Wednesday, July 31, 2013

HART's Shakespeare al fresco will bring us Petruchio and Kate in the fine madness of love

A company of professional actors active here for seven years has drawn most attention for working  outdoors in the twilight of summer evenings.

 But it hasn't been easy to put financial props under the troupe's most popular feature: "Shakespeare on the Canal" in White River State Park.

"We've been scraping by since we founded it," admitted Michael Shelton recently of Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre, the professional theater company he helped establish in 2006.

Now, however, HART enjoys support simultaneously from major funders of Indianapolis arts: a Central Indiana Community Foundation affiliate (the Indianapolis Foundation) and Lilly Endowment, with a "positive response" to a grant request under consideration by the Christel DeHaan Family Foundation. The synergy has resulted in HART's being assured already of having a 2014 season. "This is indeed the first time we have known this far in advance that the financial support will be in place for HART," producing artistic director Diane Timmerman wrote in an e-mail.

Even so, the company is seeking more ways to garner support from its audiences, mainly by offering the lure of premium seating (at $25) in its broad expanse of stage and playing area next to the canal downtown.

Shelton directs this year's production, "The Taming of the Shrew," Shakespeare's lively comedy about the battle of the sexes and its resolution within the context of patriarchal governance of marriage. Performances are Aug. 9 and 10.

Lisa Ermel as Kate gazes guardedly at Ryan Artzberger as Petruchio
His extensive experience as actor and director gives Shelton a unique perspective on the difficulties of keeping an independent professional troupe viable from year to year. Although the company has works of other playwrights in its history, it has become best known for the annual Shakespeare production in White River State Park. Predecessors are "The Merchant of Venice" (2008), "Much Ado About Nothing" (2009), "Two Gentlemen of Verona" (2010), and "Othello (2012).  In 2011, the series was interrupted by funding difficulties.

The new VIP seating  (more information on the website linked above) provides a revenue stream otherwise missing from the performances, since part of the brand of HART's "Shakespeare on the Canal" is free admission.

Each summer, Shelton has made a choice of play based on which capable actors he knows will be in town. "You don't want to come out of the gate without knowing who will play (the major roles)," he said.

Last summer, for example, the availability of the well-traveled David Alan Anderson meant that HART's production would be "Othello." Shelton had been on the lookout for a chance to present the veteran Indianapolis actor as the troubled Moor of Venice.

Shelton told me his interpretation of "The Taming of the Shrew" takes the viewpoint that "it's not a misogynistic play. It's about two people figuring out they were meant to be together."

Unusual for HART, Timmerman and Shelton have decided to make a major cut, bringing the running time down to a little over two hours. To be sure, the "Induction" is a problematic aspect of "The Taming of the Shrew," presenting a drunken tinker named Christopher Sly, for whose sake the play that follows is being performed. It's a "frame" for the action that lacks another side, since no surviving text of the play brings Sly back at the end.

Otherwise, the total tussle between Kate and Petruchio will be set before HART's audiences Aug. 9 and 10, richly instructive against the competing perspectives of her goody-two-shoes sister, Bianca, and their control-freak father, Baptista.

And as they settle in, playgoers may find themselves inclined to paraphrase Sly's final lines (which they won't hear): "Come, madam wife, sit by my side, and let the world slip, we shall ne'er be younger."

Monday, July 29, 2013

Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival grows to 384 shows spread over 11 days in August

As IndyFringe bulks up its annual festival — a chief ornament in the increasingly developed Mass Ave Cultural District — and solidifies year-round scheduling at its home on East Ninth Street, some observers wonder if Fringe has gone mainstream.

Executive director Pauline Moffat reports the comment (which could reflect anxiety or gratitude, depending on the source) and has a ready response.

As Moffat candidly told me, with the judiciousness that has stood her in good stead for nine successive festivals: "We're not quite mainstream —  not as long as the performers make the sole decision as to what to present."

That artistic independence, of course, is a watchword of the festival, which this year runs between Aug. 15 and 25 in and around the Cultural District. That, along with the return of all box-office proceeds to the artists, constitutes the foundation of IndyFringe's success.

A significant growth area, besides the ninth annual festival's increase to 384 performances (from 336 in 2012), is in the prominence of local shows. Of the top-ten bestselling shows before IndyFringe moved into its building last year and made it viable for rehearsal and performance year-round, four were local.

In 2012, nine out of 10 of the top sellers were local, indicating to Moffat that allowing artists to hone  shows on the IndyFringe stage for festival participation has boosted their attractiveness to the public. "We've given local performers opportunities to participate in more performances" at the theater "throughout the year," she said. Inclusion in the schedule is still first-come, first-served, so Central Indiana artists are not getting preferential treatment.

Veteran comic has new show at ComedySportz
Fringe festivals with their own facilities are more common in Canada than in the U.S., but the idea is catching on here. "If you have a permanent space, your Fringe will grow and mature quicker than if you're a once-a-year festival," Moffat told me, based on her ongoing study of other festivals.

With that positive direction, however, come new challenges: IndyFringe has a fund-raising campaign in progress to make its headquarters, 719 E. St. Clair St., even more useful and adaptable. Gifts to the "Trailhead" project, which when completed will add a "black box" theater and a multipurpose room to Fringe headquarters, can be directed here:

Apart from the sale of $5 "backer buttons" required for admission to any shows, IndyFringe is without the advantage of a revenue stream from the increasing flood of audience patronage. Those admissions allowed the festival to return nearly $106,000 to the artists last year, Moffat said. So community financial support of the enterprise is vital.

The 64 performing groups and solo artists will occupy eight stages over 11 days. New this year among the performance sites is the BABECA Theatre, 919 N. East St., which became available to Fringe relatively recently after the availability of another new site  (on Mass Ave.) fell through. The 90-seat facility's use has been made available rent-free to Fringe by the landlord, a festival supporter.
Iconography all shook up at BABECA

Also new is magician-impresario Taylor Martin's stepping into the role of street theater coordinator. Read a Q&A with him on the festival website here:

What about the edginess of the shows?  How good a fit is a Fringe festival with greater Indianapolis? It seems as people get used to what Fringe represents, Hoosiers feel more comfortable with IndyFringe's envelope-pushing language, topics and treatment as part of their entertainment world. "The community has grown up in nine years," Moffat told me, though the festival still reviews artists' presentations to see if their warnings (printed in the program book) should be changed. There is no censorship applied, however, just an occasional adjustment mainly for the sake of family patronage.

An international trend in "warnings" that helps Fringe clarify what might be appropriate is a specific age recommendation. Shows with "adult" warnings are recommended for age 16 and older; otherwise, warnings apply to elements that may disturb some people of any age, such as gunshots or strobe lights.

All shows are 45-60 minutes long, and no latecomers are admitted. The festival's pace has to be steady, and there is at least a half-hour for patrons to get from one show to the next.

