Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"Rock-a-Bye Your Cabinet With a Money Melody": A disturbing lullaby for disturbed times

Lots of attention has been focused on the new administration's slapdash travel restrictions, but we shouldn't lose sight of how his atrocious Cabinet nominations are moving forward. This song addresses in particular the concentration of the superrich that will control the executive branch of the federal govenment for the next four years.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The fourth of five competition finalists in the American Pianists Awards brings a lot to the table

Drew Petersen's level gaze is indicative of his approach to the piano.
My initial thought as Drew Petersen launched into J.S. Bach's Toccata in F-sharp minor Sunday afternoon at the Indiana History Center was: "Boy, I can't wait till he plays 'Mazeppa'!"

That sounds snarky, even dismissive, but I offer it as a preface to admitting I was  immensely won over by his Bach performance. It was evident one didn't need to yearn to put a stamp of approval on Petersen as a Liszt pianist in Transcendental Etude No. 4 in D minor. His expressive range and insight, including a pronounced sensitivity to rhythm and his ear for tone color, was fully on display in the Bach Toccata.

The Bach opened Petersen's Premiere Series recital, the next-to-last of the five combination solo/concerto exhibitions by the American Pianists Association's classical competition's finalists. All five finalists (Alex Beyer will close out the Premiere Series on Feb. 26) will be in town for Discovery Week in April, at the end of which one of them will be awarded APA's Classical Fellowship.

There was generous pedal applied to the opening measures of the Toccata, but Petersen's keen articulation kept the passage from resembling a dense fog. The variety of texture in the piece soon brought out the 23-year-old's feeling for contrast, to which he also imparted a flair for dramatic tension as one episode yielded to the next. He was like a classical actor capable of a wide emotional range who covers it all with superb diction. The chromaticism of the fugue at the piece's culmination was particularly exciting, thanks to the high definition he gave to each entry of the theme.

Some of these qualities got three-dimensional vividness with Schumann's "Humoreske," op. 20. Notoriously a less settled personality than Bach, Schumann managed to harness his inner stresses in this work, though not at the highest level of consistency and inspiration. The piece is hard to get into. In "The Literature of the Piano," Ernest Hutcheson succinctly put the case for the negative: "We are fatigued by the long procession of short sections and a monotony of tonality seldom ranging beyond B-flat and G minor." 

The interpreter has to come across as the master of these succinctly expressed moods joined in a lengthy succession. And Petersen did, amazingly. The section marked "Innig" found the recitalist drawing creatively upon the introspectiveness the episode demands. It was impressive how imaginatively Petersen varied his pedaling and touch to give all seven sections their due.

You could sense in the eager top-of-the-beat flow of the Bach some of the controlled impulsiveness Petersen would bring to the concerto occupying the program's second half. That's where he was joined by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Matthew Kraemer for Beethoven's Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, op. 73 ("Emperor"). At times it seemed the soloist was pushing the tempo, but Kraemer kept the orchestra with him. The piano sound was fitfully too glaring, yet overall suitably varied.

The ICO sounded in top fighting trim, having come off a concert on its own series the night before. It's too bad this durable professional orchestra isn't able to perform more often. As appetizer for the concerto, Kraemer led the orchestra in Schubert's "Overture in the Italian Style" — which essentially means "slow, then fast (including a Rossinian crescendo), with a touch of Viennese gemütlichkeit. " It was smartly played, with delightful wind blend and phrasing.

Finally, to "Mazeppa": The lack of program notes is not crucial to concert enjoyment, but in the case of this title, the story behind the name opens the door to the essence of Romanticism. Based on the 17th-century punishment of an adulterous Polish nobleman — tied naked to a horse set loose and directed eastward, where it fell exhausted in Ukraine — the story inspired Lord Byron, Victor Hugo, and Alexander Pushkin. Such an international symbol, appropriated to represent the artist bound to the back of galloping Genius, was irresistible to Liszt.

Petersen's performance was fully adequate to rendering the tumult of the ride, a brief reflection on the pathos of the punishment, and its concluding measures of victory: Art conquers all. Petersen's Olympian control of rhythmic energy, the wide spectrum of his tonal palette and mastery of musical impasto proved that point unassailably.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Hitching glitches: Actors Theatre of Indiana opens a 21st-century marriage comedy, chockful of songs

One of Shakespeare's golden iambic-pentameter lines that long ago turned into an adage goes like this: "The course of true love never did run smooth."

The young couples toast to the future happiness they have their hearts set upon.
That sentiment has also become nearly an iron law of comedy, from "A Midsummer Night's Dream," where the line first appeared in context, to "It Shoulda Been You,"  the 2011 musical comedy that opened Friday night in an Actors Theatre of Indiana production.

Weddings are of course the crux of that hoary sentiment. They generate a host of anxieties even when true love seems to be running as smoothly as it ever does. In "It Shoulda Been You," the main obstacle to be overcome is not the obvious one. The obvious one is the cultural divide between the two families, the Steinbergs and the Howards. This kind of mixed marriage has a sentimental forebear: the immensely popular and influential play "Abie's Irish Rose," a smash hit in the 1920s.

The plot here is hugely different. And though I can't be sure if the Howards are Catholics or Episcopalians, they lean toward WASP stereotypes, reinforced by the performances of Bill Book and Cynthia Collins. Religion itself is relatively unimportant, except as the kind of prop it is (can we be honest?) in so many modern weddings. It might have been interesting to see what "It Shoulda Been You" authors Brian Hargrove and Barbara Anselmi would make of the Judeo-Christian mishmash of a ceremony needed to cement such a bond, but that happens offstage. In Bernard Killian's hotel suite, with multiple doors (to shore up the show's farcical elements), the motivating dramatic crisis is explored before the nuptials, then set upon a new footing and resolved with difficulty afterward.

The stress of the big event hits the Center for the Performing Arts' Studio Stage immediately, focused upon Jenny Steinberg, loyal sister of the bride-to-be, Rebecca. As seen Saturday night, Karaline Feller quickly engaged one's sympathies soliloquizing in song ("I Never Wanted This") about the burden of being the practical, taken-for-granted one in the family.

Jenny turns out to be the focus of the whole show, representing what has become a cliche of modern musicals — the overlooked, underestimated, or even disdained person of superior head and heart who floats uneasily on the edge of the mainstream before eventually docking in a harbor of deserved happiness. I don't know where all this staged-and-sung struggle for triumphant self-esteem comes from — "Hairspray" or "Wicked," perhaps — but it's been relied on overmuch to put a cap on the feel-good outcome comedies depend on.

For Jenny to find happiness requires unexpected developments that can't be revealed here, divulged in the second half of this  long one-act (an intermission after another Jenny solo, "Beautiful," might have been nice). Along the way, she has to fend off her sister's rejected suitor Marty (Nic Eastlund) and minimize the negative effects of her mother, Judy (Judy Fitzgerald), a lifelong buttinsky with the passive-aggressive tendencies of the Jewish-mother stereotype. The other mother, Georgette Howard (Cynthia Collins), is reflexively snooty, overprotective of her beloved son, and regularly in need of a cocktail.

Jeff  and Annie  throw themselves into a tribute to the wedding couple.
I sometimes sympathize with actors having to give their all in order to produce the illusion that flat characters are growing another dimension before our eyes. Directed by Bill Jenkins, this cast does a good job of it. I felt the only weaknesses were Eastlund's singing, which sometimes wandered off pitch, and Tenéh B.C. Karimu's portrayal of Rebecca's friend Annie Sheps, who ought to have seemed as wholehearted as her opposite number, Jeff Pierpoint as Brian's best buddy, Greg. To single out the moment they matched the best, however: Pierpoint and Karimu poured the ultimate in wedding-serenade pizazz into their soulful tabletop number, "Love You Till the Day."

