Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 31, 2011

Next to Normal

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through April 3, 2011
by Vickie Phillips

A superior theatrical experience is at the Bushnell! "Next To Normal" proves to be a very exciting and profound musical. Winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and three 2009 Tony Awards, including Best Score and Best Actress in a Musical for Alice Ripley, both she and the production live up to "Best" in all aspects of theatre.

Set design by Mark Wendland is brilliant and allows the ensemble cast of actors to go beyond barriers, and a daring that soars with a gripping effect throughout the show. The theme is mental illness, presented within a most profound musical score. Ripley (Diana) and and Asa Somners (Dan) star; Michael Greif is the director. All are inventive and ingenious, taking the audience on a journey where the set moves back and forth, not unlike our lives, opening and closing on cue. From the opening song "Just Another Day" to the closing "There Will Be Light" the cast brims with exceptional voices and musicianship.

The audience responded with thunderous applause throughout the show. Acting is often defined as "fantasy made to look real," and this show validates many lives for hope with its many moments of seeming reality. Even for a dysfunctional family, where "some ghosts are never gone," the play has so many heartfelt moments of learning to accept a next to normal life. The show stresses the point that yes, in spite of it all, we do indeed get by!

The moments of flashbacks and the heart rendering aftermath of tragedy are brilliantly presented. Ripley holds nothing back in her seething portrayal of a wife set back by a life she could not come to grips with, even with the unflinching support as portrayed by of Sommers.

This truly is a brilliant play, along with the actors who give it onstage life.  

March 25, 2011

Divahn: Interpretation of Sephardic Jewish Music & Poetry

Bowker Auditorium, UMass, Amherst, MA
March 24, 2011
by Justin Cohen

The Old Testament is generally not the first piece of literature to come to mind when discussing feminism. Singer Galeet Dardashti joked that the song Cuando El Rey Nimrod is "a feminist folk song, because it mentions that Abraham has a mother." The piece is sung in Ladino, a language derived from Hebrew and Old Spanish, spoken by the Sephardic Jewish people of ancient Spain. The five women of the group Divahn interpreted this ancient music with a modern feminist slant and an amalgam of musical traditions.  

For their rendition of Hamavdal Ben Kodesh, a song which is typically sung around the dinner table at the end of the Jewish Sabbath ceremony each Saturday night, Divahn added instrumentation to what is traditionally a cappella. Elizabeth Pupo-Walker provided Afro-Cuban percussion on congas and a cajon drum, while Sejal Kukadia played the Indian tabla drums. Violin and cello carried the melody, performed by Rebecca Cherry and Eleanor Norton. With Dardashti in the lead, all five women belted out the Hebrew lyrics, beckoning for the crowd to join in.

Since the Purim holiday was fresh in their minds, the group performed a song inspired by The Book of Esther, a portion of the Old Testament read during this holiday. For Dardashti's album, "The Naming" she wrote the song Vashti. In The Book of Esther, Queen Vashti is asked by her king to dance for his guests wearing only her crown, to which she refuses. This song paints Vashti as a feminist heroine of the Old Testament. Dardashti said "Vashti's legacy now continues throughout the Middle East. Women and men throughout the Middle East are standing up to oppression".

Dardashti comes by her talents from a line of notable Iranian singers. She's been performing since childhood throughout the U.S. and Israel. As a Fulbright scholar, Dardashti also lectures and publishes work on Middle Eastern cultural politics.

March 20, 2011

Masterworks Series: No. 6

Hartford Symphony Orchestra
The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
March 17, 2011
by Terry Larsen

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra initiated a new era in its illustrious history with the hiring of Carolyn Kuan, its ninth music director. If this concert is any indication, her tenure will be marked by vigor, innovation, and great musical reward for this fine orchestra and its devoted audience. The program may be a hint of what is to come, a mixture of old and new - led with clear gestures and a surety of command remarkable in a person of 29 years.

Kuan and the HSO ushered the audience into the world of "minimalism" with John Adams' The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra), a concert piece drawn from his opera Nixon in China. Its short cells of musical data, driven by relentless repetition and melodic inversion, result in a sense of "phase shifting." This compositional method produced a shimmering effect that is not so different from the sort of perpetual motion found in the works of Bach; however, the style can be a shock at first hearing…in this case, a shock of delight as gauged by the enthusiastic response of the audience.