The complete festival schedule can be found within the IndyFringe website.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Steve Allee Quintet cooks up good things at the Jazz Kitchen

When Steve Allee complimented the audience at the end of his band's first set at the Jazz Kitchen Saturday night, it was more than a formality from a musician who is known for being unfailingly gracious.

Veteran pianist-bandleader Steve Allee
It actually was a great audience, quite attentive and appreciative in comparison with those at some of the Steve Allee sets I've heard at the Jazz Kitchen. On those occasions, it didn't seem such an accomplished artist and his bandmates should have had to work so hard to get a reasonable level of silence from patrons determined to regard  the performance as background music for conversation.

This time, Allee had put together a band whose exact personnel was unprecedented for him, though he's played with all the sidemen in various settings.  They were Dick Sisto, vibraphone; Rob Dixon, tenor saxophone; Nick Tucker, bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums.

From the first number, Joe Henderson's "Isotope," on through the rousing Wayne Shorter tune that ended the set, this was a band with evident commitment to the music and each other. Henderson's fast blues showed off the quintet's cohesion, and was particularly notable for the deftness and shapeliness of the solos, which went round the ensemble from Sisto through Phelps.

The half-dozen compositions covered in the 90-minute set included just one original. Dixon's "Found by Love" is a new work inspired by a couple the saxophonist observed gradually getting together out of two solitudes at the Chatterbox Jazz Club downtown. The piece had a smoothly outlined, busy but unperturbed backdrop provided by the rhythm section.

Probably no other drummer in the city besides Phelps could have laid down such well-articulated, busy yet soft patterns behind the slow-moving theme. Dixon's solo was first among equals in this composition, and he led the band through an intense final episode before the performance came to a hushed conclusion.

The arrangements were quite appealing: John Coltrane's "Wise One" paid tribute to the original's meditative nature, but also found plenty of room — somewhat counterintuitively — for swinging, especially in solos by Sisto and Dixon. It approached its denouement through a stylistically adventurous unaccompanied piano solo that neatly took in Phelps' entrance on hand drums, soon joined by Tucker.

Another Coltrane classic, "Naima," was given a complex rhythmic underpinning. Phelps' distinctive style broadened to include the sort of "spread rhythm" (propulsive but free of emphasis on the beats) characteristic of Coltrane's essential percussionist, Elvin Jones. Sisto, who had been a little buried by the rhythm section's dense accompaniment texture behind his "Naima" solo, came into his own most conspicuously in Benny Golson's "Stablemates," dividing his effective solo into stirring four-mallet and two-mallet episodes.

All told, an exemplary set: small-group jazz of the highest quality in a club setting, where the music can be heard to best advantage.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Old songs and young singers find mutually requited love, with Michael Feinstein as yenta

Julia Goodwin put across "Dream a Little Dream of Me" with mesmerizing intensity and returned in the second set of finalists with  a smoldering "Feeling Good,"  and that sealed it for the 15-year-old from Baldwinsville, N.Y.

Julia Goodwin, 15, won top prize in Michael Feinstein's annual contest
She received the first-place award in the 2013 Great American Songbook Vocal Academy and Competition, which ended Friday night at the Palladium. ("Feeling Good" is by the Briton Anthony Newley, but that source apparently didn't make it ineligible.)

The program, which attracted a crowd that filled nearly every seat in the Center for the Performing Arts flagship, was organized around a series of speeches, solo performances from four of the professional judge/mentors, and ensemble songs with all 10 candidates backing up founder/CPA artistic director Michael Feinstein ("Too Marvelous for Words") and workshop presenter Kathleen Hacker ("The Sound of Music" medley, stepping in for Sandi Patty, who was attending the birth of her first grandchild in Anderson).

But the twin centerpieces of the evening were solos by the 10 high-school vocalists, organized in two sets. Those performances determined the winners; besides Goodwin, they were Kyrie Courter, second place, and a third-place tie between Sam Pomales and Melinda Rodriguez.

For the past two years, upstate New Yorkers well under the upper age limit of the competition have come out on top. Last year it was Nick Ziobro, 16, of Manlius, N.Y., who made the wait for the judges' decision well worth it Friday with swan-song renditions of "All of Me" and, accompanying himself smartly at the piano, "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?"

Now Goodwin will take over as year-long ambassador for the Feinstein Initiative, headquartered at the Palladium and producer of the annual week of workshops, master classes and the culminating contest.

Performances of the other prize winners revealed some justification for their having placed ahead of the other six participants, none of whom "bombed." That would have been shocking, considering the hoops that those who made the finals had to jump through in a field widened to 22 states this year —  double the number in 2012.

Second-place winner Kyrie (pronounced "KYE-ree," though the name was inspired by the Greek chant "Kyrie eleison") Courter, who perhaps verged a little too much into an "American Idol" style of delivery in "I Who Have Nothing," her second selection. It went over well with the crowd, however, and the crescendoing emotional anguish she expressed must have impressed the jury as well. I found her natural charm much more in evidence and under control in her stylish rendering of "Taking a Chance on Love."

The third-place tie was no surprise, given that every one of these young singers had something distinctive and meritorious to offer. Pomales walked back and forth a little too distractingly for my taste while singing "Fly Me to the Moon," reminding me of those college professors who couldn't seem to deliver a lecture without pacing the floor in front of the class. His phrasing and dynamic contrasts served the expressivity of "The Summer Knows" perfectly, however.

Rodriguez offered a "Blue Skies" that seemed more relaxed than her first number, "Autumn Leaves." But then, one song is poignant, the other upbeat. Still, I heard more individuality in the daringly slow version she offered of Johnny Mercer's adaptation of a French song that has become beloved of singers and jazz instrumentalists alike.

It would be churlish to focus on how the other participants may have fallen short, so I will instead call attention to a few good things: Brandon Ocasio's "Come Fly With Me" had chiefly the benefits of snappy presentation, including a few nimble dance steps toward the end — not too many to be beside the point, just enough to reinforce his interpretation.

Maya Jacobson offered an idiomatic "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen," though she could have used a more rhythmically incisive piano accompaniment. Morgan Rose delivered handsomely on her declared love for Johnny Mercer lyrics with a spellbinding, sensitive account of "Skylark." Grace Wipfli showed admirable flair and maturity in Cole Porter's "It's De-Lovely," and Brittany Bauerly displayed  the requisite verve and bravado (despite a tendency to shortchange phrase ends) in "I Got Rhythm."

Who, indeed, could ask for anything more than this marvelous showcase of great popular songs?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Time for Three takes the ISO and special guest Ben Sollee on tour — to the Athenaeum

A successful brand can withstand a significant change and still keep the loyalty of its customers. That's what Happy Hour at the Symphony did Thursday night in wrapping up  its 2013-14 season at the Athenaeum Theatre, several blocks to the northeast of its wonted home, the Hilbert Circle Theatre.

