Wednesday, May 25, 2016

An unnerving development celebrated (?) in song: Absolute identity between America's best-selling beer and America itself

Though owned by a Belgian company since 2008, the all-American beer brand nurtured in St. Louis and known the world over as Budweiser has recently been redubbed "America." Here's "America the Beautiful" repurposed as a drinking song. To evoke another "America" classic: From the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with beer foam, God bless America!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Here it comes — not your 19th nervous breakdown, but the Republicans': They are falling into line behind the apparent nominee, Donald Trump, no matter how repugnant they may have found him a few short months ago. Here's one of them explaining his political shape-shifting in song, a number based on Fats Waller's "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now."

Sunday, May 22, 2016

In a lively Romantic survey, Matthew Kraemer completes his first season as Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra music director

Matthew Kraemer is an Indiana native and Butler alumnus.
The silly clip art heading Matthew Kraemer's column in the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra program booklet was perhaps chosen as a sign — always useful in our pop-culture milieu — that "we're not taking ourselves too seriously, folks."

OK, I get that, but really: A wild-maned clownish figure, his coattails improbably flapping behind him, goggle-eyed, arms raised (baton in the LEFT hand), standing on what looks like the sort of cylindrical box the big cats in the circus used to be trained to wait upon, twitching, between tricks.

But there are no tricks beyond good preparation and musical insight as the ICO extends its 31-year  viability as the city's other professional orchestra, newly under Kraemer's leadership. With an acoustically friendly home in Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts, the chamber orchestra showed itself poised for further growth as the new maestro concluded his first season as music director Saturday night.

The ICO welcomed a Juilliard School student, 19-year-old Angie Zhang, as guest soloist. She's thus about the age Frederic Chopin was when he composed his E minor piano concerto, which Zhang performed with ingratiating panache to open the program. Overstating nothing, but never too reticent to bring some depth to the music's sparkle, Zhang was effectively partnered by the orchestra.
Angie Zhang studies at Juilliard.

The accompaniment is well-known for its relative superficiality: In the first-movement tutti introduction, however, Kraemer elicited all the short-breathed counterpoint the fledgling composer wrote — a reminder of Chopin's admiration for J.S. Bach.

It's undeniable, however, that once the piano gets involved, the orchestra gathers around just to support the solo instrument, like Orpheus charming all the woodland creatures into rapt pleasure. Carrying out that function, the ICO matched dynamics and tempo shifts perfectly to the soloist, with a particularly deft diminuendo at the end of the second movement.

Kraemer chose a late romantic miniature for just after intermission. The delicate sonorities of the gently contrasted pair of movements in Edward Elgar's "Dream Children" were right at home in the responsive hall. The piece, a rare local example (since Raymond Leppard left the music directorship of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra)  of Elgar in his lesser-known works, was kind of a palate cleanser between main courses.

What followed was a meaty performance of Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in D minor. Heard in the earlier of the composer's two versions — a score with more sharply etched timbres and, in the last movement particularly, a kind of angularity that points up its rhythmic energy — the work made for a fine season finale.

There were a few evident disadvantages in the relative smallness of the string sections: A characteristic rhythmic figure in  the first movement lost definition almost every time it was passed to the strings. The second-movement "Romanza" featured a characterless violin solo and a thankfully warmer oboe-cello duet.

The best-balanced movement was the Scherzo, where the predominance of wind-band evocations suited the music perfectly. The suspenseful transition to the finale was mesmerizing and precisely governed. Though some lack of strength in the strings — a matter of numbers, not of participant vigor — continued to tilt the balance toward the winds, the stepped-up tempo at the start of the coda showed those sections, particularly the cellos, to be capable of flexing coordinated muscles.

A sturdily performed, abundantly satisfying concert over all — even if I still have a hard time getting that conductor caricature out of my head.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

With Duruflé and Beethoven, ISO probes the sublimity of divine and natural worlds

ISO guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero
Quite influential in its day, Friedrich Schiller's 1795 essay "On Naive and Sentimental Poetry" has been eclipsed by scads of subsequent fashions in literary criticism. But its imaginative, if reductive, division of poetry into the kind that springs from an unsophisticated vision of reality ("naive") and the kind that is generated by nostalgia or self-consciousness ("sentimental") is still powerful.

And it applies to the program the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is presenting this weekend. The program's repetition this evening at Hilbert Circle Theatre is worth special attention. The yoking of Maurice Duruflés Requiem (the first in ISO history) and Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 in F major ("Pastoral") is unusual. Both works are under the expert,  impassioned control of Giancarlo Guerrero, music director of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

And each, in its own way, reflects a consistent yearning for an unself-conscious relationship to reality — whether in the divine (Duruflé) or natural (Beethoven) realms. Schiller's essay takes seriously the drive to revisit a golden age, a paradise: "So long as we were mere children of nature, we were both happy and perfect; we have become free, and have lost both."
Friedrich Schiller contrasted art's eternal tensions.

Catholic theology, particularly as reflected in the Mass for the Dead, does not overprivilege nature, of course. But in his reverence for Gregorian chant and the pervasive flow of emotional outpourings spread over nine liturgical Latin texts, the French composer plants his flag on the side of "naive" poetry. The composition's occasional outbursts of choral and orchestral sound — its ringing "Hosanna in excelsis" and unsettling "Dies irae" — never shift to the quasi-operatic scenarios of Berlioz or Verdi. They are affirmations of chaste devotion to what the Church proclaims as truth that are meant to be part of an integrated statement on the same level as the pleas on behalf of the deceased.

In true German synthesizing fashion, by the way, Schiller didn't advocate a return to naive poetry. He
only recognized that the yearning for it would be inescapable. What he was after was progress toward an ideal unity of humankind's divided consciousness: a third stage, a higher and conclusive resolution of the perpetual conflict between naive and sentimental values.

And that's the direction in which both Durufle's Requiem and Beethoven's "Pastoral" head without reservation:  Beethoven's nature is a settled countryside; his embrace of nature is hearty in the first and second movements, but turns to human society in the third, which he titled "Merry assembly of the country folk." The foot-stomping Trio never stinted on exuberance Friday evening.

Nature interrupts the frivolity with a violent thunderstorm, which in this performance was everything one could hope for — a menacing cataclysm capable of frightening the horses and small children, partly unmanning men, and causing women to clutch their aprons and skirts as they run for cover. As the storm recedes, the folk resassemble to offer a hymn of thanksgiving to the loving God who has spared them: The natural disturbance has subsided in order to allow natural gratitude to take its expansive course. The way Guerrero conducted the finale made every variation of the theme an aspect of that gratitude, with a particular emphasis on brass punctuation to achieve a chorale effect. Similarly, every swirl and eddy of the second movement's flowing brook was observed, as if glinting in sunlight.

In the Requiem, Eric Stark's mastery of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir he directs burned with a steady flame. Each section sang its often lengthy phrases with a burnished glow, right through the final one of the "Libera me" — "and Thou shalt come to judge the world by fire" — and on to "In Paradisum"'s conclusive prayer for the dead to have eternal rest. Dynamics were sculpted with care.

The choir held up splendidly in thin-textured passages, which Guerrero coordinated well with the orchestra — the kind of writing that confirms my sense that Duruflé consistently intends "naive" faith to be sustained in a "sentimental" setting. A bunch of such episodes come up in the Offertory, "Domine Jesu Christe," first with oboe and sopranos, then organ and altos, succeeded by English horn and string tremolos accompanying the men on the reminder "whom we this day commemorate," finally resuming with organ and the women as they evoke the promise made to Abraham. There was also, memorably, the "Pie Jesu," which showcased the women's pristine pitch and breath control, with Austin Huntington playing the cello solo with fervent restraint.

