Noble photos by Shirin Tinati
by Julia Polinsky
Ensemble for the Romantic Century creates extraordinary staged
readings/theatrical multimedia concerts of chamber music, melding multiple art
forms into good drama – most of the time. Maestro may be the least
successful of the ensemble’s excursions into that fusion of arts and artists --
music, scene, projections, costume, performers – that creates a whole greater
than its parts. In this case, the parts hang separately, rather than together,
which is a pity, considering the fascinating life of Arturo Toscanini (John
The musician’s musician, Toscanini conducted his first opera
performance at the age of 19, in 1886. He conducted operas and orchestras all
over Europe and the Americas, until he retired in 1957. Relatively early in his
career, he supported Mussolini and Fascism, but it was not long before
Toscanini rejected Fascism and Fascists. He paid a heavy price for his
outspoken opinions, enduring physical attacks, having his phone tapped and his
passport confiscated. At the outbreak of WWII, he left Italy, and lived for
years in exile in America.
Although married, he had affairs, sometimes with married women,
and he wrote them letters. Lots of letters. Very frank letters – some of which
provide source material for Maestro.
Ensemble for the Romantic Century uses this material as the basis
for its productions. The audience watches as actors read from correspondence,
accompanied by music that comments on, clarifies, and wrings every last drop of
emotion out of those letters, played by the best small chamber ensemble in NYC.
When it works, as in Ensemble for the Romantic Century’s magnificent Van Gogh
piece, or the show on Emily Dickinson, or the Tchaikovsky: well, when Ensemble
for the Romantic Century’s formula works, it’s terrific.
Maestro, however, comes across disjointed and disconnected, even a little
clumsy. It seems as if, in the search for a way to reconcile different parts of
Toscanini’s life, director Donald T. Sanders sets up two separate spaces for
the musicians to perform, one on each side of the stage.
Moving Toscanini and, in particular, the musicians back and forth
between these areas divides audience attention, as do the projections. Some
visuals command the entire right of the stage, while on the left, captions
appear on the sound booth behind the piano. It’s much too easy to miss captions
on one side or the other, when enraptured by the magnificent music being
(L-R) Mari Lee and Henry Wang
on violins, Zhenni Li on piano, Ari Evan on cello and Matthew Cohen. Photo:
In Maestro, the ensemble is a string quartet with piano.
The musicians -- Mari
Lee and Henry Wang, violins; Matthew Cohen, viola; Ari Evan, cello; Zhenni Li,
piano; Maximillian Morel, trumpet -- perform beautifully, meaningfully,
scintillatingly, in their period costume, which contributes to the overall
feeling of the show.
John Noble’s performance feels disjointed; sometimes, he
“conducts” the audience, and speaks to us as if we were the orchestra, with
some of the abuse for which Toscanini was famous. Sometimes, he reads his
passionate, beautiful love letters to Ada, and the music chosen to amplify them
is passionately, beautifully played. Those moments can bring you to tears. But
they are about the music, not Noble’s acting, unfortunately.
Maestro makes a strong connection between Toscanini’s passion and his
politics, with its focus on the anti-Fascist aspects of Toscanini’s life story,
and its clear parallels to the current political climate. A little
heavy-handed, those parallels, and you may wonder if the projected video clips
of Mussolini’s facial expressions, similar to the ones we see on the President
every day, were necessary to make an obvious point even more obvious.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century’s blurb about Maestro
“MAESTRO brings to life the
story of legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini and his brave opposition
to Fascism. His refusal to perform in Italy and Germany, and his trips to Palestine to conduct an orchestra made up of Jewish refugees made headlines around the
world… This moving theatrical experience shows us that even during one of the
darkest chapters in human history, an artist’s voice can be heard.”
There it is: Maestro is political art, in ways that other
Ensemble for the Romantic Century events have not been. Go for the music, the
beauty, the passion, but be aware that you’ll also get politics, with its
tendency toward chaos. If that’s your cup of tea, Maestro will fill it
nicely. If not, wait for Ensemble for the Romantic Century’s next production.
Presented by Ensemble for the Romantic Century
February 9 at The Duke on 42nd Street, Manhattan
time: 2 hours; one intermission
W. 42nd, Street
7:30; Fri, 8pm; Wed, Sat, Sun, 2pm