November 22, 2022: Clybourne Park at ALT Adventure Space

Cast of Clybourne Park taking a curtain call in Act II costumes: ALT Adventure Space, Nov 13, 2022

Ever take a trip down memory lane and, returning to the present, realize that though outward appearances have changed, basically things are still the same?

That thread connects the two acts of Clybourne Park, a 2012 play by Bruce Norris that would win both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony, and which a lucky Amarillo audience saw performed at the ALT Adventure Space, Nov. 10- 20, 2022.

A spin-off of Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, the play bookends by acts the issues of segregation, material priorities, gender roles and social change in the years 1959 and 2009. Overriding each is the inability or refusal of people to listen to one another, verbal pretense to the contrary.

Bruce Norris’s play is an acerbic satire which holds a mirror up to our faces and tells us, “Houston, we have problems!” Long before Woke and the Critical Race Theory conspiracies of the Far Right, this play revealed unresolved attitudes and outlooks endemic in the collective American psyche.

A message that shouts throughout the play is that of pretense: everyone mounts a behavioral facade. And, all households and their humans contribute to a cloak of camouflage until reality pulls the cover off and forces the revelations of true feelings as well as bringing skeletons out of the closet. Human nature is always the great leveler in the human condition.

The play is an aggregation of antipodes: Act I is about 50’s segregation; Act II is about white exclusion. The Act I focus is to keep the neighborhood white. That of Act II is to maintain the ethnic character of the now black Clybourne Park. Act I is about the perceived threat of upwardly-mobile blacks while Act II the danger derives from opportunistic whites.

Insinuated throughout both acts is an elevated self interest which doubles down on the inevitable change taking place. The only resolution comes at the conclusion from the audience and Dan the Plumber knowing the terrible secret held in this house and neighborhood.

A contrapuntal identity also typifies the characters, who play different individuals in each act. For instance, Jenny Whisenhunt makes her ALT debut as Bev and Kathy. Bev is a cross between June Cleaver and Edith Bunker, a parody of the 1950’s homemaker who puts a smiley face on everything. Lawyer Kathy emerges as an in-your-face advocate first for her clients, then for herself. Jenny’s vivid and distinct characterizations portend future ALT appearances.

Jay Hayes and Brandon Graves play the black couple in both acts. The playwright starts them from different positions in both acts, but they ultimately arrive at the same place of distrust and animosity.

Brooks Boyett showed his versatility by playing a pastor in Act I and a gay lawyer in Act II.

One actor whose persona, that of “Dispicable Me,” didn’t change was Zach Oehm. If you’ve ever known someone who doesn’t know they don’t know, and who can’t come to the point and doesn’t know when to shut up, then meet Karl and Steve. Zach said that the redeeming quality in his characters was he made the others look good. And his wife in both acts, played by Lilly Green, rendered Zach’s portrayals realistic, especially since in the first act Betsy is deaf, and she just smiled at his histrionics.

An especially strong performance was given by Shad Tyra, who played Russ and Dan. Russ, in Act I, is Bev’s husband, and is a come-to-the-point sort of guy who believes in seeing things for what they are and calling a spade a spade. He also believes, as did men of that era, in keeping your problems to yourself.

As Dan, he is a working man’s working man, devoid of social graces and intent on completing the job. This happens to be construction of a new utility line since the city sees the trend towards upscaling in Clybourne Park. Sound familiar to Artsy Amarillo where red lines determine which areas receive new and improved services and which have to just make do?

In his digging, he unearths the dirty secret: Russ and Bev’s son Kenneth’s army uniform with his suicide note. Loud, oafish Dan becomes pensive and focused as he reads, doing Kenneth the courtesy of listening to him in the silence of death.

In a flashback, Kenneth appears in his dress greens. When mother Bev asks why he’s dressed so early, he responds that he has a job interview. The play concludes with Bev saying, “I really believe things are about to change for the better.”

At all points of the play the deft direction of Stephen Crandall is evident. His choice of actors was spot on, and their interaction, under his guidance, made the play work. Nowhere is Stephen’s touch more evident than two challenging scenes in Act II where all six actors are talking simultaneously, each one grandstanding from their own soapbox without hearing what anyone else is saying.

