Thursday, July 2, 2015

Anticipating HART's annual Shakespeare production: The humanity of Twelfth Night's least likable character should not be hard to find

The first thing I did when the Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre's  cast list e-mail for "Twelfth Night" hit my inbox was plunge into it. Diving into the cast announcement of a major production can feel as risky and subject to second thoughts as immersion in the sea that the self-involved Duke Orsino imagines as he opens the comedy with "If music be the food of love, play on."

It was already exciting to learn that Courtney Sale would be directing the show: Her focus on a show's visual significance and her willingness to break through the net of words chime thoroughly with the spirit of Shakespeare's last pure comedy, which is so dependent on appearances and the friction of behavioral contrasts, jumbled together as identities diverge and converge.
Ryan Artzberger: An  actor who brings breakthrough concepts to the stage.

The show opens at White River State Park with a preview performance four weeks from today. The cast includes actors familiar and unfamiliar to me. (In the latter category is Keith Potts; rarely have I seen an actor's publicity photo so perfectly match a character! He's a dead ringer for Feste, the wise and witty clown.)

My big "Why, of course!" moment came when I learned that Ryan Artzberger will be playing Malvolio, the strict steward for the countess Olivia. He startled me in 2012 with his madcap Iago in HART's "Othello," and here he'll be doing the control freak and delusional romantic Malvolio in the topsy-turvy world of "Twelfth Night," whose very title alludes to the revelry that was characteristic of Epiphany observance in Shakespeare's time.

So why does Artzberger as Malvolio seem like the right choice?  Because he is gifted at investing outsider roles with an energy that borders on caricature, while usually finding the core humanity in them. And there's no more embattled an outsider in a Shakespeare comedy than Malvolio.

Typically, Artzberger suggests a charcter's internal divisions from his first appearance; it makes him compulsively watchable. What may not seem entirely right at first (maybe at length, too, if Iago is any indication) upon reflection turns out to have grown from wholesale commitment to an unwavering, almost extravagant concept. Artzberger invests his roles with centrifugal force, and Malvolio is in an odd sense the center of "Twelfth Night."

As Scrooge, a revelation in IRT's famous snow.
To the degree that it has one, I must add. The critic Harold Bloom truly writes: "The play is decentered; there is almost no significant action, perhaps because nearly everyone behaves involuntarily." It's the perfect arena for an Artzberger demonstration of how to hold an isolated but vital character together.

The Artzberger brand was first impressed upon me in 2010, when  he first played Ebenezer Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol," the hit annual production at Indiana Repertory Theatre, where Artzberger does the bulk of his local work. The ferocity of his skinflint, so firmly established before Scrooge's "Bah, humbug!" persona gradually peels away, was all anybody could ask for.

What was surprising was the conversion scene, when Scrooge discovers that his frightening ghost-guided visions have deposited him on the Christmas Day he had roundly scorned just hours before. Artzberger's Scrooge bubbled over at the discovery, giddy about the opportunity to do some good in the world and redeem his unsavory reputation.

Here was a crabbed man gloriously undone by sudden access to virtue. It was as if he had entered the kingdom of heaven as a little child, the way the Birthday Boy long ago deemed necessary. At once, before our eyes, "A Christmas Carol" moved from didactic entertainment to religious parable.

"Misprision in the highest degree!" Feste the clown exclaims in the first act of "Twelfth Night" during a battle of wits with the countess Olivia. He's countering her latest witticism, but he could just as well be describing the whole play. People in "Twelfth Night" are dependably taken for someone else; sometimes they don a disguise willingly; sometimes they are forced into it. Most characteristically, as Bloom reminds us, they are without conscious choice in the matter. Shakespeare's subtitle, "What You Will," invites the audience's tolerance for mistaken identities and misread situations.

Malvolio falls victim to the gentlewoman Maria's vicious trick largely because his self-control and disdain for unruliness hide a susceptibility to passion, which she takes advantage of. He's declared mad and forced into a small, dark room. At the end, when all the loose ends are tied together, and happiness prevails for just about everyone, Malvolio stalks off, swearing revenge.

Should we sympathize with him? the play's critics have long debated. I predict that Artzberger's portrayal will make sympathy for the severe, officious servant feel natural.