Michael Ferraro never failed to represent youthful ardor as the groom Brian, and provided half the rapport needed to bring off his song with George, "Back in the Day," a ricky-tick duet designed to celebrate a weak attempt at father-son bonding. The song was typical of the show's musical style. The words were often clever but sometimes obscured by amplification. Somewhat old-fashioned bouncy pieces balance adroitly against tear-jerking pop balladry, like Rebecca's "A Little Bit Less Than" (a show-stopper for Laura Sportiello) and her mother's "What They Never Tell You." The latter occurs just in time to establish the sensitive side of a woman more genuinely characterized by "Nice," which wittily depicts Mrs. Steinberg's recognition that a cutting politeness can be more satisfying than outright rudeness.

Matthew Reeder plays dad Murray Steinberg, a mensch with a minimum of ethnic tics. As wedding planner Albert, John Vessels swept and glided through the action glorying in the complications and intrigue of his job. With his assistants Walt and Mimsy, Albert proclaimed his value in the song "Albert's Turn," neatly brought off in collaboration with Paul Collier Hansen and Holly Stults. Hansen and Stults did double duty as a couple of eccentric Steinberg relatives, the out-of-his-depth Uncle Morty and the flamboyantly sluttish Aunt Sheila, respectively. The show's creators threw caution and plausibility to the winds with the latter character, but she's needed at one point to spill some very important beans.

The title song was particularly well-staged, a credit to Carol Worcel's choreography and the sprightliness of Brent E. Marty's  musical direction. "It Shoulda Been You" riffs verbally off the old standard, "It Had to Be You." The show's title indicates there's nothing inevitable about who ends up with whom. Private preferences about such things are a great source of what we are learning to call "alternative facts."

Who needs to follow what at first seems meant to be? The show argues that when we insist on being authentic — true to ourselves — everything will turn out OK.  It's a hackneyed message that ATI's production delivers with a twist and considerable charm. Well, good luck with that, keeping in mind the Bard's deathless aphorism.

[Photos by Kip Shawger]

Saturday, January 28, 2017

All-Russian ISO program puts concertmaster Zach De Pue in the spotlight as soloist

In life and death alike, Dmitri Shostakovich has been a beacon of resistance and freedom in the eyes of the West. His Time magazine cover during World War II in a fireman's helmet, pitching in to help the Motherland stem the German invasion, is iconic. But his more consistent enemy was his own government, and his heroic stature endures because of what his music seems to represent.

Crucially to our insecure high culture, Shostakovich takes an honored place today as a symbol of the arts' declaration of independence from state control and repression. And there's been an added element  in the 21st century: Shostakovich in performance is a viscerally exciting and sometimes haunting argument for the relevance of classical music to our time. The composer's nemesis, Josef Stalin, may be — like Dickens' Jacob Marley — dead as a door nail. But his ghost, again like Marley's, will walk the Earth as long as there are ruthless autocrats eager to wear his mantle.

Long ago, Philip Roth scrutinized the literary work of his contemporaries behind the Iron Curtain, and made this comparison of art's relative importance: Over here, anything goes and nothing matters; there, nothing goes and everything matters. Even when he's not at his best, the aura around Shostakovich is that everything matters.

Accordingly, a work like the first Violin Concerto has more than its artistic claims to keep it in the repertoire. Its genesis a few short years after that Time magazine cover in the post-war Soviet Union, and the delay of its premiere until after Stalin's death, speak to the anxiety that shadowed the composer throughout his career.  Within its unconventional four-movement structure,  indications abound of its expressive and technical boldness and avoidance of the approved "Socialist Realism" aesthetic.

Zach De Pue has a thing for the Shostakovich First, going back 25 years.
The A minor violin concerto places a staggering variety of demands on the soloist. Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre, most of them were met by Zach De Pue and his colleagues in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under the direction of guest conductor Roberto Abbado. The work was launched in a generous spirit, with the kind of patience required to lay out all that deep reflection in a poised manner. The "Nocturne," as the composer titled the first movement, displayed the ISO concertmaster's  magisterial phrasing and warm tone at its fullest.

The chockablock Scherzo that followed started out excellent, its vigorous contrasts glowingly characterized by orchestra and soloist alike. Well into it, unfortunately, De Pue suddenly became discombobulated, paused briefly, and moved close to the conductor's stand to steal a reassuring peek at the map. He soon righted himself and the movement proceeded to the end confidently. (De Pue's score was on a music stand in front of him the whole time, but I never saw a single page turn. I'm assuming it was there as a kind of security blanket, because obviously he knows the piece cold.)

The third-movement Passacaglia is one of Shostakovich's greatest, a triumph of formal and expressive mastery. Concertos are essentially partnerships with hints, more or less pronounced, of competition.  In slow movements, composers take the common option of having the orchestra introduce the soloist, and everything they do after his/her entrance is supportive. The Tchaikovsky violin concerto is a case in point. In the Shostakovich A minor, the orchestra doesn't introduce, but sets the agenda for the third movement, and the question arises: What's the soloist going to make of this?

The answer comes quickly in the corresponding movement of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, where there's oppositional dialogue between soloist and orchestra that ends on the pianist's terms. But a delay in one concerto partner's response to the other always grabs the attention. The dynamic is reversed in the slow movement of the Ravel Piano Concerto in G. There the soloist lays out a complete tune in leisurely fashion. putting his/her stamp on it. When the flute, then other solo woodwinds, finally enter, the effect is magical. After the orchestra shows that it has "earned" the partnership, the English horn gets a crack at the tune near the end. The movement's design never fails to beguile.

Roberto Abbado's grip on "The Firebird" was sustaining.
In the Russian masterpiece under review here, the soloist's answer in the slow movement is heart-rending. As many times as you hear the music, it seems the tension is always there before the violinist modestly makes lyrical suggestions around the passacaglia theme first outlined by horns and turned into a chorale by woodwinds. As the movement progresses, the somewhat diffident solo music turns triumphant, but always in a spirit of collaboration.

This was beautifully handled Friday night. I hear the soloist as conveying a message pertinent not merely to standing up against tyranny, but also for citizens in a democratic republic (for as long as we have it). It  says: "I have a right to be here, seeing things in my own way, but I also acknowledge and value my participation in the larger community, and expect that community will reciprocate, honoring my integrity. And just look at what we can accomplish!"

The individualistic strain comes to the fore untethered in the five-minute solo cadenza, which De Pue brought off superbly. Then, with scarcely a break, the soloist is sentenced to hard labor in the finale. De Pue sounded more than willing to shoulder any burden and exhibit his control of it. Despite some variation in pinpoint coordination, the movement was unstinting in its brilliance and power.

This weekend's concerts open with the Prelude to Mussorgsky's opera "Khovanshchina," orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov
and carrying the title "Dawn on the Moskva River." Friday's performance featured fine oboe and clarinet solos piercing gently the morning mists rising over water. The entrance of the horns was magical, recalling a passage (admittedly a little purple) in the Russian basso Feodor Chaliapin's memoir that I've always admired: "In Russia the voice of love is raised at dawn, and rings in the shadowy darkness....the deep tones of a bell chime forth and re-echo the song. The shadows quiver, and the whisper of a divine annunciation seems to steal into the very essence of one's being." Abbado and the ISO conjured up that evanescent atmosphere.

Making up the program's substantial second half is the complete "Firebird" ballet score of Igor Stravinsky.  Hearing this exuberantly pictorial and dramatic music in something other than abridged suite form makes clear how well the first of Stravinsky's three great ballets fits in with the others: "Petrouchka" and "The Rite of Spring."  There's so much of a nearly unquenchable modernist aesthetic waiting to burst out in the complete score that "The Firebird" seems almost as trail-blazing as the notorious "Rite."

Abbado and the ISO did wonders with the work. Particularly enjoyable was the panache of the Firebird's initial appearance right through her capture by Prince Ivan and her pleading with him for release. The dramatic push-pull of later episodes was also colorfully set forth, with lots of sparkling solos. The famous "infernal dance" of the evil king Kastchei's subjects is more impressive when set in the context of the monster's subsequent awakening and swift demise.

That makes the general rejoicing, which follows the "infernal dance" so abruptly in the suite, particularly grand and well-merited. In Friday's performance, the mood was established with calm mastery by Robert Danforth's horn solo. The famous melody then overtook the whole ensemble, leading to those final measures with seven loud brass chords against full orchestra that only need to be heard once to be remembered forever.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Joel Smirnoff freshens up his Cleveland and jazz connections with a cabaret performance at Indiana Landmarks Center

Joel Smirnoff, jazz violinist
The violin has been featured in jazz going back to the 1920s. Besides pioneering soloists like Joe Venuti, whole string sections have also played a role, particularly in jazz-inflected dance orchestras such as Paul Whiteman's. But the instrument so basic to classical music has not had steady, conventional representation in jazz, making the concert appearance here of a violinist adept in both fields worth special attention.

Joel Smirnoff attained eminence as a member of the Juilliard Quartet for many years, and from 2008 until last year, he was president of the Cleveland Institute of Music. Musicians associated with that school joined him Tuesday night for a concert with cabaret-style seating at Indiana Landmarks Center, co-presented with the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.

One of the violinist's young colleagues onstage with him in Cook Theater is becoming familiar to Indianapolis audiences: Conrad Jones, named last year as the long-awaited principal trumpet of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Jones was crucial to the front-line sound of the band, often stating the tunes first in close coordination with Smirnoff. The rhythm section, also with CIM associations, consisted of Theron Brown, piano; Joel Negus, bass, and Anthony Taddeo, drums.

Trumpeter Conrad Jones, new ISO principal.
Smirnoff not only produced a smooth sound with his amplified violin, but also used its soft burred tone as a complement to Jones' darting, sometimes flowing trumpet. Both players indicated familiarity with a range of major jazz styles on their instrument; Smirnoff now and then went highly decorative, a la Stephane Grappelli, especially in "Nuages," by the French violinist's longtime collaborator, guitarist Django Reinhardt. He displayed his casual vocal chops, sort of on the order of a Yankee Jack Teagarden, during Horace Silver's "Love Vibrations" and George Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away From Me."

Jones showed his familiarity with Clark Terry in his leaping, growling and low-register displays of puckish wit, with Art Farmer in mellow, well-connected phrases (especially on flugelhorn in "Love Vibrations" and in his major ballad showcase, "My Funny Valentine") and even with Louis Armstrong in the majestic push in the first part of his "They Can't Take That Away From Me" solo. He found apt ways to vary the band's sound with judicious use of cup, plunger, and Harmon mutes.

Arrangements were straightforward, sometimes with exciting complications, such as the sudden boost to the tempo of "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got that Swing," with trumpet and drums duetting for a while at first. Out-of-tempo solo introductions (what jazzmen call "rubato") added some nice tension before ensemble entrances in "Take the 'A' Train" (piano) and "Caravan" (trumpet, in something close to a free-jazz mode).

Joel Negus was solid in accompaniment; his walking bass during Brown's solo in "Take the 'A' Train" was inspired and harmonically precise. Taddeo's drum solos in Joe Henderson's "Recorda Me" and "Caravan" lit up the room. He uses the whole kit, favoring brief, complementary patterns, not just single-stroke accents, to vary the palette beyond the sound of drums.

The cabaret-concert tradition provides a welcome variety in the IVCI's concert series, and the full house in a crowded room of tables confirmed the usefulness and delight of this annual affair in the organization's programming.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

With new production set, Indianapolis Opera moves closer to resuming current season under new leadership

David Craig Starkey, new general director of the Indianapolis Opera,  got into the habit of thinking big about his opera career
IO CEO David Craig Starkey makes public debut with "Man of La Mancha"
during his student days at Indiana University in the early '90s.

"There was no arts administration training there then," he recalled recently in the company's offices at the Basile Opera Center on North Pennsylvania Street. "If you wanted more than being a singer or conductor, there were different levels of experience you needed to get."

Starkey took advantage of the eminent musicians who came through what is now the Jacobs School of Music to pick up experience and practical wisdom. For a while he was the personal assistant to the music school's retired dean, Wilfred Bain.

After moving to New York, Starkey continued to cultivate mentors, particularly Paul Kellogg, general director of the New York City Opera at the time, and Lesley Koenig, stage director at the San Diego Opera and the director of last year's "Madama Butterfly," an IU production that traveled to Clowes Hall.

The payoff, as Starkey describes it, was to learn what it takes today to set up a new opera company and make a go of it. Through his habit of consulting the experts, Starkey became convinced that operettas and musicals have to be part of a successful company's repertoire. A company also has to have a solid base in the community where it sets up shop, provided the community is not too small.

These hypothetical conversations led to Starkey's search for an American city that might prove propitious. The result? Asheville, N.C., "chose itself." Starkey found people passionate to establish opera there, including those willing to put up the money for a company that was "intimate, realistic, flexible."  While in New York, Starkey had developed experience in banking and working for CAMI, a major arts management group. He was able to set up Asheville Lyric Opera in 1998 and has served as general and artistic director ever since.
Karin Mushegain will fill the role of Aldonza.

With Robert Driver, now retired after leading the Philadelphia Opera, as artistic adviser, Starkey has run Indianapolis Opera since Dec. 6, succeeding Kevin Patterson. Driver directed Indianapolis Opera for 10 years, ending in 1991. "He will work closely with artistic development and education, and undertake significant fund-raising initiatives," Starkey explained.

The team's first production is the Dale Wasserman musical "Man of La Mancha," to be presented March 24-26 at the Schrott Center for the Arts, Butler University. The award-winning Broadway musical replaces "The Jewel Box," a pastiche by Paul Griffiths with an assortment of music by Wolfgang Mozart.

The "La Mancha" cast will be headed by David Malis as Don Quixote, Scott Wichael as Sancho Panza, and Karin Mushegain as Aldonza.  A conductor has yet to be named. (Starkey said he foresees possible re-engagement of James Caraher as conductor of a future production. Caraher's 33-year tenure as the company's artistic director ended with hard feelings in 2014.)

The show substitution was dictated in part by the short time available to market and stage an unfamiliar piece. Starkey did the well-known "Man of La Mancha" in Asheville last year. It would be easier to come up with a production team and cast, given that background, than to get up to speed with "The Jewel Box."

"Everyone wanted to have the right timing for 'Jewel Box,'" Starkey told me. "It could be considered in the future. For now, we needed to look at a product we were more familiar with."  He will direct "Man of La Mancha" here, as he did in Asheville, using the same design and technical team; ensemble members (there is no chorus) will be chosen from regional artists and prepared by John Schmid, longtime IO chorus director.

Looking to the company's future, Starkey said that season subscriptions will be de-emphasized in favor of single-ticket sales, reflecting a national trend. In Asheville, he's eliminated season tickets altogether. "We had many sold-out performances and we were adding some" to the run of individual productions, he said.