Barbara Hill, Principal Horn, took center stage to play Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-flat Major. Hill played with crisp technique and immaculate intonation, a slender vision of russet hair and gown, stage lights gleaming off of golden horn. Every turn, dynamic nuance, and rippling virtuosic passage effortlessly soared above a perfectly balanced orchestral foundation. Mozart's lyricism, harmonic compass, and balanced melodic phrases provided a notable contrast to the opening selection.

The final piece brought the audience to familiar territory as the series of musical vignettes found in Mussorgsky's beloved Pictures at an Exhibition spun through the hall. Once again, Kuan led with sure control of each moment. From the opening declaration of the brassy Promenade, through the final triumphant portrait of The Great Gates of Kiev, the kaleidoscope of orchestral timbres required by Ravel's orchestration were deftly delivered by the HSO.   

This rewarding debut bodes will for the future of the HSO and its audience under Carolyn Kuan's direction!

March 18, 2011


Theater Guild of Hampden
Hampden Country Club, Hampden, MA
through March 26, 2011
by Vickie Phillips

Dinner Theatre is back! (at the Hampden Country Club) and the Theater Guild of Hampden's Artistic Director Mark Giza had his life long theatrical dream realized with the opening night performance of "Gypsy."

Thirty-nine cast members, backed by five musicians as well as a most amazing tech crew, dance, and sing their way into the proverbial hearts of a full house audience. Choreography by Kathleen Delaney wins the prize in this production for taking advantage of the limited space of the theatre setting with some real toe-tapping winners. Most especially, Tulsa (PJ Adzima) with his presentation of "All I Need Is The Girl," and the ever show-stopping "You Gotta Have A Gimmic" (Dianne Fautuex, Tracey Hebert, Christina Arruda) playing Tesse Tura, Mazeppa and Electra are absolutely two 5-Star Moments. Music Director Tom Slowick and his band give solid musical backing. Other highlights are the heartfelt "Little Lamo," "If Mama Got Married," and "I Love You Mr. Goldstone."

Based on the memoirs of famous (non) stripper Gypsy Rose Lee in the days of Vaudeville, with music by Jule Styne, book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the show is a tour de force for talent. The mere survival of Baby June (Jessie Smith) and Baby Louise (Molly Finegan) to their grown-up counterparts (Ally Reardon and Kiernan Rushford) against Mama Rose (Debi Sali) and Herbie (Brad Shepard) is amazing.  Reardon and Rushford give strong performances, showing commitment to the characters by not going over the top in their roles. Rushford is especially creative in allowing her layers to slowly unfold, which makes her second act transformation to Gypsy Rose Lee astounding. Her acting transitions prevailed. All the quick scene changes were enhanced by the wonderful costuming for Gypsy's famous "curtain coverings" by Mindy Meeker and Louise Gaito.

Opening night problems with sound balance and feedback were apparent throughout, undoubtedly to be solved for the remaining performances. A buffet dinner starting at 6:30pm, make the evening's entertainment true dinner theatre.  Director Mark Giza along with the musicians, cast, and crew have earn their gold stars for "Gypsy."

An Interview with Galeet Dardashti

Divahn: Jewish Songs of the Middle East
UMass Bowker Auditorium, Amherst, MA
Thursday, March 24, 2011 at 7:30pm

Tell us about your background as a musician. Did you/do you have any mentors?
I grew up performing music professionally with my family--my parents and two sisters.  Sort of like the Jewish Von-Trapp's. We performed a lot of international Jewish music. I've had so many incredible influences and mentors along the way, but my parents really gave me my entree into music and performance. In addition, my grandfather on my dad's side was one of the most famous singers of Persian classical music in Iran in his day. He sang regularly on National Radio and for the Shah. I didn't get to know him that well as a child, but as I grew up I began listening to his recordings quite a bit and consider him an important musical mentor for me.

