Saturday, November 16, 2019

Urbanski introduces ISO patrons to a colorful 20th-century symphony


Early in his tenure as music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Krzysztof Urbanski put his stamp
on programming with the inclusion of music from his homeland, Poland — just as one of his predecessors, the late Raymond Leppard, included more English music than ISO patrons had been used to hearing.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996)
Now in the twilight of his time at the ISO's artistic helm, Urbanski this weekend sheds light on a little-known countryman who was a citizen of the Soviet Union for most of his life. Mieczyslaw Weinberg was previously known to me only by one work, his sixth string quartet, as performed by the Pacifica Quartet in its series of Cedille recordings, "The Soviet Experience."

Taking in the symphonic Weinberg at Hilbert Circle Theatre with previous knowledge of this particular string quartet revealed to me the signature style of an inviting musical mind. Symphony No. 3, op. 45, is a lavish, unexpected exemplar of the ISO's current slogan, "You're Invited." I would describe the style as emotional, mercurial, briskly wide-ranging, and both restless and persistent in its hold on the listener's attention. Everything works, and there is about it neither doctrinaire modernism nor yearning for the past. The huge ovation that greeted its final ensemble shout, a confirmation of well-stated brass glory, indicated how grateful Friday's audience was for the invitation.

That string quartet I'm familiar with is colorful enough, to be sure. Taking advantage of the symphony orchestra's broad palette, Weinberg in this work actively distributes his material around from section to section, soloist to soloist. There is a kind of "concerto for orchestra" display about the piece. A lofty flute theme over a rustling accompaniment gets things started, and among the rewards of the first movement is a feverish, thickening assembly of forces, with a violent cast to it, that manages to allow room for a waltz with a memorable oboe solo. A striking episode leading toward the end relieves all the tension that has been wound up in an almost prayerful way.

This weeekend's soloist, Anna Vinnitskaya, took command of the Brahms Second.
The score is rich in folk-music suggestions. The clearest sort of fraternal feeling with a Soviet composer emerges in the third movement, where a quiet, low-lying theme ascends in both pitch and intensity to the neighborhood of Shostakovich, as in the slow movement of his well-known Fifth Symphony. Possibly a North American premiere, this Weinberg outing deserves a substantial endorsement from the public at today's repeat (5:30 p.m.).

The Weinberg certainly held its own in a concert featuring one of the most formidable and admired of piano concerotos, No. 2 in B-flat major, op. 83, by Johannes Brahms. Urbanski conducted with evident rapport for the guest soloist, Anna Vinnitskaya, a Russian pianist of stamina and vigor sufficient to bring off the work creditably. In the first movement, often her properly loud playing — from the initial fiery outburst on — seemed overloaded with accents. The authoritative touch she applied to the piano part could have been firmly asserted without quite so much highlighting. But the forcefulness never seemed mechanical.

She certainly had a range of sonority at her fingertips over the course of the 50-minute work. There was a nice flow to her phrasing, and by the Andante, it was evident that she didn't find the concerto's lyricism an unwelcome arena for expression. She was fully engaged with the composer's tender side, which was indelibly put forth in the initial butter-smooth solo (and subsequent revisitings) by principal cellist Austin Huntington. Particularly gratifying was Vinnitskaya's light touch and almost elfin manner when the finale shifts to zesty triplets, as Urbanski guided an accompaniment that had complementary nimbleness.








Thursday, November 14, 2019

Spectacle of 'Parsifal' links firmly to musical excellence at Indiana University

Environmental consciousness has been raised across the world in recent years, so it should come as no surprise that the relationship between human and natural health gives an extra layer of pertinence today to Richard Wagner's "Parsifal."
Parsifal (Chris Lysack) regards the recovered sacred spear under eyes of Kundry (Renee Tatum).

The space in which the action of the opera takes place is particularly germane to Indiana University Jacobs School of Music's production of the work, which received its second of three performances Wednesday evening at the Musical Arts Center. S. Katy Tucker's set and projection designs brilliantly enhance the significance of the action and the primacy of a timeless arena for salvation.

