Sunday, May 31, 2015

At the Jazz Kitchen, the Steve Allee Quintet debuts some new material, most of it by the prolific keyboard maestro

Pianist-composer Steve Allee had new music to share Saturday.
Steve Allee continues to write some of the most engaging, agreeably knotty pieces on the local jazz scene. There were a number of such compositions — their concentrated swing linked to perky melodies — on the first set he and his adept quintet played Saturday night at the Jazz Kitchen, the successful SoBro nightclub-restaurant run by his son David.

The players on hand to enhance the introduction of these pieces are all familiar faces — some of them over decades, others over just a few years. Among them was another bandleader-composer of distinction, saxophonist Rob Dixon, whose featured works had a similar  bounce, elegance, and accessibility.

Both men are contributing new pieces inspired by paintings that will be displayed July 19 at an Indy Jazz Fest fundraiser called "Jazz on Canvas." One of them heard Friday night was Dixon's "Ragsdale," named for a local artist and distinguished by a theme that flowed like freely applied paint. In the front line with Dixon was trumpeter/flugelhornist Marlin McKay, with the rhythm section headed by Allee and including bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps. The piece moved toward an effective coda, all the more so in that limited rehearsal time seemed to let the mutual rapport be established moment-to-moment as the music subsided.

Dixon and Allee were front and center for the set's sole standard. Ellington's "In A Sentimental Mood."   The pianist's accompaniment paid tribute to the soft, reflective chiming that Duke placed behind John Coltrane in their memorable performance of the song. Dixon fashioned an unusually soft-spoken solo, its phrases holding back just enough to avoid impeding the momentum, yet lending something especially nostalgic to the sentimental mood of the title.

Allee turned to electronic keyboard for the peppy but somehow soothing "Chill," and the set ended with an extensive version of another original, "In the Fray." The work seemed both on edge and confident of staying abreast of whatever fray — Allee suggested it was urban life — may have inspired it. The pianist-bandleader's international travels, always fruitful musically, here were represented by "Santos," a salute to the Brazilian city and its inspired architecture. The piece's wild vibe was well established before Phelps raised the stakes with a witty, accompanied solo near the end.

Tucker put forth a deep-dyed bluesy solo on Dixon's "Passage," which was also notable for McKay's warmly articulated two-part solo, each part slightly different in expressive profile, as he switched from flugelhorn to trumpet.

The program opened with Allee's "Brother to Brother," whose theme featured an intriguing bridge that gave the music's rhythmic personality a somewhat manic air. As nearly always throughout the generous set, the five-man ensemble worked like a charm — as firmly constituted throughout as any small band you are likely to encounter hereabouts these days.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Storming on tour into the Midwest, New York's Rad Trads make their local debut at the Jazz Kitchen

 A septet of unprepossessing-looking  musical gentlemen took the stage for the late-night show Friday at the Jazz Kitchen.

They hadn't gone far into the sole set of their club debut before it became obvious the Rad Trads had blown their polite newcomer status all to scatteration.
The Rad Trads take care of business at some other gig.

They strutted, bounced, and boogied while knocking out straightforward songs in some fairly intricate (memorized) arrangements. They never forgot they were there to entertain: no long solos, no narcissistic displays of instrumental prowess. One song after another, high-octane all the way. They just brought it.

Based in New York and newly emerged from the South into the Midwest on an extensive tour, the young band quickly put a stamp  of exuberance on a range of soulful music. Their vocals, distributed mainly among three of them, were punctuated by the band's well-coordinated four horns, resting on a solid foundation of guitar, electric bass and drums.

Whether singing or playing, the members displayed an infectious rough charm. They sounded  thoroughly steeped in their material, while also not wanting to come across as too neatly honed. The material ranged from such hardy evergreens as "Makin' Whoopee" and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" to such piping-hot originals as "Port Authority Strut" and "Rosalie."

Call-and-response vocal styles were compatibly matched with solo showcases. Subtle, staccato horn stabs were slyly placed behind the vocals on Dr. John's "Such a Night."  The spirit of Muscle Shoals as well as the New Orleans brass-band tradition consistently gave the gusto of authenticity to the two-trumpet front line, supplemented by a gritty, moaning tenor sax and a sassy, sometimes soaring trombone.

Something in the sound mix, while balanced, didn't afford much clarity to the vocals except in a few places where the instrumental texture thinned out. Otherwise, the band presented an attractive calling card to Hoosier fans of mixed-genre grooving, blossoming from deep roots.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Busoni and Cage: Piano music of a couple of strong-minded eccentrics, played by Jeni Slotchiver and Kate Boyd, respectively.

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) pointed toward music's postmodern future even as he anticipated the intervening reign of modernism. The Italian pianist-composer, looking back with intensity toward J.S. Bach while bursting with Romantic afflatus, had a mystical idea of the equivalent meaning of all music: "All melodies, heard before or never heard, resound completely and simultaneously — they are themselves the souls of millions of being in millions of epochs."

Out the window goes the "historicist" interpretation of music, that it either has to follow the true line of progress, whatever that means, or fall quickly into irrelevance. In defiance of Robert Browning, Busoni's reach may often have exceeded his grasp.  In "The Great Pianists," Harold Schonberg aptly titles his Busoni chapter "Dr. Faust at the Keyboard."

Jeni Slotchiver makes common cause with Busoni.
Jeni Slotchiver, in the third volume of her "Busoni the Visionary"  series (Centaur CRC 3396), clarifies the Italian-German composer's vision in performances that are subtly shaped, powerful, and well-defined.

With his name often appearing in hyphenated form (after Bach's), Busoni the transcriber is of course represented here. The vehicle concludes the program: Bach's Prelude and Triple Fugue in E-flat major ("St. Anne"), a favorite of concert organists. Three stunning fugue subjects were clearly meat and drink to Busoni, and the performance seems to draw on Slotchiver's inexhaustible, disciplined resources. (Of course, with editing as sophisticated as it is today, no recording is a guarantee of such stamina linked to insight in performance, but let's give her the benefit of the doubt.)

There is typically much going on in a Busoni composition, especially when his muse is fired with enthusiasm for another composer. As a performer, he had a love-hate relationship with Chopin, but at 18 he paid tribute with the remarkable "Ten Variations on a Prelude of Chopin" (the beloved C minor, op. 28, no. 20 ). The young man's treatment is typical of his mature practice: flamboyant on the surface, severe in depth.

