Hot Summer, Hotter Fall: A Sizzling Season for Music, Dance in 2014-15



Momix will perform at this year’s Summer Festival

By Susan Isaacs Nisbett
Ann Arbor, Mich. May 14, 2014

My colleague Roger LeLievre says it’s a hot summer ahead on the folk and pop scene. But when the temps start cooling down in September, and all the classical musicians and dancers return from idyllic months at festivals in the mountains and workshops by the shore, things start heating up all over again in Ann Arbor.

Here are a few things I’m looking forward to once fall rolls back around.

Some of you know that when I’m not typing away madly writing this blog, I’m practicing madly at the piano – it’s my favorite keyboard, but don’t tell my computer or it’ll have a hissy fit and start malfunctioning (again). So I couldn’t help but notice what a piano-centric season 2014-15 seems to be, for both the University Musical Society and for the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra.

Emerson String Quartet 4 by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Emerson String Quartet (Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco)

Yes, I’m disappointed (once again) that no piano trio made it onto the UMS chamber music calendar. There’s the consolation that it’s a fabulous chamber music season – starting with the Emerson String Quartet (Sept. 27), with its new cellist, Paul Watkins, and a Lowell Lieberman UMS-co-commission/world premiere – but you’ll have to seek other venues, like Kerrytown Concert House and the U-M School of Music, for a fix of the gorgeous literature for piano and strings.

watts smiling credit steve j. sherman

Andre Watts

On the other hand, well, the stars (and the programming gods at UMS and the A2SO) have aligned to provide piano fans with two cracks at the Beethoven Emperor Concerto (Andre Watts/A2SO, Sept. 13, at Hill Auditorium; Sunwook Kim/Seoul Philharmonic under Myung-Whun Chung, UMS, April 23); and two tempting Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1 performances (Ann Arbor favorite Anton Nel/A2SO, Nov. 15; Russian frequent visitor Denis Matsuev/Mariinsky Orchestra, Jan. 25, UMS).  (The Mariinsky, conducted by its wild and wonderful maestro Valery Gergiev, stays in town two nights. The Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 is on offer the first evening, with 24-year-old pianist Behzod Abduraimov, grand prize winner of the 2009 London International Piano Competition, at the keyboard.)

anton nel thru piano from website cropped

Anton Nel

My piano pantheon  — and probably yours, too – includes Richard Goode, who arrives April 26 for a solo recital of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy and Schumann.  It is repertoire he knows and plays deeply, and you can expect that he will have much that is affecting to say.  And March 25 brings a UMS concert by another of my favorites pianists (and writers about music), Jeremy Denk, a recent MacArthur Fellowship winner. He’s in good company for a program of Bach and Stravinsky: the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. And if you’ve heard Denk’s Goldberg Variations, you’ll want to add the Bach keyboard concertos on the program to your musical memory bank, too.  I’ve not heard pianist Helene Grimaud live yet, so I’m looking forward to her UMS appearance Feb. 19, playing the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, under Yannick Nezet-Seguin. That’s a triple-threat lineup!

But it’s not all ivories and ebonies in 2014-15. Among the concerts I’m eager to hear are two by the San Francisco Symphony, returning to Hill Auditorium under UMS auspices. Nov. 13, it’s Mahler 7 (with Mahler hero and impossibly boyish 70- year-old Michael Tilson Thomas at the helm, ); the next night brings a welcome return by violinist Gil Shaham, in the second Prokofiev violin concerto.

Choral music and opera fans have reason to rejoice greatly, too, and not just for the annual Choral Union “Messiah,” Dec. 6-7. The Choral Union also has a February 14 valentine for listeners, Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah.”  Apollo’s Fire brings Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 to town on Nov. 6; and it’s early Christmas with a Dec. 9 Rossini “William Tell” – the whole opera, thanks, not just the part you know, presented in concert by the Teatro Regio Turino, with the vocally stunning American soprano Angela Meade as Matilde. UMS can sell you the seats for all of these.

