Sunday, September 29, 2013

Channeling Chekhov: Phoenix Theatre opens 31st season with Christopher Durang comedy

The title strings out the names of four characters with the flat egalitarianism characteristic of the play's patron saint: "Vanya  and Sonia and Masha and Spike" is Christopher Durang's rambunctious tribute to Anton Chekhov and the 2013 Tony-winner that opens Phoenix Theatre's new season.

The idiosyncratic rambunctiousness, not something readily associated with Chekhov, is what Durang brings to the stage from a long series of coruscating successes. The underlying theme of weariness with life and the audacity of presenting characters who may bore or annoy us but are treated with wry affection are the Chekhovian bedrock.  On it Durang builds a family structure of sacrifice, missed opportunity and petty vanity played out in a solid old home in the upscale bucolic setting of Bucks County, Pa.

The first three characters grew up in that household dominated by punishingly overcultured parents whose latter-day decline from Alzheimer's was borne physically and emotionally by homebodies Vanya and Sonia, financially by the ambitious Hollywood actress Masha, who flits about to more exotic locations than she can remember. Her surprise visit,  accompanied by a raunchy young boyfriend named Spike, precipitates a family crisis involving a typical Chekhov catastrophe: the threat of change.

Sonia (left) and Vanya learn something new from Cassandra.
Durang has fun with allusions from the four major Chekhov plays, but his intent seems to be to use the humanity and some of the style of his Russian model to comment on the American obsession with the pursuit of happiness enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. In the 21st century, that scriptural pursuit comes up not only against the allure of the multitasking bitch-goddess Success, but also more crucially against the possibility that any change we set in motion quickly jerks out of human control.

That's the premise of the play Vanya has written, his secret escape from habitual disappointment. It's a dystopian ecological fantasy whose staged reading in the second act sets up "Vanya..."'s major revelation, with a denouement leading to a shared, placid resignation echoing the final moments of Chekhov's "Three Sisters." In the process, Vanya gets to rail against Spike's  mindless plugged-in world, Sonia gets a nearly incredible glimmer of what self-esteem might feel like, and Masha learns a lesson about aging and rootedness.

Bryan Fonseca directs a cast unparalleled for the quality of mutual engagement they bring to the stage. Despite the stunning strength of individual moments, 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" builds on Chekhov's stripping the armor of heroism from theater and making every character major, even while underlining their inadequacies. The strength comes from their relationships, clumsily patched together and finally taking on a more durable form, despite misunderstandings as trivial as the argument Vanya and Sonia have about coffee in the opening scene.

The patient, repressed Vanya is played by Charles Goad with wary tenderness, counterpointed against the astonishingly detailed anxiety projected by Diane Kondrat as Sonia. They carom off each other emotionally like billiard balls — another part of the Chekhov legacy, in which characters talk past each other, almost accidentally getting caught up in what someone else has said.

Jen Johansen is Masha, striding, statuesque and apt to mistake self-centeredness for self-awareness.
Masha returns home ready to run things.
She's in the habit of being deferred to, even though she's dependent on a shadowy personal assistant's scheduling and the anything-but-shadowy erotic attention of Spike, whose bounding physicality and leaden intelligence were well-matched in Pete Lindblom's performance.

As soon as you enter Phoenix's Russell Stage and take in Bernie Killian's set, warmly lit by Laura Glover, you know you're looking at a home that is supposed to feel comfortable. But you suspect it is bound to become anything but, for this is a Durang play inspired by theater's subtle master of domestic discomfort.

To have a soothsayer for a housekeeper, her mouth full of verbose imprecations and warnings, is an over-the-top guarantee of discomfort. She's in the tradition of scorned, underestimated servants, but like her namesake Cassandra, her sometimes cryptic, always ignored prophecies cling to some portion of vital truth. Dwandra Nickole Lampkin in the role held sway over the broken household with cryptic, well-articulated authority.

She is one of those Chekhov-derived intimate outsiders, along with ingenue Nina, who is visiting the neighbors and becomes entangled in the family thanks to her star-worship of Masha. Played with wide-eyed sincerity by Ashley Dillard, Nina goes along with Masha's manipulative casting of the group (except Cassandra) for a neighborhood costume party. Out of her dated, personally disastrous scenario, seismic shifts in stature result, managed with quirky plausibility by Durang and Fonseca's adept players.

An oddly riveting theatrical trick is when characters look out intently through the fourth wall. It seems they are looking at us or through us, but of course the audience knows they are fixated on something else, something we can't see. It's a moment when we are forced to shed our feeling of superiority to them, and it never lasts long.

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" begins and ends that way. Vanya shuffles onstage in his nightshirt peering out toward the pond, hoping to sight the customary blue heron. At play's end, he and his sisters look out more vacantly in the same direction, all that we  have learned about them mirrored in their faces. But there is something they are taking in beyond our ken. Even the sentimental strains of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" wafting from an MP3 player can't wipe away all the irresolution and existential doubt in their gaze.

I was reminded of a poem by Robert Frost, though his watchers are on the seacoast looking out, not landlocked on a fading country estate. The poem ends: "They cannot look out far. / They cannot look in deep. / But when was that ever a bar / To any watch they keep?"

Fonseca's usual pitch to Phoenix audiences  — to tell 10 friends if you liked the play— might be modified in honor of Chekhov's indelible hallmarks of loneliness and repetitiveness: If you have just five friends, tell each of them to see "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" twice. It runs through Oct. 20.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

ISO opens Classical Series with showcase Chopin, provocative Prokofiev

The dependable comfort level that comes with Garrick Ohlsson playing Chopin would not have been enough by itself to lift his performance of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor to the special plane it occupied  Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

The towering pianist, in the front rank of American concert artists for more than 40 years, worked hand-in-glove with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and music director Krzysztof Urbanski, countryman of the composer. There was a certain suppleness and joyous give-and-take between podium and piano. Ohlsson and Urbanski exchanged smiles in mid-flight at the start of the third movement, which had a wealth of smooth tempo adjustments, nothing jerky about any one of them.
Garrick Ohlsson was in his element Friday.

From the stately orchestra introduction to the first movement, with its well-shaped, drooping phrases in the main theme, to the aristocratic dash of the finale, this was a cherishable performance.

Such a spectrum of tonal color as Ohlsson got from the instrument rarely comes across in such a large space as the ISO's home. The soloist's deft pedaling touch helped generate a bright, singing tone without glare. And having recently heard a famous pianist who stamps his individuality on everything, I was pleased to savor a distinctive interpretation that didn't put a premium on the performer's personal brand. This was Chopin without customizing.

The expansiveness of the concerto left no time for another piece in the first half, except for the encore Ohlsson offered: Chopin's Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2.  Being unaccompanied, of course, this was an especially free interpretation. It wasn't a waltz you could dance to, except in the imagination, where you swept across the floor under Ohlsson's suave guidance. The performance had color and animation, and you could always feel the pulse beneath the music's laced and perfumed wrists.

The concert's second half consisted of Sergei Prokofiev's greatest symphony, No. 5 in B-flat.  This amazing work has been a hit the world over since its premiere in 1945. The composer attached a statement to it typical of the times, as the end of humanity's worst war approached. The music "[praises] the free and happy man —  his strength, his generosity, and the purity of his soul," he wrote.

Krzysztof Urbanski reaches for something extra in Prokofiev.
But the triumphant progress of the composition is genuine and superbly laid out, and needs no verbal support. The "Allegro giocoso" finale lives up to the jollity of its name; it is triumphant without the banality (Copland's Third) or the bombast (Shostakovich's Fifth) that mars some of the best contemporary symphonies in their last movements. Every statement of the perky clarinet theme lifts the spirits; the effect never failed in Friday's performance. The passage in which the divided cellos ruminate briefly on the first-movement theme provided a wonderful respite from the reigning exuberance.

The second-movement scherzo — Prokofiev at his most deucedly clever — proceeded in an atmosphere of heightened excitement. Nonetheless, an underlying anxiety, a kind of pressure normally foreign to this composer, was brought to bear here that didn't seem entirely authentic. In this movement and occasionally elsewhere, I felt Urbanski came close to presenting Prokofiev through a Shostakovichian filter.

The older composer never strayed far from projecting a persona of being the brightest boy in the room, "a chilly character," in Michael Steinberg's apt phrase. Capable of stirring genuine feeling, Prokofiev's music nonetheless has a cool demeanor that must be respected interpretively. There was nothing sloppy about the ISO's performance Friday; the score's intricacies were adroitly handled. But the risk of overheating was boldly taken on, too. I'll grudgingly credit Urbanski and the orchestra for providing an additional emotional charge by courting that very danger. Yet I retain my doubts that this performance spoke truly in the composer's idiom.

The program will be repeated today at 5:30 p.m.

Friday, September 27, 2013

IRT melts all concealment in "The Crucible"

In "The Crucible," farmer John Proctor's well-tended fields flourish under the same bright sky that spells doom for the unwary and the wavering, but eventually for God's watchful, unbending servants as well. In a fallen world, the Puritans' "city on the hill" rests on creed undermined by credulousness.

