Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 26, 2012

Close Encounters with Music: Trade Winds, From China with Love

Mahaiwe Theater, Great Barrington, MA
April 21, 2012
by Michael J. Moran
In setting the stage for this concert’s “musical dialogue between East and West,” cellist and CEWM Artistic Director Yehuda Hanani noted that while western music typically features “a buildup of tension followed by release,” Chinese music seeks instead to achieve “a state of nirvana.” The enterprising selection of European and Chinese music that followed largely confirmed this distinction.

The program opened with Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite in an arrangement by the performer, Bulgarian-born pianist Emma Tahmizian. Before playing, she explained that her arrangement focused on the “magical notes” connecting the five movements and that she would omit the second movement, “Little Tom Thumb.” This was an unfortunate loss, as her playing was rich in detail and nuance, and her arrangement gave the piquant music a newly chromatic edge.

For the rest of the program’s first half, Tahmizian was joined by Israeli violinist Hagai Shaham. Their taut but flexible rendition of Debussy’s “Violin Sonata” made it sound both jazzier and more exotic than usual. The exhilaration they demonstrated in a passionate account of Joseph Achron’s soulful “Hebrew Melody” looked much like the nirvana that Hanani associated with Chinese music. And they were so exuberant in Fritz Kreisler’s “Tambourin Chinois” that Shaham broke at least one string before it ended.

"Empress of Pipa" Liu Fang
After intermission China’s “Empress of Pipa,” Liu Fang, played three traditional Chinese pieces on the pipa, a sort of Chinese lute that produces a high-pitched, bell-like sound. The concluding march, “King Chu Doffs His Armor,” built especially well to an ecstatic climax. The speed with which Fang plucked her strings was often mesmerizing, but every note she played was crystal clear. 

Cellist Hanani then joined her for two American premieres: Zhou Long’s “Green,” and Ahmad Hamdan’s “From Ahmad to Liu Fang.” Though the balance between the two instruments didn’t always work, Long’s piece made the stronger impression.

It was a gutsy move to conclude the program with Tahmizian’s dazzling account of Leo Ornstein’s “A la Chinoise,” which, though written almost a century ago, sounded like the most modern and cosmopolitan work of the evening.

April 18, 2012

Musical Legacy

Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
through April 15, 2012
by Michael J. Moran

Gerard & Julian Schwarz
The special attraction of the seventh “Masterworks” program in the Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s current season was the chance to see guest conductor Gerard Schwarz lead a concert featuring his son Julian as soloist. The esteemed elder Schwarz retired last year as music director of the Seattle Symphony after 26 years in that post. His twenty-year-old son is a rising cellist who, though still a Juilliard student, has already performed with many professional orchestras.

The program opened with an HSO premiere: Chinese-born composer Bright Sheng’s 2006 arrangement for orchestra of Brahms’s “Intermezzo in A Major” for solo piano. The 7-minute piece, which Sheng gave the enigmatic title “Black Swan,” captured and even magnified the autumnal warmth of the original and was given an appropriately lush and tender performance.

Schwarz told the Hartford Courant that these HSO concerts marked his first collaboration with his son in perhaps the greatest of all cello concertos, Dvorak’s 1895 “Concerto in B minor.” Its many Czech-sounding melodies recall the composer’s homeland, including a quotation from one of his songs that was a favorite of a beloved sister-in-law who died while he was finishing work on the concerto.

The memorable performance revealed all the drama and poignancy of the music, from the grand opening of the first movement with its solo horn melody beautifully played by principal Barbara Hill, through the bucolic central Adagio, to the fleet rondo finale. The soloist’s rich, expressive tone and his interpretive maturity easily met both the technical demands and the wide emotional range of this 40-minute masterpiece and earned him an enthusiastic standing ovation.

The program closed with a powerful account of Sibelius’s “Symphony No. 2,” acclaimed at its world premiere in 1902 as a bold statement of Finnish nationalism. Schwarz’s affinity for this piece, which he told the Courant first inspired him to study conducting, was clear in the dark, brooding sound he drew from the players, especially brass, woodwinds, and percussion.  Mutual applause showed how much conductor and orchestra enjoyed working together.

