Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Met Live In HD puts new spin on Tales of Hoffmann

by Dwight Casimere

Photos:Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Metropolitan Opera’s LIVE IN HD 2009-2010 series continued with a scintillating production of Jacques Offenbach’s “Les Contes de Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann), seen on movie screens around the world, including a local screening at Cinemark Seven Bridges in Woodridge on Route 53 and Seven Bridges Drive. The production was directed by Tony Award winning Director Bartlett Sher (South Pacific), who also directed the Met’s new production of The Barber of Seville, which was seen LIVE IN HD during the 2006-07 season. Met Opera Music Director James Levine conducted the spirited score from the pit. Written during Paris’s Belle Époque of the late 19th Century, the opera, based on a play derived from the stories of the real German writer, poet, composer and painter E.T.A. Hoffmann. To understand the opera, you really have to know something about the real Hoffmann and about Offenbach. Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann(1776-1822), better known by his pen name E.T.A. Hoffmann was a sort of Renaissance man. Trained as a lawyer, he was also a music composer and critic, a draftsman and caricaturist ala Jules Feiffer. He became one of the leaders of the Romantic movement of the 19th Century and influenced authors such as Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens in his stark depictions of horror and fantasy. Hoffman’s writing often exposed the dark underbelly of human emotion behind the hypocritical façade of bourgeois life. He would have made a great Washington Correspondent! Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) rose from being a cello virtuoso and composer of avant-garde music to become a leading composer and impresario of operatic theatre. Offenbach was born the son of a Jewish cantor in Cologne. His father had changed the family name from Eberst to Offenbach before moving the family to Paris, where Jacob suddenly became Jacques when he began his music studies at Paris Conservatoire. It was this sense of alienation; of being the perennial ‘outsider’ that Director Bartlett Sher says he drew upon in creating this new production of ‘Hoffmann’ for the Met. “I wanted to draw on his Jewish-ness, his sense of somehow being an outsider and the kind of conflict and emotional restlessness that must create. I used that in developing the scenic images you see on stage,” he told Met backstage interviewer and diva Patricia Racette. “Much of the opera happens in his mind, so the challenge was to create a landscape on stage that would suggest the fluid state of his imagination and the conflict that surrounded him, both real and imagined.” In the opera, the poet Hoffmann is seen alternately writing and recounting stories of his many loves. In the opening act, he sings of his longings for a woman whose beauty exists only in his imagination. The role of Hoffman is sung quite eloquently by Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja. The raven-haired beauty, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko sizzles as the tragic Antonia. Mezzo soprano Kate Lindsey is the wondrous scene-stealer of it all with her sparkling vocalism and dramatic acumen as Hoffmann’s Muse, appearing in disguise as his friend Nicklausse. Her tailored look only serves to heighten her sensuality and physical beauty. Speaking of sensuality, the spectacular sets and costumes really take a stratospheric leap in the Third Act in the fantastic Viennese party scene. What live audiences experienced as partially nude dancers at Lincoln Center was toned down for the LIVE IN HD audience, with the dancers appearing in more subdued tops (there apparently had been a flurry of complaints over the appearance of topless dancers in the season-opening transmission of Tosca). There are sensational performances throughout this production of Hoffmann. Korean soprano Kathleen Kim literally sparkles as the mechanical doll Olympia, who is the early object of Hoffmann’s deluded affection. Her comic acrobatics and crystalline voice make this a highlight of the first act. Illinois native, baritone Alan Held, lends mischievous gravitas to his multi-faceted role as the Four Villains. The last chance to see Hoffmann live at the Met is Saturday, January 2nd. Tickets are scarce, but it’s worth a New Year’s Weekend trip to the Big Apple to try to snag a last-minute turn-in. The next LIVE IN HD production is Der Rosenkavalier, Saturday, January 9 at noon. Tickets are going fast for this one because of the double lead of Met super-divas Renee Fleming and Susan Graham. For more, visit

Monday, December 28, 2009

Jazz reaches high note at 32nd Kennedy Center Honors

by Dwight Casimere

Jazz legend Dave Brubeck celebrated his 89th birthday by receiving his ultimate birthday wish: being named as one of the honorees at the 32nd Kennedy Center Honors. “I never thought this day would happen,” he said at a star-studded dinner in the rotunda of the Kennedy Center following the three and a half hour tribute program, attended by President Barack Obama and “First Lady Michelle Obama. “I’m still having trouble believing its true!”

Brubeck, who changed the face of jazz fifty years ago with his landmark recording of the composition “Take Five”, written by his alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond. “My label, Columbia, was hesitant to release the album,” he said, “because it broke new ground. Nobody had ever heard a jazz tune in 5/4 time. Everything followed the traditional 4/4/ time. The record company just didn’t think people would accept it.”

Fortunately, for Brubeck and the jazz-listening world, they were wrong. The album, “Time Out,” became the best-selling jazz LP of all time.

