Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

January 22, 2020

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, The Four Seasons

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
January 17-19, 2020
by Michael J. Moran
For the fourth Masterworks program of the HSO’s 76th season, music director Carolyn Kuan selected three works written over 300 years on three different continents, but all with roots in the baroque era.

The concert opened with two HSO premieres. First up was the 2009 “Suite for Lower Strings” by Clarice Assad, whose prolific output mixes classical and jazz elements with the rhythms of her native Brazil (her father is renowned guitarist Sergio Assad). Each of the suite’s five short movements reworks one or more themes by Johann Sebastian Bach with respectful delight. Kuan and her musicians gave the 13-minute piece an engaging spin.    

Next came the inventive 1953 “Variationes Concertantes” by Argentine master Alberto Ginastera. Written in the theme and variations form popular in the baroque era, the 12 variations in this 25-minute work feature brilliant solo passages for many instruments. Kuan took the opportunity to regale the amused audience with “little-known facts” about the soloists who would be playing them, from principal trumpeter Scott McIntosh’s snake whispering hobby to principal clarinetist Curt Blood’s woodworking skill (he even built her podium).     

From the lush opening duet by cellist Peter Zay and principal harpist Susan Knapp Thomas to the virtuosic final variation for full orchestra, conductor and orchestra met the work’s frequent technical challenges with aplomb and rendered its folk-influenced yet expressionistic harmonies with intense commitment.

The program closed after intermission with a lively account of Antonio Vivaldi’s beloved baroque masterpiece, “The Four Seasons.” Written in 1725 for string orchestra with harpsichord accompaniment, it consists of four short (10-minute) concertos of three movements each, named after the four seasons of the year. It was instructive to read how closely the four anonymous sonnets published with the music, and included in the program book, reflect the vivid colors of the music. 
Randall Goosby

Rising American violinist Randall Goosby was a riveting guest soloist in “The Four Seasons,” and his duets with Zay, concertmaster Leonid Sigal, and harpsichordist Edward Clark were special highlights of the performance. A standing ovation led to a dazzling encore of the Presto from Bach’s first violin sonata.

Playing publicly since age nine and still in his early twenties, Goosby has the technical chops and magnetic stage presence for a major career.

January 21, 2020

Review: Playhouse on Park, Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical

Playhouse on Park, Hartford, CT
through February 2, 2020
by Lisa Covi

On a wintry day, Playhouse on Park seems set for the pedestrian experience of a musical matinee. A bus rolls up with a mainstay of theater support – the group audience, which enters a stylishly decorated black-box set for an afternoon of Rosemary Clooney's “adult bio-musical” by co-authors Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman. Named after her 1951 hit “Tenderly,” one would expect a similarly haunting story of her struggles with mental illness in the face of a rags-to-riches career during the waning days of pre-rock ‘n roll Hollywood. Then something surprising happens. Between vaguely familiar performances of Come On-a My House, Hey There, and Straighten Up and Fly Right, materializes an extraordinary and intimate production.

A cast of two actors populate and embody the principal family members and stars of Clooney's universe. Around the satellite of Susan Haefner’s Clooney, her costar Samuel Lloyd Jr. alternately plays a psychiatrist, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Jose Ferrer, in addition to sister Betty and her mother. At one point, he portrays her therapist reenacting key moments in Clooney's life and career. Lloyd even pulls off a rendition of White Christmas' duet Sisters complete with choreography and fans made out of patient file folders. Lloyd is in fine voice as male and female.

The musical backdrop, under the director of Robert Tomasulo, is performed with a three- piece band occasionally visible behind the picture window of the set. Haefner's bearing and vocal phrasing provides the lush contours of Clooney's passage from star-struck ingénue through marriage and family years and the return from hospitalization and revival of her career. The arc of the star's story sounds familiar, but Clooney's unique grit, humor, and unprepossessing work ethic emerge in concert with vignettes provided by Lloyd's cast of supporting characters. The one-room office set is lit from all angles, providing a wide variety of indoor and outdoor scenes. The costumes and props are simple but evocative.

