REVIEW: Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was commissioned for the re-consecration of Britain’s Coventry Cathedral, a beautiful church tragically destroyed in a World War II bombing. Britten himself was a staunch pacifist who had registered as a conscientious objector during the war, and the unique combination of these two elements gave birth to a piece that cuts through the gloss of glorified war stories into the more complex, tragic truth of the raw destruction of war. The text of the 80-minute choral piece is assembled from the Latin Mass for the Dead and the poems of Wilfred Owen, a World War I soldier who was killed just a week before the armistice at the young age of 25. Owen’s poetry is plainly anti-war, and the first of his lines in the piece is the chilling “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?”.

 

The requiem was presented as the collaboration between the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, the UMS Choral Union, the Ann Arbor Youth Chorale, as well as three vocal soloists. The addition of the children’s chorale as specified by the original work adds a uniquely haunting aspect to the piece, a reminder that war ultimately results in a great deal of innocence lost, and the sacrifice of young lives with full futures ahead. Britten alternates between dissonant chanting mixed with layers of percussion and smooth, lyrical passages as the piece glides from movement to movement. Yet throughout the entire piece, the atmosphere is solemn, almost haunting. Britten refuses to let the audience forget why the piece was conceived, as a response to a tragedy brought about by the senselessness of war. It is impossible to hear the words of Owen echo through the auditorium in the rich tenor of soloist Anthony Dean Griffey without feeling an acute sense of what we have lost to the cruelty of war. Owen himself was a poet who garnered an abundance of post-humous acclaim despite his short career and the few poems he wrote; his career was brought to an abrupt end by a premature death on the battlefield.

 

Owen is merely one of many young talents, or simply young people, or people in general, whose lives were stolen from them by the merciless combat between sides. War Requiemserves as a haunting reminder that war is not a necessary evil, nor is it one we can afford to distance ourselves from. In the United States, it is perilously easy to turn a blind eye to those suffering from wartime brutality in other countries and in the modern age it is perilously easy to designate war as a “necessary evil”, a tragic yet inevitable byproduct of civilization. Yet as Britten wants us to remember, in a society as advanced as ours, the fact that we have accepted senseless violence over superficial causes as the price of civilization ought to haunt us, and we ought to remember that we have more power over our fates than we like to admit.

REVIEW: Folk Fest

What is folk? After attending the first night of the 42nd Annual Folk Festival, my definition and understanding of this genre of music has both expanded and blurred. Folk isn’t just banjos and mandolins with a Southern drawl. It is so much more, and Folk Fest is the perfect venue to show just how diverse and magical folk music can be.

Peter Mulvey. Credit: Andrew Rogers on All About Ann Arbor

Peter Mulvey was the MC for the night, offering his music in between sets, along with Ford car giveaways and a little story called “Vlad the Astrophysicist,” which he performed, partly by reading from the illustrated children’s book but mostly as a memorized spoken word piece that took you through an existential crisis of time and the universe. Who knew Folk Fest was going to get this deep?

Michigan Rattlers. Credit: Andrew Rogers on All About Ann Arbor
Parsonsfield. Credit: Andrew Rogers on All About Ann Arbor
Sam Lewis. Credit: Andrew Rogers on All About Ann Arbor

As the first act, Michigan Rattlers started off the night, the three-member band getting the audience excited with its folk-rock set. Sam Lewis gave us the clapping song we all craved for the night. Parsonsfield was a very talented band featuring an exciting variety of instruments, including the mandolin and harmonica.

Haley Heynderickx. Credit: Andrew Rogers on All About Ann Arbor

One of my favorite performers was Haley Heynderickx, a very calm and sweet soul with a gentle yet mystifying sound. She said, “If someone is scared of bugs and you collect them, this song is about you. Everything else has already been written.” Her sing-along song, “Oom Sha La La,” was so soothing and unique, I’m now looking forward to seeing her back at The Ark in March.

Gregory Alan Isakov. Credit: Andrew Rogers on All About Ann Arbor

After the intermission, a dim blue light illuminated the stage for Gregory Alan Isakov, setting the stage for the thundering music that was to come. Just as Peter Mulvey said in his introduction, there’s an immense stillness through his music. Bright globes matched the songs about space that moved you through time and the universe, all from a seat in Hill Auditorium.

