Daily Archives: April 28, 2019

Plenty of Broadway DNA on Belmont Avenue

Review: A Bronx Tale

By Perry Tannenbaum

a Finale

Gotta love the production concept of A Bronx Tale in its touring version. Show producers, along with directors Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks, have clearly attempted to keep as much of the original Broadway design as possible intact, and they’ve taken as many of the Broadway cast as possible on the road. Opening night at Belk Theater, the show looked very much like what I saw at the Longacre Theatre two years ago. The show ran almost as smoothly as it did in New York, and the sound was nearly as sharp. When hit shows are booked here for longer runs, critics are often kept away until at least the second night. Tweaking the sound and other niggling details is part of the reason.

The story is very personal to the guy who wrote the book, Chazz Palminteri, who based his one-man show on his own youthful adventures on Belmont and Webster Avenue, directed by Zaks. De Niro bought into turning the project into a 1993 movie in which he co-starred with Palminteri. In a couple of neat switcheroos, De Niro directed and played Chazz’s dad, Lorenzo, instead of the charismatic mobster who imperils – and saves – our hero’s young life. Palminteri took on that plum role of Sonny, the fearsome mobster kingpin who stands watch over Belmont Avenue, leaving the role of Calogero – Chazz’s original first name – to a greener actor.

So there’s a rich family feel that lingers in the musical version of this autobiographical 1960s tale – and I mean family with Godfather connotations. Calogero’s dad is a straight-arrow bus driver, but he understands the Italian-style street realities of his shambling neighborhood. When Sonny calmly guns down a less polished thug in cold blood, just a few yards away from Calogero’s front stoop, Lorenzo tries to shield his son from being dragged down by the police to identify the killer in a lineup.

o Sonny and Lorenzo and Chez Bippy

The scene is tense when Sonny and Calogero come eye-to-eye at the police station. But seemingly by osmosis, the nine-year-old kid knows the score: there is nothing lower on the streets of the Bronx than a snitch. Cool, stolid, and terrifying as he is, Sonny will not forget a favor, generous in his gratitude beyond Calogero’s dreams – and way beyond Lorenzo’s comfort level. The one scene where Sonny and Lorenzo confront one another absolutely sizzles.c Young C and Lorenzo

Both of these men have strength and wisdom, and each of them has a lasting influence on Calogero. Or C, as the imperious Sonny prefers to call him. “You done a good thing for a bad man,” Lorenzo tells his son after they return from the life-changing lineup scene. Yet it isn’t until deep in Act 2, when justice is meted out by the street instead of the police, that some in the audience will realize that Dad has a deeper wisdom and a deeper understanding of how Bronx justice works.

Sonny will teach us how power works in the “Nicky Machiavelli” showstopper, aided by his colorful henchmen, Rudy the Voice, Eddie Mush, Frankie Coffeecake, Tony 10 to 2, and JoJo the Whale. Very subtly, Sonny also lets us infer the secret of his sangfroid when a true answer from the nine-year-old C at the police lineup might have ended in a long, long stretch in jail. Sonny tells C that he had read his Machiavelli while doing some prison time in the past. If you want to get ahead in life, you take advantage of such opportunities. And if you take up crime as a career, you look at prison as a business expense.

The only time Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design malfunctioned was when a scrim was supposed to rise as Calogero was asking pretty black coed Jane out on a date, knowing that he was bridging the racial divide between Belmont and Webster. Here we will get a neat twist when Dad opposes his son’s dating Jane, who is showing some moxie of her own in encouraging Calogero. The worldlier Sonny not only condones C’s initiative, he gives his protégé some clever advice on testing a woman’s mettle – then tosses him the keys to his swank car. For couples watching this show on a date night, this “One of the Great Ones” scene, with its cool Sinatra swagger, will be Sonny’s most memorable showstopper.

h Jane and Calogero

Perhaps emblematic of Lorenzo’s more durable lunch-pail values, Richard H. Blake is one of the original cast members that I saw at the Longacre in 2017. He makes a finer impression than ever in the “Look in Your Heart” episode, even if the Alan Menken-Glenn Slater song is interchangeable with at least 30 other Broadway tunes, and his bravery in the “Giving Back the Money” scene is obviously enhanced by his understanding of the risk he’s taking for the sake of keeping his son straight.

Joey Barbeiro as Calogero and Brianna-Marie Bell as Jane haven’t dialed up their chemistry as much as they could, nor does Palminteri underscore the larger significance of their association from their perspective. Is it enough that his book shows the two teens resisting pressures from family and friends? Maybe not in a show that runs 100 minutes and could easily have jettisoned its intermission.

