Saturday, June 21, 2014

Early Music Festival opens its season with dance music from the vast art/folk boundary land

Ezra Pound once declared, in the authoritative manner in which he specialized, that music became alienated from its true self whenever it departed far from the dance.

The core of Musica Pacifica is Robert Mealy and Judith Linsenberg (second and third from left)
Certainly the closeness seemed essential before the classical-music world solidified as something apart from popular culture, which had a strong link to social dancing. Musica Pacifica opened the Indianapolis Early Music Festival Friday night at Indiana Landmarks Center with a virtuoso display of such music titled "Dancing in the Isles."

The isles in question are British, and the emphasis was on the 17th century. With recorder player Judith Linsenberg and violinist Robert Mealy at the ensemble's center, the seven-piece group  opened with music of Henry Purcell, the one true immortal from that time and place.

His Suite from "Abdelazer," written in the last year of his short life (1695), showed the balance and coordinated energy of the full group, which included local early-music star Alison Edberg playing viola (later, second violin). Other participants: David Morris, cello and viola da gamba; Charles Weaver, theorbo and guitar; Charles Sherman, harpsichord, and Danny Mallon, percussion.

The Purcell suite is distinguished by the perky Rondeau theme that Benjamin Britten was to exploit 250 years later in his "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra." In the second half, Purcell was again represented, this time by another short-form masterpiece,  "Three Parts Upon a Ground," meaning variations on a little bass line, which was repeated faithfully by Morris. On top of this pattern, Mealy led the variations charge, sometimes with dazzling speed and intricacy.

He was at his most exciting in the concert's most thorough blend of folk and classical genres — Francesco Veracini's "Scozzese: un poco andante et affettuoso," a sonata movement that imposed Italianate trio-sonata stylishness on Scottish material in ways both clever and emotionally engaging.

Mealy and the ensemble (minus Linsenberg) also took the measure of the eccentric Matthew Locke, whose Suite No. 4 in C major (1661) gave them the chance to show how smoothly and naturally they made tempo adjustments in music that, while dance-based, would have been challenging for actual dancers.

This adroit manner of coordinating rhythm and tempo, when short sections of immense variety need to succeed one another smoothly, was apparent as well in Robert Johnson's "The Fairey Masque." That was the concluding section of "A Jacobean Masque," a suite of dances for that form of theatrical entertainment put together by Musica Pacifica. In another "high-art" incorporation of popular art, James Oswald's "Sonata of Scots Tunes" had an unusual structure of fast and slow movements, each of them notable for the consistently high quality of its melodic appeal.

"Dancing in the Isles" got closest to its title in three sets of dances in original arrangements that highlighted the English country dance, traditional Scottish tunes, and traditional Irish tunes. Especially impressive were  the doleful "Irish Lamentation," the crisply syncopated "Gordon" (a Scots tune), and, from the Irish set, "The Kid on the Mountain," with its infectious bodhran drum pattern.

All told, a buoyant demonstration of the 17th-century version of the jazz truism "It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing."

Three of Musica Pacifica's personnel will be involved in the next concert in this year's festival, "Stile Moderno: New Music from the 17th Century" performed Sunday afternoon at 4 by Quicksilver at the Indiana History Center.

Friday, June 20, 2014

New-music ensemble from Buffalo enlivens Eidson-Duckwall Hall at Butler University

Wooden Cities' feeling for musical tradition extends as far back in its programming as Luciano Berio and Charles Ives, judging from what the ensemble out of Buffalo, N.Y., offered at Butler University Thursday evening.

And that's just fine, because this seems to be a genuine new-music ensemble, with a preponderance of its repertoire having been produced in our young century. As a self-described collective, its personnel boundaries go beyond the eight musicians who played here. But the concert presumably got to the pith of Wooden Cities nonetheless, including a generous representation of the group's composers.

"Heptagram," the program's newest piece, is a 2014 composition by pianist Michael McNeill. One of Thursday's five works using everybody, it posed the yin of speaking voices against the yang of instrumentation. Its steady pulse helped to emphasize the complementarity of the opposed timbral realms.

Other new full-ensemble works ranged from Michael Pisaro's "Why," aptly quizzical and about as long as a left-turn traffic light, to Matt Sargent's hypnotic "Tide," for trombone, violin, voice, cello and guitar, plus electronics. The piece required immense patience to play (no doubt) and to listen to (for sure), but was an ultimately rewarding exploration of soft, understated, overlapping ascending and descending phrases fused together. When Claude Debussy was writing  "La Mer," he probably had dreams like this at night and laughed about them in the morning.

A Wooden Cities performance, with Butler-educated Zane Merritt in left foreground.
The more assertive "Dilemma of the Meno," by Steve McCaffery, began with a spoken reference to the Socratic dialogue "Meno" and soon became an exposition of the statement "Unity can only announce itself in fragments." And so unity was approached through various fits of fragmentation — short-term blasts and burbles, always far from pastiche, but with at least one conspicuous quotation — the oboe's abbreviated proclamation of the main Scherzo theme of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony.

Oboist Megan Kyle opened the concert with a solo (undergirded by an electronic-acoustic sustained B) by the Italian master Berio — Sequenza VII (1969). The piece, with its blend of blips, chirps, rasps, split tones, virtuoso flourishes and staccato aloofness, made for a great introduction to the program.

Better, in fact, than Wooden Cities director Brendan Fitzgerald's welcome at the start: He said if we didn't like a piece, that was OK, and if we liked it, that was OK, too. A musician who openly professes such indifference to an audience's response doesn't inspire much confidence. Fortunately, the performances that followed made clear the band's emotional and intellectual investment in its music.

There were three duos to savor, for instance: The miniature "Koral 8" for oboe and voice, by Jeffrey Stadelman made for a nice palate cleanser after "Tide." "The Reputation," for electric guitar and cello, featured the guitarist-composer, Zane Merritt, who has a master's degree from Butler. It showcased contrasts of texture and musical idiom — with hints of tango and sentimental balladry juxtaposed with toccata-like vehemence from both instruments. Virtuosity will forever occupy a pedestal, no matter what the musical language; as a fan of Franz Liszt, I applaud that.

The group's hard-working cellist, Tyler Bordon, was also featured (with violinist Evan Courtin) in hornist Nathan Heidelberger's "Occasionally, music," a stately, reflective piece with a kind of slow-motion hocketing of non-vibrato instrumental lines that contributed to the oddly medieval impression it made.

Bordon was also front and center in Merritt's extravagant "Hot Cola," a solo rhythmically intricate and loaded with extended techniques, all deftly applied. Near-the-bridge playing and left-hand pizzicato paved the way for such tricky episodes as using a pick on the strings and exploiting the cello as a vehicle for hand percussion.

The finale displayed Wooden Cities' historical reach back to a musical precursor of its adventurous spirit. Vocalist-trombonist Ethan Hayden's arrangement of Charles Ives' "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven" led the whole band into glory both instrumentally and vocally. The performance was an apt celebration of the original work's centennial, as well as an exhibition of Wooden Cities' exuberance, daring, and attention to detail. I liked it, realizing that's just as OK as if I hadn't liked it.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Something to munch on: ISO launches noon-hour series of mini-concerts at Hilbert Circle Theatre

You won't get a better musical bargain for $5 than a new series the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra inaugurated Thursday noon in Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Eric Zuber displayed a flair for Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.
In the summer, the ISO's downtown concert presence over the years has been a peekaboo matter, as it focuses on Symphony on the Prairie until that series at Conner Prairie extends past the orchestra musicians' contracted responsibilities with popular acts sans symphony. The first "Lunch Break" concert attracted a crowd of 500 for a short program of Copland and Gershwin.