Brubeck was among the most stellar collection of honorees assembled in the event’s history, opera great Grace Bumbry, who broke opera’s long-standing color line, actor Robert De Niro, who Meryl Streep credited with “practically creating his own school of acting that we all tried to emulate,” rocker Bruce Springsteen, who received both heartfelt tributes and songs from legends Aretha Franklin, John Mellencamp, Melissa Etheridge and Sting and comedian-actor-director Mel Brooks, who was lionized by protégés Matthew Broderick, Martin Short and Ed Norton.

Chicago Jazz Orchestra, in their 21st straight year, provided the musical footnote to the elegant dinner following the tribute in the rotunda of Kennedy Center, under the watchful eye of the giant bust of President John F.Kennedy, for whom the arts and entertainment center is named. Vocalist Frieda Lee provided Ella-like song stylings, with jazz greats Herbie Hancock and Terrance Blanchard among the revelers. CBS-TV broadcast a two-hour special of the event, December 29 in prime time.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Art Basel/Art Miami survive economic slump to make splashy showing

Art Basel/Art Miami survive economy to make splashy showing

by Dwight Casimere

The nation's single largest explosion of art took place in Miami for one incredible week in early December. The entire city of Miami became one big urban art gallery with the simultaneous staging of Art Miami and Art Basel as well as a raft of ancillary shows like
InkWorks, Aqua Art, Vernisage and something called ‘Camper
Art”, and you have the makings of the most all-consuming art expression ever seen. Spaces as diverse as convention centers, museums, hotels, restaurants, building lobbies, even entire beachfront parks were transformed into spaces wholly devoted to the display of paintings, sculptures, functional art and laser light displays. The genre was even stretched to include other types of ‘art’, including the design of fountains, furniture, and cars, even the human body.

Opening night of Art Miami saw the rooftop of the Miami Museum of Contemporary Art turned into a Salsa Paradise with traditional Cuban cuisine and progressive Latin jazz and exotic tropical drinks creating a heady atmosphere all bathed in the light of a full moon over downtown Miami.

Art Miami’s stellar 2009 run began on December 1st with a ribbon cutting and a 20th Anniversary Proclamation presentation by Miami City Commissioner Bruno Barreiro. A gala VIP reception, attended by 6,500 people, followed. At what Caldwell Snyder Gallery called “the best opening of any art fair,” museum curators rubbed elbows with artists including James Rosenquist and Frank Stella and with collectors from the United States, Canada, Europe, South America, and Asia—Steve Wynn, Marvin Ross Friedman, Marty Margulies, Jorge Perez, Pat and Larry Stewart, Mary and Frank Howard, Joyce Kan, Pearl Lam, Noel and Terry Neelands, John Ferin, Jeff Roth, Matthew Adell, and Naomi Campbell. Opening night proceeds and a percentage of sales from participating galleries benefited The Lotus House Women’s Shelter, netting nearly $9,000 for the program.

Across the causeway in South Beach, a more sedate, upscale opening for Art Basel was unfolding with thousands of well-heeled art investors, primarily from Europe and Latin America, calmly strolled through the aisles of the Miami
Beach Convention Center, carefully eyeing the works of modern artists old and new. I was told repeatedly that this year’s shows were smaller than in year’s previous, but the final tallies prove otherwise. While there was a slightly smaller display area utilized by Art Basel at the convention center, sales and attendance at all of the shows were through the roof, with Art Miami, in particular, reporting 35,000 visitors, a 10 per cent increase in attendance. “It feels like a new beginning,” said Wilhelm Grusdat of Galerie Terminus. “There are a lot more qualified buyers here this year than last. People are here to spend some serious money on some serious art!”

Scott White of Scott White Contemporary Art was more specific, ”Sales were great-from blue chip to gallery artists.”

Among the more interesting sales, a Martin Schoeller image of Clint Eastwood sold for $10,000 at Halsted Hunt Kraeutler. Pieces that sold in the hundreds of thousands moved as well. An Eric Fischl painting sold for $300,000 and two works by John Chamberlain sold at $200,000 and $300,000 respectively at Mark Boirghi Fine Art, Inc. A collection of photographic portfolios featuring images of Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe went for $220,000 per portfolio at
Rudolf Budia Gallery, LLC of London.

All of the ‘big names’ in art were represented. A Chuck Close tapestry netted $120,000 and a “major Miro” brought six figures at Contessa Gallery, New York and two Jean Dubuffet pieces sold in the “hundreds of thousands” at David Klein Gallery.

Commenting on the fair’s vigorous outcome, one organizer commented, “We’re definitely in a recovery.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Asiate at Mandarin Oriental, New York:A star performer

Asiate at Mandarin Oriental, New York

80 Columbus Circle at 60th Street

New York, New York 10023

212-805-8800 <>

Walking into Mandarin Oriental's dramatic Asiate restaurant on the hotel's 35th floor, is like walking into an elaborate movie set in which you are the star.