Brandi Carlile. Credit: Andrew Rogers on All About Ann Arbor

Finally, the headliner brought the audience to their feet as she closed out a night of amazing folk music in style. Brandi Carlile is the most Grammy-nominated female artist this year with six nominations, including best album of the year.Alternating between guitars and the piano, her songs about life, love, and motherhood brought the emotions and power we all love her for.

Folk Fest was a phenomenal night filled with the best folk music around. Catch the second night tonight, or come back next year for the 43rd Ann Arbor Folk Festival that will definitely revolutionize how you engage with folk music and its deep and powerful meanings.

PREVIEW: Folk Festival

The annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival is a fundraiser for The Ark that takes place in Hill Auditorium with two entertaining nights filled with the best folk music around. For the 42nd Folk Fest, the first night on Friday, January 25 features Brandi Carlile, Gregory Alan Isakov, Haley Heynderickx, Sam Lewis, Parsonsfield, Michigan Rattlers, and Peter Mulvey. Then, the folk fun continues on Saturday, January 26 with the exciting lineup of Rufus Wainwright, I’m With Her, Pokey Lafarge, Ahi, The RFD Boys, and Peter Mulvey. Tickets can be bought at MUTO in the League Underground, at the Ark box office, or online at www.theark.org.

REVIEW: An Evening with Audra McDonald

The queen of musical theatre graced our presence in Hill Auditorium on Saturday, and I am left speechless. Of course, Audra McDonald blew everyone’s mind with her performances of both classic and lesser-known pieces, all with a meaningful message behind them, with her iconic soprano voice that has won six Tony awards.

She started the night with “I Am What I Am” from La Cage aux Folles and its powerful message of being who you are authentically and unapologetically. Then, she sang a selection from Jason Robert Brown’s Song for a New World, showcasing her amazing ability to storytell with “Stars and the Moon.” Also, it is noteworthy that even someone like Audra, who has performed this tour many times and sang hundreds of songs in her entire career, can forget the first words to a song. Nobody is perfect, not even someone as perfect as Audra McDonald, who had to ask her wonderful music director Andy Einhorn on the piano for the beginning to the song. Audra later sang a grand little snippet of “Being Alive” from Company, giving us plenty to think about when it comes to love and what one truly wants.

Before many of the songs, Audra provided the context surrounding the song she was about to sing, or gave a fun little anecdote about it. In the case of “Simple Little Things” from 110 in the Shade, she continued her theme of dreams after telling us about the Golden Fleece and big dreams that the main character Lizzy just simply didn’t want. Later, she also provided an entertaining performance of “Vanilla Ice Cream” from She Loves Me, which would have been hard to follow if she hadn’t given any context. Additionally, it comes as no surprise that Audra was dominating solo show choir competitions in high school, and she sang the song that won her first place one time, even if her 13-year-old self did not truly understand what “Cornet Man” from Funny Girl was all about.

Audra McDonald reluctantly sang a song that she believes is over-sung, performing her unique take on “I Could Have Danced All Night” while gradually bringing the key up, showing off her impressive soprano range, and also getting everyone to sing along since it is a fairly well-known theatre piece. She also paid tribute to her dear friend, Barbara Cook, by singing the song, “Chain of Love,” in the musical The Grass Harp. Audra then blessed us with a couple mesmerizing lullabies, including “Moonshine Lullaby” from Annie Get Your Gun (which featured her talented band), “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, and “I Won’t Mind” from The Other Franklin. She sang a chilling mashup of “Children Will Listen” and “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” by the musical geniuses Sondheim and Hammerstein, followed by a heartfelt message about the importance of crafting a new generation that can mend all the present pains lingering in the air.

In the second half of her program, she sang more contemporary songs from rising composers. Her humorous performance of “Facebook Song” by Kate Miller Heidke was certainly relatable and enjoyable. Audra also performed “I’ll Be Here,” a piece by Adam Gwon, a Fred Ebb award recipient, who wrote Ordinary Days, a touching musical about New York that references 9/11, a moment that continues to be relevant even today. In response to “I’ll Be Here” and the question of how to live life when so much is happening around us, she shared her mantra with us by singing “Make Someone Happy,” which was especially moving due to the thoughtful selection and timing of the pieces she choose to sang.