Why is it important for people of all nationalities to hear your music? What responses have you received from audiences?
We are very lucky to have performed for very diverse audiences over the years, and this is exciting. Audience responses have ranged from dancing the hora (at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival) to tears. Oftentimes, audience members tell me that they never even knew that there was such a close musical relationship between Jews and non-Jews in the Middle East. That doesn't come across in news headlines. I'm happy to share this realm of shared culture from the Middle East. But my primary hope is that people will love the music we perform.

Does the music come through generations of time and/or your own compositions?
I will perform one of my new compositions in the show from my new CD "The Naming." Other that that, the songs we perform are creative renditions of traditional music, many of them from the sacred Jewish realm. Some of them I learned from my father, who learned them from his father. I'm the first woman in my family to continue this musical tradition.

What is in your future and the future of this genre of music?
I plan to continue performing, composing, and innovating new music. Here is my new project:

March 11, 2011

Philadanco Dance Company

UMass Fine Arts Center, Amherst, MA
March 10, 2011
by Stacie Beland

The UMass Fine Arts Center continued its successful run of high-caliber dance performances with Philadanco's energetic and passionate stylings. Philadanco, the Philadelphia Dance Company, performed four works, each showcasing the troupe's powerful ability to captivate and enthrall an audience.

"Bolero Too," a marvelous full-company piece choreographed by Christopher Huggins and set to the moving music of Ravel, set a series of relationships to an almost militaristic beat. The result was startlingly beautiful. As the dancers moved together and apart, emotions ranged from joy to jealousy to anger flashed across the stage. Philandanco excels at allowing individual dancers to tailor the choreography slightly to their own personal styling during moments of solo, duo and trio movements - allowing for a feast of visuals for the audience. During the larger company movements, the dancers displayed perfect precision.

The company returned to the stage with an amazingly different, though no less thrilling, piece titled "By Way of the Funk." Choreographed by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and set to music by the always-upbeat Parliament Funkadelics, the work was broken into four different movements. Mixing seemingly-improvised movement with stunning synchronization, it was a great deal of fun and highly engaging. Meant as a "joyous celebration of the 40 years of Philadanco's experience," the dancers personified elation onstage, and dancer Lamar Baylor's perfectly-placed comedic routine was a wonderful pause in between movements.

"Elegy," the company's broad and mournful piece, was a classic example of the seamless melding of ballet and modern. At times frightening, at times heartbreaking, the movement reached out from beyond the stage and grabbed the audience to never let go. It is a magical work from its first moments to the close of the curtain, when the company amasses to a single, dying creature.

The audience was treated to the work choreographed by Christopher Huggins. With exceptional lighting design, the dancers moved with endless energy. Clothed somewhat androgynously, the piece was ostensibly about fear of the unknown and the potential for enemies existing in everyday life.  Truly, though, it stood on its own as a work of power and dramatic dancing.

March 9, 2011

Mozart and Prokofiev

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
March 5, 2011
by Debra Tinkham

The orchestra's plates were full last Saturday! The announced program of "Mozart and Prokofiev" was an understatement, because there was also an additional surprise from "Water Music" by Handel.

"Water Music" is a collection of three suites for orchestra. This performance was minus the brass and woodwind instruments, with the exception of bassoon and oboe. The baroque rendition also featured Maestro Kevin Rhodes on harpsichord, while conducting the orchestra.

Adam Luftman, a young trumpet player with roots from Longmeadow, joined the orchestra in this lovely rendition, with a legend of Handel's desire to regain the favor of King George I. Officially, these multiple suites are in F major, D major and G major with a total of 21movements. The audience received a sampling of four with an exquisite bassoon and oboe solo, echoed back by Luftman and his trumpet.

Luftman also performed in Edward Gregson's Trumpet Concerto. This two movement concerto - darkly modern, dissonantly contemporary and disconnected - transcended into more classical variations with some very difficult trumpet passages. The orchestra, minus the woodwinds and brass, demonstrated complexity and dexterity, as did young Luftman.

Composer and pianist, Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 in D Major utilized most of the orchestra most of the time. Also know as "The Classical," this delicate four movement script moves back and forth from contemporary to classical, as Prokofiev did live in the 20th Century. The Larghetto (II) was intensely romantic even without strings, and featured a pleasing bassoon and oboe interaction.

The finale was Mozart's Symphony No. 40 (G minor) in four movements, which was dark but with a flavorful flow and exceptional dynamics from pianissimo to fortissimo and back again. The ascending and descending scales and dynamics and degrees of difficulty made for exquisite listening. 

