Thursday, October 18, 2018

New York Standards Quartet continues to display its oblique mastery of familiar songs

You can tell from the first track of "Heaven Steps to Seven," the New York Standards Quartet's jokily
The New York Standards Quartet specializes in reorienting familiar tunes.
titled new recording, just what the four have in mind with some well-known tunes from the American jazz and popular songbooks.

Track 1 is also a Leonard Bernstein centennial tribute as it subjects "Tonight" from "West Side Story" to the NYSQ's signature treatment of well-known tunes (the ones from the jazz catalogue will be less familiar to the mainstream listener) in new ways.

Listening in order, you can quickly get a dose of the jazz-standards side of the quartet. First there's a bop-centered run through Charlie Parker's "Cheryl," focused on saxophonist Tim Armacost at first, with Gene Jackson's steady, splashy drumming gradually joined by bassist Ugonna Okegwo (since the recording he's been replaced by  Daiki Yasukagawa), then pianist David Berkman.

Great American Songbook standards like "If I Should Lose You"  are especially susceptible to NYSQ arrangements, in that conventional harmonies provide a familiar launching pad. You can call up the standard chord progressions in your memory of other performances, but here altered harmonies rule the roost. The jumpiness of this arrangement reverts to a relaxed four-to-the-bar swing once the piano solo starts. But the mediated vision of this song remains with you.

Sometimes an arrangement will put accents in different places, but they usually seem logical. A case in point is Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye," with its four successive accents on the ending of the song's first two phrases (e.g., "I die a little," with every syllable except "I" emphasized).

Two complaints: Although a standout in Bud Powell's "I'll Keep Loving You," on Porter's "I Love You," Okegwo's bass is underrecorded; secondly, Gene Jackson's typical emphasis on cymbals seems excessive in Horace Silver's "Peace," but is just right on the concluding track, Herbie Hancock's "Eye of the Hurricane." Moreover, as if to make up for past obscurity, the bass comes through fine behind Berkman's enchanting solo during the disc's affectionate farewell.

This quartet is learned in the best sense of the term. The musicians, led by the boldness of Berkman and Armacost, know the tradition thoroughly. (No one will miss the CD title's pun on Miles Davis' landmark version of Victor Feldman's "Seven Steps to Heaven.") What they bring to it is always refreshing without verging into bizarre novelty.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The persistence of the jazz/poetry connection: Pianist Helen Sung collaborates with Dana Gioia

Avoiding subcultural status when you practice an art that you believe deserves a major cultural position can be more than a matter of frustration. It can produce fresh new work, as in "Sung With Words" (Stricker Street Records).

Dana Gioia attracted unusual attention in the niche genre of essays about poetry when he wrote "Can Poetry Matter?" for the Atlantic years ago and attracted a tsunami of responses.

Since then, he has been George W. Bush's director of the National Endowment for the Arts and took
The cover of the new CD, an outgrowth of a mutual interest in jazz and words.
advantage of the position to make poetry and other arts matter more than they normally do in public life. With this recorded collaboration with Helen Sung and her band, Gioia has revived the practice of poetry recited to jazz accompaniments.

New public outlets for poetry are a consistent interest of the poet/teacher that has received enthusiastic support from a productive young pianist/composer, working with an excellent band: John Ellis, saxophones; Ingrid Jensen, trumpet; Reuben Rogers, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums, and Samuel Torres, percussion.

"Sung With Words" is an attractive blend of spoken poetry, songs related to the original poems, and instrumental commentary on Gioia's verse. The poetry strikes the ear first— conversational, relaxed as it sits easily in the poet's voice — inviting us  to return imaginatively to a little mecca of West Coast jazz, Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse. "Meet Me at the Lighthouse," Gioia says, in an inviting tone at  quite a remove of hipness from Robert Frost's "The Pasture." With a sly hint of ushering us into something disreputable, he wants the listener to "savor the smoke of that sinister century."

