February 21, 2020: Fabuloso! The Music Dept at Amarillo College Delivers!

Dr. Nathan Frmyl
Beethoven Concert
AC Concert Hall
Jan 28, 2020

Two recent recitals at the Amarillo College Concert Hall Theatre illustrate why the fine arts thrive here in the middle of nowhere.

On Jan. 28, Dr. Nathan Frmyl, AC’s Director of Choral Music, showcased his virtuosity by performing an all-Beethoven piano recital, as part of the 2019-2020 AC Piano Series.

And, in case the boast hasn’t yet registered, AC is the only venue in Texas hosting all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in celebration of the maestro’s 250th birthday.

On Feb. 9 the music faculty held a late winter recital, emphatically demonstrating why AC is rated as one of the few fully-accredited community college music programs in the state.

Nate’s program was unusual in that it consisted of three works either thought unfinished or published against Beethoven’s wishes. The latter situation explains the puzzling opus numbers in comparison to the years of composition.

The first two works were Sonatas # 19 and #20. One theory is that these leitsonatas were composed as gifts for friends or assigned to students, which would explain the composer’s reluctance to publish.

#20 has a very Viennese quality, without any dark undercurrent that color much of his oeuvre. #19 evokes a different character as the Andante is solemn but the Rondo Allegro, by contrast, is very perky and arpeggiated.

Nate’s masterful exposition on the Shigeru Kawai presented a distinct separation between the pieces, which would continue to the last two works on the program.

The Sonata in E-minor, Op 90, numerically tagged #27, embodies more technical experimentation as the work dates from late in the composer’s middle period. And, in contrast to the first two works, here a strong emotional content emerges, a restless brooding that bespeaks loneliness and longing.

But, in the second movement, perhaps Ludwig has found love as we hear a discernible happiness that foreshadows Schubert.

Finally, the numerous attendees received a humorous treat in the Rondo a Capriccio Op 129, entitled Rage Over A Lost Penny. The title is attributed to Beethoven’s hagiographer and biographer Anton Schindler, whom music historians have accused of a number of apocryphal emendations.

Beethoven’s description, “in the Gypsy style,” stems from his own neologism, which modern audiences more readily compare to a Looney Tunes sketch involving Roadrunner’s taunting of Wile E. Coyote. Bottom line: this piece was just fun!

The general opinion of pianists holds that Sonata #20 is the easiest to play. However valid that assertion, Nate Fryml made it purely academic as he performed all of the pieces with consummate artistic ease.

But, there’s more as Dr. Fryml and his colleagues demonstrated on Feb 9 why AC has such an outstanding music program, which helps account for Artsy Amarillo.

Eric Barry & Nate Fryml
Faculty Recital
AC Concert Hall Theatre

In the program’s first number Nate accompanied tenor Eric Barry in Nate’s rendition of Shenendoah: Away Home. Originally composed two years ago, this adaptation maintains the stirring spirit of the iconic Shenendoah while enhancing the piece musically. At one point Barry hit and held a high A which rolled up to a B-flat. That certainly got everyone’s attention!

Dr. Diego Caetano
Faculty Recital
AC Concert Hall Theatre

Then, Dr. Diego Caetano, professor of piano, continued educating locals about his Brazilian countryman Heitor Villa Lobos, playing his Floral Suite. These three sections move from summer lassitude to the ominous sounds of the rain forest.

Since just the piano corpus of Villa Lobos totals over 600 works, Diego still has plenty to share with us. Guess that’s job security for the next fifty years!

There followed four ensembles, two of the “classical” designation, one Jazz and the last a hybrid mash-up.

Cassandra Hussey
Kay Fristoe
Puntita Panyadee
Faculty Recital

Cassandra Hussey, harp, Kay Fristoe, flute and Puntita Panyadee, piano, played Mozart’s Concerto for Piano, Flute and Harp, a nice touch on any stage in the Comancheria.

Katy Moore
Tiffany McDaniel
Camille Day Nies
Russell Steadman
Diego Caetano
Faculty Recital

Kay Moore, violin, Tiffany McDaniel, violin, Camille Day Nies,viola, Russell Steadman, cello and Diego Caetano, piano, combined their talents to play the Allegro non troppo from Brahms . This involved movment has a strong opening theme which reappears throughout and emphatically finishes the section.

Question: when do we get to hear the entire work?

Jim Laughlin
Austin Brazille
Rito Monge
Paul Galindo
Faculty Recital

Then, on a different tack, Dr. Jim Laughlin led a special group of former students in a jazz work by Chick Correa entitled Spain. A few years ago, this ensemble consisting of Austin Brazille on guitar, Rito Monge on bass and Paul Galindo playing drums, participated in a national contest only to be beaten out by a little school named Julliard!

Because of AC’s success at this national level, there is now a separate category for community colleges. What does that illuminate about the caliber and quality of this music program?

Katy Moore
Tiffany McDaniel
Camille Day Nies
Russell Steadman
Brandon Borup
Faculty Recital

Jessie Sieff, a nationally-known percussionist, arranged a work for solo snare with the enticing moniker Chopstakovich. An AC quintet of Katy Moore and Tiffany McDaniel on violin, Camille Day Nies on viola, Russell Steadman on cello and Brandon Borup on snare drums took that to a new level in Sieff’s arrangement of the second movement of String Quartet No. 8 by Dimitri Shostakovich, dominated by Borup’s pyrotechnic paradiddles.

