Monday, February 24, 2020

'Primary Colors': A trumpet-keyboard duo recording that stretches into sonic experimentation

Sometimes cleaning out a basement yields more than junk or sentimental knickknacks. John Vanore, whose
career as trumpeter also rests on the little big band he directed called Abstract Truth, dug out some cassette tapes he made with keyboardist Ron Thomas in the mid-1980s.
John Vanore revived duo sessions

Digitizing  these sessions and making them public has yielded "Primary Colors", three-quarters of an hour's worth of stimulating dialogues between Thomas and Vanore. The live studio recording is subject to some overlays and occasional expansion of the natural resonance of the acoustic instruments; recording and mixing credit goes to Terry Hoffman.

At the forefront are Vanore's horns — the trumpet and its mellow-voiced cousin, the flugelhorn — with most of the keyboard variety enabled by synthesizer and studio legerdemain, like the cymbals that decorate the opening track, Thomas' "Final Dawn." The moody, restless accompaniment complements Vanore's lyrical tone, and the long-phrased ballad setting exhibits his comfortable control. Both horns get some simultaneous interplay in Lionel Richie's "Lady." The piano is loaded with extra resonance, and overall the treatment seems a trifle aimless for the sake of sound. Fortunately, the disc's sonic woolgathering is confined to "Lady."

The most extensive outreach works pretty well in Vanore's "Origins of Rude," a salute to Miles Davis' funky electronic period. The foreground is cluttered over a bass ostinato, and Thomas sports an electric harpsichord timbre. The highly charged mix eases up as it goes along, becoming less aggressive before subsiding into a fadeout.

I prefer the more mainstream side of these dialogues, though it must be conceded that adventures in studio experimentation rooted in jazz of 35 years ago lend this disc an inviting novelty.  Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays" finds the duo conventional in delivering a straight-ahead performance, with the freshness contributed mainly via a "hopping" treatment of the familiar melody. Vanore's crisp articulation is notable, but he doesn't allow that to lead him toward overaccenting the line. He displays a good low register, and here and elsewhere seems quite comfortable all along the spectrum of both instruments, confining higher blasts to "Origins of Rude."

Vanore is imaginative in a rubato solo cadenza to launch another evergreen, "Secret Love" (Sammy Fain, Paul Francis Webster), alluding to the melody slyly before falling into tempo with Thomas's assistance and delivering the theme. After solos, the two come up with an attractive coda that amounts to the perfect exit line for "Primary Colors."

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Carmel Symphony Orchestra, Actors Theatre of Indiana join forces in Sondheim's 'dark operetta'

If you have a good feeling about Valentine's Day, you might well think of it as having its own season — a small
Sweeney Todd (Don Farrell) sings in praise of his "friends," the razors of his trade.
one, of course, and not for the sake of florists, candy sellers, and greeting-card makers, but all for love.

So maybe Friday night, a week after February 14, I was still basking in its glow, oddly enough, to take in "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" as a love story. Love thwarted and violated, love enduring in distorted form, love misapplied and criminally directed. Love, the companion of lies and madness. Love emerging somehow from dire threats, triumphing against all odds.

What Stephen Sondheim called his "dark operetta" enjoys a semi-staged production, whose second and final performance will be tonight at the Palladium, with Actors Theatre of Indiana in collaboration with the Carmel Symphony Orchestra. Coincidentally, the performances come the weekend after the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's accompanied showings of "Casablanca," whose score by Max Steiner is one of the film classic's glories. "At the age of ten, I was more a fan of Korngold than of Kern, more of Steiner than of [Richard] Strauss," Sondheim writes in his enthralling volume of self-commentary and second thoughts, "Finishing the Hat."

In other words, as a child, the major creator of American musical theater in the late 20th century found neither stage musicals nor classical music as attractive as movies. And that interest had something to do with the pervasive underscoring in the classic film scores by Steiner, Erich Korngold, and Bernard Herrmann. It carried over into Sondheim's 1979 masterpiece (to Hugh Wheeler's book, derived from Christopher Bond's play, with Jonathan Turick's orchestrations), which is so magnificently represented in the Carmel production.

Thus it's a signal achievement that the splendid Carmel Symphony occupies most of the Palladium stage and that such care has been lavished upon the music under the dialogue as much as on the songs. Janna Hymes, the CSO's music director, conducted a fit and febrile rendering of the score, well-coordinated with the cast, supplemented in song, chiefly "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," by the black-robed Indianapolis Arts Chorale in the gallery.

The portrayal of the title character by Don Farrell had a dark charisma that never flagged. The hypnotic intensity of "My Friends," the barber's paean to the tools of his trade, united the character's weird obsession with razors to nostalgia for his old life in London and the bitter retribution he plans to exact for his forced exile years before. "He handles them as if they were sacred objects and sings softly," the stage direction reads. It was one of many moments when Farrell completely inhabited the demon persona essential to the role.

This is vital, because though the show has loads of humor (much of it gruesome) and barbed commentary on social injustice rivaling "The Threepenny Opera," it is fundamentally a serious examination of love gone haywire. The former Benjamin Barker was a family man, no doubt about it. London's upper crust, personified here by a lecherous judge, has decreed that the happiness of the lower orders may be obliterated with impunity, and the barber and his young family are this story's hapless victims. Now with a new identity as Sweeney Todd, the convict returned from Australian exile is ready to set matters right after his own fashion.

Mrs. Lovett envisions life by the sea, but Sweeney Todd's vistas are sepulchral.
Broadening his quest for vengeance after an accidental failure to slit the judge's throat, Todd resolves to subject any and all customers to the closest of shaves. In the equivalent of an operatic scena titled "Epiphany," Todd's demon takes charge, and Farrell's performance of this number was a highlight of Friday's performance. It properly cast a shadow over the mirthful duet that follows, "A Little Priest," in which Todd and the seedy pie baker Nelly Lovett celebrate with punning amusement the expansive business they intend to set up, rendering serial murder into a marketable viand.

Richard J Roberts' stage direction seethes with appropriate action in both numbers. Throughout, his skill and imagination certainly push the "semi-staged" description past the halfway point; a walkway around behind the orchestra gives the action breadth, but most of it takes place right before us on Paul Bernard Killian's appropriately sketchy set, in which the tonsorial parlor, the restaurant, and the basement kitchen are necessarily set side by side. We have to imagine the operation of gravity (the physical kind), though the gravity of the Todd/Lovett scheme is never in doubt, as dispatched customers are dumped down the chute past the dining room and into an ever-stoked baking oven.

Judy Fitzgerald embodies Mrs. Lovett in all her loquacious Cockney verve and resourcefulness. Love is the engine driving her involvement with the touchy Todd, and Fitzgerald caught both the sly temporizing and the shabby dreams that motivate the amoral baker. Every telltale facial expression and gesture was delightfully in place. The other ATI co-founder, Cynthia Collins, plays the Beggar Woman whose real identity hovers ghost-like over the plot. Her sporadic intrusions onto the scene, with her mental distraction hinting at the bad business afoot on Fleet Street, always brought goosebumps.

In other roles, Mathew Conwell and Elizabeth Hutson gave the right optimistic ardor and youthful energy to the nearly doomed couple displaying the hopeful side of love. Their singing was of a buoyant piece with their  ingenuous portrayals. Tim Fullerton presented a looming figure of menace as the corrupt, lascivious Judge Turpin, with Michael Elliott as the complaisant Beadle, a minor official in a position to create major trouble for the meat-pie business. Mario Almonte III rates a mention for the comic gusto he brought to the role of Adolfo Pirelli, a Todd rival and snake-oil charlatan who's made short work of. His murder spurs the new business and allows it to pick up the services of the simple-minded Tobias, played with nuanced pathos by David Cunningham ("Not While I'm Around" is perhaps the show's one breakout song, though it's much more affecting in context).

On a technical note, the face microphones are of course necessary to allow the cast to project above the orchestra. That's a given: The problem is that some of the patter-song lyrics get blurred, though Mrs. Lovett's mostly come through heroically. More crucially, Sondheim favors spotlighting individual contributions in choruses, and these almost never stand out: The street brouhaha around Pirelli and the later meat-pie raving of satisfied  diners ("God, That's Good!") are rather stewed together, and the audience can be only partly aware of this particular recipe in Sondheim's master cookbook.

