Sunday, October 19, 2014

With Orpheus, the maestro is plural — and makes musical sounds

Having admired some of its recordings for many years, I looked forward to my first Orpheus Chamber Orchestra concert largely because I had to test the truth of what I'd been hearing. Of course, there was also the draw of Jonathan Biss as piano soloist at Saturday night's Palladium concert.

Recording technology has permitted so many nudges toward perfection over the years that only the concert experience can allay suspicions that a lot of the excellence we hear has been engineered.

The Orpheus in fact does produce ensemble excellence without a conductor — every musician is engaged with the music and reflects well-practiced agreement on articulation, tempo, and dynamics. Performances that cohere and have vitality are the result.

Bloomington-born Jonathan Biss has often collaborated with Orpheus.
When these qualities are linked to what a top-drawer soloist has to offer, the result can be stunning. So it was with the Biss/Orpheus performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37.

Above all, it represented a demonstrative leap off the page of scholarship: In "The Concerto: A Listener's Guide," Michael Steinberg details the work's genesis, citing sketches as early as 1796,  with most of it completed in 1800. But because it was first published in 1804, the C minor concerto has usually been tagged with a "middle Beethoven" sticker.

The tripartite division of Beethoven's musical career has been pretty powerful over the decades, influencing description of other composers' careers that are even harder to divide into early, middle, and late. As Steinberg points out, "the patronizing treatment sometimes accorded to 'early Beethoven'" has escaped this work because a mere four years after its completion Beethoven was turning out or working on such middle-period monuments as the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas.

Beethoven as rising star
Performances of the Third Concerto in all its faux-middle-period glory are not hard to encounter. My Claudio Arrau LP version is suitably imposing, carrying the grandeur indelibly associated with Beethoven's immortality. Imagine my delight, then, to take in a concert performance sparkling with youthful bravura.

Biss lent a light, frisky approach to the music, with just enough earnestness to avoid recasting it in lightweight, revisionist terms. Any bearing down (as in the first movement) was of the sort that talented young people trying to make an impression in any field typically exhibit.

The performance displayed the work as full of both promise and achievement. It seemed to present Beethoven saying "You'll be hearing more great things from me" rather than "Too bad for you if you can't bask in  my self-evident greatness." As played here, the piece expresses the bravado and self-confidence of a young musician in his late 20s who knows he's good and is ready to cast aside provincial origins and present his ready-for-prime-time calling card to the imperial capital.

No wonder the Beethoven portrait I've inserted in this post is not prominent among our images of the composer — those iconic ones with their scowling, deeply lined face and unruly, graying hair. Young Beethoven is often patronized partly because the standard of greatness he set for composers seems to belong to an older man. Biss and his Orpheus colleagues brought to the fore the young virtuoso who chafed under the tutelage of Haydn, the master composer he had sought out upon moving to Vienna, as well as the bumptious, furtively handsome musician barely aware that deafness would soon rob him of normal social connections.

The concert opened with a polished reading of Rossini's Overture to "La Cambiale di Matrimonio" (The Marriage Contract), notable for some sprightly woodwind playing and a tender horn solo.

Ensemble interaction with careful attention to color contrasts got a fuller display in the last piece on the program, Francis Poulenc's "Sinfonietta."

This four-movement work is suffused with the carefree quality, bordering on glibness, of Poulenc the sensuous boulevardier. The chattering of the winds and the nervous rhythmic energy at times added up to a similarly energetic but somehow calmer, less sentimental way of taking in Parisian life than a more famous evocation of that urban scene, George Gershwin's "An American in Paris."

Preceding the Poulenc was Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's "Prlogue and Variations." Written during the first flush of her fame — she had just won the 1983 Pulitizer Prize for her Symphony No. 1 — the 1984 piece for string orchestra was recorded by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra 30 years ago next month as part of a New World Records package also including the first symphony and "Celebration," an ISO commission to commemorate its move from Clowes Hall to the Circle Theatre.