The traps imparted a wonderfully light touch to the Russian master, leaving audience members with an unexpected reaction to a Shostokovich work: a smile!

So, in understanding the prevalence and pervasiveness of the fine arts in this unlikely locale, prime consideration must go to the extraordinary music department of our community college.

When it affords us the opportunity to hear all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, attracts professional artists from all over the world, then offers to showcase the talents of its faculty, it makes it easy to say, “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!”

Feb. 7, 2020: Polarzied Panhandle Plays

January 25 provided the opportunity to enjoy polarized, not polarizing, plays in the Panhandle: the opera Our Town at WTAMU; Baskerville – A Sherlock Holmes Mystery at Amarillo Little Theatre’s Main Stage.

The only commonality is that each is an iteration of a classic. Otherwise, the contrast between the two, intense dramatic opera and loosely-defined mystery comedy was so stark as to produce cultural whiplash.

Curtain Call
“Our Town”
Tenor Justin Wiiliamson taking a bow

The opera Our Town, conveniently sequential to the fall WTAMU theatrical production, is a Ned Rorem distillation of Wilder’s play.

The opera, as well as the play, portrays Americana as a cycle of life, a New England Everyman where the ordinary is extolled as heroic as all simply try to cope with this epic of the everyday until all finish the course.

The music wasn’t for amateurs. Tenor Justin Williamson, as the Stage Manager, had five arias! But, due to the superlative direction of Sarah Beckham-Turner, no one voice or role otherwise dominated, as this is the saga of how individual identity is ultimately subsumed into the greater whole.

Three Fundamentalist hymns served both as adornment and exposition, all parts harmoniously blending, although the church choral master, the town’s token but always inebriated artist, didn’t think so at choir practice, exhorting his vocalists to “Leave Shouting to the Methodists!”

The acting was restrained, therefore relatable. The genius of the both the play and the opera is that audience members find themselves in the characters.

Minimalism also defined the set design, much like Isamu Noguchi’s award-winning set for the ballet Appalachian Spring.

Disparate voices, each having their own song, somehow coalesce in communal harmony as ultimately Our Town, over peaks and through valleys, pulses inexorably forward. Life goes on.

The opera was profound, an appropriate lyrical companion to the stage play. Congrats to SBT for a deft touch in directing, and to guest conductor Keith Chambers for persuading a young group artists and musicians to blend rather than showcase their talent.

This area looks forward to further productions from the director, and from very young James Reilly Turner, who now will always have an operatic credit on his resume.

Curtain Call

In the words of Monty Python, “Now for sometime completely different!” Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville – A Sherlock Holmes Mystery is a mash-up between Sherlock Holmes and the Three Stooges, who seem to have Dissociative Identity Disorder as they morph through some forty-two characters between them.

The plot’s theme parallels Dracula: Risen from the Grave. Lord Baskerville’s death, his face a rictus of terror surrounded by giant paw prints inspires the notion of the hound’s return to the Moors and thus a call to Holmes.

The plot thickens upon the arrival of the last Baskerville heir, a “Howdy Ya’ll” Texan played by Brooks Boyett. Well, we could understand him, especially against the spectrum of English dialects and accents from Cockney to Oxfordian.

Comedic chemistry proved most reactive while timing was down to the nano-second. Nothing elementary about this play as it required seasoned, talented actors, astute direction, and a skillful stage crew to transform the cast during frenetic scene changes. Director Callie Hisek in this play definitely exhibited a flair for the funny, as she did for the provocative in Ada and the Engine.

Congratulations to ALT for a run of sold-out performances. As community theatres across the country exist on life supports, ALT, because of shows like this, is vibrant and thriving.

The fact that we, in Bomb City, can in one day see such a diversity of quality theatre and opera as Our Town and Baskerville, makes it easy to say, and without drama, “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!”

Durations Trio: Jan. 23, 2020 – Chamber Music Amarillo

Durations Trio
Annie Chalex Boyle, Violin
Susan Wass, Piano
Kevin Wass, Tuba
CMA: Fibonacci Space
Jan 23, 2020

Attending the CMA-affiliated performance of the Durations Trio at the Fibonacci Space, January 23, reminded me of the premier of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913.

The Parisians, expecting classical ballet and typical nineteenth-century music reacted so violently to the atonal dissonance, the jarring arythmia and the spasticity of the choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky that police had to quell a riot. Too much of the too new.

In contrast , an appreciative Amarillo audience applauded a crystal note concert by the Durations Trio, whose members played the violin, piano and tuba, challenging traditional concepts of musical form and harmony with the shock of the new.

In fact, violinist and Texas Tech faculty member Annie Chalex Boyle said there were two reasons that the Lubbock-based group chose to stage what amounted to a premier performance in Amarillo: an intimate performance space; an open and appreciative audience.

Bear that thought in mind.

Tubist Kevin Wass related how Durations grew from an ad hoc experiment playing the work Durations by American Morton Feldman, a major 20th century composer whose works have traction only among specialists.

That’s because Feldman created a new paradigm, to emphasize the note, not notes, tonal shadings, not harmony, sustainable sound and the unexpected in rhythm.

