Sunday, June 23, 2019

Premium Blend is well-suited to its rising jazz profile

Having caught the first of two sets Premium Blend played Saturday night, I feel compelled to mention the ensemble's virtues as well as its "Vices."

"Vices" is the name of its new recording, available via streaming only. The physical CD, as bandleader Jared Thompson suggested from the Jazz Kitchen bandstand, is so 20th century. (Naturally, I have thousands of them.)

Thompson solicited compliments on his new suit, with the band name fixed inside the jacket. He got them. The music on hand was just as suitable, especially to the musical spiffiness of the quartet: Thompson, saxophone; Ryan Taylor, guitar and repertoire-builder along with the leader; Steven Jones, keyboards, and Brian Yarde, drums.

Premium Blend lived up to its name at the Jazz Kitchen.
As to those virtues, this is a steadily cohesive band, with an original book loaded with catchy tunes, arranged to showcase the group's unity as an ensemble as well as the solo skills of its members. Especially impressive was the avoidance of unaccompanied drum solos in the set I heard; Yarde's solo space featured enlivening punctuation by the band, which afforded plenty of opportunity to appreciate his control and fiery virtuosity. Extended drum solos, tempo shifts all over creation, with everyone just looking on are proven applause-generators, but it's a relief to be free of them now and then.

Rob Dixon, the oft-cited "mayor" of Indianapolis jazz, sat in on alto and soprano saxes for several pieces. Thompson cites him as a mentor, yet it was evident that each man has his own style. In general, the tenor saxophonist was more florid, though always capable of making a point, not scattering the seeds of his inspiration on stony places. Dixon was just as intense, but somewhat less inclined to release flurries of notes. Both men displayed hearty, well-centered tones. Raggedy saxophonics are overrated.

They were solid partners in stating the themes. Doing so when Dixon was not onstage was the responsibility of Thompson and Taylor in unison. Accompaniments for the two-sax front line were almost always well-judged. An exception was Thompson's "Affirmation," when the thickness of background patterns was a bit too much to allow Thompson to stand out. The texture was scaled back somewhat for Dixon's solo — accidental or in tribute to the old master?

I admired Jones' facility and spicy flavors at the keyboards, including an instrument devoted to laying down nimble bass lines.  Taylor in his solos was skittery, facile, drawing the listener in and yet able to vary guitar color outwardly, as he did when intensifying his sound for a moody piece titled "Torment."

The tune didn't come close to stressing the darkness Thompson mentioned afterwards until near the end. However you interpret it, it's a safe bet Premium Blend is not focused on tormenting its audiences, but rather dispensing well-coordinated musical pleasure. Despite the new release's title, this band keeps any vices at a safe distance. As usual, virtue is its own reward.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

'White City Murder' brings past gruesomeness and glitz together under the Phoenix tent.

Amanda Hummer and Ben Asaykwee illustrate the pizazz of a show with a World's Fair setting.
The weird pull of human awfulness — serial murder division  — gets a song of its own in "White City Murder," a two-actor,  cabaret-style show that just entered its second weekend at Phoenix Theatre.

Mass killings have become part of our weekly news diet, it seems, but slaughtering a bunch of strangers in one place lacks the shimmering aura of knocking off one fellow human being after another, sometimes taking years to do so, favoring different methods and settings. That's fascinated people for decades, and pop culture has been quick to pick up on the attraction. How and why does a person construct an autobiography around killing people indefinitely?

Ben Asaykwee, the guru of classic macabre in his popular "Cabaret Poe" presentations, moves into a dramatic spectacle even more concentrated and intense with "White City Murder." Reveling in the hype and promise of progress that the 1893 Chicago World's Fair represented to our ancestors, Asaykwee focuses with relish on the discrepancy between that event and the murderous career of H.H. Holmes, who centered his homicidal genius a few miles away from that global exhibition's "White City" briefly and consequentially.

The cast list has Asaykwee as Mudgett, the Dickensian surname Holmes originally bore, and Amanda Hummer as Henry,  which is what the first H in his assumed name stands for. But those are just convenient labels for the array of characters the two partners in crime assume in the course of the 100-minute show. Their shifting identities, donned and doffed with fast-paced mastery, bring to life Holmes' prismatic identity, his kith and kin, and, in cameo format, celebrities who visited the exciting scene.
The dark side of "White City Murder" pops up continually.

The one song alluded to above teases the audience for sharing in the general fascination with serial killers. True to Asaykwee's brand, there are several other points at which Hummer and Asaykwee address and toss asides at the spectators. The show's creator typically hates to close off direct communication with those in the seats, which were filled Friday night in the Phoenix's black-box Basile Stage.

Holmes' values are given forthright expression, sometimes to further acquaint us with his self-involved attitude toward life, sometimes to toy with a predominant American cynicism about wealth and any chance to take advantage of others that we are tempted not to pass up. Lyrics that verge on inspired doggerel often carry a Brechtian sting.

Asaykwee and Hummer use a loop machine to create brief ostinatos that are then layered to provide accompaniment to the songs. The patterns are fascinating in both their creation and their simultaneous use as the songs roll out. Asaykwee's direction also brings to bear some choreographic pizazz that exemplifies the energy of an optimistic America.

On the other hand, what used to be known as the Gay Nineties was also a time of economic distress and social disturbances. Without getting obsessed with authenticity, the musical and dance idioms drawn upon have a timeless quality that display the ongoing relevance of the show's themes. Presumably, we are not all potential serial killers, but Americans perpetually bear traces of an urge to overthrow norms, to sail under their own flags, and to find a place in the sun for themselves with various degrees of regard for others, sometimes nil.

Asaykwee is especially skillful in weaving into his entertainment an abundance of facts about Holmes' life and about the World's Fair. These are packed into the songs and often carried by means of what would be known in an opera as recitative. Spoken dialogue plays a small but essential role in some scenes.

With his deft falsetto topping a wide vocal range, Asaykwee is an apt partner for the versatile and often brassier Hummer, a creditable Ethel Merman in power and diction for our times. The couple's variety of facial expression helps convey the show's wide emotional compass — from goofy exuberance to deadly suspicion, mistrust, and betrayal.

On the technical side, Michael Moffatt's bright urban backdrop uses lights to outline characteristic urban Fair forms — including the Ferris wheel, one of that event's enduring innovations — as if they were heavenly constellations in an earthly paradise. Laura Glover's lighting design covers the spectrum, and, with its touches of foreboding, reminds us that the White City's winking artificial illumination isn't enough to throw light upon dark corners of the human soul. "White City Murder" manages that in a way that is oddly upbeat, offering insights without being overly insistent. The cleverness and brio of the whole package carry the day.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Chicago Sinfonietta's Project W brings to the fore women's compositions

The historical suppression of female potential in the arts continues to be rolled back. No one can say how much greatness was thwarted by the subjugation of women. It's more to the point to acknowledge that at last their achievements are receiving more exposure, allowing posterity to have the last word. In the meantime, the injustice of unequal treatment can be mitigated by correcting the gender imbalance in musical creation and performance.

