Sunday, January 21, 2018

John Beasley's MONK'estra: Wondering if the Thelonious Monk legacy is in good hands? Well, you needn't (mostly)

MONK'estra maestro John Beasley
I found several of the band's videos on YouTube a thrilling indication of what I would be likely to hear in its Carmel appearance, so my anticipation ran high at the outset of MONK'estra's concert Saturday night at the Palladium.

In many respects, I was rewarded with more opportunity to delve into the cleverness and surprise threaded through Thelonious Monk compositions in bandleader John Beasley's arrangements. But I came away wondering if the personnel changes that are a necessary evil in this kind of project —  where participants tend to have so many other professional obligations — were responsible for a certain lack of focus.

Thankfully, however, my impression was confirmed that MONK'estra does not fall into the "tribute band" box. That has to be stated up front. Nor do its surface and in-depth pleasures seem to depend on the kind of tribute programming that has generated so many recordings in recent years, as well as the "repertory" emphasis best represented by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in the Wynton Marsalis empire.

Not to put down tributes, though the plethora of them (always with an eye to the box office) is wearying. And Marsalis's Monk album is quite good, though probably too tidy for some listeners. It shows that Monk's uniqueness as a composer is not hermetically sealed, but responds well to various skilled approaches. Beasley's is among the very best: He's got his quirks, but they are not the quirks of an amateur or someone merely lost in devotion to the master. He's insightful, even visionary, about the uses of a large ensemble in shedding new light upon the Monk canon, even such relative obscurities as "Skippy" and "Gallop's Gallop."

But a small indication of the variability in the 15-piece band's performance as it goes around the world came with Beasley's difficulty getting members' names right in the course of the program. The young bassist, given to me secondhand but ultimately from Beasley's representatives, was Ben Shepherd. At one point Beasley called him that; elsewhere, Ben Williams (who indeed has been a MONK'estra bassist, according to the website).

"I should have a trio," Beasley joked at one point after one of his sideman name stumbles Saturday night.

Ah, but Beasley has some great concepts to apply to Monk's music, and he hires capable musicians. I lost the thread during "Criss Cross," whose wildness seemed fairly untethered to the tune. But the ensemble largely jelled throughout the show. Some blends didn't quite come off, prompting the suspicion that the afternoon sound check hadn't ironed out all balance issues.

And sometimes Beasley puts a perfect backdrop behind unconventional soloing. The best example was during the linked arrangements of "Ugly Beauty" and "Pannonica," a showcase for lead trombonist Ed Neumeister, who minced, growled, pleaded, and whimpered creatively throughout a plunger-muted solo. As bizarre as the solo was, the accompaniment in pastels felt comfortable with it.

Some other solos were illuminating, especially in other ballads: trombonist Eric Miller's in "Crepuscule for Nellie" and the leader's turns on melodica during "Ask Me Now" and on piano, with hints of "'Round Midnight," to introduce the encore "Blue Monk," which Beasley dedicated to Indianapolis trumpet master Freddie Hubbard (1938-2008). Beasley is quite an imaginative pianist, who honors Monk in part by not aping his keyboard style in the slightest.

Eventually, every band member had at least one solo. Of the four trumpeters, only Brian Lynch took care of business consistently and cohesively ("Evidence" and "Brake's Sake"). A couple of saxophone turns by Greg Tardy and Oliver Santana made sense to me. On the whole, solos featured a fair amount of generic bluster and scatteration, generating whoops from the crowd.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Garrick Ohlsson adds familiar luster to ISO's all-Russian program

The way Russian classical music burst into the repertoire and now enjoys unshakable prominence
Garrick Ohlsson played a scintillating Tchaikovsky First.
somewhat resembles how bitcoin has muscled in on conventional currencies.

But there is nothing "virtual" about the permanent appeal of the nation's music, despite the distortions it endured throughout the Soviet era, on the world's concert stages. What started with Mikhail Glinka in the mid-19th century soon flourished in the output of "the Mighty Five" and a composer more than equal to all of them: Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. More star Russian composers emerged in the 20th century, some of them self-exiled from their homeland.