The acclaim during and after the concert, which featured vocalist-cellist-songwriter Ben Sollee, rose mightily from the tableside seats at the near-capacity theater.  Beforehand, concertgoers got into the spirit milling about in the spacious lobby under lithograph portraits of Schubert and Wagner and consuming food and drink contributed by several providers, from White Castle to Pizzology to the host restaurant Rathskeller. Meanwhile, at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's home, the replacement of its 1,600-plus seats goes forward, and is expected to be finished in time for the start of the 2013-14 season.

The essential elements of happy hours everywhere established a mood suitable for the music to follow in the hourlong concert. The visual complement stayed consistently rich, thanks to the lighting design of Laura Glover. Particularly effective was the moody atmosphere, with well-deployed highlighting of the musicians, when Time for Three (Zach De Pue and Nick Kendall, violins; Ranaan Meyer, contrabass) gave itself a solo showcase in "Kissing in the Tree."

Throughout, Glover's lighting was sensitive to the environment, even managing to enhance  the theater's striking structural backdrop of a balcony running along a brick wall punctuated by a few windowless doors.  It looked like the design an eccentric producer might order up for a production of Noel Coward's "Private Lives" set in a warehouse.

Ben Sollee and Time for Three (below) have known each other since their school days.
The ISO seemed cozily packed onto the stage, yet sounded natural and comfortable enough in its one unadorned selection, the finale from Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 43 in E-flat ("Mercury"), conducted by guest maestro Teddy Abrams.

The movement is rich in the kind of Haydnesque whimsy that never cloys, but here it seemed poker-faced next to such a novelty as "Build the Bear," a spontaneous creation of Time for Three, Sollee and his percussionist, Jordon Ellis. The animal's construction in music drew inspiration from attributes shouted from the audience: fluffy, coarse and seven-eyed.

The interaction of the performers was exemplary as the musical ideas poured forth, but the ocularly overendowed bear overstayed its welcome. I couldn't help thinking that an encounter with Haydn's "Bear" (Symphony No. 82 in C major) would have been more fun.

But the concert had a wealth of Sollee material to provide thematic unity. He entered with "Built for This," which focused on his simultaneous singing and playing. The cello took on the flavor of the "high lonesome" sound of country fiddling, transposed down an octave, to complement Sollee's Kentucky twang. Several other Sollee songs followed, such as William Brittelle's attractive arrangement of "Bend," with a nice viola countermelody behind one verse and harp arpeggios behind another.

Two Sollee/Ellis/Tf3 collaborations excited the crowd, which was easily cajoled into providing handclaps as "Create a Song" chugged along. The concert ended with a deft coup de theatre: Sollee's "The Maestro," a song in tribute to a conductor's lonely work on an empty stage after a rehearsal marking cues in his score. The song featured a gradual staged departure of all the instrumentalists, as Glover's lights focused on Abrams beating time in thin air.

The trick readily brought to mind another Haydn symphony, the "Farewell" (No. 45 in F-sharp minor) and not inappropriately.  Just as the Austrian composer hinted to his employer with this work that his musicians wanted to get back to their families,  the ISO (after it wraps up the tumultuous 2013-14 at Conner Prairie this weekend) is doubtless looking forward to some time off and a fresh start in September.

Expanded Indy Jazz Fest will bring Ramsey Lewis back to town, plus Eddie Palmieri, Ravi Coltrane and others

The 2013 Indy Jazz Fest will be a 10-day affair this September, beginning Sept. 12 with the formidable New Orleans father-figure Allen Toussaint, a pianist-singer-producer in several related genres.

It will conclude Sept. 21 with a dozen to-be-announced bands on two stages inside and outside the Jazz Kitchen, 5377 N. College Ave. 

For the first time, the festival will have no large outdoor venue as a site for the multi-act culmination of the annual event. The other outdoor concert scheduled features Latin jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri on the Terrace of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Road (Sept. 17).

Pianist Ramsey Lewis (center) will bring his quintet here.
Ramsey Lewis, the veteran Chicago pianist whose  previous Indy Jazz Fest appearances date back to 2001, will play the Madame Walker Theatre, 617 Indiana Ave., on Sept. 13.

Other Indy Jazz Fest events at the Jazz Kitchen, owned by director David Allee, are: guitarist Brian Nova, with guests Steve Allee and Stan Hillis (Sept. 15); saxophonist Ravi Coltrane in two shows (Sept. 18), and pianist Aaron Diehl, American Pianists Association Cole Porter Fellow, in two shows (Sept. 20).

Other events:

Sept. 14 — vocalist Diane Schuur, the Cabaret at the Columbia Club, 121 Monument Circle.

Sept. 16 — Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra "Birth of the Cool," with the Zach Lapidus Trio opening, Indiana Landmarks Center, 1201 Central Ave.

Sept. 18 — Indy Jazz Fest Band celebrates Indiana composers, DeHaan Fine Arts Center, University of Indianapolis, 1401 E. Hanna Ave. (a free concert).

Sept. 19 —  saxophonist Jeff Coffin, Apparatus, 1401 N. Meridian St.

Tickets will go on sale Aug. 1 here

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Another top job filled in Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra management

Gary Ginstling, CEO and president of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, is moving into the 2013-14 season with a full complement of top administrators, the latest being Steve Hamilton as vice president of finance, whose appointment was announced July 23.

The job involves overseeing the ISO's financial planning as well as managing its information technology and human resources departments. Hamilton, who will start work July 29, comes to the ISO from Redcats USA, a multichannel clothing retailer. Before that, he held senior-level finance positions with Auto Source Inc., Kentucky Fried Chicken and H.J. Wilson Co.

His interest in local arts has been expressed through board membership at the Phoenix Theatre, where he was treasurer,  Storytelling Arts of Indiana (president) and Dance Kaleidoscope.

Hamilton holds a bachelor's degree in accounting from the University of Kentucky.  He is a certified treasury professional (CTP) and a certified public accountant (CPA).

His appointment follows the recent additions to the ISO management team of Holly Johnson as vice president of development and Daniel Beckley as general manager.

Friday, July 19, 2013

In 'Aida,' Cincinnati Opera mounts a spectacle (with depth, too)

Giuseppe Verdi's epic opera Aida has been something of a staple in Cincinnati Opera history, so much so that opening night of the current production on Thursday was the company's 130th performance of the work since its first, 93 years ago this week.

The lavishness of this season-ending production represents the top level of scenery, costumes and lighting likely to be encountered in today's opera houses. Ancient Egypt seemed startlingly present before our eyes, even if stylistic adjustments for the filtering of this story through 19th-century Italian and 21st-century American eyes are inevitable and proper.

Fortunately, the singing on July 18 usually came up to the same level of spectacle and vivid detail. Carlo Rizzi conducted, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the pit made many excellent contributions in support of the singing, notably in accompanying Aida's first-act bewailing of her plight in love with both her country and its enemy's chief hero.

