Saturday, October 25, 2014

Dance Kaleidoscope: Extending the legacy of a major dance interpretation of 'Carmina Burana'

The "brand" of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" is unlike anything else in 20th-century classical music: People go wild over it, its repertoire position is almost as secure among chorus-orchestra pieces as Handel's "Messiah," and its opening chorus, "O Fortuna," has been pressed into service to sell things.

What David Hochoy has done with it benefits from representing the spirit of the piece without following its context except through an imagery prism of his own devising. There are no monk's robes to suggest to us the Goliard poets who accessed their secular side through the poetry Orff drew from manuscripts discovered at the monastery of Benediktbeuern in southern Germany.

Dance Kaleidoscope represents formidable Fortune in "Carmina Burana"
In the current revival by Dance Kaleidoscope at Indiana Repertory Theatre, I enjoyed the removal from anything devoted to the Middle Ages in central Europe. There is instead a timeless setting of pagan life that looks both pre-Christian and what might be called extra-Christian, as if from a parallel universe where nature and fleshly pleasures are celebrated against the indifferent backdrop of omnipotent Fate. There is no transcendent salvation awaiting these souls, whatever the import of the students' training and mission may have been.

With a panoply of striking costumes by Barry Doss and Laura E. Glover's lighting seemingly poised between artificial and natural worlds,  Hochoy has drawn on the emotional resonance of the text more than its literal meaning. In doing so, he has interpreted the pulse and accents of  Orff's score in exhaustive (and for the dancers, probably exhausting) detail. Its flowing, lyrical portions bring forth billowing, curving postures and movements enhanced by the costuming.

"O Fortuna," for instance, at first presents the severity of the choral complaint against the hostility of Fortune to human hopes. Dancers look like ancient warriors, helmeted and bristling with menace.  The second part of the paean to Fortune carries a softened mood, with a central figure surrounded by and then lifted with large white cloths, as if the mystery of Fortune's capriciousness were being raised in devout hope.

The celebration of spring brings fun into the picture, with gravity-defying buoyancy and zest.  The frolicking has an innocence, even naivete, that works to free the company from the imponderable, often cruel whims of Fortune,  temporarily set aside. The second act is conceived as a nocturnal contrast to the daytime polarities of fate and freedom — two sides of the natural order of things.

It is gratifying that a new kind of severity comes into the costuming in its tavern scene, rather than a series of inebriated cliches. Before the full revelry ensues, there is an effective take on the original song by a roasting swan that plays off the music's fearful intensity: dancers with poles torment an isolated female dancer with precision as the tenor on the recording wails away.

Male-dominated in the original, the tavern section otherwise brings men and women alike under the spell of less innocent frolicking. Thank goodness there's not the slightest bit of mickey-mousing the toasts to binge drinking in the original. For Orff's chorus celebrating universal drunkenness, Hochoy suggests rather the illusion of power and freedom that getting drunk deceptively provides revelers.

The choreography carries hints of the kind of depravity most familiar in Western art in Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights," but Hochoy holds on to his parallel course of bending the musical energies Orff unleashes to his own purposes. As the work threads its way through eroticism and into a pagan wedding and salute to Venus, the dancing becomes increasingly ennobled and transcendent. The flowing robes and silvery halos suit the celebration that emerges, and (partly because the music allows for no pause), the same costuming fits a heightened recapitulation of "O Fortuna."  Visually and choreographically, this repetition of the opening suggests a reconciliation between submission to Fate's ultimate control and the value of vulnerable human alliances.

The impressive tableaux and the variety and challenges inherent in the ensemble dancing make Dance Kaleidoscope's "Carmina Burana" worthy of the periodic revival it enjoys in the schedule. It's also, as I said at the beginning, an eminently marketable title to which Hochoy and his dancers do justice.

A revival of a solo showcase for Liberty Harris, DK's most senior member, marked her retirement from dancing with the troupe after 15 years. A Lilly Endowment grant will allow her to continue with DK,  helping with rehearsals and educational outreach.
Apart from a company role in "Carmina Burana," this weekend's performances of 'Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" constitute veteran DK veteran Liberty Harris' performing farewell.

"Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" is a solo piece after the song of the same title by Cole Porter, sung in the version Hochoy has set by Annie Lennox. On Friday, Harris responded as expected with her personal blend of elegance and pathos. The yearning in the song was carried out in every long-limbed gesture, and in extended and contracted postures, with her patented elegance.

But the elegance never verged into being too cool for the song's (and its choreography's) own good. There has always a lot of personal investment in Harris' dancing, joined to a refined technique, that made her 15 years with Dance Kaleidoscope productive of many great memories.

