Sunday, May 28, 2017

'Be a Clown': A peppy Cole Porter song serves to explain (?) recent Republican spin to redefine humor

Inspired by Dahlia LIthwick's column in Slate, titled "Constitutional Crisis in Comedy," I revived "Be a Clown" to comment on the strange attempt to make Republican gaffes and embarrassments acceptable as humor.

Monday, May 22, 2017

2017-18 season at the Palladium includes new series in alliance with University of Indianapolis

The Center for the Performing Arts on Friday announced visiting shows of music and dance across a range of styles. Besides the Pop/Rock, Country, Jazz, Classical, Songbook and Holiday series (versions of which have been a staple of Palladium programming), the Center will present Passport, a new series with title sponsorship from the University of Indianapolis.

The miscellaneous international flavor of Passport is indicated by its launch with the National Acrobats and Martial Artists of China (Oct. 29), going on to encompass the Dublin Irish Dancers (Feb. 3); Celtic Nights, a dance-based celebration of Celtic culture (March 16); popular genre-mixing ensemble Pink Martini (March 17), and classical guitarist Paul Galbraith (March 15).

Violinist Damien Escobar has just released his first all original recording.
Another Passport concert can be contrasted with the finale of the Classical Series:  Damien Escobar, an assertive crossover artist with roots in R&B and hip-hop (Dec. 1), could hardly be a more different kind of violinist than Itzhak Perlman, the superstar classical musician who returns to the Palladium (April 28).

Another violinist, Pinchas Zukerman, will double as a conductor when the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra makes an appearance Jan. 21. Zukerman will be featured as soloist in a performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major,  K. 219.

The other orchestra on the Classical Series is the Staatskapelle Weimar Orchestra of Germany (March 9), which will bring an all-Beethoven program to the Palladium stage under the baton of its general music director, Kirill Karabits. 

Logo of the long-lived Canadian Brass with a holiday touch.
Among the special events announced at the Tarkington Friday afternoon will be a free concert by the U.S. Army Field Band's Concert Band, with  the Soldiers' Chorus (Nov. 15; tickets will be available in late October). Other special events include the New Year's Eve Extravaganza. Announced Friday but not confirmed in time to be included in the Subscriber Guide handed out at the end of the announcement program was an appearance by the comedian
Cathy Griffin.

Among the year-end concerts grouped in the Holiday Series will be the Canadian Brass (Dec. 23), a long-lived brass quintet
that offers a broad range of arrangements for the combination of two trumpets, trombone, horn, and tuba.

The Classical Series will open Nov. 4 with Red Priest, a theatrical early-music ensemble that was featured years ago in the Indianapolis Early Music Festival.  The one concert in that series not yet mentioned will be the China National Symphony Orchestra (Feb. 9, with artistic director and conductor Tan Dun, whose most famous credit in the West is his score for the film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Center artistic director Michael Feinstein.
Other concerts of particular interest to me fall in the Jazz Series: John Beasley's Monk'estra (Jan. 20) should offer refreshing big-band versions of the durable compositions of Thelonious Monk, whose centennial year will have just passed when the ensemble plays the Palladium.  And a justly titled "Summit"  celebration of jazz a cappella will be combined in one program when the Manhattan Transfer meets Take 6 on Feb. 17.

The annual Songbook Academy Finals will cap a week of intensive work by high-school singers working with coaches in the Great American Songbook when the popular workshop-masterclass-competition program goes public again on July 22. The Songbook Celebration Gala (Sept. 30) is another way the Center for the Performing Arts has of pinning down its hold on the golden age of American popular song, including an induction to the Hall of Fame based at the Palladium.  And the guiding force of that part of the Palladium's programming, Michael Feinstein, will again present a concert (April 21), in which he shares the stage with a compatible guest star — this year Betty Buckley.  

