Monday, April 30, 2018

Actors Theatre of Indiana's gothic fun: 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' is completed in a tuneful, playful, specter-banishing way

I admired the indecisiveness, or perhaps the passive resistance, of the few audience members who dropped the entire ballot into the basket near the end of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" at the Center for the Performing Arts' Studio Theatre.

Fundamentally, of course, audience involvement ought never to be passive. This show goes further, inviting patrons to vote on their choice of the eponymous hero's killer to answer the perennial question of its genre: Whodunit?

Edwin Drood (Cynthia Collins) is the center of attention from a spectrum of acquaintances.
But to drop the whole ballot in the basket, oh well: maybe that's an inspired choice, because the frame setting of Rupert Holmes' boisterous musical comedy is an English music-hall troupe desperate to engage with its audience at every juncture. So whodunit in this context is a question whose answer is blowing in the madcap wind.

In the Actors Theatre of Indiana production, which opened over the weekend, the outsized outreach of the show was unstinting. Seen Sunday under DJ Salisbury's direction, the cast mingles with and teases the audience before a note is sounded or a scripted word is spoken. And the uninterrupted span of the two-hour show affords no let-up.

From there, Dickens' story, whose authoritative ending will never be known because the author died before finishing it, is treated as riotous entertainment in which dark deeds are mainly a way of highlighting the canvas' bright colors. A five-piece band at the rear of the stage, under the direction of Keith Potts, weaves a tight spell around the songs, which vary from poignant, spicy or caricaturish solos to ensemble rave-ups.

Plaintive contrast: Rosa Bud listens to Puffer's regretful "The Garden Path to Hell."
Salisbury's choreography is as snappy as the overall direction. Staging of "Two Kinsmen," the bonding duet of Drood and the shady John Jasper, was inspired and crisply executed by a dashing Cynthia Collins and an alarmingly evil-funny Eric Olson.

The high-spirited production numbers, keyed to such soloists as Paul Collier Hansen as the clerk Bazzard ("Never the Luck") and T.J. Lancaster's riveting Chairman of the troupe ("Off to the Races") were exemplary blends of individual and collective energy. The design team set a high standard of sheer fabulousness, with Stephen Hollenbeck's costumes suiting all the characters dramatically as well as for the movement required of the actors playing them.

One wonders if the complete-ballot submitters minded the mandated sing-along,  the music-hall-style
Voice lesson: Rosa Bud submits with trepidation to Jasper's direction.
"The Wages of Sin," with Judy Fitzgerald as the defiantly disreputable Princess Puffer. Perhaps they were among the more vocal participants: There's something to be said for an everyone's-a-winner philosophy with a show like this, given performances of such vivacity and winsomeness.

Bountiful good cheer and flirtatious bounce were contributed by Karaline Feller as Flo. In an audience applause vote, she was elected to dance after a romantic fashion with co-winner John Vessels as the loopy, gap-toothed stonemason and crypt expert, Durdles. No wonder — these were a pair of lovable rogues.

To add a hard-to-place note of exotic caricature, the siblings Neville and Helena Landless were tricked out in a flamboyant repertoire of gestures, poses, attitudes, and facial expressions, played with special attention to comic detail by Logan Moore and Jaddy Ciucci.

The unctuous cleric Crisparkle was loaded with superficial good will and a self-serving touch of piety in Darrin Murrell's performance. Maybe my generally jaundiced view of clergy accounted for my vote for him as the prime suspect in Drood's apparent murder.

For an unclouded picture of innocence, complete with golden locks and almost angelic attire, there could hardly have been a more apt performance than Harli Cooper's as Rosa Bud, Edwin's fiancee up until the couple agrees to break off the engagement in secret.

Dickens is a literary giant particularly known for both an unparalleled sense of fun and heartfelt  insight into life's coincidences and mysteries. So his interrupted swan song lends itself to a romp of the sort of well-coordinated exuberance that it enjoys in this production.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Administration states its basic immigration policy: We hear you knocking, but you can't come in

ISO program explores the exotic, both buoyant and bizarre

Spanish conductor Gustavo Gimeno made a good impression with the ISO.
Years ago I read a short story about jazz musicians. The features of the story (I believe it was in the old Esquire, which once was of literary interest) are long forgotten, but I remember how hip the main character claimed himself to be by preferring Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin" to the most often cited classical piece authentically drawing upon jazz: Milhaud's "La Creation du Monde."

I don't know if in fact jazz musicians who are musically aware outside their genre have a thing for "The Miraculous Mandarin." But I can see why they might, after enjoying the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's performance of the suite Sunday evening at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Compared to Milhaud's masterpiece, "The Miraculous Mandarin" carries no reflection of jazz.
But in the shortened suite version of the Hungarian composer's "pantomime of gestures," the lurid scenario drew from him the spirit of improvisation. Just about any music based upon a stage presentation or a story will have picturesque referents to that story, of course. But something about the offhand, cobbled-together criminal scheme that animates "The Miraculous Mandarin" inspired Bartok to lard his score with bizarre, exploratory solo passages as well as smears and cacophony for ensemble. The result very nearly anticipates the spirit of free jazz: Whether consciously or not, Ornette Coleman and the Art Ensemble of Chicago were inheritors of the "Mandarin" aesthetic.

Guest conductor Gustavo Gimeno of Spain led a piquant, highly charged account of the score. Such vivid solos from bassoon, clarinet, English horn and others! Such ripping outbursts from brass and percussion! The abrupt shifts of timbre and mood — all of them overhung with the urgings of easy money, violence, and sex — were boldly outlined. This is a conductor of uncommon insight and flair, none of it superficially choreographed: Gimeno's posture is ramrod-straight, his gestures large-scaled but also concise and efficient, the tactus high and clear.

He also has fresh ideas about familiar scores. A couple of months ago when we visited Dallas to hear the orchestra my son Theodore is in, I was struck by how Gimeno, in another guest-conductor gig,  handled the "Gavotte" movement in Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony. Swerving from the conventional manner of honoring the French court dance with a patrician flow, he gave a slight Slavic oomph to its rhythms. The suggestion of subtly stomping feet worked quite well, especially taking into account Prokofiev's inclination toward parody.

In the ISO engagement Saturday, his interpretation of Ravel's Mother Goose Suite constantly upheld the fantasy or fairyland element. As transparent as Ravel's writing is, Gimeno drew from the orchestra a suggestion of dreamland that meant, among other things, a quite slow pace in the opening and closing movements — "Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty" and "The Enchanted Garden" — which in the latter piece made the wedding celebration at the very end all the more festive.

Furthermore, he made Tchaikovsky's fantasy overture, "The Tempest," more fascinating than its potboiler lineaments outwardly suggest. At the outset, the horn calls over wavering strings conjured up the mystery of Shakespeare's play. In addition to teeth-rattling storm episodes, there is a plethora of lyrical writing that brought forth full-bore playing. If not from Tchaikovsky's top drawer in the melodic department, it was quite alluring, rising to huge string unisons toward the end. Unanimity in the matter of violin bowing would have been welcome, however.

