Monday, September 26, 2016

Henry Kramer opens Premiere Series of participant concerts in quest for APA's Classical Fellowship

Henry Kramer played Mozart, Haydn, Ligeti, Chopin, and Ravel impressively.
An unannounced switch of program order in Henry Kramer's recital Sunday afternoon resulted in thunderous applause after the first movement of Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2, op. 35.  Perhaps some people thought they had just heard Ravel's "Ondine," which was originally due to follow the opening piece, Haydn's Sonata in E major, Hob. XVI:31.

I'm not one of those death-to-those-who-applaud-between-movements purists, though I prefer not to. But it wasn't necessarily out-of-place for the Sonata in B-flat minor's "Grave. Doppio movimento" to get such an ovation at the Indiana History Center, considering the command that Kramer displayed.

Admirable was the steady balance of left and right hands, which share material fiercely in dubious battle to the very end. (And by "dubious" I mean "of uncertain outcome," as John Milton used it in that phrase, later borrowed by John Steinbeck as title for a labor novel.)

Poise was evident throughout the solo portion of the program, which followed the format so successful in the past of presenting a competition finalist unaccompanied in the first half of a concert and as concerto soloist after intermission.  Kramer, a 29-year-old doctoral student at Yale and already a much-laureled artist, is the first of five finalists in the Premiere Series of the American Pianists Association.

After all five have notched separate one-week visits here and been judged accordingly, they will come together  in April for Discovery Week, during which their skills as chamber musicians, voice collaborators, and new-music interpreters will be assessed,  then the Gala Finals of concerto performances with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. APA has devised a season-long formula for piano excitement.

Returning to the Chopin sonata: The Scherzo intensified the juggernaut feeling, its grim humor relieved by a lyrical episode that Kramer didn't seem at all eager to abandon. The funeral-march movement, whose theme has been parodied in pop and folk culture ("Where will we all be a hundred years from now?"), had a steadiness and sobriety that never faltered. The enigmatic finale rippled from Kramer's fingertips with the sotto voce direction faithfully sustained.

Kramer seems a natural dramatist at the keyboard, but without indulging in false, or even overplayed, gestures. The patrician sensuousness of Maurice Ravel's music, in "Ondine," for example, won't allow it. There is room for dramatic flair in the gathering force of the French composer's evocation of a water nymph. But the glittering atomization of her allure, before and after she makes the pitch (in the poem that inspired the composer) to a mortal to become her husband, has to appear as a substantial attraction and threat. And so it did here.

Four selections from Gyorgy Ligeti's arcanely devised but thoroughly listenable "Musica ricercata" brought the solo recital to a close. The etude-like pieces were notable for Kramer's independence of hands in the "Cantabile molto legato," his control of accents in "Vivace. Energico," and the sturdy whimsy of "Vivace. Capriccioso."  Apt tone and voicing of chords were consistent.

With the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra onstage under the direction of Matthew Kraemer, Kramer applied his superb skills of articulation, dynamic control, and overarching insight to Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503. By the end of the marvelous finale, I became convinced I had met an actual person, or a plausible hologram of one. Later at home, I opened my "Mozart Compendium," a guide edited by H.C. Robbins Landon, to come across this as the first sentence of a brief essay on the concertos: "The anthropomorphic qualities of Mozart's solo concertos invite comparisons with his operatic and concert arias."

Strong stuff to apply to an abstract instrumental work, I know, but this performance put a three-dimensional personality before us. I see a kingly figure, accustomed to command but also sensitive to other natures, capable of entertaining second thoughts,  and aware of his own vulnerabilities. The trumpet-and-drums majesty of the first movement, which in this concert had already been heralded by the orchestra's performance of the overture to "La Clemenza di Tito," becomes less insistent in the finale, which has so many other charms to put forward.

