Wednesday, July 30, 2014

IVCI jury president joins forces with distinguished former student and Curtis Institute colleagues for Bach et al.

Since 1994, Jaime Laredo, who as a teenager studied with Josef Gingold at Indiana University, has presided over the jury of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, which Gingold founded.

Laredo also has had a firm connection with the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he studied with Ivan Galamian and later served on the faculty. In that capacity, one of his students was Jennifer Koh, now well-launched upon a splendid career that embraces advocacy of new music.

Together, on a new Cedille Records release titled "Two x Four," the violinists offer an attractive program of music for strings that highlight two violin soloists.

The disc opens with a fleet, engaging account of "the Bach Double," as J.S. Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in D minor is familiarly known. Coordination with the accompanying orchestra — the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble, conducted by Vinay Parameswaran,  is tidy and animated.

I'm impressed with the unity of expression and phrasing so essential in blending the parallel solo voices in tight partnership. The tone is vibrato-heavy but still idiomatic to modern-instrument interpretation of this masterpiece. The orchestra practically amounts to a third solo voice — so unified is it under Parameswaran's direction.

Three works by contemporary composers fill out the disc admirably. Two of the pieces were written in 2012 at Koh's instigation. In Anna Clyne's "Prince of Clouds," there's immense variety of depth and color, with the solo violins occupying space at various removes from the orchestra. The composition is both dreamy and intense, characterized by slashing chords and pauses at several points. Gigue-like dance rhythms stand out well into  the 13-and-a-half-minute work, but the piece generally follows its own laws of motion, fascinating from first to last.

David Ludwig's "Seasons Lost" (the other 2-year-old work) has a political-environmental point to make in evoking the traditional distinctness of each season in the northern temperate climate — before climate change knocked such characteristics askew.

He's assigned a number to each season, reflecting the governing texture of each movement  — from the severity of Winter's unisons through a bluster of quartet writing in the finale, Fall. The coming bleakness is suggested there, providing a cyclical sense of closure with an abrupt but consonant ending. Earlier, the way the music breaks out in a kind of climatic violence seems earned and unforced. The two middle movements — Spring, whose intertwining duo evokes the Bach Double; and Summer, with its trios rising and falling past each other against a lush, heavy ensemble center — are likewise well-crafted and freshly pictorial.

Philip Glass' 1995 "Echorus" is a steady, meditative piece that seems to come from the spiritual side of this prolific composer, exploring some of the atmosphere breathed in with devotion by Arvo Part. Its reserved demeanor is well-placed between the two ambitious pieces by the young composers.

The sound is sensuous, clear, and attractively textured throughout, without glare or excessive resonance.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Great American Songbook Competition puts young people's talents in touch with evergreen songs

Most of the songs presented in the annual Great American Songbook High School Vocal Academy and Competition are older than I am. The participants who interpret them are young enough to be my grandchildren.

So I have this enviable middle position each year, looking both to the future and to the past. In Friday's conclusive competition at the Palladium, I found most of the youthful vocalists astonishingly mature in their appearance and interpretations. That middle position was thus reinforced more than ever — a happy place to be.

This blog post won't attempt to review pluses and minuses about the performances of 24 songs, two by each of the 12 finalists brought to Carmel for the  past week to go through master classes, workshops and rehearsals on the way to Friday's finale.

Though I wasn't attempting to pick a favorite during the lengthy program, I tweeted some impressions during intermission and a few afterward. Of the 2014 Songbook Ambassador — the competition's top honor — I sent this to Twitter before the results of the judging were announced: "A mature communicator in both her songs, finalist Maddie Baillio displayed star potential." She deserves the $3,000 award and the wealth of performance opportunities promised over the next year.
Maddie Baillio came out on top of the competition's largest finalist field ever.

Her choices made for an inspired contrast: a deeply intimate "Misty," suggestive of Ella Fitxgerald's way with ballads, and "Murder, He Says," a period piece skewering repetitive slang. made famous by Betty Hutton and sung by Baillio with the requisite pizazz. (Today a male version of the song might well be titled, "Awesome, She Says.")

Before Baillio and two other singers were honored, jury chairman and artistic director Michael Feinstein had a slightly disturbing announcement: Judge-mentor Cheryl Bentyne missed the evening because "she had a gig."

That raised a few questions in my mind: Did Bentyne's engagement come up suddenly, necessitating the interruption of her commitment to the competition? If it didn't, might it not be a good idea for future contracts with Feinstein's distinguished colleagues to include a no-escape clause of some kind?

Here's the problem: If an expert in this repertoire has been engaged to observe and coach these youngsters throughout the week, he or she is sure to make a crucial contribution to judging the finals.  The Songbook Foundation could do the public a service by indicating that the competition is to some extent made up of the impressions each finalist makes in the days preceding the finale, if that's true. Who's got the personality, the flexibility, the potential charisma, the chops, and the capacity to learn?

Bentyne's absence Friday ought to be put in perspective: She might have provided detailed input to Feinstein and the other judges about such matters before she left town. And that's good.

Perhaps the competition evening is really an opportunity for the public to share imaginatively in the long process of selecting the best high-school exponents of the Great American Songbook in 31 states (the contest's expanded reach). Perhaps the performances that night are just to confirm the decisions the jury has informally made, and only a substandard outing  by an award frontrunner might tweak the short list.

I don't think there's any scandal here. It's just that the audience that filled the Palladium Friday night ought to know whether or not the competition's three prizes are determined only by the performances they are witnessing. And if everything is riding on that suspenseful event — and the rest is the essential, laudable but noncompetitive "academy" — the full jury should be present until the end.

