Review: La Follia’s Bach Vs. Handel “Smackdown”

(This review is by Luke Quinton, American-Statesman freelance arts critic.)

When the warring parties have been dead for a few hundred years, the stakes are lowered, but that didn’t mean the performers for La Follia’s Bach Vs. Handel “Smackdown” this weekend were taking the competition frivolously.

There was a moment in this Saturday night’s concert when La Follia’s director Keith Womer knew he was going to lose. He was explaining to the crowd that for the solo keyboard section, he’d given each composer a piece on his favorite instrument: Womer would play the homely harpsichord for Handel, which left Chris Keenan playing Bach’s famous “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” on the room-filling organ.

“What was I thinking!” Womer wondered aloud.

These little asides, the moments of theatrics engaged the audience in a concert that asked for their participation and attention all night long. Is it gimmicky? Sure. Yet a gimmick is only a gimmick if that’s all you come away with at the end of the night. Instead, La Follia’s smackdown, with the gregarious Womer as Master of Ceremonies; his white-wigged assistant announcing each round with a boxing-style placard and a bit of schtick; and pictures of both composers handed out to the audience so they could vote for their favorites, were proof of a carefully considered spectacle. And the lineup of musicians was serious enough to actually execute the idea.

Bach and Handel never met in person, despite being born in the same year and even sharing the same medical doctor. So there’s some satisfaction in pitting one against the other in rounds that test each composer’s strengths in different configurations and ensemble arrangements.

We heard Bach’s solo cello suite (number 1), poised against Handel’s “Violin Sonata in D” (no contest there for Mr. Bach) and then Handel’s melodic “Water Music Suite 2” pitted against organ music again, with Bach’s raucous “Cantata 29” backed by La Follia’s baroque strings and horns.

Most surprising was the unexpected power of each composer’s vocal music. Not many in the crowd would have pleaded deep familiarity with Handel’s “Ombra mai fu” from the composer’s opera “Serse,” which competed against Bach’s overplayed “Air on the G string,” in the “mellow” music category.

Here, as later in the program, the rich voice and presence of countertenor Nick Zammit had the audience practically swooning. Zammit is best remembered locally for his performance in Austin Opera’s contemporary opera “Flight.” And perhaps it’s overvaluing the market for Austin countertenors, but the fact that Zammit, whose day job finds him working as personal chef, lists no upcoming musical gigs, seems to be a loss verging on criminal.

Zammit had an brilliant sparring partner in the ever-charming chanteuse Meredith Ruduski. There were only a few musical letdowns, some out of tune horns and slightly shabby string playing.

So what do we learn from this exercise? Well, these matters are hard to decide. Do you like Handel’s piece better, but not this particular version? Is that worth casting a contrarian vote for Bach? Yes, it was a night of grave decisions.

With Bach in the lead, the piece de resistance appeared: singers from Chorus Austin performing Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” who then followed with Handel’s all-but-unbeatable Hallelujah Chorus.

The score after all this wrangling?

A tie.

Wednesday arts pick: “Sagrada,” Rooftop Architecture Film Series

Construction began pn La Sagrada Família, the towering basilica in Barcelona, in 1882.

Designed by architect Antoni Gaudí, its brilliant mash-up of Gothic and Art Nouveau styles that remains still not finished.


As part of its Rooftop Architecture Film Series, the Contemporary screens “Sagrada: The Mystery Of Creation” a 2012 documentary by Swiss filmmaker Stefan Haupt, follows the creative process of the Sagrada from its beginnings.

“Sagrada” shows two nights — Wednesday and Thursday — at the Contemporary’s Jones Center, 700 Congress Ave. Roof opens at 6:30 p.m., film at 7:30 p.m. $10. Seating is limited.

The nave in the Sagrada Familia with a hyperboloid vault.
The nave in the Sagrada Familia with a hyperboloid vault.







“La línea continua” catalog now published

In August, Houston collectors Judy and Charles Tate announced that they were donating their collection of Latin American art, valued at approximately $10 million, to the Blanton Museum of Art.

Although the Blanton already is a pioneering leader in the field of modern and contemporary Latin American art, the Tates’ donation significantly bolstered the museum’s holdings and represents one of the largest donations of art in its history.

Some 70 highlights of the Tate’s donation is on view through Feb. 15, 2015, in the exhibit “La línea continua: The Judy and Charles Tate Collection of Latin American Art.”

