Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 28, 2022

REVIEW: UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center, Amherst, MA
April 26, 2022
by Jarice Hanson

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is an American treasure. On Tuesday night the extraordinarily talented cast of the North American Tour played to a packed house at the Frederick C. Tillis Performance Hall at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. With an excitedly appreciative audience cheering the performers, the company included seven dances choreographed by the current Artistic Director, Robert Battle, concluding with three classic dance pieces choreographed by the company’s founder, the late Alvin Ailey.   

Enhanced by simple, but elegant costumes, music that ranged from percussion pieces to pop, jazz, and gospel, and simple but mood enhancing lighting, the dancers created an electrifying experience that communicated joy, hope, and the beauty of remembrance.  

One of the Alvin Ailey hallmarks is the use of contemporary music to celebrate the African-American experience. This performance featured songs by Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, and Leontyne Price, with instrumental numbers by Wynton Marsalis, Sheila Chandra, and Stevie Wonder.

It is hard to single out specific performers from the ensemble pieces because the very ethos of the company honors the collectivity of Ailey’s vision of celebrating the African-American cultural experience. Every member of the company is versatile and trained in a variety of dance genres. The largest group numbers included the opening “Mass,” featuring the fluidity of the denoted body and the power of coming together (a great metaphor for emerging from the darkest days of a pandemic) and the concluding piece, titled “Revelations” which highlighted traditional American music such as “Pilgrim of Sorrow,” “Take Me to the Water,” and “Move, Members, Move.” Singular dancers were too many to mention by name, but each, a true artist who fluidly supported the ensemble and able to shine when it was their time in the spotlight.

The name of the company reflects not only the company’s visionary founder, but the very specific traditions of American Dance. With references to swing, classical ballet, cakewalks, jazz and more, this company celebrates traditions of persons of color who find the uniqueness in being an “American” in contemporary times. Their musical choices and their physical gifts lift us up and bring us the joy of unity.  

As the audience left the theatre after a rousing standing ovation punctuated by several curtain calls, the feeling was euphoric. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater lifts us by their joy, their enthusiasm, their unique cultural contribution, and most of all, with their beauty, talent, and the joy of life. 

April 26, 2022

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Of Heroes and Poets

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
April 22, 2022 
by Michael J. Moran

A sizable and enthusiastic audience gave the SSO and guest conductor Mark Russell Smith (their music director from 1995 to 2000) a warm welcome back to the stage of Symphony Hall, after a long absence, for the first of two concerts the orchestra is presenting this spring. 

In pre-concert remarks, Smith identified the “heroes” in this program’s title as Antonin Dvorak, for the commanding scope of his 1894 cello concerto, and its soloist, for the technical challenges it presents, and the “poets” as composers William Grant Still and Robert Schumann. Still’s 1948 “Danzas de Panama” for string orchestra reflect the Latin and African roots of their Panamanian folk sources. Smith and the SSO launched the evening with lively accounts of the first (“Tamborito”) and fourth (“Cumbia y Congo”) dances, in which the players visibly relished the rare chance to make percussive sounds by striking the sides of their instruments.     
Thomas Mesa

Rising young Cuban-American cellist Thomas Mesa then made a sensational SSO debut in a thrilling account of Dvorak’s masterful concerto, written in the United States but clearly evoking the musical traditions of his Czech homeland. A Juilliard graduate, winner of several major competitions, and widely acclaimed performer, Mesa brought deep, rich tone and flawless technique to a majestic opening “Allegro” (which also featured a lush solo turn by hornist Robert Hoyle), a soulful “Adagio, ma non troppo,” and a stirring “Allegro moderato” finale. Smith and the ensemble offered heroic and poetic support throughout. 

The concert ended after intermission with a vibrant rendition of Schumann’s second symphony, completed in 1847. From a somber “Sostenuto assai” opening passage to a joyful “Allegro, ma non troppo” main part of the first movement, through a playfully energetic “Allegro vivace” scherzo and a warmly rapturous “Adagio espressivo” slow movement, the emotional heart of the whole work, to a jubilant closing “Allegro molto vivace,” conductor and players had the full measure of this Romantic masterpiece. Strong cohesion and esprit de corps all evening made listeners forget their nearly-two-year hiatus from live performance.   

The SSO’s next spring concert, “Dances of Spring,” also under Smith’s direction, will feature music by Michael Abels, Aaron Copland, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Johannes Brahms on May 13, 2022.  

April 19, 2022

PREVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Of Heroes and Poets

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
Friday, April 22, 2022

The Springfield Symphony brings heroic and poetic music to life through the voices of three of music’s most interesting characters.
William Grant Still
The prolific and under-appreciated American composer William Grant Still was inspired by the evocative and rhythmic dance music of Panama, and scored dances for the string section.

Bohemian composer Antonin Dvořák, often inspired by folk music, gives Cuban-American cellist Thomas Mesa the perfect vehicle to share his passion and artistry in his mammoth and definitive Cello Concerto.

The concert concludes with the second symphony of Robert Schumann, the great Romantic composer of songs and symphonies, whose lyrical gifts are unparalleled.

