Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Return to the scene: Medalists in 2018 IVCI come back for a joint recital at Glick Indiana History Center

With the stress of competition removed for performers and audience alike, the top three players in last year's International Violin Competition of Indianapolis came back to the scene of their triumphs for a recital program Tuesday evening.

Winners of the bronze, silver, and gold medals in the 2018 IVCI presented mini-recitals, nicely balanced in length and idiom, at the Basile Theater of the Glick Indiana History Center. Chih-Yi Chen provided suitably conscientious partnership at the piano.

Captivating encore: Lin, Hokamura, and Hsu play Julian Milone's arrangement  of the 24th Paganini caprice.
Performance order differed from how the three violinists finished in September. To open there was an unusual appetizer in weight and distinction: the magisterial Chaconne from J.S. Bach's Partita no. 2 in D minor, played by silver medalist Risa Hokamura. The elaborate set of variations on a short repeated phrase has long been regarded as the summit of the solo violin repertoire.

The variation form poses an eternal question, especially when it comes to interpretation by a soloist. Should the variations sound like variously contrasting ways of handling the same material, so that a performance emphasizes how they reflect upon one another, as if each had its place in a broad mosaic or musical quilt? Or does that focus take second place to building an interpretive arc over the course of the form, so that the whole sequence has a kind of rhetorical solidity? In other words, is the Chaconne an exhibition or an argument?

However interesting it is to hear an illuminating display of the composer's variation ingenuity, I lean more toward performances of works in variation form that have narrative drive. In the Bach Chaconne, the string-crossing intensity of a couple of variations toward the end should be enough to raise chills along the spine— not because of their isolated glory but because they seem connected to the significance of what has gone on before and, especially, to the calm, concluding restatement of the original. Hokamura started the piece with the initial chords more broken than usual, a choice that signaled commitment to neither approach in particular. But it did herald a deliberate interpretation, emphasizing the reflective side of the music. Despite its technical assurance, it seemed a little too studied and episodic, even granted the attractive flow she imparted to the more tender variations.

She commanded good tempo fluctuation in Tchaikovsky's Valse-Scherzo, which showed a more personal sense of the music's meaning. She let the soaring melody in the middle glide nicely. And she made playful and precise the short, downward-skittering figures in the main theme. For the Ravel Tzigane, the unaccompanied introductory section that puts an authentic gypsy stamp on the work had the right air of spontaneity and barely restrained wildness. After the piano entrance, the riotous atmosphere attained steadiness and verve that was expertly coordinated with the keyboard in the accelerating passages that bring the work to a powerful conclusion.

Such power rooted in folk music was a feature as well of bronze medalist Luke Hsu's finale, Wieniawski's "Scherzo-tarantelle" in G minor, op. 16. A fleet display of any fiddler's technical chops, the work showed Hsu's to be of a high order, apart from such imbalances as blurry low figuration contrasted with abrupt high-register punctuation. To balance all the piece's demands at top speed is a continual challenge. But, even allowing for a final squeal of indeterminate pitch, Hsu's performance admirably indicated he knows just what a display piece is all about. Bravura to burn goes a long way in bringing off such music.

Still, there was perhaps too strong a sense in Hsu's stage manner of a man wrestling music to the mat and pinning it for the win. Fortunately, what we heard was usually more nuanced than what we saw. The Prokofiev Sonata No. 2 in D major, the one he wrote originally for flute and whose music retains some of that air-borne quality, was well thought-out and displayed Hsu's great feeling for tone. The tart fanfares of the first movement were brilliantly articulated, and the succeeding Presto confirmed the violinist's gift  for sharply defined rhythms. The Andante had the hummable quality one expects from 20th-century classical music's finest tunesmith. The finale put Hsu's muscular approach to good use as the duo set the pulses racing.

Between the Prokofiev and Wieniawski, Hsu played the last two movements of Eugene Ysaye's Sonata in G minor for Solo Violin. The complex strands threaded among dizzying chains of 32nd and 64th notes were clear throughout the Allegretto poco Scherzoso, and the Finale con Brio was dramatic, trenchantly accented, and expansive.

After intermission came the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the gold-medal winning ways of Richard Lin. The evening's most concentrated display of one composer came with Lin and Chen's performance of Edvard Grieg's Sonata No. 3 in C minor. I felt, as I did with what I heard of Lin during the competition, that he consistently imparted his personality to the music without burying it in himself. The playing was well-nigh perfect in pace and pitch, especially in the final measures of the warmly rendered second movement. His rapport with the pianist was airtight, especially in the finale, with its vivid contrasts of tempo and mood.

In Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen," an old chestnut that can be counted on to come through afresh when sensitively played, Lin delivered. He had finesse to spare in delineating every mercurial gesture in the first part, where the violin dominates. With the duo in lockstep in the fast concluding section, Lin conveyed the score's earthiness while keeping his tone pure. The piece's touches of glitter — its harmonics and left-hand pizzicati — were neatly tossed off. This was virtuoso playing that didn't stir the uneasy feeling that showing off was the extent of what the piece had to communicate.

The three prize fiddlers gathered onstage for an encore, delighting the near-capacity audience with an arrangement of the best-known Paganini Caprice for solo violin, the immortal No. 24. Distribution of its imperishable wonders was expertly managed by the three medalists. The marvelous arrangement is the work of London's Julian Milone, an old hand at stunning expansions of violin music for multiple strings. It was an ideal nightcap to this violin feast.

[Photo by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]

Monday, March 18, 2019

More than academic: Butler jazz faculty reach out beyond campus in Jazz Kitchen debut

Controversy about the strength and sustenance that jazz's home in academia give to the music continues to be lively, as a visit or two to Jack Walrath's Jazz Trumpets Forum (on Facebook) will reconfirm. Whatever happened to learning your craft from older working role models on the bandstand, runs the nostalgic sentiment?

But there is little doubt that high school and college programs that develop jazz musicians are firmly entrenched, even indispensable. The narrow path presented by the dearth of all-ages performance opportunities is just one reason for not depending on the shrinking number of jazz nightclubs to nurture young musicians.

In that context, it's great to see teachers at the college level exhibit their expertise in the public sphere, as happened in one long set Sunday night at the Jazz Kitchen when Butler University faculty took the stage.

In the future, it would be great to hear more originals from the group, but in any case there were some spicy arrangements to savor, starting with pianist Gary Walters' perky setting of Thelonious Monk's "Let's Cool One," which opened the set, and going on to alto saxophonist Matt Pivec's sensitively animated "Witch Hunt" (Wayne Shorter). I also enjoyed vocalist Erin Benedict's nimble version of Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is the Ocean." It opened with the singer in dialogue with bassist Jesse Wittman and went on to explore some sparse textures without ever going slack.

Wrapping things up was a fitting tribute to the ultimate jazz educator, the late David Baker, in a romp through his "Kentucky Oysters," arranged by trombonist Rich Dole. Walters contributed one of his several stunning solos of the set to that finale; he was also crucial to the success of several of Benedict's songs, an indicator of his long history accompanying singers, principally Carrie Newcomer.

As for the soloing in what seemed to be the gig's mostly jam-session profile, there was a particular thrill to drummer Jon Crabiel's setting aside sticks and brushes to etch an astute manual backdrop for Wittman's solo in "Alone Together," in which the front line was left to the reduced horn contingent of Dole and tenor saxophonist Sean Imboden, compatible partners and individualists as well. Crabiel continued with his hands in play, complemented by footwork on bass drum and hi-hat cymbals, in a richly varied solo turn.

Throughout, Butler student Kent Hickey was an adept substitute player on trumpet, setting down an especially incandescent solo in Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia."  Guitarist Sandy Williams, always tasteful and focused, was among the other soloists in that zesty excursion.

This exposition by the northside university's professorial class was sufficient indication that there's plenty of proof in the academic jazz pudding. I will be happy to anticipate more in the future.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Doors into the unknown: IRT's 'A Doll's House Part 2' takes up Nora's story 15 years after famous departure

Torvald leans in to make himself clear to Nora.
The natural feature of Norway best-known to the world is its fjords — narrow waterways to the sea that typically pass between steep cliffs. A brief online search of fjord images indicates that the definitive "steep cliffs" aren't inevitably a feature, and these more gradual bordering slopes are crucial to Ann Sheffield's scenic design for
"A Doll's House Part 2," the Lucas Hnath drama that Indiana Repertory Theatre opened Friday night.

That communicates a lot of the meaning of this cheeky sequel to Henrik Ibsen's 1879 realistic tragedy of the collapse of a middle-class Norwegian marriage. The vistas awaiting Nora Helmer as she escapes from a role she finds disrespectful and confining vary ambiguously from the closed-in feeling of her domestic life to the promise of something more open, reaching to the sky.

The production's beautiful backdrop, with the deceptively gentle mountains bordering the water on both sides, is the mute natural frame for Nora's fate. The house that she left 15 years before is shockingly minimal in its
Returning home, Nora explains her long absence to Anne Marie.
furnishings. Between the visible outdoors and the oddly institutional appearance of the Helmer home's interior, we almost get all we need to know about what Part 2 has to communicate. Individually grasped liberty under restrictive social mores can be barren. In Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist formulation, we are condemned to freedom.

Director James Still takes an approach both playful and stark in the movement of the play's four characters: The returning Nora and her desperate agenda, her abandoned husband Torvald, the couple's daughter Emmy, and the household's longtime nanny and housekeeper Anne Marie. Their conversational maneuvers involve shifting chairs around like chess pieces, trying to regulate a proximity to each other that matches their words and suits their moods.

The circumstances of Nora's departure have upended family life and the Helmer reputation in their small town.
With difficulty the fleeing wife and mother has painfully crafted a good living as a feminist writer under a pseudonym; the reason for her return, though it's revealed early, is so crucial that spoiler etiquette forbids me to divulge it here. The surprises with which Hnath lards his script are well-distributed and fortunately too well-grounded to strain credulity: Revelation of the sort of person Emmy has turned out to be as a young adult is a paradigm shift. When it comes, the feeling is not dismayingly obvious, but entirely natural. Hnath has thoroughly processed his great predecessor's uncanny skill at dissecting why people act the way they do.

He does so with a startling blend of raw emotional upheaval and manic comedy. He allows the four  — particularly Torvald and Nora as they rake over and stoke the embers of their long-dying marriage — to give vent to temper tantrums that skirt the edge of sit-com blowups today's audiences are familiar with. Obscene insults and foot-stamping find their way into elaborately well-articulated arguments. Whatever shocks Ibsen provided to audiences of his day are updated commandingly in the new play's language and this production's  detailed gestures, tense pauses, and frenetic movement. In character the actors occasionally address the audience, intensely broadening their arguments, as if to say "Can I get an amen?!"

At the summit of the virtuoso performances is Tracy Michelle Arnold's portrayal of Nora. The character's range of emotions, from her confident anti-marriage exposition in the first scene to the tortured neediness so variously evident later, get free rein. Yet there's never the sense that the characterization is off the rails or scattershot in its focus; there is an undeniable through line from entrance to exit. Arnold's Nora is neither a ninny nor a Nestor, but something infinitely more complex. Again, taking care to avoid specifics, let me simply indicate that her exit confirms and extends the tragic dimensions of the original play.

Becca Brown plays the Helmers' self-possessed daughter.
As Torvald, Nathan Hosner matches Arnold angst for angst. Torvald's discomfort at the unexpected return of his estranged wife sends seismic waves out from the stage. His face registered it all, lips curling and uncurling, cheek muscle twitching. Self-consciousness attains new heights, and Torvald talks about it, of course. Hosner also  caught  the comical dimension of an alpha male's insecurity in a world about to change into the 20th century's emergence of feminism. Critiques of marriage had been already launched in the turmoil of Ibsen's era, and the sequel's updated language forges a bond with progressive notions that were bubbling up many decades before sexual liberation was pharmaceutically enabled.

Becca Brown conveyed Emmy's blunt appraisal of her mother's behavior and its effects on the family. For the most part, Emmy is a cool customer, but Brown shifted into the character's emotional overdrive easily. Kim Staunton moved beyond the long-suffering maid stereotype she embodied at first to complete the four-sided exhibition of personal resentments and grievances, meeting fire with fire.

Alex Jaeger's costume designs were rich in period atmosphere, and the actors wore them magnificently, despite the flopping about required of Hosner and Arnold. Michelle Habeck's lighting and Tom Horan's sound complemented the action — assisting its dips and swirls, its soaring and plunging — at every turn. Besides being condemned to freedom, the people in "A Doll's House Part 2" helplessly live out another Sartrean condemnation: Hell is other people.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Site-specific Fonseca Theatre Company production spotlights the legend and luster of Lady Day

When an actor portrays a famous person, mere mimicry isn't everything. But we expect a reasonable facsimile in order to get the uncanny thrill we have whenever a stage or screen depiction sets before us a celebrity we think
Monica Cantrell as Billie Holiday
we "know" well.

Opinions are sure to differ, but to get an outside example out of the way: I admired Sam Rockwell's impersonation of George W. Bush more than Christian Bale's otherwise amazing spittin' image of Dick Cheney in last year's "Vice." Rockwell's very approximateness to "Dubya" won me over.

Thus, I liked the obvious sense that I wasn't really seeing Billie Holiday before me Wednesday night when "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" opened in a Fonseca Theatre Company production at the Linebacker Lounge. Monica Cantrell's full-fledged representation of the extravagantly admired singer came through most completely in her singing. When a performer with such a distinctive style as Holiday's can be so well re-created, you have all you need to make Lanie Robertson's play succeed.

Cantrell, who did the show a generation ago in a Phoenix Theatre production,  had that in abundance. Already in her first song, "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone," I had a catch in my throat. What a marvelous grasp of Billie Holiday she displayed there! The first time she sang the song's bridge, the touch of whimper she imparted to the words "treat me" was spot on. Other authentic touches — delicate ornamentation, perfect diction and pitch sense, and suitable expressiveness — kept animating Cantrell's performance throughout the 100-minute show.

Another Holiday characteristic,  behind-the-beat phrasing, never taken to the edge of distortion, was immaculate. It first showed up in the second song, "When a Woman Loves a Man." It helped put across the poignancy of "God Bless the Child," especially in the lingering phrase "that's got his own." Directed by Dena Toler (with music direction by Tim Brickley), Cantrell covered the Holiday spectrum — sometimes in the same song. "Easy Living" hinted at heartbreak, but had a smile at the end.

Stock-still and statuesque in a long white dress, she riveted the packed bar's attention with "Strange Fruit," the searing sketch of Southern lynching outrages that Holiday made a personal anthem. The way Cantrell sang the grotesque phrase focusing on the victims' appearance — "bulging eyes and twisted mouth" — dared listeners to avert their gaze. (The song focuses on Dixie atrocities, but the practice is often illustrated by a photo of a double lynching in Marion, Indiana, in 1930).

Some fans of Holiday are swept away by her late period, when heartache and substance abuse had ravaged her voice. But though this show's setting is a Philadelphia dive bar in 1959, the year of Holiday's death, Cantrell's singing had the strengths of the singer in her prime. That seemed fully appropriate: The show is a portrait of an immortal, and why shouldn't her best work be evoked? The way she sang the lugubrious "Don't Explain" evoked some of that late-period fragility quite well.

Who knows how close the spoken words Robertson puts in the singer's mouth match reality? It's certain that the device of having her so fully address the audience between songs doesn't jibe with Holiday's mystique — the isolated diva on whose every note fans used to hang. But I think the anecdotes and the caustic comments about the hard life Holiday lived help complete the dramatic self-portrait. In all her talk, she honors her inspirations — Louis Armstrong for his feeling, Bessie Smith for her big voice — understandably leaving out Ethel Waters, with whom there was no love lost. She references her sorry episodes of prostitution, and she speaks with a combination of rue and affection of the unreliable men with whom she made risky liaisons. She speaks fondly of her triumphs as well, and the ambition that fueled her rise from the depths which eventually claimed her.

The show has  a few scraps of dialogue with her pianist, played by Jon Stombaugh, and her friend Emerson, the bar proprietor, voiced by producing director Bryan Fonseca. These serve to reinforce the mood of reminiscence as well as to allude to her ongoing health crises, which were to result in her early death at 44.

