Sunday, September 28, 2014

"The Two Gentlemen of Verona": subtle examination of young love or the slapdash work of a tyro? IRT suggests the former

There's not much you can do to lower Shakespeare's monumental stature, despite the pedestal-toppling  efforts of some great figures in Western literature (Voltaire, Shaw, and Tolstoy among them). Even if you produce such a weak work as "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," there's just enough merit in the text — and foreshadowings of greatness — that a whiz-bang theatrical presentation can lift it.

That's what Indiana Repertory Theatre accomplishes in its season-opening production. But lift it to what? the question arises. Certainly not to the level of the mature comedies. Even the early Roman comedy rewrite, "The Comedy of Errors," is more fun on the page,  besides being theatrically irresistible, given its tangles of mistaken identity. IRT just finished its second weekend presenting "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," and the show's entertainment value is immense, far beyond what the material suggests. It looks and sounds great, staged with IRT's typical flair.

Words to throw at a dog: Ryan Artzberger as Launce, Jenna as Crab.
One of the countless phrases Shakespeare lent the language is from this play: "to make a virtue of necessity."  It's so appropriate that the company, with this production  under Tim Ocel's direction, turns the necessity of carrying this odd story of male bonding and betrayal and inexplicable forgiveness into a virtue.  Vigorous performances do the trick, with a certain amount of forgivable mugging carried up the line from a gabby, clownish servant, Launce.

The eminent critic Harold Bloom goes so far as to wonder why Launce "is wasted upon The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which is not at all good enough for him."  I can't quite agree, despite the rib-tickling virtuosity of Ryan Artzberger in the role  — a comic pinnacle underscored by the appeal of the laconic canine actor Jenna in the role of Crab, Launce's dog.

Because of the menace of upstaging, the immortal W. C. Fields advised adult entertainers against ever appearing onstage with children or dogs. Artzberger has now done both in recent memory (as Scrooge, he shoulders Tiny Tim annually in IRT's "Christmas Carol"), surmounting the danger handsomely in both instances.

Valentine (Charles Pasternak) and Proteus (Chris Bresky) embrace: We know what the "bro hug" means in the first scene, but what can it possibly mean in the last one?
Chris Bresky exhibits a wide range of facial expression as Proteus, the lovesick Veronese gentleman who is sent away to Milan to join his bosom buddy Valentine. There this cad-in-chrysalis emerges to become smitten with Valentine's girlfriend, Silvia, and schemes to supplant him in her affections.  Proteus is the more interesting of the two men, because however farfetched, his behavior is plausible and his determination to win a new woman for himself by any means necessary gets a lot of Shakespeare's attention. And whatever the Bard focuses on we would be unwise to belittle.

Valentine, on the other hand, barely earns our sympathy,  because he is sort of a blank. Victimized cruelly, he presents the puzzle of no-strings-attached amnesty for Proteus' crime in the last scene. There's a final "bro hug" between the two  — we've seen these hearty embraces earlier, but this one is questionable, to say the least — and then there's Valentine's pat speech assuring all concerned of future happiness. Charles Pasternak should be credited with bringing more vitality and wit to the character than its creator did.

The plot is surprisingly straightforward, yet the obstacles it raises toward the play's unrewarding resolution are hard to describe succinctly. It's best just to note several outstanding aspects of the supporting cast:  Of his three roles, Scot Greenwell gets the most scope as the play's other clown Speed, Valentine's servant, whom he raises in vitality nearly to the same plane as the critically esteemed Launce. Speed's explanation to his boss of the roundabout route of a love letter Valentine has written to Julia (and the suddenly dense Valentine's reaction) is hilarious in an Abbott-and-Costello way.

In Verona, Ashley Wickett is saucy and blunt in trying to cool the overheated romantic fantasies of her mistress, Julia (in Lee Stark's fetchingly intense portrayal). In the Milan scenes, Wickett makes a fiercely loyal Silvia, fit to spurn the conceited suitor Thurio (Matt Holzfeind) and upbraid the would-be usurper Proteus. Robert Neal is eminent in both locales, first as Proteus' father, Antonio, then as the Duke of Milan; he gives stunning authority to each role.

It can't be doubted that IRT is to be commended for almost making a silk purse out of a piglet's ear. I believe that the entire Shakespeare canon needs to come to life on the world's stages with a frequency depending on the insight that can be brought to the shows, from the masterpieces on down.

Still, I couldn't help mischievously thinking "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" might be a more interesting play if the description of the minor character Panthino in the program book were the true one. It says he's a "suitor to Antonio."

The lowly Panthino (also Holzfeind) is, of course, servant to Antonio, as noted in the revised insert.  But what fun, in the era of same-sex marriage, to imagine the other possibility.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

ISO and its music director are in top form for Classical Series opener, with help from an imaginative guest soloist

The unusual scheduling of September's last weekend for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra presumably helped swell the crowd for Saturday's concert in the Hilbert Circle Theatre. It was the only performance of the full program in its home: Thursday morning's curtain-raiser omitted Beethoven's "Coriolan" Overture, and the full program will be repeated only once.

Lucky folks Sunday afternoon at Avon High School, if that concert in the ISO's new "317 Series" goes as well as this one did!

It was a treat finally to hear Shai Wosner in concert. Among the deprivations of the shortened season in 2012-13 was the cancelllation of Wosner's ISO debut almost exactly two years ago, the victim of the lockout of musicians during contentious contract negotiations.

He's on hand this weekend to play Mozart's Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466. From the first solo entrance in the first movement, you could witness a portrait of true concerto partnership being committed to canvas. I would judge the dynamic level to be mezzo piano, and it worked perfectly to establish a mood of interaction with the orchestra. On display was a consistent preromantic conception of the solo concerto — totally fitting despite the protoromantic nature of the work, the 19th century's favorite among Mozart's 27 piano concertos.

I've been waiting two years to hear Shai Wosner with the ISO.
The use of Beethoven's cadenzas, as well as scrupulously detailed mutterings of anxiety that launch the work and such later turmoil as the fast middle section of the Romanza, ensured that the interpretation would not lean toward rococo style to the slightest degree. How much Mozart's melodies owe to singing should never be scanted, and Wosner capably played that second-movement tune with aria phrasing and a singer's tone.

Coordination between soloist and conductor Krzysztof Urbanski was exemplary throughout. Especially well-judged was the orderly slowing of tempo from the Romanza's pattering episode in the second movement back to the main section.

For an encore, Wosner played Schubert's "Hungarian Melody" with haunting lyricism and a feeling for color that included evoking the instrument of Hungary, the cimbalom, in a way familiar from  Zoltan Kodaly's "Hary Janos" Suite.

Urbanski and the ISO opened the concert with a powerful reading of the "Coriolan" Overture. The contrasts between masculine and feminine elements of the story of the stubborn, vindictive Roman general Coriolanus were placed implacably in the foreground. Beethoven had an uneasy relationship with theater, but was a natural dramatist when he could pose abstract human qualities against each other. This performance captured that quality.

Marketing for these concerts emphasized the encounter of Urbanski and Brahms 4, and that kind of highlighting proved to be apt. Saturday's performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 4 in E minor had breadth and grandeur. Urbanski drew consistent sostenuto phrasing from the orchestra, without allowing a fondness for linked phrases to impair the momentum. Even the trenchant passages in the first movement were well-integrated.

Pretty much the usual midpoint of Urbanski's hand position.
The slow movement was given an affectionate cast, and trimly played except for a few impure horn entrances. Urbanski brought out a playful mood throughout the third movement, with especially delectable woodwind curls placed around buoyant string figures.

For the finale, he elicited from the ISO a distinct character to each variation upon the short repeated theme in the bass (the classic passacaglia form). The orchestra responded by putting forward some of the most transparent scoring to be found in Brahms, on a par with that perennial charmer, the Variations on a Theme by Haydn. The totality amounted to a structure of immense expressive range and rhetorical panache.

Now a note germane to this concert but apart from the main thread:

From my seat near the front but more off to the right of the podium than usual, I had ample opportunity to appreciate Urbanski's technique. It occurred to me that among the advantages of conducting everything from memory is the naturalness of his baton's high position throughout. Unlike hockey, there are no penalties in symphonic conducting for high-sticking (there are also far fewer fistfights).