The community gathers for worship and song in "The Crucible."
The Indiana Repertory Theatre's production of Arthur Miller's historical drama opens with the fervor of "Let All Mortal Fresh Keep Silent," sung by the cast in full-throated assertion of the faith that governed life in the Massachusetts village of Salem in 1692.

The scene is a powerful reminder of the context of the play. It also pushes to one side the allegorical import of Miller's drama, famously spurred by the anti-Communist fervor of the early 1950s and the atmosphere of fear, suspicion and revenge that marred life briefly in American politics, academics and the arts.

That's all to the good when it comes to appreciating "The Crucible" many decades past the circumstances that inspired it. It's smart of director Michael Donald Edwards to focus on the rigorous faith that armed this small, homogeneous community against external hostility (natural and human) and the temptations of anarchy in the wilderness. In our far different world, Miller's play forces us to question the rightness of our values and how far we should go to assert and defend them.

Fortunately, "The Crucible" is more than a play of ideas, and this production makes central the domestic drama of John and Elizabeth Proctor. Parallel to the envy, greed and resentment that take on the protective coloring of religion is the tension between this upright couple, whose stability is shaken by John's brief, broken-off affair with the household servant Abigail. Orphaned by an Indian attack, Abigail fights against marginalization with occult games and dances in the woods, finding the worst outlet for her natural gifts of leadership by fomenting Salem's witchcraft hysteria.

All that would remain hidden comes to light as the combined power of church and state strives to keep Satan at bay. The devil enters through the back door, however, through the power of suggestion and the flawed rules of evidence that any theocracy inevitably follows. Abigail's resentment of her dismissal flowers into a determination to destroy the Proctor household. But there was a nice ambiguity in Isabel Ellison's performance that invited us to consider how susceptible she might be to her own machinations.

Certainly the power structure is a target of manipulation just as much as such hapless citizens as the litigious old farmer Giles Corey (Robert Elliott), canny in the ways of the world but overmatched by the weight of Puritan law and learning. Or, at the other extreme of life experience, the Proctors' current servant, Mary Warren (Caitlin Collins), wide-eyed and bewildered, the dangerous plaything of her predecessor Abigail.

Rob Johansen displayed the fitful anxiety of Rev. Parris, the congregation's beleaguered minister, slowly tipping over to madness as he realizes he can't defend his job if his flock is scattered and decimated. Even more conflicted is Rev. Hale,  the clergyman brought in from Beverly to investigate the untoward happenings, lugging his books onto the scene, confident that they contain the tools to defeat evil.

In Dennis Grimes' increasingly anguished portrayal, the reverend is thrown back upon a sense of justice more basic than Puritan theology. That bulwark against error was prolifically fortified in the course of the 17th century, producing tomes the scholar Perry Miller (no relation to the playwright) long ago examined in "The New England Mind." Among the many places in which analogies between "The Crucible" and McCarthyism break down is that Sen. Joseph McCarthy was a floundering moron in comparison to the rigorous intellectuals who upheld Puritan orthodoxy. Not all mass hysteria is anti-intellectual, unfortunately.

I liked the ensemble vigor of Thursday's performance. Edwards shows us a tight-knit community, subject to  the usual interpersonal difficulties but adhering to the same essential doctrines. This was evident from the simple piety of Elizabeth Proctor, so unblemished yet natural in Elizabeth Laidlaw's performance, on up to the exquisite judical hair-splitting of Deputy Governor Danforth's courtroom conduct, particularly his crucial examination of Elizabeth. Stephen Pickering portrayed a man convinced of his own rectitude and that of the system he represents, subtle in pursuing his goals and blunt about cleaving to them. He knows that the law is a method for managing facts; truth may be a byproduct, but if not, the result must still be called justice.

Danforth examines Elizabeth Proctor after commanding her husband  (left) to turn his back.
Working through his personal sense of sin against the injustice he sees developing is John Proctor, powerfully represented by Ryan Artzberger. A plainspoken man quick to sense hypocrisy and deceit in his fellows,  Proctor also bears a great moral weight.

has a wonderful range of strength and vulnerability ideally suited to this role. His two great flashes of intensity, one in each act, were spellbinding. They brought to mind something that long ago made me hunger for great theater: Jack Paar, as host of the old "Tonight" show, once offered a brief critique of Richard Burton's performance on Broadway as Hamlet: "Burton's eyes light up the stage," Paar marveled. I would love someday to see that kind of incandescence in the theater, I thought to myself then. Thursday night counts as one of the times I have.

The costumes had just enough variety to show marks of individuality in a community that didn't permit much deviation from the norm. Lighting and sound design verged on the bombastic, however.
I understand the motivation — to show this tiny community being convulsed by forces also at war in the cosmos — but the forcefulness of the drama didn't need quite so much underlining.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Innnovative musical theater of Kander & Ebb inspires season's first ISO pops program

Jack Everly, veteran pops maestro of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, thought it was time to give his regards to Broadway once again. And he meant the Broadway far removed from the quaint, century-old, sunny-faced heartiness of George M. Cohan, the man who first flashed that salute in song.

"We've done a tribute to the iconic music of Irving Berlin and several 'decade' concerts," Everly told me by phone recently after a 10-hour production meeting about "On Broadway with Kander & Ebb," which will open the Pops Series Oct. 4 and 5 at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Jack Everly is the mastermind of ISO Kander & Ebb tribute
It was Broadway's turn once again, and what better a thematic emphasis than musical theater's successors to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and Bock and Harnick?

"They have continued the evolution of musical theater," said Everly of John Kander and Fred Ebb, who burst onto the scene with the challenging musical "Cabaret" and went on to make history through such shows as "Zorba," "Woman of the Year," and "Chicago."

"They continued to push the envelope right up through 'The Scottsboro Boys,'" Everly said of the short-lived 2010 musical, which garnered a large number of Tony nominations, but failed to win an award.  "It's a very hard story to tell,  but incredibly theatrical."

For an example of how Kander and Ebb pushed the envelope, Everly mentioned the difficulty of adapting the well-known film "Zorba the Greek" for the musical stage. "The overwhelming importance of 'Zorba' is the story of how you approach life, capturing the spirit of the character Zorba. How do we make the statement clear?" is the hypothetical question Everly said the team had to face. It would have been tempting to back into it, making the point in the course of telling the story. But that didn't suit the directness of the new Broadway musical that Kander and Ebb represented.

"So they had all the cast sit on the stage as the curtain goes up, and start with the song 'Life Is.' Rodgers and Hammerstein would not have done that," Everly said.

What Everly described as the "backbone" of his new program will be two edgy hits: "Cabaret" and "Chicago."  Arrangements for vocalist and orchestra are by Everly, Fred Barton, Jim Stephenson and ISO librarian Michael Runyan.

As so often in the past, Everly has used his wide reach in the pops world to establish the Kander and  Ebb show as the latest production of the Symphonic Pops Consortium. Under that aegis, the Indianapolis-based show will hit the road after its debut here, getting performances this season in Edmonton, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Ottawa. Everly is also pops maestro in the two last-named cities.

This consortium production "has Indianapolis stamped  all over it," Everly told me.  "If you are about safeguarding the legacy of the American songbook, we are delighted to be making this music as great as it needs to be."

Everly will conduct the ISO and four vocalists, all of whom have extensive Broadway experience: Nick Adams, Ted Keegan, Beth Leavel, and Renee Daniels.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Lang Lang handles Mozart and Chopin with dispatch, charms a near-capacity Palladium audience

The charismatic pianist Lang Lang presented his first solo recital in the area Thursday night at the Palladium, and the adoring response seemed a genuine acknowledgment of the recitalist's ability to form an instant bond with listeners.

The program was divided simply into Mozart before intermission, Chopin after. Lang Lang's arrangement of a Chinese folk song, in celebration of the Moon Festival in his homeland Sept. 19, provided one encore. The continuing roar of acclaim elicited a second, a predictably scintillating account of Chopin's "Minute" Waltz.

Then it was a few more relaxed bows, gracious waves to various sections of the audience, some handshaking along the front row and, in a superstar gesture if ever there was one, the toss of a large white handkerchief to some lucky fan after the young maestro had wiped his brow before strolling offstage for good.

Lang Lang's Mozart largely adhered to classical niceties without being particularly patrician. But Mozart the man had a mercurial temperament that is fairly reflected in his music, so the pianist's expressive palette was suitably broad. In Sonata No. 4 in E-flat, K. 283, he was generous with romantic inflections in the first movement, exploited sudden changes of dynamics in the linked minuets of the second, and evoked in the third the brilliant splendor of the European courts Mozart was acquainted with from boyhood. (The near-contemporary Sonata No. 5 in G, K. 283, was played first, reversing the printed program's order.)

The darker explorations of the Sonata No. 8 in A minor, K. 310, suited Lang Lang's love of musical drama especially well. The Allegro maestoso first movement had an almost intimidating authority, as if Sarastro from "The Magic Flute" were about to deliver an edict. This pianist, as notably in love with contrasts as he seems to be, reveled in the songful tenderness of the second movement before striding into the finale. Though the movement heading says "Presto," it was played too fast here, and even seemed a little glib, too pridefully tossed off. Still, there was something genuine and well-considered about the powerful ending Lang Lang came up with.

