Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mario Venzago may be taking more than a sentimental jouney this weekend

It became close to scandalous when Mario Venzago was messily separated from the music directorship of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra four years ago last summer.

Mario Venzago has been rapturously received.
But with a different CEO and altered board leadership, the ISO is formally admitting Venzago into its official history Friday when it unveils a portrait of him to honor his tenure as its sixth music director (2002-2009). The occasion is his return to the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium, with full-length evening concerts Friday and Saturday.

Interviewed  at the Conrad Hotel downtown, Venzago looked refreshed and relaxed a few hours after the historic reunion opened with a Classical Coffee Concert.  The traditionally abbreviated program left out Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in D minor, but included the other two pieces also to be heard in the evening concerts: Glazunov's Violin Concerto, with soloist Vadim Gluzman, and Mahler's Totenfeier.

The last work may look more unfamiliar to most than the Glazunov piece, but in fact it's an early version of the opening movement of Symphony No. 2 in C minor ("Resurrection"). "It is not a worked-out piece," Venzago said. "You have to make decisions and changes." Those don't involve notes, but phrasing, tempo and dynamics — the kinds of variables that crucially affect the character of a composition in performance.

The biggest mistake a conductor can make with Totenfeier, according to Venzago, is to interpret
it like a mature Mahler work. "I try to make it like a Liszt symphonic poem," he said. "It's Mahler looked at through an early glass — a very naive piece."

As certain as he is of the nature of the music he conducts, Venzago has had ample reason to be unsure what this visit truly means. It's his first since management's refusal to negotiate a new contract with him led to his dismissal. He last conducted the ISO in May 2009 in a joint production with Indianapolis Opera of "Das Rheingold."

"At the beginning of the week, I did not know what to  expect," the  Swiss conductor admitted.  "Was this a farewell, or the first step into something new?" At this point, Venzago is inclined toward the latter: The musicians gave him a standing ovation at the first rehearsal, and he reported the Thursday audience response was "very warm —  it was the right signal to come back. And I would very much like to come back with a certain regularity."

No relationship that would build upon fond memories of Venzago's brutally interrupted time here has been discussed with ISO management, and the 65-year-old maestro has never met his successor, Krzysztof Urbanski, who is less than half his age. But he was heartened not only by the ISO musicians' initial enthusiasm, but also by their  responsiveness in rehearsal: "The way we play Schumann and Mahler is my old way, and we continued to work as we had before," he said. "It was like there was not such a big gap in time. I heard they liked to come back to these patterns: tempo freedom, intonation, balance, articulation."

There were some things for both sides to get used to. Urbanski favors a different seating arrangement:  basses ranged along the rear of the stage, the violas to his right and the cellos inside.  As a matter of courtesy, Venzago didn't tamper with it, but it has presented balance challenges to him. And the ISO string players had to reacquaint themselves with their former maestro's penchant for selectively applied vibrato. "Until the 20th century,  collective vibrato was never used," he said.  "It's like pouring ketchup over everything." Scaling back vibrato "is difficult for intonation, because the vibrato helps cover pitch problems, but we have learned to love the pure sound. ... You can seduce them to many possibilities!"

He declined to compare the two American orchestras he knows best — Indianapolis and Baltimore — but he admires Baltimore's big hall. The Maryland orchestra provided a lifeline to his American career after the ISO abruptly cut off ties. In the aftermath, he beefed up his European career as well, becoming principal conductor of the Bern Symphony Orchestra in his homeland in 2011, one year after he got a similar post with England's Northern Sinfonia. He's doing more opera, and is also frequently on podiums in Finland, Denmark and Germany.

His love for the Bern job offers some insight into the partial failure of his Indianapolis sojourn. "I have become an old-fashioned music director," he said. In the Swiss city, he has a home, and goes to performances he doesn't conduct: "I live with my orchestra. It's really touchable."

He warmed to his theme: "I like the Indianapolis people and the orchestra, but I never felt at home in this country. I couldn't live here. Bern is my country, my language, my cultural base. It's not about my career: you have to structure an American career differently. If I can be so connected with Baltimore and Indianapolis, it would be wonderful to have these two places."

But an ongoing relationship is the only sort Venzago finds really nurturing.  "It's then effective what I can do —  it can profit them, and I can learn.  It's give and take, learn and teach."

Of course he knows that financial problems are a serious factor in musical life all over ("in this country you feel it the next day; in Europe it takes a little while"), as is the quality of education and the threatened cohesiveness of the family unit when it comes to spending leisure time together.

"Orchestra life is near connected to social life," he said. "If society changes, we also have to change. We have to become flexible without becoming cheap, because if we sell our soul, we have no charisma. Then every big football kid has more charisma than we do," Venzago said, laughing.

The charisma of symphony orchestras will not soon be depleted if Venzago has anything to say about it. Having come through a time of trial but still not sure what survival as an artistic partnership may mean, he looks back on his ISO tenure without bitterness, though with the rueful sense that he barely averted disaster: "You get used to changes like this, but the way it was done could have destroyed my reputation, my market value — all that I have built before would be destroyed."

His faith in his Hoosier orchestra remained, however: "I knew we would be looking for each other, like a marriage that sometimes needs time in between. Are we on different landscapes now?  Did we travel to opposite goals and destinations? I feel we are very early in understanding each other, but we still have the same fire. I wish this orchestra could come back to big visions."

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Electric harpist promises to be a new kind of guest soloist for the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra

Deborah Henson-Conant turns the sedate harp into an instrument beyond cliches. The trailblazing musician, with decades of experience behind her,  puts her iconoclasm about the harp directly into her act.

She has a song called "I Wanna Sing the Blues" that indicates a struggle with her parents about the harp's genteel image and how uncomfortable that made her as a girl. Is that song autobiographical? "Yes and no," was Henson-Conant's response in a phone interview Oct. 23.

The harpist will play and sing with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra Saturday, Nov. 9, at  the Athenaeum Theatre, 401 E. Michigan St. Music director Kirk Trevor will conduct. Here's how the ICO is marketing the event on video. And here: 

She explains that she started with the ukulele, accompanying her folk-singing. Her musically minded parents (her mother was an opera singer) tried to get lessons to work with her, but she kept changing instruments, moving to guitar and piano without success. The harp she rejected as well: "The problem was I didn't like lessons."

Left alone, the young Californian turned to musical theater: "I love the combination of music and words in any way," she told me. In her early 20s, she took up the harp again as a classical instrument, overcoming her aversion to lessons, but retaining her resistance to the instrument's perceived confines. "I love experimenting with the instrument," she says, "pushing it virtuosically and (discovering) what kind of beautiful sounds it can make."

Harpist Deborah Henson-Conant in full cry.
Her wide range of musical taste and her turn toward the electric instrument (designed by a French company, CAMAC) forced upon her the need to learn how to arrange for the ensembles she collaborates with, including symphony orchestras. "I’m constantly looking at music as an orchestrator,"she said, "looking at it as a former musical theater performer and using  classical, flamenco and jazz styles."

Along the way, "I got a book called 'How to Orchestrate,' and that taught me how to orchestrate badly," she recalled with refreshing candor. "Then I got with a coach and into the system where I'd bring the players into my kitchen and say, 'This  is what I meant, and this is what I wrote.'  And they would look at it, then tell me how to write what I meant."

In the meantime, she has been the beneficiary of CAMAC's interest in her career to get updated instruments, including a new one of carbon-fiber construction that's named for her. In form and size, the history of her instrument "goes back to the Scottish,Welsh and Celtic harps — the bards wore them,"she said. "People weren't wearing them when I got into harp study." The electronics for her wearable harp developed as it became obvious that "it would be important to match the volume of an orchestra," Henson-Conant added, admitting unabashedly: "I also love bombast."

Listening to other instruments, bombastic or not, is a continual learning process for Henson-Conant as she tries to adapt what she hears in order to expand the capacity of the harp.  She compares that to the wide expressive range of the human voice.  "I love the sound of the human voice in every realm,"  she says. "It expresses everything so well, and the instrument can expand upon that. It's a prosthetic that can allow my voice to reach further than it otherwise would."

