Sunday, March 01, 2015

Art in the blood: Puccini's "Tosca" at Chicago Lyric Opera

Mark Delavan and Hui He in Act II
Photo: Michael Brosilow
Who: Lyric Opera of Chicago
What: Puccini's Tosca
When: February 27-March 14, 2015
Where: Civic Opera House, Chicago

Chicago opera lovers are getting a "twofer" with this season's production of Puccini's 1900 political melodrama "Tosca." Originally created by British director John Caird for the Houston Grand Opera in 2010 and later revived for Los Angeles, Lyric's "Tosca" opened on January 24th, closed on February 5th, and then re-opened with new singers in the principal roles of Tosca, Cavaradossi, Scarpia, and Spoletta on February 27th for a run that concludes March 14th.

We caught the newer version on opening night, and it's a winner. Cavaradossi and Tosca are very strong, Scarpia is thoroughly creepy, and both dramatic and musical values are first-rate. I'm not completely convinced by all of the choices made by Mr. Caird or set and costume designer Bunny Christie, but they're certainly interesting, and they feel entirely consistent with the intent of Puccini and his librettists. And that, of course, is the important thing.

Anyone seeking an example of how an operatic classic can have contemporary resonance need look no further than the character of the villainous Baron Scarpia. A textbook case of how an elaborate display of public piety can be a false front for lust and violence, Scarpia also provides us one of the great moments of Italian opera in the final scene of Act I as he plots the seduction and betrayal of Tosca while the crowd celebrates High Mass.

Hui He in Act I
Photo: Michael Brosilow
It's a great argument for the separation of Church and State and one of the best examples of dramatic irony you'll ever see. Mr. Caird stages it very effectively here, with Scarpia looking down on the pious crowd from a scaffold as his declaration of lust for Tosca joins with their heartfelt Te Deum. It reminds us that Scarpia sees himself as above both morality and the law.

That means you need a strong Scarpia for the drama of "Tosca" to work, and Lyric certainly has one in baritone Mark Delavan. He has a big, bold voice and a fine understanding of the character's psychology. Scarpia, he observes in his program bio, is "an arch-conservative, but one who doesn't understand the purpose of the law." His Scarpia is an energetic, sociopathic sensualist who is as fascinating as he is repellent – an essential combination, if we're going to get any satisfaction out of seeing Tosca stab him and then curse him as he dies in Act II.

And speaking of Tosca, soprano Hui He makes a strong impression as the singer whose passionate attachment to her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, leads her to betray both him and the political prisoner Angelotti, with tragic results for all concerned. She has a wonderfully supple voice that can whisper and cry with equal power and accuracy. Her "Vissi d'arte" in Act II brought cries of "brava" from the house, and they weren't the first ones of the evening.

Spanish tenor Jorge De León is a wonderfully passionate Cavaradossi who sounded equally comfortable with both the lyrical and dramatic musical aspects of his character—not surprising from someone whose signature roles include Radames in "Aïda." He and Ms. He also had the kind of onstage chemistry that made their passionate affair credible.

Tenor David Cagnelosi gave Scarpia's henchman Spoletta a bit more depth than I have seen in some other productions, and his body language imbued the character with a kind of ferret-like grace.

Bass-baritone Dale Travis is a comically pompous Sacristan. He's the only bit of comic relief in the opera's otherwise grim verismo mix of passion, deceit, and violence, so a strong performance here is always welcome.

Rounding out this very strong cast are bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba as a haunted Angelotti, Opera Theater of St. Louis favorite Bradley Smoak as the thuggish Sciarrone, and Anthony Evans-Clark as the Jailer.

Child soprano Annie Wagner makes a strong impression in a role that is essentially Mr. Caird's invention: a white-gowned figure who appears to Tosca in at key dramatic moments and sings the little Act II song which, in the original libretto, is sung by a shepherd boy offstage. Mr. Caird says the character is intended to represent "a child Madonna and the ghost of Tosca's innocence." That's one of those choices I mentioned at the top of the review, but it's still a provocative idea.

Jorge De León and Hui Hein Act III
Photo: Michael Brosilow
Bunny Christie's visual designs underscore the political subtext of "Tosca" by moving the action forward into what Mr. Caird calls "a darker and more brutal world, closer to our own and to the period in which the opera was composed." The church in which Cavaradossi is working in Act I, as a result, is partly in ruins, either from war or neglect. Scarpia's Act II lair is a warehouse filled with looted works of art, suggesting that his desire to possess Tosca is just an extension of his need to possess anything of beauty. And the final act takes place not on the roof of the Castel Sant'Angelo but rather in a massive, grim prison. A large window upstage symbolizes the freedom for which Tosca and Cavaradossi yearn, but which they will find only in death.

Unusual choices? Yes, but they're theatrically valid and, more to the point, they work—and do so while honoring the intent of opera's creators.

Puccini's rich, dramatic score is well served by Russian conductor Dmitri Jurowski, making his Lyric Opera debut. Judging from his biography, Mr. Jurowski's musical interests are wide-ranging, and his work here shows great assurance in the late Romantic Italian repertoire.

Lyric Opera's "Tosca" runs through March 14 at the Civic Opera House in the Chicago Loop. For more information: lyricopera.org.

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of March 2, 2015

The St. Louis Children's Choirs present a Family and Friends Concert on Saturday, March 7, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, March 8, at 3 p.m. "Experience the joy of young voices united in song! This concert will feature multi-cultural selections in a variety of styles, traditions and languages – performed by the Children’s Choir 1B/1UC, Chorale 2A/2UC, Chamber Singers, and the select touring Concert Choir. The performance takes place at the 560 Music Center, 560 Trinity in University City.  For more information: slccsing.org.

David Robertson
David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with Christine Brewer, soprano, and Bjorn Ranheim, cello, on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., March 6 and 7.  The concerts feature Bruckner's "Symphony No. 3" and the "Immolation Scene" from Wagner's " Götterdämmerung" ("Twilight of the Gods").  "Described as heroic in nature, Bruckner's Third Symphony showcases his love for the grand and majestic and is regarded by some as his artistic breakthrough. Credited by the Los Angeles Times as “the ideal modern Wagnerian soprano,” Christine Brewer returns to Powell Hall after a year-long hiatus for a powerful Wagner performance. This production features video and lighting elements by S. Katy Tucker, a renowned artist known for her design work at Carnegie Hall, the San Francisco Opera, Sydney Symphony and more."  The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center.  For more information: stlsymphony.org.

The Tavern of Fine Arts presents The Perihelion Ensemble on Thursday, March 5, at 8 p.m.  "The Perihelion Ensemble is an eclectic group of performers including some of the area’s greatest improvisers, experimentalists, and St. Louis’s own Poet Laureate Michael Castro." The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood.   For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

The Arianna String Quartet
The Touhill Performing Arts Center presents The Arianna String Quartet on Friday, March 6, at 8 PM.  " In an evening dedicated to experiencing contemporary sounds and musical languages that transcend time, the Arianna joins forces with internationally acclaimed pianist Einav Yarden. See this brilliant artist’s St. Louis concert debut! SOFIA GUBAIDULINA: String Quartet No.2 (1987); LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: Große Fuge, Op.133; ROBERT SCHUMANN: Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op.44 with Einav Yarden, piano."  The Touhill Performing Arts Center in on the University of Missouri at St. Louis campus.  For more information: touhill.org.

