Daily Archives: May 7, 2016

Searching for an Italian Iowan

Theatre Review: The Bridges of Madison County

Madison County

By Perry Tannenbaum

The problems with this show really began before the first note. I’ve never read The Bridges of Madison County nor seen the movie that was adapted from Robert James Waller’s bestseller. What I vaguely remembered was that it centered on an Iowa housewife who was beguiled by a charismatic photographer, and that Meryl Streep was that housewife romanced by Clint Eastwood in the movie.

But I never knew she was Italian. So when Elizabeth Stanley began to sing as Francesca in the touring version of the Broadway musical, I only intermittently understood a word that she was saying. None of those words, unfortunately, was Napoli. Albany, Cleveland, and Osceola, yes I understood those, but by then I’d missed the boat.

Even when I caught on to the idea that this Iowa housewife was Italian – and what the target accent was that I needed to decipher – it was of little use when Stanley sang. The James Robert Brown lyrics were hopelessly pureed even though the James Robert Brown music was quite lovely.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a touring Broadway show so thoroughly massacred by its leading lady.

On the other hand, Andrew Samonsky was all of the lanky dreamboat you could hope for as Robert, the easygoing National Geographic photographer who bounces around the globe with his camera and tripod, hunting down the perfect light and angle for every scenic subject. When Samonsky says Stanley is beautiful, you can momentarily believe it.

I’d seen Samonsky seven years ago as a moody, racist Lt. Cable in the Broadway revival of South Pacific, and I could see why director Bartlett Sher wanted him back. Now his hair has grown long, the mellow opposite of the tightly wound Cable. Even on Broadway, you rarely hear a voice of such astonishing clarity and power. No struggle at all to get to the core of Robert’s restless, yearning soul.

Noisy kids, snoopy neighbors, and a humdrum husband all circle around the vortex of the great Francesca-Robert passion, swelled to Broadway size in the Marsha Norman book but not really overstuffed. We don’t feel like we’re watching a big Broadway extravaganza at Knight Theater. Scenery by Michael Yeargan has the spare fantasy feel of the dream sequence from Oklahoma, and Brown’s orchestrations have a matching classic simplicity, thinning out at times to a lone piano or even a cello.

So for the music and the soulful Samonsky, the trip to Madison County may be worth it. But before you go, it would be wise to catch hold of Francesca’s lyrics on the cast recording. If your Spotify subscription allows you to punch the lyric tab, that’s the quickest way.

Ballet’s Last Dance Ranges from Grief to Orgy

Dance Review: Charlotte Ballet’s Spring Works

By Perry Tannenbaum

Finishing Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s penultimate year as artistic director, Charlotte Ballet served up an evening of Spring Works that carved a graceful arc from sorrow to celebration. Musically, the program could be described as all-American, though sticklers would consider that a stretch. Resident choreographer Sasha Janes’s We Danced Through Life, premiered at Chautauqua last summer, is set to Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” written in 1893 while the Czech composer was living in America.

No ambiguity about music that followed. George Balanchine’s Who Cares? was set to a sheaf of Gershwin tunes when it premiered in 1970, pared down to eight selections by associate artistic director Patricia McBride, who introduced three of the original 17 pieces back in the days when she was a star of the New York City Ballet. Capping the evening was the world premiere of Dwight Rhoden’s Bop Doo Wah, danced to eight jazz standards by the likes of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Louis Prima, Irving Berlin, and George Benson.

Although Janes scrapped the opening movement of “New World” in condensing it to 20 minutes, he retained a fast-slow-fast (or dense-light-dense) structure by tucking the lovely Largo second movement – and its memorable “Goin’ Home” tune – in between the third movement Molto vivace and the concluding Allegro. That showcased the fearless elegance of Sarah Hayes Harkins in an achingly tender pas de deux with David Morse, along with a move I’d never seen before.

Charlotte Ballet_Sasha Janes_We Danced Through Life_Sarah Hayes Harkins_...[2]

Starting from upstage right and running diagonally toward downstage center, Harkins took one of those leaps that flings a ballerina’s arms and legs out parallel to the floor an instant before a sure-handed guy catches her in midair. But there was no guy standing there to catch Harkins in Janes’s choreography. Instead, two guys somehow overtook her and caught her two arms at the same moment, one under each arm.

Clearly, Harkins and Morse were the tragic couple Janes had in mind as his most pointed evocation of Terrie Valle Hauck, who commissioned the dance at Chautauqua for her late husband Jimmy – particularly at that instant when Morse wasn’t there to catch his partner. But another couple shone in the outer movements, Alessandra Ball James and Josh Hall, amid busier action with four other couples. At the end of one set of lifts, the men didn’t put their partners down on the ground. Instead they maintained their lifts and trotted upstage, placing each woman on her own pedestal.

Well done, Jimmy!

Aside from McBride, James and her pink flapper dress was the living link between this presentation of Who Cares? and the company’s previous revival in 2008. She’s still musical and precise in “The Man I Love,” her duet with Hall, and she’s still youthfully jazzy in “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” the other piece that McBride originated. There was a tinge of poetry in the title tune, Jamie Dee Clifton’s duet with Hall, and a touch of Fred-and-Ginger sophistication in “Embraceable You,” the Hall-Harkins pairing.

I just felt that this Balanchine was unnecessarily musty compared to the newer pieces bookending it. Couldn’t we get a recording of Hershey Kay’s orchestrations that sounded like they were recorded in stereo, let alone digitally? And the costumes, recreated by Aimee J. Coleman, could stand a refresh. Clifton’s looked like it should have been discarded five washings ago, and Harkins’ – when cutie pie Anna Gerberich danced “My One and Only” eight years ago, it was teal, but now it seemed faded to turquoise.

Yep, it’s challenging to nitpick a Charlotte Ballet program. Everyone is so damn good, but in Rhoden’s Bop Doo Wah, we could lament seeing Addul Manzano, David Morse and Gregory Taylor for the last time. While I wasn’t particularly impressed with his singer, Gloria Reuben (more different in her interpretations than delightful), guitarist Marty Ashby’s jazz band could definitely swing and bop. But come on, man: “Teenie’s Blues,” ostensibly written by trombonist Jay Ashby, had more of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Oop Bop Sh’Bam” than anything else.

Charlotte Ballet_Dwight Rhoden_Bop Doo Wah_Sarah Hayes Harkins_Josh Hall_photo by Jeff Cravotta[10]

That’s why the tune stood up to those that surrounded it, Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and Berlin’s “Steppin’ Out With My Baby.” The piece intensified with Strayhorn’s “Blood Count” as James partnered with Morse and Harkins reconnected with Hall, and “How High the Moon,” one of five pieces set by Rhoden for the full cast of 16, fired up with an alto sax solo that I considered the best of the whole suite.

With James partnering Morse one last time, the full cast turned it up another notch as the women let their hair down for Benson’s “My Latin Brother.” But Rhoden knows the value of turning up the intensity to its fullest when his dancers ought to be nearing exhaustion. That’s what a dance orgy is, and Louis Prima’s classic “Sing, Sing, Sing” was the perfect vehicle to take us there, arranged to evoke the Benny Goodman band’s landmark 1939 invasion of Carnegie Hall – and the legendary set of LPs that emerged from it.

Instrumental solo followed instrumental solo in this epic performance, with the guys, previously clad in punkish black costumes by Christine Darch, adding on matching androgynous skirts as they intensified the furious celebration. Not the way Manzano envisioned ending his career, I’m sure – his was the only farewell performance signaling retirement – but he looked as hot as ever in his valedictory appearance. Darch’s costumes for the women were equally sensuous, but due to the shifting hues of Michael Korsch’s lighting design, I never could determine exactly what three or four deep colors the ladies wore.

Reunited and It Plays So Good

Theater review: Constellations

By Perry Tannenbaum

You might say the stars have aligned. Last week, reviewing Fly by Night at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, I wrote that the writing team of that musical was playing with the idea that everything that has ever happened was pre-ordained from the moment that the Big Bang birthed the star stuff we are made of. Well, now Nick Payne’s Constellations has opened at the Warehouse PAC in Cornelius, and one of its two protagonists is a Cambridge University cosmologist. At one point, she floats that same idea to her beau.

But Payne is playing differently, more elaborately, with Marianne and Roland, leaning on string theory to present their love story with multiple beginnings and middles, concluding with one last U-turn and never really giving us an ending. Or a simple way to understand what we have witnessed. We could be glimpsing multiple outcomes playing out in multiple universes. But despite the fancy quantum theory, every scene bears a kinship with the “Sure Thing” skit from David Ives’s All in the Timing, where another man and woman play out all the things that can go wrong on a first encounter before the couple clicks.

In this 80-minute show, Payne takes us beyond the first meeting to moving in together, possible infidelities, a breakup, reunion and marriage, and a possible cancer diagnosis. You could say they’ve shared a lifetime as their relationship unfolds in echoing and overlapping vignettes. Yet along the way, Marianne sends out the idea that time doesn’t really exist, loosing the possibility that everything happens simultaneously – and dealing hammer blows to the vaunted dating of the Big Bang (and the title of Ives’s potpourri).

Luckily, such nonsense is refuted by the play itself, which starts out with seeming frivolity as Roland repeatedly misfires with Marianne but grows more and more serious as their shared history develops – whatever we might imagine that to be, since each stage has many variants. Credit director Marla Brown’s finely gauged pacing and her stars, Cynthia Farbman Harris and Michael Harris, for making sure this Constellations evolves so gracefully from cute triviality to profundity.

