Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 28, 2023

Review: UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center, "Martha Graham Dance Company"

University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA
March 25, 2023
by Suzanne Wells

Even if one does not fully understand the abstract nuances of modern dance, the power and fluid grace of a Martha Graham Dance Company production is an experience to be appreciated. Presenting one and 1/8th of Martha Graham’s original choreographies, the Company returned to UMass for the first time in seven years to perform “Canticle for Innocent Comedians” along with highlights of the “Dark Meadow Suite,” and the debut of “Get Up, My Daughter.”

"The Canticle..." is a representation of nature. Eight vignettes representing the Sun, Earth, Wind, Water, Fire, Moon, Stars, and Death/Rebirth effortlessly flow one into the next. Originally choreographed by Martha Graham in 1952, inspired by a 1938 poem of the same name by Ben Belitt, the work has all been lost with the exception of Moon. The remaining vignettes, each choreographed individually by Sonya Tayeh, Alleyne Dance, Sir Robert Cohan, Juliano Nunes, Yue Yin, Micaela Taylor, and Jenn Freeman, incorporate the technically precise, natural movements for which Graham was known. The production is a remarkable display of the human body’s ability to move individually, as well as a melding of multiple bodies evoking images of the Hindu gods for creation and destruction, Brahma and Shiva. 

"The Dark Meadow Suite," also choreographed by Graham, was inspired by her study of Native American rituals. The dance is made up of tribal steps, with hints of kabuki and flamenco influences, as well as percussive sounds with the stamping of feet and the beating of thighs. Impressive for the strength and endurance required to produce and maintain the various poses, this dance is a sensual exploration to identify with oneself, one’s lover, and one’s community.

The debut of "Get Up, My Daughter," choreographed by Annie Rigney, was the unexpected highlight of the evening for both the audience and the performers, who literally finished the production hours before the curtain opened. This frenzied, passionate display of the universal struggle of woman to overcome hardship and prosper despite being shackled by themselves, and the men and women in their lives, is both historically disheartening and imminently optimistic. 

March 27, 2023

REVIEW: Playhouse on Park, "stop/TIME dance MACHINE"

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
March 24-April 2, 2023
by C. L. Blacke

photo by Zee Rubin
Stop/TIME Dance MACHINE is not just a string of hit-and-run dance routines; it’s a time-
travelling extravaganza. With its cohesive and imaginative storyline, the 18th annual all-original stop/time dance theater production features comedy, singing, and of course, dancing as award-winning choreographer Darlene Zoller disappears into a time machine seeking inspiration. Left behind, her dancers are forced to send delegate parties into the space-time continuum to find their fearless leader.

As the resident dance company of Playhouse on Park, stop/time dance theater is made up of 15 dancers and singers with full-time jobs and families, who dedicate their free time to doing what they love. And it shows in a big way. Each member commits to their role not only in nailing their steps but in their facial expressions as well. It’s hard to tell who’s having more fun—the dancers or the audience.

The program opens in a flurry of pirouettes with two numbers both before and after Darlene’s disappearance. David Lewis’s science lab set design features a backdrop of buttons, keyboards, junction boxes, and, of course, the time machine door. With delegates off on adventure, singer/dancer Victoria (Tori) Mooney stays behind to figure out a way to bring them all home safely. Visible at all times, the set anchors the storyline to the present day and creates a sense of urgency as scenes with Tori manning the controls are interspersed throughout, including one with her hilarious rendition of “Baby One More Time”.

Dance styles run a nonlinear gamut from a turn of the (20th) century synchronized swimming routine to a prehistoric tribal rhythm dance, from the 1920s Charleston to a futuristic “Dance Apocalyptic”.

Audience favorites include the foot-stomping, hand clapping, finger-snapping tap routines to “Sing, Sing, Sing” and “In the Mood”, as well as the heartfelt Act II opening duet, “We Are Never Getting Back Together”, sung by Amanda Forker and Rick Fountain. But by far, the standout full-group number, complete with MTV theme song and astronaut, is the Act I closer “Smooth Criminal”, a dance tribute to Michael Jackson performed in 1930s gangster suits and fedoras.

