Pages from the Arts: September/October

Pages from the Arts: September/October

In our review of performing arts books: Biographies of 19th century actress Charlotte Cushman, violinist Isaac Stern, influential Black composer Florence B. Price, plus Paul Robeson and Comden and Green.

by Cathy Ritchie

published Wednesday, October 7, 2020

In Pages from the Arts  we review books on the subjects of what we cover on the site: theater, opera, classical music, dance, comedy, spoken word and film/TV with a stage connection. Look for our opinions on biographies, memoirs, histories, work about practice and theory, coffee table books and other tomes. These will be curated and mostly written by contributor Cathy Ritchie, who has retired from the Dallas Public Library and is now based in Urbana, Ill.

In this edition of Pages from the Arts, we have reviews of biographies of 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman and violinist Isaac Stern, and short takes on books about actor/activist Paul Robeson, early Black composer Florence Price, and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity

By Tana Wojczuk

Avid Reader Press, 2020

ISBN 9781501199523

226 pp.

 

The name Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876) likely rings few bells circa 2020, and that’s unfortunate. In the pre-YouTube, pre-CNN, pre-wall-to-wall news coverage era, aka the 19th century, she was widely acknowledged to be America’s finest actress and was undeniably the nation’s leading “celebrity” for a time. Tana Wojczuk’s brief but sparkling biography introduces us to both a fascinating era in theatrical history, and to an iconoclastic woman who embodied it all with talent and determination. She became largely identified with a particular body of work; as Wojczuk comments: “Throughout her career, she gave Shakespeare’s characters new life, keeping Shakespeare himself alive when his work could have become a dead thing on the page.” And on a personal level, Cushman consistently lived her life as she saw fit, as exemplified by her always-female romantic partners.

Cushman was born in 1816 Boston, and Massachusetts was always one of her home bases. She was forced to assume financial responsibility for her mother and siblings at a young age, leaving school early to start some sort of career, whatever it turned out to be. Probably opera, as Cushman by all accounts was blessed with an exceptional singing voice, ranging from soprano to her more natural contralto.

At a very early age, she did perform a few leading female operatic roles, but thus permanently strained her higher notes. Fortunately, she was advised by theatre managers of her acquaintance to try acting instead, and, astonishingly, made her stage debut as Lady Macbeth at age 19. She never looked back, despite the fact that young ladies making their living via the stage at this time were considered barely one step removed from prostitutes. Regardless, Cushman carried on, buoyed by her love for Shakespeare and the “classics,” and always motivated by the need to support her family.

At 5’7”, Cushman was tall for a woman of that era, and since her appearance and speaking voice always appeared somewhat “mannish,” it was perhaps inevitable that she would eventually tackle classic male roles such as Romeo and Hamlet, and so she did. But her celebrated female portrayals would include Nancy the prostitute from Oliver Twist, Queen Katharine from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, and, of course, Lady Macbeth. (Thanks to the latter role, Abraham Lincoln was her most ardent fan.)

Arguably, Cushman may have displayed a bit of Method acting in her role preparation: she often designed her own costume, arranged her own hair and makeup, and purposely kept herself separate from other cast members until moments before she was due on stage. Her unusual preparation worked: Charlotte Cushman soon became the most celebrated and idolized actress in America, with newspapers following her every move. After some periods of time spent performing in Europe, and traveling to theatres around the fledgling United States, Cushman gave her final stage performance, in Boston, in 1875.

Along the way, Cushman’s life was punctuated by several long-term relationships with women. These alliances were conducted matter-of-factly, though the actress made no effort to highlight their existence. Some naysayers putting two and two together may have looked askance at what appeared to be lesbian liaisons on her part, but Cushman was always determined to live without compromise. The worldwide professional adulation she created for herself carried the day. In 1876, Charlotte Cushman died of breast cancer in Boston, at age 59. 

Author Wojczuk has given readers both a lively, fact-filled biography of an amazing woman forging a remarkable artistic path, and a keen portrait of American theatrical life circa the 19th century, as the acting profession was forced to justify itself as a safe and meaningful artistic endeavor. This author succeeds on both counts: her efforts are highly recommended.

The Lives of Isaac Stern

The Lives of Isaac Stern

By David Schoenbaum

W.W. Norton & Company, 2020

ISBN 9780393634617

220 pp.

As this brief but informative book amply conveys, violinist Stern (1920-2001) was undeniably a multi-hat wearer, and no one could have called him an “accidental tourist”: he and his “fiddle” traveled extensively throughout his career. And one evening in the 1990s, his performing road even brought him to Decatur, Ill., where I had the privilege of being an audience member myself.