Michael Feinstein listens to Grayson Samuels during a master class.
Songbook Inspiration award-winner Nia Savoy.
Readers of this blog post may link these thoughts to the fact I have a slight disagreement with one of the other two decisions, but I urge separate consideration.  I've raised a point that should have its validity assessed regardless of my preference for either Paige Brown or Milla Guerra as the recipient of one of the $1,000  awards — equal honors newly dubbed the Songbook Celebration Award (won by finalist Grayson Samuels) and the Songbook Inspiration Award (Nia Savoy).

Savoy offered a stunning version of "Solitude," with daring, expressive pauses that held the audience spellbound. But her other choice, "A Night in Tunisia," is not a "great American song." It's an evergreen bebop instrumental, Dizzy Gillespie's greatest hit, which doesn't translate well into an actual song, with lyrics. Some compositions that begin life as instrumentals are later marvelously repurposed for singers, "Misty" being a sublime case in point.

Others don't translate so well, and Savoy's choice of "A Night in Tunisia" tested her sorely and indicated her need for further seasoning. The lyrics are mediocre at best and contradict the tune's liveliness with their vision of the shopworn image of nocturnal peace.  The text and the tune both handicapped Savoy, in my view. This wasn't the only contestant choice that seemed ill-advised (why is a 15-year-old singing about serial widowhood, for example?), though such errors were fortunately few.

But the judges felt differently, obviously, and I wish Savoy every success, along with the rest of this generally well-prepared, appealing field of burgeoning vocal stylists and talented extenders of a precious legacy.

Friday, July 25, 2014

In Cincinnati Opera production, Puccini's opera of cultures at cross purposes proves as fresh and affecting as the title-role performance

The wedding celebration in the first act of "Madama Butterfly"
"Madama Butterfly" may be the most intense and protracted of Giacomo Puccini's operatic studies of women as victims. It's got the musical quality needed to support a lengthy unfolding of the title character's tragedy: a teenager in pre-modern Japan casting all her hopes of a better life upon an arranged marriage with an American naval officer.

There was an admirable gravity and patience with the inevitable gathering of doom in the second act, superbly coordinated by conductor Ramon Tebar and stage director Marc Verzatt. The dramatic irony of Butterfly's darkening fate after a faithful nightlong vigil leading to a beautiful dawn was gorgeously realized in Cincinnati Opera's production, which opened at Music Hall on Thursday night.

But as lovers of "Madama Butterfly" well know, even as they are once again drawn into the story, Cio-Cio-San (as she is known in her native Nagasaki) has cut herself loose from all cultural and familial ties. Everything in her life depends on the reciprocation of loyalty by her shallow husband, Lieutenant Pinkerton, and that is not wholeheartedly returned, even at first.
Pinkerton and Butterfly sing of their happiness.

Pinkerton is such a cad that Shawn Mathey drew initial boos at the curtain call, but that was for the character the tenor portrayed, not his performance. Mathey managed the difficult task making Pinkerton mostly unattractive, his jingoism underlined by the score's quotation of "The Star-Spangled Banner" early in the first act. His nonchalant attitude toward his impending marriage earns a warning from the U.S. consul, Sharpless, played with apt looks of disapproval by Roberto de Candia.

Yet Pinkerton must also seem genuinely swept away once the exotic folderol of a Japanese wedding is concluded, and the friends and relatives have departed. It helps that his machismo has been excited by the stormy appearance of one of Cio-Cio-San's uncles, the Bonze (the other uncle, dramatically extraneous and often dropped, as here, is a comical lush). Pinkerton draws his sword on this ranting monster, and when the lovers are finally alone, their full, moonlit rapture as newlyweds sweeps the first act to its conclusion.

Both Mathey and Maria Luigia Borsi, in her third engagement with Cincinnati Opera, made the most of the love duet. Furthermore, Borsi fully embedded herself in the role throughout. In ther first act, she had the right sort of kittenish innocence; before our eyes and ears, she grew into a young woman fully committed to her decisive life course.  And in the second act, more than three years after that ecstatic night, she was obviously a careworn Cio-Cio-San, keeping her lonely commitment under considerable duress.

Though Borsi's voice "whitened" and lost some warmth up high, it was always intelligently used, accurate and fully expressive of the character's passion and steadfastness. As with Mathey, she was sensitive to the role's dynamic variety, leading up to the verge of being occasionally covered by the orchestra.

De Candia, an Italian baritone with that type's characteristic warm timbre, put across the essential humanity of Sharpless well, handled the consul's "I-told-you-so" moments without seeming pompous, and was (to put it bluntly) possessed of a little extra girth. That made his initial complaint about the rigors of the steep ascent to Butterfly's home both realistic and appealing.

Mezzo-soprano Kelly O'Connor took on vivid personality as the servant Suzuki in the second act, firmly supportive of Cio-Cio-San at every step — vocally so especially in the Flower Duet. Steven
Flower Duet: Maria Luigia Borsi, Kelley O'Connor
Cole had the physical bearing of the officious marriage broker Goro and just the right kind of piping, comic tenor. And you couldn't have asked for a more monstrously imposing Bonze than Reginald Smith Jr., on whom the company's crucially busy makeup department lavished an appearance surely inspired by representations of the grotesque in Japanese art.

Two minor but important roles were well filled. Cio-Cio-San's most persistent suitor during Pinkerton's prolonged absence, Prince Yamadori, was given genuine dignity by Joseph Lattanzi, despite Butterfly's mockery. And, as the tragedy deepens, Adria Caffaro's Kate Pinkerton was statuesque and sympathetic (if helpless).

The staging of the last scene seemed awkward. It drew attention away from the doomed marriage's offspring (a boy called "Sorrow' in the surtitles, "Trouble" in the program book). Though the character requires a silent juvenile given the difficult job of not really knowing what is going on but still showing affection to his mother, the boy is vital as an indicator of the Pinkerton-Butterfly union's tragic legacy.