For the most part, the seasoning is piquant and judiciously applied throughout.  The cinematic progression of scenes consistently catches one up in the music as well as the story. Sondheim's final word on the work, which this production honors expertly, runs like this: "What 'Sweeney Todd' really is is a movie for the stage." As such, it's every bit as much a love story — in its own weird way — as "Casablanca." Season's greetings!














Monday, February 17, 2020

Bass player Max Gerl, heading quartet, salutes Georgian capital in 'Tbilisi'

The Georgian capital is spelled two different ways on the jacket for this
Bass is the place: Max Gerl shows mastery of plugged-in and unplugged kinds.
disc (Dolfin Records), and I chose to go with Tbilisi, which online occurred more than "Tblisi." The three I's have it. 

That's the only conspicuous error in this release on a Dallas-based label. The music inside is engaging. Max Gerl is a bassist of great facility and expressive range, especially on the electric instrument.

 "Tbilisi" as a title tune on this short disc shows off his colleague on tenor sax, Aaron Shaw, in busy dialogue with drummer Mike Mitchell. When it's time for the leader to take the spotlight, his drive and wealth of fast-paced ideas are immediately evident.

Gerl's acoustic bass states the tune of "It Happened to Me" and the piano sits out for a while while the trio fills the room edge to edge a la Ornette Coleman. Paul Cornish makes up for lost time once the piano gets involved.

On "Suntrip,"  Shaw's tenor, whose distinctiveness I admire for the most part, reveals a limitation in tone for this kind of cosmic exploration. He displays a broad sound that suits the piece, but little depth. Three monstrous Coltrane-like dimensions are called for in this sort of thing, and Shaw doesn't command them. 

The finale, "Counter," opens with a short figure introduced by the piano, joined hand-in-glove by the sax; then it settles into a heady pace sustained by the quartet in full cry. There's another fine solo by the leader, his electric bass unfolding phrases in nimble octaves. The pianist picks up on the obsessive nature of the tune's opening figure in his solo. The ensemble restates the head material, and, though I'm normally no fan of fadeouts, resorting to that practice here seems just about right, giving the listener a chance to exhale.

It may be more a matter of taste than a persistent flaw that the recording quality seems acoustically flat and unresonant. There are silences that don't hang in the air naturally, as if the engineer intentionally cut the microphones right after a note's release. Fans of the piano may particularly be aware of its shallowness and lack of tonal bloom. If you adjust your ears to that quality, however, there is much to enjoy musically over the course of this concise program.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The system in a closed car: Monument Theatre Company presents 'Dutchman'


Lula (Dani Gibbs) feeds Clay (Jamaal McCray) the forbidden fruit in America's lost Eden.
Traveling by myself, I once toured George Washington's estate, Mount Vernon, on a warm day when the grounds were streaming with visitors. You could have private moments outside or join a crowd lining up to go through the living quarters and other buildings. I was standing looking at the slave burial ground, and about thirty feet away a solitary black man, surveying the same scene, was musing wearily aloud: "Buried without their names — they didn't even leave them with their names."

Wanting to say something  sympathetic, I halted because it would sound like a lecture. It would have come across as "white-splaining" for me to say something about the system that worked those departed against their will and beyond their control, then buried them unidentified. It would have sounded insensitive to ask the rhetorical question: how could the owners of these people have memorialized them as individuals when they had been considered property all their lives?

When he still used his birth name LeRoi Jones, Amiri Baraka wrote "Dutchman," the white-hot one-act play that Monument Theatre Company is presenting at Indy Convergence through next weekend. The play homes in on a subway confrontation between two young people, a black man and a white woman. But it is caught up in the larger symbolism that relationship implies, and it has much to say about the system that has extended from slavery through its aftermath, up to the present day.

Jones was attracted to the larger implications of American race relations, which fed acute suspicion of the integrationist mindset. Shortly after "Dutchman" he left behind his bohemian lifestyle and Jewish wife to embrace black nationalism. He had been the foremost African-American ornament in the literary counterculture, and his drastic shift in priorities made him something of a Lost Leader, to borrow Robert Browning's designation of the aging Wordsworth. Jones' poetry, having shown signs of a whimsical, fragmented identity, became an explicit revolutionary tool, in Baraka's view and that of his associates. It also veered into anti-Semitism, which was to interfere with honors some felt he was entitled to later in life.

But the same system held sway throughout Baraka's evolution; the author's perspective on it changed. The changes are adumbrated in "Dutchman." Wrestling with myths that are part of racial oppression, Jones upends the dangerous stereotype of the rapacious black male lusting after white women. In this play, Lula is the sexual aggressor while Clay, the middle-class student in suit and tie, is uncomfortably cast as the victim of her desire. Her temptress style is symbolically linked to another myth: Eve, partaking of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden and persuading the first man to share in what became known as the original sin. Apples are munched with gusto as the dialogue gets under way, soon to be discarded as the interplay becomes more explicit.

"Dutchman" has the feel of a work in which the author is working something out for himself, based on his experience in and out of books and art.  The characters are vivid stand-ins for perspectives that have long shaped American race relations. Clay's occasional references to Jews hint at what became explicit animosity in Baraka's poetry. Clay's celebration of black musical icons — Bessie Smith and Charlie Parker — chafes at white fans' absorption of them and their likely misunderstanding of their cultural significance. Jones worked these themes hard in two 1960s books of sociology and music criticism: "Blues People" and "Black Music."

Directed with admirable focus and momentum by Shawn Whitsell, Jamaal McCray and Dani Gibbs handle well the range of exhibitionism and reserve the characters go through, provoked by each other and (more important) America's unresolved racial divisions. Fewer instances of the mocking chuckle or snort Lula tags onto nearly everything she says at first would have been welcome, but there is no question the character came on as a full-throttle femme fatale.

Counterpointed to her in the performance I saw Saturday are the caution and curiosity of Clay, obviously brought up to safeguard upward mobility while steering clear of white supremacy's obstacles as much as possible. He is goaded about his name, his fashion sense, his manners, and his social position. When he explodes, Lula falls silent; Gibbs' facial expressions aptly altered between pouting and fear. And McCray intensified his portrayal to make Clay's vision of murder credibly linked to his freedom. "Dutchman" suggests that neither incremental change nor righteous violence is the path forward.

Lacking the presence of a crowd of subway passengers onstage, the production's audience becomes fellow travelers. If you sit in a conspicuous place, you may find Clay in your face and tearing your program (standing in for the script's New York Times) from your hands, as I did. In a play so obviously symbolic, like a lab experiment in racism, the feeling that this drama is playing to an empty subway car is not a major issue. The battle is joined, and just before the final blackout, Lula is preparing to snare another victim (Deont'a Stark).

Almost contemporaneous with "Dutchman" is a Jones novel titled "The System of Dante's Hell." It's not a good novel, but a lively (and deadly) pastiche of scenes from the Newark ghetto of Jones' background — a kind of Dostoyevskyan notes from underground. But the title and some aspects of its structure reveal the author's consciousness that the system was rigged against black people, and that the pathology had been internalized.

Whether enslaved or subsequently, African-Americans still wrestle with a vast conspiracy against their full humanity. The man I wished I'd spoken to at Mount Vernon focused on the visible lack of this recognition at the slave burial ground, but I suspect he knew deeply what a major part of his own living heritage that anonymity was. Jones/Baraka chafed against the system that kept the conspiracy alive; he went in a direction it may be presumptuous of me to call wrong. But he continued to pursue a struggle that had a strong sense of justice behind it. If you attend "Dutchman," you will be powerfully forced to examine the myth he applied to that struggle.






Saturday, February 15, 2020

ISO Film Series: Reveling in Max Steiner's score for 'Casablanca'

Filling the Hilbert Circle Theatre to the rafters, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra presented its first film accompaniment of the New Year Friday night to a showing of the classic "Casablanca."
Max Steiner conducting a studio orchestra in one of his scores.

Some people put the 1942 movie near the top of their  favorites. It must also be near the summit of any list, if anyone has bothered to count, of widely known lines and phrases from the script. It's a love story nuanced and genuine enough  to suit Valentine's weekend (there's another showing tonight) and also pertinent today as the free world largely dreads a shift toward totalitarianism.

