Monday, May 25, 2015

Busoni and Cage: Piano music of a couple of strong-minded eccentrics, played by Jeni Slotchiver and Kate Boyd, respectively.

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) pointed toward music's postmodern future even as he anticipated the intervening reign of modernism. The Italian pianist-composer, looking back with intensity toward J.S. Bach while bursting with Romantic afflatus, had a mystical idea of the equivalent meaning of all music: "All melodies, heard before or never heard, resound completely and simultaneously — they are themselves the souls of millions of being in millions of epochs."

Out the window goes the "historicist" interpretation of music, that it either has to follow the true line of progress, whatever that means, or fall quickly into irrelevance. In defiance of Robert Browning, Busoni's reach may often have exceeded his grasp.  In "The Great Pianists," Harold Schonberg aptly titles his Busoni chapter "Dr. Faust at the Keyboard."

Jeni Slotchiver makes common cause with Busoni.
Jeni Slotchiver, in the third volume of her "Busoni the Visionary"  series (Centaur CRC 3396), clarifies the Italian-German composer's vision in performances that are subtly shaped, powerful, and well-defined.

With his name often appearing in hyphenated form (after Bach's), Busoni the transcriber is of course represented here. The vehicle concludes the program: Bach's Prelude and Triple Fugue in E-flat major ("St. Anne"), a favorite of concert organists. Three stunning fugue subjects were clearly meat and drink to Busoni, and the performance seems to draw on Slotchiver's inexhaustible, disciplined resources. (Of course, with editing as sophisticated as it is today, no recording is a guarantee of such stamina linked to insight in performance, but let's give her the benefit of the doubt.)

There is typically much going on in a Busoni composition, especially when his muse is fired with enthusiasm for another composer. As a performer, he had a love-hate relationship with Chopin, but at 18 he paid tribute with the remarkable "Ten Variations on a Prelude of Chopin" (the beloved C minor, op. 28, no. 20 ). The young man's treatment is typical of his mature practice: flamboyant on the surface, severe in depth.

The glowering, epic Toccata, which opens the disc, displays Slotchiver's knack for knowing when to subordinate something and when to move it to the foreground. Busoni deploys his themes and figuration like chessmen — feinting, attacking, lying in wait until they can be strategically effective. When grandeur is called for, it can do with some understatement (which the pianist supplies) as Busoni often wants it to be self-evident grandeur — not vulgarized.

She brings off an uncharacteristic miniature, "Nuit de Noel," charrmingly. And the monumental Fantasia nach Johann Sebastian Bach, written in memory of Busoni's father, brings out in this performance what the composer found both essential and potential about the Baroque master.

John Cage's debts to other composers are harder to trace. Before his philosophy got the better of him, Cage (1912-1992) made a signature impression on contemporary musical resources by carefully adding bolts, screws, pieces of rubber and plastic, etc. to the inside of the piano in designated places. This turned the instrument into a percussion orchestra at the command of a single player, influenced by the sound of the Balinese gamelan.

Kate Boyd is a prepared pianist for Cage.
The meticulous preparation is integral to the art of making the "new instrument" speak musically; then, there is the kind of performance that allows the buoyancy and rhythmic intricacy of such pieces full play. That is Kate Boyd's achievement in her recording of "Sonatas and Interludes" (Navona), a major exposition of the prepared piano in the form of 16 sonatas (not the classical kind) with four interludes of contrasting nature spaced evenly over the set; two of the latter are in the middle, so that the sonatas are arranged in groups of four.

Boyd, professor of piano at Butler University,  seems to have found the beating heart of this varied music. Percussive effects modified by timbral richness characterize the set. The ceaseless variety and its likely engagement of the listener may be found in the juxtaposition of enchanting sounds. This is music blithely dismissive of development, not to mention the underpinning that harmony gives to development. Expressiveness seems to follow rules of its own here, partly depending on what the listener is reminded of.

