Friday, January 1, 2016

The Best Performances of 2015

Afro-Cuban All Stars, Overture Hall                                                 © SKepecs 2015
by Susan Kepecs
Well, we’ve come to the end of another year under the nefarious thumb of transnational capitalism.  I thank my lucky stars, Bernie Sanders, and the performing arts for what little sanity I have left. Without further comment, here’s my Best Of 2015 list from that latter, life-affirming realm: 

The Juan de Marcos González UW-Madison Arts Institute Interdisciplinary Residency this fall, in all its multifaceted splendor. The concert by his brilliant big band, the Afro-Cuban All Stars (Overture Hall, Oct. 2), was a blitz of aché the likes of which we haven’t seen here in years, displayed in a splurge of styles culled from the complex evolution of the big island’s music – bolero, cha-cha-cha, guapachá, batumbatá – with a surprise retro ending: a pair of beloved sones from the original Buena Vista album, “El Cuarto de Tula” and “Chan Chan.”
Juan de Marcos with Pellejo Seco  © SKepecs 2015
Equally inspired were Marcos’ intimate public lec-dems (Tuesdays, Sept. 22-Nov. 10 at
Marcos and Abreu, demonstrating danzón
© SKepecs 2015
Music Hall and the Memorial Union’s Frederic March Play Circle
), layered with little-known stories, laced with informational gems, and illuminated with immense generosity of spirit and good humor.  Marcos often was accompanied onstage by tremendously talented Cuban musicians including his wife, Gliceria Abreu, and their two conservatory-trained daughters, Gliceria and Laura González; the Afro-Cuban All Stars (the week they were here for the concert); San Francisco-based son septet Pellejo Seco; and Cuban hip-hop queen Telmary Díaz.   

Poncho Sanchez, Shannon Hall      ©SKepecs 2015
Tony Castañeda, Shannon Hall       © SKepecs 2015
El gran soul vato Poncho Sanchez and his regular septet served up a sparkling set at the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall on May 9, with a snazzy warmup by our own Tony Castañeda and his Latin Jazz Band.  Castaneda’s outfit was super tight, turning out tunes like saxman Anders Svanoe’s “Volando Alto,” and “Pantano,” off Cal Tjader’s best-selling album, Soul Sauce (Verve, 1964).  And Sanchez, with his miraculous, bandaged fingers – ¡que ritmo! – showed off his versatility, playing the cha cha cha “Ven pa’ Bailar,” off his Latin Soul album (Concord 1999); Coltrane’s “Liberia,” latinizado to the hilt; Cheo Feliciano’s bolero “Aunque Tu;” and, dipping into the old soul bag – ¡thunder, lightening! – Eddie Floyd’s 1967 Stax/Volt hit “Knock on Wood.” 

Mahlasela (L) and Masekela.  Press photo

Hugh Masekela, the grand old man of South African township jazz, and Vusi “the voice” Mahlasela, played the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall on March 6.  The raison d’ être for this joint appearance was their Twenty Years of Freedom show, a jubliant tribute to the day in May, 1994, that Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa, ushering in democracy and ending 50 brutal years of apartheid.  “Twenty Years of Freedom” was an assemblage of greatest hits – the high holy music of township sound civil rights, as resonant and universal today as it was decades ago.  A luta continua.
            Mahlasela sang “When You Come Back, which he performed at Mandela’s inauguration; Masekela played his ’68 hippie anthem “Grazin’ in the Grass,” his iconic trumpet still wailing gloriously almost 50 years later.
Once, before a different concert, I asked him why his songs, written in the grim context of struggle, were so joyful.  “Many artists find the quality of joy when they’re oppressed and inspired,” Masekela replied.

Ben Sidran’s Salon for Secular Humanists, Arch Democrats, and Freethinkers, ongoing at the
Sidran and company.  Hammes, unfortunately,  is hidden behind Moran.
© SKepecs 2015
Cardinal Bar since 2012 on Tuesday afternoons, June-August, is a weekly summertime meetinghouse for a hard-core group of regulars (many of whom lived in Miffland a lifetime ago, groovin’ to “Knock on Wood” and “Grazin’ in the Grass”) – and a hot drop-in spot for luminaries from near and far.  The salon is church for the emancipated, with music provided by Sidran on keys and vocals, Nick Moran on bass, Louka Patenaude on guitar, and Tod Hammes on percussion (need I say more?) – and an inspirational message in the form of Sidran’s signature rant.  One Tuesday late last August when I actually took notes, Sidran took on all those Facebook addicts who live online and lose out on real life, then swerved into the wisdom of the great neurologist / wordsmith Oliver Sacks (who’d just died), paraphrasing gems from Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Vintage Books, 2007).  From there the rant ran to racism (ultimately we are all out of Africa), and finally fixed on the folly of Scotty’s then-in-full-swing presidential bid before morphing into two sets – bebop to doo-wop tunes this particular week by Sidran, Dylan, and yes, even the Spaniels – of sheer and utter head-boppin’, jivin’, jitterbuggin’ groove.

Li Chiao Ping Dance presented the last in its 20-year retrospective series, Armature: in media res,
Li, in "in media res"  © Craig Schreiner
at Overture’s Promenade Hall, Dec. 11-13.  Chiao Ping’s choreography is brainy and complex.  Her postmodernist deconstructions of ballet speak volumes about dance.  Her company is strong.  And she shines as a soloist.  Her latest work, “in media res” – a solo for herself, a sort of Pilates table dance for the intelligentsia – summed up who she is as a dancemaker: strong, fearless, ingenious. 

"Expressions"    © SKepecs 2015
I loved Madison Ballet’s Repertory II, April 17-18, at the Bartell – especially the finale, “Expressions,” artistic director W. Earle Smith’s jazz standards ballet.  Reminiscent of Balanchine’s Broadway ballets of the ‘30s and ‘40s, “Expressions” sizzled and smoked in all the right ways.  And then there’s the full-length work I consider this company’s greatest hit, Smith's Dracula, at Overture’s Capitol Theater, Oct. 16-17.  The whole show was a spooky delight, and the chemistry, especially between Madison Ballet’s stunning Shannon Quirk (as Mina Murray) and bedroom-eyed former Arizona Ballet principal Shea Johnson (as Jonathan Harker), was superb.  I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again – if Balanchine had created a sex-oozing rock n’ roll ballet in the twenty-first century, this would be it. 
Quirk and Johnson in Dracula  © Kat Stiennon 2015

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