In support, I turn to an odd place, perhaps: T.S. Eliot's commentary on "Othello," the play in which my memory of Artzberger's Iago remains vivid and disturbing. Eliot is focusing on Othello's final speech, before he kills the wife he believes to have been unfaithful. The influential poet-critic, as he often does, here presents a generalization to give context to Othello's self-absorption: "Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself."

I think most of us recognize that desire in ourselves, and that's the key to seeing that Malvolio is entitled to it as well.  By the end of "Twelfth Night," Malvolio has been shoved beyond the chance to know humility; he has been humiliated. What will resonate with us as we watch Artzberger will be the character's core need for self-esteem. He may have been mistaken and narrow in how he chose to express that need earlier, but Malvolio still deserves to think well of himself.

I have no doubt we will see his claim to that right confirmed by this actor. Along the way, of course, Artzberger's talent for outsized foolery will have us laughing long before sympathy occurs to us.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Assimilation through suffering: Work and love in early 20th-century urban America are lifted toward grandeur in Cincinnati Opera's world premiere

The title song of "Morning Star" encapsulates much of the new opera's charm. Tune and text firmly evoke the bright view of romance characteristic of Tin Pan Alley, as well as the back story of so many new Americans bringing ambition and idealism to their adoptive homeland.

The Cincinnati Opera production, on the opening night of the world premiere Tuesday, followed through on the song's optimism — a sturdy attitude, challenged by the dangers of hardscrabble immigrant life, which winds through the collaboration of composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist William M. Hoffman.

"No one can keep you from me," the couples declare in Act 1 of "Morning Star."
Sung by aspiring songwriter Irving Tashman (Andrew Bidlack) to the youngest daughter of the Latvian widow Becky Felderman, "Morning Star" draws on a genre that mixed gentility and populism in an assimilable manner. Applied to everyday life, this precarious cultural balance was maintained with difficulty by East European Jews living and working on the Lower East Side. Its representative crucible was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 1911, the shaping historical event of the new opera.

A morning star is  the same thing astronomically as an evening star — a bright planet (like Venus) appearing near the horizon just before daybreak or twilight, respectively.

Metaphorically, however, the morning star in Irving's song represents idealization of the beloved and the hope of a stable future together. The evening star focuses on its opposite, the loss of both love and the diminution of hope, as in one of the era's hit songs, "Come Down, My Evening Star." Though not derivative of it, "Morning Star" tugs at the heartstrings just the same, because we are quickly made aware that too much is changing in the lives of the opera's characters for the threat of loss to recede.

The opera is opulent in its vocalism, with a wealth of sopranos that should delight fans of Richard Strauss. Gordon's procedures are much different, however, as he presents a well-connected series of stylistically diverse numbers set against accompaniment textures that are thinner and more contrapuntal than Strauss's, while still being full of color. On Tuesday, all that was richly displayed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and insightfully guided by conductor Christopher Allen.

Tenement dwellers in "Morning Star" sing of drudgery and dreams.
Intermittent spoken dialogue never rises to such prominence as to interfere with the grand-opera aura of the work, although more music, of at least a recitative sort, would have been welcome in the dialogue between Becky and her former tenant Aaron in the second act.

The scene nonetheless has plenty of singing, and is among the production's best staged, as family ghosts reappear and make their presence part of the living characters' reality — which happens in unmusical terms often in real life, doesn't it? There are other clever gatherings of characters to swell the solo voices into brief choral splendor. These are entrances not always dependent on realism. I found this device a refreshing reminder that, especially in times of stress and at close quarters, we live much of our lives among others in a personal phantasmagoria of encounters and departures. The structure of the work, with a Prologue and Epilogue providing narrative frames — the rainy funeral procession and the fire itself, in reverse chronological order — is also quite enthralling.

Projections on a large triangular backdrop, whose shape is a constant reminder of the fatal building, carry contemporary images and help anchor the different time plateaus in place. Fittingly, one of the show's stirring ensembles is a well-placed meditation on time in the second act, leading up to the conflagration of the Epilogue.

A few vocal numbers are particularly effective telling the story, and the singing never stinted on vigor and emotional heft. The long duet between Becky (Twyla Robinson) and resentful daughter Sadie was about the best of them. It was both tense and tender, given the background of the mother's enduring love for all three daughters and her distress at the hard-bitten businesswoman Sadie (Elizabeth Pojanowski) has become. The Verdian curse Sadie had long ago put upon the doomed Esther  looms large.