It’s no wonder that all of the characters, even the married couples, turn on each other.

Out of a smorgasbord of takeaways, this one stood out: our increasing polarization as a people basically stems from not listening to one another. Paraphrasing the character played by Brandon Graves, “If we could all just sit around a big table, have a meal and listen to one another.”

A noble wish for this upcoming Thanksgiving.

Our thanks go to the playwright, and ALT’s cast and crew of Clybourne Park, for doing what good theatre to do: yank us out of our comfort zones and suggest that there is another and better way forward.

The fact that we can attend provocative, Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatic theatre in this unlikely place, is all the more reason for us to say:

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!!

November 12, 2022 – Amarillo Opera – “The Barber of Seville”

Amarillo Opera: Barber of Seville; Globe News Center; Amarillo, Texas Oct 8, 2022

Think Three Stooges. Then think of opera. Then think of Mo, Larry and Curly performing the vocal pyrotechnics of opera as they slapsticked through their shtick. A stretch? Most likely. But that is, in essence, what an Amarillo audience witnessed and enjoyed Oct. 8 at Amarillo Opera’s production of The Barber of Seville at the Globe News Center.

If this opera reigns at the summit of Mt. Opera Buffa, then the chronicle of the production has traction on the slopes. Rossini crafted this two-act work using an Italian libretto by Cesare Sterbini, as well as the first part of a three-part series from Le Barbier de Seville by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais. Mozart grabbed part two for Das Hochzeit des Figaro.

However, one of Rossini’s rivals, Giovanni Paisello, had written his own version, and on opening night at the Teatro Argentina, he larded the audience with his supporters, who jeered the entire performance. It didn’t help that one of the leads fell face-first on the stage and had a copious nosebleed, or that an errant cat wandered onto the stage showing no evidence of stage fright.

Remember, this is Italy, and they take even comic opera seriously!

Not an auspicious opening, to be sure, so Rossini stayed home the next night. That performance was a success, and a happy crowd marched to his home to give him quite literally, a standing ovation!

But the comedy of errors didn’t conclude with the opening night. Rossini poached the overture from another of his operas. And, later emendations and copyists’ mistakes were transmitted to posterity as if from the pen of Gioachino himself.

Thus, what the audience enjoyed was a not-to-be-taken- seriously slice of life with all of the elements of opera: pursuit of true love; deception; intrigue; greed; disguise; unforgettable music. At the center of it is Figaro, the barber, who masterfully manipulates the complicated sequence of events to create a happy ending.

Director Fenlon Lamb’s and Set Designer Jefferson Risenour’s staging was minimalist, reminding one of Isamu Noguchi in Martha Graham’s original Appalachian Spring. But, the props were sufficient to cue the audience as to setting and sequence.

This put the messaging totally on the performers, who delivered in epic style.

Figaro’s Largo al Factotum, superbly sung by Andrew Craig Brown, set a very high bar. That level was certainly attained, and perhaps surpassed by Rossina, sung by Ashley Dixon, who revealed her character as a mistress of facades and misleading impressions.

Though this was a comic opera, Fenlon Lamb struck the right balance between hilarity and buffoonery, giving the characters mimic and ridicule latitude as they tried to foil their antagonists.

The greatest applause during the opera came after a scene which was the result of evolutionary tweaking alluded to earlier. Count Alamaviva poses as a singing instructor and gives his beloved a faux lesson. Rossini’s direction for the scene was: “Rossina sings an aria, ad libitum, for the occasion.” Thus, over the years, performer’s choices have run amuck.

Mary Jane Johnson, General and Artistic Director of Amarillo Opera cued the audience that Rossini’s score allowed what attendees would certainly recognize. Terry Stafford and Paul Fraser wrote what is, for folk here’bouts, the iconic Amarillo by Morning, which comprised the singing lesson. Rossina drew peals of laughter as she demonstrated the inability of those not fluent in Panhandle-Plains patois to properly say “Amarillo.”

Credit Conductor Michael Ching with composing this unique insertion, which marked a world premier for its part in a Rossini opera. Artsy afficionados might recall Ching, who hails from Ames, Iowa, as the creator of Speed Dating, also performed by Amarillo Opera.