Will Darlene reunite with her dancers? Does she find inspiration? Or is she just out of time? These answers will only be revealed by attending this annual production worthy of many standing ovations.

March 22, 2023

REVIEW: South Windsor Cultural Arts, "Balourdet String Quartet"

Evergreen Crossings, South Windsor, CT 
March 19, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

Formed in 2018 and named after a “chef extraordinaire” at the Taos School of Music, where they met, the Boston-based Balourdet Quartet – violinists Angela Bae and Justin DeFilippis, violist Benjamin Zannoni, and cellist Russell Houston - explained their South Windsor program as showcasing how they “sing together.” It featured three contrasting works by 19th-century German composers. 

The program began with a sparkling account of Hugo Wolf’s sprightly 1887 “Italian Serenade,” which DeFilippis, in lively, engaging remarks (“He knows how to use a microphone,” one listener enthused), called a “delightful little appetizer” for the two quartets to follow. 

Next came a passionate reading of Felix Mendelssohn’s 1837 Quartet #4 in E Minor, Op. 44/2, written when he was 28 years old, “the median age,” DeFilippis noted, “of Balourdet Quartet members.” From a mercurial opening “Allegro assai appassionato,” a fleet “Scherzo: Allegro di molto,” and a ravishing “Andante,” to a fast and furious “Presto agitato” finale, they captured all the “emotional turbulence of the Romantic era” that DeFilippis had described.   

The concert closed with a powerful performance of Ludvig van Beethoven’s groundbreaking 1825-26 Quartet #13 in B-flat Major, Op. 130, one of the last pieces he wrote before his death in 1827. In six rather than the usual four movements, DeFilippis saw this as a “transformative” work far ahead of its time. 

A fiery “Adagio ma non troppo-Allegro” led into three shorter movements with dance tempos – a whirlwind “Presto,” a pungent “Andante con moto ma non troppo,” and an ingratiating “Alla danza tedesca: Allegro assai” – and a sublime, lyrical “Cavatina: Adagio molto espressivo.” Then it abruptly shifted moods with the challenging “Grosse Fuge” (“Great Fugue”), which DeFilippis heard as ending the quartet (and which the Balourdets played) with “resounding joy.”   

The warm acoustics of the theater in this suburban Connecticut venue amplified the youthful exuberance of this foursome’s seamless musicmaking. It will be interesting to hear how their performance style evolves in coming decades beyond its current astonishing excellence. 

SWCA, a nonprofit, volunteer-supported organization, has sponsored this free concert series for over 40 years. All concerts take place on Sundays at 2:00 pm, and seating on a first-come, first-served basis begins at 1:30 pm. Next up is cellist Jacqueline Choi on April 2.

March 14, 2023

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "Symphonie Fantastique"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT 
March 10-12, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

For the fifth program of the HSO’s 2022-2023 “Masterworks” series, Music Director Carolyn Kuan selected contrasting repertoire, including two popular short pieces by a path-breaking African-American composer, a new cello concerto by a leading woman composer, and a one-of-a-kind Romantic symphony by a one-of-a-kind 19th-century composer. 

It opened with two rags by Scott Joplin: “Rag-Time Dance, A Stop-Time Two Step” (1899); and “The Entertainer” (1902) – in orchestral arrangements by composer-conductor-educator Gunther Schuller. The first was excerpted from a ballet, while the second became famous in the score for the 1973 film “The Sting.” Kuan and the HSO’s affable first-ever performances of this music got the concert off to a relaxed, swinging start. 

Inbal Segev
The orchestra extended the dance rhythm theme with Anna Clyne’s 2019 “Dance, Concertofor Cello and Orchestra,” in which Israeli cellist Inbal Segev made her stunning HSO debut. Clyne named its five short movements after lines from a poem by 13
th-century Persian mystic Rumi in which she felt a strong “sense of urgency.” 

