Monday, December 30, 2013

'Lend Me a Tenor' dependably lends laughter to launch Beef & Boards' 2014 season

Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre's hallmark values of "louder, faster, funnier"  are well-suited to such an intricate farce, loaded with misunderstandings, door-slamming action and rapid-fire dialogue, as "Lend Me a Tenor."

Max and Saunders (Eddie Curry) come up with a ridiculous idea.
A comedy without songs (though there are crucial moments of operatic singing in this show) is unusual in a typical B&B schedule. That's evident once again as the season-launching Ken Ludwig play is the exception in a season of musicals.

Still, "Lend Me a Tenor" plays to the durable dinner theater's signature strengths. My only concern is that the satisfying opening-night performance played to those strengths almost too much. It was an evening of slam dunks when a few graceful, nothing-but-net three-pointers would have been welcome.

Darrin Murrell's direction was in the explicit B&B style from the opening scene, in which we see Maggie Saunders, daughter of the high-strung producer of Cleveland Grand Opera, gesturing enraptured to every broadcast phrase of La donna e mobile as sung by international divo Tito Morelli. No detail was likely to go un-underlined, we were beginning to learn. Maggie is in full swoon when her boyfriend Max, the likewise high-strung company factotum and wannabe opera singer, enters. He's frightfully worried about the whereabouts of the star tenor.

Morelli will prove elusive throughout the frenetic comedy, which spins out a web of complications — from his initial tardiness through a performance-threatening spell of queasiness on into his apparent demise and the stratagem Max and his boss come up with to deal with that disaster.

David Schmittou and Erin West are charming as the show's love interest. But here was an example of how Murrell's hellzapoppin style was too relentless.  The pangs of young love thwarted by the sort of scruples that were more common in the 1930s (the show's settings) than they are today were not fully explored.  Even a farce sets up real human dilemmas and engages our emotions as it ceaselessly delights us with one comic implausibility after another.

The coaching scene: Craig W. Underwood and David Schmittou.
This is a sexy show, and I applaud the vigor of this production's crossed signals of attraction, with a world-famous opera star as the magnetic pole. But something was missing: Max's eventual triumph (I'm not risking a spoiler here) should have had more than a touch of little-guy victory over daunting odds. When that's the case, the coaching session Morelli gives Max becomes all the more effective.

The admirable professionalism of this production extended from Schmittou and West throughout the cast. B&B artistic director Eddie Curry flourished explosively as Saunders, the hectoring yet desperate producer who sees everything he's worked so hard for at risk because of Morelli's indisposition (which includes the distraction of marital spats with his wife, Maria).

Maggie is stunned by a palm kiss from 'Tito.'
Gerri Weagraff as Julia, the impeccably dressed doyenne of the Opera Guild (she did indeed resemble the Chrysler Building), was intense and adoring. In her onstage role, costume designer Jill Kelly had the spitfire act down pat as Maria, and Erin Cohenour as Diana (the Cleveland production's Desdemona) applied the soprano's careerism relentlessly toward her co-star. Jeff Stockberger planted his outsize clown talents with both feet on the role of the obtrusive Bellhop, but he made the character more a general nuisance than a genuine opera fan making a nuisance of himself.

The set commendably aped what the 1930s took for high-end hotel-room design, but otherwise the time and place of the show seemed to be a taken-for-granted backdrop to the action. Part of the fun of "Lend Me a Tenor" is that the story highlights a provincial approach to elite culture at a time when opera stars were major celebrities and their visits to flyover country in the midst of the Great Depression were epochal local events. As funny as I found the Dec. 28 performance, I was struck by the overlay of a generic interpretation that, while expertly brought off, shortchanged some of the show's nuance and particularity.

Finally, a pet peeve: In the specialized world of opera, you have to say things right: the doomed heroine's name in "Otello" (with its costuming and makeup requirements for the title role that drive much of this play's action) is pronounced "Des-DAY-mona."  And the name of Don Jose, the male lead in "Carmen" (briefly alluded to), should be given its French pronunciation:  "Don Zhoh-Zay."

That said, any opera fan is bound to be stirred by the climax of Max's lesson with Tito, as the pair sing a few phrases from the Iago-Otello "oath" duet, presaging a bond based on self-confidence and fulfillment of dreams rather than the original's vengeance.  That moment was well-staged here; if only it had cast more of a glow over the glaring fitness of this production.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

I love a parade along the space-time continuum: Reflections for the New Year on the adverbial 'before,' a hymn, and a poem

"The similarity between time and space is limpid enough that we routinely use space to represent time in calendars, hourglasses and other time-keeping devices." -- Steven Pinker, "The Stuff of Thought"

"I have always been fascinated by the antithetical temporal and spatial sense of our English 'before.' " — John Hollander, in a statement about his poem "Days of Autumn," which ends: "Here standing at the door / Of the year, staring both in and out, he knows / What lies before him is what has gone before." (Best American Poetry 1992, edited by Charles Simic)

When I was a boy, "Onward, Christian Soldiers" had not yet fallen out of favor in mainline Protestant churches. Its militarism wasn't considered offensive, but inspiring. And I cherished the slight puzzlement I felt about the meaning of Sabine Baring-Gould's majestic recurring couplet, particularly on the mystery of its last word:

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.

As a conjunction and a preposition, "before" is almost always a time word.  But it is slippery enough that today it is often replaced as a preposition by "prior to," an import from legalese that seems to have swept "before" from the field. People wanted to cement "before" as a time word decisively, and they won — but they had to destroy "before" in order to save it. In the adverbial position, the new substitution seems especially clumsy, as will be noticed in the revised refrain below. And, for the sake of rhyme, I've had to jettison the powerful second half of the first line. That makes "soldiers" somewhat out of place, so here's a 21st-century rewrite, without the obtrusive militarism:

Onward, Christian advocates, God is watching you,
With the cross of Jesus going prior to.

Yet "before" retains a teasing ambiguity when used as an adverb. My dictionary's preponderant  definitions of before-as-adverb favor time: "in time preceding, previously; earlier or sooner." But there's "before" in its spatial sense, too: "in front; in advance; ahead."

Baring-Gould wrote popular hymn.
The spatial meaning was what I tended to see when we sang "Onward, Christian Soldiers"  in church, heavily influenced by a mental picture of the processional that began the Episcopal service I knew in my youth. "Onward, Christian Solders" was  popular as a processional hymn, and the cross headed the  procession, carried by an acolyte called the crucifer (sometimes me). There followed the choir, then the priests.  A rewrite of the refrain to express this image in mundane terms might go  like  this:

Onward, Christian choristers, priests come up behind,
With the cross of Jesus up in front, you'll find.

