Monday, October 21, 2019

Miro Quartet violist had a direct line to the Bartok composition to be heard here

An eminent American string quartet is celebrating its silver anniversary by evoking a golden age its genre enjoyed, thanks to three of its predecessors who became well-known to music lovers across the country.
John Largess, the Miro Quartet's violist

The Miro Quartet will visit Indianapolis Wednesday under the auspices of Ensemble Music Society, playing the same program the Kolisch Quartet did in 1935 when it made its American debut. The Miro's heritage from the Kolisch is particularly strong, since its violist, John Largess, was coached as a teenager by the ensemble's violist.

The Hungarian-born Eugene Lehner was able to provide Largess and his young colleagues with insights into the Bela Bartok work that the students decided to take up. A member of the viola section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for nearly 40 years, Lehner had known his countryman composer well. The boost he gave the teenagers in suburban Boston over nearly a year of working on Bartok's Quartet No. 5 was invaluable, Largess recalled last week in a telephone call from his home in Austin, Texas, where the Miro has been in residence at the University of Texas for 16 years.

Formed as the New Vienna String Quartet in the early 1920s, the ensemble premiered the Bartok quartet at the Library of Congress during a live national broadcast. Included on the program was Alban Berg's Lyric Suite, whose first performance it had given in Vienna in 1927. That was the year Lehner joined the group and when the group took the name Kolisch, after its first violinist, Rudolf Kolisch.

"We worked on the entire piece," Largess recalled of the student quartet, "with him coaching us for a year. It took us a long time to get through it." The personality of their coach helped see them through: "He was such a lovely man," Largess said of Lehner. "He was a very soft-spoken, very sweet man. He told us stories about Bartok — Bartok and Rudolf Kolisch were both intense people to work with. He didn't bring that negativity into our coaching but told stories that Bartok had told him. He talked about the Hungarian style. He told us sometimes not to be too in tune and don't be afraid of colors. That was quite a surprise."

The Miro is including the fifth Bartok quartet in its program here in honor of the Kolisch's American debut. The 1935 program will be replicated as well with the performance of Lyric Suite and Beethoven's Quartet in B-flat, op. 130, and the Grosse Fuge, op. 133.

Deepening Largess' personal connection through Lehner with the Kolisch Quartet, the Miro is launching an "Archive Project" to last several years, in which it will also honor two other American string quartets of historical importance: the Flonzaley (1902-1929) and the Kneisel (1885-1917). Each came to prominence at different times and had different artistic profiles, using different means to become well-known.

In doing research on the subject, Largess found that the Kneisel toured tirelessly by train, the main way of getting from city to city during its heyday.  Coming along later, the Flonzaley built its reputation through radio broadcasts, and also specialized in more popular repertoire, including arrangements of opera tunes and folk music. The Kolisch focused on new music, which (Largess points out) in the early high modernism of Berg and Bartok was concerned with communicating with audiences more than provoking them.

"Each of the pieces on this Kolisch programm shows how much was revolutionary and contemporary," Largess said, "and how much of the Berg and Barok pieces is lyrical, rational and balanced. There is just as much of that. There was s different idea then of what's new and where are we going."

In contrast, "the audience was prejudiced against these composers after World War II, and (some of the) new music was meant to shock and be ugly. Berg wasn't trying to make people stand up and leave," Largess said pointedly.

The result is that this repertoire can appeal to 21st-century audiences who are well past the battles of the last century's modernist struggles. The Miro also makes a point of talking from the stage about what it will play, Largess added, and that helps illuminate what is enduring in the repertoire it's saluting as it honors three of its great predecessors..



Sunday, October 20, 2019

Dance Kaleidoscope 'Women Sublime' shines spotlight on work of three female choreographers

The sublime is a notion that has come down in standing somewhat, so that we can rave about a good dessert as "sublime" and no one will look puzzled — unless they tried the same dessert and didn't like it. It's one of many ways we use to intensify kudos, like the currently fashionable "incredible."

I tend to think that in the title "Women Sublime" something beyond pure bliss and supreme delight is intended, calling upon the word's once lofty meaning. True, the word continues to have overwhelming positivity about it. And so it should here, because the Dance Kaleidoscope program of a piece each by Cynthia Pratt, Mariel Greenlee, and Kiesha Lalama raises up the spirit, despite much dealing with conflict and the underside of awesomeness.

But to our ancestors, "sublime" had somewhat unsettling religious and literary connotations, as if what was being experienced as sublime was beyond wonderful, too much for us, more than a little disorienting. The ordinary is cast aside by sublimity, and that may be the best way to take in these dances that present women's perspective on questions of status, identity, vulnerability, and assertiveness.
'Between a Kiss and a Sigh': Cody Miley and Marie Kuhns

There are two world premieres on the program, which will be presented once more this afternoon on the main stage of Indiana Repertory Theatre. A guest choreographer with a long DK history is represented first: Cynthia Pratt's "Between a Kiss and a Sigh" is divided into five distinct movements, with five couples outlining some of the complexity of male-female relationships.

Initially, contrasting ways that men and women present themselves take place. The women's long-phrased movements, arms sweeping in curves so as to ride over the beat, are succeeded by men using more angular dance language, more locked into the music. The choreographer's whimsical nature soon comes to the fore, and an abundance of ways to represent attraction and repulsion between the sexes is delightfully displayed.

