Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 29, 2012

Tchaikovsky & Beethoven

Tchaikovsky & Beethoven
Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
by Michael J. Moran

For the third concert in its 2011-2012 "Classical" series, the Springfield Symphony Orchestra presented what their Music Director Kevin Rhodes called in a program note "a trio of…old pieces…from the 19th century (which) seem to reference a time even earlier than that."

The opener was an unusually gentle piece by the composer best known for his rip-roaring "Ring" cycle of music dramas, Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll," first played in 1870 on the staircase of his Swiss villa by 13 musicians as a birthday present to his wife after the birth of their son, Siegfried. The piece incorporates themes from the just-completed Ring opera "Siegfried," and Rhodes led the SSO strings, woodwinds, and several brass members in a lush, heartwarming rendition of Wagner's expanded orchestral version of the score.

Rising young cellist Julian Schwarz then made his SSO debut in Tchaikovsky's rarely heard but delightful "Variations on a Rococo Theme." A sort of one-movement cello concerto, this 19-minute piece from 1877 was written in the style of Tchaikovsky's beloved Mozart for the same reduced orchestra that Wagner used in the "Siegfried Idyll." The 20-year-old soloist, a Juilliard student who has already performed with many professional orchestras, showed remarkable virtuosity and interpretive maturity in a masterful account of the demanding cello part, while Rhodes elicited delicate but lively playing from his orchestra. An enthusiastic reception drew Schwarz back to play another rarity as an encore, Dvorak's lovely "Silent Woods" for cello and orchestra.  

The performance of Beethoven's exuberant "Symphony No. 7 in A Major" that followed intermission featured tempos and balances that sounded almost perfectly natural through all four movements. The "Poco sostenuto" opening of the first movement was taken faster than usual, while the "Allegretto" second movement was a bit on the slower side. The "Presto" third movement was lively, and the "Allegro con brio" finale was an exhilarating romp that swept everything before it. A joyous Rhodes literally jumped on the podium to acknowledge the magnificent work of the orchestra.

The Sty of the Blind Pig

TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
through February 26, 2012
by Jarice Hanson

When "The Sty of the Blind Pig" by Philip Hayes Dean was first produced in 1971, Time magazine called it “one of the year’s ten best plays.” Part comedy, part tragedy, audiences were introduced to complicated, empathetic urban African-American characters in Chicago at the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the South. Mama Weedy (Brenda Thomas) is committed to her church and the old ways of the South, where she grew up; Uncle Doc (Jonathan Earl Peck) is a gambler and a “sportin’ man;” and 30-year old Alberta (Krystel Lucas) works as a domestic and holds the family together despite her loneliness. Into their lives comes Blind Jordan (Eden Marryshow), representing the tradition of the singing Blind Man in African-American culture, who is part prophet, part savior, and part devil. The passage of time is confusing in this three act play, and one wonders whether the weakness in the production has to do with a decision to emphasize character relationships rather than deal with the fear of the unknown future for African-Americans, which would have been a powerful theme in the early 1970's.

In the production directed by Tazewell Thompson at TheaterWorks, the cast has command of their characters and injects energy into their performances, but the arc of the play never becomes clear. Important character and plot points are never effectively sewn together. Why does Alberta take medicine? What is the connection between African-Americans in the urban North, with traditions of the South? Why is there never a denouement to make the characters understand the consequences of their actions? The script is complicated, to be sure, and the comedy works, but the tragedy remains unresolved, leading the audience to care for the characters, but unfulfilled by the story. 

January 24, 2012

Mavis Staples

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
January 22, 2012
by Eric Sutter

Soul folk gospel singer Mavis Staples performed an inspirational sound of good news joy in a concert at Mahaiwe. Her voice always had a ring of truth to it and this night was no exception. Like the clang of a horseshoe hitting home, she began with the loud praise of "Wonderful Savior." Staples then eased into the traditional a capella gospel song "Creep Along Moses." Her band paid homage to contemporaries with the John Fogerty penned "Wrote a Song for Everyone" and a tribute to her "Last Waltz" performance with The Band's "The Weight" from their 1976 farewell concert.

