No one blockbuster event stood out in the year that's ending, but Hampton Roads experienced a strong year of music and theater.
The economy improved just a hair so that audience members felt a little more comfortable dipping into their wallets. The region's performing halls continued to offer up a rich selection of events.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Small town strangeness
"SCKBSTD," Virginia Stage Company, Jan. 18-Feb. 6. The region's professional theater company started off the year with a world premiere musical composed by hometown hero Bruce Hornsby.
In "SCKBSTD," a stranger comes to a small Southern town and disrupts the bucolic lives of the people living there. The show tackles numerous issues - marital conflicts, intergenerational family problems, coming of age and small-town hysteria - that play out in a 24-hour period.
Hornsby wrote 19 original songs for the show and collaborated on the lyrics with his boyhood friend, Chip deMatteo. Hornsby's a solo performer with a strong internal voice, and his songs are full of satire with a wry way of seeing the underbelly of the world. In the opening number, "Low Country," Kevin Mambo as Sheriff Rogers sings fondly of the peaceful Southern countryside — a place that's filled with mosquitoes, tics and snakes.
The musical, which broke box office records at the stage company, also featured Tony winning director John Rando and Tony nominees Scott Wise as choreographer and Robert Cuccioli in the title role.
Investors in the show were hoping for a successful run at other theaters, though that hasn't materialized yet. Following its Norfolk run, an item in Playbill suggested the show's name might be changed to a more family-friendly title.
Civil War vignettes
"Rappahannock County," Virginia Arts Festival, April 12-17. For its 15th anniversary season, the arts festival offered up a world premiere of its own with "Rappahannock County," a song cycle of Civil War vignettes created by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Mark Campbell. The show had its premiere on April 12, which is remembered as the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.
Drawing from letters, diaries, journals and other sources, Gordon and Campbell brought to life different characters from the era and showed how the war impacted them. A preacher rails against freeing the slaves, and a young soldier writes home to his mother about being disfigured by a cannonball. Librettist Campbell sought to create a balanced view of the conflict so that neither side came out morally superior.
Five singers — soprano Aundi Marie Moore, mezzo-soprano Faith Sherman, tenor Matthew Tuell and baritones Charles Freeman and Mark Walters — each played several different roles accompanied by a 17-piece orchestra. The piece was co-commissioned locally by the festival and the Virginia Opera as well as the University of Richmond and the University of Texas.
Radio rides the waves
WHRO-FM (90.3) and WHRV-FM (89.5). WHRO, the region's public broadcasting operation, has been quietly expanding the reach of its two radio stations.
Culminating a three year effort this year, the organization has been buying up radio stations and installing transponders to strengthen its signal and reach listeners it serves in the outlying areas.
On the Middle Peninsula, WHRG-FM (88.5) is licensed to Gloucester Point and broadcasts the news and public affairs programming originating at WHRV-FM. Similarly, WHRJ-FM (89.9) is licensed to Gloucester Courthouse and carries the classical programming broadcast on WHRO-FM. Both were acquired at an auction.
The expansion program has been going on in other parts of Eastern Virginia including the Eastern Shore, Virginia Beach and the city of Emporia located to the west of Hampton Roads.
WHRO currently serves about 1.6 million listeners for its two stations, said WHRO President Bert Schmidt, and the expansion will add almost 400,000 listeners. Schmidt also believes the expanded coverage will bring in more contributions to strengthen the station's financial picture.
The expansion program is costing WHRO about $3 million, said Schmidt. The Hampton Roads Community Foundation recently awarded WHRO a $150,000 grant toward that effort.
Pianist Philippe Bianconi and the Virginia Symphony, Sept. 16-18 in Newport News, Norfolk and Virginia Beach. World-class performers visit Hampton Roads all the time, but not every one leaves a lasting impression. One such performer was Bianconi, who opened the symphony's 2011-2012 season with a fiery performance of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto.
I've heard the piece performed a dozen times, but Bianconi balanced strength and finesse to make it soar in a performance at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts in Virginia Beach. He cut through the composer's dense piano writing and gave it a reading that was at times elegant and other times powerful. A friend of mine who's an accomplished pianist left the concert stunned.
Conductor JoAnn Falletta also will lead the players in a polished performance of Brahms' Third Symphony and the Intermezzo from "Notre Dame," an opera written by Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Schmidt in the early 20th century. Her talents for combining familiar and little-known works always makes for imaginative programming.
Making his third appearance at the Ferguson Center since the complex opened, Bennett and his combo returned in part to help Christopher Newport University celebrate its 50th anniversary. To illustrate the marvelous acoustics of the Ferguson's concert hall, Bennett turned off his mike and sang to the sold-out crowd without amplification.
Now in his mid-80s, Bennett stays young with a positive attitude, warm heart and frequent collaborations with up-and-coming artists. His Duets II recording released that month featured pairings with Lady Gaga, the late Amy Winehouse and others.
In his concert, Bennett sang many of the tunes that have been associated with his long career. He even executed a few smooth dance steps and pulled the audience into his world with steady banter and fabulous singing.
2012 is shaping up to be a banner year for performances. Here's a few upcoming events to mark on your calendar:
American Theatre: Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Jan. 21-22; Gretchen Parlato, jazz singer, March 1; Matt Haimovitz, cellist, March 25; "Julius Caesar," Acting Company and Guthrie Theatre, March 30-31.
Chrysler Hall: "Wicked," March 7-25.
Ferguson Center: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Jan. 13; Gil Shaham with the Virginia Symphony, Jan. 20; St. Olaf Choir, Feb. 3; St. Petersburg Orchestra, Feb. 10; Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis, Feb. 27; Moscow Festival Ballet, March 10; Diana Krall, jazz singer, March 31.
Virginia Arts Festival: Renee Fleming, soprano, April 16; "Giselle," American Ballet Theatre, April 20-22; Al Pacino, May 12; Itzhak Perlman, May 13; Mahler Eighth Symphony, Virginia Symphony, May 26-27.