Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Pianist Jerome Lowenthal brings giant reputation to conclusion (temporary?) of Music at Shaarey Tefilla

Many years ago, the verbally prolific composer Ned Rorem — who's probably never said an unkind word about anyone who advocated for his music — heaped praise on Jerome Lowenthal for showing his generation  that "intellect and fire are the same thing."

Lowenthal had played and recorded Rorem's Third Piano Concerto, created on commission for the pianist, to great acclaim. Many other highlights have marked the career of the Philadelphia-born concert artist and teacher, who at 82 brought special distinction to the Music at Shaarey Tefilla series Monday night.

It was the star turn of M@ST's 2013-14 season at the Carmel synagogue. The years may have banked Lowenthal's fires somewhat, but the intellect shone through in a program of Jewish composers, from Felix Mendelssohn to George Rochberg.

Jerome Lowenthal played music by Jewish composers
Intellect in a performer is probably most valuable when the vehicle is not particularly cerebral. That was the case with the works in this recital. For instance, it takes brains to penetrate the superficial charm of clashing tonalities over Brazilian dance rhythms to bring out the naturalness inherent in Darius Milhaud's "Saudades do Brazil."  Playing the six pieces in the first volume, Lowenthal evoked the moody, smoky atmosphere of these miniatures while keeping the underlying pulse lively. His palette was broad, yet subtle, employing a variety of resonance.

The recital's second half was filled with the much wider-ranging Grand Fantasy on the Themes of the Opera "Les Huguenots" by Meyerbeer. Here, transmuted to all manner of keyboard assault by Franz Liszt,  was the sweep of dire events in grand-opera garb. The showpiece is loaded with the pathos of star-crossed lovers and massacred Protestants in a Paris to which they'd been lured in 1572 with the promise of peace from their Catholic brethren in Christ.

"A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" comes into increasing focus, dominating the fantasy's peroration. The borrowing no doubt served Meyerbeer well; it certainly suited Liszt's need for grandeur to top off the tangle of material he extracted from the opera. Its exploitation of the iconic Protestant hymn led Robert Schumann to denounce Meyerbeer's work for its "commonness, distortion, unnaturalness, immorality and unmusicality." Only some of those attributes apply— and only somewhat — to Liszt's piece, which Lowenthal brought off magisterially.

Much more ancient religious history is evoked by Valentin Alkan's "Super flumina Babylonia" (By the Waters of Babylon), a musical paraphrase drawing upon the lamenting psalm of Jewish exile. Its two contrasting sections have an eccentric poignancy, capped by a bravura ending. My first acquaintance with this music in Lowenthal's hands made me eager to hear it again.

The French composer Alkan was so well known for his devotion to Judaic learning that the story arose of his death from falling bookshelves — an end so alarming to anyone who loves books that it gained macabre credibility. It took its place among such freakish composer fatalities as Jean Leclair's unsolved street murder, Ernest Chausson's bicycle accident and Wallingford Riegger's entanglement in dog leashes. But it's not true, according to the New Grove Dictionary.

The modern Jewish composer represented was George Rochberg, famed as a renegade serialist during the reign of modernist orthodoxy, but truly a man of substantial achievement both before and after he renounced 12-tone composition in the early '60s. On the latter side of that divide, his "Carnival Music" (1969) unfolds as a linked suite of sprightly, sentimental, bluesy and ragtime episodes — all of them colorfully brought off by Lowenthal, with judicious use of pedal helping to point up contrasts.

The recital's sole disappointment was Mendelssohn's "Variations serieuses." The interpretation seemed to view Mendelssohn through a Debussyan lens. The performance was inward-looking and impressionistic, some details fudged. Voicings were occasionally so peculiar that it seemed an attempt to recover from a memory slip, just before a variation in fugal texture prompted the waters to clear.

There was a nice balance of phrases in some variations, but the clarity and crystalline verve normally associated with Mendelssohn were missing. This may have been a Frenchified approach that has the stamp of tradition somewhere, but I was unacquainted with it. Let's hold open that possibility: Among Lowenthal's illustrious teachers was Alfred Cortot. There could be no better a distant source of inspiration for the thorough enchantment the recitalist brought to his encore, Debussy's "Clair de lune."

Monday, April 28, 2014

Designs for laughter: Revisiting production strengths of "The Game's Afoot" at IRT

You see this set and you want to go to a party there — though perhaps not this party.
My review of "The Game's Afoot" mentioned the jaw-dropping stunner of a set Russell Metheny designed for the production of Ken Ludwig's comedy at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

In the course of focusing on the show and the actors, my post didn't linger much over Metheny's work or that of the rest of the team. This was virtuoso-level stuff from stem to stern, and should not be glossed over.

The set's exquisite details put across the up-to-date, yet time-traveling splendor in which actor-producer William Gillette, who grew wealthy from his creation of the theatrical Sherlock Holmes, chooses to live. The beautiful display of weaponry over the fireplace is balanced by the opposite wall's most notable — and useful — feature: a false wall that turns 180 degrees when a large lever near the fireplace is pulled to reveal a gorgeous full bar.

At Saturday's evening performance, I  reveled in the loftiness with which Metheny's concept is carried out and how well it serves the play's madcap, widely distributed action. The room's lights — some hanging, some in wall sconces — are brilliant in their adaptability (since a power outage in the play requires a sepulchral gray glow to take over), thanks to lighting designer Ann G. Wrightson.

The thunder and lightning that booms and flashes from time to time goosebumpingly grabs the attention — which in truth is unlikely ever to wander during "The Game's Afoot." The only weather element that seemed slightly unnatural to me was the billowing fog that kept pouring down outside the window wall at the rear of the stage. I don't know firsthand how Connecticut fogs near bodies of water behave, but it looked strange to see Gillette's house subjected to a kind of fog Niagara, mixed with snow in the second act.

I must move on to Tracy Dorman's costumes. Their aptness for these eight well-defined characters was masterly. But the one that stood out — almost a ninth actor — was the golden vision in which Jennifer Johansen as Daria Chase was wrapped. Never has overdone fur and fabric given an unlikable character so much majesty and specious justification, possibly excepting the title character in well-subsidized productions of the opera "Boris Godunov." The lavish display of wealth and influence in Daria's Christmas Eve attire stands her in good stead from a comedic standpoint after she becomes a hard-to-hide murder victim.

Finally, the wry, parodistic musical arrangements of Gregg Coffin did much to catch the show's spirit — from the start, with a distorted version of the unison snarl that begins Beethoven's "Serioso" string quartet (No. 11 in F minor, op. 95, for those keeping score at home), right on through the calliope blender in which several of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" tunes are pureed.

Bravi, tutti bravi to the technical wizards and visionaries of IRT, who cover themselves with glory in "The Game's Afoot"!

[Photo credit: Zach Rosing]

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Tightly wound characters in a tightly wound comedy-mystery plot cap IRT's 42nd season

"The Game's Afoot" is a surefooted blend of murder-mystery and farce, and its production to conclude Indiana Repertory Theatre's 42nd season enjoys the same boisterous groundedness as Ken Ludwig's script.

The vanity of actors being almost as notorious as that of people who write about their art,  I shall tread carefully here in reviewing Saturday's second performance. This is a play about players and their world. Even at leisure, they are chock-full of what they do for a living. But they are not free of grubby motives that have nothing to do with art. That's Ludwig's playground here.

Under Peter Amster's direction, there's an elaborate display of conviction in each character. The cast is serious about their shenanigans: When they lie and deceive and display their vanity, they do it with the gusto of both inhabiting the characters and being familiar with life in the theater.

Ludwig zeroes in on the eminence of William Gillette, who gained fame and fortune in the first part of the 20th century putting Sherlock Holmes onstage and outfitting him in iconic ways that you won't find in the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle, as dramaturg Richard J Roberts' excellent program notes tell us.  From the actuality of Gillette's eminence and his well-appointed rural castle, the playwright has drawn heady inspiration and let his imagination run wild on a Connecticut Christmas Eve of 1936.

Daria Chase (Jennifer Johansen) reproves the wisecracking Simon Bright (Jurgen Hooper) at the seance.
Sure to elicit admiring gasps every time, Russell Metheny's design of the castle's great room has a majesty and imposing warmth reflecting Gillette's lofty opinion of himself and the kind of lifestyle he is certain he deserves. Matthew Brumlow, an actor who projects a wily daftness that is positively Monty-Pythonesque, filled the role with focused self-regard and a gift for appearing to emerge on the top side of any tangle.

