Sunday, March 26, 2017

ISO opens up wide 19th-century vistas in pairing Mendelssohn with Bruckner

Violinist from Seattle is ready for the world stage
The last time Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra audiences heard Mendelssohn's beloved Violin Concerto in E minor, I was at pains to avoid sexist implications in describing the character of the solo playing. This weekend's soloist, like last time, was a young woman who delivered a robust interpretation. With Simone Porter Saturday night, the ISO accompanied a similarly bold, astonishingly ferocious account of the work at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

I found it wholly winning, even though at the very start I wondered if there would be too little phrase-to-phrase definition: The familiar phrases were welded into place. Before long, however, more suppleness became evident. The interpretation never lost its solidly constructed quality, but there was so much more.

In the first-movement cadenza, the soloist set up a kind of internal dialogue that recalled J.S. Bach's strong influence on the fellow Lutheran (through family conversion from Judaism) who revived the St. Matthew Passion publicly as a young man. From there, the transition re-admitting the orchestra was smoothly handled, though the soloist's acceleration momentarily threatened to leave the accompaniment  behind.

In the Andante, her tone remained firm as every ounce of lyricism was wrung from the music. Intensity was brilliantly distributed across the performing forces. At about the point a spooky transitional passage led into the galloping finale, it was clear something miraculous was happening: Porter was showing us Mendelssohn's daimon — his personalized divine spirit. Every great creative artist has one, but Mendelssohn, even at his best, is often admired for being marvelously facile, impeccably well-mannered, and craftsmanlike. And that can seem enough, even as he is commonly held to fall short of the transcendent quality readily sensed in Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, among precious few others.
Matthew Halls

Parker showed herself to be a performing artist with something else another Greek word properly describes: charisma. The unity of her stage presence with her musical ideas and execution raised her debut appearance with the ISO to a memorable experience. There were some brilliantly articulated phrases in the finale, with bowing choices that seemed like a departure from the norm, and always suited her fresh apprehension of the Mendelssohn concerto. The overall effect amounted to a renewed and deepened view of the piece.

The program's other work showcased the gifts of the guest conductor, with which ISO regulars were already acquainted. Halls led a warm, well-proportioned account of Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 in E major. At 65 minutes, the performance neither dawdled nor seemed pressed to move along. And the mood, despite the central position of an Adagio mourning the death of Richard Wagner, whom Bruckner idolized, was overall joyous. There was even a lightness of effect that speaks volumes about the simple optimism of the Catholic faith that carried the Austrian composer through frequent disappointments in both life and art. Halls drew this quality out; you didn't have to wait for the peppy Scherzo to find it.

How is this possible in a composer so often associated with hard-to-digest heaviness, with the ponderous side of a late Romanticism that seems ill-suited to our restless age?

I might bring in another composer of distinction influenced by Richard Wagner, the Englishman Edward Elgar. On the score of his Second Symphony, with its own memorial movement (dedicated to King Edward VII) Elgar inscribed a quotation from his countryman Shelley: "Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight." The dark vision of that short quote permeates Elgar's stirring work. In contradiction, the Bruckner Seventh is almost a creedal assertion that delight never goes away. But it's the kind of delight that rests assured in divine providence, in the composer's certainty that the promise of heavenly life offers delightful comfort to the temporarily earth-bound.

If you see the Spirit of Delight as a constant companion (not a rare visitor) as Bruckner did, it's clear the Seventh's fortified brass proclamations come from the same source as the Scherzo's peasant dance and the winged solos in flute and oboe that fleck the Adagio. Halls and the ISO put this spirit in the forefront. Those of us who can't share Bruckner's faith can nonetheless find in performances like the one Saturday an answer to an apparent mystery:  A symphony lasting over an hour, with formidable peaks and misty valleys, freighted with earnestness and requiring sustained attention (including the effort to ignore a ding-a-linging cellphone) can seem thoroughly delightful.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

'Man of La Mancha' rounds out the change-driven Indianapolis Opera season

Sancho Panza, as the knight's squire, and Don Quixote set out on their adventures.
One of the great bromances of literature takes life onstage in a production of a celebrated musical this weekend at the Schrott Center.

In "Man of La Mancha," the buddy road trip of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is necessarily shrunk from Miguel de Cervantes' trailblazing novel to some of its essentials by Dale Wasserman and his songwriting collaborators. It's being presented through Sunday to end the 2016-17 Indianapolis Opera season.

The insight of Wasserman to thread the author's real-life difficulties through the story of the deluded knight makes the prize-winning adaptation a hymn to idealism summed up in the show's hit song, "The Impossible Dream."

