Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The predatory lender wants "money, honey" and the new CFPB says "Go for it!"

Money Honey Well, they texted me, they called me, rang my doorbell What they wanted from me I knew damn well: I’d borrowed a thousand from Golden Valley Lending, Now they wanted 4K — and they were unbending. It was: Money honey, un-un-huh, money honey Money honey: You got no friend at the CFPB. I said, I thought the bureau was here to protect People hard up from having their lives wrecked He said, Fairness in lending is strange and foreign; I suggest you take it up with Elizabeth Warren. I want: Money honey, un-un-huh, money honey Money honey: If you want to get along with me. When Trump won, the sun shone; now it’s looking rainy Consumer finance help’s in the hands of Mulvaney, He once called the agency “a sick, sad joke” Now he’s got the power to make sure I stay broke, And it’s: Money honey, un-un-huh, money honey To rip you off is official policy. I screamed: The bureau’s not doing its job for the nation He said, it’s about humility and moderation; I said Mulvaney feeds from the payday-lending trough With protecting consumers all bets are off. You want, Money honey, un-un-huh money honey It’s funny money, and you’re in bed with the CFPB.

Monday, February 12, 2018

East Coast Chamber Orchestra brings works for strings to IVCI Laureate Series

Susie Park (inset) and the versatile ECCO (with different personnel from Sunday's concert here)
Besides presenting a couple of the 20th-century masterpieces for string orchestra Sunday afternoon, the East Coast Chamber Orchestra (ECCO) added the local premiere of Derek Bermel's "Murmurations" and a well-worn showpiece for founding member Susie Park, a Laureate in the 2002 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.

The IVCI Laureate Series concert at the Indiana History Center showed off the 17-year-old conductorless orchestra, a cohesive group despite regular changes of distinguished young personnel, in Bartok's Divertimento and Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony in C minor, op. 110a.

Of the Hungarian composer's works of serious mien, Divertimento is the most genial. Despite the  acerbic quality of the first-movement melodies, in the opening movement cheerfulness keeps breaking in. ECCO's performance of it honored that buoyant quality. The dour second movement had the ensemble switching gears decisively. The orchestra's command of such a broad emotional spectrum was displayed consistently in its unanimity of attack and the alert coordination of dynamics. Accents were firm and well-distributed. The folding in of soloistic elements, particularly evident in the concerto-grosso-like finale, was smooth, playful, and almost teasing.

The Shostakovich is a much-performed version of the Russian composer's eighth string quartet, an autobiographical work that's well served by the spaciousness of Rudolf Barshai's arrangement. The intensity of so much of the music attains an extra dimension when it's played by a chamber orchestra of this caliber. What can seem like overstatement when the piece is tackled by just four players moves toward simple grandeur. The occasional solos were haunting, and the stunning force of the full ensemble, given such textural variety by the 17 players, made the work's three Largo movements easier to digest.

Park was featured in Pablo de Sarasate brief character showpiece, Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), op. 20 No. 1. In the suspenseful introduction, a few leaps were not quite on target, but the soloist gave lots of character and precision to a soft, fast staccato passage and the swooning glissandos that follow. The ensuing Allegro molto vivace is what sets folks' pulses racing, however, and Park and her colleagues found the right pace and spirit of abandon. Everything moved with sparkle, the left-hand pizzicatos were well-defined, and the rush to the final bar had the right feeling of freedom and impetuosity.

The Bermel premiere here came in the ECCO schedule in between Philadelphia and New York first performances of the piece, whose title denotes a flock of starlings. The movement titles had slight discrepancies in the program, but each designates a place where the composer observed the birds. The dreamy second movement had too much sugary lullaby about it, though it caught the gliding motion of the title well.

The first movement of "Murmurations" offered a charming introduction to Bermel's concept; without specifically seeing a flock before our eyes, we could sense in this music that kind of mysterious communication that conveys the very idea of "flock" to human eyes. Our earthbound forms of collective action seem much clumsier in comparison.

The finale, titled "Swarming Rome," emphasized rapid fluttering and the tug of collective movement in a context drawn from the minimalist aesthetic. The whole collection of patterns swept upward into a final outburst that drew delighted gasps from the audience. The age-old dream of flight had come alive in a new way.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

A fantasy song: Threatened by the intrusion of veganism, he says, 'I'm gonna fry me a liver!'

Carmel Symphony Orchestra heralds the love holiday with all-American concert

At home in the Paladium as the Center for the Performing Arts' local resident orchestra, the Carmel
Janna Hymes, music director
Symphony Orchestra
is adding luster to its history with a new music director in her first season.