The glowering, epic Toccata, which opens the disc, displays Slotchiver's knack for knowing when to subordinate something and when to move it to the foreground. Busoni deploys his themes and figuration like chessmen — feinting, attacking, lying in wait until they can be strategically effective. When grandeur is called for, it can do with some understatement (which the pianist supplies) as Busoni often wants it to be self-evident grandeur — not vulgarized.

She brings off an uncharacteristic miniature, "Nuit de Noel," charrmingly. And the monumental Fantasia nach Johann Sebastian Bach, written in memory of Busoni's father, brings out in this performance what the composer found both essential and potential about the Baroque master.

John Cage's debts to other composers are harder to trace. Before his philosophy got the better of him, Cage (1912-1992) made a signature impression on contemporary musical resources by carefully adding bolts, screws, pieces of rubber and plastic, etc. to the inside of the piano in designated places. This turned the instrument into a percussion orchestra at the command of a single player, influenced by the sound of the Balinese gamelan.

Kate Boyd is a prepared pianist for Cage.
The meticulous preparation is integral to the art of making the "new instrument" speak musically; then, there is the kind of performance that allows the buoyancy and rhythmic intricacy of such pieces full play. That is Kate Boyd's achievement in her recording of "Sonatas and Interludes" (Navona), a major exposition of the prepared piano in the form of 16 sonatas (not the classical kind) with four interludes of contrasting nature spaced evenly over the set; two of the latter are in the middle, so that the sonatas are arranged in groups of four.

Boyd, professor of piano at Butler University,  seems to have found the beating heart of this varied music. Percussive effects modified by timbral richness characterize the set. The ceaseless variety and its likely engagement of the listener may be found in the juxtaposition of enchanting sounds. This is music blithely dismissive of development, not to mention the underpinning that harmony gives to development. Expressiveness seems to follow rules of its own here, partly depending on what the listener is reminded of.

There are some fascinating echoes of music known or faintly known in more familiar contexts. There are hints of folk song in some of the sonatas, folk dance in others. The Second Interlude had haunting evocations of Schubert, while Sonata 14 carried pastel Debussyan suggestions for me. Sonata 10 surprised me with its Dies irae reminders.  The disc concludes with the "natural" piano featured, with Cage under the influence of Erik Satie, in Boyd's performance of "In a Landscape." All of this fetching program was recorded at Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall at Butler. It's good to celebrate  an Indianapolis origin for a recording that ought to be a reference-point in this repertoire indefinitely.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

To celebrate Friday's vote on marriage equality in Ireland, here's my adaptation of an old Irish ditty

A celebratory take on "Wild Rover" in honor of Ireland's historic vote Friday.

Posted by Jay Harvey on Sunday, May 24, 2015

Saturday, May 23, 2015

'Crescendo' brings opera to the park and launches Indianapolis Opera's next phase

Opera in Indianapolis is reaching out in new directions to find an audience that will support it adequately, and "Crescendo" — a musical term that instructs the player(s) to get louder by a more or less extended "less than" sign — expressed the hope the result will be "more than."

That was the title of Friday night's program at White River State Park, where Indianapolis Opera and the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra joined forces in a concert of mostly familiar excerpts from opera and musical theater — from Rossini through Stephen Schwartz.

Kirk Trevor, newly named maestro emeritus of the ICO since his retirement earlier this month after 27 years, conducted. He was in fine fettle, leading more than two dozen numbers, getting estimable results from the orchestra, the Opera chorus, and four apt guest soloists. The sampling was a generous smorgasbord, which could have been just a little skimpier to allow for more spoken context-setting of several of the selections. That might have involved celebrity emcee Angela Buchman more, with some advance pronunciation drill helping to ensure a satisfactory result. Or general director Kevin Patterson, who seems entirely comfortable at the microphone, could have handled the compact commentary.
Kevin Patterson: Deserved greater "Crescendo" role

That would have enhanced one of the outstanding performances of the evening, "Au fond du temple saint," the great tenor-baritone duet from Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers." The romantic rivals Zurga and Nadir, brought together after many years apart, catch a glimpse of their beloved goddess and vow that the vision should unite, rather than divide, them. And presumably, there were many in the audience who had no idea what Barbara LeMay was singing about in the well-known Habanera from Bizet's better-known opera "Carmen."

Opera being more than pretty or stirring melodies, the dramatic and character insights of its famous pieces need to be communicated to a concert audience presumably filled with newcomers. This is by way of crediting the four singers — soprano Katrina Thurman, mezzo LeMay, tenor Scott Ramsay and baritone Galen Bower — with dramatic as well as vocal excellence.

Capable as they are of singing without amplification, they mostly adjusted well to standing in front of microphones, with only Thurman's voice getting too close for comfort now and then. She was well-matched with Ramsay and never overbearing as Maria in "West Side Story" in a performance of "Tonight," with the foreground of the familiar tune nicely established.

Bower's Toreador Song, the other selection from "Carmen," was a stunning introduction to the lineup of guest soloists. He was in thorough command of Escamillo's bravado and self-regarding splendor. Other emotionally close-focused numbers included LeMay's delectable rendition of "I Hate Men" from Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate." She wielded one high-heel as a weapon and scowled and gestured with an avenger's determination while keeping Porter's clever words remarkably clear.

Thurman gave a moving performance as Violetta in the scena comprising "Ah, forse e lui" and "Sempre libera" from Verdi'a "La Traviata."  Her aplomb there contrasted with a couple of false starts earlier in "Ain't It a Pretty Night" from Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah," another operatic heroine doomed through no fault of her own. Well, OK, Violetta also happens to have a fatal disease, but still, both these roles amount to justifiable takes on the "Kiss Me, Kate" declaration "I Hate Men." At any rate, Thurman recovered her composure sufficiently to make an impressive dramatic arc out of Susannah's wistful aria.

Everyone was involved in the finales of each act. Sing-along participation was encouraged in the chorus of "Back Home in Indiana," keyed to leadership by Trevor, the four soloists, and the Indianapolis Opera Chorus. For "Make Our Garden Grow," the conclusion of Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," it was sufficient to bask in the optimistic fervor of the professional performers. With a few orchestra bonbons along the way ("Candide" and "The Barber of Seville" overtures,  "Manon Lescaut" Intermezzo, with a "Les Miz" medley bringing up the rear in quality), "Crescendo" was most certainly, as Bower sang so beautifully, "Some Enchanted Evening."

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Plugged-in string wizardry: the John Patitucci Quartet at the Jazz Kitchen

Stability in jazz tends to be looked upon with suspicion. It brings with it the dangers of falling into a
John Patitucci at the Jazz Kitchen May 18.
rut, which can be defined as a groove that has started gathering cobwebs.

