Saturday, October 29, 2016

Following Janus Theatre Company "Into the Dark"

Neither the sports fans, the casual diners, nor even the police knew what was happening below street level Friday night in downtown Elgin. Groups of ten or twelve mystified souls descended dark stairways into unfurnished rooms, to hear tell of fortunes, madness and murders.

That was the premise of "Tales from Poe II: Into the Dark," the latest program of Walkabout: Theater on your Feet, presented by Janus Theatre Company. In each of four acts, a single actor brought to life selected writings by Edgar Allan Poe, the American writer best known for his preoccupation with death.

In the basement under the Blue Box Cafe, Kelly Bolton channeled a clairvoyant from a candle lit Romantic era parlor, paired with the words to the poem "Spirits of the Dead." In another room below Salon Couture, Joe Cattoggio introduced us to the first of three deranged characters with a tense reading of Egaeus, suitor to Poe's Berenice.

From a cell beneath Rediscover Records, Paula Smiech made us believe that murder can be deliberate and rational, though The Tell Tale Heart foiled the perfect crime. And like the opening scene of a Vincent Price film, a jovial Thomas Squires greeted visitors in Side Street Studio Arts Gallery with a glass of wine before ushering them into his cellar by torch light to see The Cask of Amontillado. We didn't expect the tour to end with the reenactment of a murder.

Scenes from The Cask of Amontillado played by Thomas Squires.

Poe's detailed psychological characterizations lend themselves to live delivery, but they are much more than narration — the words, structure and style of the language are essential to each character's personality, defining them more by how they think, than by what they say and do.

Yet we recognize repetition, abrupt changes in mood, dynamics and speech tempo as signs of madness, which Smiech employed to great effect in Tell Tale Heart. And inappropriate laughter seemed perfectly appropriate in Squires' animated protrayal of the murderous Montresor, expanded by skillful improvisations and live action.

As the Father of the Short Story, the power of Poe's writing is in the impressions it forms in readers' minds, and staging this material as a live production is not without risk. But these fine performances directed by Janus' Sean Hargadon prove that in the right hands, Poe's stories can be as effective in an underground theater as they are on a printed page.

The tours continue Saturday Oct. 29th at 2pm and 7pm, and Sunday at 2pm. For complete details, go to

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The St. Charles Singers Continue "The Mozart Journey"

There simply aren't many concerts of young W.A. Mozart's early sacred choral works. It's not because the music isn't beautiful or important (it is). Perhaps it's because only a choir with the depth and quality of the St. Charles Singers could develop this lesser known repertoire into a multi-season program that may very well be unique in the world.

Performances of October 15 and 16, 2016 were the eleventh in a series of seventeen concerts entitled "The Mozart Journey: Mannheim and Beyond," whose goal is to present the complete known collection of Mozart's sacred choral compositions. Such a project may never have been undertaken before.

Seats were scarce in St. Mary's Church in Elgin on Sunday afternoon, even for the 28-piece Metropolis Chamber Orchestra of Chicago, which was spread across the transept, two rows deep and twelve rows wide. The choir occupied the remaining area in front of the chancel and the vocal soloists sang from the first row of pews.

But every seat in the church became the perfect seat once the music started. St. Mary's sounded like a cathedral and the ensemble seemed to double in volume under the lofty ceilings. It's a resounding yet forgiving space that favors intonation at the cost of some fine details, but the exquisite experience of this music was worth it.

Photo courtesy St. Charles Singers.

The program consisted of the obscure Kyrie in E flat K 322 (1778), the nine-part Litaniae de venerabili altaris Sacramento K 243 (1776), and the seven-movement Missa Solemnis in C K 337 (1780), all written while Mozart was in his early twenties, before he moved to Vienna. The orchestra was showcased in Symphony No. 1 in D Major (1759) by Joseph Haydn, Mozart's contemporary, idol and friend.

Perhaps less familiar to Elgin audiences, the 32-voice St. Charles Singers are a professional choir made up of accomplished career musicians. And their skill was evident in graceful control over dynamic contrasts and counterpoint that needed no prompting. Each tightly synchronized section shaped their phrases to the same arc and length, and the choir's tone was gorgeously blended over long vowels — although without overenunciating, the all-Latin text was hard to follow at times.

The orchestra was attentive and entirely on point throughout, never outsung by the choir except in a few passages through opposite registers. Subtler details like violin pizzicato were more felt than heard in the volume of sound, and the more transparent moments of orchestration made us want to hear more from the portative organ and flute. 

Two solo voices bright enough to outshine the chorale belonged to outstanding sopranos Meredith Du Bon and Jennifer Gingrich, whose expressive range boasted precise entrances, regal fortes, and courageous flights of operatic coloratura dipping below the staff.

The preparation of this ensemble spoke for itself and was a credit to unassuming Maestro Jeffrey Hunt, founder and Music Director of the St. Charles Singers. His tempos were reverent, and his baton was free of all conceit as he ushered choir and orchestra through 75 minutes of music with concise cues and poetic timing.

If this performance was any measure, we think the St. Charles Singers have a sound much larger than any chamber, and a talent much bigger than their name. Listen for yourself at their upcoming "Candlelight Carols" concerts, December 2-4, 2016.  Learn more at