Thursday, December 29, 2011

Top 10 Great Lakes Bay Arts/Cultural Events for 2011

by Janet I. Martineau
So ... I decided to make a list ... just how many arts and cultural events did I attend in 2011, in Saginaw, Midland and Bay counties? Plays. Concerts. Lectures. Festivals. Exhibits. Special events, like the October opening of the Islamic Center of Saginaw.
The total came to 94!
And following are my picks for the ...

Poet David Baker at Dow Gardens Greenhouse 

1.  "Wake Up! A Grand Gala of Songs,” Saginaw Choral Society 
In the first half of this October concert at the Temple Theatre,  conductor Glen Thomas Rideout told the story of God’s seven days creating the earth through narration and song -- from Mendelssohn’s mighty and reverent  “Thanks Be to God” for The Second Day to Whitacre’s humorous “Animal Crackers” for The Sixth Day (with the singers mooing like cows). In its segments -- starting with a pitch blackness in the theater -- we were treated to eloquent spoken words like God realizing that green and blue (grass and water) are more pleasing to the eye than green and brown (soil), songs about critters like the panther and the firefly, and the sounds of chirping birds and wordless primordal ooze. And then, in the second half, singers from the Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy blew the place apart. It was a goosebump combination of mixed musical bag, church sermon, storytelling, Biblical history, motivational workshop and call to action all rolled into two memorable hours.
2“From a Greenhouse,” Theodore Roethke Poetry & Arts Festival  
Roethke, as poetry lovers know, based many of his poems about growing up amid his family’s greenhouses in what better setting for a poetry reading by this year’s winner of the Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize than the Dow Gardens Greenhouse in Midland. Caged birds chirped, glasses fogged up amid the humid greenery, water from a fountain gurgled as David Baker read. The entire five-day festival in November, which also included a poetry slam, a “Haunts of Roethke” tour and a concert; in various Saginaw, Midland and Bay City venues, was extraordinary -- due in no small part to the graciousness of Baker. 

Chef Roland Mesnier
3. Chef Roland Mesnier,  Horizons Town Talk
Gales of laughter swept Saginaw's  Horizons Conference Center in March when the 65-year-old former White House pastry chef served up anecdotes galore -- of a playful President Reagan pretending to be drunk and scaring his Secret Service detail, of lonely Bill Clinton during the White House aide sex scandal blowing a fuse when he could not find the second half of a low calorie strawberry cake, of a stinky Carter “signature” dish that was “so God damn bad nobody ever ate it.” French-born Mesnier served five presidents, and his rise to that post was a tear-jerker amid his humor.
4. All-Area Arts Awards Banquet
For 25 years now, the Saginaw Arts and Enrichment Commission has annually honored Saginaw County artists and arts groups with this annual May banquet at TheDow Event Center. This year, however, the sense of nostalgia, the camaraderie, the emotion set the evening apart from the 24 years before it.  Perhaps it was because native son Brian d’Arcy James, a Tony-nominated Broadway star, was so eloquent in accepting his special award that night -- naming names in the audience who had helped him along the way. But it was more than that, and impossible to express in words.
5. “American Valentine,” Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra
In one February concert at the Temple Theatre, maestro Brett Mitchell and his orchestra evoked musical images of waring gangs in 1950s New York City (Bernstein’s “West Side Story”), a 19th century young couple living on a farm in the Appalachians (Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”), the “new world” of Native Americans and Iowa and plantation songs (Dvorak’s New World Symphony), contemporary Midland and lumber era Saginaw (Catherine McMichael’s “Symphonic Dreams),  and, as Mitchell said, wherever each of us wanted to go with the Barber Adagio for Strings (for many of us, it continues to evoke memories of the President Kennedy funeral in the 1960s). What a marvelous journey across the landscape and through the years.
All Area Arts winners Brian James, Rosalind Berlin
6. “Arty Soil,” Saginaw Art Museum 
In June, the main gallery of the museum became a banquet room during an indoors garden party celebrating the life of botonist/photographer/author/teacher Fred Case. Vendors offered garden-related items, framed photos by Case were sold,  and a delicious and creative spring crop lunch was served by Zehnders of Frankenmuth.
 7. “Wiley and the Hairy Man,” Saginaw Valley State University
Directed by Richard B. Roberts in October, this show oozed with atmosphere, attention to detail and  creativity galore -- making it one of the best, if not THE best, children’s theater production ever at the college. I attended one of the student presentations and the kids were sooo quiet and attentive, sooo responsive to it. A remarkable accomplishment in this day and age. 

8. Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, Matrix: Midland Festival 
For those of us starved for live bluegrass music, imagine this June delight at the Midland Center for the Arts -- Renaissance Man Steve Martin playing a mean banjo with a SUPERB bluegrass band AND cracking just enough jokes to also satisfy those of us who love him as a comedian. Best of both worlds.

9. “Great American Trailer Park,” Pit and Balcony Community Theatre
The cast of characters was pure redneck white trash living in a dumpy Florida  trailer park --  and dealing with road kill, a malfunctioning electric chair, adultery, a stripper, a fake pregnancy, agoraphobia and Walmart. Director James Gaertner delivered the goods in this irreverent, quirky, politically incorrect musical comedy, which was staged in October.  Actually it was a strong year for comedy at Saginaw P&Bt because also excellent were “Sex Please, We’re Sixty” in March and “The Christmas Express” in December.
10. “Under the Big Top” exhibit at the Castle Museum 
Saginaw has a long and distinguished history when it comes to circus acts, and this September-October exhibit celebrated it with an exquisitely detailed miniature hand-carved circus featuring 1,200 pieces carved by one man over four decades and enclosed in a case 24 feet long and 4 feet wide. Circus memorabilia and lectures rounded out the fun exhibition.
Another five arts/cultural events also worthy of mention: 

Minnijean Trickey 
-- “Sugar Bean Sisters,” Center Stage Theatre in Midland in May.
-- “Carmina Burana,” Midland Symphony Orchestra in April.
-- Singer Glen Thomas Rideout, Concerts at First Presbyterian Saginaw in November.
-- “Return to Little Rock: A Seminal Moment in American Edication and Civil Rights” lecture by Minnijean Brown Trickey,  Saginaw  Valley State University in September.
-- “Lesser Saints” art exhibition by Steven Magstadt, the Andersen Enrichment Center in Saginaw  July to September.
It was also a sad year with the deaths of conductor Leo M. Najar (and with his death the end also to his excellent Bijou Orchestra), jazz guitarist Ron Lopez and soundman Al Limberg.

But bravo to the U.S. Postal Service for its plans to release a Theodore Roethke stamp in the coming year, and for the fact Center Stage in Midland took its production of “Urinetown” all the way to second place in the American Association of Community Theaters competition.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Percussion Group Cincinnati performance ranged from newspapers to conch shell

review by Janet I. Martineau
Goodness, did The Saginaw News ever get ripped into Saturday night at Saginaw Valley State University. 
First it was read...and then shred.
Literally, thanks to the Percussion Group Cincinnati’s hilarious performance of “I Read the News Today, Oh Boy.”
In what has to rank as one of the more unusual performances in the history of the  Rhea Miller Recital Series, the percussion trio (Allen Otte, James Culley and Russell Burge,  faculty members and ensemble-in-residence at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music) expanded the definition of what qualifies as percussion.
In their case, on three of the numbers it included their own voices -- in the newspaper number, reading rhythmic snippets from the sports, entertainment and hard news sections as they held the sections in front of them and then, well, ripping the paper apart to make percussive noises and in general littering the stage.
Earlier in the piece, one of the three also made like a bird with flapping wings using wadded up newspaper sections.
Yep, it was a weird two hours.
Some pieces were fabulous -- like the delicate and quiet  “Mbira Music, Book I,” using the tiny African thumb piano instrument amplified by placing it over drum heads; the lovely sound created by melding piano, marimba and vibraphone on “Balinese Ceremonial Music” (in particular the deep sounds of the piano on the Gambangan movement), and the four “Chilean Songs” with the trio playing on one marimba.
Opening the program was the athletic “Lift Off,” totally on drums and with the sticks moving so fast at several points they created a blurr. It was loud and wonderful and attention-grabbing, and served as a great contrast to the more delicate mbira piece that followed.
And then there was the weird stuff -- not, maybe, totally pleasing to the ears but amusingly creative, like the two John Cage pieces.
“Some of Living Room Music” used a cigarette lighter, beer cans, playing cards and telephone books as well as wordless voices to create its rhythms and “Imaginary Landscape No. 2” was a hodge-podge of tin cans, conch shell, dowl rod, trash can, door bell buzzer, water gong, ratchet, slinky and bass drum (LOVED the conch shell sound).
On the definite negative, at least for this listener, was “From Drama,” using Chinese cymbals in  an overly long, repetitious number that failed to impress or entertain.