Some of that was put aside at the very end, with the spotlight on the principals' embrace as Butterfly dies, a reminder of many other opera conclusions but not entirely appropriate for this one. As Ernest Newman comments caustically, Pinkerton "never strikes us as abundantly blessed with either brains or tact." Are we to believe that the remorse he professes to feel at the end overcomes such grave deficiencies?

Everthing else about the direction was visually and dramatically engaging, true to the opera's atmosphere and meaningfully resonant with its music. The gestures with fans and parasols as the wedding party gathers in the first act complemented the handsome setting.

On the individual scale, Borsi's movements during "Un bel di," the opera's contribution to any greatest-hits aria list, were eloquent and beautifully synchronized with Butterfly's detailed vision of Pinkerton's hoped-for return.

A glorious "Un bel di" can be said to justify the most stately and deliberate progress toward Butterfly's final crushing despair — and this performance had both. The Italian soprano must love it in Cincinnati: She acknowledged Thursday's standing ovation by kissing her palm, kneeling to touch her hand to the stage, and then, standing up, brought it back to place over her heart. The mutual affection was well merited.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Revisiting Shakespeare: Why two plays (in current local productions) that examine free will vs. determinism are also obsessed with theater

In its sixth year, the summer Shakespeare production presented by Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre will make a point of bridging the White River State Park reality with the enchanted-island fantasy of "The Tempest."

Familiar to IRT audiences, Robert Neal is HART's Prospero.
"There will be a different look to this production," promises HART producing artistic director Diane Timmerman. "It will bring us into this world — the park is the setting, and also the island" ruled by the main character, the wizard Prospero, played by Robert Neal.

The selection of "The Tempest," the last play Shakespeare wrote on his own, only five years before his death in 1616, is an obvious milestone in the most illustrious career in world theater. Timmerman said HART chose it also for its "magical, all-encompassing" quality in observance of the 450th anniversary of the poet-playwright's birth.

Its presentation July 31 (preview) and Aug. 1 and 2 comes on the heels of another local production of one of the Bard's best-loved plays, "Hamlet," an adaptation by R. Brian Noffke for his Acting Up Productions. Remaining performances — outdoors at Marian University — are July 24, 25 and 26. The show is also notable for the casting of a woman (Lauren Briggeman) as Hamlet in a modern-dress version.

HART began in 2006 as an actor-centered volunteer project to put on shows, sometimes as staged readings, dear to its members' hearts. Productions during the regular season gradually faded from the schedule, but are likely to return with HART's fortunes now on a firmer footing, Timmerman told me, plus a recent link to Butler University. The overwhelmingly professional stature of the company accounts for a considerable part of its expenses.

"There is no change in the company" from an artistic standpoint, she added. "We all share a passion for Shakespeare, but we want to do contemporary work as well."

Ferdinand and Miranda find love on the enchanted isle.
"The Tempest" is directed by a new staff member of Indiana Repertory Theatre, associate artistic director Courtney Sale, whose move to Indianapolis in 2013 was in large part inspired by seeing Neal portray culinary celebrity James Beard in IRT's 2011 production of "I Love to Eat" by James Still, IRT's playwright in residence.

Sale is upfront about her orientation toward visual storytelling. She's not burdened by excessive reverence for Shakespeare's text; the storm scene that opens "The Tempest" will use none of the Bard's words. Much of her past student and professional experience has involved helming "devised" shows — presentations that evolve collectively without a pre-existing script.

Among the aspects of "The Tempest" that move her, she told me, is the extreme youth and innocence of the two young lovers, Prince Ferdinand and Prospero's daughter, Miranda.  "They are really young, and they are the hope for the future," Sale said. So she has cast for fresh-faced ingenuousness in those roles, putting Ross Percell and Zoe Turner in a cast that includes such veterans as Charles Goad, Ryan Artzberger, Ben Tebbe, Mark Goetzinger, Scot Greenwell, and Adam Crowe.

Then there’s the problematic character of Prospero. “I’m fascinated by his difficult nature,” Sale said. “There’s revenge, rage and schemes in Prospero — it’s nice to have that represented. I don’t use a scholarly or cerebral approach to him; I’m making it relational.”

Prospero, like Hamlet, is preternaturally aware of the constraints on free action, a parallel that I explored in May in a half-dozen blog posts under the headline: "Bound and determined: Hamlet, Prospero, and the puzzled will." My six-part series on "Hamlet" and "The Tempest" starts here, and comprises the five posts that follow.

I think one outcome of Prospero's and Hamlet's intense awareness — that control of ourselves, as well as our influence on others, is out of our hands — is the playwright's fascination with his business and his metier: theater itself. Prospero stages a masque to entertain the young lovers, whose eventual union is part and parcel of his scheme to get justice for himself. Life intrudes in the form of a clownish but potentially dangerous conspiracy to overthrow him, and art must yield. A fussy, self-conscious stage manager, as Northrop Frye has pointed out, finds it difficult to allow anything to happen as it will.

Prospero had been forced from his dukedom in Milan by his wily brother, with the connivance of Alonso, the King of Naples, and has established dominion by magical means over an island inhabited only by the beastly Caliban. The ousted duke's enemies are now under his control, along with several high and low characters, as shipwreck survivors following the storm the magician and his servant sprite Ariel engineered. 

Theater is an art in which the contradictions of freedom and determined action are necessarily balanced by actors. They have, of course, rehearsed the course of the characters' lives to the extent the playwright has set it out. But from moment to moment as they play their parts, they have to act as if they don't know how whatever problems the script entangles them in will be resolved.

Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith in 2013 revival of "The Glass Menagerie"
This illusion is essential:  We must share apprehensions of reality with onstage figures who, we are persuaded, are people living within the kind of limits we face every day. Even if we have seen or read "The Glass Menagerie," for example, we have to share a smidgen of Amanda Wingfield's hope that the Gentleman Caller will transform Laura's pathetic existence. If (unlikely though it may be) the actress playing Amanda isn't very good, the certainty that all the anxious mother's plans will end in disappointment floods in upon us. Our capacity to feel can be sucked dry by our determinist demons. 