The first half also included a nicely put together ballet by Victoria Lyras for her best dancers at the Indiana School of Ballet. "Rondo Capriccioso" takes its title from the Saint-Saens violin-orchestra showpiece that provides the music for a smooth, energetically performed original work receiving its world premiere this weekend.

In another guest spot,  there was a remarkable contemporary-dance display of relationship patterns in the difficult duet "Minor Bodies," choreographed by Elizabeth Shea of Bloomington. It's performed here this weekend by two of her company's dancers, Rachel Newbrough and Ryan Galloway, who fashioned an intense blend of wariness, magnetism and trust out of its manifold lifts, falls, spins, turns, prods and nuzzles.


Friday, October 24, 2014

'Old Jews Telling Jokes': Phoenix Theatre gets them for you wholesale

Rich Komenich (from left), Sara Riemen, Daniel Scharbrough, Adrienne Reiswerg, Eric J. Olson.
One thing is indisputable: the Phoenix Theatre's new production in its comedy-oriented season has the most marketable truth-in-labeling title of a local show since Theatre on the Square's "Naked Boys Singing" of two seasons back.

"Old Jews Telling Jokes" — OK, maybe the first two words don't apply 100 percent to the five-person cast —  opened Thursday night in the cabaret-style Basile Theatre. The underground setting is perfect for belly laughs to rock the foundations of the conclusively deconsecrated church the Phoenix calls home.

Since the Borscht Belt and vaudeville heritage went national in television's golden age, there have been  two iconic figures in American Jewish humor: George Jessel and Milton Berle.

Not the most talented of a distinguished lot, Jessel and Berle each stood for two characteristics that established their genre as folklore.  Jessel represented the ancient provenance of so many jokes — his name became a variety-show laugh line for their longevity. Berle, dubbed "Mr. Television" in the early '50s, was also famous for "stealing" jokes, a practice so general that Berle's thievery could readily be exaggerated and worn as a badge of honor. What Jack Benny was to stinginess, Berle was to humor larceny.

I'm guessing the gags that writers Daniel Okrent and Peter Gethers pack in like a rush-hour subway car wear both characteristics proudly. Some of them might be new, I'll concede. The old wedding-gift formula probably applies: They are old, new, borrowed and — most certainly — blue.

The latter category may put off a few potential visitors to "Old Jews Telling Jokes," directed fluidly and imaginatively by Bryan Fonseca. But anyone who's been to a comedy club recently will simply get here a better appreciation of where so much raunchy humor comes from and why a willingness to administer shocks is the lifeblood of laughter.

"Old Jews Telling Jokes" isn't f-bomb-dependent humor, on the whole, though what was once called unprintable comes in handy,  as when a curious kid played by Sara Riemen follows up the classic answer to "where do babies come from?'" with a precocious follow-up question all her own.

Each cast member is given a monologue under a character name to help anchor the yuks to reality. These are nostalgic, tender moments linked to the experience of humor in Jewish families and, by extension, all families with some urban American experience.

And the show contains some brilliant solo turns among a vast collection of two- and three-person dialogues and narratives. One emblazoned in my memory on opening night Thursday was introduced as a famous song no Jew should ever sing: Daniel Scharbrough entered the stage in Orthodox garb, including side curls and a black hat, to kvetch his way through "Old Man River," turning the Show Boat showcase for a black bass-baritone into a monologue on life's unfairness. This would have been too edgy for national broadcast, but the send-up certainly draws on the hallowed tradition of TV's Sid Caesar. Scharbrough displayed a gift for conveying sour disgust reminiscent of that genius comedian.

The production is dotted with a few original songs, one of them a sing-along with lyrics projected so that everyone can sing about spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica, with similar rhyming destinations for other Jewish holidays. Eric J. Olson introduced the number with infectious razzmatazz.

The cast was blessedly free of caricatured Lower East Side speech patterns, but Adrienne Reiswerg dependably had the pacing and inflection of Jewish talk subtly applied to brief portrayals of different sorts of Jewish women, chiefly wives and mothers. These women, with younger versions capably given voice and embodied by Riemen, tend not to cut their men much slack on the domestic front.

The men's arena for exercising their competitive wiles and instincts is the outside world. They learn young: Scharbrough's schoolboy gets a lollipop from a gentile teacher for saying "Jesus Christ" in answer to her question asking pupils to name the greatest man ever.  "I know and you know the answer is Moses," he explains later to his classmates, "but business is business."

Male competitiveness extends to desert-island scenarios and bedroom activity. It's a more important fantasy for a Jewish castaway to brag to an imaginary rival about a beautiful celebrity's being washed up onshore than to enjoy the pleasure she offers first-hand. Another joke has a husband ready to ignore being an eyewitness to his wife's adultery with a triumphant "THAT's how you wave a towel" directed at the man who's just cuckolded him. (The set-up to this line doesn't permit easy explanation.)