Janna Hymes and the 85-piece ensemble delivered hearts and flowers to the CSO's supportive audience Saturday night with a concert that included a seasonally appropriate premiere, "Love Letter" by Michael Thurber, a violin concerto written for Tessa Lark, silver medalist in the 2014 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.

Reinforcing both the American and love themes of the concert were pieces by American masters George Gershwin, Charles Ives, Leonard Bernstein, and Howard Hanson.

Hymes has elicited alert, unified playing from the orchestra, as was evidenced by the short works that preceded the concerto. Though Gershwin's Overture to "Girl Crazy," a hit show from 1930, set the celebratory mood immediately, it tucks into its heady progress the woundedness of "But Not for Me," a bittersweet reminder of feeling left out of what Valentine's Day is oversold to celebrate.

Shore leave for sailors in New York City is the milieu of "On the Town," a dance-rich early success of Bernstein's on Broadway. Love in its temporary and long-range forms trips the light fantastic, from the bumptious "Great Lover"  through the plaintive "Lonely Town" to the bustling "Times Square, 1944." The effervescence of the concluding piece was a little wild and woolly in this performance, but the spirit was properly bold.

The only other place in the concert where balance and blend seemed somewhat approximate was in Variations on
In 2014, Tessa Lark became the first American IVCI medalist in decades.
"America," a brightly bedecked arrangement for orchestra by William Schuman of Ives' youthful whimsy for pipe organ. Color contrasts, often abrupt and unprepared, and shifts of tempo and rhythm pose challenges for musicians.

When the cheeky mosaic of sounds doesn't appear entirely natural, some of the humor can be lost. For the most part, however, the Carmel players captured all the Yankee cussedness Ives sought to apply to the venerated tune whose patriotic words used to be known to every American schoolchild. The United Kingdom has recently become sole proprietor of the melody its subjects are proud to call "God Save the Queen."

The work served another purpose: as a kind of calisthenics for the demands of Hanson's Symphony No. 2 in D-flat major ("Romantic"). As easily as the piece goes down with audiences, it is challenging to bring off, threaded with mesmerizing tunes, one of them often deployed, and its wealth of turbulence and tenderness. This performance clarified a score that has its potentially muddy moments. The composer's defiance of modernism in a work intended to carry the open-hearted feeling of 19th-century symphonies into a new era was stoutly argued in a splendid account Saturday night.

That achievement couldn't dim the spotlight thrown upon Lark and the new piece written for her by doublebass player and LaPorte native Michael Thurber. In four movements of love-inspired genre painting and portraiture, Thurber has emphasized his beloved's frisky nature, her individuality and, musically, her strong affinity for country and bluegrass fiddling.

The playwright A.R. Gurney was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for "Love Letters," a great favorite of celebrity couples focusing on a fictional couple's relationship over 50 years. Thurber's similar title in the singular shows that his is one message, split four ways, reflecting on a relationship that so far is short-term. Like most new loves, it gathers impressions of the sort that are likely to form lasting memories and that will confirm the initial mutual attraction.

Thus, the music, though fresh in its presentation, has a nostalgic cast. It is up to the soloist, the object of these fond reflections, to portray herself. And Lark, a captivating performer, sounded fully committed to fleshing out the musical portrait. The performance thus succeeded in giving a localized illumination to love's perpetual two-way street. In Carmel, that doubtless includes roundabouts and "YIELD" signs — a gentle warning to all lovers.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Paul Taylor Dance Company visits Clowes Hall with three strong pieces from its vast repertoire

The Paul Taylor dance universe was subject to some focused star-gazing Friday night at Clowes Hall.
Masked and elegant: The climax of "Cloven Kingdom"
The visiting modern-dance troupe, a solid force in its field for several decades, presented a program constructed like a concerto: a challenging, attention-grabbing, fast-paced first movement; a contemplative, slow-paced Adagio, with some briskness inserted; and a finale weighted toward a memorable "message" of stress and resolution.

The program spanned 1976 to 2002, and, taken together, the works displayed the versatility of the dancers in the 18-member touring troupe. "Cloven Kingdom" made for a high-relief calling card: Its coordinated crudity and elegance are woven into unity through a striking score juxtaposing Corelli concerto grosso movements from the baroque era with percussion ensemble (Henry Cowell and Malloy Miller).

