Sunday, February 7, 2016

ScoLo flight at the Palladium: Top jazz quartet plays two generous sets

With a history together reaching back over 25 years, Joe Lovano and John Scofield brought their current combination of forces to the Palladium Saturday night, playing two sets for a large crowd.

John Scofield, Lewis Nash, Joe Lovano, and Ben Street at the Palladium.
Joining the guitarist and saxophonist onstage were bassist Ben Street and drummer Lewis Nash, who replaced the announced percussionist, Bill Stewart. Much of the material was drawn from the leaders' current recorded collaboration, "Past Present," the source of a couple of current Grammy nominations.

Often Scofield and Lovano set out the tune in tight unison, but that was only the most obvious indication of their meeting of minds. On their respective instruments, both men displayed the ready-for-anything fluency that is notable in their styles. They handled exchanges and contrapuntal passages expertly; in fact, intense musical telepathy was characteristic of all four musicians.

The leaders avoided leaving an impression of glibness, because they reined in flights of fancy when the impulse struck them. Their solos typically explored wide terrain, but never aimlessly. They regularly rounded off their turns in the spotlight with a satisfying, conclusive phrase or two.

Their partners in this effort supported this kind of balance of freedom and restraint. Street was solid in the accompaniment role, as alert bassists have to be, and he exhibited a forthright personality in solos as well. The group's man on sound represented him beautifully. In all registers, the bass tone came through both fat and clear. The second piece in the first set, with a harmonized bluesy theme, drew from Street a solo statement so rich, funky, and well-articulated that it might have been the envy of any electric bassist in the  audience.

That same number offered a fine exposition of Lovano's style, which bears signs of the gutsy "bar walker" style of his youth. He's built so much on top of that, however, that keeping the blues alive in his solos never seems to limit him. When he ascends into the high register and flavors the line with split tones and semi-squawks, he gives the impression of simply extending the relaxed flow of his playing through an altered technique.

Scofield presented his trademark sound consistently, sometimes finding it useful to import the spicy dissonances of his 'comping into his solos. The lines were beautifully shaped, even with the wealth of staccato accents he gave them. The lyricism on Saturday night never abandoned his playing, with somewhat less of the "squinchy" tone evident on many of his recordings. I hasten to add that Scofield's squinchiness is fine with me; it's vinegary and bracing.

Exchanges with the drummer were always welcome. And in his solos, Nash sounded to me free of cliches.  Maybe they are his own cliches, but his mastery of the kit always seemed fresh. Drummers who favor lots of splashy cymbal work lose me; Nash worked his cymbals economically. Show-off passages of rapid cymbal interplay were crisply limited, and he added whimsical touches on the hi-hat to punctuate solos often based on bass drum and toms.

Variety in the mostly original set list was considerable. After intermission, the quartet opened with a poised jazz waltz, which featured a well-regulated diminuendo at the end. The band closed its rapturously received performance with "Chariots," a catchy, chugging blues original featuring some more of Lovano's keening, high-altitude playing. I'm betting it left everyone aloft in spirit, floating up near the Palladium ceiling.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and its maestro do a final space walk before returning to Earth

With "The Cosmos in Music" as its midwinter festival, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and its public seem to have come a little closer to knowing its first 21st-century music director. Almost paradoxically, it's taken a three-week musical exploration of outer space for audiences to get down to earth with him.

Krzysztof Urbanski: Star-gazimg through music.
Of course, Krzysztof Urbanski's predecessor, Mario Venzago, ushered us into the present century, but the current maestro, just 33 years old, is fully a child of the millennium. Thus, it seems particularly fitting that he not only came up with the three-program "Cosmos" exploration, but that it was capped by the performance of music from "2001: A Space Odyssey."

In 1968, when Stanley Kubrick's film was new, 2001 seemed a visionary benchmark in human progress. Looking back today, the year is more darkly associated with the events of Sept. 11.

Urbanski said last spring when announcing the 2015-16 season at Hilbert Circle Theatre that, since boyhood, he has been "inspired by the cosmos, the stars, and astronomy." He also praised "2001: A Space Odyssey" in terms he echoed in remarks from the podium Friday night. "It's one of the greatest movies I've ever seen — a very philosophical movie."

