Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 28, 2023

REVIEW: Jacob’s Pillow, "Tulsa Ballet"

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA
through August 27, 2023
by Josephine Sarnelli

Photo by Christopher Duggan
The debut of the 66-year-old Tulsa Ballet at Jacob’s Pillow offers an outstanding performance of contemporary ballet at its best.  Artistic Director Marcello Angelini wisely chose challenging choreography to highlight the technical proficiency and artistry of his troupe.  His 22 dancers are an international blend; 17 of them are from eight different countries.  Fortunately, the language of dance is universal.
    
The most moving piece was the finale entitled “Divenire,” which means “to become” in Italian.  It is choreographed to the inspirational piano piece of the same name composed by Ludovico Einaudi.  The dancers respond to the momentum of the music as it ebbs and grows.  Choreographer Nicolo Fonte has many dances being executed on stage simultaneously, all of which are beautiful in their own way.   Periodically it is as if enough energy is generated to catapult them into one unified ensemble.

The choreography calls for numerous daring overhead lifts, at which all the dancers excel.  In addition to just traditional partner lifts, there are instances of two dancers elevating a single dancer and several times when the entire group congeals to raise up one.  It is as if “to become” is not an individual awakening, but an activity that is best done by a team working together for achieving maximum potential.  The athleticism of the dancers was impressive.  The male dancers offered stunning grand jet├ęs and tour en l’air.  These were almost overshadowed by the effortless aerial lifts.  Of interest was the costume design which put both male and female dancers in leotards that had sheer wide-legged pants pulled over them.  The ability for dancers to easily change costumes offstage added a pleasing variety to the performance.

There was a quirky four-minute choreography entitled “Pas De Deux from Ode” by Katarzyna Kozielska.  It was inspired by the interaction of couples during the pandemic.  There are humorous interludes with the dancers rejecting one another, only to be pulled back together again.

“Celestial Bodies” was choreographed by Andrew McNicol to a variety of music, which gives it breadth.  Overall, there was a feeling of ethereal, otherworldly movement. The aerial lifts create a feeling of spinning and there are moments when you feel as if you are on a galactic journey with music such as “Mothership” by Mason Bates.  The cast internalized the energy of the music and became like stars in the sky on the outdoor Henry J. Leir Stage.

The audience gave a well-deserved standing ovation to the Tulsa Ballet with hopes that Jacobs Pillow might invite them back again soon!


   

August 27, 2023

REVIEW: "Tanglewood's Exceptional Work - Not Just 1, but 4 Concerts"

Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Lenox, MA 
www.bso.org/tanglewood
August 6, 9, 16 & 22, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

Every summer Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall hosts world-class artists in many genres from across the globe. Four August concerts showcased the remarkable range of these attractions. 

The centerpiece of pianist Aaron Diehl’s August 6 program, with drummer Aaron Kimmel and bassist David Wong, was a sensitive reading of the first 12 in jazz pianist-composer Sir Roland Hanna’s rarely heard 1976 cycle of 24 Preludes. Diehl’s arrangements for trio of these expansive miniatures were faithful to their mixed classical and jazz roots, reflecting Debussy, bebop, and Rachmaninoff in equal measure. A dreamy account of Diehl’s own “Polaris,” a gently swinging take on his “Stella’s Groove,” honoring his mother, and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” in tango rhythm were other highlights of this imaginative show.   

Alisa Weilerstein photo by Hilary Scott 

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein’s hour-long August 9 program, entitled “Fragments 2,” defied tradition by mixing excerpts from newly commissioned multi-movement works with selections from Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for solo cello, playing them without pauses, and identifying them only after the performance. Varied lighting against a background of scenic elements, according to director Elkhanah Pulitzer, aimed to focus listeners on “the primacy of varying musical voices in dialogue.” Most affecting among the 18 pieces Weilerstein played with conviction and virtuosity, were seven by Bach and three each by Ana Sokolovic and Caroline Shaw, one of whose “Microfictions” included a touching vocalise by the cellist.    
  
O'Hara & Lipton photo by Hilary Scott
Pianist Bruce Liu’s concert a week later followed a more conventional format, though his repertoire was highly eclectic. First Prize winner at the 2021 Chopin International Piano Competition with Canadian, French, and Chinese roots, he moved fluidly through: an elegant selection of Rameau harpsichord pieces; a dramatic Beethoven “Waldstein” sonata; three glowing Chopin “Nouvelles Etudes;” a visceral Chopin “Funeral March” sonata; and a jazzy set of Variations, Opus 41, by Ukrainian Nikolai Kapustin. He capped the evening with a ravishing encore, Chopin’s posthumously published Nocturne #20 in C-sharp minor. 
  
On August 22, classically trained soprano, Broadway star, and Metropolitan Opera diva Kelli
O’Hara sang songs, some from shows she starred in, and shared memories from her career with engaging charisma. Her clear, radiant voice and expressive acting skills, backed by Dan Lipton’s agile piano, delivered gems like: an ebullient “What More Do I Need?,” from Sondheim’s “Saturday Night;” an ecstatic title song from Adam Guettel’s “Light in the Piazza;” a winning “Sun Went Out,” by her husband, Greg Naughton, with sweet vocal harmony from Lipton; a stirring “To Build a House,” from Jason Robert Brown’s “Bridges of Madison County;” and a vibrant “La Vie en Rose,” by Edith Piaf, in idiomatic French.   

Her jubilant encore, “I Could Have Danced All Night,” from Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady,” brought this far-reaching Ozawa Hall season to a festive close.

August 23, 2023

Review: Barrington Stage Company, "A New Brain"

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
August 16 - September 10, 2023
by Shera Cohen

The most important attribute that can be applied to Barrington Stage Company's (BSC) presentation of "A New Brain" is "collaboration". That is the play, and this production, in a nutshell. Yes, one word, when a lengthy review is in certainly in order (keep reading).