The opening-night performance Friday held the banner aloft in the Schrott's intimate setting, giving a chamber-opera feel to this rendition. The adventures are largely centered on the inn that the deluded knight mistakes for a castle. The "Moorish Dance" episode is cut, and a couple of projections serve to render Don Quixote's visions, including the famous tilting at windmills.

New IO general director David Craig Starkey directs a cast headed by David Malis as Cervantes/Quixote. Once you get used to a stout Don Quixote and a slender Sancho Panza (Scott Wichael), the partnership works pretty well. John Clanton conducts the small, lively orchestra. Ensemble work was well-coordinated and the sung finale,  returning to the "frame" setting of a Spanish prison after Cervantes is led away for questioning, is a stirring reprise of "The Impossible Dream."

The show's underlined message, depicted most movingly in the conversion of the maid-of-all-work (some of it on her back) Aldonza from bitter skepticism to belief, is that often brutal reality needs to be opposed by something finer. The tipping point, however, is when notions of those fine beliefs overtake the believer.

 "Vice, death, poverty, disease, are grave subjects and grieve us," wrote Michel de Montaigne, a near-contemporary of Cervantes, in a late essay. "We should have our souls instructed in the means to sustain and combat evils, and in the rules of right living and right belief, and should often arouse it and exercise it in this fine study. But for a soul of the common sort  this must be done with some respite and with moderation; it goes mad if it is too continually tense."

The Padre (Joseph Levitt) and Antonia (Marci Jackson) proclaim their concern.
Don Quixote has no moderation and is continually tense about his soul's mission. The character rightly needs to appear somewhat ridiculous to "soul[s] of the common sort." Both Cervantes' work and Wasserman's adaptation tease the audience to consider that most of us are not much different from the family of the old country gentleman Alonso Quihana, who are embarrassed at his self-enthrallment by chivalric fiction and his subsequent quest to revive outmoded manners. The song "I'm Only Thinking of Him," well brought off in this production (especially by Marci Jackson as the niece Antonia), clearly invites us to examine the social pressure to conform — even in our own distracted times.

Malis' performance mostly presented the Don as a solid, good-hearted citizen with an eccentric hobby —  a knighthood reenactor. Though we are meant to be won over to the visionary hero eventually, just as Cervantes'  fellow prisoners are won over by his narrative, this Don Quixote could have used a more maniacal quality. Karen Mushegain's fiery, expressive Aldonza had to resist the knight-errant's concept of her as the lady Dulcinea almost entirely on the supposition of his playing a cruel trick on her. The eye-rolling attitude that drastic eccentricity usually arouses was best expressed by Christopher Burchett as the Innkeeper, who politely humors Don Quixote, deftly parrying his delusional thrusts.

The Muleteers prepare the violate the already much-abused Aldonza.
The goofiness of the deluded knight's mission is summed up in this production mostly by Wichael's Sancho, a sensible as well as sententious fellow willing to serve a man who takes him out of his dull rustic routine. The leading edge the squire provides in the comic song "A Little Gossip" was a highlight. Other singing peaks included Aldonza's "What Does He Want From Me," which, like Mushegain's vocal command in the deathbed scene, was more striking here than in the character's searing song of self-description, where clarity faded somewhat (partly from the orchestra's covering her). Malis allowed his well-seasoned baritone to blossom in "Man of La Mancha" and "The Impossible Dream," though he didn't project as well when called upon to use less than his full voice, as in the start of the latter song.

Nathaniel Hein has a nice little showcase in the barber's song. Rafael Porto shone as the self-important Dr. Carrasco, who, as the Captain of Mirrors, delivers the Don's poignant comeuppance. Joseph Levitt displayed the clergy's conventional probity, leavened with tender regard for the knight, as the Padre.

The Muleteers exhibited solid vocal and dramatic teamwork. The distressing sexual assault on Aldonza was a more effective display of fight choreography than the rather paint-by-numbers battle in which Don Quixote and his two allies vanquish their tormentors at the inn. Yet that was the scene in which Malis' comic gifts achieved a rare triumph, as the Don flails in ineffectual menace, his head covered by a bucket. When he removes the unwanted head covering, he looks around with a trace of self-satisfaction worthy of Sir John Falstaff. It was good to see the Don as a figure of fun in a portrayal that leaned a little too much toward the blandly avuncular.