Like Lang Lang's tempos, intermission was a brisk, 10-minute affair. The four Chopin ballades then proceeded in order, each with Lang Lang's unmistakable stamp upon it.  By No. 2 in F major, Op. 38, the unsettling impression came over me that the dynamic extremes he favors ought to have seemed  generated more by the logic of the music, less for the sake of display: "Look how soft I can play, now look how loud I can play."

No one can deny that the Ballades have startling contrasts of mood, and Lang Lang's technical aplomb can make them seem startling even when you know the music. The "Presto con fuoco" outburst on the second page of the F major ballade, for instance, was produced with scarcely more lifting of the wrists than their position as the "sotto voce" opening section concluded.

Such sudden onslaughts, handled so adroitly, certainly rivet the attention.  Lang Lang is a versatile actor who gets quickly into character. But maybe the masks slip on and off a little too facilely. He isn't free of small-scale mannerisms, either. He delayed final notes in both Mozart and Chopin a few too many times; sometimes you should just end a movement in tempo.

I can't deny the excitement of being present for such virtuosity, both technical and interpretive. Ballade No. 3 in A-flat, op. 47, for example, had a woozy, elfin charm, with lots of impressionistic color foreshadowing French music of later in the century.

Lang Lang made it his own and won me over, but the electricity in the atmosphere when he plays such music would not wear well on repeated hearings, I suspect. So I'd probably pass up a Lang Lang recording of the Chopin ballades, but in this recital, the sway he held over those pieces made for a worthwhile in-person experience.

Krzysztof Urbanski lengthens his association with the ISO

Krzysztof Urbanski, the 30-year-old Polish conductor who continues to build a reputation for himself here and abroad, has agreed to link that growing acclaim to the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra for three years beyond his current contract.

Krzysztof Urbanski in action, photographed by his wife, Joanna.
The ISO announced today that Urbanski has signed a new agreement that will keep him here as music director through the 2017-18 season. The announcement comes on the brink of the 2013-14 season's debut Friday night in a gala concert featuring violin soloist Hilary Hahn.

No terms of the new contract were revealed in the announcement, but director of communications Jessica Di Santo said some details, like the number of weeks Urbanski will be in residence here, are still being worked out. In the final year of his current contract (2014-15), he is due to be in town 10 weeks. His other obligation to music in Indiana — an adjunct professorship at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University —  involves a separate agreement.

Advance sales for 2013-14 stand at "more than 10 percent above last year in classical subscriptions," according to Di Santo, a sign that Urbanski has connected with Indianapolis audiences since beginning his tenure here in 2011.

During that time, Urbanski has presided over the hiring of four ISO musicians, including two principals: Jennifer Christen (oboe) and Ryan Beach (trumpet).  He conducted the world premiere of William Bolcom's "Games and Challenges" last spring, featuring ISO ensemble in residence Time for Three. In contrast, he was on the sidelines during last year's tense contract negotiations, including a lockout, with the ISO musicians — the usual position for a music director in such cases.

When in town, Urbanski and his wife, Joanna, live in an apartment downtown. His duties elsewhere include the music directorship of the Trondheim (Norway) Symphony Orchestra and a post as principal guest conductor of the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. Upcoming guest-conducting engagements include the Berlin Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

He continues to be a major advocate for music by his Polish compatriots both here and abroad: In November, he will participate in an internationally televised concert in Warsaw celebrating the 80th birthday of composer Krzysztof Penderecki, sharing podium duties with Charles Dutoit and Valery Gergiev.

Ravi Coltrane makes Indianapolis debut at Indy Jazz Fest

Playing with a young heart underlined by the inevitability of being known as The Son, Ravi Coltrane made his probable local debut Wednesday night at a couple of Indy Jazz Fest sets at the Jazz Kitchen.

Ravi Coltrane (photo by Mark Sheldon)
To my mind, he has long since established his independence as a musician from the gigantic eminence of his father, John Coltrane, and the smaller aura that surrounds his pianist mother, Alice Coltrane. He sure doesn't sound like an orphan. And people are ready to receive the 48-year-old as a mature musician, even in places that are new to him, allowing for the fact that some of the patronage is attracted by his famous names (his given name being, of course, a tribute to Ravi Shankar).

He has some of his father's stamina as a performer, displaying it torrentially in the first number of the second set, Ralph Alessi's "Klepto." That was among several offerings on tenor sax, his main instrument; turning to soprano for a new original, he evinced a penetrating sound, with an English-horn coloration, and a fondness for phrases with a wide compass.

Then it was back to the tenor for the rest of the set, ending with one of his dad's classics, energetically deconstructed. At the time, I thought it was "Moment's Notice." Once I got home, it seems like it could have been "Countdown." (Authoritative opinions welcome!)

Coltrane brought to the gig his compatible, sometimes explosive current quartet: pianist David Virelles, bassist Dezron Douglas, and drummer Johnathan Blake. Blake made a hit with the crowd, but he seemed to me a little too insistent an accompanist, burying Virelles' solo on ""Klepto," for instance. He has touches of John Coltrane's drummer, Elvin Jones, spreading the rhythm around, coloring his patterns with a heavy wash of snare drum.

The quartet was the soul of unity in Ralph Tower's "The Glide," with its short, thumping figure serving as a motto that gave off teasing hints of Miles Davis' "Jean Pierre."  Coltrane delivered on that tease in the coda by quoting what is purportedly the French playground song that piqued his dad's ex-employer's interest late in the trumpeter's career.

A Charlie Haden song written in 1975 for Alice Coltrane, "For Turiya," put the boisterous audience into an almost meditative hush. Not surprisingly, it offered a huge showcase for the bassist, and Douglas displayed a fat, resonant tone that evoked Haden. Blake contributed some of his  most imaginative accompaniment here, and Virelles got into some intriguing harmonic thickets in his extended solo. The leader settled mainly for being the one to enunciate the theme — like a dutiful son, but also his own man.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Indy Jazz Fest: Two Butler musicians show the benefits of dialogue-based jazz

It's more than academic when Gary Walters and Shawn Goodman get together to make music, though an academic setting seemed a comfortable place for the two Butler University faculty members to present a concert Tuesday night.

Partly a CD release party for the clarinet-piano duo's  "Not Benny's Goodman," the performance took place under  the Indy Jazz Fest umbrella, besides being the third presentation in Butler's 2013-14 Faculty Artist Series.

Walters and Goodman sounded well-attuned to each other in the eight-piece program, but not consistently to the hall. There were signs that Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall may have been too live a room to be hospitable to everything they played.

Goodman has an ease and expressiveness in the clarinet's low register, evident especially in "Infant Eyes" (Wayne Shorter) and "A Child Is Born" (Thad Jones). Her frisky sweeps into the highest range were exciting, if sometimes in danger of being overblown. Her imagination is active and suited to her long-breathed phrasing, though to my ears it wasn't until the finale, "Dear Old Stockholm," that the suppleness and warmth of those long phrases became fully evident.

The duo sounded quite comfortable with the set's one straight-ahead swinger, a Swedish folk song associated with saxophonist Stan Getz. Walters kept his accompanying subordinate, whereas earlier he had tended to cover the clarinet from time to time. For a while, he put a nice bass line underneath Goodman's solo, as he had earlier in "Embraceable You."

In a club gig, a second set might have found the duo really hitting its stride. I say that because the next-to-last song,  "It Never Entered My Mind," also found success.The tune was stated clearly early on, and Walters gave himself more breathing room in his solo. Clarinet-piano balance was even and practically 
Clarinetist-educator Shawn Goodman

Though there's no jazz rule against it, it can be a mistake to delay stating the original melody: The musicians are feeling a context that the audience hasn't discerned, even those who may know the tune. With "A Child Is Born," for example, both players were too ruminative at first; their subsequent flamboyance while soloing would have made more sense if a stronger outline had been given to the melody from the outset.

The program opened with a wistful, Latin-flavored original by Walters, "Chaz Carter," a tribute to a deceased colleague active around town for many years, Chuck Carter.  The composer's lengthy solo made the tribute especially personal.

Though the concert was rich in mellow moments, there was plenty of muscle-flexing, too — some of it apt, some of it less so. Freddie Hubbard's "Little Sunflower" was an overfertilized bloom for most of its duration, settling down after each player soloed. The balance, way out of whack at first, became more natural toward the end.

"Moonlight in Vermont" got unconventional treatment, jumpy and rather angular, but attractive and fresh, too. In their solos, both players were inspired by the churning arrangement to deliver floods of sound. This must have been moonlight in the Vermont of 2011 and, to some degree, earlier this year. Sometimes a sentimental song needs to be shaken by the shoulders and told to stop admiring itself — even while basking in moonbeams. That's what Walters and Goodman took it upon themselves to do. Lesson learned, class dismissed.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Indy Jazz Fest at Indiana Landmarks: A jazz milestone and a signpost on the way forward

There was a wealth of honor paid to the modern jazz heritage Monday night in a re-creation of most of the "Birth of the Cool" repertoire, with which Miles Davis made the first of several influential changes in jazz.