Kudos must be shared, first by the teamwork of two of the Berkshire's finest theaters, Williamstown Theatre and Barrington Stage Company. Artistic Directors of both venues introduced this musical, with extreme obvious pride. Each was thrilled that co-creator William Finn was present, seated in the audience, undoubtedly reflecting on his semi-biographical story. "A New Brain" is a marriage between BSC and Williamstown Theatre with the ultimate production on the Barrington's Boyd-Quinson Stage.

The second major collaboration is of co-creators Willliam Finn ("The Putnam County Spelling Bee" which premiered at BSC) and James Lapine ("Into the Woods.") Finn did the music and lyrics while Lapine wrote the book. In many ways, Finn's name is synonymous with the success of BSC.

Surprisingly to me is that the list of musical numbers was approximately 30. I had no idea that I was about to see a non-stop musical in the vein of many current, popular shows on Broadway. "A New Brain" premiered off-Broadway in 1998. How did I never hear of this sweet story about life and near-death, flooded with a diverse group of ancillary characters, each with his/her own purpose?

Lead character Gordon, portrayed by Adam Chanler-Berat, is a wanna-be writer, stuck at his computer, making very little progress. It's likely that the stalling of his career is due to a developing brain tumor. Of course, Adam is concerned, as are others. But Adam is not obsessed; in fact, many of his songs are humorous. The same for most of the ten actors in the cast. The actor doesn't have a resounding voice, but one that befits his character. He is "everyman". Gordon depicts your "average Joe", and that helps the audience relate to the story.

Playbill photo by Darrell Purcell, Jr.
Mary Testa as his mother and Darrell Purcell, Jr. as Gordon's lover are the top-notch singers in the ensemble, with Tally Sessions as The Doctor, a bass singer commanding the stage in three guest appearances. All singers/actors played their roles well. 
 
The final collaboration of note is director Joe Calarco, choreographer Chloe O. Davis, and music director Vadim Feichter. If "A New Brain" is destined for Broadway again, many cuts are recommended; some songs completely and others shortened. The stream of music telling an essentially true story is reminiscent of "Far from Away" (another true story) yet lacks the audience's closeness with each character.

With the help of these three vital collaborations, "A New Brain" may just have a chance and a hope to make its way back to NYC.

August 21, 2023

REVIEW: Sevenars Music Festival, "Rorianne Schrade"

The Academy, Worthington, MA 
August 20, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

Never one to shrink from a challenge, founding family member and festival executive director
Rorianne Schrade closed the 2023 Sevenars season with a 150th birthday tribute to the great Russian composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. Only slightly diminished by a four-day cold, she not only tackled some of the most “demanding writing in the piano literature” but wrote her own touchingly personal program notes. 

She opened with four transcriptions by Rachmaninoff of works by other composers. In “Preludio,” based on the prelude from Johann Sebastian Bach’s third partita for solo violin, Schrade emphasized the “harmonic hints of Romanticism” heard in it by Rachmaninoff. In “Wohin?” (“Where?”) from Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Die Schone Mullerin” (“The Fair Maiden of the Mill”), she found a mix of “pastoral beauty and tragedy” that’s not uncommon in Rachmaninoff’s own music.
 
Mischievous joy pervaded Schrade’s take on his lively arrangement of the “Scherzo” from Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as it did her raucous “Hopak” by Modeste Mussorgsky in Rachmaninoff’s boisterous setting.
 
After a tender reading of the gentle fifth “Musical Moment” in memory of her mother, Schrade launched without pause into Rachmaninoff’s daunting 1931 revision of his 1913 first piano sonata. Her powerful yet lucid playing let every note ring out clearly among the fistfuls of them in the opening “Allegro agitato” and the closing “Allegro molto,” while leaving plenty of space for the quiet beauty of the central “Lento” to resonate. This triumphant performance was a fitting rebuke to the teacher who advised her to leave this sonata “for the big boys.”
 
The program’s second half focused on “music of reverie,” in which Schrade considers Rachmaninoff “unparalleled.” Two songs – imaginative transcriptions by Hungarian pianist Zoltan Kocsis of “Vocalise” and by Rachmaninoff of “Lilacs” –ached with nostalgia. Two of his Op. 33 “Etudes-Tableaux” - #7 in E-flat Major and #3 in C minor – were cogently heroic. Two waltzes – resourceful transcriptions by Rachmaninoff of Fritz Kreisler’s “Liebesleid” (“Love’s Sorrow”) and by pianist Vladimir Leyetchkiss of the waltz from Rachmaninoff’s second suite for two pianos – exuded profound yearning.
 
This high point of the season will be hard to top, even at the special post-season concert on September 9 at 2 pm honoring longtime Sevenars jazz clarinetist Bob Sparkman.

August 20, 2023

Preview: Springfield Armory, "Voices of the Armory"

Springfield Armory National Historic Site, Springfield, MA
Saturday, September 9, 2023
1 to 4p.m

Voices of the Armory will celebrate the communities of Armory workers, past and present, who shaped modern day Springfield. Join us for special programming, temporary exhibits and refreshments as we honor the workers who made the Springfield Armory a success.


Did you, a family member, or friend work at the Springfield Armory before 1968?

Friends of Springfield Armory would like to hear the stories of people who worked at the Armory before its closing in 1968 as part of a larger project to highlight the workers history of the Armory. If you, a family member, or a friend have memories of that time and would be willing to share your experience with the Friends of the Armory, contact the Springfield Armory, info@friendsofthearmory.org


August 15, 2023

REVIEW: Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, "Two Concerts, Four Conductors"

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA 
August 7 & 14, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

The two latest TMCO concerts offered, among other pleasures, an object lesson in four different styles of leading an orchestra. 

