Monday, January 23, 2017

Three finalists for the position of Camel Symphony Orchestra music director will be on the podium this season

The next music director of the Carmel Symphony Orchestra will be one of three finalists just announced.

Two are women: One of them, Janna Hymes (formerly Hymes-Bianchi), was briefly associate conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. The other, Kelly Corcoran, was a finalist in 2014 for the music directorship of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, a position won and now held by Matthew Kraemer.

Here's the CSO's official announcement, including dates when Ron Spigelman, Corcoran, and Hymes will make appearances in Carmel over the next few months. I described the process as it stood at an earlier stage in this post.

"Brother, Can You Spare a Mind?" reflects the crying need for knowledge the new President called attention to in his Inaugural Address

The Depression had a popular lament in "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" so I thought with the bleak portrait of America today set out by Donald Trump — particularly his critique of American education — an updating addressing the depletion of "all knowledge" was called for.

Wu Han holds sway with string colleagues in quintets by Dohnanyi and Taneyev

Wu Han, a strong, visionary pianist and producer.
The second release in the "Wu Han Live" series of concert recordings extracted from Music at Menlo performances submits wholeheartedly to the highly finished Romantic inspiration of quintets for piano and strings by Erno Dohnanyi and Sergei Taneyev.

Wu Han, an eminent pianist-educator-impresario, also co-producer with her husband David Finckel of ArtistLed recordings, is the anchor of well-knit interpretations of Dohnanyi's Piano Quintet No. 1 in C minor and Taneyev's Piano Quintet in G minor.

Both ensembles include violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Finckel. For Dohnanyi's precocious piece, his opus 1, the violinists are Alexander Sitkovetsky and Nicolas Dautricourt. In the Taneyev, Arnaud Sussman and Sean Lee are the violinists.

In program notes, Wu Han refers to these works as "unknown masterpieces," and the term may apply particularly well because both scores are demanding, and getting five top-flight musicians together to perform them is pretty rare. Music at Menlo, near San Francisco, is a summer festival capable of gathering that kind of excellence in service to a wide range of chamber music, from duos to octets.

In the first movement, the teenage Dohnanyi immediately leaps into his individualized claim on the romantic tradition in full flower, expanded from Brahms. The way the low rumble at the start quickly ascends in both pitch and volume to envelop the whole ensemble is a signal of the score's heft and ambition. The second-movement Scherzo uses a restless back-and-forth figure as a building block, relieved in the middle by flowing music before the scherzo theme returns to move gracefully toward a quiet conclusion.

The well-crafted slow movement extends the impression that the burgeoning composer had formal gifts well beyond his years. The rondo finale, with its bouncy theme in 5/4, is managed with ease by the ensemble, and the intervening episodes are firmly characterized. The apotheosis of the theme toward the end is beautifully handled, justifying the "Amen"-like cadence that caps the work.

The benefits of maturity for a well-equipped composer are more evident in Taneyev's quintet. The sprawling first movement finds so many uses for the main material, distributed across the ensemble in near-symphonic fashion. The players enjoy the benefits of good resonance and clarity in the recorded sound. Tempo fluctuations test the ensemble's unity, which holds up as if effortlessly.

After an expressively light, titillating Scherzo, there is a heavy Largo built on a passacaglia theme of stolid simplicity. On the verge of sounding academic, the movement seems oddly fresh and lovely in its self-confidence and steadiness. You hang on every note and are surprised to have been so fascinated; the musicians' conviction rings out, and you're hooked.

That's nothing compared to the finale, however. The bulk of it adheres to the "Allegro vivace" heading, yet there are convincing "maestoso" episodes and some moments of tender relief. The climax of the movement is awe-inspiring. The titanic control and power of Wu Han's playing seems to lift the entire ensemble, especially as the composer directs the piano to mimic the sound of great bells. This is the kind of Russian glory many listeners know from two moments in Mussorgsky: "The Great Gate of Kiev" from "Pictures at an Exhibition" and the Coronation Scene in "Boris Godunov."

I have a new musical fantasy: Hearing the Taneyev Piano Quintet in G minor in concert here, perhaps played by the new quartet formed at the University of Indianapolis last year. But then, what local pianist would be worthy? I have a suggestion or two, but that would get into politics. I'll have to let my imagination do the work for now. In any event, in this recorded performance the five players seem to levitate as the finale proceeds, and I suspect many listeners will join them.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A defining importance: Ella Fitzgerald centenary is celebrated with the opening of a new exhibit at the Palladium

She's the top, she's Mahatma Gandhi; she's the top, she's Napoleon Brandy.
A partial view of the exhibit,  on view through October in the Palladium's gallery,

And so on, to paraphrase Cole Porter, the pre-eminent Indiana-born contributor to the Great American Songbook, from his song "You're the Top."

