Sunday, May 21, 2017

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra ends 2016-17 season displaying its versatility

Growth in an artistic organization branches out into so many areas, but one of the most important measures is how much artistic range it can take in successfully.
Alexander Kerr, Mozart soloist

Founded in 1984, the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra  continues to demonstrate its adeptness for this kind of growth. Through smart programming capable of engaging audience interest and challenging the musicians at the same time, Matthew Kraemer has shone a light on the path forward for the almost 34-year-old orchestra after just two seasons as the ICO's third music director.

At Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts Saturday evening, the ICO's season finale encompassed two works from the mainstream and a couple of short suites in which modern composers repurposed old material through their personal idioms. The range of sonority and textural complexity alone illustrated the ensemble's growth. The payoff for the audience was rich, not only because of how the program fit together but also by virtue of how well it was brought off.

The rapport with guest soloists is among the measures of an orchestra's maturity. In this concert, that feeling was solid in Alexander Kerr's performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216, under Kraemer's astute guidance. The feeling of phrases talking to one another was captivating in the opening Allegro — a feature just as evident in the accompaniment as in the solo. The Adagio presents one of the most sublime of Mozart's slow melodies; it showcased Kerr's sterling-silver tone and his well-shaped phrasing — qualities on display regularly in Dallas, where he is concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. He is also professor of violin at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music.

The Rondo: Allegro finale featured subtle changes from the soloist at each return of the main theme, including left-hand pizzicato the last time — not a technique Mozart knew, but quite fitting, given the ornamental freedom that pianists apply to repetitions when they play Mozart. The performance was ingratiating and dispatched with flair and affection for the music that stopped well short of sounding too offhand.

Matthew Kraemer again displayed his affinity for good programming.
The other major work provided a stunning conclusion, with the orchestra at its largest of the evening. Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Haydn, op. 56a, which has been called a testing ground for this careful composer's First Symphony, displays the mastery of variation form so familiar in Brahms' music.

There were wonderful balances evident throughout — qualities that had been thoroughly exercised in those short suites (one by Benjamin Britten, the other by Thomas Ades). Winds and strings seemed to revel collegially in the Schrott's fine acoustics, but such equipoise doesn't happen by itself: Kraemer was conscientiously drawing it out of his musicians.

Earlier, Anne Reynolds had been acknowledged upon her retirement after 32 years as principal flute. The lovely "grazioso" variation, the composition's next to last before its noble finale, amounted to a farewell showcase for her warm, natural tone and the personality she has always brought to her work in chamber music and the ICO alike.

Britten's Suite on English Folksongs ("A Time There Was...") opened the concert. Its high opus number indicates the confident personal spin the 20th-century composer applied as an acknowledged master to his homeland's folk music — a more intricate, knotty and irreverent approach than Ralph Vaughan Williams, the pioneer in symphonic treatments of English folk songs. The five short movements projected the individual character of each song, keeping rhythmic and melodic contours clear while applying bracing harmonies and colors to the material. Splendid solo work came from harpist Wendy Muston in "The Bitter Withy" and English-horn player Pamela Ajango in "Lord Melbourne."

Thomas Ades is one of the most respected of Britten's successors among British composers. His music tends to take an eccentric approach to tone color, involving unusual combinations and a kind of pointillistic surface that brings gestural nimbleness to the fore. In "Three Studies from Couperin," Ades presents three 21st-century rethinkings of harpsichord music by the French baroque composer Francois Couperin.

The violas and cellos are divided, and there are such arresting sonorities as the bass flute, mallet percussion, and the unconventional application of muted solo trumpet to the woodwind choir. The piece looks backward in a more self-conscious manner than the Brahms that followed it on this program, but both works are fine examples of how to inherit traditional artistic values and make fresh personal use of them. Getting things right in the Ades, which the ICO appeared to do, helped the expanded ensemble sound brilliant in the Brahms Haydn Variations.


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Janna Hymes' far-flung conducting career brings her back to Indiana as Carmel Symphony Orchestra music director

At home in both the musical and public-relations sense at the Palladium of the Center for the Performing Arts,  Hamilton County's mostly professional symphony orchestra has just reached another milestone in its 42-year history.
Janna Hymes will start leading Carmel's orchestra in the 2017-18 season.

Janna Hymes recently won the right to succeed David Bowden as the Carmel Symphony Orchestra's music director, following his 17-year tenure. Hymes was the last of the finalist candidates to conduct a CSO concert this season (April 8), and a month later accepted the position that will bring her back to Indiana. She was associate conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra for three seasons, ending in 2000.

The CSO considered 130 applications for the post before deciding on three finalists near the end of 2016. “We are absolutely delighted to welcome Maestro Hymes to our organization,” said CSO President and CEO Alan Davis in a written statement. “The caliber of talent and dedication became increasingly evident through the selection process. I can think of no one better to lead the CSO into new heights of artistic excellence.”

Born in New York City, Hymes was exposed to the arts there at an early age: "That was the norm," she told me in an interview Thursday afternoon from Williamsburg, Va., where she conducts the Williamsburg Symphony. Her mother handled public relations for American Ballet Theatre, then became a producer on Broadway. Her father, a professional television lighting designer, has worked on "Late Night With Seth Meyers," "Saturday Night Live," and other popular shows.

One of three children, Hymes began piano studies as a small child, then took up cello in high school. By the time she grew up to become  a Fulbright Scholar in Italy, "I was all consumed with studying scores — three to six hours a day," she recalled. She has toyed with composing, but apart from maintaining the piano to this day, her musical career has concentrated on conducting. She has conducted the Williamsburg orchestra since 2004, and her contract runs through the 2018-19 seasons. She has just finished her ninth season as conductor of the Maine Orchestra, which she founded in 2008.

With degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, Hymes counts her studies with maestros Otto Werner-Mueller, Leonard Bernstein, and Gunther Schuller as deeply influential. Werner-Mueller "showed me how to dissect a score — I still use those tools today," she said. Schuller was "very theoretical." Bernstein, with whom Hymes studied one summer at Tanglewood in western Massachusetts, stands out. "It was more about the music," she explained: "the expression and the emotion of the music, and how do we [conductors] show that to the orchestra."

She recalls with great pleasure the day in class when Bernstein sat nearby without interrupting her as she conducted the Tanglewood orchestra in a Brahms symphony, then afterward "took my face in his hands and said, 'You have what it takes to be a great conductor.'  He couldn't have been nicer to me."

Hymes has the schedule flexibility it takes to move in the direction of fulfilling Bernstein's prophecy now that the younger of her two sons (she is divorced) is in college.  As for the prospects of her new position, Hymes is cautious about pointing in any particular direction for Carmel, since she has just accepted the job. "I'm meeting people and working with the orchestra, finding out where they want to go," she said. "The city totally supports the arts. We can separate ourselves (from other orchestras in the metropolitan area) by unique programming and the venue. Quite a lot of people will support this orchestra. People want to make this orchestra grow," she said, indicating that may mean several things, not necessarily more concerts: "We don't want to oversaturate the community. "

Her concerts in Carmel next season will not reflect her program choices, though the season after that will. But those appearances will give her new Indiana audiences more definitive exposure to the CSO's new maestra. She officially takes up her duties July 1. Her first appearance on the podium as music director will be Oct. 14, when the all-orchestral program will encompass Brahms' Academic Festival Overture, Barber's Adagio for Strings, Grieg's "Peer Gynt" Suite No. 1, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major “Eroica.”

Friday, May 19, 2017

Phoenix Theatre opens 'Hir,' a family drama of rough transitions

It's right up there with "Call me Ishmael" as the most famous opening sentence in fiction: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

The second half of that sentence, with which Tolstoy gets "Anna Karenina" started, could be underlined, highlighted and sprinkled with glitter in the case of Taylor Mac's "Hir," which opened Thursday night in a Phoenix Theatre production.

Paige gets a command performance from burgeoning banjoist Max.
This family of four is uniquely unhappy, it's fair to say, and the two-act drama lays bare its wrenching sorrows, then raises welts from them. The resolution at the end is a paradigm shift, to use one of matriarch Paige's favorite expressions — a jolt that wraps up one phase of the household's existence with no promise of a transition to happiness.