Mei-Ann Chen, music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta
"Works by diverse women composers" is the subtitle of "Project W," a new release on Cedille by the Chicago Sinfonietta under the baton of Mei-Ann Chen. All are first recorded performances, and all new commissions except for William Grant Still's arrangement of Florence Price's charming "Dances in the Canebrakes."

Most out of the shadows of the five women represented is Jennifer Higdon, whose "Dance Card" concludes the program. In five movements, with their titles evoking the larky informality of Benjamin Britten's "Simple Symphony," Higdon displays her familiar amalgam of sophistication and insouciance. The next-to-last movement, "Celestial Blue," touches on the elegiac mood of her most-performed piece, "blue cathedral." Otherwise, the hints of vernacular styles color each exuberant movement, from "Raucous Rumpus" through "Machina Rockus."

The nod to diversity in the subtitle is no empty gesture. Reena Esmail embraces her Indian heritage explicitly in "Charukeshi Bandish," which includes her solo singing in the idiom of her ancestral homeland, and in "#MeToo," in which at one point the women musicians of the Sinfonietta sing in the order of their having joined the orchestra.

That compositional gesture thus explicitly celebrates the entry of women into the cultural mainstream, both in the microcosm of the Chicago Sinfonietta and in the larger world in which they must find independent, dignified ways to proceed. The structure of the piece derives from a Hindustani form called a bandish. This work strikes me as a successful bridging of two disparate cultures as well as a powerful personal statement.

Jessie Montgomery's "Coincident Dances" takes a superficially less exotic approach. But its roots lie deep in several traditions brought together through a contemporary African-American spirituality. Thus it amounts to an advance on and repurposing of the respectful folk-dance evocations in Price's work.

Finally, there's Brazilian-American composer Clarice Assad's stimulating macrocosmic view of multiculturalism in "Sin Fronteras," in which dissonant elements coalesce around harmonious interaction that's consistent with the composer's vision of amity across cultural barriers.

All the performances are brightly and warmly recorded, and the program booklet is exemplary about the composers and their works as well as about the orchestra and its maestra.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: Verdi's 'Rigoletto' presents a flawed figure more boldly heroic than usual

There are so many ways to be an outsider that all of us have
The grievously insulted Monterone delivers his curse to the mocker Rigoletto.
felt it at one time or another. In opera, Rigoletto, the
unlikable titular hero of Verdi's greatest early masterpiece,
stands at the summit of tragic apartness from his milieu.
He's an extreme case of his social participation being 
wholly a matter of grudging tolerance. His status is fragile.

As the court jester required to amuse an imperious aristocrat,
there isn't a trace of professional pride in him.
He encourages the Duke’s dissolute habits, makes fun of his boss's victims, and hates himself for it. He projects that self-hatred onto the Duke and his court, feeling free of their scorn only when he's away from the toxic limelight and with his only family, the nubile daughter he keeps in seclusion.

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' current production takes a chance on blurring this apartness by updating the setting to 19th-century France, during the time of Victor Hugo, whose play "Le roi s'amuse" generated the composer's great enthusiasm for an operatic treatment. I know that social stratification persisted in France after the Revolution, but it requires an imaginative leap to interpret it on the rigid and controlling level it had been a couple of centuries earlier, the setting of Hugo's story.

Fortunately, cues for seeing Rigoletto as a distinct underling pervade both the libretto and the music. It's just that the social criticism seems less acute when the action is moved into the setting of, say, "La Traviata."  Costuming puts this production’s courtiers mostly in top hats and formal wear, so that reminders that they by no means represent the emerging bourgeoisie, but are of high status, are always before us. Rigoletto himself is plainly dressed (no cap and bells), making it clear he is from another emerging world — the professional entertainer, struggling to maintain an outwardly respectable foothold on the same level as the artistic rabble we know from another popular opera, Puccini's "La Boheme."

As such, this Rigoletto, Roland Wood, is constantly carrying about a large dummy whenever he is onstage at court. He ventriloquizes his japes through this puppet, which visually embodies most of the jester's grotesque pain. During the opera's brief prelude, Rigoletto mutely joins the puppet onstage during the opera’s brief prelude, which ends here with Wood's silent mimicry of an anguished scream as the curse motif is inroduced.

This is director Bruno  Ravella's striking way of communicating his approach to  the opera's central theme: the jester visibly agonized during the orchestra's first announcement of the curse that will eventually bring him down. His intended target, the rakish Duke, lives on at the end, in a denouement so striking that it's no violation of spoiler etiquette to mention it here. The courtiers presumably survive and thrive as well, having functioned so spectacularly as a chorus earlier that the audience is left in no doubt  as to their power.

In the June 14 performance, Wood displayed such stature, both vocally and physically, so that Rigoletto's fate readily evoked sympathy. The character lacks the perspective that might  have allowed him  to avoid the  tragedy, and Wood's performance made the jester's narrow vision believable. In his negotiations with the thug Sparafucile, in his pathetic duets with Gilda, in his hostility toward the courtiers, this Rigoletto was fully a flawed hero. I almost got used  to  the  fact  that Wood was not saddled with Rigoletto's conventional hunchback, but stood erect except when felled by his comeuppance. The only visible trait of the "monster" the courtiers keep mentioning is a large birthmark — the kind sometimes called a port-wine stain — down the right  side of his face.

The lascivious Duke exerts his charms on Gilda.
His relationship with Joshua Wheeker's well-sung Duke was not fully realized, however. At court, both men run in their private channels pretty exclusively, establishing who they are and where their interests lie. That the Duke values Rigoletto in his own selfish way wasn't particularly clear. We certainly got, however, an indication of his predatory sense of entitlement — thanks to the buoyant paean to promiscuity known as "Questo a quella" in the original (this production is sung in James Fenton's supple English translation).

So Young Park made for a winsome Gilda, a hard role to portray according to any 21st-century common denominator of womanhood: As Beverly Sills, a soprano who knew whereof she spoke first-hand, once said: "Gilda is such a sap." Her persistent loyalty to the Duke, whom she has first taken to be a poor, handsome student, is hard to credit, but that doesn't keep her fate from being heart-wrenching.

But Park's heavy vibrato, at first coming across as a slight liability, helped convey a character  hopelessly naive, unsure  of  herself, and plainly already a kind of victim because her father has kept her isolated and ignorant for years. There was undeniable luster and steadiness to Park's portrayal as it took shape June 14. Her performance of the aria known as "Caro nome" went from strength to strength; the more demanding the solo became, the more she rose to the occasion.

The pacing of the final scenes was tense and assured. Conductor Roberto Kalb, with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in  the  pit, deserves huge credit for the musical  and dramatic success of what was originally the fourth act (Act 3 in this production, following a brief pause, so that there's a need for just one intermission).
Sepulchral lighting makes Rigoletto's dummy more prominent than the jester.

Technically, hints of the gathering thunderstorm were vividly rendered. Christian Zaremba as the hired assassin never failed to heighten the  atmosphere of menace.  The famous quartet, a showpiece alluded to early in such unexpected places as "The Adventures  of  Huckleberry Finn," came off as the highlight it's supposed to be. Zaremba's capable partners in this number were Park, Wheeker, and Lindsay Ammann as Sparafucile's sister and murderous accomplice, Maddalena. Ammann's alto line was an anchor of solidity in this ensemble.