In addition to free parking on concert nights for SSO concert-goers, the MGM Springfield Loop, through PVTA service, provides free public transportation that has several stops within walking distance from Symphony Hall. 

Tickets start at $15 and include free parking for SSO patrons.

April 18, 2022

REVIEW: Escaping Eden, The Hartt School

University of Hartford, Hartford, CT
April 15-16, 2022 
by Michael J. Moran 

Cast of Escaping Eden
Composer, lyricist, and book writer Dawson Atkin, who was also music director and lead
guitarist, calls “Escaping Eden” a “sung-through folk musical adaptation of the biblical story of Adam and Eve, which examines the story from Eve's perspective to ask questions about gender roles, free will, and the way we tell stories.”

All four cast members were Hartt musical theatre majors, ranging from freshmen to seniors. The four band members, who play two guitars, mandolin, violin, harmonica, and percussion, were all current Hartt instrumentalists. While Atkin credits Jonathan Larson (“Rent”) and Anais Mitchell (“Hadestown”) as major inspirations for “Eden,” the imaginative score and its brilliant realization by the tight ensemble also evoked “Bright Star,” the 2016 Broadway musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell.

Like Atkin's one-man “Notes for Me and You” (reviewed by ITS in October 2020), “Escaping Eden” also works as a song cycle, especially in this staged reading. But the richer harmonies and probing interplay of multiple characters in “Eden” show considerable growth in dramatic sophistication over its predecessor. In a post-show interview, Atkin called this “first time writing my own lyrics for a show…a wonderful challenge.” They tell the “Eden” story with a Sondheim-like balance of colloquial and poetic language. 

It would be hard to imagine stronger performances than those by this well-knit cast. Highlights included: Tanner James’s transformation as Adam from contented farmer (a light-hearted “Made for Me”) to committed soulmate to his wife (a blazing “Leap of Faith”); Stephani Bauduccio’s desperate quest as Eve for “more to life than work and lentil soup” (an impassioned “Garden of Stones” and shattering “In the First Place”), Kyle Kobetsky’s evolution as the Serpent from tempter (a seductive “Eve and the Serpent”) to doubter (“The Apple Tree”), and Trenyce Nolan’s steady guidance through the story as the Creator (the opening “Let There Be Light” and closing “Epilogue”).

Atkin’s eclectic musical textures range widely among country/bluegrass (Joseph Hayes’s plucky mandolin in “Lovebirds I” and “Our Home”) to blues (Kelly Gembara’s sensuous violin in “Eve and the Serpent” and “Lullaby”) to emo rock (Wen Wen Van Der Wende’s dramatic percussion in “I Don’t Care”). This world premiere is an exciting new chapter in a promising writer’s career.   

April 15, 2022

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Rachmaninoff & Tchaikovsky

The Bushnell, Belding Theater, Hartford, CT
April 8-10, 2022 
by Michael J. Moran 

For the seventh “Masterworks” weekend of their current season, Music Director Carolyn Kuan and the HSO presented two popular Russian favorites that have both earned the sometimes derogatory nickname “warhorses” but which continue to reward close listening in performances as fine as these. 

Henry Kramer
The program opened with a riveting account by rising Maine native Henry Kramer of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto, written in 1909 as a vehicle for the composer-pianist to play on his first American concert tour. Having started his piano studies at the relatively late age of 11, Kramer is an acclaimed international soloist and competition winner and has taught at multiple music schools.  That experience was evident in his total command of the immense technical challenges posed by the “Rach 3” and the invariable sensitivity of his interpretive choices.

From the soft melancholy opening theme to the massive original cadenza of the Allegro through the hushed radiance of the Intermezzo and the visceral excitement of the Finale, Kuan and the HSO offered their stellar pianist thrilling and committed support. The Belding’s overhead “piano cam” showed the remarkable dexterity and almost nonstop motion of Kramer’s hands in both the concerto and his fluid encore rendition of Chopin’s exuberant D major prelude in response to a standing ovation.  

The concert closed with a vibrant interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony, a sort of 1888 comeback piece after a three-year silence from the composer, which Kuan led and the musicians played with blazing conviction. A somber opening “fate” motive led into an animated Allegro first movement; principal horn Barbara Hill’s solo in the Andante cantabile was tender and restrained; the Allegro moderato waltz was graceful and fleet; and the jubilant Finale transformed “fate” into majestic triumph. For sheer rightness of tempo and balance of shifting moods, this performance set an exceedingly high standard. 

The HSO’s next “Masterworks” program, “Scheherazade & Shankar,” will feature Kuan and sitar player Anupama Bhagwat on May 6-8, 2022.

April 13, 2022

REVIEW: UMass Fine Arts Center, Anat Cohen Quartetinho

Frederick C. Tillis Performance Hall, Amherst, MA
April 9, 2022 
by Michael J. Moran 

The 24th annual UMass High School Jazz Festival brought student ensembles from around the region to the Amherst campus to perform and take part in clinics and masterclasses by UMass jazz faculty and guest jazz musician/educators, including clarinetist and bandleader Anat Cohen. The daylong event culminated in a public concert by Cohen and her latest musical group, the Quartetinho. 

