey Biegel, Pianist

Springfield Symphony Orchestra
April 4, 2010
by T.C.Larsen

The Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Maestro Kevin Rhodes, and pianist Jeffrey Biegel surely delivered the goods in what Rhodes described as "an unabashedly romantic program" full of "emotions powerful and gentle, violent and reflective." Rossini's Semiramide Overture began the onslaught with pianissimo horns, winds, and strings pizzicato frequently interrupted by stormy, operatic gestures from the full orchestra - playful Rossini rendered at full gallop.

Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 survived a controversial debut to become a pillar of the repertoire. The staggering technical proficiency required of the SSO and pianist Jeffrey Biegel was evident throughout the piece. More impressive was their ability to transcend technique by drawing our ears to relevant musical elements out of a multitude of sonic activity. The always exuberant Rhodes leaped off the podium at the conclusion of the piece to deliver an athletic, victorious thump to Biegel's back, who responded by playing an unscheduled, delightful bit of Schumann.

Franck's Symphony in D minor was the program's biggest surprise, especially to those more familiar with his somber sacred works. A restless, roiling, monster of a piece drenched in the sonorities of a phalanx of brass, it is made intelligible by clearly defined themes and symphonic structures. Franck and the SSO provided an appropriate finale to an evening set afire by musical pyrotechnics.

The SSO deserves the admiration of its constituency. Financial support is also evident in the announcement that the popular but endangered Brown Bag lunch time concerts would be underwritten by community donations. At the close of his pre-concert comments, Maestro Rhodes invited the audience to enjoy an evening of "beautiful tunes." This amiable understatement can only be truly appreciated by the knowledge that it takes thousands of hours of diligence for any one musician to gain the skill necessary to play such music. Musical lives and culture begin with children playing and singing in homes and schools. Financial support of music education for children is of paramount importance to the artistic health of all levels of our society during these difficult times - and at all times.

April 10, 2010

New Moves: Kenichi Ebina

Fine Arts Center, Amherst, MA
April 8, 2010
by Barbara Stroup

Kenichi Ebina thrilled a youthful and attentive audience at the UMass Fine Arts Center with a program of contemporary dance moves. He and his partner Takahiro Ueno presented a series of 12 titled vignettes that mixed street dance with silent narrative in a way that is accessible to anyone with a sense of humor and an appreciation of movement.

Each segment gave these agile dancers a vehicle for using their bodies to defy the restrictions of gravity and the familiar rules of, for instance, how to move one's shoulder. Especially riveting was the "RoboMatrix" number, in which Ebina was a mechanical toy, and "Two Thumbs Up," in which both dancers were clowns with seemingly rubber joints. The stories were enhanced by an effective use of an enormous video screen. Projected were film clips of color washes that reflected mood and emotion, and a stark white backdrop for Ebina's silhouette work. Props were few and electronic and classical music supported the vignettes without overpowering them.

A highlight for this audience was "A Tribute to Someone Special." Michael Jackson videos played on the screen while Ebina danced his version of the singer's moves, imitating Jackson but never slavishly, and keeping intact his own artistic identity.

Takahiro Ueno poignantly portrayed emotions from abject despair to boundless elation in "Rain," a story of love lost and love found. The performers ended the evening with a masterfully choreographed "Mirror" piece, managing precise reflections of each other's movements as if in a mirror, and then ending in a friendly liaison of individual recognition.

This intelligent and artful mix of hip-hop, poppin', locking' dance forms, martial arts movement, mime, magic and urban culture was fun from start to finish, even involving two front-row audience members when Ebina leapt from the stage to plant a kiss. The UMass Asian Arts and Culture Program has succeeded over the years to bring many exciting presentations, and is to be congratulated for including yet another innovative offering.

Jesus Christ Superstar

Academy of Music, Northampton, MA
through April 11, 2010
by Eric Sutter

It's about time... give it up to PACE (Pioneer Arts Center of Easthampton) to achieve this level of greatness in modern theatre. Directors David and Sonia Fried Oppenheim have staged a contemporary take of the 1970 rock musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" with MTV style choreography by Mary Ann Holmes. Kudos to the entire cast and ensemble of musicians, dancers and singers for a most successful rendition of the rock opera.

