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]

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Celebrating James Still's 20 years as playwright-in-residence, IRT brings back "Looking Over the President's Shoulder"

One hopes Indiana Repertory Theatre, in the 500th production of its history, can attract a young crowd to the 20th-century American history play James Still has put together from the memoir of Alonzo Fields, White House chief butler to four presidents.

"Looking Over the President's Shoulder" also had David Alan Anderson in its sole role in 2008. In its opening-night reprise Friday on the Upper Stage, murmurs of recognition from the audience were frequent as Anderson's Fields plumbed his capacious memory for anecdotes of chief executives from Herbert Hoover through Dwight Eisenhower and the times they helped shape and that shaped them.
David Alan Anderson as Alonzo Fields

In a span of consequential years from 1931 to 1953, Fields also had the opportunity to store up impressions of Great Britain's king and queen and its most famous prime minister of recent history, Winston Churchill. And among celebrities ranging from Hollywood's Errol Flynn to Marie Dressler, one White House visitor had for him particular resonance, both literal and metaphorical: Marian Anderson.

The Indiana-born Fields, raised in a self-sufficient African-American small town, harbored serious ambitions to make a career out of opera and concert singing, much like the famous contralto. His nurturing upbringing gave him a resilience that stood him in good stead when he felt that accepting an offer to join the White House staff was prudent as the Depression tightened its grip on most Americans. The dream sustained him, however. And of course he had first-hand knowledge of racism apart from the public sphere in which Marian Anderson encountered it. His way forward was to be the best kind of servant in the most prestigious job, drawing upon both patriotism and personal pride.

Fields has a lot to say, and it would have felt tedious for Still as playwright to lard his script with explanations. Nor would it have been appropriate for him to range outside Fields' point of view: When the butler praises Franklin Roosevelt for his evident conviction that "the White House belonged to all the people," the unbidden rejoinder that comes to mind — "except for Japanese-American citizens on the West Coast" —  must be dismissed. "Looking Over the President's Shoulder" is only in part a history lesson; it is principally a studiously yet vividly limned portrait of a remarkable historical figure.

Three years ago, I said of the actor's performance in IRT's "What I Learned in Paris" by Pearl Cleage:  "Anderson adds to his admirable record of filling to the max portrayals of men to be reckoned with." He extends that record here. Directed by Janet Allen, he is reflective and boisterous, acutely observant and wryly amused, as the narrative requires. He is a deft mimic: I won't soon forget his Eleanor Roosevelt or his Churchill (though I wonder if the real Churchill had such trouble standing erect).

Spare, elegant, and leaving lots of room for the audience's imagination to fill the gaps, Robert M. Koharchik's scenic design was eloquently supplemented by Chris Berchild's projections of historical photographs behind Anderson. A period chair for each of the presidents Fields served was brought into place as the show progressed; each of them carried a marvelous aura given substance by the actor's well-modulated words. Recorded music and sound were timely and just as restrained as they needed to be: Fields' reminiscences, as molded by Still and interpreted by Anderson, rightly commanded the stage. (It's rare when a spoiler comes in the form of a design element, so I won't describe the stunning one in the final scene. Suffice it to say that a concluding  ex machina doesn't always have to be a deus.)

As I watched, the unwelcome mental distraction of the current Chief Executive that troubled me from time to time is no fault of this amazing production. And allowing for the degree to which the shrewd, buoyant personality of Fields idealized Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower somewhat — with Truman held in justifiably high regard — "Looking Over the President's Shoulder" bears the stamp of genuine experience. It will bring substance and dignity to set against understandable suspicion among younger baby boomers, millennials, and Generation Whatever that the Oval Office has become the center ring in a dismal circus.

[Photo by Drew Endicott]

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Pushing back against the Russian pushback against the West's response to its assassination policy

Positively Death Street You’ve got a lot of nerve agent to deploy And you feel free to use it when it suits you To take out enemies abroad you will enjoy Until the world community aims and boots you. You’ve got a lot of nerve saying all of them are louts When over two dozen nations move against you; You seem offended by diplomatic ins and outs With fair retaliation that’s incensed you. You say the poison came direct from Porson Down Whose targets were an ex-spy and his daughter, But you had the means to kill in nearby Salisbury town; Can’t you see your argument won’t hold water? You’re not the only nation to target foes abroad — Israel and the United States have done it; But all your cries of innocence are nothing but a fraud: You launch a war, then you pretend you’ve won it. The UK got a taste of how you carry out revenge When you killed Litvinenko in ought-six; You make up narratives that say as little as Stonehenge, But they’re too clumsy to hide your deadly tricks. Every force exerted has an opposite force that’s equal, Says the third law of motion from Isaac Newton: Russia shot the original film, now here comes the sequel And the bright marquee still carries the name of Putin.

