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Overture Center: Layoffs. Madison Repertory Theatre: Artistic director sacked; layoffs. Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra: Striking musicians, canceled performances and much acrimony.
When it came to the arts in Madison, 2008 was, in important aspects, a year to forget. The tanking economy took its toll on arts organizations as surely as it did everything else.
But guess what? The ticket booths were still open, and, amid the wreckage, the shows went on. Our critics took in oodles of music, theater, dance and visual art in 2008, and they liked what they heard and saw, recession or no recession. Here are their recollections.
How to cram it all in?
Among the heavy hitters, the Madison Symphony Orchestra consistently delivered quality in 2008. Beyond standard and even new items, John DeMain conducted prime novelties by Janácek, Rossini and Vaughan Williams. One podium visitor, Norwegian Arlid Remmereit, was superlative in Dvorák, and another, Estonian Anu Tali, shone in Shostakovich. Outstanding soloists included Emanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman and Sarah Chang.
The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's concerts finished last season with Andrew Sewell's regular combination of standard works, bravely tackled, with subtler novelties by Schubert (arranged by Mahler), Haydn and Bizet. Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott stood out among soloists. Unfortunately, an unexpected strike by the orchestra players forced cancellations in the autumn and has left projected January-April concerts still in doubt. But the WCO did leave strong memories of another Concerts on the Square series.
Madison Opera had a particularly venturesome year. Finishing its three-production undertaking last season, it gave us the novel and intimate chamber opera by Aaron Copland, The Tender Land, in March and then took on the demanding warhorse, Lucia di Lammermoor, in May. Just last month, it began the new three-show season with a stylistically inconsistent but brave Madama Butterfly. Its Opera in the Park this summer was another big-crowd pleaser.
Speaking of summer, that was another round of heightened activity. Madison Savoyards extended its level of quality with a stylish and superbly cast production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Mikado. Balancing that was the ninth annual Madison Early Music Festival, this year focused magnificently on Handel and his world.
At summer's beginning, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society presented its usual diversification of old and new chamber and vocal works, splendidly performed, and this year extended to one more deserving venue, the Mineral Point Opera House. At the other end of summer, the Harbisons' Token Creek Chamber Music Concerts presented another mix of old and new, classical and jazz. I particularly relished the opening program of Haydn and Mozart, with pianist Robert Levin among the guests.
The UW continued to offer its own innumerable concerts. Perhaps its standout offering was a series of 10 recitals by Christopher Taylor, surveying all 32 of Beethoven's piano sonatas: stylistically rigid playing, to my taste, but a monumental gift to the community. And Beverly Taylor led the Choral Union in a magnificent Vaughan Williams concert in May, following it up last month with more of that composer, plus beautiful Brahms and splendid early Beethoven. And the UW Opera weighed in with a jolly Don Pasquale last winter and a bubbly Merry Widow in October.
It is a mistake to think that big-name organizations are Madison's only musical resources. We are lucky to have not one but two trailblazing groups devoted to presenting early music in the latest understanding of period performing style. The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble offered a season of concerts of rare chamber music, plus frequent vocal pieces, done with flair. And Trevor Stephenson continued to expand the range of his Madison Bach Musicians. Having explored the Goldberg Variations himself last April, he has since launched the first of his solo explorations of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, while his regular concerts are still built around rarely heard Cantatas. But he outdid himself in May, leading Madison's first period-style performance of Bach's great Mass in B minor. (Next spring he even plans the St. Matthew Passion!)
And the Ancora Quartet, resident at the First Unitarian Society, continues its brave ventures into demanding and unjustly neglected string-quartet literature.
No musical backwater, our Madison!
Bruce G. Bradley
When looking back on 2008 in Madison theater, it's hard not to think of the famous Grateful Dead line from "Truckin'": What a long, strange trip it's been. The past year, which started with such promise, has seen budget cutbacks, staff layoffs, the near-demise of an area company and the near-demise of an area actor. It's amazing that anyone had time to put on a show.
Professional and community groups alike were hit by the downturn in dollar availability. It is a credit to Madison's devotion to the arts that so many fine productions still graced the city's stages. Madison Repertory Theatre, which had to make staff cuts at year's end, helped both itself and the University Theatre by staging collaborative productions. It will be interesting to see how budgetary constraints affect the Rep's artistic choices. It would be a shame to see the company stifled by financial concerns just when it seemed to be finding its voice.
The year's beginning was almost an ending for Strollers Theatre, one of Madison's iconic companies. The frosty air of February was filled with talk of resignations, some of which came to pass. There were accusations and counterclaims, heated exchanges and icy stares, until the whole business was finally resolved, and Strollers went on to entertain audiences for another year.