Bell, a replacement cast member on Broadway, does her best acting work dealing with her schoolmates and her brother, a gang member who gets roughed-up on Calogero’s turf. But if Slater’s namby-pamby lyrics don’t give her much of a chance to distinguish herself on “Out of Your Head” or “Webster Avenue,” Menken’s music certainly lets us sample the firepower in Bell’s voice. Of course, Barbeiro’s dramatic chops are more extensively featured in multiple heavy scenes with Sonny, Lorenzo, his mom Rosina, and his own gang – Handsome Nick, Crazy Mario, and Sally Slick. Barbeiro is definitely comfortable with his ongoing narrative chores, and his voice is also conspicuously at a high Broadway level.

d Lorenzo Young C and RosinaShane Pry, the kid who alternated with Brigg Liberman as Young Calogero on opening night, was ill-served at the soundboard, particularly when he sang. Pry proved far more intelligible when he spoke, had very appealing energy, and was a great match physically for Barbeiro, the Calogero he would grow up to be. I was also pleased with Michelle Aravena as Rosina, another Broadway replacement who has hit the road. She reminded me of Bronx matrons I encountered in my early years, frazzled, prematurely old, and forever attached to a dish towel.

Maybe the most impressive of the Broadway originals is Joe Barbara as Sonny. Barbara has actually moved up the gangland pecking order on tour, having opened as Carmine, a Police Officer, and a Gang Leader on Broadway while understudying Nick Cordero, the original Sonny. Not quite as imposing or intimidating as Cordero was on Broadway, Barbara is every bit as calm and confident on tour, making up for his slight meanness and cynicism deficits on his “Machiavelli” showpiece with more musicality and savoir faire on ““One of the Great Ones.” Barbara and Chazz himself were the only Broadway replacements for Cordero onstage during the 700-performance run of A Bronx Tale, a heavy family endorsement that our Sonny makes good on.

Hope Plays His Swan Song in Savannah in an Epic Exit

Review: Celebrating its 30th season, the Savannah Music Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Celebrating its 30th season, the Savannah Music Festival is weathering a series of transitions that began less than a year ago. After 16 seasons as the SMF artistic and executive director, Rob Gibson abruptly resigned last summer. Marketing director Ryan McMaken moved up to the artistic directorship and David Pratt, formerly with the Queensland Symphony in Australia and the Savannah Philharmonic, returned to the US as the new SMF chief executive.

The new leadership didn’t stumble dramatically in the shadow of a 2018 classical lineup that included guest appearances by Murray Perahia, Audra McDonald, Marc-André Hamelin, the Zukerman Trio, Yekwon Sunwoo, and a residency with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, newly headed by star violinist Daniel Hope, SMF’s associate artistic director in the classical sphere. Lars Vogt, Juho Pohjonen, The Tallis Scholars, and the Jerusalem Quartet are on the bill for 2019, and in the first full-scale collaboration between the Festival and the Savannah Philharmonic, a new piece by jazz pianist Marcus Roberts will premiere in a Phil concert that will also include works by Borodin, Stravinsky, and Gershwin.

Perhaps the news that was forthcoming from Hope was telegraphed when Zurich did not commit to repeating its visit in 2019. Stating that the decision had been made “to reduce the amount of international travel time to which he is obligated,” the announcement that Hope’s 16th season at SMF would be his last officially dropped on March 5 – barely three weeks before the 2019 Festival began.

We can begin to grasp the impact of Hope’s departure on SMF’s 2020 programming by surveying the scope of his participation this year. Easily the most active performer at the Festival, he is slated to appear in five of the six “Daniel Hope & Friends” concerts. During the 17-day festival, Hope is also performing with the Atlanta Symphony (March 30) and teaming with Saebstian Knauer on an “Homage to Yehudi Menuhin” (April 12). In what will no doubt be a touching valedictory, Hope will play and his novelist father will narrate “Christopher Hope Presents ‘My Son the Fiddler.’” (April 13).

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In his first three performances of 2019, Hope was playing with a zest and dedication that indicated he is sorry to be leaving. Few of the occasions I’ve covered in the past 10 years – only the “Kreutzer Sonata” he played with Knauer in 2011 comes instantly to mind – saw Hope in the same fiery form he brought to the stage of the Lucas Theatre on Saturday night, playing Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with the Atlanta Symphony, pianist Wu Han and her husband, cellist David Finckel.