Flutist Mayu Saeki gently wipes the dust off the politically charged word 'Hope' in new CD

Mayu Saeki got her start in American jazz with Chico Hamilton.
Her publicity reflects such admiration for the sound of Mayu Saeki's flute that it refers to her by the quaint term "flautist."

Despite the Brit-inclined choice of term for a person who plays the flute, there is a particular elegance and tender force about how she sounds on "Hope" (BJU Records) that, as far as I'm concerned, entitles her to call herself a flautist if she prefers.

The fact remains that she commands the purest and most sustained sound on the jazz flute of anyone since the heyday of Hubert Laws. Besides, the Japanese-born New Yorker is also a skillful composer with credible aplomb in various styles.

The disc launches invitingly with "Dilemma," which despite its title seems a carefree blues with no dilemmas in view. Saeki leads a cheery statement of the theme that  sets up the solos, starting with an exciting repeated-note pattern from pianist Aaron Goldberg.

Keyboard duties on the disc are divided between Goldberg and a student of his, Nori Ochiai. Over the course of a CD lasting less than 50 minutes, just six tunes are featured. But this is not unwelcome, as so many jazz CDs today seem longer than necessary. With Saeki throughout the program are Joe Sanders, bass, and John Davis, drums.

The title song shows off Saeki's nicely sustained phrasing. Goldberg fleshes out the interpretation,  varying from a gently romantic introduction to a solo that puts a lot of skipping energy into the tune. That episode is nicely energized by complementary rhythmic elan from Davis on brushes and the dependably adept Sanders. The bandleader turns to the shinobue on "Soshu-Yakyoku," an explicit salute to her heritage, with the bassist underlining the atmosphere with an arco excursion.

Two Astor Piazzolla compositions contrast Saeki's approach to her instrument. She is heard on piccolo to lift the floating feeling of "Oblivion." The unison launch of "Libertango" for flute and bass is attractive, and Saeki displays a variety of tone here, with some staccato playing that showcases her articulation. She never just settles for a stab at such notes. There is nothing breathy or overassertive about the playing. The lyrical imagination of this fine flutist is consistently displayed. And, besides her exquisite technique, she always has something to say.

Monday, March 26, 2018

IRT will launch its 2018-19 season with a mysterious look at the Sherlock Holmes legacy

Indiana Repertory Theatre has announced a new season that will capitalize on the perpetual interest in Arthur Conan Doyle's master detective, Sherlock Holmes. It's Jeffrey Hatcher's look at the character's legendary power well after the sleuth's death, focusing on Watson, his sidekick, investigating the claims of three inmates at a remote island asylum to be Holmes himself.

"Holmes and Watson" will run from Sept. 25 to Oct. 21. It's part of a tradition that has attracted audiences to IRT and other theaters in recent years, said executive artistic director Janet Allen at a media lunch last Friday. "Adaptations of fiction have been a big thing with us over time," she said.

The play will be  followed by a production that's closer to the gritty side of contemporary urban reality. Dominique Morisseau's "Pipeline" (Oct. 16-Nov. 11) draws its title from the often observed tendency of young black men to fall into an inevitable channel toward incarceration, as well as the way education similarly channels marginalized young people before their potential is realized. The hero's mother struggles to get her troubled son pointed toward a better future. Allen saw its premiere at Lincoln Center last summer and knew she wanted it for IRT, she said.

The familiar production of "A Christmas Carol" will follow Nov. 17-Dec. 26. Ryan Artzberger will again play Ebenezer Scrooge in this annual fixture of the IRT schedule. Allen defends the IRT's 23-year devotion to the show, derived from the Charles Dickens novella, in terms not only of the money it  brings in, but also the exposure to theater it provides to many people unused to the experience and  the show's patented multigenerational appeal.

2019 will be welcomed (Jan. 8-Feb. 10) at the IRT with "Every Brilliant Thing," by Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, It traces a boy's attempt to come to terms with his mother's repeated suicide attempts by making a list of "every brilliant thing" that might be brought to bear to prevent recurrences. Despite its theme, Allen described the contemporary British play as "wildly funny."