Latonia Moore had a firm grasp of the requirements of the title role as her character passes from the status of lovelorn slave to an independent woman making canny decisions about her duty to her homeland, Ethiopia, against her commitment to the Egyptian general Radames. The fact that those decisions are inherently tragic does not thwart an exhibition of character development in sopranos with sufficient vocal stamina and a flair for drama. Competing values must be balanced, and Moore gave a thorough demonstration of that difficulty, sounding fully engaged with the assignment.

Her vocal partnering was as firmly focused in the tense third-act argument with her father, the Ethiopian general Amonasro, as it was in every scene in which she appeared with Radames. That role received from Antonello Palombi a perfect incarnation of this Verdi version of a Heldentenor. He even seemed capable (with help from several spectacular outfits) of leading a military campaign in the hands-on manner common in the ancient world.

Dad-daughter rapport: Latonia Moore, Gordon Hawkins
What's more, he displayed a thrilling voice able to project, in addition to overwhelming passion, a tenderness without which Radames can seem merely headstrong. The classic difficulty in one of the opera's few arias, "Celeste Aida," is how to diminish the sound to virtually nothing on the high final note; Palombi did it by turning his head voice into  falsetto at the end, a tactic that might be frowned upon by some but that worked well here because he accomplished it so smoothly.

He was never overpowering in the ensembles, but vigorously at one with his colleagues, starting with the tense trio with Aida and Amneris as the romantic conflict that will govern the action comes out in the open early in the first act. As for Michelle DeYoung's Amneris, her eagerness to have Radames for her own was too obviously signaled from the first. This character's function as a wily schemer was hard to accept, partly because her singing lacked subtlety.

Amneris in this production seemed a little too much a loner, pursuing a selfish course that she realizes all too late is merely destructive. When she murmurs "Pace, pace" at the very end of the opera after  Radames and Aida have succumbed to living entombment below her, it was hard to feel she had much emotional investment in this plea for peace.

Director Bliss Hebert made it pretty clear that Amneris is an isolated figure. It was hard to understand why she wasn't at the King's side during the triumphal scene in Act 2, but on the other side of the stage among her handmaidens and the brooding Aida. Maybe we are supposed to see the Pharaoh's decisions as driven by dynastic concerns alone. At any rate, Gustav Andreassen's King looked almost overwhelmed by his costume, and his shaky voice, along with a tendency to rush, undermined the advantage of his physical elevation in that famous scene. Drawing applause upon the curtain rise for its glitter, imposing set pieces and massive choral forces, the scene enhanced its human display with a restless falcon and, upon the entrance of the Ethiopian prisoners, a couple of horses.
Large-scale spectacle:  Act 2, Scene 2 of Cincinnati Opera's "Aida," with all the principals and many others.

The power behind the throne is clearly the priesthood, dominated by Ramfis, whose portrayal by Morris Robinson was steady, loud, clearly projected and more than suggestive of the composer's personal dislike of powerful clergy, no matter what religious tradition they might represent. Thus conceived, the role, for all its prominence, almost can't help being one-dimensional, but Robinson made it interesting throughout.

Thanks to Gordon Hawkins' inherently dignified portrayal of Amonasro, the father-daughter relationship with Aida was obviously meant to have something essential to it that the King and Amneris woefully lack. The thrills of opera are at least as much about such simpatico pairings as Hawkins and Moore showed in Act 3 as they are about bravura stagings like the second-act finale.

The other role worth mentioning is the off-stage voice of the High Priestess, whose fervent, ethereal quality is required to make the consecration of Radames come across as the serious business it obviously is. The part was wonderfully filled by Alexandra Schoeny, a hometown product who had vital roles to play in all four productions of this company's excellent 2013 season.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

At Garfield Park, the ISO plays the second concert of its revived outdoor Indy Parks series

The evening cooled off only slightly, but a beautiful sky overhead and the sounds of nature (well, OK, mainly cicadas) brought synesthetic pleasure to the setting for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's concert Wednesday night at Garfield Park.

 Francesco Lecce-Chong and ISO respond to applause at Garfield Park.
Guest conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong, associate conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, led a well-arranged  program of familiar music for a crowd that spilled out of the MacAllister Amphitheatre permanent seats onto the sloping lawn.  Unlike so many conductors who speak from the podium, Lecce-Chong was never long-winded in his oral program notes; he knew what he wanted to say about each piece and proceeded to deliver the goods concisely before turning around to face the music.

And the music, given the need to amplify the  orchestra, was fairly true to natural orchestral sound, always a welcome but hardly predictable aspect of outdoor concerts. To be sure, in the curtain-raiser, an arrangement of the Overture to Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks," the strings had a synthesized veneer that put them at a sonic disadvantage, while the winds, brass in particular, came through as if unfiltered.

The impression vanished with the opening movement of Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik," when the string sections, not having to vie with the wind instruments, sounded more like their real selves. And their playing was robust and neatly phrased.

The well-designed program wrapped up its first third, all of it loosely associated with day's end, with the Nocturne from Mendelssohn's incidental music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Lecce-Chong's remarks beforehand were especially apt here, setting the context well, and the horns followed through with some gently sparkling playing.

ISO horn section warms up before Wednesday's concert.
I wasn't fond of Maurice Peress's arrangement of Leonard Bernstein's music to "West Side Story" in an overture that was slick, albeit effective for programs like this one. The "mambo" excerpt made a fitting climax, complete with "Mambo!" shouts from the musicians. Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" is more forgiving of glitzy treatment, which it got in Harry Simeone's arrangement. The famously long-breathed tune soared to an upper-register pinnacle, with a little bit of gilding the lily when the famous concluding chords of Stravinsky's "Firebird" were quoted.

In between Peress-Bernstein and Simeone-Porter came a touching, nuanced performance of George Gershwin's "Lullaby" for string orchestra. Its placement on the largely flashy program was indicative of the good taste of Lecce-Chong's "set list."   So was the character-rich excerpting of the second suite from Bizet's 'Carmen," in which portraits of Carmen ("Habanera"), Micaela ("Nocturne') and Escamillo ("Toreador's Song") were vivid — and notable for soloing from Marvin Perry II (trumpet) and assistant concertmaster Christal Phelps Steele (violin). The performance delivered maximum excitement to conclude in the accelerating "Gypsy Dance" (Danse Boheme), which earned the ISO a partial standing ovation.

