Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 26, 2023

PREVIEW: Shakespeare & Company, "Dear Jack, Dear Louise"

Lenox, MA
May 26, 2023 - June 30, 2023

David Gow & Zoya Martin
"Dear Jack, Dear Louise" comes to Shakespeare & Company's outdoors Roman Garden Theatre this summer. When two strangers meet by letter during World War II, a love story begins. U.S. Army Captain Jack Ludwig, a military doctor stationed in Oregon, begins writing to Louise Rabiner, an aspiring actress and dancer in New York City, hoping to meet her someday if the war will allow. But as the war continues, it threatens to end their relationship before it even starts.

Two-time Olivier Award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig tells the joyous, heart-warming story of his parents’ courtship during World War II, and the results are anything but expected.

David Gow's (Jack) credits include starring roles in numerous dramas and comedies. At Shakespeare & Company, he’s appeared in "Mothers and Sons," "Waverly Gallery," and last season’s "Measure for Measure".

Zoya Martin (Louise) is making her Shakespeare & Company debut this season. Her theatre credits a variety of plays from different genres, including Shakespeare.

Ken Ludwig has had six shows on Broadway, seven in London's West End, and many of his works have become a standard part of the American repertoire. His 32 plays and musicals have been performed in more than 30 countries in more than 20 languages and are produced throughout the U.S. every night of the year. 

Ludwig's "Lend Me a Tenor" won two Tony Awards and was called “one of the classic comedies of the 20th century by The Washington Post. "Crazy For You" was on Broadway for five years and won the Tony and Olivier Awards for Best Musical.

Ariel Bock, a Shakespeare & Company's regular of 20-years, has worked as an actor, director, and voice teacher

REVIEW: Valley Classical Concerts, "Sergei Babayan"

Smith College, Northampton, MA 
April 23, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

Sergei Babayan
Billed as featuring “music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, in honor of the 150th anniversary of his birth,” this sensational concert by Armenian-born, New York-based pianist Sergei Babayan also included music by other composers whom Rachmaninoff favored in his own career as a pianist. 

Opening with the monumental 1893 transcription for piano by Ferruccio Busoni of the Chaconne (a Spanish Baroque dance rhythm) from Johann Sebastian Bach’s 1720 second partita for violin, Babayan spared himself no challenge. His technical and interpretive command yielded spectacular results, shifting seamlessly from delicate lyricism to thunderous climaxes, and capturing both Bach’s classical balance and Busoni’s passionate romanticism. 

Next came Franz Liszt’s virtuosic transcriptions for solo piano of three songs by Franz Schubert for voice and piano: a poignant, rocking “The Miller and the Brook,” from the song cycle “The Miller’s Beautiful Daughter” (1823/1846); a restless, haunting “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” (1814/1838), inspired by Goethe’s “Faust;” and a gently flowing “To Sing on the Water” (1823/1837), reflecting on the passage of time. 

The heart of Babayan’s program was a four-piece set of Rachmaninoff’s most difficult pieces - two 1917 “Etudes Tableaux” (“Study Pictures”): a stormy Op. 39/5, and a tumultuous Op. 39/1; and two 1896 “Moments Musicaux” (“Musical Moments”): a shimmering Op. 16/2, and a jubilant Op. 16/6. All four express an almost continuous state of agitation, the first three (in minor keys), like anguished outcries, but the last (in C Major), like a burst of joy. Babayan played their torrents of notes with staggering power and clarity. 

A dramatic version of Liszt’s 1853 second Ballade alternated luminous calm with majestic rapture. And a protean reading of Robert Schumann’s kaleidoscopic 1838 “Kreisleriana,” an eight-part portrait of a manic-depressive fictional musician, closed the program. But time stood still when Babayan answered a standing ovation with as quiet an encore as his program had been bravura – a ravishing account of the sublime aria that launches Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” It reflected the no-nonsense modesty and stamina of a pianist who played most of the concert without pause and seemed to channel Rachmaninoff himself.    