Rich Komenich, the cast's fifth member, seemed most at home in his monologue and when he could work variations on a hypochondriac or a genuinely ill man facing such a rejection of his last wishes as not getting a piece of freshly baked date cake because his wife is saving it for the shiva.  From his previous work with Phoenix, it's clear Komenich is best in long-form characterizations, where he can blaze an arc like nobody's business. In this show's premiere,  he seemed ill-at-ease in the songs and occasionally in the short jokes.

For all its unalloyed fun, "Old Jews Telling Jokes" recalls not only the anxiety of everyday life but also the anxiety of the comics who struggled and sometimes succeeded at making people laugh. I remember being at a Milton Berle show when he started telling a joke about a man going to a proctologist.  Clearly the word "proctologist" itself was intended as a laugh line, but the audience response was muted. Berle looked down at an apparently unsmiling man in the front row and said sneeringly: "Ask your wife what that is — she'll explain it to you."

Berle's humor was of a type that worked incredibly hard, that teased the audience unmercifully, goading it into laughter when not enough of it was coming up spontaneously. No wonder he and his colleagues had to steal jokes, and no wonder it was necessary to joke about stealing jokes. Everything was on the table.

Barbs aimed by comedians at themselves also had to be redirected outward. That's why the genre never ran out of material. Style, bravura, timing, and persistence could put anything across — old, new, borrowed, and blue. It had its folkloric origins and complex Jewish-American experience to draw upon. Being funny had to be aspirational when it missed being actual, and the line had to be blurred.

That's the edgy, uproarious world of "Old Jews Telling Jokes."


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Commemorating the First World War: A multi-dimensional centennial concert by Ronen Chamber Ensemble

Co-artistic directors Gregory Martin, David Bellman, Ingrid Fischer-Bellman
Overshadowed by the even greater level of carnage and atrocity of World War II, the "Great War" — which began a century ago this year — probably defined the modern era in Western Civilization more crucially than the cataclysm that followed a generation later.

The 1914-18 conflict certainly disrupted or destroyed millions of lives, upset a long-lasting sense of security and values, and set the arts on several new courses — redefining, and sometimes casting aside, definitions of "masterpiece."

For "In Memoriam: The Great War," the Ronen Chamber Ensemble played two outright masterpieces by composers deeply affected by World War I. Maurice Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin" (in an arrangement for woodwind quintet) and Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 9 (arranged by the composer's illustrious student Anton Webern) represented the program's peaks.

What also must be placed near the top of the season-opener at the Indiana History Center is the well-written, comprehensive commentary delivered by pianist Gregory Martin, who now is also Ronen co-artistic director, joining the 30-year-old ensemble's founders, David Bellman and Ingrid Fischer-Bellman.

At numerous points, Martin talked about the two master composers, both of whom saw service (which scarred Ravel permanently) as well as lesser-known figures, especially a generation of English composers including W. Denis Browne, George Butterworth, Ivor Gurney and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Slides of the featured composers as they looked then were projected in a series that also sketched in aspects of the scene not involving music, such as Tsar Nicholas II on horseback reviewing Russian troops while carrying a religious icon.

The program opened  with a work written  and conducted by visiting British composer John Traill. "Memento" for piano, violin, cello, flute and clarinet set the elegiac tone for the evening. Traill returned at the end of the program to conduct the Schoenberg work.

World War I directly affected Russian composer Nikolai Miaskovsky, but the first movement of his second cello sonata was mainly selected because it represents the war's long-term effect on him and his countrymen artists. Imperial Russia's war-engendered weakness allowed Communism to triumph, and this score of 30 years later was among a host of pieces composed to turn aside government criticism of modernism or "formalism" in new music.

Fischer-Bellman's tidy account of the folk-influenced long lines for cello was supported by Martin, who could have brought forward the piano part a  bit more, even though the keyboard role consists largely of accompaniment patterns. He certainly proved himself a sensitive accompanist in a set of English songs, sung feelingly by tenor Kerry Jennings. The piano took advantage of Vaughan Williams' stronger profile as a composer in his "Whither Must I Wander."

Jennings returned to open the second half with two songs by Indianapolis WWI soldier Albert von Tilzer. The composer of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" also made his mark with rally-round-the-flag songs such as "Au Revoir, But Not Goodbye, Soldier Boy" and "I May Be Gone For a Long, Long Time." With subdued lighting setting the stage for a poignant encore, Jennings and Martin returned to perform Gerald Finzi's setting of a valedictory Thomas Hardy poem.

