Saturday, May 29, 2010

Benny & Doc's healing musical journey

Everyone knows medicine usually leaves a bad taste in your mouth, but not the concoction cooked up on “Father & Son Playing for Small Change,” a new four-song EP by Doc Zig and Benny Z — otherwise known around the Port as Jim (father) and Benny (son) Zanfagna. (That would be pronounced zan-fawn-nya.) No, this stuff is pretty sweet. You won’t need a spoonful of sugar to make this go down. But what a strange concoction this is. Just get a load of the active ingredients, the flavors: folk, country blues, reggae, jazz. And the instrumentation: acoustic guitar, mandolin, dobro, flute, saxophone, congas. Nope, this isn’t traditional music, not exactly. It’s Americana realized through a filter of reggae and jazz. Or is it the other way around? And, obviously, it’s not actually medicine, so probably not a good idea to send the receipt to your HMO, but the project is an elixir of sorts, a home cure that combines the healing qualities of music and the physical therapy that comes along with playing it — soothing the savage breast while, for example, goosing neural pathways — as part of recovery. “It’s literally medicinal,” says Benny Z. Which is why they named their publishing company Making Music Medicine Productions. 

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Run, don't 'Walk' for Miller's latest

This strange dissociative thing comes over me when I listen to "Walk," Byfield cellist Kristen Miller's new album. It's like she's whispering in my ear, reminding me of things we have always known, hard-learned lessons that have been all but lost in the maddening rush the present, the incessant tedium of life's details. It's like catching up with an old friend in a way. But, somehow, it feels wrong, like I'm somewhere I'm not supposed to be — lurking in the shadows, ear cocked toward the confessional, eavesdropping. Not that any great secrets are being betrayed. The stories are lyrical studies in contrast and paradox, seemingly small, but significant situations that are closely observed, unfolding in front of you, the details emerging in relief. It's poetry that feels like prose. Songs about longing, love, and loss. Urgent fictions, mostly, situations that ring true, that have a terrible sense of immediacy, familiarity. You know these people, even if you've never met them, even though their stories are not completely drawn. Miller sketches, drops a few hints and lets the listeners fill in the details. 

Friday, May 14, 2010

Now, about the new 'guy' in Epomeo ...

Got so wrapped up in the Ensemble Epomeo’s program for “Music and the Manse” and our new appreciation for the Italian language, that we forgot to talk abut the new guy. And the old guy. But it turns out that the last time we saw Byron Wallis — during Ensemble Epomeo’s Port debut last year, when the trio rolled out, among other things, a magical performance of Schnitke’s String Trio, the piece that brought the group together in the first place — will likely be the last time we ever see him. The Paris-based violinist is no longer performing with Epomeo. He’s been replaced by Carolyn Chin, a rising classical star who with a packed resume that includes leading the conductorless String Orchestra of New York City, performing as concertmaster with the Paragon Orchestra and touring the United States and Japan with the tap dancer Savion Glover.
No, there’s nothing particularly nasty going on. Just the usual “creative differences,” which often, just below the surface, are about personalities, plus the fact that working with someone who lives and performs thousands of miles away from the Center of the Universe — that would be New York — makes the whole trio thing just a little too complicated. Wallis, who frequently performs with the Orchestre Nationale d’lle de France, “is a terrific guy, one of the sweetest and gentlest guys I know,” says Epomeo violist David Yang. “We just had different approaches. We are still good friends so I think I can say the parting was mostly mutual”

Yang, who is also artistic director of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, performed with Chin a couple of years ago at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, always liked her and her playing. “In addition to being a truly impressive musician with outrageous chops she is also an unusually honest person, and that is important,” says Yang. “She has a core of steel, too. By this I mean she is a real leader — a strong personality in the group. A trio is so small that everyone needs to hold their weight, but even in the more democratic form of a trio (versus string quartets, in general) you need a violin who likes to lead. So personality is really important. I mean, look, we just spent two weeks together rehearsing, I kid you not, eight hours a day. You think that is going to work for very long if we don’t know how to get along? You don’t have to like one another, but you have to respect one another. We have had disagreements, but the amazing thing is how non-personal it is.

“The stakes, while they may seem small outside, can feel enormous in a group,” says Yang. “Differences in interpretation, in pitch, timing. A small disagreement can feel very personal - can you play that note a little higher? No, why would you want that? It sounds terrible? Well I think your way sounds terrible? Who are you calling terrible? How dare you? And so on. It is important to me to play with people I admire as players and also as people.”