That's  unambiguous, if rather silly and static, which can be a problem in poetry whenever the time element is minimized and the space element gets niggling attention. One thinks of the banality of Wordsworth's pond (in "The Thorn"):  "I've measured it from side to side:/ 'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide."

Anyway, as much as my sense of the cross of Jesus "going on before" implied simultaneity with the onward progress of the Christian soldiers, I also wondered if "going on before"  meant the cross started out "in time preceding"  the parade, maybe even before the Christian soldiers had fallen in, fully equipped and in proper order, ready to march "as to war." This would mean that the cross was sort of floating without human agency, perhaps so far ahead in time of the Christian soldiers that it should be seen as eternally prior. Maybe this is what was supposed to be so inspiring about this hymn — the cross was not simply at the front of a procession but had started out long ago. Its priority in time as well as space was, in other words, a call for Christians to get ready and get on with it.

Thus does the space-time ambiguity of "before" open up questions of theology, even in a boy's head. A cross moving in time, independent of any  human action,  helps animate and revise the overdetermination of the cross as an object of permanence in Christian churches. Maybe that's a more fruitful thought than a cross carried at the head of a procession of the faithful, which in the mind can get bogged down in a spatial image, a mere tableau. On the other hand, maybe the latter interpretation is preferable because it is concrete, communal and easy to visualize, even for members of churches that don't start worship services with a procession led by someone carrying a cross.

No one has balanced the space-time continuum more poignantly than John Keats in "Ode on a Grecian Urn." This great poem, despite the sententiousness of its "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" apothegm in the next-to-last line, is all we need to know about the tension between time's flow and its preference for oblivion on the one hand and, on the other, the richness of spatial representation that our eyes enjoy and, through art, can return to again and again.
John Keats' poem nails time-space.

That's why (as painful as it is for a music-lover to admit it) "heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter," as Keats says about the pipers depicted on the urn. The poem begins with unanswerable questions about the events before and after the scene on the urn and ends with assertions that "tease us out of thought as doth eternity."

In that eternity may well be, for Christians, the cross that goes on before in both time and space, just as, in secular terms, the lovers on Keats' vase also have it both ways, "forever panting and forever young," their transitory breathing and youthful ardor preserved in timeless amber, beyond before and after.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

My 'Messiah' problem — and ours: Reflections on the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra/Indianapolis Symphonic Choir's Dec. 21 performance

The association of Handel's "Messiah" with the Christmas season has more disadvantages than just historical inaccuracy.  It also encourages cuts like those made by guest conductor James Feddeck in the concert presented Dec. 21 at Clowes Hall, with a large chorus (the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir) and a commensurate accompanying ensemble (the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra).

 James Feddeck, 'Messiah' guest conductor
Trimming the 1742 Lenten oratorio so that a presentation's overall length doesn't approach three hours is obviously tempting today, particularly if a laudable goal is acquainting new audiences with the work and keeping them interested. Only a snob would deplore substantial numbers of first-timers in a "Messiah" audience. For example, an elderly woman seated near me wondered aloud at intermission if the Hallelujah Chorus was coming up in the second half; if not, she was prepared to demand her money back. "That's what this is famous for," she correctly remarked to her companion.

Americans' preference for attending "Messiah" at this time of year leads to some misrepresentation of the work. Where those perhaps advisable cuts are made is a matter of targeting the second and third parts of "Messiah," which seasonally don't fit Advent. Doing so throws the spotlight a little more firmly on the foretelling of Christ's birth and the Nativity narrative.

What gets short-changed is the vivid sketching of Jesus' struggle against persecution, set in high relief against the promulgation of his message to the world. The eventual triumph over adversity, seen under the aspect of eternity (the text is from that eternity-daft book, Revelation), is "Hallelujah!" That leaves the third part, less heavily trimmed by Feddeck, to sum up the promise and value of Jesus' messiahship, ending with the assertion of "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain" and sealed with the magnificent, fugal "Amen."

Here's why the effect of such cuts should be of interest to anyone not made restless by sitting through three hours of 18th-century oratorio. Musically, it's a shame the alto solo "He was despised,"" the soprano solo "How beautiful are the feet" and such miniatures as the tenor arioso "Behold and see" are missing. Gone, too, are such effective choruses as "Behold, the Lamb of God," the angry "He trusted in God" (reminiscent of some of the people's choruses in the Bach Passions) and the joyous proclamation of "The Lord gave the word."

But there are also musico-dramatic reasons to regret substantial trims in Parts II and III. "Messiah" is famously an exception among Handel's oratorios in not having a thoroughgoing narrative, but  there's a narrative core behind the progression of texts that Charles Jennens provided the composer. Handel was a man of the theater. Squeamishness about the staging of sacred texts and stories in his time birthed the oratorio as a genre that Handel successfully developed — stories of sacred import told in a concert setting. Even without named characters singing, "Messiah" is dramatically interesting to believer and unbeliever alike. There are serious doubts today about the validity of typology, but the choice of sacred texts set to so much persuasive music makes a strong case that the Old Testament frequently foreshadows the New, symbolically and prophetically. That's what "Messiah" is about, like it or not.

If this is lost in a "Messiah" performance, much of the work's meaning goes away with it. And the "Hallelujah" Chorus undergoes a strange hypertrophy, sounding a note of supreme triumph without much foregrounding when Part II is heavily cut. One doesn't have to go to the extent of accepting Professor Michael Marissen's interpretation of "Hallelujah!" as the capstone of a work deploring Jewish resistance to Christian revelation in order to find the famous chorus too dominant in how listeners receive "Messiah" today. When combined with the regrettable convention of audiences standing for "Hallelujah!," something uncomfortably close to idolatry is the result, even though the pious probably think they are proclaiming their devotion to the oratorio's subject rather than to a particular piece of music. I think they are mistaken.

As for Saturday's performance, it was musically polished and acutely shaped. Apart from a weak alto entrance in the choir's first chorus, "And the glory of the Lord," and some flatting by the tenors here and there, the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir sounded great.  The choir's diction (all the letters of "hosts" were distinctly pronounced, for example) and coordinated phrasing were first-rate. Every contrapuntal line in those choruses rife with counterpoint was clearly projected.

 The orchestra was invariably supple and lively, and rhythmically the performance was crisp and animated. There was a lilt to its accompaniments that kept too much solemnity from overtaking the music, as in the alto solo "But who may abide," Amanda Russo's impressive initial appearance. (She was the most severely deprived of the four soloists by all the cuts, as she had nothing to do after intermission but stand up with all the other singers for "Hallelujah!"). Feddeck had the orchestra impart buoyancy to "I know that my Redeemer liveth,"  which aided soprano Jessica Beebe's expressive singing. Choir and orchestra alike eased up as "His yoke is easy" chugged toward its final measures, with a lovingly shaped diminuendo.