This ambitious classic requires a wide range of expressive movement, some of it sweeping and patrician, some of it evoking primitive ritual dances.  Carrying an epigraph from the Jewish Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza — "Man is a social animal" — "Cloven Kingdom" expands on wisdom that is by now a truism. The work is expansive anthropology in dance form: Through all eras, human beings find different ways to relate to one another in groups, flowing between tendencies toward equality and toward hierarchy. Headgear initially appears on one woman, dutifully attended by a female underling; eventually these odd, shiny hats are the norm as "Cloven Kingdom" approaches a collective statement.

All along the way, the impression is that trial and error, fads and evolving values, have loosely governed changes in social behavior. The white-tie-and-tails for the men, the pastel-colored, long-skirted dresses for the women speak to an aspiration toward more high-minded interaction, even at the risk of pretentious sophistication. The tension is underlined by a host of sudden reversions to tics and gestures from primitivism, even animal life. Early on, the women move bent forward, their arms at right angles, forearms down, hands back, twitching almost like insects. Statuesque figures face stonily forward; then their heads nod down and from side to side in the manner of animal self-grooming. At one point, the men hop jerkily with wide stances, facing outward. Two women link arms to twirl like folk dancers and fall simultaneously a moment later. Mating dances and ballroom dance compete on equal footing.

The effect of such flashes of primitivism is comic, but Taylor's choreography holds back from the comedy of technique. Whether Corelli or the drummers hold momentary sway, the dancing that the contrasting styles accompany is balanced and coherent, despite the wide spectrum of movement. The tour de force is an episode for the four men. Just about everything professional dancers do looks difficult to me, but the requirements here seem fantastically difficult, especially when carried out in formal wear. The abrupt, unconventional head movements alone would seem to invite injury. This quartet drew wild cheers from the audience.

"Eventide" provided a respite after the first intermission. It's a lyrical piece performed against a
The moment of rescue and revival in "Promethean Fire"
backdrop of bare trees in twilight. The dusky atmosphere is host to a series of duets framed by ensembles for the eight dancers. Stages or perhaps just aspects of couples relationships are sketched, with emphasis on depth of rapport rather than surface attraction. Flirting, abandonment, calmness and exuberance are set in soft-focus splendor to deeply centered music (much of it spearheaded by solo viola) by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The finale, "Promethean Fire," shifted the program back to the threats and promises faced by people in the larger world. In a panel discussion the night before, one of the dancers noted that Taylor rejects the suggestion that the 2002 work was provoked by 9/11, but the veteran choreographer is known for not directing public response to his art by any verbal cues, especially topical ones. The ancient Greek half-god who defied Zeus by bringing fire to humankind is, of course, essential to understanding the work.

But what Prometheus suffered as a consequence is less dealt with here than the effect on humanity of advancing beyond what seems to have been ordained. The full company, in black costumes that emphasize uniformity, is under lighting that resembles the well-defined light and shadow of Mannerist painting. To Leopold Stokowski's garish orchestral arrangements of three pieces by J.S. Bach, the action is necessarily shaped as consequential in all respects. Survival is the goal, after which thriving may have a chance.

The striding, purposeful shifts of the troupe, the forest-like solid look of the dancers' upraised arms, and the determined, face-forward postures are subjected to blurring and disintegration. A hard-to-identify menace is at work. There's a climactic collapse at the center, then a Promethean gesture of renewal that gradually lifts the company back into collective freedom. The last few measures of music are accompanied by a sudden accession to ensemble grandeur. It seemed the perfect capstone of this extraordinary troupe's arch of triumph here.





Friday, February 9, 2018

Rust Belt blues in "Sweat," the Russell Stage finale at Phoenix's Park Avenue home

Having advanced in the workplace, Cynthia (Dena Toler) tries to explain to her friends what their employer's up to.
Reading, Pennsylvania's most eminent literary native son, Wallace Stevens, only glancingly captured his hometown and its environs in his poetry, an observation I owe to John Updike, whose hometown was Shillington, a small Reading suburb. A solid bourgeois manufacturing center that came into its own long after the poet (1879-1955) left for New York City, then Connecticut, Reading in the early 21st century could be placed in contention with many other places as a Great Recession poster child.

It's this era, in a play seesawing between 2000 and 2008, that Lynn Nottage focuses upon in
"Sweat," which won last year's Pulitzer Prize in drama. During a run from tonight through March 4, Phoenix Theatre's production will give audiences' emotions a good drubbing even as it confirms the excellence that the 35-year-old company will carry to its new home on Illinois Street later this year.

