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 seems to play, 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.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Urbanski puts an aptly severe stamp on the consolations of the Brahms Requiem

Collaborations between the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra — two organizations with
Expert choral preparation: Eric Stark conducting in rehearsal
a long history together but structurally independent — are always eagerly anticipated.

Not too many years ago, we heard John Nelson, who considered sacred music for chorus and orchestra a specialty, lead the same forces in Brahms' "German Requiem," which ISO music director Krzysztof Urbanski conducted Friday night. The warmth the former music director imparted to the music on one of his rare returns was expected, and welcome.

But I also found attractive Urbanski's more chaste concept of the oratorio, with warmth being a standard quality of the ISC under the guidance of Eric Stark. Thus, there was nothing lacking in the consoling atmosphere essential to the work. Yet there was also no overemphasis on its color or drama; spectacle is best left to the liturgical requiem settings by Verdi and Berlioz. A rare exception: the end of the sixth movement, with its text being familiar from the culmination of Handel's Messiah, certainly sounded more "fortissimo"  than Brahms' typically restrained "forte." Indeed, the extra oomph may have encouraged a premature outburst of applause from parts of the audience that hadn't read their program notes. There was one more movement to go, of course, and its subdued quality is essential to the work's meaning.

On the whole, Urbanski was scrupulous about dynamics and tempos. He didn't apply unindicated ritards to concluding measures and he kept the occasional glow of brass subsumed within the orchestral fabric. The flow  of relatively independent lines, as in the fugal conclusion of the movement that aroused an intrusive ovation, was kept clear, with no orchestral detail allowed to poke out. The ISO's current music director favored a rhythmically enlivened interpretation, to which the large chorus was unfailingly responsive.

The oratorio's moments of excitement are judiciously placed, and conductor, chorus and orchestra rose to those occasions when required in the first of two performances under Urbanski's baton at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The "drama" in Brahms' Requiem is simply a matter of the contrast between mourning and sobriety on the one hand and the promise of relief and causes for celebration on the other. The overall tone never departs far from lightly theological reminders of the brevity of human life in the embrace of an overarching deity whose supremacy guarantees that loss and mourning are not what life is about, despite appearances.

This is a good place to raise a few oddities about the projected English translation of the scriptural excerpts chosen by the composer from the Luther Bible, the traditional standard for German Protestantism. It was a little jarring to appreciate baritone soloist Michael Kelly's extensive solo in the third movement ("Herr, lehre doch mich"), with its anguish vividly expressed, while reading a translation of the opening lines that appeal to God to teach the psalmist that "my life has a purpose, and I must accept it." This sounds kind of Rick Warren-ish or New Age-y to me. Where's the death anxiety? The context requires something on the order of the King James Version's "Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is, that I may know how frail I am." Or, to more directly render the German version: "...that my life has an end, and I must go hence."

The translation used seemed to be either too literal or too liberal, and more or less reliant on the Authorized Version,  but inconsistent about it. It was amusing later (to me, a former trombonist) to read the supertitle of Judgment Day being announced by "the last trombone," when the trumpet is of course the instrument all scripturally familiar English-speakers associate with the event famously prophesied in I Corinthians.

While on the subject of guest soloist Kelly, who struck the right note emotionally in both his solos — the worried one at first, the prophetic one later — there was an odd moment in the sixth movement when he kind of snuck back from his chair to the front of the stage, after the chorus had shouted about the resurrection of the dead, to indicate the meaning of all that with the words "Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written," by way of introduction to the chorus' thundering questions: "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" It was a startling effect, reminding me of when the immortal Oliver Hardy used to re-enter a scene he'd just left in a huff, wagging a forefinger and saying sternly: "And another thing..."

This weekend's soprano soloist, Christina Pier, was quite effective in her one appearance, the fifth movement's "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit."  I liked the way she regulated and intensified the fervor of certain words, to make the divine promises of "Trost" (solace) and "Freude" (joy) seem all the more real.

Stark's chorus performed with its usual polish and, as mentioned above, warmth of expression. I missed more tenor strength here and there, but particularly one place where a strong tenor section seems essential. That's in the opening movement, when the tenors are the first choral section to follow the sentence subject "They that sow in tears" with the radiant predicate "shall reap in joy." That very phrase is key to the uplift promised in this beloved work, and to hear it sung anything less than robustly detracts a little bit from a rendition of the Brahms Requiem. Nonetheless, this performance was one to treasure, right up through the final hushed iterations of "selig" (blessed).

Friday, April 21, 2017

HART emerges into a new phase as Indianapolis Shakespeare Company

In its ten-year history, Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre has secured for itself a firm niche in the Indianapolis theatrical
Vision-bearer for Indy Shakes: Diane Timmerman

What a concept!  With three principal pillars of financial support, the organization has been able to offer one Shakespeare production every summer — fully professional, and free of charge to audiences at White River State Park.

Now, in search of a more forthright identity and eager to avoid further confusion in the public mind with the Heartland Film Festival, the company, headed by Diane Timmerman, has recast itself as the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company and given itself a nickname, Indy Shakes.

It has a new website and this year will continue the tradition that gained many fans under its previous name on July 27, 28, and 29 with "As You Like It," directed by company member Ryan Artzberger.

I will not wax rhapsodic about that supernal comedy here, as Artzberger did so far more authoritatively and directly Thursday evening at a Cyrus Place fund-raising event inaugurating the company's next stage.

To prepare himself to make his local directorial debut, Artzberger told the gathering, he sought advice from directors this season at Indiana Repertory Theatre, where he frequently performs. He said what they offered him boiled down to advice that, to best meet the difficulties of readying a production as director, he should "keep returning to what you love about the play."

He proceeded to enumerate what he loves about "As You Like It,"  and my notes are too sketchy to do justice to what he said.
Ryan Artzberger as actor at work in a HART production at White River State Park.
But I remember how he lifted up the fact that its central character is a woman and how the play compares life to theater, and, significantly, that it rejects building walls as opposed to "building a longer table." There were about a dozen points in all.

All of these insights were enough to add to my eager anticipation of this show. I also think, without much to back me up except my own imagination, that the play's central character, Rosalind, is one of two Shakespeare women it's impossible to imagine being played by a boy, as female parts always were in Shakespeare's time. The other is Cleopatra.

There's something so essentially female — and thus, to this man, strange, attractive and extraordinarily rich and exotic — about Rosalind and Cleopatra as to make any production of "As You Like It" or "Antony and Cleopatra" worth going to great lengths to see. And here's a potential great one of one of them in the offing.

Before Artzberger spoke, Timmerman mentioned Indy Shakes' long-range plan to find another home besides White River State Park, which has many advantages but continues to run into the increasingly packed schedule of music shows at the Lawn nearby, plus the unavoidable effect of the audience having to look into the sun for the first act. Another park might serve as the company's future home, or a place in the redevelopment of the idle GM Stamping Plant nearby, she said.

Oh, and there have also been interruptions from fireworks at a not-so-idle site nearby, Victory Field. Timmerman credited Artzberger with being the most resourceful actor at taking note of the Indianapolis Indians feature during performances while remaining in character.

All kidding aside, Timmerman said that the "organizational infrastructure needs to be brought up to the artistic level." Well, given what we've seen in the latter category over the years, that's a lofty goal indeed, and should keep her and her board busy.

Charles Lloyd and his simpatico colleagues, aptly dubbed the Marvels, deepen his legacy in Palladium concert

Charles Lloyd has pursued his own brand of "fusion" for several decades now. It shows no signs of being dated, as demonstrated by the saxophonist-flutist's concert Thursday night at the Palladium.
Charles Lloyd has mesmerized audiences for decades.

He connected with massive rock audiences in the 1960s, but it was through the lyricism and open-endedness of his music, not through the kind of high-octane outreach that borders on pandering. We won't make jazz that will furrow your brow, he seemed to promise.

