Thursday, November 23, 2017

Delfeayo Marsalis has a pal (or two) in Kalamazoo

Delfeayo Marsalis is the third-best-known Marsalis brother, and that seems a
Paisley on steroids: Sharp dresser Delfeayo Marsalis
distinction worth having. As he and his first-rate siblings settle comfortably into middle age, they still benefit from the early tutelage they received from their father, Ellis, who has frequently joined them onstage and for recordings.

In "Kalamazoo," (Troubadour Jass Records), we get to hear what happened when trombonist-bandleader, now 52, took his quartet to Western Michigan University for a concert in April 2015. Besides his dad on piano, he brought along bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Ralph Peterson. In the course of the concert, Marsalis has a couple of WMU jazz students sit in on an original blues, "Blue Kalamazoo" — vocalist Christian Diaz and drummer Madison George. The comfort level is high.

It's an ingratiating set, full of well-known pieces, except for that localized blues and Delf's "The Secret Love Affair," a midtempo work to a Latin pulse that leaves a pastel impression. The standards include one that's standard only in the ears of the nation, not on the jazz bandstand: the "Sesame Street" theme.

For that, Marsalis mutes his trombone and growls in his solo. Elsewhere, he's featured on open horn, where he is equally clever. For the children's TV show theme, Peterson supplements his attack by striking tiny cymbals, and the quartet frolics along, right through the whimsical coda. 

Ellis quotes "It Ain't Necessarily So," and seems to have had little restraint in indulging the habit that evening. The peak comes during his solo on "It Don't Mean a Thing," when we hear bits of "Joshua Fit De Battle," "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby," "Blue Skies" and "Swinging on a Star." I like the senior Marsalis' straightforward, old-fashioned style, but the quote machine overheats now and then.

The pianist gets a nice feature on "If I Were a Bell" as his son sits out. Of course, in this case, starting out by evoking the Westminster chimes is pertinent. The track is notable as well for a splendid bowed Veal solo, accompanied by the bassist's vocal at the unison in the manner of  Slam Stewart. 

Peterson does imaginative work throughout. He lends extra perkiness to a slow, nearly 10-minute version of "Tin Roof Blues." That's not to say the performance would otherwise have been boring. The rapport between Ellis and Delfeayo is particularly fine here. The trombonist (whose first name is accented on the second syllable on his website, on the first by his publicist) treats himself to a couple of quotes ("Willow Weep for Me," and "Mona Lisa") in an exemplary solo. Ellis juxtaposes both leaping and smoothly melodic phrases during his turn in the spotlight.

Peterson does some fine work on brushes behind Ellis on "My Funny Valentine" and "Autumn Leaves." Veal's exchanges with Peterson smartly set up a good drum solo in the latter number. 

The set ends with loving treatment of a song that will probably always carry a deep meaning for the stellar Crescent City family: "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?"  

'Deed they do.


Monday, November 20, 2017

Sean Chen explores some musical byways in solo recital for APA at Indiana Landmarks Center

An out-of-the-way first half set the stage for more familiar repertoire by Maurice Ravel in the second half of Sean
Sean Chen brings the little-known to light.
Chen's recital Sunday afternoon at Indiana Landmarks Center.

The popular 2013 winner of the American Pianists Association's classical competition began with little-known, substantial works by two unconventional, early 20th-century composers: Nikolai Medtner of Russia and Federico Mompou of Spain.

Catalonia has been much in the news lately with an independence movement that has roiled Spanish politics. Mompou was a Catalan who seemed independent of everyone, countrymen or not. An entry in the 1954 edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians makes him seem like a mystical hermit out of J.R.R. Tolkien. 

There may not be any account of a composer in that venerable reference set more bizarre, in which Mompou's music unleashes a host of literary references from the writer, including Robert Browning, Sir Thomas Browne, Thornton Wilder, and Enoch Soames. The last-named author, an imaginary poet created by Max Beerbohm, is quoted favorably to shed light on Mompou as if Soames really existed. And I'm still trying to wrap my head around the meaning of this citation: "A French critic once said that some of [Mompou's] music could be dictated in words without making use of any conventional music-writing method." That may be a kind of reverse Zen koan. Or maybe Method acting applied to musical composition.

This fragrant essay, which carries a whiff of parody about it, applies mostly to Mompou's miniatures. Chen offered an extended work, Variations on a Theme of Chopin, to open the recital. Harder to follow than many sets of variations rooted in 19th-century style, the variations depart capriciously from the theme, the simple, forthright Prelude in A major, op. 28, no. 7. Everything converges in a wild blend of majesty and headlong energy in the 12th variation, a "galope" followed by an epilogue. There a reverant seal is placed upon the theme, which will never be the same for me after this performance.