Fishing poles and bouquets are brought into play. Flirtation is laced with anxiety and frustration. Pratt has displayed what seems to be a characteristic sauciness in past work with DK, and in the new piece she extends that manner into a seriousness that feels like reconciliation as "Between a Kiss and a Sigh" concludes. There's a shift in Laura E. Glover's typically imaginative lighting design, in which dots of color sweep across the darkened stage and the dancers seem to resolve the fitful uncertainty, leavened with plenty of fun, that had made the piece a zestful comedy of manners.

Mariel Greenlee bows out as dancer, will continue as teacher and choreographer.
Retiring DK dancer Mariel Greenlee makes a cameo appearance in the piece. As a choreographer, she gets further acknowledgment of the high regard in which the company and its public hold her with a revival of her  2015 "State of Grace," originally presented at the Indy Fringe Festival. It's a compact extrapolation of a public love quarrel that Greenlee witnessed. The choreography is notable for how impressively it depicts aggressiveness  and mutual recrimination pushed to the edge of violence, with restraint barely available. The movement is part mimicry, but goes well beyond that to show how hostility can be transmuted into a barbed independence. The quarrel, expanded to involve six dancers, becomes a vehicle for expressing lessons in self-control and processing disturbing emotions. All told, the title's significance seems partly ironic, partly straightforward.

After intermission comes the second world premiere, Kiesha Lalama's "Aftermath."  This work, involving the
whole company, includes Greenlee's last appearance with DK. Rarely for a dance piece, to describe the poignancy of the occasion in this work's terms would be to get into spoiler territory. Let's just say the coiled energy — the quivering perpetual-motion dynamo — of Lalama's "Catapult" broke out of my 2015 and 2017 memory vaults to build my anticipation of the new work. I was not disappointed.

Kieran King's solo in "Aftermath"
The choreographer's program note sensitively explains "Aftermath"'s genesis and development in "an extensive series of real stories, from real victims, from real survivors of harassment and/or assault."  Five victims in one of the stories are cunningly individualized, with no victimization resembling any other one. This is a great way of reminding us through art that the depressing statistics of sexual and other physical and emotional abuse spring from personal stories and shape individual lives. The harassers variously cajole their ways into victims' trust (excerpts of famous pop ballads ironically underline the predatory behavior) or more blatantly direct isolating and hostile gestures at the victims. The lighting is again fully supportive of Lalama's searing message. "Aftermath" is a call to awareness and action through means that evoke both sympathy and alarm for the work's raw material, as well as admiration for its detailed artistic representation here.

The sublime is truly a way of strengthening human resources for dealing with uncanny challenges and generating wonder as a result. The concept is well represented in "Women Sublime." Moreover, the program functions beautifully as a hail-and-farewell to a sublime dancer.

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Gold medalist with something powerful to say returns to city to play with ISO

Austrian conductor shows knack for dark-lively and light-lively music
Mood swings in classical music provide a partly hidden through-line in the history of programming. The convention in symphony-orchestra concert planning is to move from light to heavy. This weekend's Indianapolis Symhony Orchestra concerts go in the opposite direction — not strictly innovative, but somewhat unusual and refreshing.

The concerts (the second one is this afternoon at 5:30) open with one of the most formidable mainstream concertos: Brahms' Violin Concerto in D major. Friday night's performance by Richard Lin  plunged immediately into the mood of gravitas, as that long orchestral introduction to the soloist's initial entrance unfolded securely under the baton of guest conductor Christian Arming.

To end the concert, the audience would be beguiled by four of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, popular hits of the 1870s and '80s whose ingratiating qualities remain alive today. In between came a colorful work of more dour mien, also from Central Europe looking eastward: Janacek's "Taras Bulba," a suite of grim, gripping episodes inspired by Nikolai Gogol's novella of the same name.

 ISO soloist Richard Lin is an IVCI gold medalist from 2018
The trajectory of mood transition has a counterpart in the history of the symphony, which originally moved from serious to playful, like its chamber music cousins. This was substantially reversed by Beethoven, with more emotional and formal weight placed on last movements. But as revolutionary as he was, the tradition of letting up somewhat in finales and maybe even tripping the light fantastic remained strong in such a deep-dyed conservative as Brahms. He even gives this concerto finale an indication that it was to be played (translating loosely) "fast and jolly."

My impression was that Lin's treatment of the finale had those touches of lightness that Arming and the orchestra steered around in order to lay down the usual Brahms sternness and thickness of sound. The violin was not actually covered in the main theme, but perhaps a little more shadowed than he was in the movement's transitional passages or episodes. The swing into a triple-meter feeling near the end confirmed that soloist, conductor and orchestra had achieved an evident meeting of minds. The orchestra just seemed to be exercising jollity with heavier feet.

The first two movements occasion no such quibbles from me. Lin, who overcame a near-fatal automobile crash in China as a budding virtuoso, has distinguished himself in his post-recovery career, including winning the gold medal in the 2018 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. 


As he had in the competition, he displayed Friday night a full, singing tone from the complexity of the first movement on. He plays with personality infusing his technical command. Bow speed and pressure seemed always well-judged, which meant that phrases were fully illuminated and given whatever degree of nuance Lin chose to apply. Articulation was exemplary.

The first-movement cadenza provided a fine example of these qualities: it had both bravura and dreaminess, and the way it dovetailed into the orchestra's re-entry with a slowing and softening of the solo line was magical. Every phrase he played had a mid-career level of professional polish. In the second movement, he followed up so well on the glowing oboe solo of Jennifer Christen that even the most decorative details were lent substantial life.  For an encore, Lin played splendidly one of a number of flashy tributes to Paganini's Caprice No. 24 for Solo Violin — Nathan Milstein's "Paganiniana."