As for the male soloists, Benjamin Werley gave operatic heft to his appearances and ornamented tastefully.  Of the four, baritone Zachary Coates was the least prone to ornament his solos, electing to give them straightforward declamatory expression. Crowning his showcase airs was the exciting but theologically knotty "The trumpet shall sound," with a Judgment Day cast given to the solo obbligato by ISO principal trumpet Ryan Beach.

Despite Feddeck's sensitive interpretation, however, there was something  missing in this performance that only a similarly expert rendition of the full score could have provided. Its absence in the interests of brevity and seasonal suitability is part of my "Messiah" problem — and ours.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Rachel Barton Pine, Wendy Warner, and Jennifer Koh release top-flight discs on Chicago's Cedille label

As the father of two sons whose musical training included childhood participation in the Chicago Suzuki Institute, I'm somewhat acquainted with the impressive achievements of string instrumentalists emerging with formative training from "the Second City."

Three young star-quality women, string players with Chicago roots, have recent recordings on
Cedille Records, an excellent classical label based in their hometown. All of them indicate that the high standard of technical aplomb can be made special with a superior level of insight and feeling.

Rachel Barton Pine
Violinist Rachel Barton Pine is heard in solo works with orchestra by Beethoven, Schumann and Mendelssohn, and enjoys the sympathetic partnership of the Goettingen Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Christoph-Mathias Mueller (CDR 90000 144). As her notes in the booklet indicate, she is particularly eager to make a good case for the Schumann Violin Concerto in D minor. And with sympathetic assistance from Mueller and his German orchestra, she does: The tuttis are well-balanced and vigorous, and the variety of expression in the solo part is keenly matched by the accompaniment.

The soloist has new things to say about a much less problematic concerto — the Mendelssohn in E minor. Her smooth statement of the first-movement theme is unusually mellow, but never lacking in energy. In the second movement, there is a subtle forward motion and less "wallowing" in the tender mood than in some interpretations; the finale is unbelievably fleet and well-coordinated.
Wendy Warner

Filling out the disc are strongly characterized renditions of Beethoven's two Romances for violin and orchestra. Even this straightforward music brings out a heightened rapport between orchestra and soloist, making this disc from stem to stern something special among current violin-concerto CDs.

Wendy Warner, a cellist with an aggressive but hardly coarse approach, brings to wider public acquaintance the music of Josef Myslivecek, a slightly younger contemporary of Haydn, whose two concertos flank the Czech composer's concerto (CDR 90000 142).

The novelty first: Myslivecek's Concerto in C is an arrangement of a violin concerto that sounds so right on the cello, particularly with the kind of deep-rooted lyricism that pervades the second movement.  It's easier to see the suitability for the original instrument in the brisk, high-register finale, but Warner has the agility to make the music sound natural on the cello. The work has a "style galant" flair that makes it an attractive disc-mate contrast to the more widely ranging Haydn works.

The estimable Camerata Chicago, conducted by Drostan Hall, is Warner's partner in all three works.
Not to scant the charms of the Myslivecek or to slight the Haydn D major, I was most impressed by  the performance of Haydn C major. In this piece, the creamy tone of the ensemble is also crisply articulated  and as assertive as Warner's cello.  The orchestra sets up the solo nicely with sostenuto playing in the second movement. Echo and quasi-echo phrases are handled well; they don't threaten to vanish. The concluding "Allegro molto" movement is quite fast and perky, with the soloist digging in but managing logical dynamic shifts quite nimbly.
Jennifer Koh

Finally, there is Chicago native Jennifer Koh in a modern violin-piano recital with Shai Wosner carrying the title "Signs, Games + Messages" (CDR 90000 143).  The asperity and conciseness of Leo Janacek's Sonata in four movements opens the disc. The Koh-Wosner partnership plays with witty elan, fully projecting those quirky rhetorical, speech-based touches so characteristic of Janacek. The Janacek is balanced in its august genre of violin-piano sonatas by Bartok's First Sonata. The Hungarian's work is expansive, almost prolix, but has so many cogent things to say it well deserves its 35-minute span, particularly as played by Wosner and Koh.

In between come a baker's dozen of pieces by the contemporary Hungarian Gyorgy Kurtag. They are disparate in their expressive profile and in how variously they use the violin-piano medium for statements in miniature — so much so that summarizing the selections is nearly impossible. I liked best the works that allowed for fuller acquaintance with Kurtag's shape-shifting manner: "Tre Pezzi"  and "In Nomine — all'ongherese."

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

It was what it was, too! (A postscript to "Leaving the Star")

Near the start more than seven months ago of JayHarveyUpstage on, I dodged a full explanation of my "Leaving the Star," as I titled the post that has since attracted far more readers than any of the other 146 posts on this site.

I sounded hopeful notes that frankly hid a little bit behind what I described as a "budding cliche": "It is what it is." I made a little fun of what I took to be a vogue expression — one that seems to imply guru-on-the-mountaintop wisdom, acceptance, "deal-with-it" practicality, and more than a little "whatever" shoulder-shrugging.

Walter Lippmann, who had reason to say "It is what it is."
Well, the other day I encountered anew one of the benefits of keeping fit in the word game by reading  the best prose from the recent to the distant past: a deeper acquaintance with how good writers have said things, how writing styles can reflect a personality and the age that birthed and shaped it.

It came as I was finishing an excellent anthology of the writings of Walter Lippmann, perhaps the most learned American journalist-pundit of the 20th century ("The Essential Lippmann: A Political Philosophy for Liberal Democracy," Clinton Rossiter and James Lare, editors; Random House, 1963).

At the end of an excerpt from Lippmann's "A Preface to Morals" (1929), a lofty  passage sketching in the likely perspective on modern life of "the mature man" (for which we can read "mature person" today, and adjust the pronouns accordingly) concludes this way: "And so whether he saw the thing as comedy, or high tragedy, or plain farce, he would affirm that it is what it is, and that the wise man can enjoy it."

So I have to grant the platitude a better stature than I thought it deserved last May, both because of the source and because of what seem to be at least eight-and-a-half decades of currency. I'm still dodging a full explanation of why I left the Indianapolis Star, however. Thus I'm even more comfortable relying on "It is what it is," and if it contained wisdom for Lippmann, it should for me as well.

Incidentally, a few pages earlier in the anthology, a 1931 essay includes this insight, which confirmed my strong impression of Lippmann's sagacity and warmed the cockles of my critical heart: "...while the performer's own account of his art is entitled to respect and consideration,  it has no  intrinsic authority and it is open to heavy discount in the light of our human propensity to justify our own actions in the past and our hopes in the future."

