Thursday, March 26, 2015

Opera maestro James Caraher resumes his place before the local public with new connection to Butler University

The disturbing episode that ended his long tenure with Indianapolis Opera last May is not something James Caraher wants to spend any time focusing on now.

"Everything was busy for a while," he said laconically of the brouhaha that shook the small, interconnected world of American regional opera in light of a planned demotion he was unwilling to accept after a long tenure as artistic director. "It's old news now. I don't hear about it anymore."

James Caraher was brought on board to broaden students' training and to increase public exposure to Butler's opera program.
In his quiet, determined manner, Caraher firmly turned this interviewer's attention to his association with the Butler University opera program.

That association became official this semester and will first show results to the public this weekend.

The Schrott Center will be the site of three performances of Butler Opera Theater's Scenes Program:  a collection of opera excerpts — from overtures through arias to ensembles, including a finale — conducted by Caraher, with student singers and the Butler Symphony Orchestra in the pit. Performances will be at 7:30 p.m. March 27 and 28 and 3 p.m. March 29. Tickets are $15 for adults, $8 for seniors and students; go to

Interviewed last month before rehearsals with the orchestra had started, Caraher offered this comparison of getting professional and student singers ready for public performance: "In some ways it's no different at all," he said, "but when the pros hit town they had nothing else to do but work on that opera for five to eight hours a day for three weeks."

Students have other demands on their time over the course of a semester: "They work really hard, but there's a little more need to be patient. It's still a matter of how do I get someone to accomplish what I'm after. I spend more time explaining things, and there's a variety of experience levels and varying degrees of talent. Not everyone there is looking for a career."

Thomas Studebaker, Butler opera director
"We're excited to have him," said Thomas Studebaker, an operatic tenor with an active career and director of Butler Opera Theatre. Caraher's three-plus decades of professional experience also provides the program with the benefit of preparing singers to work with an orchestra instead of just piano accompaniment. "Everybody has such respect for him," Studebaker added. "He's so amiable and such a fine musician."

Butler and Indianapolis Opera had enjoyed a solid association when Caraher was artistic director of the professional company, which recently hired Kevin Patterson as general director. (Caraher last conducted for Indianapolis Opera last March — two performances of Puccini's "Girl of the Golden West." Last season's final scheduled production, Britten's "Albert Herring," was canceled as the organization went into crisis mode.) Caraher had already been scheduled to conduct this scenes program, Studebaker pointed out.

When Caraher's break with Indianapolis Opera came, Studebaker started thinking: Wouldn't it be nice if we had him on staff? With Caraher's hiring as music director, Studebaker hopes to guide the program to greater public recognition and the eventual presentation of fully staged operas.

Caraher, who had been searching to sustain his career locally ("I would hate to leave Indianapolis; the more I can find here, the better"), readily accepted the position, while staying alert for guest conducting opportunities. "I'm still hoping to pick up some freelance things in places I've been before," he said.

Last July,  for instance, he continued a summertime association with the International Opera Performing Experience in Pesoro, Italy, which focuses on training in Italian opera and language. He conducted "La Traviata" in Florida in January, and (as a pianist) repeated a recital there that he had first performed in Minnesota with tenor Mark Thompson at a reception in 2013 for the visiting King and Queen of Sweden.

The three Butler Opera Theater concerts will include solo arias from "La Boheme," "Giulio Cesare," "L'elisir d'amore," "The Merry Widow," "Susannah," and "T'he Magic Flute," trios from "Cosi fan tutte," "The Mikado," "La Rondine," and "L'elisir d'amore," and duets from "Hansel and Gretel" and "Lakme."

The third-act quartet from "La Boheme" will be performed, plus the finale of Mozart's early opera, "Mitridate, Re di Ponto." The full company will sing the chorus "Va, pensiero" from Verdi's "Nabucco" to conclude the program.  Caraher will conduct the orchestra in the Bacchanale from "Samson and Delilah," the Overture to "William Tell," and the Intermezzo from "Cavalleria Rusticana."