Thus, the festival was appropriately capped by music Kubrick used for his cinematic inquiry into human origins and development, as seen from a universal perspective. The centerpiece had to be "Also sprach Zarathustra," Richard Strauss' interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche's tortured examination of human destiny and purpose, as reflected in the legendary religious figure Zoroaster.

Poster for a pathbreaking movie
One of Strauss' biographers has this to say of how the work starts: "The bombastic opening fanfare — trivialized and commodified by popular culture — is Strauss's best-known passage, even if the listener may never have heard of the composer." Between those two dashes lies limitless disdain for the use to which Kubrick put that fanfare. For Urbanski, probably, the fanfare is ennobled, as one masterpiece is linked to a later one, yielding the added benefit of the near-capacity audience at Friday's concert. Is this trivialization? Commodification? We had better make the best of it, then.

The ISO's performance moved from that noble beginning with great clarity in all the work's episodes, depicting the hero as a representative human quester over his proper place in the universe. The ongoing struggle with nature ends equivocally, with an unresolved contention between the pitches C and B. Particularly effective episodes were the slow fugue, beginning in the lower strings, and the "Dance Song" portion with the composer's buoyant gift for personalizing the Viennese waltz. Solos were brought off with idiomatic zest, none more so than concertmaster Zach De Pue's.

"Also sprach Zarathustra" inspired the young Bela Bartok on a compositional career that became one of the 20th century's most significant. A later Hungarian composer, Gyorgy Ligeti, wrote "Atmospheres" in perhaps his most extreme exploration of breaking down the symphony orchestra into its constituent parts and recombining it. Everyone in the large orchestra has something distinctive to contribute, and the piece, with its keen gradations of dynamics and slow-motion, evolving sonorities, came off impressively Friday night.

The strings were featured in mildly modernist lyricism of Aram Khachaturian's "Gayane's Adagio" from the ballet "Gayane," given a poised yet intense reading. The first half concluded with a display of the most enduring succession of waltz melodies in a single work, Johann Strauss Jr.'s "On the Beautiful Blue Danube." If the Danube River, at least as it flows through Vienna, is less blue and beautiful than it once was, it retains those pristine qualities in this music. Under Urbanski's guiding hand, tempo fluctuations and the balance of both lingering and forward motion were exquisitely brought off in Friday's performance.

This is a program with a vast expressive and technical range, befitting its connection to a movie best described by a vogue word of its time: mind-blowing. It was played in that spirit, and it brought with it particular insights into what makes Krzysztof Urbanski tick.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Remember "Sea Cruise" by Frankie Ford? Well, I barely do, either, but here's a satiric repurposing of that song in uneasy honor of the Texas senator's Iowa caucus victory.

"Everybody Get on Board With Ted Cruz" is a waterlogged celebration of the Texas senator's victory in the Iowa Republican caucuses -- in his own hard-shell Christian terms.

Posted by Jay Harvey on Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Monday, February 1, 2016

Indianapolis-raised Frederic Chiu returns to town, with the American Pianists Association helping him stage a "Classical Smackdown"

In today's competitive environment, a concern for self-protection as well as self-promotion nudges classical music to consider competitive formats that reflect the mainstream culture.

Frederic Chiu put Prokofiev and Debussy head to head.
That's what Frederic Chiu has done with his Classical Smackdown recitals, one of which he brought to a Sunday afternoon recital at the Columbia Club, presented by the American Pianists Association, which awarded him a fellowship in 1985. He has done much to build on that success since, with a touch of notoriety at the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, when the jury's failure to pass him on to the finals occasioned an uproar. But an international concert career and hefty discography have amply compensated for what was widely perceived as an injustice at the time.

Sunday's competitive format, complete with ballots the audience was encouraged to fill out after each of three rounds, is designed to help sharpen perceptions of Claude Debussy and Sergei Prokofiev in their music for solo piano. Chiu noted that votes could be validly cast over a complete range of acquaintance with these composers and their music. He tabulates the results wherever he goes and publishes them on the Classical Smackdown website. It's an interactive approach to the traditional piano recital, something Franz Liszt, its pioneer, probably would have embraced.