The quest to restore health to a community threatened by human weakness and the black magic of Klingsor retains its centrality, but the theme of restoration in the wider world also receives emphasis. In the last act, the approaching spring gradually diminishes the natural bleakness at the same time that Parsifal's heroism and spiritual awakening bring vitality back to a damaged brotherhood, with the Spear repossessed and applied to the long-unhealed wound of the ruler Amfortas (Mark Delavan). The gray, low-lying rocky landscape is relieved by the greening of the horizon and the projection of budding foliage on the scrim fronting the stage.

In the opening scene, the bleak isolation and remoteness of the Grail Knights' community is signaled by the domination of huge trees harboring deep shadows.  A fresh disturbance brings the hero Parsifal onto the scene, as he has shot down a sacred swan regarded as one of the community's mainstays, a deed that would seem arrogant were it not for Parsifal's deep-seated ignorance. Contrition and stern schooling will soon follow.

One of stage director Chris Alexander's triumphs is his management of the collective indignation that galvanizes
Gurnemanz and the  bed-ridden Amfortas  confront physical and spiritual pain.
the knights, led by the veteran Gurnemanz (Kristinn Sigmundsson). Indeed, all the scenes of collective energy, whether amusingly though forebodingly secular (the Flower Maidens' wiles in the second act) or exalted (the first-act Sacrament that Parsifal observes without understanding and the Good Friday climax in Act 3) offer the appropriate affirmation of community. In an opera focused on the struggles of a handful of main characters, the social context — remote as it may be to 21st-century understanding — is never overshadowed.

As for those guest principals, there was hardly a sign of weakness in singing or characterization throughout the work's four-hour span. Parsifal (Chris Lysack) credibly emerged from his "fool" carapace to attain the status of champion by the last act. Initial bewilderment, particularly well-etched in the awe-inspiring scene change in the first act as Gurnemanz guides him from the forest to the domed hall, recedes.  His performance early on had just a few notes of comedy that helped engage sympathy for a hero who, like many of us, takes a while to rise to the occasion of an unlooked-for personal challenge.

Klingsor holds forth from his castle, seeking to weaken the Grail Brotherhood.
Sigmundsson's performance had the requisite gravity and sturdy embodiment of the threatened knightly virtues. The contrast, vocally and dramatically, with the other main bass role (with the contrast written in musically, thanks to its baritone colors), was acute. Delavan's Amfortas was moving and effective, sounding genuinely anguished in the long monologues the suffering knight delivers in the first and final acts, with no sacrifice of tone or pitch.

The role of the villain bass Klingsor was filled  vividly by Mark Schnaible. His instrument was slightly grainy, a suitable quality for his overburdened character, and he sang with creditable clarity despite the horned mask the production called for.

The magician's power had the right domineering quality, especially when positioned confidently in his castle, the centerpiece of which was a large turntable. Of course, the villain's limitation is his famous self-wounding —the result of his failure to purify himself for the brotherhood — that drives his malevolence. (My impression of this pathetic character will forever be associated with a remark Michael Steinberg once made to me at a training institute for music critics: he rejected a New York competitor's avoidance of contact with musicians for the sake of professional purity, calling it "the choice of Klingsor." Ouch!).

Tatum's Kundry was a richly nuanced portrayal,  making sense of the tension between the worlds of virtue and vice as conceived within Wagner's peculiar representation of Christianity. She moved gracefully and purposefully in such a way as to reinforce Kundry's divided nature – whether she was more under the spell of Klingsor as temptress or as a penitent seeking expiation for her age-old sin of mocking Christ.

Her wind-swept entrance in the first act, accompanied by some near-miraculous technical effects, did not yield to anticlimax as Tatum's well-grounded performance took shape. (The recovery of the sword from Klingsor, however, seemed a regrettable concession to practicality: Parsifal simply wrenches it from Klingsor, rather than taking advantage of its suspension in mid-air after the villain flings it, as the libretto states.)

The crucial contributions of the Knights, the Flower Maidens, and other choral forces, also including offstage voices of celestial import, were unfailingly well-balanced and rich in tone.

