Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"Charles Ives Take Me Home" Take Wings at City Theatre

Like a perfect storm in which all the elements combine to produce a great effect, the playwright, cast and director combine in the City Theatre production of "Charles Ives Take Me Home" to concoct one of my most memorable theatrical events in recent history.
Playwright Jessica Dickey came to me from out of nowhere and blew me away with her ingenious writing, her insightful dialogue and poetic sensibilities. Nominated for the Susan Blackburn Prize, given annually to recognize women who have written works of outstanding quality for the English-speaking theater, Dickey is no newcomer to City Theatre. In 2011, the theater staged her play "The Amish Project," a work I regrettably missed.

A scene from "Charles Ives Take Me Home" Left to Right: Drew McVety, James FitzGerald and Tressa Glover. Photo Credit Kristi Jan Hoover 

For those who may not know, Charles Ives (1874-1954) was an innovative modernist American composer from Danbury, Connecticut. In addition to having a gift for music, he was also an avid athlete, which makes him the perfect candidate for the go-between referee in Dickey’s play that pits a violinist father and his basketball-loving daughter against one another.
On the surface, a comic drama about two characters avidly immersed in their own interests, one in music, the other in basketball, seems rather trivial. But Dickey plays on the dynamic of the father and daughter relationship, their growing resentments antagonisms and failure to appreciate one another’s enthusiasms and spikes our attention by adding Ives to the mix as a sort of "Our Town" stage manager.
As Ives, James FitzGerald is a short-of-stature but large of mind presence in the play, a cerebral, energetic figure dressed primly in a coat and bow tie that’s sympathetic to both of the other characters.
As the daughter, Tressa Glover is required to handle the basketball like she was born to the sport. Dribbling across the stage and bouncing the ball of the backboard, all the while delivering her lines flawlessly, she is a powerhouse of determination to excel in the sport.
As the father, Drew McVety has an even tougher job. Not only does he have to convince as an actor but he’s also required to play the violin as part of the script. He does this so admirably you have no trouble seeing his character as a musician who attended Juilliard, plays in the Queens Symphony Orchestra and later lands a much desired position with the Frankfurt Symphony following a much anticipated audition.
Credit Matt M. Morrow for his slam dunk direction, scenic designer, Tony Ferrier’s evocative but minimalist set and sound designer, Katie Down for filling appropriate segments of the play with Ives’ ingenious music.
In the future I intend to keep my eyes open for additional works penned by Ms. Dickey, a talented playwright whose work shines in this City Theatre production, highlighted by some exceptional work on the part of the cast, director and technical crew.
"Charles Ives Take Me Home" is at the City Theatre through December 15. Phone 412-431-2489.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Pittsburgh Spotlights Exciting Contemporary Art Works in 2013 Carnegie International




