Now that the Austin Symphony has consummated Part 3 of its “Mighty Russians” series, ithas 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.
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.
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.”
“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.
“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.
“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)
Austin Chamber Music Center
Austin Classical Guitar Society
Austin Creative Alliance
Austin Film Festival
Austin Film Society
Austin Music Foundation
Center For Women & Their Work
Esquina Tango Cultural Society
Penfold Theatre Company
Puerto Rican Folkloric Dance
Roy Lozano Ballet Folklorico De Texas
Salvage Vanguard Theater
Vortex Repertory Company
UPDATE: Lara Toner Haddock’s name was missing from this story in an earlier post.
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.
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 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.”
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.
Leonard Bernstein‘s “Mass” is about nothing less than a profound loss of faith, Not just personal, but also national, even universal.
Premiering in 1971 during some of the most grim days of the Vietnam War, the great composer’s theatrical take on the traditional Mass structure was to deconstruct it and put it back together.
He poses a saintly Celebrant against competing masses of singers, dancers and instrumentalists.
First one group, then others, and ultimately the Celebrant himself lose the comforts of faith and peace and smash the religious images that adorn the altar at the center of the stage. If this spirtual chaos can seem heart-rending today — and at the Long Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, it was — one can only imagine the effect on buttoned-up audiences right after the 1960s, a decade that tore apart conventional social norms on so many fronts.
No wonder its debut at the Kennedy Center was so controversial. Not only that, the two-hour spectacle that begins with Broadway-Bernstein’s “Simple Song” — sung too softly here — ricochets musically among Copland-Bernstein, Stravinsky-Bernstein and the sometimes unsettling High-Modernist-Bernstein.
All this added up to an evening of almost overwhelming sensation, thanks primarily to Peter Bay, who has dreamed of conducting this towering piece since he witnessed the Kennedy Center premiere 47 years ago.
Let’s break it down:
Children’s choirs: The combined troupes, led by multiple directors, provided moments of joyful respite from the the heavier drama of “Mass.” Their brightly-clad innocence and sweet harmonies elicited an audible “aw” from the audience every time they appeared. Despite Michael Krauss‘s large, never crowded and gorgeously sacred set, the kids were by default and musical necessity required to cluster downstage. While stationed there, they were the stars of the show.
Bernstein100Austin Chorus: Placed upstage of the altar, this formidable group of singers, dressed for most of the action in dark robes, provided a sort of solemn anchor for everything else. Led primarily by Craig Hella Johnson of Conspirare, their sound was rock-solid and responded to whatever challenge Bernstein and Bay threw at them. It would be interesting to hear some of their sections done separately in concert. They would hold up.
Street Chorus: While the upstage choir blended into a whole, this group of two dozen or so singer-actors — dressed in street clothes and semi-seated to the side — injected particularized humanity into their roles. While they clearly represented some of the social subsets from the early 1970s, the performers made each part their own, thanks in part to stage director Josh Miller‘s efforts to distinguish each individual’s profile. Their solo meditations on faith and doubt really got the show’s near-operatic project rolling.
Dancers and Acolytes: Not having seen a stage version of “Mass” before, I could only imagine — or rather, struggle to imagine — the function of these mostly silent figures dressed in plain black-and-white cassocks. Yet, choreographed by Jennifer Hart, they kept the show in almost constant motion, delineating sections and amplifying the major themes. Included onstage were some of Ballet Austin‘s finest dancers, who know how to make movement into theater. If you don’t have the dancers, you don’t have “Mass.”
Celebrant: At first, baritone Jubilant Sykes provided the warm, soulful heart of the show. Wearing his vestments lightly and employing the full range of his stunning voice, Sykes tried to reach out and mend the rips in the social-sacramental fabric around him, not easy to do when there are 300 other performers around you. Yet when it came time for the Celebrant to break down and lose his personal connection to God, Sykes, defrocked in a solo spotlight, gave us a raw psychological study that could have been drawn from the most terrifying Greek tragedy.
