Thursday, September 18, 2008

Two Concerts This Week - and some Social Security

Two concerts are on my radar this week – 7:30 tonight with the Cypress Quartet who’ve flown in from San Francisco for their annual residency at Lebanon Valley College; and Concertante with the opening of their new season, Saturday night at 8:00 at the Rose Lehrman Center at Harrisburg Area Community College (I’ll be doing the pre-concert talk at 7:15).

I first met the Cypress Quartet at the very first of WITF’s Next Generation Festivals with Awadagin Pratt, way back when. They played the Brahms F Minor Piano Quintet (of course) with Awadagin but my strongest memory of that concert was their Beethoven A Minor Quartet, Op.132, especially the long slow movement known as the “Heiliger Dankgesang” (Holy Song of Thanksgiving). Since then, they’ve been back in the mid-state several times and I’ve never had much chance to see them – unless it was, like, a more recent Next Generation Festival. They’ve recently established an annual residency at Lebanon Valley College: I missed last year’s, of course, because I was working but hey, this time, I’m not working!! So I’m definitely looking forward to hearing - and seeing - them again.

They’ll play Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge,” the original finale of another Late Beethoven Quartet – which cellist Jennifer Kloetzel told me still sounds very contemporary – it’s even in the spot on a program where you might program a more recent contemporary work.

About Beethoven’s “Great Fugue” (as it officially translates), Alex Ross wrote on his blog, The Rest Is Noise, that
— — — —
Arnold Schoenberg heard it as a premonition of atonality, a call for freedom from convention. (“Your cradle was Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge,” Oskar Kokoschka once said to Schoenberg.) Benjamin Britten... was heard to complain that Beethoven’s late works were at times willfully bizarre, prophetic of avant-garde, obscurantist tendencies.
— — — —

With Haydn before and Debussy after, it will certainly sound more contemporary in that context – something to consider when you realize Beethoven wrote it 182 years ago, only 26 years after Haydn wrote his last complete quartet, the work that opens the program. It’s a whole different world!

The Cyrpess Quartet frequently goes out into the schools, playing for and working with students across the country. Watch their video of an excerpt from the Debussy Quartet here (no fire sirens, unlike their performance earlier this week in Elmira, NY, marred by passing firetrucks: they must’ve been really smokin’!).

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Concertante opens their new season with guest oboist Robert Ingliss, stepping in for the originally scheduled performer who lives in Israel but forgot to apply for a visa in time to make the concert. There are two works on the program for oboe and strings: the Oboe Quartet by Mozart (K. 370, what we’d call “Mature Mozart:” he was 25 when he wrote it), and the “Phantasy Quartet” by Benjamin Britten (Early Britten, his second published work, written when he was 19). The program concludes with the G Major String Quintet by Johannes Brahms (he was 57 and saying he was going to retire from composing). Again, the concert’s at Harrisburg Area Community College this Saturday at 8 and I’ll be doing a pre-concert talk back in the Black Box (I guess) at 7:15.

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This past Saturday night, we had tickets for Theatre Harrisburg’s opening of the season, a production of a play called “Social Security” which I’d seen before. Contrary to what might be your first impression, it is not a primer for the Middle-Aged on the verge of Medicare. It’s a delightful family comedy about two very different sisters contending with caring for their elderly mother. It begins with her as a cantankerous stereotype, demanding and uncaring, hiding half-eaten gumballs all over the house; it ends quite differently with a transformation that can be heart-warming as well as thought-provoking.

The play runs through this Sunday at the theater’s “uptown campus” (read “the old building”) at 6th & Hurlock Streets. This is the Krevsky Center which had been redesigned more for rehearsal use after the company took up residence at Harrisburg’s downtown Whitaker Center. Recently, they began holding smaller productions there that would otherwise be lost at the Sunoco Performance Theater. They still have their big musicals – like next month’s “Sound of Music” – at Whitaker, but there’s a more intimate feel to the plays and productions uptown.

For those unfamiliar with the current space, it’s not just walking back into the old theater. It’s a small stage and a small but malleable seating area. Usually, it’s very straight-forward, but one of the productions last season was done “in the round” (sort of) which they never would’ve been able to do at Whitaker. On the other hand, elaborate productions like the excellent Mikado that ended last season – which I’d blogged about shortly before the demise of my other blog – would be impossible uptown. While they’d done some very impressive musicals at the Old Theater in the past – Sweeney Todd comes immediately to mind – seeing The Sound of Music in the present bare-bones space would probably test ones “suspension of belief.”

