Friday, March 29, 2013

Brookside Gardens - Year-Round Beauty in a Tranquil Setting

Strolling along a Brookside Gardens Pond

 Nothing makes me gladder that I live in the Northeast than the early blooms of spring. While I don’t mind winter, its bleak but often beautiful landscape is magically transformed starting in March when everything goes from monotones to Technicolor in just the blink of an eye.
If you happen to be in the Capital region this time of year, I’d suggest a visit to Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland, a few miles north of the Washington Beltway, to experience the enchantments of spring. Not only does this award-winning, fifty-acre public display garden have a fair share of flowering cherry trees, visitors will also find among the April blooms azaleas, crabapples, daffodils, dogwood, grape hyacinths, magnolias, quince, purple-leaf plum, redbud, tulips and viburnums.
The gardens take their name from the streams that flow around three-quarters of the periphery of the park-like setting that first opened in July 1969. Two ponds dot the property, and, along its banks, water-loving plants like Japanese iris thrive in eyesight of a graceful gazebo, located on the edge of the Azalea Garden.
During my visit, a border collie named Emmie, trained to chase away the unwanted Canadian geese without hurting them, ran along the pond banks earning her keep with obvious enjoyment.
According to Leslie McDermott, marketing manager, the gardens had been spending roughly $5,000 each season to rent two dogs that had previously done Emmie’s job. Eventually, staff decided it would be more cost effective to have a dog of their own, and Emmie came on board as a six month old puppy. She’s been there ever since keeping the geese at bay.
At Brookside, visitors can stroll through a total of five formal gardens (perennials, yews, roses, maples, even plants that exude fragrance during the yearly growing cycle).
In 1972, a Japanese-style garden complete with a Japanese teahouse overlooking the ponds was dedicated to Adloph Gude, Sr., a local nurseryman who donated many of the garden’s collection of trees and shrubs.
There’s also a Trial Garden that sports 10,000 flowering bulbs in spring, followed by summer displays of new and unusual plant varieties and imaginative design ideas, and a new Rain Garden, installed in 2008, that’s filled with native plants that collect storm runoff and filter out pollutants.
"We’ve always been a strong advocate of sustainability, and much of what we do has a green message," McDermott said.
On the final Friday of each February, for instance, Brookside offers a day-long symposium dedicated to sustainable horticulture. This April 21, the gardens will also celebrate Earth Day with a "Green" craft fair, family-friendly activities and wildflower and plant walks. In keeping with its green mission, it also uses environmentally friendly paints and cleaning products and LED lights.
Brookside also offers a series of free lectures that bring in top name speakers from the horticulture world such as Doug Tallamy, professor and author of "Bringing Nature Home," who’s scheduled to speak on April 26. In the summer, Brookside holds a series of outdoor concerts each Tuesday evening in June and, in September, stages an annual Children’s Day with a mix of educational and fun family-friendly activities.
One of my favorite features of the garden is its Heart Smart Trail, roughly a mile- long, hard-surface pathway that encourages a healthier life style through walking. Every 1/10 of a mile, bronze medallions embedded in the path let walkers keep track of their distance.
Along with a Visitor Center, Brookside has two adjoining conservatories full of seasonal displays. The North house holds permanent tropical plants with seasonal accent plantings while the South house is dedicated to seasonal plantings.
With an annual attendance of around 400,000, one of the busiest times of the year comes during its Wings of Fancy exhibit in the two conservatories that features live exotic butterflies from Costa Rica, Asia, North America and occasionally Africa. This year’s event is scheduled from May 4 through September 22. While admission to Brookside Gardens is free of charge, admission to the Wings of Fancy Display is $6 for adults, $4 for children 3 t0 12.
Oddly enough, winter is also a busy season for Brookside when more than a million LED lights arranged in unique nature-based or whimsical shapes fill the gardens with light along a half mile walkway. Admission is charged on a per vehicle rate, and the Garden of Lights runs this year from the end of November through the beginning of January.
Even the dead of winter has its charms. Beside a therapeutic tranquillity, visitors can find interesting plants such as red bark dogwood, holly and early flowers like Lenten rose, snowdrops, winter jasmine and witch hazel.
If You’re Going

Brookside Gardens is located at 1800 Glenallan Ave., Wheaton, Md. For more information, phone 301-962-1400 or visit website
For information on other attractions in the area, phone 877-789-6904 or

Brookside Gardens in Spring

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Glorious Singing and Moving Drama Make "Breath and Imagination" a Double Treat

Jubilant Sykes and Kecia Lewis Credit: Hartford Stage/T.Charles Erickson

I had no idea who Roland Hayes (1887 - 1977) was. But after witnessing the powerful musical sketch of his life in a world premier play titled "Breath and Imagination" by Daniel Beaty, I left Pittsburgh’s City Theatre with deep respect and admiration for the man who blazed a trail for those who followed in his footsteps.
The son of a slave born in rural Georgia, Hayes managed to overcome extreme poverty and the entrenched racial barriers that stood in his way in the South and elsewhere to becomes the first African-Americans to have a successful international singing career. His obviously gifted voice, which first impressed the congregation of his local church where he sang the spirituals he would later incorporate into his classical music concerts, eventually gave him entry to such imposing venues as Carnegie Hall, Boston Symphony Hall and Buckingham Palace, where he sang in front of the British king and queen.
His national and international tours brought him both fame and such wealth that, in 1924, he is reported to have earned $100,000, the equivalent today to more than $2.75 million.
Playwright Daniel Beaty opens Hayes musical biography in the year 1942, when the successful singer is shown living back on the farm his father and mother once tilled as sharecroppers. Now the owner of the property, Hayes has plans to open an integrated music school, something his segregationist neighbors are characteristically hostile to.
Addressing the audience and his unseen group of students, he tells of how his wife and daughter were recently arrested because they sat in a section of a shoe store reserved only for whites and how he was subsequently beaten by a police officer when he went to investigate their plight.
From there, we see the young Hayes in a series of flashbacks, first as a mere boy, nurtured by his father and lovingly dominated by his mother. We then follow his path that takes him as an eleven year old to Chatanooga after his father is killed in a machine shop accident, where he encounters one of the most formative experiences of his young life - listening to a recording of Enrico Caruso played on a phonograph.
The transformational experience inspires him to want to learn to sing the European vocal repertoire, an opportunity fostered by two White teachers impressed enough by his talent to offer him instruction. And so, on to stardom, but not before we learn that he insisted on incorporating his beloved spirituals into his concert programming, raising them to a .new artistic level in the process.
Currently, getting its world premier as a joint effort of City Theatre and the Hartford Stage, "Breath and Imagination" is roughly half dramatic biography, half music, a mix of German, French and Italian arts songs, spirituals and compositions by the playwright that reinforce the emotional elements of the play.
Baritone Jubilant Sykes, himself a classical singer who’s performed at the Metropolitan Opera and Deutsche Oper Berlin as well as solo concerts with some of the world’s leading symphonic orchestras, stars as Hayes. Equally at ease with both the play’s classical and plantation-rooted songs, (I was often reminded of Lou Rawls’ smooth and silky tone), Sykes is also an accomplished actor who carried off well the different facets of Hayes life that start with his boyhood years, move onward to the awkward beginnings of his career and finally to his mastery of the classic repertoire as a distinguished and respected vocal artist.
As his god-fearing, no-nonsense mother who he affectionately calls Angel Mo’, Kecia Lewis wows both with her powerful song and her animated, charismatic personality that captures the battle-tested strength, wisdom and nurturing, motherly ways of her character.
At first glance, I thought that Tom Frey, the last component of the triad of actors, served chiefly as the piano accompanist, sitting unobtrusively at the keyboard in the center of the stage. As the play progresses, however, he shows off his tremendous acting skills, playing a bag full of smaller cameo roles that includes a policeman, preacher, vocal teacher, Hayes’ father, King George V and even an amusing turn as Hayes’ Fisk University mentor, Miss Robinson.
Under Darko Trasnjak’s inventive direction, the play informs, inspires and delights on many levels, both as a dramatic vehicle for bringing back into the limelight a seminal figure of the African-American cultural experience and as a rich musical event, worthy enough to be called a concert in its own right.
"Breath and Imagination" is at the City Theatre in Pittsburgh through March 31. For tickets, phone 412.431.CITY (2489)

