Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 24, 2014

Beethoven and Brahms

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
February 22, 2014
by Eric Sutter

As a folk and pop/rock music reviewer, I was given the task as fill-in reviewer for Springfield Symphony Orchestra's classical concert this week. Thankfully, my 7th grade music teacher stressed the importance of the three B's of classical music. It was fortunate for me that two B's were represented on the evening's program, along with a piece by Arnold Shoenberg. Classical music is beautiful with a high degree of creative structural complexity. Pop music is simple and accessible. To me, the two forms are musically night and day. They have different instrumentation, yet both aim to touch the core of the heart. Both are valid. I think of the English rock group "The Moody Blues" who tried to create a fusion of the two styles for symphonic rock.

The SSO presented Beethoven's "Leonore Overture No. 1, Op. 138" as a passionate lively piece which built dynamic musical tension with the string section. A dramatic change in sound occurred as the woodwinds took to sonic heaven along with a full throttle ending by the Symphony's wonderful brass section. Roll Over Beethoven...

In comes Schoenberg, who I confess that I never heard of. Obviously, others knew his work very well, and the audience loved him. His "Chamber Symphony No. 2 Op. 38" offered two very distinct components. "Adagio" was filled with sad expression of a slow dramatic descent. After the music had climaxed, the decline in harmony was evident with expressive deep emotion. "Con Fuoco, lento" was an equally moody piece where cellos, woodwinds and strings dominated in a harmonic convergence. The crescendo was an elation of string sound with gusto.

Ah ha, Brahms! His piano concerto "No. 1 in D minor, Op 15" was handled genteely by Jon Nakamatsu. The young musician's piano style was light and elegant for the most part with a flawless execution in the dynamic performance. He built the three part piece with gradual intensity that was well thought out. The different moods and tones formed were a gentle piano prelude to a dramatic woodwind climb which exhilarated in the second section of the piece. A slight peaceful mood of light piano and strings introduced the finale followed by the coupling of strings and woodwinds, capped with bold brass propulsion to a tremendous climax.
Concerts like these make this folk/country/blues/rock guy want to return to SSO. There isn't one music genre or style for one kind of person. Stretching one's comfort zone usually a pleasant experience.

February 20, 2014

Peter and the Starcatcher

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through February 23, 2014
by R.E. Smith

“Peter and the Starcatcher” is an inventive, irreverent, and entertaining twist on familiar themes: reinventing, and repurposing not only theater conventions but the tale of Peter Pan as well. Told in a mélange of styles from English music hall, to Renaissance-fair storytelling to “Irma Vep”, there are hidden gems for all ages sprinkled throughout the script, costumes, performances and set.

Based on a young adult novel by thriller writer Ridley Pearson and humorist Dave Barry, those familiar with the book will recognize the basic framework and characters but familiarity is not needed. While this is the “origin” story of Peter Pan and Captain Hook, the true protagonist is that of Molly, an English lord’s 13-year-old daughter who gets to prove her upper crust English mettle on a grand adventure on the high seas.

The theme of childhood and imagination runs strong, and simple items are used to great effect; pieces of rope become cramped ship’s cabins, rubber gloves come to life as birds. The proscenium is littered with repurposed items, enhancing the idea that anything can be transformed with a little imagination. The cast is repurposed as well, with 12 actors portraying scores of characters, from pirates to mermaids.

There are modern references and vernacular sprinkled throughout the script and work well to connect with the younger members of the audience, some of whom seemed a bit off put by so few actors playing so many roles “I really liked it (the show), but I’m still not quite sure what was going on!” remarked one young lady. For the adults, there are sly double entendres and knowing nods to an eclectic swath of pop culture.

The entire ensemble works well together with snappy pacing and boundless energy and all had their stand-out moments. John Sanders as pirate Black Stache is given a showy and physical part with which to run amuck, but he never does so at the expense of the other players. Luke Smith as Smee, and Edward Tournier as Ted, for instance, made smaller supporting parts quite memorable.

Much of the cast and technical crew hail from the New York production and the show sails along like like the fast moving toy boats that feature prominently. There is humor, adventure, a little song, a little dance, even haiku! The laughs come broad and subtle, physical and cerebral, moments range from bawdy to tender. . .there is, indeed, something for every child and for the child in all of us.

February 19, 2014

Sounds of New Orleans: A Louis Armstrong Tribute

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
February 15, 2014
by Eric Sutter

This spectacular tribute to jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong covered a wide spectrum of emotions in song. The SSO performed "Black and Tan Fantasy" from the Duke Ellington song catalogue to start. The amazing trumpet soloist Byron Stripling performed a New Orleans Medley that included "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues." He used his powerful voice to convey the emotions of another blues' standard, "St. James Infirmary." The music evoked somber, sad, silly, and happy feelings and proved it could make the listener dance. Even though it touted New Orleans as the nation's musical birthplace, the audience had the uncanny desire to shout out our hometown pride to the music.