The ultra-modern surroundings by renowned designer Tony Chi with its floor to ceiling windows gives a stunning view of the New York skyline, with Central Park and Columbus Circle below, taking center stage. The park view is echoed inside by a glittering tree-branch sculpture suspended from the ceiling. It is a magical environment that offers a feast for the eye. But that's just where the magic begins. Chef de Cuisine Brandon Kida is a true artiste, combining influences from his Asian-American background, incorporating fresh regional produce, meats and poultry and reflections of his extensive travels to create a unique brand of cuisine. His approach to cuisine is like that of a painter approaching a canvass with a palate of infinite invention and color.

As a wine connoisseur, my eye was immediately drawn to the wine wall, which stores over 1,300 bottles from the restaurant's extensive wine list. I was able to find a favorite from the Stag's Leap District, Fay Vineyard Cabernet, which I had the pleasure of drinking with the winemaker during a recent tour of Napa Valley.

Surprisingly, Asiate is not overly expensive. There are several pre fix options that accommodate the pre-theatre crowd at a very comfortable price point, considering the locale and quality of cuisine. I was on my way to the Met Opera, so my waiter hastened things along and I was able to enjoy my culinary adventure without feeling rushed.

All of my favorites were there and presented in stunning fashion. A first course of Buckwheat & Eggs, a signature dish, featured Soba noodles with Osetra Caviar and Wasabi Cream. The next course of Butter Poached Lobster over creamy White Polenta with Shimeji Mushrooms was another triumph of delicately balanced flavors and artful presentation. There is nothing so succulent as well-prepared lobster. It creates the flavor sensation the Japanese call Umami. It is a concept that Chef Kida understands innately, allowing him to lift it to the level of high art.

A simple presentation of house made gelatos with Fresh Berries was all that was needed in the dessert department. With the anticipation of a night at the opera, it was a delight to have a dining experience worthy of a standing ovation.

Capital Grille New York Time Life Building;every meal a celebration

by Dwight Casimere

“This is an embarrassment of riches!” was the phrase I used, addressing the hostess after I entered the sumptuous dining room of the Capital Grille in Midtown Manhattan. Tucked away discreetly in the corner of the lower level of the Time-Life Building on West 51st, ‘the Capital’, as frequent habitués call it, is an elegant, but discreet escape from the rigors of the business day or the perfect prelude to an evening at the Met or Carnegie Hall.

African mahogany paneling and warm lighting from brass light fixtures in a distinctive Art Deco design sets the tone for the opulence ahead.

Capital Grille is known for its prime dry aged steaks, but be put on notice that the same care given its fresh meats is also accorded to the most exquisite bounty from the sea this side of Cape Cod. Speaking of which, steamed or grilled live Maine lobster is almost de rigueur.

A litmus test for me, besides the quality of the fresh bread and butter that is brought to table upon seating (all house made, warm and exquisite) is the veracity of the lobster bisque. This one presented itself as the real McCoy from the mere aroma of fresh crustacean pulled from the depths of the chilly waters off the Atlantic Coast. Copious chunks of sweet, succulent tail meat confirmed its authenticity. A drizzling of Dry Sack Sherry added the perfect flavor accent aigu!

Appetizers of fresh Mozzarella layered between sliced heirloom tomatoes drizzled with extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and 12-year old aged Balsamic vinegar and soft-as-pillows sautéed calamari with a fruity, slightly oaken glass of Silver Oak Chardonnay got the meal off to a flying start.

A bottle of 2006 Cabernet from the Stag’s Leap district of Napa Valley set the stage for the main course; prime aged filet mignon, cooked perfectly medium rare with both Béarnaise sauce and au jus. The carefully marinated and aged meat was virtually fork-tender and redolent of the mineral flavor so prized in a prime piece of meat. So flavorful was the cut of meat that the sauces languished on the side, uneaten. Asparagus in hollandaise and sautéed spinach were the perfect accompaniments.

The fish of the day was Dover Sole, sautéed in brown butter and lemon and severed expertly deboned, tableside. This is one of the supreme delights of brasserie dining and is served as expertly at Capital Grille as it is at Le Fouquet’s on the Champs Elysees.

A note about the wines; Capital Grille is the winner of Wine Spectator magazine’s Award of Excellence for its extensive wine list. A specially designed Wine Wall dominates the restaurant with over 5,000 bottles of wine, featuring 350 different wines from around the world. Selections from America, France, Italy, Germany, South Africa, Portugal, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and New World discoveries from Chile and Argentina are there for the asking. A special Captain’s List of premium wines selected by Capital Grille’s expert Sommelier and staff of Wine Stewards makes every visit a connoisseur’s adventure.