And, hands really came together for Amarillo’s own Chancellor Barbaree, who played the servant Fiorello.

Kudos to cast, crew and all involved for making this production a roaring success, one which even picky audiences of the Met would find entertaining. And, a nearly full house at the Globe News Center testified to the support given by this community to this finest of the fine arts.

But wait, fine opera in the Panhandle of Texas, where the sky meets the howling wind? As anomalous as it seems, opera, and myriad other fine art forms not only exist, but flourish in this place.

That’s why we say with confidence, not hubris,

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!!

October 2, 2022: Opera Cowgirls Redux

Opera Cowgirls at WTAMU – Sept 22, 2022

Think oxymoron. The English language is full of these apparent contradictions in terms used to enhance meaning. Phrases like, “only option,” “virtual reality” and “organized chaos” might come to mind. Add to that “Artsy Amarillo” and “Opera Cowgirls!”

A crowd of over two hundred welcomed the Opera Cowgirls, and their unique mashup of Grand Opera and Grand Ole’ Opry for a return engagement sponsored by “The Arts at WTAMU: A Subscription Series.” This event, which was the first of six, is a donor engagement program supporting the Sybil B. Harrington College of Fine Arts And Humanities at West Texas A & M University. Attendees got their belly full of culture and cuisine (it was fajitas).

This group’s one-of-a-kind music strips opera of alleged elitism by employing Nashville-approved vocalizations, which find a nexus in the human heart. Americanized, democratized and down-home, purists will hear the high art, and lovers of Waylon and Willie will hear the heartache. A survey of a few of their numbers will try to illustrate this oxymoronic admixture, but ‘ya jes gotta hear ‘um!”

The ladies introduce themselves in Pearlsnaps and Pearls, a reference to the buttons on western-style shirts and blouses and pearls, perhaps alluding to the “opera” strings of pearls popular during the Roaring 20’s, or just gettin’ gussied up for the Met.

The chorus, following a solo from each, intones, “You know that this cowgirl’ll take Puccini for a whirl. I’ve got pearlsnaps to go with my pearls.” All of the women, professional opera singers, demonstrate a twanging facility sure to satisfy any boot-scooter.

Founder Caitlin McKechney enjoins the full range of her mezza profunda to sing Mon Couer, Delilah’s lament from Samson and Delilah in which the seductress agonizes over finding Samson’s secret to his strength so she can save her people. A singing saw adds drama while Caitlin almost makes Delilah a sympathetic character.

This diva delight again takes the lead in Carmen’s Habanera, and is joined by Cowgirl colleague, Sarah Beckham-Turner, WTAMU music faculty professor and Amarillo native in a langourous L’amoure duet. Then segway to Dolly, singing “Carmen, Carmen, Carmennnnnnn: please don’t take my man just ’cause you can!”

Bizet could never imagine this combination. Dare we say that Nashville not only embellishes, but enhances this piece?

Carmen offers something entirely different when Sarah, using her cello, sings Micaela’s aria, Je dis que rien ne n’epouvante. This wrenching theme is a common country trope: my true love loves another, but I promised his dying mother I’d give him her love. Angst and heartbreak: these are perfect themes for grand opera, the grand ‘ole opry and for the world!

The Cowgirls also transmogrified Donizetti’s Una Furtiva Lagrima, a favorite aria for tenors, to a female duet with even more pathos. The deep passion is belted out in M’ama (She loves me!) like a declaration of a schoolboy crush, which ends with “I could die of love!” The ladies evoked the last in lyrical death throes.

What do you have when you have two sopranos who are trying to outsing one another? Why a Bell Canto catfight. Jessica Sandidge and Sarah walked among the audience taking turns singing A Vieux Vivre, sometimes called “Juliet’s Waltz,” from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet. Juliet sings that when others speak of marriage, she says she wants only to live inside her dream where it is eternal spring. That meaning was somewhat obscured in the hissing and snarks.

Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus with hand claps? Why not! These are the Opera Cowgirls, and their rendition of this iconic Christian work took nothing away from the original, but added a punch and vibe, to which everyone stood, just like George II. The monarchy, in this sense, has been both countrified and Americanized without losing any reality.

