Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 23, 2021

REVIEW: Berkshire Opera Festival, Falstaff

Berkshire Opera Festival, Great Barrington, MA
through August 27, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

After opening their sixth season with Tom Cipullo’s somber “Glory Denied” last month, BOF closes it with something completely different, 80-year-old Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera and only successful comedy, “Falstaff.” Based on Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2,” Arrigo Boito’s libretto develops its literally larger-than-life title character more fully than any of those plays.

Sebastian Catana
A vain, boastful, and overweight knight, Sir John Falstaff begins the opera drinking at the Garter Inn with other lowlifes, but after his attempted seductions of two prosperous wives are humiliatingly foiled, he begins to change his ways. Romanian-born baritone Sebastian Catana is a hoot as the ne’er-do-well hero, moving with buffoonish grace and enunciating the Italian text with clarion gusto as he wins the audience’s sympathy long before he leads the opera’s exuberant final number, an astonishing “Fugue” on the words “We’re all fools!”

The entire cast seems inspired by Catana to the same level of commitment and excellence. Soprano Tamara Wilson and mezzo-soprano Joanne Evans are feisty and engaging as “merry” wives Alice Ford and Meg Page. Mezzo Alissa Anderson portrays the ringleader of their avenging schemes, Mistress Quickly, with comic glee.

Baritone Thomas Glass is poignant as Alice’s almost-cuckolded husband, soprano Jasmine Habersham exudes winsome charm as the Fords’ daughter Nannetta, and tenor Jonas Hacker is ardently persistent as her suitor Fenton. Tenor Max Jacob Zander’s Bardolfo and bass Jeremy Harr’s Pistola, Falstaff’s robbing henchmen, and tenor Lucas Levy’s Dr. Caius, their aggrieved victim, are laugh riots all.   

BOF Artistic Director and Co-Founder Brian Garman leads a vigorous account of Verdi’s brilliant score by an animated BOF orchestra in the Mahaiwe’s clear acoustic. Lively direction by Joshua Major, spare but elegant scenic design by Stephen Dobay and lighting design by Alex Jainchill, and imaginative costume design by Charles Caine, along with projections of Cori Ellison’s often hilarious English translation, keeps a tight focus on the characters and their antics.

This jubilant and life-affirming production is a happy ending for BOF’s sixth season and shouldn’t be missed by discerning opera lovers.

August 20, 2021

REVIEW: Berkshire Theatre Group, Nina Simone: Four Women

Berkshire Theatre Group, Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, MA
through September 5, 2021
by Michael J. Moran
 
This play by Christina Ham imagines a conversation between singer-activist Nina Simone and the four Black women she depicts in one of her best-known songs, “Four Women,” right after a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four Black girls, aged 11 to 14 years old. The text interweaves performances by one or more ensemble members of 12 songs from Simone’s eclectic repertoire.
 
Felicia Curry
BTG’s powerful production is led by a fiercely committed Felicia Curry as Nina. When her sultry opening rendition (in elegant concert attire) of Simone’s first hit, the Gershwins’ “I Loves You Porgy,” is interrupted by a loud explosion, the set goes dark and shifts to the ruined church, with Nina writing feverishly at a piano. Three other women separately join her there: housekeeper Aunt Sarah (a blazing Darlesia Cearcy); light-skinned Civil Rights activist Sephronia (a fervent Sasha Hutchings); and prostitute Sweet Thing (a spirited Najah Hetsberger).
 
Through initial misunderstanding of each other’s different life experiences, Simone’s white-hot focus on the power of music to change the world eventually leads them to a measure of common purpose and hope for healing. Director Gerry McIntyre sensitively integrated the musical selections into this conversational journey, from a stirring traditional “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” to Curry’s shattering version of Simone’s anthem “Mississippi Goddam,” and a poignant climactic “Four Women” of almost unbearable intensity by the full company.
 
Vibrant musical direction by Dante Harrell ranged from delicate snippets of Chopin and Bach, recalling Nina’s training as a classical pianist, to the pounding blues of her “Old Jim Crow” and uplifting exuberance of her “Young, Gifted and Black.” Evocative scenic design by Randall Parsons and choreography by McIntyre, colorful costume design by Sarafina Bush, and haunting lighting design by Matthew E. Adelson and sound design by Kaique DeSouza ensured that everything was seen and heard to optimal effect on the intimate Unicorn stage.
 