As for the embodiment of the curse that was part of the opera's early controversy – there were religious objections to displaying the force of superstition – it came through authoritatively in the brief appearances of  Nicholas Newton as Count Monterone, a standout among the excellent array of male voices in this production.

Though its action was moved further to the brink of implausibility by aforementioned production choices, this is a "Rigoletto" to marvel at, chiefly for the sensationally well-realized vocal and dramatic bond between father and daughter.


Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: 'Fire Shut Up in My Bones' brings further acquaintance with Terence Blanchard as opera composer

For their debut as an opera team, Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons draw upon a recent history of  collaboration in films, with a fifth joint project in the works destined for the public screen on the slavery abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
Uncle Paul instructs Char'es-Baby and Charles in the rootedness of manhood

In his second composition for the  company (following 2013's "Champion"),  Blanchard thus had a natural libretto partner. It's little surprise that the result — an adaptation of Charles M. Blow's "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" — looks and feels cinematic. The scenes, joined to the thickly scored music, flow into one another with something like movie "dissolves" making  the connections. The opera (of the same title) received its world  premiere June 15 in an Opera Theatre of Saint  Louis  production.

Another reinforcement of the cinematic approach is that "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" rests on a memoir foundation. This feels like a welcome novelty,  linking incidents in Blow's early life to the time-tested genre of opera, but it also presents creative peril. Here's the crux of it: A memoir forces a special kind of narrative, and however focused it may be, the selection of relevant memories doesn't make for a dramatic arc that can be substantiated and given coherence musically.

I found Blanchard's music  to be a thoroughly worked pastiche of motifs and melodies, some of which recur  to underline the message of revelation, much of it painful. The score thus provides a pervasive  texture behind the main character's journey toward an identity he can accept. A texture is not a trajectory, however, and that remains my chief reservation about the work.

Mother-son bond: Billie shares her anxiety with Charles.
As imaginatively staged and sung with gusto, "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" is rooted in the hero's marginalization as the baby of a family headed by a  determined, overworked woman in Louisiana late in the last century. He is loved, but in an oversheltered way. Known as Char'es-Baby, young Charles is especially ill-prepared to deal at age 7 with the sexual abuse he suffers at the hands of an older cousin who has come to visit. The trauma that results is the fire shut up in his bones, a phrase derived from the  Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. He struggles to come to terms with it even as he matures into an outstanding student and athlete (a transformation that the opera somewhat glosses over).

The work meets some of the inherent challenges of making a memoir dramatic by overlaying the 20-year-old Charles upon his younger self. The forces of memory and actuality alike are at work, and through the simultaneous singing of bass-baritone Davone Tines and treble Jeremy Denis, the incorporation of the child in the young man is effectively conveyed.

As the opera opens, the 20-year-old Charles, enraged and driving fast, is intent on coming home armed, finding the cousin who was once a shady role model turned predator, and killing him. The pathway to personal change that avoids homicide runs through Destiny, a character both personal and allegorical for the opera's hero. The role is enchantingly sung by Julia Bullock (who occasionally assumes the persona of Loneliness and, crucially, as Charles real-life first girlfriend, Greta).

The stage picture  (designed by Allen Moyer) is largely abstract, with a metallic square framing much of the action. Video projections sometimes remind  us of the milieu's thick forestation, and at other times present portraits of Char'es-Baby with a blank, vaguely troubled expression. Slight rearrangements of furnishing and props as well as lighting changes put us in a dive bar and a church in addition to the  home of Billie and her five boys. Characters are sometimes isolated in bright squares, evoking snapshots preserved in photo albums. There is an especially effective scene evoking the chicken-processing plant where Billie works. The gruesome drudgery of such work is given almost a comical turn with a bright choral number.

William Long conducted with an evident command of the variety of musical idioms Blanchard has stitched together. The music varies from low-down to high-flown. Strings sometimes soar in billowing phrases in unison with the vocal line, a sign of Blanchard's admiration of  Puccini. A small jazz group  in the  pit supplements the  orchestral effusions. The guitar's voice is especially prominent, adding the redolence of rural blues to the musical palette.

As the mother, Karen Slack was impressive, though sometimes under vocal strain that went beyond what is needed to express her character. Billie's errant husband Spinner is lent a sly, Sportin' Life feeling of feckless irresponsibility as the straying husband-father in Chaz'men Williams-Ali's characterization. Markel Reed is both sinister and alluring as Chester, the cousin at the  root of Charles' suppressed  troubles. Michael Redding projects salt-of-the-earth wisdom and stability in the challenging  environment as the rambunctious boys' Uncle Paul.

Charles and girlfriend Greta muse on romantic obstacles.
It's interesting that white racism  exerts so little conspicuous influence on the behavior and  thinking of these characters. Surely it shapes their situation and limits their prospects, but what "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" is mainly concerned with is the burdens a small community imposes on its members and the various strategies they adopt to work through the difficulties.  Thus it shares with nearly all operas a focus on the closed circuit of a few essential relationships.

Charles experiences rituals that sometimes fold individuality into group identity, but neither the exaltations of the black church nor brutal college fraternity hazing — startlingly presented in the show — address his alienation. A love affair, unfortunately loaded with cliches in the libretto, ends sadly as Greta leaves him after he reveals his childhood trauma.

The affair shows Charles how he must draw upon available resources to overcome the old woe and, as the opera's most memorable song suggests, "leave it in the road." He needs his mother's steadfast help in doing so, however, so the opera ends quietly in an African-American pieta back at home. He is about to reveal his secret, a toxic bloom whose involuntary nurture is daringly warmed by that fire shut up in his bones.

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: In "The Coronation of Poppea," a searing examination of amorality in high places

The Emperor nuzzles his main squeeze, Poppea.
The set's severe look in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production of the earliest opera to stay in the repertory focuses on the timeless nature of its alarming themes: sex and power.

"The Coronation of Poppea" is being presented in the performing version that stage director Tim Albery put together with Laurence Cummings. Since Albery's explicit English translation is also used, that amounts to a very strong individual  filter through which contemporary audiences here will be taking in Claudio Monteverdi's 1643 opera. The remaining performances are June 22, 26, and 28.

Hannah Clark's costumes, modern dress and business-appropriate, never seem jarring. Everything about the social milieu of first-century Rome is so remote from us that staying visually true to the period is irrelevant. What remains of core interest is the persistence of misdirected love, betrayal, intrigue, and willfulness on the part of the power elite and underlings alike.

Her set, with a clinically modern long table on casters being the centerpiece, adapts well to several  purposes. It reduces each of them — banquet setting, romantic trysting place, killing floor, and meeting place — to their  essentials. There's a large wall along the back with a ladder up to its summit. It's a world of barriers and limited access. The most humanly accessible sight is, with delicate irony, the setup for two ensembles on either side of the stage. The warm, seductive support the instruments lend to the ceaseless vocal lines oddly reassures the audience that there is a place for cooperative, benign teamwork in life after all. In the work itself, there is certainly no act or utterance that's free of individual fear or ambition.
Amore proclaims control at the start of "Poppea."
Nicholas Kok  conducts through limited  gesture, mostly head nods, while seated at one of  the two  harpsichords; Damien Francoeur-Krzyzek mans the other. The companions of each of these essential keyboard instruments are (using Francoeur-Krzyzek's informal terms) the "pluckers" (theorbo, guitar, harp) on one side and the "bowers" (two violins, lirone, viola da gamba) on the other.

The title role is filled to the hilt of sensually applied ambition by soprano Emily Fons. Her vocal and physical allure were daringly blended, and it was clear what a hold this Poppea was capable of exerting on the weak, vain emperor Nero (the Italian version of the name, Nerone, is used throughout). Nero's turbulent, bloody reign as the leader of the world's most powerful political entity is legendary, thanks to the historian Tacitus.
As Nero, the wiry tenor Brenton Ryan  makes himself fully capable of the emperor's impulsive, passionate behavior, which runs from lust to cruelty and back again. As seen at a matinee performance June 15, he commanded unwavering attention every time he was  onstage. He was  believably in charge of everybody. His guards, sung by Philippe L'Esperance and Matthew Cairns, make clear that their willingness to serve as Nero's henchmen is tempered by their cynicism and instinct for self-preservation.

Ottone entertains murderous thoughts.
The  corrosive effect of always serving oneself is represented with chilling comic effect by Arnalta, Poppea's nurse. As sung with majestic authority by Patricia Schuman, a soprano with plenty of mezzo heft in her tone, Arnalta is capable of both upbraiding and advising the woman she serves while later licking her chops at the prospect of her boss's replacing Ottavia, Nerone's wife and Rome's Empress. Sarah Mesko played Ottavia with a sense of entitlement that fuels her growing indignation at her rival's rise and her husband's infidelity.

Rivalry on the other side has Ottone, a role well taken by countertenor Tom Scott-Cowell, in a constant condition of fretfulness. The timbre of the male alto voice aptly conveys the whining that Ottone is accused of, but the way Scott-Cowell  handled this never verged on caricature. Ottone's attempt to mimic sincerity in returning Drusilla's affection for him was perfectly simulated by the countertenor's tense dialogue with Devon Guthrie in the role. 

One supporting role sums up the limited resistance to Nero's whims. It's that of the  philosopher Seneca, who continues to uphold the value of rational leadership beyond prudence. David Pittsinger raised the role far beyond victimhood with  his stalwart bass-baritone, giving it such stature that we are all the more grateful that Seneca's death by execution takes place offstage. Poppea has doomed  him by putting before her lover a set of "alternative facts" that seal Nero's annoyance with the philosopher and all that he represents.

 David Pittsinger as Seneca tries to uphold reason against  overwhelming odds.
Lending a bit of abstract delight to the story are the  occasional appearances and commentary of  three mythological figures: Fate, Virtue, and Love. Virtue's pleadings are a total loss in such an atmosphere, as Jennifer Aylmer's picture of futility made clear. Fate, confidently represented by Sydney Baedke, strides initially onto the stage confident of her customary rule over human affairs. But the story turns  out, of course, to be fully under  the supervision  of Love. In a nice tweaking of the traditional representation of Cupid, Michaela Wolz, skipping around wearing a baseball cap backwards, triumphantly represented the affairs of the heart that often hold the upper hand whenever humanity abandons ethical or rational control.
 "The Coronation of Poppea" is a lengthy lesson in the result of that abandonment. The boldness of the characters' motivations and their readiness to turn intent into fateful action moves forward on a stream of early Baroque melody, a blend of what would become the separate functions of recitative and aria as opera matured by the 18th century. In the genre's early phase, however, there is plenty of propitious mastery to admire, and it throbs with life in this production.

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: Teamwork at an exalted comic level in 'The Marriage of Figaro'

My earliest  memory of opera is seeing a bit of "The Marriage of Figaro" on a neighbor's black-and-
Aubrey Allicock projected cleverness and determination as Figaro.
white TV as a grade-schooler. It was broadcast on a Philadelphia station in an era when mass communications didn't shy away from art. I saw the moment when Susanna, Figaro's fiancee, summons the page Cherubino to submit to being outfitted in her own clothes in order to help thwart Count Almaviva's amorous designs upon her.

"Come, kneel down before me," Susanna sings, proceeding to relay instructions that will allow her to recostume the smitten teenager. My impression has remained with me over some 65 years as a useful revelation: Opera can convey ordinary actions — the details of getting someone else dressed — as magically as high-flown matters, I realized. I didn't learn until much later that Cherubino's disguise was an essential building block in a fantastic comic edifice. And I only gradually became acquainted with the many splendors of opera in full.

The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production of Mozart's sublime comedy, which I saw June 16, finesses the vast bridging of implausible machinations and misunderstandings on the one hand and, on the other, the everyday emotions around love common to most of us and our sense of what we deserve and whatever else we presume to appropriate, whether we are deserving or not.

Directed by Mark Lamos with a fluidity and verve worthy of Lorenzo Da Ponte's effervescent libretto and Mozart's insightful, resourceful score, the production grasps unreservedly the opera's realism and fantasy alike. Religion is at a far remove, and there's nary a touch of the supernatural as the ceremony named in the title takes a serpentine path toward realization.

Letter duet: Susannah Biller (Countess) and Monica Dewey (Susanna)
Everything moves so fast that it's hard to check lines you've just heard (in Andrew Porter's witty, eminently singable translation) against one of OTSL's supertitle screens. You look up, and the line is gone.

Conductor Christopher Allen deserves credit for representing the tempos well while keeping the pace from being headlong. At first the orchestra seemed a little too loud for the singers. In Cherubino's introductory arietta, in which he restlessly declares how adolescent pangs have overcome him, the murmuring orchestra found a suitable dynamic level. From then on, I had no problem with its prominence; it could be I simply adjusted the balance in my mind's ear as I was swept away by the action and the music.

More to the point is that there was no rushing through the several moments where a reflective mood must prevail. Notably among them were the two times when the Countess sings of her loneliness as her husband seems (on good  evidence) to have lost interest in her; they are the arias known in the original as "Porgi amor" and "Dove sono." In Susannah Biller, the orchestra, in which Allen also played harpsichord, had an excellent soprano to support, both dignified and passionate in her characterization. A tempo contrast even more vital, given its rare solemnity, is the disgraced Count's plea for pardon in the last act and its confirmation by choral ensemble. The passage is worthy of Mozart's sacred music; it was given larger-than-life poignancy Sunday night.

The overture, known in a concert setting better than any other of Mozart's opera overtures, unfolded briskly, with Lamos withholding his directorial hand for a while, as the audience listened and feasted its eyes on the Fragonard-inspired, lightly erotic panels that were soon to be turned around for the first scene of the well-furnished room the newlyweds hope soon to occupy. Once the major and minor players were introduced en masse  as the overture swirled to its conclusion, they cavorted among the huge panels like lascivious sheep on a hillside, hooking up briefly but suggestively. The mood in which trivial liaisons can be taken for more serious ones was thus aptly established before a note was sung. In just a few minutes, we became mentally prepared for all sorts of unpredictable shenanigans. The disorientation served even those of us who already knew the story.

