Friday, February 16, 2018

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of February 19, 2018

Robert Aiki Aubrey Loew
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New Music Circle presents Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe performing on modular synthesizer, electronics, voice, and video on Saturday, February 24, at 8 p.m. "Beginning with his solo electronic work in the late-nineties, Lowe's vernacular has continually evolved deeper into a world comprised of spontaneous electronic sound, droning modular synthesizer, and vocal improvisations. Lowe was a vital part of the thriving Chicago underground for some thirteen years before eventually moving to his current home in Brooklyn, where he entered a new chapter of musical creativity. Enamored with the possibilities of electronics, he began exploring the pliable workings of modular synthesizers: 'They're interchangeable, and have the potential to be ever-transforming,' he enthuses. Upon listening to his recorded works, one encounters Lowe's intuitive method of using analog modular systems to echo the organic nature of the human voice to produce subliminal, trance-like sounds." The performance takes place at Urb Arts, 2600 N. 14th Street in Old North St. Louis. For more information: newmusiccircle.org.

Kevin McBeth conducts the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus and soloist Oleta Adams in Lift Every Voice, a concert commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The performance takes place on Friday, February 23, at 7:30 pm. "Join the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Grammy-nominated guest Oleta Adams and the IN UNISON Chorus for an evening of reflective and soulful music that has influenced not only St. Louis, but communities around the world." The concert takes place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra presents a showing of the Alfred Hitchcock classic North by Northwest Saturday at 7 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, February 17 and 18. The orchestra will play the score live to accompany the film. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

The University City Symphony Orchestra
The University City Symphony Orchestra presents Focus on St. Louis on Sunday, February 25, at 3 p.m. "Join us as we feature and celebrate local artists Bill Hopkins (guitar), Ryan Janus (saxophone), Timothy Jansen (piano) and Robert McNichols, Jr. (bass-baritone). At 2:15pm, the soloists will join Maestro Burke for the pre-concert talk. The concert is FREE and open to the public." The performance includes the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 alsong with music by Kenneth Fuchs, Nkeiru Okoye, and Francisco de Paula Magdaleno, and takes place at the 560 Music Center, 560 Trinity in University City. For more information: ucso.org.

Washngton University's Danforth University Center Chamber Music Series presents a concert by violinist Wendy Toh and pianist Xi Chen on Wednesday, February 21, at 7:30 p.m. The concert includes music by Bartok, Janacek, Victoria Bond and Morton Gould, and takes place at the Goldberg Formal Lounge in the Danforth University Center on the Washington University Campus. For more information: music.wustl.edu

The Washington University Department of Music presents Revisiting the Origins of the Italian Madrigal, a lecture by Julie Cumming, Associate Professor of Music History in the Schulich School of Music at McGill University, on Friday, February 23 at 3 pm. "Julie Cumming is the author of The Motet in the Age of Du Fay (Cambridge University Press, 1999), in which she explores the transformation of the motet from 1400-1474. Cumming has published articles and reviews in Speculum (the journal of the Medieval Academy of America), the Journal of Musicology, New Grove Opera, and Early Music, as well as in numerous edited collections, including the Cambridge History of Fifteenth-Century Music. Her current work looks at fifteenth- and sixteenth-century compositional process, with emphasis on the connections between historical improvisation and composition. " The concert, which includes music by Mozart, Saint-Saëns, and Astor Piazzola, takes place in the Lee Concert Hall at the 560 Music Center at 560 Trinity in University City. For more information, music.wustl.edu or call 314-935-5566.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of February 16, 2018

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:

Steve Brammeier
Mariposa Artists presents Steve Brammeier in Dancing at Keukenhof on Friday, February 16, at 8 pm. "After successfully debuting his show at Don't Tell Mama in New York City this past October, Steve is bringing this popular show to St. Louis! From 1950 to 2018…From St. Louis to Amsterdam. Join Steve as he shares an autobiographical evening of songs and stories through his unique cabaret journey. Rick Jensen in pianist and music director for the show, which is directed by Lina Koutrakos.The show takes place at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand in Grand Center. For more information: metrotix.com.

My take: I saw a preview of this show when Steve was getting it ready for its local premiere last fall. It's a warm, charming, and captivating trip, with expert guidance from cabaret legends Lina Koutrakos and Rick Jensen.


Beverly Brennan
Mariposa Artists presents Beverly Brennan in Love and Marriage on Saturday, February 17, at 8 pm. The show takes place at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand in Grand Center. "With her new show Love and Marriage, Bev offers an inside take on long term relationships - the good, the bad and the outrageously funny. With stories, jokes and songs her show will take you on the roller coaster ride of falling in love and the consequences. Songs include hits by Patsy Cline, Billy Joel, John Lennon and James Brown as well as selections from musical theater and the great American Song Book. It's time to get real and tell it like it is about being married to the same (wonderful) guy for 46 years! Rick Jensen serves as musical director and accompanist for this show on Beverly's birthday!! Co-directed by Lina Koutrakos and Ken Haller." For more information: metrotix.com.

My take: This is the third (at least) solo outing for Ms. Brennan, a St. Louis native (and daughter of sportscasting legend Jack Buck) who grew up on The Hill. Her first, St. Louie Woman, played to sold-out houses both here and in Chicago in 2010. As she did in her Doris Day tribute show back in 2013, she has teamed up with the always-impressive Rick Jensen along with cabaret legend Lina Koutrakos and one of our city's most notable cabaret exports, Ken Haller. Fun will be had.


Red Scare on Sunset
Photo: John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre presents the comedy Red Scare on Sunset Thursdays through Saturdays through February 24. "In 1950s Hollywood, film star Mary Dale finds the Red Menace invading her Beverly Hills backyard. When she discovers her husband has been lured into the local Communist Party by way of a Method acting class and there is a left wing plot to abolish the star system, Mary wages a private war to save her husband, country, and billing over the title. The McCarthy era is turned on its head in this outlandish take on a serious subject." Performances take place at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For more information, visit straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.

My take: Actor, female impersonator, and playwright Charles Busch's plays include outrageous classics like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party, and Die, Mommie, Die! as well as the more mainstream (but no less hilarious) Tale of the Allergist's Wife. "Red Scare on Sunset," writes Mark Bretz at Ladue News, "provides a bevy of laughs about a subject that was anything but funny during its infamous heyday...It’s given a vivid and vivacious treatment by artistic director Gary Bell and his hard-charging cast, including an amazing star turn by Will Bonfiglio as fair Mary."