And, speaking of pure country, in Bird Song, by the Wailin’ Jennys, the Cowgirls out-wailed the Jennys, in an adaptation more layered and nuanced, but still just as folksy. In this number, Jessica played the bird whistle. Other times she played the mandolin. Sarah on cello has already been mentioned, while Caitlin strummed and plucked the Banjolele. Mila, the primary accompanist, played several instruments, but mainly the Melodica.

It all made for a sound both the stage of La Scala and the Grand Ole Opry would find congenial. Which is quite an accomplishment, and makes the Opera Cowgirls unique and special. Go to YouTube and Facebook to hear more.

And this writer still hopes to hear these artists Texanize Wagner. The Valkyries could then sing Ye Ha! in trills and runs instead of Hoyotoho Heiaha!

Their performance here on the High Plains, where cowboys and Cowgirls rule, is a reason all of us can boast with a pure Panhandle brag,

Keep Amarillo Artsy

Keep Austin Weird

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!

Beauty and the Beast: Caitlin McKechney and the author at the Opera Cowgirl’s Fete, WTAMU, Sept 22, 2022

September 25: FASO Extravaganza with Dr. Damin Spritzer

Dr. Damin Spritzer accepting the applause. FASO Concert, St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Sept 18,

Sunday, September 18, a small but appreciative audience heard a magnificent organ performance at St. Andrews Episcopal in the first event of FASO’s 22/23 season. FASO: the acronym for Friends of the Aeolian-Skinner Opus 1024, is the organization which arranges the concert season featuring the best organists on the planet showcasing the awesome potential of the AS 1024.

And the few, somewhere around fifty, enjoyed what can only be called a world-class program from a world-class artist!

Dr. Damin Spritzer is Area Chair and Associate Professor of Organ at the University of Oklahoma. Her credentials, including her recordings, ran for three pages.

As for the concert, she served up a rich array of musical pastries, akin to rich German chocolate cake with inch-thick icing! With pieces selected from the Baroque through the late 20th century, her fingers and feet, through an arduous nearly two hour program, revealed the capacity for color and texture, not to mention the sheer power of this 106 stop instrument, especially as amplified by the three to four second reverberation resonating in the sanctuary.

In fact, in her first few remarks, she stated that each piece had a story to tell. And, the AS proved an incomparable raconteur in this narration.

Two selections from Cinq Invocations by Henri Dallier, long-time organist at la Madeleine in Paris, stood out: Pulchra et luna and Elucta ut sol. It was Abbott Suger, builder of the first Gothic cathedral, St. Denis in the 13th century, who said that the light coming through the stained=glass windows became divine light, “a reflection of the greater glory of God!”

What the audience heard was a chromatic kaleidoscope evoking the divinity of the day and night time lights.

Damin played three Bach works, two being arrangements. The other was Fantasia in G, BWV 572. The actual date of the composition is of some debate, as no original signed copy of the score has been found.

The piece is actually a toccata sandwich, with a contrapuntal middle. The Fantasia begins with a high-toned patter of spring rain, which alternates between banks of keys and gradually descends registers, all sans pedals. At 1:57 the mood changes: great, grand chords come from the AS which fill the vault of St. Andrews with a stately musical progression. This ennobling by keyboards and pedals continued for fully five minutes. Then at the last two minutes, the rainfall returns, but concentrated on the higher bank of keys. Finally, at 8:33, the composer drops to the lower bank to finish the composition with an artistic whisper.

Dr. Damin Spritzer: All smiles after the concert!

All present were exhilarated by the artistry of Damin Spritzer, who delivered a world-class performance!

But, here in Cowboy Country, we’ve become all too accustomed to hearing such quality art, thanks to organizations like FASO. The large cadre of aficionados and the artists they support plan to keep that way, so we can always say……

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!!

Sept 17, 2022: The Magic of the “Missa”

Maestro Michael Palmer, Orchestra and Chorus Accepting Standing Ovation after the “Missa Solemnis,” Aug 27 at the Globe News Center, Amarillo

An August 27 sold-out audience at the Globe News Center witnessed artistic magic on the stage, as Amarillo became, for about two hours, the cultural epicenter for the planet! A perfect combination of musicians: choristers, vocal soloists, and instrumentalists under the baton of Maestro Michael Palmer performed the Missa Solemnis. Called by Beethoven his greatest work, it is also his least performed Magnum Opus.

