Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 30, 2021

Review: Yiddish Book Center, The Dead Man (radio drama)

Yiddish Book Center, Amherst, MA
through May 9, 2021
by Shera Cohen

I remember, several decades ago, visiting my Bubie (grandmother) on a Sunday; every Sunday no matter what the weather or anything more important to the younger me. I bless those Sundays now. Her tenement apartment was large, even by today's standards. Her radio, to the right of the kitchen, was also large; approximately 4 feet high. This was the radio that the entire proverbial family sat around, kids on the floor, listening intensely to stories. I suppose the radio also broadcast news of the day, comedians bantering, and advertisements. I was too young to remember most of what I heard, but snippets in my brain seem to recall Maxwell House Coffee as the sponsor of just about everything in those days.

Delighting my burgeoning love of theatre was listening to these stories, the short plays with full casts complete with background sound effects. I don't know if "playettes" is an actual word, but it's the best description I can think of calling these mysteries, comedies, dramas, and monologues. I doubt if the younger me would have fully understood the text of the play "The Dead Man". However, the Yiddish Book Center's production was poignant and telling.

The Coronavirus-19 has, for good or bad, brought back many of the older modes of presenting theatre and other entertainment, like music, that doesn't necessarily have to be seen to fully appreciate. The cast of approximately 10 actors spoke with enunciation that clearly created an image of each character to the listeners. The turn-of-the 19th-century European vignette was spoken in English with a Yiddish flavor. 

The crux was the entry of a stranger into the midst of a poor little village. It is not a spoiler to say that the man is G-d's recruiter. He spoke in a deep, dark monotone. Obviously, the director called for the actor's demeanor, although the sound resonated a foreboding and unpleasant image. The other characters are entranced as they see and hear this creation who looks like a man. He talks authoritatively and steadfastly encouraging the villagers to follow him to heaven, yet the words "heaven" or "death" are never spoken. The interaction between the man and his fiancé is the most important segment of the play. The two seemingly have very little interest in each other; perhaps an arranged marriage as was common then?

"The Dead Man" might mean that our physical bodies encase the sounds of our inner beings, our souls. The stranger repeatedly encourages the others to follow him to heaven. I believe that a radio drama permits more interpretation than a play onstage. Perhaps others agree with me, or not.

Direct link to purchase viewing opportunity: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_32SlM0UmQhelujR46s-6hQ

REVIEW: Felix, Fanny, and Frederic, Close Encounters With Music

Close Encounters With Music, Great Barrington, MA
www.cewm.org
April 25, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

Yehuda Hanani
Close Encounters With Music continues to present virtual chamber music concerts from the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington during the Covid pandemic. Their latest program, recorded on the Mahaiwe stage before a small live audience, featured Romanian-born violinist Irina Muresanu, Boston-based pianist Max Levinson, and CEWM Artistic Director and cellist Yehuda Hanani. It is available on the CEWM web site.

The concert’s full title was “Felix, Fanny, and Frederic: Chopin and the Mendelssohns.” In his typically witty and cogent introductory remarks, Hanani made clear that while Felix and Frederic knew and respected each other professionally, their musical and personal temperaments were worlds apart: Felix Mendelssohn was gregarious and comfortable in a wide range of public roles, while the crowd-averse Frederic Chopin channeled all his passion into his music. 

No better illustration of this point could be offered than the fiery performance by Levinson of Chopin’s 1840 second piano sonata that opened the program. The “Grave – Doppio movimento” first movement was alternately warm and turbulent, while the following “Scherzo” offset a tempestuous main theme with a sensuous trio interlude. The famous “Funeral March” was somber and stark, after which the astonishing minute-long “Presto” finale flashed by in a chromatic blur. Hanani then joined Levinson in a charming account of the tender “Largo” movement from Chopin’s sonata for cello and piano.  

Fanny Mendelssohn received “the same musical education and gifts” as her four-years-younger brother, Hanani noted, but “proper roles” for women of her time and class limited her potential as a composer and performer to a small circle of family and friends.  Based on the lovely “Adagio” for violin and piano which Muresanu played with silken tone and Levinson with delicate finesse, Hanani might consider exploring more of the 450 pieces which Fanny wrote.

The full trio closed the program with a powerfully dramatic rendition of Felix’s first piano trio. The opening “Molto allegro ed agitato” was commanding, followed by a ravishing “Andante con moto tranquillo,” a light-as-a-feather “Scherzo,” and a muscular, passionate “Finale,” overflowing with what Hanani called Mendelssohn’s “uplifting optimism and unwavering hope.” Sound and video quality were straightforward, conveying a good sense of the hall.


April 29, 2021

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Concert 2

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
www.springfieldsymphony.org
through May 21, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

After presenting short weekly “Homegrown” videos of themselves performing individually at home and several lecture/music education events via Zoom, SSO musicians are now offering a series of three hour-long chamber music concerts. The second one, filmed at Focus Springfield Community TV and available for on-demand streaming at the SSO web site through May 21, featured: a string quartet; two more string players; and three percussionists.

SSO Music Director Kevin Rhodes introduced each of the program’s six pieces with his usual enthusiasm, and program notes by the performers offered additional background information. The string quartet (violinists Masako Yanagita and Marsha Harbison, violist Delores Thayer, and cellist Boris Kogan) opened with an intense, heartfelt account of the “Nocturne” slow movement from Borodin’s 1881 second string quartet. This lovely music was used in the 1953 Broadway musical “Kismet” and the 2006 Disney short film “The Little Matchgirl.”  