That audience tribute became full-fledged at the conclusion of "Malambo" from Alberto Ginastera's "Estancia."  Paired hand claps, cued by the conductor turning to face the audience, punctuated this showcase of heavily underlined dance rhythms. They permeated a short, repetitive theme that became tiring only in the best sense: evoking pictures of the competing Argentine cowboys whose macho dancing inspired the composer. At the end of a hot day,  experiencing such exertion vicariously seemed just what the crowd wanted.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

William Harvey's defense of the brave Pakistani schoolgirl Malala, with related links

Malala Yousufzai turned 16 the day she spoke at the UN.
Malala Yousufzai's speech to the General Assembly of the UN last week has contributed to growing worldwide support of educational opportunities for girls. Son William, who has taught at a co-educational music school in Kabul since March 2010, extends his tribute to her here:

Cellist-singer-songwriter guests at ISO final Happy Hour concert of the season

Ben Sollee, cellist and singer-songwriter, will be the special guest of ensemble-in-residence Time for Three at the 2013-14 season's final "Happy Hour at the Symphony" concert on July 25.
Host Time for Three has invited Ben Sollee for "Happy Hour" finale.

Because the ISO's home, the Hilbert Circle Theatre, is being outfitted with new seats, the concert will take place at the Athenaeum Theatre, 407 E. Michigan St.

Sollee will perform "The Maestro" from his new recording, "Half-Made Man." Among the musicians on the CD is Indianapolis' Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket.  Other original Sollee compositions on Thursday's program include "Something, Somewhere, Sometime" and "It's Not Impossible."

Creators of the program, Time for Three (Zach De Pue and Nick Kendall, violins, and Ranaan Meyer, double bass) will perform some of their works, too.

The orchestra, conducted by Teddy Abrams, will play a movement from Haydn's Symphony No. 43 in E-flat ("Mercury"). Abrams, also a pianist and clarinetist, studied with Michael Tilson Thomas at Miami's New World Sympnony Orchestra, among professional associations. He is the newly appointed assistant conductor of the Sun Valley (Idaho) Summer Symphony.

Tickets are $40 each and include food and drink at the Happy Hour, which begins at 5 p.m. The concert will start at 6:30 p.m. For more information and tickets, call the ISO box office at (317) 639-4300.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Early Music Festival: Wayward Sisters take on composers with issues

When your recording debut, the result of an early-music ensemble competition, focuses on one of the most cantankerous composers ever to set pen to paper, you can't be blamed for heralding it with a program titled "The Naughty List: Music of Braggarts, Hotheads, Curmudgeons and Snobs."

Wayward Sisters, an amiable American quartet, opened the final weekend of the 2013 Indianapolis Early Music Festival with a concert thus provocatively dubbed.  Even so, the title omits murder and lechery among the identifying aspects of the tone-poets sampled in the ensemble's dashing concert Friday at the Glick Indiana History Center.

Wayward Sisters' name comes from their "scattered lives," they say.
It's hard to read into music the personal characteristics of the men who make it, as members of the quartet invited us to do in program notes delivered from the stage. But they deserve respectful attention for suggesting that connection, because Wayward Sisters have spent a lot of  time in the spirit-company of Matthew Locke to assemble the contents of their contest-winning Naxos Records CD.

And just what manner of man was Mr. Locke? In "The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians,"  an extensive entry on Locke (1621-1677) rises to heights of sputtering alliteration in sketching the composer's character:  "Locke was vain, contentious and vindictive, a vigorous and vituperative crusader for musical causes,"  many of them centered on the superiority of English music. That was his saving grace, perhaps, but like many bad actors with one good trait, he exercised it in an alienating manner.

Though he was just one of eight composers represented in Friday's concert, Locke seemed to inform Wayward Sisters' overall presentation.  His Suite No. 6 in D major gave members Beth Wenstrom, baroque violin; Anne Timberlake, recorders; Anna Steinhoff, baroque cello, and John Lenti, theorbo, lots to do. The lines were independent and frisky in four linked movements. The soul of the work prizes textural adventurousness, yoked with difficulty to a common purpose.  Wayward Sisters made the work sound straightforward and well-mannered, however.

Musically, it was as innovator that Bellerofonte Castaldi was presented, in a theorbo solo by Lenti, Wayward's sole "brother."  His "Follia" is a demanding set of variations that showed off, among other theorbo characteristics, the contrast of the long-necked plucked string instrument's plangent low notes with the lute-like delicacy of its ornamented treble lines.

Each member of Wayward Sisters got a solo showcase. For violinist Wenstrom, it was William Brade's "Choral With Variations," supported by theorbo and cello.  Wenstrom's characterful playing revealed detectable flashes of the composer's feistiness. In life, the prickly creator of a wealth of dance music hopped from court employment to court employment; more than one variation in this piece seemed to be saying, in the words of a much more recent composer: "Take this job and shove it!"

Cellist Steinhoff, tightly coordinated with her accompanist (Lenti), presented a vivid portrait of Antonio Vivaldi's lofty self-esteem in the two-movement Sonata No. 3 in A minor. Tarquinio Merula, a litigious, concupiscent Italian, provided a showcase for Timberlake, again with Lenti accompanying. And she was just as clearly first among equals in the same composer's spirited "Ciacona," with which the full ensemble ended the first half.

Dario Castello is almost too obscure to be set in this naughty company, but his Sonata Duodecima gave an apt final demonstration of the Wayward Sisters' impeccable coordination and balance. Those qualities were more severely tested by a brace of "Ayres for the Violin" by Nicola Matteis. The music's willfulness, dynamic contrasts and changes of direction made it believable that part of Matteis' insufferable vanity was his insistence on complete attentive silence during his performances, a demand that his high-born listeners found unreasonable. What the man might have done about cellphone interruptions is scary to contemplate.

The short-lived, agreeable Henry Purcell was represented at the concert's outset with his Sonata VII in E minor, featuring the full ensemble. The typical dotted rhythms were precisely brought off, and the work had a pleasing finish over the final three movements — from the songlike Grave, which evoked Purcell's charming vocal style, then on to a Vivace that became more florid as it made the transition into a short, stately Adagio to conclude.

From Purcell, the character of the composers went downhill and remained there. As Timberlake told the audience about the construction of "The Naughty List": "The problem was not finding composers who were badly behaved, bur narrowing it down." Oh, how many entire festivals of this sort
could be put together from an all-inclusive list!

Friday, July 12, 2013

With selection of general manager, Indianapolis Symphony continues to fill administrative vacancies

A staff vacancy key to Gary Ginstling's leadership of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra as president and CEO was filled today.

Daniel Beckley, executive director of the Charleston (S.C.) Symphony Orchestra, is the new vice president and general manager, succeeding Thomas R. Ramsey, whose 29-year career with the ISO ended last February.

Daniel Beckley,  ISO vice president and general manager
Beckley, musically trained as a bass trombonist with degrees from James Madison and Norhwestern universities, headed the Charleston Symphony for three years, beginning in 2010.  Before his appointment, he had served on the orchestra's board and was part of a team that negotiated a three-year contract with the musicians. Beckley's professional musical experience  includes performing with the Charleston Symphony, Savannah Philharmonic, Symphony Orchestra Augusta, Hilton Head Symphony and Long Bay Symphony; he's also taught privately. His business experience includes half a decade running BlueKey Web Solutions, a website design firm.