The Austrian guest conductor not only made the most of the fun and vivacity of the four Slavonic Dances he chose to cap the long program, but also displayed mastery of the trickier and clearly menacing music of the Janacek suite. It memorializes the heroism and resistance to pain of Gogol's Cossack hero and his sons. The orchestration is bright and transparent, with some astonishing exhibitions of lower brass.  Organ and tubular bells are among the unusual timbres exploited. There was some deft soloing from assistant concertmaster Peter Vickery.

This pungent music has not been played here in 20 years, and Arming guided it with precision and flair. The cut-offs and sudden flares of bright sound had the right kind of brutal grandeur. These are tone paintings whose contemporary counterpart may be roughly equivalent to images of the bare-chested Vladimir Putin on horseback. Distasteful people and situations can occasionally be memorialized in beautiful music, as well as the more innocent delights so vividly displayed in Dvorak's Slavonic Dances.











Friday, October 18, 2019

Indy Bard Fest opens with a fierce, expansive production of 'Hamlet'

Brian G. Hartz as Hamlet: To be or not to be
Opening night of Indy Bard Fest at the IndyFringe Theatre brought forward a "Hamlet" that seemed daringly sparing of cuts. Thus, the sprawling nature of Shakespeare's most diffuse heroic tragedy was honored, even if the production is being marketed as an adaptation.

Apart from the modern dress costuming, which soon can be absorbed without thinking much about it, and the assigning of a few male roles to women, the production Doug Powers directs for the annual festival is pretty scrupulous about treating the text fully.

That means emphasizing the large-picture significance of events that are concentrated on the woes of the Danish royal family. The young Prince Hamlet, returned from his university studies in Germany amid a family upheaval whose underlying horror he can only guess at, is saddled with the responsibility for acting upon information thrust upon him by the ghost of his royal father. But the kingdom is threatened by external forces all the while.

Ghost voices anguish of his posthumous existence.
Severely trimmed productions tend to focus on the family drama, as Hamlet pursues somewhat distractedly a mission of revenge. The ghost has asserted that his uncle Claudius murdered Hamlet's father and quickly assumed the throne as well as the loyalty of Queen Gertrude, played with a tenderness and deference by Jean Childers Arnold.

The burden of a nation responding to foreign challenges while its weak leader is caught up in defending his private interests is essential to "Hamlet." And if that sounds vaguely familiar, it's also an indication of how much a warrior culture hangs over the play's action, and what in large measure makes this production worth attending.

We have ample time to get used to the looming incursion of Norwegian forces under the leadership of a female Fortinbras, who appears only at the end as witness to the immediate aftermath of the court's annihilation. Commendably, ill portents are signaled immediately in the first scene. From then on, there's a plethora of pronouns to be changed as the Norwegian prince's (princess') designs upon Denmark are discussed, then blunted through negotiation into her army's free passage through the kingdom on the way to fight the Poles instead.

The shock of seeing a princess Fortinbras (Janice Hibbard) in a white uniform coming upon the scene is thus minimal. So too with a fairly gender-neutral Horatio, a much more vital role stirringly filled by Jo Bennett. In fact, the greatest shock I felt with the director's choices is the brutal treatment of Hamlet after he's killed Polonius; under interrogation from Claudius, the Prince is bound to a chair and beaten. It seems an unfathomable interpolation, especially given a performance by Eric Bryant as the usurping king that emphasizes Claudius' guilty conscience rather too persistently. Though explicitly haunted by his deadly power play from the failed-prayer scene on, like many malefactors Claudius should pull himself together and seem less desperate as he moves toward neutralizing his nephew. But lambasting Hamlet physically felt excessive.

Polonius holds forth to his kids.
On to the title role: Brian G. Hartz convincingly moved under the deepening shadow of Hamlet's situation. The forcefulness required was there, but so were moments of reflection, especially in the last act. His teasing of Polonius was vigorous and extravagant, but to the point. You could really feel the method in his madness.

There was something closer to the bone in his "antic disposition" with respect to Ophelia. He conveyed a young man at the end of his tether, too overwrought by his mission to give his mental and physical energy room to prevail; there is little room for the tender feelings that emerge only later. His treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, old Hamlet chums now at the beck and call of Claudius, was both penetrating and fun to watch the way Hartz played it.

With Shakespeare, there's a persistent divide between literary and theatrical interpretations. The proof-text in "Hamlet" is the famous soliloquy starting "To be or not to be." It's staged here as a thoroughly serious contemplation of suicide, and Hartz's Hamlet is armed to carry it out. The late literary critic Harold Bloom firmly doubted that Hamlet intends to kill himself; he's rather meditating on the existential dilemma of life versus death, using his own difficulties as the prime example. That's a defensible interpretation for readers, but in the theater it's obvious that Ophelia is overhearing Hamlet, and her burgeoning mental distress is fed by the prospect that her lover is indeed about to kill himself. Her great speech starting "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown" testifies to that.

John Gielgud gently complains in his memoir that as a "Hamlet" director he was always interested in seeing how
Hamlet contemplates assassination.
prospective Ophelias said that speech, but actresses always wanted to audition with the mad scene. This production's Ophelia, Miranda Nehrig, did well with both those highlights.  I was put off at first because Ophelia's initial reaction to her windbag father, Polonius (played dodderingly and foggily with amusing consistency by Alan Cloe) had too much of adolescent eye-rolling and grimacing about it. But she was superb, with flashes of anger in addition to emotional pain, as the performance went on and Ophelia's maturing dreams are dashed. I loved the flashes of clarity amid the blank looks in what we see of Ophelia's mental breakdown; instead of flowers, she distributes Hamlet's love notes around the astonished court and calls them flowers.