That seems to be his approach still in 2017, as the 79-year-old musical guru from Memphis tours with the Marvels, an ensemble fully in tune with his spacious, enveloping approach to making jazz that endures. Maybe Lloyd's floating discourses sounded even better with cannabis once upon a time, but who needs artificial stimuli when a master is at work, rooting his unique message in many years of pertinent communication?

The personnel of the Marvels amounts pretty close to an all-star aggregation.  Yet nothing heard in the Carmel concert was really about stardom, despite the presence of Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal-steel guitar, Reuben Rogers on electric bass, and Eric Harland on drums. Sure, there were solos, with some predisposition, naturally, to showcase the leader. But in a real sense, Lloyd and the Marvels are an incarnation on their own terms of the Weather Report watchword: Everybody solos, and nobody solos.

The music exploited the guitar-rich texture of the band without overloading it. When it comes to the fusion label, the outreach is more toward genre than instrumentation. What I heard at this concert (regrettably, I arrived late) had the quality and straightforward address of folk music, principally from the Caribbean and the Southern U.S.  Pedal steel is of course heavily associated with country music, but the band's grasp proved to be unconstrained by generic limits.

The knock on Lloyd used to be that he played tenor in a kind of watered-down John Coltrane manner. This description woefully shortchanges his individuality: He gets around the horn with some of the "sheets-of-sound" breadth of Coltrane, but the sound and the dynamic variety is his own. The ornamentation is fluttery and deftly applied. He measures out intensity judiciously, and doesn't go in for honking, squeaking or split tones.

You can relax as you listen to him, which doesn't mean the effect is bland. Lloyd doesn't sound like anybody else, really. His style partners particularly well with Frisell, a master of atmosphere who calmly and consistently rejects placement in any particular bag.

The other players proved equally compatible. Rogers avoided funky-bass cliches, interacting smoothly with Frisell and giving unforced stature, sweetness, and clarity to the music's foundation. Leisz applied the keening, flexible line of his instrument subtly but with crucial import as a lyrical complement to the leader. Harland could lay out a groove or become almost painterly in the way he used his drums and cymbals. And a further grace note to the band's sound was Lloyd's deep-dyed songfulness when he picked up the alto flute.

The Marvels: For once, a band name that may be an understatement.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Maria Schneider communicates her vision to Butler students in ArtsFest program

Maria Schneider with one of her Grammy Awards.
Sensitive to the environment in more than her declared values, Maria Schneider is an active birder in addition to being a celebrated composer and arranger working with distinction in the jazz orchestra idiom for more than 20 years.

The Minnesota native, honed by close associations with Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer in early adulthood, was a guest of Butler University's jazz program this week, capped by a concert appearance Wednesday night at the Schrott Center.

She led the Butler Jazz Ensemble, a big band under the direction of Matt Pivec, at a concert that was preceded by a wide-ranging conversation with Rich Dole. a trombonist and teacher who was to provide a vital professional voice on bass trombone at the concert. That's where the interest in bird-watching was addressed with enthusiasm.

Dole's musical contribution came during a performance of "Bird Count," an up-tempo blues with which Schneider said she used to conclude Monday night performances by her orchestra at Visiones in New York City. The Butler student musicians gave a good account of the piece, with the patented Schneider slip-sliding harmonies and section glinting off section as the catchy theme and related choruses churned along. It was up to Dole to take the final plunge into the bass-trombone basement at the end, and he made it thrilling.

To start things off in the Schneider segment of the program, there was the aggressive "Dance You Monster to My Soft Song," titled after a Paul Klee painting that captivated the composer many years ago. The delightfully prickly piece brought forth barbed splendor from the band; particularly spicy were the drumming of T.J. Schaff and a muttering electric bass solo by Isaac Beaumont.

Schaff was impressive as the drummer in another 1994 Schneider composition, "Green Piece," and seemed particularly responsive behind Sam Turley's tenor saxophone solo. The performance also featured a well-judged piano solo by Michael Melbardis.

The best extended solo was contributed by Zack Weiler on baritone saxophone, who made a poignant showcase for his instrument and for Schneider's reflective side on "Walking by Flashlight," an instrumental version of Schneider's setting of a Ted Kooser poem, which the guest artist read before the performance. That was the most recent (2013) Schneider composition, and made for an effective contrast to a second 1994 "monster" piece that preceded it, "Wyrgly," which featured outstanding solos by tenor saxophonist Eric Wistreich and Jake Small's buzzing, roaring, wailing rock-inflected guitar.

The whole set of five pieces, whose renditions drew lavish praise from Schneider, gave ample evidence of her qualities as both composer and teacher. Her music tests developing ensembles and provides encouraging settings for  student soloists learning to make their way distinctively. "I give people interesting things to play in solos that will carry the piece to an interesting place," is the way she put it in her chat with Dole.

Before Schneider's entrance, Pivec guided a peppy old-school flag-waver by Fletcher Henderson, popularized by the Benny Goodman band 80 years ago, called "Wrappin' It Up." That followed brief sets by two student small groups sketching in classics from other eras: Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite" and "Billie's Bounce," Benny Golson's "Stablemates," and Roy Hargrove's "Strasbourg-St. Denis."  Giving an extra measure of professional polish and energy to their performances was veteran Indianapolis saxophonist Rob Dixon.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

With alarming resonance for today, TOTS has a political drama covering 30 years up to 2009

Calm before storm: Colin Ferris arrives at his mother's Georgetown home with his fiancee, Anna, welcomed by his aunt Jean.
What may have caused the collapse of an elite political class — self-appointed guardians of liberal democracy — receives family-drama scrutiny in "The City of Conversation."

Theatre on the Square has a production of the Anthony Giardina play on Stage 2 through April 29. The show takes a distinct turn toward melodrama in the unpalatable choice presented to the main character, a Georgetown hostess connected to Kennedy Democrats in their waning days. Nan Macy plays Hester Ferris over three decades of unsettling change. The character will not seem particularly sympathetic, even to avowed liberals of 2017, because she's distinctly a snob with blinders on about the fault lines in American society that were to elevate Ronald Reagan to the White House and now — dare we say it? — Donald Trump.

But to mention No. 45 gets us a bit ahead of ourselves. "The City of Conversation" doesn't flash forward past the inauguration of Barack Obama in his first term. There's a note of hope for the now-elderly Hester Ferris; a devastating family rift has been partially healed and the political pendulum seems to have swung back in her direction.

This production meets the challenge of sketching in the inside-the-Beltway tensions between the twilight of the Carter presidency, through Reagan's heyday at the time of the fight over the Robert Bork nomination to the Supreme Court, and up to the high point of the "audacity of hope." The Bork controversy of 1987 represents the milestone past which bipartisanship went into free fall.

It's certainly the fulcrum of this play's action. To sum up without getting cumbersome (a trait "The City of Conversation" doesn't entirely avoid), in 1979 Heather son's Colin is transforming himself from a young liberal firebrand to a Reagan conservative with the help of his wife Anna, a strong-minded young woman who takes a seat on the Washington merry-go-round more adroitly than her husband. Brought home fresh from study abroad at the London School of Economics, where she met Colin, she displays her moxie at a dinner party with Hester's beloved Chandler Harris and his Senate colleague George Mallonee. Her usefulness in the ascendancy of outsider conservatism, fueled by youthful energy, is confirmed. Heather already feels sidelined by what she takes to be a redneck regime after the glory days of Northeastern liberalism.

What emerges eight years later is a showdown between the peppery Hester and the savvy Anna over the Bork nomination. The production reminds us of the heavy artillery liberals brought to bear against Reagan's nominee with a recorded excerpt of Ted Kennedy's anti-Bork speech, which led an eventually successful charge against the nomination.

The TOTS production, directed by Jenni White, has its work cut out for it. The playwright borrows his title, we learn in the course of the play, from a description of Washington, D.C., by the novelist Henry James. This is a clue to Giardina's dialogue style, which has many Jamesian touches. It's not that he doesn't draw the characters realistically; it's simply that they tend to express themselves at the highest level of articulateness. The trouble with talky plays is that, however strongly the cast inhabits the characters and their motivations, their elaborate speeches can easily sink of their own weight.  Some of the pacing thus seems balky, and the cast is hard-pressed to match the emotional impact of what the characters have to say with their rhetoric.