Gillette's party for his cast at the home he shares with his mother, Martha Gillette, is thrown together as he recuperates from a gunshot wound suffered at a curtain call in New York. He has an investigation of his own in mind, something worthy of his conviction that he is fully equal in persistence and deductive powers to the sleuth he plays onstage. Mother tends to get in the way of her son's designs, yet her maternal squabbling and social bluntness turn out to be more than just a nuisance to William.

Priscilla Lindsay brings multiple skills to the role of Martha Gillette.
Max Beerbohm once identified three ways to rave about an actress: for her technique, for her conception of the part she plays, and for her personality. By this illustrious standard, let me register a threefold rave for Priscilla Lindsay as Martha. Her technical command gives us the flighty qualities of William's mother while hinting that she may have more depth to her; many women with an appetite for gossip get more out of it than simple satisfaction of their curiosity. So it is with Martha. Lindsay returns to the IRT stage as someone dependably at home in any role, because her ideas about it are clear. That's Rave No. 2. Finally, people just like to see her onstage, and not only because they got used to her over the course of 60 IRT productions. She invests her personality in what she plays.

Stalwart members of Gillette's company round out the cast, except for the caustic columnist/critic Daria Chase (Jennifer Johansen) and the savvy police inspector Goring (Carmen Roman). Few actors now active in Indianapolis could command the stage — in character alive or dead — as well as Johansen does here. Entering in the second act, the inspector has theatrical fantasies of her own to balance against Gillette's detective role-playing. Aside from an odd accent that seemed more old England than New England, Carmen Roman delightfully conveyed Goring's eccentricity, intelligence and doggedness.

The inspector role needs to be in good hands, because despite the play's sturdy structure, it lacks a flow in the second act. Ludwig has to bring the comic complications to full boil (like where and how to hide the body) while sorting out his characters' mixed motives and resolving the mystery. He does it deftly, but not without bumps along the way.

Geisel and Gilette try out their Irish joke on Inspector Goring.
The physical comedy is rich: There's the staged hysteria of Madge Geisel (Constance Macy) during a seance conducted by the imperious Chase, for one. And when Rob Johansen as her husband, Felix Geisel, tries to indicate by gesture to his old friend Gillette that the body is still on the couch a few feet from where the inspector is interrogating them, she asks if he has a twitch. After blurting "no," he decides he does indeed have a twitch, and proceeds to drop it into his already high-strung behavior. He's just been through some desperate wrestling with the mortally wounded Chase —  the production's summit of physical comedy. The Johansens are the Lunt and Fontanne of whole-body acting hereabouts, so that scene was bound to be a winner.

That leaves Jurgen Hooper and Hillary Clemens as the company's perky young couple, seemingly both ingenuous and lucky  — always a suspect combination.  Not much can be said about their portrayals of Simon Bright and Aggie Wheeler without rude revelations, but they do everything possible to stroke the audience's credulity till it purrs.

Murder-mysteries depend upon that kind of seduction to have their full effect, but rarely do they fold into the mixture such brazen, full-spectrum hilarity as Ludwig and this IRT production do in "The Game's Afoot."

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Butler ArtsFest: Quantum physics has surprising, often engaging, musical parallels

The third element of Butler ArtsFest's  alliterative title received its due Friday night at the Schrott Center. We've had "Fables" and "Fairy Tales" (the latter theme continues with two more performances of Butler Ballet's "Cinderella" at Clowes Hall). Now it's time for "Physics" to take a turn.

The 2014 "Fables, Fairy Tales and Physics" series — the second annual festival — entered its "Encore Weekend" with an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concert called "Quantum: Music at the Frontier of Science." The program devised by guest conductor Edwin Outwater,  with the assistance of quantum physicist Raymond LaFlamme, who offered off-the-cuff elucidation from the stage to supplement written narration delivered by Stacy A. O'Reilly of Butler's chemistry faculty.

Outwater also contributed some oral program notes, so the position of words in the program was indispensable. A thorough attempt was made to acquaint the audience with advances in scientific theory that suggest the universe behaves far differently — mainly less predictably — than conventional physics, from Newton to Einstein, had supposed.

Some of the significant late-20th-century music parallels the random behavior of particles. This is far beyond the musical rhetoric we're used to, with its satisfying statement-and-response balances. The first movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in A major  introduced the program to show off such features, which typically take the form of balanced dialogue between upper and lower strings. The Mozart music returned in part at the end of the concert, interwoven with extraneous matter suggesting the random movement of particles and the calculated approach to composition taken by Iannis Xenakis.

Throughout, a screen above the stage carried images of moving lights that could be interpreted as stars or particles. The constant motion was restful, and relieved by a few key words and phrases, in addition to portraits of the composers represented and the physicists who changed our understanding of the universe. The visual element steered clear of documentary explicitness; it was commendable that what we saw on the screen seemed designed to have aesthetic appeal.

Edwin Outwater is music director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.
The position of particles simultaneously in two different places ("superposition") was given a musical parallel in Henry Brant's tribute to Lucretius, the ancient Roman poet who was prescient about modern views of the universe's behavior. Titled after Lucretius' descriptive poem "On the Nature of Things," the work called for a French horn at one corner of the loge and an oboe at the other to supplement the onstage orchestra, including a chamber group of three woodwinds and glockenspiel off to one side. The performance was charming in its partial overlapping of lines emerging from different places in the hall. (The program booklet erred in counting Brant as the only living composer represented; he lived a long time, but he died five years ago today at the age of 94.)

Xenakis' "ST/48-1,240162" was the most challenging to listen to. The score was generated by a computer from programming instructions fed into it by the Greek composer in 1962.  Computers were room-filling behemoths in those days, and indeed there was something monstrous about this composition.

John Cage's "Atlas elipticalis" had a less calculated origin,. He simply derived noteheads and their positions with respect to each other by transferring the images of mapped stars onto a couple of transparencies. The result was an indication of the celebrated "chance" composer's intent to "tame randomness," as Outwater put it from the podium.

I had trouble making an emotional connection with both the Cage and Xenakis works.  I did better with Brant, and even the first movement of Weber's Symphony, op. 21, conveyed some fragmented Viennese schmaltz. Its language is a far cry from how the Austrian composer was writing 23 years earlier in "Langsamer Satz" (1905), of which the orchestra offered a tantalizing excerpt. But both pieces seem designed to elicit the listener's sympathy.

The sentimental side of the avant-garde was represented by "The Unanswered Question," one of Charles Ives' more directly appealing works. The solemn string orchestra plays sustained notes in a timeless style that has been dubbed a Druid anthem. A small group of woodwinds, placed to the right of the podium here and conducted separately, chatters with increasing anxiety in response to the solemn interrogation of a solo trumpet. The latter role was undertaken with signs of uncertainty Friday night that went beyond the intended scope of the questioning phrases, but the performance was dependably moving nonetheless.

This program was a welcome stretch for the ISO, and is the sort of thing that tests the mettle of the orchestra perhaps better than some of the more pop-oriented outreach it is required to play for the sake of solvency. If the mainstream is the course symphony orchestras must sail on, it's still worthwhile to paddle up the more intriguing tributaries now and then.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Stunning concerto CD made months before lockout shows symbiosis of Vanska and Minnesota Orchestra

Some maestro-prone tactical errors notwithstanding, Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra fully deserve to be restored to each other after an unprecedented interruption of a great symphonic ensemble's history by those entrusted with its operation.

There will be ample support of this viewpoint from those lucky enough to enjoy the orchestra at home and on tour with Vanska on the podium. The rest of us must be content to nod in agreement on the evidence of broadcasts and recordings. A new release of the top two C-minor piano concertos in the classical tradition, with soloist Yevgeny Sudbin, offers impressive confirmation.

Two C-minor piano concertos display Vanska/Minnesota aplomb.
Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto and Mozart's No. 24 (K. 491) were recorded in 2011 and 2012, the last sessions coming within a few months of the near-disastrous lockout. The release, on the Swedish BIS label, is available on the orchestra's website.

Beethoven was an explicit admirer of Mozart's work in this significant minor key (also that of Beethoven's most famous symphony, with its iconically radiant finale in C major). Having both works together on this disc so well performed tempts one to comparisons that may seem oddly in Beethoven's disfavor.

I have no wish to indulge in revisionism, and little patience with ranking masterpieces or composers. But hearing these concertos in succession brings to mind something Aaron Copland once wrote in a discussion of Gustav Mahler: "The difference between listening to Beethoven and listening to Mahler is the difference between watching a great man walk down the street and watching a great actor act the part of a great man walking down the street."