"Sweat," directed by founding producing director Bryan Fonseca, probes the difficult reality of life in a Rust Belt town contracting the lives of its inhabitants over this century's first decade. The bitterness of descending injustice, spurred by the attraction of cheaper labor as NAFTA opened up Mexico to American manufacturers, consumes the play's characters. Unlike other Rust Belt cities further west, Reading had a justifiable sense of entitlement to more protection from these wrenching changes: Families were long settled there. As the bartender Stan complains: "Loyalty is supposed to mean something — this is America!"

Something that Stevens wrote may apply: "That's what misery is," one poem opens, "Nothing to have at heart. / It is to have or nothing."

Nottage explores that nothing and that heart in great depth, and, as seen in preview Thursday, this production is up to her presentation of the conflicts that misery gives rise to: Interracial friendships are threatened, labor struggles move "whose side are you on?" distinctions to the fore, families lurch toward disintegration, personal ambition can't gain a foothold.

The cunning progression of scenes, guided by a news crawl and specific dates screened above the
stage, will have audiences eager to plug in information as it emerges about the characters. The frame of Jason and Chris, two young men wrecked by circumstances, interviewed by their parole officer Evan (played with no-nonsense authority tinged with compassion by Josiah McCruiston) is quite effective.

Nottage packs a lot into telling everyone's story and giving their relationships plenty of room to strike sparks, with barely a let-up. In the latter category is an extended monologue for Tracey, the feistiest and most coarsely robust of the factory workers at the play's center, recalling her craftsman grandfather, her pride in her hometown's past and what he did to shape it.  It's a beautiful set-piece, one of many moments to be astonished and grateful for Diane Kondrat's return to the Phoenix schedule.
Jason shows Stan and Chris a photo of the motorcycle he intends to buy.

Others include a brief scene involving a tense reunion between Tracey and her son Jason, after she is out of work and dependent on self-medicating to treat her back pain. Strung out on opioids, Tracey mumbles bitterly, shuffling when she has to move, prematurely aged. At the preview, that characterization seemed as fully formed as if it had to occupy a whole play. Kondrat can turn on a dime in the middle of a scene, too, which happens when Tracey recalls a rollicking episode in Atlantic City with work pal Cynthia back before Cynthia's promotion strained their relationship: Tracey's recollection of the bond leads right into a withering lecture on a friend's obligation to fight; Kondrat's performance lowered the boom on Cynthia and the audience at the same time.

Dressed for office work, Cynthia tries to stay friends with the suspicious Tracey.
To various degrees, demands for changes reflecting drastic shifts in the characters' lives permeate the play. The cast rises to the occasion: Jason's hair-trigger temper has helped turn him from a short-sighted but intense union loyalist into a skinhead punk; Nathan Robbins bridged the divide convincingly. Chris' more clear-eyed ambition sinks into fidgety confusion in Ramon Hutchins' portrayal as the son tries to negotiate the rift between his parents, Cynthia and Brucie. Dena Toler exemplified African-American upward mobility seeking vainly to stay grounded in origins, yet rise above them. Dwuan Watson gave a seductive performance as the elusive head of the family, a charmer prone to wander off-course as the futility of the union's last-ditch efforts hits home.

Angela Plank poignantly played Jessie, a fragile character ready to share in the militancy of her  friends on the factory floor but defeated by nagging loneliness as she sinks with her comrades into the economic maelstrom. In Phil Male's striking unit set, Rob Johansen presides as Stan, the bartender whose severe factory injury has removed him from that milieu while giving him some stature as a peacemaker and in the classic bartender role of sympathetic ear. The outsize extrovert will pay hugely for this, setting up a heart-stopping last scene. (Johansen also choreographed one of the most violent and tightly controlled fights I've ever seen onstage.) Ian Cruz as Oscar, the bar's overlooked and underpaid busboy, emerges as the upholder of values that the play's context inexorably depletes.

Brucie has some explaining to do to Chris, his son.
Humane values struggle under the shadow of Reading's severe economic stress. It's the nemesis faced by all the characters in "Sweat." Although the factory closure is under remote human control, it has the force in this play of fate. The kind of playgoer who shuns drama that plumbs the sorrows of recent events ("Why pay to go to depressing theater when life's real struggles are depressing enough?") should consider that art removes the inevitable distancing effect of fateful bad news. Its shaping power destroys the illusions through which we process the real world. This production ennobles the characters' struggles and their multiple analogies in the lives of real people, many of them still alive and suffering. We can ill afford to be among those "who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears," in another poet's words.