Nathan Lassell
Percussionist Nathan Lassell next played an arrangement for marimba of “Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum” from Debussy’s 1906 solo piano suite “Children’s Corner,” producing a delicate, shimmering sound. Violinist Beth Welty and violist Noralee Walker then brought rhapsodic energy to the first movement (“Allegro”) of Mozart’s rarely heard 1783 first string duo and soulful depth to the second movement (“Adagio”). Lassell followed with an exciting set of variations for marimba by Eric Sammut on Astor Piazzolla’s 1974 “Libertango,” accompanied by Robert McEwan on cajon, a Peruvian box-shaped drum played by slapping its front.

The string quartet returned with a dazzling performance of the dramatic last movement of Beethoven’s final string quartet, urgently following every mysterious shift of mood and tempo to its triumphant conclusion. Percussionist Martin Kluger then joined Lassell and McEwan on multiple instruments to close the concert on a raucously rhythmic note with the first movement (just as relentless as its title – “Meccanico” - sounds) of Nebojsa Jovan Zivkovic’s exhilarating 1995 “Trio Per Uno.” 

Acoustics were close and clean, while the videography nicely combined individual and group perspectives on the masked and distantly spaced players. Several top-down shots of the percussion trio were particularly revealing and entertaining.    


April 26, 2021

REVIEW: Haydn & Schubert, Albany Symphony

Albany Symphony, Albany, NY
www.albanysymphony.com
April 24 – May 24, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

This latest program in the Albany Symphony’s current season of livestreamed monthly concerts by smaller ensembles of their members during the Covid pandemic paired two pieces by living composers, including a world premiere, with two works by classic composers. The concert will be available for 30 days on demand at the orchestra’s web site, and the livestream added access to a pre-concert discussion and a post-concert Q&A session.

Recorded at Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs, NY, and led by the orchestra’s longtime Music Director David Alan Miller, the concert opened with the world premiere of Tanner Porter’s “A Flash of Teeth Before the Bite,” which she calls in her program note “a surreal dance for a moment of warning” that evokes “a dog lunging in slow motion.” The 28-member orchestra’s perky account of the colorful six-minute score belied its alarming title with spiky harmonies that often suggested a 21st-century Copland. 

The restless mood continued with Haydn’s “Symphony No. 46,” written in 1772 during his experimental “storm and stress” period. The Albany performance was dramatic in the opening “Vivace” movement, lilting in the “Poco adagio,” swift in the fleeting two-minute “Menuet: Allegretto,” and mercurial in a “Presto e scherzando” finale full of surprises and Haydn’s trademark humor.

Melissa White
Next came George Tsontakis’s 2003 second violin concerto, which the Greek-American composer and Bard College music professor described in the pre-concert talk as a “democratic concerto,” where the soloist blends in with the accompanying chamber orchestra. Rising African-American violinist Melissa White brilliantly captured the shifting Messiaen-like flavors of its four imaginatively titled movements: (1) “Surges (among stars);” (2) “Giocco (Games);” (3) “Cantilena (Heart);” and (4) “Just Go!” 

The concert closed in a mood of classical calm with a bouyant rendition of Schubert’s 1816 fifth symphony, which exuded Mozart’s strong influence on the nineteen-year-old composer. It featured a graceful opening “Allegro,” a flowing “Andante con moto,” a brisk “Menuetto: Allegro molto,” and a whirlwind “Allegro vivace” finale.

The musicians were masked except for woodwind and brass players, acoustics were full and clear, and videography was creative and engaging. Miller’s livestream pre-concert conversation with Porter and Tsontakis and their post-concert answers, plus White’s, to audience live chat questions were informative and entertaining.


REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Sunday Serenades

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
www.hartfordsymphony.org
through June 10, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

Having presented virtual hour-long “Spotlight” concerts this past year by HSO ensembles and virtual “Masterworks In-Depth” conversations led by HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan about music they would have played live this season but for Covid, the HSO is now offering a new virtual “Sunday Serenades” concert. Entitled “Sculpture and the Symphony: From Prometheus to Piazzolla,” it was filmed at the Wadsworth Atheneum’s current exhibition “Paul Manship: Ancient Made Modern” and will be available on-demand at the orchestra’s web site through June 10, 2021.

It features eight HSO musicians, led by concertmaster Leonid Sigal, who chats with Wadsworth curator Erin Monroe between musical selections about how those reflect themes in Manship’s bronze sculptures. For example, what Monroe sees as the “sensuous [and] risqué” interpretation of Greek mythology in Manship’s 1914 “Centaur and Dryad” finds a parallel in Astor Piazzolla’s “Milonga sin Palabras” (“Song without Words”), a wistful seven-minute tango rhapsody hauntingly played by violinist Sigal, violist Michael Wheeler, and cellist Jia Cao.

The three compact movements of Samuel Barber’s 1928 “Serenade,” the 17-year-old composer’s first published work, similarly updated this classical music form with modern but lush post-Romantic harmonies in a glowing performance by Sigal, Wheeler, and Cao, with violinist Lisa Rautenberg and bassist Edward R. Rozie, Jr. 

A 1954 arrangement by Austrian musician Franz Hasenohrl reduces Richard Strauss’s 1895 orchestral tone poem “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” to five players and ten minutes (from fifteen) in his “Till Eulenspiegel another way!” This light-hearted parody of a medieval German folk hero was hilariously played by Sigal, Rozie, hornist Barbara Hill, bassoonist Pinghua Felix Ren, and clarinetist Curt Blood.   

Just as Manship’s gilded Prometheus at New York’s Rockefeller Center brought fire to humankind, Beethoven brought new light to music in masterpieces like his solo piano “Eroica Variations” on a theme that he used in multiple works. Sigal led Rautenberg, Wheeler, Cao, and Blood in a brilliant world premiere of his own colorful chamber arrangement. 

The Wadsworth acoustics were intimate against the striking background of Manship’s 1917 “Four Elements.” The musicians clearly felt the same “energy” that Sigal said they’ve found at past “Sunday Serenade” concerts with audiences at the museum.    



April 22, 2021

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Spotlight Series

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
www.hartfordsymphony.org
through May 9, 2021
by Michael J. Moran
 
The sixth episode in the HSO’s monthly virtual “Spotlight Series” of 60-minute concerts by HSO ensembles recorded at Hartford area venues is now available on-demand at the orchestra’s web site through May 9, 2021. Filmed at the Connecticut Historical Society and entitled “Spring Strings,” it featured eleven HSO musicians, divided into three separate groups, playing music by six diverse composers written or arranged for strings.
 
The HSO String Quartet (violinists Lisa Rautenberg and Martha Kayser, violist Nicholas Borghoff, and cellist Jeffrey Krieger) opened with a sprightly account of three dances that British composer Edward German wrote for an 1892 production of the Shakespeare/Fletcher play “Henry VIII:” courtly in the first; stately in the second; and dashing in the last. They followed that with a dramatic rendition of Philip Glass’s somber 1983 second string quartet, whose ten-minute length consists of four short movements merging subtly into a seamless whole.
 
The A Piacere Quartet (violinists Jaroslaw Lis and Deborah Tyler, violist Michael Wheeler, and cellist Jia Cao), whose name translates to “At Your Pleasure,” next gave a luscious performance of the “Andante” slow movement from Florence Price’s 1929 string quartet in G major, in which the nostalgic main theme reflects the composer’s African-American heritage. The same ensemble played George Gershwin’s lovely “Lullaby” with similar warmth and affection.   
 
The committed performance by the Mosaic Trio (violinist Lu Sun Friedman, violist Pat Daly Vance, and cellist Peter Zay) of the first two movements of Beethoven’s string trio in C minor captured exactly the qualities promised in Vance’s spoken introduction: “nervous energy and angst” (in the “Allegro con spirito”) and “contemplation and hope” (in the “Adagio con espressione”). Zay’s virtuosic arrangement of “Hedwig’s Theme” from the John Williams score for the film “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” drew an alternately delicate and driving account from the Trio.
 
The CHS acoustics were clean and straightforward. The formal attire of the masked and distanced musicians suited the historic setting. HSO Artistic Operations Manager Colette Hall offered enlightening introductions to several of the pieces and enthusiastic welcome and closing remarks.

April 13, 2021

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Concert #1

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA

www.springfieldsymphony.org

Through May 21, 2021

by Michael J. Moran

 

Following short weekly “Homegrown” videos of themselves performing individually at home and several lecture/music education events via Zoom, SSO musicians have now launched a series of three hour-long chamber music concerts. The first one, filmed at Focus Springfield Community TV and available for on-demand streaming at the SSO web site through May 21, featured three SSO ensembles: a string trio; a string quartet; and a percussion trio.

 

SSO Music Director Kevin Rhodes introduced each piece with his trademark ebullience, noting how happy the musicians were to be playing together after a year apart. Program notes by the performers offered additional background information. Since they couldn’t observe his 250th birthday anniversary in live performances last year, the first three pieces were early works by Beethoven.

 

The string trio (violinist Beth Welty, violist Noralee Walker, and cellist Joel Wolfe) started with a robust, sinewy account of the energetic opening movement of the 23-year-old composer’s first string trio, which already sounded bigger than similar works by his older contemporaries. The string quartet (violinists Masako Yanagita and Marsha Harbison, violist Delores Thayer, and cellist Boris Kogan) next presented an intense, urgent rendition of the dramatic first movement of Beethoven’s fourth string quartet, written with growing maturity five years later.

 

The percussion trio (Martin Kluger, Nathan Lassell, and Robert McEwan) then played Kluger’s imaginative arrangement for two marimbas and nine other percussion instruments of the somber slow movement from Beethoven’s fourth piano sonata. The result was surprisingly delicate and ethereal, with the main themes played on the marimbas, and the non-pitched instruments supplying what Kluger calls “sustain” and “depth” contrast.

 

The string trio returned with a lilting performance of Zoltan Kodaly’s brief 1905 “Intermezzo for String Trio,” reflecting the folk music he was then collecting in his native Hungary. The concert ended with the world premiere of Kluger’s own “Sudoku 75” for three percussionists, each playing nine instruments. Inspired by the number puzzle which Kluger began playing daily during the pandemic, the gradually accelerating piece brought the program to an exuberant close.

 

Acoustics were intimate and clear, while the videography mixed group shots with revealing close-ups of the masked and distantly spaced musicians.

April 6, 2021

REVIEW: Close Encounters with Music, Sebastians Baroque Ensemble

Close Encounters with Music, Great Barrington, MA
www.cewm.org
April 3, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

Like many other musical organizations, Close Encounters with Music has pivoted from live chamber music concerts at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington to virtual presentations during the Covid pandemic. Their latest program, recorded without an audience on the Mahaiwe stage, featured the New York-based Sebastians Baroque Ensemble and is available on the CEWM web site.

Introductory remarks by CEWM Artistic Director and cellist Yehuda Hanani contrasted the Baroque era’s “serene certitude of an orderly cosmos” with the past year, when we’ve become “unmoored by the pandemic.” Sebastians violinists Daniel Lee and Nicholas DiEugenio, cellist Ezra Seltzer, contrabassist Nathaniel Chase, traverso flutist David Ross, and harpsichordist Jeffrey Grossman opened the concert with Johann Sebastian Bach’s fifth Brandenburg Concerto. A lively opening “Allegro,” highlighted by Grossman’s “Dionysian, orgiastic” solo (in Hanani’s words), was followed by an intimate “Affettuoso” and a romping “Allegro” finale.

Hanani then joined Grossman in an alternately soulful (in the two Largos) and stirring (in the two Allegros) account of Antonio Vivaldi’s fifth sonata for cello and harpsichord. Lee, DiEugenio, Seltzer, and Grossman were stately or spirited in the four short movements of Nicola Porpora’s sixth “Sinfonia Da Camera.” Ross was a buoyant soloist, with sprightly support from Lee, Seltzer, and Grossman, in a flute quartet by Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel.

A brief overture by Vivaldi, with three one-minute movements, whirled past in an urgent rendition by the four string players and Grossman. The concert closed with an elegant interpretation of George Frederick Handel’s “Trio Sonata in G Minor” by Seltzer, Lee, DiEugenio, and Grossman. In a post-concert conversation with Hanani, the latter three musicians were hopeful that music-making will bring “something better” after the pandemic, including “more options” for live and virtual performances.  

While Brandenburg Five might have been more effective dramatically as a concert closer than as an opener, the program was an enlightening overview of Baroque music, combining more and less familiar pieces. The last CEWM virtual concert of the current season, “Felix, Fanny and Frederic: Chopin and the Mendelssohns,” will stream live on April 25 at 7:30pm.


March 24, 2021

Review: Goodspeed Musicals, Passing Through

Goodspeed Musicals, The Norma Terris Theatre, Chester, CT
through April 4, 2021 (virtually, on demand)
by R.E. Smith

The current remote reality has given theater fans opportunities that might not have had otherwise. One example is Goodspeed Musicals offering the chance to view a recording of a production from its smaller, developmental venue, the Norma Terris Theater.

“Passing Through” was recorded live in front of an audience in the summer of 2019 and it is a good fit for the home viewing experience, due to the smaller, more intimate story, simple set and lack of spectacular production numbers. That said, as a true stage performance, some beats do come across a bit more melodramatic than probably intended, as the direction is trying to fill a whole room, rather than “fit” a small screen.

Based on a true story, 23-year-old Andrew sets off, on foot, to cross the country and, at first, seek answers, but then ultimately, to just listen to the people he meets along the way. The score creatively reflects his journey, mimicking the style of the regions Andrew visits. “Song of the Soul”, “As I Go Passing Through” and “Stranger on the Side of the Road” are especially solid, memorable songs. There is one number that captured the audience, “Keep On Walking”, but because of its deep narrative, and the character who sang it, it was oddly disconnected, as if it belonged in its own, separate show.

Structurally the book could use a bit more trimming and focus. We only meet a handful of the people Andrew encounters on the way and it is never quite clear what lessons he has taken away from them. Even up until the very end of the show, one gets the sense that family troubles, always at the forefront, have prevented him from really listening at all. At times more attention is given to his personal demons than then the people he meets and that feels disappointing.

The ensemble performers are certainly first-rate. Max Chernin as Andrew has a strong, clear voice, earnest demeanor and an effective “listening face.” Charles Gray, in a number of roles, was welcome in all of them, with his rich baritone and easy style. Reed Armstrong gets some nicely defined and varied character moments. Celeste Rose plays an atypical “love interest” with problems of her own, but a no-nonsense demeanor and powerful voice make her tough yet sympathetic.

Usually, few people would have the chance to see this kind of archival video, so it is nice that more audiences get to catch a developing new musical when they would not have had, or did not get, the chance. 

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Spotlight Series

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT

www.hartfordsymphony.org

Through April 11, 2021

by Michael J. Moran

 

The fifth installment in the HSO’s monthly virtual “Spotlight Series” of 60-minute concerts by HSO ensembles and guests recorded at Hartford area venues is now available on-demand at the orchestra’s web site through April 11, 2021, at 5:00 pm. Filmed in the Theater of the Performing Arts at Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts and entitled “Wind Power - Music for Brass and Woodwinds,” it featured a wide range of music by nine composers spanning six centuries.

 

It was performed by HSO musicians: Dominique Kim, Flute; Cheryl Bishkoff, Oboe; Eddie Sundra, Assistant Principal Clarinet; Pinghua Ren, Assistant Principal Bassoon; Scott McIntosh, Principal Trumpet; John Charles Thomas, Assistant Principal Trumpet; Barbara Hill, Principal Horn; Brian L. Diehl, Principal Trombone; and Adam Crowe, Tuba. Most of them helpfully introduced at least one piece. The first five pieces were played by the brass quintet, and the last four by the wind quintet (Hill played in both groups).

 

The program opened festively with American trombonist Eric Ewazen’s 1997 “Western Fanfare,” followed by Hartt graduate Laura Bernofsky’s 1990 “Passacaglia,” dedicated to Diehl and showing off both his sleek trombone and Crowe’s impressively agile tuba. The haunting sound of Indian-American composer Reena Esmail’s 2014 “Tuttarana” reflected its multiple inspirations (“tutti” means “all” in Italian, and “Tarana” refers to both a Hindustani musical form and #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke). A stately 1975 “Chorale” by African-American composer George Walker preceded Samuel Scheidt’s spirited 1621 “Canzona Bergamasca.”