In fact, there may be significant payoffs — visibility, clarity, rhythmic precision —from keeping the baton high. I'm estimating that Urbanski's stick is at least shoulder-high 65 percent of the time, chest-high 25 percent, waist-high only about 10 percent. It might be compared to an opera role's tessitura and the voice most suited to it.

If only there were a way to compare conductors' comfort zones for their craft. And I'm betting that Urbanski's physical tessitura is higher than most of his colleagues'. It would be interesting to get comparative videos, because I'm guessing that having the score in front of you means your head and arms necessarily make of the music stand a reference point, no matter how well you know the score.

I'm also impressed with how much dynamic variety he draws from the orchestra standing straight up. Many otherwise competent conductors crouch when they want to lower the volume suddenly: Kelly Corcoran, the able guest conductor brought in by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra Friday night at the Schrott Center,  is a croucher. So is the revered former ISO music director Mario Venzago. I tend to suspect crouchers of mere showmanship, but maybe they also crouch in rehearsal, where showmanship is quite beside the point. Orchestra musicians will have to let me know.

Richness of Indianapolis music receives a season-opening demonstration by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra

"Every community gets the culture it deserves" was a wise saying that used to get heads nodding in agreement when I was active in the Music Critics Association long ago. It's an appropriation of an old quotation about government.

Applied to culture, and specifically classical music, it seems to answer complaints about the lack of appreciation that musical organizations often feel they get in metropolitan areas that can't accurately plead poverty. By that standard, Indianapolis must be pretty deserving these days, except for the questionable prospects of professional opera here.

Kelly Corcoran has an IU master's degree.
That was brought home to me Friday night as I enjoyed an excellent season-opening concert by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, which is deciding among three finalists this season who should be its next music director. At the 2014-15 season debut in Butler University's Schrott Center, it got good results with Kelly Corcoran on the podium. She and the orchestra were also enjoying the guest-soloist appearance of Sean Chen, 2013 Classical Fellow of the American Pianists Association, 
whose home is on the Butler campus.

This bright spot on the schedule was surrounded by illumination elsewhere on the calendar — the weekend after the Ninth Quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, and on a weekend bookended by season-launching concerts by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Krzysztof Urbanski, its music director.

I couldn't help thinking of other apparently deserving cities that recently have been deprived of topflight professional music-making — notably Atlanta (still in lockout mode) and Minneapolis. That is not meant to be an excuse for complacency here, because the flame requires vigilant attention in an era when it can so easily be snuffed out. But we are pretty lucky nowadays (as well as deserving).

Chen was a soloist of impeccable elan in Beethoven's Piano Concerto in E-flat ("Emperor"). The
Sean Chen had a stellar 2013 here and in Fort Worth.
nickname was oddly left out of public-radio PSAs I heard beforehand, but enough people knew what they would be hearing to fill the hall. There was also, of course, the drawing card of the first of the candidates to succeed Kirk Trevor after his quarter-century on the ICO podium.

Such indelible monikers as "Emperor" are often unsanctioned by the composer. In this case, given the legend that a French officer felt the work's imposing nature justified honoring Napoleon by linking the conquering Corsican to the music, it would have been a painful association for Beethoven in the besieged Austrian capital.

But the performance had an imperial swagger to it, though the Chen-Corcoran partnership countenanced nothing outlandish. The pianist sported clean trills, crisp octaves, good dynamic variety and evenness in all passage work. He displayed admirable strength without wasted energy; wrists and forearms never had to be raised far above the keyboard. The accompaniment had the same virtues, with power bursting forth when needed, yet offering many delicate touches as well, especially in the finale. Called back for an encore, Chen played Leopold Godowsky's transcription of Schubert's "Trout" swimmingly.

The concert was launched with the first installment of composer-in-residence James Aikman's "Peacemakers." It's an attractive piece, with substantial hints of the threats that all peacemakers (Gandhi is specifically invoked in this prelude to the suite) must face. The ICO's lower strings were particularly adept, forceful and unified, at characterizing this music, described by the composer as progressing "from elegiac and retrospective to triumphantly heroic."

Without a soloist or a resident composer as a collaborator, Corcoran evinced her interpretive and technical control in two works after intermission. Aaron Copland's "Music for Movies," a trim and evocative suite drawn from his work in Hollywood circa 1940, was colorful and acutely balanced. The vivid acoustics of the Schrott Center put the ICO winds on their mettle when it came to blending well, and they rose to the challenge.

The concert concluded with a predictably exciting account of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 in A major ("Italian," this designation being composer-applied).  The woodwinds again provided lively, well-blended playing, the horns' prominence in the third-movement Trio was invigorating,  the strings' clarity in the first movement's counterpoint outstandingly defined. Mendelssohn almost always wore his learning lightly, and it was gratifying to hear a performance in which the range of such skills got full display.

The ICO, long-known for its esprit de corps, conveyed that spirit well throughout this concert. And it thrived with two such well-prepared and inspiring guest musicians to work with. Its fitness is part of what I'm bold to say we deserve in this city.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Reality unchecked: Hollywood's tales within tales animate Phoenix Theatre's new show, "Clark Gable Slept Here"

Just as Oscar Wilde described "The Importance of Being Earnest" as "a serious play for trivial people"* Michael McKeever's "Clark Gable Slept Here" might be said to be a heartless play for people with heart.

The heartlessness is amusing, but we are clearly intended to root for values nearly everybody once thought of as enduring. The play's main trouble (it struck me at Thursday's performance at the Phoenix Theatre)  is to plead with us that it has a heart, while the bent of the story line and most of the humor declare otherwise.

The Art Deco sun also rises, casting light on Hollywood shadows.
"Clark Gable Slept Here" cajoles us into clinging to the sort of moral standard Hollywood's movies used to foster, despite the unreliability of what anyone might say. The milieu that has generated those standards for a century tends to regard any hard fact as a mere plot device and any story only as solid as its effectiveness, not its truth.

We are in modern Hollywood, with careers on the line with every contract, every hook-up and every party. An action star, Patrick Zane, has been frolicking in a posh hotel suite with a hired boyfriend, tearing himself away just in time to attend the Golden Globes, where he is up for an award. We never see this icon, whose career has been sculpted to represent heterosexual manliness. Both the audience and the five characters are trapped in the bedroom of an Art Deco penthouse. The opening scene shows us its centerpiece — a rumpled round bed with the naked prostitute, prone and apparently dead, at its foot.
Sheet happens: Hilly, Morgan and Gage ponder body on the floor.

A plausible scenario must be devised. The wit of Zane's steely yet distraught manager, Jarrod "Hilly" Hillard, is too corroded with cynicism and coarsened by hard work to function properly. So he calls away from the Globes gathering a glamorous, hard-boiled fixer named Morgan Wright, who is none too happy to have been interrupted mid-schmooze.

The humorist S. J. Perelman once described how scenario writers are sacrificed in Hollywood like this: "They are tied between the tails of two spirited Caucasian ponies, which are then driven off in opposite directions. This custom is called 'a conference.'"

The forced conference of Hillard and Morgan Wright is complicated by an untrustworthy chambermaid and, surprisingly, by the male hooker. In devising their real-life scenario, they have to keep those Caucasian ponies of fate at bay, calmed with lumps of sugar and a touch of the whip.  Luckily they get an unexpected boost when they tune in to Zane's acceptance speech. But that only raises another problem that can't be revealed here. The common thread is that in Tinseltown no handhold on the real world can be sustained without a gift for fantasy and deception.

No wonder our sympathies are riveted on the hotel manager, Gage Holland, played with nuance by Joshua Coomer. How fortunate that his portrayal avoids the obvious nervous-nellie cliches of a good, dutiful man trapped by sordid circumstance! Gage is just trying to do his job, though he's undermined by awareness that his hotel's sterling reputation requires constant polishing — and always has, dating back to when Clark Gable may have slept there.