An advocate of accentual verse, Gioia in such lines (here heightened by alliteration) signals his receptivity to the rhythmic impulses and variations of jazz players. The depth of the poetry is immaterial: most of it is on the slightly heightened street level of popular songs. The final song urges a friend to "say what you mean, and mean what you say." If you vocalize those words, you automatically come up with a pattern that Sung uses in her concluding piece, "Mean What You Say."

Dana Gioia continues with missionary zeal to advocate for poetry in the public square.
This is one of the most easy-to-assimilate parts of the collaboration. There's also the social commentary of "Pity the Beautiful," whose shorter lines similarly guide the musical expression. This poem also has a Frostian analogue, "Provide, Provide." Both poems outline the decline of glamour with age and neglect. The folksinger Dave Van Ronk long ago set to music Frost's poem ferociously.

Gioia sometimes slows the pace and lengthens the line, as he does in "The Stars on Second Avenue." This gives Sung the inspiration for a slow piece, and the opportunity for one of the featured singers (Jean Baylor) to display her casually appropriate phrasing and wistful tone.

In the other direction, Gioia channels a significant accentual-verse ancestor, John Skelton (1463-1529), with short rhyming lines that have come to be known as Skeltonics. There's a lot of literary sophistication in verse that proves to be quite immediate to the listener, an indication of how sensible this Gioia-Sung experiment is. Can jazz with poetry matter? Can poetry with jazz matter? Definitely, "Sung With Words" replies unpretentiously.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Bernstein at 100: Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra presents a centennial tribute

A young Bernstein with two of his constant props: a score and a cigarette
My only memory of Leonard Bernstein in concert is oddly focused on the curtain calls at the end.
It was at the Meadow Brook Music Festival in suburban Detroit during what was probably his last tour with the New York Philharmonic in the frenetic but sadly declining years before his death in 1990.

After a program I've forgotten (except for his Overture to "Candide," throughout which he shimmied more than conducted), the celebrated maestro stepped off the podium and shuffled eagerly among music stands and chairs, hugging and kissing every member of the orchestra, all of them standing, some more comfortable than others with the extended public display of affection. ("Being kissed by him was like an assault by a sort of combination of sandpaper and sea anemones," the stage director and "Beyond the Fringe" co-creator Jonathan Miller once said.) The audience continued to applaud, probably sharing my amazement.

It's an indelible memory, and at the time I was caught between feeling he was overcome with love for the musicians and the less positive impression that he was really putting his stamp on them, signaling for one of the last times: "The New York Philharmonic is mine, mine, mine!"

The year has been rich in centennial tributes to Bernstein, a musical colossus who put his stamp on whatever he touched from mid-century almost until the new millennium. The conductor and educator roles had to die with him, though there is a rich legacy preserved on YouTube.  The composer can be well-represented, though, and that's of course how the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra paid tribute over the weekend.

A deft decision to revive Bernstein's 1951 chamber opera, "Trouble in Tahiti," paid off in the semi-staged production's second performance Sunday afternoon at the Schrott Center for the Arts. The work bears the sarcastic influence of Marc Blitzstein, a good friend of the composer whose stage works contain vivid critiques of American society. Bernstein works here to create an emphasis on the rosier possibilities of American life, at the outset of a decade that was indeed his, his, his — when he became a household name through televised Young People's Concerts, crowned as the Kennedy era dawned by "West Side Story" in 1961.

One failed marriage is the focus of "Trouble in Tahiti''s critique of American life in the 1950s; the satirical element is fleshed out in a vocal "jazz trio" that comments on the troubled couple and their outwardly comfortable lifestyle. In that respect, "Trouble in Tahiti" is like a more tuneful, more desperately wistful version of the story Richard Yates tells of marriage on the rocks in "Revolutionary Road." The 1950s, presumably the era alluded to when today's promises to "make America great again" are held up, was a time both hopeful and repressed. Prosperity and the sanctification of middle-class life comforted those in a position to enjoy the benefits, but high expectations were often undercut by private misery.