Maybe that's why Wallace Stevens titled the poem whose first lines I quoted above "Poetry Is a Destructive Force."  And it could also be why the poem's governing image is the lion, presented not so much as a predator as the blissful post-hunt absorber and digester of weaker creatures: a symbol of fate.

That's cold comfort for anybody, whether unarmed against either a lion in the wild or an economic system in our midst. But a play or a poem can be the thing that provides a point of rest, even if we are well advised to stay alert. Let the Bard of Reading speak it:

The lion sleeps in the sun.
Its nose is on its paws.
It can kill a man.


[Photos by Zach Rosing]


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Music of our time for solo piano: Vicky Chow at Newfields

Maybe the performance in an art museum of new music for piano influenced me, with two- and three-
Vicky Chow is committed to new music.
dimensional art in all its silent wholeness so close at hand. In any event, Vicky Chow's solo recital in the Pulliam Family Great Hall at Newfields Tuesday evening had me thinking more of sound sculptures than a linear art form with an implied narrative behind every piece.

It started with the program's first piece. "The Arching Path," by Christopher Cerrone, whose title by itself prompted the audience to think of a journey: a path doesn't mean anything unless it leads somewhere. In fact, Cerrone was inspired by a bridge in Rome, Chow said after playing the 16-minute piece. Its gentle curvature was suggested by an evolution of its basic material: a steady, high-note pulse increasingly inflected by short phrases lower down that insinuate themselves against the prevailing pattern.

Somehow, the dynamic dappling of that high-register opening and the gestures toward putting a foundation under it brought to my mind time-lapse photography of a tree growing from the canopy down. Even thus absurdly reversed, growth itself suggests a narrative, so I suppose I wasn't entirely resisting the composer's much different image. Nonetheless, everything tended to imply the realization of a pre-existent form, like being brought down in enchantment from fluttering sunlit leaves into dank, tangled roots. The rhythmic insistence gradually lessens, as if an inexorable process had given way to pondering. Before that happens, the contrasting phrases resemble music from somewhere else trying to sneak in — a haunting Ivesian touch — before the brief, strong punctuation at the end.

Her performance of the Cerrone displayed Chow's rhythmic security: She can keep more than one strand clearly in view, giving their mutual contradictions integrity. That was evident as well in David Lang's "this was written by hand," which produced the impression of a sustained muttering in which lines differently laid out cut across the surface. Chow's command of tone came to the fore in the singing quality she lent to the left-hand melody at the end.

She played an immense Yamaha grand, which was gratifyingly responsive in all registers. The instrument — as well as Chow's stamina — was put to the test in Michael Gordon's "Sonatra (Equal Temperament)," which concluded the recital. Sounding every note on the keyboard (I'll take the recitalist's word for it), the 15-minute piece is a vast network of arpeggios, each one as individual as snowflakes or fingerprints, set in relentless succession. Before I heard a note, I imagined the title's first word was a pun on the name of Frank Sinatra, but given what ensued, I can't imagine the faintest allusion to Ol' Blue Eyes is intended.

Toward the end, glissandos enter the texture, and a chafing juxtaposition of glisses and arpeggiation brings the work to climax about 12 minutes in. Everything "sounded," with precious few exceptions. The work is unforgiving; one assumes the composer has not dropped in a rest or muted note here and there, so inexorable is the pattern he establishes. So I'll count the performance as near flawless.

A work for prepared piano opened the second half, Andy Akiho's "Vick(i/y)," which suggests an intended name pun. The title's hint of a choice how to spell Chow's first name is deliberately represented by the composer's stimulating alternation of genuine piano sound with partially stopped notes that come through like bells and steel pans. Again, Chow's advanced mastery of rhythm was on display, and the range of sounds we heard rubbed the dust of cliche from the notion that the piano can be made to sound like an orchestra.

The program's other two works were Julia Wolfe's "Compassion," in which tender tremolo passages held their own against fierce, shouting chords, and John Luther Adams' "Nunataks (Solitary Peaks)," an abstract depiction of Arctic mountains that rise abruptly out of ice fields and glaciers. Here my tendency to process the recital as a sculpture garden in sound was most securely founded. Adams' patient, nature-focused muse brought into view heaven-reaching forms offered for admiration as if glimpsed across a vast plain.

