Saturday, December 15, 2018

'The Nutcracker' thrives in Indianapolis Ballet production

The opening scene of Indianapolis Ballet's 12th annual "Nutcracker" production subtly reinforces a down-to-earth community feeling of a ballet whose fantasy and dream elements make it ideal for the season, and not just for its Christmas-season setting.

Clara looks on as the Nutcracker directs soldier platoon's attack on mice.
We see at first the gradual gathering of guests outside the upper-middle-class Stahlbaum home, site of the family's Christmas Eve party.  We can admire the naturalness of the casual, friendly interaction of adults and children before much dancing of any kind has taken place. Tchaikovsky's music has already exerted its charm, of course, starting with the perky overture. Everything that we see and hear is inviting and rests on common ground — a generous invitation to the wonders that follow.

It is to the credit of James Leitner's direction that the company conveys such a sociable atmosphere, and when the action moves inside and Drosselmeyer's godfather magic starts taking over, the transition toward fantasy seems entirely natural. As little as a narrative thread has to do with "The Nutcracker," what there is of it was firmly delineated on the show's opening night at the Murat Theatre, Old National Centre.

The pivotal center of the action depends a lot on how Drosselmeyer is played. A balletically centered interpretation is essential, but so too is dramatic insight. Paul Vitali, the company's artistic director, offered both. The magical powers Drosselmeyer commands are carefully husbanded in this production. The suggestion that he may have some connection to dark arts is effectively muted.

We see mainly an eccentric, avuncular Drosselmeyer in close but mysterious connection to the festivities. He moves with ease among the host family and their friends. That he also represents a world apart allows him to plausibly usher the dreaming Clara into the Land of Sweets, where her delight can fuse with ours after the trauma of her broken, then mended, nutcracker gift. Vitali's broad gestures and swooping elegance expressed both his affection for making a Christmas party extra special and his readiness to trail mystery in his wake. Clara, as danced by Josephine Kirk, perfectly represented the vehicle for his generosity and capacity to evoke wonder. That carried right through the finale, where Clara's central position sums up the tribute that the panoply of character dancers offers to childhood dreams.

Staging of ensemble numbers was astute at several points, starting with the battle of mice and toy

Snow King and Queen:Christopher Lingner and Yoshiko Kamikusa
soldiers. Thorough costuming and disguises didn't mask the fitness of Greg Goessner and Leonard Perez for their leadership roles as, respectively, the Mouse King and the Nutcracker. In a much different ensemble victory, the crossings and branched movements of the Snowflakes in the scene that ends the first act created splendid patterns in white that mimicked the geometry of real-world snowflakes, and complemented the stunning precision and dash of Christopher Lingner as Snow King and Yoshiko Kamikusa as Snow Queen.

The ballet's other notable duo — the Cavalier and the Sugar Plum Fairy — bookend Act 2's character dances and were capably presented Friday by Riley Horton and Kristin Toner. The stately onset of the Pas de Deux yielded to the panache of the variations, including the Sugar Plum Fairy's ethereal, celesta-accompanied magnetism.

The idiomatic choreography and costuming for the character dances worked hand-in-glove. The athleticism required for the Russian Trepak got single-dancer focus in Khris Santos' performance, set against an ensemble of young women whose dancing both complemented and contrasted with the soloist's. The Lingner-Kamikusa duo richly deserve singling out for their mastery of Arabian Coffee: The sinuous precision of her dancing,  meshed with lifts and catches that were so smooth and fluid they seemed to suspend gravity, made for a memorable showcase. Chinese Tea, as danced by the evocatively costumed Abigail Bixler and Greg Goessner, caught the spirit of the music without settling for the "yellowface" stereotyping that has recently come under fire in other productions.

Management of the accumulating second-act forces in the finale could hardly have been more uplifting and exciting. Something more captivating than a choreographed curtain call was achieved by the staging, and with the orchestra continuing its colorful account of Tchaikovsky's score under Vince Lee's baton, the full splendor of "The Nutcracker" was brought home. And after all the sugary visions,"home" is the underlying theme of the story and this production's realization of it.

