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Chamber Music PLUS rings in 2011 with musical tales of famed artists

Chamber Music PLUS, Tucson's innovative purveyor of theatricalized chamber music, is keeping busy this January with two concerts that provide a dramatic study in contrasts. Each concert focuses on either male or female artists, on the Old World or the New, and on classical or modern artistry.

Vivaldi's Four Seasons will be enjoying its world premiere this Sunday, while Still Life—A Portrait of Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe, on Jan. 23, is an established favorite.

It seems fitting to start a new year with the first performance of the latest work by Harry Clark, Chamber Music PLUS' co-founder and resident cellist/playwright. Vivaldi's Four Seasons, directed by Howard Allen, is the organization's largest-scale work to date, with eight performers onstage. A string quartet, solo violin and harpsichord alternate musical performances with readings by two actors, including Bob Clendenin in the lead as the Italian composer.

This is also an ambitious work for Clark as a writer. Typically, he builds his scripts around letters or journals written by the historical figures he's illustrating. But with Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), the situation is different.

"For as much fame as Vivaldi had in his time in life, he left very little writing behind," Clark says. "What little tidbits I could find, I combined with remembrances and other writing. But it was a period when people didn't document nearly as much."

That means the script for this concert is composed primarily of Clark's own words. He is quick to point out that this show, like his other pieces, is based on fact, but it's actually "historical fiction."

Vivaldi's life was a study in contrasts. He was a virtuoso violinist and celebrated composer. He conducted the all-female orchestra at a girls' orphanage in Venice, and, says Clark, "people came from all over Europe, and even America, to attend their concerts. They were highly reputed performers."

But Vivaldi was never able to achieve financial success. He supported a large extended family, and despite his fame, his teaching contract was not consistently renewed. And, with no copyright laws to bring in payment for the performances of his work, he spent the last 10 years of his life largely destitute and unemployed.

Actor Clendenin takes on the role of the tragic composer. A familiar face from his gigs on Scrubs and Cougar Town, and countless TV and movie cameos, Clendenin often plays hapless, put-upon characters, though they almost always have a good-natured energy—appropriate for a composer who continued to press forward in spite of his trials.

Clark has created a second part, The Chronicler, to fill in the historical details and context. Cast in this role is the mellifluous James Reel, the former Tucson Weekly arts editor who's a familiar voice on KUAT FM 90.5, where he's classical music director, and a familiar face at Chamber Music PLUS.

Vivaldi's work will be performed by an all-star roster of local musicians. Aaron Boyd, Tucson Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster, will play solo violin, with the symphony's principal keyboardist, Paula Fan, on harpsichord. TSO's assistant concertmaster, David Rife, heads up a string quartet with Clark on cello, and UA graduate students Jose Reyes and Orquídea Guandique on violin and viola, respectively.

Presenting a striking contrast to Vivaldi's musical story, the next Chamber Music PLUS concert will highlight two New World visual artists, Georgia O'Keeffe and Frida Kahlo.

Clark wrote Still Life a number of years ago, and it has been performed around the United States, as well as in Mexico, Kahlo's homeland. Dan Guerrero directs. Son of Tucson's Lalo Guerrero, Guerrero has had a successful career directing and producing for stage, film and television.

He brings a fresh perspective to the work, Clark says, envisioning the relationship between the two artists as a dance.

"At first, they both are kind of wary of one another. They meet casually at a Museum of Modern Art opening, and Georgia O'Keeffe is intrigued, because Frida is dressed like no one else. They begin to exchange letters, and gradually, they begin to reveal little bits of themselves."

O'Keeffe will be played by Beth Grant, an award-winning actress with many film and television credits, from Little Miss Sunshine to Six Feet Under. She's also one of L.A.'s premier stage actresses. Up-and-coming actress Zilah Mendoza, whose TV credits include Grey's Anatomy, will take on the part of the younger, tempestuous Kahlo.

Scenes between the two artists alternate with musical interludes, during which images of their paintings will be projected onstage. Clark, on cello, will be joined by classical and flamenco guitarist Ismael Barajas. Clark chose the two instruments, he says, with the guitar "representing Frida's soul, and the cello representing Georgia O'Keeffe's."

Clark has also organized the program's music. Ranging from Mexican folksongs to a Bach suite to work by American composers, the music is meant to mirror the growing relationship between the two painters. Solos and unaccompanied pieces gradually give way to duets as the women become more comfortable with each other. Guerrero has also introduced musical improvisation under some dialogue.

It's hard to imagine a greater contrast than the life of the 18th-century male composer, and the lives of the 20th-century female painters.

"I like variety," says Clark. "I think that's a good thing."

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