In fact, according to one listener, the greatest pleasure in this recital came from the impact of the unexpected, which took her into a zone suffused in a soundscape of atonal Zen.

But, returning to the genesis narrative, the first challenge for Wass was to find artists willing to take the challenge of Feldman. Wife and professional colleague Susan played the piano, but the search for that special violinist resolved on Annie Chalex Boyle, who agreed to play her part for Durations.

That single performance proved so successful that the group decided to continue playing as the Durations Trio and building of repertoire of hyper-minimalist, modern music.

Their performance in Amarillo included three parts of Feldman’s Durations, done antiphonally and triangulated in a small space where the sounds softly touch but don’t linger. The note, as both process and product, created a sensation at once edgy and elevating.

Fratres by Estonian minimalist Arvo Part makes the third time in the last year that local audiences have heard works by this composer. Sustained dissonance and vigorous bariolaging evoke the cold taiga, sometimes still and sometimes turbulent. Since the Panhandle has seen little snow this winter, Part has created, musically, an arctic white-out.

Two of the works on the program were extreme modifications from the Baroque period: J.P. von Westoff’s Sonata No. 3; J.S. Bach’s from St. Matthew’s Passion. Face it, neither composer created with the tuba in mind, like Amilcare Ponchielli who didn’t envision dancing hippos and crocodiles to his Dance of the Hours in the first Fantasia. Both were decidedly different and definitely out-of-the-box, but they worked!

The last number was by American Pauline Oliveros, a visionary composer like Feldman who took minimalism to a level she called “Deep Listening.”

From a work called Thirteen Changes (1986), which, curiously, has thirteen segments, the audience drew numbers and then tried to guess which title was just played. And the winners: Standing Naked in the Monnlight; A Solitary Worm in an Empty Coffin.

You just had to be there to get the effect of the sustained violin note, bowed without noticeable break, the Fazioli Grand’s strings plucked and a sometimes melodic tuba.

If modern visual art asks the viewer to see reality differently, Durations Trio asked the same of the listener. And, as with the visual arts, so also with music: the avant-garde of one generation becomes the standard of the next.

And to think , we heard Durations Trio first in Amarillo, thanks to the artists and CMA artistic director David Palmer. Honored by their performance, we were more honored that Amarillo was chosen over home-town Lubbock because of a discerning audience.

Which all but makes the case when we say, “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!

January 26, 2020: Concerto Extraordinaire – Jan. 11

The confluence of high culture within the heart of the Comancheria isn’t a common perception. But, in Amarillo it is the norm, but on January 11 the ordinary became extraordinary, in Chamber Music Amarillo’s Concerto Extraordinaire at the Amarillo Botanical Gardens.

Michael Palmer Conductor
The Amarillo Virtuosi
Concerto Extraordinaire

The title of the concert certainly delivered! Maestro Michael Palmer, former associate conductor of the Atlanta Symphony, directed the Amarillo Virtuosi, a group of local professional musicians, who, along with soloists Guglielmo Manfredi and Diego Caetano, treated several hundred avid fine arts aficionados to the truly extraordinary!

The first work on the program was Haydn’s Symphony 104, his last, and termed the London Symphony. Although he composed this symphony along with a dozen others by the Thames, the moniker is attached to this particular piece.

Poppa Haydn, the “Father of the Symphony,” began with a ham-fisted quatrain that sounded like an army of orcs bent on destruction of middle earth. But he then segued into a sequence of flippant themes, doubtless taunting the listeners from the hereafter with “Fooled you! Ha! Ha!” The old man had a wicked sense of humor.

Witness the almost larghetto Andante which the director and his musicians periodically pulsed for contrast, and the downbeat-heavy Minuetto. Poppa was all over the place.

But, in the Finale, a strong triad intro is followed by a maelstrom of competing themes, striated by extensive arpeggiation from the strings and emphatic intonations by the winds and tympani.

So, in the place where once buffalo roamed free by the millions, we heard the sound of 18th-century European courts, played with elegance and grace.

Speaking of which, the Renaissance writer Baldasare Castiglione in one of the first true self-improvement books in history, The Courtier, maintained that the key to changing oneself was the acquisition of new habits which by practice could be done with spezzatura: effortless grace.

The audience was privileged to hear an example of musical spezzatura, in the Horn Concerto #1 by Richard Strauss.

This work is dependent on having a horn virtuoso and, while that may sound like a comment on the obvious, the reality is that true artists of this instrument are indeed a Rara Avis. And “Guli” Manfedi, Professor of Music at WTAMU, fits that role to perfection.

Along with spezzatura, the word “mellifluous” comes to mind in describing Dr. Manfedi’s performance. At times this piece exudes an almost martial pomposity while at others is redolent of Romanticism. The intricate runs were smooth and distinct, with the orchestra and artist in perfect sync.

And how many places other than cowboy country could one hear a Strauss horn concerto on a January Saturday night? Extraordinary!

Diego Caetano
Concerto Extraordinaire

Finally, as homage to Beethoven’s 250th birthday, Dr. Diego Caetano, Amarillo College Professor of Music, performed the 4th Piano Concerto. Written in 1805/06, it was premiered in 1808 along with the 5th and 6th Symphonies.

The composer’s increasing deafness was becoming public knowledge, but in these works one starts to hear Beethoven taking inspiration from that inner cosmic realm, hearing the “music of the spheres” that would later have such ethereal expression.

