Sunday, May 31, 2009

North Shore Chamber Orchestra

It has been over a year since I saw this small community group that plays in the Alice Millar Chapel on the Northwestern University campus. They've clearly been busy and it shows in the general improvement in the playing.

Of note is the addition of Rachel Taylor as Concertmaster. Ms. Taylor adds strong leadership to the strings and to the violins in particular. Alas, despite the significant improvement, NSCO violins still have a way to go. Some section members still struggle to get the notes out, let alone in tune. Given the improvements Ms. Taylor has made to date, it might not be too much to expect even better future performances.

Concerto for Harpsichord in D minor, J.S. Bach BWV 1052

Harpsichord soloist Robert McConnell delivered this venerable Bach work with journeyman skill and sensitivity. There were some problems with the high strings, as noted earlier, that tended to detract from the overall performance. However, Bach being what it is, it is difficult to find a lot of fault with a harpsichord well-played.

Twelve Kontretanzen, L. van Beethoven WoO 14

This charming set of country dances is always a welcome addition to a program. Listeners will recognize at least one familiar theme used by Beethoven in other works: both The Creatures of Prometheus and the Eroica symphony echo the theme of the seventh dance. This is not particularly deep, serious or profound music, but rather a light recapitulation of life in the country, where the press of city and town life melts away into the joys of light-hearted social activity.

Carinhoso, Pixinguinha and Jao de Barros (arr. Marcio Modesto)

This short piece in the chorro style of early 20th century Brazil featured the winds of the North Shore Chamber Orchestra. The piece itself is marked by the dissonances so typical of 20th century music, but the overall feeling is one of urban excitement and sophistication.

Mother Goose Suite, Maurice Ravel

Ravel's genius is clearly evident in this orchestration of his original piano for four hands composition. The North Shore Chamber Orchestra winds and percussion were clearly up for the task, and the incredible blending of strings, winds and percussion filled the hall with a delightful clarity and beauty. Of particular note was the addition of harpist Sarah Thompson whose smooth glissandos and well-blended accompaniments added much to the performance.

Other Comments

This performance was conducted by Sandra Cintra Gebram, a Master's student in conducting at Northwestern University. Her background in conducting extends to both South America and Europe as well as the United States. Ms. Gebram's command of the techniques of the art form were excellent and she maintained excellent control of her musicians at all times. Interpretations were good, especially given the occasional difficulties of the musicians in executing the printed scores. Overall, Ms. Gebram got the most from her resources, something any conductor would be pleased to accomplish.

The North Shore Chamber Orchestra was founded by Harvey Treger, who remains its President. In fact, Treger never seems to tire of exhibiting what in the nonprofit world is referred to as "founder's syndrome". He places his own name prominently at the top of the front cover of the program, and again on the front conver when he lists the Board of Directors. He even devotes a full half-page on the interior of the program to one of his own quotations. During the concert he speaks frequently although mercifully, his comments are generally short.

Mr. Treger would serve his audiences better were he to substitute more music and music education for his own wanderings, which tend to contribute only little to the experience and take up valuable space in the program that might be better used for other purposes.

This particular performance had an audience of about sixty-five. This is a significant increase over the last time I attended a performance of this orchestra, and seems to indicate that they are doing something right if they are now able to attract that many patrons. At $10 admission for adults and free admission for children, it is a good family outing and an excellent way to introduce children to music. Despite this attempt to lure families, there seemed to be none in the audience at this performance. There were plenty of elderly, however, including two elderly women who sat nearby talking nonstop for most of the concert. While one might expect a little disturbance from children and even welcome it as a sign of excitement over the musical experience, the same behavior by adults is clearly simply rude and unacceptable.

The next North Shore Chamber concert is on October 4, 2009. It certainly merits a date on anyone's calendar who is seeking a way to spend a chilly Fall afternoon in the warmth of the spectacular Alice Millar Chapel listening to what is steadily becoming a more polished and professional organization.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Serenade No. 10 in Bb Major: "Gran Partita"; Wolfgang Mozart

Rush Hour Concerts, the remarkable musical tapas that are the tenderly nurtured brainchild of Artistic Director Deborah Sobol kicks off its tenth season on June 2, 2009 with a pre-performance reception at 5:15 pm followed by a performance of Mozart's incomparable Serenade No. 10 in Bb Major, K 361, the Gran Partita. Motion picture fans will remember the scene in Amadeus where Salieri reflects on Mozart's great masterpiece, concluding "It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God."

The Mayor has chosen to honor Rush Hour Concerts by declaring June 2, 2009 "Rush Hour Concerts Day in Chicago". The roster of musicians who will perform the thirteen-instrument masterpiece are among the finest in the city, including members of the Chicago Chamber Musicians, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera Orchestra.