 

The fresh, bracing sonorities of the first movement of Carl Nielsen’s 1922 “Wind Quintet” launched the concert’s second half. Sundra’s eclectic arrangement of John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” showcased his own soulful clarinet and a bagpipe-style drone by Ren’s bassoon. The rich, intricate harmonies of Amy Beach’s 1942 “Pastorale” were played with flowing grace. Flutist Valerie Coleman’s 2008 “Umoja” (Swahili for “unity,” the first day of the African-American holiday Kwanzaa) brought the program to a jubilant close.

 

The Theater acoustics were appropriately bright, clear, and vibrant. The musicians were separated by plexiglass panels, which added a warm glow to the stage. HSO Board Vice Chair Mathew Jasinsky was enthusiastic in brief welcome and closing remarks.

March 22, 2021

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Co. ,10 X 10 New Play Festival Tenth Edition

Barrington Stage Co., Pittsfield, MA  

www.barringtonstageco.org

March 11-14 and 18-21 

Jarice Hanson

 

photo by Daniel Dashiell
The Tenth Edition of the annual Barrington Stage Co.’s 10 X 10 New Play Festival packs the same energy, spontaneity, and talent as every previous New Play Festival.  The immensely talented cast, recognizable to anyone who frequents this gem of the Berkshires, includes Doug Harris, Maya Loren Jackson, Matt Neely, Keri Safran, Peggy Pharr Wilson, and Robert Zuckerman.  Directors are Julianne Boyd and Matthew Penn, and the talented authors (alphabetically) include:  Ellen Abrams, Brent Askari, Jonathan Cook, Alex Dremann, Christine Foster, John Minigan, Scott Mullen, Marj O'Neill-Butler, Jessica Provenz, and Walter Thinnes

 

The plays were performed without an audience but recorded to be streamed to audience members.  It’s a tribute to the individual playwrights and the entire production team that the plays continue to touch our heartstrings, make us laugh out loud, and sigh, with recognizable life stories that make up each of the ten minute sketches.

 

This year, the prologue took on an Elizabethan tone as actors cleverly identified the guidelines mandated by the Actors’ Equity Association, including six feet of distance between actors, no touching, no sharing of props, and three mandated  Covid tests per week. Despite all rehearsals conducted on Zoom, these skilled actors managed to connect and find the joy in their performances while exploring a panoply of characters and establishing a connection with the audience, even through whatever screen the audience chose to use.

 

Themes ranged from parental stresses and mother/daughter relationships to Lizzie Borden manipulating the town’s menfolk, to a misfit Cupid with a New Jersey accent to a father who can’t admit his wife is dead because he doesn’t want her to lose the Presidency of the Senior Community in which he lives.  Each of the plays was introduced by sound designer Alexander Sovronsky’s brilliant segue from piece to piece, and every one of the ten plays smacked of originality and sharp writing.  It would be hard to choose a favorite in the bunch, because every piece had something to make it special.

 

Even if you’re missing theater, streaming the 10 X 10 New Play Festival reminds you what quality theater is, and why it continues to capture our imaginations and take us somewhere else, even for ten minutes.  The show reminds viewers that like theater, life goes on, and we may all have at least a smattering of a happy ending.  

March 18, 2021

REVIEW: Albany Symphony, Rachmaninoff’s Third

Albany Symphony, Albany, NY

www.albanysymphony.com

March 13 – April 13, 2021

by Michael J. Moran

 

Like the last program in their current season of livestreamed monthly concerts by smaller ensembles of their members during the Covid pandemic, the Albany Symphony’s latest program surrounded a world premiere commissioned for this occasion with two works by more familiar composers. While the concert will be available for 30 days on demand at the orchestra’s web site, the livestream broadcast also includes access to a pre-concert discussion and a post-concert Q&A session.

 

Led by the orchestra’s longtime Music Director David Alan Miller and recorded at Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs, NY, the concert opened with Respighi’s 1927 “Botticelli Triptych,” inspired by three Botticelli paintings at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. The 28-member ensemble were unexpectedly sumptuous in “Spring,” lush and reverent in “Adoration of the Magi” (which quotes the Advent carol “O Come, Emmanuel”), and exhilarating in “The Birth of Venus.” Each painting was helpfully projected before its movement.  

 

Carlos Bandera
Next came the world premiere of Carlos Bandera’s “Of Air and Rain,” in which “brief swells of
fragmented harmonies” against a “delicate, shimmering background” evoke the intense experience of “opening out with contentment” to nature in Wayne Dodd’s poem of the same name. The Albany musicians produced a luxuriant wash of haunting sounds that reflected Bandera’s very personal take on the influence of Arvo Part. With his music already performed to acclaim in multiple countries, this young American composer’s future looks very promising.  

 

The concert closed with a towering account by Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan of the rarely heard arrangement for chamber ensemble by Mordecai Rechtman of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #3. While Miller and Barnatan recounted in the Q&A some difficulties in balancing the instruments, Rechtman’s proportional reductions of orchestral sections and perhaps the wider than usual spacing of the players produced a transparent yet remarkably sensuous sonority.  

Barnatan was alternately fleet and expansive in all three movements, combining technical finesse with emotional depth, in a performance for the ages.

 

All the musicians except woodwind and brass players were masked, the acoustics were rich and full, and the videography was fluid and agile throughout. They finished the weekend with a Best Classical Instrumental Solo Grammy award for their recording of Christopher Theofanidis’ Concerto for Viola and Chamber Orchestra featuring violist Richard O’Neill – bravo!

March 15, 2021

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Masterworks In-Depth

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT

www.hartfordsymphony.org

March 12-17, 2021

by Michael J. Moran

 

For the sixth episode of the HSO’s monthly “Masterworks In-Depth” series of virtual conversations about music, they would have played live this season but for Covid will be available on the HSO website through Wednesday, March 17, at 5:00 pm. Led by HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan, this 67-minute webinar focused on the major work she originally programmed - what “may actually be my favorite Beethoven symphony,” his Seventh.