I leave to the end my misgivings about one long anecdote. It's a matter of tone, but how Cantrell delivered it may have been stipulated in the text. Obviously, I have never experienced racial discrimination. But I was surprised that Billie's story of her being denied use of the toilet in an upscale restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, was treated as an amusing triumph. With the touring Artie Shaw band gamely agreeing to eat with her in the restaurant's kitchen, she had to endure the hostess's denial to her of access to the restroom. So she gleefully recounts her long-delayed response: peeing on the floor, and all over the racist maitresse-d'hotel's shoes. To me, that's a story of thorough humiliation — Billie's, not her appalling antagonist.

Either Robertson's Billie is to be seen as hiding that humiliation, or she truly felt she won the "argument" by her unavoidable letting go. I was relieved (no pun intended) when the singing resumed, even though the vehicle was the indelibly tragic "Strange Fruit." As usual, music often conveys what needs to be conveyed. I'll just have to settle into the puzzle of knowing how to interpret the anecdote that preceded it.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Greatest Generation blues: District Theatre's 'Yank!' gives voice to hidden passions in the World War II U.S. Army

Nothing quite as transformative as a big war happens in most American lives, but beneath the surface there have
Mitch (Tanner Brunson) comforts Stuart (Jonathan Krouse) in "Yank!"
long been other transformations pushing to emerge into full, free view. Yet conformity is always the official requirement, especially to the military mind, and that means that a society's reigning values acquire the force of law. There are no atheists in foxholes, says the adage; and that presumption once covered unconventional sexual orientation as well.

That is the difficulty at the core of "Yank!," a musical of gay romance getting its first local production now at the District Theatre,  the old home of Theatre on the Square, 627 Massachusetts Ave. The product of Joseph Zellnik (music) and David Zellnik (book and lyrics), the show was brought here by Tim Spradlin, a local theater veteran who believes passionately in "Yank!" and directs this production.

Seen Saturday on the District Theatre's Christel DeHaan stage, the performance nearly brought off the complex blend of choreography, song, and drama it requires to make maximum impact. The balance of comedy and pathos was managed vividly and with the intensity the World War II story demands. On a stage of few props and minimal set, slide projections of period photos helped lend suitable context.

The men of Company C celebrate the squad.
In an era when military service was (without the slightest controversy) seen as vital to the nation's survival, young American men had to follow an even stricter model of masculinity than most of them feel today. Yet the prejudices and expectations of 70-plus years ago continue to exert control.

The World War II model required men in service to miss two kinds of women in different ways. There was Mom, and there was the girlfriend. The latter was boosted into fantasy by such Hollywood celebrities as Betty Grable, Lana Turner, and Rita Hayworth, swooned over in publicity photos kept underneath mattresses. Whoever got the enlistees' juices flowing was always assumed to be female. Male bonding was necessary for the sake of survival, but there could be nothing erotic about it.

The illustrative Zellnik song, given the requisite gusto by the cast's Army recruits and draftees of Company C,  is "Your Squad Is Your Squad."  The deliberate redundancy of the song's title is perfect to make the internal rapport of each army unit seem self-evident. But such mutual support and commitment could never extend to the kind of romance that develops between the popular Mitch, adept at "passing" for straight, and Stuart, a shy, clumsy private who keeps a revealing journal that will prove to be his undoing.

In the second act, the shared dream of the two secretive lovers gets an outing in song just before "Your Squad Is Your Squad" commands the stage. It's the dream that Jonathan Krouse (Stuart) and Tanner Brunson (Mitch) sing into being in "A Couple of Regular Guys," a hymn to a blissfully shared post-war life that is never to be. In this song and elsewhere, Krouse and Brunson made the romance come alive and communicated it with an unfaltering depth and energy. The characters' surreptitious behavior seemed as natural as their unguarded moments of free, passionate expression. The story rests on the delicate balance Stuart and Mitch maintain, and the lead-role performances went to the nth degree in making the show work. The interrogation of Stuart approaches torture, and Krouse brought the right intensity to his victimization.

There were difficult ensemble numbers that varied in their security and balance Saturday night, but the vocals, supported by an offstage band, usually hung together well. The score isn't an easy one, and the band, behind a curtain off to one side of the theater's wide stage, often ran into intonation problems.  The edginess of the harmonies, whether intentional or not, certainly underlined the dramatic tension. And coordination between voices and instruments usually hit the bull's-eye. Conductor Michael Davis and vocal director John Phillips trained the musical forces to survey and command the broad landscape well enough to move the story of divided loyalties along and deliver its essence.

Two other notable performances in the dozen-strong cast deserve individual mention. Jessica Hawkins took the role of "Every Woman" — from the era's torch-song stylists and sentimental big-band singers to a role reflecting the same-sex attraction that women also had to hide in order to survive.  She shares her expertise in "Get, Got It, Good." The solo "Blue Twilight" wove a tapestry of romance, and "The Saddest Gal What Am" represented the silly aspect of what so many couples separated by war must have felt deeply.

As Artie, D. Scott Robinson represented the type within military and corporate structures who manage to get what they want, the people who game the system. A photographer for "Yank," the tabloid for servicemen to which Stuart is assigned as reporter, Artie sees Stuart for who he is and pushes back against the naive man's link to the ambivalent Mitch. He's as out as can be, under the circumstances. He knows how to make the less restrictive job of army photographer work for him. The role is a less rascally version of Billis in "South Pacific," less sordid than Milo Minderbinder in "Catch-22." The audience is likely meant to admire Artie's openness and frank assertion of his identity against a repressive system. That's best expressed in "Click," a number that requires precise tap-dance skills that Robinson came close to but the three-man support contingent largely missed.

"Yank!" conveys, from its title on out, the esprit de corps the magazine of the title is supposed to promote, never exposing the horrors of war but always meant to boost morale. It can also be taken as a reminder that inducted soldiers are yanked out of their personal identities and forced to conform in often self-denying ways. That  applies across the board to the military's hostility to individualism; to gay warriors of our parents' and grandparents' generation, the yanking was much more severe. Many peacetime bridges would have to be crossed before more positive transformations could be embraced, though retrograde forces survive.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Svetlin Roussev returns to the ISO schedule for the first time since his IVCI Laureate status got him there in 1998

Svetlin Roussev, the distinguished Bulgarian violinist who has amassed many distinctions since his placement among six International Violin Competition of Indianapolis laureates nearly 21 years ago, made the most of his concerto appearance Friday night with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
Jacob Joyce made dashing impression as a stand-in for ISO's originally scheduled guest.

The "Sounds of Spain" theme allowed him to occupy the guest soloist spotlight with Edouard Lalo's expansive "Symphonie espagnole," op. 21. Across five movements, the Spanish-influenced work by a French composer lives up to its title: It weaves musical threads between violin and orchestra throughout, even though the solo instrument is never out of prominence for long.

The concert was also remarkable for the Classical Series debut of the ISO's associate conductor, Jacob Joyce. The second-in-command staff conductor for music director Krzysztof Urbanski was pressed into service by Bramwell Tovey's cancellation due to a family emergency. (The international blogger Norman Lebrecht noted the substitution in a post yesterday that had Joyce's title wrong and indicated Tovey withdrew because of his personal illness.)

Joyce will conclude his debut weekend in the ISO's premier series today in a Hilbert Circle Theatre concert beginning at 5:30 p.m. The abbreviated Coffee Classical concert Thursday morning started the current focus on the impressively experienced 26-year-old musician; it will continue when Joyce leads the annual Side-by-Side Concert Wednesday. James Johnson, the orchestra's CEO, announced from the stage both the conductor substitution and the ISO's decision to dedicate this weekend's concerts to the memory of Andre Previn.

Roussev and Joyce exhibited a firm partnership throughout "Symphonie espagnole." As I observed in a review of his 2017 IVCI recital at Indiana History Center, Roussev is a deliberate interpreter, exhibiting a full spectrum of sensitivity to the material. The probity of his artistic personality doesn't mean he lacks a feeling of spontaneity, however. There was plenty of fire and tenderness both in his Lalo performance, capped as it was by a fleet rendering of the Rondo finale that brought the audience to its feet.