Before that calming farewell came the turbulence of the Schoenberg piece. Martin blossomed even more at the piano, with a demanding part filling out the harmonic and rhythmic activity otherwise distributed among flute, clarinet, violin and cello.

 I find Schoenberg's atonal works (before he systemized composition free of key relationships) generally have more personality and expressive elan than his agenda-setting serialism.  The Chamber Symphony is brisk, maudlin, frenetic and tangled by turns. The arrangement in this performance drew a high degree of unanimity and zest from (in addition to Martin), Bellman, Fischer-Bellman, violinist Jayna Park, and flutist Tamara Thweatt.

Similar excitement was generated by the Ravel, with oboist Jennifer Christen, hornist Julie Beckel Yager, bassoonist Oleksiy Zakharov, Thweatt, and Bellman.  The most successful of the four movements Tuesday, with the kind of warmth rarely associated with the composer but definitely a factor here, was the Menuet: Allegro moderato. The piece's frequent buoyancy of mood, counterintuitive to the atmosphere surrounding its composition, could be said to represent the victors' chin-up  resolve — soon to be dashed — to make the Great War "the war to end all wars."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Audiences will stand for anything: Ovations and the shredding of the performing-arts social contract

Newspaper reviewing having become a quaint journalistic subspecialty, reminiscence and reflection bubble up naturally whenever a former colleague in those trenches and I get together. The other day, he and I were talking about the immediate audience "review" of performances that's represented by the standing ovation.

What audiences think they should do if they really, really liked it
Neither of us, I  am bold to claim, was indulging in the curmudgeonliness expected of critics in finding regrettable the near-invariability of the standing ovation nowadays. A rarely encountered level of awfulness apparently must be sunk to for Indianapolis audiences not to stand, it would seem.

I'm far from the only one who used to think of an on-its-feet audience response as "the ultimate tribute" — an honor accorded a performing artist for an extraordinarily satisfying, perhaps even transcendent, display of his/her/their art. Recently, "ultimate" has become significantly watered down. The butts-off-the-seats tribute is in danger of being absorbed into normal concert etiquette.

Why do I  deplore this development? Certainly not because I want to dissent from the collective kudos showered upon any given performance, even on its own diluted terms. No, it's the dilution itself I object to — and the imbalance it brings to what might be called the social contract of performance conventions.

Let's look at the interaction of audience and artist in the order it typically happens. chiefly in classical music, but with a few alterations that apply to jazz, dance, and theater. Performer walks onstage, audience claps in acknowledgment of the entrance, performer responds with a bow, a nod of the head, or (outside the classical realm) maybe a wave and a smile.
The standing O is de rigueur at the ego-driven Oscars.

The custom of the initial bow is significant, though it doesn't apply to a theater or dance performance. It signals the performer's gratitude for the audience's welcome, with the briefly lowered head indicating the artist's humility and promise to live up to the audience's expectation.

The applause at the end of the show or a piece of music conveys the audience's approval. The performance has lived up to its end of the bargain. The subsequent bows from the stage are like the old-fashioned epistolary close, "Your humble and obedient servant," shortened over time (up to the email age) to "Yours." The performer leaves the stage, and the social contract has been upheld, neither side in the other's debt.

If there's great audience enthusiasm, the performer returns for a "curtain call" (and here's where theatrical presentations contribute a phrase to the legacy, as there's no curtain to open and close at the end of a concert). Today, a curtain call is almost certain to take place with the audience standing. A subsequent curtain call often draws from the performer a hand-over-heart gesture, like Kirill Gerstein's last weekend after playing the Rachmaninoff Third with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Clearly, someone is smilingly struggling to end the exchange of mutual regard. There was no encore, and the pianist later tweeted that he didn't want to keep the musicians onstage any more than necessary, given the extraordinary length of the scheduled program.

(Encore hell was long ago rendered by a New Yorker cartoon, showing a smiling violin soloist, his instrument tucked under his arm, standing in front of symphony orchestra. He addresses the audience: "Thank you very much. Years ago I got to know a little piece I've loved for many years, and I'd like to play it for you now. It's called the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, and it goes something like this.")

The more common the practice of standing ovations becomes, the less obvious it is that the performer has done anything extraordinary. Audiences these days are all too willing to go over the top, like those eager folks who solicit your help by saying "Please" and "Thank you" in the same communication.

When standing ovations become common, the performer is simply being overpaid. The artistic ego tends to be large enough not to mind any such imbalance. But eventually, that ego may be justified in supposing uneasily: My thanks to them for their kind reception  — bowing — is an empty gesture. Beyond letting me know they feel their time and money have been well-spent, they obviously want to tell me that what I (and countless performers before me) have done is among the peak entertainment experiences of their lives!