The manager is up against the formidable Morgan, stunning and implacable in Jen Johansen's fierce, steady performance, and the more battle-weary, but still manipulative, Hilly, treated almost professorially (that wagging forefinger!) by Charles Goad. It's a characterization that works well, because Hilly has lessons to impart in the midst of the desperate measures he resorts to.

The naivete that turns into steely self-interest in Travis, the call boy, was managed well by Tyler Ostrander. Maria Diaz was intense and, it turns out, properly hammy as the hotel maid.

Jim Ream's set design glories in the crazy angles and curves and the glowing pastels of Art Deco imagery. It conveys the colorful neatness of the Hollywood facade and the woozy menace of what lies behind it.

At the end, the prerecorded performance of "Hooray for Hollywood" by Tim Brickley is aptly knowing, doleful and gently ironic. It confirms the tone of Bryan Fonseca's direction, which faithfully presents a play that wants to be on the side of the angels, but gets all its nourishment at the teat of the City of Angels.

*and also with the modifiers transposed — humorous paradox was meat and drink to him

Sunday, September 21, 2014

IVCI wraps up with an awards ceremony, heaping honors upon gold and silver medalists

Everyone who headed into the Scottish Rite Cathedral Sunday afternoon knew the major results already. The six finalists had been placed in order after their final International Violin Competition of Indianapolis performances Saturday night, and announced about an hour after the concert ended.

The purpose was not only to celebrate their achievement, but also to distribute further prizes recognizing excellence in specific performances over the competition's 17-day course. Moreover, there were lots of plaudits to be distributed, mainly by executive director Glen Kwok, to myriad volunteers and a few short-term hires that enabled the three-person full-time staff to bring off the quadrennial competition.

Jury president Jaime Laredo saluted the participants, who he said (with slight hyperbole) came "from every corner of the earth," with the admission: "You really made it impossible for us." Nonetheless, the well-established judging procedure, which enjoins jurors not to discuss participants, basing rankings on the compilation of individual scores over the competition's three rounds, yielded results worth defending, though some online carping was soon to be encountered about the fact that first place went to a Laredo student.

Here are the basic awards announced Saturday night upon completion of the romantic/post-romantic concerto final round and bestowed Sunday:

Jinjoo Cho, gold medalist, 26, South Korea; $30,000

Tessa Lark, silver medalist, 25, United States; $15,000

Ji Young Lim, bronze medalist, 19, South Korea; $10,000

Dami Kim, fourth-place laureate, 25, South Korea, $7,000

Yoo Jin Jang, fifth-place laureate, 23, South Korea, $6,000

Ji Yoon Lee, sixth-place laureate, 22, South Korea, $5,000

The new  gold medalist was also honored for concerto performance.
Cho picked up another $5,000 for best performance of a romantic or post-romantic concerto, based on the way she played the Erich Korngold Violin Concerto Friday night with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. She also earned $1,000 for best performance of a Bach work and $500 for placing third in the "best Paganini caprice" category; two Paganini caprices were required in the preliminary round, which began Sept. 7. (The top prize for a Paganini performance went to semifinalist Nancy Zhou [$1,000]; the second-place award was presented to semifinalist Ayana Tsuji [$750].)

Lark, the highest-ranked American in the competition since Ida Kavafian also won the silver medal in the first competition (1982), won two special awards: for best performance of the commissioned required work, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's Fantasy for Solo Violin, and best performance of a Eugene Ysaye solo sonata. Her reprise performance of No. 5 was among the musical selections presented as part of the awards ceremony Sunday. Ysaye was the most influential teacher of Josef Gingold, Indiana University distinguished professor and founder of the competition.

Fifth-place laureate Yoo Jin Jang won the $1,000 award for best performance of a sonata other than Beethoven for her playing of John Corigliano's Sonata in the semifinal round. The award for best performance of a Beethoven sonata went to fourth-place laureate Dami Kim, shared with pianist Nelson Padgett ($1,000 each).

In the preliminary round, a two-movement Mozart sonata was required of all participants. The award for the best performance went to bronze medalist Ji Young Lim and pianist Rohan De Silva ($1,000 each).

The $2,500 award for best performance of a classical concerto (all by Mozart this year) went to Kim for the Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219 as played Thursday at the University of Indianapolis with the East Coast Chamber Orchestra accompanying.

Cho also received a gold-mounted Tourte-Voirin model Berg bow from Michael F. Duff and the use for four years of the 1683 ex-Gingold Stradivarius violin.

The 10 semifinalists not passed on to the final round received $1,000 each.

Other recognitions included the Alice M. Ross Award for  Distinguished Volunteer to Maureen Purcell, who was  credited helping to solve problems "ranging from wardrobe failures to water leaks."

At the reception that followed, Cho told me that her competition highlight was her performance of the Korngold concerto, because "I felt relaxed by then, and I could just play it without feeling any stress."

I missed that performance, but Cho had shown few signs of being nervous or in any sense constrained in her earlier appearances. Her performance of the Zwilich Fantasy was one of the most passionate I heard, freely imagined and given the sort of abandon that made it seem almost improvised. Her first Prokofiev sonata had as much individuality and brooding intensity as any of the non-Beethoven sonatas I heard.

Her performance of Paganini's eleventh caprice in the preliminary round was my second favorite in the abundant renditions of that piece, behind semifinalist Stephen Kim's.  She seems an artist fully formed and capable of extending the reputation of the IVCI over the next four years.

[Photo credit: Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.,]

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The International Violin Competition of Indianapolis concludes with the announcement of the gold medal, five other awards

The moment everyone has been waiting for: the announcement of the awards in the 16-day competition. Names and award titles are followed by age, country, and cash prizes:
2014 IVCI gold medalist Jinjoo Cho

Jinjoo Cho, gold medalist, 26, South Korea; $30,000

Tessa Lark, silver medalist, 25, United States; $15,000. (She is the highest-ranking American in nine competitions since Ida Kavafian won the silver medal in 1982, the IVCI's first year.)

Ji Young Lim, bronze medalist, 19, South Korea; $10,000

Dami Kim, fourth-place laureate, 25, South Korea, $7,000

Yoo Jin Jang, fiftth-place laureate, 23, South Korea, $6,000

Ji Yoon Lee, sixth-place laureate, 22, South Korea, $5,000

 [The following review of Saturday's concert was written before I knew the competition results]

The second night  of romantic/modern concerto finals at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis presented three young South Korean women to a large, enthusiastic audience at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

The exclusivity of national origin in Saturday's final simply carried through a theme evident in the initial field of 37 participants: Women were dominant, and South Koreans were heavily represented among them.

With Joel Smirnoff, an eminent violinist-turned-conductor on the podium, all three contestants enjoyed sympathetic, knowledgeable support by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. That presumably accounted for the generally superlative level of these performances, along with, of course, the thorough preparation and conscientious study that enable a participant in this competition to get to the final stage.

I was most impressed with Ji Young Lim's account of Brahms' Concerto in D major, op. 77. Momentary burbles in the violin's initial statement were soon put behind her. The performance gained confidence, leading to an incisively played cadenza and a strong finish well-coordinated with the orchestra. She made the second-movement melody her own, projecting the attractive personality I first became aware of in the preliminaries, where her Bach and Paganini selections were among the most individualized I heard.

The finale had the jollity suggested in the tempo indication. Lim's playing was resilient, bouncy and bold. The exciting switch to triple meter near the end brought forth heightened playing that was both vigorous and sweet.

Just as much personality was invested by Yoo Jin Jang in her performance of Tchaikovsky's Concerto in D major, op. 35.  Her darker tone, compared to Lim's, immediately suited the first movement.  Her phrasing was flexible but not so far as to make her partnership with the orchestra challenging. She came close, however, rushing some of the phrases the violin sets against pulsating staccato woodwinds.

Nonetheless, she told a story, even in passagework. The varying speeds with which she dispatched the cadenza made it particularly interesting.  In the second movement, she sank wholeheartedly into its concise song, then effected a teasing introduction to an incredibly fast finale. She made the contrasting theme slow and heavy, peasantlike. But every time the main material returned she was off to the races. Her agility never flagged in this sizzling performance.