The Classical Fellowship winner of four years ago then turned his focus to the individualistic but less eccentric Medtner. Chen typically displays the power and accuracy of his contemporaries, but there's a special quality — a personal flair — that lifts his performances above today's steely-fingered norm. That came out in Medtner's Sonata-Ballade, op. 27. The potential clash of song and structure in the first movement was finessed in a well-ordered performance with thoughtful layering of the material. The second movement is all tension and anticipation, leading to a stormy fugue in the finale. Chen's hypnotizing interpretation of the piece made it seem well worth encountering more often.

The picturesqueness of Ravel's "Miroirs" is classically conceived, despite the highly colored treatment of such subjects as "a boat on the ocean," "moths," and "sad birds." By that I mean that the titles do not invite us to find programmatic content in every measure. Mompou might inspire literary fantasies, but Ravel in this set of charmers doesn't invite us to conjure up any more images than those suggested by the five titles. 

The individual pieces essentially show what the piano can do as put through a Ravel filter, with the subjects in the titles suggestive, but not explicitly detailed.  Changes of meter, precise pedaling indications, and some drawn-out dynamic shifts over rapid figuration carry the message in other than visual terms.

For example, after Chen caught the rhythmic sparkle and dash of "Alborada del gracioso," the most intensely choreographic piece in "Miroirs," the attention to resonance and the feeling of music coming through at various distances put the listener in a vastly different world for "La vallee des cloches," the final piece. 

Chen turned to the purely abstract Ravel to end the program: the Toccata from "Le Tombeau de Couperin." Ravel's chaste manner of using accents and the subtle variations in dynamics were scrupulously represented in Chen's fleet performance, mounting inevitably to the triple forte final measures. Justifiably called back for an encore, the recitalist offered an effective contrast — his introspective adaptation of the "Adagio ma non tanto" movement of Bach's third violin-keyboard sonata.

A new U.S. senator?: Shelter from the storm is the offer Alabama seems to have extended to Roy Moore

Come In, Roy Moore, We’ll Give You Shelter from the Storm

‘Twas in another lifetime, while building his career
He got no satisfaction without a nymphet near.
It only came out later he was running true to form.
Come in, Roy Moore, we’ll give you
       shelter from the storm.

So many teenage girls he tended to appall
They banned this creepy lawyer from the Gadsden shopping mall.
Do you think he was a predator? Well, you’re getting warm!
But ’Bama voters want to give him
      shelter from the storm.

He grew his base when he defied two orders from the court
Not to make the halls of justice a Ten Commandments fort.
There’s nothing that can stop him, no matter how he’s warned.
So Alabama’s poised to give him
       shelter from the storm.

Of politician sex offenders, he’s offended most:
His victims’ testimony was printed in the Post,
But that’s just propaganda, made up, it don’t inform,
Us Alabama voters offer him
       shelter from the storm.

Defenders thump their Bibles and search it for a text
To justify behavior that has so many vexed;
They cite Joseph and Mary, to whom was Jesus born;
Come in, they say, Roy Moore, and take
      shelter from the storm.

The Alabama governor amplifies the shout
To put a child molester in, keep the Democrat out:
The public good’s dispensable, we have a brand-new norm:
Come in, Judge Moore, we’ll give you
      shelter from the storm.

Across the land, the people wake, call monsters to atone;
When you hurt women, girls, or boys, you must stand alone:
But here in Dixie, we close ranks behind him, we’re not torn!
Come in, Judge Moore, our votes will give you
      shelter from the storm.

Be loyal to the creep you love’s the new GOP tenet
And come December 12th, they’ll send Roy Moore to the Senate:
Endorse the Christian predator, don’t mind the nation’s scorn:
The judge won’t budge if he is given
      shelter from the storm.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Indianapolis Opera trains its renewed bright lights upon a repertory staple, Verdi's 'La Traviata'

The production of "La Traviata" that local opera fans are seeing this weekend at the Tarkington in Carmel reflects the collaborative mood of Indianapolis Opera's new management. It got some seasoning in Evansville first, just over a week ago,  with orchestra and chorus members from that city. Today it concludes a three-day stand at the Center for the Performing Arts.
Violetta (Emily Birsan) gives vent to her joie de vivre at a Paris party.

The production team stayed intact, headed by Jon Truitt as stage director, Alfred Savia as conductor. The Evansville conductor, familiar to Indianapolis audiences through his association dating from the 1990s with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, wanted to revive opera in Evansville, where he's led the Evansville Philharmonic for decades.