While readers wanting copious detail about Stern’s life (especially the personal stuff, including his three wives) should probably look elsewhere, including perhaps his own 1999 memoir My First 79 Years, Schoenbaum delivers a perceptive view of Stern’s peripatetic existence. As the author says in his preface: “[Stern] lived four [notable] lives, consecutively and concurrently, as immigrant kid, world-class professional, public citizen, and go-to guy in a startling variety of ways for a startling variety of causes and people.” Accordingly, Schoenbaum perceptively divides his text into several major sections: “Immigrant,” “Professional,” and “Public Citizen,” into which details of Stern’s various activities skillfully fit.

Stern was born in 1920 Poland but, as an “immigrant,” was raised in San Francisco. Stern always denied he was a musical child prodigy, but his violin ability revealed itself early and he became prominent as a masterful teenage performer. As a “professional,” his paths intersected with orchestras, chamber music groups, impresarios, recording studios, US Presidents and grateful audiences around the world. As a “public citizen,” he became deeply involved with the fledgling state of Israel; made professional inroads to China, resulting in the Oscar-winning 1981 documentary From Mao to Mozart; consistently encouraged new young musical talent, including Midori, Yo-Yo Ma and Pinchas Zukerman among many others; and perhaps most visibly, at least in New York City, became a key figure in the rescue and eventual restoration of the legendary performance venue Carnegie Hall. Stern’s energies rarely flagged up to his death in 2001 at age 81. As he himself once observed: “You can’t divorce yourself from the world.”

Schoenbaum offers readers a fact-filled journey through Isaac Stern’s multi-faceted activities, but one that is also briskly entertaining, with occasional sardonic touches. Not all his chronicles may be equally riveting, but the cumulative end result is admirable. As he summarizes at one point: “[Stern] had made his way from the social periphery to the Big Apple, from the peaks of virtuosity to the profundities of chamber music, from working musician to civic monument, and from adolescent promise to a prominent obituary in the New York Times.”  Lives well lived, for us all to share.

Here’s a brief look at some additional books you shouldn’t miss:

Sing and Shout- The Mighty Voice of Paul Robeson

Sing and Shout: The Mighty Voice of Paul Robeson

By Susan Goldman Rubin

Calkins Creek Publisher, 2020

ISBN 9781629798578

286 pp.

Oh, what a renaissance man was he! While many substantial biographies already abound detailing the life and works of this extraordinary artist, author Rubin offers a compact, though detail-packed, profile of the athlete/scholar/lawyer/actor/linguist/ singer/political activist, filled with interesting insight and lavishly illustrated with fine photographs. Robeson and his achievements as both performer and world citizen should never be forgotten, and Rubin’s absorbing book helps guarantee that fate will never arrive.

They Made Us Happy Betty Comden & Adolph Green’s Musicals & Movies

They Made Us Happy: Betty Comden & Adolph Green’s Musicals & Movies

By Andy Propst

Oxford University Press, 2019

ISBN 9780190630935

272 pp.

I once saw a magazine article for which celebrities had been asked with what famous person(s), alive or dead, s/he would most like to spend an evening. My own choice, Broadway nerdette that I am: Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The sheer volume of both stage and screen works created and/or nurtured by this amazing duo, and the celebrity paths they crossed, still inspire my awe. To name a few: Singin’ In the Rain, Auntie Mame, On The Town, Bells Are Ringing, Will Rogers Follies, Band Wagon, Subways Are For Sleeping, Hallelujah Baby, Applause, On The Twentieth Century and many others. In the pair’s first dual biography, author Propst chronologically outlines their lives and works, separately and as a team. General readers, along with those with nostalgia in their veins, will enjoy this homage.

The Heart of a Woman - The Life and Music of Florence B. Price

The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price

By Rae Linda Brown

University of Illinois Press, 2020

ISBN 9780252043239

295 pp.

The hills are alive with the sound of Florence Price’s music these days. My Urbana, Illinois 24/7 classical station programs her by the hour, it seems. And justifiably so: Price (1887-1953) was the first African-American woman composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra, and her lifetime compositional output was astounding in its quantity and variety. Brown offers both an overview of Price’s life and also selected analyses of her compositions. While some sections of the text may be better suited to musical scholars and professionals, Brown performs a welcome and timely service in acquainting general readers with an amazing woman who contributed so much to both my local music station’s playlists, and to orchestral repertoire everywhere.