Austin Symphony Orchestra+: Austin’s primary classical ensemble was supported by rock, jazz and marching band musicians. Yet they carried the preponderance of the musical weight triumphantly under Bay’s baton and, let’s be plain, they have never sounded more urgent or imperative. Especially during the interludes, they shed any mundane notion of constraints or equivocation. And as the audience made abundantly clear during the curtain calls, this was pinnacle so far in the career of conductor Bay. That’s not to say it’s downhill from here, but with this monumental “Mass,” all the participating Austin performing arts groups proved our city can aspire to almost anything. (And it made profit that will go back to the arts groups, says co-producer Mela Sarajane Dailey.)
It started off tentatively and ended magnificently.
“The Mighty Russians, Part II,” a full banquet of symphonic music, opened with Tchaikovsky‘s short Piano Concerto No. 3. Soloist Olga Kern, a dazzling presence onstage at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, seemed content to traipse lightly through the first exchanges with the Austin Symphony Orchestra, which sounded “mighty” right off. Then Kern paused briefly before launching into the single movement’s big solo part. If there was any doubt about her command of this music, it was instantly erased by this far-ranging venture into pianistic possibilities.
The orchestra, cut down to pit size, next gave us four snippets from Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Sleeping Beauty,” all part of the “Bluebird” pas de deux. The Austin Symphony doesn’t play much ballet music, except in support of Ballet Austin performances, so this served as a pleasant palate cleanser, especially the flights of fancy from the flute soloist (was that Rebecca Powell Garfield?).
Kern returned for Prokofiev‘s Piano Concerto No. 1 and wasted no time showing her mastery of this extraordinary fast and complicated piece. Conductor Peter Bay made a perfect partner, bringing out all the colors of the symphony while Kern produced sounds from the Long Center’s Steinway that I’ve never heard before. The audience, various in the extreme, jumped to its feet at the end.
What could top that? Wait. I had never heard Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 in concert, so I was primed. Almost immediately the rich, demonstrative music, with its flinty hints of modernism and aching references to Romanticism, swept me away. I was transported back to my youthful self first intoxicated in concert by Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” A sense of wonder returned.
This was the way to end a season, with proof positive the Austin Symphony has arrived to the point where I don’t want to miss a single concert in the future.
You already know which Broadway musicals are coming to Austin’s Bass Concert Hall next season — yes, including “Hamilton” — but unless you attended the onstage party last night, you don’t know about the rest of the Texas Performing Arts season.
The University of Texas presenting group’s director, Kathy Panoff, who reports that subscriptions for the Broadway in Austin series are unsurprisingly strong, cheerfully introduced the dance, classical, world and other Essential Series selections to several dozen fans. Then she introduced Stephanie Rothenberg, a member of the Broadway cast of “Anastasia,” who sang two numbers from the show. Reminder: Among the name producers for this stage version of the animated movie are local backers Marc and Carolyn Seriff.
(I wondered if the Austin group flew in talented Rothenberg and indeed they had, just for two songs. She’s a “swing” member of the New York cast, which means she can take over several parts, including the title role, but also could fly away for the night.)
Without any further delay …
2018-2019 Texas Performing Arts Season
Sept. 12: Voca People. An a cappella group from Israel completely reconfigures popular hits.
Sept. 14: Reduced Shakespeare Company. The original creators of “The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) (Revised)” bring back the hilarious work that made them famous.
Sept. 21: Fred Hersch Trio. Ten-time Grammy nominated pianist brings the real jazz deal.
Sept. 28: Taylor Mac. Extravagant drag performer messes with the audiences during “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Abridged).”
Oct. 5: Yekwon Sunwoo. UT likes to book the top talent from the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and this is the 2017 winner.
Oct. 18: Ragamala Dance Company. It’s hard to believe this is the first major Indian dance troupe to play Bass, but I’m pretty sure that’s what Panoff said. They’ll perform “Written in Water.”
Nov. 1: “Blackstar: An Orchestral Tribute to David Bowie.” Lots of excitement about this take on the great man.
Nov. 8: Jordi Savall. Early music promoter returns to Austin, this time with a global vision in “The Routes of Slavery.”
Nov. 9: Pavel Urkiza and Congri Ensemble. The Cuban guitarist and composer interprets classic Cuban songs in “The Root of the Root.”
Nov. 13: Circa. Australian contemporary circus troupe presents “Humans.”