[Photos by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]

Thursday, March 23, 2017

"Krapp's Last Post": The legacy of Samuel Beckett as reflected in today's online connectedness

[The following playlet was inspired equally by Samuel Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape" and a "Fresh Air" interview with Adam Alter, author of "Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked."]

A late evening in the future. A small room in Krapp's home, with a plain wooden table front center and one chair behind it. A floor
From a production of "Krapp's Last Tape," by Samuel Beckett.
lamp should be behind the table and to the left, as though to illuminate an area that's never occupied. There's a small refrigerator toward the rear of the stage, plugged in.

Elderly man moves downstage from the back. Hair gray and mussed. He's casually, even shabbily, dressed: scuffed tennis shoes, blue jeans, pullover sweater with a tear at the neck, nondescript shirt.

Before sitting down wearily at the desk, takes iPhone from right jeans pocket, holds it up momentarily like a chalice, stares at it, then sets it down. Takes a granola bar out of jeans' other pocket, sets it on the table to his left. Sits down. Glances warily at iPhone. Pause. Then to the granola bar. Picks it up, unwraps it slowly. Places one end in his mouth. It sticks out like a cigar. Sets wrapper down and smooths it out. Turns back to iPhone, picks it up. Suddenly remembers he has a granola bar in his mouth, so he sets iPhone down again, bites off part of the granola bar, then sets the rest down on the wrapper.

Picks up the iPhone, swipes to Facebook app as he chews his bite of granola bar. Sighs heavily.

Voice [all words whenever they follow this stage direction should be read by a hidden offstage voice, representing Krapp's reading from the iPhone screen to himself]: What's on your mind?

Krapp: Always the same question. (Pause.) Should ask Siri. (Presses home button.) What's on your mind?

Voice: Who, me?

Krapp (Groans. Presses home button again. Louder): What's on MY mind?

Voice: Interesting question.

Krapp: That figures. Dodge the difficult ones, she does. The obscene ones, too. So they tell me. Doubt that Alexa's any better.  A real catfight, though, those two. And they slut-shame Cortana, I understand. (Pause.) Facebook knows it's my birthday, so here I am, like clockwork. Check my feed. My Facebook friends. How many? 223! (Pause.) Could I name 50 of them, even. Gun to my head. Many people I've never met. Friends (Savoring the word.)  Friends. (Pause.) Here's a status report.

Voice: Thanks for all the many prayers and well wishes. Gramps came through the procedure OK, considering, and is now resting comfortably. We are hoping for the best. Welcome your prayers and...

Krapp: Oh, this is a long one. On it goes (Scrolls down, browsing hastily.) Well, I'll like it. (Pause. Staring at screen, he reaches for granola bar, takes another bite, sets it down.) Or a smile emoji, maybe? (Pause.) The old man may be near death. Should I be smiling? (Pause.) "Like" it is. Means I'm glad to hear from you, basically. And he had a full life, whatever that is. And whoever you are. (Pause.) OK, now what's on my mind? Ah. (Types.) I heard the other day that "World of Warcraft" is a weaponized game. A hundred million people play it worldwide. They form guilds and go on missions. (Stops typing.) Why post this? Never played the game. Facebook friends, some may be into gaming. Or their kids must be. I'm warning them not to become addicted, right. (Pause.) Or else I'm implying they, or their loved ones, are already addicted. Criticize a friend's leisure pursuits. Not good. Might start interesting comment thread, though. (Pause.) Check my settings. OK, not "public," just "friends." Damage control. Maybe only "certain friends." Then I gotta choose: who's in, who's out. (Waves a hand dismissively.) Keep it public. No man is an island.

Voice: You have memories today. (Pause as Krapp scrolls down a bit.) Digital media allows you to exist in the world without being inventive, except in extreme cases as when someone playing Pokemon Go walks into traffic.

Krapp: How long ago was Pokemon Go hot? Look it up. (Types keywords, waits briefly.)

Voice: Initial release date July 6, 2016.

Krapp: Seems it should be longer ago. Not like memories of women who once let you get close to them. Always seem recent, those. Tactile. Yet somehow far away, too. (Pause. Looks off into space.) But all these fads recede at warp speed. Unless you're into the fad, I suppose. (Pause. Sings, slowly.)

            "It's been a hard day's night, I've been working like a dog. It's been a hard..."

(Pause. Realizes he has forgotten the next line.) Look it up. (Finds lyrics to "A Hard Day's Night.") Yes, of course. (Sings.)

           "I should be sleeping like a log."