In fact, the next date and place for performance was August 31, a half of a world away at the world-renown Berliner Festspiele with the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner. That puts Amarillo on the top rung of the world’s cultural ladder.

The saga of the Amarillo performance is an epic worth telling. The original inspiration for performance of the Missa came to David Palmer, Artistic Director of Chamber Music Amarillo, as a morning epiphany in 2018 as he’d been thinking about appropriate ways to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday.

When he called his nationally-recognized conductor father, Michael Palmer to ask him to conduct the piece, David recounts that there was a protracted silence at the other end of the line. Finally, Michael asked his son, “Do you have any idea of what you’re asking of your community?”

David did understand the challenge, but he knew that Amarillo had both the musical resources as well as the public will to mount this logistically-challenging work. It is not only very expensive, requiring generous patrons, but the complex score demands a long-term commitment from accomplished musicians.

But the best-laid plans of mice and men…..! Covid corrupted all of our lives’ timetables for two years, causing two resets for the performance. The entire time that the show was in limbo, performers continued practicing, which ultimately paid off. Maybe the third time is the charm?

The work is extremely vocally challenging. Beethoven is notorious for alleged antipathy towards singers, making nearly impossible demands of both soloists and chorus. This complexity requires months, which stretched into years, of preparations. The fact that singers must hold forth for eighty minutes puts this work on a par with grand opera. By comparison, the 9th is a walk in the park.

And, in additional contrast to the 9th, where soloists and chorus are discreet and separate, the Missa is very interactive, demanding a high degree of precision and sensitivity between the two groups.

As noted, Beethoven called the Missa his best work. Though he used the text of the ordinary mass, each section in Beethoven’s composition broke the bonds of traditional limitation, vaulting into new realms of expression. But, the Viennese Church hierarchy forbade the performance of the mass in concert, so the premier took place in St. Petersburg. The entire work did get a hearing in Vienna until nearly two decades after Beethoven’s death!

It’s a shame that Vienna had to wait so long to hear what one of their own created. Beethoven enfolds the listener with his kaleidoscopic musical vision of the awesome majesty of the Almighty. At times he bludgeons the audience with Sturm und Drang, while in other parts he beguiles with sublime supplication and reverence. In this work he tasks himself with composing a tonal epic worthy of the infinite and omnipotent, which he demands that all embrace. There is no compromise in Beethoven!

Dr. Nathaniel Fryml, chorus master and assistant conductor noted that ultimately there were 105 singers, including the four soloists. Sources for the chorus included the Amarillo Master Chorale, the West Texas A&M Chorale, Wayland Baptist University, the Amarillo College Choir, the First Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir, and outstanding singers from both the Amarillo and Canyon school districts.

Soloists for the Missa Solemnis taking an ovation

The soloists must be both astute and confident. Entrances are often solo, but the parts then meld, either in ensemble with other soloists or with the chorus. The four soloists: Mela Sarajane Dailey, soprano; Ellen Graham, mezzo-soprano; Eric Barry, tenor; Clayton Brainerd, bass-whether alone or in tandem, set a new standard for excellence. Listen to recordings done by internationally known orchestras and particularly the male parts are muted. Not so in Amarillo as both home town favorite Eric Barry and Clayton Brainerd held forth at times with what amounted to an assertive ferocity.

An analysis of just one of the sections, the Gloria, illustrates the complexity of the entire work. In this section, Beethoven is off and running from the starting downbeat, with the orchestra and each choral part having their sequential say. The thunder subsides at 1:41, only to return a few musical seconds later at 1:48 with Laudamus te. When the chorus sings Glorificamus te, it explodes like a musical cluster bomb, with each part having their song heard. All this is the first four minutes!

The chorus gets a break, as the soloists in turn give thanks in Gratia agimus tibi.

The respite is brief, as the chorus charges in at 4:48 with Dominus Deus, which continues for five lines at the end of the section, with the soloists making a vocal appearance at Jesu Christie. There ensues some serious interplay twixt orchestra, soloists and chorus in this section, some of which is quite assertive.

