Four Sundays in February kicks off with Silver Chord Bowl

Last modified: Friday, February 07, 2014
From the hammered dulcimer to the sitar, to an acclaimed documentary on magician Ricky Jay, to the old standbys of a cappella groups and Ed Sullivan pastiches, Northampton’s “Four Sundays in February” series is offering up an eclectic mix of entertainment this year to fight the midwinter blues.

This year’s “Four Sundays” program, produced by the Northampton Arts Council to raise grant money for area artists, is the first for new Council Director Brian Foote, who took over after Bob Cilman retired last September from the post, and Steve Sanderson, the council’s events producer. Foote says the two put their heads together early to try and give this year’s series a new twist.

“We wanted to do something different, and I think we came up with some pretty good ideas,” Foote said. “We’re really excited about what we have — it seems like a good mix.”

“Four Sundays” kicks off Sunday at 2 p.m. at Smith College’s John M. Greene Hall with the traditional “Silver Chord Bowl,” the competition between college a cappella groups, including teams from Smith and Amherst colleges and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Foote and Sanderson are particularly enthused about the next two shows in the series, which take place at the Academy of Music. Feb. 9 marks the western Massachusetts debut of the film “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay,” which The Los Angeles Times calls “an elegant, enthralling peek behind the curtain” at magician and actor Ricky Jay, widely recognized as one the world’s best sleight-of-hand artists.

The film, over 10 years in the making, also has a strong local connection: It was produced and co-directed by Alan Edelstein, a graduate of Northampton High School and UMass.

And on Feb. 16, the afternoon will be devoted to Indian and Eastern-influenced music, led by sitar master Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan and a young American musician, Max ZT (full name Max Zbiral-Teller), who’s making a name for himself on the hammered dulcimer; Foote calls the latter’s playing “mesmerizing.”

“Four Sundays” will wrap up Feb. 23, also at the Academy of Music, with “The Really Big Show,” the popular take-off on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that features performances by local musicians and other performers. Here are some more details on the upcoming series.

Feb. 2: ‘The Silver Chord Bowl’

The popular singing competition will again feature favorite local a cappella groups: the Amherst College Zumbyes, the Smith College Smiffenpoofs, and the UMass Dynamics — an all-male, all-female, and co-ed group, respectively. Joining them will be the Northamptones, Northampton High School’s a cappella group, heard at the most recent First Night Northampton, and teams from four other northeastern colleges.

The Zumbyes, started some 63 years ago, are known for their onstage antics and arrangements of tunes like “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” and traditional jazz. In an email, members Bongani Ndlovu and Albert Joo said the group prizes “being energetic. While we do work on our sound and blend extensively, our first priority is to show the audience we’re having a good time — even if it means getting a little crazy.”

The Smiffenpoofs lay claim to being the country’s oldest collegiate a cappella group (formed in 1936) and include songs by Frank Sinatra, Led Zeppelin and Fiona Apple, among others. They performed in the White House in December 2012 at a party honoring the U.S. Secret Service, where they met President Obama and the first lady.

The UMass Dynamics, a newer group, has a repertoire that features interesting medleys, including a pairing of “Dream On” by Aerosmith and “Roxanne” by The Police, and The Northamptones have featured arrangements of songs by The Beatles, Queen, Neil Young and other artists at First Night shows in recent years. The Silver Chord Bowl will be emceed by Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz and Smith College president Kathleen McCartney.

Sunday, 2 p.m., John M. Greene Hall; $12 in advance/$15 at the door/ $30 premium tickets, available only in advance. To purchase, visit www.northamptonartscouncil.org.

Feb. 9: ‘Deceptive Practice’

First shown at the New York Film Festival in fall 2012, “Deceptive Practice” has earned strong reviews from The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and others; Entertainment Weekly ranked it among the top-10 films of 2013. The documentary was also endorsed by a pretty good filmmaker: Woody Allen calls it “a wonderful movie about a great artist, one of the all time great artists in the field of magic.”

In a phone interview, Alan Edelstein, the film’s co-director and producer, said Ricky Jay (born Ricky Jay Potash), who grew up in New York City, is indeed an artist, one who brings to his shows both an entertainer’s touch and great skills but also a deep appreciation for the history of magic and the magicians he learned from.