Ella Fitzgerald was born 100 years ago, and to give her the proper centennial salute seems a natural honor for the Great American Songbook Foundation, which is based at the Center for the Performing Arts, to undertake.

On Thursday and Friday of last week, the Carmel-based foundation opened an exhibition in the Songbook Exhibit Gallery. It's devoted to the singer, with special focus on the "Songbook" series of LPs that helped to establish the songs worth considering classics by the greatest American songwriters. As Will Friedwald, who literally wrote the book on jazz singing, remarked on both days of the celebration: "If Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald didn't do a song, then it's not a standard." There are other good American popular songs, but without Sinatra or Fitzgerald interpretations of them, they tend to be obscure.

Friedwald, introduced by Foundation vice president Chris Lewis, went on to say that Fitzgerald was the only one of the top American popular singers who "could do everything: Her gospel and country-and-western albums are masterpieces."

On Friday afternoon in an illustrated lecture, Friedwald addressed the singer's interpretations of Cole Porter songs. "The Cole Porter Songbook" was the first (1956) and remains the most famous of the eight collections on Verve Records carrying the "Songbook" designation.

Cover of the original Verve release.
Cole Porter songs, Friedwald continued, have a unique depth that made them suitable to a singer of Fitzgerald's technique and expressive breadth. He referenced an interview he did with Cecile McLorin-Salvant when the much-admired young singer
was just 22. He admits it was a dumb, paired question, the sort that editors often like interviewers to include: Why sing old songs? Why not sing Justin Bieber?

McLorin-Salvant replied: "If Justin Bieber can come up with a song that will make me laugh and cry at the same time, I'll sing it."

Friedwald's footnote: "That quality is more true of Cole Porter than any other songwriter."  The music critic added that Porter also had a sure way of blending old-fashioned, even literary, language with casual slang of the era. He cited a couple of phrases from "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" — "Why the gods above me, Who must be in the know" — as an example, the first suggesting a solemn oath, the second close to what the poet Walt Whitman called "the blab of the pave."

Friedwald's lecture included video clips of Fitzgerald and one other singer he admires who did Porter superbly, Nat "King" Cole. (Together, they make up the cover art of Friedwald's "Jazz Singers.") The visual/auditory climax of this pairing was a couple of Fitzgerald-Cole duets: "It's All Right With Me" and "You're the Top." And a fascinating example of TV censorship in the 1950s   — offering an incidental insight into cultural change since Fitzgerald's heyday — was Cole's substitution of "three-letter words" for "four-letter words" in these lines from "Anything Goes":

Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose.
Anything goes.

Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays in the Palladium, the gallery is admission-free. 
The foundation also has assembled a traveling display with educational materials, which will be on loan to local schools and community groups. For more information, contact the foundation at (317) 844-2251 or

Saturday, January 21, 2017

A program of considerable length and a wide range of expression: ISO plays Mahler and Vivaldi//Richter

One of Krzysztof Urbanski's predecessors as music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra had a low opinion of Gustav Mahler's music.

I remember the outspoken Raymond Leppard, if he was accurately quoted in the interview I read in the late 1980s, saying that Mahler's bipolar mood swings (not a phrase Leppard used) were a bar to engagement with the Austrian composer's expansive scores. The mood swings in "Das Lied von der Erde" are pretty wide, but Leppard made an exception of this symphonic song cycle. The last time the ISO played the work before this weekend, Leppard was on the podium, the current program book reminds us.

Almost 23 years later, Urbanski is using "The Song of the Earth" to close out the ISO's two-week Music of the Earth Festival. Two more ISO performances of the work, along with Max Richter's "The Four Seasons Recomposed," remain — at 7 tonight in Hilbert Circle Theatre and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Palladium in Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts.

Even Mahler-lovers can probably concede that the composer seems in particularly conscientious control of his muse in writing this late work — regarded conventionally as Mahler's walk through the valley of the shadow of death. There is a consistency that unifies the piece, despite its wide palette of timbres and a harmonic range that both grates and soothes, with Orientalisms sensitively applied.