Epomeo, which also includes Kenneth Woods, founder of the Taliesin Trio and the Masala String Quartet as well as principal guest conductor of the Stratford-upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan, takes its name from the non-active volcano that dominates the landscape of the small, sun-drenched Italian island of Ischia, where the trio is currently holed up. The group is the resident ensemble of the island’s Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia‚ a 10-day chamber music festival and intensive study retreat. They’ll have little time, just four days, between Ischia and the Port performance, which, itself, is part of the Newburyport Preservation Trust’s weeklong festival. The program will include “Thrice blest,” a world premiere by Kile Smith that is based on music by 17th-century Newbury composer John Tufts that came from a hymnbook discovered by NCMF executive director Jane Niebling. Also on the program will be the Sitkovetsky transcription of Bach's Goldberg Variations for string quartet and Beethoven's String Trio in D major, which Yang says is the “core” of the program for the trio.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Ensemble Epomeo will perform at “Music and the Manse,” a benefit for the Newburyport Preservation Trust, May 21 at the 18th-century Henry C. Learned House, 190 High St., Newburyport. The program includes the Sitkovetsky transcription of Bach's Goldberg Variations, Beethoven's String Trio in D Major and “Thrice blest,” a world premiere based on music by West Newbury composer John Tufts. The event, which runs from 5:30 to 9 p.m., also includes a tour of the historic home and a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception. Tickets are $75. Reservations are required. For more information, call 978.463.9776.


Exit Dance Theatre rises again

Funny thing is that when Fontaine Dollas Dubus takes the stage for a performance of “On the Third Day,” her new piece for Exit Dance Theatre, you might not even notice her, because you’ll be looking in the wrong place because she won’t be one of the dancers — not in this piece, at least. She’ll be in the chorus, one of 17 voices in the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Choir, lead by Don Argyrople, while nine dancers perform in front of her. Kind of a strange place for a dancer and choreographer to be, right? Um, yeah, if you look at it that way. Dubus doesn’t.

Yes, she’s a dancer and choreographer.Yes, she’s been performing with a modern dance company for more than two decades. And, yes, she’s also the owner of a Newburyport dance studio. But Exit has always been about more than “just” dance. Just look at the name — Exit Dance Theatre, spelled the fancy French way. It’s always related dance to theater and drama, and approached dance as more than movement, as a way of telling a story.

And Dubus, while primarily a dancer and choreographer, also studies acting and has sung all her life — in choirs, in schools. She recently returned to the Annunciation choir, after a long absence. She long ago found inspiration in how the old Slavonic texts mixed with the music, “which, to me, are the sound of old Europe,” she says, “All of my life I imagined movement with this music.” And this week, it all comes together.

The piece will include parts of five hymns rooted in Russian and Byzantine hymns, drawing musical pictures of lost, ancient times. It will premiere this weekend during “Sound Moves,” the new Exit program. Much, if not all of the lyrical content will likely be lost on the audience, but not the feeling.

But “On the Third Day” the is not the only choreography set to live music in “Sound Moves.” Byfield cellist Kristen Miller will provide the musical backdrop, with three original pieces for a trio choreographed and danced by Dubus, Susan Atwood, and Sarah George.

And it’s not the only surprise in the production. Gordon Pryzbyla will premiere a new experimental film, truly turning the “Sound Moves” into a multimedia event. And Dubus and recently returned Exit co-founder Stephen Haley, who is also suddenly all over the local scene, directing “The Agawam” at the Firehouse, “Waiting for Godot” at Wentworth and as a Theater in the Open fundraiser and currently working on a new production of Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano,” will team up together for the first time in a duet — “Bloodstone,” which examines the relationships of obligation, love and abandonment.

Erin Foley brings back an extended verion of ReRot, which was inspired by Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and its references to human existence as perceived through the philosophy of Nietzsche. The new piece continues the exploration of mortality and timelessness.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Exit Dance Theatre will perform “Sound Moves” at 8 p.m. May 14 and 15 at the Firehouse, 1 Market Square. Tickets are $18, $16 for members of the Society for the Development of the Arts and Humanities and $14 for seniors and students. For more information, log on to or call 978.462.7336.

JUST THE FOLKS, MAN: Performers in Exit Dance Theatre's Sound Moves show include: Susan Atwood, Darlene Doyle, Fontaine Dubus, Nicole Duquette, Erin Foley, Sarah George, Wendy Hamel, Stephen Haley, Jennifer Steeves, Edward Speck, Tricia Walsh. Also performing will be Don Argyrople and the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Choir and Byfield cellist Kristen Miller.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Epomeo: Now, that's Italian

Our Italian vocabulary word of the day is "aliscafo," as in "Oggi David Yang e a cavallo di un aliscafo." And, you may well ask, just what is David Yang, the artistic director of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, and a fellow comfortable enough with Italiano to order, properly, insalata, fusilli con formaggio e piselli and prosciutto crudo e mozzarella di bufala, doing in a hovercraft? Answer: Barely touching the surface of the Mediterranean in a mad dash to the island of Ischia, home of the Festivale d’alla Musica da Camera d’Ischia in Italy, a weeklong chamber music festival where he has been a resident coach for years and where Ensemble Epomeo will be settling in for its second year as the festival's ensemble-in-residence. That’s what he’s doing. And he's getting a just a little sick to his stomach (solo un po 'malato al suo stomaco) from the choppy seas as he blasts across the Sea of Napoli, taking questions about Epomeo’s May 21 show at the historic Henry C. Learned House, a benefit for the Newburyport Preservation Trust. We see the sea sickness as a kind of penance for totally blowing off a certain arts writer a couple of days earlier. No, no, no. E solo uno scherzo. Just joking.

No, Yang’s a tough guy to get ahold of under the best of circumstances. In addition to playing with Epomeo, he’s a member of Auricolae, a Philadelphia-based storytelling troupe, as well as a performer with Poor Richard’s String Quintet. He’s also director of chamber music at the University of Pennsylvania and coach at Swarthmore and, well, you get the idea. And this time of year, with Epomeo doing its usual globetrotting spring schedule, with tours on the East Coast, including a live radio broadcast, as well as shows in England and Wales, before retuning to Ischia, its home-base — and, four days after they put the lid on the intense Italian music festival, parachuting into Newburyport for “Music and the Manse,” as the program is being called.

The ensemble will also have a new look, with Caroline Chin, leader of the String Orchestra of New York City and artistic director of Musica Reginae, replacing Byron Wallis on violin. Cellist Kenneth Woods, another guy with a resume — Taliesin Trio and the Masala String Quartet, principal guest conductor of the Stratford-upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan, and author of the entertaining and informative View from the Podium blog — returns on cello.

They’ll will be taking a comparatively lighter program around the block: Instead of piling on, emotionally, with Krasa’s "Tanz," which opens with a waltz and ends with oblivion; or Hovhaness’ mournful, ethereal Trio, they’ll be playing Sitkovetsky’s transcription of Bach's Goldberg Variations for string trio, Beethoven's String Trio in D major and "Thrice blest," a world premiere based on music by Newbury composer John Tufts.

The Variations, of course, were written for keyboard by Bach and forever seared into the collective musical imagination by the admittedly idiosyncratic performances by Glenn Gould, much to the dismay of purists. Yang confesses to sacrilege, saying the piano version is, well “a little, um, boring” ... and is immediately rewarded with the crash of a huge wave against the aliscafo, raising a collective moan from passengers.) “I think what is so interesting about this piece is its hybrid nature. It is a period work but played on modern instruments Also, since we can sustain with string instruments vs. a harpsichord (no sustaining) or a piano you can get a very different effect so that harmony, instead of having to be implied can really be just, well, played,” Yang says. Because of time restraints, the trio will be doing only two-thirds of the variations.

The Beethoven is “the core of the repertory for us,” says Yang. “What is neat about this is the slow movement which is written in an Italian feeling style (Yes, of course, affettuoso). By that I mean it is less contrapunctual, with parts playing off one another and more... like an opera, with arias and accompaniment. But since it is Beethoven it is incredibly beautiful but also complex, although I hope you don't hear the complexity as much as just feel it deep down in the animal part of your brain.”

The final piece will be a world premiere by Kile Smith, who is a bit of a classical star in Philly. He has his own radio show and runs the legendary Fleisher Collection of Music. He’s also been resident composer for the Jupiter Symphony in New York. Yang asked him to do something based on a local hymnbook that Newburyport Chamber Music Festival founder Jane Niebling found. He used a melody from Tufts who was from 17th-century Newbury. The composition has three sections — the hymn, then an agitated quick and rhythmic middle section and then back to the hymn. “The piece, I am sure, will be very popular with the audience,” Yang says. “It is lovely, the kind of stuff people will ask for again.”

Road warriors
From Newburyport, Epomeo will pack up and head north to Portland before calling it a wrap — a hectic time that has the favor of a rock tour. “Well, it has felt a little like that recently,” Yang says. “But I stay in one place usually for a few days. I like traveling but am torn, as I really miss my little daughters. When I am home I spend as much time with them as I can. I also really like my home. Philadelphia has been good to me, and I live on a leafy little city street where all the neighbors know each other and have dinner together and stuff like that. It is a treat to be home. (And now we are rolling side to side - oooh nooooo! I really have to stop now.)”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Ensemble Epomeo will perform at “Music and the Manse,” a benefit for the Newburyport Preservation Trust, May 21 at the 18th-century Henry C. Learned House, 190 High St., Newburyport. The program includes the Sitkovetsky transcription of Bach's Goldberg Variations, Beethoven's String Trio in D major and “Thrice blest,” a world premiere based on music by West Newbury composer John Tufts. The event, which runs from 5:30 to 9 p.m., also includes a tour of the historic home and a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception. Tickets are $75. Reservations are required. For more information, call 978.463.9776.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Rewriting Rites: TITO takes a different tack

Tough year last year for Theater in the Open, the company that has been living and performing at Maudslay State Park nearly a quarter-century, which had to suck it up and absorb a one-two combination of change and challenges that began during its dark winter months, traditionally a time of reassessment, when longtime artistic director Jeffrey Rath stepped down, and was followed up, rather quickly, by news that they would be getting the old heave-ho from the so-called Coachman Property, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century complex of buildings that included “the barn,” the nerve center for TITO productions for the past eight years. We’re using past tense because the suddenly vacant, historically significant building burned to a crisp earlier this year, before the state even managed to ink a deal with the organization that was supposed move in and dump hundreds of thousands into renovations, throwing the whole deal into disarray. Which is exactly what happened to Theater in the Open as it was about to open its thirtieth season.

Unsure of its status, the company dramatically scaled back the Rites of Spring, its traditional season-opening pageant, and moved it from the park to the other end of the city, starting out downtown, where the actors would generally call attention to themselves with some unscripted performances before parading to March’s Hill, where they would roll out the big guns — the giant puppets — for the Rites. It worked out nicely, says TITO artistic director Edward Speck, salvaging the production and boosting its public profile by bringing Theater in the Open to the people instead, but the company may have performed its last Rites. “This year we’re going in a different direction,” says Speck.

And that would be a completely different direction.

This year, the company will open the season not “in the open,” as its name proclaims, but inside, at the Dance Place, not performing one show twice over the course of a weekend, but five productions of three very different shows over three days. The Spring Fundraiser (apparently the person in charge of coming up with memorable names was on vacation) will feature:

• “Waiting for Godot”: The absurdist Samuel Beckett masterpiece will be directed by Stephen Haley. This production, which double-casts the main role, will feature performances by Phil Atkins, Missy Chabot, Dylan Fuller, Paul Wann and, rumor has it, Haley himself.

• “The Real Inspector Hound”: Tom Stoppard’s one-act who-done-it, a farce that blurs the line between audience and performers, will be directed by Speck. The cast includes Missy Chabot as Birdboot, Beth Randall as Moon, Bonnie Jean Wilbur as Mrs. Drudge, Matt Kiely as Simon, Hannah Libby as Felicity, Alyssa Theriault as Cynthia, Scott Smith as Magnus and Kelley Knight as Inspector Hound.

• The Olas Dance Party, featuring Portland-based world beat band influenced by Andalusian flamenco and Arabic folk music, whose members include Theater in the Open alum Dylan Blanchard.
There were a number of reasons the company decided to pass on the Rites this year, but mostly it was because of Mother Nature. Says Speck, the old girl shut down, at least partially, the Rites four times over the past six years. And it’s not just rain that’s the issue: Strong winds make it impossible to handle the giant puppets. Of course, the company will still have to pray for good weather for the rest of its summer and fall shows, but that will not be a concern with this show. Will the Rites return? No one is saying definitively, no one’s ruling anything out. Speck says the season opener “feels like it’s missing something,” and talks about incorporating the puppetry, the brand of storytelling normally featured in the Rites, elsewhere in the season. 

The season officially gets under way with “Cinderella: A Pretty Princess Panto,” panto being a physical storytelling device that places the put-upon Cinderella in a zany upside-down world. The summer program reprises Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano,” which will be directed by Haley. The summer workshops and popular fall program “Maudslay is Haunted” will return as usual. The winter show is up in the air right now, but will find TITO collaborating with Exit Dance Theatre and The Joppa Jazz Company for a still-secret Christmas production at the Firehouse.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The Theater in the Open Spring Fundraiser takes place May 7 to 9 at the Dance Place at the Tannery, 50 Water St. Here is the schedule: 7 p.m. May 7, “Waiting for Godot,” Tickets are $20; 2 p.m. May 8. “The Real Inspector Hound,” directed by Edward Speck; 8 p.m. May 8, the Olas Dance Party. Tickets are $25; 2 p.m. May 9, bonus performance of “Waiting for Godot,” tickets are $20; 7 p.m. May 9, bonus performance of “The Real Inspector Hound,” tickets are $15. A three-show pass is available for $50 and includes one ticket to ”Godot” on the day of your choice, one ticket to “Inspector Hound” on the day of your choice and one ticket to the Olas Dance Party, including a wine and cheese mixer. For more information, call 978-465-2572 or log onto