The 2022-2023 Valley Classical Concerts season will close with the Balourdet Quartet at the Bombyx Center in Northampton on May 21, 2023.

April 24, 2023

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, "The Winter's Tale"

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through May 7, 2023
by C. L. Blacke

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
As one of Shakespeare’s final plays, "The Winter’s Tale" is often categorized as a romantic comedy with elements of tragedy; however, this story is best described as two tales. The first is a tragic story that follows one man’s path of self-destruction, including attempted murder, imprisonment, exile, grief and remorse. The second (and more entertaining) tale lifts the heavy veil of darkness some 16 years later to celebrate young love in a way only Shakespeare can imagine—with mistaken identity, characters in disguise, buffoonery, and physical comedy.

Melia Bensussen wrestles with these opposing forces in her first Shakespearean production at Hartford Stage since becoming the Artistic Director in 2019 and comes out a winner in the end.

Though "The Winter's Tale" is fraught with deception, heartbreak, and betrayal, the actors seem oddly detached from their characters. Nathan Darrow’s King Leontes doesn’t fully commit to his emotions as much as Shakespeare’s text would have us believe. Likewise, Carman Lacivita’s Camillo provides weak motivation for his defection. Even Omar Robinson’s Polixenes, who until now has been a bright spot, doesn’t seem exactly distraught at the thought of being murdered. Nevertheless, two noteworthy performances include Jamie Ann Romero’s unwavering portrayal of Hermoine and Lana Young’s forceful depiction of Paulina.

Much anticipated, this tragic story comes to a dramatic end when Bensussen’s vision of the most famous and confusing stage direction of all time, “Exit, pursued by a bear,” plays out. And it is masterful, using a combination of lighting and sound effects designed by Evan Anderson and Pornchanok Kanchanabanca, respectively.

The spring tale, filled with witty banter, clowning, singing, and live music, comes none too soon. This is where Bensussen’s production really shines.

Jeremy Webb excels in his second role of the play as the simple and often silly Shepherd who finds and raises Leontes’ abandoned daughter, but it is Pearl Rhein as the rogue Autolycus and John Maddaloni as the shepherd’s buffoonish son Clown who steal the show. From acting, to singing, to playing multiple instruments, Rhein's and Maddaloni’s repartee immediately lightens the tone of the dark first act and brings the audience to rolling laughter with their antics. One particular moment of hilarity ensues during a perfectly executed exchange of clothes in a robbery gone wrong. Other actors, now hitting their stride, play off—and with—newfound zeal. Even Camillo seems more comfortable, in an awkward sort of way, when Polixenes forces him to don a ridiculous disguise.

Though not one of the Bard’s most popular plays, Bensussen’s production of "The Winter’s Tale" reminds us that live theatre, once encompassed in Elizabethan times, can replicate such experiences again —a blend of comedy and tragedy, live music and singing, but above all, entertainment.

April 18, 2023

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Beethoven by the Rivers

The Bushnell, Belding Theater, Hartford, CT 
April 14-16, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

Jie Chen
The rivers referenced in the title of this concert and in the three works on the seventh program of the HSO’s 2022-2023 “Masterworks” series are: the Vltava (Moldau) in the Czech Republic; the Yellow River in China; and an unnamed brook in the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. Music Director Carolyn Kuan conducted. 

The program opened with a vigorous account of Bedrich Smetana’s 1874 “The Moldau,” the second of six symphonic poems depicting scenes of Czech history and landscape called “Ma Vlast” (“My Country”). At Kuan’s aptly flowing tempo, the musicians fervently evoked the river’s adventurous progress from a quiet mountain stream past a lively hunt, peaceful pastures, a rowdy wedding feast, stately castles, nymphs dancing at night, turbulent rapids, and beyond view.       

Chinese-born pianist Jie Chen next made a rousing HSO debut in the orchestra’s first performance of the “Yellow River Concerto,” adapted in 1969 by six Chinese musicians from Xian Xinghai’s 1939 “Yellow River Cantata.” The concerto’s four movements were inspired by poems of Guang Weiran which were set in the cantata: “Song of the Yellow River Boatmen;” “Ode to the Yellow River;” “The Yellow River in Anger;” “Defend the Yellow River.” The music’s style reflects Chinese folk traditions and the romanticism of Liszt and Rachmaninoff. Chen met its showy virtuoso demands with consummate ease; Kuan and the HSO were avid collaborators. 

The program closed with a bracing rendition of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 1808 sixth symphony, which he not only nicknamed “Pastoral” but also gave descriptive titles to all five movements. Kuan set a brisk pace for “Awakening of Cheerful Feelings on Arrival in the Country,” which the ensemble keenly followed. They relaxed for an amiable “Scene by the Brook,” reveled in a high-spirited “Merry Gathering of Country Folk,” roared through a tumultuous “Thunder, Storm,” then celebrated a heartfelt closing “Shepherd’s Song: Joyful, Thankful Feelings after the Storm.”    

By the end of the concert, the entire Belding Theater's audience felt refreshed not only by the waters of spring but by the enduring rapport Kuan has nurtured with a reshaped HSO after over a decade of leadership and the strong partnership they’ve built with a committed and growing audience.   

REVIEW: The Majestic, "Buddy, The Buddy Holly Story"

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
Through May 28, 2023
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Kait Rankin
Who said, "You can't get enough of a good thing"? The answer doesn't matter. The question is only a preface to this review of "Buddy, The Buddy Holly Story" at the Majestic Theatre. "Buddy" and I are old friends, having seen the musical 25-years ago when the Majestic opened its doors for the first time to the beat of 50's rock 'n roll songs of Buddy Holly & The Crickets. You could say that I am a "Buddy" maven, because I've seen, moved my feet, sang along, and clapped to this musical at least six times.

The Majestic is wise to close out their 25th season with a winning play, production, with strong audience appeal. My generation is that of Buddy and rock & roll. Do I remember the lyrics of Taylor Swift's most recent song? No? How about the lyrics of "That'll Be the Day," "Rave On," and "True Love Ways"? Yes. I am not unique. Nostalgia can easily spawn exact memories.

The linear story is Buddy Holly's life, with dialog interspersed between music numbers, from deep Texas twang to southern country to variations of gospel. These genres soon lead to rock 'n roll dance, concert gig tours, radio records spinning, ultimately #1 on the charts and fame.

Buddy and the Crickets back-up band perform throughout most of the show, as well as the show within the show. Dan Whelton, whose credits include Equity and community theatre lead roles, plays Buddy. Whelton can't be faulted for the charm and naivite of his character, and he has a clear-enough, melodic voice. However, it is difficult to assess the actor's skills, because for well-over half the production, the band is so loud that Whelton is nearly inaudible. 

Band members (The Crickets) include Doug Wallace, Tommy Allsup, Joe B. Mauldin, and Don Rovero; are each a fine musician in their own right. The enthusiasm of young drummer, Jacob Nichols, is contagious; he's obviously having more fun than anyone onstage, a shining star. A suggestion for future performances is that Whelton, Cricket actors, and the sound designer get together soon in order to perfect the clarity of lyrics and instruments.

The Sunday matinee audience was ecstatic, giving three standing ovations.

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, "Madness & Mystery"

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA 
April 15, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

Jiayan Sun
The fifth classical concert of the SSO’s 2022-2023 season showcased the international appeal of classical music, with Singapore native Tianlui Ng leading the orchestra and Chinese-born pianist Jiayan Sun in three masterpieces by two English composers and one Russian.   

