Monday, July 16, 2018

Ensemble Caprice's J.S. Bach cantatas set two spires atop the 2018 festival edifice

Concluding the 52nd annual Indianapolis Early Music Festival, Ensemble Caprice and guests from Echoing Air, an Indianapolis ensemble, and the Bach Society of Minnesota performed two cantatas
Matthias Maute conducted two Bach cantatas Sunday afternoon.
by J.S. Bach, "Wir danken dir, Gott" and "Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen," at the Indiana History Center Sunday afternoon.

Matthias Maute, who directed the program, also was featured as recorder virtuoso in two shorter Bach works, Solo per flauto, BWV 1013, and his arrangement of the Italian Concerto, BWV 971, a work familiar in the original to pianists and harpsichordists.

Maute brought to the former piece his ready command of tone, phrasing, and articulation. The interval skips in the Allemande were adroitly managed and the flow of sequences in the Corrente was poised. Expressively, the high point was the Sarabande, where just enough sostenuto lingering was evident at the slow tempo to strike the ear as more inviting than dawdling.

His choice of the Italian Concerto as a showpiece for a single-line instrument was inspired:  The keyboardist's right hand has most of the glory in the original, and thus the risk of imbalance in this arrangement was minimal. The slow movement is especially rich in flourishes in that topmost voice — the kind of display Maute revels in. The texture was more than adequately filled in by two violins, viola, cello, violone, and harpsichord. Coordination drifted slightly in the opening Allegro, though at the faster tempo (Presto) of the finale, the musicians seemed to have no trouble staying together.

As for the cantatas, four singers from Echoing Air supplemented the four Minnesota soloists in the choruses. The rapport was seamless. I enjoyed especially the brilliance of the opening chorus in "Lobet Gott," known as the Ascension Oratorio, for its vivid depiction of Christ's ascent into heaven, capped eventually by a musically depicted viewpoint from beyond. The twinkling bursts of soprano against a stately choral background captured a text focusing on God's splendor and praiseworthiness.

Further tone-painting came with the bass recitative (sturdily sung by Aaron Lawson) expressing the faithful's sorrow at Jesus' departure, as the flutes became teardrops rolling down pallid cheeks. Baroque flutes have a tone especially apt for such a depiction, whereas the modern flute would likely make those tears viscous. Trumpets, oboes, and timpani, supplementing the usual string complement, emphasized the sense of occasion that clings to both these scores.

In the Ascension Oratorio, tenor Nicholas Chalmers displayed the dignity and clarity needed for the Evangelist's narrative role. The most eloquent solos in that cantata fell to Nerea Barraondo, whose thrilling true-alto tone lent the right air of urgent entreaty to "Ah, stay with me, my dearest life thou" (to use the program insert's English translation). Soprano Linh Kauffman displayed a similar intensity and emotional commitment, but her negotiation of the aria "Jesus, thy dear mercy's glances" betrayed inconsistent projection and want of color.

The performance of "Wir danken dir" set a high standard for the assembled musicians, and revealed Maute's thoroughness and panache as a conductor. Special mention should be made of the superb mastery that Ilya Poletaev displayed in the organ obbligato to the assertive alto aria, "Hallelujah, strength and might to the name of God Almighty."

To go from particular to general, that was one of many moments in which Maute's learned familiarity with High Baroque style and its historical setting flowered in translating that learning from the printed page into heartening reality, with Indianapolis Early Music Festival patrons the beneficiaries.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Will the Mueller investigation ever break, ever break, ever break Roger Stone?

Early Music Festival enters final weekend with three-concert stint by Ensemble Caprice

Thematic programming is common at the Indianapolis Early Music Festival, and none of the guest artists handle it with more conviction than Ensemble Caprice. The 2015 festival had an alluring example of that when the group was joined by soprano Esteli Gomez in repertoire exploring the interplay of the Old and the New World.
Ensemble Caprice al fresco: Ziya Tabassian (from left), David Jacques, Susie Napper, Matthias Maute, Sophie Lariviere.

Based in Montreal, the 25-year-old Renaissance and Baroque band on this visit opened its three-day festival run Friday night with "Chaconne: Voices of Eternity."

The surprising program title alludes to the nature of the chaconne's cumulative structure. The form, based on a repeated bass figure or phrase, can go on indefinitely. There is no development; all the contrast has to be laid over the short basic line. Unlike the canon, overlapping of the generating phrase is not part of the structure, but similarly the chaconne implies infinity. Pachelbel's Canon in D is a feature of many weddings in part because it can be fitted to a desired length without distortion.

Anyway, Ensemble Caprice's leader Matthias Maute grouped this program's selections according to love relationships between composers and women. However subject to disruption and decay it may be in real life, in music love (we like to think) is eternal, especially if embodied in such a form as the chaconne.

After brief spoken introductions — a little unidiomatic, as if German were being fluently but awkwardly translated into English — a musical segment was presented. The divisions were marked by Maute's picking up a rose from the floor, then placing it in a vase after his narrative. The last rose, he said sweetly, was for the audience in the Basile Theater at the Indiana History Center.

This was carefully applied charm. Much more freedom as well as naturalness of execution was evident in Maute's recorder playing, where his virtuoso style was masterfully applied. A group of Czech folk songs and Tarquinio Merula's "Ciacona" displayed his maestro status especially well.

He is seconded in Ensemble Caprice by recorder player Sophie Lariviere in the group's "front line." It's evidently a seamless partnership. The expert filling-out of the instrumental texture lay in the hands of Susie Napper, cello; David Jacques, baroque guitar, and Ziya Tabassian, percussion. Balance and consistency were remarkable.

The group's repertoire naturally tends toward shorter pieces, which lend themselves to the thematic assemblage Ensemble Caprice is known for. This program's exception in terms of length was Maute's arrangement for two recorders and cello of Bach's Chaconne for unaccompanied violin. Though based on potentially endless material, the original work is a favorite with modern violinists (and audiences) because of its majesty and intimacy  — qualities distributed in dramatic fashion. Partly because of its recasting, this version had a lighter feeling throughout, emphasizing different attributes of the piece and its deceptively offhand ingenuity. The instrumental interlocking was smooth at every point.

Also distinguished by length and the eminence of its composer was Antonio Vivaldi's Trio Sonata in D minor ("La Follia"), which concluded the program. Based on a tune already well-known by the time Vivaldi used it (1739, according to Maute's oral program note), the work was fleshed out in this version so that the entire Ensemble Caprice was involved. The exuberance of the material was thus underlined, up to the point that the title's meaning ("craziness") was credibly evoked, especially in the judicious variety of Tabassian's percussion. The catchy piece ended the scheduled program with a flourish, provoking a standing ovation punctuated by whoops and bravos.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

William Tatge's 'General Cargo' carries its freight with distinction

Pianist William Tatge and his New York trio display their "General Cargo."
Another young jazz pianist, born abroad to American parents, steeped in classical music as well as jazz. Sound familiar? Indiana jazz fans had a chance to see the emergence of the Paris-born American Dan Tepfer as a result of his victory in the 2007 American Pianists Association jazz competition.

Now comes into view William Tatge, with a trio recording called "General Cargo," released last month on Brooklyn Jazz Underground records. The Italian-born Tatge is a few years older than Tepfer, and his European foreground is much larger than the APA winner's. But he is developing an American career that has resulted in his first CD with the trio he heads in New York City. Pablo Menares is on bass, Nick Anderson on drums.

"General Cargo," which represents a six-year compositional period, shows Tatge's focus on writing that eschews themes and "heads" in favor of amalgams of spontaneity and meticulousness. The pianist's temperament seems to be earnest, even brooding, in pieces ranging from about seven to nine minutes each.

He sets out material that sounds a bit tentative, but with a lyrical bent that allows him to expand naturally the circle of expression, boosted by his compatible sidemen. Like most jazz pianism since Bud Powell, Tatge's is quite right-hand-focused, though his style owes little to bebop.

