Thursday, January 17, 2013

Critics are Spoiled

Critics are spoiled. Whenever they go to see a play or concert they sit in the best seats in the house. They hear perfect sound, see every grimaced facial expression the actors can muster and feel like they’re actually part of the action. So, when YOU are sitting in a drafty seat in the back of the hall behind a post, not hearing or seeing a thing, don’t blame the critic when you read the rave review in the paper the next day (“Were we at the same play??”). Now I know what it’s like. When I attended East Lansing’s Wharton Center’s current run of the hit musical Billy Elliot, I was surprised to be shown my seats in the Grand Tier. First, you must understand that Wharton’s Grand Tier is higher off the floor than most other venues (you actually have to take a ski lift to get there) because the architects wanted to keep good acoustics for the main floor seats underneath. Wharton’s Grand Tier is truly a bird’s eye view. I was really looking forward to seeing this award-winning musical but sitting up in the Grand Tier made me feel strangely detached from it all. Yes I heard OK and there was no post in front of me but I couldn’t see the actor’s’ faces and some of the dialogue was garbled. So I feel somewhat hampered in reviewing the show in those less than optimum conditions. But – I’ll take a stab at it. Billy Elliot is a poignant story of a tragic coal miners’ strike in northern England in the early eighties. While the blokes are on strike, one of the rough and tumble miners sends his 12-year old son (actually 15-year-old Ben Cook) for boxing lessons at the community center. The boy has little interest in socking his friends in the face, but he notices a ballet class going on in the next room and it’s love a first sight. His dad is none too happy by the turn of events. The story of acceptance, following your dreams, layered over an economic tragedy is eloquently told. Cook is a stunningly good dancer and performer and the supporting cast makes his pain and the pain of the entire town achingly real. Billy Elliot’s teacher, Janet Dickson, is a sassy, blustery and funny actress who sees the boy’s talent immediately. Elton John’s music is enjoyable but forgettable. The choreography, script, and scenic design, however, flowed together perfectly to make the story strong and touching. Although sitting that fa away limited my emotional connection with the stage, I’m sure it was no different than any other auditorium's balcony. In fact, for orchestra concerts I prefer sitting in the Grand Tier. But now I know why house seats are in the center of the hall, five rows from the stage. Everything just looks and sounds better there.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

An Elegant Copland

Some folks wonder why they should waste their time and money going to a concert when they have all the music they want on their iPod, CD player, or other device.

Timothy Muffitt and his Lansing Symphony musicians showed us why there’s nothing like listening to live music at Saturday night’s (2/24/12) Masterwork Four concert.

The concert began with one of the most over-played pieces of music on any classical radio music station, Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Nothing is new in Appalachian Spring – everyone’s heard it before. But watching Muffitt conduct the LSO from my vantage point in Wharton Center’s Grand Tier (a fancy word for balcony), was like watching a painter carefully applying his colors on the canvas.

I watched the music as well as heard it. Not only did I hear the music created with utmost care and delicacy to make the genius of Copland come alive, but I also watched each instrument meld with another and marveled at the orchestration. Here, the Brooklyn-born composer used trumpets and harp to create a lovely and unusual sonority, and there he used muted trombones, bassoons and horns together. Amazing, carefully chosen colors.

Muffitt approached each chord with loving care to produce an artful sonic tapestry. I have never heard Appalachian Spring played with such sensitivity. Originally written for chamber orchestra, Muffitt kept the chamber quality for his full orchestra. And when the beloved theme, “Simple Gifts” was introduced by clarinetist Emmanuel Toledo, everything came together perfectly.

Sorry people, you won’t be able to get the experience I had in listening to this Copland masterpiece with two tiny speakers stuffed in your ears.

In delightful contrast, Muffitt then programmed a tuba concerto of all things. Phil Sinder, tuba prof at Michigan State University took center stage with the short but vibrant Tuba Concerto by Bruce Boughton. Sinder had a gorgeous, expressive tone, and in the final movement, shocked the audience with the agility of the huge brass instrument he commanded. He played with a beautiful lyricism and clean precision.

Yes, the ear usually seeks out the higher registers in instruments and voices, but in this case it was worth stretching our hearing comfort to dig deep and revel in the basso profundo.

For an encore Sinder delighted everyone with a jazzy version of the Beetles’ tune, Blackbird. Sinder proved that the tuba can, in fact, swing.

Decades ago, the Franck Symphony in D was standard concert fare, but in recent years is has slipped out of favor. For this concert, if provided a nice complement to the other selections. Lots of dark chords (my ear was now sensitized to the tuba range), featuring English horn, bass clarinet, violas and low brass. It was certainly beautiful, romantic and familiar music and the orchestra did itself proud.