Arthur Fagen conducted, illuminating the complex score and supporting the singers well.  Tempos were neatly judged and given a lot of flexibility in reflecting the action. The orchestra presented the Prelude in exemplary fashion; the music brings to the fore all the material that will be developed later, as billowing clouds introduce us to Tucker's video virtuosity.

Particularly impressive was the string tone in Act 3; from the first measures onward, it had an almost supernatural glow — well-suited to the drama's ascent to its high plane of redemption and serenity in the final half-hour. The physically constrained world of "Parsifal," true to the space-time blend touted by Gurnemanz to the hero as the authentic realm of Grail magic, has taken on renewed health in an arena beyond both geographical and chronological bounds. We can only wish for our diminished world a similar environmental benediction.

[Photos by Sarah J. Slover]


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

In a bicentennial celebration, Indiana University revisits its legacy of presenting Wagner's 'Parsifal'

Richard Wagner was a child when Indiana University was founded in 1820, not a prodigy on the order of his
The Flower Maidens work to get the attention of Parsifal (Chris Lysack)
near contemporary Mendelssohn, and in fact requiring many years to secure his reputation as a musician to reckon with.

The connection between his eventual eminence as a ground-breaking composer and the educational establishment's growth over two centuries runs through IU's history of mounting his last opera, "Parsifal," almost annually from 1949 to 1976. After 43 years of turning its attention to other operas, IU is observing its bicentennial with a new production of the work on the current season.

It opened last Sunday, where it will be repeated Wednesday (when I will see it) and conclude Saturday night at the Musical Arts Center on the Bloomington campus. It is being directed by Chris Alexander, whose extensive credits in Germany preceded multiple engagements by the Seattle Opera and other American companies. "Parsifal" is the fourth IU opera production he has directed.  Jacobs School of Music professor (and Atlanta Opera music director) Arthur Fagen will conduct. Katy Tucker, with a host of New York City video and scenic design credits in opera and other productions, is the set and projections designer.

Leading roles are taken by guest artists. Chief among them are Chris Lysack (Parsifal), Mark Delavan (Amfortas), Mark Schnaible (Klingsor),  Kristinn Sigmundsson (Gurnemanz), and Renee Tatum (Kundry).

The work was from its origin on restricted for public performance to one venue: the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, where it began life as the theater's dedicatory work, embargoed elsewhere in order to pay off the composer's debt to his patron, Ludwig II. It broke free of those confines gradually, finding great receptiveness elsewhere in the 20th century, starting with the Metropolitan Opera in 1903.

Its incorporation of old Christian legends and its emphasis on the necessity of redemption has led to its description as a religious opera, but many think the phrase "an opera about religion" more accurate. Its literary sources are transmuted by the librettist-composer into an ethical and spiritual exploration of the difficulty of expiating sin and helping to save an endangered community through selflessness and compassion. It has overtones of racial-purity themes that have contributed so much to Wagner's negative reputation. But many feel it transcends its focus on a restricted sphere in order to underscore a wider message.

That's not to say "Parsifal" doesn't delve deeply, however, into disturbing matters that both attract and repel. The late philosopher Brian Magee, referring to Wagner's art in general, talked about its persuasive power, which "Parsifal" exercises in abundance. ( "Nothing in the world has made so overwhelming an impression of me," Jan Sibelius said of it.) Magee points out that Wagner's works "give us a hotline to what has been most powerfully repressed in ourselves and bring us consciousness-changing messages from the unconscious." Unsettling though that insight may be, the majesty with which it is expressed in "Parsifal" makes the opera suitable to be part of IU's 200th birthday party.