Tennessee Williams is particularly good at prying out of us an emotional investment in illusions that may be obviously removed from reality. Life has to appear open-ended: the Gentleman Caller could be unattached and become smitten by Laura, who could conceivably rise to the occasion. Amanda's desperate hopefulness has to retain at least a shred of plausibility. Free will and the possibility of change need to be palpable, just as we feel they must be in our lives. Any dramatic production has to make us taste the sweetness of free thought and action moving independently of fate.

This might help explain the apparently self-serving digression of Hamlet's "advice to the players" who visit Elsinore. As his creator's practical experience taught him, Hamlet acknowledges the damage overacting can do to the illusion of free will. An actor chewing the scenery, going beyond an essential simplicity of speech and gesture, calls attention to the artificiality of the stage.

We sense a fatal mimicry in such actors, already overloaded with foreknowledge of where their characters will be at the end of the show — or their disappearance from the stage, whichever comes first. If acting lacks the naturalness of human beings who in fact try to impose their will on events without being sure of the outcome, it is compromised. It's thus more than a matter of bad taste, Hamlet insists (possibly as the voice of Shakespeare himself), when actors "tear a passion to tatters."

We don't want to be reminded that actors know more than their characters, or to accept that their expression must be outsized because everything they do and say is predetermined. In the same manner, away from the stage, actors and audiences alike keep at bay the possibility that all our apparent freedom follows a course set far beyond our ken.

We may be lucky enough to get some knowledge once we have run the course, as Prospero and Hamlet show they have in wonderful speeches near the end of their respective plays. But we can't count on anything like their questionably good fortune. Theater helps us soldier on anyway.

[Photo credit for "The Tempest"/HART: Julie Curry]

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Phoenix ends season with a frothy romantic comedy — but what's in that froth?

In "Miles and Ellie," Don Zolidis draws on his experience as a schoolteacher to set up a bizarre "meet cute" scenario for the young lovers of the title. A couple of 17-year-olds are carrying out a school  assignment to play a married couple negotiating infant care and other woes of early marriage. What could possibly go wrong, right?

High-schoolers Ellie and Miles regard their assigned 'baby.'
The Phoenix Theatre production is in its second week on the Basile Stage, the cozy underground site of the company's more intimate shows, though production values there are full-fledged and departures from realistic style can seem quite at home.

In "Miles and Ellie," home is where the wounded hearts are, a place where Ellie's can be relentlessly tenderized by her older sister's pounding. Ilyana is a brassy, insulting cheerleader whose popularity at school is substantially based on manipulative promiscuity. The insecure and secretly envious Ellie further suffers from the emotional distance of her parents, Bert and Mary, though they are convinced they head a close family  — apart from Bert's extramarital fling of a few years back.

Zolidis concocts from this suffocating environment a first act rich in repartee, some of it accidental, and an abundance of broad, comic self-definition by everyone in the household. Phlegmatic classmate Miles drops himself into the family blender hoping to get through this experiment in empathetic learning without too much trouble. Then the playwright presses the "puree" button and the audience is in for a frothy ride up until intermission.

Bill Simmons directs a cast finely attuned to making two-dimensional characters seem as full-bodied as possible.  Of course, there turns out to be a crucial third dimension to the romantic couple. In Act 2, that emerges with difficulty after a 20-year lapse, following many changes in the lives of the three young people.

Bert and Mary are pretty much the same, just creakier about it. He's a conservative politician bloviating at home to keep in practice in order to make his narrowmindedness seem a matter of principle. Mary is oblivious to anything unpleasant except when she wants to give vent to her fears and prejudices; if she can't own the unpleasantness, she wants no part of it.

The most admirable aspect of Friday's performance was  the solidity of the title couple (Zachariah Stonerock and Lisa Ermel) both as teenagers and as adults approaching 40 with a mix of bitter and merely adequate experience behind them. Miles and Ellie's misunderstanding half a lifetime ago, which was unsurprisingly triggered by sisterly bad blood, requires healing that must extend into the future Miles proposes in the play's last line.

That's the hopeful, practically formulaic conclusion native to this genre, which Zolidis invests with coruscating wit and touches of family absurdity recalling early Edward Albee, with an overlay of relationship maladroitness a la Woody Allen. The playwright tweaks a couple of romantic-comedy cliches, first with a giddy county-fair montage that firms up the Miles-Ellie bond, later with the cinematic blur of the older Ellie running after Miles.

Throughout, Ellie wins our trust by design, as she addresses the audience now and then,  and we are constrained to see matters from her side; except for Miles, the other characters offer few handholds for affection.

Not to mix metaphors — I'll shelve the blender here — but the play's problem is that the second act is inevitably a letdown.  The first act resembles a balloon close to bursting with the air of both nonsense and tension. The second lets the balloon go, and it zips about the room with a sputtering noise until the action lies inert, waiting limply to be picked up for the final tableau of promised reconciliation.

The grown-up family prepares to go out caroling in "Miles and Ellie"
A long dialogue between Ilyana and Ellie, after the sisters' quarrel breaks up the family tradition of Thanksgiving weekend Christmas caroling, felt like eavesdropping on a therapy session of muted hostility. I was surprised to find my interest in both characters — even Ellie —wilting. Trouble is, the scene is necessary, as Ellie has to become clear about the awful mistake she made that led to her breakup with Miles.

The final scene, sweet and slightly predictable, was nevertheless moving, thanks to the unerring rightness of Stonerock and Ermel in both time frames. Carrie Schlatter was dependably abrasive both as the wild, self-centered girl and the pious, self-centered woman that Ilyana becomes. As the parents, Paul Hansen and Jolene Mentink Moffatt command enough variety as comic actors that their characters' verging on caricature never became tedious.

