Monday, January 14, 2019

A throwback to the romantic recital: Drew Petersen plays solo piano music with insight and panache

Long ago, the age of what Franz Liszt pioneered as the solo recital soon acquired a format to be shared by pianists,
Drew Petersen: Breadth of youthful mastery
violinists, and singers — the most desired musician categories the public was willing to  hear under an individual spotlight. The format stipulated progress starting from serious and "heavy" repertoire, shifting to "light" stuff after intermission (still demanding enough to sustain a link with the program's first half) and ending with a bravura showpiece. It long satisfied the connoisseurs as well as what might be called (without disparagement) more casual music-lovers.

Drew Petersen,  by temperament, repertoire choice, and technical aplomb, reminded me Sunday afternoon of that time-tested program structure, which dominated concert life long before I matured as a listener. Even in its heyday, there were exceptions: the revered pianist Artur Schnabel sustained the public's love despite his unwillingness to offer anything other than "music greater than it can be played," so lighter material was left to others. Decades later,  the violinist Eugene Fodor, on the other hand, raised critical eyebrows with a New York recital debut exclusively devoted to bonbons.

Petersen showed the strength of the middle way. And he further waved the banner for the conventional solo recital by his characteristic approach. His is a romanticism held in from excess by clarity of texture, well-defined rhythms, and judicious pedaling. The tone is warm, the phrasing conscientiously revealing of the music's emotional import.

Making a name for himself in his mid-20s, Petersen is the 2017 Christel DeHaan Fellow of the American Pianists Association, having won the top prize of the APA's Classical Awards that year. He has been heard several times in Indianapolis, and his performances hew to a high standard  across a wide range of music. His honors also include an Avery Fisher Career Grant.

His solo recital at the Palladium in Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts confirmed the strong impression he's already made hereabouts. He opened with J.S. Bach's Partita No. 5 in G major. The constituent strands in the score stood out as needed, but the recitalist didn't make a fetish of transparency: The opening Preambulum reached a climax of bunched-up energy that never obscured a layout that's only superficially complicated. I also admired the lyrical strength of the Sarabande, and the way momentum captured the spirit of the concluding Gigue without sounding headlong.

Before the fuguelike finale of Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy in C major, which followed, came the recital's only slightly muddy outburst, but the waters cleared with the Allegro movement. Earlier, several of Petersen's gifts were fully evident: the even weighting of chords in the Adagio and his ability to shape the short decorative phrases in the Presto. His control was almost always superb: The cross-hands episode in the first movement featured a well-modulated lowering of volume.

Just as the first half gave indication of Petersen's mastery of weighty music, the second moved in the direction of lightening the mood. Liszt — as mentioned, the father of the solo recital — accumulated an oeuvre that spanned a range from profound to practically salon music. "The Fountains at the Villa d'Este" falls clearly into the latter category. It requires of the pianist an almost etude-like facility with splashes of keyboard color, which Petersen properly sprayed evenly as if under glinting sunlight, without throwing fistfuls of water in our faces.

The watery theme was extended with the boat-song model of the barcarolle represented at its best by Frederic Chopin's Barcarolle in F-sharp major, op. 60.  The main theme floated magically, with the left hand supplying the steady forward motion. The variety of figuration in the right hand, so nicely outlined by Petersen,  brought to mind Glenn Gould's dismissive comment about Chopin as "the genius of the right hand" — which the Polish composer certainly was, though scads of music-lovers will object to the implied belittlement.

Both Liszt and Chopin, as represented by those pieces, helped give special stature to a pair of works by Enrique Granados, a highly regarded Spanish composer whose career was cut short by a submarine attack on the ship that was bringing him back from the New World to his homeland in 1916. "Valses Poeticos," over the course of eight movements, spotlighted Petersen's marvelous tone and his sensitivity as a colorist and etcher of atmosphere. To conclude the printed program,  the picturesqueness was raised to the nth degree by a selection from Granados' evocative suite "Goyescas."

Capping the retrospective glories of this kind of recital, Petersen offered the brief, popular Chopin Prelude in A major, op. 28, no. 7, as an encore to a Palladium audience he seems to have both stunned and charmed.