After intermission, Dami Kim played Sibelius' sometimes dour, sometimes intensely high-spirited Concerto in D minor, op. 47. Her first-movement cadenza had the same heightened characterization as Lim's had in the Brahms concerto.  The haunted lyricism of the slow movement seemed to suit her well. The orchestra provided a fine setting for this Adagio di molto, with Smirnoff drawing a well-managed crescendo at the movement's emotional peak.

Her manner in the finale sort of spoiled the performance for me. There was some off-pitch playing, perhaps related to the soloist's frenetic manner.  The passion in this music has a cool side that didn't seem to interest Kim. This was a forceful interpretation, seemingly coaxed out by the predominance of dark orchestral colors, that made of this exhilarating music an Arctic tragedy.

(Photo credit: Denis Ryan Kelly Jr., www,

Functioning well through music: Tom Harrell adds to the bounty of Indy Jazz Fest

A major figure in post-bop trumpet- and flugelhorn-playing, Tom Harrell appeared with his quartet at the culminating point of Indy Jazz Fest Friday night. He proved to be well worth waiting for.

Tom Harrell, 68, has made his mark on jazz since the '80s.
Well-known through several decades for his artistic triumph over day-to-day struggles with incurable schizophrenia, Harrell presents a startling figure on the bandstand — standing stock-still when he's not playing and never lifting his eyes. Not a word issued from him except counting off the tempo to start a program of mostly originals until he introduced the band by name and instrument at the end of his second set.

The band consisted of three excellent players, all prominently displayed during the set: Luis Perdomo, keyboards; Ugonna Okegwo, bass, and Johnathan Blake, drums. Though Harrell brought both trumpet and flugelhorn onstage, he stuck to the latter instrument through seven tunes. The last of them, the standard "It Could Happen to You," included a wonderful duo between Harrell and Okegwo, in which the lyricism and punch of both players were exhibited.

Blake took several lengthy solos. They were intricate and powerful. He achieved quite a large sound while keeping his hands low, close to the surface of drums and cymbals. That maximized his quickness and kept extraneous gestures to a minimum.

Perdomo had a free-flowing imagination in his solos to match the leader's. He sounded equally bonded to piano and electronic keyboard, moving back and forth as needed. His touch is even and well-controlled, though his soloing never seemed too calculating to sound spontaneous.

About Harrell, much more cannot be said that has already been observed about his fine tone, which is amazingly large without also being loud. His troubled mind yields beautiful results as it lends him a constant stream of ideas to put through his horn. Without effort, he can get around the instrument's entire range, making every sojourn, whether high or low, feel like a seamless part of the melodic line.

His sidemen are all adept at giving immediate rhythmic punch to a phrase, and you could tell they are used to picking up inspiration from their leader. Harrell several times finished off a mellifluous phrase with a rhythmically charged figure that gave extra vigor to his solos. We were hearing a master of both form and content show once again how indissoluble the bond between the two can be.

[Photo credit: Mark Sheldon]

Executive director announces unprecedented change in judging the finals of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis

With criticism of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis coming from a prominent blogging voice abroad, who then got terse support from former jury member Aaron Rosand, the judging for the finals has been changed.

Glen Kwok
Executive director Glen Kwok early Saturday morning issued a statement announcing the change: Juror Miriam Fried has been requested to recuse herself from voting in the two stages of finals because half the finalists are or have been her students. Fried, formerly on the faculty of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, now teaches at the New England Conservatory.

Competition rules already prohibit judges from evaluating their own students, past or present, but allow them to score performances by other participants. The new change essentially reduces the size of the jury from nine to eight for the final stage, which began Wednesday and concludes tonight.

In his  statement, Kwok cited the competition's historic commitment to integrity, which is reflected in the 2014 IVCI as well: "From a strict no-discussion policy amongst the jury members, to abstentions by any jury member who has a student in the competition, to a sophisticated computerized scoring system which eliminates any possiblity of score manipulation, multiple safeguards have been implemented to ensure a fair, honest and transparent process."

Here is the list of finalists, as annotated by Laurie Niles, founder of, with asterisks indicating 2014 jury members:

Tessa Lark, 25, United States
Miriam Fried*
Lucy Chapman
Kurt Sassmannshaus

Jinjoo Cho, 26, South Korea
Jaime Laredo (present)*
Paul Kantor
Joseph Silverstein + Pamela Frank

Ji Yoon Lee, 22, South Korea
Kolja Blacher (present)

Ji Young Lim, 19, South Korea
Nam Yun Kim

Yoo Jin Jang, 23, South Korea
Miriam Fried (present)*
Nam Yun Kim

Dami Kim, South Korea
Mihaela Martin (present)
Miriam Fried*
Aaron Rosand

Having heard Lark play the Walton Violin Concerto Friday night with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, I could easily put aside the controversy to admire her choice of this concerto — its first performance in nine quadrennial Indianapolis competitions  — and the way she played it. The score has a mercurial nature that seems to appeal to her. Her earlier playing in the IVCI, starting with the preliminary round, showed her to be a forthright, well-prepared, self-confident artist, solid technically and persuasive interpretively.

The flashes of brilliance in the orchestral scoring — the swelling of brass and percussion, the underlining of moods established by the soloist, especially in the Presto capriccioso alla napolitana — were duly brought out by the ISO under the baton of Joel Smirnoff.

Lark's place among the finalists seems well-earned. Tonight, Lim, Jang, and Kim will be heard from, playing the concertos of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius, respectively. Then the final standings will be announced, though it is doubtful that the criteria for choosing winners in this or any other competition will be universally applauded.
Don’t put teachers or professors in the jury. Put people who can support a young career: conductors, orchestras’ managers, journalists. - See more at:
Don’t put teachers or professors in the jury. Put people who can support a young career: conductors, orchestras’ managers, journalists. - See more at:
Don’t put teachers or professors in the jury. Put people who can support a young career: conductors, orchestras’ managers, journalists. - See more at:
Don’t put teachers or professors in the jury. Put people who can support a young career: conductors, orchestras’ managers, journalists. - See more at:
Don’t put teachers or professors in the jury. Put people who can support a young career: conductors, orchestras’ managers, journalists. - See more at:
Don’t put teachers or professors in the jury. Put people who can support a young career: conductors, orchestras’ managers, journalists. - See more at:

Friday, September 19, 2014

Indy Jazz Fest presents a saxophonist-singer without borders: Grace Kelly comfortably straddles the pop-jazz divide

The first set by the Grace Kelly Quintet in its Indianapolis debut was spectacular, but after a brief intermission, the group leaned heavily on the rapport it had unmistakably built up at Apparatus, 1401 N. Meridian St. The Indy Jazz Fest made a shrewd move toward the youth market by booking this prodigious musician.

Grace Kelly and her music show signs of future stardom.
The 22-year-old musician who leads the ensemble was quick to connect with the audience both musically and in remarks from the stage. She's a charmer, no doubt about it. In a program composed largely of originals, Kelly leaned heavily on her vocals.

She's got a distinctive voice, I believe, though I'm not an authority on current pop vocalism. Her style is compounded of singer-songwriter intimacy, some pop-diva belting and a country-music heartbreak earnestness that pulls a few tricks off the yodeling shelf.

On the alto sax, she has drawn upon the r&b heartiness of Hank Crawford and David Sanborn as well as the mainstream, blues-inflected lyricism of Phil Woods and Cannonball Adderley. In opening with a standard, "The Way You Look Tonight," Kelly presented her instrumental credentials. Every time she applied herself to the horn, she went all-out. She was articulate and adventurous in all registers, including way down low in a range not often exploited by jazz altoists.

She often had stories to tell behind her songs. For one who has accomplished so much in so little time, she turns readily to disarming defensiveness ("Please Don't Box Me In") and salutes to mentors ("Touched By an Angel") to introduce herself to listeners. If another artist's style suits her, she is prepared to  "Gracify" (her term) anything that appeals to her receptive muse. The arrangement of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" was a particularly successful adaptation for her sax-guitar-bass-trumpet-drums ensemble.

Kelly is both up-to-the-minute and deeply rooted.  She knew how to make "'Round Midnight" sing of nocturnal longings in her own way, with the band pared down to sax and guitar (played by the protean Pete McCann). Throughout, the guitarist was virtually a front-line player, flanking Kelly on one side with the trumpeter on the other. About him there's not much to say, given his splintery sound and tendency to be most effective only when muted.

The second set was more pop-oriented, despite the show-closing "Summertime," which was marred by a hyperactive arrangement. Original songs like "Cold, Cold Water" and "Eggshells" (with backup vocals) indicated that Kelly's gold embossed calling card to the wider world is just as likely to be her singing as her saxophone-playing. It's hard to imagine her leaving the instrument behind, but she does live in California now, and one thinks back to the precedent of Nat King Cole.

A pioneer of the drumless jazz piano trio, Cole allowed his career to become wholly absorbed in singing, and why not? That way lay fame, fortune and being the first black man to host a network television show.  Jazz fans were aware that his piano chops were a matter of record. But show business tends to tweak careers in the direction of commercial success.

Will music-lovers 10 or 15 years from now get in conversations like "Oh, yeah -- Grace Kelly, man, she used to be quite a saxophone player!"  "Really? With that voice and those songs? Easy to see why she gave up the horn."

What a vision, particularly given the touches of Nashville in her voice! Can we someday expect to see a Kelly vocal backed by liquescent strings and crooning chorus?  Do we have the Kelly equivalent of "Ramblin' Rose" to look forward to?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

First night of IVCI classical finals: Three faces of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major

By intermission Wednesday, any fears of a certain sameness to the first night of Classical Concerto Finals had been banished. There was no need to worry about sitting through three performances of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219, based on the first two.

By the end of the concert, the audience in Lilly Performance Hall at the University of Indianapolis' DeHaan Fine Arts Center had received three distinct perspectives on the work from Tessa Lark, Jinjoo Cho, and Ji Yoon Lee, accompanied by the East Coast Chamber Orchestra.

Participants in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis had the choice of five Mozart concertos, the last four of them written in 1775, and Joseph Haydn's C major concerto. As often happens, certain selections dominate in each of the repertoire categories. This year, that means that among the finalists, four chose K. 219, sometimes called "the Turkish," and two of them prepared the Mozart D major, K. 218.

Tessa Lark's performance had the pluses and minuses associated with first impressions: She had the
advantage of setting the tone for the evening's interpretations, with the drawback that her fellow competitors could be viewed as offering a corrective.

Tessa Lark
Jinjoo Cho
Her playing was powerful and straightforward, but not routine.  Repeated phrases were tastefully varied in articulation, and her ornaments were restrained. There was vigor and freshness in her cadenzas, which were new to me, perhaps original with her. She seemed to have thought thoroughly about the work. It was an astute, generously expressive, and well-balanced rendition. The touches of novelty in the finale that make this concerto so attractive — including the "Turkish" episode that brings wildness to the Rondo — were suitably acknowledged by soloist and ensemble alike.

Revelations of a not entirely welcome kind entered the concert with Jinjoo Cho's performance. She had strong ideas, too. In comparison with Lark, the violin's Adagio entrance was slower, the succeeding Allegro aperto a mite faster. She stumbled at one point before the cadenza — the predominant one (since Mozart left none of his own) by Joseph Joachim. This had more pauses, more lingering phrases than usual, and I began to feel a haze of distortion descend over her performance.

She detached from each other the two-note units that make up the main phrase of the second movement's theme, an affectation that impeded the melody's flow. Scholars say that the "Adagio" indication is rare in Mozart, so it's not a sin to dawdle, perhaps.  But too much of a dawdling feeling characterized Cho's performance, dreamy and delicate to a fault.

In the finale, her cadenzas tended to finish awkwardly. There was otherwise considerable polish to her playing, but I didn't think the movement's expressive variety was fully felt. Mozart biographer Maynard Solomon has written about the "serenade style" that influenced these concertos — the composer's evolution of the social music of divertimentos, cassations, and serenades into something more searching. "He cannot help probing," Solomon writes,  "beyond the gentle longings of the serenader, who keeps his darker passions at bay, hidden within the lulling  rhythms of the simulated lute accompaniment."

More understanding of what the 19-year-old composer, exercising his genius within the forms and norms of provincial Salzburg, was doing in this concerto was needed in Cho's performance. Something of this understanding became evident with Ji Yoon Lee after intermission. For one thing, she reined in the anachronistic aspects of Joachim's cadenzas, making them idiomatic to the 18th century, and she always finished them gracefully.

Ji Yoon Lee
She exemplified the odd quality called for in the first-movement tempo designation — aperto, meaning "open" — with a dancing, optimistic approach. Her own youthful vigor, joined to the composer's, led her to several "pushed" phrases that came close to running ahead of the orchestra. On the whole, however, Lee seemed to inspire the easy-to-inspire East Coast Chamber Orchestra to even more rhythmic resilience and definitive sparkle. Together, they attained what Michael Steinberg described as hearing in this music — "Beechamesque swagger" (referring to the ebullience characteristic of the 20th-century English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham).

The serenade style's roots in dance and accessible melodies prevailed. Lee's second-movement playing didn't segment the solo line as Cho had done. Her slow playing never plodded. In the finale, she and the orchestra didn't wait until the "Turkish" section to emphasize the music's richness of invention, including the "darker passions" Solomon alluded to in the serenade style Mozart inherited. The finale's minuet basis was both honored and transformed.

In sum, Lee's performance of this piece is the sort I prefer to hear in concert, ignoring the competitive context. Lark's was the sort that wins competitions; it had "victory" written all over it, and its violinistic display was impeccable. Cho's, while not unprofessional, seemed wrongheaded on several counts.

This astonishing three-way contest was introduced by ECCO's winsome playing, conductorless as always, of Jennifer Higdon's "String."  The work distributes some lively pizzicato phrases among the sections until a flowing episode takes over. Before long, it's off to the races with a kind of saltarello in an easy-on-the-ears gallop to the final measure. This amounted to a zesty curtain-raiser for three intriguing ways of looking at a single Mozart work.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Precise, bountiful strings are just the thing for in between the semifinal and final rounds of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis

With the dust settling from the initial whirlwind of the Ninth Quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, Tuesday's concert at Butler University's Schrott Center offered more than a few lung-filling breaths of fresh air.

A showcase concert by the East Coast Chamber Orchestra, making its Indianapolis debut, whetted the appetite for hearing it in accompaniment duties during two evenings of Mozart concertos, starting tonight at the University of Indianapolis.

On Tuesday, the 16-piece conductorless ensemble offered two works on its own: Grieg's Holberg Suite and Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings. Both are among the great 19th-century works for string orchestra, and the way they were played in this concert seemed entirely fresh and remarkably detailed.

The vigor and unity of ECCO in the Praeludium gave a foretaste of the precision evident under particularly demanding circumstances in the concluding Rigaudon. With its episodic nature comprising abrupt contrasts of tempo and articulation, the finale also must seem to be tossed off in order to make its folk-dance character sound authentic. All the requirements were met in this  exhilarating performance.

There was beautiful dialogue between upper and lower strings in the Gavotte, and heart-rending lyricism from the cellos in the Sarabande. The good fortune of Butler University in having a new acoustical paragon on campus was demonstrated time and time again here and throughout the concert.

The four-movement Tchaikovsky piece not only puts forward a host of fine melodies, but in a performance as fine-tuned as this one reveals the Russian composer's contrapuntal gifts as well. The ensemble's dynamic control gave extra life to the first movement, and in the third-movement "Elegie," the little one-note tags at phrase ends were delicately placed, leading to anticipation of a poised transition to the finale, which takes off on a pulse-pounding Russian theme.  That expectation was, of course, gloriously fulfilled.

Soloist Clara-Jumi Kang
Astor Piazzolla's "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,"  the concert's centerpiece, brought to center stage the 2010 IVCI gold medalist, Clara-Jumi Kang.  The guest soloist projected unstintingly the seductive charms and aggressive declamation of Piazzolla's tango-rich style, which in this work folds in reminders of the original Vivaldi concertos that inspired the Argentine composer.