Linda Janosko's set put the middle-class complacency of the home in perspective, with lighting and sound (designed by Laura Glover and Ben Dobler, respectively) shifting smoothly between realism and fantasy — the uneasy bedfellows of Ellie's mental life.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Cincinnati Opera's first Baroque opera production ever probes playing around among the Olympians

Opera's origins among Italian aristocrats couldn't long keep the new art form from making its way with the general public. Among the early output in the post-courtly genre are the 30-odd operas of Francesco Cavalli, whose "La Calisto" opened Thursday night in Corbett Theater at Cincinnati's School for Creative and Performing Arts.

First performed  in Venice in 1651, "La Calisto"has been best known in modern times via Raymond Leppard's "realization." Some thickening of orchestral texture and other inauthentic touches generated sharp criticism of Leppard's work and may have helped prod his departure from his native England, much to the eventual benefit of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Nathalie Paulin portrays a nymph victimized by godly lust.
Not being prepared to assess the musicological niceties connected with staging a centuries-old work, I  need to cite the context provided by Richard Taruskin in his "Oxford History of Western Music." Comparing early "commercial operas" to Broadway musicals, Taruskin says "they existed during their runs and revivals in a ceaseless maelstrom of negotiation and revision...and never attained the status of finished texts....They were esthetic objects  par excellence, not texts but performances, embodying much that was unwritten and unwritable, directed outward at their audience, not at history, the museum, posterity, the classroom....." (And just as with Broadway today, much of the patronage of Venice's public theaters was tourist trade, which helped spread the genre throughout Europe.)

That's the spirit in which Cincinnati Opera has mounted its production, directed imaginatively by Ted Huffman and performed with gusto by a cast of adept equilibrists — equally capable of comedy and searing pathos. Fashioning a production of material as subject to change as Taruskin indicates means that even printed synopses may differ from source to source.
His goatish mates looking on,Pan (Aaron Blake) declares his unquenchable love for Diana.

In Cincinnati, the crowning ensemble in the second act, promising the nymph Calisto residence in the starry firmament after her earthly transformation as a bear is complete, is poignantly followed by the heroine's forlorn solitude onstage to a lovely instrumental passage as the curtain falls. Some synopses suggest instead that the vision of her afterlife is the opera's conclusion.

And the grounded, glowing orb that Mercury leverages back into its heavenly position in the opening scene suggests that the scorched landscape Calisto laments has resulted from Phaeton's reckless driving of his father's sun-chariot more than from the "war between mankind and the gods" the program book blames.

Jove's thunderbolt to bring down Phaeton may have played a role in the destruction, of course, but his restoration effort has an ulterior, not so godly motive: He always relishes having an excuse to come down from Mount Olympus and let his eye rove. Daniel Okulitch made for a commanding figure in his supreme-god outfit, subject as Jove famously was to infidelity. The bass-baritone was also amusing in the god's dogged pursuit of Calisto disguised as the huntress-goddess Diana, displaying a powerful falsetto. Jove's  deception, suggested by Mercury, drives the main plot.

Calisto, sung ardently and accurately by Nathalie Paulin, pays for her gullibility by being exiled from the virgin band by the real Diana, given one of those well-balanced portrayals by Jennifer Johnson Cano. The balance is between the goddess' serious discipline of her followers (performed in leaping, athletic "drag" in this production) and her susceptibility to love's magnetic pull. An intellectual shepherd, Endymion (later a Romantic icon, thanks to the John Keats poem), is the object. He was sung feelingly, with just a few pitch problems, by countertenor Michael Maniaci.

Andrew Garland was a physically nimble, vocally agile Mercury. The messenger god and patron of thieves is ready to serve Jove, and eagerly props up his chief's tendency to project the gods' failings onto womankind, both human and divine. They have a delightfully robust duet to this effect in the second act.

Free of such cynicism — to a fault, perhaps — is the fervent woodland god Pan, convulsed by unrequited love for Diana, with whom he and his shaggy cohorts share the woods and meadows of Arcadia. Aaron Blake superbly invested his robust tenor and effectively over-the-top emotionalism in the role. He was seconded, much to Endymion's pain, by the vivid characterizations of Nathan Stark as the burly oaf Sylvano and Alisa Jordheim as the wily tease Satirino as the main satyrs.

The sexual confusion and ambivalence that pervades the story was furthered in the role of Linfea, an aging companion of Diana tired of her vow of chastity and ready to turn tail, as it were. She had a statuesque pathos in Thomas Michael Allen's performance that also encompassed just enough ridiculousness (much of it involving a banana).

Retribution for sexual wrongs is concentrated, as several Greek myths make clear, in the long-suffering Juno. In "La Calisto," the role is brief but spectacular; Alexandra Deshorties managed Mrs. Jove's virtuosic fury expertly, accompanied by her mute, shrouded furies — who carry out the ursine transformation of the hapless nymph Calisto.

Thursday's performance was conducted with exceptional sensitivity by David Bates. Accompanying ceaseless recitative and arioso securely with constantly moving singers must be a formidable challenge in putting across Baroque opera while incorporating contemporary standards of stagecraft. The orchestra was a smoothly working combination of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra players and members of the Catacoustic Consort, a local early-music ensemble.

The ceaseless flow of sweet, stirring sound from the stage was unerringly linked to the great variety of instrumental subtlety from the Corbett Theater's pit. The result, linked to dramatic implausibilities that somehow hit home, was for the audience to be melodically amused and moved throughout.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Lorin Maazel's gifts included getting a symphony's vast emotional palette under exquisite control

Lorin Maazel left a strong legacy with several orchestras.
I never had the experience of attending a concert Lorin Maazel conducted, but my record collection includes some outstanding performances under his baton, two of which I want to loft kudos for here. Maazel, a child-prodigy conductor with a restless adult career in several of the world's major music capitals, died Sunday at his Virginia estate, age 84.

Both of the favorites in my collection were recorded with the Cleveland Orchestra, of which Maazel was music director between 1972 and 1982.

In the album of the nine Beethoven symphonies (Columbia), Maazel and the Clevelanders play No. 2 in B-flat about as well as I've ever heard it. I'm struck by his evidently high comfort level with the work's oddities, some of them harmonic, a few of them formal. The slow introduction to the first movement and the outsize codas to that movement and to the finale are beautifully handled.

The slow movement, Larghetto, features some of Beethoven's gentlest lyrical writing. It needs to be indulged and believed in as if the whole of Romanticism were being adumbrated, without self-consciousness about fleeting rambunctiousness. This feeling is intact throughout. Maazel at his best could get orchestras to illuminate emotion while respecting the composer's discipline.

In the finale of this Beethoven symphony, the conductor brings out a clarity and wit that approaches Mozart in the Da Ponte operas or Haydn in his London symphonies. The coda is a miracle. Michael Steinberg truly makes this comparison:  "The 'Eroica' [No. 3] is open revolution; the Second is revolution within the conventions of eighteenth-century high comedy." Go to this recording to hear what he means.

Shostakovich's discipline is sometimes harder to acknowledge, particularly in the later symphonies. In No. 5 in D minor, though, there can be little doubt how masterly the composer's control is in every phrase. Despite disagreement about what the apparently triumphant finale "means"-- Shostakovich said that "all my symphonies are tombstones" — the work has excited admiration among listeners and critics from the first.

Maazel and the Clevelanders were expertly recorded by Telarc in this interpretation. From the carefully declamatory string statements that open the first movement, you are aware of being in the presence of music-making of unerring conviction and focus. Details continue to be firmly etched. The brief Scherzo — often correctly pegged as being in the spirit of Prokofiev and Mahler — in its more lightly scored passages even suggests the chaste fun of the neoclassical Stravinsky.

The third-movement Largo, almost always a moving experience, has a special quality in this performance of having firm momentum despite the slow tempo.  And the brassy outbursts of the finale are firmly balanced and brilliantly set against calmer and more reflective episodes before the ascent to a conclusive glory. Tempos seem a little out of whack at times: the opening march is too fast; the brassy, controversial coda, not quite slow enough. Nonetheless, Maazel's understanding of the music's strengths never falters. At his best, he made his insights work on the heart.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Pacifica Quartet offers a vivid sample of its "Soviet Experience" project in IU's Summer Festival

Pacifica Quartet is in residence at IU.
Dmitri Shostakovich's music often has commentators overworking their favorite dark adjectives, because the experience of hearing his scores plays upon the emotions so intensely. Metaphors of submission and resistance vie for supremacy as the works are weighed against the composer's lifelong strife with the Soviet regime.

It was no different for me Monday night in Indiana University's Auer Hall, when the Pacifica Quartet played two of the Shostakovich string quartets that they have recently staked a well-received claim to in a Cedille Records series called "The Soviet Experience." The performance of Quartets Nos. 2 and 9 (A major, op. 68, and E-flat major, op. 117, respectively) had all the high-profile anxiety, pathos and slightly desperate cheer characteristic of the Soviet Union's most durable composer.

The second quartet opened the program, with some extraneous anxiety and irritation provided by the buzz and hum of the hall's sound system. A technician fixed the problem after the Pacifica had conscientiously played op. 68 with its expected aplomb and left the stage. Tuning out electronic interference with difficulty enabled the listener to appreciate the composition's focus amid the kind of expressive variety that is a Shostakovich hallmark.

Particularly striking was the soulful, expansive playing of first violinist Simin Ganatra in the second movement, Recitative and Romance: Adagio. She dispatched the recitative with operatic flair, undergirded with soul-searching lyricism. The romance section had an abundance of the Pacifica's expressive and technical cohesiveness, with a smoothly managed frantic episode in the middle.

These qualities rose to a more sustained level in the third movement Waltz: Allegro. Dark, muted sonorities cleverly undercut the brisk panache of the theme. This kind of precarious emotional balance runs throughout the Shostakovich canon; the Pacifica are masters of it in the 15 string quartets.

Shostakovich's Russian folk roots, never far from the surface in his music, came to the fore with the viola theme Masumi Per Rostad stated to launch the finale, Theme With Variations. I loved the textural variety the Pacifica found in the course of this lengthy movement — the sort of expression that can try one's patience with Shostakovich because of its insistence on driving every point home. But then you get such a flash of brilliance as the Schubertian respite that emerges right after one of those hard-driving sections — a contrast this performance managed brilliantly.

The same sort of welcome interruption of fiery polemics occurs in the finale of Quartet No. 9, the sole work following intermission on Monday. After a spell of trenchant fugal marching, Brandon Vamos' recitativelike cello stopped everything, before a compact peroration put a stamp on the whole. It attained a glistening summit, as if lit by four spotlights, that drew a huge ovation from the packed hall, filled largely with IU String Academy students.

True to the "Soviet Experience" format of including a work by a Shostakovich contemporary in each of the two-disc Cedille releases, the Pacifica separated this concert's two Shostakovich quartets with a 1983 quartet by Alfred Schnittke, who idolized him. In brief oral program notes, second violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson explained the complex foundation of the work in motifs from Orlando di Lasso, Beethoven (in the "Grosse Fuge" and elsewhere in the late quartets) and Shostakovich himself (the signature "initials" motif of D, E-flat, C, B).

The performance brought out the best in the knotty, sometimes bleak Quartet No. 3. The clarity characteristic of Shostakovich was more elusive for Schnittke, who seems to have preferred obscuring the plainness underneath, as if to impose a spiritual discipline on players and listeners alike.