 

Kuan began by celebrating the variety of ways, from tempos and types of instruments to sizes of orchestras, in which she’s seen the symphony performed. This range of styles was clear in several video clips she showed, from John Eliot Gardiner leading his Revolutionary and Romantic Orchestra in the first movement to Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in the finale. A series of film clips using the famous “Allegretto” second movement, from 1934’s Boris Karloff feature “The Black Cat” to the 2010 hit “The King’s Speech,” was especially entertaining.

 

Lu Sun Friedman
In the second half of the program, Kuan spoke via Zoom with two HSO musicians - second violinist Lu Sun Friedman; and cellist Peter Zay – about their backgrounds and their experience with Beethoven’s Seventh. Born in Beijing, China, to non-musical parents, Friedman started playing violin at age 7 and moved to California at age 12. Zay was born in New York City into a musical family, grew up in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, and began studying cello at age 6 with his mother.

Both first played Beethoven’s Seventh as young adults and shared their impressions of the second movement. Friedman hears it as “almost a funeral march” but with strong “ethereal” overtones of “yearning.” Zay sees “flowers” and “sunshine” when a clarinet and bassoon duet shifts the music into a major key several minutes in. They also discussed with Kuan their pre-(and post-) pandemic work in Hartford schools as members of the HSO-based Mosaic String Trio.

 

Kuan thoughtfully ended the program with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra of young Israeli and Arab musicians playing the “Allegretto” under their founding conductor, Daniel Barenboim, as a tribute to Beethoven’s faith in human brotherhood.

 

March 8, 2021

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Art of the Audition

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
www.springfieldsymphony.org

March 4, 2021

by Michael J. Moran

 

Since Symphony Hall closed when the Covid pandemic began a year ago, SSO musicians have presented a weekly “Homegrown” series of short videos performing in their homes which are available for free streaming on the SSO website. SSO also offers a series of “90-minute virtual lecture/music education events” via Zoom.

Emily Taubi
 
In the fifth installment of that series, Principal Cellist Emily Taubl discussed “The Art of the Audition: From Conservatory to Career.” Based in Burlington, VT, Taubl was born and grew up in Derry, NH, and trained at Juilliard, Yale, the Hartt School, and the New England Conservatory. She founded the Conservatory Audition Workshop, an annual summer program which prepares students to audition for elite music schools. Taubl and her Champlain Trio colleagues are filming a documentary on Vermont performance venues during Covid called “Empty Stages,” which should air on PBS soon.

 

Taubl described her own typical experience of over 50 auditions between age 7 and graduate school as one reason why “it’s so hard to be a musician.” While performing with a hand injury after a successful Juilliard audition, she found the experience was grueling. She recalled her school auditions (including a win at Hartt, when she was hailed as “the next young Jacqueline du Pre”) as less pressured than her professional auditions, where fierce competition and an isolating format can make or break a career path. She played three of her favorite audition pieces with dexterity (one by Haydn) and grace (two by Bach).      

 

Answering audience questions, Taubl credited her NEC teacher Paul Katz for helping her “find who I am as an artist” and master the “nerves [that] become a factor in every musician’s life,” recommended that auditions be reformed to include interview and chamber performance opportunities. She praised Maestro Kevin Rhodes as bringing a “perfect” balance of discipline and fun to the SSO. Assistant Concertmaster Marsha Harbison, who was on the call, added perspective on how SSO auditioning has changed over her own 40 years with the orchestra.

 

The next program in this series will be held on Thursday, March 18, at 7:30 pm, when SSO Education Director Kirsten Lipkins begins a three-part series on “Orchestral Literacy.”

February 23, 2021

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Spotlight Series

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
www.hartfordsymphony.org
through March 14, 2021
by Michael J. Moran


The fourth 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 March 14, 2021, at 5:00 pm. 

 

Filmed at Hartford Stage and entitled “Drumroll, Please - Music for Percussion,” it featured works of Joe Tompkins, Glenn Kotche, Paul Lansky, Evan Chapman, and Alan Hovhaness, performed by: HSO Principal Percussionist Robert McEwan, who also introduced each piece; HSO Principal Timpanist Eugene Bozzi; and guests Evan Glickman, Aya Kaminaguchi, Doug Perry, and David West. 

 

The program of mostly 21st-century music began with Tompkins’ “Blue Burn,” written in 2011 for the University of Kentucky Percussion Ensemble. The five players, whose instruments included caxixi (closed baskets filled with beans) and tamborins (small Brazilian tambourines without jingles), deftly conveyed what McEwan called the “sensation of muscular burning.” Up next was Wilco drummer Kotche’s delicate 2015 “Stones Flow” for four mallet instruments, which, in McEwan’s words, created “a unique oscillating field of sound and tone color.”

 

The concert’s centerpiece was Lansky’s 2005 “Threads,” a half-hour long “cantata” for percussion quartet in ten short “arias and preludes” for vibraphone, glockenspiel, and pipes, “choruses” for various kinds of drums, and “recitatives” for bottles, flower pots, and crotales. The motley ensemble produced a gamut of sounds, from ethereal to fierce, with often mesmerizing effect. Next came Chapman’s 2013 “Cassiopeia” for two vibraphones, in whose quiet texture West and McEwan, in his words, found “supreme beauty and serenity.” 