Too bad the Palladium program book couldn't have had more localized notes about Zwilich. They might also have included the record jacket's fuller description of Prologue and Variations. The opening movement bears a literary title because it sets out an introduction to the musical ideas explored in the four variations that follow. The variations build more upon the "characters" suggested by the Prologue than upon the notes themselves.

The clarity with which Zwlilich carries out this plan was something the audience had to discern on its own. Here was a case when a composer's words could have actually advanced understanding of an unfamiliar work. Fortunately, it's easy to catch on to Zwilich on first hearing.

The Orpheus (following its usual practice of using a different concertmaster for each piece played) laid out the Andante misterioso Prologue with care. Its haunting atmosphere returns to round out the piece at the end, after fast, slow, then fast variations have intervened. There's fetching interplay among the string sections, with nothing too tangled to follow. A distinct emotional profile was given to each section.

In a model of the kind of music journalism that has become increasingly rare, Tim Page wrote about Zwilich for the New York Times Magazine nearly 30 years ago, quoting her extensively. "It is not enough to manipulate abstract forms and ideas," she told him. "A composer must also provide color, thrust, and purpose, allowing a work to unfold gradually over a length of time. As such, composition is both a written and a performing art — it must sound."

That credo exactly suits Prologue and Variations and the way the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performed it Saturday evening.


 












Saturday, October 18, 2014

Friday night's ISO concert, with a fascinating guest soloist, evokes memories of a shining sham, a captious critic, and a cute cartoon

Funny how certain pieces of music acquire symbiotic pests the way old ships used to acquire barnacles.

Two such pieces form the bulk of this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts: Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor and Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 in D major.

I've scraped the barnacles off with difficulty in both cases. I was somewhat familiar with them decades ago, before the associations I'm about to relate complicated matters.

Geoffrey Rush goes manic as pianist conquering "Rach 3."
The Rachmaninoff was almost spoiled for me by the 1996 movie "Shine," a feverish biopic about the struggles of a manic-depressive Australian pianist named David Helfgott, played by Geoffrey Rush.

Well-received by eminent critics, "Shine" was enthralling but effortful, taking its place in a long series of Hollywood interpretations of classical music unfortunately suffused with a cheesy aura. We may be a popular art, moviemakers imply, but we know classiness when we see it.

"Shine" made of this piano concerto a work with the mystique of Mount Everest, when scaling that peak still seemed the height of earthbound human achievement — requiring extraordinary courage, thorough preparation, and good luck. I remember John Gielgud as the troubled pianist's London tutor, a kind of super-sherpa, repeatedly intoning the words "Rach 3" with vacuous reverence. The inanity of it overshadowed the entire portrayal, which was clearly beyond Gielgud's ken. It hurt to watch the great actor frankly not know what he was talking about.

"Rach 3" is undeniably demanding of the piano soloist, but many concert pianists will tell you the Brahms Second requires more stamina. The Russian piece is far from something unapproachable, though it seems to have been nearly so for poor Helfgott, whose recorded performance of it is wretched. But bumper crops of pianists continue to come into view who can command Rach 3; we have heard two of them recently with the ISO — Adam Golka and Yuja Wang.


Gerstein won't claim ownership, but he played Rachmaninoff concerto as if he owned it.

On Friday, the Russian-American  Kirill Gerstein delivered the second of three performances of the work on his latest visit here, with guest conductor Andrey Boreyko on the podium. Gerstein refreshingly rejects any Russian proprietary right to Russian music, but the Hilbert Circle Theatre seemed to bask in whatever questionable advantage there might be in the collaboration of two Russian-born guest artists in a countryman's masterpiece.

The greatest charm of this concerto is the opening. It features the most inviting simple theme in the literature of virtuoso piano concertos. Rachmaninoff treats his inspired melody with care and without overemphasis, and thus it was played Friday night.

From here on and throughout, Gerstein showed a firm sense of the work's architecture and refused to shine only in its many moments of romantic afflatus. In the Intermezzo, he brought forth a fully expressive range of tone color, as the movement gathered inspiration for a smooth assault on the finale.