Beethoven's op. 37 is headed by the same first-movement indication as its counterpart in the Fifth Symphony — Allegro con brio. But in most performances, the piano concerto unfolds in a stately, self-regarding fashion, with a majesty that borders on the staid. The long orchestral tutti evokes Copland's great actor mimicking a great man's pace down the street.

In this recording, Vanska and his orchestra take some of the starch out of the movement. Moreover, it's immediately evident that the Finnish conductor has worked to get explicit adherence to the variety in the score's articulation and phrasing from his orchestra. The result sets the performance on a path toward establishing the work's authentic greatness, not some imitation of greatness. By the time Sudbin enters, his variegated interpretation — powerful and never fussy — works hand-in-glove with the orchestra.

The first-movement cadenza sums up the meaning of everything we've heard so far, and everything we get from both pianist and orchestra is vivid and superbly balanced. Sudbin's handling of Beethoven's brief second-movement cadenza is perfectly proportioned, living up to the composer's direction to play sempre con gran espressione (always with great expression).

The finale establishes the work's greatness beyond any suspicion of great acting. Its harmonic boldness and ceaseless energy reach a high plane well before the Presto coda, with its sonorous kettledrum punctuation, sweeps the listener toward the final double bar.

The Mozart performance is even better: The great man is unmistakably present from the start. The orchestra's opening tutti boasts precise phrasing and articulation and woodwind playing that's full of character. Sudbin is first-rate here, too. In the second movement, he ornaments the melodic line tastefully when it repeats, echoing Mozart's subtle rhythmic changes in the theme's first phrase.

In the finale, the pianist's touch is emphatic but not overaccented; the momentum is infectious and seems to suggest endless reserves of energy — sort of the way Glenn Gould might have played Mozart if he had liked Mozart.

Lest it seem I'm praising these interpretations for their literalism, one departure from the score is an immense treat. In the third movement, after the surprising variation in C major, the return to C minor is taken slightly faster than everything that's preceded it. That makes for a wonderful set-up to the cadenza (Sudbin's own, as is the first movement's, both very exciting and true to the material).

It's an inspired interpretive choice, typical of the freshness to be encountered in both these performances. The disc will take a conspicuous place among "welcome back" tributes to the rapport the returned music director has with the orchestra he guided to greatness. And it doesn't seem to be a matter of merely great acting.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Musical legacy of Louis XIV's royal court gets appealing survey by Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra

Flourishing under the artistic direction of Dutch early-music star Barthold Kuijken, the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra has now confirmed its imposing stature on disc with "All Hail
Barthold Kuijken is soloist and director of "All Hail the Sun King."
the Sun King: Music Inspired by the Court at Versailles" (IndieBarock). 

The idea is to trace the influence of the French baroque style as exemplified in its golden age (during the reign of Louis XIV) by Jean-Baptiste Lully — mainly in France, but also (particularly as one of his early influences) in the work of Georg Philipp Telemann. Lully, the native Italian who became the fountainhead of music at the French court, opens the disc with two excerpts from "Armide" — a majestic, then dancing, Ouverture followed by a deft exercise in variation form, Passacaille, notable in this performance for the velvet flute timbre.

Kuijken is featured as soloist in Jean-Marie Leclair's Concerto in C major for flute, strings and basso continuo, in which his warm tone and shapely, firmly supported phrasing give special appeal to each of the three movements. (Leclair is one of only two composers I know of who was murdered, the other being the 20th-century American opera composer Marc Blitzstein.)

The Telemann piece is the Ouverture in E minor (1716), a five-movement work in his characteristically straightforward style. To his craftsmanship the prolific German composer couldn't help adding direct emotional or picturesque appeal. That can be seen conspicuously here in "Les Cyclopes," the second movement, with its ungainly vigor evoking the one-eyed beings of ancient Greek mythology.  Telemann had an uncanny gift for varying ensemble texture without seeming to get complicated — a facility that clearly contributed to popularity in his era that overshadowed his contemporary J.S. Bach.

Taking up a generous portion of "All Hail the Sun King" is a multifaceted suite by Jean-Philippe Rameau from the opera "Dardanus" (1739/1744). The orchestra in this performance is smaller than what would have been the operatic norm, Kuijken points out in booklet notes. Thus scaled down, the ensemble emphasizes the clear outlines of Rameau's style, in the intimate fashion better known in his keyboard music. As displayed in these 15 self-contained excerpts, Rameau's art is particularly rich in the attributes typical of the French Enlightenment in its poise, rhythmic liveliness, balance and concision. Some of the tunes are catchy, too.

Well-recorded in Lilly Hall at the University of Indianapolis' DeHaan Fine Arts Center and buoyed by informed, committed performances, this disc can be unhesitatingly recommended to lovers of Baroque music.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Swing, lo! — Looking across the jazz landscape through three new recordings

Young jazz players may hone their improvisational skills on tunes known to their predecessors and teachers, but when it comes to stepping out on their own, many newcomers these days are founding their artistry almost solely on their own compositions. Given their compositional serioiusness, they are reaching instrumentally and sometimes formally in the direction of the classical genre, while remaining jazz musicians.

This is a new wrinkle in jazz history, something a little more fluid and less awkward than the "Third Stream" music of four decades ago. Respect for the current developments has been extended from the classical direction, too; after all, Charles Mingus never received a commissioning grant from Chamber Music America.

This practice unites extensive musical forethought with spontaneity to raise the creative profile of musicians trying to make their mark. Here are three whose new recordings will stand or fall on perceptions of what kind of bandleaders and original thinkers they are perceived to be.

Israeli reed player Oran Etkin casts a wide net.
Oran Etkin is a clarinetist-saxophonist from Israel. "Gathering Light" (Motema Music) reflects his quirky gift for absorption, not only from the jazz world but from his heritage along with glimmers of world music. Several of his compositions slyly explore aspects of the blues, with exotic coloring, like "Der Gasn Nign (Street Song)" and "Takeda (Homesick Blues)."

The band he leads is flexibly deployed, from a catchy pairing with bassist Ben Allison forthrightly titled "All I Really Want to Do is Dance" to such raucous full-band numbers as "Guangzhou Taxi," which also involves guitarist Lionel Loueke, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, and drummer Nasheet Waits.

Etkin's manner as a player of clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor saxophone is ingratiating and  wide-ranging. His composing gifts are exercised with more mixed results, usually high-spirited but sometimes aimless.  He favors rangy melodies with wide interval leaps; he is not above showing off, but musically he's a likable fellow. He chooses simpatico sidemen, particularly Waits and Allison. Loueke is one of the more interesting guitarists to have emerged in the past decade, and his low-key West African lilt suits Etkin's folk-derived muse.

Anne Mette Iversen wants you to listen from the beginning, and go straight through.
Today's jazzers are a self-conscious lot, if the words they provide for news releases and booklet notes are any indication. If the high intentionality comes across as engaging music, that's all well and good. Fortunately, that's mostly the case with bassist Anne Mette Iversen whose Double Life quintet is joined with a string quartet called 4Corners in "So Many Roads" (BJU Records).

So insistent is Iversen on the unity of this work that she figures its 36-and-a-half minutes are adequate for a CD. Moreover, the work's segments — from Prologue through Epilogue, with four Chapters in between — are not given individual timings. Instead, the listed timings are cumulative; the track list tells you how much time has elapsed from the first note.

You are supposed to listen to "So Many Roads" from start to finish, in order — don't press "shuffle" or "random"! — and fortunately it is worth hearing as the composer intends. The string quartet (in contrast to some pieces written with a jazz perspective) is used as more than an atmospheric supplement to the work of the quintet. Besides Iversen, Double Life consists of John Ellis, saxophones; Peter Dahlgren, trombone; Danny Grissett, piano, and Otis Brown III, drums. The two ensembles are complementary and well-integrated into textures used to delineate moods that are sometimes lively and devil-may-care, sometimes brooding and reflective.

Tom Guarna takes care of business — with guitar and charts.
One of the most refreshing guitar styles that have come to my attention recently is that of Tom Guarna.  He can stretch out with imagination, stringing together garlands of sound that rarely seem to be just taking up space. He's a cogent improviser, with a compositional gift that never wastes a phrase.

On "Rush" (BJU Records), he leads a fine band, with particularly enthralling work from saxophonist Joel Frahm, another thrifty player who never forgets to "tell a story" in his solos. Also on hand is the estimable keyboard player Danny Grissett, heading a rhythm section smoothly filled out by bassist Orlando Le Fleming and drummer Johnathan Blake. In the arrangements, the guitar-sax partnership displays admirable variety and resourcefulness. One hopes this personnel stays intact for a while, because "Rush" bodes well for Guarna's future as a bandleader who knows who he's writing for and what they're capable of.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Bound for glory: What makes us laugh, why comedy may not be pretty, and why we can't do without it

"There are definitions of various passions, mostly based on a competitive view of life; for instance, laughter is sudden glory."