The crowd, the occasion, and the gauntlet laid down by Beethoven’s score – not to mention having his name up in lights on the Lucas’s movie theatre marquee – might have actually given Hope a touch of the jitters as he fussed over the location of his iPad-holding music stand near the lip of the stage. Frankly, Finckel was the steadier string player in the first solo salvos of the Triple’s opening Allegro, but after the ebullient trialogue with Han and a spirited interjection by Robert Spano and the Symphony, Hope was locked in and absolutely brilliant, his double-bowing as sharp as steel.

2019~Savannah-14

Finckel was a mellowing agent throughout, graciously restoring calm in the outer movements and surpassing himself with a heartfelt intro to the middle Largo. Han proved to be an equal partner and provocateur in the outer movements, especially conspicuous in the closing Rondo alla Polacca where she delivered dreamy excursions in the middle and an extended ramble away from closure before Hope pounced on the presto-paced exchange that carried us to the end. Hope’s fireworks with Han had made it obvious that applause was forthcoming at the end of the epic opening movement, and a standing ovation was no less inevitable here.

Gravitating toward the extreme downstage at the Lucas, Hope and his trio mates were unintentionally underscoring the acoustic problems faced by Spano and his orchestra. Behind the proscenium, the strings tend to get muddied and high frequencies are noticeably muffled. Cellos and clarinets sound best, but extra piccolos would have made the ending of “Overture to Egmont” sound more like Beethoven intended, though Spano beautifully judged the contrast between the final rousing rally and the calm that preceded it.

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Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony No. 1 showcased Spano’s deftness even better, with sharper section work from his players and balances that played better with the hall. There was fine thrust from the strings stating the opening Andante, although brighter percussion sounds other than the triangle were missing on the fringes of the later Allegro marking. Cellos and French horns excelled in the ensuing Larghetto, where Spano sculpted the fluid tempos and dynamics into pleasing shapes. Repetitions of the big tune never dulled the penultimate Scherzo, and the Allegretto animato e grazioso brought the evening to an exciting close, with the drums, trombones, and strings delivering the knockout punch.

Hope didn’t appear at the first “Hope & Friends” of the season on Friday night, and his entrance at the Lucas the following evening, notwithstanding the marquee, was without any fanfare marking his farewell season. Touchingly, that moment came late Sunday afternoon when Han mounted the Trinity United Methodist Church platform and warmly dedicated the ensuing Chamber Music of Lincoln Center concert to Hope, describing the joys of his playing and the joys of playing with him. Han also proved quite adept at emceeing, personably introducing the three piano quartets on the bill. She vividly described the relationship between Suk and Dvořák and detailed the despondency that sparked Brahms’s Quartet No. 3, along with the gun-to-the-head moment that concludes it.

Han, Finckel, Hope, and violist Paul Neubauer did the rest of the talking with their instruments – until Neubauer’s ill-fated maiden voyage playing with an iPad after intermission. While Hope sat back in his chair, grinning and laughing and in no hurry, Han explained the situation and helped turn the damn contraption on. Hope’s ease and relaxation probably served him best in the ensuing Dvořák Piano Quartet No. 2 when we reached the luscious Lento second movement. After yet another achingly lovely intro by Finckel – and an exquisite fadeaway – Hope began the same melody extremely softly yet piercingly, working up to a blaze of high intensity. Another ebb then flowed into a reprise from Finckel. With Han’s interjections, the movement was like a miniature concerto until the give-and-take abruptly ended with a couple of unison sforzandos that tossed us into a maelstrom.

The Suk that opened the program was brimming with inspiration and showy bowing. Yet it was useful for Han to have reminded us that this was Josef Suk’s Opus 1, finished with Dvořák’s encouragement and premiered when the composer was just 17. For all its excitement and appeal, I couldn’t push away the thought, especially in the tempestuous outer movements, that a Beethoven or a Brahms would have made even more of the inspired materials that Suk was working with. The inner Adagio, with another soulful Finckel intro was a nice foretaste of the Lento to come from Dvořák – not to mention the wondrous Andante at the heart of the epically anguished Brahms 3, which began with an eloquent and sad intro from Finckel and featured Neubauer’s best moments.

Both the Brahms 3 and the Dvorak 2 had been presented twice before in Savannah at previous festivals, but the Suk was an SMF premiere. With such a dazzling quartet of musicians advocating for it so passionately, the Suk proved worthy of such esteemed company.