There Gerstein was the glorious monster everyone expects of pianists in music that sets this piece among the Himalayas. His power— with  full, balanced voicing of chords — made the desired effect, but he was also alert to the finale's episodes of elfin humor and tender reflection. The orchestra seconded the soloist's range of expression, though the performance wasn't the last word in pinpoint coordination. The mutual affinity of solo and accompaniment was never in doubt, however.

As for Sibelius' Symphony in D major, it used to leave me both (somewhat) moved and (mostly) bored. As a young newspaper critic reading older professionals and, in collected form, my esteemed critic forefathers, I came across Virgil Thomson's withering put-down of this work as "vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description."

I admired the clever dodge in those last three words and made note of the device: If you say a work of art is [insert negative words] beyond all description, you've told the readers you don't have to explain what you mean. Beyond that, I had to allow for the fact that the eminent composer Thomson had just become the New York Herald-Tribune's music critic when he wrote that review of a Philharmonic concert 74 years ago this month, and perhaps wanted to put a thumb in the eye of his counterpart at the Times, Sibelius champion Olin Downes.

Even so, Thomson's dismissal of the Sibelius Second gave me a little too much sanction to sneer at it. Since then, and particularly Friday night in the course of Boryeko's stunning results with the ISO, I've discovered solid grounds for the work's popularity — and reasons to admire it, in part. And I think I know what may have irked Thomson so much from the outset: That first movement indulges in Central European romantic rhetoric spun out of pretty insubstantial material. A partisan of the French tradition, Thomson clearly had no patience with throat-clearing derivative gestures in the self-important Austro-German manner.

The second movement (Andante, ma rubato) redeems everything that falls short about the first. The sad modal melody for the bassoons has more substance alone than anything offered by the preceding Allegretto; I can hardly believe that the Coffee Concert audience Thursday morning had to do without both of the first two movements. Everything falls into place in the Andante after the bassoons have their say, and there's not a wasted note.

The bustling third movement, with its charming respite keyed to Jennifer Christen's enchanting oboe soloing, yielded with an encompassing sweep to the broad landscape of the finale. Kudos also to timpanist Jack Brennan for his exquisite dynamic control in the middle movements.

The finale, originally the locus of most of my hostility to the Sibelius Second, still tries my patience. It never fails to trigger my "uh-oh, here it comes again!" response, cheekily evoking an old New Yorker cartoon.

Sibelius' broad, anthemic theme and its fanfare-like co-conspirator undergirded by murmuring strings don't actually recur all that many times, but it always seems that way, Together, they are like the wriggling vine wrapping around the George Price house and the struggling husband.  Their brassy apotheosis at the end has my imagination seeing the homeowner finally engulfed in agony (like the Laocoon group)  by the relentless vegetation, as the scrawny, warning-weary wife collapses exhausted on the window sill.

The ISO program opens with a contemporary work, Anders Hillborg's "King Tide."  This picturesque water music — well-suited to its premiere venue, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles — focuses on dangerous high tides, which the world's coastal areas are destined to experience more of.

Since Debussy's "La Mer," musical depictions of the world's seas and oceans inevitably risk unfavorable comparison. Years ago, the ISO programmed a work by Gerald Levinson that seemed to set itself up as the anti-"La Mer": In contrast to the Frenchman's evocations of wind and light, the Levinson emphasized the dark, dense weight of the ocean, its impenetrable mystery. It was at least intriguing to listen to; it must have been unrewarding to play.

Hillborg's work takes a middle course, ultimately more successful, even considered as absolute music. Besides, it may be the most effective imitation of the ocean's volume and mass since "La Mer." It opens with, and returns to, dense, expressionless string chords played non vibrato. Soon it's flecked with wind tremolos and string trills.

It becomes texturally varied, permitting itself brief bursts of lyricism — a soaring violin melody, later some sustained, floating trumpet. As the piece approaches the end of its 15-minute span, the textures become thinner and loftier. Soon there's a suggestion of a chorale that may be a lament for the loss of habitat as climate change progresses. "King Tide" is well worth being part of symphonic music's 21st-century "relevance," without being tendentious about it.










Friday, October 17, 2014

With "Red," Indiana Repertory Theatre brings the glory of dim, artificial light into the world of Mark Rothko

The question John Logan's Mark Rothko asks his assistant twice at crucial points — "What do you see?" — receives the same answer: "Red," the play's title.