Nov. 14-Dec. 2. “The Merchant of Venice.” There’s usually one or two selections from UT’s department of theater and dance in the bill; this season it’s a take on Shakespeare.
Nov. 16: “Private Peaceful.” Verdant Productions and Pemberley produced this staging of Michael Morpurgo’s book on World War I, directed and adapted for the stage by Simon Reade.
Jan. 30: Michelle Dorrance Dance. Trust UT to bring in the best of the dance world; this tap troupe introduces “ETM: Double Down.”
Feb. 5: Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet. This sliver of the storied orchestra was founded in 1988.
Feb. 8: “Songs of Freedom.” Drummer Ulysses Owns, Jr. leads a group interpreting Joni Mitchell, Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone as part of the center’s series on protest arts.
March 27: “A Thousand Thoughts.” The Kronos Quartet team with Oscar-nominaed filmmaker Sam Green for this live documentary.
April 11: “Caravan: A Revolution on the Road.” A collaboration between Terence Blanchard E-Collective and Rennie Harris Puremovement Dance Company with projections and installations by Andrew Scott.
April 13: UT Jazz Orchestra with Joe Lovano. American saxophonist joins the college ensemble as part of the Butler School of Music’s Longhorn Jazz Festival.
April 11: Trey McLaughlin and Sounds of Zamar. They saved the blessing for last with this Georgia-based gospel group.
Creek Show, the annual procession of light art staged by the Waller Creek Conservancy, turned a corner of sorts last year.
What started as mostly elegant minimalist efforts along downtown Austin’s eastern waterway went maximalist in 2017 with masses of pink flags for “Night Garden” by Daniel Woodroffe (lead), Kim Harding, Francisco Rosales, Ethan Primm and Kevin Sullivan.
UPDATE: Credits for “Night Garden” appeared incorrectly in a previous version of this post.
The designs for year five — the free event will be Nov. 9-17 — were recently announced and promise to continue the large-scale experience. In 2017, more than 20,000 people attended Creek Show, sampling the kind of attractions planned for a transformed Waller Creek. For 2018, Creek Show will be in a different section of Waller Creek — between Ninth and 11th streets — and include Symphony Square, where the “Creek Show Lounge” will be located.
Here’s a look at early renderings of what’s planned for 2018, along with the teams behind the designs:
“The Book of Mormon,” the hit Broadway musical about latter-day missionaries in Africa, returns to Austin and Bass Concert Hall April 17-22. The folks at Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts don’t want you to to miss a beat, so they have instituted a lottery for a limited number of $25 tickets.
Here’s how it works: Two and a half hours before each performance on the University of Texas campus, box office staff will start to accept entry cards with each person’s name and the number of tickets (1 or 2) that they wish to purchase. One person; one entry. Winners must be present at the time of the drawing and show a valid ID.
Again: Limit of one entry per person and two $25 tickets per winner. In New York, this kind of lottery, which was also used for them musical “Rent,” has attracted as many as 800 entries for some performances.
By now, any Broadway buff knows this 2011 show created by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, known variously for their creative work behind “South Park” and “Avenue Q.” Although it mocks the Mormon religion, it does so with just enough good will to attract LDS fans.
Broadway in Austin has paused its acceptance of new subscribers for the 2018-2019 season that includes the smash musical “Hamilton.” Current subscribers to the 2017-2018 season can still renew their seats through March 27.
New subscribers to the Texas Performing Arts series can sign up for the waiting list to be notified if additional season tickets become available.
This pause is unprecedented in the history of touring shows at the University of Texas’ Bass Concert Hall. Demand must be incredibly high.
UPDATE 11:26 a.m. Feb. 28:
“We’ve heard no complaints or frustrations from customers so far,” says Broadway in Austin spokeswoman Amy Layton. “The numbers on the waiting list for new subscriptions, however, are on the rise.”
Layton said that this situation has happened in other markets where “Hamilton” was on the season list.
“Current season ticket holders’ seats are held,” she says about those with 2017-2018 season subscriptions. “We have not given any of them away. Current subscribers have until March 27 to renew.”
Layton also said that because the touring route is already locked in, it’s highly unlikely that any new performances would be added in Austin. That can happen in markets where hits such as “Hamilton” can “sit down” at one theater for a long time, places such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto.