Ballet Austin’s ‘Firebird’ takes flight

One of Ballet Austin‘s most memorable efforts from the early 1990s was a popular but controversial 1993 staging of “Firebird” that featured, as arts writer Sondra Lomax drily put it: “a prison camp overseen by an evil warden who rides a motorcycle.”

Did we need that?

I remember it with fondness, however, because of performances in the title role by Nadya Zybine, whose fierce, compact presence onstage won’t easily be forgotten.

The next artistic director, Stephen Mills, followed with his own reinvention of the ballet in 2009. Mills stuck more closely to the aesthetic of Igor Stravisnky‘s revolutionary 1910 score.

Aara Krumpe as the titular character in Stephen Mills’ ‘The Firebird.’ This photo is from an earlier performance of the same Ballet Austin interpretation. Contributed

Ballet Austin revived this more compatible “Firebird” last week and paired it with Lar Lubovitch‘s 2007 “Dvorák Serenade,” which we’ll consider first.

In abstract segments that employed between two and 12 dancers, Lubovitch employs mathematical precision to portray various forms of romantic affection.

The choreography fit the company like a glove, in part because Lubovitch’s contemporary ballet vocabulary — which includes the liberal use of modern dance — seems closely related to Mills’ in the way that curves are elongated and repeated, physical connections are extended, and the patterns are rigorously completed.

Lubovitch’s emotional reticence keeps the audience at a distance, except for fleeting moments of tenderness, joy and, at the end, outright diversion. Ashley Lynn Sherman and Oliver Green-Cramer refined the purity of the ensemble’s movements into perfection as the lead couple.

In the much more dynamic “Firebird,” Mills staged the first scene — as Prince Ivan hunts then befriends the mythical creature — in a bold, muscular Russian Classical style, then switched over to a softer look out of the Romantic era for the entry of Tsarevna and her princesses.

The arrival of elaborately costumed Edward Carr as the evil Kastchei the Immortal changed the tone again to one that could have been borrowed from Asian theater. Eventually, all three styles were combined thrillingly in the climactic showdown.

As they did during the Dvorák, Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony kept the famous Stravinsky score tightly under rein.

Among the double-cast roles, Morgan Stillman embodied the epitome of a balletic prince as Ivan on Sunday, expertly foregrounding his two partners, while Chelsea Marie Renner delicately revealed the inner fortitude of Tsarevna.

Yet all eyes were on Aara Krumpe whenever she entered — and then dominated — the stage as the Firebird. Her form was all but flawless and her power breathtaking. You don’t expect to be moved by “Firebird,” but this time I was.

I think I found my new Firebird, 25 years later.

 

The mighty Austin Symphony is here to save the day

Now that the Austin Symphony has consummated Part 3 of its “Mighty Russians” series, it has completely shed its former reputation for underplaying big music. Almost to a fault.

Music director Peter Bay opened the formal part of the concert on Saturday with the bright and bold “Carnaval Overture” by Alexander Glazunov. Dismissed by some critics in the 20th century as merely “academic” — in other words, glib, predictable, conservative — Glazunov is also capable of great orchestral virtuosity. This rousing performance — a taste of what was to come at the Long Center for the Performing Arts — made me want to dive right into his eight completed symphonies.

Lise de la Salle. Contribute by Marco Borggreve

Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Piano Concerto No. 1 is all about the soloist, but the ensemble is given plenty of opportunity to introduce and expand on the piece’s gorgeous themes and variations. French pianist Lise de la Salle did not shy away from the famous concerto’s showiness. Compact and contained when off the bench, in performance, she swayed and nodded, extended her arcing arms, attacked the keyboard like an avenging angel, then caressed it like tender companion.

At times, de la Salle’s hands appeared to blur over the complicated finger work. (“I can’t imagine what the score looks like,” said a friend during intermission.) Besides technical skill and fearlessness, she added some interpretive touches, such as startling hesitations and a certain playfulness with the composer’s unconventional rhythms. These seemed to bleed right into her delicately rendered encore selection: a Debussy Prelude.

“How are they going to top that?” said the stranger seated next to me after intermission.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s “Manfred Symphony” is all over the place. Based on the poem by Lord Byron, it is at times unabashedly pictorial, at other times outright theatrical, always Gothic and so varied that a listener sometimes gets tangled in its taiga of melodies.