He also plans to put less emphasis on the season. Indianapolis Opera will become a year-round operation, and the company will use the Basile Opera Center as a facility for its own activities and those of four resident groups it has welcomed there. The trend toward setting productions in different halls will continue, with a return to Clowes Hall, the Schrott's big, decades-old neighbor, a distant possibility for large-scale shows. Putting "The Barber of Seville" in the Tarkington at Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts worked well for the company last fall, a company spokesman said.

"To dream the impossible dream" is what draws in audiences to "Man of La Mancha," but to dream possible dreams is what keeps a regional opera company in business, and that's what Starkey aims to do here.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Three finalists for the position of Carmel Symphony Orchestra music director will be on the podium this season

The next music director of the Carmel Symphony Orchestra will be one of three finalists just announced.

Two are women: One of them, Janna Hymes (formerly Hymes-Bianchi), was briefly associate conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. The other, Kelly Corcoran, was a finalist in 2014 for the music directorship of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, a position won and now held by Matthew Kraemer.

Here's the CSO's official announcement, including dates when Ron Spigelman, Corcoran, and Hymes will make appearances in Carmel over the next few months. I described the process as it stood at an earlier stage in this post.

"Brother, Can You Spare a Mind?" reflects the crying need for knowledge the new President called attention to in his Inaugural Address

The Depression had a popular lament in "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" so I thought with the bleak portrait of America today set out by Donald Trump — particularly his critique of American education — an updating addressing the depletion of "all knowledge" was called for.

Wu Han holds sway with string colleagues in quintets by Dohnanyi and Taneyev

Wu Han, a strong, visionary pianist and producer.
The second release in the "Wu Han Live" series of concert recordings extracted from Music at Menlo performances submits wholeheartedly to the highly finished Romantic inspiration of quintets for piano and strings by Erno Dohnanyi and Sergei Taneyev.

Wu Han, an eminent pianist-educator-impresario, also co-producer with her husband David Finckel of ArtistLed recordings, is the anchor of well-knit interpretations of Dohnanyi's Piano Quintet No. 1 in C minor and Taneyev's Piano Quintet in G minor.

Both ensembles include violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Finckel. For Dohnanyi's precocious piece, his opus 1, the violinists are Alexander Sitkovetsky and Nicolas Dautricourt. In the Taneyev, Arnaud Sussman and Sean Lee are the violinists.

In program notes, Wu Han refers to these works as "unknown masterpieces," and the term may apply particularly well because both scores are demanding, and getting five top-flight musicians together to perform them is pretty rare. Music at Menlo, near San Francisco, is a summer festival capable of gathering that kind of excellence in service to a wide range of chamber music, from duos to octets.

In the first movement, the teenage Dohnanyi immediately leaps into his individualized claim on the romantic tradition in full flower, expanded from Brahms. The way the low rumble at the start quickly ascends in both pitch and volume to envelop the whole ensemble is a signal of the score's heft and ambition. The second-movement Scherzo uses a restless back-and-forth figure as a building block, relieved in the middle by flowing music before the scherzo theme returns to move gracefully toward a quiet conclusion.

The well-crafted slow movement extends the impression that the burgeoning composer had formal gifts well beyond his years. The rondo finale, with its bouncy theme in 5/4, is managed with ease by the ensemble, and the intervening episodes are firmly characterized. The apotheosis of the theme toward the end is beautifully handled, justifying the "Amen"-like cadence that caps the work.

The benefits of maturity for a well-equipped composer are more evident in Taneyev's quintet. The sprawling first movement finds so many uses for the main material, distributed across the ensemble in near-symphonic fashion. The players enjoy the benefits of good resonance and clarity in the recorded sound. Tempo fluctuations test the ensemble's unity, which holds up as if effortlessly.

After an expressively light, titillating Scherzo, there is a heavy Largo built on a passacaglia theme of stolid simplicity. On the verge of sounding academic, the movement seems oddly fresh and lovely in its self-confidence and steadiness. You hang on every note and are surprised to have been so fascinated; the musicians' conviction rings out, and you're hooked.

That's nothing compared to the finale, however. The bulk of it adheres to the "Allegro vivace" heading, yet there are convincing "maestoso" episodes and some moments of tender relief. The climax of the movement is awe-inspiring. The titanic control and power of Wu Han's playing seems to lift the entire ensemble, especially as the composer directs the piano to mimic the sound of great bells. This is the kind of Russian glory many listeners know from two moments in Mussorgsky: "The Great Gate of Kiev" from "Pictures at an Exhibition" and the Coronation Scene in "Boris Godunov."

I have a new musical fantasy: Hearing the Taneyev Piano Quintet in G minor in concert here, perhaps played by the new quartet formed at the University of Indianapolis last year. But then, what local pianist would be worthy? I have a suggestion or two, but that would get into politics. I'll have to let my imagination do the work for now. In any event, in this recorded performance the five players seem to levitate as the finale proceeds, and I suspect many listeners will join them.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A defining importance: Ella Fitzgerald centenary is celebrated with the opening of a new exhibit at the Palladium

She's the top, she's Mahatma Gandhi; she's the top, she's Napoleon Brandy.
A partial view of the exhibit,  on view through October in the Palladium's gallery,

And so on, to paraphrase Cole Porter, the pre-eminent Indiana-born contributor to the Great American Songbook, from his song "You're the Top."

Ella Fitzgerald was born 100 years ago, and to give her the proper centennial salute seems a natural honor for the Great American Songbook Foundation, which is based at the Center for the Performing Arts, to undertake.

On Thursday and Friday of last week, the Carmel-based foundation opened an exhibition in the Songbook Exhibit Gallery. It's devoted to the singer, with special focus on the "Songbook" series of LPs that helped to establish the songs worth considering classics by the greatest American songwriters. As Will Friedwald, who literally wrote the book on jazz singing, remarked on both days of the celebration: "If Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald didn't do a song, then it's not a standard." There are other good American popular songs, but without Sinatra or Fitzgerald interpretations of them, they tend to be obscure.

Friedwald, introduced by Foundation vice president Chris Lewis, went on to say that Fitzgerald was the only one of the top American popular singers who "could do everything: Her gospel and country-and-western albums are masterpieces."

On Friday afternoon in an illustrated lecture, Friedwald addressed the singer's interpretations of Cole Porter songs. "The Cole Porter Songbook" was the first (1956) and remains the most famous of the eight collections on Verve Records carrying the "Songbook" designation.

Cover of the original Verve release.
Cole Porter songs, Friedwald continued, have a unique depth that made them suitable to a singer of Fitzgerald's technique and expressive breadth. He referenced an interview he did with Cecile McLorin-Salvant when the much-admired young singer
was just 22. He admits it was a dumb, paired question, the sort that editors often like interviewers to include: Why sing old songs? Why not sing Justin Bieber?

McLorin-Salvant replied: "If Justin Bieber can come up with a song that will make me laugh and cry at the same time, I'll sing it."

Friedwald's footnote: "That quality is more true of Cole Porter than any other songwriter."  The music critic added that Porter also had a sure way of blending old-fashioned, even literary, language with casual slang of the era. He cited a couple of phrases from "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" — "Why the gods above me, Who must be in the know" — as an example, the first suggesting a solemn oath, the second close to what the poet Walt Whitman called "the blab of the pave."

Friedwald's lecture included video clips of Fitzgerald and one other singer he admires who did Porter superbly, Nat "King" Cole. (Together, they make up the cover art of Friedwald's "Jazz Singers.") The visual/auditory climax of this pairing was a couple of Fitzgerald-Cole duets: "It's All Right With Me" and "You're the Top." And a fascinating example of TV censorship in the 1950s   — offering an incidental insight into cultural change since Fitzgerald's heyday — was Cole's substitution of "three-letter words" for "four-letter words" in these lines from "Anything Goes":

Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose.
Anything goes.

Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays in the Palladium, the gallery is admission-free. 
The foundation also has assembled a traveling display with educational materials, which will be on loan to local schools and community groups. For more information, contact the foundation at (317) 844-2251 or info@TheSongbook.org.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

A program of considerable length and a wide range of expression: ISO plays Mahler and Vivaldi//Richter

One of Krzysztof Urbanski's predecessors as music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra had a low opinion of Gustav Mahler's music.

I remember the outspoken Raymond Leppard, if he was accurately quoted in the interview I read in the late 1980s, saying that Mahler's bipolar mood swings (not a phrase Leppard used) were a bar to engagement with the Austrian composer's expansive scores. The mood swings in "Das Lied von der Erde" are pretty wide, but Leppard made an exception of this symphonic song cycle. The last time the ISO played the work before this weekend, Leppard was on the podium, the current program book reminds us.

Almost 23 years later, Urbanski is using "The Song of the Earth" to close out the ISO's two-week Music of the Earth Festival. Two more ISO performances of the work, along with Max Richter's "The Four Seasons Recomposed," remain — at 7 tonight in Hilbert Circle Theatre and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Palladium in Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts.

Even Mahler-lovers can probably concede that the composer seems in particularly conscientious control of his muse in writing this late work — regarded conventionally as Mahler's walk through the valley of the shadow of death. There is a consistency that unifies the piece, despite its wide palette of timbres and a harmonic range that both grates and soothes, with Orientalisms sensitively applied.

Tenor Paul Groves displayed a virile, centered tone
Taking seven poems from "The Chinese Flute," Hans Bethge's German translation of classical Chinese poetry, the composer wrote six movements that both broaden and deepen the emotional scope of Bethge's adaptations.

Urbanski indicated his sympathy by the mastery he imparted to the large orchestra in the complex first song. "The Drinking
Song of Earth's Sorrow"  burst out of the gate and set up an introduction that tenor Paul Groves was able to match from the first, with a phrase marked "Mit voller Kraft" (with full strength). He proved just as capable of vivid characterization in the third movement ("Youth") and in the mischievous zestfulness of the fifth ("The Drunkard in Spring").

A tenor soloist in this piece has often to cut through the orchestration, and Groves was capable of that, while keeping his attractive instrument free of strain or any sign of fraying. His sound was buoyant and life-affirming.

Mezzo Sasha Cooke
Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, in alternation with Groves, is much less required to display sheer power. Yet the lower female voice needs to have considerable heft in this work, in part not to set up some false masculine-feminine imbalance of strength. Mahler was more interested in this miscellany of poems being able to express a unified sensibility, combining close observation of the natural and human environment with an individualized poignancy.

She got the most attractive support from the orchestra in exhibiting her sensuous yet restrained tone in the fourth movement,"Beauty."  Two poems are combined in the finale, "Der Abschied" (The Farewell), which features the score's most haunting music, separated by an orchestral interlude. Cooke rendered the songs with an emotional steadiness that simultaneously suggested the music's regretful feeling of isolation and its appetite for life, even in decline. Of the several opportunities for lovely instrumental solos, oboist Jennifer Christen and cellist Austin Huntington were particularly impressive.

A Vivaldi do-over: Alexi Kenney is a 22-year-old violinist from California.
Before intermission, Urbanski's role was just to introduce "The Four Seasons Recomposed," by the 50-year-old German-British composer Max Richter. Urbanski stressed his supposition that Richter was moved to treat the 18th-century masterpiece to an updating.  At play was his high regard for the original coupled with the feeling that it has become too well-known today and in need of a makeover.

With violin soloist Alexi Kenney leading a reduced orchestra, chiefly strings, this reconception is spread over a 45-minute span. The score manipulates tunes and phrases from Antonio Vivaldi's famous concerto set. Sometimes the retrospective game-playing has a repetitive intensity that palls after a short while. Sometimes the greatest intensity is abruptly broken off, indicating to me that Richter drew inspiration from the modernist tendency to downplay emotional climaxes. In this piece, such climaxes were often abruptly undercut, which had the shocking effect of Lucy snatching away the football just as Charlie Brown is about to kick it. Nonetheless, Kenney's violin-playing was a marvel of well-deployed energy and full-throated lyricism.

In sum, while I too have heard Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" quite a lot and have to guard against letting it pass over me with insufficient attention, I found "The Four Seasons Recomposed" a lengthy tease, often in terms borrowed from Philip Glass, and  frankly tedious. Vigorous and dreamy by turns, it seemed resourceful and heartfelt, but simply went on too long.

Friday, January 20, 2017

"How to Use a Knife": The workaday world gets its head messed with by the real world

A play that carries a simple instruction in its title has to hint at something much more, or there wouldn't be anything dramatic about it. How-to advice just sits there waiting to be applied to a particular end. Will Snider's "How to Use a Knife" doesn't follow the lesson plan.

George withstands the scrutiny of Kim (Chelsea Anderson) and Michael (Rob Johansen)
Phoenix Theatre's National New Play Network show implies an "open sesame" to a skill set with a world of possibilities. The play begins as a coruscating workplace comedy and ends up as devastation, with a tiny hint of hope. The setting is the kitchen of a restaurant in Lower Manhattan, well arranged and equipped in gleaming stainless steel in James Gross' set design, staffed by a rowdy night crew just coming under the supervision of a new chef.

Both tool and weapon from the dawn of human society, the knife here represents a deep secret in the life of Steve, the dishwasher. The one low-key member of the kitchen night crew keeps such a low profile that the restaurant owner, Michael, is unaware of his national origin or anything else about him, and his co-workers have scarcely any more insight. The Hispanics on the crew nickname him "the man of blood," a sobriquet of prophetic force.

Steve (Ansley Valentine) warns George (Ryan Artzberger) of the mental "click" he needs to control.,
The atmosphere reflects the stress of restaurant work, modulated effectively under Bryan Fonseca's direction. Its typical pace and the variety of moving parts with little margin of error mean its hierarchical organization is typically unsettled, with chaos always on the horizon. In Rob Johansen's hilariously febrile portrayal, Michael is a former line cook who thumbed his nose at the Peter Principle by rising above his level of incompetence, thanks to schmoozing with money men at the bar. As owner, he covers up for undeserved success with nonstop ignorant bluster and a coarse way of skating over the surface of everything, topped by a little self-congratulation on having given a second chance to George, who was once his boss.

Line cooks Miguel and Carlos operate as a team keeping Jack, the runner, on edge.
No one with significant work experience can ever doubt how much personality influences success and even survival in the job market. At the low end of the totem pole, you get people who may be stuck long-term in wearying if essential jobs rubbing shoulders with those who are determined to rise. Carlos (Carlos Medina Maldonado) and Miguel (Wheeler Castaneda) are a couple of Guatemalans, one of them hiding illegal status, who form a jovial yet feisty team as line cooks.

Jack (Tommy Lewey) is a runner/busboy ambitious to be a writer, with a short fuse he tries to snuff in order to give substance to his vague ambitions. And Steve's reason for being where he is and keeping a low profile, when finally exposed by a persistent official, occasions the upheaval that holds sway over the second act. We are invited to look deep into someone with a monstrous past and a well-structured strategy for exercising self-control. That's sustained with a special kind of melodious evenness in Ansley Valentine's performance. Chelsea Anderson sounded the right steely note of nemesis as the agent in pursuit of a Rwandan war criminal.

