Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
Few concerts compel one to consult a dictionary, but a Christmas concert held in Austin this week made this a (pleasurable) necessity.
The group that is now entering its 25th year of entertaining audiences in Texas is Conspirare, which literally means (in Latin) to breathe together. Artistic Director Craig Johnson made that more than an aspiration as he led a capacity audience at the Long Center in a group breathing exercise. Johnson said Conspirare began in “an intimate, trusting space: a small venue of 150 people.”
Trying to recreate that feeling in a venue holding 2,300 was his goal, one that can best be termed conspiration. I will save you from consulting the dictionary by defining this as a joint effort toward a particular end, and its similarity to conspirare is no coincidence. By merging the meaning of these two Latin-root words, Johnson achieved his goal, which was then expressed as “music and poems that speak to each other and speak to us.”
The finest example of this during the concert began with a few lines from the great 13th century Persian poet Rumi. It talks of “flowers open every night across the sky.” This segues effortlessly into the 15th century German Advent and Christmas hymn Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming that evokes a “flower bright, amid the cold of winter” thus combining Isaiah's prophecies about a rose and the German folkloric 'cold of winter.' A brilliant combination, but to appreciate the concert one must embrace the congeries of poetry and music presented by Johnson. His own composition, Holding Carol, again evokes the imagery of a flower and days that feel like winter, a chilly notion reinforced later in the concert by the traditional Catalonian carol, The Icy December.
The multifarious strands of the concert inevitably had a couple of bumpy transitions, such as the ballad I'll Se Seeing You immediately followed by a traditional Gaelic tune The Rune of Hospitality and then the foot-stomping Big Love. But the seamless segues permeating the concert offered ample compensation in a truly eclectic selection that also showcased the talents of guest artist Carrie Rodriguez, whose fiddle playing ranged from solemn to sassy. This singer-songwriter from Austin closed the concert with a vocal solo on the encore gospel tune Up Above My Head I Hear Music in the Air. I'm sure many people leaving the Long Center heard music up above as they departed this unusual and uplifting Christmas concert.
The beautiful voices of the 24 singing members of Conspirare are supported by Thomas Burritt on percussion and Mitch Watkins on guitar.
For more on the concert, please visit the website:
Christmas Belles, a new production of a play celebrating its 10th year, is currently spreading holiday cheer at The City Theatre in Austin. To paraphrase a line in the play itself, this is a Class A Southern Comedy.
According to one character, "Laughter is the only medicine we can afford that doesn't come from Canada." The laughter created by the play is infectious, but since this is a Christmas play that is a good thing.
There are 11 members in this ensemble cast, each of whom portray their roles with aplomb. No easy matter, as the dialogue and plot are so outrageous. The play is opened by a real spitfire actress, Nikki Bora, whose character of Miss Geneva is the nexus around which the prime plotline revolves. A portrayal worthy of an award.
Her nemesis in the play is Honey Raye Futrelle, portrayed with endearing and vexatious qualities in equal measure by Christina Manley. As the lead photo shows, Honey Raye is none too happy with Miss Geneva, who eventually proves to be her saviour in the production of a Christmas play by the small Texas town's Tabernacle of the Lamb church. This play within a play serves as a foil for an unending sequence of disasters of Biblical proportions, thus giving the other members of the play the opportunity to shine: Cassidy Timms, Beau Paul, Dawn Erin, R. Michael Clinkscales, Giselle Marie Munoz, Robyn Gammill, Ty Wylie, Brent Rose and Danielle Bondurant. The second photo shows a silly moment as Brother Justin (Wylie), dressed as a reindeer, confides his Christmas wish to Santa (Clinkscales).
One member of the audience told me that having lived in Texas for several years, he clearly saw the resemblance between some of the characters and true life. The play (by the powerhouse trio Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten), is so unsophisticated it was enjoyable, but no so unsophisticated it became corny. A true delight, and one I highly recommend for a fine Austin Christmas.
Finally, kudos to Scout Gutzmerson for a fine job in her first stage costuming credit.
Performances run through Dec. 30, 2017. For more info visit the website: www.citytheatreaustin.org
Photo credit: Aleks Ortynski.
The most delightful Christmas confection of the season is not a gingerbread house but a play currently being performed at the Austin Playhouse.
Written by Lauren Gunderson (the most produced living playwright in America) and Margot Melcon, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley made its world premiere in 2016, and has already become a staple with theatre companies all over the country.
With a legion of Jane Austen fans to support it, that is not too surprising. Her book Pride and Prejudice is one of the most iconic bestsellers of all time. The play is an imagined sequel, set two years after the book in Mr. Darcy's home of Pemberley, featuring the gaggle of Bennett sisters in a whole new set of marital travails.
The year is 1815, and with a beautiful set consisting of a drawing room and library by designer Mike Toner, and period costumes by Buffy Manners, one feels very much in the moment.
The play centers around Mary Bennett (played by Jess Hughes), the only one of the sisters to remain unmarried, and her unexpected love interest, Arthur (Stephen Mercantel).
My only quibble is with the visual portrayal of Mary. In the promotional photo Mary is shown wearing glasses, rightly making her appear very bookish. It would have been more in keeping with her character to have her wear glasses during the play.
Elizabeth, star of the book and wife of Mr. Darcy, is sensibly played by Jenny Lavery; Maria Latiolais as Lydia is given a cloyingly wonderful stage presence, and Marie Fahlgren brings to the pregnant Jane just the sort of empty-headed but lovable persona Austen fans expect. And of course sister Mary, who (as one sister says) casts of 'chill of inaccuracy' over every conversation. The cast is completed by Samuel Knowlton who gives us the quintessential Mr Darcy, his brother-in-law Charles (Zac Thomas) who seems blissfully happy with his wife Jane, and Katie Kohler as the control freak Anne, who has her own designs on Arthur.
As the title of the play suggests, the time is Christmas, and Elizabeth becomes a trend-setter by placing a tree in the drawing room. The myth is that Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert introduced this German tradition to England in the 1840s, but it was actually done by King George III's wife Queen Charlotte in 1800. Even so, very few people would have decorated their homes with a tree in 1815, so it is no wonder everyone who enters the drawing room remarks on why a tree is indoors.
Mary, who wails that she “still suffers from a lack of definition,” finds a kindred spirit in the socially challenged Arthur. Mercantel's portrayal of this character is eminently believable, which is critical to the success of the production as he is the pivotal character. Who he chooses to marry – Anne or Mary – is the angst-driven engine that powers this play to a conclusion that even its characters describe as “shock and wonder.”
Mercifully absent from the play are the moralistic tones that seem to characterise many of the plays set in this era. This is one of the most innocently enjoyable plays I have seen in a quite a while. A superb production with delightfully quirky characters portrayed by an excellent ensemble cast, this is a Christmas treat to be savoured by all theatre-lovers in Austin.
Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley is playing until Dec. 23. Visit the website for tickets: