Sunday, June 30, 2013

Michael Feinstein's pantheon of American popular singers expands festively

We tend to think the best context for understanding cultural values is provided by the past. No doubt that lies behind Michael Feinstein's efforts to memorialize extraordinary contributions to the American popular song with the Center for the Performing Arts' Songbook Hall of Fame.

Nick Ziobro performs at Hall of Fame Induction
With Feinstein as affable host, the Palladium on Saturday night celebrated the second annual induction of luminaries into his burgeoning pantheon of tuneful titans. Rita Moreno, Jimmy Webb and Liza Minnelli were on hand to accept their laurels, and Frank Sinatra was honored posthumously. At least one fan of my acquaintance yearned for a surprise appearance by Ol' Blue Eyes, but the event remained well on this side of the supernatural.

Though the past sets up a reminder that good popular songs were built to last, substantial hope for the future is required to invest such a celebration with significance. That's where some of the entertainment came in, especially when the honorees were not being specifically feted. It was a canny gesture in support of what the Feinstein Initiative is trying to build through its annual competition for high-school singers that last year's winner, Nick Ziobro, was invited to perform.

He did a snappy version of  "I Won't Dance," moving with ease about the stage and singing with clarity and punch.  The teenager from upstate New York has been impressive the few times I've heard him, especially  in the way he stays on top of the beat and doesn't seem so much to be supported by the band as leading the charge. And whoever did the peppy, colorful arrangement of the Jerome Kern evergreen — performed brightly by the occasion's big band under John Oddo's direction — deserves special kudos.

There was youth represented in another genre, though tightly linked to the swagger of the deceased  honoree, when Jill Godwin of Dance Kaleidoscope performed her solo from DK's "Ol' Blue Eyes" tribute show to Frank Sinatra. "That's Life" is the sort of song made for Godwin's sass and exuberance, her ability to snap into and out of poses in rapid succession. And she did so investing each one with attitude and the same sort of on-top-of-the-beat precision Ziobro demonstrated vocally in "I Won't Dance."

What  the rest of the program did best was to celebrate the honorees and bring their long histories to the fore. This purpose was served by brief screened career biographies of each, with resume-rich voice-over narration accompanying a parade of career photos of Sinatra, Webb, Moreno and Minnelli.

Tom Wopat was on hand to honor Webb by singing "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress," to which Feinstein added his version of "Didn't We?," a wistful early Webb song.

The program went a little farther afield when singer-guitarist Jose Feliciano saluted the Puerto Rican singer-dancer-actress with a plangent Spanish version of "Strangers in the Night." He was introduced by actor Jimmy Smits, who emphasized Moreno's trailblazing record with respect to putting Latin American entertainers squarely in the North American entertainment picture.

In the absence of tribute guest Megan Hilty (unable to make the gig because of weather-related flight problems), Feinstein offered a full-bore rendition of "Maybe This Time" (from "Cabaret"). He is quite capable of putting behind him his piano-bar origins as an entertainer and belting out large-scale interpretations of the sort that are part of Minnelli's brand. And thus the audience was invited to call up from the halls of memory Minnelli's accomplishments as an entertainer once she came onstage to accept her award and sing "New York, New York."

Michael Feinstein presents Liza Minnelli with her Hall of Fame award.
The performance was a good lesson in the value of finding the appropriate context for the American popular song in the glories of its past. It helped lend a rosy glow to the atmosphere of celebration extended by the after party. That cheerful culmination drew throngs nibbling top-drawer snacks and quaffing adult beverages into three rooms around the Palladium's periphery, each of them focused on a different musical subgenre based on the imperishable Great American Songbook.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Indianapolis native James Aikman is the new composer-in-residence of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra

James Aikman, whose Indiana roots run deep and include a bachelor's degree from Butler University and a master's from Indiana University, has been appointed composer-in-residence of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, it was announced today.

A prolific composer whose commissions include works for the Eiteljorg Museum and the former Cathedral Arts (now International Violin Competition of Indianapolis), Aikman serves on the faculty of the University of Michigan.

Born here in 1959, Aikman is also a performing musician (keyboards and conducting), and has directed the chamber-music program at the San Miguel International Chamber Music Festival.

According to the announcement,  he will "create musical 'snapshots' for the orchestra" as it prepares to celebrate its 40th season in 2014-15. The ICO is in residence at Aikman's alma mater, calling Butler's new Schrott Center for the Arts home.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

ISO fills the principal trumpet chair in time for two big Symphony on the Prairie weekends

For a musician who considered "winning a job all I cared about," the 11-month wait Ryan Beach had between his audition and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's announcement that he would be its new principal trumpet could be taken in stride.

True, to the best of his knowledge, "that may have been longer than anyone has ever had to wait," but there was no choice but to be patient when scheduling difficulties — including music director Krzysztof Urbanski's limited availability, and last fall's lockout when contract negotiations stalled — delayed the decision until this April. A second finalist had to be tested in concert performance as well, and when that hurdle was cleared this spring, the nod went to the 24-year-old Nebraskan.

Ryan Beach, new principal trumpet of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra
"It's a big step, it's a great orchestra, and I'm very fortunate to have gotten this job," said Beach after a recent ISO rehearsal. He quickly added that he would have taken any job, because that was his goal as he was either winning or placing high in several competitions in recent years. "Every good thing that's happened has been a byproduct," he said firmly.

"Things have really worked out for me, and it's an exciting time right now," said the trumpeter, whose goal in his new position includes communicating that excitement long-term to ISO audiences. With family in Nebraska and a musician girlfriend (percussionist) who is likely to move here, Beach felt free as a job-seeker to go wherever his talent, application and artistry could take him, subject to the favorable opinion of the orchestras that might want to hire him.

His audition experience has not been large in the short time he's been out of school (bachelor's degree, Oklahoma City University; master's, Northwestern University), but sufficient to give him a philosophical approach to them, in comparison to the rigors of competitions. "Many of the excerpts are easy to play in comparison to competition pieces. They are not difficult in terms of ability:  things like the Promenade (in "Pictures at an Exhibition") and the "Pines of Rome" offstage.

"There's of course the fundamental preparation for how well you play the instrument in general,  but then there's finding ways to transcend the instrument, so you can just play the music that's there in front of you," he said. When you listen to great instrumentalists, he said, you don't really think that's fast, that's hard, that's really high; they make it sound easy, so that the music comes through.

"It's about what makes you special," he said of what constitutes success in both competitions and auditions. "I can only give what I have to give, to find some way to transcend the instrument and just be myself."

He started playing trumpet as a Lincoln fifth-grader, influenced as he improved mainly by his first trumpet teacher and a veteran high-school band director. "I didn't know anything, but I had great training, and I had great ears around me, and I got to play a lot of great literature," he recalled. Outside symphonic playing, he's been most influenced by the Fountain City Brass Band, based in Kansas City, of which he's been a member for the past year.
Beach has a confident assessment of what he can contribute here. "I was built to play principal trumpet," he said. "I like to get my ideas out and they're kind of unfiltered. You have a lot of responsibility; you're kind of the concertmaster of the brass section. I have to really prepare to make sure every time I'm doing the same thing, with note length, intensity, volume, articulation. This forces me to play at the highest level, so then those ideas can come out."

Looking at what he hopes ISO audiences come to expect, starting with the next two weekends at Conner Prairie, Beach said he wants patrons to like the way their orchestra plays everything. "If that kind of  excitement is generated, people will pay any amount of money to hear it," he said. "It's something special when you get a whole orchestra on the same page. Everyone feels it and knows it. You should get to the point where you're changing people's lives with your playing. If we're not doing that, then we're not doing our job."

The new principal trumpet succeeds 38-year veteran Marvin C. Perry II, who will now assume the third trumpet/assistant principal chair.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis gets into the ring with jazzman's first opera

A brutal sport that reflects a brutal world lies at the center of a new opera by Terence Blanchard, a well-known jazz trumpeter and film composer who makes his debut as an opera composer with "Champion," an Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production.

The 23rd world premiere in the 38 seasons of OTSL, "Champion" is the story, based on real life but told in a dreamlike fashion, of boxer Emile Griffith, whose success as welterweight champion in the 1960s was forever marked by his fatal victory over Benny "Kid" Paret. "Champion" takes Griffith's guilt over his flurry of punches that sent Paret into a coma resulting in death and sets it against the champion's own mental deterioration, a hazard of his profession.

Manager Howie (Robert Orth) encourages Emile (Aubrey Allicock) before fight.
Blanchard and his librettist, Michael Cristofer, have posed challenges for themselves and their audiences. The voice of the hero is divided among three singers: bass Arthur Woodley, bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock, and boy soprano Jordan Jones. Woodley is the aging fighter, now retired, who struggles with sorting out his memories and the simplest daily tasks. As he slowly gets dressed in the opening scene, he plunges into a clouded reverie, wondering what a shoe is for. The opera thus sets a course that the music often mimics: Life proceeds at a banal, repetitive level. The somewhat demented Griffith rehearses each move, urged along by his adopted son and caretaker Luis (Brian Arreola). He is getting ready for a meeting with Benny Paret Jr., which provides the opera's narrative frame.