This piece opens with a piano solo, joined by the orchestra, which becomes quite assertive. A tetradal sequence is introduced which is employed throughout the Allegro and is recapitulated in the Rondo.

#4 covers the entire emotional spectrum, from angry and ominous to manically joyous. The challenge of the frequent, some would say constant, mood shifts of Beethoven were accommodated by both Diego and Director Michael Palmer with a perfect balance between soloist and accompaniment.

What an extraordinary performance, and what a night to be enjoy the fine arts out on the high plains! Our gratitude to the musicians of Amarillo Virtuosi, Maestro Michael Palmer, Guglielmo Manfredi and Diego Caetano. A huge “Thank You!” to CMA’s artistic director David Palmer who orchestrated the extreme logistics.

With such incredible opportunities as Concerto Extraordinaire, and the prospect of more to follow in 2020, we proudly say, “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!”

January 15, 2019: AMOA Open

Sideshow Sally
Ralph Duke

The fifteenth annual AMOA Open welcomed artists and visitors for one week from Jan. 4 – 12. The exhibition, underwritten by Toot-n-Totem, and open to all Amarillo visual artists of any age and talent level, drew over 125 entries. In this eclectic event, grade schoolers displayed their creativity alongside seasoned professionals.

A small sampling of the works is noted here, with apologies to artist Terry Martin and photographer Sheldon Brashears whose images did not transfer.

Photographer Ralph Duke definitely drew the attention of most attendees with Sideshow Sally, noted above and a really fetching piece.

“Almost 3”
Jamie Mansfield

Jamie Mansfield’s Amost 3 is a perfect portrayal of sweet innocence, reminding one of the Impressionist paintings of Mary Cassatt.

“Idalou Angel”
Stacy Esquibel

In Idalou Angel, Stacy Esquibel creates a compelling work, asserting that on the bald Texas plains with their eternal, empty vistas, even monuments to the timeless become marred by time.

“A Healing Embrace”
George Loomis IV

Using only pencil and charcoal, the “sketchiest”‘ of media, George Loomis IV, in A Healing Embrace, has masterfully executed a rendering of protective paternal love.

“The Limited”
Melinda Anderson

In a fascinating water color reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, Melissa Anderson, in The Limited, manages a trompe l’oeil that is complex and arresting.

“The Razor’s Edge”
Ian Watson

Ian Watson classifies his art as “color field,” much akin to the work of Mark Rothko. The artist revealed that, for this work, he listened to Pavarotti as he executed the variegations of red, while Beethoven’s 9th helped inspire the other hues. The viewer, to appreciate Watson’s sophisticated technique, must get up close and personal to evaluate the intricate chromatic melds and transformations.

The real star of the show was the Amarillo Museum of Art, which again demonstrated its community-centered focus, shining a light on the wealth of local talent. Amarillo can be grateful to the AMOA, because it makes it easy to say, “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!”

January 11, 2019: Three Decade-Ending Plays

Curtain Call
ALT Adventure Space

Three provocative, emotionally-charged, highly relevant plays celebrated the waning of the year and of the decade. Sweat was performed at Amarillo Little Theatre’s Adventure Space; Ada and the Engine at West Texas A&M; Nibbler at Amarillo College’s Experimental Theatre.

All three plays shared an overarching theme: fear of change. Nibbler centered on teenage angst as recent high school graduates fear leaving their insulated bubble for the wider world of young adults. Sweat deals with the disruptive and destructive fear wrought by social change which obliterates a way of life. Ada and the Engine features English society’s fear of a woman’s accomplishments.

Sweat won a Pulitzer Prize for playwright Lynn Nottage. The work, despite pulses of levity, is dark and depressing, because it is too real. Good people lose control over their lives because of forces beyond them. If we don’t suffer from that incubus in real life, the prospect haunts our nightmares.

Thanks to the generosity of the adult beverage industry, a fully-functioning bar remained the prop throughout the show. That watering hole became ground zero for labor and life disputes that feature racism, xenophobia, poverty, addiction and crime.

There an entire culture of generational rust-belt, blue-collar workers, wrestle with the consequences of demographics, technological and geopolitical change that dominate their workplace and way of life. Failed by their company, their union, their country, and, ultimately, one another, they lose faith in themselves and in life.

Retrain, retool, modify and adjust to a new world order weren’t seen as options. The resentment and rage left in the wake of this social and economic upheaval would bear fruit thirty years later. The political fields of rust-belt red that elected Donald Trump were sown in the 1980’s.

The actors portrayed their characters in a credible manner, from their believable emotions and attitudes to their northern industrial accents. Wonder if they drank Rolling Rock Beer to get in character? Alan Shankles, the director, pushed the play at the right tempo to an impactful finale.

Sweat garnered the best applause: those seeing this play won’t soon forget it.

Curtain Call
Amarillo College

Director Ray Newburg called Nibbler, by Ken Urban, the edgiest play ever performed at Amarillo College. The impulse to stage this play , according to Newburg, stemmed from a decision to better prepare students for professional theatre, where a major portion of the income will derive, not from Shakespearean genres, but from edgy social commentary like Nibbler.

So, he and the AC Theatre Department, rolled the dice, and, according to this reviewer, got a seven. One compromise: the original production by the Amoralists in NYC flaunted an unqualified X Rating, whereas the AC production tamed down to an R.