[Photos by Moonbug Photography]

Friday, December 7, 2018

Dance Kaleidoscope's holiday glow: A world tour of Christmas, plus a celebration of Hanukkah

Dance Kaleidoscope's resumed tradition of adding year-end holiday luster to its season is back, wearing a splendid two-piece suit: "Let There Be Light (The Story of Hanukkah)" and "World Christmas Kaleidoscope: A Celebration of Christmas Around the World."

Themes of challenge and restoration abound in 'Let There Be Light.'
The program, titled "Home for the Holidays," opened Thursday night on the IRT Upperstage. Both works are the creation of DK artistic director David Hochoy, the latter adapted from last year to fit the current company; "Let There Be Light" revives a 2003 piece.

The Hanukkah narrative thread, which is fleshed out in a program note, is applied with a deft touch in "Let There Be Light," yet with more than sufficient emotional impact. The foundational event of the sacrifice Abraham was prepared to carry out of his son Isaac has a poignant position in the middle, with Manuel Valdes in the role of the intended sacrificial victim.

DK dancers lively up themselves in the reggae-styled "All I Want for Christmas."
The connection to the Hebrew texts Leonard Bernstein used in his "Chichester Psalms" is also subtly applied to the psalms of praise and complaint that the composer set. For accompaniment, Hochoy chose a more fully orchestrated and mixed-chorus version of Bernstein's original, which has the effect of emphasizing the communal import of the psalms more than their personal expression. It's a smart choice, because an imperiled, unified community and its survival against large odds is the holiday's central theme in celebration of the Maccabees' successful struggle against oppression 2,500 years ago.

The transition between an intact community to one aware of its vulnerability was neatly etched as free, flowing gestures and movement gave way to more angular, shielding types. The setting for three of the company's men of Psalm 2 (known in English and to fans of Handel's "Messiah" as "Why do the nations rage?") matches the music's militancy with the rise of Jewish resistance.

Eventually, as the persistence of a people's faith gains the upper hand, there is the tender, reverent processional with one lamp (a live flame carried by Timothy June Thursday night) carried onstage and becoming the basis for the Hanukkah lighting of a central menorah. The simple, ritualized piety was underlined by Laura Glover's delicately shaded lighting upon Cheryl Sparks' timeless costumes. The saving of the much-damaged temple celebrated in the Hanukkah story puts special significance behind the program title "Home for the Holidays."

In the second half, the balance of drollery and devotion was sustained through a panoply of deft choreography and the idiomatic, sometimes spectacular costume designs by Sparks, Barry Doss, and Lydia Tanji. To incorporate the troupe's name into the piece's title has never been more appropriate: Kaleidoscopic is the best description of both the music and the dancing.

The final moment of "O Holy Night"
With Jillian Godwin displaying sharply defined limberness and comic virtuosity, the suite was launched by the solo "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy."  Balletic turns were mixed in with flung arms, shoulder shrugs and concise jerkiness to spice up the fun in one of Tchaikovsky's most beloved "Nutcracker" numbers. Fun was multiplied in the reindeer mimicry of the company's "Here Comes Santa Claus" as sung by Elvis Presley, and in the imitative ornamentation Stuart Coleman exhibited in a solo setting of Elvis' "White Christmas" recording.

It's difficult not to mention everything, but I want to highlight the reggae-intensive "All I Want for Christmas," in which Valdes was joined in succession by Cody Miley, Godwin, and Marie Kuhns for a salute to Jamaica. It was a riot of individuality pulled together in an exuberant common cause. Also: the plaintive "Nadal de Luintra" from Spain, with Aleksa Lukasiewica and Timothy June as Mary and Joseph in search of Bethlehem lodging, and a setting from Benin of a somehow fully reverent but never cheaply worshipful "O Holy Night," stunningly performed by the gesturally precise trio of Coleman, Lukasiewicz, and Paige Robinson.

