June 24, 2022: Interview with Stilian Kirov

Stilian Kirov

Everything about Stilian Kirov, candidate for conductor and artistic director of the Amarillo Symphony, is world-class! An interview held in the offices of the Amarillo Symphony revealed why he is a finalist for this position.

Bulganian-born, Kirov noted that he grew up in a musical environment where he started playing the piano and, at an early age, decided to make music his career. He attended what is known in the US as a magnet school for the arts, and then enrolled at the Bulgarian Academy for Music in Sofia.

Along the way he began to play oboe, which allowed him to participate in orchestra. It was orchestra that awakened his interest in conducting. Fortunately, the acting conductor facilitated that interest, allowing Stilian to conduct both orchestral and choral works. He praised the generosity of his Bulgarian instructors, saying he was lucky to have them in his life.

At age 19 he went to Paris to study at the Ecole Normal de Music, which had a good choral conducting program. From there he hopped the pond to study at Julliard under Maestro James DuPreist.

His subsequent globe-trotting professional engagements match his world-class education. He has conducted orchestras all over the world, from Belo Horizonte in Brazil where he conducted Mahler to Xi’an in China, where he directed an all Mozart program. He said that the Chinese musicians and orchestra had an extraordinary work ethic, rehearsing four to five hours daily in the week leading up to the performance.

He will certainly bring a window on a wider world to the Panhandle!

If everything else about Stilian is world-class, the concert with the Amarillo Symphony is All-American, either from the nationality of the composers, Still and Barber, or from the subject matter of the composition: Dvorak.

William Grant Still was the first Afro-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony played by a leading orchestra and the first to have an opera performed by a leading opera company. His Mother and Child is the orchestrated second movement of his 1943 Suite for Violin and Piano.

Barber’s Violin Concerto is famous, or, as some assert, infamous for its third movement. The source of major contention between the composer and the assigned performer, the latter asserting that it was too difficult and out of musical character with the first two movements. Barber didn’t relent, and the audience will hear the virtuosic movement as originally composed.

Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” remains one of the most popular symphonic works. Largely composed in NYC, Dvorak drew on American influences such as the legends of the First People and Black spirituals, and quite possibly polished the work during the summer of 1893, which he spent in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa.

When pressed about the responsibilities of being a conductor and artistic director, his trenchant responses were revealing. He quickly responded to a question, perhaps awkwardly asked, about the chief role of the conductor, saying, “There is no chief in this role!” He further explained by a modified athletic analogy: the conductor, prior to performance, is like a coach, but is just another team member at performance.” He also noted, “You have to give musicians freedom to fully express their musicality.”

The image of the conductor as an authoritarian boss is not something SK believes in, but rather someone being in the service of music. “You have to acknowledge when and where you’re needed, and when you’re not needed.”

He summed up his responsibilities by noting that this symphony is the community’s cultural hub. A major responsibility of the artistic director is to learn what the community wants and needs, and, through meaningful relationships create relevant programming. The fund-raising aspect of the job should then come naturally.

Stilian Kirov obviously has raised listening to a high art form!

The candidate has worked with some of the world’s leading conducting luminaries. When asked about some of the most memorable associations, he recounted three examples, which illustrated in his mind, the transformative power of music.

Kurt Masur, longtime conductor at the Leipzig Gewanthaus Orchestra as well as music director of the New York Philharmonic, taught a master class in conducting at Julliard. He had a constant shaking of his hands caused by terminal Parkinson’s. But, when coming to a beautiful Pianissimo section, his hands suddenly stopped shaking.

Another story concerns Bernard Haitink, conductor at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam before locating with the Chicago Symphony. Kirov relates that once, visiting the conductor’s home, he started talking about the music of Brahms and the aura of his energy filled the room!

Finally, he related how his teacher at Julliard, James DuPreist, though a paraplegic from polio and wheelchair-bound, achieved national and world acclaim as a conductor. The candidate related that he constantly radiated a world of positivity through his music.

Such is the transformative and elevating power of music, which Stilian Kirov not only actualizes but hopes to communicate.

When asked what he would like to say to the people of Amarillo, he didn’t hesitate.

“I feel very fortunate to be back and make beautiful music in this wonderful place. Amarillo is special and has a high appreciation for the arts. I offer a big “Thank you!” for allowing me the privilege celebrating wonderful music with you.”

