Friday, October 27, 2006

"Hotel Usher"

Saturday night will be the final performance of “Hotel Usher” at Chaos Studios Artspace. This new modernist adaptation of works by Edgar Allan Poe is an impressively creepy addition to the Halloween season. The polished and well-balanced production conjures the mood of a silent movie through its combination of video, almost continuous music and mostly mimed acting.

The cast consists of Tom McElroy — aka Atomic Elroy —Tristan McElroy, Lisa McElroy, Megan Hauser, and Joseph Forbeck. The first two are clerk and bellhop, respectively, at the Hotel Usher. The rest are patrons who are trying to check out — and it’s not giving anything away to mention that they will fail.

I learned two things at “Hotel Usher.” One is that, if you do it right, you can get an audience to sit attentively for 90 minutes of, mostly, poetry on TV. This is a remarkable achievement — especially considering that, for those who lack insatiable appetites for assonance and alliteration, it’s not particularly good poetry.

The other — and who would have guessed it? — is that it’s possible to have too much tedium. The monotony of mood and remorselessly slow pacing insure that you’ll glance more than once at the bank of clocks running backwards on the wall.

But the result succeeds, sometimes brilliantly. There are many clever touches, from the Ghirardelli mint and pre-moistened towelette that come in your program to the house of cards with which the cast all but hypnotized me during “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The work’s greatest strength is its counterpoint between live acting and pre-recorded dialogue, most powerfully exemplified in the follow-up to “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Here, a taped voice describes Medieval torture techniques while the cast cheerfully enjoys a tea party.

Tickets to the 8 p.m. performance are $10. Chaos Studios Artspace is located at 802 N. Weber St.; call 634-5429 for more information.

Eric Bransby's 90th

Eric Bransby was honored with reception for his 90th birthday on Friday evening at Cottonwood Artists’ School, where the esteemed muralist spoke amusingly and articulately about his studies with Thomas Hart Benton and Jean Charlot. An exhibit that will be up this weekend only features work by Bransby, along with portraits of him by local artists.

Bransby and his wife Mary Ann may be the last surviving students of Charlot's predecessor at the Fine Arts Center, Boardman Robinson. (With the deaths last year of Lou Tilley and Verna Jean Versa, they’re certainly the last in this area.) That makes them the final direct links to the period when Colorado Springs was a major national, and even international, artistic community — the period of the Broadmoor Art Academy and the first years of its successor, the Fine Arts Center. Both were headed by Robinson, a celebrated draftsman, muralist and cartoonist who turned out an impressive string of students.

Bransby also spoke to me about the new judicial building mural, a project with which he was involved. He called the design constraints “unreasonable” in terms of the space to be covered and the time allotted.

The exhibit is at Cottonwood Artists’ School, 25 Cimino Drive - just south of the Colorado Avenue bridge. Call 520-1899 or email for hours and information.

Edit, Oct. 30: Today Bransby asked me to remove his opinion of the new mural.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Weather Disruption

I’d planned to blog about “Hotel Usher” at Chao Studios Artspace and the new mural at the Terry R. Harris Judicial Complex, but on Thursday the weather was cruddy enough to get “Hotel Usher” cancelled and deter me from attending the opening reception for the mural. I’ll see the play tonight and write about it then, in time for people who might want to see Saturday’s final performance. Meanwhile, here’s a little info on the mural:

It’s huge - 70 feet wide by 30 feet high — and will be visible from outside the building. The artist is Boulder’s Ken Bernstein, a skilled trompe l'oeil painter and mosaic artist who has several works in Colorado.

You can’t tell from this tiny jpeg, but the children’s shirts are decorated with Colorado landmarks and historical figures ranging from William Jackson Palmer to Our Lady of Guadalupe church.

It didn’t cost taxpayers anything: The El Pomar Foundation foot — footed? feet? — the $72,500 bill.

The mural will be on public display starting today during regular judicial complex hours, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. The address is 270 S. Tejon Street, across the street from the Pioneers Museum.

You can see more of Bernstein’s work here.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Philharmonic Performs Shostakovich

Some composers invite you into their worlds. In his Symphony No. 10, Dmitri Shostakovich simply bludgeons you into his — and the audience at Saturday’s Colorado Springs Philharmonic concert loved it.

The program is a sort of coming of age for associate conductor Thomas Wilson. Conducting the vast and complicated score from memory, his interpretation combined crispness and clarity with unrelenting emotional intensity.

The result was a fabulous performance of one of the most gripping and weirdly satisfying of all 20th Century symphonies, a work that rises from impenetrable gloom to a sense of triumph so giddy that a man near me laughed out loud.

And it passes through many stages between, including an indescribably violent scherzo — possibly a musical portrait of Stalin, who had recently died. The many moods are held together by a four-note motif based on Shostakovich’s name.

In its fourth season, the philharmonic is playing better than ever. Among the high points were the finale’s swirling strings and woodwinds, the scherzo’s clipped, percussive brass, and a bevy of soloists, including clarinetist Ray Kireilis, flutist Paul Nagem and oboist Guy Dutra-Silveira.

