BPO, ICTC, the Bard, and Mendelssohn…Oh My!

 Brendan Didio as Puck and Vincent O’Neill as Oberon.  Photo by Gene Witkowski.

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Irish Classical Theatre Company will offer another collaborative program January 17-19 when “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” pairs a beloved William Shakespeare comedy with music composed by Felix Mendelssohn.

It’s a double duet – two world-class arts organizations and two classic bodies of work – creating a dynamic performance in Kleinhans Music Hall. This is the fourth performance coupling for the BPO and ICTC.

“It is an honor for the BPO to welcome the audience of the ICTC into our house,” says BPO music director JoAnn Falletta. “The Buffalo Philharmonic reached out to the company several years ago to explore a partnership combining  Moliere’s The Bourgeois Gentleman with the music of Richard Strauss, and the result was so delightful, funny and felicitous that we realized we had to find other projects. Amadeus (with the music of Mozart) was also superb, and very different in character-probing, tragic and unforgettable.  The combination of two geniuses- Shakespeare and Mendelssohn in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a perfect marriage, and I think that it will be our best partnership.”

Fortunato Pezzimenti, ICTC’s associate director agrees: “It’s such a celebration for the theatre company to work with the orchestra. It’s wonderful for the company to perform with this magnificent orchestra behind them.”

Bringing two artistic organizations together takes some finessing, on stage and off. Pezzimenti said, “It’s not difficult but we have to be smart about it.” The actors will share the Kleinhans Music Hall stage with the orchestra, which is a completely different size and shape than the cozy  dimension of The Andrews Theatre,  ICTC’s Main Street home base. Pezzimenti said, “The stage is very, very wide and not very deep. There are limitations to the set design.”

Pezzimenti said the set (designed by David Dwyer) will be minimal and costumes designed by Lise Harty are “significant to create the beauty, wonder, and magic of the piece.”

Sharing the stage with the BPO will be: Vincent O’Neill  as Oberon/Theseus; (Falletta said it’s a “lovely detail” that ICTC Co-Founder and Artistic Director Vincent O’Neill played the starring role in the three previous productions, too);  Aleks Malejs aTitiana/Hippolyta; Brendan Didio a Philostarte/Puck; Chris Kelly as Egeus/Quince; David Wysocki  as Lysander;  Nick Stevens as Demetrius;  Kayla Storto Hermia;  Kit Kuebler as Helena;  Phil Farugia as Bottom;  Kevin Kennedy as Flute;  Dudney Joseph as Snout;  David Lundy as Starvling; and Gerry Maher  as Snug. Soprano Karen D’Angelo and Vocalis Chamber Choir alto Maria Parker will sing the fairy roles.

Pezzimenti said the actors are proud to be part of this collaboration. “It’s a tremendous honor to be cast in something like this,” he said. Actor David Lundy says the cast dynamic – a mix of seasoned stage actors and “some fresh young talent”  – with the BPO create a very special theatre experience. “It’s novel for experienced concert-goers and theater patrons alike” said Lundy. “They’re seeing one of Buffalo’s finest acting companies performing front of a world-class orchestra, with classical music composed directly for the play being shown. Both the audience and the performers are thrilled in a way that doesn’t happen for a typical play.”

Falletta agrees: “It is truly thrilling to come together with our actor ‘cousins’. Our art forms share so many similarities and values, and it is very inspiring to have the ICTC on the stage with us. We feel their energy and respond to it, and they tell us that having the music swirling around them is an amazing experience for them. It also is interesting for them to work in a house that seats 2400 people, and to project their artistry into a large space. We learn from the actors, and grow, and frankly have a spectacular time collaborating with these great artists. I am always astonished at how musical the members of the ICTC are – their flexibility, their open-mindedness, their enjoyment of music –  truly is an inspiration to us.”

There are only three performances – Friday and Saturday evenings, January 17 and 18 and a Sunday, January 19 matinee. Plan to arrive an hour earlier to attend the pre-concert talk: Ms Falletta and members of the cast will give you an insider’s look into the production. Tickets are available at http://www.bpo.org

An 11 Year Tradition: The Nutcracker at Shea’s

The 11th annual production of The Nutcracker (Nov. 30 and Dec. 1) is a delightful collaboration between Shea’s Performing Arts Center, Neglia Ballet Artists, and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

It’s a triple win for the value of cultural partnerships: Buffalo’s most beautiful venue, our world-class orchestra, and a ballet program that features local students and has enough star-power to attract a stunning line up of guest artists is the best of all possible worlds.

If that isn’t enough, the production is lovely from the moment we hear the opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s luscious score to the moment the gilt-fringe curtain falls.

Then there’s the whole Christmas spirit going on, too. Shea’s carefully curated elegance is tastefully decked out in white lights and pine bough. The audience is full of families with little ones in their holiday best.  The whole vibe is wonderfully infectious and a harbinger of the holiday month to come.