It looks as if there will be a continuing link between opera there and opera here every other year, according to IO's general director, David Craig Starkey. Truitt, who had directed opera at the University of Evansville and now teaches at Ball State University, felt the same about boosting opera in Indiana's southernmost big city. His friendship with Starkey through staging operas in Asheville, N.C., is now bearing fruit here.

As seen Saturday night, "La Traviata" has its essentials intact. The production sits well in the intimate space of the Tarkington. Much of its success came from the scrupulous pacing of the music under Savia's baton, using adept local musicians. I wish the preludes to the first and third acts could have proceeded without the formal choreography that accompanied them; it would have settled the audience into the pathos of the story without the implication that abstract dance movement for three couples adds something pertinent.

There are some cuts to bring each performance within a three-hour limit, as well as to concentrate the story on the three-way relationship among the initially shy but increasingly ardent Alfredo, the stylish but consumptive courtesan Violetta whom he loves, and Alfredo's provincial father, Giorgio Germont. Although understandable from a cost and staging standpoint, the elimination of the costumed gypsy dancers and imitation bullfighters at the second-act party was regrettable.

Something of the extravagant frivolity of the Parisian beau monde was thus not impressed upon the audience — a milieu in contrast with the tension between the financially stressed young lovers and the resistance to their romance by Alfredo's dad. A supertitle reference to "the maskers" whose appearance party hostess Flora anticipates remains as a ghostly reminder of the omission. The ensemble singing, prepared by longtime IO chorus director John Schmid, is good enough to offer partial compensation for the trimmed revelry. In Act 1, the chorus also did much to establish Violetta's tinselly world and her illness-dogged place in it.

Violetta and Alfredo start feeling mutual attraction in Indianapolis Opera's "Traviata."
The stage picture is especially weak in the second-act party scene as well, since the backdrop — including a gnarled tree — is identical to the scene before it, set in the expensive country estate that the lovers occupy to test and enjoy their fraught affair. That's where their love is threatened on a couple of accounts: its debilitating costliness and family opposition to the liaison between the passionate, profligate scion and "the fallen woman" (one of a few reasonably accurate translations of the opera's title). The roiling clouds behind the action don't quite make the estate look like bucolic bliss, but with some shifting for the last act, they can be taken as an abstract symbol of Violetta's inevitable fate: succumbing to tuberculosis in Paris at the very moment of reconciliation with the junior and senior Germonts.

Emily Birsan put a glorious stamp upon all aspects of Violetta — the first act's  high-spirited coquette with a soul, the self-sacrificial heroine of Act 2, and the fading flower showing a few bursts of vivid color of Act 3. If some of her high notes overshot the mark in "Sempre libera," for the most part her coloratura remained brilliant and well-honed. Her Violetta projected reciprocal interest in Alfredo despite herself; the conflict within the character was managed well. I liked the touch of her twirling a camellia as she contemplated continuing her freedom untrammeled by true love, then dropping the flower upon hearing Alfredo's offstage declaration of love.

She was touching in responding to the initially fierce Germont in Act 2, and put much apt variation in her vocal production to register the searing cost of the sacrifice the protective old man is demanding of her. "Dite alla giovene," Violetta's plea to have what she is doing for the Germont family known to them, wrenched the heart as it should. The ebb and flow of Violetta's energy, both vocal and physical, was exquisitely managed in the finale.

Gregory Turay's Alfredo was appropriately diffident about launching the drinking song he is asked to supply in the first act. It was one of the few indications of the hero's shyness, and it was well worth establishing, because his long-nurtured infatuation for Violetta soon sweeps everything else away as the fires of love are stoked. Turay colored and softened his capable tenor marvelously in duets with the soprano, but more variation of timbre and volume elsewhere would have been welcome. White-hot passion, ironically enough, doesn't have to be monochromatic to be felt as such.

As Germont, Christopher Burchett came across as what's been called "the heavy father" type as he meets Violetta for the first time in Act 2. The characterization softened as the conversation went along, and his somewhat reedy baritone became more attractive. His plea to Alfredo later in the act, "Di provenza il mar," had the flavor of both Germont's paternal provincialism and his heartfelt need to console his son for the breakup the old man has engineered. Thus his near-sobbing delivery of the second strophe didn't seem out of place.