All the world over, a Himalayas range of peak experiences keeps being thrust up, each summit shouldering its neighbors and being that much less impressive.

Publicists drink this kind of thing up, of course. I get countless press releases boasting that so-and-so's performances have elicited standing ovations every time. Bully for you, Mr. Divo and Ms. Diva! Trouble is, such acclaim is becoming not much different from puffing: "Audiences have clapped their hands for Mr. Portamento at concert halls on three continents!"

The public being the fickle animal it is, however, a love-hate relationship sometimes emerges. The social contract may get ripped up before anyone takes the stage: Some rock acts (I've read) cultivate an atmosphere of edgy hostility to their fans.

Other performers develop a persona that acknowledges applause only on their own terms. At the end of the turbulent 1960s, I saw Miles Davis drive the crowd wild at the end of an Ann Arbor concert by scowling and lifting a raised fist as he led his band offstage. I think the fans felt flattered. I'm not sure why.

Dave Brubeck: Wanted to 'Take Five'' in his own good time.
Members of other audiences may feel free to try changing the set list from their seats. It must be in the fine print on their tickets. At Steve Turre's recent Indy Jazz Fest tribute concert to hometown hero J.J. Johnson, the trombonist's introduction of a tune with the same title as another jazzman's more famous tune elicited a demand for the latter. Turre patiently explained that his presentation was meant to focus on Johnson, and would continue to be so devoted.

At the second Indy Jazz Fest — the one doomed by a downpour that left the fledgling event awash in red ink — Dave Brubeck was engaged to play indoors (luckily) at the Indiana Roof Ballroom. After about the second number, someone called out: "Play 'Take Five'!" The normally genial Brubeck declined, and proceeded to lecture the concertgoer on the desirability of attending a jazz festival with the expectation of hearing something new. Of course, the band later played "Take Five." Brubeck had surely planned to include it all along.

Bobby Bland: No truck with a demanding fan.
Another time, a rock critic colleague at the Flint Journal dragged me along to hear a local auditorium concert by Chicago bluesman Bobby "Blue" Bland. After a just few songs, well enough received but apparently unfamiliar to some fans, a man stood up and called out: "Bobby 'Blue' Bland, play the songs everybody loves you for!" Bland smiled tensely at the interruption, led his band through one more song, then motioned the musicians offstage. The house lights came up. That was it.

The social contract between artist and audience had been shredded into confetti and set ablaze — along with most of the ticket value. It was my first and so far only exposure to a standing-muttering-and-leaving ovation — without much actual ovation.

You've been a great audience. Thank you and good night.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Theatre on the Square's 'Lightning and Jellyfish': Journey to a time of personal boundaries at the continent's edge

Somewhere back around the time Bob Dylan was starting his long apprenticeship toward rock elder-
statesman status, he released an album called "Self-Portrait," with hideous, self-daubed cover art and two discs of humdrum music inside.
How Dylan saw himself, truly or not.

A friend of mine solemnly said of it: "I think he's finally being true to himself." A notorious review of "Self-Portrait" in Rolling Stone opened with: "What is this s---?"

Somewhere between those polarities lies the world of "Lightning and Jellyfish," a seriocomic meditation on late adolescence by Lou Harry. On the one hand, it almost affectionately recalls the Cape May resort town he hails from, seen through young, hopefully maturing eyes.  On the other, it riffs on the transient nature of Jersey Shore summers and the ebb and flow of seeking permanence versus moving on.

Rachel (Allyson Womack) and Angela (Abigail Gilster) keep it real.
No better milieu for such a theme, perhaps. than a rock 'n' roll poster shop — a business able to register with seismograph accuracy the tiniest shakes and wiggles of the youth-culture Zeitgeist. The playwright weaves into his story of a bright, sensitive young woman who works in such a place many witty references to how musical tastes express themselves through sales of T-shirts, posters, and other mass-produced memorabilia.

Giving the right answers to questions about song and band preferences requires keeping a keen eye on the market: local versus national acts, blue-chip artists like Dylan or hot newcomers like Joan Jett. And always, the Jerseyite tribal god Bruce Springsteen. Relationships can stand or fall on evanescent musical loyalties. In summer-of-'82 Wildwood (the principal setting of "Lightning and Jellyfish"), those answers and sales figures went in one set of directions. In 1983 — or perhaps as soon as November, or alternatively in Asbury Park or Rehoboth Beach — they surely went in quite another.

It's a constant tug of war between asserting authenticity and discovering inauthenticity — for which those two quoted responses to "Self-Portrait" can stand in, respectively — that college-bound Angela has to wage.

The play opened over the weekend on Stage Two of Theatre on the Square. Sunday's performance made me wish that the noise of other activities in the building didn't quite so easily bleed through the walls. There was emotional bleeding going on during the last scene that I very much wanted to attend to.

Putting that aside, the long opening scene between  pivotal character Angela (Abigail Gilster) and her employer, poster-shop owner Rachel (Allyson Womack), had me increasingly restless as I looked down the lengthy cast list and thought: "Isn't it about time for another character to come along?"

It turned out almost everything else in "Lightning and Jellyfish" is a series of monologues by characters recalling their experience over the years with Angela. The structure of the play made sense as the scenes unfolded — a parade of figures in Angela's life, addressing the audience in front of the cluttered poster-shop wall,  from shortly after the time of the first scene to well into her adulthood.

Still, the first scene seemed overloaded with exposition and fresh revelations of life milestones that both Rachel and Allyson must face. It needed more tension built into the pacing. Except for a few accelerated passages, all the first-scene dialogue adhered to the same tempo. With a few well-placed pauses, director Sam Fain could have turned the screws of affection and conflict between the two tighter. Such a brief hiatus didn't occur until the girls sat down to recall an encounter with French Canadian tourists.

Angela's obsession with truthtelling, at first focused on her boss, apparently  unsettles almost everyone else she comes in contact with. The monologues riveted the attention, but the range of similarly ill-at-ease people robbed their vastly different stories of variety. Only Angela's husband seems comfortable in his own skin — which is ironic considering what we learn became of him. (Character names were rarely used, and the cast list carried the note it was in alphabetical order, which it wasn't, so singling out any actor besides the two women in the first scene is difficult.)

Lou Harry's writing is typically assured and close to the nerve ends, but there is probably no way such writing with all its necessary pop-music references can avoid being dominated by them. I found myself hoping that wasn't Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" LP that Angela's boyfriend was walking out of the shop with near the end of the show. But I'm afraid it was.

At least it wasn't "Self-Portrait."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

With the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the maestro is plural and makes musical sounds — no gesturing podium boss necessary

Having admired some of its recordings for many years, I looked forward to my first Orpheus Chamber Orchestra concert largely because I had to test the truth of what I'd been hearing. Of course, there was also the draw of Jonathan Biss as piano soloist at Saturday night's Palladium concert.

Recording technology has permitted so many nudges toward perfection over the years that only the concert experience can allay suspicions that a lot of the excellence we hear has been engineered.

The Orpheus in fact does produce ensemble excellence without a conductor — every musician is engaged with the music and reflects well-practiced agreement on articulation, tempo, and dynamics. Performances that cohere and have vitality are the result.

Bloomington-born Jonathan Biss has often collaborated with Orpheus.
When these qualities are linked to what a top-drawer soloist has to offer, the result can be stunning. So it was with the Biss/Orpheus performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37.

Above all, it represented a demonstrative leap off the page of scholarship: In "The Concerto: A Listener's Guide," Michael Steinberg details the work's genesis, citing sketches as early as 1796,  with most of it completed in 1800. But because it was first published in 1804, the C minor concerto has usually been tagged with a "middle Beethoven" sticker.

The tripartite division of Beethoven's musical career has been pretty powerful over the decades, influencing description of other composers' careers that are even harder to divide into early, middle, and late. As Steinberg points out, "the patronizing treatment sometimes accorded to 'early Beethoven'" has escaped this work because a mere four years after its completion Beethoven was turning out or working on such middle-period monuments as the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas.

Beethoven as rising star
Performances of the Third Concerto in all its faux-middle-period glory are not hard to encounter. My Claudio Arrau LP version is suitably imposing, carrying the grandeur indelibly associated with Beethoven's immortality. Imagine my delight, then, to take in a concert performance sparkling with youthful bravura.

Biss lent a light, frisky approach to the music, with just enough earnestness to avoid recasting it in lightweight, revisionist terms. Any bearing down (as in the first movement) was of the sort that talented young people trying to make an impression in any field typically exhibit.

The performance displayed the work as full of both promise and achievement. It seemed to present Beethoven saying "You'll be hearing more great things from me" rather than "Too bad for you if you can't bask in  my self-evident greatness." As played here, the piece expresses the bravado and self-confidence of a young musician in his late 20s who knows he's good and is ready to cast aside provincial origins and present his ready-for-prime-time calling card to the imperial capital.

No wonder the Beethoven portrait I've inserted in this post is not prominent among our images of the composer — those iconic ones with their scowling, deeply lined face and unruly, graying hair. Young Beethoven is often patronized partly because the standard of greatness he set for composers seems to belong to an older man. Biss and his Orpheus colleagues brought to the fore the young virtuoso who chafed under the tutelage of Haydn, the master composer he had sought out upon moving to Vienna, as well as the bumptious, furtively handsome musician barely aware that deafness would soon rob him of normal social connections.

