Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 22, 2020

REVIEW: Playhouse on Park (Streaming), All Is Calm

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
from Dec. 17, 2020 – Jan. 3, 2021
by Shera Cohen

For one exceptional week in the midst of WWI in Europe, with soldiers up to their knees in the
trenches sinking in the mud, surrounded by countless numbers of rats, shells firing in an unsteady rhythm, life was as calm as it could possibly be on Christmas Day, 1914. “All Is Calm” depicted a true story, or at the very least historical fiction. The theme took a smidgen of history out of the textbooks to show the audience how one moment in time could be insignificant or monumental depending on life’s circumstances. This was called, “The Christmas Truce.”

Playhouse Theatre Group, a division of Playhouse on Park, had intended to mount the play on the Playhouse stage in West Hartford. Covid-19 and many of the roadblocks that came with the disease, forced major direction changes, remarkedly puzzled together and alleviated by director Sasha Bratt. Stage or no stage, the play must go on, utilizing outdoor sections of forestry as the sole scenery, never forgetting social distancing between the actors.

The week before Christmas, 1914, the war literally halted. It is not easy to classify “All Is Calm” as a play, although that was the initial intent. “All Is Calm” seemed to fit into its own niche as theatre. It could be considered a play with music [not a musical], or music with a play wrapped around it. Another label might be an extraordinary documentary. Audience members will likely experience far more of this performing arts classification in the future as the post-Covid years go by.

Three actors portrayed as many as 10 roles each. British and German accents intermixed, and at no better time did the sounds and words of “Oh, Tannenbaum” illustrate the perfect example that whether on the “good side” or the “bad side” of war, all men were equal; just doing their jobs and oftentimes not knowing why. Good vs. bad was of little matter on this particular eve and day. Life was by no means a picnic, but a picnic it would be on December 25, 1914.

One might suppose that the playwright’s sparse dialogue subtracted from the play’s affect. In fact, the opposite held true, adding to the milieu of the actual events and the story on the stage. Playhouse’s actors/singers gave life, in the midst of war, to Peter Rothstein’s work, portraying at its core, strength of character, wonder, confusion, and camaraderie.

December 15, 2020

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Spotlight Series

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
December 11-January 10, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

The second concert in the HSO’s monthly virtual “Spotlight Series” of 60-minute performances
by HSO ensembles and guests recorded at Hartford area venues is now available on-demand at the orchestra’s web site through January 10, 2021, at 5:00 pm. Entitled “Music for Strings and Organ,” it included four pieces by Corelli, Bach, Golijov, and Mendelssohn and was recorded amid festive seasonal décor at Hartford’s Asylum Hill Congregational Church, founded in 1864. 

Ten HSO musicians were featured: Concertmaster Leonid Sigal; Associate Concertmaster Lisa Rautenberg; Assistant Concertmaster Sooyeon Kim; Assistant Principal second violin Jaroslav Lis; Principal viola Michael Wheeler; Assistant Principal viola Aekyung Kim; Principal cello Jeffrey Krieger; Assistant Principal cello Gia Cao; Assistant Principal bass Robert Groff; and organist Edward Clark.
The program opened with the whole ensemble in a sprightly account of Arcangelo Corelli’s most famous composition - the eighth of his twelve Concerti Grossi, Op. 6, dating from the 1680s, better known as his “Christmas Concerto.” Its unusual structure of six short movements builds toward a slow pastoral finale, which was played with affecting tenderness. This was followed by Clark’s elegant performances on portable organ of two keyboard preludes written around 1717 by Johann Sebastian Bach.
In his 2000 string quartet “Tenebrae” Argentine-Israeli composer Osvaldo Golijov depicted both political unrest he witnessed in Israel that year and the wonder his five-year-old son felt on seeing the earth from space a week later at the New York planetarium. Sigal, Rautenberg, Wheeler, and Krieger brilliantly rendered the haunting serenity of the long opening and closing sections of this 15-minute single movement, as well as the brief central turmoil which separates them. The program closed with a stirring version by all the string players except Groff of the opening “Allegro moderato ma con fuoco” movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s 1825 octet, written at the remarkable age of sixteen.  
Though the octet’s last three movements were missing, including the iconic “Scherzo,” the warm church acoustics ideally flattered this ensemble. Spoken introductions by different members of the group through Covid masks worn throughout the concert helpfully bridged some of the distance still remaining from their audience.