Leading of the 2017-18 Pop/Rock series is the previously announced appearance of Sheryl Crow (with Aaron Lee Tasjan) on July 11. Full information (and the opportunity to subscribe) on that series and the Center's other presentations can be obtained at or by calling (317) 843-3800.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra ends 2016-17 season displaying its versatility

Growth in an artistic organization branches out into so many areas, but one of the most important measures is how much artistic range it can take in successfully.
Alexander Kerr, Mozart soloist

Founded in 1984, the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra  continues to demonstrate its adeptness for this kind of growth. Through smart programming capable of engaging audience interest and challenging the musicians at the same time, Matthew Kraemer has shone a light on the path forward for the almost 34-year-old orchestra after just two seasons as the ICO's third music director.

At Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts Saturday evening, the ICO's season finale encompassed two works from the mainstream and a couple of short suites in which modern composers repurposed old material through their personal idioms. The range of sonority and textural complexity alone illustrated the ensemble's growth. The payoff for the audience was rich, not only because of how the program fit together but also by virtue of how well it was brought off.

The rapport with guest soloists is among the measures of an orchestra's maturity. In this concert, that feeling was solid in Alexander Kerr's performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216, under Kraemer's astute guidance. The feeling of phrases talking to one another was captivating in the opening Allegro — a feature just as evident in the accompaniment as in the solo. The Adagio presents one of the most sublime of Mozart's slow melodies; it showcased Kerr's sterling-silver tone and his well-shaped phrasing — qualities on display regularly in Dallas, where he is concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. He is also professor of violin at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music.

The Rondo: Allegro finale featured subtle changes from the soloist at each return of the main theme, including left-hand pizzicato the last time — not a technique Mozart knew, but quite fitting, given the ornamental freedom that pianists apply to repetitions when they play Mozart. The performance was ingratiating and dispatched with flair and affection for the music that stopped well short of sounding too offhand.

Matthew Kraemer again displayed his affinity for good programming.
The other major work provided a stunning conclusion, with the orchestra at its largest of the evening. Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Haydn, op. 56a, which has been called a testing ground for this careful composer's First Symphony, displays the mastery of variation form so familiar in Brahms' music.

There were wonderful balances evident throughout — qualities that had been thoroughly exercised in those short suites (one by Benjamin Britten, the other by Thomas Ades). Winds and strings seemed to revel collegially in the Schrott's fine acoustics, but such equipoise doesn't happen by itself: Kraemer was conscientiously drawing it out of his musicians.

Earlier, Anne Reynolds had been acknowledged upon her retirement after 32 years as principal flute. The lovely "grazioso" variation, the composition's next to last before its noble finale, amounted to a farewell showcase for her warm, natural tone and the personality she has always brought to her work in chamber music and the ICO alike.

Britten's Suite on English Folksongs ("A Time There Was...") opened the concert. Its high opus number indicates the confident personal spin the 20th-century composer applied as an acknowledged master to his homeland's folk music — a more intricate, knotty and irreverent approach than Ralph Vaughan Williams, the pioneer in symphonic treatments of English folk songs. The five short movements projected the individual character of each song, keeping rhythmic and melodic contours clear while applying bracing harmonies and colors to the material. Splendid solo work came from harpist Wendy Muston in "The Bitter Withy" and English-horn player Pamela Ajango in "Lord Melbourne."

Thomas Ades is one of the most respected of Britten's successors among British composers. His music tends to take an eccentric approach to tone color, involving unusual combinations and a kind of pointillistic surface that brings gestural nimbleness to the fore. In "Three Studies from Couperin," Ades presents three 21st-century rethinkings of harpsichord music by the French baroque composer Francois Couperin.

The violas and cellos are divided, and there are such arresting sonorities as the bass flute, mallet percussion, and the unconventional application of muted solo trumpet to the woodwind choir. The piece looks backward in a more self-conscious manner than the Brahms that followed it on this program, but both works are fine examples of how to inherit traditional artistic values and make fresh personal use of them. Getting things right in the Ades, which the ICO appeared to do, helped the expanded ensemble sound brilliant in the Brahms Haydn Variations.