Yet the dialogue retained sufficient saltiness with elided expletives to clue the audience. Asked whether the actors had to be directed up to the requisite verbal intensity, Newburg noted that it was the opposite as young people have a tendency to over-dramatize the spoken word, especially the four-letter forms.

The play centers on a group of friends, recent high school grads, who face an exit from their New Jersey Pine Barrens outlier for the wider world of college. Teenage angst with accents.

They mask their fear of the unknown by weed, cigs and sex, either vocalized or actual. Each character feels afraid and vulnerable as they face the future. So far, typical and universal.

Then, the Nibbler appears, making the play part science fiction and part theatre of the absurd. A hickey from this extraterrestrial alien, creatively shown on a jumbo tron, a nice tech touch by Technical Director Monty Downs, imparts both instant orgasm and character morphing into the character’s adult selves.

All except an unbitten Adam, superbly played by Michael Villarreal, who has no plans to leave his comfort zone, leaving him in a time warp of nowhere man.

Then Matt, played by Jason Driver, and Hayley, well-acted in a last-minute casting by Lauren Steele, transform from shallow, self centered high schoolers to self-absorbed Republicans, embracing the cliche’d character traits so detested by non-Republicans. Relatable to Yellow City? Well….maybe a little.

Taylor Pritchett’s portrayal of Tara was the most compelling. Projecting an impeccable New Joysee accent, post-Nibbled Tara emerges as a crusading humanitarian iconoclast, the last quality influencing her pre-Stanford fling with the local policeman.

An appreciative audience, predominately young adult, applauded the cast and crew, accepting the four-letter dialogue and the condom toss with genuine laughter.

But the play contains a bigger question, with the answer only known by the playwright: the play opens in 2004, with Adam recalling how it was in 1992. The exit of characters leaves audience wondering about the state of Adam’s mortality. In giving up on growing up, did Adam give up on life?

Curtain Call
Ada and the Engine

Ada and the Engine is the second Lauren Gunderson play performed locally within two years. The playwright, whose plays are the most performed by any living writer, are typically fact-based biopics about competent women fighting for acceptance in a male-dominated world.

The premise of the play is actually that oldest of programmer’s jokes. There are 10 types of people in the world: those that understand binary code and those that don’t. Well, Ada Byron Lovelace got it, as she is the mother binary code, a century before Alan Turing and Bletchley Park helped win WWII.

The offspring of the wastrel Lord Byron, Ada grew up under the imperious domination of her mother, who was determined to distance daughter from paternal imprinting by letting only math and music mold her brain while she (Momma) molded daughter’s life for what good girls do: make good marriages and babies.

Ada’s twin passions combined when she met Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Analytical Engine, the ancestor of the computer. This meeting of minds propelled Ada past math and music to a new poetry, the music of the spheres. She then envisioned the infinite programmable possibilities in the engine, conceiving binary code as the language of implementation.

This forms the vortex of the play, around which all other dramatic themes orbit. Among these are gender roles and Ada’s relationship with Charles Babbage.

Babbage, as played by Adam Hainsel, is the gravitational force which holds the play together. Though the model of propriety regarding Ada, his behavior barely masks the smoldering passion both feel for one another.

The constancy of Hainsel’s portrayal allows Ada, played by Isabel Lyda, to project a mercurial, eruptive brilliance. And, as foil and counter to Ada’s temperament, Ada’s Mother, Lady Anabella, played by Sophia Johnson, has all the empathy of a Marine drill instructor.

Ada and the Engine is didactic, and, like any good teacher, leaves the audience with more questions than answers. Gratitude to the WTAMU Theatre Dept, Director Callie Hisel, cast and crew for making us ask, “What if?”

Profound questioning is a common consequence of local theatrical productions, to the surprise of those who suspect the opposite in this conservative locale. With that, along with all of the other local arts, we can proudly say, “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!”

January 2, 2020: Top Ten for 2019 #5-#1

Grand Prize Winner
AMOA’s Biennial 600

The #5 spot belongs to the Amarillo Museum of Art and the exhibition entitled Biennial 600, a juried occasion held every two years and open to artists within a 600 mile radius of Amarillo.

The theme this year was Textiles + Fibers and prompted hundreds of submissions as it explored how textiles move from the utilitarian to the conceptual.

This was a compelling show, which emphasized the transformational potential realized by imagining the creative inherent in the common. Thanks to director Alex Gregory as well as the staff and artists for putting together a show worth multiple visits.

The Division of Dance, the University Chorale and the WTAMU Symphony Orchestra collaborated to stage Carl Orff’s iconic Carmina Burana, which stands as unique in my half century of experiencing the work. This was sufficient to garner the #4 position in the Top 10 countdown.

This work, inspired by poems and letters written by male university students in the Middle Ages, reflect static male attitudes which over the centuries are anything but academic, often garnering the piece an R rating from moralists.

The Medieval Latin and German posed no problem for the chorale, and the orchestra was spot on in the pulsing score. Dry ice fog served as a filter for O Fortuna while In Taberna Quando Sumis six female dancers offered convincing portrayals of terpsechorean inebriation. And, lines of male and female singers came to stage front to antiphonally yet flirtatiously dialogue Veni, Veni, Venias.