The transition theme is focused on the character of Max, who is well on the way from being Paige and Arnold's daughter to being their younger son. Xie (to use the nominative form of the gender-neutral pronoun; "hir" is the objective form) is a bright teenage advocate of transgender rights, whose home-schooling provides at least as much opportunity to educate hir mother as the other way around. Educating dad is out of the question: Arnold,  disabled by a stroke,  has been forcibly infantilized by Paige in revenge for his brutal control over the family when he was healthy.

First view of Arnold as clown in gown.
Paige has revolted against all forms of dutiful housewifery. The place to which dishonorably discharged son Isaac returns is a shocking mess; his sense that he will reconnect to something he can call home is challenged at every turn by the autocracy Paige has established. She imagines it as a liberation, but it becomes clear this caged bird has used her husband's disability simply to construct a new cage for three damaged people. His military service sabotaged by drug use, Isaac has come back from a tour of duty in one of the most grisly assignments: gathering comrades' body parts from the battlefield for identifying, packaging, and repatriation.

The playwright piles on the roadblocks toward normality somewhat. The "starter" home in which the action takes place was built on a landfill decades ago. The family's failure ever to move can be laid at Arnold's feet, which Paige is never hesitant to do. The playgoer cannot expect to encounter much relief from the family's circumstances, all of which have the implacability of French existentialism about them. For all of the indelibly American identity of the characters, "Hir" is like a 21st-century bad dream of Jean-Paul Sartre. It's often sublimely witty, if you like your wit etched in acid. But the limitations that inevitably accompany being "condemned to freedom" bedevil each of the four in starkly individualized ways.

Mark Routhier directs with a gimlet-eyed attention to detail, and draws from his cast consistent energy in the characters'  personal struggles to resist choking constraints. As Arnold, Brad Griffith struggles to express himself and control his movements in garbled attempts at assertion. The character's manifold humiliations are rendered with such exacting poignancy you can almost forgive him for being the monster he once was. Despite Arnold's disability, that era remains a raw family wound. "We will not rewrite his history with pity," Paige says with chilling finality at one point.

Jen Johansen's vocal and physical virtuosity is pushed to the extreme in this role. Paige seeks to overlay with words her control of the household, against which Max pushes back more subtly than Isaac, who effortfully tries to surmount his PTSD while loosening Paige's grip on family power. On opening night, Johansen seemed to be mastering as much verbiage as Hamlet, the traditional measure of profuse speech in world drama. She was relentless as the aggressively deluded defender of her regime and her desperate identification with the world's wider culture, a devotion that's the source of much of "Hir"'s comedy. The oxymoronic power of the phrase "condemned to freedom" was movingly pronounced in Johansen's performance.

Resisting his control freak mother, Isaac removes dad's clown makeup.
Ben Schuetz's strident, conflicted Isaac— physically pop-eyed and edgy — was a masterpiece of rage and an aggrieved sense of justice. Ariel Laukins presented as Max an oddly, but aptly, grounded interpretation of the battle to make identity in the world match identity at the most deeply felt level. It's no wonder that hir psychological tenderness and astuteness combine to justify the play's being titled after its transgender character.

The production team has created a setting that physically represents the family chaos. You don't have to be a neatness freak to find the clutter a bit maddening before a line is spoken. The sight sets you up for a disturbing experience. The very walls have a glaringly bland, used and abused look; the furnishings are the subject of careless manipulation, control spats, and outbursts of destructive behavior.  The lighting is oppressive, giving the milieu a closed-in feeling.

As much as I want to recommend this production, I have to admit that the intermission was more welcome than intermissions usually are. You won't mind the chance to catch your breath. And by the end, "Hir" is likely to fortify your belief in the survival of families, even when the outcome is doubtful in particular unhappy cases — like this unique one.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, May 18, 2017

In the company of cats, 'Feral Boy' hints at the appeal of cults to the self-isolated

Corbett confronts feral cats Orangey, Calico, and Striper in Catalyst Repertory show, "Feral Boy."
Playwrights don't have to provide footnotes or attribution for facts they put into their characters' mouths, so at "Feral Boy" I began to suspect that the title character's sporadic way of sharing knowledge about feral cats by starting "According to Wikipedia..." was telling us something about him.

Corbett's academically and socially successful college career strikes him as meaningless. Fascinated by a persistent company of feral cats in his neighborhood, he is drawn to learn more. But the creepy obsessiveness of his interest is signaled not by multiply sourced research about undomesticated felines,  but by his resorting to the first place most of us turn to nowadays to scratch the curiosity itch: Wikipedia. This bright boy is no scholar, but an obsessive starved for prepackaged sustenance. Wikipedia becomes Corbett's intellectual energy drink, a Bolt out of the blue funk he finds himself in.

I was at the preview performance Wednesday of Catalyst Repertory's production of Bennett Ayres' new play at Wheeler Arts Community. Pat Mullen delivered the tidbits about cats to the audience with a wide-eyed expressiveness that was fully consonant with Corbett's hypnotic attraction to them and frantic quest to join the wild troupe. Balking at maturity, "Feral Boy" is actually no boy at all, but a 22-year-old newly minted college graduate worried about his future, vaguely in the manner of  Ben Braddock, Dustin Hoffman's break-through role in "The Graduate."

Where Ben endured a friend of the family stage-whispering "Plastics!" to him as a viable post-graduate career choice, Corbett is facing parental expectation that he will accept an internship to prepare him for a career in Internet advertising. Ayres has charted a much darker course for Corbett, however. It is launched through conversation with three of the feral cats, embodied by scrawny cat puppets cunningly designed by Patrick Weigand and vividly voiced, operated and acted by Matt Anderson, Dane Rogers, and Audrey Stonerock.

Projection of cat silhouettes against the back wall supplements the three-dimensional presentation of the three named cats. Striper (Anderson) is the autocratic boss, Orangey (Rogers) his hostile henchman, and Calico (Stonerock) the vulnerable, compliant female. Opaque to the understanding of most human inhabitants of the urban landscape, the feral cats' ferocity and wildness promise to fill a void in Corbett's life.

To occupy that empty space with daring purpose, he is prepared to shed the accustomed company of loutish frat brothers (played by Matt Walls and Donovan Whitney), ignore increasingly impatient phone messages left by his mother (Sarah Holland Froehlke) and landlord (voiced by Jim Tillett), and exploit and sacrifice a new girlfriend, convenience-store clerk Betsy (Patty Blanchfield). Dennis Forkel plays Crane, the feisty owner of a home aquarium who pays painfully for Corbett's maniacal covetousness. Jolene Moffatt has a hilarious cameo as the automated voice mail at a magazine for cat fanciers.

Under the direction of Zach Stonerock, the players are all nimble, vocally rangy,  and attuned to their fingertips to Ayres' nerve-rattling story. The phantasmagoria that animates Corbett's interaction with the cats and with the puzzled humans in his life is cast in powerful, haunting language, which puts forth menacing blooms in the director's and puppet-maker's sound and lighting design.

It remains troubling to consider the progression of Corbett's madness, if that's what it is. I'm not beholden to the analogy with Hoffman's charming Ben Braddock, but it was jarring to find my initial sympathy with Feral Boy's predicament stripped away to its cadaverous remains by the end. Its decline certainly provoked my thoughts about cats, about which I don't have strong feelings, even toward the domesticated kind.

But the idea of meeting serious dissatisfaction with one's life prospects by embracing an outlaw collective with a hierarchical, paramilitary form of organization resonates in the current political atmosphere. I don't want to lose sight of the enduring mystification of cats in our culture, however, which must bear on what Ayres wanted to say with "Feral Boy." Cats have a way of taking over the environments they are accustomed to; there's even a little fun to be noted in this show with their tendency to sweep a paw over any item in their way, knocking it to the floor. They are both commanding and elusive. If cats could paint self-portraits, many of them would choose to display blank canvases.

They play ambivalent roles in common phrases: A cat's-paw is a contemptible dupe, but the cat's meow is something or someone desirable. A catcall used to be an expression of derision, and has lately been repurposed, but not made any more positive, to indicate verbal harassment of women, smugly disguised as crude compliments. And who can explain the cat's pajamas?

Cats can even take over literary settings. Don Marquis' "archy and mehitabel" strikes its rare reader nowadays mostly for the free-verse larkiness of the cat mehitabel ("toujours gai, toujours gai"), which overshadows the dogged cockroach author archy. Nowadays I notice in Carl Sandburg's poem "Fog," which I loved in my early teens, how the cat imagery shoves aside the title subject like a paperweight pawed off a table. Where's the fog? It's all cat. The much more capable poet T.S. Eliot achieves a better metaphorical balance in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," with several beautiful lines beginning "the yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes."

Yet the musical "Cats," derived from "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," is better-known today to the middlebrow public than any other Eliot poetry: Macavity the Mystery Cat sleeps undisturbed on the chest of J. Alfred Prufrock, who by the way is another young man at his wits' end about any prospect he can really believe in and commit to.

Culturally speaking, cats will never be declawed. A catwalk on the wild side, "Feral Boy" provides a striking reminder of that fact. For the moment, it's the cat's whiskers.

[Photo by Gary Nelson]

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

King Lear (President Trump) on the stormy heath: A prophetic parody

Triggered by an oblique reference comparing Donald Trump to  King Lear in yesterday's post, a song parody, I let my mind wander over the famous scene in Shakespeare's play, where the distracted, betrayed king, accompanied by his Fool, wanders  onto the lonely heath, convulsed by a thunderstorm. This is a drastic revision of Act III, Scene 2. As Karl Marx truly said, what begins as tragedy ends as farce.

The heath, stormy. Enter King (Donald Trump) and his Fool (Sean Spicer).

Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
See, I can handle this. It's so tremendous!
And so I make America great again
By being here, by my executive orders,
Which I sign and then display to cameras.
I smite flat the thick rotundity
Of the law, of presidential norms I defy.

Oh, nuncle, this is no place for a winner like you. No crowds to cheer you, to buoy you up and shout, to expand by many thousands in retrospect. Here's a night pities neither wise men nor fools. The dishonest media wouldn't be caught dead in it, though we can only wish.

I tax you not, elements, with unkindness.
Indeed, I have for long opposed most taxes
And paid as little as I could. You owe
Me nothing, clear? So go ahead. I'll take
What you have to dish out. It's not so bad
As what the Democrats and media have done.

I told them all last week: The president means to say just what he's already said. Full stop.

      The codpiece justifies
The notions of the head.
      All questions of small size
Are better left unsaid.
     What he will do in time
Is just what he will do;
      The only sense is rhyme
And that's a mystery too.

Let Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy make mouths in a glass.

Enter STEVE BANNON, disguised as JERRY FALWELL Jr.

Alas, sir, are you here? This scary night
Resembles the Apocalypse to come,
May be the real thing, that end-times thing:
My dad predicted this if God's eternal reign
Were not prepared by great American rulers,
If white makes right were compromised
By dread mongrelization's triumph.

Am I the last trump, then, of prophecy?
Now will the gods, who shun the CGI
Effects of Hollywood, which scorns me,
Find out their enemies and mine?
Believe me, I'm a man more sinned against
Than sinning!

                        Sir, no doubt you got that right.
So keep me close. Beware the son-in-law
And let the daughter mind her product line.
You are white Christians' friend, we have your back.
Hard by here is a hovel (not your brand).

No matter there. I'm flexible and tough.
So come, your hovel. I pray it does not leak.
I've had so much of leaking lately, friend,
My wits begin to turn. But where's my fool?

Here, nuncle. Now I feel a song coming on, as cryptic as my daily briefings.

     He that had but little wit
When to high office he ascended
     Must grow new trouble bit by bit
Till both the storm and he are ended.

Exeunt omnes.

Monday, May 8, 2017

'At a Prominent Club in Bedminster, N.J.": A song on the President's boast that he saved money by weekending at his golf club in New Jersey

Inspired by "In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus One Day" by X.J. Kennedy, I also borrow the tune he suggests, "Sweet Betsy From Pike," to comment on his claim of thrift ,

Sunday, May 7, 2017

In 'Mother****er With a Hat,' love is a form of substance abuse

If you're a person not blessed with a firm intuitive gift about people, theater has a special attraction. A play presents you with all you need to know about the people embodied in front of you for an hour or two.

The playwright may play games with your understanding, of course, and Stephen Adly Guirgis' "Mother****er With the  Hat" hardly lets up in that department. But how often we fall short of helpful understanding about people in real life! At least I do. We tend to be amazed such knowledge often comes to us too late.

The characters in this play — the two conflicted couples at its center — are blocked in their mutual and self-understanding by the obstacles of drug dependency. They erect sloppy yet deliberate structures for hiding the destructive behavior and suspicious attitudes that their addictive behavior has forced upon them.

Theatre on the Square has a torrential main-stage production of "Mother****er With the Hat" up through next weekend under the inspired direction of Gari L. Williams. You'll feel the assault from the start as the one-act play focuses on the relationship between childhood sweethearts Jackie and Veronica, both troubled by addiction, compounded in Jackie's case by violent tendencies and a prison record. Things aren't much better between Ralph and Victoria, despite the "recovering" veneer that just barely gives their relationship stability.

The play's title ought to tip anyone off that the language through which these couples' conflicts are expressed is characteristically obscene. The old knock against "bad language" in literature and life is that it is gratuitous and suggests an impoverished vocabulary. The verbal cupboard is certainly not bare among Guirgis' characters. The insults are baroque, astonishing, and often quite funny. And there's nothing gratuitous about how these people talk; it's essential. F-bombs are the glue holding together their papier-mache constructions of personal integrity and battered self-esteem.

Eric Reiberg and Carrie Schlatter strike sparks consistently as Jackie and Veronica. Though Ralph, played with a mix of bluntness and suavity by Ben Rose, is amply duplicitous as Jackie's sponsor in recovery, Jackie is the play's focus of the lying norm that substance abuse entails. Affairs of the heart are inevitably caught up in the same deceptions, and Reiberg and Schlatter make this home truth eventually quite moving: Jackie and Veronica started the fire, and they can't help blowing hopefully on the embers.

As Victoria, Chelsea Anderson is the more knowing and cynical of the two women, her writhing body language expressing the desperation of perennial unhappiness. She's no fool, but in this environment, that doesn't count for much. Husband Ralph's mastery of the language of recovery serves him well in deceiving Jackie, but he pays a near-fatal price for it.

The frightening magnitude of Reiberg's portrayal makes clear that trust is a burning issue for Jackie, and the lack of it spoils the attempt of all four to get control over their lives. He peers painfully at the game of life like a street kid through a knothole in the fence. Jackie's cousin Julio, brightly assertive and insightful in the performance of Ian Cruz, has lifted himself up from the mean streets with an agenda of self-betterment.

It's Julio who shines an insistent light on Jackie's tale of a clandestine affair with his AA counselor, forcing the defensive ex-con to try holding on to a distinction between what his story says happened and what actually happened. Jackie wants to set aside what actually happened (he triggered the liaison) because it interferes with the narrative he needs to establish. "Mother****er With the Hat" got me to realize that what you want people to believe about you may be truly part of your authenticity.

Lies can become so embedded in us that we remain innocent of any intention to deceive. Jackie leads these characters in proclaiming "This is who I am" no matter what they do or say. It reminded me of a (non-substance-abusing) co-worker of mine in the 1980s at a newspaper elsewhere when the AIDS crisis was heating up. When it seemed likely HIV-AIDS might become the mother of all STDs, with heterosexual and homosexual transmission alike, she said in casual conversation that the new plague was sufficient discouragement from her ever having an extramarital affair.

Being unblessed with the kind of intuition I mention above, I interpreted that as a sensible married woman's response to the horror of AIDS instead of a possible revelation that adultery was something she often thought about. A couple of years later, she had an affair with the paper's editor that resulted in his dismissal.