The house made desserts are a specialty of Capital Grille. Noticing the freshly made ice cream on the menu, I opted for a simple pairing of scoops of chocolate and vanilla ice cream with fresh berries and warm chocolate sauce with another glass of the flavorful Cabernet. All of the wait staff at Capital Grille is expert in making the appropriate wine selection to make every dining experience a celebration.

Capital Grille has locations in Chicago and suburbs with nearly 40 locations in major cities nationwide. Visit for information and reservations.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Kathleen Battle and the Chicago Children's Choir at Harris Theater, Chicago-Cell phone cameras mar porcelain perfect performance

by Dwight Casimere

Kathleen Battle unquestionably has one of the most beautiful voices of the last half of the twentieth century. I’ve been privileged to have heard them all, from Callas to Fleming. Although a small voice compared to other notable singers, hers is unusual in its tone and clarity. Her voice seems to come from some ethereal source. That was evident from the first notes of a succession of Spirituals and Traditional songs accompanied by the brilliant jazz, soul and gospel stylings of pianist Cyrus Chestnut in a concert of Traditional Songs and Holiday favorites at the Harris Theater.

Kathleen Battle is the winner of five Grammys and has enjoyed an enviable career. I first encountered her in San Francisco where she starred in a production of
Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos under the late Kurt Herbert Adler. The great maestro Edo de Waart introduced me to her after a performance of her Grammy Award winning Four Songs by Strauss with the San Francisco Symphony. I quickly became a devoted fan and ‘groupie’, traveling to Covent Garden, London’s Barbican Center, Manchester and the Paris Opera (under the baton of former Chicago Symphony Music Director Daniel Barenboim) , to see her perform.

For 14 years, she reigned as one of the supreme divas of the Metropolitan Opera House, singing 150 performances in 13 roles from 1980 until 1994, when she was summarily fired by then- General Manager Joseph Volpe for “unprofessional” behavior. She quickly rebounded her career, singing sold-out concerts around the world and making regular performances at festivals, including annual visits to Chicago’s Ravinia. In 2008, she sang the Lord’s Prayer at the arrival ceremony in honor of Pope Benedict XVI at the White House.

Kathleen Battle’s voice is an instrument of exceptional beauty as she proved in a poignant ‘Give Me Jesus’. It led to a lilting ‘Wade In The Water’ that featured some soulful interplay between the singer and her pianist, belying both of their church roots. Chestnut provided the gritty, heartfelt fervor and blues-based interludes that he is known for in his critically acclaimed albums and performances. It was a collaboration of two kindred spirits.

The centerpiece of the Traditional section of the program was her rendition of ‘This Little Light of Mine’, which ended in a coloratura flourish that recalled the Kathleen Battle of old.

In the final segment of the first half of the program, the Chicago Children’s Choir, a stellar collection of young voices, joined her on stage. Battle seemed right at home, giving the young people their pitch and occasionally turning to give them an encouraging gesture. After all, she began her career as a teacher and her love of children shone through.

She had instant rapport with the young people, occasionally turning to give them their cue, even fully conducting them to a crescendo while singing beautifully in ‘Go Tell It On The Mountain.’ At that moment, she was large and in charge! Unfortunately, things quickly descended from that magical height. A flurry of cell phone camera flashes distracted the singer, causing her to point out offenders to the ushers and verbally call them out.

Artists shouldn’t have to tangle with unruly audience members. Granted, this was not a typical classical music concert crowd of the type Ms. Battle is accustomed to. There were many young people in attendance, some brought by their parents, others brought there through the generosity of donors who provided blocks of free tickets to students and underprivileged youth. I don’t think any of them were among the offenders. The ones I saw were adults who should have known better.

Performance is a two way street. Audiences should be courteous enough to observe house rules against cell phone use, digital cameras and recording devices. A performer shouldn’t have to march around the stage like a coach at a Bulls game calling for time out. Perhaps houses should start checking cameras and digital cameras at the door as they did at some rock concerts and film screenings I have been to.

The discourteous audience marred what was otherwise a sublime concert.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Alexander Miami Beach-the 'suite' life away from home

Travel: The Alexander All Suite Hotel

5225 Collins Avenue

Miami Beach, Florida 33140



by Dwight Casimere

“The next time you come to Miami, you’ve got to stay at The Alexander.” That firm suggestion was made to me on more than one occasion from locals knowledgeable about the hospitality industry during my many visits to this magical city.

After a set of fortunate coincidences, I wound up staying there during a recent trip to write first-and about the city’s Miami Spice and 4 for 3 promotions by the Miami Visitors and Tourism Bureau during the months of August and September.

“First of all, The Alexander isn’t just another hotel,” Didi Cubillos-Lopez, Director of Sales at the Alexander Hotel, informed me. “The suites are actually condominiums that are individually owned.”