Hearable development in music was largely left behind by modernism, as — for good or ill — composers found ways to make their narratives more arcanely sourced and conceived in problem-solving terms. What seems to be emerging in 21st-century music are works that are both fresh and fully accessible because what you hear is what you get. When played with Chow's skill, poise, and commitment, such pieces give the illusion of offering the all-at-once-ness of painting or, allowing for viewing from different angles, sculpture. Her recital amounted to an expert gallery tour.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Smoke Gets In Our Eyes: revision of an old song to comment on the President's rhetorical fires

Smoke Gets In Our Eyes They said he had potential To be presidential (oh-oh) I of course replied, not meaning to sound snide, “He couldn’t if he tried.” They said, he knows how to deal; I said, first he has to feel Beyond firing up his base, so it’s no surprise When we realize Smoke gets in our eyes. It appalls us, when he calls us “Traitors,” ‘”un-American,” more or less, After we fail to cheer and hail His self-serving State of the Union address. It’s clear that he meant to stoke The fire — that was no joke — oh,no: He pours fuel on his lies, as democracy dies Smoke gets in our eyes. Smoke gets in your eyes too: When will you get wise?

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Two ways of proclaiming in the public square: Symphonic Choir performs Stravinsky and Vaughan Williams

Choral music inherently asserts music's role in addressing our collective will. But composers often seem to enjoy the tension between serving that function and choosing texts focusing on the individual. They hope to speak to the polarity that pulls us toward understanding our private experience as well as what connects us to widely shared traditions.

Igor Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" and Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Dona Nobis Pacem" display different paths toward achieving such a synthesis of public and private. The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, under the direction of Eric Stark, performed both works with clarifying intensity Saturday evening at Butler University.

It's likely that no greater gathering of musicians has performed onstage in the Schrott Center's short history. The acoustically admirable hall was hard put to allow the large, well-trained chorus to come through consistently against the large instrumental ensemble. This was more to the disadvantage of the Vaughan Williams than the Stravinsky.

Much of that has to do with the characteristic manner each composer exhibits when speaking in the public square. Stravinsky rather severely insisted that music should not be responsible for meeting any listener's emotional needs. Instead, it sets about dealing with musical issues of interest to the composer, and attempts to engage the listener on that plane.

Eric Stark displayed mastery in two much different works.
Vaughan Williams likely would not have denied that, but a piece like "Dona Nobis Pacem," with its variety of sacred and secular texts, reaches out to assert a universal desire for an end to war. Everything is brought to bear on this goal. It's moving enough, but offers no challenge to the audience to meet it halfway. We're there already. The English composer, frankly, might well be charged with often belaboring the obvious, not only in this piece.

Stravinsky rejected criticism of his "Symphony of Psalms" for not rooting their significance in Hebraic origins. The Latin Vulgate texts he chose for setting psalms 38, 39, and 150 emphasize the psalms' relevance to centuries of Christian worship. Universality was not a goal. And in his autobiography, the Russian composer declared his unusual fulfillment of a 1930 Boston Symphony Orchestra commission as a project "with great contrapuntal development" that entailed putting voices and instruments (including a plethora of winds and no violins)  on an equal footing.

Oddly enough, such features made "Symphony of Psalms" more suitable for performance in the Schrott than "Dona Nobis Pacem." But I hasten to add that the juxtaposition of the two works was hugely stimulating, and the preparation of the varied forces yielded often excellent results. It's just that the Vaughan Williams demands a larger arena, partly because its composer clearly wants the voice to dominate. But the gravity of his theme seemed to call for a large orchestra, which ironically threatened to mask the choir. It's definitely conceived as accompaniment, but it readily elbows its way to the front.

The work's effective use of two vocal soloists gave welcome relief from this imbalance, as the accompaniment becomes more subtle. In this performance they were soprano Donata Cucinotta and baritone Philip Lima. Both acquitted themselves well, Lima particularly in an intimate selection from Walt Whitman. After a wobbly initial entrance, Cucinotta settled down and made eloquent her representative role of prayerful requests for peace. (Only a persistent background noise — from lighting or ventilation? — marred the soloists' softer passages.)

Stravinsky's somewhat distant veneration of the psalm texts was underlined by the occasional competition between instrumental and vocal forces. But his interest in emphasizing counterpoint also allows for a wealth of individuality to stand out, especially in the second-movement fugue, to the text of Psalm 39. The poise with which every voice plays its part and knows just when to yield, when to be assertive, was well brought out in this performance.

Truly, Stravinsky — like the Psalmist's God — "hath put a new song in my mouth." It's a song that the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir had well in hand, as did the specially engaged professional orchestra. In the second movement, for instance, after a complicated mix of activity by all concerned, an a cappella plateau opens up before us, and the choir's pitch security held firmly.