[Photo: Dario Acosta]

Saturday, January 12, 2019

January in Paris: ISO says "bienvenue" to Dance Kaleidoscope in first classical program of 2019

Something to look at as well as to listen to gives special luster to the first weekend of the Indianapolis Symphony
Orchestra's "Paris Festival," which bridges the pops-classical divide through Jan. 19 at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Dance Kaleidoscope, a notable collaborator with the ISO in re-creating the turmoil that followed the 1913 Paris premiere of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," returns to the stage to enact artistic director David Hochoy's choreographic vision of George Gershwin's "An American in Paris" as the orchestra plays the score.

With a depth of only ten feet to work with, Hochoy has created a broad, varied vision of the work, which itself varies from a kind of rondo to a melodic miscellany. The picture hangs together, embracing the excitement of a stranger's visit to a celebrated world capital as well as the tug upon him of homesickness and loneliness.  The foreshortened vision of the stage I had from my seat engendered slight fears that an errant foot might dislodge a violin or viola, or hook a bow. But exquisite planning ruled, and the dancers' control as well as Hochoy's design allowed the horizontal sweep of the choreography to charm the audience and fly free of instrumental entanglement.

Dance Kaleidoscope's Stuart Coleman, as an American in Paris, looks upon the enchantment.
Stuart Coleman starred as the American visitor of the piece's title. His fresh boy-next-door demeanor and an
open, curious facial expression matched his interaction with Parisian citizens —   bus riders, boulevardiers, shoppers, and strollers alike.

There are also fantasy figures costumed after the romantic ballets that flourished in the French capital. The bustle of Gershwin's music was brilliantly synchronized with representations of the most stimulating and storied aspects of daily life in the City of Light.

When a bluesy contrast enters, so does in this production Mariel Greenlee, costumed in red, sinuously portraying a coquette given stature by a kind of aristocratic elan. Her central duet with Coleman was mesmerizing. Something both teasing and standoffish came through; Hochoy avoided overemphasizing the couple's rapport as the swirl of street life resumed. The company dazzled, and never seemed confined by the long, narrow space the dancers had to work in.

The choreographer showed his usual skill in projecting emotion without sentimentalizing it. The blithe spirit of Gershwin's music certainly supports this approach. My only complaint is that I lost concentration on how the orchestra was playing, but it seemed to offer a cheeky, deep-dyed account, with tempo and textural changes managed adroitly by conductor Krzysztof Urbanski and precisely followed by the dancers arrayed behind him.

Adding to the program's appeal, Urbanski twice used a hand-held microphone to offer oral program notes in the concert's first half. He's gotten better and better at this since his early attempts here. With a twinkle in his eye, he  explained the rationale behind two slow movements coming down to us in Mozart's three-movement "Paris" Symphony in D major, K. 297: the original and an alternative. He had the orchestra play excerpts from both and conducted a "push-poll" that signaled his preference for the more ingenious first Andante, which the ISO then played in full.

His story behind Mozart's rewriting the middle movement is one I hadn't come across before. Urbanski said the composer was not impressed by the ovation that greeted the original Andante, in a Parisian culture receptive to applause between movements. So he came up with a substitute that went over better. I've read an explanation that placed blame for the composer's revision on the 1778 "Le Concert Spirituel" director, a Monsieur Le Gros, not the audience: the slow movement was too difficult, the impresario advised. Mozart was angling for employment in the French capital, so either explanation is plausible. This jibes with the artistic dilemma facing the 22-year-old composer, whose father was urging him in correspondence to "be guided by French taste. If you can only win applause and be well paid, let the devil take the rest."

As biographer Maynard Solomon tells it, the independent-minded son rejected what he saw as a counsel for philistinism. Speaking of the whole symphony, Wolfgang wrote back: "I can answer for its pleasing the few intelligent French people who may be there — and as for the stupid ones, I shall not consider it a great misfortune if they are not pleased. I still hope, however, that even asses will find something in it to admire."

Father Leopold's response indicated he shared some of his son's disdain for French taste, despite his earlier practical advice: 'You must remember that to every ten real connoisseurs there are a hundred ignoramuses. So do not neglect the so-called popular style, which tickles long ears." The general populace can always be counted on to bray its approval, I guess.

Friday's performance apparently pleased the range of today's taste, both the long- and the short-eared kind,  as the "Paris" Symphony opened the concert, the orchestra sounding in fine fettle. Urbanski next picked up the mike  to introduce contemporary French composer Guillaume Connesson's three-movement tone poem "Les cités de Lovecraft." The expansive work is a lavish orchestral tribute to the imaginary cities described in the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, an American purveyor of horror and sci-fi with a persistent coterie of devoted readers.

