The Cliburn Report 13: Les Six

Leonard Slatkin

After two three rounds of recitals and one round of piano quintets (with the Brentano String Quartet), the group of thirty Van Cliburn International Piano Competition contestants has finally been narrowed down to six finalists. This Thursday through Sunday, each of them will play two concertos with the Fort Worth Symphony conducted by former St. Louis Symphony music director Leonard Slatkin.

I’ll be covering the final round from Fort Worth as part of a delegation from the Music Critics Association of North America. Meanwhile, here’s a list of the finalists along with the concerti each will play.

Sean Chen (24, USA)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, op. 73
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, op. 30

Fei-Fei Dong (22, China)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, op. 58
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, op. 30

Vadym Kholodenko (26, Ukraine)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, op. 26

Nikita Mndoyants (24, Russia)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, op. 16

Beatrice Rana (20, Italy)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, op. 37
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, op. 16

Tomoki Sakata (19, Japan)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, op. 23

And for those of you who like details, here’s the Cliburn jury handbook, courtesy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The Cliburn Report 8: Here, There, and Everywhere

Jade Simmons

[I will be covering the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June.  Meanwhile I’m picking the best of the current press coverage for you dining and dancing pleasure.]

I’m a bit late with this one, but I have an excuse: I had to write up and record a review of the tour of Anything Goes that’s playing the Fox Theatre locally. That’s the disadvantage of being both a music and theatre critic.

Anyway, I’ve been concentrating on mainstream media outlets so far, but I don’t want to give you the impression that the blogosphere isn’t paying attention to the competition as well. Here are a couple of recent examples:

Chang Tou Liang’s Pianomania blog has been covering the competition at least as assiduously as mainstream critics Scott Cantreel and Gregory Isaacs (see below). It’s interesting to compare their picks with his.

I have mentioned the fine job pianist Jade Simmons has been doing as host of the Cliburn live webcast. Her Emerge Already! blog is worth a look (and listen—it includes audio blog entries).

Giuseppe Greco
Photo: Ralph Lauer

Back on the mainstream media beat, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram continues its daily photo coverage of the competition, including both performance and backstage pictures from day 6 (May 28th).

Gregory Isaacs’s coverage for TheatreJones continues. His favorites from the first, second, and third Tuesday sessions were:

Oleksandr Poliykov
Photo: Ralph Lauer

Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News singled out the following contestants in his morning, afternoon, and evening reviews:

Taj Weekes – PARIAH IN TRANSIT in review

by Michael Kuelker

From the Caribbean island of St. Lucia comes a package marked “reggae music 501(c)3.” It looks deceptively like a compact disc but it’s really a set of boxes one inside the other inside the other, each opening up to a facet of reggae culture.

Pariah in Transit is the new live album by singer/guitarist/bandleader Taj Weekes, who is directing the proceeds from the project to a registered humanitarian organization, They Often Cry Outreach, which he founded in 2007. TOCO promotes health and sports among disadvantaged youth among its many projects in a wide range of community building efforts.

Weekes, by the way, will be returning to St. Louis on June 15 for a concert at 2720.

I’ve listened closely to the artist’s three studio albums and to his band on three occasions (@La Onda and 2720). As a songwriter he is, I think, among reggae’s finest, a penetrating poet who is averse to easy rhyme, platitude and simple didacticism. And his band – remarkably cohesive, tight like a sunburned forehead.

Still, I am not automatically turned on by live albums. Even when it’s artists who are really good live, Marley, the Clash or Howlin’ Wolf, whomever, my go-to selections wind up being an artist’s studio recordings (and usually early or mid-career). Live albums are souvenirs, documents of a time, faithful to a sound (usually), wonderful to behold (sometimes), but in my collection only occasionally at the ‘igher ights. This disc by Weekes definitely skews to the high end of the live album spectrum.

Concise and compelling intro to the artist, Pariah in Transit is crisply recorded sans overdub, a lesson in band dynamics and tasteful restraint, the music coming like good reggae should, light like a feather and heavy as lead.