Word, Walter!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Music @ Shaarey Tefilla reaches the end of the year with Shostakovich and Bloch

Michael Strauss, violist and series director
Celebrate the elan of Dmitri Shostakovich in his music, something which the composer could never manage in his life, lacking personal elan and not prone to celebration. But that's what Michael Strauss' concert series at Congregation Shaarey Tefilla did Monday night, with two works by the most beleaguered great Russian composer of the 20th century.

The nervous, diffident, unhealthy Shostakovich only rarely appears in his music, despite its deep streaks of anxiety, pathos and sardonic humor. All such emotions and defensive maneuvers, as expressed in his compositions, dependably indicate what he faced as the most conspicuous genius in Soviet musical life.

The well-knit program opened with Lev Atovmian's representation of Shostakovich's salon-music side through themes the master composed over a 20-year period — a gathering titled Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano. The music has little in the way of Shostakovich's acrid harmonies, though it does display his rhythmic vitality and the folk-Russian cast of his melodies — qualities evident in the Waltz and Polka and in the Prelude, respectively.

The violinists were the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's two peas in a first-chair pod — Zach De Pue, concertmaster, and Alexander Kerr, principal guest concertmaster. Their duet playing certainly had a warm fraternal feeling, which bonded well with pianist Stuart Malina's facile accompanying. The middle piece, "Elegy," gets closest to the mood of grim reflection that the composer indulged in more expansively elsewhere. It made for a moving miniature, especially given the coordinated dynamics and wistful phrasing of this performance.

Guest artist Brandon Vamos is cellist in the Pacifica Quartet.
The other Shostakovich work was the Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 57, which brought violist Strauss to the stage with all his program guests: Malina, De Pue, Kerr and cellist Brandon Vamos, whose prominence in recent years is linked to his membership in the Pacifica Quartet, now in residence at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University.

A serious work ending in a mood of sunny nonchalance — not one of Shostakovich's frequent moods — the 1940 quintet brought out of these players a demonstrable unity of purpose. There were a few signs these expert musicians are not an accustomed unit, but some of them can be traced to the unyielding brightness and shallowness of the piano tone, which had too much ping in the treble. (Despite the amount of great music written for strings and piano, they aren't really compatible partners soundwise, and a keyboard instrument without much subtlety uncomfortably underlines that fact.)

The Scherzo, full of bright sonorities and an infectious tune, perhaps came off best. This music represents a major, genuine component of Shostakovich's artistry; too much has been made of him as a secret dissident. It may be uncomfortable for us on the other side of the late, unlamented Cold War to remember that Shostakovich was a Soviet patriot, fully willing  to speak directly and exuberantly to his countrymen and to share in their joys and burdens.

This vitality came through in Monday's performance, as did the more unsettling balance of light and shade in the slow fugue that makes up the second movement. After the pulse-pounding Scherzo, the five were equally adept at plumbing the emotional depths of the Intermezzo. Its spectral march grows out of a lonely violin tune, played poignantly by Kerr against the pizzicato pulse of Vamos' cello. This is Shostakovich wearing the mask of existential dread, as if invoking Pascal's admission: "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me."

That atmosphere is shooed away as the piano ripples into the finale, whose delightfully offhand manner triumphs in the end. Along the way, there are hints of bombast as well as of introspection, and the ensemble always seemed fit to embody all aspects of this protean composer.

The two Shostakovich works were separated by Bloch's Suite Hebraique for viola and piano. The sincerity and typically blatant manner of the Swiss-American composer are fully evident in this work, played with commitment and flair by Strauss and Malina. "Rhapsodie," the opening movement, has the earnest character of a recitative; that sets the scene for the slow march of "Processional," majestically introduced by the piano. The concluding "Affirmation" was especially notable for the dignified assertiveness of Strauss's viola.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra with Everett Greene makes spirits bright at the Jazz Kitchen

Paraphrasing one of the evening's songs,  the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra was home at the Jazz Kitchen for Christmas — but fortunately not only in our dreams.

The real thing, soon to celebrate 20 years under the co-leadership of Brent Wallarab and Mark Buselli, played two sets Sunday evening at the Northside jazz club, which also
in 2014 will celebrate 20 years of taking care of business.

Everett Greene enhanced BWJO Christmas show.
The second set featured one new arrangement, Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," with cameo solos by Randy Salman and Rob Dixon on tenor sax. Otherwise the program was drawn from the BWJO's 2006 Owl Studios CD, "Carol of the Bells."  Everything was arranged by the insightful, technically adept Wallarab, who emceed the program as well.

As on that recording, the featured soloist was the durable vocalist Everett Greene.  Some rawness has crept into his resonant bass voice with age, but he's still the stylish gentleman of old. The last line of his rendition of "The Christmas Song" (including a flavorful trombone solo by Tim Coffman) summed up Greene's continuing appeal— the inviting sincerity and warmth with which he sang "Merry Christmas to you."

Wallarab's arrangements speak in his own voice, but with fruitful allusions to his musical allegiances in good taste.  That was evident especially in the set of three selections from the music Vince Guaraldi wrote for the perennial TV special, "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

First came "O Christmas Tree," set in a medium-tempo groove with Luke Gillespie fixing the style from the keyboard. The "New Testament" Count Basie band provided the legacy, with open textures and well-husbanded power in reserve a la Neal Hefti. And in the next number ("Christmastime Is Here") Wallarab drew on his affection for the Claude Thornhill band in providing a pastel setting for the melody, complete with gently rocking Debussyan harmonies underneath. "Skating" concluded the Guaraldi tribute, featuring dueling solos by Salman's clarinet and Dixon's soprano sax, suggesting a pair of adroit skaters engaging in friendly competition. Wallarab typically places solos proportionately, where they are designed to lend the most luster to the arrangement.

Greene came back onstage to wrap his deep-piled voice around "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve," and in addition to another fine Salman clarinet solo, it was a pleasure to savor the transitory phrases drifting in the background in Wallarab's appropriation of the Gil Evans "Miles Ahead" manner.

"Carol of the Bells" is an arrangement that ascends to a fine frenzy at a couple of points, giving drummer Mitch Shiner opportunities to generate an exciting din that drove the band mightily. Also deserving his own niche in the excitement gallery was Mike Stricklin in "Silent Night." His alto-saxophone solo came on top of Gillespie's "sanctified" introduction, Greene's fervent vocal and a band buildup. Let's just say he out-Sanborned Sanborn and evoked blues-drenched alto-sax role models like Hank Crawford and Lou Donaldson with his testifying.

Wallarab has always shown a knack for good programming. It was at work Sunday night as he placed an unaccompanied solo outing for Gillespie between the high-powered "Carol of the Bells" and the vigorous Ellington arrangement of "Jingle Bells."  The pianist's choice was "Little Drummer Boy,'" piquantly harmonized — in one chorus bitonally — and marvelously paced.  In subduing his rangy rendition toward the end, he implicitly asked the question "Do You Hear What I Hear?" by quoting from that song.