This is must-see theater to understand the “High Priestess of Soul’s” singular role in advancing the status of African-American women artists.

BTG is requiring proof of Covid-19 vaccination for this production and masks for all patrons regardless of age.

August 10, 2021

REVIEW: Boston Symphony Orchestra , Mazzoli/Tchaikovsky

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood, Lenox, MA 
August 8, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

Yo-Yo Ma & Karina Canellakis
On March 13, 2021 Yo-Yo Ma gave an imapromptu solo concert at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield after receiving his second Covid vaccine shot there. So it was no surprise that the world’s favorite cellist got a hero’s welcome when he appeared Sunday afternoon before a much larger audience with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Karina Canellakis, making her BSO debut. 

The concert opened with Missy Mazzoli’s imaginative 2014/2016 “Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres),” which the composer describes as “music in the shape of a solar system.” Harmonicas played intermittently by woodwind and brass section members add the earthy tone of the medieval hurdy-gurdy to the 12-minute piece’s overall ethereal sound. Canellakis led the BSO in a radiant account, with subtly shifting colors and a magical electronically-enhanced close.
 
One of Tanglewood’s most regular and beloved guest artists since 1983, Ma was next featured in Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard “Variations on a Rococo Theme” for cello and orchestra. Besides “The Nutcracker,” playful and light-hearted are not words usually associated with Tchaikovsky, but they perfectly describe this 20-minute 1876 commission for cellist Wilhelm Fitzhagen. Ma captured the elegance of the theme written in the style of Tchaikovsky’s idol Mozart and the virtuosity of the Fitzhagen-amplified variations with unerring poise and finesse.
 
After hailing “Tanglewood’s own” Canellakis (she was a 2014 TMC conducting fellow), Ma dedicated “to all those we’ve lost” an encore which he called music “of our time and for all time” – one of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s 1973 “Lamentations” for solo cello – and which he rendered with his trademark warmth and soulfulness. 

Canellakis and the orchestra concluded the program with a blazing performance of Tchaikovsky’s tempestuous fourth symphony. From a forceful opening brass fanfare evoking fate, through a mercurial first movement, a flowing “Andantino in modo di canzona,” a high-spirited pizzicato “Scherzo,” to a thrilling “Allegro con fuoco” finale, her flexible tempos and dynamics, along with playing of deep conviction by the BSO, never let the tension slacken. 

The audience’s enthusiasm for the work of two American women who are rising stars (Mazzoli and Canellakis are both forty-ish) suggested that the future of classical music is in good hands.

Review: Shakespeare & Company, “Art”

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through August 22, 2021
by Stuart W. Gamble

Yasmina Reza’s play “Art” won the Tony Award back in the late 90’s and featured Alan Alda as one third of an articulate, well-educated group of middle-aged men who comprise the cast of this thought-provoking dramedy, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton. Now more than 20 years later, this at times savagely funny play, is a welcome revival performed at one of the Berkshire’s finest theatrical venues.

Director Christopher V. Edwards has staged the show simply, in the open-air Roman Garden Theatre at Shakespeare and Co. in Lenox, Massachusetts. Patrick Brennan’s black wicker sitting room chairs with white cushions and a wood paneled bar suggest an upper-middle class apartment that could be any urban setting (in Reza’s original, it was Paris.)

Photo by Nile Scott Studios
Into this minimalist, chic apartment, appears a plain white canvas, purchased by dermatologist and art connoisseur Serge (Michal F. Toomey). His closest friend Marc (“ranney”) is appalled that Serge would spend an exorbitant amount of money on what Marc calls “a white piece of shit”. The third member of this close-knit group, Yvan (Lawrence L. James) is the ultimate diplomat, alternating between praise and condemnation of this controversial piece of art. Their informal gatherings also give support to each man and his particular love life. Serge is bitterly divorced, Marc’s girlfriend is despised by Serge, and Yvan’s fiancĂ©e is described by Marc as a “gorgon.”