I'm choosing to opt out of that kind of comparison here, though I have no doubt it's both useful and entertaining — and encourages closer listening than is the norm among many piano-recital audiences.

Chiu's Round 1 was designed, he said from the piano, for purposes of immersion and context. From Debussy, we heard "Suite Bergamasque,"  in which the Prelude exhibited sparkling color contrasts. Its solemn aspects, linked to a striding left hand suggesting something important to come, were highlighted. The Menuet that followed briskly kept uppermost its connections with dance; the well-known Clair de Lune featured chords lovingly sustained at phrase ends to enhance the melody. That gave way to the straightforward Passepied finale.

"Suite Bergamasque" was set against three movements from Prokofiev's ballet music for "Romeo and Juliet," one of them depicting revelry at the Capulet festivities, in Chiu's own arrangement. A brief respite from the vigor came with Friar Laurence's contemplative musings, only to be swept away in the Russian composer's bristling representation of the Montague-Capulet feud.

Chiu's all-out indulgence in Prokofiev's percussive side came out with "Diabolic Suggestions" in Round 2. It exhibits the kind of pulse-pounding virtuosity that is matched in a more variegated fashion by such a Debussy piece as "Jardins sous la pluie" (Gardens in the rain), an extroverted, picturesque part of "Estampes."

Along the way, Prokofiev's "Sarcasm" challenged the well-fed sensibilities of the audience, which had just finished brunch, with its brusque humor.

Round 3 brought forward two brief pieces by the featured composers in which they were contrasted as blatantly as possible. Debussy's "Reverie" exemplified what Chiu identified as "his freedom to compose for the beauty of the harmonies, just for the chord," without feeling compelled to give  harmonies a role to play in directing the music's forward motion.

Then came the blistering, barbed Toccata, op. 11, which draped Prokofiev in the mantle of enfant terrible as a bumptious conservatory student. Its thundering onrush is relieved mischievously near the end only to pick up speed and volume as it roars toward the double bar. Chiu's performance displayed his control and facility in music that needs both if it is to seem like something more than overpowering noise. And in fact, it came through as being just as musical as the soft-spoken "Reverie."

A check of the website today is sure to reveal the outcome of the APA event's balloting. Whoever won, the extraordinary display of characteristic pieces by two major composers came out on top.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Standing up for justice in a small Southern town: IRT has a new production of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

A beloved book with a strong narrative voice at the center carries strong pluses and minuses over into a stage adaptation. On the one hand, there is the thrilling familiarity of the story and the characters in the flesh in front of us; on the other, there is a dilemma of what to do with that voice. It has to diminish somewhat to allow room to render recalled events in action.

Jean Louse Finch (Lauren Briggeman) with the townsfolk she recalls as backdrop.
First-person narration by a central character puts a novel on intimate footing with one reader  at a time. This is the case with Scout when we read "To Kill a Mockingbird."

How to minimize its loss in the theater? The solution behind the Christopher Sergel adaptation that Indiana Repertory Theatre opened this weekend is to have the adult Scout onstage, facing us,  to capture much of the retrospective wisdom of the story the way Harper Lee wrote it.

Lauren Briggeman presents Jean Louise Finch, to give her the name she reassumed after she outgrew the tomboy nickname Scout, in a believable manner. She captures the steadiness of insight and the quiet wonder behind Scout's recollection of her father and her sleepy Alabama hometown. It doesn't allow for much range, however, and doesn't seem as if it would be rewarding to play.

Atticus elicits his client's testimony while Heck Tate looks on.
Yet Jean Louise's prominence here helps skew the play toward the adult perspective on the story's central events. There's no question that the trial of a black man on a rape charge is pivotal, and a revelation of the character of his attorney. The perspective of the three children — Scout, her older brother Jem, and their new friend, lonely, eccentric out-of-towner Dill — haunts the show but never feels central to it.