I can't forebear mentioning the brilliance of Tony Armstrong as the Ghost (among other roles). Modulating his voice from a strangulated screech to a deafening roar, this was a Ghost without the cliches of filmy evanescence either visually or vocally. Near the end, Armstrong's  beatnik tweak on the First Clown (Gravedigger) was droll, and another of the director's triumphs was the richly comic dialogue between Hamlet and Osric (Rachel Snyder) that follows. These scenes, which blend tension, satire, and ominousness before the catastrophe, were well-judged.

As Laertes, Noah Winston posed a bit of a puzzle on his first appearance, tongue-tied in telling King Claudius what he has in mind. The focus of Claudius' questioning might better be on the usurping king's pleasure in exercising his royal prerogative to say who goes where when. But this Laertes adroitly displayed his affection and mansplaining tendency with his sister, and when he returns as avenger much later, Winston's Laertes was a steady avatar of retribution, helping to set up the slaughter of the last scene by readily agreeing to a tainted duel. The swordfight with Hamlet was stunningly staged, and the collapse of one major character after another proceeded with deadly efficiency, leaving only Horatio to pronounce a kind of epitaph. Bennett delivered it with great dignity and pain, as the shattered kingdom yields to foreign control. The macro and micro worlds of "Hamlet" have been truly joined.

[Photos by J. Antonio Chapital]









Monday, October 14, 2019

Mariel Greenlee retires from Dance Kaleidoscope: here are about ten indelible memories of her dancing


Fans of Dance Kaleidoscope are being asked to bring notes of appreciation to Mariel Greenlee to mark her retirement from the company after performances of "Women Sublime" Oct. 17-20. This is a great idea that has been used once before to mark a previous milestone: the transition of Liberty Harris from active dancer to educational outreach/rehearsal director.

Greenlee will continue to make her mark around the dance and theater community as a teacher and choreographer; her "State of Grace" will be one of three works in "Women Sublime." But her onstage presence in DK programs has been the aspect of her artistry most embedded in our memories.

Here's an annotated list of her stellar performances from the last several years. This is my note of appreciation. I tried to stop at ten, but who's counting?

I'll start with her skill at partnering. She has been half of a number of striking male-female duets in a variety of programs, and she always seems to be the perfect partner. She makes the man, who already looks good (I hasten to add!), look better. It goes beyond physical compatibility to encompass something spiritual and electrifying as well: I'm thinking of her with Timothy June in "Rhapsody in Blue" ("See the Music, Hear the Dance," last May), as well as two earlier 2019 performances, one with Brandon Comer in the second movement of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto (February, "Merry Mozart"), in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's "Paris Festival" (January) with Stuart Coleman in "An American in Paris."


Her strong sense of theater means she puts characterization at the heart of her dancing, along with purity of line. In June 2018 this enabled her to make the necessarily severe contrast to the Bride (Caitlin Negron in her farewell appearance) as the Pioneering Woman in "Appalachian Spring." Without overdramatizing things, she was able to provide the dramatic turning point toward reconciliation in Stephanie Martinez's unsettling "Taking Watch" (May 2015), and it came as no surprise how well she embodied the title character in "Scheherazade" (June 2016).

Her technical discipline, when underlining the meaning of a piece, can produce such illusions as the miracle I remember from part of David Hochoy's inspired choreography for Britten's "Ceremony of Carols." In the number titled "In Freezing Winter Night," she is lifted up by the ensemble, and what still send chills down my spine (I don't think it's just that title!) is remembering how she seemed to be lifting herself up to soar, as if the men holding her aloft were just incidental to the floating sculptural impression.

But I want to focus on a few of the solos. She embodied a song like Jacques Brel's "Marieke" (in Hochoy's "Frere Jacques") with a poignancy that didn't force itself upon us, despite the profound loss expressed in the lyrics. And how strongly she reached into the depths of  lost love's ache in "Losing My Mind"  (from "Broadway Meets Motown," December 2014)! Yet she could also be a surprisingly apt comedian. She was never more delightful than when she danced to "Twisted" in February 2016's "Voices of a Generation." There she gave even grotesque (though adorable) awkwardness a special grace.
Comedic brilliance in "Twisted"

I'll end by going back to the heart-tugging side of Greenlee's dancing art. I have to quote myself, just because the freshness of what I wrote at the time commends itself for inclusion in this retrospective tribute.

The work was "Cole!," a salute to Hoosier songwriter Cole Porter. In July 2016, stunned as I so often was by her dancing, I lauded her "pitch-perfect solo to 'Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye,' with its sudden hints of emotional and physical collapse held in check by the attempt not to see every regretted parting as a foreshadowing of long-term loss. Her phrasing left no doubt as to the difficulty the song portrays."

Difficulty, whether emotional or technical, always presented itself as something natural in her performances. I'm reminded of the remark of a famous concert violinist who said, "When someone comes up to me after a concert and compliments me by saying, 'I can tell you really worked hard on that,' I know I have given a bad performance." The hard work was a given, as it is the standard of this troupe, but Greenlee at her best always seemed to transcend the labor it took to achieve dancing of surpassing excellence. For all the excellence remaining in Dance Kaleidoscope, I must say, on behalf of DK audiences, that once she leaves — to evoke one of Porter's lines in that song —we'll die a little.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

'Little Shop of Horrors' plants its voracious kiss on the Beef & Boards schedule

Lots of fun though it may be in its grotesque, fantastic way, "Little Shop of Horrors" makes a challenging choice for a theater whose formula involves putting a stage performance on top of comfort food for its patrons. But Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre displays its usual appetite for high-spirited entertainment with its production of the breakout 1982 collaboration of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.