Held Over:


Bud, Not Buddy
Metro Theatre Company presents Bud, Not Buddy Fridays and Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 2 pm through February 25. "Based on the Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Award-winning novel, this play combines actors with a 13-piece jazz band performing an original score composed by five-time, Grammy-winning jazz artist Terence Blanchard to tell the story of a boy who finds a home and a passion for music." Performances take place at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square in Grand Center. For more information: metroplays.org.

My take: This original one-act play is a co-production with Jazz St. Louis and, according to Mark Bretz at Ladue News, it's "a sure-fire treat for theater patrons young and old as well as devotees of America's original musical art form." This is the first production on the USA since the play's premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C many years ago, which makes it quite a feather in the cap of Metro. The story it tells of life under American apartheid is one of which far too many people in this country seemed determine to write out of history.


The How and the Why
Photo: Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theater presents The How and the Why through February 11. "In Sarah Treem's smart and provocative play about science, family and survival of the fittest, evolution and emotion collide as two women of different generations struggle to come together both on a professional and on a personal level. The play explores many areas of struggle for women, especially in the field of scientific research: the fierce competition among scientists for recognition of their discoveries; the struggles in the academic world for prestigious positions and grant funding: and female attitudes about sex, relationships, men, motherhood and families." Performances take place in the Marvin and Harlene Wool Studio Theater at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive in Creve Coeur. For more information: www.newjewishtheatre.org or call 314-442-3283.

My take: I'm a great admirer of plays that can deal with complex subjects like nuclear physics (Michael Frayn's Copenhagen) or international economics (Ayad Akhtar's The Invisible Hand) in a way that's dramatically compelling and which illuminates areas of knowledge which are dark for many of us. The reviews indicate that The How and the Why does that with evolutionary biology. Tina Farmer at KDHX says the show "is riveting and filled with interesting ideas that come across as both real science and contemporarily relevant."


Menopause the Musical
The Playhouse at Westport Plaza presents Menopause the Musical, "a celebration of women and The Change," through March 31. Four women meet while shopping for a black lace bra at a lingerie sale. After noticing unmistakable similarities among one another, the cast jokes about their woeful hot flashes, mood swings, wrinkles, weight gain and much more. The Playhouse at Westport Plaza is at 635 West Port Plaza. For more information: playhouseatwestport.com.

My take: This popular ensemble show has been around for a while now, having premiered in 2001 in Orlando, Florida, in a 76-seat theatre that once housed a perfume shop. It's last visit at the Westport Playhouse was ten years ago, and it seems to have lost none of it's comic shine. "Who will enjoy this," asks Ann Lemmons Pollack in a review of the show last year, "beyond women of what they call un age certain? People of both genders around them unless they have no sense of humor. That includes family, friends and co-workers. One of life's cruel jokes is that the menopause hits many households about the same time adolescence does. Here's something to tide us over." Since this is effectively a remounting of that same production, I think I'm on safe ground putting it on the hit list, as I did last January.


Silent Sky
Photo: John Lamb
The West End Players Guild continues its 107th season with the drama Silent Sky Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM, February 9 - 18. "It is the inspiring true story of Henrietta Leavitt who, in the earliest days of the 20th century, triumphed over sexist prejudice and devastating personal hardship to reshape for all time our scientific understanding of our universe and our own place in it." There will also be a show on Thursday, February 15, 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: The significant contributions women have made to the sciences over the years (and the difficulty they have had in getting proper credit for them) have provided fodder for a fair number of books and plays recently. Silent Sky is fiction, of course, but it's based on solid history, and tells a tale that needs to be heard. This also happens to be an excellent production, with impressive technical values and brilliant performances from a top-notch cast.

Symphony Preview: Forever young

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Mendelssohn, age 12
Painting by Carl Joseph Begas
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Youth is the theme at Powell Hall this weekend (February 17 and 18, 2018) as Matthew Halls makes his St. Louis Symphony Orchestra debut conducting Schubert's Symphony No. 3 (written when the composer was 18), Weber's Clarinet Concerto No. 1 (age 24), and Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 1 (age 15; the picture above is Mendelssohn at age 12).

All three of this weekend's composers were guys who bloomed early and died young. Schubert passed away at the age of 30, Mendelssohn at 38, and Weber was the relative Methuselah of the bunch, dying just short of 40. And yet, despite their short time on this earth, all three produced an impressive body of music. Schubert led the pack with over 1000 compositions (not bad for someone whose career lasted only 20 years), but Mendelssohn and Weber were no slackers, either.

As you might have guessed from the amount of music he wrote, Schubert composed very quickly. His "Symphony No. 3" was dashed off in the summer of 1815 (mostly between July 11th and 19th) and was probably first performed by an amateur orchestra that was meeting at the house of the violinist Otto Hatwig. Like most of Schubert's symphonies, it didn't get an official public performance until well after the composer's death.

The symphony opens with the kind of slow dramatic introduction for which Haydn was so famous, but the mood quickly turns sunny with a chirping main theme on the clarinet and remains cheerful for the next 25 minutes or so. The Allegretto second movement is lilting and graceful, the third movement is almost too boisterous to truly justify its Menuetto designation, and the finale gallops along to a rapid tarantella rhythm. If this doesn't bring a smile to your lips, you're a hopeless grouch.

Carl Maria von Weber's first clarinet concerto (he wrote two, along with a concertino for the instrument) dates from 1811 and was written for the virtuoso Heinrich Joseph Baermann, whose playing also inspired pieces by Meyerbeer, Franz Danzi, and even Mendelssohn. Unlike the Schubert symphony, the Weber concerto is dramatic and operatic, with a dark and technically challenging first movement, a second that could pass for an opera aria, and a flashy Rondo finale. It's quite a workout, and should offer a chance for the soloist, SLSO Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews, to strut his stuff.