These are expressed through an abundance of cunning interactions between piano and orchestra, to which this performance stayed well attuned. Flawless juxtaposition of major and minor modes — a characteristic underlined by Kramer's choice of cadenza — suggested a self-possessed person's transitory mood shifts. The lovely dialogue between piano and the lower strings late in the finale resembled the private conference of a ruler and his wisest counselors. Then, after the pianist's last statement, the public face of the ruler is authoritatively displayed in the trumpet-and-drums vigor of the final measures. This performance set such a Sarastro before us, and we were inclined to nod in respectful acknowledgment — and be delighted to do so.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Everything looks rosy as ISO celebrates 100th birthday of its home, 200th of its state

The feeling of a community resting on solid foundations energized the atmosphere Sunday evening as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra presented its Opening Night Gala concert at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Jack Everly as he appears on ISO website.
It was Jack Everly's show. A conductor from Richmond who is used to occupying the spotlight,  which he does affably and without a touch of the grandiose, presenting himself to the ISO's blended audience and several dignitaries whose presence was acknowledged by CEO Gary Ginstling from the stage.

A recently signed contract, with terms reached early and not against a play/don't-play deadline, shows ISO's musicians a way out of the shadows of a difficult contract that forced them to lose professional status with a tightened schedule and smaller paychecks. Things are looking up.

Everly knows how to shape pops programs. His gala choices were mixed, but with popular appeal guaranteed. Guest stars included some local connections in an aura of glamour: Broadway star Megan Hilty, local (and internationally recognized) operatic soprano Angela Brown, actor and activist George Takei, Pink Martini director Thomas Lauderdale, and ISO concertmaster Zach De Pue.

Everly was characteristically an amusing, informative host. He knows apt historical tidbits and shares them: George Gershwin's first song was written in 1916,  the year the Circle Theatre opened as a movie theater (it would prefix its name with "Hilbert" in 1996). The song, a recorded snatch of which was played for the capacity audience, bears the cheeky title, "When You Want 'Em, You Can't Get 'Em, When You've Got 'Em, You Don't Want 'Em." A sentiment we can all get behind at certain points in life, I suspect.

Megan HIlty sang Cole Porter.
The Gershwin tidbit set up Lauderdale's guest appearance as soloist in "Rhapsody in Blue." Lauderdale brought to the piece an evocation (whether deliberate or not) of the song-plugger brashness of the Tin Pan Alley that Gershwin entered as a teenager. I prefer my "Rhapsody" performances with more accuracy and finesse, but the spirit of the piece from before it was considered a classical milestone was intact. The orchestral accompaniment followed suit with appropriate flair.

Gershwin in a different mood, and in his most mature phase, was represented by "My Man's Gone Now" from "Porgy and Bess." Brown's performance was exemplary, well-sung and thoughtfully acted as the lament of Serena for the loss of her husband in a fight with the villain Crown.  The Indianapolis soprano had earlier helped Everly open the concert with a generally straightforward performance of the national anthem.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" was the first song I ever heard Megan Hilty sing, in a broadcast of the U.S. Open tennis final several years ago. She has the same knack in concert of putting vocal music across that she displayed for ceremonial purposes then. She represented Hoosier native Cole Porter in four songs, giving apparently full, authentic versions of "Anything Goes," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "So in Love," and, after some banter with Everly, "Always True to You in My Fashion." Hilty enunciated the text and lent it some extra twinkle, supported by excellent arrangements.

The other major songwriting Hoosier, Hoagy Carmichael, had a place on the program in an orchestral arrangement of "Stardust." It's been said that the two melodies that constitute this song cover the gamut of the classic American popular song: the wistful and the assertive. Both shone in this performance, which followed a clever Everly arrangement of movie themes in celebration of the theater's history. Bookended by Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," the pastiche included samples of "Lullaby of Broadway," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Psycho," "A Hard Day's Night" in the parade of hits.

The ISO's concertmaster, now clean-shaven, showed his panache as soloist in Saint-Saens' "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso." De Pue's radiant performance appealingly balanced light and shade, though it was taken a mite too fast for everyone to seem quite comfortable. The other classical composition to make an appearance was "A Lincoln Portrait" by Aaron Copland, featuring Takei doing the solemn, thought-provoking narration, consisting mostly of the sixteenth president's golden words. A special treat was to get first exposure to the playing of the orchestra's newly hired principal trumpet, Conrad Jones.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Don't know much about history, or swordfighting? No matter, as Indiana Repertory Theatre opens with "The Three Musketeers"

Stage combat has a way of distracting me, but only momentarily. When it is well done, as it is in Indiana
A "Three Musketeers" swordfight: You'll put the nagging question aside.
Repertory Theatre's
new production of "The Three Musketeers," the question keeps popping up: "How do they do that?"