Dressed for success, Ken arrives at Mark Rothko's studio in IRT's "Red"
In between the artist's tantrum the first time Ken says "red" and his musing silence the second time falls the shadow. In Indiana Repertory Theatre's new production, the shadow is the deepening anxiety of a modernist hero confronting the place of his celebrated art in the parallel universe of Manhattan wealth and prestige.

"Red" takes place at the end of a decade in which Rothko had come into his own, along with a crowded generation of abstract expressionists who made New York the world art capital for the first time. In 1951, Rothko had posed with other new stars for a photograph, giving the camera a guarded, slightly pained look. "The Irascibles," they were dubbed.

Logan's play focuses on Rothko's concentration at the end of the '50s on a coveted commission to produce murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building. The place was ostentatiously upscale from the planning stage on, well before the word "upscale" came into vogue. As both concept and reality, the Four Seasons stands at the opposite pole from everything Rothko holds important in art and life.

The artist is eminently irascible as he takes on Ken to be his assistant. The hiring interview is brutal. Under James Still's direction, Henry Woronicz (Rothko) and Zach Kenney (Ken) forge a relationship whose very foundation seems dysfunctional. Yet it works somehow, even though the audience is never allowed to become comfortable with it.

The play subjects us to an abundance of art talk, most of it designed to honor Rothko's few acknowledged art heroes (Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Turner, Matisse) as well as to make clear what parts of the recent cultural past deserve obliteration. Ken is pilloried as shallow, uneducated, glib and unworthy of being taken seriously. The playwright provides the character with one horrible secret in his background whose emergence gives the young artist, nervously hiding his light under a bushel, the substance needed to offset Rothko's aggressiveness and self-absorption.

The real Rothko's most astute critic, Harold Rosenberg, identified him as a "one-idea" artist. Logan skillfully exploits the constriction this puts upon Rothko's artistry and humanity alike. "The art of one idea is full of painful contradictions," Rosenberg writes. "It transforms the studio into a sanctuary but also into an isolation cell."

Ann Sheffield's set and Jesse Klug's lighting are sensitive to this double purpose. Coming into a sanctuary as a visitor, the only proper response is worship and awe. Coming into the same space considered as an isolation cell, the visitor can only be an intruder. Ken is forced to embody both contradictory responses. As Kenney plays him, he convincingly breaks through the limits — not surprising, since we are supposed to believe he puts up with Rothko for two years, working banker's hours (as the artist wryly points out). The character would otherwise be in danger of becoming a mere whipping-boy.

Woronicz's portrayal is saturated with emotional authenticity and, like a Rothko paining,  edge-to-edge resonance.  One of the signs of great acting is not needing a line to answer another actor's, but responding wordlessly and advancing the action by stance, posture and carriage. Woronicz does that twice, once reflecting the impact of the young man's tale of childhood horror (though he's later cruel enough to mock it), then being deflated by Ken's withering critique of his boss' self-perpetuating artistic fantasies.

Ken is on to something that's vividly sketched out in Logan's realization of Rothko's crisis. Rosenberg writes that Rothko once told him: "I don't express myself in my painting. I express my not-self." Departing fully from the abstract expressionism of gesture, figure and form, Rothko's paintings glory in shimmering masses of glowing pigment. The masses complement each other almost statically, never vying for predominance. Their false depth is an illusion dependent on the viewer's willingness to engage with large, enigmatic, flat surfaces, unencumbered by any need to "get" the enigma.

For some viewers, such characteristics connote spirituality — and Logan's Rothko is necessarily taken in by this significance, which fuels his uneasiness with the Four Seasons commission. But it is a strange kind of spirituality, exclusive and self-denying to a fault, more unsettling than charismatic. The critic Brian O'Doherty has noted Rothko paintings' "urgent nostalgia for another time or place — so much so, indeed, that one often wishes to escape from his pictures so that one can remember them instead."