As we get to know him, the younger Griffith (Allicock) sings "What makes a man a man" — one of several arias in "Champion" positioned as individual showcases for major characters. The identity question involves not only Griffith's professional identity, since he came to the U.S. from the West Indies intending to be a hatmaker, baseball player, or singer.  It also concerns his sexual identity, because Griffith's bisexuality is more than a matter of rumor, and we see directly his confusion about it in a gay-bar scene. But an early scene in a hatmaking shop, where his mother has taken him to get a job, reinforces the frequency with which the music treads water. As the shop boss Howie Albert (Robert Orth) muses aloud on Emile's greater suitability for boxing, a side interest of Albert's, the hatmakers work on their routine tasks in the background, the music following suit.

While crowded with incident, the opera has a static feeling musically. Sometimes that seems entirely appropriate, as if the creators want to confirm the narrow range of choices available to Emile. He is consistently subject to the authority of a fate he has little control over. His most vigorous assertion of power beyond that range is the vicious hammering of Paret in the ring, driven by his anger at the cocky opponent's taunting remarks during the weigh-in. And yet, as Howie reflects in anguish (in Orth's showcase aria), Paret had dreaded the fight, despite his bravado, because he sensed his head wasn't right. Thus, even Emile's most life-defining act turns out to have been foreordained.

Emelda Griffith, Emile's mother, has a keener feeling for fate than her son, expressed in an introspective aria that Denyce Graves   made a little too flamboyant in the performance I saw June 25. Emelda's own life, marked by a series of bad liaisons with men and abandonment of the children produced by them, is overshadowed by the familiar immigrant story of dashed dreams.

Even the upper-body strength of the  young Emile that so impresses Howie Albert is the result of involuntary conditioning. A touching showcase handled well by Jordan Jones is an aria recalling the religious fanaticism of older cousin Blanche (Chabrelle Williams), who forced the boy to hold cinder blocks over his head to scare out the devil. As Emile realizes later, the internal devils are not so easily exorcised.

The show's outbursts of Manhattan nightlife, prizefight excitement and Caribbean revelry are welcome and expertly staged by director James Robinson. Projections of posters and newsreels on side panels recall the faded glory of boxing's latter heyday. The orchestra is required to produce sweeping sounds, sometimes reinforcing a sustained vocal line in Puccini fashion, as well as providing a pointillistic, jazz-inflected backdrop for singers and dancers. The music is typically nervous, twitchy and variegated, and the voices, both combined and alone, are allowed lots of room to shine. Everything was precisely managed from the podium by George Manahan.

Especially impressive vocally were Allicock and, though more sparingly used, the tenor Victor Ryan Robertson as Griffith's nemesis Paret. Meredith Arwady got considerable traction in her brief character role as Kathy, the owner of the seedy gay bar Emile visits. Another tenor role lent plentiful intensity and pathos, thanks to Arreola's performance, was that of Luis. Unfortunately, many of the versatile Orth's lines as Howie were sort of barked out, perhaps a mode of delivery stipulated by the score or the show's director.

The biggest flaw in "Champion" may have been one of its most stunning triumphs from a show-biz standpoint. The full-cast ensemble near the end, draped in chorale-like stateliness, seemed an unnecessary summing-up. It also suggested that a largely exploitative or indifferent world would have a lot to say unanimously about Emile Griffith.

Probably doubtful — and a sentimental notion linked to a peculiar slackness in Cristofer's writing near the end, with its trite sunsets, etc. At that point, it's uncertain what self-knowledge Griffith is capable of, given the limited mental capacity that Woodley so movingly indicates remains to him. For the sake of opera, Blanchard and Cristofer want to load more significance upon the boxer's pathetic existence than it can comfortably bear. That is part and parcel of the redemptive power of art, I suppose, but it seems forced in "Champion."

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis expertly opens two cans of verismo worms

Once again the world is convulsed by the discovery of secrets, and the saga of Edward Snowden, his whereabouts and his revelations, illustrates that the demand to know the truth can be as relentless as the insistence that the truth be kept hidden.

People on both sides of that divide get awfully nasty. Opera loves the push-pull of this struggle, no more so than in affairs of the heart. No surprise, then, that one of most gripping productions of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis this season is the double bill of Puccini's "Il Tabarro" (The Cloak) and Leoncavallo's "I Pagliacci" (The Players).

Presented here in Amanda Holden's supple English translation, the operas are prime examples of the swerve Italian opera took toward  gritty realism (verismo) at the turn of the 20th century. "Pagliacci," the more complex of the two works, lacks the clear musical focus of "Il Tabarro." But it adds a harbinger of  postmodernist irony: a layer of what happens when the deliberate, practiced illusion of entertainment is placed atop the desperate illusions that real-life romantic intrigue requires.

Canio, the head of a troupe of traveling players (a leisure-time lifeline in remote places before mass entertainment media), is suspicious of his frisky wife, Nedda, whose attractiveness has also prompted unwanted attention from the troupe's hunchback clown, Tonio. The fact that the company's entertainment makes light of adulterous shenanigans in commedia dell'arte style raises the eternal question of how successful (read: deceptive) art's transmutation of life's actual struggles can or should be.

As seen June 25, "Pagliacci" triumphantly re-created that tension. The performance of soprano Kelly Kaduce as Nedda stood out as a virtuoso exposition of great singing, incredibly flexible body language and facial expression, and an indefinable charisma that made her as mesmerizing to the OTSL audience as she is supposed to be to the onstage audience, which realizes to its horror that the waywardness of her character's affections will have a fatal outcome.

As Canio, Robert Brubaker's ferocious defense of his position both as master of the revels and as Nedda's husband was superbly controlled. Though his tenor is far from a beautiful instrument, in this role clarity and intensity are everything. Determination to get the lover's name came through as a clarion call designed to set up Canio's revenge.

Brubaker was aided in the effectiveness of the opera's biggest hit, known usually in its Italian form as "Vesti la giubba," by Christopher Akelind's lighting. The stage was mostly dark, with the central focus on lights around the dressing-room mirror, with a few echoing light accents elsewhere underscoring the aria's sense of foreboding, as Canio laments the necessity of entertaining villagers while strongly suspecting that one of them is his wife's secret lover.

As the deformed villain Tonio, Tim Mix loped and scrambled with practiced clumsiness about the stage. His attempted seduction of Nedda was performed in striking contrast to the adroit meeting of minds and bodies characterizing the liaison of Nedda with Silvio, beautifully and intensely sung by Troy Cook. Mix, of course, was also called upon to perform the Prologue, only slightly less significant a set-piece than Canio's aria, introducing the tragic action with philosophical aplomb.

Stage director Ron Daniels tweaked the stage/real-life dichotomy  by having a mute host of white-suited clowns cavort onstage during the instrumental introduction to the Prologue. The first one to bound onstage scratches his head quizzically as he looks at the "Il Tabarro" curtain with its barge-on-the-Seine image remaining from the previous show. It's a clever way to represent the illusory nature of the real-world conflicts that draw us to their theatrical presentation and are quickly replaced by fresh visions of other imaginary scenes. When that curtain is lifted as the Prologue concludes, we see the word "CIRCO" in garish large letters, outlined in lights, indicating that the itinerant players are on hand to work their time-tested magic.

Ward Stare conducted both performances insightfully, drawing from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra colorful, expansively paced playing here and for "Il Tabarro" as well.

Tim Mix lights the match ushering in fatal conclusion of "Il Tabarro."
"The Cloak" declines to place a playful mask over its essential tragedy. What hides the tragic outcome is the garment of the opera's title. It is symbolic not only of what is hidden within the desires of Georgetta (Emily Pulley) for life without the dank rootlessness of transporting goods by water, but also the comfort her husband, the laconic barge owner Michele (Tim Mix), used to extend to her beneath his cloak. That was all before the infant death of their child, however, a festering wound whose pain  exacerbates the discrepancy between their ages and their desires in life.

Pulley was extraordinarily vivid in representing the thwarted dreams of Georgetta, and the tense, veiled rapport between her and her lover Luigi (Michael Hayes) helped make the melodramatic plunge the action takes more believable. Hayes sang superbly, and his fellow stevedores, Tinca and Talpa, were given three-dimensional value by Matthew DiBattista and Thomas Hammons, respectively. Other minor roles were effectively filled, especially the elderly Talpa's cat-loving wife, Frugola, in Margaret Gawrysiak's amusing portrayal.

Direction and lighting in the final scene, when Michele lowers the body of Georgetta toward that of her just-murdered lover, framed by the cloak, could not have been more gruesomely picturesque as a final visual memory to take away from the musical splendors of the performance.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Trial by disdain, judgment by dishonor: EclecticPond's 'Much Ado About Nothing'

The granddaddy of all battle-of-the-sexes comedies ends the season of EclecticPond Theatre Company at the Irvington Lodge.