The different interpretations of their prospects by the central romantic couple, Figaro and Susanna, were nicely counterpointed in the opening scene. Immediately the vocal and acting skills of Aubrey Allicock and Monica Dewey burst into realization. Their fitness never wavered. They were equal in  every expression to the travails their young love must endure as the randy Count threatens to make a budding bride his own for one night, reviving the ancient "droit de seigneur." His roving eye proves to be a constant irritation to anyone connected with his estate, unless they can find ways to turn it to their advantage. Circumstances tend to work in the nuptial couple's favor and to the disadvantage of the rapacious Count.

Theo Hoffman dashingly played the Count whose nefarious designs are constantly obstructed or rerouted. Vocally he was distinguished at every turn. Biller was his equal, making the Countess a credible opponent and eventually an exemplar of fidelity. The secondary senior couple, whose closeness remains a secret till near the end, was just as well matched: Nathan Stark as Doctor Bartolo and MaryAnn McCormick as Marcellina, his housekeeper (and so much more). Both characters abandon their carefully nurtured but futile plans of blocking the marriage of Figaro and Susanna. In this production they are presented as more than figures of fun. Marcellina, especially, went way beyond the fretful harridan of some performances in McCormick's sturdy representation.
Also well suited to giving three-dimensionality to roles that can easily be trivialized were Samantha Gossard as the twitchily ardent Cherubino, whose needs are a kind of intense cartoon version of the Duke's, and John McVeigh as the music teacher Don Basilio, a connoisseur of gossip whose florid gestures were reminders of the blithe world evoked by the French painters who inspired Paul Steinberg's set design. Crucial contributions to the plot come from Antonio, the estate's gardener, and his daughter, Barbarina — roles discharged with picturesque vitality by Phillip Lopez and Elena Villalón.

The entire cast, from the principals and their support down through nameless peasants and villagers, worked together superbly. The large handful of characters given distinction by Mozart's music and Da Ponte's words retained their individuality in ensembles. There was no generic plant-your-feet-and-sing staging, except where it was appropriate in the final chorus. That's when a collective celebration of love and conflict resolution unravels every plot twist and sets the comedy down on a firm moral basis at last.

OTSL has two more performances of "The Marriage of Figaro," on June 19 and 29, in the Loretto-Hilton Center at Webster University, Webster Groves.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

ISO Classical Series: End of a season, with the end of a music director's tenure in sight

Krzysztof Urbanski has been ISO music director since 2011.
A distinguishing aspect of this Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra season with Krzysztof Urbanski at the helm is that the end of an era has appeared on the horizon.

With the Polish conductor due to leave in two years, there will be a new artistic path forged for the orchestra has it heads toward its centenary in 2030. Urbanski has proved himself firmly at home in the conventional repertoire, with his reaches slightly far afield (leaving aside commissioned works) representing modern music of his homeland.

This weekend's concerts seem to suggest that if 19th-century Vienna was the place to be for music-lovers, apparently so too is 21st-century Indianapolis — and with the same music. That fact may cheer you or depress you, but what the Classical Series farewell for 2018-19 illustrates is the flourishing of high romanticism (in both its  conservative and advanced wings) still feels like home for the ISO's Hilbert Circle Theatre patrons.

At any rate, just two works whose composers once represented opposing camps in long-forgotten cultural wars in the Imperial Capital are on this weekend's program: Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 4 in E minor and Anton Bruckner's Te Deum.

The Brahms symphony, which occupied the first half of Friday's concert, caps Urbanski's survey this season of the four symphonies by the North German master who found Vienna so gemütlich. There was a further retrospective aspect to the programming in that, five seasons ago, the same work was the marquee item as the ISO's 2014-15 season  got under way. I won't pretend I have detailed memories of the performance I heard then, but my blog review at the time prods my memory helpfully. And it's virtually certain that Friday's was the better performance, and gives an indication of the ISO's improvement over the course of Urbanski's tenure.

The reading emphasized the craftsmanlike nature of Brahms, a consistent aspect of his music. Brahms joked about his consistency, saying he always seemed "to be milking the same udder." In this performance of his most well-regarded symphony, the structure was always clear; the classic forms stood tall. But sensitive Brahms interpretations are never haphazard about tone color either, and that aspect was also outstanding, especially in the scherzo movement — Brahms at his jolliest. This performance justified the ISO's marketing of this program as "Brilliant Brahms."

The winds had a good night: The strong horn playing at the start of the second movement lent immediate luster to it; clarinet playing in the theme was outstanding. Karen Moratz warmly sent aloft the ethereal flute solo in one of the variations in the finale. At intermission she was honored as the latest recipient of the Patch Award, which holds up ISO members regarded by their peers as good musical citizens.

Eric Stark in a podium appearance; for this concert, his work was behind the scenes.
As for that finale, it had both imposing stature and gracefulness of movement, like a Rodin sculpture. Julius Harrison's illuminating essay on the Brahms symphonies gets at the wonder of the composer at the peak of his miraculous variation skills, exercised here upon a Bach-derived chaconne. The writer suggests in his last sentence that "we can well imagine he could have continued his variations till kingdom come." That gets at why this performance ought to resonate for many over the long summer.

But wait, there's more, as the late-night TV commercials used to say. After intermission, Urbanski led the ISO, the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and four vocal soloists in the Bruckner Te Deum. The choral writing covers the dynamic spectrum boldly, and as usual the ISC's artistic director, Eric Stark, had prepared his large forces well. The orchestra was a fit partner, and guest concertmaster Bosun Mo's violin solos displayed an enchanting lilt and ardor.

The devout Bruckner knew that this work, unlike his Mass settings, was not appropriate in a liturgical context, so he fashioned it to make a concert-hall spectacle out of the ancient Latin hymn in praise of God, with plenty of emphasis on personal piety. The solo quartet engaged for this weekend sounded fine in ensemble; individually, most of the burden was carried by the excellent tenor, Paul Groves. His capable colleagues were Sarah Shafer, soprano; Kelley O'Connor, mezzo-soprano; and Alexander Elliott, baritone.

Apart from some lack of confidence as staggered choral entries began the work's last line, the choir sounded as if the concert could have been labeled "Brilliant Bruckner" as well, with the same alliterative panache. At the end, the sopranos' taxing sustained notes above the staff whitened somewhat, but whose wouldn't? The effect was still thrilling. Bruckner clearly wanted to implore God never to confound him in the most reverent, but insistent, terms.

Both composers could have gone on till kingdom come, each in his own way, despite the contamination of partisanship that once surrounded their music. The great advantage of these works' continuing to speak to 21st-century Indianapolis is that what Brahms and Bruckner were once taken to represent can be discarded, leaving behind the art to be enjoyed. Till kingdom come.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

A weekend of Rachmaninoff concertos from the ISO and guest pianist Garrick Ohlsson

The one-composer concert is a niche concept in programming live music that less than a handful of composers are thought to deserve. Just about everyone will agree it works with Beethoven, of course. But then people will come up with short lists that will soon be at odds with others'. (Mine for symphony orchestra would have a place for Arnold Schoenberg — I hear crickets.)