The Jazz Trio helps elevate Dinah's impression of the cheesy movie she just saw.
"Trouble in Tahiti" focuses on the dysfunctional marriage of Sam and Dinah in a well-to-do East Coast suburb. The characters are shallow, to be sure, as they are focused on themselves and seem clueless about what makes a marriage work; their only child, never seen and referred to distantly only as "Junior," suffers their neglect.

What makes the piece succeed is the bumptiousness, comic high spirits and deeply embedded pathos of Bernstein's score. As a result one finds Sam and Dinah's unhappiness moving despite not feeling much sympathy for them. Kara Cornell, soprano, and Christopher Burchett, baritone, poured considerable energy, high definition and vocal splendor into the roles.

There were times when their amplification seemed unnecessary, given the Schrott's excellent acoustics and the singers' operatically robust voices. On the whole, however, the microphones probably improved the balance with the onstage ICO. The Jazz Trio — soprano Vandi Enzor, tenor Andres Acosta, and baritone Thaddaeus Bourne — moved featly about the stage and sang in close-order drill like vocal Blue Angels.

Matthew Kraemer conducted the ICO's season-opening Bernstein tribute.
Matthew Kraemer conducted the performances, with stage direction by Richard J Roberts. As seen
Sunday (the 28th anniversary of Bernstein's death), the two must be credited for what struck me as a thoroughly integrated partnership of musical and theatrical panache. The marvelous inspirations of lighting designer Laura E. Glover completed the picture, which was properly ornate, amusing, and campy in the show's sixth of seven scenes, "Dinah at the Movies."

That lavish, flamboyant number — representing the wife's escape from her domestic concerns to a celluloid melodrama of the same title as Bernstein's opera — brought out Cornell's peak performance, just as Sam's proud solo in the gym, exulting in his trophy-winning performance in a handball tournament, represented the summit of Burchett's. The stubborn self-indulgence of both characters gives them a rush, but the finale holds out only a fragile prospect that their relationship will strengthen.

The concert opened with a peppy but measured "Candide" Overture, one of the great American symphonic gems of less than five minutes' duration. Thankfully, the piece was not taken insanely fast, so the fitness of the ensemble was showcased rather than stretched to the breaking point.

Lucian Plessner plays his arrangement of tunes from "West Side Story."
What followed was a Suite from "West Side Story," which remains Bernstein's most widely known achievement as a composer, as arranged by the guest soloist, Lucian Plessner, for guitar and chamber orchestra. Besides a drum set, the work is efficiently scored for strings and just three solo wind instruments: flute, trumpet and horn. Plessner and the orchestra worked smoothly together through a chronological selection of tunes from the classic show, going from "Cool," the finger-snapping gang self-assertion, through "Somewhere." The suite emphasizes the show's amiable side and heart-melting lyricism, which helped shed light on the foreground of "West Side Story" in the little-known "Trouble in Tahiti."

The German guitarist's appearance was in observance of the 30th anniversary of Indianapolis' Sister City relationship with Cologne, Germany. Also giving a sense of occasion to Sunday's concert was a proclamation by Mayor Joe Hogsett, delivered in person, of "Lucina Ball Moxley Day."
Mrs. Moxley, like Bernstein, is a centenarian — but a still-living one who was fortunately present to receive the honor.  She has long been known for her services to music as both pianist and philanthropist. A birthday reception in her honor followed the concert.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Do You Hear the People Shout? Yes, of course you do, and they are a reliable presidential rally ego boost

Bang for your bucks: ISO presents a recent percussion concerto, flanked by Kernis and Prokofiev

Matthew Halls: ISO's adept, well-liked guest
Matthew Halls, a British conductor of astonishing virtuosity just in his Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra guest appearances, returns to the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium this weekend in his second ISO engagement this year.

This time the program is all 20th- and 21st-century music, with two of the three works composed by living Americans. On Friday night, the audience also got to savor the return appearance as an ISO guest of Colin Currie, a 42-year-old Scottish percussionist. The vehicle was the program's centerpiece, "Switch," a percussion concerto by another relative youngster, Andrew Norman (39).