"Much Ado About Nothing," whose very title is part of the vast trove of imperishable phrases William Shakespeare bequeathed to the English language, weaves the feisty courtship of Beatrice and Benedick, two young well-born Italians, together with the initially smoother, but seriously interrupted, romance of a couple of their peers, Claudio and Hero.

It's a wise comedy that received an occasionally wise interpretation in the production's final performance Saturday night. In a program note, director Polly L. Heinkel supports well her placing of the action after World War I, so you just have to ignore references to the latest fashion in doublets or the threat to draw swords: In time travel, there are lots more metaphors. At any rate, the post-war atmosphere applies; love is in the air once again, as it was in the 1920s in song and story. And the vagueness of the place (presumably America) is matched by Shakespeare's own indefiniteness.

What is a little more unsettling is that, apart from some plausibly rendered gender-shifting with the characters of Don Pedro, Prince of Arragon, and Leonato (here "Leonata"), governor of Messina, Sicily, there is one that jars: The character who engenders all the plot's evil is a woman. She's still called Don John, but is now the sister of Don Pedro. We are meant to take her apparently as the type of hard-bitten prefeminist who carries out her deep resentments on innocent people, rather than  the stereotype of the embittered bastard brother whose lack of legitimacy gnaws away at him.

Despite some aptly chilling notes in Elysia Rohn's portrayal, she had the thankless task of trying to lend Don John much more than nuisance value, driving the serious side of the plot. And what damage she does, getting the innocent Hero's betrothed Claudio and Don Pedro set against the bride, pulverizing the nuptial ceremony and sidelining the eventually successful effort to get them together!

There was great warmth and humanity in the progress of this difficult romance in the performances of Jeremy Grimmer and Kate Homan. Some of the mutual exchange of insults early in the play could have been savored more, but the sharpness of  the couple's initial opposition was clear.  Grimmer and Homan had to undertake too much physical comedy in the two scenes where they eavesdrop on what's being said about them as their friends set them up to think better of each other.  But they restored some balance to the roles in the scenes where Beatrice and Benedick's rapport becomes irresistible.

The Irvington Lodge stage is a noisy, multileveled place. EclecticPond's stomping ground was literally that in this production. The way the inept law-enforcement team stumbles into discovery of Don John's plot to slander Hero was heavy on physical bumbling, Keystone Kops style writ large.
A certain level of that suits the outrageousness of Dogberry's malapropisms and elaborately misplaced self-importance, but Ben Schuetz's twitchinesss and tics and his daring collisions with Zach Stonerock as the second-in-commnad, Verges, felt overdone. Cast into the shadows was the accidental verbal wit the role is loaded with.

The two roles subject to wholly successful gender-switching were well-filled: Sarah Holland Froelke's dignified Leonata and Lisa Anderson's Don Pedro. The latter is better described as a "trouser role," a familiar enough device in opera, because Pedro remains a man, and Anderson came across as a take-charge male authority figure. There was something a little lacking in ferocity, however, as well as in Claudio's rejection of Hero, at the wedding crisis. 

David Marlowe seemed too caught up in Shakespeare's net of words when called upon to display anger. He was better as the ardent suitor and, ultimately, the contrite bridegroom, humbly overjoyed to have the exonerated Hero presented to him. Meagan Matlock was the picture of Hero's radiant innocence, cruelly victimized until that always touching restoration scene points the way to at least two happy unions at the end.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

47th annual Early Music Festival launches with Chatham Baroque

Establishing a great reputation as a teacher used to require a wealth of creative energy as well as pedagogical skill. In the early Baroque period, when music lacked much institutional support outside the Church, a career as varied as Giovanni Girolamo Kapsperger (c.1580-1651) was potentially thrust upon any musician who wanted to succeed, especially a transplant from the other side of the Alps seeking to make a name for himself in Rome.

Kapsperger (Grove's Dictionary spells it "Kapsberger," but we'll go with the program book here) was the main focus of the opening concert of the 47th Early Music Festival. Titled "Roman Holiday: The Music of Kapsperger and Friends," Friday's concert at the Glick Indiana History Center featured Chatham Baroque, a Pittsburgh ensemble with a core of plucked and bowed string instruments, and three guests (violinist Alison Edberg, violist Martie Perry and guitarist-archlutenist David Walker.

Besides the entrepreneurial Kapsperger, who seemed to have a knack for well-placed dedications of his music to highly placed Romans (including the pope), the program  included works by that eminent precursor of the High Baroque style, Arcangelo Corelli, and such lesser lights as Dario Castello and Diego Ortiz.

Kapsperger's music in dance forms — galliard, corrente and sarabande, among them — seemed natural to him, while evincing the eccentricity that theorbo player Scott Pauley called attention to in his extensive program notes. There was evidence of an ample melodic gift, especially in such a piece as "Ballo Secondo," which Chatham Baroque violinist Andrew Fouts assertively brought back at the end of the printed program as an encore. Fouts' expressive playing throughout the program was a distinct highlight of Chatham Baroque's festival visit, which continued Saturday morning with a free matinee for families.

Some of Kapsperger's music bears signs of a virtuoso player feeling his way as a composer, attempting to establish technical norms for his instrument and an expressive language adequate to it. Besides theorbo, other plucked instruments brought to perfection in the late Renaissance — the lute, the archlute, the chitarrone —  were the focus of the immigrant German's attention.

Pauley's playing of the Kapsperger theorbo solo "Colascione" early in the concert's second half had an earthiness that seemed much more grounded than the unpredictable outbursts of ornamentation that dotted Toccata VII, which was heard earlier and prefaced by Pauley's remark from the stage that the piece illustrated the "mad scientist" side of the composer.

Holding down the center of the first half was a piece by Girolamo Frescobaldi, a contrasting model of consistency in composition. The full ensemble played his "Canzon Quinta," a well-balanced work with an invigorating, yet still well-formed,  fast-slow-fast-slow structure.

From what we heard Friday, Kapsperger may have been most at home in short instrumental pieces. In any event, his sacred vocal music is roundly criticized in Grove's, and his secular songs hardly fare better. But at this concert  I got a kick out of the "Canario," a vigorous example of a popular dance form from the Canary Islands, as well as a flowing galliard in the concert's second half. But I still felt that some of the "friends" represented had more appealing things to say, especially Corelli in his Trio Sonata in A minor, op. 4, no. 5, and Dario Castello  in the five-voice, splendidly expressive "Sonata Decima," which concluded the program.

For information on the rest of the festival, visit 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Shout-out to the shooters postcript: The pride of photographers

With the news that the chickens quickly came home to roost (Chicago Sun-Times photography division), I feel impelled to revisit my salute to newspaper photographers.

If you haven't heard, the Sun-Times, after discharging its entire photography staff, soon laid an egg by failing to get a photo of long lines at a new Chick-fil-A in the Loop to accompany its reporter's story, in comparison to rival Chicago Tribune, which still employs photographers, oddly enough. Instead, the story was illustrated by a stock shot of the fast-food outlet's product. I guess it will take a while for the S-T to keep its iPhone-toting word people from looking like dumb clucks when it comes to photo coverage in the print edition.

Anyway, I may have idealized  photographers in my earlier post.  I will do so here in a different way, by recalling a couple of unforgettable examples of photographer pride and sometimes injured self-esteem. It happens a lot, and recent technological developments in newspaper journalism have merely underscored the history of disrespect.

The photo-department gender barrier was finally broken at The Flint Journal many years ago by two women, hired in quick succession. I believe the second was a young Hawaiian who still had a pioneering attitude. Quite gifted technically, and with a keen eye, she was the only photographer I ever argued with while on assignment.  It was a civilized, muttered-under-the-breath sort of argument, and I lost. We were doing a feature on a local sculptor whose work in clay and wire, often using  basket or container forms, was gaining increased attention far beyond Flint. The photographer and I went to his home studio, and in and around my interview, she snapped pictures.

The sculptor showed us around his cluttered workshop, full of paint cans, strips of wire, clay, works in progress and tools. Naturally, my reporter's perspective was that a photo here would tell quite a lot about the artist in one abundantly filled shot, reducing the need for me to have a couple of paragraphs of description.

The shooter was having none of it.  She wanted quite deliberately to avoid clutter — even if it meant turning aside the chance to get an information-packed image. I pleaded with her just to take one picture of the studio to add to the mix she would turn in. No way.

Back at the office, she submitted several great images, and they supplemented, and even enhanced, my story better than I had any reason to expect. Maybe she was right in nixing the studio shot, but it still stung a bit. I'm sure she felt my suggestion as intrusive of her professionalism as I would have felt if she'd said, "Be sure to describe how his face lit up when he answered that question" or "That will be a great quote in your story; put it high up."