Agata Zayca photo by Hilary Scott
Polish TMC conducting fellow Agata Zajac opened the August 7 concert with a daringly dark interpretation of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 1909 symphonic poem “The Isle of the Dead,” inspired by Arnold Bocklin’s painting of a coffin being rowed to a small island. The TMCO conveyed the nostalgic theme of life, the shattering climax of grief, and the mournful rocking of the boat with feverish intensity. Zajac brought similar range a week later to Antonin Dvorak’s 1897 tone poem “Wood Dove.” The TMCO rendered every twist in this grim Czech folktale (a wife poisons her husband, happily marries another, then kills herself from remorse) with vivid conviction. 

Zajac’s Canadian counterpart, Armand Birks, led Maurice Ravel’s beloved 1928 “Bolero” with sinuous flair on August 7. The TMCO luxuriated in this “long, very gradual crescendo” (Ravel’s description) with obvious enjoyment. A week later Birks found atmospheric and emotional resonance in the “Four Sea Interludes” for orchestra from Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera “Peter Grimes,” about an outcast fisherman in 19th-century England. Most notable were a haunting “Moonlight” and an impassioned closing “Storm.”
 
Internationally acclaimed Russian-born conductor Dima Slobodeniouk closed the first concert with an exhilarating performance of Jean Sibelius’s 1902 second symphony. The conductor’s training and experience in the composer’s native Finland seemed to infuse a restless “Allegretto,” defiant “Tempo Andante, ma rubato,” headlong “Vivacissimo,” and stirring “Finale: Allegro moderato.”
 
British conductor and musicologist Dame Jane Glover closed the second concert with a similarly inspired account of Johannes Brahms’s 1877 second symphony. Though considered his sunniest symphony, Glover and the TMCO discovered melancholy undercurrents in the first two movements, a flowing “Allegro non troppo” and a tender “Adagio non troppo,” but only joy in a buoyant “Allegretto grazioso (quasi Andantino)” and an ecstatic “Allegro con spirito.”
 
Slobodeniouk and Zayac are full-body conductors, who move around the podium and often bend their legs or even jump (think Leonard Bernstein). Glover and Birks are more restrained in their movements, using mainly their arms and batons for communication. All make eloquent use of facial expressions to convey their wishes, and all show outstanding rapport with their musicians. At Tanglewood, the legacy and future of classical music looks secure.

REVIEW: Boston Symphony Orchestra, "Adolphe/Strauss/Stravinsky"

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA 
August 13, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

The program for Sunday’s (8/13) afternoon concert led by BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons proved as changeable as the Berkshire weather that afternoon. Days earlier, cellist Yo-Yo Ma cancelled his planned appearance after testing positive for COVID-19, and soprano Renee Fleming graciously stepped in. Thus, Dmitri Shostakovich’s first cello concerto was replaced by six songs with orchestra by Richard Strauss. The other two works on the program were unchanged. 

The concert opened with a rousing account of Julia Adolphe’s mercurial 2022 BSO commission “Makeshift Castle.” The 15-minute piece evokes a childhood memory of her father crying at the beauty of a sunset, her reflection on the joy of that moment, and her recent grief at his passing. The large orchestra vividly evoked its striking instrumental effects and frequent mood shifts. The rising American composer took a well-earned post-performance bow before an appreciative audience.
 
Renee Fleming
Fleming then received a hero’s welcome, not just for saving the day but for the warm charisma she brings to every performance. Her selection of six non-operatic songs composed or orchestrated throughout Strauss’s long career, between 1885 and 1948, was ideally suited to her lush, creamy soprano, and each found her in radiant voice. She was richly partnered by Nelsons and the BSO, who reveled in the sumptuous accompaniments. 

Standouts included: an ebullient “Muttertandelei” (“Mother Chatter”), with a text by Gottfried August Burger about a new mother’s delight in her young child; a dramatic Zueignung” (“Dedication”), to a text by Hermann von Gilm about gratitude for love; and a rapturous “Morgen” (“Tomorrow”), with a text by John Henry Mackay of hope for happiness, featuring gorgeous solos by associate concertmaster Alexander Velinzon and principal harp Jessica Zhou. By the end of Fleming’s set, a sudden rain shower outside the Koussevitzky Music Shed even gave way to sunshine. 

The program closed with a brilliant reading of Igor Stravinsky’s 1947 revision of his 1911 ballet “Petrushka.” Like much of Stravinsky’s music, “Petrushka” draws on Russian folk traditions. Its four scenes are set at a Shrovetide (pre-Lenten) Fair in 1830’s St. Petersburg, where three puppets – the trickster title character, a ballerina, and a Moor – enact their loves and jealousies. Nelsons and his musicians (including pianist Vytas Baksys as Petrushka) played this dazzling score with the same virtuosic flair they showcased all afternoon.  

August 14, 2023

Preview: Springfield Armory, "Frances Perkins: A Woman's Work"

Springfield Armory National Historic Site, Springfield, MA
Sunday, September 10, 2023, 2 p.m.

Frances Perkins: A Woman's Work
A performance by Jarice Hanson

Frances Perkins
A first-person portrayal of Frances Perkins the first U. S. Secretary of Labor. She served all 12
years of the FDR administration helping to craft New Deal social policies including workplace safety, Social Security, 40-hour work week and the "Rosie the Riveter" campaign.

Free and open to the public. Ample free parking. Handicap accessible.