The Touhill Performing Arts Center presents Chamber Music with Alla Voskoboynikova and David Halen on Sunday, March 8, at 5 PM.  "The program includes Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata, Brahms Regen-Sonate, Shostakovich and more… Meet the artists at the lobby of the Lee Theater after the concert!"  The Touhill Performing Arts Center is on the University of Missouri at St. Louis campus.  For more information: touhill.org.

Washington University presents Bosnian Journeys: Generations on Tuesday, March 3, at 7:30 p.m. "Produced in collaboration with the Bosnia Memory Project, this powerful concert weaves personal narrative with Sevdah, the folk music tradition of Bosnia, to tell the stories of our Bosnian neighbors in St. Louis. The concert includes a performance of Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor, a piece played by Vedran Smailović, “the Cellist of Sarajevo,” at multiple sites of destruction during the siege of Sarajevo to honor those who lost their lives. Doors open at 7pm, and no tickets or reservations are required. Featuring musicians from the STL Symphony.  The performance takes place in the Edison Theatre on the Washington University campus.  For more information: music.wustl.edu.

Washington University presents an evening of solo piano music provided by the students of the Washington University Department of Music on Monday, March 2, at 8 p.m.  The program features music by Brahms.  The performance takes place at the 560 Music Center, 560 Trinity in University City.  For more information: news.wustl.edu.

Winter Opera St. Louis presents Verdi's Otello Friday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, March 6 and 8.  "Winter Opera proudly presents Verdi’s Grand Opera OTELLO, based on the Shakespeare tragedy; “I kissed thee ere I killed thee, no way but this, / Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.” (William Shakespeare, Othello). Starring Adam Herskowitz (Metropolitan Opera) as Otello, Jacqueline Venable Simmons (San Francisco Opera) as Desdemona, and Nelson Martinez (Florida Grand Opera) as Iago. Sung in Italian with English supertitles. Orchestra conducted by Steven Jarvi. " Performances take place at The Skip Viragh Center for the Arts at Chaminade College Preparatory School, 425 S. Lindbergh.  The opera is sung in Italian with project English supertitles. For more information, visit winteroperastl.org.

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of March 2, 2015

[Looking for auditions and other artistic opportunities? Check out the St. Louis Auditions site.]

For information on events beyond this week, check out the searchable database at the Regional Arts Commission's events web site.

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The St. Louis Family Theatre Series presents The Adventures Of Harold And The Purple Crayon March 8, 13, and 14. '"One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight." So begins Harold and the Purple Crayon, the first of seven delightful picture books by Crockett Johnson, following the zany adventures of an inventive young boy. As it turned out, there wasn't any moon that night nor was there a path to walk on, so Harold simply drew them. And thus his journey began. Resourceful and brave, Harold create the world he wants to explore, using nothing more than a big purple crayon and his sky's-the-limit imagination.' Performances take place at the Florissant Civic Center Theatre at Parker and Waterford in Florissant, MO. For more information, call 314-921-5678 or visit www.florissantmo.com.

Metro Theatre Company and the Missouri History Museum present Afflicted: Daughters of Salem by Laurie Brooks March 6-22. "Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam, Mercy Lewis, Mary Warren, and Betty Paris meet deep in the dark woods of Puritan New England at night. Denied all outlets for imagination and all hope for the future, the girls unite in a secret society - Allies are found, promises made and broken, power taken. When the girls force the slave Tituba to tell their fortunes, they ignite a crucible of events that burns out of control, leading straight to the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Through their secrets, gossip and accusations these girls become some of the most notorious teens in history." Performances take place in the Lee Auditorium at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park. For more information: mohistory.org.

Act Two Theatre presents Kander and Ebb's Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville through March 8. "In roaring twenties Chicago, chorine Roxie Hart murders a faithless lover and convinces her hapless husband Amos to take the rap...until he finds out he's been duped and turns on Roxie. Convicted and sent to death row, Roxie and another “Merry Murderess” Velma Kelly, vie for the spotlight and the headlines, ultimately joining forces in search of the “American Dream”: fame, fortune and acquittal. This sharp edged satire features a dazzling score that sparked immortal staging by Bob Fosse." Performances take place in the St. Peters Cultural Arts Centre at 1 St Peters Centre Blvd, St. Peters, MO 63376. For more information: act2theater.com.

Edie's Fairytale Theatre presents The Emperor's New Clothes on Saturday, March 7 at 11 a.m. and Thursday, March 12, at 10:30 a.m. Performances take place at the Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar. For more information: brownpapertickets.com.

Christ Memorial Productions presents the Stephen Schwartz musical Godspell Friday sand Saturday at 7:30 PM and Sunday at 2 PM, March 6-8. Performances take place at Christ Memorial Lutheran Church, 5252 South Lindbergh. For more information, visit CMPShows.org or call 314-631-0304.

St. Charles Community College presents The Heiress Wednesday through Sunday, March 4-8. Performances take place in the Donald D. Shook Fine Arts Building on the campus at 4601 Mid Rivers Mall Drive in Cottleville, MO. For more information, call 636-922-8050 or visit stchas.edu.

Kerith Thompson as Jerry Springer
New Line Theatre presents the St. Louis premiere of the musical Jerry Springer the Opera Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM, March 5-18. "The New Line season continues with one of New Line's wildest and most ambitious projects, JERRY SPRINGER THE OPERA, the smash-hit, multi-award winning musical that ran to unprecedented rave reviews and standing ovations at the National Theatre in London, after a sold-out run in London's West End. The Sunday Times called it “a shocking, irresistibly funny masterpiece.” With music by Richard Thomas, and book and lyrics by Thomas and Stewart Lee, this is an audacious, fearless piece of theatre that brilliantly and hilariously dissects the cultural forces that have kept Jerry Springer on the air all these years, the lives of quiet desperation that explode into public view in Springer's weirdly nonjudgmental, national confessional." Performances take place at the Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road. . For more information, visit newlinetheatre.com or call 314-534-1111.

COCA presents The Little Prince March 6-14. “This musical play, with book by John Scoullar, music by Rick Cummins and based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, features COCA Theatre Company (CTC) student actors in tandem with St. Louis professionals. They bring this delightful story of the disenchanted pilot to life, along with the tales he hears about from the young prince from a faraway star. The Little Prince is an immersive, theatrical interpretation with whimsical characters and colorful stories that appeal to the castaway in all of us - and shed light on what really matters. Recommended for ages 5 and up.” COCA is at 524 Trinity in University City. For more information, call (314) 725-6555 or visit www.cocastl.org.

Family Musical Theater presents Love Is in the Air, a fund-raising cabaret starring Kay Love and Jeffrey M. Wright, on Saturday, March 7, at 7:30 p.m. The performance takes place at the Ivory Theatre, 7622 Michigan. For more information, visit familymusical.org or call 314-571-9579.

The Lemp Mansion Comedy-Mystery Dinner Theater presents Murder in Mayberry. The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place. For more information: lempmansion.com.

Winter Opera St. Louis presents Verdi's Otello, based on the Shakespeare tragedy, Friday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, March 6 and 8. Performances take place at The Skip Viragh Center for the Arts at Chaminade College Preparatory School, 425 S. Lindbergh. The opera is sung in Italian with project English supertitles. For more information, visit winteroperastl.org.

