by Seth Rogovoy
Every summer, performing arts organizations in the Berkshires offer an embarrassing wealth of riches in theater, music, dance, and other arts. This isn’t news. The greatest obstacle for audience members is figuring out where to be and when. I’ve even seen people walking around with spreadsheets they prepare in advance of the summer season telling them what they’re supposed to be doing on any given day.
As my small effort to help parse the summer cultural season in the Berkshires – and at the risk of omitting as many worthy events as I list – here are my Top 10 recommendations for what to see and do in summer 2016. In no particular order:
Jeremy Denk (photo Michael Wilson)
Jeremy Denk, Tanglewood, Wednesday, August 24
On Wednesday, Aug 24, piano sensation Jeremy Denk will perform a solo program at Tanglewood in Ozawa Hall called Medieval to Modern, in which he will attempt to chart the history of Western music from the Medieval and Renaissance worlds of Machaut, Couperin, and Frescobaldi to Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, the modernists Stravinsky, Cage, Ligeti, and Adams, and back to Machaut. Denk is interesting on many levels – as well as a virtuoso player, he’s also a great writer about music. His essays on music appear in the New Yorker, as well as in the New Republic and New York Review of Books. In 2013, he won a so-called Genius Award from the MacArthur Foundation.
“Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare & Company, July 1-August 21
A rare production of “The Merchant of Venice” reunites two Shakespeare & Company stalwarts – company founder Tina Packer will direct Jonathan Epstein in the title role that he was arguably born to play, and which they last worked on together in 1998. It’s been a few years since Epstein has appeared at Shakespeare & Co., where at one time he was a regular, although he has remained on the board all this time, and his wife, Ariel Bock, is now co-artistic director of the company along with Jonathan Croy.
Dorrance Dance, Jacob’s Pillow, August 10-14
Dorrance Dance, which has thrilled Jacob’s Pillow audiences in recent years, returns with a brand-new program, ETM: Double Down, incorporating live music and electronic tap dance instruments, so there’s literally no separation between the dancers and the music. (An early incarnation of this program was workshopped at the Pillow several summers ago.) Choreographer Michelle Dorrance , who was named a MacArthur Fellow last year, has always insisted that tap is at its heart a musical performance, and in this work she’ll make her strongest case yet for the inextricable connection between the two art forms. Full disclosure: My daughter has worked in various capacities for Dorrance Dance. This isn’t a conflict of interest; it’s kvelling.
Bob Dylan with Mavis Staples, Tanglewood, July 2
Having recently turned 75 and released his second album of pre-rock standards in as many years, Bob Dylan returns to the Shed at Tanglewood for the third time. Dylan is an erratic performer like no one else, and he almost never gives audience what they’re expecting. He rarely smiles or interacts with the audience or even his bandmates, but in spite of all this, he can be transcendent, working through the songs to reach an almost mystical intensity.
Dylan recently did a month-long tour in Japan, and his concerts consisted of nearly half standards from the recent “Fallen Angels” album and last year’s “Shadows in the Night.” Among the songs he performed are “What’ll I Do,” “I’m a Fool to Want You,” “Melancholy Mood,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Autumn Leaves,” “The Night We Called it a Day,” and “Why Try to Change Me Now.” The concerts were fleshed out by songs from his most recent albums; otherwise the only “hits” he played were “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Tangled Up in Blue.” It’s anyone’s guess what his set will be like at Tanglewood, but it could resemble those in Japan.
One wild card, however, is opening act Mavis Staples. Dylan has a longtime history with Staples, going back nearly to the beginning of his career. Dylan shared stages with the Staple Singers, for which Mavis was a lead vocalist, at civil rights rallies in the early 1960s, and the group recorded many of his protest songs. There are several apocryphal stories of Dylan having asked for Mavis’s hand in marriage back then, stories which Mavis has been retelling often in recent years in various versions. The two recorded a version of Dylan’s “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” together for the Grammy Award-winning “Gotta Serve Somebody,” a tribute album featuring Dylan’s gospel songs re-recorded by traditional and contemporary gospel artists (produced, incidentally, by Williamstown, Mass., native Jeffrey Gaskill). Will they reprise their duet live onstage? Dylan very rarely duets with anyone, even his hand-selected warmup acts. But if he were to duet with anyone, Mavis Staples would be a likely candidate.