Both New York City boys and sons of Jewish immigrants, each composer in his own way became an authentic voice of Americana. And none of their compositions could represent them better in this regard than Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Copland's Four Dance Episodes from "Rodeo."

David Glover was on the podium, with Eric Zuber at the piano for the ever-popular Rhapsody. Zuber, a laureate in the 2013 Classical Fellowship Awards of the American Pianists Association, displayed a deft affinity for the work. The solo cadenza portions were flavorful and just impulsive enough to suggest the kind of jazz party piano the composer was known for during his all-too-short life.

The soloist exhibited some wry phrasing touches (teasing playfulness with tempo, for instance) that complemented the sauciness of brief solos for muted trumpet and muted trombone. A couple of his accelerating solo passages seemed just plain rushed. Moving close to the edge is part of the atmosphere that the piece's more rambunctious parts breathe naturally, however. So Zuber was in his element — and Gershwin's.

The accompaniment had the requisite sense of urgency when needed, but was overall relaxed and companionable. Opening the general-admission performance, Glover and the casually dressed ISO were also in accord during the Copland excerpts. "Buckaroo Holiday" enjoyed an expansive tone-poem treatment, including such hijinks as a slightly rowdy trombone solo, succeeded by the open-air sonorities of "Corral Nocturne."

"Saturday Night Waltz" was lent a lingering, romantic quality that is likely to suit the ambiance of Conner Prairie (where the work will be repeated Friday and Saturday night, along with the Rhapsody). The concluding "Hoedown," while somewhat imprecise, never flagged in high spirits.

Future "Lunch Break" concerts (June 26, July 3 and July 10) will also partially preview Symphony on the Prairie programs, and are expected to have food-truck vendors outside on Monument Circle, by arrangement with the Indy Food Truck Association.

'The Book of Mormon' explores low comedy in high religious places

The clash of cultures worldwide has a sorrowful history. "The Book of Mormon," the multiple Tony Award-winner now at the Murat Theatre, Old National Centre, thumbs its nose at all that by poking fun at the pretensions of outreach, particularly when it's guided by intense, self-contained religious doctrine. In this case, neither the weapon (Mormon self-righteousness) nor the target (a superstitious, disease-ridden, warlord-ruled African village) comes off well.

The spiritually renewed Elder Price declares "I Believe" with the puzzled cooperation of the local warlord.
Wednesday's performance by the Broadway in Indianapolis national touring company showcased endlessly fascinating staging, linked to the performers' well-honed vigor in song, dance and dialogue. Amplification was too loud, which not only diminished the fun but also burdened simple understanding of the words; the noise was returned enthusiastically, however, in the capacity audience's responsiveness.

The show's creators mock Mormonism and the blinders it needs to put on as it exercises missionary zeal here and abroad — a two-year rite of passage for its young men. But the larger implications of the often vulgar spoofery indict all attempts to fit religious dogma onto alien cultures. The funniest part of the show for me was "Making Things Up Again," the first song in Act 2, when Elder Cunningham realizes his old habit of prevarication may serve him well with the Ugandan villagers he's trying to convert.

The song runs riot with the fantastic elements that are so much a part of "The Book of Mormon," as Cunningham's hectoring dad shows up, with supernatural support from the martyred Joseph Smith, revelatory founding figures Mormon and Moroni, and others in a vain effort to encourage faithfulness to the original text.

In this song and throughout Wednesday's performance, Christopher John O'Neill displayed masterly comic timing.  His physical bearing, slouchy and dumpling-like but hyperactive, was a perfect fit for the role of the nebbishy Cunningham. A character drawn from the mold beloved in recent Broadway musicals, Cunningham is stamped with "loser" from the start.

But he turns out to direct his flaws toward success through perseverance and loads of heart. From his underdog position, a combination of luck and desperate insight works in his favor. If pop culture and revered revelation have parallels with the congregation's deepest concerns, so much the better.

In contrast, his conceited, conventional partner Price, assigned to him in the church's practice of sending young missionaries off in pairs, is appalled by the district team's poor prospects. Witness to an atrocity that spattered him with blood and still harboring the dream of being sent to Orlando, he breaks down as his shiny personality implodes like a stepped-on Christmas-tree ornament. Mark Evans shone in the role.

On the African side, Alexandra Ncube sang with a nice blend of naivete and resolve as Nabulungi, the young woman who inclines her villagers toward Mormonism out of fear of the local warlord. She was effectively counterpointed by the prudence and what passes for local wisdom of her father, played by Stanley Wayne Mathis. The braggart tyrant, a self-styled General who is eventually co-opted by Elder Cunningham's manic revisionism, was imbued with glaring bravado in Corey Jones' performance.

Ensemble numbers made a strong impression, chiefly "Turn It Off," a paean to Mormon repression led by the veteran missionary McKinley (Grey Henson).  "Hello," the introductory number that sketches out the doorbell-ringing with which a Mormon missionary visit normally begins, was spiffily staged — and cleverly reprised at the end with a transformative new ensemble.

Maybe these are Throwback Thursday thoughts, but I found too much of the show's humor relies on shock value. When a line in a song about Salt Lake City ends in a vulgar rhyming word for the name of Mormonism's home and draws a laugh, you know that a show is in sync with its audience. And of such connections hits are made.

But the cleverness of the production's satirical thrust is undermined by this kind of pandering. Similarly, uptempo songs in musicals like "The Book of Mormon" seem to derive all their energy from rock, and that becomes tiresome hour after hour. There's only so much that well-worn idiom can do for musical theater, and it's mostly all been done before.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The 'Klinghoffer' affair: Metropolitan Opera decides only old, safe art is worthy of high-definition scheduling

John Adams, composer of "The Death of Klinghoffer"
Responding to a shakily grounded campaign of vilification against "The Death of Klinghoffer," the Metropolitan Opera has withdrawn the John Adams-Alice Goodman opera from its 2014 schedule of productions shared around the world in high-definition live screening.

The work is more than 20 years old, but is still capable of arousing passions you might think more appropriate to a deliberate new provocation by untried artists, instead of an operatic team conspicuously laureled and frequently produced, especially for "Nixon in China."

With the Met having caved in to assertions that widespread distribution of "The Death of Klinghoffer" would encourage anti-Semitism, the arts establishment has once again insulated itself from any association with controversy, no matter what its artistic stature.

The claims that "The Death of Klinghoffer" has to be a work of beauty and soul-stirring, thought-provoking entertainment have been rendered null and void by this decision. Apparently, topics of historical import must be safely dead within all of us to be fit for operatic treatment.

There is to some an inexcusable evenhandedness in the work's grappling with the tragedy of the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro and the execution of a disabled Jewish passenger named Leon Klinghoffer. The opera in no way justifies or mitigates the brutality of this act. But it presents starkly the interplay of passions that still roil our world, a conflict of interests with articulated rationales on both sides.

The enemies of "The Death of Klinghoffer," however, apparently believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has only side. You don't have to be against Israel's right to exist to deplore the sins of 1948 that made a Jewish state a reality in the Middle East. The new nation was no more established on uninhabited land than the United States was; displacement and marginalization were part of the agenda.

In the opera, the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians (balanced, by the way, by a Chorus of Exiled Jews — both to beautiful music) speaks to this condition of exile and oppression, opening with this stanza: "My father's house was razed / In  nineteen forty-eight / When the Israelis passed / Over our street."

