Review: Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra's The Planets was Out of this World
Last Saturday, April 9th, the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra presented an excellent selection of music to a sold out Michigan Theater.
The evening opened with "The Tall-Eared Fox and the Wild-Eyed Man," a piece written by Ann Arbor composer Evan Chambers. Inspired by traditional jigs, the strings section started with a jaunty tone and then transitioned into different breakdowns of the music, ending with an experimental section that pushed the boundaries of the jig into a more traditional and modern place.
Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, featuring guest violinist Jinjoo Cho, was the second entry in the night’s concert. I was completely caught off guard by Cho’s tremendous performance, which was both technically complex but also emotionally packed. Her playing was simply astounding, breathtaking in the depth of emotion conveyed even as control of the instrument was maintained. I honestly don’t have the words to convey how absolutely delightful and absorbing Cho’s playing was. If Cho ever happens to visit Ann Arbor again, I would highly recommend attending. I will certainly be following her career with avid interest.
After a short intermission, the orchestra returned to perform Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Composed in 1917, this piece explores the character of each of the planets of the solar system, excluding Earth. Each character sketch is relatively quick, resulting in a piece that progresses quickly and holds the interest of even those unfamiliar with classical music. Even if you’ve never heard of The Planets, you’ve probably heard some clip of this influential and popular composition playing in the background of some piece of media.
The performance by the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra was a joy to attend. The Planets is a fun suite of music to start with, and the orchestra was clearly up to the challenges presented by the piece. Since the character of each planet is so distinct, I can only praise the A2 Orchestra for conveying a spectrum of emotions and concepts. From the jaunty "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity," to the strident and somehow playful "Uranus, the Magician," the A2 Orchestra rose to the occasion and delivered an exceptional range of musical experiences. I was familiar with The Planets going into the concert, and I was surprised at how much of a difference there was between the recordings I’ve listened to and hearing the music in person. There’s a bit of personality or a depth of emotion that recordings just can’t capture. The journey the music takes you on through the solar system seems somehow more real when you’re sitting in the same room as the musicians.
The visualizations paired with the music made for an interesting experience, slightly reminiscent of Disney’s Fantasia. Visual artist Adrian M Wyard created the accompaniment using both NASA images and digital recreations of the planets. Pairing the music with images added a layer to the performance that certainly captured your attention, but that could sometimes border on distracting. I was surprised at how well Holst managed to capture the essence of the planets, particularly those closer to Earth, in 1917, when our knowledge of the solar system was so much more limited than it is today.
Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Preview: Triumph of the Wool - Ann Arbor's Fiber Expo
For anyone in Ann Arbor who likes to work with yarn, the Fiber Expo is a highlight to the year. The Fiber Expo brings together local artisans, shopkeepers, and farmers. Walking through the expo can bring you into contact with anything from angora rabbits to hand dyed yarn to looms and spinning wheels. The expo always bustles with life and energy as friends move from stall to stall, looking at different yarns and shawl pins, envisioning what they can make with the wealth of raw materials before them.
Though vendors are a major offering of the Fiber Expo, it’s not just about buying yarn and roving (unspun wool). The expo is about meeting other fiber enthusiasts from the area, meeting the people who are growing their own fiber, and seeing what other people are creating with fiber. Each expo also features a strong offering of classes that cover a range of skills. The goals of the Fiber Expo are to get natural fibers into people’s hands and to spread knowledge about how to work with fiber. Ultimately, the Fiber Expo is a place for discovery and creativity for anyone who works with or has an interest in fiber.
Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at AADL and can't get enough wool.
The Fiber Expo is April 9th and 10th, at the Washtenaw Farm Council Grounds on Ann Arbor Saline Road. Tickets are $4 for one day or $6 for the weekend.
Review: Live from London: Les Liaisons Dangereuses
On Wednesday, February 17th, the Michigan Theater broadcast a stage performance of Les Liaisons Dangereuses through Britain's National Theatre Live. Directed by Josie Rourke, the production marks the 30th anniversary of Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the original novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.
Set in pre-revolutionary France, Les Liaisons Dangereuses tells the story of the beautiful Marquise de Merteuil, played by Janet McTeer, and the dashing Vicomte de Valmont, played by Dominic West, former lovers who now amuse themselves in a friendly competition of seduction and manipulation. The two are having a grand old time toying with their peers when the Vicomte unexpectedly falls in love with his newest mark, the virtuous and beautiful Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy).