Despite Stravinsky's having cast a jaundiced eye at music's ability to express anything, I was moved Saturday to more than admiration by the concluding measures of "Symphony of Psalms." As much as "Dona Nobis Pacem" impressed itself upon me, its tendency toward overstatement had me thinking back to the Psalm 150 magic of "laudate Dominum" and "Alleluia."

In drawing upon a much different cultural and religious tradition and using a conventional string orchestra, Stravinsky just three years before, in the finale ("Apotheosis") of "Apollo," had fashioned a similarly poised, reverent, subdued conclusion. Yet each ending is specific in capturing its respective creed and devotional practice: pagan Greece on the one hand, Christianity on the other.

Universality can be oversold, as comforting as the values associated with it may be. Evoking common values is not irrelevant to music in the public square, but it doesn't have to sweep everything before it. Some will prefer one mode of address to the other. That opportunity for comparison, in addition to the performance quality, is what made this concert exhilarating.









Saturday, February 3, 2018

2010 IVCI bronze medalist Benjamin Beilman returns to town to solo with Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

Bramwell Tovey displayed rapport with ISO in debut appearance.
The mood was relaxed, animated, and picturesque in the first of two Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts this weekend at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

On Friday, British guest conductor Bramwell Tovey, making his first appearance on the ISO podium, gave an amusing, informative account of the action behind Igor Stravinsky's 1911 ballet score "Petrushka" before an expansive, colorful performance of that work occupied the concert's second half.

And Benjamin Beilman, who earned a bronze medal (third place) in the 2010 International Violin Competition, showed there's plenty of spine in Camille Saint-Saens' Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor — not just sweetness and Second Empire charm. I've heard performances of this that indulge overmuch in the music's sugary quality.

Benjamin Beilman: Grit and glory.
What won me over Friday was the grit and glory he exhibited from the start of his performance. Giving virility to the main theme made the lyrical contrast that followed all the more impressive. Furthermore, the slight slowing at phrase ends in that second theme was well-judged. The performance had a freedom and suppleness that was confirmed by Beilman's relaxed, unstressful stage presence.  Rapid garlands of triplets in the finale held no terrors for him. For an encore, he played the Gavotte and Rondo from Bach's third partita for solo violin in a similar manner, emphasizing its links to light dance forms.

Now 28, the violinist made a strong impression on me in competition nearly eight years ago, and is also well represented in the Music@Menlo series of recordings from an annual chamber-music festival near San Francisco. It's too bad his full-page biography in the ISO program book could find no room to mention his excellent showing here in 2010.

Tovey and the ISO opened the concert with the fizz and deluxe appeal of Carl Maria von Weber's "Invitation to the Dance" as orchestrated by Hector Berlioz. It was framed by exquisitely rendered solos by principal cellist Austin Huntington. The soft episodes sustained their lilt, and the boisterous rondo theme underlined the perdurable attractions of the waltz, whose vogue among popular dance forms remains supreme, above the fads of fox trot, twist, and boogaloo.

"Petrushka" was notable Friday for the spaciousness and glow of its many colors. The bustle of the Shrovetide Fair music was set against the bizarre claustrophobia of the ballet's story of three puppets.
The character dances before the story's climax were amply delineated; it strikes me that Maurice Ravel must have cocked an ear toward the brief dancing-bear episode when he orchestrated Bydlo (the ox cart) in Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."

After the riot of local color from the nursemaids, the mummers and other such cavorting, Tovey and the orchestra held the audience spellbound through the tortured vitality and suspenseful pauses toward the often ebullient score's very end. The indifference of a crowd on holiday toward someone else's struggles makes a fine "Petrushka" performance like this one properly troubling. The wise opening of W.H. Auden's "Musee des Beaus Arts" comes to mind.

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along....


Or indulging in Fat Tuesday revels and taking in a puppet show before Lent's period of penance.






Thursday, February 1, 2018

No strings attached: PRISM Quartet widens the spectrum of the Ensemble Music Society concert series

Timothy McAllister, Zachary Shemon, Taimur Sullivan, Matthew Levy.
Central as it has become in various popular genres, particularly jazz, the saxophone — a family of instruments whose tonal and expressive range is as broad as any — exists somewhat on the margins of classical music.