Notable in this performance was the shifting illusion of foreground and background, like a painter's perspective applied to the medium of time. There was also careful attention to the motivic statements and restatements that pervade the work, as well as to the recurrence of muscular, well-coordinated trilling. The only distracting element of the performance, especially when the rhythmic going got heavy, was Vamos' uninhibited foot-stamping.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Peabody Consort invites Indianapolis Early Music Festival around the world of King Henry VIII

The Tudor king Henry, the eighth of that name to occupy the English throne and the most influential serial monogamist in English history, wrote music, collected instruments and patronized musicians.

The Peabody Consort, with director Mark Cudek (center).
His in-laws, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, likewise are figures of cultural importance — both as models (admired by Machiavelli) of monarchical power and as contributors to the woes of Jewish diaspora.

Examples of 16th-century courtly connections to music embraced by Henry's wide circle made up the next-to-last program of this year's Indianapolis Early Music Festival on Friday night at the Indiana History Center. Artistic director Mark Cudek's Peabody Consort presented music of the era, interspersed by dramatic readings about music, monarchy and Jewish exile engagingly recited by Robert Aubry Davis.

When Davis said: "Mark, the music," to end his first verbal selection, he wasn't just cuing Cudek, but quoting the conclusion of a famous speech in "The Merchant of Venice" praising music's power. Shakespeare often alluded to this authority, and Friday night the Peabody Consort exemplified it.

The most outstanding aspect of the concert was the participation of a superbly matched vocal duo, soprano Julie Bosworth and countertenor Daniel Moody. They were extensively used in a variety of repertoire, including a wide range of musical considerations of love. The remorse following a too-hasty marriage was delightfully outlined in "Will Said to His Mammy," by Robert Jones (1583-1633). And Henry VIII's chanson "Helas madame" indicated movingly his affinity for the travails of love, although his social position always seemed to give him the upper hand.

The ethnic intensity of songs of the Sephardic Jews were chiefly conveyed by Bosworth. She began her set in the second half with the terse murder ballad "El mi querido," sung with an almost nasal intensity characteristic of Iberian folk music.  In "Dos Amantes," the young woman's lament to her mother of the difficulty of choosing between two lovers gathered instrumental support as it went along. It also accelerated smoothly, as the woman indicates that she will follow her heart, come what may, and leave behind the suitor she's deceiving.

A flirting dialogue, with apt movement and gestures, concluded the printed program. "Avrix mi glanica" put the eager male voice against the tempted but cautious female voice in a dialogue that ends the way the boy intended, as the couple runs away. The staging was apt and never threatened to dominate the polished vocal display.

The balance of instrumental and vocal numbers was expertly sustained. The panache of the main featured instrumentalists — lutenist Brian Kay, recorder player Justin Godoy, and viol players Jeffrey Grabelle and Niccolo Seligmann — was continually in evidence. This was idiomatic playing that veered into an almost offhand virtuosity from time to time. Director Cudek, in addition to precise cittern strumming, contributed crucial percussion often, evincing a graceful command of the tambourine in particular.

The Early Music Festival concludes Sunday afternoon as Hesperus returns as a festival guest, playing Spanish Renaissance and colonial music as the sound track to the Douglas Fairbanks Jr. silent classic, "The Mark of Zorro."

Friday, July 11, 2014

In Cincinnati Opera's 'Silent Night,' the poetry is in the pity

Nikolaus and Anna throw themselves on the mercy of French officer Audebert (left).
Centennial observances of the start of the First World War can bring us a little closer to understanding that conflict's epochal significance. Given superior artistic form, as in the 2011 opera "Silent Night" by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell, the way life changed forever in the West between 1914 and 1918 hits close to home.

The opera's focus, powerfully realized in the Cincinnati Opera production, is the informal 1914 Christmas Eve truce among small groups of combatants on the Western front. It actually happened, several months after dithering among Europe's great powers had given militarized nationalism its head. What with their slow, mixed-signals response to the June 28 assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the inevitable result was general war.

The opera frontloads the horrors of the most destructive warfare known anywhere up to that point. With dissonant roaring from the orchestra, the flash and boom of artillery forms a backdrop to hand-to-hand combat pervaded by confusion and fear. On opening night Thursday, the first-act battle scene was unfailingly vivid and close to terrifying.

Old Europe is encapsulated in the opening scene, approximating an 18th-century love duet for two stars of the Berlin opera stage, Anna Sorensen (Erin Wall) and Nikolaus Sprink (Thomas Blondelle). Their offstage romance is quickly put on trial by the ensuing war, with the character of Sprink encapsulating the cynicism of many whose lives are at the mercy of their rulers' pride and carelessness.

The libretto has generous amounts of French and German juxtaposed with the dominant English, as the story of the truce is fleshed out with insights into the lives of Scottish, French and German soldiers. Supertitles connect the audience at every point to the characters' thoughts and words.

The human inclination to cherish peace — despite our equally strong inclination to inflict pain on people we are persuaded to see as foes — is represented by lyrical solo turns for Sprink,  a French officer, Lieutenant Audebert (Phillip Addis), and his cheerful aide-de-camp, Ponchel (Andrew Wilkowske, in a winning characterization). All provided a poignant context to explain the motivation behind the peaceful encounter of enemies in no-man's-land one snowy Christmas Eve.

A prominent British historian, A.J.P. Taylor, titled his brisk study of the war's outbreak "War By Timetable." The world of "Silent Night" is one futilely apart from timetables — a couple of days out of time, a respite attempting to veil the despairing recognition that this monstrous war would be neither brief nor conclusive.

The music reflects that feeling of suspension, right through the opera's hushed ending, with phrases from soldier's letters recalling the truce, repeated by offstage voices. The orchestra strings play a few soft, sustained chords, punctuated by isolated harp (possibly celesta or glockenspiel) notes, reminiscent of the final measures of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring." As the snow fell and the light glimmered on a fresh grave's cross, "the shadow of the morrow weighed on men," in the words of the elegiac First World War poet, Wilfred Owen.