Sponsored by In the Spotlight, Springfield, MA

Funded by grants from the MA Cultural Council and the Springfield Cultural Council

REVIEW: Chester Theatre Company, “Circle Mirror Transformation”

Town Hall Theatre, Chester, MA
through August 20, 2023
by C. L. Blacke

Photo by Andrew Greto
Closing out its 34th season, Chester Theatre Company once again pays homage to the
dramatic arts with its production of Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation.”

As one of the playwright’s four plays set in the fictional town of Shirley, VT, “Circle Mirror” world-premiered Off-Broadway in 2009 and won the Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2010.

It studies, in microcosm, a six-week community acting class portrayed through a series of vignettes. Perfectly awkward silences, stilted sentences, and lost trains of thought dominate this play as four very different and very dysfunctional individuals, led by an equally damaged instructor, participate in games, trust activities, and dramatic exercises meant to develop acting skills. What they can’t know is that they will learn more about themselves through this class and each other than they would even after years of psychotherapy.

The entirety of the play takes place in the dance studio of a community center. Smartly designed by Juliana von Haubrich, the windowless room leaves little place for insecurities to hide. With an exit door on one wall and a full-length mirror opposite, each participant must make a choice—escape before their darkest secrets are exposed or face the mirror and begin their transformation.

The ensemble cast of five includes Marty (played by Corinna May), the self-proclaimed spiritual healer/acting teacher, her hippie husband James (Alex Draper), a lonely, divorced carpenter named Schultz (Joel Ripka), a flirty, former actress named Theresa (Tara Franklin), and a high school student-cum aspiring actress-cum hopeful veterinarian Lauren (Hero Marguerite). Each character is vital to the story (and to each other’s), and no actor is upstaged.

Working in perfect synchronicity, the cast must endure uncomfortable interactions (think: waiting to be noticed by someone absorbed in their cell phone) while expressing a range of emotions. They must also feed off of each other’s energy (when impersonating a baseball glove and stuffed snake) and rely solely on subtext (while having a conversation using only the words “goulash” and “ak-mak”).

That each moment is engaging and feels true to life is a testament to the excellent direction of Daniel Kramer. No stranger to Baker’s plays (he directed the 2018 CTC production of “The Aliens”), Kramer’s experience is evident. This production is fun and funny (provoking laughter in all the right places), subtle and well-paced (coming it at a mere 95-minutes), and a gentle reminder that despite their emotional baggage, everyone deserves attention and love.  

August 13, 2023

Preview: Great Barrington Public Theater, "Representation and How to Get It"

The Mount, Lenox, MA
August 25, 26, 27, 2023
Special Event: 3 Performances Only

A play inspired by Julia Ward Howe 

Great Barrington Public Theater (GBPT) and The Mount collaborate on a new play that takes a personal look at Julia Ward Howe, the famous poet who wrote "Battle Hymn of the Republic".

Howe's legacy, however, was far more important than penning one poem. She was noted as charismatic and passionate in expressing her views one of the earliest civil rights activists.

This one-person play was written by Joyce Van Dyke, actor Elaine Vaan Hogue, and GBPT Associate Artistic Director Judy Braha.

The plot begins at early dawn and the setting is Boston, MA. The audience finds Howe rehearsing a lecture she’s about to give to the Boston Radical Club on political representation for women. She delivers a passionate, moving call-to-arms for that time. 

Howe's, however, was far more important than penning one poem. She was noted as charismatic and passionate in expressing her views one of the earliest civil rights activists.

Julia Ward, born in 1819 in New York City, seemed to have begun her role as advocate from a young age because of her own atypical upbringing. In spite of becoming the wife of the prominent Samuel Howe of Boston and giving birth to six children, it is stated that Julia felt bored and ineffective as a woman whose life was solely that of a homemaker.

Through her plays and poems, one can read that Julia and her husband vehemently disagreed about the role of women in politics. However, Samuel sought his wife to edit his antislavery paper, Commonwealth, which lead to her involvement in abolitionism. When she met soldiers in army camps in Washington, DC, she was inspired to write the poem "Battle-Hymn," printed in the Atlantic Monthly in 1852. The poem, then song, touched the feelings of the nation, becoming a proverbial "best seller". Unexpectedly, Julia was famous.

Yet, that was just the beginning of her career as writer, lecturer, editor, and powerful suffrage advocate for the next several decades until her death at age 90. Julia was not shy, spoke her mind, and in spite of her diminutive physical stature, preaching for the rights of women was foremost in her teaching wherever she traveled in the United States.

The creators of "Representation and How to Get It" say, “We want her words and this play to charge the audience with agency, hope, and a collective sense of the need to take action now."

Joyce Van Dyke’s new solo play, "Representation and How to Get It," was developed in collaboration with performer Elaine Vaan Hogue and director Judy Braha and produced in 2022 in New York and numerous historic New England venues. Van Dyke's other plays have been produced Off-Broadway at the Pan Asian Reper tory Theatre, and the Central Square Theater. Van Dyke is a past winner of the prestigious Gassner Award and Boston Globe’s “Top Ten” plays of 2001. 

Actor Elaine Vaan Hogue is also a director, teacher, and producer. She is a member of The Magdalena Project, an international cross-cultural and cross-generational network of women in contemporary theatre. She co-founded the Gypsy Mamas Artist Group, a laboratory sustaining adventurous creative exploration and fostering interdisciplinary collaboration of new work. Vaan Hogue has performed and/or directed throughout New England and is a Professor Emeritas at Boston University.    

In addition to being the director of this play, Judy Braha has been an actor, teacher, and artist for social justice for over four decades. Head of the MFA Directing Program at Boston University’s School of Theater, her credits include theaters and universities throughout New England. One of her goals is to raise consciousness around the power of the arts as activism. As a director, Braha's work often has concern for human rights at its center. 