That accounts for the home-like atmosphere of each of The Alexander’s 121 beautifully appointed suites that range from junior suites of 920 square feet to two bedroom, two bath suites of 1,250 square feet. “No two units are alike, but they all share one common feature, they all have balconies and magnificent views of either the Atlantic Ocean and Miami Beach or the Inter coastal Waterway, or both.”

That unique positioning along “Millionaire’s Row,” the exclusive stretch of about two and a half miles of sun, sand and surf that is the quintessential playground for the wealthy elite and celebrities. World famous landmarks such as the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc are just steps away. A short cab ride or a hearty morning bike ride takes you right to the action along Ocean Avenue and the Art Deco District of South Beach.

All of the suites at The Alexander have beautiful designer furniture, gallery quality artwork, full equipped kitchens and luxurious marble bathrooms, many including Jacuzzi tubs.

With Shula’s legendary steakhouse on the mezzanine level, two dipping pools on the hotel’s serene garden terrace and the brilliant expanse of white-sand beach and the crystalline turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean just steps away, there’s almost no reason to step beyond the confines of The Alexander.

Munching on a buttery-flakey house made croissant and tasty ‘banger’ sausages, Lopez continued to extol the virtues of ‘the suite life’ at The Alexander. “A homeowner’s association actually governs the property, so there’s an absolute priority placed on privacy and tranquility. It’s a great place for families, especially with the convenient kitchen and its also a great getaway for couples. We actually have a lot of locals who are regular customers who come here just for a romantic getaway to escape from the kids and nosy neighbors for a weekend.”

After a couple of days and nights at The Alexander and a sumptuous dinner at Shula’s (and a failed attempt at downing the legendary ‘Shula’s Cut’ 48 oz. T-Bone) it was difficult to pull up roots. A quick call to the front desk insured a prime suite location for a planned winter getaway. For more information, visit

Thursday, December 17, 2009

In The Heights a living tribute to a dying culture

by Dwight Casimere

The story of the new Broadway In Chicago musical, the Tony Award winning “In The Heights” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through January 3, has all the trappings of a rags to riches movie.

In fact, as the curtain went up on the opening night at the Palace, both Variety and the Hollywood Reporter broke the news that Kenny Ortega, the famed director of Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” and the “High School Musical” trilogy and choreographer to the 1987 film, “Dirty Dancing”, would direct the film version for Universal with writer and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda reprising his starring Broadway role.

“In The Heights “ was conceived and written by Miranda while a sophomore at Weslayan University, a liberal arts college in Middletown, Connecticut, near New York City.

He and director Thomas Kail developed a workshop version for the National Music Theatre Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in nearby Waterford, CT. It then enjoyed off-Broadway success and the rest, as they say, is history. Miranda went on to star in the original Broadway production where it was nominated for 13 Tony Awards. It won for Best Musical at the 62nd Tony Awards in 2008.

The national tour has been underway since October after opening in Tampa, Florida and, from what I saw at the Cadillac Palace, this is a first-rate production.

“In the Heights” is a unique window into a largely unknown culture to those of us who live outside of New York, the Dominican-American community of Washington Heights in Manhattan. The neighborhood is more like a small village than the satellite to a larger community. It is a world unto itself, and for two and quarter hours; we are privileged to drop into it for a helicopter’s view of its rich, but bittersweet reality.

The play spans three days in the life of ‘the heights’ through a musical kaleidoscope of salsa, meringue, hip-hop and soul.

Washington Heights is located at the highest point of Manhattan on its northernmost end. It is above Harlem, near the George Washington Bridge. Named after Fort Washington, a fortification occupied by the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, it was the site of General George Washington’s single, humiliating defeat against the British.

Since that inglorious beginning, the area has been a virtual march through the travails of twentieth century history. Beginning with the Irish fleeing the potato famine of the early 1900s, to Jewish refugees escaping the Nazi Holocaust of the ‘30s and ‘40s, its cracked pavement has been the highway to freedom and a pathway to dreams for a steady succession of immigrants.

The ‘50s brought Cubans fleeing Castro’s regime. Puerto Ricans, seeking a new life, arrived in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Then, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, immigrants from the Dominican Republican arrived to put their indelible stamp on these well-trod streets.

The play has similarities to some of its Tony-endowed antecedents. The characters introduce themselves individually in vocal and dance soliloquy ala A Chorus Line. The ramshackle sets are straight out of RENT; substitute the street corners of upper Manhattan for a tenement loft in the East Village. The dance numbers and the star-crossed Romeo and Juliet romance of the Ben and Nina characters are straight out of West Side Story.

Miranda plays our heartstrings to captivating Latin beats that sweep us along on his journey of self-discovery. Although we know exactly where he’s going, we willingly jump into the Salsa line and dance behind him.

