UC Hillel’s singing competition to honor Lauren Shmalo Berg

The University of Cincinnati Hillel’s “Campus Superstars,” a collegiate singing competition, 7 p.m. Sunday, April 3, will feature local students competing for a $5,000 cash prize.

A panel of celebrity judges — Kim Mann, Deondra Means, Pamela Myers and Kathy Wade — will narrow 11 finalists down to three. Then you — the audience — will vote for the winner. This year’s competition, held at the Aronoff Center’s Jarson Kaplan Theater, will showcase our region’s superb musical talent. All contestants are full-time, local undergraduate students who have passed multiple auditions for the chance to compete.

They’ll be singing in every genre, including opera, musical theater, jazz, country and spirituals.

This year’s event will honor Lauren Shmalo Berg, an original member of the show’s staff. In October 2021, Lauren suffered a devastating spinal cord injury as the result of a fall. Before the accident, she was a talented singer, dancer, actress, Pilates/Zumbini instructor, preschool teacher, and competitive figure skater who was featured on the classic MTV show “Made.”

After multiple surgeries and 3-1/2 months at the Shepherd Institute in Atlanta, Lauren is now home with her husband and two small children. She is impressing her doctors and therapists and making remarkable progress.

Of course, Lauren’s journey to recovery comes with an exorbitant price tag, much of which is NOT covered by medical insurance. As a result, Cincinnati Hillel will be giving Lauren 50% of all new gifts and gift increases for this year’s event. All contributions made to Help Hope Live (Helphopelive.org) are tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law and are used specifically for Lauren’s uninsured medical and injury related expenses.

About the show

The team of professionals to support the contestants includes Susan Winters- assistant director, Pat Kelly-Musical Director, orchestrator, conductor; Steve HoskinsWoodwinds; Michael Scharfe- Bass; and John Taylor-drums. Also, Andrew Wright, of CCM, is the lighting designer; and Clear Sound Design will be doing the sound.

The competition’s past competitors have gone on to get advanced degrees at some of the nations most prestigious universities including Julliard, Eastman School of Music, Rice, Yale School of Drama and Indiana. Others have starred in or appeared in Broadway and touring productions including Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, The Prom, Miss Saigon, The Book of Morman and Wicked.

Tickets to the show: Cincinnatihillel.org/campussuperstar-tickets


Drummer Philip Paul, ambassador for the King legacy, dead at 96

Philip Paul Trio at Cricket Lounge. Photo by Paula Norton

More than 50 years after playing his last session at King Records, drummer Philip Paul was still performing in jazz clubs and restaurants around Cincinnati.

Mr. Paul – who in person was quiet and always sharply attired – performed over a span of eight decades. Over that time, he became known for his meticulous playing and versatility of style, whether it was blues, country or rock ‘n’ roll. A street was named for him in Cincinnati. He shared his talent and encouraged young musicians. He was world-renowned. The last time Paul McCartney was in town, the Beatles legend wanted to meet Philip Paul.

The former studio drummer for King Records played on the original recordings of “The Twist” and “Fever,” and continued playing with his latest trio until just a few months ago. Mr. Paul, who lived in Evanston not far from King Records, died on January 30 at age 96.

“No one represented the amazing story of King Records better than Philip Paul. King was the most eclectic independent label and Phil’s drums can be heard on the entire rainbow of genres the label produced – driving R&B, jazz ballads, bebop, doo-wop, Country & Western, even bluegrass,” musician and music journalist Larry Nager wrote to me from Hawaii, where he now lives. “As a drummer he had more flexibility than, say, a tenor sax player or guitarist in not being locked into a single style. He even developed his own way of playing country rhythms, using a stick and a brush on his snare to create that “boom-chang” sound. But it was Phil’s calm and coolness and his skill at listening – perhaps the most important skill for a musician – that made him such a great sideman. He was the perfect ambassador for the King legacy, which had been neglected for far too long in a city known for celebrating almost everything about itself, from baseball to chili.”