Her use of electronic, folk-style, and “Baroque-like” elements - and Segev’s skill in pivoting from dark, rich tone in the opening “when you’re broken open” movement to more abrasive sounds in the next movement, “if you’ve torn the bandage off” - made the attractive musical setting feel timeless. Conductor and orchestra were committed partners. Segev’s heartfelt encore, the “Sarabande” from Bach’s third suite for solo cello, reinforced the calm simplicity of Clyne’s “when you’re perfectly free” finale. 

No composer who preceded or followed him ever wrote music that sounded quite like that of French composer Hector Berlioz. In 1827 Berlioz fell in love with English actress Harriet Smithson on seeing her in Paris as Shakespeare’s Juliet and Ophelia. In 1830, he chronicled his unrequited love for her (they eventually wed, but the marriage failed) in his five-movement “Symphonie Fantastique.” 

Kuan and the HSO gave the  a thrilling ride, from a dramatic “Reveries [and] Passions,” a light, graceful “Ball,” a ravishing “Scene in the Country,” an exuberant “March to the Scaffold” (after the lover hallucinates that he’s killed his beloved), to a riotous closing “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” (the lover’s own funeral rites) – a sacred/profane mix that still galvanizes audiences two centuries later. 

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, "Fearless Women"

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
March 11, 2023
by Michael J. Moran

The fourth classical concert of the SSO’s 2022-2023 season not only featured music by three women composers during Women’s History Month, but also honored ten local women, eight of whom appeared on stage before the concert, with “Fearless Women Awards” for their professional contributions to the greater Springfield community.

Led by Mark Russell Smith, Music Director from 1995 to 2000 of the SSO and, since 2008, of the Quad City (Iowa) Symphony Orchestra, the musical program opened with a gripping account of Joan Tower’s 1986 “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman,” who is “much more active than the common man,” Smith wryly noted in brief remarks. He was referring to Tower’s inspiration, Aaron Copland’s 1942 “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which has far fewer notes to play. This was followed without pause by an evocative rendering of the finale from Florence Price’s 1934 “Mississippi River Suite,” which quotes the Negro spirituals “Deep River” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” in imaginative scoring that draws on her African-American heritage.

Next came a blazing performance of French composer Louise Farrenc’s 1847 third symphony, in G Minor. Its four movements, while occasionally reminiscent of her contemporary, Felix Mendelssohn, sounded mostly like her own original voice, with many distinctive instrumental touches and memorable tunes that often took unpredictable turns. From a dramatic opening “Allegro,” a warmly affectionate “Adagio,” and a mischievous “Scherzo,” showcasing a playful woodwind section, to a daringly intense “Finale,” conductor and orchestra captured every shifting nuance of this treasurable score. 

But no woman on the program was more fearless than rising Chinese-born pianist Wei Luo, who made a sensational SSO debut in Sergei Prokofiev’s rarely heard 1913 second piano concerto, also in the key of G Minor. She launched into the wild, dissonant opening “Andantino” with total confidence. Luo brought technical precision and interpretive finesse to the piece's clashing loud and lyrical passages, and to the fleet “Scherzo: Vivace,” darkly menacing “Moderato,” and turbulent “Finale: Allegro tempestoso,” dispatching the bravura solo cadenzas in the outer movements with apparent ease. Smith and the SSO offered nimble support.  

Luo rewarded her enthusiastic audience with the perfect encore, a thunderous reading of the “Precipitato” finale of Prokofiev’s seventh piano sonata, which capped an evening of rediscoveries with bold contemporary flair. 

March 9, 2023

REVIEW: The Bushnell, "Hadestown"

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through March 12, 2023
by Jarice Hanson

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
In 2019, “Hadestown” took Broadway by storm, winning eight Tony Awards, including best musical and best original score. Anais Mitchell, who wrote the music, lyrics and book, and director Rachel Chavkin worked on crafting the piece for years, and the touring company at the Bushnell delivers a production that honors the blood, sweat, and tears that go into creating a ground-breaking piece of musical theatre.

The story is based on intertwined Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice, and Hades and Persephone. A brilliant chorus of three “fates” weave the stories together as seven musicians on stage, with the exception of the drummer, who performs backstage, and a talented chorus of singer/dancers perform a total of 32 songs. Nathan Lee Graham plays the MC is as charming and seductive in the role of Hermes, who oversees the developments with a wink and a nod to the audience.   