Fortunately, the musical comedy about a failing flower shop that turns a mysterious flesh-eating plant into a gold
mine is too buoyant to have people fretting about the possible revenge of the vegetable kingdom upon hungry human beings. Of the production seen Saturday, Beef & Boards now sets out the lion's share of nearly 40 performances remaining.

The roots of the show in cheesy sci-fi cinema are not far beneath the surface, and it ends up with its genre's scare tactics fully exercised: Earth has been invaded by something that makes the Venus flytrap look like a finicky eater easily satisfied with dispensable insect life. But the horror of the show's extrapolation of that idea is muted by a love story between shop assistant Seymour and co-worker Audrey, and the delightful, if menacing, soul-singer persona of a single lip-smacking plant, which Seymour has named Audrey II. Its fascinating appearance becomes all the more attractive as it grows to room-filling size, and greed proves to be its nurturer's undoing.
Mr. Mushnik and Audrey contemplate in wonder Seymour's prize plant.

The songs are a vital vehicle for putting across the fantasy. Their acclaimed cleverness was to yield within a few short years of "Little Shop"'s premiere to the Menken-Ashman team's Disney film triumphs, "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast." Howard Ashman, a playwright-lyricist of genius whose education included a master's degree from Indiana University, died of AIDS complications in 1991, ending a parade of hits that might have continued many years more. The Menken-Ashman signature was memorable wit and comic high spirits blended with lots of heart.

Directed by Jeff Stockberger, B&B's production makes the most of those virtues. There are instances when the face microphones obscure the lyrics almost as much as they amplify them, but the singing is robust and effectively staged. Josiah R. McCruiston provides Audrey II's booming voice from offstage, while Josh Maldonado moves  the puppet's flailing tendrils and ravenous chops from inside. The sound and sight of Audrey II are never indistinct, so the show's main attraction rules over all the ominous shenanigans.

Joey Boos plays the warmhearted nerd Seymour, forced to seek advancement on his own  by tending the plant he mysteriously came by during a solar eclipse. Only gradually does Audrey II's preference for warm blood dawn on its caretaker, with disastrous results. Boos' portrayal skillfully displayed Seymour's inner strength as he eventually wins the affection of Audrey, played sympathetically but with over-the-top ditsiness by Jenny Reber. Audrey's naive loyalty to her initial boyfriend, a ruffian dentist, verges on masochism, but the awkward decency of Seymour triumphs — up to the point when the plant's incessant "Feed me!" becomes overwhelming.

At the start, as the flower shop comes close to collapse in its rough neighborhood, Seymour endures disdainful treatment from  his employer, Mr. Mushnik (Douglas E. Stark). When the thriving Audrey II improves Mushnik's fortunes, he elevates the orphaned Seymour to the position of adopted son in "Mushnik and Son," a song featuring some of Ron Morgan's most amusing choreography. In that number, "Fiddler on the Roof" is gently parodied.

In song and dance, Urchins demonstrate the city's indomitable energy
Elsewhere, there's a wealth of borrowing from Motown girl-group staging in the supporting roles of the Urchins, whose trio partnership opens the show with the title song. Sometimes Devin Kessler, Jameelah Leandra, and Carlita Victoria were not in ideal vocal balance, but they functioned well as a performing unit and a crucial part of the atmosphere of Skid Row. That setting, designed for this production by Michael Layton, was represented with cartoonish authenticity in both the city block's exteriors and, by a slight turn of the playing area, inside the shop.

Musical director Terry Woods held down one of two keyboard spots in the offstage band, completed by percussion and guitar. Her work bore luxuriant fruit in a couple of places where it is most expected — in Audrey's wistful, passionate solo "Somewhere That's Green" and the love duet "Suddenly Seymour," with the Urchins as backup singers. Trio support also boosted the effectiveness of Orin Scrivello, DDS,'s self-introduction in "Dentist!," which put Logan Moore's firm stamp on a caricature portrayal of sociopathic machismo.

It's all part of the rancid good fun, of course. Neither dentists nor florists are likely to take offense. "Little Shop of Horrors" thrives in a world as loosely related to our own as can be, yet with an underlying message that Faustian bargains are as dangerous to undertake as ever. There's always some part of the universe that will prey without ceasing.










Saturday, October 12, 2019

Unflashy guest maestro sparks animated ISO program

Friday's concert by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra began with explicitly picturesque music and ended
Pablo Sainz-Villegas showed flair and personal commitment in Rodrigo.
with an abstract symphony that has extramusical connections for some listeners.

In between came a concerto whose middle movement may have called up images for many, since  the Adagio of "Concierto de Aranjuez" was used to sell the Chrysler Cordoba for many years in TV commercials. It was typical of automobile marketing in seeking to tie our vehicles to our dreams.

The explicitly picturesque muscled onto the scene immediately as guest conductor Robert Spano gave the downbeat for "All Things Majestic" by Jennifer Higdon. The initial chord of the first movement, "Teton Range," was marred by a burble in the brass, but the choralelike ensemble soon became solid. Massive sonorities assembled as if to represent the rigors of mountain climbing — or the effect of simply looking up at the heights.

Higdon, a popular contemporary composer (her Pulitzer Prize-winning Violin Concerto was premiered here, and the ISO is among many symphony orchestras to have presented her "blue cathedral") evokes Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park in this 2011 commission from the music festival there.

