Sunday, October 29, 2017

Staging interventions: Phoenix Theatre's 'Barbecue' seesaws on race, dependency, and ambition

There's an unusual cast list in Phoenix Theatre's program for "Barbecue," a trenchant comedy by Robert O'Hara that opened this weekend: Character names are omitted, as if we were about to witness a revue, where roles are fleeting, multiple or necessarily
First scene: White siblings in a troubled family.
unattached to names. We come to find out that the roles refer to people who are playing roles; thus, names are unreliable indicators of the reality behind the play.

That's just the start of the potential confusions, which clear up fitfully in the second act. To find the experience of "Barbecue" satisfying, you have to be prepared to hold big questions about race, family, and identity in abeyance. Not to worry: There's a Hollywood ending, and though it's somewhat unsettling, it does what such endings have historically accomplished — provide a definite resolution that is either superficial or profound.

The first scene is jarring: a dysfunctional white family has gathered under a park pavilion, jawing at each other, cussing a blue streak. When I saw it Saturday, the dialogue appeared to be badly written: Who pronounces "goddamn" "gat-damn," and why is there something else odd about what appear to be Southern accents, namely subject-verb agreements that resemble black English: "he go," for example?

Why the piling on of multiple addictions among these close kin? We seem to be in the realm of white-trash caricatures, recalling recurring productions years ago at the neighboring Theatre on the Square. Reaching back even further, I thought of James Thurber's old parody of Erskine Caldwell's "Tobacco Road" and "God's Little Acre" — Southern Gothic turned particularly grotesque — in a piece called "Bateman Comes Home." There, the first character presented, Old Nate Birge, is pictured as "chewing on a splinter of wood and watching the moon come up lazily out of the old cemetery in which nine of his daughters were lying, only two of whom were dead."

"Barbecue" presents us with this sort of raucous humor in a contemporary setting, where human degradation in the big city can be met with planned interventions: scripted invitations, with teeth, for a particularly troubled family member to agree to elaborately designed rehabilitation far away. There's one such person in this scene, known as Zippity Boom, who is also so named and situated in the second scene, which features a black family with parallel identities.

Second scene: Black siblings wrestle with similar problems
It's racial specificity without racial interaction, then, by which O'Hara departs from the usual dramatic handling of race on American stages. The interaction is put off until the second act, when the two Zippity Booms, neither of whom is who she appeared to be in Act 1, encounter each other in the same park pavilion (Bernie Killian's evocative set design) and get to know far more about the other than either one — as well as the audience — could ever have suspected.

The "parallel identities" I've referred to allow the black family a somewhat more florid and intense confrontation with the
The Zippity Booms engage in wary dialogue.
family member judged to be most in need of intervention. I began to think their internal difficulties and the way the three sisters and a brother express their neediness and focus it on the fourth sister sounded more natural and more involving. What baroque ferocity, special pleading and finger-pointing flourish among the black family!

There are three possible explanations for this: Seeing the white family first enabled me to get used to the strain on family bonds nearly shattered by conflict in the wake of various addictions. As a result, the way the black siblings express their needs and frustrations sounded more bred in the bone and less cartoonish. And that second explanation led to the most uncomfortable one: As an elderly white man, I was inevitably more disposed to assign drug-dependent internal strains to a black family than to a white one.

The third explanation is the most disturbing, and it's clear O'Hara deliberately created similar situations affecting the two families in order to arouse audience responses that reflect racial discrepancies. At any rate, unsettling and puzzling perceptions set in place by intermission are thoroughly exploded in Act 2. That's where the truth of everything presented before is put into question, and new truths emerge.

The tense second-act negotiations between the women with the Zippity Boo personas effectuate a storybook epilogue that opens out a saga of family peril toward an indictment of America today.  O'Hara shows how the machinations of celebrity and the tendency of the public to be enthralled by tales of private chaos can serve each other on the most conspicuous level of mass entertainment.

The comic effect of that result has been planted in everything that precedes the final scene. Every touch of hyperbole in how the families treat each other is built upon a reality we're not allowed to understand until late in the action.

It remains here only to applaud the fascinating characterizations and high-stakes rapport among the ten actors under the direction of Bryan Fonseca. They are Joanna Bennett, LaKesha Lorene, Jeffery Martin, Brianna Milan, Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha, Angela R. Plank, Beverly Roche, Chelsey Stauffer, Dena Toler, and Jenni White.

They present bleak caricatures rewound painfully toward a reality that's then catapulted into the big-screen American mother of all caricatures. Hooray for Hollywood! Gat-damn!

[Photos by Zach Rosing]


Saturday, October 28, 2017

Augustin Hadelich probes to the heart of Britten's Violin Concerto in ISO appearance

Creative artists react to the outside world in ways that eventually wrench the focus away from the situations that moved them
Mutual admiration society: Shostakovich and Britten in 1966.
toward the art itself. The artistic product then has to be a tub that rests on its own bottom.

Two such compositions by composers who late in life became friends across the formidable Cold War divide were Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich, both of whom are represented in this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program.

The Spanish Civil War tended to draw artists to the Republican side, whose anti-fascist promise was deeply compromised by the Communist shenanigans George Orwell scrupulously describes in "Homage to Catalonia." The British writer's experience of the conflict eventually produced better-known literary warnings in different genres: the satirical fable "Animal Farm" and the coruscating futurist novel "1984."
Robert Motherwell's "Elegy to the Spanish Republic," one of a series.

Britten's sympathies were largely anti-fascist in what amounted to an Iberian workshopping of the cataclysmic drama of World War II. As a pacifist, his deepest response could only be one of sorrow, and the result was his Violin Concerto, written in 1939 when Francisco Franco's victory was fresh and lamented by the international left. American abstract painter Robert Motherwell launched a series of paintings titled "Elegy to the Spanish Republic," which could serve as a subtitle for Britten's searing concerto.

Augustin Hadelich, 2006 gold medalist in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, has since received an Avery Fisher Career Grant and was just named Musical America Worldwide's Instrumentalist of the Year. In my experience, he can always be counted on to give an illuminating, profoundly committed performance, ranging from the tangos he  played with a guitarist for the IVCI Laureate Series to the Stravinsky Concerto he played at Oregon's Britt Festival  three years ago.

With guest conductor Andrey Boreyko on the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium, Hadelich delivered a firmly centered, eloquent account of the Britten concerto Friday night. There was an almost larger-than-life characterization to the martial music that succeeds the main theme in the first movement. Some weakness of double stops in harmonics at the end proved to be the only departure from the soloist's excellence.

Augustin Hadelich by the Brooklyn Bridge, typical of his affinity for imposing structures.
The harmonics were much more solid in the cadenza that bridges the second and third movements. The left-hand pizzicato figures decorating the bowed melody were firm. The cadenza overall had monumental stature, leading into a passionate, rhythmically acute finale. That movement features the most portentous late introduction of the trombones since Beethoven's Fifth. It was among the glories of the orchestra's contribution to Hadelich's performance. Successive string entrances at one point in the third-movement passacaglia were enough to explain why Boreyko wanted a rare division of first and second violins on either side of him.

