Sunday, July 28, 2019

Tucker Brothers celebrate release of their third recording, 'Two Parts'

In concentrating on music from "Two Parts," their quartet's third recording, Joel and Nick Tucker showed two sizable Jazz Kitchen audiences how their music continues to advance.

As heard in its second set Saturday night, the Tucker Brothers made clear that an expanded sound palette — keyed to Joel's guitar — is a vital ingredient in this musical growth. The disc's title track amounted to a climax of the set. It lives up to its binary suggestion in stating a reflective theme at first; with the launch of a blazing guitar solo it moved onto a plateau of intensity. The tension was resolved by a sort of anthemic ensemble at the end.
The band is Sean Imboden, Nick Tucker, Joel Tucker, and Brian Yarde.

The set's one standard, Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark," followed immediately. I haven't quite resolved what the onset of this piece was working to establish. I first caught the melody from Sean Imboden's tenor sax coming in at the bridge. The bulk of the performance united the ensemble in a calypso arrangement that was quite fetching.

A pair of contrasts was fused at the start with "Warm Heart," awash in atmosphere, following by "Sundancing," which opened up into cogent solos by the guitarist, Imboden, and bassist Nick Tucker.  The band was clearly primed for some vigorous hiking as it launched into Nick's composition "Lifely." There was a good deal of stretching out after some bluesy musings coalesced to acquire irresistible forward momentum. Joel's solo was quite assertive, flashy but cunningly crafted. Then the brothers'  two-note repetitive figure punctuated Imboden's limber solo.

After the ballad "Paisley," the band took up another original, though one not on the just released recording: "Rhythm Changed."  It deserves a place somewhere in the quartet's discography to come. This piece is a lively derivative of the bebop style, with fast-moving unisons in the theme and a lot of tricky phrasing. The band seemed to be up to the close-order drill. Such a romp readily welcomed the exchanges with drummer Brian Yarde that ensued. This episode yielded to a drum solo that avoided the obvious yet honored the idiomatic drive of the composition.

The Tucker Brothers is much more than the sum of its "Two Parts."

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Multidimensional tragedy 'Hamlet' marks a new venue for Indianapolis Shakespeare Company

Hamlet (Lorenzo Roberts) peruses the skull of the court jester Yorick.
No character in the brisk two-hour rendition of "Hamlet" in the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company production (at Riverside Park through next weekend) is allowed to go on too long. Rarely has Polonius' sententious "brevity is the soul of wit" been so much the watchword.

Judicious cutting, some of it inevitably regrettable, has taken considerable amplitude out of Shakespeare's longest play. Yet, as seen Friday night in its second performance, the show is clear-cut and well articulated. The production never generates puzzles of its own making. If we would pluck out the heart of its mystery, we probably fail even when we ponder the original text. There is no finality when it comes to "Hamlet" interpretation on page or stage.

Ryan Artzberger directs a version in which one scene nearly treads on the heels of the next. (Dear me! The review is barely under way and already two allusions to the text have bubbled unbidden to the surface. No wonder a newcomer to Shakespeare is said to have complained that his major plays are a bunch of familiar quotations.) The rapid pace may well be what Shakespeare's audiences were used to, even when they had the leisure to take in four hours of action with minimal scenery and natural lighting outdoors, depending instead on verbal cues the playwright readily supplied.

I admired the clarity and punch the cast gave to the lines and action, from Lorenzo Roberts' portrayal of the title character at his most impulsive and conflicted on down through the ensemble. The thorough professionalism of the company's free public presentations on outdoor stages continues to be upheld. You can come to this "Hamlet" with next to no preparation or familiarity and take away an authentic experience of the play's complexity as well as the changes it rings upon the near-forgotten subgenre of "revenge tragedy."

The only important major excision is the thorough muting of the military theme. Power politics beyond the Danish court hangs over the action, but you'll get little here about the monarchy's past and present difficulties with Norway. Though the dimensions of this international strife make the hero's opposition to his uncle Claudius more complicated, this production insists that we concentrate on how he handles the charge from his father's ghost to avenge the senior Hamlet's murder. The production's ghost is spooky enough on each of his appearances, but the "warlike form" observed by the first witnesses is discarded. So is the existential gravamen of the hero's final soliloquy, in which he compares his cause to "the imminent death of twenty thousand men" in battle.