Pedro Reyes' "Didsarm" Mechanized Aerial View: Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
     Since 1896, when industrialist Andrew Carnegie decided to mount an international exhibition of contemporary art in his newly built Pittsburgh museum, some of the world’s most relevant artists have participated in what has since become a venerable setting for exciting and influential new works in painting, sculpture, photography, film and more.
    Carnegie missed the claim of mounting the world’s oldest international exhibition of contemporary art by a single year when the Venice Biennale beat him to the punch in 1895. Nevertheless, among the thousands of artists whose works have been showcased in the International are Mary Cassatt, Jackson Pollock, Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin and Camille Pissaro - the list goes on and on.
    Originally held annually but mounted every three to five years since 1982, the 2013 International features over 200 works by 35 artists from 19 countries. To assemble the exhibit’s eclectic art pieces, three curators traveled the globe from Basel and Beijing to Tokyo, Vancouver, Yokohama and Zagreb, talking to artists, taking in exhibits, scouring studios and galleries and "engaging in endless conversations with one another" in the words of co-curator, Tina Kukieski.
    On a recent drive to the museum, my eye caught a glimpse of Phyllida Barlow’s (England) "TIP," a nearly 40-foot tall jumbled assemblage of wooden poles and colored cloth that stands just outside the main entrance, positioned between a Henry Moore sculpture and Richard Serra’s towering steel sculpture "Carnegie," itself an acquisition from the 1985 International.
    The 2013 International is spread out throughout the museum into unconventional spaces like the café and Grand Staircase. At the beginning of my visit, I found one of this year’s International’s most fascinating pieces in the Hall of Sculpture, where Pedro Reyes (Mexico) took weapons and guns confiscated from drug raids in his native country and ingeniously transformed them into abstract, mechanical musical instruments, electronically wired to play intermittently.
    Looking upward to the hall’s balcony, I spotted Nicole Eisenman’s (France now living in New York) fanciful, comedic, foreboding and apprehensive sculptures sharing the balustrade with the museum’s collection of classic plaster casts of ancient Greek and Romans statuary. The exhibit also includes 19 unorthodox, sexually charged paintings by Eisenman, winner of the 2013 International’s prestigious Carnegie Prize.
    Fun, entertaining, yet full of socio-political innuendo is Rokni Haerizadeh’s (Iran now living in Dubai) "Reign of Winter," an animated video of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The artist transforms actual media footage of the royal wedding by carefully hand-painting and drawing over each image to create fantastical video clips where humans are refitted with phantasmagoric animal heads or bodies.
    Along a wall leading off from the lobby, artist He An (Beijing, China) installed part of his ongoing project "What Makes Me Understand What I Know?" in which he takes neon light characters, stolen from signage in various Chinese cities, and reassembles them to form the names of his father and a favorite Japanese actress.
    Just through the entrance doors to the Scaife Galleries, four, large earth-toned cubes by Lara Favaretto (Italy) explore the effect of dissolution and decay of works of art. Each made of nearly 700 pounds of compressed confetti, the cubes will gradually disintegrate over time representing the transience of material objects, much like a Tibetan Buddhist mandala.
    Exploring the crossover between art and entertainment, Taryn Simon’s (New York) :Birds of the West Indies" is an assemblage of 190 color photographs of the weapons, cars and actresses who starred in James Bond films. Each identically-sized photo is framed in black paper and mounted in a straight line across the gallery walls, creating what Kukielski calls an "unintentional film strip" format.
    The photo ensemble’s title gets its name from Ian Fleming’s choice of the moniker James Bond for his 007 character, taken from an ornithologist named James Bond credited for writing a book titled "Birds of the West Indies."
    Another photographic installation eponymously titled "Homesteading" in a hallway just off the Scaife lobby by Zoe Strauss (Philadelphia) focuses on the residents of Homestead, once a major Carnegie Steel mill and site of the notorious 1892 steel workers strike. The photographic essay chronicles how the lives of residents have been shaped by the mill and its closing in 1986.
    With so much to see, media relations manager, Jonathan Gaugler said that visitors can easily spend a day taking in not only the 2013 International but the museum’s permanent collection, much of it drawn from the past 55 Internationals.



Portion of Pedro Reyes Disarm Photo Credit Bill Rockwell

If You’re Going
The 2013 Carnegie International is at the Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh through March 16, 2014. Phone 412-622-1313 or www.cmoa.org.

The Porch Restaurant, Exterior View Credit Bill Rockwell

    For a place to dine nearby, The Porch, 221 Schenley Drive is sandwiched between the museum and the University of Pittsburgh in a lovely park-like setting. With a modern, eye-catching decor, The Porch features a limited but excitingly creative menu of soups, salads, appetizers, pizza, entrees and desserts, made from scratch using as many local ingredients as possible. The restaurant even boasts a rooftop garden which grows seasonal vegetables and herbs and houses two active beehives.
    Included in its list of craft beers and wines is a delicious Zinfandel made locally by Pittsburgh Winery that definitely worth a try. Recommended dishes include Red’s Pork Green Chili, the roasted lamb shank and the Scottish salmon. Phone 412-687-6724.