Another thing about her: She must have prided herself on turning in hard-to-crop photos. I was often charged with laying out arts pages, and, when she was the assigned photographer, it was typical for me to get several glossies, all of them quite usable, with the unspoken hint that they would best be run "as is." If she moved in tight on a face, for instance, the top of the head was often missing. I thought of this as an importation from art photography; in newspaper work, if you were laying out photos, you didn't want to be working with prints that wasted a lot of space, true — but you also weren't expecting next to no chance to crop a photo without ruining it. This woman was an expert at framing an image and, by extension, framing the debate that always lies just under the surface between word and image people on newspaper staffs.

Here's another instance of photographer pride from my Journal days. Out in the Thumb of Michigan, at the very fringes of our eastern coverage area, a bank robber (I think it was) remained at large for days on end, giving the local constabulary fits. We'd covered the story,  so were receptive to the information that the perp had arranged to turn himself in without a fight. The Journal accordingly sent a reporter and photographer out to the little town of Yale.

Sure enough, the cops-and-robber arrangement came to pass. A disappointed, sullen expression on his face, the handcuffed suspect was  caught on camera about to be escorted into the squad car, flanked by two policemen. It was just before the last moment of the "capture" ritual, when a law-enforcement hand is placed on the suspect's head to keep him from bumping it as he gets into the back seat. (I love the recent New Yorker cartoon of such a scene. The hand-on-head cop is saying to the arrestee: "Hate the crime, love the conditioner.")

But something happened after the photo was turned in. The photo editor apparently thought there was something prejudicial about presenting the suspect in an identifiable manner. Presumption of innocence, after all, don't  you know! So when the photo was published, a black bar had been neatly placed over the young man's eyes, giving that day's Journal something of the look of the old Confidential magazine, which frequently sought to spice up its celebrity scandal coverage by resorting to such a rudimentary protection of identity.

Lots of us at The Journal had a good laugh over that published photo; I wish I had saved it. The photographer was not amused, however: "They sent me all the way out to Yale, then they ruined my picture!"

Forgivable vanity, in my book.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Trace elements: My journalistic past covering visual arts, too, has left its mark

As I was interviewed last week about my career in arts journalism  for "The Arts Exchange"(WICR-FM), questions put to me by Tom Akins and Bobbie Donahue touched on the visual arts as one of the arrows in my critical quiver long ago at The Flint Journal.  Apart from a feature or two and a one-off review, at The Indianapolis Star that weaponry remained idle during my 26-plus years there.

I have many fond memories of writing about art and artists at the Michigan paper, though I was never as comfortable in that area as in the performing arts. I had taken a couple of art history courses in college, one while studying in Germany. The one on my home campus got me tagged with the second-lowest grade of my college career, a "C."  The professor's procedure was slide lectures in a darkened classroom. The class took place right after lunch, and my mental focus was usually blurry.

I had two other disadvantages writing about the visual arts:  I've got a bit of color-blindness in the green-gray part of the spectrum, and I never had the benefit of studio experience.  Music and theater had drawn me in as a participant during my school years; I knew what went into making performances.  But it wasn't easy to compensate for my ignorance of the properties of materials or the techniques that have been developed to make art out of them.  Once when a painter-professor was guiding me through a department show in Flint, I remarked in front of one painting:  "I didn't know acrylics could look so thin, almost like watercolor."  He replied: "Then you don't know very much about acrylics, Jay."  Touche.

But I was enchanted by the cultural backdrop of painting and sculpture and moved by imagery, symbolism and expressive gesture.  My excitement was, and still is, particularly linked to art that suggests motion, drama and contrast.  This made me a somewhat acceptable art critic for a middle-sized city.  What's more, I think this orientation also fed my understanding of elements often considered static:  balances of dark and light, angularity and flow, event and inertness.

Let me reach back to a seminal text: The creation narrative best known in Western culture starts with the separation of light from darkness, immediately preceded by triggering words: "Let there be light."
Time starts, storytelling starts, and the subsequent all-at-once-ness of visual art carries clues of what comes before and after what we see. It invites us to wonder what the formal poise of a painting or sculpture may say about the struggle of opposing forces for mastery and how the artist has moderated that struggle.

Franz Kline's Mahoning (1956)
Abstract painters of the 20th-century often clarify these matters for us, setting aside the attractive clutter of objects and creatures. In the work of Franz Kline, thick strokes of black segment an off-white canvas. On the one hand, they look rough and impulsive, but they are also purposeful, declaring their own order. Their energy implies that they continue beyond the painting's edge, or have come from somewhere out there. Kline illuminates on a large scale the germinating narrative of gesture.

  Rembrandt's The Night Watch. (1642)
In the Rembrandt painting known as "The Night Watch," the tension between the well-lit figures in the foreground and those nearly shrouded in the gloom of night establishes movement and direction. The group is on a deliberate course, but alive with action. An even light is best for portraits and still lifes, genres that deliberately set time aside. Light and dark in conflict, even neatly managed, as here, remind us of the shifting texture of time. As a linear thinker most responsive to time-bound arts like music and theater, I'm excited by this kind of art — not because I can verbalize a story behind it, but because it both releases the viewer from the prison of time and acknowledges its inevitable rule. The company of Capt. Frans Banning Cocq and Lieut. Willem van Ruytenbach has assembled from places we don't see and is headed toward others we can only imagine; not only that, but as so often in Rembrandt, the light slants in from above and to the side, its source unknowable.

"The Raft of the 'Medusa,'  by Theodore Gericault (1819)
Romantic art tends to be explicit about physical or mental struggles at their extremes.  Gericault's "Raft of the Medusa" memorializes a horrible post-shipwreck voyage, with survivors on a large raft, originally numbering 149, now down to 15. Despite the vivid depiction of agony, the artist has organized his human forms into angled lines toward the upper right, where some of the desperate passengers signal and point.

Light has a crucial role to play in leading the eye toward this part of the painting, with the glowing horizon hinting at the persistent, if forlorn, hope of rescue. A story is told here that can be understood solely in visual terms of balanced composition (notice how the sail and the line to the mast moderate the intense pull to the upper right) and the thrifty use of lighter colors.

Laocoon and His Sons,  2nd century Rome
Another favorite of mine is the  ancient sculpture showing the doomed battle of Laocoon and his sons with two huge snakes. A landmark in sculptural history for the breadth and independence of its forms in space, this piece has that dramatic impact that can capture someone more used to the arts that explicitly celebrate process. As in Gericault's painting, this work takes extreme suffering and makes a formal dance out of it. The sinuous shape of the reptiles is partly replicated in the twisting torso of Laocoon, with his head cocked toward his left shoulder. Yet the human forms oppose to that sinuousness the angularity of creatures with an elaborate bone and joint structure. The angularity would be more explicit if the sons' arms were intact, but even so we can sense the opposition of human and serpentine movement.  And it's pretty clear the latter has the upper hand, as it were, as our eyes are riveted by the central struggle.

The eventual defeat of the Laocoon group in this fight is told by visual means alone. We don't even need to know the punishment has been divinely ordered, or that Laocoon's death is a kind of martyrdom in Roman culture, since he had warned in vain against the Trojan horse.  That famous trick precipitated the city's downfall and the flight of Aeneas westward, leading to the legendary founding of Rome.
Barnett Newman's Onement I (1948)

Sometimes an artist's reductive manner preserves the vividness of action, however abstracted it might be from real movement. Barnett Newman's "zip" paintings could be said to state the "anti-Laocoon group"  position. While the sculpture's struggle in its division of serpentine and human energies is explicit and detailed, this Newman painting (the first in a series that made his reputation) probes the most basic of divisions, exploring the most muted possible conflict — between narrow vertical band and expansive field, with a placid background energized by a fuzzy-edged zip of light down the center.

We are thus back to Genesis, the place where narrative and the first cosmic visual contrasts originated in the cultural tradition closest to most of us in the West. Division is what we're forced to understand in life, though we may aspire toward unity. The undefined and undifferentiated push back against what we're able to define, hold dear and remember intelligibly. The visual arts find forms and textures that provisionally settle such endless conflicts.

The works I've looked at here, among many others, help accustom us to our imprisonment in time.  There is common ground between  the explicit "And then" of narrative or time-dependent arts and the more subtle "And then" of two- and three-dimensional artistic forms in space. I have no difficulty leaving behind writing about art, but looking at it has taught me so much through its complex simultaneity about beginnings, middles and ends and their necessary connections.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Chivalry is not dead yet, just incapacitated by laughter, in 'Monty Python's Spamalot'

Fondness for the venerated English legends of King Arthur doesn't stand a chance in the BOBDIREX production of Monty Python's Spamalot, which runs through June 29 at the Athenaeum Theater.

The show celebrates in the worst way the time (932 for those keeping score at home)  when knighthood was in flower —though this is the squirting kind that clowns wear in their lapels. The energy and panache of the local production is indelibly Pythonesque.