And the punishment each detachment receives — in a powerful trio of official reprimand — emphasizes the transience and daring of the truce. The peaceful inclinations of Father Palmer, a Scottish priest, as well as Sprink and Audebert, will not be rewarded. In a flash of dramatic irony, Audebert is sent off by his father, a by-the-book general, to an obscure French village called Verdun, where 200,000 casualties on each side would be registered within a short period less than two years later. The libretto skillfully indicates the tendency of the warrior mentality to override its opposite, most notably in the determination of the Scottish soldier Jonathan (Thomas Glenn) to avenge his brother William's battlefield death.

Vocally, the fact that up till quite recently warfare was a man's world allows for some stunning male choruses in this opera. Despite the bravura displays written into the part of Anna, and quite well dispatched by Wall on opening night, the female presence is necessarily restricted (the small part of Mme. Audebert is the only other woman's role). Puts is fond of deep male voices, so much so that a few of the singers Thursday were challenged to put across their lower notes well, notably the otherwise competent Hugh Russell as Father Palmer.

Soldiers write letters home in "Silent Night."
The performance was conducted with skill and sensitivity by David Charles Abell, drawing a splendid range of sound from the orchestra. The score is rife with cheek-by-jowl contrasts. Sudden patches of dissonance punctuate it, pointing up the fragility of those reflective or nostalgic moments that sporadically overcome the characters.

Emotional turmoil is also magnified by other instances of dramatic irony, particularly in the character of  Lieutenant Horstmayer, for whom the truce represents his only Christmas ever, because he's Jewish. Craig Irvin reflected vocally and dramatically the uneasiness underneath this disciplined officer's devotion to the Fatherland.

"Silent Night" memorably embodies Horstmayer's fate, as well as the wider destiny of his co-combatants and the civilization they unwittingly ruined. Evoking a gone world, the opera also validates, gracefully and with pathos, the martyred Owen's prediction, the force of which still resonates: "Now men will go content with what we spoiled. / Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled."

[Photo credits: Philip Groshong/Cincinnati Opera]

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Down-to-here 'Hair' is no let-down after 50 years

As a theater director, Bob Harbin has evinced a knack for mounting big, intricate ensemble productions that manage a wide embrace without getting sloppy about it.

"Hair," the epochal "American tribal love-rock musical," is the latest in a Harbin series whose immediate predecessor, 2013's "Spamalot," will be fondly remembered by many. The site is once again the cozy, cavernous Athenaeum Theater on Michigan Street downtown.

In a building with links to iconoclasm (insofar as Kurt Vonnegut's grandfather was its architect), the BOBDIREX production overcame the limitations of a period piece, despite its classic status, and found new ways to be fresh. Harbin's large, energetic, multiracial cast — choreographed to a fare-thee-well by Kenny Shepard and well-prepared musically by Trevor Fanning, who also leads the onstage Mass Ave Electric Sunflower Band — got just about everything right.

On a starry, hard-to-describe (but not nondescript) set by Ben Asaykwee, the Tribe and its principals cavorted, protested and described themselves in the profane, rebellious songs of Galt MacDermot, James Rado and Gerome Ragni.

From the start, the production's wavy-gravy style of movement was inscribed on the cast's bodies, top to toe. "The Age of Aquarius," led with stentorian gusto by Rashida Bonds as Dionne, mixed and matched the Tribe in flowing, coalescing and dissolving patterns. Vintage-clothing shops around town must have had their stocks depleted in order to outfit this gang and permit such a kaleidoscopic presentation.

In song and dialogue, the  other principals deliver self-portraits following that famous curtain-raiser. Lincoln Slentz had the lively, annoying personality of Berger down pat.  Manipulative and selfish, Berger needs to have a tad of charisma without being too charming, and Slentz filled the bill. Tyler Ostrander's Woof, an amoral dealer in controlled substances, flips off conventional morality in "Sodomy." Hud (DeJuan Jackson) aggressively tweaks racial stereotypes in "Colored Spade."

The more anguished, uncertain tribal elders — the strong but vulnerable Sheila and the conflicted experimenter  Claude — were lent strong initial statements by Claire Wilcher ("I Believe in Love") and Anthony Snitker ("Manchester, England"). Claude's identity crisis will eventually deliver him to the enemy in a burst of dramatic irony that keeps "Hair" from becoming sappy about the counterculture.

The coordinated energy of the BOBDIREX show is remarkable. [Photo: Rick Randjelovic]
The first act was the stronger of the two. In the second act, some timing and amplification problems blunted the rapid-fire satirical thrust of Claude's hallucination, a blend of history and popular culture. His bad trip has so many goofy elements that the slightest hitches become magnified: Surrealism — as the art of Salvador Dali and Max Ernst reminds us — has to be precise.

Though known for its lusty choruses, "Hair" also has some memorable solo numbers, most of them handled superbly in this production: As the tourist lady the Tribe dubs Margaret Mead, Craig Underwood put across "My Conviction" with the full force of enlightenment behind it. Wilcher got quickly to the heart of the lament "Easy to Be Hard" and steadily conveyed its message. Audrey Brinkley caught the wistful humor of Crissy's "Frank Mills," and Erin Cohenour as Jeanie feelingly led a small girl group deploring the quality of urban "Air."

The hippie counterculture reaches High Baroque stylization in this production. If anything is missing — despite the group-grope, touchy-feely staging — it's a pervasive sense that the Tribe has forged an emotional bond. The songs convey it, and there's plenty of collegial giggling at any expression of shared values.

But Claude's eventual apostasy should be the most wrenching of several signs that this youthful collective is vulnerable to the tensions of self-indulgence. It was not quite that in this production; it was just something sad — a downer after all that intense group energy. And communally processing a sad experience does not seem enough to let the sun shine in.