August 10, 2023

Preview: The Mount, "Sculpture Now"

The Mount, Lenox, MA
June 1, 2023 - October 21, 2023
by Shera Cohen

"The Magician" photo by Ann Jon
I can't believe that I missed this whimsical sculpture piece of magician levitating his subject on
my recent trip to SculptureNow at The Mount. I can only guess that the art piece literally landed on the lawn near the end of the trail where a wedding was in prep. Only on that particular day, tourists were not permitted to walk further down the trail. Frankly, I cannot think of a more natural and lovely setting to begin a marriage. But I digress.

SculptureNow was founded in 1998 by a group of people involved in the arts in the Berkshires who became aware of a need to promote the experience and knowledge of sculpture through exhibitions and educational outreach, and to offer artists venues for showing their work in our community.

Ann Jon, director of SculptureNow, began her journey to promote works of sculpture of artists throughout the country. Jon's own talent is in the sculpting medium. What more picturesque site than The Mount, the former home of famous author Edith Wharton, in Lenox, MA? The exhibition has received tremendous reviews and has been seen by 60,000 visitors.

SculptureNow was founded in 1998 by a group of people involved in the arts in the Berkshires who became aware of a need to promote the experience and knowledge of sculpture through exhibitions and educational outreach, and to offer artists venues for showing their work in our community.

I recall meeting Ms. Jon during the first summer of SculptureNow. At the time, Jon initiated her plan with hope for a successful first summer. However, she was quite redescent about what the future would hold. She was extremely grateful to The Mount for seeing the value of her program. But evaluation of SculptureNow would be deemed one year at a time.

Last summer, I interviewed Jon as well as Susan Wissler, executive director of The Mount, on Sculpture Now's tenth anniversary. It was a treat to be invited on a private tour.

From June 1 through October 21, Sculpture Now's artists number 27; each presentrf large-scale art works using material such as: ceramic, steel, concrete, aluminum, wood, wire, fabric, glass, stoneware, and mesh. I won't pretend to know what tapioca rootwood flowers were, but they adorned the piece titled "Unbridled" by Deborah H. Carter; a large mannequin-like bride's body, yet minus a head.

Walking a circuitous loop around the landscape were works valued at $6,500 and up. Yes, all sculptures were for sale, but in the meantime, SculptureNow is an exquisite show of modern art. My own take on the art was sometimes quizzical, as if to ask, "What is that?" Other times, the art images had titles which helped me out: Everest (glass medium) by Harold Grinspoon, Celebration (steel) by Douglass Rice, and my favorite One Leaning on Another (bronze) by Joy Brown. I saw balls of black metal as an image of a mama bear with a much smaller identical series of balls on her back, holding on as if a baby. It seems odd to compare big, heavy brass to a soft mom and babe, but that was my take. Who's to say if I was right or wrong. In visual art, I believe that there are no absolutes.

Opera: One of the finest art forms you might not have experienced…yet

Preview: Berkshire Opera Festival, “La Boheme”
Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA
August 26, 29, Sept. 1, 2023 
by Shera Cohen

At the age of four or five, I was introduced to my first opera, “La Boheme”. In retrospect, I now realize and believe that I actually heard this music from the womb. Thanks, Mom.

The word “opera” and my mother were synonymous in our home, as it was in the home of her own youth. Each Saturday in the fall and winter, beginning at approximately 1:00pm, Live at the Metropolitan Opera was broadcast. Mom’s parents owned a radio in a large piece of furniture in the living room where she and her two sisters turned the world out to listen intensely to nearly every opera; particularly Puccini, then perhaps Verdi, and even the very long Wagner operas.

Growing up in the 1950’s, more or less by osmosis I heard and felt the music on a weekly basis whether I wanted to or not. At first, I thought it was boring, then it seemed somewhat okay but long, then I singled out some individual arias while ignoring the recitative chatter between the characters.

I actually do remember a major life episode when I was kindergarten age or less. The scene was our small beach in CT. Forever the theatre-person, Mom reminded me of the death scene in “Madama Butterfly” which I presented solo, singing my gibberish, with a pretend sword, ultimately falling onto the sand. The audience? Anyone within hearing distance. 

One of the joys of my life, hopefully for Mom, was a birthday gift of a limo trip for Mom, my aunt, a favorite cousin, and me to the Met in New York City to see “La Boheme”. Mom’s hearing was diminishing by age 90, so I wondered if she actually heard the vocalists. Our seats were quite good, but she often closed her eyes. I later asked if she could see alright. Mom smiled and said that the story, sounds, and setting were so overwhelming that she sometimes closed her eyes to feel the experience.

I recently told some friends that I was excited to attend Berkshire Opera Festival’s production of “La Boheme” in August 2023. The responses were friendly, yet with the connotation as if to ask, “Why?” 

For me, “why” is never a word to be used in the same sentence with opera, Puccini, and/or “La Boheme”. I assume that “why” meant: why sit for three hours in a theatre, why listen when the words are in a foreign language, why spend the money, why go to a theatre that might not have the best acoustics, why listen to singers who aren’t on the stage at the Met?

The stories and plots were rather similar. I can safely say without spoilers that: boy meets girls, mostly everyone is working class or poor, a few big-wigs look pompous, a character or two provide comic relief, one person is somewhat of a soothsayer, something is amiss between boy and girl, girl gets sick (cough! cough!) and dies.

Verdi, Mozart, and others tend to follow this theme. Admittedly, Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West” is atypical, set in the United States Wild West. It is one of my least favorite of any opera. 

Why opera has been at the center of my core, especially this year and especially Puccini’s best? While “Madama Butterfly,” of course by Puccini, is my personal favorite, the music sung by the lovers Mimi and Rudolfo in “La Boehme” is exquisite. In an excellent production, the audience can feel the love between these two strangers.