Javier Perianes caught the flash and filigree of Saint-Saens.
I've saved for last the other guest artist's contribution. Javier Perianes, a countryman of the conductor's, was the adept pianist in Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, op. 103. Dubbed "the Egyptian," the piece also reflects the composer's travel to other places before coming home to Paris.

I once called it a period piece, in a review mainly commenting on Dvorak's Seventh Symphony. This isn't to dismiss such music as never worthy of being played: A period piece of stature can fill today's listener in on aspects of a composer's personal experience and his times; it just doesn't "live" the way a work with perennial appeal does. It seems locked into its milieu, but from time to time it can also speak to ours.

The "Egyptian" is rife with the Orientalism that was in vogue in late 19th-century France. It reached out to embrace the charm of non-European cultures, but in a superficial touristy way. There are moments in this concerto in which Saint-Saens wears his usual guise as a Frenchified Beethoven, and there is a spectacular finish to the piece that readily brought Saturday's audience to its feet.

But most of the work is awash in facility, distributed neatly enough to avoid the impression of merely drifting. Perianes was thoroughly equal to everything the work seems to require of its soloist, and Gimeno was an unexceptionable partner in leading the accompaniment. Called back for an encore, Perianes showed equal command of another idiom: Chopin's in the Prelude in C-sharp minor.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

'Nothing On' to lose: IRT's 'Noises Off' sends up chaos of inept theater

Fantasy fulfillment: Actor sticks it to the director of "Nothing On"
Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" suggests that theater has something in common with the law and sausage: If you love it, you don't want to see how it's made.

But that's exactly what the play has you look at, unsparingly and to hilarious effect. The process by which a provincial British troupe cobbles together an antic comedy is itself subject to farcical distortion under Frayn's cracked lens, as Indiana Repertory Theatre demonstrated Friday night.

The season-ending production incorporates the company's capabilities at a little-visited end of its theatrical spectrum: fast-paced intricate physical comedy, with every bit of action and dialogue pitched at a feverish level.

As in many farces, "Noises Off" at bottom upholds the hoary dignity of "the well-made play." Each of its three acts advances the story, such as it is, and forms a unit that shifts perspective one forward jerk at a time.

In the first act, a woefully underprepared troupe attempts to get "Nothing On," a cluttered caper comedy involving tax avoidance, petty crime, and clandestine trysting, ready for the public. The  harried director is at his wits' end — and his wits would rather be applied to classic drama and sly canoodling with actresses.

In the second, with Bill Clarke's splendid approximation of a Tudor manor turned around to shed unforgiving light on the backstage milieu, the stageworthiness of the feckless show is further challenged by interpersonal intrigue, pouts, fits, and jealousies. We pick up bits of what "Nothing On" appears to be from behind, as if through a scrim of nonsense, with manic gesticulation and tossing about of props dominating the dialogue.

An embarrassment of stripe-shirted burglars is among the astonishments.
It's the slaughterhouse vision of theater at a low ebb, and it emphasizes the somewhat mechanical aspect of farce. Everything is precisely timed, expertly coordinated, like the Harlem Globetrotters warming up to "Sweet Georgia Brown." But, unlike the smooth icon Meadowlark Lemon and his colleagues, this teamwork has to look as if all those desperate attempts to uphold the banner of "the show must go on" are on the verge of falling into a heap. Every "pass" must be a near-miss in an exhibition of virtuosity that will cause audience jaws to drop, when they are not busy quaking with guffaws.

The last act turns the prism once more, presenting the living-room set again and signaling via several false starts that the "Nothing On" team is thoroughly exhausted by the tour, disgusted with one another, and making it evident that they are individually and collectively on their last nerve. We get fitfully galvanized bits of "Nothing On" and a haphazard assemblage of frantic improvisation and missed cues right up to the final line.

Frayn's double vision is reinforced by the IRT's insertion of a fake program about "Nothing On" with a series of droll biographical paragraphs of the cast. The cast of IRT's "Noises Off" can claim more substantial professional credits, and they build upon them here. If the Middle Ages had Nine Worthies to represent the ideals of chivalry, the IRT has nine worthies to stand for the enduring appeal of locked-and-loaded theatrical farce.
In the manic second act, an axe is brought into serious play.

To single out the comedic virtues and celebrate the peculiar energies of all would be tedious. Suffice it to say that each actor portrays a person who, if lacking depth, thoroughly represents a type of person probably found even at higher levels of competence — and not only in theater, but in corporate life generally. The vain, distractable but ineffectually conscientious director; the world-weary, shaggy or shabby battle-scarred veterans; the dim-bulb ingenue; the perpetually overworked and underappreciated stage managers; the glaringly positive sort with a gossip-mongering shadow side; the self-absorbed young divo given to assessments that trail off vaguely; the dense mid-career thespian saddled with crippling vulnerabilities and last-minute, misplaced insights.

Director David Bradley keeps the kettle boiling. Everyone masterfully folds in the irrelevancies Frayn plays with — there's an axe involved, and a cactus— especially in the second act. Indeed, whether the playwright or the production is to blame, you can get dizzyingly caught up in the sheer technique involved in the physical comedy (Jerry Richardson deserves some sort of Buster Keaton award) such that the frayed relationships that contribute to it become abstract and depersonalized. Depending on how you look at it, this lifts the second act into some exalted plane far above petty human squabbles or lowers it to a collective exercise in mere rib-tickling virtuosity.

Whatevs, as the kids say, or used to say. One thing is certain: You will never look at sardines the same way after seeing "Noises Off."  In the history of theatrical food, and by many degrees of magnification, "Noises Off" does for sardines what "The Importance of Being Earnest" did for muffins.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]



Friday, April 27, 2018

Running in exalted circles: J.S. Bach and Philip Glass concertos by Simone Dinnerstein

Philip Glass has expressed his affinity for J.S. Bach in no uncertain terms to Terry Gross on "Fresh Air," and the use of repetitive structures indeed connects both composers over a two-and-a-half-century span.

Simone Dinnerstein plays the concerto for Philip Glass.
"Circles" subjects both men to the artistic vision of Simone Dinnerstein, already celebrated for her performances of Bach since her 2007 recording of the Goldberg Variations shot to the top of the classical charts. Some critical cavils at her style as being too soft, too neatly rounded, even somewhat salon-ish don't register with me.

She is among many pianists to go in a different direction with Bach than Glenn Gould's signature digging in (representative in the Goldbergs of 1955 and 1981). The new release (Orange Mountain Music) brings her together with the Boston chamber orchestra A Far Cry, and their rapport is evident not only in Bach's Keyboard Concerto No. 7 in G minor, BWV 1058, but also in the work Glass wrote for her, Piano Concerto No. 3.

Not much needs to be said about the Bach, except that it shows the simpatico partnership of soloist and ensemble. The keyboard's synchronization with the orchestra in the tutti textures is perfect, and the soloist stands out just enough when the keyboard is in contrast to the ensemble. The impression isn't left that such passages need to be enunciated all the more just because the keyboard becomes individualistic.

