Monday, October 19, 2020

Dance Kaleidoscope sends a new set of performances out into the world

It's a been a long wait to see performing artists onstage at full strength in freshly minted performances. That's what Dance Kaleidoscope is offering to patrons through Oct. 31 with an artfully filmed program at its usual home, Indiana Repertory Theatre. 

Puccini People Plus brings together a full-length piece from 1992, Puccini People, supplemented by excerpts from Food for Love, a work created for DK's residency 19 years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and three solos by Jillian Godwin, the company's senior dancer, who is retiring after 17 years.

Using mainly familiar arias from Giacomo Puccini operas, artistic director David Hochoy has built gut-wrenching solos deliberately removed from their operatic context. Puccini had no equal in making memorable art out of needy, emotionally wounded characters, and in this quality Hochoy finds common ground with the originals.

Emily Dyson: A joyous leap of materialistic zest

Even the blithest selection, Quando men vo (informally known as Musetta's Waltz) from La Boheme, shadows its comedy with hints that the coquette's self-involvement makes her clumsy and pathetic. Emily Dyson carries off the portrayal with amusing aplomb, mostly among a clutch of shopping bags. 

In contrast, Paige Robinson makes graceful the costuming handicaps of crutches and a stabilizing boot to transmute the imploring O mio babbino caro (from Gianni Schicchi) into aspirations of healing.

The work opens with the stunning, superbly controlled dancing of Kieran King to Vissi d'arte, the heroine's complaint in Tosca about the trials of the artistic life — never more relevant in general terms than now. The dancer's floor-bound twists and turns are lighted by Laura E. Glover with riveting attention to musculature in extension, evoking the sinewy exuberance of Auguste Rodin's sculpted figures. 

Kieran King embodies the pathos of artistic struggle.
A soaring declaration of determination against formidable odds has made Nessun dorma a media crossover hit, a token from the classical realm boosting the odd fad of YouTube "reaction" videos. The tenor aria from Turandot  has been boldly turned into Puccini People's one duet, a fierce mixture of bonding and antagonism performed vigorously by Cody Miley and Marie Kuhns.

Various other burdens of Puccinian solitude are given new choreographic outfitting in performances by Aaron Steinberg, Aleksa Lukasiewicz, and Manuel Valdes. A kind of stately danced curtain call by all the dancers is accompanied by the magical Humming Chorus from Madama Butterfly. Hochoy drapes an ensemble veil of serenity over an array of personal conflicts, highlighting the pathos of Puccini in his own way.

Aspects of Jillian Godwin's incalculable benefits to the company over the past couple of decades are thrust forward in this show by her appearances in three solos. The Hochoy version of the Janis Joplin song Me and Bobby McGee dates from before Godwin joined DK, but she has made it representative of the funk and spunk she brings to pieces based on pop culture. I remember particularly the pizazz of her contribution to Super Soul nearly nine years ago. She can make angularity look flowing; her sharp rhythmic sense inevitably links to the more rounded parts of the choreography. 

Jillian Godwin reaches for the stars

There's a lot of that quality in a more triumphant vehicle, That's Life, a landmark of late-career Frank Sinatra. But in this case, the bent-forward clutching postures of Me and Bobby McGee get an expanded spectrum; the clutching becomes a credible reach for the heavens and an answer to the low points the song alludes to, set to a massive beat. The third showcase displays her lyrical side: Puccini People Plus opens brightly with Something's Comin' (from West Side Story), in which a Godwin anthem of danced anticipation should set anyone's heart-strings in sympathetic vibration.

The Food for Love excerpts allow the program to end buoyantly (except for a poignant encore, Edith Piaf's Non, je ne regrette rien,  dedicated to the memory of the late philanthropist and DK supporter Christel DeHaan). Masked and gorgeously costumed, the DK dancers create a cheering, multifaceted finale. My good mood was undercut, however, by private, irrepressible bursts of fury at this pandemic, which has ruined so much around the world, especially where leadership has failed to respond adequately. Among other effects, it has kept away what this company has to offer when it's right in front of us in three vibrant dimensions. Reunion with such experiences at IRT is sure to come someday. 

In the meantime, feel free to go to the website to purchase access to Puccini People Plus anytime through the end of the month. Then you can sing your own Vincero, vincero! in empathy with the marvelous Dance Kaleidoscope.

 [Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]

Sunday, October 18, 2020

As a particularly challenging winter approaches, release of a new "Winterreise" is timely

 In a time when we are drawn into the maelstrom of our individual emotional centers, finding human interaction risky and often ill-advised, Winterreise, Franz Schubert's most inward looking song cycle,

has a unique appeal in the year of the plague.

The settings of 14 songs by Wilhelm Müller, composed in the next-to-last year of Schubert's life (1827), still have a chilling valedictory effect, thanks to their inspired fusing of words and music. Winterreise  is especially welcome in a Music@Menlo release performed by Nikolay Borchev and Wu Han.

The Russian baritone has taken the measure of the footsore progress of a trudging wayfarer who's trying to actualize a death-wish that has burgeoned from the failed love affair referred to in the opening songs. Winterreise is the embodiment of all failures of the sort that seem to sum up personal existence whenever the heart's deepest desires are thwarted. 

Often known as Die Winterreise, the song cycle has by common consent dropped its title's traditional article (Die = the)  to emphasize the composer's intent to universalize its emotional heft. Its particulars (solitary wandering in a snowy pre-industrial landscape under the burden of despair) have an uncanny connection to feelings of isolation that may overtake anyone from time to time. We may all find ourselves on a "winter journey" shortly, with a great variety of diminished resources for dealing with it.

The pianist Wu Han, co-founder with her husband, cellist David Finckel, of the Music at Menlo festival  in the Bay Area, is an extraordinary partner for  Borchev. Together, they make especially vivid the more restless songs, such as Die Wetterfahne (Weather Vane) and Auf dem Flusse (On the Stream). Both songs are notable for the protagonist's identification with the phenomena he encounters on his lonely trek. Representations of peace like Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree) tend to be imagined sources of release from life's troubles. Making more explicit all the interior drama is an outstanding feature of this performance.

I once attended a lecture by the much-admired Kurt Vonnegut in which he plotted on a white board the movement characteristic of some literary predecessors' work. Variously up and down went each line on a simple graph from the meeting of the x and y axes, each representing a writer's typical story trajectory. After drawing his suggested lines for a couple of other fiction writers, Vonnegut said: "And here's Franz Kafka." The line began at the x-y intersection, then plunged downward off the chart. 

That's Winterreise. The verse, and thus the meaning of the songs as performed, sticks closely to the journeyer's despair as reflected in what he sees along the way. These songs have hardly a hint of escape or relief, except for the kind of delusion that overcomes the man near the end (Die Nebensonnen [Mock Suns]). There is no metaphysical aspect to these songs; German spiritual romanticism is deliberately hemmed in by text and music alike.

The performers have to settle into the bleakness of the cycle and find variety within the music's shades of gray. Borchev and Wu Han do that superbly. For comparison, the benchmark performance of this music on record is  the collaboration of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore. The pianist is deferential to the singer there, perhaps to a fault; Wu Han is more expressive, without overshadowing the singer. Fischer-Dieskau dares a wider dynamic range, and if I were to fault Borchev in that area, he is less observant of the very soft singing sometimes called for. I will give him high marks for his projection of the cycle's raw emotion; there is in Fischer-Dieskau undeniable commitment to the songs' expressive meaning, but he is slightly patrician in manner. 

This new recording can be recommended without hesitation for its strength of artistic vision and  the unshakable rapport of the artists. And coincidentally, since the Menlo festival like so any others is in pandemic-forced suspension, this 2019 performance is a beacon for our troubled times and the need to resist through art the narrowing of sensibility that threatens all of us now.