He’s impressed with the way that not only the orchestra, but also the community has changed in the last few years. He feels that the Amarillo Symphony has great potential to grow with the quality of musicians, as well the quality staff under the leadership of Larry Lang.

Stilian Kirov’s world-class vision will definitely encourage and facilitate that growth, which will most certainly

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!

May 28, 2022: Interview with Conner Covington

Conner Covington at Amarillo Symphony’s Lunch and Listen, May 27, 2022

A recent interview with Conner Covington, candidate for Artistic Director and Conductor of the Amarillo Symphony was, in a word, “refreshing!” His wide-ranging comments elaborated his own life’s story and musical odyssey, as well as his philosophies of musical programming and the role of the conductor. Finally, he set everything within the context of his desire to come to Amarillo and his vision for the symphony.

Even though this interview focused on him, he rarely used the personal pronoun. Never did the sometimes demonic artistic ego appear. Rather, he brought himself to the subject, usually after reframing the question from the perspective of the conductor. That quality, in itself, proved most refreshing.

He did not come from a musical family, and didn’t begin playing violin until the fifth grade. Conner revealed that he didn’t become serious about studying music until age 16. At that point, rather presciently and in order to make up for lost time, he relocated from Eastern Tennessee to Houston where family made it possible to attend the Houston High School for the Visual and Performing Arts.

His love for conducting was nurtured at the University of Houston by his orchestra conductor, whom Conner followed to the University of Texas at Arlington on the promise of more opportunities with the baton. Never discount the influence of one special teacher.

Conner also revealed his admiration for the iconic Frenchman Pierre Monteux, whole philosophy regarding conducting would subsequently inform the directors of many leading American symphonies.

Monteux maintained that the conductor was the servant of the music whose primary responsibility lay in keeping the orchestra together to carry out the composer’s instructions. “To that end, conductors must articulate their own vision of the composer’s intentions, then have the ability to convince the orchestra you have validity,” is how Covington explained his own concept.

Wen asked what he thought was the most important personal quality for a conductor, he gave an immediate and surprising answer. “Emotional intelligence!” He gave the example of Yannick Nezet Sequin, conductor of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and with whom Conner has worked in Philadelphia, as one who can just walk into a room and take the pulse of the musicians. In other words, this is the ability to intuitively know what is needed to actualize the potential of each musician and thus the entire orchestra.

His own musical preferences focus on the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as the classical period, especially Mozart and Haydn. But, his tastes have evolved to include Debussy and Ravel, as well as American Jazz and Blues.

The watchword governing his program selections is “Variety!” The choices for each Amarillo concert certainly underscore that principle. Composers from the first concert included Quinn Mason, Mozart and Brahms. Those in the second were Anna Clyne, Rachmaninoff, Rossini and Richard Strauss.

The choices also reveal another of Covington’s principles: the desire to expose audiences to new music. The performances of Quinn Mason, a young Texan, and Anna Clyne, a British composer, attest to that commitment.

When asked what, besides the job, prompted him to relocate to Amarillo, Conner quickly responded with two reasons. He said that the word of symphonic music is really a small community, and that the Amarillo Symphony has the reputation not only for innovation, but also for commissioning new works. That last quality is very rare in orchestras from communities the size of Amarillo.

The second reason is the tradition of music education in Texas, that he feels, is the strongest in the nation. It appears that someone realizes we’re know for more than producing football players here in the Lone Star State! That’s refreshing!

Questioned about his plans for community outreach and involvement, he emphasized increased collaboration, which he called a ‘Win-Win!’ with the various artistic and educational institutions, to expose the public to the joys of classical music. Part of his mission is to change the stigma around classical music, and by erasing elitist labels, make all feel welcome at symphony.

Finally, when asked what message he had for the people of Amarillo, he answered, not in terms of touting himself, but the symphony. “This community is very lucky to have an orchestra of this quality, which is rare in this country. Whomever is chosen as orchestra director has the responsibility to spread the word of this quality.”

Again, refreshing!

Conner, if you are chosen to press the “Refresh” tab for the Amarillo Symphony, you’ll make it easier than ever to say:

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!

May 6, 2022: But is it Art? ALT Takes a Deep Dive

Cast of “Art” taking a bow-Amarillo Little Theatre Adventure Space, April 10, 2022

Amarillo Little Theatre’s Adventure Space recently staged Yasmina Reza’s Art. Translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, the play has garnered a huge range of international awards.