The performances were all vivid and idiomatic, true to the ratcheted-up tempo of New York life — something that always flummoxes my Midwestern temperament whenever I visit, though I am Manhattan-born. (Many of the interludes in Brian G. Hartz's sound design are drum-solo excerpts, sounding for all the world like the tightly-wound Buddy Rich.) The playwright's style picks up the rhythm of repetition and routine in restaurant work, the repeated orders and regular flare-ups,  and extends that into most of the dialogue. Characters ask each other if they mean what they just said. There's lots of repetition and paraphrase. Questions often are meant to be taken as challenges. Constant self-assertion is required in this world, even if you aren't quite sure just what you are asserting. The action moves forward sometimes in back-and-forth sparring that seems static or just funny; then you suddenly realize these are people in a different place with each other than they had been just moments before. I was reminded of early Harold Pinter: "Tea Party" or "The Homecoming."

Ryan Artzberger's performance as George, tentatively trying to find his way back from multiple addictions that have destroyed his family, was masterly from first to last on opening night. In personal retrospect, this actor thrives in roles with a mixture of good and bad at their core. Neither Atticus Finch (Indiana Repertory Theatre) nor Iago (Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre) brought out the best in him.

George does; the character has inner resources that it takes his friendship with Steve to nurture. But there are also loads of vulnerability, which no local actor can convey better vocally than Artzberger. That quaver, that catch in the throat — no one has a resource like that so naturally and aptly available. For George, a complete breakdown must happen first, after Steve's past difficulties come to light and he is forced to leave the restaurant ahead of the law.

Some rages onstage rivet your attention for their all-out energy; George's also breaks your heart, because Artzberger connects it so well to the weaknesses George has exhibited and to how he processes Steve's mysterious lesson on how to find inner peace. That lesson may eventually sustain him more than his ominously superfluous instruction to Steve in how to use a knife.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Common and uncommon coin: Hundred-dollar gold piece moves American imagery forward, past (or not) a good poem with an awful title

Striking news came from the U.S. Mint over a news-chocked holiday weekend: The first image of an African-American woman will appear on an American coin —a one-hundred-dollar gold commemorative in honor of the Mint's 225th anniversary.

It's a beautiful image, to be prized as much for its rarity as regretted, probably, for the unlikelihood that many Americans will ever see or feel one. And as the acting director of the Mint told NPR this morning (January 17) spending it would be foolish, because the gold used to make it is worth more than the face value of the coin.

Hmmmm: Just as the value of African-Americans' contributions to American life exceeds what white America is willing to credit them with, I suppose. Much is owed, more than is ever likely to be repaid. But to reconceive Lady Liberty as a black woman at least symbolizes movement in that direction.

It brings to mind the previous image of Lady Liberty on the dime — the kind of dime I would still find in my pocket as a kid, 
An early Liberty dime bearing the image of Elsie Stevens
ready to buy a candy bar, until the Roosevelt dimes took over. Early in the 20th century, Elsie Stevens posed for sculptor Adolph Weinman, a neighbor of her and her husband on West 25th Street in New York. His profile of her, in a winged cap, was chosen for the Liberty dime and half-dollar that the Mint put into production in 1916. She was married to the man who wrote these lines:

If ever the search for a tranquil belief should end,
The future might stop emerging out of the past,
Out of what is full of us; yet the search
And the future emerging out of us seem to be one.

Excellent lines, the fifth section of an excellent poem in 50 brief sections  by Wallace Stevens. The poem has an unfortunate title: "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery." That alone probably keeps it from being studied in literature classes, though it's a rich example of Stevens' imagination, with echoes throughout his work. The irony of the casual racism behind the title forces itself on my attention as I think about the new Liberty head on the hundred-dollar gold coin.

Stevens' poem was described by the friend to whom he dedicated it as "an olio" — an old-fashioned word indicating a hodgepodge, a miscellany of things gathered. The Roman numerals with which Stevens headed each section warn the reader not to expect continuity between one section and the next. Fair enough, but what about that title? The poet's friend, Judge Arthur Powell, recalled a walk he took with the poet in Key West when they stopped to look through a fence.

"I explained that I thought it enclosed a graveyard," Powell wrote years later, "as some of the rubbish looked 'like decorations in a nigger cemetery.' He was interested when I explained the custom of negroes [sic] to decorate graves with broken pieces of glass, old pots, broken pieces of furniture, dolls heads, and what not."

Poets turn all sorts of things to account, and the title had an aptness in Stevens' mind that overruled any racial sensitivity he may have possessed. There are not indications he had much. Like many normally well-disposed white Americans of his era, he had attitudes somewhat disdainful or dismissive of minorities: Stevens rejected patronizing a certain restaurant with a friend on the grounds that "too many Jews" dined there.

Well-bred Americans tended to express such attitudes only among friends. Similarly, Stevens didn't divulge to many that his wife's portrait was common coin in American pockets. You didn't brag, and you weren't thoughtlessly cruel to people you thought less of. Stevens didn't like poor people, either, but he is reported to have been generous with the occasional handout.

If the judge's observation of black Americans' grave-decorating habits was accurate, his use of the n-word to describe the look of their cemeteries was just another way of stipulating where "the Other" lived and breathed in the country they shared. There were boundaries so strict and self-evident for a Southern judge in the 1920s, and not fully faded today.

The late playwright August Wilson ("Fences") once described the distinctive traits of black culture that justified — nay, required — his artistic specialization in black life. Racial discrimination, for all its sorrows, had resulted in the development of separate cultural spheres in the United States. He felt that his sphere was worth observing, sustaining and celebrating on the stage ("We decorate our homes differently," for instance). Multifaceted cultural identity, he'd say, is certain to persist, whatever barriers to black advancement might eventually fall.

Wilson would have snorted scorn at the platitudes about a "post-racial" America that arose with Barack Obama's election. That toxic word in the Stevens title serves to confirm the painfulest part of what's likely to endure in American life. The most stunning line in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," the play now in production at Indiana Repertory Theatre, probes the wound.  The brilliant black doctor's father upbraids him for his choice of a white wife by warning him against the day "when she wakes up and calls you nigger." That got a gasp from the audience the night I attended. It gave voice to a fundamental fear that America may never come to terms with the worst aspects of its racial legacy.

A white man moving into old age, as I am, can't pretend to suggest a way out of the problems posed by the accidental encounter of a poem with an offensive title and a shiny coin proclaiming that an idealized black woman can stand for the United States just as well as an idealized white woman. Yet liberty itself doesn't mean much without that recognition.

I'll just ask you to note that the obverse of the new coin is an American eagle taking wing — not the familiar, literally spread-eagled symbol with arrows in one talon, an olive branch in the other. The eagle is off to someplace new, someplace perhaps envisioned steadily by the black Lady Liberty on the coin's other side.

To adapt Stevens' language in section V, even a bright future must emerge out of the past, "out of what is full of us," our good and evil alike. That's what we can't help carrying in "the search for a tranquil belief." And why would we want to avoid that burden?  After all, "the search / And the future emerging out of us seem to be one."

[This essay is indebted for anecdotes about Wallace Stevens to Peter Brazeau's oral biography, "Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered."]

Monday, January 16, 2017

Poetry at the Trump Inauguration: A Scattershot Anthology

I've looked in vain for the name of any American poet invited to read or recite at Friday's inauguration of the country's 45th
For better or verse: Robert Frost struggled with a glaring sun to read a new poem at John F. Kennedy's Inauguration, but that's nothing compared to the struggle of even finding a living poet in 2017 willing to add luster to Trump's ceremony on FRiday.
president. Maybe invitations have been sent out, only to be rejected without the kind of attention that musicians and actors who have declined are now receiving.