 

Last up was Hovhaness’s “October Mountain,” dating from 1942, his only summer as a Tanglewood student, when he likely visited October Mountain State Forest in nearby Lee. While incorporating some twelve-tone elements, rare in Hovhaness, its five short movements also reflect what McEwan called the “ancient and spiritual flavor” of the composer’s Armenian heritage. The performance by the full sextet, including gong, tam-tam, and marimba, was alternately haunting and stirring.

 
The Hartford Stage acoustics were helpfully clear and resonant. The musicians were all masked, and both their frequent need to move and the size of their instruments kept them safely distanced. Brief welcome and closing remarks from HSO Board Chair Jeffrey Verney brought added gusto.

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Brahms’ Last Hurrah

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
www.springfieldsymphony.org
February 18, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

 

Kevin Rhodes
photo by John Robert Williams
Since Symphony Hall was closed by the Covid pandemic almost a year ago, SSO Music Director Kevin Rhodes and his musicians have presented a weekly “Homegrown” series of short videos performing in their homes which are available for free streaming on the SSO web site. They’re now also offering a series of “90-minute virtual lecture/music education events” via Zoom.

 

The fourth program in the series featured the Maestro examining the fourth and last movement, marked “Allegro energico e passionato,” of the fourth and last symphony by Brahms, written in the key of E Minor and premiered in 1885. Host SSO Education Director Kirsten Lipkens projected the full orchestral score on the screen and played excerpts from the orchestra’s live performance of the piece in November 2019 to illustrate Rhodes’s comments.

 

Exuding the same enthusiasm he displayed in an earlier program about Beethoven’s symphonies, the Maestro noted that this movement takes the unusual form, more regularly used by Bach, of a passacaglia, or continuous variation, often over a bass line but here played at some point by almost every section of the orchestra. It was fascinating to see and hear how the notes on the page translate into the sound of the SSO as Rhodes described the changes of mood between musical bars and the different numbers of notes Brahms used in each bar to achieve a variety of emotional effects.

 

Though always using language easily understood by non-musicians, the Maestro called for frequent audience feedback to make sure everyone was following him (they were). Words like “diminished chords,” “fermata,” and “marziale” never trumped phrases like “incredible feeling,” “super-dramatic,” and “fast notes going all over the place.” Answering a viewer’s comment in the Q&A session on the movement’s “abrupt” ending, Rhodes added that the rare minor key close (where the symphony began) is “sober” rather than “flashy,” like the typical symphonic finale.

 

Lipkens provided strong facilitation skills and engaging technical support throughout the evening. The next program in this series will be held on Thursday, March 4, at 7:30 pm and will feature SSO Principal Cellist Emily Taubl on “The Art of the Audition: From Conservatory to Career.”

February 16, 2021

REVIEW: Albany Symphony, Romantic Brahms

Albany Symphony, Albany, NY
www.albanysymphony.com
February 13 – March 13, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

Like other orchestras in the local region, the Albany Symphony has reinvented itself during a season in which the Covid pandemic has ruled out business as usual. They are livestreaming monthly concerts by smaller ensembles of their members, with guest musicians, and recording them for 30-day availability on demand. Livestream broadcasts include access to pre-concert discussions and post-concert Q&A sessions.

Their latest concert, led by the orchestra’s longtime Music Director David Alan Miller and performed at Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs, NY, featured music by William Walton, Tyson Davis, and Johannes Brahms, all written when they were in their early twenties. It opened with 16 selections from Walton’s “Façade,” delightful 1920s settings of nonsense poems by Edith Sitwell, brilliantly declaimed by soprano/narrator Lucy Fitz Gibbon. A sextet of woodwinds, brass, cello, and percussion sounded alternately sinuous, jazzy, and hilarious (quoting Rossini in the “Jodelling Song”) under Miller’s fanciful direction.

Next came the world premiere of Davis’s “Distances,” commissioned for this event. A 20-year-
old Juilliard student, the already multiple award-winning composer cites modernist Elliott Carter as an influence on the “intense chromaticism and ambiguous harmony” of his work. Reflecting “physical and emotional” separation during the Covid pandemic, a colorful ensemble of twelve players, from bassoon to marimba, punctuates soft, brooding passages in “Distances” with eruptions of questing tension. The Albany musicians played this affecting piece from a promising new voice with conviction and finesse.

The concert closed with a novel take on a relatively unfamiliar work. Miller presented an early four-movement version for nine instruments by the 25-year-old Brahms of what would become his six-movement first orchestral serenade as a template for a first symphony. The ensemble of four woodwinds, horn, and four strings was winningly transparent, and Miller’s urgent leadership of a crisp opening Allegro, a flowing and graceful Adagio, a light and delicate Minuet I and II, and a brisk closing Rondo made a strong case for the work’s symphonic ambition.

The musicians were well spaced across the ample stage, and the conductor and string players wore masks. Sound quality was clear and full, while the videography was imaginatively varied. Insightful comments from Miller, Davis, and Fitz Gibbon added much value to the discussion and Q&A.


February 15, 2021

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Masterworks In-Depth

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
www.hartfordsymphony.org
February 12-17, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

The fifth installment of the HSO’s monthly “Masterworks In-Depth” series of virtual conversations about music which they would have played at Covid-cancelled concerts will be available on the HSO web site through February 17 at 5:00 pm. Led by HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan, this 67-minute webinar focused on two of three pieces originally programmed.

The Valentine’s Day weekend concerts were to feature “The Butterfly Lovers,” a violin concerto based on a legend which Kuan called “the Chinese Romeo and Juliet” and written in 1959 by two Shanghai Conservatory of Music students, He Zhanhao and Chen Gang. It was clear from the Taiwan-born Kuan’s Zoom conversation with Chinese-American violinist Sirena Huang, the scheduled soloist, that both had grown up with this story of Liang and Zhu, whose love can only be fulfilled when they’re transformed after death into butterflies.