A few years ago, I enjoyed listening to jazz at the Cricket Lounge in the Cincinnatian Hotel. It was the Billie Walker Trio, featuring that wonderful pianist, now gone. Setting the tone for the trio, unobtrusively and smoothly, was a superb drummer named Philip Paul, with the trio’s longtime bassist Ed Conley.

Mr. Paul’s playing was sophisticated, effortless. It was unforgettable for nearly anyone who ever heard him — or even better, played with him.Read More »

Post-Covid Fall season in full swing

Pianist Daniil Trifonov takes bows at last weekend’s MusicNOW Festival at the CSO

After 18 months of virtual and a few outdoor performances, Cincinnati is back to live, in-person performances. Most arts organizations are requiring masking and proof of vaccine or testing to enter theaters. (Here are the rules.) So far, people are flocking back, and the ones I’ve met are happy to be back.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has been performing mini-festivals of new music over the last two weekends.

Here are links to my impressions of the CSO/MusicNOW Festival, founded by Bryce Dessner (who unfortunately was not in town), and an avant-garde program led by creative director Matthias Pintscher.

MusicNOW with Bonny Light Horseman and Daniil Trifonov

Trifonov and Louis Langree/Mark Lyons photo

MusicNOW with So percussion and Daniil Trifonov

Contemporary Colors, hailing the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial.

All were late additions to the calendar, as the CSO won’t launch its subscription season until Oct. 29-30. Watch for a preview about their season later this month in the Business Courier.

The Cincinnati Pops has some “extras,” this fall, as well. John Morris Russell will lead an American program commemorating voting rights for women with singer/songwriter Aoife O’Donovan, Oct. 19 in Music Hall. Info here: cincinnatisymphony.org/pops.

Yesterday, the Cincinnati Jazz Hall of Fame presented an induction ceremony for its sixth class of inductees, at Mount St. Joseph University. Read more here about that organization and how V. Kay Casey came to found it.

Cincinnati Jazz Hall of Fame sponsors a program for young jazz musicians, who play “Jazz at Dusk” around town — seen here at Caffe Vivace in Walnut HIlls

Also this weekend, the 108th season of Matinee Musicale opened in Memorial Hall. I’ll be writing more about that soon… as well as some of my thoughts about the innovative programs of Chamber Music Cincinnati coming up soon.


Kentucky Symphony to hold trumpet-palooza this weekend

The Kentucky Symphony Orchestra opens its summer series this weekend

The Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, led by James R. Cassidy, will open its three-concert summer series with a nostalgic 1970s Trumpet-palooza on July 10 & 11 in Devou and Tower Parks in Northern Kentucky.

“This marks the 27th Summer that the KSO has provided free family-friendly culture and entertainment for Tri-state residents. Forty percent of those attending drive from Hamilton County,” says J.R.

Talented trumpeters for this program — Matthew Anklan, Joshua Kauffman, Rob Parton, John Zappa and Hank Mautner — will recreate the sounds of of the ’70s as performed by trumpeters Maynard Ferguson, Doc Severinsen, Don Ellis, Bill Chase and Chuck Mangione. They’ll appear with the KSO’s own jazz orchestra.

Read More »

The year in review in the arts

The CSO’s first digital experiment last spring in Music Hall was music for four musicians.

What a year! If you’re a musician or a music fan, you probably remember the last live concert you attended or performed before Covid-19 shut down the country in March. Mine was on March 10: My granddaughter’s middle school orchestra concert.

Looking back, I realized that my annual “best of the year” in performances could only apply to the 10 weeks before we were locked down. So I wrote my Year in Review column for the Business Courier in two parts, as BC — Before Covid — and after.

Soprano Angel Blue wowed in Barber in a CSO livestream.

There were some unforgettable shows during both periods. In the second half — a season of screens — I am still enthralled by the Sept. 26 CSO digital program streamed from Music Hall, conducted by Louis Langrée. Gorgeous-voiced soprano Angel Blue gave an emotional performance of Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” a piece rarely heard. And what a treat it was to hear Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” as originally scored for 13 instruments.