There were hints of excess in the composition's generous layout. A lengthy paean to the colors of her native South sung by the black peddler Pearl (Jeanine De Bique) seems the sort of set-piece that could well be trimmed out, if it were not for the wider perspective it offers on the disorientation of the immigrant experience.

Gordon's protean writing comprises jazzy numbers with a sardonic edge, reminiscent of Kurt Weill, and perky nods to the bounce of vaudeville and the Yiddish theater. Some pieces seemed to beg for Broadway treatment, but clearly neither the show's creators nor stage director Ron Daniels wanted to go in that direction.

The main exhibit in this category is a first-act song about all things kosher that musical comedy would probably adapt as a big production number with lots of choreography. Staged as it was, however, it got a little ponderous. The song yearned to give its regards to Broadway, but that would have taken the opera too far from its proper realm.

The libretto teetered on that boundary now and then, too. Hoffman's slangy wit salutes the sass and snappy rhymes of the great Jewish lyricists. Sometimes the close-order drill of his rhyming was obtrusive: A complaining husband compares his wife's chatter to the "cluck, cluck" of a duck, but every toddler knows that hens cluck, ducks quack.

Hoffman's muse soars as well, often successfully. Yet one ostensibly wise utterance of the long-suffering Becky seems questionable on both philosophical and dramatic grounds. I'll paraphrase it as her pronouncement that all God commands is that we don't hurt one another. I doubt that any strong-minded mother of that era, whether Jewish or Christian, would be likely to subscribe to such a reductive theology.

A longer list of requirements from the Lord was embedded in the culture that held families together as much as possible in this opera's turbulent milieu. Simply not hurting people entails no obligation to forge and sustain bonds we all need, leaving us with little more than the lonely fantasy that Lillian Russell addressed to the celestial light in 1902:

My evening star I wonder who you are,
Set up so high like a diamond in the sky.
No matter what I do
I can't go up to you,
So come down from there, my evening star.

But the authentic uplift behind the searing family fragmentation in "Morning Star" suggests that the enduring promise of the morning star can prevail. That hope feels all the more solid when embodied in the generally well-integrated and artfully demonstrative manner this production will present through July 19 at the SCPA's Corbett Theater.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

My soundtrack in the aftermath of Obergefell v. Hodges: two recordings of Elliott Carter's Double Concerto

Elsewhere I have expressed my dismay that the Supreme Court last Friday leaped into settling a question that ought to have been resolved among the voters and their elected representatives. Despite that, the Obergefell v. Hodges decision holds out the promise of a society I will be happier to live in.

In contemplating the future, in which committed same-sex relationships (one of them close to me, and of 35 years' standing) will have legal sanction, a fascinating sidebar in the New York Times' coverage was a feature on how gay culture will have to change, perhaps in ways that are poignant and a little alarming to those within it.

It's not my place to assess the potential for stress on the social bonds within the gay community, once same-sex marriage goes mainstream. But the situation reminds me, looking on as a sympathetic outsider, of similar stresses that threatened social cohesion among African-Americans with the decline of segregation (still in many ways a de facto reality).

It might not resonate with most people interested in the fallout from Obergefell that I have found a musical analogue to the post-Obergefell interaction of gay and straight culture: Elliott Carter's Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras. But I will forge ahead anyway, realizing that my interpretation is a peculiar overlay on a 1961 composition with no implicit or explicit connection to homosexuality and its struggle for respect from the heterocentric mainstream.

Carter's procedure in this work is to assemble a "world" around the polarity of two solo instruments — harpsichord and piano — each of which is accompanied by a small band that flavors, develops and extends the material peculiar to each soloist. It is significant that the two solo instruments are by nature the most vividly contrasted; the constituents of the ensemble each one leads have relatives on the other side [see chart above]. Symbolically, I see this as indicating the manifold parallels and similarities both communities share, helping to reconcile the core dissimilarity of sexual orientation.