The success of the play stems initially from two interrogative antipodes: What is art? What is friendship? The ensuing tension spawns a brouhaha which reveals major heretofore unfaced issues between the longtime friends.

The fulcrum of the play pivots on Serge’s (played by Brandon Graves) purchase of a work of art, which is nothing but a white canvas allegedly embellished with additional white pigment and diagonal striations for the exorbitant sum of 200K Francs. Serge seeks approval from his good friend Marc (Omar Nevarez), but receives only rejection and scorn for his choice. Marc is appalled that his friend would commit a double crime of egregious irrationality: call the white rectangle a work of art; spend a small fortune in its acquisition.

The disagreement in taste and priorities quickly escalates into the realm of betrayal. Marc is outraged that Serge has made such an impulsive commitment, without, it follows, consulting him. Serge, seeking validation from Marc, recoils from his attacks, wounded and hurt. Control issues are at play, big time.

But there is another issue, perennial and recurrent, that comes to the fore and runs on a parallel track with the dynamics of personality. It is the question of what is art and is Serge’s purchase even art, much less great art.

This issue isn’t plot conjuring on Yazmina Reza’s part. The work of the Polish-Ukrainian Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich launched this debate with his White on White Suprematist series in post-revolutionary Russia.

This gauntlet would later be picked up by Robert Ryman, whose white rectangle was famously featured on 60 Minutes, But is it Art? by Morley Safer. This episode became one of the most watched in program history.

So, the debate has validity and relevance. But this tension over aesthetics reveals entrenched perspectives as to what constitutes friendship and its boundaries. Serge and Marc agree to the arbitration of a third friend Yvan, (played by Harrison Blount)who, as a waffling placater, only makes matters worse as he takes friendly fire from each side.

A sequence of burned bridges lead all three to declare a cease-fire, and symbolically pass around a bowl of olives.

The play is a veritable smorgasbord of the vicissitudes of human interaction. Marc and Serge, successful in the world and rooted in their convictions, need validation from each other and feel threatened by the others divergent perceptions. And fragile, about-to-be-married Yvan reveals he is a victim of depression, and just wants everyone to get along as he wallows in a self-induced pathos.

All three actors create a credible developmental arc. The dialogue is quick-paced, but, following the expert direction of Alan Shankles, the principals give one another space, and no lines were stepped on.

The set was minimalist, and certainly did not detract from the dynamics between the characters.

And Art, typical of great works of art, raises more questions than answers, leaving the audience to resolve the limits of toleration in friendship, and, just as important to some, what constitutes art.

Such celebrations of ambiguity characterize the quality theatre we enjoy here in Amarillo. Which is why we unambiguously state:

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!

April 16, 2022: Dr. Sarah Rushing and a WTAMU Spiriocast Premier!

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Dr. Sarah Rushing: Spiriocast Piano Premier. WTAMU School of Music, March 9, 2022

When was a faculty piano recital more than just a typical faculty piano recital? That would be when Dr. Sarah Rushing of the WTAMU School of Music on March 9 premiered the first Steinway Spiriocast performance to multiple colleges in a national field test for this new technology.

Spriocasting syncs a performer’s keyboard and pedals to an unlimited number of similarly-wired pianos. Not only does the computer program deliver a matching sound, with artist’s inflections and dynamics, but also portrays streaming video of the performer as an empty keyboard, perhaps halfway around the world, mimics their faraway touch. In addition, the program allows recording, playback and editing on the accompanying ipad.

The first Spiriocast occurred on Oct. 25, 2021 when Kris Bowers performed from a piano in California for Steinway dealerships around the world. Dr. Rushing gave the first performance targeting a collegiate audience, her Steinway doppelgangers echoing her artistry simultaneously at Odessa College, Wayland University and Weatherford College.

Her program, a combination of 19th and 20th century composers, showcased the Steinway’s versatility and capacity, certainly meeting the criteria for this experiment. The audience in the other three schools enjoyed the virtual video, but with the exact audio, replete with the resonance and nuances that streaming cannot convey.

Two of Dr. Rushing’s choices deserve mention. She opened with Many Thousand Gone, a work by a woman called the “Dean of Black Women Composers,” Undine Smith Moore. This short piece is intense, and can be termed either turbulent or triumphant depending on the listener. Regardless, this work which inaugurated this seminal performance is short, lyrical and highly evocative.

Jean Sibelius published his six impromptus for piano in 1893, about the same time as he composed his Karelia Suite. The Opus 5 no. 5 is a scintillating sequence of keyboard-running arpeggios, interspersed with abbreviated thematic intervals. This beautifully expressive piece was a delight to hear, whether in Canyon, Weatherford, Odessa or Plainview.

It was easy to get carried away by the quality of the performance and overlook its significance. Even as colleges and universities around the world incorporate this new technology, WTAMU will have bragging rights as the first to explore its possibilities.

Many thanks to Dr. Sarah Rushing for her performance, and Dr. Robert Hansen, Dean of the School of Music, for the leadership and vision that first recognized the potential of Spiriocasting. The world of piano performance may never be the same!

All of which only adds to the conviction that the quality of the arts here on the High Plains of the Llano Estacado is incomparable and for which we proudly say..

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!

April 1, 2022-Amarillo Symphony: Mason; Mozart; Brahms; and…….”Slava Ukraini!”

This last weekend, the Amarillo Symphony posted several milestones. The first was the appearance of the second of the finalists for the position of conductor, Conner Covington. The second was the introduction of Larry Lang as the new Executive Director. The third was that the Amarillo Symphony joined leading symphonies and national choruses around the world in opening their concerts, in addition to their own national anthems, the anthem of Ukraine.

This hauntingly beautiful and majestic national anthem adorns an equally powerful script. “Ukraine is not yet dead, nor its glory and freedom,” a relevant affirmation of sovereignty for the present crisis.

Go to YouTube Music and scroll through the various performances of this amazing anthem, of which, the chorus and orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera is notably spine tingling.

After the traditional performance of the Star Spangled Banner, the orchestra, with the exception of the cellos remained standing. Conner Covington then announced that the orchestra, signalling support for Ukraine, would perform their national anthem.

The symphony delivered Shche ne Vmerla Ukrainas with a dignity and solemnity worthy of the songs message. The back third of the audience immediately stood, while the balance remained seated. Perhaps these attendees never watched the Olympics.

Regardless, the Amarillo Symphony now takes its place with the major arts organizations of the planet in support of the government and people of Ukraine in their struggle. No longer isolated in the Panhandle of Texas, the Symphony proudly takes its place as a world-class organization producing a world-class musical message! Slava Ukraini!

Col. Larry Lang, Rtd. USAF, was also introduced as the new Executive Director of the symphony. This native Texan brings a stellar set of credentials to the position, including commander of Air Force bands around Washington. In conversation he conveys an effortless urbanity reminiscent of Gen. James “Spider” Marks, a frequent CNN commentator.

Welcome to Amarillo Larry! You’ll find the Panhandle a different universe, but you’ll come to appreciate and wonder at the incredible arts scene that characterizes this unlikely place. The symphony and community are lucky to have you!

Conner Covington, conductor, with Quinn Mason, composer, March 25, 2022

Quinn Mason is a young Dallas-based composer and, according to his web page, “likes to make waves wherever he goes.” Only in his twenties, his works have been performed by many symphonies both here and abroad.

A Joyous Trilogy, composed in 2019 and revised in 2021, garnered for the composer a first place finish at the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of New York 2020/21 Emerging Composer Competition.

Quinn notes on his website that his motivation in this work was “to put any listener in a good mood!” The first movement, a complex piece entitled Running, has bounce and vivre, punctuated by brass fanfares. Reflection, the second movement, is somber as opposed to sad, overcast by a languorous trombone solo. The pulse quickens in Renewal, accelerating to a musical blossoming of variegated colors and textures.

What a privilege to listen to the creative mind of this outstanding young composer, and to have him present! Hopefully he will continue to provide orchestral works for symphonies around the world for many years!

Ashley Marie Robillard in Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate

From contemporary to classical, another young man’s work that sets the spirit soaring, Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate, was written by Wolfgang when only sixteen. The soloist for this concert was a remarkable young female vocalist, Ashley Marie Robillard. Youth was definitely on parade for much of this program.

The work is a lyric’s playground, the analog of a confectioner’s multi-tiered wedding cake. The fourth movement, Alleleuia, especially showcases the soloist’s virtuosity and Ms. Robillard was certainly equal to the challenge.