The orchestra shone throughout the fast second movement in particular, which contains some of the inspired gift for orchestration Britten was later to display in "Peter Grimes" and the "War Requiem."And Hadelich movingly produced well-paced marvels of lamentation on the way to the final double bar.  Then he offered a perfect encore, not seeking to break the mood but to complement it: the Andante movement from J.S. Bach's second sonata for unaccompanied violin. "Andante" means "walking," basically, and the violinist's tread was steady and unerring, the mood thoughtful.

Shostakovich answered expectations of a grandiose ninth symphony from Soviet authorities with a work that blends sardonic humor with frivolity and even flim-flam. The E-flat major symphony is flecked with high-spirited, sometimes whimsical orchestral solos. They were brightly performed Friday night by bassoonist John Wetherill, trumpeter Conrad Jones, flutist Karen Moratz, and concertmaster Zach De Pue. The orchestra caught the spirit throughout.

Marianne Tobias' program notes detail the shock with which official Stalinism greeted Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9. For the rest of us, it's salutary still to have such a piece among the more monumental Ninths that preceded it.  Whatever the composer's
Corky McCoy's cover for some street-wise Miles Davis music.
motivation, the music is an odd blend of celebration and mockery, almost cartoonish — in the manner of Corky McCoy's cover illustrations for several Miles Davis LPs. The comparison might seem far-fetched, but I feel Shostakovich was trying to connect with ordinary Russian people in this work, thumbing his nose at establishment expectations.

 Similarly, the jazz trumpeter wanted to reach the street with "On the Corner," "Big Fun," and other releases and had to buck the set-in-stone corporate notions of Columbia Records in getting approval for McCoy. In his Ninth, the less brash Shostakovich plays friskily with stereotypes, going a little folkish and even circusy, with a few sentimental episodes along the way. Both men knew their markets. Most people don't go about their daily lives thinking of ideology or uplift.

Shostakovich at his peppiest tends to derive from the "Allegro con spirito" of Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings," which has better material and a more concentrated, eventful structure. But the 20th-century Russian composer is a master of laying out sometimes so-so material across a broad terrain, even when he's working compactly as he does here. This performance was a treat, cheeky and refreshing.

The concert opened with Britten's arrangement for reduced orchestra of the second movement of Gustav Mahler's third symphony, "What the Wild Flowers Tell Me."  The performance had a nice range of pastels applied to the main material; the windy gusts that vary the theme were rather mild the first time around, but blew a bit more firmly upon their return. The arrangement makes for an inviting curtain-raiser to an unusual program, which will be repeated at 5:30 this afternoon.



Friday, October 27, 2017

Stuck in the past, sticking to his guns: John Strand's "The Originalist" illuminates challenges to and from Antonin Scalia


Madison and Hamilton have long been silent: Antonin Scalia is their self-appointed mouthpiece.
About a dozen years ago, Joseph Polisi, president of the Juilliard School, invited luminaries in several fields to participate in a panel discussion at the school. I first read about this lively exchange in the Juilliard Journal (which still arrives in the mail, thanks to my sons' past studies there), and remembered how provocative one of the participants' contributions were. He was Antonin Scalia, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. His fellow panelists were Renee Fleming, Stephen Sondheim, and David McCullough.

The Juilliard Journal of that era not being near at hand, I rely on a quotation from the New York Times account to provide me with a way into consideration of "The Originalist," Indiana Repertory Theatre's Upperstage production of John Strand's play, which I saw Thursday evening.

"The program reads like some kind of weird I.Q. test: 'Which of the following is out of place: diva, author, composer, lawyer?"' the buoyant jurist began, before characteristically answering his own question: "The main business of a lawyer is to take the romance, the mystery, the irony, the ambiguity out of everything he touches."

Henry Woronicz and Ayanna Bria Bakari are electrifying in "The Originalist."
Whatever truth lies in that description of his profession, there is enough there to indicate the problem facing the playwright and any production of "The Originalist." That's because Scalia was able to fit that description all too well when considering the law. And the vehicle he used to remove all those wonderful humanizing things from everything he touched was his conviction that the Constitution is not a living document, but a dead one, whose very permanence depends upon reading its text the way its creators did in 1787.

Art, on the other hand, would be lost without recourse to romance, mystery, irony and ambiguity. Strand has seeded his drama with those qualities and does an admirable job of pitting the rigid, narrow-minded Scalia against a feisty clerk, a young woman of color with an impressive academic background. Henry Woronicz plays the formidable judge; Ayanna Bria Bakari, his chosen antagonist, who calls herself Cat and is eager to broaden her left-of-center outlook by serving a man known for his love of argument.

The vexing question remains, however, whether Scalia is an appealing enough character to carry a two-hour show. Conservatives doubtless don't have to work at "humanizing" this dogged originalist, a role that Scalia proudly took on and hoped to take to the Chief Justice's seat, only to suffer bitter disappointment. Liberals, among whom I count myself, are generous enough, I hope, to accept Scalia's breadth as a human being, albeit with some difficulty. His love of opera helps, though in the first scene, the black-robed judge blissfully conducts a recording of the brindisi (drinking song) from "La Traviata," a song that declares "everything in the world is folly that is not pleasure." Needless to say, that was never a guiding principle of Scalia when he was about  his "main business."

Jeb Burris manages well the difficult wax-figure role of stuffy, scheming Brad.
Strand has captured the justice's hard-edged charm, but many people prefer charm that's laced with a less corrosive wit. The tussles between Cat and Nino (as friends and family called him) are animated and deep-delving. They are directed by James Still with pacing that is almost invariably rapid.

Law jargon is necessarily a part of the dialogue, but you won't need to know terms like "certs" and "stare decisis" to appreciate the interaction of judge and clerk that Strand presents, and which Woronicz and Bakari so warmly embody. Strand's artistic freedom allows him to pitch the drama on more levels than mere argumentation, as lively as that is. We learn that Cat's father, so vital to her ambition and perseverance, is dying. How that plays out in the Cat/Nino relationship falls into the spoiler category, so I'll leave that alone. Suffice it to say that the dramatic ebb and flow was skillfully fleshed out in Woronicz's and Bakari's performances Thursday night.

Controversies that still roil the nation were particularly pertinent during the Supreme Court's 2011-2012 term, when "The Originalist" takes place. Same-sex marriage was a powderkeg issue, and Scalia assigns his brash intern the task of preparing what is sure to be his dissent. To complicate her task, the playwright brings in a confrontational eager beaver named Brad, who idolizes Scalia and has been molded by the Federalist Society, of which Scalia was faculty advisor during his University of Chicago days just before Ronald Reagan appointed him to the Supreme Court.

Though played with stalwart energy by Jeb Burris, his is a thankless task, as Strand seems to have loaded on him as much villainy as possible in an effort to elevate the man Brad idolizes. It works:  in contrast to his epigone, Scalia is almost saintly, or at least godlike, like Mozart's Sarastro (whom Scalia assuredly venerated) or at least like Shakespeare's Prospero (Cat's suggestion). The mutual respect and understanding that Cat and Nino achieve would be much less believable without the repulsive figure of Brad.