Neal Richardson
The Presenters Dolan present Neal Richardson in Pennies from Heaven on Friday, March 6 at 8 PM as part of the Gaslight Cabaret Festival. "Neal is one of St Louis's authorities on musical theater and the Great American Songbook. He has music directed or accompanied the cabaret shows of Julia Murney, Megan McGinnis, Ben Nordstrom, Tim Schall, Jeffrey Wright, Ken Haller and Katie McGrath, among many others. Neal has taught musical theatre at Webster University for the last 15 years. His credits include The Spitfire Grill, OKLAHOMA!, Pippin, Violet, Nine, Into the Woods, A New Brain, Spring Awakening, Carousel and others. He is also a musical director and arranger for the MUNY. As a nationally noted arranger for Hal Leonard, Neal is responsible for the vocal selections of over 30 Broadway shows as well as arrangements for solo piano, including a collection of Radiohead songs." The performance takes place at the Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle. For more information: gaslightcabaretfestival.com.

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Phantom of the Grand Ole Opery through April 26. The Bissell Mansion is at 4426 Randall Place. For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com

The Fox Theatre presents a new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Phantom of the Opera March 4-15. The Fox Theatre is at 527 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: fabulousfox.com.

Brian Owens
Jefferson College presents Neil Simon's comedy Rumors March 5-8. "The Deputy Mayor of New York and his wife are celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary. Guests arrive to find their unconscious host bleeding and his wife missing. Hoping to avoid a scandal, his lawyer concocts a story to hide what is assumed to be the truth. But as the rest of the guests arrive, the story grows awry with everyone complicit in a hilarious cover-up that no one even really understands." Performances take place at the Jefferson College Fine Arts Theatre on the campus in Hillsboro, MO. For more information, visit jeffco.edu or call 636-481-3369 or 636-789-3000 ext. 3369.

The Presenters Dolan present Brian Owens in Sam Cooke at the Copa on Thursday, March 5, at 8 PM as part of the Gaslight Cabaret Festival. "Brian Ownens brings a tribute to The King of Soul in his momentous 1964 Copacabana set. Brian comes back to St. Louis and the Gaslight after a tour of Japan. Brian has appeared on ABC's “Good Morning America” and BET's “Jazz Dicovery.” Exceptionally talented, and based in St. Louis." The performance takes place at the Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle. For more information: gaslightcabaretfestival.com.

The Presenters Dolan present Joe Dreyer and Rosemary Watts in Transitions on Saturday, March 7 at 8 PM as part of the Gaslight Cabaret Festival. "Rosemary Watts and Joe Dreyer premier their new show "Transitions" at the Gaslight Cabaret Festival. The first couple of St. Louis cabaret brings a brand new show to the Gaslight stage, and their large and fashionable following." The performance takes place at the Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle. For more information: gaslightcabaretfestival.com.

The Winslow Boy
Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Terrence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy through March 8. "When young Ronnie Winslow is expelled from military school for stealing a five-shilling postal order, his father wages an exhaustive fight to clear his son's name. What begins as a private matter quickly becomes a larger question of the rights of the individual against the power of the state. Though the legal battle jeopardizes his health and the reputation of the entire family, Arthur Winslow is determined that right will prevail, no matter what the sacrifice." Performances take place on the mainstage at the Loretto-Hlton Center, 130 Edgar Road in Webster Groves, MO. For more information, call 314-968-4925 or visit repstl.org. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves presents the classic comedy You Can't Take it With You Fridays through Sundays, March 6-15. Performances take place in the Guild theatre at Newport and Summit in Webster Groves, MO. For more information: theatreguildwg.org or call 314-962-0876.

Would you like to be on the radio? KDHX, 88.1 FM needs theatre reviewers. If you're 18 years or older, knowledgeable in this area, have practical theatre experience (acting, directing, writing, technical design, etc.), have good oral and written communications skills and would like to become one of our volunteer reviewers, send an email describing your experience and interests to chuck at kdhx.org. Please include a sample review of something you've seen recently.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Dim and dimmer: "Tannhäuser" at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Act II of Tannhäuser
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
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Who: Lyric Opera of Chicago
What: Wagner's Tannhäuser
When: February 9-March 6, 2015
Where: Civic Opera House, Chicago

I have a dream. I dream that some day I'll be able to walk into an opera house and not be faced with a production in which the stage director has imposed some sort of high concept on the piece that is either irrelevant to or openly contradictory to the intentions of the composer and librettist. Alas, as the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Wagner's "Tannhäuser" demonstrates, that's still a dream.

For those of you not familiar with it, "Tannhäuser and the Singers' Contest at Wartburg Castle" (to quote the full title), first performed in 1845 and revised in 1861 and 1875, concerns the titular medieval knight/minstrel who, after months of libidinous frolicking with Venus in her subterranean grotto, becomes spiritually weary and returns to Wartburg castle, where he had won both the singing contests and the heart of Elisabeth, niece of Hermann, the Landgraf of Thuringia and lord of the castle. In the heat of a singing competition in which the goal is to compose the best song on the true nature of love, he reveals where he has been for the last several months. His only hope of salvation, he learns, is a pilgrimage to Rome and a pardon from the Pope.

The Venusberg ballet
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
All does not go as planned, and while Tannhäuser finally achieves his salvation, it comes at the cost of both his own life and Elisabeth's.

Wagner, who wrote his own libretto, based on a variety of sources, set the action in a semi-mythical version of the 14th century, in which the prosaic reality of Wartburg could co-exist with the fantastic world of Classical legend. Stage director Tim Albery, in his Lyric debut, has elected to jettison all that and instead move the action to what appears to be a contemporary guerrilla camp in Afghanistan. The Wartburg grand hall in the second act becomes, in the hands of set designer Michael Levine, a ruined theatre complete with a collapsed proscenium and the third act—originally set in the Wartburg valley in autumn—appears to be taking place on top of the flattened ruins of the hall under a blanket of snow.

Venus' domain is represented by a gilt false proscenium arch with scarlet drapes that flown in from above. She and her attendants are decked out in slinky black gowns. The residents of Wartburg, by contrast, are in drab earth tones and look like refugees. And everyone is so dimly lit that facial expressions were often difficult to discern, even from our excellent seats on the orchestra floor.

John Relyea and Amber Wagner
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
None of this serves the material very well. The lack of visual interest and the often static staging—there's a great deal of planting of feet and singing downstage—destroys any dramatic momentum. And turning Wartburg into a contemporary armed camp with shabby fighters toting automatic weapons only serves to underline how much (to quote my wife) their moral rigidity resembles that of the Taliban.

Perhaps that was Mr. Albery's point but if so, it was an unnecessarily heavy-handed way to make it. And it's certainly contrary to Wagner's intent.

The one exception to all this is the opening Venusberg orgy sequence. Jasmin Vardimon's energetic, erotically charged choreography perfectly matches Wagner's increasingly frenzied music and is an ideal introduction to mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster's impressively seductive Venus.

The theme of the conflict between sacred and profane love was one to which Wagner, who was certainly guilty of his share of the latter, would return to often in his operas, along with the notion of redemption through love. Not surprisingly, given Wagner's psychology and the time in which he lived, that redemption usually involved selfless sacrifice on the part of the female lead.

In "Tannhäuser" that thankless task falls to Elisabeth. The role isn't especially large but it's dramatically crucial. Happily, Lyric has mezzo Amber Wagner in the role. Her big, luscious voice is an attention grabber and makes all of her scenes compelling. In her program bio, she is quoted as describing Elisabeth's music as "achingly simple, yet substantial and full of its own longing." You can hear all that and more in her performance.

Gerald Finley
Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Bass-baritone Gerald Finley shines as well as Wolfram, Tannhäuser's friend who carries a torch for Elisabeth. His "O du, mein Abendstern" ("O evening star," often performed as a standalone piece) was a high point of the final act. John Relyea, who was such an imposing presence as Henry VIII in Lyric's "Anna Bolena" this season, radiates gravitas once again as Hermann. And soprano Angela Mannino has a nice cameo as the voice of the Shepherd, whose simple song is the first thing Tannhäuser hears on his return from Venusberg in the first act.

