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.”
Spectrum Theatre Company, the African-American troupe that the late Billy Harden co-founded, will commemorate the Austin actor, musician, educator and leader on June 16-17 with “Juneteenth Chronicles.”
The show, created by Austin playwright Abena Edwards, pulls together passages from more than 250 interviews with former slaves, originally collected in the 1930s by the WPA. Directed by Crystal Bird Caviel, the cast will include standouts such as Roderick Sanford and John Christopher.
Look forward to the staged reading, which is presented in partnership with the Austin Convention Center, at the AISD Performing Arts Center on Barbara Jordan Boulevard in the Mueller Development. Suggested donation: $10. Find out more at spectrumatx.com.
UPDATE: The playwright sent us a sample of the ex-slave narratives with an image of the man interviewed in 1937.
“War didn’t change nothin’. We saw guns and soldiers, and one member of master’s family, Coleman, was gone fightin’ somewhere, but he didn’t get shot no place but in the big toe. Sometimes folks come ‘long and try to get us to run up North and be free. We used to laugh at that! Wasn’t no reason to run up North. All we had to do was to walk, but walk South. We’d be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande. In Mexico you could be free. They don’t care what color you was.” — Felix Haywood, born in Bexar County, interviewed in San Antonio in 1937 at the age of 92.
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.
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.
Each year, the Austin Symphony holds the well-regarded Butler Texas Young Composers Competition. The best pieces can be heard during the Texas Young Composers Concert, to take place on June 16 at the Long Center for the Performing Arts in the big house, Dell Hall.
This year’s winners attend high schools and universities the Austin, Dallas and Houston areas. Seattle-based Ars Nova Music will publish the top five winners at arsnovamusic.com. Austin super-donors Sarah and Ernest Butler gave the $1.2 million to establish the endowment that pays for the prizes.
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:
For the past five years, the Art Dinner at Laguna Gloria has benefited the Contemporary Austin. Hosts expertly employ the arboreal setting on the grounds of the Clara Driscoll villa to create an elevated atmosphere at dusk and into the evening. This year, that effort included the passage of the S.S. Hangover through the lagoon with members of an Austin music collective playing a dirge-like piece.
Visual and musical artists do love a bit of theater!
Guests were in no hurry to pass up cocktails at key points in and around the villa, but the seated dinner took place under tents on the front lawn. Happily, I was placed next to designers Lydia G. Cook and Geoff Fritz from the Cambridge, Mass. firm of Reed Hilderbrand Landscape Architecture. They helped explained the company’s master plan for the Contemporary’s Marcus Sculpture Park, including connectivity to nearby Mayfield Park.
The modest but tasty dinner arrived courtesy of restaurateur Tyson Cole along with chefs Ed Sura of Uchiko and Joe Zoccoli of Uchi. (Note to other Austin charity hosts: You don’t need a big slab of animal protein to satisfy.) The evening climaxed with an unusually civilized live auction featuring work by artists close to projects at the Contemporary.
“When all was said and done, we raised more than $500,000 in the live and silent auctions,” reported the museum’s spokeswoman, Nicole Chism Griffin. “One hundred percent of these funds will go to support exhibitions at both of our locations. We also raised $325,0000 toward the purchase of Ai Weiwei’s “Iron Tree Trunk.” Our goal had been $100,000 for the evening! This $325,000 will go toward fulfilling the Edward and Betty Marcus Foundation’s challenge grant of $500,000 (for the purchase).”
I hear that some guests danced till the wee hours.
Some notes on the Austin Symphony‘s recent concert at the Long Center.
• One way to fill a house: Schedule Beethoven‘s Fifth. It is the duty of artistic leaders such as Peter Bay to expand tastes and lead audiences in new directions. Still, the Fifth — if well done, and it was — satisfies and enlightens with each fresh interpretation. It comes with the added benefit of a standing-room-only crowd.
• I’ve tried to sit in every part of the Long Center house since it opened 10 years ago. Row 4 on the orchestra level was not the right place to take in the concert’s opening piece, Michael Torke‘s “Bright Blue Music.” All I heard was the lower range of the strings and all I saw were the polished shoes of the musicians.
• Turns out the same seat was ideal for Leonard Bernstein‘s “Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion.” Here, only the strings really mattered and they came together beautifully in conjunction with violinist Vadim Gluzman‘s playful then profound solo turn. Booked as part of the “Bernstein at 100” celebration, this near-concerto is a gem to revive more often.
• Bay has proven time and again that he can take epic forms to ever higher heights. Last season, it was Mahler‘s Sixth, an almost brutally difficult symphony to get right. With Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, the challenge instead is overfamiliarity. Bay and his always advancing ensemble treated the first movement with rhythmic clarity, the second with architectural balance, the third with taut force and the final movement with bristling brilliance.