Finally, two of the soloists stood out. Tenor Matt Oglesby dished up a superb rendering of a roasting swain in Olim lacus colueram, while colleague Sarah Beckham-Turner hit Dulcissime, one source for the R rating, with ease and conviction, a high bar often missed by sopranos in performance.

Dr. Mark Bartley, the conductor of the orchestra, revealed that this production wanted to offer something more than sit-and-play and stand-and-sing. It did, to the bona fortuna of the audience.

Duo Miroirs
Piano Series
Amarillo College

Two concert/recitals in the same location win the #3 place. The Amarillo College Piano Series, arranged by Dr. Diego Caetano, AC Professor of Music, brings a sequence of internationally-acclaimed pianists to the college, with only two of the programs noted here.

Antonello D’Onofrio and Claudio Soviero, based in Milan and recognized as one of the world’s outstanding four-handed piano duets, played a twenty-finger, single instrument concert which included works by Beethoven, Ravel, Shostakovich and Bernard Herman, which more than justified their reputation.

Andrey Ponochevny
AC Piano Series

The second artist, among the many world-class performers brought to the concert hall stage, is in a class by himself: Texanized Andrey Ponochevny, bronze medalist at the 2002 Tchaikovsky Competition, who played the last three of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.

AC, let it be known, is the only place in Texas where in this celebratory year, one can hear all thirty-two of Beethoven’s sonatas.

The maestro played #30 – #32, and the audience realized from the first phrases of #30 why the artist was a medalist. Every note and nuance of Beethoven’s compositions sang with vibrant clarity and for an hour Amarillo College was the center of the Beethoven piano universe.

CMA Concert
“Toward the South Plains”

Drum roll please, to reveal the #2 fine-arts event of 2019: Toward the South Plains, a collaborative concert by Chamber Music Amarillo and FASO, the organization from St. Andrews Episcopal Church which sponsors concerts, usually featuring the world-famous Aeolian Skinner 1024 organ.

This concert, held at St. Andrews, featured a world premier, Toward the South Plains, by Harlan Hodges, the Amarillo Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra conducted by Dr. Mark Bartley, and a youthful chorus made up of middle school and high school directed by Lizzie Manfredi.

Rick Land, organist for St. Andrews, played two Handel organ works, and the Amarillo Virtuosi played Introduction and Allegro by Edward Elgar. The entire concert was like a rich German Chocolate Cake with an extra layer of icing.

Harlan Hodges
Toward the South Plains

The genesis of Toward the South Plains stemmed from a request by the composer for Chamber Music Amarillo to premier the work, which require both a chorus and a large orchestra. Rick Land also contacted David Palmer, artistic director of CMA offering the performance venue of St. Andrews where Land could also play some organ works. So, a perfect storm coalesced for the premier, with Palmer offering the composer a space, a chorus, a small orchestra and the orchestral capacity of the 1024, and a deal was struck.

In the words of the composer, this work is a journey of body and spirit back to the South Plains, while pondering the ever-present effect of change in our lives.

In the words of this listener, the piece was a transcendent tone poem on the plains. Another audience member maintained this piece more spiritual than anything she’d heard in church. Thanks to CMA, FASO, the Amarillo Virtuosi the young singers, and especially Harlan Hodges for making this event possible.

It’s hard to conceive that this spectacular event could be surpassed.

But it was, by a #1 that was both past incredible and awe-inspiring. I speak of Beethoven’s Ninth, performed by the Amarillo Symphony, the Master Chorale and the First Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir.

Beethoven’s Ninth

Performed in Amarillo for the first time in thirty years, several factors combined to make this event world-class. The Amarillo Symphony, directed by Jacomo Bairos, played in perfect tandem, with French Horn and tympani soloists totally on target.

The vocal soloists embraced Beethoven’s torturous vocalistics, with tenor Dominic Armstrong hitting the high one on Sie ein Held zum Ziegen, oft the sound of only a croaky choke.

The chorus raised the bar on any similar performance I’ve heard anywhere in the world in the last fifty years. The astute direction of Nate Fryml and Dan Baker, vocal talent and choral discipline contributed equally to this ultimate reality.

Imagine Panhandle folk singing Deutsch better than the Dresden Staatskapelle Chorus!

And the apex, often called the greatest expression of the human voice, when the females, who altogether would ascend seventy high A’s, sang out Seid umschlungen Millionen! Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt! with other parts joining in rounds, was truly transcendent!

So the Top 10, with some fudging, serves notice of the rich array of the arts which are in the Panhandle DNA. In quality and variety, the Amarillo arts scene in 2019 is the envy of much larger metropolitan areas.

The best of the best then become the platform for a New Year’s resolution for 2020. “Keep on Keeping Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in that Rear View Mirror!!!”

December 30, 2019: Top Ten for 2019; #10 – #6

2019 was year one for keepamarilloarsty.com, and, in a twelve month period, the seventy or so blogs addressed perhaps sixty percent of the quality art in this locale.

Yet, appropriating a good measure of artistic ego and hubris, I will pick my Top 10, a critics choice, if you please, of personal faves. I readily admit to cop-outs in the form of combination and compromise, but, hey, it’s my blog, and omnia pro gratia artis!

