Monday, November 30, 2009

ArtsPaper Interview: James Judd moves ahead, moves on

James Judd. (Illustration by Pat Crowley)

By Greg Stepanich

When James Judd takes the stage during the first week of December to lead the Boca Raton Symphonia and the Master Chorale of South Florida in three performances of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Messiah in Boca, Miami and Fort Lauderdale, it will mark his first appearances with local musicians since 2001.

The former conductor of the Florida Philharmonic has been busy leading orchestras all over the world since then, notably as music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, with whom he recorded frequently on the Naxos label, particularly in the work of Douglas Lilburn, New Zealand’s most eminent composer.

At 60, Judd’s home base is still a house in Fort Lauderdale, where he lives with his wife and daughter. The British conductor is currently heading up the Miami Music Project, a music-education initiative in the Miami-Dade County public schools working off a three-year, $1 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Palm Beach ArtsPaper’s Greg Stepanich spoke with Judd on Nov. 9 in his spacious studio, once a garage but now given over to a piano, scores and books. What follows are transcribed excerpts of their conversation, with questions edited for length and clarity.

Stepanich: The Messiah performances will be your return to local stages. So, are you back?

Judd: Well, we’ve always maintained this house, actually. We’ve been here. My daughter’s in school in Florida. For a while we were living between London and Florida, and she had two schools. The notion was that my wife and daughter could be a bit closer to me, because now I work about a third of my year in Europe, about a third in Asia, Australia and New Zealand, and about a third in North America, South America. I work quite a lot in Canada, every year a few times.

But that became too complicated and crazy. So we’ve been actually living here, my daughter goes to school at Nova, she’s 15. We’re here, there just hasn’t been anything to do here. But now, the Miami Music Project, which I just volunteered for, that’s my passion. Locally we have this incredible opportunity.

So the chorus asked me: Would I like to do Messiah? And I had this time free, and I thought it would be fantastic. Because you know, we started the chorus all those years ago, and they were just getting better and better and better. And I thought it would be lovely, because I’ve done Messiah in different places in the last years, in Seattle, in San Antonio, last year was up in Ottawa. From time to time you get asked to do it, and I’m always thinking, you know, God, it would be so nice to work again with the chorus and with musicians from here. And it’s actually worked!

Stepanich: So you’re doing the complete Messiah?

Judd: Yes.

Stepanich: Not just the Christmas portion?

Judd: No. I’m a real believer that Handel was very careful about the way he organized the story and the way he wanted to tell it. And so when we can, I think we should try to perform it complete. It’s a wonderful drama, isn’t it? It’s not an oratorio, it’s an opera. At times it’s so amazing, the pacing is so incredible.

And so I love the timespan of it.

Stepanich: We see a lot of performances of Messiah at this time of year. It’s always struck me that a lot of it is very difficult for amateur choirs.

Judd: Well, there’s a lot of it, isn’t there? Last week, I was doing [Mendelssohn’s] Elijah in Australia, and realized: My God, there’s a lot of this. But there are two less choruses in Elijah than there are in Messiah.

I mean, it’s a huge sing. And as you say, not only [do] some of the well-known choruses require incredible agility for a chorus to sing properly in Baroque style, but a lot of the choruses that are not sung very much, so often for choirs are a new learn. And they’re wonderful pieces.

So I love the flow of it, I love the way he so carefully juxtaposes recitatives with solos, with chorus, and when you have this big span, when you come to that final Amen chorus, it really means something. It’s like you’re reaching the culmination of a great Wagner opera or a Bruckner symphony.

And you need that stuff before, you need everything, to really get the most out of it. It changes the piece, the spirit of it.

Stepanich: It may be that choirs of the Victorian era had an easier time with Messiah because they were more familiar with those styles ...

Judd: I’m not sure, because that tradition of performing style of Baroque in the Victorian era, in the early part of the 20th century, was a very Romantic version. People did not appreciate, at that point they did not think about, Baroque style. They didn’t have the knowledge we have today.

On the other hand, [Messiah] started in Dublin with very small forces, but it quickly grew, and well before the 20th century, the late part of the 19th century, there were performances with hundreds of voices. And probably, just as with the Fireworks music, with the Water Music, Handel had hundreds of winds. You know, they would double the oboe parts.

It’s funny, today we think of Baroque music, also Classical music, the fact that Haydn, that Mozart, had a Paris orchestra of 100 musicians, is sort of inconvenient for us today to remember because we like to think it was small forces for everything.

Stepanich: And you’d like to think the composers were thinking, this is what we’ve got, but I’d sure like four horns there.

Judd: Of course. We learn everything we can, we keep up to date with performance practice and everything, but eventually it’s about the authentic spirit of the music. We’re going to have around 80 voices for this performance, and I like doing it with just three desks of firsts [violins], three seconds, very small orchestra, a Baroque orchestra.

Then you have this lovely mixture. When you need a bit of heft, you’ve got it, but when you need delicacy, you also have that, a small orchestra playing Baroque style for the solos. We also beautiful young soloists coming from Curtis [Institute of Music], which is lovely.

James Judd in action.

Stepanich: I remember seeing your Messiah performances with the Florida Philharmonic and being struck by the very brisk tempos in a lot of places. It seemed to fit with what Roger Norrington and others were doing with [Baroque and Classical] tempos…

Judd: I think we think that more about Baroque music today. I think that there’s a great variety of tempo, because everything used to be a bit middle-of-the-road. After all, they were also performing Messiah in those versions like Sir Thomas Beecham orchestrated, with trombones and side drums and all kinds of things.

So everything kind of slowed down a bit, and there was a little [too much] uniformity of tempo for my taste. I think you have to go with the text, you go with the tempo of the text. There were no metronome marks, but there is a sense to the drama in the text that kind of dictates the tempo.

Stepanich: You’ve done Messiah many times. Do you go back and review the score each time and find something new?

Judd: Oh, yeah. That’s the fun of what I do. I do a combination during the year of new things all the time and old ones, and having time to just go back and restudy, and rethink, and just – well, first of all, there’s a natural progression I think comes, doesn’t it, just from performing. That fact that you’ve done something before, it’s going to be different next time. There’s a certain maturity or whatever you want to call it that goes on without any thought.

But when you have time to look and rethink things, there’s a lot to think about: What do you double-dot, and what do you not? The tempi, like you were talking about. And you rethink things also on the spot depending on the kind of soloists you have, on the chorus, the level of the chorus and so on. You find a way to get the performance together.

Inevitably, it’s going to be different everywhere you go. The tempi are going to be slightly different depending on circumstances, acoustics. But the rethinking, the restudying, is just one of the great joys and pleasures in life for me.

Stepanich: You’ve got different versions of the music, too: The pifa is longer in one, there are different soloists …

Judd: Yes, there are legitimate choices in Handel’s own time, not just swapping voices –– maybe this time on an alto, this time on the bass, could be either. Also, there are different versions of some of the arias, different time. He redid some of them, even changed some of them from aria to Recit., you know.

Stepanich: How does the English tradition with Handel differ from the tradition here in the States?

Judd: I don’t know that it differs a great deal. When I grew up, they were big performances. Every town had a choral society, 100, 200 people. And we grew up with performances with symphony orchestra.

But before long, the awareness of Baroque styles came, and it probably started in England. There were these scholars and conductors who started to do things well before Norrington and [John Eliot] Gardiner, a generation of new thought about Bach and Handel in particular, and so it started early there. We’ve got a big tradition in England, in Holland, in Germany, of not only Baroque music but Classical music, about the use of vibrato, about the articulations of music.

But we’ve got to the point now, which I find very, very interesting, if you look at people like [Nikolaus] Harnoncourt, who’s worked a lot with the Vienna Philharmonic, with [the Amsterdam] Concertgebouw, for example, with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, with traditional instruments but getting people to play in what they perceive to be authentic style. Although Harnoncourt -- I know I heard him interviewed one time -- said, Look, I’m not doing authentic Bach. All I can do is authentic Harnoncourt. Which makes the point, modestly.

But it’s interesting now that in European music schools, and I think more and more in this country, students are being taught to play in these different styles. If you’re now a string player coming out of the London Conservatory, and you’re asked, you will play Baroque style on a modern instrument. You’ll know how much vibrato to use, the sort of bowing and what’s expected. And more and more, I think, symphony orchestras will be, at the request of a director, able to play in different styles: Mozart this way or that way. And I think that’s fascinating.

Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951).

Stepanich: What’s also interesting is whether musicians will be asked to be conversant with, say, the period practice of the Mahler style, with portamento.

Judd: That’s something I feel strongly about, because that tends to be neglected. People are too shy about that performance style. But if we listen back to [Dutch conductor Willem] Mengelberg, listen to the recording of Mahler Four -- and you know, I’ve studied his score, and Mengelberg marked all these things which are incredibly extreme by today’s standards, but it’s probably a damn sight closer to Mahler than what we tend to hear today. But it’s not convenient. You have to accept that Mahler, who wrote so much detail into his score, [that] that was still only just the beginning.

Stepanich: I think conductors have an unusual problem, and we’ll take Mahler since that’s what we’re talking about, in that they have to try to identify with a mindset that’s impossible to re-create.

Judd: Well, that’s exactly it. For example, you listen to the Mengelberg [Mahler Fourth] recording of the ‘30s. Look at his score, which is there in The Hague for you to study. Read the letters between Mengelberg and Mahler, listen to Mahler’s piano roll, listen to the other performances of the era, read what Mahler had to say about Bruno Walter as opposed to Mengelberg, read what Mahler said about the Vienna Philharmonic’s preparation and the Concertgebouw’s preparation, go and look at the scores – I’ve done all of this – go and look at the score of Mahler Four in Vienna that they have, Mahler’s conducting score.

And even in that score, for example, the horn parts – 1, 2, 3, 4 – he has arrows to say: In the Concertgebouw, this way around, in the Vienna Philharmonic, this way. So he was thinking so practically all the time. But you know, when you put a lot of that stuff together, the circumstantial evidence, you begin to get a picture of a very different sort of performing.

Stepanich: Did you ever get to a point where that picture crystallized in your head?

Judd: Yeah, I think so, but it’s constantly changing, your perception of these things. And what you’re fighting sometimes is safety. I’m lucky enough to work with wonderful orchestras all over the world, but wherever you are, sometimes you’re fighting a tradition where people are frightened to take risk.

And one of the things, to realize some of these ideas -- for example, portamento you talked about. Today, people are embarrassed, often. You say: “Play portamento,” then they play it in a certain way, but the fingering was very different in those days, a sort of shifting, and you have to do it that way, or it doesn’t sound right. It just sounds clumsy. And you have to do it because you really feel it. If you can get an orchestra doing that, then suddenly the music transforms.

…The gulf between how they used to play Baroque music and now is kind of understood. We know the pitch was different, we know more about it, as far as we can guess. But the sort of end of the 19th century, the beginning of the 20th century, to now, they were just as different. I mean, look at the way the orchestra’s changed. Look at the orchestra for The Rite of Spring, the sound of the instruments.

Listen to Elgar’s recordings of his symphonies: even in the early ‘30s, late ‘20s, in England they were still using gutty strings on the violin, even though the metal were available. Strad magazine advertises them from the 1890s. But they couldn’t afford them, probably, in England, so they’re all gut strings. It changes the sound.

The woodwinds in England were still French woodwinds. They were using these pea-shooter tiny trombones, so when Elgar writes “fortissimo,” you still hear the pungent French bassoons playing, it doesn’t drown the strings. So you have to understand all that. And you have to, these days, often with orchestras that don’t necessarily know that, you have to explain a little bit of that, otherwise it’s going to sound overblown and ridiculous.

So there’s so much, it’s so fascinating. I always like listening to dead performers: just listen, not copy, just listen.

Stepanich: Tell me a little bit about the Miami Music Project.

Judd: It’s been in the making for a number of years, actually. And it’s various ideas which have fused together. And so what we are left with is this:

Some time ago, I was put together, so to speak, with Richard Harris, who was a trombone player with the New World Symphony, who was very, very keen on similar ideas. And I’d known Richard a little bit, we’d met before [and decided] Yeah, we can do this.

So we were very lucky to receive a feasibility study project from the Knight Foundation initially. It was about three months in the making. We talked to all the arts organizations in town because we’re a collaborative organization, we’re not trying to pretend we know the answers to everything. But we tried to see where the need is. Richard, with his small team of volunteers, was going around, and thanks to the cooperation of the arts organizations in town – it’s [Miami-]Dade County we were concentrating on initially -- questioning audiences about what they would like to have, and what they thought was missing in classical music.

We produced a big feasibility study which was very thorough, and as a result of that and all the long process, we were lucky enough to get a grant from the Knight Foundation for the Miami Music Project of $1 million over three years, which we have to match. And I do it as a volunteer, like I am for the Messiah; I think we’ve got to give back something, we’ve got to really do something for the arts. I have a great experience going and working with great orchestras all over the world and doing concerts and being well-received or whatever, asked back: that’s great.

But there’s something missing everywhere, and that is everybody’s searching for the new generation of concertgoers. Everybody’s searching to redefine, a little bit, orchestral life. The New World Symphony Orchestra does it in an amazing way down in Miami; that’s fantastic. I’ve always felt that we’re looking for young audiences, everyone wants new audiences. Well, why would young people be interested in what we call classical music --which I hate as a title, anyway, but it’s all we’ve got, I suppose -- when much of it is just subscription concerts, more or less?

I always use the example of Beethoven. Even when we play the Eroica Symphony, for example, there may be a very good program note, the conductor talks about it and we discuss the fact that Napoleon was his hero, then he scrawls the name out [on the symphony’s title page] on realizing he was no democrat. And Beethoven is there in troubled circumstances, with the French bombing Vienna and so forth.

So he’s not writing a familiar subscription menu for us, he’s writing music that is absolutely communicating with people, with issues. He’s writing politically cutting-edge, he’s writing as a humanitarian to connect with people, and today they tend to be, at best: Well, that was a nice whistleable tune.

More and more, I feel, we’ve got to get back to what was the cutting-edge reality of this music. And it might be that it poses difficult questions for us. And you can’t isolate music, or music education, from other things in our society. And if we want a proper society, we have to realize culture can be, in a way, dangerous to politicians. It teaches people to ask questions. And I’ve been very afraid that there is a large part of our community, that despite the great teaching available, the resources for the public schools have been cut, cut, cut, cut, cut.

And it’s sort of convenient to some political mindsets not to have culture, not to have part of the community properly educated generally because we can keep them in fear, and not asking questions is probably very good, so that [Rupert] Murdoch can preach to them. I dare say it looks a very deliberate policy over a certain number of years. And then you tie them up with ludicrous exams, SATs or whatever that nobody likes -- I haven’t found a single person -- it may be convenient for some, but it seems to me to be a very daft way to educate people, with all due respect.

So we thought: “How can we address some of these things? How can we help a little bit with education? How can we put in the minds of people that some of this great music we’re listening to has another dimension as well, if you’d care to think about it and let yourself go into that arena?” So we decided we would audition an ensemble of musicians, however many we can afford. We started off by auditioning for 10 musicians all over the country, the best talents we could.

We selected the musicians, and the goal is, this year we have 10 adopted public schools in the Dade system, 200 kids in each school, 2,000 kids, on a regular basis with our ensembles, sometimes it’s a smaller ensemble, sometimes a larger one. As we get the finances together hopefully it will develop.

My principal responsibility right now is to raise the money. We’ve got a basis of an extremely good board, and now, you know, it’s a big ask, but it’s doable. But we decided to start a little bit smaller than we originally wanted. There’s a thirst, there’s a need, for as many weeks as we can possibly do. It’s been incredibly well-received.

James Judd in his home studio. (Photo by Greg Stepanich)

Stepanich: There are those would say that kids need to be studying math and science, and that music is not necessary, it’s just a frill. I would guess you’d disagree with that.

Judd: Of course. It is necessary. It’s just a political convenience to say it’s not necessary. Music is around us all the time. It’s just a natural human state. We were probably making music, making vocal noises and singing, and had rhythms, before we had language. It just can’t be denied.

It also is a cliché that it is an international language, that wherever you are in the world and you play a minor chord and a major chord: Which is happy, and which is sad? For some reason, everyone’s going to know. When you play a fast rhythm, a slow rhythm, everyone’s going to know which one is going to be exciting, which one is funereal. Why? Why?

So it’s nature, it’s just nature. So don’t ignore it. And as we then go further and further, we realize then the power of music to manipulate, if you want – that’s a derogatory term – but to affect our emotions, or how we can manipulate our emotions with music. This is what composers are doing, they’re bringing us all together.

More and more, the popular music culture has become quite aggressive. It’s quite tough and hard. I think more than ever we need to, through education, not deny that -- I enjoy listening to that, my daughter has taught me a lot about a lot of music I didn’t know existed, and I can really get into it. It’s not one or the other at all.

The great thing about so-called classical music is that the kids they’re used to an age where we concentrate for short soundbites, where music is all about pretty hard rhythms, sometimes very cool, lovely melodies and beautiful lyrics as well, but I think for the most part there will be a tremendous need for music that gives more space around them. I think the sort of music we offer can provides absolutely a sort of oasis, a therapeutic and healing oasis, and by listening to such music, it develops sensitivities, it allows sensitivities to emerge.

And of course, the other side of it is, as you get to listen more and more, and music can teach you to listen, then you start to hopefully listen to language of your neighbor, and language of somebody who looks different from you, and then maybe you’ll start listening to politicians and realizing that you’re being sold rubbish. You know, you start to demand more than the Murdoch headline.

Stepanich: I wanted to ask about New Zealand briefly. You’re now the emeritus conductor of the New Zealand Symphony; is there state support in that country for music?

Judd: Oh, yeah, and it was amazing there, still is. The government really underwrites the orchestra, basically. Anything extra you want to do, you have to find some extra money. For example, while I was there [1999-2007], we did a few tours. We went to the Proms [in England], we went to Japan a couple of times, we went to the Concertgebouw, we were doing lots of recordings. And if you want to start doing that stuff you have to find some other government funding, maybe trade and tourism. And you have to find some individual money, but there’s not a lot of individual money down in that part of the world. There’s no tradition of giving. So there’s always corporate underwriting.

Basically, while I was there, we had this incredible prime minister, Helen Clark , who is now the No. 3 at the United Nations [head of the U.N. Development Program). And she always went, before she was prime minister, bought tickets for everything: symphony, ballet, opera, loved music. And music there, they have an absolutely fantastic music education still in the schools. And I was so impressed being there, and I got to know her very well. We used to have dinners with her and her husband, when my wife was in town, with guest artists, just talking about life.

And I was so impressed, there was a woman who had an idea of how music was connected to how we look after people’s health, how we look after the Maori and the Pacific culture. You know, everything glues together. It’s a natural part of life. And it’s a fantastic example.

It seems to me to be so awful when we give things labels. You would call it a socialist government, but what is a socialist government? It’s just so daft that these labels get given, like “liberal” and “conservative” in this country. Liberal in this country would be sort of a Conservative government in England.

This health care thing I think one has to talk about in connection with music, because if we’re so ungenerous, so inhuman, as to not understand that everybody should have health care, and we use these awful arguments protecting just the insurance companies. Look: I don’t know any conservatives in England who would ever speak out against everybody having the same kind of basic health care, or paying taxes to do that. I mean, it’s part of being a human being. And that’s a problem. It’s a problem.

Because if we don’t understand as human beings that we have to not just pay lip service to, but genuinely just give a little bit more of ourselves if we can afford it, so everybody can have basic health care, so that everybody can have a basic good standard of education, then how on earth can we understand what music is, how on earth can we do it? This is troubling, deeply troubling.

Stepanich: Although we’ve had a lot of problems in music education these days, technology has helped classical music a lot in that it’s gotten rid of barriers such as getting dressed up and going to concert hall for a lot of people. So has it been a double-edged sword?

Judd: I think it’s a good thing. Having said we’re searching for these new audiences, I think we’re in a period where we’re searching for a lot of answers and we’re beginning to find them.

First of all, if you look around, there are more concert halls than ever before. We’re still building concert halls, right? All over the world, and in the United States. More people are listening to classical music than ever before. Now, the big recording companies, the few big ones that there used to be before Naxos was so successful, those became disinterested in classical music, didn’t sell enough, didn’t have enough profits, so they disappeared.

So the headlines were: Classical music is dying. That’s rubbish. The problem we have is, as you don’t educate people in music, decision-makers, be it politicians, individuals, philanthropists, corporate leaders, have no music in their background, therefore, they don’t understand value-cost arguments. It’s like you couldn’t build St. Paul’s Cathedral today because it would be impossible to heat. The bottom line would be so ludicrous they’d say: Build it 10 times smaller. But it’s there.

It’s like with Beethoven. If we’re going to keep Beethoven alive, we have to have orchestras to perform it. If we sell out every ticket in a modern hall, we’ll struggle to probably get 25 percent of box office of the costs. But if we want Beethoven to survive, somebody’s going to have to find money for that.

I think government should play a bigger part, because if it considers that music is important and it should -- and it’s wonderful to see Obama at least has had that Classical Day, he’s had a Jazz Day [at the White House]. But we need more than that. We need money from a few missiles to support a few orchestras, a few ballet companies, opera companies. Think of what it would take. Nothing from the national budget, nothing.

Stepanich: I was talking with someone the other day about large and small orchestras, and whether large orchestras are really sustainable these days, and whether you couldn’t just get an ad hoc larger orchestra together when you need it, but otherwise stick with smaller orchestras. I wondered what you thought about that.

Judd: You can have small orchestras, but for the most part they don’t work very well, and the reason is an obvious one. The public, especially in this day and age when we’re trying to attract audiences, likes the bigger pieces. They like the Romantic repertoire. If you try to play that Romantic repertoire with four desks of first violins, and in some places they have to try to do that, it doesn’t sound good. You’re not going to get people coming back.

I often use that argument: You go into a museum, and the museum buys beautiful Renoirs, and it decides that it wants to have smaller walls, and so cuts the Renoirs in half. I mean, you can do it if you want.

I also have one overriding thing, and that is that quality matters. I remember when I was assistant conductor in Cleveland years ago, and the belief was you always are the Cleveland Orchestra, whatever we do. We go into a high school, we take Cleveland Orchestra quality, because kids know quality. And anything that’s not first-rate quality won’t survive. It just won’t. It’s just nature.

Because everything artistic has to be competitive, you have to be better at what you do tomorrow than you are today, you have to. So you can’t fight that, as economically nice as it would be to do. And look, I believe you can probably have a symphony orchestra that has a basic six double basses instead of eight, and adds to them sometimes. There are orchestras that are really just large chamber orchestras in the world, that add players, but people are never happy doing that. There’s always a compromise, and the compromise often is just too much.

Stepanich: Which brings me to the Florida Philharmonic: The funny thing about its demise is that it just doesn’t seem like it should have happened. And I think it seems that way to a lot of people.

Judd: I feel the same. There were just a series of circumstances that kind of somehow worked together, and contrived for it just to happen. And it happened. And so many people did the best they could. Everybody acted in their best faith, everybody tried to do their best to try to find a way out of it. None of us could, and it happened.

It’s sad, but my own perspective on things is yesterday becomes history very quickly to me. And I have, in my life, I always have so much to do, that it’s not that I am not caring about the people who lost their jobs, I’m deeply caring about that. It’s just awful, the way the poor musicians have to scrap around. This is really, really tragic.

But, you know, tomorrow is another opportunity. I don’t have any room for negativity. I just don’t have the energy for it. I used to let things get on top of me, but I learned several years ago now [to] just forget it. I’m only interested in working together with positive people, and trying to do something. Whatever we do in music, we have to try to make an impact with it, and believe in it, and perform with a genuine passion, not a contrived one.

And if we’re going to do education, we’ve got to do it for the right reasons. And if we’re going to keep orchestras alive then orchestras had better perform and look like they mean it, and play well.

It’s a fascinating time. Now, with these incredible initiatives of the Knight Foundation, this fantastic concert hall we have, this opera house, the New World Symphony building their new hall: this is going to become one of the centers of art and culture. Look what’s happening in the visual arts world in this area. The fact that we don’t have a fulltime resident symphony orchestra is a shame, but it mustn’t take our eyes off the fact that there is now so much happening.

Messiah will be performed complete this coming week at three different South Florida venues. James Judd will lead the Boca Raton Symphonia, the Master Chorale of South Florida and four Curtis Institute soloists -- Sarah Shafer, J'nai Bridges, Joshua Stewart and Thomas Shivone -- in George Frideric Handel's oratorio at 8 p.m. Friday in Miami's Trinity Cathedral, at 8 p.m. Saturday at Spanish River Church in Boca Raton, and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets: $30 in advance, $35 at the door. Call (954) 418-6232 or visit the Boca Symphonia and Master Chorale Websites.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Music feature: Tom Scott, saxman of legend

Saxophonist Tom Scott plays, composes and arranges.

By Bill Meredith

Most musical artists have lists of their recording credits. Saxophonist Tom Scott, on the other hand, requires a scroll.

Over the course of 45 years and more than 500 credits, the multi-reed player has worked with musical icons ranging from Thelonious Monk and Gerry Mulligan to Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin to Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand. When asked who else he wishes he'd worked with, even Scott has to pause and think.

"Well," he said, "who wouldn't have wanted to play with Miles Davis?"

With such a recording scroll, it's surprising that Scott never did make an appearance with Miles. The 61-year-old also has 13 Grammy nominations and three Grammy Awards, suitably with artists as different as pop chameleon Mitchell, R&B star Chaka Khan, and big band jazz ensemble the GRP All-Stars.

If you still think you've never heard Scott's work, then you somehow never heard hits by Steely Dan, Carole King, Paul McCartney, Whitney Houston, Rod Stewart and Blondie; the film soundtracks to Taxi Driver, Blade Runner, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Heaven Can Wait, or the TV themes to Starsky & Hutch, Family Ties, Barnaby Jones and The Streets of San Francisco.

The Los Angeles native, who now lives in Ventura, Calif., made a few recent South Florida appearances. He performed at the University of Miami on Nov. 5 (with UM's Frost School of Music dean Shelly Berg on piano, plus the South Florida Jazz Orchestra and violinist Mark O'Connor), and at the Harriet Himmel Theater in West Palm Beach on Nov. 16 (in a quartet with Berg, bassist Chuck Bergeron and drummer Clayton Cameron). In between, he played the 9th annual Jazz Cruise to the Bahamas on Nov. 8-15, adding vocalist Paulette McWilliams to form a quintet.

Scott now sports a shaved head that makes recognizing him more difficult, even from recent photos online (and especially from his hairy days of the early 1970s, when he started leading his iconic fusion band, the L.A. Express). His playing, however, was instantly recognizable.

Not bad for a guy who never got the music degree he started pursuing at the University of Southern California.

"I started working, and got too busy to finish school," says Scott, who appeared on his first album (by Don Ellis) in 1966, and started his solo career a year later while still in his teens. "I graduated high school right at the peak of the Vietnam war. But just before graduation, I was approached by a friend from the same school who'd become a member of the 562nd Air Force Band from Van Nuys, and they were recruiting. Because there was such pressure not to get drafted, they had their pick of all the best musicians! People were clamoring to get in as an alternative, so I joined."

Scott had already received a musical education at home, anyway. His father, Nathan Scott, is a trombonist, pianist and bandleader who composed themes to several different television series.

"As I was growing up, there were always the sounds of these wonderful, dramatic chords my father played on the piano," Scott says. "Those became the music for TV shows like Dragnet, Lassie and The Twilight Zone. I learned a great deal through osmosis, but if I had a question about chords or something else that I didn't understand, he was always there with the answer."

Tom Scott recently played a gig in West Palm Beach.

Some of Scott's early credits included not only Monk and Mulligan, but also pop groups the Fifth Dimension and the Partridge Family.

"The L.A. scene was great for studio musicians in that era," he says. "There was a group of producers cranking out records with lots of musicians, even if some of them may have been overproduced and had too many people on them. But it was a lot of fun, and there was great camaraderie between the musicians."

One of Scott's most notable associations started with Joni Mitchell's 1972 album For the Roses.

"The first time I was called to work with her, I was still thinking she was a folk singer," he says. "And I suppose her roots were in that genre at the time. But this record was where she started to break out into whatever style you want to call her music, since she's so hard to categorize. She played me a tune she'd written about Beethoven [Judgment of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Tune)], and it was just a jaw-dropping experience! It was about what might have been his inner feelings about certain things. It was just so deep, and way beyond any kind of folk music I'd ever heard. She's a supreme artist."

Next came Court and Spark in 1974, which pushed Mitchell to stardom and earned Scott his first Grammy, for vocal arranging.

"We started what was supposed to be a six-week college tour to promote that record," Scott says. "But the album did so well that the tour got extended into March and April. Then we were doing a summer tour. By September, we were on stage at Wembley Stadium in England with 100,000 spectators, on a bill with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Bob Dylan with The Band. And none if it was expected. Based on that tour, we then did the live album Miles of Aisles."

Scott also played on another Mitchell gem, the 1976 release Hejira. And she's certainly not the only standout artist Scott remembers fondly among his miles of tour stops and recording sessions.

"Meeting some of my idols, let along playing on their records, was most impressive in my youth," he says. "Getting to play with Thelonious Monk was a thrill. Just to be in the same studio and watch him. I was fascinated. Gerry Mulligan was another, since the first sax I played was the baritone. My father had handed me some of his records, which I wore out. Playing with George Harrison, who became a dear friend, was also a great experience."

At this point in his career, Scott hardly plays any sessions, but that's by choice.

"My career these days is mostly a mix of live gigs and arranging," he says. "I've been doing lots of arranging. I recently did a project of '70s Herbie Hancock tunes written for the NDR Big Band from Germany. I also did arrangements for a new George Benson album, and I'm currently working on a library of big band Latin jazz music for Quincy Jones. I've written 12 original compositions, to be recorded by a big band, which will hopefully be licensed for films and television."

As such a veteran of the recording industry, Scott sees irony in the current state of the music biz.

"I've gone headlong into building a new Website," he says. "I'm trying to collate things like the film music that's in the libraries of Fox, MGM and Universal into a catalog that's accessible through the site. Clearly, Websites have become the best ways of promoting yourself. I never thought I'd see the day where record companies would make me an offer and I could say, 'I think I can do better on my own, guys.'"

"It's amazing what recording artists accepted for so many years," Scott continues. "The record company would say, 'We will pay you money to make a record. You make that record, then you give it to us, and we'll give you a royalty of 10 to 15 percent. And out of that money, you will pay us back what it cost to make the record, and we will own it, lock, stock and barrel.'

"And we all naively said, 'Yeah, great, sign me up.' That kind of deal doesn't sound so attractive anymore. They took advantage of countless young, up-and-coming artists. George Harrison even told me stories about how badly the Beatles became victims of that system."

Scott's latest of 29 solo releases, last year's Cannon Re-Loaded -- A Tribute To Cannonball Adderley (Concord), is a nod to one of his saxophone heroes.

"As a young sax player coming up, I was particularly struck by the records by the Miles Davis Sextet," he says. "There was Cannonball, John Coltrane and Miles, and the three of them represented three unique styles of playing. On paper, you couldn't imagine how it would work stylistically. Miles was sparse and classy; Coltrane was always searching for something deep, and Cannonball was always so jovial. And I was always drawn to him, and not only because of his stunning originality and technique."

Scott's final summation of Adderley could actually describe his own playing as well.

"Cannonball just always sounded happy to me," he says, "as if he was always reveling in the joy of making music."

Bill Meredith is a freelance writer in South Florida who has written extensively on popular music and jazz, including for Jazziz and Jazz Times.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Theater review: Durang's 'Torture' loses satiric sting in silliness

Pamela Roza, Dave Corey, Erik Fabregat and Nick Duckart
in Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them.

By Hap Erstein

Plantation’s Mosaic Theatre has excellent taste in playwrights, but it is much more erratic when it comes to selecting plays from their catalogues. The result is second-rate work from such first-rate writers as John Patrick Shanley (Dirty Story), Neil LaBute (Wrecks) and now Christopher Durang (Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them).

Under that amusing tabloid title, Durang has written a scattershot send-up of America’s paranoia over the terrorists among us. Durang has long taken aim at social extremism with an exaggerated voice that is usually both tart and smart. Think of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You or Beyond Therapy or The Marriage of Bette and Boo.

With Why Torture Is Wrong, though, he settles for mere silliness, gathering a gallery of cartoonish character for easy laughs, without ever making much of a point. And by late in the second act, after painting himself into a corner, Durang throws up his hands and wraps up his play with a musical number that reeks of desperation.

The evening starts promisingly enough, as Felicity (Sharon Kremen) wakes up in a hotel bed next to a guy she can barely remember from the night before. He is dark-bearded, quick-tempered Zamir (Nick Duckart), a dead ringer for a Middle Eastern terrorist by any racial profiling, even if he does insist that he is Irish. What is worse for Felicity, he reminds her that they were married the previous night in an alcoholic haze.

The comic possibilities get even better when Felicity takes Zamir home to meet her parents, who are no one’s idea of grounded, nurturing or open-minded. Luella (the inspired Barbara Bradshaw) lives in a cloud of memories of her peak Broadway viewing experiences, which allows Durang to skewer such targets as Tom Stoppard and the musical Wicked because, oh, why not? To occupy her hands, Luella perpetually knits, often in colors that happen to match her wardrobe. And when at one point, Luella faints into unconsciousness, her fingers reflexively keep knitting away.

Felicity’s dad, Leonard (Dave Corey), is your standard right-wing xenophobe. He fancies himself a butterfly collector, but that turns out to be code. What he really collects is guns, ammo and other weapons of interpersonal destruction, which he keeps in a second-floor arsenal that soon will be the scene of Zamir’s extraordinary rendition.

Are you laughing yet? It is not that torture and terrorism are unfit subjects for comedy, just that most of Durang’s humor comes from the tangential quirks of his supporting characters.

For instance, there is a well-meaning Republican underling named Hildegard (Pamela Roza) who, when the action flags, manages to have her underpants slip down around her ankles. Or Erik Fabregat, who narrates the play, and shows up as a waiter, a lounge singer and, most giggle-inducing, as a henchman to Leonard who speaks only in Looney Tunes character voices. So much for trenchant satire.

Resident scenic designer Sean McClelland has come up with an attractive series of sets that satisfy Durang’s multiple-location requirements, and director Richard Jay Simon knits the wackiness into as cohesive a whole as possible.

But it does make one wonder what Mosaic Theatre could come up with if it selected a play worthy of the care and attention it has lavished on Why Torture Is Wrong.

WHY TORTURE IS WRONG, AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM, Mosaic Theatre, American Heritage Center for the Arts, 12200 West Broward Blvd., Plantation. Continuing through Dec. 13. Tickets: $37. Call (954) 577-8243.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Weekend arts picks: Nov. 27-29

Domestic Deity, by Bethany Krull.

Art: Sculptor Bethany Krull's technical expertise is matched by the strength of her intellectual concepts, which focus on the relationship of humans to the natural world. This Saturday evening, Mulry Fine Art in Palm Beach hosts the opening of a solo show by Krull called Dominance and Affection. "It seems that the most intimate connection we have with nature is with those animals we have chosen to keep as pets,” said Krull (at right), who holds a master of fine arts from the School for American Crafts in Rochester, N.Y. “The intense love and affection we feel toward these creatures does not erase the fact that the success of the relationship lies in our complete domination over all aspects of their existence." The opening lasts from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and the show runs through Dec. 18. Regular hours for Mulry Fine Art, which is in the Paramount Building on North County Road, are from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call 382-8224 or visit

Further south on the island, Sarah Gavlak is debuting the new location of Gavlak Gallery at 249B Worth Ave. Its opening reception is set for 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, and will feature works by Rob Wynne, whose art is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, The Whitney and private collections. Call 833-0583 or visit

Cloud Nine, by Elayna Toby Singer.

For the third year, the artist who calls himself Jefro and Studio 1608 are presenting Visions +, a one-night show featuring 42 artists, in order to show and sell their work. The list of artists reads like a Who’s Who of accomplished Palm Beach artists, several of whom have won the coveted South Florida Cultural Consortium. Some are FAU art professors; others also teach at the Armory Art Center, while others are regulars on the gallery scene: Paul Aho, Elizabeth Close Atterbury, Harvey Baron, Bhavana Bhen, Debra Bigeleisen, Clemente, Joel Cohen, Phyllis Cohen, Mary Brittain-Cudlip, Damon Dupree Fuller, Ruben Hale, Walter Hynatsh, Bill Janice, Jefro, Steve Johnson, Karyl Mae Karpinos, Helmut Koller, Kate Kuhner, Chris Leidy, Natalie Levine, Ellen Liman, Cheryl Maeder, Michelle A. M. Miller, Carolyn Nelson, Dan Newman, Nuné, Josphine (Jo) Pratt, Sam Perry, Patricia Peters, Montana Pritchard, David Redelhiem, Terre Rybovich, Scarmato, Sebastian Thibadeau, Elayna Toby Singer (at left), Victoria Skinner, Nancy Tart, Thomas Tribby, Joanie Van Der Grift, Rene Von Richthofen and Kat Winoker.

Singer, director of Palm Beach County's Art in Public Places program, will be displaying her mixed-media designs, which incorporate found objects, architectural salvage, construction debris, vintage tools, natural materials, beads and wire into kinetic artworks. The event will run from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday at 1608 S. Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach. For more information on Visions+, call (561) 596-1180.

Help, by Astrid Mora.

Paintings and drawings by Astrid Mora are on exhibit through Dec. 3 in the lobby of the Eissey Campus Theatre on the campus of Palm Beach Community College in Palm Beach Gardens. A native of Colombia who now lives in West Palm Beach, Mora has a master's degree in art history and exhibited in galleries, group shows and museums. Mora (at right) teaches elementary school in Palm Beach County, and has studied painting at Palm Beach Community College with Wayne Stephens and Alessandra Gieffers.

“Astrid is a tireless worker, spending long hours developing her technical skills as a painter, as well as teaching young children,” Gieffers said. “She paints with sophistication: her color is hot and emotional, yet controlled."

The Eissey Campus Theatre is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and during performances. For more information, call 207-5905, or visit -- K. Deits

A scene from The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Film: With quirky, but ultimately unsatisfying films such as The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, director Wes Anderson seemed an odd choice to go animated, but he scores a surprise success with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, based on a wily tale by Roald Dahl about a furry family of carnivores. He enlists such A-list voice talent as George Clooney and Meryl Streep, proves himself technically proficient at stop-motion low-tech kinetics and his script (written with Noah Baumbach) has plenty of adult humor to amuse grown-ups. Expect this one to be in the running for Best Animated Feature come Oscar time. In area theaters now. -- H. Erstein

Tom and Dick Smothers.

On stage: Yes, the Smothers Brothers look a lot older than they did in their Vietnam-era heyday, but their mom-liked-you-best, twisted-folk-songs shtick has a timeless quality. And when they take the Kravis Center stage Saturday night, here’s hoping they will have a few political barbs on our current state of war-waging. Perhaps to make themselves look young by comparison, Dick and Tom have enlisted the aid of comic Norm Crosby as a warm-up act. Tickets: $20-$55. Call: (561) 832-7469. -- H. Erstein

The Masterworks Chorus in action.

Music: The Masterworks Chorus of the Palm Beaches opens its season this weekend with three works of the Italian Baroque: the Gloria of Vivaldi, the same composer's Beatus vir, and the great Magnificat of Pergolesi. Soloists are soprano Hilary Ryon and mezzo-soprano Ceci Grasso Dadisman. This season also will be the last for founding music director Jack Jones, who is retiring. The concert is set for 5 p.m. Sunday at St. Edward's Catholic Church on Palm Beach. Tickets: $20, $10 for students. Call 845-9696 or visit for more information.

Kemal Gekic and Iris van Eck have released
a CD of music by Gabriel Fauré.

This season, chamber music groups such as the Delray String Quartet are expanding, not contracting. The same goes for Chameleon Musicians, a Fort Lauderdale-based chamber group founded by cellist Iris van Eck that regularly plays at the Josephine Leiser Opera Center off Las Olas Boulevard. This Sunday afternoon, van Eck appears with pianist Kemal Gekic for a recital that will feature a piece from the duo's new disc devoted to the music of Gabriel Fauré: his Elegy. Also on the program are the Beethoven Sonata No. 5 (in D, Op. 102, No. 2), the A minor sonata (Op. 36) of Norway's Edvard Grieg, and the Rondo, Op. 94, of Antonin Dvorak. 3 p.m. at the Leiser Center. Tickets: $30, which includes a reception with drinks and tasty things to nibble on. Call 954-761-3435 or visit - G. Stepanich

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Film review: 'Paris' a gripping mediation on darkness, not light

Juliette Binoche and Romain Duris in Paris.

By John Thomason

Reading the cliché-riddled description of Paris on the Website of the Lake Worth Playhouse, where the film opens Friday, you may want to roll your eyes.

This “valentine to the city of lights” is a “cinematic love letter to a city that seems to hide a story behind every shop window, small alley, street market or grand apartment building … the film explores the life and love possible only in Paris.”

Oh, please. You’d think you were entering the Paris of An American in Paris, all brightly colored cafes and picturesque strolls down the Champs-Elysées, nobody working and everybody happy. Paris is a much deeper movie than the idyllic travelogue this synopsis is apparently trying to sell.

Writer-director Cedric Klapisch’s (L’auberge espagnole) Paris is less like watching love burst forth from every corner market and apartment complex than it is about the lack of love; less a celebration of life than a meditation on death. Because in French cinema, nothing brings an estranged family together like impending death. Last year it was Catherine Deneuve in Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale; this year it’s Romain Duris as Pierre, a man waiting on a heart transplant to save his life. He uses the crisis to reconnect with his sister Elise (Juliette Binoche), a romantically frustrated social worker and single mother who looks about half her age.

Pierre uses his ailment to sulk, self-reflect and dig through his past (a call to a grade-school sweetheart leads to a tortured vomiting session), but mostly he spies on his neighbors, Rear Window-style, whose individual stories expand a multi-character mosaic.

There’s Roland (Fabrice Luchini), a professor and historian who deals with the trauma of his father’s recent death by anonymously texting bawdy Baudelaire poems to an attractive student; his brother Philippe (Francois Cluzet), an architect whose “perfect” life may be upset by the stress of his first child’s arrival; and a group of fishmongers at a local market dealing with their own romantic foibles. Everything is glued together by ping-pong editing that intercuts dual scenarios, urging us to draw our own connections.

Klapisch presents his flawed characters without judging them, lest the film run the risk of devolving into a redemptive morality tale. There are moments in Paris that are wildly off-base, like the juvenile, psychobabble dream sequence in which the happy cartoons from Pierre’s 3D renderings begin to complain about his designs, and a giant baby shows up at his worksite – if only his personal life was as perfectly calibrated as his buildings!

But mostly, Paris is a remarkable study of existential angst, with Death striking one character at random as another waits for his inevitable visit. It’s a film not without its lightness – Binoche’s clumsy striptease to a one-night-stand is an endearing and defining moment for her character – but its humor is most literally of the gallows variety.

Paris may be a multifaceted city of more than 2 million eclectic stories, and indeed many of them are the kind of shallow valentines to which the film’s synopsis alludes. But if that’s what you’re looking for, you might as well see Paris je’ taime instead.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

PARIS. Director: Cedric Klapisch; Distributor: IFC; Cast: Juliette Binoche, Romain Duris, Fabrice Luchini, Albert Dupontel, François Cluzet, Karin Viard, Gilles Lellouche; in French with English subtitles; Opens: Friday; Venue: Lake Worth Playhouse, 713 Lake Ave.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Book review: Anne Frank, literary genius

By Bill Williams

The Diary of Anne Frank is arguably one of the most widely read and influential books of the last century.

Author Francine Prose has now penned a brilliant analysis, in which she asserts that the diary is a “work of literature” that has not been given its due.

“How astonishing,” Prose writes, “that a teenager could have written so intelligently and so movingly about a subject that continues to overwhelm the adult imagination."

Anne Frank was born in Germany in 1929. Four years later her family moved to Holland to escape the Nazis’ increasingly vicious anti-Jewish laws. In 1938 the Franks applied for visas to flee to the United States, but the waiting list contained 300,000 names. In 1943, as the Nazi roundup and deportation of Jews from Holland intensified, the Frank family and four other people went into hiding in a concealed second-floor annex, where 13-year-old Anne began writing.

Two years later, Nazi soldiers discovered the hiding place and shipped the occupants off to concentration camps, where Anne, her sister, and their mother died. The girls’ father, Otto, survived.

Prose (at right) argues that Anne was far more than a precocious teenager. The young diarist savored books and literature and longed to be a published author. She labored over the diary, rewriting and polishing early entries, while also devouring works of history and biography, as well as a children’s Bible, and a five-volume history of art.

Part of the diary’s appeal to young readers is Anne’s honestly about emotions that teenagers often keep private. She describes her growing love for Peter, the son of the other couple in the secret hideaway, as well as her devotion to her father and contempt for her mother.

The diary’s survival was a fluke. The text, including hundreds of loose pages, had been stuffed into a briefcase. A Nazi soldier dumped the contents on the floor so he could use the satchel to carry valuables. He could not have known, Prose notes, that he was discarding a literary “masterpiece."

After the war, Anne’s father edited the diary, which had been rescued from the hideaway by a family friend. Initially, every publisher rejected it. None could imagine that anyone would want to read a teenager’s musings. The book was first published in Holland in 1947. U.S. publishers were skeptical. Finally, Doubleday agreed to pay Otto Frank a $500 advance. The book soon became a blockbuster success.

Prose devotes 40 pages to a tedious description of the lawsuits and acrimony over how Anne Frank would be portrayed on stage and screen and who would have final authority over the scripts, a discussion not likely to interest many general readers.

The diary continues to sell, even though it is frequently banned in libraries and schools. Critics cite Anne’s discussion of her changing body, her rebelliousness and her love for Peter.

“Her tracking of the highs and lows of her erotic preoccupation,” Prose writes, “are still among the most accurate accounts of what it feels like to be a confused, romance-obsessed teen.”

Anne also addressed mature themes such as whether people are basically good or bad and why women are treated as inferior to men. And she displayed growing alarm about the fate of Jews, who in her words were being “sent to filthy slaughterhouses like a herd of sick, neglected cattle.”

Prose marvels at the amount of life packed into the diary’s pages. “Sex is part of it,” she writes, “as is death, love, family, age, youth, hope, God, the spiritual and the domestic, the mystery of innocence and the mystery of evil.”

To those who ask how a girl at age 13 to 15 could have written such a compelling work of literature, Prose notes that Mozart was composing music at age 5 and Keats was dead at 26. “The early appearance of genius,” Prose observes, “frequently obliges us to rethink our preconceived notions of age.”

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford, Conn., and a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife. By Francine Prose. 322 pp.; HarperCollins; $24.99.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Music review: New chamber group shows heart, nerve in debut

William Blake's A Poison Tree.

By Greg Stepanich

Starting a chamber music collective isn’t necessarily the easiest thing in the world to do, but in their debut concert Saturday at the Steinway Gallery in Boca Raton, the members of Vivre Musicale showed they have a good sense of what it will take for long-term success.

Founded by tenor Jorge Toro and clarinetist Berginald Rash, this five-member iteration of the group offered a varied program of song and instrumental music that took risks right from the outset, with a pair of demanding contemporary American compositions and a sly transition between two selections that tested whether the audience was paying attention.

Vivre Musicale got off to a bold start with Soliloquy, a piece for solo viola by the young American composer Martin Blessinger, who like Toro and Rash studied at Florida State University. Violist David Pedraza was the soloist, and he brought a virile, dark tone quality to this mildly interesting music, which charted a mysterious landscape of moody thematic fragments, abrupt silences, some sustained high-register work, and at the end, three pizzicato notes with which the piece expired rather than concluded.

That was followed by another contemporary American piece, For nothing lesse than thee, a cycle of three songs set by Zachary Wadsworth to texts by John Donne. Like the Blessinger, this is a highly professional composition, imbued with a kind of shadowy elegance that reflected the uncertainty of the poems. Toro has a strong, pleasant voice, quite effective in its lower reaches, though on Saturday it was a little ragged around the edges in parts of his register.

Accompanied by Rash and pianist Nastasa Stojanovska, Toro gave a sober reading of this well-crafted work, with Rash providing delicate support in the unison passages of the first song, The Legacie. A fast, sharply accented four-note motif dominated the second song, The Sunne Rising, and that music contrasted well with the declamatory passages of the tenor. The final song, The Dreame, began and ended with a decadent reminiscence in the piano of Schumann's Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, which Toro and Stojanovska used to propel themselves with only the slightest pause from Wadsworth into the actual Schumann song.

That kicked off a three-song set from Dichterliebe in which Toro's homey, warm voice could be heard to more traditional advantage, and he was at his best in the May-song and the Aus meinen Tränen spriessen that followed. The closing song, the well-known Ich grolle nicht, needed a brassier, more cutting quality than Toro's voice supplied, but he had prepared the songs well and the attentive audience applauded them warmly.

The final song cycle featured Toro and another FSU alum, oboist Evelyn Sedlack, in the Ten Blake Songs of the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. This is an unusual, difficult work, with its two monodic instruments working their way through Blake's otherworldly visions. Sedlack provided the best instrumental performance of the afternoon, playing with a big, fat sound that never thinned out, and in every way providing a real partnership with the tenor. This is particularly important because only with two firmly independent lines can the harmonies Vaughan Williams implies be heard.

And this was a good performance, with Toro doing a fine job of getting the lyrics across and Sedlack providing powerful counterpoint; the impression was of two thinkers ruminating on these remarkable poems, dipping into them repeatedly and coming back with insight and commentary.

The scheduled part of the concert closed with three of the Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, written in 1910 by Max Bruch. Pedraza, Rash and Stojanovska worked well together as an ensemble, with evident unity of interpretive opinion. Rash was most persuasive in the first piece (No. 3, Andante con moto), playing the warm contrasting melody to Pedraza's dramatic opening with a tight, soft, sweet sound, an unexpected but nice choice, given that the writing here is tailor-made for a clarinetist to indulge his or her Romantic heart's desire.

Stojanovska demonstrated decent technique in the arpeggio cascades of the Romanian Melody (No. 5), and in the Night Song (No. 6), the last of the three Bruch selections, the trio played with taste and relative restraint.

As an encore, the three musicians played the final movement of the so-called Kegelstatt trio of Mozart (in E-flat, K. 498) as a tribute to a musician colleague killed in a motorcycle accident. This rondo movement showed signs of being underrehearsed, especially for Stojanovska, who had difficulty with the glittering piano part, a reminder that few composers are so logical on the page and then so treacherous in actual performance.

Still, it was an admirable gesture, and showed that Vivre Musicale is a group with plenty of heart. It also has a laudable attitude toward programming; it could have played its first concert much safer than opening with two 21st-century American pieces right in a row.

That bodes well for the musical adventurousness of the group, and will make them worth paying attention to. It remains now for them to pursue a higher level of performance polish to make their concerts memorable for consistent excellence, not just nerve and soul.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Dance review: 'Symphony' provides much-needed spark at MCB

Carlos Guerra and Jennifer Kronenberg
in Symphony in Three Movements. (Photo by Joe Gato).

By Sharon McDaniel

For a season opener, Program I seemed a bit tame.

Friday’s performance at the Kravis Center, heralding the start of Miami City Ballet’s 24th year, was remarkably low-key: No sets, for one thing. And of course, in these lean times, again no orchestra.

And no new repertoire. Two ballets, from the midpoint of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet career, announced a short, highly romantic and soloist-oriented Part I: Allegro Brillante (1956), which featured Jeanette Delgado and Rolando Sarabia; and Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux (1960) with Mary Carmen Catoya and Renato Penteado.

Two longer, more modern ballets – Paul Taylor’s Company B (1991) and Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements (1972) – corralled larger forces for more company-focused Parts II and III.

In Allegro, it was easy to notice Jeanette Delgado’s substantial development as a soloist just since last season. Her spirited work in Tchaikovsky’s long piano cadenza (from the Piano Concerto No. 3) was not only graceful but precise. She more than held the stage in an impassioned role that is practically nonstop. But the four couples of the corps struggled against the music, unable to match its fiery speed or drama. Toward the finale, they finally settled in as an ensemble – even rose to the occasion.

In the Tschaikovsky Pas, Renato Penteado showed a grace and consciousness of line that beautifully mirrored Mary Carmen Catoya. It was a visual reminder that his role is one made famous by artistic director Edward Villella. Well-matched in strength and depth, Catoya and Penteado convinced you to take in every lovely detail, even when Catoya missed a rhythmic mark (though Penteado never did).

Company B can be great fun, a retro romp of bobby-soxer skirts, Andrews Sisters’ pop tunes and swinging '40s social dances. Tico Tico soloist Alex Wong, and Daniel Baker as the Boogie- Woogie Bugle Boy, burned up the floor with fine, high-stakes athletics and a great feel for jazz. Daniel Sarabia (Oh Johnny Oh Johnny) and Jeanette Delgado (Rum and Coke) ratcheted up the humor and sex appeal.

Soloists notwithstanding, Miami City Ballet seemed too inwardly focused in Company B. Too little energy flowed outward into the hall or even beyond the stage. And the ensemble’s pulse slowed despite the ballet’s upbeat tempos. Moments of beauty and the occasional picture-perfect snapshot could be enticing, but vanished in a flash. Even the Daddy-o coolness of Company B could be, well, lukewarm.

The only thing white-hot was Symphony in Three Movements. From the sizzling start to the spit-and-polish finish, all 32 dancers made you sit up and take full notice. The company’s enormous output of energy rose to levels more associated with past milestones or gala celebrations. This crackle of electricity made Symphony the evening’s game-changer.

Of course, there’s some history here. The company performed this ballet in January accompanied for the first time by the renowned Cleveland Orchestra. Still, it was surprising how far Friday’s performance of Symphony surpassed everything else on the program.

In Symphony, the dancers had something they wanted to say and spoke out with brilliant clarity. They were more than equal to the driving, spiky outbursts of the Stravinsky masterpiece, the ballet’s namesake. Of the three leading couples, Jennifer Kronenberg with Carlos Guerra and Tricia Albertson with Alex Wong were the intriguing characters woven throughout this plotless ballet. But everyone – from the 10 demi-soloists to the corps of 16 ballerinas, made this ensemble piece tick like clockwork.

The Kravis audience, although responsive in the previous ballets, gave Symphony an extended ovation. You have to wonder, though: Given the regrettable loss of Marie Hale’s Ballet Florida, it’s surprising that Miami City Ballet, now the only game in town, didn’t attract a larger crowd of dance fans Friday night.

The Miami City Ballet presents this program again today at 1 p.m. at the Kravis Center. Tickets range from $19 to $169. Call 832-7469 or 1-800-572-8471 or visit

Saturday, November 21, 2009

CD review: Los Lobos delightfully reimagines Disney songs

Los Lobos tackles the Disney catalog in its latest release.

By Chauncey Mabe

When I first learned that Los Lobos was about to put out an album of Disney songs, I was righteously indignant.

Such a misguided project could only be a sellout, at best, and, at worst, a complete collapse of creative drive. What in the world could the trailblazing East L.A. Chicano rockers have in common with Cliff Edwards, as Jiminy-freaking-Cricket, crooning When You Wish Upon a Star?!?

Ah, but that was before I actually put the disc in my CD player and, with fear and trembling, pushed “play.” I was immediately knocked out by the surging, highly syncopated Tex-Mex brio of Heigh Ho, sung in an unrestrained Spanish that made me laugh out loud with delight.

By the time I got to track number seven, The Ugly Bug Ball, with its down-and-dirty lead guitar and a vocal that – I swear – keens with loneliness and sexual frustration, I realized Los Lobos Goes Disney proves yet again that this is one of the great rock outfits of all time.

That’s not to say children can’t safely be exposed to these raucous and thoroughly reimagined versions of Disney classics. This is first and foremost a kids' record. But unlike most of its ilk, it’s also an album that grown-ups will find delivers increasing subtleties of pleasure with repeat listens. And if you’ve ever been stuck on a road trip with a vanload of children, that’s more than an artistic achievement. It’s a public service.

Los Lobos pulls off this magic simply by not compromising musical integrity just because these are Disney songs. The band members – singer/guitarists David Hidalgo, Louie Perez and Cesar Rosas, plus singer/bassist Conrad Lozano and sax player Steve Berlin (plus guest drummer Cougar Estrada) – take the same ruggedy eclectic approach that has gained them a cult following that includes Paul Simon and Elvis Costello.

Which is to say, they dismantle these Disney songs, cook off the treacle, and put them back together with Los Lobos’ trademark recipe of rockabilly, punk, blues, jazz, country, and several different strains of Latin music.

“We’re all really happy with it,” says Berlin. “The kids' record doesn’t sound like a kids' record. It just sounds like Los Lobos playing funky old songs, so I imagine over time, we’ll probably be integrating some of those songs into our set.”

Many bands do lose their creative drive over years – just give Wilco’s latest, Wilco (The Album) a listen – but, as this disc shows, Los Lobos still channels a ferocious energy. That’s remarkable for a group that got its start in 1974 as a bunch of high school friends trying to imitate their rock heroes. They played weddings, parties and restaurants. It was only when they started incorporating their parents’ music that they hit upon their unique signature sound.

Los Lobos had its breakout album in 1984 with Will the Wolf Survive?, produced by T-Bone Burnett. The band had its biggest success in 1987, with a cover of Richie Valens’ La Bamba, recorded for the biopic starring Lou Diamond Philips. But Los Lobos has toured and recorded steadily over the dedaces, producing several albums – By the Light of the Moon, Kiko, 2006’s The Town and the City – recognized today as masterpieces of Americana.

And that’s the sensibility they bring to Los Lobos Goes Disney, which would more accurately be called Disney Goes Los Lobos. Bella Notte, for example, from Lady and the Tramp, gets a thorough norteño workout, while The Bare Necessities, one of two songs from The Jungle Book, becomes a snappy zydeco two-step. I Will Go Sailing No More, from Toy Story, is a heartbreaking folk ballad, while Cruella De Vil sounds like Kurt Weill backed by a crack jazz-rock lounge band.

The frenetically happy Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah is slowed down to a lazy country blues that Roger Miller would recognize in a heartbeat. Los Lobos Does Disney ends with a stirring instrumental medley -- a surf-music version of When You Wish Upon a Star that morphs into a Tex-Mex accordion take on It’s a Small, Small World (a song I’d hoped to never hear again in my lifetime, but here made more than tolerable.)

It’s worth nothing that Los Lobos Goes Disney not only confirms the inventiveness of this rock band. It also casts a fresh light on the brilliant songcraft of the writers Disney has tapped through the years, from Frank Churchill and Larry Morey to Randy Newman, Richard and Robert Sherman, Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert.

That these songs are elastic enough to hold their shape through the rough treatment Los Lobos puts them through is a testament to all concerned.

Chauncey Mabe is the former books editor of the Sun-Sentinel. He can be reached at Visit him on Facebook.

For a free listen to Los Lobos Goes Disney – or any of the band’s album’s – visit the band's Website.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Weekend arts picks: Nov. 20-22

A pitcher by Ellen Bates.

Art: Today and tomorrow, the Ceramic League of the Palm Beaches is holding its annual holiday sale and exhibit. On display will be affordable, handmade art that is ideal for gifts, including pottery, sculpture, fused glass and mixed media. The Ceramic League is a nonprofit artist group dedicated to the advancement of its members as well as promoting public interest in the appreciation of the ceramic arts. The sale runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and Saturday, and artists will be present each day to chat with visitors. Admission is free. Craft Gallery is located at 5911 S. Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach. For more information, call (561) 762-8162.

A sculpture by Karen Windchild.

Meanwhile, an exhibition called Tropical Visions opens tonight from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Clay, Glass, Metal and Stone Gallery at 605 Lake Ave. in downtown Lake Worth. Some of the more than 20 artists include ceramists Amelia Costa and Karen Windchild, stained-glass artists Debra Gower and wildlife jewelry artist Karen McGovern. Regular gallery hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. For information, call 561-588-8344 or visit the gallery's Website.

This installation by the artist's collaborative Kaput!
was part of last year's 10x10 show. (Photo by Jacek Gancarz)

Saturday night, Kara Walter-Tomé, contemporary art curator and creator of Showtel, is staging the one-night 10X10 exhibition featuring 21 artists. On view from 6 to 10 p.m. at Lake Worth Storage at 4166 S. Military Trail in Lake Worth are multi-dimensional site-specific installations in 10 square feet or less. Last year, more than 600 people roamed through the storage facility to see the unusual installations by artists from Palm Beach County, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Gainesville. For more information, call (561) 670-9658. -- K. Deits

Gabourey Sidibe in Precious.

Film: There is substantial Oscar buzz about a film with the terribly unwieldy title, Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire. It concerns an overweight, illiterate, pregnant teenager who gets an opportunity to turn her downbeat life around. Making her feature debut in the title role is actress Gabourey Sidibe, a true natural, and comedian Mo’Nique in a career-making performance as her abusive mother. At area theaters beginning Friday. -- H. Erstein

Theatre: The turnaround of the Caldwell Theatre -- at least artistically -- continues with David Mamet’s adaptation of Harley Granville -Barker’s 1905 drama, The Voysey Inheritance, about a wealthy Victorian family that learns that its money was acquired through a blatant Ponzi scheme. Bernie Madoff redux, anyone? Clive Cholerton gathers 12 of South Florida’s best actors in a rich, polished production led by Terry Hardcastle as the con man’s son who tries to make restitution, but comes to realize it is not as easy as it seems. A century-old play that is up to the minute and easy for the Caldwell audience to relate to. Tickets: $34-$55. Call: (561) 241-7432 or (877) 245-7432, for reservations. Through Sunday, Dec. 13. -- H. Erstein

A page of William Blake.

Music: A new chamber music group debuts this Saturday afternoon at the Steinway Gallery in Boca Raton, which at least goes to show that the economy is no obstacle to artistic ambition. Vivre Musicale, which consists in part of three Lynn University students and two graduates of Florida State University, says its mission is to "provide young, up-and-coming musicians with a strong foothold in the classical music world" through diverse programming. Saturday's program will feature tenor Jorge Toro, one of the two co-founders of the group, in the Ten Blake Songs of Ralph Vaughan Williams, three songs from Schumann's Dichterliebe, and For nothing lesse than thee, a song cycle by the young American composer Zachary Wadsworth. Also on the program are a solo viola piece, Viola Soliloquy, by another young American, Martin Blessinger, and three of Max Bruch's Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano. Pianist Nastasa Stojonovska, oboist Evelyn Sedlack, clarinetist Berginald Rash (the other founder) and violist David Pedraza join Toro in this first concert, which begins at 4 p.m. A free-will offering of $5 is suggested. For more information, call 846-2524. -- G. Stepanich