We did, we did. And what we heard was the good news musically that the BWJO has been imparting for well nigh unto two decades.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Encore Vocal Arts and host church choir present "Messiah" with Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra at Tabernacle Presbyterian Church

It's not the season for "Messiah" that George Frideric Handel knew, but well before his death 18 years after he dashed off the oratorio in 24 days, the composer already had the satisfaction of knowing the work had become an institution in English musical life.

Well-received even in America before the Revolution that separated the colonies from the composition's country of origin, "Messiah" quickly became institutionalized in musical life here as well. And its loyal American public is responsible for finding Christmastime more appropriate for its annual performance, though the 1742 premiere established the initial pattern of Eastertide presentation.

So the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra entered the local "Messiah" lists once again Friday night, presenting the first of two performances this weekend at Tabernacle Presbyterian Church. Kirk Trevor, soon-to-retire music director of the ICO, led the performance, with Encore Vocal Arts supplemented by choristers from the host church, plus four guest soloists.

Friday's performance was well-knit, powerful, vigorously paced and radiant. True, from the Overture (Sinfonia) on, insufficient variety of dynamics deprived the oratorio of some of its expressive force. Not until the accompanied recitative of "For behold, darkness shall cover the earth" was a significant shift in dynamics evident, as bass soloist Alan Dunbar sang the words "but the Lord shall arise upon thee" and the orchestra suitably conveyed the text's mystery and anticipation. "His yoke is easy, and His burden is light" ended Part I with a somewhat reduced level of choral sound, but the same all the way through that number..

I admired Trevor's reduction of choral forces in "Lift up your heads" to emphasize the antiphonal effect of question and answer. And he directed the sudden lowering of volume on the words "The Kingdom of this world is become" in the magnificent "Hallelujah" chorus. Also welcome was the soft beginning of "Since by man came death" and the soft opening of the concluding "Amen" fugue. Though conventional, such touches confirmed that Trevor was not indifferent to the importance of dynamic contrast; there just could have been more of it.

Kirk Trevor conducted Friday's performance
The chorus of about 60 (Encore Vocal Arts is directed by Gregory Ristow, who will conduct Sunday's performance) seemed generally well-prepared.  Its "calling card," "And the glory of the Lord," was  admirably balanced. "Their sound is gone out" was exemplary in terms of both expression and phrasing. And, after the long haul, the choir had something impressive in reserve to lend to the concluding "Worthy is the Lamb" and "Amen."

Choruses with challenging divisions (one syllable over many notes) presented some problems. In "For unto us a Child is born," I saw more than a few jaws wobbling on "born"; the tricky business of articulating a fast-moving line on the same sound without chopping it up was not quite managed there or in the "-fy" of "And he shall purify."

The ICO was in fine fettle, for the most part.  Trumpets in the rear gallery of "Glory to God" made a stirring impression. Closer in for "Hallelujah," they were borderline overbearing. The solo trumpet obbligato in "The trumpet shall sound" was nearly immaculate. The essential orchestral sound is strings, undergirded by oboe and bassoon; they did a beautiful job with the tricky accompaniment to the work's final aria, "If God be for us."

Special kudos should be directed to harpsichordist Thomas Gerber. So much of the detail that animates the score was in his hands, and his deftness and imagination helped hold everything together. I will single out only two special places: The way he placed the rolled chords in the accompaniment to "Thy rebuke hath broken his heart" perfectly complemented the pathos of the tenor soloist, and in another recitative, "Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened," at the words "Then shall the lame man leap as an hart," darned if the harpsichord didn't get as frisky as a deer in the wild.

That leads to consideration of the solo quartet. The guest artists showed full command of their roles, projecting the words clearly and ornamenting tastefully (though tenor Derek Chester nearly ran off the rails at one point in "Every valley"). The genius of Handel, so well practiced in creating characters for the opera stage, made the recitatives and arias in "Messiah" personal — even though this oratorio differs from the composer's other English oratorios in not presenting named characters. Though the choruses are more essential to this genre than the solos, both types of writing in "Messiah" embody the difficult theological concept of a personal yet universal God and the divine-human bond that Handel and his librettist, Charles Jennens, found fully confirmed in Scripture.

This trait allows the soloists to differ in style somewhat without being jarring. The contrast was particularly profound between the two women:  mezzo-soprano Mitzi Westra presented an attractive declamatory approach, with each recitative and aria direct in expression, though never bland or formulaic.  Her "He was despised" was remarkable for being impassioned but never lugubrious.  Soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge displayed a more operatic style, emotionally extroverted, yet always controlled: Her "Rejoice greatly"  bubbled over with happiness, her "How beautiful are the feet" conferred honor upon the gospel preachers, concluding with a deftly ornamented final phrase.  Chester conveyed the tenor part's wide range of expression, from the promise of "Comfort ye" to the violence of "Thou shalt break them."  Dunbar always phrased with mastery, particularly in the difficult middle section of "The trumpet shall sound," beginning with the words "For this corruptible."

It is certainly possible to hear this masterpiece too often, but with a performance as generally creditable as this one, its perpetual freshness and splendor are guaranteed.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Ronen Chamber Ensemble takes an imaginative leap into the season

Whether your idea of a seasonal story involves Hanukkah, the Nativity narrative, or "A Visit From St. Nicholas,"  as the year nears its end you are never far from being reminded of your connection to beloved stories.

The Ronen Chamber Ensemble got into that spirit in the second concert of its 30th season Tuesday evening with "'Once Upon a Time," featuring three contrasting compositions, all calling upon the storytelling imagination. The sources ranged from a Hans Christian Andersen adaptation to one composer's  recollections of boyhood to a third composer's purely abstract evocation of how fairy tales make us feel.

David Bellman, clarinet
The Indiana Landmarks Center's Grand Hall made a perfect setting for the concert, particularly in the festive nostalgia of Leos Janacek's "Mladi" (Youth),  a wind sextet that blossomed in  this setting. Co-founder and co-artistic director David Bellman, clarinet, was joined onstage by Rebecca Arrensen (flute), Jennifer Christen (oboe), Robert Danforth (horn), Oleksiy Zakharov (bassoon) and Christina Martin (bass clarinet).

From the horn's firm call to visit the past in the first movement to the progress from tense mystery to exuberance in the fourth, this was an expressively fleshed-out performance. The playing was vivid and full of character, allowing the listener to people the music with the adventures of childhood — especially their happy endings.

Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, cello

At a concert titled "Once Upon a Time," you expect to be told a story, and we were. A special treat with a narrative to tie it together was "The Emperor and the Nightingale," a colorful piece for all ages by David Mullikin, a composer living in Colorado. (I knew him in the 1970s when he was principal cellist of the Flint Symphony Orchestra and I wrote about music for the Flint Journal.)