Of the other roles, I was struck by the sincerity and compassionate ring that Oliver Worthington gave to Doctor Grenvil and soprano Shannon Paige Christie to Annina, faithfully attending the dying Violetta and helping to establish, before the repentant Germonts rush in, that the admirable courtesan is nowhere near as friendless as she has supposed. Her final cry of "Joy!" lifts up all Violetta's awareness of her protracted suffering to a transcendent plane and, as performed Saturday night, sent out the indelible message that joy in life is all the more precious for its evanescence.

[Photos by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]

Saturday, November 18, 2017

A plethora of Prokofiev: ISO opens weekend devoted to the Russian composer's piano concertos

Precocious and independent-minded, Sergei Prokofiev saw his mission as a composer from the keyboard outward. This perspective makes his piano concertos especially revealing of his personality. A restive student who took into adulthood a canny instinct for putting his best foot forward, he produced music that seems to admit no obstacles. In fact, he had to trim his sails upon his return to Stalinist Russia, but he proved able to do that too, despite feeling the regime's hot breath on his neck.

Of the five piano concertos he wrote, the three presented Friday night by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra span 20 years on either side of the Revolution whose centenary is being observed this year. Crowning the set was No. 3 in C major, contemporaneous with the Bolshevik crucible out of which a new tyranny emerged from the old. Typically, the work, cobbled together between 1917 and 1921, goes its own glorious way without allusion to the great national struggle.

Local favorite Garrick Ohlsson returns for ISO's Prokofiev weekend.
As soloist for this durable masterpiece, the ISO could hardly have done better than Garrick Ohlsson. Now something of an elder statesman, Ohlsson has been in the forefront of American concert pianists since he won the Chopin International Competition in Warsaw in 1970. I first heard him the following year, playing an unusual recital in Ann Arbor that showed his adeptness in Baroque music as well as in early modern French and Spanish pieces.

His interpretation of the Prokofiev Third, smoothly coordinated with music director Krzysztof Urbanski's control of the orchestra, was quite well-knit. The piece itself is more consistently inspired than the other two concertos (Nos. 1 and 4)  presented Friday evening in Hilbert Circle Theatre. Ohlsson was scrupulously attuned to what was going on, or was about to happen, in the orchestra. Introducing the second theme of the first movement, for example, he used a very dry touch that almost seemed to promise: "You are about to hear castanets playing the same rhythm." And then you did. Furthermore, the way Ohlsson moved into the rapid passagework that climaxes the first movement had an uncommon blend of  grace and drive.

The variations of the second movement elaborated upon the memorable theme patiently, with a delicate rubato feeling between the piano and the accompaniment. The finale was rhythmically acute from all forces and featured some fine string tone in the lovely second theme. Its sudden interruption by the piano with "a quietly grotesque passage" — "locus classicus of Prokofiev's habit of 'stepping on the throat of his own song'" — here did not seem so drastic or bizarre as Alan Frank's description implies. Ohlsson treated its surprising quality tenderly, as if Prokofiev were simply stepping back from his wonderful melody to take stock before resuming the argument that brings the concerto to a spectacular conclusion.

Called back for an encore, Ohlsson apologized for not being able to offer anything else by Prokofiev except a piece that lasts 35 minutes (I wonder what that would be?), so he turned to Chopin: As he did four years ago in an ISO appearance, he offered an idiosyncratic interpretation of the Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2.  He filled the piece with many marvels, not all of which would be welcome to encounter many more times. It was certainly no cookie-cutter version, and he deserves credit for that.

Alon Goldstein presented the best possible case for two Prokofiev concertos
The concert's first half featured Alon Goldstein as soloist, starting with Concerto No 1 in D-flat major, op. 10.  Goldstein played like a Prokofiev specialist, which is not to say he might not be as satisfactory in other music. It's just that he seemed fully imbued with the Prokofiev spirit both here and in the Concerto No. 4 in B major, a work for the left hand alone that never found favor with the pianist who commissioned it, Paul Wittgenstein.

I love the succinctness with which Grove's Dictionary introduces its Prokofiev entry: "He established himself as a composer of heavily ironic, often wilful and unconventional music in the last years of tsarist Russia." Those qualities are amply evident in the 1912 D-flat major concerto. There is ample flair in the solo part, indicative of the composer's breezy self-confidence as a performer. The second movement opens with a gossamer clarinet solo and other nice touches, but turns into something too insistent, with a heavy climax. The finale includes a perky march, which might fit the description "heavily ironic."
Anna Vinnitskaya is the ISO's third featured piano soloist this weekend.

Yet Prokofiev's mood in the third-movement march strikes me as largely blithe and cheeky, typical of what the smartest kid in the class might turn out to show he could toss off a march as a way to set up a climax. His younger contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich, more under the thumb of the Soviet regime, indulged in more savage irony in his marches.