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Janna Hymes' far-flung conducting career brings her back to Indiana as Carmel Symphony Orchestra music director

At home in both the musical and public-relations sense at the Palladium of the Center for the Performing Arts,  Hamilton County's mostly professional symphony orchestra has just reached another milestone in its 42-year history.
Janna Hymes will start leading Carmel's orchestra in the 2017-18 season.

Janna Hymes recently won the right to succeed David Bowden as the Carmel Symphony Orchestra's music director, following his 17-year tenure. Hymes was the last of the finalist candidates to conduct a CSO concert this season (April 8), and a month later accepted the position that will bring her back to Indiana. She was associate conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra for three seasons, ending in 2000.

The CSO considered 130 applications for the post before deciding on three finalists near the end of 2016. “We are absolutely delighted to welcome Maestro Hymes to our organization,” said CSO President and CEO Alan Davis in a written statement. “The caliber of talent and dedication became increasingly evident through the selection process. I can think of no one better to lead the CSO into new heights of artistic excellence.”

Born in New York City, Hymes was exposed to the arts there at an early age: "That was the norm," she told me in an interview Thursday afternoon from Williamsburg, Va., where she conducts the Williamsburg Symphony. Her mother handled public relations for American Ballet Theatre, then became a producer on Broadway. Her father, a professional television lighting designer, has worked on "Late Night With Seth Meyers," "Saturday Night Live," and other popular shows.

One of three children, Hymes began piano studies as a small child, then took up cello in high school. By the time she grew up to become  a Fulbright Scholar in Italy, "I was all consumed with studying scores — three to six hours a day," she recalled. She has toyed with composing, but apart from maintaining the piano to this day, her musical career has concentrated on conducting. She has conducted the Williamsburg orchestra since 2004, and her contract runs through the 2018-19 seasons. She has just finished her ninth season as conductor of the Maine Orchestra, which she founded in 2008.

With degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, Hymes counts her studies with maestros Otto Werner-Mueller, Leonard Bernstein, and Gunther Schuller as deeply influential. Werner-Mueller "showed me how to dissect a score — I still use those tools today," she said. Schuller was "very theoretical." Bernstein, with whom Hymes studied one summer at Tanglewood in western Massachusetts, stands out. "It was more about the music," she explained: "the expression and the emotion of the music, and how do we [conductors] show that to the orchestra."

She recalls with great pleasure the day in class when Bernstein sat nearby without interrupting her as she conducted the Tanglewood orchestra in a Brahms symphony, then afterward "took my face in his hands and said, 'You have what it takes to be a great conductor.'  He couldn't have been nicer to me."

Hymes has the schedule flexibility it takes to move in the direction of fulfilling Bernstein's prophecy now that the younger of her two sons (she is divorced) is in college.  As for the prospects of her new position, Hymes is cautious about pointing in any particular direction for Carmel, since she has just accepted the job. "I'm meeting people and working with the orchestra, finding out where they want to go," she said. "The city totally supports the arts. We can separate ourselves (from other orchestras in the metropolitan area) by unique programming and the venue. Quite a lot of people will support this orchestra. People want to make this orchestra grow," she said, indicating that may mean several things, not necessarily more concerts: "We don't want to oversaturate the community. "

Her concerts in Carmel next season will not reflect her program choices, though the season after that will. But those appearances will give her new Indiana audiences more definitive exposure to the CSO's new maestra. She officially takes up her duties July 1. Her first appearance on the podium as music director will be Oct. 14, when the all-orchestral program will encompass Brahms' Academic Festival Overture, Barber's Adagio for Strings, Grieg's "Peer Gynt" Suite No. 1, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major “Eroica.”

Friday, May 19, 2017

Phoenix Theatre opens 'Hir,' a family drama of rough transitions

It's right up there with "Call me Ishmael" as the most famous opening sentence in fiction: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

The second half of that sentence, with which Tolstoy gets "Anna Karenina" started, could be underlined, highlighted and sprinkled with glitter in the case of Taylor Mac's "Hir," which opened Thursday night in a Phoenix Theatre production.