December 7, 2020

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Masterworks In-Depth

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT

December 4-9, 2020

by Michael J. Moran


The third program in the HSO’s monthly “Masterworks In-Depth” series of virtual conversations about music they would have played this season at concerts cancelled by the Covid pandemic will be available on the HSO web site through Wednesday, December 9, at 5:00 pm. Led by HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan, this 65-minute webinar focused on two of three pieces originally scheduled. 


This month’s concert was to feature some of her favorite music from Act I of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” including the battle of gingerbread soldiers and mice. Kuan noted that while the complete ballet wasn’t widely performed until half a century after its 1892 premiere, the familiar orchestral suite derived largely from Act II and published six months earlier was instantly popular. Recalling that she conducted the full score for New York City Ballet, she showed colorful video clips from their production, which morphed cleverly into a concert performance by the Rotterdam Philharmonic under an animated Yannick Nezet-Seguin.  


Speaking with Kuan via Zoom, German-born choreographer Miro Magloire, who founded New York-based New Chamber Ballet in 2004, marveled that Tchaikovsky “wasn’t happy with” his music for “The Nutcracker,” whose creative ‘rhythms and harmonies” Magloire finds “endlessly fascinating.” Discussing how he found his “voice” in dance, he stressed that since choreography is “an orally transmitted art form,” his work is always collaborative with both dancers and live musicians. 

Italian-born pianist Alessio Bax, who would have performed Grieg’s piano concerto with the HSO this month, next told Kuan via Zoom that his career started with a “small electric keyboard” he received at age seven from his parents. He echoed Rachmaninoff’s description of Grieg’s as a “perfect romantic concerto,” with “not a note wasted.” Bax also expressed his pleasure in playing chamber music with friends like violinist Joshua Bell, whom he partnered at the Bushnell last January.  

Kuan never mentioned Tchaikovsky’s fantasy-overture “The Tempest,” based on Shakespeare’s play, which the HSO had programmed this month and which she elsewhere called “even more dramatic, noble, and beautiful than his famous Romeo and Juliet.” But a delightful video clip of Bax and his wife, pianist Lucille Chung, playing his arrangement for piano four-hands of Piazzolla’s “Libertango” offered lively compensation.

Preview: Playhouse on Park, All is Calm: the Christmas Truce of 1914.

Playhouse on Park’s 12th Main Stage Season will continue with Peter Rothstein’s "All is Calm: the Christmas Truce of 1914." This production will be available to stream at home beginning December 16, 2020 through January 3, 2021. There will also be in person screenings at Cinestudio in Hartford, CT on December 18 and 19, 2020.

It’s a remarkable true story of World War One and relives an astounding moment in history; in a
silence amid the combat, a soldier steps into no man’s land singing “Silent Night.” Thus begins an extraordinary night of camaraderie between the Allied troops and German soldiers. They lay down their arms to celebrate the holiday, share food and drink, play soccer, and sing carols. This dramatic retelling weaves together firsthand accounts of World War I soldiers with patriotic tunes, trench songs, and Christmas carols. Musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach. Directed by Sasha Brätt, with music direction by Benjamin Rauch.

This play was originally scheduled to be produced by Playhouse Theatre Group, Inc. live at Playhouse on Park. As a result of guidelines put forth by Governor Ned Lamont and out of concern for the safety of our staff, cast, and crew, the play was filmed outdoors without the presence of a live audience. All involved in the making of the film of this play were required to adhere to an extensive safety plan.

Stream-at-home tickets are $20 per stream plus an additional $3 service charge. Online orders are subject to an additional $1.50 processing fee. In person and phone orders do not have the additional $1.50 fee. All fees are passed on directly to the companies that charge us for their services. You will be able to access the film from December 16th - January 3rd only. For more information on streaming, or to purchase tickets, visit 

In person screenings at Cinestudio in Hartford: Tickets are $20, reserved seating. Screenings will be held on Friday, December 18th at 7:30pm and Saturday, December 19th at 2:30pm and 7:30pm. Tickets must be purchased through Cinestudio. You may either purchase them online at or in person the day of the screening.