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Ronen Chamber Ensemble: Recalling Mademoiselle, with the help of her IU-based "gift of my old age"

Nadia Boulanger, about the time when she wrote "Toward the New Life."
What Nadia Boulanger couldn't analyze in music, she ascribed to God, a rapt audience at the Ronen Chamber Ensemble concert learned Tuesday night in the Hilbert Circle Theatre's Wood Room.

To her pupils, it must have seemed that left very little to the credit of the Almighty, so all-embracing was Boulanger's knowledge.

The celebrated French pedagogue (1887-1979) could pinpoint the pluses and minuses in a piece of music like nobody else to generations of 20th-century musicians. The one under her tutelage for the longest time was Bulgarian-born pianist-composer Emile Naoumoff, the guest of honor at the Ronen's program honoring her.

But besides the grueling exercises in counterpoint and the intense focus on musical structure, "she was extremely mystical," Naoumoff told the audience in a preconcert interview conducted by Ronen co-artistic director Gregory Martin. " 'I accept grace and beauty,' she said. 'You don't even have to try to explain it.'" So there was plenty of room in music to honor God, after all, in her view.

Emile Naoumoff today
As a gifted child, Naoumoff was brought to Boulanger, who those in her circle referred to with special reverence simply as "Mademoiselle." The family had escaped from behind the Iron Curtain to Paris. When his parents asked  how long and when their son could study with her, Mademoiselle replied: "For 10 years, starting tomorrow." And so began almost a decade of incomparable tutelage, which carried with it introduction to Boulanger's star-studded musical world, including such 20th-century giants as Yehudi Menuhin and Sviatoslav Richter.

Boulanger and the Soviet pianist liked to talk about religion, Naoumoff reported. And Menuhin, a violin virtuoso turning to the podium in his later years,  after a rehearsal of Naoumoff's piano concerto paid the precocious composer a compliment he still treasures: "The musicians find it seriously well-written," Menuhin told him.

Two of Boulanger's greatest qualities, Naoumoff said, were humility and discernment. Her discernment was applied to pieces, not performances: "She never spoke of interpretation."  Nonetheless, she was enough aware of what contributed to acclaim in the musical universe that she gently advised Naoumoff after the well-received, Menuhin-conducted concert: "You are not responsible for the success of last night."

Music performed Tuesday ranged from Naoumoff's poignant "Romance," written in response to his long-delayed return to his childhood home and played feelingly by Martin, to Igor Stravinsky's lively but poker-faced Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo, to which Ronen co-founder David Bellman gave a colorful reading. Most affecting was the program finale, however, Nadia's "Toward the New Life," written in honor of her beloved sister, who died in her 20s in 1918.

Also shoring up the biographical and personal connections was a Nocturne (for violin and piano) by Lili. Austin Hartman joined Martin in this and two other pieces: Lili's perky "Cortege" and Ravel's "Berceuse on the Name Gabriel Fauré." Fauré was a perpetual icon in Boulanger's estimation.

Naoumoff's bracing, four-movement "Divertimento for Oboe and Piano" — a product of his mid-teens — was adroitly characterized by oboist Jennifer Christen, with Martin at the keyboard. If the composer's job is (Naoumoff paraphrasing Boulanger here) "to serve the performer; the public comes after," this piece seemed a good indication of how well Naoumoff absorbed that lesson.

Other Boulanger pupils represented on the program were Jean Francaix, who like Naoumoff was taken on by "Mademoiselle" in boyhood — decades earlier, however. The prolific Francaix once advised Naoumoff: "Never write anything boring." Martin and co-founder Ingrid Fischer-Bellman played three short pieces that indicated the older composer practiced what he preached.