Carl Maria von Weber
Painting by Ferdinand Schimon
Mendelssohn's 1824 C minor symphony might bear the number "one," but the reality is that he had already written over a dozen string symphonies at that early point in his life, so he was hardly a newcomer to the form. That said, there's no doubt, as the anonymous annotator for the Utah Symphony points out, that the influences of Mozart and Beethoven can be heard here. Mendelssohn's love of Bach shows up as well, most notably in the fugal passages in the final movement. Mendelssohn put his own personal melodic spin on it, though, especially in the lyrical second movement, with what John Palmer at Allmusic calls its "beautifully transparent" orchestration.

Adding to the youthful feel of this weekend's concerts is the fact that guest conductor Matthew Halls, making his SLSO debut, is no geezer himself. Although he's only in his early 40s, he has already performed with orchestras around the world.

Originally a keyboard player and early music specialist, he has since expanded his repertoire to include Mozart, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and even Messiaen and Michael Tippet. Reviewing his Beethoven Symphony No. 9 with the Toronto Symphony, the Toronto Star said that he "captured much of the energy and excitement that its first audience must have felt at its premiere nearly 200 years ago." It will be interesting to see if he brings that same fresh perspective to this weekend's program.

The Essentials: Matthew Halls conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and clarinet soloist Scott Andrews Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, February 17 and 18. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Review: The big sing

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

The St. Louis Symphony Chorus
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[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview post.]

It was a gala festival of the human voice this past weekend (February 9 - 11) at Powell Hall as Bramwell Tovey conducted the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, and Children's Chorus in two great 20th century works for chorus and orchestra--one of which is by a composer whose centenary the music world is celebrating right now.

That composer is Leonard Bernstein. Born in 1918, the famed conductor, composer, and media personality didn't produce a huge catalog of works, and not all of them have aged well. But when he was at the top of his game, he produced appealing music of tremendous power. And he was definitely at the top of his game when he wrote the opening work in last weekend's concerts, the 1965 Chichester Psalms.

Scored for "treble" voice (boy soprano/contralto or countertenor), solo quartet, choir, and orchestra, the work is quintessentially Bernstein with its yearning melodic lines, theatrical flourishes, and just enough dissonance to add spice without assaulting one's ears. It's a beautiful and moving plea for peace that feels every bit as timely now as it was over sixty years ago.

In her pre-concert remarks, SLSO Chorus director Amy Kaiser noted that the Chichester Psalms presents significant linguistic and musical challenges. The psalms are sung in Hebrew (not a language often encountered in the classical world) and the music uses unconventional time signatures like 7/4 and 10/4, which create a sense of urgency but can be difficult to sing. Her singers handled it all beautifully, though, with a seamless sonic blend and all the power a person could wish for. The brief SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) quartet section towards the end was wonderfully clear, as was the lovely a cappella finale.

Amy Kaiser
Vocal soloist Devin Best's voice had an ethereal clarity in the second movement, with its setting of the well-known 23rd Psalm ("The Lord is my shepherd"), but even with amplification it was sometimes difficult to hear him.

A former student of Bernstein, Mr. Tovey conducted with an impressive feel for the theatricality of this music, and the orchestra responded with expert playing. The string sound, in particular had a wonderful richness, and there were lovely solo moments from Associate Concertmaster Heidi Harris along with cellists Melissa Brooks (the Associate Principal) and Anne Fagergurg.

It has been almost 16 years since the SLSO has tackled the Chichester Psalms, but I hope we don't have to wait that long to hear it again.

For most of the audience last weekend, I expect, big draw was the second work on the program, Carl Orff's 1936 "scenic cantata" Carmina Burana. It's a piece that has been performed many times here over the past several years, most recently in a fully staged version by the Nashville Ballet in 2015. The SLSO last did it in May, 2014 with Carlos Izcaray on the podium.

Mr. Tovey's was possibly the most unabashedly theatrical interpretation of the piece yet, and while I'm not convinced that all of his decisions were the best ones, there's no denying that this was a very exciting and entertaining Carmina Burana overall. He made smart use of dramatic pauses and wasn't shy about playing with tempos here and there. He brought out more of the bawdy humor in some of the poems than some conductors have in the past, most notably in the "In Taverna" (In the Tavern) section, and had the baritone and soprano soloists play a steamy love scene at the conclusion of "Cour D'Amours" (Court of Love).

That could have come across as artificially stagey, but the soloists made it work. Baritone James Westman and soprano Tracy Dahl clearly had great fun with their romantic scene, and Ms. Dahl handled the absurdly difficult upward glissando in "Dulcissime" with easy elegance. Mr. Westman's comically inebriated abbot in "Ego sum abbas" was a real crowd pleaser as well.

The tenor has only one number, but done properly "Olim lacut colueram"--a macabre number sung from the point of view of a roasted swan about to be eaten--is a neat little musical horror show. The melody lies at the very top of the tenor range, often forcing the singer into his falsetto, but Benjamin Butterfield sounded completely at ease with it. I'm not persuaded that playing the piece mostly for laughs, complete with avian shakes of the head and arms, really does the text justice, but Mr. Butterfield did it extraordinarily well.

The bulk of Carmina Burana, though, is carried by the chorus, which has to sing in Latin, Middle High German, and Old Provençal, and do it consistently for an entire hour. When we heard them Friday night, their articulation was crisp and clean and the sound well balanced. The Children's Chorus was in fine collective voice as well.

Next at Powell Hall: Singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright performs with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on Friday, February 16, at 7:30 pm. Then Matthew Halls conducts the orchestra and clarinet soloist Scott Andrews (SLSO Principal Clarinet) Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, February 17 and 18. The program consists of Schubert's Symphony No. 3, Carl Maria von Weber's Clarinet Concerto No. 1, and Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 1 (written when the composer was 15). The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center.

Monday, February 12, 2018

St. Louis theatre calendar for the week of February 12, 2018

Blackbird
Photo: Patrick Huber
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St. Louis Actors' Studio presents Blackbird through February 25. "This intense work was commissioned by the Edinburgh International Festival, where it received its world premiere. After years in prison and subsequent hardships, Ray, fifty-six, has a new identity and has made a new life for himself, thinking that he cannot be found. Una, twenty-seven, has thought of nothing else; upon seeing a photo of Ray in a magazine, she has arrived unannounced at his office. Guilt, rage, and raw emotions run high as they recollect the passionate relationship they had fifteen years ago, when she was twelve and he was forty. Without any moral judgments, the play never shies away from the brutal truth of this abandoned and unconventional love. Una is looking for answers, not vengeance. Nevertheless, the consequences are shattering." Performances take place at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle For more information, call 314-458-2978 or visit stlas.org.