Not to be repetitive, but Stripling was simply sensational on trumpet. "Red Arrow" featured the Symphony horn section with Stripling hitting the high notes. He sang "Sweet Georgia Brown" with a slow soulful swing. In the second half of the program, Stripling captured the essence of New Orleans well. "Alexander's Ragtime Band" was sheer joy in which the horn section had a fun work out with another blast of Stripling's trumpet. Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher" had the audience joining on the chorus in call and response.

A couple Fats Waller songs -- "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Ain't Misbehavin'"-- showcased the wonderful Jeff Holmes' piano. Stripling rose to a scat style centerpiece in the syncopated jazz of "Flat Foot Floogie" with a great supportive role by the brass section and a similar call and response approach with the audience. All on stage hit their melodic stride with the Louis Armstrong's songs; i.e. "Hello Dolly" sounded fresh with the Orchestra back up and "Mack The Knife" offered subtle swing crescendo. The nostalgic Satchmo, "Wonderful World" hit a deeply sentimental place with the audience. What a pleasurable send off "When The Saints Go Marching In" became with rousing with "jazzeriffic" horn blasts. Most of us know that music creates strong attachments with audiences. Stripling encored with a solo vocal, "Because Of You."

West Side Story

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT 
February 16, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

For the second time this season bad weather cancelled an HSO concert. Thursday’s opening performance of this Masterworks series program featuring orchestral suites from two stage works and a showpiece for piano and orchestra fell victim to winter storm Pax. And though storm Quintus inconvenienced Saturday concertgoers, a full house greeted the musicians in the Bushnell’s Belding Theater on Sunday afternoon.

A suite from Richard Strauss’s 1911 “Der Rosenkavalier” opened the concert. The orchestra’s sumptuous playing captured both the elegance of the opera’s setting in 1740s Vienna and the late romantic opulence of Strauss’s musical score. The whooping brass, the warm, rich strings, and the vivid percussion made the strongest impressions, but every member of the larger than usual ensemble seemed energized by the vigorous leadership of HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan.

Italian pianist Mariangela Vacatello next made her HSO debut in Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” A set of 24 variations on the last of Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Unaccompanied Violin, the "Rhapsody" is one of the most difficult pieces in the piano repertoire. But the 31-year-old soloist, winner of several international piano competitions, met its technical and interpretive challenges with seeming ease. Her straightforward playing was always appropriate to each variation, climaxing in the lush eighteenth variation, which she rendered with moving simplicity.

Intermission was followed by a visceral account of the Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” The entire orchestra played with distinction, snapping their fingers in several of the jazzier dances and shouting “Mambo” in that number with enthusiasm. But the brass and enlarged percussion sections played with special fervor, and the Latin flavor of the score emerged with particular strength.

In this season of unusual events, Sunday’s audience was treated to not one but two encores. After the Rachmaninoff, Vacatello extended her Paganini theme with a thrilling rendition of Liszt’s etude “La Campanella,” based on the last movement of Paganini’s second violin concerto. And the concert ended with the orchestra’s exuberant version of Bernstein’s “Candide” Overture, in welcome contrast to the somber close of the "West Side Story" suite.

February 13, 2014


Broad Brook Opera House, Broad Brook, CT
through February 23, 2014
by K.J. Rogowski

Key to the success of a show like “Cabaret,” are the elements of strong voices, distinctive characters, and a cast that truly projects the raw energy and bawdy antics alive at the Kit Kat Klub during the tumultuous days of 1929 Germany and the rise of Nazi power.

Director Becky Beth Benedict and her cast have done just that, and provide an entertaining and thought provoking evening, as the seemingly impenetrable and devil may care bubble that insulates those who frequent the Klub, slowly and surreptitiously metastasizes and shatters, taking with it many unsuspecting lives.

Heading up the cast is Tomm Knightlee, as the raucous Emcee. He drives the show with true pitchman style in numbers like the racy “Two Ladies,” the classic “Money,” and the seemingly silly, but suddenly all too pointed “If You Could See Her.” He is backed up by choruses comprised of both the Kit Kat Girls, and the Kit Kat Boys, all of whom keep the action hot as they bump and grind their way around the stage, and each other.

Brianna Stronk-Wandzy as Sally Bowles and Michael King as Clifford Bradshaw deliver solid performances both in their musical numbers and in conveying their tale of star crossed lovers. Wandzy traces her ill-fated journey moving from “Don’t Tell Mama,” to the fragile hope of “Maybe This Time,” and ending with a return to addictive “Cabaret.” Paralleling their fate is that of Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, whose dreams of love in their golden years are cruelly undone by the new order of things, as punctuated in Janine Flood’s challenge, “What Would You Do?”

The focus of this show stays, as it should, with the people and their stories, using an imaginative, simple and multifunctional set; and musical accompaniment that never overwhelms the voices. Come to the Cabaret.