World of Music

DSC_9197Jazz Orchestra explores Holst’s Planets

Verizon Hall, Philadelphia
Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia
Terell Stafford, conductor
The Planets: An HD Odyssey <I> Joseph Block (Venus); Tod Bashore (Mars & Mercury); Jack Saint Clair (Jupiter); Mark Allen (Saturn & Uranus); Nick Lombardelli (Neptune)</I>
Duncan Copp, filmmaker
Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia: trumpets- Nick Marchione, Jon Shaw, Tony DeSantis, Joe Magnerelli; Saxes- Dick Oatts, Chris Oatts, Mark Allan, Chris Farr, Tim Warfield; Trombones- Randy Kapralick, jarred Antonacci, Max Seigel, Joe McDonough; Rhythm- Greg Kettinger (guitar) Lee Smith (bass), Josh Richman (piano), Steve Fidyk (drums)

Gustav Holst composed The Planets for symphony orchestra a century ago, and it became his most celebrated work, yet he balked at its popularity. He dubbed it “a series of mood pictures.” And it did indeed prove very cinematic outside the concert hall as source material by film composers John Williams and Hans Zimmer in blockbusters movies like Star Wars and Gladiator.

Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia music director-conductor reimagines Holst’s mood pictures score through a jazz lens, with five composers reimagining the entire score without whole cloth sampling or vamping the composer’s sonics.

The Planets: An HD Odyssey was a centerpiece premiere of the 2018 Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, co-commissioned by the Kimmel Center and the Houston Symphony. And it had its own claim to the cinema in a film by Duncan Copp that was synced to the live performance. It was comprised of montages of stunning images from NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the Solar System and of the Rover landing and its filmed exploration on Mars.

JOP’s performance was musically HD too.

Each of the seven movements proving to be a uniquely different jazz take, and so cohesively delivered by this orchestra. The composers – Joseph Block, Todd Bashore, Jack Saint Clair, Nick Lombardelli and Mark Allen who was on the bandstand with the other players- were all in attendance in a near sold out Verizon Hall.
Among the many musical highlights

~‘Mars’ established the jazz transcendence right from the start, composer Bashore, wisely doesn’t’ try to compete with a jazz transcription that reached for the grandeur of Holst’s symphonics. Later, Bashore showing a completely different orchestral contours, later on his variations of Mercury, the quicksilver celestial jazz messenger.

Joseph Block swoops in with a sultry atmospherics for Venus, the bringer of Peace, with a voluptuous orchestral backdrop as Soprano Sax virtuoso Dick Oatts plays the St. Louis blues lead then it gives way to the famous serenading passage that blooms so voluptuously, pianist Josh Richman weighing in rhythmically on the piano and the inestimable artistry of Lee Smith on double bass.

A stunning passage comes in Jack Saint Clair’s Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity. Holst’s surging string anthem, the fanfares and rumbling orchestral by Holst, adapted a raucous progressive big-band orchestral that Saint vanquishes into a lingering dissonant bass line from Smith then the leading into Stafford stargazing clarion solo rendition of Jupiter’s cathartic central theme.

Indeed, the five composers admirably evoking different jazz eras, theories and genres- building it with power and depth, it careens from big band symphonics ala Ellington to Basie Band swing, to orchestral blues, hard bop and most impressive, the thrilling drive of its classical-jazz fusion.

In just five years, JOP under conductor Stafford is already among the most musically accomplished and innovative big jazz bands in the US. They have collaborated with top musicians in jazz, vanguard and veterans including Wynton Marsalis, Jimmy Heath, Pat Martino, Benny Golson, Larry McKenna, Bootsie Barnes and John Faddis, et. Al. This performance tapped a whole new galaxy of possibilities.

The concert opened with a few standard numbers by the superb Jazz Ambassadors of the United States Army Field Band, a jazz forward quintet inspired by the vanguard artistry of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. One hopes that JOP can have them back for a full session down the road.

Who knows what Gustav Holst would think of JOP’s jazz take of his Planets, meanwhile, the audience in Verizon Hall on this night was positively over the moon about it.




epic radical faerie realness =


Taylor Mac


A 24-Decade History of Popular Music


at the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts

 The undisputed house down performance at Philadelphia International PIFA was Taylor Mac’s A 24 Decade History of Popular Music at the Merriam Theater.

Mac’s opus features over two centuries of hit songs as a cultural document & interpreted through a social justice lens/ GLBTQueer fantasia by ‘judy’ Mac’s preferred pronoun because “my gender is performer.”

the nomenclature perhaps an homage to the great Judy Garland, who used to be called leather lungs, because of her versatility and vocal stamina, qualities that can certainly apply to Taylor Mac, previously performed in the uncharted time zone of 24 continuous hours, but for PIFA a still staggering 12 hour installments.Popular songs and music that annotate the cultural history of America, from decorous baroque of the late 17th century to our tumultuous and perilous times.

Part 1 covered 1776 to 1896 on June 2 covering music from 1776 to 1896 and on June 9, Philly Pride weeken spanning music from 1896 to the present. judy was joined at various times by over 30 musicians and other guests including Philadelphia Temperance Choir, dance troupes Urban Bush Women, Tangle Movement Arts, Camden Sophisticated Sisters/Distinguished Brothers and drag diva bestie Martha Graham Cracker. And working both shows onstage and in the audience the corps of ‘Dandy Minions’ of dancers, aerialists, burlesque performers and superdivas stomping the aisles.

The 246 song cycle showcasing among other things Machine Dazzle’s devastating radical faerie drag realness with judy transitioned into (with the help of dressers) in front of the audience.

I was only able to attend a chunk of four hours+ spanning the 60s-through the 80s~

by that time, judy had been on the Merriam stage for six or so hours- Here are just a few random highlights

First kudos to the incredible vocals of backup singers-soloists Steffanie Christ’an and Heather Christian.  judy’s blazing version of the Stones ‘Gimmie Shelter’ the scorching  duet with Christ’an was the house down as ‘judy’ turning it into a GLBTQueer anthem of liberte.