"The Diary of Anne Frank," like "A Christmas Carol" a repeat production not on the subscription schedule, follows Jan. 25 to Feb. 24. It will be co-produced with the Seattle Children's Theater.
of which Courtney Sale, who was associate artistic director at IRT for three years, is artistic director.

From Feb. 23 through March 24, a musical for young children under the "Exploring Stages" rubric will be staged: the book series Elephant & Piggie's "We Are in a Play!" has script and lyrics by Mo Willems and music by Deborah Wicks La Puma.

Returning to the subscription season, Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House Part 2" (March 12-April 7)  takes Henrik Ibsen's classic up 15 years after Nora slams the door on the domestic life that has confined her. It deals with her both hilarious and harrowing return to her family. It's set in the late 19th-century period of the original but with modern language.

With "Amber Waves" (April 2-28), playwright-in-residence James Still has expanded a one-act play into a full-length drama to take a place in IRT's long-running Indiana Series. It concerns a family on a small Indiana farm that has fallen on hard times.

The season will end April 23-May 19 with Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's sprightly 1930s comedy "You Can't Take It With You," a Pulitzer Prize-winning work with a large cast of characters, many of them eccentric, that is mostly known via Frank Capra's film version.

Season tickets are now on sale at the IRT box office. Single tickets will go on sale in August.

'I Dreamed a Dream' about the difference between "rightfully" and "rightly" — that is all

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Indianapolis Opera's 'South Pacific': Balancing warily on the border between American musical theater and the operatic heritage

Enough U.S. opera companies have incorporated outstanding representatives of American musical
theater in recent years to make the Indianapolis Opera's productions ending the last two seasons no anomaly. Still, a company with such a small annual number of shows risks the appearance of diluting its brand.
Her fellow nurses help Nellie Forbush proclaim her resolve to "wash that man right out of my hair."

The emphasis on name recognition in part must explain the 2016-17 schedule's concluding with "Man of La Mancha," and the current one with "South Pacific," which opened Friday night at Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts. To end the just announced 2018-19 lineup we'll have "Camelot"; preceding shows will be a presentation of Indiana University Opera Theater's "Hansel and Gretel" and, as the only locally generated production from the opera repertoire, "La Boheme."

In hiring a professional orchestra and not miking the singers, as director A. Scott Parry proudly points out in his program notes, Indianapolis Opera has at least brought the Rodgers and Hammerstein favorite within the operatic orbit. But it must still be asserted that even the greatest examples of the Broadway musical rest on an artistic foundation of a far different order from opera.

Tropical romance: Emile woos Nellie.
For instance, in the musical you can't get past the tendency of ensemble numbers and even solos to end with an applause-soliciting wide-open pose. And there is a tradition of larding the group songs with choreography, sometimes rudimentary for the sake of underlining the pizazz the song has already established, as in "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair." In opera, even the convention of applauding arias rarely makes singers' tableau-like acknowledgment of the ovation acceptable. In musical comedy, it's a given.

This production dutifully makes the most of the showstopping moments. And from the overture on, the musical-comedy genre always holds up its big tunes —  "South Pacific" is rich in them — in a way that opera is less inclined to, despite the popularity of "highlights" recordings. More crucially, the ability of opera singers to create and sustain characterizations in spoken dialogue is tested by a show like "South Pacific." Many operas, of course, require stem-to-stern singing.

IO had various degrees of success with these mixed responsibilities. Brian Banion displayed sterling vocal qualities as a singer Friday night. When speaking he usually maintained the French accent Emile De Becque has to have. But I felt the characterization lacked an aura of mystery essential to the role. De Becque is not only a South Pacific plantation owner jealous of his freedom from a shadowy past in his native France. He also has a distinct guardedness about his private life as a result. He opens up to Nellie Forbush because he's in love with her, but he's still an exotic enigma to her in a nearly romance-stifling way. Banion made him too much a stiff-necked libertarian, swayed by love but in essence too simply proud.

Banion also was responsible for overstating some of the role's vocal glory, though perhaps in the prescribed Broadway manner. He planted his feet and flung his arms wide as "This Nearly Was Mine" rose to a climax. There's no question of De Becque's intense feeling of loss at this point, but the song ought to sustain a reflective glow right through to the end rather than court the audience's favor.

