Notes from Philly

ValdesWordPress.com weblog

Archive for May 2010

Sound the trumpets: Black Pearl

leave a comment »

Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra
Jeri Lynne Johnson, music director
with Rodney Mack Philadelphia Big Brass
Baptist Temple, Temple University
May 29, 2010
Airs June 2

Black Pearl, Philadelphia newest chamber orchestra turned the close of its first season into a celebration at the renovated Baptist Temple Saturday night. Maestra Jeri Lynne Johnson, a conductor who has smart ideas about programming, even if they don’t all work (and better ones about community!) mixed and matched her Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra with her principal trumpeter Rodney Mack’s Philadelphia Big Brass. The first half: lyric shorts by Americans Copland, Bloch, Ellis Marsalis and George Walker, came and went, easy and well.

Good strings are expected here, Black Pearl has them. Ms. Johnson is fortunate in her soloists, Mack’s trumpet was arresting in Copland’s movie score, Quiet City, Geoffrey Deemer’s English horn intense; the piece was the highlight of the first half with George Walker’s Pulitzer- winning understated Lyric Suite running a close second.

The second half mixed pops and classics performed by Rodney Mack’s six- year- old ensemble The Philadelphia Big Brass. A Rossini overture, a howling good quintet version of “He Walks with Me,” Elgar’s Nimrod variation and the finale to Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Rodney Mack is a fabulous entertainer with a fine sound but he spoils things leaning too hard on a phrase, stretching or overstating like the toreador solo that he played to the house. His better gift is to support superlative musicians: Tubist and arranger Matt Brown, leader and trumpeter Wayne du Maine, whose part time gigs include playing the Met Opera and leading the South Pacific on Broadway now; du Maine led the better part of the Big Brass’s second half and when he was playing his tone was Brita pure. Rex Richardson’s trumpet made a blistering impression (Look him up on YouTube;) Jose Sibaja from Miami by way of Costa Rica with the Boston Brass. Johnson led the brass in the finale from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, which began ragged and turned tornado. It’s good to know the Black Pearl has access to these virtuosos. , marketable enterprise. Certainly it’s time has come.

But the best was the encore “Billie Jean.” Three trumpets Richardson, Sibaja and du Maine trading, no! igniting riffs on MIchael Jackson – in the beauty of Baptist Temple’s green glass windows. This was thrilling.

NB: They also have Board Chair James Undercoffler, the Drexel professor of arts admin and former president and CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra before he threw up his hands at the deficit and other ills there. Let’s hope Undercoffler sees Black Pearl as more manageable. Word is Ms. Johnson, who trained at Wellesley, and U. of Chicago, has excellent funding, including fine family backing. The maestra once served as assistant conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.

Havel’s Leaving

leave a comment »

Leaving (Vaclav Havel)
U.S. Premiere
The Wilma
May 26-June 20, 2010
It’s a big deal to get the U.S. premiere of Vaclav Havel’s first play in 20 years. It’s a big deal to get David Strathairn for the lead. “Leaving” by the former president of the Czech Republic is mild political satire rather than laugh- a- minute comedy. The writing is bittersweet, clever; the structure weak.
At The Wilma where the play runs through June 20, Strathairn plays the unseated Chancellor Vilem Rieger. Surrounded by a retinue of 15, the well-dreseed dreamer hangs on to his villa and his, cherry orchard, while his bossy blonde companion Irena manages his interviews, his wardrobe, his pantry, and the deaf butler.

One great device in Leaving is the Voice of the Author, which interrupts at theatrical uncertainties. It’s not Havel’s voice but the god like F. Murray Abraham’s. The gimmick surprise us the first and second time then doesn’t; better to fix the dull spots rather than muse on them. Leaving was begun in 1989 before Havel took office. Except the main character’s attractiveness to women and belief in democracy, there’s little in passive Vilem’s character to suggest our playwriting political hero.
Leaving is full of puns including those on his name; its allusions to Lear and Chekov will be apparent. Director Jiri Zizka well steers the ‘hububs’ that take the cast into dream sequences. If only he could snap things along. Heads were nodding the night I attended.

Kathryn Meisle makes a sassy Irena; Janis Dardaris the old mother. Peter De Laurier is a wonderful Hanus. There are two self absorbed daughters, one almost evil; a grad student on the make, a Mafioso style new prime minister. Grand doors and small permit the entrances and exits (and a delightful rain sequence) that keep the play in motion circling the indecisive Villem going nowhere. Strathairn is so fine an actor I wish this play gave him something better to do than dither. Leaving is not quite absurd enough or poignant enough though its points about loss and denial are real. Like Villem, it waffles.

