Wednesday, May 4, 2016

With a CD release party scheduled for May 6 at the Jazz Kitchen, guitarist Charlie Ballantine takes broad view on his second CD as a leader

Guitarist Charlie Ballantine comes from North Webster, IN.
"Providence" is titled after what Charlie Ballantine believes to be the providential nature of his growing career based in Central Indiana.

The guitarist is well disposed to see the work of providence in his musically cohesive ensemble, a quintet now including Josh Espinoza, organ; Amanda Gardier, alto saxophone; Conner Green, bass, and Josh Roberts, drums.

The new album, self-released and available through, is a journey touched by several musical styles,

Those curious about how the band puts across this material in concert might be interested in the CD release party Friday, May 6, at the Jazz Kitchen.

There's a lot derived from blues and country guitar styles in the course of the nine tracks, most of them originals. The band plays well together. As a composer, Ballantine has a gift for working his way into your attention, and holding it, with simple melodies. Gardier is particularly adept at helping him maintain the music's melodic sheen.

I like the rapport they display in "Eyes Closed," which gathers energy to mount a soaring climax. Taking a ballad and ratcheting up the emotion at length is a popular way to proceed, and can be overdone. I think it works much better here than in the performance (also about eight minutes long) of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." The seductive charm of that song escapes me, but many people who hesitate to buy a recording if they don't see a familiar title in the program are likely to be drawn in by "Hallelujah." Bless their hearts.

The heart of the CD, however, is the title piece, which distantly evokes a hymn sung with gentle fervor on a Sunday morning in a country church, then seems to evolve into a ballad of lost love scratched out and crooned on somebody's front porch later that day.


Outside my blog writing: cover story in Early Music America in celebration of the Indianapolis Early Music Festival

Watch for the issue of the journal Early Music America, coming in the next few weeks, with the cover story I wrote giving a historical overview of the 50-year history of the Indianapolis Early Music Festival.

I'm looking forward to seeing this, as well as to the 2016 season (starting June 17) itself, the society's golden anniversary.

Thanks to artistic director Mark Cudek for recommending me as the writer to EMAg editor Donald Rosenberg.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Chicago percussion group pays 80th-birthday tribute to Steve Reich

Steve Reich appeals to percussionists.
Though they've been brought more to the fore across music of the past century, percussionists get to dip their toes in the mainstream rewardingly in the music of Steve Reich, who long ago moved from outsider to central figure among living American composers. He's not splashy, but the focus and elaboration he has extended to mallet percussion in particular have made him a venerated figure among the bang gang.

The 11-year-old Chicago ensemble called Third Coast Percussion unfolds a full-out tribute on Cedille Records (CDR 900000 161).

The earliest work here, "Music for Pieces of Wood" (1973), shows the Reich process of "phase shifts," rooted in a structure meant to be immediately perceived by the listener, in this case with the expansion of a short figure one note at a time.

The effect is to reshape the dominant pattern subtly, bringing a new balance to it each time it recurs. Five pieces of tuned wood are used; Matthew Duvall of eighth blackbird is credited "for keeping the pulse."

The Reich style had come to full flower by the time of "Mallet Quartet" (2009), which opens the disc in a performance by all four TCP members: Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore. In three linked movements, "Mallet Quartet" ascends toward greater variety of register as it goes along, with more frequent use of accented notes. It makes for a mallet-driven "gradus ad parnassum" as it succeeds the meditative slow movement, with its short, precisely timed pauses.

Reich had shown his expressive reach well before his canonization as an old master in the present century. "Sextet" (1985), with guest artists David Friend and Oliver Hagen on piano, is both captivating and bewildering. It's easy to get lost in its waves of sound, breadth of timbre and dynamics, and the kaleidosopic bursts of accents. It's my favorite of the disc's five works, though I don't pretend to understand it fully. I especially enjoyed the first of two movements headed "Moderate," with the piano contribution meditative, but in a detached way, set against long tones from bowed mallet instruments.

Completing the program is a seductive marimba duo, "Nagoya Marimbas" (1994), whose debt to Japanese pentatonic scales is signaled in the title. It's typical of Reich's ensemble music in the tight rapport required of the players, and is particularly demanding in matters of tempo and dynamics, with the repetitive patterns being played evenly and very softly.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's INfusion Music Fest raises environmental consciousness while putting forward unusual repertoire

To launch a weekend like no other in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's history, the INfusion Music Fest  came up with a cabaret setting in the Hilbert Circle Theatre's lobby for a concert featuring Time for Three.

Th original Time for Three, together for the last time this weekend.
It was a nod to the future of a new kind of ISO outreach. For Time for Three, it was also a fond look at the string trio's history. The group is ending an era here this weekend, as ISO concertmaster Zach De Pue leaves the trio he helped found in order to concentrate on his ISO duties. Taking his place will be another violinist, Nikki Choi, also an alumnus of the Curtis Institute of Music, where Time for Three was formed 15 years ago.

With its original membership of De Pue, violinist Nick Kendall and double bassist Ranaan Meyer, it has been a good run locally. In its history as resident ensemble here with the ISO, Tf3 has premiered new works by William Bolcom, Jennifer Higdon, and Chris Brubeck, each one drawing upon a different patch of the vernacular spectrum.  In addition, it has developed its own repertoire, captured in several recordings, and made countless local appearances.

Its INfusion show Thursday night added to the trio two adept musicians steeped in collaboration with it: keyboardist Joshua Fobare and drummer Matt Scarano. The five were featured in a piece they wrote together a while back in Colorado, "Summer Fusion."

It was a genuine quintet highlight of the rapturously received lobby performance. But there were also some of Tf3's "greatest-hit" arrangements and original compositions: Meyer's "Philly Phunk," Kendall's "Roundabouts," Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Occasionally, Fobare and Scarano would "sit out" to allow the pure Tf3 sound to get the spotlight.

There was a movement, "Big Wood Reel," presented as a tantalizing preview of Tf3's performance with the ISO tonight of its suite, "Elevation: Paradise." As a further indication of the trio's essential role in the INfusion festival, Kendall and Meyer leaped onstage to help Ben Folds deliver an encore Friday night, when the ISO concluded an adventurous program with Folds' piano concerto, the composer at the keyboard. De Pue assisted in the rocking extra from his concertmaster's chair.

Folds' three-movement piece betrays a desire to pack just about any idea that came his way into a big statement. The opening movement in particular, overplaying its introductory hand, took too much under its wing to leave a coherent impression. There were soaring strings in a personalized late-Romantic idiom to start things off, but the piano entrance meant a turn to the forcefulness of the composer's rock background. A solo cadenza, seemingly at midpoint, was also torrential, then surprisingly, after a floating viola-cello melody morphed into a waltz, we looked out on new terrain.

The second and third movements seemed much better integrated. Folds gave the piano a nice, sparsely harmonized tune to dominate the slow movement. The finale was a perpetual-motion whirlwind of piano-and-orchestra energy; the abruptness of the ending amounted to a welcome touch, as it indicated that Folds didn't feel it necessary to maximize the spectacle he'd already presented. As a composer, Folds displays here a taste for percussion as a coloristic element. He also indulges that taste with some inside-the-piano passages, from glissandos to partially stopped notes (a struck key with the corresponding string pressed down by the other hand).

Jayce Ogren, the festival's guest conductor, also conducted two environmentally conscious pieces to make fast the connection between music and the environment that's INfusion's raison d'etre. The more substantial of them was John Luther Adams' "Become Ocean," winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the inspiration for a gift of $50,000 to the Seattle Symphony by Taylor Swift.

Lasting just over 40 minutes, "Become Ocean" uses a large orchestra to create an uninterrupted tapestry of swelling and diminishing sound, with no variation in tempo and no figures, motifs, or themes designed to stand out or generate new directions. The orchestra choirs of strings, brass, woodwinds (each with individualized percussion underpinning) hold a steady, unvarying course that seems to symbolize the ocean as a vast force that basically doesn't need and can't account for human activity. "Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean — roll! / Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain," Lord Byron sang.

Massive indifference to mankind's existence, insistently expressed, comes through, though not with the hostility evident in the art of another shore-dwelling creator, the poet Robinson Jeffers. In other words, there's nothing outsized in the sound of this music that wasn't outsized to begin with. The world doesn't need more than one composition like this, but "Become Ocean" is sufficient and even necessary in these imperiled times.

Steven Mackey's "Urban Ocean" has some of those swelling and subsiding phrases that parallel "Become Ocean," but it's splashier, much more frisky and playful. Its 10 minutes seemed a little too long, oddly, but maybe having the perspective of John Luther Adams' piece didn't work to its advantage.