The upright Atticus Finch, recently a figure of some dismay among "To Kill a Mockingbird" fans for how he comes across in the novel's sequel, "Go Set a Watchman," is scrutinized by everybody in Maycomb. In the IRT production, Atticus is capably portrayed by Ryan Artzberger in a performance that admits anger and frustration as coloring for the lawyer's steadfastness and devotion to justice.

The community feeling, which crucially extends uneasy respect for Atticus while adhering to its values on both sides of the racial divide, is attractively presented. Tim Grimm, who plays Heck Tate, the sheriff responsible for enforcing those values, also wrote arrangements the cast sings. The setting of "Hush, Hush," which opens the show, is especially apt. The African-American spiritual, with its reminder that "somebody's calling my name," sets a seal on the play's powerful reminder that individual responsibility is a difficult burden everyone may be called upon to shoulder.

IRT's large cast, directed by Janet Allen, credibly portrays the strains the case makes on the town's cohesiveness. Those are underlined by the effect of the national Depression on Maycomb's already hardscrabble existence, where the only relief is the gossip stridently shared by Stephanie Crawford (Laurel Goetzinger) and moderated more humanely by Maudie Atkinson (Jan Lucas).

The set and lighting designs, explicitly in statements by Bill Clarke and Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein, are conceived as crucial to the experience of Scout and her two companions. It's enough to represent her own house by its front porch, where the hired cook and domestic boss Calpurnia (Milicent Wright) appears from time to time as representative of all that holds the Finch household together.

Bulking large is the gnarled pecan tree in the yard next to the house where the recluse Boo Radley lives. The menace applied to both structures in the childish imagination is beautifully realized. In the midst of all this support for the juvenile experience and viewpoint, however, the impression made by the three kids seemed a little uneven Saturday night.

Scout was thoroughly contrasted in the performances of Lauren Briggeman and Paula Hopkins.
In particular, Paula Hopkins as Scout nails the girl's sauciness and curiosity, but is less successful conveying her endearing quality. This is certainly an aspect we need to see in order to bridge the play's unsettling events and their recollection by the mature Jean Louise years later. It's part of what makes the character of Atticus so powerful — the aura that affects the citizens of Maycomb, both black and white, also radiates toward Jem and Scout and, by extension, Dill. (The young actor who showed that sensitivity to Atticus best was Grayson Molin as Jem.) On the technical side, Paula tended to deliver her lines with marked accents that often obscured the words in between the accented ones.

Of the rest of the cast, there was plenty of focus on low life in the performances of Robert Neal as Bob Ewell, seizing the opportunity to disguise his abusive parenting with a baseless charge against Tom Robinson (played with a moving vulnerability and truthfulness by Daniel Martin), and Katherine Shelton as his desperate daughter, Mayella. James Solomon Benn stood firm as a father-figure and bulwark of endurance in the black community as Reverend Sykes. Charles Goad gave a performance as the prosecuting attorney that seemed to acknowledge the unreliability of the charge while also underlining  prejudices of the time and place that he knew would be sufficient to secure a conviction.

All told, this is an earnest production loaded with appropriate atmosphere that illustrates some of the persistent difficulties in giving an even texture to a production that necessarily seesaws between adult memories and a world of childhood struggling to understand why the grownups handle difficult matters the way they do.

What remains outstanding with me is the spirit and tension of the courtroom scene and the vigorous staging of the climactic fight that rids the town of the menace that has cost an innocent man his life and nearly destroyed a modest, conscientious lawyer's career. "People like Atticus never bother about pride in their gifts," one character truly says about him. In this show, it's a lesson not quite clear enough on the juvenile level, which only attains clarity in retrospect.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Hanging meanings on the moon and other heavenly bodies: ISO's "Cosmos Music Festival" enters its second week

From mythological beings flung into heavenly immortality as constellations, through astrology, astronomy, and philosophical speculation, looking into the night sky has long passed beyond simple admiration.

The second week of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's "Cosmic Music Festival" trains its sights on musical interpretations of the larger meanings of stars, planets, comets, asteroids and just about anything else except what man has thrown up there over the last forty years.

Friday night's opening concert confirmed there are works you just can't avoid in such a survey, in
Jun Märkl brought out the full vitality of Holst and Hindemith.
particular Paul Hindemith's "Die Harmonie der Welt" Symphony and that perpetual blockbuster, "The Planets" by Gustav Holst.