Surprising I forgot that. How many rhymes for "dog"? Not many. Fog and bog, too. Then there's blog, don't remind me. Curious idea, though: "Sleeping like a log." Where's that come from? Like "happy as a clam." I've always wondered. How does anybody know? Ought to look up "studies of happiness in clams." (Pause.) Bah! Maybe later. Someday.

Voice: You have memories today with....

Krapp (interrupting): Oh no. Not her. But who is...? Oh, I became friends with her three years ago. Married now, I would guess. Or came out as a lesbian. Which today could also mean she's married, of course. (Pause.) Can't let down fellow players in the game. You feel bonded. Remember that detail from the guy I heard interviewed. On the radio. Told the whole world that Pokemon Go players sometimes walk into traffic. Ghastly scene, that must be. He's the one who talked about "World of Warcraft." Said a football player got into it off-season. Can't imagine people dividing their lives into seasons that aren't fall, winter, spring,  summer. But your athletes do. Pizza boxes stacked to the ceiling. Never left his room. Ordered in. Got fat and doughy. His skin changed. I forget exactly how. But it wasn't good. I should have linked to the interview. (Looks down, scrolls.) What's this?

Voice: The average human attention span today is 8 seconds; 10 years ago, it was 12 seconds. The average goldfish has a nine-second attention span.

Krapp (shaking head): Can't say how I got any friends, or likes, the way I used to post. Fragmentary. No wonder I preferred Twitter. Even there I hated to link. Imposing on people: you have to read this! (Raises voice.) This is part of who I am, and you follow me on Twitter! (Pause. then quietly, as if hurt.) So you ought to read this. It's only fair. Where were the retweets? Where are the snows of yesteryear? But I should have provided links more often. That's only fair, too. Frustrate people, and they're on to the next thing. Every time.

Voice: Moment is an app that quantifies your use of your smartphone. Wastenotime sets a limit on your use of the iPhone.

Krapp: Did I ever download those apps? Seems too late now. (Gets up, stares into space, finishes eating granola bar. Turns and walks back to refrigerator, opens it. Gets out a can of beer, comes back to table. Sits down, pops tab, takes a sip. Looks at screen.)

Voice: Which character in a film noir is most like you? Take this quiz.

Krapp: Do I want to know this? Haven't seen much film noir. "Maltese Falcon," "The Big Sleep." (Pause.) Twitter scared me, because you have to do short bits. And I think in short bits. Always have. Made me self-conscious. I felt mocked. I kept the account, though. Followed thousands of accounts. Oh, Twitter was just made for you, my wife used to say. She was nuts. The most obvious things to her passed for great insights. (Pause. Drinks.) That was one of them.

Voice: With a behavioral addiction, the brain looks similar to a heroin addict's. The same pleasure centers are affected. The physiological response pairs with a psychological need. A digital-media addiction seeks to fill that gap.

Krapp: Something about dopamine released. He went into that, too. This natural thing — chemical — in the brain. All about pleasure. They had to give it a name that sounds so stupid. (Drinks beer again, sets can down with finality.) Dopamine: makes people feel stupid about pleasure. Why? (Sings again, slowly.)

             "But when I get home to you, I find the things that you do, will make me feel all right."

Voice: On July 18, 1993, the New York Times published a letter by Martin Baker of Philadelphia, asserting that the plays of Samuel Beckett are, quote, metaphorical displays of spiritual decay, unquote. And here's what he said after mentioning some instances of this decay, quote: We do, do, do, because if we pause we'll have to listen to the quiet pace of actual living, and listen to what we have to say to ourselves and find we have nothing to say, unquote.

Krapp (standing up, beer in one hand, iPhone in the other): Long time ago, 1993, and that was way before the Internet. There's plenty to say now. What was I thinking to post such a thing? Already faded testimony.  I must have saved a newspaper clipping. Thought the letter to the Times spoke to my, my what? My condition. (Pause. Sits down, types.) Had he lived long enough, Samuel Beckett could have been what they called "a design ethicist" at Google. Make sure their games and things would do no harm. He had the grasp for it. Well, they fired the design ethicist, I heard.  The actual one. (Pause. Resumes typing.) Spiritual decline, people don't know what that is. The Monopoly people put up an online survey to ask people which token they would get rid of. So they junked the thimble, then people went wild, upset. Surveys! Connectivity isolates, really. The more you ask people things, the less they feel their voice is being heard. (Stops. Looks his post over, clicks "post".) If no man is an island, that means there are no more islands. Everybody landlocked with everybody else.