This is where we get to part about Austin Symphony’s plenteous sound. Remember back at Bass Concert Hall prior to 2008? “Manfred” would have shrunken to “Boyfred.” (Sorry.) Nowadays, the orchestra’s power rises, if not quite to the level of a major American ensemble, quite close, especially with the additional brass.

At times, it went right up to the point of excess. I felt a little pummeled. But that’s what “Manfred” calls for and the Austin Symphony delivered mightily.

Austin plans jubilee weekend for playwright Terrence McNally.

Terrence McNally, who grew up in Corpus Christi, ranks among the top two or three playwrights from Texas. In Austin, the Ransom Center at the University of Texas holds his papers, while Zach Theatre has become something of the official home for performances of his plays and musicals.

Distinguished playwright Terrence McNally. Contributed by Michael Nagle.

The two groups have teamed up to salute McNally on his 80th birthday with a weekend of activities.

Nov. 10: Theater backers and producers Carolyn and Marc Seriff give a special dinner for the playwright at their home.

Nov. 11: The Texas Union Theater will screen “Every Act of Life,” a documentary about McNally’s life. Zach artistic director Dave Steakley will interview the playwright from the stage afterwards. A reception will follow at the Ransom Center.

RELATED: ‘Ragtime’ is an American classic.

Nov. 12: Zach will present a birthday gala performance that will include actors Richard Thomas, F. Murray Abraham and John Glover. They will highlight the McNally’s career which includes Tony Award wins for “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” “Master Class,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Ragtime.”

To RSVP and purchase tickets, visit www.zachtheatre.org/mcnally

Bloomberg Philanthropies rewards 26 Austin cultural groups with grants

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Bloomberg Philanthropies has named 26 Austin cultural groups that will receive significant grants as well as management training as part of a $43 million second-wave campaign to strengthen small-to-medium-sized American arts nonprofits.

The charitable foundation — established by businessman and former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — chose the groups by invitation only in selective cities.

“It was a complete shock,” said Ron Berry, artistic director of Austin recipient Fusebox Festival. “I was in the office reading an article about how Bloomberg was expanding into our region and remarked to the team about how exciting that was, and then we got an email from them about five minutes later.”

Sylvia Orozco, executive director of the Mexic-Arte Museum, is as thrilled with the grant now as she was with her group’s first in 1984. Daulton Venglar/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

“The arts inspire people, provide jobs and strengthen communities,” Bloomberg said in a statement. “This program is aimed at helping some of the country’s most exciting cultural organizations reach new audiences and expand their impact.”

In May, Austin was named alongside Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Washington D.C. to receive a second round of Bloomsberg grants valued at $43 million. Rare for this type of giving, the money is intended to cover operational expenses rather than specific programs.

RELATED: We salute $43 million in Bloomberg arts gifts.

“We wanted to reach cities that we thought had a really strong mix in the way they were serving up arts and culture,” Kate Levin, who oversees arts programs for Bloomberg, told the New York Times in May.

Previously, the program had given $65 million to smaller groups in New York, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In response to the news, Austin arts leaders talked about immediate needs, such as rent or replacement facilities and equipment, but also longer term strategies like marketing and development.

Pianist Michelle Schumann said: ‘The grant comes with a wealth of consulting services and access to experts in the fields of marketing and development.’ Contributed

“Because our building has been sold, we must move in two years,” said Chris Cowden, longtime leader of Women & Their Work Gallery.”We have decided that, to avoid ever higher rents and the instability that brings, we must buy a building. Since the Bloomberg grant is earmarked for operating expenses, money that we would normally have to use for rent and salaries can now be set aside in a fund that will be used to buy that building.”

Finding new audiences is a high priority for long-established groups that have not reached their potential in the community.

“We are investing most of the funds into marketing because that is what we believe will make the strongest impact,” said Ann Ciccolella, artistic director of Austin Shakespeare. “I am personally thrilled! It’s taken a long time to get to a $500,000 budget and now it’s time for growth. With so many arts groups in the city learning new tactics together, I am hoping for powerful results.”