The British troupe's Eric Idle contrived the award-winning stage adaptation  of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975) with the blessing of his mates. Collaborating with composer John Du Prez, Idle also sends up the Broadway musical, with its soaring romantic duets ("The Song That Goes Like This") and its anthemic inspirational songs. Here, it's  "Find Your Grail," which manages to put in a stuffy box the likes of "Climb Every Mountain" and "The Impossible Dream."

Arthur (Charles Goad) tries to think, as Patsy (Paul Hansen) looks on.
Your laugh muscles will get a workout, if they tend to be galvanized by utter nonsense. The male bonding of the Knights of the Round Table provides a fat target for numerous barbs. The list includes  sexual repression (Lancelot comes out in a strutting production number), testosterone-fueled bravado, the ambiguity of directives from a sky god, and idealization of the man cave (Camelot becomes a cheesy Las Vegas knockoff).

That adorable showman Bob Harbin and his cast have crafted  moment after moment of high-quality lunacy. Some of the city's best comic actors have been enlisted to inhabit the grossly entertaining caricatures that populate the show. Choreography by Kenny Shepard has variety and is structured seamlessly into the music, which is smartly rendered by music director Trevor Fanning's band.

Costuming ingenuity and flair are demanded from scene to scene, ranging from the bulky Knights Who Say 'Ni'  to the flamboyant Rainbow Dancers, who help Lancelot realize his suppressed identity. Garb that's seen once and then vanishes has to be instantly eye-catching, because the show-biz devil is always making work for Idle's mind — and thus for any production team that dares to stage the show. Case in point: the mockery of ethnic oddities in "Fisch Schlapping Song," as the musical "mistakenly" opens in Finland rather than England, as instructed by the pompous yet avuncular Historian (Carl Cooper).

As King Arthur, Charles Goad is a falsely resolute lost soul who feels that his position in 10th-century Britain is insufficiently respected. Being handed a sword by an officious woman who lives underwater is a questionable anointment even in a credulous age. He is at most every other inch a king,  which is not enough to understand the nature of the forces opposing  him, from a brusque Almighty to contemptuous French taunters. A certain amount of dithering comes with the job. In that respect, he's like most leaders.

Arthur is also inclined to take for granted his sidekick Patsy, played by the indomitable Paul Hansen, who blossoms in the hummable, whistle-able "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," repurposed from the crucifixion scene in "Life of Brian." Early on, a pre-enlistment argument between Robin (Ben Asaykwee) and Lancelot (Thomas Cardwell) — about the provenance of the coconut shells Patsy uses to simulate the clip-clop of royal horses — shows Idle's debt to the Theatre of the Absurd. It recalls the first-act debate about pachyderms in Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros."

There are a few other show-stopping turns to take note of: Claire Wilcher's Lady of the Lake, floating against a clamshell backdrop like Botticelli's Venus, describes her role in establishing Arthur's credentials in the first act. That's  shortly after she joins reformed revolutionary Dennis, now Sir Lancelot (Pete Scharbrough), in the belted complaint, "The Song That Goes Like This."  Wilcher returns as an aggrieved diva in the second act, protesting her long absence from the stage.  Opening her mouth as wide as Martha Raye's, she made a stunning show of indignation.

Most amazing as a concentrated exhibition of BOBIDIREX's  strengths was "You Won't Succeed on Broadway," with a smoothly structured blend of Broadway and ethnic pizazz. Asaykwee was in firm command of the solo. singing with clarity one of Idle's cleverest songs and leading the riotously busy ensemble of singers and dancers.

If at its extreme end the ridiculous joins  the sublime, this Monty Python's Spamalot meets itself coming and going. It's a Moebius strip of hilarity, beyond cavil or compromise, as nose-thumbing toward high purpose as it is bum-baring toward low motives.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

A choral phenomenon pays us a visit, 102 years after the first time

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is so much an institution that its thorough preparation of a variety of choral music can be taken for granted.  Nonetheless, it's a treat to hear that sound in the flesh, as a crowded Bankers Life Fieldhouse learned Friday night — the first time an Indianapolis audience has had that privilege since 1911. The local partner facilitating the historic return was the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, under its formal name, the Indiana  Symphony Society.

There is a finish and roundedness to the MTC's  presentation that seems the essence of professionalism, though in fact the choir and the accompanying Orchestra at Temple Square are all dedicated amateurs. No doubt they are schooled in the ensemble's prestige and history as well as in its music.

The 360 singers, standing ramrod straight (with a few planned exceptions, notably the Nigerian carol "Betelehemu," when they swayed, raised their hands and shouted), were never less than impressive in the two-hour program, culminating in "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Then a brief parade of encores followed, beginning with the winning "people's choice," "God Bless America."

The legacy of the choir, as an outgrowth of a band of hearty 19th-century religious pioneers, is upheld mainly in the choice of inspirational and uplifting music. Two hymns from the Welsh tradition made a fervent opening set Friday in the second stop of the choir's Midwestern tour.

The program proceeded through a wealth of brief, tidily arranged numbers. To hear such large forces move briskly, never lumbering, through the intricacies of  the "Gloria" from Dvorak's Mass in D and "Cum sancto spiritu"from Rossini's Petite messe solennelle was a pleasure. Some of the short phrases in the latter seemed too accented and bitten off, but there was no doubt as to the precise interpretive intention of the performance.

As suitable as the orchestral accompaniment was in most of the program, the opportunity  to savor the uniformity and clear projection of the choir's sound without instruments (or with percussion instruments only, as in a Sephardic wedding song and the exuberant Nigerian carol) was offered repeatedly. From "Rock-a My Soul" to Gretchaninoff's "Nunc dimittis" (The Song of Simeon), many styles of self-sufficient choral singing got effusive, well-coordinated representation.

My choice for a favorite representative moment in the show displaying the choir at its best? When the men sang the final verse of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The choir's version of their "greatest hit" downplays the aggressive martial imagery of Julia Ward Howe's poem, omitting the third and fourth verses, and letting the men establish the hushed, sacred ambiance of the final verse, accompanied only by solo harp.

"In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me: As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, while God is marching on."

A slight emendation reflects the choir's determination always to deliver an upbeat message: "Let us live to make men free," they sang. And the men filled those phrases with well-supported ardor, giving the words the special meaning they must have for Mormons, who acknowledge a New World extension of the Christian faith while looking back to the original ministry of Jesus in first-century Palestine. Dying for both freedom and holiness is a cause to which many can rally, and may have had particular survival value for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. So, while no proselytizing is a watchword of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's tours, the concert connection to the church's essence is unmistakable.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Cincinnati Opera's spellbinding 'Don Giovanni'

"The Rake Punished" are the first words in the original title of the opera we know as "Don Giovanni," and Cincinnati Opera's season-opening production of Mozart's masterpiece restores the moral of the old Don Juan story to its rightful place.

As seen Thursday night in the first of two performances at Cincinnati Music Hall, this "Don Giovanni" gives an unpleasant edge to the title character, despite the gusto with which Lucas Meachem portrays him. We are made to feel his eventual punishment is fully justified.

Lorenzo da Ponte's witty libretto lends plenty of support for characterizing the dissolute nobleman as absolutely focused on seducing women, not letting anything stand in his way. But some productions minimize the dark side and make the Don's eventual comeuppance — and the surviving characters' final chorus — seem tacked on to the tale of a fast-moving rascal we are disposed to like.

Director Tomer Zvulun allows the Don to have his fun, of course, and Meachem is fully up  to the assignment, both vocally and dramatically. "Finch' han dal vino,"  the most concentrated exposition of what Giovanni lives for, was taken almost too fast for the well-schooled Meachem to deal with. But that supports the director's apparent view that the protagonist's sex drive is nearly pathological and out of control.

At the Don's party, when everyone is bellowing lustily about the joys of freedom, the ghostly appearance of the slain Commendatore rattles the host momentarily. Giovanni shakes off the vision, and it's clear the apparition is not there to remind him of his guilt (as Banquo's ghost does to Macbeth) but to indicate the murderer's future doom. And Zvulun wants us to feel much more uneasy about how the Commendatore died than Don Giovanni does, because he stages the murder as a sneak attack on the old man after Leporello has distracted him during the sword fight.

The Don doesn't live for a variety of pleasures, despite what is meant to be a showcase of his musical skill in the lovely serenade "Deh, vieni al finestra," sung with melting legato phrasing by Meachem. He wants one thing only, and this is most deviously illustrated by his relationship to the peasant bride Zerlina, coquettishly portrayed by Alexandra Schoeny in this production.

The seductive  "La ci darem la mano," begun smoothly by Meachem and gathering psychological impact as a duet involving Zerlina, was one of the performance's highlights. Despite her susceptibility to the Don's charms, Schoeny's Zerlina was convincingly devoted to her intended bridegroom, Masetto (Ryan Kuster). By having Masetto strike her before she sings "Batti, batti, o bel Masetto," Zvulun takes some of the sting out of Zerlina's asking forgiveness by inviting him to beat her. The tender song thus becomes her way of shaming him for his violent outburst while apologizing at the same time.