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Thomas Hampson focuses on Chicago composers as he furthers the American art song

There is a cornucopia of pleasant surprises available about the American art song in Thomas
Thomas Hampson has steadily promoted the vitality of the art song.
latest recording, "Songs from Chicago" (Cedille Records).

For keeping interest alive in a 20th-century original, the lifelong Chicagoan John Alden Carpenter, the CD makes its mark particularly with his settings of poems by Langston Hughes and especially by Rabindranath Tagore, whose cycle "Gitanjali" accounts for one-third of the hourlong program, with sensitive assistance at the piano by Kuang-Hao Huang.

It's Hampson's debut on the Chicago-based label, which is still under the direction of its founder, James Ginsburg, son of the most widely beloved Supreme Court justice. The performances on "Songs from Chicago" are immaculate. "Gitanjali" is a richly perfumed set of prose poems in a style that is too florid for our era, perhaps, but Carpenter's musical response to them is like a preservative that makes them seem fresh.

Radiant piano chords introduce the first line of one of the songs: "I am like a remnant of a cloud of autumn uselessly roaming in the sky, O my sun ever-glorious." You need the insulin of music to moderate the sugar high of those words, and Carpenter supplied it. There's no sense that the composer intended to introduce the slightest irony behind any of Tagore's prose-poems, however. It's his very commitment to the texts that enabled him to supply settings of consistent enhancement throughout the 23 songs (plus a spoken prologue and epilogue).

Carpenter is also represented here by three of his "Four Negro Songs" to Hughes' poetry. Authentic, zestful appreciation of the African-American heritage is a feature of both the compositions and Hampson's performance of them. "Shake Your Brown Feet, Honey!," a celebration of vernacular dance, is performed jauntily by the duo. Hampson cannot be accused of adopting a blackface style, I believe, but is simply being true to both Hughes' idiom and Carpenter's effusive setting. He is no more required to be black to sing these songs authentically than he would need to be a despairing,  love-sick German youth to put across Schubert's "Winterreise."

Most effective from the standpoint of the classical art-song tradition are seven songs by Ernst Bacon to well-chosen excerpts of Walt Whitman poetry. Hampson's sustained phrasing is well-deployed here, especially in "The Last Invocation." The singer's ability to put some heft into his middle and upper register without straining comes through in "Darest Thou Now, O Soul."  Bacon's music strikes me sometimes as a little tendentious and "forced," but it must be hard for composers to avoid that whenever they set Whitman.

It's hard to account responsibly for everything on this disc, but I want to single out the expressive tone of anger Hampson commands so well in Margaret Bonds' setting of one of Hughes's most anthologized poems, the one beginning "I, too, sing America. / I am the darker brother." Also worth highlighting is the sustained feeling of veneration that Hampson and Huang achieve in Florence Price's "Song to the Dark Virgin," a Hughes poem of more than usual mystery.

The whole disc gives a boost to the need not to overlook the art song when it comes to celebrating our musical heritage. Popular song by no means tells the full story of the American experience.

Monday, December 3, 2018

A tidy 'Messiah' treated expansively in an inaugural Second Presbyterian and Indy Baroque collaboration

Long after George Bernard Shaw deplored the ungainly size of Victorian-era performing forces in "Messiah," fans of Handel's oratorio now usually encounter one of two correctives: Large choruses, well-trained, have become adept at surmounting the choral difficulties and, on the other hand, small vocal ensembles — Shaw wished for "a chorus of twenty capable artists" — have gained greater acceptance in concert and on recordings.

The latter course was smartly chosen by Michelle Louer of Second Presbyterian Church in two
Michelle L. Louer conducted trim, fit forces.
performances over the weekend in collaboration with the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra. She conducted the trim vocal and instrumental forces in an insightful and fully expressive, but resolutely unshowy, concert Sunday afternoon at the church.