John Patitucci is a player who exudes stability of the good sort. His new CD is titled "Brooklyn" in honor of the New York City borough where he was born and raised. He referenced it several times in his second set Monday night at the Jazz Kitchen, to which he brought the "Brooklyn" group. Though he soft-pedaled his faith and his family, the unaccompanied encore he wrote in their honor, "Tesori" (Treasures), put a seal on those values, as did several "God bless you(s)!" he directed at the enthusiastic audience.

Further evidence: With his drummer, Brian Blade, Patitucci has been a member for about 15 years of the Wayne Shorter Quartet, which played a concert at the Palladium in March. (Pianist Danilo Perez, another recent Jazz Kitchen guest, is the fourth member of this unusually durable group.)

The much-laureled bass player just started a tour with his Electric Guitar Quartet. The ensemble lives up to its name in stellar fashion with Steve Cardenas and Adam Rogers as guitar colleagues supplementing Patitucci's wide-ranging electric bass (two of them, actually, creating a double rainbow across the sky of the leader's virtuosity).

The inspiration Thelonious Monk continues to give jazz players of all stripes — is there any other original bopper more influential? — was displayed in the first number: "Evidence" (today's secret word? You bet your life!). Patitucci's upper-register soloing took flight, and the stirring contrasts in the guitarists' solo styles added interest to the lengthy solos.  Generally speaking, Cardenas sounds more down-home, "fat" and centered; Rogers is more abstract, whimsical, and slightly ruminative. The stop-start theme was crisply executed, as the audience had every right to expect from such rhythmically astute players.

All four musicians showed their rootsy abilities in "Band of Brothers," so that even Rogers' style seemed right at home. The piece is a rocking original saluting another early Patitucci influence, the Allman Brothers Band. The well-chosen set would later give Rogers a showcase, the ballad standard "I Fall in Love Too Easily." Opening with a wispy Rogers cadenza, the performance coalesced gracefully around the regretful melody. After Patitucci and Cardenas solos, it was up to Rogers to round things off gently.

A slight programming misstep put "The Search" right after "Dugu Kamalemba," a West African churner that featured a masterly Patititucci solo, his nimble fingers never settling into a cliche pattern, despite the piece's reliance on lots of grooving repetition. Both pieces are on the new CD, but here  "The Search" didn't benefit, because of its similar tempo and textural density. It's a musically adventurous piece that would have sounded better in some other position.

(Great moment of one drummer looking out for another: One of Blade's drums became perilously shaky during "The Search" and Kenny Phelps, who was in the audience, rushed onstage, reached underneath and tightened it as Blade scaled back the pulse to let his local colleague make the fix.)

Patitucci's tribute to Shorter, "The Watchman," was well-chosen and well-positioned between "Band of Brothers" and "I Fall in Love Too Easily."  It's a subtle, off-the-beaten-track ballad. Patitucci's solo again focused gloriously on the upper register; Cardenas' was his best of the night, both florid and grounded. The protracted ending featured subtle interplay among everybody — further evidence of the special versatility of the Electric Guitar Quartet, a group that (despite its name) is about much more than ringing the rafters.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra plays a stylish, scintillating farewell concert for Kirk Trevor

Orchestra music directors' tenures rarely exceed a quarter-century, so when the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra and Kirk Trevor concluded his 27th season at the helm of the ensemble Saturday night, the milestone was worth celebrating. Gifts, testimonials, and several champagne toasts highlighted a post-concert reception at the Schrott Center for the Arts, Butler University.

Bella Hristova drew upon her heritage in encore.
Bella Hristova, laureate of the 2006 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, was the soloist for the season-ending concert. She was heard in Nicolo Paganini's sturdy, showy, episodic Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, op. 6. Hristova displayed the virtuoso command the score requires. Her harmonics had a steady sheen, articulation was varied and well laid out, and the interval leaps in the fast movements had a high degree of accuracy.

 Her choice of first-movement cadenza was not to my taste — chockful of trills and laborious ornamentation of the secondary theme — but this kind of concerto invites technical excess. If you can bring it off, why not go for maximum display? And so she did. From the outset, she sensibly joined the ICO in the tuttis. The rapport between orchestra and soloist was consistent, Trevor indicating again his sympathetic accompaniment practice.

A wild, far-ranging "traditional Bulgarian dance," as Hristova announced it, made for a fiery, rhythmically intricate encore bringing to the fore the violinist's family background.

The vibrant acoustics of the Schrott gave extra clarity and color to the curtain-raiser, the first suite from Manuel de Falla's ballet "The Three-Cornered Hat."  The rhythmic acuteness of the string sections turned them into a supplementary percussion section, especially in "Dance of the Miller's Wife."

Kirk Trevor has been ICO music director for all but its first three seasons.
More varied challenges were presented by a full performance of the incidental music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," by Felix Mendelssohn. Trevor kept theatrical narrator Jeff Swensson, the women of Encore Vocal Arts, and the ICO in close coordination. A full sense of Mendelssohn's response to Shakespeare's fantasy-comedy was communicated in a manner that excerpt performances can't well represent.

The beating of fairy wings in the violins, a major feature of the Overture that is recalled later, often came across as a blur. But otherwise, this was a well-integrated performance, with some good bassoon, horn, oboe, clarinet and flute spotlights.

The sweet, ingratiating women's choruses invited the listener right into fairyland as the Encore Vocal Arts chorus and two soloists dispatched them. The melodic finish of such writing brought to mind the likelihood that Arthur Sullivan, in his collaborations with W.S. Gilbert,  may have owed as much to Mendelssohn as he clearly did to Offenbach.

The grandeur and sensuousness of the full Wedding March, so often clipped and bowdlerized in American wedding ceremonies, were a pleasure to revel in as the ICO played it. Apart from a narrative manner that thumped out the accents in Shakespeare's lines at the expense of meaning, the whole package Trevor put together for his concert finale here was a treasure from first to last.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Heart-and-head music: ISO plays Liszt and Tchaikovsky, tingling the nerve ends

Dramatics that seemed to leave the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra season when Broadway commitments held F. Murray Abraham away from his scheduled narration of Stravinsky's "Soldier's Tale" have come back in another form in this weekend's replacement program.

When he plays rather than poses, Johannes Moser hides nothing.
Canadian-German cellist Johannes Moser was engaged for Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations and on Friday night delivered an exuberant, stageworthy performance of the piece, with Cristian Macelaru on the podium. The Hilbert Circle Theatre audience went wild at the end, calling Moser back for an encore, the same composer's "Andante cantabile," led by Macelaru conducting the ISO strings.