There are flashes of incompatibility that become quite intense, but also absorbing interactions and sensitive responses that, in our post-Obergefell environment, I choose to think of as a harbinger of long-lasting harmony between the two cultures. In many parts of American society, of course, especially the arts, this harmony has largely been achieved. Marriage equality, now the law of the land, represents the huge advance to come on the rapport already evident to many Americans.

The delicate cover of the first recording of the Carter Double Concerto
Carter (1908-2012), in the long major phase of his output, conceived his works as scenarios for musicians displaying in abstract terms the jostling for identity and mastery characteristic of human society. He didn't sentimentalize such conflict or get theatrical about it. The Double Concerto places the ensembles carefully, so that the two groupings are plainly evident.

But this serves the purpose of making the musical separation and its occasional abrasiveness clear. There are no costumes or props, no histrionic gestures. These aren't ignorant armies that clash by night (to borrow Matthew Arnold's phrase in another context), but knowledgeable teams that follow through creatively on the implications of the resources they have been given.

I have two recordings of the work, one (on Columbia) played by the English Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Frederik Prausnitz; Paul Jacobs (harpsichord) and Charles Rosen (piano) are the soloists. A later one (Nonesuch has the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, conducted by Arthur Weisberg, with Jacobs back as harpsichordist and Gilbert Kalish at the piano.

 If I had to characterize them in a thumbnail manner, I'd say the English performance is a more Apollonian interpretation, the American one more Dionysian. Tensions are poised in the Columbia recording; the central Adagio is a beautiful plateau on which each side assesses the opposite camp and negotiates a way forward. The American performance is better recorded, which perhaps gives it the edge in vividness and suggests a Romantic afflatus behind Carter's severe-sounding modernism.

Carter's stated inspiration, typical of him in the breadth of his cultural interests, is extensively described in his program note to the Columbia recording, but minimized in what he wrote for the Nonesuch jacket.  The generative literary works for the Double Concerto are the Latin poet Lucretius' "Of the Nature of Things" and Alexander Pope's "Dunciad."

The former work is speculative physics in verse, setting forth an atomic theory of matter that Carter found attractive in generating his piece from the onrush of percussion with which it opens. "The Dunciad," on the other hand, comes from a more complex society, at home with irony and more technically advanced, in which the social world is constructed from the "atoms" of individual behavior, in this case viewed satirically. Carter uses this as his cue to eventually disassemble the sound-world the two solo instruments and their colleagues have created, "unmaking" the foregoing procedure and fading rather quickly into nothingness. Pope's "Dunciad" ends similarly, though with a unique blend of grandeur and mockery.

A guide for the perplexed: Elliott Carter in his long-running old age
Now, how can my optimistic view of the gay-straight rapprochement possibly be apt for such a scenario, which seems to result in a sophisticated shoulder-shrug?  In this way: The process that Carter has set down in detail can be interpreted as a social phenomenon no less essential for being transitory. Ever averse to traditional musical rhetoric, Carter blithely skips out of his intricate scenario at the end — not tragically, cynically or resignedly, but pretty much with the attitude: Wasn't that fun while it lasted?

That's the kind of fun we will pass through in America as we get used to each other in new ways. We will come out on the other side with something it would be naive to be grandiose about. It will simply be life — more broadly conceived, more graciously lived, with a more inclusive sense of ordinariness. New materials will be assembled to provide ever-new syntheses.

The adventure that awaits is adumbrated brilliantly in this permanent work of art. We may all be post-modernists now, but — in Carter's Double Concerto — it remains clear that High Modernism lives!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Friday night's other classical music being wiped out by rain, Early Music Festival concert with Aeris moved front and center

The Indianapolis Early Music Festival took a "Roman holiday" on a rain-soaked central Indiana evening Friday, welcoming the baroque trio Aeris (with guests Charles Weaver, guitar and chitarrone, and Nell Snaidas, soprano) for a program of Handel "the Wanderer" and some Italian contemporaries  with one close predecessor. (Bad weather had led the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra to cancel its Symphony on the Prairie concert; the program is scheduled to be performed tonight.)

Aeris is focused on music of the Italian baroque.
The New York trio specializes in the Italian baroque, with its florid and moody inspiration and its vivid melodic and rhythmic character.  It's not hard to see how this sort of music stirred the young Handel, who went on to flourish in Italian opera (staged in England) and English oratorios. America's "Messiah" mania has tended to obscure the breadth of this achievement, but in recent years more attention has been paid to a few other oratorios and the Anglicized Saxon's operas (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' 2015 production of "Richard the Lionheart" coming to mind).