Yet I'm tempted to think she really meant what she said about fidelity. She wanted me to believe it, and she also thought it represented who she really was: a faithful wife. The characters in "Mother****er With a Hat" are similarly convinced they are being true to themselves, even as (except for Julio) they're busy scattering falsehoods and bad faith all around them and suffering the consequences.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Two ISO debut artists make strong impression in three works

Matthias Pintscher, guest conductor
In the midst of a spate of season-ending appearances by music director Krzysztof Urbanski, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has brought a first-timer as guest to the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium: the German-born conductor-composer Matthias Pintscher.

Pintscher has remarkable distinction in his two spheres of activity, and since 2011 he has had an American perch as a member of the composition faculty at the Juilliard School. He also lives in Paris, where he directs the Ensemble Intercontemporain, founded by the late Pierre Boulez.

Friday night he shared the stage with another ISO debutant(e), California-born mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, who performed the program's centerpiece, Richard Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder."  The often somber songs were quite an apt vehicle for her mahogany-colored voice. She displayed a contralto quality in music that has enough brilliant high notes to make assignment of the role to a mezzo-soprano quite suitable.

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor
The evenly powered crescendo in the last two lines of "Stehe still!," the second song — "We see Eternity in Nature, / The search for answers is fulfilled" — had overwhelming effect.  And moments of idealism and hope were as fully encompassed in O'Connor's performance as, say, the gloomy progress of the quatrain in the third song, which runs, in a declining cadence of mood typical of German romanticism: "And as, happily, the sun deserts / The empty light of day, / He who knows real anguish / Finds, in the dark, a silent hideaway."

Pintscher guided the performance with maximum support always at the ready behind the singer, as well as sensitivity to the wide palette of colors in the orchestration (Mike Chen's viola solos during "Im Treibhaus" merits special mention).  Delicately placed repeated accompaniment figures in the final song, "Träume," gave exquisite closure to this wonderful song cycle.

The program (to be repeated at 8 tonight at the Palladium) opened with a seven-minute piece by the guest conductor, titled "Towards Osiris."  With a source in ancient Egyptian mythology as filtered through the art of the composer's countryman Joseph Beuys, the work starts with displays of rough splendor appropriate to a god, with lots of vaulting trumpet played with apparent flawlessness by ISO principal Conrad Jones. There emerge some quiet, slow contrasts to the dominating start of the piece. Lots of well-deployed percussion characterizes the latter part of the work, which devolves into silence. Without belaboring the point, "Towards Osiris" seemed a better example of new music, with the orchestral riches under better control and presented to better advantage, than last week's new ISO work, Dejan Lazic's "Mozart & Salieri."

Occupying the concert's second half was Sergei Rachmaninoff's final work, "Symphonic Dances." The work's rhythmic elan throughout justifies its title, though fantasy elements in the elaborate three-movement score suggest that the music would be difficult to choreograph coherently. Orchestral display remains uppermost: The ensemble is poised to cavort over a wide range of dynamics and variegated colors, and the ISO seemed to revel in the sprawling work's manifold opportunities to do so.

The veiled melancholy of the second-movement waltz got an extra heart-tugging quality in a few delicately slowed transitional passages. Standout individual performances in the first movement speak to its intense contrasts: Mark Ortwein's yearning alto-saxophone solo in the second theme and the thunderous, animating punctuation that timpanist Jack Brennan lent to the main theme.

Pintscher made the most of the emotional range of the finale, with the composer's repeated motivic use of the "Dies Irae" chant coming in for some nimble treatment that requires this medieval melody of foreboding to sound oddly insouciant and quick on its feet before the movement accelerates to a final frenzied splash of percussion.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Adventurous cellist and pianist conclude Ensemble Music season with a touch of charisma

When the programming is well-judged, recent music consorts very well on the same program with old music. It's been argued
Jay Campbell, cello, and Conor Hanick, piano, concluded EMS season.
that the conservatism of classical-music audiences tends to make such mixing inadvisable. And some new-music advocates find that receptive audiences make all the difference in concert quality, thus justifying segregation, in their view.

In their season-ending concert for Ensemble Music Society Wednesday night, Conor Hanick and Jay Campbell made a strong case for letting "advanced" idioms of the 20th century (and on other programs, they don't neglect the present century, either) stand shoulder-to-shoulder with well-established ways of creating music. The best thing about the way they did it, besides performance excellence, is that the older pieces had something of an outlier quality with respect to the mainstream.

Take the two Beethoven works the piano-cello duo programmed, for example. There's something more arresting about Beethoven's Theme and Variations on "Bei männern, welche Liebe fühlen" (from Mozart's "Magic Flute"), WoO 46, than the other sets of Beethoven cello-piano variations on another composer's tune: "See, the Conqu'ring Hero Comes" from Handel's "Judas Maccabaeus" and Mozart's "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" (also from "The Magic Flute").

It's the last of Beethoven's efforts in this genre, the "Bei männern" variations (no opus number, and the German abbreviation WoO can be puzzling to Anglophones: it stands for "Werk ohne Opuszahl," work without an opus number) that the duo selected. Its understated beginning and first several variations are inviting, although Hanick and Campbell made them borderline cryptic, a little too detached and pointillistic for my taste. But that choice made sense with the startling transition to the first minor variation, which is hauntingly beautiful.  It was also an indication that this duo is not so determinedly modernistic it can't play tenderly as well. Later, there's a particularly aggressive variation that was aptly projected.

The choice of Beethoven sonata was also stunning: No. 4 in C major, op. 102, no. 1. As the program notes indicate, the work's unconventional form  — just two movements, each opening slowly and expansively so as not to seem introductory —  acts as if Beethoven were saying: "Ach, who needs 'sonata' as everyone has understood it? Raus!"

The solid partnership of the duo was exemplary in the first movement, with each instrument displaying a different character in the manner later to be exploited by Elliott Carter in his "Duo" for violin and piano. The transition to the second-movement transition was keenly judged, and the peekaboo ending was positively Haydnesque, with more tartness to the joke than was the norm for Beethoven's most eminent Viennese teacher.

Debussy's late Cello Sonata is another work for this combination that has an oblique way of posing the instruments against each other. The Prologue was heart-stoppingly magical, its "sostenuto" (sustained) direction quite evenly carried out. Campbell's pizzicato in the second movement was extraordinarily expressive. The finale had cello and piano in a frisky mood — one of those miracles one finds often from suffering composers (Debussy was dying painfully of cancer) that are oddly life-affirming. The piece is hardly out of the mainstream, but it is undeniably quirky, and thus suited the program well.

The same goes for Leos Janacek's "Pohadka" (Fairy Tale), the concert's  remaining duo work, a programmatic piece so vividly played that it seemed almost a hologram of the story the program notes recounted for EMS concertgoers. Janacek's unique conciseness in making melodies that are more than motives and using them in both formally cohesive and expressive ways was fully engaged in this performance.

Each artist put an unaccompanied piece on the program that stood out from the older works yet boosted their appeal mysteriously. Campbell performed "Kottos" by Iannis Xenakis, a competition piece from 1977 that harks back to Greek mythology. The title figure is a ferocious, 100-handed giant. Xenakis' reputation for requiring outsize virtuosity in works following abstruse mathematical procedures was well suited to the topic. The piece opens with a grating, toneless growl and soon features wispy yet assertive glissandos demanding a delicate touch. There's lots of rhythmic jumpiness, some of it settling into march-like patterns. There are massive tone clusters and an abundance of opaque, vibratoless figures. Campbell tied the whole thing together expertly. And it subtly bridged the other two programmatic works on the second half, the Janacek and the Debussy.

Hanick inserted Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Klavierstuck No. 4, IX" between the two Beethoven works. Introducing it by endorsing a fellow musician's praise of the piece for "suspending our sense of what time is," the pianist gave an enthralling performance. At the start, there are thick, regularly spaced chords that fade gradually toward silence, and soon a variety of untethered figures that seemingly float off into the empyrean. Spaces between these articulated chords and figures are huge, in which we hear by virtue of the sustaining pedal the gradual decay of struck notes. There's something authentically cosmic about the piece, as if Stockhausen were extending toward infinity the implications of Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question."