Putting her voice and her harp into different contexts is meat and drink to Henson-Conant. "Playing the same pieces in different situations gives me insight into the music overall," she said. "I got that idea from Mahler, who had these song cycles and made them into symphonies. Same with Ravel, going from piano to orchestra.

"That's how I got it into my head that a piece of music is just a structure:  You can re-create in an infinite number of ways," she said. "It's a plant of flowers that can bloom in a completely different shape each time, and that's exciting."

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Hungarian State Folk Dance Ensemble wows the crowd at the Palladium

An extended encounter with  a dance and music tradition previously familiar only in adapted forms can be like a peek into another world. Knowing the Liszt Hungarian rhapsodies and many of the works of Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly allows only a "high-art" acquaintance with the people's music that gave those composers much of their material: scales, rhythms, structures.

The real thing has plenty of elaboration and detail all its own, while presumably retaining the generating significance of music and dance in traditions that go back centuries. The Hungarian State Folk Dance Ensemble, plus six instrumentalists and a singer, visited the Palladium in Carmel Saturday night. The program focused on group dances, most of them fast and deftly arranged so as to balance ensemble patterns with individual improvisation, each display of which was rooted in a similar dance vocabulary.

Women of the Hungarian State Folk Dance Ensemble
For the women, embroidered costumes with swirling movement invariably offered a visual spectacle. A consistent elegance and a charming,  demure vivacity marked their performance. In contrast, the male dancing was rigorously athletic, punctuated by hand slaps on thighs and calves and full of high full-leg kicks, jumps, and rapid twisting torso movements generated by sideways kicks from the knee outward — which would seem a punishing sort of motion even with proper training. But the troupe's men managed it with an unquenchable desire to display their skill.

More than two dozen dancers opened the show with a spectacular overture, focusing on the most prominent Hungarian folk dances:  the czardas and the verbunkos, which were to reappear throughout the program. The latter, a military recruiting dance for men, is familiar to classical-music fans because of its use as a basis for a lively movement of Bartok's "Contrasts," commissioned by jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman.

An intricate humorous interlude was "Gossip," for the women only, beginning with most of the participants seated, then launching into a nonstop patter of choral speaking and whispers to replicate the breathless chatter of the latest news and rumors common in villages the world over. It evolved into an ensemble song with outbursts of dancing. It made for quite an amusing tribute to the grandmama of today's electronic social media.

The other showcase for the women consisted of dances from Moldova, the easternmost region of Hungarian settlement, separated from the motherland by Romania. For this segment, the women wore modest head scarves and began with chairs in a circle before exuberant dancing took over, at one climactic point accompanied by thundering drum beats.

The best "suite" of dances focused on Kalotaszeg, a region in eastern Transylvania historically Hungarian but now within Romania's borders. It was attractive for its smoothly integrated visual appeal —  the women's costumes especially — and also the intense physicality and display of the men's dances, with a seamless segue into sequences for couples. Again, a planned spontaneity allowed us entry into a culture where individual variation is encouraged within a stipulated social context.

Musical interludes gave the dancers a rest and provided a showcase for the band. The cimbalom, played with a thin hammer in each hand, produces ghostly, quickly decaying pitches. That puts a premium on tremolos and rapid figuration to  articulate full phrases. The instrument's mastery demands forearm and wrist flexibility and pinpoint accuracy, as 100 strings lie across the open wooden box in front of the performer. This ensemble's cimbalomist had that mastery in abundance.

There was also a segment evoking the traditional Gypsy band, featuring highly ornamental, sometimes  lickety-split playing from the band's two solo violinists. The clarion voice of a female solo vocalist also got several opportunities for spellbinding display in the course of the show.

The company gave the impression of full-hearted involvement in putting across its culture to audiences largely unfamiliar with it. The show was effectively assembled from many components, bringing to the fore apparently all regions and influences that constitute traditional Hungarian music and dance.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Dance Kaleidoscope opens new season with a troupe classic, a guest choreographer's work and a guest company

Programming has always been a strength of David Hochoy's artistic direction of Dance Kaleidoscope, the Indianapolis contemporary-dance troupe that opened its 42nd season Friday at Indiana Repertory
Theatre. "New Dimensions" as a title lacks a certain sizzle, but that can't be said about the complementary energy of the three works offered under that rubric this weekend.

Butler University's dance program got a showcase position in between works by guest choreographer Christopher Dolder and Hochoy, whose "IconoGlass" (1998)  has been  revived for the current company.

Cynthia Pratt's new piece for her Butler Ballet dancers is a brooding rhapsody of dark lyricism called "The Whole Against  the Sky." The title comes from an observation of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke about how people overcome inevitable distances that separate them and can eventually see "the other whole against the sky."

At first, to low, rumbling music by Valgeir Sigurdsson, the undulating patterns of a large group of dancers confine them to an essential sameness (underscored by the costuming of both men and women in long, diaphanous skirts), with a few iconic figures lifted up high above the group.

The lighting (by Laura Glover) is low-key but somehow oppressive; there is a busy, shifting symmetry among the 18 dancers, and identity is depicted as a difficult formative process. This yields to more focused indications of individuality in a brief episode for seven women, and finally to a dignified finale spotlighting two couples, but with a strikingly ambivalent last scene as the floor-bound company writhes diagonally offstage.

Timothy June and Mariel Greenlee in "Riverboy."
The earnest abstractness and deliberate pace of "The Whole Against the Sky" made a startling contrast to the opening work, Christopher Dolder's buoyant, nostalgic "Riverboy." A former colleague of Hochoy's in the Martha Graham Dance Company, Dolder in this work takes a relaxed approach to the art. The choreography uses lots of non-dance movement — slouching, foot-tapping, showoffy trotting, fist-pumping runs — to accent the evocation of a carefree childhood pastime on a remote river near the small California town where Dolder grew up.

Bulking large (literally) in the choreography are nine inner tubes, some of them dwarfing the dancers. They play variations upon the lightly and illicitly inebriated sport of tubing down the Feather River. The tubes are bounced on, hugged, butt-worn, bumped against neighbors, bounded through and upon, and swung in wide circles.

Dolder celebrates horsing around as well as the tug of first love and its inevitable disappointments (handily symbolized by deflated tubes). The mood is joyful and rich in casual fun, with  sneaker-footed dancers clad in jeans and short-sleeve shirts. As seen Friday night, "Riverboy" pulsed with exuberance and daring, a triumphant import for DK.

What's most attractive about "IconoGlass" is its absorbing inspiration in the variety of Philip Glass's music from the formal and ritualistic ("Satyagraha"),  through its more lulling moods and ending with the pop side of the composer, extroverted and beat-driven. Glass has described his music not as minimalism, the  most common label applied to it, but as "repetitive structures."

This telling phrase can be seen as a template for Hochoy's choreography, which sometimes moves dancers as if on a fast-paced conveyor belt. They shift from one static pattern to another, but since no pattern ever holds sway for long, the troupe goes through an immense variety of movement. And the style varies from curved and flowing to frenetic and sharply angular, creating further difficulty for the dancers. The ensemble came through with flying colors, costumed and lit with an imagination to match their virtuosity and the choreography to which it is applied.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Phoenix's 'Rancho Mirage' extends the string of new Steven Dietz plays produced here

Six  residents of Rancho Mirage share thinly sliced wry toast.
Achieving a certain level of material comfort represents for many Americans the object of the Declaration of Independence's promise of "the pursuit of happiness." Those people who live in gated communities may fancy that Jeffersonian right a matter of covenant, fleshed out by such details as what outbuildings are permitted and what color you can paint your house.

In the play now being given a "rolling world premiere" at the Phoenix Theatre, the friends who gather at the home of Nick and Diane Dahner expect to revel in the satisfaction of the ingrown social relationships their exclusive neighborhood implicitly celebrates. But in the first scene of Steven Dietz's "Rancho Mirage," the anxiety woven into such friendships seems almost contractual: Is prickly guest Louise partial to a wine called "Menage a Trois" or one called "Three Lovers," and was the wrong wine bought, imperiling the prospective fun?