This embedded feeling extends to Glass' work. Glass' writing particularly suits Dinnerstein's seemingly effortless tone and the panache of her phrasing. After the dreamy solo piano at the start of the first movement, the tendency of latter-day Glass to be more chromatic and dynamically variegated shows up. Continuing his signature stand against modernism, the music forthrightly restores pulse and phrasing to concert music in a manner that made "minimalism" welcome to many who never got used to post-Webern asperities.

In the second movement, arpeggiation is characteristic of the material, and the atmosphere takes on a mysterious cast. A contemplative feeling is unabashed, and the listener becomes aware that Glass repays close listening; a deepening of the emotional pull he can summon up is evident.

The finale favors downward movement and an anchoring toward the piano's low register. The orchestra becomes sentimental, playing short, billowing phrases that are subtly linked. The spiritual weight of the concerto is reflected here in the movement's dedication to Arvo Pärt.

Admittedly, my old problem with Glass — when you see what he's up to, how do you decide if the piece is going on too long? — re-emerged in the course of a couple of listenings. The descending figure that puts its stamp on the music, usually about five notes long, seems reluctant to retire from the scene. When it does, the piece ends.

The mischievous question arises: Wouldn't I have found this just as moving if it had ended five minutes earlier? I suppose different degrees of attentiveness to what Glass is about determine just how suitable the concerto seems to its length every time a listener engages with it. Nearly 14 minutes for the finale will sometimes seem just right, sometimes a bit tedious. Like Milton's "Paradise Lost" in Samuel Johnson's famous pronouncement, it's likely no one will wish it longer.


Reading Roth under a cloud: How a printing error at a crucial place almost ruined a captivating novel for me

Philip Roth, circa 1977
A character in my copy of "The Professor of Desire" makes a startling admission to the narrator-protagonist, David Kepesh, early in Philip Roth's 1977 novel. The vain, glamorous Helen, with whom Kepesh will soon contract a disastrous marriage, is telling her story of having left a rich lover who sought her approval to murder his wife.

Helen says, in part: "It terrified me to know he could even have such a thought. Or maybe it was so excruciatingly tempting that that's why I went running."

Except in my copy, on page 42, that's not exactly how what Helen says looks in print. The adverb appears this way: "excrutiatingly." We've all encountered typos in books. But this one? No, it was not to be believed. But there it was, in a book published by high-toned Farrar, Straus and freaking Giroux!. A pivotal bit of dialogue had suddenly been knocked askew with "excrutiatingly."

That is not an alternative spelling, as when "protester" can also be correctly spelled "protestor." It's just wrong. "Excruciatingly" has a root in the middle that makes it a crutial — oops, that's "crucial" — choice here. It alludes to the pain of execution on the cross: crucifixion. Crux, crucis — Latin. The second "c" is as essential as a nail through the palm.

Is my discomfort about this the ultimate in word nerdiness? Perhaps. But bear with me: we all depend on constructing a scenario in our heads when we are reading novels. Saying what Roth has Helen say would sound the same either way that adverb was spelled. An actress, encountering either spelling in a script. would pronounce it the same. The character in my head wanted to say it with the full force of what Helen discloses to Kepesh. But the text was jarring me with "excrutiatingly." All of a sudden Helen was a wraith, and Kepesh himself faded a little, and his world wobbled.

It brought home to me the fragility of art. I might have put up with "excrutiatingly" in a work of nonfiction. After wincing a bit, and shaking my head — who read the galleys? where were the editors? The author? — I'd go on undisturbed. But Roth is a master of drawing you into a world — more, a consciousness — that he has invented, often expressed through first-person narration. We will not soon forget Portnoy, will we?

So when we learn how Helen dealt with her ex-lover's request, and how it still affects her, we are processing it through Kepesh's sensibility. He's the title character; desire is his obsessive subject of study, with which the specialty of literature he's paid to profess is fated to compete. And desire is essentially excruciating, can we all agree? It will never be excrutiating.

The novel is about 180 pages long. Could I eventually get over "excrutiatingly" on page 42? It was as though Helen's authenticity had been shattered, or at least cracked a bit. Eventually I sort of put her aside when the narrative did, going on to other things the way Roth so often does. But of course she reappears; Roth doesn't waste anything. Yet I was hoping to find one more typo/error to dilute the devastating effect of "excrutiatingly." I was still mad at whoever had been dozing more than 40 years ago when he or she proofread page 42. If some gremlin needed there to be a misspelling in "The Professor of Desire," why did it have to be there?

Eventually, near the end, a minor character, a Holocaust survivor, uses the adjective "lovey," and I almost wanted to believe the intended word was "lovely." A second error, please! A dilution! But Roth's keen ear perhaps intended to bless this gentleman, as a sign of his foreignness, with "lovey."

So I was left with "excrutiatingly" standing out in sordid isolation. Roth's narrative verve eventually saved the day for me. The illusive force of Kepesh won me over. But the nagging unreality of "excrutiatingly" will forever lie at the crux of my experience with "The Professor of Desire."

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Dr. Ronny Jackson's lesson learned: Like a bridge sinking into water, Trump will let you down

Ensemble Music brings a distinguished season to an end with Pacifica Quartet, plus an estimable singer

The new Pacifica: Austin Hartman, Guy Ben-Ziony, Simin Ganatra, Brandon Vamos.
Making its first appearance under Ensemble Music Society auspices since 2011, the Pacifica Quartet returned to the venerable series Wednesday with half its personnel different from that with which it established itself.

Austin Hartman, formerly of the University of Indianapolis and its fledgling string quartet, is now the Pacifica's second violinist, and Guy Ben-Ziony has replaced Masumi Per Rostad as violist. Founders Simin Ganatra and Brandon Vamos continue to anchor the ensemble as first violinist and cellist, respectively. At the Indiana History Center, the new group presented two works the former personnel recorded for the Chicago-based Cedille label: Shostakovich's Quartet No. 3 in F major and Schumann's Quartet in A minor.

Mitzi Westra, close to ideal as "Il Tramonto" interpreter
A special treat came with the program's centerpiece, "Il Tramonto" by Ottorino Respighi, a 20th-century Italian best-known for his colorful symphonic poems. Mitzi Westra, a mezzo-soprano of exquisite taste, polish and expressive depth who is well-known around town, was featured in the string-quartet-plus-singer Italian setting of Percy Bysshe Shelley's florid lament, "The Sunset."

The lugubrious poem unfolds with an almost leisurely sense of doom. That atmosphere is fully engaged by Respighi's music, which meets the poem's pivotal event — a young lover's death — on its own terms. Musically, the shock registers, and Shelley, who was probably not an atheist but widely taken for one, warns: "Let none believe that God in mercy gave that stroke." The poem goes on to trace the bereft woman's restrained grieving until the end. Respighi's score mirrors that restraint, with the lady's musings about the meaning of death in love's service tenderly reflected.