New and old — companions on the same concert?  Of course, provided the musicians know what to juxtapose and how to package their selections! Oh, and play them superbly.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

His daughter said it first: Joe Fiedler's music is "like, strange"

Trombonist Joe Fiedler has expanded his usual trio minimalism to a broader palette with "Like, Strange" (Multiphonics Music),
adding guitarist Pete McCann and saxophonist Jeff Lederer to the group.

Joe Fiedler: Whimsy and sass in quintet packaging
The result is  both prickly and spacious, with a wide range of whimsy and assertiveness now spread over a five-man ensemble. The new band is firmly supported by old-hand Fiedler sidemen Rob Jost, bass, and Michael Sarin, drums. Fiedler is a resourceful composer, unusually sensitive to melody for a player given to skittery, high-register improvisations on the edge.

When this quintet takes on "Yinz," a piece Fiedler specifically designed for free improvisation, he nonetheless provides a satisfying framework in a buzzing, slightly anxious theme that's returned to with gusto from untethered solos.

That's the program-closer here. Fiedler's pieces often take off from the vernacular genres he has spent time with: "Quasi..." signals its roots in boogaloo, with McCann responsible for laying down the groove in that idiom. Fiedler's trombone is witty and savage, and there's some delectable tenor-drums dialogue before the excursion is over.

"Guiro Nuevo" draws on a characteristic Latin-jazz rhythm, with another crunchy dialogue standing tall, his one between Jost and Sarin. The title track picks up on another affinity of the leader  — for early John Scofield. The tune has chunks of space in it. McCann moves into a slightly Scofieldesque sound, then goes way outside in his solo. Fiedler's solo is  particularly lofty, like a pattern of cirrus clouds.

Lederer picks up the soprano saxophone for a change of blend in "A Ladybug in My Notebook." It churns along nicely, then blossoms into bumptious surprise with a wailing McCann solo. The CD's opening track, "Go Get It," prepares the listener for this sort of shock, as it grows into something quite freewheeling.  Lederer shows how simpatico a partner he is in the quintet's front line with a solo that manages to be both wobbly and fierce without becoming incoherent or out of control.

Comfort food is offered on the wide-ranging banquet table with "Maple Avenue Tango," keyed to a nice tenor-trombone unison line, and the episodic "Tuna Fish Cans," with the ensemble tight around the piece's Latin pulse.

When Fiedler's daughter Cleo described his music as "like, strange," she was onto something essential about it. But it's not hard to become fond of strange things when they are put forth with such ingratiating competence as they are here.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Digging deeper: Phoenix feathers its nest, breaking ground for new facility

Bryan Fonseca (center, without hardhat) and Phoenix stalwarts apply shovels.
Closing in on its $8.5 million capital-campaign goal, Phoenix Theatre on Tuesday afternoon had both feet on solid ground — and shovels to dig it with — with a ground-breaking ceremony in the 700 block of North Illinois Street.

"We've never raised this much money before," said producing director Bryan Fonseca, who founded the company with local like-minded theater artists 34 years ago. And such is the momentum behind the current campaign that it will be extended, he announced, to garner an additional $2 million as a contingency fund by 2020, with a further $3 million goal to substantiate the theater's solvency through 2023.

Set to open next year, the new facility will  will include a150-seat proscenium theater, a black-box theater with seating up to 90, classrooms and rehearsal studio, plus a scene shop and a costume shop, among other features. Growth of Phoenix activities that will include community outreach entail expanded operations that Fonseca predicts "will double opportunities for the current community of actors."

He also noted that the building, bordering the Cultural Trail  and Walnut Street, is the first free-standing theater to be built in Indianapolis in the past 100 years.

Several speakers at the gathering noted the geographical advantages of the new location. Jeff Bennett, deputy mayor of community development for the office of the mayor, said that "the arts are no longer just an amenity, but a baseline expectation, a need for our neighborhoods." City-County Councilor Vop Osili praised the 705 N. Illinois St. location as "the nexus of business and culture."

Representing the Indianapolis Cultural Trail Board of Directors, Brian Sullivan, managing partner at Shiel Sexton, inserted a topical note, saying "it's never been more important to hear from our artists."

And community volunteer and arts philanthropist Frank Basile made reference to Fonseca's pursuit of the Phoenix mission in spite of opposition from some supporters in the first half of the theater's 34-year history to withdraw because some of the productions were deemed offensive. "He resisted threats to change the selection of plays," Basile said. "He didn't even consider making those changes. And the board supported him in that stance — sometimes nervously."

Sunday, April 30, 2017

"Dial 'M' for Murder": IRT makes good connection to classic suspense drama

I try not to be a hoarder of printed matter, but theater and concert programs will tend to mount up over a full schedule of attended performances. Among the programs I find hardest to recycle are Indiana Repertory Theatre's. Glossy, informative, and well laid-out, they get my attention from cover to cover (OK, I only glance at the list of donors, vital as they are).

Police detective (second from left) shares his thinking about the murder with Max Halliday and the Weddices .
Particularly worth saving and occasionally revisiting are the brief statements by IRT production teams, as well as the behind-the-scenes interviews. Oh, and the director's essays, and the dramaturg's, and of course executive artistic director Janet Allen's.

For Frederick Knott's "Dial 'M' for Murder," I was especially fascinated by what scenic designer Kate Sutton-Johnson had to say. She focuses on one crucial visual element: "the upper surround (which we've dubbed the 'mega-cornice' [that] sits above the apartment, separate but echoing its architecture."

This "echo" receives projected black-and-white film images during the phone calls that are essential to the story. We see partial facial features of the person at the other end of the call. Just to see the scheming Tony Weddice's eyes close briefly when he learns from his panicked wife, Margot, that his hired killer has himself been killed by the intended victim speaks volumes.

James Still directs the production with his usual sure hand. But I'm tempted to go on and on about the space in which the suspense drama takes place. The scene is a posh London flat in 1952, when Britain was beginning to feel its oats once again after the dark night of World War II. That upper surround signals both protection and looming menace — perfect for a play that centers on a frayed marital bond heading toward a final rupture.

Sutton-Johnson describes the projected images as "featur[ing] odd angles, odd scales, and odd croppings, creating in the
audience a subtle sense of discomfort or imbalance as our story unfolds."  True enough, but I detected discomforting angles and dimensions in the designed room as well. Everything about the space works to reinforce the dramatic milieu.

What could possibly go wrong?: Tony and Max will go out to a stag dinner, Margot will stay home scrapbooking.
The range of scale is impressive: huge curtains to the audience's left covering glass doors opening out onto the terrace; to the right upstage, the set-back entrance to the apartment, allowing for silhouetted figures when the door is opened, as well as for such details as Detective Inspector Hubbard's deliberately picking up unseen the wrong topcoat on his way out. And out the door, our eyes are drawn to the carpeted staircase and the pivotal hiding place of the latchkey. Placement of props also reinforces the drama: the fatal scissors are picked up by Margot about as far as possible from where they are normally kept. Curtains, key, scissors: all crucial items, large and small, are where and what they should be.

The Weddices' apartment bespeaks wealth and glamour, the superficial glow of well-appointed domesticity. The story undercuts this almost immediately, as we learn of Tony's lingering resentment of Margot's unfaithfulness, particularly with an American friend, Max Halliday, on top of the subtle humiliation of his being a retired tennis star living off his wife's wealth.

Matt Mueller conveyed the smoothness with which Tony launches his scheme, and his attention to detail, which helps him
Tony Weddice tightens the screws on Captain Lesgate to rope him into his plot.
manipulate an old college acquaintance, Captain Lesgate, into accepting the rub-out assignment. His performance Saturday evening morphed skillfully into Tony's badly nicked savoir-faire ending in his undoing. As Margot, Sarah Ruggles reflected the wife's guilty conscience, nervousness and mounting puzzlement at the plot she is subjected to. Frankly, I felt she did much more with the role than Grace Kelly in the Hitchcock movie. (Lindsay Jones' music and sound design was at least the equal of the film's, by the way.)