That was the impression I got particularly from the second track, "The Lay of the Land." Just as tentativeness suits an effort to assess the lay of the land, so does "Illegal Machines" favor a hint of subversiveness in its use of mechanical figures. A disjunctive melodic line easily welcomes Bartokian accents. The layout is animated in the course of its exposition by the warmth of bluesy passages.

The trio can achieve a very full sound that doesn't become cluttered. Menares' solo in "Civilization" carries a sardonic message, punctuated effectively by piano and drums. The efficiency with which foreground and background are balanced is commendable in this, the album's best track.

There is little waste in the trio's playing on "General Cargo," which palls only when the material is weak, as on "Sentinel." "Mother of Nothing" also, despite its patient, soft-spoken character, seems
too unconcerned about where it is going. It had exhausted my interest by the end of its nine-minute run. Otherwise, this CD stands out impressively from the crowded pack of today's piano-trio recordings.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

This side of parodies: District Theatre hosts an uproarious guest, ATI's 'Forbidden Broadway'

The old Theatre on the Square, whose checkered but often distinguished history helped Mass Ave lay claim to being an authentic cultural district, has resurfaced to maintain the neighborhood's credentials, thanks to an association with IndyFringe and support from the Central Indiana Community Foundation.

To celebrate the delicate marriage, the new District Theatre has come up with a nuptial celebration bearing something old, something new, something borrowed, and something just a little bit blue: "Forbidden Broadway's Greatest Hits," a production of Actors Theatre of Indiana, a small professional company resident at Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts.

The "greatest hits" addition to the familiar title indicates that ATI's show, directed and choreographed to a fare-thee-well by Billy Kimmel, is an anthology of sketches and songs from the much-revised 1982 original by Gerard Alessandrini.

A lot of the show's satire takes a viewpoint from the inside, though  observant fans and all kinds of ticket-buyers over the years will understand the "Saucy Fosse" send-up near the start. The segment puts the four-member cast into contortions both sexy and bizarre, and indicates the toll that Bob Fosse's choreography surely takes on dancers' physiques and stamina. Sometimes a production runs into financial trouble before the end of the run, and you might get a downsized "Beauty and the Beast," ending in miniature. There were also digs at the physical demands of "The Lion King," with the fabulous director Julie Taymor the target for burdening actors with vertebra-cracking headgear.

The cast takes the barricades on turntables for a "Les Miz" medley
Exhausted workhorses are skewered: Carol Channing is portrayed as a perpetual Carol Channing tribute artist. A doddering geezer tries to extend his career starring in "Man of La Mancha." A former Annie about to turn 40 finds her professional lifespan ready for the orphanage, or the glue factory, while hoping for one more bright tomorrow.

Of course, show biz presents more than solo burdens — entanglements that the public can only guess at: You probably can't take in even a touring version of "Wicked" without speculating that the two female stars are set up for rivalry that only the most studied professionalism can keep from bursting out onstage. It's a version of "Popular" from that show that has hard-working diva impersonators Cynthia Collins and Judy Fitzgerald sparring as Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel.

That was among several set-tos staged in the most entertainingly speculative way Saturday night, when I saw the show. Fitzgerald and Collins also struck apt Latin-spitfire poses to represent the career slugfest of Rita Moreno and Chita Rivera, with "America" from "West Side Story" being the obvious vehicle: ("Nothing could be keena than to be the top Latina in the li-i-imelight" is how I might impertinently summarize the tussle of that particular competition in tribute to "Forbidden Broadway"'s infectious spirit.)

For the historically minded, the contrast between Broadway's miked and unmiked eras was captured when Logan Moore, as a vain, thin-voiced, amplified "Phantom of the Opera" star, was upbraided for his reliance on artificial boosting, then retrained, by the spirit of Ethel Merman. It was said that Ethel in her heyday could nail her vocals to the back wall — of the theater across the street. Like hers, careers are often mounted upon hammy pedestals. In this show, Moore creates a hilarious spoof on the overacting of Mandy Patinkin, with his aura derived from Al Jolson and ramped up for the late 20th century and beyond. And need we bring up Barbra, Miss Mannerism? To be sure, this show does.

Broadway lore has long been more than a matter of hits and flops, gold-plated vehicles and rustbuckets, high art and the circus. There is forever the jostling vanity of stars and wannabes. As "Tradition" is tweaked into "Ambition," that all-powerful factor was neatly summed up as we learned what makes thriving as an actor in New York as precarious as in "Fiddler on the Roof"'s Anatevka. In that number, the chameleon excellence of Don Farrell assumes a Tevye persona,
Broadway denizens tell how they  try to scratch out a living.
while his castmates take turns outlining the steps by which fledgling actors turn themselves into soaring raptors along the Great White Way.

Tunes and words are well-matched in the parodies, and all of them received all-out commitment from the cast Saturday night. Brent Marty is the indefatigable music director, spurring the performers on from the piano. Kimmel's choreography had the same dazzling variety and pinpoint aptness as the costumes of Terry Woods and Donna Jacobi. The rest of the crackerjack production team consists of P. Bernard Killian, scenic design/technical direction, and Quinten James, lighting designer and master electrician.

[Photos by Ed Stewart]


Friday, July 6, 2018

Cincinnati Opera's "Flying Dutchman" highlights hints of Wagner the maestro

Unlike his first big hit "Rienzi," "The Flying Dutchman" didn't seem to cause any later
The Dutchman comes ashore (left) and aboard a temporarily stranded vessel and its sleeping crew.
embarrassment for Richard Wagner as he advanced toward his ideal of "music drama" as the successor to the opera form he inherited. It is the earliest of his works to still hold the stage.

And Cincinnati Opera's current production of "The Flying Dutchman" looks forward to what Wagner was able to achieve in his full maturity. The set-pieces are less isolated and the odd blend of realism and the supernatural is adjusted to emphasize a symbolism that takes in the visual, dramatic, and musical integration that Wagner was working toward in the "Ring" cycle and "Tristan und Isolde."

The most gripping solo in the work comes early, when the accursed title character steps ashore and informs the audience of his plight by soliloquizing on his hopeless quest to be redeemed for a rash vow he made years before as he attempted to round the Cape of Good Hope in a storm. "Die Frist ist  um," he begins, referring to the period of seven years that must pass before he is allowed to seek a woman's true love to end his ceaseless wandering at sea.

The recitative and aria have been reconceived here as an elaborate scena, in which every pause in the vocal line shifts the stance and mood of the title character. The fragile, tormented hope of the mariner for relief from his suffering has been daringly divided in Brenna Corner's application of Tomer Zvulun's original production and staging. So the musical unit formed by the Dutchman's initial appearance more explicitly outlines the weird conditions he sails under and the relentless mental torment it causes him.

Nathan Berg was fully up to making this firm impression as the Dutchman's onshore entrance actually intrudes upon the sleeping crew of a Norwegian captain's homeward-bound ship. The Dutchman is haunting from the start, and his ghostly crew is suggested in figures that appear featureless high up in the set from time to time. A Dutchman gesture here and there summons supernatural powers, reaching a peak when his outstretched arm repulses Erik, the local huntsman wooing the woman the stranger intends to be his relief from the curse. It echoes Daland's keeping the unprosperous Erik at arm's length as the right man to marry his daughter, Senta.

Daland considers with great interest the Dutchman's proposal.
Wearing an eye patch that foreshadows Wotan the Wanderer in "Siegfried," Berg as the Dutchman is far from godlike, only distantly human, yet compelling. The production, with the projected outlines of his ship and the turmoil that surrounds it, totally embraces the uncanny.

The Dutchman is hospitably treated by Daland, the Norwegian captain who is gratefully at home after his off-course adventure. The stranger's negotiations to get access to his host's daughter have a distinctly comical tone. Some of Daland's lipsmacking interest in contracting Senta's marriage to a wealthy man comes through in Arthur Woodley's portrayal, though to be sure Wagner's sprightly music encourages it. As the ghost ship's crew encircles the captain in a parade of  gleaming treasure chests, you get the feeling you're hearing Daland's Jewel Song.

