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Mayor Margot Garant shows plans for new stage in Harborfront Park. Photo by Kyle Barr

Village to honor Jill Nees-Russell on anniversary of her death

As the weather changes, and the Island shifts itself from the cold of winter to the warm rains of spring, East Setauket resident and singer Carolyn Benson and village-based landscape engineer Michael Opisso walked along Harborfront Park, trying to find a permanent space that could add musicality to the park in honor of Jill Nees-Russell, who passed away in 2018.

Seeing the green grass starting to come in, the two had an epiphany.

Plans for new stage in Harborfront Park. Photo by Kyle Barr

“The spot revealed itself to me, and on the spot — call this being connected to the spirit of Jill — the energy of the whole idea, the concept came out of my pen and onto a piece of paper,” Opisso said.

The village is now on its way toward building a new performance stage in Harborfront Park, likely located on the eastern end closest to the Port Jefferson Yacht Club near a tangle of trees.

Designs for the new stage show a 15 by 25 foot half-circle wood stage surrounded by decorative plantings in front and two small staircases to get to the slightly raised stage. Opisso said the wood of the stage will include subtle etching to evoke the nautical theme of the village’s past. The rear will include decorative panels to focus the acoustics into the park itself. 

Above the stage, Opisso said there are plans for a multicolored canvas sail canopy above performers, using material that evokes the sailcloth of the old days when sailing ships dominated Port Jeff harbor. The landscape engineer said those sailcloths above the stage will be designed to be taken down during the winter months or storms.

“You’re looking at this space at the same time you’ll be seeing sailboats in the harbor,” Opisso said.

June will be the anniversary of the death of Jill Nees-Russell, a beloved Port Jeff resident, village public relations representative and lover of all things music. Benson said she had been good friends with Nees-Russell, and they would often talk about bringing something like these designs into Port Jeff.

“I met Jill a few years back during the [Charles] Dickens Festival, and so we used to walk around and say, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be great if there could be a permanent place where people could do Shakespeare in the park or dance recitals,” Benson said. “This was a way of combining Jill’s love of Port Jefferson, her love of music, love of being by the water, and that stage down in Harborfront Park is the epitome of her spirit.”

She added she had approached Mayor Margot Garant about the project, and she had quickly gotten on board.

The music stage has already been approved by the village board as of the village’s April 15 meeting. Garant said the idea has been kicked around since last year, especially with the current stage that bands and members of the Greater Port Jefferson Arts Council have been performing on has not aged well.

“Unfortunately, the arts council is performing on a ridiculous piece of plywood that caves in on it for too long,” Garant said. 

The mayor added this is the near-perfect kind of thing to remember Nees-Russell, who moved to Port Jeff from Los Angeles, where she had worked with a record label. On Long Island, she had involved herself with the Port Jeff arts council, had created a youth program with the School of Rock in Port Jefferson Station and worked in tandem with the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.

The new stage is expected to be on the eastern end of Harborfront Park. Photo by David Luces

On Aug. 10, Garant said plans are in place to host a Port Jeff band day that will give particular attention to local bands and performers. On that day Nees-Russell’s family is expected to come down to Long Island where the stage will be dedicated in Jill’s name.

“Performing arts was always something very important to her,” Garant said. “We think it’s a home run, we see it as something that’s affordable, something that we can pull together the not-for-profits to make that happen.”

Current projections of costs by Opisso show a projected $12,500 for the construction of the stage and steps, $2,500 for the planters and flower boxes, $5,000 for landscaping and another $5,000 for the canvas backdrops and overhead sails. Designs for the project still need to determine the costs of lighting, sound and irrigation.

When presented to the village board at its April 15 meeting, trustees voiced their support for the idea.

“It’s about time we had something like this,” Trustee Larry LaPointe said.