The characters are very well drawn and beautifully performed. Up and coming actor Kyle Beltran is Usnavi, the title role originated by Miranda. He’s owner of the bodega (a tiny open-air corner convenience store that sells every thing from sweet morning café’ con le’che to masking tape from its crammed shelves and busted drinks cooler.) “My parents named me after the first ship they saw in New York Harbor,” he tells a compatriot. “Actually, the letters on the ship read ‘U….S…..NAVY! But, you gotta work with what you have!” That self-deprecating statement tells you everything you need to know about Usnavi’s personality. Don’t you just LOVE him already!?

Usnavi’s dream is to win the lottery and move back to the Dominican Republic. He had a chance to move once before, but realized that the barrio was his true home. He’s in love with Vanessa (Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, a Broadway veteran whose credits include 3 Mo’ Divas, Roller Derby, Corridos Remix (CAN-Best Actress), Cabaret and West Side Story). She works at the gossip factory of a salon next door with unrealistic dreams of moving downtown.

Dreams are central to the story of “In The Heights” and it is this motivation which makes the play so captivating. We instantly identify with the characters and are drawn to them and their fragile humanity.

Nina (Arielle Jacobs, ‘Gabriella ‘in the national tour of High School Musical) is the daughter of the macho-proud, vainglorious Kevin (Broadway and Regional Theatre veteran Daniel Bolero) and his wife Camila (a feisty Natalie Toro of Les Miserables and A Tale of Two cities on Broadway), who dreams of opening a local restaurant.

Nina is the first to go to college in her family and perhaps in the whole neighborhood. Everyone looks up to her until they learn she’s dropped out of Stanford because she couldn’t make the grade or connect with the preppy, upper-classed culture, a secret she kept from her parents for months. It becomes a real source of conflict early in the play. To heighten tensions more, she gets involved with a Benny (Rogelio Douglas Jr., most recently on Broadway starring as Sebastian the Crab in Disney’s The Little Mermaid), the only Black youth in the neighborhood, who works for her father’s livery company, Rosario car service. Owner Kevin considers him unworthy of his daughter’s company, because he isn’t Latina, even though he’s practically been a surrogate father to him. And there you have the ‘West Side Story’ element of star-crossed lovers playing out their doomed romance against the backdrop of the barrios.

Benny/Rogelio and Nina/Jacobs engage in a heart-wrenching duet on the fire escape of their tiny love nest that nearly brings tears to your eyes.

The character of Kevin also makes a selfish decision on behalf of his daughter that threatens to tear both his family and the community asunder.

Other characters give sterling performances, including those of some of the minor players, including Jose-Luis Lopez as Graffiti Pete, a local vandal who actually turns out to be a kind-hearted, but frustrated artist who later evolves into the conscience of this drama and Shaun Taylor-Corbett as Sonny, Usnavi’s precocious cousin who works for him at the Bodega. Sonny is either the next Che Guevara or the next Master OC, depending on the time of day and who’s listening to him. Other outstanding players include David Baida as Piragua Guy, the owner of an illegal street-vending cart who fears being put out of business by his more legitimate competitor, Mister Softee. He sings a brief, but sprightly, Salsa-infused song that is one of the delights of the show.

Veteran Elise Santora, who joins the tour directly from the Broadway show, reprises her role as Abuela Claudia. Abuela means grandmother in Spanish and is often used as a term of endearment and respect. Her character is the matriarch of the family as well as the community. She virtually raised Usnavi and becomes his co-conspirator in a scheme to resurrect their own fortunes as well as members of their extended family. She is a pivotal character in that she, unknown to them, holds the key to all of their future success in her hands (or at least, her bosom) as she reveals in a heart-searing aria that stops the First Act in its tracks. Y Arriba!

Sadly, in reality, urban gentrification has taken its toll on ‘The Heights.’ The Dominican population has dispersed to other, more stable, neighborhoods in the Bronx, a sign of their ascendancy and assimilation. The musical is fast becoming a living monument to a time and place that will soon only live in memory.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Stewart Goodyear at Symphony Center: A new 'Tiger' emerges

by Dwight Casimere

So, Tiger is gone from the national scene. I turn your attention now to his near look-alike, Stewart Goodyear, the "Canadian Cannonball' who blew into Symphony Center just as a cold front from our shared northern border dropped the outside temperature below freezing.

Goodyear is a musical 'Masters' winner in anybody's book, if there were to ever be such an event. His recent performance at Symphony Center was as athletic as anything seen on a golf or basketball court, but with a grace and intellectualism that no brute athletic contest could achieve. At the conclusion of his outstanding recitative, one patron in the front row could be seen simply holding his hand over his heart in the midst of the thunderous applause. Goodyear acknowledged the gesture with a respectful bow in his direction.

Goodyear can well afford to be humble. He is clearly the best at what he does, and, over the course of the years, thanks to the excellent programming of the CSO staff, I've seen all of the greats!