And pop into a seat for a UMS dance series that is buoyantly fabulous. It’s broad in scope and happy to jete from modern dance luminaries like Trisha Brown  (don’t miss the chance, Feb. 21-22, to see her hallmark “Set and Reset,” a collaboration with Laurie Anderson and Robert Rauschenberg, and her solo collaboration with visual artist Robert Rauschenberg, “If you couldn’t see me”) to up-to-the-moment dance makers like Kyle Abraham, a 2013 MacArthur winner (March 14-15).

And for those who missed it in New York or elsewhere (including me), make sure to put Canadian Compagnie Marie Chouinard (Jan. 23) on your dance card, for her “Gynmopedies,” in which the dancers not only dance but also perform Satie’s piano score (yes, more piano!). Two more shows – by Belgium’s boundary-breaking Charleroi Dances (Oct.10-12) and by Ann Arbor favorite the Lyon Opera Ballet (“Cinderella,” April 24-26) — complete the series.

Before then, if you’re dance hungry, catch that shape-making marvel, Momix, at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival June 21 and 22, when the company takes over the Power Center Stage for “Botanica.” Plants have never had it so good.No one wishes summer away, especially after the winter we’ve had. But at least we know it’s just a hop, skip and jump till we’re getting ready for more good listening and great watching come September.

Useful addresses:

Ann Arbor Summer Festival:

Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra:

Kerrytown Concert House:

University Musical Society:

University of Michigan School of Music;

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Chamber Music from the A2SO: A Sweet Way to Spend an Afternoon

A2_MG_5822 Aaron Berofsky, Barbara Sturgis-Everett, Arie Lipsky and Kathryn Votapek play Eine Kleine NachtmusikBy Susan Isaacs Nisbett
Ann Arbor, Mich. (May 4, 2014)

I’d probably like any event where you get dessert before the meal.

And that’s just what the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra Chamber Recital Series offers: dessert first, then an hour-long concert, starting at 1:30 p.m..  You’re done by 2:30 p.m., just in time to think about dinner.

For its chamber recital season finale, this Friday, May 9, at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Ann Arbor (the series’ regular home), the A2SO really has some sweet treats in store: two terrific quartets, by Haydn and Dvorak, played by the orchestra’s crème de la crème.

Who might that be? Let’s take it from the top. A2SO Music Director Arie Lipsky is also an accomplished cellist and a dedicated chamber music player who spends summers at New York’s Chautauqua Institute directing the chamber music program  and playing with the New Arts Quartet there. He’s Friday’s cellist, with an all-star lineup from the orchestra making up the remaining quartet players. Concertmaster Aaron Berofsky and A2SO principal second violin Barbara Sturgis-Everett occupy the violin chairs. Berofsky’s wife, Kathryn Votapek, the orchestra’s associate concertmaster, trades her fiddle for the viola for the occasion.

On the bill are Haydn’s Op. 77, No. 1, “The Lobkowitz,” a brilliant quartet from Haydn’s last set, written around the same time (and for the same patron) as Beethoven’s first set of quartets; and Dvorak’s Quartet in E flat major, Op. 51 ” Slawisches,” from 1879.

It’s a winning  combination, not just for audiences but for the players, starting with Lipsky.“I always enjoy playing chamber music with members of the A2SO,” he says. “I think it strengthens the special bond that I have with our most important assets — our wonderful musicians. This particular program has a special meaning for me as this Haydn was the first quartet that I ever played — a perfect introduction to chamber music for a 12-year-old boy. The Dvorak quartet is an example of how the Slavic composer balanced his Czech heritage and spirit with the European/German romantic tradition.”

And did we mention the price is right? You can’t even do a movie and popcorn for the $10 it’ll cost to nosh and listen on Friday.

The Jewish Community Center is located at 2935 Birch Hollow Drive in Ann Arbor. Get your ticket by phone,(734) 994-4801, online at or at the door. Dessert reception at 1 p.m., with the concert starting at 1:30 p.m.

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Exuberant “Rent” at Pioneer High another in a series of buzzworthy musicals, but was it the last?


Angel (Robbie Stephens) and Tom (Caleb Horvath) in “Rent.” Photo / Myra Klarman

By Roger LeLievre
Ann Arbor, Mich. (May 3, 2014)

Pioneer High School’s Theatre Guild, known the past several years for staging talk-of-the-town productions of popular musicals, just finished a run of the groundbreaking-for-its-time “Rent.”