There are some fascinating echoes of music known or faintly known in more familiar contexts. There are hints of folk song in some of the sonatas, folk dance in others. The Second Interlude had haunting evocations of Schubert, while Sonata 14 carried pastel Debussyan suggestions for me. Sonata 10 surprised me with its Dies irae reminders.  The disc concludes with the "natural" piano featured, with Cage under the influence of Erik Satie, in Boyd's performance of "In a Landscape." All of this fetching program was recorded at Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall at Butler. It's good to celebrate  an Indianapolis origin for a recording that ought to be a reference-point in this repertoire indefinitely.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

To celebrate Friday's vote on marriage equality in Ireland, here's my adaptation of an old Irish ditty

A celebratory take on "Wild Rover" in honor of Ireland's historic vote Friday.

Posted by Jay Harvey on Sunday, May 24, 2015

Saturday, May 23, 2015

'Crescendo' brings opera to the park and launches Indianapolis Opera's next phase

Opera in Indianapolis is reaching out in new directions to find an audience that will support it adequately, and "Crescendo" — a musical term that instructs the player(s) to get louder by a more or less extended "less than" sign — expressed the hope the result will be "more than."

That was the title of Friday night's program at White River State Park, where Indianapolis Opera and the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra joined forces in a concert of mostly familiar excerpts from opera and musical theater — from Rossini through Stephen Schwartz.

Kirk Trevor, newly named maestro emeritus of the ICO since his retirement earlier this month after 27 years, conducted. He was in fine fettle, leading more than two dozen numbers, getting estimable results from the orchestra, the Opera chorus, and four apt guest soloists. The sampling was a generous smorgasbord, which could have been just a little skimpier to allow for more spoken context-setting of several of the selections. That might have involved celebrity emcee Angela Buchman more, with some advance pronunciation drill helping to ensure a satisfactory result. Or general director Kevin Patterson, who seems entirely comfortable at the microphone, could have handled the compact commentary.
Kevin Patterson: Deserved greater "Crescendo" role

That would have enhanced one of the outstanding performances of the evening, "Au fond du temple saint," the great tenor-baritone duet from Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers." The romantic rivals Zurga and Nadir, brought together after many years apart, catch a glimpse of their beloved goddess and vow that the vision should unite, rather than divide, them. And presumably, there were many in the audience who had no idea what Barbara LeMay was singing about in the well-known Habanera from Bizet's better-known opera "Carmen."

Opera being more than pretty or stirring melodies, the dramatic and character insights of its famous pieces need to be communicated to a concert audience presumably filled with newcomers. This is by way of crediting the four singers — soprano Katrina Thurman, mezzo LeMay, tenor Scott Ramsay and baritone Galen Bower — with dramatic as well as vocal excellence.

Capable as they are of singing without amplification, they mostly adjusted well to standing in front of microphones, with only Thurman's voice getting too close for comfort now and then. She was well-matched with Ramsay and never overbearing as Maria in "West Side Story" in a performance of "Tonight," with the foreground of the familiar tune nicely established.

Bower's Toreador Song, the other selection from "Carmen," was a stunning introduction to the lineup of guest soloists. He was in thorough command of Escamillo's bravado and self-regarding splendor. Other emotionally close-focused numbers included LeMay's delectable rendition of "I Hate Men" from Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate." She wielded one high-heel as a weapon and scowled and gestured with an avenger's determination while keeping Porter's clever words remarkably clear.

Thurman gave a moving performance as Violetta in the scena comprising "Ah, forse e lui" and "Sempre libera" from Verdi'a "La Traviata."  Her aplomb there contrasted with a couple of false starts earlier in "Ain't It a Pretty Night" from Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah," another operatic heroine doomed through no fault of her own. Well, OK, Violetta also happens to have a fatal disease, but still, both these roles amount to justifiable takes on the "Kiss Me, Kate" declaration "I Hate Men." At any rate, Thurman recovered her composure sufficiently to make an impressive dramatic arc out of Susannah's wistful aria.

Everyone was involved in the finales of each act. Sing-along participation was encouraged in the chorus of "Back Home in Indiana," keyed to leadership by Trevor, the four soloists, and the Indianapolis Opera Chorus. For "Make Our Garden Grow," the conclusion of Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," it was sufficient to bask in the optimistic fervor of the professional performers. With a few orchestra bonbons along the way ("Candide" and "The Barber of Seville" overtures,  "Manon Lescaut" Intermezzo, with a "Les Miz" medley bringing up the rear in quality), "Crescendo" was most certainly, as Bower sang so beautifully, "Some Enchanted Evening."

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Plugged-in string wizardry: the John Patitucci Quartet at the Jazz Kitchen

Stability in jazz tends to be looked upon with suspicion. It brings with it the dangers of falling into a
John Patitucci at the Jazz Kitchen May 18.
rut, which can be defined as a groove that has started gathering cobwebs.

John Patitucci is a player who exudes stability of the good sort. His new CD is titled "Brooklyn" in honor of the New York City borough where he was born and raised. He referenced it several times in his second set Monday night at the Jazz Kitchen, to which he brought the "Brooklyn" group. Though he soft-pedaled his faith and his family, the unaccompanied encore he wrote in their honor, "Tesori" (Treasures), put a seal on those values, as did several "God bless you(s)!" he directed at the enthusiastic audience.

Further evidence: With his drummer, Brian Blade, Patitucci has been a member for about 15 years of the Wayne Shorter Quartet, which played a concert at the Palladium in March. (Pianist Danilo Perez, another recent Jazz Kitchen guest, is the fourth member of this unusually durable group.)

The much-laureled bass player just started a tour with his Electric Guitar Quartet. The ensemble lives up to its name in stellar fashion with Steve Cardenas and Adam Rogers as guitar colleagues supplementing Patitucci's wide-ranging electric bass (two of them, actually, creating a double rainbow across the sky of the leader's virtuosity).

The inspiration Thelonious Monk continues to give jazz players of all stripes — is there any other original bopper more influential? — was displayed in the first number: "Evidence" (today's secret word? You bet your life!). Patitucci's upper-register soloing took flight, and the stirring contrasts in the guitarists' solo styles added interest to the lengthy solos.  Generally speaking, Cardenas sounds more down-home, "fat" and centered; Rogers is more abstract, whimsical, and slightly ruminative. The stop-start theme was crisply executed, as the audience had every right to expect from such rhythmically astute players.

All four musicians showed their rootsy abilities in "Band of Brothers," so that even Rogers' style seemed right at home. The piece is a rocking original saluting another early Patitucci influence, the Allman Brothers Band. The well-chosen set would later give Rogers a showcase, the ballad standard "I Fall in Love Too Easily." Opening with a wispy Rogers cadenza, the performance coalesced gracefully around the regretful melody. After Patitucci and Cardenas solos, it was up to Rogers to round things off gently.

A slight programming misstep put "The Search" right after "Dugu Kamalemba," a West African churner that featured a masterly Patititucci solo, his nimble fingers never settling into a cliche pattern, despite the piece's reliance on lots of grooving repetition. Both pieces are on the new CD, but here  "The Search" didn't benefit, because of its similar tempo and textural density. It's a musically adventurous piece that would have sounded better in some other position.

(Great moment of one drummer looking out for another: One of Blade's drums became perilously shaky during "The Search" and Kenny Phelps, who was in the audience, rushed onstage, reached underneath and tightened it as Blade scaled back the pulse to let his local colleague make the fix.)