This is the 125th anniversary of the death of Johannes Brahms, and, in a departure from the youth on the program, the Second Symphony in D was written when Brahms was forty-four! The fourth movement, Allegro con spirito, is a rousing call to action, which begins with an assertive theme and gradually, over nine minutes amplifies into a thunderous conclusion. A standing ovation becomes imperative, and that’s exactly what Conner Covington and the Amarillo Symphony received.

The audience will not soon forget this program, because of its uniqueness and variety. That bodes well for the conductor candidate, who definitely scored a 10!

Again, for Larry Lang: thank you for your service, and we hope you’ll discover serendipitously why we say, Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!

And, after this performance, we also say Slava Ukraini!

March 16, 2022: Chamber Music Trifecta, Part I

Standing ovation for Annie Chalex Boyle, violin, Doug Storey, clarinet and Daniel Del Pino, piano

Call it an embarrassment of riches! Three exceptional chamber music concerts: two by Chamber Music Amarillo and one by the renowned Harrington String Quartet, in as many weeks, is a phenomenon of which few fine arts centers in the country can boast. But in this cultural and aesthetic matter, the High Plains owns bragging rights.

It was the writer’s intention to combine all three reviews. That quickly became impossible for reasons that the reader will soon understand.

On February 12, Chamber Music Amarillo, David Palmer Artistic Director, sponsored a Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano at the Amarillo Botanical Gardens. Artists were Annie Chalex Boyle, violin, Doug Storey, clarinet and Daniel Del Pino, piano.

These artists performed Premiere Rhapsodie by Debussy, Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano by Milhaud, Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano by Schoenfeld, and Sonata for Violin and Piano by Franck.

Debussy, as faculty at the Paris Conservatory, was “requested” to compose music for clarinet juries, Premiere Rhapsodie being one of the pieces. There is no record of students’ reactions to the “privilege” of performing original compositions by one of the world’s preeminent composers in a Pass/Fail exam.

The work impressed as a passionate tone poem, with the first two minutes devoted to virtuosic runs, transitioning to playful arpeggiation.

Darius Milhaud was a prolific composer who created over four hundred works, including ballets and sound tracks for movies and plays. A leading member of the influential Les Six, his career spanned three continents.

He composed Suite as the sound track for an amnesiac French soldier with WWI PTSD. The composer’s stint as embassy secretary in Brazil partially accounts for its eclecticism; witness inclusion of Brazilian dance rhythms, not to mention homage paid to American jazz, which he considered a seminal art form.

Expect the unexpected from Milhaud. In contrast with the first movement, which is infused with Terpsichore, the second is very deliberate, with violin and clarinet giving one another courteous space, like the soldier’s memory keeping itself at distance from the perceptions of reality.

If Milhaud’s Jewish identity influenced his Suite, it was subtle. Not so with Paul Schoenfeld, whose Trio resonates with melodies of the Shtetl. In face, the second movement, March, sounds like a slow slog through a bog accompanied by a Klezmer whine.

Dr. Doug Storey on clarinet not only embraced, but embellished the Hassidic sense of music as religious rapture, doing credit not only to Schoenfeld, but an entire Easter European culture.

Cesar Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano is too much of a good thing, like truffles and foie gras with Belgian chocolates washed down with a Grand Cru Cabernet. Originally written as a wedding gift for a friend, the turmoil of the work makes one question the composer’s nuptial concepts.

The Allegro, launches with ferocity, which persists, with a few lyrical lapses, until both instruments resolve into a steady state tempest. Towards the end the violin buzzes with a frantic passage like an East Texas mosquito storm on a muggy June night.

As boasted initially, such high culture in the heart of the Comancheria is the norm. So, as we digest the delights of Debussy, Milhaud, Schoenfeld and Franck, we assert with confidence, Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!

March 5, 2022: FASO Organ Concert: St. Andrews Episcopal

Clive Driskill-Smith Organ Recital

What is one to do on Super Bowl Sunday if they are indifferent to the teams as well as to the Hip-Hop halftime extravaganza? If they lived in Amarillo, Texas, they attended a world-class organ recital on the world-famous Aeolian-Skinner organ at St. Andrews Episcopal Church..

For the first time in two years, FASO (Friends of Aeolian-Skinner Opus 124), held a public concert. The organist was Clive Dirskell-Smith, one of the most renown young organists on the planet. Educated at Oxford and organist at Christ Church, Oxford from 2001-2018, he is currently organist and choirmaster at All Saints Episcopal in Ft. Worth.

