Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

November 21, 2022

REVIEW: South Windsor Cultural Arts, Gilles Vonsattel

Evergreen Crossings Retirement Community, South Windsor, CT 
November 20, 2022 
by Michael J. Moran 

Gilles Vonsattel
In engaging introductory remarks Swiss-born pianist and University of MA at Amherst music
professor Gilles Vonsattel called his first appearance here since 2016 “an intense program” of music honoring “the legacy of Bach.”

Encouraging his audience to listen to the seven fugues and one canon he performed from Bach’s eighteen-movement “Art of the Fugue” as “elaborate conversations” among different voices, Vonsattel made these notoriously austere pieces more easily accessible. The clarity and precision of his playing heightened their resonance, from the fleet “Contrapunctus IX” (a double fugue) to the multi-layered “Canon All Ottava.”   

Next came four selections from Shostakovich’s 1951 cycle of twenty-four preludes and fugues, inspired by Bach’s similarly structured “Well-Tempered Clavier.” Starting with the last in the series, which quotes “Art of the Fugue,” Vonsattel deepened his keyboard sound to capture its full emotional depth and dramatic power. He lightened his touch for the brighter fifth, sixth, and seventh of its predecessors, each also veering into characteristically darker moments. 

This was followed with a virtuosic account of the 1841 “Variations Serieuses” by Mendelssohn, who led a nineteenth-century revival of interest in Bach’s music. Vonsattel sharply delineated each of the 17 variations on the opening theme while also shaping them into a unified whole. 

After the first two preludes and fugues from Book I of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” – the first, in C Major, light and flowing; the second, in C Minor, brisk and urgent – Vonsattel moved without pause into Beethoven’s thirty-second and last (1822) piano sonata, also in the key of C Minor, which Vonsattel had illustrated with the famous opening of Beethoven’s fifth symphony and identified with a mood of turbulence in the composer’s music.

He played the stormy opening “Maestoso” movement with all the “vigor and passion” Beethoven calls for and the sublime closing “Arietta,” a simple, songlike theme and five wide-ranging variations, with rapturous concentration. This sonata’s pathbreaking two-movement format and forward-looking vision mirror the similar impact of Bach’s “Art of the Fugue.” 

SWCA, a nonprofit, volunteer-supported organization, has sponsored this free concert series for over 39 years. The theatre of this suburban CT venue offers warm acoustics and plush seating. They’ll next present Ukrainian-American pianist Liana Paniyeva, who made a sensational Sevenars debut last summer, on January 29, 2023. 

PREVIEW: Shakespeare & Company, "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly"

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
December 16, 17, 18, 2023

Photo by Olivia Winslow
Shakespeare & Company returns to the lively world of Jane Austen-inspired theater with a costumed, staged reading, with complete set, of "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley," written by local playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, and directed by Ariel Bock.

There will be four performances of this imagined sequel to Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice," which focuses largely on middle-sister Mary Bennet. As the family gathers for Christmas at Pemberley – the home of Darcy and Elizabeth – the ever-dependable Mary is growing tired of her role as a dutiful middle sister, in contrast to her siblings’ romantic escapades. At the same time, an unexpected guest sparks her hopes for an intellectual match, independence, and possibly even love.

“In a year in which so many of us are heading back to live theater, I am thrilled to be directing this costumed reading of 'Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley,'” said Bock. “It’s a playful love story that celebrates the holiday spirit of warmth and family, but in addition to the themes of a classic Austen romance, is also a very contemporary story of a woman determined to find self-worth outside the confines of her society.”

The play is dedicated in memory of Shakespeare & Company's well-known actor, teacher and weapons-master Bob Lohbauer, who passed away this year, and to his wife Govan Lohbauer, who is the costume director.

November 11, 2022

REVIEW: Playhouse on Park, "Fences"

Playhouse on Part, West Hartford, CT
through November 20, 2022
by Gene Alan

Photo by Meredith Longo
August Wilson's play "Fences," the sixth in Wilson’s 10-part “Pittsburgh Cycle,” is deeply rooted in Connecticut. It was introduced at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in Waterford in 1983 and had its world premiere at Yale Rep in 1985. The play went on to Broadway in 1987, starring James Earl Jones, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as the Tony Award for Best Play and Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play. Denzel Washington starred in the 2010 Broadway revival, as well as directing and starring in the 
2016 film adaptation.

Set in 1957 Pittsburgh, in the backyard of former Negro Baseball League star Troy Maxon (the brilliant Jamil A.C. Mangan) and deals with the literal and symbolic “fences” that he creates in his life. Here we meet the principal characters in Troy’s life: his best friend Bono (Eric Carter), a prison-mate, now both working as garbage collectors; Rose, Troy’s loving and devoted wife (Yvette Monique Clark); Lyons, his son from a previous marriage (Jerry Hamilton) Troy’s brother (Daniel Danielson), suffers from brain damage caused in WWII and thinks he’s the archangel of the same name. Finally, we meet and Rose’s son Cory (Khalfani Louis), a high school student and promising football player.

Many themes are explored in this snapshot of Troy’s life and the emotional scenes that enfold in this 2 ½ hour play – racial barriers, discrimination, infidelity, responsibility to family, great love and loss, friendship, betrayal, hubris and the destruction of hopes and dreams in an effort to set things right.

Director Kenney M. Green has done a wonderful job telling this story with a very competent group of actors. Mangan carries the weight of the entire play and does so with great power and touching moments of insight, in what is truly a bravura performance. Carter’s subtle and nuanced portrayal of Bono brings a genuine believability to the character and his relationships. Danielson, as Gabriel, makes bold choices in both voice and body movement that were so well executed and consistent that I couldn’t take my eyes off him. It was so joyous and so heartbreaking to watch.