PREVIOUSLY IN PAGES FROM THE ARTS 

 

2017

  • February: A Mary Martin biography, Joel Grey’s autobiography, Jack Viertel’s book about the structure of musicals, and a book about playwriting by T.J. Walsh of Trinity Shakespeare Festival
  • March: A memoir from Broadway legend Barbara Cook, a history of the Bolshoi Ballet, and a helpful primer on classical music.
  • April: Two biographies of legendary pianist Van Cliburn, namesake for the upcoming 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; a story of African-American opera singer Ryan Speedo Green; a chronicle of a summer repertory production of Much Ado About Nothing; and gorgeous book (and CD) for musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
  • May: A book about Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre, a portrait of how Venezuela’s El Sistema became a model for publicy funded music education, and a biography of the late comedian Joan Rivers.
  • June: Three memoirs from classical musicians: Andrea Avery’s Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano; Min Kym’s Gone: A Girl, A Violin, a Life Unstrung; and Marcia Butler’s The Skin Above My Knee: A Memoir.
  • July: Dominic Dromgoole’s chronicle of taking the Globe Theatre’s Hamlet to nearly 200 countries; a new biography of dance/choreoraphy legend Gene Kelly; and the script of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat.
  • August: Biographies Sam Sephard and stage and screen actress Teresa Wright; and the script of David-Lindsay Abaire’s Ripcord. 
  • September: A biography of Sarah Vaughan, an informative journey through theatrical history, and the scrip of Martyna Majok’s play Ironbound
  • October: A biography of choreographer Katherine Dunham, a new book by acclaimed set designer David Hays, and the script of the play Application Pending
  • November: A biography of singer Julie London, a history of the stand-up comedy club The Improv, and a look at Annie Baker’s 2016 play John.
  • December: Memoirs by jazz musician Fred Hersch and coloratura soprano Charity Tillemann-Dick, and a biography of turn-of-the-20th-century actor M.B. Curtis.

2018

  • January: Biographies of acclaimed and award-winning actress Anne Bancroft, quixotic pianist Glenn Gould, plus the scripts of Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton, and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue.
  • February: A memoir by director/producer Harold Prince; an introduction to classical music by Jan Swafford; Rick Elice’s love letter to the late Roger Rees; Jenna Fischer’s survival book for actors; and the script of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale.
  • March: John Mauceri on the art of conducting, a memoir by ballet great David Hallberg, a memoir by British actor Tim Pigott-Smith, an interesting look at Paul Robeson, and the script of Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale.
  • April: Biographies of Sophie Tucker and Richard Wagner, and Nicholas Hytner’s memoir of his time at the National Theatre of London.
  • May: A tome about Angels in America, a memoir about music as therapist, and Paula Vogel’s Indecent.
  • June: memoirs from actress Christine Lahti and Leonard Bernstein’s personal assistant; Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer-winning Cost of Living.
  • July: A biography of Rodgers and Hammerstein, a memoir from polio-stricken pianist Carol Rosenberger, and Robert Askin’s Hand to God.
  • August: A new biography of Bob Fosse, a primer on how to watch ballet, and the definitive Broadway plays and musicals.
  • September: A memoir from Andrew Lloyd Webber; a lesson from Leslie Odom, Jr.; and Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2.
  • October: A memoir from Sally Field; and the rivalry between Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse
  • November: A memoir from director Kenny Leon, an easy guide to jazz, and Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin.
  • December: A new biography of Jerome Robbins, an ode to the art of opera, and the script of The Band’s Visit.

2019

  • February: A book about the past and future of the New York City Opera; the script to Will Power’s Fetch Clay, Make Man
  • March to October: On hiatus
  • November/December: A memoir by Dallas arts philanthropist Donna Wilhelm, trailblazing women of comedy, a rembrance of Woodstock, and the script of Elise Forier Edie’s The Pink Unicorn.

2020

  • January/February Chicago-based theater critic Karen Topham reviews P. Carl’s Becoming a Man; and Cathy Ritchie reviews new biographies of actress Elaine Stritch and blues-rocker Janis Joplin, and a detailed look at a great American story-song.
  • March/April: a new memoir from actor Gary Sinise, a biography of Ray Bolger, and a guide to Sci-Fi cinema.
  • May/June: New biographies of actors and writers Carrie Fisher and Patty Duke

July/August: A biography of the singer Odetta, a dishy chronicle of the making of the film Valley of the Dolls, and Andy Propst’s thoughts on the 100 most important people in musical theater

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Spaced Out

Bradley Hunter Welch, organ – Photo: Courtesy the artist

Spaced Out

The Dallas Symphony returns to the Meyerson this weekend, with reduced capacity and safety protocols. Here’s a report on Friday’s concert.

by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

published Saturday, September 5, 2020

 

Dallas — Performing arts organizations are beginning to peek out from their COVID-19 bomb shelters. The pandemic was a tsunami that silenced live arts worldwide. But recently, although the virus still reigns supreme, cautious and reformatted concert season announcements are reappearing in my email inbox as such organizations figure out how to proceed.