For Duruflé, Gregorian chant amounted to a precious naivete in Christian faith that he sought to keep fresh while acknowledging the influence of post-Impressionist choral and orchestral variety. For Beethoven, who declared "I love a tree more than a man," nature represented irreducible solace for someone cut off from society by deafness. So he sought to recover the simple pleasures of unself-consciousness celebrated by Schiller (whose "An die Freude" provided text that the composer adapted for his Ninth Symphony). But he pursued that project as one of the most painfully self-conscious artists ever.

Despite the pull both composers felt to be exerted by a simpler past, they would doubtless have approved of Schiller's idealistic caveat: "The goal toward which man strives by means of culture, however, is infinitely higher than that which he reaches by means of nature." The works on this weekend's ISO program endorse that difficult outlook magnificently.

Friday, May 20, 2016

"Nevada" repurposes "Granada" to comment upon the debacle at the Nevada state Democratic convention

Though straying occasionally from true pitch and getting out of sync with the accompaniment offends my critical side, such flaws in the performance of this song parody represent my desperate feeling, as one who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Indiana primary, that his campaign has gone off the rails. I predict that last weekend's Nevada convention will come to be seen as the point that the Sanders fantasy effectively collapsed. Everything the senator generates or inspires from now on amounts to presidential Brooklyn-Vermont kabuki theater.

Monday, May 16, 2016

New on CD: Small-group jazz with first-class percussionist sidemen

Warren Wolf: master of mallets.
A couple of jazz releases that have brightened the 2016 scene so far  stand out because, in addition to the excellence of the leaders, the choice of sidemen is heartening — particularly in the percussion section.

"Pomponio" by Jemal Ramirez, a San Francisco drummer, features the vibraphone and marimba of Warren Wolf. (True, those are melodic instruments that in jazz often have a front-of-the-band position, but are still in the percussion family.) Wolf is a young master of his  instruments, and properly gets a prominent role in all 11 tracks.

Jemal Ramirez heads a peppy, unified septet on "Pomponio."
Ramirez leads a first-class septet in a program of one classic pop standard, "But Beautiful," two originals (by Wolf and trumpeter Joel Behrman) and eight pieces by a range of jazz stars, from Donald Brown to Bobby Watson. I like the unfailing inventiveness of Wolf's playing, whether in accompaniment or in solos. He makes the most of little ideas — sequences and melodic motifs — to construct a presence in the busy ensemble texture that is always arresting, while maintaining a collegial spirit.

The drummer, sometimes supplemented on Latin percussion by John Santos, is a busy player. And Ramirez's sound is high in the mix. But his busyness always comes across as productive — a driver of the high energy characteristic of the band. Other prominent voices include the tart saxophones of Howard Wiley and the trenchant piano, lyrical or  hard-charging as needed, of Matthew Clark.

The other CD hails from Canada. It's called "Fundamental" by Toronto guitarist Trevor Giancola, and is among the best jazz trio recordings without piano to come my way in several years.  Giancola has a traditional, pure, pinging guitar sound, phrased elegantly. It's applied to a couple of pieces by Elmo Hope, among other inspired borrowings. The disc ends strongly with a succession of three standards: "Just One of Those Things," Bill Evans' "Turn Out the Stars," and "You Go to My Head."
Trevor Giancola leads a first-rate trio.

The trio is notable for the smooth transitions it makes between solo and ensemble work. The veteran bassist Neil Swainson lends gravitas and tuneful heft to the band. In addition to becoming acquainted with Giancola's work (three of the pieces, including the title track, are by him), I found it exciting to make the recorded acquaintance of the 26-year-old drummer, Adam Arruda, for the first time. The three have years of experience in Canada under their belt, and that rapport is evident.

But a guitar-bass-drums trio wouldn't be very interesting without being musically as sturdy as a strong three-legged stool. And Arruda is compulsively listenable throughout: lots of ideas, including the kind that are best when tucked in while one of his bandmates occupies the spotlight. The good thoughts, well executed, never quit.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Tabloid family values struggle to overcome fear in TOTS' "Bat Boy The Musical"

"How's that hopey-changey thing working out for you?" the execrable Sarah Palin once taunted President Obama in the 2012 campaign.