Saginaw Choral Society's "A World of Carols" dispelled winter gloom

review by Janet I. Martineau
Granted it was a Saginaw CHORAL Society concert on Saturday afternoon at the Temple Theatre.
But it was instruments and visuals that tickled the fancy:
 -- of a saxophone player dressed like a snow globe character (Jonathan Hulting-Cohen in the unusual-sounding “Caprice en Forme de Valse”) 
-- of a bell choir exquisitely performing two  complicated pieces (the Bells on High from First  United Methodist Church on “How the Greenblade Riseth” and “Farandole”) 
-- of conductor Glen Thomas Rideout performing his own embellished arrangement of “The Christmas Song”/”Christmastime is here” on piano
-- of dozens and dozens of socks donated by concertgoers in the lobby (and headed to warm the feet of the needy)
-- of Rideout dancing out on the stage as intermission ended and the second half began with “Mi Zeh Y’maleil”
-- of two pianists at one piano (Carol Angelo and Betty Mayer on “The Virgin Mary had a baby boy”)
--  and of two conductors conducting at once (Rideout the singers and Catherine McMichael her church bell choir in “Bells in the high tower”). 
Add to that the bell-like sound the singers created at one point as the music segued into the bell choir ....well, “A Concert of Carols” was quite an afternoon’s delight.
Rideout’s theme was light -- as in the light of this season as seen by Christianity (the birth of Christ), the Jewish faith (Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights), Winter Solstice (the end of the darkest days) and even Kawanzaa (the light of its seven principles).
And the music he chose? Nigerian, Ukranian, Hungarian, British, West Indian, American; gospel, calypso and classical; very little overly familiar .. as well as teaching the audience four-part harmony and three-part hand-clapping on “Freedom Song.”
No insult intended to the Saginaw Choral Society, but when the more than 1,000 in the audience was set to singing at several points -- WOW, we sounded fantastic.
We may indeed be “In the bleak midwinter,” as the Holst tune said, but things definitely brightened up with this CHORAL concert plus.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Russian movie, Italian painting and Latin hymn light up Saginaw Bay Symphony concert

review by Janet I. Martineau
Maestro Brett Mitchell began this year’s Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra Christmas concert the same way as he began last year’s, as the then just-newly-hired conductor -- with Leroy Anderson’s  “Sleigh Ride” and its cracking whip and horse whinny from his musicians.
A tradition he has in mind, perhaps? Since he also concluded the night with a repeat as well, Anderson's singalong "A Christmas Festival."
Not to worry, because all else in between was new on his program Tuesday night at the Temple Theatre, before a capacity audience.
His “Christmas Around the World” theme featured a delightful mixed bag that included three-horse-sleigh music from a 1933 Russian movie, a tone poem  inspired by an Italian painting (a projection of which hung overhead), a traditional Latin hymn and a really nutty arrangement of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” that paid homage to the French national anthem, “Swan Lake” and “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”
Oh, and the mayor of Saginaw, Greg Branch, narrated “The Night Before Christmas” and at one point in the reading displayed a charming rhythm-like delivery to the poem while the orchestra provided interesting sound effects to those words.
Mitchell was chatty throughout, concluding the night by noting, “ya, classical music is dumb and boring, right?” Nope not at all in this program which yes, showcased four  yuletide standards that aren’t exactly 100 percent classical, but also delivered five fine classical pieces not all that familiar in these parts. Great mix.
Our two favorites were Respighi’s “Adoration of the Magi” as inspired by the Sandro Botticelli painting, and Mozart’s Regina coeli, featuring the Cardinal Singers from Saginaw Valley State University.
The former had an unusual old church/Gregorian/mystical sound to it, and some excellent oboe work. And in the Mozart, the 23-member choral group from SVSU delivered a richness of sound that made one feel like he or she was indeed in a Catholic church during a mass.
Pietro Yon’s “Gesu Bambino,” with its whiffs of “Veni, Veni Emmanuel” amid it, featured a duet with concertmaster Sonia Lee and cellist Sabrina Lackey that produced sustained applause. 
And who among us ever gets tired of hearing “The Skater’s Waltz” by Waldteufel? It just glides throughout the soul.
The stage, in the first half, featured an eye-pleasing blue and white palette -- white snowflakes hanging on high and sitting on the floor and a white Christmas tree at left with a blue backdrop and what looked like a blue poinsettia in front of Mitchell. In the second half pink replaced the blue.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Michigan Jazz Trail Christmas Show rocks the Temple Theatre