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra shuttered live performance back in March, and after a summer of some online performances, is cautiously reopening the Meyerson with limited seating. The Fall opening concert only used the brass and percussion sections augmented by the Lay Family Organ. Actually, it was a pre-season amuse-bouche because the classical  concert series will officially open next weekend with the newly minted Music Director Fabio Luisi and pianist Yefim Bronfman dishing up some Beethoven.

But Friday night’s brass, percussion and organ extravaganza was quite an experience. Separated from the entire orchestra, this concert allowed DSO dedicatees to appreciate two of the sections that makes up the orchestra’s collection of superb players. Further, with the stage denuded of the risers that the full ensemble requires, the sound was quite different — deeper and more resonant and burnished.

This was also a golden opportunity to hear the rarely used Lay Family Organ and admire the virtuosic artistry of DSO organist, Bradley Hunter Welch.

Because the audience was limited to 75, the 2,000-seat Meyerson felt empty, as though we were attending a rehearsal. Other precautions included limiting the concert to one-hour, no intermission (to reduce the chance of mingling), and mandatory masks.

The program had some patriotic overtones that would have been more appropriate for a Fourth of July Celebration. However, it was made up of such excellent music, mostly arranged but some originally written for the available forces, that no one cared.

Conductor Sarah Hicks – Photo: Minnesota Orchestra

Since this was the first concert of the season, it had to open with our national anthem. A couple of arrangers gave J. S. Smith’s controversial tune a dignified and original setting and the scant audience dutifully stood for its performance.

Adolphus Hailstork’s energetic American Fanfare followed. His music combines his African American roots with the European classical music he learned from composer David Diamond and a stint with the famous pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. His American Fanfare is an exciting roller-coaster ride through all of his influences and energized by mixed meter.

Speaking of fanfares, Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man is probably the best known of all of them. This was the most dramatic performance of the evening. DSO’s timpanist Brain Jones was impressive as he made the low-pitch drums speak with clarity without overpowering the ensemble.

Eugene Gigout, the French turn-of-the century organist and composer, was represented by his two best-known works. Welch tore into his virtuoso showpiece, Toccata in B minor, with impressive fingers and clever registrations. Gigout’s other work on the program, Grand Choeur et Dialogue, was a hit as arranged for organ and brass by trumpeter Rolf Smedvig. The original version is a dialogue between the different ranks on concert organs. Smedvig turned it into a dialogue between the brass ensemble and the organ. Both Gigout pieces were excellently played, revealing the intricacies of the composer’s style.

Michael Kamen’s “Dectet for Brass” was revelatory, demonstrating the composer’s abilities, which are harder to distinguish in his many film scores. The work started out with a beautiful horn solo, marvelously played by DSO’s Haley Hoops. Hoops set the mood of the work, which was adapted by the entire ensemble. It was a terrific performance.

Welsh tore into Charles Ives’ Variations on “America”, a satiric set of virtuosic variations for organ. Welsh made the most of it playing the work with its intended humor at the forefront. You had to love the bird twitter stop! Welsh was impressive all evening.

A less than satisfactory arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky’s

“The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga)” and “Great Gate of Kiev,” from his Pictures at an Exhibition. Familiarity with the original version for piano and Maurice Ravel’s technicolor orchestration, made this sparse arrangement sound slightly vacant. Adding a part for organ for the occasion would have been an improvement.

An arrangement of “La Rejouissance” and “Minuet/Trio,” a selection from Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, as arranged for brass, added some welcome music from the Baroque era. Two Sousa marches, “The Washington Post March” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” ended the program with some zip. Special mention has to go to DSO’s tubaist Matthew Good, who played the famous piccolo descant on his usually more lumbering instrument with impressive pizzazz.

Sarah Hicks conducted. I had trouble figuring out what she was doing, as did the musicians, which caused sloppy playing, unregulated dynamics, and an occasional dissolution of ensemble.

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Reduced But Full

Reduced capacity at the Meyerson when the Dallas Symphony performed on Sept. 10, 2020 - Photo Sylvia Elzafon

Reduced capacity at the Meyerson when the Dallas Symphony performed on Sept. 10, 2020 – Photo: Sylvia Elzafon

Reduced But Full

The Dallas Symphony opened its first official season with Fabio Luisi as Music Director, and he didn’t disappoint on works by Brahms and Beethoven.

by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

published Saturday, September 12, 2020

Dallas — The Dallas Symphony Orchestra opened its 2020 season on Thursday evening but it was very different from previous such occasions. Gone was the sweep of designer gowns and the display of men trapped in an old and now-ill-fitting tux. The small audience was restricted to just a few, who were forlornly scattered in the cavernous Meyerson Symphony Center. It looked like the attendance you might expect at a concert with an announced  program of the complete works of Anton Webern.

This COVID-19 era completely shut down live performances starting in March and this concert is a brave and successful effort by DSO president and CEO Kim Noltemy to arise and present a modified season. The results were displayed on this opening concert and it was a marvelous experience.