Patitucci's tribute to Shorter, "The Watchman," was well-chosen and well-positioned between "Band of Brothers" and "I Fall in Love Too Easily."  It's a subtle, off-the-beaten-track ballad. Patitucci's solo again focused gloriously on the upper register; Cardenas' was his best of the night, both florid and grounded. The protracted ending featured subtle interplay among everybody — further evidence of the special versatility of the Electric Guitar Quartet, a group that (despite its name) is about much more than ringing the rafters.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra plays a stylish, scintillating farewell concert for Kirk Trevor

Orchestra music directors' tenures rarely exceed a quarter-century, so when the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra and Kirk Trevor concluded his 27th season at the helm of the ensemble Saturday night, the milestone was worth celebrating. Gifts, testimonials, and several champagne toasts highlighted a post-concert reception at the Schrott Center for the Arts, Butler University.

Bella Hristova drew upon her heritage in encore.
Bella Hristova, laureate of the 2006 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, was the soloist for the season-ending concert. She was heard in Nicolo Paganini's sturdy, showy, episodic Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, op. 6. Hristova displayed the virtuoso command the score requires. Her harmonics had a steady sheen, articulation was varied and well laid out, and the interval leaps in the fast movements had a high degree of accuracy.

 Her choice of first-movement cadenza was not to my taste — chockful of trills and laborious ornamentation of the secondary theme — but this kind of concerto invites technical excess. If you can bring it off, why not go for maximum display? And so she did. From the outset, she sensibly joined the ICO in the tuttis. The rapport between orchestra and soloist was consistent, Trevor indicating again his sympathetic accompaniment practice.

A wild, far-ranging "traditional Bulgarian dance," as Hristova announced it, made for a fiery, rhythmically intricate encore bringing to the fore the violinist's family background.

The vibrant acoustics of the Schrott gave extra clarity and color to the curtain-raiser, the first suite from Manuel de Falla's ballet "The Three-Cornered Hat."  The rhythmic acuteness of the string sections turned them into a supplementary percussion section, especially in "Dance of the Miller's Wife."

Kirk Trevor has been ICO music director for all but its first three seasons.
More varied challenges were presented by a full performance of the incidental music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," by Felix Mendelssohn. Trevor kept theatrical narrator Jeff Swensson, the women of Encore Vocal Arts, and the ICO in close coordination. A full sense of Mendelssohn's response to Shakespeare's fantasy-comedy was communicated in a manner that excerpt performances can't well represent.

The beating of fairy wings in the violins, a major feature of the Overture that is recalled later, often came across as a blur. But otherwise, this was a well-integrated performance, with some good bassoon, horn, oboe, clarinet and flute spotlights.

The sweet, ingratiating women's choruses invited the listener right into fairyland as the Encore Vocal Arts chorus and two soloists dispatched them. The melodic finish of such writing brought to mind the likelihood that Arthur Sullivan, in his collaborations with W.S. Gilbert,  may have owed as much to Mendelssohn as he clearly did to Offenbach.

The grandeur and sensuousness of the full Wedding March, so often clipped and bowdlerized in American wedding ceremonies, were a pleasure to revel in as the ICO played it. Apart from a narrative manner that thumped out the accents in Shakespeare's lines at the expense of meaning, the whole package Trevor put together for his concert finale here was a treasure from first to last.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Heart-and-head music: ISO plays Liszt and Tchaikovsky, tingling the nerve ends

Dramatics that seemed to leave the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra season when Broadway commitments held F. Murray Abraham away from his scheduled narration of Stravinsky's "Soldier's Tale" have come back in another form in this weekend's replacement program.

When he plays rather than poses, Johannes Moser hides nothing.
Canadian-German cellist Johannes Moser was engaged for Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations and on Friday night delivered an exuberant, stageworthy performance of the piece, with Cristian Macelaru on the podium. The Hilbert Circle Theatre audience went wild at the end, calling Moser back for an encore, the same composer's "Andante cantabile," led by Macelaru conducting the ISO strings.