The Sheldon Concert Hall presents singer Brian Owens Tuesday and Wednesday, February 13 and 14, at 10 am. "Celebrate Valentine's Day with acclaimed soul singer Brian Owens as he performs timeless love songs. Owens is quickly making a name for himself locally and nationally with a recently released album featuring fellow St. Louis native Michael McDonald and concerts throughout the region." The Sheldon Concert Hall is on Washington in Grand Center. For more information: thesheldon.org.

Lindenwood University presents the drama The Cripple of Inishman Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 pm and Saturday at 2 pm, February 13 - 17. "Set on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland in 1934, The Cripple of Inishmaan is a strange comic tale in the great tradition of Irish storytelling. As word arrives on Inishmaan that the Hollywood director Robert Flaherty is coming to the neighboring island of Inishmore to film Man of Aran, the one person who wants to be in the film more than anybody is young Cripple Billy, if only to break away from the bitter tedium of his daily life." The performances take place at The Lindenwood Theatre 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 www.lindenwood.edu/center.

Metro Theatre Company presents Bud, Not Buddy Fridays and Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 2 pm through February 25. "Based on the Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Award-winning novel, this play combines actors with a 13-piece jazz band performing an original score composed by five-time, Grammy-winning jazz artist Terence Blanchard to tell the story of a boy who finds a home and a passion for music." Performances take place at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square in Grand Center. For more information: metroplays.org.

Cold
Tesseract Theatre Company presents Cold by Meredith Ben Jolivet, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. through February 18. "Facing the loss of their only child, Ellie and Jane hunt for hope. But when Jane suggests cryogenics as a way of holding back the inevitable, Ellie tailspins. Forced to make a choice under unbearable circumstances, faced with the minutiae of every day life, and taxed by the weirdness of the human brain, this couple comes together, breaks apart, and grapples with the right thing to do in a situation with no guidepost. At Ellie's lowest, a chatty and exhausted young nurse manages to provide unexpected insight, but this decision could leave this once-happy couple in the cold." Performances take place at The .ZACK, 3224 Locust in Midtown. For more information: tesseracttheatre.org.

CSZ St. Louis presents The ComedySportz Show on Saturday nights at 7:30 pm. The show is "action-packed, interactive and hilarious comedy played as a sport. Two teams battle it out for points and your laughs! You choose the winners the teams provide the funny!" Performances take place on the second floor of the Sugar Cubed, 917 S Main St. in St Charles, Mo. For more information: www.cszstlouis.com.

The Lemp Mansion Comedy-Mystery Dinner Theater presents The Comic Book Killer through April 14. The Lemp Mansion is at 3322 DeMenil Place. For more information: lempmansion.com.

Mariposa Artists presents Steve Brammeier in Dancing at Keukenhof on Friday, February 16, at 8 pm. "After successfully debuting his show at Don't Tell Mama in New York City this past October, Steve is bringing this popular show to St. Louis! From 1950 to 2018…From St. Louis to Amsterdam. Join Steve as he shares an autobiographical evening of songs and stories through his unique cabaret journey. Rick Jensen in pianist and music director for the show, which is directed by Lina Koutrakos.The show takes place at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand in Grand Center. For more information: metrotix.com.

The Monroe Actors Stage presents the drama Dark of the Moon Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through February 18, in the Historic Capitol Theatre in downtown Waterloo, Illinois. For more information, visit www.masctheatre.org or call 618-939-7469.

Act Two Theatre presents the comedy Dearly Departed Fridays ad Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays a 2 p.m. through February 18. "In the Baptist backwoods of the Bible Belt, the beleaguered Turpin family proves that living and dying in the South are seldom tidy and always hilarious. Despite their earnest efforts to pull themselves together for their father's funeral, the Turpin's other problems keep overshadowing the solemn occasion Amidst the chaos, the Turpins turn for comfort to their friends and neighbors, an eccentric community of misfits who just manage to pull together and help each other through their hours of need, and finally, the funeral." 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.

New Line Theatre presents Down With Love, Part 2 on Saturday, February 17, at 8 p.m. as part of the company's Off Line at the Monocle series. "They're back with even more awkward insanity and all new songs. Goofy, green-haired goddess, Marcy Ann Wiegert, and the sinfully charming, introverted exhibitionist, Luke Steingruby, open up about their strange collective experiences with strange dates, heartbreaks, and the single life. Through a program of pop and musical tunes, they explore the huge ups and downs of being in love...or something like that. VERY adult content." The performance takes place at The Monocle, 4510 Manchester in the Grove. For more information: themonoclestl.com.

The Humans
Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents Stephan Karam's The Humans through March 4. "Three generations of the Blake family have gathered in a dingy New York City apartment for Thanksgiving. Everyone's trying to make the best of it, but life's little indignities are piling up. With a mixture of pathos and dark humor, Karam's vivid family portrait is nothing but honest." Performances take place at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information: repstl.org.

Upstream Theater presents the St. Louis premiere of Infected Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 7 pm (except for February 25, which is at 2 pm) through February 25. "A day trader in quarantine delivers a relentless, near-manic monologue that reveals his derailment from the fast track, and the resultant downward, deadly spiral… as though he may have contracted some horrible virus from the stock market monitors themselves. This gripping piece by one of Germany's leading poet/playwrights is a relentless collage of ideas and images, where past and present collide and where one man's innermost thoughts ricochet inside his head with all the volatility of a stock market in crisis. A very timely psychological study of a man and a society infected by greed." Performances take place at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information, including show times: upstreamtheater.org.

Mariposa Artists presents Beverly Brennan in Love and Marriage on Saturday, February 17, at 8 pm. The show takes place at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand in Grand Center. "With her new show Love and Marriage, Bev offers an inside take on long term relationships - the good, the bad and the outrageously funny. With stories, jokes and songs her show will take you on the roller coaster ride of falling in love and the consequences. Songs include hits by Patsy Cline, Billy Joel, John Lennon and James Brown as well as selections from musical theater and the great American Song Book. It's time to get real and tell it like it is about being married to the same (wonderful) guy for 46 years! Rick Jensen serves as musical director and accompanist for this show on Beverly's birthday!! Co-directed by Lina Koutrakos and Ken Haller." For more information: metrotix.com.