Monday, October 12, 2020

International Violin Competition of Indianapolis mounts a revised season, pandemic-delayed, live and live-streamed

Making an adjustment rare for a local music series, the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis

has mounted a six-concert series that will kick off with the popular trio Time for Three on Jan. 26, 2021.

A new concert site for the 2020-21 series is the Madame Walker Theatre, 617 Indiana Ave. Audiences in attendance will be limited to 140 for each concert, each beginning at 7:30 p.m.

Time for Three, which for a decade was the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's official ensemble in residence, will bring its diverse repertoire of music for string trio to the series. It was founded by three students at the Curtis Institute of Music about two decades ago by violinists Zachary DePue and Nick Kendall and double bassist Ranaan Meyer. DePue, former ISO concertmaster, has had two successors in Time for Three, currently Charles Yang. 

Tessa Lark is also an accomplished fiddler.  

On Feb. 23, "Homage to Kreisler" will bring back 2014 silver medalist Tessa Lark, with Amy Yang at the piano, in a tribute to the early 20th-century concert violinist-composer Fritz Kreisler.  The duo will play Schubert's Fantasy in C major, Bartok's Roumanian Folk Dances, and Eugene Ysaye's Sonata No. 4, an unaccompanied violin piece dedicated to Kreisler.

An 80th birthday gathering for Jaime Laredo on March 23 will salute the IVCI artistic director with guests including laureates Jinjoo Cho (2014 gold medalist), Shannon Lee (2018 laureate), Malcolm Lowe  (retired concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), violists Yu Jin (ISO principal) and Steven Tenenbom (Orion String Quartet), and cellists Sharon Robinson (Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio) and Keith Robinson (Miami String Quartet). 

Kyoko Takezawa won IVCI gold medal at 19.

A different kind of crossover string trio will pay a visit April 8. Dreamers' Circus, which specializes in traditional Scandinavian folk music, with added aspects of classical and jazz, will make its local debut. Formed in 2009 in Copenhagen, the ensemble comprises Rune Tonsgaard Sorenson of the Danish String Quartet, pianist Nikolaj Busk and citternist Ale Carr. Its music it prefers to categorize as beyond genre.

The first IVCI I covered was the second such contest, held in 1986. That year the gold medalist was Kyoko Takezawa,  an intense, detail-oriented violinist who has found room in her career for return visits to Indianapolis, several times as 

a member of the IVCI jury. With Chih-Yi Chen at the piano, the program will include Bloch's "Bal Shem" Suite, Saint-Saens' Sonata No. 1, Chopin's Nocturne in D-flat, op. 27, no. 2, and Beethoven's Sonata No. 10 in G, op. 96.

Concluding the 2021 series, which normally would have straddled this year and nearly the first half of next year, will be "French Soundscapes," with 2018 bronze medalist Luke Hsu and another laureate crowned in an Indiana competition, Melanie Laurent (2019 USA International Harp Competition gold medalist) in music by Ravel, Saint-Saens, Ysaye, and others. Also participating will be the venerable Ronen Chamber Ensemble of Indianapolis.

Single tickets for in-person concerts are $30-40 ($25-$40 seniors, $10 for students). Subscription information can be obtained at the IVCI website.  Virtual tickets are $15-$20 for adults, $10 for students.  All tickets may be purchased online at







Saturday, October 10, 2020

'Cheap Thrills': On the right side of Rick with the South Florida Jazz Orchestra


Rick Margitza occupies center stage in "Cheap Thrills," the unprepossessing title of a worthwhile set of his compositions and arrangements on Summit Records. The opportunity, fully taken advantage of, is a release by the South Florida Jazz Orchestra, directed by Chuck Bergeron.

All the saxophone solos on the nine-piece program are taken by Margitza, who got international exposure as Miles Davis' tenorman in the late 1980s and has been largely independent since. He provided the SFJO with all the arrangements, which are witty, expansive, and stylish in the modern big-band tradition. The touches of virtuosity required of the ensemble are handily dispatched. 

Margitza seems to like to lend a swiss-cheese texture to his charts; there's a lot of staccato bounce to such pieces as "The Place to Be" and "Premonition," keeping the sections on their toes. The rhythmic profile is lively but not overbearing, though I felt the languid samba cruise through "Embraceable You" to close the disc was a bit tedious, except to display as a farewell gesture Margitza's graceful facility as a player. The form of his writing is far from predictable; he allows himself one blues, which galumphs happily and seems to salute a canine companion: "45-Pound Hound."

Guitarist John Hart and trumpeter Brian Lynch are guest soloists, providing cameo highlighting to add to the attractiveness of this release. When Margitza solos, he doesn't play second fiddle to anybody. That's not a matter of being dominant and aggressive about what he has to say. It's more a matter of saying something apt and, not surprisingly, appropriate to the settings he has designed for the band. "Brace Yourself" is a good example; Margitza's excellent solo is by no means topped by John Yarling's drumming showcases, and there are two of them.

There's also the ensemble virtue of end-to-end composition. A track's typical wrap-up doesn't depend on an out-chorus largely repeating what we heard at the beginning. There's new stuff: "Walls" opens with hymnlike solo tenor and trombones; then it hits its stride. After a riveting piano solo by Martin Bejerano, the shift into the final ensemble choruses brings into play a fresh imaginative take on the material.

If the cleverness is sometimes stretched out a little too much — I had had quite enough of that big dog before "45-Pound Hound" reached the final double bar — on the whole the set is properly effusive and celebratory of both the band and the honoree: the protean Rick Margitza.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Accordionist-pianist Ben Rosenblum stays aloft in 'Kites and Strings'

There's no tangle ending up in Charlie Brown's nemesis tree when it comes to the musical deftness displayed in "Kites and Strings" (One Trick Dog) by Ben Rosenblum's Nebula Project.

This is a well-designed set of balanced ensemble jazz, with solos inserted aptly. When Rosenblum reaches far afield for material — as in a folk song picked up from a Bulgarian women's chorus recording and a tune from Brahms' Fourth Symphony — he always makes it suit the players and the sound terrain that his band calls home. Same with his visits to the Leonard Bernstein and Neil Young songbooks.

Besides the leader, the group consists of Jasper Dutz, tenor saxophone and bass clarinet; Wayne Tucker, trumpet; Rafael Rosa, guitar; Marty Jaffe, bass, and Ben Zweig, drums. For the two borrowed pieces, Rosenblum brings in Jeremy Corren as pianist for the Brahms and Bulgarian tracks. Cameo guests add rich flavor to "Bright Above Us" — trombonist Sam Chess and vibraphonist Jake Chapman. (Separately, the trombonist and the vibist also guest on one other track each.)

I was struck by Tucker's tart but cheery tone, which gets a good outing initially in Rosenblum's cruising tribute to Cedar Walton, "Cedar Place."  The disc's characteristically deft management of solo and ensemble contributions is illustrated here, and also shows up significantly in the title track. It's neatly put together and conveys a soaring feeling appropriate for "Kites and Strings."

Dutz's bass clarinet lends heft to the arrangement of "Halfway to Wonderland," coursing nimbly along the bottom. The accordion leads significantly throughout the band's take on Brahms, with the soft-spoken piano solo setting up Rosenblum's enchanting solo turn on the accordion.

Bernstein's "Somewhere," another rare borrowing for Nebula Project, enjoys a straightforward treatment of the melody. As the emotion swells, there is some heat applied to the trumpet solo, heaven-storming guitar from Rosa, and a good display of Rosenblum's piano chops. Nothing is overstated.

For any of his originals, the clever Rosenblum seems to be careful not to gild the compositional lily, even given the anthemic veneer of "Bright Above Us." The temptation is most yielded to near the end, but gets checked convincingly by what follows. 