March 6, 2011

Divine Rivalry

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through March 20, 2011
by Stacie Beland/Mark Axelson

Hartford Stage is currently offering a world premiere depicting "the greatest unknown event of the Renaissance" in "Divine Rivalry." The play, written by well-known political journalist Michael Kramer, is the author's first. It is a dramatization of presumably historical events, wherein Machiavelli pits the Master Leonardo against the much-younger, Divinely-inspired Michelangelo. The dialogue implies Leonardo and Michelangelo's rivalry; their best works showing examples of one-upsmanships.  Machiavelli, hoping to exploit this rivalry for his own political ends, serves as the pivot point for the unfolding events.

The show is well acted, with Simon Jones in his portrayal of Gonfaloniere Soderini reaching a level of nuance to his character that the other actors, perhaps due to the textual challenges of the work, cannot achieve. In playing Michelangelo, Aaron Krohn offers wonderful physicality and a youthful approach, necessary for the part. Similarly, Peter Strauss' Leonardo is aptly acted and appropriately incorporates an arrogance tinged with insecurity. Problematically, however, both actors suffer from difficulty in portraying the necessary passion which would drive two brilliant artists to become "Divine" advisories. Scott Parkinson's Machiavelli is emphatic and committed, giving some of the best punch line deliveries of the evening. To paraphrase one of his character's lines, "There are worse things in life than to be known as an adjective," and, unfortunately, his character is written to be reflective of just that-a typical Machiavellian politician, rather than a characterization of Machiavelli himself.

To be sure, the events portrayed are fascinating. Kramer has clearly done his research, and his depiction is a reflection of that-the show reads as one written by a journalist, rather than a playwright. The production has incredible potential and carries the possibility of being quite the captivating theatrical event. Hartford Stage should be commended for pushing the boundaries of live theatre and offering atypical works. Jeff Cowie's scenic design offers a wealth of possibilities, particularly when coupled with Robert Wierzel's lighting design. Peter Nigrini's production design and John Gromada's original music are all quite beautiful.  All in all, the show seems unfinished, and it will be interesting to see how it evolves.   

March 1, 2011

Concora's Winter Bach Festival

Hartford Symphony Orchestra
Emmanuel Church, Hartford, CT
February 27, 2011
by Terry Larsen

This impressive, yet comforting, architectural space combined with the no less striking architecture of music by J. S. Bach to provide a moment of delight on a winter's day. The spacious room gently hugged the gathering, while its refined woodwork, soaring dome, enormous glass windows, and Tiffany mural resounded with truly artful singing and playing.

The bountiful reward of Bach's music is achieved only by surmounting the enormous technical challenges it presents to performers - complex counterpoint presents pitfalls at every turn. Concora sang with joyful confidence, paying diligent attention to each detail.  The singers succeeded in blending this musical pointillism into coherent, sweeping lines, each deftly supported by the strings and colorfully illustrated by the winds and horns of the Hartford Symphony. Maestro Coffey's reserved but effective gestures established the delicate balance between players and singers, providing much needed transparency in Bach's typically dense textures. Horn and wind soloists played beautifully, navigating each exposed passage with graceful inflection and intonation.

Eleven members of Concora were featured as soloists in the course of the concert, which opened with two cantatas, BWV 40 and BWV 102, and closed with the Missa Brevis in F Major, BWV 233. Although well prepared and lovingly delivered, the solos were somewhat uneven in technique and timbre. The Winter Bach Festival Choir joined Concora on the four chorales of the cantatas.

The Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041, provided balance and contrast to the choral works. Violinist Leonid Sigal brought the audience to its feet with his graceful playing and agility. Once again, the orchestra provided sure support, however Coffee's direction sometimes lacked flexibility in tempo in support of the solo violin and at cadences. Nonetheless, this performance was a highlight of an already outstanding musical offering.

Concora's full range of expression was evident in their performance of the Missa. The Kyrie was graceful and elegantly understated in marked contrast to a rousing presentation of the jubilant Gloria. The Cum Sancto Spiritu provided a fittingly joyous finale to a very demanding though satisfying program.