The encore focused on the sweet side of Moser's art. In the scheduled work, various facets of the soloist's exuberant personality came to the fore. Dynamic contrasts were broad, tempo shifts (as in the fifth variation) were expressive, almost teasingly so. The hesitant episode before the doleful sixth variation was quite effective in preparing the change of mood. Most important to the success of these effects, Macelaru and the orchestra were right with the cellist, whose collegiality was evident.

Macelaru begged for no applause interruption in the"Pathetique"
The recitative-like cadenzas that dot the Rococo Variations were powerful and emotionally clearcut. Like the outsized opera stars of yore, Moser widened the piece's spectrum beyond virtuosity and lyricism: There was a force-of-nature breadth to his playing. In Tchaikovsky, at least, he's a Chaliapin of the cello. Almost every note was in tune; his left hand was a blur visually, a laser beam aurally. The rapid passage in octaves in the finale sounded precisely on pitch.

Guest conductor Macelaru was retained from the Abraham program, and is opening the new one with the work originally scheduled, Franz Liszt's "Mephisto" Waltz No. 1. A favorite of romantic specialists at the piano, the orchestral version is demonic, mysterious, and brash, grabbing the listener by the lapels in the signature Liszt manner.

Violin, cello, and harp solos lent an atmospheric zest to the narrative, drawn from the lesser-known romantic Faust poem by Nikolaus Lenau. The hero's companion devil commandeers music-making at a village inn; his hypnotic fiddling has Faust smitten with a local doxy and dancing away with her. The climactic acceleration of that dance was spectacularly handled Friday.

It was good to have Zach De Pue back in the concertmaster's chair, though I'm trying to get used to his new hairdo, with its topknot that wiggles when he gets energetic. He looks as if he's planning to audition for a production of The Mikado ("Defer, defer, to the Lord High Executioner"). I need to set this mockery in a charitable context, however: De Pue seemed graciously reluctant to take a solo bow at Macelaru's indication, wanting more sustained acclaim directed toward acting principal cellist Ahrim Kim, who had capably played what I presume was her last solo before she departs for Rochester, New York.

After intermission came Tchaikovsky's final symphony, its movement-long subsidence at the end sealing the rightness of its nickname, "Pathetique."  Macelaru came onstage with a microphone, gentling advising the audience not to applaud before the performance's conclusion. The galvanic third-movement march regularly prompts stormy applause, but of course there is the heavy-hearted Adagio to follow. Like Pavlov's dogs, however, a few audience members responded predictably to the stimulus.

The ovation in its proper place was well-deserved. The finale was notable for the fullness and warmth of its billowing, tear-stained phrases; the strings sounded great. This is an orchestra fully ready to give a good account of the Mahler Fifth next month. I didn't form that impression in the first movement, however, in which the dashing energy of the main theme was imprecise.

The contrasting theme was well-managed, and the score's swelling and receding dynamics were pretty scrupulously followed. Speaking of which, there's no clarinetist I'd rather hear in the super-soft soloing before that dramatic full-orchestra convulsion than David Bellman. (That goes for the clarinet solos in Elgar's "Enigma" Variations, too.)

The middle movements — the odd-footed Waltz and that aforementioned frenetic March — had admirable cohesiveness and balance. This is the second guest conductor in as many weeks who has exhibited special insight, with well-achieved results, into the program's symphonic masterpiece. The ISO is on a roll, so about that Mahler 5 with music director Krzysztof Urbanski, I say: Bring it on!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Catching the 'Next Wave' at IRT as Dance Kaleidoscope concludes 2014-15 season

David Hochoy's personal imprint on Dance Kaleidoscope is practically synonymous with the company over the past two dozen seasons, but of course it doesn't disappear when he turns over a program to other choreographers.

If you attend "The Next Wave" this weekend on the main stage of Indiana Repertory Theatre, you will appreciate the adaptability and fitness of the troupe to four different styles, as expressed by Lucy Bowen McCauley, Stephanie Martinez, Brock Clawson, and Kiesha Lalama. The dancers' adeptness has been honed by Hochoy's meticulous training and his own artistic range.

Two years ago, Clawson charmed DK audiences with "Nine," a work that was daring in an odd way, in that it made a dance out of looking at clouds (hence the title, from the joy of being "on Cloud Nine"). That idyllic pastime is best carried out, as nearly everyone remembers, by lying supine — not a conventional dance posture. Clawson showed a gift for giving ordinary life, even the part of it not movement-oriented, a thrilling dance dimension.

'Lake Effect Snow': Self-realization over both space and time.
That's what he accomplishes, with an even more resonant theme, in "Lake Effect Snow," which received its world premiere at Thursday's preview performance of "The Next Wave." A "narrative of one man's journey through love," as Clawson describes it, "Lake Effect Snow" is a subtle portrait of a gay man's tentative steps toward realizing his identity.

The daring element in this work is to have the central character (danced by Noah Trulock) poised between passivity and activity. We are meant to see the young man as taking in impressions of his surroundings and the opportunities for human connection available to him. The work proceeds by a series of spotlighted episodes and blackouts.

The lights (designed by Laura E. Glover) go up on new scenes, some of them tableau-like, that both isolate and link the character,  through a tentative embrace or two, a brief swirl of movement, and suggestions of inertness — as if the way forward were constantly under examination. Small gestures are repeated in larger contexts, the way significant memories tend to expand and contract in our minds. "Lake Effect Snow" is lovely to think about; there are impressive dances that don't inspire much reflection, but this one does. And the thoughts it generates don't have to be deep ones to stay with you.

'Catapult': The ensemble draws upon solo expression.
The four works contrasted brilliantly. Also on the second half and a world premiere: Kiesha Lalama's "Catapult." Another full-company exposition, "Catapult" is a constantly pulsating celebration of energy. An ensemble showcase, it features brief solos in which dancers seem to be ejected from the group — not being cast out, but bursting with fresh inspiration. The title's allusion to an ancient rock-flinging weapon is thus given a more positive spin. What is flung outward are expressions of vitality — unthinking, impulsive, caught up in the moment. The choreography calls for the dancers as a group to twitch and bounce while intently watching the solo turns; offstage moments are brief, as if nobody can stand to wait before contributing further to the pounding group momentum.

The concert opens with "Tableaux de Provence," an Indiana premiere of Lucy Bowen McCauley's work in tribute to the gracefulness and simple pleasures of southeastern France. Setting five movements of a work for saxophone and piano, the Indianapolis-raised McCauley has fashioned an elegant "chamber" work. With four women and two men in variable partnerships, and drawing on balletic postures and movement, she finds precise embodiments for Paule Maurice's music, particularly its elegance, wit and rhythmic adroitness. The upright carriage of the dancers, the rounded shapes defined by their uplifted arms, bespoke an emotionally warm formality.

Solos by Jillian Godwin (right foreground) bookend 'Taking Watch.'
More agonized achievement of community came through in "Taking Watch," an Indiana premiere by Stephanie Martinez. Opening and closing with intricate solos by Jillian Godwin, this work unfolded with an agonized progress toward community. Alternation of  closed-in and open stances to the development worked toward the idealism of the choreographer's program note.

Dancers in ensemble often had their backs to the audience, but the gist of "Taking Watch" seemed to be that outward-directed, angular, thrusting movements tending to suggest conflict, even alienation, can be resolved into a hard-won unity. Some of the soloistic episodes, such as one with Mariel Greenlee and three DK men, emphasized the forging of mutual trust. The wide spaces taken in by outstretched arms and legs, expanded literally by leaps and bounds, evoked Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man," the emblematic drawing of human anatomical proportions held within a circle. Framing circles of inclusion added up to the reassurance at the heart of "Taking Watch."

[Photo credit: Crowe's Eye Photography]

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A night on muse mountain: Ronen Chamber Ensemble provokes 'The Wolves of Parnassus'

Michael Schelle howls at the muses in his new Ronen piece.
Who else but Michael Schelle would be likely to take the Gradus ad Parnassum (Steps to Parnassus) by an unmarked trail, raising a ruckus and paying personal tributes along the way?

While on the mountain, however, the Butler University composer in residence disports himself as he riles the beasts in "The Wolves of Parnassus," the latest of four commissions dating back nearly three decades from the Ronen Chamber Ensemble. Ending its 2014-15 season Tuesday night in Hilbert Circle Theatre's Wood Room, the Ronen premiered the wide-ranging, six-movement piece with exhaustive gusto.

Gradus ad Parnassum, a late Baroque treatise on composition much admired by the Viennese classicists, was mentioned by Schelle in oral program notes before the performance. He was pleased to admit violating as many of its precepts as he could manage.

Schelle's wolves are pack animals and predators upon musical order, particularly in the first and last movements. They are reminders that in addition to being sacred to Apollo, Parnassus also was regarded as having a strong connection to Dionysus, a god after Schelle's own heart.

Written for six musicians — two percussionists (one of whom comes onstage late) and one each playing clarinet, cello, piano, and violin —"The Wolves of Parnassus" begs to be compared with 1986's "Howl!," the jazz-inflected ensemble spin-off of Allen Ginsberg's emblematic poem. That earlier work plunged into the urban maelstrom, but (as I remember it) in a way that seems relatively decorous and goofy at the same time — like a young man's postcard home. The mature Schelle has a a broader view of freedom, and knows even better how to express it.

"The Wolves of Parnassus" howls with conviction from the very start, titled "Vanguard." The movement has the five onstage-throughout players thundering in perpetual motion. Its reflective side soon has an outing, however, as Ronen co-founder/artistic director and cellist Ingrid Fischer-Bellman is featured in a plaintive cantilena honoring her birthplace ("Bucharest").

Specific address to Ronen origins comes a couple of movements later, with (titled in fractured Hebrew) "Ehzehkorh," scored as a duo for Fischer-Bellman and her husband, co-founder/artistic director and clarinetist David Bellman. The movement takes its time setting forth a dialogue in which the writing for each instrument cannily reflects the players' personalities. Listeners who don't know them were free to make their own inferences.

In between is the most Apollonian movement, "Archetype," with Bellman taking up the  bass clarinet and notes of added mellowness from Jack Brennan's vibraphone. It forced me to wonder if the music incorporated a slowed-down parody of Debussy's "Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum," at least insofar as it seemed both businesslike and fanciful.

Personal tribute that probed even deeper entered (along with second percussionist Craig Hetrick) in "Claire, 1917," memorializing the composer's mother, who died as he began work on the score. Focused on the year of her birth, near the end of the time when American popular songs were more influenced by operetta than jazz, this movement included wordless singing draped across long-breathed phrases that amounted to a symphony of sighs.

After such an adventure — a sentimental journey juxtaposed with bone-jarring descents and thrilling vistas, the home of the muses presumably remains intact. Schelle implicitly follows the conscientious hiker's standard — take nothing, leave nothing. "The Wolves of Parnassus" is not overwhelmed by its program, in other words. It displayed an unshakable integrity, pushing up against the boundaries of coherence but having calm at its core, like the independent samurai warrior (ronin) punned upon in the finale. The work's other adept performers were pianist Gregory Martin, percussionist Jack Brennan, and violinist Charles Morey.

The program's other work by a living composer was  Miho Sasaki's evocative "Reaching," a Midwest premiere memorializing the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, with Morey, Bellman, and Fischer-Bellman joined by flutist Tamara Thweatt. It was a colorful, yet somber exercise in textures with a slow progression from dark to light, an emanation of the atmosphere that Toru Takemitsu brought to Western-instrument ensembles.

Francis Poulenc's perky, feather-light  Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano opened the concert, played with idiomatic zest by Martin, oboist Jennifer Christen, and bassoonist Oleksiy Zakharov. The three returned after intermission, performing (with the addition of Robert Danforth, horn, and Bellman) Mozart's sublime Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Winds, K. 452.

There was unity in the conception of this piece, particularly in the expressive cresting of phrases, many of them foaming with chromaticism before breaking neatly on the diatonic shore. All five players displayed buoyant, full-bodied tone and were mutually responsive rhythmically.

I would only take exception to Martin's habit of sounding too much like an accompanist in the second movement; in genuine chamber music, particularly that involving piano, passages that look like accompaniment on the page should never recede as much as they did here. Doing so takes away from the ensemble texture; in this case, it was the harmony supporting those overlapping wind-instrument phrases. In mature Mozart, there is always something interesting going on. There's hardly anything that benefits from being thrust into the background.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Living the dream: A favorite guest conductor brings the ISO deep into Berlioz's fantasy

As Friday's Words on Music pre-concert discussion made clear, there's a lot about the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique to understand in terms of music history and the development of the symphony orchestra.