Its invention in the mid-19th century militated against ready adoption by composers. The symphony orchestra was already a closed club by Beethoven's time; refinements on instruments in good standing were introduced as the 1800s progressed, and the percussion section blossomed. Otherwise, it was chiefly the French who found any place for Adolphe Sax's invention in orchestral or chamber music: A staple of today's repertoire, Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, features a beautiful saxophone solo.

Yet the instrument has been subject to odd hostility over the years, partly because of its association with jazz at a time when that music was roundly scorned by the musical establishment. The eminent English pianist Gerald Moore (1899-1987), known primarily as a singers' accompanist, recalled with horror his salad days as a cinema organist in Canada. He described that organ as an "instrument of torture" comparable "for sheer horror with the saxophone, the harmonica, and the concertina."

The saxophone was bracketed with an even more marginal instrument by H.C. Colles, music critic of the London Times, in the chapter he added in 1930 to C. Hubert Parry's influential, late Victorian "Evolution of the Art of Music." Casting a jaundiced eye on musical innovations, Colles observed: "The twentieth century has the saxophone and the 'Swanee whistle' and is blowing them for all its worth. Will the year 1983 witness the publication of a literature for them comparable to that with which 1683 endowed the violin?"

At the risk of offending devotees of the Swanee (or slide) whistle, I think that by 1983, and continuing up to the present, a worthy repertoire for the saxophone has been well established. A great portion of that is due to the efforts of the PRISM Quartet, a saxophone ensemble in business for 33 years that made its first appearance under Ensemble Music Society auspices Wednesday night at the Indiana History Center.

With a network that has allowed it to take in imaginative transcriptions as well as new music, PRISM shared some of its riches with a near-capacity audience. Its members are cementing individual legacies as well as the ensemble's collective one through faculty positions at four different universities. So the health of the saxophone — over the Swanee whistle and the concertina, for sure — should be assured for the rest of the century, at least.

The youngest composer represented, Julia Wolfe, wrote "Cha" in tribute to her father, a devotee of Latin dance forms. It struck me as a high-spirited piece strongly conveying the exertions of the dancers, their captivation by a whirlwind of rhythms, and their happy exhaustion at the end. Flutter-tonguing, pitchless exhalations into the horns, and a melange of tempos conveyed the feeling.

Similarly, at the end of the concert, a work with a whiff of program music about it was more explicit about the comical aspects of its theme. Michael Daugherty's "Steamboat" incorporated a bluesy, gritty feeling from the start with a honking riff from Taimur Sullivan's baritone saxophone. A mock-mechanical vigor permeates the score. There was a juicy trilling episode focusing on Zachary Shemon's alto later on. Some call-and-response figures evoked black music of the fields and churches in the Mississippi watershed region. A brief cadenza for tenor (Matthew Levy) introduces a subdued passage for contrast, a la "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." The work ends with imitative whistle screams (Timothy McAllister's soprano) and an ensemble unison at the dock.

The panache with which the voyage was brought off was unrelenting. In a more somber study of timbre, melody and harmonic subtlety, Martin Bresnick's "Every Thing Must Go" sketched out a tribute to the composer's teacher, Gyorgy Ligeti, in three concise movements. Levy's "Above" displayed the chorale-like poise and unstrained soaring aptitude of an expert saxophone ensemble — features that were treated to more somber suggestions in Roshanne Etezady's "Keen," which opened the concert.

The receptivity of classically unconventional small groups to transcriptions was naturally addressed as well. The PRISM Quartet presented four selections from Salvatore Sciarrino's "Pagine," each of them showcasing different ways of combining the four central saxophone types. The impassioned flow of harmonies through dissonance in a Renaissance madrigal by Carlo Gesualdo balanced the restrained swing of George Gershwin's "Who Cares?"  Pieces by two baroque giants sharing a birth year (1685) completed the set: a bright, intricate J.S. Bach "fughetta" and a Domenico Scarlatti sonata with a compact host of demands, all of them neatly met: trills, syncopation, precise dynamic swells and diminutions.

Opening the second half was William Bolcom's arrangement of six brief pieces from Schumann's "Album for the Young." This selection alone offered manifold illustrations of the rapport and poise of the PRISM Quartet, as the mischievous "Knecht Ruprecht" was juxtaposed with the dreamy "Sheherazade," for instance.

PRISM's decades of working to deepen and augment the possibilities of the classical saxophone — indivisible by four, to borrow the title of the Guarneri String Quartet's book — should have made the point to anyone's satisfaction Wednesday night. The dated skepticism of Gerald Moore and H.C. Colles seems pretty cobwebby, given the saxophone's present-day pertinence in the ever-expanding realm of classical music.




.