In magic shows, that's part of the entertainment, the wonder of the genre. Watching a drama with fight episodes is a different matter. If the question keeps nagging at you, you're of course removing yourself from the dramatic illusion you should be embedded within.

It's funny that technical wizardry, which may be even more mysterious to the outsider, rarely poses this problem. Consider Ann G. Wrightson's lighting design for this show, the way it seems to mold figures sculpturally. It's lighting that gives extra animation to motion onstage, of which there is plenty. Like the model she cites as inspiration, Rembrandt's "Night Watch (The Company of Frans Banning Cocq)," she has light and shadow play around moving figures, deepening upstage into silhouette. The effect in Rembrandt's case is that Cocq's men seem to advance toward you out of the still canvas. Maybe that's what provoked a paranoid vandal to slash the 1642 masterpiece several years after I saw it at the Rijksmuseum in 1966. Asking oneself how it's done, with either Rembrandt or Wrightson, tends to arise in retrospect.

Nonetheless, marveling at fight direction and its execution is a good problem to have when it is so thoroughly part of the drama as it is in Catherine Bush's stage adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas' novel. Rapiers, even blunted ones, seem capable of injury. When they clash, blades slip and slide off each other. How can that be controlled? How can those viciously thrown punches never really land, as they appear to? How do heads that snap back and bodies that fly sprawling to the floor escape injury? (Admiring kudos to "Musketeers" fight director Paul Dennhardt!)
D'Artagnan and the Three Musketeers sing their motto: "All for one, and one for all."
At opening night Friday, "The Three Musketeers" wove the violence smoothly into the story of the French kingdom's struggle to become centralized in the monarchy. That process was to come to full flower with Louis XIV, the successor to this story's Louis XIII. At the heart of the conflict is the wandering affection of Queen Anne, who has formed a romantic liaison (more certain here than in history, apparently) with a foreign aristocrat, Lord Buckingham of France's traditional enemy, England. Louis XIII has allowed his narcissism to move into the void of a marriage without an heir. Questions of treason necessarily bob up from the depths.

The loyalty of Cardinal Richelieu to the king has taken the form of general repression and a personalized consolidation of power against which the honorary troop of royal musketeers, especially the three comrades of the title, vows opposition. Keeping the churchman from besmirching the queen becomes their cause, and that of D'Artagnan, the rustic nobleman eager to join their company. Bush's adaptation reduces or irons out some of the complications of the original. Underhanded tricks and daring rescues, conflicting loyalties and verifiable suspicions, coincidences and subterfuges — all keep the plot at full boil.

Cardinal Richelieu in nefarious conference with Milady de Winter.
I can hardly believe I followed the plot competently when I read the novel in my early teens. What has stayed with me was my first exposure to the secular influence of the religious hierarchy in regimes of aligned, though often irritated, church-state direction. Richelieu is a villain well worth hating in the Dumas fictionalization of 17th-century royal friction, and I was appalled at his lack of more than perfunctory attention to his Christian faith. I had a lot to learn.

Henry Woronicz directs IRT's production, which has a cunning, imperious portrayal of Richelieu by Dan Kremer as one of its virtues.  Among the others is the spinetingling, "bromantic" rapport among the title characters — each with his own reasons for being an independent thinker and actor — by Ryan Artzberger (Athos), Nathan Hosner (Aramis) and David Folsom (Porthos). They are impulsive and quick to take offense, weapons drawn, as D'Artagnan (Jeb Burris, radiantly soulful and smitten) discovers soon after coming to Paris with an era-appropriate vision of conquering the big city.

Shedding his bumpkin status quickly, D'Artagnan becomes enmeshed in the fight to rescue his beloved, Constance (ingenue-to-the-hilt Amanda Catania), and earn the favor of the musketeers and their advocate, Monsieur de Treville (Robert Neal at his booming, blustering best). The alienated king and queen are poignantly at odds in their separate worlds as played by Charles Goad and Emily Ristine. Villainy more lurid than Richelieu's is given lip-smacking flair in the performances of Rob Johansen as Rochefort and Elizabeth Laidlaw as Milady de Winter.