Popular guest conductor Jun Märkl is on the podium tonight at the Hilbert Circle Theatre and Sunday afternoon at Avon High School. The Japanese-German maestro radiates affability and intensity in equal proportions, in addition to displaying an electrifying engagement with a score's three-dimensional rhythmic personality.

These qualities were well put to use in the program's two major works. The Hindemith symphony — in three dense, busy movements — was a first performance in ISO history, according to the program book. It's not surprising that the German composer's music has little more than a sturdy niche in today's musical gallery.

Hindemith had as intimate a knowledge of the symphony orchestra's instruments as any composer who ever wrote for it. Ideologically, he represented no-nonsense resistance to both the tattered banners of romanticism and the onrush of atonality. He was all about the craft of composition, and that is as fully evident in "Die Harmonie der Welt" as anywhere. Here, he develops themes from his opera about Johannes Kepler, the astronomer who interpreted his discovery of the laws of planetary motion as indicators of universal harmony. That idea goes way back to ancient thinkers like Pythagoras, whose speculative theories were elaborated by Boethius in the sixth century.

Boethius' work gave Hindemith his three-movement scheme, depicting in succession music as we know it produced by voices and instruments, music as a vehicle for uniting body and soul, and music of the spheres. Holding that lightly in the mind, the listener may well experience a substitute for real enjoyment, as I did Friday night.

And just what is this ersatz enjoyment? "Die Harmonie der Welt" is easy to follow, despite its complicated surface. Imitative counterpoint runs riot (insofar as the very word "riot" ever applies to this composer): Anything you hear from one part of the orchestra will soon be repeated somewhere else. You can bank on it. The ISO's performance was crystal-clear, for the most part. At the end, two principals got well-deserved solo bows: flutist Karen Moratz and bassoonist John Wetherill.

But the formal uprightness of Hindemith's music was indelibly satirized by the English conductor-composer Constant Lambert in "Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline." It's hard to get his skewering of Hindemith in general out of your head: "Listening to his firmly wrought works we seem to see ourselves in a block of hygienic and efficient workmen's flats built in the best modernismus manner, from which emerge troops of healthy uniformed children on their way to the communal gymnasium." Exactly.

Before I part company with Lambert, it is useful to mention his succinct dismissal of another Hindemith piece that is also apt for "Die Harmonie der Welt": "Its combination of natural aridity with deliberate virtuosity is indeed most displeasing. Exhibitionism is only to be tolerated in the physically attractive."

Enter "The Planets," a physically attractive suite — a 20th-century bathing beauty — of seven pieces fleshing out the astrological personalities of an equal number of planets in our solar system. Holst's score is definitely exhibitionistic, but his expressive palette is so much richer that "The Planets" has long been securely in the repertoire, whenever a symphony orchestra wants to hire the extra players needed to bring it to life. In "Venus, the Bringer of Peace" alone, one finds the kind of sensuous harmonies that almost never crossed Hindemith's mind.

What Jupiter would look like to us if it were as close as the moon.
True, the score is almost too accessible, in that parts of it can become tiresome with only slight familiarity. In my case, favorites among these portraits have varied with my advancing age. At about 20, I thought there was hardly anything more captivating than "Mars, the Bringer of War." Stunning as its thrusting bravado is, in Friday's performance it had some deliciously drawn-out tension before the resumption of the juggernaut 5/4 march.

In middle age, "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" was a huge favorite of mine. There's so much variety in this central part of the suite, it's as if Holst couldn't bear to let go of it. As it got under way, the ISO sounded rough and (not quite) ready, but the movement jelled nicely well before the grandly hymnlike middle section. In the ISO's magnificent account, the sheer hugeness of both the planet and the chief Olympian god came to mind as vividly as this image that recently appeared on my Facebook or Twitter feed.

As I enter old age, I connect inevitably with "Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age," though it contains portents that make me uncomfortable. But the movement I like best of all now is "Neptune, the Mystic." This finale shows off Holst at his most transcendent, somewhat on the order of my favorite composition of his, "The Hymn of Jesus." With women of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir singing wordlessly from the balcony, the ISO on Friday gave a fine account, after some errant woodwind tuning at the start righted itself.