                       -- Bertrand Russell, describing Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan" in "A History of Western Philosophy" (1945)

Thomas Hobbes got it right about laughter.

In the long history of attempts to define humor and scrutinize what makes us laugh, this almost offhand sentence in the middle of Lord Russell's long discussion of Hobbes' philosophy is the best I've come across.

Why there should be this odd vocal, physical expression of a particular type of joy is puzzling. "Sudden glory" gets it, it seems to me. It explains  why comedy — however fiercely loyal we are to our peculiar preferences — is often vulgar, impolite, offensive, aggressive and, finally, necessary.

Laughter is also bonding, like hardly any other common mode of communication besides prayer, than which it is probably more universal. To laugh feels as essential as eating and sleeping. Need I also mention sex? Of course I must.

You don't have to be as pessimistic as the 17th-century English philosopher to agree that our passions are basically competitive. Lifelong, we are after victory in so many ways, even if a host of them can be justified as benign, or at least harmless. Yet triumphalism is embedded in human nature, and is frequently ugly. And it is often bound up with laughter.

The other Hobbes (right) did, too.
We may train ourselves to love all humankind, but we are always looking for affinities with subgroups, allies in the struggle to be superior, sometimes groups no larger than our lone selves. Jokes are instrumental in this continual struggle. Even when we laugh at ourselves, we are less motivated by humility than by the "sudden glory" of feeling superior to our lesser selves — the part that is foolish, gullible, outlandish, clueless or prideful. The butt of jokes.

When those qualities we aren't proud of are exposed in a joke, we feel so much better than when such exposure in ordinary life surprises us uncomfortably or tangibly diminishes us. The feeling of relief plays a large role in laughter, but it can't be the whole story. Some kinds of relief are sobering. They bring a sudden onset of relaxation after a period of tension — just as laughter does — but the relaxed feeling may merely set up a new situation of anxiety as we deal with what we have just learned.

The explosion of relaxation that is laughter becomes the trumpet heralding victory. Think of any joke you have heard recently: Chances are it led you in a particular direction of understanding up to the punch line, which fooled you by going in a different direction.

Henny Youngman knew the glory.
 A couple of old, short examples: "Man is the only animal that blushes — or needs to" (Mark Twain). "Take my wife — please!" (Henny Youngman). The "set-up" precedes the dash in each example; the punch line follows it. Both one-liners start out as faux-serious statements: Twain seems to be putting forward a biological truism; suddenly it becomes a satirical jab. Youngman seems to be introducing an example; suddenly we've landed in marital woe. The reason you don't take being misled badly is that you are covered in the sudden glory of getting the joke, and that trumps the momentary bemusement.

Longer jokes toy with the misdirection longer. In many theatrical farces, our victory over inadequately informed characters lasts longer than we probably deserve, and we laugh ourselves silly. We're enjoying triumph over an extended misunderstanding the characters are caught up in. Mistaken identity plays a big role: Think of "The Comedy of Errors," "Charley's Aunt" or "The Foreigner." And remember the dialogue in "Lend Me a Tenor" when the diva and the confused title character are talking in parallel streams about making love and doing "Otello" together. (I look forward to seeing another Ken Ludwig comedy, "The Game's Afoot," in an Indiana Repertory Theatre production opening this week.)

Taking in such a play — in the twinkling of the eye, with only the effort of staying alert and being reasonably intelligent — you have won an easy victory. Understanding things is basic to survival. When we get a joke, we are bathed in a triumph of understanding, and we laugh. This explains why it's hard to laugh the second time we hear a joke, even if we found it hilarious the first time. And if the joke heard the first time strikes us as offensive or dull, despite the best intentions of the teller, it means we don't feel a part of the victory he or she is offering to share. The glory has bypassed us; the competition victory belongs to a race run elsewhere, by someone else, to alien cheers.

How often after dreaming does a nightmare seem funny in retrospect! Awake, we enjoy the glory of knowing that the situation we dreamed up isn't true. We need to feel our conscious self is superior to the self that comes up with the dream world's weird scenarios. Glory, hallelujah!

Recently I dreamed that an elderly friend of ours out of state had sent us a greeting card with this handwritten note:  "Happy Easter — we're all doing well these days except for the syphilis." In the dream Susan and I were appalled: we had never had the slightest hint an STD was afflicting her family, thought it extremely unlikely, and thus wondered which family members could possibly be suffering the dire consequences of unsafe sex. Above all, we marveled that such unsettling information would be imparted on an Easter card.

Dreams are unruly, like jokes. The scandalous dream becomes funny when we know that the truth is unutterably distant from what the dream has presented. A psychologist might well have some uncomfortable theories, echoing Hobbes, as to what victory I was after subconsciously in concocting such an unseemly dream about a dear friend. I'll pass by any speculation in dignified silence.

Dreams remind me of another nighttime phenomenon: insomnia.  Last night Susan and I found ourselves sleepless at the same time. It was pitch black outside. We snuggled and talked for a while, trying to figure out how to get back to sleep. She advised: "Think of all the people we know who are probably sleeping right now. Try to think of one person for each letter of the alphabet."

An amusing thought, but undercut by envy. Envy and its cousin, jealousy, lie at the opposite pole from laughter. No tragic hero in Shakespeare has less of a sense of humor than Othello. Even King Lear probably presided over much merriment — he kept a well-regarded Fool at court, after all — before he became obsessed with his legacy. Hamlet is the only figure in this exalted category who's well acquainted with laughter. Significantly, he envies no one, except perhaps the dead.

As I mulled over my wife's advice to think about likely sleepers of our acquaintance, she added: "If you're not sure, call them up."

We both laughed. Envy was banished. We had bested the lucky sleepers, if only in our imaginations.

Ah, sweet victory! Oh, the sudden glory!  Soon we were both asleep again.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Martin Luther King went to the mountaintop, but IRT play tries to climb higher

There's no underestimating the risks Katori Hall assumed in writing a play about Martin Luther King Jr.'s last hours on Earth.

"The Mountaintop" — now at Indiana Repertory Theatre through April 27 — tackles more than a martyred historical figure many people regard with reverence. The young minister who defined the American civil-rights movement and established the value of nonviolent protest as an agent of social change is almost inadequately defined by the cliche "larger than life."

Camae (Tracey N. Bonner) bemuses Martin Luther King Jr. (David Alan Anderson).
And yet drama has to right-size even heroes to effect a genuine emotional exchange between actors and spectators. Ms. Hall has done that with determination: Her MLK comes onstage with a weakness for cigarettes, raging semi-jocularly at Ralph David Abernathy to bring him some Pall Malls.  He soon displays  a susceptibility to female charms, as well as fear of thunderstorms and the FBI (both well-founded) and a weariness unto death that engenders deep doubts as to the efficacy of his mission.

This flawed man is nonetheless a hero, and the play mirrors both the flaws and the heroism. Set in the Memphis' Lorraine Motel, which has since 1968 become a kind of national shrine, "The Mountaintop" benefits here from the all-out performances of David Alan Anderson as King and Tracey N. Bonner as Camae, tussling titanically on the night before King's assassination. IRT associate artistic director Courtney Sale directs.

Katori Hall's play imagines what happened the day before this fateful appearance.
Who's Camae? I hear you ask. The uniformed motel maid is Hall's creation, vital to the story she wants to tell. Camae enters Room 306 in response to the pastor's request for coffee. He's attempting to fuel his mind to complete a hell-raising speech about the country he loves and often despairs of.

What Camae also is forces me to violate widely accepted "spoiler etiquette" in order to write about "The Mountaintop" at all. I feel justified in doing so because Camae's identity as more than a saucy motel employee becomes clear fairly early in the action, not at the end. Thus, much of "The Mountaintop"'s substance rests on Camae's revelation that she is an angel, an emissary of God come to call her (the pronoun is repeatedly underlined) servant home.

Whatever place angels may have in a person's theology, I hope many of us recognize that the use of angels in today's popular culture is kitsch. The most common perception, which Hall shares, is that angels are beatified human beings returned from the heavenly afterlife at the behest of the Almighty. Ghosts are also kitsch, but their appeal can never be exhausted in popular or high art because everyone feels the presence of dear departed ones in daily life. It takes a major leap of faith to elevate them to angelic status, though doing so doubtless comforts many believers.