Voice: A professor asked his class, How much would you pay if I took your phone away? To get your phone back, how much would you pay? They would pay a lot, it turned out. He was shocked. One student replied: If you'd pay me enough to buy another phone, yes, you could have this one. (Pause.) Consider the lilies of the field.

Krapp: I could do that. Neither toil, nor spin. That's the life, dealing with everyone face to face, so you could compare them with the people you once knew. Settle accounts. No spiritual decay. Or at least slower. (Pause. Sits down again. Starts typing.) I had her tears on my handkerchief. Hours later, I could still taste the salt. (Drinks the last of the beer. Resumes typing.) But the chance of happiness not worth going back, just to play the thimble. There are such options now. (Long pause.) Like Solomon in all his glory. Strike out overland for the shore. Must be real islands left somewhere. Time to put out to sea. That's the ticket! (Clicks "post." Holds phone up, chalicelike as at the beginning. Powers down, lays iPhone on table.)

Blackout. Curtain.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Double silver: Two competition medalists share an IVCI Laureate Series concert

Tessa Lark and Peter Klimo won major international awards in 2014.
Two substantial sonatas for violin and piano occupied conspicuous positions at either end of a recital presented Tuesday night by Tessa Lark and Peter Klimo. Richard Strauss' youthful E-flat major sonata, op. 18, brought the event at the Indiana History Center to a rousing conclusion. Sergei Prokofiev's Sonata No. 2 in D major, op. 94a, opened the concert, presented under the auspices of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.

As accomplished as the Strauss sonata is for a composer who had so many great works ahead of him, the music bursts at the seams. It's no surprise that, at 23, the future master of opera and the symphonic poem wrote no more chamber music after this sonata. In their performance, Lark and Klimo forged a strong partnership that acknowledged the score's superheroic reach, reveling in the variety of expression and musical material. The unusually titled slow movement, "Improvisation," displayed the right atmosphere of spontaneity and even capriciousness. The finale, with its vaulting rondo theme, surged and subsided in turn and put a seal on the partnership of silver medalists in two 2014 compeititions: Klimo won his prize in the Franz Liszt in Utrecht; Lark, in that year's IVCI.

My impression of the Prokofiev performance was somewhat less favorable. Nothing failed the violinist technically (except for some smeary ascending figures in the Scherzo); indeed, the wide intervals in the slow movement's melody were managed smoothly and with keenly felt lyricism. But her intensity seemed somewhat unidiomatic. Though Lark and Klimo worked together well, it sounded as if the pianist had a more appropriate light touch.

Prokofiev's romanticized modernism is not always in sync with artists of unabashed romantic temperament; there's a touch of irony about him, a holding of emotion at arm's length.  Temperamentally romantic is the kind of violinist Lark seems to be. Her encore, an arrangement of a Mendelssohn "Song Without Words" offered in tribute to Josef Gingold, whose Stradivarius is on loan to her through IVCI, was sufficient indication of that. And that confirmed the flair she exhibited for Fritz Kreisler's "Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta," where she captivated with gorgeous low-lying melodies at the outset.

Back to the Prokofiev sonata: It's salutary to remember that the work was originally for flute and piano. I'm allowing for the possibility that Lark knows that version. I'm just saying that as a listener the temporal priority of the flute version is not irrelevant. The floating, buoyant sound of the flute leaves an imprint on a work that of course is fully acceptable in the latter version. Admittedly it's an open question: Should violists working on Brahms' two sonatas for their instrument with piano know the clarinet-piano original? Should cellists understandably attracted to the version Jules Delsart made of Cesar Franck's violin sonata have the sound of the original somewhere in their heads? I think the answer is "yes," even though the three examples I cite were either penned by the composers and/or approved by them for publication. Thus, they don't need to stand in the shadow of the originals, but the originals must somehow be part of the interpretive process that (in order) violinists, violists, and cellists undertake.

As for the rest of the concert, Lark showed she's by no means hemmed in by romanticism in her performance of Telemann's compact unaccompanied  Fantasia No. 4 in D major. Both that Baroque work and the Kreisler are on a forthcoming CD spotlighting fantasias, a program likely to display the attractive breadth of Lark's playing.

Klimo offered two unaccompanied pieces. One of them, Liszt's "Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude," put forward expansively his prizewinning affinity for the Hungarian composer. The work requires a patient sojourn through the mystical side of Liszt, whose life and music encompasses so much of both heavenly and hellish perspectives. There's a wealth of delicate figuration that has to be brought forth with as much significance as the broad theme that prefigures the kind of "endless melody" for which his son-in-law, Richard Wagner, was famous. A luminous devotion to Liszt-at-prayer seemed complete in Klimo's performance.