The Bissell Mansion Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre presents Mayhem in Mayberry through April. "Welcome to the 10th annual Mayberry-fest. Everyone is looking forward to the highlight of this event - the Miss Mayberry contest. YOU and Sheriff Andy Trailer will judge the contestants (chosen from the audience) on beauty, poise, cookin' skills and a new category this year - Hog callin'. Will the next Miss Mayberry be the vivacious Dazey Doof from Hazzard County? Or the beautiful hillbilly, Elly May Klumpett? Or will it be the lovely Lois Lame from Smallville? Don't county out the charming Paris Hoosier from Hoosierville. She's the main reason the train stops at Petticoat Junction! Sheriff Andy, Deputy Blarney and Aint Bee invite you to join the fun and the mayhem in Mayberry cause it won't be the same without y'all." The Bissell Mansion is at 4426 Randall Place. For more information: bissellmansiontheatre.com.

Webster University's Conservatory of Theatre Arts presents the comedy Men on Boats Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., February 14 - 25. "In 1869, one-armed explorer John Wesley Powell and his crew of 9 men in 4 boats went down the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon, not knowing what lay ahead. This great adventure is reenacted by ten women -- the rapids, the rations, and the ride of their lives. An ingenious, hilarious, and brilliant new play, Men On Boats brings to life the true(ish) history of a 1869 expedition like you have never seen it before." Performances take place in the Studio Theatre of the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information, www.webster.edu/conservatory/season or call 314-968-7128.

Menopause the Musical
The Playhouse at Westport Plaza presents Menopause the Musical, "a celebration of women and The Change," through March 31. Four women meet while shopping for a black lace bra at a lingerie sale. After noticing unmistakable similarities among one another, the cast jokes about their woeful hot flashes, mood swings, wrinkles, weight gain and much more. The Playhouse at Westport Plaza is at 635 West Port Plaza. For more information: playhouseatwestport.com.

St. Louis Community College at Meramec presents The Piddlings Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 2 p.m., October February 14 - 18. "STLCC-Meramec presents The Piddlings, a new work written by Pam Garvey, Professor of English and local playwright. The Piddlings focuses on a St. Louis household and features a hodgepodge of hilarious family members as they discuss and fall prey to the pitfalls of “coming home.” When you fear your family is wacky and weird, perhaps you need to recognize the wacky and weird in yourself in order to truly come home. The process of creating this work began with table work and scene development during the summer of 2017 and continued with workshops and staged readings in the fall of 2017. Be the first to experience The Piddlings, a world premiere of a play which is sure to delight. Mature audiences only." Performances take place in the theatre on the campus at 11333 Big Bend Road. For more information, stlcc.edu/MC or call 314-984-7500.

Red Scare on Sunset
Photo: John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre presents the comedy Red Scare on Sunset Thursdays through Saturdays through February 24. "In 1950s Hollywood, film star Mary Dale finds the Red Menace invading her Beverly Hills backyard. When she discovers her husband has been lured into the local Communist Party by way of a Method acting class and there is a left wing plot to abolish the star system, Mary wages a private war to save her husband, country, and billing over the title. The McCarthy era is turned on its head in this outlandish take on a serious subject." Performances take place at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. For more information, visit straydogtheatre.org or call 314-865-1995.

Silent Sky
Photo John Lamb
The West End Players Guild continues its 107th season with the drama Silent Sky Thursday through Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 2 PM, February 15 - 18. "It is the inspiring true story of Henrietta Leavitt who, in the earliest days of the 20th century, triumphed over sexist prejudice and devastating personal hardship to reshape for all time our scientific understanding of our universe and our own place in it." There will also be a show on Thursday, February 15, 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.

COCA presents The Story Pirates Saturday and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m., February 17 and 18. "The Story Pirates celebrate the words and ideas of young people, turning their original stories into wild sketch comedy musicals. Some of the best improvisers and musicians in the country, recruited from the Upright Citizens Brigade, Second City, the Groundlings, and more, bring to life the unfiltered world of kids' imaginations. When the curtain rises, cats can fly, hot dogs save the world, and characters are named things like Captain Waffles and Snufflepants." Performances take place at Washington University's 560 Music Center, 560 Trinity in University City.. For more information: cocastl.org.

Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville presents Moliere's comedy Tartuffe Wednesday through Saturday at 7 pm and Sunday at 2 pm, February 14 - 18. " The story takes place in the home of the wealthy Orgon, where Tartuffe-a fraud and a pious imposter-has insinuated himself. He succeeds magnificently in winning the respect and devotion of the head of the house, and then tries to marry Orgon's daughter and seduce his wife, and scrounge the deed to the property. He nearly gets away with it, but an emissary from King Louis XIV arrives in time to recover the property, free Monsieur Orgon, and haul Tartuffe off to jail. His duplicity is finally exposed and punished, but not before the author has mercilessly examined the evil that men can commit in the guise of religious fervor and the dangers that imperil those who would believe, only what they choose to believe despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary." Performances take place in the Dunham Hall Theater on the campus in Edwardsville, IL. For more information, call 618-650-2774 or visit siue.edu.

Clinton County Showcase presents Things My Mother Taught Me Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m and Sundays at 2 p.m through February 18. "Olivia and Gabe are moving into their first apartment together. They've just packed up all of their belongings and driven halfway across the country, to start a new life together in Chicago. Their moving day doesn't go exactly as planned, though, and things become slightly more complicated when all of their parents show up to help! Unbeknownst to Olivia, Gabe has invited both sets of parents to surprise her. One of the moms spills the beans that Gabe is going to propose and if that's not bad enough, the U-Haul, containing ALL OF THEIR POSSESSIONS - - -INCLUDING THE ENGAGEMENT RING is stolen from the street after only one load has been brought into the apartment! Can a two bedroom apartment contain all of the love, laughs, worry and wisdom that's about to happen? This brand new comedy takes a generational look at relationships, and how sometimes parents are passing their best lessons on to their children without even meaning to. Funny and touching, this one will make you laugh out loud and fall in love all over again." Performances take place at the Avon Theater, 525 North 2nd Street Breese IL. For more information, visit ccshowcase.com.

