Czech, Please!


By Scott MacClelland

PROMINENT BAY AREA PIANIST Robin Sutherland joined the Roy Malan string quartet on Sunday for “Czech, Please!” The program of rarities by Smetana, Suk and Dvořák brought out a full-house audience at Aptos’ Christ Lutheran Church in an homage to local talent that deserves to be the envy of small town classical fans across the nation.

The show opened with the second of the two movements from Smetana’s Z domoviny (“From the Homeland”)—which Sutherland insisted on calling by its German equivalent “Aus der Heimat”—for piano and violin. From 1880, this was a kind of chamber follow-on to the well-known Má vlast set of nationalistic symphonic poems. Like them, this six-minute piece was flavored with Bohemian yearning.

Representing Josef Suk, Dvořák’s pupil and son-in-law, were the Piano Quartet in A Minor, Op1, of 1898 and Meditation on the Czech Hymn “St Wenceslas” for string quartet of 1914. In the quartet, and with the long stick holding open the piano lid, Sutherland gave Malan, violist Polly Malan and cellist Stephen Harrison an unbalanced challenge that became its own distraction and also negatively impacted string intonation. (String players need to be able to hear their own notes if they hope to play them in tune.)

The story goes that Dvořák pressed Suk to write the piece and, frankly, it sounded over the top in both the opening Allegro appassionato and the second movement Adagio. Then came the final Allegro con fuoco (“…with fire”) that achieved both a better balance among the ensemble and within its own skin, while also making the clearest allusion to Bohemian folk music.

Then Malan’s quartet, now with violinist Susan Freier Harrison, assembled for the old hymn, a setting—and not the only one in the repertoire by that title—that grew out of the Hapsburg control of Bohemia which, until the end of World War I, required the Austrian anthem to start all concerts. Suk’s intention was to restore a sense of identify among Bohemians in that circumstance and, over its seven-minute performance, rose from a soft utterance to a stormy crescendo. The hymn melody itself does not stand in bold definition, like several of Bach’s chorale tunes, but would have been instantly recognized by those for whom it was intended.

Dvořák’s Piano Trio in E Minor “Dumky” took the concert’s second half and Sutherland, despite the long stick, now showed that he could keep his part in good balance with Malan’s violin and Harrison’s cello. This was especially welcome in the soft Poco adagio and the Andante of the first movement. (The dumka is a dance known for its changing moods, from slow circumspection to boisterous footwork. The first movement here was actually stitched together from three dumky.) It was followed by three more dumky discretely played and, obviously, was the crowd favorite.

Next in the Santa Cruz Chamber Players series, in late February, is a program of Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms titled “Arc of Romanticism.”

Photo: Malan, Sutherland & Harrison at the Telluride Festival

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

26756345_10155416180588981_2796859692042557984_oBy Philip Pearce

PAPER WING THEATRE COMPANY’S new production of Christopher Durang’s Tony Award winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike does nicely by the play’s underlying pattern of domestic farce but at the cost of its central Chekhov overtones.

We learn right away that moody siblings Vanya and Sonia and Masha share names lifted from Chekhov plays because their highbrow parents were involved in Bucks County community theater. Now fifty something, Vanya (Jay DeVine) and Sonia (Kate Bradley Faber) occupy the gradually decaying family home in rural Pennsylvania. Here they brood, bicker and irritate each other but share a common resentment at the success their sister Masha (Teresa Del Piero) enjoys as an international movie star. When Masha suddenly bursts in for a weekend, Vanya and Sonia aren’t fooled by her Hollywood gush and flimflam. They know Masha spells trouble. Like Arkadina in The Seagull she has acquired a lover half her age. In Masha’s case he’s a muscular wannabe actor named Spike (the energetic and flexible Justin Gaudoin) who can’t resist finding excuses to strip down to his underpants and ends up in a secret side romance with a sweet local ingénue whose name, like the heroine of The Seagull, is Nina (Ashley Shaffer). Like Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard, Masha also returns home with a money-making plan up her sleeve that reignites old family fights and revives old family feuds. This being a kind of Kaufman and Hart take on a Chekhov situation, everything ends up heaps better for Vanya and Sonia and Masha than it was when the lights went up on Act 1. It’s a curious but intriguing blend of whizzbang 20th century domestic comedy and dramatic situations that closely parallel major plot points in several of Chekhov’s stage masterpieces.

Del Piero is an unchanging delight as the vain and unreflectively conceited Masha. She takes firm control of the household and God help any sibling who tries to take it back. Watch her as she smoothly but firmly puts down her sister Sonia’s efforts to interrupt an extended description of how a “famous theater director” (“famous,” it develops, only to Masha) has pressured her to quit all the blockbuster sex symbol stuff and become “the American Judi Dench.“

The rest of the cast, to a person, are lively and likeable. They are, in fact, so pleasant to watch at work that their agreeableness as people sometimes gets in the way of darker areas in the characters they are playing. Bradley Faber is so clearly a bright and sensitive person off stage that the sarcastic verbal barbs her on-stage Sonia aims at the flamboyant Masha aren’t so much nasty bi-polar insults as perky comebacks in a battle of wits.

DeVine‘s Vanya is closer to his Chekhovian namesake. Outwardly placid but with a troubled commitment to peace at any price, he is like Uncle Vanya, but his secret dream of being recognized as a playwright also makes him like the thin-skinned artistic Konstantin in The Seagull. Like Konstantin, he plots with Nina to stage a disastrous family performance of an awkward but deeply sincere playlet he has written. It’s an abstract effort about American problems like climate change and water pollution, whereas Konstantin’s play struggles with the slow collapse of pre-Revolutionary Russian society and values.

Elizabeth Davison’s director notes indicate that she realizes these Chekhovian elements will probably puzzle many of the encouragingly young audiences Paper Wing attracts. There’s a sense in which Christopher Durang’s play can be viewed as a smarty-pants challenge to theater buffs to spot the literary borrowings. Davison seems content to leave it at that. But her decision makes it difficult to cope with a character like the family’s weird prophetic housecleaner Cassandra. She’s played by the winsome Norma Barocio as such a comic strip Native American goofball that there is little sense that the script also presents her as a genuinely spooky harbinger of future family catastrophes right out of classic Greek tragedy.

And there are the two Seagull moments when the three central characters halt whatever’s going on and stare out the window waiting for a blue heron to land on the lake at the bottom of their Bucks County property.

Davison seems content just to leave these Chekhov echoes as unexplained intrusions. She has skill and sensitivity in moving character groups effectively around a big stage area in the interest of fast comedy. But I kind of wish she had also at least tried to introduce some hint of ironic Russian atmosphere into the quieter reflective sections of the production. Or chosen another script for her Paper Wing directing debut.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike plays weekends at 8 until January 27th.