Giardina is clearly trying to bring even millennials toward understanding the relevance of long-ago political celebrities and their causes. He is intense about detailing the personal costs that people often have to pay when they engage in political battles in which both careers and family life are at stake. There's a ton of name-dropping in the script, and it's packed into the dialogue in a clear attempt to indicate how the people you know and what they can do for or against you are all-important in Washington and its once-influential Georgetown section.

Shouldering most of these burdens creditably are Macy as Hester, Carey Shea as Colin and Colin's son Ethan as a young man, and Emily Bohn as Anna Fitzgerald. They have their hands full trying to keep Giardina's sparks flying. A long second-act dialogue between Hester and Anna takes forever to build (at least as seen Saturday night) and by its climax, the audience is likely to feel wrung out by all the liberal-conservative jousting for mortal stakes.

In that sense, there is a good deal of success to be credited to this production. Maybe we are supposed to feel wrung out, but in a dramatically positive way. Yet the turning point in this central battle is frankly melodramatic: private relationships blow up over public matters — a temptation of many fictional attempts to deal with capital controversies. On the plus side, the audience is likely to be grateful for an explosion so clearly defined after having to engage with so much talk leading up to it.

TOTS' choice of this play in our fraught political atmosphere makes sense, and a lot of its impact is certain to be the parallels audiences will naturally draw with the seemingly unbridgeable divides of the Trump Era. Sad!

Ball State jazz professor Scott Routenberg issues a fetching trio CD

Scott Routenberg
The "shuffle" button on any CD player I've owned goes untouched. With recordings, I'm pretty much a stickler for the chosen order, just as I am with books of short stories or volumes of poetry. I figured the authors (and people they trust, or editors who are paid to be trusted), have a reason for a particular order and believe that the work of art they are delivering is best appreciated in that order. The same with jazz CDs; with classical CDs, it's out of the question that multi-movement compositions should ever be subjected to "shuffle."

So, I must enter a quibble about the track order, and (in the case of one piece) even the inclusion of a particular track, of Scott Routenberg's excellent CD "Every End Is a Beginning" (Summit Records). The Ball State University professor has released here the work of his current trio, including drummer Cassius Goens III and bassist Nick Tucker, and  in every sense  I can recommend it heartily.

If explicit dedications to family members can be illuminating, I would like to have heard "Polyglot," a tribute to his multilingual wife, open the CD.  Its four cycling chords frame a lot of variety, including choruses in which a driving tempo is relieved by four-to-the-bar swing. It's the sort of piece that one can clearly see enfolds the complexities of one's life partner. And "Polyglot" is a fine introduction to the rapport of this quartet. I say this even though the coda, with bass and piano in a repeating frame of mind as Goens' drums drive mightily forward, seems too long. But it would be easier to take this as the opening track than it is in second place, where it rubs shoulders with the also relentless "Melt." The latter is a different kind of composition, more explicitly blues-based, but I'd like to hear it separated from "Polyglot."

That's why I think "Florian," dedicated to the composer's son, with its affectionate mood and simple high-register lyricism, would have been perfect in second place on the CD. "Polyglot" would make for a better introduction to this able group.

From that point comes a parade of pieces whose order is unexceptionable, notably the title track with its amiable, countryesque feeling and the elaborately "clocky" "Tempus Fugit." This is very adept trio playing, and writing that suits the personnel. As the disc moves toward its second half, there are some very striking pieces. The glinting verve of "Seven Shooting Stars," a good example of a fast tune with a stop-start theme that allows all three musicians place a premium on nimbleness, is capped by another one of those codas, but variations in the piano riff make the addenda seem more directed toward a goal.

Then comes "Embrace," just about perfect as a representation of ballad playing for piano trio. With Goens' sympathetic brushwork and a Tucker solo one would like to put in a gold frame, Routenberg spins out long, logical phrases with plenty of emotional impact behind them. The performance has a transparent, spacious quality. These musicians sound supremely patient with the material and with each other.

By reading the program notes, I gathered that two tracks away — ending the disc — was another ballad. "'White Veil' will have to be awfully good not to be overshadowed by 'Embrace," I said to myself. Well, it isn't, and I've listened to it a couple of times. It seems kind of "afterthoughty." It drifts pleasantly enough and has characteristic Routenberg touches, the kind of mulling over that allows all manner of prettiness to be mounted upon it.

The piece that comes in between — Bj√∂rk's "Joga"—  is a wholly successful jazz appropriation of a modern pop tune. I like the richness of the patterning from all three players, especially Goens' drumming, which sounds roughly as if tissue paper had been placed on the heads. This choice and its arrangement amounts to an arresting departure that works well.

To sum up about track order: Either "Embrace" or "Joga" would have made a great ending to "Every End Is a Beginning." But maybe I ought to muse on that title some more.  For the time being, though, "White Veil" tempts me to hit that "shuffle" button to see if I could enjoy it more someplace else in the program. Otherwise, I will just have to get used to the given order, and the completeness, of what the Scott Routenberg Trio has provided.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Spoofing the vanity of opera singers, 'Too Many Sopranos" takes the stage at Butler ArtsFest

For the self-obsessed diva of legend, the phrase "too many sopranos" translates to "two sopranos." The outsize egos of women (and men) gifted with extraordinary advantages in the vocal department have long been part of the international opera scene. Fandom has fed them. Just as President Trump likes to speak of "my military," a diva may well talk about "my Carmen," "my Traviata," etc. And she doesn't just mean how she does the leading role. She means the whole production.

Eddy and Macdonald: Icons made fun of in "Too Many Sopranos."
There is room for just one luminary at a time in the estimation of many stars — and their fans. The castrati of the 17th and 18th centuries attracted maniacal devotion. One aristocratic lady added to acclaim for one of them with the near-blasphemous shout: "One God, one Farinelli!"

The stories are legion. Richard Tucker upbraided a newspaper interviewer who claimed to be a big fan for insufficient representation of the tenor's discography in his record collection. "You are not a true Tucker fan," sniffed the feisty bantam from Brooklyn. And then there are the schedule-shattering star indispositions: a critic of my acquaintance once joked that he used to think "Teresa Stratas" was Greek for "to be announced."

"Too Many Sopranos" is an operatic confection shifting this interplay of egos to the hereafter. In Butler Opera Theatre's current production at the Schrott Center for the Arts, the student cast goes full bore into the caricature portrayals — particularly the sopranos I saw opening night Friday: Julia Gries as Dame Doleful, Whitney Cleveland as Miss Titmouse, Chloe Boelter as Madame Pompous and Andrea Tulipana as Just Jeanette.

With music by Edwin Penhorwood and libretto by Miki Lynn, "Too Many Sopranos" involves the divas' deal with St. Peter to recruit more men for the heavenly choir so that the ladies can each have the niche in paradise they so richly deserve. They are charged with going down to hell to rescue male singers, who tend to disproportionately end up below. To be successful, that effort will require one selfless act — a tall order for the egotistical divas. Laurel Goetzinger directs the show, drawing from her singers performances that do justice to both their voice types and the characters' individuality. James Caraher is the program's artistic and music director.

The rivalries made explicit in the first act seem to draw upon the pitched battle for pre-eminence between Madamoiselle Silberklang and Madame Herz in Mozart's "Impresario."  And in the second act, when a sweet romance that's blossomed between Just Jeanette and Nelson Deadly promises to fulfill the selfless-act requirement, they have to undergo a trial of their worthiness, like Tamino and Pamina in "The Magic Flute."

But "Too Many Sopranos" is borderline farce, and Nelson and Jeanette simply must stay awake for an hour while listening to
Did actors nod off when he spoke?: Orson Welles, director.
the droning instructions of Orson, a stage director whom Penhorwood and Lynn have probably assigned to hell to settle personal scores. The character names underline the satirical and cultural resonance of the show, particularly when photos of Orson Welles, Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy are projected on the backdrop.

Tulipana's Jeanette is fully invested in the ingenue portrayal, with a certain sparkle in her facial expressions and both sincerity and clarity in her singing. The other divas are sometimes stunning in ensemble and occasionally so in solo passages as well. Cleveland tosses off the coloratura type with flashes of brilliance. Boelter, with very explicit costuming boosts, has the stateliness and ferocity of Brunnhilde. Gries projected the gloomy charisma of any number of tragic opera heroines. I did think, however, that when Dame Doleful sang of her signature "moaning and sighing," we could have had a touch of the estimable Joan Sutherland's moaningly blurred diction, but that's not an easy trait to imitate.

Alana Jones measured up in a crucial supporting role as the Sandman, and Sarah Miller was amusing as an off-pitch, eye-candy soprano warbling "Caro nome" from 'Rigoletto" into the ears of a long-suffering tenor, Enrico Carouser,  costumed as the Duke of Mantua, nicely portrayed by Benjamin Holbrook. Other men taking care of the comic business and singing well were Patrick Lord-Bemmert as a Mephistophelean bass envious of tenors, Malachi White in a flowery impersonation of an Eddyesque tenor, and Jeremiah Marcele Sanders as the commanding figure of St. Peter, a role also involving a large portion of spoken dialogue.

Sung text is projected in surtitles, which is helpful. The sets (by Bart Simpson)  for heaven and hell are neatly coordinated with Cathy Sipe's evocative lighting design.  Guy Clark's costumes flesh out the operatic and otherworldly visual cliches that are vital in putting across the amusing superficiality of the story and its satirical thrust.

The music, conducted with elan by Matthew Kraemer,  is voice-friendly and true to the operatic styles that "Too Many Sopranos" subjects to mockery.  The small orchestra supports the singers efficiently, with flecks of wittiness throughout. Penhorwood's music in the second act is excessively dependent on tango numbers, however, or maybe upon that Argentine dance's close relative, the habanera. Carmen, who sings the most famous habanera in opera, is spared the work's satire; there are apparently not too many mezzos in heaven. But then, one of the most flamboyant Carmens was the soprano Maria Callas.

Stereotypes have a nagging persistence about them. This show has a lot of fun with that perennial fact and its manifestations in the world of opera..

Friday, April 14, 2017

Am I sensitive about aging? Only when someone two years younger than I is called "aged" — this is a kind of protest song

An aged, aged man Last night I wasn’t dreaming when I heard a lawyer vow To get due justice from United For his client, Dr. Dao. For his client, Dr. Dao. That battered doctor on the plane Is all of sixty-nine; So when his lawyer called him “aged” Some of his pain was mine, Some of his pain was mine. The word burned in my hairy ears, And through my brain did run: With “aged,” death had found his sting, For I am seventy-one, For I am seventy-one. Next time I fly, please keep an eye On a passenger soon to be “late”; Don’t leave that aged, aged man A-sitting at the gate. A-sitting at the gate. He’ll muse upon the White Knight’s song That’s known as “Haddock’s Eyes” And plead with youngsters everywhere: Don’t scorn, empathize! Don’t scorn, empathize!

Anne Mette Iversen expands quartet to get two horns in the front line for "Round Trip"

Out in the open: Anne Mette Iversen with her quartet.
The most striking thing immediately about "Round Trip" (BJU Records) is that bandleader-bassist Anne Mette Iversen eschews the usual way of combining trombone and tenor sax in a small group. Typically such a presentation is muscular with the two horns acting as a phalanx, warm and assertive.

In "Round Trip" Iversen has Peter Dahlgren on trombone to play lines typically in counterpoint with the sax— freewheeling, sometimes joined at the hip, sometimes not. This provides an unexpected openness to the ensemble, signaled right off the bat by the title tune. Dahlgren is the "+ 1" filling out the ensemble known here as the Anne Mette Iversen Quartet +1, whose other members besides the leader are John Ellis, tenor saxophone; Danny Grissett, piano, and Otis Brown III, drums.

Iversen's originals don't allow the ears to settle into any particular combination among the five musicians. Trombone and drums get "Segue" under way, and after Ellis' and (outstandingly) Grissett's solo, the piece moves into exchanges between piano and tenor sax. Ellis' ease in all registers gets extensive display in the rubato opening of "Wiinstedt's View," a floating ballad featuring Dahlgren's poised, at-home-up-high trombone.

The bassist imparts to her group an open feeling through her writing. In "December Light," the unison line etched by the horns blossoms into a feeling of reaching out as the piece proceeds. There's a sense of throwing off constraints without the need to go "outside" as far as harmony and articulation are concerned. A rare solo by the leader distinguishes "Scala," in which everyone moves together as an ensemble. The Iversen showcase is well-placed: "Scala" is Italian for "ladder," and of the instruments involved here, the double bass most resembles a fretless (or rungless) ladder.

There's sly wit behind the title of "The Ballad That Would Not Be," insofar as the music seems to be reaching toward a ballad that's never fully formed. A long piano solo toys with this burgeoning idea, and would try the patience if the title hadn't already disarmed criticism. "Red Hairpins" closes the disc; it's the longest piece, with heavy percussion display from Brown over a laconic piano riff. The ensemble re-enters with some brisk staccato statements, and before you know it, the Anne Mette Iversen Quartet + 1 has made a graceful exit.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Laurence Hobgood and two young colleagues play a fascinating trio set at the Jazz Kitchen

A commanding presence at the keyboard, Laurence Hobgood is not otherwise much given to commandments. Distinguished
Besides his activity as a gigging pianist, Laurence Hobgood devotes much time to writing.
for collaboration as an arranger and composer, the Chicago-based pianist was long known as the artistic right-hand man to the singer Kurt Elling. One is not concerned with handing down stone tablets when one consistently has "plays well with others" checked off on the report card.

Hobgood borrowed Ten Commandments language for last year's trio release, "Honor Thy Fathers," taking it on a Midwestern tour that brought him and two young sidemen to the Jazz Kitchen Wednesday night. The title indicates the series of tributes the CD contains to mentors, often pianists, who have been available to Hobgood either personally or by reputation and recordings. In the long set he offered with colleagues Ben Ralston on bass and Stephen Boegehold on drums, the pianist invariably passed his homages through a personal creative filter.

For example, he prefaced a performance of "Give Me the Simple Life" with a brief demonstration of how Oscar Peterson used to play it in the Canadian's signature manner of juggernaut swing. Then Hobgood proceeded to offer a much different approach, not nearly as thick-textured as Peterson's, with a touch of bitonality and, after the bass solo, a long coda in which the trio shifted into a loping meter evoking cowboy songs, in an obvious nod to the song title.

Speaking of (and through) other genres than jazz, Hobgood is invariably fluent. He declared his loyalty to jazz updates of the post-Great-American-Songbook repertoire before using a reflective opening cadenza to set up the trio's performance of "Wichita Lineman," one of  Glen Campbell's huge hits.

It's likely that Hobgood's rapport with the late Charlie Haden stemmed from his openness to musical traditions outside the jazz mainstream. One of the Jazz Kitchen set's most attractive pieces was "The Road Home," a tribute to the bassist who embraced both his country musical roots and the post-bop avant garde.

"The Road Home" has a strong, funky bass line (thundered out nicely by Hobgood and Ralston) underlying a tune that rolls out like a country ballad. Hobgood's tribute insight is well-grounded: In some sense, all of Charlie Haden derives from his solo on "Ramblin'" with Ornette Coleman in 1960's "The Change of the Century." He quotes, or at least paraphrases, "Ol' Dan Tucker" near the end of this solo, and the reference amounts almost to an artistic credo, in light of the bassist's subsequent career.

Other tributes using other artists' tunes had the same independence. Stevie Wonder's "If It's Magic" was treated to a lickety-split treatment, fully engaged with the tune but very much tailored to this trio's virtuosity. Ralston tossed off some great fast-walking accompaniment, and Boegehold contributed a typically protean solo.

Hobgood seems to like long codas, and they have the effect of extending the affection offered by his statements and elaboration of the main theme. The tribute to Ahmad Jamal focused on "Poinciana," the nimble version that stands out for most people from the best-selling "Live at the Pershing" LPs.  The trio continued its creative approach through all the repetitive figures of the coda, keyed to more adept drumming by Boegehold. Nat "King" Cole was saluted with a soaring version of "Straighten Up and Fly Right."

And in this time when so many are seeking "Sanctuary," the trio offered Hobgood's hymnlike composition of the same name. The tune itself opened its arms wide, and the trio's dynamic shading was admirable. Hobgood casts a wide net, and the catch is abundant.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Dame Evelyn Glennie, a percussionist with a unique story, is guest artist at Butler ArtsFest

Evelyn Glennie last appeared in Indianapolis in 1998.
The nature of musical performance as focusing on keen hearing is self-evident. The career of Dame Evelyn Glennie is a testament to a larger meaning of music as tactile and spiritual. Given the swift, progressive loss of her hearing as a child (total since age 12), she found a way to distinguish herself as a percussionist, expanding the very idea of hearing, and keeping her artistry before a worldwide public.

Almost 20 years ago, her performance of "Veni Veni Emamanuel" with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra acquainted me with the special magnetism of a Glennie performance. The piece is by her Scots countryman James MacMillan.

For her second visit to Indianapolis, Glennie played the composer's transcription of Jennifer Higdon's 2005 Percussion Concerto with the Butler University Wind Ensemble. (Colin Currie played the original version with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which co-commissioned it, about a dozen years ago.)

The work calls for the soloist to show a range of tone control as it starts with a marimba cadenza. The transition to vibraphone
was arresting as the ensemble joined in. Directed by Michael Colburn, the performance spotlighted the charismatic zest typical of Glennie's performances.

Performing barefoot and relying on the senses of sight and touch to fill in the gap left by her auditory deficiency, Glennie is capable of not only keeping her rhythms precise — her dialogue with the percussion section at midpoint was thrilling — but varying as well dynamics and tone color. An outsize cadenza on tuned drums moved the performance of Higdon's concerto to a climax.

Before Dame Evelyn came to the Schrott Center stage, Colburn conducted a performance of Gustav Holst's strolling "Hammersmith: Prelude and Scherzo," op. 52, that proved to be an aptly conservative program companion to the Higdon concerto.

The first half opened with another illustration of the program title "Dialogues, Debates, and Dichotomies" with the stinging, somewhat facetious energy of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Overture to "The Wasps." The Frank M. Hudson transcription was wholly winning and idiomatic as performed by the large contingent of student musicians.

For the concert's other 21st-century representation, the ensemble played Steven Bryant's involving suite inspired by the poetry of W.B. Yeats, "Ecstatic Waters." The piece proceeds from an evocation of primordial nature, keyed to the lower instrumental voices, and proceeds to a tense stage of conflict with technology. There's a lot of musical chatter, eventually yielding to a clarinet solo that brings in a steady pulse under the ensemble, fused to computer sounds. In the long run, flute sonorities cap the piece and the calm of Yeats' "Spiritus Mundi" achieves some sort of synthesis of the contest between nature and technology.

"Dialogues, Debates, and Dichotomies" had more than alliteration to offer in upholding the mission of the annual Butler ArtsFest.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Drew Petersen wins the 2017 American Pianists Awards' DeHaan Fellowship

Drew Petersen, winner of the 2017 Christel DeHaan Fellowship.
The  2017 American Pianists Awards' top prize — carrying a $50,000 cash prize and entailing much career assistance over the next two years as Christel DeHaan Fellow of the American Pianists Association — went Saturday night to Drew Petersen, a 23-year-old from Oradell, New Jersey,  and a master's degree candidate at the Juilliard School. The announcement capped two days of "Gala Finals" with five candidates for the award each playing a major concerto.

After three public series of events over the past seven months, Petersen and four other young pianists were assessed by three juries, culminating in Discovery Week, which included a new-music recital, a song recital, and chamber-music performances in addition to the concerto evenings at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Petersen impressed me with a strongly projected performance of the commissioned work, Judith Lang Zaimont's "Attars" on Tuesday night at the University of Indianapolis (which now gets to call him artist-in-residence starting in September).

At Christ Church Cathedral on Wednesday, he gave a superb account of a two-movement Beethoven sonata (No. 22 in F major, op. 54) that displayed an astute individualism with integrity and insight. Even more impressive were the heights to which he and the Pacifica Quartet took Franck's Piano Quintet in F minor at the same concert.

Most daring and commanding of all was Petersen's playing of Prokofiev's thorny Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra on Friday, playing under the direction of Gerard Schwarz.

Though he approached everything he played with evidence of thorough preparation, there never seemed to be anything rote or mechanical about his playing. He should confer further honor upon this splendid Indianapolis artistic tradition.

American Pianists Awards' Discovery Week enters the homestretch

With the torrential coda of Brahms' Piano Quintet ringing in everyone's ears, the Chamber Music Series of the American Pianists Awards wrapped up early Friday afternoon. The glorious tumult opened the door to that evening's "Gala Finals" concerto concerts with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra just across Monument Circle at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Alex Beyer played some exciting Brahms with the Pacifica.
Alex Beyer was the last of five finalists to collaborate with the Pacifica Quartet in chamber music at Christ Church Cathedral, just as he will be the last to display his large-scale concerto chops tonight at the second "Gala Finals" concert. After the jury deliberates, the winner of the Christel DeHaan Classical Fellowship will be announced, closing out the classical competition for another four years (the American Pianists Association's jazz piano contest comes in between, two years from now).

I can't do better than to quote Melvin Berger's description of the Brahms work's conclusion: "an unrestrained whirlwind of orchestral sonority." Beyer and the excellent Pacifica players — violinist Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violist Masumi Per Rostad, and cellist Brandon Vamos — came fully up to the mark. Earlier, the blossoming quality the musicians imparted to the first movement was exceptional: A haze that could be taken for slight imprecision was actually reinforcement of the three-against-two rhythmic simultaneity beloved of the composer.

The second movement carries the intriguing heading "Andante, un poco adagio." It means roughly "going or walking, but a little bit slowly," and this performance represented that direction perfectly. Gustav Mahler in his symphonies often advised "nicht schleppend" (not dragging). In this movement of Brahms, a little "schleppend" is just the ticket, and it was wonderful how subtly that pace was applied. The crisp energy of the Scherzo was full-bore. (The Pacifica's new Cedille recording of the work with its Indiana University colleague Menahem Pressler is disappointing only in this movement — it's a little too mellow. Yet the recording is well worth attention because the nonagenarian pianist doesn't otherwise show his age.)

Beyer's solo piece in the noontime concert was an earnest, stylish account of Haydn's Piano Sonata in C Minor, Hob. XVI/20.

Henry Kramer shone in the Ravel G major concerto.
For the internationally webcast debut of the Gala Finals that evening, the always charming Ravel Concerto in G major got the concerto performances off to a fine start. Henry Kramer had plenty of ginger in the outer movements in partnership with Gerard Schwarz's conducting, which brought forth full use of Ravel's shrewdly deployed palette. Everyone had suavity and sass to bring to the table where those qualities were applicable. There were several fine ISO solos, notably from Roger Roe on English horn in the second movement, which is like a massage chair for the spirit. And oh, that harp! And that E-flat clarinet in the finale!

Drew Peterson showed mastery in Prokofiev's 2nd.
Sergei Prokofiev will be heard from tonight, when Beyer is the soloist in the third concerto. That's a beloved repertory staple; his Concerto No. 2 in G minor, which Drew Petersen played Friday, is most definitely not. Much of the frankly rebarbative quality that was noted with distaste at the work's premiere more than 100 years ago still clings to the music. There is no slow movement; the closest thing is the third movement, Intermezzo, which the eminent Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter likened to "a dragon devouring its young."