KTK Productions presents the comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., February 15 - 25. "Stuck in their family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia live a quiet existence until their lives are thrown into comic upheaval with the arrival of their B-list celebrity sister, Masha, and her 20-something boy toy, Spike. Add to that a soothsaying housekeeper, a star struck young neighbor and a rather odd costume party, and the stage is set for mayhem and hilarity in this present-day homage to Chekhov. Winner of the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play.” Performances take place at Southampton Presbyterian Church, 4716 Macklind. For more information: kurtainkall.org or call 314-351-8984.

St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley presents Clifford Odets's drama Waiting for Lefty Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, February 16 - 24. "Clifford Odets' ground breaking 1935 WAITING FOR LEFTY is the story of a meeting of a New York cab drivers' union on the verge of a strike. The union's corrupt leader Harry Fatt does everything he can to discourage it, and the mysterious absence of the left-leaning advocate Lefty Costello doesn't bode well for the would-be strikers. After hearing the heart-wrenching tales of four hard-working cab drivers - each story dramatized before the eyes of the audience before transitioning seamlessly back into the union meeting-Agate Keller takes the stage and demands immediate action." Performances take place in the Fisher Theatre on the campus at 3400 Pershall Road. For more information, www.stlcc.edu/fv/ or call 314-644-5522.

Alton Little Theater presents the comedy mystery Who's in Bed With the Butler? Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through February 18. "Mad-Capped hilarity with mile-a-minute dialogue and a very twisted plot ensues when a California Billionaire bequeaths all his assets to his only daughter.....but what about the Mistress? The loyal Housekeeper? or even the bumbling Detective - is he for REAL? Audiences will love sorting it all out!" Performances take place at 2450 North Henry in Alton, IL. For more information, call 618.462.6562 or visit altonlittletheater.org.

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 Calendar.
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 10, 2018

St. Louis classical calendar for the week of February 12, 2018

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The St. Louis Civic Orchestra performs on Saturday, February 17, at 7 p.m. "The St. Louis Civic Orchestra, under the guest direction of Mr. Barry Ford, is excited to present Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, Bernstien's Overture to Candide, and Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante. Additionally, the orchestra is pleased to share the stage with 7th grade orchestra students from Parkway Northeast Middle School." The concert takes place at the Purser Center at Logan University, 1851 Schoettler Rd in Chesterfield, MO. For more information: stlco.org.

Rufus Wainwright
Singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright performs with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on Friday, February 16, at 7:30 pm. "Having collaborated with artists including Elton John, David Byrne, Boy George, Joni Mitchell, Pet Shop Boys and producer Mark Ronson amongst others, he has been praised by The New York Times for his “genuine originality,” where he has established himself as one of the great male vocalists, composers, and songwriters of his generation." The concert takes place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

Matthew Halls conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and clarinet soloist Scott Andrews Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, February 17 and 18. The program consists of Schubert's Symphony No. 3, Carl Maria von Weber's Clarinet Concerto No. 1, and Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 1 (written when the composer was 15). The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

The Ritz Chamber Players
The Washington University Department of Music presents The Ritz Chamber Players on Friday, February 16 at 7:30 pm. "The Ritz Chamber Players, the nation's first chamber music ensemble series comprised solely of accomplished musicians spanning the African diaspora, brings a fresh, new energy to the classical music genre. The Ritz Chamber Players include some of the world's most accomplished musicians. They have performed with the most prestigious musical organizations such as the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra and London Symphony." The concert, which includes music by Mozart, Saint-Saëns, and Astor Piazzola, takes place in the Lee Concert Hall at the 560 Music Center at 560 Trinity in University City. For more information, music.wustl.edu or call 314-935-5566.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Symphony Preview: Chants sacres et profanes

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Leonard Bernstein in 1955
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This weekend (February 9 - 11, 2018), the guest conductor Bramwell Tovey leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, and Children's Chorus in a program of two great works for chorus and orchestra-one sacred and one profane.

The sacred is represented by Leonard Bernstein's infrequently heard Chichester Psalms, last performed by the SLSO nearly 16 years ago. The work was commissioned in 1963 by the Very Rev. Walter Hussey (Dean of Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, England) for a 1965 music festival at the cathedral, although its actual premiere took place at a July 15, 1965 New York Philharmonic concert with Bernstein at the podium. That performance was not recorded as far as I know (although Bernstein did a studio recording with the NY Phil at around that time), but a 1977 performance by Bernstein and the Israel Philharmonic in Berlin was recorded on both audio and video, and is available on YouTube.

The piece runs around 20 minutes and is scored for boy soprano or countertenor, solo quartet, choir and orchestra (3 trumpets in B flat, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, and strings). Bernstein also wrote a pared-down version in which the orchestra was replaced with organ, one harp, and percussion (presumably to make it more accessible to church-based music groups) but we'll be hearing the original this weekend.

René Spencer Saller provides a very detailed analysis of the music in her program notes. The only thing I can add is to note that this is a work that is quintessentially Bernstein. The rhythmic drive, the sense of yearning, the smart orchestration, the touch of dissonance-it's all there. You couldn't possibly mistake it for the work of anyone else.

About that touch of dissonance: when Bernstein was writing the Chichester Psalms in the early 1960s it was utterly unfashionable, in the classical music world, to compose in a style that actually sounded like most of what the Western world had thought of as musical for the past several centuries. Serialism was all the rage. Increasing complexity and a disregard of traditional ideas of harmony was seen as a kind of ideological imperative.

Music, as composer Milton Babbitt insisted in his controversial essay "Who Cares if You Listen?" (published almost exactly 70 years ago, in the February 1958 High Fidelity) had to "evolve," and it could do so only by abandoning any attempt to actually communicate with an audience. "I dare suggest," he wrote, "that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition". Ineed, the very definition of what constituted music had been stretched to the point where John Cage could "write" a piece titled 4'33" ("four minutes and 33 seconds") that consisted of nothing but the audience sitting quietly and listening to environmental sounds for four minutes and 33 seconds. And it was taken seriously.