The small and masked audience of less than 100 souls or so were people drawn from the pool of subscribers and scattered throughout the hall. There were only 35 musicians on the stage. Strings were masked but not the winds, who obviously need access to their mouth to play. The chamber-sized orchestra was necessarily spaced out on the extended stage.

The original programming was filled with huge works. We would have heard the U.S. premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Frontispiece,  Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with Yefim Bronfman, and Copland’s thrilling Third Symphony.

Fabio Luisi conducts the Dallas Symphony on Sept. 10, 2020 - Photo Sylvia Elzafon

Fabio Luisi conducts the Dallas Symphony on Sept. 10, 2020 – Photo: Sylvia Elzafon

But this concert was programed with audience pleasing works that were suitable for a chamber sized orchestra. Beethoven’s classically oriented Piano Concerto No. 2 and his modest, but also assertive, Symphony No. 8. So, the DSO was distilled down to its  parfum, a concentration of its very best players. The result is a matchless chamber orchestra made up of exceptional artists.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 19, was actually his first, but the concerto in C-major was the first to be published in 1795 so it claimed the name of Piano Concerto Number 1,  leaving his earlier effort, not published 1801, the name of No. 2.

What this means is that the second concerto is Mozartian in form and style. However, the later Beethoven occasionally peeks out with some drama and musical contrasts that marked his later works. Beethoven was always unhappy with the pianoforte of his early days. He pushed the makers to do more. He wanted more sound and a wider range than they offered. Since he was the leading pianist and composer of his day, the pianoforte manufactures listened and started on the path to the modern piano.

All this background is necessary when judging a performance of this work. Fortunately, Bronfman captured this hybrid style with effortless perfection. Music director Fabio Luisi was right with him, both stylistically and in ensemble.

Bronfman’s technical excellence allowed him to offer a reading with clarity and mixing the light touch of the classical period with the more robust sounds that are found in Beethoven’s later works. His hushed moments were beautiful and he never overplayed the piano when delivering Beethoven’s demands for more sound. He also played cadenzi written by Beethoven, instead of some later and showier offerings. The finale got a rousing performance and the scattered audience gave both Luisi and Bronfman a spontaneous standing ovation.

Beethoven’s eighth symphony stands between two giants, his No. 7 and the massive No. 9. In a way, like the second concerto, this is a refreshing, even classically oriented, symphony crammed full of cross rhythms, motivic development, and sudden dynamic contrasts from very soft to very loud. However, it is full of musical jokes that Luisi mostly ignored.

Other than that, this was a superb performance. With the chamber-sized orchestra, this reading is closer to how Beethoven would have heard the work. Beethoven conducted the premiere but he reportedly made a mess of it due to his advancing deafness.

By contrast, Luisi was completely in charge. His conducting without a baton had the effect of condensing his podium technique to a body-sized frame, which made the moments he burst out of such restrictions all the more effective and thrilling. Yet he wasn’t tied to his technique. His gestures actually conducted the music in addition to the tempi. Beethoven’s oddly placed accents came out of the texture like hammer strikes. Beethoven’s tempi and harmonic sudden changes were meticulously observed, but, again, the humorous jokes were missing.

Still, this was a unique, carefully crafted and creatively considered reading.

The reduced orchestra delivered exactly what Luisi asked for and played a wonderful performance. Considering this was the first time these players were in a spread-out chamber formation, and were returning from a six-month hiatus, the ensemble was surprisingly together and intonation was remarkable.  

Lastly, solo bows at the end went to deserving players but, in my opinion the bassoonist should have been included. 

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Reduced capacity at the Meyerson when the Dallas Symphony performed on Sept. 10, 2020 - Photo: Sylvia ElzafonThe Dallas Symphony opened its first official season with Fabio Luisi as Music Director, and he didn't disappoint on works by Brahms and Beethoven.by Gregory...

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Digital Chamber

The Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth performing for the Sept. 12 broadcast - Photo YouTube

The Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth performing for the Sept. 12 broadcast Photo: YouTube

Digital Chamber

The Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth opened its season with an online performance celebrating Hungarian music.

by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

published Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Fort Worth — The virtual concert seasons have begun. As performing arts try to save themselves in this COVID-19 era, a wide range of alternative methods are beginning to appear, including drive-in venues. On Saturday, the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth chose to keep the intimate nature of chamber music by opening the season with an online concert (it will present online concerts in October and November).

There was a tinge of the familiar because the program originated in their usual venue, the auditorium at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The concert met the high standards we have come to expect from CMSFW ever since Gary Levinson took over as artistic director.

The safety requirements these days sacrifices the camaraderie of the audience, an important element of CMSFW’s recent successes. Because of the intimacy of the hall, the regulars in the audience, many of them long-time supporters, even have their favorite chair. But, alas, this is the way life is these days and probably will be for a few seasons. We have to adjust.

