Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 13, 2019

REVIEW: Mahaiwe, John Pizzarelli Big Band

Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington, MA
December 7, 2019
by Lisa M. Covi

John Pizzarelli
John Pizzarelli Big Band packed the Mahaiwe for what is an annual show. Pizzarelli vocalized with his jazz guitar while fronting a 16-piece orchestra that performed fresh takes on classic, but wide-ranging selections. A consummate entertainer, Pizzarelli connected with familiar fans and new audience members via stories of his distinguished career, amusing patter and even a vaudevillian “spit-take.” His repertoire, customized arrangements of American songbook classics, conveyed his group's mastery of swing, call and response, and tight improvisations.

Some featured performers included Andy Fusco, a saxophonist who previously played with Buddy Rich, John Mosca on trombone, and Konrad Pazkudzki on piano. Pizzarelli's wife, Jessica Molaskey, who appears with him on his weekly “Radio Deluxe” show and contributed lyrics to his arrangement of Tizo's “Perdito,” was unfortunately home with a cold and did not appear. Pizzarelli dominates with his personality and performance, but he is also quick to credit contribution and skill to his band.

Aside from the novelty selection “I Like Jersey Best,” little of the music was composed less than 50 years ago. Another exception, “Nat King Cool” from the 2019 album, “For Centennial Reasons,” is the third tribute he's released to the iconic jazzman that inspired Pizzarelli. At the top of the show, Sinatra-style vocals on “Love is Here to Stay” was a little slow for my taste, but I was swept away by Brandon Lee's soulful trumpet solo and the sweet quote at the end of the song. The first set ended with Holiday selections such as Leroy Anderson's “Sleigh Ride,” substituting rhythmic horn bleats for the famous whip crack. The second set started with several Johnny Mercer pieces including a particularly expressive performance of “Come Rain, Come Shine.” During a pause in Duke Ellington's “C. Jam Blues,” toe tapping in the audience was audible.

Improvisations tended to be note-heavy and fast in tempo. During several call and response passages, the musicians seamlessly passed the solos back and forth. Each instrument was separately amplified and the mixer let us hear the highlighted musicians with only a few slips. Pizzarelli's voice was a bit nasal at first but within the first few numbers opened up as he demonstrated his mastery of scatting the notes he plays with technical proficiency. Overall, the evening was dependably and vastly enjoyable entertainment by dynamic performers who brought New Jersey charm with stylistic big band flair. The energy, enthusiasm, and swing of Pizzarelli's Big Band made timeless songs relevant and real.

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Chopin, and Franck

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
December 6-8, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

For the third Masterworks program of the HSO’s 76th season, guest conductor Laura Jackson, Music Director of the Reno Philharmonic, selected three nineteenth-century masterpieces with strong musical connections to Paris, France.

The concert opened with the best-known work by lifelong Parisian teacher and composer Paul Dukas, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Based on a poem by Goethe and dating from 1897, the 11-minute symphonic poem was featured in Walt Disney’s movie “Fantasia,” where Mickey Mouse memorably portrayed the hapless title character. The gracefully kinetic Maestra and her musicians played the colorful score with brilliance and conviction.

Daniela Liebman
This was followed with a captivating HSO debut by seventeen-year-old Mexican pianist Daniela Liebman in an elegant performance of Chopin’s second piano concerto. Though written by the nineteen-year-old composer in 1829, a year before he left his native Warsaw for Paris, it reflects both his Polish heritage and the delicacy of French musical style. Combining technical finesse with remarkable interpretive maturity, Liebman brought majesty and vigor to the opening “Maestoso” movement, tenderness to the lyrical “Larghetto,” and jubilance to the mazurka-like closing “Allegro.” Conductor and orchestra offered full-bodied support throughout.

An enthusiastic standing ovation brought Liebman back to the keyboard for a generous encore, Chopin’s 8-minute third Ballade, in a dazzlingly intense rendition. An overhead camera helpfully projected her finger work in both pieces on a large screen behind the stage of the Bushnell’s Belding Theater.

The program closed after intermission with a blazing account of the once popular but now rarely heard (as Jackson lamented in brief introductory comments – this was also the HSO’s first-ever performance of it) Symphony in D minor by Belgian-born, Paris-based teacher, organist, and composer Cesar Franck. Written in 1888, the distinctive lush harmonies of its three lengthy movements all grow out of a three-note motif that opens the symphony.

Jackson’s pliant baton lingered over quiet slow passages between dramatic peaks in the opening “Lento-Allegro,” led HSO principal harpist Susan Knapp Thomas and principal horn Barbara Hill through a radiant duet in the alternately lilting and scurrying “Allegretto,” and threw caution to the winds in a joyous “Allegro” finale.

The appreciative audience made it clear that this animated and resourceful conductor would be welcomed back to Hartford anytime.