The materiality and presence of human traits in angels goes way back, but it's still important to realize that the dramatic plaything Hall makes of Camae is a far cry from the being so crucial to the event Christians are celebrating this weekend. In Matthew, it is an angel with a "countenance...like lightning" who descends from heaven, rolls back the stone, and tells the two Marys that Jesus has risen from the dead. The other synoptic gospels make the messenger's identity ambiguous by saying the good news is conveyed by one white-robed young man (Mark) or two (Luke).

In Hall's imagination, a recently deceased human being can quickly be reprogrammed to carry out an angelic mission. I respect spoiler etiquette enough not to reveal why Camae is particularly suited to the task. Quite a lot of "The Mountaintop" builds on how much Camae and Martin come to know about each other's earthly trials, then moves that relationship onto a supernatural plane. This lofty plateau will be taken for "spiritual" by some of the show's patrons, but to me it felt manipulative and borderline farcical (especially in Martin's contentious phone conversation with God, after Camae has dialed a lengthy series of numbers to put him through).

The sound and lighting design (the work of Tom Horan and Kate Leahy, respectively) is bent toward maximizing the wonders of King's encounter with his fate. It works well, and near the end gets boosted into a dramatically superfluous, amplified narration in list form of events and people between King's death and today. That's accompanied by a rapidly shifting photographic montage on translucent screens that suddenly surround the stage. The doomed minister is granted the vision to reward his extraordinary service to others and his grudging acceptance of the fate that will end it all.

Hall uses an awful lot of stage time having King complain about being cut off just when he's about to bring his broadened vision of social justice to the nation's attention by supporting the sanitation workers' strike in Memphis. There is so much more he needs to do, he protests.

At this point, a unique prophet and driver of social change is reduced almost too much in stature. Any one of us (apart from the terminally ill), if informed of our particular demise by Someone From Beyond, would whine about it. What King could have accomplished is arguably greater than the putative deeds of most who die too young.

But who wouldn't try to argue God out of such a seemingly arbitrary, premature decision? And wouldn't a man as devout as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., facing eternity, be more likely to ask for redemption than for the dubious privilege of continuing his earthly struggle?

In sum, it's not in the early part of "The Mountaintop" that King is cut down to size. The interweaving of his weakness and his strength is well-handled. But the intrusiveness of the angel and her bad news takes him down too far, because his sense of injustice becomes wholly personal and private.

When King at the end comes to the front of the stage and twice asks for an "Ay-men" to his vision for America, he gets it — and deserves it. But, whatever honor the playwright may have intended, he also deserves to be free of an angelic visitation that makes him a pawn in some feminized deity's cruel game.

 [Photo credit: Zach Rosing]

Friday, April 18, 2014

1990 IVCI laureate David Kim gives special zing to Ronen Chamber Ensemble program

David Kim participated throughout, and his contributions were vital.
You could tell from the way David Kim and Rohan De Silva played the Gavotte with Two Variations in Igor Stravinsky's "Suite Italienne" that the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis' annual collaborative concert with the Ronen Chamber Ensemble would be something special.

The opening piece on the concert Thursday night did not involve the durable chamber-music organization co-directed by David Bellman and Ingrid Fischer-Bellman. But the quality of the guest artists helped ensure that the rising tide of Kim and De Silva would lift all musical boats. The audience that nearly filled the Basile Theater at the Indiana History Center seemed to agree by the time the concert wrapped up with Erno Dohnanyi's Sextet in C major for piano, violin, viola, cello, clarinet and horn.

That one Stravinsky movement had an adroit blend of 18th-century poise and 20th-century modernist detachment. The two variations were lent independent profiles, following the crisply characterized gavotte theme. The whole suite was played with distinction, but the gavotte-and-variations confirmed  how insightful artists can impart personality to emotionally reserved music.

De Silva and Kim, a 1990 IVCI laureate who is now concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, were also in the spotlight after intermission, performing Brahms' Sonata No. 2 in A major, op. 100. Admirable was the linking of contrasting episodes in the second movement, utterly natural as it unrolled. Kim's bow control and phrasing were exquisite in the finale, and the tone got a rich exhibition with the music's focus on the violin's lower range.

Kim's involvement in the other two works on the program was crucial to their success. But it couldn't do much to sustain my interest in John Corigliano's "Soliloquy" for clarinet and string quartet. Adapted from a movement of the composer's Clarinet Concerto, the work is a nostalgic evocation of his father, John Corigliano Sr., concertmaster for 23 years of the New York Philharmonic.

The piece is well put together, but, on first hearing, seemed mostly an excuse for low-key, reflective dialogue between first violin (Kim) and clarinet (Bellman). A logical choice for this program, it justified itself mainly in that sense. (And, in a technological aside, it demonstrated that Kim was just as deft turning iPad pages with his right foot while sitting down as he had been standing up in "Suite Italienne.")

The concert's second half was devoted to the Dohnanyi Sextet. Dohnanyi was an obvious yet effective composer, a kind of Brahms lite: The first movement of this piece is almost comically grandiloquent, with the charge led by the horn. Guest pianist and violinist and the Ronen group launched into it with gusto.

As the performance proceeded, it soon became clear that Kim's violin was casting his two string colleagues (violist Nancy Agres and cellist Fischer-Bellman) in the shade. It's not that he displayed a domineering manner, but that the other two players needed to project more.

Better balance was displayed in the slow movement, but when the score abounded with shorter note values, especially in the first and last movements, Kim's colleagues lacked the guest violinist's oomph. Apart from a few horn burbles, the winds (Rob Danforth and Bellman) acquitted themselves well throughout, and Da Silva evinced his usual facility and panache at the keyboard.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Putting its interpretive heritage to work, Takacs Quartet presents 3 Bartok quartets for Ensemble Music finale

Takacs Quartet made a return visit to focus on Bela Bartok.
Some works of art seem to address what the time of their creation needs and expresses, as well as what suits the personality and artistic development of their creators.

The six string quartets of Bela Bartok are certainly representative of that truth for the early 20th century. They have outlived their time, of course, to become among the permanent glories of the repertoire.

Wednesday night at the Indiana History Center, the Takacs Quartet played three of them. The concert was the season finale of the Ensemble Music Society, whose services to classical music in Indianapolis are unique and enduring. The quartet, now in residence at the University of Colorado, was formed in Budapest in 1975; two original members remain, second violinist Karoly Schranz and cellist Andras Fejer.

Bartok (1881-1945) emerged from the shadow of late Romanticism, with an early overlay of Debussyan impressionism, to forge an original kind of modernism. His aesthetic took rhythmic, melodic and harmonic cues from the Magyar folk music in which the Hungarian was steeped by both affinity and avocation.

First violinist Edward Dusinberre provided concise, enlightening program notes from the stage during the first half, supplementing Marianne W. Tobias' worthwhile contributions to the booklet. He made the connection between Bartok's times and his artistic decisions explicit, especially with respect to Quartet No. 6 (1939), a product of gloomy personal and political circumstances.

The Takacs' performance of Bartok's final piece for two violins, viola, and cello put in high profile the synthesis the composer achieved between the slow, sad introduction of each movement and its distinct character. By the finale, the "mesto" (sad) indication governs everything, with total ensemble commitment to developing the reigning mood and the material used to express it. In contrast to what precedes it, the last movement's chaste use of string sonorities, relieved only by a late, electrifying tremolo shudder sul ponticello, received a poised demonstration in this performance.

In the earlier movements, the sad music was outlined spellbindingly by violist Geraldine Walther (first movement),  Fejer (second movement), and Dusinberre (third movement). Of the main sections, the droll vigor imparted to the "Burletta: Moderato" stood out for its blend of control and wild abandon.

The concert opened with a performance of Quartet No. 2 (1915-17), with Debussyan colors marking the first movement in particular. The second movement brings out the rough and playful side of the composer; those aspects are strenuous and dissonant in early Bartok. By the time of the late Concerto for Orchestra, the rough playfulness had been smoothed out, but remained characteristic. The Takacs tore into that movement in a way that offered maximum contrast with the "Lento" finale, music that seemed to offer something sustaining to cling to.

Quartet No. 4 (1928) brought the concert up to intermission. The brutal first movement sounded emotionally detached, which struck me as apt, considering the work's emergence in modernism's heyday. I wouldn't fault any of the interpretive decisions behind this persuasive reading.

The sinister, elfin quality of the second movement balanced its more insouciant companion movement: the fourth — all pizzicato with a wry ending. The aching tension evident in Fejer's performance of the third-movement cello melody was carried throughout, making of this centerpiece an emotional fulcrum on which the whole balanced.