Reuben Lucas' stage picture is glowing and gilded, with large portraits of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, chief authors of the Federalist Papers, written to sell the new Constitution to the American public. There's one image over each of the doors that are primarily entrances to the judge's chambers. I was struck by how the doors mask those founders' mouths, a deliberate hint that both men, as Lucas' program note has it, "are ever present in this world and, yet, are silent."

Indeed, the Federalist Papers describe and promote a system that barely resembles today's United States. They are essential to any American's knowledge of their country's basis. They are the beginnings of the midrash to the secular Torah that is the U.S. Constitution. In Scalia's view, they were not to be superseded, however. No more midrashim!

And this is my main difficulty with "The Originalist" and the Scalia heritage. Originalism is little more than bigotry's pixie dust: If you sprinkle it over all your prejudices and received opinions, you look like the ultimate patriot. I can't see how interpreting even a founding document so generally distinguished as the Constitution should not give some relevance to changing circumstances and to "the romance, the mystery, the irony, and the ambiguity" that inevitably enter the precincts of law when justice has to be applied and executed in people's actual lives.


[Photos by Zach Rosing]


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Tim Armacost advances the pianoless trio on 'Time Being' (but doesn't entirely shun the piano)

As the saxophonist with the New York Standards Quartet, Tim Armacost is used to approaching the tradition from an angle. And when he is not involved with standards, as is the case on "Time Being" (Whirlwind Recordings), he brings freshness along with compatible colleagues to small-group acoustic jazz, which is nowadays saddled with the label of "straight-ahead" and "post-bop."

Nothing could demonstrate the value of thinking "beyond category," in Duke Ellington's phrase, better than what Armacost achieves on "Time Being" along with bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts.  So listeners will readily appreciate that a label which sounds routine ("straight ahead") is inadequate, as is one that suggests the music may be derivative ("post-bop").

Tenorman Armacost and his trio mates, with pianist Dave Kikoski along for the ride on four tracks,  lift up the possibilities of simultaneous improvisation. This phenomenon is rooted in ancient New Orleans jazz, and has popped up occasionally since, with particular emphasis in free jazz and the performances of Ornette Coleman and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, among others. It unites players on a communal level of feeling the reigning vibe without ordering their contributions or establishing hierarchies of solo and accompaniment.

A triggering piece for Armacost to explore this kind of thing with Hurst and Watts was Coleman's "Lonely Woman." On this disc, the performance bursts out with fast-paced drumming over which bass and sax divide the theme while hewing to the plaintive slowness of the original. As the performance proceeds, the melody and effusions derived from it ramp up; Hurst and Armacost join Watts in restlessness. Ensemble unity is nonetheless sustained. You get the feeling, as happens often in "Time Being," of solid players revolving around an imaginary center. But the center is definitely there, a construct of ensemble rapport and devotion to the material. The title tune shows the musicians exercising the way different approaches, capable of flying off in all directions, can find ways eventually to jell that don't seem forced or willful.

Three  interludes, called "sculptures," uphold the idea of unity in diversity. The certainty that comes through in "Tempus Funkit" (Sculpture #2) never seems preordained, except by unspoken mutual understanding. The one that closes the disc, with the jokey title "All the Things You could Become in the Large Hadron Collider," is a close relative to what the New York Standards Quartet is all about. But the trio really takes apart and, in fragments, reassembles the original, Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are," moving skillfully toward a consonant conclusion.

Harmonically adventurous upon its modal frame, "One and Four" is Coltrane-esque without more than a hint of tribute to the tenor giant's classic quartet. Kikoski has a more delicate style than McCoy Tyner, quite suitable for keeping the reminders from being uppermost. And Hurst packs so much individuality into his solo without cluttering it that you'll momentarily set aside memories of Coltrane's excellent Jimmy Garrison.

My hands-down favorite track is one of the best interpretations I've heard of a Thelonious Monk tune that lifts up that titan's ability to groove you to death whenever he had a mind to. "Teo" is a highly charged rendition, with Hurst and Watts helping to drive Armacost to dizzying heights. Every moment of this performance is a treasure. Hurst gives an up-to-date vividness to the walking-bass manner of soloing. And exchanges with the drummer, so often an exhibition of taking turns, which is nice enough for grade-school playgrounds, enter a whole new territory here. It's as if Armacost and Watts are saying to each other: I'm going to use my turn to set you up for glory, and I know you'll do the same for me. And so they do.

For all the freedom with bar lines and interior rhythms that "Time Being" displays so well, the underlying swing is palpable throughout. In "Teo," it moves to the forefront and stays there. You might want to get up and dance to it, if you're not listening too amazed to move.


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Violinist Sam Bardfeld's 'winner image' challenges itself on 'The Great Enthusiasms'

Rhapsodic, freely questing violin playing out of tempo to open a piece called "Winner Image" typifies the trio disc by Sam Bardfeld called "The Great Enthusiasms" on the Brooklyn Jazz Underground label.
Sam Bardfeld gazes aloft, awaiting the next descent of whimsical irony.

It's revealing insofar as Bardfeld's unaccompanied violin displays the peripatetic pizazz and grit of New York in the 1970s and '80s, an era that the musician recalls in his liner notes for the CD. His mostly original music evokes the challenging environment of that place and time — a world that inspired the rough Rolling Stones song "Shattered" and where the cutting-edge street crime briefly involved fleet bicyclists ripping handbags off the shoulders of female pedestrians by the straps.

"Winner Image" presents Bardfeld as rhapsodic but faux-tentative, a player whose elaborations seem to range from mere noodling to a kind of punk coloratura. Drummer Michael Sarin lays down a taciturn cymbal pattern, which brings in the borderline bipolar playing of Kris Davis on piano. He digs in obsessively in some places, meanders reflectively in others. The music really grabs your attention toward the end of his solo, setting up the leaders' re-entry nicely.

The disc opens with "Fails While Daring Greatly," a phrase taken from a speech by Theodore Roosevelt appropriated with unintentional irony by his paranoid successor Richard M. Nixon in his resignation speech. Bardfeld finds the quotation "full of pathos and funny." Apart from remarking, editor-like,  that the descriptive language on either side of "and" should be transposed, I am inclined to conclude that Bardfeld's sense of humor leans too much toward offhand yet dogged irony.

The smoothly working trio strikes its ironic poses within a narrow range of tempo, which is a kind of lumbering common-time swing that accommodates the composer's disjunct melodic lines. It also spotlights the tendency of Davis and Bardfeld to talk to themselves in their solos, like the New York City street people the leader probably likewise finds "full of pathos and funny." That's a feature as well of the title piece (also derived from that Roosevelt/Nison paragraph).

The variety the trio finds within the music's narrow emotional framework and straitjacket pacing is remarkable. There is some perky textural contrast from time to time, as in the pizzicato chords behind the showcased piano  in "The 37th Time I Have Spoken."

A couple of adaptations of notable songs from the era's popular music are given idiosyncratic treatments: "Because the Night" by Bruce Springsteen (with whom Bardfeld has performed often) and Patti Smith and "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)"  by The Band. The latter performance swings more than usual as it almost settles down out of the trio's normal eccentricity into the bluesy/country groove of the venerated Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson et al.