review by Janet I. Martineau
Well here is something you don’t see often...Santa in his red suit and Lou E. Loon in his green and red suit, both wearing red yuletide hats, working the intermission crowd, at a jazz concert, in downtown Saginaw.
Cameras were flashing all around them....and the birdly mascot of the Great Lakes Loons baseball team....well he is more popular than old St. Nick. People call him by name, have conversations with him even though he remains wordless, hug him while Santa plays second fiddle.
We don’t mean to detract from the formidable talent on the Temple Theatre stage Sunday afternoon at the Michigan Jazz Trail Christmas Show, it’s just that Lou E. and Santa so embody the magical, childly spirit of the season and we were touched by it.
So now to the musicians performing, primarily Great Lakes Bay talent brought together by producer/director Molly McFadden.
Think Lawrence Welk Show with a little Ed Sullivan Show tossed in, for those of you old enough to remember. 
Backed up by an impressive 18-member big band (with Manhattan School of Music and Count Basie Orchestra on their resumes), the two-hour variety show served up jazz, blues, calypso, American musical, Christmas classics, gospel and Paul Simon via that big band as well as two instrumental trios with a vocalist, the Mike Brush/Julie Mulady duo, two vocal ensembles, a trumpet duet, three solo singers who also teamed up, and a witty conductor.
Too bad the number of performers on stage nearly outnumbered those in the audience. The rest of you missed a first-ever fantastic concert that served up Christmas in a new and fun way in these parts.
Outstanding moments? So many to list.
...Meridian High School trumpet players Sam Huss and Kyle Tomsich performing  “Over the Rainbow.”
... Mike Brush’s sentimental and lovely new song “Christmas Eve for Two,” with him on piano and golden-throated Mulady singing it.
... Mulady and Mary Gilbert teaming up, and harassing the devil out of conductor James Hohmeyer, on “Santa Baby.” These two women need to do a full concert together; their voices meld gorgeously.
... The nine-member Voices of Jazz, comprised of high school students from the three counties, on both “Sing, Sing, Sing” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” When they briefly went a cappella on the second number, the blended sound was magnificent.
... The seven-member, stylishly-dressed, all-female gospel group Bamecians singing “Go Tell It on the Mountaim” in two styles, both of which rocked.
... The Michigan Jazz Trail Big Band on a cooking calypso version of “Feliz Navidad” that was impossible to enable one to sit still.
... The Friends Trio (three instrumentalists and one singer so dunno why the name trio) on “Cool Yule,” a funky, fun song we’d never heard.
The stage was gorgeous -- a mile-high pile of presents on one side, a Christmas tree on the other, and a colorful and ever-changing backdrop.
At the end one and all teamed up on stage for three singalongs -- with Lou E. proving himself an enthusiastic mime.
There were, yes, a few glitches in sound, in smoothness of introductions, in staging, but they were minor distractions -- and probably unavoidable given the number of acts to coordinate and rehearse.
This was the first of three Christmas concerts this week at the Temple, all of which are showcasing what one might call local talent and all promising to be very different from one another.
We are our own best Christmas present.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Downtown Saginaw Farmers' Market eyeing new space, new look

by Janet I. Martineau
An artist's idea what the pavilion might look like
One of Saginaw’s success stories is eyeing the idea of a new and improved home.
Julia A. Darnton, the board chair of the seasonal Saginaw Downtown Farmers’ Market at 507 S. Washington, says the open-air market is in need of more room for vendors, improved parking and accessibility, office space for its non-profit management, increased visibility and other amenities.
Speaking at the Rotary Club of Saginaw this week, she unveiled renderings showing plans to erect a permanent open-air pavilion (no tents as is it now, which are vulnerable to winds) directly across the street from the  current location.
The new location between Water Street and the Saginaw River would offer 48 vendor stalls (at 10 feet wide, two feet larger than the current 8-foot spaces), office space, a small stage/sound system for performers and cooking demos, restrooms (currently it’s just porta potties), landscaping and a riverside courtyard where people can picnic, level walkways, and 115 parking spaces where the market now exists.

In orange, the new market location; in yellow, the current site
And while there are no plans for a year-round operation of the market, she said the new structure could perhaps expand the current season somewhat and also offer a gathering space for others to use when the market is not open.

 "We have not gotten any estimated costs for this building project," she admitted, although they do know the land is available. 