As with many biographical dramatizations, the second part of the script fails to match the substance of the events leading to the climax. As a story of healing, self-acceptance and realization, the play struggles with the denouement since the conquest of suffering and addiction is rarely as compelling and straightforward as Clooney’s characters in movie musicals. At the talkback, Haefner explained that the authors are more eager to license the production for widespread availability than to bring it to New York (still a possibility). Another note for Broadway is that the casting seems slightly mismatched. Although he brings an impressively wide range of characterizations to the role, Lloyd does not fully equal Haefner's highly dynamic stage presence.

Photo by Meredith Longo
This loving exposition of her talent and heart sticks closely to Clooney’s biographies as source. Her brother Nicky has expressed a desire to extend the influence of her existence and joins her family and foundation endorsing this work. This production stirs our souls with the vibrancy of vocal performances and reminds our conscience of the private challenges public celebrities face at the depths and summits of their careers.

January 19, 2020

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, Pike St.

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through February 8, 2020
by Jarice Hanson

In a power-packed 80 minute performance the effervescent playwright/actor Nilaja Sun captivates the audience with a highly original story about three generations of a Puerto Rican family on the Lower East Side of New York City. Among the characters she brings to life are Evelyn, a single mother, her handicapped teen-aged daughter, her womanizing father, and her PTSD-afflicted Navy Seal brother. Cameos “appearances” (since they are all played by Sun, herself) include a 95-year old Holocaust Survivor neighbor, an Asian shopkeeper, and more.

Pike St. is funny, heartbreakingly sad, and deeply touching. Inspired by the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, Sun wrote the piece to honor those people whose lives were changed by catastrophic events of nature. Directed by Ron Russell, who also designed the achingly effective sound for the piece, the almost-bare stage serves as a canvas for Sun’s portraits of family, place, and time. The story is highly original and painstakingly constructed so that the final scene is never telegraphed, but somehow, inevitable. Sun is one of those unique performers who touches the audience with the sound of her voice and the energy appropriate for a woman whose last name is “Sun.”

Photo by T. Charles Erikson
As patrons take their seats, she sits quietly on stage, focusing on breathing and slowly, she transforms herself into Candi, the non-communicative handicapped daughter of our protagonist; from that point on, the actress’ energy never waivers. Watching her connect to the audience is like participating in a master class in acting. Her rapid "nuwyourican" speech gives way to the various characters and she connects with the audience in a call and response pattern that pulls everyone together and readies the audience for a non-stop ride. It’s impossible not to like her as a performer and we collectively laugh and sigh with recognition about the flawed individuals she creates. Sun connects with the audience in a way that is almost magical, and the Hartford audience was not disappointed. They hooted, they sighed, and they rewarded her with a long, strong, standing ovation.

Nilaja Sun is a “performer’s performer.” Her writing is fresh and her performance is controlled, energetic, and she makes every word clear and understandable. Her critically-acclaimed Off-Broadway hit No Child… was recognized with 21 awards, but she is also known to television audiences and she has worked as a teaching artist in the New York and Connecticut school systems, where, you can imagine, she must be an inspirational teacher and coach. She is undoubtedly, a performer not to be missed.

January 18, 2020

REVIEW: Valley Classical Concerts, Matt Haimovitz & Simone Dinnerstein

Valley Classical Concerts, Sweeney Concert Hall, Smith College
January 12, 2020
by Michael J. Moran

Haimovitz & Dinnerstein
Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo recently won acclaim for a recital program featuring music by George Frederic Handel and Philip Glass, so why shouldn’t the duo of cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Simone Dinnerstein do the same with a program of Beethoven and Glass?

Both at the height of distinguished careers, equally at home with new and older music, and noted for an independent streak in how and where they perform, their juxtaposition of Beethoven’s last two cello and piano sonatas with two Glass pieces for solo cello and solo piano gave Beethoven a 21st-century cutting edge and Glass a firm grounding in classical rhythm.

Written simultaneously with the fifth sonata in 1815, as Beethoven was approaching his final decade, the fourth sonata defies convention with only two movements, each with a slow introduction and a faster main section. The duo played it with dramatic intensity.  

Haimovitz then performed Glass’s second Partita for solo cello, of which he gave the world premiere in 2017. In seven short movements totaling about 25 minutes, all with predominantly slow tempos, the partita displayed little of the minimalist repetition on which Glass’s early reputation was made. Haimovitz rendered it with affecting emotional conviction.

Intermission was followed with an equally gripping account by Dinnerstein of Glass’s “Mad Rush” for solo piano. Written in 1979 for the first public appearance of the Dalai Lama in the United States, the piece was of indeterminate length to accommodate the speaker’s unpredictable schedule, but its published version lasts about 15 minutes. Dinnerstein alternated its contemplative and declamatory passages with passion and sensitivity.

After closing the concert with Beethoven’s fifth sonata for cello and piano, highlighted by a rapturous central Adagio, the duo’s three encores showed how a third composer influenced both of these successors: a lively Allegro from Bach’s second viola da gamba sonata; a moving transcription of his 25th Goldberg variation; and a rhapsodic “The Orchard,” from Glass’s music for Jean Genet’s play “The Screens.”

The warm acoustics of Sweeney Concert Hall at Smith College in Northampton, flattering the deep, mellow tone of Haimovitz’s cello and the rich, dark resonance of Dinnerstein’s grand piano, added sonic luster to this rewarding musical afternoon.

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, All Beethoven!

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
January 11, 2020
by Michael J. Moran
Mark Russell Smith

The fourth program of the SSO’s 76th season launched the orchestra’s yearlong celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday anniversary and welcomed back to the podium Mark Russell Smith for the first time since his tenure as their music director from 1995 to 2000.

The concert opened with the Overture to Egmont, a play by Goethe for which Beethoven was commissioned to write incidental music in 1809. Featuring the full drama of his mature style, it depicts the struggle of a noble Dutch Count against a despotic Spanish Duke, perhaps reflecting as well the composer’s personal battles against his increasing deafness and in support of human rights. Smith and the SSO gave a thrilling account of this explosive score.

Reducing the orchestra’s size by several players, Smith devoted the rest of the evening to Beethoven’s first two symphonies. Written in 1800, when the 29-year-old composer was still establishing himself in Vienna, the first symphony extended the symphonic model he had learned from his studies with Haydn, its inventor, by beginning to break its rules.

While in the standard four movements, the rhythmically ambiguous openings of its first and last movements puzzled many early listeners. And though called a Minuet, the boisterous third movement displays little of that dance’s traditional grace but rather presents the first example of the livelier Scherzo form that Beethoven himself invented.  

The second symphony, dating from 1802 and played after intermission, also retains the classical four-movement format, but its slow opening is more expansive than in its predecessor, and the playful third movement is actually labelled “Scherzo.” Smith took all the repeats in both symphonies, but his fleet tempos, even in the slow movements, drove them urgently forward. Heard after the Egmont Overture, these early works suggested not so much the fledgling composer he still was as the pathbreaking Beethoven to come.

Now holding three positions in the Minnesota-Iowa area, the busy maestro’s clear rapport with the musicians, many of whom joined the SSO after his tenure, drew playing that was consistently crisp and bracing. His warm reception from the large audience, many seeing his energetic leadership for the first time, indicated that he should revisit his Springfield home more often.

January 16, 2020

REVIEW: The Bushnell, “Anastasia”

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through January 19, 2020
by Shera Cohen
Before the musical “Anastasia” begins, the audience enters the theatre as if walking onto the pages of a storybook. In fact, the tale of Anastasia, the very real and presumably executed Russian princess of the early 20th century, may or may not be folklore. The ultimate decision is that of each individual at the Bushnell, which held a full house on opening night, including lots of kids. 

Having seen the world premier at Hartford Stage three years ago is proof that what comes around, goes around. From Hartford to Broadway and back to Hartford, “Anastasia” has changed only slightly, thank goodness. The creative team of director Darko Tresnjak, scenic designer Alexander Dodge, and choreographer Peggy Hickey have worked fairy tale magic once again.

The Disneyfication of cartoon movies morphing into Broadway musicals has become a staple for theatergoers. Some do not like this rather less creative decision-making on the part of design staff. Others cheer to see the likes of Ariel and Mulan bouncing out of the movie screen, at the same time showing the next generation how wonderful theatre can be.

“Anastasia” combines a bit of a “My Fair Lady” plot with some powerhouse music, particularly in solos and duets. A cast of 40, song list of 30, band (more like an orchestra) of nearly 20, and six lead actors make “Anastasia” excel.