His varied program actualized the capacity of this amazing instrument. Two of his pieces are noted here.

Herbert Howells (1892-1983) had a case of insomnia one night courtesy of a Zeppelin raid, which inspired his Rhapsody in C# Minor. This piece narrates every people under air attack, who endure, persevere, and ultimately claim victory.

The unmistakable low registers prevail in the tumultuous opening, calling to mind the engines of the airships and the explosions of their ordnance.

At approximately 2:45 the music turns eerily soft, perhaps the quiet after battle or the stillness of death.

At 4:30 the piece starts to build assertively, noting that the winds of war are blowing in the opposite direction. Then, at a certain point, the swell tempers, a caution against overconfidence.

But, at 7:30, the volume again starts to build with the piece ending in triumphant crescendo, the composer confident of victory even in the darkest days of WWI.

Howells’ work commands a powerful relevance in the present distress. As the sirens sound in Kyiv and Kharkiv, the brave and defiant Ukrainians know that their endurance will ensure that they will ultimately hear, as Howells’ work promises, the rhapsody of victory.

Georg Frederick Handel first performed his Concerto Grosso in F major, Op. 3 No. 5 in 1735 after he and his company relocated to Covent Garden. The father of the concerto, these pieces were composed partly for the purpose of luring audiences away from the rival venue. So, even the lofty ideals of artistic creation can serve a pragmatic impulse.

Driskill-Smith went full Handel on the Aeolian Skinner, the contrasts in the piece again showcasing the versatility of the instrument.

The opening Larghetto is slow and deliberate, while the Allegro, by contrast bounces with a recurrent theme. The Alla Siciliana is somber, almost morose, while the Presto is bright and alive.

The piece is a real roller coaster brought to its actualized fruition by the magnificence of the Opus 124.

On a personal note, Clive and I reminisced about a Christ Church cleric that I knew when I went to New College and that he worked with. Small world this.

There was a wine and cheese reception in the Fellowship Hall following the concert where all celebrated the world-class artistry, a not uncommon experience here on the High Plains, that we had just heard.

Clive Driskell-Smith Toasts Keeping Amarillo Artsy!

For this phenomenon we, along with Clive, proudly raise our glasses as we toast Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!!

02/22/22 – “As You Like It:” WTAMU Theatre

Curtain Call: As You Like It – WTAMU Theatre Dept

February 9 – 13 the WTAMU Dept of Theatre and Dance staged the Shakespearean classic As You Like It in the Happy State Bank Studio Theatre. Think a comedy/romance with a Game of Thrones vibe, sans dragons of course, where true love wins out and bad is banished. Such a happy ending is as we all would like it, whether now or in the early seventeenth century.

The play, though written over four hundred years ago, has, with its questioning of gender roles and behaviors, a particular modern resonance and relevance. In the context of the quest for true love and the desire for power, constants in human nature, the play explores the fallacies of perception that can lead all of us down uncharted paths, whether into the fantasy glade of Arden and/or new possibilities for actualization.

A key to the perennial endurance of the bard’s work, besides the universal themes and issues, is its adaptability to time and space: witness Romeo and Juliet in 20th century L.A. or A Midsummer’s Night Dream in a 19th century Tuscan town with characters on bicycles. So what were the creative twists in this production that made it stand out as different?

Though the dialogue is set in stone, directors permit themselves wide latitude regarding musical interludes, whether vocal or instrumental, trying either to approximate the original or insert new compositions.

In the case of As You Like It, which is recognized as the most musical of Shakespeare’s plays, Director Echo Sunyata Sibley’s creative team went over the top, and their compositions stood out as high points in the production. Three examples are noted.

Zachary Todd composed four works for this production, with arrangements by the director and Raffaele Abbate. At one point, the hero Orlando sings in the manner of Elvis, eliciting audience laughs where there would usually be silence.

The hunting song, a stomp the yard chant performed by the entire cast, was almost a tribal in effect and created by the members circling and then doing a version of “We Will Rock You” as they responded to prompts thrown out by the director. Collaborative creativity at its finest.

Hymen’s Prayer, sung by the cast at the wedding was richly liturgical, almost Palestrina-like in its harmony. One would think they were hearing the University Chorale.