Belle (Emma Watson) comes to realize that underneath the hideous exterior of the Beast (Dan Stevens) there is the kind heart of a Prince in Disney's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, a live-action adaptation of the studio's animated classic directed by Bill Condon. © 2016 Disney Enterprises inc. All Rights Reserved.

Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts, 100 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook will host a concert by the Stony Brook Wind Ensemble on the Main Stage on Wednesday, April 17 at 7:30 p.m.

Conducted by Bruce Engel, the program will include Samuel Barber’s “Overture to the School for Scandal,” Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony (1st movement),” “Bolero by Maurice Ravel, “An American in Paris” by George Gershwin, “Beauty and the Beast” by Allan Menken and “Pines of the Appian Way” by Ottorino Respighi/

Tickets are $10 adults, $5 students and seniors. For more information, call 631-632-2787 or visit www.stallercenter.com.

Canta Libre Chamber Ensemble. Tracey Elizabeth Photography

The critically acclaimed Canta Libre Chamber Ensemble will perform a spring equinox concert in the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum’s Charles and Helen Reichert Planetarium on Saturday, March 23, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. The spring equinox repertoire includes music for septet: “Angels in Flight” by Marjan Mozetich; “Distant Light” by Joseph Russo; “Cherry Blossoms” by Gary Schocker; the world premiere of Abstract No. 1 by Joel Lambdin; and Maurice Ravel’s pivotal work, Introduction and Allegro. The performance will be accompanied by beautiful imagery on the planetarium dome. Tickets are $20 adults online at www.vanderbiltmuseum.org, $25 at the door; and $15 for children 15 and younger. The museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport. Call 631-854-5799.

Viviane Kim, winner of the 2018 Stony Brook Young Artists Program Concerto Competition, will be this year’s special guest artist. Photo by Erica Murase

By Melissa Arnold

Classical music has a long-held reputation for being upscale — there’s something about it that feels refined, polished and graceful. The Department of Music at Stony Brook University is passionate about demystifying the genre, making the works of Mozart, Brahms and others enjoyable for everyone.

Each year, the Stony Brook University Orchestra invites the community to join them for their Family Orchestra Concert, an hour-long performance meant for all ages, including young children. This year’s concert will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 5 at the Staller Center for the Arts’ Main Stage.

Viviane Kim, winner of the 2018 Stony Brook Young Artists Program Concerto Competition, will be this year’s special guest artist. Photo by Erica Murase

“[This event] used to be called the children’s concert, but we didn’t want to give the impression that it’s just for children — the whole family comes along, and there’s something for everyone to enjoy,” said conductor Susan Deaver, who’s led the orchestra since 2000.

The ensemble is comprised of over 70 Stony Brook students, both undergraduate and graduate, as well as a handful of area high schoolers. Many of the students aren’t music majors and come from a variety of disciplines. In fact, the majority are studying biomedical engineering.

“So many of these students have been in music all their lives and don’t want to let it go,” Deaver said. “We have a lot of great players, and it’s a real blend of disciplines, the common denominator being a love of playing orchestral music.”

 This year’s concert theme will highlight dance in orchestral music, with each piece either having “dance” in its title or creating a sense of dance and movement. The repertoire features recognizable pieces including selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and Bach’s Minuet in G, along with some that might be unfamiliar, like Strauss’ Thunder and Lightning Polka. 

The program will also feature works by Brahms, Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Borodin. Dancers under the direction of SBU’s faculty member Amy Yoop Sullivan will collaboarte with the orchestra.

A highlight of each year’s concert is a solo performance from a grade school musician in Stony Brook’s Young Artist program. Open to grades 6 through 12, the program allows young musicians to enhance their musicianship and ensemble performance skills. Students are encouraged to enter an annual concerto contest, where a panel of impartial judges chooses a student to play at the concert.

This year’s contest winner, 12-year-old pianist Viviane Kim, will play Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D Major.

“I wasn’t really nervous because I’d practiced a lot. I played the song for my family, my friends, and anyone else who came to our house,” said Viviane, a seventh-grader at Port Jefferson Middle School. “It also helped that only three people were listening,” she joked.

Viviane, who also plays the flute, comes from a musical family — her father, Alan Kim, plays piano as well, and her grandmother is a violinist. “I played piano all the time when Viviane was a baby, and she took a natural interest in it. She started playing around the same time she started reading,” her father said. 

Michael Hershkowitz, executive director of Community Music Programs for the university, sees the annual concert as a chance to expose the audience to something new and wonderful.

“It’s important for classical musicians to be as accessible as possible and to break down barriers for people wanting to try it. A lot of people have an impression that classical music is just old and stuffy,” Hershkowitz said. “I think that dance is one of my favorite themes we’ve done — so much of music is tied to motion and bringing people together. And once you see a classical concert, you want to do it more.”

All seats for the Family Orchestra Concert are $5. For tickets and information, call 631-632-2787 or visit www.stallercenter.com.

For more information about the University Orchestra, contact the Stony Brook Department of Music at 631-632-7330 or visit www.stonybrook.edu/music.

Cuarteto Quiroga

Spain comes to Setauket

The Long Island Symphonic Choral Association (LISCA) will hold its annual gala on Sunday, March 3 from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Bates House, 1 Bates Road, East Setauket. Enjoy a concert by the critically acclaimed quartet Cuarteto Quiroga from Madrid from 4 to 5 p.m. Hot and cold hors d’oeuvres by Elegant Eating, wine and craft beer will be served before the concert and a delicious dessert buffet along with a raffle basket auction will follow. Tickets are $75 per person. Reservations required by calling 631-751-3452 or by visiting www.lisca.org.

A Valentine’s Day treat

Harbormen Chorus’s Antiquity Quartet, Fred, Dave, Gary and Vic, visited the Times Beacon Record News Media’s home office in Setauket on Feb. 14 to serenade the staff for Valentine’s Day. The group sang “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “Don’t Be a Baby, Baby” and “Love Me Tender” to a group of adoring fans.

Video by Rita J. Egan

 

Amber Ferrari. Photo by Rich Balter

By Rita J. Egan

Music lovers who enjoy taking a trip down memory lane will be in for a treat Feb. 9 at Theatre Three. Long Island performer Amber Ferrari returns to the Port Jefferson venue with “Joplin’s Pearl Featuring Amber Ferrari,” a production that celebrates singer Janis Joplin’s musical legacy.

The show is described on the theater’s website as a two-act musical explosion. While the second act is jam-packed with the music of Joplin including “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Piece of My Heart,” the show opens with a mixture of hits from various artists. 

Amber Ferrari. Photo by Rich Balter

Reached by phone, Ferrari said she will be singing musical hits from legends throughout the decades, including Pat Benatar, Linda Ronstadt, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Queen, Led Zeppelin and Carole King. The singer said she also plans on performing one of her own songs.

Ferrari’s artistic relationship with Theatre Three began in 2005 when she performed in the venue’s “Woodstock-mania: Woodstock in Concert,” a show that inspired her to create “Joplin’s Pearl.” The singer said through the years she has performed the Joplin musical performance many times at the Port Jeff venue and also debuted her shows dedicated to Pat Benatar and Madonna there. Last summer, she once again participated in “Woodstock-Mania.”

“That’s my home theater, that’s my heart and soul,” said Ferrari. 

Douglas Quattrock, Theatre Three’s artistic associate and director of development, said he is looking forward to Ferrari returning to the theater with the show.

“I am thrilled to have Amber back at Theatre Three,” Quattrock said. “Her show is always filled with an incredible amount of energy, and her audiences always get a first-rate performance.”

The February performance follows a busy few months for Ferrari who presented her “Material Girl Featuring Amber Ferrari” at 89 North Music Venue in Patchogue last month and Napper Tandy’s Irish Pub in Smithtown last October as well as her Joplin show at Riverhead’s Suffolk Theater back in November.

On the night of Feb. 9, in addition to paying tribute to Joplin, the singer said she is looking forward to performing a Queen number. Ferrari said she feels the show has something for everyone and hopes audience members will enjoy how she and her band interpret the music of all the artists she is featuring.

“I’m hoping the people who don’t like a specific artist will just enjoy the way we do it because I don’t try to imitate anyone,” Ferrari said.

The singer said at the Feb. 9 performance bass player Michael Chiusano, guitarist Chris Ferrari, keyboardist Chris Cuvier, drummer Gary Gonzalez and percussionist Jim Carroll will join her on stage. She will also perform with a horn section that includes Lenny La Pinta on alto/tenor sax, Jonathan Holford playing baritone sax, Dan Yeager on trumpet and trombonist Tim Cassera.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present ‘Joplin’s Pearl Featuring Amber Ferrari’ on Saturday, Feb. 9 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $39. For more information or to order, visit www.theatrethree.com or call 631-928-9100. 

For more information on Amber Ferrari, visit www.amberferrari.com.

Renee Fleming

By Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

As befits a woman born on St. Valentine’s Day, Renée Fleming grew up to become the sweetheart of the opera world. Possessing a powerful yet silky voice, great beauty and impressive acting skills, Fleming has moved from a single dimension to any number of new musical venues, with a major role in Broadway’s “Carousel,” singing the national anthem at the 2014 Super Bowl, and innumerable appearances on television, in movies and in concerts.

The opera diva will be the star attraction at Stony Brook University’s Gala, the major fundraiser at the Staller Center March 2. I’ve long known about her spectacular professional career but thought I would like to know more about the person that she is, so I had a brief, 10-minute chat with her on the phone at a hotel in Barcelona, Spain. We were time-limited to protect her voice, which is as immediately recognizable when she speaks as when she fills the Metropolitan Opera House with glorious music.

Q: You are coming to Stony Brook to perform. Do you have some special connection with SUNY?

A: Yes, I went to SUNY Potsdam, and so did my sister and brother. My two nephews are at SUNY, so we are a fan club.

Q: You undoubtedly travel a lot. What do you do to keep yourself healthy and protect your voice during plane trips?

A: I try to stay hydrated, get enough rest. I live moderately and believe in mind over matter. And I do the same as others, trying to avoid those who are coughing on the plane.

Q: I believe you grew up in a musical family, your parents both being high school music teachers. Did you always want to sing?

A: It was the furthest thing from my mind! I loved horses, thought I might be a vet, or maybe the first lady president — which has yet to happen. I had ambition, was a very good student. I always wrote music growing up. But I never heard of a woman composer so that wasn’t an option. I majored in music ed, my parents thought that was a good idea, went on to the Eastman School and Julliard. Then I fell in love with jazz.

Q: Do you get nervous when you are to
perform?

A: I was not a gregarious person, that wasn’t my personality. I was shy. So that was one of the skills I had to learn.

Q: Do you have a favorite role or composer?

A: I’m not so much into favorites. Verdi, Strauss …

Q: Do you speak other languages?

A: Yes, I speak French, German, some Italian.

Q: Do you need to know those languages to sing in them?

A: No, there have been great singers who have not known the language they were singing in. You do not need to know the language but it is helpful.

Q: You have two daughters. How did you manage the work/life balance?

A: It’s hard for a working mother. You never feel you are doing anything well. You have to manage everything. It’s challenging. Fortunately I have a tremendous amount of energy and a great work ethic.

Q: Did you get that from your parents?

A: (Pauses.) Yes, probably.

Q: Do you ever have nightmares that you had forgotten your lines?

A: Yes, those kinds of nightmares like
everyone else.

Q: Did that ever happen?

A: No.

Q: Are your dreams set to music?

A: Hmm, I don’t really know. 

Q: What else about music?

A: I’m working with the National Institutes of Health. When children are exposed to music early, their oral comprehension is increased. Studies have shown that.

A major passion of the opera superstar is the intersection of music, health and neuroscience. She is artistic adviser at the Kennedy Center and has launched a collaboration with NIH — the first of its kind between a performing arts center and the largest supporter of biomedical research in the world. She gives presentations on her concert tours with scientists, music therapists and medical professionals. She recently co-authored an article with Dr. Francis Collins, NIH director, for the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Be sure to come out for the fundraising Stony Brook University Gala Saturday night, March 2, at the Staller Center. You will not only hear fabulous music. You will see one of the 21st century’s most remarkable
women.

Bobby Brooks Wilson will be performing ‘Higher and Higher,’ ‘Lonely Teardrops’ and more next Friday night at Theatre Three.

By Kevin Redding

Bobby Brooks Wilson spent most of his life not knowing that his father was the famous Detroit singer Jackie Wilson — despite paying tribute to him and performing his songs live on stage for more than a decade. 

A Westbury native who was given up for adoption as a baby and raised in a foster home in Columbia, South Carolina, Brooks Wilson always had show business in his blood, although he never took notice of his father’s music growing up. It was the Jackson 5, specifically when they first appeared on “American Bandstand” in 1970, that lit a fire in him. 

“I knew in my gut that I could do what Michael Jackson was doing,” he later said. “One of the first things I did was I ran outside and I put up four chairs with brooms and I became the Jackson 5. I made my neighbors pay 5 cents to see me, too.”

Sadly, although he had the drive and the talent, Brooks Wilson was extremely debilitated by medical problems when he was young. With a bad case of asthma, rickets and intestinal problems, he spent a majority of his childhood in hospitals and in and out of surgeries. By the time he was in his teens, though, his health bounced back.

After enlisting in the U.S. Navy in the early 1980s, he served for a total of 10 years, a planned military career cut short by medical  discharge. It was around this time, while stationed in Hawaii, that he began singing at karaoke bars and ultimately joined a successful vocal group. 

By 1995, the singer began transforming himself into his father. Or, as far as he knew until around 2007, the iconic R&B and soul artist nicknamed “Mr. Excitement” he just so happened to look and sound a lot like “Legends in Concert,” a Las Vegas-based celebrity tribute show produced by Paul Revere of Paul Revere and the Raiders. 

The show featured live impersonators, from Elvis to Michael Jackson to Madonna to Barbara Streisand, and Brooks Wilson, now a talented singer performing steady gigs as a member of the doo-wop group The Love Notes ― fronted by Peter Hernandez Jr., and featuring his son, a pint-sized Elvis impersonator who grew up to be Bruno Mars ―was drafted into the production by Revere himself after catching a set of theirs, which featured a few Jackie Wilson staples. 

Blown away by Brooks Wilson’s likeness to the “Higher and Higher” singer, Revere urged him to embody Jackie Wilson in the shows. The performer initially balked at the offer, saying he “was an artist, not an impersonator,” but after three attempts, Revere got his wish. 

The problem was that Brooks Wilson didn’t know where to begin when it came to paying tribute to a man he didn’t know all that well beyond some hit songs. He didn’t know what he looked like, and there was no easy access to videos at the time to properly emulate his stage persona and style. And so, he didn’t try to mimic him at all. With his natural pompadour grown out, he merely “did Bobby,” which, as pointed out by those around him at the time, was “doing Jackie.” 

The reality of the situation came into focus down the line when Brooks Wilson met members of Motown act the Four Tops backstage after a performance in Atlantic City. Two of them were Jackie Wilson’s cousins, and they couldn’t get over the uncanny likeness. 

“They asked me, ‘How did you learn to move like him? How did you learn to wink and stand like him? How did you study him?’” Brooks Wilson said with a laugh. “I said, ‘There’s nothing for me to study. Everything I do is me!’ They said, ‘Everything you do is Jackie … the way you walk, the way you talk, the way you laugh.’ I’ve never tried to impersonate my dad, because I just didn’t know how to!”