Later, after the chorus nostalgically describes the house, the anger rises: "Of that house, not a wall / In which a bird might nest / Was left to stand. Israel / Laid all to waste."

Strong words, wrapped in a growing torrent of orchestral and choral sound, ending with this stanza: "Let the supplanter look / Upon his work. Our faith / Will take the stones he broke / And break his teeth."

Apparently these harsh sentiments cannot be expressed, even in a work of art that takes a broad view of the suffering that all inhabitants of the contested region have known. The suffering of only some of them is allowed to be lamented. An open letter to Met general manager Peter Gelb as the crisis  over the HD simulcast was brewing implied that the opera's creators may be open to a charge of anti-Semitism by failing to title their work "The Murder of Klinghoffer." Such is the absurd kind of litmus test that tends to be applied in controversies like this.

I will not presume  to lecture Israel on the necessity of coming to terms with what happened in 1948 as a permanent Jewish homeland came into being, nor on actions felt justifiable since then to maintain its hegemony over territory whose legal definition has been repeatedly challenged. But there is no reason why these very pertinent questions about the destiny of two historical adversaries cannot be raised in a work of art, just as they are in the political world, the arena where they must ultimately be settled.

The Met has capitulated to a particularly vicious brand of philistinism in removing "The Death of Klinghoffer" from its HD simulcast schedule.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The tree of jazz grows in Brooklyn: Two more fine releases, with special attention to pianists.

Pianists on the acoustic grand continue to flourish, with their individualism sailing beyond the keyboard flash of those who favor electronics (some of whom are also acoustic pianists, of course).
Rob Garcia: Profile of absorption in impressionism.

On Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records, Dan Tepfer (familiar in Indianapolis from his victory in the 2007American Pianists Association's Jazz Fellowship Awards) continues his seasoned association with drummer Rob Garcia on "The Passion of Color." And John Chin leads a traditional piano trio (with bass and drums) in "Undercover," evincing something original to say as both writer and improviser.

John Chin's "Undercover" exposes a fresh voice.
Reminding attentive listeners that he thinks like one-quarter of a unit, "The Passion of Color" is properly attributable to the Rob Garcia 4.  Unlike many drummer-bandleaders, Garcia doesn't make a show of dominating, but he's always prominent.  It's his studio gig, but he plays as though he really enjoys the interaction with Noah Preminger, Joe Martin and Tepfer more than he does the spotlight. The drumming is flexible and participatory in spirit — qualities that his bandmates readily exemplify as well.

As a composer, Garcia focuses here on his responses to art and music of the impressionist type.  He draws on different parts of his repertoire as a drummer — different patterns, different timbral centers of the set — in the course of the nine tunes. Preminger's tart, yet fluent tenor saxophone seems just right for these clear-cut tributes to impressionism; bassist Joe Martin keeps his lines lively, the notes pouring out with a characteristic, bluesy "bend" to them.

Most of all, however, I appreciated once again Tepfer's wholehearted adaptability to another leader's compositional and ensemble personality. There is a lot of him to savor on this disc. On the title track, his solo is harmonically exploratory but never thickens too much, because he puts a lot of space between phrases. And  gestures that bring in other players' styles are inspired and well-integrated; especially exciting is the way, in "Lines in Impressions,"  he sets up an episode that channels his inner Don Pullen with "smashed" chords. It's one of my favorite piano solos so far on a 2014 jazz disc.

Chin has a style that's frequently laconic and whimsical; he can demonstrate he has a song in his heart without having to wear it on his sleeve.  With Orlando Le Fleming on bass and Dan Rieser on drums,  his trio offers some original thoughts on the Ellington chestnut "Caravan" as well as Charlie Chaplin's "Smile." That familiar ballad he subjects to a decorative account that acknowledges the tune's sentimentality without wallowing in it.

As a composer, there's a sturdy, long-phrased lyricism evident in the reflective "Seemingly" and, in "If For No One," a steely boplike evocation running throughout the song's Latin pulse.  In both of those tunes, incidentally, Le Fleming shows that capable basses don't need that often cherished fat tone; his is thin, poignant, yet firmly produced. Dan Rieser's drums are understated but hold everything together, making Chin's textural variety seem all more the more logically directed. The set also includes a couple of Wayne Shorter tunes, both capably reinterpreted, and it ends with a stimulating, rhythmically insightful treatment of John Coltrane's "Countdown."

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Ravel's masterpiece of late Greek antiquity is revived with 21st-century flair by Dance Kaleidoscope, accompanied by choir and orchestra.

Pan leads the dancing ensemble in a scene from "Daphnis et Chloe."
"Daphnis et Chloe" was among the miracles of modernism in its fragile first flowering, before the War to End All Wars obliterated the world that nurtured it a century ago.

The three-year gestation of the "choreographic symphony," commissioned in 1909 by the visionary Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev, brought forth a ballet so lavish in its demands that it rarely gets staged by capable dancers and equally fit choral and instrumental forces.

Luckily, collaborative efforts between Dance Kaleidoscope and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra offered a background for a fresh look at "Daphnis et Chloe," staged at Clowes Hall (the ISO's former home) and with the assistance of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir.

On Friday night (a second performance will take place tonight), the fruits of the newest joint production were abundantly evident in a performance of orchestral splendor linked to an energetic,  psychologically acute interpretation of the story. The use of wordless choral voices as part of the orchestral fabric was thrillingly realized; they re-create a world in which nature is animated in all its elements, presided over by the un-Olympian god Pan.

David Hochoy, DK's artistic director, fashioned new choreography for a troupe augmented to 14 dancers. The piece was clearly not going to overwhelm with numbers; a largeness of gesture and stage-filling movement was sufficient to suggest an abundance of pirates, shepherds and nymphs that surround the central couple, representing their happiness and the challenges to it.

Crucially, what divides them is bridged by the supernatural power of Pan, and to his credit, Hochoy neither gives the god short shrift nor surrounds him with too much hocus-pocus. The deity of fields and woodlands restores the abducted Chloe to her lover, the shepherd Daphnis, but the lovers' temporary alienation hints at causes (inconstancy and its temptations) that have bedeviled most lovers throughout the ages.

Pattern of entrapment: Chloe in thrall to the pirates.
Brandon Comer and Jillian Godwin portray the lovers. Both dancers have admirable range, with an earthy, grounded manner that can also soar and engage the atmosphere as well. They are emotionally open dancers, who not only worked well together but also were vivid dramatically when separated. Especially moving was Chloe's period of entrapment by the Pirates, with their leader (Timothy June) a focus of the menace Chloe also feels internally. That's because June also portrays Dorcon, Daphnis' rival for her affections.

Hochoy departed boldly from the scenario here and in the characterization of Dorcon, who is no longer a figure of fun. Ravel even scored an orchestral giggle after Dorcon's solo dance, which Daphnis proceeds to top. But Hochoy's Dorcon is not a bumpkin; still, it's evident his dance is all about him.  Daphnis's is guileless and not concerned with vain display, except for some triumphant moves at the end, which Comer managed flawlessly.

Daphnis and Chloe are under the protection of the woodland god Pan.
Everything conceived for the central couple spoke volumes. When they first meet onstage, they communicate the fact that, though they are part of the same rural community and are acquainted with each other, here they are mutually smitten for the first time. Their reunion in the third part contrasts their relationship — one of mutual fulfillment — with that of Chloe and her captor. In that dance, she is merely an expression of the pirate leader's power over her, whirled around him as an object, a plaything. Her more erect postures in the ecstatic dance with Daphnis indicate their romantic healthiness.