Paige gets a command performance from burgeoning banjoist Max.
This family of four is uniquely unhappy, it's fair to say, and the two-act drama lays bare its wrenching sorrows, then raises welts from them. The resolution at the end is a paradigm shift, to use one of matriarch Paige's favorite expressions — a jolt that wraps up one phase of the household's existence with no promise of a transition to happiness.

The transition theme is focused on the character of Max, who is well on the way from being Paige and Arnold's daughter to being their younger son. Xie (to use the nominative form of the gender-neutral pronoun; "hir" is the objective form) is a bright teenage advocate of transgender rights, whose home-schooling provides at least as much opportunity to educate hir mother as the other way around. Educating dad is out of the question: Arnold,  disabled by a stroke,  has been forcibly infantilized by Paige in revenge for his brutal control over the family when he was healthy.

First view of Arnold as clown in gown.
Paige has revolted against all forms of dutiful housewifery. The place to which dishonorably discharged son Isaac returns is a shocking mess; his sense that he will reconnect to something he can call home is challenged at every turn by the autocracy Paige has established. She imagines it as a liberation, but it becomes clear this caged bird has used her husband's disability simply to construct a new cage for three damaged people. His military service sabotaged by drug use, Isaac has come back from a tour of duty in one of the most grisly assignments: gathering comrades' body parts from the battlefield for identifying, packaging, and repatriation.

The playwright piles on the roadblocks toward normality somewhat. The "starter" home in which the action takes place was built on a landfill decades ago. The family's failure ever to move can be laid at Arnold's feet, which Paige is never hesitant to do. The playgoer cannot expect to encounter much relief from the family's circumstances, all of which have the implacability of French existentialism about them. For all of the indelibly American identity of the characters, "Hir" is like a 21st-century bad dream of Jean-Paul Sartre. It's often sublimely witty, if you like your wit etched in acid. But the limitations that inevitably accompany being "condemned to freedom" bedevil each of the four in starkly individualized ways.

Mark Routhier directs with a gimlet-eyed attention to detail, and draws from his cast consistent energy in the characters'  personal struggles to resist choking constraints. As Arnold, Brad Griffith struggles to express himself and control his movements in garbled attempts at assertion. The character's manifold humiliations are rendered with such exacting poignancy you can almost forgive him for being the monster he once was. Despite Arnold's disability, that era remains a raw family wound. "We will not rewrite his history with pity," Paige says with chilling finality at one point.

Jen Johansen's vocal and physical virtuosity is pushed to the extreme in this role. Paige seeks to overlay with words her control of the household, against which Max pushes back more subtly than Isaac, who effortfully tries to surmount his PTSD while loosening Paige's grip on family power. On opening night, Johansen seemed to be mastering as much verbiage as Hamlet, the traditional measure of profuse speech in world drama. She was relentless as the aggressively deluded defender of her regime and her desperate identification with the world's wider culture, a devotion that's the source of much of "Hir"'s comedy. The oxymoronic power of the phrase "condemned to freedom" was movingly pronounced in Johansen's performance.

Resisting his control freak mother, Isaac removes dad's clown makeup.
Ben Schuetz's strident, conflicted Isaac— physically pop-eyed and edgy — was a masterpiece of rage and an aggrieved sense of justice. Ariel Laukins presented as Max an oddly, but aptly, grounded interpretation of the battle to make identity in the world match identity at the most deeply felt level. It's no wonder that hir psychological tenderness and astuteness combine to justify the play's being titled after its transgender character.

The production team has created a setting that physically represents the family chaos. You don't have to be a neatness freak to find the clutter a bit maddening before a line is spoken. The sight sets you up for a disturbing experience. The very walls have a glaringly bland, used and abused look; the furnishings are the subject of careless manipulation, control spats, and outbursts of destructive behavior.  The lighting is oppressive, giving the milieu a closed-in feeling.