Marcy Stonikas proved to be a soprano fully capable of what Wagner seems to have intended in Senta.  She is not a ditsy ingenue smitten with a fantasy about a heart-wrenching legend. The story of the Dutchman perpetually at sea because of one foolish moment that provoked Satan's curse touches her heart, but not just with sentimental sympathy: A sense of her own destiny sets her apart from her frivolous peers. Stonikas sang like such a woman; plus, with uncommon prima donna daring, she climbed a ladder at the end toward the perch from which Senta would make her final sacrifice.

Senta's workmates are played with vigorous animation by an abundance of choral women. It was a little strange how their Spinning Chorus opening the second act had so little to do with homespun tasks, classically imitated in the music, and a lot to do with flapping and folding sheets. Admittedly, all that wavy action looked pretty as the chorus went on and on, properly annoying Senta.

Erik tries to dissuade Senta from marrying the Dutchman.
Just as "Die Frist ist um" in this production is staged as a dramatic spectacle, so is Senta's ballad made rich visually and dramatically. The portrait of the Dutchman that has fascinated the young woman changes before our eyes as she sings, making the sight of what should be evident to all more a projection of Senta's mental state. This was a risky production decision that mostly made sense, though the audience has to become aware quickly that Senta is seeing something much different in the picture from what the other girls see.

Elizabeth Bishop is Mary, Daland's housekeeper, who seems to be more a factory floor boss than Daland's housekeeper, so numerous are all the women. She captured a sense of both the danger and attraction of the Dutchman's story, and she also conveyed how both Senta's mooniness and her workmates' playfulness have her at her wit's end.

As for the cast's tenors: Jay Hunter Morris does his level best to give substance to  Erik, one of those plaintive tenor roles that skirt wimpiness, like Don Ottavio in Mozart's Don Giovanni. His actions in the last act represent the down-to-earth resistance of the practical world to the Dutchman's plight and Senta's obsession with it. His aria, feelingly projected though it was Thursday, is not among the opera's distinguished solo showcases. Frederick Ballentine Jr. was the lively, engaging Steersman, chief focus of the sometimes raucous but vocally secure Norwegian crew.

From the vivid, well-paced overture on, Christof Perick conducted smartly, and the orchestra — much more rewardingly projected into the room thanks to Music Hall's recent renovation — played brilliantly.  At times, the acoustical brightness favored the ensemble over the singers, whose clarity of diction was variable, making Jonathan Dean's supertitles more valuable than ever. Coordination slipped, perhaps inevitably, only during the tipsy shenanigans of the Norwegians at anchor. The staging made for an invigorating contrast with the long-delayed response of the ghost ship inmates to the celebration. The men's singing matched the women's for style and balanced energy; chorus master Henri Venanzi deserves kudos.

The use of projections was astute throughout, presenting a stormily gray, watery world at the outset and at other crucial points. Use of glowing color in the props suggested some of the livid emotions that drive the story. The transfiguration scene at the very end — which must always be an immense staging challenge — took the breath away. It alone accomplished everything the composer-librettist must have wanted his agonized redemption story to mean. And it was simply the crowning success in an astonishingly seaworthy production.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

Monday, July 2, 2018

An Early Music Festival weekend indicates the field's wide range

For the infrequent visitor to what is categorized as classical music created in the 17th century and
Alkemie focused on vocal works featuring a special type of refrain.
earlier, early music can easily seem like a niche, rather than a vast collection of eras and styles. That becomes evident after you get to know it.

The Indianapolis Early Music Festival under Mark Cudek's direction offers a welcome refutation of a narrow view of the European musical heritage. In the weekend just ended, festival patrons at the Indiana History Center got to know medieval love songs, with Alkemie's program "Love to My Liking: Refrains of Desire in Gothic France," and, moving two and three centuries and two days in the festival schedule forward, "For Two Lutes: Virtuoso Duets from Italy and England," with well-established masters of the instrument Ronn McFarlane and Paul O'Dette.

Musicians at both concerts represent also the age spread of the field, indicating its future health and the continuity of the repertoire and the skills required to perform it.  The young musicians of Alkemie display a dizzying variety of musical connections in their program biographies, including such extra-musical interests as mycology and "bouldering," a verb previously out of my ken. 

Alkemie's concert last Friday had the five members variously engaged with the musical setting that unifies the program: northern France in the 12th through 14th centuries. "Gothic" is a term most commonly associated with church architecture; the music that falls under that description lies upon less familiar cultural terrain. The manuscripts that make it accessible allow for much filling out by performers today: tempo, dynamics, instrumentation, and harmonic support are areas left up to today's exponents.

The ensemble's music is complemented by two members' dancing, especially pertinent in bringing off the charm and vigor of the estampie dance form. Tracy Cowart and Elena Mullins carried out the rounded choreography and gestural formality of the trouvere favorite, sometimes accenting the characteristic rhythms with foot stomps. Floor diagrams of medieval dance not being available to modern research, printed verbal descriptions are the basis for the choreography, it was explained.

There were enchanting a cappella vocal trios by the ensemble's women: Mullins and Cowart joined by recorder player Sian Ricketts. Among the vivid solos was Cowart's "Por mon cuer a joie atraire," with a drone accompaniment by Niccolo Seligmann, playing the mechanically unique viola a chiavi.  Mullins showed herself to be a compelling singing actress with the program's conclusion, "L'autrier chevauchoie," an emotionally fraught narrative about love's pains and pleasures. David McCormick, the ensemble's other member is, like Seligmann, a vielle player.

With a distinct emphasis on the vocal art, Alkemie literally gave voice to our distant cultural forebears
Paul O'Dette and Ronn McFarlane played English and Italian lute duets.
and their struggles with the same passion of love that governs much of our behavior (and our music) today. When it comes to instrumental music solely, a different kind of resonance must be sought. It's a more subtle kind of reflection of national styles, at least as arranged in a delightful concert by O'Dette and McFarlane.

The first half of their program focused on 16th-century Italy, and the most famous name represented was Galilei — but probably because Vincenzo Galilei's son Galileo helped establish, with much controversy, an accurate understanding of heavenly bodies. Vincenzo achieved a more specialized fame, and three pieces by him were a significant part of the concert's first half. 

The turn away from polyphony that Vincenzo Galilei and some of his contemporaries achieved in fashioning the new form of opera was yet to come. Instrumental counterpoint and the influence of the madrigal tradition gave Italian composers an apparent predisposition to setting parallel lines against a melody, giving them an independence that puts the new material on an equal footing. 

There was lots to listen for Sunday in the exchange of materials, sometimes with echo effects, and the imitation of short phrases in different registers. That was evident not only in three pieces by Galilei but also in a selection of several by Francesco da Milano, and — ratcheting up the need for virtuosity — arrangements for two lutes by Giovanni Antonio Terzi of organ pieces by Claudio Merulo.

In contrast, English writers in the same period, as represented by the duo-recitalists, focused more on songs harmonized and dance forms like the pavane and the galliard. John Dowland, the foremost Elizabethan song composer and lute specialist, shows in his Fantasie no. 7 how the spirit of song can be elaborated in extended phrases while the bass line remains simple. This was a solo to treasure by O'Dette. 

And it was with Dowland that the duo ended their appearance after being called back for an encore. Managing the trick of two players on one lute, they played "My Lord Chamberlain's Galliard" with McFarlane standing close behind O'Dette and adding his two hands adjacent to O'Dette's.  It was a marvel to watch as well as to listen to. And it was brought off with the same flair and coordinated attention to detail that characterized the whole concert.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Rob Dixon introduces music from his new CD at the Jazz Kitchen

Rob Dixon has built a following over the past 15 years that is more than the product of hard work and
Rob Dixon talks to his public Saturday night.
a willingness to be present in all sorts of musical contexts. As important as those qualities are, he exhibits ceaseless creative energy when he plays. He gets through to people.

On soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones (chiefly tenor), his sound is always firmly centered, and he communicates directly in his compositions and solos. When improvising, Dixon can sometimes throw out a lot of notes, but he always eases back to a kind of simple urgency. He never seems to lose his feeling for the phrase, which makes his style accessible to jazz cognoscenti and casual fans alike.

With the impending release of "Coast to Crossroads,"  he seems poised to widen his fan base, helped by the advocacy of Charlie Hunter, the wizard of the seven-string guitar, who produced the recording and plays on it.

A preview of that disc was offered Saturday night at the Jazz Kitchen. Joining Dixon in the front line, as on the CD, was trombonist Ernest Stuart. The contributions on "Coast to Crossroads" of Hunter and drummer Mike Clark are essential and clearly a boost to the recording's commercial prospects. But the rest of the local band that presented tunes from the new CD was fully up to the assignment of showcasing the music, mostly originals. They were Steven Jones, keyboard; Brandon Meeks, electric bass, and Richard "Sleepy" Floyd, drums.

The attributes of Dixon's sound mentioned above were fully evident. So was the fiery panache of Stuart's trombone, fully complementary to the leader's playing. Without the textural pervasiveness of Hunter's guitar, the wonderful "T 'n' T" combination of tenor and trombone was pushed to the forefront. Yet the local band functioned as a unit largely because its members are familiar to one another on the bandstand; Meeks and Floyd are anchors of the hip-hop band Native Sun. Jones is nearly as ubiquitous around town as Dixon.

The boogaloo feeling of "San Leandro," which opened the set, enjoyed the horns' splendor on the unison theme. Dixon laid out a coherent solo that set the pattern. Jones followed concisely, and Meeks offered fluency without clutter. Floyd had a way of sounding laid-back while never sacrificing exuberance in the groove.

To the degree that this band's music is derived imaginatively from the Headhunters' style (with Clark behind the drum kit), I found Meeks and Floyd more satisfying than the bassist and drummer Herbie Hancock brought with him Tuesday for a Hilbert Circle Theatre concert, which had such Headhunter references as "Actual Proof" on the set list. This sounds like local patriotism, maybe even narrow-mindedness, but I would place the partnership displayed by  Meeks and Floyd in "Dreams in Exosphere" (a tune not on the CD, Dixon told the audience) on the highest level of what such a duo can accomplish. There was no daylight between the pair's concept and execution; it was that tight.

"Black Mountain" furthermore displayed the quintet's special excellence. After a brief introduction by Jones, Dixon on alto showed his knack for establishing a reflective mood and not abandoning it after dialing up the volume. He's a rare soloist in never allowing the latter half of a solo to contradict the first part. Too often you hear some jazzmen  put variety into their playing in a rather slapdash manner, as if they were thinking: "Well, that's enough of that. How about some of this now?" Dixon always keeps his balance and sense of direction.

Stuart's trombone outing was effusive yet to the point; Jones' wah-wah or simulated vocal setting for  his solo had the same unerring sense of knowing what counts. Jones, always a sensitive accompanist, was the only other band member needed for Dixon's musings on the standard "It Could Happen to You," the last number before a vigorous encore that turned the band into a sextet, with the cool customer Marlin McKay stepping up on flugelhorn. Right to the end, I continued to be amazed by Floyd. Like the man on the forthcoming record, this drummer is a master of that crisp funk style, and can fold into his governing patterns deft arabesques and accents. He's not only in the pocket — he sews in whole new pockets.

This being labeled a CD release party, that  party feeling never let up. But it also indicated new vistas for the leader in material he is master of. Borderless fame and recognition? Rob Dixon, it could happen to you.

[Photo by Rob Ambrose]

Friday, June 29, 2018

Finding room for wonder and details in the universe: "Silent Sky" introduces a new theater group

After I first encountered Walt Whitman's poem "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" in my teens, I thought it supported my defensive posture about science. My initial enchantment with stars and dinosaurs several years before was fading against the challenge of actual high-school science classes, getting simple experiments to come out right and all that.

So I took the poet's departure from an astronomy lecture to contemplate the heavens unaided as superior to studying them; it wasn't the only time in adolescence I grabbed onto something in order to justify an immature perspective. I felt confirmed especially by the line "How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick."
The women of "Silent Sky" celebrate astronomical advances.

The poem is quoted at a crucial place in "Silent Sky," the stunning inaugural production of Summit Performance Indianapolis, which I saw in preview Thursday night at Phoenix Theatre's Basile Theatre. Lauren Gunderson's play articulates one woman's struggle to make an impact in the all-male science world around the turn of the last century.

More than that, the triumph of pioneering astronomer Henrietta Leavitt was to have reconciled the exhausting research of collecting data about stars with the sense of wonder that had sparked her interest as a girl. As seen through the prism of this play, the Whitman line I once thought inclined me toward the humanities really means that being tired and sick in pursuing knowledge may be a necessary cost of putting your awe on a sound footing.

As presented in "Silent Sky," Henrietta's vision is not only internally compatible, but also somehow ennobling. One side of it feeds the other. Carrie Schlatter's portrayal of Henrietta radiates the strength of each side of the vision. Just as the universe as we know it expanded as the result of her efforts, so does the character grow into a larger apprehension of her place in life — even as she encounters both resistance and repeated personal sorrows.

The vision is rooted in the character of a brilliant woman willing to sacrifice restrictive values she's inherited from her conventional Wisconsin family, devoted to domesticity and the church, and to contend with patriarchy. The play, with its ornate but witty, pungent language, traces Henrietta's pursuit of her dreams and the admiration she wins both from her family and her colleagues at Harvard. As illness takes its toll late in life, the resonance of her discoveries reaches worldwide, but "Silent Sky" stays close to her personal pains and pleasures.

Lori Wolter Hudson directs the show with emphasis on Henrietta's variations of distance and brightness with respect to her surroundings and those dear to her. You might see that as a projection of the character's restlessness, independence, and resolve, so consistently evident in Schlatter's performance. It's also an oblique parallel to Henrietta Leavitt's discoveries about the distance of stars from Earth based on more than their comparative brightness. She showed how the pulsating appearance of stars called Cepheids provides a regular measure of how far away they are from other stars and from our planet. These calculations led to certainty that many stars whose light reaches Earth are located light-years beyond the Milky Way, the home galaxy once regarded as the whole universe.
Henrietta Leavitt stands at the center of the universe she helped expand.

The vividness and energy invested in the other roles kept the play from relying too heavily on the central figure, as if she were the sun around which other planets revolve. This gives the production a firm balance between the magnetism of Henrietta and the pull of people close to her and their tendency to follow their own agendas. Her close yet feisty relationship with her sister, Margaret, was set out dynamically as a lifelong bond tested by the siblings' contrasting temperaments; Devan Mathias represented Margaret as someone constrained by a sense of duty, largely at ease with her place in life and able to negotiate what was expected of young women, while keeping her artistic dreams alive. In one thrilling scene, her music provides Henrietta with a breakthrough insight.

As Henrietta's fellow toilers in the unseen professor Pickering's "harem" of female "computers," Molly Garner handles superbly the transformation from the severe, hypercritical Annie Cannon to an active suffragist, a woman blossoming under the initially resisted influence of Henrietta; and Gigi Jennewein sparkled as Williamina Fleming, the proud but hospitable recipient of Pickering's trust after a stint as his housekeeper, salt-of-the-earth Scottish to the core.

As the professor's narrowly valued and rather prim assistant Peter Shaw, Adam Tran negotiated the amusing late-Victorian delicacy required of proper relationships between the sexes, yet with a plausible manner of bursting through some of the character's well-learned politesse (apologies to "Sympathy for the Devil") to express a life-altering passion, which turns out to be doomed by time and circumstance.
Shaw  looks at a gift book Henrietta has just opened.