That becomes celebrated in the famous ensemble finale, the most stirring orchestral pages in all of Ravel, the General Dance (Bacchanal). With his costume designers following suit, Hochoy has conceived this  as a contemporary celebration, with the company in shiny, sleek, form-fitting costumes in contrast with evocations of classical Greece (white, flowing, translucent) worn earlier. With typical subtlety, Hochoy weaves in hints of disco frivolity, some wagging heads and torsos, to modernize the curving arms and leaping arcs on display up to that point.

Among the greatest points of conductor Krzysztof Urbanski's mastery of the work's color was the nocturnal dance of Pan (performed with with persuasive authority by Noah Trulock) and his attendant nymphs (Liberty Harris, Mariel Greenlee, Caitlin Negron). The scene was representative of the close coordination of stage and pit.

 Costumed in an alluring purple dress, Emily Dyson embodied the seductive charms of Daphnis' temptress Lyceion. Along with June as Dorcon, her portrayal was sufficient to underscore how tempted both Daphnis and Chloe are to stray from their destined true path.

Rustic imagery in an impressionist style, created by Jeff Gooch, was projected on the front curtain before each of the ballet's three parts, complementing the clarity and variegated color of the ISO's playing.

"Daphnis et Chloe" was preceded by Hochoy's ethereal choreography for Erik Satie's simplistic "Gymnopedies," played to one side of the stage by ISO concertmaster Zach De Pue and pianist Sylvia Scott. As a program curtain-raiser, the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir presented an earlier sample of French music for the theater, an arrangement of Jean-Philippe Rameau's "Hymne a la nuit," hauntingly shaped by artistic director Eric Stark. Both items were effectively contrasting appetizers that increased the gusto with which "Daphnis et Chloe" could be enjoyed.

[Photo credit: Crowe's Eye Photography]

Special notice: Not only was this ISO collaboration with two other performing-arts organizations a treat that extended the orchestra's 2013-14 classical programming, but the ISO also initiates on Thursday, June 19,  a short, informal series at Hilbert Circle Theatre that further expands its presence in the spring-summer musical season: Called "Lunch Break," the concerts will enable those working in or passing through downtown during the lunch hour  to hear 30 to 40 minutes of symphonic music for only $5 a pop. The hall opens to the public at 11:30; each performance will begin at 12:15 p.m. The first concert — "Great American Classics featuring Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue'" — will spotlight piano soloist Eric Zuber and ISO assistant conductor David Glover, who will also be collaborating the opening weekend of the annual Symphony on the Prairie series Friday and Saturday at Conner Prairie in Fishers. More information here.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Cincinnati Opera rolls out 2014 season with a dramatically fulfilling, well-sung 'Carmen'

You can encounter darker versions of "Carmen" than Cincinnati Opera is presenting, but the original's balance of gaiety and grim obsession seems worth representing, playing to Georges Bizet's strengths as a composer. That's what this production has going for it, buoyed up by glorious singing.

In Thursday night's opening performance, there was no fussing about time and place. We were looking at Seville, Spain, and its environs of about 180 years ago. The background is ordinary life there — in the public square, in taverns, in the pageantry and blood-lust of the bullfight — not at that town's aristocratic level, at which a couple of enduring comic operas by Mozart and Rossini take place.

The unit set was cleverly adapted to suit each of the four acts, with the greatest stretch coming in the third act. Too many steps and structures, even in mist and shadow, couldn't come up to the "wild and picturesque place in the mountains" the libretto calls for. When the timorous Micaela, once again seeking her intended, enters the scene calling it a wild place, it's best to take it as a figure of speech.

The set was most useful in the first and fourth acts, which is where the crucial polarization between the free gypsy spirit of Carmen and the troubled soldier Don Jose is set forth and concluded. The plaza outside the cigar factory (Act 1) and the exterior of the bullfight arena (Act 4) have all the atmosphere needed for the tragedy to strike home.

Mezzo-soprano Stacey Rishoi had the requisite lower range in her admirably focused voice to put across the determination of Carmen to be her own woman, even when that means accurately foreseeing her violent death. The cards are sunnier predictors for her smuggler girlfriends Frasquita and Mercedes, and the "card trio" in this production is a masterstroke, with Carmen physically as well as vocally separated from the sprightly duo.

Escamillo and Carmen, dressed to the nines for the corrida procession.
Alain Gauthier's stage direction always makes Carmen  a strong center of attention; Rishoi justifies the intense interest the gypsy inevitably attracts.  Similarly a cynosure, but of a higher social standing, is Escamillo, the toreador who wins Carmen's heart. Baritone Daniel Okulitch displayed the needed bravado as the reigning corrida celebrity; he seemed to drink in the acclaim whenever he was onstage. When he literally takes a lengthy swig of wine from a bottle, the worshipful revelers cheer that, too.

Escamillo recognizes that Carmen's romantic interests are short-term, probably because his are as well. For the time being, however, they are made for each other; a soldier-turned-bandit with a tattered conscience doesn't have a prayer.

Gauthier has William Burden as Don Jose painfully divided from first to last. He doesn't just loosen the rope around Carmen's wrist after she's been arrested in a catfight at work; he removes it, and she quickly demonstrates her zest for freedom to him. Then he binds her again; the plan is in place to let her escape, with the promise of an evening reunion at Lillas Pastia's tavern. And at the opera's end, on the very verge of stabbing his defiantly unfaithful lover, Don Jose hesitates, allowing her to go behind him briefly toward the arena of Escamillo's triumph. Only at that moment can he acknowledge how unbearable the loss of Carmen would be by grabbing her and plunging the knife in.

Burden sensitively projected this divided nature in singing that was always genuine and fervent. His Don Jose is truly tempted to return to the straight-and-narrow life, moved by his ailing mother's devotion (conveyed to him by Micaela, sturdily sung by Laquita Mitchell). Yet he is also unable to shed his attraction to the dark side — Don Jose's shady past is only hinted at here — along with the delusion that he is capable of winning the loyalty of his untrammeled beloved.

William Burden's Don Jose projected inner conflict.
In contrast, the corporal's commanding officer finds Carmen strongly appealing, but without letting his feelings overwhelm him. Nathan Stark's Zuniga is a confident rival who will take his pursuit only so far, and knows when it's time to give up. Smugglers Dancairo and Remendado (Sumner Thompson and Aaron Blake) take care of suggesting the wisdom of doing so, dropping their buffo personas.

Those had been charmingly displayed in the witty, scheming quintet with Rishoi plus Alexandra Schoeny and Elizabeth Pojanowski as the fetching Frasquita and Mercedes. Joseph Lattanzi as Corporal Morales winningly established the atmosphere of leering gallantry and idleness in the opera's first scene, though 21st-century squeamishness about bad habits reduced visual support for the prominent praise the libretto (seconded by the music) gives to smoking.

Marc Piollet conducted the performance; the orchestra sounded especially sensitive to the wonderful entr'acte music. Coordination with the stage flagged only in the quintet and in the fourth-act mass ensemble, both times briefly. Otherwise, everything that  makes "Carmen" one of a handful of surefire operatic hits worldwide was in evidence here Thursday night.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Pieces of eight, or history versified: EclecticPond Theatre Company's fast-paced 'Wars of the Roses' makes two tetralogies accessible

William Shakespeare mined English history using source material that wouldn't pass muster today, but which formed the reigning national narrative and enabled him to apply both poetic and dramatic genius to ancient struggles for his nation's crown, all the while enhancing his growing reputation.

EclecticPond Theatre Company currently is offering a heart-healthy feast of the eight history
plays under the title "The Wars of the Roses." Early Sunday evening at the Irvington Lodge, I took in two of the eight — all put into fighting trim of less than an hour each — "Henry IV, Part 2" and "Henry V."

Not all that is trimmed out of these two plays is dispensable, of course, but to stress that would be to take a purist's view. On balance, I think these reductions work not only as tours de force for ETC's eight-person troupe, but also as a way of presenting some mighty historical dramas to a public that is unlikely to encounter the eight plays outside a festival setting.

In "Henry IV, Part 2," the conspiracy against which King Henry IV battles is efficiently sketched in, as his health declines and he frets about the wild oats sown by the heir to the throne.  In the realm of the future Henry V, the most eminent of the dissolute Prince Hal's companions, Sir John Falstaff, becomes in this production a lesser man dramatically if not in girth.

Prince Hal contemplates the crown as his father lies dying.
Of course, a substantially full-length version would scrupulously detail the disparate worlds the Prince bridges, eventually crossing over into the loftier one. In "Henry V," Hal's guilty conscience about his youthful misbehavior is eased by the patriotic task he takes on as a crowned monarch, under dubious legal authority, to subjugate France. The triumphant warrior as well as the painfully reformed successor to Henry IV was portrayed well by Zachariah Stonerock.

What I missed in Stonerock's performance Sunday, which may have been among the sacrifices that ruthless cutting entails, was a sense of Henry V's complexity. That would include, to accompany his growing political skill, a flawed moral nature that eventually (and eagerly) takes on deadlier forms than it could ever have assumed back when he was whiling away the hours in an Eastcheap tavern.
King Henry V dismisses his old chum Falstaff.

In contrast with the original, ETC's lowlife is largely dispensed with once Falstaff disappears. The fat knight conveniently collapses at the end of "Henry IV, Part 2," and this version doesn't even give him Mistress Quickly's sweet prose eulogy in "Henry V".

To the recorded accompaniment of muttered shouts and galloping horses, the warfare between the French and the invading English is quickly dispatched, The sense that a nation's fate hangs in the balance comes through. Once the turn in English fortunes toward victory is whipsawed into place, the alliance through marriage of Henry and the King of France's daughter, Catherine, is carefully staged.

EclecticPond's production, under the direction of Polly Heinkel, slows to a more measured pace in the charming dialogue between Henry and Katherine, royals untested in romance  negotiating the language barrier and flirting delicately. It's almost as if their impending union had not been virtually sealed in the coagulating blood (chiefly French) of the battlefield at Agincourt. Still, it was hard to mind the spaciousness of this dialogue in contrast to most of what preceded it, especially given the tenderness with which Stonerock and Frankie Bolda (as Katherine) handled the final scene.

The difficulty of staging the nation-shaping events of "Henry V" is directly addressed by the playwright in the initial speech of the Chorus, whose essential message remains intact here. Reliance on the Chorus elsewhere and the tendency of the monarch to speak expansively and formally — as if for all time — indicate Shakespeare's desire to have pageantry and patriotism rub shoulders with drama on equal terms. "O for a muse of fire to ascend," indeed!

That double purpose renders "Henry V" particularly inviting to cut. At this historical remove, the impression Shakespeare may have wanted to make on his Tudor sovereign can afford to be slighted somewhat. What remains is a brisk survey of Henry's maturation, statecraft, and appetite for conquest. It's stripped of some of its grandeur, perhaps, but comes fully alive in the energy and skill with which the ETC cast puts across the essence of these two plays.

[Photos by Zed Martinez]

Monday, June 9, 2014

Kent Leslie advocates for contemporary music for horn

Kent Leslie is a teacher and freelance Indianapolis hornist.
Since so much of the theory and practice of classical music involves the works of men (almost invariably) who are long gone from the scene, many musicians relish collaboration with living composers.

Even if no consultation takes place, just knowing that a composer shares some of your own reality can bring vividness and inspiration to the hard work of getting a piece ready for the public. Of course, this means that a musician's comfort zone can't be too narrow. Kent Leslie has a wide one, all right.  Some of it was evident in the recital he gave with Amanda Asplund Hopson Sunday afternoon at Meridian Music in Carmel.

There were a couple of premieres among the six pieces. Concluding the program was Frank Felice's "Honk!" — named for what most of us do with horns as motorists — and it was aptly positioned, with its cheeky energy and idiomatic borrowings from funk and blues music. These are among genuine non-classical interests of both the composer and the recitalist, who was saluted by Felice in oral program notes for both his championship of contemporary composers and his expert knowledge of the music of Alice Cooper.

"Honk!" displayed some tight riffs, plus the rhythmically tense pauses and turnarounds characteristic of the genres it drew inspiration from. It included flashy, smeared horn slides probably in imitation of the electric guitar, as well as percussive effects and fuzzy-bass mimicry on the piano. It was not excessively showy, however, or a forgettable Spike-Jonesy hoot. On first hearing, it came across as an honest, exuberant tribute to the duo's capabilities as well as to its remote aesthetic sources.

The other premiere was a different kind of tribute, reflective of bassoonist-composer Robert Broemel's interest in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, which he traced back to an inspiring high-school German teacher.  His "Buddha," for unaccompanied horn (adapted from its solo-bassoon original), followed the phrasing of the German text in a lyrical manner. The poem provided an impetus for the horn line's strong and weak stresses, nicely distributed over the course of the meditative piece.

Other composers present for the recital also had their say before Leslie performed their works. James Beckel's "Primitive Modern" is a response to 9/11 juxtaposing our technological advancement (symbolized by Leslie's accompaniment, a synthesized recording) with our emotional makeup, with its good and bad consequences. There was some catch-as-catch-can interplay between the two voices, but the expressive edge was naturally given to the horn. Leslie coordinated well with the recording while giving himself expressive latitude.

Jody Nagel spoke with humorous self-effacement of his early "As You Like It," for horn and piano. Modest in ambition, the piece evinced a floating lyricism, grounded in the language of impressionism. It made for a nice "palate freshener" between the mystical "Buddha" and the cheeky "Honk!"

Before intermission, the demonstrative novelty "T. Rex" by Mark Schultz challenged Leslie from the get-go with its high sustained notes before that "Little Feet" movement yielded to its companion, "Big Feet/Fast Feet." Here we got ominous breathing through the horn at the beginning and end, and in between, some thundering menace out of the piano, as the horn more or less represented the reptilian predator's physicality above those approaching footsteps. It was a delightful chamber tone poem in miniature.

A third player joined Hopson and Leslie for Eric Ewazen's "Ballade, Pastorale and Dance," the program's longest work.  Flutist Andrea Raes lent her rounded tone and smoothly deployed energy to the three-movement piece, which seemed gratifyingly written for the three instruments. They worked well together in putting the work across.

The Pastorale movement relied on the positive associations of the countryside as musical convention interprets them. The third-movement "Dance" got off to an oddly European start, with something more indicative of the sort of dance idiom you might expect from an American composer later on. The ambitious opening movement, "Ballade," used a laid-back theme to set the stage for a motoric fast section, which seemed to owe a lot to the finale of Samuel Barber's Piano Concerto. On the whole, while pieces that performers enjoy playing deserve to be programmed, "Ballade, Pastorale and Dance" had too much of a been-there, listened-to-that feeling for me to share in that enjoyment.