What sort of poetry would suit the start of Donald Trump's term?  In offering the final anthology of excerpts, I'm taking into account the new president's fabled short attention span. These snippets have a certain order to them, though Mr. Trump is unlikely to be aware of it. He also may not discern that the reasons for inclusion are both clear and obscure, and subject to a range of interpretation — just like much of what he's said in his favorite short form, the Tweet.

The selections are all by American poets, with one exception. The reason for its inclusion should require no explanation.

Fair warning that any such anthology must be an obvious mismatch with the new president was provided with foresight decades ago by Paul Laurence Dunbar, in two quatrains titled "The Poet." Here's the second of them: "He sang of love when earth was young, / And Love, itself, was in his lays. / But ah, the world, it turned to praise / A jingle in a broken tongue."

So, get Kellyanne Conway or Eric Trump up to that microphone on the Capitol steps, and let them intone the following:

One's-self must never give way — that is the final substance — that out of all is sure,
Out of politics, triumphs, battles, life what at last finally remains?
When shows break up what but One's-Self is sure?
            — Walt Whitman, "Quicksand of Years"

Each moment of time is a mountain.
An eagle rejoices in the oak trees of heaven,
This is what I wanted.

             —  James Wright, "Today I Was So Happy, So I Made  This Poem"

May I in my brief bolt across the scene
Not be misunderstood in what I mean.

             —  Robert Frost, "The Fear of Man"

What am I after all but a child, pleas'd with the sound of my own name? repeating it over and over;
I stand apart to hear — it never tires me.

               — Whitman, "What Am I After All"

We ride amid a tempest of dispraise.

                 — Dunbar, "Douglass"

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down....
He says again, 'Good fences make good neighbors'

                 —  Frost, "Mending Wall"

nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

                  — e.e. cummings, "somewhere I have never traveled"

Oh, lovely Pussy, oh, Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
      You are,
      You are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!

                  — Edward Lear, "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat"

A man feared that he might find an assassin;
Another that he might find a victim.
One was more wise than the other.

                   — Stephen Crane, LVI, "The Black Riders and Other Lines"

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Finding their hearts in San Francisco: IRT's 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner' rests shakily over the deepest American fault line

Dr. Prentice tries to charm the Draytons' skeptical housekeeper-cook.
As soon as you take in the magnificence of Robert M. Koharchik's set on Indiana Repertory Theatre's OneAmerica Mainstage, you are tempted to believe nothing bad could ever happen there. It's lofty, well-appointed, light-addled, and as intricate and assertively angular as Piranesi's architectural engravings, yet without their hints of gloom. It's the home of Matt and Chris Drayton, a newspaper publisher and an art-gallery owner, representing fashionable success, with a priceless Bay view.

But the show is "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," whose central issue everyone has known for decades because of the movie:  the effect of an impending interracial marriage on two families, one black, one white. So you know better than to be fooled by the setting, especially since the year is 1967, and a half-century on, Americans suspect that the problems the show raises are nowhere near real-world resolution.

They are almost left unresolved in Todd Kreidler's adaptation of William Rose's screenplay.  The second act is loaded with emotionally seismic activity, heart-rending reaches and rebuffs across the gulf separating the principals. Until everyone sits down to dinner as the stage lights dim, the audience is encouraged to entertain doubts things will turn out well. These are related to the doubts Americans are justified in having about ever breaking bread all together at the same table, as Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned in 1963.

The revelations in the first act, while nerve-racking, have the feel of a comedy of manners. The audience is even permitted to feel the fun in the awkwardness of the situation. Nubile daughter Joanna has returned home from Hawaii, where her hospital
John and Joanna have a rare moment alone.
work acquainted her with Dr. John Prentice, a renowned medical researcher. They have fallen in love after 10 days of intense romance, and now their mainland families must be wrenched into a mood of appropriate celebration, before the couple jets off to Switzerland (where his career calls) to tie the knot.

James Baldwin wrote long ago that in American life status became a kind of substitute for identity. Yet he knew in the 1950s  as well as anyone knows today that identity has a way of coming around and biting status in the butt. That's what it does in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," with the white-liberal decency and privilege of Matt Drayton tested to the nth degree. His opposite number, John Prentice Sr., has had his status caught up in his son's upward mobility. What he has had to overcome as a postal worker exposes the unhealed wounds of his identity in a searing second-act confrontation with his son, whose status as an eminent physician is threatened by the identity he shares with his parents.

The older men's wives are also affected by the same forces, but they can exercise durable female stratagems for adjusting to life's disturbances. Mary Prentice, the doctor's mother, has an exasperated line to the effect that men become dumber as they get older and insensitive to the passions and energy that rule young people. That may be so; it's not for me to say. The women assuredly tip the balance here, especially in the adorable conversion of the housekeeper Tillie to the couple's cause.

Nonetheless, the play skirts the trap of becoming a set of arguments and perspectives on race in the second act. Director Skip Greer should be credited for having his cast fully receptive to the dramatic tension and its multiple ways of release. The near-speechless awkwardness of the second act's opening scene, with both households assembled in one place, was brilliant.

The play's central problems need to be propelled away from being an exposition of different attitudes. In reviewing George Bernard Shaw's work more than a century ago, the London critic Max Beerbohm noted that Shaw often constructs a glittering array of arguments for  his characters to embody, nudging his plays more toward Platonic dialogues than real theater.

Dr. Prentice bonds with his future father-in-law talking about the Louis-Schmeling fight.
"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" fortunately has real people at its core, and this production never falters in letting them flower beyond their attitudes. At the center are Annie Munch as  bright-eyed Joanna, her idealism and willfulness ratcheted up believably, and Chiké Johnson as Dr. Prentice, carrying manfully but vulnerably the burden of being a widower in addition to his others.

Craig Spidle played Matt Drayton as a scrupulous, anxious father stressed about a liberalism most at home in his editorials, less so in his personal life. As Chris, Brigitt Marcusfeld was a simpatico partner, significantly more flexible as a parent but sturdier about applying moral standards consistently.

Cleavant Derricks was explosive and poignant in the role of John Prentice Sr., and Nora Cole as Mary Prentice projected Southern gentility capable of being appropriately aroused. Lynda Gravatt made clear the reasons behind Tillie's initial hostility, comical but wounding in her skepticism, as well as when she was believably won over.

Constance Macy gave a snobbish breeziness to bigotry in a brief appearance as Chris' officious gallery employee, HiIlary St. George. Mark Goetzinger had a supporting role as someone at the other end of the spectrum, brimming with tolerance and sententious cheeriness as Monsignor Ryan. The other characters are all caught up in the conflict, and the uniform excellence of the cast showed how decent and redeemable each one is.

"It is not my impression that people wish to become worse," Baldwin wrote in the same address cited above. "They really wish to become better but very often do not know how."

Fear is at the root of the conflict that roils "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Baldwin cites the position of the Israelites in Egypt in a way that might apply to this play. They "really wished to get to the Promised Land but were afraid of the rigors of the journey; and, of course, before you embark on a journey, the terrors of whatever may overtake you on that journey live in the imagination and paralyze you."

Once the Draytons and the Prentices sit down to the dinner Tillie has prepared, they are ready to move on.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Men and Mountains: Indianapolis Symphony begins a two-week Music of the Earth Festival with Strauss and Copland

Borrowing a title (above) from Carl Ruggles, a composer unlikely to be played anytime soon by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the first week of the ISO's Music of the Earth Festival takes audiences to the Alps and the Appalachians.

Richard Strauss outside his beloved Bavarian villa.
The men-and-mountains alliteration exerts a magnetic pull, but, at least in the case of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring," women are also a strong force in human interaction with geography. In fact, both musically and choreographically, the Bride's Dance in the American composer's ballet music for Martha Graham, seems to me the score's highlight and the focus of its energy.