In continuous motion, Currie ranged across the stage extension, which was crowded with a host of large and small instruments. "Switch" grabs the attention from the start, because the percussion-dominated introduction comes from orchestra section players. After a few moments, the soloist makes his entrance up a short flight of stairs, house right, and gets to work.

Percussionist Colin Currie, with tuned gongs across the top
Whether everything fell into place over the work's 28-minute course is hard to say on first hearing. Currie has played the work about 15 times, and there were obvious points of synchronization between soloist and accompaniment amid the welter of sound, so I'm confident that Friday's performance was shipshape. Furthermore, Halls' command of a great breadth of repertoire is a matter of record, and his batonless conducting seems unfailingly precise.

Currie's athleticism was tested in the concerto's first section, with a xylophone and two octaves of Almglocken (cowbells) taking up lots of space, and several cymbals and drums bunched at one end just to the right of the podium. In that forest of things to bang and stroke, there were a few rarities, notably several empty tin cans. Volume and timbre were explored extensively by soloist and orchestra until arrival at a peaceful plateau: An orchestral piano solo outlined a widely spaced melody that seemed to set the course for everything that followed.

To the sounds of that wistful piano, the soloist crossed over in front of the conductor, and his contributions on that side became more isolated and deliberate; "Switch" briefly left its video-game spasmodic layout to become contemplative. A shimmering wind chorale cemented the mood. There would be a return to the noisier, more diffuse side of the sonic spectrum, but the piece arrestingly came to a  thoughtful conclusion with Currie's return to the conductor's left. A suspenseful piecing-together of a short tune on tuned gongs hanging from a rack made for a haunting conclusion, after which the soloist – his frenetic bounding and sideways-slipping almost a distant memory — slowly walked backstage.

Norman's "Switch" opens up a secret garden of percussion, with the solo virtuosity displayed by Currie seconded by the orchestra in an unpredictable, nearly disorienting partnership. The work was refreshingly highlighted by its program companions: Aaron Jay Kernis' "Musica Celestis" for strings and a 20th-century masterpiece, Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, op. 100.

Kernis' piece seeks to represent the music of angels, which necessarily comes from the imagination's furthest reaches. The work, drawn from a string quartet, is much more effective with more strings, especially with the addition of double basses. The leadership of guest concertmaster Jeremy Black was crucial to the mesmerizing effect the piece made. Halls' management of the 12-minute work was sculptural. It grew properly animated when the work's middle section offered a reminder that when we hear from angels, it is no excuse to snooze.

After intermission came one of the 20th century's most prominent symphonies. Prokofiev, fabulously gifted and by temperament a canny opportunist, is much less hallowed for the nature of his adjustment to the Soviet regime than his younger contemporary Shostakovich. This work came out of the latter part of World War II, when the Russian homeland had already suffered gravely. The third-movement Adagio, a peculiar slow movement with restless undercurrents, best reflects the unsettling era that birthed it. Halls and the orchestra brought out the sense of suffering as well as the composer's irrepressible cheekiness.

In the first two concerts of this season, the orchestra has sounded louder than ever to me. This can be thrilling, but also rather daunting for listeners in seats close to the stage. I'm not sure if some adjustments to the subtle electronic enhancement of the hall (a feature ever since the Circle Theatre, now 102 years old, became a concert hall in 1984) are responsible or not. Maybe I should consider myself warned by the old rock-concert fans' slogan: "If it's too loud, you're too old."  Ouch!

At any rate, Friday's performance was splendid in many respects. (The loudness was almost painful as the first movement bawled out its final measures.) The finale, as expected, struck me as particularly marvelous. Prokofiev's sheer ingenuity is fully in evidence. Such a clever fellow, one often thinks: he manages to keep the peppy theme almost constantly in view, but it never becomes tedious — particularly when the conductor is as sensitive to the movement's variety as Halls was. Everything burbled along like a fantastic machine.