Next came the title cut from Staples Grammy nominated Americana CD which Wilco's Jeff Tweedy penned, "You Are Not Alone." This brought a hushed silence of wonder from the audience. The anticipation melted as the familiar strain of the pops Staples’ song "Freedom Highway" gushed with heartfelt emotion as the relief from the audience was audible with a collective sigh and forthcoming singing. The memories from the 1962 Civil Rights era continued with her urgent plea vocal set to the socially conscious lyrics of Dr. Martin Luther King’s favorite Staple Singers song, "Why? (Am I Treated So Bad). "We're Going to Make It" turned into an old fashioned ring shout of a capella delight with Donny Gerrard, Vicki Randle, Mavis and Yvonne Staples harmony voices which climaxed with a ferocious electric guitar solo by Rich Homstrom. Just as the gospel fervor hit its zenith, Jeff Turmes performed a cool slide guitar instrumental of "Go Down Moses.” Homstrom mellowed the deep emotional impact further with his sweet soothing challenge of a blues instrumental that cut through the messy condition of being human. Hallelujah!

"I Belong to the Band" brought forth more lovely harmony singing and a positive message of love to close the show. Staples and troupe encored with the 1971 #1 hit on the soul and pop charts, the reggae influenced groove of "I'll Take You There." Scout's honor, the singing cheers were like the good vibe of a home run hit in your favorite baseball park...except everyone was a winner.

January 21, 2012


Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through February 5, 2012
by Jarice Hanson

While great plays are timeless, some plays are better suited to the era in which they were written. “Boeing-Boeing” is a good example of a play that encapsulates the 1960’s fascination with jet travel, breaking sexual mores, and women’s liberation, but satisfies that theater-goer’s appetite for substance by feeding them a Twinkie. While “Boeing-Boeing” won the Broadway 2009 Tony for Best Revival a Play, the Hartford Stage production tries, but fails to energize this tired farce.

Director Maxwell Williams cleverly uses conventions of 1960’s television shows to place the plot in the appropriate era, but the story of an American man who has three fianc├ęs from different countries, all of whom are “air hostesses,” relies on stereotypes; the ditzy American, the passionate Italian, and the Teutonic steamroller from Germany. The most well-crafted role in the play is that of a nerdy Wisconsonite male friend who comes for a visit, well played by Ryan Farley – a master of slapstick. From the start, the audience knows that the situation will get out of hand when all three women converge upon the apartment at the same time—no spoiler alert needed. 

The cast tries to overcome the thin script with abundant energy, and the three characters who deliver lines with accents effectively enunciate, though their tongue-twisting efforts result in occasionally bobbled lines. The 1960’s bachelor pad set is elegant, but simple, as is the plot. Each of the women’s costumes is color coordinated with the airline for which she works—and the audience is asked to believe that even on their days off, the stewardesses lounge in their uniforms, leading one to believe that the audience for the show is thought to be so dim that they might not be able to tell who’s who if the color-coding scheme falls apart. 

January 19, 2012

PREVIEW-Parent's Night Out

CityStage, Springfield, MA
February 2-5, 2012
By R.E. Smith

As the busy mother of three kids, Karen Morgan knows what a hassle it can be finding child care, so she wants to assure the audience that “Parent’s Night Out” is “baby-sitter worthy”. Partnered with fellow comedian Jim Colliton, also a parent of three, Karen says the goal of the show is “to make people laugh with the realization that they are not alone. It’s nice to be reminded that everyone’s going through the same things.”

The show that Morgan conceived uses stand-up comedy, improv, and audience participation to explore the wild ride that is raising kids. Morgan points out that “even our own parents can’t prepare us for what we face as parents,” and the show has some fun with the relationship that adults have with their own parents.

 Karen Morgan & Jim Colliton
Morgan hails from the South, Colliton is Boston raised and while parenting methods vary from region to region, even neighborhood to neighborhood, “there really is no wrong answer. Everyone does the best they can.” Though she does poke fun at what she calls the “over-parenters.” Even her background as a trial attorney doesn’t help because her kids never respond to the “cease and desist letters I send them.”

Morgan has been at CityStage before, with her show “Momma’s Night Out.” That project grew out of acquaintances she made appearing on Nickelodeon’s “Search for the Funniest Mom in America.” The difference with “Parent’s” is that it explores parenting from “both sides, male and female. A lot of what we talk about overlaps, but it is nice to have the Dad’s perspective. Jim came highly recommended and has really strong comedy skills.”