I haven't said anything about the South African tenor and Lyric veteran Johan Botha, this production's Tannhäuser, for the simple reason that I didn't see him perform. The night we attended, the role was sung by Richard Decker, an American tenor brought in as a last-minute substitute while Mr. Botha recovers from what the program describes as "a severe throat infection." Mr. Decker, at least when we saw him, seemed not entirely comfortable in the role and had noticeably less vocal power than his co-stars. This was especially apparent in his second act duet with Ms. Wagner.

As this is being written, Lyric's "Tannhäuser" has only two more performances (March 2 and 6), so I don't know whether Mr. Botha will be returning to the role or not.

Act III of Tannhäuser
Photo: Robert Kusel
If I have major misgivings about this production's dramatic direction, I have none whatsoever about its musical direction. Under the capable baton of Lyric's music director and principal conductor Sir Andrew Davis, Wagner's mammoth score got a well thought out and polished reading, with good tempo choices and excellent vocal/instrumental balance. Working with a substitute lead must have been a challenge, but everyone clearly rose to the occasion. The Act II "entry of the guests" (often heard in a stand-alone concert piece), with its offstage brass and full chorus, was a joy to hear.

The Lyric Opera season at the Civic Opera House continues with its production of "Tosca" and Mieczyslaw Weinberg's "The Passenger" in March. It wraps up with Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel" in April and May, followed by a special recital with pianist Lang Lang on May 9th. For more information: lyricopera.org.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of February 27, 2015

As always, the choices are purely my personal opinion. Take with a grain (or a shaker) of salt.

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New This Week:

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet
"Stamping Ground"
Dance St. Louis presents the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 7 p.m., February 27 and 28. "Considered one of the most cutting-edge, pioneering ballet companies in the country, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet has been dubbed "the classically trained company of the future." Composed of 11 young, talented top-flight dancers, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is known as a gifted, sophisticated, versatile and technique-conscious company that pushes the boundaries by performing a diverse and engaging repertoire and by commissioning new works from some of the world's foremost established and emerging choreographers." Performances take place at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus. For more information: dancestlouis.org.

My take: Dance St. Louis has an impressive track record when it comes to attracting high-end companies to the Touhill. The Aspen Santa Fe troupe comes to town with plenty of rave reviews. Last October, the Pittsburgh Tribune called their show "intellectually stimulating, distinctively stylized and brilliantly performed" while the Cleveland Plain Dealer praised the company's "deft and inspired dancing." "It’s a company to savor," wrote the Boston Globe's Janine Parker of their appearance at the Jacob's Pillow festival lat August, "and I want to savor these dances, too."

Blues for Mr. Charlie
Photo: Whitney Curtis
The Performing Arts Department at Washington University presents Blues for Mr. Charlie, directed by Ron Himes, through March 1. "In this searing drama by James Baldwin, sex and racism explode in a small Southern town when a bigoted store owner kills a young black man and dumps his body on the side of the road. " The performances take place in the Edison Theater in the Mallinckrodt Student Center on the Washington University campus. For more information, call 314-935-6543 or visit pad.artsci.wustl.edu.

My take: Baldwin's surreal and Brechtian drama was written in 1964 but, as recent events have proved all too clearly, the ways in which black men are demonized as an excuse for racially motivated violence have not changed nearly enough to make this play a historical curiosity. Running nearly four hours and filled with polemics, this is not an easy play to watch, but it the issues it raises remain vital. "Not a perfect play but a powerful one," writes Bob Wilcox at KDHX, “Blues for Mr. Charlie is an important American drama." The production is directed by Black Rep artistic director Ron Himes.

Mariposa Artists presents In Concert: Classic Rock Reimagined and Unpluged on Saturday, February 28, at 8 p.m. "Featuring eleven very talented singers from the midwest and across the country, "IN CONCERT St. Louis" is a hot fusion of classic rock tunes and cabaret that brings past to present on the St. Louis stage for one night only." The show is features 11 local singers and directed by Lina Koutrakos with Rick Jensen on piano. The performance takes place at the Kranzberg Center, 501 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: inconcertstl.brownpapertickets.com

My take: Lina Koutrakos is a cabaret star whose roots like in rock and blues and Rick Jensen is powerfully talented pianist and songwriter. I'm very familiar with ten of the eleven singers from my work on local cabaret stages and I'll guarantee that they're solid performers. Many of them have already developed their own shows and all have participated in showcases and in the Cabaret Project's open mic nights at the Tavern of Fine Arts. You can't go wrong here.

Or
Photo: Joey Rumpell, RumZoo Photography
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble presents Or by Liz Duffy Adams Wednesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., through February 27. "Or, takes place (mostly) during one night in the life of Aphra Behn: poet, spy, and soon to be first professional female playwright. Aphra is desperate to get out of the spy trade. She has a shot at a production at one of only two London companies, if she can only finish her play by morning despite interruptions from sudden new love, actress Nell Gwynne, complicated royal love, King Charles II, and very dodgy ex-love, double-agent William Scot-who may be in on a plot to murder the king in the morning. Can Aphra save Charles' life, win William a pardon, resist Nell's charms, and launch her career, all in one night? " Performances take place at The Chapel Venue, 6238 Alexander Drive. For more information: slightlyoff.org.

My take: How can you resist a plot summary like that one? Stage Door St. Louis' Steve Allen calls it "a charming romp." "With an inventive style you might call Restoration Steampunk," says Judy Newmark at stltoday.com, "the Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble has a lot of fun with its smart, sexy production of “Or,” a quasi-historical comedy by Liz Duffy Adams." The show has gotten some knocks for being an extended one-act, but it still sounds like fun to me.

Held Over:

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
St. Louis Actors' Studio presents Edward Albee's dark comedy Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? through March 1 at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle. "George, a professor at a small college, and his wife, Martha, have just returned home, drunk from a Saturday night party. Martha announces, amidst general profanity, that she has invited a young couple-an opportunistic new professor at the college and his shatteringly naïve new bride-to stop by for a nightcap. When they arrive the charade begins. The drinks flow and suddenly inhibitions melt. It becomes clear that Martha is determined to seduce the young professor, and George couldn't care less. But underneath the edgy banter, which is crossfired between both couples, lurks an undercurrent of tragedy and despair. George and Martha's inhuman bitterness toward one another is provoked by the enormous personal sadness that they have pledged to keep to themselves: a secret that has seemingly been the foundation for their relationship. In the end, the mystery in which the distressed George and Martha have taken refuge is exposed, once and for all revealing the degrading mess they have made of their lives." For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org.

My take: This is a script that surely needs little introduction from me. Albee's play has become a modern classic and a corrosive commentary on the dark side of American life. "Over the course of a long, alcohol-fueled night, the script expertly cuts, saws and chews its way through secrets, insecurities, accusations and infidelities until, worn out by the explosive force of its final battle, the show finds a comfortable, if not necessarily stable, resting place," writes Tina Farmer at KDHX. "Director John Contini clearly understands the nuances and shades in the script and leads the actors at a relentless pace. The dialogue is sharply crafted and expertly delivered by the cast – the tension never ceases and the stakes are never high enough until they come crashing down."

Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Terrence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy through March 8. "When young Ronnie Winslow is expelled from military school for stealing a five-shilling postal order, his father wages an exhaustive fight to clear his son's name. What begins as a private matter quickly becomes a larger question of the rights of the individual against the power of the state. Though the legal battle jeopardizes his health and the reputation of the entire family, Arthur Winslow is determined that right will prevail, no matter what the sacrifice." Performances take place on the mainstage at the Loretto-Hlton Center, 130 Edgar Road in Webster Groves, MO. For more information, call 314-968-4925 or visit repstl.org.

My take: Terrence Rattigan's work seems to have fallen into obscurity in the decades since his death in 1977. Which is a pity, as his better-known plays are very well-constructed pieces, filled with subtle touches and well-rounded characters. Appearing in Separate Tables several years ago at Act Inc reminded me of what great dialog and situations he wrote. We saw the show last weekend and I must say that director Steve Woolf and his forces are doing this play up proud. "A splendid cast and keenly sharpened direction," writes Chris Gibson at broadwayworld.com, "combine to provide a very compelling piece of theatre." "The show is thoughtfully directed by Steven Woolf," says Tina Farmer at KDHX, "and features fully engaged, well-developed performances by a strong ensemble."

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Symphony Preview: A visit to Russia House with Graf, Hadelich, and the SLSO February 27-March 1, 2015

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If you missed last week's big double dip of Russian romanticism or if (to quote a famous Big Band-era lyric) you just "can't get enough of that wonderful stuff," the St. Louis Symphony has another helping helping of it for you this weekend as Hans Graf leads the orchestra and violinist Augustin Hadelich in a program of Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Lyadov.

"Lyadov?" I hear you cry, "who the heck is that?"

Anatoyl Lyadov
en.wikipedia.org
A reasonable question. "Anatoly Lyadov," writes Daniel Durchholz in his SLSO program notes, "is considerably less well-known than Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky or Igor Stravinsky, and to some degree that may be his own fault. Though a composer of considerable skill and a professor (albeit an eccentric and pedantic one) at the St. Petersburg Conservatory whose students included Sergey Prokofiev and Nikolay Myaskovsky, Lyadov produced no works of sustantial [sic] length and grandeur, as had a number of his contemporaries."

Lyadov's laziness (and resulting unreliability) essentially conspired with his self-criticism to prevent him from producing a large body of work, although he did write a number of piano miniatures (his 1893 "Musical Snuffbox" still shows up as an encore piece on a regular basis). Even so, he became associated with (if not an actual member of) the "Mighty Handful" (a.k.a. the "Russian Five") of composers who were so important in the formation of the Russian nationalist school. The actual five were Mily Balakirev (composer of the fiendishly difficult "Islamey" for piano), César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin.

Appropriately for a Russian nationalist, Lyadov is represented this weekend by three orchestral miniatures based on Russian folklore: "Baba-Yaga" (Op. 56), "The Enchanted Lake" (Op. 62), and "Kikimora" (Op. 63). They're short (4-7 minutes each), colorful, and great fun. Which makes them a great way to open the concert (and provide multiple opportunities for latecomers to be seated).

Up next is Tchaikovsky's "Violin Concerto in D Major." Although wildly popular these days, the concerto was originally dismissed as "unplayable" by St. Petersburg Conservatory violin professor Leopold Auer (to whom it was originally dedicated and who was supposed to play it at its premiere). Tchaikovsky's colleague Adolf Brodsky would replace Auer as both the first performer and the dedicatee.

Eduard Hanslick in 1865
en.wikipedia.org
Worse yet, it was roundly condemned by critics at its 1881 Vienna premiere. Eduard Hanslick, the notoriously conservative critic who Wagner had mercilessly parodied a decade earlier in "Die Meistersinger," was especially scornful. After admitting that the work was "musical and is not without genius," he went on to unload a tub of bile that would not be out of place on AM talk radio. It's worth quoting at length, if only to illustrate just how clueless critics can sometimes be (the translation comes from Minneapolis Symphony program notes by Donald Ferguson).

"[S]oon savagery gains the upper hand," he ranted, "and lords it to the end of the first movement. The violin is no longer played; it is yanked about, it is torn asunder, it is beaten black and blue. I do not know whether it is possible for anyone to conquer these hair-raising difficulties, but I do know that Mr. Brodsky martyrized his hearers as well as himself. The Adagio with its tender national melody, almost conciliates, almost wins us; but it breaks off abruptly to make way for a finale that puts us in the midst of a Russian kermess [a German country festival]. We see wild and vulgar faces, we hear curses, we smell bad brandy. Friedrich Vischer once asserted in reference to a lascivious painting, that there are pictures that 'stink in the eye.' Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto brings us for the first time to the horrid idea that there may be music that stinks in the ear."

But aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

Today it can be hard to understand what Hanslick was gassing on about. Apparently written as a kind of therapy after Tchaikovsky's disastrous attempt at marriage failed and he was plunged into the despair heard so tellingly in his "Symphony No. 4," the concerto is an unfailingly sunny piece that never fails to please. Yes, it's technically demanding, but generations of violinists have mastered it and made it a central part of the repertoire.

Costume sketch for The Firebird by Leon Bakst
en.wikipedia.org
The concerts will conclude with a suite that Stravinsky put together in 1945 from the music for his 1910 ballet "The Firebird". The first in what turned out to be a series of successful collaborations between the composer and impresario Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, "Firebird" contains hints of the upheaval Stravinsky would generate with "Rite of Spring" and "Les Noces" but also pays homage to the work of Rimski-Korsakov, especially the Orientalism of (say) "Le Coq d’Or".

Interestingly, Stravinsky owed the opportunity to write "Firebird" to the laziness of—yes—Anatoly Lyadov. Diaghilev originally commissioned Lyadov to write the score but (according to Verna Arvey in "Choreographic Music") when, after months of waiting, Diaghilev went to see Lyadov to view his progress, the composer said, "it won't be long now. It's well on its way. I have just bought the ruled paper."

Soon Lyadov was out and Stravinsky was in. The premiere of "Firebird" put Stravinsky on the map, musically speaking, and it remains one of his most popular works. Stravinsky prepared three concert suites from the ballet: one in 1910, a second in 1919, and the third in 1945. In both the second and third suites the composer reduced the size of the orchestration. The last and leanest suite is the one you'll hear this weekend.

Both the conductor and violin soloist this week have appeared with the SLSO in the past. On the podium will be Hans Graf, former conductor of the Houston Symphony and an artist-in-residence at the Shepherd School of Music at my alma mater, Rice University. At his last SLSO appearance, Graf gave us masterful readings of Rachmaninoff's first and second piano concertos along with a wonderfully transparent interpretation of Shostakovich's dark and acerbic "Symphony No. 1." That bodes well for this weekend.

The young Dutch violinist Augustin Hadelich, last heard here two years ago in a performance of Paganini's "Violin Concerto No. 1" that combined virtuoso flash with real emotional sensitivity. He'll certainly need both of those skill sets for the Tchaikovsky.

The essentials: Hans Graf conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with violin soloist Augustin Hadelich on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., February 27-March 1. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of February 23, 2015

[Looking for auditions and other artistic opportunities? Check out the St. Louis Auditions site.]

For information on events beyond this week, check out the searchable database at the Regional Arts Commission's events web site.

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Dance St. Louis presents the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 7 p.m., February 27 and 28. " Considered one of the most cutting-edge, pioneering ballet companies in the country, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet has been dubbed "the classically trained company of the future." Composed of 11 young, talented top-flight dancers, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is known as a gifted, sophisticated, versatile and technique-conscious company that pushes the boundaries by performing a diverse and engaging repertoire and by commissioning new works from some of the world's foremost established and emerging choreographers." Performances take place at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus. For more information: dancestlouis.org.