Jubilant Sykes as Roland Hayes Credit Hartford Stage/T. Charles Erickson

Friday, March 15, 2013

Trio of Works Underscore PBT’s Versatility

Serenade: Photo by: Rich Sofranko
Earlier this season I noticed that Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre was planning to restage Anthony Tudor’s remarkably choreographed "Jardin aux Lilas" (Lilac Garden), a work that left a lasting impression in my mind when I first saw it in 1987 during its PBT premiere.
Curious as to whether or not the piece would continue to captivate as it had the first time around, I was determined to catch its reprise as one of a trio of repertory ballets presented this week in the intimate setting of Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center. The triad is themed together under the title "Unspoken," a reference to the choreography of three ballet masters that "speaks in ways words can’t."
"Jardin" is positioned second in the program, sandwiched between George Balanchine’s "Serenade," the first work he choreographed in the U.S. in 1936, and Mark Morris’ "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes," set to the piano etudes of Virgil Thompson, played live and virtuosically by company pianist Yoland Collin.
The evening begins breathtakingly with the sensuous sounds of Tchaikovsky’s "Serenade for Strings" as a prelude to Balanchine’s now iconic piece. The curtain rises as music fills the auditorium and the audience is treated to an entire phalanx of ballerinas dressed in diaphanous white tutus and light turquoise tops, utterly still and frozen in a graceful pose with their right arms held poignantly aloft. Gradually, the dancers begin to move in close synchrony, a harmonious, brilliantly-lit spectacle set against a dark chocolate backdrop.
As the four movement piece unfolds, the ensemble movement breaks into smaller subsets, the choreography becoming ever more complex and geometrically varied. Initially an ensemble piece, the work later spotlights solo dancing in short choreographed vignettes. Later still, a male dancer enters, dressed in a muted gray neck-to-foot costume, a marked contrast as he interplays with the flock of colorfully attired ballerinas.
In the final movement, more male dancers arrive, portents to the magnificent finale that has them carry one of the women aloft on their shoulders while the ensemble follows in procession, one of their collaborators mimicking en pointe the graceful but extravagant configurations of the lead. The effect dazzles in its creation of a sublime kinetic aesthetic moment.
The much anticipated "Jardin" came next. Twenty-six years had elapsed since I first reviewed the work for the "Tribune Review" with only dusty remembrances vaguely dancing in my memory. The plot was completely forgotten and, because I wasn’t able to read the description of the work in the program,I viewed it as a virtual tabula rasa.
The day after the performance, I managed to dig out the now yellowed copy of my article and found that none of the plot elements I previously wrote about were discernible in my second viewing. What did echo from the past, though, is the evocative mood created by a combination of the darkened stage and the garden lit dimly "by moonlight" and surrounded by silhouettes of tall lilac bushes made sensuous by the lush, melancholic, vaguely menacing music of Ernest Chausson’s "Poeme."
In my 1987 review, I wrote that Tudor’s choreography "mixes sweeping, elegant movements with angular, rigid and stiff gestures" and while the latest PBT production incorporates much the same elements, they seemed to be less obvious than I originally remembered them. Like many other experiences in my life, the second time around didn’t nearly measure up to its prototype in its ability to create rapture.
Mark Morris’ "Drink to Me," inspired by a 1616 poem by Ben Jonson, barely nudges out the other two works as my personal favorite. Perhaps it was the way the live piano music invigorated the performance, perhaps it was the fresh youthful look of the dancers dressed all in white who danced with exuberance and joy, perhaps it was the inventive choreography that is rooted in the classical form but resourceful in its dynamic range.
"Unspoken" proved to be an unqualified success, an exploration of the work of three seminal choreographers, a mix of musical styles and contrasts and some exceptional dancing on the part of the company - all of which added up to a satisfying evening of artful entertainment.

Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes: Artist: Luca Sbrizzi; Photo by: Rich Sofranko