All three men give standout performances. Toomey’s controlled rage and “ranney”’s cut to the bone criticism finally erupt into fisticuffs that smacks more than a bit of Abbott and Costello, adding to the absurdity of their shouting match. Lawrence L. James, however, delivers the finest (and funniest) performance of all three. James’ tour de force re-creation of a three-way telephone conversation between himself, his fiancĂ©e, and his Jamaica-accented mother earned laughs and applause from the audience.

Why did Reza make all her characters in “Art” men and why three men who all seem so diametrically opposed to each other? I believe that Reza, like the characters in her play, is exploring male relationships and how men relate to one another: they fight, they compete, they belittle each other, but often they fail to be honest and just with each other. A catharsis is achieved, and they try to reconstruct the rubble of their broken relationships.

Stella Giulietta Schwartz’ linen jackets and pants, pastel-hued oxford shirts, a vibrantly colorful matching shirt and short combo worn by James, and various Panama hats, offered (I’m sure) ease of movement and comfort for the actors performing in the outdoor heat.

Performed for 90-minutes and intermission-free, this“Art” is a funny and thought-provoking production, which shows how sometimes we have to destroy what we love and rebuild it again, in order to come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of that object of our affection (family, friends, art, etc.). Like the blank canvas that is a catalyst to the play’s action, we must add color, form, and nuance to our lives through experience, love, humor, and acceptance.

August 9, 2021

REVIEW: Tanglewood, Chamber Music Concert, TMC Fellows

Tanglewood Music Center, Lenox, MA 
August 2, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran

Though Tanglewood’s annual Festival of Contemporary Music had ended a week earlier, more adventures in modern music were offered in a recent Koussevitzky Music Shed chamber concert by TMC musicians, with three of the four pieces written in the 21 st century.   

Percussionists Ben Cornavaca, David Riccobono, and Jack Rutledge opened with Boston-based composer Steven Snowden’s 2015 “Van Gogh from Space,” in which an array of vibraphone, metal bowls, and woodblocks evoked the swirling images in the painter’s “Starry Night.” The trio rendered its vibrant colors with nuance, rhythmic balance, and a palpable sense of fun. 

TMC violinists Emma Carleton and Helenmarie Vassiliou, violist Brandin Kreuder, and cellist Ethan Brown, with TMC faculty member Stephen Drury on piano, next played Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s 1976 piano quintet. Written in memory of his mother and mixing a range of musical styles, its five short movements are mainly elegiac, but the closing piano chords also convey a poignant note of hope. The powerful TMC performance met the piece’s frequent technical challenges and captured its clashing moods with haunting sensitivity. 

The percussion trio returned with a vivid account of American composer and Yale School of Music faculty member Hannah Lash’s 2011 “Glockenliebe” for three glockenspiels, fully realizing her instructions that the three short movements should respectively be “somewhat muted,” “ring out,” and sound “loudest and fullest.” 

Gabriela Lena Frank
The program closed with an exuberant reading by TMC violinists Evan Pasternak and Paul Halberstadt, violist Elizabeth Doubrawa, and cellist Benjamin Maxwell of Gabriela Lena Frank’s inventive 2001 “Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout,” whose six short movements draw on the Peruvian roots of the California composer’s mixed ethnic heritage. From a lively opening “Toyos,” a forceful “Tarqueda,” a sensuous “Himno de Zamponas,” a fleet “Chasqui,” a mournful “Canto de Velorio,” to a festive “Coqueteos” finale (which Frank describes as “a flirtatious love song sung by gallant men known as romanceros”), the crack quartet played with fearless imagination. 

On this afternoon, with a diverse range of composers writing such a variety of exciting music and with so many performers of this high quality just beginning their careers, the future of classical music looked very bright indeed.

REVIEW: Sevenars Music Festival, Taconic Chamber Ensemble

The Academy, Worthington, MA 
July 11 - August 15, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

Taconic Chamber Ensemble
On August 1 this beloved family-based music festival presented the fourth of six programs in its 2021 schedule of live Sunday afternoon concerts in the rustic comfort of the Academy at Worthington in the idyllic central Berkshires. It featured string quartets of four varied composers played by this flexible Vermont-based ensemble. 