But all is not doom and gloom, Rudolfo’s friends living together in a ramshackle garret in France, are boys at heart. Puccini’s music and repartee among the lads is light and fun. The secondary couple, Musetta and Marcello can oftentimes upstage the primary lovers. Musetta and beau are well-rounded characters who face the reality of their poor existence solemnly with an aside that there is hope for their own lives and that of their friends.

Puccini
To many, “La Boheme” is the greatest opera ever written. Puccini’s masterpiece is, likely the first opera that novices hear; a wonderful “starter opera” with a poignant and understandable story, memorable music, intricate set, large cast including a lovely children’s chorus.

Of equal importance for the uninitiated is the Italian language; the Romance lauguages are among the most flowing and beautiful in the world. “But I don’t understand Italian.” Not an excuse for experiencing the glory of this opera. Trust me, you will “get” the story without knowing the meaning of every word. The artistic director, music conductor, and vocalists impart Puccini’s text in every note.

My somewhat educated take on opera as a genre spanning several centuries is that “La Boehme” is the template for all Puccini operas, not to mention those used by other opera composers of Puccini’s ilk.

Opera is a story set to the most beautiful music of centuries of genius composers. Yes, it is similar to musicals with near-perfect settings and sound, but opera is more…beautiful, orchestral, touching, with music that reaches every pore of your being. My mother, who passed away at age 99, just a few years ago, would agree. In fact, we played “Nessum Dorma” (another Puccini, from “Turandot”) at her funeral.

I urge you to give opera a try. What better way than to attend “La Boehme” by the Berkshire Opera Festival and Chorus?

Review: Shakespeare & Company, “August Wilson’s Fences”

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through August 27, 2023
by Shera Cohen

Photo Courtesy of Shakespeare & Co.
Are fences built to keep people out or to keep people in? This is the theme throughout “August Wilson’s Fences”. 

The perimeter of the set is a dirty, white, old, and rickety fence. The fence needs fixing; so do the people who live in the home. While there are attempts to repair the wooden slats, nothing changes. So, too, for the extended African-American family living in the house. The year is 1957.

Troy Maxson, a physically large man with a resounding voice, is at the center of the play’s conflict. The world revolves around him, yet he hates his life and regrets what could have been. Actor “ranney” (Troy) has a workout, appearing in nearly every scene. The audience’s feelings for Troy are mixed as the character goes from average Joe to boisterous wannabe envisioning himself, or at the very least his son, as the next Jackie Robinson at bat. “ranney” is a superb actor, squeezing out every varied emotion from Troy in his place in this world. “ranney” is also expressive in his silence.

His wife Rose doesn’t have a lot to do in Act I, except as a sounding board for the rants of her husband and other men in the back yard. Rose is on the periphery of life and even her own home. Characters need to constantly remind Troy that his wife is a “good woman”. 

However, Ella Joyce gives her all in a 180-degree turnaround as Rose in Act II. She’s no porch-sitting, middle-aged, Black woman preparing a meal. Joyce explodes, pulling out Rose’s every emotion necessary to face reality and/or to get the hell out of her situation if she can.
The actors in supporting roles make each character necessary. The play would not be complete without all in their relationship to the others.
 
“Fences” isn’t merely a slice of life theatre piece. There is a plot and execution. To say more would be a spoiler. Director Christopher V. Edwards, calls the play, “…about the scaling down gigantic dreams to fit humble lives.” Edwards and his set designer [not credited in the program] have created a not-so-nice neighborhood, with a glowing red backdrop to the mundane house. Maybe possibilities of something better are to come? Maybe not.





Preview: Shakespeare & Company, "Golda's Balcony"

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through August 23, 2023

The World Premiere of Golda’s Balcony, written by William Gibson and featuring the Elliot Norton Award-winning Annette Miller, was produced at Shakespeare & Company in May 2002 and went on to become the longest-running one-woman play in Broadway history. The inspiring story of Golda Meir – Russian immigrant, American school teacher, and fourth Prime Minister of Israel – returns to the Berkshires this year in a searingly topical production, staged at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre for a limited run of 12 performances. 

Photo courtesy of Shakespeare & Co.
In the title role long-standing Shakespeare & Company actor Annette Miller has performed on
Broadway, Off-Broadway, in Boston, regional theatres, and in film and television. She was acclaimed by The Wall Street Journal as best actor of the 2020 season in regional theatre for her performance as Gladys Green in The Waverly Gallery. She has received numerous theatre awards in MA and throughout the country.

Miller originated the role of Golda Meir before it went to Broadway for which she received both Boston’s Elliot Norton Best Actor Award and the Independent Reviewers of New England Best Actor Award.

The actor's credits also include television and film. She is currently an Affiliate Scholar at Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center where she wrote and continues to perform for organizations and colleges.

August 7, 2023

When is an Artist a Genius? A Tribute to John Williams at Tanglewood

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 5, 2023
by Shera Cohen

Photo Credit: BSO.org
If I was asked to define the work of composer/conductor John Williams in a single word, I would quickly answer, “genius”. Whether this is Webster’s definition or not, I really don’t care for the purposes of this article. I doubt that many would disagree with my description of this amazingly talented man.

On the evening of August 5, 2023, I was among the thousands charmed by the skills of John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra. Adding the magnificent grounds and ambiance of Tanglewood, a clear sky, and 75-degree weather made for the proverbial perfect day. My usual Tanglewood excursion includes dousing myself in bug spray. For some reason, I forgot this part of my regime; surprisingly the site seemed mosquito-free.