Against that backdrop, the immediate appeal of the Chichester Psalms was, to say the least, heretical. Bernstein understood as much when he wrote the following bit of verse for the October 24, 1965 edition of the New York Times:
For hours on end, I brooded and mused
On materiae musicae, used and abused
On aspects of unconventionality
Over the death in our time of tonality…
Pieces for nattering, clucking sopranos
With squadrons of vibraphones, fleets of pianos
Played with forearms, the fists and the palms
And then I came up with the Chichester Psalms.
These psalms are a simple and modest affair
Tonal and tuneful and somewhat square
Certain to sicken a stout John Cager
With its tonics and triads in E flat major
But there is stands-the result of my pondering
Two long months of avant-garde wandering
My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet
And he stands on his own two tonal feet.
The Nashville Ballet's Carmina Burana
Photo by Heather Thorne
I could (but won't) go on about how Mr. Babbitt got both biological evolution and the nature of music wrong, but for now let's just note that Mr. Bernstein did care if we listened, and history has come down firmly on his side.

The second half of this weekend's program will be taken up with Carl Orff's 1936 "scenic cantata" Carmina Burana. It's a piece that has been performed many times here over the past several years, most recently in a fully staged version by the Nashville Ballet in 2015. The SLSO last did it in May, 2014 with Carlos Izcaray on the podium.

I wrote extensively about the work back then, so rather than repeat all that here, I'll just invite you to take a look at the preview I wrote for that concert. The SLSO program notes have some good stuff in them as well. The important thing is that the piece that British critic Richard Osborne once described as “the best known new composition to emerge from Nazi Germany” is an irresistible celebration of live, love, drinking, eating, and sex.

It's also about how the wheel of fortune is always turning and that none of us should get too cocky, as the universe has a tendency to dope-slap the excessively smug-a lesson we should perhaps bear in mind in the USA right now.

The Essentials: Bramwell Tovey conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, and Children's Chorus Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, February 9 - 11. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center.

Chuck's Choices for the weekend of February 9, 2018

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:

Bud, Not Buddy
Metro Theatre Company presents Bud, Not Buddy Fridays and Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 2 pm through February 25. "Based on the Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Award-winning novel, this play combines actors with a 13-piece jazz band performing an original score composed by five-time, Grammy-winning jazz artist Terence Blanchard to tell the story of a boy who finds a home and a passion for music." Performances take place at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square in Grand Center. For more information: metroplays.org.

My take: This original one-act play is a co-production with Jazz St. Louis and, according to Mark Bretz at Ladue News, it's "a sure-fire treat for theater patrons young and old as well as devotees of America's original musical art form." This is the first production on the USA since the play's premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C many years ago, which makes it quite a feather in the cap of Metro. The story it tells of life under American apartheid is one of which far too many people in this country seemed determine to write out of history.


Rick Jensen and Katie McGrath at the Gaslight
Photo by Chet Whye, Jr.
The Presenters Dolan presents Katie McGrath: Significant Others on Saturday, February 10, at 8 p.m. "Significant Others: the people, places and events that make us - well, us. Features a lively mix of Great American Songbook, pop, country and soul. McGrath's proceeds will benefit St. Louis's own Guardian Angel Settlement Association, whose social services programs and developmental childcare program work to improve the lives of those in our community struggling with poverty." The performances take place at the Kranzberg Center 501 N. Grand in Grand Center. For more information: metrotix.com.

My take: When I reviewed this show last November at the Gaslight, I said that anyone wanting to write a textbook on how to do cabaret could start with Significant Others. With a great song list ranging from Bon Jovi to Cole Porter, perfectly tailored arrangements by Rick Jensen, ideally paced direction by Lina Koutrakos, and Ms. McGrath's powerfully genuine stage presence, this is a cabaret evening that hits all the right notes, literal and figurative. Go see it—if you can get tickets.


Silent Sky
Photo: John Lamb
The West End Players Guild continues its 107th season with the drama Silent Sky Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM, February 9 - 18. "It is the inspiring true story of Henrietta Leavitt who, in the earliest days of the 20th century, triumphed over sexist prejudice and devastating personal hardship to reshape for all time our scientific understanding of our universe and our own place in it." There will also be a show on Thursday, February 15, 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: The significant contributions women have made to the sciences over the years (and the difficulty they have had in getting proper credit for them) have provided fodder for a fair number of books and plays recently. Silent Sky is fiction, of course, but it's based on solid history, and tells a tale that needs to be heard.

Held Over:

The Cabaret Project and The Improv Shop present The Blue Velvet Lounge Saturday, January 27, at 8 pm. There are also performances on February 10 and 24. "The Cabaret Project teams up with The Improv Shop to co-present their dynamic, fully improvised theater piece featuring live jazz standards - direct from the mythical Blue Velvet Lounge. Each performance features eight smart, funny improvisers who create the stories and sagas of the patrons of the Blue Velvet Lounge - on the spot. Surrounded by live jazz vocal standards, this character driven story is a different show each night it's performed. The Blue Velvet Lounge is a perfect evening out for lovers of cabaret and comedy. Food and drink available at the Improv Shop." The performance takes place at The Improv Shop, 3960 Chouteau in The Grove. For more information: thecabaretproject.org.

My take: Cabaret shows are carefully planned, but so is a good improv show. Improvisation works best when there's some sort of structure to build on. So combining the two makes more sense than you might think, especially when the singer at the center of it all is local cabaret pro Tim Schall.


The How and the Why
Photo: Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theater presents The How and the Why through February 11. "In Sarah Treem's smart and provocative play about science, family and survival of the fittest, evolution and emotion collide as two women of different generations struggle to come together both on a professional and on a personal level. The play explores many areas of struggle for women, especially in the field of scientific research: the fierce competition among scientists for recognition of their discoveries; the struggles in the academic world for prestigious positions and grant funding: and female attitudes about sex, relationships, men, motherhood and families." Performances take place in the Marvin and Harlene Wool Studio Theater at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive in Creve Coeur. For more information: www.newjewishtheatre.org or call 314-442-3283.

My take: I'm a great admirer of plays that can deal with complex subjects like nuclear physics (Michael Frayn's Copenhagen) or international economics (Ayad Akhtar's The Invisible Hand) in a way that's dramatically compelling and which illuminates areas of knowledge which are dark for many of us. The reviews indicate that The How and the Why does that with evolutionary biology. Tina Farmer at KDHX says the show "is riveting and filled with interesting ideas that come across as both real science and contemporarily relevant."


Menopause the Musical
The Playhouse at Westport Plaza presents Menopause the Musical, "a celebration of women and The Change," through March 31. Four women meet while shopping for a black lace bra at a lingerie sale. After noticing unmistakable similarities among one another, the cast jokes about their woeful hot flashes, mood swings, wrinkles, weight gain and much more. The Playhouse at Westport Plaza is at 635 West Port Plaza. For more information: playhouseatwestport.com.