Opera Cowgirls
Fine Arts Recital Hall

The #10 spot goes to the Big Apple-based Opera Cowgirls, visiting fellow member Sarah Beckham-Turner, now on the WTAMU voice faculty. The ladies, divas all, Bransomized an array of arias, which, if anything, elevated their artistry. They showed their versatility by signing at several venues, including church, a jazz club, and Sunset Center.

They also, in commemoration of WWI, sang of series of songs taken from the letters of woman from both sides left behind. Stunning was too mild a word to describe the effect. Bravi and ya’ll come back soon. Y’hear?

Curtain Call
Heathers – The Musical
Amarillo College

The #9 spot goes to a trio of plays, all musicals, which dealt with edgy material and collectively mocked the conservative characterizations of this area. In the arts of Amarillo, conservatives need not apply.

Fun Home was staged at Amarillo Little Theatre’s Adventure Space; Heathers-The Musical was performed at Amarillo College; WTAMU hosted Spring Awakening.

Collectively the performances depicted mass murder, abortion, homosexual kissing, homo and hetero intercourse, suicide, coming-out, S & M and group masturbation. All here in supposedly conservative Cowboy Country.

Congratulations to the directors, casts, crews and sponsoring institutions for delivering such provocative and profound drama.

Curtain Call
“Fireflies of Terezin”
Amarillo Opera
Amarillo College

#8 returns to the lofty theme of opera, specifically the recrudescence of Amarillo Opera, now under the inspired direction of Mary Jane Johnson. Two of the productions offer a gauge of the impactful potential of this organization.

The first, Fireflies of Terezin, asked a lot of a young cast and of the audience, as it was created to entertain children of Theresienstadt concentration camp, an actual killing field masking as a resettlement paradise to fool the outside world.

This production was a putative world premier, resulting from several streams of musical and archival scholarship, and translated from Czech. The backstory informed the whole production, the art saying “Never Again!” in defiance of the Holocaust deniers and right wing hate groups.

Curtain Call
Die Fledermaus
Amarillo Opera

Die Fledermaus marked the rebirth of Amarillo Opera’s grand vision, namely to bring the finest in the operatic repertoire to the High Plains. This time “The Bat” brought belly laughs, as well a trouser role. The cast, many recruited from across the county, had wonderful comedic chemistry in this spectacular production. To MJJ we say Grazie Bella Donna while to all involved we say Bravi!

Tuscon Boys Choir
Polk Street United Methodist

#7 was a good-for-us serendipitous coalition that brought the Tuscon Boys Choir, the nation’s longest-running, secular boys chorus along with the combined choirs from Oklahoma Panhandle State University and Amarillo College, complimented by area musicians, to perform John Rutter’s Mass for Children.

A separate singing for the boys from Tuscon illustrated why the high church of the Middle Ages and the Church of England today credit these young male voices with the purest sound. The group sang selections from Vivaldi to Country-Western, sometimes in eight-part harmony!

Combined Choirs
Rutter’s Mass for Children

Rutter’s work, a non-liturgical Missa Brevis, was first performed in 2003. This performance saw the collegiate choirs crowd the stage while the boys divided antiphonally. This performance was exceptional, showing that sometimes the stars do align in our favor.

#6 represents a distillation of all that is quality in one of America’s premier fine-arts programs. I refer to the Rededication Concert of the acoustically-upgraded Mary Moody Northern Recital Hall at WTAMU.

In fact, prior to the concert, Dean Robert Hansen introduced the Hall, now the world’s leading variable acoustical space, as the star of the show. None of the performers, most especially the Hall, disappointed, with the audience growing accustomed to the almost Star Wars like whirr and whine of side and stage speakers to actualize the potential in each performance.

Mary Ann Kile
Carmen: Habanera

Imagine the syncopated pulse of the Buffalo Marching Band Drumline, where every instrument is heard! Or, the Habanera from Carmen sung by Mobile mezzo Mary Ann Kile, who, by the grace of the Hall, made Carmen sound even more sultry and seductive.

Sarah Beckham-Turner
Matt Oglesby
Wagner: Gotterdamerung

Or Sarah Beckham-Turner and Matt Oglesby, singing a duet from Gotterdamerung, auf Deutsch, with complete clarity. Or the ennobling effect of the hall on the Symphonic Orchestra’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Coronation March for Czar Alexander III, used for the dedication of Carnegie Hall, followed by the premier of Pathway to Polaris by B.J. Brooks.

The Hall spoiled the audience early on, and to think that this was only the first of many performances with this space.

But the above represent only #’s 10 – 6. Stayed tuned for #’s 5 – 1. Bottom line, 2019 makes it a no-brainer to say, “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!”

December 21, 2019: WTAMU Christmas Concert

WTAMU Combined Choirs
Symphony Orchestra
Karl Jenkins Gloria I

Gloria! Music of the Christmas Season, the much-anticipated WTAMU choir and orchestra concert was held twice on December 8 in the now world-class acoustical space of Northern Recital Hall. The performance did not disappoint.

The orchestra began with something of a Christmas prime time musical icon, Overture to Miracle on 34th St, followed by a complete volte face, the Ave Maria by Vladimir Vavilov. Though of disputed attribution, the silky soprano solo, sung by Victoria Loustaunau, shows why this piece ranks in the trio of reigning Aves, along with Gounod and Schubert.

The transition from orchestra to choir was to the audience singing of Angels We Have Heard on High. Amazing how much grander the sound became as the WT Chorale filled the risers.