Tanglewood hosts Mr. Williams annually, or with the luck of precise scheduling, twice each summer. To date, I have been lucky enough to attend most of these glorious concerts, even the year that I broke my leg. If John Williams can stand to conduct the Boston Pops hour-long Act II of “Film Night” then walk across the stage and back countless times – each time earning more accolades than the last – then I can hobble on the grass with or without broken body parts. Yes, this 91-year-old man is a genius.

David Newman, an accomplished composer and conductor himself, lead the BSO in the first part of the evening’s program, all the while praising the talents of Mr. Williams. 

The program offered the Boston University Tanglewood Institute Young Artists and Vocal Program Chorus the unforgettable opportunity to sing some of Williams’ scores from the Olympics Anthems as well as “Star Wars”. I can only imagine how the members of these youth choruses will feel about this moment 50-years from now.

Although I hadn’t picked up a program book until the concert’s end, it was obvious that the Suite from “Far and Away” was imbedded with an Irish lilt, “Superman” focused on the Love Theme for a softer section rather than the “up in the air…it’s Superman” segment.

My favorite music piece was “The Cowboys Overture,” not movie music, but television. The fast-paced rousing segments brought back memories of good westerns which I’d seen as a child, as well as the theme of “The Marlboro Man”.

This concert focused on the lesser-known works by Williams rather than Indiana Jones I – 5. The second part of the concert was heavy with “Star Wars”. Accompanying those onstage, was a superbly edited montage of Olympian to Williams’ “Call of the Champions,” which I hadn’t realized was yet another display of genius.

If I am not wrong, “The Theme from Shindler’s List” is included at each Film Night. Mr. Williams’ music is not all pomp, circumstance, marches, and continuously embellished themes. Elita Kang’s violin set a serious, melancholy tone. Sometimes, it is amazing that the man who brought us the “crushing” music of Indie, Luke, ET, Superman, et al, can compose the softness and sadness of “Shindler’s List”.

In his own words, “Writing a tune is like sculpting. You get four or five notes, you take one out and move one around, and you do a bit more and eventually, in that rock there is a statue, we have to go find it”.

I have never met Mr. Williams. Although he once sat six rows in front of me, I doubt that that counts. His stance onstage, his appreciation of the audience implies to me that he is a humble man, just doing his job – the job of a genius.

August 6, 2023

REVIEW: Great Barrington Public Theater, "Just Another Day"

McConnell Theater Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Great Barrington, MA
through August 13, 2023
by C. L. Blacke

After a one week delay, "Just Another Day" finally makes its world premiere at Great Barrington Public Theater in partnership with Shadowland Stages in Ellenville, NY. A poignant and powerful new play, it was written by and stars Dan Lauria, a name that audiences may find familiar.

`
Lauria has appeared in over seventy television programs, fifty professional stage productions,
twenty Movies-of-the-Week, and countless films, but he is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Arnold in the Emmy-winning television series, The Wonder Years. He is also the co-creator of the Durango Play Festival for the development of new plays and writes children’s books with his godson.

Jodi Long, who plays opposite Lauria in this production, brings her own accolades to the stage. She debuted on Broadway at age seven, won the audience award at the LA Asian Pacific Festival for her documentary Long Story Short, and won an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress as “Mrs. Basil E” in Netflix’s Dash & Lily (being the first Asian-American to win an Emmy in any Acting category).

With the cast of two, plus an ominous offstage character called The Bell Ringer, "Just Another Day" was inspired by Lauria’s personal experience with the aging and memory loss of a dear friend. What makes his play different, though, is that it isn’t told from an outsider’s perspective witnessing a friend’s decline but from two people in their seventies facing it together.

The unnamed man (Lauria) and woman (Long) meet at a park bench every day and find common ground through their love of old movies (His Girl Friday, It’s A Wonderful Life, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). He, a comic and she, his muse, begin to create their own comedy even as they try to remember who they—and each other—are.

The man is crass and tells bawdy jokes. The woman values love and the beauty of language. They both trade barbs and japes—his with witty one-liners and hers with an acerbic lexicon rivaled only by Noah Webster himself. There are moments of laugh-out-loud humor and profound sadness, moments of helpless desperation, and moments of absolute hope as the characters continue to create anew each day. But beneath it all, there is also a current of love that not even age or memory loss can deny.

Masterfully directed by James Glossman, "Just Another Day" brings dignity to the process of growing old and reminds us of Lauria’s wisdom: "As long as we create, we are not lost." 

August 1, 2023

REVIEW: Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra: "Festival of Contemporary Music & More"

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA 
July 23 & 31, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

TMC conducting fellows Armand Birk, from Canada, and Agata Zajac, from Poland, shared conducting duties at these concerts with BSO guest conductor Xian Zhang (July 23) and TMC Head of Conducting Stefan Asbury (July 31). The latter was also the closing event in the TMC’s 2023 Festival of Contemporary Music and featured music by all four co-curators of this year’s Festival: Reena Esmail; Gabriela Lena Frank; Tebogo Monnakgotla; and Anna Thorvaldsdottir. 

To open the first concert, Zajac directed a fiery account of Richard Strauss’s 1889 tone poem “Don Juan,” from an exhilarating start to a more measured and somber conclusion. She brought visionary clarity to the Festival performance she led of Thorvaldsdottir’s 2018 “Metacosmos,” an alternately mystical and rhythmic exploration of “falling into a black hole – the unknown,” in the composer’s words, which also evoked the timeless landscape of her native Iceland. 

Photo by Hilary Scott
Birks conducted similarly challenging works for voices and orchestra in both concerts with flair
and sensitivity. On July 23, Frank’s Latin-flavored 2010 cycle “La centinela y la paloma” (“The Keeper and the Dove”) about the death of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, with Spanish texts by Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, showcased TCM sopranos Bridget Esler and Yvonne Trobe, both fearlessly dramatic in the two songs each sang. On July 31, Monnakgotla’s evocative 2018 cycle “Un Clin d’oeil” (A Wink of an Eye”) presented TCM baritones Rolfe Dauz and Kevin Douglas Jasaitis, each vibrantly expressive in French texts by Madagascar poet Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo. 