Kudos are in order to Leslie for his dedication to bringing to the public music that solidifies and extends his instrument's legacy. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

A handful of 20th- and 21st-century chamber operas hits IndyFringe Theatre

Even at its smallest scale, opera does something outsize with the sketchiest drama. A succinct demonstration of the art form's capacity to be larger than life when verbal expression is set to music is being presented this weekend at IndyFringe Theatre. (The second and final performance is at 3 this afternoon.)

Intimate Opera of Indianapolis' "Hoosier Connections" presents five operas in just over an hour. They cover a wide range of topic and character, although the tiny format threatens to lend them the hit-or-miss quality of haiku. In some sense, the brevity they share tends to dominate the impressions they make on the audience.

The program title didn't apply in the case of the opener, Samuel Barber's "A Hand of Bridge." But launching "Hoosier Connections" with a major composer's minor work helped dial back the audience's expectations even as it set rather a high bar for the other composers.

Barber's piece opens up the conflicts among two couples that gather regularly to play cards. As the game proceeds, four interior monologues are fleshed out operatically to indicate what each player is really thinking about.

All the solos are  individually characterized by Barber, giving something substantial for Detra Carter, Emmi Malcomson, Blake Kendall and Christopher Parker to express. And so they did, directed by Amy Hayes and Steven Linville, with Linville conducting and Hidetaka Niiyama at the electric piano.

Based on what followed, the best lesson the other composers could learn from Barber is not to overload the instrumental accompaniment, nor to make it heavily parodistic. Both errors tend to swamp the singing, which should of course be foremost. And the singing was magnificent in the main role of  John Chittum's perplexing "Cake."  Mariele Gonzalez played Sarah, the troubled customer of a bakery, whose cake order is much more than a routine business transaction, involving supernatural matters and questions of personal identity.

Chittum's barbed score made extensive use of dissonances of the tone-cluster type, and also relied overmuch on a pounding instrumental pulse. It would seem the scenario's serious nature could have been communicated without so dense an accompaniment. Among Gonzalez's triumphs in the role was to consistently rise above the accompaniment's busyness.

Turning to the domestic comedy of "The Sands of Time," the muse of Peter Reynolds moved him in a Mozartean direction. A marital spat is resolved, for the time being, by the arrival of good news at the door. The two-person Chorus, deliverer of the glad tidings, was brightly sung by Rachel Konchinsky-Pate and Carissa Riedesel. But the quarreling couple (Sarah O'Brien and Thom Brown) was somewhat hampered by the scenario's sketchiness.

Flat characters can be a burden even in the spacious dramas of traditional opera. In mini-operas, flatness might as well be embraced. That is what Bill Kloppenburg does in the cartoonish science-fiction scenario of "Fear Not the Robot."  With helpful posters displayed on and removed from a tripod to one side of the stage to signal each scene, the work bubbles along. It's perky under the direction of Linville,  and the visual elements — chiefly puppets, dominated by decorated handheld canisters for the comically menacing robots — enhanced the effect. "Fear Not the Robot" worked well, in other words, as well-balanced musical theater, even at a trivial level of ambition.

More searching in its implications was Scott Perkins' "Charon," presented in its two-piano-arrangement premiere in this production. A character study of the legendary ferryman to the underworld, the work in this performance benefited hugely from the committed portrayal of the title character by bass-baritone Jerome Sibulo.

The character's anguish — the hooded figure hates his job — was well-suited to the vocal line. The accompaniment, despite twice as much keyboard potential as the other operas, was never overbearing. The souls whom Charon ferries across the Styx had a range of reactions to their journey that were nicely delineated by the cast. The plague of memory-sucking mosquitoes each is tormented by becomes a device cleverly turned upon Charon at the end.

Here was an opera that had a firm sense of the dramatic uses of brevity. Like "A Hand of Bridge," it is basically an anecdote, but, in this performance, one that seemed sure of itself. It was neither too eager to  overwhelm the audience, like a mini-"Erwartung," nor overmodest  in settling into short-form operatic constraints.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Two musical stars with long-range buzz share the spotlight in Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's classical season finale

Joshua Bell builds on his legacy.
For a composer who was quickly and permanently lionized by his countrymen, Jean Sibelius carried a nagging sense of failure throughout his long life. In his Violin Concerto — the centerpiece of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Classical Series finale this weekend — the focus of his shortcomings is palpable regret about not being a violin virtuoso.

Many commentators have pointed this out, as well as calling attention to the odd manner in which Sibelius manipulated the work's premiere, almost ensuring a debut marred by a journeyman fiddler's performance. Masters of the violin have taken the piece up over the past century, however, up through such performances as the one Joshua Bell offered Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

The Bloomington native dependably blended vulnerability and bravado in his interpretation. At 46, Bell has balanced those qualities so enchantingly that he could be called the Frank Sinatra of the violin: There is both "Only the Lonely" and "Sinatra at the Sands" in his psychological makeup as an artist. The Sibelius concerto provides opportunities to express the full range of such qualities, especially when they are linked to a technique as assured as Bell's.

Krzysztof Urbanski and the ISO provided a sympathetic setting, from the first notes — the violin sections' muted murmur — to the final threefold thump punctuating an ascending sequence for the soloist. The first movement's torrential orchestra tuttis were expertly judged — convulsive passages both answered and anticipated by the soloist. Bell's reading of the cadenza was stylish and galvanic, and by the end of the movement his crisp rhythms and laser-like tone had captured the composer's bold side.

The second movement emphasized the wistfulness of the failed concert artist who chose to sublimate his feelings about the path closed to him by giving generations of better violinists his tenderest melody. Nobody wrote more eloquently for paired woodwinds than Sibelius, and the ISO players rose to the occasion to introduce the soloist's entrance, with its aching nostalgia embodied in Bell's playing. At the end of that movement, the horns likewise blended superbly, though not quite as softly as the score indicates.

The finale opened at too fast a pace. You needn't subscribe to the beloved description of this music as "a polonaise for polar bears" to find that some heaviness is needed at the start to represent the movement's unique character. Despite the virtuosity required of the soloist, this isn't one of those whirlwind finales of which so many of Sibelius' violin-concerto predecessors were fond.

The marking is "Allego ma non tanto," and there was some scanting of the "but not too much" suggestion; still, there were admirable adjustments of the tempo as the movement proceeded. But flashiness, of which Bell is amply capable, isn't of prime significance here. Fortunately, there was enough sturdiness and drive in the performance to maintain the score's groundedness (doggedly represented in the lower strings) while keeping the forward motion thrilling.

The concert opened with six first-desk ISO string players presenting the tidily constructed but somewhat woozy sextet from Richard Strauss' opera "Capriccio." This was a novel curtain-raiser that had the Bell-minded capacity audience quite spellbound. Much credit for creating that effect must go to concertmaster Zach De Pue, who showed exemplary leadership of the ensemble.

Before the concerto, the annual presentation of the "Patch" Award (named after the legendary ISO violinist-conductor Renato Pacini) went to assistant principal contrabassist Robert Goodlett, whose 40-plus years' service to the orchestra has included everything from dedicated volunteer coaching of students to managing the musicians' online newsletter and social-media presence during the 2012 lockout.

Urbanski brought something special to "New World."
Most of the Bell devotees remained to keep the hall full for Urbanski's interpretation of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 in E minor ("From the New World"), a warhorse that was  a favorite of John Nelson, ISO music director from 1977 to 1987. Friday's performance had considerable emotional depth, and not only in the famous "Largo," with its plaintive English-horn solo (capably rendered by Roger Roe). Apart from a shaky first chord, the movement was splendid throughout. The flute-led episode, said to be inspired by an Indian funeral in Longfellow's "Hiawatha," was just as distinguished as the English-horn theme.