In Hope Falls, W. Va., the fictional hamlet that's the setting of "Bat Boy: The Musical," none too well is the answer. Change is not anything the townsfolk ever seem to want, and when it is visited upon them in the form of the hybrid creature of the title, the very name of the town signals a general plunge into panic. Change without hope equals despair. And that's easy to stew in when the level of civic intelligence is low.

Dr. Parker turns his back on his anxious adopted son, Edgar.
The Theatre on the Square production hits hard on hillbilly stereotypes, a tiresome entertainment target that is refreshed with weirdness in the off-Broadway hit created by Laurence O'Keefe (songs) and Keithe Farley and Brian Flemming (book). That some viable combination of winged mammal and human being is possible was a belief fed by a notorious tabloid feature many years ago. So maybe the real target is our credulity, a flaw that not even hyper-educated urban liberals easily avoid.

TOTS' show, a well-integrated product of the Zack Neiditch-Zach Rosing partnership, will conclude next weekend. Not surprisingly, it was well-honed when I caught up with it Friday night.

At times, the amplification of the singing voices was overwhelming, obscuring passages in the often witty text. Otherwise, there seemed to be nothing amiss about "Bat Boy"; this is hearty entertainment that dances on the brink of grossness and always lands on its feet. In this production, songs smoothly burst out of the dialogue, with a behind-the-scenes band accompanying briskly.

The Taylors gather around the bedside of the bat-bitten Ruthie.
The pathos of being grotesquely different — sentimentalized in "Wicked," proved upon our pulses in "The Elephant Man" — is the message behind the mirth. Always ready to provide justification for intolerance, old-time religion moves into place as the chief threat to the survival of a bat-boy discovered in a cave by dumb-as-rocks members of the Taylor family. (I have to question why the likely Protestants of Hope Falls cross themselves later, but the gesture at least confirms their pious smugness.)

The creature, named Edgar by the family it's delivered to, is nurtured by the village veterinarian and his highly focused wife, played to perfection by Dave Ruark and Mindy Morton. The fault lines in the Parker marriage, explained in a late scene, soon open up a wide path to chaos. The ridiculous Taylors are victims, but others engage our sympathies by the end of the melodrama.

The superficially attractive result of Parker home-schooling, aided by BBC language tapes that make Edgar even more unusual, is undercut by Bat Boy's fondness for warm blood. Food issues are the bane of many of us, so of course we root for Edgar's weaning.

The show's main astonishment emanated from this near-complete transformation, as portrayed with consistent appeal by Justin Klein, progressing from an inarticulate, grunting, flapping, crouched and curled animal to an elaborately polite, multitalented young man who just happens to have fangs and large pointy ears. Costuming and makeup design triumph with Bat Boy, but throughout the production the show's demands for cross-dressing amid multiple roles were well met. The set is a feast for the eyes in its oddly unified, weather-beaten detail, like a Louise Nevelson sculpture designed by a rural scrapyard proprietor.

Reverend Hightower warms up on the way toward healing Edgar.
Daniel Klingler's outsized representation of a caped and white-hatted evangelist made for a mesmerizing start to the second act. Bat Boy's attendance, which the doctor had promised to prevent, tests the revivalist's healing powers and the town's skimpy tolerance, forcing Edgar to plead for acceptance in the show's most moving song, "Let Me Walk Among You."

For staging if not for total vocal security, the woodland ensemble "Children, Children" was another highlight, as Edgar and the Parker daughter Shelley (played with wide-eyed gusto by Devan Mathias) confirm their dangerous mutual love with the approval of a lusty faun and cute hand puppets in well-beyond-Disney canoodling. It's the only milieu of acceptance open to Bat Boy, and it's short-lived. The inevitability of that is what's most believable about this amusing, blood-curdling show.