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A similar mix of familiar and unfamiliar informs the “& Friends” concerts. Hope sat out the all-Mozart opener that I attended, but Pohjonen was at the keyboard for both piano quartets – with an extraordinary feel for the composer – so all was well. This was the second go-round for No. 1 and the fourth for No. 2, but the String Duo No. 2 for Violin and Viola and the Prelude and Fugue No. 2 for String Trio were new to Savannah. The “& Friends” sequel offered edgier fare, with Hope playing lead violin opposite Vogt in Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, the third time this gem has been presented during Hope’s tenure, alternately raucous and haunting in its pivotal Scherzo and Lento movements.

Otherwise, Hope sat on the sidelines. Rebecca Clarke’s Dumka, ranging from pizzicato delicacy to Gypsy fire, was presented by pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips, Neubauer, and violinist Simos Papanas. Nice to know that this piece, championed by Hope on a Naxos recording, was getting a second hearing at SMF, but Schubert’s Fantasy for Piano Four Hands and Niels W. Gade’s String Sextet were actually receiving their SMF premieres.

As the stage was being reset for the Sextet, Hope sauntered to the front of the church from his seat in the second row of pews, not bothering to climb up onstage, and gave us an impromptu introduction to Gade. Our host emphasized Gade’s talents, his travels back and forth from his native Copenhagen to Leipzig, and his association with Mendelssohn, then the director of the Leipzig Orchestra. It was the first time Hope had addressed an audience at the 2019 Savannah Music Festival, seemingly spontaneous and unplanned.

Keeping Hope’s remarks in mind, I suspected that Gade had taken some of Mendelssohn’s influence back home with him when he wrote his Sextet some 16 years after his mentor’s death, for there are echoes of the elder’s Octet in the Dane’s music, especially in the opening movement. The Kim brothers, violinist Benny and cellist Eric, longtime members of the Festival’s “& Friends” ensemble, played the leads on their instruments, prime reasons why this premiere was a resounding success.

Getting ready for the long drive home to Charlotte, I turned around in my front row seat and told Hope, “Well done, sir.” Shrugging, he replied, “They did all the work,” no doubt assuming that I was referring to his prefatory remarks.

Reading this, he’ll likely see otherwise.

“Les Noces” Challenges and Delights a Near-Capacity Crowd at Halton Theater

Review: Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces

By Perry Tannenbaum

Uniquely combining performing arts, visual arts, film, literary, culinary and even cosmetology events, all promoted with endearing academic diffidence by Central Piedmont Community College, Sensoria is an annual arts and literature festival that just might be achieving traction in Charlotte. Two campus parking garages were teeming with stalled traffic on the night my wife Sue and I attended a modernistic program of music and dance at Halton Theater, headlined by a staging of Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces. For multiple reasons, this was a student/faculty showcase like none I had ever attended before.

CPCC’s Dance Theatre had reached out to UNC Charlotte, bringing the UNCC Percussion Ensemble and the UNCC Dance Ensemble into their production and staging it on both campuses. Attendance for this edgy event at CP was phenomenal, filling the Halton’s balcony more fully than any CPCC Summer Theatre show I’ve attended in recent memory. Little slips of paper were being handed out as we exited, tipping off the probability that academic credit was being offered for attending. Student admission was free with ID.

Even before their contributions to Les Noces, members of the Percussion Ensemble were involved in three of the four preliminary pieces. UNCC lecturer Rick Dior composed, conducted, and introduced two of these, “Equinox for Percussion Ensemble and Theremin” and “Flesh and Bone.” Serving as co-emcee was Clay Daniel, who created new choreography for Les Noces. Visiting UNCC artist Janet Schroeder worked with the Dance Ensemble to create “7(each her own) = !” Composer Ivan Trevino was the only major creative force who was not affiliated with either of the two schools, but his “2300 Degrees” got the evening off to a promising start, performed by Raven Pfeiffer and Chris Merida facing each other on two shared marimbas separated by an island of crotales, little cymbal-like instruments that were pinged with sticks.

Merida launched the piece with some delicate work on the crotales before the spirited marimba duetting began in earnest. The title refers to the temperature at which glass becomes semi-liquid and malleable, and the tensions of the piece, premiered in 2016, are intended to evoke the dangers and the beauties of this hot medium. Both Pfeiffer and Merida wielded two mallets in each hand, and when the music intensified, they both played their five-octave marimbas and the crotales array at the same time. When the composition climaxed, both of the players were reaching across to the other’s marimba. Really a fun beginning.

With Pfeiffer moving to play the theremin and Merida sitting himself behind a drum kit, all of the UNCC Percussion Ensemble joined in the auspicious world premiere of “Equinox.” Most of Dior’s introductory remarks were devoted to explaining the theremin, an electronic instrument invented by Leon Theremin in 1928 and probably best recognized as the melodic voice of the familiar Star Trek theme. Dior described Pfeiffer as a quick-study prodigy on the gizmo, which is the antithesis of any percussion instrument she had played before. Touching the looped left antenna of the theremin actually silences it, and moving your hand away from that antenna raises the volume while the right hand, working with the upright right antenna, controls the pitch.

As this intriguing piece unfolded, Pfeiffer appeared to be playing what I’d call “air trombone.” Precise jerks of her right hand could produce recognizable runs and scales, but smoother movements yielded slide whistle glissandos. Of course, no breath was required for Pfeiffer to sustain tones while eight percussionists worked busily behind her, four on drums pitted against four on malleted instruments. Shifting and crossing motifs of the percussion were intended by Dior to mimic the hemispheric action of the equinox, but I’ll freely admit that it was hard for me to unfasten my attention from the spectacle of Pfeiffer’s fine performance.

It was far easier for me to wrap my eyes around the oddity of Schroeder’s “7(each her own) = !” The seven dancers, all costumed in similar aqua-colored tops and cheery white leggings with hexagonal graphics, brought out a variety of surfaces to which they would apply their tap shoes. There were individual entrances and exits before all seven of the women were there to stay, establishing the individuality of the dancers and their common link to a steady beat. No other instruments were onstage making music; and if you listened closely to the walking, tapping, and stomping; you would notice a variety of pitches that the portable circular, square, and triangular dance surfaces brought to the sound palette. For a good while, Schoeder and her dancers disdained actual tap dancing, and I began to wonder just how far the UNCC Dance Ensemble had gotten in their lessons. Relief, expression, and true individuality emerged when the tap dancing finally began – along with the beginnings of bonds and community among the dancers. Perhaps that was the message.

Choreographed by CP dance faculty member Tracie Foster Chan, “Flesh and Bone” was the first collaborative piece of the night, bringing the UNCC Percussion Ensemble back on stage to play for four members of CPCC Dance Theatre. As Dior explained prior to conducting his piece, Chan and her dancers had taken on a challenge, since most of the time signatures in the piece weren’t easily counted or danceable meters in three or four. When the two soloists did release into a stretch of 4/4, the difference was quite noticeable and refreshing. Utilizing one male dancer and three women clad in abstract black-and-white costumes, Chan’s choreography nicely captured the restless asymmetry of Dior’s score. As for dancers – Angela Cook, Kataryna Flowers, Amber Johnson, and Byron McDaniel – moving away from ballet and into the modern idiom seems to have brought more comfort and confidence to this troupe. The title of the piece was Dior’s reference to how the two drum soloists played, Merida with his hands and Daniel Ferreira with drumsticks.

With six more CP dancers, four vocal soloists, an eight-person mini-chorus, seven Percussion Ensemble musicians, and four pianos, Les Noces (The Wedding) took some time to set up, almost justifying an intermission. Once all the people and pieces were in place, with Dior wielding the baton, there was sensory bombardment and overload that I’ve rarely experienced before. Printed lyrics would have helped in understanding the action, but how could we have read them while watching the dance? The dancing helped us, after all, in delineating the four scenes of the continuous score: The Blessing of the Bride, The Blessing of the Bridegroom, The Bride’s Departure from Her Parents’ House, and The Wedding Feast. For some perverse reason, however, Daniel didn’t want his choreography to reveal who the bride and bridegroom were until the very end – so obviously the actions of blessing and departure were also blurred.

Amid all the sensory bombardment and conceptual confusion, I didn’t notice Alan Yamamoto, the conductor listed in the program, making the usual formal entrance we expect at symphonic and operatic performances. But I’ve gotten multiple assurances that he was indeed on the podium, and I had nothing but admiration for his spirited work. Daniel’s scenario began effectively in silence, with dancers ceremoniously bringing a long flowering vine in from an exit at the side of the hall. That effect contrasted with the sudden onslaught of the percussion and the female vocalist who sang The Bride’s role. Besides including the lyrics, the program would have been more useful if it had designated who sang the roles of the bride’s mother and father, the groom, the groom’s father, etc. For all of the confusion that hovered over this presentation, the primitive savagery of the singing and percussion were absolutely riveting. The title might have sounded like a sentimental Hallmark greeting card, but the experience was more like the most raucous moments of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, absolutely thrilling.