Kirill Gerstein Piano Recital

The Duke Performances piano recital series continued in Baldwin Auditorium Nov. 9, with Kirill Gerstein playing a well-considered program that began delightfully and progressed toward the sublime. Gerstein’s warm sound, his joyous, jazz-inflected explorations and unguarded emotionality–as well as his thundering power and silken delicacy–made this one of the most satisfying piano concerts of my experience.

Kirill Gerstein. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Kirill Gerstein.
Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Gerstein began with a late piano work by Josef Hadyn, the Variations in F Minor, Hob. XVII: 6, from 1793, a piece whose emotions are barely controlled by its clever interlacing musical structures. The image that came to mind was that of a dark red briar rose restrained by the delicate tendrils of a twining clematis vine with its froth of pale flowers. The minor theme shaded from melancholy to grief, near the end pulsing with rhapsodic sorrow; the major theme with its many trilling decorations on a calm orderly trellis brings us back to acceptance and peace, if not joy.

That Gerstein excels in generating imagery from sound was confirmed by his performance of Robert Schuman’s fantastic Carnaval, Little Scenes on Four Notes, op. 9, from 1834. The twenty short tone-pictures and dances that make up Carnaval are all over the map, but generally are quite animated. By the end of the final “March des ‘Davidbündler’ contre les Philistines,” I felt I’d spent an evening drinking in the sights at a marvelous fair amid crowds of Commedia characters, artists, waltzing lovers and fast-moving butterflies, all resplendent with color. Some of the sections are well known, but I’d never heard the piece performed entire–it is thrilling. Section 11, “Chopin” (Agitato) provided a connecting point to the program’s first work after intermission.

Old Friend, by Timo Andres (b. 1985) received its world premiere with, strangely, no fanfare. The old friend of its title is Chopin’s Scherzo No. 3. Andres, commissioned by the Gilmore Piano Foundation, wrote it for Gerstein (who won the Gilmore Artist Award in 2010). Although it contains what Andres calls “the skeletal melody” from the Chopin work (see his blog for his own writing about the writing of Old Friend), the main impression received from first hearing is that of  sizzling energies following their own courses–like the the motions of  particles within an atom. It would clearly take a virtuoso to play this. It begins with right and left hands moving towards each other from the extreme ends of the keyboard, but then they must cross and re-cross, the sounds tangling and re-ordering themselves. Speeding and slowing, clashing and harmonizing, the music tumbles along in increasing complexity, before spreading out like a quiet little wave. The piece is not very long, but you come out of it feeling like you’ve journeyed across the galaxy and back.

So, after that abstract adventure, we go to Pictures at an Exhibition, the grand 1874 work by Modest Mussorgsky, which is about as pictorial as music can get. In the spring of that year, Mussorgsky had helped organize a show of works by his late friend, Victor Hartmann (see images of the pictures here); he then composed a musical record of the experience of seeing them in exhibition. There are ten pictures, and the promenade that opens the work repeats three times between groups of paintings, and is reprised in the finale, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” I’ve listened to this music so often that I can hardly go to a museum without hearing it as I traverse the galleries, and I’ve heard it performed more than once (most recently by Leif Ove Andsnes), but I’ve never seen the pictures with such clarity and color. They were so full of life! I think Gerstein’s jazz training gives his interpretation a vivacity that other versions lack (this holds for the Schumann piece as well). This liveliness was particularly notable where it is most needed, in (5) “Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells;” (7) “Limoges: The Marketplace;” and (9) “Baba Yaga.” The wild energy of the witch with her crazy cackling gives way to the rich large sounds that build the “Great Gate of Kiev,” and the whole exhibition winds up with resonant grandeur.

I didn’t think there could be an encore after that, but following repeated ovations, Gerstein returned to the piano and gave us an exquisite goodnight: Rachmaninoff’s Melodie Op.3 No.3. So lovely. We will hope for a Rachmaninoff recording, and a return engagement at Duke by this pianist of prodigious technique and passionate expression.

Common Wealth at Common Ground: MANY MOONS

This review was originally published in IndyWeek on Nov. 13, 2013, and on

Common Wealth on the rise with Many Moons


J Evarts as Meg in MANY MOONS. Photo: Alex Maness.

J Evarts as Meg in MANY MOONS. Photo: Alex Maness.