Going Shaw's wish several singers fewer, she had trained the church's 15-voice Beecher Singers to meet Handel's demands expertly. More important, the chorus size suited well the chamber-orchestra accompaniment, which sounded more subtle and caressing with "period" instruments than modern ones. And the vocal soloists were drawn from her choir, so that in neither appearance nor sound was there any danger of grandstanding.

This set-up, and several other choices regarding the distribution of solos and the relative novelty today of a chorus appended to the duet "How beautiful are the feet," was explicitly to honor the Dublin premiere in the spring of 1742. There were also interpretive choices that, despite the church setting and the pastor's welcoming prayer, re-established "Messiah" as what its devout librettist, Charles Jennens, frankly called "a fine Entertainment."

That reminder has to be set against Jennens' clever arrangement of biblical texts that follow the practice of typology, the supposed foretelling in the Old Testament of the foundational Christ narrative in the New. This once was basic to Christian use of the Hebrew Bible in sermons and religious education. The King James Version I was given as a boy is loaded with epigraphs intended to guide pious reading, stretched to the maximum typologically by such nudges as glossing the erotic imagery of the Song of Solomon to illustrate "the mutual love of Christ and his church," for instance.

Yesterday during the performance's second intermission,  a gentleman sitting near me, alluding to the typology, marveled that "Messiah" seemed to him "the Christian ISIS — so fanatical!" There is thus room for the oratorio to be taken as an extreme profession of faith as well as a fine entertainment. Because of its glorious music, "Messiah" seems to rest comfortably on that rich double meaning: still, Hector Berlioz, no stranger to religious grandiosity himself, thought the "Amen" finale blasphemous; like many others, I am always satisfyingly "entertained" by it, as I was Sunday.

In any case, contemporary American performances of "Messiah" tend to be well past the Victorian era's "Messiah" elephantiasis, summed up as "a case of sustained enormity" by the scholar Richard Luckett. This had several conspicuous advantages in what I heard Sunday. The opening chorus of Part II, "Behold the Lamb of God," is often performed somberly as a heavy invitation to get our frowny faces on in preparation for arias and choruses referencing the Passion of Christ.

On Sunday, the pared-down choral force and a slightly animated tempo for "Behold" served as a reminder that "Messiah" bears essentially glad tidings of a sacrifice designed to "take away the sin of the world." A lighter choral texture also invites reflectiveness on the listener's part. A little later, after the straying-flock imitation (pointedly effective Sunday) in the first part of "All we like sheep," the reminder that "the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all" sets us right on the reason for the season — especially when we remember that the oratorio is weighted toward the events that culminate in Easter, the season of its premiere. Call it fine entertainment or a confirmation of faith, it worked.

Large choruses that are conscientiously prepared can make more of dynamic contrasts, and with luck they don't have trouble staying together in fast passages. The thousand-voice choruses of Shaw's day prudently slowed, sounding "lumbering" in the process. Only the last syllable of "purify" (in "And he shall purify") sounded effortful to me in this performance. And, in "For unto us," I liked the way each section followed the sinuous path to the summit of "born" accurately without planting the flag, as it were.

Sometimes a large choir's loud-soft displays don't particularly put across the text: In the "Hallelujah" Chorus, why is "The kingdom of this world is become" sometimes rendered in hushed tones, with a big crescendo on "is become" to herald the Lord's eternal reign and a resumption of all the hallelujahs? Is the kingdom of this world a secret? None of that push-pull was evident Sunday. The Beecher Singers were far from monochromatic, but the small choir refrained from showing off spectrum extremes. "His yoke is easy, and His burden is light" was a great instance where loud-soft shadings were effectively displayed.

The Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra was a treat to hear. It played the "Pifa (Pastoral Symphony)" without a conductor, and with a buoyancy and alertness that indicated the shepherds about to be startled were indeed "keeping watch over their flocks by night," not sleeping. There were choruses to which the ensemble contributed some deft shaping of phrases, such as those between lines of text in "O thou that tellest good tidings of Zion." I found sufficiently descriptive the angry, murmuring bustle of the strings during the bass aria "Why do the nations" — even without the bite that modern instruments give to the accompaniment. The same goes for the "refiner's fire" passage in the early bass aria "But who may abide."