Flutist Alistair Howlett was teamed with the hyperbusy Martin in Aaron Copland's Duo for Flute and Piano, its three movements full of characteristic Copland gestures, angular melodies, and harmonies familiar from his larger and more ambitious works, which made him the most-performed American composer of the 20th century. In "The New Music" (1969), Copland wrote such a complete encomium to the woman who taught him as a young man that it seems suitable as a conclusion for this account of an attractive evening of music and musical talk:

"Two qualities possessed  by Mlle. Boulanger make her unique: one is her consuming love for music, and the other is her ability to inspire a pupil with confidence in his own creative powers. Add to this an encyclopedic knowledge of every phase of music past and present, an amazing critical perspicacity, and a full measure of feminine charm and wit."

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Hail, and alas! In 2015, attention must be paid to Arthur Miller

At the high end of American popular culture, there are two birth centenaries worth celebrating this year. That of Frank Sinatra is already showing up in presenters' schedules for next season. But Arthur Miller was also born in 1915, and I'm interested in seeing observances honoring this significant playwright pop up on theater schedules, especially locally.

Arthur Miller (1915-2005)
I'm getting in early on the celebration — Miller's 100th birthday comes in October — partly because I don't want to spoil the party. You see, I have severely mixed feelings about Miller's work.

True, it is often stunningly effective on the stage, getting to the heart of social problems and their intersection with private lives. It scrutinizes ways in which the mid-20th century mangled human dignity, ironically in the aftermath of American triumph — our way of life a model, our global hegemony virtually unchallenged.

In his first flush of fame, Miller's work displayed the uncanny knack of taking on the value the playwright embedded in his scripts. The significance of his plays seemed inseparable from the way they told us they were important. Nowhere is this more evident than in his most famous play, "Death of a Salesman."

And the locus classicus within that drama is the speech of the protagonist's wife, Linda, chiding the couple's two self-involved sons for their lack of respect for their salesman father. Here's its heart: "I don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person."

The speech makes me squirm, frankly. It's Exhibit A of the self-regard that shadows Miller's output. I'm not saying Linda's speech rings false, but it's a little odd that, while it opens by underplaying Willy's significance,  it then kind of grandstands — with an odd use of the passive voice, considering that she is responding specifically to her sons' lack of regard for their father. She wants to say something more than "You should pay attention." She would implicate us all in his fate.

So out comes "Attention must be paid," and lo, the line blossoms into a talisman for understanding  the pathos of a changing post-war America. Here's how the most esteemed drama critic of the era, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, used the line in praising the play: "The power, the knowledge and the sincerity of 'Death of a Salesman' have persuaded millions of people to pay attention to the tragedy of this victim of the American cant about success."

Sorry, but Willy Loman is more pathetic than tragic, and that goes for his play's most famous line. Game-playing being healthier than nursing annoyance, I've chosen to exorcise my disdain by parody. I've imagined the speech adapted loosely in the style of a half-dozen English and American playwrights who enjoyed prominence in the course of Miller's long life (he died 10 years ago last month). I'm after the characteristic rhetoric and language rhythms of these playwrights, though those who continue reading may recognize the inspiration of particular plays and characters. To reinforce the parallelism, I've tucked in allusions to the dog and death imagery near the end of Linda's speech to complement that blasted "attention" motif.

Happy birthday, Arthur! Please mark my attention "paid in full"!


We were strong men and women straining
To live fully among the mutant seasons
Of fullness or want, among whispers of eternity,
Paying attention, getting attention paid
To us, knowing that attention can become itself
Inattention if we rest in it, seeking somewhere
A garden refuge from lengthening shadows,
Shadows that reach along the corridors
Of smooth stone and urge us graceless
To descend and descend like jackals or dogs
Into obscure graves strewn with faded rose petals.