I recall that feeling from my visit to the Rothko Chapel in Houston in 1971. These large black paintings in a darkened space  — even when his palette was broader, Rothko favored dim light — struck me as something it would be good to get away from. Being aware of the dark panels' presence underlined an overwhelming feeling of sensory privation. I appreciated having seen them more than I did seeing them.

When an artist insists he is expressing his "not-self" in his work — and succeeds — his self is left with nothing to do but bang around in his non-art life and get into trouble. This tends to come out in the unpalatable form of careerism, which Rothko deplored and wanted to distance himself from.

Henri Matisse: "The Red Studio"
His only way of avoiding such unpleasantness was to imagine the paintings as emblems of a pure present he was charged with protecting. With Rothko, considering the past charitably takes one away from the art, except for a few beacon-like images. One of them for him is "The Red Studio" by Henri Matisse.

But look at the claustrophobic trap that painting's pervasive red surrounds the art with, like insects preserved in amber. If Rothko had wanted to celebrate Matisse's way with red, it would have been healthier to hold up "Harmony in Red." Those buoyant arabesques! That enchanting female figure, at a table with fruit! The view outside! But that would have required a different Rothko, with a different temperament — and thus foreign to "Red."

"Harmony in Red": A healthier paean to the color?
Logan's Rothko is largely dismissive of his early life: Does he remember Cossacks in his native Russia throwing bodies into ditches, or just that he was told about the pogroms? It doesn't matter to him.

With the color red symbolizing hope, as Logan's Rothko declares, the threat of its being overcome by black has to mean the end of hope. Rothko in "Red"  would rather say that black stands for the tragedy of failing to balance the Apollonian and Dionysian sides of one's nature.

His tragedy is worse than that, however: If you remove yourself from the flow of time — the inevitable locale in which art is created and life is lived — you abandon hope, which lives in the future. Past and future enfeebled, the artist is at war with himself, especially when he has erected his art upon the almost inaccessible rigor of not-self.

In his great story "The Garden of Forking Paths," Jorge Luis Borges has his narrator say something frighteningly pertinent to Rothko's dilemma. Similar thoughts may have frightened Rothko to death — by suicide in 1970.

"I foresee that man will resign himself each day to more atrocious undertakings: soon there will be no one but warriors and brigands; I give them this counsel. The author of an atrocious undertaking ought to imagine that he has already accomplished it, ought to impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past."

It may have been necessary, it may even have been heroic, but in some sense the Rothko way forward was an atrocious undertaking. That's why it's so hard to like the Rothko whom Logan sets before us, and why our pity for the agonized artist feels overwhelming as the 95-minute drama runs its course.

Pity has been a hallmark of great tragedy since the beginning. "Red" may not belong in the most exalted company — even King Lear seems to me the least satisfying of Shakespeare's tragic heroes because he demands too much pity — but IRT's production of Logan's searing drama is fully worthy of admiration. And, despite its unlovable subject, of love — which rises above pity.



 [Photo credit, IRT production: Zach Rosing]










Thursday, October 16, 2014

Jerusalem Quartet opens Ensemble Music Society series in spectacular fashion

The goal of every chamber-music group is to project a personality all its own while not pouring it like a sauce over a wide range of repertoire.
Jerusalem Quartet played itself as well as three distinctive pieces.

It can be a tricky proposition, but the Jerusalem Quartet showed how it's done Wednesday night at the Indiana History Center. The Israeli group opened the 71st season of Ensemble Music Society with a program of Ravel, Beethoven, and Brahms — giving a distinctive profile to each of the three string quartets enjoyed by a near-capacity audience in Basile Theater.

I'm resisting picking up online evidence of the JQ's affinity for the likes of Shostakovich and Bartok. But I'm betting that violinists Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler, violist Ori Kam, and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov have a unified vision of those composers as well.

Founded in the 1990s with one change of personnel since (Kam joined in 2011), the Jerusalem Quartet has been well-received for its Brahms performances. Unsurprisingly, his Quartet in A minor, op. 51, no. 2 capped a top-flight program.