My take: This popular ensemble show has been around for a while now, having premiered in 2001 in Orlando, Florida, in a 76-seat theatre that once housed a perfume shop. It's last visit at the Westport Playhouse was ten years ago, and it seems to have lost none of it's comic shine. "Who will enjoy this," asks Ann Lemmons Pollack in a review of the show last year, "beyond women of what they call un age certain? People of both genders around them unless they have no sense of humor. That includes family, friends and co-workers. One of life's cruel jokes is that the menopause hits many households about the same time adolescence does. Here's something to tide us over." Since this is effectively a remounting of that same production, I think I'm on safe ground putting it on the hit list, as I did last January.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Review: Do I hear a waltz?

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton
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[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview post.]

In his remarks from the podium before the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert Saturday night (February 3, 2018) Stéphane Denève (who was named as the SLSO's 13th Music Director last summer) said that although he had conducted the orchestra many times in the past "tonight is my last time I will do so (pause) as a guest conductor."

It got a good laugh, and demonstrated an attitude of charming good humor that bodes well for his tenure, which begins with the 2019-2020 season.

Mr. Denève's performance was a good omen as well. He conducted an all-French (and mostly Ravel) program with a passion and authority that demonstrated his love for the music and his desire to communicate that love to his audience.

The concert began with a nuanced and sensitive reading of Ravel's Ma mère l'oye (Mother Goose) Suite from 1911. Mr. Denève showed considerable flexibility in his choice of tempos and dynamics, often with striking results. In the final movement, Le jardin féerique (The Enchanted Garden), for example, his choice of a very deliberate tempo made the gradual build to the section's shimmering finale tremendously effective.

Based on a collection of piano works for children from the previous year, the suite is a treasure trove of auditory delights that showcases Ravel's skill as an orchestrator and offers many opportunities for members of the band to show just how good they can sound. Needless to say, the members of the SLSO did just that. The strings positively glowed in Petit Pouchet (Tom Thumb), the percussion section reveled in the Chinoiserie of Laideronnette, Impératrice des pagodes (Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas), and the duet between Vincent Karamanov's contrabassoon and Diana Haskell's clarinet in Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête (Conversations of Beauty and the Beast) was a real charmer. There was also excellent work here by Principal Flute Mark Sparks and Associate Principal oboe Phil Ross.

Next was Francis Poulenc's sublimely silly Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra from 1932 in a completely winning performance by identical twins Christina and Michelle Naughton. Graduates of Julliard and the Curtis Institute, the Naughton sisters have been getting rave reviews around the world, and after seeing their impressive mix of technical skill and theatrical savvy, I understand why. They romped through the composer's big, noisy musical playground with a cheerful give and take that was a joy to watch, and they handled the technical challenges with ease. Watching them play the ethereal Gamelan-inspired final section of the first movement, for example, was like seeing anti-gravity in action, as their fingers seemed to barely touch the keys.

Multiple curtain calls and a standing ovation led, inevitably, to an encore that was a bravura exercise in virtuosity: Boogie for piano four hands by contemporary American composer and pianist Paul Schoenfeld. The same playful interaction that distinguished their performance of the Poulenc was evident here as well as their hands flew up and down the keyboard with a speed that often made it impossible to tell which twin was playing what.

After intermission, it was time for a new work, Guillaume Connesson's 2012 Flammenschrift, a piece that Mr. Denève aptly described as having "a punch in your face energy."

Inspired by (and using the same instrumentation as) Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, Flammenschrift can perhaps best be described as Beethoven sped up and stuffed into a nine-minute vitamin pill. The opening five-note theme is deliberately imitative of the famous opening of Beethoven's symphony, while the second theme called to mind the triumphal transformation of the symphony's final movement. There is also a contrasting lyrical second section, but mostly Flammenschrift is an energetic rollercoaster of a piece with a harmonic palette which, while obviously contemporary, is still fairly listener friendly.

Stéphane Denève
Photo by Jessica Griffin
In his introductory remarks, Mr. Denève noted that he wants to present newer works which musicians like to play and listeners are likely to want to hear more than once. If Flammenschrift is any indication, I'd say he's on solid ground.

The concert concluded with two waltz-themed works by Ravel: the Valses nobles et sentimentales from 1911 and the 1920 "poème choreographique" ("choreographic poem) La valse. The latter was played after the former without pause--an interesting choice that highlighted both their similarities (including some identical thematic material) and their differences.

Originally composed as a solo piano work, Valses nobles et sentimentales was intended by Ravel as an homage to a set of piano pieces Shubert had written nearly a century earlier: the Valses sentimentales from 1823 and the Valses nobles from 1826. As such, it's a graceful and often tender tribute to the classic Viennese waltz, and it got an appropriately loving performance from Mr. Denève. The Épilog, which recapitulates themes from the previous seven short sections, had an almost dreamy quality, as though the composer had fallen asleep with the waltzes spinning around in his head.

Paired with La valse, though, the dream eventually turns into a nightmare.

Like the earlier work, La valse started out life as a loving tribute to life in three-quarter time, with the simple title Vien (Vienna). But before it could be completed, World War I and the death of the composer's mother intervened. Vien had now become La valse, a work that begins in darkness in the bassoons and low strings, rises to ecstatic heights, and finally crashes to the ground in what has always sounded to me like the musical depiction of the collapse of the complex structure of 19th-century Europe in the so-called "war to end all wars".

Mr. Denève's La valse was dramatic, subtly shaded and exceptionally effective. I liked the way he slowed Ravel's machinery down just a bit before the final moments; it made that crashing finale that much more sinister. The orchestra sounded splendid and the entire performance was, for me, a huge success.

Stéphane Denève is, as I noted when I first saw him perform back in 2011, a very charismatic conductor who takes an obvious joy in his work. His combination of precision and vigor on the podium will, I think, make him a worth successor to (as the Brits might say) our right trusty and well-beloved David Robertson.

Next at Powell Hall: Bramwell Tovey conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, and Children's Chorus Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, February 9 - 11. The program consists of Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and Orff's Carmina Burana. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. More information is available at the SLSO web site, as always.