"We have not even set a fund-raising campaign yet. But we are estimating $700,000 or less.
"It would be a part of the Riverfront Master Plan, and the Convention and Visitor's Bureau sees this as an asset to the future of the city."

Darnton, by day the community and economic development educator for Michigan State University Extension, also served up some quick stats on the market:
-- It was open 22 weeks (82 days) this May/October.
-- The most recent survey indicates an average of 1,644 customers per day, spending an average of $13.26, for a daily sales figure of $12,019. The market pumps an estimated $1.2 million into the area per year.
-- The number of vendors is going up. 24 in 2009, 28 in 2010, and 31 in 2011. 
-- The market's operational costs are met by the seasonal or daily fees charged vendors. This year an occasional fish vendor was added. Vendors selling products they grow or produce are charged $325 a season or $25 a day. Vendors selling products they do not grow or produce are charged $625 a season or $45 a day.
-- And the market provides a fresh food/expanded use of money option for a variety of food programs operating in the area for the poor and underserved.

Pit and Balcony's "Christmas Express" a charming ride

review by Janet I. Martineau
As a play, it is lightweight, predictable and overly sentimental.
But I liked it, I really liked it  ...Pit and Balcony Community Theatre’s production of “The Christmas Express,” which opened Friday night.
Because, first and foremost, it is something newer and different in the  Christmas collection, not overly done like “A Christmas Carol” and “White Christmas.”
Second, its script by Pat Cook is smart -- full of puns, one-liners, funny situations and nutty characters, making it a comedy amid its sentimentality about the power of hope in our lives.
And third, director Jessica Asiala has assembled a worthy cast -- none of them overplays or underplays his or her character; none is a standout but collectively deliver a solid ensemble feel;  their characters are convincingly played as small-town hicks -- lovable despite being eccentric.
Asiala also knows how to block what is essentially a one-set play, taking place inside a train station with only its ticket booth, one bench and four doors behind which we never see. This could have led to a deadly stagnant play, but she keeps the 10 characters moving in a natural yet active flow.
While we are tempted to share some of the witty lines and puns, we will not so you can enjoy the discovery. Except to tease you to think about how one might play. The small town is Holly (and how appropriate, eh, that Michigan really has a small town named Holly not too far from Saginaw).
Anyway, the town is Holly. One of the characters purchases something at the town’s pawn shop. Now, guess the name of that pawn shop. It’s an old groaner.
The storyline finds these residents of Holly in a pre-Christmas funk -- especially the train station manager, a female Scrooge played by Judy Harper. Business is down, the station’s radio does not work, all she gets is junk mail, she hates Christmas.
“She’s in a mood,” other characters keep noting when she goes off on a tangent.
Enter a white-haired old gentleman who says his name is Leo Tannenbaum (played as ever-so-kindly by Michael Olk)  ...and suddenly strange things start happening, strange POSITIVE things to the radio, the attitudes of the people, and even set pieces which seem to magically appear.
Harper is hilarious throughout, and particularly when she is assigned one of the parts in the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” 
It is the singing of this song that provides one of the two best-played ensemble moments, with every cast member involved in it clicking on all cylinders. 
The song is conducted by city hall worker Linda Rebney, a rather uptight woman who suffers fools badly and dresses badly. Add in Kevin Profitt, the station’s handyman who ain’t too bright; mail carrier Amanda Houthoffd, a kinda naive sort,  and newspaper reporter Mary Margaret Fletcher, not too bright  herself because she forgets to ask the name of Tannenbaum when she interviews him.
By the time they are done butchering “Twelve Days,” and Rebney trying to cope with it, we will never hear it again without laughing.
The second best-played ensemble moment involves Fletcher and Profitt again, with the rest of the cast reacting to them on target. 
In it, Pamela and Tim Barnes, a real-life married couple, portray a Holly couple splitting up.  She is at the station to buy a ticket and go home to mother.
Tannenbaum is trying to get to the bottom of their marital distress by talking with them, is making little headway on what caused the Big Spat, and then, out of nowhere, Fletcher (25 years absent  from the stage)  and Profitt (in one of his best acted roles at Pit) act out what probably happened -- their voices rising in heat as the pretend battle ensues and the rest of the cast watches in amazement. It’s a sidesplitter.
Opening night had some issues with the train sound effect, a couple of microphone cues and the sound coming out of Houthoffd’s microphone. Other than that, nothing to complain about.
Come early to the show to enjoy some hot chocolate and Christmas cookies, then sit back and enjoy some great laughs.