The feeling of satisfying completeness after the three works were so well performed meant that no encore was offered — or expected, despite the loud, jubilant ovation, which indicated the audience felt sufficiently rewarded.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

University of Indianapolis faculty end their season with a smooth display of collegiality

If the way they performed together Monday night is any indication, the music faculty of the University of Indianapolis is a most harmonious group.

I will not inquire too closely what goes on at their faculty meetings in order to preserve my pleasant notion of a "peaceable kingdom" reigning over the DeHaan Fine Arts Center. The "Season Finale" concert was probably a public display of an estimable rapport among musicians associated with the department through full- and part-time teaching there.
Three musicians: Anne McCafferty, Harry Miedema, Anne Reynolds.

That's not to omit Nick Tucker, one of the stellar graduates of UIndy's jazz program, which has been shepherded into eminence by Harry Miedema, who retires at the end of the current school year.  A tenor saxophonist of wide professional experience before getting into academia, Miedema has consistently raised the visibility and substance of jazz education at the Southside school. To boost its public profile, he has put together in recent years a season-long jazz concert series culminating in the annual Jazz Week, recently concluded.

Bassist Tucker and  Miedema combined for a program-ending duet, Miles Davis' "Solar," a jazz standard for nearly 60 years. After an interwoven out-of-tempo introduction, the compatible duo launched into the tune.  The performance was relaxed, swinging, affectionate and no doubt a mite nostalgic.

Piquantly heralding that performance in the otherwise all-classical program was Charles Ives' "Largo" for violin and piano.  With its folkish theme, elaborated unpredictably and with some agitation, the composition shares a rough emotional and stylistic affinity with jazz — though of course it is in no sense jazz.

Typical of Ives, even in its reflective main section, the piece is too idiosyncratic and flavored with dissonance to take a mollycoddling approach to its material. Violinist Austin Hartman and pianist Richard Ratliff showed a seamless partnership throughout.

Hartman and Ratliff opened the concert, with cellist Dennis McCafferty, in Haydn's Piano Trio in G major. The three displayed well-coordinated lightness of touch, resilience and gracefulness that served the music well. Without overemphasis, they brought out the score's imaginative variety.

The program's other instrumental work involved five UIndy-associated professionals playing a woodwind quintet by Paul Hindemith. "Kleine Kammermusik", op. 24, No. 2, has maximum craftsmanship and minimum charm, like much of the German composer's output.

Over the course of five crisply characterized movements, it has some amusing effects. It must be fun to play. But it is granola-bar music to listen to. Flutist Anne Reynolds, oboist Pamela French, clarinetist Cathryn Gross, hornist Darin Sorley, and bassoonist Mark Ortwein invested their performance with as much charm as the score seems to offer. My takeaway from it was delight in the solid ensemble rapport that typified the whole program.

Four Brahms duets brought together department chair Kathleen Hacker, soprano, and Mitzi Westra, mezzo-soprano, assisted by pianist Elisabeth Hoegberg. The singers blended well, and they never missed a trick expressively. When "Klosterfraeulein" (The young nun) wistfully addresses lambs in springtime, Hacker and Westra were buoyant in sympathy.  The series of joyous rhetorical questions in "Die Boten der Liebe" (The messengers of love) conveyed pure focus on the loved one, carried along by an excess of rapture.

As the temperature plunged outside and flurries approached, it was good to be reminded by such a performance that the season of love and renewal is surely upon us.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

APA Fellow Sean Chen makes first concerto appearance here since winning Cliburn bronze

Launched into prominence by the golden boost of the 2013 American Pianists Association Classical Fellowship, Sean Chen is back in Indianapolis this weekend to indicate — not that anyone needed more evidence — that his victory here was no fluke.

Sean Chen showed his good taste with a reflective Bach encore.
The vehicle is Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, in two Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performances with German conductor Christoph Konig on the podium at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Chen displayed crisp articulation through the thickets of figuration and octaves in the outer movements, with the addition of expressive insight that seemed to freshen up the familiar work.

His tone in the "Andantino semplice" had a rare refinement for a young player, and the effect was mesmerizing, especially with the contrast offered by the frantic waltz in the middle. It was well-coordinated with scurrying strings by Konig. The finale had a rhythmic liveliness that suited Konig's style as an accompanist, making for hand-in-glove coordination up through the final thrilling bars.

The concert opened with this year's Glick Young Composer's Showcase winner, "Supercell" by Troy Armstrong.  The young Oklahoman's work was rooted in his background in one of the country's prime regions for tornadoes.

For about six minutes, the orchestra swirled with foreboding and devastation. There was astutely managed contrast in the eerie periods of calm between moments of impact.  We could be grateful for the composer's taste in doing something more than producing a frightful noise. There was menace enough in his incorporation of man-made sounds: warning sirens mimicked by a near-the-bridge viola whine. On top of that, it was musically evident that nature was the master — as it is in real life.

Leading up to intermission was that miracle of late Mozart, Symphony No. 41 in C major ("Jupiter"). Konig's approach was quite detailed, but there seemed an overall appreciation of the equal weight the score gives to — let's introduce a couple of other classical gods here — Dionysian and Apollonian qualities. In other words, this masterpiece, especially in the last movement, displays Mozart as a learned, high-minded musician as well as a reveler. "The learned musician" is a phrase associated with Christoph Wolff's much-acclaimed biography of J.S. Bach more than a decade ago. Ideally applied to Bach, it in no way can be read as downplaying the emotional import of Bach's music.  But in the finale of this symphony, Mozart, usually thought of as an instinctive genius deft with deep feelings, deserves that phrase as well.

The finale was given all due glory in Friday's performance. But from the start, Konig had some winning ideas about the piece. The "Allegro vivace" had a seductiveness and sweetness that recalled Mozart's great operatic comedies. The interpretation we heard could almost have had words set to it by Lorenzo Da Ponte, the librettist of "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Cosi fan tutte."

The lightness of mood never meant gliding over intricate detail. Konig made the most of the expressive complexity of the slow movement. After that, the minuet movement was given an affectionate cast. I was reminded of one of the P.D.Q. Bach parodies by Peter Schickele, in which the main theme morphs into the lilting German love song, "Du, du, liegst mir im Herzen."

Then we were ready for the ascent of Olympus in the last movement. In performances like this one, astonishment never ceases. You keep saying to yourself, "I can't believe he just did THAT, and now here comes THIS." Very few pieces one has heard often can so dependably render you slack-jawed with wonder. This is one of them, and so it did in this cloud-capped performance.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Butler Artsfest: Music of the 20th and 21st centuries makes its vital presence felt in festival programming

Last Sunday afternoon at Butler Artsfest, a lucky audience heard a splendid performance of George Crumb's 1974 "Music for a Summer Evening."
The Devil (as lepidopterist) sizes up the fiddling Soldier in Butler production.

But the festival was by no means finished so soon with modern and contemporary works: In the jazz sphere, there will be Donny McCaslin's appearance with the university's jazz ensemble Saturday night. That morning, the Butler Percussion Ensemble, true to the heart of the all-percussion repertoire, will go all modern. Unlike some arts festivals, this one is not wedded to the distant past.

The weekend was heralded Thursday by a program partnering a work by Butler Jordan College of the Arts dean Ronald Caltobiano with Igor Stravinsky's First World War fable, "The Soldier's Tale." Tonight, the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra comes into the spotlight with a program including the premiere of James Aikman's "Triptych: Musical Momentum" and a turn-of-the-century bassoon concerto by Christopher Theofanidis that the ICO has done before. Music director Kirk Trevor will conduct.

I was invited to an ICO rehearsal Thursday morning to become acquainted with the Theofanidis and Aikman works. The process of preparation didn't permit me thorough exposure to either piece. Despite my pleasure in the virtuosity of Martin Kuuskmann, I didn't get much more of an impression of Theofanidis' 1997/2002 Bassoon Concerto than the sense that it is, at least in part, a muscular work. It exploits the solo instrument in all registers while keeping the orchestra busy and occasionally menacing, as if spurring the bassoonist on to ever greater heroics.

James Aikman displays a straightforward orchestral voice in "Triptych."
With Aikman's "Triptych," I had the benefit of following the score and hearing all three movements, though not in performance order. The second movement, "The Particle Garden," features a complicating overlay in the form of prerecorded audio that wasn't used in this rehearsal. Without those sounds supplementing the orchestra's activity, including (the composer said) a children's choir, "The Particle Garden" had a simple open-air lyricism reminiscent of the gentler sections of Aaron Copland's "Red Pony" Suite or his "Down a Country Lane."

