Creativity, collaboration thrived in 2015
The past year has been upbeat in the performing arts with innovative and often inspired work.
The Memphis Symphony Orchestra continues its effort to back away from the brink since last year’s fiscal crisis. In October, the organization and the musicians reached an agreement that raises salaries and emphasizes community engagement. Also this year, music director Mei-ann Chen said she would leave at the end of the 2015-16 season. Robert Moody, a frequent guest conductor, will be principal conductor starting next season with a two-year contract.
The orchestra’s CEO, Roland Valliere, stepped down after two years as a “turnaround specialist” to get the MSO back on its feet. Jennifer Bradner is now interim CEO, guiding the orchestra through, as she says, its phoenix phase. Memphis in May International Festival told the MSO that this year’s Sunset Symphony at Tom Lee Park would be the last, though less than six months later, the MSO performed at the Bass Pro Outdoor Concert in what could be a continuing riverfront gig. The concert season has been spare, but one of the best performances came in March: Kurt Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins,” written in 1933, was sung by the mesmerizing Storm Large with the MSO in splendid form
The IRIS Orchestra continued to soar with always-intriguing programming by Maestro Michael Stern. In January, it premiered a commissioned piece: Bruce Adolphe’s Violin Concerto “I Will Not Remain Silent,” performed by Sharon Roffman.
Ballet Memphis performed traditiona l (“Swan Lake”) as well as innovative new works throughout the year. Especially notable was the electrifying production “I Am,” which premiered four groundbreaking works in February that were all different and all thrilling. The company also performed for a week in October at the prestigious Joyce Theater in New York City, garnering largely favorable reviews and impressing on several levels.
It was a year of collaboration for New Ballet Ensemble and School, doing a performance at the Midtown Opera Festival and working with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra in the ambitious “Memphis Renaissance,” a diverse music and movement performance at the Levitt Shell.
Opera Memphis continued raising the ante this year with a variety of performances designed to reach wider audiences. April’s 10-day Midtown Opera Festival presented six opera performances plus a variety of cabaret, theater, film, lectures and concerts. And a $30,000 grant from the NEA helped fund the annual 30 Days of Opera project.
Playhouse on the Square debuted the Newworks@theworks series of winners of its play-writing competition. Submissions were first solicited about three years ago, and the series is presenting two winners a year in an effort to encourage new voices.
Tennessee Shakespeare Company teamed with the University of Memphis’ Department of Theatre & Dance to bring a Southern-flavored version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in June. The company also presented “400: The Shakespeare Feast,” in October and November, with dinner, drinks, readings and performances at the Memphis Hunt & Polo Club.
August’s Ostrander Awards smiled on Cecelia Wingate, who won
for her direction of Theatre Memphis’ “Addams Family” and also picked up a win in the Supporting Actress in a Drama category for her role in Voices of the South’s “Distance.” She also appeared in the remarkable Voices of the South production of Jerre Dye’s premiere of “Short Stories” in November.
Other notable performances on local stages:
■ Hattiloo Theatre’s “Purlie Victorious,” “Hoodoo Love” by Memphian Katori Hall, “King Hedley II” by August Wilson and a moving musical “Simply Simone.”
■ Powerfu l performances at Circuit Playhouse of “Bad Jews,” “Seminar” and the musical “Assassins.”
■ A remarkable staging of “Rapture, Blister, Burn” at Theatre Memphis’ Next Stage was oddly left out of any Ostrander consideration. The small stage also had strong presentations of “Copenhagen” and “The Gin Game” with Jim and Jo Lynne Palmer.
■ Playhouse on the Square had memorable performances of “The Rocky Horror Show,” “The Gospel at Colonus,” “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” “The Seagull” and “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”
In September, Brett Batterson, executive director of Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, was announced as the new leader of the Orpheum, replacing Pat Halloran, who is retiring after 35 years at the helm of the Downtown theater.
Halloran capped his long tenure by opening the $14.5 million Orpheum Centre for Performing Arts and Education, also in September.
One of the city’s most significant arts supporters died this month. Andrew Clarkson was a longtime backer and benefactor of arts organizations in the area. The Ostranders this year honored him and his Jeniam Foundation with its “Behind the Scenes Award.”
Crystal Brothers was luminous in Ballet Memphis productions of “Swan Lake” and “Romeo and Juliet” this year.
Storm Large gave a memorable performance doing Kurt Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins” with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.
Ekundayo Bandele — in addition to a powerful performance in “King Hedley II” — continued to steer Hattiloo Theater into directions both creative and community-oriented.