Webster University's Conservatory of Theatre Arts presents Charles Mee's Big Love Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2 PM, through March 1. "A runaway bride, one of 50 sisters escaping marriage contracts, takes refuge in a sumptuous Italian villa. Undoing her wedding dress, discarding everything underneath, she is a woman released, jumping into a bathtub, to be cleansed, unchained at last. [...] The woman named Lydia and her 49 sisters have sailed away from Greece. No sooner has the boat docked than a helicopter lands, bearing the jilted grooms, all brothers. Wearing military fatigues, as if armed for the marriage wars, they have come to claim their rightful possessions." Performances take place in the Emerson Studio Theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. Fore more information, events.webster.edu or call 314-968-7128.

Blues for Mr. Charlie
Photo: Whitney Curtis
The Performing Arts Department at Washington University presents Blues for Mr. Charlie, directed by Ron Himes, through March 1. "In this searing drama by James Baldwin, sex and racism explode in a small Southern town when a bigoted store owner kills a young black man and dumps his body on the side of the road. " The performances take place in the Edison Theater in the Mallinckrodt Student Center on the Washington University campus. For more information, call 314-935-6543 or visit pad.artsci.wustl.edu.

Act Two Theatre presents Kander and Ebb's Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville February 27 - March 8. "In roaring twenties Chicago, chorine Roxie Hart murders a faithless lover and convinces her hapless husband Amos to take the rap...until he finds out he's been duped and turns on Roxie. Convicted and sent to death row, Roxie and another “Merry Murderess” Velma Kelly, vie for the spotlight and the headlines, ultimately joining forces in search of the “American Dream”: fame, fortune and acquittal. This sharp edged satire features a dazzling score that sparked immortal staging by Bob Fosse." Performances take place in the St. Peters Cultural Arts Centre at 1 St Peters Centre Blvd, St. Peters, MO 63376. For more information: act2theater.com.

Mariposa Artists presents In Concert: Classic Rock Reimagined and Unpluged on Saturday, February 28, at 8 p.m. The show is features 11 local singers and directed by Lina Koutrakos with Rick Jensen on piano. The performance takes place at the Kranzberg Center, 501 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: inconcertstl.brownpapertickets.com

Strut and Fret Stage presents Kilroy Was Here, a world première play written and directed by Jim Sala, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., through Februay 28. "It's 1943 and war rages abroad. At a boarding house in a provincial Illinois town, a precocious young boy entertains an eclectic bevy of roomers with his improvised radio station, his repertoire of celebrity impersonations, and his laudable dream of fomenting world peace. As the boy transforms into a man and the lofty idealism of his youth calcifies into strident dogmatism, he finds himself yearning for the relative simplicity of his childhood; for a halcyon age that was paradoxically both tranquil and acutely tumultuous." Performances take place at Yemanja Brasil Restaurante, 2900 Missouri Avenue in Benton Park. For more information: 314.361.1885, 314.276.7321, or email jommyslaw at gmail.com.

The Fox Theatre presents the musical Million Dollar Quartet Friday through Sunday, February 27 - March 1. “Million Dollar Quartet is the Tony® Award winning Broadway musical, inspired by the electrifying true story of the famed recording session that brought together rock 'n' roll icons Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins for the first and only time.” The Fox Theatre is at 527 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: fabulousfox.com.

The Lemp Mansion Comedy-Mystery Dinner Theater presents Murder in Mayberry. The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place. For more information: lempmansion.com.

Lindenwood University presents the musucal A New Brain Friday through Sunday, February 27 - March 1. " By the Tony-award winning authors of Falsettos, here is an energetic, sardonic, often comical musical about a composer during a medical emergency. Gordon collapses into his lunch and awakes in the hospital surrounded by his maritime-enthusiast lover, his mother, a co-worker, the doctor, and the nurses. Reluctantly, he had been composing a song for a children's television show that features a frog - Mr. Bungee - and the spectre of this large green character, and the unfinished work haunts him throughout his medical ordeal. This is the music and story of a man reflecting on his life, relationships, and work when confronted with the fact that this could be the end. Did he let life pass him by, or is there still time to live it?" Performances take place at the J. Scheidegger Center for the Arts on the Lindenwood campus in St. Charles, MO. For more information, call 636-949-4433 or visit lindenwood.edu/center.

Or
Photo: Joey Rumpell, RumZoo Photography
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble presents Or by Liz Duffy Adams Wednesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., through February 27. "Or, takes place (mostly) during one night in the life of Aphra Behn: poet, spy, and soon to be first professional female playwright. Aphra is desperate to get out of the spy trade. She has a shot at a production at one of only two London companies, if she can only finish her play by morning despite interruptions from sudden new love, actress Nell Gwynne, complicated royal love, King Charles II, and very dodgy ex-love, double-agent William Scot-who may be in on a plot to murder the king in the morning. Can Aphra save Charles' life, win William a pardon, resist Nell's charms, and launch her career, all in one night? " Performances take place at The Chapel Venue, 6238 Alexander Drive. For more information: slightlyoff.org.

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Phantom of the Grand Ole Opery through April 26. The Bissell Mansion is at 4426 Randall Place. For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com

St. Louis University Theatre presents Niel Simon's comedy Rumors through March 1. "The Deputy Mayor of New York and his wife are celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary. Guests arrive to find their unconscious host bleeding and his wife missing. Hoping to avoid a scandal, his lawyer concocts a story to hide what is assumed to be the truth. But as the rest of the guests arrive, the story grows awry with everyone complicit in a hilarious cover-up that no one even really understands. Neil Simon at his farcical best!" Performances take place in Xavier Hall, 3373 West Pine Mall. For more information, call (314) 977-2998 or visit www.slu.edu/theatre.

The Florissant Fine Arts Council presents the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, based on the MGM movie, on Sunday, March 1, at 2 PM at the Florissant Civic Center Theatre at Parker Road at Waterford Drive in Florissant, MO. "Set in Oregon in 1850, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers tells the story of Millie, a young bride living in the 1850?s Oregon wilderness. Her plan to civilize and marry off her six rowdy brothers-in-law to ensure the success of her own marriage backfires when the brothers, in their enthusiasm, kidnap six women from a neighboring town to be their brides. Bursting with the rambunctious energy of the original film, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is all boisterous fun and romance that harkens back to the glory days of the movie musical." For more information: florissantfinearts.com/wp1/

Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville presents Venus by Suzan-Lori Parks through March 1. The performances take place in the Metcalf Theatre on the campus in Edwardsville, IL. For more information, www.siue.edu/artsandsciences/theater/ or call 618-650-2774.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
St. Louis Actors' Studio presents Edward Albee's dark comedy Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? through March 1 at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle. "George, a professor at a small college, and his wife, Martha, have just returned home, drunk from a Saturday night party. Martha announces, amidst general profanity, that she has invited a young couple-an opportunistic new professor at the college and his shatteringly naïve new bride-to stop by for a nightcap. When they arrive the charade begins. The drinks flow and suddenly inhibitions melt. It becomes clear that Martha is determined to seduce the young professor, and George couldn't care less. But underneath the edgy banter, which is crossfired between both couples, lurks an undercurrent of tragedy and despair. George and Martha's inhuman bitterness toward one another is provoked by the enormous personal sadness that they have pledged to keep to themselves: a secret that has seemingly been the foundation for their relationship. In the end, the mystery in which the distressed George and Martha have taken refuge is exposed, once and for all revealing the degrading mess they have made of their lives." For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

The Winslow Boy
Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Terrence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy through March 8. "When young Ronnie Winslow is expelled from military school for stealing a five-shilling postal order, his father wages an exhaustive fight to clear his son's name. What begins as a private matter quickly becomes a larger question of the rights of the individual against the power of the state. Though the legal battle jeopardizes his health and the reputation of the entire family, Arthur Winslow is determined that right will prevail, no matter what the sacrifice." Performances take place on the mainstage at the Loretto-Hlton Center, 130 Edgar Road in Webster Groves, MO. For more information, call 314-968-4925 or visit repstl.org. Read the 88.1 KDHX review!

