Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 28, 2010

Aston Magna

Simon's Rock, Great Barrington, MA
June 26, 2010
by Debra Tinkham

"Completely Mozart" was the venue at Bard College at Simon's Rock, with eight of the talented Aston Magna musicians. Mozart's quartet in F was a three part quartet, featuring Daniel Stepner on violin, David Miller on viola, Loretta O'Sullivan on cello and Stephen Hammer on oboe.

Allegro began with an oboe solo, joined by a string trio. Hammer demonstrated some difficult passages with nice dynamics. Adagio began like a heavy, broken heart. Although very short, O'Sullivan displayed her usual heartfelt emotion.

With joyful laughter and echoes, Rondeau portrayed an equal blend of strings and woodwind, although the oboe far outweighed the dynamic blend, making it more of a solo instrument. The theme was playful with recapitulation variations. Hammer utilized the full range of his Baroque period oboe but seemed to struggle slightly in the upper register.

Gran Sestetto Concertante's Allegro maestoso, which means quickly majestic, was a sextet of two violins, two violas and two cellos. A new cellist to Aston Magna is Guy Fishman, who made his solo debut with the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and in "2002 was their youngest player." At the age of 16, Fishman began his Baccalaureate studies at the Manhattan School of Music and holds a Doctorate from the New England Conservatory of Music. On this night he played a 1704 Roman cello. Fishman is young, experienced, attentive, impressive. Getting back to the other performers, the first movement was emotional and each of these musicians has their own unique style. Fishman is definitely a nice addition.

Andante, which generally implies slow, was not so slow -- very moving in many ways, dramatic and lugubrious. Presto was intensely harmonic, with 60 very busy fingers. This was a "stringed conversation" and everyone wanted to talk at once. Then, back to one conversation, leading into another and another, until they were again all talking at once. The difference between verbal conversations and musical conversations is that with the Aston Magna musicians, six voices talking at the same time are a thing of beauty.

June 25, 2010

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through July 17, 2010
by Karolina Sadowicz

The tale of the murderous, vengeful barber Sweeney Todd has been thrilling audiences for over 30 years with black humor and merciless wit, and has yet to lose its edge. Barrington Stage Company's production is a razor sharp presentation of the dark classic.

After years of imprisonment and other trials, a mysterious man returns to Victorian London and assumes the name of Sweeney Todd (Jeff McCarthy), opening a humble barbershop above Mrs. Lovett's (Harriet Harris of "Frasier" and "Desperate Housewives") pie shop. There, he begins plotting his revenge against the sinister Judge Turpin (Ed Dixon) and impulsively kills a rival barber, setting off a bloody spree and inadvertently and repulsively growing Mrs. Lovett's meat pie business.

McCarthy's Sweeney Todd is more vengeful and angry than brooding, fiercely expressive in his anguish and reluctant to show restraint. Never remotely amiable, he is hardly concerned about winning over other people, even the audience, but it works. His cool response to Mrs. Lovett's increasingly desperate affections provides some comic relief in a story that grows more somber and violent.

Charmingly creaky Harris plays Mrs. Lovett as a bawdy, hilariously immoral pragmatist with a secret longing, committing and accepting all kinds of monstrosities to get what she wants. Despite her own dark secrets about Sweeney Todd's previous life, she deftly mixes both sour and sweet, and is a highlight of the show.

A chartreuse-suited Pirelli played by Branch Woodman is an unabashed scene stealer and a delightful foil to Sweeney. The young sailor Antony (Shonn Wiley) and Johanna (Sarah Stevens), Sweeney's daughter, both offer beautiful singing performances and inject hopeful innocence into a world that seems as polluted as Sweeney believes it is. Christianne Tisdale brings unexpected laughs and tragic peaks in her portrayal of the mad beggar woman.

The play is superbly produced, with efficient and appropriately grimy setting, and outstanding sound production that showcases the considerable talent and discipline of the entire ensemble. It's an exciting production that blends laughs, madness, and even a little fear.

Nina Ananiashvili & the State Ballet of Georgia

Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, MA
June 23, 2010
by Amy Meek

The Jacob's Pillow 2010 Festival kicked off Wednesday night with The State Ballet of Georgia's eclectic program of neoclassical and contemporary ballet works led by Ballerina and Artistic Director Nina Ananiashvili. This program showcased ballets by world-renowned choreographers and demonstrated the pride in the rich dance heritage of Georgia combined with a desire to expand the company's horizons.