As Captain Lesgate, Steve Wojtas fully lived up to the play's portrait of a man with a checkered past backed into a corner and recruited to carry out a master manipulator's revenge. As the dogged detective, IRT veteran Robert Neal displayed his usual command of the kind of role where determination and an imposing intelligence tramples every obstacle.

Christopher Allen reflected Max Halliday's controlled anxiety and discretion, qualities that burst free in the second act into a seasoned mystery writer's confidence that he has the perfect solution for rescuing Margot from her doom. In the play's height of dramatic irony, he outlines the plot Tony had indeed tried to carry out. It's a shame the actor muffed another touch of irony, a first-act line crucial to the play's meaning: "In stories things turn out as the author plans them to....In real life they don't — always."

The accidents of real life are this play's topic, insofar as the most well-studied plans rarely yield perfect results. Nothing that our intelligence and intentions, whether for good or ill, propose is adequate for what life is likely to produce. This production drives home that lesson with consistent flair.

If a tightly plotted suspense play seems too artificial, it may still be unwise to shrug it off as unrelated to how we who are not murder-minded actually live. I'm reminded of the wonderful title of a collection of literary essays by Marvin Mudrick: "Books Are Not Life But Then What Is?"

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, April 29, 2017

"Mozart and Salieri": An old legend of fatal musical competitiveness gets resuscitated in ISO commissioned work

Composer-pianist Dejan Lazic
One of the puzzling aspects of Dejan Lazic's "Mozart and Salieri" is the scheduling of the work's premiere by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra as a one-off.

Friday night's concert at Hilbert Circle Theatre offered the public the only chance to hear the guest pianist's symphonic poem. The entire program was thematically tight, giving historical context to the  rivalry between Wolfgang Mozart and Antonio Salieri in imperial Vienna of the late 18th century.

Contemporary accounts of Mozart's final days in 1791 differ widely. The murkiness was given a taint of mischief by the mortally ill composer's suspicion that he had been poisoned. No one on his deathbed can be held responsible for fearful thoughts. But the aged Salieri, many years later, sank into senility and expressed guilt at having caused Mozart's death.

On this thin thread Alexander Pushkin hung a brief play that inspired Lazic to cover the possible crime in abstract orchestral terms. The result took up about the last half-hour of a long Classical Series concert. The second puzzle for me is the motivation for focusing on a dubious legend — even though both Lazic and ISO music director Krzysztof Urbanski made clear in remarks to the audience that the story has no credibility — and thus adding weight to a historical rivalry that might not have been that intense, let alone murderous. Peter Schaffer's play "Amadeus," later made into a popular film by Milos Forman, went far enough in that direction.

The gist of this long-ago artistic vexation was the wonder of genius showing up in a  human vessel unworthy of containing it. In the craggy, scowling face of F. Murray Abraham, who played Salieri, that's the crux of "Amadeus."  Lazic has put together the opposition of genius and well-rewarded mediocrity in his piece, but that eternal seesaw was better represented by the concert's first half. That's when Urbanski followed up a scintillating performance of Mozart's teenage miracle Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183, with Salieri's Sinfonia in D ("Veneziana").

In the latter pastiche that the senior composer put together mainly from operatic melodies can be heard music suited to Imperial Vienna. It's trimly put together, ingratiating, and given appealing but never startling variety in dynamics and texture. The finale, for instance, is full of effects and not much substance, polite and courtly. The second movement foregrounds the composer's Italian origins, with a secondary melody that would sound quite at home (with a text) coming from a tenore di grazia on the order of Tito Schipa or Cesare Valletti.

The Mozart symphony, especially in the kind of insightful performance Urbanski conducted, has the hallmarks of genius throughout. The ISO played the piece in a manner that highlighted its cunning rhetoric: the question-and-answer phrases, the layered echoes and near echoes, the way phrases "talk" to each other. The burgeoning opera composer is reflected in this abstract work. I'll bring up just one detail that only a composer far above Salieri's capability could manage: The first movement, after its syncopated energy, its flashing contrasts and the excitement so well elaborated in the development, comes to a perfect ending. Mozart takes the foot off the accelerator without compromising any of the power he has unleashed; and yet the final couple of measures don't seem abrupt. There's no feeling of "how do I stop this thing anyway?," but rather a compact wrapping up that might well have had the establishment darling Salieri ruefully shaking his head.

To start the second half, the more adroit side of Lazic was presented as soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major. Lazic's performance came up to the very edge of affectation, but I found it a model of individuality and gracefulness. The singing tone was pronounced in the sublimity of the Andante movement. The unity of expression between piano and orchestra attained extraordinary heights in the finale. Lazic played his own cadenzas and "holds"; the cadenzas, especially the one in the first movement, gave a foreshadowing of problems I found with "Mozart and Salieri."

Put positively, Lazic certainly made full use of all the first-movement material, even overlaying one of the themes on another. The cadenza was cluttered but powerful, as was "Mozart and Salieri," but less impressively. His third-movement cadenza was less of a show-off matter, though it was too heavy at first; fortunately, it lightened up most of the way and truly reflected the nature of the finale.

"Mozart and Salieri," according to the composer's written and oral program notes, is designed to reflect the contrast between genius and mediocrity. But any contemporary composer might well have a problem adequately representing Mozart's genius, and Lazic fell somewhat short. It's true there was some evident contrast, especially with the opening Salieri music — baleful and ominous. To suggest mediocrity is no problem, if craftsmanship and a feeling for serious mockery are there. Lazic's music had those qualities, but the presentation was excessively barbed.

The quotes of some famous Mozart motifs and tune excerpts were hard to pick out, especially in passages devoted to Pushkin's Blind Violinist. Concertmaster Zach DePue expended considerable effort in his Scene 1 solos, which reflected the piece's mood of conflict. But I missed evocations of the familiar Mozart arias "Voi che sapete" and "La ci darem." The hidden nature of those quotes was another puzzle, given that in this scene Pushkin's Salieri is supposed to wonder why Mozart isn't offended by a street musician's rendition of his beautiful melodies.

Lazic draws a lot of variety from the orchestra. He's fond of extreme registers: piccolo and contrabassoon make conspicuous appearances. Piano, Mozart's major instrument in his maturity, wove major strands through the ensemble fabric, as played by Lazic. The orchestration is aggressive and impacted. I found the respite of the "Interlude" before Scene 2 most welcome.There was a flair for the dramatic evident in that scene depicting Mozart's death throes and Salieri's sorrow, expressed through a long buildup of overwhelming force, "thus creating the feeling of ultimate chaos," in Lazic's words.

Another big crescendo toward crowded full-orchestra terrain takes place in the Epilogue, which I think is intended to represent "that death is not eternal oblivion and that it is nothing to fear." This triumphant mood was hard to distinguish, except through a noisy maestoso grandeur. But to my ears and on first exposure, this symphonic resuscitation of a discredited story about artistic competitiveness taken to a criminal level was not worth the attempt.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Ancient pillar of strength resists psychological erosion and finds love in "Mad Mad Hercules"

On the national stage (with one local iteration) we had "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson." Now we have a world premiere, from NoExit Performance in association with Zach Rosing Productions, called "Mad Mad Hercules." If titles with a repeated modifier applied to a deeply flawed hero become a thing, we may eventually have something like "Grabbing Grabbing Donald Trump."

Hercules has attributes of both those American presidents in Bennett Ayres' play, which I saw Thursday night at IndyFringe
Cerberus, the dog of Hades, is eager to spoil Hercules' final labor.
Theatre.  The strongman of ancient Greek mythology has the additional burdens of a drinking problem and a conflicted sexual identity on top of the traditional baggage of impulsiveness, anger-management issues, and moral indebtedness.

Played with headstrong verve and widely scattered disdain for social norms by Ryan Ruckman, the muscular hero is shown chiefly undertaking his famous Twelve Labors, imposed by the supercilious King Eurystheus as penance for having slaughtered his wife and children in a mad rage. The insane act was due to the sorcery of Hera, the wife of Zeus (Tony Armstrong, aptly thunderous) nursing a permanent grudge against her husband's infidelity, which resulted in Hercules. The Olympian queen, in Dena Toler's performance, coos at him with unctuous solicitude blended from modern self-help literature and Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude.