Like the first "Cosmos" program, this one had a brief vocal selection between the two major works. "O du, mein holder Abendstern," an enduring melody representative of early Richard Wagner before he outgrew arias, was sung by Wolfgang Brendel of the Jacobs School of Music faculty at Indiana University. He sang like a voice teacher.

 Still, the performance suggested the wise forbearance of Wolfram, the character who addresses the evening star after a poignant parting from the saintly Elizabeth in "Tannhäuser." Brendel's seasoned baritone sounded a little bare on top, and the repetition of the last line, "ein sel'ger Engel dort zu werden," drifted slightly out of tune. The cello section solidly reprised the main part of the melody at the end to put the performance on a firm footing.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Indianapolis Opera lifts its voice to proclaim financial, artistic health in the 2016-17 season

A work that its author yearned to see turned into an opera will reach that status posthumously next September when Indianapolis Opera premieres "Happy Birthday, Wanda June."

Indianapolis native Kurt Vonnegt wrote the libretto based on what started life as a 1971 stage play. After Richard Auldon Clark, director of instrumental activities at Butler University, befriended the fellow New Yorker late in the author's life, the two talked frequently of imbuing the story with music. Vonnegut died in 2007.

Scheduled for production in the Schrott Center for the Arts on campus, the opera will be directed by Eric Einhorn, heading a production team including Cameron Anderson (set design), Shawn Kauffman (lighting), and Candida Nichols (costumes).

"Happy Birthday, Wanda June" was motivated by Vonnegut's opposition to the Vietnam War. It is loosely based on "The Odyssey," the epic poem by Homer, with an American soldier of fortune as the Ulysses character. He returns home to his wife, Penelope, finding her much changed while he was away, lost in the Amazon Basin.

"He had talked many times about 'Wanda June' being good as an opera," Clark told a season-announcement gathering at the Schrott Center Thursday night. "The story and words were most important to him," and Vonnegut thought new music would serve the text well:  "Kurt thought that as soon as it had music, everyone would  understand the characters of 'Wanda June' better," Clark said. "This man knew music like you wouldn't believe."

Indianapolis Opera plans to set up a small Vonnegut festival in the week before the opera premieres Sept. 16-18. Details have yet to be concluded

The rest of the season:

* "The Barber of Seville," by Gioacchino Rossini (Nov. 18-20), the Tarkington at the Center for the Performing Arts, Carmel. It's one of most produced comic operas.

* "The Jewel Box,"  (March 24-26, 2017,  at the Schrott Center), a pastiche fully scored by W.A. Mozart and put together by music critic Paul Griffiths. Concert arias are used, given new English texts and linked with spoken dialogue. The piece fancifully puts the composer inside the action with the goal of creating a new kind of operatic genre.

Reginald Smith Jr.
Sydney Mancasola

Yi Li
Margaret Mezzacappa
The current season will end March 18-20 with the American premiere of Jonathan Dove's opera based on Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park." This weekend the company presents "Opera's Rising Stars," a program of highlights from the opera repertoire featuring four recent winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. They will be accompanied by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra conducted by Matthew Kraemer, its music director. Both programs are at the Schrott Center.

Heard in rehearsal Thursday night, they proved to be four capable singers of thrilling potential. They are soprano Sydney Mancasola, mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa, tenor Yi Li, and baritone Reginald Smith Jr. The Indianapolis Opera Chorus is also on the program, which will be performed twice this weekend.

Before the season announcement, IO general director Kevin Patterson summed up the company's achievements over the past year since he was named to head it.

A new matching gift program of $25,000 for the endowment has raised $11,000 so far. Its educational component performed 78 shows in 18 Indiana counties for audiences totaling 25,574. On the way to having seven resident companies at its home, the Basile Opera Center, 4011 N. Pennsylvania St., it now has Motus Dance, Encore Vocal Arts and the Indianapolis Film Festival as tenants. "We intend to establish the Basile Center as a midtown destination for the arts," Patterson said.