For some groups, the grant money takes a back seat to training. Bloomberg’s arts innovation and management program was devised by DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland.

“The grant comes with a wealth of consulting services and access to experts in the fields of marketing and development,” said Michelle Schumann, artistic director of the Austin Chamber Music Center. “I’m really thrilled to have the opportunity to ‘up our game.’”

The Bloomberg group instructs recipients to keep mum about the gift amounts, but an informal poll suggests that the grants equal 10 percent of their existing operating budgets.

“I am pumped,” said Jenny Larson, one of Salvage Vanguard Theater‘s artistic directors. “This funding could not have come at a better time for us. Being in a place of transition with the venue and staff has made us feel off balance. This support gives me hope and confidence that over the next two years we can create a solid foundation for SVT to continue to grow from.”

What do local arts leaders want to do with the windfall?

“Everything!” said  Lara Toner Haddock, artistic director of Austin Playhouse. “Seriously there’s always a huge wish list of what we could do with extra funds. An unrestricted grant is so welcome.”

“I am as thrilled and excited as I remember being when we received our first grant ever in 1984,” said Sylvia Orozco, head of the Mexic-Arte Museum. “I am glowing! When you are young and daring, you believe you can do anything and accomplish everything you dream of. That’s how I felt then and that is how I again feel now.”

26 Austin cultural groups will receive Bloomberg Philanthropies grants

Allison Orr Dance (Forklift Danceworks)

Anthropos Arts

Austin Chamber Music Center

Austin Classical Guitar Society

Austin Creative Alliance

Austin Film Festival

Austin Film Society

Austin Music Foundation

Austin Opera

Austin Playhouse

Austin Shakespeare

Big Medium

Center For Women & Their Work

Chorus Austin

Conspirare

Creative Action

Esquina Tango Cultural Society

Fusebox Festival

Mexic-Arte Museum

Penfold Theatre Company

Puerto Rican Folkloric Dance

Roy Lozano Ballet Folklorico De Texas

Rude Mechs

Salvage Vanguard Theater

Telling Project

Vortex Repertory Company

UPDATE:  Lara Toner Haddock’s name was missing from this story in an earlier post.

Blanton Museum gives 500 artworks to 17 Texas museums

The Blanton Museum of Art is passing out of 500 works of art to 17 other Texas museums. These are part of the historic collection of 700 pieces transferred last year to the University of Texas museum from the Contemporary Austin. The Blanton will keep 200 pieces that match its current collecting strategies more closely.

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Margo Sawyer’s ‘Blue,’ 1998, detail of wood tempera and gold and silver leaf. Collection of the Grace Museum, gift of the Blanton Museum of Art, 2018, transfer from the Contemporary Austin, partial gift of the artist, with funds generously provided by ArtPace, A Foundation for Contemporary Art/San Antonio; Deborah and Tom Green; William F. Stern; Lee M. Knox, Juan and Carmen Creixell, and an anonymous donor.

In 2017, the rapidly growing Contemporary decided to part ways with its eclectic collection collected put together rather haphazardly by its predecessors, including the Laguna Gloria Art MuseumAustin Museum of Art, Texas Fine Arts Association and Arthouse. 

RELATED: What move of Contemporary Austin collection means to the Blanton.

Its leaders will concentrate instead on the Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria and its “museum without walls” program that places art around the city. It will continue to stage temporary shows at its downtown Jones Center location.

RELATED: Austin museum picks winner of $800,000 art prize.

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Julie Speed’s ‘Portrait of Mr. Magritte,’ 2000. Gouache and collage on 19th century engraving 15 1/2 x 12 3/4 x 1 1/2 inches. Collection of the Witliff Collections at Texas State University, gift of the Blanton Museum of Art, 2018, transfer from the Contemporary Austin, purchase through funds provided by the Sarah and Ernest Butler Family Fund, 2002.

For its part, the Blanton continues to add to its collection of nearly 18,000 objects. It displayed some of the work transferred from the Contemporary in a special show that highlighted Texas and Austin artists, including UT grads Jules Buck Jones, Lance Letscher and Eduardo Muñoz Ordoqui.

Some of the works transferred to other Texas museums — hungry to have them — were pieces by distinguished artists such as Alexander Calder, Dorothy Hood, Luis Jiménez, Alex Katz and Robert Rauschenberg.

