Multi-media Tchaikovsky at Verizon

Beyond the Score: Pure Melodrama? An exploration of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.  4, with the Philadelphia Orchestra,  Jaap van Zweden, conductor, Fred Child, narrator, Leonard C. Haas, actorVerizon Hall, Kimmel Center, April 19, 2012. Review for WRTI, 90.1 fm.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Unless it’s worth 1,000 notes. Beyond the Score, a multi-media project conceived by the Chicago Symphony to immerse newcomers with more than just the music is a good concept. We’ve enjoyed this kind of program before at the Philadelphia Orchestra. Thursday night, the score to get into and beyond at Verizon was Tchaikovsky’s  Fourth.   Fred Child, of American Public Radio, narrated and Leonard Haas acted incidents concerning the  life and process of one of the Russian master’s greatest works. (They did a good job.) Love, depression, marriage, homosexuality, these were factors.  So was Tolstoy’s influence and the dominant theatrical value of the time, melodrama. Beyond the Score, uses a screen directly above the orchestra stage. As  Childs and Haas traded remarks — the screen above the Philadelphians projected a narrative, often art scenes or characters from fiction.  This one was a bit like watching a PBS biography of a composer to his own live accompaniment. Thirty minutes might have held my complete attention. But an hour of show, tell and quotation can girdle the imagination.  I looked forward to the music on it’s own, and conductor Jaap van Zweden didn’t disappoint. The fate symphony, written in such anguish, caught fire early and never lost momentum.  Many subtleties were also captured.  The melancholy second movement, opening with Dick Woodhams’ oboe was every bit as as lovely as the pastoral landscapes on screen. Another pleasure of this concert was the preponderance of happy young people filling the hall.  I spoke to high school band students from Mechanicsville, Va., and college students signed on for the orchestra’s Meet & Greet reception. . Some one in marketing: Nice work.

47 (mostly) Blown Instruments

Pennsylvania Symphonic Winds, Philip Evans, director; Themes from the Titanic,  University & Whist Club, April 14, 2012, Review for WRTI, 90.1 fm

A new band wants attention. Pennsylvania Symphonic Winds, founded  four years ago by Briton Philip Evans, plays original  classics, marches, hymns, transcriptions, from Sousa to Vaughan-Williams. Evans, from Portsmouth, and her Majesty’s Royal Marines, is bandmaster at Valley Forge Military Academy. His chamber group  47 players, professional and amateur, is culled from older, larger groups like the Upper Darby Sousa Band, and the Chester County Concert Band.

Saturday night, I heard the Pennsylvania Symphonic Winds in ‘Themes from the Titanic,’ a program of light classics and nautical works at the University and Whist Club in Wilmington. The program, if not entirely successful, showcased the young group’s energy and their leader’s brio.  Die Fledermaus, the first transcription,  waltzed along nicely. The hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee,” came off the best, tender and flowing and with a  segue into Dixieland to stave off sentiment. Evans has a nice way of shaping a hymn tune and he packs a wallop with closes.

The feat now is to pull absolute precision from these instrumental families.  Henry J. Wood’s Fantasisa On British Sea Songs  and John Ansell’s Plymouth Hoe are rousing numbers with sufficient challenges. Things can get messy and sometimes did. A certain bluster invaded the playing despite the prevalence of some sensitive first chairs, including flute, trumpet and percussion. Also a lone string bass, who acts as mellifluous anchor.

During the energetic second half, there was prevalence of  sharp accents and loud volumes. Missing were dynamic range and finesse. The perils in  “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” a fascinating navy hymn, were contrapuntal.

“At Kitty O’Shea’s, ” Johan de Meij’s arrangement of Irish jigs and reels, ended the tribute evening on a jaunty note. James Horner’s soundtrack for Titanic was also programmed. Understandable, perhaps, but gratuitous, though the transcription started well. Soon enough it became distracting to expect all those clarinets to pretend to be violins in music we knew wasn’t written for them. Quibbles aside, the Pennsylvania Symphonic Winds have promise.

PTC mounts Graham’s The Outgoing Tide

The Outgoing Tide by Bruce Graham, directed by James J. Christy, Philadelphia Theatre Company at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, March 28-April 22, 2012, Review of March 28 for WRTI, 90.1 fm.

During one of his lucid moments from Alzheimer’s, Gunner, the indefatigable hero of Bruce Gunner’s The Outgoing Tide, announces he is not going to spend the last days of his life in assisted living let alone in diapers. He has a plan. Gunner, a retired trucker and Philadelphia Teamster is a braggart, a bully and likeable for all the warts and wonders of Richard Poe’s brilliant portrayal.

Graham’s new play produced by The Philadelphia Theatre Company, takes a look at a grim subject with the playwright’s customary working class wit. A family tries to come to grips with Alzheimers’s and the mistakes parents have made with their only child. Son Jack, played by Anthony Lawton may be the The Outgoing Tide’s least realized character, though as the gifted Lawton plays him there are many layers. Jack is sensitive, gifted, the son who can’t measure up to the dominant Gunner and who’s been misinformed and mollycoddled by mother.

Jack at his father’s request visits Gunner, who doesn’t recognize him and tells awful tales about this son, the chef. He’s unaware Jack’s given up his restaurant- we are never told why.  Gunner had said “Don’t tell your mother”  when he invited Jack to come. Jack’s spent his life keeping secrets from one parent or the other.  His mother Peg, who wants to put Gunner in a home, is also requesting Gunner not be told things, and so the schemes and secrets will accrue

The Outgoing Tide is funny and it’s poignant. Credit Graham’s  writing, credit the acting, credit long-time Graham collaborator James Christy’s direction. Robin Mosely who plays Gunner’s wife is a pistol as the obstinate Peg, once meek, now sure, now vulnerable about the man who hugely irritates her (and whom she deeply loves.)

The exterior of desginer David Gordon’s Chesapeake cottage is almost too magazine perfect for these people but the interiors are just right. R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting is sublime….Tough truths on stage at the Suzanne Roberts through April 22 with The Outgoing Tide.