St. Louis Community College at Forest Park presents Wrapped in Rainbows February 26 - March 1. Performances take place in the Bastian Theatre on the campus at 5600 Oakland. For more information, www.stlcc.edu/FP/ or call 314-644-9100.

Would you like to be on the radio? KDHX, 88.1 FM needs theatre reviewers. If you're 18 years or older, knowledgeable in this area, have practical theatre experience (acting, directing, writing, technical design, etc.), have good oral and written communications skills and would like to become one of our volunteer reviewers, send an email describing your experience and interests to chuck at kdhx.org. Please include a sample review of something you've seen recently.

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of February 23, 2015

The Bach Society at Powell Hall
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The Bach Society of St. Louis presents Handel’s Messiah on Sunday, March 1, at 3 PM.  “Few choral works even come close to the profound impact that Handel’s Messiah has had on audiences for over 250 years. This dramatic work offers an inspiring meditation on the life of the Messiah, from the prophecy of His birth through His death and resurrection, and culminating in man’s redemption and thanksgiving. The Chorus and Orchestra are joined by four outstanding Baroque soloists. Bach Society favorites mezzo-soprano Patricia Thompson and bass Curtis Streetman will return, while introducing two new performers to our audience: tenor Steven Soph and soprano Nathalie Colas from Strasbourg, France.”  The concert takes place at Firsts Prebyterian Church of Kirkwood, 100 East Adams.  For more information: www.bachsociety.org

The Ethical Society presents a Great Artist Guitar Series concert with Martha Masters on Saturday, February 28, at 8 p.m.  "In October of 2000 Martha Masters won First Prize in the GFA International Solo Competition, a recording contract with Naxos, a concert video with Mel Bay, and an extensive North American concert tour. In November of 2000, she also won the Andres Segovia International Guitar Competition in Linares, Spain. She has been a prizewinner or finalist in many other international competitions.
In addition to being on the guitar faculty of California State University Fullerton and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Masters is also the President of the Guitar Foundation of America (GFA), dedicated to supporting the instrument, its players and its music in the US and throughout the world." The performance takes at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, 9001 Clayton Road.  For more information: ethicalstl.org.

The Sheldon Concert Hall presents Sheldon Classics: Asia on Wednesday, February 25, at 8 PM. “Asia is a large and diverse continent, and many classical composers have been influenced by its music, including Claude Debussy, Florent Schmitt and Dmitry Kabelevsky. We’ll hear their beautiful and imaginative works, as well as music by 20th century composer Toru Takemitsu, and top composers of today – Bright Sheng and Tan Dun.” The Sheldon is at 3648 Washington in Grand Center.  For more information: thesheldon.org.

Hans Graf
cmartists.com / Bruce Bennett
Hans Graf conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with violin soloist Augustin Hadelich on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., February 27-March 1.  "Following his outstanding 2013 performances of the Paganini with the STL Symphony, violinist Augustin Hadelich is back to perform Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, a tour-de-force that will dazzle with its sizzling technical displays and tender melodies.  Hans Graf leads Stravinsky’s radiant Firebird Suite, known for its brilliant and colorful orchestration, bringing this concert to a spectacular conclusion."  The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center.  For more information: stlsymphony.org.

The Tavern of Fine Arts presents a chamber music concert by the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra on Tuesday, February 24, at 7:30 p.m.  The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood.   For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

The Tavern of Fine Arts presents Passione ed Armonia: Baroque String Band on Saturday, February 28, at 4:30 p.m.  " The Baroque string band “Passione ed Armonia” plays a program of Italian music for strings by Vivaldi, Monteverdi, Marini, Uccellini, Bertali and others." The Tavern of Fine Arts is at 313 Belt in the Debaliviere Place neighborhood.   For more information: tavern-of-fine-arts.blogspot.com.

Symphony Review: Swooning romanticism with Watts and Valcuha at Powel Hall, February 20 and 21, 2015

Juraj Valcuha
rte.ie
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Who: The St. Louis Symphony conducted by Juraj Valčuha
What: Music of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky
When: Friday and Saturday, February 20 and 21, 2015
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis

[Find out more about the music with the symphony's program notes and my preview article.]

The young (late 30s) Slovenian conductor Juraj Valčuha came to town for his SLSO debut this weekend with a stack of impressive reviews from locations as diverse as London, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. in repertoire ranging from Mozart to Brahms to Szymanowski. Critics have praised his big sound, his precision, and what the Los Angeles Times critic called "his eloquent and flowing baton gestures."

All of that was certainly on display Friday morning in a program of two big Russian romantic blockbusters: Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 2" in C Minor, Op. 18 (first performed in 1901) and Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 6" in B minor, Op. 74 (a.k.a. the "Pathetique"), which had its first performance only eight years earlier. Also on display was a kind of lush, almost swooning lyricism and a tendency to linger over and emphasize details of phrasing.

That worked remarkably well for the Tchaikovsky. From the hushed statement of the first theme in the first movement—beautifully played by Principal Bassoon Andrew Cuneo and the low strings—to the massive, nearly hysterical final orchestral outburst that precedes those final dying chords in the cellos and basses in the last, this was a "Pathetique" that wrung every ounce of melodrama out of the score.

Mr. Valčuha made smart use of dramatic contrasts in dynamics throughout. Here's just one example: the little dying clarinet solo that ends the first movement exposition—sensitively played by Associate Principal Diana Haskell—was allowed to fade out almost to inaudibility, which gave the massive orchestral outburst that starts the development section that much more impact. It's a stormy movement anyway, but under Mr. Valčuha's baton it was more of a hurricane.

The wistful little 5/4 waltz of the second movement with its anxious contrasting second theme has never sounded more haunting. The aggressive march of the third movement radiated power, which made the opening despair of the last movement (Adagio lamentoso)—played after only the briefest pause—all the more heartbreaking.

To sum it up, this was a "Pathetique" that could stand with the best of them, and played with perfection by the orchestra.

That same intense, hyper-romantic approach served the Rachmaninoff less well. Tempi were on the slow side and the composer's long melodic lines were sometimes stretched to the breaking point. The big, lyrical second subjects in the first and last movements were as opulent as I have ever heard them but the outer movements sometimes lacked the rhythmic drive and sense of forward motion that I'm accustomed to hearing. This is a concerto that normally clocks in at around 35 minutes. Mr. Valčuha's version came in at closer to 45 by my reckoning, and not just because of the long pause after the first movement while we waited for latecomers to be seated.

André Watts
cmartists.com / Steve J. Sherman
That said, it was still a captivating performance. Mr. Valčuha is, as other critics have noted, a very commanding and theatrical presence on the podium. That LA Times review describes him as conveying the impression that he was spontaneously creating the music out of thin air—a very apt description of the way he seems to be physically molding the sound. And while I don't think his approach to the Rachmaninoff was ideal, especially for any listeners who might have been encountering the piece for the first time, it was certainly a personal and rather fascinating take on music that can often seem over-familiar.