The Dahners puree that question thoroughly, stirring in concern about how well they really know Louise and her possibly estranged husband Trevor. The couple rehearses the matters that can't be raised with either that couple or Charlie and Pam Caldwell. Nick Dahner plops an LP onto his trendy turntable. It's Miles Davis playing "So What." The cool modernist chic is reflected in Dan Tracy's set for this production, perfect insofar as contemporary interior design both proclaims personality and subtly masks it lest visitors find out too much (unless they peek into closets and garages).

And so we are off to the races in this searing comedy about secrets and their bad habit of coming out at the worst times. Social life is centered on couples, so much so that one guest is initially ignored because her husband is late to the party. Children, even ones not yet in actual Rancho Mirage households, are primarily pawns and bargaining chips in earnest adult games.

Dietz's characters are not temperamentally secretive, but prone to bluntness, needling and flashes of resentment they freely give voice to. That generates a lot of the humor, but most of the rawness as well. "Rancho Mirage" is so relentless in peeling off layers of the six characters' lives that it begins to have the feeling of farce. That's a dangerous direction for a play to go in if it's trying to ground an audience's sympathy in real human problems, but I think the playwright brings it off.

A less assured production might have made such relentless unveiling tedious, but Bryan Fonseca directs a cast that takes pains to take pain seriously and let the laughs take care of themselves. In the course of two acts, the upscale friendships are torn to shreds. Only the savage sustenance the six wounded grownups get from revelations about "the very best people we know" helps them survive to make a video-recorded show of peace at the end.

It's no accident that the play's setting is drolly described in the program as "the Dahner Party," a pun on the infamous Donner Party of the 1840s, which pushed west through early snows toward California, got trapped south of Great Salt Lake and managed to enable the survival of about half the group by resorting to cannibalism. The American dream has taken many damaging forms, and in "Rancho Mirage" is subject to crippling emotional and financial privation. If we eat each other alive along the way ... well, we're living the dream, aren't we?

Earl Campbell and Jolene Mentink Moffatt played with assurance the uneasy Dahners, gamely covering up impending financial ruin and exile from their fragile, restrictive paradise. As Trevor Neese, Bill Simmons, playing one of the aggressive blowhards he does so well, made a fierce sparring partner for Sara Riemen as the tactless Louise, who is trying to live down a promiscuous past without much in the way of spiritual resources.

Spiritual resources are exactly what  Joshua Coomer's Charlie Caldwell believes he has to draw upon, The foreign-adoption scenario he has envisioned to resolve ambivalence about his and wife Pam's childlessness fortunately gives the play backbone. What might otherwise seem a parade of bickering and "gotcha" moments takes on dignity and poignancy as a result. We learn, for example, how vague a notion the Rancho Mirage residents have of life outside their privileged environment. Diane Timmerman plays Pam with a nice sense of keeping up appearances and tolerating her husband's unfashionable Christianity, though her character's vulnerability makes her susceptible to Charlie's altruistic fantasies.

Though Dietz doesn't hit the religious note hard, Charlie seems a character in the mold of the apostle Paul. He's too insulated to have had a road-to-Damascus conversion, but his yearning to capture life with his camera bespeaks a need to bear witness to a truth he alone of this group can see. He may lack Paul's self-assurance, but he has that spiritual warrior's intellectual seriousness and sense of mission. He evidently sees beyond the edge of the mirage. What comes into view may be only another mirage, but as Paul famously says (often misquoted with the insertion of "and be merry"): "What advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."

What happens in the last scene is shadowed by some of the play's tendency toward farce, but it also points to a resolution of an unexpected kind, one that will not need to strike like lightning to be long-lasting. As the poet Rita Dove has written in an essay on the Pauline Epistle to the Ephesians: "Grace is a state of being, not an assault; and enlightenment, unlike epiphany, is neither brief nor particularly felicitous."  That's far from a process that any covenant for a gated community can stipulate, and it's what faces the people of "Rancho Mirage" as they start sifting through the mess they've made.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Beef & Boards stages popular large-scale musical in its cozy home

Enjolras (Nick Fitzer) rallies the rebels at the barricade.
"Les Miserables," the hit musical that had everybody brushing up on their 19th-century French history, has entered the 2013 schedule of Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre with a splash.

A lot of sad events pop up in the course of the Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil musical, but it has scored big worldwide with mainstream audiences,
thanks to its impactful songs and the feeling the music communicates that the intersection of public and private worlds can be thrilling, if not often fortunate.

Beef & Boards' production, seen Oct. 23, is smoothly knit together and buoyed by powerful performances in the roles of Jean Valjean, Inspector Javert, Eponine, and Fantine, among others.

State-of-the-art body miking means the show is often quite loud. Full-voice singing isn't very flatteringly represented when projected at that level. Nonetheless, the expressive range and energy injected into both ensemble and solo numbers put this "Les Miz" across in a way comparable to more lavish, expansive stagings. The first-act finale,"One Day More," will pin your ears back even as it moves you.
Inspector Javert (Joe Tokarz) confronts Valjean (Gregg Goodbrod).
Gregg Goodbrod is riveting in the vital, transformative role of Valjean, the paroled thief unable to escape his criminal past, despite his business success and conversion to devout goodness. Convincing in all age ranges required by the sprawling story, Goodbrod was especially vivid Wednesday night in the first scene, as Valjean tries desperately to escape the stigma of poverty and his harsh sentence for petty theft. He dominated the stage effortlessly every time he was on, matching Javert (Joe To
karz) in ferocity and keen sense of mission. When it came time for his much-anticipated second-act solo, "Bring Him Home," he had plenty of tenderness in reserve to go with a delicately floating head voice.

Fervor is in good supply in the cast. Besides Tokarz's Javert, there was the steely resolve displayed by Nick Fitzer as the bourgeois radical Enjolras.  He didn't save this quality only for the anthemic "Do You Hear the People Sing?" but distributed it generously throughout his performance. On the female side, strong portrayals were etched by the signature songs: Young Cosette's "Castle on a Cloud" (Anja Reese), Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream" (Sarah Hund), and Eponine's "On My Own" (Stephanie Torns).

Also contributing much to the performance's vivacity were Isaac Herzog as the feisty scamp Gavroche, Dominic Sheahan Stahl as the conflicted lover-revolutionary Marius,  Jerry Hacker as the compassionate Bishop of Digne (if one overlooks his ridiculous fake beard) and Douglas E. Stark and Annie Edgerton as the roguish Thenardiers, foremost in Eddie Curry's deft staging of the catchy "Master of the House." Stark's singing seemed a tad poky at times, but he matched Edgerton in comic rascality.

The six-piece band sounded spunky and wistful, as the occasion demanded. The sound, lighting and scenic design worked wonders with B&B's compact stage, even making a credible show of the climactic barricades fight in the second act. Costuming had sufficient touches of authenticity, though Gavroche looked like a newsboy from the 1920s.

The production impressed me, despite my dislike of "Les Miserables." Many stage shows, including musicals, have been adapted from novels, but they have to be turned into drama in order to work. Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" is not a good vehicle for drama; it remains a baggy episodic narrative,  and the French author's tendentious view of the events he narrates turns stage impersonations of his characters into emotional placards. The plot is not engaging as drama: Javert's lifelong obsession with capturing a parole-jumper doesn't make sense; Valjean is a plaster saint; the  female characters are maudlin and one-dimensional.

Furthermore, in common with several recent large-scale musicals, "Les Miz" has one spectacular scenic spectacle, like the helicopter in "Miss Saigon" or the chandelier in "Phantom of the Opera." It's the fight at the barricades, yet we know almost nothing about the struggle behind it, except it's rich versus poor. An audience knows only which side of that it's supposed to sympathize with (despite the ticket prices, especially in the large-venue productions). There's nothing about the June Rebellion of 1830, and why the death of Lamarque galvanized armed popular resistance to the pathetic French monarchy.