Quite a different mood is struck when the topic is sin, in Qui tollis pecata mundi. The tone becomes reverential and supplicatory, themes which dominate in the final three sections of the Missa. However, Beethoven still has points to make, which he does with emphasis in Qui sedes ad dextram Patris.

The last of the Gloria is a glorious profusion of Glorias, alliterative pun intended. Some are enunciated in triads, a possible nod to the Trinity, while others are protracted into Handelian runs. And, the Gloria ends not with the Amen, but with more Glorias, just for emphasis.

Conductor Michael Palmer directed this massive work with understated precision. He had obviously imparted his musical vision to both the instrumentalists, and to the chorus master, Dr. Nathaniel Fryml, as well as the soloists, because all musicians were on the same page. His experience as assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony and Robert Shaw Chorale was much in evidence.

Amarillo is always honored when Maestro Palmer raises his baton here on the High Plains, and hopefully the future will see his frequent return to the concert stage.

This concert was definitely worth the five year wait! Attendees certainly recognized the significance as a once-in-a-lifetime event on the stage at the Globe News Center, as viewed from the geographic range of the audience’s origins. Eager listeners came from all over the tri-state area, as well as from far out-of-state.

No one left disappointed: a stunned elation at the conclusion gave way to a protracted ovation, not only for the performance, but to all who made it possible.

So, Happy Belated Birthday, Ludwig! The quality performance of your best work and its reception here on the Comancheria doubtless made your shade smile.

And, we smile along with you, as we proudly say:

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!

July 11, 2022: The Symphony and “the Falcon”

The Falcon in scrim shadow: the Reveal for Conductor of the Amarillo Symphony – Globe News Center, July 9, 2022

The title almost sounds like a sequel to a Dashiell Hammett novel and a Bogart movie, but in the case of Amarillo Symphony’s search for a new conductor, it states the denouement of the real drama.

The climax of this plot, or the “Reveal,” took place at the Globe News Center July 9, 2022.

Booth, along with Larry Lang, Executive Director of the Symphony, Terry White, President of the Symphony Board, and Suzanne Wheeler of Mariner Wealth Associates, corporate sponsor of the event, came on stage in front of a drawn curtain and facing some two hundred RSVP’d guests.

Larry Lang welcomed everyone, and noted that there was a group on the other side of the curtain, which members of the audience could hear, but not see. He then introduced Booth, who gave details of the selection process. Terry White then offered the board’s perspective while Suzanne Wheeler spoke of the valued association of her firm with Symphony.

Jeff Booth first distilled the selection process, which, thanks to Covid, took two years and five months. noting that initially the committee received over three hundred applications from around the world! As mentioned consistently in this blog, this cultural capital of the Comancheria has a global reputation.

The committee’s task sounded very much like real work! It first pared the stack of applicants down to fifty, then whittled the number down to a more manageable ten. These were Zoomed, and from this group, three finalists emerged. Each finalist had two tryout concerts, with audience and musician’s input secured after each. Booth emphasized the importance that this data harvesting played in the process.

The final choice was as big a secret as the Manhattan Project, or a Hispanic grandmother’s Mole recipe. The few that knew kept zipped lips and let everyone else speculate. And speculate is what everyone did! All three candidates were world-class, and no one had an opinion that they’d take to the bank.

To ensure secrecy, those few privy to the choice decided on a code name of “Falcon” for the selection, to use when talking about their decision. Smacks of cloak-and-dagger and 007.

Larry Lang then said it was time to meet our new director, the “Falcon.” He said that we might hear reaction from those sitting on the other side of the curtain, as the new conductor showed himself to those behind the curtain.

Try hoots and hollers, with loud clapping and stomping of feet. Then the curtain went up, while on a scrim where the enhanced and magnified profile of the choice was backlit.

The scrim was lifted, and, drum roll, there was George Jackson in the flesh. The audience then joined in the celebrating and there were smiles all around.

A Beatific Appearing George Jackson

In his few comments he noted that many of his colleagues talked about their symphony orchestras in the possessive. He said he would never say that. Then pointing to the audience, he said, “This is your symphony orchestra! This is Amarillo’s symphony orchestra!”