It's certain that you can't reduce a play by half and find everything you've left out truly expendable. I won't deny the effectiveness of how this production concludes, but it removes one aspect of the final tragedy: The extensive slaughter at court, with the Norwegian general Fortinbras coming upon the scene and learning from Horatio about the Danish demise, has settled the political tension in Norway's favor. That something rotten in the state of Denmark has finally suppurated.

Artzberger has given lots of the traditionally male roles to women, most startlingly Horatio, the action's most elaborately drawn witness and Hamlet's loyal, somewhat colorless best friend. The role is among several examples where pronouns are changed to match the gender identity of the actor. Mehry was more moving as Horatio than Hamlet's buddy often seems, so the switch may be felt as an advantage. Also, with a female Horatio, the character's tendency to "mansplain" is off the table, in part through the reduction of his/her speeches.

King Claudius is scrutinized by his nephew.
Roberts may have scanted what is often taken to be a more reflective Hamlet as the play progresses and the hero's dismal prospects become clearer, despite his narrated derring-do on the way to what King Claudius intends to be the prince's fatal exile to England. His intensity nonetheless involves audiences at this stripped-down version more thoroughly, perhaps. As the usurping monarch Claudius, Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha seemed at first too obvious in his bravado, as if he didn't care that those close to him might become as suspicious as Hamlet. As the villainous monarch feels his scheme closer to collapse, the portrayal became truer. As his queen and Hamlet's mother, Jen Johansen hid the character's vulnerability well under a facade of entitlement until the scene with the prince in her chamber exposes Gertrude's shame in a nice balance of desperation and maternal love.

In other major roles, the first family at court was well represented by Joshua Coomer's Polonius, played as a borderline-useless counselor and control freak with an increasingly loose grasp; LaKesha Lorene as Ophelia, trying to be a worthy lover and daughter at the same time — an impossible task in this context, resulting in her touchingly well-modulated mad scene; and Ryan Claus, chafingly dutiful as Polonius' son Laertes and finally stirred to an overwhelming rage to get back at the prince he takes to have destroyed his family.

It's hard to help conceiving of the meddlesome roles of the almost interchangeable Rosencrantz and Guildenstern without thinking backwards from Tom Stoppard's late-absurdist take on them, but in this case  it works well in the flibbertigibbet performances of Zachariah Stonerock and Scot Greenwell.

Rob Koharchik's jagged, abstract set design looks both menacing and truly royal, complementing the modern-dress costuming. It is deliciously lit by Laura Glover, with the effect being mesmerizing as the sun sets (and you can finally see the actors' facial expressions as well). Todd Mack Reischman's sound design completes the production team's excellence in representing a modernist aesthetic that enhances the timeless appeal of the story instead of competing with it in the interest of a sham up-to-dateness.

[Photos by Julie Curry]







Cincinnati Opera's 'Porgy and Bess' underlines its operatic stature with conviction

Opera companies in recent years have broadened their reach across the range of musical theater, so that
In the title roles, Morris Robinson and Talise Tevigne displayed  threatened ardor.
"Sweeney Todd" and "Oklahoma!" have entered their schedules largely without objection.

"Porgy and Bess" was a pioneer in this outreach, and its struggles in the first few decades of its existence are especially revealing of the cultural need to erect boundaries. In the case of this 1935 masterpiece, the effort caused compromises in how it was presented and questions about its legitimacy. Its music came from the pen of a popular songwriter, after all, and its songs held sway over other values in its early history.

Cincinnati Opera has joined the widening company of operatic organizations to respect George Gershwin's score, complete with its complex accompaniments, vocal recitatives and thorough linking of material. (Its track record over a 99-year history includes a 2012 "Porgy and Bess," and browsing for musical theater through  the program book's  production history reveals outings for Loesser's "The Most Happy Fella" and Willson's "The Music Man" decades ago.)

As seen Thursday night in the second of four performances, the 2019 "Porgy and Bess" upholds the work's claims to immortality. The opera has a few scraps of the theatrical equivalent of genre painting, to be sure. There are signs, probably exaggerated by some of the its detractors, that atmospheric shreds and patches like the street cries are distractions. And the work's hits, starting with "Summertime," will always stand out to "Porgy and Bess" audiences not only for their intrinsic merits, but because of their familiarity out of context.

The main set, a Southern ghetto called Catfish Row, looked barely fit for habitation.
This production makes a point of linking all the material, and in particular it highlights the opera's unusual emphasis on community. Stage director Garnett Bruce (with original production credits to Francesca Zambello) knits the large cast together well, down to several cavorting kids. Catfish Row seemed like a place of genuine bonding, though partly a unity enforced by racial segregation and poverty.

I found Peter J. Davison's set more dilapidated than it needed to be; we are supposed to see the set of apartments around a courtyard as being an official building abandoned by the white power structure; it should look worn, but not almost war-torn. His set for Kittiwah Island, the barrier island to which Catfish Row residents escape for a church picnic, was puzzlingly modernist. Design elements often moved to the stage of symbolism. The bright red light behind the set that blazes up when Porgy declares "I'm on my way" and leaves to find Bess seemed to signal conflagration more than hopeful promise. A balance of realistic and symbolic elements was struck in the hurricane sequence, fortunately, with design and stage direction fully complementing the music. The lighting was flecked with lightning flashes amid roiling waves of gray and black.

This show had a number of big solo voices to set against the large chorus, whose role is continual and naturally supports the feeling of community that "Porgy and Bess" evokes so well. Morris Robinson exhibited a well-crafted heroism as Porgy, clearly projecting a spirit capable of overcoming his disability through sheer grit. Hobbling energetically about on a crutch, he was surely challenged to maintain vocal steadiness under such a handicap. The end of the show, which perhaps understandably dispenses with the goat-cart Porgy calls for, has us imagining the hero heading north toward New York with no transportation more reliable or speedy than his crutch. It sort of highlights the metaphorical import of moving toward the Promised Land, and thus reinforces the show's frequent resort to the power of faith.
Jake and Clara are a faithful couple whose doom lies ahead.

Talise Trevigne brought to the role of Bess enough sauciness and an image of amorality that her heroine's susceptibility to bad influences was always evident. The flexibility of her soprano helped underline the volatility of the character; her diction lacked the clarity displayed in the other prominent roles, however.

Reginald Smith Jr. put power and resolve into the role of Jake, the loyal husband and fatefully determined fisherman, while Janai Brugger as Clara represented the force of stability anxious to hold safety and family uppermost. The role has the advantage of introducing the show's biggest hit, "Summertime," and Brugger made the lullaby a moving anthem of survival and triumph.

Another vocal showcase goes to Serena, a role taken nobly by Indra Thomas and favored with the heart-piercing solo "My Man's Gone Now."  She's also the bedrock of the community's vigorous piety. Her rebuke of the picnic's frivolity targets the impiety of Sportin' Life, the dope peddler who leads Bess astray and preaches the famous sermon,"It Ain't Necessarily So."

Limber-limbed and vocally insinuating, Frederick Ballentine Jr., made this comic villain a larger-than-life
Sportin' Life advises the faithful that "it ain't necessarily so."
illustration of the wiles and woes of temptation. He was amusingly resisted by the stalwart cook-shop keeper Maria, whose thunderous rap-style challenge to Sportin' Life was one of the show's comic high points.

Sportin' Life is multi-dimensional in comparison with the other main bad guy, the ruffian stevedore Crown. Nmon Ford made up for a physical stature more ordinary than both Porgy and Jake by the way he carried himself and his vocal and dramatic security. Ford's performance made Crown a worthy nemesis to the honest citizens of Catfish Row, whose vices are summarized principally in the opening scene, when the men's well-staged crap game is counterpointed to Clara's blissful "Summertime."

