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Looking back on a year of great music

Chuang On New Year's Eve, it's fun to take stock of the old year. In my case that can mean looking back on the wonderful concerts I have witnessed. I don't like to call them the best concerts of the year, because certainly there were marvelous performances I didn't get to. But I decided I would come up with my own Top 10. What a pleasant pastime that was, coming up with them. Here they are, in chronological order:

1. March 2008: Remember the Orion Quartet playing on the Slee Beethoven Quartet series, how good they were? The slow movement of the "Serioso," so moving. And the way they ended Op. 132 -- so exciting, bringing the crowd to its feet.

2. March 2008: The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra turned out a tribute to Viennese Late Romanticism that was both beautiful and bittersweet. On one hand you had a glittering performance of the suite from "Der Rosenkavalier." On the other, I can't forget the soprano -- I just looked up her name, Cristina Nassif -- wiping a tear away as she finished singing "Where the Beautiful Trumpets Sound," from Mahler's "Knaben Wunderhorn" songs. That song about a woman whose dead sweetheart comes back as a ghost always makes me cry, and it was a thrill to hear it live and to see that the singer felt the same way.

3. July 2008: That gorgeous Gershwin program at Artpark with the BPO, powerhouse pianist Kevin Cole and those two great singers, Alison Buchanan and Leonard Rowe, singing "Porgy and Bess."

4. August 2008: Russian pianist Alexander Ghindin whipped the sleepy Chautauqua Amphitheatre into a frenzy with the Rachmaninoff Second. People were still talking about it days later.

5. September 2008: I loved, from beginning to end, Harvard pianist and musicologist Robert Levin's weeklong visit to UB. He and his wife, Ya-Fei Chuang, gave a fantastic two-piano and four-hand recital, absolutely superb. That is Ya-Fei Chuang in the picture above. She is a heck of a pianist. But what really sticks with me is Levin's highly improvised take on Mozart's A Major Piano Concerto, K. 488. I just sat through it with my mouth open! Levin's lecture on Mozart improvisation, too, was fascinating and eye-opening.

6. October 2008: The violinist Chee-Yun's sensuous and lovely recital on the Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series was the absolute height of charm.

7. A few days later in October: Cabaret pianist Michael Feinstein's concert at UB's Center for the Arts was an unexpected treat. I went not expecting much and came away bowled over -- by his sly sense of humor, his witty playing and his devotion to the Gershwin, Berlin and the rest. So much fun.

8. October was full of great music! Late in the month, pianist Jeremy Denk gave one of the best recitals ever on the Tick series -- which is saying a mouthful -- when he played Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" and Schubert's final sonata on his way to Carnegie Hall. His assured virtuosity and his engaging personal style made this concert a hit with both novices and connoisseurs.

9. I had never heard the Buffalo singing group Vocalis before and their Christmas performance at the Karpeles Manuscript Library was a delight. Such a beautiful setting! Plus they gave out mulled wine at intermission! How often does that happen?

10. Tony Bennett's concert at UB's Center for the Arts to benefit the Ronald McDonald House gave us a memorable glimpse of a consummate showman. He is a pro in the best sense of the word.

Wow, that was fun! If you have any concerts from '08 you remember with special pleasure, I would like to hear about them.

Meanwhile, here's to the Top 10 concerts of 2009. I wonder what will be on next year's list!

-- Mary Kunz Goldman

That's all folks

End

It's the Flickr set to end all Flickr sets. Literally. Some genius has compiled an extensive series of end title shots from old movies, which you can view here. Just click slideshow and sit back and enjoy. [Via VSL]

--Colin Dabkowski

Tenor of the times

TynanIrish tenor Ronan Tynan has a thing going with Buffalo. He has made a habit out of singing "God Bless America" at Sabres games here. That is Tynan in the picture, singing at HSBC Arena when the Sabres played the New York Rangers in April 2007.

"I think Buffalo is a hell of a city," Tynan told NHL.com way back in 2005.