Tenor Paul Groves displayed a virile, centered tone
Taking seven poems from "The Chinese Flute," Hans Bethge's German translation of classical Chinese poetry, the composer wrote six movements that both broaden and deepen the emotional scope of Bethge's adaptations.

Urbanski indicated his sympathy by the mastery he imparted to the large orchestra in the complex first song. "The Drinking
Song of Earth's Sorrow"  burst out of the gate and set up an introduction that tenor Paul Groves was able to match from the first, with a phrase marked "Mit voller Kraft" (with full strength). He proved just as capable of vivid characterization in the third movement ("Youth") and in the mischievous zestfulness of the fifth ("The Drunkard in Spring").

A tenor soloist in this piece has often to cut through the orchestration, and Groves was capable of that, while keeping his attractive instrument free of strain or any sign of fraying. His sound was buoyant and life-affirming.

Mezzo Sasha Cooke
Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, in alternation with Groves, is much less required to display sheer power. Yet the lower female voice needs to have considerable heft in this work, in part not to set up some false masculine-feminine imbalance of strength. Mahler was more interested in this miscellany of poems being able to express a unified sensibility, combining close observation of the natural and human environment with an individualized poignancy.

She got the most attractive support from the orchestra in exhibiting her sensuous yet restrained tone in the fourth movement,"Beauty."  Two poems are combined in the finale, "Der Abschied" (The Farewell), which features the score's most haunting music, separated by an orchestral interlude. Cooke rendered the songs with an emotional steadiness that simultaneously suggested the music's regretful feeling of isolation and its appetite for life, even in decline. Of the several opportunities for lovely instrumental solos, oboist Jennifer Christen and cellist Austin Huntington were particularly impressive.

A Vivaldi do-over: Alexi Kenney is a 22-year-old violinist from California.
Before intermission, Urbanski's role was just to introduce "The Four Seasons Recomposed," by the 50-year-old German-British composer Max Richter. Urbanski stressed his supposition that Richter was moved to treat the 18th-century masterpiece to an updating.  At play was his high regard for the original coupled with the feeling that it has become too well-known today and in need of a makeover.

With violin soloist Alexi Kenney leading a reduced orchestra, chiefly strings, this reconception is spread over a 45-minute span. The score manipulates tunes and phrases from Antonio Vivaldi's famous concerto set. Sometimes the retrospective game-playing has a repetitive intensity that palls after a short while. Sometimes the greatest intensity is abruptly broken off, indicating to me that Richter drew inspiration from the modernist tendency to downplay emotional climaxes. In this piece, such climaxes were often abruptly undercut, which had the shocking effect of Lucy snatching away the football just as Charlie Brown is about to kick it. Nonetheless, Kenney's violin-playing was a marvel of well-deployed energy and full-throated lyricism.

In sum, while I too have heard Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" quite a lot and have to guard against letting it pass over me with insufficient attention, I found "The Four Seasons Recomposed" a lengthy tease, often in terms borrowed from Philip Glass, and  frankly tedious. Vigorous and dreamy by turns, it seemed resourceful and heartfelt, but simply went on too long.

Friday, January 20, 2017

"How to Use a Knife": The workaday world gets its head messed with by the real world

A play that carries a simple instruction in its title has to hint at something much more, or there wouldn't be anything dramatic about it. How-to advice just sits there waiting to be applied to a particular end. Will Snider's "How to Use a Knife" doesn't follow the lesson plan.

George withstands the scrutiny of Kim (Chelsea Anderson) and Michael (Rob Johansen)
Phoenix Theatre's National New Play Network show implies an "open sesame" to a skill set with a world of possibilities. The play begins as a coruscating workplace comedy and ends up as devastation, with a tiny hint of hope. The setting is the kitchen of a restaurant in Lower Manhattan, well arranged and equipped in gleaming stainless steel in James Gross' set design, staffed by a rowdy night crew just coming under the supervision of a new chef.

Both tool and weapon from the dawn of human society, the knife here represents a deep secret in the life of Steve, the dishwasher. The one low-key member of the kitchen night crew keeps such a low profile that the restaurant owner, Michael, is unaware of his national origin or anything else about him, and his co-workers have scarcely any more insight. The Hispanics on the crew nickname him "the man of blood," a sobriquet of prophetic force.