The characters and the setting, rather than being believably drawn, are propped up by heart-tugging songs. Part of the problem is that spoken dialogue conveys important information in most musicals, and "Les Miz" is famously sung throughout. In an old-fashioned show like "Oklahoma!" (which Beef & Boards will present in 2014, by the way), we learn far more about the tensions between cowboys and farmers in the Oklahoma Territory, through song and dialogue, than we do about the animating historical conflict of "Les Miz."

I don't mean to dismiss the show entirely, but it fails to engage me. It rests on inherently spindly legs, and it's to B&B's credit that its version manages to bulk up those thigh and calf muscles enough to create a sturdy evening of entertainment.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Lincoln Trio logs a concert with Music @ Shaarey Tefilla after a year's delay

As an admirer of two of its Cedille recordings, I looked forward to the Lincoln Trio's appearance to open the 20013-14 Music at Shaarey Tefilla series at Congregation Shaarey Tefilla in Carmel.

The Chicagoans, originally scheduled to open last year's series,  did not disappoint. Violinist Desiree Ruhstraht, cellist David Cunliffe and pianist Marta Aznavoorian lived up to expectations. The Lincoln Trio displayed strong rapport in music of Beethoven, Higdon, Garrop and, with the addition of series host and violist Michael Strauss, Turina.
Desiree Ruhstraht, David Cunliffe, Marta Azavoorian

They were particularly skillful in asserting themselves as individuals without nicking the ensemble unity.  That balance has something to with the zest you impart to the music on the stand or rack before you; the hard-to-define firmness of group identity comes from experience (the Lincoln has a 10-year history) and using your ears moment-to-moment in concert.

To take the 21st-century works first:  Jennifer Higdon's "Fiery Red"  made a spectacular program-closer.  Typical of this prolific composer, "Fiery Red" is not shy about projecting its essence from the start. Higdon writes as though accessibility can be assumed in new music, not coyly held at arm's length. "Fiery Red" lives up to its title, too, with brief, aggressive phrases tossed around the trio, striking sparks as they go.

Like the other new work, Stacy Garrop's "Silver Dagger," the Tower piece (with its companion, "Pale Yellow") is part of the Lincoln Trio discography. Garrop, a friend of the trio, has been well-represented in its Cedille Records catalogue: "Silver Dagger" plays eerily upon an old Appalachian folk song, opening with a haunting drone (embedded in inside-the-piano playing) undergirding the keening violin. Its short duration in no way leads the composer to bring off a facile bit of Americana. "Silver Dagger" has elements of eldritch fantasy and betrayal woven into it, and while honoring the tune, isn't deferential to the original, except atmospherically.

Performances of  these two works rested Monday on a foundation provided by Beethoven's Piano Trio in B-flat major, op. 11 ("Gassenhauer"), which opened the program. Aznavoorian's facility and spirit animated the opening movement, and here is where it was immediately evident that her colleagues were doing more than making their contributions fit neatly. There was that, of course, but there was also brightness and spunk in the cello and violin voices throughout the performance, ending with a buoyant theme-and-variations finale on a tune that was a hit in Beethoven's Vienna.

Strauss joined the trio for a the Spanish composer Joaquin Turina's Piano Quartet in A minor, a work rich in "local color,"  but also beautifully constructed for the ensemble as a piece of absolute chamber music. Strauss and Ruhstraht put unanimity behind their often parallel lines, and individual moments in the spotlight for all four added to the enchantment. (The viola has some conspicuous phrases, which must have made programming this work especially attractive to Strauss.) The moody opening movement set the tone, and by the time an impassioned violin recitative opened the finale, the quartet had the Shaarey Tefilla audience in the palm of its hand.

For an encore, the trio drew on a remote part of the Spanish tradition in playing a characteristically spirited short work by the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

David Chan returns under the auspices of IVCI to help open its Laureate Series

A celebration of the violin makes sense in this harvest season as a way for the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis to reap the bounty of violin training and performance hereabouts.

To supplement the return appearance of David Chan, 1994 bronze medalist in the quadrennial competition, IVCI had the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Virtuosi  and Chamber Orchestra on hand Sunday afternoon at the Indiana Landmarks Center's Grand Hall.

Full disclosure: I am the parent of a Virtuosi alumnus who has since taught at the School of Music's String Academy, the nurturing ground of these adept precollege musicians.

Illustrative of their expert training, among other qualities: a habit of listening to each other, solid rapport virtually assuring unanimity of attach and release, dynamics and tempo. With good attention to changes in texture and  color, a student sextet performed IU faculty member Atar Arad's arrangement of Prokofiev's Toccata in D minor, a solo piano work of characteristically barbed sonorities and propulsive accents.
David Chan is co-concertmaster of the Met orchestra.

"Seven Violin Duets," commissioned for the Virtuosi from IU composer Don Freund, found five of the violinists usually grouped in compatible twos, with all five weighing in at both ends of the set. The composer signals the straightforward mood of each duet with such titles as "Sudden Passion," "Thrilled to Death" and "Craggy Crossing."  The ensemble made the most of the "sotto voce" tenderness of "Sweet Song," and one of the duos showed particular flair in "Astor Knots," a punning salute to tango maestro Astor Piazzolla. Another captured the rugged country-flavored fervor of "Burleska" with subtle humor.

A surprising insert in the opening piece —  longtime Virtuosi favorite "Preludium and Allegro" by
Fritz Kreisler — let the two student cellists show off in a medley of tunes ranging from "Eleanor Rigby" to the "Habanera" from "Carmen" before the violinists re-entered the spotlight with the piece's exciting "Allegro" conclusion.  Vigorous accounts of two Brahms Hungarian Dances by the whole Virtuosi group displayed its unanimity amid multiple shifts of tempo.

Chan's place in the program sun came in Beethoven's "Spring" Sonata (No. 5 in F major), assisted by pianist Chih-Yi Chen. Together, they presented a neat, well-turned, classically minded performance. It threatened to become too sobersided over the long haul.  In the second movement, an episode in the minor brought forth an extra measure of feeling, but it took the short, captivating Scherzo to set the duo on a more expressive course in the Rondo finale, which was crowned by some welcome power and even grandeur toward the end. 

With the visitors' Chamber Orchestra in accompaniment, Chan was featured in two contrasting works after intermission: Bach's Concerto No. 2 in E major and Wieniawski's Variations on an Original Theme, op 15. The highly ornamented latter work drew forth a continual display of commitment and technical elan from the soloist. The Bach concerto, which Chan also led from the soloist's position, seemed a little headlong in the opening movement, the ensemble pressing forward too much, making the total effect shimmery. The slow movement allowed everyone to regain poise and clarity, which came in handy in the fleet, invigorating finale.

For an encore, Chan and the Virtuosi offered a sweet rendition of Paganini's "Cantabile," which acknowledged the guest artist's regular job as co-concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

Deborah Voigt shows off her post-Isolde side at the Palladium

Deborah Voigt has weathered personal crises on the way to reconfiguring her career.
There were more than a few hints in a tell-all interview Deborah Voigt gave the New York Times recently that she might be shifting permanently to a more informal type of singing than what she has received her greatest acclaim for.

The recital tour that brought her to the Center for the Performing Arts Saturday night demonstrated that singing in her native tongue is something she'd like to exploit more. And the 53-year-old soprano seems poised to emphasize music that requires less stamina than, for instance, the main female role in Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," a Washington National Opera production of which she withdrew from last month.

What several hundred people heard at the Palladium was a program focusing on art song in the first half, beginning significantly with a pioneering female American composer, and after intermission mussing the conventionally prim recital coiffure with a serio-comic mix of works by three 20th-century American men. Her generally lighthearted remarks from the stage, though too offhandedly directed at only the first ten rows, extended an unmistakable invitation to relax.

Admittedly, I remained largely impervious to Voigt's brand of forceful charm, but I found her vocal command and  interpretive breadth largely convincing. The way the voice blossomed as it ascended into the upper register was thrilling, her diction was conscientious in well-projected Russian, German and English, and her carriage and facial expressions always suited what she was singing.