The “musical legacy” of this father has a long and promising future with his son.

April 16, 2012

Schuman, Mozart & Schumann

Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
April 14, 2012
by Michael J. Moran

For the fifth concert in its 2011-2012 "Classical" series, Music Director Kevin Rhodes indulged his love for "puns, word games, and language silliness" noted in the program book by leading the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in a concert of music by Schuman and Schumann, with a piece of Mozart in between.

In pre-concert remarks, Rhodes introduced William Schuman’s 18-minute "Symphony for Strings (Symphony No. 5)" as an "homage to the baroque," with each of its three short movements evoking a dance form of that era. From the vigor of the opening fugue through the heartfelt slow movement and the lively finale, Rhodes’ love for this composer’s music produced as passionate an account as their presentation earlier this season of Schuman’s masterful third symphony.

Next came Mozart’s "Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major," soloist Spencer Myer’s own choice for his SSO debut. The 32-year-old Juilliard graduate from Ohio was the 2008 Gold Medalist at the New Orleans International Piano Competition and has many orchestral, recital, and chamber music performances to his credit on five continents.

The concerto is one of Mozart’s last (1786) and largest (32 minutes). The first movement opened with a festive horn fanfare, but the piano’s entrance several minutes later was much quieter and more subtle. Myer and the orchestra kept the shifting moods and tempos of all three movements in perfect balance between classical restraint and aristocratic grandeur. Their efforts were rewarded with a standing ovation.

Intermission was followed by a blazing rendition of Robert Schumann’s "Symphony No. 2 in C Major," written in 1845 as the composer was recovering from a period of ill health. The slow opening of the first movement featured a more solemn fanfare than Mozart’s, but the contrasting Allegro that followed brought with it an almost manic energy which only let up for a deeply moving version of the Adagio third movement.

The freshness and joy of the performance on a mild April evening made this symphony sound more like Schumann’s "Spring" symphony than even his first symphony does, which actually bears that nickname.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Exit 7 Players, Ludlow, MA
through April 28, 2012
By Walter Haggerty

How Do You Spell G.R.E.A.T? Exit 7 Players have the answer – and they are superb. In fact, the entire production of “Spelling Bee” is an inspired evening of top drawer entertainment from start to finish.

The prospect of turning a traditional high school spelling bee into a hit Broadway musical is about as promising a project as a musical based on the life of Adolph Hitler becoming a success. Oh well, anything is possible on Broadway.  “Spelling Bee,” which began its life at Barrington Stage, turned out to be a real winner with a Tony nomination and an extended run on Broadway and beyond.

At the Exit 7 Players Theatre, a cast that has been fine-tuned to perfection by director Tom LeCourt, gives an ensemble performance that is impeccable. Their portrayal of a group of high school misfits, whose single opportunity to shine is their spelling expertise; discover through their competition that there really is more to life than winning. With a series of entertaining songs, a liberal dose of humor, and ultimately acceptance of, and even affection for one another, the evening arrives at a jubilant conclusion.

Every member of the cast deserves accolades for his/her distinctively molded characterizations – each a bit off center, but always on target. Steve Grabowski’s Leaf Coneybear, with his cape and hand puppet, is a delight. Kyle Boatwright as Logainne, gives an evenly balanced performance of a brilliant, slightly confused teenager.

Megan Hoy’s Marcy manages to escape her reputation as a perfect student by reveling in deliberately making a mistake in spelling. Todd Porter, as William Barfee (pronounced Barfay), is a hilarious, sarcastic spelling wizard with a “magic” foot. Nikki Wadleigh’s performance of the nervous, unsure, waif-like Olive Ostrovsky, is pure gold.

Finally, David Webber’s Chip Tolentino, the handsome, bright, boy-next-door, betrayed by a quirk of nature, could easily settle into the cast of “Glee” as a replacement for one of their obviously aging teens. The adults –  Eric Johnson, Michael Garcia, and especially Kathy Renaud, were excellent throughout.

