I get in my little car, and I go to marvelous things. My favorite is the Mohawk Trail Concerts. This marvelous series, run by Ruth Black, was for years the summer destination of the great Jan DeGaetani, and still boasts yearly visits from Joan Morris and William Bolcom. At various times I have heard the Fiordiligi who was singing Don Giovanni with James Levine at Tanglewood, a young woman who was sitting principal cellist later in the summer for a great performance of the Alpine Symphony with Charles Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and major artists like Carol Wincenc. I have never heard a bad concert in this venue. The structure itself is a small church in the hamlet of Charlemont, Mass. Everything about the concert is informal. Mrs. Black speaks elegantly before each concert. One feels like one is at home. There is an almost bewildering variety to the series. It is not expensive. This summer I heard an all-too-rare performance of Fauré’s piano quartet, Op.15 played by an old friend, John van Buskirk and the other members of the La Belle Alliance trio. This was limpid, detailed playing with an acute sense of the quick-changing affect Fauré’s music possesses, early or late. The trio made these shifts, like the shifts in thinking itself, into a consistent rhetoric that showed me how neglected this masterpiece is. It was an unaffected performance, which I was able to hear from about ten feet away. When you go, take note of a magnificent elm tree just across the street from the church. The elm is majestic. The church is humble. Hearing music in these concerts is a real experience, not a media event.
Disagreement is a healthy sign in theater, I’ve always thought—the livelier the better—and for that reason I’m inclined to think that Jenny Gersten has had a big success in her first season as Artistic Director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. I don’t believe that critics have agreed about a single one of this summer’s productions. I haven’t done a systematic survey of the reviews, but I have the impression that out-of-town critics, especially the New Yorkers, have leaned towards the positive—often enthusiastically so—while the local reviewers have been less content—in some cases attacking certain productions with anger and derision.
The stage is stark and cold—dark but visible. Chairs and dozens of musical instruments sit against a circular back wall. At the right, a piano. At the left, a steep, winding staircase with a black, leafy, wrought-iron banister. It twists its way up at least two stories above the stage finally disappearing into the ceiling and a shaft of simulated daylight. We are intrigued, and Ten Cents a Dance, the third and final production on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, has yet to begin. We know what the instruments are for. Ten Cents a Dance is a John Doyle-conceived and directed musical. As in his revivals of Company and Sweeney Todd, both of which won him a Tony, his singer-musicians accompany themselves.
Music at the close. The adage is leave ’em wanting more, not less, but Stephen Sondheim has barely skirted the latter fate. At eighty-one, he’s been erratically revising a problem child since 1999 that is now called, blandly, Road Show. Under various uninspired titles — Wise Guys, Gold!, and Bounce — the musical flipped and flopped around the country from Chicago to New York and Washington D.C. At every step of the way Sondheim, being Sondheim, attracted the biggest names to direct and star, including Hal Prince and Nathan Lane. But no luck.
Our beloved Williamstown Theatre Festival has announced its Mainstage productions for the 2011 season, which will extend from July 1 to August 28. (Information about the Nikos Stage Season, as well as additional details about the Main Stage Season, will be announced at a later date.) This will be the first season under the festival’s new Artistic Director, Jenny Gersten, whose appointment was announced last spring. She is the third Artistic Director of the WTF within the past seven years, but no matter: she, like her predecessors, has had a long involvement with the Festival, as associate producer from 1996 to 2004, the years when Michael Ritchie ran it as Producer 1996-2004. He was succeeded by Roger Rees, who only lasted from 2004 to 2007 as Artistic Director. Nicholas Martin then took over. Mr. Martin suffered a stroke only a year into his tenure. After a period of recovery, the stroke seemed to impair his creative work very little, but it did force him to make choices — to Broadway’s benefit. All of these people have had strong connections with Broadway, as well as the non-profit theatres of New York. Hence there has been a solid continuity at the Festival in spite of this rapid succession of quick changes.