But at the end of the concert, I was still remembering the transcendent reading of Appalachian Spring, one of the finest performances I have ever heard from the LSO.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


How important was music education to your life? Now that school budgets are being slashed and states are mandating that test score excellence be pinned to academics only, how can we explain why the arts should continue to play a major role in our schools?

I got a glimpse of the profound and lasting importance of learning music in public schools a few weeks ago.

My personal love of music began early. I was fortunate to attend a high school in Cleveland Heights, Ohio where a high level of music performance in bands, orchestra and choirs was valued and nurtured.

Many of my high school buddies went on to receive degrees and thriving careers in music. Composers served residences in my high school (called simply “Heights”), we played basic repertoire symphonic music and the top groups went on concert tours during spring break.

Heights always had a tradition of great teacher/conductors. Ralph Rush and Mark Hindsley both left Heights to become important names at the University of Illinois and UCLA.

One such teacher was John F. Farinacci. This larger than life character was the band and orchestra head between 1949-62. Although his students are now in their 60’s 70’s and even 80’s and Mr. F passed away five years ago, the alumni who played under him embarked on a mission to honor him and acknowledge his legacy with a unique reunion event.

During the 11/11/11 weekend the Band and Orchestra reunion (two years of planning) honoring Farinacci took place. The weekend was surprising, emotional and heartfelt.

I have attended a couple of high school reunions in the past but found them all dull and meaningless. The saving grace to those events was that the band and orchestra folks usually found each other, searched out a quiet table and talked about how important the Heights music program was to all of us.

This reunion was decidedly different. At the opening gala dinner, Farinacci’s grey- haired and retired students paid tribute to him in glowing verbiage. Now lawyers, professors, doctors, teachers, these men and women told moving stories about how playing violin or clarinet or trombone under Farinacci changed their lives forever.

Mr. F was not an easy guy – he was highly disciplined, had a fiery temper and was not good at hiding his anger. He expected his students to work hard and to not accept anything less than excellence. He would often bellow his concocted and fake Italian epithet “tabbo sessenam beeza”. Yes, we were all scared to death of him and loved him at the same time. And we had no idea what that crazy sentence meant.

This was not a typical high school reunion where small talk is exchanged over drinks. The 200 people who attended this gathering were desperate to share their life-long love of music with their friends of 50 years ago.

The alums regaled us with funny and nostalgic stories, but also poignant remembrances about how this tough Italian taught them how to work hard, roll with the punches and how to take the bitter pill if you deserved it. But everyone spoke about how their lifelong love of music was due to Farinacci.

Can you imagine people getting together fifty years later to honor a math teacher?

One speaker was a professional violist who recently retired after a career with the Toronto Symphony. He described when the feared conductor asked him to stop over to his house one Saturday morning. Mr. F. had collected a pile of LPs for the young musician to listen to – the Mozart Symphonia Concertante for Viola and Violin and many others. The 66-year old violist remembers that listening to those recordings was a revelation. “I never knew the viola could sound like that,” he said. Somehow, Farinacci identified some real talent in this kid.

Also in attendance was a bassoonist who played in the Cleveland and San Francisco orchestras, a conductor with the Buffalo Philharmonic, and an attorney who is on the Executive Board of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Mr. F’s family was well represented – his 92-year-old wife Alice was there as well as four of his five children.

Maybe the most moving element of the weekend was the joint concert that took place with the idealistic old codgers and the current Heights band and orchestra students.

At the time we attended Heights, the school was mainly Jewish and Italian. Today Heights is in a changing neighborhood with a 75% minority student population. We all heard horror stories about the current Heights High School: metal detectors, violence, low performance levels.

I am thrilled to report that we saw none of that on our brief visits to the old high school.

Sitting with the current high school students during our music making was one of the high points of the weekend. These kids were not cynical and tied to their iphones, but were enthusiastic about the music and - miraculously – excited about playing with us old geezers. The horn player next to me was a terrific player and full of laughs to boot.

Kids and oldsters got to know each other playing in the same depression-era auditorium that we grew up in. There is a Hebrew expression – L’dor Vador, “generation to generation”. This rehearsal and concert was clearly a l’dor vador experience

Many of the alums had not touched their horns for the past 50 years or so, and did so on this weekend with great reluctance and fear. On that Saturday afternoon we rehearsed the combined alum/student orchestra (Beethoven’s Egmont was the music of choice) and band. One of the band’s selections was Buglers’ Holiday and the soloists were the original trumpet trio that played together in 1957.

But soon, some unexpected drama occurred. During the band rehearsal in the afternoon, chills went through the band when it became apparent that the conductor from our alumni group was having difficulty conducting the Host 2nd Suite – basic repertoire in the band world. The band stumbled miserably through the music that is littered with difficult meter and tempo changes. The old pride of performance came through as the band recognized that we may embarrass ourselves during the concert that night, something we dreaded.