 The work's occasionally dense textures never took on excessive weight. In the second movement, the myriad contrapuntal phrases did not sound thick, but maintained clarity. In the "Quasi minuetto" movement that followed, the players managed to convey a dreamy atmosphere, yet with all the material well-defined.  This characteristic came in handy in making the movement's scurrying fast section seem an integral part of the whole.

Coordination was pinpoint. It had been evident how characteristic that was in the deftness with which tempos quickened toward the end of the first movement. In the fourth, the Jerusalem Quartet extracted the utmost drama from the music's pauses and hesitations.

To try to describe what this ensemble is about: Without sacrificing clear-cut attacks, it manages a kind of soft-focus tone and a blend as warm as period instruments strung with gut and to lower tension. The tone quality is rich without being too assertive. Kam has probably the sweetest sound of any violist I've heard: Besides its occasional prominence in the printed program, it was a treat to savor it one more time in the encore, the Andantino from Debussy's Quartet in G minor.

Also admirable was the restraint shown in Beethoven's Quartet in A major, op. 18, no. 5.  The Jerusalem's performance properly anchored the work in the classical era, with formal balance holding expressiveness in check.  At first I thought the start of the finale ought to have had its angular contours stressed more, but it became evident that feature is more worth emphasis later in the movement, which is exactly where the Jerusalem put it.

Leading up to intermission, Ravel's Quartet in F major was also outstanding. The cool sentimentality that flecks many Ravel scores was given its due. The contrasting material in the second movement — a litmus test for conveying understanding of the composer's idiom — was expertly judged. All the color contrasts and combinations of Ravel's orchestral palette are here in microcosm, and the Jerusalem was sensitive to them.

The drawn-out ending of the slow movement was put across with an almost timeless feeling that set up wonderfully the torrential opening of the finale. That movement's mercurial quality came to the fore throughout, but from an Olympian perspective that never failed to delight.






Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Boston Baroque makes memorable music on a tragically memorable occasion in its hometown's history

Martin Pearlman and his Boston Baroque launched their recording sessions for Haydn's "Lord
Nelson" Mass on the day of the Boston Marathon bombing.

Martin Pearlman leads Boston Baroque in Haydn.
A program note in the CD booklet (Linn Records) makes mention of that fact, and draws a link between the singers' and instrumentalists' work on the piece and that day's terrorist event. After all, the name the composer gave to the work was Missa in angustiis — "Mass in time of trouble or anxiety."

What Haydn alluded to was Napoleon's imperial ambition and its effect on the composer's beloved Vienna. An English military hero led forces that turned back the French forces' advance, thus providing the work with its nickname.

April 2013 doesn't necessarily hold more than an incidental place in the long history of troubling events. What else is history? one sometimes wonders. But the understanding and commitment of the performing forces here communicate a keenly felt connection to a long-ago conflict (1798) and the English-led breakthrough that checked Napoleon's onslaught, underscoring the work's triumphant moments.

Pearlman has his chorus and orchestra give irrefutable oomph to the opening Kyrie, in which soprano soloist Mary Wilson answers smartly to her role's coloratura demands. The well-judged balance of the choir immediately establishes itself. When called upon, all sections can produce a robustness befitting the text's intensity.

The devout Haydn must have wanted to reassure the Almighty of His people's devotion, as if to imply a "You owe us!" insistence on an allied victory over the little Corsican.

All the soloists (besides Wilson: alto Abigail Fischer, tenor Keith Jameson, and bass Kevin Deas) come through with solidly sustained phrasing and fervor in Gloria and Qui tollis peccata mundi. But it is also worth mentioning how capably the massed singers express, as if individually, the liturgy's changing moods, especially during the inherent drama of Credo.

In times of great difficulty, it can be difficult for even the most faithful to be certain of blessedness. How suitable, then, that in the Benedictus ("Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord"), the authority of him who comes is stressed over the perhaps doubtful power of blessedness.

Finally, the solo quartet displays a cherishable blend in Agnus Dei, and the choir trenchantly recalls the commanding tone of its first utterances in the finale, Dona nobis pacem (consistently rendered Donna in the printed material).

The disc is filled  out with a broadly substantial yet sufficiently aerated account of Symphony No. 102 in B-flat. The late mastery of Haydn is celebrated superbly throughout, from the first movement's brooding Largo introduction on.