Another company that looked on the ropes for much of 2007 punched its way back into contention in 2008. Madison Theatre Guild recovered from financial and personnel setbacks to continue its run as Madison's oldest theater group, once again giving theater-goers reason to rejoice. Joining MTG at the Bartell was the invigorating presence of Mercury Players, who in mid-year went on to occupy its own space on the east side. With a slate of provocative productions and its ever-popular Blitz series, Mercury continues to rise.
Stage Q manages to provide its own unique perspective by challenging us to reconsider our views about gender and sexuality. It would be good to see more Madison playwrights featured in the Queer Shorts series, but the prospect of its production of Cloud Nine in 2009 is very exciting. No less provocative in its way is Broom Street Theater, although it almost lost its artistic director when Callen Harty suffered a heart attack during an opening night performance. Fortunately, both he and the company are doing well.
A remarkable aspect of Madison theater is the diversity of its constituency. Companies like Positive Aging, Encore Studio, Proud Theater and Children's Theatre of Madison are all proof that age, sexual identity and physical disability are no barrier to the creative urge. So while the dollars may dwindle, the spirit shows no sign of succumbing. Madison theater, take a bow.
The year kicked off with a bad economic omen - $100-a-barrel oil. But that didn't stop the winter from ringing in with one of the year's musical high points. On the last night of January, Hugh Masekela and the amazing Chissa Allstars graced the Wisconsin Union Theater's World Stage. Masekela's masterpieces, from the prayerlike "Ibala Lam" to the crowd-rousing "Bring Back Nelson Mandela," were interlaced with Sibongile Khumalo's sax-y vocals, Tshepo Mngoma's delirious violin and Khaya Mahlangu's wailing reeds.
Thank you, Angelique Kidjo (Nov. 6, Union Theater), for that flat-out celebration of post-election euphoria. The Amazon Queen from Benin got a Grammy this year for Djin Djin, a Starbucks release with an exuberant cover of "Gimme Shelter." Kidjo, à la Mick Jagger in a tight white pantsuit, leaped and strutted, exhorting the crowd to dance. "You gotta sing it loud and clear," she shouted, launching into her anthem, "Afrika." And we did.
Master bop drummer Roy Haynes opened the Isthmus Jazz Festival (June 7, Union Theater) with his Fountain of Youth Quartet. No-body else alive can invent rhythmic tapestries like Haynes. The set, spanning jazz from Monk to Metheny, glittered with his crisp riffs. His "Snap Crackle" solo sizzled. So did his superb new-generation sidemen, pianist Martin Bejerano, bass player David Wong and saxman Jaleel Shaw, who got plenty of space to stretch out.
Two more concerts stood out from the rest. Orlando "Maraca" Valle and his all-star salsa/timba/jazz outfit New Collective, hot off their new CD Lo Que Quiero es Fiesta, brought a spirited shot of saoco to the Wisconsin Union Theater's World Music Festival (Sept. 13). And Lura, whose Mad City debut (Oct. 16, Union Theater) coincided with the stock market crash, utterly dissipated the dark mood with her velvety Afro-Cape Verdean rhythms.
The Union Theater house sold out for master rhythm tapper Savion Glover's Bare Soundz show (Nov. 8). It was an all-rhythm affair - just Glover, with fellow new-generation hoofers Marshall Davis Jr. and Maurice Chestnut. They wowed the crowd, wresting rangy tones from dance percussion platforms, playing rap-edged bebop with jazz-savvy feet.
New York's multiethnic, ballet-trained, Alvin Ailey-inspired Complexions Contemporary Ballet (March 2, Union Theater) flaunted exquisite hybrid technique in a zingy program with works set to Chopin and Marvin Gaye. But the very best dance piece I saw this year was Chicago-based Luna Negra's Deshár Alhát (Leaving Sunday), choreographed by artistic director Eduardo Vilaro (Nov. 20, Overture's Capitol Theater). Using deep Cuban sensibilities, Sephardic Jewish music, beautifully trained dancers and constant movement flow, Vilaro revealed the essential themes of homelands lost.
On the local front Kiro Kopoulos turned in the year's best performance, in his role as the Tree of Life in Kanopy Dance artistic director Lisa Thurrell's romantic winter dance "Yggdrasil" (Nov. 2, Overture's Promenade Hall). For top choreography, two works are tied: Li Chiao Ping's evocative, two-part World War II piece, "Different Trains" (H'Doubler Performance Space, Sept. 26), and Karen McShane Hellenbrand's arty, jazzy "GIANT city ache" (May 2, in the UW Dance Program Spring Concert at H'Doubler).
Finally, Bare Bones Dance, an underground, alternative-space show of new works by local choreographers (Dec. 5, Jewel in the Lotus Yoga Studio), was fresh - and a glimpse into the future. It's a model for arts survival, once ticket money dries up and the funding's all gone.
How a student at Azusa Pacific University came to critique my writing for a class both baffles and flatters me, but one of his observations really resonated: "Reiser hands out compliments like a badly thrashed piñata leaking candy." Point well taken; consider the following my busted piñata of theater in 2008.