Not content to be one of the Triangle’s more formidable actors in addition to his IBM career job, Gregor McElvogue founded a theater cooperative. Common Wealth Endeavors grew from the idea that the true common wealth generated by the former British Empire can be measured in language, the English now in use around the globe by people in very different cultures. McElvogue is a British national, born in Singapore and trained at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. He formed Common Wealth Endeavors to bring plays—stories—from the countries of the British Commonwealth to the stages of North Carolina’s Triangle.

Many Moons, playing at Durham’s Common Ground Theatre (no relation), is Common Wealth’s second full production, and it’s a stunner. The first work by young British playwright Alice Birch, it was originally produced in 2011; this production is its U.S. premiere. McElvogue directs the beautifully crafted script with great delicacy and a finely calibrated sense of timing. We are coaxed into such sympathy with the four characters that, even when their grievous shortcomings are revealed, we are inclined to accept that such shortcomings are part of the spectrum of human behavior. We cannot merely revile the characters as one-dimensional monsters—we know them as complex people, full of longing for love.

Some very tough stuff comes out in this unbroken 110-minute play, and anyone who has lost a child to pedophilia or death will want to be prepared, just as a rape survivor must be mentally fortified for portrayals of rape. Birch does not condone what her characters do; she gives their actions context that allows us to feel pity as well as righteous rage. And if we can take it, that makes us better humans.

The action is described in turn by the very pregnant 30-something Meg (J Evarts); the 24-year-old, always smiling, semi-ingénue Juniper (Mary Guthrie); the 30-ish Ollie (G. Scott Heath), brilliant but not socially adept; and the remorseful 60-something Robert (David Sweeney). It takes place on a single hot day, July 18, in Stoke Newington, a village in the vast London metropolis.

All of them are present on Cory Livengood’s simple, effective set; each is put in motion by changes in Hillary Rosen’s active lighting. They shift places as they tell their converging stories, and the language is such that we see their homes and yards and streets and cafes overlaid on the set’s plain geometries. The four are neighbors; they’ve seen one another and know of one another, though they’re acquainted only in the most minimal way. But July 18 is the day of the local fête, or neighborhood fair, and on that day their paths cross with devastating effect. The playwright is not ambiguous, but she leaves it to us to infer the results of the stories’ culminating actions.

The level of self-control achieved by the playwright and director is matched by the actors, all of whom are fully in character and leave indelible impressions on the viewer. Evarts’ portrayal of Meg is the best work I’ve seen from her. Sweeney excelled at showing his character’s simultaneous strength and weakness. Guthrie kept Juniper’s frothy belief in the good in everyone right up to the top of the glass—until the very moment of its complete deflation. And Heath, as the sympathetic young Ollie whose crime you must despise, breaks your heart while twisting your gut.

This article appeared in print with the headline “The bard, the gods and a modern tragedy.”

The production continues Nov. 14-16.

Changing, changing: METAMORPHOSES at PlayMakers, in repertory with THE TEMPEST

Stories of metamorphosis abound in every culture; our changing bodies and changing desires have caused them to arise in the human mind since the beginning. Anyone raised in Western literary culture will have been exposed since childhood to the stories of strange and wondrous changes collected by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-18 AD) from all the Greek and Roman sources available to him and collated into 15 books of poetically flowing story, Metamorphoses. The stories explain things, like the existence of spiders; or lay out the consequences of behaviors like greed, incest, hubris or self-absorption; they offer consolations against the griefs of life. Ovid has been a source for writers as diverse as Shakespeare and the forgotten scribes of children’s early readers.

Arachne could weave even more beautifully than Athena, shown here disguised as a crone, preparing to turn Arachne into the first spider for that insolence. From the 1928 children's compendium, Book Trails. The story appears in Book VI of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Arachne could weave even more beautifully than Athena, shown here disguised as a crone, preparing to turn Arachne into the first spider for that insolence. From the 1928 children’s compendium, Book Trails. The story appears in Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

More recently, the playwright, director and MacArthur Fellowship winner Mary Zimmerman raided Ovid’s trove for her 1998 play, Metamorphoses. She chose just a few of his stories to enliven onstage, and augmented them with related material from other sources (poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke; the story of Eros and Psyche, which does not come down via Ovid), creating a theatrical experience that mimics the carefully crafted flow of Ovid’s work, in which each story has some connection to those on either side of it.

In Zimmerman’s work, water, that great signifier of formal fluidity and agent of change, is a central element, and water there is—a great pool taking up much of the stage–at UNC’s Paul Green Theatre, where PlayMakers Repertory Company has mounted Metamorphoses. Co-directed by PlayMakers’ Joseph Haj and visiting master artist Dominique Serrand, Metamorphoses is playing in rotating rep with The Tempest through Dec. 8.

The ensemble in PRC's METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

The ensemble in PRC’s METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

PRC has production capabilities far outstripping all other theaters in the area, capabilities created and supported by the company’s role in the teaching programs of the Department of Dramatic Art. Every production at PlayMakers is a learning experience for both acting and theatre-tech students, and they supply a huge labor force while learning. For a show involving water on stage, with actors continually getting in and out of it, backstage work increases exponentially; for two alternating shows in which actors and their clothes must be dried before their next entrance, a backstage cast of thousands and many flow charts (pardon the expression) are required.

Julia Gibson as the psychologist, Gregory DeCandia as Apollo, and Nathaniel P. Claridad as Phaeton. Ari Picker on guitar. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Ari Picker, guitar; Julia Gibson,  Gregory DeCandia, and Nathaniel P. Claridad, during Phaeton’s tale.  Photo: Michal Daniel/ PRC.

Carey Cox in the rain, with Nilan Johnson and Nathaniel P. Claridad, in METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Carey Cox as Eurydice in the rain, with Nilan Johnson and Nathaniel P. Claridad, in METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

But one does not think about that while the stories unfurl and float away through the dark sea of mythic consciousness. One may think about time, or timelessness, or how much we are the same as the men and women who lived thousands of years ago and generated these mythic tales. One may be pierced or pinched by them to tears, so vivid are the stories and so exact their parallels to personal experiences. Just in case someone might have missed their relevance to contemporary issues, Zimmerman inserted a note-taking, jargon-speaking psychologist (well-played by Julia Gibson) into the story of Phaeton (Nathaniel P. Claridad) crashing and burning after taking his father (Gregory DeCandia) Apollo’s sun chariot for a disastrous spin. The script makes this a funny story, but most of them are not–though several do have happy conclusions. There’s not anything you can do to alleviate the pain of Orpheus, who just can’t not look back. But there is a kind of joy in the metamorphosis into seabirds of the grieving widow and her drowned husband, and celebration when Midas after much travail loses his golden touch and regains his live daughter. The great stories to live by are saved for the end, and by the end on opening night, the cast, most of whom are first and second year MFA students, had lost their initial stiffness and gotten into the rhythm (many of these actors also play in The Tempest which opened the night before, so some transitional moments can be forgiven). Both the story of Philemon and Baucis, an old, poor, couple who give hospitality to strangers, and thereby entertain the gods unaware; and the story of Eros and Psyche divided and reunited, are beautifully played. It’s wonderful to see these ancient myths brought to new life in young bodies, and to be reminded of  how, always changing, we never change.

Brandon Garegnani and Arielle Yoder as Eros and Psyche in the PRC production of METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Brandon Garegnani and Arielle Yoder as Eros and Psyche in the PRC production of METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

As satisfying as Metamorphoses is, the companion production of The Tempest is even more fulfilling. My review was published Nov. 8, 2013, on Classical Voice of North Carolina, with the title “A Lucid Storm: The Tempest at PlayMakers.”

Julie Fishell as Prospero and Maren Searle as Ariel in PRC's new production of THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Julie Fishell as Prospero and Maren Searle as Ariel in THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest is one of his most delightful plays, and not only for its many pleasant aspects. A story’s told from start to finish, and in it wrongs are righted, men better themselves, and a love match is made. Spirits and monsters can be seen and heard. There are ridiculous pratfalls and tender revelations. There’s music, and language that could be called the same. But no matter what interpretation du jour is laid upon the script, the play’s meditation on the magical power of words and stories to create and shape life is what makes it so engaging each time one sees it, and so worthy of seeing again and again.

The young lovers Miranda and Ferdiand, played by Caroline Strange and Brandon Garegnani. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

The young lovers Miranda and Ferdiand, played by Caroline Strange and Brandon Garegnani. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

PlayMakers Repertory Company has just opened a refined and visually-lovely new….READ THE REST ON CVNC HERE.

Wonderfully comic Julia Wilson as Stephano, with Jeffrey Blair Cornell's Caliban and John Allore's Trinculo under the blanket, in PRC's THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Wonderfully comic Julia Wilson as Stephano, with Jeffrey Blair Cornell’s Caliban and John Allore’s Trinculo under the blanket, in PRC’s THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

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