The concert opened with a polished reading of Rossini's Overture to "La Cambiale di Matrimonio" (The Marriage Contract), notable for some sprightly woodwind playing and a tender horn solo.

Ensemble interaction with careful attention to color contrasts got a fuller display in the last piece on the program, Francis Poulenc's "Sinfonietta."

This four-movement work is suffused with the carefree quality, bordering on glibness, of Poulenc the sensuous boulevardier. The chattering of the winds and the nervous rhythmic energy at times added up to a similarly energetic but somehow calmer, less sentimental way of taking in Parisian life than a more famous evocation of that urban scene, George Gershwin's "An American in Paris."

Preceding the Poulenc was Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's "Prlogue and Variations." Written during the first flush of her fame — she had just won the 1983 Pulitizer Prize for her Symphony No. 1 — the 1984 piece for string orchestra was recorded by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra 30 years ago next month as part of a New World Records package also including the first symphony and "Celebration," an ISO commission to commemorate its move from Clowes Hall to the Circle Theatre.

Too bad the Palladium program book couldn't have had more localized notes about Zwilich. They might also have included the record jacket's fuller description of Prologue and Variations. The opening movement bears a literary title because it sets out an introduction to the musical ideas explored in the four variations that follow. The variations build more upon the "characters" suggested by the Prologue than upon the notes themselves.

The clarity with which Zwilich carries out this plan was something the audience had to discern on its own. Here was a case when a composer's words could have actually advanced understanding of an unfamiliar work. Fortunately, it's easy to catch on to Zwilich on first hearing.

The Orpheus (following its usual practice of using a different concertmaster for each piece played) laid out the Andante misterioso Prologue with care. Its haunting atmosphere returns to round out the piece at the end, after fast, slow, then fast variations have intervened. There's fetching interplay among the string sections, with nothing too tangled to follow. A distinct emotional profile was given to each section.

In a model of the kind of music journalism that has become increasingly rare, Tim Page wrote about Zwilich for the New York Times Magazine nearly 30 years ago, quoting her extensively. "It is not enough to manipulate abstract forms and ideas," she told him. "A composer must also provide color, thrust, and purpose, allowing a work to unfold gradually over a length of time. As such, composition is both a written and a performing art — it must sound."

That credo exactly suits Prologue and Variations and the way the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performed it Saturday evening.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Friday night's ISO concert, with a fascinating guest soloist, evokes memories of a shining sham, a captious critic, and a cute cartoon

Funny how certain pieces of music acquire symbiotic pests the way old ships used to acquire barnacles.

Two such pieces form the bulk of this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts: Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor and Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 in D major.

I've scraped the barnacles off with difficulty in both cases. I was somewhat familiar with them decades ago, before the associations I'm about to relate complicated matters.

Geoffrey Rush goes manic as pianist conquering "Rach 3."
The Rachmaninoff was almost spoiled for me by the 1996 movie "Shine," a feverish biopic about the struggles of a manic-depressive Australian pianist named David Helfgott, played by Geoffrey Rush.

Well-received by eminent critics, "Shine" was enthralling but effortful, taking its place in a long series of Hollywood interpretations of classical music unfortunately suffused with a cheesy aura. We may be a popular art, moviemakers imply, but we know classiness when we see it.

"Shine" made of this piano concerto a work with the mystique of Mount Everest, when scaling that peak still seemed the height of earthbound human achievement — requiring extraordinary courage, thorough preparation, and good luck. I remember John Gielgud as the troubled pianist's London tutor, a kind of super-sherpa, repeatedly intoning the words "Rach 3" with vacuous reverence. The inanity of it overshadowed the entire portrayal, which was clearly beyond Gielgud's ken. It hurt to watch the great actor frankly not know what he was talking about.

"Rach 3" is undeniably demanding of the piano soloist, but many concert pianists will tell you the Brahms Second requires more stamina. The Russian piece is far from something unapproachable, though it seems to have been nearly so for poor Helfgott, whose recorded performance of it is wretched. But bumper crops of pianists continue to come into view who can command Rach 3; we have heard two of them recently with the ISO — Adam Golka and Yuja Wang.

Gerstein won't claim ownership, but he played Rachmaninoff concerto as if he owned it.

On Friday, the Russian-American  Kirill Gerstein delivered the second of three performances of the work on his latest visit here, with guest conductor Andrey Boreyko on the podium. Gerstein refreshingly rejects any Russian proprietary right to Russian music, but the Hilbert Circle Theatre seemed to bask in whatever questionable advantage there might be in the collaboration of two Russian-born guest artists in a countryman's masterpiece.