Given the intimate and acoustically splendid venue provided by St. James Cathedral and the quality of the performers, this is an event that should be a must on every chamber music lover's calendar. I plan on attending if at all possible, even with the long trek I have to make from Schaumburg to arrive on time.

For more information, visit the Rush Hour Concerts website.

Serenade No. 10 in Bb Major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart K 361
Presented by Rush Hour Concerts at St. James Cathedral
Chicago, Illinois.

June 2, 2009–5:15 pm

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Ghetto

Long one of Chicago's educational crown jewels, Northwestern University boasts of many outstanding accomplishments and traditions from its dual campuses in downtown Chicago and Evanston, Illinois to the North. One of Northwestern's more visible contributions to the community is the Theater and Interpretation Center, located at the South end of NU's Evanston campus adjacent to Lake Michigan. The setting alone makes the trip worthwhile, surrounded by idyllic parks brushed with gentle breezes from nearby Lake Michigan. It is here that Artistic Director Henry Godinez presides over a season of theater, music theater and dance. Part of that season includes a series of main stage productions in the Ethel M. Barber Theater and the Josephine Louis Theater. Their final main stage presentation of the 2008–2009 season, Ghetto, by Joshua Sobol and directed by NU faculty member Daniel Cantor, is typical of the high-quality we have come to expect from TIC's program.

The play is based on the diary of a librarian who sought asylum in Vilna, Lithuania and includes both fact and fantasy as the playwright explores what Godinez calls the "intersection of humanity and art amidst the direst of circumstances". In this case, these dire circumstances are the holocaust experienced by Europe's Jews during World War II. While it might seem counter-intuitive, this is not a story of right and wrong, evil and righteousness, but rather a story of unending paradoxes and moral dilemmas. That the holocaust itself is an unspeakable evil is taken as given; what remains is to examine the response of those affected and the agonizing decisions that faced them as they struggled to maintain even a tiny fraction of their pride, humanity and self-respect in the face of certain annihilation.

The Jews of the Vilna Ghetto mount a Ghetto Theater. This, in itself, was a controversial topic among the Ghetto Jews, some feeling it dissuaded Jews from physical resistance and dishonored the recently deceased. Ultimately, the Ghetto Theater was quite successful with performances selling out weeks in advance. It is against this backdrop of anomaly that Ghetto tells its tale. As director Daniel Cantor so correctly assesses, "It's here that I begin to find what I consider points of aesthetic vitality for story telling: contradiction, complexity, ambiguity, paradox."

Cantor's direction has brought out the best in the young cast of Ghetto. Especially strong performances are given by Joel Sinensky (Weiskopf, a tailor and businessman), Connor White (Srulik, ventriloquist and theatre director), Erika Rankin (ventriloquist's dummy) and Kevin Fugaro (Kittel, SS Officer/Dr. Paul).

The story unfolds as a series of vignettes depicting the struggles of the Ghetto Jews and the moral and ethical dilemmas they face. Example: given that supplies of insulin will certainly run out prior to their liberation, should they withhold treatment from those most certain to perish anyway, reserving their dwindling supplies for the young and strong who are more likely to survive the entire ordeal? Also perplexing is the dilemma facing Gens, the Chief of Jewish Police and then Ruler of the Ghetto. Is his collaboration with the Nazi's justified when it clearly sacrifices some Jews to save others? And what about Weiskopf, the tailor and businessman? He employs many Jews in his clothing sweatshop, and thus employed, the Nazis pass over them when selecting victims to be sent to concentration camps. But Weiskopf also enriches himself and becomes quite wealthy. He brags about his generous gifts to charitable causes in the Ghetto, but can this justify his overall profiteering from the suffering around him?

In the end, we are left with questions having few, if any, answers. Instead we realize the incredibly difficult decisions that were confronted and resolved, rightly or wrongly, as the Vilna Ghetto population struggled to survive.

Cantor has inspired his large cast to a surprisingly high level of performance. In addition to the main dramatic roles there are a Ghetto Acting Troupe, Musicians of the Acting Troup as well as several other groups of minor characters such as Underground Resistors, Jewish Police and so forth. There is a lot of part doubling requiring actors to change both costume and character as the complicated story unfolds. Add to this the multiple entrances to the performance stage as well as the entrances and exits that use the lobby doors and seating aisles, and one gets the sense that a great deal of thought has gone into the overall design of the production. All this technical artistry is accomplished with professional skill, and we aren't even aware of the amount of coordination and planning that has gone in to the two-and-one-half hour performance.

When the play concludes, what can we take away from the experience? The evening was certainly absorbing, even gripping. Did we reach any conclusions? Perhaps individually there are those who will be willing to make the hard choices faced by the play's characters. Overall, however, we can hardly be expected to respond with more than "It depends," if we were confronted with similar choices. And perhaps that is the real message of the play: Prevention is essential. Mankind must never again face situations that require these kinds of decisions to be made.