The singer was soon connected to more members of Jackie Wilson’s family, who quickly embraced and accepted him, including Billy Davis, Jackie’s cousin who, alongside Motown founder Berry Gordy, wrote his major hits, and would serve as Brooks Wilson’s eventual songwriting mentor. 

Upon hearing that Brooks Wilson was in foster care growing up, the family members would ask if he knew who his mother was. He did, having reconnected with her later in life, although a relationship was never formed. But when he mentioned her name, everybody lit up, remembering her well as somebody Jackie Wilson often had around.

“Aretha Franklin told me my parents used to party at her house,” Brooks Wilson said. 

A simple blood test later, and the inevitable truth was solidified. 

“After I really accepted it, it turned my life around,” he said. “I started carrying the torch for my dad, and I feel sort of like an ambassador for his music.” 

Bobby Brooks Wilson, who will be performing live at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson on Friday, Feb. 8, describes his shows as the ultimate display of himself as an artist, featuring several covers of Motown classics, a special tribute to his father, including stories behind the specific songs he performs, as well as original tunes off his own albums, the most recent entitled “Just About Time.” 

He will be accompanied by the five-piece Coda Band and backed by Long Island’s own The Chiclettes, the trio tribute to female vocalists from the 1950s through the ’80s. 

“What you’re going to see is Bobby Brooks Wilson giving you all he’s got on stage,” the singer said. “And my dad’s going to show himself, you’re going to hear him and you’re going to see him … I feel my dad around me a lot,” a presence, he added, that’s felt by his audience during every show. 

“People come up and say, ‘I felt like I was watching Jackie again, I felt like a kid again!’ He is loved to this day by so many people, which is amazing. The joy that they have in their hearts when they come up to me after the show … I just thank God I have the ability, even though I’m just being me, to give these people the joy that they have.”

“I make people happy, I make people forget their troubles,” he continued. “I make people go down memory lane, remember their loved ones. I always hear, ‘When you were singing that song, my husband was sitting next to me’ or ‘my wife was sitting next to me. That was our song.’” 

Peter Mastropaolo, musical director at Theatre Three and leader of the Coda Band, worked alongside Brooks Wilson on a cruise ship gig last November, and, as he’s predominantly been a West Coast act, Mastropaolo hopes to make those on the East Coast more aware of him. He doesn’t think it would take long for a crowd here to fall in love with Brooks Wilson.

“He’s an amazing entertainer; nobody ever stays seated when he performs,” Mastropaolo said. “You’ll be on your feet. The excitement is just there and every time he does his thing, people just always want him back.”

Susan Marten, one of the three Chiclettes, a soprano who joined the vocal group two years ago, has been backing Brooks Wilson for about a year and a half. She called the shows “challenging and fun.”

“We were really thrilled when we first found out we’d have the opportunity to be Bobby’s backing singers,” Marten said. “It’s been a really good partnership. He’s just so good at what he does. People should expect a high-energy show that takes them back to a certain time … Bobby is keeping this music alive, and breathing new life into it! Seeing Bobby is a must.” 

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present Bobby “Brooks” Wilson in concert with a special performance by The Chiclettes on Friday, Feb. 8 at 8 p.m. All seats are $49. For further information or to order tickets, please call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com. 

The Harbormen Chorus again this year will send out quartets of handsomely dressed gentlemen to entertain loved ones for Valentine’s Day. In their long-standing tradition, they offer the finest, unique and most memorable gift — The Gift of Song! The quartets sing anywhere in Suffolk County: in offices, homes, restaurants, even bowling alleys and mechanic’s shops!

For information and to book a visit for only $75 (includes two love songs along with a box of chocolates, flower and personalized card), call 631-644-0129. The Harbormen Chorus is a 501(c)3 nonprofit and regularly supports the Good Shepherd Hospice at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson with donations and song.

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