Robert Spano is this weekend's guest conductor at Hilbert Circle Theatre.
The subsequent movements — "String Lake," "Snake River," and "Cathedrals" — settle into the awe and wonder that the national park system is designed to stimulate in Americans forever. The strings come to the fore in the second movement; the mirror-like stillness is effectively represented, as are glints on the lake surface via brief solos and gently divided string voices.

"Snake River" displayed a muscular force and flow somewhat evocative of William Schuman, a rather neglected mid-20th-century modernist. The sparkling turmoil, sometimes suggesting a river at flood stage, was moderated by nice touches of celesta. That bell-like keyboard instrument, best known to the public via Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy," is coupled with the harp extensively in the piece's finale. Keeping her affinity with natural imagery strong, Higdon also focuses on how the orchestra's inner circle of strings can suggest the patterns of light pouring down through the lofty crowns of a forest, defining the heights the way light does in the great Gothic cathedrals.

This attractive, detailed tone poem provided a splendid introduction  to the appearance of this weekend's guest artist, Pablo Sainz-Villegas.  The Spanish guitarist played the popular Rodrigo concerto, giving evidence of his facility and the clarity and bite of his articulation from the first. The modestly scored orchestral accompaniment was colorful and sprightly.

In the second movement beloved of so many and subject to so many different adaptations, I admired the high profile of his vibrato in the theme and the variety of well-turned ornamentation. In both the unaccompanied guitar solos, Sainz-Villegas gave ample evidence of his force of personality; the depth of sound in the first one was stunning, and the more passionate flamboyance of the second indicated that Rodrigo wanted this showcase to have more than one famous tune going for it. Roger Roe was outstanding in perhaps the second most-famous English-horn solo in the repertoire (next to the one in Dvorak's "New World" Symphony).

The finale was full of sparkling figuration after the theme had stated its case clearly in canon. Rarely has a concerto with such a quiet ending brought such an outpouring of audience rapture at the end; that was a sure sign that the soloist had won everyone over along the way. He responded to the ovation with an encore that underlined the tone-painting emphasis: "Jota" by Francisco Tarrega, a protean dance-based piece featuring the imitation of snare drums, rhythmically well-enunciated on stopped strings to maximize the effect. After a calm episode, the acceleration near the end approximated the joys of the wine harvest that Sainz-Villegas referred to in announcing the encore.

Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D major has long given me problems as a professional listener. It can seem too episodic, even though it's easy to recognize what holds it together. Sometimes it sounds like Tchaikovsky with ADHD. In such a smoothly knit-together performance as the one Spano led Friday evening, the fitfulness of the Finnish composer's attention fades away and the integrity of the score shines forth. I still find the Andante kind of "bitty," but Spano made it cohere.

Distinguished for his long association with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra among other sterling credits, Spano got great results with little need for showmanship. I have no idea how he talks to orchestras he visits in rehearsal, but with no extravagance of gesture, so much that's germane to the music seems to emerge in performance without choreography. There are no slalom poses,  taffy pulls when a swelling sound is called for, no crouching or lunging. He adheres to the basics: tempo and dynamics, tempo and dynamics. He is a big-picture guy, and doesn't feel the need to cue just about every entrance.

The Sibelius Second is one of those pieces that overwhelms me in the course of its climactic finale, despite its obviousness of effect. The big tune in the "Allegro moderato" and the repeated hints we get of it, the pulling back of the intensity even as we realize we're about to get hit again — it all works, every time. And the heroic quality gave it a patriotic aura during Finland's long time of trial at the turn of the 20th century. That underlines the picturesque theme in a way, but only when I make the comparison with the jingoistic build-up in Respighi's "Pines of Rome," which also overwhelms my resistance. With the Italian's finale, "The Pines of the Appian Way," I feel like a somewhat recalcitrant citizen of ancient Rome, his toga getting sweaty in the buzzing crowd, watching the return of the imperial army from yet another conquest. "Here come those blasted legions, finally," he mutters to himself. "I guess I might as well salute."

I feel the same about the Sibelius Second. With a performance so astutely guided, and a climax that's inevitably seductive in a performance like this one, I might as well salute.








Friday, October 11, 2019

Some fresh water in the jazz mainstream from the Perry Smith Quartet

Thanks to a mixture of quirky originals and one each from the jazz-standard and the pop-standard book, "Live in
Brooklyn" (Smith Tone Records) renews hope that a distinctive personality, expressed through a small group, can demolish the insistence that jazz must always "advance."

Perry Smith is a guitarist with good taste in sidemen, to start with. This helps his quartet achieve a unity that honors both parts of the repertoire here. His partner in the front line is tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, and often their compatibility is expressed through unison statements of the theme, as in set-opener "Starlit Skies." In addition to the Smith/Aldana soloing, my admiration for drummer Jay Sawyer took root immediately with the soft, effective variety of his patterns with brushes.
Perry Smith is a canny guitarist-bandleader.

The adeptness of Smith and Aldana, however, keeps riveting the attention as the program proceeds. In "Premonition" (another Smith composition), the fast theme holds no terrors for them. The saxophonist's solo is a smoking gem. Smith's is wide-ranging within a brief span; then there are a few two-way exchanges, with Sawyer continuing throughout rather than sharing spotlight cameos as drummers often do in that formula.

I liked the way Aldana makes of "Don't Worry 'Bout Me" something unique and assertive; her solo has surprising swerves from the melody, but remains lyrical. "Golden Days,"  another original, features a gentle Latin pulse, which encourages the laying down of long phrases, but with nothing under strain. The flow is remarkable.