Tamara Thweatt provided the winning narration, assisted by her son, Benji Berners, who had a few lines to say (as the young boy who helps the Emperor's servant find the elusive Nightingale in the forest) and stroked wind chimes now and then. The story is based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale that was also used by Igor Stravinsky in his early three-act "lyric tale," "Le Rossignol."

In the story, a Nightingale that talks as well as sings restores the Emperor to health after the monarch realizes a mechanical counterpart doesn't provide the simple joy of nature's lyrical beauty.  Set in ancient China, the material invites the composer to flex his pentatonic muscles, and many imitative effects provide the ensemble's percussionist (here, Jack Brennan) with a challenging variety of duties.

The other instruments are flute, with Arrensen characterizing the nightingale, and a string trio (Jennifer Greenlee, violin; Nancy Agres, viola; Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, cello). With the percussion, the string group has to represent the Emperor, the ornamented artificial rival to the real nightingale, and other sorts of contexts as the story unfolds.

The ensemble ably filled the well-integrated setting in the quaint story of redemption through nature's music. How true it is that the wealth able to underwrite glittering artifice to catch the attention can't easily provide long-term joy! The composer's inspiration is proportionate to the events in the story, except that the song by which the Nightingale wins the Emperor's devotion is disturbingly sparse.

The concert opened with a late Schumann work, "Fairy Tales," with its four abstract movements neatly performed by Bellman, violist Mike Chen and pianist Gregory Martin.  The second and fourth movements in particular implied the quirky turns of plot that classic fairy tales offer; they were played in an appropriately playful spirit. For the third movement, the trio successfully conveyed the tender feelings behind the sort of fairy tale that offers reassurance and comfort to young and old alike.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Rudresh Maranthappa makes his Indianapolis debut with coruscating set at the Jazz Kitchen

Alto saxophonist Rudresh Maranthappa makes creative use of his Indian heritage in jazz that owes nothing to the blues or the 32-bar song form. He's evolved a personal language that, in the band he brought to Indianapolis Saturday as well as in other contexts, is grounded in the reconciliation of vastly different musical traditions from East and West.

Rudresh Maranthappa
The twain meet, contrary to Rudyard Kipling. And the syncretism — to borrow a word from religion and philosophy indicating the fusion of opposing principles — is instantly engaging.

Accompanied by a tight, energetic band consisting of guitarist David Fiuczynski, bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Jordan Perlson, Maranthappa planted his feet in front of the microphone at the Jazz Kitchen,  closed his eyes, and unleashed a torrent of controlled bellowing through his horn, keyed to patterns derived from the music of his ancestral homeland but fully tradition-free. Maranthappa's articulation was as amazing as his energy; this alto saxophonist could make Kenny Garrett seem lackadaisical in comparison.

The saxophone statements sometimes were linked to the guitar and sometimes went in their own direction as the guitar matched the bass. Elsewhere, bass and drums entered into intense interplay. Thus, despite the band's makeup of just four instruments, there was endless variety in pairing and re-pairing the ensemble's constituents,  making it sound like larger forces were being brought into play.

Fiuczynski held the front line securely along with the leader, playing his two-necked guitar with purposeful abandon and stylistic versatility — evoking the shimmer and microtonality of the sitar as well as Western pop styles from rock to rockabilly.

In contrast to the power-driven pieces, the first-set audience enjoyed the offhand whimsy of "Stay I," an odd title inspired by the missing letters on an LED sign along the New Jersey Turnpike that was supposed to read "Stay In Lane."  And there was a chance to contemplate turmoil in the larger world in the reflective, episodic "Ballad for Troubled Times." That gave Maranthappa the opportunity to indicate his whirlwind approach to the horn encompasses introspection as well as head-spinning intensity — syncretism with a vengeance, but uniquely welcoming.


David Fiuczynski, François Moutin, and Jordan Perlson
David Fiuczynski, François Moutin, and Jordan Perlson
David Fiuczynski, François Moutin, and Jordan Perlson
David Fiuczynski, François Moutin, and Jordan Perlson
David Fiuczynski, François Moutin, and Jordan Perlson

Gian Carlo Menotti's greatest hit, "Amahl and the Night Visitors," makes an impact in Indianapolis Opera production

Even skeptics become broad-minded about miracles around Christmastime, especially when they are so attractively packaged as the one that climaxes Gian Carlo Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors," which opened Friday night in an Indianapolis Opera production at the Basile Opera Center.

The show, designed and directed by Joachim Schamberger, is in its second year at the company's relatively new performance home. Most of the 2012 cast has returned, but opening night featured a new boy soprano, Aiden Arnold, who made the role of Amahl his own, vocally and dramatically. (He will divide the six scheduled performances with last year's Amahl, Cody Lile; the run ends Dec. 15.)

Apart from too much checking of the monitor during the first scene, Aiden seemed thoroughly immersed in putting across the plight of a crippled shepherd boy living with his widowed mother in poverty around  the time of the first Christmas. Framing this story is a modern-day counterpart of this small family, which makes the opening scene a pretend dialogue between son and mother using figurines from a manger scene that's apparently the lad's main plaything.

Though he wears an Andrew Luck jersey, this contemporary Amahl does not seem caught up in electronic toys, which is refreshing. It's a little hard to fathom why such a boy would fall asleep to dream of himself living in dire poverty, however. Kids have vivid imaginations, but it strains credulity to thoroughly accept the likelihood of such visions among middle-class youth of today, despite the young hero's parallel of being disabled and probably somewhat isolated from his peers.

The character of the Mother is consistently designed by Menotti to display no imagination, and she repeatedly warns Amahl against telling lies. So it's a little hard in the first scene to take her as an enthusiastic participant in her son's flights of fancy, despite the charming staging.

Schamberger is such a visionary designer, with projections that morph vividly between scenes, that the effect of such implausibility is fortunately diminished. The big-windowed suburban home bending into the first-century Middle East setting offers almost complete compensation for the jarring aspects of the frame tale. Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein's lighting design complements the action and the rich humanity of Schamberger's concept.

Amahl's mother (Elizabeth Batton) explains her lot in life to King Melchior (Mark Gilgallon).
Photo: Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.
Elizabeth Batton, an Indianapolis native now living in Louisville, plays the Mother commandingly. She's a stern parent, with outbursts of affection for her son and concern about his welfare. Batton sang well about the temptation to steal some of the riches of the Three Kings who stop by on their way to Bethlehem. When the Mother is caught, Batton displayed her repentance movingly. That made the Mother's response to the ensuing miracle a believable commentary on the salutary effects of contrition.