The line quoted above brings to the fore the only operatic swelling in the score, to which Westra was fully equal. The music then subsides as the poem traces the woman's physical decline, implying that her soul becomes ennobled at the same time. Evocation of Italian art song precedes her final declaration of the peace she would like as her epitaph. Westra's singing, clearly and plaintively phrased, was neatly complemented by the Pacifica Quartet; slight modifications of tempo were unified, and before the work's latter half, a quartet interlude, with a searing cello melody, achieved a concise eloquence equal to the singer's.

The Pacifica has maintained its incisive, well-coordinated signature with the two new members. But the Schumann performance also indicated the Pacifica doesn't shortchange subtlety. The exalted slow movement of op. 41, no. 1, displayed well-managed shifts in dynamics and raised the temperature with intense exchanges between second violin and viola. Ensemble unity stayed at the highest level with the tossing around of the finale's skittering phrases, always articulated the same way for the sake of consistency. The brief silence before the startling "musette" episode near the end was well-timed.

Introduced from the stage by Vamos with particular emphasis on the unpublished titles the composer gave to each of the five movements, Shostakovich's Quartet No. 3 (1946) can be properly understood as a "war quartet." A programmatic interpretation clearly suits the Pacifica's vigorous manner. Even the playful first movement, once a quasi-fugal episode gets under way, has its trenchant moments. Indeed, the concert's only exception to the Pacifica's usual clarity of texture came near the end of this Allegretto, which sounded a bit frayed and overblown.

Foreboding (though seen by the composer in hindsight) comes into view in the second movement. I liked how Pacifica seemed to tug at the material, as though Shostakovich were delicately but insistently hammering out a warning. He indeed had a hammer (as the folk song says), and he uses it with harsh vigor in the third movement. Ben-Ziony's viola waxed lyrical briefly, but with a martial edge. The "requiem" movement that followed gave further opportunity to admire the violist's plangent tone, especially in a solo punctuated by the cello.

The finale took the breath away, not only at the end, but in intermittent gasps as it made its exhausted progress. The questioning of war's value implied by the composer's purported title — "The eternal question: Why? And for what?" — featured evocations of martial music that the Pacifica daringly rendered as deliberately pointless. They brought this off without in fact sounding pointless — sort of like how a great actor can play a boring person and make the portrayal fascinating.









Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Burgeoning organ quartet makes an impact at the Jazz Kitchen

Steve Snyder at his other instrument, the piano, in a shot from a DePauw promotional video.
In only its second major local outing, Prime Vintage gave notice it could be a force to be reckoned with in the area's small-group jazz scene, especially since it fills a void in the organ-and-guitar-centered genre.

The shade of Mel Rhyne must be pleased.

Steve Snyder, director of jazz ensembles at DePauw University, is a lifelong pianist who added the Hammond B3 organ to his arsenal as a performer about 10 years ago. Teaching at a university in eastern Kentucky, he serendipitously found a way to address the problem of there being too few bassists in the area. "I came across an organ that hadn't been played in years," he said between Jazz Kitchen sets Tuesday evening, "in a practice room that no one ever used." (The B3 encourages the player to supply his own bass line.)

The organ provided what had been missing as Snyder gigged around off-campus. Since 2014, the Greencastle university has been his home base. He's specialized increasingly on organ, and played the Kitchen's instrument Tuesday in the second appearance there of his quartet, Prime Vintage.

He chose the name to emphasize a desire to model his small group after the heyday of jazz organ in the 1950s and 1960s, when the likes of Jimmy Smith and Larry Young were making waves. He has worked recently with Indianapolis musicians Joel Tucker, guitar, and Kenny Phelps, drums, to the extent of laying down several tracks with them at a Bloomington studio. Those are awaiting companion tracks depending on Snyder's ability to raise money for Prime Vintage's recording debut.  A definite part of those plans will be to include the band's fourth member, tenor saxophonist Sophie Faught.

I caught the first set about a half-hour in and stayed through the break so I could hear all of the second. This group, three of whose members are well-known to Indianapolis jazz fans. has a firm basis from the bona fides that Phelps, Faught, and Tucker bring to it, and the leader is sure to become  better-known hereabouts, particularly if Prime Vintage thrives.

He is a winning writer, with a tribute to his two young sons, "Those Two," providing a fine ballad vehicle in the first set. The group relaxed into it, and kept it tender throughout their solos, right through a Faught cadenza at the  end.  And he seems to be skilled at bringing to light obscure songs, such as the melody Barry Manilow provided to previously unset lyrics by Johnny Mercer: "When October Goes" was a nice discovery, and Faught poured a lot of soul into her solo on it; Tucker was featured in a fittingly reflective ending.

There were of course plenty of uptempo and midtempo  grooves, in which the quartet shone. Tucker seemed to inject a little Coryell juice into his solo on "Poppin'," and Snyder picked up on the title's implications with lots of stinging staccato playing. The leader was especially flamboyant in "Somewhere in the Night," a Lalo Schifrin tune, getting all around the theme, illuminating it from various directions.

And after a rough start, John Patton's "The Yodel" fully displayed this quartet's capabilities. Some strong shredding in Tucker's solo set the stage for one of Phelps' protean, well-directed outbursts. The  passion and control exhibited by this quartet Tuesday raises the hope to hear more of Prime Vintage before too long.








Sunday, April 22, 2018

ICO reaps continued rewards from connection with James Aikman as composer in residence

The Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Matthew Kraemer, continues to make a
James Aikman, composer of a Viola Concerto for Csaba Erdelyi
more richly outlined self-portrait in its programming.

In part, this has been accomplished through the association of several years' standing with Indianapolis native James Aikman as composer in residence. What this has most recently yielded is a Viola Concerto, whose premiere performance was given Saturday night by the orchestra and its  principal violist Csaba Erdelyi, for whom it was written.

The principle of contrast or differentiation between one or more instrumentalists and an ensemble is basic to the concerto. That principle makes it older than the symphony, which anchors the repertoire up to today for the type of musical organization known as the symphony orchestra. And the principle is roomy enough to go in the direction of competition or toward partnership. Seen the latter way, it's more evident that each partner is completing something absent in the other rather than trying to establish dominance.

That's the ruling tendency in Aikman's new work, which enjoyed a zestful, highly colored first performance under Kraemer's baton. The premiere was nestled between a couple of 20th-century European suites well-suited to being taken up by chamber orchestras.  All around, then, this concert enhanced the profile of the ICO and gave further luster to its unique place in Indianapolis' musical life.

The composer has provided a thorough guide to the new piece, including details that might well escape notice on first hearing. Drawing back from the creator's magnifying glass somewhat, especially in his analysis of the first movement, I heard a winning approach to embedding the solo instrument in the texture, including unconventional splashes of percussion, cultivation of an air of mystery, and eventually complex interchanges with the full ensemble. Consciously or not, Aikman chose a path opposite to the most famous modern viola concerto, Bela Bartok's, for which Erdelyi has completed a version to vie with Tibor Serly's.

Aikman presents the viola as an interlocutor in an almost concerto-for-orchestra context. It does not assert itself from the start in the Bartok manner; on the other hand, it doesn't fade into the woodwork, either. Erdelyi's performance was measured, sturdy, and patrician in manner, with just enough flair to bring out Aikman's interest in showcasing the viola under various lights. In "Serenade," the second movement, I liked the variety of color and forcefulness given to the steady pulse in the accompaniment; Erdelyi's lyrical side was given prominence against a background of stately lament.