Suddenly, after the rehearsal I was asked to take over the baton. Even though I would not get time to rehearse the group, I accepted the task with trepidation. Later that afternoon, I pored over the score to make sure that I gave the group SOME element of correct direction.

One piece of music that the alums demanded we play was the Sousa favorite, Stars and Stripes Forever. In our day there was a beloved performance ritual that occurred with the playing of Stars and Stripes. The piccolos stood up and marched to the front to play their solo and for the final grandioso the trumpets and trombones marched to the front to join the pics while a huge American flag was dropped from the ceiling at the rear of the stage. Everyone loved this corny spectacle and waited for it to be played at the conclusion of every concert.

When planning for this concert, our organizer (Dick Rose) asked the present Heights band directors if we could do the Stars and Stripes in the old manner. The directors had no idea what we meant. After Dick explained the drill to them, they set out to look for the flag.

A stage hand finally found it but the old flag was disintegrated and not ready for prime time. Dick immediately ordered another oversized flag and had it next-day shipped, in time to be prepared for the performance.

The concert that night began with the high school band and orchestra playing their pieces as well as a couple of selections from the fall high school musical, Sound of Music. All the performances were excellent and it was heartwarming to see that the great traditions of performance excellence at Heights were continued.

The old and young musicians finally assembled for their part in the concert. The old wrinkled chops came back to life and grandparents were playing like kids again. When it was time for the Holst Suite to be played, I realized how crazy I was to attempt this conducting chore. The band was shocked to see me on the podium instead of in the horn section. As I looked out in their faces, I sensed that they were saying, “OK Ken, we’re with you and we’re going to make this happen.” And they did. I was sweating buckets, but they were concentrating and somehow it worked. It was a great moment of everyone working together.

After the Holst, the final Stars and Stripes was played and emotions were high. Arthritic hips and knees prevented the old players from standing up as quickly as 50 years before, but there they were, proudly playing Sousa and pretending to be young again. They didn’t march up to the front but stood in place, magically the brand new flag was dropped at the right time, and those shiny brass instruments were raised and did their thing.

It was a thrilling moment for all. People in the audience cried and Alice Farinacci jumped out of her wheel chair to whoop and holler. The old magic of the Farinacci days came back, if just for a few hours.

Sadly there are no test scores for bands and orchestras to prove how good schools perform, but usually schools with excellent performing groups usually have great academics as well.

The Heights music program taught us discipline, pride, hard work and the importance of art in our lives.

The weekend in November is still being discussed and remembered by all of its participants. It was a perfect way to honor not only Mr. John F. Farinacci, but the profound importance that music and arts plays in our public schools.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Grapes of Wrath, the opera

The Michigan State University Opera Theater made a grand statement over the weekend, by mounting a production of the new opera by acclaimed composer Ricky Ian Gordon, "Grapes of Wrath".

Steinbeck's classic novel is the searing story of a poor Oklahoma family during the dust-bowl Depression period of the 30s, as they trek to California to find work, stay alive and remain a family unit.

This emotional and monumental story is perfect for an opera. Gordon's work (written for the Minnesota Opera) is almost four hours long and paints with the large musical brush used by Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and others.

Director Melanie Helton should be given kudos for attemping this challenging, contemporary music with her students. The music is filled with rich chords layered with close and tight harmonies. It takes a while to adjust your ear to understand the music language, but as the opera continues and the story unfolds, the music becomes ever more listenable, moving and powerful.

In general, however, the tempos rarely get beyond the ballad-style that is the majority of the opera. There were a few up-beat scenes, like the barker-like car salesmen and the cute restaurant sequence, but they were few and far between. The first act especially was slow with little stage action and there were many sleepers in the audience.

Zachary Campbell designed a stunning three-story set, with a wonderfully conceived truck that took the entire Joad clan out West. But the huge set was placed very close to the front of the stage, giving the actors little room to play their scenes. Also, that impressive truck was stuck inside the set, limiting its visual effectiveness.

But the singers (chorus and soloists - about 45 in number) were all excellent and sang this evocative piece with great conviction. Katie Ross was superb as Ma Joad, and Joshua Baum made a real impression as Jim Casey, the defrocked preacher (There were double casts during the weekend).

Everyone in America knows the story of Grapes of Wrath and they know that it is a dark story with little sunshine for the audience to enjoy. Gordon (with librettist Michael Korie) wrote a great opera that challenges the singers as well as the audience, but pacing and lighting could have improved the flow of the piece. Despite those problems, this was a production that MSU and Melanie Helton can be proud of. It packed an emotional punch and told a rich story. For sure, it was an unforgettable educational experience for the students.