Written by Lesley Valdes

May 30, 2010 at 1:08 pm

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

with one comment

file0504

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Philadelphia Theater Company and
Baltimore Stage

May 26-June 13, 2010
Suzanne Roberts Theatre
Airs May 28, 2010

A sponsor of the Philadelphia Theater Company’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the first of August Wilson’s 10 plays about the African American experience, welcomed diversity onto the stage of the Suzanne Roberts Theater the other night. Wilson’s great cycle is both black and color blind. Ma Rainey’s blues band in Chicago, 1920 endures racial slings and injustices but it comprises characters found in any in family black or white. Who doesn’t recognize Toledo, the piano player with his nose in a book? The philosopher who knows and can’t help explaining everything. Toledo’s so full of wisdom he amuse us when we’re not tuning him out. Thomas Jefferson Byrd’s. who was nominated for a Tony, when he played this role on Broadway) is perfect. He is funny and a bore; the molasses delivery, the expressive fingers. Toledo exasperates the Levee of Maurice McRae, the cool shark with his sharp shoes and coiled heart. More understanding are the band members: Slow Drag(the amiable Ernest Perry) whose way of life appears pleasure and whose string bass is the perfect metaphor. Cutler (David Fonteno) the leader who reins everyone in as they wait for diva Ma to come to the recording sessions she is going to rule for there is a battle going on between management and talent across the racial divide of the times. Because she gets her way in little else, Ma Rainey rules by terror.
But must Barrymore winner E. Faye Butler be so strident? Yes, the voice is powerful but she doesn’t sound like a blues singer. Too many tones are bitter.
As her nephew Sylvester, 23- year- old Ro Boddee has pivotal part as the stuttering nephew.
The director is Irene Lewis, from Baltimore’s CenterStage.
The music director for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is William McDaniels.
Keeping the upstairs and downstairs on the same flat boards – lacks imagination for
such a powerful work.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Philadelphia Theatre Company
May 26-June 13, 2010
Suzanne Roberts Theatre
Airs May 28, 2010

A sponsor of the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the first of August Wilson’s 10 plays about the African -American experience, welcomed diversity onto the stage of the Suzanne Roberts Theater the other night. Wilson’s great cycle is both black and color blind. Ma Rainey’s blues band in Chicago, 1920, endures racial slings and injustice but it comprises characters found in any in family black or white. Who doesn’t recognize Toledo, the piano player with his nose in a book? The philosopher who knows and can’t help explaining everything? Toledo’s so full of wisdom he amuse us when we’re not tuning him out. Thomas Jefferson Byrd, who was nominated for a Tony, when he played this role on Broadway) is perfect. He is funny and a bore; the molasses delivery, the expressive fingers, the ivory tower stance (And the voice is beautiful.)
Toledo exasperates the Levee of Maurice McRae, the adolescent shark with sharp shoes and the tender, coiled heart. It’s a performance McRae nails with a 100 gestures, silly struts and pent-up rage. And he can play that trumpet too. More understanding of Toledo are band members Slow Drag (Ernest Perry) whose way of life appears pleasure and whose string bass is the perfect metaphor. Cutler (David Fonteno) the leader who reins everyone in as they wait for diva Ma to come wat way late to the recording session she will dominate. For there’s a war going on between management and talent across the racial divide of the times. Because she gets her way in little else, Ma Rainey rules by terror.
But must Barrymore winner E. Faye Butler be so strident? Yes, the voice is powerful but she doesn’t sound a blues singer. Too much bitterness and she screeches.
Twenty-three year old Ro Boddee has pivotal part Ma’s nephew, Sylvester.
The director is Irene Lewis, from Baltimore’s CenterStage.
The music director for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is William McDaniels.
Keeping the upstairs and downstairs on the same flat boards – lacks imagination for
such a powerful work. Ma Rainey runs through June 13 at the Suzanne Roberts.

Written by Lesley Valdes

May 28, 2010 at 3:14 am

Dudamel Rocks Verizon

leave a comment »

Gustavo Dudamel
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center
May 19, 2010

Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic
First U.S. Tour
Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center
May 19, 2010

It had to happen. The media who went wild for Gustavo Dudamel and the LosAngeles Philharmonic at the start of his first season begins its joyless task of picking apart the charismatic and enormously gifted maestro.

Unlike some of the press here, I found the Tchaikovsky Pathetique heard recently at Verizon Hall a compelling interpretation. Perfect, of course not, the Venezuelan maestro is not even 30! Compelling because of the direction, shape and flow the young man gave the 45- minute masterpiece as he clearly inspired his charges. Unlike others observed on this podium, Dudamel, whose work I have observed on four separate occasions (*twice in Disney Hall) is not manipulative or aggressive. The music director does not beat music into submission. Dudamel is dominant. He appears to ride the sounds he summons.