Hercules listens glumly to the officious instructions of Eurystheus.
Ayres underplays Hercules' guilty conscience in order to lay emphasis on the hero's hatred of his stepmother. He is not favorably disposed toward Eurystheus, either, and their mutual insults are rank and raunchy. Josiah McCruiston, gliding about the stage in crown and robes as though they justify his every word and gesture, filled the royal role capably. Like most people conscious of their god-given good fortune, the king carries out his assigning task with lip-smacking cruelty.

So Hercules properly bears the two "mads" of the title — the insane kind and the angry kind. What saves him is the initially unpromising development of a partnership and romance with Iolaos, a farmhand assigned to accompany Hercules on his labors as a kind of minder. Nathan Thomas gave a full measure of fretfulness to the role, trying to restrain the hero's worst impulses. But Hercules brings off a number of the labors with the sort of luck he feels he can take full credit for, the way spoiled children often do far into adulthood.

The chorus looks on as Iolaos figures out the best way to protect himself and his charge.
A turning point is when Iolaos assists Hercules with the multi-headed Hydra, cauterizing one neck after another once Hercules has lopped off the head, thus preventing a new head's growth. And when Hercules captures the stag with golden horns in one of the show's loveliest scenes, his sensitive side emerges out of all the bluster. Then it only takes the pair's being grossed out by the sexual overtures of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (comically rapacious in Beverly Roche's performance) to help establish a full erotic bond between Hercules and Iolaos.

In fleshing out this relationship, Ayres has borrowed the cliche of many a romantic comedy, most of them heterosexual, in which an incompatible couple scraps from the first, only to find out that being joined in a common cause overcomes all obstacles to love. There's an undercurrent in popular culture of male bonding taking an erotic turn through shared adventure, as hackneyed Batman-Robin jokes make clear.

Athena, studious goddess of wisdom
In my prepubescent innocence, I always thought the Lone Ranger and Tonto made a cute couple, as played in those unforgettable low voices by Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. But most such partnerships resist that kind of chemistry; "Brokeback Mountain" could wait.  I never saw a hint of it in, to stick to the Western genre, the relationship between the Cisco Kid and Pancho. On the other hand, the concluding guffawing tags of each episode — "Oh, Pancho!"  "Oh, Ceeesssco!" — can easily be imagined crowed leeringly by the sombreroed buddies after a night of exuberant love-making.

At any rate, the love-interest innovation works in this show. It creates some development in a myth treatment that might otherwise be merely episodic. Hercules' long-desired transfiguration at the end cuts off the love affair, but there would hardly be any other way out.

The imaginative and technically astute use of light and sound, the elaborate use of three-dimensional and  shadow puppets, and the wide, always suitable range of costuming were unfailing, brilliantly realized in this production, directed by Zack Neiditch and produced by Zach Rosing.  Indeed, I'm not sure what the purpose of the Chorus' lines casting doubt on the show's production values was. To disarm criticism? Well, consider me disarmed.

I'm also doubtful whether references to contemporary popular culture — "The Gilmore Girls" and Trisha Yearwood — add anything to the show except a gag line or two. But I liked the satirical thrust at self-absorbed graduate students in chorus member Devan Mathias' cameo appearance as Athena. Maybe when you're tweaking a story thousands of years old, it's advisable to insert some unrelated fun to indicate the timelessness of the story. Brute male strength and assertiveness always need to be leavened by intelligence and love so that whatever the gods have handed you in life doesn't determine everything you are.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

1998 IVCI Laureate Svetlin Roussev returns for a recital capped by music from his native Bulgaria

The patrician manner that Svetlin Roussev displayed in Schubert's Sonatina in D major, D. 384, stood him in good stead for the
Svetlin Roussev and Chih-Yi Chen evinced a well-honed musical partnership.
much different second work on his recital program Tuesday with pianist Chih-Yi Chen at the Indiana History Center.

The late romantic flowering evident in Eugene Ysaye's Sonata No. 2 for Solo Violin ("Obsession") requires some reining in to help clarify its debts to both J.S. Bach and the "Dies irae" chant melody beloved of several composers. There's more than a glance backward in the "obsession" the four-movement piece has with those two sources. So for all its outsize virtuosity, scrupulously clean playing helps enormously. This is very rooted music, and that quality alone makes it seem obsessive.

Tidy yet amply expressive playing is what Roussev, a laureate in the 1998 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, demonstrated consistently in a program that went from Schubert and Ysaye through bonbons by Tchaikovsky and a substantial French violin-piano sonata to Pancho Vladigerov's "Song" and "Rhapsody Vardar."

Roussev champions music from his native Bulgaria, and Vladigerov is regarded as his most eminent countryman among composers. "Song" has the pentatonic flavor familiar to music-lovers from the folk-influenced music of the Hungarian Bela Bartok. In this performance, Roussev and Chen made the most of its flamboyant climax (which ventures far outside the folk inspiration), moving from there to settle down in well-coordinated fashion. The composer at his most flagrantly patriotic was represented by "Vardar," a showpiece requiring seemingly unstoppable fast fiddling, with lots of rapid tremolo passages and a general atmosphere of dancing ecstasy.

The "wow" factor of the rhapsody helped account for the return of the duo for an encore, another Bulgarian piece: "Sevdana," by Georgi Zlatov-Cherkin.

As for the excellence of the duo earlier, Gabriel Fauré's Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in A major, op. 13, gave extended evidence of a solid partnership. I would have preferred a hair less swiftness in the "Allegro vivo" movement, which would have brought out its charm more and not so conspicuously challenged the duo's togetherness.

The other three movements were unexceptionable in their display of unity and interpretive elan. The chromatic surges in the opening movement were passionately well-judged.  Dynamics were wonderfully coordinated in the slow movement, especially near the end, with its relaxed diminuendo passages. The tension generated in the finale before the final outburst indicated how well the two musicians were of one mind about the score and its intended effect.

Not overlooking the excellence of Chen's contributions, I want to concentrate particularly on the violinist for the remainder of this post. His articulation was immaculate in the Ysaye sonata. The string crossings were clean; the near-ferocity of those phrases remained under control. It was admirable how Roussev seemed to place the Bach quotes within parentheses, as if setting the table for a lavish feast. Similarly, the frequent tweaking of "Dies irae" throughout projected the melody well without overshadowing its surroundings.

The chordal suggestions in the third movement Sarabande were firm and well-voiced; the near-the-bridge phrases in the finale had just the right wraith-like tone. This was an "Obsession" that found that quality in the music without having to convey the impression that the performer was obsessed to the point of mania. In both the way he carries himself and his mastery of a wealth of violin technique, Roussev bears fair comparison with Jascha Heifetz.

Tchaikovsky's Melodie in E-flat major, Valse Sentimentale, and Valse-Scherzo underscored that patrician manner mentioned earlier, with hand-in-glove accompaniments from Chen. His ardent low-register tone in the "Melodie" was exquisite. In none of the three pieces did Roussev feel the need to give way to anything schmaltzy. His studied but never stiff approach to these lovely pieces still gave him lots of elbow room for putting across their instant appeal. And the audience responded with obvious joy.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Handling the moral balance of payments: Complications of the attempt are probed in Phoenix Theatre's "The Open Hand"

College roommates Freya and Allison, now upwardly mobile urbanites, bond over lunch.
"The Open Hand" starts out like a high-strung comedy, but with a disquieting pact between two women, friends since college, that proscribes birthday celebrations and the exchange of gifts. This meeting over an expensive lunch, with the pact fraying,  soon spirals into a complication mysteriously twisted by coincidence: One of the friends has to leave suddenly to keep an important appointment; then a stranger pays the check when the woman left behind discovers she's without resources and can't reach her husband by phone. A downpour threatens to leave her both sodden and saddened, when the man hands her his umbrella.