Goodyear chose to play the same Hamburg Steinway as did Vladimir Feltsman in his sterling performance of November 8.

Beginning with the enigmatic Alexander Scriabin's Piano Sonata No.1, Goodyear was at once explosive and serene. He then launched into Samuel Barber's Piano Sonata in E-flat Minor, a kaleidoscopic work originally written for the great Vladimir Horowitz as a special commission for the 25th anniversary of the League of Nations. Maybe they should have flown Goodyear to Oslo to play for Obama when he received the Nobel Peace Prize!

His fingers danced across the keyboard at dizzying speed. At times, caressing the notes in the composer’s whimsical melodies then, with wrists arched, launching a full frontal attack that brought passages to their thundering conclusion.

His cross-hand work in the post-intermission Beethoven Piano Sonata No.29 in B-flat Major was a marvel to behold. He captured the sensitivity of the composer’s inner being and brought forth hidden meanings and inner voices. After displaying his total command of Beethoven’s unique musical language, he finished the sonata with a commanding flourish.

The best, and the most heartfelt renditions were saved for last. Encores began with Chopin's Polonaise No. 6 in A-flat Major, Op.53 ‘Heroique,’ the bane of every piano student, played here with ease and authority. Passages that befuddled even the most accomplished player were, in Goodyear's hands, the height of artistic expression. Chopin wore his pride and love for his ancestral homeland, Poland, on his sleeve and Goodyear afforded it all the dignity it deserved. I had forgotten how introspective and melodic some of the middle passages were. Goodyear gently reminded me. An Earl Wild transcription of Gershwin's "Embraceable You" brought the focus into the realm of the present and showed what a fine interpreter of the more popular genre Goodyear can be. To conclude, a special treat, a window into the great performer's own soul as a composer, a Debussy-inspired, Impressionistic composition called "August." As a final encore, Goodyear had a bit of fun with Strauss/Schulz-Evler’s Concert Arabesque on Motifs of “By the Beautiful Blue Danube” that showed both his sense of humor and a touch of Liberace-like showmanship, but not too much. After all, that patron in the front row was still motioning to Goodyear with his hand over his heart, and the performer was all too willing to oblige!

The Apollo Chorus at Symphony Center in Handel's "Messiah"

by Dwight Casimere

Since its premiere performance in Dublin in 1742,George Frideric Handel's oratorio "Messiah" has been performed around the world as an annual rite of passage into the Christmas Holiday Season. Famously, according to legend, King George of England was so moved that he stood during the singing of the "Hallelujah" chorus at the conclusion of Part Two and the practice has become customary to this day.

Performances of the work are a holiday staple at churches around the city, from the Presbyteries of north Michigan Avenue to the Baptist sanctuaries of South King Drive. Of all, none is more revered than the performances of the Apollo Chorus of Chicago, which has presented Messiah since 1879.

Orchestra Hall has been the scene of 137 of the choir's presentations over the work's 131-year history in Chicago.

Music Director and Conductor Stephen Alltop, a veteran of 13 Messiah's assembled a stellar quartet of soloists to tackle Handel's demanding oratory, Irish soprano Maire O’Brien, a star of New York City Opera and the Kennedy Center, American mezzo Lauren McNeese, recently of Los Angeles Opera, the brilliant young tenor Mark Van Arsdale, the hit of the 2009 Tanglewood Festival in Don Giovanni under Maestro James Levine and the leonine baritone James Maddalena, best known for his portrayal of the title role in the World Premiere of John Adam's Nixon in China, directed by Peter Sellars. I almost don't need to continue writing a review for you to know that this was a transcendent experience.

King George must have felt as I did, when I stood at the start of the Hallelujah chorus from my center box seat. The music is that stirring. The deft conducting of Maestro Alltop and his superb collaborators made it even more so.

Alltop kept tempos brisk, without rushing, paying particular attention to Handel's nuances of tempo restraint and tonal color.

The Apollo Chorus is one of the seminal wonders of the music world. The individual members of each vocal section partner so well, that they sing as one voice. Their breathing almost indistinguished from one phrase to the next. Alltop finished each section with a burnish, like a crafter of fine English carpentry who polishes the seams to such a finish that the joiner work is invisible to the eye.

Among the orchestra members, principal Bass Jerry Fuller provided a firm, fluid line for Handel's lilting contrapuntal melodies to soar above. Principal Timpani Vadim Karpinos provided bright tonality and rhythmic precision throughout and added a ringing punctuation to the finale. Concertmaster and First Violin Jeri-Lou Zike provided heartfelt solos and support for an absolutely captivating duet with soprano O'Brien in the Part Three aria "If God be for us, who can be against us?" It was like two beautiful tropical birds in flight. Add to that, Zike's visual appeal; dressed in a sleeveless gown, she has the best-looking arms this side of Michelle Obama!