Steve (Ansley Valentine) warns George (Ryan Artzberger) of the mental "click" he needs to control.,
The atmosphere reflects the stress of restaurant work, modulated effectively under Bryan Fonseca's direction. Its typical pace and the variety of moving parts with little margin of error mean its hierarchical organization is typically unsettled, with chaos always on the horizon. In Rob Johansen's hilariously febrile portrayal, Michael is a former line cook who thumbed his nose at the Peter Principle by rising above his level of incompetence, thanks to schmoozing with money men at the bar. As owner, he covers up for undeserved success with nonstop ignorant bluster and a coarse way of skating over the surface of everything, topped by a little self-congratulation on having given a second chance to George, who was once his boss.

Line cooks Miguel and Carlos operate as a team keeping Jack, the runner, on edge.
No one with significant work experience can ever doubt how much personality influences success and even survival in the job market. At the low end of the totem pole, you get people who may be stuck long-term in wearying if essential jobs rubbing shoulders with those who are determined to rise. Carlos (Carlos Medina Maldonado) and Miguel (Wheeler Castaneda) are a couple of Guatemalans, one of them hiding illegal status, who form a jovial yet feisty team as line cooks.

Jack (Tommy Lewey) is a runner/busboy ambitious to be a writer, with a short fuse he tries to snuff in order to give substance to his vague ambitions. And Steve's reason for being where he is and keeping a low profile, when finally exposed by a persistent official, occasions the upheaval that holds sway over the second act. We are invited to look deep into someone with a monstrous past and a well-structured strategy for exercising self-control. That's sustained with a special kind of melodious evenness in Ansley Valentine's performance. Chelsea Anderson sounded the right steely note of nemesis as the agent in pursuit of a Rwandan war criminal.

The performances were all vivid and idiomatic, true to the ratcheted-up tempo of New York life — something that always flummoxes my Midwestern temperament whenever I visit, though I am Manhattan-born. (Many of the interludes in Brian G. Hartz's sound design are drum-solo excerpts, sounding for all the world like the tightly-wound Buddy Rich.) The playwright's style picks up the rhythm of repetition and routine in restaurant work, the repeated orders and regular flare-ups,  and extends that into most of the dialogue. Characters ask each other if they mean what they just said. There's lots of repetition and paraphrase. Questions often are meant to be taken as challenges. Constant self-assertion is required in this world, even if you aren't quite sure just what you are asserting. The action moves forward sometimes in back-and-forth sparring that seems static or just funny; then you suddenly realize these are people in a different place with each other than they had been just moments before. I was reminded of early Harold Pinter: "Tea Party" or "The Homecoming."

Ryan Artzberger's performance as George, tentatively trying to find his way back from multiple addictions that have destroyed his family, was masterly from first to last on opening night. In personal retrospect, this actor thrives in roles with a mixture of good and bad at their core. Neither Atticus Finch (Indiana Repertory Theatre) nor Iago (Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre) brought out the best in him.

George does; the character has inner resources that it takes his friendship with Steve to nurture. But there are also loads of vulnerability, which no local actor can convey better vocally than Artzberger. That quaver, that catch in the throat — no one has a resource like that so naturally and aptly available. For George, a complete breakdown must happen first, after Steve's past difficulties come to light and he is forced to leave the restaurant ahead of the law.

Some rages onstage rivet your attention for their all-out energy; George's also breaks your heart, because Artzberger connects it so well to the weaknesses George has exhibited and to how he processes Steve's mysterious lesson on how to find inner peace. That lesson may eventually sustain him more than his ominously superfluous instruction to Steve in how to use a knife.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Common and uncommon coin: Hundred-dollar gold piece moves American imagery forward, past (or not) a good poem with an awful title

Striking news came from the U.S. Mint over a news-chocked holiday weekend: The first image of an African-American woman will appear on an American coin —a one-hundred-dollar gold commemorative in honor of the Mint's 225th anniversary.

It's a beautiful image, to be prized as much for its rarity as regretted, probably, for the unlikelihood that many Americans will ever see or feel one. And as the acting director of the Mint told NPR this morning (January 17) spending it would be foolish, because the gold used to make it is worth more than the face value of the coin.

Hmmmm: Just as the value of African-Americans' contributions to American life exceeds what white America is willing to credit them with, I suppose. Much is owed, more than is ever likely to be repaid. But to reconceive Lady Liberty as a black woman at least symbolizes movement in that direction.