Now Tynan's words of encouragement ("The will is inside you") are on a plaque in the Sabres' locker room and he seems to come back here pretty often. Which is reason for rejoicing. It is nice to have an Irish tenor around. The whole tradition of the Irish tenor was built up around expressing heights of emotion, of one voice speaking for many. Tynan does that. His performances are both touching and cathartic.

It is interesting to glimpse Tynan in a variety of different settings.

Here is an a cappella "God Bless America" that Tynan sang at HSBC Arena in November 2007. "His favorite hockey barn, home to his favorite hockey team," the person who posted the clip writes. On New Year's Day 2008, Tynan was back, reprising his performance at the Sabres' Ice Bowl game. You can watch that performance on You Tube here.

Now, check out his stirring performance of "Amazing Grace" at Ronald Reagan's funeral here.

Watching these performances, you can't help but be struck by the emotion of both Tynan and his audience. One You Tube viewer, commenting on his performance at the Reagan funeral, wrote:  "I have heard this man hit notes I never thought possible. Trust me, I've heard him sing in person and he is one of the most powerful singers I've ever heard."

Speaking of impressive high notes, what the heck, let's hear Tynan sing "Danny Boy." Here it is.

At 7 p.m. Sunday, Tynan is paying a visit to Kleinhans Music Hall for "An Evening with Ronan Tynan," a program of songs performed with members of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Director JoAnn Falletta. For info, call 885-5000 or visit www.bpo.org. The word is that Sabres forward Drew Stafford is going to show up and join him for a song or two.

Whether you go or not, let's toast the friendship between Tynan and our town. It's certainly something to celebrate.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman

THE 10 BEST MOVIES OF 2008

In the Top 10 list game, which I play in this week's Gusto, one film frequently mentioned elsewhere has been Sam Mendes' film of Richard Yates' novel "Revolutionary Road." I haven't been able to see it yet, despite its strong reputation and the much hoped-for box office resulting from re-teaming  "Titanic" bell-ringers Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the latter quoted in the paper Friday saying that maybe she and Leo should re-team for a third time 30 years from now when they're both "has beens."

In fact, if they've both got active careers in movies (or anywhere) 30 years from now, they won''t be has-beens at all, but venerable miracles of their trade a la Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

Meanwhile, for those even marginally familiar with the 1962 novel "Revolutionary Road" by "writer's writer" Richard Yates, Leonardo DiCaprio seems astoundingly bad casting for the role of Frank Wheeler, the novel's soul-crushed conformist "hero." DiCaprio, it's true, can be a lot more than the pretty-boy hearthrob they always desperately want him to be in Infotainment America (see "The Departed" and "The Aviator" for Martin Scorsese) but he's still only slightly more appropriate casting for Frank Wheeler than, say, Adam Sandler or Verne Troyer would be.

If the movie really is of Top 10 caliber (we'll know here when it opens mid-January), it will have overcome THE casting handicap of 2008, hands down. And that will really be something.

Meanwhile, a confession: there's an ancient and venerable trick critics employ when they compile their annual lists of 10 Best Films of the Year: they actually list 10 films. You'll find in this week's Gusto only nine movies are listed. Inadvertently omitted was Andrew Wagner's sublime little movie starring Frank Langella "Starting Out in the Evening." It was Langella's OTHER great performance in 2008, besides his role as Richard Nixon in Ron Howard's upcoming "Frost/Nixon." For the full entry on "Starting Out in the Evening," see the online edition of my Top 10 list. And please feel free to compile your own here.

--Jeff Simon

Madoff made off with $360M from Booker Prize sponsor

Perhaps someday a great book will be written on the Bernard Madoff scandal -- I've got a notion that Tom Wolfe is already halfway through a first draft -- but regardless of when (or if) that book on the most notorious Ponzi scheme in the history of investing is published, Madoff's alleged fraud on a massive scale has already touched the literary world.

Bloomberg News
reported on Monday that Man Group PLC -- which is not a Robert Bly Iron John inspired male consciousness raising organization, but rather a venerable British "alternative investment" management and financial services business that was founded in 1783 by James Man, a London barrel maker who secured the exclusive contract to supply the British Royal Navy with the rum for nearly two centuries--appears to have lost over $360 million it had invested in hedge funds run by Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC.

Since 2002 Man Group, which runs several hedge funds of its own, has been the principal underwriter of the Man Booker Prize, the 50,000 pounds sterling award given annually to the best original full-length novel  written in the English language by a citizen of either the Commonwealth of Nations or Ireland.   Past winners of the Man Booker Prize have included V.S. Naipaul, A.S. Byatt, John Berger, Salman Rushdie, Iris Murdoch, William Golding, Arundati Roy, J.M. Coetzee, Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, Kiran Desai, and in 2008, Aravind Adiga of India for his novel The White Tiger.

The Man Group PLC also sponsors the Man Booker International Prize, awarded for biennially to a living author for lifetime achievement in English language literature and a body of work.  The most recent winner was Nigeria's Chinua Achebe in 2007.


Jane Acton
, a spokesperson for the Man Booker Prize committee confirmed that sponsor assets had been lost in the fraud, but insisted that it would have no impact on the continuation of either prize.   “There’s absolutely no reason to suggest that there would be any difference to the sponsorship deal we have at the moment.” she told Bloomberg,

Maybe so, but the unfolding scandal--which may have claimed it's first life on Tuesday when Thierry Magon de La Villehuchet, the co-founder of Access International Advisors, which suffered losses of $1.5 billion in the alleged fraud, was found dead Tuesday in his Manhattan office, an apparent suicide--probably has the board of directors of the Man Group nostalgic for the good old days in a more legitimate business like rum running.

--R.D. Pohl

Wall Street Journal critic on 'theater in the stix'

Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout, a tireless advocate for small theater companies across the United States, is putting out a call for outfits that want to have their work reviewed in the venerable WSJ. To my knowledge, in his well documented travels to places like Cleveland, New Hampshire and elsewhere, Teachout has never dropped by Buffalo to take in what is certainly one of the highest per-capita concentrations of quality theater in the country. And that's despite the earth-shattering closure of Studio Arena Theatre earlier this year.

In a two-year-old WSJ column he references on his blog, About Last Night, Teachout writes touchingly and accurately:

The time has come for American playgoers -- and, no less important, arts editors -- to start treating regional theater not as a minor-league branch of Broadway but as an artistically significant entity in and of itself. Take it from a critic who now spends much of his time living out of a suitcase: If you don't know what's hot in "the stix," you don't know the first thing about theater in 21st-century America.

Memo to ICTC, Road Less Traveled, the Kavinoky and all you other plucky small companies out there: Check out Teachout's blog and see if you can't catch his eye. It could go a long way toward getting Buffalo's mindblowingly diverse and vibrant theater scene the national recognition it deserves.

--Colin Dabkowski

From Salzburg to North Tonawanda

Giovanni The Metropolitan Opera video simulcasts have proven to be such a draw across the country that other opera houses are following suit. One option for the long-distance opera fan is the Riviera Theatre, the beautiful old movie house in North Tonawanda. The Riviera has been showing big-screen productions taped in opera houses in Venice, Bologna and Salzburg.

Sunday at 2 p.m., the Riv will screen Mozart's "Don Giovanni" from the Salzburg Festival. Admission is $22, or $20 for students and seniors.

The production sounds kind of wacky. The picture of it above does not look too bad. But there is another point where Giovanni, Leporello and Zerlina smoke pot together, and in the first scene, as I understand, Don Giovanni and Leporello are portrayed as junkies shooting up. Why people have to do things like this with Mozart operas, I don't know.

Oh, look! I found a video promo of this production on You Tube. Check it out here. The video is of Leporello singing the "Catalog Aria," in which he taunts Donna Elvira about how many women the Don has lured into bed. He lists them country by country. (Most of them are in Spain, where the opera takes place and where Elvira, one of the Don's conquests, lives.)

Hmmm. Watching that, I am starting to think the production might be worth watching. The singers sound good and they are fine actors.