The first half of the program focused on the choreography of Sir Frederick Ashton, a master choreographer whose works are not often showcased by modern day companies. The first Pas de Deux from Thais was danced by Ms. Ananiashvili, whose effortless fluidity and expressiveness showed why she is one of the greatest ballerinas of her time. All eyes were drawn to her whenever she was onstage, which was unfortunately only for two numbers. The other works, however, were also well danced. The Sylvia Pas de Deux was full of clean lines and balance; La Chatte was a charming ballet with lightness and characterization; and The Voices of Spring Pas de Deux was exquisitely danced with sharpness and expansiveness using lots of waltzing movements and turns.

The piece Duo Concertant, choreographed by George Balanchine, was an interplay between the music and the dance. The musicians and the dancers, who were on stage together, showed the complexity of Stravinsky's music with its speed and precision. The dancers created long lines with their arms and legs and displayed amazing control along with the quickness the music demanded.

The last two dances, Bizet Variations Pas de Six and Falling Angels, were more contemporary and showed the diversity of the company's style. Falling Angels showed alternating group unison movement with unique individual movements to create an ever changing picture on stage.

It was a pleasure to watch the amazing talent of Nina Ananiashvili and The State Ballet of Georgia. Western Massachusetts is very lucky to have Jacob's Pillow to bring such world class dance talent to the area. The rest of the season is sure to be just as exciting!

June 21, 2010

Big Band Night

Aston Magna

Simon's Rock, Great Barrington, MA
June 19, 2010
by Debra Tinkahm

Daniel Stepner stole the show. Stepner was the show, with the help of Johann Sebastian Bach, that is. As the Artistic Director of Aston Magna, the oldest annual summer festival in America, Stepner stepped off with the Partita III in E Major. As Stepner explained, "…Partita is to dance vicariously," and dance he did - on his violin. The Preludio was a "brilliant introduction" that portrayed the usual Stepner emotion. Here is a simple stage with a black background, Stepner standing throughout the entire performance, using no music.

The Loure had many subtle two-note chords, which continued throughout this Partita, with purposeful phrasing and short, non-staccato, phrases. Stepner had fun with the lively, beautifully phrased Gavotte. Menuets I and II were a harmonic three-quarter time, while the Bouree's nature was that of a country line dance with clogs. The Gigue implied a British tone.

As Stepner said, "Partita I in B minor affords me double trouble. Within these four movements, there are four shadow movements." The Allemanda was mysteriously dramatic. Corrente, Sarabande and Borea movements were a mix-n-match of variations. Chromatic Fantasy, arranged for violin by Stepner, had some dramatic chromatics. Chromatic implies non-melodic, but this was melodic, just with a lot of notes.

Bach's Partita in D minor was five examples of dramatic and emotional execution. Moving from Allemanda into the Corrente, with nice punctuation and phrasing, one realized Bach's brilliant composing ability, but let the audience not forget Stepner's desire to keep such mastery alive. Sarabanda and Giga showed some fast moving, melodic variations, but the Ciaccona, in Stepner's words were, "…originally a very fast and very lude dance from Mexico, which caught on like wildfire." Later, moving through the European venues, Bach incorporated this dance into a French version of his operatic finales.

For those who have not experienced Aston Magna, there are three more summer concerts. Everyone should enjoy the work of "Stepner and company" at least once in a lifetime.

June 18, 2010

Los Lonely Boys

Colonial Theater, Pittsfield, MA
June 17
by Terry Larsen

Proclaimed "the best bar band in the world" by mentor Willie Nelson, Los Lonely Boys burst on to the national scene in 2003 with a multi-platinum studio album. Eight recordings later, LLB has established itself as one of the most popular bands of our day. On an evening in June, the "Texican" rock 'n roll trio performed in the beautifully refurbished Colonial Theater to the enthusiastic reception of an adoring audience

Over its history, rock and roll has developed many sub-genres and iconic performers. Some of these, such as the music of Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, fellow Texan Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the influence of blues masters such as Buddy Guy were immediately evident in the performance. As one might expect of musicians from the heart of Texas, elements of Texas Swing and Tejana were also heard. Henry, Jojo, and Ringo Garza point to the influence of their musician father Enrique (Ringo) Garza as their most important and enduring influence.

LLB played for more than 90 minutes without intermission, one piece often blending into the next. The technical proficiency of each player was thrilling, as was their ability to blend the elements of a wide range of styles into a beautifully unified whole. The singing was first rate - Henry and Jojo sharing the leads, all three providing backup vocals; the timbre of each brother's voice so similar as to be nearly indistinguishable. Jojo, the ebullient bassist and MC, charmed the audience with his patter, physical antics, and his virtuosity on a six stringed electric bass. Henry, quietly charismatic, played shredding licks with ease - a powerful lyricism that was breath-taking. Ringo drove his brothers on by providing a sure, vigorous percussive platform for each song. The dynamic range, degree of nuance, and sophistication in the playing must be heard to be appreciated. LLB may have honed their chops in bars, but the lines they played rival anything played by conservatory-trained musicians. It should be noted that the volume of amplified sound was appropriately loud for rock 'n roll, but not painfully so. Los Lonely Boys rocked our world!