Music Director of the Pioneer Valley Symphony and a Mount Holyoke College music professor, Ng opened with a powerful reading of the “Four Sea Interludes” from Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera “Peter Grimes.” The antisocial behavior of its title character, an 1830s fisherman on England’s east coast, evokes the “madness and mystery” of the concert’s title. “Dawn,” the first interlude, was eerie and ominous; “Sunday Morning,” briskly boisterous; “Moonlight,” calm and haunting; and “Storm,” viscerally grim. 
Next came a blockbuster account of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s popular 1901 second piano concerto, written after treatment by a hypnotist over three years of creative paralysis, the composer-pianist’s own experience of “madness.” The unsentimental opening solo chords aligned Sun’s interpretation closely with Rachmaninoff’s own classic recording. But the internationally acclaimed soloist and Smith College music professor also shaded his technical prowess to the shifting emotions of each movement. A dramatic opening “Moderato,” a radiant “Adagio sostenuto,” and a volatile “Allegro scherzando” received lush support from conductor and orchestra. 

The evening closed with a thrilling performance of Edward Elgar’s 1899 “Enigma Variations,” named after a “mystery” about the piece suggested by the composer: “The Enigma I will not explain.” But he did name each of its 14 “variations on an original theme” after a person in his life. Following a lucid statement of the modest opening theme, Ng and the SSO sharply and lovingly characterized each inventive variation. Highlights included: a tender first variation, for Elgar’s wife; a moving ninth variation, honoring his publisher; a hilarious eleventh variation, for an organist neighbor and his bulldog; and the swashbuckling final variation, poking grandiose fun at himself. 

Brief remarks by Ng preceding each piece helped the large, enthusiastic audience better understand the music and his personal connection to it. The winning stage presence of the conductor and of pianist Sun not only reminded listeners of the abundant world-class musical talent in the Pioneer Valley but suggested that both would be welcome return visitors to Symphony Hall.

April 10, 2023

REVIEW: South Windsor Cultural Arts, "Jacqueline Choi"

Evergreen Crossings, South Windsor, CT 
April 2, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

South Korean-born cellist Jacqueline Choi introduced her “very Romantic program,” with Chinese-born pianist Zhenni Li-Cohen, as highlighting the intimate connection between “cello and song,” the instrument’s sonic range closely reflecting that of the human voice. 

Accordingly, their program began with Beethoven’s 1801 set of 7 Variations on “Bei Mannern, welche Liebe fuhlen” (“Men Who Feel the Call of Love”),” a duet praising love sung by Princess Pamina and the birdcatcher Papageno in Mozart’s 1791 opera “The Magic Flute.” Choi and Li-Cohen proved equal partners in conveying every mood, from playful to melancholy to exhilarated, in Beethoven’s virtuosic score. 

Next came Choi’s gorgeous arrangements for cello and piano of three songs written for voice and piano by Liszt in the 1840’s: “O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst” (“Love As Long As You Can”); “Enfant, si j’etais roi” (“Child, If I Were King”); and “Oh! Quand je dors” (“Oh! When I Sleep”). Before rendering each selection with exquisite sensitivity, Choi or Li-Cohen read its English text, heightening listeners’ appreciation of their lyrical interpretations. 
A stunning account of Debussy’s technically demanding 1915 sonata for cello and piano featured a taut opening “Prologue,” a capricious “Serenade,” and a whirlwind “Finale.” Choi even plucked her cello alternately like a guitar and an upright bass in the jazzy “Serenade.” 

Reminding her audience in his 150th birthday anniversary weekend that Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote all his music “from the heart,” Choi thanked Li-Cohen for her mastery of the “monstrous” piano part in his 1901 sonata for cello and piano, with which they ended the concert in an epic performance. From a lush opening “Lento-Allegro moderato,” an animated “Allegro scherzando,” and a ravishing “Andante” to a joyous closing “Allegro mosso,” Choi’s deep, rich tone was at its most expressive, and Li-Cohen’s pianism, intensely full-bodied.   

The flattering acoustic of the theatre in this northern Connecticut venue enhanced the kinetically engaging stage presence of both women. SWCA, a volunteer-supported organization, has sponsored this free concert series for over 40 years. 

All concerts take place on Sundays at 2:00 pm. The season ends with the Lysander Piano Trio on April 30.