Taj Weekes @ 2720 [photo by Michael Kuelker

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Theatre Review: ‘Appropriate’ at the Humana Festival

Larry Bull as Bo, Amy Lynn Stewart as Rachael, Reese Madigan as Franz and Jordan Baker as Toni. Photo by Alan Simons

[The 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays runs through April 7 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.]

“Appropriate” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by Gary Griffin
The Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville
Through April 7, 2012

View Chuck’s video blog review

Synopsis: “The family that stresses together represses together. When the Lafayettes descend upon a crumbling Arkansan plantation to liquidate their dead patriarch’s estate, his three adult children collide over clutter, debt, and a contentious family history. But after a disturbing discovery surfaces among their father’s possessions, the reunion takes a turn for the explosive, unleashing a series of crackling surprises and confrontations. A play about the trouble with inheritance, memory loss, and the art of repression.”

The title of Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’s play is nothing if not ironic.  At one point or another nearly every member of the Lafayette family acts in ways that are not appropriate (the word we now use in place of “bad” or “wrong”).  Resentful that she was left to deal with the family’s increasingly disturbed father and crumbling finances, sister Toni is hostile and judgmental towards nearly everyone—and possibly in denial about dad’s real nature.  Frank (now calling himself Franz as part of his attempt to escape his past) has apparently still not gotten over the unhealthy interest in underage women that made that escape necessary.  And Bo, while apparently the most rational of the bunch, is still willing to make a fast buck from a shameful family secret.

Dysfunctional family dramas can be deadly in my experience, but Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins avoids the pitfalls of the genre, at least in the first act.  Exposition is neatly and economically delivered, the characters are all credible and quickly established, and the dramatic tension builds plausibly from the semi-comic opening scenes to the dramatic explosion that results from the revelation that the clan’s father might have been something much worse than just emotionally disturbed.  The first act of “Appropriate” is, in fact, one of the best I’ve seen in many years.

The second act is not quite as strong, partly because it never satisfactorily resolves some of the tensions in the first and partly because it strikes some false character notes, especially in the arguments over how to capitalize on an ugly artifact found in the attic (yes, I’m being vague in an effort to avoid spoilers).  The final moments depicting the eventual fate of the house also struck me as a bit anticlimactic and tacked on.  Still, the script as a whole is very compelling; it needs only a little tweaking, in my view, to make it the Lexus of dysfunctional family plays.

The cast is uniformly wonderful.  Reese Madigan, Jordan Baker, and Larry Bull all shine as the siblings Frank/Franz, Toni, and Bo.  Amy Lynn Stewart is very strong as Bo’s wife Rachel, especially in the final moments when Bo’s façade of reserve collapses.  Natalie Kuhn is archly New Age as Frank’s very young fiancée Trisha.

There’s fine work as well from David Rosenblatt as Toni’s son Rhys (who has some ugly inappropriate behavior in his own past) and young Gabe Weible as Bo’s over-energized son Ainsley.  Lilli Stein is remarkably credible as Bo’s prepubescent daughter Cassidy.  Although Ms. Stein is a college graduate, she completely convinced me she was (at least) a good ten years younger.

Director Gary Griffin has nicely shaped the scenes, blocked it all intelligently, and served the script very well.  He and stage manager Michael D. Domue also designed a redressing of Antje Ellermann’s amazingly detailed set in the second act that was executed so swiftly and artfully that it actually got applause.

That set, it should be noted, is quite a marvel, especially when you consider that it has to be struck and rebuilt repeatedly because it shares the Pamela Brown auditorium with “Gnit”.  With the addition of Matt Frey’s lights and Bray Poor’s sound, the illusion of a decaying Southern mansion was perfect.

Taken as a whole, “Appropriate” was one of the best things I saw at Humana this year—right up there with “Cry Old Kingdom”.  And that’s high praise indeed.

Theatre Review: ‘The Delling Shore’ at the Humana Festival

Bruce McKenzie as Frank, Catherine Combs as Adrianne, Meredith Forlenza as Ellen, and Jim Frangione as Thomas. Photo by Alan Simons

[The 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays runs through April 7 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.]