The concert was prerecorded, mostly because of the massive amount of equipment required to make such a program video-worthy, both sight and sound-wise. The result was excellent. The instruments were all balanced with each other; a difficult result to create.

This concert was programmed around Hungarian music. Thus, the main work on the program was Antonin Dvořák’s divine Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81. This is a surefire audience pleaser and a personal favorite of yours truly.

In a 30-minute pre-concert talk, CMSFW presented a conversation between Levinson and the celebrated program annotator and writer Laurie Shulman. It was quite fascinating and made full use of the video medium by showing many visuals and playing brief excepts. Schulman gave us the academics and Levinson gave us the viewpoint of the players. When the concert started, we were prepped for Hungarianism. To underpin this, the program opened with two related amuse-gueules before the main course.

Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance in E minor, Op. 72, No. 2, was sensitively played by Aaron Boyd, the Director of Chamber Music and Professor of Violin at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts. Next up was a fiery performance of Johannes Brahms‘ Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G minor, from Op. 65a, delivered with aplomb by Levinson.

The second movement of the set, played here, is based on the dance form named starodávný, which means “old one” or “ancient one,” implying a very old genesis. The languid mood of the beautiful and haunting melody has made it a favorite. Boyd caught the essence of the dance and gave an involving performance.

In contrast, Levinson, in his role as violinist, launched a blaze of notes with Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5. This work is probably one of the best-known selections in all of classical music, heard in everything from serious movies to wacky cartoons. This movement is based on tunes Brahms gathered from Roma festivals and they represent the great variety of moods from very fast, even frantic, to languid and even sexy. Levinson captured all of this perfectly, but he especially shone in the fast virtuoso passages.

After all of this, we were eager for the main course of Dvořák’s much-loved Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81.

Viollinists Levinson and Boyd were joined by pianist Baya Kakouberi, violist Dmitry Kustanovich, and cellist Allan Steele. Kakouberi is known internationally as a superb solo and collaborative pianist. Kustanovich and Steele are both in the Fort Worth Symphony.

When the quintet started, the serene and beautiful main theme was as entrancing as ever with Alan Steele’s rendition. His cello sound is both warm and assertive. The explosion that followed woke us from our reverie. Later on, Levinson took the melody in a higher octave and, hearing it that way, answered the question of why Dvořák first gave to the warm tenor singing quality of the cello for its first presentation. It was still beautiful but somehow not as warm or comforting played on the violin in its upper register.

In the first movement, the quartet and Kakouberi handed the music’s melodic units between them in such a smooth fashion that the listener could barely notice. Thanks to the ensemble skill of the players, the opening theme kept peeking out until it was finally recapitulated.

Kakouberi played the entire quintet without a page turner and with the ease of visiting an old friend. Her balance with the string quartet was always exact, coming forward when requested and then fading back into the texture.

In another innovative opening, the second movement opens with a viola solo. Kustanovich certainly gave it its due, with his viola’s deep, musky or slightly muted sound. Words to describe it fail me; all violas sound different by a degree. His is unmistakably viola-ish, but still has enough brilliance to sound out clearly in the ensemble without sounding like a violin. The passage, with short offbeats, is always an ensemble challenge, but here they were quite precise. Also, tempo was right on in the middle movement.

The third movement is a sparkler of virtuosity and rhythmic diversity. It was only missing the foot stops so characteristic of this kind of music in Roma hands. It started out on the fast side but settled down after the first tempo change. However, it was straining at the reins for most of the movement. But it sure was exciting.

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Cliburn Competition Postponed

Cliburn Competition Postponed

Due to pandemic-related challenges, the 16th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition has been moved to 2022; other Cliburn contests also change.

by TJ Staff

published Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Fort Worth — Big pandemic news regarding the biggest international arts event in North Texas, the Cliburn’s quadriennial International Piano Competition. It is being moved back a year, from 2021 to 2022; and that changes the timing of the other Cliburn competitions, too, for this cycle only.

Below is the full news release:

  • national Junior Piano Competition and Festival

Details for the Amateur and Junior Competitions to be announced as venue and other confirmations are made. 

The Cliburn announces today that the 16th edition of its flagship Van Cliburn International Piano Competition will now be held June 2–18, 2022, at Bass Performance Hall and Van Cliburn Concert Hall at TCU, in Fort Worth, Texas, USA. The Competition was previously slated for May 27–June 12, 2021.