The Adagio's sustained calm  —  a mood that  Missa in angustiis understandably can't afford to indulge — is remarkable, with its deft linking of winds (absent in the Mass, except for trumpets) and strings. The rollicking Minuet movement that follows yields to a brilliantly light-footed Presto finale.

Jazz quartet from Kalamazoo presents a suite at Butler University based on a 24-mile descent to Earth

What are the chances of encountering two musical compositions inspired by related scientific experiments  within the same week?

Fairly remote, I imagine. Yet I became acquainted with "Excelsior" by the Fifth House Ensemble (Cedille Records) shortly before hearing in concert "Free Fall" by the Western Jazz Quartet. It was a coincidence I fell into (without a parachute).

Western Jazz Quartet in performance elsewhere: Jeremy Siskind (from left), Andrew Rathbun, Tom Knific and Keith Hall.
The former composition, by Caleb Burhans, is a musical expansion to a half-hour of the first several minutes of a high-altitude drop by Joseph Kittinger in 1960. The experiment, called the Excelsior Project, had him plummeting to Earth in free fall until his parachute could be deployed to catch the thickening atmosphere and slow the descent.

The successful venture's successor, two years to the day before the Western Jazz  Quartet played a concert at Butler University Tuesday, was Felix Baumgartner's near-duplication of the same feat, coached by Kittinger.  The difference — for those keeping score at home — is that Baumgartner took a 24-mile journey, four miles more than Kittinger fell over a half-century ago.

Inspired by statements both parachutists have made about their experience, the Western Jazz Quartet created an eight-part suite whose titles are phrases from those statements. Apart from its artistic merits, "Free Fall" has  helped the four jazz faculty members at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo bond; three of them are new within the past two years because of their predecessors' retirement or career changes.

Best-known here among WJQ personnel are Jeremy Siskind, a finalist in the last two Jazz Fellowship Awards of the American Pianists Association, and bassist Tom Knific, who followers of this competition will remember played in the "house" rhythm section of the 2001 finals.

Siskind was celebrating his 28th birthday, drummer Keith Hall pointed out to the large audience in Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall. "Free Fall" made for a memorable celebration. It was preceded by a video of excerpts from Baumgartner's jump, providing the audience with vivid images to take into the listening experience.

The scariness and exhilaration alike were captured in the music. By the time the performance came to an end with the eighth movement, "Sand, Salt Grass, and Sage" by Knific, the audience had been guided to a safe, satisfying landing. The theme was almost light-hearted, reflecting Kittinger's joy at landing amid sand, salt grass, and sage, than which "no Garden of Eden could look more beautiful." Saxophonist Andrew Rathbun moderated his robust tenor sound to take on the buoyant lyricism of Jan Garbarek, and Knific contributed a calming plucked solo before the definitive ensemble climax.

Earlier, I was particularly impressed by "Everything Is Hostile" (the second movement), which eschewed the self-limiting channel of aggressive "free-jazz" noise in favor of something subtler. Rathbun wailed a bit, and there was a bluesy cast to the theme, plus a smattering of ironic quotation from Randy Weston's "Hi-Fly." The quartet managed an ample depiction of the stratosphere's hostile environment without feeling the need to deliver nerve-grating music.

"Awe and Remoteness" gave the opportunity for Rathbun to sound ethereal on soprano sax. Siskind displayed his ruminative side, and the piece ended with bass and piano laying down a rocking ostinato pattern against which the drummer waxed eloquent. Siskind's intricate, roiling solo on "Claustrophobia" drew the performance's biggest ovation, though it was matched in technical aplomb by his cross-hands work in the aptly descriptive "Spin So Violent" movement.

The penultimate movement, "Tropopause," described the atmospheric boundary where sudden, severe cold is the greatest danger.  The theme was appropriately tense. A piano-and-brushes episode allowed Siskind and Hall to represent the risk, and Rathbun's high-register tenor playing caught the precariousness of that part of the historic fall to Earth.