The ISO music director had visual representations of the cities projected upon the overhead screen as he spoke. The images were helpful in taking in the pictorial richness of Connesson's interpretation. The score lies in the French tradition — evident from the 17th-century clavecinists on through Berlioz and up to Messiaen and Boulez — of highlighting sound and resonance, raising ornamentation to essential prominence, eschewing Austro-German rhetoric in favor of organic structure. "Les cités de Lovecraft" perhaps drove its allure into the ground, especially in the second and third movements. Vivid novelties, often violent and spectacular, were always striking the ear, but there was something naggingly overripe about the piece.

Nonetheless it certainly justified its place on this program, if not so inevitably as Debussy's "Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun," which followed intermission. This masterpiece, which immediately spotlights the solo flute's hypnotic, suggestive low register, draws the listener in from first note to last. Karen Moratz's presentation of that opening, with horns in the background, then some exquisite oboe and clarinet, captured the vague mythological atmosphere of a half-human creature lazily entranced by nymphs. Guest concertmaster  Justin Bruns embroidered the performance stylishly with the violin solos near the end.

The work is a rare example of a ground-breaking composition being a hit from its premiere onward. How interesting a refutation of the seemingly fixed musical gulf the Mozarts had found between asses and connoisseurs just over a century earlier! It's not always, as the French adage has it, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

[Photo by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra]

Friday, January 11, 2019

A mother's pain, baked to a turn: "Apples in Winter" opens the 2019 portion of Phoenix Theatre's season

Phoenix Theatre marketing of its latest production from the National New Play Network, with which it's been affiliated for many years, reaches out well beyond the essence of "Apples in Winter."

Ingredients ranged before her, Miriam prepares to make her last apple pie.
Understandably, the company is ramping up efforts to have mainstream appeal by emphasizing the resonance its productions may have beyond traditional theater fans. So Jennifer Fawcett's one-act, one-actor drama speaks with relevance to the opioid crisis (or is it an epidemic?), but the cost to society is narrowed to prismatic focus here. The wider meaning must be supplied by those in attendance, including personal reflection on the unanticipated costs of parenting, which usually fall far short of dealing with a son's horrific act and subsequent reputation as a monster.

One young man's addiction is reflected through his mother's suffering as she bakes an apple pie for him in the kitchen of the prison where he's on death row. Crazed by the lack of money for drugs and the desperation addicts often feel to avoid crashing, he brutally murdered two teens in an isolated parking lot at night.

It is helpful to approach "Apples in Winter" as a detailed examination of private family trauma. This is not "theater of ideas," nor is it to be tossed into a social-problems basket. In the preview performance Thursday night in the Phoenix's Basile black-box theater, it struck me as a severely controlled study, skillfully paced and never offhand about its core meaning.

The range of Jan Lucas' portrayal of Miriam is inseparable from the strong impression "Apples in Winter" makes. Directed by Jolene Mentink Moffatt, Lucas enters the scene (designed by Daniel Uhde) with the air of someone trying to shoulder a family burden in a strange setting: a stainless-steel kitchen with a distinctively undomestic look. The bright lighting (effectively varied as we learn about Miriam's pain in detail) suggests that the visitor's regard for order and ritual will be upheld. Her pride as a pie maker will make an effective cover for her suffering — up to a point.

The emotional depths are hidden at first, though we are quickly aware that Miriam brings severely mixed feelings  to the task. The kitchen knife chained to the table set out for her symbolizes much more than is immediately apparent. Admirable in their detail were all of the actor's enigmatic pauses, as well as Miriam's  careful attention to procedure and quasi-instructional description of pie-making. She stops before the preheated oven, her back to us. She pauses stock-still before washing her hands. The atmosphere of ritual, which the character praises at several points, was eloquently underlined by Lucas' movements. 

When the emotional import is heightened, the language remains plain and close to expressing Miriam's bond with her son, her memories of the apple tree she had brought back to life and from which her annual harvest always yielded an apple pie, and her searing ruminations on the event that ruined Robert's life and hers within a few moments.

Fawcett has adhered to a sturdy minimalism in setting out the story. Miriam's late husband, Larry, is reduced to an emblem of the demanding, punitive father. There are apparently no other children.  Robert's response to his mother's apple pies, from 5 years old on, is premonitory: The pleasure center of his brain was intensely active, and would clearly need more than apple pies (baked with love, Miriam reminds us) to be satisfied in the long run. Through her staggered recollections, other family members varied in their degrees of support after the crime; communications from parents of the two victims displayed a mirrored range of prayerfulness and imprecation. The plague of media attention amplified on the mother's nerves every dire consequence of crime and punishment.