With everyone splendid and dashing in Devon Painter's costumes, the production revels in the elaborate plush of Hollywood historical dramas. Props and architectural elements move smoothly into and out of place as if in a cinematic "dissolve." Barry G. Funderburg's music provides not only the equivalent of title-music magnificence (evoked perfectly in the modern era by John Williams' "Star Wars" march), but also snatches of underscoring for moments of menace and outright violence.

Bush's stylized dialogue abounds in the crisp elegance, bon mots and full-paragraph speeches (with handy revelations and confidences) so essential to the formula. Woronicz allows his cast to project the lines in a manner more acceptable to our grandparents than it has been for many years on either stage or screen. Pregnant pauses, verbal thrusts and parries, a heightened tone in speaking of love and war alike — such traits were exhibited as if natural, which they are in this type of play. Everyone stops well short of hamming it up.

The whole package will have you putting aside the "how do they do that?" question for the most part. Your pulse will race as the fights break out and conclude, and you'll recognize that all such long-ago battles and florid intrigues can bear the imprint of real human passion when credibly presented. This production makes you ready for them. En garde!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Before Peter sang "I've gotta crow": Phoenix Theatre opens season with "Peter and the Starcatcher"

In "Peter and the Starcatcher," there is no call to the audience to assert its belief in fairies as a device for setting up a happy ending. That heart-tugging moment in J.M. Barrie's play becomes, in this prequel to "Peter Pan," an unspoken creed, the foundation of its magical properties.

The implied, fresh proposal in Rick Elice's play is to avow a belief in friendship, even such an unlikely one as that between a nameless orphan boy and an aristocratic girl.

Phoenix Theatre  opened its production of "Peter and the Starcatcher" Thursday night on the Russell Stage. It's an adventure at sea, animated by piratical plotting, exotic destinations and stratagems to reach them, mix-ups of cargo, crews, and captives. All of this bodies forth in an elaborate blend of drama and narrative, some of it involving choral speaking, making the show a fine-tuned ensemble triumph.

Bryan Fonseca directs a large cast loaded with familiar Phoenix faces and voices that delightfully channel the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson upon which Elice based his play. Songs by Wayne Barker, performed to recorded accompaniment, are threaded throughout. As seen Thursday, they galvanize the stage action and enhance its charm, but not to the extent that "Peter and the Starcatcher" can be considered a musical.

What stands out most is the vigor and comic brio of the spoken  language. It ranges from the billing and cooing of Alf and Mrs. Bumbrake (Michael Hosp and John Vessels Jr.), through the fraught and tender dialogue of Molly Aster, the precocious upper-class daughter Molly (Phebe Taylor), and the Boy who becomes Peter (Nathan Robbins), to the preening grandiloquence (flecked with puns and malapropisms)  of the pirate chief Black Stache (Eric J. Olson).

Molly is doubtful of the attention she'll get from the smitten Mrs. Bumbrake.
James Gross' shipshape set brings us on board immediately in the first act and easily suits the more abstract realization of Mollusk Island in the second, introduced to us with a Busby Berkeley-style mermaid chorus. This is where the magic of "star stuff" is usefully deployed with heroic pluck to defeat the island's predatory monster and neutralize the dastardly designs of Black Stache.

In the technical department, the production comes up to the mark in both acts through the work of Jeffery Martin, Zac Hunter and Tom Horan. Emily McGee's virtuoso gamut of props and costumes — comprising upper-class Victorian garb, tattered hand-me-downs for the orphan boys, fanciful approximations of native island outfits, and pirate haute couture for Black Stache— complete the picture.

The story falls into place unerringly from among the scattered elements at the outset. Some imaginative assembly is required, as in all good stories for all ages. The grown-ups faithfully represent traits that cause the Boy who will become Peter to hate them all.  The quest for leadership among the childhood peer group, finessed by the feistiness and special powers of Molly, stops well short of a "Lord of the Flies" outcome. Our sympathies, as Barrie himself ordained in his original, remain steadily with the younger generation.

