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 balletin 2009. Mills stuck more closely to the aesthetic of Igor Stravisnky‘s revolutionary 1910 score.
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.
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.
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.)
The blazing news that stands out from the recently announced Austin Shakespeare season is the return of beloved actor and Universityof Texas professor Fran Dorn in a staged reading of “Antony and Cleopatra” in October (dates to be announced).
Otherwise, the mid-sized theater company splits its main season between the Bard and other classically inspired dramatic literature.
The free Shakespeare in the Park option will be “The Merchant of Venice” in May 2019 at Zilker Park. The Young Shakespeare selection is “Macbeth” in June 2019 at the Curtain, the Elizabethan-style theater out on Lake Austin.
The 20th-century choices are Tennessee Williams‘ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (November-December) and Tom Stoppard‘s “Indian Ink” (February 2019). Luckily, much can be found about both playwrights in the archives of the Ransom Center.
Austin Shakespeare also plans a collaboration with the Austin Chamber Music Festival in the summer of 2019.
Still left on the 2017-2018 docket are the chamber music joint effort over scenes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (July 22); “Shakespeare and All That Jazz” at Parker Jazz Club (July 8); and the remaining run of its Young Shakespeare “Hamlet” at the Curtain (through June 24).
From where I sit, “Austin Camerata” translates into “unadulterated beauty.”
At least it did last night when the Austin chamber orchestra played the Rollins StudioTheatre at the Long Center for the Performing Arts.
But first, an historical note: Debra and Kevin Rollins, whose gift made the gray box theater possible, adored chamber music. And yet, during the first 10 years of the Long Center, not much of the genre has been heard in their Studio Theatre.
For a concert called “Reinventions,” the room sounded great! And there was enough space onstage to accommodate Dorothy O’Shea Overbey‘s dancers, who performed with the musicians during the final number.
Back to the music: Like other chamber orchestras, the University of Texas-associated string group — led offstage but not onstage by cellist Daniel Kopp — expands on the collaborative dynamics of a string quartet. Their measured romp through Edvard Grieg‘s “Holberg Suite” was precise, proportional and over way too soon.
All else melted away when guest violinist Chee-Yun arrived downstage, her red gown gown splashed against the orchestra’s workaday blacks, her performance lighted to their near darkness. And for good reason, because she could pull all those wild sounds from her instrument for Astor Piazzolla‘s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.” These four tangos, composed independently but rearranged to match Vivaldi‘s “Four Seasons,” kept the near-full house on the edge of their seats.
For the final piece, Dmitri Shostakovich’s somber and powerful Symphony for Strings, the musicians formed an arc around an open space for Overbey and her dancers. All of them are choreographers as well, so in sense, it was a collaborative effort not unlike the orchestra’s. Dedicated to the victims of fascism and war, the music is associated with the fire-bombing of Dresden and also could be seen as anti-Soviet. (A lot is read into Shostakovich.)
Mesmerizing — although at times crowded and unfinished due to a very short rehearsal period — the dark dance held together by a red scarf well matched the dark music. Visually, it was most arresting when musicians entered the dancers’ zone.
Give us more chamber music at the Rollins and more smart, collaborative work like “Reinventions.”
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.
It’s time. The Austin Critics Table Awards nominations came out this morning.
The gathered minds invented new categories, both under the heading of Theater: Periphery Company, recognizing the theatrical body of work by companies outside of Austin proper, and Improvised Production, recognizing mainstage projects by area improv troupes.
That puts the number of official categories this year at 29 (7 theater, 5 design, 5 dance, 6 classical music, 6 visual arts). Critics also promise at least 11 special citations.
As reported in the New York Times, Bloomberg Philanthropies is putting $43 million into small and midsize arts group in seven new cities, including Austin.
“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 Times.
The other cities new to the project are Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. Already, the program has given $65 million to smaller groups in New York, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
By invitation, the arts groups are offered unrestricted support up to 10 percent of their budgets along with management training.
We’ll update this report when names of the local arts groups are revealed.
Notes on Austin Opera‘s recent production of “La Traviata.”
• Just as with Austin Symphony‘s concert that included Beethoven‘s Fifth, the opera company can fill a house with a favorite. Yes, just as patron Robert Nash said as he passed me going in, this was something like my 5,000th “La Traviata,” but who is counting? I like a full, enthusiastic house and a fresh interpretation of a classic.
• Every “La Traviata” is about Violetta, the fallen woman who finds love, abandons it in sacrifice, then dies. Yet everything about this production at the Long Center for the Performing arts centered expressly on Marina Costa-Jackson, who could fill an sporting arena with her charisma, her nuanced acting and her gorgeously tawny voice. She now moves up to spot No. 2 after Patricia Racette on my list of favorite Violettas.
• Every conductor from here on out must be considered a candidate for the position of Austin Opera artistic director. That’s not the official line, but it’s customary. What can we say about Steven White, who conducts around the world including at the Metropolitan Opera in New York? Judged by this one show, his sound is clean, unassuming and solidly in support of the artistic whole.
• While we loved the whirlwinds of activity elicited by stage director David Lefkowich, as well as the simplicity of his intimate scenes, we were of two minds about the costumes, sets and lights. The first act was appropriately suggestive of a bordello with a hint of luxury, each subsequent scene looked more and more bleak, less and less polished.
• Alfredo is, by nature, a pallid character. And that’s the way tenor Scott Quinn played him from beginning to end. Even during scenes of rage or regret. Germont, on the other hand, offers a mature range of responses. Although he looked young for the role of Alfredo’s father, Michael Chioldi proved forceful, then dignified, although he was less convincing as he warmed to Violetta.
Austin Art League
They have been meeting for more than 100 years. The Austin Art League started regularly examining and discussing art in social settings in 1909. They continue to do so.
During a light luncheon at Tarry House, a private club in Tarrytown on a former estate that belonged the Reed family, they covered a multitude of subjects, but got down to business handing out scholarships to Austin Community College art students Apoorva Jain and Laura Bauman. A third recipient of the $1,500 grants was not present.
They can do so because, a few years ago the group sold a collection of art that they owned, but had been closeted at the Austin History Center for decades. That secret stash brought in $200,000, part of a story I want to tell in full.
In the custom of legacy women’s clubs, members have at times been identified only by their husbands’ names, at other times by their given first names and married last names. Looking over a list of first 100 or so presidents, I spied some social celebrities right off: Mrs. Walter E. Long, Mrs. Harry Bickler, Mrs. T.P. Whitis, Mrs. R.L. Batts, Mrs. T.S. Painter, Mrs. Z.T. Scott, Mrs. Fred. S. Nagle, Mrs. Austin Phelps, Mrs. Martha Deatherage, Mrs. G. Felder Thornhill III, Mrs. D.J. Sibley, Jr. and Mrs. Frank Starr Niendorff.
We did not know accomplished artist, teacher and administrator Leonard Lehrer, but he spent his last years in the Austin area. He died on May 8.
Lehrer was a founding trustee and current honorary member of the International Print Center New York and emeritus professor of art from New York University, among other titles. His art was the subject of 48 solo exhibitions and multiple group shows. His work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery, Corcoran Gallery, Library of Congress as well as other museums and private collections.
Lehrer studied at the Philadelphia College of Art and the University of Pennsylvania. He taught at or led programs at the Philadelphia College of Art, University of New Mexico, University of Texas at San Antonio, Arizona State University, Columbia College Chicago and New York University. His last position was a director of the printmaking convergence program at the University of Texas.
A celebration of his life will be held at 3 p.m. June 2 at Thurman’s Mansion in Driftwood.