As for the soloists, Louer spread the responsibilities around, mostly to great effect. First off was the strong projection and expressiveness of David Smolokoff in the tenor recitative and aria that immediately follow the overture. If the tenor isn't good in those two pieces, some of the life of any "Messiah" to follow is quickly siphoned off. Not to worry in this case, and Smolokoff was just as convincing with the dire picture of divine wrath in "Thou shalt break them," effectively setting up the triumphalism of "Hallelujah."

I can't single out everyone, but in terms of fitness of a particular solo voice to a particular task, I must mention tenor John Brewer in the Part II group of recitatives and arias starting with the poignancy of "Thy rebuke hath broken His heart." Also, the brilliance and good-news spiritedness of alto Mitzi Westra in "Thou art gone up on high," bass Samuel Spade's deep-delving contrasts of light and darkness in the recitative and aria preceding the "For unto us" chorus, and baritone David Rugger's richly suggestive, dramatic "Behold, I tell you a mystery." It made for a fine introduction to the work's longest aria, "The trumpet shall sound," which never fails to be soul-stirring, even when processed through a secular sensibility like mine.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The President of Russia and the Saudi Crown Prince have a fall guy in common; they'll be together wherever they go

Keelan Dimick brings APA's Premiere Series to the halfway point

Keelan Dimick (from left), Nick Tucker, and Kenny Phelps engage a Premiere Series crowd.
Now living in Miami, Keelan Dimick has a beneficent form of "Iowa stubborn" in his makeup: He is a devotee of transcendental meditation — not an obvious foundation for a 27-year-old jazz pianist-composer.

Born in Fairfield in the Hawkeye State, Dimick is the third finalist this season to present two Premiere Series trio sets at the Jazz Kitchen on his way to the American Pianists Awards' "Discovery Week" in April, when the new Cole Porter Fellow will be selected and given a valuable career boost.

Freely acknowledging the gifts meditation has showered upon him, Dimick introduced several originals in the second set by crediting their creation to the practice. Fairfield, as he told the Indianapolis Star, is something of a TM center, and the pianist has been acquainted with the therapeutic/spiritual discipline since childhood.

Accompanied by bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps, the pianist displayed a secure, flowing right-hand touch. He seems to be stingy with ornamentation for its own sake, but applies it selectively.  His rhythmic acuity was unfailing, and his range of inventiveness stayed broad yet efficient. The left hand typically lent harmonic support, but sometimes poked forward prominently as in "Deep in Cerebration."

That composition illustrated a characteristic freshness, particularly with its stop-start surprises and fondness for episodic form. Toward the end, he moved effortlessly into repetitive octave patterns of the kind often favored by Latin-style pianists.

His personalized approach to others' works — from a bebop classic to Joe Sample's "Street Life" — revealed a gift for adaptation that never meandered. His one unaccompanied solo, "All for One," was extensive but neatly turned out, a gentle samba flecked with harmonic eddies off the mainstream.

Dimick gave ample space to both sidemen and fed eagerly off their inspirations. The set finale was a whimsical medley opening with a couple of secular Christmas tunes and moving definitively into a substantial original, a tribute to the late piano master Mulgrew Miller.

Once again, the APA seems to have come up with a worthy contender for its next big jazz prize.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Bells to the forefront in guest pianist's Butler University recital

The Advent season bears unmistakable associations with bells and their sounds' heralding function.
Tuyen Tonnu, a guest at Butler, focused on solo piano music evoking bells.
So the calendar bears an appropriate resonance with the theme of Tuyen Tonnu's piano recital Friday evening at Butler University.