Csaba Erdelyi, ICO principal viola, presented the concerto's premiere.
The finale swept into a propulsive, uplifting atmosphere, with new kinds of exchange between viola and ensemble. There were dramatic pauses and an effective settling down near the end. The movement carried the label "Danse," and the reason for the French version of "dance" eludes me. I'm reminded of what Harold Schonberg, the greatest of New York Times music critics, once wrote when reviewing George Crumb's "Variazioni": "Kind of a swanky title — why not 'Variations'?"

Friday's concert opened with a fey dance suite, Le Festin de l'Araignee (The Spider's Feast), by Albert Roussel. With its evocation of insects at a deadly arachnid chowdown, the music is lightly touched by wit and a faux-visual perspective. It featured several finely rendered solos, notably by  principal flutist Gabriel Fridkis.

The orchestra's solo chops were further tested in the lengthier suite that made up the second half, Richard Strauss' "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme." The German composer had more stylistic games to play in addition to complementing the Moliere play of the same title. He dabbles in expertly saluting the 17th-century tyrant of French court music, Jean-Baptiste Lully, a contemporary of the playwright's. The knock on German humor is that it's a thin book, but really it's just a bit more heavy-handed. The capacity for amusement still comes through when Strauss, for example, is in a playful mood applying his protean skills to baroque dance forms.

The ICO performance was notable for sprightly solos by oboist Leonid Sirotkin and concertmaster Tarn Travers. The expressive weight of "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme" falls upon the finale, the feast itself — with its rollicking course of lamb recalling the bleating sheep of "Don Quixote" and a couple of cheeky quotes from Verdi's "La donna e mobile." The drollery was neatly brought off; balances were perfectly enhanced by the Schrott's warm acoustics. The ICO sounds more and more at home there; this is no accidental accomplishment, as both the programming and its execution Saturday made clear.



Saturday, April 21, 2018

In UIndy concert of "firsts," Indianapolis Quartet continues to assert its superiority in local chamber music

IQ: Zachary De Pue, Joana Genova, Austin Huntington, and Michael Strauss
The soft-spoken title of the Indianapolis Quartet's concert Monday night — "Firsts" — refers to the first (and in one case the only) example of three composers' contributions to the string-quartet genre.

Also, the group is at the end of its first season with the current personnel: Zachary De Pue and Joana Genova, violins; Michael Isaac Strauss, viola; Austin Huntington, cello. The musicians gave plenty of evidence they have coalesced as an artistic unit in a program of works by Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Debussy.

To take up the hardest piece first: Claude Debussy's sole contribution to the string-quartet repertoire is a masterpiece that has his unique signature all over it; it occupied the second half of the performance in the DeHaan Fine Arts Center at the University of Indianapolis, the quartet's home. Cohesive though the Debussy quartet is, it takes up and satisfies novel notions about form. Development becomes more a matter of turning the prism variously so that colors and rhythms undergo energizing shifts of emphasis. These musicians displayed the kind of insights needed.

A quartet of individually expert players needs extraordinary rapport in the Debussy:  In the first movement, the variety of this group's approach to the theme was assured in both texture and color. And there was a fine sense of drama imparted to the material. The second movement was keyed to the singing tone of Strauss' viola, playing against a sparkling pizzicato backdrop.

The third movement gave the most striking indication of the Indianapolis Quartet's interpretive skill.
The Indianapolis Quartet in action on the stage of Ruth Lilly Performance Hall.
It's all too easy to make this music a kind of stroll through a parfumerie; this performance favored what could be called a rhetorical sweetness rather than the decorative kind. It was well put together; it stressed how much this movement has to say and how cogently it says it. The finale set a seal upon this intelligent approach.

Of the three works on the program, Shostakovich's first quartet sounds the most like a composer's initiation into writing for two violins, viola, and cello. Not that there's anything inexpert about it; the Russian had made his mark at 19 with his first symphony. He was a little late getting around to the string quartet a dozen years later. His op. 49 in C major is straightforward in expression and form, not touched by the sardonic humor under which he sometimes signaled his difficulties with the Soviet regime.

The performance was above-board in every respect, nicely paced especially in the folkish, marchlike progress of the second movement. The trouble-free atmosphere characteristic of the whole was reinforced by the finale, as the quartet unstintingly put across the piece's high spirits.

Beethoven's op. 18, no. 1 in F major got the concert under way. Accents and pauses were well-coordinated in the opening Allegro. The new foursome's gift for dynamic contrast was on full display. At the louder end of the spectrum, no fraying of the sound popped into view; on the quiet side, the hush was unanimously evident when called for. The trenchant brio the quartet gave to the finale represented the assertive young composer with distinction.

If the Indianapolis Quartet is able to secure frequent opportunities to play together, it is likely to flourish for as long as it can retain the same personnel,  getting ever more used to one another as they explore the vast string-quartet repertoire.



Chris Potter brings his tenor sax, chock full of stamina and ideas, to the Jazz Kitchen

Chris Potter has been among the top tenor saxophonists for two decades.
In the second set of a one-night stand at the Jazz Kitchen, Chris Potter and his quartet got matters off to a roaring start with "Bemsha Steps," a clever mash-up of Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing" and John Coltrane's "Giant Steps."

Though the repertoire of Potter originals is huge, that overture indicated how original Potter can be when he wrestles with the tradition and updates it with capable 2018 flair. With him on the bandstand were compatible sidemen Adam Rogers, guitar; Fima Ephron, bass, and Dan Weiss, drums.

The quartet effectively unloaded a half-dozen tunes upon a receptive full house. When the composer in Potter rares back and delivers, the performer in him (and in his sidemen) rises to the occasion. His shrugging title to "Pop Tune No. 1" might suggest something quite sketchy, but that proved not to be the case. With triplets underlying the melodic flow, the piece went from mainstream pop to a country feel in Rogers' solo. After a flamboyant Potter cadenza, the performance moved into a rocking rhythm. In sum, a broad expanse of pop sensibility was heartily embraced.

When Potter dips into other idioms, the result still thrusts forward his personal artistry. With electronic help, he set down some patterns on clarinet that served as a backdrop when he switched to tenor. That was on "Good Hope," a reference to the South African headland and thus a signal that an Afro-pop vibe was in the offing. The good-natured churning prevailed throughout, giving a rare solo from Ephron room to dance. The piece's long diminuendo near the end sailed smoothly around the Cape.

Blowing away the distractions of social media by addressing them abstractly, Potter's "Tweet" brought the set to its announced conclusion. It's an abstract, restless piece, fighting against disorder just the way most of us do when we follow Twitter. It was an ideal vehicle for a drum solo, in which Weiss masterfully contrasted cymbals with bass drum.