It's the bop-derived "Laughing on the Inside," which goes from direct high spirits into a slow, rocking groove that suggests that crying on the outside is also involved. "Izpoved," the Bulgarian folk song, dispenses with drums entirely to present the band in luminous, pseudo-chorale formation.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Jorge Federico Osorio gathers his own anthology of French music, centered on Debussy

A native of Mexico who is now successfully based in Chicago (faculty member at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts),  Jorge Federico Osorio recalls encountering French piano music as a child, hearing his mother play it. Later he studied in Paris with Bernard Flavigny and Monique Haas, refining his aptitude for that repertoire at the start of his career. A new recording crowns that durable acquaintance.

"The French Album" (Cedille Records) is set up as a program that rewards hearing it as if in recital. The disc's design is just part of the attraction. There is also a recording acoustic that's just resonant enough to flatter Osorio's glowing touch. Best of all, there is the pianist's mastery of balance and tone, applied to an intuitive understanding of the music's meaning.

The program opens and closes with the two most familiar pieces to bring forward the ancient dance form called the pavane: Gabriel Fauré's piece of that title and Maurice Ravel's "Pavane pour une infante défunte." The bulk of the program consists of Debussy preludes, with two of them separated as a pair to emphasize their thematic connection with other Spanish-inspired music, introduced by Emmanuel Chabrier's deft "Habanera" and followed by Ravel's  exuberant "Alborada del gracioso" and his classically restrained tribute to a deceased Spanish princess (not one in particular, but an evocation of the era in which such a royal child once lived).

Apart from a distinctive reading of the familiar "Clair de lune" (from "Suite Bergamasque"), the Debussy selections come from his two books of preludes. The close-to-definitive recorded versions of this music remain Walter Gieseking's performances, which have an uncanny richness of color despite their decades-old monaural sound. But Osorio is no slouch in this essential department. I was charmed by his rendition of "Voiles" (Veils/Sails) and moved by the rightness of tempo and the weight given to chords in "La Cathédrale engloutie" (The Sunken Cathedral).

Osorio brings forward the hints of modernism in "La terrasses des audiences du clair de lune" (The Terrace of Moonlight Audiences), and he limns the narrative and pictorial progress of "Les collines d'Anacapri" (The Hills of Anacapri) perfectly. Such contrasts are also made more vivid than usual by Osorio in "Alborada del Gracioso" (Morning Song of the Jester), whose rapid repeated notes sparkle and whose contrasting faux-maudlin tune evokes a slightly daft street singer. 

Ravel's essential classicism is well-defined in his pavane, which plays off the sensitivity displayed earlier on the disc with three florid yet well-grounded pieces by Jean-Philippe Rameau. Osorio takes some of the shimmer off his tone to render the Baroque master brightly and idiomatically. Further mastery of Debussy is evinced in a show of flamboyance with the quiet swagger imparted to "La soirée dans Grenade" (Evening in Granada) and the pyrotechnics judiciously applied to "Feux d'artifice" (Fireworks).

Friday, October 2, 2020

Bassist Michael Feinberg writes pieces for places he wants to memorialize

What a jolt to encounter, given the firestorm out of the failure to bring charges against the police officers who killed Brionna Taylor, the dense assault of "Louisville" as the opening track on Michael Feinberg's "From Where We Came" (SteepleChase)!

The deft arrangement for a five-piece band with two star saxophonists in the front line was written as a tribute to Muhammad Ali's hometown. The piece is especially notable for Dave Liebman's fiery soprano-sax solo and the way it subsides into the reflective clarity of Gary Versace's piano turn. It's inevitably a case of "sting like a bee" juxtaposed with "float like a butterfly." 

It's just accidental that the piece and its performance here come off with the ferocity of America's unresolved racial issues. The more positive meaning of Feinberg's intention when he gathered his band for studio sessions in October 2019 is also unmistakable.

The leader kicks it off with a double-bass cadenza; when the theme is stated, it has the kind of roominess that mimics Ali's agility as a prizefighter. Other pieces bespeak the place-centered inspirations that generated them, but there's no tone painting beyond the abstract portraiture Feinberg has designed for each piece and its honoree.

"Pontiac," for example, which has Elvin Jones in mind because the drummer came from that Michigan city,  features lots of tenor sax from Noah Preminger. And Liebman gets another good showcase in a duo with drummer Ian Froman, alluding to the three-sax Elvin Jones band that Liebman once belonged to.

 "Hamlet" refers not to Shakespeare's Danish prince but to the North Carolina town John Coltrane hailed from. A modal piece with the bass and saxes in unison, it recalls, with its slow blues feel, one aspect of the musical foundations that Coltrane made use of. The neighboring piece, "East St. Louis," pays tribute to Coltrane's boss in the 1950s, Miles Davis, and is even bluesier than 'Hamlet." It features another memorable solo from Liebman. There's an apt duo episode, this time between Preminger and Versace, with bass and drums then joining in behind the tenor's ongoing charge.

The disc ends with a tribute to Charles Mingus: "Nogales" refers to the Arizona town out of which  Mingus escaped, going first west, then east, to make his reputation.  For his fellow bassist-bandleader, Feinberg gets things started with a restless introduction. Before long, simultaneous, wailing solos from the saxophones help amplify the surging theme. The Jazz Workshop spirit remains alive.

Typical of the whole disc, Feinberg thus ends with an appropriate tribute, offering a personal slant to an honoree's idiom. Geography is destiny, perhaps, and oh, the places he's been!




Monday, September 28, 2020

Rudresh Mahanthappa helms the Hero Trio in his first recording of others' works

 With his Indian heritage having guided much of his original music, Rudresh Mahanthappa is thoroughly

steeped in the music he heard in his youth growing up in Boulder, Colo. There he acquainted himself with the American musical mainstream, later refining his jazz chops at Berklee College in Boston and emerging in his own right as an educator directing jazz studies at Princeton University.

The facetiously named (and costumed) Hero Trio is serious about applying heroic bravado to pieces by Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman (the leader's alto-sax messiahs) and others on "Hero Trio" (Whirlwind Recordings). The Coleman piece, "Sadness," is taken out of tempo throughout, and represents how firmly Mahanthappa and his mates (bassist Franḉois Moutin and drummer Rudy Royston) can hang together while still projecting individuality.

 As an arranger, Mahanthappa is unusually creative. The old standard beloved of our grandparents, "I Can't Get Started," is treated with respect despite eschewing its conventional chord changes. Without the harmonic motion of the original, the Vernon Duke tune becomes even more meditative and sheds new light on the song title.

Similarly insightful, the trio's "I Remember April" opens with a pointillistic introduction, as if distant memories were gradually being assembled. When the melody emerges, it's with quick, buoyant confidence. A more unusual choice, perhaps, is an adaptation of the Johnny Cash hit "Ring of Fire," which has a distinct Sonny Rollins feeling. It's as if Mahanthappa is paying tribute to the saxophone giant who put a fresh stamp on "I'm an Old Cowhand" and other unlikely songs. And the pulse seems to echo music of the Caribbean island culture that lies in Rollins' background.

Moutin puts a fruitful line in contrapuntal dialogue with Mahanthappa's alto in Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed." And Royston is key to unifying a spirited dash through Charlie Parker's "Barbados" mashed with John Coltrane's "26-2." The performance is raving but coherent, thanks in large measure to the drummer.

The trio's unanimity passes another test glowingly in the stop-start patterns of "The Windup" by Keith Jarrett. Funky without cliché, the performance features the bandleader at his most explosive and a powerful Moutin solo.

It took me a while to get used to Mahanthappa's sound, but the nuances became evident amid all his powerhouse playing. But no repeated listenings were needed to be immediately charmed by the Hero Trio's romp through Charlie Parker's "Red Cross." Mahanthappa's arrangement brings in supportive independent phrases as commentary, somewhat reminiscent of the function of tropes in medieval liturgy.