Bringing girl group realness to the Supreme 60s gay jukebox DL song “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”  From “I’m Just a Soul (whose intentions are good)” to Nina’s Simone’s “Mother Goddamn” her searing j’accuse against racism in America.  judy gave the backstory of Simone appropriating an essentially minstrel tune structure in a searing  j’accuse against racism in America.

Judy mused on the parallels (and differences) of the black civil-rights movement of the 60s and the gay rights movement. judy providing local history about a son of West Chester PA, black gay activist Bayard Rustin organizing the march on Washington in 1963 and kept in the background by the movement leaders because he was an out black gay man.

judy talked about the protests in San Francisco and historic Stonewall riots, the queens who fought back on the weekend that Judy Garland died. He sang ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ finished off with “over the rainbow” on piano.  A member of the audience portraying dead Judy Garland, was carried out in a spontaneous cortege over the stage and down the aisles with the Dandy Minions in fab funeral drag.

The gay sexual liberation of the 70s transitioned to the catastrophic decade of death, survival and solidarity in queer America.  Judy inspired by the uncompromised gay firebrands of ACT-UP Larry Kramer and Maxine Woolf as inspiration to create unapologetic confrontation through civil action and public performance art.

Judy exalted the soundtracks sex in 70s gay club backrooms, where between hookups “one minute you could be talking about Foucault, the next Cher.” Refusing to be shamed about anonymous sex, joking that it was indeed an intimate experience, consider the truism “a stranger knows something about you that your mother will never know.”

Looking for songs specifically composed by out gay men during the worst years of the AIDS epidemic in New York, when record producers were blocking any GLBTQ expression. judy found a searing testament of courage with out gay British songwriter Marc Almonds’ dirge ballade about grim realities of the disease and the inhumanity that PWAs faced in the 80s.

judy’s raucous survival manifesto through the AIDS years a mash-up of Led Zeppelin’s titanic Kashmir with the static disco frenzy of ‘Stayin Alive.’ judy’s vocal prowess seems almost in a category by itself, judy can turn something like the musically static ‘Addicted to Love’ turned into a polemic against the ‘moral majority’ movement of Christian evangelists and political hypocrites who demonized the gay community and called for PWAs to be put in camps and branded.

judy was loathe to learn his “Snakeskin Cowboy” (about “fag bashing” Nugent proudly said publicly) judy nevertheless turned the song into an ironic cautionary tale about washed up homopanicked fossil rockers.

Judy slipped into a blinding Purple sequined jumpsuit with a glitter Mohawk headdress to perform “the best make out song ever” singing Prince’s “Purple Rain” perched on the Merriam Theater balcony ledge.

Even after eight hours of performance, perfect pitch, even in an air pocket or two. balladeer, B’way belter, soulful chanteuse, art song artiste. judy’s muscled baritone on Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain is Going to Fall” the song reaches dramatic heights that Dylan’s limited vocal ability could not and all of Dylan’s poetry is realized.

On Bowie’s “Pretty Things” judy is the equally powerful falsetto queen and is the baritone crooner on ‘Heroes’ a manifesto of sexual freedom, and accompanied by the burlesque troupe in leather in the balconies, for some acrobatic sex,

Inflatable Macy’s Day Parade size penises of the American and Russian flags are floated & come together.  judy weighs in with scathing editorial as the gasbags deflate.

The transitions from era to era with judy being changed in Extravaganza symbolic costumes in front of the audience, when judy is near naked, it was symbolic too, of this full throated, thrilling performance. She evokes the ghost of Judy at Carnegie Hall, who told  the audience in 1962, that they can stay all night and she can sing them all. In Philly for Pride Weekend judy took everybody over and back through the GLBTQueer rainbow, not only singing the history of pop music, but reclaiming our history through theater, music and drop dead diva drag.





Cristal Palace glitters on Schuylkill River

Transe Express
Philadelphia International Festival of the ArtsI
June 1-10
Schuylkill River, East River Drive


The 100 ft. arm of a crane loomed on a pristine bank of the Schuylkill River, ready to hoist the giant chandelier of for French troupe Transe Express PIFA musical spectacale the Cristal Palace a centerpiece 10-day performance that took place each night of the 10 day Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts.

The chandelier was actually a flying bandstand for the brass and string musicians who sat perched in metal nests at the end of the its ornate branches. on stage below them other musicians as well as a roaming cast of dancers, aerialists, singers and street performers portraying a gallery of characters.

The show opened with the Nobuntu, a capella quintet from Zimbabwe,  transported with a set of joyous and inspiring harmony and folkloric vocalizations. At twilight, the Palace chandelier was in motion over the stage and the musicians’ playing unfazed as they were careening around on the chandelier in tight musical medleys with the rhythm, string and keyboard musicians on the ground

Their playlist was an era transporting musical journey with everything from psychedelic gypsy rock, funkadelic and they saved the most muscle for some extended jazz journeys to cap things off, echoes of birth of the cool. When the big-band swing came in with a nod from the drummer to Glen Miller’s Sing, Sing, Sing, the crowd was on its happy feet. At one point the keyboardist  busted out his accordion and cued a  Klezmer waltz that led to a scene of music and visual European bohemian magic.

Meanwhile the cast of Comedia d’elle arte street performers from move thought the crowd. Mimes and dancers in various costumes, engaging the crowd, a chorus line of Alpine folk dancers, a glitter-bodice Moulin Rouge courtesan, a musty travesti clown, a glitter queen with frizzy hair. Dance mise-en-scenes ala Moulin Rouge from Can-Can gender fluid kick-lines, to sousey physical comedy as the bands, aloft and on the ground stage strung together street serenades, gypsy fiddling, brassy chandelier fanfares. A bit of a flyby of French social and folkloric dance history with Alpine polkas, Moulin Rouge Can-Can kick lines, Paris tango as well as Americana renditions of the Charleston, Lindy and  flashdance,

Vituouso trombonist Ernest Stewart came on in the finale with a ‘Soul Train’ theme intro, then the rest of the band burst out with funkadelia ala Isaac Hayes, the dance line in full soul diva & divo mode. As much as anything Cristal Palace broke out in a bacchanal dance party.

So infectious the esprit that toddlers and kids were the first ones to run around and dance, some mimicking the street performers, others who just naturally have the moves. At first glance Cristal Palace may have looked like a gimmicky PIFA spectacale, but by the middle of the performance it became a bona-fide happening in Fairmount Park


The Wilma Theater’s premiere run of Christopher Chen’s ‘Passage’ closed earlier this month. & in the days after I wrote my review of the production, I couldn’t stop thinking about it & tinkering, not really sure I was unpacking all that was happening in the play.  While doing this, I let too much time pass to place the review on one of my regular theater outlets, but am posting it finally because it is in the final analysis this production was not only thought provoking, unexpected and brave theater that confronts profound issues of our time, even as it strips off the veil of theatrical conceits~ Lew

By Christopher Chen
The Wilma Theater
Directed by Blanka Zizka


At the Wilma Theater, director Blanka Zizka’s HotHouse ensemble of actors develop new material ala a repertory company, working on a continual basis in the studio even  between productions. The theatrical equivalent of dancers taking morning class, exchanging ideas and developing methods and skills in the allied arts.

Since its inception, Hothouse has tackled a wide range of new material that isn’t necessarily trending in regional theaters around the country. Christopher Chen’s ‘Passage’ for instance, busts through a number of conventions- including Chen instruction, for instance, that the actors not be typed by sex or ethnicity, meaning  any actor, can play any role. The characters in the play are identified only by their initials.

‘Chen’s 2014 play ‘ Caught’ was a funny, biting satire about western appropriation and exploitation of Asian Art, and a hit at InterAct.  ‘Passage’ has some inadvertent character humor, but it is a deadly serious, socio-political drama.

A ‘fantasia,’ according to Chen with glancing reference to themes in ‘E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India” about the inescapable injustices ignited by England’s colonization of India in the 19th Century.

Chen deals with our current era of colonization, xenophobia and the politics of ‘the other.’  An ideological axis of evil, however veiled by seditious regimes vying for total control.  In dramatic lit terms, “Passage” is closer to the political theater of such works as Marc Blitzstein’s 1938  ‘The Cradle Will Rock” confronting top to bottom societal corruption (which was shut down initially by the WPA) or Larry Kramer’s AIDS polemic “The Normal Heart”-  productions with undecorated social messages delivered in theatrical confrontational ways.

The citizens of the occupied country are indeed ‘the other’ in their own land and the rulers employ micro- and macro aggressions to strip them of their humanity. Meanwhile the culture wars rage and  Chen’s characters draw ‘us’ or ‘them’ political fights that  are always one sentence away from getting ugly and personal. Sound familiar?

The pawns in this drama are only identified by letters. The play opens as Q (Justin Jain) is traveling to Country X for the first time to join his fiancée R (Ross Beschler) and along the way he befriends F (Krista Apple) on a teacher returning to the colonized country, but can’t really tell him why. Q is looking forward to joining his fiancé but nervous about adjusting to a culture he doesn’t yet know.

H (Taysha Marie Canales) and M (Keith Conallen) are colleagues and soon to be former friends. At a social gathering they get into an ‘worldview’ argument about the political landscape of Country X. The have a circular fight about protesters who are now in the streets over a teenager being thrown in jail for steeling batteries.

They are joined by B (Lindsay Smiling) the most esteemed cardiac surgeon in Country X, who wants to bridge divides at least with his peers and tries to be the diplomat to no avail.  Later, B’s  view changes when he is reprimanded at the hospital where he works for being late due to the roads being blocked because of the protests.  Then when he attacked at gunpoint, but he is the one who ends up in jail, he is a disposable 2nd class citizen. F (Krista Apple) meets him in the Temple and they are attracted to each other but events have them to distrust each other.

Meanwhile, Q and R are reunited lovers, but Q can’t ignore the social injustices he sees in the country and questions R’s acceptance of them.  R asks him coyly “Don’t tell me I have to walk on eggshells around you” and Q responds, “only if you say the right thing.” R and J (Jaylene Clark Owens) justifies the jailing of the teen with her colleague R, and they justify towing Country Y’s nationalist line.  Q sets forth into the ‘cave’ to go it alone, to begin his transformative moment in a new country and  is confronted with a monstrous entity.

Whatever appearance of stability is, the grotesque mask that obscures police state tactics already at work. And indeed the utopian scenarios by Country X fall away to get to the ultimate political end game. Chen keeps the audience on unmoored theatrical footing, as we try to connect with what is happening and unravel the implications.

B seeks refuge in the Temple and talks about a time when people were more meditative and private about their inner lives and now the inner world becomes an outer commodity- or you lose, socially, professionally, emotionally and certainly politically.
The temple and the cave, cultural touchstones are the backdrops for all the unfolding existential journeys of these amorphous characters.  The maze is ultimately unknowable metaphysical space that is in the end no sanctuary from the dystopian void. Adding to the mysteries, Sara Gliko morphs into other creatures,  a gecko and a mosquito, making pointed comments like a survivalist Greek chorus.

As simmering as all of this surreal landscape is, Zizka’s focused direction is naturalized and a balancing act of Chen’s colliding polemics, while respecting Chen’s jarring narrative structure, some scenes striking as overwritten, others  underwritten.  The cast fully committed in every moment.

