Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Beyond NSMT: A new troup in Gloucester

I know I should be happy when an art venues survives or, in the case of North Shore Music Theatre, is wrestled from its dirt nap — even if it hasn’t put on a show I find even remotely interesting in ... well, ever? And maybe I am. Way down, deep inside. But, more than anything, the news that somebody was able to con the bank out of $3.6 million and is dumping it into a Dunham Road venue that seemingly met its maker last year after a prolonged, agonizing porcelain swirly dance (a failure as much of imagination as finances, always an issue in corporate arts and mass-produced culture) underlines the importance of living wills and do-not-resuscitate orders, as well as the need for good aim and velocity when working with wooden stakes. And what’s going to save the old Music Tent this time around, you ask? You know, the same overproduced, overpriced dog food that the pup just won’t go near. They’re calling them time-tested musicals, we call it (yawwwwn) the same old thing — brilliantly repackaged, I’m sure, just like the old theater itself.

We wish them well as we cluck our tongues, but we are way more intrigued by the theater news up the road a piece from the Garden City, in Gloucester, Fishtown (Does every community around here have a nickname?), where Cape Ann Theater Collaborative, the new kid in town, is about to launch its first season, one that is as intriguing as NSMT’s is flat and predictable — and, from the look of it, very little in the way of song and dance. Thank God. And probably none of the bells and whistles either. They open March 19 with “The Weir” by Irish playwright Conor McPherson. The play is set in a small pub in rural Ireland, where local men swap spooky stories in an attempt to impress a young woman who recently moved into a nearby “haunted” house. The tables are soon turned when she tells a tale of her own.

They’ll follow that up next month with, if you can believe it, the largely forgotten but ultimately riveting lyrical “Effects of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds,” an unflinching look at dysfunctional family life in a home destroyed by booze, probably best remembered for its 1972 big-screen adaptation with Joanne Woodward as the boozy, bleary Beatrice. How it translates across the decades, we’ll see. The company will also stage ”The Ocean of Technology,” a new piece by the improv group the Fish Schticks in the fall.

The company was founded in January by Michael McNamara, Susan Frey, Pauline Miceli and Pat Maloney Brown. The idea is to keep the focus local and the productions affordable — and, by building a season in the shadows of Gloucester Stage’s dark months, supporting year-round theater on the island.

What? Yeah, yeah. We love North Shore Music(al) Theater. It really is an institution. Blah, blah.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Cape Ann Theater Collaborative will stage “The Weir” by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, at 7:30 p.m. March 19-20 and 26-27, and at 2 p.m. March 21 and 28 at Gorton Theater, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester. The cast includes David McCaleb, Michael McNamara, Rory O’Connor, Michael O’Leary and Kierstin Searcy. Dublin native Pauline Miceli directs. Tickets are $15. Info: 978.879.3172.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Musical Mystery Tour: Mendelssohn's "Fantasy and Variations"

It’s not often that smaller pieces grab all the attention — especially when the centerpiece of the performance is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, traditionally an audience favorite. But that’s exactly what’s happening this month with Cape Ann Symphony. The program includes an historical curiosity, an unusual piece for two pianos and orchestra that was written, in part, by a major classical composer, a piece that vanished, pretty much without a trace, resurfacing 176 years later, after getting what amounts to major reconstructive surgery, reassembled after a major musical forensic workup — then getting a premiere half a world away (in Texas, of all places) and hitting the road for its East Coast coming out party with the Gloucester-based orchestra. Adding to the mystery of the rather breathlessly named “Fantasy and Variations for Two Pianos and Orchestra on the Gypsy March from Weber’s ‘Preziosa.’” is the fact that it was written with two endings, both of which will be played during the March 28 performance, without fanfare, without much in the way of comment, and letting the audience know which of the composers wrote which ending — or even, with any certainty, for that matter, which ending was actually used.

“Fantasy and Variations” was a one-of-a-kind collaboration between Felix Mendelssohn and Ignaz Mocheles, a composer “now largely forgotten, but someone with a pretty good reputation in his day and as big as Mendelssohn,” says Kiyoshi Tamagawa, pictured, left, the Southwestern University pianist who premiered the piece with the Austin Civic Orchestra a year ago. They were pals, together in London for a benefit concert in London in 1833, and decided they should do something together. The path of least resistance, especially when you’re talking about creative people with large egos and certain ideas of how things should be done, would be writing variations for piano and orchestra, allowing them to work together — and apart — at the same time.