“The Delling Shore” by Sam Marks
Directed by Meredith McDonough
The Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville
Through April 7, 2012

View Chuck’s video blog review with Leslie Wobbe

Synopsis: “Eminent novelist Thomas Wright has invited fellow writer Frank Bay and his daughter Adrianne to stay the weekend at his country house.  From the moment the Bays arrive, though, Thomas and his daughter Ellen are out to get them.  The shared love of books that should unite these characters instead becomes a battleground where words become weapons.”

Maybe I’m just getting grumpy in my old age, but I think I’ve really seen my quota of acerbic comedy/dramas about dysfunctional middle class (and above) New Yorkers in the arts slicing and dicing each other and agonizing over their failures to make the Big Time.  In a nation slowly sliding into third-world status, with millions of citizens facing unemployment, underemployment, and/or crippling debt, these concerns are looking increasingly trivial.

I could also do without plays that use a parlor game as the means to bring out Big Truths about the characters, but that’s probably just me being a curmudgeon.

I understand that struggling artists are of great interest to folks like playwright Marks, who grew up in the theatre and, according to Kathryn Zukaitis’s biographical sketch in the press kit, “is intimately acquainted with the risks and rewards of pursuing a career in the arts.”  But in order for their struggles to matter to the rest of us, the characters have to be something more than just bundles of ambition and resentment.  The father/daughter teams in “Delling Shore” just don’t pass that test.

Frank starts off with a chip on his shoulder that would make Atlas shrug and only becomes more abrasive as the evening progresses.  Adrianne is so tightly wound from the moment she walks on stage that she’s ready to snap (and eventually does).  Thomas is unprincipled and arrogant, and his daughter Ellen seems more interested in clubbing than anything else.  It’s an indication of how unpleasant and ultimately uninteresting these characters are that Ellen eventually turns out to be the most fully realized of the lot.

That’s not to say that there aren’t laughs and some decent dramatic tension created during the eighty very long minutes of “The Delling Shore”.  It’s just that they’re not enough to compensate for having to spend time with a quartet that you wouldn’t invite to your house on a bet.  Worse yet, the play starts at such a high pitch of hostility that there’s ultimately nowhere for it to go without tipping into absurdity—which it eventually does, in a thoroughly unbelievable scene between Frank and Ellen towards the end.

The best things about “The Delling Shore”, in my view, are Daniel Zimmerman’s strikingly realistic set and the solid work by the actors.  Catherine Combs’s Adrianne is a bundle of nervous tics from the get-go, tipping us off that she’s not as collected as she seems.  Meredith Forlenza nicely manages Ellen’s transition from superficial to sympathetic.  Bruce McKenzie is the very picture of resentment and Jim Frangione’s smug complacency is just right for Thomas.

Meredith McDonough’s direction mostly serves the playwright well, although I think she might have found ways to dial down the intensity a bit early on.

Some years ago Scott Adams authored a Sunday “Dilbert” strip titled “Seven Habits of Highly Defective People”.  I won’t say that these characters have them all, but they have plenty and (to quote The Bard), “’tis enough, ‘twill serve.”

Theatre Review: ‘Cry Old Kingdom’ at the Humana Festival

Jonathan Majors as Henri and Andy Lucien as Edwin. Photo by Alan Simons

[The 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays runs through April 7 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.]

“Cry Old Kingdom” by Jeff Augustin
Directed by Tom Dugdale
The Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville
Through April 7, 2012

View Chuck’s video blog review with Leslie Wobbe

Synopsis: “Haiti, 1964.  Beneath the watchful eyes of François ’Papa Doc‘ Duvalier’s government, revolution is brewing.  Words of rebellion against his repressive regime flood the nation’s radio waves, even as the Tonton Macoutes death squads prowl the villages, killing or imprisoning anyone who speaks ill of the dictator.  The people of Haiti face a stark choice: to join the fight or to flee.”