Kang's convincing characterization was fully supported by the orchestra, which contributed vivid shrieks and scratches as well as incisive rhythms and winsome tunes across the four movements. Only the most comfortable rapport among musicians could result in a reading of this difficult work as cohesive and flamboyant as this one.

ECCO presents itself in different configurations to reflect the excellence of its members, many of whom are conspicuous in other musical contexts. The best-known ECCOista hereabouts is probably Nicolas Kendall, who's enjoying more attention than ever as one-third of the popular string trio Time for Three.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Raymond Leppard continues tradition of conducting opening concert of University of Indianapolis season

Moving cautiously onto the Lilly Performance Hall stage as he recuperates from recent back surgery, Raymond Leppard basked in the warm applause from a full house gathered for the opening of the concert season at the University of Indianapolis. The esteem in which he is held here almost guarantees an enthusiastic reception for anything he adds to the city's musical life at age 87.

Raymond Leppard
The conductor laureate of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, fulfilling his artist-in-residence duties at UIndy most conspicuously with this appearance, led a professional orchestra made up largely of faculty and ISO members, University of Indianapolis choral ensembles, and vocal and instrumental soloists at the DeHaan Fine Arts Center.

The program played to his strengths in 18th-century music and the conservative British tradition.The string-orchestra version of Holst's "St. Paul's Suite" opened the program in a tidy performance. The second-movement ostinato that lends the movement its title sounded a little odd, as if it were coming from a non-string instrument, but that was the only disorienting aspect of the performance.

"It's all slightly folksy," as Leppard said of "St. Paul's Suite" in offhand remarks from the stage during an interview by Paul Krasnovsky, the school's director of choral activities. That regular feature of this gala event was long on jollity and short on substance. It would be interesting to know how Leppard got to be artist-in-residence at the University of Indianapolis, for example, but the man who holds that position said he didn't know. And that was that.

Krasnovsky's student choristers sounded admirably fit so early in the school year as they sang three sections of Mozart's Mass in C major, K. 257.  At 20, Mozart in this piece reveals several signs of mastery. It was evident in the authentic anxiety put into musical terms in the portion of the "Gloria" that translates as "Thou who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us."  It was also present in the quickening of the tempo in the "Agnus Dei," when "grant us peace" seemed to take on particular urgency. Four student soloists handled brief solos capably.

The program was filled out with music by the two most significant composers in the 1685 birth cohort. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major benefited from an expert  solo group composed of Austin Hartman, violin, and Anne Reynolds and Tamara Thweatt, flutes. The performance was neatly put together and gently impelled forward.

Three numbers (two solos and a duet) from Handel's opera "Rodelinda" featured faculty singers Kathleen Hacker, soprano, and mezzo-soprano Mitzi Westtra. I was particularly enchanted with the expressiveness and grace of Westra's performance of the first-act aria, assigned to the male hero Bertarido: "Confusa si miri." Hacker delivered a concise summary of the opera and the three numbers
beforehand to make the dramatic import of the music clear to the audience. 

Another UIndy faculty member will be involved at the 2015 gala, we learned Monday night. John Berners will compose on commission a work for chamber orchestra in honor of arts patron and university supporter Christel DeHaan. The composition will receive its premiere a year from now.

Monday, September 15, 2014

IVCI report: The next-to-last pair of recitals in the semifinal round brings further clarity — and the choice of 6 finalists seals the deal

 Once again, I present the names of the six finalists (just announced) without revising my final report:

Tessa Lark
Jinjoo Cho
Ji Yoon Lee
Ji Young Lim
Yoo Jin Jang
Dami Kim

The last two afternoon sessions of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis' semifinal round shed further light on the richness of the commissioned piece, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's "Fantasy for Solo Violin."

The four recitals I heard Sunday and Monday also shed light on participants' personalities and technical aplomb in standard repertoire, of course. But what's become clearest at this point is that the level is so high individual listeners are freer than ever to decide which participants "speak to them" through their  performances.

It became a matter of personal appeal as I listened to Ji Young Lim and Kristi Gjezi on Sunday and Suyeon Kang and Ji-Won Song on Monday. And I found I liked most everything that Kang did — it spoke to me.

In the Zwilich, she invested a lot of thought and energy in making a cast of characters out of the diverse "voices" that the work presents in succession. Other performers have been convincing coming up with a through-line that linked the disparate elements. That will seem a preferable course to some, but Kang's approach took more chances, and they paid off.

And in Prokofiev's Sonata No. 1 in F minor, op. 80, the first movement made it clear that she thinks like a singer. The bleakness of the sonata is embodied in a series of songs — with a few rough speeches thrown in — and all of it, with the help of Rohan De Silva, spun a compelling narrative in Kang's performance.
Suyeon Kang

It's no surprise, then, that Kang made so much of Franz Waxman's "Carmen Fantasy," which concentrates on various aspects of Carmen's personality (the "fate" music as well as the Seguidilla) even as it folds in plenty of virtuoso display. And her account of Beethoven's Sonata No. 7 in C minor, op. 30, was not only an exemplary match with the piano, but also highlighted the violinist's sheer zest. She got the right feeling of foreboding at the start of the finale  and reveled in that movement's cyclonic coda.

Lim also had a good feeling for narrative, particularly in the Zwilich, and made the most of the composer's note in the score to play with "
flexible tempo and imaginative use of color." She was very free in matters of tempo, and took the country-fiddling element in the work to a heightened degree.

Gjezi's Zwilich was not particulary distinctive, but he applied his dark  tone and rock-solid technique
Kristi Gjezi
well to the same Prokofiev sonata Kang played.  The brutality and lyricism of this music had a steady champion in Gjezi — emotionally intense but still on top of the stresses that pull the music this way and that.

His Beethoven sonata — No. 10 in G major, op. 96 (a rare choice) — took a patrician stance amid material that sometimes comes close to salon music, but also suggests the refinement of the late string quartets. That steady control served him well in Saint-Saens' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, and called attention to how economically he uses his bow. This is a violinist who could be studied from an efficiency standpoint; there was no wasted motion in his performance.

Finally, something about Song's eloquence as an interpreter of Eugene Ysaye, whose unaccompanied Sonata No. 6 she played vividly: In the early years of the competition we heard a lot of Ysaye, who taught Josef Gingold, the IVCI's founder. Hearing significantly less of him in these semifinals helped make Song's Ysaye more appealling, but I suspect hers would have stood out in a crowd of Ysayes.

Song's Zwilich was one of those that emphasized the work's connections. She was like one of those people who notice family resemblances that kinfolk themselves sometimes overlook. Her Beethoven was characterized by big dynamics and lots of momentum, but nothing slapdash. Of so many of these participants this can perhaps be said, and it certainly can of her: She will have a place in the violin firmament of her generation even if she goes no further than this in this competition.

Indy Jazz Fest: Steve Turre leads quintet, including two players with strong local backgrounds, in J.J. Johnson tribute concert

During Steve Turre's first appearance with his band at the Jazz Kitchen in the 1990s, the audience included a distinguished guest: J.J. Johnson, father-figure to all modern jazz trombonists and an Indianapolis native son who returned home late in life.

Shortly before his retirement, Johnson had brought his band into the club, owner David Allee reminded a large audience Sunday evening at the Indiana Landmarks Center, and sold out three nights running. Allee still remembers it as a highlight in the 20-year history of the Jazz Kitchen that helped set its direction.

Steve Turre listens, Javon Jackson solos with the rhythm section.
Turre was also on hand at Johnson's memorial service here in 2001. The bond between the two musicians clearly went beyond routine professional respect. So Turre came back to town for a centerpiece Indy Jazz Fest concert specifically focused on the Johnson legacy.

All the music came from Johnson's pen. And a trombonist full of pep and stamina — as Turre remains these days at the age of 66 — provided just the sort of expansive tribute Johnson deserves in his hometown.

On piano was Steve Allee, celebrating his birthday in grand fashion, playing hotter than almost anytime I've heard him since he sat in with the late James Moody many years ago at the Kitchen.  "Hotter" doesn't necessarily mean better, as Allee always delivers something good and seems to work well with anybody. But "hot" is good when the context demands it, and the pianist set the thermostat way up there when called for.

