Variety Is The Spice Of Duluth Arts

by Sam Black

Robin and Rose with other maidens
Robin and Rose with other maidens

It was a rather chilly week in Duluth, but nothing stops the music, theater, and art galleries from being creative in this town. There’s a fascinating and stimulating exhibit at the Duluth Art Institute from now until April 9 called Gezielt. Carla Hamilton lived many years in Germany, and this brilliant collection highlights several ways that she has felt ‘Targeted’ as woman and artist over the course of her life.

Ruddigore, or The Witch’s Curse

Down at The Underground, I stopped to enjoy the musical story of the Ruddigore family, the tenth collaboration between William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Local singer and director Jeffrey Madison brought together a youthful cast for this tale of love in the midst of ironic curses in the Ruddigore history. Robin Oakapple (Josh Smith) and Rose Maybud (Erin Persick) finally get past their shyness and overcome the family curse by their wittiness. Love is clearly preferable to committing daily crimes.

This is one of my own favorites from the Gilbert & Sullivan partnership, but the Thursday evening program was not very engaging. David Greenberg and Matt Downs offered the most convincing personalities in this performance, even though they represented the warped and evil characters in the show. Robin and Rose never really seemed to connect emotionally, so their romance seemed irrelevant. 

The bridge and garden scenery, created by Ashley Wereley was lovely, and quite appropriate for the modest Underground venue. While the ensemble music was sprightly and full of tongue twisters, the digital piano created a bizarre, electronic sort of accompaniment all evening. 

Big Time Swing with the DSSO

All was rhythm and energy, on the other hand, at the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra POPS! Concert this past Saturday night. During the first half, the full DSSO presented a Viennese sampling from the Strauss brothers, as well as Franz Lehar. Polkas and waltzes filled the air with melodies and charm, while Maestro Dirk Meyer did his own dance on the conductor’s podium. A visual highlight of the evening was a quartet of dancers from the Superior Ballroom Dance Studio. Benjamin Welch was spectacular, and his partners, Lilly Main, Mary Gummerson, and Kit Smart were colorful and demanding as they waltzed and rocked through the evening. One of the ladies danced with Welch during the lovely waltz sequence from The Merry Widow, by Lehar.

The DSSO wind players went away, and the strings were joined by the Duluth-based Big Time Jazz Orchestra, founded and directed by Randy Lee. They shared twelve classic pieces from the giants of the swing era, using orchestral string parts created by Fred Robinson (a great writer out in LA, according to Lee).

This was definitely a toe-tapping evening, with Welch and his partners dancing creatively during American Patrol, Sing, Sing, Sing, and the encore In the Mood. I was completely caught up in the versatility of Welch, and during the encore he was able to dance with all three of his partners. 

An original piece by Greg Moore, faculty saxophonist and composer at UWS, offered a Latin moment in the evening, featuring the BTJO without the strings. Sentimental Journey allowed Ryan Vine on piano and Vince Osborn on bass to have rich and exciting solos. During Satin Doll, all five trombonists got to stand and share an improvisational thought. Randy Lee and Greg Moore were featured all evening with saxophone moments. For my own sentiments, Dorsey’s I’ll Never Smile Again was the richest emotional moment of the evening. Piano and saxophone shared the story while the strings serenaded the love song.

The versatility of Duluth musicians is always rewarding. We have a modest pool of professional musicians up here in the Twin Ports, so they push themselves in multiple directions. Teachers, lawyers, medical personnel, and business leaders join together and create music that ranges over several hundred years and a wide variety of styles. Lots of dust was shaken from the DECC rafters Saturday night, and the audience went home humming and smiling from ear to ear.