Now that the Austin Symphony has consummated Part 3 of its “Mighty Russians” series, ithas completely shed its former reputation for underplaying big music. Almost to a fault.
Music director Peter Bay opened the formal part of the concert on Saturday with the bright and bold “Carnaval Overture” by Alexander Glazunov. Dismissed by some critics in the 20th century as merely “academic” — in other words, glib, predictable, conservative — Glazunov is also capable of great orchestral virtuosity. This rousing performance — a taste of what was to come at the Long Center for the Performing Arts — made me want to dive right into his eight completed symphonies.
Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s Piano Concerto No. 1 is all about the soloist, but the ensemble is given plenty of opportunity to introduce and expand on the piece’s gorgeous themes and variations. French pianist Lise de la Salle did not shy away from the famous concerto’s showiness. Compact and contained when off the bench, in performance, she swayed and nodded, extended her arcing arms, attacked the keyboard like an avenging angel, then caressed it like tender companion.
At times, de la Salle’s hands appeared to blur over the complicated finger work. (“I can’t imagine what the score looks like,” said a friend during intermission.) Besides technical skill and fearlessness, she added some interpretive touches, such as startling hesitations and a certain playfulness with the composer’s unconventional rhythms. These seemed to bleed right into her delicately rendered encore selection: a Debussy Prelude.
“How are they going to top that?” said the stranger seated next to me after intermission.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s “Manfred Symphony” is all over the place. Based on the poem by Lord Byron, it is at times unabashedly pictorial, at other times outright theatrical, always Gothic and so varied that a listener sometimes gets tangled in its taiga of melodies.
This is where we get to part about Austin Symphony’s plenteous sound. Remember back at Bass Concert Hall prior to 2008? “Manfred” would have shrunken to “Boyfred.” (Sorry.) Nowadays, the orchestra’s power rises, if not quite to the level of a major American ensemble, quite close, especially with the additional brass.
At times, it went right up to the point of excess. I felt a little pummeled. But that’s what “Manfred” calls for and the Austin Symphony delivered mightily.
Bloomberg Philanthropies has named 26 Austin cultural groups that will receive significant grants as well as management training as part of a $43 million second-wave campaign to strengthen small-to-medium-sized American arts nonprofits.
The charitable foundation — established by businessman and former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — chose the groups by invitation only in selective cities.
“It was a complete shock,” said Ron Berry, artistic director of Austin recipient Fusebox Festival. “I was in the office reading an article about how Bloomberg was expanding into our region and remarked to the team about how exciting that was, and then we got an email from them about five minutes later.”
“The arts inspire people, provide jobs and strengthen communities,” Bloomberg said in a statement. “This program is aimed at helping some of the country’s most exciting cultural organizations reach new audiences and expand their impact.”
In May, Austin was named alongside Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Washington D.C. to receive a second round of Bloomsberg grants valued at $43 million. Rare for this type of giving, the money is intended to cover operational expenses rather than specific programs.
“We wanted to reach cities that we thought had a really strong mix in the way they were serving up arts and culture,” Kate Levin, who oversees arts programs for Bloomberg, told the New York Times in May.
Previously, the program had given $65 million to smaller groups in New York, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In response to the news, Austin arts leaders talked about immediate needs, such as rent or replacement facilities and equipment, but also longer term strategies like marketing and development.
“Because our building has been sold, we must move in two years,” said Chris Cowden, longtime leader of Women & Their Work Gallery.”We have decided that, to avoid ever higher rents and the instability that brings, we must buy a building. Since the Bloomberg grant is earmarked for operating expenses, money that we would normally have to use for rent and salaries can now be set aside in a fund that will be used to buy that building.”
Finding new audiences is a high priority for long-established groups that have not reached their potential in the community.
“We are investing most of the funds into marketing because that is what we believe will make the strongest impact,” said Ann Ciccolella, artistic director of Austin Shakespeare. “I am personally thrilled! It’s taken a long time to get to a $500,000 budget and now it’s time for growth. With so many arts groups in the city learning new tactics together, I am hoping for powerful results.”
For some groups, the grant money takes a back seat to training. Bloomberg’s arts innovation and management program was devised by DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland.
“The grant comes with a wealth of consulting services and access to experts in the fields of marketing and development,” said Michelle Schumann, artistic director of the Austin Chamber Music Center. “I’m really thrilled to have the opportunity to ‘up our game.’”