With just a few hours remaining, there's a host of talks by co-presenters, in addition to lobby displays, that as a whole make INfusion a don't-miss event on this weekend's busy calendar.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Jeremy Denk at the Palladium: A syncopation survey, followed by Schubert to the max

Encountering massive change to the printed program was hardly surprising at Jeremy Denk's solo recital Sunday afternoon at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel.

The protean pianist, a cunning interpreter of mainstream masterpieces as well as a deep delver into more obscure repertoire, did some shuffling with the order in the first half and, after intermission, replaced his original Haydn-Beethoven-Schubert design with the monumental Schubert Sonata in B-flat, D. 960.

Jeremy Denk: a master of Schubertian rhetoric, among other things.
A provocative commentator on music both on- and offstage (his blog, think denk, is a must-read, but does not seem to be current), Denk was a lively guide to the bulk of the recital's first half. The curtain-raiser is well worth mentioning right away, however: He captivated the Palladium audience with his performance of J.S. Bach's English Suite No. 3 in G minor.

Highlights included the Courante, with every voice immaculately set forth and balanced against its fellows; crisp, dancing accounts of the two Gavottes, with the intervening Musette given so much character it almost stole the show; and the Gigue, which managed to be — suitably — both insouciant and mysterious. A younger Bach specialist has achieved renown for ingratiating Bach playing that's almost salon-ish, but Denk has no truck with that kind of thing. (He returned to Bach for an encore, showing with one of the Goldberg Variations that Bach's reflective side needn't be limp.)

The seven pieces that followed constituted an idiosyncratic collection of real ragtime, funhouse-mirror ragtime, shirttail-cousin ragtime and proto-ragtime pieces. The last-named category was occupied by the Elizabethan master William Byrd's Pavan and Galliard in D minor (from "Lady Nevell's Book"). Denk reveled in the thickets of ornamentation and the occasional rhythmic offcenteredness that allowed him to claim the work as ragtime avant la lettre.

The expatriate modernist Conlon Nancarrow tested the controlled independence of Denk's hands with Canon, in which tempo discrepancy is the main generator of this difficult exercise in the imitative form. The relation to ragtime lies in the contrast of right and left hands and, especially here, in the complexity of rhythmic displacement — the tugs and pushes, the constant messing with the beat. Denk aced it.

The classic "Sunflower Slow Drag" of Scott Joplin and Scott Hayden launched the series charmingly. Like many pianists since the dawn of ragtime, Denk ignored Joplin's directive that ragtime should never be played fast. To a limited extent, the warning — like Beethoven's metronome markings — can be worth ignoring, and so it was here. The gentle side of the genre that Joplin took pains to promote was updated superbly by William Bolcom in his "Graceful Ghost Rag"; Denk summoned the spirit genially, and (unlike Shakespeare's Owen Glendower), it came when he did call for it.

Cultural appropriation — that bugbear of today's regressive leftists — was a refreshing tributary to the classical mainstream in the 20th century. Paul Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky put the innovative American genre through their personal filters with, respectively, "Ragtime" (from "Suite 1922") and "Piano-Rag-Music."  Denk's delight in shaping refined, articulate noise served both pieces well.

The first half closed with Donald Lambert's ragging of the Pilgrim's Chorus from "Tannhauser," a riproaring send-up of the foursquare tune. In Denk's hands, the arrangement came off less as mockery than as a revelation of another aspect of the melody, sped-up and riding confidently over a jumpy "stride" left hand.

Schubert: Ethos and pathos
Ancient rhetoricians held up two main proofs of their arguments, ethos and pathos. "Proof" means a test, not a slam-dunk substantiation. Franz Schubert's instrumental music — especially the Great C Major Symphony, the string quartets, and the piano sonatas — seems particularly understandable in that way. By "ethos," the Greeks meant a demonstration of the speaker's character, an indication of his worthiness to be believed and his credentials for bringing an audience around. "Pathos" is the appeal to the emotions that can't be separated from getting any point of view across successfully. It's why the philosophers were suspicious of rhetoric as insufficiently devoted to reason.

The expansiveness of the B-flat major sonata, Schubert's last, sets forward his ethos. He is asking the audience to indulge in his broad view of life, the splendid horizons that keep receding, using the argument that taking such a stance is necessary in art. Ethically considered, there should be no hurry about this. But his gift as a melodist enables him also to demonstrate that the ethical long view is inevitably challenged by the pathos of continual change. Thus, tunes are interrupted, occasionally divided, shifted in register, and subject to major-minor swerving and suspenseful pauses.

This is powerful rhetoric for pianists who are patient and conscientious in laying it out, and Denk never faltered in urging the argument upon us. In terms all its own, the four-movement work, lasting 35-40 minutes generally (I didn't time this one), makes the rhetorical case for Schubert's art as well as anything he wrote.

Basically, this sonata puts an eloquent spin on the ancient dictum: Art is long (ethos), life is short (pathos). No one could have stated that with more poignant majesty than Denk did via Schubert on a pleasant spring afternoon in Carmel.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

All-French program by Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra features a rare Wurlitzer display on the classical series

Paul Jacobs stuck to the French theme in his encore, too: the popular Widor Toccata.
Local organists swelled the concert audience at Hilbert Circle Theatre Friday night as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra welcomed Paul Jacobs as featured soloist in Alexandre Guilmant's Symphony No. 1 for Organ and Orchestra.

Jacobs is prominent for his Grammy Award (the first for an organist) and chairmanship of the organ department at the Juilliard School. The vehicle for his ISO debut this weekend (the program will be repeated at 7 tonight) is a towering example of the French romantic organ tradition. That's the most substantial school of organ composition since J.S. Bach, who was a school unto himself.

Laid out in the conventional three movements, with grandeur the keynote to the first and third and a meditative respite in the middle, the work made a powerful effect Friday. Jacobs' command of the Wurlitzer's resources was immaculate.

The clarity of articulation in the outer movements went a long way toward maximizing coordination with the orchestra, which was under the baton of guest conductor Matthew Halls. The statement of the first movement's main theme on the pedal board was authoritatively outlined. Of course, there was plenty of opportunity for the breathless thunder of organ and full orchestra as well. The third-movement climax evoked the Napoleonic splendor that dominated the serious side of 19th-century French music.

Matthew Halls: Engaging notes from the podium.
The blend of reed stops chosen for the Pastorale: Andante quasi allegro set the stage for the delayed entrance of the orchestra woodwinds. The second movement also had some lulling string-section responses to the organ's wistfulness.

Halls is a Baroque specialist from the United Kingdom, his perch in this country being the Oregon
Bach Festival, where he succeeded founder Helmuth Rilling as artistic director. But his crisp podium style seemed to work well with the more highly colored and rhythmically fluid repertoire he brought with him this weekend. He also talked concisely and informatively about three of the pieces before each performance.

An early work by Olivier Messiaen opened the concert. "Les Offrandes oubliees" moves without let-up or apology onto the high ground of the composer's firm Catholic faith.  A triptych of orchestral reflections on the meaning of Christ's sacrifice, "The Forgotten Offerings" (to give its title in English) seems precocious for a 22-year-old, despite earlier benchmarks of compositional savoir faire notched famously by Mozart and Mendelssohn.

There's an absolute confidence in Messiaen's mission-driven handling of the orchestra: The penetrating, sustained outburst in the middle is rhythmically spicy in a way that set a pattern for the composer's mature manipulation of rhythm as a structural element. The finale is prayerful and sonically chaste, focusing on violins and violas, who were fully evocative under Halls' control Friday. The opening presents two layers of slow music, strings contrasting with winds, that readily achieved an anxious unity.

After intermission, Halls led the ISO in two well-known works, even if Darius Milhaud's "La Creation du Monde" is so mainly for its historical importance. For jazz fans, the 15-minute work feels like the most authentic among "classical" compositions in evoking early jazz. A reduced orchestra, somewhat similar to dance bands from the Palm Court heyday until the swing era, presents a balletic creation-myth scenario, well explained by Halls before the performance.

Excessive resonance in the rambunctious portions of the work, the fugue in particular, was its only shortcoming. The big pluses were Mark Ortwein's gently moaning saxophone solos, with additional showcases for Jennifer Christen (oboe) and Samuel Rothstein (clarinet) capably delivered. The hushed ending perfectly captured, in jazz-inflected terms, a prelapsarian Eden.

The concert closed with a poised rendition of Maurice Ravel's Mother Goose Suite. The five pieces were deftly detailed here. As cleverly orchestrated and buoyant as anything the composer ever wrote — and there's lots of competition in those areas from other Ravel works — the suite received a subtle performance in terms of color and dynamics. Everyone's childhood should have such magic in it.