Friday, March 23, 2018

Grace notes of grief and healing: "Appoggiatura" completes IRT's mounting of a James Still trilogy

Travel is broadening, runs the cliche, but it can also be narrowing — sometimes in a positive way. For the unconventional family group in "Appoggiatura," upon its disheveled arrival one recent June in Venice, a sentimental journey is roughed up against the nap of the fabled Bride of the Sea only to find a magical payoff at the end.

Marco and Aunt Chuck have a heart-to-heart at a Viennese fountain.
In James Still's poignant comedy, the tug of memory — with two older adults focused on the deceased love of both their lives — competes with the slightly shabby charisma of the Italian port city, whose water-laced geography is perpetually both an attraction and a challenge. At first, flooding and a power outage combine with the modern traveler's curse of lost luggage to pose threats to the trip. The optimistic Helen's happiness is challenged, and deepened is the dour mood of the man for whom her late husband Gordon left her. The ex-rival is known to her and the party's third member, granddaughter Sylvie, as "Aunt Chuck." Those annoyances fade, and one of them is crucially mitigated late in the show.

The Indiana Repertory Theatre is presenting the third part of Still's trilogy (in previous seasons, IRT has staged "The House That Jack Built" and "Miranda") as part of its celebration of his 20th season as playwright in residence. The observance is also taking the form of an encore production of "Looking Over the President's Shoulder," which opens next week.

Peter Amster directs a versatile cast, playing characters with an almost down-home appeal, despite the exotic setting. The family intimacy, in which hard-won affection must compete with fulfillment of diverse personal agendas, is brightly sketched in the opening scene by Susan Pellegrino (Helen), Tom Aulino (Aunt Chuck), and Andrea San Miguel (Sylvie). Still's writing is glinting and fast-paced; exposition is distributed with a skilled hand. Helen's willful cheeriness encompasses reading aloud snippets of local color from Venetian history. She's attempting to distract Aunt Chuck from his grumpiness and Sylvie from her default position of just going along with her seniors as she tries to find herself.

The widow Helen (right) encounters Gordon and her younger self.
Progress from this shaky start will be found through a mix of tourist misdirection and serendipity. A deepening of self-knowledge, through imagination and coming to terms with the hands life has dealt, generates change even more crucially. The comedy of international travel is sketched by Marco (Casey Hoekstra), an inexperienced Italian travel guide with rudimentary English hired via e-mail,  and secondary characters representing a host of cicerones, played by Andrew Maher, Paul DeBoy, and Katrina Yaukey.

The trio also functions as street musicians wittily and magnetically woven in and around the action. They are outfitted to a virtuoso turn by Tracy Dorman's costume designs, contrasting with the casual, travel-worn attire of the central trio, Marco's on-the-cheap debonair style, and the evocative, dressier fashion of a time long past for San Miguel as the young Helen and Hoekstra as the young Gordon.
Street musicians provide a sidewalk cafe patron with a reflective song.

Without giving too much away, it's worth pausing to mention a couple of Still's touches that can sound sappy when singled out, but that work so well in context. In "April 4, 1968," it was the moment when the black family and their accidental white guest suddenly clasp hands while sitting on the couch. In "Appoggiatura," it's when the young Helen impulsively hugs the laptop, a device totally strange to her, at the end of a Skype call. An explanation would give too much away, but it's a precious moment.

Lee Savage's scenic design, with elements that move to suggest different sites around the city, basically serves to document the time-worn facades of Venice's canal-fronting structures. Alexander Ridgers' lighting slices in from the side or emblazons the scene all around, depending on the precise location and time of day. Still's incorporation of Skype chats and iPhone signaling is made smoothly manifest throughout the production, typically rich in IRT marvels.

A gondolier poles his way along with passengers Aunt Chuck and Marco.
The Italian title, drawn from a musical term, is explained both in the company's promotional video and briefly in the show itself. In music, an appoggiatura is a kind of auxiliary note in a line that receives various degrees of emphasis in delaying the conclusion of a phrase. It's an embedded emotional tug that, expanded for dramatic purposes here, signals a reluctance to let go. When a playwright shows he has something fresh to say about love and loss, much of his success is assured. So it is with  "Appoggiatura."

And the best example of the title in the play's context comes in the gondola scene, where Aunt Chuck is inspired to burst into "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Marco and the gondolier join in with the Italian version. And where Marco finishes with "life is but a dream," his gondola companions end that last line with the Italian for "dream" —sogno — two syllables, of which the first one is an appoggiatura note. It's a perfect illustration, both of the device itself and of the play's meaning.