The other piece was Marc-Andre Hamelin's sly, effusive tribute to Domenico Scarlatti's binary keyboard sonatas, Etude No. 6 in D minor. Sharing a birth year with Tuesday's birthday boy, J.S. Bach, Scarlatti poured out freshly designed masterpieces by the dozen while serving the Spanish court. Hamelin's witty replication of his model's style, spiced with dissonance (including tone clusters) and repetitive figures, was boldly yet tidily stated in Klimo's performance. Besides its usefulness as a complex etude, the piece seems to comment on the intricacy of serving royalty successfully during its European heyday.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"Row After Row": The 51st state of professionally led readings in the Indy Actors' Playground series

The enthralling series of actor-selected plays read for small audiences at Indy Reads Books marked No. 51 Monday night.

Indy Actors' Playground, a project shepherded by Lou Harry in partnership with, at first, Bill Simmons, now with Paul Hansen,
brought forward Rob Johansen's choice of "Row After Row," by Jessica Dickey. About once a year, I seem to quell anxiety about reviewing a presentation clearly marketed as recreation for the local acting community. That seems right, I guess, though I've enjoyed a few other readings I decided not to blog about. My previous Indy Actors' Playground posts, one from 2015, one from 2016, can be accessed here and also here.

Johansen has a knack for finding the grotesque charm in obsessed characters, and so he does as the intensely committed, detail-obsessed Civil War re-enactor Cal in "Row After Row." With the able assistance of Jen Johansen and Mike Floyd, who have similar time-traveling, character-shifting requirements, the three actors fold into the performance intermittent portraits of people caught up in the bloody, consequential events at Gettysburg in early July 1863.
Jessica Dickey, author of "Row After Row"

Dickey mines a lot of the comic disconnect between nerds and the real world in the early scenes of this one-act. Cal needs lessons in perspective and civility from his uneasy pal Tom in treating Leah, whose initial offense is having taken a seat at their favorite table before the men arrive at a Gettysburg bar for post-reenactment refreshment. The dialogue bristles with tension that entangles sexism and authenticity. Leah holds her own from the start, and eventually Tom has one of those "bursting" moments of a quiet character that make drama so exciting.

When Civil War actuality washes over these characters. they embody people that resonate somehow with their 21st-century selves. Dickey manages this quite well. The wartime dialogue, while fiercely reflective of war's epic distractions from normality, attains a lyricism reminiscent of the Civil War poetry and prose of Walt Whitman. Particularly vivid is Cal's transformation into General Longstreet, the Confederate leader caught up in one of Robert E. Lee's colossal mistakes that's become known as Pickett's Charge.

"Authenticity ain't cheap" is a line in the play that comes to mean not only the outsize financial costs of this hobby but also  the psychological price of toggling between two worlds — worlds of jarring contrast that happen to occupy the same turf more than a century-and-a-half apart.

A recent study I heard about (on NPR, naturally) contrasted the wartime memories of veterans afflicted with PTSD and those who saw combat but remained free of that illness. Over time, the latter group put their memories in the context of bonding around a common effort, with a glow of heroism. Each time their reminiscences were recorded, they changed in this rosy direction. The accounts of PTSD sufferers, however, always remained the same, in harrowing detail. It's also been established that all memories of people roughly within the mentally healthy spectrum are unconsciously revised with each retelling. It's no figure of speech to say we are truly authors of our own lives, even as we believe we're being honest about them.

Dickey's Civil War re-enactors exemplify this habit within the conventions of the exacting discipline of historical re-enactment. Through the participants' expensive hobby, the exhilaration and terror of warfare resonate with their personal fears, hang-ups and the tenuous promise of joy and fulfillment. Grounded in this reality and neatly balanced between comedy and pathos, "Row After Row" deserves to be staged here.

Monday, March 20, 2017

St. Paul's Music brings a distinguished conductor back to the podium for Haydn's "Lord Nelson" Mass

Peril in the wider world often has an impact on artistic creation. When Joseph Haydn composed his Missa in angustiis (a title
variously translated as "Mass in Time of Fear," "Mass in Time of Peril," "Mass Amidst Difficulties," and "Mass in a Time of Anxiety"), Napoleon was on a roll and was about to conquer Egypt.