She used her hands and arms naturally, despite a tendency to "mickey-mouse" gesturally certain words: She wiggled the fingers of both hands downward as she sang about stormy precipitation in Richard Strauss' "Schlechtes Wetter," and in Benjamin Moore's setting of Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," she shook a warning forefinger at "Then be not coy" and held up her ring finger at the poet's advice to "go marry."

Vocally, a tendency to "close" the voice in midrange, producing a nasal tone quality, showed up in a few places — the first Amy Beach song on the program and in "Schlechtes Wetter." Normally there was clarity in all registers, and in the refrain of Tchaikovsky's "Was I not a little blade of grass in the field," she displayed glowing low notes. That song — along with Strauss' "Ah, Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden"—was a highlight of the first half, particularly moving in its final measures.

By intermission, Voigt's bond with the audience was made solid by a prearranged choral underpinning (from Butler and Indiana University voice students in the first couple of rows)  of the last line in each stanza of Strauss' "Zueignung."

Pianist Brian Zeger provided effective support throughout. His Tchaikovsky accompaniments were flavorful and impassioned. The comic turn of "Schlechtes Wetter" in the last stanza was capped by a witty coda. His brilliant work in the distinctive urban-chic songs of Leonard Bernstein and William Bolcom helped Voigt become assertive and theatrical with the sort of music she is increasingly turning to.

In her encores, she reached back to the Great American Songbook to put a seal on the idiom she feels increasingly most comfortable in: the rollicking "I Love a Piano" (including a final chorus when she joined  Zeger on the bench for a four-hands conclusion) and "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" from "Show Boat."

Saturday, October 19, 2013

ISO nurtures "Singin' in the Rain" into full bloom at Hilbert Circle Theatre

The full glory of the Hollywood musical rests in part on the symphonic scoring of the music, with the heritage of the stage musical bringing to the fore both the brashness of Broadway pit bands and the smooth string-section writing characteristic of the operetta.

Gene Kelly gets  happily wet in cinema's most exhilarating downpour.
"Singin' in the Rain" (1952)  is among the classic examples of the genre to be screened in recent years with concert-hall accompaniments, and this was what the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra offered to a packed Hilbert Circle Theatre Friday night.

Jack Everly conducted the orchestra in a re-creation of the instrumental part of the soundtrack, fitting it closely to the voices in Nacio Herb Brown's songs. It was evident from the overture how much of a boost a live orchestra can give to a film good enough to sell itself on its own merits: When the ISO moved on from the title tune to "You Are My Lucky Star," a vaunting countermelody in the horns welled up magnificently.

"Moses Supposes," a masterpiece of staging and comic timing, was the only place where at first the screen action didn't seem as tight with the orchestra as needed. It jelled well before the end, however. "Good Mornin'," the trio sung and danced by Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly after a long night of discussing how to rescue the film they fear will be a flop, found the close coordination between screen and stage restored.

An extended showcase for the orchestra, nicely emphasizing the strings, was the "Broadway Melody" ballet, with Kelly and the sensuous, leggy Cyd Charisse. There were well-met challenges of balance elsewhere, such as when a small ensemble had to replicate the background music a hired orchestra offers at a movie mogul's glitzy party.

"Make 'Em Laugh," despite the difficulty of focusing attention on anything but O'Connor's comic virtuosity, gave evidence of the ISO's capability to function as a pit band. The sound was properly boisterous and scrappy, after the manner of the circus bands in which many a 20th-century wind instrumentalist got his start. I sense new principal trumpet Ryan Beach revels in this kind of playing.

Under Everly's baton, the orchestra's flexibility with tempo changes was admirable; it never failed to negotiate the quicksilver shifts in mood that "Singin' in the Rain" comprises. The high level of the ISO's performance made this event more a celebration of enduring popular art than a mere exercise in nostalgia.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Sacred-music nonprofit founded by John Nelson responsible for world premiere here

"A Festival of Psalms," a program of choral music to be presented Saturday at Second Presybterian Church, will include the premiere of James Lee III's  "Psalm 111," a commission from Soli Deo Gloria, a 20-year-old nonprofit organization co-founded by John Nelson, fifth music director of the the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (1976-1987).

Michelle Louer
Soli Deo Gloria's mission is to foster the creation and performance of classical sacred music. Performance of the new work, for chorus and orchestra, will be conducted by Michelle L. Louer,  director of music and fine arts at the church, 7700 N. Meridian St. The free 7 p.m. concert will be preceded at 6:15 by Lee's discussion of the work in the church's Milner Chapel.

"Psalm 111" is one of 15 new works to be generated by Soli Deo Gloria's Psalms Project, which is supported by a grant from Lilly Endowment. Performing forces at the premiere will be the Sanctuary Choir, Beecher Singers and Festival Orchestra.

Also on the program is an older psalm setting by Lee from his "Four Sacred Motets." The concert will also include Hubert Parry's "I Was Glad," Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 5 in D, Grace Xu Schott's "Shoshannim," Herbert Howells' "Psalm 42" and "Psalm 34" and Ralph Vaughan Williams' arrangement of "Old 100th."

IRT takes an epic poem off the shelf and makes drama out of it

At the basis of Western literature is one of its most violent books, Homer's "Iliad." The poem's  peculiarly personal way of scrutinizing warfare has influenced the literary treatment of conflict ever since. No way that we get on each other's nerves, no lingering resentment, is too trivial a casus belli, especially where powerful people are involved and can draw thousands into their quarrels.

When Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare put together "An Iliad," they were no doubt imagining that epic poem's legacy mainly as a catalogue of wasted lives, with pointless destruction and ungovernable emotions competing against valor and comradeship.

So, using Robert Fagles' translation of  "The Iliad," Peterson and O'Hare have made the story of Achilles' wrath during the Greeks' protracted siege of Troy a burden upon the Poet himself, carried for all time. The marvels and horrors that Henry Woronicz relates as the play's only character strike deep into the time-traveling Poet's desire to be done with war. Still, he must sing.

Henry Woronicz as the Poet begins his story.
Woronicz, seeming ageless and youthful by turns, displayed his fitness to play this odd character in a preview of the Indiana Repertory Theatre's new production Thursday night. Hypnotically reciting the epic's opening, almost hidden from view at the start, the Poet pulls himself together, wrapped in worn but durable garb, and descends the stairs of what may be a present-day unused warehouse. Then he notices us —  another batch of Homer's eager listeners in a series that goes back 28 centuries — and so he can't help launching into the ancient story one more time, for about 100 uninterrupted minutes.

The Poet has a small suitcase full of battered papers and other memorabilia from his travels. His pride in the success of past recitations quickly becomes overshadowed by the gravity of the material he has to present. References to the simple, mostly peaceful lives led by the young men who have always fought wars soon balloon into a host of named American cities and towns. Consumed by what he took from the oral tradition in the 8th or 9th century B.C.E. and set down for all time, the Poet can't help offering analogies to strife throughout history. He's finally convulsed by grief after rattling off a list of mass bloodlettings ending with Syria.

This seems less necessary as a way to make "The Iliad" relevant today than it is an assertion of mastery over the material. That familiar stuff is rooted in the Trojan prince Paris' abduction (not entirely forcible) of Helen, the beautiful wife of the Greek ruler Menelaos, and the 10-year war that ensues. Homer himself presumably took the long view, as scholars generally figure the Trojan War happened 400 years before he wrote. Peterson and O'Hare figure on striking dramatic gold by lengthening that view and focusing on how the Poet's work both sustains and shatters him.

The adapters risk making "The Iliad" seem like an anti-war tract wrapped around the story of Achilles' rage. That myth-engendering emotion is spurred by his resentment of Agamemnon's selfish maneuvering within the ranks of Greek power centers, then made more brutal when Achilles' best friend, Patroclus, fighting in his place, is killed by the Trojan warrior Hector.

The tone of "The Iliad" of course allows for bringing the pathos of war into the picture. But it is a celebration of war, too, even while it carries reminders that the gods tip the balance and make their partiality known. Justice is absent during the conflict, and rarely prevails at the end. Control is hardly ever in human hands, certainly not among the lower orders. How many ordinary soldiers up to the present, dragged reluctantly into the conflicts of their superiors, have felt something akin to what British poet Christopher Logue puts into the mouths of warriors in "War Music," his adaptation of "The Iliad"?