Indianapolis Opera has again struck gold (and frankincense and myrrh) in the casting of the Three Kings. David B. Mannell (Kaspar), Mark Gilgallon (Melchior), and Darren Kenneth Stokes (Balthazar) were solid in trio singing as well as individually. Splendidly outfitted, they managed to seem both aware of their privileged position and humble about their extraordinary mission. John Rolle gave apt comic touches to the small but crucial role of the Page.

Twelve members of the Indianapolis Opera Chorus, prepared by John Schmid, are the lively contingent of shepherds whose curiosity and sense of hospitality impel them to come see the Kings, bringing gifts of food and brief entertainment. Their a cappella singing was firm and well-balanced.

Jan Need's choreography, hearty and simple, was more in keeping with the character of first-century shepherds than the more virtuosic dancing sometimes used. The style of the opening shepherdess solo was slightly discordant in its reliance on hand and arm movements, which evoked the dance traditions of the Far East rather than the Near East.

The Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra represented Menotti's colorful, lyrical score quite well, and conductor James Caraher kept everything coordinated and supple from his (and the orchestra's) unconventional position off to one side of the stage.

Friday, December 6, 2013

New Amsterdam link brings some cutting-edge music to town under ISO auspices

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's partnership with the forward-looking artist-services organization and record label New Amsterdam will continue to bear fruit just after the turn of the year.

Through New Amsterdam, ISO will present vocalist-composer Juliana Barwick and the sextet yMusic in concert at 7 p.m. Jan. 27 at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The orchestra does not play in this program.

The ensemble yMusic cultivates new repertoire for rare combination.
Barwick is a specialist in looped vocal compositions and has collaborated with Sigur Ros and children's choirs in Spain and Poland, among others.

The six instrumentalists in yMusic (string trio, clarinet, flute, trumpet) have helped to generate new works from Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), Ryan Lott (Son Lux) and other young  composers. Its debut album, "Beautiful Mechanical," has garnered favorable critical attention. I can certainly recommend further acquaintance with the sextet's music based on the excerpts I listened to here.

Also performing will be vocalist Kristin Newborn and the Indianapolis Children's Choir in Caroline Shaw's "From Rivers," composed for the opening of the new Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Hospital in Indianapolis.

For more information about the Jan. 27 concert, call the ISO box office at (317) 639-4300 or go online here.

Cue the angels: Phoenix Theatre puts itself behind the Xmas '8' ball

Several outstanding sketches and some well-staged borrowed songs combine to make "A Very Phoenix Xmas 8: Angels We Have Heard While High" a worthy extension of the Phoenix Theatre's traditional variety show.

Chiefly a showcase for playlets by writers from around the country, "A Very Phoenix Xmas" is the company's annual staged gathering of stocking-stuffers, directed by Bryan Fonseca and hung by the chimney with lots of care from the production team. The set was a marvel, flexibly lit to suit each segment: Great, suspended ornament globes (one of which doubled as an image screen) were counterpointed against diagonal candy-cane lines and, to the rear, a giant beribboned gift box.

Tom Horan's credit as curator speaks to what must have been much head-scratching work winnowing submissions to get the bits that would fit comfortably into the same show and make a modicum of sense in two acts. His glory is a behind-the-scenes matter, though: As contributor of sprightly dialogue for Scot Greenwell and Ryan O'Shea, cast members who introduce each act, Horan relies on forced humor, coarsely expressed, that stands a little too deeply in the shadow of the sketches and songs.

Despite the punning title, this is not a Cheech & Chong Christmas, though Duncan Pflaster's "Bring Me Flesh and Bring Me Wine" bears signs of a bad trip generated by some of the last words in Dickens' "Christmas Carol." Eric J. Olson portrays a conflicted adult Tiny Tim, granted immortality of the love-in-vein kind until he's inadvertently taken out of his deathless misery by a homeless woman, spunkily played by Lynn Wilhite.

As it unfolded Thursday night, "Bring Me Flesh and Bring Me Wine" kept its fantastic glow warm. Pflaster's caprice struck home, thanks to a message that the passing pleasures of the Christmas season, if nurtured by real love, are worth treasuring so much more than rootless wealth and no hope of closure.

Daughter Lynn Wilhite's life is subject to scientific whims of dad Paul Hansen.
In the second half, the greatest outburst of fantasy took a narrower parodistic form. "The Most Dangerous Cat in the World" is a send-up of the cheesy late-night movies that are often a part of lazy holiday TV viewing. In this piece, an exuberant style carried W.M. Akers' manic sci-fi spoof. Paul Hansen is a doting father using his mad-scientist skill to keep his daughter (Wilhite) away from the scoring intentions of her football-hero boyfriend (Olson) by blending him monstrously with the family cat. The silliness of this transformation, bodied forth in Olson's costume (Ashley Kiefer again deserves kudos for her "Very Phoenix Xmas" designs), helped set aside the skit's seasonal impertinence.

More central, with a touch of sentimentality, was Sarah Saltwick's "Christmas Isn't Math."  In this playlet, the widespread regard for the family pet isn't given a monstrous spin, but something closer to the heart than the funnybone. Simply put, a carelessly lost dog (played by Hilary Abigana) becomes a symbol of what even Santa Claus may sometimes have to sacrifice to keep someone happy.

As for the songs, Greenwell and O'Shea made merry with Garfunkel and Oates' "Present Face," a stylish duet matched by a Greenwell and Hansen excursion through Stephen Colbert's "Can I Interest You in Hanukkah?"

The latter is a lighthearted first-act interlude between two theologically challenging sketches on faith and miracles. A. Scott Freeman's "Mary's Christmas Story"  recounts  the Annunciation at a family dinner, in which some of the playwright's attempt at inoffensive Jewish caricature may have been missed Thursday. The explosive revelation needed to come across as a Magnficatastrophe, in which smarty-pants younger brother's smutty interpretation of the angel's visit to his sister is at least as plausible as Mary's story itself. The demands that faith makes on common sense get a more dramatically satisfying exposition in "The Light," an interpretation by Mark Harvey Levine of the Hanukkah story with a provocative contrast between the patient Adam (Olson) and the restless Moishe (Hansen), both charged with watching the flame of a lamp that miraculously stays lit.

The Fourth Wall added a fourth dimension to "Xmas 8."
More integral use is made of the Fourth Wall —  Abigana, Greg Jukes and C. Neil Parsons — this year than in their Phoenix debut in 2012. Members of this "hybrid arts" trio of actors-dancers-musicians get extensive outings as actors in the new show, in addition to being able to display their clever blends of movement and music in Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" and Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy." Blithely coordinated choreography and musical savoir-faire always amaze whenever this threesome takes the stage. The addition of the full ensemble during "Linus and Lucy" (one of Mariel Greenlee's graceful, idiomatic choreographic touches) made for a cheery finale.