Joseph Flummerfelt conducted the 'Nelson' Mass.
The work speaks to us to today mainly because its forcefulness is joined to a high level of inspiration from a master musician widely regarded in 1798 as Europe's best composer. After  Lord Nelson commanded a decisive naval victory over Napoleon's forces where the Nile empties into the Mediterranean, the work was performed in his honor when the British war hero in 1800 visited the Esterhazy palace where Haydn had been profitably situated for decades. Nelson's name became attached understandably to a piece whose Latin title has proved resistant to a definitive English translation.

St. Paul's Music at St. Paul's Episcopal Church presented the work under the direction of Joseph Flummerfelt, a  choral conductor renowned chiefly for his many years as artistic director and principal conductor of Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. Now retired, the Vincennes native and DePauw University alumnus lives in Indianapolis. Flummerfelt's Westminster position and the excellence of his choirs made him a frequent collaborator with many eminent conductors, including Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Masur, and Riccardo Muti.

Sunday afternoon's performance captured the splendor of a work the pre-eminent Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon called "arguably Haydn's greatest single composition." The scoring has no woodwinds in the original, though a flutist, two oboists, and a bassoonist were used at St. Paul's in the "normalized" version often heard, and the organ part scrapped. The result brings trumpets and kettledrums to the fore.

His patron's downsizing of the Esterhazy orchestra is said to be responsible for the unusual absence of horns and woodwinds, and it perhaps encouraged the composer to give a military cast to his setting to reflect the peril, fear, difficulties, and anxieties of his title. The strings could fruitfully have been a little larger, but on the whole the liveliness and contrapuntal richness of the accompaniment came through adequately. The arching violin lines in "Et incarnatus est" were nicely defined.

St. Paul's Choir made a unified impact, and showed its capability to remain balanced across sudden dynamic shifts, such as that between the hushed first part of the Sanctus and the exultant lines beginning "Pleni sunt coeli." The opening "Kyrie" was sufficiently powerful, and the "Gloria" ecstatic. The rhetoric of praise in the two lines beginning "Laudamus te" received soaring commitment from the sopranos. Evidence of thorough preparation by St. Paul's staff directors was consistent; a slightly ragged cutoff in the "Amen" concluding "Quoniam tu solus" was the performance's only rough spot

The temptation to prefer operatic voices in the solo parts is not misplaced, I think. Sacred music in Vienna's Classical era was heavily under the influence of Italian styles, which tended toward a flamboyance unknown in the North German heritage best represented by Bach. Flummerfelt's soloists embodied the operatic style well, except for the most dominant one, soprano Tabitha Burchett. A fuller blossoming quality would have been welcome, something on the order of what we heard from mezzo-soprano Rachel K. Evans, tenor Bille Bruley, and bass Jonathan Bryan.

Before the "Lord Nelson," the choir had a showcase of its own, Mozart's "Ave verum corpus," in which its warmth of expression and fully supported phrasing suited the motet's sublimity. That was preceded by a clergyman's welcome, whose genuine hospitality seemed unnecessarily intensified by his insistence that the concert was being presented as an act of worship in which the audience was a participant. A concert of sacred music will of course communicate something extra to believers, but can best be taken in on its artistic merits by everyone else. A church's musical outreach to the larger community deserves gratitude, but not an implied commitment in return to its institutional mission.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Grappling with the question of "Shostakovich triumphant" at an ISO concert

Joshua Weilerstein: Affable, capable and with a message to deliver.
Guest conductor Joshua Weilerstein, slender, boyish and wavy-haired, gave a little speech from the podium Saturday evening before he led the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in D minor.

It's bold to put into words the effect one wants to have on an audience before delivering the effect musically, but conductors like to try it with problematic pieces. Mario Venzago made a habit of such explanations, and Krzysztof Urbanski, his successor as music director, has gotten more comfortable doing so.

The talk was quite apropos, as the Shostakovich Fifth emerged out of social and political conditions unimaginable (so far!) to Americans today. How to take it for what it meant in 1937 can provide guidance to its significance in 2017. In brief, Weilerstein described the work's origin as the composer's attempt to remove himself from danger, and keep at least his career alive, after having displeased Josef Stalin with an edgy opera premiered the year before. And he ended up trumping Stalin (pun unavoidable), or did he?
Influential LP cover (not my copy, which was monaural, and has gone missing)

The oft-quoted subtitle, now believed to have been provided for Shostakovich, not by him, usually runs like this: "A Soviet artist's creative reply to justified criticism." Until the publication of Solomon Volkov's "Testimony" in 1979, a book purported to be the composer's memoir, the humility in that subtitle was taken at face value, and the music's progress from difficulty through despair to triumph was seen as self-evident.