And under the shields the half-lost fighters think:
"We fight when the sun rises; when it sets we count the dead.
What has the beauty of Helen to do with us?"

IRT's "An Iliad"  benefits from the pinpoint accuracy and variety of Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein's lighting design and Andrew Hopson's sound design (including original music). Such expertise fleshes out what Woronicz, directed by Fontaine Syer, achieves in having the Poet build upon his storytelling task to briefly assume the identities of the poem's men and women and gods — from the wheedling, self-absorbed Helen to the fleet-footed trickster god Hermes. "An Iliad" brings today's audiences closer to a remote masterpiece and will help anyone who attends answer the Poet's final question (which it would be unfair to reveal here) in the affirmative.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Indianapolis Opera opens with "The Threepenny Opera," concluding next weekend.

Indianapolis Opera began its 2013-14 season by staging the staunchest anti-opera in the operatic canon, “The Threepenny Opera.” The enduring collaboration of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, despite a difficult gestation, gave a 20th-century twist to the view from the bottom of English society from which John Gay had written  “The Beggar’s Opera”  two centuries earlier. It was meant to be vernacular in the coarsest way, both musically and textually.

As designed by Gordon Strain, the Basile Opera Center production has a severe industrial look — symmetrically designed metal scaffolding with opposing stairways, the whole marked off geometrically with bars and railings. Most of the action takes place in the foreground, where the “alienation effect” of addressing the audience with narration or commentary is thrown in. Tight, circumscribed spots on solo singers from time to time blend the world of stage illusion with cabaret entertainment in Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein’s lighting design.

Director Bill Fabris’ concept is that this is a troupe of German players presenting its jaded Weimar Republic view of London squalor and low ambitions on the eve of Queen Victoria’s coronation nearly 100 years before. The company shares the lines of “Mack the Knife” to set the sordid scene. In times of great uncertainty, the view from the gutter seems to have a heightened clarity, even a kind of rough wisdom. Corruption and double-dealing are the way of the world, as illustrated by the story of the dissolute highwayman Macheath and the attempt of the “beggar king” Peachum
to do him in for the effrontery of luring his daughter Polly into a questionable marriage.

Seen at Sunday’s matinee, the Indianapolis Opera production maintained a brittle intensity, lit by sardonic humor even as the story of cunning and betrayal also mirrors the characters’ desperation and yearning for a better life. Brecht’s text and Weill’s songs from the start made hit entertainment out of the most cynical interpretation of human motives in modern times, and they are well represented in Michael Feingold’s translation.

Mr. and Mrs. Peachum ruefully contemplate the allure of the moon over Soho.
Jenny Diver and Macheath lock in, as the whores circle them.
As Macheath, Corey McKern is a dashing baritone who was highly effective as the lowlife ruler of a criminal gang, kept active thanks to Macheath’s friendship with the sheriff, Tiger Brown. If the impeccably dressed McKern was almost too suave, it worked to show how firmly the gang leader keeps the cordial mask in place to hide his sinister self. He was equally credible recalling with Tiger Brown the bloodthirsty camaraderie of soldiering in India (“The Cannon Song”) and in his smooth romancing of the naïve Polly in the love duet that follows. Later on, his “Ballad of Living in Style” conveyed the unshakability of Macheath’s self-confidence even behind bars.

Kern’s vigorous vocal and dramatic profile needed the kind of nemesis presented by the singers playing the Peachums and their useful ally Jenny Diver, one of Macheath’s mostly discarded trollops. That formidable opposition is superb in this production. Robert Kerr stoutly portrayed Jonathan Peachum in all respects —  the wry moralist perched on the top of a begging business that prospers by fiercely defending its territory and playing on the guilty consciences of the well-to-do.

The rightness of his pairing with Janara Kellerman as Mrs. Peachum is immediately apparent in the way they performed the “Why Can’t They” song, lamenting the impossibility of responsible parenthood when “the moon over Soho” holds forth the illusion of happiness to the younger generation. Both Kerr and Kellerman never failed to project the words well, even when the well-honed band offstage (conducted by James Caraher) became boisterous. And they unfailingly sounded like they could be lower-class denizens of Soho.

Which brings up a persistent difficulty in the performance I saw: the bothersome inconsistency of accents. For example: When Macheath’s gang (their interplay was adeptly brought off) was trying to explain things to the boss, deal with his many adversaries or react to his predicaments, only Crooked-Finger Jack (Andrew Morales) displayed a passable Cockney accent.

Some of the main characters went in and out of American speech. This was quite disconcerting  in Rachel Sparrow’s otherwise winning Polly Peachum, but particularly conspicuous when McKern, with his abundance of lines in song and speech, couldn’t sustain the English accent. A dialect coach should have been added to the production team, because otherwise it looked as if Fabris left it up to the players to manage London street talk as each saw fit.

As Jenny Diver, Caitlin Mathes was often capable of sounding like a Cockney wench, but fell under the influence of some broad American accents in the second act. Quite admirable, however, was her dead-on ferocity and a stance that indicated Jenny could have been a natural leader if not for the life of whoredom she fell into. Her showpiece, “Pirate Jenny,” was bone-chilling, and the “Solomon Song” indicated vividly that Jenny, like Peachum, was capable of taking the long view of human frailty.

Jacqueline Brecheen’s Lucy Brown — the other current claimant to Macheath’s wandering affections — was manipulative and skilled at usually keeping her victimhood at bay, but both she and Sparrow’s Polly seemed a bit overmatched by the rapid patter of “The Jealousy Duet.”

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Verdi Requiem performance benefits from nearly ideal solo quartet

Just missing Verdi's 200th birthday and shy of Krzysztof Urbanski's 31st, this weekend's concerts by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra had a celebratory feeling.

As heard Saturday evening at Hilbert Circle Theatre, Verdi's Requiem was so well-performed that its gloomy, anxious message about death, while delivered with suitable pathos, fear and trembling, seemed high on life. A likely atheist, the composer was moved in this work to probe the emotional impact of the Latin Mass for the Dead as well as memorialize a hero of Italian nationalism and art, Alessandro Manzoni, best-known for his novel "I Promessi Sposi."

Urbanski showed a well-defined keenness in managing the large forces, not only the substantial orchestra (including offstage trumpets in "Tuba mirum"),  but also the 160-voice Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, prepared to a fare-thee-well by its veteran director, Eric Stark.

Eric Barry, tenor soloist
Verdi's setting for chorus ranges from powerful announcements (the men's booming entrance on "Rex tremendae majestis," for example) to passages so soft they were interpreted here, dramatically, as partially whispered. There are significant passages requiring a cappella singing ("Te decet hymnus," to start with) during which intonation remained true. And there is the compact, intricate "Sanctus" for double chorus, in which nothing sounded tangled or blurred in Saturday's performance.

In contrast with many major works for chorus and orchestra,  in which soloists have something of a cameo effect, Verdi's use of solo voices here is extensive. The kind of sheer heft and the emotional range required approaches the discipline and stamina needed for his operatic roles. The ISO was fortunate to land, even with a couple of substitutions since the program was printed, this quartet: Leah Crocetto, soprano; Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Eric Barry, tenor, and Jordan Bisch, bass.

Leah Crocetto, soprano soloist
From its calling-card entrance, one at a time, in "Kyrie eleison,"  it was evident that the four were well-matched, an impression confirmed in the moving "Lacrymosa." Such combinations as the women in "Recordare, Jesu pie" and the three lower voices in "Lux aeterna luceat eis" brimmed with vitality and unanimity of expression.

Cooke deserves special mention. In a world in which "mezzo-soprano" is the more marketable category, she is a true contralto. What's the difference, when whatever you call the lady, she has to sing the same notes? It's a certain tone quality, a penetrating timbre, that not only lends gravity to the frequent solos Verdi gives to the lower female voice, but also seems essential to make clearer the four solo lines in the "Offertorio" section. Cooke had the essential sound and the skill to shape it to the music's meaning.