The show was a worthy successor to a string of earlier, highly-ambitious Pioneer efforts such as “Les Miserables,” “Miss Saigon” and “Shrek: The Musical.” It’s often hard to remember these are teens, not seasoned professionals. Since the theater program could be scaled back next year due to Ann Arbor Public School budget constraints, let’s hope it’s not the last.


Roger, played by Nathan Stout. Photo / Myra Klarman

Set in the East Village of New York City and based loosely on Puccini’s La Boheme, “Rent” is about falling in love, finding your voice and living for today. Winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the show follows a year in the life of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive and create in New York’s Lower East Side, under the shadow of the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1990s.

The physical and emotional complications of the disease pervade the lives of Roger (Nathan Stout), Mimi (Olivia Roumel), Tom (Caleb Horvath) and Angel (Robbie Stephens). Maureen (Rose Meehan) deals with her chronic infidelity through performance art, while her partner, Joanne (Adriana Ellis), wonders if their relationship is worth the trouble. Meanwhile, Benny (Michael Shapiro) has sold out his bohemian ideals in exchange for big bucks and is on the outs with his former friends. Mark (Remington Reackhof), an aspiring filmmaker, feels like an outsider to life in general.

“Seasons of Love,” the show’s signature song, was moving and beautifully sung (way to go, soloist Abigail Hirshbein!). Stephens’s portrayal of drag queen Angel was full of heart. Stout, Roumel, Reackhof and the others were superb in their roles. I only wish I could have heard them better, which leads to my only real problem with the show – many of the vocals (at least from where I was sitting) were drowned out by the orchestra. Rather than turn down the music, I would have turned up the singers. Schreiber Auditorium is a huge place and needs a big sound.

Some of the singing was all over the place, and the ensemble was sometimes a little ragged, but the energy and pure joy of performing that these young people brought to the show made up for any of shortfalls. The thunderous standing ovation proved that true.

Speaking of size, the stage is huge, and the large cast did a great job of owning every inch of it, as well as inhabiting their characters completely. Near age-appropriateness always helps, but the youthful confidence every one of them brought to their roles really made the difference in selling the show.

Costumes, too, were well done, as well as the set, the lighting, choreography and music. All were professional in quality. Ryan Vasquez, a University of Michigan senior Musical Theatre major, directed, assisted by Schuyler Robinson, a U-M student and Pioneer Theater Guild alum. Robert Ariza, a U-M senior and Musical Theatre major, led the orchestra.

The program notes talked about the director’s struggle to make the show more relevant to young people growing up nearly 20 years after the show made its debut, and it came to the conclusion that “Rent” is about neither AIDS nor drugs. It’s about relationships, community and love. Vasquez urged viewers to move beyond the work’s “dated shell” and reflect on the emotion behind the piece. To do that, the production needs to succeed. It needs to have heart.

It did, and they nailed it.

If productions like “Rent” at Pioneer have to end, at least they will have gone out on a high note. The real shame would be that they might have to end at all.

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R.I.P. Ann Arbor native / soul singer Deon Jackson

Deon Jackson

Deon Jackson

Roger LeLievre
Ann Arbor, Mich. (Apr. 23, 2014)

Deon Jackson, a soul and R&B singer from the 1960s, died April 19. He was born in Ann Arbor Jan. 26, 1946.

Jackson, who was 68 at the time of his death, studied clarinet and drums as a child, and while attending Ann Arbor High School formed his own vocal group, concurrently performing in area talent shows as a solo act, and composing his own original material.

Before he graduated, Jackson was signed by producer Ollie McLaughlin and had a couple of regional hits around Detroit with “You Said You Love Me” and “Come Back Home,” but it took two years of touring throughout Michigan before Jackson was able to break through nationally.

The song was “Love Makes the World Go Round,” which… to read the rest, go to MLIVE!

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Hot town: Ann Arbor’s entertainment scene heats up along with the weather

Lily Tomlin

Lily Tomlin opens the Summer Festival June 14

By Roger LeLievre
Ann Arbor, Mich. (Apr. 22, 2014)

In some locales it might be natural to think that with the arrival of spring and summer comes a slowing of the arts scene. Not so Ann Arbor.