Sonny Stitt's rave-up evergreen "Eternal Triangle" locks into a lickety-split pace in classic bop style. Both Aldana and Smith show excellent poise in their solos, and Sawyer gets extensive display, maintaining the tempo in his solo to put a seal on all the excitement.

Imaginative in the background throughout, bassist Matt Aronoff gets his chance to shine on the set's finale, "All the Things You Are." Smith and Aldana are paired from the start (accompaniment and closely paraphrased melody, respectively), with the other two group members joining in on the bridge. Elaborating on the guitarist's lead, Aldana goes somewhat to the outside in her creatively phrased solo, but maintains coherence.

This version has a strong, punctuated finish on the song's last phrase, as if to explicitly reject the bop tag that has been conventionally applied to the Jerome Kern tune for decades. As I said, refreshing stuff.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra opens new season with concerto grosso survey

The Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra gathers for a group portrait.
The solo concerto has become such a fixture on concert programs that today's symphony orchestra schedules  can hardly be imagined without a succession of guest stars featured in such works.

Early displays of acclaimed virtuosity tended to come from violinist-composers, so it's no surprise several of them were responsible for the emergence of the concerto as an essential part of the repertoire. It all began with the idea of a small group of soloists contrasted with an accompanying orchestra in the form, developed in Rome in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, known as the concerto grosso. A well-managed survey of this kind of work opened the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra season Sunday afternoon at the Indiana History Center.

Barthold Kuijken, the ensemble's artistic director, conducted four works, starting with the foundational concerto-grosso contribution of Arcangelo Corelli. The program progressed through two highly contrasting examples of the form by Francesco Geminiani and Piero Antonio Locatelli before ending on the lofty plain of the High Baroque with George Frideric Handel (the familiar Anglicization of the German-born Georg Friedrich Händel's name).

"Ticket to Ride" was the Beatles-inspired title of the concert, reflecting 18th-century sojourns and settlement in
Barthold Kuijken, conductor and artistic director
places far removed from composers' origins. Musical influences tended to go along with them, sometimes sparking a vogue for new styles. The Oxford Companion to Music puts it quite strongly: "In England Corelli became a cult figure and was followed by Geminiani and Handel."

Before settling in England, and ironically patronized by fellow Saxon  monarchs there, Handel had already established a reputation in Italy, where the sobriquet "il Sassone" was applied to him. That influence led to his later basing much of his fame on Italian opera, which he composed with passionate commitment for a number of years after he emigrated for good to England.

Concerto Grosso in G major, op. 6, no. 1, emerged near the end of its composer's production of operatic hits and the start of his successful turn toward the oratorio. The whole set of twelve displays Handel's mastery of the form, and the IBO's performance of the G major thus put a fitting cap on the survey. Each of the five movements bears Handel hallmarks: stately themes in dotted rhythms, the rounded, jog-trot pace familiar from the arias, soloist independence in slow-movement lyrical material, smooth fugal writing, and (for the finale) a triple-meter romp with upward-sweeping lines. Handel had mastered the public manner that career demands in his adopted country embedded in him.

Corelli, who established the genre in a fashion that justifies its comparison to a cult, was attractively displayed in his op. 6, no. 1 (D major). The concertino group, headed by Alison Nyquist, often presented phrases that were then imitated by the ensemble, and Kuijken accomplished the contrast without making the seams conspicuous. Nyquist was given extensive focus in the gigue-like finale, in which she dazzled.

"La Follia" was a tune, or closer to the framework of a tune, that became so much "a thing" in the 18th century that it might be compared to the endless variations on Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" in the 20th century. Geminiani's Concerto Grosso in D minor makes exhaustive use of it, and the performance featured crisply rendered accents indicating its dance origin as well as spectacular variations for solo violin and cello.

Contrast of another type came into play after intermission with Locatelli's "Il Pianto d'Arianna," a sprawling approximation of the mythological heroine Ariadne's despair at her abandonment on the island of Naxos by her lover Theseus.  A modern summary of her complaint might run something like: I put you through graduate school in heroism with that Minotaur, and now you do this to me!

The work features lots of variety in sketching Ariadne's angry and despairing moods. Phrases separated by suspenseful pauses (don't we all go through dead zones in the course of processing deep disappointment?) were unanimously handled. The descriptive vivacity of this performance was unfailing. Clearly, the heroine had been left holding her ticket to ride as her intended transportation sailed away. The Indianapolis public has another opportunity to wave a mournful goodbye with Ariadne at the University of Indianapolis tonight, when the program is repeated.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Collectif9 brings its revisionist aesthetic to the Palladium

As if meeting as a committee of the whole, Collectif9 gathers for a portrait.
Adaptation is an old game in the art of music, long obscured by the dominant privilege that printed scores enjoy in both scholarly reputation and performance practice. Bach adapted Vivaldi, Stokowski adapted Bach, Handel adapted himself. On and on it goes.

Collectif9 is playing the game anew for the 21st century by reconfiguring classical music for a nine-piece string ensemble (four violins, two violas, two cellos, and double bass). As displayed in a concert Friday night at the Center for the Performing Arts, something closer to the music of gypsy ensembles is perhaps the most natural fit for what the Montreal-based group is all about.

Music for that kind of orchestra took up a couple of generous portions of the Palladium program. The folk-derived music, bristling with lively dance rhythms, blended with the classical tradition in the concert finale, an interpretation of Bartok's Romanian Dances, and also in an excerpt from Gyorgy Ligeti's "Romanian Concerto." A living composer with an intense interest in vernacular styles was represented twice: Osvaldo Golijov's "Tancas Serradas a Muru" ("Walls Are Encircling the Land"), from "Ayre," uses a trenchant Sardinian protest song as a basis for a performance that included vocalism from members of the group in addition to well-coordinated playing. "You have exhausted the people's patience," the text warns the island's barons.

The group's capability in more soft-spoken music was never in doubt, as the balance and feeling for pastel colors the nine musicians imparted to Debussy's "Nuages" made evident.   The restraint, this time undergirded with apt tension, was also evident in an arrangement of "The Sacrifice" from Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." This was succeeded, somewhat incongruously (though demonstrative of Collectif9's ability to turn on a dime) by "Little Black Book," an edgy caprice by electronic composer JLin of Gary, Indiana.

Collectif9's love of nuance in near-miniature form bookended the program. The opening work was "Spheres" by Gabriel Prokofiev; the encore was "Sepia Fragments" by the Canadian composer Derek Charke. All along the way, however, the shared explanations and introductions from the stage were inconsistently clear and informative. Since the program departed substantially from the listed works, this was a disappointing feature in a performance distinguished by Collectif9's obvious inclination to establish rapport with the audience.

Bach's "St. John Passion" and Purcell's "Fairy Queen" were announced as if we were about to hear the whole of both works, instead of tidy excerpts.  Nonetheless,  I admired the ensemble's handling of the opening chorus of the former piece, with its anguished shadings of dissonance.

The most suitable to Collectif9's heart-on-sleeve expressiveness and its pinpoint accuracy were two excerpts from Gustav Mahler — an abbreviated third movement of Symphony No. 1 in D major, depicting the composer's response to satirical woodcuts by Callot showing forest creatures in a mock-solemn march and titled "The Hunter's Funeral Procession." The contrasting theme (identified as "Slavic-Jewish" by one of Mahler's biographers)  was presented speedily to underline the frisky triumphalism of the animals' celebration; that alteration worked to heighten the music's sardonic spirit.

 The other  Mahler borrowing was the "Farewell" interlude from "Das Lied von der Erde," as nicely balanced and glowing as "Nuages" was in a much different style. All told, it's the cohesiveness of execution and effect that offers a projection of Collectif9's personality. If they could manage talk from the stage more intelligibly and efficiently, these engaging Canadians would have everything going for them to put across their adaptation-focused aesthetic while fully honoring its sources.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Topically up to the minute, Antonio Sanchez and band present migration scenarios

There is an explicit sociopolitical context behind drummer Antonio Sanchez's music, guided with fire from the drum set and carried out by an intense quintet called Migration. Fortunately what the band plays doesn't depend
Antonio Sanchez focused on music from new album "Lines in the Sand."
overmuch on its extramusical significance. it delivers powerfully across a vivid tapestry of sound.

In remarks to the audience, the Mexico City native indicated his distress at the demonization of immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers at our Southern border. But with his gratitude for his American career declared, the drummer-bandleader wants to make clear that Migration's music bears a positive message, suggesting that the United States will get past this dreadful unwelcoming phase.

"Long Road," with which the band opened its first set Wednesday night at the Jazz Kitchen, featured a protracted introduction from keyboardist John Escreet, slow and heavy-footed, as if to suggest the dreary advance of desperate people toward the Rio Grande and their hoped-for passage into a better life.

Wordless vocalism from the versatile voice of Thana Alexa, becoming louder as tenor saxophonist Chase Baird reinforced the melodic pattern, put the simple humanity of the people Sanchez has in mind foremost.  A piano solo with lots of drumming threaded through it indicated the ferocity of emotional identification with migrants from several countries in our hemisphere, as well as from troubled nations abroad. Sanchez spoke of the need "to feel empathy with other human beings" as an artistic mission he would like to see adopted beyond the world of art. He's made a good start in his specialty.

In other remarks to the audience, Sanchez emphasized his affinity for  crafting "cinematic sections"  in his music. This means that each piece is lengthy, episodic, and given a kind of narrative unity that can be hard to discern on first hearing. I also felt much of the first two pieces too loud and cluttered, though, in response to Sanchez's sensitive query, many of my fellow attendees found the volume level tolerable.

The parallel lines were clear in many places, at least, as in the lively duet Alexa and Baird sustained unaccompanied in the third piece, which had opened with a stunning drum solo against a simple riff on Orlando Le Fleming's bass guitar. Alexa achieved an emotion-laden, pop "belting" quality on the repeated line "You know where you come from" that evoked for me Grace Slick singing "Somebody to Love." Her variety of tone and articulation went far beyond that, however, and she seems to be a "scat" virtuoso as well. Late in the set, her scatting was neatly poised against Baird's fluid mastery of the EWI (electronic wind instrument).

That piece had opened with a thunderous drum solo, punctuated by a brief riff from Orlando Le Fleming's electric bass. It was one of a few distinct exhibitions of the leader's galvanic style. And when accompanying his colleagues, he was never far in the background, and the complexity of his rhythms outside the spotlight helped enhance their contributions.

That was particularly evident in the set finale, "Lines in the Sand." The suite-like piece is the title work in Sanchez/Migration's new recording. It includes some ramped-up vocals, a hard-charging Fender Rhodes solo and a spate of spoken-word verse, complete with echo effects. A quiet episode near the end had Escreet turning once again to the piano, characterizing a reflective ensemble coda to the performance. Clearly, for Sanchez  the lines in the sand drawn so crudely by our government are worth a spectrum of responses, from angry to lamenting, that music is uniquely capable of expressing.