The story is familiar: it’s Christmas eve at the Stahlbaum house and friends and family members gather for gifts. The mysterious (read: slightly creepy) Herr Drosselmeyer (Paul Mockovak) arrives with life-size toys and magic tricks, and a special gift for the Stahlbaum daughter Marie (Director Sergio Neglia opts to call her Marie as his mentor George Balanchine did; most other productions call her Clara.) It’s a nutcracker and Marie is entranced. Brother Fritz breaks it in a jealous moment and Drosselmeyer repairs it post haste. Marie falls asleep with her gift and is awakened by a frisky mouse…and a room full of rats. The Nutcracker comes to life and with an army of soldiers (and some help from Marie) he slays the rat king and his band of vermin. More Drosselmeyer magic saves the Nutcracker as a handsome Prince and fast-forwards young Marie to young adulthood. They dance their way around the world through heritage soloists and sweets.

It’s the local kids as the mice, rats, snow flakes, angels, cupcakes, baker, and soldiers with  the impressive cast in the featured roles;  they meld perfectly as storytellers and interpreters of Neglia’s choreography.  Neglia himself is the Nutcracker, an imposing figure. Standouts were youth dancers Zoe de Torres Curth, (Marie) a Buffalo Seminary student who moved here from her native Argentina to study with Neglia, and Nardin Academy senior Ava DiNicola,(one of the three Mirlitons) both dancing in featured roles.

Dancers are athletes, artists, and storytellers; to convey a story without words is an art in itself. Neglia and this troupe remind us of this graceful and powerful complexity.  It’s easy to be drawn into the story and be swept away by the music and the dance.

The scenic design is exceptional: Lynne Koscielniak is responsible for the original renderings and Dyan Burlingame (the resident set designer for Road Less Traveled Productions) with Jon Shimon, Michele Costa (her theatreFiguren skills created character masks and the toys, too) and Roger Schroeder created additional imagery in the first act. Burlingame also designed the lighting which featured some lovely hues that highlighted Donna Massimo’s jewel toned costume designs.  It’s all well balanced, like a painting come to life.

An act one glitch: during a lovely duet, the gentle fall of on-stage snow became a Lake Effect squall for a moment as too much faux snow fell in a big flurry.  Like good Buffalonians, the pair danced on.

Buffalo is ballet starved for sure: those of us of a certain age remember the days of yore at ArtPark when a ballet company was in residence each summer. We were treated to traditional and contemporary works as regularly as the current regime brings in ‘70s and ‘80s rockers.  Times changes and companies like Neglia Ballet Artists help keep dance accessible to a broad albeit niche audience.  Neglia is also training tomorrow’s dancers and dance audiences that will keep the art form alive here. Bravo!

The Nutcracker is a full and well-paced two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Details at http://www.negliaballet.org.

Concert Review: ‘The Music of Prince’ by The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra at Kleinhans Music Hall

Just over one year ago, the world turned upside down with the news of Prince’s death. A musical icon, his artistry and library of soulful, fun songs are still beloved by many, which was overwhelmingly evident when “The Music of Prince” by BPO Rocks played at Kleinhans Music Hall Friday night.

Buffalo came alive during this spirited homage to Prince’s music. [Marshall] Charloff is a stunning performer backed by the vibrant Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

The guest performers featured conductor Brent Havens, Dan Clemens on bass, Justin Avery on keyboard, Powell Randolph on drums, George Cintron on guitar, Ann Marie Castellano on background vocals and Marshall Charloff as lead singer and guitarist.

Charloff, who also performs the front man for The Purple Experience, skillfully emulates Prince’s vocal stylings and fashion sense and never appears hokey or cheesy. Having worked with Prince earlier in his career, he broke up songs with stories of working with the artist and describing the first time they met. He is an entrancing and charismatic performer who won over the audience from his opening performance of “Let’s Get Crazy.”

Vibrant lighting design transformed Kleinhans that night from the first notes of the opening song. Audience members cheered loudly and leapt out of their seats to dance, one even playing along on a Prince-themed tambourine.

Some sound difficulties were successfully navigated by the second tune, “Little Red Corvette,” marking the first point in the evening when the music was saturated with the lush string section of the BPO. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” completed a lively trio of songs, which had audience members young and old grooving in the aisles.

Avery took the lead on “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” showcasing a surprising and delightful falsetto. The first act also featured rousing renditions of “Kiss,” “Delirious” and “Diamonds and Pearls.” The latter allowed Castellano to exercise her impressive vocal power before closing with “Raspberry Beret.”

The second act featured more ballads, including “When Doves Cry,” as well as Castellano’s unstoppable belt on “Nothing Compares 2 U.” The crowd reignited their spirited dancing for “Baby, I’m Star,” and an enthusiastic “1999,” which transformed Kleinhans into a dance party likely taking place on New Year’s Eve before the millennium.

The performance concluded with a deserved standing ovation after a heartfelt “Purple Rain,” confirming that this was not a tribute band or impersonation, but a true honoring of Prince’s music a year after his passing. As Charloff said, “ We are all healing.”

Buffalo came alive during this spirited homage to Prince’s music. Charloff is a stunning performer backed by the vibrant Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

Running Time: 2 Hours with a 15-minute intermission.

“The Music of Prince” was performed for one night only by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra at Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo. For more information on upcoming events, click here.