Hang those angels on the highest bough, revelers, and make your irreverent way to the Phoenix before Dec. 22.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Thinking large, in and around the jazz tradition, with Ehrlich and Shneider

So much has been done with large ensembles in jazz since the "big bands" faded (or yielded their books and styles to repertory orchestras) that the format has by now spread out into the broad plain of post-modernist modes of expression. Some of what's reflected along that wide horizon are mirage visions, but there are surely a few oases beckoning under the sun.

Elements of the allure include a loosened notion of "swing," a kaleidoscopic reshuffling of the traditional reeds-trumpets-saxes "choir" division, and a stretching of structure, leaving the 32-bar song form and the blues behind while alluding to the sensibility of both. Tempo shifts, sometimes introducing a new theme, sometimes kicking the same theme into a higher gear, recall the legacy of Charles Mingus.

Marty Ehrlich as an instrumentalist has had a fruitful career on the edge, abjuring the confines of "style," and his compositional gift has followed suit. I've often found his personal virtuosity a bit cloistered in effect, despite its open-ended intentions and expressive reach.

In the bold set of contrasting works assembled on "A Trumpet in the Morning" (New World Records), the flexible, mix-and-match Marty Ehrlich Large Ensemble has its way with six Ehrlich compositions.

Marty Ehrlich the instrumentalist is "tacet" on "Trumpet."
The title piece puts an elaborate instrumental backdrop behind J.D. Parran's recitation of an ambitious poetic rhapsody by Arthur Brown, a Parran friend who died in 1982. Saxophonist Parran is also the featured soloist. Ehrlich has crafted an ingenious long-form score that honors Brown's poem more than it deserves, but if it's granted that inspiration seems to have flowed from the verse model into Ehrlich's pen, grudging admiration must be extended to the text.

Ehrlich's multi-instrumentalist shtick is on the shelf here, as he leaves the playing to others, including such stars as the florid, funky trombonist Ray Anderson and, in "M Variations (Melody for Madeleine)," the redoubtable pianist Uri Caine.

The seven-movement "Rundowns and Turnbacks" makes the most cogent use of Ehrlich's protean palette, and will appeal to jazz fans whose taste ranges from the earliest styles up to the present day. The sorts of showcases Ehrlich provides for soloists tend to surprise delightfully by how he places them. That knack encourages the sort of inventiveness that reflects glory on the composition itself.

Shneider knows how to say it, but what is he saying?
When we turn to the Joshua Shneider Love Speaks Orchestra (also the CD title, on BJU Records),  we are in a slightly more conventional region. The band features two soloists, vocalist Lucy Woodward and guitarist Dave Stryker, whose contributions help tie the program together. Ten originals (plus Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill's "Lost in the Stars") evince a compositional gift quite adept at setting in motion a flow of piquant harmonies and long-breathed phrases.

Sometimes Shneider's easy fecundity results in music that seems diffident, however. That is, the music isn't hard to absorb, but sounds a little aimless, too unassertive, hard to engage with. This impression is underlined, perhaps unfairly, by the weak showing made by Woodward's vocals. She affects a blowzy, conversational style of the sort you're sure is the result of careful study.  She hardly benefits from melodies as undistinguished as "When Love Speaks" and the pop-reliant "The Hurting Kind," yet it's clear such vocal lines suit her manner well.

Shneider's Latin-pulse pieces tend to present the firmest profile. Some pieces really get pulled forward by a showcase solo, as happens in "Blue to You" with Dan Pratt's tenor-sax statements. Other ear-catching soloists include baritone saxophonist Frank Basile and trumpeter Alex Norris, in addition to the (almost) old master Stryker. Stand-out tracks: "Big Whup," "Lost in the Stars" (for the arrangement, not the vocal) and "Love's Leap." The band plays well, setting up as attractively as possible a compositional display somewhat lacking in impact.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A MacArthur Foundation 'genius' plays the Twin Cities in Mozart and Brahms

Jeremy Denk, who presents himself onstage in a charmingly offhand way — kind of an "anti-maestro," is nonetheless a pianist of almost alarming focus and intense engagement with whatever he's playing. He seems so secure coming at music from within that he easily jettisons a major concert artist's stereotypical need to impress audiences with his "ownership" of the repertoire at hand.

I had heard him in concert just twice before catching a Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra program this past Thanksgiving weekend in St. Paul's well-designed Ordway Hall. As a recital partner with Joshua Bell, he gave immense stature to the violin-centered program I attended in Alice Tully Hall several years ago.  And in April 2011, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra brought him to the Hilbert Circle Theatre for a performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467.

Like many music-lovers, I have found his "Think Denk" blog worth a permanent place on my short list of classical-music blogs frequently consulted.  His writing about music is one of the pillars of his reputation; it doubtless played a role in the MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" he received earlier this year.

Jeremy Denk always seems to know how to match concept and execution.
Speaking of Mozart (and how often do music-lovers converse without eventually speaking of Mozart?),  Denk performed another Mozart concerto in C major in St. Paul.  No. 25 (K. 503) is less superficially a charmer than K. 467, perhaps, though it's just as strong imaginatively. I won't dissent absolutely from this assessment of it by the English writer Hyatt King (in "The Concerto," an essay anthology in a Pelican Original series of many years ago): "Despite the sparkle of the finale, the whole has a certain statuesque quality and an unimpassioned aloofness which have prevented it from winning wide popularity."

Denk discarded the "unimpassioned aloofness" label with aplomb, however. Seated at the keyboard facing the orchestra, he did not so much as conduct from the piano as impart an interpretation through body language. In the solo part, Denk had a way of finding something meaningful in every note, without overloading or distending any passage along the way. It was direct, unfussy music-making that readily avoided blandness.  And, after he pointed out the score's piquant major-minor ambiguity in brief oral program notes beforehand, you heard it demonstrated in performance without an overlay of pedantry. Compositional ingenuity, in Denk's hands, always seems to be an "open sesame" to its embodiment in genuine excitement.

His encore, the Andante movement from the F major Sonata, K. 533, allowed Denk to extend the excitement with a piece that could be said to represent Mozart's avant-garde side. The movement, the pianist noted, features major-minor ambivalence "on steroids," allowing for an enhanced bittersweet quality that Denk expertly displayed.

The program's first half featured the pianist in a performance of Brahms' Piano Quintet in F minor, op. 34, a large-spirited, vigorous work in four movements splendidly played with the help of three Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra principals (Steven Copes and Ruggero Allifranchini, violins; Maiya Papach, viola) plus cellist Peter Wiley.  Once again, Denk showed himself to be a sensitive collaborator, technically adroit and urgent as needed but, more important, also able to help his able colleagues shape the slow movement's pervasive delicacy.