But besides the Buselli Wallarab Jazz Orchestra's painstaking but gratifyingly fresh presentation of that music at the Indiana Landmarks Center, there was a stupendous opening act that indicated the ongoing vitality of American jazz: the Zach Lapidus Trio.

Several years of familarity with Lapidus' performances around town have led me to expect music that is both stimulating and unfussily polished. He is a pianist with an oddly appropriate harmonic sense. Though moment to moment his choices may seem far-fetched, he always brings each oddity back into natural relationship with its context.

Zach Lapidus (Mark Sheldon photo)
In his current, astonishingly well-seasoned band, he enjoys the support of two spot-on, intuitive sidemen: bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Greg Artry. If the trio turns its attention to a pop standard, such as "It Could Happen to You," you can expect to find the tune's backbone in sturdy, flexible condition. And yet every flourish of originality from each member of the trio sounds essential to a single, developing concept. Such concepts, even when they seem intricate, attain unity along pathways that simply emerge, such as the overlay of 6/8 and 4/4 meters during the first part of Tucker's solo on that song.

If the pieces come from the jazz repertoire, their fruitfulness as grounds for group improvisation is abundant, as in David Berkman's "Fairy Tale" and Wayne Shorter's "Pinocchio." In the latter tune, I admired the integrity and self-assurance of Tucker's walking bass — though as with most bassists for several decades, this conventional on-the-beat pattern is merely one arrow in his quiver. It was also fun to revel in the polyrhythmic density this trio can get into without becoming frazzled, much of it driven by Artry and readily seconded by Lapidus and Tucker.

The consistent rapport evident in this group often turned witty and playful at the ends of pieces, especially in dialogue between pianist and drummer.

A thorough study of Lapidus' originality, for enjoyment if not for the sake of studiousness, could be undertaken if his unaccompanied introduction and subsequent trio ruminations on Duke Elliington's "Solitude" had been recorded. Heard live just once, this performance was remarkable enough. I love this tune, but I did not expect to hear such an almost "outside" interpretation of it that was emotional enough to bring me close to tears. It made for a great tribute to an influential, much-admired local pianist, Claude Sifferlen, who died three-and-a-half years ago.

Such a tribute was also extended as an interlude in the BWJO "Birth of the Cool" set. Co-director Mark Buselli picked up his  fluegelhorn to lead the band's rhythm section in "Claude," a lovely ballad Buselli wrote in Sifferlen's memory.

BWJO's "Birth of the Cool" ensemble (Mark Sheldon photo)
Other departures from the "Birth of the Cool" repertoire amplified the view of post-war jazz in New York, specifically suggestions of a third way beyond the pitched opposition of bebop and traditionalist revival camps. Saxophonist Tom Walsh was featured in a quicksilver account of Lennie Tristano's "Ablution." As spirited as that was, BWJO pianist Luke Gillespie astounded the audience with a virtuoso solo piano interpretation of "You Don't Know What Love Is" that saluted Tristano stylistic devices such as an independent bass line in the left hand and free-floating atonal passages.

As for the "Birth of the Cool" material, I especially liked "Godchild," with the lively rumble of blended tuba and baritone saxophone starting things off; "Boplicity," for its relaxed velvet swing; "Venus de Milo," with its apt reminders that these arrangements, however novel, grew out of the Swing Era (saxophones riffing behind the trumpet solo); and the ever-lively set opener, "Move."

I would have not wanted the concert any longer, frankly. Still,
I missed John Lewis' "Rouge" a little bit, and "Darn That Dream" (even if BWJO had engaged a less glutinous singer than the original Kenny Hagood) not at all. I understand why co-director Brent Wallarab dropped "Moon Dreams," the other standard on the complete recording, but it's a historically important arrangement in that it so beautifully reflects the sound of the Claude Thornhill band for which "Birth of the Cool" father-figure Gil Evans pioneered a new kind of ensemble writing.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Ramsey Lewis displays elegant soulfulness in Indy Jazz Fest concert

Riding several waves of huge popularity in a career well past the half-century mark, pianist Ramsey Lewis can afford to show a number of different aspects of his personality in a 90-minute show without seeming to go far afield. There's a wide range to display, much of it in the jazz-rock fusion and smooth-jazz territory where the Chicago veteran is a major stakeholder.

That's what his Indy Jazz Fest appearance amounted to Friday night at the Madame Walker Theatre Center. At 78, he naturally brings a lot of mellowness to bear on the music, as a number of solo showcases at the Steinway grand indicated in the course of his quintet's show.

 Ramsey Lewis (photo by Mark Sheldon)

He improvised a long introduction to one tune that showed his delicacy of touch linked to an active melodic imagination. I recognized a couple of Cole Porter songs, "In the Still of the Night"  and "I Love You," and eventually the other musicians came in with something from the large Ramsey Lewis songbook.

A medley of John Coltrane's "Dear Lord" and his own tune, "Blessings,"  seemed a little too self-conscious about casting a spell over the audience. Some impatient applause at several points before the end didn't deter the ensemble from taking its time, fortunately. The performance featured expansive solos from bassist Joshua Ramos that kept the interest level fairly high. Ramos favors spectacle when he plucks his solos and approaches profundity when he uses the bow, sometimes falling short.

Guitarist Henry Johnson was featured in the smooth samba "Brasilica," which had his wordless vocals in sync with keyboardist Tim Gant as well. Johnson began his guitar solo with feather-soft nuances and helped set up a Lewis solo that led a group crescendo charge. The normally laid-back Lewis initiated a rare show of force.

Drummer Charles Heath was featured in the set's one consistently up-tempo number, and though I always get a little nervous when a band leaves the stage near the start of a drum solo, this one — while flamboyant — did not last too long.

Lewis told the audience about his childhood initiation into performing church music at 9, a responsibility that continued for seven years. Understandably, he said, those tunes have stayed with him. He wrapped several of them up in what he calls "Spiritual Medley," and I would not be surprised to learn this is a regular feature of a Lewis concert. I remember something like it from his outdoor Indy Jazz Fest performance in 2001.

Once again, we got a nice display of Lewis' subtlety and lightly applied but thoroughly embedded sense of swing as "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" gave way to "Motherless Child," "Precious Lord" and a couple of others before a brief allusion to "Lift Every Voice and Sing" generated the final cadence. Little touches of rapport within the band kept emerging as these tunes rolled out; Johnson and Gant were particularly adept tucking in fresh tags on phrases enunciated with calm majesty by the leader.

Unruffled jazz, cogently linked with adept ensemble playing,  has to stay in touch with the music's roots in the church and blues to convey substance and emotion.  Ramsey Lewis has managed to make that tricky blend work for a remarkably long time

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Indy Jazz Fest gears up for a run of mostly indoor events

Putting the Indy Jazz Fest on a firm footing year after year requires shrewd judgment about the potential draw of big names while keeping artistic variety uppermost.

For 2013, according to festival director David Allee, that also meant sacrificing the traditional culmination of the festival in one or two days of outdoor performances. "An outdoor setting is expensive, and we couldn't come up with a viable option," he told me at the Jazz Kitchen, where several Indy Jazz Fest events will take place.

"We thought the 2009 lineup was one of our strongest," Allee recalled, "but we couldn't get more than 2,000 to 3,000 people at each of those." The roster included Joshua Redman, Nicholas Payton, Marcus Miller, Claudia Acuna, Poncho Sanchez, Kurt Elling and Branford Marsalis.

Eddie Palmieri is one of the stars of Latin jazz
(Photo by Mark Sheldon).
Allee said that signing big names in jazz, such as 2012's George Benson, did not tend to drive the outdoor attendance past the 5,000-6,000 range. "We would love to get closer to 8,000-10,000," he said. Top acts that might have artist fees of $50,000 each put pressure on the festival to draw really big for the outdoor concerts. "To continue that same format, we would have had to increase ticket prices from $30 to $60, and we didn't want to do that," Allee said.

While he declined to disclose the 2013 budget, Allee is convinced the scope of this year's festival is in line with the likely draw for such varied acts as Ravi Coltrane, Eddie Palmieri and Ramsey Lewis. The festival opens tomorrow night with New Orleans rhythm-and-bluesman Allen Toussaint, playing at one of the festival's new venues, the Schrott Center at Butler University.

A little of the outdoor feeling remains: Palmieri is scheduled to play on the terrace behind the Indianapolis Museum of Art on Sept. 17, and a showcase of local bands (11 of them) is set for the festival finale on Sept. 21 both outside and inside the Jazz Kitchen, 5377 N. College Ave. It will stretch down to the club's compatible Southern neighbor, Yats.  In case of rain, alternative sites for those events are close at hand.

Alleee said that a goal for 2014 is to move the "block party" on the festival's concluding day downtown to Massachusetts Avenue.

Planning by Allee and a steering committee of about a half-dozen volunteers made sure major underwriting was in place first, then engaged artists based on their draw in the appropriate venues.