Edwin, a painter, is a kind of self-made zombie.  Years ago he faked his own death and now works, appropriately, out of an underground studio.  Or he tries to work, anyway.  Since his bogus death his inspiration has suffered a real death.  Worse yet his wife Judith is witnessing the slow death of her own former vivacity and love of dancing at Carnival, killed by the need to work in an open market all day to sustain her and Edwin.

When Edwin stumbles across Henri Marx, “a scarred but beautiful young man” (to quote the program notes) gathering wood to build the boat he hopes will take him to America, he’s fascinated by the young man’s lust for life.  Edwin offers a bargain: Henri can build his boat safely in Edwin’s studio if Edwin can paint him.  As the two men get to know each other, Edwin finds his inspiration returning, but the estrangement from Judith increasing.  When Judith announces her intention to join the rebels, Edwin faces difficult choices—with tragic results.

“Cry Old Kingdom” is profound on so many levels that it’s hard to articulate them.  From a purely polemic perspective, it’s a dramatic illustration of the way political repression undermines and corrupts human relationships.  It’s also a forceful illustration of both the futility of attempting to remain apart from life and the cost of doing so.  Edwin’s self-inflicted burial doesn’t insulate him from having to make choices because, as Henri Marx observes, “Being alive is having to choose.”

Andy Lucien brings the repressed Edwin to vivid life.  He’s nicely matched by Jonathan Majors as Henri, still optimistic despite horrific persecution from the regime.  Natalie Paul’s Judith is a masterpiece of body language, forcefully illustrating the gradual revival of her character’s spirit as the revolution seems to bring her hope—however briefly.  The Haitian accents of the cast are (at times) a bit too heavy, though.  When actors were facing away from me, I often lost lines—a pity with a script this literate.

Scenic designer Daniel Zimmerman smartly conjures up the beach, Edwin’s studio, and Edwin and Judith’s home with only a few set pieces and some piles of sand.  The lights, sound, Tom Dugdale’s direction, and the fine work of the actors do the rest.

“Cry Old Kingdom” was one of the best things I saw at Humana this year.  Its illustration of the horrors faced by so much of the world on a regular basis is so vivid, though, that it makes the angst of some of the characters in the other four plays I saw feel trivial by comparison.  Not being able to find yourself, for example, looks like pretty small beer compared to not being able to prevent the Tonton Macoutes from finding you.  That’s an invidious comparison, perhaps, but it’s hard to avoid those thoughts when you see five plays in three days.

Theatre Review: ‘O Guru Guru Guru’ at the Humana Festival

Rebecca Hart as Lila. Photo by Alan Simons

[The 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays runs through April 7 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.]

“O Guru Guru Guru or why I don’t want to go to yoga class with you” by Mallery Avidon
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
The Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville
Through April 7, 2012

View Chuck’s video blog review with Leslie Wobbe

Synopsis: “Lila does not want to go to yoga class with you.  Not because she doesn’t like stretching or has no discipline or worries she might be bad at it.  Not because she doesn’t like you.  The reason Lila doesn’t want to go to yoga class is not easy to explain, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t going to try… When you discover that the system of belief in which you once found meaning no longer holds currency for you; when you find yourself a little older, but not necessarily wiser; when the question of ‘where do I go from here’ feels impossibly high-stakes, but impossible to answer, what do you do?  Lila is hoping to figure it out today—and she has brought notes.”

“O Guru” is really three interconnected plays in one long (80-minute) act.  In the first one, Lila attempts to explain to the audience, with notes and slides, why she can’t do yoga anymore, despite growing up in an ashram.  But she can’t show any slides because everything about that ashram is copyrighted, the notes don’t stop her from digressing, and she eventually leaves the stage in frustration—at which point the theatre is suddenly transformed into a yoga studio, complete with an instructor and assistants in colorful saris.  They invite audience members to take off their shoes and chant with them.  They share personal stories about what yoga means to them.  They present a cleverly executed shadow puppet story about the origin of Ganesh.  Then they invite everyone to close their eyes and meditate.  When the audience opens their eyes, though, the scene has shifted again.