From his own playing as well as his inspired adaptations of material by other musicians, Mahanthappa has fashioned a winner with his two masked men. The Hero Trio may be having fun with its name, but it also has the right credentials to inspire hero-worship.


Saturday, September 26, 2020

Mark Masters Ensemble pays tribute to a songwriter's songwriter, Alec Wilder

Admired for  understated elegance and seductive pathos, the songs of Alec Wilder can be treated imaginatively without a sung word. That's what "Night Talk: The Alec Wilder Songbook" (Capri Records) exemplifies, thanks to the responsive arrangements for jazz octet by Mark Masters and the showcase solos of baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan.

The Mark Masters Ensemble also includes Don Shelton and Jerry Pinter, reeds; Bob Summers, trumpet; Dave Woodley, trombone; Ed Czach, piano; Putter Smith, bass, and Kendall Kay, drums. The set of nine tunes ends with Wilder's best-known song, "I'll Be Around." Setting this love ballad at a fast tempo makes clear Masters' declaration of independence from convention.

The smooth integration of Smulyan's agile, deep-toned instrument  and the ensemble is immediately sealed on the opening track, "You're Free." Masters never fails to give both the band and the featured soloist essential material to indicate that no one is restricted to accompaniment functions alone.

There's always careful attention to Wilder's supple phrasing. In Masters' arrangements, the tunes always

seem to breathe with a relaxed pulse. "Don't Deny" is a good example of how the cleverness of the setting is never allowed to swamp the melody. 

The band moves with the easy swing of the master interpreters of the Great American Songbook. "Moon and Sand" is a dreamily paced samba exercise; Smulyan's soft-focused tone leads the way, which doesn't keep him from kicking up his heels in the solo.

Solo outings for other players move the spotlight off Smulyan occasionally. I especially enjoyed Woodley's soaring trombone in the song "Ellen," which ends in appropriate bass-and-brushes murmurs before the out-chorus. In "Baggage Room Blues," there's practically a round-robin format to expand the conversation. Short solos are especially effective in the peppy "Lovers and Losers."

  With extensions of his legacy as well thought out and executed as this one, the music of Alec Wilder will be around for a good long time.


Friday, September 18, 2020

A different view of late Billie Holiday: Blake and Correa revisit "Lady in Satin"

For a novel, probing look at what is often considered the pathetic swan song of a great jazz singer, Ran Blake and Christine Correa, a piano-voice duo of uncommon mutual sympathy and daring, revisit Billie Holiday's "Lady in Satin," an LP the tortured diva made with strings in 1958.

It's an attempt to take a frankly oblique examination of material that, for most fans, deserved better than "Lady in Satin" in any fantasy vision they may have had of Lady Day growing gracefully into the late middle age she wasn't destined to have. 

"When Soft Rains Fall" (Red Piano Records) contains a dozen songs associated with the singer in her decline and earlier, plus a solo piano version of Bernstein's "Big Stuff, " a vocal solo on Herbie Nichols' "Lady Sings the Blues," and Blake's composition to Correa's recitation of a Frank O'Hara poem, "The Day Lady Died."

The reigning question is: Can you make art out of a landmark of extreme vulnerability without seeming ghoulish? I think the answer is yes, to the extent that at the core of Billie Holiday's art is an ache of vulnerability that came through even when her voice was strongest, in the 1930s and '40s. So, when here phrases take on a questioning quality, even when fully supported, there is a sense that a breakdown is being bravely staved off. There's no hint of mockery, but of the most empathetic sort of tribute.

Correa is an inspired interpreter, with both rough-edged and stalwart aspects to her instrument. She can interrupt phrases boldly without suggesting that she is haphazardly piecing together a vocal mosaic. The separation of lines in "I'm a Fool to Want You" doesn't sound arbitrary, but instead serves as an indication that the difficulty of honest expression — of owning up to conflicted feelings — is being addressed in a triangulation of song, singer, and pianist.

In "You've Changed," there is both resignation and disheartened protest in a song that Holiday had interpreted truly but more sturdily much earlier.  Correa's final reiteration of the song title is sustained through a kaleidoscope of vocal color; this is the kind of touch that stays with you, and isn't shadowed by artificiality.

In Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well," Blake sets out on his own at first, with left-hand rumblings of fragile self-assurance and the pedal liberally applied. This gives the irony of the lyrics full play, and his accompaniment continues its soft plodding under the stiff-upper-lip pep talk of Correa's singing.

There is perhaps rather banal poetry in the bridge of "For All We Know" as it lays out its philosophy — "For all we know this may only be a dream. / We come and go like the ripples of a stream" —  but those lines are emblematic of the entire program. What Blake and Correa have done on "When Soft Rains Fall"  is recount the recurrent dream of Billie Holiday's art the way it came through as a tragic finale. And they do it evoking the transient but memorable feelings that accompany the experience of watching those ripples on a stream, even when the former purity of that stream must be recalled with effort and imagination.



Monday, September 14, 2020

Butler University launches a survey, under many hands, of the Beethoven piano sonatas in toto

In a live stream Sunday night from the Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall on campus, Butler University got its survey of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas under way

"Beethoven @Butler"  has some market zing in these troubled times because of the title's fortuitous alliteration of school and composer, whose 250th birth anniversary is taking a place in a year that can't end too soon for many of us. It's gratifying to herald this series as among the few local new presentations of classical music, pinned to a significant historical milestone, under an official aegis during the pandemic.

Here's a response to Sept. 13's performances that, despite some reservations, I intend to be an encouragement to anyone who reads this blog to virtually attend the rest of the series.

In the first flush of his boom times in Vienna, where the young German had relocated from his hometown Bonn, Beethoven's early piano sonatas came in a relative rush. The "Waldstein" Sonata, which capped the Sept. 13 program, was written only eight years after the titan's genre debut with three Opus 2 sonatas (No. 1 in F minor and No. 2 in A were featured on the series premiere). Professor Kate Boyd pointed out that amazingly brief span in her introduction. 

Robert Satterlee's performance of the F minor sonata was sober-sided and minimally inflected. It was largely true to any concept that one readily forms of a youthful work, but I thought an interpretation of more distinct character was needed. There were a few glitches and wrong notes, which made a considerable difference only in a blurred rush at the very end, which Eric Blom deftly described as "a few bars of brilliant triplet arpeggios tacked onto [the recapitulation] as a coda." 

Wrong notes were also sadly an occasional feature of Kent Cook's more idiomatic interpretation of the A major sonata — though not enough to throw the performance off track. The Scherzo and Trio came off best. 

After two performances with such finger faults, I began to wonder if pandemic-mandated masking might be to blame; I've noticed myself that peripheral vision, which I had always thought of as registering to either side, also is in play at the top and bottom of the periphery. Looking down may thus not be quite as instantly accurate when your nose and mouth are covered and cloth high up on your cheeks.  I'm guessing that knowing a piece thoroughly is no guarantee that a slightly obstructed view of the keyboard will not play hob with precision.

That's my supposition, at any rate, though my inability  to notice it at all marring Shuai Wang's performance of Op. 53 in C major (the "Waldstein") forces me to wonder if masks are an inevitable obstacle that musicians must learn to live with over time. But her performance moved well past the effortful onto the plane of the heroic sublime. That is the "Waldstein"'s home terrain — an "Eroica" for solo piano.  The work's expressive exuberance in the outer movements sometimes yields performances that suggest "I'm keeping up with Beethoven as best I can here — you gotta admire the effort."

I had no such sardonic thought in listening to Ms. Wang. There was sufficiently bright contrast in dynamic levels when called for, even at headlong pace. The effect of surprise was maintained; accents and articulation were unfailingly crisp. The tension imparted to the glissando passage just before a sustained trill announces the peroration of the finale was spine-tingling. Triumph was unblemished throughout.

The whole performance whetted the appetite for revisiting the series and taking in how a host of pianists will make their mark in this repertoire.