The encore focused on the sweet side of Moser's art. In the scheduled work, various facets of the soloist's exuberant personality came to the fore. Dynamic contrasts were broad, tempo shifts (as in the fifth variation) were expressive, almost teasingly so. The hesitant episode before the doleful sixth variation was quite effective in preparing the change of mood. Most important to the success of these effects, Macelaru and the orchestra were right with the cellist, whose collegiality was evident.

Macelaru begged for no applause interruption in the"Pathetique"
The recitative-like cadenzas that dot the Rococo Variations were powerful and emotionally clearcut. Like the outsized opera stars of yore, Moser widened the piece's spectrum beyond virtuosity and lyricism: There was a force-of-nature breadth to his playing. In Tchaikovsky, at least, he's a Chaliapin of the cello. Almost every note was in tune; his left hand was a blur visually, a laser beam aurally. The rapid passage in octaves in the finale sounded precisely on pitch.

Guest conductor Macelaru was retained from the Abraham program, and is opening the new one with the work originally scheduled, Franz Liszt's "Mephisto" Waltz No. 1. A favorite of romantic specialists at the piano, the orchestral version is demonic, mysterious, and brash, grabbing the listener by the lapels in the signature Liszt manner.

Violin, cello, and harp solos lent an atmospheric zest to the narrative, drawn from the lesser-known romantic Faust poem by Nikolaus Lenau. The hero's companion devil commandeers music-making at a village inn; his hypnotic fiddling has Faust smitten with a local doxy and dancing away with her. The climactic acceleration of that dance was spectacularly handled Friday.

It was good to have Zach De Pue back in the concertmaster's chair, though I'm trying to get used to his new hairdo, with its topknot that wiggles when he gets energetic. He looks as if he's planning to audition for a production of The Mikado ("Defer, defer, to the Lord High Executioner"). I need to set this mockery in a charitable context, however: De Pue seemed graciously reluctant to take a solo bow at Macelaru's indication, wanting more sustained acclaim directed toward acting principal cellist Ahrim Kim, who had capably played what I presume was her last solo before she departs for Rochester, New York.

After intermission came Tchaikovsky's final symphony, its movement-long subsidence at the end sealing the rightness of its nickname, "Pathetique."  Macelaru came onstage with a microphone, gentling advising the audience not to applaud before the performance's conclusion. The galvanic third-movement march regularly prompts stormy applause, but of course there is the heavy-hearted Adagio to follow. Like Pavlov's dogs, however, a few audience members responded predictably to the stimulus.

The ovation in its proper place was well-deserved. The finale was notable for the fullness and warmth of its billowing, tear-stained phrases; the strings sounded great. This is an orchestra fully ready to give a good account of the Mahler Fifth next month. I didn't form that impression in the first movement, however, in which the dashing energy of the main theme was imprecise.

The contrasting theme was well-managed, and the score's swelling and receding dynamics were pretty scrupulously followed. Speaking of which, there's no clarinetist I'd rather hear in the super-soft soloing before that dramatic full-orchestra convulsion than David Bellman. (That goes for the clarinet solos in Elgar's "Enigma" Variations, too.)

The middle movements — the odd-footed Waltz and that aforementioned frenetic March — had admirable cohesiveness and balance. This is the second guest conductor in as many weeks who has exhibited special insight, with well-achieved results, into the program's symphonic masterpiece. The ISO is on a roll, so about that Mahler 5 with music director Krzysztof Urbanski, I say: Bring it on!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Catching the 'Next Wave' at IRT as Dance Kaleidoscope concludes 2014-15 season

David Hochoy's personal imprint on Dance Kaleidoscope is practically synonymous with the company over the past two dozen seasons, but of course it doesn't disappear when he turns over a program to other choreographers.

If you attend "The Next Wave" this weekend on the main stage of Indiana Repertory Theatre, you will appreciate the adaptability and fitness of the troupe to four different styles, as expressed by Lucy Bowen McCauley, Stephanie Martinez, Brock Clawson, and Kiesha Lalama. The dancers' adeptness has been honed by Hochoy's meticulous training and his own artistic range.