Often over-the-top and old fashioned when he first turned up in Moving Poets and CAST productions – or more recently as the heavy in Arsenic and Old Lace at Theatre Charlotte – Michael proves once again at the Warehouse (where he shone in Stones in His Pockets four years ago) that he can do intimate and natural just as effectively. Here he’s subdued and awkward enough for us to believe he truly is a humble countrified beekeeper, and the midlife aspects that he brings to Roland texturize his romance rather than twisting it askew.

Married offstage as well as on, the Harrises have obviously benefited from the extra rehearsal time that their protracted proximity enables. Not a single line was bobbled last Saturday night as rain pelted the building. Even in radically different takes of the same scene, Michael and Cynthia managed the paradoxical feat of remaining the same people even if they were different from one blackout to the next. No, there weren’t multiple continuities in their multiple universes, but previous versions of the Roland-Marianne romance couldn’t be altogether discarded as we moved along.

The other benefit of the marriage is Michael’s Brit upbringing, obviously rubbing off onto Cynthia with a very convincing accent. Not a stranger to cold, cocksure roles, Cynthia adroitly mixes the intellectual superiority of a Cambridge cosmologist with Marianne’s vulnerabilities, both in her health and sociability. So there’s rich complexity when Marianne fends Roland off, when she yields to him, and when she drifts into dependency.

Individually, I don’t think either of the Harrises has been better onstage. Together, they’re quite special in a fascinating piece.

 

An Upset People’s Choice Winner Caps the Delights of the 2016 Young Chamber Musicians Competition

By Perry Tannenbaum

Co-sponsored by Davidson College’s music department and their radio station, Classical Public Radio 89.9 WDAV, the 2016 Young Chamber Musicians Competition was judged in two separate divisions: juniors aged 14-18 and seniors 19-25. Now in its third year, the competition has grown in audience interest, in the number of youth ensembles vying for the prizes, and in the prize money they’re playing for: $2500/1500 in the junior division for the top two groups, and $4000/2000 for the seniors. The event was not only moved from Tyler-Tallman Hall to the Duke Performance Hall but it was also broadcast live on WDAV for the first time.

Finalists were selected from video submissions, assured not only of second place prize money in each division, but also flown into Davidson with complimentary hotel accommodations. In the junior division, the Noctis Quartet from New York City faced off against a Los Angeles outfit, the Chimera Quartet, hailing from the Coburn School. Their elders came from university programs that the juniors might be aspiring to: the Von Quartet from Jacobs School of Music at the University of Indiana and the Onyx Quartet from the Cleveland Institute of Music, which is affiliated with Case Western Reserve University.

The judging panel included Charlotte Symphony’s principal cellist, Alan Black; Wake Forest University’s composer-in-residence, Dan Locklair; and the Western Piedmont Symphony’s music director, John Gordon Ross. I doubt that the judging panel’s august expertise was truly necessary in determining the winners in each of the two divisions, but the question of which ensemble was the best overall turned out to be unexpectedly challenging, calling upon some true discernment. It was fortunate that a new prize had been added to the competition – a $2000 People’s Choice Award.

Votes were cast via cellphone texts by members of the live audience and by WDAV’s listeners. Each of the four finalists had a distinctive code listeners could text to a phone number that was shown online and in the hall – one vote per cell phone. The line did not open until all the competitors had performed, and listeners had three minutes to submit their choices while they listened to a recorded performance by a past winner. While it was possible to game this voting system, it was nothing like the vote-early-and-vote-often travesties promoted by American Idol or Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game.

Each of the auditions submitted to the competition had to be comprised of complete movements from two separate chamber works selected from two different periods of classical music history – Early or Baroque (pre-1770), Classical (1770-1810), Romantic (1811-1900), Modern (1900-50), or Contemporary (1950-present).

noctis-quartet

Opening the finals, Noctis was unique among the quartets in performing their two movements in reverse chronological order, beginning with the famed “Death and the Maiden” second movement of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 (1826) and continuing with the final movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9, the last of the three Op. 59 “Rasumovsky” quartets (1806). Although the “Death and the Maiden” tempo seemed a notch too slow at first, I was very impressed by the sound in the hall, where I’d never heard a classical concert before. I’d seen numerous stage musicals in the hall, by the Theatre Department and the town’s Community Players, with musicians placed either upstage or in the orchestra pit, so it was a bit revelatory to hear how warm, clear, and full-bodied a string quartet sounded from center stage not too far forward from the proscenium.