As for his versions of those standards, many associated with Frank Sinatra, Dylan plays them in rootsy versions that emphasize their emotional qualities, particular their poignancy, to a degree far beyond what one would ordinarily expect. He seems to be on a mission to recontextualize the songs and their songwriters – Harold Arlen, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and the like – and to draw a connection between them and himself, and other writers of the rock era.
Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival, MASS MoCA, July 13-30
For over a decade the annual Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival at MASS MoCA, or Banglewood, has been a highlight of the summer arts scene in the Berkshires. The 2.5 week residency of Bang on a Can staff, faculty, and composers, as well as guest artists and composers and the fellows who come to study with all these folks, is chock full of music nearly 24/7, all over the MASS MoCA campus, not just on concert stages but in the galleries, outside, and all over North Adams. If you can only go once, I’d recommend the concert on Saturday, July 23, when the Bang on a Can All-Stars play a piece by composer Brian Eno – a seminal influence on contemporary music, especially on the Bang on a Can composers – called “Music for Airports,” Eno’s first recording of what he termed “ambient music,” and possibly his all-time best.
There are plenty of other great programs during the festival devoted to new music composers and showcasing the virtuosity of many of the guest artists and faculty, including cellist Ashley Bathgate, festival composer-in-residence John Luther Adams, and the annual six-hour Bang on a Can Marathon, featuring works by Adams as well as works by Steve Reich, Bang on a Can composer/founders Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang, and others.
Brian Wilson Presents ‘Pet Sounds,’ Tanglewood, Sunday, June 19
Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson is back in the spotlight in the wake of the critically acclaimed feature film “Love and Mercy,” which profiled the making of the landmark album, “Pet Sounds,” released 50 years ago, and which Wilson will play in its entirety, sandwiched in between other Beach Boys’ favorites. Wilson’s masterpiece, released in 1966, had at least two songs you know – “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B” – and possibly a third, “God Only Knows.” But in its entirety, the album is a cutting-edge musical pastiche of pop, rock, classical, jazz, and experimental sounds, playing what I hear as the soundtrack to a mental breakdown – as if Wilson wrote a symphony putting into music the voices he was hearing in his head. What came out was something remarkable, and listening to it today, one can plainly see how Paul McCartney heard this in the year of the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul,” panicked, and then set out to make his own masterpiece, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Reviews of these concerts in England in May have been uniformly positive.
The Knights, Tanglewood, Ozawa Hall, July 14
The Knights have “become one of Brooklyn’s sterling cultural products… known far beyond the borough for their relaxed virtuosity and expansive repertory” (New Yorker). To give you an idea of their range, just this past year the Knights have performed with Yo-Yo Ma, Gil Shaham, and French pianist Lise de la Salle. In recent seasons they played Carnegie Hall in the New York premiere of the Steven Stucky/Jeremy Denk opera “The Classical Style”; they toured the U.S. with banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck; they toured Europe with soprano Dawn Upshaw; and they have collaborated with Itzhak Perlman, the Mark Morris Dance Group, Joshua Redman, and pipa virtuoso Wu Man. They also have a connection with Brooklyn Rider, who perform with Wendy Whelan at Jacob’s Pillow.
For this show, they feature vocalist Christina Courtin and Gabriel Kahane, electric guitar, piano, and voice. Christina Courtin is a fascinating Brooklyn-based composer and multi-instrumentalist as well as vocalist, specializing in neoclassical music. A Juilliard graduate in violin, she also plays viola and guitar. Dawn Upshaw has sang her music, and she has collaborated with Paul McCartney, Marianne Faithful, and Yo-Yo Ma among many diverse others.
Gabriel Kahane’s father is a concert pianist and conductor, and although he’s generally considered a modern folk-pop guitar-playing singer-songwriter, he attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. He’s written song cycles and musicals; he wrote a string quartet for Kronos Quartet and a piano concerto for Natasha Peremski; and a large chamber work for the LA Philharmonic. Audra MacDonald has recorded and performed his songs, and a song cycle he wrote for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra received its world premiere at Carnegie Hall. He’s currently writing commissioned musicals for Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., and for the Public Theatre in NYC. And this is only some of it. And he’s only 35 years old. I hate him.