    Looking for a place to stay? The Parador Inn Bed and Breakfast, 939 Western Avenue, is the closest lodging establishment to both Heinz Field and the new Rivers Casino and an easy walk to the Andy Warhol Museum, National Aviary, Mattress Factory and Manchester Craftsman’s Guild. Currently, the Parador is featuring a Penguins package that includes a special $100 rate for an over night stay, a complimentary breakfast, free parking and a special gift. To be eligible, simply show your ticket or online confirmation to a Penguins game at check in.
    The inn is three blocks from the Allegheny Station of the "T", Pittsburgh’s Light Rail system. Guests are able to park overnight in the inn’s lot and take the "T" to The CONSOL Energy Center for free, thereby avoiding the traffic and a parking fee at the Center. Phone 877-540-1443 or www.theparadorinn.com.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Pittsburgh Opera Enchants with Magic Flute





Tamino (Sean Pannikar) with Monster Credit Pittsburgh Opera
    I doubt if anyone ever started off an operatic review with a mention of the costuming elements. Let me be the first.
Hints of what was to come later in the Pittsburgh Opera production of "Mozart’s "The Magic Flute" arrive as early as the overture, played with Mozartian panache by the full-sounding, 46-piece orchestra under the baton of Antony Walker, now in his eighth year with the Pittsburgh Opera. While the orchestra fills Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center with glorious music, the cast flutters around on stage preparing for a birthday party for young Pamina.
While the service staff is shown in muted, earth tone colors, the principals are adorned in brightly colored garments, almost luminescent in their contrasting brilliance. Part of the birthday celebration is the staging of a play, i.e. "The Magic Flute," as an entertainment for the party-goers, a concept brought to the story by Diane Paulus, who directed the premiere of this production at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto 
Those unfamiliar with the plot of "The Magic Flute" should know that the hero, Tamino, is put through several ordeals in Act Two as part of what is believed by scholars and opera buffs to be a Masonic-like ritual that leads to his eventual enlightenment. As part of the trials, Tamino and his enamored, Pamina, progress through passages of fire and water, both of which are dazzling visual spectacles accentuated by brilliant light shining on a sea golden orange costumes for the fire scene, ingeniously creative trappings for the water segment.
Shades of "The Lion King," the opera also brandishes all sorts of fantastical animal characters, including a towering three headed serpent, a giraffe and a large lumbering alligator.
But when it comes down to it, costuming is rather a trivial element when compared to the musical score, libretto, singing, orchestra and acting. (Costume designers, please forgive me!) That’s where Mozart, his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder and the Pittsburgh Opera pick up the bat and score a home run in the process.
Mozart was near the zenith of his talent when he penned "The Magic Flute." What makes the opera even more remarkable is that he simultaneously wrote another opera, "La clemenza de Tito" for the coronation of Emperor Leopold III and almost completed his "Requiem" - all at a time when he was seriously ill.
The great composer conducted the premiere of "The Magic Flute" in Vienna in 1791, but ten weeks later he was dead, leaving behind what many consider his best opera. The work opened in the theater owned by Schikaneder, Mozart’s friend and collaborator, who also sung the role of the comedic Papageno, a simple chap who makes his living capturing and selling birds. Because Schikaneder’s vocal skills were believed to be rather limited, Mozart wrote the part so as not to overly challenge the singer.
Nevertheless, in the hands of someone like Craig Verm, Pittsburgh Opera’s Papageno, the role becomes a delicious blend of madcap athletic antics, luscious singing and superior acting.
Much more formidable is the role of the opera’s Queen of the Night, which requires virtuosic singing along with a knack for portraying a charismatic, if somewhat dark and malignant character. As the conniving Queen, Audrey E. Luna sails smoothly through the tricky waters of the demanding Act One aria "Zum leiden bin ich auserkoren," sung in this English language production as "My fate is grief!."
In Act Two she’s positively spellbinding in "Here in My Heart" jumping through two octaves, including a high F, in one of the most well-known arias of the operatic repertoire.
Tenor Sean Panikkar is a vigorous, youthful Tamino, with a clear, forceful voice that swells through the hall like a diaphanous swatch of velvet. Even more stirring is the bouyant Layla Claire, making her Pittsburgh Opera debut as Pamina an impressive one. A young 2012 graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program, the native of British Columbia will sing the role Fiordiligi in "Cosi fan tutti" with the Canadian Opera Company early next season and later reprise the role of Pamina with the Minnesota Opera.
Not to be overlooked, the Pittsburgh Opera Chorus continues to delight with its fine vocal support of the cast, its lush full-bodied harmonies and its kinetic on-stage movement that adds a lot to the production’s dynamism.
The Pittsburgh Opera production of "The Magic Flute" will grace the Benedum Theater stage for two more performances - at 8 p.m. on November 15 and at 2 p.m. on November 17. For tickets, phone 412-456-6666.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Savoring Tallinn’s Tasty Trove of Medieval Fare


