Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

November 24, 2020

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, A Musicians’ Panel

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA

November 23, 2020

by Michael J. Moran


Formally titled “From the Heart of the SSO: A Musicians’ Panel,” the second in a new three-program series of “90-minute virtual lecture/music events” via Zoom featured five non-principal SSO players in conversation with SSO Education Director Kirsten Lipkens: first violinist Kathy Andrew; second violinist Anne-Marie Chubet; violist Elizabeth Rose; Assistant Principal double bassist Alexander Svensen; and trombonist Paul Bellino.


Like most orchestras, the SSO is a part-time ensemble, so along with their SSO tenures of six (Svensen) to thirty-three years (Rose),  all these musicians have had an impressive range of other professional music experience, such as teaching, being regular or substitute members of other orchestras, and performing in chamber music groups. Despite the challenges of this “patchwork” career pattern, including much long-distance driving from gig to gig, all shared a deep commitment to the “elation” of playing music for a live audience.


Some of their most revealing insights concerned the inner workings of their craft, from auditions (focusing what in any other field would be a traditional job interview into a “very pressure-ful” 2-3 minutes of performance time behind a screen); rehearsals (several weeks of home study with musical scores followed by 10 hours of Thursday-Friday group work before one Saturday concert, which Rhodes’s “ultra-efficient” rehearsal style ensures will be “a good performance”); and working together (learning to listen to each other is “all about blending” and good preparation for life). 


Among their most memorable SSO experiences were: unguarded backstage moments at Symphony Hall with pops concert guest stars Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Short, and Art Garfunkel; and performing “O Fortuna” from Orff’s “Carmina Burana” at a 2015 New England Patriots game in Foxborough celebrating the team’s fourth Super Bowl championship before 75,000 fans (Svensen recalled thinking, “I’ll never hear a louder audience”).  


All five musicians clearly value the great camaraderie and inspiring leadership they experience as committed members of the SSO. Lipkens, who is also a substitute SSO oboist, was a genial and empathetic host. The last event in this series is: “Entering Bach’s World,” with music educator Andrew Leonard on December 2 at 7:30 pm.

November 20, 2020

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Rhodes on Beethoven

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
November 19, 2020
by Michael J. Moran
With Symphony Hall closed by the Covid pandemic, the SSO has not played live since March 7, 2020. But led by Music Director Kevin Rhodes, its musicians quickly launched a weekly “Homegrown” series of short videos performing in their homes which are available for free streaming on the SSO web site. They’ve now launched a new three-program series of “90-minute virtual lecture/music events” via Zoom.
The first program featured the Maestro on “Great Beginnings and Endings in Beethoven’s 9  Symphonies,” with SSO Education Director Kirsten Lipkens projecting Franz Liszt’s two-piano scores of the symphonies and playing excerpts from concert recordings, all but one by the SSO. Bursting with his trademark exuberance, Rhodes clearly conveyed how the revolutionary impact of these masterpieces still resonates in this 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth.  
Kevin Rhodes
Presenting the opening and closing notes of Haydn’s last symphony, his 104th, as a “normal” symphony of the era showed how far beyond his teacher’s model Beethoven’s first symphony moved just five years later. Unlike the “regular…no surprises” Haydn 1795 opening, Beethoven began his first symphony slowly, almost tentatively, before shifting “with no pause” (where Haydn stops) into a faster theme. Rhodes showed how Beethoven’s use of this organic "one thing gives birth to another” technique set all his symphonies apart in multiple ways from those of his predecessors and contemporaries.
While providing fresh insights into all nine symphonies (for example, how Mahler’s first reflects Beethoven’s fourth), the Maestro showed particular affection for the sixth, or “pastoral,” symphony, which he called his own “favorite to conduct.” Noting Beethoven’s inscription “Recollections of Country Life” above the score and his explicit titles for all five movements, Rhodes portrayed the piece as “an emotional journey” and reveled in the abrupt but seamless transition from the “Thunderstorm” movement (“so much fun!”) to the peaceful finale.  
Engaging support from Lipkens throughout the program, including an entertaining Q&A session with the live audience, kept it flowing smoothly through its 90-minute length. Upcoming events in this series are: “From the Heart of the SSO: A Musicians Panel” (November 23); and “Entering Bach’s World,” with music educator Andrew Leonard (December 2), both at 7:30 pm.

November 16, 2020

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Spotlight Series

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
November 13-December 6, 2020
by Michael J. Moran

After presenting two successful installments in their “Masterworks In-Depth” series of virtual conversations about the music they would have played at live concerts cancelled by the Covid pandemic this fall, the HSO has just launched a second monthly series of 60-minute performances by HSO ensembles and guests recorded at Hartford area venues, and available on-demand for a limited time.

The first concert was filmed at TheaterWorks in Hartford and featured music of William 
Bolcom, Franz Joseph Haydn, Jessie Montgomery, and Antonín Dvořák, performed by HSO musicians: Associate Concertmaster Lisa Rautenberg; Assistant Principal viola Aekyung Kim; Principal cello Jeffrey Krieger; pianist Stephen Scarlato; and Concertmaster Leonid Sigal, who also hosts.

The program opened with Bolcom’s piano trio “Haydn Go Seek,” commissioned in 2009 on the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death. Sigal, Krieger, and Scarlato nicely captured the playful spirit of its two short movements, an affectionate “Introduction” and a scampering “Rondo.” Next, Haydn’s own String Trio in B-Flat Major, composed at age 32 in 1765, exuded the same youthful exuberance in a lively account by Rautenberg, Krieger, and Kim of its theme-and-variations “Adagio,” stately “Menuet,” and romping “Presto” finale.