"The Great Enthusiasms" is a disc characterized by adept performances, well-knit and clearly recorded, of music whose fey irony occasionally rankles and bores. You might say it's also funny and full of pathos.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The cymbal crash at the end: A meditation on last lines in poetry (in memoriam Richard Wilbur)


There is no good ending admits fade-out.
         —Geoffrey Hill, "Improvisations for Jimi Hendrix" 

Richard Wilbur: The image of his poems' cymbal-crash endings stayed with me.
Richard Wilbur died over the weekend, shortly before my greatly anticipated 50th-anniversary class reunion at Kalamazoo College next weekend. The coincidence has significant force for me because of a striking image suggested to me by a classmate more than a half-century ago.

When I first encountered Wilbur's work, I was a sophomore English major at K College. Something that she said about Wilbur's poetry — the best of which was fresh and modern in 1964 — has stayed with me. "I like the way his poems end with sort of a cymbal crash," she said.

I don't remember which Wilbur poems she cited, but I'm sure we had some of the same ones in mind.  "Advice to a Prophet," for example, with its formal stanzas warning a generic prophet against an exclusively human emphasis in the doomsday scenarios that were in the air then as now:

Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding
Whether there shall be lofty or long standing
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.

CH-issshhhh!

Or "Still, Citizen Sparrow," painting at first a contrast between the common life of the sparrow and the predatory one of the vulture, before moving to Noah's lofty perspective at the Ark's helm above the flood:

...Try rather to feel
How high and weary it was, on the waters where

He rocked his only world, and everyone's.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew; he rode that tide
To Ararat; all men are Noah's sons.

Chissssh!


Or what the soul says to the waking body in contemplation of clean laundry on clotheslines in "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World":

Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
                       keeping their difficult balance.

Chissssh!

The cymbal-crash resonance of poetic endings is no easy test of a poem's worth, however. And its perception by a reader may be too seductive. As a teen-ager, I probably overestimated two overanthologized poems because of how they ended, conclusions that noisily turned the key in the locks of two brief lyrics: E.E. Cummings' "Buffalo Bill's" and E.A. Robinson's "Richard Cory." The legendary showman and sharpshooter in Cummings' poem has passed on, so that the poet asks: ...and what I want to know is / how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death" and Robinson's debonair envied townsman who "one calm summer night / Went home and put a bullet through his head." I loved the airtight conclusiveness of those lyrics.

When we are first fired up by poetry, we may resist scrutinizing such definitive endings as gimmickry.  Later on, we assemble a repertoire of personal cymbal-crashes in last lines that seem better earned. William Butler Yeats was a master of them; no one could elude fade-outs better, as we know from the oft-quoted lines ending "The Second Coming," "Prayer for My Daughter," and "Sailing to Byzantium."

When a poet uses a refrain, he potentially dissipates cymbal-crash energy across the whole poem. That threatens the specialness of the final iteration.Yeats finds a way of making the last time special in "John Kinsella's Lament for Mrs. Mary Moore," because he contrasts the joys of the fallen world with prelapsarian grace in Eden, coming out in favor of the former. The last four lines:  "No quarrels over ha'pence there / They pluck the trees for bread. / What shall I do for pretty girls / Now my old bawd is dead?"*

Chissssh!

In older poetry, making a big deal over the last line fitted into the smoother rhetoric the Romantics developed. Today you don't get the kind of predawn view of any metropolis available to William Wordsworth of London in 1802. After sustained exaltation, the sonnet "Composed upon Westminster Bridge" ends, "And all that mighty heart is lying still!"  The poem has already been stuffed with wonder at the quiet city, but the last line tops everything. It does so  partly though its sound: All monosyllables except for two words with the open assonance of "mighty" and "lying."

Since the clash of cymbals is sound, the sound of lines with such clashes is not irrelevant. Another such is the close of Tennyson's "Ulysses."  Encouraging himself and his crew to undertake a final voyage, Ulysses ends his pep talk with "...that which we are, we are, — / One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

You can't resist that — you're ready to sail!

Nothing but monosyllables in the last two lines, capped by those thundering infinitives. You can almost hear a cymbal crash on each verb, not merely a strong accent.

As you come to admire last lines, you realize that a lyric poet is always fearful of fade-out, in a career as well as in a poem. This has resulted in great poems with cymbal crashes that feel a bit like tags. There is didacticism in the ending of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and Robert Frost's "Directive," two extravagantly admired examples of those poets' mastery. The detail in each is exquisite, but we can be made uneasy by the "directives" ending each of them, not just Frost's "Drink and be whole again beyond confusion," but also Keats' "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Only each poet's skill in building toward them seems to justify such sententious endings. You can feel other poets gauging their endings carefully, resisting tying a fancy bow on their gift. The famous conclusion of Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning" is a patterned cymbal crash in diminuendo. He could be more direct about it elsewhere, but indirection was his metier, and the gaudiness of his imagery seems designed not to put too much weight on a poem's conclusion. A notable exception is "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock," where muted,  glum color imagery gives way at the end to

Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

Cymbal crash! And also in the bleak lyric "The Snow Man." It's a cold cymbal crash, and it can make us uneasy about the poem as well as about Stevens' uncustomary explicitness. Evoking the feeling of a January wind near woods "That is blowing in the same bare place / For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."  A cymbal crash of nothingness.

Always something of a sport,  Stevens felt the hazard of majestic cymbals at the end; stuttering inconclusively, he ends "The Man on the Dump" with this: "Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the."

John Ashbery (1927-2017)
Ashbery, the other major American poet besides Wilbur who died in 2017, takes his peripatetic view over surprising terrain and tends not to follow the Stevens of "The Man on the Dump." Yet he dials down wavering intensity as he wraps up a loose-limbed lyric, ending with a finger snap or flick of the wrist in preference to a cymbal crash. But I can think of a couple that resonate for me with the echo of shimmering discs from the percussion section. "The Gazing Grain"* rises a little at the end, especially when the plainness of the last line is contrasted with the strikingly odd next-to-last one:

...We come back to ourselves
Through the rubbish of cloud and tree-spattered pavement.
These days stand like vapor under the trees.

Not a Wilburian cymbal crash, but still....

 Here's an odder one, and I can't account for in its effect on me. A distant castle, sprung up out of nowhere like so many things in Ashbery poems, "...weighs its shadow ever heavier on the mirroring / Surface of the river, surrounding the little boat with three figures in it." I have no idea why I find the final image so moving; maybe it's because humanity is somewhat intrusive and threatening throughout much of  "Voyage in the Blue,"* and at the end is comfortingly seen from a distant perspective.

Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016)
Finding a distant perspective from which to assess reality can lead even so expert a poet as Wilbur astray, however. In "The Death of a Toad," there is an ordinary suburban accident:  a lawnmower has caught a toad in the grass, now at lawn's edge with a leg fatally torn. The melodious final stanza, beautifully crafted, imagines the toad calling up a twilight vision of "lost Amphibia's emperies" — a descent into bathos unusual in Wilbur. As the poet-critic Randall Jarrell, whose admiration for Wilbur is evident in the New York Times obituary, once groused: "So it was only, after all, an excuse for some poetry."