[Photo by Sarah J. Slover]





Monday, November 11, 2019

Clarinetist-composer Frank Glover's thoughtful new recording supersedes 'Third Stream'

Frank Glover as composer, bandleader and clarinetist built a short discography on Owl Studios early in the century that displayed him as an integral figure in an extension of jazz into contemporary sensibilities with a fresh way of blending improvisation and composition. His could well be the best possible advance on such mixing since the somewhat staid, tentative outreach toward a jazz/classical liaison decades ago by such well-schooled musicians as Gunther Schuller, John Lewis, and J.J. Johnson.
Frank Glover lends urgency and fresh chops to the clarinet

The new recording, like Owl's "Politico" and "Abacus," displays the cinematic flow of Glover's compositions — quick cuts, dissolves, panoramas and close-ups — as well as sensitivity to movement that allows a wealth of imagery to come to the listener's mind. "Two contemporary ballets" is the descriptive phrase Glover applies to both works. The emotional palette evident in them complements the technical mastery that gives it vital expression.

The brand-new recording, finished about three months ago, applies his muse to the special medium of jazz quintet and string quartet in a blend over which his clarinet holds sway. Pianist Zach Lapidus, a former colleague of his here who now lives in New York City, is an essential contributor to the music.

With technical expertise applied by Aireborn Studios and mixing handled at Bloomington's Airtime Studios, "lūmn" and "mīm" (Glover's special revision of the words "lumen" and "mime") give a fresh view of his artistry. The shorter work, "mim," provides the disc title. It's available on CDbaby, Spotify, and iTunes. Glover also welcomes  inquiries and responses to the music at franklinglover42@gmail.com. (Now living near Bloomington, the clarinetist can be heard heading a small group on the third Friday of every month at Chatterbox Jazz Club in downtown Indianapolis.)

Glover told me he's worked on both pieces over the past five years. He has no choreographer or ballet company in mind as he sends the disc out into the world. He was mainly thinking of small-scale circuses and their variety of acts ("more like the circus underground"), as well as the music of Toru Takemitsu, film noir, and the films of Akira Kurosawa. Much of this influence, he admits, is not readily companionable with jazz clarinet. Yet he makes the tributaries flow nicely into an idiosyncratic mainstream. Dance is the ghost in the machine. Simple melodic notions hold their own against dissonant figures, agitated rhythms, and competing tonalities.

Soon into its launch, "lūmn" conjures up the march, with a processional feeling that also incorporates repetitive jazz licks. There are sudden rushes of intensity, and smoothly managed shifts away from those bursts of galvanic energy. The scenario, while not specific, suggests that nostalgia as well as fresh perspectives are infusing the behavior of the central characters (delineated by clarinet and piano).

"Mīm" is more playful, more dependent on its creator's jazz side, and feels compact after the expansiveness of "lūmn."  The heightened feeling suggests the desperation of thwarted desire, recalling 20th-century masterpieces like "Petrushka" and "The Miraculous Mandarin." Glover rides herd over complex textures, with melody and rhythm subject to manifold layering and shifts of focus. With Richard Dole conducting, there is plenty of opportunity for the string quartet to soar and seemingly comment on, even argue with, the hyperactivity of the jazz group, though the strings sometimes can't resist joining in with abandon.

The bracketing of these two works on the same disc affords fans of this musician's past achievements to stay current with his fecund muse. The performances seem fully committed to honoring the craftsmanship that enables Glover's artistry to make his balletic inspirations substantial. Third Stream, eat your heart out!


Saturday, November 9, 2019

ISO's French connections: Urbanski crowns the month's first Classical Series program with Debussy

The last time Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Krzysztof Urbanski collaborated in an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra
Jean-Yves Thibaudet: In the driver's seat for Ravel and Connesson
program, the vehicle also hinted at warm Franco-American relationships in music.

Then there was a meeting of minds around George Gershwin's Concerto in F. As the program note of this weekend's concerts makes clear, Gershwin and his older French contemporary Maurice Ravel had a mutual admiration society, though their acquaintance was slight, centered on a New York meeting in 1928. A common interest in jazz and in melody helped to bond them. Thibaudet, himself an exemplar of Franco-American amity, maintains personal and artistic homes in Los Angeles and his native Lyon, France.

Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major opened the concert Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The program, also including works by Guillaume Connesson and Claude Debussy, will be repeated at 5:30 this afternoon. In the Ravel, the pianist displayed a pronounced affinity for snappy rhythms and fast tempos (in the outer movements), and a melting lyricism in the Adagio assai.