Sunyata-Sibley added a comic warm-up, a stock character from the Comedia Dell’Arte trope who represents Zanni, a foreigner in a strange land, interacting with other outsiders, the audience, new to the forest. Bella Walker’s improv antics held the attention of those seating for both the first and second acts, with a syllabic spew worthy of a Tolkien tongue.

The magic element of a forest nymph was expanded by the director into three characters, who both sang and danced, with terpsichorean moves worthy of the Mariinsky.

The characters delivered their lines with clarity and an adroit sense of timing, devoid of caricatured British accents. And the stage, had an aesthetic utility in its construction, serving equally as a palais royale and a sylvan hideout.

To see Shakespeare performed with such creativity did credit to the bard and was a privilege to see. But, incredible as it seems, enjoying quality theatre along with all the other fine arts is a regular feature of life here in Cowboy Country. That is As We Like It up here on the high plains.

Anticipating future performances that enhance our quality of life, we say: “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!”

February 19, 2022: Koussevitsky comes to the Comancheria

Nicholas Scales Recital on the Koussevitsky Bass February 6, 2022: Fine Arts Recital Hall, WTAMU

Say the title fast, three times. It sounds like a tongue twister developed by speech therapists to war against the slow-talking Panhandle palate.

Yet it refers to a real event when Dr. Nick Scales, principal bassist for the Amarillo Symphony and music faculty member at WTAMU secured the incomparable double bass owned by the legendary Serge Koussevitsky and treated a lucky audience to a memorable Sunday afternoon recital, February 6 in WTAMU’s Fine Arts Complex Recital Hall.

Serge Koussevitsky was the iconic conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1924 -1948. He was also a composer, and a musician specializing in the double bass.

His instrument’s creation was long attributed to the Amati family of Cremona. Later research pegged construction as French, dating around the mid-eighteenth century, qualifying it as vintage, by any standard.

After his death, Koussevitsky’s widow gifted the upright to Gary Karr, the preeminent American bassist. In 2005, Karr donated it to the International Bassist Society, which has subsequently loaned the bass viol to artists all over the planet. Sunday marked Nick’s time to bow and fret this magnificent example of the luthier’s art to the delight of some forty privileged attendees.

Maestro Scales, like Maestro Koussevitsky, is determined that the double bass deserves acclaim as a solo instrument, not an orchestral back bencher. His crusade was abetted by the rich sonorities and luscious, complex overtones unlocked by his bow.

Accompanied by Mila Abbasova on the piano, his program intentionally showcased the upright’s immense range and capacity. Two of the works, long considered staples of the bass repertoire, are noted.

Koussevitsky, as mentioned, was also a composer, and his short piece Valse Miniature featured his artistic specialty. The majority of this work involves intricate yet lyrical multi-octave runs on the strings while the piano plays a rhythmic 3/4. Towards the end the parts become somewhat contrapuntal, the bass mirroring the keyboard.

It’s as if both men dared the audience: “just listen to this!” We did, and came away convinced.

A second number on the program worth noting was Concerto No. 2 by Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889), a composer of the Romantic Era, who was also the first to advance the overhand bow grip for bassists. And, like Koussevitsky, his agenda was to promote the versatility of an instrument long relegated to the non-melodic end of the scale.

The Allegro Moderato involves sequences of runs covering the octaval range, some with some quite intense sawing. The Andante, by contrast, is passionate and lyrical, while the Allegro opens with a pulsing gallop that carries the listener from buzzing lows to squeaky highs.

If Romanticism focuses on the emotions, then Bottesini obviously wanted to startle the listener by the potential of this instrument. By this measure, both the composer and the artist succeeded.

What a honor, in this unlikely place, to hear this incomparable instrument played by obviously a world-class artist!

The fact that artistic offerings of such uncommon quality are not uncommon events here on the Comancheria affirms our commitment to Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!

Feb. 11, 202: “Cabaret” at ALT

Audience Exiting Cabaret: Feb 5, 2022

“Show don’t tell!” The mantra of authors of every genre is currently on full display at Amarillo Little Theatre Adventure Space. In the space of two hours and through the magic of the stage, the cast and crew of Cabaret have done what hundreds of eminent historians in thousands of tomes have attempted: show how Germany morphed from a democracy to a fascist autocracy is less than a decade, although the actual focus of the play is Berlin, c. 1929-1930.

Reprised from one of the initial shows at the Adventure Space nearly two decades ago, all associated ALT personnel demonstrated that the impact of the musical has increased exponentially during that interim, as testified by the exit of a mute and sobered audience.