Also in the rhythm section was drummer Greg Artry, who made an indelible impression on the Indianapolis jazz scene before his recent move to Chicago, and veteran Chicago bassist Larry Gray. After Turre and this group got loose and expansive together in "Bloozineff," the trombonist was featured in a magisterial reading of "Lament," Johnson's most famous piece. Gray's pungent tone and keen phrasing were remarkable aspects of both.

From then on, the smooth-working group became a quintet, as tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson came onstage for the fast-moving "Overdrive."  Such hell-bent-for-leather pieces were relieved occasionally with something more deliberate and tender, such as "Carolyn in the Morning," which Johnson wrote for his wife, now his widow, who delivered a gracious thank-you speech before the music started.

 Jackson's solo was particularly well-focused and full of feeling, and Allee's was notable for its lightness, backed up by Artry's deft touch with the brushes. The group's fitness as an ensemble was amply demonstrated by its poise in Johnson's tricky "Sidewinder."

With sticks in his hands, Artry is a monster. He showed that first on whirling, cascading fills between alternating four-bar statements by Turre and Jackson. That was well into a skittering piece called "Tea Pot," based on the harmonic underpinning of "Sweet Georgia Brown." (It was instructive to hear, just two days apart,  two different contrafacts on this familiar tune, well-known in a whistled version as the Harlem Globetrotters' warm-up music. The Claire Daly Quartet played Thelonious Monk's much different "Bright Mississippi" Tuesday night at the Kitchen.)

Artry cut loose in the finale, "Coffee Pot," which — as Turre pointed out, is hypercaffeinated in comparison with "Tea Pot." The drummer's solo was simply the most high-profile feature of an all-out blast from the band. The leader's trombone stayed rambunctious and full of ideas to the very end, making the tribute more than a memorial occasion. Instead, it was a display of a top trombonist's staying power and his unassailable aptitude as a bandleader with a mission.

(Photo credit: Rob Ambrose)

The 5 Browns play 440 keys — and the Palladium

The family of siblings known for their unprecedented acceptance into Juilliard has built that student prominence into a career that offers five attractive young pianists capable of a simultaneous musical attack — a benign semi-automatic weapon in the culture wars.

The 5 Browns went to Juilliard, then things got even better.

Ryan, Melody, Gregory, Deondra, and Desirae Brown opened the classical season at the Palladium Saturday night. Their bouncy charm won over a large audience. In the course of a two-hour program, they were arranged in different configurations at the five Steinway grands, so everyone got a look at every one of them. Three solos and a duet (Lutoslawski's Variations on a Theme of Paganini) relieved the focus on the sonorous simultaneity of the five.

If this program is typical, the 5 Browns  specialize in music that is certain to make a virtue of dense, busy textures and lots of flashy activity. From the solos on up, an abundance of deft fingerwork was on display.

Gregory offered Chopin's galvanic Nocturne in C minor, op. 48, no. 1. Two other solos bore the designation Toccata (or its diminutive, Toccatina), and provided worthy solo displays for Ryan and Melody, respectively. Nikolai Kapustin's Toccatinaa had deeply embedded jazz inflections, while Robert Muczynski's Toccata, which Ryan described as his "rage piece," was a torrent of two-handed abrasiveness, stylishly brought off.'

Working from arrangements by Greg Anderson and Jeffrey Shumway, the 5 Browns bookended intermission with two 20th-century masterpieces — Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" (Part 1) and Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

The Stravinsky was revelatory. Its melodies were handled with care, from "The Adoration of the Earth" on. But especially potent were the final movements of the score's first part, starting with "Procession of the Wise Elder" and ending with "Dance of the Earth."

I usually don't comment on audience response, but I found it a little dismaying that "The Rite of Spring" received lukewarm applause, while "Rhapsody in Blue" got a warm, sustained ovation, as if hearing it were an enormous relief. There must have been considerable muttering about the Stravinsky during intermission, judging from the disparity of response. I don't disdain "Rhapsody in Blue," but I'm surprised that "The Rite" is still treated as somewhat alien and ugly, worthy only of a polite, arm's-length reception.

The concert opened with three excerpts of "The Planets," Gustav Holst's orchestral portrait of the personalities behind the planets' names more than anything particularly astronomical.  For the sake of a concert arrangement for pianos, it made sense for the serene "Neptune" to be placed between the bellicose "Mars" and the triumphant heartiness of "Jupiter."  But it was hard to hear the latter two movements out of order. The performance was particularly fetching with the addition of the Brown women's voices in "Neptune," replacing the wordless women's chorus of the original.

Ragtime strutted onstage for the encore, ushered in by the volcanic energy of the program's last scheduled piece, Anderson's arrangement of Mily Balakirev's "Islamey." The tune behind the title is fairly rudimentary, and only its elaborate decoration and the intricacy with which it's treated keep the listener's interest up.  Those qualities are sufficient even when the amazement of hearing one pianist perform it (the original tour de force) is spread among five of them. The din became a little blurry, but that's not unknown in solo performances. As long as the energy keeps churning forward, "Islamey" makes its effect, and so it did here.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The first two afternoons of the semifinals: IVCI participants offer premieres of the commissioned work

 "I had my fiddle under my chin the whole time I was writing the piece," Ellen Taaffe Zwilich told a
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, commissioned composer
roomful of composition students at Butler University Thursday afternoon.

The composer of "Fantasy for Solo Violin," the commissioned work in the 2014 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, added she was looking forward to the rare opportunity to get 16 world premieres within four days. Having begun her professional career in the 1960s as a violinist, Zwilich the composer has often spotlighted violins in her work, but never before as exclusively as in this one-movement unaccompanied piece.

The four performances of "Fantasy" that I heard Friday and Saturday to a considerable extent said something about the musical personalities of Nancy Zhou, Yu-Chien Tsang, Jinjoo Cho, and Stephen Waarts. But they may have just spoken to young artists' interpretation of a piece with no performance tradition behind it. They got to play Pygmalion and bring to life material that was only potentially breathing and beautiful — despite the creator's credentials and the august occasion that matched the violinists with the work.

Nancy Zhou got the honor of the true premiere, being first in the semifinalist performing order.  My
Nancy Zhou
impression of her interpretation as analytical may reflect my initial exposure to the work as well. Zwilich's "Fantasy" uses a wide range of violin techniques with an economy that bespeaks a composer on intimate terms with the instrument. Zhou's performance emphasized the distinct character of brief episodes that offered hints of the march, the blues, and country fiddling. It was a plain exposition, but no less enthralling for that. It took its time, coming in at about 7 minutes.

Yu-Chien Tseng's 5-minute performance was considerably more dramatic, making of the soaring gestures in the early measures something designed to grab the attention and hold it. The bluesy figures were a little fiercer, and the work seemed both more brisk and a little more loose-jointed — a positive thing, on the whole, given the piece's title. Fantasies, after all, don't stay in any one place for long.

On Saturday afternoon, Jinjoo Cho wrenched "Fantasy" out of conventional notions with a bold
Jinjoo Cho
marcato opening. The expression was outsized throughout, bringing another side of Zwilich to the fore. Cho's spicy performance even approximated a screaming rock guitar solo at certain points, a personal touch that was not as unsuitable as it may sound. Full-bore energy, with some charming offhand moments in pizzicato passages, was the hallmark of her interpretation. In duration, Cho split the difference with her predecessors, taking about 6 minutes.

Another 5-minute sojourn concluded the afternoon recitals Saturday. Stephen Waarts favored a flowing, lyrical version of "Fantasy." We heard a wittier interpretation of the piece, acutely attentive to pauses and changes of expressive direction. It was something of a pleasant surprise to find such a songlike quality brought to the fore.

As for the part of the recital where the violinists' selections separate them more distinctly from one another:

The required Beethoven sonata (choice among nine of the 10 he wrote, the pinnacle of the "Kreutzer" remaining unscaled) gave us two performances of No. 8 in G major, op. 30. Tseng's quickly seemed to find the heart of Beethoven in this repertoire. I liked his classical concept, a sense of restraint that suggested power in reserve, making all the more significant the accents and outbursts characteristic of the composer. There was nothing unfeeling in Tseng's interpretation, but he kept everything under lively control.