No wonder the work was accepted in the dour Soviet Union as an affirmation of the human spirit, and then quickly captivated the world. In the right hands, such affirmations can be effective with only small suggestions of profundity.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Ronen Chamber Ensemble launches season with Sister Cities theme

A background of flags offered an unusual visual enhancement to the Ronen Chamber Ensemble's season-opening concert Wednesday night in the Hilbert Circle Theatre's Wood Room.

Sextet acknowledges applause at conclusion of Ludwig Thuille piece.
The display signaled the theme of season-long programming related to Indianapolis' Sister Cities, eight of them to date. Two were represented by composers featured at the concert: Campinas, Brazil, by Jailton de Oliveira; Northamptonshire, United Kingdom, by Malcolm Arnold.

The program was filled out by a substantial, evocative Sextet for Winds and Piano by Ludwig Thuille and Robert Schumann's Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, op. 63.

The concert's first half put the formidable flutist Alistair Howlett in three different contexts. He had the honor of enunciating the program theme unaccompanied  in "Sertonancias" No. 2 for solo flute. Essentially a lyrical piece with some well-placed interruptions of its flow, the roughly five-minute work held the interest without working too hard at it. Howlett's performance was charming.

Arnold's "Divertimento" op. 37 spread some more charm around the room. Its six movements, crisply characterized as they followed the movement headings, were played with exemplary coordination and vivacity by Howlett with oboist Tim Clinch and clarinetist David Bellman, who co-founded the Ronen series decades ago with his wife, Ingrid Fischer-Bellman.

Particularly revealing of the characteristic Arnold wit were the second movement, "Languido," whose relaxed phrasing had its hints of laziness underlined by close harmonies — as if the instruments couldn't be bothered keeping "personal space" between them — and "Maestoso," a march upheld with fanfare gestures that became tricky and frolicsome before righting itself near the end.

Ludwig Thuille: Quite the 'stache!
The cast of players expanded to six for the sextet by Thuille, a late 19th-century composer from Austria.  Joining the Arnold trio musicians for the performance were Gregory Martin, piano; Robert Danforth, horn, and Mark Ortwein, bassoon.

The transalpine position of Thuille's Tyrol comes into play in this four-movement work; it breathes Italian air. More substantially in evidence is his association with Richard Strauss and other composers centered in Munich. The opening movement is tidily crafted, its gentle, compact melody subject to substantial stirring-up in the middle. This is well-schooled, mainstream romanticism that was brilliantly set forth by the ensemble.

The second movement, like the first, opens with a horn statement — in this case, it's a full-blown melody, nicely stated by Danforth. Immediately evident was the connection with the Strauss family (Richard's father was a distinguished player of the instrument, and horns are a spectacular presence in many of the younger Strauss' works). The tune becomes somewhat anthemic, with a steady accompaniment pattern in a meter and tempo hinting that the movement could be seen as a shirttail relative of the Pilgrim's Chorus from "Tannhäuser."

A charming "Gavotte" third movement draws upon music-making of both city and country. Martin's variable tempo in an episode spotlighting the piano had a Viennese lilt to it. The finale was an attractive gigue, with some lively chromatic games applied to the thematic material.

After intermission, a more conflicted piece in a more conventional chamber-music set-up concluded the program. The Schumann trio emphasized the string-instrument side of the Ronen artistic profile. Violinist Joana Genova joined Martin and Fischer-Bellman. The fairytale aspect of Schumann came out in the first movement. Also evident there was something of a disparity between violin and cello, with Genova's playing vigorously projected and overshadowing the cello.

Characteristic dotted rhythms in the second movement were pronounced but not made too jagged, which helped them fit in better with their surroundings.  The slow movement, with its suggestions of a Bach aria (as the pianist pointed out in oral program notes), got off to a tentative start in the soft violin solo. The finale had lots of heft lent to its full-ensemble passages, spearheaded by Martin's vigorous, all-defining treatment of the piano part.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

No pondering weak and weary here: Dynamic 'Cabaret Poe' takes the stage at Phoenix Theatre

Few major American literary figures can be as oddly irritating to read as Edgar Allan Poe. The thick, morbid texture of his prose both enhances and nearly stalls the narrative drive of his tales. As for the poetry, it is sometimes hard to get past the tightly wrought jangling of meter and rhyme to be sure of the substance beneath all the spun sugar. Still, he's an institution: even his besotted demise after brief residence in Baltimore was enough, many years later, to get one of the city's sports teams named after his most famous poem.