“As part of this large and thriving arts ecosystem, the Blanton is proud to support other Texas institutions in serving their communities,” Blanton director Simone Wicha says, “while also preserving this important collection of Texas art for future generations.”

Participating institutions included the Amarillo Museum of Art; Art Museum of Southeast Texas, Beaumont; Art Museum of South Texas, Corpus Christi, affiliated with Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi; the Grace Museum, Abilene; International Museum of Art & Science, McAllen; Kerr Arts and Cultural Center, Kerrville; Longview Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of Texas Tech University, Lubbock; Nancy Fyfe Cardozier Gallery, Odessa at the University of Texas Permian Basin; Pearl Fincher Museum of Fine Arts, Spring; Regional Arts Center, Texarkana; San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts; the Wittliff Collections and Texas State Galleries, San Marcos; Tyler Museum of Art; Visual Arts Gallery, Brownsville at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley; and Wichita Falls Museum of Art at Midwestern State University.

 

Gov. Ann Richards hit returns to Zach Theatre

Zach Theatre has added Holland Taylor‘s “Ann,” a hit Broadway treatment of late Gov. Ann Richards, to its already announced 2018-2019 season.

Apparently, however, without Taylor in the title role. Casting to be announced later.

Holland Taylor played Gov. Ann Richards in “Ann” at Zach Theatre in 2016.

Taylor made a big splash at Zach in 2016 after researching the biographical play here, then testing an earlier, longer version of “Ann” at the Paramount Theatre prior to its regional and Broadway runs. While in town, she seemed to meet everyone, everywhere. Taylor could have run for local office. And won!

It will be directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein, director of the Broadway version “Ann,” and associate director of “Carousel” on the Great White Way.

RELATED: Holland Taylor brings back spirit of Ann Richards.

The play nudges forward by a few months “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” from the late summer slot to the winter centerpiece. It will play Jan. 23-March 3, 2019 at the Topfer. Kevin Cahoon, who played Hedwig in the 1998 version, will direct.

“Hedwig,” of course played Zach after its off-Broadway premiere and before its run on Broadway, here starring future marquee actor Andrew Rannells, now back on the Strand in the revival of “The Boys in the Band,” as well as Cahoon.

“Ann” then plays July 31-Sept. 8, 2019, also at the Topfer. For more information, call 512-476-0541 x1 or go to zachtheatre.org.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post mixed up the directors of the two shows.

Austin artist, musician Steve Parker wins $15K Tito’s Prize

Big Medium, which marshals some of the city’s most precious visual art resources, could not have chosen a more timely winner for its $15,000 Tito’s Prize.

Artist and musician Steve Parker has won the 2018 Tito’s Prize. Contributed

A musician, artist and curator, Steve Parker has been involved in some of the city’s outstanding collaborative projects, beloved by the public as well as critics and colleagues, including work on the city’s much-discussed grackle population.

The prize comes with a solo exhibition at the Big Medium Gallery, Oct. 19-Nov. 18, as well as a key spot on the East Austin Studio Tour (Nov. 10-18).

Parker’s public art is embraced by just about everyone. Contributed by Philip Rogers.

RELATED: Zack Ingram won 2017 Tito’s Prize.

Three judges — Andrea MellardDennis Nance and Veronica Roberts, all arts insiders — joined voices in picking Parker.

Parker is also part of the Austin community fascinated by grackles. Contributed

RELATED: Sex, race and grackles — Fusebox Festival covers many moods.

“Parker exemplifies the way contemporary artists push beyond the boundaries of genres and media towards the pursuit of creativity,” Mellard says. “His strong artistic practice in new music performance, in sites ranging from parks to parking lots, has expanded into public sound sculptures and more recently installations. His generous approach brings together groups of trained performers and even invites curious members of the public to participate in his scores.”

SOMEWHAT RELATED: More Grackle Week 2018.

Dates set for 2019 Texas Medal of Arts Awards

The Texas Cultural Trust, an advocacy group, has set the dates for its next celebrity-sated Texas Medal of Arts Awards ceremony. The multi-part fandango — which is also intended to update state leaders on cultural funding — will take place Feb. 26-27 at the Blanton Museum of ArtLong Center for the Performing Arts and elsewhere in Austin.