Sam Hong caught the dreaminess and dash of Rachmaninoff.
Petersen, an artist of fearless temperament, showed that the four-movement monster holds no terrors for him. There are march
episodes in the first and third movements that actually seem among the more settled parts of the composition. The first-movement cadenza requires powerhouse energy straining at the leash. Petersen did not let loose the dogs of war, but came daringly close. The finale revisited the rhetorical extremes of aggression, a quality Prokofiev would pull back from once he returned to the Soviet Union for the rest of his rather short life, which ended on the same day as Josef Stalin's. The finale comprises some respite in a quite Russian-sounding, lyrical theme; once again, there's a startling cadenza. Petersen and the ISO were appropriately rough and ready to put across this product of Prokofiev at his most modernist.

After intermission, it was Sam Hong's turn to reset the concert on more familiar ground: Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor. The piece, which features Rachmaninoff's endearing characteristics of romantic sweep and gentle pathos fully in flower, called forth the finalist's insightful, unfussy manner and allowed him to show off his fleet technique and limpid tone. The title of the old pop song drawn from the instantly memorable tune in the finale — "Full Moon and Empty Arms" — encapsulates part of this concerto's perennial appeal. But that doesn't say it all, as Hong and the ISO made abundantly clear in their captivating performance.

Friday, April 7, 2017

David Hochoy welcomes Virginia colleagues to share program with Dance Kaleidoscope

Todd Rosenlieb's "Heavy Like Waits" opens this weekend's program.
Dance that uses music I don't know and immediately dislike is fine with me. A case in point hit the Indiana Repertory Theatre stage Thursday at the start of "DK & Friends," Dance Kaleidoscope's latest attempt to share the stage successfully with other artists.

The impact came from Todd Rosenlieb Dance's "Heavy Like Waits," a piece using the songs of the sui generis rocker Tom Waits. There's a whole swath of pop music I'm just not familiar with, and a lot that I know somewhat but don't like well enough to download or slip into the CD player. Waits is way on the fringes for me.

Regardless, what I really want to see in contemporary dance is what a choreographer (via the dancers) does with music he/she has chosen to filter through a personal sensibility in dance terms. The music used can even fit under John Rockwell's useful bare-minimum definition of music as "organized sound." I want to go along with its transfiguration into dance.

A touch of grace in the Rosenlieb program through Melendez's "Voiced."
So, bring on choreographed Tom Waits, whose voice can be succinctly described as that of a man who has just downed a bottle of whiskey — not just the contents, but the bottle, too. About half the Virginia company's personnel were involved in "Heavy Like Waits." Former DK member Ricardo Melendez did the costumes, which are redolent of the street and the eccentricity one often finds on society's margins.

Rosenlieb dares to meet Waits' grit and studied sloppiness on their own terms. The half-dozen overcoated Rosenlieb dancers swirl about and strut and slouch. The general vibe is quite robust, with lots of reaching out and grappling movement as Waits' mordant take on life thunders along. Essential to the movement are the overcoats, helping to underscore the freedom and lack of crispness embodied by the dancers. There's a hint that these people are not much concerned with hiding anything (the coats remain unbuttoned), but the meaning of the coat pretty much stops and starts with its value as an extra moving thing. The coats are sometimes taken off and waved or dragged. True, there are hardly unavoidable "flasher" gestures, but the choreography keeps the menace and assault on the senses thoroughly in line with the music. Again, it's pointless to grit your teeth against such music when such creative use is made of it.

This arresting piece was one of three Todd Rosenlieb Dance introduced to DK's patrons. Melendez as a choreographer, in addition to being a costume designer full of fresh ideas, was evident in a trio for women, "Voiced," to music by Meredith Monk, a pioneer in new concepts for the singing voice. The women's movement was sensitive to the occasional overlapping of the recorded a cappella vocals, without any mickey-mousing. Counterpoint seemed as fully within the Melendez purview as phrasing and rhythm. The dancer's arms often made hoops and "covering" motions in a way that reinforced the comforting intimacy of Monk's music.

"Suite Sammy" saluted Sammy Davis Jr. to conclude the Rosenlieb portion of the show.
For the conclusion of the program's first half, Rosenlieb has two women and a man move with stunning versatility around four plain chairs to three songs performed by Sammy Davis Jr. "Suite Sammy," with some glitter in the women's costumes (again by Melendez) suggesting the entertainer's contribution to Las Vegas in its heyday, made for a thoroughly fitting finale. It showed off another aspect of a troupe probably few Hoosiers knew before. The sense of delight and ceaseless pizazz captured the multifaceted charms of Davis. An emphasis on the rhythmic snap of his singing was particularly apropos — Davis was himself a dancer, and though he puts a lot of feeling in "Here's That Rainy Day," the middle song of the suite, Rosenslieb stresses the swing more than the sentiment, which seems just the right choice.

In the second half, other DK friends supplemented the program. To recorded accompaniment, Doug Dilling sang feelingly a love duet for Stuart Coleman and Timothy June. "End of the World" is a song emphasizing the durability of a relationship that masters its tensions, and Hochoy's choreography in this new piece incorporates those tensions smoothly while underscoring a hard-won fidelity. The performance carried out the scenario elegantly.

A 1999 tour de force, "Skin Walkers," has been revived this weekend, bringing back electric violinist Cathy Morris to ornament a score by T.H. Gillespie and L.E. McCullough. With the experienced DK team of Laura E. Glover (lighting) and Cheryl Sparks (costumes) contributing immeasurably to the work, Hochoy's piece is a masterly celebration of community energy and mutual responsiveness. The music often relies on the Celtic idiom, turned blazingly electronic as it spotlights several of DK's best dancers in solos while continually allowing the troupe to command the space exuberantly. An episode bathed in glowing amber light was particularly breathtaking. But the whole piece served to crown a fascinating evening of dance and, yes, music I might not want otherwise to hear.

[Photos by Freddie Kelvin]

Thursday, April 6, 2017

APA Discovery Week concert: With the Pacifica Quartet, Steven Lin makes magnficent work of Dohnanyi's precocious quintet

As the fourth finalist to play a Chamber Music Series concert this week, Steven Lin showed some more of the individuality that I found remarkable in his playing at the American Pianists Awards new-music concert on Tuesday evening.
Steven Lin displayed his personality through Schumann and Dohnanyi.

But that didn't keep him from being an adroit, simpatico chamber-music partner of the Pacifica Quartet in Erno Dohnanyi's Piano Quintet No. 1 in C minor, op. 1. The ensemble sound was consistently solid. The pianist wasn't pressing to carry his contribution to the very edge; rather, to fold it within a collective artistic whole.

It was impressive how well the slow movement hung together — an Adagio of such lingering charm that it's understandable Dohnanyi just didn't want to let go of it. The rapid exchanges in the Scherzo were polished and precise, and the collaboration seemed so delightful all around, it's no wonder Lin and second violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson exchanged satisfied smiles after the final hushed chord.

The last movement of this achingly romantic score has the teenage composer in full display, showing off everything he could command from his novice muse. The rondo theme of "Finale: Allegro animato" presents a strong profile, but the episodes between its welcome return are also first-rate — especially the fugal section and the ingenious blend of a waltz with the rondo statement. The clarity the five musicians achieved throughout never got clouded in the strenuous course the music has to run without overheating.

There was time for only one solo excursion in Lin's program: Robert Schumann's Symphonic Etudes, op. 13, with the interpolation of four "posthumous" variations. After a portentous start with the theme, Lin showed unflagging skill in giving independent life to all the etudes; among them, the fluttery third, the "hunting-horn" fifth (Schumann romping over some of his favorite kind of terrain), the trenchant sixth, the elfin ninth.

The "sotto voce" opening of the the eleventh etude was a nice touch — a subtle signal of the drama to come — and at its conclusion, the confident progress of the finale (Allegro brillante) had all the variety one could want. Lin imparted a majestic snap to its dotted rhythms and evenly voiced chords right up through the final accented arpeggio. The crowd in Christ Church Cathedral predictably voiced its enthusiasm, as it was also to do after that splendid quintet.