And now, the fully-illustrated all-color catalog of the Tate’s collection is out on Tower Books, an imprint of the University of  Texas Press. The volume ($29.95) includes an essay by Beverely Adams, the Blanton’s Latin American curator and an interview with the Tates and Gabriel Pérez-Barriero, the Blanton’s former Latin American curator.

Read a story about the Tate’s collection and the Blanton’s history of collecting Latin American art here:


Thursday arts pick: Last weekend for “Am I White”

It’s the last weekend to catch Adrienne Dawes’ riveting, trenchant play “Am I White.”

Ricocheting back and forth in time, seguing into nightmarish scenes played out as a disturbing minstrel show, “Am I White” tells the story of an imprisoned neo-Nazi convicted of plotting terrorist acts who must confront his own mixed-race heritage.



“Am I White” is based on the true story of Leo Felton, a white supremacist who hid his own mixed-race identity as the child of a short-lived idealistic Civil Rights-era marriage between a black architect and a white former nun.

“Am I White” continues through Oct. 18 at Salvage Vanguard Theater.

Read a feature story on the play here:

Wednesday arts pick: Last days to see “Margo Sawyer: Reflect” at Umlauf

It’s the last few days to enjoy Margo Sawyer’s sublime multi-part installation “Reflect” at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum.  “Reflect” continues through Oct. 19.

Inside the gallery there’s an elegant floor piece in the interior gallery with 55,000 chrome beads alongside dozens of glass, metal and acrylic elements.

Outside on the ground there’s blue- and white-colored tiles in geometric shapes embedded  in the grounds and a group of antique Elgin-Butler bricks stacked into pyramids.

Read a feature story on it here:  (subscription-free link)

Umlauf Sculpture Garden, 605 Robert E. Lee Road,


Margo Sawyer’s installation “Reflect” is on view through Oct. 19 at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

Monday arts pick: Anna Colette at Courtyard Gallery

In her newest series of landscape images, Anna Collette, assistant professor of photography at UT, captured the staggering beauty of damaged trees following the October 2013 floods in the Onion Creek area of South Austin.

“Gathering Ground: Anna Collette” 

Gallery hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Exhibit continues through Feb. 6. Courtyard Gallery, AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, 1900 University Ave.



Collette_GG_09 (2)
Anna Colette “Untitled (Gathering Ground #9),” 2014



Collette_GG_66 (2)
Anna Colette, “Untitled (Gathering Ground #6),” 2014

Austin Lyric Opera rebrands as Austin Opera

After 28 years, Austin Lyric Opera is changing its name, officials with the organization announced today.

From now on, the company will be known as Austin Opera.

General director Joe Specter said the change is meant to reflect the professional stature and forward-thinkingof the company.

“We’ve been known as Austin Lyric Opera for many years, and it has served us well. It is an important part of our history, and we are proud to be an opera company with that kind of longevity,” said Specter.

“As Austin continues its remarkable growth, we want our name to let people know that we are offering the kind of sophisticated opera experience that suits our creative and thriving city. As a name, ‘Austin Opera’ is elegant and inviting.”

Specter reported that in the past three season, the opera has seen a 33 percent increase in subscriptions. And artistic director and principal conductor Richard Buckley has now signed a four-year contract that will bring his tenure with the company to 16 years.

The company also signed a contract renewal with Local 433, American Federation of Musicians, to extend the opera orchestra’s term for an additional three years.

The company begins its season with a new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s A Masked Ball, Nov. 8, 13 and 16. On the production team are stage director Leon Major and Wendall Harrington, one of the world’s foremost projection designers. Harrington’s participation comes through a  partnership between Austin Opera and UT’s School of Theater and Dance.

Wednesday arts pick: Rooftop architecture film series

How small will you go?


For Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller, it’s 124-square-feet.

“Tiny: A Story About Living Small” is the documentary Smith and Mueller made that charts their experiment with building — and downsizing to fit into — a 124-square-foot “tiny house” on five acres of land in Colorado.

With no prior construction experience and new to the now-established tiny house movement, Smith and Mueller track their experience as well as that of others across the country who have downsized their footprint by living small.

“Tiny’ will screen Wednesday and Thursday as part of the Contemporary’s Rooftop Architecture Film Series.