For the first time, Indy Jazz Fest has spread out to more places than ever. The list includes the Madame Walker Theatre, Apparatus (former home of WFYI on Meridian Street), the Schrott Center, University of Indianapolis' DeHaan Center, the Cabaret at the Columbia Club, and Indiana Landmarks Center, in addition to the Jazz Kitchen and the IMA.

For a full schedule, go here:

"We wanted to balance the known with the unknown," Allee went on, "and expose people to new artists." Several of the top musicians signed have played at preview festivals: Lewis, Palmieri, singer Diane Schuur, and APA Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz Aaron Diehl.

Education continues to be an emphasis: One-third of each $15 ticket sold to the block party will go to jazz education. In addition, the festival features all-ages workshops by Schuur, guitarist Bill Lancton, nationally known educator and saxophonist Jamey Aebersold and three pianists (Zach Lapidus, Steve Allee and Steve Corn) paying tribute to major Indianapolis jazz figure, the late Claude Sifferlen.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Indianapolis City Ballet's 'Evening With the Stars' turns five

As if to mark the end of toddlerhood, Indianapolis City Ballet's annual "Evening With the Stars" celebrated its fifth birthday Saturday night at the Murat Centre.

In the slow march to maturity, the organization has projected a "world dance competition" and choreographic institute for 2014, plus hosting unannounced major companies to visit Indianapolis. These steps should put the ICB in the position to form the resident troupe that has been the founders' dream from the beginning (2009), just about the time when the Great Recession put a crimp in its progress toward that goal.

Of course, there was lots of brilliance to spare in the 2013 "Evening With the Stars," and concerns about the ICB's long-range viability as a professional company based here could be put aside — especially given the size and enthusiasm of the audience.

One piece raised for me questions about the appropriation of musical sources outside their context, however. It's fitting for choreographers to put their mark on the music that inspires them, but it's axiomatic that they will draw particular  strength when music with sung words lifts and inspires what they call upon dancers to do. For example, Diane Talbot's "New York State of Mind," the next-to-last piece on the program, was danced with bravado and airborne flair (including easy leaps up onto and off of an upright piano and stool) by Aaron Smyth. Certainly much of its meaning came from Billy Joel's words.

Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood
In contrast, it was a little disconcerting to have the second part of "Rest, Beloved,"  a tender, romantic duet for Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild, set to the Bach cantata aria whose joyful feeling is centered on the first line, "Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod," which can be fairly translated as "I rejoice in my death." That sentiment recurs often in Bach's cantatas, in which expectation of the eternal heavenly home is contrasted to the sorrows of earthly life.

Unless we grant choreographer Cherylyn Lavagnino the latitude to repurpose Bach's joy as an individual's gladly dying in his/her isolation in order to take on a new identity with the beloved, the newly commissioned piece doesn't really work.  Except for the fact that both the music and the dancing (by Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild) were beautiful, the significance of "Rest, Beloved" went in two incompatible directions.

No wonder that sometimes one is glad to take in a short piece without any accompaniment, as in Fairchild's solo in the first half of the program, a piece called "Toccata,"  the work of Jiri Bubenicek.  This was a compact exhibition of strength and vulnerability, wide-openness contrasted with a drawing-in of the body, all nicely counterpointed in Fairchild's performance.

And often a score created specifically to be danced— whether the musical source is Tchaikovsky or the manipulated industrial sounds of Itzik Galili's "Mono Lisa" — doesn't allow any doubts about suitability to emerge. The latter piece put some of the evening's edgiest choreography to a collage of "industrial" sounds, chiefly manipulated manual-typewriter input. Alicia Amatriain and Jason Reilly partnered in a work full of jaw-dropping spins, with Amatriain seeming almost double-jointed at the hip amid a steady display of strength from Reilly.

So many variations on how one man and one woman can be put into balletic relationship presented themselves in the course of "Evening With the Stars" that generalization seems impossible. Perhaps the most electrifying partnership, where two-way rapport was absolute and the affinity between two embodiments of individual virtuosity was most fruitfully exploited, was that of Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood of the Royal Ballet.

In the first half, they were sensuously entangled and reconfigured in "Lieder," with a considerable degree of pull to the floor in Alistair Marriott's choreography. After intermission, they returned for Christopher Wheeldon's "Tryst," outlining a meeting of two people more furtive and guarded than most pas de deux, to a piercing score by James MacMillan.  The difficulty of the piece lay in part in its refusal to make the interaction gratifying or tender, while remaining mutually engaged.

For partnerships of a more tender sort, verging onto an ethereal plane,  there was much to savor in Gillian Murphy (later close to sensational later in the Black Swan pas de deux from "Swan Lake") and Cory Stearns in "Depuis le jour," set to the well-known Charpentier aria by Gemma Bond. Also of this sort, while carrying its own distinction, was Jessica Lang's "Among the Stars," with Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith of the San Francisco Ballet. That work made imaginative use of across-the-stage barriers and well as intermittent linking of  the dancers, thanks to a long, diaphanous cloth that was held, shifted, traversed and resisted at various moments.

The Smith-Tan partnership had appeared earlier in "Distant Cries," with choreographer Edwaard Liang on hand to introduce the work. It started quite effectively without music as Tan showed continual flow and flexibility in a solo introduction, to be joined by Smith in wide-ranging interaction that seemed more involving than Liang's other pas de deux, Wonderland Pas de Deux, a dignified piece that didn't seem to pack much of an emotional charge, perhaps carrying with it too much of the expressive neutrality of the Philip Glass piece Liang used.

Something for all ages without ambiguity as to its meaning was the colorfully costumed "Two Boys in a Fight,"  a schoolyard tussle from the folk-based imagination of Igor Moiseyev, danced as a comical faux pas de deux and, of course, turning out to be a small masterpiece of illusion —  totally a matter of the droll, hidden body language and virtuoso extremities of Andrij Cybyk.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Master of several instruments, Ira Sullivan finally returns to Indiana

The first set Ira Sullivan was supposed to play at the Jazz Kitchen Friday night was delayed by about a half-hour because two members of the band had to fight weekend traffic on the way down from Chicago.

But the cliche "well worth waiting for" applied to the multi-instrumentalist, steeped as he is in bebop stylings of standard fare, dating from his days as a fixture at Chicago's Bee Hive Club in the early 1950s, playing with a host of luminaries who blew through the Windy City..
Ira Sullivan playing flugelhorn, one of his many instruments.

Now 82, he still considers himself a Chicagoan despite long residence in Miami, where every summer he is involved in jazz education. His comments from the stage indicated faith in the likelihood that the music will be handed down to the younger generation in good shape.

Certainly elder statesmen of Sullivan's stature and commitment are needed, and when they can take care of business on the bandstand as well, they confirm the genre's health. In a nod to the vigor of young people, Sullivan jokingly said that a five-minute break between sets should be enough for his younger sidemen to make up for the delayed start. (The two band members from Chicago who made such valiant efforts to get to the gig were the bassist,  Dennis Carroll, and the drummer, Greg Artry.)

The set opened with a ballad, "Young and Foolish," a title the octogenarian announced with a sly smile after having made a strong initial impression with his hearty tenor-sax sound. The performance included an intricate duo with the bassist and ended with the leader quoting "Younger Than Springtime."

A fine deconstruction of another standard followed, after Sullivan jammed a mute into his trumpet bell and charged into something that jelled into "I Get a Kick Out of You." It was taken  mostly lickety-split, but  had some astonishingly precise changes of tempo as band members "read" each other exactly. It was by no means patronizing, of course, but rather a tribute  to the stellar work of Artry throughout the fast-paced number, that this time Sullivan's quote in the coda was "The Little Drummer Boy."

Picking up his 1927 Conn soprano sax, Sullivan made a prayerful showing in the Billie Holiday classic "God Bless the Child." Then he was joined in the front line by his on-the-road assistant Mark Berner on alto flute so that a flute duo could lead a limpid, tender account of Jobim's "Corcovado." Among the reliably effective work done by Steve Allee on piano during the set was the exciting, gradual build-up of his solo on this tune.

After a trio run-through of "Just in Time," which showcased Carroll in a long, thumping, agile solo, Sullivan returned to pick up the fourth instrument of the set: flugelhorn.

To conclude, the quartet  made an inspired run through Horace Silver's "Song for My Father." As on all his instruments, Sullivan displayed a gregarious sound that never became overbearing, chiefly because he does not waste time displaying his chops, but goes straight to the heart of the matter.

In jazz that endures in the listener's memory, that means putting a spacious feeling into the solos, varying phrase length and intensity, and inevitably (in the famous Lester Young formulating) "telling a story." And when you're the leader, it helps if you can also communicate a zest for imaginative interpretation and collegial responsiveness to your mates. For Ira Sullivan: check and double-check.

Friday, September 6, 2013

IRT says 'Hey, look us over' to the public

Curtain up! Light the lights!

It was fun participating Thursday night in the open house that Indiana Repertory Theatre staged to cast a wide net for patronage as it gets set to launch its 2013-14 season next week.

The centerpiece of the event was the opportunity to tour backstage. Little did my wife and I suspect that this insider's view would be so extensive and so enthusiastically shared by IRT staff: At nearly every stop along the way, someone instrumental in making productions happen was on hand to talk about such components as lights, costumes, sound, props and painting. The theatrical art rests on a bewildering variety of highly evolved technical skills; the illusion that envelops you during a performance works both from the actors out and from the total environment in.