Two scenes, both floor shows at the Kit Kat Klub Caberet depict the story arc of the play. In both, the audience is welcomed by the emcee, the omniscient narrator and a paragon of louche depravity, played with Satanic relish by Jason Driver.

In the opening number, the Kit Kat girls and boys, scantily clad adverts for all forms of licentious exploration, romp around, encapsulating all of the moral anarchy associated with the politically impoverished Weimar Republic. Both sexes mime their specialties as the emcee explains. Mary Poppins, this ain’t! The cast members, true to their characters, performed their parts, from naughty to nasty, devoid of restraint or inhibition. Those who try to force this area into a mold of conservative rigidity obviously don’t know Amarillo’s stage scene, especially the Adventure Space.

In stark contrast, the second act’s final floor show scene, shows the bevy of beauties now Stahlhelm crowned and strutting in goosed and booted lockstep as they form a revolving swastika on stage. Die Neuordnung kommt! And, between these numbers, Everyman archetypes populate the limelight, illuminating this sordid transformation.

Sally Bowles, played by the incredibly talented Terry Martin, personifies willful ignorance of the worsening situation. Playing whatever part is necessary for Sally to get what Sally wants, she drops her facade in a moment of introspection, questioning whether she’s good enough to be a wife and mother. But, she gets over it, deciding to keep dancin’ with who brung her. Unhappiness is probably the least of the fates the future holds for Sally.

Dillon Kizarr plays the outsider, the ambigendered American writer Clifford Bradshaw who sees with clarity what is taking place in Germany. His attempts to enlighten fall on deaf ears, even as he takes amorous detours with Bobby, and does smuggling on the side for Ernst Ludwig, the Nazi party hack. Cliff is, like so many of us, a contradiction. But, he does recognize evil, stands up to it and pays the price. To Sally, shocked at his battered visage, he stoically remarks, “Well you ought to see the other three guys’ faces. Not a mark on them.”

Jo Smith and Jacob Miller are both convincing in their roles of Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. Fraulein Schneider calls herself a survivor, forsaking true love and happiness with the Jewish Schultz, laying low in order to survive. How many hundreds of thousands of such survivors were immolated in the firestorm of Hamburg or obliterated in the leveling of Dresden or Nuremberg? Herr Schultz, on the other hand, is in denial that the Nazis will ever come to power, and that the increasing violence against Jews is nothing but schoolboy pranks.

The greatest character change is seen in Fraulein Kost, the in-house prostitute played by Amber Morgan, who literally becomes the voice of change. Her solo in “Married” is auf Deutsch, full of hope and shows her tender side. However, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” which starts off as whimsical and light, centering on the new life of spring, becomes hard-edged and lethal, the cast forming a tightening circle around the two couples as Nazi flags unfurl from overhead. The effect was chilling. But it only got worse.

A sidebar on “Tomorrow,” composed by Fred Ebb and John Kander and used in the original stage production. The songwriters, both Jewish, conceived of the work as part of an anti-fascist cycle, but ironically, it has been adopted as an anthem by right-wing groups all over the western world.

Germans bought Hitler’s big lie, that Germany didn’t lose WWI, as well as his promise of MGGA. The consequence to any who didn’t conform, like Jews, or artists because they have the nasty habit of thinking for themselves, consumed the final scene, where all wore striped pajamas. The play abruptly closed with a crashing lights out and the characters vanished. A stunned audience didn’t applaud as the lights returned, and the dramatis personae made no curtain call.

Each in attendance exited lost in their own thoughts. This reaction alone attests to both the quality and effect of Cabaret.

The opening of the play so close to Holocaust Remembrance Day can’t be circumstantial and the brace of Caberet’s messages are more relevant than ever. The big lie, racism and antisemitism headline our news. The Jan. 6 insurrection, which the RNC so spinelessly called a “legitimate political discourse,” featured numerous 6MWE (six million weren’t enough) and “Camp Auschwitz” sweaters among the rioters.

George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Monuments from Yad Vashem to the Holocaust Museum are dedicated to that memory. And, Amarillo Little Theatre has joined its voice to that mission. No one seeing Cabaret will forget its message, either historical or in current threat.

We can be thankful for such edgy theatre, that dares speaks the truth to powerful prejudice, and does so with matchless artistry. For this, and all of the elevated art found in this unlikely place, we say with gratitude, Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!!