The left-hand concerto, with Prokofiev well-established internationally by 1931, seems more gratuitously exhibitionistic. Played with commendable flair and commitment by Goldstein, the performance survived rather loose coordination early in the first movement. Once it jelled, there was plenty of opportunity to note that the work shows Prokofiev as being more self-involved in his cleverness than usual: the passage in the piano's bass register underlined by the bass drum, for example. 

The lyricism of the second movement became pretty heavy. When he was less inspired, Prokofiev brought forth a lyrical manner that seems labored even when it is gentle. The third and fourth movements amounted to a fillip of virtuosity and panache in a work perhaps best appreciated by committed Prokofiev fans. 

The rest of this weekend's concerts bring back Goldstein for the Fourth,  Ohlsson for the Third and Fifth, and introduce Anna Vinnitskaya in two performances of the Second. Today's concert will be launched with Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony. Exact schedules can be found on the symphony's website.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Brahms showcase: Two principals occupy the spotlight successfully in this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts

Cellist Austin Huntington: Makes debut as ISO member-soloist.
Featured soloists drawn from the orchestra usually don't have to do double duty. But when two principals of string sections are spotlighted in the same concerto, it's no wonder their services as section leaders are too valuable to do without, as is customary when they are featured soloists.

So it was in the first of this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts on Thursday morning, when concertmaster Zach De Pue and principal cellist Austin Huntington were on the Hilbert Circle Theatre stage throughout the Coffee Concert.

They led their respective sections in Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 101 in D major ("The Clock"), then took up soloist positions to conductor Krzysztof Urbanski's left for Johannes Brahms' Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra. (For the remaining concerts keyed to the formidable Brahms "Double," the same composer's Variations on a Theme by Haydn will complete the program.)
ISO audiences have often heard Zach De Pue solo.

Huntington and De Pue had their work cut out for them in the concerto, a unique composition in the Romantic era. Once the solo concerto took root in the first half of the 19th century, bringing more than one soloist to the fore became rare.

Fortunately, the Brahms Double is both characteristic of the complex expressive nature of its composer and so well laid out that the soloists get to explore all sorts of interaction clearly.  There's considerable exchange of lyrical passages, some statement and counter-statement, and much wonderful digging in together, especially in the last movement.

The partnership Thursday was solid, much more than congenial. It seemed to reach beyond amity to register the grandest statement possible from two young masters — both of whom were hired for their positions while in their 20s (Huntington just barely out of his teens). The cello part, somewhat dominant overall, was always in good hands, from the opening recitative-like solo on.

Urbanski managed the accompaniment handsomely. The first tutti revealed some imprecision in the violins, but the material comes back frequently, and gradually it attained more unanimity Thursday. The wind colors in the second movement were bright yet unobtrusive. This movement also made evident the advantage of positioning the double basses on a higher platform along the back than I remember ever seeing them on. 

The finale may be Brahms' most imaginative use of the rondo form. The Gypsy vigor of the main theme is nicely set off against a variety of episodes, including some passages that, in this performance, helped lend suspense and heighten anticipation of the theme's return. More projection from the solo violin, perhaps a matter of acoustical variation around the hall, was the only thing lacking, especially toward the finale's climax, in a top-drawer exhibition of the strength the ISO enjoys in its first-chair first violins and cellos.

Urbanski opened the concert with one of Joseph Haydn's magisterial "London" symphonies. "The Clock," so named from the steady tick-tock of its Andante, was especially fetching in that movement. The episode in the minor made a startling entrance, creating an effective contrast with the measured propriety of the main theme. A measure of "grand pause" here was spoiled in its drolly dramatic effect by premature applause. Clapping between movements can be tolerated, but when the conductor is beating through just one measure where no one plays, and still applause intrudes, suspicions are stirred. 

The expansive minuet-and-trio movement was vigorously accented and retained its hold on the attention, though I didn't pick up on all the comical details that program host Doug Dillon told the audience to listen for. The controlled "driftiness" of the trio was slightly amusing, but I was mainly focused on the excellence of assistant principal flutist Rebecca Price Arrensen, sitting first chair at this concert.

The smooth-running finale brought out the best from the violins, who characterized its vigor about as well as they had in a much different atmosphere when leading the orchestra in the gently mysterious introduction to the first movement. In one of the episodes, the stirring Sturm und Drang recollection of an earlier Haydn period was most captivating, and the complex treatment of the main theme received scintillating treatment here. It was especially marvelous to notice Huntington's and De Pue's full-bore commitment to this busy music right before they were called upon to make glorious work of the Brahms Double.