The good news is, if you don't like it, at least you won't have invested a lot of money going to Salzburg to see it. And the music is bound to be first rate. Christopher Maltman is the Don, and Erwin Schrott is his sidekick Leporello, and Annette Dasch and Dorothea Roschmann are Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, respectively. The Vienna Philharmonic is led by Bertrand de Billy.

For info on the Riviera Theatre, call 692-2113 or visit www.rivieratheatre.org.

If anyone makes it to this opera, let me know what you think!

-- Mary Kunz Goldman

Denman on Broadway

That wacky Jeffry Denman, a University at Buffalo grad and song-and-dance man who's currently starring in a sparkly production of "Irving Berlin's White Christmas," is back with his annual low-budg rap video. This year, it's a sprawling affair that begins with an elaborate riff on "The Dark Knight" and quickly morphs into Denman's alter-ego and original "White Christmas" actor Phil Davis rapping his brains out about the supremacy of the musical compared to other Broadway offerings. To wit:

"They try to fill the gap with MTV," he says, while a scene of a girl holding a bag from "Legally Blondie: The Musical" flashes on-screen, "but it feels so empty without me."

How true it is. Denman has been getting some swimming reviews for his performance in the show, which runs on Broadway through Jan. 4. A cadre of 130 UB students, along with the university's president John B. Simpson, attended a performance of the show on Dec. 12. Enjoy:

--Colin Dabkowski

Poet Elizabeth Alexander to read at inaugural

In 1961, president-elect John F. Kennedy invited a then nearly 87 year old Robert Frost to recite a poem at his inaugural ceremony.  Frost wrote a poem called "Dedication" especially for the occasion, but on a bitterly cold afternoon in Washington, D.C., was unable to read his prepared text in the bright sunlight.  Instead he recited "The Gift Outright," a classic poem he had written in 1942 ("The land was ours before we were the land's..."), from memory.  From such faltering beginnings--at least for Democratic administrations--a great American tradition was born.

James Dickey
extended the tradition by reading "The Strength of Fields" at Jimmy Carter's inaugural in 1977, and Maya Angelou's recitation of "On the Pulse of Morning" at the first Clinton inaugural in 1993 opened up a new chapter in America's acknowledgement of its cultural diversity.  Miller Williams, the distinguished University of Arkansas based poet, who is perhaps best known as the father of singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, read his poem "Of History and Hope" at the second Clinton inaugural in 1997.

No sooner had president-elect Barack Obama finished delivering his victory speech before a crowd over 100,000 in Chicago's Grant Park on election night than speculation began in the literary world on whether a poet would be invited to read at his inauguration, and if so, who would get the call.

We now know the answer to those questions.  On Thursday, Obama's presidential inaugural committee invited Yale University based poet and scholar Elizabeth Alexander, the Quantrell Award winning author of four collections of poems, to compose and recite a poem appropriate to the occasion.

Continue reading "Poet Elizabeth Alexander to read at inaugural" »

A night to remember (or forget)

During the last several years, I've spent many a Monday night at a little bar called Q on Allen Street. It's a place where much of the theater community congregates to drink and gossip and generally blow off steam. On Mondays, Q hosts an evening that's come to be known as "Hakeoke," where local music director Michael Hake hauls his keyboard and extensive library of musical scores into the bar and various luminaries of the Buffalo theater scene take turns singing their favorite songs. It's always a charming time, and a chance to hear some of the city's best voices let loose in a quasi-cabaret sort of setting. It's also free, and expertly bartended by Buffalo actor Eric Rawski, making it the perfect diversion to soften the blow of the coming work week.

So when I was challenged by my editor to participate in a story where the News' critics would be criticized for doing what they normally write about, it seemed like the natural venue. I critique musical theater actors all the time, and this would be an opportunity to step into their shoes for a minute to get a tiny taste of the gargantuan task they're faced with on a nightly basis. Reviewing me would be Lisa Ludwig, an accomplished local actress whom I respected and often critique.

Continue reading "A night to remember (or forget)" »

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