Banion's voice was fully equal to the role's demands, and for a bass-baritone he had a surprising degree of security in the upper range, positioning his voice well each time he chose the high-note ending of "never let her go," the last line of "Some Enchanted Evening."

Group hug: Bloody Mary exults in the romance between Liat and Lt. Cable.
The other leading role, that of Ensign Nellie Forbush, was taken by Christina Overton with a welcome measure of ingenue charm. But her vocal projection was inconsistent: "Cock-Eyed Optimist" went in and out of intelligibility, as did "I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy." The character may be a self-described hick, but in performance Nellie needs to command a considerable supply of Broadway "belting."

Consistency was the watchword of Lyndsay Moy's portrayal of Bloody Mary. Her spoken dialogue was clear and so was her singing. She projected the character's hustle and boisterous self-regard, right down to Bloody Mary's signature cackle. In "Bali Ha'i," the character's respect for her Tonkinese culture came through superbly in both voice and gesture.

Major supporting roles included Grant Knox as Marine Lieutenant Cable, with an exemplary rendition of his romantic solo "Younger Than Springtime." That number follows an amazingly brief love-at-first-sight scene with Bloody Mary's daughter Liat (Gretchen Adams) — a challenge to make dramatically convincing. He put a fair measure of remorseful sarcasm into "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," the second-act song that highlights the show's attack on racial prejudice. To embody Cable's spy mission on the island and its fateful launching in the second act needed a more steely characterization, however.
Billis and his buddies lament the absence of somebody "to put on a clean white shirt for."

Bradley Kieper got only a limited chance to display a fairly mighty tenor (a bit of "Bali H'ai"), but
was otherwise the comic schemer Luther Billis to the nth degree. He was the more than adequate focal point of "There Is Nothing Like a Dame," seconded by a small but effective chorus of sailors, and he helped Overton bring off Nellie's raucous Thanksgiving-show number "Honey Bun" with his burlesque impersonation.

Keith Chambers conducts the production. On Friday, his support of the singers was well-illustrated by the deftness of the accompaniment to "Some Enchanted Evening." The small but polished orchestra created just the right atmosphere to evoke the charm of Bali Ha'i (the island as well as the song). Choruses of nurses and sailors were vivid and well-coordinated.

With three sell-out crowds this weekend, "South Pacific" has already filled the IO goal of getting butts in the seat (to use a favorite marketing term usually brought up in private conversation). But the show is loaded with the demands of its genre, which were fulfilled only in part on opening night. And the larger question remains: How much is putting on Broadway musicals the proper business of an opera company?

[Photos by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]

Friday, March 23, 2018

Grace notes of grief and healing: "Appoggiatura" completes IRT's mounting of a James Still trilogy

Travel is broadening, runs the cliche, but it can also be narrowing — sometimes in a positive way. For the unconventional family group in "Appoggiatura," upon its disheveled arrival one recent June in Venice, a sentimental journey is roughed up against the nap of the fabled Bride of the Sea only to find a magical payoff at the end.

Marco and Aunt Chuck have a heart-to-heart at a Viennese fountain.
In James Still's poignant comedy, the tug of memory — with two older adults focused on the deceased love of both their lives — competes with the slightly shabby charisma of the Italian port city, whose water-laced geography is perpetually both an attraction and a challenge. At first, flooding and a power outage combine with the modern traveler's curse of lost luggage to pose threats to the trip. The optimistic Helen's happiness is challenged, and deepened is the dour mood of the man for whom her late husband Gordon left her. The ex-rival is known to her and the party's third member, granddaughter Sylvie, as "Aunt Chuck." Those annoyances fade, and one of them is crucially mitigated late in the show.

The Indiana Repertory Theatre is presenting the third part of Still's trilogy (in previous seasons, IRT has staged "The House That Jack Built" and "Miranda") as part of its celebration of his 20th season as playwright in residence. The observance is also taking the form of an encore production of "Looking Over the President's Shoulder," which opens next week.

Peter Amster directs a versatile cast, playing characters with an almost down-home appeal, despite the exotic setting. The family intimacy, in which hard-won affection must compete with fulfillment of diverse personal agendas, is brightly sketched in the opening scene by Susan Pellegrino (Helen), Tom Aulino (Aunt Chuck), and Andrea San Miguel (Sylvie). Still's writing is glinting and fast-paced; exposition is distributed with a skilled hand. Helen's willful cheeriness encompasses reading aloud snippets of local color from Venetian history. She's attempting to distract Aunt Chuck from his grumpiness and Sylvie from her default position of just going along with her elders as she tries to find herself.