The set encompassed places where big dreams can be both nurtured and starved, nudged and thwarted. But the overall appearance of Abigail Copeland's scenic design was tilted toward the open-ended feeling the drama gives the audience, with vistas on aspects of reality that rarely impose themselves on our everyday outlook, even today. Laura E. Glover's lighting design carries out suggestions of a real world beyond the everyday one; there's glory in the concepts she realizes in this show, avoiding artificiality and underlining how the advancement of knowledge takes place in quotidian human contexts.

So strongly realized in all departments, "Silent Sky" is an antidote to both the anti-science mentality now so much out in the open and the continuing suppression of women's potential to do more than prop up male achievement. With its emphasis on theater by and about women, but for everybody, Summit Performance Indianapolis has laid out a path in its first production that promises a well-grounded way forward.

[Photos by Emily Schwank]

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A borrowing from Gilbert & Sullivan to comment on Americans' vexed feelings about civility

Herbie Hancock brings his decades-long legacy to Hilbert Circle Theatre

At the beginning of Herbie Hancock's career, technology had only a small role to play in the creation
Herbie Hancock has a lot of music to contemplate.
of new jazz. The plugged-in part of the music was largely restricted to setting the desired studio conditions, with wizards like Rudy Van Gelder influencing the sound of jazz as the wider public encountered it on recordings.

Hancock's representation in the old Blue Note catalogue is still a part of his long legacy worth cherishing. But  the pianist quickly turned his fascination with electronics into a myriad of ways to communicate musically. Some of the flowering of this involvement was evident, both positively and otherwise, throughout a two-hour concert Tuesday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Presented by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (which did not appear), Hancock was accompanied by Lionel Loueke, guitar; James Genus, electric bass, and Trevor Lawrence Jr., drums.
Hancock divided most of his attention between his Fazioli piano and Kronos keyboard synthesizer.

As inviting as Hancock appeared to be in his initial remarks from the stage, what he dubbed "the overture" proved difficult of access, at least to this listener. The piece went in several directions that seemed only faintly compatible. Some sort of galactic scatteration of sound started things off —  out-of-tempo splashes and burblings that eventually coalesced into long-delayed forward motion.

An episode for Loueke, including self-harmonizing via Vocoder vocals, paid chirpy respects to his West African heritage. That's part of his unique appeal as a guitarist, including a nice variety of percussive and plucked notes alluding to acoustic folk instruments of his homeland. There would emerge in the course of the long set another sound, sort of like the Theremin but without as much swooping, that still was unattractively gloopy and  redundant with the electronic sonorities that Hancock often favors. The leader's  briefly employed strap-on keyboard could just as well have been left on the table.

Toward the end of the overture, "Chameleon," a Hancock hit from the 1960s, was brought into play. It seemed to fit mainly to show that the leader intended to incorporate at least a few parts of his legacy. The quartet worked well together: The drummer was adaptable to the various Hancock styles that melded in the course of the concert, though his funk drumming adhered to the groove less crisply than Harvey Mason's or Mike Clark's. I favor Genus as an acoustic bass player to the degree I know his work; on the more liquid-sounding electric bass, he had a tendency, especially in a long solo near the end, to clutter his lines to the point of incoherence.

The Hancock style at the piano is deserving of its historic stature. From his early 20s on, he showed a way forward out of bebop piano. True, many jazz pianists even today find their own ways to build upon Bud Powell, but from the first Hancock had an individual manner of rounding out his phrases, generally eschewing the unaccented tendrils and offbeat wisps that were so much a part of bop phrasing. He usually defines cadences and phrase endings in a more emphatic way than the bop norm, and uses thick chords to point toward temporary stopping points.

This personal style has continued quite strong up to the present. His harmonic imagination is still fertile. Putting together chords in sequence — he also favors short single-line phrase sequences — is often a fresh adventure for Hancock. He has his personal cliches, of course, but his keyboard vocabulary is so rich he can make rhapsodic and angular playing work cheek by jowl unlike anyone else. And as his recordings with Miles Davis demonstrate, no pianist "comps" better. He inspires his colleagues to swing harder just as much as any drummer. In this concert, I felt he was particularly strong in both solo and accompaniment functions during another trip down memory lane — the concert finale, "Cantaloupe Island."

Monday, June 25, 2018

Tempesta di Mare at Early Music Festival: Three Berlin sisters helped move the German city's musical culture forward

From J.S. Bach to Mozart: Ensemble from Tempesta di Mare
Music from the collection of three remarkable Jewish sisters who were well assimilated two centuries ago in upper-class Berlin formed the program that Tempesta di Mare brought to the Indianapolis Early Music Festival Sunday afternoon.

The link between J.S. Bach and Felix Mendelssohn in the seamless web of German musical culture had much to do with the advocacy and nurture of Sara, Fanny, and Bella Itzig, as members of the Philadelphia baroque orchestra demonstrated for an audience at Indiana History Center.

The program's bookends helped frame the concert as an exercise in late 18th-century/early 19th-century household music-making, but pitched at a high professional level. As Tempesta di Mare re-created that cultural milieu, the most eminent Bach made for an obvious start to the concert; the Itzig sisters were devotees.

In this arrangement of Trio Sonata No. 5 in F major, six visiting Tempesta di Mare members participated, displaying firm balance and lilting coordination throughout the three movements (the more lightly textured slow movement brought forward recorder and viola). Musicians were Gwyn Roberts, recorder (transverse flute for most of the program); Emlyn Ngai, violin; Daniela Giulia Pierson, viola; Lisa Terry, cello; Adam Pearl, harpsichord, and Richard Stone, lute.

The concert's most obscure composer, Johann Gottlieb Janitsch (a favorite of Sara's), was represented by Sonata da camera in E-flat, an arresting piece launched with a dramatic recitative and wrapped up with a dance-like finale marked "tempo di polacca," betraying its Polish inspiration with its three-beat measure featuring emphasis on the second. The rococo style predominated; the contrapuntal heritage was clearly in retreat as the 18th century unfolded in its second half. This style applies as well to W.F. Bach's Trio Sonata in B-flat, featuring lots of exchanges of melodic material, all crisply negotiated and threaded with ornamentation, with the bass line fairly routine.

The opportunity to compare two Bach sons' styles was withdrawn because of a program change. The most interesting of the master's composing offspring, C.P.E. Bach, was unfortunately not represented as planned. His Rondo in D minor, Wq. 61/4, is typically quirky but well put together, and covers a wide expressive range in its four-and-a-half minutes; at least that's how it sounds in the recorded piano version I have by Mikhail Pletnev.

The program-closer was peppy and light-hearted. A medley of sprightly tunes from Mozart's exotically flavored comedy "The Abduction from the Seraglio" concluded the concert; the Singspiel was written when the composer had lodgings at Fanny's house in 1781-82. The selection, played here by violin, viola, cello and flute, clearly is designed to provide fun for reasonably adept amateurs — "classic salon fare," as the program note says. After an abbreviated overture, there's the lover Belmonte's hopeful opening aria, followed by the ebullient drinking-song duet "Vivat Bacchus, Bacchus lebe," which is capped by the servant Osmin's hasty anticipation of personal victory, "O wie will ich triumphieren."

A capsule view of the opera itself was thus less the object of this arrangement than a celebration of bonding around readily accessible good music. This quality seemed representative of the program as a whole, raised to a professional level by the festival's guests from Philadelphia.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

52nd season opens as Indianapolis Early Music Festival releases its inner folkie with Ayreheart

Mark Cudek, artistic director of the Indianapolis Early Music Festival since 2007, has long prided
Ayreheart: Willard Morris (from left), Ronn McFarlane, and Mattias Rucht.
himself on assembling seasons of great diversity that help erase narrow notions of early music.

So, in addition to "high art" and high Baroque repertoire, he welcomes expertise in music with more ancient roots but with the kind of range to which the crossover label can be applied without embarrassment. Thus, it was a natural Cudek touch to open the festival's new season Friday with Ayreheart in a program titled "Ayres of Albion: Songs, Dances, and Ballads of England, Scotland, and Wales." Before popular, folk, and classical became labels applied to different genres, there was a musical mainstream that embraced everything but the sacred.