 

Brief video clips of a recording by Gil Shaham helpfully introduced this colorful score. But by demonstrating how her violin can simulate Chinese instruments like the two-stringed erhu and the four-stringed pipa (both also illustrated with video clips), Huang provided deeper insight into the music. Longtime HSO followers will appreciate the poise and enthusiasm she exuded in reflecting on her teaching and performing.

 

The second half of the February concerts would have presented Stravinsky’s complete 1910 ballet “The Firebird,” rather than the more familiar suite of excerpts. With dramatic video clips from the movies “Fantasia 2000” and “Return of the Firebird” morphing into orchestral performance videos under Stravinsky, Pierre Boulez, and Valery Gergiev, Kuan told the Russian folk tale it depicts of Prince Ivan, who frees 13 captive princesses from a spell cast by the sorcerer Kashchei and destroys him with a magic feather from the firebird.

 

In the HSO’s original 2020-2021 season brochure, Kuan recalled that she once sang the role of Carmen in college! While more of this story would have been fascinating to hear if she had discussed the selections from Bizet’s opera “Carmen,” the program ended fittingly with HSO’s moving performance of the “Firebird” finale recorded separately during Covid as a tribute to local essential workers.

January 26, 2021

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Spotlight Series

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
www.hartfordsymphony.org
January 22-February 17, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

 

The third 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 February 17, 2021, at 5:00 pm. 

Jeffrey Krieger
 

Entitled “Music for Cello Quartet,” it included five pieces by Corrette, Albinoni, Ravel, Gruetzmacher, and Piazzolla and was filmed in a colorfully lit recording studio at Parkville Sounds in Hartford. The four HSO cellists featured are: Principal cello Jeffrey Krieger; Assistant Principal cello Jia Cao; and cello section members Cara Cheung and Peter Zay. The full ensemble performs every piece. 

 

The diverse program opened with a charming and elegant account of eighteenth-century French composer Michel Corrette’s three-movement “Le Phenix” Concerto. Next came an impassioned reading of seventeenth-century Italian composer Tomaso Albinoni’s more familiar “Adagio,” which, as Cheung noted, has turned up in film soundtracks from “Flashdance” and “Gallipoli” to “Manchester by the Sea.”

 

The concert’s centerpiece was also its unlikeliest selection – an arrangement by British cellist James Barralet of Maurice Ravel’s 1928 orchestral showpiece “Bolero.” While not replicating the famous snare drum part, the cello can produce a range of percussive sounds, and this quartet bowed, plucked, and tapped their way through the single crescendo theme with lively enthusiasm and surprising sonic variety. New harmonies even emerged from time to time that are not heard in the original version.      

 

This was followed by a stately reading of the “Consecration Hymn” by nineteenth-century German cellist (the only one among these five composers) Friedrich Gruetzmacher, to whom Zay traced a personal connection through several generations of teachers. The program ended in a blaze of energy with Argentinian tango master Astor Piazzolla’s exuberant 1974 “Libertango.”

 

The Parkville acoustics were appropriately warm and rich. It was refreshing to see the musicians comfortably dressed in casual attire, and the personal stories they told about their relationships with the cello while introducing the music through Covid masks they wore throughout the concert helpfully bridged some of the distance they must feel from their traditionally live audience. HSO Board Vice Chair Diane Whitney brought additional warmth in her brief welcome and closing remarks.

January 19, 2021

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Masterworks In-Depth

Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Hartford, CT
www.hartfordsymphony.org
January 15-20, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

The fourth program in the HSO’s monthly “Masterworks In-Depth” series of virtual conversations about music they would have played at Covid-cancelled concerts this season will be available on the HSO web site through Wednesday, January 20, at 5:00 pm. Led by HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan, this 69-minute webinar focused on two of three pieces originally scheduled.

This month’s concert would have highlighted African-American music. While Kuan omitted so-called “dean of African-American composers” William Grant Still’s orchestral rhapsody “Darker America,” the time she gained was well spent on his lesser-known contemporary, Florence Price. The first African-American woman whose music was performed by a major orchestra (the Chicago Symphony in 1933), her “Concerto in One Movement” was to be performed by rising young pianist Michelle Cann, with guest conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson, founding director of the Philadelphia-based Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra. Kuan’s Zoom conversations with both African-American musicians were enlightening and inspiring.

But Kuan began with a video performance clip from the second movement (whose main theme is also known as “Going Home”) of Dvorak’s “New World” symphony, the concert’s featured work. Appointed in 1892 by American arts patron Jeannette Thurber as head of her National Conservatory of Music in New York, Dvorak reflected the spirit of African-American music in this masterpiece and championed it as the basis of a distinctly American style of classical music.
 
Segments Kuan showed next from the documentary “Caged Bird” made it clear that although the Arkansas-born Price was a musical “child prodigy,” a lack of career opportunities led her into what Johnson called the kind of “forced entrepreneurship that arises from disenfranchisement, a profoundly American experience.” A video clip of Cann performing a Price sonata movement confirmed what Kuan called the composer’s “unique voice,” which radiated, in Cann’s words, “so much heart and soul.”
 
The conversation also clarified what a difference mentors and role models have made in the careers of all three women, all the way from Brahms mentoring Dvorak, to Thurber’s acceptance of women and African-Americans at her conservatory, to the impact on ten-year-old Cann of seeing African-American conductor Thomas Wilkins on the podium, to the life-changing advice of her (and Kuan’s) mentor Marin Alsop that Johnson should start her own ensemble.