Our affable, well-informed guide, Eric Olson, handles individual gifts to the IRT, and I would not be surprised if business is booming for him in this difficult assignment. He was a superb salesman for IRT without beating the drums for tangible support. In certain contexts, that's probably what works best for arts organizations: Model the excitement you feel being part of a quality organization and let your guests take away plenty of good will and a burgeoning interest in becoming involved, even if that means just filling a seat from time to time.

The strikingly adorned exterior of the 1927 movie house that IRT adapted and moved into three decades ago is echoed in the interior, particularly the lobby. Its "faux-Spanish Baroque" ceiling is original, with repainting having been carried out by the son of the man responsible for it in the old nickel-movie days. I think it would win any vote on "Indy's best lobby" hands down.

We saw rooms that I was slightly familiar with from many years of covering theater for The Indianapolis Star, but there were novelties galore for me and information outside my ken. The precision and scrupulous organization of costuming alone — each production entailing a month of work — were astonishing to learn about.

Throughout the season, patrons informed by this extensive behind-the-scenes look will marvel at how the huge variety of demands from production to production are being met.

The opportunity first presents itself starting next Tuesday with previews  of "The Crucible" by Arthur Miller, with a cast of 20 (larger than usual for IRT). The show runs through Oct. 13.

To repurpose one of the chilling lines from Miller's drama about the Salem witch trials, Judge Danforth warns the hero, John Proctor: "We burn a hot fire here; it melts down all concealment."

The IRT's fire is a benign one — the fire of artistic excellence — and kudos to the organization for melting down all concealment (well, most of it, probably) by explaining via this hospitable open house what goes on out of public view to make its expertly finished shows succeed.

Incising wax tablets: John Lyly, John Ashbery and literary fashion, style, survival

The pretensions of a past will some day
Make it over into progress, a growing up,
As beautiful as a new history book
With uncut pages, unseen illustrations.
             -- "Song" from The Double Dream of Spring

John Ashbery is today's most-laureled U.S. poet.
Clearly pegged as an American immortal as his baffling verse takes on a more autumnal cast in volume after volume, John Ashbery, now 86, has long attracted and frustrated me as a reader.

Ashbery's poetry rests upon a unique voice on the printed page, with innovations in the sentence as a unit of meaning, influenced by rapidly changing, disorienting figurative language. This thickly applied characteristic manner oddly obscures the person behind it and the experiences that may have generated what readers encounter in the poetry. You might think that fatal for a lyric poet, but the very disconnect has helped increase Ashbery's mystique for readers seeking an escape from contemporary poets' trolling their experiences for images and tidily crafting the result in (usually) small packages of free verse.

Title page of John Lyly's 1578 book
I'm convinced the creative writer in English whom Ashbery most resembles is John Lyly (1554?-1606), the author of early novel "Euphues" (1578) and a popular sequel. The name is known now mainly to English majors, despite the huge fashion enjoyed by Lyly's lush, ornamental prose in its time and well into the 17th century. His work bequeathed to the language the little-used words "euphuism" and "euphuistic." Lyly can fairly be described as a permanent but minor author in English literary history, one who held sway for a time and influenced other writers, including the young Shakespeare, who also mocked him indirectly in "Love's Labour's Lost. "

My prediction is that, if there are  English majors a century from now, Ashbery will hold a similar position. As hard as his work is to teach, Ashbery will be a durable fixture in the academy, little read outside it. No shame there; most authors have left no name of consequence to posterity. Ashbery will retain a niche, as Lyly has, but it will be more out of the way than his admirers today dare to dream.

Sports and eccentrics as they are, it's almost axiomatic that of course Ashbery and Lyly don't resemble each other closely in style or technique: Lyly wrote prose, yet loaded it with a welter of poetic and rhetorical devices. English prose fiction in the late 16th century was malleable and thinly backgrounded: significantly, its history is usually connected to the emergence a century-and-a-quarter later of Swift and Defoe, exemplars of the plain style. Ashbery, on the other hand, veers off belatedly from a rich tradition in his genre, specifically that represented by William Wordsworth.

My wife, Susan Raccoli, recently bought me a comparative edition of Wordsworth's personal epic, "The Prelude" (at IndyReads Books). As I reimmersed myself in it after many years away,  I was suddenly struck by the need to find a new way into Ashbery: How do writers say things, using tools and materials available to us all as native speakers, and come to say things so differently? That led me back to John Lyly, because just as Lyly in pursuing a new (and ultimately vanishing) trail in prose fiction knowingly masked a storyteller's true business by decorating characterization and dialogue so elaborately, so has Ashbery forged a style that expansively, resolutely veils the poetic exploration of personality begun by Wordsworth.

William Wordsworth at 28, the "Prelude" period
"The Prelude" is the starting point for anyone seeking the first flowering of the personal lyric writ large in English poetry. I was reading the first version (1799), a poem of relatively modest proportions, essentially a verse letter to a friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I marveled anew at how any experience and natural or human phenomenon that Wordsworth holds up to view in this poem is calmly absorbed into "the growth of the poet's mind."

Ashbery is among the most celebrated heirs of what Harold Bloom has called "the internalization of the quest-romance" that Wordsworth demonstrates in "The Prelude." And though he has applied his wide knowledge of verse technique, Ashbery practices mainly a lightly, often gracefully stressed, variation on free verse, the lines varying in length and internal regularity.

Wordsworth introduced a new kind of voice into poetry, made all the more remarkable because he modeled his large-scale blank verse (unrhymed iambic-pentameter lines) on John Milton's "Paradise Lost." But a wholesale change in diction and rhetoric had to be forged to accommodate the radical change of focus from a Protestant Christian intepretation of the first chapters of Genesis to a young man's struggle to understand his own experiences and how they shaped him.

In linking Lyly and Ashbery, my focus will be on style — a wonderful, commodious concept, but a peculiar one in the literary lexicon. The language we use to describe writing is often an extension of sense impressions. We say a literary work has texture, scope and breadth, echoes and resonance; it displays clumsiness or adroitness; more rarely it may be fragrant or malodorous, sometimes bitter, sweet or salty. Of common words applied to literature, only "style" originates in what writers do physically: In antiquity, it designated a tool with a sharpened point used to incise letters in wax; its other end was blunt, employed to rub the wax smooth, ready to receive new words. (That meaning survives in our word "stylus".)

More than two columns of my one-volume Oxford English Dictionary are devoted to the word "style," and the definition just given is the earliest and most concrete. We would not want to be without subsequent meanings of such a rich word, yet it may be salutary to pare those away now and again, especially in Ashbery's case. Stylistically, his work has been examined every which way: his use of pronouns and their floating or hidden antecedents, his juxtaposition of "high"and "low" ways of speaking, his philosophical links to Mannerism and Surrealism, his appropriation of figures with hard Greek names from classical rhetoric. And if style makes the man as well, is he boulevardier or recluse? Scholar-patrician or l'homme moyen sensuel? All the possibilities have been weighed.

Away with that! My obsession with the original meaning of "style" is to imagine writers bending over their work like other craftsmen, incising words and punctuation and grouping these elements in sentences and paragraphs.

Let's see what this image of style tells us about how the writer takes the native tongue, to which his basic relationship was formed long before he attained a writer's self-consciousness, and draws from it what he will eventually share with the public. In this process, the sentence is the main unit of meaning. What a writer puts between each pair of periods is instructive — complicated, in the case of poets, by where they choose to begin the next line. Allowing for the charm of poetry's sounds, essentially the works of  Lyly and Wordsworth and Ashbery are all embedded in the printed page as first processed by the silent reader. That reader gets something fundamental about style — its peculiar majesty —  from Wordsworth, but  for the most  part its excrescences, its potentially blinding  fussiness, from Lyly and Ashbery.

What do we find typically incised by the two Johns?

Well, this (from Ashbery's "Silhouette" (As We Know):  "And the way / Though discontinuous, and intermittent, sometimes / Not heard of for years at a time, did / Nonetheless, move up, although, to his surprise / It was inside the house / And always getting narrower."

And this (from Lyly's "Euphues," in which an "old gentleman in Naples" is lecturing the hero): "If therefore thy father had been as wise an husbandman as he was a fortunate husband, or thy mother as good a huswife as she was a happy wife, if they had been both as good gard'ners to keep their knot as they are grafters to bring forth such fruit, or as cunning painters as they were happy parents, no doubt they had sowed hemp before wheat, that is, discipline before affection, they had set hyssop with thyme, that is, manners with wit, the one to aid the other; and to make thy dexterity more, they had to cast a black ground for their white work, that is, they had mixed threats with fair looks."

And now this pair (I feel like an eye doctor, trying out lenses on you: Clearer, blurry, about the same?):

From Ashbery's "Breezy Stories" (Shadow Train): "A slatternly welcome / Suits some as well, no doubt, but the point is / There are still others whom we know nothing about / And who are growing, it seems, at a rate far in excess of the legislated norm, for whom the 'psychological consequences" // Of the forest primeval of our inconsistency, nay, our lives, / If you prefer, and you can quote me, could be 'numbing.'"