Meanwhile, Phil Colucci’s sound and music design transports in tandem with Matt Saunders set is sculpted black and white spaces, with geometric floor designs for the temple and the cave labyrinth carved out with lighting.
Zizka continues to develop plays with substantive social justice themes and this is certainly one, even as it almost collapsing under its own weight. Chen seems to abandon his characters and throw a wrench into his own narrative as Sara Gliko directly addressing the audience ala a motivational speaker in an extended, and unnerving way, even inviting us to leave or stay.  I, for one, had a squirming dislike for this final scene & yes wanted to leave the theater. Other audience members who were bounding to their feet to applaud, were clearly moved by this vaporizing of the fourth wall.

A week later any bets I wasn’t the only one still think about Passage and these characters trying to survive the looming monsters of oppression from without and within.

“Passage” is a brave theatrical experiment by Chen and some of it probably should be more narratively focused,  but without doubt it is daring theater by Chen, Zizka and Hothouse players.   They are committed to new theater that isn’t, by design, meant to be easily, or safely, deciphered.  And that’s what living theater in a hostile, anti-intellectual, oppressive and politically insane time is all about.

Classical Philly

The Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca |Giuseppe Giacosa, Luigi Illica: Libretto

Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, May 12, 16 & 19, 2018
Jennifer Rowley (Tosca); Yusif Eyvazov (Mario): Ambrogio Maestri (Scarpia): Richard Bernstein (Angelotti); Ehtan Lee (Shepherd Boy)
Philadelphia Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller (director); Philadelphia Boys Choir Jeffrey R. Smith (director)
James Alexander (designer and stage director); Jon Weir (lighting design)

Since Yannick  Nézet-Séguin became musical director of the Philadelphia Orchestra five years ago, he has tried to stage operas in Verizon Hall, by design not easy, since the orchestra is not in a pit, but onstage during performances. It works well enough with minimalist operas like “Bluebeard’s Castle” and “Electra” where the singers able to perform in front of the musicians, but more  problematic for the semi-staged production of Puccini’s Tosca, in a semi-staged production with the singers ensconced on a platform in the choir loft. Stage director David Alexander having to move the cast block the loft tiers, making the scene focus diffuse and somehow static and scrambled at once.

On the ps side the orchestra is in sight for the whole performance, a rare chance in grande opera to take in aspects of singers-conductor- orchestra dynamics. Further, Nézet-Séguin is able to vault the orchestra’s voluptuous sound, and otherwise igniting Puccini’s symphonics at the outset. Nezet-Seguin specializes in equalizing large scale classical pieces with famous stand alone passages familiar to concert hall audiences.  Tosca’s famous arias and dramatic passages are landed in context by the Philadelphians with precision and balance, relative to the entire score.

And handling the most dramatic ones, Soprano Jennifer Rowley as Tosca, and stepping in at the last minute for an ailing Sonya Yoncheva.  At the May 16  Rowley seemed detached and with little passion in Act I’s scenes with tenor Yusev Eyvazov, who played her artist lover, Mario. Since Flora Tosca is a singer herself, Rowley was a bit underpowered and detached portraying flirty jealousy. She made up for it in Act II when she tries to save him from being tortured by Baron Scarpia, starting with her ‘Vissi d’arte’ aria.

The drama begins as Cesare, bass Richard Bernstein  (making the most of his short dialogue passages) an escaped political prisoner is being hidden, in the church by a sousey Sacristan. In pursuit is Scarpia, wealthy chief of police, who suspects that Cavaradossi and Flora are withholding information.  Scarpia arrests Mario to force Tosca to talk about what she knows of Cesare whereabouts.

Baritone Ambrogio Maestri is the dastardly Scarpia, who later blackmails Tosca into being his lover.  She bends to his will as she hears Mario being tortured in his cell. Rowley and Ambrogio have great adversarial chemistry. Scarpia can certainly be portrayed with over the top villainy, but Maestri tamps that down as an actor and vocally to his characterizations, his baritone bringing subtlety and breadth.

Rowley has to be convincing leading him on until she can make a move to help Mario.  She unleashes  her soaring gold soprano, particularly commanding upper vocal range surfing over Puccini’s the orchestral crescendos. Yusev Eyvazov’s brings the house down in the famous “E lucevan le stelle” aria with thundering classic tenor drama.

Bass Kevin Burdette is used as comic relief as the Sacristan, swigging from a flask and flouncing about as he leads the choir to distracting the guards & protect Caesare.

Director James Alexander lets the Philadelphia Boys Choir scamper around the seats and rock out a bit for their sacred hymn “Te Deum.” The adult members of the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir are costumed as soldiers, police and townsfolk, but there is not much for them to do. Boy Soprano Ethan Lee appears as Shepard in Act II in perfect voice, both ethereal and earthy.

Nézet-Séguin was animated and even had a few new dramatic conductor moves to punctuate the crescendos. He looked like he was having a great time, going for every dimension of the score, despite production limitations. Among the standout soloists Jeffrey Khaner (flute), Hai- Ye Ni and Priscilla Lee, lead cellos, CJChang, viola,  David Kim, violin; Richard Woodhams, oboe and the breathtaking horn herald that launches Act III by the always masterful Jennifer Montone.

Nézet-Séguin is now conductor designate at the Metropolitan Opera and has already been putting his stamp on the Met Orchestra. Meanwhile, he is showing equal flair in the sustained clarity, detailing and character of Puccini with The Philadelphians. In fact, so assured, that even though Yannick had the score in front of him, he barely seemed to look at it.

Other issues swirled around the three performance of Tosca and the regular concert season closing concerts with piano superstar Helene Grimaud.  The performances were met with protesters objecting to the orchestra’s tour of Israel, because of current policies concerning and conflict with Palestinians.  The orchestra asserts that their tour is not political and their mission is one of musical diplomacy.  Stay tuned.



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Pasión y Arte~ Flamenco vanguards



Elba Hevia y Vaca in My Voice, Our Voice | Mi Voz, Nuestra Voz. Intercultural Journeys and Pasión y Arte, Friday, May 18, 2018. Photo: Aidan Un.


Jeanne d’Arc Casas in My Voice, Our Voice | Mi Voz, Nuestra Voz. Intercultural Journeys and Pasión y Arte, Friday, May 18, 2018. Photo: Aidan Un.

Pasión y Arte is choreographer-dancer Elba Hevia y Vaca’s Philadelphia-based flamenco troupe with international reach in their concerts, café tablao and collaborations that continues to explore traditions and new expression in flamenco dance and music. Hevia y Vaca’s collective has a feminist sensibility that in fact has always been an integral aspect of the art form.

Past and present came stunning together in Pasion y Arte’s concert last weekend titled My Voice, Our Voice | Mi Voz, Nuestra Voz a co-presentation with Intercultural Journeys presented at the majestic basilica at the Episcopal Church in West Philly May 18-19. The program quotes a poem by Virginia Woolf’ as the thematic key “The history of most women is/Hidden either by silence, or by/flourishes and ornaments that amount to silence.”

The concert explored traditional flamenco forms and flamenco fusion in collaborations with improvisational choreographer Annie Wilson, next to more traditional and free-form flamenco choreographed by Hevia y Vaca in collaboration with dancers Sarah Candela and Jeanne d’Arc Casas.

The musicians performing a fusion of contemporary classical music led by German composer-guitarist Andreas Arnold who specializes in flamenco guitar from Andalucia, Juilliard trained percussionist Jeremy Smith and virtuoso cellist and percussionist Adam Maalouf. Maalouf also switched from strings to percussive instruments, including a Pan-tam a flying saucer looking instrument just invented in year 2000 and one that Maalouf has clearly mastered. Venezuelan opera singer Barbara Martinez, also a virtuoso flamenco singer.

Among the many performance highlights at the May 19 performance~

‘Compas –solea por bulerias’ a percussive a capella duet with dancers Sarah Candela and Jeanne d’Arc Casas. They use ‘compas’ (hand clapping) to establish the rhythms as they dance  solos and unison patterns. They also move in close to the audience, establishing an intimate synergy with the audience.

Next was the first musical interlude by the band, an altogether transporting composition ‘Odisea’ the first of Arnold’s original music in the concert. Followed by ‘Bulerias’ a fiery solo by Candela, which she dances and also sings. Candela conveys a more improvisational, almost conversational artistry with less theatrical phrases, her personality expressive and non-intense, even as she polishes off phrases with classic flamenco moves.

Singer Barbara Martinez enters in a stunning champagne flamenco dress with cascades of fringe ala the jazz age, and starts to sing and dance. Pasion generally uses male cantors with the husky (affila) vocals. Martinez at the other end of the vocal spectrum, with a golden center soprano, both earthy and ethereal, so expressive and sublime with these musicians.

‘Manton’ showcases Elba Hevia y Vaca and Annie Wilson’s fusion choreography. The beautiful embroidered silk shawl with long fringe, the manton, is symbolic of many things in flamenco. Wilson has an iridescent white one that she is curled up under as Hevia y Vaca enters, peering  mysteriously  over a black and red floral one.  This is a modern duet in bare feet and they free dance around each other.  They lock eyes and Hevia y Vaca’s strikes a flamenco pose, she drapes her manton over Wilson’s and it becomes a hand puppet dancing to the wending guitar and percussion lines.

‘Bata de Cola’ is the ruffled train of a flamenco dress, and Wilson unceremoniously comes onstage and climbs a red dress flamenco one as Elba enters in a maroon cola. They pull the ruffles up and their face and bodies are swallowed in, protection, symbolic of power, sexuality and dignity, it frames their inviolate dignity even as they crash down and scrub the floor with the train, then lay on it as if it were a field of flowers, then curl in it as if in a cocoon.

Costume designer Patricia Claire Dominquez use of traditional (and stunning) flamenco dance dresses, with contrasting contemporary unadorned dance togs, is inspired. In the after talk with the audience, Hevia y Vaca speaks of women having to hide themselves in clothes for society’s approval.

‘Tangos de Granada’ with Martinez singing dancing with lyrical upper body expression and flamenco hand choreo (florea) and her soaring vocals.  She is joined by Candela in a flirty lyrical dance with a silk fan, sweeping over the floor in elegant, fiery patterns and splitting atoms with her footwork. D’ Arc Casas enters in a stunning red and blue dress with a voluptuous cola she whips around her body during forceful turns and she kicks up defiantly. Candela also performed a thrilling segment with a pink Manton she flared around her body like a matador cape. Their choreography movements becomes more intricate and their interplay with the musicians simply spellbinding.

The musicians and dancers form a circle for their bows and  with a joyous free dance, each taking an exit solo, included Jeremy Smith flashing a few body percussion moves.

A co-presentation with Intercultural Journeys, a performing arts organization whose mission is to bring together diverse artists and audiences. Pasion y Arte’s concert was the finale of their current season, with the ironic theme “Borders and Boundaries.”  Of course, the point being both those world realities are vaporized by these stellar artists through the universal languages of music and dance.

For information about upcoming performances and events check their websites-


Premier soloist James Ihde bids farewell with ‘Diamonds’

29- Jewels ( Diamonds _ PDD ) Principals Dancers ( Lillian DiPiazza ) and Soloist ( James I

May 13 on the Academy stage ~ Lillian DiPiazza & James Ihde in Diamonds photo: Arian Molina Soca

Red roses sailed over the Academy of Music stage on May 13 landing at the feet of Pennsylvania Ballet soloist James Ides, retiring from the company after 25 seasons, a favorite with audiences and three generations of PABallet dance artists. Ihde’s career with the company is almost unparalleled & he is has continued to dance in top form in his final seasons.  His swansong dance is indeed one of the most demanding roles for a danseur, the male lead in George Balanchine’s ‘Diamonds.’  It was suggested to Ihde by PAB artistic director Angel Corella and in his final performance James would partner prima ballerina Lillian Di Piazza.

Back to those roses in a moment, but first, there the matinee performance of Balanchine’s trilogy “Jewels”~  ‘Emeralds’, ‘Rubies’ and ‘Diamonds’~  representing a range of neoclassical choreography.   The dramatic glittery backdrops and sumptuous costumes by Karinska elicited applause and wows as the curtain went up on each one.  Much credit goes to Balanchine Trust repetiteur Elyse Borne’s for her technical precision and distinct musicality she brings to each ballet in this revival.

‘Emeralds’ is scored to music by Gabriel Fauré and is one of Balanchine’s most decorative ballets, and at its best as it was in this performance, a haunted mystique.  Karinska’s costumes have the mens in velvet emerald doublets and the women in pale green tulle ballet skirts.

Both lead couples, Yuka Iseda-Jermel Johnson and So Yung Shin- Jack Thomas,  captivating in their technical artistry.  The featured trio also proved a dazzling mise-en-scene for corps dancers Alexandra Heier, Emily Davis and Ashton Roxander.  Affron brought forth all of the lyrical mystique of Faure, and among the sterling soloists principal violinist Luigi Mazzocchi, harpist Mindy Cutcher, oboist Nick Masterson & cellist Jeannie Lorenzo.

‘Rubies’ is Balanchine is another defining collaboration with composer Igor Stravinsky and an undisputed masterpiece.  The propulsive drive of Stravinsky’s ‘Concerto for Piano and Orchestra’ inspiring Balanchine to break out of his own signatures and conventions. ‘Rubies’ choreo in a completely different choreographic key for Balanchine, so different from the austerity of his most famous modernist ballets. It’s witty and wry choreography that leaves room for liberated interpretation by the dancers. And lead couple Ian Hussey and Oksana Maslova revel in its propulsive virtuosity as a most fiery balletic romp. Balanchine’s angling the choreography in counterpoint to the Stravinsky dominant piano solos. played with breathtaking command by PAB pianist Martha Koenemann.

And the third lead, a breakthrough role for PB apprentice Sydney Dolan. Commanding technical artistry and star power. Five men are in position to move her around in arabesque variations, a dancer version of the ‘facets’ to a ruby’s inner ‘fire.’  And really that concept extended, in this performance to the corps women,  who throughout with sharp ensemble pointe & (counter)pointe work.

33- Jewels ( Diamonds _ PDD ) Soloist ( James Ihde ) PC-Arian Molina Soca _ 5-13-2018

James Ihde about to launch his final performance (photo: Arian Molina Soca)

Then it was all about ‘Diamonds.’ The anticipation for James Ihde entrance was building during the extended corps de ballet scene that opens Balanchine’s ‘Diamonds’ his glittering distillation of  Imperial Ballet classicalism set to the sonic waves of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1.  when they finally exit and then the burst of applause as Ihde and partner Lillian DiPiazza make their entrance,   Di Piazza and Ihde have radiant chemistry together from the start.  Ihde had a few tentative moments and completely pitched out of grand pirouettes, but, powered through, with incredible authority and artistry.

His jete circle nicely paced. DiPiazza’s steely pointe work and subtle expressiveness make this an indelible partnering. The full corps de ballet executing the crucial unison ensemble work without looking mechanical. And this was another opportunity for Corella to showcase what has been developing all season, a more uniform strength in the mens corps.

The curtain coming down on the full company ensemble grande processionale by Balanchine and DiPiazza and Ihde the glittering center. And then it was all over, the applause building as the curtain came back up on Ihde alone on the Academy stage for several moments that were, indeed, like an intimate, a once in a lifetime moment with an old friend…


…As the current roster of PABallet dancers came onstage with roses & heartfelt embraces. Many of James’ former dance colleagues were there to bid him farewell including  legendary founder of Pennsylvania Ballet Barbara Weisberger, who was a protégé of Balanchine dating back to the 30s when she was the youngest dance student in his class.

A most memorable moment as Conductor Beatrice Jona Affron came onstage to take a bow with Ihde. Affron has been conducting  PABallet Orchestra since the early 90s, in fact, as long as James’ tenure.  And without doubt, this performance of Tchaikovsky, Faure and Stravinsky has to be among the finest programs this orchestra has ever played.

PABallet founder Barbara Weisberger &amp; soloist James Ihde

PABallet founder Barbara Weisberger & James Ihde (courtesy PAB)

Artistic director Angel Corella presented Ihde with a bouquet and champagne as confetti and more roses sailed out from the orchestra pit during the 20 minutes of lusty applause for a great contemporary danseur, an indelible dancer in this and many another ballet season to remember.

A PABallet dancer for all seasons

Pennsylvania Ballet soloist James Ihde is retiring after 25 years, a rare achievement in itself, but rarer still, the fact that he is dancing taking his final bows in top form, co-starring with PAB principal dancer Lillian Di Piazza in George Balanchine’s ‘Jewels’ at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia this weekend.

James Ihde with PAB conductor Beatrice Jona Affron

Soloist James Ihde & PABallet maestro Beatrice Jona Affron (photo: Arian Molina Soca)

Originally from Kent, Ohio, in the early 90s, Ihde was a student at the company’s school, during a particularly rocky time for the financially strapped company. The artistic director Christopher D’Amboise was stepping down and Roy Kaiser, longtime principal with the company was named interim director and both D’Amboise and Kaiser wanted Ihde in the company. Ihde became a corps de ballet member in 1993 and flourished during Kaiser’s tenure and has been a soloist for 15 years.

Ihde has danced a wide variety of lead roles over the years is widely admired by colleagues and audiences for his artistry, warmth and down to earth personality. Earlier this week, not resting on any laurel, Ihde was in PAB studios, for his regular rigorous regimen of rehearsals and morning class and talked about his long talked tenure with the company.


(photo: Alexander Iziliaev)

He noted that he first thought about retiring five years ago, “I felt that something was happening then, that was telling me ‘it’ was shutting down,” he explained “My back had been bothering me,” he explained “and I thought maybe ‘it’ was shutting down.” But Ihde worked through it, dancer warrior that he was used to being, “eventually I got my full mobility back,” he recalled, “then I got a 3rd or 4th career wind and these amazing roles swung my way and I was dancing in some of my favorites.”

Ihde adds, “I had the opportunity to do them better actually, then I would have in the past,” he said “I appreciated them more. When Roy Kaiser stepped down in 2014 and former American Ballet Theater star Angel Corella became artistic director, there was a large turnover of dancers and Ihde knew there was a possibility that his contract wouldn’t be renewed. But the parts kept coming Ihde way for what would be his final seasons, with Corella programming many of the most innovative and in-demand international choreographers. Through it all Ihde’s technique and artistic imprimatur was well suited to neoclassicism and contemporary ballet fusion.


James Ihde & Martha Chamberlain (photo: Alexander Iziliaev)

Ihde has always been modest about his artistic skills “I didn’t have the goods to be a purely classical dancer, in the sense of getting those featured parts. I don’t have a lot of bravura technique or tricks I could pull out. I was suited to have more opportunities in neo classical and contemporary dance, I felt I had a better niche.”

A short list of Ihde’s most notable roles over his long career include Lar Lubovitch’s” Waiting for the Sunrise,” Balanchine’s “Agon” and “The Four Temperaments, Jerome Robbins’” In G Major” William Forsythe’s “Artifact Suite,” Jiří Kylián’s” Forgotten Land,” Christopher Wheeldon’s “Liturgy” and “After the Rain” and title roles Balanchine’s “Apollo” and Ben Stevenson’s “Dracula.” Ihde’s brilliant interpretation of two solos in Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments.”

And now as a career finale, a part that, Ihde has always dreamed of. “I was envious over the years not having danced “Diamonds” pas de deux. When Angel presented that, when we talked about this being my last year, I felt grateful. And I immediately thought it would be an amazing thing to get to retire with. I didn’t go into it with any expectation. But I wanted it to be memorable.”

The role is pristine Balanchine, requiring lyrical technique with the lead couple dancing throughout and capping it off with a central 10-minute pas de deux, which will highlight what so many PABallet fans will remember about Ihde, his dynamic partnering.

“It’s a little more classical approach than most of Balanchine’s ballets. And of course, it’s so great dancing with Lillian Di Piazza. Ihde is known for his partnering strength and onstage chemistry with such luminous former and current prima ballerinas. Ihde remembered his first partnership on a regular basis was ballerina Meredith Reffner “we always had a great time in rehearsals and on stage.” Ihde recalled some challenging partnerships but said that he always learned “the positive effect” because “you always had to figure out how to make it work.”

Ihde is known for his strong partnering with such luminous PABallet principals as Gabriella Yudenich, he recalled “Gabby always really went for it onstage and I loved that.” And with Lauren Fadeley Veyette, dancing in ‘After the Rain’ and ‘In G Major’ and the Forsythe ballets with her. She was so generous, always patient and the we always worked things out together.”

They are some of Ihde’s best memories as a dancer, but “I wasn’t a natural at it,” he admits, “Quite the opposite. I wasn’t a disaster, “he laughs “but I had to learn partnering every step of the way. Even down to this performance. I do feel very confident in my partnering, but I still being coached, taught and shown things.”

The soloist has been onstage a lot in his final season, including last month appearing for the 23rd time in the dancer’s annual Shut Up & Dance concert benefit performance for MANNA (Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance) raising extra funds by letting an audience member rip his shirt off.

Ihde’s short term plans are uncertain. He plans to teach and enjoy a break from the studio regimen for a while, but nothing is definite right now. For now, as he prepares for his final challenge, he can even look back with a measure of pride.

“Almost any dancer, if they have any self-awareness. see their limitations and what they didn’t do in equal, if not greater amounts,” he intimates, “But I have gotten a different perspective lately, that I’ve been here a long time and got to do so much, and feel I’ve made a contribution to the company.” Ihde said.


PABallet’s Court Dances
Pennsylvania Ballet
Grace and Grandeur
Merriam Theater, Philadelphia
April 5, 2018
The Pennsylvania Ballet was a near sell-out at the Merriam Theater for their Grace and Grandeur program, artistic director Angel Corella’s showcase for classical court dance lineage laced through Marius Petipa’s Paquita which premiered at the Bolshoi in 1847, George Balanchine’s Theme and Variation 1947 first staged at Ballet Theatre in New York, and even laced though moments of Christopher Wheeldon’s 2006 virtuosic male quartet in For Four.

As old as Paquita is, it bypasses being a brittle period divertessment through the effervescent of Ludwig Minkus’ ballet music.  Even though conductor Nathan Fifield and Ballet Orchestra brought out all of its musical elan, the corps de ballet women, uncharacteristically, struggled up front with ensemble unison, wayward pointe work and scrambled pacing in the transitional steps. In contrast, featured dancers Nayara Lopez, Yuka Iseda, Oksana Maslova and Alexandra Hughes followed with their solo variations, all performing with glittering technique.  Kudos also to exquisite harp solos by Mindy Cutcher.  In the concluding ensemble scenes, the corps de ballet returned with more cohesive focus, especially sharp on Minkus’ showdance prestos.

Of course, most of the focus is on Principals Mayara Pineiro and Arian Molina Soca exuded so much charm, their technical artistry and chemistry conveying virtuosic command. The Merriam stage seemed to confining for Soca in his thrilling jetes around the perimeter. And huge scissoring battement and stag leaps, and signature saute de basque sequences. An extended turn sequences did fall apart in its final rotations, but by then the audience was already dazzled for good reason. Pineiro’s fiery artistry and deportment is breathtaking. Pineiro nailing over 30 fouettes (many with lashing double turns) like a spinning diamond.


Mayara Pineiro & Arian Molina Soca with PABallet corps de ballet in Paquita

(All photos: Rosalie O’Connor)


02_For Four WHEELDON

For Four is a dazzling showcase for a quartet of men dancing abstractly to
Schubert’s String Quartet. The score’s taut string interlocks fuel Wheeldon’s neoballetic/postmodern phrases, that he punctuates with court jester bows, stag leaps, bows, tornadic pirouettes and darting arrow jetes ala Paul Taylor.

8- For Four _ Full cast ( Peter Weil , Ze Cheng Liang , Jermel Jonhson and Sterling Baca%

(l-r) Peter Weill, Sterling Baca, Zecheng Laing & Jermel Johnson~For Four

Sterling Baca is stoic and steely in his technical artistry.  Zecheng Laing a most lyrical dancer as his body arcs to the side, then he bolts over the stage in razor sharp allegro steps. Jermel Johnson in graceful command with unfussy and floaty jetes and entrechats. Peter Weill’s at ease phrasing the definition of  fleet and assured technique.

This piece was built for modern danseurs, and Corella was in the original, but when it is stars outdoing each other it doesn’t come alive, but this foursome was as ‘connected’ as the strings in Schubert’s score, led by the master violinist Luigi Mazzocchi.

Theme and Variations is one of Balanchine’s more inventive ballets in its distillation of Russian Imperial Ballet classicism. Balanchine is straightforward in showcasing the dancers without tangling them up as he does in many of his larger works. But the quick tempo classicism does require clean and sustained technique is a glittering showcase for both the corps de ballet women and men. Throughout the Balanchine’s morphing ensemble geometrics, the unison lines, pointe work and group port de bra, the corps de ballet women on top of their game in Theme and Variations. The full mens corps also near perfection in their unison jumps and deportment in the ballroom partnering sequences.

03_Theme &amp; Variations BALANCHINE

Dayesa Torriente & Sterling Baca and corps de ballet~ Theme and Variations

Baca was back, most impressively and his partner Dayesa Torriente deepened their onstage chemistry after their dazzling performances Siegfried and Odette/Odile last month in Swan Lake.

Corella’s range of updated classical repertory has been paying off artistically and commercially. Just a month after his streamlined version of Swan Lake, a retro-update styled after Petipa/Ivanov definitive version, was a near sell-out even with questionable edits to the score.  Next month he mounts Jewels, George Balanchine’s three ballet opus with its penultimate distillation of Imperial Ballet Classicism in Diamonds.




Turkjazz & Russian Musical liberation

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Lahav Shani, Conductor

David Bilger, trumpet

Verizon Hall, Philadelphia March 24


conductor-pianist Lahav Shani

(photo: Marco Broogreve)


800x1200Shani(Marco_Broggreve)In March, Israeli conductor Lahav Shani made an impressive Philadelphia Orchestra debut with a substantive program that showed, among other things, his interpretive range of repertory, in this case Stravinsky’s Firebird and Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony, already ambitious, and a piece by classical-jazz fusionist composer Christian Lindberg. Based on his concerts here it is no surprise that  29- year old conductor  is succeeding Yannick Nezet-Seguin this year as chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and is also conductor designate of the Israeli Philharmonic and following the towering tenure  Zubin Mehta in 2020-21.

Swedish composer Lindberg’s Akbank Bunka for trumpet and chamber orchestra, transcribed here for the full Philadelphia Orchestra with principle trumpet David Bilger the soloist. Lindberg has faint echoes of from Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain to Ravel and risks a pastiche quality. During Akbank, the first movement, the solo trumpet seems in its own zone, and Bilger projecting a pristine, even studied precision. The work bursts open up midway through, with staccato note runs and steely voicings by Bilger that just engulf the concert hall and soar in concert with the orchestra, with driving interlocks and sonic vaults and blue note eloquence. Then Lindberg’s second and third movements, Turkjazz, just break out into a rowdy percussive soundfield and Bilger’s blazing horn as cool as the midnight sun.

From the first rumbling basso architecture of Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird Suite’  Shani summoned Stravinsky’s earthy, atmospheric symphonic power. The ballet score has lost none of its luster 100 years later  in this 1919 ‘Suite’  when it is conjured in such vivid and seductive orchestral magic.  Shani brings out its dynamic rhythmic drive, clearly and subtly, there is translucence that reveals feral flight of  The Firebird that soars on the lushness of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s famous strings. Jeffrey Khaner flute igniting this Firebird with mythic purpose and luminous power.

Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony, composed during WWII, when Sergei was under the complete control of Stalin’s music union aka his board of censors dispatched to kill works for being too polluted with western ideas and condemning composers out of favor, based on dictates by Stalin. Prokofiev was in favor having produced film scores to Eisenstein’s films Ivan, the Terrible and Alexander Nevsky, and was under state commission to write the nationalist opera adaptation of War And Peace.

The 5th was an immediate hit and like the other works of this period Prokofiev was able to subvert the restrictions on ‘Western’ music. His music of this era had USSR requisite Nationalist bombast to cover for Prokofiev’s inner humanist and emotionally expressive ideas roiling below the surface, a tucked into the chamber mise-en-scenes. A hidden artistic statement aimed at freeing the hearts and souls of the Russian people, beyond the tyrant Stalin and his oppressive regime.

In this performance, the first movement struck as a bit diffuse. But the Allegro and Adagio movements were crystalline and engulfing Verizon Hall with Prokofiev’s soulful narrative, which Shani brought in its full dimensions.