Leporello (Burak Bilgili) and Don Giovanni (Lucas Meachem)
From the moment right after the overture when Leporello (Burak Bilgili) emerges through a trap door to grumble tunefully about the weariness of his subordinate position in life, the audience becomes accustomed to the importance of the nether regions, where everything bad, from the inconvenient to the diabolical, may be hidden. When his "catalog aria" makes it clear to Donna Elvira just how extensive the Don's international sexual conquests have been, volume after volume is pulled up through one of the doors.

Jonathan Miller, who directed the work years ago for English National Opera, has written of its "restless and unhoused" characters, so hard for opera singers to inhabit.  This quality is reflected in the set design — abstract, placeless and forbidding — with shiny, sliding walls and empty frames on various planes filling up much of the space above the raked floor and those mysterious trap doors. Apt 18th-century costumes give the characters a falsely vivid connectedness to time and place, but in reality there is not much of a physical environment anyone can relate to.

The next-to-last scene is perhaps the most oddly staged. The production team clearly wants to avoid the cliche of horned imps with pitchforks rising from hellfire to pull Giovanni to perdition. So the infernal chorus, popping up through trap doors, has the same featureless foreboding as the Commendatore's ghost, of which there are three. Only the middle one, the majestic-sounding basso Nathan Stark, engages in dialogue with Giovanni, to some of the most bone-chilling music ever written.

I'm at a loss to understand why the director wanted a Commendatore trio. I'm also not sure why there is a profusion of candelabras at the banquet the Don has set for the Commendatore and precious little food. The Don, in some productions styled a kind of gourmand, again here is made to seem focused only on sexual dalliance, so fondling and groping a willing young woman is his main activity until the stone guest's arrival.

About the more important women: Nicole Cabell was thrilling as Donna Elvira, playing intensely the victim-as-stalker, determined to forestall further sexual predations by the lover who has abandoned her shortly before. Her facial expressions and lithe physical movement were advantages in conveying the mixed motivations of a wronged woman harboring a thinly veiled belief that Giovanni should be exclusively hers. Giovanni boasts at one point that to be faithful to one woman would mean being cruel to all the others; Elvira prefers that Giovanni were cruel to all the others, but she fails to realize he is well past reform. No wonder she opts in the last scene to enter a convent.

Angela Meade played Donna Anna, singlemindedly seeking revenge for her father's death at the Don's hands. The famous ambiguity as to how far her own seduction by the Don had proceeded before the Commendatore interrupted the tryst is nicely played in this production.
Certainly Meade's powerful voice went far to show Donna Anna's insistence that her version of the incident be accepted by her lover, Don Ottavio, as a charge to become her relentless champion and shelve his amorous intentions. Aaron Blake as Don Ottavio made a noble attempt vocally not to seem a milksop, but devotion melodically expressed can't redeem the character's essential weakness.

Roberto Minczuk conducted the performance, drawing fine characterization from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra of the ever-changing dramatic situation. Coordination with the stage was mostly first-rate, with some slippage in the faster numbers. Given so many superb voices in the cast, the ensembles never failed to make their point. The comedy also received its due, but the production never strayed far from conveying an atmosphere of moral bleakness amid the musical glories.

The final performance will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 15.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Swiss movement: Jarrett-Peacock-DeJohnette hang loose in Lucerne

Working through second thoughts,  the renowned "standards" trio of Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette has allowed ECM to release "Somewhere," the essence of a concert presented in Lucerne, Switzerland, in July 2009.

Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock
Recently the pianist explained the perfectionist tendencies behind this costive scheduling to an NPR interviewer. Fans will be pleased to hear the result, even if the particular misgivings of bassist Peacock seem justified: His instrument's sound is a bit constipated; what he plays has a stopped-up quality  — where's the resonance, the projection? The bass's accompaniment patterns are sometimes buried under even sotto voce piano and drums, especially in the ruminative Jarrett original "Everywhere," which is tacked on to a plaintive account of Leonard Bernstein's "Somewhere."

That's one of the hourlong set's two pieces from "West Side Story," the other being a blithe run-through of "Tonight,"  capped by a rather perfunctory ending. The performance is the closest this usually imaginative threesome comes to a conventional piano-trio rendition, though DeJohnette's accented flecks of snare drum are something special.

The response of the crowd to "Everywhere" is ecstatic, but this represents the kind of Jarrett cud-chewing that tends to weary me. Clearly, though, a celebrated musician has a responsibility to deliver on his brand, and Jarrett does so here, urged along by DeJohnette at his most subtle and the nearly inaudible support of Peacock.

More exciting an example of the pianist's original flights are the out-of-tempo flourishes that open the disc under the  title "Deep Space,"  suggesting the mystery of the cosmos. This serves as an apt introduction to Miles Davis' "Solar," with Peacock leading the way. Whatever reservations I have about the bass sound, Peacock is in good form in his solos, the best example of which occurs in the set closer, "I Thought About You."

A hallmark of a Jarrett interpretation of a standard (besides his haphazard moaning and other vocal tics) is a clear love of melody, which he never abandons for the sake of improvising solely on chord changes. When the original tune is set aside, he creates new melodies in the same spirit. I admire the way he sticks to the tune even on the bridge, often the first part of a standard that jazzmen jettison.

 He's also no fan of introductions; tunes are presented off the launching pad in all their integrity, as in "Stars Fell on Alabama," "Somewhere" and "I Thought About You." Sure, he's no literalist about this; he imports a modified-Monk pointillism as "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" opens unaccompanied.

The last-named song is the disc's most satisfying performance. Jarrett is keenly on message, and sets up a lovely introduction to  Peacock's solo. A good-time groove is maintained, buoyed by generous exchanges with the drummer near the end.

Standards never grow stale in any competent jazz musician's book, and this trio remains one of the prime upholders and refreshers of their legacy.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Sean Chen also registers with audiences and judges in Fort Worth

Sean Chen
Sean Chen, 24, picked up the third prize in the 14th quadrennial International Van Cliburn Competition Sunday night. 

Chen, who was selected as the 2013 Classical Fellow of the American Pianists Association, made a good impression in Fort Worth, Texas, on the jury and audience as well,  drawing a host of  rave Tweets from fans who heard the final concerto performance of the competition, the Rachmaninoff Third, with Leonard Slatkin conducting the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

The gold medalist (first prize winner) is Vadym Kholodenko, 26, of Ukraine.  The silver medal went to Beatrice Rana, 20, of Italy.

The other finalists, all six of whom will receive three years of concert management, are Fei-Fei Dong, 22, of China; Nikita Mndoyants, 24, of Russia, and Tomoki Sakata, 19, of Japan.

As silver medalist, Chen receives $20,000 and a recording of his competition performances.  He is the first American finalist since the 1997 competition. Now studying at the Yale School of Music, he has two degrees from the Juilliard School and scored a 2011 second-place finish at the the Seoul International Music Competition.

Of the four Classical Fellowship Awards participants in the APA competition, Chen was the only one to make it to the finals. Claire Huangci was among the semifinalists, however, and took home one of three Jury Discretionary Awards, worth $4,000.

Before the final round began, APA president and artistic director Joel Harrison liked Chen's chances. "He has some degree of advantage because he is so bright and is able to focus on what he is doing. You can't be a hothouse personality (in major competitions). You've got to be ready with so much stuff, and you know you can't control everything.

"That bodes well for him," Harrison said. "He's not a fussy personality. He's a happy person; stress is not an overriding issue with him."

Harrison predicted a great future for Chen before Sunday's result was announced in Fort Worth. "He's a unique personality, and he has some entrepreneurial qualities. He's willing to go out there and make things happen musically, and he's not a cookie-cutter pianist.  He stands out."

With the third prize in such a prestigious competition plus his selection as the 2013 APA Classical Fellow, Chen is in good position to stand out even more.

Talking with me from Fort Worth after the announcement, Harrison said he was happy with the result, praising the artistry of the finalists who bested Chen in the 13-member jury's opinion. He was pleased with the Rachmaninoff concerto performance, calling it "over-the-top, highly engaging, riveting, as exciting as his Bartok Second was in Indianapolis."

Harrison couldn't predict how the overlapping career assistance that the APA sets up for its Fellowship winners and the corresponding part of the Cliburn award will work out, saying "we will just have to coordinate."  No matter how much the engagements resulting from the two prizes pack Chen's schedule, however, "he won't burn out," Harrison predicted. "That's not in him. He knows how to pace himself. He'll do a great job."