As much as I want to recommend this production, I have to admit that the intermission was more welcome than intermissions usually are. You won't mind the chance to catch your breath. And by the end, "Hir" is likely to fortify your belief in the survival of families, even when the outcome is doubtful in particular unhappy cases — like this unique one.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, May 18, 2017

In the company of cats, 'Feral Boy' hints at the appeal of cults to the self-isolated

Corbett confronts feral cats Orangey, Calico, and Striper in Catalyst Repertory show, "Feral Boy."
Playwrights don't have to provide footnotes or attribution for facts they put into their characters' mouths, so at "Feral Boy" I began to suspect that the title character's sporadic way of sharing knowledge about feral cats by starting "According to Wikipedia..." was telling us something about him.

Corbett's academically and socially successful college career strikes him as meaningless. Fascinated by a persistent company of feral cats in his neighborhood, he is drawn to learn more. But the creepy obsessiveness of his interest is signaled not by multiply sourced research about undomesticated felines,  but by his resorting to the first place most of us turn to nowadays to scratch the curiosity itch: Wikipedia. This bright boy is no scholar, but an obsessive starved for prepackaged sustenance. Wikipedia becomes Corbett's intellectual energy drink, a Bolt out of the blue funk he finds himself in.

I was at the preview performance Wednesday of Catalyst Repertory's production of Bennett Ayres' new play at Wheeler Arts Community. Pat Mullen delivered the tidbits about cats to the audience with a wide-eyed expressiveness that was fully consonant with Corbett's hypnotic attraction to them and frantic quest to join the wild troupe. Balking at maturity, "Feral Boy" is actually no boy at all, but a 22-year-old newly minted college graduate worried about his future, vaguely in the manner of  Ben Braddock, Dustin Hoffman's break-through role in "The Graduate."

Where Ben endured a friend of the family stage-whispering "Plastics!" to him as a viable post-graduate career choice, Corbett is facing parental expectation that he will accept an internship to prepare him for a career in Internet advertising. Ayres has charted a much darker course for Corbett, however. It is launched through conversation with three of the feral cats, embodied by scrawny cat puppets cunningly designed by Patrick Weigand and vividly voiced, operated and acted by Matt Anderson, Dane Rogers, and Audrey Stonerock.

Projection of cat silhouettes against the back wall supplements the three-dimensional presentation of the three named cats. Striper (Anderson) is the autocratic boss, Orangey (Rogers) his hostile henchman, and Calico (Stonerock) the vulnerable, compliant female. Opaque to the understanding of most human inhabitants of the urban landscape, the feral cats' ferocity and wildness promise to fill a void in Corbett's life.

To occupy that empty space with daring purpose, he is prepared to shed the accustomed company of loutish frat brothers (played by Matt Walls and Donovan Whitney), ignore increasingly impatient phone messages left by his mother (Sarah Holland Froehlke) and landlord (voiced by Jim Tillett), and exploit and sacrifice a new girlfriend, convenience-store clerk Betsy (Patty Blanchfield). Dennis Forkel plays Crane, the feisty owner of a home aquarium who pays painfully for Corbett's maniacal covetousness. Jolene Moffatt has a hilarious cameo as the automated voice mail at a magazine for cat fanciers.

Under the direction of Zach Stonerock, the players are all nimble, vocally rangy,  and attuned to their fingertips to Ayres' nerve-rattling story. The phantasmagoria that animates Corbett's interaction with the cats and with the puzzled humans in his life is cast in powerful, haunting language, which puts forth menacing blooms in the director's and puppet-maker's sound and lighting design.

It remains troubling to consider the progression of Corbett's madness, if that's what it is. I'm not beholden to the analogy with Hoffman's charming Ben Braddock, but it was jarring to find my initial sympathy with Feral Boy's predicament stripped away to its cadaverous remains by the end. Its decline certainly provoked my thoughts about cats, about which I don't have strong feelings, even toward the domesticated kind.

But the idea of meeting serious dissatisfaction with one's life prospects by embracing an outlaw collective with a hierarchical, paramilitary form of organization resonates in the current political atmosphere. I don't want to lose sight of the enduring mystification of cats in our culture, however, which must bear on what Ayres wanted to say with "Feral Boy." Cats have a way of taking over the environments they are accustomed to; there's even a little fun to be noted in this show with their tendency to sweep a paw over any item in their way, knocking it to the floor. They are both commanding and elusive. If cats could paint self-portraits, many of them would choose to display blank canvases.