The welcome presence of Garrick Ohlsson as guest artist Friday evening playing the best-known Russian piano concerto assured the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra of a large, receptive audience at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The performance of Tchaikovsky's B-flat minor concerto, tightly coordinated by music director Krzysztof Urbanski with the orchestra, presented the elder-statesman American pianist in typical form.

The well-known first-movement introduction featured both fire and reflection from all participants. In the main body of the Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso, there was exquisite matching between soloist and orchestra, especially in the second theme. When it came to the climactic cadenza, Ohlsson imparted such variety of color that it was almost like hearing a second orchestra.

That sensitivity to timbre made the slow movement especially winning, complemented by one of the concert's many excellent solos from orchestra principals, that of oboist Jennifer Christen. Ohlsson invariably added to the richness of his palette a firm sense of balance that had both thunderous and tender passages speaking with full eloquence. In the finale, the measured build-up to the apotheosis of the lyrical theme from both soloist and orchestra lent multiple thrills to the work's climax.

For an encore, the pianist underlined the "greatest-hits" status of the programmed work with Sergei Rachmaninoff's most popular piece (which as a concert pianist the composer came to dread playing): the Prelude in C-sharp minor. Ohlsson made it sound fresh.

The program, to be repeated at 7 p.m. today, opened with Polovtsian Dances from Alexander Borodin's opera "Prince Igor." Like the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto, this work falls rather indisputably into the "warhorse" category. But there's lots of life in the old nag when it is spurred with the excellent horsemanship it was on Friday. The dignity and self-possession of the dances that precede the whirlwind finale were well-judged. The interpretation showed this much-loved work is not all about the orchestra making a big splash, though that quality is characteristic of the suite from the flamboyant woodwind solos on.

The program's second half consisted of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6 in B minor, preceded by Urbanski's commentary on the composer's difficult, lifelong adjustment to Soviet repression. Even when Shostakovich played the jester, there was sadness underneath. The conductor illustrated the point with a slide projection of a Polish painting showing a traditionally costumed jester slumped in a chair, his face clouded.

The huge slow movement that opens this symphony at first suggests the world-embracing breadth of Mahler; the unison theme in violas and cellos has the expansiveness of late Mahler, say, the unfinished Tenth Symphony. But that is soon undercut, and much of the music broods. All his life, Shostakovich wanted to think large and feel free, but inhibition often inflects his compositions. After his precocious First Symphony, self-consciousness bedeviled him. The ISO displayed the divided mind of a flawed genius with elaborate care.

The short second and third movements go from the somewhat conflicted high spirits of the Allegro on the way to a Presto that Urbanski quite understandably said resembles music for the circus. Before the exuberant climax is reached, there's even a lumbering episode that evokes dancing Russian bears. The piece doesn't quite "work" as a symphonic unity, except in the sense that it is, as Urbanski suggested, a self-portrait. This performance was loaded with spectacle and, more important, insight.

Relative latecomer though it is, Russian music has held its value. The truth of that could be brought up close to the present if we were able to hear more of, say, Schnittke and Gubaidulina, on American concert stages. Nonetheless, the mainstream represented by this program remains satisfying.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Coming to the Palladium: MONK'estra bridges the mid-20th-century innovations of Thelonious Monk to the present

John Beasley saw lots of creative room for himself in Monk's music.
Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) left many compositions that were as idiosyncratic as his piano playing. But that body of work  turned out to have spurred the imagination of many younger musicians in the three-and-a-half decades since Monk's death. His inimitable quirkiness has had surprising adaptability.

Groups larger than the quartets that Monk usually worked with have tackled the repertoire before, shedding new light on it: Hall Overton and Oliver Nelson applied their arranging skills to Monk's music with mixed success for bands of at least 10 players.

Last year was Monk's widely celebrated centennial, and a carryover into the new year will be the visit of the 15-piece band sailing along on the strength of Volume 2 of its self-titled series, "Monk'estra." The ensemble will come to the Palladium Saturday night.