Harold Pinter

Attention, you say? You want my attention, fancy that. Well, don’t prate to me about attention. (Pause.) I’ve put my bleeding arse on the line time and again to give you the attention your mum thought you deserved. She was as mistaken as she could be, rest her soul. (Pause.) What have you made of your life? Give you a few bob and you just piss it away. Gone to the dogs, you have. I’ll pay attention to you, all right, and watch my back too, I will. (Pause.) Now clean up this mess and let’s get on down to the track. (Pause.) I feel lucky today.

Tom Stoppard

Attention! Has an unmistakable ring to it, doesn’t it? Especially when you shout it. Not as menacing as Achtung!, which carries a certain baggage, of course. But still, you shout “Attention!” and attention must be paid. (Looks into the wings. Beat. Turns and looks into the far corners of the stage.) Is there a way out of here for us, do you suppose, a smooth way? You’ve been tense, I’ve been tense. A tension must be paved, perhaps with good intentions, like the road to — oh, you know. But why shouldn’t that road lead in the other direction as well? People don’t think about that. They say they have empathy for us, as if that helps. Empathy is emotional colonialism. Whatever happened to sympathy? Unfashionable, of course. Empathy is just a land grab, really. Someone dumps their feelings into me and I become a container for them. What’s left of me? I’m a sausage casing. A dog would choke on me getting to the meat. That’s the attention they’re willing to pay, but it’s not paid in our currency or coin, is it? (Tosses a coin into the air and catches it several times.) This is our coin, and I’m entitled to toss it to determine if we go here or go there. Pay attention now, and call it, heads or tails.

Tennessee Williams

You will say I have always craved attention, which may be true, but I have done so in the manner to which people of good breeding were brought up long ago. When I look at the human wrecks of dreamers scattered about me, I am wanting only to salvage what I can, going far away from anything tawdry and common before the sun sets, far from the humid corners of alleyways and disheveled bedrooms. Attention must be paid to such as I, because how else can generosity of spirit survive in this world? There are so few of us left adequate to the task. I have paid dearly for the attention of gypsy fortune tellers, stepping over their sleeping dogs in the doorway, parting the thin beaded curtains, groping in the dark toward the fake crystal ball, sitting down at the narrow table, touching the hag’s knees with mine, giving everything I have to the threadbare hope that sustains me.

A.R. Gurney

Attention? Or course. It’s what we do. It sets us apart. We pay attention to the right things. What to talk about at table. What china to put out for what kind of dinner. When to go down to the club or out for a drive. Whom to tell about it beforehand. Or afterward. Whom to ignore and how to apologize for ignoring them if you need to. How to offer proper condolences, whether we liked the deceased or not. To be seen where it counts, like at Westminster. Attention must be paid to such things.

August Wilson

You always gotta look the world’s ways straight in the eye and figure out where you fit, y’hear? Your daddy never done that and look where it got him. Nowhere. He don’t even know his way around his own little world no more. That’s the truth, and worse, all around that little world — which I mean to say is our world, too: The Hill — around that world is the bigger one, run by white folks. And he always thought that if he got the white folks’ attention they would be bound to respect him. Attention must be paid to me, he thought, because I’m a colored man of quality. Yes, he thought quality would speak for itself, you see. But quality in a black man don’t say nothing much to white folks. To most of ‘em we all just dogs that bark about the same. So now your daddy about ready to meet his maker ‘cause he didn’t tend to his business. He lost respect in the world he knew and never had none in the other. Hurts me how everybody done decided to waste no pity on him. Seems to me he deserve better.

Monday, March 23, 2015

In IRT's new Upper Stage production, Pearl Cleage's smart, ambitious black middle class navigates bumpy rapids in 'the flow of history'

Coming to terms with social change is more than a matter of choosing sides. The larger task is adjusting your sense of who you are to circumstances you have next to no control over.

That's what the four major characters in Pearl Cleage's "What I Learned in Paris" face in the bright historic moment of Maynard Jackson's 1973 victory in Atlanta's mayoral election. As the campaign crests in triumph, highly placed workers at headquarters — a spacious condo owned by the well-traveled Evie Madison — celebrate the reality and the symbolism behind the election of the South's first black mayor.

Evie (Erika LaVonn) and J.P. Madison (David Alan Anderson)
The problem at the play's center is romantic mismatch beneath the joyful surface. Can J.P. Madison,  a powerful, self-confident lawyer and Evie's ex-husband, make a likely ascent to the position of city attorney without a hint of personal scandal? It would appear there's something in the way: His publicly announced marriage to the ingenuous Ann never happened.

As the reasons why are probed, the fault lines in J.P.'s relationship with his friend and subordinate John Nelson are revealed. And machinations to rush a true wedding into reality encounter several obstacles. One of them appears to be the return of Evie from California, where she has become steeped in New Age ways and convinced that there's a place for her skills in the new Atlanta. And the further knowledge reflected in the play's title fuels her concept of the emergent strong woman she exemplifies. As she sweeps in to fulfill her destiny, she enlists loyal campaign worker Lena Jefferson to help J.P. and Ann tie the knot — which for good reason threatens to become unraveled.

Indiana Repertory Theatre patrons with long memories know how skillful Cleage is at stirring matters to a dramatic boil and emphasizing the gumption and grit of African-American women: Her "Flyin' West" was produced with great success at the IRT in 1992. In "What I Learned in Paris," she pits male ambition and the misplaced pride of self-sufficiency against the female genius for biding one's time, picking up cues from the environment, and rising to the occasions often clumsily created by male vanity and tone-deafness. The phrase "the flow of history" is on everyone's lips, but it means something extra to Evie.

Erika LaVonn as Evie was statuesque, robustly articulate, and domineering as seen in Sunday's matinee performance. She managed this assertive character's show of vulnerability beautifully in the second act. Cleage has fashioned a character here who struck me as a distant relative of Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest." Wilde's imperious aristocrat applies her narrow view of social values worth upholding with the keen powers of observation and a gift for paradoxical wit that Cleage's Evie nearly matches.

There are two key differences: Evie applies her certainty from a broad perspective that reflects the currents of change swirling through the early '70s, and she is fatefully still in the game romantically, whereas Lady Bracknell is far above the battle, looking down. Evie almost seems to be too fond of holding forth to listen well, but that's a smokescreen; she's a marvelous creation — a model of attention to detail and an adept lay sociologist, whether she owes anything to Lady Bracknell or not.

David Alan Anderson dependably projects a larger-than-life aura that suits the character of J.P. Madison to a T. Used to being sure of himself and conveying that unmistakably to others, J.P. also is in a precarious position at the intersection of his personal and professional lives — which his ex-wife recognizes better than anybody. Anderson adds to his admirable record of filling to the max portrayals of men to be reckoned with, yet his performance Sunday was in no danger of glossing over J.P.'s weaknesses.

Playwright Pearl Cleage
Cedric Mays conveyed the torment, both romantic and political, of John Nelson, J.P.'s right-hand man and apparent rival. His physical acting — neatly modulated between aggressive and insecure — was marvelous in the scene when he decides to lay his cards on the table with his boss about the woman they seem to be competing for. That woman, Ann, was delicately portrayed by LaKeisha Randle; as the one naive member of the dramatis personae who wises up as the drama unfolds, she had an out-on-a-limb assignment that she handled superbly. Tracey N. Bonner as the campaign-support pro Lena Jefferson was a vivid blend of go-fer and shrewd ad-hoc assistant to Evie.

Director Lou Bellamy had his skillful cast working smoothly, aided by Cleage's canny manipulation of exits and entrances, every one of which is well-timed to advance the plot. For all its talkiness, this is a romantic comedy of exquisite timing. Its conclusion is in the time-honored tradition of its genre in having one couple you're rooting for finally get together and a second one, with more baggage to bring to a reconciliation, also close the gap.

Sets and costumes were lightly suggestive of 40-odd years ago. Between scenes, a fine selection of old-school soul music cleverly mirrored the action and evoked the era. It's been hard to avoid spoilers in this review, so let me just say that the positioning of "People Get Ready" couldn't have been better.

[Production photo credit: Zach Rosing]

Sunday, March 22, 2015

At the Palladium, the Wayne Shorter Quartet displays as fine a group rapport as you'll find in today's jazz

Ever since the triumph of bop more than six decades ago, the center of jazz on small-group interaction has given rise to several generations of musicians thoroughly adaptable to any bandstand configuration involving a handful of like-minded colleagues.

So, what the Wayne Shorter Quartet has exhibited so far in the 21st century is not different in kind from the expert norm. What was confirmed Saturday night at the Palladium is its higher degree of simpatico music-making in the quartet format. Leaping arcs of energy could be sensed throughout the performance, even if the direction was sometimes confusing until viewed in retrospect.

Arcs of energy: Brian Blade, Wayne Shorter, Danilo Perez and John Patitucci
With bandmates Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, bass, and Brian Blade, drums, the 81-year-old saxophonist laid out 90 minutes of distinctive music. The telepathy was nonstop. With this durable personnel, Shorter has built on the famous aesthetic of Weather Report, of which he was co-founder with keyboardist Joe Zawinul: Everyone solos and no one solos — all the time.

In other words, the ensemble rules continuously, with each member so secure among the others that he can branch out with bursts of individualistic display that somehow don't threaten the integrity of the whole. The focus was unrelenting: The group offered about a half-dozen tunes, taking no intermission and making no announcements.

Comparing Shorter's stamina and consistency as the group's inspiration and senior member with the quartet's recordings over the past 15 years, some decline was evident Saturday night. But the characteristic sound and the invitingly cryptic phrasing were still in force, and far from a shadow of their old selves. The wonderful sound he gets on tenor, wispy and generally high-register, sustained the career-long extension Shorter has made on Lester Young; the soprano tone favors more piercing, trumpet-like sonorities, sometimes evoking (again, in sound, not style) Sidney Bechet, but without the vibrato.

Until the encore, almost everything the group played eschewed getting into a groove. I'm not so much of a moldy fig as to insist it's not jazz if it doesn't obviously swing, but the Wayne Shorter Quartet is capable of swinging to the utmost. And it would have been satisfying to catch a little more willingness to go in that direction. Still, remaining out-of-tempo (sometimes called "rubato") for many minutes at a time ensured that an apparently dreaded hierarchy could be avoided: drummer as timekeeper, with bass providing the harmonic foundation upon which the piano erects a viable structure for the saxophone to surmount. That's not the Wayne Shorter Quartet way.

With all things literally being equal, one could thus appreciate Blade's alternation of subtlety with startling bass-drum "bombs" and pistol shots on snare and toms. Patitucci's rhapsodic style got a full outing, as usual, including strong, in-tune arco playing. And Perez exhibited his marvelous variety as a crafter of sweet fragments of melody, a rhythmic powerhouse and a master of powerful chords, often linked together in stunning sequences.

There can't be too many more years for this four-way marvel to be active, and it should be stressed that the leader still has lots to say on the evidence of this concert. In his ninth decade, Shorter can't be faulted for banking his fires somewhat. He still sends up enough flares to be worth paying attention to.

[Photo credit: Dorsay Alavi]

Saturday, March 21, 2015

New concerto embedded with loads of sentiment debuts at ISO Palladium concert

In what is often considered the abstract world of instrumental music, particularly classical, there turns out to be quite a lot of explicit tribute-paying, memorializing, and other ways of bringing forward personal loyalties and affinities, often tinged with loss and regret.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is introducing another piece in that tradition this weekend in three different halls — the Palladium in Carmel, the orchestra's Hilbert Circle Theatre home, and Avon High School (Hendricks Regional Health Performing Arts Center).