The Bloomberg group instructs recipients to keep mum about the gift amounts, but an informal poll suggests that the grants equal 10 percent of their existing operating budgets.
“I am pumped,” said Jenny Larson, one of Salvage Vanguard Theater‘s artistic directors. “This funding could not have come at a better time for us. Being in a place of transition with the venue and staff has made us feel off balance. This support gives me hope and confidence that over the next two years we can create a solid foundation for SVT to continue to grow from.”
What do local arts leaders want to do with the windfall?
“Everything!” said Lara Toner Haddock, artistic director of Austin Playhouse. “Seriously there’s always a huge wish list of what we could do with extra funds. An unrestricted grant is so welcome.”
“I am as thrilled and excited as I remember being when we received our first grant ever in 1984,” said Sylvia Orozco, head of the Mexic-Arte Museum. “I am glowing! When you are young and daring, you believe you can do anything and accomplish everything you dream of. That’s how I felt then and that is how I again feel now.”
26 Austin cultural groups will receive Bloomberg Philanthropies grants
Allison Orr Dance (Forklift Danceworks)
Austin Chamber Music Center
Austin Classical Guitar Society
Austin Creative Alliance
Austin Film Festival
Austin Film Society
Austin Music Foundation
Center For Women & Their Work
Esquina Tango Cultural Society
Penfold Theatre Company
Puerto Rican Folkloric Dance
Roy Lozano Ballet Folklorico De Texas
Salvage Vanguard Theater
Vortex Repertory Company
UPDATE: Lara Toner Haddock’s name was missing from this story in an earlier post.
In comparison, top ticket prices at the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston are $23; San Antonio Museum of Art are $20; Dallas Museum of Art are $16; Fort Worth’s The Modern are $16; Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum are $14; SMU’s Meadows Museum of Art are $12.
The Menil Collection in Houston and Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston are free.
Admission to the Blanton remains free on Thursdays and to certain subsets of visitors. It also remains closed on Mondays.
Leonard Bernstein‘s “Mass” is about nothing less than a profound loss of faith, Not just personal, but also national, even universal.
Premiering 1971 during some of the most grim days of the Vietnam War, the great composer’s theatrical take on the traditional Mass structure was to deconstruct it and put it back together.
He poses a saintly Celebrant against competing masses of singers, dancers and instrumentalists.
First one group, then others, and ultimately the Celebrant himself lose the comforts of faith and peace and smash the religious images that adorn the altar at the center of the stage. If this spirtual chaos can seem heart-rending today — and at the Long Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, it was — one can only imagine the effect on buttoned-up audiences right after the 1960s, a decade that tore apart conventional social norms on so many fronts.
No wonder its debut at the Kennedy Center was so controversial. Not only that, the two-hour spectacle that begins with Broadway-Bernstein’s “Simple Song” — sung too softly here — ricochets musically among Copland-Bernstein, Stravinsky-Bernstein and the sometimes unsettling High-Modernist-Bernstein.
All this added up to an evening of almost overwhelming sensation, thanks primarily to Peter Bay, who has dreamed of conducting this towering piece since he witnessed the Kennedy Center premiere 47 years ago.
Let’s break it down:
Children’s choirs: The combined troupes, led by multiple directors, provided moments of joyful respite from the the heavier drama of “Mass.” Their brightly-clad innocence and sweet harmonies elicited an audible “aw” from the audience every time they appeared. Despite Michael Krauss‘s large, never crowded and gorgeously sacred set, the kids were by default and musical necessity required to cluster downstage. While stationed there, they were the stars of the show.
Bernstein100Austin Chorus: Placed upstage of the altar, this formidable group of singers, dressed for most of the action in dark robes, provided a sort of solemn anchor for everything else. Led primarily by Craig Hella Johnson of Conspirare, their sound was rock-solid and responded to whatever challenge Bernstein and Bay threw at them. It would be interesting to hear some of their sections done separately in concert. They would hold up.
Street Chorus: While the upstage choir blended into a whole, this group of two dozen or so singer-actors — dressed in street clothes and semi-seated to the side — injected particularized humanity into their roles. While they clearly represented some of the social subsets from the early 1970s, the performers made each part their own, thanks in part to stage director Josh Miller‘s efforts to distinguish each individual’s profile. Their solo meditations on faith and doubt really got the show’s near-operatic project rolling.
Dancers and Acolytes: Not having seen a stage version of “Mass” before, I could only imagine — or rather, struggle to imagine — the function of these mostly silent figures dressed in plain black-and-white cassocks. Yet, choreographed by Jennifer Hart, they kept the show in almost constant motion, delineating sections and amplifying the major themes. Included onstage were some of Ballet Austin‘s finest dancers, who know how to make movement into theater. If you don’t have the dancers, you don’t have “Mass.”
Celebrant: At first, baritone Jubilant Sykes provided the warm, soulful heart of the show. Wearing his vestments lightly and employing the full range of his stunning voice, Sykes tried to reach out and mend the rips in the social-sacramental fabric around him, not easy to do when there are 300 other performers around you. Yet when it came time for the Celebrant to break down and lose his personal connection to God, Sykes, defrocked in a solo spotlight, gave us a raw psychological study that could have been drawn from the most terrifying Greek tragedy.
Austin Symphony Orchestra+: Austin’s primary classical ensemble was supported by rock, jazz and marching band musicians. Yet they carried the preponderance of the musical weight triumphantly under Bay’s baton and, let’s be plain, they have never sounded more urgent or imperative. Especially during the interludes, they shed any mundane notion of constraints or equivocation. And as the audience made abundantly clear during the curtain calls, this was pinnacle so far in the career of conductor Bay. That’s not to say it’s downhill from here, but with this monumental “Mass,” all the participating Austin performing arts groups proved our city can aspire to almost anything. (And it made profit that will go back to the arts groups, says co-producer Mela Sarajane Dailey.)
You already know which Broadway musicals are coming to Austin’s Bass Concert Hall next season — yes, including “Hamilton” — but unless you attended the onstage party last night, you don’t know about the rest of the Texas Performing Arts season.
The University of Texas presenting group’s director, Kathy Panoff, who reports that subscriptions for the Broadway in Austin series are unsurprisingly strong, cheerfully introduced the dance, classical, world and other Essential Series selections to several dozen fans. Then she introduced Stephanie Rothenberg, a member of the Broadway cast of “Anastasia,” who sang two numbers from the show. Reminder: Among the name producers for this stage version of the animated movie are local backers Marc and Carolyn Seriff.
(I wondered if the Austin group flew in talented Rothenberg and indeed they had, just for two songs. She’s a “swing” member of the New York cast, which means she can take over several parts, including the title role, but also could fly away for the night.)
Without any further delay …
2018-2019 Texas Performing Arts Season
Sept. 12: Voca People. An a cappella group from Israel completely reconfigures popular hits.
Sept. 14: Reduced Shakespeare Company. The original creators of “The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) (Revised)” bring back the hilarious work that made them famous.
Sept. 21: Fred Hersch Trio. Ten-time Grammy nominated pianist brings the real jazz deal.
Sept. 28: Taylor Mac. Extravagant drag performer messes with the audiences during “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Abridged).”
Oct. 5: Yekwon Sunwoo. UT likes to book the top talent from the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and this is the 2017 winner.
Oct. 18: Ragamala Dance Company. It’s hard to believe this is the first major Indian dance troupe to play Bass, but I’m pretty sure that’s what Panoff said. They’ll perform “Written in Water.”
Nov. 1: “Blackstar: An Orchestral Tribute to David Bowie.” Lots of excitement about this take on the great man.
Nov. 8: Jordi Savall. Early music promoter returns to Austin, this time with a global vision in “The Routes of Slavery.”
Nov. 9: Pavel Urkiza and Congri Ensemble. The Cuban guitarist and composer interprets classic Cuban songs in “The Root of the Root.”
Nov. 13: Circa. Australian contemporary circus troupe presents “Humans.”
Nov. 14-Dec. 2. “The Merchant of Venice.” There’s usually one or two selections from UT’s department of theater and dance in the bill; this season it’s a take on Shakespeare.
Nov. 16: “Private Peaceful.” Verdant Productions and Pemberley produced this staging of Michael Morpurgo’s book on World War I, directed and adapted for the stage by Simon Reade.
Jan. 30: Michelle Dorrance Dance. Trust UT to bring in the best of the dance world; this tap troupe introduces “ETM: Double Down.”
Feb. 5: Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet. This sliver of the storied orchestra was founded in 1988.
Feb. 8: “Songs of Freedom.” Drummer Ulysses Owns, Jr. leads a group interpreting Joni Mitchell, Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone as part of the center’s series on protest arts.
March 27: “A Thousand Thoughts.” The Kronos Quartet team with Oscar-nominaed filmmaker Sam Green for this live documentary.
April 11: “Caravan: A Revolution on the Road.” A collaboration between Terence Blanchard E-Collective and Rennie Harris Puremovement Dance Company with projections and installations by Andrew Scott.
April 13: UT Jazz Orchestra with Joe Lovano. American saxophonist joins the college ensemble as part of the Butler School of Music’s Longhorn Jazz Festival.
April 11: Trey McLaughlin and Sounds of Zamar. They saved the blessing for last with this Georgia-based gospel group.
Creek Show, the annual procession of light art staged by the Waller Creek Conservancy, turned a corner of sorts last year.
What started as mostly elegant minimalist efforts along downtown Austin’s eastern waterway went maximalist in 2017 with masses of pink flags for “Night Garden” by Eric Leshinsky (lead) with Colter Sonneville, Megahn Skornia and Wenjie Zhao.
The designs for year five — the free event will be Nov. 9-17 — were recently announced and promise to continue the large-scale experience. In 2017, more than 20,000 people attended Creek Show, sampling the kind of attractions planned for a transformed Waller Creek. For 2018, Creek Show will be in a different section of Waller Creek — between Ninth and 11th streets — and include Symphony Square, where the “Creek Show Lounge” will be located.
Here’s a look at early renderings of what’s planned for 2018, along with the teams behind the designs:
“The Book of Mormon,” the hit Broadway musical about latter-day missionaries in Africa, returns to Austin and Bass Concert Hall April 17-22. The folks at Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts don’t want you to to miss a beat, so they have instituted a lottery for a limited number of $25 tickets.
Here’s how it works: Two and a half hours before each performance on the University of Texas campus, box office staff will start to accept entry cards with each person’s name and the number of tickets (1 or 2) that they wish to purchase. One person; one entry. Winners must be present at the time of the drawing and show a valid ID.
Again: Limit of one entry per person and two $25 tickets per winner. In New York, this kind of lottery, which was also used for them musical “Rent,” has attracted as many as 800 entries for some performances.
By now, any Broadway buff knows this 2011 show created by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, known variously for their creative work behind “South Park” and “Avenue Q.” Although it mocks the Mormon religion, it does so with just enough good will to attract LDS fans.
Broadway in Austin has paused its acceptance of new subscribers for the 2018-2019 season that includes the smash musical “Hamilton.” Current subscribers to the 2017-2018 season can still renew their seats through March 27.
New subscribers to the Texas Performing Arts series can sign up for the waiting list to be notified if additional season tickets become available.
This pause is quite unusual, perhaps unprecedented in the history of touring shows at the University of Texas’ Bass Concert Hall. Demand must be incredibly high.
At last you have permission to order those “Hamilton” tickets for the once-in-a-generation musical that will stop in Austin at Bass Concert Hall for three weeks in 2019.
The happy catch? To secure those tickets beginning at 11 a.m. Feb. 20 when the Broadway in Austin call center opens, you must subscribe to the whole 2018-2019 season, presented by Texas Performing Arts at Bass Concert Hall. That means six other shows, including one comedy, three relatively new musicals and two long-running Broadway standards. Single tickets to “Hamilton” and the other shows will go on sale at a later date.
Yet let’s start with “Hamilton,” which plays May 28-June 16, 2019, at the very end of the coming season.
“We have been building up to this season since ‘Hamilton’ opened on Broadway,” says Kathy Panoff, Texas Performing Arts director and associate dean of the University of Texas School of Fine Arts. “We’re thrilled it’s finally coming to Austin.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda reinvented the musical theater form with this ferociously smart show about Alexander Hamilton, inspired by Ron Chernow’s best-selling biography. Using a range of musical styles in a sung- and rapped-through score — as well as mostly nonwhite actors, who give every old idea new meaning — the show opened on Broadway in 2015. It has been sold out ever since, and individual tickets can go for hundreds of dollars.
Yet season ticket prices for all seven Broadway in Austin selections, including “Hamilton,” start as low as $224.