The tenor saxophonist remains astonishing after many years among the top ranks of his instrument. He pours his huge tone through the horn with seemingly effortless elan. His wealth of ideas never seems to fail him. There's no part of a piece's prevailing mode or chord structure that he leaves unexplored. His technique is so refined that he can appear to blend something close to the "slap-tonguing" of old to the "sheets of sound" Coltrane was acclaimed for when that master became a star at a moment's notice. It can't be easy to get such flow and detachment simultaneously and profusely.

There were only two episodes of the set that puzzled me.  He introduced a bracing version of Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me, Babe" with a peculiar cadenza on flute. I couldn't discern what it contributed to the quartet's romp through the song. Rogers' solo was particularly wry, well-founded, and reflective.

The second puzzler came at the end of the encore, "I Fall in Love Too Easily," for which standard the quartet deftly scaled back the intensity. It was a fine exposition of Potter's harmonic and melodic freedom, well-supported by his bandmates. But in the coda the saxophonist seemed to wander into another key, and I sensed that Rogers wasn't sure whether the boss was going "outside" for a bit or actually changing tonal centers. Maybe it was meant as an analogue to the perils of falling in love too easily; it sure felt like it.

I'm quite ready to give Potter the benefit of the doubt, however. From the security and bravura he exhibited throughout the generous set, it was pretty clear that — like Nikki Haley — he doesn't get confused. And he's likely less arrogant about that than the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.


Friday, April 20, 2018

Les Miz ripoff for a good cause: To those who serve at Trump's pleasure, bring your phone wherever you go!

Ignore your Twitter feed at your peril; it may be the best way to know (although not before the world) that you've been fired.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Loss lightened: Billy Collins reads his poems at Butler

I had Billy Collins autograph one of the two volumes of his poetry I own after his reading Wednesday night at Butler University. Among the striking things in "The Art of Drowning" (1995) is the epigraph. It seems rice-paper-thin in the usually weighty category of epigraphs, those brief borrowings often placed at the head of stories, articles, poems, and (as here) even whole books to lend an overarching meaning to what follows.
Billy Collins: Poetic master of reflective amusement that lightens loss

From the Japanese poet Shimaki Akahiko, the one for "The Art of Drowning" runs: "Where did that dog / that used to be here go? / I thought about him / once again tonight / before I went to bed."

After the Butler reading, the quotation seems apt as a clue to Collins' place as a popular poet — a thinly populated category of writer. The sidelong look at the environment, the taking notice of something missing, the casual tone — all are characteristics that Collins' muse apparently shares with Akahiko.

But hanging over the epigraph as well as much of Collins' poetry is the theme of loss. Poetry under a similar shadow is abundant, of course, but Collins' loss-shadow is flecked with amused contemplation. The Akahiko lines parallel a couplet on loss by Robert Frost: "The old dog barks backward without getting up. / I can remember when he was a pup."

Dealing with loss sometimes seems the major assignment life hands us. Collins is an old hand at handling it tenderly and whimsically. Sometimes this leads him into the kind of observations that seem so arbitrary you wonder where his "center" is, as man and poet. He often implies that doesn't matter.

In "Snow," a poem in the other Collins book I own, "Picnic, Lightning" (1998),  he starts out by musing on how "this slow [Thelonious] Monk solo / seems to go somehow / with the snow / that is coming down this morning." This is the kind of offhand attitude toward experience often illustrated by another popular poet, though one less consistently genial than Collins. Again, it's Robert Frost, in "Dust of Snow":

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued. 

The casual vaudeville of the natural world, one might call it, in shifting relationship with private experience, is a bridge between Collins and Frost, and also between Collins and a lot of Asian poetry. In Collins' "Snow" (which, fortunately, he did not read Wednesday), his tendency to think he has more to say than he really does grabs hold, so the poet continues to ponder what else the snow he's looking at goes with: "an adagio for strings, / the best of the Ronettes, / or George Thorogood and the Destroyers." Indeed, the way the snow "falls so indifferently" also turns out to go with the morning newspaper and Sartre's Being and Nothingness. The poem demonstrates that he ought to have heeded the wise answer  he recounted given by a first-grade teacher to the question why her pupils produced such good artwork: "I know when to take it away from them."

Snow drifts, we all know, and poets often do as well. The caustic critic Yvor Winters wrote an essay on Frost called "The Spiritual Drifter as Poet." Winters had a rather strict view of what's proper in poetry, and he found Frost's whimsy, which sometimes took the form of serious indecisiveness, rather trying. It's interesting that what some readers take as inspiring from Frost (and, by extension, from Collins) is an odd form of consolation that says: "Don't sweat the small stuff, and as for the large stuff, who knows what it means? Just throw out a few suggestions to yourself, and let it go."

"The Road Not Taken" is one of the Frost poems Winters is harsh about. The choice of which road to take "in a yellow wood" is said to make "all the difference," but the selection of the one slightly less traveled by is an instance of Frost's basic skepticism. There are so many choices we make that, in retrospect,  yield next to no evidence they were the better choice. I feel much more positive about the poem than Winters, yet less certain than many of its admirers that it embodies wisdom. Its charm lies in the near-indifference of its retrospection.

Collins is chary about wisdom, too, even though his humor is usually endearing, and more ready to be summoned than Frost's. The way Collins addresses loss sometimes gives you a lump in the throat. Sometimes it's just hilarious, as in the last poem he read at Butler — "Nostalgia," with its mockery of the tendency to take the fads and fashions of certain past decades as worth a nostalgic yearn or two or three, as the nostalgic pace accelerates up to "this morning."

If Collins is a spiritual drifter, that may not be worth regretting, but simply noting, as he invites us to. It's that Asian thing, perhaps. Here's a poem by the Chinese poet Shu Ting, whose poems, somewhat like Collins', "search the emotional life for signs of what lies beneath and beyond the self," in the words of the anthologist J.D. McClatchy in "The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry." The graceful translation is by Carolyn Kizer.

Here is a heart-shaped leaf
Picked up by a gentle hand
On a very special hillside
At the edge of a special wood.
It may not mean very much,
This leaf with its trace of frost

But still the leaf reminds me
Of a twilit avenue,
A mind crowded with thoughts
Released on a gentle breath
That scattered from my shoulders
The rays of the setting sun.

Again, on a special evening
That touch alights on me
Having grown heavy with meaning.
This time I can't deny it,
Deny that intimacy.

Now, when the wind rises
I am prompted to turn my head
And listen to you, leaf,
As you quiver on your twig.

That startling turn to the second-person pronoun in the last two lines is foreshadowed by the poet's realization that she "can't deny that intimacy."  Then you realize the intimacy has been there since the beginning. And all about a single leaf, one about to suffer the loss of its arboreal mooring. It's a cross-cultural Collins touch, with a more subtle kind of comedy to it, yet the same kind of pathos.




Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Horacio Franco, a mainstay of contemporary Baroque performance practice in Mexico, energized a hometown crowd in Mexico City

For a couple of Festival Music Society  seasons, Indianapolis fans of early music got to hear a group
Looking uncharacteristically grim, Horacio Franco is in fact full of graciousness and smiles on the concert stage.
from Mexico City whose young recorder player, Horacio Franco, wowed the city's three music critics of the time as well as the audience. For the Indianapolis Star, I mentioned Franco's "well-supported, impassioned performance."