And then there are two sometimes opposed considerations: marketing or artistic merit? Is this the Netflix "binging" menace spread to classical music, or is there a special excitement to such concentration that brings pizazz to any season? Might the one-composer concert also be an entertaining vehicle for (gasp!) educating the public?

Garrick Ohlsson: A formidable American concert pianist since 1970.
When it comes to Sergei Rachmaninoff, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's 2018-19 classical series has filled its next-to-last weekend with the Russian's piano concertos: the four numbered ones plus the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Judging from the size and enthusiasm of Friday night's debut, the marketability was there, particularly given the popularity of the piano soloist, Garrick Ohlsson, and his rapport with ISO music director Krzysztof Urbanski.

Now that modernism has been put in its place as less a sign of inevitable progress than a raging tributary of the mainstream, the 20th-century composer who most conspicuously resisted it seems to be as fashionable as ever.

That popularity survived the disdain of advocates of 20th-century progressivism. The fifth edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians includes a Rachmaninoff entry that has seemed scandalous to those expecting a more neutral tone from reference works: "His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes accompanied by a variety of figures derived from arpeggios," runs a particularly barbed sentence.

Another source notes that Rachmaninoff "based his style on the remnants of a dying tradition." This criticism, satirized in a memorably sarcastic phrase by Rachmaninoff champion Harold Schonberg, pegged the composer as "a creative nobody, crying his Russian tears at the feet of Tchaikovsky."

Friday's concert opened with the most respected of Rachmaninoff's piano-orchestra works, in which the composer's melancholy strain works with particular charm and rigor. The Paganini Rhapsody uses the violin virtuoso's most famous piece, the 24th Caprice for solo violin, as the basis for a set of variations. Some of them go ingeniously far afield from the original, especially in the abstracted dreamy lyricism of the 18th variation,  and in the recurring use of the medieval "Dies irae" chant melody.

The orchestration sparkles more than in many of Rachmaninoff's other works involving the symphony orchestra, including long stretches of the popular Second Symphony. Ohlsson's performance in the solo role was capricious within bounds. There is a buoyancy about some of the writing that is more convincing than the often glaring vigor of the Fourth Piano Concerto, which shows that Rachmaninoff did not have Tchaikovskyan strengths to exhibit when the mood is positive. In Op. 40, he also wasn't working with his lyrical gift at full capacity; the reflective atmosphere of the slow movement is expressed by a rather banal tune. The composition has moments of mystery that the sympathetic interaction of Ohlsson and Urbanski showcased, especially in the finale, but the piece isn't from Rachmaninoff's top drawer, in comparison with the roughly contemporaneous Rhapsody (op. 43).

After intermission came the universal favorite among 20th-century concertos in the romantic vein: No. 2 in C minor, op. 18. Ohlsson's willingness to be playful with the music, so much a feature of his performance in the Paganini Rhapsody, was taken only to the point of consorting well with the dour quality of many of the work's most memorable themes and transitional passages. He took delight in exhibiting the full dynamic spectrum of the solo part, from the stormy to the becalmed. There needs to be an almost literal "joky" quality in the finale, which bears the heading "Allegro scherzando." The music is not explicit about its humor, but what should prevail — as it did here — is a robust sense of exploration, even when traveling through the shadows. What brings everyone to their feet at the end is not just the prodigious technical display this concerto demands, but the sense that a hallmark of great art is the companionship it offers us as we take in life's depths and shallows, as we keep drawing on whatever reservoirs of resilience sustain us. Those may include the overfamiliar: As he did in last year's engagement with the ISO, Ohlsson offered as an encore the evergreen Prelude in C-sharp minor.

So, yes, an all-Rachmaninoff program now and then justifies itself. There are two more of them to come this weekend at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Friday, May 31, 2019

A journey toward healing: 'Violet' is the 2019 Eclipse production

In its third year of production as an outgrowth of Summer Stock Stage, Eclipse has mounted the musical "Violet," running through June 15 at Phoenix Theatre.

Violet (left front) and other travelers sing "On My Way" (with young Violet in background)
This is a thoroughly professional-looking show to represent the organization's self-described "emerging artists program." Ten of this show's dozen actors are alumni of Summer Stock Stage, a program for high-school theater talent. As seen in preview Thursday night, "Violet" gave me some problems with its early imbalance of music and dialogue and with aspects of its story. But the production values seem to represent "Violet" well, and the team headed by producer-director Emily Ristine Holloway has provided a good showcase for the burgeoning professionals who perform with unrelenting gusto and verisimilitude.

The creation of Jeanine Tesori (music) and Brian Crawley (lyrics and book), based on Doris Betts' "The Ugliest Pilgrim," "Violet" is a travel story born of a young woman's desperation to be relieved of disfigurement so that the beautiful self she dreams of being can emerge. An accidental axe wound as a girl has left her with an ugly facial scar, and the maturing Violet has concluded that a faraway faith healer holds the key to her healing. She embarks on a bus journey in 1964 from her North Carolina home to the televangelist's home base in Oklahoma.

The audience is left to imagine what the scar has done to Violet's appearance, which is a powerful choice: Elizabeth Hutson's unscarred appearance helps us to share in how much Violet has internalized the wound's effect on her, and we're invited to do the same. Hutson movingly displayed Violet's determination as well as her focus on appearances. This habit has given her an understandably superficial focus on what beauty is; at the same time, however, her sharpened powers of observation and insight open up a road to recovery for her that at length depends upon internal resources.

She connects with strangers along the way — an Old Lady passenger and, chiefly, a couple of soldiers on leave. Song styles of various popular genres are exploited throughout, though the balance seems a little too musically overdriven at first to properly set the show's dramatic context. The songs are all idiomatically performed, however, to the accompaniment of a small band near the rear of the stage led by Nathan Perry (Jeanne Bowling gets the music director credit, which yields golden results in the ensembles).

The military men hold the keys to Violet's progress — the white man, Monty (John Collins), has a veneer of charm that modulates his overriding machismo somewhat; his black buddy, Flick (Mark Maxwell), a more sympathetic character, has had any tendencies to come on strong and self-assertive in the white world smoothly hidden.  Both will have their parts to play in bringing out a fresh self-recognition in Violet. Without getting too specific, it's Flick's empathy with Violet's trauma as a near-outcast in mid-sixties Dixie that makes the more crucial contribution.

Our popular culture has thrown up examples of both white-savior and black-savior stories. I wish we had a better approach to dealing in contemporary entertainment with ways of bridging the racial divide. The attraction, I suppose, is to bring forward individual stories, even with hackneyed elements, as pointing toward a solution, or at least some enlightenment about our common humanity. That it must take just one individual life-changing encounter at a time serves inadvertently to reinforce pessimism about race in America. But that's entertainment.