Also notable about this performance was the decision to repeat the first movement's compact exposition. Even though the piece is familiar to audiences, so much is gained proportionally by not gliding into the development without solidifying the presentation of the material. And nothing could have been better than the dancing elan of the third movement, keyed to Jack Brennan's precise timpani, and the sweet contrast provided by its gracefully played Trio section.

But the performance's crowning glory (as Dvorak designed it) was the finale. The most remarkable aspect of the performance was the way Urbanski elicited full respect for every iteration of melodies from this and the prior movements. It's easy to encounter performances where these delightful scraps emerge as no more than decorative reminders. Urbanski, on the other hand, seemed to be saying: "Dvorak had sound reasons for bringing forward these melodies each time he does so, and we're  going to honor all of them." It was a most insightful emphasis, bodied forth completely in the orchestra's performance.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Two seasoned trumpet masters take different tacks in post-bop small-group style

Mark Buselli has a heartwarming new CD
With all the nonstop cross-fertilization in today's jazz, it may be doubtful to find stylistic regionalism on the contemporary scene. But here are two excellent examples of trumpeter-led small groups whose new recordings indicate contrasting aspects of East Coast and Midwestern sensibilities.

From Mark Buselli, director of jazz studies at Ball State University who is well-known for his trumpet, flugelhorn and congas work around town here, comes "Untold Stories" (OA2 Recordings). And from David Weiss, a native New Yorker and veteran of its jazz scene widely respected for his compositions as much as for his trumpet-playing, issues "When Words Fail" (Motema).

David Weiss converts personal loss into musical treasure.
I don't want to make too much of regional differences, but on the strength of these two fine recordings, you can hear from Buselli and his quintet a more relaxed, open-hearted, genial approach to music-making. With Weiss and his sextet, there is an edgier sound, energetic and troubled, more attuned to the shimmer and disruptions of life in the Big Apple.

 There's no denying the abundant pleasures in "Untold Stories," yet "When Words Fail," while also offering much to enjoy, is the more profound recording.  Profundity in jazz can be a mixed blessing, of course; its presence may be welcome or distracting.

Blurring my notion of New York edginess vs. Midwestern geniality, Weiss' recording should be of interest to Hoosier jazz fans from Track 1 on: "The Intrepid Hub" is a Freddie Hubbard tribute and has that hard-charging Freddie freshness, including a good Weiss solo full of warm, glinting phrases. But there is a more specific memorial cast to "When Words Fail," too: Within this band's personnel is an example of the recent personal losses that Weiss has had to process: Bassist Dwayne Burno died shortly after the recording was finished, and the title tune was named in his honor.

It makes for a great memorial, but an even more effective monument, "Loss," is my favorite on this disc. The whole band seems to reach deep into wherever they protect what means most to them, then they bring it out and display it here; the compositional vehicle is commodious and life-affirming, even in the midst of the mood of restrained lamentation.

Weiss seems to be one of those intuitive bandleaders whose compositions deliver expertly for particular personnel.  Alto saxophonist Myron Walden works wonders in "Wayward," a rare example of a showcase for one band member. Generally speaking, everyone is evenly represented: Weiss has the Stricklands — Marcus and E.J. — on tenor sax and drums, respectively. The sometimes cryptic, sometimes effusive Xavier Davis weighs in on piano. Guitarist Ben Eunsen augments the ensemble on a couple of tunes.

Buselli benefits from the compositional knack of Steve Allee, the shrewd, inventive pianist of his band here.  The Indianapolis/Brown County pianist's usual trio mates — bassist Jeremy Allen and drummer Steve Houghton — complete the rhythm section.  Joining Buselli in the front line is saxophonist Danny Walsh, a protean improviser — Adderley-like when he picks up the alto, a little harder to place as a tenorman, but quite adept in any case.

Buselli's pieces are the title track and "Claude," a flugelhorn feature for him in memory of pianist Claude Sifferlen that puts his lyrical gifts in the spotlight. Of Allee's pieces, I particularly enjoyed the faux-exotic "Istanbul," which includes an outstanding Allen solo.

The straightforward charm of the whole disc is notable. This is not cotton-candy music, though it is readily appealing. And while we're on "palate imagery," Buselli continues to exemplify something that plays hide-and-seek with jazz fans all too often:  good taste. The pieces are well-proportioned, the ensemble playing is tight and to the point, the solos never run too long, the rare fadeout (as on Ellington's "Angelica") doesn't seem like an excuse for not knowing how to end a song.

Both discs are treasures all around. In every jazz period and subgenre, from classic New Orleans to now, the trumpet reigns supreme.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Pre-eminent orchestral training ground for young musicians has put a smooth leadership transition in place

Not many founders of artistic organizations enjoy the advantage of having mentored their successors for half their lives.

Susan Kitterman will be NWYSO artistic director for one more season.
Susan Kitterman, founder and artistic director of the New World Youth Symphony Orchestras, occupies such an enviable position as she prepares to retire at 62. She will yield artistic directorship of the young people's ensemble she founded in 1982 to Adam Bodony, a trombonist-conductor who came up through the organization, from student member to executive director.

In an interview, Kitterman recalled the day her son Ben came home from school at Hamilton Southeastern and told her: "There's a new freshman baritone player in the band who I think is a real musician."

Remembering  the endorsement of her oldest child (now a dobro/pedal-steel player with country musician Aaron Lewis), Kitterman invited the baritone-playing freshman to an informal audition. Impressed, she told him he would need to learn an orchestral instrument in order to join New World. In the course of a year, Adam had switched to trombone, and by his junior year, he was sitting first chair in the New World YSO (the top ensemble of three now under the the New World Youth Orchestras umbrella).

Bodony went on to major in religious studies and trombone at DePauw University in Greencastle, then took a master's in trombone performance at Indiana University.  Along the way, he kept in touch with Kitterman and her organization, sometimes leaving the intense environment of graduate school to visit Indianapolis and sit in on New World rehearsals.

"He gets the New World mission," said Kitterman — a mission she has often described as addressing the whole person, not just the musician, in each member. "I've seen how much of an impact he is having on students," she added, referring to his progress from consultant and leader of sectional rehearsals to conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestra.

 "She instilled in me the same values she had," Bodony explained. "With all the tools she's given me, she trusts me. She made me feel special, (but) we all felt important in New World."

Adam Bodony is the orchestras' artistic director designate.
Along the way, Bodony has helped the organization surmount a budgetary crisis for two years starting in 2010, after which a $40,000 annual shortfall came to light. With Kitterman and Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra assistant principal bassist Robert Goodlett, he launched an aggressive recruitment campaign that reversed a 25 percent membership loss. Tuition payments increased, a major factor in righting the financial ship, given that tuition is 60 percent of the organization's income. Now its three orchestras have a total of 180 members.

Bodony reports that the organization's books are balanced as it prepares to head into the 2014-15 season. The transitional year will find both Kitterman and Bodony on the podium for concerts at Hilbert Circle Theatre. His title will be artistic director designate, and he will continue as executive director.

"It will be good for me to get more on-the-job training," Bodony admitted, though the 29-year-old's conducting skills have already been acknowledged by other organizations: He is the new artistic director of the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra and, as assistant conductor of the Missouri Symphony Orchestra,  will be on the podium for several of its "Hot Summer Nights" festival performances this summer.

Kitterman is stepping aside for two personal reasons — making a greater commitment to personal care for her mother, an Alzheimer's patient living in Arlington Heights, Ill., and helping her daughter, Katie, open and run a bakery in Fortville.