There’s plenty coming up that’s exciting at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival (June 13-July 6), Sonic Lunch (Thursdays at noon downtown, starting June 5), at the Michigan Theater and at The Ark, just to name a few.

Fans of older rock and folk music should take note of a couple of acts coming up in May. Peter Wolf, the longtime lead singer of rock’s J. Geils Band, heads to town for a two-night stand at the Ark, May 4 and 5.  He promises old and new material.

Peter Wolf

Peter Wolf plays The Ark May 4 and 5

On May 8, the Ark hosts a Pete Seeger birthday tribute and memorial concert featuring an array of local musicians. The show, a benefit for The Ark, includes singer-songwriter Chris Buhalis, songwriting road warriors Annie & Rod Capps, Lansing song leader Sally Potter, youthful roots icon Billy King, the even more youthful Magdalen Fossum, and the trio of Laz, San & Emily Slomovits (aka Gemily).

The First United Methodist Church Greenwood’s concert series continues with another 1960s hitmaker, Melanie (“Lay Down: Candles in the Rain,” “Brand New Key”), on May 9.

Back at The Ark, folk icon Arlo Guthrie checks in for two nights May 14-15, at which you can be certain he will perform his epic “Alice’s Restaurant” and, if you’re lucky, “City of New Orleans.”

Over at the Michigan Theater, they’ve got blues great B.B. King on June 1, indie rock favorite Elvis Costello June 13, laid-back folk-rocker Jackson Browne July 10, a reunion show by progressive bluegrass band Nickel Creek (Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins) July 12 and an appearance from country favorite Lyle Lovett on August 9.


Melanie performs at The Green Wood Coffee House

The Ann Arbor Summer Festival has a particularly exciting lineup this year. Credit the Festival’s new director, Amy Nesbitt, and recently-departed Director Robb Woulfe for giving us plenty to anticipate in the warmer-weather months.

Lyle Lovett

The Michigan Theater hosts Lyle Lovett

Comedian and actress Lily Tomlin kicks off the Summer Festival with laughter June 14 in Hill Auditorium. The show will mix classic comedy (remember the sassy telephone operator Ernestine?), new stand-up material, historic video and an audience Q&A. The Detroit native has been a recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, as well as numerous Tony, Emmy and Grammy Awards.

The next night, the AASF presents Cake (the band not the dessert) with Wanda Jackson, also at Hill. Cake’s fusion of rock, funk, country, new wave pop, jazz, and mariachi has seen them evolve from a standout on the ’90s geek-rock scene into a strong, smart and independent American band. Opening the show is Queen of Rockabilly and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Wanda Jackson, whose two latest releases were produced by Jack White and Justin Townes Earle. This is a rare chance to see two American music icons in Ann Arbor – miss it and you may have some regrets later on!

Arlo Guthrie

Arlo Guthrie stops by The Ark May 14-15

Other amazing AASF shows include MOMIX (June 21), Trombone Shorty (June 24), NPR’s “Ask Me Another” (June 26), Robert Cray and Mavis Staples (June 28), Andrew Bird (July 2) and the Capitol Steps (July 4). And that doesn’t include the to-be-announced lineup for the outdoor component Top of the Park.

Speaking of TBA, the full Sonic Lunch schedule had yet to be revealed when this article was posted, other than Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers on June 19 and The Wild Feathers on June 26. So check the link below for details.

All in all, it’s enough to make a fella want to forgo his summer vacation. Almost…

On the Web

Ann Arbor Summer Festival:

The Ark:

Greenwood Coffee House:

Michigan Theater:

Sonic Lunch:

University Musical Society:

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Not All Ballet Birds are Swans: “Firebird” comes to Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre

By Susan Isaacs Nisbett
Ann Arbor, Mich. (Apr. 19, 2014)

“The Firebird” was a breakthrough piece for composer Igor Stravinsky, who composed it for the 1910 Paris season of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Maybe it will be a local breakthrough, too, for another Russian-born artist: dancer-teacher Nikolai Morschakov, who, having relocated to Michigan, recently opened a studio, the Russian Ballet Academy of Michigan, in Ypsilanti’s Riverside Arts Center. Saturday evening at Ann Arbor’s Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, he offers the ballet, with a cast of student dancers, as a sort of calling card.