[Photos by Ed Stewart and Zach Rosing]

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Jemal Ramirez and his band romp through 'African Skies'

The cover of San Francisco-based drummer's new CD.
With a basis of public-school responsibilities for his day job, drummer-bandleader Jemal Ramirez makes musical points in the public sphere in addition to his vital work in music education.

His latest CD, "African Skies" (Joyful Beat Records), finds him anchoring his usual quintet, notable for the inclusion of the perpetually relevant vibraphonist Warren Wolf. But it's also important to emphasize, on the evidence of this disc and its predecessor, "Pomponio" (2015), that the Ramirez band is a real team. Star power is not what keeps both discs worth hearing. It's the collective energy and program choices that bring out the cohesiveness of the ensemble as well as the solo chops within.

Variety in unity and vice versa: In "Latina," for example Howard Wiley's alto solo heats things up feverishly before Wolf's canny vibraphone notions cool things down. Yet Ramirez's drums keep things simmering behind the vibes, so that the overall performance maintains consistent fervor.

Nonetheless, I can't resist drawing special attention to Wolf. As he rides the Latin pulse of "A Good Time," for example, how deft he is at coming up with little bits of original melody to tie together his ideas! When the band comes in behind his inspired soloing, the effect is electric. There's also a good tenor solo from Wiley.

And, though the contributions of trumpeter Mike Olmos are cogent on four of the 10 tracks, there's a progression evident to my ears from Olmos' rather generic solo on "It Always Is" through the more focused playing of pianist Matthew Clark to Wolf's unerringly eloquent solo. Then, having a high plane of pertinence behind it,  the ensemble erupts in a wild coda with simultaneous improvising by the horns.

The teamwork at its lyrical best comes through in "A Long Way Home," an original ballad by Wolf, Wiley, and Ramirez, with atmospheric mallets on tom-toms setting the mood and smooth soprano-sax lyricism from Wiley complementing the estimable Wolf. The vibist gets a soulful showcase to himself in "Save Your Love for Me," which follows immediately.

The group confidence is illustrated by how securely the band plays around the familiar tune of "Speak Low" before Wolf states the theme. This is a band (bassist John Shiflett is fundamental to its success, too) that's comfortable in its skin and able to communicate the fact without special pleading or bizarre trickery.

Why do stars fail in Indiana (and so many other places)? Nighttime competition from light pollution

Sunday, March 18, 2018

All-orchestral program focuses on guest conductor's affinity with three eras

No concerto soloists required guest conductor Matthew Halls to share the limelight in this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts.
Halls: British conductor makes his mark here.

The British conductor proved worth the focus as he led Saturday evening's program of J.S.Bach, James MacMillan, and Jan Sibelius at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

MacMillan is a prolific Scotsman who seems to have increased presence on American concert programs recently. In February I heard the American premiere of his Trombone Concerto in a Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert. I found the work so exciting that I'll admit paying insufficient attention to the Tchaikovsky "Pathetique" Symphony that followed intermission. I like that piece well enough, but MacMillan's arresting musical rhetoric still had command of my mind. (The conductor, Gustavo Gimeno, will make his ISO debut here in April.)

MacMillan's Veni, veni, Emmanuel, a percussion concerto, has been performed twice in Indianapolis — once with its dedicatee, Evelyn Glennie, as soloist, then by Colin Currie. And one of his string quartets has been chosen to mark the last Juilliard Quartet performance of first violinist Joseph Lin this spring in New York. He will be succeeded by Areta Zhulla.

On Thursday and Saturday, Halls led Sinfonietta, a 19-minute work whose title betokens both one-movement form and a reduced orchestra. Apart from strings, a wide variety of instruments is represented by a single voice each. A keening soprano saxophone makes an initial impression over a lighter-than-air string accompaniment. The calming mood lasts for just long enough for a fortissimo rip in the fabric to shock the ears.

That interruption turns out to be persistent, soon becoming both florid and chaotic. It's as if Charles Ives had wandered into Stravinsky's "Shrovetide Fair" ("Petrushka") and became disoriented by funhouse mirrors. Typical of the MacMillan works I've heard, there's a nurtured beauty that has to contend with threats and challenges. In this case, the ethereal music returns, taking on an even higher place in the heavens, as it ends with a repeated utmost-octave note from the piano. The effect was marred Saturday night by an ill-timed cellphone ring from somewhere in the audience.