The choir’s portion featured a pure pullensque (< Dr. Sean Pullen: Director”) setup. The singers first delighted the audience by his own own arrangement of Jingle Bells, followed by Rachmaninoff’s first movement from his All Night Vigil, commonly mistranslated as Evening Vespers.

Immediately the listener was drawn into the majestic spiritual aura of Russian Orthodoxy, with its resonant bass and powerful harmonies, all clarified by the new world-class acoustics.

The choir sang in Russian and without music. Their delivery showed their potential to sing all fifteen movements. Wonder how many other collegiate choirs, not from Cowboy Country, capable of rising to this challenge? Lemme think: try zip!

Then, to three verses of The First Noel, the audience entertained the choirs as they exited, leaving the orchestra in sole possession of the stage.

This time the Symphonic Orchestra played Chaconne in E Minor by Dietrich Buxtehude, an influential German composer who once inspired a young Bach to walk 250 miles just to be in his company and learn.

Late in life and about to retire, Buxtehude offered his job as church organist to Handel, on condition that Georg Frederic marry Dietrich’s oldest daughter. Handel left the next day.

The oeuvre of the composer remains large, though much has been lost. The Chaconne, originally for organ, has been variously orchestrated. The version played tonight was by Carlos Chavez who included wind instruments.

Though a Baroque piece, the swelling melodic interplay evokes tendencies of the Romantic era. The influence on Bach, especially his Toccata and Fugue resonates in this work which built to a magnificent crescendo.

Bravos to both Bartley (Dr. Mark Bartley: Director Symphonic Orchestra) and Buxtehude: a bravura performance!

The last two numbers, with combined choirs and orchestra and composed by Welshman Karl Jenkins, were interesting choices with compelling messages.

The Armed Man, subtitled A Mass for Peace, was drawn from the Ordinary Mass and unabashedly anti-war, with the Benedictus seraphically intoning “Peace on Earth.” What message could be more appropriate for a fractured planet?

The piece featured a serene opening that continued for about a third of the length with female voices softly singing Benedictus, then gradually joined by the males.

At the two-thirds mark all singers join in a powerful Hosanna in Excelsis which then softens to the opening Benedictus.

The Randall High School Chorale sang with the soon-to-be professional collegiates with both comfort and confidence. Probably a number will decide, based on this experience, to commit to WTAMU.

The final number was The Proclamation from Jenkin’s Gloria I. The piece opens with a strong brassy, percussive assertion, with the females first singing out Gloria followed by the males. Jenkins apparently believes in ladies first in both manners and music.

Then the piece, at Pax hominibus bonae voluntatis, conveys a very languid and reassuring mood only to return to the emphatic dynamics of the opening. The work truly evoked a celebration.

So what could be more appropriate for the final sing-along than four stanzas of Joy to the World, followed by a choral coda and loud applause?

From Rachmaninoff to Buxtehude to Jenkins with caroling to satiety – only in the Panhandle and once a year at WTAMU.

Exiting into the cold High Plains night, warmed by Christmas cheer and buoyed by the hope of “Peace on Earth,” we can all be grateful to the Music Department at WTAMU and their special role to help “Keep Amarillo Artsy, Keep Austin Weird; Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!”

Amarillo Opera: Messiah Sing Along; December 7 2019

Rick and Genny
Handel’s Messiah Tee’s
First Presbyterian Church
December 7, 2019

First Presbyterian Church, on December 7, was the site for the second annual Messiah sing along, sponsored by Amarillo Opera and underwritten by People’s Federal Credit Union and Dr.’s Victoria Thompson and Ray Martin.

The event filled the auditorium, with the chorus, all Messiah junkies from the community, sitting in loosely-defined sections. Together we sang five numbers, variously directed by Jerry Perales, Dr. Steve Weber and Billy Talley.

The orchestra was the keyboard of the incredible Goad organ, played in turn by Rick Land, Norman Goad and Michael Mitchell. News flash: Amarillo now has two world-class calliopes; the Aeolian-Skinner at St. Andrews and the Goad at First Presbyterian.

Mary Jane Johnson, international opera star and leading lady of the Metropolitan, now on the Amarillo College faculty and Artistic Director of Amarillo Opera, gave all a down-home Panhandle welcome, and enjoined all to start warbling.

Three of the eight soloists, all professional vocalists, are noted. Antonio Charles and Sean Milligan, baritone and bass, gave strong performances in Thus Saith the Lord, and For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth. Their voices, as befits trained opera singers, were strong, confident, and resonant.

Antonio Charles Baritone
Michael Mitchell Organist

Paige Brown’s sparkling soprano sang with clarity in three recitatives, beginning with There Were Shepherds Abiding in the Fields, and effectively followed by the ad hoc chorus singing Glory to God in the Highest. Not bad for a one and done!

The Hallelujah Chorus was a true stand and sing! The combined effect of the bonified as well as aspirant singers was thrilling! For anyone present not feeling the full charge of Christmas spirit, there’s probably a part for Ebeneezer Scrooge that needs your audition.

Congratulations to Mary Jane and Amarillo Opera for an even more successful seasonal Messiah. Gratitude is also extended to the sponsors, soloists, performers and directors who made it possible for singers from the community-at-large to take part.

This is just another reason to say, “Merry Christmas!” and “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!”