Sunday, September 13, 2020

Dover Quartet sets forth initial contribution to the interrupted Beethoven celebrations with 2-disc set of op. 18

Some well-seasoned music lovers have expressed something like relief at one silver-lining  development

out of the Covid-19 disaster: we were spared an excess of an already overprogrammed master composer.

Yes, you've surely noticed that the pandemic has wiped out special celebrations of Ludwig van Beethoven on the 250th anniversary of his birth. Anniversary-prone symphony orchestras in particular had this thematic element obliterated from their schedules, along with everything else they had planned. 

I, for one, have regretted not getting a chance to attend a "Missa Solemnis" performance in June, which would have been among the twlight landmarks of Krzysztof Urbanski's tenure as music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Recordings, especially of chamber music, can be dropped into the market no matter what, of course.  And among the benefits during these pinched times is putting on disc contemporary interpretations of the sixteen Beethoven string quartets. Pentatone released an eight-disc set of them all with the Miro Quartet, and I reviewed it here just as the current year began without looking as dismal as it has become.

Now the Dover Quartet has entered the lists of a planned full cycle with Beethoven's calling card in the rapidly evolving genre of the string quartet: Opus 18. The Dover's mastery in these six quartets shows itself in its commitment to a young composer's bold way of making his mark on a form and a style he had inherited from Mozart, Haydn and lesser luminaries. The music is rich in personality and mastery of form as played by Joel Link, Bryan Lee, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, and Camden Shaw.

Notable is the pathos that this ensemble finds sometimes even in music of headlong energy. Tempos are generally on the fast side, but quite well-judged and flexible. Slow movements are not slighted in the achievement: In the Adagio of Quartet No. 1 in F major, tempo shifts give the music almost an "ad lib" feel at times. This suits the succession of tragic surprises of the young lovers in the tomb scene of "Romeo and Juliet," which Beethoven said he had in mind while composing the movement.

Spontaneity can be felt just below the surface of well-coordinated interpretations. For emphasis and to add a note of suspense about what's to come, the Dover sometimes slackens the pace judiciously. The practice may not follow directions in the score, but occurrences fall well within responsible interpretive boundaries.

When the outline of the music allows light to shine on a Haydnesque texture, the Dover keeps those lines vivid.  The less genial side of the emergent genius is given a patrician cast that manages to avoid glossing over it. Crucial changes of direction in the finale ("La Malinconia") of No. 6 in B-flat major are delicately, yet firmly, handled. Beethoven's characteristic "sforzando" outbursts have the right stunning effect, but without roughness, as in the assertive first movement of No. 4 in C minor.

The sound is satin-smooth, and the recording quality preserves a blooming resonance of the sort that might well be heard in a first-class concert hall. There is real space around it, neither too dry nor too glossy. But best of all are the many indelible indications that the Dover Quartet has fresh insights for our time into a body of work that a certain musical newcomer to Vienna first confronted the public with 22 decades ago.



Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Sexual politics and the fledgling IndyShakes production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

In this time of artistic privation, many of us can be grateful for the Indianapolis Shakespeare
'A Midzoomer Night's Gream" is this year's stand-in for a post-pandemic production.
s placeholding virtual production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," converted technologically as an appetizer for the 2021 season into a tasty "A Midzoomer Night's Dream."

An hourlong version of the Bard's most magical comedy can be accessed through the company's website through Sept. 12. Directed by Lauren Morris, assisted by Ryan Artzberger, the Zoom version necessarily is heavily cut and requires some stitching together to draw in the skeins of the zany plot. Bottom the Weaver is the presiding spirit of this "Dream" in more ways than one.

Most stage productions of this play strike me as posing the most athletic challenges Shakespearean actors face. The cavorting and confusion involving the four young lovers in the forest near Athens mimics the craziness young love often takes on: rich in jealousy, the waxing and waning of passion, and a readily aggravated tendency to feel wounded or abandoned. "A Midzoomer Night's Dream" is full of apt technical tricks, moving squares of each actor around the screen to represent changing alliances and confrontations.

Trying to allow for some of the deep cuts in the script is difficult, and I can only hope much of the original will be restored by a full stage production in 2021. Even so, IndyShakes has embraced trimming the Bard closely as a defensible practice in reaching out to outdoor summertime audiences. This was unavoidable in its coming up with a two-hour version of "Hamlet" in 2019.

In a follow-up dialogue after "Midzoomer" runs its course, Morris and Artzberger explain their approach, defending the gender looseness in particular.  In one case, reassigning sex roles works quite well; in another, it fails. Let me explain.

To account for the failure first, I take nothing away from the excellence of the actors portraying Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen. The royal couple's resort to magic in advancing each side of their quarrel drives the madness that overtakes Demetrius, Lysander, Hermia, and Helena — lovers who are already blocked in the "rational" world of Athens by the legal sway parents in many traditional societies hold over marriage.

Jen Johansen and Constance Macy seem thoroughly invested in the bitter rhetoric and deft schemes of their characters, but I miss the sexual politics that Oberon and Titania are clearly meant to pursue. (Even their liines were exchanged in a few places, as though they were interchangeable figures like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.)

Authenticity nerds are free to remind me that all parts in the productions Shakespeare knew were played by men and boys. But that was more a matter of required practice than any gender fluidity espoused by the playwright. And the Oberon/Titania set-to is one his most memorable presentations of the eternal battle of the sexes; it may lack the humane gravitas of the conflicts in "The Taming of the Shrew" and "Much Ado About Nothing," but its male-female chess game is vivid and essential.

I thought the casting of Claire Wilcher as Nick Bottom was an inspired choice, however. The weaver's eagerness for a theatrical outlet and susceptibility to transformation, in addition to his sheer comic exuberance, suggest an amplitude greater than any conventional identity Bottom may have superficially. He is fundamental as well as superficial,  both in terms of the addled myth-play the Athenian tradesmen are preparing and the accidental role he must play as an ass, the temporary love-object of Titania.

I intend no comment on Wilcher as a person to claim as kudos that her skills and energy, the pitch of her voice and the way her facial expressions don't fall into either male or female stereotypes make her ideal for a gender-neutral portrayal of Bottom. The character can be fairly androgynous in interpretation, with no violence done to what Shakespeare has set down on the page. (I wish the directors had not felt it fitting to change Bottom's pronouns to she and her, however.)

When magic imposes an asinine character on Bottom, his susceptibility to a range of sensual pleasures (often given hints of sexual attraction in full performance) evokes something that suits an androgynous interpretation: Freud's theory of a polymorphous-perverse stage of infant development, in which physical pleasure later channeled sexually is initially spread over the entire spectrum of sensation. Shakespeare seems to foreshadow this insight (though I believe it's not much supported by post-Freudian psychology) in having the transformed Bottom so open to fantasy indulgence. And his curiosity is fully awakened: note how he wants to know something about each fairy assigned to cater to him.

The same openness is characteristic of the normal Bottom.  He seems to know more about the craft of theater than any of his tradesman fellows. His pushiness about taking on any or all of the roles in the Pyramus and Thisbe travesty is less a matter of ego than temperamental breadth. Wilcher portrays this expertly. Her performance struck me as indicating a recurring habit of Shakespeare's: talking about theater and acting in a way that works his profession into the action. Bottom is thus a tribute to the mutability of actors, their necessary penchant for what John Keats termed "negative capability," He cited that as a useful inclination for poets to take on characteristics of people and even other beings and things in order to render their reality.

Obviously, that's an actor's metier. And it has great resonance with Shakespeare's practice as a playwright. Serendipitously, that was driven home to me soon after I watched "A Midzoomer Night's Dream" when reading an essay by William Hazlitt, one of the best 19th-century literary critics. In his essay on "Troilus and Cressida," he compares Shakespeare's treatment of characters in that ancient story with Geoffrey Chaucer's.