Helping the hall to shine, first violinist Kevin Zhu coaxed very sweet sounds from his instrument from the start, playing with praiseworthy élan particularly in the low and midrange. If the sluggish tempo at the outset seemed somewhat misjudged, the sudden acceleration and increase in volume were that much more startling when they came, and if Zhu seemed less assured in his first ascents into the treble, he clearly improved when the music sped into triplets, though there was lingering thinness even in his most assured playing. Behind Zhu, cellist Chase Park, second violinist Andrew Kim, and violist Jacob van der Sloot were unexceptional in the Schubert, but van der Sloot leapt into Beethoven’s Allegro Molto fearlessly at an uncompromised tempo, followed by Kim and Park on the same fugal path – all three of them more characterful than before. The effect was thrilling even before Zhu layered onto the fugue, absolutely on fire from his first notes. No doubt about it, the strategy of flipping the chronology of their pieces allowed the Noctis Quartet to leave with a very positive impression.

chimera-quartet-photo-Tomber-Su

The other junior finalists, the Chimera Quartet, had nearly as much of a prodigy factor going for them as their rivals. Their first violinist Geneva Lewis, like Zhu, had logged two appearances on Christopher O’Riley’s From the Top, the NPR program showcasing young classical musicians – but Lewis hadn’t been showcased there until the ripe old age of 16 while Zhu had scored his first nationwide airtime when he was 12. From the start of Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 77/2 in F, Lewis was the more completely polished performer, and she enjoyed more impressive backing from cellist Tomsen Su amid the shifting tempos and dynamics of the opening Allegro Moderato. The ensemble’s program was also better calculated to show its range, shifting from Haydn’s F Major to the spirited Allegro vivace from Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1 in A minor. Su once again excelled and, though violist Emma Wernig was unexceptional in the brief moment when she took the lead, Cameron Alan-Lee showed some solid potential when he took the spotlight. Yet it was Lewis who raised her level most impressively in Bartók’s second movement, immersing herself in the tempo and mood changes, wowing the audience and inspiring her collaborators.

von-quartet

After the Chimera Quartet lifted my expectations for the senior division, the Von Quartet let me down, beginning their pairing with the opening Allegro assai appassionato from Mendelssohn’s E minor String Quartet No. 4. In the wake of Lewis’s polished work – and Zhu’s rich tone – Von’s first violin, Jisun Lee, sounded surprisingly pinched and tinny, not as impressive as she sounds on the ensemble’s YouTube video. Lee steadied noticeably when the movement calmed for a second time, just past the midpoint, but Joanne Yesol Choi’s sound remained richer and surer as she played the cello. While the Icelandic second violinist, Gudbjartur Hakonarson, evidently had input into the Von’s Icelandic name, he didn’t have enough say in the music-making for me to pass a meaningful judgment. On the other hand, Ursula Steele demonstrated the fire that Ginastera calls for when the ensemble came to the Furioso fifth movement of his String Quartet No. 2, and Choi continued to assert herself effectively. The churning astringency of the movement was also friendlier to the washboard aspect of Lee’s thin tone.

onyx-quartet

The Onyx Quartet had little difficulty eclipsing their senior rivals, but they committed a strategic misstep in competing for the People’s Choice Award. Starting out with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, they didn’t put their best foot forward in parrying the exploits of first violinists Zhu and Lewis. Taking the first violin chair for the Allegro con brio opening movement, Michael Siess was underpowered and unexceptional. However, cellist Noah Krauss was a steady force in accompaniment, and Genevive Smelser was unquestionably the best second violinist I had heard all afternoon – so much so that I wondered whether better results might have been achieved if she and Siess had switched places. Sure enough, when Onyx moved along to Debussy’s G minor String Quartet, Smelser took over the first violin chair for the opening Animé et très decidé movement. Although the music didn’t match the excitement of the Noctis “Rasumovsky” or the Chimera assault on the Bartók, the performance was easily their equal. Not only was the first violin richer and more forceful, the ensemble harmonies were exquisite as Krauss warmed to Smelser’s leadership, adding more gusto.

While the judges’ decisions, awarding the top prizes to Chimera and Onyx, were predictable enough, I wondered whether they would have had the temerity to pick the junior winners as the best overall. Audience members and broadcast listeners who voted on their cell phones had sufficient discernment to choose Chimera as the People’s Choice winners – an upset victory as surprising to the audience as it was to members of the quartet. There was one more delicious surprise for the audience that wasn’t detailed in our program booklets: the senior winners earned the opportunity to perform an encore. As Smelser resumed the first violin chair, we got another taste of their Debussy from Onyx, this time the Andantino third movement. Not only did Siess surpass himself here on second violin while Krauss contributed some really fine work on the cello, violist Spencer Ingersoll emerged from obscurity with some noteworthy input. All four members of this quartet can return to Cleveland with their heads held high.

© 2016 CVNC