At which point I have to stop summarizing, because much of the charm of the third play lies in the way it messes with the audience’s sense of reality.  Let’s just say it neatly brings us back to Lila’s original issues in a way that provides satisfying dramatic closure and a bit of a life lesson.

Rebecca Hart heads a solid ensemble cast as Lila, so convincingly in the moment that when she momentarily lost her place in the script, it looked like Lila was confused and not the actress.  Just as impressive, as the yoga instructors and other roles, were Daphne Gaines, Maya Lawson, Kristin Villanueva, Gisela Chípe, and Khrystyne Haje.

Lila Neugebauer’s direction manages the shifts in tone and perspective nicely.  Technically everything is beyond reproach (although there was a minor glitch with the slide projector when we saw the show).  The running crew shifts Andrew Liberman’s minimal sets with cinematic ease.  Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes are well chosen, with the saris for the yoga instructions being particularly attractive.  Jay Tollefsen gets credit for the beautiful shadow puppets.

The bottom line on “O Guru” is that while it might not be a profound work, it’s unfailingly charming, entertaining, and creative.  And that, to quote a famous song lyric, “is all right with me.”

Theatre Review: ‘Gnit’ at the Humana Festival

Dan Waller as Peter and Kate Eastwood Norris as Stranger 2. Photo by Kathy Prehyer

[The 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays runs through April 7 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.]

“Gnit” by Will Eno
Directed by Les Waters
The Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville
Through April 7, 2012

View Chuck’s video blog review with Leslie Wobbe

Synopsis: “Meet Peter Gnit, the recklessly aspiring, self-deluded anti-hero of Will Eno’s ’Gnit‘—a so-so specimen of humanity whose problem-causing skills may well be his most pronounced ability.  Today he’ll disappoint his ailing mother, arriving painfully late at her bedside, full of excuses as usual.  Then he’ll get distracted, careening out of the house to disrupt the wedding of an ex-girlfriend, absconding with the bride as an angry mob chases him out of town and into the mountains.  So begins a lifetime of bad decisions, for Peter Gnit can’t stay put for long: he believes he’s on a mission to discover his Authentic Self.”

If that sounds a bit familiar, it’s because Will Eno’s “Gnit” is intended as a contemporary comic gloss on Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt.”  And, in fact, many of the Ibsen-based jokes work. I especially liked turning the trolls into a family of real-estate brokers, for example.  Unfortunately, many of those gags assume a familiarity with the plot of Ibsen’s play that most theatergoers aren’t likely to posses, at least here in the USA, so some of them fall flat.

That’s not the biggest problem with “Gnit,” though.  The real issue is the rapidity with which the title character’s self-centered cluelessness stops being funny and starts becoming annoying.  After two and one-half hours (including intermission), I found myself just wishing Peter Gnit would shut the hell up.  When the play takes a serious turn in the final scene, I no longer cared about Gnit enough to care that he had finally found something that looked a little like insight.

There’s enough comic material in “Gnit” for a good one-act, but at its present length the jokes revolving around Gnit’s selfishness start to get a bit stale.  Worse yet, Gnit behaves with such callousness in a scene towards the end with a disabled beggar that he becomes actively repulsive.

Script issues aside, though, “Gnit” benefits from a top-drawer cast.  Dan Waller’s Peter has the sort of wistful confusion I associate with the character of Joel in “Mystery Science Theatre 3000,” Linda Kimbrough is acerbically self-aware as Mother, and Hannah Bos is sweetly self-sacrificing as Solvay.  Kris Kling and Kate Eastwood Norris display quick-change artist stills as a variety of Strangers and Danny Wolohan has a virtuoso turn as Town, playing multiple characters at once with nothing more than shifts in vocal tone and emphasis.  It’s a great example of theatrical illusion in action.

Les Waters’s direction moves everything along nicely and makes the most of the many gags.  Technically the show is fairly solid, although there were apparently some lighting and—judging from the offstage banging—set repair issues the night we saw it.

“Gnit,” in short, might need to go back to the workshop.  As it is, this is a very long evening at the theatre in which tedium ultimately overcomes the comedy.

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