Peter considers the view he's getting of matters from Black Stache.
The ensemble strengths are so consistent in this show that it's almost misleading to highlight outstanding individual performances, but I shall mention a few nonetheless. His voice ranging from shouts to soft insinuations, Olson was in full command of his character's balance of the menacing and the ridiculous. Ian Cruz's brilliant evocation of Third World resentment as Fighting Prawn struck all the right notes of caricature as well.

Phebe Taylor's Molly had the consistent zest and resoluteness the character needs to make the starcatcher device much more than a handy advantage over her peers. Finally, I have to say that, after several shows, there's something about seeing Nathan Robbins onstage that just makes me happy. Even when he plays characters with a dark side (as in "Hand to God"), he embodies the irrepressible tendency of youth to find a way to come out on top, to crow his triumph aloft and encourage everybody to share in it.

"Peter and the Starcatcher" in this production sounds the notes that led early reviewers to rebuke those who looked down on the original as a children's play. "Fools and slow of heart!," wrote one of them in the Boston Transcript (1929), the favorite newspaper of the Boston brahmins: "It is middle age's own tragicomedy— the faint, far memories of boyhood and girlhood blown back in the bright breeze of Barrie's imagination." In this show's prequel scenario, the breeze may waft over a longer distance and with more madcap gusts, but it still touches our 21st-century cheeks, some of which will doubtless bear the trace of tears at the end.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Punctuating Beethoven: Michael Schelle's new piano piece sweeps away hints of satire or parody

Here's a novelty: A concert review that starts off with a disquisition on punctuation, and then covers only one of the works performed. But bear with me, because what appears to be throat-clearing turns out to bear directly on what to make of a particular new piece.
Michael Schelle, perhaps contemplating Beethoven at the piano.

Among the many uses of the comma is to set off words in direct address. Often these are names, but not always ("Comfort ye, my people," for example). Our informal age often trims out commas, nothing worth much tsk-tsking if ambiguity isn't the result.

There's no confusion when it comes to a title such as "Happy Birthday Wanda June," the new opera premiered at the Schrott Center for the Arts last weekend in an Indianapolis Opera production. There's only one way to read the title, even though the poignancy of Wanda June's untimely death would be more subtly underlined if the comma were used. The inscription in icing on the top of her birthday cake would then be directly addressed to the little girl who didn't live to be thus addressed. In its written matter, sometimes Indianapolis Opera used the comma, sometimes it didn't. I was likewise inconsistent in my posted review.

That brings me to Michael Schelle's "Roll Over Beethoven," the work I enjoyed most (as well as the newest) in Tuesday night's Butler Faculty Composers concert, which opened the Duckwall Artist Series at Butler University. The identical title in a defining rock 'n' roll song by Chuck Berry never appears with a comma after "Over," even though it is clear that Beethoven is being addressed posthumously, as is Tchaikovsky in the next line of the chorus: "Tell Tchaikovsky the news."

Young Beethoven, before life tried to roll over him.
Schelle's following suit may not have involved conscious thought about whether or not to insert a comma in his title (modified in his online catalogue with an added "2.0"). But its omission — especially after hearing the piece in a stunning performance by Jim Loughery — opens up some mostly dark interpretations of the verb phrase "roll over." It goes beyond Berry's suggestion (grammatically speaking, in the imperative mood) that it's time for Beethoven to roll over in his grave at his music's displacement by rock 'n' roll.

Instead, it expands the imperative to include... whom? Mike Schelle? Mass culture? In other words, who is being told to roll over Beethoven, like a steamroller over asphalt or a tank (Happy 100th birthday, tank!)  over rough terrain?

Brooding over this question for two days has little to do with a wish to appoint myself punctuation cop. More interestingly, the ambiguity — is the composer instructing himself to roll over Beethoven, or is he telling Beethoven to make way for Mike Schelle, as Berry told the German master to make way for rock 'n' roll? — rests on the cusp of what Schelle has accomplished in the new piece.