It's also a cymbal crash, but perhaps Jarrell's complaint reflects the fact that one reader's splash of triumphant percussion may be another's banality indicating that too much of a poem's inspiration depends on the conclusion it's moving toward. This is part and parcel of lyric poetry's anxiety about death. A clear vision may be welcome, but how does it stand beside cloudier poetic visions?

My epigraph for this essay comes from the response of one relatively long-lived artist to a short-lived one. "Improvisations for Jimi Hendrix,"* which uses as its theme lyrics to "The Wind Cries Mary": Geoffrey Hill's style is both wide-ranging and knotty, as if the way to proceed is always a problem of focus, a responsibility that must be confronted. Yet, suddenly, here he is on a high plain of forthrightness. The poem ends:

Somewhere the slave is master of his desires
And lords it in great music
And the children dance

Cymbal clash of grace and clarity from an often deliberately graceless poet?  Or a burst of sentimentality, special pleading, even a bid for applause? As in music, concluding cymbals can carry either message, or both.

With Richard Wilbur's measured, elegant muse, the memorable endings almost always have the authentic ring. Thanks, Barbara, wherever you are now, for the insight.


[*In some editions, the two lines before the final refrain in "John Kinsella..." are slightly different. I was unable to find online texts of Ashbery's "The Gazing Grain" and "Voyage in the Blue" and Hill's "Improvisations for Jimi Hendrix." They may be found in the volumes "Houseboat Days," "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," and "Without Title," respectively.]

    

Monday, October 16, 2017

Hooray for Hollywood: A well-deserved kick in the tailored pants of Harvey Weinstein, with a swipe at Hollywood's code of silence

Hooray for HOllywood! That screwy, ballsy, gooey Hollywood! Where when you venture behind the scene You see Harvey Weinstein (more than you care to): Whether starlet or barmaid, you may feel a star made And report it only if you dare to. Hooray for Hollywood! You'll be soaring if you make him feel good: Your talent's terrific (even if it's sub-par); Say yes, you'll go far; say no, he'll rant. It's just about sex, so suppress that gag reflex And keep your distance from that potted plant! Hooray for Hollywood! That phony, pure baloney Hollywood! Now you may come from Gotham or Australia, He'll try to nail ya before you say "Scram!" or "Ouch!" Don't doubt his moxie, it's orthodoxy: The way to stardom's still the casting couch. Hooray for Hollywood! Don't look for allies in the neighborhood: The culture there is all about protection For his erection, so try to make that monkey look good! Mum's been the word for years, so hide those salty tears: Hooray for Hollywood!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

All-American program by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra will move to Carmel Sunday

The two American works that make up this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program are freighted with meaning.
Michael Francis has strong convictions about the Copland Third.
Some of it may fairly be described as the interpreter's choice, however.

Whether Copland's Symphony No. 3 (1946) benefits from the comprehensive, yet concise explanation that guest conductor Michael Francis gave it Friday in remarks from the podium to the Hilbert Circle Theatre audience is open to question. The program's other piece, Leonard Bernstein's 1949 Symphony No. 2 ("Age of Anxiety") has explicit reference to the anxiety of individuals in a time of general conflict and peril.

The composer explained at length the meaning of his two-part composition, with an extensive role for solo piano representing the protagonist. Though he excused listeners from needing familiarity with the W.H. Auden poem of the same title that inspired him, Bernstein was characteristically unshy about providing verbal guidance. The 1940 poem is set as World War II began sweeping over the world, and its resonance remained for Bernstein well after the Allied victory, when the Cold War arms race quickly extended the general anxiety.

Copland, on the other hand, provided accessible but quite analytical notes to his four-movement work for its premiere by the Boston Symphony. The struggles of America at war don't enter into his explanation. In Francis' view, the push-pull between the collective welfare and an individual's search for a firm purchase on confusing times is the process through which the Third Symphony proceeds. 

There was nothing false about his perspective, and the performance bore fruit in Francis' terms. Furthermore, though I don't subscribe to his vision of the work, it's quite clear that if you note signs of emotional distress and uncertainty in the music along the way, the triumphant cast of the finale — keyed to the popular "Fanfare for the Common Man" that Copland wrote in 1942  — has the added benefit of seeming hard-earned.


Orli Shaham put a lot of Bernsteinian character into "The Age of Anxiety."
The fanfare is in its full brassy flower early in the fourth movement. It has been foreshadowed by flutes and clarinets, which, by sounding too loud Friday, didn't quite build the intended suspense. When the work is taken as absolute music, the listener is readier to hear the riches of Copland's score in between the two monumental fanfare appearances, the second one of which is based largely on an apotheosis of the symphony's opening material. 

There is lots going on in that movement that recalls the rigorous training in the art of counterpoint and Renaissance polyphony Copland received (along with many other young Americans) in the Paris studio of Nadia Boulanger nearly a century ago. When your ears are set to the wealth of skill and inspiration in the main body of the movement, you don't have to worry that the symphony's conclusion is simply an overstatement. The light emerges at the end, but it is as much a kind of simplification of the musical palette as it is some kind of metaphorical light.

The other movements exhibit Copland at his most characteristic during the fertile era that also produced "Appalachian Spring."  If the work was also criticized initially as "a pale imitation of Prokofiev" (as the program book reminds us), it must have been due to some resemblance between the rhythms and orchestration of Copland's second movement and the Russian composer's "Lieutenant Kije Suite." But that blithe similarity is soon neatly moderated by a characteristic American sort of lyrical episode.

As for the "Age of Anxiey" symphony, it enchanted with a quite soft, interwoven clarinet duet as the Prologue got under way. Orli Shaham caught the introspective mood of the piano's entrance, and the mercurial nature of Bernstein's autobiographical concept was something she connected with throughout. An admirer of the older composer, Bernstein shows his enthusiasm for the angular writing of Copland's "Piano Variations" near the end of Part I. 

The purple passages of the composer's jazz tribute in "The Masque" were brightly executed, with much glorious interaction between the soloist and the percussion section. Rapport between piano and podium seemed airtight. When the strings entered after a long layoff, this music — necessarily connected to its extramusical meaning but easier to take in if you won't worry about all that — became thoroughly convincing, right through to the end.

ISO audiences need more programs like this one — concerts that bring to the fore the best products of musical America in the 20th century.







Friday, October 13, 2017

Beethoven at the summit: Danish String Quartet sketches in a master's development in Ensemble Music Society concert

Writing out of profound deafness with all his sense of sound internalized, it's no wonder that Ludwig van Beethoven set even greater emphasis upon what new vistas were open to his imagination as he composed his late string quartets.
The Danish String Quartet made its  Indiana debut to start Ensemble Music's season. 

"Art demands of us all that we shall not stand still," he said to a friend in explanation of the new ground he explored in his B-flat quartet, op. 130. "You will find a new manner of part-writing, and thank God! there is less lack of imagination than before."

Ensemble Music Society's program annotator, the estimable Nicholas Johnson of Butler University, links this self-assessment to the Quartet in C-sharp minor, op. 131, with which the Danish String Quartet ended its concert Thursday evening at the Indiana History Center. Whichever of the two masterpieces Beethoven's statement applies to — he said at different times that each was his greatest work in this form — it could very well suit either.

The C-sharp minor quartet filled the entire second half of an outstanding concert. The work is demanding and still feels innovative. The four Danes gave a wonderful account of the sprawling, seven-movement composition.

Its first challenge is to put across the transfiguring music of the opening movement, a slow fugue. Fugues tend to direct the focus on the matching of voices that occur and recur in succession; they usually move at a pretty good clip, making the coordination of fugal conversation fairly straightforward. This piece's Adagio start requires that the impression of unity be sustained and steadily expressive in the long view. The Danish String Quartet achieved this impression without fail. Its phrasing was silken and steady at the predominant soft dynamic level.

The work proceeded with such well-honed insight supported by firm execution. After a suspenseful transition, the first fast movement maintained the group's fully supported phrasing as the dynamics took on more of the typical Beethoven variety, pushing toward the extremes of the spectrum. By the fourth movement, hairpin dynamic turns were adroitly managed, setting up the exuberant rush of the Presto movement, featuring a brisk theme the composer never seems to tire of. The Danes made sure the audience didn't tire of it, either. After a short Adagio, with the ensemble sporting its most glowing, chorale-like tone, the Allegro finale was given astonishingly forceful treatment, never veering out of control, settling down at the very end into slow measures that have more triumph than exhaustion about them.

As violist Asbjørn Nørgaard told the audience from the stage before a note was sounded, Beethoven got his start in the string-quartet medium as a newcomer to Vienna, where the classical model of the string quartet, however formidably established by Haydn and Mozart, was linked by social custom to entertainment music. That did not prevent the young composer from seeing how to individualize his first contributions to the genre: the six quartets of Op. 18.

The Danish String Quartet (other members: violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin) played two of them, starting with No. 2 in G major. Local music lovers had the opportunity to hear this work played just last week by the Indianapolis String Quartet. For all the merits of that performance by a newly constituted group, Thursday evening's showed the clear benefits of a regular ensemble bond. The excellence of the Danes was immediately apparent: the warm blend on long notes in the second movement, with abrupt contrasts in fast music smoothly handled. It was amazing to see that variation in vibrato served the music and confirmed the group's pinpoint intonation: the final chord of the second movement, with all four playing pianissimo, without vibrato, was magical.

In the Scherzo came another revelation: all decent quartets give precise value to rests, but this one had a way of making rests seem as rhythmically alive as the sounded notes. The rhythmic sweep of the entire movement was thus reinforced. In the finale, all dynamic contrasts were immediate and unanimous where indicated.

In No. 3 in in D major (with the violinists changing parts, as with America's Emerson), the contrasts of dreaminess and vigor are substantial, and both the tone and rhythmic acuity of the players were further confirmed. The majestic finale was given the light-hearted spirit the material suggests, but the movement takes on the "orchestral" texture often noted in Brahms' chamber music for strings. After all that coordinated energy, the Danes made the most of the  cute soft ending.

After such an exhibition of superior music-making on superior music, this listener was left considering the still unfathomable nature of genius, particularly that displayed in the C-sharp minor quartet. No response is adequate besides something puckish like: Beethoven — what a great composer! Too bad he isn't better known. That must be what immortality is for.





Wednesday, October 11, 2017

IVCI, Ronen Chamber Ensemble join forces again to launch 2017-18 Laureate Series

The upper size limit of chamber-music ensemble is nine, and on that conventional pinnacle the opening Laureate Series concert
Chin Kim has had a full career since competing with distinction here in 1986.
of the 2017-18 season concluded Tuesday night at the Indiana History Center.

Bohuslav Martinu's Nonet for Wind Quintet, Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass was the vehicle for maximum display of the Ronen Chamber Ensemble, with 1986 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis laureate Chin Kim representing the IVCI series, which continues independently from here, as will the Ronen season.

A 60-year-old Korean-American whose eminent teachers have included Josef Gingold, founder of the IVCI, Kim was among the six finalists in the second competition, all designated laureates. On this return visit, he was joined in a scintillating performance of the Martinu by Ronen co-founders David Bellman, clarinet, and Ingrid Fischer-Bellman cello, plus Mike Chen, viola; Alistair Howlett, flute; Leonid Sirotkin, oboe; Robert Danforth, French horn, Kelly Swensson, bassoon, and L. Bennett Crantford, double bass.

The ensemble worked smoothly through the lively exchanges in the first movement. The players poked out the score's colorful accents supporting characteristic Czech melodies and dance rhythms. Fischer-Bellman's solo in the Andante movement established the pensive mood and set the course for a series of elegant mini-solos, including oboe, horn, and viola. The gentle subsiding of passionate song near the end was adeptly handled.

The finale, flecked by nostalgic touches that color its rhythmically lively momentum, confirmed the high level of coordination and sensitivity to blending instrumental color that the ensemble had shown from the first.

The concert's other emphasis on the durable Ronen Chamber Ensemble's attractions came at the beginning, with Kim again in the violin chair, and Chen and Fischer-Bellman filling out the string component, for Mozart's Oboe Quartet in F major. The oboist sported a strong tone and suave, sustained phrasing. In the fast music, chiefly concentrated in the finale (Rondeau: Allegro), there were a few slips in his passage work, but otherwise Sirotkin's agility was well-matched to his steady, well-centered sound.

It was in an "off" chord near the end of the first movement that I began to wonder if the guest violinist's intonation was top-drawer. There was much greater opportunity to  test this impression in Schubert's Fantasy for Violin and Piano in C major, D. 934, with Chih-Yi Chen at the piano. This expansive piece is in every respect a duo, to begin with, so the partnership would have been more solid if Kim had used the music, instead of treating the work like a bonbon. The players matched their contributions well, nonetheless.

But despite the violinist's lyricism and the flair and thorough knowledge of the piece he exhibited, the tone seemed thin and intonation slips were frequent, mostly on the low side of the pitch. In the virtuoso final section of the piece, despite his perky elan, Kim did not display the highest level of bow control. After intermission, Eugene Ysaye's transcription of Saint-Saens' Caprice on an Etude in Form of a Waltz, op. 52, no. 6, indicated that Kim's artistry is founded on both musical insight and technical aplomb, yet intonation remained a problem and his sense of style could not quite make up for a scrawny tone.

This program's concise violin-piano masterpiece highlighting Kim was Ravel's "Tzigane." Performance of the long unaccompanied opening caught the gypsy exoticism that spurred Ravel to represent it so memorably, but seemed lacking in intensity. After the consistently expert pianist joined in, there was a rawness in the violin playing that may have been an interpretive decision. Yet I think the music cannot help showing off the French composer's elegance; that quality was mostly highlighted by the duo's adept alternation of accelerating and slowing phrases before the whirlwind final measures.

We are used to a higher standard of playing from IVCI laureates in this series, and I earnestly wish that standard will soon be re-established.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

New theater company debuts with the bristling dark comedy "Glengarry Glen Ross"

Shelly Levene pleads for his professional life with John Williamson, his wary boss.
Even in a cutthroat world, trust is common coin, but much of it is counterfeit. It's the default medium of exchange, its value ever fluctuating —  sometimes inflated,  sometimes approaching the vanishing point.