The greatest charm of this concerto is the opening. It features the most inviting simple theme in the literature of virtuoso piano concertos. Rachmaninoff treats his inspired melody with care and without overemphasis, and thus it was played Friday night.

From here on and throughout, Gerstein showed a firm sense of the work's architecture and refused to shine only in its many moments of romantic afflatus. In the Intermezzo, he brought forth a fully expressive range of tone color, as the movement gathered inspiration for a smooth assault on the finale.

There Gerstein was the glorious monster everyone expects of pianists in music that sets this piece among the Himalayas. His power— with  full, balanced voicing of chords — made the desired effect, but he was also alert to the finale's episodes of elfin humor and tender reflection. The orchestra seconded the soloist's range of expression, though the performance wasn't the last word in pinpoint coordination. The mutual affinity of solo and accompaniment was never in doubt, however.

As for Sibelius' Symphony in D major, it used to leave me both (somewhat) moved and (mostly) bored. As a young newspaper critic reading older professionals and, in collected form, my esteemed critic forefathers, I came across Virgil Thomson's withering put-down of this work as "vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description."

I admired the clever dodge in those last three words and made note of the device: If you say a work of art is [insert negative words] beyond all description, you've told the readers you don't have to explain what you mean. Beyond that, I had to allow for the fact that the eminent composer Thomson had just become the New York Herald-Tribune's music critic when he wrote that review of a Philharmonic concert 74 years ago this month, and perhaps wanted to put a thumb in the eye of his counterpart at the Times, Sibelius champion Olin Downes.

Even so, Thomson's dismissal of the Sibelius Second gave me a little too much sanction to sneer at it. Since then, and particularly Friday night in the course of Boryeko's stunning results with the ISO, I've discovered solid grounds for the work's popularity — and reasons to admire it, in part. And I think I know what may have irked Thomson so much from the outset: That first movement indulges in Central European romantic rhetoric spun out of pretty insubstantial material. A partisan of the French tradition, Thomson clearly had no patience with throat-clearing derivative gestures in the self-important Austro-German manner.

The second movement (Andante, ma rubato) redeems everything that falls short about the first. The sad modal melody for the bassoons has more substance alone than anything offered by the preceding Allegretto; I can hardly believe that the Coffee Concert audience Thursday morning had to do without both of the first two movements. Everything falls into place in the Andante after the bassoons have their say, and there's not a wasted note.

The bustling third movement, with its charming respite keyed to Jennifer Christen's enchanting oboe soloing, yielded with an encompassing sweep to the broad landscape of the finale. Kudos also to timpanist Jack Brennan for his exquisite dynamic control in the middle movements.

The finale, originally the locus of most of my hostility to the Sibelius Second, still tries my patience. It never fails to trigger my "uh-oh, here it comes again!" response, cheekily evoking an old New Yorker cartoon.

Sibelius' broad, anthemic theme and its fanfare-like co-conspirator undergirded by murmuring strings don't actually recur all that many times, but it always seems that way, Together, they are like the wriggling vine wrapping around the George Price house and the struggling husband.  Their brassy apotheosis at the end has my imagination seeing the homeowner finally engulfed in agony (like the Laocoon group)  by the relentless vegetation, as the scrawny, warning-weary wife collapses exhausted on the window sill.

The ISO program opens with a contemporary work, Anders Hillborg's "King Tide."  This picturesque water music — well-suited to its premiere venue, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles — focuses on dangerous high tides, which the world's coastal areas are destined to experience more of.

Since Debussy's "La Mer," musical depictions of the world's seas and oceans inevitably risk unfavorable comparison. Years ago, the ISO programmed a work by Gerald Levinson that seemed to set itself up as the anti-"La Mer": In contrast to the Frenchman's evocations of wind and light, the Levinson emphasized the dark, dense weight of the ocean, its impenetrable mystery. It was at least intriguing to listen to; it must have been unrewarding to play.

Hillborg's work takes a middle course, ultimately more successful, even considered as absolute music. Besides, it may be the most effective imitation of the ocean's volume and mass since "La Mer." It opens with, and returns to, dense, expressionless string chords played non vibrato. Soon it's flecked with wind tremolos and string trills.

It becomes texturally varied, permitting itself brief bursts of lyricism — a soaring violin melody, later some sustained, floating trumpet. As the piece approaches the end of its 15-minute span, the textures become thinner and loftier. Soon there's a suggestion of a chorale that may be a lament for the loss of habitat as climate change progresses. "King Tide" is well worth being part of symphonic music's 21st-century "relevance," without being tendentious about it.