So, the centerpiece of Friday's program was the cantata Dietro l'orme fuggaci, "Armida abbandonata," a quasi-dramatic teeter-totter of recitative and aria — seven parts in all.

Nell Snaidas came through, despite a recent vocal crisis.
Artistic director Mark Cudek announced beforehand that Snaidas had just come through a bad patch of voice trouble. Her appearance as soloist in this cantata and, after intermission, shorter works by Handel and Alessandro Stradella (the close predecessor mentioned above) was gratifying under such conditions. It wasn't hard to notice some loss of color in phrasing; the bloom was definitely off the tonal rose. But Snaidas' technique was secure and her expressiveness just about all that we have come to expect from her previous festival appearances.

Aspects of the later Handel were burgeoning in Dietro l'orme fuggaci. There is his instinctive skill for boosting the dramatic impact of a vocal line in the accompaniment without its getting in the way, for example. There is also the impact he often created out of vigorous instrumental/vocal partnership in the subgenre of the "rage aria."

 The emotion of "Winds, stay! No, do not drown him! It is true that he has betrayed me, but still I love him!" may not be rage, exactly, but Armida's desperate appeal, practically a command, comes close. And this aria was a highlight of Friday's performance.

Leader Avi Stein's playing was buoyant and precise throughout, and cellist William Skeen consistently displayed beautiful, rounded phrasing. Tempo coordination within the trio was unfailing.

Weaver added rhythmic elan on baroque guitar in a chaconne by Nicola Matteis, who like Handel, was to make much of his career in England. This piece made a great conclusion to the concert's first half, thanks to the lively, well-turned virtuosity of Zachary Carrettin.

Based on his account of a sonata by the prolific Francesco Maria Veracini, Carrettin's manner of playing baroque violin and the pastel timbre he gets from it will be contrasted at the end of the festival with the appearance of Rachel Barton Pine, who has just issued with Trio Settecento the complete Veracini Op. 2 sonatas on three discs. Her tone in this set is more assertive and brighter; there will be no Veracini in her two concerts here, but comparisons to Carrettin should offer fascinating insights into the interpretive breadth with which Roman chamber music of almost 300 years ago can be represented today.

Friday, June 26, 2015

With top-to-bottom revisionism, history professors come to the rescue of America's long struggle with its difficult heritage

News item: Apple withdraws Civil War games from sale over Confederate flag sensitivity.…/06/25/apple-removes-confederate-f…/

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln late in life shows the strain on him of having to pretend there was a Civil War going on.

Hoople, ND -- Apple's decision to pull Civil War games from online availability turns out to have
better historical grounding than it may appear, according to a couple of historians on the faculty of the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. 

The two professors have concluded after years of exhaustive research that the American Civil War in fact never took place. Astonished by this revelation, I spoke to the scholars -- Wright S. Raine and Ambrose Truelove -- by phone earlier today.

"Professor Raine," I began, "how can you possibly overturn decades of scholarship, including an abundance of primary documents and photographs, that seem to assert the horrible reality of the Civil War?"

"We realize there will be massive resistance to our conclusion," Raine replied, "but we're confident that looking in a new way at the evidence to which you allude is supported by the facts."

"The mythification of the Civil War has gone on for long enough," Truelove added. "An entire industry, based both in academia and the outside world, is entrenched and can be expected to be fiercely loyal to the conventional narrative."

"Well, why not?" I suggested. "How do you otherwise explain what appears to be the greatest existential crisis in American history?"

"War games, basically," Raine said quickly. "It was an elaborate scheme to speed recovery from the Panic of 1837. Thousands of idle young men had to be usefully occupied. Ineffectual presidents were unable to put the plan into play until Abe Lincoln came along."

"He was like Cecil B. DeMille on steroids," said Truelove admiringly, alluding to the legendary
Hollywood director known for his casts of thousands.

"Still, it doesn't seem one man, no matter how extraordinary, could mastermind such a colossal deception," I said skeptically. "And what about slavery, which we've come to understand was the essential cause of the Civil War?"