He then conducted an ensemble in playing the first and fourth movements of Dvorak’s Serenade for Winds.

So, a big Amarillo welcome to George Jackson as he hops the pond to make beautiful music of all sorts on the High Plains of Texas. His reputation as a fearless conductor promises a great collaboration.

As he raises our aesthetic bar, we’ll have to work together to teach him to say “ya’ll” and understand American football!

Again, welcome to Amarillo, George! You’ll make it easier than ever to commit to:

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!

July 9, 2022: The Amarillo Symphony in an American Celebration

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Stilian Kirov Conductor and William Hagan Soloist after Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, June 24, 2022

On June 24, Stilian Kirov, candidate for conductor and artistic director of the Amarillo Symphony, led a program celebrating American composers and America. Kirov and the symphony were joined by talented William Hagan as a featured violin soloist.

The symphony performed two works by American composers: William Grant Still and Samuel Barber. The program concluded with the most famous work written about America, Symphony No.9 by Antonin Dvorak.

The works of William Grant Still are enjoying a long-overdo Renaissance. A prodigious composer of over two hundred works, he holds a number of firsts: the first black composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra; the first black to conduct a major symphony orchestra; the first black composer to have an opera performed by a major company and the first to have an opera performed on television.

His creativity is all the more phenomenal when viewed in the racist context of Jim Crow America. Now the work of this American musical icon is enjoying a recrudescence in symphonies and classical musical platforms across the country. Perhaps that says something about who we were and what we’re becoming.

The short selection, Mother and Child, is an orchestration of one section of his Suite for Violin an Piano. The first half is a tender and engaging sequence of tetrads, with the second half changing tune and tone, and becoming more playful.

The orchestra and Kirov were in total sync during this work. Should Amarillo be so fortunate to have Stilian selected as the artistic director, audiences can expect to hear more of Still’s work.

Samuel Barber wrote his Violin Concerto as a commission for soap magnate Samuel Fels, specifically to feature Fels’ violinist nephew Iso Briselli. Briselli had issues with Barber’s first two movements, but went ballistic on the third movement, denouncing it as too difficult and demanding changes. Barber refused to alter his composition, and refunded half of his commission.

The protestations of Briselli notwithstanding, Barber’s work has, since its premier in 1930 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, become permanently ensconced in the concert violinist’s repertoire.

And, the stars aligned for the Amarillo Symphony and its audience as Kirov secured the services of William Hagan as soloist. A native of Salt Lake City, Hagan brought his own Stradivarius as well as a “Devil’s Violinist” ethos to make this work bedazzle with musical pyrotechnics. Some claim to see smoke coming from the Strad, which would not have been a good thing. The thunderous standing ovation for the soloist and orchestra definitely was.

The final work on the program was Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” by Antonin Dvorak. Though written by a Czech about America, Americans have, from the beginning, embraced this work as their own, and The New World Symphony has been a treasured icon in symphnic Americana, played in high schools and halls of the philharmonic orchestras.

Though most of the work was composed while Dvorak was in New York directing the newly-founded National Conservatory of Music, tiny Spillville, Iowa claims part of the credit. Dvorak spent the summer of 1893 in this community of Bohemian immigrants. There he did some composing, but is remembered, anecdotally, for carrying around a bucket of beer, a common practice in that place. Perhaps that has something to do with the name of the town.

Kirov orchestrated just the right dynamic build up to the Finale, whose stunning opening reminds one of Beethoven’s Fifth, or Jaws. The brass, particularly the French horns, can overplay the melody line, but that wasn’t the case in this movement. And the fortes were frequently broken by softer interludes, to build to a powerful, resounding conclusion. There’s an Argh! in the final phrase that has always inspired Americans to claim this piece as their own.

This review goes to publish just prior to the “Big Reveal” of the symphony’s new conductor. If it is Stilian Kirov, the citizens of Amarillo will enjoy a new world of musical enrichment.

Though the arts season has officially come to a close, there’s still a lot to offer in the arts until the Missa Solemnis in late August.

For these reasons, we assert, just as confidently,

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

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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!!!