The Marquise was the real standout in this performance. We so rarely get to see female characters like her: intelligent and witty, but also deeply flawed, scarred by her fight for independence. The Marquise is a woman who ruins the lives of others for petty revenge or jealousy, but who also fights ferociously to secure and defend her own freedom. Her ability to carry out her schemes in a world where the cards are so deeply stacked against women is a testament to her more admirable qualities. McTeer’s performance as the Marquise was incredible, bringing true range of emotion to a character that could easily have been played as a pure villain. West and McTeer had a definite rapport that underlined an unspoken jealousy between the characters that motivates many of the actions later in the play, as the personal stakes for the pair are quietly pushed higher and higher.
The sumptuous costumes and candle-lit scenes created a feeling of unsustainable decadence completely taken for granted by the French nobility. Within this splendor, the manipulative games played by the Marquise and Vicomte can almost seem frivolous. Their machinations ultimately boil down to trivialities, except that the emotions and lives of those involved, including the supposed masterminds, are so deeply affected. This production did an excellent job of laying out the emotional field of the characters, ensuring that each betrayal and revelation was felt like a twist of the knife, drawing the audience into a world where reputation and appearances are everything.
I entered this viewing with zero background for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but I now understand why the play has been so successful. The story is well balanced, the events spooling out in a way that keeps you entirely engaged with the action. I think the secret of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is the attraction of watching a scandal develop before you, with no threat to your own reputation, almost like a guilty pleasure. Part of the reason the play is so effective is that you want to see what happens next, and so the audience is in some ways implicated in the games of the Marquise and Vicomte.
Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at AADL and agrees with Dominic West that people look much more attractive by candlelight.
Preview: The Bard at the Michigan Theater
Starting tonight, Monday, February 1, the Michigan Theater presents a film series dedicated to the work of William Shakespeare. The Bard will celebrate Shakespeare’s works through a range of film adaptations of his plays. Alongside the more traditional performances interpreted by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, you’ll find remixes of Shakespeare’s works that cross the barriers of culture and time, such as West Side Story.
The lineup of films selected for The Bard reveals the flexibility of Shakespeare’s writing, and celebrates the universal themes explored through his timeless plays. If you’re new to Shakespeare, a lifelong fan, or if you haven’t thought about him since high school, any one of these films would be an excellent way to experience classic Shakespearean storytelling.
Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at AADL.
Most of the films will be screened on Monday nights at 7 pm, with the exception of Romeo + Juliet which will be showing on Saturday, February 13th. Take a look at the Michigan Theater's website for the full series schedule.
Review: National Theatre Live's Hamlet
On Sunday, January 17th, the Michigan Theater showed an encore screening of the National Theatre Live’s production of Hamlet to a sold-out theater. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, this production entirely reimagines the classic play and brings it into focus with a captivating clarity. It’s evident from the moment Hamlet enters the wedding celebration between his mother and his uncle that this is a dark play. The set is characterized by indigo hues and shadows, so that Elsinore, the Danish royal castle, appears both splendid and on the verge of decay.
Cumberbatch gives an excellent performance, delivering his lines with a convincing ease. This production presented Hamlet as more than a vengeful, petty step-son. Cumberbatch infuses Hamlet with purpose and emotional depth. His performance is anchored in the grief Hamlet feels over the death of his father, making Hamlet’s erratic behavior throughout the play more understandable.
War is constantly on the edges of the action; several scenes take place in a command room, antique swords and military paintings decorate the castle, and the second act includes scenes on a battlefield. Yet that constant threat is entirely overshadowed by domestic drama. Polonius and Claudius are only too willing to meddle in the lives of their children, taking time off from political matters to contrive meetings between Hamlet and Ophelia which are then watched from behind closed doors. In a way, it seems like the entire royal family is consumed, one way or another, by madness.
There are so many elements of this production that deserve praise. An inspired set design, created by Es Devlin, resulted in a broadcast that was almost like watching a typical movie. The only difference was that occasionally people would run onstage to shuffle things around in anticipation of upcoming scenes. The enclosed nature of the set, which was built at an angle to the front of the stage, almost seemed like it was designed with the camera in mind. Because the camera never captured any offstage action, it was easy to forget that you were watching a play. The downside of this cinematic quality is that the main room of Elsinore became a little claustrophobic over time, but the feeling dovetailed nicely with the themes explored by the production.