Bow and baton parallelism symbolizes tightness of Roussev-Joyce partnership
The meeting of minds between conductor and soloist was exemplary. A crucial factor may have been Joyce's achievement as a prize-winning violinist, continuing beyond his student years. I was impressed by how unified the teasing tempo changes in the Scherzando: Allegro molto were, by the deftness of the accompaniment during the Intermezzo: Allegretto non troppo, and by the balanced aptness of the wind-chorale sonorities in the Andante.

When Roussev was not onstage, Joyce and his ISO colleagues exhibited similar affinities. The flashiness of such music as the "Orgia" finale of Turina's "Danzas fantasaticas" didn't interfere with an adroit tying together of the movement's rhythmic patterns.  Throughout the evening, flow was always a vital part of the point, and yet, particularly in Ravel's "Rapsodie espagnole," the distinctness of orchestral voices was given personality and sufficient weight. Soloing hewed to a high standard, including that of guest concertmaster Caroline Goulding, Roger Roe (English horn)  and Robert Danforth (principal horn).

The inevitably stirring suite of dances Manuel de Falla devised from his ballet "The Three-Cornered Hat" had the brio and full-spectrum brilliance of a finale. At nearly 10 o'clock when the orchestra finished it, the suite left the impression of wrapping things up, but there was still a pair of movements from Falla's "La vida breve" to follow. In retrospect the more reflective music, though nicely brought off here, might better have been placed before the orchestra donned that fancy hat.

In any case, a seal was put upon the associate conductor's auspicious main-series debut. Lebrecht seemed to imply that this weekend may give Joyce some of the luster of Leonard Bernstein's 1943 burst into fame with the New York Philharmonic. But we live in different times in a different place, and must take typically modest Midwestern satisfaction in our good fortune.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Phoenix Theatre: 'The Hotel Nepenthe' offers rooms with a view, even to those who never check in

Bellhop (Scott Van Wye) holds the telltale hatbox, flanked by Betsy Norton and Jolene Mentink Moffatt.
Have you ever had any truck with bibliomancy? Me neither: who could hope to get insight or guidance by opening a book randomly and finding just what you need there?

People who believe in it often use the Bible. If you don't get insight from the first passage you lay eyes on, the process permits a few tries. But not too many, because then it wouldn't be random. Chance has to remain in charge; to Bible believers, the chance that seems to rule the effort is really the guiding hand of the Author.

Bibliomancy has seemed worth my trying only once  — last night, after I got home from the preview performance of "The Hotel Nepenthe," a play by John Kuntz that will run at the Phoenix Theatre through March 24. The 95-minute one-act engaged me, but I needed a key to it in retrospect. What book might be equal to this show's concatenation of mystery and fun, its shuffling of encounters between people, its multiple levels of meaning?

No contest. I opened "Finnegans Wake" by James Joyce, the classically confusing word-mad portrait of night, hoping something there would tell me just what to make of "The Hotel Nepenthe." After a few brief page flips, there it was, on page 143: "The answer: A collideorscape!"

A senator and his wife greet well-wishers at a rally; nepenthe will follow.
The punned-upon real word shines through the neologism. That's it! The production is a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds in addition to the rapidly changing patterns of human interaction, with four actors playing a host of people, all under the shrewd direction of Phoenix artistic director Bill Simmons. Credit Michael Moffatt and Brian G. Hartz, respectively, for the well-coordinated lighting and sound design. The edgy original music by Jordan Munson helps keep the nervous vibe foremost. And Kuntz keeps turning the tube right through the magical finale.

In Joyce's "collideorscape" we have the play's themes of people colliding as well as seeking escape. The "or" in the middle is the toggle switch, the fulcrum of the action's teeter-totter.  These are often needy folks who have trouble perhaps identifying their needs, but certainly in devising a way to ease the pangs of need and regret. Which way should they turn? How can they get what they deserve? But check that! As Hamlet warns Polonius: "Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

The opening encounter sets the tone for just one kind of the show's display of thrust and parry. The first is a contest of curiosity versus conscience as Jolene Mentink Moffatt's nosy car-rental worker tries to find out what's in the hatbox that Scott Van Wye's bellhop has brought over from the Hotel Nepenthe. The contents will eventually be revealed, on the order of the Chekhov dictum that if a gun is mentioned in the first act, it will go off in the last. It's one of several tie-ins Kuntz supplies from scene to scene, most of them abruptly introduced and released in the best "collideorscape" fashion.

Right behavior is never far from being a central concern, even when that concern is blithely set aside. Protecting the vulnerable is a keynote as well. The temptation to do otherwise is ever-present: "You can hide a dead baby anywhere!" is a repeated shocker of a line. Despite challenged inhibitions and the feeling that all norms can easily be unstrung, this is a moral play, including when it sends up conventional etiquette. A swift series of blackouts with Ben Asaykwee's tophatted groom asking the bellhop to take the newlyweds' luggage up to the bridal suite spins the wheel freely (comprising balletic turns, combat, farcical shouting, and lasciviousness) around the banal request and compliance with it.

The cigarette icon
Nepenthe is a substance supposed to bring the balm of oblivion to unhealed wounds. The play's suggestions as to how easily we hurt others and ourselves flow constantly as the scenes change against the spookily grand, sleek, all-purpose backdrop of Daniel Uhde's set. A starlet (Betsy Norton) gabs self-indulgently while she gets it on in a bathtub with an eager lover, then spins off into a name-dropping extravaganza that brings in more well-known figures, past and present, than the cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." It's one of several displays of talkativeness — as brief and brilliant as Catherine's wheels in a fireworks show. They are distributed among the four actors liberally, and contrasted with painfully taciturn, even cryptic, pyrotechnics that just go "boom!"

Danielle Buckel's costume and property designs straddle the boundary between realism and fancy, some of it retro, some if it underlining the ambiguous note in the program that the time of the play is "maybe now...maybe not." The bellhop's uniform recalled for me the old Philip Morris cigarette ads, an unintentionally comical reminder of mortality. Or else the image of the organ grinder's monkey. He is the very picture of any hotel's inherent blend of intimacy and strangeness, of order and randomness. Of all 20 characters, this one is most emblematic of "The Nepenthe Hotel"'s thematic obsessions. The cast plumbed them with slightly menacing, inviting charm Thursday night. The kaleidoscope shimmered and glowed along the lines of the Joycean collideorscape.

[Phoenix production photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, February 28, 2019

'You're Invited!" is the ISO's shout of welcome to the 2019-2020 season

Beethoven's 250th birthday will be observed next year.
The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra will be explicit about embracing the role of host next season. It's developed the marketing slogan "You're invited!" for pops and classical concerts at Hilbert Circle Theater, its home on Monument Circle since 1984.

At a reception for donors and other supporters this week, the orchestra unfolded its schedule for 2019-2020, with a number of novelties in addition to reliable repertoire for arousing the public interest. Long ago an ISO staff member told me, off the record, that the industry standard of attracting 2 percent of the public to any year's total of symphony orchestra offerings seemed a remote goal. "Around here," he lamented, "I wonder if 1 percent is more realistic."

So there's an understandably constant battle to keep as much of the central Indiana populace interested as possible. Who knows what will work, especially in rapidly changing times with so many entertainment options? As Ludwig van Beethoven, whose 250th birth anniversary will be widely celebrated next season, once closed a letter to his publisher, Breitkopf and Hǟrtel: "I no longer expect anything stable in this age; one can be certain of nothing but blind chance." Today, he might have added the shoulder-shrug emoticon.

The weary composer was referring to international politics, not music; in the winter of 1809, Napoleon and Austria had just concluded hostilities, which Beethoven called "this dead peace." But his skepticism could be applied to both politics and art, covering our own day as well as his. The ISO can't afford to leave to blind chance the fulfillment of its musical mission, however. 
The ISO music director will be heavy into Beethoven next season.

And so in 2020 we have the novel and the reliable approaches blended around Beethoven himself. When the New Year dawns, the ISO will launch a survey of the first five symphonies under the baton of music director Krzysztof Urbanski (Jan. 20-25).