Prompted by the new piece itself, let's interpret the title as not needing the comma. To start with, Ludwig van Beethoven is the archetype of the suffering artist. In his life more than in his art (where he was lionized from his young adulthood until his death), many things rolled over Beethoven. Not as clouds roll over us on a windy day, but in that steamroller or tank manner. There was a host of maladies, topped by the crucial loss of hearing.

In Schelle's piece, I sensed in its congestion of sounds, its unremitting clangor, the maddening onset of tinnitus and other symptoms of the deafness that overcame the composer. Zeroing in on the interface between life and art, the Beethoven work most strikingly recalled in Schelle's "Roll Over Beethoven" is the "Appassionata" Sonata (No. 23 in F minor, op. 57).

And what was rolling over Beethoven circa 1805 when he wrote this work, which was given its appropriate nickname by the composer's publisher? Besides the overshadowing triumph of deafness, there was the conquest of Vienna by Napoleon's armies in 1804, throwing Beethoven's revolutionary fantasies into a cocked hat.

Middle-period Beethoven is where the crux of Beethoven's attempt to master his fate finds defeat and mastery in greatest contention. Schelle finds and wrestles with a key example of this struggle in the "Appassionata," a work that signals its gloom in the drooping theme at the outset of the first movement. But Schelle's focus is on the coda of the finale, a Presto launched by two firm fortissimo chords that give way to agitated staccato eighth notes.

When we hear the "Appassionata" in performance we are already near exhaustion from the finale's rigors. Just before the coda, these are compounded by Beethoven's direction to repeat the second half of the movement, a device so unusual that Donald Francis Tovey, in his edition of the sonatas, puts "(Beethoven's)" right above the repeat sign, as if to say: "Pay attention — this unconventional instruction comes straight from the master, not from me or other editors."

Thus delayed, the coda is one of numerous places in Beethoven where we are tempted to think: "Come on -- can he really be doing this after all he's put us through?' Another place is the feverish lead-up to the recapitulation in the first movement of the "Waldstein" sonata, a near-contemporary of the "Appassionata,"with its driving, recurrent "duh-duh, dah-duh-duh" in the left hand.

Schelle's piece pays tribute to the over-the-top aspect of Beethoven, which is inescapable, and sometimes off-putting even to accomplished musicians. Raymond Leppard once confessed to me he had to get over his early dislike of Beethoven: "I thought of him as here's this German always coming at you."

Schelle has a habit of taking a humorously jaundiced view of cultural icons, so I have to allow that his "Roll Over Beethoven" may be a wicked parody of Beethoven's hyper-insistent manner. There was an unmistakably manic quality in Loughery's riveting performance — what good fortune it is for Schelle to have such a capable champion of his piano music! But I choose to take this "Roll Over Beethoven" with its tag of "2.0" as something of a salute to a man and artist who refused to be rolled over.

In his discussion of the Heligenstadt Testament, Beethoven's unposted letter to his brothers written in 1802, Maynard Solomon, the composer's shrewdest and most stimulating modern  biographer, analyzes how Beethoven dealt with the interface of his deafness and his art from then on. Mastery of his musical voice seemed to emerge, both in fact and in his attitude, from his hearing loss: "As his shift in style asserted itself and the advances in his art were consolidated," Solomon writes, "the symptoms themselves receded from him into a different perspective and were no longer the subject of lamentation."

The shift in style produced the "Appassionata" and, in the same year, his only opera "Fidelio," whose two most important moments are an aria sung in a dungeon and the eventual rescue of the prisoner unjustly held there. Beethoven would probably have endorsed Ralph Waldo Emerson's declaration in his diary, after the death of his favorite son: "I am defeated all the time, yet to victory I am born."

I choose to interpret Michael Schelle's concise dynamo of a tribute in "Roll Over Beethoven" as a reminder that nothing — not Napoleon, not ills of the flesh, not the threatened status today of high culture, and fortunately neither Chuck Berry nor the estimable Schelle himself — can roll over Beethoven.

Ravi Coltrane: No second-generation jinx here in saxophonist's return visit to the Jazz Kitchen

Ravi Coltrane played the Jazz Kitchen Wednesday.
Since his last Indy Jazz Fest engagement, Ravi Coltrane has crossed the half-century threshold. Time not only heals all wounds, as the adage has it; it also helps put a monumental inheritance in perspective. I have no idea if Coltrane has old wounds in need of healing, but it's a certainty that distance from his father's heyday is useful in revealing his artistry to a public that is in part attracted to both his names.