But there are musical reasons as well. "She sees New World as something bigger than her," Bodony explained. "She is humble about that. She realizes that she could conduct for another 10 years, but she knows that may not be best for the orchestra.  She's the first person to tell people that this is what she wants, that it's time to do this."

Kitterman's role after next season is yet to be determineed.  Bodony predicts she will continue in some kind of board or adviser position "forever," but she won't be hovering: "She wants the organization to find its own identity."

"The thing that gives me the most confidence is that I know that I know him," Kitterman said of Bodony. "He has the best interests of the organization at heart. He's done a lot to further his career, and it's really fun for me to see him coming into his own."

Kitterman's preparation to do what she's done for more than 30 years was a process she describes as more "seat-of-the-pants."  She started the string program at Carmel Junior High School, remaining with the district for four years, then took time off to start a family.

She really missed working with young people, however, and began New World as a smaller, more focused alternative to the large locally based youth orchestra that was then based at Butler University.  Choosing the right repertoire for the forces she has at her command, starting with the 18 string players in the original New World, has been a guiding principle for Kitterman throughout her career. So has encouragement of the best students' musical careers, but always with bracing realism about the difficulties — and the insistence that the inner urge to become professional must be strong.

"Adam is coming to the job with a more focused skill set," she said. "He's got the passion, and he's got all these other things as well.  I did what I could do best, to the best of my ability. He's going to do great things."

Fourth Wall Ensemble at the library: Hourlong, quick-change artistry in 'Fruit Flies Like a Banana,' plus a new work

From the firm foundation of the ever-ripening "Fruit Flies Like a Banana," the Fourth Wall Ensemble at Central Library put forward a new piece addressed to longer attention spans. It made a challenging companion to the whimsically titled variety show that was a hit for the trio at last summer's Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival.

Just as its "hybrid arts" innovations embrace dance, theater, and music, its programming ranges over the head-spinning variety of "Fruit Flies," with the clock counting off an hour into which Fourth Wall tries to pack as many audience-selected repertoire items as possible.  And, in this instance, it ends with  the 25-minute "Cinquillamente," a piece written for the flute-trombone-percussion trio by Dominican composer Jose Guillermo Puello.

You rarely get straight-up music-making from the Fourth Wall.
It's always a thrill to hear new music, particularly for unconventional ensembles. There the resourcefulness of a composer is tested, and perhaps some avenue his or her imagination had not previously considered is the pathway to new vistas. "Cinquillamente" also places the musicians unconventionally.  They move in a reverse phased withdrawal from the back wall to, well, the Fourth Wall — as close to the audience as possible.

In the course of the work, each of the musicians is showcased at the front edge of the stage. But their rapport is sealed by pairings — especially of trombone and flute — across a wide expanse of stage. Sometimes the dynamic level is so soft as to make each of the wind instruments seem unrelated to its unlikely partner; the percussionist holds down several middle positions, acting as both a goad and a kind of mediator, on drums and mallet instruments.

The work immediately commanded the space of the Clowes Auditorium at Central Library with initial heavy blows on a large bass drum. The repeated booms resonantly defined the space to be filled, sometimes quite subtly, by the music that followed.

Spatial analogues were wide in terms of pitch as well: often flutist Hilary Abigana was tootling mercilessly on the piccolo, whose shrillness acquired a ghostly aura when set against the samba whistle the percussionist Greg Jukes wore about his neck. C. Neil Parsons' bass trombone was left both to represent the traditional nobility and ceremonial hauteur of his instrument, but also (especially when muted) a plaintive partner to the flutes.

I liked the compactness of the subdued ending. There was no lingering after the work's climactic moments in order to drive home the abiding separateness of the three musicians. Music of some older eras could afford to belabor its points as part of a shared aesthetic. The best postmodernism (if that's what we are still in the midst of) is impatient with underlining. Puello did not dawdle in wrapping up his trio ruminations over distance — in both its spatial and musical aspects.

All three musicians were facing the back wall, motionless, at the very end. What was left in our minds by such a restrained theatrical ending was a stream of strong memories of how they made fragile yet energetic forays into true partnership over the span of a work that had started with such a shattering call to attention.

The virtuosity and enthusiasm of "Fruit Flies Like a Banana" is always fun to see, though the format resembles a new genre: call it "hybrid-arts calisthenics." About two dozen pieces raced by within 60 minutes. On the traditional side, deft arrangements of three ("Menelaus," "Tired," and "Hands, Eyes, and Heart") of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Four Last Songs were tender and expressive. The song texts, by the English composer's wife, Ursula, were recited in advance by the musicians.

In contrast, the manic energy of "8 Track Mind," a medley of 1980s pop hits, and the risky whirling and leaping of the Russian Dance from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" never fail to amaze. Coordination among the three Fourth Wallers remains steady both physically and musically. And, as promised by the hidden half of the show's title, time indeed flies like an arrow.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Standing my ground in dreamland

Sweet dreams, baby!

It's been a difficult decision, and I won't have the support of all my friends and family, but it's time I stopped dreaming unarmed.

This is a simple assertion of rights long claimed, and even endorsed by legally constituted authorities, in the waking world. For various reasons, I've not followed up in that sphere by purchasing any weaponry, getting trained in its proper use, and complying with the minimal regulations that apply to U.S. citizens.

But those hurdles are absent in the dream world, which I assume also enjoys the unassailable protection afforded to all Americans by the Second Amendment.   And when I'm dreaming, I've come to deplore my vulnerability. I'm at the mercy of any threat, whether truly evil or simply weird, that may enter a given dream scenario.

It seems foolish to continue counting on waking up to escape the threat. Besides, even though I wake up every time (so far), it often feels too late. My sleep, which I depend on under the Jeffersonian promise of "the pursuit of happiness," has been disturbed. A daytime worry has been magnified out of all proportion. People I normally trust have gotten away with peculiar behavior that might have been checked with a well-timed shot into the air. What benefit do I get out of maintaining dreamland as a gun-free zone?

Now, it will be objected that if I provide my dreams with potentially deadly force, carried on my person, I've simply made them more dangerous. That's a risk I'm willing to take, because the net result will be to make my dream world a safer place.

You see, when I dream, I'm one of the "good guys," sometimes the only one. And, as we've been told over and over in our waking lives, the best solution to the problem of a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. That will be me now.  I can go to sleep with a heightened sense of security, knowing I'm prepared with superior firepower and the knowledge of how to use it.

Others will point out that guns aren't the answer to every dream danger, such as riding in a roller coaster that leaps the track and goes hurtling into space. That's how it may look now, but in most such situations, I'm sure I can figure out that there must be somebody to blame, perhaps to shoot. Just brandishing my Glock and frowning might be sufficient to extract a sincere apology. No need to accept being disrespected, is there?

At any rate, I can keep expecting to wake up, free from any legal hassles associated with an injudicious use of weaponry. Even conscious misuse of guns sometimes results in the shooter's exoneration in what we customarily call "the real world."

So I'm feeling pretty good about falling off to sleep equipped with a premeditated dream arsenal, locked and loaded. Nonetheless, I thought all my friends and acquaintances first deserved this friendly warning. Even those I haven't seen since fourth grade make appearances in my dreams, so I it's only fair you guys should know about this, too.

Don't sneak up behind me or make any sudden movements, unless I'm dreaming that you're dancing or something. Keep your hands in view at all times, and nobody gets hurt. My right to self-protection comes first, I'm sure you understand.

It's worth a shot anyway.