 ”Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a perfect example and living proof that America truly does have talent – and some of it is right next door.

April 13, 2012

Almost Elton John

CityStage, Springfield, MA
through April 14, 2012
by Eric Sutter

The audience can feel the sound of solid rock of the 70's and 80's in this "cover show" by Craig A. Meyer and the Rocket Band. This visually stunning performance is a tribute to Sir Elton John by a fantastic impersonator and crack band with singers that rattle brains and pull at heart strings. The brash, "Bitch is Back," seared with intensity... guitar against piano tearing loose like the outpouring of a sudden thunderstorm. Familiar songs "Philadelphia Freedom," "Daniel," and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" follow with audience participation of hand waving glowsticks and cell phones. Meyer dresses in many glittered costumes and wears big glasses, platform shoes and assorted brilliant head wear. His English accent adds dimension to this spectacular show as he coaches the audience in the correct way to sing the chorus of "Bennie and the Jets."

Meyer flamboyancy burns with ardent passion as he prances in self-indulgence to "I'm Still Standing" and pounds the piano in interplay with Danny Howe's dangerous electric guitar solo. The river of musical delight feels like the rush of being suspended in mid-air. The swirling emotions quiet to the spotlight focus on Meyer on dark center stage at the piano as he sings "Tiny Dancer" with lap steel accompaniment. The beautiful ballad on the simple stage with lighted disco ball brings a crisp chill of remembrance that dances off the skin and raises goose bumps. The great and powerful "Rocket Man" takes off and engulfs like a radiant torch of light. "Honky Cat" moves the audience to the song's percussive piano rhythms.

Act II begins with the pensive but pendulous "Funeral for A Friend" with Meyer in glam rock pink. "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" warms every heart. A duet with singer Kelly Fletcher, "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" is fun and neatly juxtaposed to "Candle In The Wind." A blue bell-bottomed Meyer in a long-tailed coat brings the house down with a rock medley of "Lucy In The Sky with Diamonds" and "Pinball Wizard." The colorful roller coaster of sound crescendos with "Crocodile Rock," "Saturday Night's Alright" and "Sad Songs," which closes the night.

April 12, 2012

Fiddler on the Roof

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through April 15, 2012
by Walter Haggerty

“Fiddler on the Roof,” considered by many to be the last production deserving of inclusion in “The Golden Age of Broadway Musicals,” is an especially enjoyable revival at the Bushnell. Opening night’s near-capacity audience, many of whom were clearly familiar with the show, demonstrated their appreciation with generous applause and a standing ovation at the conclusion.

John Peerce, on his tenth national tour of “Fiddler,” with more than 1,780 performances as Tevye behind him, delivers an excellent performance – humorous, heartfelt, touching when appropriate, but never over the top. Gerri Weagraff, a youngish Golde, has her best moments with Peerce in the Act II duet, “Do You Love Me?”

From “Tradition,” the opening number of the production, all the way to the final strains of “Anatevka,” the score reflects the genius of the composers in their ability to create songs that match the spirit of each character and yet could stand alone independent of the award-winning, Joseph Stein book. Following “Tradition,” the other favorite selections flow as a lush, melodic bounty with “If I Were A Rich Man,” “To Life,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Now I Have Everything,” and “Far From the Home I Love.”

As the daughters, Brooke Hills as Tzeitel, Sara Sesler as Hodel, and Chelsey LeBel as Chava are each excellent in their distinctive characterizations that allow their love for their parents to shine through their desire for independence.

Asndrew Boza as Motel, the Tailor, gives a standout performance, especially in his delivery of “Miracle of Miracles.” Also impressive is Joshua Phan-Gruber’s  perceptive interpretation of the role of Perchik, the Student.

The choreography, credited to Director/Choreographer, Sammy Dallas Bayes and Assistant Director and Choreographer, Ken Daigle, as reproduced from Jerome Robbins original, is outstanding and a tribute to its originator.