Near the end, a mother's love is nearly smothered by an outburst of anger at her son. The height of her indignation is directed toward all those, mainly strangers, who have condemned and misrepresented her. Lucas' crescendo of blame and defensiveness was well-modulated Thursday. It was of a piece with the sustained attention to duty and detail Miriam puts foremost upon her initial appearance.

By the end, we have seen all sides of this character and her heartbreak. The completed pie in front of her, she announces to the invisible prison staff: "I'm done." It's a perfect finish, like the pie itself, which is also done. It's a wonderful sound, with a finality much more definite than "finished."

What's done is done, we sometimes say. We can hear in the repeated word the firm shutting of prison doors, the flat line on the device that will confirm a condemned man's death, and the difficult shuttering of a harvested-out home miles away. "I'm done," Miriam repeats as the lights fade.

[Photo by Zach Rosing]

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The late Neil Simon's celebration of music and love opens Beef & Boards 2019 season

Master composer and burgeoning lyricist start forging a bond.
The old knock on the late Neil Simon is that his plays were brief jokes (some of them actual one-liners) strung together and displayed across a thin plot by shallow, undeveloped characters.  Maybe that was because the jokes were pretty good, on the whole, and the sprightliness of the dialogue seemed to dwarf everything else.

Without getting into an examination of Simon canon here, more than a few of his plays refute the dismissal.
"They're Playing Our Song" falls somewhere in between. Some substance is supplied by the songs of Carol Bayer Sager and Marvin Hamlisch, whose real-life relationship formed the basis of Simon's show. The rest comes from exploring the friction inevitable when two disparate personalities attempt to achieve professional and personal accord at the same time.

In its opening weekend at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, "They're Playing Our Song" exhibited its entertainment value and a shelf life perhaps somewhat longer than might be expected.  There are several dated references and, not surprisingly for a play from the last century, a huge difference from today in the kind of communication possible when the people concerned are not in the same room; connectivity will never be the same. The show's old-fashioned vibe fortunately doesn't obscure its 2019 appeal.

A couple of other things, however, were jarring Saturday night. To get the nitpicking out of the way, B&B's backdrop to a first-scene set in successful tunesmith Vernon's well-appointed apartment is the Brooklyn Bridge. But when aspiring lyricist Sonia first shows up there late for a lesson that she hopes will lead to collaboration, she compliments him by admiring the flat's "nice view of the Park." I'm sure that expression to New Yorkers always means Central Park, which is a few crucial miles away. The other point was the unlikelihood of  Juilliard graduate Vernon's pronouncing Leonard Bernstein as "Leonard Bern-steen." Across the nation since the 1950s, many Americans, not just music cognoscenti, have known that the "stein" in the famous composer-conductor's name rhymes with "fine."
Vernon uneasily plays Sonia's therapist so she can unload a little.

On to more important matters: David Schmittou and Sarah Hund in the leading roles looked and sounded completely dialed in to Vernon and Sonia. Under the direction of B&B veteran Jeff Stockberger, they were extraordinarily busy and representative of the company's emphasis on vigorous portrayals full of movement and gesture complementing the characters' vocal pizazz. To the dazzling virtuosity of Simon's rapidfire dialogue, Schmittou and Hund added animated physical prowess, including "talking with their hands" (as many of us do to some degree) that consistently made sense. Along a spectrum ranging from actors flailing and not really knowing how to be expressive with their arms and hands, Schmittou and Hund were masters of the other end.  It must be an exhausting show when done this way, but it worked.

The Stockberger brand as an actor showed through most in his directing style when Vernon, seeking to make an important point to Sonia, walks rapidly into a bed, then across it on his knees before righting himself on the other side. Both characters are in therapy, so their outsize fervor establishes norms of its own. Madcap eccentricity is a Stockberger signature.

Along the way there's also lots of singing. One of the first-act songs found Hund having to negotiate effortfully her lower range; otherwise, her voice fit the material — especially in the first-act peak of "Just for Tonight" and, most vitally, in the second-act anthem to resilience in matters of the heart, "I Still Believe in Love." Schmittou's voice was more of the serviceable type that songwriters are known for, and that suited the role of Vernon perfectly. The comical zest of his composing "Fill in the Words" using a toy piano while hospitalized with a broken leg was thoroughly charming.
Vernon and the boys keep the creative juices flowing in "Fill in the Words."