Two years ago, Clawson charmed DK audiences with "Nine," a work that was daring in an odd way, in that it made a dance out of looking at clouds (hence the title, from the joy of being "on Cloud Nine"). That idyllic pastime is best carried out, as nearly everyone remembers, by lying supine — not a conventional dance posture. Clawson showed a gift for giving ordinary life, even the part of it not movement-oriented, a thrilling dance dimension.

'Lake Effect Snow': Self-realization over both space and time.
That's what he accomplishes, with an even more resonant theme, in "Lake Effect Snow," which received its world premiere at Thursday's preview performance of "The Next Wave." A "narrative of one man's journey through love," as Clawson describes it, "Lake Effect Snow" is a subtle portrait of a gay man's tentative steps toward realizing his identity.

The daring element in this work is to have the central character (danced by Noah Trulock) poised between passivity and activity. We are meant to see the young man as taking in impressions of his surroundings and the opportunities for human connection available to him. The work proceeds by a series of spotlighted episodes and blackouts.

The lights (designed by Laura E. Glover) go up on new scenes, some of them tableau-like, that both isolate and link the character,  through a tentative embrace or two, a brief swirl of movement, and suggestions of inertness — as if the way forward were constantly under examination. Small gestures are repeated in larger contexts, the way significant memories tend to expand and contract in our minds. "Lake Effect Snow" is lovely to think about; there are impressive dances that don't inspire much reflection, but this one does. And the thoughts it generates don't have to be deep ones to stay with you.

'Catapult': The ensemble draws upon solo expression.
The four works contrasted brilliantly. Also on the second half and a world premiere: Kiesha Lalama's "Catapult." Another full-company exposition, "Catapult" is a constantly pulsating celebration of energy. An ensemble showcase, it features brief solos in which dancers seem to be ejected from the group — not being cast out, but bursting with fresh inspiration. The title's allusion to an ancient rock-flinging weapon is thus given a more positive spin. What is flung outward are expressions of vitality — unthinking, impulsive, caught up in the moment. The choreography calls for the dancers as a group to twitch and bounce while intently watching the solo turns; offstage moments are brief, as if nobody can stand to wait before contributing further to the pounding group momentum.

The concert opens with "Tableaux de Provence," an Indiana premiere of Lucy Bowen McCauley's work in tribute to the gracefulness and simple pleasures of southeastern France. Setting five movements of a work for saxophone and piano, the Indianapolis-raised McCauley has fashioned an elegant "chamber" work. With four women and two men in variable partnerships, and drawing on balletic postures and movement, she finds precise embodiments for Paule Maurice's music, particularly its elegance, wit and rhythmic adroitness. The upright carriage of the dancers, the rounded shapes defined by their uplifted arms, bespoke an emotionally warm formality.

Solos by Jillian Godwin (right foreground) bookend 'Taking Watch.'
More agonized achievement of community came through in "Taking Watch," an Indiana premiere by Stephanie Martinez. Opening and closing with intricate solos by Jillian Godwin, this work unfolded with an agonized progress toward community. Alternation of  closed-in and open stances to the development worked toward the idealism of the choreographer's program note.

Dancers in ensemble often had their backs to the audience, but the gist of "Taking Watch" seemed to be that outward-directed, angular, thrusting movements tending to suggest conflict, even alienation, can be resolved into a hard-won unity. Some of the soloistic episodes, such as one with Mariel Greenlee and three DK men, emphasized the forging of mutual trust. The wide spaces taken in by outstretched arms and legs, expanded literally by leaps and bounds, evoked Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man," the emblematic drawing of human anatomical proportions held within a circle. Framing circles of inclusion added up to the reassurance at the heart of "Taking Watch."

[Photo credit: Crowe's Eye Photography]