They settled on “Gypsy March,” from Carl Maria von Weber’s “Preziosa,” incidental music for a play of the same name, essentially a retelling of “Novellas ejemplares,” a series of short post-Quixote stories by Cervantes. They composed four variations on the theme — Mendelssohn writing the first two, Mocheles the rest — in less than two weeks. Contemporary accounts say the performance, with Mendelssohn himself playing piano, was a rousing success. And that was the first and last time the piece was performed as such — until 2009, eight years after J. Michael Cooper, a musicologist and Mendelssohn scholar based at Southwestern, got his hands on the original — if frustratingly incomplete — documents.

The original piano parts were never published. Mendlessohn left the original score with Moscheles, who published an arrangement for two pianos without an orchestra the following year — thoroughly irritating Mendelssohn, because “ he scarcely recognized the music,” says musicologist John Michael Cooper, also of Southwestern University. The work has been performed and published in that version, often with Mendelssohn himself credited as the main author. The score — and with two separate versions of the finale — and various scraps of paper on which the two pianists had worked out their own parts, remained in Moscheles’s possession until his death, ultimately ending up in the papers of Russian piano virtuoso Anton Rubinstein, who donated it in the late 1800s to the Library of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. There it remained until 2003, when Cooper — author of a virtual library shelf of material on the composer, including “Mendelssohn, Goethe, and the Walpurgis Night: The Heathen Muse in Western Europe, 1750-1900,” “Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony,” “The Mendelssohns: Their Music in History,” and “Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: A Guide to Research” — discovered the papers. Cooper and Jonathan Bellman, a leading authority on the so-called Hungarian Gypsy style that colors the work’s central theme, reconstructed the piano parts. That is what Cape Ann Symphony will be playing. The piece shows “what the piano parts might have sounded like,” Tamagawa says during a recent interview from his home in an unusually cold and wet Texas. “Nobody knows for sure what they actually played.”

The sound of music
So what’s it like? It’s a short piece, running about 15 minutes. Tamagawa, who has lived in Texas since the 1980s, but is from Connecticut and still considers New England his home — “so it’s always nice to get back,” he says — compares the work to jazz singers covering a standard, as a vehicle to putting their stuff on display, a chance to show off their chops. It has a lot of flash — “a combination of virtuosity and bombast,” says Tamagawa. “It’s very entertaining and not meant to be especially serious.”

“It’s a fun piece,” says Yoichi Udagawa, conductor and music director of Cape Ann Symphony — and the Melrose and Quincy symphony orchestras and faculty member at Boston Conservatory, where he teaches conducting. “It’s very virtuosic, there are a lot of notes. It doesn’t pretend to be deep. It requires a lot of flash ... It’s fun. Which is not to say that fun can’t be serious. The overall mood is upbeat.”

Playing Mocheles to Tamagawa’s Mendelssohn will be Jun Tuguchi, a “phenomenal player,” says Udagawa, “and a remarkable performer who’s able to play in any style.” The New England Conservatory-trained pianist last played with Cape Ann Symphony five years ago, performing Ravel’s Concerto in G major.

They’ll play both endings at the Cape Ann performance — closing with one, backing up and playing the second. Which one will go first, the Mendelssohn or the Mocheles? And which ending does the man with the baton prefer? “I won’t tell,” says Udagawa. “Both are good endings. Actually, the differences are subtle,” says Tamagawa.

The “undiscovered” Mendelssohn, as it is being billed, will be sandwiched between Mozart’s Don Giovanni Overture and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. “It’s very exciting to play a new piece,” says Udagawa, but the conductor also likes to pair unknown and well-known pieces, like this as a way of “finding a new balance.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Pianists Kiyoshi Tamagawa and Jun Tuguchi join Cape Ann Symphony for the East Coast premiere of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Fantasy and Variations for Two Pianos” at 2 p.m. March 28 at Fuller Auditorium, Blackburn Circle, Route 128, Gloucester. Also on the program, will be Mozart’s Don Giovanni Overture and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Yoichi Udagawa conducts. Tickets are $30 for adults, $25 for seniors, $20 for college students, free for children under 18 years old. Information: 978-281-0543 or .