Butler Theatre enters university's ArtsFest examining attention deficits and surpluses in 'Love and Information'

The first scene of "Love and Information" is a skirmish about secrets.
Recalling the parade of theatrical squibs and sketches in Butler Theatre's "Love and Information" as best I can, what leaps to  mind first is the show's only song.

I saw the student production of Caryl Churchill's 2012 play in a preview performance Wednesday evening in the Lilly Hall Studio Theatre. The British playwright's work is fleetingly satirical in its deadpan scrutiny of how we process, retain, and distort the flood of information we subject ourselves to.

Yet, as the title's first word makes clear, the contemporary difficulty of doing so reflects and amplifies the age-old woes of love — its manipulativeness, its self-protective strategizing, its withholding and sharing of information, and the emotional cost of all this, topped by inevitable misunderstandings.

About that song*: It seems to satirize the singer-songwriter phenomenon. A recorded piano accompaniment, ostensibly played onstage by a character who says he can't play the piano, meanders soulfully behind the singer's tracing of a melodic line's attempt to find a catchy tune. One of the lines runs: "Eternity stinks, my darling, and that's no joke."

How very singer-songwriter, I thought. Later, it occurred to me the line is an up-to-date gloss on a famous 17-century poem, Andrew Marvell's  "To His Coy Mistress." It's not a far-fetched comparison, in that the poem is a declaration of love chock full of information, ranging across time and geography as it attempts to close the deal, disarming the mistress' coyness. Eternity does indeed stink, when considered under the aspect of love: "...worms shall try / That long preserved virginity / And your quaint honour turn to dust / And into ashes all my lust."

Successful seduction involves capturing the attention of the desired person and holding it through rhetorical appeals. Seduction, like rhetoric as well, has come down in the world (viz., the "Access Hollywood" video and the rhetorical ADHD of its protagonist). Resisting distractions, deliberate and otherwise, would seem to be essential. Today, our connectivity — the multiple fruits of technology — makes distractions meat and drink to us.

Churchill's play thus moves distractions front and center. The segments contain no development. They comprise a stunning array of lengths and clarity: A seated, withdrawn woman resists interaction, and that's that. Another enters with a partial recitation of the "sevens" multiplication table. Those are on the short side. There are relatively lengthy episodes of conversational wheel-spinning, some trying to find solid ground beneath shifting perspectives on intimate relationships, a few addressing intellectual and political disputes.

The ability of the show's dozen student actors to invest fully in these sketches is remarkable. The audience's understandable curiosity about where a particular interaction is going is thwarted time and again. Eventually, being repeatedly blocked like this imparts a rhythm to the show that is oddly satisfying. If we keep at it, we become one with the intrepid Alice in "Through the Looking-Glass," parrying Humpty Dumpty's quibbles and holding on to common sense like a lifeline.

William Fisher directs the cast, giving each scene a spatial integrity and a firmness that's belied by the puzzles every one of them throws at the audience. The smoothly coordinated movement of the actors is complemented by Connor Avery's lighting. Projections on the backdrop reinforce some of the sketches. Video close-ups of varying intensity play games with our feeling of closeness to the dialogue. These shifts speak to the range of difficulty we may have interpreting what people mean, even when they are close to us emotionally as well as physically.

The changing role of memory in today's world is filtered through the Churchill prism impressively. One of the larger ensemble sketches has characters fascinated by the video of a wedding; one guest wonders what there would remain of that experience if not for the video. Another sketch draws upon a mnemonic device from ancient rhetoric: "the palace of memory" or "loci" (places), in which what one must recall is ordered through the imaginative placement of things in rooms of a building one is familiar with and revisits in order. When love interferes with that ordering of information, as a character suddenly sees her father in the bedroom in the disturbing emergence of a memory she didn't know she had, the usefulness of the device disintegrates.

"Love and Information" begs for interpretation through a Borgesian lens. Jorge Luis Borges is the literary icon of cultural and personal memory. Two things he wrote may assist in absorbing this adept production. One is an aphorism: "Love is a religion whose god is fallible." The other provokes an even more disturbing thought: What if our world of distractions, our shortened attention span, compromises both love and intellectual function? At the end of his short story "Funes the Memorious," Borges writes: "To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence."

 How much immediacy do we need? There's got to be a limit. Love also seems to require a level of abstraction and generalization, so we don't become bogged down in parsing every thought and action of those close to us, opening up countless paths of irrelevance, like the woman who receives a bouquet in "Love and Information" and falls into a long, arcane monologue about the meaning of color. The universe of digitized information may be an all-devouring trap, like the potential of the world's spiders (which I've recently learned about through various media) to consume all the world's people.

Enter this show to the original twittering (of birds) and watch your video reflection, dimly lighted across from you, before the show starts. Then get ready to sink into the mysteries of distraction and for a labyrinthine conversation with Humpty Dumpty.

[*I took the song to be Churchill's creation and a touch of satire relevant to her theme. Director William Fisher informed me on April 6 that the song is in fact Elvis Costello's "The Birds Will Still Be Singing." I can only plead my overall ignorance of pop music of the past 40 years. I decided to let the mistake stand rather than correct it in the text. Critics' mistakes are not rare, and are deplorable in various degrees, depending on one's view of critics. When preparing to review "My Fair Lady" recently, I listened to an old LP of the movie soundtrack. Inside was a program note by Brooks Atkinson, the dean of American theater critics of the past mid-century. He had attended and lauded the musical's premiere. In text presumably checked over by him and others before publication, he quotes a line in one of the most famous "My Fair Lady" songs as "The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain." Even Homer nods.]

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Discovery Week Chamber Music Series: Drew Petersen and Pacifica Quartet have lofty rapport in Franck Quintet

With such a piece as Cesar Franck's Piano Quintet in F minor, there's a sense in which the listener has to be just as prepared as the performers.

A preposterous notion, no? The work is not all that hard to "follow," and the composer's language is somewhat familiar, even if you don't know any other Franck but the Symphony in D minor.

Drew Petersen and the Pacifica Quartet soared to the heights of Franck.
But the mastery Drew Petersen and the Pacifica Quartet displayed in a noontime performance Wednesday at Christ Church Cathedral seemed to ask for — and receive — full commitment to the experience from all who heard it. Those cyclical themes and motifs, that sinuous chromaticism, the almost disturbing, turbocharged energy poured out in the first and third movements, the mixed-message cooling off in the middle movement! Far too much there for even sporadic indifference on the part of the listener! And everyone at this American Pianists Association concert seems to have signed on for the expedition.

The question-and-answer opening is bound to arrest the attention — strings first, then piano. Petersen imparted an almost hesitant quality to the piano's presentation of its calling card. It's as if the piano announces: I'm quite amenable to dialogue with these people, but I will engage on my own terms, thank you. Expressively as well as formally, however, the quartet and the pianist are charged with finding common ground and holding on to it with all their might.

And so they did. The slow first part of the opening gave the Pacifica plenty of opportunity to heighten the music's emotional profile without forcing — just as they do in their excellent accounts of the Shostakovich quartets on Cedille. Combined, the musicians were consistent in flexibility of dynamics and tempo. Petersen was touchingly eager to keep coordination exact, looking over frequently to the quartet — at phrase beginnings, at every tempo adjustment, sometimes even when note values markedly shifted at the same tempo.

Petersen never stinted on letting the piano ring out, as it did thrillingly when the finale moved toward its all-enveloping climax. The first pianist to play the Franck quintet must have indeed had his withers wrung. It's reported that the patrician grand maitre of French music, Camille Saint-Saens, turned and strode offstage when the composer entered after the 1880 premiere to greet the performers. As I suggested above, you've got to be in sync with this piece emotionally in order to embrace it. The Pacifica Quartet and Drew Petersen certainly were, and they brought the audience along with them.