And in a rare live performance by Cincinnati Ballet outdoors at Sawyer Point, I loved a new work for four dancers, choreographed (and danced) to Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat (fourth movement) by soloist David

Cincinnati Ballet danced at Sawyer Point

Morse. It was thrilling to see the exuberance and strength, the lifts and turns of the entire company. The program was enhanced by performances by a CSO quartet and Cincinnati Opera singers Victoria Okafor and Maria Miller.

You can read that column here (it’s free).

Earlier this year, local critic and retired opera singer Rafael de Acha asked people in the arts to answer the question, “What have you been during during the pandemic?” for his blog, rafaelmusicnotes.com.

I thank him for that, because it made me look back at how I had the opportunity to document the impact of the pandemic on our arts community in the pages of the Business Courier. Here is some of that column:Read More »

Chamber Orchestra announces lineup for Summermusik e-festival

CCO musicians performing at Pyramid Hill

In lieu of its usual month-long Summermusik festival, Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra has 13 virtual events on tap to enjoy at home, Aug. 8 through Aug. 29.

The Silver-Garburg Piano Duo

Three will be three “live” events — online performances in real time, with stars including the Silver-Garburg Piano Duo, who wowed us in person at the festival in 2019 (Aug. 9); the superb young cellist Coleman Itzkoff, a Cincinnati native and CCO principal violist Heidi Yenney’s son (Aug. 16); and pianist Alon Goldstein, one of the stars of the 2017 festival (Aug. 23).

Those “eConcerts” will be hosted by music director Eckart Preu, and you’ll have a chance to ask questions.

Other events include “virtual watch parties” with local collaborators, a special WGUC Music Cincinnati Broadcast (Aug. 16), and “CCO2GO Rewind” events that were taped around the region earlier this summer.

Best of all, it’s all FREE. Access begins on Aug. 8th on the CCO’s website, ccocincinnati.org. Here’s the full lineup.Read More »

Cancellations, digital programs, relief funds: How Cincinnati’s arts organizations are coping with COVID-19

A previous production of The Magic Flute/ provided by Cincinnati Opera

Cincinnati Opera’s news yesterday that it must cancel its 2020 Summer Festival — the company’s 100th anniversary — was just the latest in an ongoing wave of arts cancellations due to COVID-19. Because of extended stay-at-home orders and closures, it was literally impossible to begin set-building and rehearsing, let alone fly in the international stars who were coming from Italy and the Czech Republic.

I doubt that entire seasons have ever been canceled for such a plague, although world wars have interrupted some. Of the many arts organizations that I have interviewed this month, a few leaders have predicted to me, that, until people feel comfortable being with other people in a theater, museum or a concert hall (and you can add to that, restaurants and stadiums), they will not return. And that won’t happen until there is a vaccine.

As Ensemble Theatre’s D. Lynn Meyers tells me in Friday’s Business Courier, we all thought things would be closed for a weekend, and then it would be back to normal. Now we talk about the “new normal.”

The Blue Wisp Big Band at Caffe Vivace last month.

I began observing how the coronavirus was impacting our city’s freelance musicians about a month ago, when restaurants closed, and musicians began streaming their music live from empty bars, for tips. That article, “Virtual Reality,” on April 3, included some jazz musicians, as well. Trumpeter Matt Anklan, an adjunct at Miami University, said that 60 percent of his income is from freelance jobs — now completely gone.

A spot check of Cincinnati’s major arts organizations, “Critical Stage” on April 10, told stories of how groups are struggling to hang onto their staffs even as they tally their losses. Losses will be big. ArtsWave — which was just midway through its annual, $12.4 million campaign when the virus hit — predicts that losses in Cincinnati’s arts community could top $30 million if there is no arts activity all summer.