Ayreheart is a trio put together by Ronn McFarlane, a lutenist and Cudek colleague in the Baltimore Consort, which played a Shakespeare-themed concert in the 2016 festival. Other Ayreheart members performing Friday at the Indiana History Center were Matthias Rucht, percussion, and Willard Morris, colascione (a lute-like instrument of Italian origin). The latter instrument was lightly amplified to project its bass line, as were McFarlane's lutes.

Balance and sufficient projection into the center's 290-seat Basile Theater were thus achieved without compromising the string instruments' natural plucked sound. (There was a hint of the revered Jaco Pastorius in Morris' solo late in the program.) Rucht played a variety of percussion, sensitive to the various musical contexts, focusing on hand drums.

For all the essential contributions of the other two musicians, Ayreheart is mainly a showcase for McFarlane, who supplemented the annotation in the program book with engaging oral program notes from the stage. He displayed a graceful command of his instrument, which he played in both 19-string and, late in the program, 24-string versions. His articulation was both briskly ornamental and meltingly lyrical, as needed. "Passemeze," a 16th-century piece by Adrian LeRoy, for instance, featured some artful retreading of the same short path, with the busier, more compact runs giving ample evidence of McFarlane's virtuosity.

The program had another star with whom the lutenist could share the limelight. Vocalist Sarah Pillow, who has parlayed her jazz background outward into various styles ("an eclectic singer,' her website says), was on hand as guest to offer picturesque interpretations of several songs. Her planned participation diminished in the concert's second half, as she was not in good health, according to festival officials. Yet she delivered admirably, from John Dowland's "Come Again" through the program's rousing conclusion, a nonsense ballad from medieval England called "Nottamun Town."

An original encore, "Sings in Her Sleep," demonstrated that her voice could sustain a singer-songwriter intimacy, though the genre almost demands a microphone. But from belting ("John Barleycorn," which ended the first half) to the hard-to-define early-art-song territory (Dowland's "Fortune, My Foe"), she showed herself to be an adaptable artist. Emotional urgency was sometimes linked credibly to a soft-spoken manner, as in the medieval Welsh lament "Ddoi di dai." A gruesome Scottish ballad, "Twa Corbies," brought forth a nasal timbre suitable to its account of a couple of ravens discoursing on their plan to devour a slain knight bit by bit.

Amid the raucous vocals, "John Barleycorn" featured an instrumental chorus that bore similarities to gypsy jazz, and there were further signs that idiomatic flexibility is part of Ayreheart's stock in trade. The range and tastefulness of Rucht's percussion contributions seemed unerring, part of whatever would bring these short pieces across most effectively to an audience, which was obviously appreciative Friday night. A further chance to savor McFarlane's playing will be available in this festival on July 1, when he will appear in a lute duo with Paul O'Dette.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Cincinnati Opera's 'Coronation of Poppea': First-century Rome meets 21st-century America, mediated by Monteverdi

Deep personal intrigue at a society's highest levels may not permit drawing as many parallels from one era to another as temptation offers. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy said, and when power and wealth are involved and sustained by flattery, the intimate rancidness radiates in a peculiar way. So it was in the reign of the Emperor Nero, whose increasingly cruel and willful rule (54-68) was immortalized by the historian Tacitus.

Nero and Poppea prepare to canoodle.
Drawing parallels to today must be resisted, especially when the vehicle is such an operatic landmark as "L'Incoronazione di Poppea," by Claudio Monteverdi. When norms are overthrown and government by iron whim takes over, it may be best to let each historical tub rest on its own bottom. So on to opera-reviewing!

Monteverdi came a little late to the turn-of-the-17th-century creation of opera, then had a remarkable "late spring" as a composer in his 70s.  One of the last results was this opera, marketed under its English title "The Coronation of Poppea" by Cincinnati Opera, though as always with this company, the 1642 work is performed in the original language.

The colorful Italian libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, drawn from Tacitus' narrative, served the esthetic mission of early opera to give the words primacy. Cori Ellison's English supertitles for this production are witty, elaborate, and striking in their character-revealing clarity. With such people, even their chicanery is a blunt-force instrument.

As seen on opening night June 21, "The Coronation of Poppea" was gloriously performed and conceived with hints of period authenticity leavened by modernist simplicity in Amanda McGee's costumes. Thomas C. Hase's lighting and Adam Charlap Hyman's sets evoke the severely "baked"-looking, eerie architectural facades of Giorgio de Chirico. Large but human-scale units were moved apart and together, their prim rounded Romanesque arches serving as exit and entrance points. A staircase becomes central when the title event takes place. It also is plain and severe, its balustrades echoing the steps' right-angle regularity.

The restlessness, vanity, and ambition of Nero and his mistress Poppea, along with secondary
Ottavia brings Ottone into her plan of revenge.
machinations of the embittered Empress Ottavia and the jilted warrior Ottone, were reflected imaginatively in Zack Winokur's stage direction. There was no stinting of physical roughness to match the verbal roughness typical of these Monteverdi/Busenello Romans. Expert vocalizing in rapt clinches or flat-out from the floor held no apparent terrors for these singers.

An outstanding countertenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo, sang Nero. His range of dynamics and tone color was astonishing, and you could easily believe this Nero was a hidden aesthete — a figure whose passion for the arts turned toxic as the toxicity of absolute power overcame him. There was something of a spectacle about Constanzo's performance, and it was wholly fitting. Getting his own way is a need Nero applies an artistic flair to. If the Stoic philosopher Seneca stands in his way, as he does valiantly in the first act, all Seneca's previous service means nothing. It's "What have you done for me lately?"

Seneca tries to get Nero to obey reason, not passion. It will not end well.
Alex Rosen gave ample dignity and resolve to the role of Seneca. His bass voice displayed a flexibility that served the portrayal well. The real Seneca was much less of a good guy, and the opera reflects that checkered reputation early on with the amusing colloquy of a couple of soldiers on watch dishing on him.

Seneca's philosophizing was of the superficial variety, and he made sure he trimmed it to the prevailing winds; he seems to have been a kind of ancient Roman Jordan Peterson. In the opera, he is mostly heroic. His "antidote to chaos" fails, however; his boss is having none of it — he will dump Ottavia and marry Poppea. Seneca's  suicide at the end of the first act was movingly staged, accompanied by a pleading trio well-sung by Andrew Owens, Christian Purcell, and Daniel Moody (all of whom also took other small roles).

As Poppea, Sarah Shafer gave every reason to believe a sensualist might throw over just about everything for her sake. Her singing was brilliant, laden with emotional purpose and directed toward the peak of female achievement in Poppea's society. Still, she avoided making the character seem too calculating and hard-edged.

Shafer's excellence was nicely poised against the contrasting soprano voice of Sarah Mesko, as Ottavia, who had a kind of wounded diva grandeur that made her sympathetic even when she was roundly denouncing all men. (Guilty as charged! at least this man was tempted to confess.) Ottavia's farewell to Rome in the final act is one of the score's high points; the aria signals that a sturdy patriotism is wrapped up in the discarded empress' shattered self-esteem, and that came through in Mesko's performance.

The cast's other countertenor, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, likewise made for a fine contrast in that voice category to Costanzo. Though caught up in intrigue, his character Ottone helps establish a moral context for the action. Cohen conveyed both a lover's stricken desire to make things right by any means necessary and enough of a conscience that even Nero is impressed. He and his wannabe girlfriend, Drusilla, given buoyancy and self-sacrificing ardor by Melissa Harvey, are imperially rewarded by a not unwelcome exile together.

With two important contributions — one more dramatic, one chiefly vocal — Rebecca Ringle Kamarei made an outstanding impression as Arnalta, the well-filled contralto role of Poppea's confidante. Her resistance to Poppea's headstrong romantic tantrums was stoutly set forth in the first act; in the second, her performance of a tender lullaby to the high-maintenance young woman floated under expert control.