Volkov had Shostakovich saying "all my symphonies are tombstones," and the ending of the Fifth is supposed to convey forced joy. Like so many other listeners, I took the work as a successful apology subsumed in a patriotic statement, monumental and artistically worthy (though Shostakovich has long had eminent detractors, like the late Pierre Boulez, who dismissed his music as "a bunch of cliches").

As a teenager, I owned and often listened to Leonard Bernstein's recording with the New York Philharmonic and readily subscribed to the "self-evident triumph" interpretation. His tempos were on the fast side (except for the Largo, of course), and though I no longer have the LP, I remember his approach to the second movement (Allegretto) was buoyant and bouncy, not sardonic (as Weilerstein described it, proceeding to elicit such an interpretation).

In those days, one often listened to records while gazing at the cover art. In this case that was a photo of Bernstein gripping the hand of the composer after a performance of the work on the Philharmonic's Soviet Union tour. And the normally dour Shostakovich is smiling! So I naively identified happiness as the work's authentic, hard-earned outcome. Besides, I was already familiar with the equally genuine ascent toward transcendent joy in the symphonic tradition launched by Beethoven's third, fifth and ninth symphonies.

I now mostly accept Weilerstein's conviction that any triumph that emerges in the work is of the nose-thumbing variety. What a self-absorbed tyrant may take for a celebration of life in his country is, in this view, a surreptitious assault hammered home at an unsuspecting philistine autocrat. In this regard, it's pertinent to note that one commentator on the work, D. Kern Holoman, renders the famous subtitle as "a Soviet artist's practical creative reply to justified criticism." In the context of all I've just said, the word "practical" speaks volumes.

The ISO played the piece with its recent adaptability to visiting maestros fully in evidence. The long, slow opening of the work managed to convey tentativeness emotionally without being tentatively executed.  When the piano and low horns bring on the fast tempo, the effect was galvanizing. In the Allegretto, the way small figures are flipped around (the flute seems to go  "yoo-hoo!") had the sardonic quality Weilerstein had promised, particularly in the horn melody.

After the Largo rises to a huge climax, the return to the movement's opening mood was as enchanting as the memory of a disturbing dream. The string sections' command of pianissimo has been well taught them by Venzago and Urbanski. The general onslaught of the finale was quite rapid, but flexible; perhaps Raymond Leppard's attention to the movement's tempo shifts was more scrupulous (in the version included in the "Indianapolis On-the-Air" series), but Weilerstein didn't just plow ahead. He avoided broadening the tempo at the very end, a mistake that tends to emblazon that face-value notion of socially acceptable triumph. The music surged forward, and for me, the composer saves his flipping off of the Soviet leader for when the bass drum underlines the timpani at the very end: "This is for you, Uncle Joe!" And so it was played Saturday night, triple forte but in effect as loud as possible.
Renaud Capucon could hardly have been more suitable to render Bernstein's "Serenade."

The concert's first half confirmed the guest maestro's affinity for modern music. The Shostakovich Fifth was the program's oldest piece. In 1954, Leonard Bernstein wrote "Serenade After Plato's Symposium," a top-drawer reflection for violin and orchestra based on the most substantial Platonic dialogue. (The Republic is in dialogue form, but only as a formality; the liveliness of actual conversation adheres to Symposium, a dinnertime chat in depth about love.)

The five-movement piece is probably Bernstein's most accomplished piece, not counting his stage works. Guest violinist  Renaud Capucon seemed the ideal interpreter. From the opening notes of Phaedras: Pausanias on, his playing emphasized a kind of classical restraint while enfolding the sort of extroverted warmth characteristic of Bernstein. His tone had stature and consistency. He seemed to display the French temperament of holding emotion within bounds without veiling it. The contour of the melody in the first movement called to mind the music Bernstein was to write for Maria in "West Side Story" just a few years later. The way the slow movement (Agathon) ended was a breathtaking achievement. The jazzy revels in the finale as Alcibiades and his buddies crash the party sparkled, and Capucon's dialogue with the solo cello of Austin Huntington in that movement couldn't have been truer to Socratic give-and-take.

To open the concert, John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" introduced the vast canvases painted by Bernstein and Shostakovich with compact energy. The 1986 piece is an exhilarating five-minute ride. It's the kind of work about which it's hard to know when it is about to go off the rails. It's pretty clear it didn't, but any close calls will have to remain the performers' closely kept secret. It prepared the large, enthusiastic audience for just about anything. And that's exactly what they were to get, in good measure.