Zhang, music director of the New Jersey Symphony, closed the first concert with an electrifying rendition of Sergei Prokofiev’s rarely heard but richly rewarding 1948 sixth symphony. Asbury opened the later concert with a lush reading of Esmail’s 2021 “RE/member,” which began with a short video of TMC oboist Elias Medina playing alone, later replayed over his live performance with the TMCO in post-pandemic reunion after separation. Asbury ended the concert with a rollicking account of Frank’s 2017 “Walkabout: Concerto for Orchestra,” whose four widely varied movements reflect the Peruvian part of her multiethnic heritage and which the TMCO played with contagious joy.
 
Remaining TMCO concerts in Ozawa Hall at 8pm will pair TMC conducting fellows with BSO guest conductors Dima Slobodeniouk (August 7) and Dame Jane Glover (August 14).
 

Tanglewood Rehearsals: Almost as Good as the Real Thing

by Shera Cohen
reprinted from "In the Spotlight," 2009

Photo Credit: www.bso.org
The sounds of symphonic music compete with the squawking of crows. It's the Boston
Symphony Orchestra vs. the feathered creatures. Fierce battle ensues. While the birds hold their own periodically, the BSO always wins out. Such are Saturdays each summer at Tanglewood.

Nearly every Saturday in July and August, the musicians of the BSO enter the huge Koussevitzky Music Shed, and music lovers either sit in the shed or on the pristinely mowed lawn for open rehearsals. Starting at 10:30am and ending at various times - whenever the conductor feels that the orchestra is rehearsed to his/her satisfaction (approximately between 12pm-1:30pm) - hundreds of patrons enjoy these quasi-concerts. Usually, the music is that of the upcoming Sunday afternoon program. Tanglewood's program book lists the composers, pieces, conductors, and guest artists. Audiences know in advance what and who they will hear.

Many visitors arrive at 7am to get the "best" seat. But "best" is in the mind of the listener, and for many their folding chairs on the manicured lawn is the best seat in the house. Most of the time, a half-hour talk about the music or composer starts off the morning's program. Rehearsals do start exactly at 10:30am. The dress is casual with the musicians in shorts and t-shirts. The same applies for the crowd. It's not unusual to see rows of people donned in Tanglewood shirts, caps, and sweatshirts.

Symphony rehearsals are extremely popular. Some may think that by attending a rehearsal there is no need to go to the finished product. In fact, the experience is the opposite. Listening to a rehearsal, with its frequent or not-so-frequent stops and starts for the conductor's corrections and comments, makes the ultimate performance clearer in appreciation and understanding of the work.

It is wonderful to see kids, all ages and by the hundreds, usually on the lawn, enjoying the music of Bach, Mozart, Ravel, et al. Sometimes the sounds that they hear are only background to their chatting with siblings or playing video games. That doesn't matter. They are there, soaking it all in, even subliminally. It is likely that these kids will be our future generation of symphony goers and patrons, remembering their wonderful trips to Tanglewood.

REVIEW: Boston Symphony Orchestra: "Reid/Paganini/Prokofiev"

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA 
July 30, 2023 
by Michael J. Moran 

For the final concert of her tenure as BSO Assistant Conductor, Anna Rakitina led an appealingly eclectic program of music across three centuries by composers from three different cultures, including her own Ukrainian-Russian heritage, in the Koussevitzky Music Shed on a glorious summer afternoon. 

She opened with Tennessee native Ellen Reid’s 2019 piece “When the World as You’ve
Known It Doesn’t Exist.” While commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, Reid says it’s “about unabashedly presenting my artistic voice.” The colorful score moves from “disembodied questioning…through waves of blazing anger…toward something close to acceptance.” Rakitina directed a hauntingly forceful account of the ten-minute showpiece, with sopranos Eliza Bagg, Martha Cluver, and Sonja Dutoit Tengblad adding eerie wordless vocal tones. 

Photo by Hilary Scott
Internationally acclaimed violinist and frequent Tanglewood guest Joshua Bell next soloed in a brilliant reading of Italian superstar violinist-composer Nicolo Paganini’s 1816 first violin concerto, one of the most technically challenging in the repertoire. Its three grandly orchestrated movements are full of virtuoso tricks, all of which Bell dispatched with aplomb. The astoundingly difficult cadenza, or solo passage, near the end of the first movement, which Bell wrote himself and Paganini usually improvised, stopped the performance with a standing ovation. Rakitina and the orchestra supported Bell’s dazzling showmanship in the opening “Allegro maestoso” and the “Rondo: Allegro spiritoso” finale and his serene lyricism in the central “Adagio” with equal flair. 

The concert ended with a thrilling 40-minute suite of ten excerpts from Sergei Prokofiev’s 1935 ballet “Romeo and Juliet,” among the most inspired and heartfelt music the Ukrainian-born Russian composer ever wrote. Drawn from all three orchestral suites prepared by Prokofiev, the order of Rakitina’s selections followed the action of Shakespeare’s play. Sumptuous playing of deep conviction by all sections of the large ensemble revealed the music’s many contrasting moods, like: dark, violent foreboding in “Montagues and Capulets;” ecstatic fervor in the “Balcony Scene;” and boundless compassion in the closing “Death of Juliet.”  
 
The strong rapport Rakitina has clearly built over the past few years with BSO musicians and audiences, her imaginative programming skills, and her engaging stage presence would make this rising international star a welcome guest conductor in future BSO/Tanglewood seasons.