Gary Thor Wedow conducted the performance adoitly, with the exemplary, idiom-true Cincinnati early-music ensemble, the Catacoustic Consort, in the pit. I particularly fancied the seductive chitarrone accompaniments and, at the other end of the expressive scale, the crucial contributions of the percussion.

By 1642, Monteverdi had honed his expert command of the madrigal in several enduring volumes. He tweaked that genre's expressive complexity toward the ends of monody in "Poppea," and this production reinforces the realism of his art by dispensing with the peripheral allegory and mythology of some versions. Love conquers all, not as the mischievous, fleet-winged and bare-bottomed Amor, but as the abstract, all-powerful magnet and chaos-generator felt as much everywhere today as in first-century imperial Rome.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Variegated, inspiring and intense, 'Indecent' opens the final part of Phoenix Theatre's season

After the splash of "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" linked Phoenix Theatre history from the old era to a new one last month and had Vonnegutites genuflecting toward North Illinois Street, the first post-transition production to come to the new facility's main stage focuses on the interaction between theater and the world itself. It has unique historical material to apply to the Shakespearean touchstone, made banal by repetition, of "All the world's a stage," flipping it to something like "all stages are the world" and the reversed corollary, "and all the players merely men and women."

Two women kissing got Sholem Asch's play off the New York stage.
"Indecent" is a Tony Award-winning play by Paula Vogel, a stylistically free-flowing ensemble drama with the feel of a historical documentary. It traces the fortunes of "God of Vengeance," a 1906 Yiddish play written in Warsaw during the time of pogroms and with European Jews subject to modernist forces of disintegration as well as centripetal pressure to resist both embedded and overt anti-Semitism.

Vogel examines the losing battle of Sholem Asch's play, which included the first onstage kiss between two women, to survive translation into English and stay clear of legal trouble. In 1923, the cast and producer were arrested for obscenity, tried and convicted. Changes to the text behind the author's back had not removed it from controversy, part of which was fueled by the New York Jewish establishment's objections to its linking of Judaism to a brothel setting.

Harbinger of trouble: A literary-salon reader finds the play indecent.
With that court case as the fulcrum, "Indecent" then shows the aftermath: The elusive American dream had so clouded the vision of liberation among Jewish immigrants that some returned to the Old World, eventually to face more conclusive restraints on their freedom. Asch's disillusionment was total, though he survived McCarthyism by trimming his sails somewhat; his services to Yiddish literature remained strong, despite his firm suppression of any "God of Vengeance" revival.

The word "decent" has roots in an ancient Greek verb meaning "to seem good." "Indecent," a favorite label of censors and prosecutors, describes whatever does not seem good to those doing the labeling. Long ago it was a kind of litmus test of impropriety. Society can dismiss the likelihood that you are good if you don't seem good. Hamlet famously "knows not seems," as he tells his mother, and look where it gets him. "Indecent" as a title has multiple resonance in Vogel's play. For most of us, in and out of theater, knowing what seems good to others about us is crucial to social success and a reputation for decency.

Asch at first argues to have his play seem good to his fellow Polish Jews. One early advocate, Lemml, minyan (the number of men Jewish law requires for a communal religious service): "Ten men standing in a circle calling each other anti-Semitic."
New World frolic: A girl-group gig in the Catskills.
remains loyal as the scene shifts to New York. But resistance at the initial readings in a Warsaw literary salon is a harbinger of what will happen on the wider stage. The young author witheringly offers this secularized definition of a

Like most of us, Asch believes he is good; both his intentions and his art support this. But "God of Vengeance" becomes a burden posing continual threats to his conviction that traditional religion and narrow moral codes erect obstacles to human potential.

The way Vogel structures the play is carried out in the Phoenix production with an arresting yet flowing gracefulness under Martha Jacobs' direction. The cast is an adaptable, shape-shifting troupe divided into three generations — an Elder Man and Woman (Mark Goetzinger and Jolene Moffatt), a Middle Man and Woman (Bill Simmons and Abby Lee), and a Male and Female ingenue (John Goodson and Courtney Spivak). There is charm, ferocity, humor, and pathos in their portrayals.
Lemml (left) and Sholem Asch formed an unshakable bond over "God of Vengeance."

Only the passionate and doomed Lemml  (Nick Jenkins) remains the same to hold the narrative thread firm. Yet his idealistic resolve is insufficient to remove from his life the question that afflicts Jewish history, particularly in the first part of the 20th century: What must members of an oppressed minority do to seem good to one another as well as to the strangers among whom they must live and hope to flourish? And what sacrifice of integrity may be involved if they succeed?

With music and arrangements by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva, performed to accompaniment tracks, the cast smoothly negotiates the abrupt shifts of mood and character. Their movement is enhanced from time to time by Esther Widlanski's choreography. Changes of setting are signaled by projections. The most common phrase in the projections is "a blink in time," emphasizing the transience of on- and offstage life alike. The screened words also guide the audience as to which language the characters are using: Yiddish, German, or English.

Old-fashioned suitcases are lugged into position as props and furniture, reinforcing the troupe's
Isolated and threatened, the "God of Vengeance" troupe huddles.
feeling of never being at home, whether performances are well-received or not. The chrysalis of "God of Vengeance," from which it hopes to burst forth butterflylike to a welcoming world, is the Rain Scene, celebrating the love between two women in terms that echo the Song of Songs. Its triumph, writ large in the performances of Lee and Spivak,  is hedged round by the circumstances in which challenging theater takes place.

The world, it turns out, is rarely welcoming. The stages on which adventurous art is mounted are fragmented and absorbed by intrusive agendas. Along the way, however, philistinism ironically refines and ennobles the artistry, as this production demonstrates. Still, all the stages are the world, which mocks what happens in plays by stubbornly not having an ending. "Indecent" is a label that's hard to erase and all too easy to apply to one blink in time after another. "Indecent" the play affirms that resistance and perseverance are worthwhile.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, June 15, 2018

'La Traviata' opens renovated Music Hall for Cincinnati Opera season

Alfredo (Ji-Min Park) woos Violetta (Norah Amsellem) the courtesan he's admired from afar.
Never before have I enjoyed the opportunity of seeing two different productions of a core-repertoire opera within 15 days. Endless comparisons could be made, but in covering Cincinnati Opera's opening-night (June 14) performance of Giuseppe Verdi's "La Traviata," I've decided that's my proper focus. So I will bring in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' English-language version, which I attended May 30, at just a single point.

The Cincinnati production is owned by Chicago Lyric Opera. It has an expansive, old-fashioned look, well suited to mark the reopening of Music Hall, once again the company's home after two years away. The opening scene at Violetta Valery's house speaks to the glamour associated with the heroine at the height of her cachet in mid-19th-century Paris. The stage picture of the courtesan's lavish lifestyle, despite the tragic turn the opera takes, is an echo of the generosity that Cincinnati Opera needed to call forth to accomplish a renovation costing $143 million.

The party guests are a well-turned-out crowd in a setting that meets the eye attractively in Desmond Heeley's costume and set design. But the first thing to link the opera with the hall's renovation is the sound in the prelude of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, as conducted by Renato Balsadonna, making his Cincinnati Opera debut.

The orchestra sound blossoms now at all dynamic levels, favoring the softer end of the spectrum during the prelude. As the performance unfolded, the transparency of the accompaniment was remarkable, and Balsadonna was particularly effective drawing forth such subtleties as the thin texture behind Violetta's spoken reading of a letter from Giorgio Germont in the last act, as well as the foreboding lower-string figures that follow as the doomed heroine sings her farewell to the world.

Dramatically, the performance found the core of the action from the outset. The superficiality of upper-class life, given an extra fillip when one of the entering party guests casually flips his cape upon a servant's head, was picturesquely portrayed under Linda Brovsky's stage direction. She gave an individuality to them all, though that impression may have been more apparent than real, as one necessarily focuses on Violetta and the quickly generated passion between her and a young admirer, Alfredo Germont. Apart from a rushed acknowledgment that the approaching daybreak required their departure, the guests were also vocally lively and precisely coordinated.