Noises Off

New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA
through June 27, 2010
by Eric Johnson

Sardines. It's all about the sardines. Well, not really. What Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" is about is love, jealousy, anger, weakness, etc. Sounds like a drama, doesn't it? This play is a comedy about drama, the drama that inevitably occurs when offstage romance blossoms.

New Century Theatre (NCT0 is celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, and the entire season is comprised of audience favorites from the past. Director Sam Rush has assembled a wonderfully talented and experienced cast to take on this production, most of whom are reprising roles from the 2000 season production.

In an ensemble cast, Sara Whitcomb, Phil Kilbourne, Patrick Tango, Lisa Abend, Molly Haas-Hooven, Buzz Roddy, Cate Damon, James Emery and Steve Brady all give spectacular performances in this extremely demanding show. At times the pacing of the play is insanely fast and furious, and this group of actors manages to pull it off without missing a beat. All of the ingredients of a typical British farce are present here - slamming doors, various states of undress, split-second timing, all deftly executed by this cast. Add to this, the actors are playing actors who then have to play characters and it becomes clear just how challenging this show is.

Daniel D. Rist once again creates a lavish set and complementary lighting design that draws appreciative "oohs" and "aahs," and applause from the audience when revealed.

Congratulations to the NCT patrons for picking a marvelous show to kick off the 20th season, and kudos to Sam Rush for his precise direction of what could be a very unwieldy piece in less capable hands.

This reviewer is pretty certain it will be awhile before he can say, or even think of the word 'sardines' without cracking a smile or chuckling to himself.

June 14, 2010

17 Summer Vacations in the Berkshires and Still Counting

by Shera Cohen
In the Spotlight

The common phrase "If it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium" easily relates to my whirlwind Berkshire vacation. Nine of us attended 44 arts and cultural events in 18 days last summer, and here's what we have to look forward to this July and August. Oftentimes, my Berkshire articles list venues in alphabetical order. This time around, we (the writers) took a poll for "the bests" which is what you see below. Admittedly, this is not a democracy, and I get the final vote.

See the list below and CLICK HERE to read the full article.

Best Plays You Never Heard Of
First Place: Freud's Last Session, Barrington Stage, Pittsfield
Runner Up: Everything, Berkshire Fringe, Great Barrington

Best Lecture by an Author
First Place: Brad Gooch's The Life of Flannery O'Connor, The Mount
Runner Up: Richard Guy Wilson's Harbor Hill, The Mount, Lenox

Best Indoor/Outdoor Art Exhibit
Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge

Best Indoor Exhibit
Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield

Best Movement on Two Feet (aka Dance)
First Place: Community Day, Jacob's Pillow, Becket
Runner Up: Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Jacob's Pillow

Best Play about a Real Person
First Place: Freud's Last Session, Barrington Stage, Pittsfield
Runner Up: The Einstein Project, Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge

Best Concert in the Most Beautiful Venue
First Place: Tanglewood on Parade, Tanglewood, Lenox
Runner Up: Music of Shakespeare, Tanglewood

Best Combination of Art Mediums
First Place: Art Exhibit & Music, Clark Art Institute & Aston Magna, Williamstown Clark
Runners Up: It's a tie between Lecture/Art Exhibit, The Mount, Lenox; and Art Exhibit/Film,

Best Outdoor Street Festival (well, that's redundant)
First Place: 3rd Thursdays in Pittsfield, Pittfield
Runner Up: Sundays at Six O'clock, Williamstown

Best Shakespeare Plays That Everyone Can Understand
First Place: Twelfth Night, Shakespeare & Company, Lenox
Runner Up: Measure for Measure, Shakespeare & Company

Best Stuff for Kids that Adults Secretly Like
First Place: Toad of Toad Hall, Shakespeare & Company, Lenox
Runner Up: WordPlay, Shakespeare & Company

Best Outdoor Arts & Crafts Show
First Place: Church on the Hill, Lenox
Runner Up: Sculpture Now, Stockbridge

Best Classic Play (meaning, written a long time ago)
First Place: Ghosts, Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge
Runner Up: Twelfth Night, Shakespeare & Company, Lenox