James Beckel honors brass, parents and a child violinist's tune.
ISO principal trombonist James Beckel has supplemented the legacy with his Concerto for Brass and Orchestra. The tradition he's extended, which overlaps with so-called program music, ranges from J.S. Bach's "Capriccio on the Departure of His Beloved Brother" through Alban Berg's Violin Concerto (dedicated "to the memory of an angel" [Manon Gropius]) to Jennifer Higdon's "blue cathedral."

The Indianapolis Star has related in great detail the foundation of much of the work, especially in the first movement, upon a melody ("Mama's Waltz") that concertmaster Zach De Pue wrote at 6 years old in memory of his mother, who died in a traffic accident. Beckel not only persuaded De Pue to let him use the tune in this ISO-commissioned work, but he also decided to have his composition honor "the mentoring of loving parents."

 (The Star's promotion of the story put the composer entirely in the shade, as though "Mama's Waltz"
had donned the concerto mantle all by itself:
The sorrow of losing his mother lingered for decades for Zach De Pue, the now 35-year-old concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. A simple melody he wrote at age 6 as tribute and rediscovered years later is a concerto premiering this weekend."

Zach De Pue, soloist and inspiration.
On top of all that, the title reminds us that the new work significantly honors orchestral brass — trumpets, trombones, horns and tuba — by spotlighting its expressive and technical capability throughout. It's a highly effective exposition of the instruments among which Beckel has spent his professional life.

The opening movement, where the devotion to the De Pue tune is most pronounced, is very intricately constructed. On first hearing, it seemed too busy.

The brass contingent moves from antiphonal positions on either side of the choral terrace to a massed position at its center, then down to the stage to join its colleagues. It was exciting to take in such shifting perspectives on the featured group. The dynamic variety in the score is stunning, colorful and virtuosic. Yet Beckel is careful not to lose touch with the simplicity of a child's inspiration in recalling his absent mother with a tender waltz.

The second movement also packs in quite a lot, but its variety struck me as more frankly charming and companionable. The elegiac mood is largely put aside. The composer's program note indicates the first section reflects a child's anger at the sudden loss of a beloved parent. That declared tie-in is to be respected, but Beckel's muse is generally so upbeat that I received the movement's opening as openly energetic and anticipatory — a bright corridor leading to the display to come.

The finale, even brighter and verging on the garish, puts a seal on the new work's effectiveness. Its intended mood of celebration is brilliantly rendered, with the featured brass often given extra ping by mallet percussion. The sudden hush before the final outburst couldn't be better timed: Beckel knows how to marshal his forces to the very end, providing moments of relief and reflection where they are most welcome. Led by music director Krzysztof Urbanski, the premiere performance exhibited love and commitment in every phase.

What an emotional wallop it is on the same program to have De Pue enter as featured soloist! He played Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto with an expressive breadth not always evident. The reigning lyricism of the first movement, as soloist and orchestra enter immediately with an engaging melody, was lent ample contrast by De Pue's vigorous passagework. The music's sweetness never became cloying. The middle movement had a poise and straightforwardness in Friday's performance that also banished the saccharine, keyed to the floating, Apollonian quality Jennifer Christen brought to the oboe solo, which the soloist sustained. The perpetual-motion finale found everybody digging in and De Pue remaining in exquisite control of the demanding solo role, which does amazing things none of the history of violin virtuosity had registered before.

And no ISO classical program in recent memory has done so much to salute the professionalism and artistic excellence of its personnel as this one.  Fortunately, it's scheduled to be heard three times in the metropolitan area in three places. The Beckel concerto will get even more exposure, as it was co-commissioned by the Evansville Philharmonic, the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, and the Omaha Symphony.

Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, by which the Czech composer made his reputation, occupies the program's second half. Urbanski displayed his usual aptness for balance and judicious color in drawing appealing accounts from the ISO in the course of the eight dances. The woodwinds offered much to savor. The slow dances were inviting, and the momentum of the fast ones was soul-stirring. The shifts in meter and tempo that characterize these dances were precisely managed. The spirit of the dance jostled for space among all the other benign spirits represented in this concert. The ISO's downtown patrons and those in Hendricks County are in for a treat.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Trio Eunoia favors the excitement of the new at Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Almost a century of music was spanned in Trio Eunoia's concert for the Ensemble Music Society Thursday evening at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which took its annual turn as co-presenter for the kinds of EMS presentations that stretch beyond the norm.

Trio Eunoia is a new group without (yet) a group photo: Hanick (from left), Dalby, and Campbell played as much more of a unit than these images imply.
This program qualified handsomely.  Anchoring all the still-unfamiliar sounds of 20th-century music on the program was Stravinsky's "Suite Italienne," chosen (as cellist Jay Campbell explained) to illustrate the musicians' concern to display the link between new and old music. It probably was the piece that went down easiest with the audience, being a particularly vivid setting, with some piquant harmonies, of the composer's adaptation of Pulcinella, a ballet on 18th-century themes commonly attributed to Pergolesi.

Campbell and pianist Conor Hanick offered a crisp, colorful account of the suite. Though the piano part is no walk in the park, most of the melodic and figurative emphasis is on the cello. Campbell's playing was meltingly expressive and, where needed (especially in the Tarantella), fleet and rambunctious. The performance provided as keen a display of the aspect of modernism that looked backward past the 19th century as anyone might ask for.

Otherwise the program consisted of 20th-century trio music. The only reminiscences were fragmentary and spiced with dissonance. The vehicle, of course, was Charles Ives' 1909 Piano Trio, which ended the concert. Performers putting across Ives well have to throw themselves entirely into the melange of old tunes and the clash of independent lines — any of which is liable to be suddenly interrupted by a new section in another key or tempo.

Trio Eunoia met every one of these challenges. It's important that the apparent confusion in Ives' scores is not represented as indecision or aimlessness. It all heads in a firmly planted direction, although with a wide sweep that is likely to gather just about every musical souvenir that Ives wants to present and display it proudly.

In the 1909 Trio, after the exalted mishmash of "Tsiaj (This Scherzo Is a Joke)," that pride ends on a high plan of nobility with a full statement of "Rock of Ages" on the cello, which Campbell played exquisitely. I also admired the two-fisted projection of thumping themes in the piano during the middle movement, and Dalby's assertive projection of melodic material while fighting the sometimes formidable odds of what Ives' detractors would frankly call noise.

The program opened with the work of a still-living American composer, Charles Wuorinen, a prolific exponent of serialism whose personal language expresses high spirits, rhythmic vigor and surprise.
The recording I own featuring the composer at the piano is more aggressive and bristling, particularly at the outset. But without knowing the score it would be presumptuous to fault Trio Eunoia for taking some of the edge off the piece. I found Thursday's musicians adept at exploring the variety and gracefulness of the work, particularly toward the end.

The program's other two works are characteristically well-focused statements by two modernist Japanese composers — Toru Takemitsu and Toshio Hokosawa.  The venerated master Takemitsu's "Between Tides" provides a steady look at an abstract seascape of considerable calm. Passages of stately unison become delicately unraveled, then coalesce once again. Suggestions of conflict are held at arm's length, as nothing is allowed to disturb the detailed tranquility. The mood was admirably sustained by Dalby, Hanick, and Campbell.

Hokosawa, the youngest composer represented, pays tribute to his Korean teacher Isang Yun, in  "Memory." This 1996 work strips away any interest in melody and harmony to push forward tone color and texture. The players are required to maintain a blend of dissonant sound that allows not even a momentary disintegration of the total ensemble effect.  "Memory" is an enthralling piece that asks us to set aside some of the handholds we usually depend on as listeners. Trio Eunoia helped us feel comfortable giving up that security, especially in compelling us to listen to so much well-controlled playing at the wispiest, softest end of the dynamic spectrum.