The Parisian upper crust parties, with the fashionable Violetta at the center.
As Alfredo, Ji-Min Park indicated the young man's head-over-heels infatuation gesturally and vocally. He justified the rapt attention the libretto calls for  the gathering to give Alfredo with a robustly delivered drinking song, "Libiamo." He radiated self-confidence that hardly made the character's initial shyness believable. When they were alone, the rapport with Norah Amsellem's Violetta was intense.

The coloratura emphasis of the soprano's role in the first act did not display Amsellem at her best:
The rapid singing was overlaid with vibrato, which seemed to put a drag on her agility, though coordination with the orchestra stayed intact. Fiercely articulated high notes were sometimes yelled. But I was struck by an indication of what she would bring to the role later by the way she sang "Ah, fors'√® lui," a slow aria in the midst of the vocal fireworks. She brought a genuinely reflective manner to it, uncanny insofar as it could have been Violetta's wordless inmost thoughts about the possibility of true love coming her way, against her better instincts (expressed in the subsequent coloratura outburst, "Sempre libera").

The dramatic gifts of both principals really shone in the first scene of Act 2.  Set in the country house to which Alfredo and Violetta have happily settled, she having abandoned her dissolute life, the action tugs the main characters every which way, sparked by the heavy interference of Alfredo's father. I liked the self-satisfaction that Park embodied as Alfredo celebrates his newfound happiness, a relaxation interrupted by the information that Violetta has secretly impoverished herself providing for the couple. Alfredo's mood turns on a dime, as he resolves to assume responsibility for the lovers' debts; Park's performance of Alfredo's exit aria blazed with brilliance.

The music takes on a somber cast with the entrance of Giorgio, played with the right hint of warmth by Youngjoo An, despite the senior Germont's initial severity.  He combined provincial propriety with a humane quality that becomes more characteristic of him later on. You felt that An's Germont could indeed embrace Violetta as a daughter, as she requests him to do after agreeing to make the sacrifice he asks. Balsadonna's patient pacing of the lengthy Germont-Violetta scene was superb, as was the tense colloquy between father and son that followed.

Often commented upon is the variety of vocal and dramatic gifts needed in the title role. I can't resist Ernest Newman's description of the initial change in the heroine: "In the second act we are suddenly confronted with a new Violetta, all tenderness and goodness and self-sacrifice, without so much as a coloratura trill or roulade left in her." Good thing, too, with this Violetta: Amsellem was moving into territory where she seemed fully at home. Her noble request to Germont to convey best wishes to his daughter, who will only be able to enter into an advantageous marriage if the courtesan agrees to abandon Alfredo, could have brought a lump to the most stoical throat.  In Act 2's second scene, in which the effervescence of upper-crust social life is ominously revisited, her Violetta was a veritable tangle of anguished second thoughts right up through her shocking humiliation at Alfredo's hands.

By the third act, when her consumption is bringing the no-longer-fashionable courtesan to the brink of death, Amsellem's performance was transcendent. The aforementioned "farewell" aria, ending with "all is over now" barely breathed out as she lay on the floor, elicited the show's most prolonged ovation. A Violetta in Act 3 must literally sing as if her life depended on it. This is what we got from Amsellem, who conveyed a woman on a believable transition from earthly suffering to the blissful life beyond. As arresting as OTSL's ending was, with Violetta already in the next world as she sings her last lines, this "Traviata" kept the heroine achingly in the real world until the very end, when she suffers a fatal collapse while rushing toward the permanently remorseful Alfredo.

Cincinnati Opera's "La Traviata" is a lavish and also deep-delving portrait of a legendary woman and her milieu. English translations of the title struggle to do her justice, yet to some extent all of them strike home. A prim Victorian version of the title is "The Strayed Reveller." When Violetta uses the word "traviata" twice near the end, one translation renders her self-description as "an erring soul." Another just frankly has her call herself "a fallen woman."  The broadly assertive humanity that animates this production prompts me to prefer "an erring soul" — as we all are, more or less.

[Photos by Philip J. Groshong]

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Getting in deep with Bach's violin-keyboard sonatas: Vinikour and Pine join forces in two-CD set

In J.S. Bach, there is always at least as much as meets the eye (or ear). Everything can be heard, and often its relationship to its surroundings is immediately evident as well. But – it's time to embrace the clich√©— there's always more than meets those two relevant sense organs, too.

It's all on display in "J.S. Bach: The Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord" (Cedille Records), which came out last month in double-CD performances by Rachel Barton Pine, violin, and Jory Vinikour, harpsichord. (The duo was among the guest artists two years ago at the Indianapolis Early Music Festival, so my local readers are aware what they are capable of.)

My standard of comparison couldn't be more different from the new version, which adheres to 18th-century performance practice and the sound that presumably would have been familiar to the composer. The comparison is a 42-year-old double LP with Jaime Laredo, violin, and Glenn Gould, piano. What follows is not a point-by-point comparison to the detriment of either version of the six sonatas, but reflects my response to the different perspectives each duo offers.

Long ago, my admiration for the Laredo-Gould versions was undercut by the feeling that their rapport managed to be solid despite what seemed to be their occupying two different artistic planes: Laredo's modern violin rich in vibrato (though carefully applied), with lots of sustained phrasing; Gould's piano characteristically "sec," nimbly articulated, patrician even in its occasional eccentricity. They seemed to be thinking about the music differently, yet always paying attention to how they might find common ground and make it work.

An old favorite: The Bach sonatas of Gould and Laredo.
No such qualms have any force in the Vinikour-Pine interpretations. Not only is the rapport there, but I also don't sense any stylistic daylight between them. Even in the interest of full-spectrum playing, they never deviate from unanimity of style. My main quibble is that the sound of the harpsichord makes some of the dialogue hard to pick out.

In the Sonata in A major, repeated phrases at the unison or at different pitches in sequence are hard to hear distinctly, whether the harpsichord is anticipating or following up on the violin. When the violin has held notes against a rapid keyboard pattern, then you can easily discern how the harpsichord is answering something the violin has just played, or repeating a figure or phrase it has introduced moments earlier.

The Cedille release's recording balance seems to be keenly judged. I may be expressing a stubborn preference for the piano, because I also like Gould's application of dynamic contrast, which is never overblown, but illuminating. But ornamented lines come across especially well from Vinikour's harpsichord. Some slow movements seem just about perfect in revealing the duo's poise; the Largo of the G major sonata is exquisite.

The trio-sonata distribution of "voices" comes across especially well in the Allegro of the Sonata in C minor, which starts out like a two-part invention, with the violin's entrance adding the essential third voice. At length, however, you become more aware of the forward motion of both instruments, very much united in effect, than you are of just what is being moved. This is not an interpretive flaw, I hasten to emphasize, but something Bach must have gloried in. Some of the distinction between the two instruments was probably meant to be clearer to the performers than the audience.

Indeed, I gained a new appreciation of Laredo-Gould while also preferring Vinikour-Pine in many respects. Along the way, it was brought home to me how both the main keyboard instrument and the main string instrument in classical music became increasingly incompatible as they developed. For all the great violin-piano sonatas produced from Beethoven on, any successful result has had to overcome the inherent polarity of the instruments.

"The contrast between the violin and the piano," noted Elliott Carter in an LP essay about his 1974 Duo for Violin & Piano, "is fundamentally a gestural one — between stroking and striking." And in that work, the late American composer made the most of the dissimilarity. Substitute the harpsichord for the piano, thus replicating Bach's view of the sonata partnership, and you have two stroked instruments. In spite of surface contrasts of the two, the harpsichord's terraced timbres and the violin, with its firm but unbiting 18th-century sound quality celebrated, are most compatible. That's especially true when there is as great a meeting of minds and skills as Vinikour and Pine display here.