Thirty-something African-American violinist and music educator Jessie Montgomery is also in growing demand as a composer, and her imaginative 2012 string quartet “Strum” suggested why. The four HSO string players plucked their instruments with evident delight in the folk-inspired, dance-like rhythms of this joyful score. The entire ensemble then closed the concert with a glowing rendition of the opening “Allegro ma non tanto” movement of Dvorak’s masterful Piano Quintet in A.
While the TheaterWorks acoustics lacked ideal warmth for this repertoire and the last three of Dvorak’s four movements go missing, Sigal’s spoken introductions to each piece are were engaging and insightful, and the selection of composers and music were admirably eclectic. The musicians’ informal attire was welcoming, but their Covid face masks were poignant reminders of their continuing distance from their audience.
This concert will remain available for viewing through December 6, free to HSO subscribers and at modest cost to anyone else, at the HSO web site:

November 10, 2020

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Masterworks In-Depth

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
November 6-8, 2020
by Michael J. Moran
The second of three fall programs in the HSO’s “Masterworks In-Depth” series of virtual conversations about the music they would have played at live concerts cancelled by the Covid pandemic was presented last Friday-Sunday. Led, like the first program last month, by HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan, this 72-minute webinar was every bit as entertaining and informative as its predecessor. 
The program was to include music by Felix Mendelssohn and contemporary American composer Kevin Puts, whom Kuan has called “our modern-day Mendelssohn.” She began by discussing the overture and several excerpts from the incidental music Mendelssohn wrote for Shakespeare’s play, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” A fascinating sidebar focused on the composer’s equally talented sister, Fanny Mendelssohn, with several short videos of her music. Two more video excerpts morphed seamlessly from a two-piano version (as the Mendelssohn siblings first performed it) of the overture to the standard orchestral version. 

Kevin Puts
Next, Kuan recalled being asked by her “friend and mentor” Marin Alsop to replace her due to 
illness as conductor of the 2013 world premiere in California of Puts’s flute concerto with English flutist Adam Walker, who would also have played it this month with the HSO. She then chatted virtually with Puts, who described how his childhood interest in improvisation led to a composing career and explained the origins of various themes in the concerto’s three movements, illustrated with audio clips from a recording of it by Alsop and Walker.     

First shown on video as a sixteen-year-old soloist in Carl Nielsen’s flute concerto, Walker then joined the online chat with Kuan and Puts, animatedly discussing the solo flute challenges of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream “Scherzo” and praising Puts’s concerto as “very well written.” Kuan closed with a 2019 video clip of herself leading the Cleveland Institute of Music orchestra in Mendelssohn’s “Italian” symphony, which was to conclude the HSO concerts.
Like this one, the next Masterworks In-Depth program, December 4-6, will include live chats open to HSO subscribers on Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sunday at 3:00 pm, and the webinar recording will be available to anyone between 8:00 pm Friday and 5:00 pm Sunday.

November 1, 2020

REVIEW/PREVIEW: Goodspeed Musicals, Shakin' The Blues Away! A Virtual Gala Concert

Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT
through November 7, 2020, virtually
by R.E. Smith

Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, and so it is that singers gotta sing and dancers have to dance and audiences gotta support them all. Welcome to our current world of the virtual arts and a finely produced concert to support Goodspeed Musicals.

“Shakin' the Blues Away: A Virtual Gala Concert for Goodspeed” is available to watch on-line in exchange for a monetary donation that will be matched dollar for dollar by the Scripps Family Fund for Education and the Arts. You’re given a link to watch the video as many times as you like until November 7, 2020. At 50 minutes, it is easily re-watchable due to the uplifting playlist and memorable performances.
The song choices are varied in style and era, but each one nicely connects to the reality of being a “remote viewer.” Some speak of hope, or of missing something, or of the joy of performing. One song, from the lesser known “When Pigs Fly” (1996), was especially appropriate, with lines such as “Problems with no answers, hang on like some chronic cough, And every day some brand-new issue, rears its head to piss you off.” That particular piece was delivered in an intimate setting by Klea Blackhurst, just her voice and simple accompaniment proving you don’t need complicated sets or dozens of background dancers to create moving musical moments at the Goodspeed.
The audio mix of all the performances is well engineered, emphasizing the outstanding vocals and stripped-down arrangements that highlight these stellar voices. Due to the editing and location changes involved, the performances were not “live” in the sense of “happening now” and but there is clearly no “audio magic” being applied. . .these are simply very talented performers whose skill is obvious. The intimate format could have proven unforgiving, so the performances must be, and are, flawless.
Rashida Scott opens the proceeding with the title song, using the foyer of the Opera House as her stage, and it really is just nice to see the old familiar haunt again as she dances her blues away up and down the grand staircase. Gizel Jiménez’s performance of “Applause, Applause” wisely takes advantage of her expressive face and physicality, highlighted by outstanding lighting design by Will Johnson playing across the background. Nicholas Ward’s powerful rendition of “The Impossible Dream” wisely lets the performer and song stand on their own, using a drone camera to give us a heavenly view of the iconic structure. Being the Goodspeed, we’re even treated to some joyful tap dancing by the duo of Bryan Thomas Hunt and Kelly Sheehan.
The one difference between watching the original livestream that premiered on October 29, 2020 versus the replay is that you don’t get the benefit of commentary from Goodspeed staff, offering bits of trivia and personalized shout-outs to patrons. You also miss such “in the lobby at intermission” comments like “he is the dreamiest of the Broadway dreamboats!”
Goodspeed has a number of on-line offerings available for theatre-starved patrons, such as their “In the (Home) Office Show”, highlighting behind the scenes personnel and stories or “Staff Picks” featuring clips from various shows over the years. All are worth a look, but the Gala is only available until November 7, 2020 and it well worth the time and donation to experience this memorable, one of a kind experience.