Anat Cohen
Its four diverse members, all current Brooklyn, NY residents and multi-instrumentalists, are: Tel Aviv native Cohen (clarinet, bass clarinet); Brazilian Vitor Goncalves (piano, keyboards, accordion); Israeli Tal Mashiach (upright bass, seven-string guitar); and, from Maryland, James Shipp (vibes, percussion, electronics).

As their Portuguese name (meaning “little quartet”) suggests, their repertoire is heavily influenced by Brazil, which Cohen said in a post-show Q&A she first visited in 2000 and “never looked back.” The opening set included pieces by two of that country’s greatest composers, Egberto Gismonti and Antonio Carlos Jobim, in distinctive interpretations that showcased the group’s breathtaking individual and collective improvisational skills. 

Other highlights were several songs written by band members, including a tender tribute to his grandparents that featured Mashiach on guitar, and a lively waltz by Cohen built around a complex rhythmic scheme. Most moving was a powerful arrangement, spotlighting Cohen’s bass clarinet and Mashiach’s string bass, of “Goin’ Home,” the slow movement theme from Dvorak’s “New World” symphony, which they premiered at Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein’s funeral last fall and here dedicated to “all the displaced people” around the world.

Praising the warm acoustics of Tillis Hall, Cohen was a charismatic performer, in almost constant motion around the ample stage as she played. Her tone on both instruments was unfailingly pure and mellow, even through occasional shrieks and wails for emphasis. All four players shifted with easy virtuosity among their various instruments, exuding a sense of joy and mutual admiration that was infectious. 

This rapport extended to the post-show Q&A moderated by Brazilian-born UMass jazz professor Felipe Salles. The musicians’ spirited exchanges with student audience members augured well for the next generation of jazz performers and educators.  

April 6, 2022

Preview: The Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Summer Concert Series

The Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA and Vicinity
Several dates and venues
April 6, 2002 

MOSSO, the Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, have announced a summer concert series of three programs, two in Springfield Symphony Hall, and the third, an outdoor brass quintet program in Forest Park.

According to MOSSO Chair Beth Welty, “Our musicians are performing concerts in April and May in Symphony Hall because the Springfield Symphony Orchestra was mandated to produce those concerts by the National Labor Relations Board. But, although the musicians have been in negotiation with the SSO since late 2019, our community has not yet had a steady series of professional quality live orchestra programs. MOSSO is here to provide that music.” Welty added, “There has not been an ongoing summer pops series since the SSO performed in Westfield’s Stanley Park some twenty years ago.”

On Thursday, June 23, MOSSO will celebrate the music of the late, legendary Broadway composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, who penned the words and music to A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and others. Broadway conductor Tim Stella (of The Phantom of The Opera and Hello, Dolly!) will lead the program, joined by some major Broadway stars. 

On Thursday, July 21, Maestro Kevin Rhodes will return to Springfield to conduct a program of light classics and music of renowned composer John Williams, whose works include Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Schindler’s List. Maestro Rhodes will be joined by a guest soloist. This will be a benefit concert for MOSSO, so that the nonprofit organization can continue to deliver professional symphonic music to Greater Springfield and Western MA. 

On Saturday, August 13 (Rain date: Sunday, August 14), a MOSSO brass quintet will perform a free concert at Camp Star Angelina, Trafton Road in Forest Park, Springfield. This concert will be produced for MOSSO by Bing Productions. No tickets are required.

PREVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Spring 2022 Concerts

Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Springfield, MA
by Michael J. Moran 

Mark Russell Smith
The SSO will present two concerts this spring, on Friday, April 22, and Friday, May 13. Both
programs will be led by Minneapolis-based Mark Russell Smith, SSO Music Director from 1995 through 2000. They will take place at 7:30pm in Springfield’s Symphony Hall. 

Cuban-American cellist Thomas Mesa will be the featured visiting artist for the first concert, “Of Heroes and Poets.” Mesa is affiliated with the Detroit-based Sphinx organization. Focused on increasing representation of Black and Latinx artists in classical music, Sphinx is a social justice organization dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts. Mesa will perform Antonin Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. The SSO will also present William Grant Still’s “Danzas de Panama,” featuring Latin tunes and rhythms, and Robert Schumann’s Symphony #2. 

Speaking in a recent interview about “classics” like Dvorak’s concerto, Mesa said, “I’m always looking for the new, even, I think, in these great works that are actually really old.” For the past ten years, he has played a cello made by Richard Tobin in 1820. This cello was used to record soundtracks for the first movies ever created. 

On May 13, in a program called “Dances of Spring,” the orchestra will play Michael Abels’ “Liquify,” Aaron Copland’s “Saturday Night Waltz” from the ballet “Rodeo,” Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Coquetos from An Andean Walkabout,” and Johannes Brahms’ Symphony #1. 

Abels is a U.S. composer and producer best known for his scores for the Oscar-winning films, Get Out and Us. Born in Berkeley, California to a mother of mixed Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent, Frank explores her multicultural heritage through her compositions. 

Tickets may be purchased through the SSO box office (413-733-2291) or online at the orchestra’s web site: