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Two Chamber Series Offer An Embarrassment Of Riches

Crescendo. Photo by Stephen Potter.

By Jeremy D. Goodwin

Tanglewood will always be the grand dame among classical music venues in the Rural Intelligence region, and that’s perfectly fine with us. But it’s in the more intimate venues — theaters, churches, museums — where chamber music fans can reliably find the not-so-hidden gems of the fall and winter seasons. With a relatively lower profile, a host of performance series plot ambitious seasons incorporating a curatorial flair that combines historical expertise with a creative embrace of the future. Two such sturdy leaders of the scene, who have each assembled dedicated fan bases in the RI region and beyond, celebrate anniversaries this season.

Close Encounters With Music, founded by Yehuda and Hannah Hanani, embarked on its 25th season in October at its home base, Great Barrington’s Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. And it’s been 15 years since Christine Gevert moved to the area and started a humble music series at Trinity Lime Rock Episcopal Church in Lakeville, which evolved two years later into the Crescendo concert series and is now a leading proponent of early music.

Christine Gevert. Photo by Stephen Potter.

Gevert arrived in Lakeville in 2001 by way of a childhood spent in her native Germany, college studies in Chile, and professional posts in various places in-between — like a Swiss music publisher of early music scores. Her familial background (both German and Chilean) and her professional expertise make her a one-of-a-kind music expert who curates a one-of-a-kind concert series.

Crescendo’s sweet spot is the era of European classical music spanning from the 13th century on up through the early baroque period of the 1700s — but with a twist. Gevert’s deep knowledge of the Latin American baroque tradition led to Crescendo’s invitation to send an ensemble to perform at St. Bartholomew’s Church as part of last September’s New York Early Music Celebration. Crescendo’s 2016-17 season includes performances in Great Barrington at First Congregational Church, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, and the soon-to-open St. James Place, as well as spaces in Lakeville. It’s also premiering a commission of a style-hopping composition by John Myers, written in nine parts to accompany nine works by Norman Rockwell. Both Crescendo’s repertoire and its performing radius keep expanding.

Though Gevert’s early-music bona fides are unimpeachable, she says it’s important for Crescendo to offer a variety of pieces, as performed by a family of house ensembles including a chorus and chamber orchestra playing period instruments. “Sometimes the Renaissance music comes out more when it’s heard in contrast with contemporary music,” says Gervert, who has even programmed a piece by jazz master Dave Brubeck.

She’s also put her skills to work translating, as it were, period musical scores into playable performance editions. By fleshing these out into full arrangements, Gevert has facilitated the United States premieres of pieces written centuries ago.

Yehuda Hanani.

Close Encounters With Music puts its own curatorial spin on sounds both familiar and new. Yehuda Hanani, an accomplished concert cellist, is its artistic director. Hanani is known for concerts in which he draws connections, from the stage, among different pieces of music and other currents of artistic and intellectual thought. Even in a phone conversation, one gets a taste of Hanani’s approach. Just talking about music with him is a little bit like a private Close Encounters encounter.

“What painters are trying to do with pigment, composers are doing with sound. And what architects are doing in space, composers do in time. A piece of music is really an architectural structure in time rather than in space. So it has a beginning, an end, a climax—it has structure, beams that hold the things together,” he says, “and once you start explaining it to audiences, even people who are not musically literate, who just listen intuitively, begin to relate those things and they start listening differently.”

Close Encounters With Music started out at Great Barrington’s St. James Episcopal Church, and in February will give the first concert there under the space’s new name, St. James Place. Typical of Hanani’s approach, it’ll feature solo pieces by Bach performed by himself on cello and Kivie Cahn-Lipman on viola da gamba, bringing to aural life the difference between period and modern approaches to the material.

Like Crescendo, Close Encounters also commissions new pieces to work alongside an older repertoire. Its 25th season marks the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the state of New York, and will culminate with a gala concert next June featuring an interconnected “quilt” of short pieces written by women composers and dedicated to heroes of the pro-suffrage movement. Conversations with composer Hannah Lash (Nov. 20 at Hudson Opera House) and author Linda Hirshman (May 14 at The Mount in Lenox) augment the performance schedule.

When Hanani describes the circle of Close Encounters fans, he could also be describing Crescendo—or any of the other cultural offerings that bring together people in the RI region at any time of year.

“It’s like you enter a cultural zone and it’s really like a neighborhood,” says Hanani, who lives with Hannah in Spencertown. “These days when we’re all so mobile, a neighborhood is defined by me as a cultural affinity—members of the same interest, the same passion.”

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Posted by Lisa Green on 10/24/16 at 01:27 PM • Permalink

Counting Down For The Pittsfield City Jazz Festival

Karrin Allyson and Scott Robinson.

By Lisa Green

The 12th annual Pittsfield City Jazz Festival, Oct. 7-16, proves that it takes a village to create — and sustain — a jazz festival.

“We’re at a critical mass now,” says Ed Bride, festival chair and president of Berkshires Jazz, the nonprofit educational arm whose mission is to present jazz events and promote jazz education in Berkshire County. He started the festival with just two events on a weekend. Now, it spans two weekends — one putting the spotlight on local musicians, and the other reserved for “headliners” in the jazz world. And most of the events are free.

Things kick off on Columbus Day weekend, Oct. 7-9, with Jazz About Town, the increasingly popular jazz crawl featuring local musicians in restaurants and lounges throughout Pittsfield’s Upstreet Cultural District. New this year is an exhibit of jazz-inspired photography by award-winning photojournalist Ken Franckling, with a First Friday Artswalk reception at the Whitney Center for the Arts on Oct. 7. Franckling will be signing his book, “Jazz in the Key of Light.”

The Jazz Ambassadors — America’s Big Band.

The “Headline Weekend,” Oct. 14-16, actually kicks off on October 13 with the Jazz Prodigy concert. The next night, saxophonist Scott Robinson will perform at Flavours restaurant. On October 15, at the Colonial Theatre, vocalist and pianist Karrin Allyson, a Grammy nominee, will take the stage, followed by the Jazz Ambassadors — America’s Big Band, the official touring big band of the United States Army. The Berkshires Jazz Youth Ensemble will open the headliner concert, having been coached by members of the Pittsfield Sister City Jazz Ambassadors. The festival concludes with a jazz brunch.

Anyone aware of Pittsfield’s “can-do” spirit won’t be surprised that the festival was propelled by local businesses. Early on, Andy Kelly, a guitarist and chair of Pittsfield’s Cultural Development Board, organized jazz performances in bars and restaurants around town. There was no problem filling the venues, but patrons would leave to go to the festival concerts, and the bar owners felt it as competition. So the jazz crawl was born, as was the new format of locals on Columbus Day weekend and headliners the following weekend.

It was because the Friends of the Athenaeum (Pittsfield’s public library) wanted to include younger musicians that the jazz prodigy concert was created. Underwriting support comes from local foundations and financial institutions, among other businesses. Bride estimates that about 80 percent of festival goers are from Berkshire County, but says the festival also draws people from New York City and even as far away as Maine.

So you don’t have to be from Pittsfield to take in this home-grown festival. You just have to love jazz.

Pittsfield City Jazz Festival, Oct. 7-16
Check website for more details and schedule.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 09/30/16 at 11:09 AM • Permalink

The Leaf Peepers Concert Series Plans A Bold 35th Season

By Amy Krzanik

Composer Tonia Ko

Borrowing its name from our region’s annual fall phenomenon, The Leaf Peeper Concert Series, presented each year by Clarion Concerts in Columbia County, will hold four unique performances at four different area venues every other Saturday from Sept. 10 to Oct. 22. The series — born in New York City in 1957 by the late musicologist and conductor Newell Jenkins and his partner, Jack Hurley — is helmed by acclaimed flutist Eugenia Zuckerman, who took over from Sanford Allen, a former violinist with the New York Philharmonic who directed the series from 1996 until his retirement in 2014.

Although it’s the oldest classical music organization in the county, the series doesn’t dwell in the past, and is known for mixing traditional and contemporary chamber music, providing performance opportunities for promising young artists, and commissioning new works.

Zuckerman, who served as artistic director of the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival for 13 years, is excited about the stellar lineup of musicians participating in this year’s series. You can witness two of these superstar young musicians, pianist Jeewon Park and cellist Edward Arron — who will be performing with violinist Tessa Lark and Paul Green on clarinet — right out of the gate during “Autumn Echoes,” the first of the series’ concerts this Saturday at the Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School in Ghent, NY. Along with works by Beethoven, Schoenfeld and Brahms, “Echoes” will include “Elegy for Cello and Piano,” which the series commissioned from Tonia Ko and which will be performed for the first time ever during the concert.

The Shanghai String Quartet

“Our opening concert will take place at a school on a working farm,” says Zukerman, “and I think that speaks to the whole concept of this area and what I love about it. Even though houses are far apart, there’s a real sense of community here, and an interesting mix of older and younger people.”

The rest of the lineup is no less thrilling, and we can see why Leaf Peepers almost doubled its attendance during its 2015 season. The second concert, “From East To West,” will feature the much in-demand Shanghai Quartet, who will be joined by Zukerman on flute, at St. James Church in Chatham, NY.

“Classically Romantic,” at Our Lady of Hope Church in Copake on Oct. 8, will feature Daniel Chong, first violinist in the Parker Quartet, along with Melissa Reardon, a violist in the Grammy-nominated Enso String Quartet, and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan who is a founding member of the Horszowski Trio.

“What I love about the musicians I’ve invited is that these are people who play a lot with their own groups, but also they’re curious and interested in playing with other people,” says Zukerman. “They’re very enthusiastic, fun and flexible performers.”

Leaf Peepers concludes with “Basking in the Baroque” at Hillsdale Methodist Church on Oct. 22. Cellist Astrid Schween of the Juilliard String Quartet and pianist Giovanni Reggioli will be joined by baritone Gustavo Ahualli and Zukerman’s daughter, soprano Arianna Zukerman.

The Leaf Peeper Concert Series
Sept. 10: “Autumn Echoes” at Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School, Ghent, NY
Sept. 24: “From East to West” at St. James Church, Chatham, NY
Oct. 8: “Classically Romantic” at Our Lady of Hope Church, Copake, NY
Oct. 22: “Basking in the Baroque” at Hillsdale Methodist Church, Hillsdale, NY
All concerts begin at 7:30 p.m.

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Posted by Amy Krzanik on 09/07/16 at 11:28 AM • Permalink

Oldtone Roots Music Festival Is A Fun New Frolic

Lauren Ambrose and Kip Beacco at 2015’s festival

By Amy Krzanik

As the Duke Ellington song says, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” and the Oldtone Roots Music Festival does got that swing, and that bluegrass, that old-time country, as well as Cajun, contra and Appalachian folk music. Held for one day in Wassaic in 2015, Oldtone will go big this year, with a four-day fest at Cool Whisper Farm in Hillsdale, New York from Thursday, Sept. 8 to Sunday, Sept. 11.

The festival’s founders and producers, Berkshire County musicians Kip Beacco, Matt Downing and Jim Wright, are well known in the roots music world from their bands The Lucky Five, The Hunger Mountain Boys, The Hayrollers and other groups. The trio have used their connections to curate a lineup that includes respected Louisiana Cajun musician Jesse Lége and his Bayou Brew, banjo player Tony Trischka, Michael Daves, The Two Man Gentlemen Band from California whose set will be its only public performance of 2016, NYC’s Raya Brass Band and other singers, duos, trios and full bands from our area and beyond.

Cool Whisper Farm

Friday evening will feature The Oldtone Classic Country Revue offering a convergence of all-star musicians Caleb Klauder, Lauren Ambrose, Andy Bean, Bradford Lee Folk, Pete Adams, Brian Kantor, Sauerkraut Seth Travins and others taking the stage together for a big howdy-doo.

A dance tent will offer live music each night so folks can get their ya-yas out contra, swing or square dancing. There will even be traditional Appalachian clogging. Roots music bands and instrumentalists are invited to participate in contests, and there will be intimate workshops with festival artists on Friday and Saturday.

In true family-friendly style, Oldtone is offering three nights of camping, food and plenty of activities for kids such as music by Hopalong Andrew, face painting, instrument lessons and more. A Friday night Cajun gumbo prepared by The Farmer’s Wife will be overseen by real live Southerner Jesse Lege, and the farm will host a pig roast on Saturday. Hoo-boy! That’s a lot of action.

Hopalong Andrew photo by Bernie DeChant

“We really wanted to do a full-on festival this time, and it just snowballed,” says Beacco. “If we’re doing Friday and Saturday, we might as well do Thursday, and people will camp over Saturday, so we should have some bands on Sunday morning… It’s like when you sit down to eat and your eyes are bigger than your stomach.”

We’re excited to participate in the hoedown and we won’t be alone. “Some people don’t go to festivals because they have an idea that it’s going to be another Lollapalooza or Woodstock, but Oldtone is really for everyone from newborns to 95-year-olds.”


Oldtone Roots Music Festival
Thursday, Sept. 8—Sunday, Sept. 11

Cool Whisper Farm
1011 County Road 21, Hillsdale, NY
info@oldtonemusicfestival.com

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Posted by Amy Krzanik on 08/30/16 at 10:58 AM • Permalink

It’s Un Bel Di As We Welcome The Berkshire Opera Festival

By Lisa Green

Since the Berkshire Opera Company folded in 2008, opera productions have been conspicuously absent from the performing arts scene in the Berkshires. So when Jonathon Loy and Brian Garman, both accomplished opera directors and conductors, announced plans to form the Berkshire Opera Festival, it wasn’t only opera aficionados that applauded the venture. While the principals in the cast of the first production, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, come from elsewhere, Loy and Garman didn’t have to go far to cast and hire many of the chorus, musicians and creative team members.

“I’m very happy to say that about 90 percent of our chorus is from the area, and nearly half of the orchestra is local,” says Garman. “There’s such a wealth of talent in the Berkshires that it would have been foolish not to tap into it. Employing local musicians whenever possible is central to the vision of Berkshire Opera Festival.”

The 2016 inaugural festival season opens on Aug. 27. You’ll appreciate it even more knowing who some of the locals are — on stage, behind it, and in the pit.

Beckie Kravetz, Wigs and Makeup Designer
Kravetz [in photo, above] is a world-renowned theatrical mask maker, which is how she started in the business, but through that segued into designing wigs and makeup. In 1988, she became the resident mask maker for the Los Angeles Opera, where she also worked as a principal makeup artist and assistant wig maker. Now living in Cummington, she’s missed working on opera productions. “I had a connection with an LA Opera colleague who had worked with Jonathon Loy at the Met (Opera Company), so when I read about the new company I introduced myself to him. Coming back to work in my own backyard is an incredible thrill.”

International costume designer Charles Caine, a 20-year Met veteran (and Egremont resident), is also working on this production. He had done a previous “Butterfly” with another wig and makeup designer, Steven Horak, who had a big wig stock, and those will be put to use in the Berkshire production. So Kravetz is primarily focusing on the makeup. While Kravetz often does dramatic, stylized painting for opera singers, she says Loy wants a subtle version of the Butterfly look, so the makeup will be only slightly dramatized.

The biggest challenge, she says, is that everybody is on stage in the first 15 minutes of the opera. “That’s a lot of people to get into wigs and makeup before the show,” she says. Fortunately, she has two assistants — Horak and an intern — and she’ll also be doing a training session with the cast to show them how to get started on their makeup. “Cat’s-eye (liner) works well as Asian eye makeup, and that’s really in style right now, so a lot of people know how to do it.” 

Steve Hassmer, Chorus and Uncle Yakuside
The tenor, who lives in Great Barrington, has a small part in Madama Butterfly’s story, as the uncle in the wedding scene. Hassmer’s degree was in music education, but he’s done more performing than teaching; he was in a national tour of My Fair Lady and worked on cruise ships for a while (a “survival job,” he calls it).

“After my wife finished dental school, we moved back east and I’ve been a stay-at-home dad, but in the past year I’ve been looking to get back into performing,” he says. He gave a concert last year in Stockbridge, has been taking voice lessons with the renowned opera singer Maureen O’Flynn, and has sung with Berkshire Lyric and The Cantilena Chamber Choir.

“It’s been such a treat listening to the world-class opera singers,” Hassmer says. “The Berkshire Opera Festival is super professional. Brian Garman is a fabulous musical director, and Jonathon Loy is great at running the rehearsals. It takes a lot of courage to do what these guys are doing, start up a company. They should be commended for trying to bring opera back to the Berkshires.”

Deane Prouty, Orchestra Contractor and Timpanist
Splitting his time between New Marlborough and New York City, Deane Prouty has to be one of the busiest guys in any music scene anywhere. As the orchestra contractor, he is responsible for hiring all of the musicians, holding auditions for the string players and many of the brass and wind players, to put together an orchestra of the highest quality. “We try to fill the roster first with local musicians, then we reach out farther to Albany, Springfield, and then New York,” he says.

Contracting also entails arranging the payroll schedule, collecting paperwork, and managing as a go-between for musicians and staff. He is responsible for arranging the venues for rehearsals and attending to the necessities — such as adequate lighting and room temperature — for the musicians. All of this is on top of being the timpanist, and schlepping the big kettle drums to and from the venues. (Aside from playing in both the Berkshires and New York, Prouty also runs a percussion rental and repair business in the city.)

Prouty was a member of the former Berkshire Opera for eight seasons, so he was able to bring many of those musicians into the BOF. With his familiarity of the region, he says, “I’ve been able to help Brian Garman with Berkshire issues.”

Maia Robbins-Zust, Technical Director
Loy and Garman contacted Robbins-Zust, owner of Berkshire Production Resources, about three years ago when they were first dreaming up BOF. “They said they knew I was a technical director in the area, and could I advise them,” she says. She was the technical director for the Berkshire Opera Company until it folded, so it was a natural for her to take on the position again.

Robbins-Zust is responsible for everything on the production end — building the sets, adjusting the lighting, overseeing the wardrobe staff and supertitles. There are separate scenic and lighting designers, and it just so happens that the scenic designer, Steven Dubay, was a student of hers at Williams College (where she is the technical director of the theater department) a decade ago.

The company is renting theater space at Berkshire Community College to build the sets, and have hired some of the students there to work on the production. Which is a good thing, because there’s a growing need for technical services. “For a rural area like Berkshire County, there are more stagehands than usual because there’s so much here, and theater companies are producing year round now.”

Paula Farbman, Chorus Member and Cio Cio San’s Mother
Lee resident Paula Farbman was a voice major in college (she studied at Juilliard when she was in high school) and a high school chorus teacher in Long Island. She also taught private voice lessons. The soprano sings with The Cantilena Chamber Choir and several other local choruses, but this is the first costumed stage production she’s been in.

“I auditioned for the chorus, and got the role of the mother, singing within the chorus,” Farbman says. “It’s going to be fun. It’s not easy memorizing parts as we get older, but it’s nice singing with a lot of younger singers.”

Farbman thinks the chorus has a good blend, and she’s just as complimentary of the Berkshire Opera Festival staff. “They’re certainly very professional,” she says. “Every day is planned out, and they’re respectful of our time. I really have to say I’m impressed with all of the staff. Having sung a lot, I have a pretty good idea if people know what they’re doing, and these people really do.”

Richard Mickey, Cellist
Opera has been an essential element of Richard Mickey’s career from the beginning, having played with the Philadelphia Lyric Opera Company and the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company as a young student. As a member of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, he worked under music directors who were major opera conductors, so he played a number of concert-form operas.

A Fellow of the Tanglewood Music Center for three years, he moved to the area in 1980, and is a busy freelancer. The Stockbridge resident is also a regular member of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Berkshire Lyric Theatre and many other orchestras.

Like some of the other musicians and creative staff, Mickey introduced himself to the Berkshire Opera Festival directors when he saw a news article announcing its intentions. “I’m very impressed with the group and the leadership,” Mickey says. “And I love the Colonial Theatre. It’s a wonderful asset to the Berkshires.”

Madama Butterfly
Berkshire Opera Festival at The Colonial Theatre

August 27, August 30 & September 2 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $20-$98
111 South Street, Pittsfield, MA
Reserve tickets here or call (413) 997-4444.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 08/23/16 at 11:16 AM • Permalink