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" don't sound arbitrary, but instead serve as indications 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.



 

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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.
Company'
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.