The Cliburn Competition is a once-every-four-years opportunity for us to showcase exceptional artists to the world, to bring the international classical music community together in Fort Worth, to create a singular event for our hometown, and, in the end, to launch careers. It’s become clear in recent months that the continuing effects of the pandemic will prevent us from producing an event at the level and with the impact that our patrons, our supporters, and—most importantly—our competitors deserve. Now, with a clear path forward, we can plan a Competition that will achieve new heights and be a fitting celebration of international strength and unity after such challenging times.

We look forward to celebrating with you in 2022, and, in the meantime, watch for upcoming announcements that will offer opportunities to connect with the Cliburn and with stellar artists in the coming months.

No action is necessary for patrons who have already purchased tickets for the 2021 Cliburn Competition; their purchase will automatically transfer to the postponed dates. Premium subscriptions remain on sale and are available HERE. Other subscription packages and individual tickets will go on sale in 2021.

The Cliburn’s competition cycle will change, for this period only, to:

  • June 2–18, 2022 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
  • Fall 2022 Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition

June 2023 Cliburn Intere.

2017 Cliburn gold medalist Yekwon Sunwoo – Photo: Ralph Lauer

The Cliburn decided to postpone the Competition, a first since the organization’s inception in 1962, citing the following:

Social distancing and safety protocols for in-person events – the vibrancy of the Cliburn Competition is built around the energy of the audience. Though the Cliburn is a leader in classical music webcasting, the in-person atmosphere is an element that also sets it apart; the competitors remember the warmth of patrons in Fort Worth for many years after. The health of the patrons is of utmost importance, and postponing will offer the opportunity to safely gather.

International travel – the international nature of the Competition is foundational, and it is uncertain if people from all around the globe (competitors, attendees, press) will be able to or feel comfortable with traveling to Texas in 2021.

Winners’ touring – The primary goal of the Competition is the launch of careers. Doing so at a time when concert tours have been suspended is not in the best interest of the new winners.

Planning uncertainty – the planning of the Competition is a complex, multiyear process, which is obviously hindered by the unpredictability of the pandemic globally.

 

NEW DATES

  • October 14, 2021 |Application submission deadline
  • March 6–12, 2022 | Screening Auditions*
  • March 30, 2022 | Announcement of competitors to the public
  • June 2, 2022 | Competition begins
  • June 18, 2022 | Awards ceremony

* For the first time, the Screening Auditions will be held in the Cliburn’s hometown, Fort Worth, Texas. Seventy-two applicants will be chosen to perform a 25-minute recital in front of a live audience and the Screening Jury. From those, 30 will be selected to return to Fort Worth in June to compete.

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Fort Worth Opera Names General Director

Roderick Cox - roderickcox.com

Afton Battle – Photo: Courtesy Fort Worth Opera

Fort Worth Opera Names General Director

Former opera singer Afton Battle becomes the organization’s eighth General Director, effective immediately.

by TJ Staff

published Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Fort Worth — This week the Fort Worth Opera named its eighth general director, Texas native and former opera singer Afton Battle. Read the news release below, and look for an interview with Ms. Battle coming on TheaterJones.

Fort Worth Opera (FWO) is delighted to announce that after a six-month international search, the Board of Trustees has proudly chosen Afton Battle to become the company’s eighth general director, effective immediately. The appointment of Ms. Battle, a native of Amarillo, marks a return to her home state of Texas, where she graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in Voice Performance, before attending Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey and receiving a Master of Music in Voice Performance and Pedagogy. After carving out a successful career as a young operatic singer, she became a highly regarded Arts Administrator, Development Director and Consultant in the art, ballet, and theater worlds of Chicago and New York City, masterminding several significant corporate campaigns, before joining Fort Worth Opera this month to lead the company.

“We are thrilled to announce that Afton will be our new General Director. Her warmth, energy, focus, and fresh perspectives on our beloved art form make her ideally suited to lead us into Fort Worth Opera’s 75th anniversary and beyond,” says Fort Worth Opera Board Chair Nelson E. Claytor, Ph.D. “Our search process was thorough and rigorous, with many excellent candidates, and I cannot say enough to thank the outstanding search committee, staff, and Board for their dedication throughout this process. Opera, and all the performing arts, face  great challenges in this time when we cannot gather  in the theater—but with Afton’s leadership I am confident that we will meet those challenges, become even more closely connected to our community, and come out of this difficult time stronger than ever.”

Ms. Battle comes to Fort Worth Opera following development and strategic consulting work with Red Clay Dance Company, the National Black Theatre, the African American Policy Forum, and Brooklyn arts and culture firm Red Olive Consulting. She was previously the Director of Development for the New York Theatre Workshop, Director of the Annual Campaign for America’s premiere ballet company, The Joffrey Ballet, and the Corporate and Foundation Relations and Individual Giving Manager for the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to that, she served as the Program and Grants Manager for Bank Street College of Education in New York. As Ms. Battle joins Fort Worth Opera this season, she gratefully acknowledges Angelique Clay, President of the Field Foundation, and Mila Gibson, voice teacher, music educator, and founder of Amarillo Opera, for their mentorship, guidance, and career development advice that encouraged her to pursue a path in opera and arts administration.