Lila Coogan (Anya aka Anastasia) looks like Grace Kelly and sings like Julie Andrews. Jake Levy (Dmitry) and Edward Staudenmayer (Vlad) team up as delightful amateur scoundrels with the proverbial hearts of gold. This triumvirate form the crux of the story. Other standouts are Jason Michael Evans (Gleb) as the emotionally tortured soldier. However, the audience must wait until after intermission for Tari Kelly (Countess Lily) to take the stage as effervescent and needed comic relief, literally kicking up her heals in the most delightful moments of “The Countess and the Common Man.” 

Director Tresnjak’s hand molds the musical’s shape, sound, and spirit. A constantly changing backdrop tableau of static pictures, movement, and shadows is exquisite. Sections of flats smoothly slide in and out, turn, and circle as season’s and locations quickly change.

A smorgasbord of more kudos: sound, lights, lush period costumes, the Charleston, and “Swan Lake.”

However, here’s a question, “less is more?” Hartford Stage’s set design is much smaller than The Bushnell, in many ways crafting intimate love stories; Anya and Dmity, love of family, friends, and country. Because the audience is physically near the stage, they can’t help but fall in love with the characters. On the other hand, “Anastasia” is equally depicted as a sprawling story of Russia at war with cultures disintegrating amid flames and booming kettle drums. This furry calls for the Bushnell-size setting.

“Anastasia” is a wonderful package of beauty, history, mystery, and love.

January 13, 2020

REVIEW: The Majestic Theater, Deathtrap

The Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through February 16, 2020
by Konrad Rogowski

Photo by Kait Rankins
Ira Levin’s classic play “Deathtrap,” abounds with murder, mayhem, and never-ending plotting to ultimately decide who gets top billing in any theatrical endeavor. Hence the phrase: a role that you would kill for.

The Majestic’s production, under the direction of Robbie Simpson, provides the audience with an evening of well-played twists, turns and reversals of fate as two conniving authors vie to see who will end up with the rights to a potential box office smash, and a bankroll to match.

Ron Komora as Sidney Bruhl and Jack Grigoli as Clifford Anderson play the rival writers with the roles of cat and mouse changing hands from scene to scene as they each plot to outdo the other and win the prize. Krista Lucas as Myra, Bruhl’s long suffering wife, attempts to be the referee in this deadly match of wits, not knowing exactly what the rules or the goal of the real game are; this is a mistake that leads to unexpected consequences. Lisa Abend as the psychic, Helga ten Dorp, and Walter Mantani as Bruhl’s attorney round out the cast and add some fine comic moments as they complicate the two playwrights’ plotting efforts with their other worldly, and legal, advice and insights.

Complimenting this great script, and setting the mood for evil doing is Greg Trochlil’s rich set, replete with virtually every implement of destruction imaginable … swords, guns, daggers, rifles, and of course, handcuffs, a garrote, and a crossbow, leaving the possibilities of just what may happen to whom next, wide open.

“Deathtrap” is two hours of suspense and surprises that keep you thinking that you finally know who done it, until you find out that the laughs and the larceny aren’t over just yet.

January 5, 2020

Preview: PVPA, "We Came to Play"

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
January 14, 2020

The Majestic Theater will welcome students from the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts (PVPA) Charter Public School for “We Came to Play.”

Sixty students will perform in the concert, including members from the PVPA's Rock ensemble (vocalists and instrumentalists), Jazz ensemble (vocalists and instrumentalists), Pop R&B ensemble (vocalists and instrumentalists), and acapella ensemble (just vocalists). These four ensembles are audition-based and feature students in grades 9-12.

"This upcoming showcase is shaping up to be a high energy, dynamic performance,” said Charlotte Donovan, enrollment and communications coordinator at the school. “Our music department supplies spectacular training and emphasizes the importance of offering students the chance to perform for audiences outside the classroom. We strive to provide the skills needed for students to sustain their craft as they continue on as artists after high school.”

She continued, “This is what makes PVPA unique; access to professional artistic training and performance opportunities in the context of a highly supportive academic environment. For any student who is seeking an active community of peers and educators, is a lover of the arts looking for a chance to gain and deepen skills in their craft, and is looking to push themselves both inside and outside of the classroom, PVPA could be the place for them.”

Ticket prices are $20 for adults, $10 for students/seniors/veterans, and $5 for children 12 and under attending with family. Tickets can be purchased by calling the Majestic Theater Box at (413) 747-7797.