Last weekend, Franco was treated to an ecstatic reception by a full house at the Mexican capital's Palacio de Bellas Artes for his 40th-anniversary concert. The four decades mark his professional career, which started in his early teens. In July 1990, he was a young man in a group called Trio Renacimiento Hotteterre (named for  a prominent 18th-century flutist-composer), which was on the schedule of a couple of Indianapolis Early Music Festivals.

The program I heard April 14 with my son, William, his good friend Areli Monter, and my wife, Susan Raccoli, was focused exclusively on Vivaldi flute concertos. The 18th-century Italian composer wrote for both the transverse flute (the instrument whose modern descendant is the flute that everyone knows) and the end-blown flute known as the recorder. Naturally, Franco shows the suitability of the recorder for all the concertos.

He was accompanied by the adept Capella Barroca de Mexico, an ensemble of four violins, viola, cello, contrabass and harpsichord/organ.  His playing is still well-supported, as I said 28 years ago, with breath control that complements his digital dexterity. This was evident particularly in the first movement of the Concerto in A minor, RV 445, where he played the high-treble (sopranino) recorder he generally favored in this concert.

He was both tasteful and flamboyant in his ornamentation and cadenzas. That was demonstrated extensively in the Concerto in D major, RV 428, with its evocation of the melodious goldfinch that gives the work its title, Il Gardellino. In the slow movement, he effectively opted to reduce the accompaniment to Victor Flores on the double-bass line; the harpsichord can seem a frill in this kind of Largo, especially when the outer movements are so richly decorated.

Harpsichordist Daniel Ortega switched to a small organ to make the tone-painting more vivid in another titled concerto, La Notte (The Night — in G minor, RV 439). This nocturnal mood was also served by Franco's sensuous, lonely tone on the alto recorder. The passionate nature of Franco's playing was never in abeyance, and slow movements permitted him to give it full expression. When the mood struck him he could display great flexibility of tempo, as he did in Il sonno ("The Dream") the third of the concerto's Largo movements.

With fingers moving at a dizzying pace to articulate the music's rapid passagework, Franco rarely seemed to be all about how well he could display his virtuosity. It was constantly evident, by both head and body movements, he clearly was at pains to stay in close contact with his colleagues and deliver as convincing an ensemble experience with them as he could.

The audience was unmistakably there for Horacio Franco, however, yelling his name and even singing to him at one point. The recurring applause, shouts and whistles raised the rafters of the splendid Bellas Artes. If the term "rock star" didn't connote negative behavior, like trashing hotel rooms and overindulgence in controlled substances, it would be most apt in its current extended usage to identify the position Franco holds in the early-music world and in the hearts of his music-loving countrymen.









Saturday, April 7, 2018

Urbanski leads the ISO in a run-up to its Washington, D.C., appearance next week

The marketing focus has been on the familiar work on this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts. But the exciting move forward was preparation for a concert in Washington, D.C.,
Alisa Weilerstein, soloist with ISO here and in Washington.
next weekend, and the program's inclusion of two compositions from the music director's homeland.

Krzysztof Urbanski anchored Friday's Classical Series concert in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, and he used the concert's first half to show off the orchestra in Wojciech Kilar's "Orawa" and Witold Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto, the latter featuring American concert artist Alisa Weilerstein as soloist.

The bracing Lutoslawski piece will be featured in the SHIFT Festival appearance of the ISO on April 13. The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts concert will be supplemented by Krzysztof Penderecki's "Credo," with vocal soloists and two local choruses: the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and the Indianapolis Children's Choir. A preview of that performance, dubbed the Bon Voyage concert, will be offered at Hilbert Circle Theatre on Wednesday evening.

This period of extensive exposure to the ISO in two cities — its hometown and the nation's capital — brings extra attention to Urbanski in his seventh season at the ISO's artistic helm. His busy international schedule has expanded his reputation around the world, and the emphasis on modern Polish music currently should add further luster to his profile.

Opening the concert was the folk-flavored "Orawa," a ten-minute excursion through pulsating rhythms and punchy themes built upon the pentatonic (five-note) scales found in many of the world's indigenous musics, including Poland's. It's also a clever exercise in variety of texture within the string orchestra, with solos and small combinations highlighted. The pulse maintains its energy, and in this performance sounded animated beyond the metronomic dimensions that the Polish dance idiom that inspired the piece might suggest. The audience was clearly energized by the account well before the final shouted "Hey!"

The forces that contend within Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto put it at a distant remove from the exuberant forthrightness of "Orawa." Indeed, as Urbanski indicated in remarks from the podium before welcoming Weilerstein to the stage, the concerto is rooted in the competitive idea at the root of the concerto form. The soloist is less a partner with the orchestra here than a hero countering the accompaniment's recurrent, implacable antagonism.

Weilerstein's stage manner, with her long hair flying and her facial expression favoring resolve bordering on anguish, suited the work's implicit scenario well. More important, however, was her mastery of the work's musical demands: its sprightly harmonics, its defiant buzz of double stops, its controlled brutality, its sighing glissandos, and chiefly its confident "cantilena"—  the triumphant lyrical impulse through which Lutoslawski seems to favor the cello's progress from indifference through commitment in the face of overwhelming forces. 

All of this was so crisply and passionately defined in Weilerstein's account that the sometimes startling vigor of the orchestra amounted to a true partnership after all. After a few curtain calls, marked by the presentation of a bouquet to Weilerstein by ISO principal cellist Austin Huntington, the soloist wisely lowered the temperature, but not her characteristic ardor, by offering as an encore the Sarabande from J.S. Bach's Suite No. 3 in C major.

The Tchaikovsky Fourth features a whirlwind finale that ascends to a coordinated clatter rife with cymbal accents, calculated to bring even a phlegmatic audience to its feet. This was not such an audience, as indicated earlier by the rousing reception given to "Orawa" and the attentiveness and eventual enthusiasm with which the Lutoslawski was received.

The first statement of the "motto" fanfare was a little roughshod, but just about everything after it went smoothly. The first recurrence of the fanfare gave way to an initially subdued development. That was typical of the generous ebb and flow imparted to all the complex material in the first movement. 

It was evident in the second movement that the core woodwind group has never sounded better. Sitting principal this performance were Karen Moratz, flute; Jennifer Christen, oboe; Samuel Rothstein, clarinet, and Mark Ortwein, bassoon. For reasons that are too "inside-baseball" to go into, that particular group is not one ISO patrons are accustomed to as first-chair occupants. Without singling anyone out, these four sounded perfect together in this piece.

After the fast-paced subtleties of the third movement with its famous "pizzicato ostinato," the performance was crowned with an Allegro con fuoco that was solid from top to bottom. Urbanski maximized the tension that accumulates after each appearance of the structurally vital fanfare. Wherever Tchaikovsky stipulated a gathering of renewed force, conductor and orchestra were there to embody it. Such fitness gave this performance so much more than the programmatic significance that the composer regretted ever having supplied for the work.