“Fort Worth Opera is in an incredibly unique position — one of rebirth, evolution, and change,” says Battle. “I am excited to work in collaboration with Maestro Illick, the Board of Trustees, and our talented staff to take the company to the next level as FWO celebrates its diamond anniversary in 2021.

“The core values that are rooted in my very being will guide me as I lead FWO in eradicating inequities, celebrating our differences in diversity and promoting racial justice by offering thought-provoking opera that transcends the boundaries of language and cultural backgrounds. By incubating and nourishing the talent of singers, composers, librettists, and directors of all races, orientations, and ethnicities, we will create an organization where diversity and inclusivity are woven into our DNA.

“I have been chosen to steer this amazing company, and together we will focus on expanding our reach and engagement into communities that have been historically marginalized (Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, LGBTQIA) by forging relationships with community leaders and stakeholders. Through innovative programming and rich partnerships, we will commune a vibrant network of engaged young professionals, build back the trust and support of the community who hold us up, and gradually move away from the festival season back to a year-round format. The work ahead of us will undoubtedly be difficult, but I am confident in the abilities of this incredible staff and Board to inspire this great city. We will become the People’s Opera Company.”

Ms. Battle’s long-term vision for Fort Worth Opera includes a commitment to forging new alliances with local arts organizations, bolstering current partnerships, expanding civic engagement through the company’s acclaimed educational programs and initiatives, and building a world-class Resident and Studio Artist Program to encourage and foster the growth of the next generation of emerging young opera singers. In addition to continuing FWO’s long legacy of offering a balance of operatic jewels, classic warhorses and cutting-edge contemporary works each season, Ms. Battle is dedicated to leveling the field of equity, inclusivity, and equality both on and off the stage. Upcoming seasons will expand upon the company’s successful Noches de Òpera programming and feature an even greater variety of fascinating stories, celebrating Fort Worth’s rich cultural mosaic.

“Afton Battle is a force of nature who will catapult Fort Worth Opera into the national spotlight,” say FWO Artistic Director, conductor and composer Joe Illick. “She has a brilliant mind, boundless energy, a genuine connection with the Fort Worth community, a deep love and understanding of opera, and above all, a real compassion for humanity that will be a guiding light for all that Fort Worth Opera does in the years to come. We are so fortunate to have her leading us! I feel inspired and excited to have this wonderful opportunity to work together with Ms. Battle.”

On May 29, 1946, three bold musicians, Eloise MacDonald Snyder, Betty Berry Spain, and Jeanne Axtell Walker, filed for a state corporation charter under the name Fort Worth Civic Opera Association. 74 years later, the company has become the longest continually active municipal opera association in Texas and the 14th oldest opera company in the United States. Under the leadership of Ms. Battle, FWO is poised to rise as an industry forerunner in artistic vitality, dedicated to serving the entire population of North Texas, while providing unparalleled access to the art form for the uninitiated, and bringing opera out into the community like never before.

 

ABOUT FORT WORTH OPERA: Founded in 1946, Fort Worth Opera is the oldest continually-performing opera company in Texas, and one of the 14 oldest opera companies in the United States. The organization has received national acclaim from critics and audiences alike for its artistic excellence. Beginning in 2017, Fort Worth Opera launched the second phase of its landmark, 10-year Opera of the Americas initiative with Noches de Ópera (Nights of Opera), a groundbreaking campaign that introduces powerful operas, each reflecting the diverse cultures of American audiences. 

Fort Worth Opera is sponsored in part by awards from The Arts Council of Fort Worth & Tarrant County, The City of Fort Worth, the Texas Commission on the Arts, and OPERA America. Additional Fort Worth Opera sponsors include: the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; The Burnett Foundation; the Amon G. Carter Foundation; the Sid W. Richardson Foundation; Visit Fort Worth; Adeline & George McQueen Foundation, J.P. Morgan, Trustee; Smallwood Foundation,

J.P. Morgan, Trustee; Hattie Mae Lesley Foundation, Bank of America, Trustee; Virginia Hobbs Charitable Trust, Simmons Bank, Trustee; Garvey Texas Foundation; Mary Potishman Lard Trust; Fifth Avenue Foundation; The Thomas M. Helen McKee and John P. Ryan Foundation; R4 Foundation; Red Oak Foundation; The Rea Charitable Trust, Wells Fargo Trustee; Wells Fargo Foundation; and Autobahn.

American Airlines is the Official Airline of Fort Worth Opera.

Arts and Culture Texas Magazine is the Official Media Sponsor of Fort Worth Opera

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