The tag line for the play points out that the two are happily married, “just not to each other.” Audiences often hear new bits before the real spouses do. “My husband had a vasectomy on Wednesday and I was joking about it on the radio Thursday morning. People were coming up to him on the street and congratulating him.” Morgan explains.

She feels that the show has longevity because “the material just gets richer the older our kids get.”

January 12, 2012


The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through January 15, 2012
by Shera Cohen

The Bushnell just keeps on bringing Broadway Tony Award winning musicals to Hartford. This week’s production is one from that short list of winners -- “Memphis.” Yes, New York is a nice place to visit, and theatre is perhaps the best of the best. However, do not ignore the classy, professional productions mounted in Hartford.

The story is Memphis, Tennessee in 1951 and the birth of rock ‘n roll. The first image seen is a giant radio dial, then the voice of a refined DJ, followed by music of Perry Como and Patty Paige. A moment later, the lights pop up on the dance floor of a tucked away nightclub and headliner Felicia. The rousing opening number, “Underground,” is full of energy, verve, rhythm, fun, lively music, and black singers/dancers. In walks Huey, a disheveled white hick who wants what the others have. He is oblivious to color.

While the emphasis of “Memphis” is music and dance – and there is plenty of it throughout – the story is fully developed (although predictable) and important. Rock ‘n roll represent black vs. white. It’s their music. No, it’s our music. These are fighting words. Yet, all could be right with the world through the melding of music, particularly heard in the beautiful and meaningfully song “The Music of My Soul.”

One flaw in the production is the lack of chemistry between Huey and Felicia. Color is definitely not the issue. Completely different personalities, levels of sophistication, and philosophies do not always mean that opposites attract. Does the fault lie in the actors or the story or both? The answer is difficult.

“Memphis” is a big show, told smoothly through simple sliding and rising set elements, bright lights, and rockin’ pit and onstage bands. Even if Huey and Felicia are not Romeo and Juliet, their surroundings full of countless ensemble dance numbers and singing pros keep the show moving, and the audience on their feet for a standing ovation.

January 11, 2012

Brahms and “Beatboxing”

Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
January 5-8, 2012
by Michael J. Moran

Having yielded the podium to Richard Coffey for the third program in the Hartford Symphony’s 2011-2012 “Masterworks” series in December, HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan returned to lead the offbeat fourth program, which surrounded a recent Finnish composition with two familiar masterpieces from 19th-century Vienna.

Kuan opened the concert with a sparkling performance of Johann Strauss, Jr.’s “Overture to Die Fledermaus.” Her flexible tempos brought warmth and restless energy to the lilting rhythms of the Viennese “Waltz King.” Strings and woodwinds played with special flair, and principal oboist Heather Taylor took a well-earned solo bow.

Next came the novelty on the program, “Fujiko’s Fairy Tale for Beatboxer and String Orchestra,” written in by Jan Mikael Vainio. The soloist, 34-year-old Washington D.C.-born Shodekeh, a professional beatboxer and faculty/musical accompanist for Towson University’s dance department and the American Dance Festival at Duke University, used only a microphone and his mouth to create an amazing range of vocal percussion sounds.

While this technique is most widely used in hip-hop, Shodekeh’s sounds blended surprisingly well with Vainio’s lovely tonal 20-minute string score based on Japanese mythology. The soloist’s stamina (he almost never stopped “playing”) and his obvious enjoyment of his musicmaking delighted the audience, which joined him and HSO concertmaster Leonid Sigal in an enthusiastic round of rhythmic clapping during a brief solo encore.  

Intermission was followed by a marvelous account of Brahms’ “Symphony No. 1 in C minor.” Conducting without a score, Kuan elicited a dramatic opening from the orchestra, and her tempos throughout were unusually fleet, except for a caressing rendition of the “Andante sostenuto” second movement and a heartwarming version of the familiar main theme of the finale. Woodwinds, horns, and brass were singled out for deserving solo and group bows.

While Shodekeh may have been the main attraction for some of this program’s diverse audience (he is African-American and performed at the HSO’s free season preview concert in September), they appeared to enjoy the Strauss and Brahms pieces just as much as the Vainio. With Kuan’s canny programming instincts, the future of classical music in Hartford looks bright indeed.