The program at Tanglewood by this new music “orchestral collective” is called “The Times, They Are A-Changin’,” and includes works by Haydn and Schubert, Kahane’s Crane Palimpset, and song by Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, and “Wild Thing” by the Troggs.
Brian Brooks and Wendy Whelan (photo Erin Baiano)
Wendy Whelan, Brian Brooks, and Brooklyn Rider, Jacob’s Pillow, July 27-30
Jacob’s Pillow presents a collaboration starring NYC ballet star and principal dancer Wendy Whelan out of her pointe shoes, dancing with choreographer Brian Brooks, to a live score performed by acclaimed new-music string quartet Brooklyn Rider. A production of the Joyce Theater, program called “Some of a Thousand Words,” features new solos and duets. The evening will include the duet “First Fall,” which Brooks and Whelan developed for “Restless Creature” (co-produced by The Joyce Theater in 2013). Emphasizing the agency of the music in relation to the dance, the project will use existing music from composers John Luther Adams, Tyondai Braxton, Philip Glass, Evan Ziporyn (of Bang on a Can), and a new composition from Brooklyn Rider’s own Colin Jacobsen.
“The Rose Tattoo” and “Cost of Living,” Williamstown Theatre Festival
It’s nearly impossible to predict what are going to be the best shows in theater before they open. All you can rely on going into it are the plays, if they aren’t premieres, and/or the talent. Or you can just guess. The opening show on the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s mainstage is Tennessee Williams’s “The Rose Tattoo.” Beside the fact that WTF has a long and successful history of presenting plays by Williams (I fondly recall seeing Williams hanging out at the summer theater and all around town while founder Nikos Psacharapoulos would direct his work), this staging stars Marisa Tomei, making it hands-down the hottest ticket of the summer, in more ways than one.
The Nikos Stage at WTF is devoted to three world premieres and one American premiere. “Cost of Living” kicks off the second-stage season on June 29, and notably features the actor Wendell Pierce, whom you know from the New Orleans drama “Treme” and for playing police offer Bunk on “The Wire.” Unfortunately, you also know him from recent headlines, where he’s been accused of committing an assault that has something to do with his avid campaigning for Hillary Clinton. Hopefully things will get settled in time for him to head up to Williamstown. Obie Award-winner Jo Bonney directs Martyna Majok’s play about four very different people, in four very different circumstances, each trying to get by. Eddie (Wendell Pierce), an unemployed truck driver, reunites with his ex-wife Ani after she suffers a devastating accident. John (Gregg Mozgala), a brilliant and witty doctoral student, hires over-worked Jess (Rebecca Naomi Jones) as a caregiver. As their lives intersect, Majok’s play delves into the chasm between abundance and need and explores the space where bodies — abled and disabled — meet each other. Also it’s a one act which always helps. Other plays on the Nikos Stage feature actors Laila Robins and Alfred Molina.
Sklamberg & the Shepherds (l-r: Polina Shepherd, Merlin Shepherd, Lorin Sklamberg)
YIDSTOCK: The Festival of New Yiddish Music, Yiddish Book Center, Amherst, Mass., July 14-17
The YIDSTOCK Festival, which I cofounded with the Yiddish Book Center and for which I serve as artistic director, celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, so we are bringing back many of the audience favorites from the first five years, including the Klezmatics, the Klezmer Conservatory Band, Eleanor Reissa, and Sklamberg & the Shepherds, as well as offering festival debuts (Paul Shapiro’s Ribs & Brisket Revue) and staging unique YIDSTOCK collaborations. This year’s YIDSTOCK-only performance features a coming together of two of the klezmer world’s greatest musician-composers – clarinetist-guitarist Merlin Shepherd, from the U.K., and trumpeter-keyboardist Frank London, from NYC, best known as a cofounder of the Klezmatics. The two will solo and duet together in a jazzy, funky, Middle Eastern klezmer fusion with all-star bandmates Lauren Brody on accordion, Yoshie Fruchter on stringed instruments, and Richie Barshay on drums (Merlin Shepherd-Frank London Group, Sunday, July 17, 3pm).