Handel used the darker voices of the alto and baritone to convey his deeper message. In Part One's Aria, "For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth," baritone Maddelena navigated Handel's difficult minefields of lengthy, complex, intervaled phrases and runs with the skill of an infantryman in combat. Sadly, he seemed almost ready to be cut down in the heat of battle by the H1N1 virus in the Part Three showpiece Aria "The trumpet shall sound." His vocal chords began to constrict. Turning red-faced, he fought mightily against the intrusion. He managed to regain his footing and reached the conclusion with the flourish of principal Robert Rieder's sylvan trumpet ringing in the background.

In my childhood, I had a favorite aunt who took me with her every year to see her perform Handel's Messiah in the Alto section of our Lutheran Church Choir. Sadly, a violent intruder took her from my family some thirty years ago. I thought of her as the choir began the beautiful counterpoint to the concluding Amen. She would have loved to be singing it with them and, in my mind's eye; I think I might have heard her.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

McCoy Tyner and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra in Jazz at Symphony Center

by Dwight Casimere

It was a meeting of two prolific jazz minds, with a combined repertory of more than three-quarters of a century between them. Nearly 50 years ago, pianist and composer McCoy Tyner burst on the jazz scene as the explosive sideman for the legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, in one of the most celebrated collaborations in jazz history. For more than 30 years, Jeff Lindberg, Co-Founder, Artistic Director and Conductor of the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, formerly the Jazz Members Big Band has made a career of transcribing and performing the largely unwritten orchestrations of jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, among others. His work has been held in such high esteem that many of the greats of our time, most recently piano legend Dave Brubeck, have commissioned him to commit their early-improvised works to paper. So it was that the fourth installment of the Jazz at Symphony Center series would bring these two giants of the jazz world together in a sublime evening of music, recreating Tyner’s big band charts of his Blue Note days and beyond. A more apt collaboration could not have taken place.

Tyner strode somewhat tentatively onstage, apparently showing the effects of an extended illness that had sidelined him a couple of years ago. Once seated at the Steinway, he began to make his way around the familiar territory of the keyboard and by the second half of the concert, was playing the kind of stormy, contrapuntal complexity that is his signature. Accompanied by his stalwart trio of Gerald Cannon on Bass and Eric Kamau Gravatt on Drums, Tyner plowed through the Latin-fusion original composition “Suddenly” before delving into the stride waters of Duke Ellington’s “In A Mellow Tone.” Tyner showed his unique ability to identify the melodic ‘shape’ of a tune and then expand it through a series of complex voicings, dense chord progressions and daring improvisational leaps to create a mind-bending listening experience. Guaranteed, your mind will not drift during a McCoy Tyner solo!

The second half of the program brought the piece de resistance, McCoy Tyner in a big band setting with Jeff Lindberg’s esteemed 13-piece ensemble. From the opening notes of Tyner’s signature composition, the blues based chord changes of “Blues on the Corner”, which Tyner later explained to the audience, had been written for “some dudes who were singin’ doo wop on the corners back in Philly when I was growing up”, was a raucous, supercharged romp through the creviced streets of his childhood and the gritty influences that shaped his later work. It was straight ahead jazz at its finest. The crisp solo trumpet of Derrick Gardner, the angular permutations of Tom Garling on Trombone and the ‘Trane channeling muscle of Ari Brown made this a romp through the history of modern jazz from the blues, to Be Bop and the Avant Garde. Lindberg’s conducting of this, and the subsequent number, “Update” arranged by Tyner’s former drummer Dennis Mackrel, cut right to the heart of the matter. Lindberg’s unique quality is his ability to take music that is completely scripted and make it sound wholly spontaneous. That is the very essence of jazz performance.

Passion Dance, Tyner's maiden compositional effort after his break with John Coltrane is his exuberant Emancipation Proclamation. Lindberg & Co played it with all the manic fervor it deserved, reminding one of Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring. It was the highlight of the evening.

Tyner was in his element. He sounded like his old self. Close your eyes, and you were transported back to the Village Vanguard, circa 1968. It was all there, the percussive left hand and the explosive ‘chops’ in the right with polyphonic juxtapositions of chords and avalanches of sound.

The following original composition “No Frills” brought forth a stunning Alto saxophone solo from John Wojciechowski. “Woj” unleashed a torrent of rapid-fire 1/16th and 1/32nd notes that wove a tapestry of sound, unfolding in a feat of circular breathing that defied the very laws of nature.

Tyner graciously provided the audience with a solo encore, the Sam Lewis and Fred Coots classic, the plaintive ballad “For All We Know.” He played it with emotional depth and stunning technical facility, even evoking the sound of rushing waters in the lyric’s line “We come and go, like the ripples on a stream.” It was divine.

This was the best performance of the Jazz at Symphony Center series to date and one of the best overall to emanate from the Armour Stage.