Texas Medal of Arts dates set. A-List/Austin360

The group has had no trouble attracting big names — from Willie Nelson and Eva Longoria to Walter Cronkite and Debbie Allen — to the event. The most recent blow-out at Bass Concert Hall in 2017 was a highlight of the social season.

RELATED: Soaking up the glamour of Texas Medal of Arts.

The new event co-chairs are Leslie Blanton from the world of cultural philanthropy and Leslie Ward from the corporate (AT&T) halls of external and legislative affairs.

The group, now overseen by Executive Director Heidi Marquez Smith, has given out 108 medals since 2001 when the initial class of honorees was assembled at the Paramount Theatre. The evolving list of categories: music, film, dance, visual arts, arts patron (corporate, foundation and individual), media/multimedia, television, architecture, theatre, arts education, literary arts, design, and lifetime achievement.

 

For the first time in 10 years, Blanton Museum of Art raises ticket prices

The home of Ellsworth Kelly‘s “Austin” and Vincent Valdez‘s “The City” will soon become more expensive for some guests to visit.


RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

As of Sept. 1, the adult ticket price at the Blanton Museum of Art will increase from $9 to $12 and the senior price will increase from $7 to $10.

RELATED: UT unveils large-scale painting of Klan members

In comparison, top ticket prices at the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston are $23; San Antonio Museum of Art are $20; Dallas Museum of Art are $16; Fort Worth’s The Modern are $16; Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum are $14; SMU’s Meadows Museum of Art are $12

The Menil Collection in Houston and Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston are free. Also, the Kimbell’s magnificent permanent collection, as opposed to its special exhibitions, is free.

Admission to the Blanton remains free on Thursdays and to certain subsets of visitors. It also remains closed on Mondays.

Vincent Valdez’s work “The City” is on display at the Blanton Museum of Art. In a forum on Tuesday for the unveiling, Valdez talked about the quiet ubiquity of white supremacy in American life. Rodolfo Gonzalez for American-Statesman

RELATED: Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin” worships light.

Complete price list as of Sept. 1:

Members: Free

UT Faculty/Students/Staff (with valid ID): Free

Adults: $12

Seniors (65+): $10

College Students (with valid ID): $5

Teachers (with valid school ID): Free

Youths (13-21): $5

Children 12 & under: Free

Active Military: Free

UPDATE: Added info about the Kimbell to this post.

‘Tuna’ actor, writer Jaston Williams wins award from national theater group

The folks who run America’s historic theaters were in Austin last week. They conferred their Marquee Award on Jaston Williams, the actor, writer and director whose plays have brightened the Paramount Theatre and State Theater for more than three decades.

Actor, writer and director Jaston Williams receives the Marquee Award from the League of Historic American Theatres. Contributed by Don Telford

The members of the League of Historic American Theatres do not just preserve hundreds of the country’s older venues, they keep them breathing and alive by producing and presenting all sorts of entertainment on their stages.

Among Austin’s main historic live theaters, the State and Paramount, along with the Scottish Rite Theater (originally Turn Verein), Scholz Hall (now known as Scholz Garten) and Hogg Auditorium, still see performances. The Millett Opera House stands but long ago lost its theatrical function; it now houses the Austin Club, which is reviving the memory of the building’s theatrical past. Among those lost to time: Hancock Opera HouseBrauss Hall, Peck’s Hall, Austin Opera HouseLong’s Opera House, Smith’s Opera HouseCasino Theater and Capitol Theater.

Austin’s Paramount served as host of the League’s annual summer conference and at a dinner on July 15, Williams, who often worked with collaborator Joe Sears on the “Greater Tuna” comedies, picked up the honor that has gone to Hal HolbrookGarrison Keillor and Vince Gill. The Marquee Award, established in 2012, goes to artists who inspire League members and also showcase the historic theaters where they perform.

Stars for Williams and Sears were planted under the Paramount’s marquee years ago. Three years ago, on its 100th birthday, the theater, built for vaudeville in 1915, regained it upright blade sign which once again graces Congress Avenue.

RELATED: A populist palace, the Paramount has hosted acts for 100 years.