Until last September, Halls was artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival. From what I've read of his dismissal, he may have been a victim of an oversensitive aspect of the #MeToo movement. Management responded at first to a ridiculously exaggerated report of a joke Halls made to a black soloist, but was mainly pushed to push him out by a few "hostile work-environment" charges, accounts of which don't give much basis for coming down definitively on the side of either party. A settlement proscribes both the OBF and Halls from further comment in self-defense.

This is by way of introducing his genuine claim to conduct Bach with a modern orchestra. The great Baroque composer tends to be overlooked in symphony schedules, a consequence of the triumph of "authenticity." The neglect goes back many decades, and explains why Leopold Stokowski felt compelled to orchestrate some of the Saxon master's music. The vogue for these transcriptions has long passed; the ISO last played the 1922 Stokowski-Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor in 1973.

Judging from the response Saturday night to the ISO's performance of that magnificent organ work, such arrangements come across well and have merits far from the shadow of travesty they're sometimes represented as being under. The audience ate this one up. Much credit goes to Hall's astute management of balance and tempo. The broadening near the end of the fugue complemented the splendor of the orchestration. Throughout, Halls displayed insight into the peculiar blend of spectacle and probity that could well sum up the imposition of Stokowski on top of Bach.

The concert opened with a crisp, lively account of Bach's Orchestra Suite No. 3. There were signs of struggle as the ISO fought to maintain the fast pace Halls set for the fast section of the Overture. Concertmaster Zach De Pue handled the violin solos with aplomb. And the ISO's trumpet section sounded brilliant wherever it was required to shine.

Halls had the well-known Air, the suite's second movement, nicely modulated with reduced strings the first time through, then supplemented by the full complement. The Bourree seemed to test the orchestra again, but the rapid pace certainly set up the quick segue into the concluding Gigue well.

After intermission came the "in-between" selection: the personalized late romanticism of Sibelius' Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major. The mastery of tempo fluctuations Halls displayed in Bach served him well here: The transition to Presto, then more Presto, in the first movement was precisely judged and quite exciting.The second movement is pervaded by subtle shifts that were handled adroitly in this performance.

In the first movement, where the composer seems to be working out a few ideas that can take you a while to realize aren't introductory but substantive, the initial phrase of the horns was somewhat tentative. But the wind band soon sounded self-assured. Sibelius' writing for winds often seems to be a little precious, self-involved, somewhat boutique-y, like something you might find in the Carmel Arts District.

But such stuff is part of the Sibelius signature. The music historian Jan Swafford makes the witty comment that, like Dylan Thomas' poetry, Sibelius' symphonies sound greater than they are.  That thought struck me in the evanescent second movement, with its fleeting sentimentality and hints of Brahms and even Puccini. After that allure, what does it all really amount to? Pure Sibelius, for sure.

The finale was taken at a rapid clip, and the strings' sotto voce scurrying sounded really unified. All the colors in Sibelius' rather restrained palette were brought into view vividly. Halls handled the momentum of the last movement quite well, as its expansive lyricism and a catchy, pervasive rocking figure moved to a climax amid the scurrying. Never have those drastically spaced final six chords made more sense to me as the perfect way to punctuate and bring to finality all that roiling energy.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Herald of spring: Well-seasoned quintet jazz from tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel

Out of a project inspired by a Tchaikovsky suite for solo piano, saxophonist Ben Wendel was inspired
Aaron Parks (left), for whom Ben Wendel's "November" was written.
to write a piece for each month of the year, dedicating each to a musician he admires. As a jazz specialist, the writing was a launching pad for duo performances incorporating improvisational  freedom, in which each honoree participated as a performing partner with Wendel.

Expanded to a quintet format, the compositions became the basis for Wendel's "Seasons" band, which played two sets Friday night at the Jazz Kitchen. Filling out the group were some illustrious young players, with a locally boosted star, Aaron Parks, at the piano. Parks was 2001 Cole Porter Fellow of the Indianapolis-based American Pianists Association. Other "Seasons" personnel: Gilad Hekselman, guitar; Matt Brewer, bass, and Kendrick Scott, drums.

Textures of Wendel compositions are dense, but the group's internal rapport ensures that everything flows. For example, "November," written for Parks, allowed the pianist to wax introspective in an unaccompanied introduction. When the full band came in, there was an ingrained moodiness to the material, with Scott laying down a propulsive backbeat. That encouraged bluesy inflections in the solos, which were interspersed with ensemble returns. It was down-home goes to graduate school. The performance ended with a long diminuendo as a four-note tag marked the settling down.

Wendel sounded comfortable in all ranges of his horn, and folded into his playing a wealth of curlicues and flourishes. "May" displayed the positive buoyancy of his muse, with lots of ornamentation. Hekselman's solo took an exotic turn. The general favoritism toward up-tempo pieces was interrupted by "August," with its long tones and a sparkling Parks solo niftily accompanied by Scott's hand-drumming.

"October," written for Hekselman, gave the timbre-sensitive guitarist a chance to make a gamelan-like excursion in his solo that soon morphed into an Afrobeat vibe as the ensemble entered. "July" was notable for a titanic yet coherent bass solo, as well as for a tasty coda punctuated by Scott's precise patterning on rims.

The last piece of the first set was the one tune not taken from Wendel's "Seasons" project. "Unforeseeable" started with crisp solo drums and cymbals, with Brewer soon putting a foundation underneath the percussive churning. The piece drew hearty applause and whoops and demands for an encore. That entailed a return to the monthly theme, as "April," written for the drummer Eric Harland, was put on display, with naturally a more intense focus on the estimable Scott.

Relaxed and amiable in his bandstand manner, Wendel draws from his sidemen the same attention to taking care of business that he demands of himself. No one stays idle for long in this band, yet the listener doesn't get the impression of clutter. The sound is high-powered, but there's always something new to absorb and enjoy. Whatever the season, this isn't the sort of impactful music that tempts you to say: "OK, very good — now give me a break!" It's rather like: "Let's have some more."

Time is on somebody's side, but french fries are right on the side of a burger order

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Networking magic helps save joint Ensemble Music Society/IVCI concert at Landmarks Center

Last weekend's wintry weather on the East Coast took an unexpected toll when pianist Joseph Kalichstein fell on ice in New York and suffered a broken arm.

Jaime Laredo, Sharon Robinson, Soovin Kim, Gloria Chien
This forced some quick action on the part of the two venerable musical organizations behind the highly anticipated Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio Tuesday night at the Indiana Landmarks Center.
Fortunately, a married couple with International Violin Competition of Indianapolis connections was available to fill the date along with the married couple that constitutes two-thirds of the scheduled trio.

2002 IVCI bronze medalist Soovin Kim and pianist Gloria Chien were brought into play with violinist/violist Jaime Laredo, president of the IVCI jury, and cellist Sharon Robinson as collaborators on a new program in the IVCI's Laureate Series. The concert, dedicated to the late IVCI patron Andrew Paine, was co-presented with Ensemble Music Society,

Music involving all four musicians opened and closed the program, both featuring Laredo on viola, his secondary instrument. In Mozart's Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat, K. 493, it was immediately evident that the concert's replacement pianist was much more than a desperate substitute for Kalichstein. Chien characterized the first movement beautifully, controlling pace and tone in a way that solidified the ensemble; a move into the minor mode was expertly judged, with a slight slowing and dynamic variety signaling a shift in direction.

The performance continued to be well-knit throughout: the pauses in the progress of the Larghetto were well-matched, and the slow tempo handled with no slackening of interest or forward motion. Chien also set forth the brilliance of the finale in a spirited performance with touches of humor, such as the brief grace-noted exchanges with Kim.

The concert concluded with a piece of French romanticism in full flower. The essence of Gabriel Fauré's small-scale but cogent intensity came through in the Scherzo of his Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, op. 15.  Plucked strings accompanied the piano in the elfin main theme, and the quartet captured well the subtle shift in the Trio section, with the strings muted. In the course of the performance, there were phrases for the viola performed in a way indicating Laredo is not a full-time violist. On the whole, this was a well-integrated, glowing account of the work.

A four-movement duo, with Laredo on his primary instrument, gave the star couple in the program a showcase. The quirky modernist Erwin Schulhoff, whose promise as a composer was snuffed out in 1942 in a Nazi death camp, got a rare outing in Indianapolis.  The violin-cello duo presented a composer attracted to middle European folk music, especially its dance rhythms, and also under the influence of Debussy's outreach beyond conventional phrasing and harmony. Passages in harmonics set up an ethereal feeling that made the first movement's peaceful ending logical. The embrace of gypsy music in Zingaresa: Allegro giocoso was rousing, and the contrasts in the finale, with motoric and songlike episodes negotiated smoothly, displayed an undimmed elan.

As a specific tribute to Paine, a banker long associated with the violin competition, Robinson and Chien played Fauré's enduring Elegie, op. 24. Robinson's large tone was nicely controlled, and the passionate weight of the middle portion was molded with a good feeling for balance by both players. The cellist's bow speed on the last note slowed expertly to allow the tender, elegiac conclusion of the piece to ring out and make the memorial dedication special.