Jack Everly conducts the ISO's performance of the movie's music, featuring one of the prolific Max Steiner's most memorable scores. A native of Austria, thoroughly trained and lauded in music from his youth, the immigrant Steiner pioneered symphonic scoring for motion pictures shortly after the Silent Era. "King Kong" (1933) is often mentioned as a milestone in a specialty that was developed by many others as well for about three decades. The 1960s saw a shift to pop music and electronic scoring that has sustained itself for the last half-century.

Steiner made full use of two tunes he didn't create, cued by their full versions in the movie: "La Marseillaise," the national anthem of the French republic, and "As Time Goes By," a philosophical love song from 1931 by Herman Hupfeld. The latter is the signature "our song" of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), whose interrupted romance in Paris drives the plot of "Casablanca." It's sung, initially to Rick's displeasure, by Sam, who left France with his boss to become an entertainment fixture at the piano of Blaine's new club, Rick's Cafe Americain, in Casablanca, Morocco.

But Steiner also exploits the melodies motivically, after the example of Richard Wagner. This means a familiar phrase may act as a jog to the memory (leitmotif) and also as a reminder of the central love affair's fragility, how subject it is to undermining. Turmoil caused by Nazi Germany's wartime conquest of its neighbors involved millions, and one of the ethical triumphs of "Casablanca" is its recognition of this, however much we may want to focus on Rick, Ilsa, and Ilsa's husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). As Rick puts it, in one of the film's memorable lines: “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

Thus, a cadence from the Hupfeld song will sometimes end wryly, quizzically or portentously in a harmonic shift. The swelling notes of romance, so well played Friday as centered in the ISO strings, are rarely given a blithe setting — chiefly in the flashbacks to Rick and Ilsa's happy times in Paris. Steiner's score is adept in "uh-oh" moments, as when Ilsa unexpectedly enters Rick's Cafe Americain, surprising the proprietor, who famously laments later while binging: "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."

From the time she enters the club through her departure, the underscoring is superb in conveying the unsettling effect of a reunion Rick never expected and never wanted. But something approaching closure, a staple of fiction on the screen or on the page, will not be denied. And from the first scene on, the exotic milieu is conveyed by Steiner's occasional suggestion of Arab music, recurring when the action briefly moves to the Blue Parrot, a rival nightclub, where the manipulative owner Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) swats flies when he's not scheming.

As directed by Michael Curtiz, the macro and micro worlds continually intersect in "Casablanca," and Steiner's score reflects the mingling. When the band strikes up the Marseillaise to drown out a fatherland song by a Nazi contingent under Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), the orchestration grows in full glory to supplement the on-screen singing. It's one of the most moving episodes in the film; it never fails to be spine-tingling even when you can see it coming. It's especially so with a "live" orchestra. And it must be said that the subtitles throughout are valuable, because you can hardly expect actual onstage musicians to somehow fold their sound under the dialogue as it would be when "Casablanca" is seen with the soundtrack as originally recorded. You're there to hear things you might not have noticed via video or in the movie theater.

The whole of the second act, when the cat-and-mouse game between Rick and Capt. Renault, Casablanca's prefect (Claude Rains), moves toward a climax, is a masterly landscape of musical suspense. In one of classic Hollywood's most memorable finales, the plane bearing Viktor and Ilsa away takes off in the fog, as Rick and Renault fade from view, walking along the tarmac, contemplating the beginning of a beautiful friendship, free of the troubled wartime city. The orchestra swells, as only it can when present before us, while our view cuts to the quaint projection of "The End" on the screen.







Friday, February 14, 2020

Dance Kaleidoscope celebrates love of country and those other kinds, too

"American Valentine" is how the holiday weekend is being celebrated by Dance Kaleidoscope on the main stage at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

The title encapsulates the balance of the program's two acts between the "Our America" celebration by the company's dancers in pieces designed for last year's Indy Fringe Festival and diverse DK repertoire dances by artistic director David Hochoy and two guest choreographers under the title "Facets of Love."

Jillian Godwin's "A Home for All" exemplifies the choreographer's distrust of barriers.
We are accustomed to thinking of "anthology" as a designation for a collection of literary pieces. However enthralling such volumes can be, they are a product of selections marketed around an attractive theme. "American Love" is an anthology that returns us to the word's roots, from the Greek meaning a gathering of flowers. The organic imagery is important, because this program is a fragrant bouquet of diverse lived experience expressed in dance form.

Bouquets have long been a major feature of Valentine's Day, but this gathering of cultivated tributes to love deserves to move to the front of the display. In the dancers' half of the program, idealism rules the day. This is clear from the spoken introductions to each piece, testimony to the choreographers' remarkable verbal eloquence, which almost matches the kind they have set upon their colleagues.

I want to hold up some of the stronger impressions "Our America" made on me as "American Love" premiered Thursday night. The lengthy title of retired dancer Mariel Greenlee's show-opening piece, "We hold these dream to be self evident," signals its blend of one of the Declaration of Independence's most famous phrases and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" 1963 speech at the Washington Mall. The choreography puts equal stress on the holding and the dreaming in a freshly ceremonial way.

Pointed social commentary vitalizes a few of the current DK dancers' creations. As it did memorably at its Fringe premiere, Missy Thompson's "The Jones Effect" skewers the "keeping-up-with-the-Joneses" consumerist drive while not getting silly about it. Social regimentation, often entered into voluntarily, is reflected in movement in which nonconformity vies with individual self-assertion.

The satirical element reminded me of a 1960s wall poster, crowded with identical hippie figures, marching in lockstep under the slogan "Protest Against the Rising Tide of Conformity." It was a dig at a widely seen poster carrying the same slogan, with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez posed on either side. The American reality has long been stocked with competing stances on that idea; nearly everyone is inclined to assert themselves until they realize they are doing so a little too much.

Similarly juxtaposed viewpoints clash in Manuel Valdes' powerful "In the Midst of a Storm." Six drab-garbed
Kaleidoscopic patterning: Taylor and King duet.
women move under oppression in the opening scene, their individuality muted, only to then declare their liberation, their limbs free and with skirts emphasizing freedom of movement. In "A Home for All," Jillian Godwin has used a long piece of fabric to represent a wall whose initial dividing function among a large group is ambiguous, eventually closing in around one dancer expressing resurgent determination to rise over the barrier.

Three other pieces focused on celebration: Aaron Steinberg's "Boatman's Dance" used Aaron Copland's folk-song setting to shape an exuberant, idiomatic work for two couples; Paige Robinson's  "Open Horizon" uses part of Ferde Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" to send three women in circling energy about the stage like Botticelli's 'Three Graces"  animated, following the concentrated force of a violin cadenza interpreted with her usual intensity by Jillian Godwin; and the finale, Stuart Coleman's "Kaleidoscope." The work outfits a sizable ensemble in glowing pastel colors that contrast from dancer to dancer. The lively score by Peter Boyer, in a compound meter (3-3-3-2) well-designed and -executed, has a charming respite in the middle, a duet featuring the deft partnership of Kieran King and Sarah Taylor.

The second half brought forward in concentrated form several displays of Hochoy's imagination as applied to the theme of love over the years. The capstone was the "Fire" movement from "The Four Elements," one of the most expansive and emotionally charged of the artistic director's more abstract pieces, joined at the hip to music.

Set to a pulsating performance by Tito Puente's foundational mambo band,  "Fire" is also a sublime representative of the collective wisdom of Hochoy and his longtime collaborators, lighting designer Laura E. Glover and costume designer Cheryl Sparks. The ensemble unity of the current DK company is as good as ever, and its virtuosity in this piece is relentlessly exercised. What a steady blaze in our hearts this piece stoked beyond all the flickering love cliches that light up Valentine's Day!

Earlier in the program, the audience is treated to a few incandescent duets by Hochoy. Each had its distinction. "Some Enchanted Evening" put Aaron Steinberg in sympathetic partnership with Sarah Taylor, who made the most of Hochoy's exalted concept by seeming to float on winds of enchantment. Less ethereal duo performances included the steamy "Seasons Tango," to music of Astor Piazzolla, danced by Marie Kuhns and Stuart Coleman, seasoned with a drizzle of wit. To amend the J. Geils song title, love also winks.