“Somehow it happened I was never introduced to this ballet until I recently saw it,” said Morschakov, a former principal with the famed Grigorovich Ballet who trained at the Russian State Choreographic Institute in Saratov (where his teacher was a former Vaganova Ballet Academy classmate of Mikhail Baryshnikov). “I decided it would be the right choice for me,” he continued, “a Russian fairytale.  I found it very interesting, and I wanted to make an announcement in the community, I’m Russian, representing a strong Russian profession, and I’m willing to contribute all my time to make it happen.”

The hero of “Firebird,” Prince Ivan, gets a wish granted – having captured the magical firebird, a creature in the enchanted kingdom of the Immortal Koschei, where Ivan has landed, he can solicit her help simply by calling on her; he has her magic feather, after all. And call on her is what he does so he can marry one of the princesses Koschei has imprisoned.

Morschakov, too, has had a wish granted – to contribute all his time to the ballet. Though he’s retained Michel Fokine’s original choreography for Ivan and the Firebird, he has largely re-choreographed the ballet, basing it on the traditional choreography; made the stage props; gathered the costumes (including one, from Russia, that replicates the prince’s original costume); and, of course, taught the dancers, all serious students and devoted supers, their roles and supervised rehearsals. He’s had help, from local professionals, with lighting and design, for example; and he’s gotten a boost from students’ parents: some of the princesses are the moms of some of the dancers, he said.  The ballet will be performed to taped music.

Kirov 14 1

Nikolai Morschakov

He’s worked in cooperation with Ginny Durow at Ginny’s Danceworks, a local dance school in Brighton; several of the principals have trained at her school as well as worked with Morschakov. The cast includes three in that category — Isabella Vincent as Firebird; Reese Durow as Prince Ivan; and Madeline Kreps as the Princess – and Morschakov’s student, Issac Anderson, as Koschei.

Morschakov came to Michigan after dancing and guest teaching in other U.S. locales. Before turning freelance a few years back, he was a principal dancer with Sarasota Ballet and then with Dance Alive National Ballet. He was also a laureate of the Phillip Morris International Ballet Competition in 1999 and 2001.

“I was working here and there,” he said, “there was no particular school I was attached to. Before, I was living in Florida, which was not for me. I always wanted to live in a climate where I could have all four seasons. This winter has been kind of tough, but at the same time it really wasn’t hurting me. “

In addition to teaching at his Ypsilanti studio, he has also been teaching at Marygrove College.

“I like it there a lot,” he said.

And what does he like about “Firebird”?

Of course, there is the music. “It is touching me so deep,” he said.

And then there is the Firebird as an “analog to the phoenix bird, the resurrection idea,” he said.

“But what I like about the Firebird, first of all, is the fairytale,” he continued. “All Russians grew up with fairytales. What I like personally, maybe I am just living delusionally, but I really like the fact that at the end of each fairytale, good energy and good people are always winning over the evil. That’s kind of my life’s philosophy.”


Dancers in rehearsal

“The Firebird,” Saturday, April 26, 7 p.m., Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on the University of Michigan Main Campus. Tickets, $10-$25, are available online at the Michigan Union Ticket Office,, (734) 763-TKTS. For more information on the production, call (734) 834-6366, or email For more on Morschakov’s school, visit

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U-M Musical Theater offers a polished, emotional “Les Miserables”

photo(1)(1)By ROGER LeLIEVRE
Ann Arbor, Mich (Apr. 18, 2014)

I’ve seen “Les Miserables” so often I’ve lost count.

Besides professional productions in Detroit and Chicago, the long-running Broadway musical hit inspired by Victor Hugo’s novel has been performed in the area several times lately, since the show’s rights are now available to regional theaters. This week it’s the University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre’s turn.

Opening night was Thursday at Power Center (it continues through Sunday). The U-M production made me completely dismiss every other performance I have ever watched. It was so good as to defy criticism. Almost.