It brings to mind the previous image of Lady Liberty on the dime — the kind of dime I would still find in my pocket as a kid, 
An early Liberty dime bearing the image of Elsie Stevens
ready to buy a candy bar, until the Roosevelt dimes took over. Early in the 20th century, Elsie Stevens posed for sculptor Adolph Weinman, a neighbor of her and her husband on West 25th Street in New York. His profile of her, in a winged cap, was chosen for the Liberty dime and half-dollar that the Mint put into production in 1916. She was married to the man who wrote these lines:

If ever the search for a tranquil belief should end,
The future might stop emerging out of the past,
Out of what is full of us; yet the search
And the future emerging out of us seem to be one.

Excellent lines, the fifth section of an excellent poem in 50 brief sections  by Wallace Stevens. The poem has an unfortunate title: "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery." That alone probably keeps it from being studied in literature classes, though it's a rich example of Stevens' imagination, with echoes throughout his work. The irony of the casual racism behind the title forces itself on my attention as I think about the new Liberty head on the hundred-dollar gold coin.

Stevens' poem was described by the friend to whom he dedicated it as "an olio" — an old-fashioned word indicating a hodgepodge, a miscellany of things gathered. The Roman numerals with which Stevens headed each section warn the reader not to expect continuity between one section and the next. Fair enough, but what about that title? The poet's friend, Judge Arthur Powell, recalled a walk he took with the poet in Key West when they stopped to look through a fence.

"I explained that I thought it enclosed a graveyard," Powell wrote years later, "as some of the rubbish looked 'like decorations in a nigger cemetery.' He was interested when I explained the custom of negroes [sic] to decorate graves with broken pieces of glass, old pots, broken pieces of furniture, dolls heads, and what not."

Poets turn all sorts of things to account, and the title had an aptness in Stevens' mind that overruled any racial sensitivity he may have possessed. There are not indications he had much. Like many normally well-disposed white Americans of his era, he had attitudes somewhat disdainful or dismissive of minorities: Stevens rejected patronizing a certain restaurant with a friend on the grounds that "too many Jews" dined there.

Well-bred Americans tended to express such attitudes only among friends. Similarly, Stevens didn't divulge to many that his wife's portrait was common coin in American pockets. You didn't brag, and you weren't thoughtlessly cruel to people you thought less of. Stevens didn't like poor people, either, but he is reported to have been generous with the occasional handout.

If the judge's observation of black Americans' grave-decorating habits was accurate, his use of the n-word to describe the look of their cemeteries was just another way of stipulating where "the Other" lived and breathed in the country they shared. There were boundaries so strict and self-evident for a Southern judge in the 1920s, and not fully faded today.

The late playwright August Wilson ("Fences") once described the distinctive traits of black culture that justified — nay, required — his artistic specialization in black life. Racial discrimination, for all its sorrows, had resulted in the development of separate cultural spheres in the United States. He felt that his sphere was worth observing, sustaining and celebrating on the stage ("We decorate our homes differently," for instance). Multifaceted cultural identity, he'd say, is certain to persist, whatever barriers to black advancement might eventually fall.

Wilson would have snorted scorn at the platitudes about a "post-racial" America that arose with Barack Obama's election. That toxic word in the Stevens title serves to confirm the painfulest part of what's likely to endure in American life. The most stunning line in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," the play now in production at Indiana Repertory Theatre, probes the wound.  The brilliant black doctor's father upbraids him for his choice of a white wife by warning him against the day "when she wakes up and calls you nigger." That got a gasp from the audience the night I attended. It gave voice to a fundamental fear that America may never come to terms with the worst aspects of its racial legacy.

A white man moving into old age, as I am, can't pretend to suggest a way out of the problems posed by the accidental encounter of a poem with an offensive title and a shiny coin proclaiming that an idealized black woman can stand for the United States just as well as an idealized white woman. Yet liberty itself doesn't mean much without that recognition.

I'll just ask you to note that the obverse of the new coin is an American eagle taking wing — not the familiar, literally spread-eagled symbol with arrows in one talon, an olive branch in the other. The eagle is off to someplace new, someplace perhaps envisioned steadily by the black Lady Liberty on the coin's other side.

To adapt Stevens' language in section V, even a bright future must emerge out of the past, "out of what is full of us," our good and evil alike. That's what we can't help carrying in "the search for a tranquil belief." And why would we want to avoid that burden?  After all, "the search / And the future emerging out of us seem to be one."

[This essay is indebted for anecdotes about Wallace Stevens to Peter Brazeau's oral biography, "Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered."]