Van Gogh’s Undergrowth with Two Figures at Cincinnati Art Museum

Still, there was a note of optimism, despite the expected red ink. Cincinnati Art Museum’s Cameron Kitchin told me, “The arts are about connecting and inspiring. What greater time of need do we have for inspiration and connection than right now, in this time of social distancing and flickering hope? If we look at what the arts to able to provide for humanity, this is a moment where we are called to action.”

Friday’s article (April 17) is about how small and mid-sized arts groups in our region are coping. There will be more stories to come, including some with good news of how people are stepping up in a time of crisis.

As I wrote in a column at the very beginning of the trickle of online arts offerings — now a tsunami — the arts offer escape, joy and comfort. Don’t forget, these organizations can’t wait to welcome you back, live and in person, when we all reach the other side.

CSO, Pops nominated for two Grammy Awards

Both the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Pops are in the list of 2020 Grammy nominations released today by the Recording Academy. And there are several other Cincinnati-tied nominations this year, too.

Music director Louis Langrée, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra are nominated for Best Orchestral Performance for “Transatlantic.” This album includes the world premiere recording of the critical edition of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris. The CSO also gave the world premiere performance of this new edition at La Seine Musicale in Paris in 2017.

The award goes to both the conductor and to the orchestra.

And John Morris Russell and the Cincinnati Pops, as well as producer Elaine Martone, are nominated for “American Originals 1918” in the category of Best Classical Compendium. Performers on the album include collaborators Rhiannon GiddensSteep Canyon Rangers and Pokey LaFarge.

Other local ties include violinist Tessa Lark, who studied at CCM, for her recording of Torke’s “Sky” Violin Concerto with David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony, in the category of Best Classical Instrumental Solo.

Cincinnati-born jazz pianist extraordinaire Fred Hersch has received yet another nod for Best Instrumental Composition for “Begin Again” on the album, Fred Hersch & The WDR Big Band” conducted by Vince Mendoza.

And from Northern Kentucky University, the recording of a composition by NKU School of the Arts faculty member Kurt Sander, The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, is nominated for Best Choral Performance. The double-CD set features the PaTRAM Institute Singers led by Peter Jermihov, conductor. The 90-minute piece is one of the first English-language settings of the Eastern Orthodox liturgy.

And two choral conductors associated with the Vocal Arts Ensemble are up for Best Choral Performance: Craig Hella Johnson and Donald Nally.

Other names spotted:

Blanton Alspaugh, producer of the Vocal Arts Ensemble’s “Canticle” – released on the CSO’s Fanfare Cincinnati label – as well as Sander‘s The Divine Liturgy Of St. John Chrysostom, is nominated for “Producer of the Year, Classical.”

In the same list, under nominated producer James Ginsburg, I spotted brothers Anthony McGill, clarinetist, and Demarre McGill, flutist and CCM professor… 

Chuck Miller, savior of Sorg Opera House, steps down

Chuck Miller in his element, backstage at the Sorg

It took a man with a vision to see the beauty behind the dilapidated and abandoned Sorg Opera House in Middletown. Now, as John Kiesewetter reports this morning, Chuck Miller has resigned as president of the Sorg Opera Revitalization Group (SORG) to become the new executive director of the historic “State Movie Palace of Kansas,” the Fox Theatre in Hutchinson. Wife Denise Brodsky has also resigned her position on the board.

Current board members Roger Daniels and Chris Riva are stepping in to fill roles, although his successor has not been decided.

Here’s my story from about a year ago of how Chuck and his devoted board have been working — extremely hard — to restore the Hannaford-built theater to its former grandeur.

There are similarities between the Sorg Opera House (1891) and Music Hall (1878) as you can see in the balconies. Both were designed by Samuel Hannaford. The Sorg is on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the lobby
You can visit your old Music Hall seats

I’m posting a few memories of visiting the Sorg while these dedicated preservationists were at work restoring and programming a series of concerts in the hall. By the way, the acoustics are wonderful. And, for people who remember Music Hall’s old seats, you can revisit them up in Middletown.

Good luck Chuck and Denise! You’ll be missed.