And the work is so explicit about its meaning, thanks in part to the composer's extensive notes, that audiences know what's going on over its 55-minute length and have connected with its thrills for 185 years.
Jun Märkl gets under the skin of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

The interpretation that Jun Märkl fashioned with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, as heard Friday in Hilbert Circle Theatre, went beyond that. This was not a performance content with communicating an understanding of the work or underlining its thrills; it wanted you to experience the composer's vision as well, and really get into the composer's venting of his romantic obsession.

Märkl has a history of  eliciting performances from the ISO as committed and inspired as any guest conductor. This Symphonie Fantastique was a high point in that history. The performance took chances, and the musicians were consistently responsive. Conducting without score, Märkl seemed determined to show that the demons are omnipresent across the five movements.

There were a few stunning departures from,  or underlinings of, the unprecedented amount of detail in the score, all of them in service to this "demon-stration." The timpani rolls at the end of the "Scene in the Country," mostly soft in most performances, here took the brief sforzando blazes seriously: This thunder was not distant, and in swelling so ominously, sounded clearly as part of the composer-hero's emotional baggage.

And, in the steady, scripted pace of the "March to the Scaffold," Märkl broadened startlingly several measures featuring menacing brass descents. Where did that come from? I'm guessing the conductor wanted to represent the protagonist's stunned realization that he is about to be executed.

The autobiographical rawness of Berlioz's concept in the groundbreaking symphony was never shortchanged in this performance, from the gingerly separation of violin phrases in the introduction right through to the clamor of doom in the finale. The acceleration in the final measures of "A Ball" was a credible representation of the hero's dizzying emotional state. Every section and soloist of the orchestra sounded committed to a true rendering of this message: The man imagines himself at the end of his rope and is ready to close the circle of his despairing obsession in a murderous drug haze.

A genius could sublimate such obsession (which, as every program note on the work tells us, had disappointing real-life consequences) through marvelous music. Today's control freaks (almost exclusively men) too often carry out their "You're mine, and only mine!" insistence in the worst possible way. As long as people go crazy in love, Symphonie Fantastique's unique perspective will thrill audiences — particularly when conductors and orchestras are willing to get inside its skin as well as Märkl and the ISO did Friday night.

Violinist brought a robust elan to Mendelssohn
The concert's first half brought to the front of the stage another guest artist of German-Japanese heritage — Arabella Steinbacher.  She played Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor, one of the most beloved works by a composer whose temperament was nearly opposite to Berlioz's.

From her first entrance, Steinbacher sported a big tone. The main theme was put on unusually solid footing, and we were treated to a less flighty interpretation than the norm. The flexibility and plasticity of the cadenza were extraordinary.

She lavished sufficient sweetness upon the second movement, but the overall characteristic of her interpretation could be pegged (in non-P.C. terms) as virile. It was a bit of a surprise, then, to hear the brief rising figures at the start of the finale treated with a cutesy near-inaudibility. True, they are marked piano, but in this performance they were barely there. Apart from a few flicked-off high notes, that was the only flaw in Steinbacher's hearty performance, and the orchestra's accompaniment was well-synchronized and sounded as sturdy as the soloist. The sturdiness from the first trumpet was overbearing, however;  he must have been looking forward to the blare of Berlioz.

Back to Words on Music: It's refreshing to have this preconcert feature turned over to ISO musicians now and then. That's especially true when it can be handled as smoothly as it was Friday night.

Blake Schlabach plays some David, as Roger Roe and Jack Brennan listen.
With trombonist/personnel manager Blake Schlabach as host, discussion with English hornist/assistant principal oboist Roger Roe and principal timpanist Jack Brennan covered the significance of Symphonie Fantastique in symphonic history as well as the work's landmark status for percussion and winds. The conversation was pitched just right for general understanding, though naturally it got into the kind of insider stuff that Words on Music audiences, who come an hour early, have every right to expect.

There was also some chat touching on Mendelssohn as opposed to Berlioz in their treatment of the orchestra. That gave Schlabach a chance to play an excerpt from a trombone concerto, better known in Europe than here, by Ferdinand David, a prolific composer-violinist. Trombones don't play a large role in Mendelssohn's music, so it's not surprising Mendelssohn declined a suggestion by David to write a concerto for the brass instrument. David's more conspicuous contribution to the musical mainstream was to introduce the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto to the world, which has loved it ever since.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Ensemble Music Society ends its 71st season reconnecting with the Ying Quartet and guest Zuill Bailey

No one pined for an encore after the magnificent second half of Ensemble Music's season finale Wednesday night at the Indiana History Center.

But an irreverent cap could have been put on the Ying Quartet concert by a string arrangement of the
The Ying Quartet with its usual current personnel
old chestnut "There'll Be Some Changes Made."

The second half — Schubert's magisterial two-cello string quintet in C — was intact, except for one of the changes. Second violinist Janet Ying has a shoulder injury, leaving two of the founding family members on hand: violist Phillip Ying and cellist David Ying.  Jessica Lee, second violinist of the Johannes Quartet,  sat in for her.

A permanent change in the other violin chair is in the offing. First violinist Ayano Ninomiya will leave at the end of the season, to be replaced by Indianapolis' own Robin Scott.

Zuill Bailey had a programming notion.
And guest cellist Zuill Bailey surprised everyone by stopping after the Prelude to J.S. Bach's Suite No. 3 in C major to announce that he felt more like playing the first of the six suites instead. He had visited Eskenazi Hospital that afternoon and played the G major for patients. "I want to start at the beginning of Bach's journey with solo cello," he explained.

Bailey also contributed the information (gleaned in part from John Failey, EMS president) that his 1693 instrument was formerly at home in the Budapest String Quartet, a 16-time guest of the society between 1944 and 1960.

The Matteo Goffriller instrument sounded magnificent throughout the suite. The Prelude, which Bailey noted often is greeted by sighs, unfolded in sigh-worthy fashion. (Peter Schickele used it in one of his classical mash-ups as accompaniment to "Brazil," best-known in Frank Sinatra's 1957 recording.) The Allemande was distinguished by its elegant trills and reflective separation of phrases.

His echo effects were often stunning: The first repeat in the Sarabande sounded like the melody, played the same way, coming from a neighboring room. The dance pulse in the two Minuets was gently impelled, with the second one going smoothly from piano to pianissimo in the repeat. The robustness of the concluding Gigue was rounded off with a graceful diminuendo at the very end.

On its own, the Ying Quartet offered Schumann's Quartet in F major, op. 41, no. 2.  The substitute member fitted right in with this stirring interpretation of a slightly mysterious work, full of elfin fancies and shadowy episodes, especially in the third movement.