The last movement, "Fanfare," struck me as a sophisticated example of building up a fanfare mood without tipping the compositional hand too early. The proportions are great: After a rattling full-orchestra climax, for instance, is brought to the edge of annoyance, there's a relaxed, playful episode for clarinets and bassoons at just the right time. The insertion of contrasting material in long notes toward the climax subtly avoids undercutting the mounting fanfare glory.

Aikman is apparently a composer who doesn't like to contradict himself or struggle with a synthesis: The music always aims at clarity, making a beeline for its stated goal.  Any complexity is apparently designed to help you understand the essential thrust of each movement. In the first movement, a canny application of the variations principle sounded more admirable than what it's applied to: The theme, while useful for Aikman's purposes, seemed too self-effacing, almost inert. I look forward to another hearing of this work someday.

The other new (to me) Butler Artsfest work I heard opened Thursday's concert at the Schrott Center: Caltobiano's 1992 "Lines from Poetry" for solo violin. Davis Brooks' performance had nobility and expressive stature. The work's nine movements were accompanied in this performance by Jordan Munson's video art.

The latter contribution means the lines, mostly from English and American poets, past and present, are presented on screen in jostled, partially faded, teasingly semi-legible forms.  The quotations are heralded, surrounded and sometimes overtaken by colorful abstract imagery, supporting Caltobiano's intention to address the words' atmosphere rather than respond to their literal significance. The visual addition removes some of the etude-like abstractness of the paces Caltobiano puts the violinist through. (The understated appeal of the music may have been too much for someone: loud snoring could be heard beginning in the sixth movement.)

I was enthralled particularly by the fifth movement, with its evocation of an "old Venetian piazza," in which a recitative-like line resembles an aged visitor's favorite half-remembered song from long ago. Also fetching were the  tension and mystery — signaled by a tremolo opening — of the seventh movement's reference to "moving back and forwards through time."  The "call of the morn" in the finale cast a hovering spell through ascending long tones in harmonics.

It's hard to speak highly enough of the performance of "The Soldier's Tale." I've known this work from recordings since my early teens, and am almost absurdly prejudiced in its favor. Fortunately, the performance pleased me in every respect: the fully professional instrumental ensemble, conducted by Stanley DeRusha, couldn't have sounded more fit — though perhaps pushed to the limit in "Ragtime" and "Triumphal Dance" near the end.

With credit to Owen Schaub's direction, the piece's staging was imaginative and consistently supportive of the powerful narrative process: the deluded soldier's falling into the devil's trap. Elysia Rohn made for an engaging Narrator, with Nick Gehrich and Peyton Lustig vividly portraying the fateful struggle between the Soldier and his powerful nemesis. Sarah Tam filled out the cast in the small but poignant role of the Princess.

Six dancers gave elaboration through well-designed movement to Stravinsky's idiosyncratic evocation of three dance forms: Tango, Waltz and Ragtime. They form the healing suite the Soldier offers by way of cure to the king's daughter, thus winning her hand in marriage.

The couple's happiness is short-lived. The story's pessimistic outcome offers the durable moral that the best things about our past and our present are difficult to combine happily at the same time. Hard enough, it's true, but not as impossible as it is once you've made a pact with the Devil. The fact that the grim lesson of "The Soldier's Tale" is so entertaining is simply a bonus.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

'Moses Man' sets to music a family story of deliverance from evil

Handling difficult issues on the musical stage rests on the pop-culture heritage of a genre once called "musical comedy."

There have been many examples of earnestness in the genre since Rodgers and Hammerstein shocked 1949 audiences in "South Pacific" with a bitter indictment of prejudice in the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught." And of course, a generation later,  there's the onset of a whole society's moral ruin that pervades "Cabaret."

Imagine the difficulty of staying on the side of good taste, not to mention upholding the expectations of entertainment, by pitching your creative tent in the middle of the most famous episode of mass horror in modern history — and singing about it.

Deborah Haber has brought to light her family history of struggle to emerge from the Holocaust in "Moses Man," a new musical given a staged reading at Indiana Repertory Theatre Wednesday night.
The cast of the staged reading  at IRT Wednesday made a good case for "Moses Man."
With the assistance of composer Casey Filiaci, she has bravely attempted to make sobering entertainment out of a story mixing both heroism and pathos — and shot through with music. Her father's resourcefulness and courage, and the inspiration it offered to those around him, is the work's vital center.

"Moses Man" is an old-fashioned piece of work, thankfully uninfected by the influence of rock. The staged reading didn't permit any indication of choreography, which is a more surprising sacrifice. But I wouldn't want to rule out dancing in the fully staged show on the basis of what I saw on the IRT's Upperstage. There just didn't seem to be an obvious place for that staple of Broadway entertainment.

Some slide projections and sound design bring forward the world of Germany and Austria in the late 1930s and during World War II, but the complicated story is told largely through onstage song and dialogue. Dramatic presentation is given continuity through narration by the hero, recalling his tortuous journey from resistance to escape as an Austrian Jew. Opa (Mark Goetzinger, in a winning performance that avoided being cloyingly folksy) looks back on his pluck and luck, gradually impressing his granddaughter. His younger self, Avi, was played with resolute flair by Eric J. Olson.

The singing strength of most of the cast and the way it thoroughly inhabited the characters, despite the necessary burden of script notebooks, offered a presumably well-realized indication of Haber and Filiaci's hopeful project. Given that it is a work in progress, what follows is a series of sketchy impressions rather than a review.

To begin with, uneasiness about how to lighten the story is evident in some of the songs. Trying to allow for deliberate irony, I still had problems with Avi's Gestapo interrogators' song, the melody of which has clear Jewish characteristics, but without being mocking. A song mostly zeroing in on the danger Avi faces after the Anschluss needed a melody alien to everything Avi knew. When the lyrics morph into chipper Germans declaring how they hope to start World War II, the attempt at humor seemed strained.

In the second act, it was surprising to find "A Spot of Tea," a goofy, upbeat British Major's song (about life in the African refugee camp he heads) reprised twice. Perhaps the camp supervisor was really so clueless and insular in Haber's father's experience, but this song seems a weak parody of  a British music-hall castoff or a distant relative of Gilbert and Sullivans, "The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra--la." (An example of strong parody was the delightful Afro-pop description of the Jewish refugees' strange new environment, "Jungle Living.")

Filiaci's musical influences seem to be Bock and Harnick (in adapting Jewish folk and cabaret music), Rodgers and Hammerstein (in the sentimental, reflective numbers) and Kurt Weill, particularly one sardonic song in a bluesy tango idiom. Stephen Sondheim's habit of side-slipping from one tonality to another, sometimes within a song's basic structure, was conspicuous in an extended number for Freddy, the doomed brother of Avi's wife, Lia. It was performed with wistfulness and fire (applied as needed) by Scot Greenwell.

That was one of two or three numbers showcasing characters in the manner of the Italian operatic tradition of the scena, a solo displaying different, sometimes conflicting moods through varying tempos, meters and melodic material. The granddaddy of this sort of thing in the American musical theater is Billy Bigelow's soliloquy in "Carousel." That was ground-breaking, but its descendants sometimes seem a show-stopping excuse for creators' failure to come up with a memorable, concise song that expresses different sides of a character without leaping from one expressive plateau to another. In Freddy's case, for instance, a couple of short songs, one of which would cover his optimistic letters home, might have been preferable to this scena.

As for act finales, sometimes crucial to a show's success, the stirring first-act song, "Turning the Turnstile," brought the action nicely to a head by focusing on the anxiety and determination of the targeted population of Nazi-occupied Europe to find new life elsewhere. The second-act finale, while rousing, was sentimentally focused on the promise of America and liberty (symbolized by the famous statue in New York harbor).  In light of the dubious record of the U.S. in saving Europe's Jews, the song seems a knee-jerk appeal to American patriotism.  Also, its paean to liberty is an odd emphasis for a story about simple survival. Safety for himself and his people is clearly Avi's object for most of the show, principally in a Palestine that was not yet available to Jews as a secure homeland.

But popular art finds it hard to tout safety over liberty, which wears a nimbus ideal for show biz. For all the attention art trains on life's basics,  certain priorities generally get overlooked. "Safety" doesn't let people leave the theater with lifted hearts. It's a parallel difficulty to Bertolt Brecht's famous pronouncement, "Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral" —  After you chow down, then you can think about morality. Similarly, after you are safe from danger, then you can
enjoy the benefits of liberty.