The other No. 8 was Waart's.  It was also tasteful and ardent.  Tempos were well-judged and the momentum was unstinting. The minuet movement seemed slower than customary, but it never dragged. His playing was more outspoken about the contrasts the work presents, especially in the first movement, and his phrasing was invariably shapely, with appropriate dynamic contours.

Stephen Waarts
Cho played Beethoven's Sonata No. 1 in D major, op. 12, buoyed by the estimable partnership of Rohan De Silva. Emotional engagement with the music seemed strong, so much so that it may have nurtured a concluding fortissimo flourish to the first movement that verged on harshness.  Nonetheless, a thoughtful approach prevailed, with sculpted phrasing and careful attention to the music's classical-period roots.

Zhou played the often glowering yet energetic Sonata No. 4 in A minor, op. 23,   Her tone sounded veiled, however, and she was below pitch several times in the opening Presto. She attained more clarity in Richard Strauss' Sonata in E-flat major, op. 18. The work is kind of "Ein Heldenleben" for the violin in its vaunting expressiveness, urged on by the demanding piano part, dashingly played here by Nelson Padgett. Zhou was in her element, as she was also attuned to the music's ripe lyricism — that peculiar Straussian quality one might almost call anticipatory nostalgia.

For her display piece, Zhou went for the inward-looking Ysaye Sonata No. 6 for Solo Violin, negotiating its peaks and valleys — those roaring G-string figures! — expertly, and ascending to a triumphant conclusion.

Waarts presented Bartok's Sonata for Solo Violin, a four-movement masterpiece notable in this performance for its brilliance and a transparency that invited the listener into its thickets rather than seeking to be merely imposing. For sheer illumination of difficult material, this performance was the highlight of his recital.

Other fancy playing over the two days involved virtuoso reworkings of music from Bizet's "Carmen."
Not surprising in a composer best known for his movie scores, Franz Waxman dwells upon the dark and light dramatic elements of the original, while Pablo de Sarasate pursues a path constantly loyal to violinistic splendor. Cho played the former; Tseng, the latter. Both accounts were flashy and dependably exciting.

Yu-Chien Tseng
Other accompanied sonatas besides the Strauss included two readings of Maurice Ravel's Sonata in G major. Tseng's performance presented a supple, swaying feeling in the first movement, a seductive yet slightly anxious account of the second-movement "Blues," and a finale whose vigor was clouded by some scratchiness. Waarts' performance was cleverly varied, with explosive pizzicato accents in "Blues" and (in the opening movement especially) a convincing way of hanging on to anything lyrical, as if in tribute to the composer's cool sentimentality.

Finally, Cho interpreted Prokofiev's Sonata No. 1 in F minor, taking the broadest possible view. The intensity of the second movement was almost devastating.  The work's frequent brooding quality was fully indulged in, but the glumness was never haphazardly applied. She gave the passage often described as "wind whistling over the graves" a delicacy that made it all the more haunting.

Tomorrow evening's post will cover another quarter of the semifinal round: four recitals heard Sunday and Monday afternoons.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Monk-centric performance by the Claire Daly Quartet opens the Jazz Kitchen side of Indy Jazz Fest

Claire Daly brought her hearty sound on baritone sax to Indianapolis for the first time Friday night, presenting a program largely devoted to Thelonious Monk. The venerated composer-pianist (1917-1982) left behind a body of challenging work — easy to enjoy, hard to play.

Formidable instrument (left) and Claire Daly
The New York-based quartet Daly travels with is the one that recorded "Baritone Monk" (NCB Jazz). In two sets at the Jazz Kitchen, the band sounded thoroughly imbued with the Monk aesthetic. The humor, assertiveness and occasional tenderness characteristic of Monk had been thoroughly absorbed, and given a fresh direction.

That didn't mean unimaginative idolatry, however. Monk has his imitators, but pianist Steve Hudson sported a style all his own. It's compounded of chains of close-order chordal marching interspersed with long, single-note runs to either end of the keyboard, plus cryptic phrases and swinging pauses that evoke the master's quirkiness.

Hudson played some of the evening's most deep-delving solos, displaying a lively imagination from the opening number, "Let's Cool One," on through the end, a Rahsaan Roland Kirk tune with an upbeat Latin pulse, "Theme for the Eulipions."

That closer featured two guests, making their second appearance of the evening: Napoleon Maddox of Cincinnati, a beatboxer and vocal percussionist, and pianist Billy Foster of Gary. Daly had invited Maddox onstage to end the first set with "Bright Mississippi," Monk's lively tune based on "Sweet Georgia Brown."

Maddox fitted his multirhythmic array of percussive mouth sounds in to the ensemble, then mixed it up fruitfully with drummer Peter Grant.  In the Kirk piece, he fashioned an intricate duet with bassist Mary Ann McSweeney. Foster brought his elegant, down-home style to bear on "Monk's Blues" and "Theme for the Eulipions," Hudson yielding the bench to him.

The bassist did extensive arco playing in Monk's "Light Blue," with particularly good focus and clarity once she got out on her own in a solo. And Daly became stronger as the concert proceeded, adding more flexibility in the upper register to complement her mastery of the baritone's droll "foghorn" range.

The leader twice picked up the flute, once for a John Lewis piece and another time in Monk's ballad "Pannonica,"his lyrical salute to an aristocratic patron, which Daly played with gentle straightforwardness.

The set had an abundance of delights, none more relaxed and confident than the Hudson-Daly duet in Monk's perky yet grindingly slow "Green Chimneys." The audience's enthusiastic response to this appeared to please Daly, who noted at one point that there's too much talk about the need to "support" jazz, as though the music were in intensive care. Her quartet's performance Friday night indicated that positive health reports are not hard to find on the bandstand, confirmed by paying customers' enthusiasm.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Indy Jazz Fest launches its 10-day run with festival spirit at UIndy

You can dependably bring a diverse crowd of jazz-lovers together with a well-chosen program of classic tunes based in hard bop and reaching into the fusion styles of the 1970s. And that's the kind of approach you need when you're seeking to attract a busy September public to the annual Indy Jazz Fest.

Masterly guitarist Bill Lancton was also a genial emcee.
Accordingly, Bill Lancton and colleagues took care of business Thursday night in the DeHaan Fine Arts Center at the University of Indianapolis. The guitarist led the Indy Jazz Fest Band in nine tunes of the jazz-party sort, and his own first-class professionalism was upheld by his six sidemen.

They were Allen  'Turk" Burke, piano and organ; Rich Dole, trombone; Tom Clark, saxophones and flute; Mark Buselli, trumpet and congas; Scott Pazera, bass, and Vince Jackson, drums.

Hits from the 1960s and 1970s were on the menu. Solos were typically crowd-pleasing sojourns unfolding from a few understated phrases up toward stirring climaxes full of virtuoso display, majesty and humor.

Once Burke left the grand piano and took his seat at the Hammond B-3, the party was launched in earnest.

The vehicle for introducing Burke the organist to the crowd was an up-tempo version of Erroll Garner's "Misty." That raised the temperature in the room in the best sense, helped by Clark's molten alto playing. The intricacy of Horace Silver's "Opus de Funk" followed, with more fiery Clark and a typically whole-hearted Lancton solo.  The jumpy ensemble interludes were always a treat each time they came around to punctuate the solos.

"Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" — one of those rare jazz hits on the charts (back when the charts were simpler) — had earlier confirmed the fitness of this ensemble to carry out the program's exhilarating duties. Dole's solo had a brawny, exultant spirit to it; his more lyrical playing on Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island" made for a nice contrast.

Buselli brought his fertile imagination to every trumpet solo, in addition to holding his own on congas in a good-natured percussion duel with Jackson on James Brown's "Cold Sweat."

Burke was always a pleasure to hear. He shone on the Meters' "Sissy Strut," and was characteristically strong both in soloing and anchoring the accompaniment.

The generous program ended with Chick Corea's "Spain." The ensemble became a little looser on this one, but the tune's sprawling structure was generally well-served in this performance — and we got to enjoy Clark's sole outing on flute and a Pazera electric bass solo.