Suffice it to say that "Violet" emphasizes that the truest pilgrimages are those difficult journeys inside ourselves. Hutson's performance, with the background resonance of Leah Broderick as the young Violet, shows the progress toward such a realization can be both tuneful and revelatory. Her songs, together with solo showcases well-handled by Collins and Maxwell, make Violet's journey deeply involving.

Eric J. Olson as Violet's father was electrifying in several scenes that indicate how he shares his daughter's trauma while lacking the gifts and means to guide her healing. Carlos Medina Maldonado as the Preacher gave full-fledged embodiment to the show-biz side of healing, in which evangelical ministry mixes sincerity with a touch of cynicism that's the opposite of what Violet needs. The production numbers with the gospel choir, set to sparkling choreography by Cherri Jaffee, capture both the promise and illusion that blend in Violet's glamour-fed visions of being whole and beautiful. The wholeness turns out to be delivered on another level of reality entirely, and this production brightly honors that genuine destination  — which isn't Oklahoma after all.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Drummer Matt Slocum heads an understated trio outing

Taking individual contributions to a higher level than usual is the approach Matt Slocum champions in a subtle trio album called "Sanctuary" (SunnySide).
Full-length portrait: Matt Slocum (center) with bandmates Clayton and Grenadier.

Scheduled for release tomorrow, this is not the kind of piano-bass-drums music that privileges the piano, through which the main line of this appealing subgenre runs. Nor does it give matching vigor and prominence to all three in the muscular manner of the old Bad Plus.

At the other end of the spectrum, the equality that the leader distributes so effectively here is of the soft-spoken kind. That seems unusual for a drummer-led group, but the foregrounding of pianist Gerald Clayton and bassist Larry Grenadier is a hallmark of "Sanctuary." Whenever one instrument takes the lead, the others tend to insinuate themselves, not in a conventional attitude of "support," but as front-line companions.

You get that feeling immediately with Sufjan Stevens' "Romulus," which opens this set and is the only one of eight works not by Slocum. The listener hooks into that track with Grenadier's inviting introduction. If the trio has a star in this release, it may well be Grenadier, delivering on the fitness of technique and imagination he showed for many years in Brad Mehldau's trio.

The trio's hesitancy to overstate anything occasionally lost me in its vague musing; I found "A Dissolving Alliance" rather hard to follow.  I suppose the title provides a clue I didn't know quite how to interpret. Yet pieces that seem in a hurry, with a bit of an edge to them, often present enlivening contrasts rather than the scattered impression that could result: After a nifty drum solo, "Consolation Prize" showcases Clayton's melodic right hand.

The title tune is predictably meditative, and the mood is fully shared three ways. With Slocum getting extra bite from his tom-toms, "Anselmo," the closing track, shows the Slocum trio at its best on the high-energy side, but always under tasteful control.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Up for adoption: Twenty-three fresh-faced, spunky aspirants for the Oval Office, waiting for Daddy Warbucks' rescue

Democratic Candidates’ Lament It’s a hard-knock life for us It’s a hard-knock life for us! Now it’s 23 skiddoo! Everybody’s in — aren’t you? It’s a hard-knock life. They put the knock on Democrats; On the ship of state, we’re rats. But if the ship sinks, we’ll swim; If anyone drowns, we hope it’s him! It’s a hard-knock life. Don’t it feel the media’s scowlin’ And there’s thunder on the right? And on Twitter Trump keeps growlin’ And too many Dems up for a fight Presidential dreams at night get creepy Every day polls grow or shrink Keeping up with data makes us sleepy Who will drop out first? Who will blink? Fire in the belly life Nerves turn to jelly life Beg, steal or borrow life Can I still run tomorrow life? Enough voters can we get? Enough money, too? Don’t bet! Will sufficient donors give? We’re collecting tears in a sieve! It’s a hard-knock life. Fox News trolls! Russian bots! Mainstream media Watches the horse race! Stay on message! Interview lots! Does socialism freak them out? Do they hate the Green New Deal? Throw Electoral College out Or start impeachment for real! So many decisions, so little time before the primaries next year. Oh, no, Keep nose to grindstone!Wet finger in the air! It’s a hard-knock life!

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Time Flies (when you're having fun): Monika Herzig's quartet message at the Jazz Kitchen

Cover of the new CD by the new band, the Time Flies.
On a CD tour with her new quartet Time Flies, keyboardist-composer Monika Herzig stopped by the Jazz Kitchen Friday night. Husband Peter Kienle's guitar provided a glittering revival of the German-born couple's adaptation of jazz-rock fusion, which burst out more than 20 years ago after they moved to the USA and formed an American version of a band called Beeble Brox.

Expressing joy in her new Casio 3000 keyboard, Herzig moved from grand piano to the new instrument in the course of a sparkling first set. The touring version of the band, with only the keyboard-guitar couple continuing, is fully up to demands of the Time Flies' idiomatic variety. The other members are a bass guitarist well-known in central Indiana, Scott Pazera of Lafayette, and a New York drummer of phenomenal versatility and depth of groove, Karina Colis.

The quartet got off to a blistering start with a Herzig original, "Plugged In." The title gives notice that the fusion chops of the Time Flies are in good working order. Kienle's aggressive guitar led the charge on this churning number, and both he and Herzig took
Monika Herzig recently struck a blow for jazz equality with her "Sheroes" project.
characteristic solos.  The pianist is also an adventurous composer, a fact that goes way back in her output on record. "Fly High," written in an uneasy tribute to a daughter's decision to train professionally for the circus, found her moving to the grand piano, and guiding from there a performance that led the ensemble effectively through a rather cumbersome  bridge to glory again in the main material.

A well-knit medley followed, venturing through some effective displays of Kienle's guitar in "Oily Riser" and "Powerlines" on the way to a typically cheerful Herzig ode to spring. Along the way the pianist displayed a couple of new weapons in her arsenal, though that may misrepresent skills so gently deployed: whistling in unison with the guitar, and wordless singing so as to vary the ensemble sound and add emotional warmth.

The set came to an end in a well-coordinated musical rant against the protracted struggles of tax preparation, "Where's My Form?" A lyrical section suggested that relief can be found even from such arduous chores, but at the end it was back to edgy Time Flies business as Herzig finished the piece on her beloved Casio, both mellow and ringing out amid the highly charged ensemble mixture.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Melissa Aldana's 'Visions': Transmuting an art icon into jazz

Frida Kahlo has come to stand for more than her tortured life and painfully evolved personal style as a visual artist. The Mexican symbol of individualized feminism in art has lately been taken up by a rising star of the tenor saxophone, the Chilean-born Melissa Aldana.
Melilssa Aldana pays tribute to Frida Kahlo in "Visions."

In "Visions" (Motema) she leads a quartet (expanded to a quintet for all but three of the 11 pieces) to honor Kahlo, whose life and art have generated extensive film, opera, and biographical treatment. A key element of Aldana's approach to this ensemble tribute is that fifth player, vibraphonist Joel Ross, with whom she often plays in unison. (Ross was hailed as the new voice of the vibraphone by Nate Chinen yesterday on NPR's "Morning Edition".) As exemplified by "El Castillo de Velenje," the longest track on "Visions," Ross's tone has a watery shimmer that still avoids blurring his articulation when the tempo is fast. He's clearly motivated in his great solo here by the leader's torrential showcase preceding it.