REVIEW: TheaterWorks, (Virtual) "Christmas On The Rocks"

TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
through December 31, 2020
by Jarice Hanson
As the iconic Jerry Herman song says, “We need a little Christmas this year.” Thanks to TheaterWorks in Hartford, audiences can stream a top notch production of what has become a holiday tradition. For eight years TheaterWorks has produced “Christmas On The Rocks,” a laugh-out-loud comedy for adults that reminds us of the Holiday Specials we knew as children. Six of the seven short segments feature two actors—the featured “character” and the bartender in a run-down tavern on Christmas Eve. In the last segment—well, you just have to see this, because it’s the bow that wraps the whole package! 
This year’s "Rocks" was recorded for home streaming with a special creative twist.  The performers include last year’s cast as well as both ‘men’ from previous seasons - so audiences are treated to the talents of Jenn Harris, Randy Harrison, Matthew Wilkas and Harry Bouvy, with Ted Lange joining virtually from the West Coast as the Voice of the Bartender. The stream is recorded from the perspective of the bartender, and the creative set by Michael Schweikardt and costumes by Alejo Vietti pop on your television or computer screen. Director Rob Ruggeiro, who conceived of the original play, leaves his creative fingerprints all over this year’s virtual production and has come up with an adaptation for the screen that works beautifully.
While “Christmas On The Rocks” is, in itself, a fresh take on holiday fare (along with a few cocktails to set the mood) the wonderfully creative plays by John Cariani, Jeffrey Hatcher, Jacque Lamarre, Theresa Rebeck and Edwin Sanchez weave a spell of nostalgia, humor, pathos, and memories of holidays past. While in the physical theater audiences might react in part to the interaction of the actors, material, and audience responses—this production leaves room for the laughs and still provides the emotion to warm your heart. It’s as fulfilling as a good jolt of spiked egg nogg and it packs the same wallop. 
While many theaters are experimenting with reaching their audiences with virtual programming, TheaterWorks has deftly delved into exploring the medium of video and the distribution form of streaming with exceptional success. They keep the joy and creativity of theater alive and remind us that a good story, well told by people who understand how to communicate with audiences, will keep theater alive until we can share space in an actual venue again. This year, perhaps giving the gift of theater and laughter to your friends and family by way of buying them a ticket to attend “Christmas On The Rocks” can be a way of sharing this Christmas with those you love.

December 3, 2020

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Entering Bach’s World

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA

December 2, 2020

by Michael J. Moran


The last installment of the SSO’s three-program fall series of “90-minute virtual lecture/music events” via Zoom featured guitarist and music educator Andrew Leonard, who presented an overview of Johan Sebastian Bach’s six “Brandenburg Concertos” and “contextualized” them with background information about Bach’s life, musical influences, and the “high Baroque” era in which he worked.  


These concertos were likely written between 1717, when Bach started a “dream job” as music director at the court of Prince Leopold of Cothen, and 1721, when the composer sent them to the Margrave (prince) of Brandenburg in the apparent hope of a new job offer (due to Leopold’s waning musical interest) which never materialized. Leonard’s lively manner and obvious enthusiasm for his subject made his clear explanations of the elegant French and earthier Italian styles of Baroque music and related topics accessible to even his least musically literate viewers.


Illustrating his comments with a variety of video clips played by a wide range of performers, Leonard offered fascinating insights about these now familiar masterworks, considered very difficult, even too “complicated” to play, during Bach’s lifetime, when he was better known as an organist than as a composer. Each concerto, for example, was written for a different, often novel, combination of instruments: Leonard highlighted the first concerto’s hunting horns, the piercing clarino trumpet in the second concerto, and the dominant harpsichord in the fifth.


His delight in the miniscule two-chord middle movement of the third, in the virtuoso interplay between dueling violins and recorders in the fourth, and in the prominence of violas and violas da gamba in the sixth was palpable and contagious. Quoting UMass professor Ernest May, with whom he’s currently studying Bach, Leonard’s description of Bach’s “anything you can do I can do better” approach to composition reminded viewers how far ahead of his time he was.


As a generous incentive to learn more about Bach, Leonard sent every attendee a resource guide with links to all the performances he excerpted. SSO Education Director Kirsten Lipkens, a Yale Music School classmate of Leonard’s, ably oversaw a revealing Q&A session and suggested, in welcome news, that more virtual SSO programs may appear soon.