Granted, the U-M has a deserved reputation for theater excellence. But on occasion (“Chicago” comes to mind), their productions have been so polished the humanity was stripped clean. Not so this “Les Miz.” Polished, for sure, but cast members owned their roles in such as way as to bring every facet of their characters to life. Although familiar, it sounded fresh. And there were a couple of glitches that just served to remind me that this was live theater after all.

All the major characters were superb, and I found myself caught up anew in story’s sweep, but there were some high points worth singling out.

Erika Henningsen wrung every possible bit of emotion from Fantine’s heartbreaking  “I Dreamed A Dream.” Kalia Medeiros amd Mackenzie Orr were perfect in their portrayals of the scheming Thenardiers, whose appearances provide some oft-needed comic relief. I couldn’t imagine a better Marius than that offered by Sean Seymour, and his ability to hit the high notes on “Bring Him Home” was thrilling. The same went for Conor Ryan as Jean Valjean and Bobby Conte Thornton as the single-minded Inspector Javert.Whitney Brandt was a standout as the doomed Eponine.

And there were some glitches. A critical gunshot was missing the requisite sound effect. The orchestra occasionally went astray. Sound issues at times made ensemble of revolutionaries seem almost unmiked. But these were most definitely minor quibbles typical of any show on opening night. Overall, this “Les Miz” was an epic performance of an epic show.

Now let’s get these kids on to Broadway, where they clearly belong.

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Mix-n-match from Folk Festival bands leads to memorable night at The Ark


PigPen Theatre Co.

By Roger LeLievre
Ann Arbor, Mich. (Apr. 12, 2014)

The headline act at The Ark Friday night was a favorite from this year’s Ann Arbor Folk Festival, The Pigpen Theatre Co. The opening act was The Spring Standards, a band from an earlier Folk Festival.

Truth be told, either of them could have gotten top billing, and really it didn’t matter anyway. The two young alt-folk ensembles mixed and matched members at will, in the process absolutely delighting a sold out, standing-ovation kind of crowd.

Based on the name, it was hard to predict what to expect from The Pigpen Theatre Co., seven New York-based guys who are both a band and a theater group (music from a couple of their shows, including “Bremen” and “Just Like the Sea,” was included in Friday’s set). Energetic, literate, a little bit Celtic but otherwise had to pigeonhole, Pigpen used banjos, guitar, accordion and especially great harmonies on older songs and also a few fresh tunes.

More than once I was reminded of The Avett Brothers, or even Great Big Sea. At one point, Pigpen abandoned the stage and mics, standing mid-house for an acoustic tune that sounded absolutely lovely due to the small size of the room.

A bit of background: Pigpen’s Arya Shahi, Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, Daniel Weschler, Matthew Nuernberger and Ryan Melia met as students at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in 2008. They decided to form a group that would look for different ways to tell stories. They started in theater, but added music to their productions. Soon, those songs became more than just a part of their act.

Although each said so several times, it was clear from their actions that the members of the two bands genuinely liked and admired the others. And since it was the last show of Pigpen’s first U.S. tour, the energy was probably amped up even more than usual. There was an endearing sense of goofiness permeating both sets.

The Spring Standards, all multi-instrumentalists and vocalists, played a crisp, energetic set of originals, with vocalist/keyboardist/percussionist Heather Robb a whirling dervish as she cycled from instrument to instrument.

The evening ended with members of both bands on stage delivering The Band’s classic “The Weight,” with many people in the house singing along and stamping their feet. It was a great way to end a musically-memorable night at The Ark.

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Some opening night missteps at ‘Gondoliers,’ but all in all another solid performance from UMGASS crew

By Roger LeLievregodos
Ann Arbor, Mich. (Apr. 12, 2014)

You could almost hear the collective groan when, at the opening of “The Gondoliers” Thursday night, an announcement proclaimed that due to unforeseen circumstances the role of one of the title boatmen would be played by the show’s artistic director.

Not to worry. University of Michigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society vet Tom Ciluffo was more than up to the task. The comic opera runs through Sunday and also next Thursday-Sunday at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre.