Aldana plays in an unfettered manner, as if fearful of stasis. Her inventiveness is nonstop, and her sidemen's individuality also gets plenty of elbow room. Yet this doesn't mean that her tone fragments or coarsens. Almost uniquely among tenor saxophonists, she presents the same quality of sound in all registers. Up high, there's an alto-sax persona, with suggestions even of soprano sax at its most ethereal; she is similarly focused when moving into midrange and lower. But her playing maintains continuity of tone, full but not heavy, with no irresolute aspects to her phrasing. Throughout jazz history, we've heard plenty of tenor saxophone, some of it at genius level, designed to exploit a tendency to talk to oneself. Aldana gives us something else.

Rarely does she put forward a breathy quality, an exception being the disc's one standard, "Never Let Me Go," which opens with a solo cadenza. This is an understandable departure from her normally conservatory-perfect sound, probably for the sake of connecting with the tenor ballad tradition stemming from Coleman Hawkins and running through Ben Webster. Sam Harris' piano solo applies fresh harmonies to the piece and gets inventive about phrasing to help justify the song's inclusion in an otherwise all-original program.

 Harris sometimes yields to a tendency to noodle, as on bassist Pable Menares' soft-spoken, somewhat languid "Perdon," but otherwise he shares with the leader a purposefulness that serves the music well. As for the Kahlo inspiration behind the compositions, the listener must infer it from time time and not expect it to be explicit. I heard the music hinting at the painter's highly charged manipulation of personal symbols in "Elsewhere." That tune maintains a restlessness characterized by lots of rhythmic interplay among the group, driven by Tommy Crane's drums. Here Kahlo's struggles seem to have found original expression in another genre.

"Visions" helps to further Aldana's reputation for outstanding creative drive on an instrument that has long tended to be overrepresented in jazz. Her skill as a bandleader and composer should keep her profile high.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Two durable arts organizations cap their current seasons with 'See the Music, Hear the Dance'

The makings of a spectacular (to revive a TV-associated noun from the '50s) could be predicted with the advance publicity of the collaboration last weekend between Dance Kaleidoscope and the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra (with American Pianists Association in a supporting role).
"Rhapsody in Blue" enchanted the senses together in a DK-ICO collaboration.

The track record of the participants established a reason to believe a spectacular would certainly be delivered. Max Liebman, eat your heart out! And so it was, at least on the evidence of Sunday's final performance of "See the Music, Hear the Dance."

The provocative title alludes to the interplay of the two art forms so well blended in the concert. It's got a psychological corollary in the phenomenon known as synesthesia, which ranges from involuntary and lifelong in some people to a matter of choice, often esthetic, that may find it fruitful to assert beneficial cross-talk between the senses. This aspect of free-floating fantasy linked to the actual world richly pervaded the DK-ICO program.

The sense of touch is crucial to both music and dance. That's a good starting place for synesthesia. The way distinctions of sensory experience break down in dreaming also played a role in "See the Music, Hear the Dance." The classic place in literature is when Bottom awakens from a vivid, literally asinine vision in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." He is astonished that he is no longer under a spell that had given him donkey ears and involved pampering by a fairy queen and her minions.

"The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was," exclaims Shakespeare's forest-haunted weaver outside the play's fantastic Athens. And the synesthetic response, at its extreme in that case, was quickly suggested more modestly in this program by artistic director David Hochoy's setting of three pieces from Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances."

It's a revival of a 2011 set of choreographic responses to three of the Italian composer's evocations of early European dance and song forms as imagined by his countrymen of centuries before. The mood is optimistic and buoyant. The company moves in a continually evolving manner, with thickening and thinning ensemble textures. The gestures are open and confident, affirming an idealized social bond. The gentle smiles evident on the dancers' faces, never forced or locked into place, helped emphasize the relaxed mood. As usual, the lighting of Laura E. Glover and costumes of Cheryl Sparks were perfectly complementary.

The fantasy became more robust — after a mild orchestral interlude, William Grant Still's "Serenade" — in the program's centerpiece, Hochoy's "Rhapsody in Blue" from 2006, revived this time with the ICO under Matthew Kraemer's direction, and with 2017 APA Classical Fellow Drew Petersen taking the solo piano role. Rhapsodic from George Gershwin's first notes — a coy clarinet trill that moves into a sweeping, blues-inflected glissando — the ballet opens with Mariel Greenlee's fleet entrance. The lighting makes her especially sculptural in appearance, her movement seemingly molded and caught in a stop-action illusion even as it continues.

Some hint of Charles Sheeler was in the Rhapsody in Blue costumes.
Hochoy is sensitive to the piece's rapid succession of moods. Gershwin was not at all practiced in musical long forms, and the choreography turns that to advantage. The march-like sassiness that soon comes to the fore brings on dancers realizing the frenetic urban environment. Sparks' costumes rely on contrasts of shading more than color, with patches suggesting what natural light does to urban architecture, making an almost tactile geometry. I was reminded of paintings by the American modernist Charles Sheeler.

As Gershwin's inherent romanticism takes the music over, we see what we're hearing: a rhapsody in flowing blue costuming, with couples in ballroom-dance formations. The composition's big tune — which one commentator has pointed out is as definitive as that clarinet glissando — brings on an enraptured pas de deux for Greenlee and  Timothy June. It's a partnership that seemed unerring in all respects, both in motion and as a still image in the mind's eye.

Mariel Greenlee and Timothy June went the rhapsodic distance with Gershwin.
After that impressed the audience with its imaginative grandeur Sunday afternoon, Gershwin's brief resumption of the lively urban ensemble dancing is surmounted as the tempo broadens by the reappearance of the couple, with a triumphant lift accompanying the final chords.

Petersen's crisp, authentic verve in the solo, firmly coordinated under Kraemer's baton, contributed its own spectacular effect; he obliged the audience ovation with an unaccompanied encore, a well-decorated arrangement of Gershwin's "The Man I Love."

Hochoy's new piece followed intermission. Maurice Ravel's "Mother Goose" suite, a five-part fairytale journey, completed the synesthetic sojourn. The connections  between the tales, with their highly contrasting musical embodiment, were assured by the implied narrative of Paige Robinson as the Storyteller. Her successive stories and their characters arrive hidden behind elegantly borne curtains and emerge to become Beauty and the Beast (Greenlee and June again, fulfilling much different demands this time around), Hop o' My Thumb (or Tom Thumb) with Manuel Valdes portraying a wanderer search for a way forward, and the "Laideronette, Empress of the Pagoda" (Jillian Godwin and Stuart
The breathtaking final scene of "Mother Goose," with the Storyteller at the center.
Coleman). The full-bore enchantment was clad in costumes by Sparks, Barry Doss, and Lydia Tanji, and the lighting was once again fully consonant with Hochoy's playful imagination.

I felt a little bit of the delicious confusion of Shakespeare's Bottom at the end, yet it was a phantasmagoria I wasn't quite sure I was eager to awaken from. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen such a dream before DK and ICO crafted it for us.

[Production photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]