That song featured the best use of the play's shadow personas, "the  boys" Vernon consults to spur his creativity. They were played by Doug King and Peter Scharbrough, whose blend as singers was uneven but offset by their well-coordinated movement. Sonia's "girls," her alter-ego counterparts consulted as she forges lyrics, were enacted by Lauren Morgan and AnnaLee Traeger, a duo whose singing and dancing were more on an even keel.

I can't deny that "They're Playing Our Song" seemed to wear thin at length. I thought I detected some flagging of energy in Schmittou and Hund in the late scene after the convalescent tunesmith is back in New York and finding an excuse to keep the romance alive with Sonia's ready assistance. But maybe I was just tired of Sonia and Vernon and especially of Sonia's ex-boyfriend Leon, whom we never see but who clings like lovelorn Velcro to the plot.

One can admire the durability of artistic partnerships that manage also to cultivate mutual love without finding Simon's sparkling dialogue and Sager and Hamlisch's buoyant songs quite enough to sustain interest in the partners that's as strong as theirs in each other. But in this engaging production, the spell is still pretty powerful.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

BOLT upright: New company with LGBTQ focus debuts at District Theatre

Less than a year from conception to parturition,  Be Out Loud Theater Company wailed healthily out of the neonatal unit Friday night with its first production, Tennessee Williams' "...And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens."

A slight but poignant and sometimes funny drama, the 1955 work takes its title punningly from a line in Shakespeare's "Richard II," with female monarchs substituted for the original's "kings." Directed by BOLT founder Michael Swinford, the production focuses on the ornamented anguish of an almost middle-aged gay transvestite in thrall to an illusory sense of what he deserves out of life. Candy Delaney, the main character's preferred identity, sees himself as person of business and a landlord hungering for both self-expression and respectability.

We have recently seen another local production of a little-known Williams play, also set in New Orleans, with a kind of miraculous twist that distinguishes it from "...Queens," but with a similar demimonde setting and a loquacious hero(-ine) menaced by sailors on shore leave. 

The BOLT production gives a lot of vitality to a play with more emblematic main characters. This makes the gathering storm of the first act easier to assess, as Candy tries to negotiate a "friendship" with a bluntly self-involved sailor seeking as much liquor and access to women as he can.
Karl puts the strong arm on the vulnerable Candy.
The obviousness of what's to come — a well-staged explosion of second-act violence — is made more interesting by Candy's wittiness and florid rhetoric.

This language would still be somewhat inert were it not for Lance Gray's vivid embodiment of it. Movement and gesture were essential components of the portrayal, and needed to look customary both in drag and in men's clothes. The wardrobe ("costume coordination" credit goes to Jeff Hamilton and Cheryl Harmon) had flair all around, including the deft costuming of the other two gay characters, Candy's tenants.

But the main ingredient was Gray's voice, supple in inflection, loaded with a blend of brassiness and veiled insinuation. The humor threaded throughout his near-monologues— tedious to his impatient sailor visitor, enthralling to the audience (even when he was offstage) — was sprightly and pointed every time it popped up in dialogue also loaded with recrimination and self-pity.

Chris Saunders, as the sailor Karl,  was forceful and laconic; glaring at Candy, he never failed to signal his roaring self-assertion. At times, it seemed the menacing aspect of his character peaked too early. On the other hand, to show Karl as not only resistant to Candy's charms but also hostile to everything Candy represents from the first is effective in pointing up the polarity of the two main characters. It certainly played well in building up the tension, even though it's blindingly clear where all the antagonism will lead.

That brutal second act is framed by Candy's caressing performance of "Poor Butterfly" and, in a tableau ending, a recorded excerpt from "Un bel di," Cio-cio San's immortal aria from "Madama Butterfly." Indeed, typical Puccini and Williams heroines are sisters under the skin: naive, clinging to a hopeless idealism, victimized. 

And, without the superficial niceties of courtship,  Karl is like a cruder Lieutenant Pinkerton — armored in a sense of entitlement, disdainful of his environment, set upon the fulfillment of his short-term desires. The first scene of Puccini's opera has the naval lieutenant indulging in his love of strong drink, just as Karl does in "...Queens" with much less restraint. 

