The Comic Opera Guild focuses on the funny in "Follies"

MUSIC PREVIEW

Comic Opera Guild logo & singer Tiffany Thorpe

Tiffany Thorpe is one of the singers who will perform at the Comic Opera Guild's Follies. Photo by Larri Slade Photography.

The Comic Opera Guild was founded on the premise that the operetta (or comic opera) was the perfect vehicle to introduce people to opera and the thrill of listening to classically trained voices. Comedy makes everything approachable. Comic songs were common in the last century, either as pop music or taken from Broadway shows. Unfortunately, the comic song is uncommon now, and so we decided to produce a show that brought this idiom to people's attention.

On Friday, Nov. 1, at 7 pm at the Ann Arbor District Library's downtown location, the Guild presents Follies, a revue-concert featuring high-spirited and comic entertainment reminiscent of the Ziegfeld Follies. Classically trained singers and instrumentalists will cross over into light-hearted music from the 1920s to the present day, from shows, Vaudeville, and even Tom Lehrer and Eric Idle.

Oasis in the City: Juno-winning alto saxophonist Allison Au brings her pastoral jazz to Blue LLama

MUSIC PREVIEW

Allison Au Quartet

Saxophonist Allison Au said her 2016 album, Forest Grove, was inspired by the Toronto neighborhood where she grew up. But it's not city life she's referring to; it's a place where trees and nature provided the vista, not concrete. 

The pastoral spirit of the Forest Grove neighborhood runs deep through Au's alto on all three of her records. She tends to play relaxed, melodic phrases that reinforce an ensemble sound rather than firing up solos that race over the harmonic foundation of her compositions. Keyboardist Todd Pentney, bassist Jon Maharaj, and drummer Fabio Ragnelli have plenty of freedom to explore Au's tunes and they feel essential to her vision, not just a backing band. 

Forest Grove won a Juno award -- the Canadian equivalent to a Grammy -- for best jazz album and her latest, 2019's Wander Wonder, was nominated as was her debut, The Sky Was Pale Blue. Au self-released all of the albums, so to garner this type of recognition for independent releases is a testament to her talent.

You can see the Allison Au Quartet at Blue LLama Jazz Club in Ann Arbor on Wednesday, October 23. Below are some videos of the band in action and you can listen to her three albums. 

Michigan Made: Theatre Nova’s Playwrights Festival puts the spotlight on new works for the stage

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Theatre Nova's yellow barn building

Theatre Nova's yellow-barn home. Photo courtesy of Theatre Nova.

Part two of Theatre Nova’s semi-annual Michigan Playwrights Festival has an added evening that gives more opportunities to shine the spotlight on new playwrights. In addition to staged readings of four full length plays, the festival will set aside an evening for the presentation of six 10-minute plays.

The Michigan Playwrights Festival is in its fifth season, part of Theatre Nova’s focus on new plays and playwrights. Twice a year, a committee selects four plays for presentations in staged readings. The festival will present a play each night Oct. 24-27. The Evening of 10-Minute Plays will be presented Oct. 23.

The four plays selected for the regular festival are The Lion’s Share by Catherine Zudak, Dear Camp by Lisa MacDonald, Silo Tree by Sam Collier, and Blight by R.D. Wakeman.

Playwright Sarah Elisabeth Brown is coordinating the evening of 10-minute plays for Theatre Nova.

“The evening is new to the festival and comes out of a group I started in conjunction with Theatre Nova about a year ago called the Nova Lab, which is designed as a resource to playwrights of all levels who would like to develop their craft,” Brown said in an email interview. “Our signature event is called Prompts for Playwrights and we meet on Sunday evenings when the theater is dark.”

Common Cause: The long-running experimental music event Edgefest fosters a sense community

MUSIC PREVIEW

Edgefest

The 2019 Edgefest (Oct. 16-19) has been on my calendar for months and I've been meaning to write a preview of this Ann Arbor experimental-music institution for weeks.