From Euphues (describing the hero, [following Lyly's spelling]): "This young gallant, of more wit then wealth, and yet of more wealth then wisdom, seeing himself inferior to none in pleasant conceipts, thought himself superior to all in honest conditions, insomuch that he deemed himself so apt in all things that he gave himself almost to nothing but practising of those things commonly which are incident to these sharp wits, fine phrases, smooth quipping, merry taunting, using jesting without mean, and abusing mirth without measure."

Minute decisions of craft animate both writers, including games with loose yet intricate syntax, a tone that blends didacticism and entertainment, and precise use of punctuation, especially commas, in an effort to show they are in earnest about being clear.

Lyly is more explicitly sententious and more concerned with balanced phrases (alliteration always being the thumb on the scale). Ashbery tosses sentences out in front of him like balls of yarn, curious as to what they will stick to or pick up. Lyly knows where he is going with each thought, but teases the reader about his willingness ever to stop.

Both authors seek to disarm the reader with humor and sprezzatura  — that apparent ease in difficult maneuvers that Lyly's Italian contemporary Castiglione recommended in The Book of the Courtier. How better to explain the jerky motion, with commas as speed bumps,  in the first Ashbery example, or the proliferation of garden imagery used by Lyly's old Neapolitan gentleman?

What a writer cuts into the wax tablet of language and allows to be published is the product of his workshop. Syntax and vocabulary are the raw materials. It's granted to only a few to make something strong, even iconic, out of the common stuff at hand.  Wordsworth did so, but Lyly and Ashbery are among the craftsmen whose idiosyncrasies remind readers that craftsmanship is merely a promising way toward a hoped-for fresh apprehension of life, an open field where new vistas, fortunately uncluttered, always remain new.

My Renaissance textbook from college includes this editorial comment about the Elizabethan author, after citing his "tedious if ingenious intensity": "Lyly's clever blend  of stylistic elegance, amorous narrative, didacticism and satire made Euphues a dazzling popular success." With just a few tweaks, this description could apply to the much-lauded Ashbery as well. Biographically, there's a crucial difference: Lyly turned his hand to writing plays and soon fell from favor at court, dying in obscurity at about 52; Ashbery has published into his old age, the work always commanding attention, and his many honors capped by a National Humanities Medal awarded in 2012 by President Obama.

The notion that the arts improve us and join other aspects of life in making us superior to our forebears dies hard. Literary history is probably a matter of cycles rather than progress, despite "the pretensions of a past." Reputations rise and sink in certain familiar patterns.

The optimism of the quatrain from "Song" I've used as epigraph here is among the shy dreams with which Ashbery's poetry is loaded. It is as hard to recognize any "growing up" in our overburdened literary heritage as it is in the accumulating sorrows of our political history. That's why the new history book in "Song" can remain beautiful, "with uncut pages, unseen illustrations."

But, inevitably, we want to open it, cut the pages, and see the pictures.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Acting is fundamental to Sutton Foster's concept of her career

The watchword for any stagestruck youngster hoping for a Broadway career is to craft a sturdy three-legged stool —  dancing, acting, singing — get up on it,  and hope for a favorable wind to take off.

So conventional is that advice that Sutton Foster, who's mastered all three essential skills, says the most frequent question she gets when she works with students is: Which is the most important?

Foster spoke with me by phone in anticipation of her solo concert (presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana) at Carmel's Palladium Oct. 5, and she has a forthright answer:  Acting.
Sutton Foster will bring her solo show to Carmel.

"Dance is a bunch of movement, singing is a bunch of noise," she said, smoothly turning autobiographical: "That was my problem at first. I had a lot of energy and a lot of volume and lot of chutzpah. But without anything behind the sound, it's meaningless," she explained. "I had to learn to go for the interpretation."

She found the key big time 11 years ago on Broadway as the star of "Thoroughly Modern Millie," which earned her a Tony Award. Her repeat recognition in the American Theatre Wing honors (named for director Antoinette Perry) came with a revival of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" in 2011. The high profile she now enjoys was further developed as she originated roles in "Little Women," "The Drowsy Chaperone," "Young Frankenstein" and "Shrek the Musical."

"I started off as a dancer, and then I started singing," Foster said, alluding to her early involvement in community and high-school theater in her native Georgia. "I'd like to be known as a great actor." In fact, she has told previous interviewers that she is looking to do more dramatic roles, without song and dance and razzmatazz.

And the prospects?  She charmingly mixed metaphors in dancing around a "no comment" response: "We have a bunch of irons in the fire, a bunch of things percolating that I can't talk about now."

In the meantime, she's been spending a lot of time touring with her solo concert show, developed with her music director, Michael Rafter, who will accompany her here.

Since she takes characterization so seriously, I wondered if there's a problem moving from one to another in the course of a 70-minute show largely focused on Broadway roles. "I definitely was in all of my characters, so there's always a piece of myself when I do them," she replied. "What a solo show affords me is to show the audience me. It's more of an intimate, raw evening. I'm not wearing a wig and lashes; it's just me."

The show changes continually to keep it fresh. Next Tuesday, she'll open a three-week engagement at the Cafe Carlyle in New York City, and she expects adjustments will be made as the show runs its course before her Palladium gig.

"At the Palladium we'll be doing some songs for the very first time that we're just working on," she said. "A lot of it is about discovery," as she and Rafter prepare a new CD, successor to two previous recordings. "I have to figure out: What is it? What do I want to say? There is a clear arc to the show: Right now it's about creating and discovering new stuff."

Teaching music-theater classes, chiefly at Ball State University, where she delivered the Commencement Address last year, is part of the process. "It's been awesome working with the students," Foster said. "In my working with them, I've become a better performer. I find I'm telling them things my teachers have always told me," and that helps to incorporate that long-ago wisdom into her professional work.

Because she finished growing up in Troy, Mich., Foster feels a deep appreciation for the heartland. That is partly why she enjoys her instructional time in Muncie, she said. Performing outside New York is different, too; she's leery of describing New York audiences as more sophisticated, fearing that might seem to cast people elsewhere as rubes.

"But the Southern sensibility and the Midwestern sensibility: that's like my heart," Foster said. "The openness of the people, their generosity and sense of family — that's a near and dear thing to me." 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Cornucopia, Part Two: Some highlights of this year's massive Verdi release on Decca/Deutsche Grammophon/EMI

One enduring aspect of Verdi's music particularly feeds into what opera-lovers have long enjoyed: fruitful comparison of performances in major roles. What drives that interest in the case of Verdi is the high quality of the tunes themselves and their rhythmic profiles, which help singers establish emotion and character and leave a lot of interpretive latitude.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Take one of the most famous tenor entrances — the Duke of Mantua's "Quest o quella" in "Rigoletto." Of the many fine Placido Domingo performances in the new "Verdi: The Complete Works" set of 75 CDs, the durable Spaniard's portrayal of the Duke is among the best. But from the start, no one performance can cover everything germane to the role. If I compare Luciano Pavarotti's characterization in this "ballata" (Verdi's term) with Domingo's, two views of the Duke are apparent, both of them indicated by the music, in my view.

Pavarotti's has an insouciance and even bumptiousness that the lively bounce of the piece encourages; this foreshadows the character's rakish side, which of course sets in motion the opera's tragedy. Domingo projects a smoother line, riding the tune's bounce in a way that makes the Duke seem more calculating, less a party animal subject to his own irrepressible high spirits. Fans of this masterpiece can well ask: Should the Duke seem so calculating from the first, or is it more dramatically interesting to have him expressing nothing more complicated than "I dig chicks!" before letting that inclination lead him to ruin Gilda?  Chacun a son gout.

Another comparison from the same opera in which the capaciousness of Verdi at his best is all-important: Rigoletto's first appearance, not in an aria showcase but commenting in response to the Courtiers' observation: "The Duke is enjoying himself here." Sherrill Milnes, in the same London set in which Pavarotti is the Duke, sings in a cynical, laughing manner, ever the Court Jester. Piero Cappucilli's Rigoletto (in the set under review) expresses real indignation at the Duke's behavior: The jester is by no means amused.  Both sides of the character play out as the tragedy unfolds; the music endorses either emphasis as appropriate to an audience's first impression of Rigoletto. At its best, the Verdian world is wide indeed.

My first post mentioned the trials to which Verdi subjects sopranos (sometimes mezzos, too). Here are some divas represented in "Verdi: The Complete Works" who come through with flying colors in a variety of roles: Elena Suliotis as Abigaille ("Nabucco"), June Anderson as Giselda ("I Lombardi"),  Montserrat Caballe in the title role of "Giovanna d'Arco," Shirley Verrett as Lady Macbeth, Ileana Cotrubas as Violetta ("La Traviata") and Katia Ricciarelli in "La Battaglia di Legnano."

Some impressions of the conductors, whose command on a recording can make the difference between a catalogue evergreen and a discographical footnote: Riccardo Muti is typically hard-charging; with Verdi, this is often the most dramatically effective way to go ("I Vespri
Siciliani"), but it's not everything.