John Coltrane had a fondness for improvising over modes, and Ravi displayed that as well Wednesday in the second set of his quartet gig at the Jazz Kitchen in front of a full house.

But the manner (less legato stream-of-consciousness) and the tone are different, particularly when Ravi picks up the soprano saxophone. No one can escape the fresh life John Coltrane brought to the soprano more than 50 years ago. The revelation can be summed up by John's playing of the title song on "My Favorite Things," which showed that the soprano can sound like a world-music instrument: hearty and shawmlike, especially in ornamentation.

For his second selection Wednesday, Coltrane turned from tenor to soprano. There was a long pause as everyone riffled through the sheet music for what the quartet eventually played, so it would have been nice to be given a title after all that suspense. Oh well. It was a pleasure to hear the leader underline the full range of the instrument, just as Ravi does when he plays the tenor. Fans doubtless noticed his well-supported fondness for the lower instrument's deepest register.

There's been one personnel change since Coltrane's 2013 appearance here. Orrin Evans now occupies the piano chair. A chameleon player, he can at one point sound like Thelonious Monk, at another more in the neighborhood of Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan. He always seemed to have a manner suited to the situation at hand. In the one announced piece of the second set, Charlie Haden's "First Song," Evans shifted in his solo from a more straightforward interpretation of the lovely tune to a hushed episode of delicately voiced chords.

That set up a dramatic shift to a final pumped-up treatment of the tune, drawing heavy lifting from all four players. Coltrane put a deft cap on the performance by setting lots of sustained trilling against Johnathan Blake's long roll on the tom-tom. Blake, by the way, sounded much more nuanced and flexible than I remember him being three years ago.

As for the bassist, who seemed to be playing on a plateau of pure joy, there were two wonderful solos. His bold tone, picked up perfectly by the sound system, was well applied to a parade of fresh ideas on the (unannounced) fun, upbeat number preceding the "First Song" finale. Appropriate as it is for a bassist to get a showcase on this attractive ballad by a bassist to whom Coltrane paid tribute in his introduction, Douglas didn't lay down anything perfunctory. He played as if he owned the piece, providing a pivot for that marvelous Evans solo and the final rave-up mentioned above.

No longer merely his own man, Ravi Coltrane has become the 21st-century Coltrane worth knowing on his own terms.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Chicago's Lincoln Trio spotlights "Trios from Our Homelands"

'The Lincoln Trio bows toward three heritages.
In their latest Cedille recording, "Trios from Our Homelands," members of the Lincoln Trio look across the water to countries central to the heritage of each. They share the advocacy with equanimity  through the strength of their performances.

The project yields a program consisting of works by Rebecca Clarke (England), Arno Babajanian (Armenia), and Frank Martin (Switzerland), acknowledging the origins, respectively, of cellist David Cunliffe, pianist Marta Aznavoorian,  and violinist Desiree Rustrat.

Performances are exemplary. I was happiest to make the acquaintance of Clarke's Piano Trio, which dates from 1922. Untouched by the modernism that was then ascendant, the 241/2-minute work makes its most impressive statement in the first movement, Moderato ma appassionato. The respite provided by the second movement seems genuine; and it is most welcome, because the finale, while still gripping, becomes grandiloquent.

Ramping up that kind of feeling is a specialty of the Babajanian, which opens glumly, soon introducing portents from the piano that indicate the expansive development to come. There's plenty of sweetness tucked in amid the dramatic episodes. In general, while the Lincolns doubtless bring this off convincingly in concert, the piece wears its heart on both sleeves. That stamps it as being a little too unrestrained in showing off, and thus a bit wearying.

The modest tribute to Ireland that Martin offers in his "Trio on Popular Irish Melodies" offers a happy contrast to conclude the disc. The Swiss composer's three-movement tribute is infused with the spirit of folk dance. By the time you get to the third movement, you come to understand how this methodical composer got swept off his feet by the material, which carries its native Irish charm lightly and persuasively.