The next most satisfying soloist was the tenor, whose intense supplication in "Ingemisco" demands the floating but emotion-drenched vocalism of a Pavarotti. Barry was more than adequate to such requirements. His diction was exemplary, too, and his pitch sense was on the money. The bass conveyed something less in the way of both expressive and pitch quality — accurate and disciplined enough but hampered by a rather foggy timbre. The soprano, of clarion tone and flexibility, seemed to tire somewhat toward the end of the 90-minute performance, but fortunately didn't fail to nail the climactic high C above the swelling chorus and orchestra in "Libera me."

Still and all, this was the kind of Verdi Requiem quartet that dreams are made on. And the performance overall indicated once again that Urbanski hears everything in a score and can come up with results that allow us to hear it, too. Such is his charisma that not a peep emanated from the audience after the final note —  until the maestro finally dropped his left hand and a roaring ovation burst forth..

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Juilliard Quartet brings a new work to town to help Ensemble Music Society open its 70th season

Much anticipated on a busy musical weekend in Indianapolis was the visit Friday of the Juilliard Quartet, its first return here with its current personnel: violinists Joseph Lin and Ronald Copes, violist Roger Tapping and cellist Joel Krosnick.
Juilliard Quartet: standing (from left), Roger Tapping, Ronald Copes and Joseph Lin; seated, Joel Krosnick.
Something else was special: Jesse Jones' third string quartet, "Whereof Man Cannot Speak...," received its first performance at the Juilliard's season-opening performance for the Ensemble Music Society.  It was a pleasure to hear such top-notch artists give a world premiere in Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts, which opened last spring.

The new work is a 30-minute episodic setting of the composer's grieving process after his mother's death. Jones individualizes the familiar stages of grief, and he also finds an individual way of casting in abstract musical terms emotions that don't easily find words.

The piece opens with high-pitched chords, verging on microtonality, thus reflecting the "blurry" onset of bereavement. Every successive stage likewise finds a language of its own. The 35-year-old composer never lets his grief put on a maudlin display.

His idiomatic use of the string quartet as a medium for portraying adjustment to personal loss gave the musicians a broad palette to work with, and they filled the canvas with deftly applied strokes. I loved the bold first-violin melody that seemed to embody late-blooming anger at the loss, and the way it then subsided into a soft chorale (marred Friday night by somebody's cell-phone chime) that ended the piece in a mood of hushed resignation.

The concert started with the first four "contrapuncti" from J.S. Bach's "Art of Fugue." A formidable piece for keyboard probably never intended for performance, certainly not all at once, "Art of Fugue" is valid in the concert hall with this kind of orderly excerpting.  Sparing of vibrato from the start, the Juilliard's performance was prone to make the rhythmic and textural changes from one contrapunctus to another vivid, while keeping each line clear.

The dotted rhythms that vary the subject in Contrapunctus II were lent a swinging vigor.  The inverted subject that the viola introduces in Contrapunctus III  yielded new colors, to which the quartet's legato phrasing gave restrained emphasis. To the finale, Contrapunctus IV, the quartet imparted a quasi-orchestral richness, flecked with momentary dissonance, to cap a well-balanced performance.

Beethoven's String Quartet in C major, Op. 59, No. 3 occupied the entire second half of the concert, with largely successful results.  I was somewhat put off by the flamboyance and aggressiveness with which the opening movement was interpreted. After the delicate suspense of the introduction, the main body of the movement seemed too show-offy here.

The performance settled down in the Andante, with the quartet shaping the nice ebb and flow of a musical discussion undergirded by Krosnick's resonant, philosophical pizzicati. The poised minuet movement gave way to a particularly expressive coda leading into the dizzying finale.

 The "molto" in its "Allegro molto" indication was boldly engaged right up through the final double bar line. (Something that long ago turned me against classical-music films was the way the camera circled vertiginously around the Guarneri Quartet's playing of this movement; the music itself requires no visual whirlwind.)

A surprising drawback to this performance was Lin's sporadic pitch problems, especially in the first and third movements. At the Juilliard's level, one expects never to hear a note out of tune. On the whole, however, the concert upheld this ensemble's vaunted reputation, which it has been building upon since its founding in 1946.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Solo acts (with an exception or two) make up University of Indianapolis program at Wheeler Arts

John Berners
A thirty-year span of new music, with nothing much in the way of ensemble to spread the focus around, puts a high demand on an audience's attention.  Even when there's humor and theatricality involved, what the University of Indianapolis and guest performers  presented Thursday night as "Working Without a Net: Unaccompanied New Music by Indy Composers" amounted to kind of a staring contest for ears.

Here's why: One  performer (usually) onstage, pitted against the ambivalent solitude of each listener in the Wheeler Arts Community Theater in Fountain Square. A rapt audience deserves credit for making possible the most undisturbed presentation of this music's laserlike focus on the navigational and communicative skills of one musician at a time.

Though  the six-work program was organized with a keen sense of pace, contrast and flow, I felt a distinct falling off of quality and freshness in what I heard after intermission. A high level of performance was maintained throughout, but the first three compositions were more engaging than the second three. I can confidently dismiss the possibility that my tolerance for music of this sort doesn't hold for much more than a half-hour.

Let's take first the two pieces by John Berners, associate professor of music at UIndy: "Study on Peter," the concert's newest work, is a virtuoso turn for soprano through a fragmented and embellished setting of Peter's denial of Christ in the New Testament: "I do not know what you are talking about. I do not even know the man."

Jennifer Goltz, an experienccd new-music proponent  based in Ann Arbor, sang the work with adroit vocal command. Berners fragments the the text and deliberately interrupts its sense, partly through episodes that get tangled among miscellaneous lip and throat noises andpuns : "do not know," for example, is treated as both "Donut?" and "Noah?" The question marks attached to such bizarre distortions of the text reflect the anxiety and guilt of formative Christianity's most famous liar.

"Study on Peter" presents steep challenges to a singer's ability to communicate and an audience's desire to understand. It made good use of being far-fetched at times, especially when this feminized Peter attempts to change the subject and dodge the hard suspicion that he is closely associated with the condemned Jesus. It was enough on the edge of overreaching to be thoroughly exciting to hear, especially when so brilliantly performed.

Berners' other work ended the program. Liltingly titled "Moonrays on Marin," it focuses on baroque flute, played by Tamara Thweatt, in tribute to French composer Marin Marais (1656-1728).  Somewhat more tangential to the instrumentation is the composer's recollection of Marin County, California, "a nice place to be in the evening," as the composer says in a program note.

Playing modern flutes on either side of Thweatt were Anne Reynolds and Mihoko Watanabe. They usually added wispy, often toneless figures to the central voice of the baroque flute, which was given poised scraps of melody consonant with the period when the instrument flourished. The supplemental flutists also had to do some foot-stomping to punctuate the agitated passages required of them. Berners suggests in his note that competition between the soloist and the auxiliary pair drives the work, but whatever the latter did seemed merely to encourage and prolong the impervious monologue of the central instrument. The work was imposing when it ought to have been engaging; it lasted about 10 minutes, but seemed longer.

Similar contrasts of effectiveness struck me in the other composer represented by two works, Andrew Mead. Thanks to the rare virtuosity of Goltz, perhaps, his setting of an Amy Clampitt poem, "Let the Air Circulate,"was thoroughly winning. Mead gives the soprano phrases that mimic the sometimes obsessive detail typical of Clampitt's poetry. The phrases have individuality without suggesting they want little to do with their neighbors. This is quite representative of the poet's finicky manner, which tends to charm in a sneaky, cumulative way. Mead's self-possessed vocal line worked the same kind of magic in Goltz's performance.

His "Rhapsody for Solo Flute," the concert's oldest work, was played in a whirlwind of phrases typically disjunctive in shape but smoothed through lots of legato playing. An abundance of flutter-tonguing presumably stood for the joys of rhapsodizing. Playing with a steely tone one wouldn't want to hear in much other music, Watanabe showed polished mastery of Mead's interpretive and technical demands. 