Friday, April 6, 2018

The other shoe drops: Dance Kaleidoscope devotes a program to "divos"

Honed by an Indy Fringe Festival  show just as its predecessor "Divas" had been, "Divos" shows off further refinements in Dance Kaleidoscope dancers as choreographers. In addition, the program, which opened Thursday evening on the OneAmerica Stage at Indiana Repertory Theatre, is crowned by two world premieres — one by artistic director David Hochoy, the other by the troupe's frequent guest choreographer, Nicholas Owens.

Brandon Comer: The spirit of Elton John
The second half of the show's concentration on two seasoned choreographers by no means overshadows the enchanting variety of the seven short pieces before intermission. And each echoed the variety of responses to particular male pop idols evident in what DK members first fashioned upon their colleagues last summer.

The sunny fantasies of Elton John brought out the full brio of Hochoy's muse: She's a lady with the instincts of a good-time gal. With Brandon Comer as central figure in "Crocodile Rock," the first of four songs in "Eltoniana," there was particular showcasing of the singer-songwriter's flamboyant style. Guy Clark's costume design had as centerpiece Comer in white-framed glasses with his bare chest set off by feathery white "wings." In this number and the ensemble piece "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," there was plenty of opportunity to appreciate what a fully expressive dancer Comer has become — from head to toe a vision of galvanized charm, athleticism, and the lineaments of insouciance with nothing careless about it.

The exquisite balance characteristic of Hochoy's choreography was brought to bear in "Your Song," in which the interplay of one male (Stuart Coleman) and four female dancers (Emily Dyson, Marie Kuhns, Aleksa Lukasiewicz and Missy Thompson) was both distinctive and equalized in tension and rapport. The fourth Elton John song, "Tiny Dancer," made something different of gender imbalance, with Timothy June as  a figure under the somewhat ethereal enchantment of Jillian Godwin, Caitlin Negron, and Mariel Greenlee.

The show ended with the more severe, intensified outlook of Prince in focus, as interpreted by Owens'
choreography. Costumes of (simulated?) dark leather shot off flashes of light in Laura E. Glover's virtuosic design. "Solo," with Manuel Valdes and Timothy June, was a particularly effective showcase for Prince's rapturous, somewhat baroque artistry. Owens was in his element, sending dancers back and forth, reveling in the spaciousness he had to work with. I enjoyed how he was able to maintain the electricity of the concept while not allowing his inspirations to crowd one another.
Cody Miley, Jillian Godwin, and Manuel Valdes in "Purple Rain"

To detail the impressions left by the seven dancer-created pieces in the first half would be tedious, though the works themselves were anything but. Each one was introduced by its creator, and their statements were both cogent and moving. Hearts are embedded in these songs, and personal experiences are addressed in sublimated form. Dancers are inherently motivated to give feelings that are often hard to articulate physical expression, and to show us how what moves the soul tends to find some kind of outlet even in the bodies of non-dancers.

I enjoyed the ache of attraction and the peril of clinging in Paige Robinson's "You Take My Breath Away" and Caitlin Negron's seamless embodiment in "Dream On" of how our nightmares often cast us as both participant and observer. Then there was a sentimental lesson in how dance in ensemble can flowingly display the need to "Surround Yourself" with compatible people (Stuart Coleman). Complementary intrusiveness and rejection by our demons (costumed in black and masked in Timothy June's "Hurt") came through with three solo dancers bedeviled individualistically.

In three of the pieces, I felt the choreographers' signature artistry as dancers was projected particularly well. Each is a DK veteran whose dance personality has become familiar to me over the seasons. Mariel Greenlee's "Keep Faith" displayed her aptitude for characterization, with moments of relief and doubt getting concise emphasis, and her intimacy with theatrical effect as evidenced in her work for the Phoenix Theatre and IRT.  Brandon Comer's "Dangerous Diana" suited a couple of Michael Jackson songs by spotlighting physical exuberance and embrace of the risk factor, as well as a streetwise sense of how we present our public selves. Jillian Godwin's "Zeppelin," its title indicating a favorite band of hers, with four Led Zeppelin songs mixed by Mike Lamirand, suggested her sizzle, her gift for putting across accents with pixieish flair, and an expressive range from raunchiness to vulnerability.

No matter how well you know the music that gave birth to these nine pieces, DK in "Divos" has put flesh upon vibes that have moved millions.

[Photos by Freddie Kelvin]



Sunday, April 1, 2018

Billy Cobham and his fiery quintet cap a two-night stand at the Jazz Kitchen

His patented whirlwind style, with precise accents and crisp patterns on the monstrous kit he favors,
Billy Cobham displayed the intensity and exactitude he's famous for.
yields little to age, it seems. Billy Cobham, a force in jazz-rock fusion of the 1970s, will turn 74 next month.

The last of four sets at the Jazz Kitchen Saturday night showed him to be in fighting trim, buoyed by an ensemble of relative youngsters, of whom guitarist Fareed Haque is probably the best-known here.

Ranging across a spectrum (pun unavoidable) of his repertoire from the past four decades, the master drummer was as focused on the encore "Red Baron" as he had been on "Matador" and "On the Move" an hour-and-a-half earlier.

That hard-grooving encore provided the most extensive display of each sideman's solo chops. The astuteness of each of them was evident throughout the set, but bassist Tim Landers came through with a particular well-rounded, rhythmically intricate solo.

Paul Hanson, who was heard mostly on the seductive amplified bassoon (soprano saxophone is his other instrument), played a vigorous solo that had been foreshadowed by his robust lyricism on "Heather," a dependable showcase for whatever reedman Cobham has on the bandstand. That ballad from "Crosswinds," a signature Cobham achievement from long ago, opened with atmospheric wooziness from Scott Tibbs' electronic keyboards and later featured his expansive solo.

Guitarist Fareed Haque is known hereabouts for his stellar work with Garaj Mahal and the Indianapolis-based duumvirate Rob Dixon and the late Mel Rhyne (the Dixon-Rhyne Project). He is focused on guitar sound, with respect paid to the acoustic end of the spectrum, and his rhythmic aplomb matches Cobham's. No matter how strenuously  he unleashed his most vigorous playing Saturday night, he remained happily free of the Grimacing Guitarist affliction.

It remains to celebrate the group's leader and senior citizen. Cobham uses the vastness of his kit as a percussion orchestra. He is capable of overwhelming a room with a barrage, but his fourth set in the Jazz Kitchen engagement kept making clear how well he directs his wit and energy. A cymbal stroke will highlight an ensemble accent, and the play of cymbals in the drum set's upper register is anchored in the chthonic energy of two expertly managed bass drums. Toms and snares kept up a constant dialogue in the middle.

As his longest solo of the night evinced, he can set rhythmic patterns at cross purposes with each other, yet somehow bring them together at length to give a unified impression. He always seemed mindful that detonation alone is far from the deepest impression jazz drumming should leave. There should always be something held in reserve, and some articulate interior messages free to hold sway from time to time against the monster moments.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]