DSO Update

On April 4th, an announcement was made that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and its musicians reached a tentative agreement, likely ending a six-month strike.

The agreement did not happen soon enough to save the ailing orchestra, however. After the previous breakdown of talks in January, the entire percussion section quit - some left for other orchestras, some just left. The DSO also lost principal flutist and Ann Arbor native Philip Dikeman who became a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

It takes great musicians to make great orchestras, and the loss of these valuable musicians is critical to its quality. Orchestras take great care and many years to choose its musicians. And then it takes even more years for the established ensemble to wrap itself around the new player.

Mark Stryker, from the Detroit Free Press, wrote, "The strike has taken an enormous tool. The DSO has lost millions in ticket income. Subscriptions have fallen to their lowest level in decades and it could take years to woo back audiences - and donors. The strike has also cost each musician at least $55,000."

What is the future of the Detroit Symphony? There are too many factors in play to give a good answer. We only have further questions:

In the current economic climate, can suffering Detroit support an orchestra of this reputation?

With less music taught in schools, is there still an audience for great acoustic symphonic music?

Should orchestras look at themselves more objectively - the style of the concerts, the music that is programmed, and the pay of the administrators and musicians - to make their survival more assured?

Are there more creative ways to finance orchestras?

One thing is clear: The once-proud Detroit Symphony Orchestra has been dealt a severe blow. Their future is still uncertain.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Great Stravinsky!

On February 5th, guest conductor Raphael Jimenez did an outstanding job leading the Michigan State University Symphony Orchestra in a program of 20th century music.

Although Jimenez (associate conductor of the orchestra) and his student musicians were very good with the works of Bartok and Debussy, they were astounding with the challenging Stravinsky ballet, "Petrushka". Jimenez, who conducts with no score, was riveted to each musician - cuing each entrance, cajoling each musical phrase, and generating lots of energy.

Stravinsky's music never stopped moving. Although written almost 100 years ago, "Petrushka" still is exciting and magical. Like a painter, Stravinsky uses the instruments to bring every possible color combination to the music.

Jimenez was a joy to watch. His face was communicating his joy in the music and his body swung with the rhythms as if he were about to sweep one of the violinists off her chair to join him in a dance.

This "Petrushka" was one of the finest performances I have every heard from the MSU Symphony Orchestra.

It's All About The Actors

As a theater critic I am always wrestling with the question: who/what is responsible for the quality of a performance? The director, the production value (sets, lighting, special effects), or the play itself?

I found the answer to that age old question when I was recently visiting Dallas, a city that has a new appreciation of its arts institutions. Despite the poor financial health of many of the US's arts institutions, Dallas is busy building a huge art complex in the city's downtown area.

The newest addition (Nasher Sculpture Center, Meyerson Symphony Hall and other small theaters are already there) is the stunning Winspear Opera House, named for the donors, Margot and Bill Winspear. They donated $42 mil that made the project possible.

The 2200-seat hall is bit big, but the horseshoe shape makes everybody close to the action and the acoustics seem excellent (although I heard an amplified show). It's a gorgeous facility and the stage is high tech in every way.

When I was there I saw the roadshow for the Mel Brooks musical "Young Frankenstein". What was interesting is that I saw the exact same company with the exact same show in Lansing one year before.

The only difference between the Dallas and Lansing version were a few of the lead roles. But that one change made a huge difference in the performance.

In Lansing, Roger Bart played Young Frankenstein, and Shuler Hensley was the monster. The Dallas production starred Christopher Ryan and Dave Schoonover in those parts.

The Dallas production was excellent - the direction was the same and the production was exactly the same. Even the actors were excellent. On the whole, I liked it very much, but something was missing - it didn't have that spark of personality and humor that jumps of the stage in a great production.

I remember very clearly the unique comic acting of Roger Bart in the lead role: Small understated actions, quirky expressions, quick and targeted reactions to other actors. And when it came to dancing, he was smooth and effortless.

And playing off Bart, Shuler Hensley was an outrageous monster. He was loud, large and very funny. He was hysterical during the "Puttin' on the Ritz" scene at the end.

If you hadn't seen Bart and Hensley in those roles, you would have been more than happy with Ryan and Schoonover as Frankenstein and his human invention. But what I witnessed that evening was the difference between good acting and superb acting. It is the stuff that makes a very good performance an exceptional one. It's the actors.

I witnessed a similar experience when I saw the roadshow of the Lincoln Center hit production of "South Pacific". I also saw the original cast (same director, similar sets) on a PBS special presentation. When Paulo Szot sang "You've Got To Be Taught" he did so with intense conviction and emotion. You sat up to take notice. Much different than the 'only good' roadshow acting and singing.

Great performers make great productions.