I am, of course, assuming that tempo choices and the overall approach were largely Valčuha's idea. I should point out, in all fairness, that when this weekend's soloist, the legendary André Watts, last appeared with the SLSO in 2010, his Grieg concerto was a bit on the slow side as well, so perhaps this was a collaborative decision.

Mr. Watts' performance was, in any case, impressive—technically solid and poetically expressive. He has often performed and recorded the Russian romantic repertoire, Rachmaninoff included, and has apparently been touring extensively with the second concerto recently—often to rave reviews. The concerto is often given flashy performances that emphasize the virtuoso nature of the work, but Mr. Watts and Mr. Valčuha made, my misgivings not withstanding, an awfully good case for taking a more leisurely and autumnal view of this music.

Next at the SLSO: Hans Graf conducts the orchestra with violin soloist Augustin Hadelich on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., February 27-29. The program includes Tchaikovsky's "Violin Concerto" and the suite from Stravinsky's "Firebird" ballet. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of February 20, 2015

As always, the choices are purely my personal opinion. Take with a grain (or a shaker) of salt.

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New This Week:

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
St. Louis Actors' Studio presents Edward Albee's dark comedy Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? through March 1 at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle. "George, a professor at a small college, and his wife, Martha, have just returned home, drunk from a Saturday night party. Martha announces, amidst general profanity, that she has invited a young couple-an opportunistic new professor at the college and his shatteringly naïve new bride-to stop by for a nightcap. When they arrive the charade begins. The drinks flow and suddenly inhibitions melt. It becomes clear that Martha is determined to seduce the young professor, and George couldn't care less. But underneath the edgy banter, which is crossfired between both couples, lurks an undercurrent of tragedy and despair. George and Martha's inhuman bitterness toward one another is provoked by the enormous personal sadness that they have pledged to keep to themselves: a secret that has seemingly been the foundation for their relationship. In the end, the mystery in which the distressed George and Martha have taken refuge is exposed, once and for all revealing the degrading mess they have made of their lives." For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org.

My take: This is a script that surely needs little introduction from me. Albee's play has become a modern classic and a corrosive commentary on the dark side of American life. "Over the course of a long, alcohol-fueled night, the script expertly cuts, saws and chews its way through secrets, insecurities, accusations and infidelities until, worn out by the explosive force of its final battle, the show finds a comfortable, if not necessarily stable, resting place," writes Tina Farmer at KDHX. "Director John Contini clearly understands the nuances and shades in the script and leads the actors at a relentless pace. The dialogue is sharply crafted and expertly delivered by the cast – the tension never ceases and the stakes are never high enough until they come crashing down."

Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Terrence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy through March 8. "When young Ronnie Winslow is expelled from military school for stealing a five-shilling postal order, his father wages an exhaustive fight to clear his son's name. What begins as a private matter quickly becomes a larger question of the rights of the individual against the power of the state. Though the legal battle jeopardizes his health and the reputation of the entire family, Arthur Winslow is determined that right will prevail, no matter what the sacrifice." Performances take place on the mainstage at the Loretto-Hlton Center, 130 Edgar Road in Webster Groves, MO. For more information, call 314-968-4925 or visit repstl.org.

My take: Terrence Rattigan's work seems to have fallen into obscurity in the decades since his death in 1977. Which is a pity, as his better-known works are very well-constructed pieces, filled with subtle touches and well-rounded characters. Appearing in Separate Tables several years ago at Act Inc reminded me of what great dialog and situations he wrote. The Rep appears to be doing Rattigan justice. "A splendid cast and keenly sharpened direction," writes Chris Gibson at broadwayworld.com, "combine to provide a very compelling piece of theatre." "The show is thoughtfully directed by Steven Woolf," says Tina Farmer at KDHX, "and features fully engaged, well-developed performances by a strong ensemble."

Held Over:

God of Carnage
Photo: John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre presents Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM through February 21. "A comedy of manners ... without the manners. Two married couples meet to sort out a playground fight between their sons. At first, niceties are observed but as the evening progresses and the rum flows, the gloves come off and the night becomes a side-splitting free-for-all." Performances take place at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For more information, visit straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.

My take: I'm not a great fan of this script myself, but I appear to be in the minority. In her review for KDHX, Tina Farmer calls it "a wickedly funny, sharply pointed play that questions just how civilized we really are, as a society...Gary F. Bell knows his way around smart, funny material and this thoroughly compelling show keeps to his high standards." I know and/or have acted with most of the cast at one time or another and can attest to their talent.

Photo: John Lamb
The West End Players Guild continues their 104th season with the comedy Mr. Marmalade Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM, February 13-22. "Growing up isn't easy these days. Little Lucy is spending her childhood doing all the things little girls like to do - playing house, having tea parties and playing with friends both real and imaginary. But even as a tot, Lucy seems to have learned most of what she knows about life from reality TV and her childhood is chock-full of very odd, very adult stuff - the oddest of which may be Mr. Marmalade. He's the imaginary friend who rarely has time for Lucy because he's way too busy dealing with the demands of his day planner, anger management issues and some very adult naughty habits." There will also be a show on Thursday, February February 19, at 8 PM. Performances take place at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 North Union at Enright in the Central West End. For more information, call 314-367-0025 or visit www.westendplayers.org.

My take: OK, I'll admit that I'm on the play reading committee at West End as well as the sound designer for this show, so I'm not a disinterested party. And I have worked with director Steve Callahan many time in the past. That said, one of the reasons I voted for this play was that it's a very funny and very twisted comedy. Mr. Marmalade is definitely not your average imaginary friend. In fact, with imaginary friends like him, you probably don't need enemies. Consider this an antidote to Valentine's Day saccharine. "Featuring top-notch performances by Kimberly Byrnes as the precocious Lucy, Todd Schaefer as the manic title character and Michael Brightman as the best servant this side of Batman's Alfred," writes Mark Bretz at Ladue News, "Mr. Marmalade offers an abundance of laughs in its one spirited act." "It all reminds me of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at the Disney amusement parks," says Richard Green at talkinbroadway.com, "where you careen through the dark in a fun-car, nearly crashing every ten seconds or so, but end up laughing in spite of everything. And, somehow, a lot of the rocky points of childhood become beautiful and touching, even if you've never suffered them all yourself."

White to Gray
Photo: John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre presents White to Gray through February 22. "Mustard Seed Theatre is proud to offer the world premiere of local playwright Rob Maesaka’s White to Gray-the story of a young couple, one white and one Japanese-American, en route to the mainland from Hawaii on a cruise ship when bombs drop on Pearl Harbor. Amidst fear and uncertainty and caught in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, loyalties are tested and love comes under suspicion." Performances take place at the Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd. For more information, call (314) 719-8060 or visit the web site at www.mustardseedtheatre.com.

My take: The shabby treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II is one of the bits of American history that the far right would like to erase from history books, which makes it that much more important to remember it. "In many ways," says Tina Farmer at KDHX, ""White to Gray" provides a micro view of diverse American reactions to the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent internment of more than one hundred thousand Japanese citizens. In other ways, it is a love story, one that seems filled with promise until history turned it tragic. The story is compelling and provides a fictional but nonetheless thoughtful and heartfelt retelling of an important historical event." At Broadwayworld.com, Chris Gibson says the show is "an entertaining show that features a number of good performances...and Mustard Seed's production of it is definitely worthy of your time and attention." At the Stage Door STL blog, Steve Allen says "Director Deanna Jent has brought a quiet sensitivity to the situation including the somewhat schmaltzy yet highly effective ending to a story that is fraught with tension and even a bit of rage."