TIC's Ghetto is an outstanding evening of theater and highly recommended.

Ghetto by Joshua Sobol directed by Daniel Cantor at the Ethel M. Barber Theater of the Theatre and Interpretation Center at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.

May 22—May 31, 2009

Theater and Interpretation Center at Northwestern University




Owen Wingrave

Chicago Opera Theater is faithful to its slogan: "Opera Less Ordinary". Their last 2009 production, Benjamin Britten's Owen Wingrave is exemplary of that tradition.

One is struck almost immediately by the design of COT's production; it's much more elaborate than COT subscribers are accustomed to seeing. Further, set elements move on and off the stage at frequent intervals providing a very fluid setting for the unfolding story. At some points, the movement of some very large set pieces almost seems chaotic. Then, suddenly, the entire scene congeals into a coherent whole with set pieces, singers and actors precisely placed and blocked to advance the story.

Another interesting feature of the production is the use of two supernumeraries whose performance is absolutely essential to the telling of the story. The characters are named simply Father and Boy in the program and are played by Blake Montgomery and Mason Baker respectively. They appear immediately as the curtain rises representing ghosts. They have no speaking parts and yet appear repeatedly throughout the opera as Owen Wingrave struggles with his own self-acceptance. They dominate the stage whenever they appear.

Britten's music is, after all, 20th Century British; Britten's atonality is not my own first choice for an enjoyable evening of music. It is also very difficult for the singers, who must literally memorize and place every note where it belongs with almost no clues based on traditional musical forms. On the other hand, it's impossible to tell if they've incorrectly sung a passage unless one has a score to reference. Occasionally, Britten resorts to a twelve-tone string, but I couldn't identify a twelve-tone string if my life depended on it, so such compositional gymnastics are wasted on me. In Act II, as Owen comes to terms with himself, Britten switches to lyrical, diatonic style, demonstrating that he actually can write major and minor triads when it suits his purposes.

COT is always careful to select superb, rising, young singers for its productions, and Owen Wingrave is no exception. Matt Boehler in the role of Spencer Coyle is especially strong, as is Robin Leggate in the role of Sir Philip Wingrave. Brenda Harris is worthy of mention for both singing and acting the role of Mrs. Julian. Mary Jane Johnson's portrayal of Miss Wingrave also deserves mention.

Finally, the story: Director Ken Cazan's program notes call the opera a distinctly anti-war piece. This is true, but only at the most superficial level. It is true that the character Owen Wingrave refuses to follow the family tradition of becoming an officer and soldier, but closer analysis will reveal that Owen is much more complex than a simple pacifist. He is both courageous and strong in his resolve to pursue his own path away from a military career despite his family's nearly brutal insistence that he uphold the family honor and traditions. But at several points he condemns military men and governments who command them and would have them all executed. These are hardly the words of a pacifist and only illustrate the fact that Owen is perfectly willing to inflict death and destruction providing they advance his own agenda. No, this is not about anti-war and pacifism.

In the final analysis, Owen Wingrave is about one man's search for, and coming to terms with his own plans for his own destiny in the face of brutal opposition from his family. It explores the notion of duty: what is it and to whom is it owed? What are the consequences of nonconformity? When are we justified in taking control of our own destinies, even when that entails depriving others of real or imagined benefits? The questions raised by the opera are both profound and numerous and in the end, none are answered. There are, after all, no answers to these questions; there are only personal decisions in the context of personal life experiences. Each individual must face these questions, to a greater or lesser degree, and answer them for himself.

The production is superb; the opera is superb; the experience made me sit in my seat for nearly five minutes after the rest of the audience had departed, just turning these kinds of thoughts over in my mind. Soon, of course, I realized that I wasn't about to discover answers to these kinds of questions and I left.

Highly recommended.

Owen Wingrave
An Opera in Two Acts based on the short story by Henry James
By Benjamin Britten & David Matthews
Libretto by Myfawy Piper
Chamber reduction by David Matthews
Conducted by Steuart Bedford; Directed by Ken Cazan
Harris Theater for Music and Dance at Millennium Park, Chicago, Illinois
May 16, 20, 22, 24, 26, 2009

The Mission

I wouldn't be a good student of nonprofit management if I overlooked having a mission. Why create yet another blog? There are thousands, perhaps millions of blogs. Who would want to read anything I wrote?

That's where the mission comes in. This blog exists because I need a reference to past experiences and reactions to the many arts experiences I have. It's really that simple! What did I think about such-and-such? When did I attend thus-and-so? What did I experience over yonder? Did I enjoy myself the last time I listened to a symphony by what's-her-name?

Friends and others are welcome to read my postings if they choose, but this blog is mainly for me. I'm curious as to where I have been and where I'm going. This blog will provide valuable clues.