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Creative Renewal Grant allowed Becky Archibald to cozy up to jazz at Monteton

Midnight at Monteton, a new recording by pianist Becky Archibald (B&A Records), shows how she was able to spread her wings musically through study and performance in 2008 at the Dordogne International Jazz Summer (DJSS) in Monteton, France. An enabling Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts Council of Indianapolis continues to bear fruit, and a sample of the harvest is offered here.

Becky Archibald benefited from fellowship to study jazz
There is much to enjoy. Except for three solos at the end of the 80-minute disc, she's broadened her musical reach to take in real jazz played with top-drawer veterans of the scene. The kind of New Age style of pastel inspirations by which she made her mark locally is retained in her evident love for melodies and their uncomplicated elaboration.

Her fetching compositions give comfortable space to three top Indianapolis bassists, and they revel in it: Steve Dokken on "Lemonade" and "Deux Chapeaux," Jack Helsley on "Can't Let It Be" and "And Then There Were Two" and Fred Withrow on "Bullet Proof Blues."

The arrangements are tidy and spunky, sometimes, as in "Can't Let It Be," recalling the bop-era small-group swing sound fashioned by Manny Albam, Al Porcino and others.

Jim Farrelly enjoys a slew of nice showcases for his adeptness on a range of reeds;
speaking of which, the proceedings get off to a rollicking start with a cameo bass-clarinet appearance by Mark Ortwein in "Deux Chapeaux."

A CD release party  for Midnight at Monteton is scheduled for June 25 at Indiana Landmarks Center. More info:

Friday, June 7, 2013

ISO, guest soloist plumb 'The Mysteries of Light' as Classical Series concludes

The first time I heard any music by James MacMillan was at a concert by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra in 1998, with Evelyn Glennie as percussion soloist in a piece written for her, Veni,Veni, Emmanuel.

I came away with the impression I still have today: This is not only a composer who speaks in his own voice, but also knows how to lay out a large work effectively.  Both are rare gifts.

The Scottish composer has maintained those gifts, as evidenced by another large work, also steeped in MacMillan's Catholic faith and also written for a major international soloist: Piano Concerto No. 3 ("The Mysteries of Light"), which Jean-Yves Thibaudet played with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Krzysztof Urbanski, Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Thibaudet premiered the work in 2011 with what one is sadly tempted to call the late, lamented Minnesota Orchestra. It's a pleasant sign of the ISO music director's commitment  to the music of his time that such a piece has a central position on the final Classical Series program of the season.

Perhaps of more significance is that the last sounds Classical Series patrons will remember from this season are those of the masterwork of Polish modernism, Witold Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra, which occupies the second half of this weekend's concerts. Urbanski announced at the beginning of his tenure that acquainting Indianapolis audiences with music of his homeland will be a major aspect of his artistic profile with this orchestra. What better way to crown a season than with this piece, easy to assimilate on first hearing and endlessly fascinating as an orchestra showcase!

But back to the MacMillan: Based on the Luminous Mysteries, meditations that Pope John Paul II added to the rosary in 2002, the concerto never skates lightly over its spiritual foundation. Yet it can be appreciated as an abstract representation of genuine experiences grounded in belief, whether the listener shares that faith or not.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet brings to the ISO a piece written for him.
Many of MacMillan's shorter works confirm another gift: He's eclectic, but not interested in pastiche or parody. That's evident here too, notably in the folk-dance vigor of an episode in the second movement, "The Wedding at Cana," which still doesn't lose sight of the solemnity of the miracle performed at that event or of Jesus' solemnization of marriage there. MacMillan can cast a wide net musically and count on hauling in a palate-pleasing catch.

The piano part establishes a mercurial relationship to the wealth of material, in the first movement decorating with rapid passagework the plainchant that unifies "Baptism in the Jordan."
The plainchant returns in the finale before a strenuous peroration that seems to put a seal on the Eucharist rite's fusion of sacrifice and salvation.

For all the elaboration with which he treats his ideas, MacMillan builds from the bones out, as it were. The dark rumbling that launches "The Transfiguration" patiently admits the light of the work's title as the movement climaxes in a tremendous crescendo across all the strings, given awe-inspiring intensity in Friday night's performance.

The piano part requires Thibaudet to assert the centrality of the solo instrument's role, sometimes against a massively deployed orchestra, sometimes in passagework that would seem gaudy were it not capable of refining itself into prayerful simplicity. He displayed heroic mastery of such requirements Friday.

The Lutoslawski, while risky for the time and place of its creation (Poland in 1954), has a more orderly structure, which is not to discount such innovations as the grand combination of passacaglia, toccata and chorale in the last movement. The angularity and accented lines of the opening "Intrada" focused the attention, and the high spirits never lagged — right through a very fast second movement, concluding with brilliantly diminishing percussion figures, and on to the grandeur of the finale, in which the transition from the passacaglia to the toccata was especially well-managed.

In fact, as far as I could tell, the only poorly executed music of the evening was the opening phrase or two of Mozart's Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio, muddily played by the violins, but clearing up the second time around. The delightful persistence of percussion in the main section was deftly folded  into the lively theme — exotic splashes of color that whetted the appetite for the glorious spectra displayed in the program's other two pieces.

ISO names FORTE founder director of development

Holly C. Johnson, who was instrumental in setting up FORTE,  the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's organization promoting its music to young professionals, will be the ISO's new vice president of development.

Holly C. Johnson (credit: Tyagan Miller)
Having started her fundraising career with the ISO in 1999, she continued with the organization until 2008, when she led the corporate and foundations fundraising team. Since then, she has worked for the Indiana University Foundation, finishing her work there as director of development, major gifts, for the past two years. She helped establish FORTE in 2003.

Johnson will be responsible for leading ISO fundraising initiatives, including the vital campaign to increase donations to the annual fund. That enlarged fund is the linchpin of the organization's efforts to be solvent enough to keep contractual obligations to the ISO's musicians, who accepted a large wage cut last fall under a five-season contract that took effect after a successful winter campaign to raise $5 million in new money.

Johnson's involvement in community efforts include volunteering and serving on the board for the Hoosier Environmental Council.  She is a pianist at Mount Pleasant Christian Church.

"It's our pleasure to welcome her back to our organization in this new role," said ISO president and CEO Gary Ginstling in a written statement announcing the appointment, which becomes effective July 8.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Love rumbles on: 'West Side Story' kicks up a storm at Clowes Hall

More than legal reasons justify Jerome Robbins' name in a box forever on production title pages  of 'West Side Story." For all the collective star power that gave it birth, West Side Story is his show.

The choreographer-director's innovations in Broadway dance for the 1957 story of star-crossed lovers and gang warfare in the formerly rundown West Side of Manhattan are a milestone in theatrical history.  Robbins was the difficult genius at the top of a creative team also including Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Arthur Laurents (book).
Jerome Robbins' choreography made West Side Story historic

The Broadway in Indianapolis touring production, seen in its second night Wednesday at Clowes Hall, fully reflects the primacy of dance in the show. The first act is where the menace of rival native-born and Puerto Rican gangs needs to be brought to fever pitch before the pathos of Tony and Maria's love can tumble toward tragedy in Act 2.

The Prologue showcased the men of the Sharks and the Jets in displays of bravado and hostility that were breathtaking in their fast pace, full of physical insults and glancing blows set amid sweeping side-to-side rushing. This set the high standard soon to be matched by the frenetic "Dance at the Gym" and the Puerto Rican women's tour de force, "America," led by the tireless effervescence of Michelle Alves as Anita. By the time the Jets' Riff (Theo Lencicki) forcefully put the brakes on the gunning engines of his fellows in "Cool," it was clear that every move, phrase and paragraph in the choreographic rhetoric would have something precise to contribute to the action.

But it's hard to celebrate Robbins exclusively when it comes to assessing the enduring appeal of the 56-year-old show. Coming into his own as a lyricist, the young Sondheim was ready to show how to make a song suitable to its dramatic moment in "Maria," heartstoppingly sung Wednesday by Addison Reid Coe as Tony. To frame a love song around a name, to make its very sound stand in for a person just met, was a stroke of genius, and Bernstein's tune totally serves that purpose in its soaring ardor.

Laurents' book, while loaded with old-fashioned slang (perhaps wisely rattled off by the Jets in this production), has wit and poignancy, and dovetails into Sondheim's lyrics neatly. Bernstein, the product of Harvard and Tanglewood, never lost his show-biz street smarts despite the golden cultural pedigree. He cannily praised a song added late to the show, "Something's Coming," in a letter to his wife (visiting family in Chile) this way: "It's really going to save his gives Tony balls — so that he doesn't emerge as just a euphoric dreamer."

Tony indeed is in danger of not seeming real enough; it's often hard to believe he ever was in a gang. Coe's portrayal came up right to the edge of falling into this inherent softness.  He's mainly tough and courageous in love, and even in that arena  he pales next to Maria.  The smitten Puerto Rican was lathered in charm in Maryjoanna Grisso's performance. The lovers had that instant locked-in fascination with each other that would seem implausible had not Shakespeare made such a headstrong affair so real in Romeo and Juliet.