The cast is first-rate, with special kudos due to the deep-voiced Matthew Patrick Quinn as Hades; Lindsey Hailes, as the hard-drinking, fun loving Persephone; Hannah Whitley as the ingénue Eurydice; and on opening night, J. Antonio Rodriguez as the sweet-voiced, love-struck Orpheus. Because this is a company with such difficult vocal demands, audiences might see different performers on different nights, but the production is of such high-quality there is not a weak performer in the troupe.

Visually, Hadestown is stunning. In the first act the scenes are played in a New Orleans-style nightclub. When the action goes “underground” to Hadestown, the set morphs into a semi-industrial factory reminiscent of the film, “Metropolis,” where the soul-sucking work reduces the workers to nameless miners. The critique of capitalism and the mining of the earth become metaphors that update the classic Greek myths and reinforce the timelessness of the stories of love, greed, corruption, and redemption.  

The technical aspects of the show, including lighting design by Bradley King, costume design by Michael Krass, and sound design by Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz are rendered perfectly on the Bushnell stage. A special mention should be given to Eric Kang, music director and David Lai, music coordinator, for creating an acoustic balance in the cavernous Bushnell that makes the words easy to hear, enhancing the lyrical nature of the prose and the very important subtleties of Mitchell’s text. 

While brushing up on your Greek mythology doesn’t hurt—it’s really not necessary in order to understand the unfolding story. One thing is obvious, “Hadestown” deserves all of the praise it received at the Tony Awards, and it is without a doubt, an extraordinary piece of musical theatre. This company works beautifully together to make the treatment of these stories unforgettable.

March 2, 2023

REVIEW: Majestic Theater, "The Glass Menagerie"

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through April 2, 2023
by C. L. Blacke

Reading this play in high school (or was it college?) did little to prepare me for the emotional response I experienced while watching Director Rand Foerster’s production of Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie. At the time, I hadn’t the life experiences nor the distance from them to fully appreciate how memories affect our lives in the present. But it’s this universal concept, what Foerster notes as “the impossibility of escaping our past”, that resonates with me.

Set in 1937 St. Louis, the story follows the bleak and tragic and sometimes humorous lives of Tom Wingfield, his physically and emotionally crippled sister Laura, and his deeply flawed mother Amanda. Williams drew on his own familial relationships in this deeply personal and autobiographical play to explore the blurred lines between illusion and truth, memory and reality, escape and freedom.

These blurred lines are reinforced by Foerster’s use of haunting, and often dissonant melodies played by violinist Ann-Marie Messbauer, shining glass figurines that contrast with a dark, heavy-set design, and timed lighting on an almost leering portrait of Mr. Wingfield, the man who abandoned his family nearly 16 years before.

However, it’s the ferocity with which Robbie Simpson (Tom) and Cate Damon (Amanda) attack their roles that brings this production to life. Tom’s long-suffering frustration and burning need to escape his hyper-critical mother is palpable. Damon’s portrayal of the faded Southern belle maddens, devastates, and even entertains the audience at every turn. Where Simpson excels at shouting, stomping, and slamming doors, Damon embodies the strength, poise, and humility of her genteel character.

Perhaps true to the notion that memory is not always reliable, I am somewhat disappointed in Abigail Milnor-Sweetser’s performance of Laura. Her simpering shyness and lumbering gait make the character appear clumsy and awkward, unlike the rare and fragile glass figurine Laura should be. Yet, audience members still hope Laura finds true love and happiness with the gentleman caller.

Tosh Foerster, the gentleman caller, conveys Jim’s good-nature, self-confidence, and relentless pursuit of personal development with a broad smile and affable charm in the brief time he is onstage. 

This production delivers what Williams himself once called the “need for understanding and tenderness and fortitude among individuals trapped by circumstance.” Through these characters, we recognize how our own memories shape reality and, because they are such a part of us, we can never truly be free from the past.