Performers on this occasion were: Bulgarian-born violinist Joana Genova; Boston-based violinist Heather Braun; American violist Ariel Rudiakov; and Belgian cellist Thomas Lanschoot. In a pre-concert Zoom discussion, Taconic co-founders, artistic directors, and core members Genova and Rudiakov described the “alchemy” they strive for in selecting their repertoire by mixing familiar and lesser-known pieces, older and newer, that they “love to play” and that “audiences will enjoy” hearing. 

They opened with Rachmaninoff’s virtually unknown two-movement first string quartet, dating from 1889, when he was a 16-year-old student. Foreshadowing his maturity, the melancholy “Romance” was played with wistful affection, and the Mendelssohnian “Scherzo” with playful exuberance. Next came the 30-year-old Beethoven’s early but much better-known first string quartet, published in 1801. The Taconics played the opening “Allegro con brio” just so (“with vigor”), the “Adagio” with flowing drama, the “Scherzo” with Haydnesque humor, and the closing “Allegro” with passion and flair. 

Two much newer pieces completed the program. For sheer energy it would be hard to beat rising star Jessie Montgomery’s popular 2012 “Strum,” which put this young African-American woman on the musical map. The Taconics played its strumming pizzicato rhythms with driving conviction. And for a crowd-pleasing closer, it would be tough to equal the two-movement 2009 18th-string quartet by prolific Williamstown-based composer Stephen Dankner. In the pre-concert Zoom he said everything he writes is “as long as it needs to be.” This appealing 12-minute score was performed with loving good cheer. 

The warm, intimate acoustics of the Academy’s hall ideally flattered the Taconic’s rich, mellow sound. The hour-long Covid-friendly concert (Sevenars requires masking and recommends distancing) allowed time afterward for concertgoers to safely enjoy the venue’s signature refreshments and conversation with the artists and their genial host, pianist Rorianne Schrade of the festival’s founding family.

August 4, 2021

Review: Ct. Shakespeare Festival, “Snow White”

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT

through August 22, 2021

by Tim O’Brien

 

Got kids? Grab them and go see this show. Got no kids? Go see this show anyway. You’ll leave the theater happy.

 

Director Moira O'Sullivan has hit a legitimate all-ages home run here, taking an already charming script, adding two terrific young actors and complementing them with a talented on-stage musician/live Foley-ist. (Is that a word? It should be.) You heard it right; just TWO thespians handle all the parts, with a little help from a friend, and it’s a downright blast.

 

This script hews closer to the original Grimm than the animated Disney film of the 1930’s. When Snow White meets the dwarves, they take her in as an equal, not so much as the maid-like domestic of the movie. A prince eventually shows up, but it’s clear she doesn’t need him for validation, or much else.

 

Harvey & Mishina
Part of the big fun lies in the gleeful destruction of the fourth wall. From the jump, Snow White (a radiant and confident Resa Mishina) and Dwarf #4 (rubber-faced cutup Patrick Harvey) realize “the others” aren’t coming to help “tell the story.” Acknowledging they’ll be hard-pressed to accomplish that goal properly as a duo, the pair push on gamely.

 

Game afoot, Harvey provides a comic tour de force, interchangeably portraying a narrator-like Dwarf #4, the huntsman, the six other dwarves, the put-upon castle page, the evil stepmom, most of the magic mirror and prince moments, and at times, Snow White herself. During one segment, his character changes come at a furious pace, recalling Robin Williams at the peak of his zany powers.


Mishina, while clearly older, perfectly presents “Snow” initially as the innocent 11-year-old of the book, and later as a strong young woman who knows her mind. She earned some good laughs taking her own turn as some of the other characters, as well.

 

The “secret sauce” of this so-tasty production is the accompanist, Katrien Van Riel. Her in-the-moment sound effects and musical interjections were spot-on, and this reviewer especially enjoyed her Greek chorus-like facial expressions, which helped the littler ones understand some of the emotions on stage. And, as Sullivan explained later, Van Riel wrote several clever original song snippets (which well deserve to be expanded, if possible.)

 

The set is adorable but spare, by necessity; it “belongs” more to the simultaneous run of “Into the Woods.” But it’s not even necessary. This production of “Snow White” could be held in a stark black box without losing a drop of its whimsical sweetness.

 

Get thee hence, pronto.