"Moses Man" has a tangential relationship to liberty, it's true, but it's really about the less glamorous struggle to be safe from harm. Perhaps, with judicious tweaking, that quest will someday be enough  to make the show attractive to Broadway.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Butler Artsfest: Parental control and the moon's allure make for musical fun at Holcomb Observatory

The moon has long been associated with romantic waxings and wanings. In "The World on the Moon," the allure of Earth's satellite takes advantage of naive, pseudo-scientific curiosity to overcome obstacles to young love.
Ecclitico (right) gets Buonafede to see what he sees.

Joseph Haydn's 1777 comic opera is an ornament of the current Artsfest at Butler University. In Tuesday's 11 p.m. performance, what is normally bedtime for people my age became a surprisingly welcome wake-up call to delight. The singing was largely first-rate, the characters enthusiastically embodied and the comic energy and sense of style unrelenting.

Holcomb Observatory's planetarium room is the cozy setting for this production, which has two more performances today (6 and 8:30 p.m.). Among the wonders of the show is the fluidity and eloquence of William Fisher's direction of the cast — with space at a perilous premium, given the dominating central position of the planetarium. From the harpsichord, John Glennon conducts an adroit band (violin, oboe and cello) in accompaniments from the stage's far side. Kudos to musical director Thomas Studebaker for preparation of the singers — focused, expressive, and vocally nimble.

"The World on the Moon" is among the operas on diverse subjects the Austrian composer wrote for his patron at a Hungarian estate of Esterhaza. Among the spurs to Haydn's creativity during his long service to Prince Nikolaus was the requirement to supply the opera season with new works. 

In this production, "Il mondo della luna" is sung in vigorously rhymed English, with spoken dialogue between the numbers instead of the normal recitatives. Carlo Goldoni's original libretto — from the hand of the creator of opera buffa — retains its verve and mockery in translation and across the centuries. Haydn chose it to inaugurate the regular opera schedule at Esterhaza, and it holds up well, despite its dependence on the well-worn convention of besting an overprotective old man standing in the way of determined youthful lovers.

The twist here is that an elaborate deception, devised by the amateur astronomer Ecclitico, takes advantage of Buonafede's ignorant fascination with star-gazing. He drinks an elixir that helps the schemer convince him he has visited the moon, where the romantic alliances he has opposed on Earth are commanded by the lunar emperor (his servant Cecco in fanciful disguise).

The adept manipulation of the gullible Buonafede was in Myles Pinder's capable control from the start. However ridiculous the set-up, his characterization and that of Patrick Lord-Remmert as the soon-to-be-outdone Buonafede was fully believable. Visions of moon life are mimed and presented to Buonafede through Ecclitio's telescope — and the bird has been limed indeed. The inevitability of Buonafede's deception and capitulation is amusingly settled, and the audience needs only to go along for the ride.

Ecclitico's fellow wooers — Ernesto and his servant Cecco — were brilliantly portrayed by Amanda Fehr  and Nicholas Roman. Ernesto was the last castrato role written by Haydn, and Fehr's sturdy timbre made her quite stunning as a gentleman suitor. Nicholas Roman displayed an attractive understanding of the wily, intuitive servant stereotype as Cecco, who rises with pomp and splendor to  a tables-turned stint as the moon's emperor.

The female side of all the romantic plotting was just as capable.  Andi Tulipana as Flaminia proved up to the coloratura demands of her glorious first-act aria, and, in a showcase aria moments later, was matched in ringing determination by Julie O'Mara as Clarice. Nicole Vasconi's coquettish pertness was just the thing for Lisetta, who delights in spurning her master's interest in her on the way toward her preferred alliance with Cecco.

Wendy Meaden's costumes are witty and fully inspired by the reigning nonsense. Other design elements (the creations of Cathy Sipe and Chet Miller) contribute decisively to the risible parade of lunar illusions. On Tuesday night, a strong ensemble finale (supplemented by several singers playing "scholars and noblemen") put a splendid seal upon the daft scenario and Haydn's clever music.

"The World on the Moon" is just the kind of unanticipated triumph in an unusual setting that will have tongues wagging about Butler Artsfest and help ensure a long life for it.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Toward my next hundred posts (No. 201): Should a review be mainly polemical or the report of an experience?

In more than 40 years of reviewing performances, I have sometimes frustrated presenters by not being particularly "blurbable."

It's not because I'm a dyspeptic reviewer, which would mean who besides a masochist would want to quote me? No, that's not it: I like so much of what I attend that one of the volunteer workers at the Indy Fringe Fest has complained to me: "Do you like EVERYTHING?"

On the other hand, some readers over the years have insisted they couldn't tell from the review if I liked a particular show or not. Occasionally when they can tell, and they liked the event less than I did, I get something like: "You were too kind." It doesn't come across as a compliment, though kindness normally gets lots of lip service.

In many a review, I may register my caveats and disappointments along the way, but even my thoroughly positive responses too often lack a phrase that could be pulled out and used to encourage people to buy tickets.

I remember with amusement when, many years ago, Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre artfully concocted a positive blurb out of my Indianapolis Star panning of Maury Yeston's "Phantom." Judicious employment of ellipses works wonders in the blurb art form.

So I don't mind if my reviews are useful, even with such a tinge of misrepresentation. But I certainly don't go out of my way to make them... well, useless.

It was heartening recently to see one word from my review of Indiana Repertory Theatre's "Other Desert Cities" plucked out of its cozy nest and used to grace a Star ad, with just my name attached. Wow! I have a brand, I thought. And the selected word was "stunning." I had used it twice in my blog post, which made it an obvious choice for such a distinction.

What's more, IRT shared my review on its Facebook page with the recommendation to "read Jay Harvey's experience" of the show. At first the wording seemed awkward. Then I decided I liked it: maybe my reviews are best described as reports of an experience. Maybe that's why I'm not really fazed by "you were too kind" or "do you like everything?" remarks. This is what I gathered from being there, my reviews say.

I've never been comfortable putting stars on a review. I admired the late Roger Ebert, but he and Gene Siskel cemented the image of critics as Roman emperors with their thumbs-up, thumbs-down judgments. In my newspaper career, I accepted the rationale that reviews can be a handy consumer guide, though that weakened my advocacy of covering one-off performances.

Virgil Thomson reviewed music with distinction for 14 years.
So I've decided that IRT nailed it: I like the idea of reviewing as sharing an experience. It implies that arts patrons shouldn't be looking to a review for a verdict. Though a critic is a judge (the derivation of the word from Greek tells us), that concept has done much damage to arts criticism. At the worst, it may encourage those who attend an event to look up the review to see what they should have thought of the performance.

The composer-critic Virgil Thomson once declared: "Reviewing, unless it is an interplay between facts correctly stated and ideas about them fairly arrived at, makes no point." He was reviewing a book by Andrew Porter, then of the New Yorker, whose reviews Thomson largely admired. But he also scolded: "He can get so tied up in detail that decision fails him."

Even great critics are inconsistent, however. Late in life, Thomson spoke through a Times of London interviewer to nameless younger counterparts: "Remember, you're not reviewing yourself, you're reviewing the piece. What was it like? And what was it about? Don't give me opinions. What is it like? Everything is like something else. Just start there."

Precepts and prejudices  – and the opinions they generate — are all very well, and perhaps inevitable items in a critic's baggage. But openness to and basic respect for experience should trump them.

A religious anecdote may help explain my priorities. Long ago working for the Flint Journal, I covered a reading by the writer Jim Heynen, who shared this
Jim Heynen told a kind of parable
story with his audience to illustrate the parochial environment of his upbringing. One Saturday night, a tornado passed through the northwest Iowa town where he and his family lived. It made a mess of a neighborhood largely inhabited by Lutherans, then lifted into the air, sparing the Dutch Calvinist enclave where the Heynens lived before touching down again and wreaking havoc among the Catholics.

The next day after church the writer and his mother got into the car to survey damage to the affected neighborhoods, where the residents were starting to clean up and salvage what they could. Following a brief tour, Mrs. Heynen shook her head. "After all that," she muttered disapprovingly, "they still work on Sunday."

The dear lady rendered judgment, all right, but she wouldn't amount to much as a critic, I'm afraid. She couldn't muster much feeling for what it was like to put life in order again soon after a tornado's devastation. And her judgment on all the activity was backed up by her God's, she felt certain. Some critics assess performances with corresponding certainty.

But the most sustaining critical perspective favors taking a broad view of experience. That's where the damage, resilience and recovery, the sorrow and the hope, that constitute life make their home. That's fundamentally where the art is, too.

If a critic is less alive to that than to his ideas about what people should be doing and how they should be doing it, he's missing something essential. I never want to forget about values I hold dear, and I'll work to advance them, but part of me should always be with the folks who "still work on Sunday."