The story of “Gondoliers” is based on a familiar Gilbert and Sullivan topsy-turvy plot twist. No one – least of all their wives – really knows whether Marco (Ciluffo) or Giuseppe (Jesus Vincente Murillo) is the true ruler of the island kingdom of Barataria. Only the late arrival of the true king’s nursemaid unearths the truth. Meanwhile, there’s a betrothed-at-birth would-be queen to consider, not to mention her beloved, who is but a lowly servant. Or is he?

It’s a tangled love hexagon to be sure, but thankfully there’s a typical Gilbert & Sullivan happy ending once the identities are sorted.

Maybe it was opening night, but Thursday’s performance took a while to find its footing. Maybe that was because the first 20 minutes or so of Act I are sung through with no dialog. The chorus seemed sluggish, lines were botched, light cues were sloppy and the curtain started coming down from the top instead of up from the bottom. But as the first act got going, and especially with the arrival of the seasoned pro Phillip Rhodes (Don Alhambra de Bolero), the pace smoothed out considerably.

Ciluffo and Murillo had a real chemistry that helped sell the idea they were gondolier brothers. It was hard to believe Ciluffo was a stand-in he was so proficient, and both have beautiful tenor and baritone voices! Rhodes made for an authoritative grand inquisitor and appeared to relish his role. It didn’t hurt that all three have some serious musical credentials from which to draw. The same can be said for Jeremy Williams, who played his Duke of Plaza-Toro fluently and with flourish.

Marina Renee Hogue (Gianetta) and Amanda O’Toole (Tessa) brought plenty of personality as well as terrific voices to their roles as brides to the young gondoliers, as did Madeline Thibault (Casilda), the queen in waiting. All have professional training and anyone who thinks UMGASS is a group of amateur thespians should think again.

The set was colorful without being gaudy and the costumes were the same. I especially liked the mask of many faces one gentleman was sporting. The choreography was well executed for the all-too-short “Dance A Cachucha,” and the orchestra (Rodrigo Ruiz, music director) was darned near perfect, as is usually the case with UMGASS shows.

The work, first performed in 1889, came at a time when Gilbert and Sullivan were at artistic odds, with Sullivan aspiring to write a grand opera and Gilbert wanting to make operettas that sold. They came to a compromise, which is probably why “Gondoliers’ has such an operatic score and is one of their most sung-though works.

Although not as well known as some of G&S’s other productions, “The Gondoliers” popular in its day, and it’s easy to see why. It’s fun, accessible, and the perfect excuse for a springtime visit to the imaginary kingdom of Barataria.

For tickets:

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Q & A with David Requiro

 David Requiro

David Requiro

Ann Arbor, Mich. (Apr. 10, 2014)
Naumburg Award-winning cellist David Requiro plays with the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra Saturday evening at the Michigan Theater. Since he’s an Ann Arbor “regular” – Saturday’s his second concert with the A2SO and he has U-M ties as well (a master’s degree and now, teaching!) – we asked him to talk a little about what makes Brahms – in particular the “Double Concerto” on Saturday’s bill – a fave for him. This just in:

What’s great about the Brahms “Double Concerto”?

What I love most about this work is the grand scale of the piece.  It truly feels like a Symphony-Concerto. The piece is filled with stunningly beautiful melodies and virtuosity.  It’s the complete package in my opinion.  I also love the notion of sharing the soloist role with another string player.

Favorite Moment in the piece?

I don’t have a favorite moment in particular.  I love the whole piece, start to finish.

The concerto is an old friend, but how about playing it with violinist Itamar Zorman, your partner in crime Saturday?

I have not played the Brahms with Itamar before.  We have played many chamber concerts together and he is an inspiring musician to work with.  I am very excited for our first Brahms collaboration.

And what’s up with your teaching at the University of Michigan School of Music?

I joined the cello faculty this past fall in order to take over Richard Aaron’s studio while he was on sabbatical.  The position was temporary and I am unfortunately no longer teaching in Ann Arbor (his sabbatical lasted one semester).  I still currently serve as Artist-in-Residence at the University of Puget Sound.  But I love any opportunity to be able to return to Ann Arbor!

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