"All part of the illusion," Truelove explains. "An added touch of color, if you'll pardon the expression. Those incorrectly labeled slaves were actually African tourists, eager to sample life in this new country -- the hope of the world -- and given such memorable experiences they decided to stay. Their time in the game was often painfully realistic, to be sure, but they appreciated the authenticity."

"Sort of like the dude-ranch idea, then?" I asked. "Like when city slickers wanted to see what the cowboy life would feel like?"
"Exactly!" the professors said in unison.

"Well, you gentlemen have certainly upset a lot of apple carts here!" I exclaimed. "This should really reduce the appeal of visiting Civil War battlefields, for instance."

"Not at all," Raine retorted. "Each one is like a stage set. And Americans love theme parks. This could put new life into their preservation; our findings have great commercial potential."

"Just consider," Truelove interjected, "our research has made those noisy, smoky, fake-casualty Civil War reenactments closer than ever to what really happened."
"That's right," Raine said with enthusiasm. "And beyond those hobbyists and buffs, our findings should give Americans a great sense of relief."

I was puzzled. "Relief? How do you mean?"

Raine was  ready as usual: "Americans have a rock-solid belief that they're different. Our discoveries about the Civil War mean they no longer need to endure the knowledge that their beloved nation went through four years of divisive, nearly terminal bloodshed over an institution that made millions of people property, deprived of liberty and subject to horrific abuse."

Truelove chimed in: "Precisely! By looking at the evidence more closely, we have reinforced the doctrine of American exceptionalism. How could Ronald Reagan's idea of 'the city on a hill' be valid if the Civil War, slavery and racism, quarrels over the Confederate flag and all that had a genuine historical basis? Our work -- and it hasn't been easy -- will let Americans feel good about themselves again."

"Well, maybe," I said doubtfully. "But there's always the Indian wars."

There was a pause at the other end of the line. "Indian wars?" said Prof. Truelove. "Do you know what he's talking about, Wright?"

"Vaguely," Raine said softly. "And I think I have an idea for our next project. We better get to work. Nice talking to you."

They hung up quickly. I was unable to thank them for the opportunity they had given me to point the way toward their next breakthrough.

[appicon]If you've been watching the news recently, you'll know of the huge debate in the U.S over the role of the Confederate flag in contemporary America. Many...

Lunch Break series at Hilbert Circle Theatre gives downtowners 40 minutes of effulgent Tchaikovsky

Guest conductor Fawzi Haimor was born in Chicago.
The tempestuous virtuosity of Armenian pianist Nareh Arghamanyan held an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra audience spellbound Thursday afternoon as the second annual  "Lunch Break" series, now expanded to six concerts, presented some familiar Tchaikovsky to music-lovers in Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Fawzi Haimor, resident conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, was on the podium for the second concert in the series. Both guest artists will appear in two Symphony on the Prairie concerts this weekend, collaborating on the same work. In addition, the Mussorgsky-Ravel "Pictures at an Exhibition" will be performed under Haimor's direction.

Nareh Arghamanyan put her stamp on Tchaikovsky.
The sole "Lunch Break" piece was everybody's favorite Russian composer's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor. It was a warhorse long before Van Cliburn made it even better-known after his competition triumph in Moscow nearly six decades ago yielded the first classical recording to go platinum.

Arghamanyan, a powerful  26-year-old who nestled some fine lyrical ideas amid this work's ample display of bravura, worked well with Haimor. After the first-movement cadenza, for instance, pianist and orchestra set up a nicely coordinated flow that churned animatedly up to the final double barline. Inevitably, sustained applause followed.

In the outer movements, there were passages that sounded overpedaled, usually when chordal fury was at its most intense. But the feverish elements were mostly under control, and were lent enough variation in mood to make Arghamanyan's performance enthralling. Today's standard of virtuosity is so high that it was a mite surprising to hear finger faults in the introduction, though nothing that obscured the effect of its famous melody. That tune contributed long ago to the concerto's pre-Cliburn fame by being ripped off for a popular song, "Tonight We Love."

The finale showed Arghamanyan's rhythmic acuity and steely focus. She played with an urgency that was right on top of the beat. Her treatment of the yearning second theme complemented the full-bodied sound the violins dependably gave to it.  Similarly, the young pianist confirmed the tender lyricism of the ISO's solo flute, cello and oboe in the second movement's melting theme, which is pertly interrupted by a sprightly folk tune that came off in lively fashion Thursday.