Ben Asaykwee, fortunately, has sailed past what seem to be the treacherous shoals of Poe's literary output. His "Cabaret Poe," a Q Artistry production celebrating its 10th year with a run at the new Phoenix Theatre, allows the author's fans to indulge their passion while those less enchanted by all things Poe can enjoy the canny balance of tribute and mockery presented in the two-hour show.

Asaykwee and his muse wormed their way into Poe through "Annabel Lee," whose rivetingly staged performance as an Asaykwee solo is a highlight of "Cabaret Poe." The poem struck the multifaceted theater artist deeply more than a decade ago, and he came up with music to go with it. From there, Asaykwee has said, he found enough inspiration in Poe's fiction and poetry to result in a full-length original stage production, which he has presented annually in October for the past nine years.

With its sepulchral lighting, varied dramatically from time to time, deaths-head makeup and fussy vintage costuming for three speaking characters, plus a black-clad Shadow Dancer, "Cabaret Poe" keeps the audience's eyes riveted on the succession of scenes as much as its ears are engaged by the hypnotizing clutter of Poe's language and Asaykwee's cunningly embedded music. The staging of "Annabel Lee" makes memorable the creepy eroticism of the poem, in which the first-person narrator recalls his doomed romance with the poem's deceased subject. Poe thought the most poetical subject of all was the death of a beautiful woman.

The cast's other speaking/singing parts are named for two of those eerie beauties — Morella and Berenice — whose names are titles for dry-run efforts leading up to what Poe considered his masterpiece, "Ligeia." Asaykwee has given the male role the name of Zoilus, after a young plague victim in the prose-poem "Shadow — A Parable." Death calls the shots, as usual. But vitality outplayed it Saturday in the performances of Renae Stone, Julie Lyn Barber, and (as the wordless Shadow Dancer) Rebekah Taylor.
Ben Asaykwee's protean original makes itself at home at the Phoenix

Asaykwee weaves into the Poe-saturated verbal texture of the show the informality and cheekiness of the cabaret genre. He doesn't overload the show with larky asides and strenuous send-ups of the original stuff. "Cabaret Poe" reflects genuine belief in the seriousness of Poe's writing, even while it doesn't get dead-serious (the term is deliberately chosen) about it. The pinpoint sound design helps.

When the narrator of "The Fall of the House of Usher" talks about riding horseback up to the mysterious residence, the offstage band strikes up a loping cowboy-style tune. It takes the edge off the story's typical Poe emphasis on foreboding: "...with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit."

"Insufferable gloom" is Poe's stock in trade, of course. I was happy to see the cast strike a spoofing
A page from the "Cabaret Poe" coloring book on sale during the production run.
note at the start of the second act with an extended riff on "The Premature Burial." This story opens with an excessive underlining of its theme. There is so much throat-clearing on the horrors of being buried alive that you wonder if there's any point in telling a story about it.

This gets at one of the things that's regularly wearying about Poe: He tells you so elaborately what you are supposed to feel about the scenario that you can feel stifled and closed in.  It's like — well, like being buried alive, or being walled in, or having a knife-edged pendulum closing in on you. Those comparisons aren't idly chosen, as Poe readers will know.

"Cabaret Poe" shows us that such flaws on the page open up all sorts of dark glory when staged with imagination and verve. Asaykwee's cabaret songs are both woebegone and manic as the occasion warrants. Spoken and musical segments flow nicely, with the cast moving deftly and adjusting props from one episode to the next. They make this unsettling oddball author seem like a master entertainer. Whatever credit Poe himself deserves for creating enduring literary entertainments, Asaykwee raises them to the next level, in which theatrical heightening and panache lend them new poise, zest, and balance.