David Charles Abell conducted, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra gave luster to the astonishingly varied accompaniment. Abell had singers and orchestra drawing out phrases when appropriate, but the momentum never flagged. The gospel-infused choruses jumped with vivacity and conviction. The saturation of faith and music that the show's creators availed themselves of as the opera took shape in South Carolina consistently rose to the top of the action.  Choristers and principals alike left no doubt that "Porgy and Bess'" operatic stature is well-deserved.


[Photos by Philip Groshong]

Monday, July 22, 2019

Cedille's 'Silenced Voices' highlights chamber music by Holocaust victims

The muse that visited the composers in this well-founded anthology of string trios was a restive one, looking over her shoulder.
Black Oak Ensemble in a "Silenced Voices" performance

And no wonder: Each of the creators represented in Black Oak Ensemble's "Silenced Voices" (Cedille) was among millions bedeviled by the Nazi program of Jewish extermination. Only one of them escaped with his life; the other five died in the camps. For them, anxiety in music could hardly be a matter of aesthetic choice alone.

Of course, the stylistic variety of 20th-century music has to account for much of the individuality evident in these compositions. The fate of the European Jewish community, however, understandably looms over this program and how Black Oak Ensemble's excellent performances are likely to be received today. In support of the recording, the trio is performing "Silenced Voices" in concert around Europe, climaxed by a performance next month at a music festival in Terezin.

Dick Kattenburg's "Trio a cordes" opens the disc. Fleeing detection after the German occupation of the Netherlands, the composer may have been informed upon, leading to his demise in 1944, presumably at Auschwitz. The string trio is a youthful work, resting on a persistent lyrical impulse holding sway above a  disturbing undercurrent. It covers a lot of ground within a span of less than five minutes.

For serious, classically based formal mastery, the disc's best piece is by Hans Krasa, an established composer when he was imprisoned in the Czech town of Terezin, then transferred to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. His buoyant aspect is represented by "Tanec," a catchy, energetic piece with singing melodies riding on top. The formal mastery appears in the innovative Passacaglia and Fuga, which successfully cover a wide range of expression. This breadth is expertly displayed by the cohesive group — Desiree Ruhstrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello, and violist Aurelien Fort Pederzoli.

The disc concludes with the longest piece and the one by a composer also Holocaust-imperiled, but who survived in the Netherlands and thrived there after the Second World War, dying in his mid-80s in 1989. Geza Frid's "Trio a cordes," op. 1, stems from his young adulthood under challenge in his native Hungary/Romania.  The late romantic feeling of the slow movement has as companions a playful opening Allegretto and a vigorous Allegro giocoso all'ungherese. True to its heading, the finale presents an authentic-sounding Hungarian profile. Throughout, the Black Oakers exhibit precise dynamic control and rhythmic elan.

The spirit of having to face enforced silence as a composer comes through alarmingly in Paul Hermann's "Strijktrio," which sounds atonal at first, yet moves through a freely rhythmic and restless landscape to find a tonal center at the end. It's not reading into the music too much to find strategies of desperation and escape fruitfully embodied in it.

Also impressive is Gideon Klein's Trio for Violin, Viola, and Cello, a piece in three movements with a Bartokian atmosphere at first. Looked at one way, Klein seems somewhat uncomfortable with the theme-and-variations form in the second movement. But this may be counted a plus insofar as he meant to suggest that large contrasts best suit the 20th-century apprehension of inherited forms. In any case, Klein's snuffed-out creativity parallels that of his companions on this disc, prohibited (or, in Frid's case, stalled) from natural development in both life and art by a historic mass atrocity.







Monday, July 15, 2019

'Viva Vivaldi IV': 2019 Indianapolis Early Music Festival reaches peak of the Italian High Baroque

To paraphrase the slogan in a series of local hospital ads, Antonio Vivaldi is more than his "Four Seasons."

Han Xie, festival guest soloist
That set of four violin  concertos, long subject to industrious redundancy on recordings, is just a picturesque fraction of the Italian master's huge output. Why  should those concertos be entirely overlooked in a concert built on Vivaldi's popularity, which largely rests on them with the music-loving public? Unthinkable!

So the Indianapolis Early Music Festival's "Viva Vivaldi IV: Motets, Arias, and Concerti" on Sunday featured the "Summer" concerto, with soloist Han Xie and the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra, to bring the tribute concert up to intermission at the Indiana History Center.

A native of China, Xie joined the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in 2017. His training at the Peabody Conservatory took in a burgeoning acquaintance with the baroque violin. In this guest appearance, his approach to "Summer," whose programmatic content is anchored in a sonnet like its other companions in the "Seasons" set, was restrained but still colorful.  The detached phrases, thoroughly synchronized with the IBO and concertmaster Allison Nyquist, suited the seasonal character later immortalized in song by Nat 'King' Cole as lazy, hazy, crazy.

Vivaldi's craziness is largely centered in the finale with its thunderstorm and hail onslaught. The ensemble texture was thickened appropriately by theorbo player William Simms picking up baroque guitar.  Xie and the band thoroughly dug into nature's outburst. Also admirable was the performers' artfully blurry yet detailed depiction of insects annoying the poem's tired shepherd yearning for a few moments' rest.

The bulk of the composer's 500-plus concertos are for the violin. Grove's Dictionary's Vivaldi article tells us the solo instruments ranking next highest in frequency are bassoon, cello, and oboe.  No bassoon in the spotlight was represented Sunday, though the program notes mention that the Oboe Concerto in A minor is based on a bassoon piece. That  work opened the program, with Kathryn Montoya as soloist. Her tone was on the acerbic side, and a few notes in running passages didn't sound fully, yet the zest and rhythmic dash typical of the composer came through. The staggered ensemble entrances in the finale served as a reminder that Vivaldi occasionally indulged in the joys of counterpoint, though he was far from the specialist in it that Bach was.

The other concerto brought IBO member Joanna Blendulf to the fore for a Cello Concerto in F major. The  sequential writing so beloved of the composer came out of the gate breathing fire in the first movement. The slow movement was attractively scaled back to accompany the soloist with theorbo and second cello. The piece was neatly dispatched, though to me it represented the vast plateau of Vivaldian ordinariness.
Esteli Gomez is a returning guest artist of the Early Music Festival.

Finally, it was a treat to hear again soprano Esteli Gomez in three works for voice and ensemble: two sacred motets and an opera aria. Vivaldi's skill in tone-painting — so much a part of the popularity he enjoys via "The Four Seasons" — was evident especially in the aria "Zeffiretti, che sussurate." The whispering little breezes of the title are nicely suggested by the two violins in close harmony. The text's depiction of love's voice being reflected in various aspects of the pastoral scene was echoed by the adroit dialogue of voice and instruments. Gomez's ornamentation, especially in the elaboration of the opening material, had consistent radiance and precision.

As for the motets, in "In Furore in lustissimae irae," her expressive variety  between representing God's fury with sinners and a sinner's plea for mercy was especially vivid. In "Nulla in mundo pax sincera," she managed the interval leaps well in the evocative line (here in translation) "Amidst punishment and torment lives the contented soul, chaste love its only hope."  The recitative was demanding after its own fashion, with melismas tossed off in the singer's urging us to flee the world's deceitful snares. In both motets, the virtuosity she exhibited in the concluding "Alleluia" movements was astonishing.

Vivaldi, whose reputation has never quite amounted to master status, was nonetheless well served by performances that represented his enduring attractiveness. And yes, he is certainly more than his "Four Seasons."

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Early Music Festival heads into final weekend honoring Leonardo da Vinci

"The World of Leonardo" extends to our world in surprising ways, such as the record-setting sale of his painting
"Salvator Mundi" at auction for $4.5 million a year ago November.

Leonardo Da Vinci's high-priced painting "Salvator Mundi."
The work was among the screen images that enhanced a concert featuring a host of musicians, including members of the locally based Alchymy Viols and Echoing Air, and two dancers. The program was conceived and directed by Mark Cudek, artistic director of the presenting Indianapolis Early Music Festival, and Phil Spray, who guides Alchemy Viols.

The program was focused on Leonardo's enduring genius, a legacy also represented by two other images much imitated and admired: "The Last Supper" and "Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)." But painting was only a small part of his multifaceted genius. His inventions, many taken by their creator only to the design stage, were far-reaching, anticipating technological advances centuries in the future. Several were presented for viewing in the Indiana History Center lobby as realized by students under the direction of Woody Bredehoeft,

The music drew upon dance, song, and sacred forms of the 15th and 16th centuries. The social purpose of dance in Renaissance Europe was embodied in Catherine Turocy's stately choreography for costumed dancers Kali Page and Joe Caruana. Complementary movement in and around the ensemble was well-conceived so that neither dancers nor musicians were distractions for the other. The resulting balance could thus be seen as well as heard.

Esteli Gomez, a soprano who added so much to Ensemble Caprice concerts for the festival in 2015 and 2018, was featured in frottole (secular songs) by several composers, such as the melodiously named Bartolomeo Tromboncino and Marchetto Cara. Her idiomatic rendering of tremolos in Tromboncino's "Ostinato vo seguire," an assertion of the value persistence in love, was among her many stylistic triumphs.

She is an expressive singer without mannerisms that might obscure her technical security. This was a useful display of versatility in numbers that, for all the similarities they share in creative milieus and forms, span a wide range of secular and sacred purposes. With the assistance of three male singers from Echoing Air, Gomez made special the celebrated "Puer natus est" of Heinrich Isaac, an a cappella Gregorian chant setting.

The instrumental ensemble was notable for its pinpoint coordination and the occasional virtuoso spotlights shone upon its adept members, especially lutenist Ronn McFarlane.

Phil Spray came forward at several points in the program to deliver spirited reminders of Da Vinci's genius and notable incidents of his life, several of which have come down to us through Giorgio Vasari's landmark biographies in "Lives of the Artists." That's the source of the Leonardo death narrative, with the artist being comforted in his final moments by the King of France, his most illustrious foreign patron. Leonardo's hometown of Florence had become a less welcome place to him, according to Vasari, because of a bitter rivalry with Michelangelo.  In Vasari's telling, piety overcame the artist during his final illness — a reminder that Leonardo's stature as a secular saint to posterity is far from the whole story.

Given that Vasari ends his account with praise chiefly for the knowledge Leonardo imparted about the anatomy of humans and horses, a dance-based program was an obvious emphasis for a concert evoking the setting of his innovations. Not everything could be covered, so why not stress form and its physical components as brought forth musically? Any one of several directions could have been taken to honor Leonardo on the 500th anniversary of his death, and this one seemed a most natural and well-executed choice for the 53rd annual festival.










Sunday, July 7, 2019

A power trio with no keyboard needed: Blake-Oh-Potter's 'Trion'

Drummer Johnathan Blake is the leader of this two-disc trio outing
Oh, Blake, and Potter take care of business at the Jazz Gallery.
recorded in early 2018 at New York's Jazz Gallery, and I had little reason at first to believe it would be consistently enthralling.


There's no "chordal instrument," as the publicity for "Trion" makes clear, and thus the harmonic component — while apt to be hinted at by tenor saxophone, bass, and even the drum set —would be muted or absent. My familiarity on record with the three players, especially Chris Potter, raised my expectations somewhat. But two hours of tenor-bass-drums music?

Knowing that the work is supported by the nonprofit Giant Step Arts, produced by Jimmy Katz, which is designed specifically to give public exposure to commercially doubtful but artistically worthy projects in jazz, seemed encouraging. It turns out the "wow" factor is pretty consistent on "Trion."

"Trion" exposes many revealing aspects of individuality wedded to Blake's trio concept. At the same time, there's next to no going along for the ride. Linda May Han Oh might perhaps be expected to recede in comparison with the powerful contributions of Potter and Blake.  But I didn't get the feeling that her presence was simply foundational and intended to suggest harmonies. And her solos are superb: In "Synchronicity 1," she displays a great instinct for linking registers and binding together her solos. 