The widow Helen (right) encounters Gordon and her younger self.
Progress from this shaky start will be found through a mix of tourist misdirection and serendipity. A deepening of self-knowledge, through both imagination and coming to terms with the hands life has dealt, generates change even more crucially. The comedy of international travel is sketched by Marco (Casey Hoekstra), an inexperienced Italian travel guide with rudimentary English hired via e-mail,  and secondary characters representing a host of cicerones, played by Andrew Maher, Paul DeBoy, and Katrina Yaukey.

The trio also functions as street musicians wittily and magnetically woven in and around the action. They are outfitted to a virtuoso turn by Tracy Dorman's costume designs, contrasting with the casual, travel-worn attire of the central trio, Marco's on-the-cheap debonair style, and the evocative, dressier fashion of a time long past for San Miguel as the young Helen and Hoekstra as the young Gordon.
Street musicians provide a sidewalk cafe patron with a reflective song.

It's worth pausing to mention a couple of characteristic Still touches that can sound sappy when singled out, but that work so well in context. In "April 4, 1968," it was the moment when the black family and their accidental white guest suddenly clasp hands while sitting on the couch. In "Appoggiatura," it's when the young Helen impulsively hugs the laptop, a device totally strange to her, at the end of a Skype call. An explanation would give too much away, but it's a precious moment.

Lee Savage's scenic design, with elements that move to suggest different sites around the city, basically serves to document the time-worn facades of Venice's canal-fronting structures. Alexander Ridgers' lighting slices in from the side or emblazons the scene all around, depending on the precise location and time of day. Still's incorporation of Skype chats and iPhone signaling is made smoothly manifest throughout the production, typically rich in IRT marvels.

A gondolier poles his way along, with passengers Aunt Chuck and Marco.
The Italian title, drawn from a musical term, is explained both in the company's promotional video and briefly in the show itself. In music, an appoggiatura is a kind of auxiliary note in a line that receives various degrees of emphasis in delaying the conclusion of a phrase. It's an embedded emotional tug that, expanded for dramatic purposes here, signals a reluctance to let go. When a playwright shows he has something fresh to say about love and loss, much of his success is assured. So it is with  "Appoggiatura."

And the best example of the title in the play's context comes in the gondola scene, where Aunt Chuck is inspired to burst into "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Marco and the gondolier join in with the Italian version. And where Marco finishes with "life is but a dream," his gondola companions end that last line with the Italian for "dream" —sogno — two syllables, of which the first one is an appoggiatura note. It's a perfect illustration, both of the device itself and of the play's meaning.

[Photos by Ed Stewart and Zach Rosing]

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Jemal Ramirez and his band romp through 'African Skies'

The cover of San Francisco-based drummer's new CD.
With a basis of public-school responsibilities for his day job, drummer-bandleader Jemal Ramirez makes musical points in the public sphere in addition to his vital work in music education.

His latest CD, "African Skies" (Joyful Beat Records), finds him anchoring his usual quintet, notable for the inclusion of the perpetually relevant vibraphonist Warren Wolf. But it's also important to emphasize, on the evidence of this disc and its predecessor, "Pomponio" (2015), that the Ramirez band is a real team. Star power is not what keeps both discs worth hearing. It's the collective energy and program choices that bring out the cohesiveness of the ensemble as well as the solo chops within.

Variety in unity and vice versa: In "Latina," for example Howard Wiley's alto solo heats things up feverishly before Wolf's canny vibraphone notions cool things down. Yet Ramirez's drums keep things simmering behind the vibes, so that the overall performance maintains consistent fervor.

Nonetheless, I can't resist drawing special attention to Wolf. As he rides the Latin pulse of "A Good Time," for example, how deft he is at coming up with little bits of original melody to tie together his ideas! When the band comes in behind his inspired soloing, the effect is electric. There's also a good tenor solo from Wiley.

And, though the contributions of trumpeter Mike Olmos are cogent on four of the 10 tracks, there's a progression evident to my ears from Olmos' rather generic solo on "It Always Is" through the more focused playing of pianist Matthew Clark to Wolf's unerringly eloquent solo. Then, having a high plane of pertinence behind it,  the ensemble erupts in a wild coda with simultaneous improvising by the horns.