Of the medieval poet, Hazlitt says: "He is as deeply implicated in the affairs of his personages as they could be themselves...Everything with him is intense and continuous — a working out of what went before." But here's the contrast. "Shakespeare never committed himself to his characters. He trifled, laughed, or wept with them as he chose. He had no prejudices for or against them; and it seems a matter of perfect indifference whether he shall be in jest or earnest....He saw both sides of a question...and he was at once an actor and spectator in the scene. If anything, he is too various and flexible; too full of transitions, of glancing lights, of salient points."

This apt description could apply to a host of Shakespeare's characters, from Hamlet to Bottom. I loved the richness of Wilcher's performance and, though the directors seemed to want to follow that actor's self-identity, I think the performance works so well as gender-neutral (so, leave references to Bottom the way the text has them). Suddenly we see Bottom as Every Person at His/Her/Its Best — open-minded, open-hearted, less likely to make narrow claims of ego and ideally susceptible to an expansive view of life's variability.

It's not just Bottom's dream that "hath no bottom," as the restored Bottom muses. It is Bottom in all respects: one of Shakespeare's essentially minor characters who represents nothing less than human nature, especially as it's available to any talented, well-trained interpreter.

IndyShakes has a host of those, and I await the 2021 staged production both eagerly and apprehensively.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

IndyBaroque launches its season with music roughly contemporary with European settlement here

A special anthology in my decades-old LP collection is the Smithsonian's "Music from the Age of Jefferson." I had just played the record again a few days before attending the opening of IndyBaroque's 2020-21 season Friday night at the IndyFringe Pocket Park.
IndyBaroque Chamber Players launch a season at Indy Fringe.

The link is an intriguing one in these troubled times, and one must walk a tightrope sometimes defending the establishment and persistence of European culture in the New World. I have no problem with acknowledging that in moral terms: the civilization I most identify with has deep-seated problems. Sure,  I listened without apology or private embarrassment, and read the extensive notes to this recording from the 1970s, but it inevitably springs to mind that the Age of Jefferson, specifically as embodied in the man himself, was sustained in large degree by chattel slavery.

There's no mention of that in the text accompanying the Smithsonian collection, and that omission was not untypical four decades ago. Everyone knew what enabled Thomas Jefferson's lifestyle and the cultivation of its material and even its spiritual health, but only recently has the attention perhaps been overriding, threatening to inter the living good along with its hardly dry bones.

Similarly, as Tom Gerber delivered his oral program notes about music in the New World in the early years of the territory that became Indiana, he took pains to indicate that what became the Hoosier state was certainly not empty of human activity and settlement. It was the homeland of the Miami and several other tribes, gradually marginalized through aggressive settlement, disease, and displacement by treaty or otherwise. The well-assembled program is titled "When Indiana Was Young II," and the series continued Saturday in New Albany and will conclude tonight at the T.C. Steele Historic Site in Brown County.

The program that a quartet of the IndyBaroque Chamber Players is offering this weekend to launch IndyBaroque's 2020-21 season consisted of music that may have been performed in the 18th century by and for European settlers east of here and some who ventured west into our neighborhood. It was presented to the delight of Friday's small, enthusiastic audience without any claims that a little-known aspect of "Hoosier culture" was being brought forward. And perhaps that historical perspective was particularly germane since the European art upon which IndyBaroque draws was minimally available in early Indiana, and aspirational at best.

The choice of music leaned heavily toward French culture, as the 17th and early 18th centuries on this continent were significantly shaped by French exploration and trading. The process was cut short by the English victory in the Seven Years' (or French and Indian) War, whose outcome concentrated French dominance in the Canadian province of Quebec. The legacy has been fiercely protected there to this day; I was once caught up in Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day celebrations in Montreal and can attest to that.

Accordingly, the ensemble — harpsichordist Gerber, plus Sarah Cranor, violin; Leighann Daighl-Ragusa, flute; and Erica Rubis, viola da gamba — launched the program with a pair of noels by Michel Corrette, a charming composer whose life spanned most of the 1700s, and who was later heard from Friday in the more substantial Sonata for Violin and Continuo in D minor.

Discreetly amplified to accommodate the outdoor setting, the quartet was judiciously balanced. Pieces that used just two or three of the players were likewise heard in their proper proportions, and coordination among the players displayed the attractiveness of the repertoire superbly. Flute-violin articulation was well-matched in the Gigue that concluded a selection from Jean-Joseph Mouret, a composer best known (though not by name) as the composer of the Masterpiece Theatre theme.

I enjoyed the exhibition accorded the viol player Erica Rubis in the aptly titled "L'Ameriquaine" for her instrument and harpsichord by Marin Marais, a 17th-century composer who got a bump in recognition nearly three decades ago as the subject of the movie "All the Mornings of the World." The piece had the bumptious, go-your-own-way creative push that probably was designed to capture qualities of the New World that kept generating Old World curiosity about the continent it was busily conquering.

Substantial trio sonatas by G.F.  Handel and Carl Friedrich Abel, both notable as Germans who made successful careers in London, led up to the surprising treat of Gerber's presentation as a singer in a couple of anonymous compositions once known in the musical theater scene of Williamsburg,Virginia (a proto-Broadway in its heyday): "Matrimony in Fashion" and "Over the Hills and Far Away." Accompaniment, including the singer's keyboard, was neatly fashioned to allow the texts to be heard from Gerber's ingratiating voice.

A final affirmation of the connection of all this to local history (sung by Gerber a cappella) was Father Jean de Brebeuf's text to what has become known as "the Huron Carol." As a finale, its inclusion may have been the most uncontroversial way in which the often vehement encounter of contrasting cultures could be presented. It was a reminder that while issues of settlement and conquest will always be with us, there has sometimes been sweet harmony in the result.

Friday, September 4, 2020

'Hug,' the Matt Wilson Quartet advises — throw caution to the winds

Working closely together for many years, drummer Matt Wilson's quartet has earned the right to
Matt Wilson shows personal style in how he dresses and how he plays.
thumb its nose in these socially distanced times with "Hug" (Palmetto). In the midst of pandemic constraints, you can wrap your arms around this one, though it rewards sitting-up-straight attention as well.

This is a companionable set of originals and well-curated borrowings from the jazz repertoire, including Charlie Haden's "In the Moment" and Dewey Redman's "Joie de Vivre."  There's also a trip into a comfortable pop hit of yore, Roger Miller's "King of the Road."

And there's a bit of satire in the choice of Sun Ra's "Interplanetary Music" grafted onto some Donald Trump riffing titled "Space Force March." It all sounds natural, not reaching out for the lovably eccentric. And it makes for a good musical riposte to one of the President's vanity projects.

The players, always sensitively supported from the percussion section, are Jeff Lederer, reeds; Kirk Knuffke, cornet, and Chris Lightcap, bass. The program opens with the deep groove of Gene Ammons' "The One Before This," in the course of which the ensemble's penchant for compact solos is displayed. What follows takes the upbeat mood in another direction: Abdullah Ibrahim's "Jabulani" is notable not only for its catchy theme, but also for the bandleader's spot-on interaction with the bass player. The airy nonchalance of Afropop is nicely approximated here.

Later on the disc it's evident that the band is not focused exclusively on party music. "Every Day With You" is a Wilson original — slow, reflective, but never sagging. Fresh arrangements of timbres and textures come naturally to this quartet: "King of the Road" gets down-home from the start in Lederer's clarinet, with Knuffke's cornet coming in a little later with an overlaid solo line. Wilson puts down the sticks to hand-drum in a duo with the bassist, once again displaying the pair's mutual rapport.

There's a little additional humor when clarinet and cornet are in counterpoint in the original "Man Bun," a jaunty number that salutes that fading male hairstyle, with the band capping the piece by shouting together: "Check that man bun out!"

The punning title "Sunny and Share" suits a quartet excursion into territory first explored by Ornette Coleman at the start of his career some 60 years ago. There's a perpetual avant-garde out there that is always ready for a new examination, and the Matt Wilson Quartet offers it here magnanimously.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Intricate poem based on "person, woman, man, camera, TV"

Acing the Test: A Poem on Those Five Words
(after  “Canzone” by W.H. Auden)

And when we move to re-elect this person
Who made his reputation on TV
By being boss of each “Apprentice” person
Whom otherwise you might ignore in person
But seemed so special to us when on camera,
Almost enough to be an unfailed person
Maintaining his integrity as person
Though having to project the idea of “man”
While subject to “You’re fired!” from host-man
(It’s sure he lacks rapport with any person):
A man known for his hostile view of woman
And tendency to grossly grab a woman.

Accessibility is crucial to each woman
From the vantage point of what defines this person,
Hallmark of what to him sums up a woman
So that he roars obtusely, “Woman!
Give life beyond my ratings on TV.
I must inform you now as man to woman
Despite the RNC’s emphasis on woman
That I will rate your status as a person
Somewhat lower than almost any person
Who dares appear before, behind a camera,
Unless that person bears the form of man
And can most strongly meet me as a man.”

He’s betting that the world to any man
Looks better when it’s dominating Woman
So our response must be to cry out, “Man
The lifeboats! Iceberg dead ahead! And man,
Do we ever need a reliable person
To show superiority as man
In all we deem the best about a man,
To reassure us there can be a worthy person
That lets us see what’s true about a person
To distinguish him from what mars man:
Not show him at his false best on the camera
Instead make who he is quite real on camera!”

Let us project the truth of a true camera
Which has to be conceived in mind of man,
For falsity’s embedded in the camera
Whose errors must be measured in camera
Empaneled with perspective from a woman.
Don’t see the man whose master is a camera
(Because all that he weighs is what’s on camera)
For what he claims to be: the true best person
Most likely to fit notions of a person
That we learn from staring at a camera
And, like the president, take from the TV
What solely is the focus of TV.

Substantial he appears on the TV,
Just as our eye becomes the eye of camera.
He gives praise to distortions of TV
Proclaiming that what’s real is TV
As “Fox & Friends” conveys him true in person
Cajoling suburb housewives by TV
As if they want seduction by TV,
Submitting to the blandishments of man
Whenever it seems it’s not just any man
But one who knows his way around TV
And seeks to rule it best of any person
While striving to conceal an empty person.

And so he aced the test, this special person:
A model of free access to each woman,
Figure that represents a style of man
Displaying scowls and grimaces on camera
Who’ll need forever Twitter and TV.

Friday, August 21, 2020

'Spirit Science': Pythagorean jazz from Tom Guarna

Do the math: Juilliard graduate and deep thinker Tom Guarna
You won't find much jazz rooted in Pythagoras, it's safe to say. But guitarist Tom Guarna has come up with a probing tribute to the ancient Greek mathematician in "Spirit Science" (Destiny Records). It's an elaborate salute from jazz quintet to Pythagoras' "sacred geometry."

Probably in mid-career (he was born in 1967), Guarna has had ample time to develop his own style as both player and composer. In "Spirit Science," he has compatible colleagues in saxophonist Ben Wendel, keyboardist Aaron Parks, bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Justin Faulkner.

I like the centered, lyrical quality of Parks (former  Cole Porter Fellow of the American Pianists Association) throughout, sometimes acting as a calming influence on Wendel. Assertive and slightly raspy, the saxophonist also has a lyrical bent, his plaintive sound resembling an anxious Jan Garbarek.  Guarna's most outstanding quality as performer is his compatibility, as he unobtrusively helms ensemble concepts that are flowing and well-integrated. He's a bandleader-composer who seems to put collegiality uppermost.

Guarna's compositions grow out of his immersion in places "where math and science meet with spirit and matter." Sometimes the works are understandably more notable for their phrase structure ("Two Circles") and well-woven textures  ("The Genesis Pattern") than their melodies, but this breadth suits the ambitious reach of "Spirit Science." Motivic strength is sometimes a good stand-in for melodic distinction, as in "Metatron's Cube."

The deep sources Guarna's muse draws upon will not be accessible to everyone, but the music that has resulted rewards the attention, and can be sufficiently appreciated on a surface level as well as on one equal to his scrupulous study.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Frank Felice's 'Reflections and Whimsies': Well-grounded spiritually, with plenty of room for caprice

I began to get some feeling for Frank Felice as a 21st-century composer whose Christian faith is deeply embedded in the bulk of the pieces on the CD "Reflections and Whimsies" (Enharmonic), as well as
Frank Felice, protean and devout.
in his revealing, amiable program notes. It also came to me in one place in particular, with the aptness of Felice's musical response to the prayer that concludes the short book of Habbakuk in the Old Testament.
A portion of the prayer is included in the booklet for the listener's reflection upon "Were You Angry With the Rivers,'  because Felice's interpretation of the  text is nonvocal — for solo double bass, played  by David Murray with  his usual flair and energy.
The declamatory vigor that opens the piece, and then fuses a steady blend of assault and appeal before calming near the end, has a famous forebear, also for double bass: the orchestra section's recitative in the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that foreshadows the baritone soloist's commanding "O Freunde, nicht diese Töne, sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen."
Felice's solo bass is also addressing fractious but ultimately friendly interior voices, echoing Beethoven's appeal on the heels of discord: "O friends, not these tones, rather let us sing something more pleasant, more agreeable."  And that directive, when applied to Felice's sacred muse, puts in the forefront resolving the individual's argument with God through more pleasant forms of expression that provisionally arm the soul for struggles that inevitably recur in this life.
"Were You Angry With the Rivers" is not alone on this recording insofar as it makes vivid both polarities of the relationship. There is the mordant humor of a "radio edit" from "Proverbial Wit," in which quotations from the Book of Proverbs, are spoken with conspiratorial intensity by Mitzi Westra (the composer calls for a "dusky mezzo-soprano") against a rambunctious cello line (performed by Kurt Fowler) that seems to embody both the chummy wisdom and the blunt warnings of the text.
Felice's concoction touches on  recipes for Belgian wit beer, as well as "some definitions of tangents, all discombobulated, tweaked, folded spindled and blended into a stream-of-consciousness rumination." Resorting to Felice's own language here acknowledges, with admiration, that his verbal command of the material is almost equal to what he does with it musically.
Moving up from the lower portion of the string family, we enter serene territory, the "angenehmer" part of the Felice spectrum. That is "Reflections on a Hymn of Thanksgiving" for two violins, recorded smartly by Davis Brooks, thanks to overdubbing. This well-knit song without words has one line proceeding in agreeable counterpoint to the theme, an original by Felice that sounds as if it has always been around,  like some of the melodies of Dvorak or Bartok that give the illusion of familiarity when first heard.
The work echoes Felice's demonstrated skill with music for voice. The disc has three examples: "If Ever Two Were One" is the piece that least successfully escapes its occasion: the wedding of two close friends. The text is a poem by the 17th-century New Englander Anne Bradstreet that's often used to grace nuptial ceremonies.  Gracefully performed by soprano Esteli Gomez with the Indianapolis String Quartet, Felice's setting seems weakened by the decision to repeat some phrases; this is the kind of poem that to me suggests direct communication without the need to underline bits by having them sung again. I particularly find that the integrity of the verse is violated by Felice's interpolation of "I love you" several times, an unnecessary declaration given that Bradstreet's six couplets convey that message completely. Then there's an alteration in the next-to-last line that mistakenly allows "persever" to become "persevere"; Bradstreet's less usual version of the word allows both meter and rhyme to match. The effect is wiped out in the Felice version.
Yet I like the way the string quartet dutifully yet imaginatively reinforces the voice, a skill given sustained attention in "Preserve Me, O Lord," a setting of Felice's delicate paraphrase of Psalm 16. Here some text repetition works well. But most amazing is the fervor and poise of Westra's singing, which first impressed me years ago when she was alto soloist in Handel's "Messiah" at Tabernacle Presbyterian Church and performed the great aria "He was despised" about as well as I ever expect to hear it. The partnership with the Indianapolis Quartet is inspired, and richly rewarded by Felice's writing. The skill with which he constructs phrases that allow the words to glow is unfailing: I especially admired "The lines are laid for me in pleasant places; indeed I have a beautiful portion!" Talk about the "angenehm" side of Felice: Here it was at the pinnacle.
The CD is bookended by two string works from the composer's secular side that are comfortable enough without bearing a hint of background music. "Two by Four" carries the artisanal implication of its title; a musical carpenter sets to work and comes up with two linked pieces for an unconventional string quartet: three violins and a viola. The musicians are Zachary DePue, Joana Genova, Sherry Hong, and Michael Strauss, who deliver a crisp, playfully intense account of the piece.
The Indianapolis String Quartet hits the children's books charmingly in Felice's "Five Whimsies."
The finale allows Felice to release his inner child: "Five Whimsies for Non-Grownups," a winning string quartet when heard in concert (where I first encountered it) receives full commitment by the Indianapolis Quartet here. Each whimsy refers to a place in a favorite children's book that clearly resonates with the composer across the years. I won't go into detail here, but the work amounts to twelve delightful minutes of frolicsome variety. It delves deep to a degree, in that the openness to mystery typical of children is also captured in the music. At certain ages, we are receptive to both scary and comforting things. Either can be "angenehm," given a child's unimpaired sense of wonder, with which you as a grownup seeking your inner "non" can connect throughout this captivating composition.
All told, Felice, as represented by this disc, may be summed up as a prayerful pixie, somewhat on the order of Francis Poulenc, but with an unmistakable American accent. His whimsies and reflections ultimately proceed from the same idiosyncratic place, and that makes this diverse anthology of Felice works a felicitous listening experience.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Pacifica Quartet offers first-time recordings of three works by currently active women composers

 Among the prominent string quartets well-represented on recordings, the Pacifica Quartet is also known through concerts (before the pandemic shut down most concert activity) to music-lovers in central Indiana.Pacifica Quartet puts across three new works Pacifica Quartet records three new pieces by women.

Further evidence of its international reach, as it has adjusted to personnel changes after making its reputation, is "Contemporary Voices" (Cedille Records). New recordings of works by Shulamit Ran (a world premiere), Jennifer Higdon, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich make up the program. It's played convincingly by violinists Simin Ganatra and Austin Hartman; violist Mark Holloway, and cellist Brandon Vamos.

The fifth performer, who like the quartet is associated with the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, is Otis Murphy, brought in for Zwilich's Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet.

Zwilich's compositions have been championed here by John Nelson when he was music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and she composed the commissioned work for the 8th Quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.  Murphy has been heard as an ISO guest artist and, with its original personnel, the Pacifica was engaged for the chamber-music round of the American Pianists' Association competition in 2018.

Zwilich's work fuses Murphy's mellifluous playing to the string-quartet genre, most notably in the fast second movement. Brisk "chase" music with heavy accents characterizes the movement, and the saxophone is very much a part of the texture. 

The procedure is carried off well in the other movements, with a slight boost into a solo role for saxophone in the finale, whose pastoral opening gives way to blues-flavored music before the work comes to a thoughtful close. The opening movement is slow throughout, and charms the listener with a kind of ambivalent march that somewhat recalls Prokofiev. Zwilich, of course, by now has her own signature to apply to any such evocation.

Higdon's three-movement "Voices" lends its cryptic title to the whole release. The prolific composer is well-known — also somewhat in Indianapolis, where her violin concerto was premiered by Hilary Hahn with the ISO in 2009.  Untypically aggressive at the start, "Voices"  has a spiky first movement aptly titled "Blitz." The emphasis on abstract stage portraits of human expression carries through in "Soft Enlacing," whose quirky title signals the manner in which its restlessness hints strongly at desiring rest. To conclude the voice symbolism magically, the energy and commitment of "Grace" captures the way that  quality comes to us with effort and a surge of emotional and intellectual focus in tandem, which I take to be the main import of the movement's climax.

Ran's "Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory" (String Quartet No. 3) memorializes Felix Nussbaum, a German-Jewish painter who died in the Holocaust. Ran learned about the artist while in residence at the American Academy in Rome nine years ago. She was touched by his commitment to his work all the while knowing he was doomed, along with so many others.

The work is startling, yet very much grounded in clear-eyed insights into Nussbaum's life and art. "That Which Happened," the first movement, passes its febrile agitation around the quartet. The sense of life insistent upon expression even amid regime-caused interruptions is intensely represented. In "Menace," the second movement, a whistling episode in unison with violin near the end caps music of wry humor and a sort of warped lyricism. 

"If I perish — do not let my paintings die" is a quotation from the artist that functions as a title and governs the third movement, where persistence in the face of adversity seems to be represented by repeated plucked figures and wispy runs. "Shards, Memory" wraps up this riveting work with its wistfulness and insistence on tugging the mind toward a past that, as Nussbaum and millions of others were to learn, was not to yield to a bright, whole future but rather the shards of Kristallnacht and the ruin of European Jewish life that followed. Nussbaum died at Auschwitz in 1944. 





Thursday, August 6, 2020

Maria Schneider fleshes out her concerns about AI and the natural world in 'Data Lords'

There are extensive notes by the "Data Lords" composer about the music on this two-disc set. The listener ignores them with difficulty, but maybe that's a core part of Maria Schneider's intention. The much-admired bandleader wants to juxtapose our entanglement in "The Digital World" (Disc 1) with the realm the human race has inherited over countless eons, "Our Natural World" (Disc 2). You can find it on
Maria Schneider extends her creative breadth

The choice of the first modifier in each phrase is significant: The natural world is "ours" because of our overdetermined inheritance of its forces, fates, and pleasures; but if we look at what we've created artificially in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, technology's threat of separation from us is signaled by that "the."

The music on the two discs is self-justifying but unfailingly programmatic as well. "A World Lost" opens the first "Data Lords" CD; Ben Monder's floating, lyrical guitar line, at first accompanied just by piano and percussion, dominates. After the band joins in, Rich Perry's tenor sax solo etches a lament on top of the ensemble, which takes on fleeting dissonance and a telling anxiety.

Subsequently, two pieces that bulk large in "The Digital World" — "Don't Be Evil" and "Data Lords" (the title piece) — seem too long. All sorts of menace occur to Schneider to evoke in the former work, from quavery muted brass through splashes of piano chords and arpeggios against the ensemble to the quote of the funereal "Taps" at the very end. (The title kept me thinking of Thad Jones' "Don't Git Sassy," but that association may be accidental, given the Google motto she explicitly evokes.)

The occasion via commission for those two pieces suggests that something quite substantial was required of Schneider. What she came up with  nearly overwhelms "The Digital World" as a suite.

"Our Natural World" (in and out of the quote marks) is where Schneider's deepest and most genuine sympathies lie. You must still deal with a Schneider tendency to maximize her virtuosity as an arranger, to avoid saying too little with her expert forces. The gracefulness with which the carefully selected solo showcases are filled — particularly by Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Gary Versace, accordion, and Marshall Gilkes, trombone — puts across the real-world human connectivity she claims for her music. And some who admire her extension of big-band tone painting for which Gil Evans is the archetype will have no problem with what I sometimes hear to be rhetorical overkill across Schneider's elaborate canvases.

"Data Lords" will join a discography that speaks well for the expressive amplitude of large-ensemble jazz.