Dinner at Estlander

One afternoon of my all-too-brief three day stay in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city, was devoted to taking an eye-opening tour that gave me a taste of some of the foods served back to the days when the city was a rich Hanseatic League town named Reval.
Linking up with guide, Iveta Mandla, a charming lady who leads groups through Old Town, we started off on a romp that includes four tasting stops that turn into a complete dinner by tour’s end.
Our first stop was the Old Town Pharmacy, the oldest in continuous use in Europe, for a sample of marzipan, a tasty confectionery made with sugar or honey and ground almonds from an "ancient recipe." No exact date chronicles when the pharmacy, thought to be the birthplace of marzipan, opened, but records show that it already had its third owner in 1422.
The Raeapteek, as the pharmacy is called in Estonian, still stocks medicinal essentials such as aspirin and cough syrup, but way back when patrons could also find things like swallow’s nests, burnt hedgehogs, bat powder, even unicorn horn powder in the pharmacy inventory.
Further on, a quick but fascinating stop at Haa Eesti Asi at 23 Viru Street gave me a look at a foodie’s dream emporium. In between sampling several tasty featured foods, I jotted down the names of things that caught my eye. Along with Estonian cheeses, flavored honeys, and crackers made from blueberries, cranberries or black currants, I listed in my notebook exotics such as canned bear meat, wild bear terrine, moose meat, jarred eel and moose and horse sausage.
Moving on to the town’s 1404 City Hall, we stepped into a candlelit, brick vaulted, Medieval tavern on the first floor where ladies in period garb handed us bowls of delicious elk and wild boar soup along with a meat pie that resembled a flaky croissant. Patrons not on the tour can buy this tasty treat for two Euros, which includes a chance to spear a dilled pickle out of a wooden barrel.
Appetite slaked somewhat, we hiked up Long Leg Street to Toompea, the Upper section of town where the wealthy lived and the view of Old Town is a tourist favorite. Contemporary Toompea is the site of the Estonian Parliament, many foreign embassies and the stately St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. An architectural gem built in 1900 as a power symbol of Tsarist Russia, the gleaming bright yellow and white Orthodox cathedral with its characteristic onion-shaped domes permits visitors to enter its splendor-packed interior.
Further on to the city’s highest point, the panorama platform just outside the Luscher and Matiesen Winery was packed with people poised with cameras snapping shots of the picturesque rooftops and church spires below.
L and M for short has a fascinating history that dates back to 1910 when Swiss-born Arnold Lüscher and Estonian Paul Matiesen established a vodka factory in Moscow. The business partners fled back to Tallinn during the Russian Revolution and began importing spirits to Estonia. Soon wine was added to the inventory and yearly production eventually totaled 400,000 liters.
World War Two saw the closure of the business, but in 2009 Matiesen’s nephew, Dimitri, revisited Tallinn to celebrate the factory’s golden anniversary, and the business has been resuscitated and is marketing remarkably good wines made from grapes from France, including Bordeaux, and Spain. For more information, go to www.matiesen.ee/eng.
Taking the Short Leg back into Lower Town, we took the bulk of our eating experience at Estlander, a restaurant with 17th century looks and traditional Estonian cuisine. Of the two options available on the tour, I chose the four meat stew (chicken, pork, beef and elk) with sides of charcoal baked potato, warm sauerkraut and carrots in mascarpone cream sauce.
Dessert was just a short walk away in an old merchant’s house, Olde Hansa, where I reveled in "a velvet delight of the nobility," which translates into a delicious rose pudding.
If You’re Going
For more information of Culinary tours of Tallin, go to www.foodsightseeing.ee. For more information on the city and Estonia, visit websites tourism.tallinn.ee and visitestonia.com.
At the entrance to the Luscher and Matiesen Winery