The second half of the play was characterized by low lighting, with spotlights targeting specific areas of the stage. During the final acts of the play, the entirety of the set is covered in piles of black debris and broken furniture, adding an unsettling element of discord to the Elsinore scenes. It seems as though a darkness or illness has burst out of the characters and been projected onto the rooms through which they move. The whole stage never seems to be visible, and that darkness overshadows the actions of the final scenes. We’ve reached the end of the play, and the end of almost every character onstage as the play culminates in a destructive whirlwind of a finale.
While I suspect that Cumberbatch’s popularity attracted many people to this broadcast, I got the impression that many of the people who saw the play with me enjoyed their overall experience. I know that I appreciated the chance to see a first-rate production at an affordable price. The filmed version of the play probably wasn’t quite as good as being there—I think you lose a bit of the interplay in energy between the audience and the actors—but I’d say this definitely satisfies as the next best thing. I would definitely recommend future versions of the live broadcasts for those of us who can’t jet off to London in time for the next big production.
Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at the Ann Arbor District Library and knows a hawk from a handsaw.
Review: Ann Arbor Symphony's Mozart Birthday Bash
Last Saturday, the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra celebrated Mozart’s birthday in style, with a performance of The Abduction from the Seraglio at the Michigan Theater. Opera is all about spectacle—elaborate sets, a cast of thousands—but the A2SO made a deliberate decision to highlight Mozart’s excellent music, which underpins the story. The A2SO brought in incredibly talented lead vocalists to round out the presentation of the opera, but decided to present a semi-staged version of the piece. The overall effect was that this was a performance for music lovers, with an emphasis on the songs within the opera, rather than the drama of the story.
The Abduction from the Seraglio is somewhere between a tragedy and a comedy. It tells the story of a pair of lovers, Belmonte and Constanze, and their servants, Pedrillo and Blondchen. The opera opens after Constanze and Blondchen have been kidnapped and taken to the titular seraglio (which turns out to be a harem) of Pasha Selim, Sultan of Turkey. The Pasha has fallen in love with Constanze, who resists his advances and remains true to Belmonte. Blondchen, meanwhile, has attracted the attention of Osmin, who guards the seraglio. The opera centers on the trials of the lovers as they try to find a way to escape the seraglio. There is a lot of singing about the pain of being separated from a lover and how painful love can be. Our heroes are ultimately released by a suddenly benevolent Pasha, who is moved by the strength of the love between Constanze and Belmonte.
A narrator verbally bridged the action between each song, providing background information and a quick summary of the plot. It was a clever device that allowed the focus to remain on the music of the opera, and, perhaps more importantly, it was an entry point for opera newbies. Those not previously familiar with The Abduction from the Seraglio might have had a difficult time following the action and emotion through lines of the opera, particularly since it was performed in German. Between the narrator and the lyrics projected on a small screen above the orchestra, there was no need to have memorized the entirety of the opera beforehand.
The real standout stars of the opera, among the vocalists, were the female performers Jeanette Vecchione and Suzanne Rigden. Vecchione played the part of Constanze with a wonderful gravity. Vecchione was also remarkable in her ability to keep pace with the full orchestra immediately behind her. There were moments, particularly in fire and brimstone songs, where the vocalists could get a little drowned out by the full orchestra directly behind them. This was not so with Vecchione, a testament to her skill as a vocalist. Rigden brought a wonderful lightness and humor to the stage, and was a real joy to watch. All of the vocalists deserve mention for excellent performances.
I haven’t said much about the orchestra itself, and that’s because the performance was essentially flawless. The orchestra blended into the background, supporting the vocalists’ performances, which is what you want in this sort of setting. It was interesting to get a sense of the music through the movement of the bows on the stringed instruments, however it was impossible to resist the action of the story communicated through the vocalists on stage.
The close quarters of the semi-staging helped to underscore the natural humor written into The Abduction from the Seraglio. Pushing all of the vocalists into close quarters helped up some of the dramatic tension. The downside was that the actors didn’t always have much to do, but this performance was always focused on the music of the opera. The performance was a joy to watch, and proved to be an accessible entry point into the world of opera.
Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at the Ann Arbor District Library and has never seen an opera before.
The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra's next Main Stage event will be Harp Magic on March 12 at the Michigan Theater.