 Since Beethoven's music has never left the mainstream, calling special attention to it has to involve more than revisiting it. The ISO's innovation is to place a newly commissioned work on each Beethoven program; the living composers who'll rub shoulders with the birthday boy are Nathaniel Stookey, Hannah Lash, Dejan Lazic, Huw Watkins, and Katherine Balch.

And next season will  end with two weekends of Beethoven concerts, also conducted by Urbanski. The first (May 28-30) will bring in two veteran guest artists, Yefim Bronfman and Emanuel Ax, as soloists in the five Beethoven piano concertos. 

The second (June 5 and 6) will be devoted to "Missa Solemnis," Beethoven's grandest work for chorus and orchestra, with four guest soloists and the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir. The ISO brochure has devised an odd rubric for all the Beethoven concerts: BTHVN 2020. I'm not sure how you say that; I guess you're just supposed to look at it and supply the vowels in your head. 

Other major works in next season's second half will acquaint ISO audiences with prominent conductors in concerts focusing on some major 20th century masterworks: Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" (Gustavo Gimeno), Feb. 27-29; Mahler's Fifth Symphony (David Danzmayr), March 13-14; and Hindemith's "Mathis der Maler" Symphony (Ruth Reinhardt), March 19-21. 

Those concerts will be bookended by excursions led by a couple of other guest conductors (Marc Albrecht and Jun Mǟrkl, respectively) through a couple of 19th-century masterpieces: Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" (Feb. 7-8) and Mendelssohn's "Elijah" (March  27-28). 

Other notable events on the season will be spotlights on three of the ISO's young principals: Conrad Jones will be featured in Haydn's Trumpet Concerto April 16-18; cellist Austin Huntington will be one-third of the soloists in Beethoven's Triple Concerto Jan. 17-18; the others will be pianist Lazic and violinist Benjamin Schmid. Jennifer Christen will have the soloist position in the Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto May 7-9 when Edo de Waart is the podium guest.

Other living composers represented outside the Beethoven symphony survey include Jennifer Higdon, with "All Things Majestic" (Oct.10-12), conducted by new music specialist Robert Spano; Anna Clyne, with "The Midnight Hour," conducted by Reinhardt, and Guillaume Connesson ("The Shining One") in an all-French program conducted by Urbanski (Nov. 8 and 9). The ultimate in the living-composer category as far as age goes will  be Alma Deutscher in the opening-night gala on Sept. 14; the 14-year-old wunderkind will also be represented as a solo violinist and pianist. 

The new and less-familiar music on the season will be balanced by many well-known works, part of the ongoing push to find what will draw in audiences — starting with subscribers, of course, but also driving music lovers to the box office to buy single tickets.  The most eyebrow-raising of the warhorses is perhaps Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," presumably in the overfamiliar orchestration by Maurice Ravel, to lead off the Classical Series under Urbanski's baton (Sept. 20 and 21). The comfort-food menu will be joined by Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, with Julian Rachlin the soloist.

Pops maestro Jack Everly has put together a season with several surefire hits, spotlighting Broadway, cabaret, and television stars Leslie Odom Jr. (Jan. 31-Feb.1), Ann Hampton Callaway in a Linda Ronstadt tribute (March 6 and 7), Lea Salonga (April 24-25), and Mandy Gonzalez (June 12 and 13). 

Everly's encyclopedic knowledge of the field  comes into view in the season-opener, "Vienna to Broadway" (Oct. 4 and 5), which will trace how popular operettas laid the roadbed for an American innovation, musical comedy. Everly will also be on the podium (April 3 and 4) for "West Side Story in Concert," with a highly anticipated cast not to begin settling until August.

The ISO's dip into more contemporary popular culture — a notable feature of the "Symphony on the Prairie" series at Conner Prairie — has a place in the downtown series with a tribute to Journey, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac "and more" on May 15 and 16. Similarly, the season "specials," in addition to the annual "Yuletide Celebration" and the Opening Night Gala, will extend the popular accompanied flm series this summer with "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2" (June 21-22, 2019) and "The Little Mermaid" (July 19-20).  The film series proper in 2019-20 offers the following: "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi" (Sept. 27-29), "Psycho" (Oct. 31), "Casablanca" (Feb. 14-15) and "Mary Poppins" (May 2 and 3).

For complete information and to feel you have personal confirmation that, indeed, "you're invited," go to the ISO website.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Half-dozen strong John Fedchock band plays the Jazz Kitchen

Veteran bandleader and superlative trombonist John Fedchock
As adaptable as local sidemen can be working with traveling guest stars, it's always a  great treat to hear a strong, seasoned working band on the Jazz Kitchen stage.

On Sunday night, it was the John Fedchock New York Sextet on  the bandstand for one generously proportioned set. Led by a highly respected trombonist whose New York Big Band has long been a magnet for the top players in that perpetual jazz center, the small group shows the same sense of scale, balance, and inspiration as the large ensemble.

The arrangements were illuminating and well-grounded, and the solos followed suit. That was evident from the opening number on — "This Just In" (a tune built on the harmonic structure of "Just in Time"; a contrafact, as the bandleader explained). I especially liked the logical progress of tenor saxophonist Tom Christensen's solo, and the neat yet adventurous episode trading eights between drummer Dennis Makrel and the front line (trumpeter Mike Rodriguez in addition to Fedchock and Christensen).

Whether reconstructing such a standard or building a fresh approach to an original melody, Fedchock's arrangements displayed zest and cohesiveness. His setting of "Nature Boy," played without the introduction, was something you could sink your teeth into. Concise solos were distributed around the band, with the trombonist offering the first of several marvelous statements.  His agility and fertile imagination rolled out time and time again: The trombone line leapt between registers with ease and sometimes packed in well-timed filigree. You had the feeling you could look at a transcript of a Fedchock solo, and if no name were attached to it and it were displaced an octave higher, you'd have a hard time guessing the instruments or the player.

The whole band naturally produced fresh perspectives, as in Fedchock's "Not-So-New Blues," for which bassist Dick Sarpola set the tone, telling a story according to the Lester Young gospel.  The performance also featured a witty piano solo by Allen Farnham, a Fedchock associate for over 20 years, and a characteristically tasteful and inviting one by Rodriguez. And though it's somewhat formulaic, here and elsewhere in the set, there were exchanges with the drummer that invariably displayed the men's ability to say something cogent in miniature.

With Rodriguez picking up the flugelhorn, the band presented a gentle close-order drill in Fedchock's arrangement of Tom Harrell's "Moon Alley," the harmonies glowing right through the repeated final phrase. I was also struck by the leader's setting of "Days of Wine and Roses," which had an uncanny big-band feel to its voicings, yet was perfectly well-designed for this six-piece group.

I took exception only to the Fedchock version of "Giant Steps." It seemed a tricky revision of the John Coltrane original, and it lost me much of the way. The tune's famous shifts of harmony sounded blurred in a rather glib rethinking of the tune. Maybe I'm a 21st-century version of a "moldy fig," but I kept missing the classic approach to the piece in which its harmonic low hurdles are easily cleared by good players, but at least evident. Some of the soloing suited what I'll admit might have been my onrush of nostalgia:  Christensen evoked the seminal Coltrane style, and Farnham's solo settled for a while into a left-hand pattern reminiscent of McCoy Tyner's in the Coltrane quartet hit "My Favorite Things." Finally, Mackrel seemed to be channeling some of Elvin Jones' rhythmically spread manner in his solo. After all this, the outchorus made more sense. Yet I'm tempted to retitle Fedchock's "Giant Steps" something like "Giant Glides."

But this response amounts to one muted raspberry amid my huzzahs for this expert group and gratitude for my good fortune in hearing it live.

[Photo: Chris Drukker]

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Third time's the charm?: Emmet Cohen returns as APA jazz finalist, a position he first held in 2010

Local fans of the quadrennial American Pianists Awards in Jazz have had the opportunity to become familiar with Emmet Cohen over a longer time than usual.
Emmet Cohen in a portrait reflecting his impulsive and thoughtful sides.

At 29, the New York-based musician is back for the third time as a finalist in the quadrennial American Pianists Association jazz competition — unprecedented in its history, according to APA CEO and artistic director Joel Harrison, who introduced Cohen Saturday night at the Jazz Kitchen.

The Miami native concluded the Premiere Series, in which the APA presents five finalists in trio settings over the course of a season, accompanied by local musicians Nick Tucker, bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums. From here on out, the contestants will be judged during Discovery Week in April, with the result that one of them will be named the Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz and thus taken under the APA wing for two years.

Heard in the second of two sets, Cohen struck me as more focused on distributing his ample resources cleverly than he had in an Eskenazi Health performance four-plus years ago. Sometimes it seems that, whether a musician is in competitive mode or not, unaccompanied excursions can bring out displays of virtuosity that may slightly obscure a pianist's control and depth of personality. I was impressed by Cohen then, but a combination of further seasoning plus the collegial trio format seems to have inclined him to "load every rift with ore," to quote John Keats' advice to his fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Like so many up-and-coming jazz pianists since the bebop era, Cohen is encyclopedic in his coverage of historical styles and subgenres. His musical literacy seemed to embrace Claude Debussy in an impressionistic original, "In a Dream."

The knowledgeable centerpiece during the second set was his four-part tribute to Cedar Walton, an eminent pianist-composer who died at 79 in 2013. Cohen and his bandmates found original ways of finding the core of four Walton tuens: "Hindsight," "Holy Land," "Dear Ruth," and "Mosaic."  The trio's accounts were fully individualized as well. The value of honoring the past, less by mimicry than by reshaping its gifts to the present,  was intensively engaged. There were firmly rooted solo displays from both Tucker and Phelps, plus a crowd of deft two-bar exchanges between piano and drums.

Cohen's sense of fun as well as another part of his heritage came into view with "Hotsy Kaddish," a setting in different tempos and moods of a Jewish prayer. The pianist's rhythmic acuity was particularly in evidence — the performance really jumped. That exhibition by the excellent trio amounted to a well-coordinated prelude to the set's lickety-split finale, Cohen's arrangement of the chordally animated "Braggin' in Brass," an early Duke Ellington showcase for his seminal big band.

Previously, there had been both wit and tenderness suffusing the Hoagy Carmichael evergreen "Two Sleepy People." The trio's repeated pause between "Here" and "we are" in the song's first line was an especially droll touch. The set began with Cohen's unaccompanied soloing in Scott Joplin's "Original Rags," which was restrained and respectful of the pre-jazz idiom, but never staid or academic. One of Ellington's Shakespearean turns – "Such Sweet Thunder," a portrait of the warrior Othello — then brought the trio on. It opened, naturally enough, with some tom-tom drum rolls — sweet thunder indeed — and gathered bluesy energy from all three musicians as it swept across the battlefield.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Austro-German concentration: One full-length ISO concert this weekend, featuring two young guest artists

It was meat-and-potatoes repertoire for the first short Classical weekend of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's 2019 schedule — an Austro-German focus with three of the four pieces well-known.

Conductor Christoph König's career is based principally in Europe.
Friday's concert at Hilbert Circle Theatre, reviewed here, will not be repeated; a partial preview was offered in Thursday's Coffee Classical series, conducted by Christoph König, music director of the Solistes Europeens Luxembourg. For both concerts, the guest soloist was mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught, also making an ISO debut.

The Irish singer put across a steady interpretation of Gustav Mahler's "Rückert Lieder," five songs set to poems by the 19th-century German writer Friedrich Rückert. Her voice blossomed expressively at the right times, though more intensity was needed at the climax of "Liebst du um Schönheit." The missing fiery glow was supplied in the final song of the set, "Um Mitternacht," where she applied gloomy intensity  to the second verse (a partial translation: "No star in the entire mass smiled down at me at midnight"). The transfiguration of the lament in the last verse, made stark and mighty by the composer's focus on winds and percussion, was majestically handled by voice and instruments alike.

König and the orchestra opened the concert with a well-modulated reading of Richard Wagner's "Meistersinger" Prelude. The stately beginning was kept from sagging, and the light-hearted march characterizing Nuremberg's apprentices contrasted well with the procession of the town's august master singers. The Prize Song featured a string accompaniment of surpassing delicacy. As the themes are recombined in glory, the ISO and its suave guest conductor rose fully to the occasion.

As a student musician long ago, one of my fondest youth-orchestra memories was rehearsing and playing for a loyal public Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 459 ("Unfinished"). In the middle of those wonderful trombone chords in the first movement (I played second trombone), I inevitably thought: "Hey, maybe I'm meant to do this for many years to come." I was wrong about that, but this music is so seamless a blend of means and ends that even a fledgling ensemble can take pleasure in preparing it. The ISO's account was many levels higher, of course, with well-shaped phrases, pinpoint dynamic contrast, and balances that strongly carried the music's strong yet tantalizingly ambivalent message.

Speaking of nostalgia, here's a double dose: With "Der Rosenkavalier," Richard Strauss as opera composer pulled back from the asperities of "Salome" and "Elektra" for an elaborate, retrospective interpretation of upper-echelon 18th-century Vienna. The complicated plot surface is rooted in canny characterization, full of intrigue and awash in emotion. All of it eventually amounts to the age-old comedy resolution: the love that is meant to be is firmly asserted after all barriers are struck down.

The other nostalgic thread pulled by this performance of Strauss' orchestral suite from the opera connects to an old New Yorker cartoon that may have been evoked for others in the audience as well. In addition to its sweeping waltz episodes and recollection of  the opera's bustle and confusion, the suite climaxes in  uplifting reminders of the last act — especially the trio for sopranos in which the aging Marschallin gives up her romantic dream for the sake of a young couple, followed by that couple's simple duet of mutual devotion. "Der Rosenkavalier" thus emphasizes at the end the virtue of accepting what must be; magnanimity is tinged with regret for the loss of what might have been. A secular peace which passeth all understanding can be glimpsed.

No wonder cartoonist Edward Frascino's bedridden middle-aged man, tucked under blankets and looking haggard, makes this request of his wife, standing nearby: "I know the doctor said this is only a bad cold, but in case he's mistaken I'd like to hear side eight of 'Der Rosenkavalier' one last time."

For all those fond of the "Rosenkavalier" side eights in their LP collections, as well as those who know the opera fully staged, this performance probably delivered the goods, allowing for the absence of glorious singing and lavish sets and costumes. The horn section played with healthy bravura, the soloing was first-rate — especially from guest concertmaster Stephen Tavani — and ensemble unity and verve were unfailing once the introductory measures jelled. And the love music produced that dependable catch in the throat.

So yes, when in doubt, put on side eight!

Friday, February 22, 2019

Going wild with Wolfie: Dance Kaleidoscope's 'Funny Bones' features a new suite, 'Merry Mozart'

As David Hochoy told a preview audience at intermission Thursday evening, Mozart is a notoriously difficult composer to set choreographically.  He's too perfect, Hochoy explained, so that there's not much left to fill in in dance terms.

Add to that the difficulty of coming up with amusing choreography that succeeds, and you realize that Hochoy and Dance Kaleidoscope are putting forward a big self-challenge this weekend with "Funny Bones" on the upper stage of Indiana Repertory Theatre.  Committed by this program to tickling those funny bones, what does the trick?  Precise timing helps immeasurably, Hochoy's mentor Martha Graham told him long ago. DK has learned that lesson well.

Approaches to injecting dance with humor were undertaken by members of the troupe in the program's first half, reprising the troupe's contribution to the 2018 Indy Fringe Festival. After intermission the showcase was focused on Hochoy's new work (though the program pinpoints 2001 as its origin), "Merry Mozart."  Eight excerpts from the Austrian genius' oeuvre are pressed into unconventional service for the piece, framed by full-company settings of the "Marriage of Figaro" Overture and the Serenade in D ("Serenata notturna").

Plenty of humor adheres to Mozart in and out of his music. His letters are full of jokiness, some of it coarse. The dramatic tension of "Amadeus," the play and movie exaggerating the rivalry between the upstart prodigy from Salzburg and the imperial court composer, Antonio Salieri, rests largely on the older man's dismay that an ill-mannered buffoon has been unfairly the beneficiary of divine favor.