This year's theme, "OUT West," focuses on "the rich historical contributions of West Coast artists in the development of avant jazz improvisation and new music." That quote is from the website of Kerrytown Concert House, which is Edgefest's hub, even if all the October 17 concerts are at the sparkling Blue LLama Jazz Club and the large-ensemble finale on October 19 is at Bethlehem United Church of Christ. You can't have Edgefest without the Concert House.

But this and that happened, time got away from me, and I never got around to writing the preview.

Thankfully, longtime music writer and Edgefest musician Piotr Michalowski wrote the festival's program, which is an excellent primer on the dozens of musicians and various ensembles performing at this year's edition. You'll find Michalowski's write-up below, but first, I want to share a story about one specific event at Edgefest -- and why I think it defines the festival as a whole.

Moon Hooch explores consciousness with a knockout combo of jazz and dance music

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Moon Hooch

Moon Hooch's music has all the manic energy of a city. The Brooklyn group's drums-sax-sax lineup rumbles like the New York City subway system, where the trio spent many hours busking when it formed in 2010. The way the band combines dance beats and avant-garde jazz is akin to a metropolis' relentless forward rhythm that's being intersected by speeding cabs running red lights.

But the nervous energy Moon Hooch exudes in its simultaneously catchy and edgy music is in direct opposition to the way drummer James Muschler and saxophonists Mike Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen live their lives off the stage.

Or even in their touring van.

Moon Hooch's members are avid meditators and they use this practice to stay mentally and physically fit during arduous tours across the U.S.

"Yeah, it’s not easy," McGowen said of touring. "Meditation, Qigong, and breathing exercises are what keeps me going. I try to transmute stress through present moment awareness. I don’t succeed always, but when I am enough present I can stay calm even if the situation is challenging. We usually get together every morning, sit in a circle, breath together and share how we feel. We aren’t doing that every day, but whenever we do it, it really uplifts the group dynamic."

Paul Bernstein’s debut book of poetry, "What the Owls Know," chronicles a fully lived life

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Paul Bernstein and his book of poetry, What the Owls Know

A blurb on the back of What the Owls Know, Paul Bernstein’s book of poetry, says that the reader is guided through the “ground of a fully lived life.” There is no question that Bernstein’s life, like his poems, is fully realized.

Born in New York, Bernstein came to Ann Arbor in 1959 and returned to the city in the late 1960s seeking a Ph.D. in History. “I first published my writing while an undergraduate,” Bernstein says. “But then I got involved in politics. … I was involved with anti-war politics and at some point thought that I should give it up to focus on writing poetry but then protests heated up, the Weathermen began … and I realized it was not the time to get out.”

Eileen Pollack's "The Professor of Immortality" novel explores science, tech, grief, motherhood, whether we can truly know another person -- and the Unabomber's time in Ann Arbor

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Eileen Pollack and her book The Professor of Immortality

Author photo by Michele McDonald.

The Professor of Immortality by Eileen Pollack is preoccupied with how well people can know each other and how they deal with flaws and surprises in relationships when they care about the other person. The book raises questions about whether it is better to be together despite challenges and what the costs are either way. The ending seems to point strongly to an answer yet still lets the reader wrestle with this matter.

Main character Professor Maxine Sayers has an energizing job, loving husband, quirky child, and comfortable home -- until she doesn’t. Her husband dies unexpectedly, and then she experiences issues with her existing family members as her son becomes inaccessible and her mother’s health deteriorates. Through all of these changes and problems, the novel delves into Maxine’s thoughts and feelings about the goings-on. She must contend with whether what she believed and worked for is right and if it is what she still wants.

As Maxine takes action to figure out is transpiring with her son and a former student, she reflects deeply on her life and connections to people. At one point while talking with a friend and colleague, Rosa, Maxine wonders how to cope with her concerns, and she experiences some relief from Rosa:           

[Rosa] settles beside Maxine and rubs her back until Maxine is crying in her arms. That’s all anyone wants, isn’t it? To be held? Isn’t that the best Terror Management System any of us has devised?

