The Lowe Down: Concert proves Plainfield opera house’s promise
Jim Lowe | February 17, 2018
By JIM LOWE STAFF WRITER
Folks who think the arts haven’t become an integral fiber in the tapestry of rural Vermont weren’t at the Plainfield Town Hall Opera House last Sunday. Bass Eric Kroncke, pianist Mary Jane Austin and dancer-choreographer Christine Harris presented “La belle vie,” a program of French and Russian art song with dance.
This high-end performance would be considered topnotch in any city, and all three performers are Vermont residents.
More unusual was the concert’s location and venue. Plainfield, with its population of 1,243 (2010), hasn’t been considered an arts center since Goddard College went low-residency in 2002 (and even before that). But the arts proved irrepressible.
In August 2014, the Plainfield Town Hall Opera House reopened, thanks to the tireless efforts of the local citizenry led by Rob Strong. The 1840 Greek Revival building on Route 2 (just above the downtown area) was originally a Universalist Church, converted by the locals into an opera house in 1911. Over the years, it fell into disuse, not meeting regulations for a public building.
Over the last five years, however, the Plainfield Town Hall Opera House has become a little gem of an arts center, seating up to 200 (including 50 in the balcony) on the second floor, with a small art gallery on the first. But what is an arts center without arts?
Enter Steven Light. A Plainfield resident, Johnson State College music instructor and founding member of The Fyre and Lightning Consort. He has created a first-rate concert series that can compete with most in the state. Which brings us back to Sunday’s concert.
The major work was Modest Mussorgsky’s “Songs and Dances of Death” (1874), four songs that treat Death as an inevitable comfort and savior to a sick child, an ailing girl, a drunk in a snowstorm and wounded soldiers, respectively. The lyricism takes on a darkness as, like most Russian music of the period, Mussorgsky utilized modal scales (with different intervals than the traditional major scale).
Kroncke, who has sung opera internationally, proved ideal in this music, delivering a rich, dark lyricism that made these dark and touching lines, at times, heart-wrenching. Austin, who has also performed internationally, had the challenge of delivering the work’s kaleidoscope of colors, always sensitive to the singer, which she did expertly and beautifully.
Despite the work’s title, it isn’t normally danced to. That said, Harris, director of Moving Light Dance, created and executed a choreography that effectively represented the character Death as well as others in the songs, such as the drunken man.
Harris’ choreography was more restrained as she emerged from a large flowerpot in her “Vessels & Flowers.” Set to two Chopin Op. 9 Nocturnes, Nos. 2 and 1, the dance was a poetic flower blossoming and eventually dying in the first, emerging from the pot and becoming ecstatic before receding in the second. It was compelling, in part due to Austin’s sensitive performance of the piano solo.
Better known as a collaborative pianist, Austin brought unexpected insight with her unusually intimate performances of two Rachmaninoff Preludes, Op. 23, No. 10 and Op. 32, No. 12. Kroncke and Austin effectively achieved the storytelling in Maurice Ravel’s “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée” (1933).
The program opened with French composer Ange Flégier’s signature work, his 1881 song “Le cor (The Horn).” Kroncke and Austin gave it a rousing but sensitive performance. Much more potent, though, was Prince Gremin’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s great opera of 1878, “Eugene Onegin,” a touching love song of an older man. And it certainly touched the heart.
If this is the level of performance we can expect at the Plainfield Town Hall Opera House, it will indeed be an arts center.
But, in fact, it is. On March 11, “Diane Huling & Friends” will bring together the Cabot concert pianist with favorite colleagues; “The Many Faces of Mozart” on April 22 will feature Sylvia Berry on a pianoforte of his time and author M.T. Anderson reading from the composer’s letters; and Plainfield’s Gamelan Sukukla will perform Indonesian and American music May 13.
If that weren’t enough, Plainfield Little Theatre, the local community theater troupe directed by Tom Blachly, will present Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” March 15-25. Fortunately, the Plainfield Town Hall Opera House is in the process of acquiring the property across the street, which will add more parking.
The Plainfield Town Hall Opera House has become home to concerts and theater, as well as community activities, since it reopened in 2014. (Josh Kuckens / Staff photo)