A few years ago, pianist-composer-arranger John Beasley tried out composing software new to him with a Monk tune, "Epistrophy." He went on from there to find Monk's music a fertile field for his imagination to play in. There have now been two Monk'estra recordings, the second of which was released last fall.

In a promotional video interview for Vol. 2 (Mack Avenue Records), Beasley has cited Monk's sense of humor as a particular spur for his own creativity. "It totally made me smile," he recalled about his deep plunge into Monk's works. Moreover, his technical and stylistic variety, which Beasley compares to the art of Pablo Picasso, provides "an open door for musicians to stretch out."

Beasley himself stretches out from time to time, making quite a romantic statement on melodica (a kind of end-blown small keyboard instrument) for "Ask Me Now."

When he sticks to his main instrument, piano, he manages to find new aspects of Monk with a style that doesn't ape the master's. His unaccompanied introduction to "Evidence" is a case in point. It's sweeping and reflective,  making an effective contrast with Beasley's use of the band, once it enters. The breaking-up of the theme is quite drastic, and the recording shows off the ensemble's pinpoint coordination, so that the rests are really well-integrated.

That well-honed command of Beasley's arrangements also comes through in "Skippy," after a long synthesizer solo. The different tempos are acutely well-managed. This kind of performance moves the ensemble well to "the outside," and comes across as an exhibition of the avant-garde implications of Monk's music.

But the master's humorous, relaxed quality is not overlooked: One might well leave the Palladium Saturday night humming the tune of "Little Rootie Tootie," should that show up on the set list. In any case, it's likely that fresh perspectives on Monkiana will be well in evidence at this much-anticipated concert.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Dreams deferred in a classic representation: IRT opens 2018 with 'A Raisin in the Sun'

It's hard not to wince a little at a common rhetorical flourish of well-meaning politicians in response to the latest racist outrage in word or deed: "That's not who we are."

Well, now that everyone agrees that the last presidential administration, through no fault of its own, didn't herald a "post-racial society," maybe we can also concede that American racial attitudes across the spectrum are indeed part of who we are. The regrettable portion of those attitudes — attitudes that impede progress toward justice and peace — are not who we should be, hopefully not even who we want to be.

But the reality is undeniable, and that's part of what makes "A Raisin in the Sun" a play worth producing in 2018. The opening-night performance Friday at Indiana Repertory Theatre proved the point upon our pulses, upon our hearts. Displaying incisive precocity, Lorraine Hansberry larded her family drama with many strong hints of the way things ought to be in America of the late 1950s.

Yet she finally comes down on the side of laying the situation out for us in all its complexity. She spares little in her examination of black aspirations and illusions as well as the blocking effects of white racism. Long ago, Thornton Wilder said in his Paris Review interview something that can be applied to Hansberry's achievement: "The theater is supremely fitted to say: 'Behold! These things are.' Yet most dramatists employ it to say: 'This moral truth can be learned from beholding this action.'"

"A Raisin in the Sun" essentially forces audiences to face what the Younger family will face in its hard-won escape from the Chicago ghetto, despite Walter Lee Younger's assertion of his manhood at the play's end. What keeps the family's dreams intact is inspiring, but our minds race forward to the challenges, some of them internal, that will remain with the Youngers after they move. At the same time, the play never turns its back on moral truths.

Walter Lee Younger explains his dreams of a better life to his son.
Sensing that Wilder wanted to reject the kind of drama that proposes such truths, his interviewer asked if drama should thus be art for art's sake. "Experience for experience's sake — rather than moral improvement's sake," the playwright-novelist retorted.

"A Raisin in the Sun" offers a clear-eyed view of experience for multitudes in what has been called the most segregated city in the northern United States. Open housing may have weakened some of the barriers by now, but "moral improvement" on either side of the racial divide remains an open question. Experience for experience's sake is what Hansberry confronts us with.

The IRT's production of "A Raisin in the Sun," directed by Timothy Douglas, makes its main characters representative of African-American experience while not turning them into allegorical figures. Tony Cisek's set honors the particulars of one family's life, while its background of shadowy stairways suggests both paths to elsewhere and an elaborate treadmill — like the architectural conundrums in the art of Piranesi or Escher.

 Chik√© Johnson as Walter Lee, bedeviled by his subordinate position at home and at work, reflected the man's passionate imagination, a quality that sometimes plays hob with judgment and responsibility. He expressed the conflicting forces within Walter Lee steadily — forces that are for the time being reconciled in the difficult choice he makes for his family in the last scene.

Against the odds, Lena keeps the family centered.
The fact that he isn't the "head of the household" is the source of the play's titanic tug of war between him and his mother, Lena, the tenant of record in a crowded apartment. which also includes Walter's feisty younger sister, Beneatha; his wife, Ruth, and their 10-year-old son, Travis. Quite a crew to function as a role model for! No wonder that the pressure causes him to go off the rails before he digs down to find his spiritual center.

Kim Staunton's performance had an easy mastery about it. Her Lena is no stolid "earth mother" type; the despair that overcomes her briefly was infused with energy Friday. She's formidable in her own way, a picture of indomitability. Physically, she has a bit of matronly heft, but moves like a woman used to the hard work she's had to do all her life and ready for more. She's the keeper of the family flame, as well as of a scraggly potted plant that symbolizes her dogged optimism. There are some scenes in which Lena holds sway while seated, and it's to Staunton's credit that she projects the same air of command and moral consistency whether or not she's standing.

As Ruth, Dorcas Sowunmi rightly paid most of the school-of-hard-knocks tuition the Youngers seem to owe forever. Beneatha represented one kind of lofty escape from those realities in Stori Ayers' performance. She reflected it in the character's professional ambitions, her flighty range of hobbies, and her Afrocentrism.

Beneatha shares her brother's tendency to construct a rich fantasy life, which complicates her relationships with two men: the dicty George Murchison, heir to a ghetto fortune, and the brilliant Nigerian student Joseph Asagai, from whose mouth come Hansberry's juiciest satirical thrusts at African-American life. These minor but crucial roles were well-filled by Jordan Bellow and Elisha Lawson, respectively.

Completing the Younger family circle is Travis (Lex Lumpkin). Some of his vocal delivery seemed flat and studied, but that's in comparison to the naturalness and communicative force of his facial expressions and mannerisms. When he shoots a skeptical look at something his father says, it both hits its mark and flies across the theater.

The Youngers meet Mr. Lindner, who brings an offer from their prospective new neighbors.
The climax of Friday's performance also foreshadowed Walter Lee's change of heart about how to react to a neighborhood association's attempt to keep the Youngers from moving in. Johnson captured  his character's frenzied demonstration of the groveling gratitude he planned to exhibit for the promised bribe. You felt in this scene the long history of blacks' adopting attitudes of subservience for both the entertainment of whites and survival among them.

I liked the chances that Johnson took making the scene resemble overacting, because it paradoxically became all the more authentic. He indicated that Walter Lee was both sincere in his grotesque act and capable of seeing how ridiculous it was: he was pointing the way toward freedom even as he seemed to be acknowledging the strength of his shackles. This is what Johnson's performance underlined: The shame and humiliation the United States has visited upon minorities definitely belong to "who we are," but so does the promise of something better for everyone.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, January 12, 2018

Of generation and degeneration: Phoenix's 'Halftime With Don' goes deep in NNPN rolling world premiere

Brain-damaged ex-NFL star Don Devers (Bill Simmons) rests uneasily.
The label of "America's Pastime" passed from baseball to football late in the 20th century, and one of the era's major comedians, George Carlin, suggested part of the reason when he compared the language of both sports, wittily placing baseball in the nation's pastoral past.

But recently seismic shocks to the 21st-century solidity of NFL pre-eminence, from civic blackmail by owners to players "taking a knee" during the national anthem, have rattled the sport. Among the most concerning, reaching down into youth football, are the health consequences of repeated hits, especially concussions resulting in brain damage and long-term deterioration of character.

In "Halftime With Don," Ken Weitzman reaches into the topic of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) and comes up with a drama that, thankfully, doesn't make a fetish of topicality. Crucially, it's a family drama with added resonance from the phenomenon of fan hero worship. CTE shapes the action, but the play avoids getting down into the documentary weeds.

It grinds our emotions into the turf of athletic suffering and persistence, yet heroically presents the
struggles of its main character in a transformative context. The retired NFL defensive back, Don Devers, is well beyond healing, but an extra-medical attempt to rescue him from dismal isolation becomes oddly restorative for three others.

Stephanie (Lauren Briggeman) is desperate to reconnect with her dad.
That attempt is carried out by Ed Ryan, a nervous fan who's tended the flame of admiration from afar since boyhood; his expectant wife, Sarah, who has wangled an audience for him with the athlete as a birthday present, and Devers' daughter Stephanie, who has made that freighted gift possible in a desperate ploy to get access to her father as she prepares to deliver her own child without any close support.

As Don, Bill Simmons adds to his record of searing Phoenix portrayals of complex characters. The coherence he gives to the portrait of a disintegrating personality is remarkable. The seesawing between mental clarity and "nobody home," between frightening violence and relaxed, playful amiability, consistently bears the ring of truth. In Thursday's preview performance, he wrung the withers nonstop.

Most of Don's mood swings are visited firsthand upon Ed, played with feverishly managed anxiety and a firm sense of duty by Michael Hosp, whose face registered every nuance of the put-upon journalist's resourcefulness and often appalled spontaneity.

Explosive friendship: Ed and Don bond over Pop Rocks and Coke.
Weitzman's title plays upon the huge best-selling memoir by sportswriter Mitch Albom, "Tuesdays With Morrie," which comes up in the Don-Ed dialogue. But the heavy irony is that "Halftime With Don" alludes to the play's upcoming Super Bowl halftime and the miserable athlete's dark plans for that event, not the gentle wisdom of Albom's dying former professor.

The scoop Ed has envisioned as he tries to graduate from unread blogger to celebrated sports scribe is quickly thrown into peril by his unstable subject. The access Don grants comes with a heavy price, and Ed's stress goes through the roof. Also tested is his relationship with his sweet, supportive wife (Chelsea Anderson), contrasted with the salty cynicism of Stephanie (Lauren Briggeman). The women's unlikely but undeniable bond was beautifully realized in Thursday's performance.

Many new plays with a dark atmosphere hit notes of comedy along the way. I admired Weitzman's ability to fleck the dialogue with humor. Even more successful was how well he individualized the characters. Each talks differently, and yet he doesn't indulge in either cleverness or purple patches for any of the four. The characters are three-dimensional without excess coloration.  And, as directed by Bryan Fonseca, the cast inhabited them with abundant vivacity that never chewed the scenery. Which, by the way, consists of two sets (Don's home and Stephanie's apartment), marvelously designed by Daniel Uhde, in opposite corners of the Basile Theatre.

Among the foliage of Post-It Notes with which Don habitually decorated his locker as a player, whose successors now serve to jog his decaying brain as he sits moping and pained in his recliner, is one Ed has held onto for years. It's the source of his admiration for the football star — sort of his "Rosebud" — an encouraging reply to the fan letter he wrote as a bullied, fatherless fat kid with a stutter: "Your greatest moment is yet to come."

He also liked Don's habit of giving a hand up to any wide receiver he'd just upended, asking if the opponent was okay and promising him more of the same next time. In that context, it's worth recalling a real-life wide receiver's answer on last weekend's "Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me," when Peter Sagal, the host, asked him if he recalled any trash talk with the defensive backs who would be trying to bring him down as soon as he caught a pass.

"No," replied Hall-of-Famer Jerry Rice. "I just look at the defensive back and I say, 'You done.'"

"Halftime with Don" is the heart-piercing story of a man who keeps hearing the ghostly, agile wide receiver in his head stage-whisper, "You done." It's a judgment that few of us, never likely to be subject to the hurts of Don Devers, are ever willing to accept. The spirit of resistance to that voice deserves to be incarnated as well as it is in this production.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]