This passage feels poignant in and of itself and becomes even more weighty with the fact that the book draws inspiration from Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Another character, Angelina, provides further insight, noting that for many, “‘…their troubles are because of what is missing in their lives. And there is no way you could make up for that.’” These insights buoy Maxine when she faces what she fears is true and makes difficult decisions as a mother.

Pollack previously directed the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan (U-M), and she has written numerous books, including the recent novel, The Bible of Dirty Jokes. Now she lives in New York City. Ann Arbor welcomes her back Friday, October 11, at 7 pm at Literati Bookstore, where she’ll be in conversation with author Natalie Bakopoulos. I asked her some questions beforehand.

Milestones: The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Celebrates its 50th Anniversary at Rackham

PULP MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

Clockwise from the upper left: David Finckel by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco; Gloria Chien by Tristan Cook; Kristin Lee and David Shifrin by Tristan Cook; Matthew Lipman by Tristan Cook.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) is celebrating its 50th anniversary, a milestone. So, co-artistic director and cellist David Finckel says it was fitting that CMS begins this season with milestones in the art of chamber music. “We identified pieces of music that have somehow influenced the way chamber music evolved,” he says.

The program CMS will bring to Rackham Auditorium in Ann Arbor on October 11 includes four of these works: Harry Burleigh’s Southland Sketches (1916), Antonin Dvořák’s Quintet for Two Violins, Two Violas, and Cello in E-flat Major, Op. 97 (1893), Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1941), and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1944), originally called Ballet for Martha (Graham). 

“The story of Dvořák in America is colorful and entertaining,” says Finckel.

Turns out, it is Burleigh’s story, too. 

Wires and Waves: Synthesizer pioneer Suzanne Ciani comes to Ann Arbor

MUSIC PREVIEW

Suzanne Ciani

You can debate who the best guitarist is all day and still not carve out a consensus. Braaap all you want about who's the finest trumpeter and the winner's horn will never sound. Argue about pianists and you'll be talking in circles about tickling the ivories even though a title-holder will never be crowned.

But the undisputed master of the Buchla synthesizer is Suzanne Ciani.

Might as well cue Jadakiss' "The Champ Is Here."

It's Ciani by knockout. 

The 73-year-old champ is bringing her Buchla to Ann Arbor for a master class (2 pm) and a performance (8 pm) on Saturday, October 5 as part of the Resonance festival, an annual one-day event that celebrates women and non-binary artists in music technology, sponsored by the Performing Arts Technology department at the University of Michigan. Ciani will work in Hankinson Rehearsal Hall -- limited seating, get there early because both events are free -- and perform her Buchla compositions in quadrophonic sound with accompanying visuals.

If you're unfamiliar with Ciani, here's a crash course in her music and the synthesizer she mastered.

Seeing Clearly: Singer-songwriter May Erlewine's new album, "Second Sight," is filled with political fire

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Mae Erlewine by Michael Poehlman

Photo by Michael Poehlman.

The much-loved singer-songwriter May Erlewine begins a fall tour this week in support of her powerful and poignant new album, Second Sight, and one of the first shows she has scheduled is on Friday, October 4 at The Ark

Interviewed by phone last week for Pulp, the Michigan native was already psyched about coming back to Ann Arbor's premier venue for acoustic music. "Oh my gosh, The Ark is my favorite!" Erlewine said. "It feels the most like a homecoming show and I did spend time living in Ann Arbor a lot of my life so there’s truth to that. Every time I play there I put so much intention and thought into it because it’s a big deal to me. It’s just one of the best venues in the whole country."

Erlewine will be bringing a five-piece band and two backup singers to The Ark, with one set devoted to the entire Second Sight album and another set to other songs. "It’s a reflective time but we’re also infusing it with a lot of catharsis and levity," said Erlewine. "I want people to reengage and to feel connected to their home and their community and their heart."

May Erlewine's music truly has a special way of touching the listener's heart and soul with its message of hope and unity, and positivity is something we can never get enough of these days.