Played with elfin mischievousness by Joe Barsanti and Christian Condra,  roommates Alvin and Jerry, despised by Candy, are the counterpart of Cio-cio San's relatives. They reject the hero(ine)'s cultural cross-dressing and are finally justified in their narrow perspective by the disastrous turn of events. That's when Jerry, joined in mocking laughter by Alvin, suggests that the three of them "tell sad stories of the death of queens."  That scene caps the implied community censure of Candy's haughty ambitions and queen-like pretenses. But it leaves intact Candy's right to seek the dignity that keeps eluding her, and that note is firmly sounded by this production.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

For "Sonic Creed," Stefon Harris puts together a mellow program featuring his regular band Blackout

The vibraphonist Stefon Harris has helped extend the historical roster of major jazz stylists on mallet percussion.
Cover art: The severe visual presentation  seems at odds with the music inside.
This year he has released "Sonic Creed" (Motema) with his band Blackout, and is touring on the strength of the album. He will appear at the Purdue Jazz Festival on Jan. 18; and, as a solo player and working with students, at Butler University April 3 and 4

"Sonic Creed" represents him in mid-career (he's 45) as a receptive bandleader with a way of showcasing multiple lines, many of them rhythmic, simultaneously — but without clutter. The catchy Bobby Timmons/Oscar Brown Jr. song "Dat Dere," opens this disc amiably but with distinction.

In the front line, Harris and saxophonist Casey Benjamin display a compatibility that runs throughout the program. The two don't shy away from melodic invention, they are assertive without aggressiveness, and they complement arrangements that leave so much to the percussionists (Terreon Gully and Pedrito Martinez).

I could do without the atmospheric "Let's Take a Trip to the Sky," which features the floaty vocalism of Jean Baylor, but just about everything else sounds attractive. "Chasin' Kendall" has some flavorful bass clarinet by Felix Peikli, who supplements Benjamin in the reed department on most tracks, and a warm, cogent marimba solo by the leader.

Benjamin is outstanding in Horace Silver's "Cape Verdean Blues," a slightly exotic blues with a rhythmically unconventional profile. The percussionists forge a brilliant partnership in "Song of Samson," and a sweet-toned   Benjamin highlights Abbey Lincoln's "Throw It Away." "Gone Too Soon" is a striking conclusion to the program as Harris concocts a Michael Jackson tribute duet with the up-and-coming Joseph Doubleday on marimba.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Protean pro-modern violinist Jennifer Koh displays her affinity for Kaija Saariaho

The close relationship of American violinist Jennifer Koh and Finnish
Jennifer Koh displays her affinity for a contemporary Finnish composer.
composer Kaija Saariaho is in evidence with the title's mathematical precision in "Saariaho X Koh" (Cedille Records). 

The multiplier effect (interpret "X" as "times") rules, as Koh continues on this release to display her receptivity to repertoire off the beaten track.  Saariaho's closeness to visual phenomena saturates her compositions. 

The longest of the chamber-music works on this recording is "Light and Matter," for which Koh is joined by Anssi Karttunen, cello, and Nicolas Hedges, piano. The rumbling start doesn't signal menace so much as potential, and the work opens up toward the individuality of each instrument. Colors and shadows, briefly isolated, imprint themselves as essential. The music brings to mind Shelley's "life, like a dome of many-colored glass, stains the white radiance of eternity," where "stains" leans less toward the negative meaning in favor of the variegated hues that bring fullness to life.

"Cloud Trio" over the course of its four movements has a sweetness that
Kaija Saariaho's compositions are inspired by natural phenomena.
adheres to Saariaho's music, but never congeals it. With violist Hsin-Yun Huang and cellist Wilhelmina Smith joining Koh, the performance pushes the score through the occasional harshness of the third movement to the calm of the "Tranquillo" finale, in which short solos are like confirming check-ins from each instrument.

I find most disturbing the disc's longest work, "Graal Theatre," in which Koh is accompanied by  the 20/21 Ensemble of the Curtis institute. The two-movement piece is weighed down by the outsized, display-oriented accompaniment in the first movement. It's like a trap for the soloist, who becomes a caged curiosity, reminding me of Kafka's "hunger artist" (but in this case, both overfed and undernourished).  

The second movement allows the soloist more freedom, opening with a cadenza that presages good things. There's more of a feeling of partnership and a translucent quality to the orchestration. The composer writes that she at first imagined the violinist as the main character in a play, then left that image behind as she wrote. I'm afraid the first movement still suffers from a stifling kind of overdramatization. The finale is more revelatory of Saariaho's truer genius, and links this flawed concerto more firmly to the chamber pieces that make the rest of the disc worth hearing.