"His career in orchestra management, experience in the for-profit world and background as a professional musician makes him ideally suited to lead the ISO forward," Ginstling said in a prepared statement.

His ISO  responsibilities include "overall responsibility" for the orchestra and Hilbert Circle Theatre, its home since 1984. These include concert planning and logistics, production, operations, touring and run-out concerts, contracts and budgets.

Cincinnati Opera sheds light on a scientific rebel with Glass's "Galileo Galilei"

Two Galileos: Richard Troxell (left) and Andrew Garland
Unlike his other biographical operas, in "Galileo Galilei"  Philip Glass and his librettist fashion a  direct approach to the subject. The music as a result seems more on a this-worldly plane than "Satyagraha"  and "Akhnaten,"  acknowledged masterpieces that thread a variety of texts on a spiritual string that's by design harder to grasp.

With early 17th-century Italy more directly in the background of Western audiences —  especially when the central conflict concerns the claims of religion versus those of science — "Galileo Galilei" has an immediacy that is fully addressed in a Cincinnati Opera production which opened Thursday night at the Corbett Theater.

Mary Zimmerman's libretto is in clear, albeit heightened, English (except for homily excerpts delivered in Latin, which Galileo translates on the spot for his daughter). The action focuses on Galileo's wonder, curiosity and delight in what he is learning, and the trouble that makes for him when set against the church's teaching about Earth's centrality in God's creation.

The work ends in spectacle, evoking the look and stage machinery of opera's beginnings, in which the astronomer's father, Vincenzo, had a hand with the fabled Camerata.  This culmination of the action moves Galileo's struggles onto a mythological plane, as the story of Orion the Hunter is retold. A final chorus brings to the fore the significance of the parallel:  The blinded Orion has been set among the stars as part of a divine bargain; Galileo endures blindness in old age after suffering for his dogma-shattering discoveries about stars and planets and their movements relative to each other. In both cases, as the English version of Haydn's "Creation" puts it: "The heavens are telling the glory of God" (or gods).
Andrew Garland (left) and Nathan Stark

The music given to the chorus borrows its grandeur from yesteryear's band concerts in the park, for some reason. Hence, in this finale Glass' style is both elevated and lowered at the same time, with the massed ensemble's lilting waltz rhythms punctuated by cymbals and snare drum.

At any rate, Glass' music must be more gratifying to sing than to play, though the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's accompaniment from the pit seemed colorful and judiciously paced under the baton of Kelly Kuo.  Thursday's performance had plenty of magnificent singing, including clarity of diction that had me wondering if the supertitles were necessary; I kept glancing up at the screen despite missing very few of the sung words.

Richard Troxell's anguished but dignified portrayal of the Old Galileo launched the performance with a riveting scena as the opera opens.  All of the astronomer's second thoughts about his discoveries and his recantation of them come out in his sightless old age. The constant arioso writing threatened to become wearying over the course of an uninterrupted 90 minutes, but it was superbly demonstrated here.

That level of success helped make the scenes with Cardinal Bertini (later Pope Urban VIII) riveting as well. Nathan Stark managed especially well the difficult balance the prelate had to maintain as both Galileo's friend and an ambitious Vatican careerist.  The intellectual argument between the two on whether faith is better upheld by learning more about God's world or using His Word absolutely as a template for human thought was compellingly staged and well sung by Stark and, as the younger Galileo, Andrew Garland.

Garland also exemplified the astronomer's fatherly devotion in a touching scene in which the tension with the Church is sublimated in Galileo's physics lesson to Maria Celeste, sung winsomely by Alexandra Schoeny (who also filled well a much different role elsewhere, as the imperious Duchess Christina). With the glowing, suspended spheres used in Galileo's demonstration and the perky, understated accompaniment, this scene was a triumph for Ted Huffman's stage direction, always sensitive to the music. Similarly enchanting was the scene, with apt masks and movement, that stages Galileo's controversial book. He conceived the work as a dialogue about planetary motion, a strategy he mistakenly thought would keep him out of trouble.

Another remarkable performance must be singled out: John Holiday's late appearance as a narrating Oracle and his earlier one as one of the accusing cardinals together constituted the most stunning, virile display of the operatic countertenor I've heard since Christophe Dumaux nailed the title role in Handel's "Tamerlano" at the 2003 Spoleto Festival.

All told, "Galileo Galilei" seems less than top-drawer Glass, small-scale portraiture that in this production is fortunately given a marvelously thoughtful context. However troubling the issues raised, the experience falls pleasurably on eye and ear.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Ai Weiwei exhibit considered as commentary on John Ruskin

What sustains artistic values in a totalitarian society? Ai Weiwei has found a unique answer, which I see as a revision and supportive critique of what bothered the art critic John Ruskin about such values well over a century ago in Victorian England.

Ruskin raised his voice against a numbing uniformity in the creation of the manmade physical world after the Industrial Revolution had triumphed.  Things made for use or ornament had become more and more the product of wage-slavery. Labor had been made routine and irrespective of the laborer's joy or imaginative input. Ruskin believed that any manufacturing process that aided this kind of routinization necessarily kills beauty, which he linked firmly to the health of the human soul.

We in the U.S. are well aware — thanks to all those items marked "made in China" that we own  — that the Industrial Revolution is as advanced in today's China as anywhere on the planet.  But where Ruskin had to uphold beauty in the face of aggressive mass dehumanization, Ai Weiwei must carry out a similar project in a totalitarian society.

Victorian England, though not totalitarian, had the class system as a given, and though the factory-owners and the system they created were newcomers to it, the social order was well-established upon a time-tested hierarchy. One of Ruskin's corrective ideas was to restore the unity of intellectual and physical labor, thereby promoting human happiness. This would also break down social divisions encouraged by separating different kinds of labor: "It is only by labour that thought can be made happy," he wrote, "and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity."

On the face of it, Ai Weiwei's manner of working, as indicated in the exhibition "Ai Weiwei: According to What?" at the Indianapolis Museum of Art until July 21, is anti-Ruskin. He is the master who enlists countless "apprentices" in realizing his concepts. It's a derivation of the Renaissance workshop model that Ruskin disdained. To memorialize the destruction of the 2009 Sichuan earthquake, for example, Ai had work crews gather the twisted rebar from destroyed buildings, including substandard schools whose collapse killed over 5,000 children, and straighten it out, rod after rod. It is definitely "grunt work," and an accompanying video details the noisy, painstaking labor involved.

Here's the difference, though. In a society whose hierarchy is now ordered according to the individual's degree of tacit acceptance of the ruler's whims and policies, Ai's workers are complicit in a process that resists official suppression of the disaster's facts. Their engagement in creating hundreds of sunflower seeds or river crabs out of porcelain (to allude to two other Ai Weiwei projects)  is a microcosm of the underlying resistance to totalitarianism wherever it gains the upper hand.