The concert's piece de resistance was Schubert's Quintet in C major, D. 956, a summation of the short-lived composer's most searching yet cohesive chamber-music ideas. The work goes so many places harmonically and melodically, with such surprising yet effective changes of mood, that its length of nearly 50 minutes is no burden. Played this well, with Bailey and the Ying Quartet in perfect rapport, it was something special. An instantaneous, sustained standing ovation greeted its conclusion. Wonder after wonder was crowned with a dizzying coda nailed down by a grinding, minor-second, triple-forte unison.

How the Ying Quartet will look starting next season.
Many episodes, so brightly "sung" by the quintet, prompted the thought that with a longer life, more establishment connections and better librettos, Schubert would be known to us as one of the masters of opera. Those are three big "ifs," however. But it occurred to me that the stately first-movement melody initially presented by the two cellos, recurring in a first-cello/viola partnership, foreshadows a couple of the great tenor-baritone duets in Verdi (Don Carlo, Otello). The astonishing outburst in the middle of the slow movement seems an operatic ambassador-without-portfolio.  And the strangest "Trio" section of a Scherzo ever written, an episode seemingly wracked with pain, hints at some vast interior drama that must have gone to Schubert's early grave with him.

Suffice it to say that everything about the performance was exquisitely balanced and full-heartedly projected. Decorative elements were never mindlessly dispatched, and every transitional passage was treated as important (notably a soft, hesitant "walking back" of that stormy episode in the Adagio). Accents were vigorous and the phrases they punctuated overflowing with a take-no-prisoners zest. It was a performance that properly deserved to be called unforgettable.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Multiple glories of chamber music in "Around Dvorak," Music@Menlo's 9-disc survey of its 2014 season

What a groaning board of rich, recorded musical food I've been digesting recently! The 2014 season of Music at Menlo, a chamber music festival in the San Francisco Bay Area, is available on nine CDs under the title "Around Dvorak." (Each disc sells for $15; the complete boxed set is $110.)

The focus is, of course, the down-to-earth Czech master (1841-1904) who helped establish nationalist norms in classical music while upholding the formal and expressive procedures of Romanticism. The "around" in the title allows the repertoire to blossom on the theme of influences and milieus relevant to the beloved composer's work.

The performances are first-rate; the sound quality, pristine. Careful editing means there is no applause to listen to again and again. After some of these performances, that ovation was probably immediate and ecstatic. But it's better that you can listen to the nine discs as if they were studio recordings.

The theme is imaginatively carried out: "Around Dvorak" refers, among other things, to the powerful aura surrounding him on a brief, well-paid teaching visit he made to the U.S. in the 1890s, during which he encouraged American composers to develop their own resources from the songs of the people.

Gilles Vonsattel serves up Gottschalk's patriotic gumbo.
Vol. 6 has a splendid assortment, illustrative of the American habit of bursting bounds, opening with Louis Moreau Gottshalk's tremendous patriotic gumbo, "The Union," played with evident gusto by pianist Gilles Vonsattel. The unbridled muse of Charles Ives gets displayed in several songs for baritone and piano, with Randall Scarlata and Gilbert Kalish perfectly paired in these idiosyncratic pieces.

Contrasts that manage to be complementary as well are typical of the programming  Scarlata's sings George Crumb's spiritual-based "American Songbook II: A Journey Beyond Time," joined by four percussionists and a pianist. The settings have the same kind of stark individualism as the Ives songs. In this case, however, the folk inspirations are respected in their entirety, yet tricked out in characteristically Crumb-like splashes of exotic percussion.

The 2014 festival discs go back before Dvorak's time to explore some of his not-too-distant roots.  The charm of Beethoven's E-Flat Quintet for Piano and Winds, for example, is fully projected by the protean Kalish with windmeisters Stephen Taylor, oboe; Anthony McGill, clarinet; Peter Kolkay, bassoon, and Kevin Rivard, horn.

On the same disc (Vol. 4), you'll find a younger first-rate pianist, Juho Pohjonen, suavely negotiating the nonstop pianistic saturation of Hummel's Septet in D minor, op. 74. He leades a smooth-working ensemble consisting of Taylor, Rivard, flutist Sooyun Kim, violist Paul Neubauer, cellist Keith Robinson, and contrabassist Scott Pingel.

Larger groups also give distinctive presentations. I particularly enjoyed Bartok's Divertimento for String Orchestra (Vol. 5) in a performance whose tart, taut, energetic first movement displayed the players' unified tone and unswerving rhythmic balance.  Also outstanding (Vol. 1) is a brilliantly rendered "Serenata Notturna," Mozart's vigorous serenade for string orchestra undergirded by timpani, played by festival co-director Wu Han, normally a pianist of the first rank.

In the latter capacity, she is heard in the refreshing Piano Quintet No. 1 in C minor by Erno Dohnanyi, on a disc (Vol. 7) that also includes Leos Janacek's bracing Concertino for piano (Pohjonen again) and a six-piece ensemble of strings and winds.

There are some strongly characterized solos and duos among the nine discs, especially a zesty bunch of the 44 Duos for Two Violins (Vol. 8), played by Jorja Fleezanis and Alexander Sitkovetsky, and Martinu's Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola (Vol. 2), handsomely interpreted by Erin Keefe and Neubauer.

Along the way are several outstanding string-quartet and -sextet performances: for example, Dvorak's No. 10 in E-flat major by the Escher String Quartet (Vol. 2) and the Danish String Quartet's double representation on Vol. 8. There's an illuminating account of Haydn's infinitely rich String Quartet in G, op. 77, and a wonder-working performance of Beethoven's ever-mysterious "Harp" Quartet (No. 10 in E-flat major, op. 74). 

The whole series is an impressive document of a major American summer music festival. It's fortunate that performances of this caliber are being made widely available in such an attractive format.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Walk this way to Tarkington Civic Theatre's outrageously vigorous production of 'Monty Python's Spamalot'

Ensemble brio and precision contribute mightily to the show's success.
The Monty Python troupe of enduring legend never thought it needed to confine itself to one satirical target at a time. Its style, which to describe as "unbuttoned" would be an understatement, is permanently enshrined in the musical that alumnus Eric Idle created after "Monty Python's Flying Circus" left the airwaves and a few uproarious films had been made.

One of them, "Monty Python and the the Holy Grail," is the basis for the Broadway show Idle concocted with the tunesmithing assistance of John Du Prez. Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre is into the second weekend of a three-weekend run  at its home base, the Tarkington at Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts.