For an introduction to “Fiddler,” as one of the great iconic Broadway musicals, or to relive treasured theatre-going memories of the past, this is a production well worth visiting

April 9, 2012

PREVIEW--"The 39 Steps"

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
from April 12 - May 20, 2012

Take famed director Alfred Hitchcock's mystery "The 39 Steps" and play it for huge laughs, while keeping the mystique, and here comes a spiffy new version of the 1915 novel and 1935 movie.

Winner of both Tony and Drama Desk Awards, the play is inspired by classic 1940's films, juicy spy novels, and a bit of Monty Python. It's a fast-paced whodunit that features more than 150 characters played by only four actors. "The 39 Steps" recently concluded a smash-hit run in New York.

"Steps" is directed by Zoya Kachadurian, and features a cast that includes David Mason ("Lumberjacks in Love"), Scott Severence, Richard Vaden and Kathy McCafferty.

A reminder is in order. Hartford Stage presented a hilarious "Steps" in last year's season. For those who saw it then, this creative comedy is definitely worth another trip to the theatre. For those who have not seen it, get your tickets soon.

April 7, 2012

PREVIEW-Burn the Floor Heats Up Springfield

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
Wednesday, May 9, 2012 at 7:30pm

Years before "Dancing with the Stars" turned ballroom dancing into must-see TV, one sizzling show was setting stages ablaze around the globe. "Burn the Floor" the electrifying Latin and Ballroom dance spectacular that has thrilled audiences in more than 30 countries, brings the fire and passion of their live performance to Springfield.

The new Broadway production broke box office records and critics and fans around the world have raved about this performance. From Harlem’s hot nights at The Savoy, where dances such as the Lindy, Foxtrot and Charleston were born, to the Latin Quarter where the Cha-Cha, Rumba and Salsa steamed up the stage, Burn the Floor takes audiences on a journey through the passionate drama of dance. The elegance of the Viennese Waltz, the exuberance of the Jive, the intensity of the Paso Doble - audiences will also experience the Tango, Samba, Mambo, Quickstep, and Swing.

Twenty award-winning international dancers include numerous world champions. The dancers, who collectively hold more than 100 dance titles, move to the vision of artistic director and choreographer Jason Gilkison, former World Champion Latin and Ballroom dancer, and guest choreographer and judge on "So You Think You Can Dance." A highlight for the Springfield performance is the inclusion of 2009 "So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Karen Hauer on the cast list.

The event is co-sponsored by Health New England and Baystate Health. Media sponsors are ABC40/Fox 6 and El Pueblo Latino.

April 1, 2012


TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
Through May 6, 2012
by K.J. Rogowski

TheaterWorks two-man drama “Red” is presented in the style and spirit of its real life subject, painter Mark Rothko…without intermission, without let up, and without dramatic pretext. The factors that make this happen are John Logan’s taut script, Tazewell Thompson’s careful direction, and the delicate balance of Jonathan Epstein and Thomas Leverton’s ‘push and pull’ relationship on stage.

The play chronicles Rothko’s conflicted commission to create an expansive mural for the Four Seasons Restaurant in 1958. Add to this internal artistic and philosophical dilemma, Rothko’s new assistant, Ken, who over the play’s two year span, transforms from assistant/floor sweeper,/paint mixer to Rothko’s second conscience, artistic and ethical critic, and sometimes confidante. Needless to say, the audience knows where this play is likely to go. They would be wrong, and that is the enjoyment of this production. Like Rothko’s works, the playgoer thinks he sees something, then realizes that there are several things to see, none of which are expected.

The often times machine gun dialogue, like the staccato jazz that accompanies the swift set changes, pulls the listener along, jumping from arguments on lighting and color, to what the artist sees, feels and cares about his work, to what the work itself deserves, as a creation released into the world. As Rothko declares, “It’s like sending your blind child into a room full of razor blades.”

This show could take many directions, interspersed with talk of suicide, childhood trauma and murder, failure, jealousy, but it holds true to its purpose, to explore the mind and vision of the artist, the relationship of the artist to his art, and his art to the world. Rothko asks “What do you see?” The answer Ken gives is “Red.” What should future audiences see?  See “Red.”