Contemporary urban life in Robert Caisley's play is predicated upon self-interest and the expectation that all generosity must be reciprocated. Allison (Leah Brenner), the beneficiary of the stranger's paying it forward, is obsessed by that need. Disguising his good deed from her husband Jack (Jay Hemphill), whose professional culinary ambitions are all-consuming, is a mistake destined to be compounded. In gratitude, the good stranger, the solidly named David Nathan Bright (Charles Goad), must be invited to an intimate two-couple get-together that no one is allowed to call Allison's birthday celebration. This could be the creepiest birthday party since Harold Pinter, the playgoer might be entitled to think.

Happiness must be doled out in Allison's world, and what produces it must be measured and entered into the moral ledger. Her calculations infect her best friend, Freya, as well as Jack, and the pressure to weigh all life's moves accurately brings Freya's Todd, a car salesman, to the breaking point. Balances must be struck and calibrations checked. Caisley has set up an anxious display of the commodification of thoughts and acts, particularly between intimates. It's a process that's wound ever tighter until the market collapses, with shattering effect. In the worldview Allison sustains, with buy-in among all four, acts of generosity, never free and unattached, are assigned an exchange-value. Karl Marx would have understood.

The Phoenix Theatre production opened over the weekend; after attending the Sunday matinee, I felt as if I'd been to church again — but this time had snatched a few bills from the collection plate, then tried to return them without detection, felt gratitude about not being noticed (combined with guilt), then added a few more dollars before wondering how much would amount to overcompensation. Is this any way to live? Do we have any choice? "The Open Hand" may leave you wondering if your gratitude has been conditional all along, if your basic selfishness has been evident to everyone you know, if charitable acts are bound to be misunderstood unless the motive and the back-story are transparent. That's ironic, about which more below.

Dale McFadden directs the cast with his usual, fine-textured attention to detail. Nothing seems to happen or be said that is not in some sense the expression of every character onstage. This is true especially in the early scenes, when the playwright appears to be taking delight in having the audience share in the mystification that besets the characters. Sometimes, just when we think we are most focused, we are most susceptible to distraction.

Only David Nathan Bright is self-possessed. In the steady openhandedness of Goad's portrayal, he carries the aura of a visitor from beyond. McFadden has the other actors picking up adroitly on the brittle nature of intimacy, which always wants to know more, because knowledge seems so much better than faith. But only ignorance enables faith to become stronger, as Montaigne said long ago; what we know for sure is forever dependent on testing it against what we don't.

Awaiting a late arrival, the host couple and Freya get to know a mysterious benefactor.
And Allison knows next to nothing about David, a fact that really irritates Freya, who, as played by Julie Mauro, conducts a hilariously intrusive interview with the distinguished-looking gentleman when he arrives at the apartment.

Freya's faith in her friendship with Allison is already under strain, to which is added her being on tenterhooks about snagging a high-end international wine job. Well, there's also some difficulties in her marriage, all of which Mauro conveys as being under quite tenuous control. The bluffly macho Todd (Jeremy Fisher) sells luxury cars, but his job insecurity under a toxic boss will have an explosive effect in the climactic party scene.

Todd meets David Nathan Bright in the worst way.
That scene cannot further be described, but its aftermath entails Allison's long-suppressed confrontation with her past and the crumbling of the protective edifice she has built at immense psychic cost. Though hints of her vulnerability have been evident all along, what underlies it has to be brought into the open by David. I doubt I've ever seen on an Indianapolis stage a more astonishing transformation than what Brenner achieved here; physically and vocally beside herself, Allison stands before us at the end, probably capable of setting her life on a new footing, moving toward health after the abscess has been lanced.

"The Open Hand" is finally a comedy, though the laughs come early and somewhat under shadows. But it takes a place in the prevailing Judeo-Christian mode of irony, which Western culture has inherited in uneasy partnership with the Greek mode of tragedy. The ironic mode has made our stage comedies richer, and it has given us a more capacious understanding of life's sadness. Despite Shakespeare, the tragic view of life sits uneasily with us, leading to the frequent misinterpretation of "Hamlet" as a portrait of indecisiveness.

Though there's nothing explicitly religious about "The Open Hand," it rests on the foundational irony of Christianity derived from Jewish religion. Our expectations are thwarted; what we do and what happens to us is an endless struggle between our faith and our knowledge. Attempts to resolve that conflict through striking out on new paths sometimes dazzle us beyond anything we may have anticipated, as for Ruth in the Bible, whose famous decision is crucially referenced in this play's final scene. We can't be sure of success, because the accumulation of discouragements compels us to ask, with Job, the ironic question: "Why is light given to a man whose way is hid, and whom God hath hedged in?"

"The Open Hand" provides an extraordinarily moving answer to this question. Furthermore, the production is a technical marvel, with several evocative sets (Jeffery Martin) constructed on a turntable, furnished (and its actors outfitted, by Emily McGee) with just enough signs of material striving and accomplishment to reinforce the play's context of interplay between the open hand and its all-too-frequently closed opposite, between the lighted way and the one hidden or hedged in.

[Photos by Joe Konz]

Sunday, April 23, 2017

With visceral impact and artistic imagination, SF Jazz Collective blows through town on the first of two nights here

Rising out of the San Francisco Jazz Festival more than a decade ago, the SF Jazz Collective has made its mark by gathering
SF Jazz Collective: Eubanks, Calvaire, Wolf, Jones and Sanchez (standing, from left); Penman, Simon, Zenon (seated, from left)
top-drawer musicians into ensemble work periodically, focusing year after year on the work of the music's major figures and touring with it.

This weekend the current tour is playing a couple of nights at the Jazz Kitchen. I heard the first set of the first night Saturday; the program was centered on the legacy of Miles Davis. Typical of the group's creativity, the program also included original compositions, as well as members' arrangements of the trumpeter's works.

To present its calling card, the octet opened with "All Blues," a perennial favorite that has been taken up by many artists. This arrangement, by pianist Edward Simon, wound its way into the theme obliquely. It featured the grandiloquent vibraphone playing of Warren Wolf, and ended in a long coda with lots of nimble ensemble tags periodically inserted.

SF Jazz Collective arrangements typically avoid any "tribute" genuflections toward the honoree's manner of performance. This is particularly evident in how they handle their borrowings from pop heroes such as Stevie Wonder, as a three-disc issue from 2011. And the solos take off  from the new arrangement more than from the original, which puts everything the band is likely to play in its own universe.

This was amply evident in the second Davis number, "Joshua," a Wolf arrangement distinguished by Simon's cogent piano solo and the rip-roaring exuberance of trumpeter Sean Jones. "Milestones" brought front and center the arranging aptitude of bassist Matt Penman, with another indication of the fresh distribution of solos characteristic of the band. This time around, saxophonists Miguel Zenon (alto) and David Sanchez (tenor) were showcased.
Shields Green, an enslaved rebel

Among the attractive originals, trombonist Robin Eubanks introduced "Shields Green," a piece named for a participant in John Brown's 1859 raid on the weapons factory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia, and spelled without the apostrophe). The historical context drew from Eubanks a rootsy sound, anchored by regular finger snaps in which the composer encouraged audience participation. Simon turned from the grand piano to a synthesizer to make the accompaniment moodier. Eubanks took an extraordinarily agile solo, expressing his own voice but bringing to mind the virtuosity of one of his Indianapolis trombone heroes, J.J. Johnson.

Just as exciting and multifaceted a new piece was Jones' "Hutcherson Hug," named for the late Bobby Hutcherson, a vibraphonist who was a charter member of SF Jazz Collective. It presented a rare reflective episode in the first set, its gentle waltz theme elaborated in an expansive solo by Wolf, Hutcherson's successor as Jazz Collective vibist. Though the band gives him lots of company in this respect, Wolf is particularly outstanding in rolling out phrase after phrase with nary a stale idea or cliche to be heard.

The set closed with drummer Obed Abaire's "One Eleven," a complex, high-energy work full of cross-rhythms — naturally featuring a drum solo, but so much more than an excuse for percussion display. Like everything this band plays, the collective idea in its name always seems to be more important than anything close to individual grandstanding. When individuality is called for, there is no shortage in the supply, but the collective remains uppermost.