Carefully stacked wood is held in by parallel-bar structure (not visible) in this Ai Weiwei piece.
The most moving piece in the exhibition both celebrates the yearning of the individual for freely developed personal integrity and implicitly deplores the way rigid governmental authority blocks it. The work illustrated here pays tribute (according to a docent) to Ai Weiwei's father's habit of making the neatest possible woodpile. The wood in the piece is stacked anew at each installation of "According to What?" and hemmed in by a framework of  parallel bars, equipment designed for the gymnastics that are a common feature of Chinese playgrounds. The wood is locked in, celebrating neatness but inherently useless, and the parallel bars, misdirected from their purpose of aiding individual physical development, function now as a barrier.

The cruel difficulty that totalitarianism imposes on achieving the happiness that can link thought and labor is rarely so concisely and poignantly displayed.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Exciting musical performance tonight from a unique musical viewpoint

 From violinist William Harvey's latest blog post:

On Tuesday, July 9, at 8:00 p.m. in Auer Hall, pianist Cory Smythe will join me in an eclectic program featuring the music of Afghanistan and of Bach, Schubert, Elliott Carter, and Ryan Francis. The program will call the listener's attention to the connections we share with people in Afghanistan, while posing the question of what contemporary music looks like from an Afghan perspective.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Zap meets zip at every turn: The monster is loose at Footlite Musicals

Though Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" has been probed for its serious themes about life and mankind's overweening desire to master it, in pop culture the story has come in for interpretations a few rungs lower on the profundity ladder.

Falling right through to the bottom, but with the genius of all the great clowns behind it, is Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," the musical adaptation of his madcap movie focusing on the grandson of the notorious middle European scientist. In the late 1930s, Frederick Frankenstein journeys back to the Old Country to lay claim to his estate, soon falling prey to the temptation to galvanize the dangerous family legacy.

Footlite Musicals opened its Young Adult production of the show Friday night at Hedback Theater.  The production soared enviably through the absurdity of Brooks' imaginings. I say "enviably" because who among us has not wished to be so blithe as to make all-out fun of fear and the specter of scientism that haunts the pursuit of sound science?

Frederick and Igor celebrate being "Together Again for the First Time."
The spirit of "Young Frankenstein,"  centered on the Brooks' characteristically no-holds-barred penchant for tastelessness in pursuit of cheap laughs, is fully alive in this production as Kathleen Clarke Horrigan directs it.  And quite honestly, anyone who looks into the long history of comedy must admit that tastelessness and cheap laughs are woven inextricably into its fabric.

Mugging is a strong feature in Brooks comedy, and Footlite's high-energy cast never misses a chance to look startled, dismayed, lustful, fearful or obsessed as the occasion demands. Justin Klein as Frederick is put to the test early on, as he has to deliver a patter song in praise of the brain, articulating the fast-running text while projecting the glow of excitement that will eventually do the young professor in. Transport him to Transylvania, give him a willing stooge (Igor) and a comely assistant (Inga) and he's soon after far more than merely claiming his property rights.

Egged on by an importunate dream featuring an irresistible song, "Join the Family Business," Frederick is putty in the hands of his Frankensteinian fate: He revives his grandfather's misbegotten quest to make new life from dead tissue. The ancestors' song is one of the production's clear triumphs, thanks to the snappily executed choreography of Trish Roberds. As the bedazzled Frederick says of his forebears upon being roused from restless slumber: "They were so crazy — but, boy, can they dance!"

Frederick has left behind a self-absorbed, rigorously unsentimental fiancee in New York. Predictably, her untimely appearance in Transylvania just as things are coming to a boil in the castle laboratory complicates everything. She is played with relentless energy by Jennifer Rowe, whose performance of the second-act power ballad "Deep Love" sends up not only her character but also the whole pop-diva brand. Let's just say her amatory ambivalence about the creator does not extend to the creature.

Also assisting Klein in making his portrayal in the title role memorable is the pop-eyed, limber-limbed Damon Clevenger as Igor — their buddy song, "Together Again for the First Time" is the show's hit duet — and Kyra McGuirk as the flirtatious, slightly scientifically minded ingenue Inga.

Matthew Hook's Monster is so much more than a notable achievement in makeup and costuming, though it is that, too.  His roar is stentorian, his grunts are guttural and rafter-rattling.  When some scientific tinkering and conscientious training raise his intelligence level acceptably, the Monster is hilarious in leading the ensemble in a Broadway-style showstopper, complete with top hats, taps, tails and canes. The evergreen vehicle is Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz," the show's one song not from the workshop of Brooks and his collaborator, Thomas Meehan.

The lightly applied historical setting allows the show to make apt use of several musical styles from the 1930s and just before—all suitable to the panache and shtick of vaudeville, the mother's milk of Brooks comedy. There was an Al Jolson/Bert Williams heart-tugger in the blind Hermit's "Please Send Me Someone," performed at full throttle by Chris Parker, and the incandescent  first-act finale, "Transylvania Mania," a send-up of those dance-craze ensemble numbers like "The Varsity Drag." In this case, the dance evolves spontaneously as the wily Igor tries to distract suspicious villagers from the sounds of monstrous life emanating from the dark castle.

The castle comes with another formidable aspect, that of housekeeper Frau Blucher, to whom Tara Roberds lent formidable heft and a wealth of intimidating scowls. Other supporting character roles filled capably Friday included the prosthetically challenged Inspector Hans Kemp (Devin Smith) and the loping, accidentally insightful village idiot, Ziggy (Dorothy Vanore).

The singing, prepared by Matthew Konrad Tippel, rarely dipped from a high standard of vigor, expressiveness and true pitch. The accompanying band, whose tasks included the frequent insertion of vamp-till-ready patterns during scene changes,  met every challenge; overall music direction was well-coordinated by Schuyler Brinson. The mutually complementary set, sound and lighting design by Andy Darr, Zach Rosing and Ryan Mullins (respectively) contributed fully to the show's zany, mock-scary atmosphere.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Raymond Leppard broadcast interview series to start on WICR-FM

Raymond Leppard, the eminent British-born conductor who was music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra from 1987 to 2001, will add new visibility to his position as artist-in-residence at the University of Indianapolis in a broadcast interview series beginning Sunday.

Raymond Leppard is UIndy artist-in-residence
"Authenticity in Music" is a 13-part series of interviews with Michael Toulouse, adjunct UIndy faculty member and vice president of programming for the Fine Arts Society, which broadcasts classical music over WICR-FM (88.7), the campus radio station. The series title comes from a 1986 book by Leppard that addressed the problems of performing today the music of earlier periods in the manner envisioned by its composers.  "Authenticity in Music" is a Fine Arts Society production.