Dance Kaleidoscope members cavort in "Merry Mozart."
The Mozart shelf of operatic masterpieces is loaded with comedy.  Much of it still plays well today, even though it carries the imprint of racism and sexism. The comedy is often darkened with as much mastery as the funny business: "Don Giovanni," despite murder, seduction, and ghostly retribution, has "dramma giocoso" on its title page. The notches in the rakish hero's belt are lip-smackingly detailed by his servant in the first act. Oh, what #MeToo foreshadowing is there!

In "Cosi fan tutte," we are asked to enjoy a cynical wager in which the male lovers are persuaded to disguise themselves as rival suitors in order to test their ladies' fidelity. "Women are like that!" runs one common translation of the title. And thankfully there's no "Albanian Lives Matter" movement around to object to Ferrando and Guglielmo's broad ethnic caricaturing of the purported suitors.

The exotic is made fun of, not surprising considering the Mozartean public in Prague and Vienna, with racial stereotyping: Lustful, conniving black men get their comeuppance — Osmin in "The Abduction from the Seraglio," Monostatos in "The Magic Flute."  Directors today must lose sleep over how to honor Mozart's sense of humor without tossing box-office-killing poisoned flowers at the audience.

I point this out to underline how successfully Hochoy has celebrated Mozart's sense of humor through finding cues in the music that are life-affirming, that celebrate the buoyancy of the music without sugarcoating or cliche and probably without giving offense. Conflict, as in the delicious interplay of Jillian Godwin and Cody Miley in what Hochoy does with "Non piu andrai" from "The Marriage of Figaro," moves toward resolution and achieves it in a way that will have you saying to yourself, "Well, of course!" The martial energy of the aria is celebrated through gestures and floor-hugging movement of advance and retreat, as well as via an abundance of amusing question and answer.

Hochoy works enchantingly with couples in a few other places: It was charming  to see Mariel Greenlee and Brandon Comer — both not long ago on the DK disabled list — back onstage and tenderly partnered in the slow movement from the sublime Clarinet Concerto. The tension of seduction, evenhandedly thrust forward and resisted, was well counterpointed in Emily Dyson's and Timothy June's duet to "La ci darem la mano" ("Don Giovanni").  Solo piano music suited the bright intimacy that Aleksa Lukasiewicz and Stuart Coleman achieved in another section of the piece. Laura Glover's lighting and Guy Clark's costumes were always apt across the wide musical spectrum.

Some sketchy appreciations of the first half follow: Cut-ups and putdowns, preening and withering,  showing off and just showing up — what suits youth better than their conventional gatherings, whether on the playground (Manuel Valdes' "Recess") or at a high-school rite of passage (Paige Robinson's "Prom")?

Extraterrestrials pay a visit in Missy Thompson's "Out of This World."
Popular culture is rife with humor, sometimes deliberate, sometimes accidental (though the signature of "camp" is often discernible). The program has Missy Thompson's horror-film and sci-fi mash-up, "Out of This World," to delight our sensitivity to assorted baskets of improbables (to vary a phrase from the last presidential campaign).

Speaking of that campaign and its results, Jillian Godwin joins creative forces with the antic muse of Randy Rainbow for "Commander of Cheese," brought off vigorously by five dancers allowed to escape the choreographic corral but perhaps demonstrating that lip-syncing inevitably distracts from the type of illusion dance is best at. The bounds of anarchy are  also approached satirically in Timothy June's "Naptown Misfits," the title characters lovably awkward and idiosyncratic at every turn.

Kids being kids on the playground in "Recess." Don't we miss it!
Dance's peculiar range of illusion is trimmed down in the solo Stuart Coleman fashioned for Paige Robinson in "BruBlech." The choreographer takes from the bouncy, asymmetrical energy of Dave Brubeck's "Unsquare Dance" just what he needs to provide a neat showcase for the witty soloist. At the ensemble end of the humor spectrum were the opening and closing pieces of the first half: Brandon Comer, assisted by Guy Clark costume designs at their most flamboyant, salutes the genius of Broadway in his version  of "Don't Tell Mama" from "Cabaret," making the most of the clever lyrics in a well-structured piece.

And, sending the audience out to the interval with visions of real-world hassles transformed by dance was Mariel Greenlee's "The Waiting Game." This examination of how ordinary people react to having to wait among strangers to get waited on somewhere (that's all of us, and almost every day) externalizes feelings of impatience and self-regard that we usually mute in public.

It was striking how thoroughly the waiting experience was not simply converted into physical expression by the eight dancers,  but also individualized from the ground up and made both amusing and revealing. It was as if dance should be considered basic to processing "the waiting game" and not just a way of representing it. Dance can fill no higher function than to seem more essential than decorative, especially when making us laugh, and "The Waiting Game" is commendably dedicated to the proposition.

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Cedille Records: Lipman recital brings wider recognition to star violist, with the bonus of an APA laureate's piano assistance

A combination of well-known music and novelties puts an extra shine on the luster of Matthew Lipman's debut recording on Cedille.  Optimistically titled "Ascent," it has the locally significant enhancement of accompaniments by his duo partner, Henry Kramer, a laureate in the 2017 American Pianists Association competition.
Matthew Lipman received a coveted Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2015.

Concert artists playing the viola are relatively rare, and the instrument's central position in the symphony orchestra and string quartet only allows its familiarity to extend so far. As a solo voice, it mimics the cello in its low register and as it ascends, it sounds like a beefier violin." Ascent" is a good name for the recording, and not just because various versions of rising, in spirits, pitch, and movement, bear central significance to the program.

By the time the listener reaches the last track, Lipman's arrangement of Franz Waxman's "Carmen Fantasie," there has been ample evidence of the violist's virtuosity, in addition to the solidity of his six-year partnership with Kramer. The program note deftly indicates the naturalness of the viola in fleshing out this sketchy (but essentially pertinent) portrait of one of the most well-loved mezzo-soprano roles, the Spanish gypsy torn between commitment and freedom. (The range in Spain is plainly the refrain.)

Lipman and Kramer sweep invitingly through the fantasized medley. The "fate" music sounds quite idiomatic on the viola; the penetrating harmonics serve the introduction to the Seguidilla particularly well. Throughout, the viola's character across its wide range is well exploited.

Among the disc's other works are two with special claims to attention: One is a short, slight piece by Dmitri Shostakovich, discovered decades after his death in 1975. Impromptu for Viola and Piano, op. 33, focuses on the most solid part of the viola range.  The conservative material has a couple of harmonic twists that will evoke the composer's better-known work, but the expressive spectrum is conservative and romantic. It's a good encore piece for those rare occasions in which a violist plays a recital or one of the relatively few worthy concertos for the instrument.

A centerpiece of such a recital might well be Robert Schumann's "Marchenbilder," op. 113. These four "fairy tale pictures" (to translate the title) lie at the heart of the composer's familiarity with fantasy, aspects of which are inseparable from the mental illness that killed him. Lipman and Kramer maintain a firm partnership while fully characterizing the pieces — slowing the tempo together at apt points, displaying their rhythmic acuity (in "Lebhaft"), and modulating foreground and background responsibilities in the agile "Rasch."  The finale, with its evocation of folk music, is remarkable for the steadiness with which Lipman enunciates the sotto voce melody.

Composer Clarice Assad
The other notable piece in terms of news value is a Lipman-commissioned work from the Brazilian-American composer Clarice Assad.  "Metamorfose" is programmatic to the degree that its two movements represent a familiar transformation from caterpillar-in-chrysalis to full-fledged butterfly.

The tentative cast and mood of confinement in "Crisalidas" suggests the insect in chrysalis. Tense harmonics come in to hint at the aspirational progress of the butterfly's development, which will burst forth in "Danca das Barboletas." But that's only after a calm, free opening section yields to a rhythmically enlivened, fast shimmer of piano chords and the emergence of viola assertiveness in a robust dance that brings forward the vernacular of the composer's homeland effectively.

"Ascent"'s other work by a living composer is Garth Knox's "Fuga libre," an unaccompanied piece assembled initially from fragments that bear increasing expressive heft. Double stops and more intense figuration enter the picture, along with pizzicato. The freedom implied by the title gradually overcomes the structure, and there's an episode with imitation feedback of the sort popularized on electric guitar by Jimi Hendrix.  As this subsides, there is a more wispy use of fragments before linked repeated figures set up a strong climax.