The trio of American Players Theatre plays I saw this summer were all well done, as is usually the case with APT, but I was wowed by A Midsummer's Night Dream. It isn't a stretch that an outdoor production would suit Shakespeare's comedy, but the elegant set, witty costumes and top-notch acting combined with a perfect summer night made for complete magic. Steve Haggard and Carrie Coon as squabbling Demetrius and Helena were perfect and infused their lines with a current feel. Jonathan Smoots as Bottom was a hilarious scene-stealer. APT newcomer Haggard was also quite good as Richard in O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! (which showcased the deft Ken Albers as Uncle Sid), while APT veteran Sarah Day was suitably conniving in The Belle's Stratagem.
Madison Theatre Guild's production of The Laramie Project was spare and simple in its staging, but its impact was completely heartbreaking. The large cast performed multiple roles in this affecting production about Matthew Shephard's brutal murder, which moved me more than anything I've seen in quite awhile. With so many noteworthy performances I feel guilty only mentioning Tara Affolter and Ilona Pinzke, but their scenes together really rang true.
Children's Theatre of Madison offered an engaging and silly production of James DeVita's Looking Glass Land. It was fun to see adults and children performing together in this take on Through the Looking Glass, particularly the clever fight scenes between White Knight Lee Waldhart (winning in all of his roles) and Red Knight Atlas Brewster.
StageQ's production of Pulp, a musical satire of 1950s lesbian novels, was sly and campy fun. Sue Carnell brought a level-headed, straight-shooting (pardon the pun) appeal to her lead role.
It's usually my experience that there is something good about shows that I didn't particularly love. First-time playwright and director Scott Rawson, of Broom Street Theater's The Maple Bluff Mystery, had interesting ideas and coaxed some good performances out of the cast. Colin Woolston's authenticity made him a standout in Strollers Theatre's The Miss Firecracker Contest, and while some of the other performances annoyed me, I appreciated their clear, crisp enunciation and strong voices (which is more often a problem than not in many local theater productions).
I wish Broom Street's Callen Harty a speedy recovery and felt sort of sheepish when I reread my crabby review of Leprechaun, but even that chaotic, crazy show brought me a goosebump moment when Ben Doran sang Four Green Fields.
Jennifer A. Smith
Looking back on 2008, it's hard to be entirely positive. On a national level, I'm thrilled that Obama has won, yet he's being handed the keys to a car that's belly-up in a ditch, wheels spinning.
And national economic woes are having local aftershocks, including staff cuts at the Overture Center and Madison Rep; this year has also seen a labor dispute at the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.
So, in these shaky times, maybe you need to take your laughs where you can get 'em. This seemed to be a banner year for quirky musicals that didn't take themselves too seriously. Some were big-budget touring shows at Overture - Avenue Q and Spamalot - but University Theatre's more modestly staged offering, Musicals of Musicals (The Musical!), delivered just as many laughs with local talents like husband-and-wife actors Scott Haden and Clare Arena Haden.
There were also some excellent plays that proved all over again that theater can be serious and relevant yet damn entertaining at the same time. My top two in that category are Permanent Collection at Madison Rep, starring UW professor Patrick Sims, and Strollers Theatre's production of Doubt at the Bartell.
Permanent Collection, which took on racial politics in the art-museum world, was fiery and, at times, funny. Doubt boasted memorable performances (particularly Judy Kimball as Sister Aloysius) as it explored possible clergy sexual abuse at a Catholic school.
In the realm of visual art, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art continued to balance major exhibitions by top-rank artists of the 20th and 21st centuries (like Jasper Johns and George Segal) with shows by younger, lesser-known artists, like the recently opened show by German photographer Barbara Probst.
Looking ahead to 2009, MMoCA's schedule looks promising. A Robert Rauschenberg show is on tap, as well as thematic shows about topics as disparate as the American West and conceptions of evil.
The Chazen showed its fanciful side with shows like Ringmaster: Judy Onofrio and the Art of the Circus and the Mami Wata exhibition, focusing on the incredible variety of representations of this African water spirit. In terms of my own personal taste, I was more drawn to the historical circus photos of Chicago-based Harry A. Atwell, who documented the heyday of the traveling tented circus. Peering into the world of these long-ago trapeze artists and animal tamers was enchanting.
The Wisconsin Academy's James Watrous Gallery kept up its schedule of solo shows by contemporary Wisconsin artists, making it perhaps the best place in the area to stay in touch with what our state's artists are doing. Particularly fine were solo shows by UW metalsmith Kim Cridler, Sheboygan artist Amy Ruffo and Milwaukee painter Katie Musolff - all of whom happen, by coincidence, to be women. In light of recent research by the National Endowment for the Arts on discrimination against women in our nation's art capitals, New York and Los Angeles, it's good to see these and other talented women artists getting some of the recognition they deserve.