The composer’s contrasts and pauses were keenly expressed; the pleasures best served by the woodwinds. Tchaikovsky’s low bassoon solo which opens coming up out of welter of basses was arresting. There were many clean exchanges among woodwinds. Violins may not be the Philharmonic’s treasure but the almost waltz theme- its return and transformations were nicely exposed.
The brass had some snafus – they had gotten a workout in the cinematic, jazzy and 25- minutes of City Noir by John Adams.

Principal cello Peter Stumpf, Philadelphia’s former assistant principal led the cello-rich symphony well. But the sold out house did not keep still after the lone cellos which take the Pathetique beyond hearing. You could tell it wasn’t the usual crowd. The huge sonority of the scherzo’s thumping lurched them into applause. So what: A joy to see nearly so many new people.
Can we get them to the Philadelphia Orchestra?
Yes. When there is leadership on stage to ignite the talent. L.A. has the dominant, assertive Deborah Borda as ED. Fingers crossed about Philadelphia’s director Allison Vulgamore, who did smart things for Atlanta….

Written by Lesley Valdes

May 24, 2010 at 12:25 am

La Traviata a la Twenties

leave a comment »

Verdi’s La Traviata
Opera Company of Philadelphia
Academy of Music
May 7-16, 2010M
Airs May 10

A silver mirror dominates the Robert Driver, Paul Shortt staging of La Traviata being revived at the Academy of Music through Sunday (5/16). The Opera company of Philadelphia’s La Traviata has a twist: this season the Verdi is bumped up to the 1920s. Richard St. Clair’s costumes have more Deco than flapper glamour and the principals making their debut in this cast wear them very well. Leah Patridge is Violetta. Charles Castronovo, her Alfredo. (Baritone Mark Stone makes a superb Girgio Germont).

I prefer the tenor voice, which is warm and expressive to the soprano’s, which is cooler. Both singers act well. Patridge has the ringing top notes; the coloratura isn’t always secure of pitch as it consistently sturdy. Her stamina is remarkable. Violetta may be consumptive but those high notes are torpedos.

The good thing about this staging: La Traviata is concise, no clutter, a problem of Driver’s in the past. The men are directed with sensitivity. Alfredo’s interactions with Violetta early and late are beautiful; so are the interactions between the father and son Germonts. Alfredo’s first toast is handled like a real toast and the character also shows more remorse than we usually witness after the card scene. This is good direction.

Dancers from the Miro Company show their stuff at Flora’s too.

For the death scene, the mirror looks a loft out of Baz Luhrmann – have we’ve wandered into La Boheme ?– but not to quibble – the set works.

Nice change, no coughs from this Violetta, the audience supplied them.

Music Director Corrado Rovaris keeps the pit band flowing without intruding on the singers while allowing the mystique. La Traviata at the Academy of Music until May 16.

The Critic

leave a comment »

Jen Macdonald: Oil and Acryllic on Board

Written by Lesley Valdes

May 6, 2010 at 9:50 pm

PA Ballet: Variety Pack

leave a comment »

Photo: Alexander Iziliev

Pa. Ballet Variety Pack
Four Works (Balanchine, Forsythe, Ochoa, Robbins)
May 5-9, 2010
Merriam Theater

Little girls in pretty dresses put you in a good mood before a Pennsylvania Ballet program begins. The ballet, which opened Wednesday night, offers a variety pack of old and new that was danced extremely well. Two company premieres are standouts: Jerome Robbins’ take on Njinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun, was danced to superbly by Tyler Galster taking the part of a young dancer’s awakening in the studio. Not a motion overdone, not a muscle wasted. Julie Diana was the human nymph. Their sensitivity was set against a bold, high-contrast staging.

William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, references classical pointe work with high contrast too. The company is coming and going at odd angles, using the space akilter. Hips, knees, elbows come at you, like mechanical gears. The sense is not mechanical but like a mad tango set to Thom Willems and Leslie Stucks percussive brilliant score. Born for this dance are principals Riolama Lorenzo and Arantxa Ochoa, with limbs as flexible as herons’. They alternated in sultry duets supported by Zachary Hench. Hench who had a featured role in the Balanchine’s unfolksy Square Dance (which the company also danced beautifully; Brava, Amy Aldridge) was less successful here. His solo work had a softness in contrast to the others’. In the Middle Somewhat Elevated is a blistering dance. The last vignette is magic.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Requiem for A Rose is heavy on the symbolism. A soloist in white bodysuit grips a rose in her teeth, to electronic thumping, leads the corps (men and women) wearing in red skirts. Chaotic, lifts and sculptural poses. When duos and solos arrive things lighten up but not much. The ominous figure arrives more than once accompanied by a throbbing beat. The main music helps but also hinders it is so loaded with profundity: Schubert: Adagio from the C minor Quintet.
A silver scrim falls down to make a scarlet path. Enough already. The dancing outshines the dance and staging. Pennsylvania Ballet’s variety program runs May 9, then Romeo &; Juliet!