His affinity with American jazz icons (he has made recordings focused on Bill Evans and Duke Ellington) may account for some of his behind-the-beat phrasing in the slow movement, a feeling of holding back while not dragging the regular pulse, which is known in European classical music (Chopin especially) as rubato. That movement also featured a tremendous, well-managed crescendo and a lambent English-horn solo by Roger Roe.

In the finale, alert staccato bursts from the orchestra complemented Thibaudet's own liveliness. The Presto pace was maintained pedal-to-the-metal, with some bone-rattling accents. The bustling first movement concluded in a downward rush all around that was just flippant enough to be witty rather than dismissive.

Thibaudet returned to lend his gift for dispatching fleet figuration and climactic cannonades to a contemporary French piece, "The Shining One," by Connesson, who's just shy of 50 years old. Modernism having presented a cornucopia of orchestral riches in the past century, today's active composers have plenty to draw upon when they move beyond it and give respectful attention to other cultural matters. In this case, it's the genre of the fantasy novel, specifically "The Moon Pool" by Abraham Merritt.

Some treasures of modernism, as well as a few antecedents, are enumerated in Marianne Tobias' program note for "The Shining One." Over the course of nine lively minutes, ending in a brouhaha for everyone, it was impossible to trace on a single hearing just who ranks highest among Connesson's precursors. If a pattern of allusiveness can be found, it adds up to a musical profile that seems paradoxically individual.

"The Shining One" is the second Connesson piece ISO audiences have heard this year. Of the first, "Les cités du Lovecraft," I wrote: "Vivid novelties, often violent and spectacular, were always striking the ear, but there was something naggingly overripe about the piece." Fortunately, this weekend's Connesson isn't long enough to become naggingly overripe. But there was a plethora of ear-striking that held the attention.

After intermission came one of Urbanski's triumphs interpreting standard repertoire. "La Mer," Debussy's three symphonic sketches (as he described the work), received a richly detailed performance that had all the sweep and majesty of its subject that one could ask for. It may have been misunderstood when it was new because Debussy's idiom had not been fully absorbed and some listeners were expecting a more obviously pictorial treatment of nature's most abundant feature and source of the planet's life.

Hokusai's "Mount Fuji," which enchanted Debussy.
I've long considered "La Mer" to be unique among works inspired by nature and keen to raise images in our mind's eye. What's unique is how emotionally engaging it is. It may be because it's more a parallel to the sea than an evocation of it. Plenty of listeners may by now enjoy reminders of the title in what they hear, but I like the purity of its layout, its intensely interwoven structure, its opaque and translucent sonorities, and the odd sense it gives that Debussy has created an ocean to place on an equal footing beside the one made by God or whatever natural forces may be responsible.

Friday's "La Mer" moved me on its own terms. Not only did it vividly suggest the sea's motion and shifts in its sunlit radiance and wind-driven temperament, the performance was sculptural as well as dramatic — like the breaking wave caught with its foamy fingers about to pounce on the shoreline in the print series by the Japanese artist Hokusai that inspired Debussy during the composition process. This allusion came through with particular strength in the finale, "Dialogue of Wind and the Sea."

In an age when plastic snags in the maws and gullets of sea creatures and in microscopic form stretches throughout the ocean-derived food chain, when appalling masses of human waste float across sluggish expanses of seawater, when the rising oceanic temperature distorts nature in such a manner that sea turtles have become too overwhelmingly female for the species to survive, we will always have Debussy's sea. It may be a matter of increasing poignancy whenever the work is performed this well that we will no longer have the Creation's sea existing simultaneously in anything close to pristine condition.



Friday, November 8, 2019

On and on it goes: The bafflement of Ukraine resembles an out-of-luck junkie's search for coke

ATI's 'Alabama Story' has a happy, book-positive ending, subject to history's editing

History may not really repeat itself, but it tends to self-amplify. Issues and personalities, shifting cultural values and resistance to change, the opposition of bigotry and tolerance, keep recycling. Progress, however defined, is inevitably compromised and flecked with unwelcome reminders, sometimes freshly outfitted to accommodate revived prejudices.
 