Most Pleasantly Unexpected Surprises
First Place: The Groovebarbers, Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield
Runner Up: The Wild Turkey Family, Stockbridge

This Best Old House
First Place: Merwin House, Stockbridge
Runner Up: The Bidwell House, Monterey

Best Free Stuff
First Place: Director's Lecture, Shakespeare & Company, Lenox
Runner Up: Barn Gallery at Stonover Farm, Lenox

Best Single Venue with Best Variety (but not simultaneously)
First Place: The Temptations, Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield
Runner Up: James Naughton in Concert, Colonial Theatre

Most Fun Things to Do
First Place: Capitol Steps, Cranwell Resort, Lenox
Runner Up: Candide, Berkshire Theatre, Stockbridge

Best Vacation Spot in USA - The Berkshires

Remember to CLICK HERE to read the full article and get all the details.

June 10, 2010

Porgy and Bess

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through June 13, 2010
by Barbara Stroup

This year commemorates the 75th anniversary debut in New York of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. It took roughly 50 years for the work to be recognized as grand opera; it is now respected for its blend of song, jazz, blues, gospel and folk music styles. Several familiar songs -- "Summertime," "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" and "It Ain't Necessarily So" - contrast with the intricate chorus work throughout. The story is propelled through the music. Love, transformation, jealousy and crime bring pathos - and a few comic moments - to the stage.

The production appeals visually; Catfish Row consists of roughly constructed two-story movable 'buildings.' The stage is surrounded by Spanish moss and is backed with a sky of colors that change to reflect the drama below. Strong singing is enhanced by choreography that shows some African roots. With a few exceptions, the color palette is warm and brown. The change to bright, summery whites for the picnic scene is striking and welcome, and the colors of Sportin' Life's ensembles are the only intrusion of another, less gentle culture.

Mortensen Hall has served as a traditional, non-amplified opera venue for years, so one has to wonder at the sound design decisions made for this production. Computers sat on both sides of the stage, broadcasting the conductor's movements to all. Large stage microphones and giant speakers amplified and distorted the singers' vocal efforts. If they had been working consistently, the super titles would have helped the audience understand the words. The sound system seemed to make the singers, especially the male voices, sound the same. Output was uniformly loud, and that erased any chance the singers had of expressing an interpretive and nuanced dynamic range. There were a few moments when the system seemed to fail, and wonderful voices came through to the audience without boosting.

Donita Volkwijn (Bess) and Reggie Whitehead (Sportin' Life) gave outstanding performances. The interaction between Whitehead and Gwendolyn Brown (Maria) was a comedic high point. Whitehead seemed to own the character and every movement of his hands, legs, and eyes gave the audience a sense of cheerful sleaze - he pulled one into his world with ease.

June 1, 2010

Paul Taylor Dance Company

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
May 30, 2010
by Stacie Beland

Modern dance isn't for everyone. The beauty of it is, at times, unobvious. The clich├ęd impression most outside of the dance world have is that it's lazy. It takes patience and a willingness to accept the incomplete, the imperfect, the unanswered, and the undefined -- it can be difficult to relate to. Paul Taylor is a choreographer who excels at pushing the boundaries of modern dance. Showcased at this performance were three works that exemplified Taylor's innovative approach to dance.

The first work, "Public Domain," was a frenetic study of non-conformity. Indeed, this was the piece that seemed the most inaccessible to the audience (in fact, several of the patrons around me left in mid-performance). Set to a large collection of music samplings and spoken word, it seemed almost unrelated to the beautiful movement onstage. Taylor's work is perfect in creating the unexpected and engaging the mind, but there seems to be a limited amount of times a person can be thrown off guard until disengaging oneself as an audience member.

If "Public Domain" was a study in diffusion, the second two pieces, "Brief Encounters" and "Piazzolla Caldera," were the answer to audience members seeking precision. "Brief Encounters" was unpredictable, yet entirely relatable. The movement ranged from the flirty to the forbidden as the dizzying everyday struggle of the sexes is played out. The dancers, costumed only in underwear, presented real emotion in this powerfully beautiful choreography. If the audience found it difficult to relate to "Public Domain," it had no trouble whatsoever finding themselves lost in "Brief Encounters.

Similarly, "Piazzolla Caldera" was sly and sexual. With seedy barroom lights suspended from the ceiling, the audience was treated to tantalizing flashes of raw sexuality. Though a steady stream of connection in the course of this piece, the audience also saw a sense of loneliness, of isolation, as the dancers pair off and move through the courses of seduction. It rounded out the gamut of pieces presented during the course of the evening, and did so with exactitude of sensuality.