They play ambivalent roles in common phrases: A cat's-paw is a contemptible dupe, but the cat's meow is something or someone desirable. A catcall used to be an expression of derision, and has lately been repurposed, but not made any more positive, to indicate verbal harassment of women, smugly disguised as crude compliments. And who can explain the cat's pajamas?

Cats can even take over literary settings. Don Marquis' "archy and mehitabel" strikes its rare reader nowadays mostly for the free-verse larkiness of the cat mehitabel ("toujours gai, toujours gai"), which overshadows the dogged cockroach author archy. Nowadays I notice in Carl Sandburg's poem "Fog," which I loved in my early teens, how the cat imagery shoves aside the title subject like a paperweight pawed off a table. Where's the fog? It's all cat. The much more capable poet T.S. Eliot achieves a better metaphorical balance in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," with several beautiful lines beginning "the yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes."

Yet the musical "Cats," derived from "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," is better-known today to the middlebrow public than any other Eliot poetry: Macavity the Mystery Cat sleeps undisturbed on the chest of J. Alfred Prufrock, who by the way is another young man at his wits' end about any prospect he can really believe in and commit to.

Culturally speaking, cats will never be declawed. A catwalk on the wild side, "Feral Boy" provides a striking reminder of that fact. For the moment, it's the cat's whiskers.

[Photo by Gary Nelson]

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

King Lear (President Trump) on the stormy heath: A prophetic parody

Triggered by an oblique reference comparing Donald Trump to  King Lear in yesterday's post, a song parody, I let my mind wander over the famous scene in Shakespeare's play, where the distracted, betrayed king, accompanied by his Fool, wanders  onto the lonely heath, convulsed by a thunderstorm. This is a drastic revision of Act III, Scene 2. As Karl Marx truly said, what begins as tragedy ends as farce.

The heath, stormy. Enter King (Donald Trump) and his Fool (Sean Spicer).

Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
See, I can handle this. It's so tremendous!
And so I make America great again
By being here, by my executive orders,
Which I sign and then display to cameras.
I smite flat the thick rotundity
Of the law, of presidential norms I defy.

Oh, nuncle, this is no place for a winner like you. No crowds to cheer you, to buoy you up and shout, to expand by many thousands in retrospect. Here's a night pities neither wise men nor fools. The dishonest media wouldn't be caught dead in it, though we can only wish.

I tax you not, elements, with unkindness.
Indeed, I have for long opposed most taxes
And paid as little as I could. You owe
Me nothing, clear? So go ahead. I'll take
What you have to dish out. It's not so bad
As what the Democrats and media have done.

I told them all last week: The president means to say just what he's already said. Full stop.

      The codpiece justifies
The notions of the head.
      All questions of small size
Are better left unsaid.
     What he will do in time
Is just what he will do;
      The only sense is rhyme
And that's a mystery too.

Let Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy make mouths in a glass.

Enter STEVE BANNON, disguised as JERRY FALWELL Jr.

Alas, sir, are you here? This scary night
Resembles the Apocalypse to come,
May be the real thing, that end-times thing:
My dad predicted this if God's eternal reign
Were not prepared by great American rulers,
If white makes right were compromised
By dread mongrelization's triumph.

Am I the last trump, then, of prophecy?
Now will the gods, who shun the CGI
Effects of Hollywood, which scorns me,
Find out their enemies and mine?
Believe me, I'm a man more sinned against
Than sinning!

                        Sir, no doubt you got that right.
So keep me close. Beware the son-in-law
And let the daughter mind her product line.
You are white Christians' friend, we have your back.
Hard by here is a hovel (not your brand).

No matter there. I'm flexible and tough.
So come, your hovel. I pray it does not leak.
I've had so much of leaking lately, friend,
My wits begin to turn. But where's my fool?

Here, nuncle. Now I feel a song coming on, as cryptic as my daily briefings.

     He that had but little wit
When to high office he ascended
     Must grow new trouble bit by bit
Till both the storm and he are ended.

Exeunt omnes.