Based on Thursday's warm-up, Symphony on the Prairie patrons can look forward to performances of a flashiness and an intensity well-suited to the expansive vistas of Conner Prairie.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

DM Jazz Eight works at finding a local niche for the little big band

DM Jazz Eight: Moving smartly into Rich Dole's arrangement of a Johnny Hodges number.
Hearing the first set of the eight-month-old ensemble co-led by Gene Markiewicz and Rich Dole Wednesday night offered indications of bright promise at the Jazz Kitchen.

The DM Jazz Eight is an octet (duh!) with this instrumentation: two saxes, two trumpets, one trombone, and the conventional rhythm section (piano, bass, drums). The band largely uses a book left by former Indianapolis valve-trombonist-bandleader Phil Allen, supplemented by several Dole arrangements.

I came in as the band was setting out with Duke Ellington's "In a Mellotone," creating a relaxed groove featuring something that immediately appealed to me: trumpeter Larry McWilliams plunger-soloing crisp phrases behind the ensemble.  He has the perfect instincts for this kind of texture, and something similar came through later as the band played Dole's arrangement of Johnny Hodges' "Fur Piece."  Another Hodges piece arranged by Dole, "Monkey on a Limb," displayed the balance and verve of the ensemble especially well.

Other members of the band besides the three already mentioned: trumpeter P.J. Yinger, saxophonists Jim Farrelly and Tom Meyer, bassist Fred Withrow, and (sitting in for regular Gary Walters), pianist Sean Baker. All soloed from time to time, and the solos were compact and often telling. The co-leaders had a few good displays; I particularly found Markiewicz a compelling percussionist in Latin rhythms: the Theme from "Black Orpheus" by Luis Bonfa and Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" were sufficient evidence Wednesday night.

Dole and Markiewicz told me during the break that they hope to keep the band going in various venues. They find educational work especially compatible. Club engagements in the area are pretty much restricted to the Kitchen (where they were appearing for the third time); the venerable Chatterbox Jazz Club downtown has too small a stage to accommodate eight players.

They told some amusing stories about mixed success in playing for dancers, who can be mighty particular. It's a tough gig for jazzmen; often the particular gift of the best Swing Era bands — almost a lost art now — was their ability to suit the tastes of both listeners and dancers. The best in the business, which  I was fortunate enough to hear once, was the Count Basie Band, fairly late in the leader's career. The venue, of the sort that once was the bread-and-butter of touring bands throughout the land, was a popular roadhouse/dancehall in Holly, Michigan, in the 1970s. I was on assignment from the Flint Journal.

Count Basie almost drummed me out of the press corps.
The Basie ensemble was essentially playing a dance gig, but (let me shout it) it was also COUNT BASIE AND HIS ORCHESTRA!  There was plenty to enjoy from the comfort of one's seat. Of course, the band, with the leader's understated prodding from the keyboard, unfailingly drew a crowd onto the dance floor; it was irresistible. Even my wife and I — inveterate non-dancers — got out there.

During the break the Count consented to a group press interview. And there I made my most embarrassing interview mistake ever. I forget the exact context, but in response to something Basie said, I brought up the name of Dickie Wells as though he was on the bandstand that night.

The Count looked at me levelly and said softly:  "You leave this interview right now." (Awkward pause.) "Dickie Wells hasn't been a member of this band since the 1940s. It's Al Grey now," he added, referring  to the trombonist who was doing great work with the growling, gutbucket, plunger-muted solos that Wells had long ago set the pattern for with Basie.

Incredibly, I didn't move. Was I paralyzed by fear, or was I calling the great Basie's bluff? What if I had exceeded the Count's unspoken time limit for following his instruction to leave?  He could have stood up and declared: "The interview's over." The eyes of my colleagues would have directed so many daggers at me I would have resembled a clothed St. Sebastian.

That didn't happen, fortunately.  My momentarily shaky knowledge of Basie history  — and my failure to leave — turned out not to be a fatal error. The Count graciously continued the interview, and (thankfully) didn't make a point of ignoring me.

Greatness tends to exist on more than one level.