While you are holding your breath for the Great Arrival, six other shows wait in the Bass Concert Hall queue.
The one comedy — a rare nonmusical for Broadway in Austin — is “The Play That Goes Wrong,” a British product that has been compared to the backstage farce “Noises Off.” In this show, things go disastrously wrong during the opening night of a play called “The Murder at Havensham Manor,” proving that theatrical life is often the theater’s most effective subject. It lands Oct. 23-28, 2018.
Among the new musicals, “Love Never Dies” is an Andrew Lloyd Webber tuner billed as a sequel to his mega-hit, “The Phantom of the Opera.” Lloyd Webber, however, once said: “I don’t regard this as a sequel — it’s a stand-alone piece.” He later clarified his remarks, saying that of course it is a sequel, but you need not have seen “Phantom” to understand it. Fair enough. It stumbled during its original London run but was embraced in Australia. “Love” tarries Nov. 27-Dec. 2, 2018.
Another new musical, “Waitress,” was inspired by the charming 2007 independent movie by the same name and features an admired score by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, who currently stars in the New York cast. The musical version of “Waitress” opened on Broadway in 2016 and is still running, which is a feat for a relatively quiet, personal show. It tells of a cafe server stuck in an unhappy marriage who is pregnant and having an affair and who seeks redemption through a pie contest. It takes your orders Jan. 22-27, 2019.
“Anastasia,” the third new musical, shares an Austin connection. Local arts backers Marc and Carolyn Seriff are among the credited producers. The 2017 musical is based on the 1997 animated film — itself inspired by plays and novels about the recovery of a possibly lost Russian princess — and many of its fans remain loyal from that experience. It received lukewarm notices in New York, but, based on its built-in appeal, the producers immediately announced a worldwide tour. It appears Feb. 12-17, 2019.
The older musicals need no introductions. “Fiddler on the Roof,” the 1964 Bock and Harnick classic based on shtetl life, brings back Jewish traditions and indelible songs April 2-7, 2019. The musical focuses on Tevye, a dairyman with five daughters who must deal with changing cultural norms as well as the expulsion of the Jews by the Czar’s forces.
The record-breaking show comes to Austin by way of a fresh production from director Bartlett Sher.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s indestructible “Cats,” which debuted on Broadway in 1982 and then ran 18 years, shows up on our collective doorsteps again May 7-12, 2019. You either hate or love this show based on T.S. Eliot poems about feline life and afterlife. There’s no denying that tunes such as “Memory” are hard to pry from your mind. Whether you cotton to the furry costumes, circus makeup and undulating choreography is a matter of personal preference.
How to land tickets to ‘Hamilton’ and more
The seven-show Lexus Broadway in Austin 2018-19 season subscriptions go on sale starting at 11 a.m. Feb. 20. Prices start as low as $224. Visit broadwayinaustin.com or call Broadway in Austin at 800-731-7469 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The deadline for current season subscribers to renew their seats is March 27. Groups of 10 or more may request reservations by calling 877-275-3804 or via email at Austin.Groups@BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com. Individual show ticket sales will be announced at a later date.
Almost every year since I started reporting on the arts in the 1980s, the San Antonio Symphony has been on the brink of disaster. And I remember stories about its precarious state from my youth.
It’s one of those cases where the old-school donors always insisted it had to compete in size and quality with Houston and Dallas, but without the financial resources, foundations or corporate headquarters that fueled those ensembles. Old San Antonio just never believed they had been left behind.
Austin could never compete in those leagues and knew it, and so remained smallish, part-time and pay-per-play. At one point, discussions were underway to merge the management of the Austin Symphony and its sibling counterpart.
The most recent corporate white knight for San Antonio was H-E-B. Obviously, it didn’t work out.
The more progressive-minded forces down there thought they had solved part of the problem when they moved from the drafty, oversized Majestic Theatre — their counterpart to the Paramount Theatre, but on steroids, since SA was the big city in Texas in the 1920s — to the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, a smart project not unlike the Long Center for the Performing Arts that renovated an old, multi-purpose municipal auditorium.
In fact, some of the same design players were involved.
That clearly didn’t work either. The board needed $2.5 million to complete the season.
“We would not be able to raise that much money in such an abbreviated time,” Alice Viroslav, board chairwoman of the 78-year-old Symphony Society of San Antonio, told the Express-News.