Since his retirement as the ISO's fifth music director, Leppard has held the position of conductor laureate. He conducts the ISO's annual "Classical Christmas" concert at the Scottish Rite Cathedral. A resident of Indianapolis and a naturalized U.S. citizen, Leppard continues to make guest-conducting appearances here (including at UIndy) and abroad.

 The one-hour interviews will air at 7 p.m. Sundays, starting July 7, and at noon Saturdays on WICR's digital HD-2 channel.

"The conversations will be illustrated with recordings from Leppard's personal collection and with stories from his six decades on the podium," according to a University of Indianapolis news release.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Pacifica Quartet adds to a distinguished exploration of "The Soviet Experience"

Emotional highs and lows throughout the Shostakovich string quartets tend to have the lapel-grabbing immediacy of late Beethoven, unique in the distinguished literature for the combination of two violins, viola and cello.

Whatever banalities the Soviet composer may have committed in his more "public" works, in the string quartets (and some of the other chamber music) he laid his heart bare, and usually brought forth much more than raw feeling.

In this two-disc set, the Pacifica Quartet marks the third volume of its "Soviet Experience" series on Cedille Records.  This is a powerful follow-up to its predecessors, and is especially notable for the restraint and control evident as the quartet renders the composer's more mysterious inspirations.

That side of Shostakovich,  which sometimes seems to show up as an illusory calm that is more wish-fulfillment than settling in, is represented by this particular set.   Especially telling is the Pacifica's performance of Quartet no. 11 in F minor, op. 122,  a setting of seven rough-cut jewels, close neighbors on a compact (less than 18 minutes) cushion of superlative string-quartet playing.

The tentative but promising introductory first movement gives way to an exhibition of guarded humor in the Scherzo, dashed by the explosive opening of "Recitative-Adagio," the third movement. In
the fourth, we hear some of the uncanny unity the Pacifica can draw out of disparate material — racing versus stately — overlaid skillfully.

The Pacifica Quartet is in residence at IU.
"Humoresque" untangles the different directions undertaken by the previous movement, making the second violin play the role of an obsessive-compulsive cuckoo, an understated touch of mordant wit. None too soon, an expansive Adagio allows at last for a sustained mood, but it's one of those unsettling elegies (even so named at the head of the movement) that seemed to come all too readily from Shosakovich's muse. As an interpretive triumph, the finale stands out for the sustained introspection, approaching bleakness, that the Pacifica has under exquisite control up through the final bar.

Violinists Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violist Masumi Per Rostad and cellist Brandon Vamos, now fortunately in residence at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, make a substantial case for the centrality of these works. They don't emphasize the vulnerability so characteristic of Shostakovich, which can also be an appealing tack (see the Fitzwilliam Quartet's recordings of a couple of decades back, for instance). But there is an admirably wider expressive palette in this music, to which the Pacifica gives full measure.

Also on this disc are three Shostakovich quartets that don't deserve to be given short shrift. But I would call special attention to the contrast of furious energy and profound near-stasis  in the middle movements of Quartet No. 10 in A-flat, op. 118.

The only relatively flawed piece is the bottom-heavy Quartet No. 12 in D-flat, op. 133, a two-movement form resting on a huge concluding Allegretto. The Pacifica finds sufficient variety in it, but can't quite salvage the work as justifying such an uninterrupted, overstuffed valise of a finale.

The second disc is filled out with a forceful, self-confident composition that belies its composer's difficult life in the Soviet Union: Mieczyslaw Weinberg's String Quartet No. 6 in E minor, op. 35. Though the work (not to mention the composer) was previously unknown to me, the Pacifica's performance of it here argues for its consideration for a foothold in the standard 20th-century string-quartet repertoire.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Getting down with Dowland: La Nef and tenor Michael Slattery grace the Early Music Festival

As La Nef founding member Sylvain Bergeron told the audience, a threesome of instrumental pieces in the middle of its concert's first half Sunday was the program's brief indulgence in happy music. "Will Kempe's Jig," "Mistress Winter's Jump" and "My Lady Hunsdon's Puffe" followed in quick succession, with the last-named piece capped by the sopranino recorder's ornamented melody.

But though its manner is breezy and animated, the Montreal-based ensemble focused on the English lutenist-composer John Dowland in his characteristic mood of melancholy.  Shakespeare's contemporary, a Catholic said to be bitter about lack of preferment at court because of his religion, achieved a strong international reputation with lute songs, many of them loaded with lovelorn hand-wringing.

A peculiar English piece known as the dump had largely expired by Dowland's time, but in the alliterative spirit of a program titled "Dowland in Dublin," the composer was characteristically down in the dumps when he took pen in hand to set verses for singing. Even without texts, his creative juices flowed best when he turned to the stately pavan, a form receptive to sad thoughts. They coursed through his veins more robustly when he took up its perky northern Italian cousin, the galliard.

Those dance forms were both in evidence in La Nef's  Early Music Festival concert at the Glick Indiana History Center. A solo lute piece, "Lacrimae pavan," given a soulful, nuanced reading by Bergeron, made an effective prelude to "Come,  heavy sleep," featuring the dulcet lyric tenor of Michael Slattery.  Throughout the program, the urgent expressivity of Slattery's singing never roughened his mellifluous tone and phrasing, even when he was called upon to simulate the throes of the thwarted passion ("Sleep, wayward thoughts").

Michael Slattery's well-schooled, expressive voice was featured.
La Nef in this project fancifully places Dowland in Dublin, though Grove's Dictionary slaps down one long-ago writer's claim the composer was born there rather than in the City of Westminster. What the songs' arrangements (mostly by cittern player Sean Dagher) aim for is the atmosphere of an Irish pub.  The sedate, softspoken quality of most of what La Nef played made this imaginative stretch a little difficult, to be sure. But it was obvious that a largely successful attempt was being carried out to rescue Dowland's  output from "the classical tradition,"  where it doesn't sit very comfortably.

Sting's recording of a Dowland CD several years ago is an indication that the Elizabethan composer's populist appeal is worth exploring. Small wonder that Slattery and La Nef offered as an encore the best-known Dowland song, "Come again,"  which is also featured in Sting's cameo appearance on Joshua Bell's 2009 album, "At Home With Friends."

And you could easily correlate the instrumental "Fine Knacks for Ladies," which opened the concert's second half, with a Celtic bar band's performance, given the drive Amanda Keesmat imparted to the syncopated cello line (played on a modern instrument, not the program's listed "baroque cello").

Dagher's arrangements occasionally stray from Dowland's harmonic language, as he admitted from the stage. This artistic license was in service to the singer-and-backup-band vibe the program succeeded in achieving, thanks largely to the tenor's compelling performances. In "Dowland in Dublin," La Nef could be
labeled by the pop term "cover band," tweaking the originals respectfully but with a fresh approach to winning over today's audiences. As measured by two standing ovations — one at the end of the program and one after the encore — and the sold-out supply of CDs during intermission, the musicians know how to meet that goal.