The Evening with Audra McDonald had a theme connecting every song, which was very characteristic of her loving and strong nature. She urged everyone to find dreams worth dreaming, to fight for what’s right, and to hold onto our humanity. Fitting right into that theme, her last song on the program was “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” which was spectacular in every sense. After a thundering applause and standing ovation, Audra came back out and sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” As expected, it was absolutely beautiful and stunning, a phenomenal performance that finished the night filled with sparks of inspiration with style. After bringing us through some of the gems of musical theatre, she left the stage like the queen she is with some words of wisdom that everyone should hold close to their heart: “Dream big. Love bigger.”

PREVIEW: An Evening with Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald, one of Broadway’s most decorated and talented performers, is going to be gracing Ann Arbor with her presence in Hill Auditorium on November 17 at 8pm. She has won six Tony awards and was the first performer to have earned the Tony Grand Slam, winning a Tony award in the four top award categories: “Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play”, “Best Featured Actress in a Musical”, “Best Featured Actress in a Play”, and “Best Actress in a Musical.” The beauty in her voice belongs to a truly beautiful soul, and her love for music and life translates to her love for activism for at-risk youth and LGBTQ rights.

Join renowned performer Audra McDonald on Saturday for an evening of songs from the American musical theater that is sure to be a beautifully phenomenal night.

REVIEW: Aida Cuevas

Throughout the days prior to the most anticipated night of the week, I thought about how grateful I was to be able to see Aida Cuevas perform with my parents here in Michigan. On that evening, the sun had set into a dark blue sky and crowds of bundled-up people walked towards the Hill Auditorium to enter the event. My parents and I stopped at one of the glass showcases outside of the auditorium to take a picture with an event poster of Aida Cuevas; she stood proudly in a traditional mariachi suit, looking up and smiling in the light of green and red that surrounded her. Iconic, I thought to myself; I would come to know that the essence of the photo wasn’t exaggerated in any way.

 

Once the doors opened, my parents and I took our seats on the main floor, sitting fairly close and off to the side nearest to stage left. We had another nearby concertgoer take our picture with the stage behind us and I couldn’t help but notice that it was already glowing a dark red. Throughout my life, I have noticed that color in its waving flag, on the accessories worn by the mariachi, in the dress of a woman celebrating her quinceanera, and in the fireworks that burst over the hills of Mexico City with each end to the week. That color has an extraordinary essence that more represents the aspects of traditional Mexico that have persisted throughout several generations. In that respect, I knew that this performance would not be a mere interpretation of what was authentic but would truly be the living, breathing authentic art that upheld the traditional roots of Mexico as if they would never fade.

 

Finally, the lights dimmed for the performance to begin. Within a few seconds, the lights on the stage burst bright in a golden orange color and the mariachi made a robust entrance, kicking up the beat immediately and the several violinists already sounding as if there were a whole sea of them. The music felt so much like home and the Mexico that I knew, and my eyes stung. I could hear my parents cheering beside me, my dad howling like traditional mariachi players do as a way to cheer on the rest of the performers.

  

Soon after, Senora Cuevas made her entrance, showered with applause and cheers as she moved towards center stage in her big, illuminescent magenta dress. She performed each song with raw emotion, dramatizing each word and showing pure passion with each hand motion that emphasized the grand sounds of the band. Near the middle of the performance, she changed into a mariachi traje, which everyone adored as much as the dress. Her deep voice cut through the air with each ballad and I consistently felt comforted by its richness. She presented herself as a such a powerful woman figure, demanding true love and sharing the pride of being Mexicana in her songs. She returned for an encore and finished the performance with “Mexico Lindo y Querido”, a timeless classic that resonates pride and love for belonging to Mexico. As a final remark, she exclaimed, “Estoy muy orgullosa ser mexicana!” and in that moment, I was reminded of the beautiful sensation that comes with being authentic to yourself and being proud of where you come from.