Perhaps best of all was French Horn player Matthew Scheffelman, who played the third movement’s mysterious five-note theme a dozen times, each with a different expression. (The theme is another musical symbol, based on the name of Shostakovich’s student, Elmira Nazirova.)

The Shostakovich overshadowed Orion Weiss’ excellent interpretation of Grieg’s Piano Concerto.

The 24-year-old pianist played the virtuoso passages with confidence and a lively rhythmic sense, but was at his best in this colorful concerto’s quiet, introspective passages. Here he showed off a floating tone, a long, singing line, and a rhythmic elasticity that kept Wilson and the orchestra on their toes. And the Pikes Peak Center’s new Steinway will have to wait for someone else to make an ugly sound on it; Weiss never pounded.

Weiss isn’t yet completely seasoned on stage — he got unnervingly far ahead of the orchestra near the end of the second movement — but he’s an interesting musical personality, and has developed impressively since appearing here six years ago.

As an encore for the enthusiastic crowd, Weiss played Brahms’ famous A-flat Waltz.

The concert began with Debussy’s “Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune” — about the farthest thing possible from the traditional rousing curtain-raiser. It set the tone for the evening — not expressively, but in the smooth, clear sound the orchestra produced for Wilson.

Though this languorous performance hardly rose above a mezzo-forte, it never flagged in interest, weaving a sweetly magical spell — at times almost too sweet, but that’s early Debussy for you. Nagem played the famous opening theme with a liquid gracefulness.

The program was dedicated to the memory of percussionist Dean Volkman, who passed away last spring, eight days after playing with the philharmonic in Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

The program will be repeated today at 2:30 at the Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Ave. Call 520-7469 for tickets.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

New Steinway at the Pikes Peak Center

This weekend, Steinway number 574,858 will make its debut with Orion Weiss and the Colorado Springs Philharmonic.

Colorado Springs Philharmonic conductor Lawrence Leighton Smith premiered the Pikes Peak Center’s new concert grand piano for a small group on the center’s stage on Sept. 21st. Smith chose the piano out of five Steinway “D” models — the nine-foot concert grands — at the company’s New York City store. (Steinways are built across the East River, in Queens.)

This is a significant step forward for the facility: Years of neglect had left the old Steinway decayed beyond the point of cost-effective renovation, and the philharmonic had been hauling Smith’s own Steinway to the center for concerts.

As for the new piano: “It’s a little rough to play,” Smith said before a brief program consisting of Schumann’s “Arabesque” and Chopin’s G-flat Impromptu and A-flat Ballade; “It needs to be played in.” The tone is silvery and sweet, but not yet very brilliant — something that will change as the piano seasons. Just what sort of piano it will be is difficult to predict: Each Steinway is handmade, and two pianos with identical designs can have dramatically different characters for both player and listener. It will not be fully seasoned when Weiss plays it on Saturday and Sunday, so cut him some slack.

The $120,000 piano (which includes a $20,000 service contract) was a gift from the CSSO Foundation, a group that was formed to raise money for the old Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra.

And this has caused some tongues to wag. There was bad blood between the CSSO musicians and the CSSO Foundation back when the old symphony went bankrupt in 2003: The musicians’ union and the foundation bid against each other for ownership of the CSSO’s music library. (As a footnote, the musicians’ justification for the bidding war — that allowing public circulation of the library would ruin it — has not yet been borne out.) The episode was a dramatic public display of just how fragmented and adversarial the old CSSO had become.

So, did this money come, as has been rumored, from what remains of the CSSO’s endowment? Probably. But what remains of the endowment is still tied up in court, and there’s no great probability that it will ever go to the philharmonic anyway. In the meantime, this money was used as its original donors wished: To benefit symphonic music in Colorado Springs.

Traditionally, such things as music libraries and pianos were the property of the performing arts organizations that used them. But with orchestras — especially medium-sized orchestras — in financially precarious positions all over the country, it’s prudent to hand them over to more stable organizations. And it takes a little pressure off the philharmonic, which has an extraordinarily lean budget for a group of its size and quality.

"Jesus in Montana"

Thursday’s audience laughed hard at Barry Smith’s “Jesus in Montana” but there was a nervous edge to it.

Which is not surprising, since Smith’s hour-long solo performance at the Manitou Art Theater is about his real-life membership in a doomsday cult. As Smith excitedly presented his story — aided by a slickly produced power-point presentation — I wasn’t always certain whether I was laughing with him, laughing at him, or just laughing to keep some emotional distance between myself and Smith’s story.

Tall and wiry, Smith has the look of an ascetic saint born a millennium or two too late. His greatest strength as a performer is his sheer energy, which carries the audience away just as Smith was carried away when he accepted Leland Jensen, a retired chiropractor in Missoula, Montana, as Jesus.

Smith is also a skilled writer, deftly weaving together the events and cultural patterns that led him to Montana — from his strict Southern Baptist upbringing to the bizarre coincidence involving his childhood address.