Group portrait of the living past: actors Cameron Stuart Bass, Maeghan Looney, Don Farrell, and Cynthia Collins as characters in "Alabama Story."


From the heyday of segregation, "Alabama Story," the current Actors Theatre of Indiana production, revisits a controversy of the 1950s. Seismic shifts in the advance toward racial justice marked a decade in which the Old South sought to hold on to the ideology of segregation. Suddenly a children's book by Garth Williams moved to the forefront of culture wars because of the happy union it depicts of one black and one white rabbit.

Kenneth Jones has fashioned a hard-hitting drama out of the heroism of an old-maid librarian (the stereotype phrasing is deliberately adopted) who resisted a campaign against the inclusion of "The Rabbits' Wedding" on the state's public library shelves. As seen in the Studio Theater Thursday night, Cynthia Collins portrays Emily Wheelock Reed as a flinty defender of the right to read, exercising her full powers as head of the Alabama Public Library Service Division. Books deemed notable by the American Library Association were recommended to Alabama librarians for acquisition, making "The Rabbit's Wedding" a political hot potato. She is supported uneasily but steadfastly by an assistant, Thomas Franklin, played both awkwardly and gracefully by Samuel L. Wick.

In her high-ranking position, Reed was subject to the Alabama legislature's influence, represented here with booming self-assertion by Don Farrell as state senator E.W. Higgins. The play holds Reed up as a warrior against unexpected hostility who turns out to display a good measure of compassion as well as  shrewdness. Sixty years ago, the controversy about the book went national and a little bit international, weakening the bulwark of enforced segregation partly because of the absurdity of seeing "The Rabbits' Wedding" as propaganda for race-mixing.

The play has a parallel story in which a black man, Joshua Moore, who went north from Alabama to pursue a career in business, returns to assist the civil-rights struggle spearheaded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  
As he passes by a "whites only" park bench in Montgomery one day, he recognizes a white childhood friend, the flirtatious and lonely Lily Whitfield, sitting there reading. They had grown up as neighbors on her father's estate, run on the old plantation model, a faux-idyllic arrangement shattered one evening by an indiscretion  prompted by the "poor little rich girl."

This makes for a provocative theme that may explain some of the erosion that the Old South was soon to experience. Though civil-rights agitation against Dixie norms was essential to change, departures in the privileged class from segregationist orthodoxy probably occurred because the reigning bigotry didn't suit everyone in the dominant group. Lily, played with fast-paced fragility and irrepressible yearning by Maeghann Looney, is shown to be isolated by her status and thus capable of feeling the disdain normally directed at the less privileged. Her evolving sympathy, rooted in fond memories of an odd fantasy bonding with Joshua over the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris, symbolizes the slow dissolution of inherited prejudice.

The playwright shows Lily has more than a few blind spots and a conveniently faulty memory, but she becomes an inadvertent "fifth columnist" in her homeland's epochal struggle. I felt the chemistry of the interracial relationship was somewhat one-sided, with inadequate reciprocity from Cameron Stuart Bass as Joshua, but the mutual attraction and the obstacles it raises came across anyway.

Directed by Jane Unger, the production consistently projects simple, enduring humanity. The documentary-like presentation of the opening scene and several others is expertly managed. The dramatic conflicts are clearly drawn. The initial meeting in the librarian's office with the senator includes exquisitely timed hesitations and practiced gentility on the part of Don Farrell as the politician warms up the threat machine. 

He will stride into further prominence as the spark plug of censorship, backed up by the White Citizens' Council and fashioning an idiosyncratic profile in courage despite the misgivings of a senior senator and mentor, played by Paul Tavianini in one of several minor roles. His major appearance is as the folksy author/illustrator of "The Rabbits' Wedding," Garth Williams. 

The celebrity author's narrative and commentary provide a ready vehicle to carry "Alabama Story" forward into our hearts, with R. Bernard Killian's scenic design and technical direction once again supporting the ATI players expertly. It's not just the set's glowing bookshelves that emphasize the importance of wide, devoted, exploratory reading  — it's everything about this moving story and its characters.