Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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.”