It's the world of the seminal drama "Glengarry Glen Ross," a much-admired play by David Mamet rooted in the workaday 1980s: you relied on phones you didn't carry with you, you were dependent on pieces of paper and chalkboard assessments of your standing in the corporate zero-sum game. In today's milieu of ethical slippery slopes, that slightly remote setting hasn't dated at all. In fact, the counterfeiters sometimes seem to be in charge.

The Chicago real-estate culture of "Glengarry Glen Ross" is hardscrabble in a manner built on illusions of success and upward mobility. It is realized on Indy Fringe Theatre's Basile Stage with startling energy and commitment in a production opening this weekend, directed by Aaron Cleveland and representing the debut of a new company, Fat Turtle Theatre.

The coarse language that courses electrically among the play's all-male work force never loses its charge and rarely dips in voltage. Momentary alliances among the agents are fragile, and the play's central one ends in disaster. Professional lifelines rest upon hoarding information, following up on "leads" and closing deals. Since the deals are rarely constructed to benefit either the customer or even primarily the company, it's every man for himself.

As seen Saturday night, "Glengarry Glen Ross" built its tension grippingly in the first act's three contrasting scenes, each of them a two-man conversation. What the first act proposes, the second disposes. The first act is set in a Chinese restaurant near the office, a place with a minimum of atmosphere (jazz in the background is an odd touch), offering little respite from the bleak office setting that brings all the shady machinations to a head in the finale. In this production, it's entirely fitting that neither set does much more than sketch its environment. Any budgetary considerations are entirely congruent with the drama's focus on the bare bones of manipulation and the ruthless quest for personal advantage. Even cheap visual uplift has no place here.

High-energy agent Richard Roma (Tristan Ross) makes the pitch.
The principal hero-victim of the system is Shelly Levene, portrayed by Doug Powers with tightly wound desperation and easily violated self-esteem. With Ryan Reddick wearing a sour poker face as the office boss Williamson, feeling unremitting pressure from his bosses downtown to keep profits up, the contrast between the let-it-all-hang-out veteran salesman and the supervisor not paid to say too much or be compassionate was striking.

In the second act, Williamson will finally say too much. Gesturing compulsively and finding it difficult to keep wheedling and thundering in balance, Powers' Levene quite rightly doesn't stir much sympathy. And that's just the right note, though to feel for him a little in the final scene is perhaps inevitable.

To me, Mamet's hold on the audience consists largely of appealing to our gawker and voyeur instincts. The play's dark humor rests largely on this unsettling proposition: comedy is our enjoyment of bad things happening to people who deserve them. The most ingenious comical twists are in the language. Years ago, the first time I saw "Glengarry Glen Ross," the interruptions, evasions, and fragmentary, staccato outbursts in the dialogue reminded me of the real-life skulduggery laid out in transcripts of the Nixon Watergate tapes.

Conversation in "Glengarry Glen Ross" has to be taken seriously, but not literally (to borrow the useful distinction that's been made to explain how Donald Trump's base interprets his rants and gaffes). An agent addressed by name says defensively, "You talking to me?" He knows very well he's being talked to; he'd just rather not be. Another agent in another scene asks a colleague if they are talking about a crime or just speaking about it.

That's in the show's funniest scene, involving a peppery agent named Dave Moss (Luke McConnell) dropping a plot upon a
mousy intended accomplice, George Aaronow (Jeff Maess).  They bat the scheme's sleazy particulars back and forth, Moss rat-a-tatting his ideas and pretending that Aaronow's sputtering echoes indicate substantial buy-in. It doesn't take much to appear complicit on a playing field where honesty never even suits up for the game.

At the top end of bluster and rage is Richard Roma, played by Tristan Ross as a grateful protege of Levene's but definitely focused upon the need to be his own man. His gabby cultivation of a hesitant client dining at a neighboring table is the first act's third scene. Rex Riddle trimly plays a man dominated by his wife's skepticism and, in the second act, mustering just enough resistance to compound Roma's troubles.

As a persistent police detective, Jason Page represented well the avenging angel visited upon this demented workplace. He's undeterred in his examination of a crime that has roiled the office, though the character exhibits more patience than the Chicago cop stereotype. But that's part of the deadly beauty of "Glengarry Glen Ross": fate is implacable, and if it sometimes seems patient with us, it's because it knows who's really at the top of that chalkboard.





Saturday, October 7, 2017

A favorite conductor, a favorite violinist — everything was in the cards for the ISO this weekend

Ever have the feeling when listening to music that you'd like to ask the composer in mid-flight, "OK, now what are you driving at, exactly?"?
Joshua Bell plays three times with the ISO this weekend, the last one at 5:30 today.


Pop music has to be catchy to catch on. Classical music properly asks your indulgence and patience. Yet I often find, occasionally even with a piece I know pretty well, the question arising: What are you driving at here, Gustav? (Or whoever; the name's not randomly chosen, but I don't mean the Englishman.)

I like it when a composition doesn't force this question upon me. When you hear Schumann's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat ("Rhenish"), you know right away what it's driving at. Since music is intelligible but not translatable (an insight of Claude Levi-Strauss' admired by Igor Stravinsky), in this concert review I can't articulate just what it's driving at.

But "Bam!" — there it was Friday night at the Hilbert Circle Theatre: that Lebhaft (lively) first movement, asserting itself like a pop-up thundershower, with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under the accustomed smooth guidance of Jun Märkl, a favorite podium guest. Sure, there were a few frayed phrases here and in the closing Lebhaft movement, but on the whole the performance was rich in character and color. 

The slowing tempo near phrase ends in the Scherzo was quite effective in emphasizing the music's song-like nature. And the tension before the movement's climax was judiciously applied. The short Nicht schnell movement had a trim, yet billowing, feeling that set up the Feierlich fourth movement. This music, inspired by the Cologne Cathedral, brought out a rich impasto of wind sonorities, and the sunny disposition of the finale was thus perfectly set in context.

You never have to wonder here what Schumann is driving at, in other words, particularly in such a spirited performance. My mischievous question doesn't indicate a prejudice against introductions, however. Introductory material often makes what follows quite clear, even if it is not exploited in a score's main body. The program's other two pieces demonstrated that.

Japanese-German guest conductor always goes over well here with orchestra and audience.
Franz Liszt's "Les Preludes" is driving at elucidating the mystery of Lamartine's  poem of the same name via exploration of a fresh formal approach to musical coherence, although the composer drew some of his original inspiration from another poet, as Marianne Williams Tobias' program note helpfully points out. 

The introduction puts enough mystery into the poet's meditations upon life itself, and it includes a big tune likely to dominate everyone's memory of the piece — somewhat like the tune in the introduction to Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. The majestic melody has had an odd couple of uses in radio history: Dr. Joseph Goebbels appropriated it to announce German military victories in World War II, and another Dr. Joseph, Maddy by name, chose it as theme music for  concert broadcasts from the Interlochen Arts Academy and National Music Camp in Michigan. Maddy got there first, by the way.

Märkl led a poised performance of "Les Preludes," adept at handling several important transitions in the one-movement work. Rhythms in the "tempest" episode had lightning vigor. The pastoral section, with harp, violins, and decorative woodwinds quite eloquent in this performance, anticipates Wagner's "Forest Murmurs" from "Siegfried." The return of that big tune to cap the work had an extra level of grandeur, and the stage was set psychologically for the highly anticipated return of Joshua Bell to the ISO's home stage.