Despite a few moments when the drums seemed too loud in Eidson-Duckwall's close acoustic confines, the concert was a fine demonstration of the expressive reach of expertly played jazz into arenas of human experience little visited before. Jazzmen have flirted with outer space in a sci-fi manner (John Coltrane, Sun Ra), but rarely with such sustained attention to the facts of exploration at the edge of the world we know.







Saturday, October 11, 2014

Two major works by Catholic composers constitute this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program

No major work in the repertoire is surrounded by such a spooky legend as Mozart's Requiem in D minor, K. 626.
ISO guest conductor Matthew Halls

The gray-cloaked stranger with a mysterious commission. The overworked and increasingly ill composer. The feverish deathbed activity to complete a work promised to a nobleman who would claim it as his own.

All this occupies an indelible part of the public imagination from the play and film "Amadeus," a clever drama designed to exploit the legend and let the facts take care of themselves, serving Peter Shaffer's dramatic purpose as needed.

Masterpiece though it is, the Requiem is not wholly Mozart's work. It survives thanks to the efforts of Mozart's widow, Constanze, and her reluctant choice of an undistinguished pupil, Franz Xaver Suessmayr, to complete the commission after his teacher's death. The good is oft interred with men's bones, but not their debts and obligations.

So has the Requiem come down to us, sometimes subject to informed tinkering to reduce the Suessmayr fingerprint as much as possible. How much Mozart passed on to him in conversations that may have shaped the pupil's completion will never be known. Let me suggest the problem parallels recent scholarly parsing of Jesus' utterances in the Gospels to determine what he really or probably said.

In this weekend's performances  by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, audiences at Hilbert Circle Theatre will probably be thrilled by guest conductor Matthew Halls' command of the massed forces.  Friday night he displayed strong convictions about the Requiem, expressed through brisk tempos and a fondness for immense choral volume.

As usual, the large choir had been scrupulously prepared by its artistic director, Eric Stark. Some Stark hallmarks, such as well-coordinated separation of a word's syllables (especially in Lacrimosa and Kyrie), were carried over into Halls' interpretation. I couldn't quite see the reason for landing so hard so often on the second syllable of "eleison," but the practice served notice early on that this performance was going to present the chorus in strong profile.

The size and forcefulness of the choir posed a bit of a balance problem. There are interesting aspects of the orchestral accompaniment that help express the work's meaning.  The magnificent choir overwhelmed them. I'm not forgetting well-managed moments of dynamic contrast — the hush of the women's voices in the last line of Agnus Dei, for example. But in full cry, Stark's singers almost always dominated the orchestra.

Is it reading too much into the syncopated downward leaps in the strings as the chorus enters with (in Latin) "Grant them eternal rest" to hear the anxious appeal that the transition between earthly and eternal life be covered in mercy for the dead?  Or that the vigorous figures, also involving striking shifts of register, accompanying "Quam olim Abrahae" at the end of the Offertorium's first two movements suggest that God's promise to Abraham has a broad reach across generations?

At times, in other words, it didn't seem that only the burial of the dead was involved. The orchestra was in danger of interment as well.

Otherwise, Friday's performance had consistency and fervor. These qualities were matched by the guest vocal soloists: Yulia Van Doren, soprano; Meg Bragle, alto; Lawrence Wiliford, tenor, and Nathan Berg, bass. They sounded fine individually, and they blended well, particularly the women. I wish Van Doren's diction had been clearer, however; it sounded positively Sutherlandesque.

The concert opened with Olivier Messiaen's four orchestral pictures of a key event in Christian theology, "The Ascension" ("L'Ascension"). The brass rose to the occasion immediately in the majestic, harmonically spicy first section. The second movement, "Serene Hallelujahs of a Soul that Longs for Heaven," featured a sinuous English-horn solo by Roger Roe, among other woodwind delights.

Trumpet fanfares solidly answered by the strings made the third movement especially vivid. Strings alone conveyed the message of the finale, "Prayer of Christ Ascending to His Father," with the divided violins leading the invocation and just the first desks of violas and cellos in support.

Only the freshness of Messiaen's musical thinking, well delineated here, redeemed the obviousness of his constantly devout, unanswerable message.