“His roots go back quite a ways,” said Edelstein, a 1978 graduate of Northampton High School who later went to UMass. When he and the film’s director, Molly Bernstein, set out to make the documentary, he added, “Our intent was to do a character study but also to look at the history and continuum of magic.”

Edelstein, who now lives in New York, has worked as a writer and producer on a number of film projects over the years, and he and a college friend, Peter Friedman, were nominated for an Academy Award in 1986 for their film “The Wizard of the Strings,” a short documentary about the Vaudeville musician Roy Speck.

His entrée into “Deceptive Practice” came when Bernstein, who worked with him in a small film production company in New York, approached him in the late 1990s about getting involved in the project, then still in its infancy. Edelstein says he knew nothing about magic and little about Jay, but he was attracted to Jay’s own connections to Vaudeville-era magicians and show business.

“There’s a trust level with any documentary, where a filmmaker has to develop a rapport with someone, and I think that’s particularly significant with a magician,” Edelstein said. “[Ricky] had to believe that we weren’t there to try and reveal his tricks, his secrets, and I think the fact neither Molly or I had a background in magic helped the vetting process.”

Indeed, the documentary, while showing plenty of Jay’s memorable card tricks and other stagecraft, doesn’t give away any secrets. But it offers a full portrait of Jay, now in his mid-60s, who has written extensively on magic, gambling, con games and other forms of entertainment. He also has a lengthy film and TV resume: Among his credentials, he’s appeared in three David Mamet movies and TV shows such as “The X-Files,” “Deadwood,” and “Kidnapped.”

“He’s a fascinating guy,” said Edelstein, who with Bernstein will attend the Northampton screening and answer questions after the film.

2 p.m., Academy of Music; $8 in advance/$10 at the door. To purchase, visit www.northamptonartscouncil.org or deceptivepractice.brownpapertickets.com.

Feb. 16: ‘Mumbai in 

The third week of “Four Sundays” will offer traditional Indian music from sitar player Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan, who Foote notes comes from a distinguished musical family; he learned the sitar from his father and received training from other top musicians in India.

Max ZT, the hammered dulcimer player, has also soaked up the music of India, where he has studied, but he filters it with Western styles like jazz and Irish folk. His melding of different influences and his innovative playing technique has won him the sobriquet “the Jimmy Hendrix of the hammered dulcimer” by National Public Radio.

Foote got to know ZT, who’s originally from Chicago and now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., personally a few years ago through his friendship with ZT’s sister, a Hampshire College student. “I saw him play in New York and I was totally blown away,” he said. “He’s been playing [the dulcimer] since he was 4, and he’s developed his own sound.”

In addition to his solo shows, as well gigs with his trio, House of Waters (dulcimer, bass, percussion), ZT has played and recorded with musicians and groups ranging from Bela Fleck and Ravi Shankar to the Goo Goo Dolls.

The musicians will play separately and will also each be accompanied by tabla players.

2 p.m., Academy of Music; $15 in advance/$18 at the door. To purchase, visit www.northamptonartscouncil.org or mumbai.brownpapertickets.com.

Feb. 23: ‘The Really Big Show’

Another staple of “Four Sundays” will be hosted by local rocker and music producer Mike Flood, who will play the part of Ed Sullivan. Flood, who released his newest record, “The Future is After You,” in 2012, began playing in the local club scene in the 1980s in the former Sheehan’s Cafe in Northampton and was a confidant of celebrated indie rockers Sebadoh in the 1990s.

The Arts Council calls him “one of the funniest storytellers you will ever meet,” with a long view of the Valley’s musical history that will make him a natural for introducing some of the region’s upcoming talent like And the Kids, the pop trio that’s been making waves in the area over the past year, including playing at the Calvin Theatre on New Year’s Eve.

Northampton Councilman at Large Bill Dwight and WRSI-FM deejay Monte Delmonte will serve as Statler and Waldorf from “The Muppet Show.”

2 p.m., Academy of Music; $8 in advance/$10 at the door. To purchase, visit www.northamptonartscouncil.org or reallybigshow.brownpapertickets.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.