That kind of expressive freedom remains more within a romantic context in the disc's opening work, Phantasy for Viola and Piano, op. 54, by the English composer York Bowen (1854-1961).  Attractive in many respects, the composition strikes me as too diffuse, but some scattering of inspiration perhaps fulfills the "fantasy" assignment Bowen undertook for a 1918 competition. It was still a distinct treat to become acquainted with a composer previously unknown to me, and the duo acquits itself marvelously well in following every twist and turn of the heart-on-sleeve score with technical and expressive unanimity.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

IRT's 'Diary of Anne Frank': The memorial voice from the annex still sounds its notes of resilience and hope

Diarist Anne exults in her spring awakening.
"The Diary of Anne Frank," besides being a monument to human resilience under monstrous threat, is in its very
title a tribute to the power of words. As full of life as the Amsterdam teenager evidently was before she and her family were rousted out of their hiding place for transportation to the death camps, it's what she left behind on paper that has hewn her path to immortality.

This is the miracle of the document that has given the world the most focused and celebrated account of the Holocaust. As  staged by the Indiana Repertory Theatre, the full humanity of a couple of Jewish families in hiding, joined by a dentist forced to separate from his Christian wife, continues to stand for whatever bulwarks can be erected against obliteration and oblivion.

Those bulwarks are not as strong as most people might like them to be, as the current resurgence of antisemitism makes clear. And what Anne Frank's diary has to say to the living may not be as important as the memorial value of her writing. Life against death is the enduring tension of "The Diary of Anne Frank," especially since the writer's ebullience and idealism are so well embodied in Miranda Troutt's performance, as seen Saturday evening.

The vitality poured into the main role and set against both the perseverance and despair of the hideaway's inhabitants prompts us to endorse everything about Anne Frank, whether it's the ache and confusion of puberty or the passion to learn and forge realizable dreams about an imagined future life. Janet Allen directs a production (co-produced with the Seattle Children's Theatre under the artistic direction of former IRT associate director Courtney Sale) that grapples with the range of stress and solidity of eight people's enforced isolation, protected by two sympathetic Dutch gentiles.

Up and across Bill Clarke's sturdy and subtly worn-looking set, the cast moves with a naturalness that mimics
Returning to he hideaway after the war, Otto finds Anne's diary.
ordinary household tasks even while it underlines the annex dwellers' tortured awareness of the shelter's fragility. German occupation of the Netherlands has forced Jews into situations like the Franks' and the Van Daans', though most lack any kind of safety as the Final Solution spreads and clamps down along with Nazi conquest. More than two years of confinement comes to a sudden, violent end; for once, with such a well-known story, there's no need to avoid spoilers.

Played with dogged steadiness, a portrait of hard-won self-control, Otto Frank (Ryan Artzberger) is left at the end to deliver the only survivor's account of what happened to the others shortly before the war's end. This speech is an elaborate mass obituary; the pages he finds scattered on the floor require no more spoken words as the lights come down.

I was reminded of the title character of "The Ghost Writer," Philip Roth's sensitive short novel in which Anne Frank emerges as a wraith-like eminence reflecting on her masterpiece with conviction, but also thinly veiled despair: "The improvement of the living was their business, not hers; they could improve themselves, if they should ever be so disposed, and if not, not. Her responsibility was to the dead, if to anyone — to her sister, to her mother, to all the slaughtered schoolchildren who had been her friends. There was her diary's purpose, there was her ordained mission: to restore in print their status as flesh and blood...for all the good that would do them."

The IRT show fulfills this tribute, though the company's purpose is at least in part to enlist the living in
Mrs.Van Daan enthralls Anne speaking fondly of the old days.
rededication to empathy and idealism, to "never again" commitment. The way the stage version  — by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (in an adaptation by Wendy Kesselman that honors the unexpurgated diary that Otto Frank was too squeamish about) — does this is to dramatize the characters' flaws as well as strengths. We feel both the devotion and the mutual irritation in the relationship of the Van Daans, who are given the right blend of pathos and irascibility by Constance Macy and Rob Johansen. In Benjamin N.M. Ludiker's performance, their son Peter nicely evolves from shyness and hostility to a hesitant romantic rapport with Anne.

The Frank family weaves several strands of counterpoint around the dominant melody of the precocious diarist. Hannah Ruwe is the bright older sister Margot, an unabrasive role model for Anne; Betsy Schwartz plays the doting mother, punctilious and partial to Margot, fighting to beat back her deepening pessimism. Michael Hosp projects a fretful air of displacement and gradual accommodation as the dentist Dussel.

The group's Dutch helpers, righteous friends and protectors who shoulder a different kind of risk in keeping the eight secluded Jews from official notice, convey trustworthiness and compassion in the performances of Sydney Andrews as the beloved Mies and Mark Goetzinger as the more anxious Mr. Kraler.

The show's visual and auditory impressions give precise reinforcement to the dire circumstances. The inhabitants listen to the radio for war news, poignantly celebrate Hanukkah with makeshift gifts, try to keep their hands off each other's throats in some cases and in others continue to learn and grow and cultivate outside interests even as they are being shut off from outside freedoms. Andrew Hopson's sound design, with recurring lamentations of solo cello, grimly yet amusingly evoked a cartoon I recently saved.  He also makes effective use from time to time of Arvo Pärt's meditative "Fratres."

The overall effect of the IRT's totally involving dramatic package is, as the pained words Roth puts in Anne's mouth remind us, less didactic than restorative.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Reclamation project: The Adderley Brothers in their heyday, "Swingin' in Seattle"

Northwest passage: CD cover of Adderley gig
One of the exciting historic jazz releases of 2019 so far has been a selection of pieces from four nights of two gigs Cannonball Adderley and his quintet played for radio broadcast at Seattle's Penthouse in 1966 and 1967 (Reel to Real Recordings).

It was the era of "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," the infectious groove work of Adderley's pianist, young Joe Zawinul, that was to lift the alto saxophonist into a high plane of popularity that in some ways obscured the gifts he was to bring to the alto saxophone — separating that instrument finally from its modern-jazz bondage to Charlie Parker.

"Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" is mercifully absent from this disc, but Zawinul is on hand, lending grit and lyricism all his own to band. Of course, the front line enjoys the partnership of Cannonball and his brother, cornetist Nat.  Filling out the band is Victor Gaskin, bass, and Roy McCurdy, drums.

Co-producers Zev Feldman and Cory Weeds have preserved the folksy, flavorful stage commentary by the leader, which helps communicate the intimate club feel. But the musical rewards alone are sufficient: Nat and Cannonball are tightly coordinated partners as the tunes are enunciated. There's always a piquant contrast in their soloing: Nat, despite some lower-register growls and a gift for shooting aloft unexpected flares, is generally understated. His muted tone is exquisite, and his solos (on "The Girl Next Door," for example) make a firm impression, but in a more insinuating manner than his brother's.  Cannon inevitably has the band's firm purchase on sheer exuberance.

It's fun to hear Zawinul,  soon to become hugely influential as the co-founder of Weather Report, lay out some signature improvisations. His accompanying is first-rate, on a level with Herbie Hancock's of the same era, and unfettered by cliches. Gaskin is well-recorded, and always makes the group's harmonic foundation indelible. McCurdy displays consistent drive, but now and then his ceaseless accenting habit calls too much attention to itself.

"The Sticks" is a Cannonball original that shapes the direction the Adderleys were soon to go in as they gathered  a mass audience for their version of downhome hard bop.  For melodic charm, there's nothing much better on the disc than "The Morning of the Carnival," a melody from the Brazil-centered film "Black Orpheus."  The saxophonist plays with more vibrato than usual, but avoids the sentimentality that weighs down the showcase he gives himself on Leonard Bernstein's "Somewhere."

His "Carnival" solo reaches to the fierce edges of the melody; when it occurs to him to paraphrase "Yankee Doodle," of all things, he lifts the piece to a shout of hemispheric solidarity.

"Swingin' in Seattle: Live at the Penthouse (1966-67)" ends with a bop-inspired crowd-pleaser, "Hippodelphia." It's the sort of torrential long-form performance would soon dilute the Adderley legacy, perhaps, but a recording like this helps establish how much substance there was to his artistry.