However much women may be crucial to the settlement of mountainous terrain, its exploration has been culturally conceived as a male prerogative. For better or worse, the idea of male self-testing is bound up in mountains, "conquering" them and regarding them as a measure of physical and moral fitness.

In Friday night's initial traversal of the mountain claims staked by Copland and Richard Strauss, music director Krzysztof Urbanski was making a rare foray into Americana and, with Strauss' "Alpine Symphony," a return visit after three years. This time around, he linked his interpretation of the massive score to the spectacle of Tobias Melle's Alpine photography.

The prolific imagery, projected on a large screen behind the orchestra, was fully in keeping with the composer's mission to celebrate the unencumbered human spirit in connection with nature at its most awe-inspiring. Melle's focus ranges over the complete spectrum of nature in the Alps, from dew-spangled flowers and weather-worn dead trees to the grandest mountain vistas. Human habitation is acknowledged, but put in a context of individual adventure and close observation. 

Through montage, panorama, and occasional manipulation of light and shadow (particularly in the thunderstorm section), Melle moves well beyond a photo-album effect to complement Strauss's music. In 2014, projected movement titles helped orient ISO audiences to the work's pictorial riches. This time, the depictions derived from the composer's experience of the mountains were visually represented with just a hint of the encounter's transcendental meaning.

Strauss' inspiration from a poem by Friedrich Nietzsche called "Antichrist" might seem to center the work uncomfortably in an ideological agenda. Instead, his goal was to celebrate the unmediated encounter of clear-eyed humanity and the direct forcefulness and variety of the natural world as could be glimpsed from his beloved villa in Garmisch.

Strauss had less mysticism about him than any other major romantic composer; "Alpine Symphony" has a brief episode titled "Apparition" to salute folk legend. But you won't find any of the emotional and spiritual baggage that Tchaikovsky, in another tone poem bearing uneasily the designation "symphony,"  imported from Lord Byron for his "Manfred" Symphony. That work was wonderfully played and recorded many years ago by the ISO under Raymond Leppard. The triggering poem, also set in the Alps, has a central figure tortured by visions of meaninglessness, inconsolable over a lost love. 

Manfred is thus at the opposite pole from the implicit hero of Strauss's tone poem. Where Byron's figure says "there is no form on earth hideous or beautiful to me," Strauss, enhanced by Melle, begs to differ. Thus, "An Alpine Symphony" is about the only instrumental work I can think of that deserves the accompaniment of images. It begs for the multiplicity of forms and phenomena that symphonic music can only hint at, however vividly. Strauss is closer to Byron's friend Shelley, who looked at the French Alps wonder of Mont Blanc and proclaimed: "The secret strength of things, / Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome / Of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!"

Martha Graham and the leaping Revivalist in the ballet "Appalachian Spring"
"An Alpine Symphony" is all about "the secret strength of things," with little interpolation of masculine vainglory or existential despair. That is true of the music and imagery even in the crowning section depicting the mountain summit. The astonishing views Melle presents lent an extra expansiveness and glow to Jennifer Christen's oboe solo. Did she play it even better Friday than she did three years ago? Maybe not; maybe my ears and eyes both were fooling me. I'm willing to conclude it couldn't have been better.

Grandiloquent and carefully measured as it was, the ISO's performance was never overshadowed by the pictures' continuous "wow" effect. Balances were firm and orchestral colors (supplemented by sheep bells, wind machine, and organ) imaginatively deployed throughout. Besides, the musical acuity of the dawn and sunset portions framing the performance clearly eclipsed the photography's allure.

As for "Appalachian Spring," there was similar control applied to the hushed opening and closing measures. It also seems that Urbanski found something congruent with the folk dances of his native Poland in the "Revivalist and his flock" section, with its rhythmic variety and ecstatic accents. Despite brief lack of coordination between trumpet and strings, Friday's was a polished, exuberant account of a beloved American score. 

Strike that "men" stuff — this program is all about people and mountains.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The self in fabric, foam, felt, glue, needle and thread: 'Puppet Man' explores freedom through puppet play

Theatre on the Square's focus on Indiana playwrights takes center stage to start the New Year, with Andy Black's "Puppet Man" on the main stage and Lou Harry's "Clutter" on Stage Two, both opening Jan. 12.

"Puppet Man" nis both coarse and sweet in tracing a fragile prisoner's redemption through the art and craft of puppetry. "Pretty Boy" DuPree is taken into a small class run by the worldly wise, idealistic "Doc" Markos, played with mother-hen solicitude by Miki Mathioudakis. The troupe regularly performs fairy tales with handmade puppets for the children of prison visitors. Contrary to much of what one reads today about the purpose of imprisonment, rehabilitation remains a goal in this institution. Yet daily life there doesn't seem subject to close, enlightened supervision.

Inmates of a correctional institution scrutinize "Pretty Boy" DuPree in TOTS' production.
As for the main character's turn toward puppetry, there is no evident artist in "Pretty Boy" crying to get out. His ulterior motive is to get his hands on contraband materials he can turn over to a predatory inmate called "Word" in order to support his drug habit. "Word" is a savage entrepreneur in the performance of Carey Shea. He embodies the lupine sneakiness of the villain in "Little Red Riding-Hood," the frame tale in puppetry that surrounds the action.

The play thus presents layers of manipulation, including DuPree's sexual exploitation by Pete Cunningham, a prison guard (Bradford Reilly). The humiliation drives him deeper within, where he's already nursing guilt about the fact that his crime led to his innocent girlfriend's conviction. Taylor Cox plays "Pretty Boy" as hapless and struggling, carrying a full load of anxiety that crosses over into auditory hallucinations when the drugs he pries from "Word" fail to calm him. Cox's opening-night performance was affecting and aptly claustrophobic: DuPree's constrained world seems to be closing in upon him. If the characterization hadn't prodded the actor toward near-inaudibility from time to time, it would have been just right.

A strong didactic strain permeates Black's script, though director Ty Stover seems to have been alert to keep the dramatic elements foremost. There's vivid believability in the troupe's other members: the flamboyantly "out" "Fantasia" (Josiah McCruiston), the wary "Sidewinder" (Josh Ramsey), and the guarded yet heroic "Dayton" (Matt Anderson).

The playwright may have meant the metaphorical significance of puppetry to run riot over the show; I can't be sure. The lessons "Pretty Boy" absorbs from "Doc" Markos and Dayton become somewhat preachy, it's true. And there is a lot of tying up of plot ends in the second act, including the guard's unlikely explanation to "Pretty Boy" of the reason for the lockdown alarm.

The puppets used, as directed by Patrick Weigand (who also headed the construction team) are marvelously crafted creatures. They support in every respect the show's reliance on the value of healthy illusions. But manipulation in a good cause can be just as limiting as the other kind.

I think we are meant to feel "Pretty Boy" has achieved a kind of liberation at the end. The question remains: How much does "Pretty Boy" ever command sufficient inner resources to take some control over his situation? We are asked to believe that he brings long-hidden resources of his own to bear, but is he mastering puppetry, or has puppetry mastered him?

I was left with the impression that Andy Black was more intent on displaying his control as creator over his characters. The grand finale of the puppet show that makes up this two-acter's final scene buoys us up. It also suggests that whatever positive messages we internalize are pulling our strings. They could be the unseen hand that makes manifest our actions and thoughts just as much as those private demons we struggle to suppress or defeat. In that sense, as Elvis sang 60 years ago in a song that's part of the show's sound design, everybody is dancing to the jailhouse rock.