At this performance, a pre-show announcement was made that the original actor playing Lyons had taken ill. A replacement was found and arrived at the theater just an hour or so before. Hats off to Jerry Hamilton who went on with script in hand and did a good job playing the role and allowing the show to go on as scheduled. Well done, Jerry!

Also, a shout out to the young, local actress Gibson Quinn who played Raynell. In a scene in Act II, a gin bottle left behind on the porch was accidentally kicked over. As the “gin” started to pour down the steps, Gibson calmly acknowledged what had happened and smoothly kept the dialogue going, not skipping skip a beat.

All of the technical elements in this production are very well executed, which is the norm at Playhouse on Park. Baron E. Pugh’s set is simple and effective. Multi-talented theater artist Johann Fitzpatrick’s lighting design is clean and subtle and utilized beautifully to show the passing of time. Valinda McGregor’s costume design is accurate and purposeful and adds a lovely authenticity to the characters.

This is a stirring production of "Fences". 

November 10, 2022

REVIEW: The Bushnell, “Aladdin”

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT 
Through November 13, 2022
by Michael J. Moran

After a 15-minute delay due to technical problems, a hyperkinetic Marcus M. Martin as the Genie literally burst onto scenic designer Bob Crowley’s colorful stage set for “Aladdin” to welcome an enthusiastic opening-night full house with a lively “Arabian Nights,” and for the next two and a half hours the high energy level of this riotously engaging production rarely flagged. 

Set in the fictional Arabian city of Agrabah, the story follows the classic folktale of a poor young man given three wishes by a genie in a lamp, which he uses to court a princess and to defeat her father’s wicked servant, Jafar. Based on the 1992 Disney animated film of the same name, the long-running (since 2014) Broadway hit features tuneful music by Alan Menken and witty lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, and book writer Chad Beguelin. This is its second U.S. tour. 

While Martin steals every scene he appears in, going especially all-out in his big Act I number, “Friend Like Me,” the leading couple are appealingly played and winningly sung by Adi Roy as an endearingly honest Aladdin, who hopes to please his dead mother (“Proud of Your Boy”) and Senzel Ahmady as a beguiling Princess Jasmine, who yearns to experience the world and marry for love (“These Palace Walls”). Anand Nagraj is a fearsome Jafar, and Aaron Choi, amusingly over the top as his aptly named henchman, Iago. Jake Letts’ Babkak, Ben Chavez’s Omar, and Colt Prattes’ Kassim are all entertaining as Aladdin’s energetic sidekicks.   
Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw keeps his large ensemble in almost constant motion, with occasional quiet interludes quickly succeeded by show-stopping dance numbers, which include many styles, from tango to cha-cha to tap. They’re enhanced by Gregg Barnes’ dazzling costume design and vibrant musical direction from arranger Michael Kosarin, conductor James Dodgson, and his powerful nine-member band. 

Kudos to special effects designer Jeremy Chernick and illusion designers Jim Steinmeyer and Rob Lake for vividly animating the Cave of Wonders where Aladdin finds the lamp in Act I and mounting a mid-air magic carpet ride for Aladdin’s and Jasmine’s lovely Act II duet, “A Whole New World,” on the Mortensen Theater’s deep stage.

Broadway fans of all ages should catch this joyous romp of a show before it vanishes (spoiler alert) like Jafar.

November 8, 2022

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Debussy & Ravel"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT 
November 4-6, 2022 
by Michael J. Moran 

In the second weekend of its 2022-2023 “Masterworks” series, the HSO and their Music Director Carolyn Kuan explored various forms of rejuvenation through music, from the transformative power of water in Mason Bates’ “Liquid Interface,” to the translation of moonlight into Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and of dreams into his “Nocturnes,” and the career-extending gift of Maurice Ravel’s “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand” to a pianist who lost his right arm to war. 

Debussy drew inspiration for “Clair de Lune” (“Moonlight”), which opened the program, from Paul Verlaine’s poem of the same name three times, twice in settings for voice and piano, and as a movement of his 1890 “Suite Bergamasque” for solo piano. That version, orchestrated by French musician Lucien Cailliet in 1905, was luminously performed by the HSO and Kuan.    

Next came a welcome reprise of Philadelphia-born Mason Bates’ 2007 showpiece “Liquid Interface,” which Kuan first introduced to HSO audiences in April 2017. She helpfully explained its four movements, with musical illustrations from orchestra members, before recorded sounds of glaciers breaking apart opened the turbulent first movement, “Glaciers Calving.” This was followed by a gentle “Scherzo Liquido,” a dramatic “Crescent City,” contrasting the joy of New Orleans jazz with the destructive flooding of Hurricane Katrina, and a peaceful closing “On Lake Wannsee” in Berlin. The ensemble gave a colorful account of this crowd-pleasing score. 

Alessio Bax
In justifying her decision to present only the first two (“Clouds” and “Festivals”) of Debussy’s three Nocturnes, Kuan cited the composer’s dissatisfaction with the sound of the wordless women’s chorus in the first performance he heard of “Sirens.” She and the HSO rendered the haunting mystery of “Clouds” with delicate nuance and the sensual exuberance of “Festivals” with controlled abandon. 

The concert ended with a riveting performance by Italian-born New York-based pianist Alessio Bax of the concerto Ravel composed in 1930 for Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, whose right arm was amputated after a World War I injury. Bax handily met its daunting technical challenges, from a stirring early cadenza to a jazzy middle section and an exhilarating finale; his left-handed dexterity across the keyboard looked especially vivid on the Belding’s overhead camera. Bax’s two-handed encore of a Brahms Hungarian dance transcription was even more rejuvenating.