The composers represented just once each contrasted as well in effectiveness. Thweatt played  Michael Schelle's "Subwoofer" in the concert's first half. Schelle can be counted on for giving an often humorous theatrical spin to specific musical situations. There isn't a generic bone in his body.

So, how do you call attention to the absence of interplay with another musician in an unaccompanied work?  By having the soloist seem to question the audience response — with unexpected pauses, quizzical facial expressions, moving about the stage and then off it. The effect of Thweatt's poised, comic performance was to tease the loneliness of the unaccompanied player of a single-line instrument. In the realm of peripatetic music for solo flute, "Subwoofer" probably reigns supreme.

In the corresponding middle position in the concert's second half came Patrick Long's "Shadow Steps."  Works for "live" performer and what used to be called tape, here and now "digital audio,"  outlived their usefulness late in the last century; you don't hear much about Mario Davidovsky these days.

Such pieces represented the triumph of cleverness over the nuanced rewards of performer interaction. In an odd sense, "Shadow Steps" stands the point of this program on its head. That is to say, when you have a live performer responsible for coordinating with an inflexible partner, it's not so much a case of the human being "working without a net" as working without even a smidgen of freedom. Headset-wearing Kurt Fowler played his skinny, sleek electric cello with commitment and almost flawless pitch, and the likewise amplified sounds that gave him a run for his virtuoso money mimicked the sonorities of an instrument one would rather have heard: the piano. It was like John Henry and the steam drill harnessed to a modernist esthetic, only this time the contest ends in a tie.

In sum, a program of mixed pleasures, worth presenting under an academic aegis but probably not ready for prime time. The pleasures offered by such concerts are probably not designed to be equally rich, so on those terms,"Working Without a Net" succeeded.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Sister Cities relationship between Cologne and Indianapolis bears jazz fruit, too

Monika Herzig talks to IU students in master class with Andre Nendza last week.

Several decades ago, according to German jazz bassist Andre Nendza, there were probably just two bassists in Germany capable of playing with such A-list American expatriates as saxophonist Dexter Gordon.  Today, he told me Monday at Central Library, between 50 and 100 bassists in every large German city can play creditably on that level.

Nendza testified to this huge growth of jazz competence in Germany as a student ensemble he works with in Cologne, Indianapolis' sister city, prepared to perform, anchored by Nendza on electric bass. Under the supervision of Open Door International program director Hartwig Pruessmann, Nendza and the four students spent a week in Indianapolis and Bloomington.

Monday's gig in the spacious Atrium of Central Public Library came toward the end of a Sister Cities sojourn that included taking in a Billy Cobham set at the Jazz Kitchen, performing at the Chatterbox on Mass Ave and Bear's Place in Bloomington, and meeting with students and faculty in the jazz program at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music.

Nendza's involvement not only steadied the student group of violin, vocalist, guitar and drums in its library set, but also provided links to aspects of the central Indiana jazz scene — chiefly through his reunion with one of its reigning current figures, keyboardist-composer Monika Herzig, well-known for more than two decades of teaching and performing in both Bloomington and Indianapolis. The two knew each other in the mid-1980s, before Herzig and her now-husband, guitarist Peter Kienle, emigrated.

The German jazz scene has matured immeasurably since then, and Herzig and Kienle stay abreast of it with periodic trips back to their homeland, keeping family, friendship and professional ties intact. "The basic feeling is that it's a scene that's been growing for 30 years," Nendza said, "There are now  20 German institutions that offer a proper degree in jazz."

The club scene survives, but many jazz performances are scheduled in concert halls, he said.  There is  probably more crossover between jazz and classical audiences than the U.S. is used to, he added. Still, German  jazz musicians have to play weddings and miscellaneous studio gigs, just like most of their American counterparts.

Nendza's imaginative range and technical adeptness is well demonstrated in three CDs on the Jazzsick label. Tria Lingvo's "At Its Purest" is a bold, successful effort to sustain interest in original music for  soprano saxophone, double bass and percussion. Nendza's mates are Johannes Lemke and Christoph Hillmann, respectively, and the three work with simultaneous abandon and exemplary rapport.

His A.Tronic group, in "Spectacles," follows some electronic and vocal paths that I have less affinity for, but I can recognize there is nothing haphazard or commercially focused in Nendza's approach to those well-integrated timbres. The short second CD in this two-CD package includes a lively 2005 session with a peerless American master of the soprano saxophone, Dave Liebman.

Finally, the 2011 CD, "Rooms Restored," which won the German equivalent of the Grammy Award in 2012, is an outstanding example of Nendza's fecundity as a composer. And the quintet he leads is fully in command of the material: I especially enjoyed the searching, well-deployed single-line solos of pianist Hendrik Soll, the dour intelligence of Claudius Valk's reed playing and the unpredictable flash and  pep of Stephan Meinberg's trumpet. Completing the band (in addition to Nendza's rhythmically acute bass) is the sensitive, tonally varied drumming of Hillmann.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The power and the glory: Frank Felice's "Power Plays" gives the glory to retiring colleague Robert Grechesky

Composer and Butler University music professor Frank Felice will celebrate his birthday Sunday with a potlatch sort of gesture: giving a new piece to the university's longtime director of bands Robert Grechesky, who is retiring at the end of the school year.

"Power Plays" is the third piece Felice has written for Grechesky, and he wants to keep secret the farewell gesture he's included in the score. Another reason for not emphasizing the goodbye in an  explicit musical way is the fact that "Power Plays" is a consortium commission that will be taken up by other high school, community and university bands on a schedule yet to be determined.

Sunday's world premiere will take place among other wind-ensemble works (the second-newest being a decade-old euphonium concerto by Eric Ewazen) at a 3 p.m. concert in the Schrott Center for the Arts at Butler. Tickets are $10 ($5 for students/seniors).

"I wanted to write a symphony for band," Felice recalled, but Grechesky had in mind a work lasting only about 15 minutes. "That put me in a kind of in-between place, where if it's episodic, you just have little vignettes instead of movements." After opening with a section titled according to "syllables that are supposed to resemble but are not really Klingon" (Grechesky is a Star Trek devotee), the linked episodes have such titles as "Powerslave," "Powertrip" and "Power Chords."

In composition and performance, Frank Felice keeps his options open.
Felice, you may have guessed, is an admitted lover of wordplay. The titles have loose connections to the kind of music each episode contains, but the work isn't programmatic, Felice said. Thus, "Power Chords" is "a little bit angry, kind of a Stravinskyan thing — chord, chord, chord." (Eat your heart out, Pete Townshend.)

The composer doesn't have a ready explanation for all of the work's titles, however. "Powertrain Warranty"?  "I was getting punch-drunk by then," he admitted.

Felice revels in the freedom of expression today's postmodernist esthetic encourages. He went through the straits of modernist orthodoxy in his student days at the University of Colorado. "At that time," said the composer, who turns 52 on Sunday, "the composers on the faculty were trying to keep us in the late-serial musical language. I liked doing those kinds of things, but I also wanted to write a 16th-century contrapuntal kind of piece. My teacher would say, 'You can't do that. THIS is the future.'"

Felice bided his time pursuing other kinds  of music, which he still plays enthusiastically. The reign of serialism "is one of the reasons I went into rock 'n' roll full time," he recalled. "All of a sudden after that the world changed." He was finally free to find his own voice, which can sound quite different from piece to piece: "The good news is I can write a  different piece every time. I want to be a multilingual composer."

That being said, "I think my Colorado professors would like 'Power Plays.'  It's a fairly dissonant musical language."

Why continue to be involved in other genres, though?  Hasn't Felice learned everything he can about them through his long foreground in music, including experience as a bassist in jazz, rock and funk bands?

"I suppose I approach this a little bit like food," he replied.  "Sometimes I want to go eat Chinese, sometimes Southwest cuisine. Classical music is a marvelous thing, but I like borrowing from a hundred different traditions to make my own thing. I can love Ligeti for its own sake, or Schubert for its own sake. There's always something new to learn, something I've never played before."

There's also something he's never heard anyone else play before, and that stimulus probably leads to the next Felice composition.