The opening eerie electric guitar chords to "Overture" set the tone for the clap dance of "Heaven on Their Minds." Enter Judas (Michael Holt) with his dark brooding presence. Jesus (John Losito), with guitar, joins Mary Magdalene (Teresa Lorenco) in the dance troupe on "What's The Buzz." This was first-rate acting and singing. The set was simple...staging with four television screens and use of the backdrop which periodically showed projected images. Paparazzi with video cameras, cell phones and other high tech devices followed every move of Jesus -- simultaneously adding to the drama and playing upon the confusion of the purposely distracted society onstage. Jesus was a modern day rock star with human frailities, particularly in relationship with Mary Magdalene. She exhibited the mystique of the sacred feminine with "Everything's Alright." "This Jesus Must Die" was a question-answer scene with Judas, Caiaphas (Rick Sheldon) and Annas (Martin Meccouri).

Act II featured "The Last Supper," depicted by an image of The Garden of Gethsemane's Sushi & Steak House. "The Arrest" and "Peter's Denial" built dramatic tension...enter Judas with the kiss of death. Betrayal turns to "Pilate and Christ" with Jason-Rose Langston as the cynical Pilate. "King Herod's Song" brought comedic relief with Frank Borelli as a drag queen with a sexy chorus line in tow. Accolades to guitarist Eric Lee for his musical leadership. "Judas' Death" was suicide by pistol and the band rocked out. During the "Trial Before Pilate" the tide turns against Jesus as the followers condemn him by throwing CD cases. An image of the ghost of Judas appears singing "Jesus Christ Superstar." A curious twist in the story occurs after "The Crucifixion" which especially makes this a must-see show.

April 8, 2010

Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Hartford Stage,Hartford, CT
through April 1 - May 9, 2010
by Karolina Sadowicz

This year marks the centennial anniversary of Mark Twain's passing, and as part of ongoing celebrations in Hartford, Hartford Stage commissioned playwright Laura Eason to adapt Twain's novel about a boy full of mischief. The result is a modern, high-energy staging that swiftly presents the highlights from one of Twain's most beloved works.

A youthful (but adult) and exuberant cast breaks into dance as the lights turn bright, and as-yet-undefined characters take turns delivering some of Twain's narrative. The structure of this production is purposeful, with little time spent on exposition. Tom's (charming Tim McKiernan, in his professional acting debut) life and friendships are presented through quick, punchy vignettes so that the audience is promptly delivered to the heart of the story: a murder witnessed by Tom and Huck Finn (excellent Casey Predovic) in a graveyard, and the wrong man imprisoned. Tom and Huck struggle with what they witnessed, their own mischievous natures, and whether Tom's "engagement" to relentlessly adorable Becky Thatcher (Louisa Krause) will impede their future adventures.

A principal cast of eight carry off some 20 roles, with Teddy Canez convincingly playing the least likable characters: the schoolmaster, the minister, and the murderous Injun Joe. Nancy Lemenager is both hilarious and heartbreaking as Aunt Polly, and Erik Lochtefeld makes a woeful and endearing Muff Potter.

The spirited, kinetic acting is supported by a lively soundtrack and Daniel Ostling's superbly inventive set, which transforms with great effect from a schoolhouse, to a wheat field, to a jail cell, to a labyrinthine cave. Most set pieces are lowered from the ceiling to suggest changing settings. Some aspects of this stylized production don't quite fit the material. A nightmare sequence tests how much the book ought to be modernized, jarring the audience out of the moment. The swift pace is well kept, but sudden shifts between unrelated scenes leave a sense of substantial omissions.

Including Twain's narrative voice is a nice touch, and the playfulness of the original text is well conveyed. This creative, ambitious production reminds the audience what it is to play and seek adventure, just as it should.