J. Michael Duff drew from the small touring orchestra vivid playing, with a mite too much overlaid synthesizer in the mix. The individual miking of the actors — today's technical norm, admittedly with many advantages — robbed the great "Tonight" quintet of some of its contrapuntal excitement, as the vocal parts blended all too well.

A couple of other minor annoyances:  Maria's balcony was noisily moved into position  during the last part of Tony's "Maria" solo, and the dream ballet and vocal ensemble "Somewhere" got off to a shaky start with an uncertainly pitched vocal solo.

On the whole, however, this is a blazingly effective West Side Story, with the social clash so typical of neighboring urban ethnic groups outlined brilliantly, down to the latter-day inclusion of more Spanish lines than the original. That almost transformed one of the songs by giving a heavily nostalgic cast to Maria's radiant "I Feel Pretty." It became a whirlwind declaration of self-assertion, rising above a heritage she couldn't bear to reject and buoyed by a forbidden love about to fall into the chasm of hatred that she and her lover had naively hoped to bridge.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Competition silver medalist Prunaru and pianist Chen conclude Laureate Series

Liviu Prunaru played honestly Tuesday night.

There was something so decided in Liviu Prunaru's manner when he discussed the kind of music-making he favors in an interview Sunday that I had little doubt he could deliver it on Tuesday night. And so he did, playing with the sincerity and honesty that he finds all too rare today among eminent concert artists, particularly violinists and pianists.

Still, I was stunned by the high level of consistency and polish of his demonstration at the Glick Indiana History Center, where he and pianist Chih-Yi Chen concluded the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis' 2012-13 Laureate Series.

A few minutes into the program, it was a treat to hear the bravura passages of Bedrich Smetana's From My Homeland given straightforward urgency, without excessive display. The discursive musical tribute to the composer's native Bohemia found the duo partnership of Prunaru and Chen in fine working order, changing tempos precisely together and exhibiting complementary dynamics.

Prunaru's extensive teaching and orchestral experience since he won the silver medal in the 1998 IVCI came through in interpretive restraint that never sounded academic. Time and again, he avoided tearing a passion to tatters in the shining Romantic standard  for violin-piano duo, Cesar Franck's Sonata in A major.

And  the rising figures that characteristically round off phrases in the first movement of Edvard Grieg's Sonata No. 3 in C minor got the respect of not being torn off in abandon as he lifted the bow cleanly off the strings. There's a tendency in Romantic music for performers to turn intense passages into excuses for sloppy inflection: "See how deeply I'm feeling this!" It was clear Prunaru was having none of that kind of thing.

When decoration seemed essential to the music being performed, as in Johan Severin Svendsen's  Romance in G major, the violinist made of every touch of fancy a natural utterance — unfussy and unaffected. His bow control was immaculate, but none of his technical aplomb compromised full emotional commitment to the music.

This was as true in Jeno Hubay's high-spirited Hejre Kati, which ended the scheduled program, as it was in the encore, a deep-toned Song Without Words by Felix Mendelssohn. The tender melody was enunciated beautifully by the duo in a performance dedicated to the memory of Josef Gingold, founder of the IVCI and distinguished professor at Indiana University.

One of the most famous inscriptions at the head of a masterpiece is Beethoven's "From the heart — may it go to the heart again," indicating how the composer hoped Missa Solemnis would be received. That could well be applied to the well-rounded directness of Prunaru's interpretations, seconded with equally plainspoken, heartfelt eloquence by the pianist.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Jane Monheit signs on as judge of Feinstein Initiative competition

Jane Monheit will mentor and judge young singers
Jane Monheit, a Grammy-nominated jazz singer whose latest CD is "The Heart of the Matter," will be a new judge/mentor at the Great American Songbook High School Vocal Competition in Carmel, joining last year's judges: Jim Caruso, Sylvia McNair and competition founder Michael Feinstein.

The event will be July 21-26 at the Palladium of the Center for the Performing Arts, of which Feinstein is artistic director.  Most of the week consists of coaching of the chosen finalists in a vocal "boot camp," culminating in the Feinstein Initiative competition itself on July 26.

Monheit, 35, has released 11 CDs and appeared in the Indianapolis area twice in recent years, once at the Cabaret at the Columbia Club and then in 2011 at a "Three Generations of Divas" program at the Palladium with Dianne Reeves and Nikki Yanofsky during the Center's inaugural season.

Portrait of a violinist: IVCI silver medalist Liviu Prunaru will play a recital Tuesday

The life of a superior musician is compounded of a wealth of diverse influences. The ingrained habits of studying, teaching and travel become a lifelong school, in which the expression of artistry — such as the recital Liviu Prunaru will play with pianist Chih-Yi Chen Tuesday night at the Indiana History Center — is simultaneously like giving an exam and taking one.
Liviu Prunaru prizes honesty and sincerity in performance.

On his fourth visit to Indianapolis since winning second place (the silver medal) in the 1998 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, Prunaru spoke to me about his musical values and passions not long after arriving from Amsterdam. The boyish-looking 44-year-old, conversant in five languages and widely traveled, casts a wider net than most. As a violinist, he's rooted as much in the indirectly experienced tutelage of Jascha Heifetz, Henryk Szeryng and Arthur Grumiaux as in the teachers who taught him directly.

Teacher, solo artist and orchestra player himself, Prunaru  declines to categorize these influences. He says he got something valuable even from his first five teachers in his native Romania, who never brought their violins to his lessons. "My first teacher was a pilot," Prunaru said.

The one who left the greatest early impression, however, was Alberto Lysy (1935-2009), with whom he studied as a teenager at the Menuhin Academy in Gstaad, Switzerland. In his honor, Prunaru will open Tuesday's recital with  Smetana's From My Homeland.  At lessons, Lysy always demonstrated what he wanted, in contrast to those several fiddleless early teachers, Prunaru recalled.

"One teacher says one thing, another says another thing, and I am there in the middle," is Prunaru's way of summing up his student years. "I process the information through my understanding and through what I've seen."  This way of learning he passes on to his students; he doesn't follow any one teacher's method, and when he imposes something on a student, it's because he senses the student is not ready to exercise full freedom.

"There is always something good in what they tell you," he added about teachers. "The beauty is to take each one of these teachings and transform them in some way into your own way," he said. "I try to  make each student his own teacher."

After two years as director of the Menuhin Academy, Prunaru is about to start teaching at the Amsterdam  School of the Arts. That makes his schedule easier to handle,  as he is one of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra's two concertmasters.

The structure of that prestigious orchestra allows the musicians to make collective decisions and have considerable influence on new members, guest conductors, soloists and working conditions.  Currently one of the main concerns is the tendency of visiting maestros to bring their most demanding programs to Amsterdam, threatening to wear orchestra members to a frazzle. "I got so much white hair in just this last year," he said with a rueful chuckle.

Still,  the Concertgebouw has such able musicians that they come up to the mark. "They are such fantastic players, not only the strings, but the winds, because you hear them individually," he said, admitting: "Sometimes in rehearsal I forget to enter because I'm listening to them. So you forget about being tired, because when these guys are playing, it's so beautiful."

As for Tuesday's recital, Prunaru has planned the program to please his intended public, with variety as well as pieces "that mean something to me."

 "Everyone's attention will be there immediately with the first piece," he said of the Smetana. The Grieg third sonata is in the program partly to represent his most recent recording, which includes all three by the Norwegian composer. Jeno Hubay's Hejre Kati is like an encore included in the program, he said, though the audience's enthusiasm could bring out one of up to five prepared encores.

Pleased that he has not been tempted to give thematic unity to the program, Prunaru is aware that throughout the classical world, marketing personnel love concerts that are handy to sell. "I make music; I don't make marketing," he said.

Whether driven by marketing or not, much of what he hears from today's concert artists disappoints him. "What I'm missing today in people's playing is sincerity," Prunaru said. "People like Kreisler, Heifetz and Szeryng were sincere; they didn't need to force people to like them. Today, there are so many effects,  and that makes it unreal. It's not sincere, it's not honest anymore. This is the era of acceleration: Everything has to be on-top-of, better and more.  If you play something normal, you're not appreciated anymore."

Despite his success here in 1998 and in competitions in Korea, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland, Prunaru criticizes the attitude teachers and students sometimes have toward them. Competitive fervor tends to push the honest musical values he treasures off to the side.

"Obviously I was doing them for the wrong reasons," he says with a touch of satire. "Today they do them to win. I know teachers who say, If you don't go to competitions to win, don't go. That's wrong! That isn't why you go to competitions.

"My reasons are to learn repertoire, to play with an orchestra and to meet my fellow players and to learn from them, too. They don't give you any of those three reasons today; it's to get engagements and feel good about themselves. That's totally for the wrong reasons."

Here's the footing on which Prunaru would prefer to place such events: "The term 'competition' is totally wrong. I would call it a festival of music — with prizes."