Friday's performance, with musical direction by Brent E. Marty keeping the peppy pit band and the singers coordinated, set the pulse racing from the overture onward into the show's pseudo-false start, "The Fisch Schlapping Song." In that mock-folk number set in a mythical Finland, everything fell in place zanily, with the piscine props and angular poses moving smartly to Anne Nicole Beck's choreography.

About those multiple satirical targets: "Spamalot" picks up on the broad travesty of the Arthurian legends that made "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" such a hit. That's the scenario that includes all the characters, from the Black Knight through the Knights that Say Ni to the Killer Rabbit, encountered by King Arthur and his seriously challenged Round Table knights in their quest for the Holy Grail.

King Arthur discourses volubly to his taken-for-granted sidekick, Patsy.
Thrown into that mixture is its self-consciousness as a show full of Broadway cliches, notably in "The Song That Goes Like This." That mock love duet was one of the highlights of Bill Book's effusive characterization of King Arthur, joined to the flamboyant egocentricity of the Lady of the Lake, as played by Katie Schuman. Any plausibility (and who needs that in a show like this?) is blown to smithereens by the time some audience participation comes into play with the discovery of the Holy Grail out among the well-filled seats at the Tarkington.

Schuman's voice was well-suited to impersonating divas of several types, especially the Motown touches that "Find Your Grail" is subject to as it is put through an R&B-ballad blender late in the first act.

Other splendid performances were turned in by Parrish Williams as Arthur's sidekick, Patsy, coconut shells ever at the ready to supply hoof beats, and Stuart Mill as the none-too-valiant Sir Robin. Mill shone particularly in Robin's friendly warning to Arthur, "You Won't Succeed on Broadway." The ensemble kicks in, as it does on so many numbers, to put the point across with hilarious overstatement. The only one, in fact, that fell short on brilliance was "His Name Is Lancelot," which needed more egregious caricature of gays in show-biz mode.

No Pythonesque invitation to offend can be ignored in a production of this show, and Civic's version, under Robert Sorbera's full-bore direction, seemed willing to take that chance in every other instance.
God is a barefoot scold and bully, and any holiness that clings to the Grail is rubbed off with enthusiasm. Civic's hard-working ensemble is game to play up all possible parody elements, from cheerleaders to nuns 'n' monks.

The look of the show is stunning, especially in the introduction of the Lady of the Lake — one of the particularly well-designed triumphs of the Koharchik brothers — Robert (set) and Ryan (lighting). The rest of the design team also turns in first-rate work.

All the ridiculousness the audience is asked to take in serves the show's purpose. That purpose seems obvious, but defies being put into a straightforward description. "Monty Python's Spamalot" is simply The Show That Goes Like This.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, May 1, 2015

Phoenix Theatre's 'Typhoid Mary' evokes mass fears of ragin' contagion

Playwright-in-residence Tom Horan's new work, 'Typhoid Mary," moves the Phoenix Theatre's season-long emphasis on comedy right to the theme's bitter edge.

There are laughs to be had in the concise two-act play, to be sure. And the post-modernist style — balanced on the narrative validity of both realism and fantasy in a seriocomic blend — allows us to keep the terror of long-ago epidemic fears at bay. But as seen Thursday night, this is still a scary, emotionally wrenching piece of work, directed in its premiere production by Bill Simmons.

Reminders of the Ebola scare come to mind; unfortunately, political polarization helped stoke the recent panic, but comparisons inevitably beg to be made. The extra boost of notoriety in the turn-of-the-20th-century case of the Irish immigrant Mary Mallon (quickly tagged as Typhoid Mary) was her asymptomatic status. This gave her an immunity she took for a sign of grace. Not inclined to trust science (a reluctance still widespread), that failure to contract typhoid fever seemed enough to hold her blameless. The record mounted: serial infection of several households that employed her, enough to stigmatize the hapless cook.

Her feisty noncooperation tended to criminalize her carrier status. Failure to acknowledge responsibility and evasiveness for the sake of remaining employable isolated her even further. Horan's script also brings out the disdain for Irish immigrants among the WASP establishment. She also had  the misfortune to come to the public's attention in the age of yellow journalism. The perfect storm: Typhoid Mary became larger than life, almost larger than death.

Lauren Briggeman plays Mary, investing the role with fathomless resources of defiance and
Typhoid Mary (Lauren Briggeman)
self-delusion. The character reflects repeatedly on how she'd been roughly trained as a cook by her mother. In that school of hard knocks she was able to nurture an illusion of purity impervious to standards of cleanliness that were properly considered bulwarks against the dread disease. So simple and implacable is her resistance that the line about paranoia Horan gives her rings false. I don't think she would have known the word; her view of germs as "little imps" seems spot-on, however.

Her purity, recharged by pious devotion to the Virgin Mary, is focused on her abilities as a cook. When commanded by the law never to take a kitchen job again, she clearly needs to violate the order to maintain vitality. A female Antaeus, her sole source of strength is cooking. Alienated from that by judicial order, she is defenseless. But society became only marginally safer — there were other asymptomatic carriers, after all. She was singled out and made an example of. Her final, indefinite confinement amounted to an excruciatingly protracted death sentence.

Ben Asaykwee and Jolene Mentink Moffatt play the medical personnel most involved in Typhoid Mary's case. Asaykwee's brilliant, uptight George is a character slightly dense outside his comfort zone of medical sleuthing. His people skills are minimal, and dealing with Mary Mallon requires an extra amount of them. George's female colleague, Sara, is shrewder, if hobbled by defensiveness about her status as a female physician.

George puts forward his thoughts about Typhoid Mary to Sara.
She masks her uneasiness about being considered authoritative by drawing on a supply of doctor jokes, which she uses to put people at ease. Moffatt sketched a sympathetic portrait of Sara, which she played cannily as the reality check George so often needs. Both actors also move adroitly into and out of a cluster of subsidiary roles, making each one vivid in turn. All three are thoroughly disguised as giant ravens in one brief scene in which the verdict of quarantine is imposed on Mary. The clumsy isolation last year of nurses who treated Ebola came chillingly to mind.

Linda Janosko's set is a plain arrangement of doors and drawers, cabinetry suggestive of a kitchen, but also of the bland institutional environs where Typhoid Mary is forced to spend so much time. Behind the doors lie any number of secrets, it's implied, no doubt more than the wretched life of Typhoid Mary could ever reveal.

[Photos by Ben Rose]