Andrew Bergman (no relation, theatrically, to Ingmar) wrote “Social Security” in the mid-80s. There are two sisters who seem polar opposites: Barb, hip art dealer living in Manhattan and Trudy, a prim suburban housewife from Long Island (here played as if she were a librarian who’s lost her calling) and each appropriately married. Barb’s husband David is an equally hip art dealer and Trudy’s husband Martin is a methodically low-key accountant. Into Barb and David’s hectic New York life thumps Mom and her walker – the widow Sophie Greengrass, verging on dementia – when Trudy and Martin, who’ve been caring for her in their home for several years. , drop her off unexpectedly.

It is certainly inconvenient to have Mom living with them in their busy lives – the age-old dilemma of mature adults now caring for their aging parents – especially when they’re expecting for dinner one of the great artists of the day who is planning a major exhibit for his impending 100th birthday. Just as Barb is arguing with her mother about changing for dinner and succeeds in getting her out of her house-dress, though not quite the way she had planned, her husband arrives with the artist. Without giving too much away, the ensuing change for dinner is more than just her clothes. At first, it didn’t make sense, just as it doesn’t make sense to Barb & David.

Which is only the start of their “suspension of belief” as this chance meeting blossoms into the kind of romance you don’t normally find in Romantic Comedies. By the final scene, Mom has moved in with the artist and is planning on going to France with him. Perhaps Sophie just grew tired of acting like everybody expected her to act and decided to be herself, one last time, if nothing else just to prove that “old people” have feelings – even sex! – as well as even having hope.

The cast was well-suited to their roles: Lisa Werner and Edward Cohn handled the extroverted Barb and David with their various ups and downs with the kind of ease that makes you forget you’re watching people act (each making their debut with the company, it will be good seeing them in future roles), and while Grace Gross and Craig Stouffer as Trudy and Martin may have at timed seemed a little uncomfortable when things got emotional, it was easy to accept the more introverted characters would not have handled it better themselves in their natural habitat. Only Charles Smith was a little wooden as the artist Maurice Koenig but then he’s playing a 98-year-old man, so perhaps it could also fit the character rather than the spryer kind of artist I was expecting (perhaps I’ve been thinking too much of composer Elliott Carter at 99).

Nancy Krevsky only joined the cast as Sophie, the walker-thumping mother, the week before the show opened, a last-minute replacement, ready to roll (or walk, as the case may be) by Friday night’s opening. Her sudden transition was more in character than another production I had seen last year, still frail but ready for whatever adventure life still had in store for her.

The biggest surprise for me, though, was after walking into the lobby and talking to Sam Kuba, the theater’s executive director and an old friend from back in the days when we both worked at the Harrisburg Symphony, when this guy comes up to me and puts his face so close to mine, all I could see was the nose, a beard and these eyes. When he stood back, I recognized my cousin, Kevin Strawser, whom I’d seen back in the winter of 1993-94 on stage in this very theater, a production of Lion in Winter. We’ve run into each other only occasionally but not in the past two years or so. He had been directing the musicals at Lower Dauphin High School since 1997, I believe, but here he was directing tonight’s show, his first time at Theatre Harrisburg.

When Sam asked me when I found out Kevin was directing the show, I said “just now!” Granted, I’ve been keeping a low profile over the summer and I don’t see the newspaper – just checking the Patriot-News on-line where it’s mostly some top news stories of the moment and everything you need to know about Penn State football – but still, how did I miss this?

Afterward, it was good to talk about the production which I genuinely enjoyed. Like a pianist who plays some virtuoso showcase but manages to make it look easy, the play unfolded without the look of having been directed – as if it just happened. Of course, a director is like a conductor, shaping everything in the rehearsals and toning the nuances and interpretation “just so” but then stepping away from the podium, leaving the performers on their own, unable to intrude even in an emergency. A play doesn’t play itself, just like a violin doesn’t, either: you find out what makes the string vibrate and that brings it to life. A director works with his cast to bring the characters to life and with any luck, it works.

And this time, it did. And I don’t think that’s just family pride!

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