The pianist, associate professor at Illinois State University, rang the changes on the theme —from Oliver Knussen to Modest Mussorgsky. The composer whose aesthetic rests squarely on bell and chime sounds, the Estonian Arvo Pärt, was not represented, but the survey was nonetheless far-reaching and suggestive of the many ways tintinnabulation can serve the art of music.

The most obvious link is that, like bells, the piano depends upon striking and the subsequent fading of the sound produced (sustained or snuffed by the pedal in the case of the piano). Tonnu seems to be an artist particularly inspired by sound, and is likely to be a rewarding Debussy pianist as well.

It's not surprising that the repertoire on this recital has little to do with development in the traditional sense, because the manipulation of a piece's material serves how we process resonance and repetition instead of the rhetorical structures of the classical tradition. In this program, the most traditional piece, Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," subjects the recurring Promenade theme to varied treatment. But otherwise each "picture" is a self-contained miniature, with the program's thematic emphasis delayed until the finale, "The Great Gate of Kiev."

Immediately inviting was the diptych Tonnu designed to open the recital, contrasting Oliver Knussen's "Prayer Bell Sketch," op. 29, with the "Noel" movement of Olivier Messiaen's "Vingt regrards sur l'enfant-Jésus." The discrete temple-bell sonorities of the former piece, written in memory of Toru Takemitsu, contrasted with the cathedral-tower clangor of the French composer's music, typically rich in overlaid sound. (The British composer-conductor Knussen, by the way, will no doubt inspire memorial pieces himself, as he died in July, contrary to the printed program.)

The durable George Crumb  was thus the recital's sole living composer, due to reach 90 next year. "A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979," generated by admiration for pictures much older than the ones that fueled Mussorgsky's imagination, is based on a couple of frescoes in Padua painted in 1305 by Giotto. The seven-part suite takes off from the generating idea to explore Christmas mysteries. It made use of strummed and stopped piano-string sound fused to keyboard playing, in a way reminiscent, though less flamboyant, of Crumb's "Makrokosmos" suites.

The lyrical outreach of the suite is modest to begin with, after the transfiguration implied by "The Visitation," the opening movement. The bell theme is pronounced as the suite gets under way, followed by the gentler lullaby and retrospective "Shepherd's Noel." "The Adoration of the Magi" is one of those glorious star-sparkled Crumb excursions, succeeded by the brightly accented vigor of "Nativity Dance," to which Tonnu lent an extraordinary sensitivity to the spectrum of attack and release. Strummed strings accompanied a muted application of the Coventry Carol ("Lullay, lullay"), typical of Crumb's gift for apt quotation.  Again, there was reinforcement of the recital's theme in the finale, "Carol of the Bells," capped by a fully indulged long fadeout.

The recitalist's affinity for the program's least-known composer, Hans Otte, was displayed in two movements from "The Book of Sounds." Through arpeggiation in the first and bell-like resonance in the second, the music invites the listener to be "at one with the sound," as Tonnu said in her oral program note. The work seemed a rather dogged illustration urging us to recall, as it did at least for me, W.H. Auden's reminder in his elegy for W.B. Yeats that "poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valleys of its saying." Otte's music strives to make the listener comfortable lingering in the valleys of its saying. I had a little trouble lingering there.

Of Mussorgsky's suite, not much needs to be said. It was distinctly a plus that Tonnu's playing didn't bring to my inner ear Ravel's too-familiar orchestration, except for the mischievous ghost of the muted trumpet nattering like the beggar in "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle." I particularly admired the piano-centric lyricism she imparted to "The Old Castle," with some detachment applied to the melody that set aside the memory of Ravel's mellifluous saxophone solo.

Her emphasis on Mussorgsky's spiky harmonies upheld his unconventionality, which is sometimes misinterpreted as amateurism. The Promenade variation in the sepulchral "Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua" was marvelously detailed and a thoughtful prelude to the tumult of "The Hut of Baba-Yaga," which featured Tonnu's similarly thoughtful transition back to the main theme. And, of course, nothing was skimped in evoking Russia's enchantment with bells in "The Great Gate of Kiev."