Max Bruch's "Scottish Fantasy" also has a vivid introduction that leaves no doubt the German composer found the relative exoticism of Scotland's folk music enthralling and was eager to have listeners as excited by it as he was. Orchestral color is more pronounced than in other Bruch works, and the old songs are showcased in a manner calculated to appeal mostly to two subgroups of music lovers: those with imaginary or actual roots in Scottish culture and connoisseurs of fancy fiddling. 

Bell was predictably able to deliver to both sorts of fans, and others as well. His way of turning a melody to its highest expressive potential is well-known. Model bow control, sustained with a high wrist position, provides ample assurance that every phrase will be sculpted and, where appropriate, spun out to a golden tendril of sound. So it was Friday by Hoosier violin-playing's ageless golden boy, who turns 50 in December.

Märkl made the accompaniment work at all points. There was nice tempo variety in the Allegro as "Dusty Miller" was expounded upon brightly. Principal harpist Diane Evans contributed superbly to the eldritch atmosphere. The violas attractively ushered the audience into the Andante, where the lament "I'm a-doun for lack of Johnnie" provided Bell a heart-tugging melodic vehicle. 

This is the sort of piece that not only has you leaving the hall humming the tunes, but also is likely to plant an ear-worm or two in your head. I'm sure I wasn't the only one so affected, or afflicted.

That may be exactly what it's driving at.














Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Mike Stern and Bill Evans bring their powerhouse quartet to the Jazz Kitchen

Having been a sideman of Miles Davis' at any stage of his storied career is not enough to make a career, but it helps.
Mike Stern and Bill Evans took no prisoners in their Jazz Kitchen visit.

For guitarist Mike Stern and saxophonist Bill Evans, whatever the trumpet icon saw in them as young men has carried them into middle age and allowed them to form a sturdy partnership as leaders — in addition to the solo careers each man has built since those glory days of late-stage Davis in the 1980s.

They brought their quartet to the Jazz Kitchen Tuesday night for two sets.  Backing them up were Teymur Phell, bass guitar, and Richie Morales, drums. Presenting a first set designed to set the ears back and bulge the walls a little, the quartet was met with waves of appreciation from the near-capacity audience.

There is some nuance in even the stormiest Stern-Evans inspirations, as was evident right off the bat after "Out of the Blue" was launched, and Stern's solos got under way after the ensemble rave-up, with the normally hard-hitting Morales moving to brushes. The guitarist's reflective etude-like passages made a transition to chords, and things gradually got frantic once again.

Stern has a lot of variety in his guitar attack, and I tend to prefer his less shredding moods. I particularly liked the Stern composition that opened with a gentle cadenza on guitar, found Evans picking up the soprano sax and then exchanging phrases with the guitarist. A wordless falsetto vocal from Stern paralleling his guitar lines was sweetly effective in putting the Caribbean-style piece across. Both frontmen stuck to their lyrical side as the unnamed song moved to a conclusion.

The forceful tenor saxophone of Evans is sometimes set aside as he switches to synthesizer. And in his composition "Kings and Queens," while at the keyboard he belted out a vocal with words — the most pop-oriented performance of the set. Stern joined him as backup falsettist, reinforcing the lyrics. But Evans made sure his tenor had plenty to say in the middle, before the vocal returned to effect a poised straddling of the pop-jazz border.

After another rather soft-spoken Stern composition called "I Believe You," the band wrapped things up with the full-bore "Trip," a driving piece that brought Morales to the fore, where his ceaseless devotion to maintaining the pulse flowered into full exploitation of the kit. It was the kind of set-ender that no doubt encouraged many of the first-set patrons to stay for two.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

With one change of personnel and a distinguished guest, the Indianapolis Quartet opens its second season in residence at UIndy

The Indianapolis Quartet, with clarinetist Todd Palmer, performed at UIndy.
Any accomplished clarinetist today has ample reason to be grateful to a couple of distant, distinguished predecessors on the instrument. They can rightly feel they know Richard Mühlfeld and Anton Stadler through the masterpieces by Johannes Brahms and Wolfgang Mozart, respectively, that each clarinetist inspired.

For the centerpiece of a season-opening concert in the Faculty Artist Series at the University of Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Quartet welcomed the protean master clarinetist Todd Palmer for a performance of Mozart's Quintet in A major for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581.

Stadler was a close friend and Masonic lodge brother during Mozart's productive Vienna decade. He was also somewhat of a nag seeking loans from the composer, who until the end was a little shaky on money matters. What are friends for? Putting that aside, Stadler was a master musician whose gifts drew from Mozart not only the supernal Clarinet Concerto but the work played by Palmer and the quartet Monday night in Lilly Performance Hall, DeHaan Fine Arts Center.

The performance presented the piece in bold profile. Gustav Mahler sometimes put the word "keck" in his scores, an indication that he wanted "cheeky" or "fresh" playing where indicated. That's the sort of clarinetist Palmer seemed to be, though this is not to say it was the only attribute he brought to the music. Stadler must have been "keck" himself, so this characteristic of Palmer's applies fully to the score.

It was evident in the genial five-way partnership in the first movement, and particularly in the lively dialogue between first violinist Zachary De Pue and Palmer just before a reflective episode in the work's finale. The quintet imparted a folk-like casualness to the third movement Menuetto that never got sloppy. It was whimsical but well-controlled. It was keck.

Other high points in the Mozart work: In the second movement, Larghetto, the ensemble managed to impart lots of weightiness to its phrasing without drooping. The slowing tempo at the end was marvelously unified. The dynamic control throughout was exemplary. One other detail: Michael Isaac Strauss' playing of the variation for viola in the finale sounded especially expressive and heartfelt and timely, the Day of Atonement having been last weekend. Or maybe it was simply the most stirring representation on the program of the fact the concert had been dedicated to victims of Sunday's Las Vegas massacre.

The Indianapolis Quartet, with Joana Genova making her local debut as second violinist (cellist Austin Huntington is the fourth member), opened the program with Beethoven's Quartet in G major, op. 18, no. 2. It was a brisk yet well-grounded performance, capped by a blithe Scherzo and a finale that opened with the lightest of touches and throughout gave free rein to the "quasi Presto" indication. Not all the violins' eight-note groups of thirty-second notes in the first-movement theme were as clear as they ought to have been. This isn't a matter of nit-picking about ornamentation, since the figure is an essential part of the movement's "personality." Otherwise the rendition sounded shipshape.

After intermission came Brahms' String Quartet in A minor, op. 51, no. 2. It provided significant contrasts with the concert's first half: those thundering unisons, the pedal points, the "orchestral" textures (especially in the middle part of the second movement), the self-conscious classicism.

The quartet moved well together through the Brahmsian thickets. I was particularly struck by the haunted quality of the third movement, where the composer draws on that peculiar Black Forest atmosphere of German romanticism in a manner suggestive of his friend Schumann or the Weber of "Der Freischütz." Capturing this so well was among many ways the concert confirmed the great boon to local music that the Indianapolis Quartet seems fit to provide.

[Photo by Cathy Rossi]