Huston-Tillotson environmental science professor  Jeff Wilson– aka the self-proclaimed “Professor Dumpster —  will share his experience living a year in a 33-square-foot dumpster as part of his Dumpster Project.

The rooftop opens at 6:30; screening begins at 7:30. Admission is $10. The Contemporary’s Jones Center is at 700 Congress Ave.

Review: “Am I White” at Salvage Vanguard Theater

(This review is by American-Statesman freelance critic Claire Christine Spera.)

In local playwright Adrienne Dawes’ intense new work, showing at the Salvage Vanguard Theater through Oct. 18, everything is mixed up: the present with the past, reality with the dream world, reason with feeling and, as the play’s title suggests, the very racial identities of the characters.


In “Am I White” (directed by Jenny Larson), J. Ben Wolfe plays the lead role of bald-headed Wesley Connor, a neo-Nazi terrorist with a dirty little secret, serving time for a failed bomb plot. Inspired by the true story of white supremacist Leo Felton, Dawes’ Wesley struggles to reconcile his identity as a White Order of Thule member with the reality of his mixed-race heritage — his “beige” skin, we learn, is the gift of a black father and white mother.

The 60-minute play keeps a refreshingly brisk pace as the five-member cast brings to life a series of episodes, all tied together with questions of identity.

Wesley’s cellmate, Ryan (Michael Joplin), is an outspoken member of the Aryan Brotherhood whose body is adorned with swastikas. Prison guard Justine (Florinda Bryant), a self-proclaimed “Mexi-black,” constantly questions Wesley’s identification as Caucasian. In contrast to Ryan and Wesley’s prison jumpsuits, when we see flashbacks to scenes with Wesley’s girlfriend, Polly (Katie Van Winkle), she’s wearing traditional skinhead attire of Doc Martens and suspenders. Wesley’s mom, Jade (Cyndi Williams), reminds us of her son, “He’s a very sick man.”

The uncomplicated scenic design (by Ia Ensterä) — consisting of a white square painted on the floor to denote the boundaries of a prison cell, along with two chairs and a barred window high in one corner of the stage — allows for seamless transitions between scenes.

In one moment, just as Wesley prepares to knife a black prisoner who’s giving Ryan a hard time, the scene flows into a flashback to 10-year-old Wesley clutching a knife in his childhood kitchen, confronted by his mother. The white floor plays host to video footage (by Lowell Bartholomee) featuring news reports, TV static and splattered blood, which adds to the effectiveness of such transitions.

In another scene, a minstrel show plays out in a spooky alternate reality. Wesley’s face is painted half black, while Justine has abandoned her prison guard uniform for clothing of an appropriately racist tribal nature. The emcee, of course, is Ryan. To him, the world is simply black and white.

To Wesley, the world is more complicated: Beige.

“Am I White” continues through Oct. 18.

Tuesday arts pick: Photographer Alejandro Cartagena

Mexico’s growing middle class and the country’s  burgeoning urbanization has resulted in a building boom, with new housing developments and suburbs cropping up.

Fragmented Cities, Apodaca, 2006, Suburbia Mexicana Project
Alejandro Cartagna. Fragmented Cities, Apodaca, 2006. Suburbia Mexicana Project

Photographer Alejandro Cartagena has trained his lens on all the urban/suburban growth and the ways in which it has altered the landscape and affected the lives of people living in the changing cities.

Cartagena gives a lecture about his work Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Ransom Center. The event is free.

Cartagena’s series “Suburbia Mexicana Project” captures in neat geometric precision the rows of cookie-cutter identical houses lining newly-created streets — new suburban neighborhoods that push the boundaries of Northern Mexican cities such as Monterrey and Saltillo ever wider.

Alejandro Cartegena. Car Poolers 46
Alejandro Cartegena. Car Poolers 46

For his much acclaimed “Car Poolers” series Cartegena positioned himself on a pedestrian bridge over a highway in his hometown of Monterrey, capturing the legions of constructions day laborers, who pile in the back of pick-up trucks each morning as they travel to their job sites on the edges of the city.

At once voyeuristic and also intimate, though they’re captured in a fleeting second, Cartegena’s “Car Poolers” images read like carefully composed still lifes.

“Mexico is a tough place, and these guys are staying honest and legit; that’s something to admire,” Cartagena told an interviewer recently.

Cartegena says his photos offer a way to “reflect on how we’ve built our city and how in return it builds who we are and how we interact with it.”