Earlier, Petersen's dexterity and evenness of touch were well displayed in "La Leggierezza," one of Liszt's Three Concert Etudes. So was his keen sense of following the music's rhetorical import through the kind of textures that tempt a performer to get lost in luxuriant undergrowth.

The pianist opened his solo program with Beethoven's Sonata No. 22 in F major, op. 54.  The composer who turned the symphonic minuet into the more emphatic scherzo here signals with the heading "Tempo d'un menuetto" that little besides the tempo and the meter of the courtly dance form needs to be retained. Accordingly, the assertive opening was followed up boldly here. Petersen's control was immaculate, as shown by the steady diminuendo on repeated chords near the end of the movement. The second and final movement was fleet and amply nuanced, again revealing the exactitude that seems to come naturally to him without ever turning mechanical.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Henry Kramer plays Schumann with the Pacifica Quartet, also making Spanish connection through Scarlatti, Albeniz, and Ravel

Henry Kramer doesn't fuss around the edges of the music.
The sounds of celebration that animate the twin climaxes of Isaac Albeniz's "Fete-dieu a Seville (Corpus Christi in Seville)" sure sounded wonderful in the lofty acoustical space of Christ Church Cathedral in Tuesday's noontime recital.

The partnership of milieu and musician reached its height there, in
one of the solo pieces American Pianists Association's Classical Awards finalist Henry Kramer performed. In addition to its evocation of church bells, the character piece from Book 1 of "Iberia" also has a section of reverent contrast that brought out the directness and sensitivity of the finalist's lyrical side.

The lyricism, and the ability Kramer showed in modulating it to carry out its expressive function best, was also evident in a companion piece from Albeniz's "Iberia," the haunting "Evocacion (Evocation)". When the initial well-knit melody made a floating return appearance, the effect was magical.

The Spanish side of composers not native to the country was displayed in Ravel's "Alborada del gracioso" from "Miroirs" and in Scarlatti's Sonata in D major, K. 96. The latter work, opening with a fanfare motif, received a crisply articulated performance, with wistful touches in a secondary theme and brief detours into the minor mode as it went along. All of this concise variety was laid out without fussiness, exactly how the concise binary sonatas of this expat from Italy should sound.

The Ravel character piece (whose title translates as "Morning Song of the Jester") confirmed my impression that Kramer characteristically is keenly engaged in his repertoire without affectation. This quality made the plaintive episode in the middle particularly effective.

Similarly, a pianist with this degree of straight-from-the-shoulder playing can make more of the big climaxes in ensemble work, because the excitement seems earned, not slapped on. That came to the fore in Kramer's playing with the Pacifica Quartet of Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-flat major, op. 44. The torrential sweep of the conclusions to the first and fourth movements, and the energetic coda of the third (Scherzo: Molto vivace), were thoroughly satisfying. True, there was a rough launch of the fugato episode the first time around in the finale, but all that was fixed with the five musicians' full statement of the same material near the end.

All the finalists this week benefit from collaboration with the superb Pacifica Quartet, now quartet-in-residence at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. As on their excellent recordings for Cedille, in concert the Pacifica offers pinpoint coordination and evinces an energy and warmth that glows. To cite just one example from its work Tuesday, the viola melodies that make the slow march of the Schumann second movement so heart-tugging were memorably performed by Masumi Per Rostad. Other members of the Pacifica are violinists Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson and cellist Brandon Vamos. Their contributions to these free noontime concerts are among the glories of Discovery Week, and should not be missed.

American music, including a new piece, occupies American Pianists Awards finalists

A prismatic perspective on a new work emerged Monday night as five finalists in the American Pianists Awards offered their interpretations of Judith Lang Zaimont's "Attars," the commissioned competition piece of the current contest.

Judith Lang Zaimont
The composer's imaginative rendering of something difficult to translate from olfactory to auditory reality — the five essential oils — makes up a seven-minute piece that enthralled each time it was performed in the DeHaan Fine Arts Center at the University of Indianapolis.

The rules of the new-music recital require contestants to spend 15 minutes performing, with free choice among American works for solo piano filling up the time not required for the competition piece. So the companions to "Attars" ranged widely across a spectrum of music each 2017 finalist thought would show himself off well. The programs are assessed along with the Gala Finals Friday and Saturday by a five-person jury, resulting in the award of the Christel DeHaan Fellowship, a two-year honor including a cash prize of $50,000 and artist-in-residence designation by the University of Indianapolis.

The composer's indication that pianists may make choices in the attar order (a phrase that's as much fun to write as it is to say) accounts for only a few differences in the performances. To start with the first two, splashes of figuration early in the work evoked Debussy when Sam Hong played them, Liszt when Henry Kramer performed the same episode.

Steven Lin used lots of pedal and always seemed mindful of resonance, putting auras around chordal passages. He was unique in de-emphasizing the concluding "blue note" in a signature phrase of a jazzy attar description, linking it instead to the following phrase. But such matters are neither here nor there without knowing if they're endorsed by what Zaimont wrote.

Alex Beyer made much more of the waltz evocation than the others. On the other hand, maybe I was hearing that suggestion more vividly by the time he performed. He was the fourth of the performers on the Ruth Lilly Performance Hall stage.

Drew Peterson's projection was strong from the start, and the blues portion was especially assertive.

Of the five, I would award the palm to Beyer in "Attars." Yet I have to give Lin lots of credit for (apparently) taking his interpretation to the outside, being the boldest in individualizing his performance. The disadvantage with this kind of judgment is, when just becoming familiar with a piece, hearing such different takes as Kramer's and Hong's first and second, and back to back, keeps the listener from deciding who has come closer to revealing its essence.

On the rest of the mini-recitals: Leon Kirchner's knotty "Interlude II" toggled beguilingly between fast and slow, agitated and subdued, sometimes within the same phrase, as Hong introduced me to it. I would fault his program only for not having a third piece to construct a sort of three-legged stool for his artistry to rest upon. Lin, for example, featured only one other composer, but his traversal of six George Gershwin songs from the Song Book (1932) displayed so much variety that a fuller assessment of him was possible.

The composer's note in that publication advises: "The more sharply the music is played, the more effective it sounds." I'm guessing Gershwin meant "sharp" in the sense of a "sharp dresser" — someone with flair, an assertive attitude, on the verge of dressing "loud." In any case, there was a little too much teasing and coyness in Lin's interpretation for me. This was a fussy dresser in many places, too self-regarding to come across as straightforwardly "sharp." Yet I was thrilled by Lin's "I Got Rhythm," especially when that bold ascending line in the bass gave way to a final statement of the tune poked out by the left-hand index finger.

Kramer's choice of Aaron Jay Kernis' "Morningsong and Mist" and Lowell Liebermann's "Presto feroce" movement from "Gargoyles" displayed exemplary variety. The former had a mesmerizing, mystical touch; the latter was characteristic of Liebermann in what might be called his "heavy-meta-Rach[maninoff]" manner. Both were outstandingly brought off. Kramer seems to have the ability to define just what he's about directly and no-nonsense, in the manner of Ashkenazy and the early Van Cliburn.

William Bolcom's "Nocturne" from "Twelve New Etudes, Book II" was Beyer's arresting choice of a centerpiece. He displayed control of tone and touch in a work whose repeated soft pattern is punctuated with accented single notes whose initial isolation takes on the appearance of a melody. Elliott Carter's "Catenaires" concluded Beyer's program brilliantly. The "clarity and dash" I noted in his playing in his Premiere Series concert were put to the test here. Beyer aced it. The application of those qualities was welded to technical mastery with astonishing bravura.

Peterson's entry after the Zaimont was Earl Wild's Virtuoso Etude on Gershwin's "The Man I Love," an adaptation that opened with a chorus for the left hand only and went on from there to collect too much lace and sugar. The conclusion to his mini-recital (and to the entire program) was much more satisfying: Samuel Barber in a rare grandstanding mood with the fourth movement — "Fuga: Allegro con spirito" — of his Piano Sonata in E-flat minor, op. 26. The layering and contrast of fugal voices, and the mastery of tone color, was astute throughout.