Herbert von Karajan is a master of detail; singers often loved the way he made them sound even better: Radames' "Celeste Aida" is superbly handled by Carlo Bergonzi, but that impression is substantially enhanced by the delicacy and vibrancy of the accompaniment. Carlos Kleiber helps a cast headed by Ileana Cotrubas bring out all the wonder and pathos of "La Traviata."

James Levine is attentive to detail while pursuing a unified concept,  but sometimes over-muscular. Georg Solti, whose titanic energy sometimes bordered on coarseness, showed himself one of few conductors capable of persuasive interpretations of both Wagner and Verdi. In the Complete Works, I particularly enjoyed his rousing, full-bore account of the Requiem, with an impassioned set of top-drawer soloists. (The most notable Indianapolis observance of the Verdi bicentennial will be performances of the Requiem by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and soloists, conducted by Krzysztof Urbanski, Oct. 11 and 12)

Carlo Maria Giulini always takes a humane approach, avoiding bandmaster obviousness better than his countryman Muti. He is responsible for one of the set's wholesale triumphs, "Falstaff," with a host of a great characterizations led by Renato Bruson in the title role. The tricky vocal ensembles are tossed off with a precision that always enhances their high spirits.

Speaking of the Italians, Lamberto Gardelli is my particular favorite directing several of the operas.  He invariably draws warmth from orchestra and chorus alike, and he lets the music breathe where some conductors tighten up. He has superb control and a natural lyrical bent in "Stiffelio, "Il Corsaro," and "Nabucco."

Conductors outside the Verdian mainstream can make a strong impression, given a cast they seem to work with especially well: It won't be to everyone's taste, but I was intrigued by Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Opera recording of the first version of "La Forza del Destino" with an all-Russian cast. Listening to it is a way of channeling what the premiere must have been like in St. Petersburg in 1862, far from Verdi's home turf.

Anyone who has read this far doesn't have to be convinced of Verdi's merits, his indispensability to the permanent vitality of opera. True, his music can wear on the nerves at times, but in many ways, that's inseparable from his signature strengths. Charles Osborne's guide to the operas opens with a quotation from Benjamin Britten, who shares a major birth anniversary (his 100th) with Verdi and Wagner this year. The sentiment can be proved on the pulses of legions of music-lovers: "I am an arrogant and impatient listener; but in the case of a few composers, a very few, when I hear a work I do not like I am convinced it is my own fault. Verdi is one of those composers."

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Cornucopia of the Maestro of Busseto: a complete Verdi bicentennial package

Next month will mark the year's second great-composer bicentennial:  Giuseppe Verdi is more widely performed than his near-contemporary, Richard Wagner. But despite the great acclaim he enjoyed in his native Italy from mid-career on, his operas struggled for the esteem that came early to Wagner, with the unprecedented boost of cultish devotion.

Verdi's late-in-life Shakespeare-inspired masterpieces, "Otello" and "Falstaff,"  had to suffer the indignity of being simultaneously admired and tagged with "Wagnerism." This despite ample evidence the Italian composer had worked for many years to extend and revise the formal conventions he had inherited on his home ground. Moreover,  the "barrel-organ" epithet formed a leech-like attachment to his tunes and their accompaniments, drawing attention from the frequent ingenuity and freshness of both, even in the early works.

But now, the cognoscenti's esteem and the public's love run thoroughly in tandem in time to celebrate 200 years since the village of La Roncole nurtured a precocious youngster, born there in October 1813, whose musical course was set through childhood lessons in the neighboring town of Busseto.

Like all great men, Verdi wasn't without flaws: ruthless with his librettists, hurt by slights and not inclined to forget them, prone to autobiographical revisionism. But in his rich old age, he poured a lot of energy into charitable work that could have gone into tending his compositional flame. He gave as good as he got in the inevitable friction with impresarios, publishers, singers and others, but never erected monuments to himself (literal or figurative), a practice so habitual to his great German rival.
Recordings of all Verdi's works are in this bicentennial box.

"Verdi: The Complete Works" (Decca/Deutsche Grammophon/EMI)  is a 75-CD compendium of everything Verdi wrote — operatically, from "Oberto" (1838) through "Falstaff" (1893), and of course including the "Manzoni" Requiem, plus the charming string quartet, extensive ballet music, and a number of other short works for voice.

What are some of the signs of Verdi's permanence that are largely upheld by the performances reissued in this collection?

To start with, his music reflects the way emotions really work in people: joy, jealousy, resentment, rage, the prickings of conscience. Emotions bubble up in Verdi, and in contexts that usually make his characters, however high-born and exotic they may seem to us, more human. Wagner, in contrast, requires you to go deep within yourself to empathize with his characters; as a good German countryman of Kant, Wagner in his mature music-dramas sets before us a Critique of Pure Emotion.

Verdi can sound comparatively "surfacy" as the music strikes the ear, but his understanding runs deep. Sometimes his pure zest for action and conflict may rob both men and women of three-dimensionality. Then suddenly he pulls out something astonishing. One case in point: the stock figure of the jealous husband in "Falstaff," saved from cuckoldry by the scheming merry wives of Windsor, blooms into a moving portrait of male anxiety in Ford's "E sogno?"

Need more proof?  As a man, I could be on thin ice here, but let's ask this question: How many women in Wagner can you take seriously?  By this, I mean, as human beings who embody more than a narrow abstract function designed to help characterize the men: I would count Senta in "The Flying Dutchman" (marginal) and (in patches) Isolde, plus, from the "Ring" operas, Sieglinde and Brunnhilde.

In Verdi, the number of well-drawn women  is legion: both Leonoras ("La Forza del Destino" and "Il Trovatore"), Abigaille ("Nabucco"), Elisabeth di Valois ("Don Carlo") and, of course, Violetta ("La Traviata").  Even the few bizarre women in Verdi tap into emotional norms: Consider the maternal pride and devotion of the gypsy witch Azucena in "Il Trovatore."  Sure, there is Beverly Sills' amusing dismissal of the ill-fated daughter of the title character in "Rigoletto": "Gilda is such a sap,"  quoth Bubbles. But who can fail to believe in Gilda after "Caro nome"? In his substantial portrayal of women through music, Verdi is Mozart's true successor.

In some of  Verdi's lesser operas, the writing for women saves the day (though only if it's sung well). Verdi soprano roles make intense demands, though Wagner has the crueler reputation because of the emphasis he puts on the orchestra. "I Lombardi alla Prima Crociatta" offers a curiously bumpy ride over good and bad Verdi (encountered here in a Metropolitan Opera performance conducted by James Levine), but Giselda's second-act aria is top-drawer stuff, substantially elevating a character caught in  the libretto's pseudo-historical mishmash. High-lying and long-phrased, it's succeeded by a tough cabaletta in which June Anderson is superb. (No wonder she sounds tired in Act 3; perhaps the recording was made at a live performance.).

More emphasis on the performances and the full range of roles will appear in a subsequent post. But let's end with a general appreciation of Verdi. To get down to particulars, these operas are full of "goose bump" moments — stirring choral finales with repeated phrases that undergo reshaping as harmonic novelties are introduced, and of course too many expressive, character-defining solo arias to name, plus heart-stopping duets (Amonasro-Aida opens up a parallel world of a defeated people's pride, for example) and trios (the one ending Act 2 of "I Lombardi" is remarkable because of the way a solo violin threads through it after having starred in an orchestral prelude worthy of a violin concerto of the time).

What fans glory in about Verdi sometimes sets other people's teeth on edge. Verdi's operas, in a word — not an attractive word, but the right one — are shot through with what Paul Robinson (in "Opera & Ideas") calls "rhetoricalness." No one would ever use that word to describe Puccini.  And Wagner, for all his fondness as a librettist declamation, was too devoted to narrative and abstract soul-states to embrace rhetoric after "Rienzi," his Meyerbeerian extravaganza.

Through consequential human drama, Verdi's characters indeed advance rhetorical arguments to justify action. Whatever their frequent lyrical finesse, the operas are also predominantly loud and full of masculine bluster. Even Verdians quail at some of the master's inspirations: In his essay on "Giovanna d'Arco," Charles Osborne has this to say about the triumphal march that opens the second act: "The broad tune of the march, sheer Verdi, is quite indefensible against the charge of banality, but it can reduce to tears anyone who deeply responds to the composer." Just so.

Verdian splendor sometimes seems the operatic equivalent of an American car dealership, its lots flooded with bright lights and bordered by a dozen or so huge flags. If "Va, pensiero"  in "Nabucco" gave him his first burst of what turned out to be the lifelong love of his countrymen, he finds his way in "I Lombardi" back to a swinging slow triple meter and unison choral line  in "O Signore, dal tetto natio."

Some commentators hold both numbers in high  esteem, but the "Lombardi" chorus is decorated as it goes along with wind frippery that evokes calliope music. Shades of the barrel-organ jibe!

No low point in Verdi ever seems to last for long, however. The heights are always there, ready for ascent under sure, inspired guidance. And the general elevation of the Complete Works rivals the Himalayas.