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Tallinn - Amazing Discoveries in Estonia's Capital

Ome of Many Charming Streets in Old Town Tallinn

Several years ago, while visiting the Selva Verde Eco-Resort in Costa Rica, I ran into a chap from Britain who led tours all over the globe. During our conversation, I managed to ask him what his favorite destination was and, without blinking an eye, he spurted out Tallinn.
During a visit to Helsinki this July, I discovered that Estonia’s capital is but a short two-hour, 50-mile ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki on the Tallink Silja Line. As an add-on to my Finnish adventures, I decided to book a round trip excursion.
With a cruise ship ambiance, the line’s massive, multi-deck ferries cross the Gulf seven times a day and also offer cruises, some overnight, to other Baltic ports like Stockholm and Riga. It’s even possible to complete a round trip excursion between the two capital cities with enough time left over to explore Tallinn.
Waiting in the Helsinki terminal, I was lucky to have a great view of the tall sailing ships that were sailing out of Helsinki on their Baltic tour. What a great way to while away the time with a ringside seat for a great nautical experience!
Once on board, I enjoyed the spacious lounge in business class, along with its copious complimentary buffet, which included wines, liquors, cocktails and beer. On the trip over, I discovered Vana Tallinn, a delicious, rum-based, Estonian-made liqueur flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, citrus oil and spices. I liked the liqueur so much I picked up a bottle in the ferry’s duty-free shop.
In no time at all it seemed, the ship docked in Tallinn, and I joined hordes of other passengers plodding through immigration and customs, then set out on a three day visit to this old walled Medieval city comparable to Krakow with the flavor of Prague.
My first view of the city was somewhat a disappointment. The area around the port is not all that attractive due to construction and a mishmash of modern buildings. It wasn’t until I got close to Old Town, a few blocks away, that my interest spiked.
The oldest capital in Northern Europe, Tallinn started out as a fort in 1050 and first appeared on a map in 1154. The Danes took control of the area in 1219, but sold their holdings to the Teutonic Knights in 1346.
As a strategic crossroads of trade, defenders built a tall stone wall 4.7 kilometers long around the town along with 46 observation towers and seven gates, including the main Sea Gate, constructed in the 16th century. Of these, nearly two kilometers of wall remain along with half the original towers. It’s within these ramparts that Old Town, with its twisting cobblestone streets, gabled houses, rustic lanes and iron street lamps remains, forming the fairytale core of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.
Finno-Ugric ancestors of modern day Estonians, Finns and Hungarians moved into the Baltic Coast as early as 8,000 BC. Today, all three nations share the same root language.
Nevertheless, I was surprised to find so many speaking American English, the result of films and television programs from the U.S. I was told. (Films and shows on TV are spoken in English but with Estonian subtitles, which makes learning easier for those who want to speak English, which most of the youth I encountered did)
The tiny nation, about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, has nearly 1,300,000 inhabitants, of which roughly 430,000, or nearly 30% of the nation’s residents, live in Tallinn.
Following the "Singing Revolution" of 1987-88, in which traditional mass singing events turned into a protest against Soviet rule, Estonia declared independence on August 20, 1991.
Twenty-two years later, the country surprised me with its sophistication and modernity which exists hand in hand with the Medieval architecture and infrastructure of Old Town. For one, free, wireless Internet is available almost everywhere, and car parking can be done by mobile phone. As a sign of its "with-it" pulse, Tallinn is listed as one of the ten digital cities in the world and was named European Capital of Culture in 2011.
If You’re Going
For more information, visit websites tourism.tallinn.ee and visitestonia.com.
As to accommodations, Tallinn is remarkably sophisticated, and the two hotels I stayed at couldn’t be more different. My City Hotel is chic and modern, but within easy walking distance on most Old Town attractions. It come with a sauna and Jacuzzi, restaurant and bar and full complimentary breakfast in the morning.
By contrast, the St. Olaf reeks with Old World charm and takes its name from the city’s 14th century St. Olaf Church, at one time, believe it or not, the world’s tallest edifice . The building in which the hotel sits dates back to the 15th century and is a pleasant two minute walk from Tallinn’s bustling main square.

Bustling Town Square in Tallinn