Guest vocalist Doug Dilling sings "End of the World," danced by Stuart Coleman and Kieran King.
To start the program's second half off in the mood of classical romance, Hochoy has brought back his "Romeo and Juliet" balcony scene as a vehicle for Aleksa Lukasiewicz and Kieran King, to which they bring both ardor and nobility. For a dynamic prelude, he uses his setting of the Montague-Capulet street brawl that symbolizes the feud making the love affair so dangerous. Hochoy's humor, a resource he can draw upon with the same degree of commitment, is showcased in "Stand By Your Man," an updated version of the eternal triangle, with Missy Thompson, Manuel Valdes, and Aaron Steinberg drolly effective. Guy Clark's costumes are rightly a lampoon on country chic. Obliquely, the setting undercuts the retro sexism of Tammy Wynette's singing.

Hochoy's guests vary the program even from a style as capacious as his: Cynthia Pratt moves across a spectrum of three duets in "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." The versatility of the choreography for three couples both celebrates the song's message and usefully relieves the Roberta Flack recording of some of its iconic dead-seriousness. And for a sassy contrast, another three couples cavort zestfully to Michael Jackson's performance of "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)," as choreographed by Nicholas A. Owens.

"American Valentine" is a true anthology. The kind you might find delightful to read is another matter entirely. This one blooms through Sunday. Take time to smell the roses.
 


[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]









Monday, February 10, 2020

Zaniness rules in Civic Theatre's 'Much Ado About Nothing'

The director's note in the "Much Ado About Nothing" program book gets directly to the historic significance of the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre's current production.

It's the first full-length Shakespeare production ever for the company that began life 105 years ago as Indianapolis Civic Theatre, Emily Rogge Tzucker notes. The second performance I saw Saturday night revealed a production approach that spoke to Civic's broad appeal to its loyal public: Go deep on occasion, but bring instantly communicable theater values to the fore.

When it comes to comedy, underline it and maximize its connection with ordinary feelings. Give it a look that's strong on style: With scenic and lighting design by Ryan Koharchik, this production basks in Southern California sunlight, with a curvy stucco house front in Mission Revival and topiaries artfully placed around the yard — the home of media mogul Leonato (the play's governor of Messina). The action has been updated to right after World War II, placed for us immediately after a pre-curtain Swing Era soundtrack by interpolated radio patter from a deejay who calls himself "Billy Shakes." Multiple adjustments have to be made subsequently in the audience's mind: references to armor, swords, princes, and lords remain in the text, as they must.

Civic's "Much Ado": Benedick and Beatrice mix repartee with true romance.
Though the playwright drew upon ancient stories of marriageable women unjustly accused of infidelity, with the mistake eventually corrected for the sake of a happy ending, "Much Ado About Nothing" has long charmed readers and playgoers with its livelier subplot. So it's no departure from the play's essence that the feisty relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is foremost in Civic's production.

Antagonistic at the start, with every conversation striking sparks, the poor little rich girl Beatrice and the young officer Benedick eventually cast aside their warrior masks to reveal their true love. Each prompted by friends to be certain of the other's devotion, they are also moved by how the straightforward love of the young aristocrat Claudio (Nicholas Gibbs) and Hero, Leonato's daughter (Carly Masterson), has become undone by a plot against their marriage. Once that's set right and the villainy exposed, the well-practiced mutual resistance of Benedick and Beatrice falls away.

John Kern and Sara Castillo Dandurand are the unlikely lovers in roles that have provided a durable rom-com model for generations, fed by Hollywood. The director acknowledges this as the chief motive in her change of setting. Her interest in projecting that initial hostility was evident in the performance I saw, but some reluctance to let the witty dialogue carry the burden was also evident. Beatrice's barbs draw friendly laughter from onlookers, which makes them seem like the heroine's partisans and turns Benedick more into the butt of her
jokes. That adds to an imbalance that Shakespeare put there, insofar as the lady is the stronger character. Why not let the barbed badinage stand on its own two feet?

Fortunately, Kern's portrayal is strongly defined, making Benedick's path toward romantic ardor believable despite the obstacles he has long placed in it, with Beatrice's eager help. Dandurand's asperity in her role is vivid and fierce, despite the way its verbal splendor is partially masked by stage laughter. The director moves Benedick and Beatrice plausibly with respect to each other; the ambivalence is there as they lock in visually even when they seem most at odds.

Among the host of male roles, most stalwart in their representation of authority and "man-splaining" are Leonato and Don Pedro, prince of Aragon, as played by Tom Beeler and Joshua Ramsey. Darby Kear crisply sounded the master note of villainy, an unrewarding two-dimensional role, as Don John, Pedro's resentful brother and engineer of the plot against Hero.

Exposing the plot through happenstance is the slapstick team of Dogberry, Messina's master constable, played to the hilt by Kelsey VanVoorst. Dogberry and his/her bumbling assistants in the town's night watch are not the most inspired representatives of Shakespeare's low comedy. I can understand why a broad interpretation is tempting, but dialing down the ridiculousness might serve this production better. Malapropisms, a chief ingredient of Dogberry's buffoonery, are tedious on the page but can feel jolly good on the stage, especially as satire on officious types puffing up their minor status. In this performance, however, the word play is buried under well-designed but excessive physical comedy. The irony of a bunch of incompetents uncovering a scheme their clueless betters are unable to detect is delicious enough.

Another aspect of cartoonish stylization makes more sense, however: scenes in which Benedick and Beatrice
Male quintet bonds over "Sigh No More," a Marty-Shakespeare instant hit.
separately overhear their friends proclaiming their rivals' secret devotion. Eavesdropping juicing the plot is a hoary staple of stage drama (including the tragic instances in "Hamlet" and "Othello") and it probably deserves the kind of elaborate send-up the director gives it here. Other blithe touches that worked well were the ensemble tango early on and the celebratory swing dancing at the end. And Brent E. Marty fashioned a cute pop tune for a guy vocal group to go with Shakespeare's "Sigh No More," led by Jonathan Doram as Balthazar.

These were sort of secondary delights that served the main thrust of the production well. It's just that underneath there seemed to be some anxiety about how little the audience would understand unless the stage business was unrestrained. Yet the play's very title is a warning to anyone tempted to question details of an entertainment as well put-together as this one.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Stature over statuettes: ISO guest conductor generates a mighty 'Symphonie fantastique,' rising soprano is illuminating

How far in advance a Classical Series program dominated by Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique" was scheduled on Oscar weekend isn't known to me, but it was a masterstroke on the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra season.

The work carries a scenario of cinematic breadth and intensity. It's a landmark in the repertoire, an amazing composer debut in the symphony form, which Hector Berlioz shattered here and subsequently. In the same decade Berlioz departed this life, another norm-busting French composer entered it: Claude Debussy once said there was no excuse for the symphony after Beethoven's Ninth. At the tender age of 27, Berlioz anticipated that sentiment, embodying it uniquely in "Symphonie fantastique."

The imaginative transformation of a love affair suffused with idealism (and eventually to result in a disappointing marriage), the Fantastic Symphony set the stage for a host of "symphonic poems" and more formally conventional works that fulfilled the promise of romanticism throughout the 19th century. Narratively scrupulous pieces of minor importance, such as Dvorak's "Noonday Witch" and "The Water Goblin," are still worth hearing, and for even more literalism, sometimes overstuffed and vaunting, there's a host of viable Richard Strauss pieces.

Marc Albrecht makes his ISO conducting debut this weekend.
The Berlioz stands out not only for its pioneering status, but also because it seems to predict cinematic techniques, from panorama to close-up. It is both a character study and a fever-dream, and that's how it came across Friday night. It goes beyond the picturesque, and it overmasters any conceivable movie version. It subsumes the very idea of representation that movie scoring must serve.

It was last heard here nearly five years ago, in a dramatically highlighted interpretation led by Jun Märkl. Friday night's was under the baton of an ISO-debut guest conductor, Marc Albrecht. It had a somewhat more introspective cast and broadened its horizons almost hesitantly in approaching the tumult of the last two movements, "March to the Scaffold" and "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath." "Scene in the Country," a slow movement that can seem finicky and tedious in uninspired hands, held the suspense that had been generated by the first two movements; much of the credit must go to Roger Roe's plaintive English-horn soloing.

Is there to be fulfillment of the lover's irrepressible passion? Well, as just about everyone knows, the upshot is conclusively the opposite – a hell of murderous rage and nightmarish retribution. It's movie music avant le lettre — movie music that doesn't need a movie, whose sound blends both visual and psychological components.

Berlioz himself might be the subject of a biopic, but it probably wouldn't be a good one. How many of them are? I can see an actor capable of rendering outward a clutch of internal torments, someone like Jude Law, who was so good as Thomas Wolfe in "Genius." It would have to be an actor capable of making the composer's outbursts believable, someone who could put genuine passion into such incidents as the time Berlioz, in the audience for a performance of "Der Freischutz," stood up and shouted: "You don't want two flutes there, you brutes. You want two piccolos. Two piccolos, do you hear? Oh, the brutes!"

Julia Bullock got inside the Rimbaud/Britten mystery.
Harold Schonberg relates the tale in his "Lives of the Great Composers," along with Berlioz's account of the difficulty of writing prose, which he did superbly, yet often staring at a blank sheet of paper that seemed to refuse his every effort to begin: "I felt simply overcome by despair. There was a guitar standing against the table. With one kick I smashed it in the center." Two pistols hanging on the chimney seemed to tempt him to a final rash act, Berlioz goes on. "At last, like a schoolboy who cannot do his homework, I tore my hair and wept with furious indignation." Berlioz was someone who wrote his life, while living it, in lurid colors. Fortunately, he was able to render some of that in music that has captured imaginations ever since.

Not being subject to an editor's deadlines or the rages of genius, I will press on here, wanting to recommend tonight's repeat of the program, especially for the performance of Julia Bullock in Benjamin Britten's song cycle, "Les Illuminations." This song cycle, an ingenious setting with string-orchestra accompaniment of poetry by Arthur Rimbaud, brought from the young American soprano an interpretation that seemed to make the weird imagery sensible and emotionally compelling. Just as he would in the Berlioz, especially with the strings, Albrecht showed a knack for drawing out significant phrasing. The accompaniment thus became as expressive as the vocal line, which Bullock projected with clarity and urgency.

The program opened with "Le Tombeau de Couperin," a masterpiece for small orchestra by Maurice Ravel. Its four cunningly shaped movements are notable for the sonorously noble and vivid wind writing (chiefly solo oboe, beautifully played by Jennifer Christen). It was as if Albrecht was able to present as a calling card his careful but lively ability to manage how instrumental choirs balance and offset one another in well-designed music. Ravel was a more polished craftsman than Berlioz, but the interpretive elan so useful in the later work was not out of place in rendering the special, red-carpet Fantastic Symphony that followed intermission.











Thursday, February 6, 2020

Ensemble Music series: Polish string quartet works with Canadian pianist for sublime Dvorak

A string quartet of four young Polish musicians with a French name honors the traditional role of the Greek god Apollo as inspirer of the muses. Stravinsky's 1928 ballet, "Apollon Musagète," was later given a simpler title, "Apollo." Through his jealous championship of the lyre, the god has been celebrated as the divine force behind all music for strings.

Apollon Musagète reaches beyond the core repertoire, including work with Tori Amos.
The ensemble has extended the aura of that association, building an international reputation since its founding in Vienna in 2008. Wednesday evening the quartet played a program of Dvorak, Suk, and Schubert under the auspices of the Ensemble Music Society at the Glick Indiana History Center.

The high point involved a collaboration with Canadian pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin, who distinguished himself in the quartet's homeland as silver-prize winner  at the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. An expansive piece that remains at the summit of the repertoire for the combination of string quartet and piano, the Dvorak Quintet in A major, op. 81, enjoyed a luminous, supremely well-balanced performance Wednesday.

The Bohemian ethnic brand got startling prominence in the two middle movements — Dumka: Andante con moto and Furiant: Molto vivace. You rarely hear the slow-fast contrasts of Dumka episodes so sharply characterized in both mood and tempo as they were here. The rapid Furiant, in alternating meters, was consistently energized by accents and restless figuration. The pianist's sparkling tone matched the string players' glimmer and glow. And as the finale made clear — when I couldn't take my ears off the pianist, as it  were — Richard-Hamelin had an exquisitely balanced tone: great independence of finger meant that the proper weight was distributed among the notes of every chord. If Apollo was the inspirer of the muses. Richard-Hamelin seemed to be the inspirer of Apollon Musagète in this piece.

A Dvorak appetizer was offered by the quartet just before intermission. Two waltzes from Op. 54, originally piano pieces, were brightly played, given as much personality as their unpretentiousness deserved. Tempos had a plasticity well suited to the adaptable dance form the music celebrates. In the mostly headlong second waltz, the teasing push-pull of eastern European folk music, in which slowing cadences often set up fresh outbursts of energy, was charmingly rendered by the flawlessly coordinated foursome.

Josef Suk studied with Dvorak.
Bohemian roots of a much different sort nourished the program-opener, Josef Suk's Meditations on an Old Czech Hymn, "St. Wenceslas." The somber piece, with its carefully generated climax, emphasized Apollo Musagète's unanimity of phrasing and its balanced, eloquent yet restrained tone worthy of a fine choir.

There remained an oblique salute to the city of the quartet's origin: Vienna, as Apollon Musagète exhibited the burgeoning genius of Franz Schubert in his first string quartet (in G minor/B-flat major, D. 18). The work of a teenager — a prolific native son and, as it turned out, one without much of a life span to spare — it opened in an atmosphere that seemed a foreshadowing of the Suk piece. The first movement quickly brightens, however, and the quartet exhibited its well-considered distribution of melodic and ornamental features. In the second movement, first violinist Pawel Zalejski's serene, muted statement of the melody floated in unruffled grandeur.

The group's other members, speaking musically with a common mind here and elsewhere, are Bartosz Zachlod, second violin; Piotr Szumiel, viola, and Piotr Skweres, cello. The three musicians whose instruments can be played standing did so, and the advantage was palpable. They wore identical purple plaid suits; there was considerable discussion during intermission about why the cellist was not similarly dressed. It turns out that Skweres' luggage did not arrive with the others'.




Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Indianapolis Quartet offers Beethoven, Debussy, and a sneak preview of a Felice recording

A shrewdly assembled program, combined with a wholly committed performance of it, made for a satisfying outing by the Indianapolis Quartet as it moves into the new decade.

Butler University  presented the concert in its Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall Tuesday evening. To start with, honor was paid to Ludwig van Beethoven in his quarter-millennial year — an obligation hardly any classical musician or organization will dare overlook in 2020.

By now, this ensemble, formed at the University of Indianapolis in  2016, has settled into a high level of internal rapport; confidence at both the macro and the micro levels tends to result. The players are violinists Zachary Depue and Joana Genova, violist Michael Strauss, and cellist Austin Huntington. To choose No. 5 (A major) of Beethoven's Opus 18 placed the concert on an inviting plane, because the work unfolds in an uncomplicated manner, sufficiently inventive — especially in the Andante cantabile movement, a theme-and-variations — while retaining unity of effect and style.

The acoustics at Eidson-Duckwall are quite acute, which requires conscientious attention to softer dynamic levels to keep them from buttonholing the audience. In Beethoven, gentle phrases are often inflected with sudden accents (sforzandos), such as those that make the Trio of the minuet stand out, as though a graceful but slightly lead-footed dancer had taken the floor. The Indianapolis Quartet deserves credit for putting the work's milder phrases into just enough prominence, as in the closing measures of the last movement, avoiding the way the hall consistently invites excessive energy.

The Indianapolis Quartet continues to make its mark on the local scene.
The straightforward charm of the A major quartet and its rootedness in the classical style offered a piquant comparison with Debussy's String Quartet in G minor, which occupied the concert's second half. Also relatively early in its composer's output, the Frenchman's sole exercise in the genre has formal links to the tradition that Beethoven advanced so thoroughly in his sixteen string quartets.

Debussy's provocative writing on music includes a fair amount of respect for Beethoven, particularly when it comes to the value of upsetting musical apple carts. In an area where he was prolific, he felt competitive with the German master, dismissing the latter's keyboard music as "badly written for the piano." But Debussy's string quartet looks forward to the peculiar strain of modernism that he blazed trails toward, and he never felt called upon to return to it as he pitched more than a few pommes himself.

There was much that was admirable about the Indianapolis Quartet's performance, but my take on almost all of Debussy is that its passion is always slightly cool, its dissonances more a matter of atmosphere and not quite so crunchy and rhetorically significant as in the Austro-German tradition.

Distancing himself from romanticism seems to me to have been a constant preoccupation of Debussy, and at times Tuesday's performance had a little too much "bite" in the articulation and prioritized vigor over nuance. There was a light touch in the second movement that was thoroughly idiomatic, and the recitative-like passages in the third movement were quite beguiling, particularly from the viola. The surges and relaxations of tempo in the finale were astutely managed. All in all, it was an exciting performance whose stresses are certainly signaled in the score, yet I inferred an attempt by the musicians to set the Debussy up as a big, emotionally loaded statement in contrast to the Beethoven. It was a justifiable choice especially from a programming standpoint — just not a totally convincing one interpretively.

Mitigating the contrast was a new piece by Butler composer Frank Felice, a setting of Psalm 16 for mezzo-soprano and string quartet, "Preserve Me, O God."  The mood swings of the biblical psalms have long been a welcome playground for composers. Felice adeptly covers Psalm 16's changes of direction from simple piety to rage against false gods and their followers, then back to celebration of the inheritance of true faith and its blessings. Mitzi Westra, the composer's wife and a favorite local singer for many concertgoers, gave a stirring account of the text, lovingly shaped and generously supported by the string quartet. The work will be featured among others on a forthcoming recording of Felice chamber music featuring strings on Enharmonic Records.






Sunday, February 2, 2020

'Can You Imagine?' is John Bailey's tribute to modern trumpet pioneer Dizzy Gillespie

John Bailey has his band musically canvassing for DG.
The half-serious run that Dizzy Gillespie made for the U.S. presidency many decades ago gets a memorial tribute as John Bailey tosses the Dizzy beret into the 2020 ring with "Can You Imagine?" (Freedom Road Records).

The rhetorical question in the title asks the listener to fantasize about the the affable bebop pioneer in the Oval Office. Bailey, a veteran trumpeter with a host of eminent collaborations in his c.v., composed the centerpiece tribute, "President Gillespie Suite."

Bailey is outstanding on both muted in the first section, "The Humanitarian Candidate," and with the open horn he turns to later. Trombonist Earl McIntyre, employing the plunger mute, sits in during the second movement, "Road to the Blues House," which is typical of the set's nifty arrangements and the way they always give extra polish to the solos.

The band, with a rock-solid rhythm section of Edsel Gomez, piano; Mike Karn, bass, and Victor Lewis, drums, manages tempo shifts fluently, giving a special freshness to Lewis' "The Touch of Her Vibe." Gomez, never excessively decorative,  takes a pretty solo on "Ballad from Oro," a piece by Chico O'Farrill, one of the Latin-jazz masters whom Bailey honors. Alto flutist Janet Axelrod lends an air of twilight mystery to another Latin ballad, the mellow "Valsa Rancho."

Of the other members of the "Can You Imagine?" core group, saxophonist Stacy Dillard contributes a steady ensemble voice in the lively set-opener, "Pebbles in the Pocket," and several solos elsewhere. The adept front line is filled out by trombonist Stafford Hunter.

The set ends imaginatively with a familiar tune that also serves the album's purpose, "People," with Bailey settling fruitfully into the trurmpet's low register, with only the adaptable Gomez as duo partner. If this release on Bailey's own label has to be thought of in a political context, keep in mind that "Can You Imagine?" doesn't force an agenda on anyone beyond respect for the human community.








Saturday, February 1, 2020

At Clowes, Louisville Ballet offers program of high contrast, high achievement

As part of the JCA Signature Series, in which visiting artists' educational side is combined with public performance,  Butler University Friday night welcomed the Louisville Ballet to Clowes Hall for a program of three of the company's works.

The opening piece, "Models," stood out for me, though each of its companions had distinctive charms.
Freedom or other-directed mastery?: A scene from "Models"
Somewhat put off by Cornelius' music though I was, Tim Harbour's choreography built upon its variety of hard-driving electronic sounds to achieve a perfect, yet often surprising, blend of how it all looked and how the dancers moved. Alexandra Ludwig's costume designs offered a unisex version, with matching scarfs and caps, of the Australian Boy Scout uniforms the choreographer recalled from his youth.

The closely measured duet in "Models."
Daniel Perez's lighting sometimes "grayed out" forms and colors of the uniforms subtle tints, and at other times made them keenly sculptural. Above the stage were three abstract shapes designed by Matt Weir. They hovered, sheltered, and perhaps exerted control over the figures, particularly in ensemble. That last quality was a matter of suggestion, prompted by Harbour's program note, indicating the dancers' "maneuvers being controlled like puppets, as though from an external force."

But most striking is that such an interpretation is required to sit among images of freedom and such individualism as the romantic love expressed in a central, slow duet. For the most part, however, "Models" presented ensembles, from eight to more than twice that number. Sometimes regimentation overtook them, quasi-martial drills. At other times, the repetitive movements seemed to come from the assembly line. Angular postures, with arms jerked upward, conveyed the feeling of a marionette show.

There was more than a hint that such close-order drill and mechanized movement were being tested and resisted, but also celebrated as a bonding device. "Models" had something to be enthralled by at every moment. At the end, the music stopped and just before the curtain descended, we saw two groups of  hunched-over figures dashing from one side of the stage to the other — a neat image with which to represent the ambivalence of people treated like dolls, dolls treated like people.

The well-ordered training of the company was highlighted in the finale, Stanton Welch's "Velocity," in which classic ballet techniques are combined and repurposed, sometimes with parodic intent. There was textbook presentation  of positions and admirably controlled delineation of what is often presented with a *narrative scenario in the classic ballets. In "Velocity," though, we see a nicely linked abstract embodiment of elements with modernistic touches. Arms may suddenly vary from a graceful carriage to a wrenched position, palms up, elbows in, with the head thrown back. A tutu-clad dancer executes leg beats while being carried horizontally. The building blocks of dance, from illusions of weightlessness to grounded athleticism, are smoothly juxtaposed. Welch set it all to a couple of movements from the synesthetic American composer Michael Torke; the music comes out of Stravinsky and Philip Glass, with lavish orchestration suggesting Richard Strauss — quite suitable in its eclecticism to what "Velocity" seems to be about.

In the middle was Andrea Schermoly's "at High," a poignant piece of lamentation and adjustment drawing heavily on the spirit of its music, the lengthy "Ruhevoll (Poco adagio)" from Mahler's Symphony No. 4 in G major. A boyish central figure enters a confusing scene of people, well suited to one another but leaving him to make his own way. One physically statuesque male dancer helps him, seeming a sort of Virgilian guide to the young man's Dante. This may be importing too much to Schermoly's scenario, but then there emerges a figure, finely mediating between the two men and perhaps representing an ideal, a Beatrice. A plain white structure, a kind of mesa, is at one side of the stage to suggest a position from which the central figures get a kind of overview before they join the group. This is not Dante's more well-known view of a horrifying Inferno, but rather (echoing the meaning of the Mahler symphony) a glimpse of an inviting Paradiso. The earnestness, steady pathos, and absence of bizarre touches in this work made it a fitting companion between "Models" and "Velocity."
 




Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Making good decades later on his 1990 Gold Medal, Pavel Berman plays concert for IVCI

Pavel Berman divided his program between violin recital and chamber music.
Thirty years ago, Pavel Berman, a participant in the third quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, had come out of the soon-to-dissolve Soviet Union illustrating all the careful preparation and solid technical grounding the West had come to expect of musicians steeped in the rigors of Russian training.

The 20-year-old violinist captured the Gold Medal and has returned to Indianapolis just once since then. In the meantime, he has enjoyed years of experience as concert artist and teacher. For about eight years starting in 1998, there was also considerable experience on the podium leading an orchestra he had founded in Lithuania.

On the evidence of his appearance in the IVCI Laureate Series Tuesday night, Berman has put the time since his triumph here to good use. He has put a masterly finish on his impressive command of a variety of repertoire during two intense September weeks three decades ago.

The first instance of that mastery came as the Laureate Series concert opened with Cesar Franck's Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major. With Chih-Yi Chen at the piano, Berman gave a performance notable for never peaking too soon, yet not selling short the carefully distributed emotional impact of the four-movement work. His tone had steadiness and depth. He and the pianist displayed a good sense of pacing, and their well-coordinated insights into the familiar piece had the effect of making the warm ovation at the end seem truly earned.

For an exhibition of greater color and virtuosity, Berman and Chen rounded out the program's first half with Pablo de Sarasate's "Carmen Fantasy." Thirty years ago Berman delivered an impressive account of this showpiece in the competition. On Tuesday night, I liked the deeply felt "fate" music toward the start, and the Habanera had just the right insouciance and drive. The more virtuoso episodes, presenting the Seguidilla and the Gypsy Dance from the parts of Bizet's "Carmen" representing the tumultuous abandon of Spanish gypsy life, had a few passages of blurry harmonics as demands on the violinist grew. On the whole, however, the performance had both clarity and bravura energy.

After intermission, the participation of the Ronen Chamber Ensemble came to the fore. Chen remained the pianist for Gian Carlo Menotti's Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, and Ronen co-founder David Bellman joined Chen and Berman. The first movement of the charming work featured lots of nimble exchanges among the instruments. Menotti's supple phrasing and melodic gift, known mostly from his many operas, were in evidence here. Dynamics were well coordinated among the three players, especially in pianissimo passages in the second movement. Adept fugal writing took over as the finale got under way, and the music seemed to evoke the saltarello dance music of the composer's Italian heritage.

Bellman and Berman welcomed a host of players, including co-founder and cellist Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, for the last work on the program, Franz Berwald's Grand Septet in B-flat major. The ensemble included Emilee Drumm, viola; Ju-Fang Liu, double bass, Mike Muszynski, bassoon, and Richard Graef, horn. The Swedish composer displays a conservative style, as if early Beethoven had seemed a style worth drawing upon well into the 19th century. The work features an arresting super-fast section in the middle of its slow movement; the resumption of the slow music thus conveyed a feeling of welcome relaxation. The bustling finale, remarkable mostly for its high spirits, had a piquant aspect in its repeated two-note blasts of horn in the midst of smooth-running energy from the other six players. The performance set a bright seal upon a concert that felt like a celebration — one reaffirming the first-class legacy of "the Indianapolis."

Monday, January 27, 2020

Nearly 30 years after winning the Gold Medal, Pavel Berman returns to Indianapolis for only the second time

Having just turned 50, Pavel Berman has firm plans for the next phase of his career. In a brief, rare visit to the United States, the gold medalist of the 1990 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis is back in town under IVCI auspices to appear in its Laureate Series Tuesday night at the Glick Indiana History Center.

Consistent with his wish to put the violin at the center of his activities and to explore a variety of music for this instrument in combination with others,  the violinist has established the Pavel Berman Ensemble near his home in Italy, where he's lived for many years. From that base, the ensemble will undertake short European tours.

Pavel Berman has focused on teaching as well as performing over the past 30 years.
"We will play pieces like Tchaikovsky 'Souvenir de Florence,' a Brahms sextet, Schoenberg's 'Verklaerte Nacht,' and also baroque concertos," he said, adding that the programs will feature him as soloist in virtuoso pieces, like the Sarasate "Carmen Fantasy" included in Tuesday's program.

The IVCI Laureate Series concert here will have that sort of variety. He's working again (as he did in his last Indianapolis appearance nearly 18 years ago) with the Ronen Chamber Ensemble. With that venerable group, he will play Grand Septet in B-flat major by the Swedish composer Franz Berwald and, with co-founder David Bellman and pianist Chih-Yi Chen, Gian-Carlo Menotti's Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano. With Chen he will perform a staple of the violin repertoire, Cesar Franck's Sonata in A major.

For nearly a decade at the turn of the century, he focused on conducting, chiefly with an orchestra he founded in Lithuania. He appeared as a guest conductor elsewhere, too, but eventually decided to bring his concentration to bear mainly on the violin, his first musical love since early childhood. "I was glad to pick up that experience," he said about conducting during a rehearsal break at the history center, "but I decided I wouldn't be able to pursue the violin the way I wanted to unless I put conducting aside."

His decision to focus on his own playing plus teaching became recently unmistakable with the publication of instructional and performing videos on the the Caprices of Nicolo Paganini. Those 24 virtuoso works are known to every advancing violinist, and have long been a staple of the required IVCI repertoire. On his web site, Berman performs many of them accompanied by a string orchestra.

He is active now in northern Italy, living in Milan and teaching in Lugano. He teaches advanced students there, most of them Italian. One of the things he generally finds missing among rising young talent is "general culture — you can't rely just on musicality to get the music right. You have to understand what it's about." He emphasizes that more than knowing the styles of great violinists of the past is essential; so is reading: "To play Schumann well, you have to know Hoffmann, Schiller, and Heine, too," Berman says.

The once-young violin virtuoso, now an accredited maestro, added that the decline of faith has cost society and young violinists some intimacy with classical music, as it was standard cultural equipment for the great composers of the past. Of Jewish heritage himself, Berman emphasizes that it is not a matter of adopting Christian belief, but of becoming acquainted with the milieu and shaping values of traditional religion as practiced in Europe, both Jewish and Christian.

At the same time, he is an advocate of new music, even if it largely emerges from a secular perspective. "Every art has to develop and be contemporary, so new music is needed," Berman said. "The repertoire we already have is great, but you need to go ahead."

He doesn't envy the situation contemporary composers face: "It's difficult for composers to write something innovative and important, but that also can be received with enthusiasm by the general public." The decline of journalistic coverage of classical music has also hurt the viability of the art form. He is not among artists who claim to disdain and ignore published criticism. "I always read everything," he says. "I believe in facing opinion, and it's something where presenters can see if they could take a chance on an artist. Now it's 'my ignorance equals your knowledge!'," Berman said with a mocking smile.




Getting down with upscale: 'Salt Pepper Ketchup' tackles urban gentrfication

In its current production, Fonseca Theatre Company has made a chamber opera out of the spoken word on the topic of gentrification. It's a hard-hitting blend of arias and ensembles, punctuated by violence of language and action.

Josh Wilder's "Salt Pepper Ketchup" has just another week to go at the company's cozily proportioned new home on West Michigan Street. This kind of show, at home in Daniel Uhde's set design, benefits from the compact focus the space lends to the action. At FTC's Christmas show, I had serious doubts as to whether the space available would ever see any sort of variety show with humor, song, and dance seemto be at home: Pizazz with its shoulders scrunched barely works.

That remains to be seen, of course, and I trust Bryan Fonseca's imagination to to come up with solutions more than my mere speculation as FTC builds a production history. For the time being, however, "Salt Pepper Ketchup" seems both snug and explosive in telling the story of an ambitious Chinese-American restaurateur's struggles to build on the foothold he and his wife have secured in a gritty Philadelphia neighborhood.

The rescue of such neighborhoods often involves unexamined notions of progress. They tend to blur any distinction between left and right as America struggles to make its big cities viable for everyone. In "Salt Pepper Ketchup" the tensions around a challenged community's upgrade have reached the boiling point. In this show, they are concentrated in an eatery, carrying the bravado-charged name of Superstar, that its proprietor proudly calls "a Chinese joint."

Paul argues the case for the new co-op as the Wus' path to success.
John Wu, played  by Ian Cruz, realizes that the American dream is expensive, but he has a strong enough sense of the bond he has built with his black neighbors to be skeptical of the promised benefits of change. Those have been extended to him by Paul, an agent for an upscale co-op making headway nearby, in the midst of ominous signs that the area could be boosted beyond the means of its residents. Robert Negron plays the role with blinders-on, gift-of-gab smoothness, invested in the message of health and collective decision-making well beyond the point of forging genuine connections with the target demographic.

Directed by Tom Evans, the show stokes the tensions expertly. There is a pervasive lack of trust: Mr. Wu, responsive enough to the neighborhood to keep his prices low and to include in his limited menu such departures from authenticity as chicken wings, knows the need for a Plexiglas barrier to separate customers from the kitchen and for a dining-room security camera, even if it doesn't work. Long suffering under her husband's reflexive sexism, Linda Wu, played by Tracy Herring with a nice balance of frustration and easily kindled upward mobility, brings out the family-disintegrating potential of abrupt social change.

CeCe, portrayed with sass, hope, and energetic skepticism by Chandra Lynch, is a single mom open to improvements in her surroundings. She is a potential ally of the resistance, but clearly not likely to undermine innovations if they appear to benefit her. Holding on to the neighborhood's current condition despite its deficits are Tommy (Chinyelu Mwaafrika) and Raheem (Aaron "Gritty" Grinter), an edgy duo who mesh well in this production. They are somewhat offset by Boodah, a homie more into meditation than payback, interpreted as a questionable guru by Dwuan Watson Jr.

