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.

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