Despite the bellylaughs, “Jesus in Montana” is fundamentally a serious piece. As Smith relates in a memorable but unprintable tale of a hard-hatted worker and a Snickers bar, many of us drift through life, never committing ourselves to anything with our whole being. Smith’s commitment may have been misguided, but he made it.

The piece brought me back to my own days as an Evangelical Christian, and the accompanying ecstasy of certainty. It’s a sobering fact of human nature that most of us prefer the comforting warmth of feeling right to the hard, self-denying work of being right, and once we’ve experienced that feeling, we’ll rationalize furiously to maintain it.

It’s admirable that Smith explores this phase of his life without either ridicule or rationalization. He’s still looking for patterns in the pieces of his life, but in “Jesus in Montana,” the pieces now fit in a uniquely personal way.

Smith will repeat his show today and Saturday. Call 685-4729 for more information.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Organist Gordon Stewart

I hope you didn't stop reading when you saw the word "organist."

Friday’s Go! will include a brief review of Gordon Stewart’s introductory recital at Grace & St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. (The short version is that Stewart is a remarkable artist.) A little more about Stewart:

The search for a new music director began after Frank Shelton resigned the post in the spring. (Shelton has since taken a job at Colorado College.) There were were 75 applications to the internationally advertised post, but Stewart was the search committee’s unanimous choice. The Scottish-born Stewart moved here in September from Huddersfield in Yorkshire, England.

In addition to his virtuosity at the church’s organ, Stewart has the task of rebuilding the Taylor Memorial choir. Judeth Shay Burns is a soprano in the choir, and though she’s congenitally enthusiastic, she’s also an excellent musician — so when her enthusiasm-meter goes off the scale the way it did when she talked about Stewart, it means he’s a really good choir director.

“His passion for the music is unbelievable,” she told me. “And he hears everything. You’d better show up at rehearsal ready to work.”

That jibes with the outgoing personality he displayed on Sunday. All indications are that Stewart is a fantastic addition to the music community. I'll profile him in a month or two, when things die down following the crush of season-openers.

Learn more about Stewart at his website:

A Confession

A confession: I was prepared to be disappointed by Joshua Bell.

Of course, a critic should always go to a performance with an open mind. But I couldn’t ignore two things.

First, celebrity performers rarely live up to their hype, simply because the magic of art can’t be conjured at will. When Itzhak Perlman was here, my reaction was, “he’s good, but he’s no Itzhak Perlman.” (Ten points to anyone who can identify the musician from whom I stole that construction.) Second, I’d heard Bell’s recent CD, “Voice of the Violin,” on which the combination of bland playing and soft-light-and-a-glass-of-wine repertoire turned me off. The line between reaching out to a wider audience and simple pandering is always fuzzy, but this CD was pushing it. (Of course, the CD has topped the Billboard classical chart for the past four weeks.)

So at the back of my mind was the thought that Bell might be dull and overhyped.

He was anything but. His musical personality was intensely individual — as individual as that of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who played the same Brahms concerto so brilliantly here a few years ago. He isn’t as powerfully communicative a performer as Salerno-Sonnenberg, at least not in a large hall like the Pikes Peak Center: She is, to put it in the most un-PC terms possible, a much more masculine player than Bell, with a bigger tone and more aggressive approach. Though Bell could deliver some fireworks, he was best in the introspective passages. I’d love to hear him in a more intimate recital setting.

Where Bell surpassed even the best soloists who’ve come to Colorado Springs was in communicating his vision of the piece to the orchestra. As individual as the playing was, this was not Bell AND orchestra but Bell WITH orchestra. The experience is impossible to describe — but it’s also impossible to forget.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Week in Review Debut

This week we introduce a week in review feature in Go!, which is something I’ve wanted for years. The immediate motivation is the change in our policy of reviewing the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. (See “CS Philharmonic Reviews - Online Only.”) The new feature will provide an opportunity for people who didn’t see the online review to get at least part of its content.

But it’s also going to be a place for capsule reviews of events the Gazette hasn’t reviewed in the past. Traditionally, we’ve only run reviews of one-time concerts when they were major touring shows, such as Cher’s semi-annual farewell. As the paper of record, it’s never made sense to me that the Gazette so rarely runs reviews after the fact; after all, we write about every Sky Sox game, even though it will never again occur — and the crowds at Sky Sox games are often smaller than those at concerts.

With the timely online reviews and the following week in review, the Gazette will now have significantly broader and more flexible arts coverage. For instance:

On Saturday, I’m going to review the Chamber Orchestra of the Springs. The orchestra has long deserved this, but it was tough to sell the metro section on another misplaced review with another tight Saturday night deadline for a concert only a few hundred people would see. Now we can get a full review online by midnight Saturday — in time to plug the Sunday afternoon performance — and a capsule the following Friday. The only issues now are Warren’s and my respective schedules.

And on Sunday, Gordon Stewart will make his debut as organist and director of music at Grace Church. This position traditionally has been the city’s most important church music position - for decades it was the region's best organ, and Grace Church is home of the Taylor Memorial Concert series. This is the sort of recital that we never would have reviewed previously; now it will have space in the Friday capsule, and perhaps on this blog.