The interaction of the four black characters amounts to a neatly painted group portrait representing a community used to getting the short end of the stick. They have understandable difficulty interpreting the arrival of the glitzy co-op and ancillary projects like condos and coffee shops as anything but reverse white flight. Except for Boodah, they are prone to letting their short fuses get touched by flame. More willing to be unnerved by neighborhood hostility than the tightly focused Paul, Megan (Lexy Weixel) represents the cluelessness of white-led do-good projects that have focused financing behind them. Understanding their milieu definitely comes in second. 

"Salt Pepper Ketchup" is a title that identifies the usual condiments that come with a Superstar takeout order. They symbolize the ordinariness of down-at-the-heels urban life, thrown in along with fortune cookies. That life's stability was perhaps never a sure thing, but the promise of sudden change turns out to have at least as much threat behind it as anything that will serve the perpetual appetite for hope. Even those of us in more stable circumstances respond to hope's hunger pangs: "Salt Pepper Ketchup" vividly outlines the compromises and risks that people under the constant challenges of poverty and racism routinely face.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Aggressive title aside, ICO's 'Dominance and Defiance' could have won anyone over

Her full investment in a recent concerto was evident.
The Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra on Saturday weighed in with the obligatory tribute to Beethoven in his 250th anniversary year, but the performance of the Symphony No. 8 in F major, op. 93, conveyed much more than a sense of obligation.

In common with the other two pieces on the program at Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts, the Beethoven salute had a feeling of genuine commitment, even touches of rapture. Matthew Kraemer conducted an account that was straightforward, free of mannerisms, and responsive to the work's variety of texture and mood.

The notable replacement of the conventional slow movement by an "Allegretto scherzando," with its pervasive ticking, was droll enough to avoid the purely mechanical. The look backward to the minuet, which Beethoven had earlier transformed into third-movement scherzos, had simply the touch of nostalgia at which the ICO hinted in its concert marketing. But clearly the work overall could not be confused with the burgeoning genius of the late 18th century. It is a fit companion to the landmarks of the seventh and ninth symphonies.

The finale alone is proof enough of that. The "Allegro vivace"  may be the most remarkable example of Beethoven's ability to maintain a through line of focused energy despite complexity of rhythm and adventure among tonalities. It certainly foreshadows aspects of Igor Stravinsky. There ought to have been more precision from the violins at the very start, but Kraemer's honing of pace and exactitude ruled the day as the movement proceeded.

The ICO strings took advantage of the music director's showcase for them in Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony for Strings in C minor, op. 110a. Dominated by slow movements (there are three Largos), the five-movement arrangement by Rudolf Barshai of the composer's eighth string quartet was tenderly and powerfully played. There was excellent soloing from assistant concertmaster Sarah Page and, in the finale, a steady, keening high-register solo by principal cellist Marjorie Lange Hanna.

Amy Porter, the concert's featured soloist, seemed at one with the third work, Michael Daugherty's "Trail of Tears," a concerto for flute and orchestra. She premiered the piece a decade ago, and has clearly achieved a close identification with its astonishing interpretive and technical demands; she has recorded it with the Albany Symphony Orchestra. The music is a deeply felt evocation of the pain and persistence of Native Americans upon their forced removal from the southeastern United States nearly two centuries ago.

Extended techniques are exploited, but without overreliance on trickery. Conventional flute tone production is important to convey reflectiveness, including hints of sacred practices, as well as exuberance and assertiveness, notably in the multi-metered finale, "sun dance." Bent notes, like sighs or exhaustion, lend pathos to the score, and there is also flutter-tonguing and forceful blowing without sounded tones.

I heard no American Indianist cliches. The orchestration is immensely varied, with conspicuous percussion involvement. "Incantation," the second movement, cast a particularly hushed spell. Porter's appearance with a modern piece in which such embedding of the guest artist with the vehicle shone so brightly seems to me a high point in the ICO's recent history.




Saturday, January 25, 2020

Fraternal twins: Beethoven's fourth and fifth symphonies bring the first chapter of ISO's 'BTHVN2020' to a close

So, here we have it: the classical-music icon, the work that could be identified by the packed-together name "Beethoven'sFifth," the musical objective correlative of triumph, and our grandparents' indelible notion of a Victory Symphony, because its generating motif of three short notes and one long one corresponds to the Morse code for "V."

During World War II, that famous beginning was officially Allied propaganda. But it was already well-known, and has thus come to symbolize classical music to many people in blissful ignorance of all that the term embraces.  It probably still tops "O Fortuna!" from "Carmina Burana" and "Nessun dorma" from "Turandot" in terms of mass familiarity. Yet it's a remote monument to many who are otherwise wholly at the mercy of pop culture.

Once, as a young teacher, I exposed my high-school English class to the opening of Stravinsky's "L'histoire du Soldat," with recorded narration, hoping to drive home a lesson about being tempted by the Prince of Darkness. The object of study may have been "The Devil and Daniel Webster," but I've forgotten, and it doesn't matter.

One rough-hewn lad sneered audibly as the first phrases of the small-scale theater piece wafted into the classroom: "What is this — Beethoven's Fifth?" The two works have nothing in common, but the student's impulsive plastering a Beethoven's Fifth bumper sticker on Stravinsky was sufficient to stigmatize it as having stature, perhaps, but irredeemably alien.

If the bulk of the populace is unfamiliar with anything beyond the world-famous motif and snatches of the first movement that ensues, exposure to the full Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op. 67, is necessary to absorb the impact of victory in the abstract, rendered in musical specifics by the spooky transition to the finale and its sudden outburst in a stalwart C major. T.S. Eliot coined the phrase "objective correlative" to designate "a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of [a] particular [emotion]" in literary art. Nothing fulfills that role better for the emotion of triumph in music than Beethoven's Fifth.

Leonardo Di Caprio as Howard Hughes in "The Aviator"
Part of the effect comes from the addition of three trombones to the orchestra in a symphonic first as the last movement begins. In the performance the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra gave Friday night, we had already heard the thrilling effect of "natural" horns and trumpets in the prior movements. With trombones lending a heraldic note to the full ensemble (with the sonic spectrum widened further by the addition of piccolo and contrabassoon), we inevitably get the "ah-ha! we have arrived!" feeling. And that was fully present in Friday's performance.

I once made a whimsical analogy to this stunning onset of the finale after I saw the film "The Aviator" in the movie theater. To underline the triumph of Howard Hughes' "Spruce Goose," an experimental aircraft that went aloft on top of a host of failures, the soundtrack took on, with the plane's roaring takeoff, a new dimension as speakers all around magnified the sound that had come from up front only. The effect was transcendent. "Just like the finale of Beethoven 5!" I exclaimed to my bemused elder son.

Katharine Balch's "impromptu" would be worth hearing again.
Apart from a discordant blast when the horns began their fortissimo fanfare, the performance jelled agreeably. I enjoyed the unhurried pace Urbanski allowed for the oboe cadenza (famous in part for Peter Schickele's sports-commentary parody shouting in amazement at the player's seeming to wander off the field). In the second movement, signs of Urbanski's interest in parallelism (a la Toscanini) more than stacking sonorities came through expertly. The scherzo had just the right blend of "bite" and cautious feeling its way forward.

The concert opened with the first of two commissioned pieces, Huw Watkins' "Dawning," a ruddy-cheeked miniature saluting the sunny mood of the Beethoven symphony it was meant to be a companion to: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major. Bright woodwind answers to string phrases in the opening movement were especially attractive in Friday's performance. There was a smoothness throughout and rewarding efforts to impart a glow to the score. In the finale, a consistently powerful motoric drive provided contrast, foreshadowing the overall impact of the iconic Fifth that followed intermission.

The companion piece to that symphony was Katherine Balch's "impromptu," a wholly stimulating exercise in well-linked fragments, sometimes coalescing in recognizable suggestions of the C minor symphony's first movement harmonies. I don't care for the fashionable practice of lower-casing composition titles; other than that, Balch's response to her commission was properly arresting and worth hearing again. I hope that opportunity presents itself to audiences beyond this weekend's — though their reward is already great with the featured celebration of Beethoven's 250th, which will continue later this season.