Like her bandmates, she has an unerring way of folding one rhythmic pattern into the next. Near the end of the track just cited, she engages in genuine dialogue with the drums, with neither player just toggle-switching. Coherence is never in doubt, despite the music's amplitude.

Each disc opens with a torrential yet subtly varied Blake solo. The repertoire mixes originals with others' tunes, among which the most famous is Charlie Parker's "Relaxin' at Camarillo." There the bop language is spoken fluently, especially keyed to the well-schooled Potter. Here and elsewhere, he's always refreshing what he sets out on the table, like the chef at a high-end buffet restaurant.

Potter's "Good Hope" lives up to its title with pervasive references to South African music. Blake inserts bright, peppy kicks behind the sax. I enjoyed the ethnic flavor of his blend of muted hi-hat cymbals plus high-pitched toms. He heats up as Potter settles into a short repeated figure. Near the end the buoyancy and freedom of the first part is re-established. 

This is a release you may well feel rewarded listening to one track at a time, hitting the "repeat" button. But it probably won't disappoint if you play both discs all the way through in one sitting. You won't want to assign yourself some simple task at the same time. This isn't background music.


Jory Vinikour states the case for the modern harpsichord concerto

Much admired for his recorded contributions to the core harpsichord repertoire, Jory Vinikour in a new Cedille release displays the viability of the major 18th-century keyboard instrument in a mainstream modernist context.
Jory Vinikour is a prolific recording and concert artist.

"20th-Century Harpsichord Concertos" puts the Chicago native in front of the Chicago Philharmonic under the direction of Scott Speck for four such works. The well-recorded program includes the premiere recording of  Ned Rorem's Concertino da Camera, an early composition (1946) by one of the outstanding living American composers, who's now 95.

The Concertino is a frisky piece, starting with a Poulenc-like outburst of urbane nonchalance. The first movement boasts many tempo shifts and becomes almost theatrical in its pixieish variety, with winds predominating. The flute leads the ensemble in a sostenuto texture for the slow movement, with a delayed harpsichord entrance introducing a steady eighth-note pattern. The lyricism has the full flavor of youth about it. The finale, which sustains a skipping, animated 6/8 meter, is offhand, clever, and concise.

Vinikour has become quite the advocate for Victor Kalabis's Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings, the longest work on the disc. He dedicates the recording to the memory of the composer (1923-2006) and his harpsichordist-wife Zuzana Ruzickova. In the first movement, the predominant mood is restless and assertive, flecked with dissonance. The harpsichord is well-suited to filling out a cluttered texture with patterns that would become tedious if assigned to the piano.

Every piece included makes the point that putting the harpsichord in combination with modern orchestral instruments is not some sort of time-travel essay.  It's rather a matter of answering the challenge of finding a new language for characteristic harpsichord sonorities — including its doubling and buff-stop idiosyncrasies — to be expressed with proportional accompaniment.

In the Kalabis, the solo-ensemble chatter in the finale, Allegro vivo, is thrilling, especially when it takes an inward turn to accommodate a violin solo near the end. This concerto often presents an aggressive front, but its overall demeanor deftly blends solo self-esteem with collegiality.

The disc opens with Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings by the short-lived Englishman Walter Leigh (1905-1942). The work is likely to remind the listener of a Bach concerto at the outset. Then it settles into a neo-classical vein, with a plethora of sequences that manage not to wear out their welcome over a three-and-a-half-minute span.  The slow movement has the charm of a modal English folk song about it, and the sharply accented Allegro vivace finale underlines the virtue of compactness when the generating material is modest.

Concluding the program is Michael Nyman's unconventional Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord and Strings, which builds a pedestal on which to place a memorial tango. The amplification doesn't much alter the unmiked instrument's sound, but rather sets it in low relief against the strings. The most delightful aspect of the piece is the way the central tango is succeeded by a solo cadenza. That high-profile episode is then capped by a jazzy "post-cadenza" movement, with the exuberance spread all around.