The teamwork at its lyrical best comes through in "A Long Way Home," an original ballad by Wolf, Wiley, and Ramirez, with atmospheric mallets on tom-toms setting the mood and smooth soprano-sax lyricism from Wiley complementing the estimable Wolf. The vibist gets a soulful showcase to himself in "Save Your Love for Me," which follows immediately.

The group confidence is illustrated by how securely the band plays around the familiar tune of "Speak Low" before Wolf states the theme. This is a band (bassist John Shiflett is fundamental to its success, too) that's comfortable in its skin and able to communicate the fact without special pleading or bizarre trickery.

Why do stars fail in Indiana (and so many other places)? Nighttime competition from light pollution

Sunday, March 18, 2018

All-orchestral program focuses on guest conductor's affinity with three eras

No concerto soloists required guest conductor Matthew Halls to share the limelight in this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts.
Halls: British conductor makes his mark here.

The British conductor proved worth the focus as he led Saturday evening's program of J.S.Bach, James MacMillan, and Jan Sibelius at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

MacMillan is a prolific Scotsman who seems to have increased presence on American concert programs recently. In February I heard the American premiere of his Trombone Concerto in a Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert. I found the work so exciting that I'll admit paying insufficient attention to the Tchaikovsky "Pathetique" Symphony that followed intermission. I like that piece well enough, but MacMillan's arresting musical rhetoric still had command of my mind. (The conductor, Gustavo Gimeno, will make his ISO debut here in April.)

MacMillan's Veni, veni, Emmanuel, a percussion concerto, has been performed twice in Indianapolis — once with its dedicatee, Evelyn Glennie, as soloist, then by Colin Currie. And one of his string quartets has been chosen to mark the last Juilliard Quartet performance of first violinist Joseph Lin this spring in New York. He will be succeeded by Areta Zhulla.

On Thursday and Saturday, Halls led Sinfonietta, a 19-minute work whose title betokens both one-movement form and a reduced orchestra. Apart from strings, a wide variety of instruments is represented by a single voice each. A keening soprano saxophone makes an initial impression over a lighter-than-air string accompaniment. The calming mood lasts for just long enough for a fortissimo rip in the fabric to shock the ears.

That interruption turns out to be persistent, soon becoming both florid and chaotic. It's as if Charles Ives had wandered into Stravinsky's "Shrovetide Fair" ("Petrushka") and became disoriented by funhouse mirrors. Typical of the MacMillan works I've heard, there's a nurtured beauty that has to contend with threats and challenges. In this case, the ethereal music returns, taking on an even higher place in the heavens, as it ends with a repeated utmost-octave note from the piano. The effect was marred Saturday night by an ill-timed cellphone ring from somewhere in the audience.

Until last September, Halls was artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival. From what I've read of his dismissal, he may have been a victim of an oversensitive aspect of the #MeToo movement. Management responded at first to a ridiculously exaggerated report of a joke Halls made to a black soloist, but was mainly pushed to push him out by a few "hostile work-environment" charges, accounts of which don't give much basis for coming down definitively on the side of either party. A settlement proscribes both the OBF and Halls from further comment in self-defense.

This is by way of introducing his genuine claim to conduct Bach with a modern orchestra. The great Baroque composer tends to be overlooked in symphony schedules, a consequence of the triumph of "authenticity." The neglect goes back many decades, and explains why Leopold Stokowski felt compelled to orchestrate some of the Saxon master's music. The vogue for these transcriptions has long passed; the ISO last played the 1922 Stokowski-Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor in 1973.

Judging from the response Saturday night to the ISO's performance of that magnificent organ work, such arrangements come across well and have merits far from the shadow of travesty they're sometimes represented as being under. The audience ate this one up. Much credit goes to Hall's astute management of balance and tempo. The broadening near the end of the fugue complemented the splendor of the orchestration. Throughout, Halls displayed insight into the peculiar blend of spectacle and probity that could well sum up the imposition of Stokowski on top of Bach.

The concert opened with a crisp, lively account of Bach's Orchestra Suite No. 3. There were signs of struggle as the ISO fought to maintain the fast pace Halls set for the fast section of the Overture. Concertmaster Zach De Pue handled the violin solos with aplomb. And the ISO's trumpet section sounded brilliant wherever it was required to shine.

Halls had the well-known Air, the suite's second movement, nicely modulated with reduced strings the first time through, then supplemented by the full complement. The Bourree seemed to test the orchestra again, but the rapid pace certainly set up the quick segue into the concluding Gigue well.

After intermission came the "in-between" selection: the personalized late romanticism of Sibelius' Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major. The mastery of tempo fluctuations Halls displayed in Bach served him well here: The transition to Presto, then more Presto, in the first movement was precisely judged and quite exciting.The second movement is pervaded by subtle shifts that were handled adroitly in this performance.

In the first movement, where the composer seems to be working out a few ideas that can take you a while to realize aren't introductory but substantive, the initial phrase of the horns was somewhat tentative. But the wind band soon sounded self-assured. Sibelius' writing for winds often seems to be a little precious, self-involved, somewhat boutique-y, like something you might find in the Carmel Arts District.

But such stuff is part of the Sibelius signature. The music historian Jan Swafford makes the witty comment that, like Dylan Thomas' poetry, Sibelius' symphonies sound greater than they are.  That thought struck me in the evanescent second movement, with its fleeting sentimentality and hints of Brahms and even Puccini. After that allure, what does it all really amount to? Pure Sibelius, for sure.

The finale was taken at a rapid clip, and the strings' sotto voce scurrying sounded really unified. All the colors in Sibelius' rather restrained palette were brought into view vividly. Halls handled the momentum of the last movement quite well, as its expansive lyricism and a catchy, pervasive rocking figure moved to a climax amid the scurrying. Never have those drastically spaced final six chords made more sense to me as the perfect way to punctuate and bring to finality all that roiling energy.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Herald of spring: Well-seasoned quintet jazz from tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel

Out of a project inspired by a Tchaikovsky suite for solo piano, saxophonist Ben Wendel was inspired
Aaron Parks (left), for whom Ben Wendel's "November" was written.
to write a piece for each month of the year, dedicating each to a musician he admires. As a jazz specialist, the writing was a launching pad for duo performances incorporating improvisational  freedom, in which each honoree participated as a performing partner with Wendel.

Expanded to a quintet format, the compositions became the basis for Wendel's "Seasons" band, which played two sets Friday night at the Jazz Kitchen. Filling out the group were some illustrious young players, with a locally boosted star, Aaron Parks, at the piano. Parks was 2001 Cole Porter Fellow of the Indianapolis-based American Pianists Association. Other "Seasons" personnel: Gilad Hekselman, guitar; Matt Brewer, bass, and Kendrick Scott, drums.

Textures of Wendel compositions are dense, but the group's internal rapport ensures that everything flows. For example, "November," written for Parks, allowed the pianist to wax introspective in an unaccompanied introduction. When the full band came in, there was an ingrained moodiness to the material, with Scott laying down a propulsive backbeat. That encouraged bluesy inflections in the solos, which were interspersed with ensemble returns. It was down-home goes to graduate school. The performance ended with a long diminuendo as a four-note tag marked the settling down.

Wendel sounded comfortable in all ranges of his horn, and folded into his playing a wealth of curlicues and flourishes. "May" displayed the positive buoyancy of his muse, with lots of ornamentation. Hekselman's solo took an exotic turn. The general favoritism toward up-tempo pieces was interrupted by "August," with its long tones and a sparkling Parks solo niftily accompanied by Scott's hand-drumming.

"October," written for Hekselman, gave the timbre-sensitive guitarist a chance to make a gamelan-like excursion in his solo that soon morphed into an Afrobeat vibe as the ensemble entered. "July" was notable for a titanic yet coherent bass solo, as well as for a tasty coda punctuated by Scott's precise patterning on rims.

The last piece of the first set was the one tune not taken from Wendel's "Seasons" project. "Unforeseeable" started with crisp solo drums and cymbals, with Brewer soon putting a foundation underneath the percussive churning. The piece drew hearty applause and whoops and demands for an encore. That entailed a return to the monthly theme, as "April," written for the drummer Eric Harland, was put on display, with naturally a more intense focus on the estimable Scott.

Relaxed and amiable in his bandstand manner, Wendel draws from his sidemen the same attention to taking care of business that he demands of himself. No one stays idle for long in this band, yet the listener doesn't get the impression of clutter. The sound is high-powered, but there's always something new to absorb and enjoy. Whatever the season, this isn't the sort of impactful music that tempts you to say: "OK, very good — now give me a break!" It's rather like: "Let's have some more."