Thursday, February 27, 2014

Ebene Quartet brings three distinctive major works here on its 20-concert, 25-day tour

The Ebene String Quartet's return visit under Ensemble Music Society auspices Wednesday night confirmed the excellence that the four Frenchmen exhibited here in 2011.
The Ebene Quartet made its second appearance here Wednesday.

Each of the works performed is highly characteristic (yet boundary-stretching) of its composer, ranging from the adventurous harmonies of Mozart's Quartet in E-flat, K. 428, on through Mendelssohn's weighty String Quartet in A minor, op. 13, No. 2, to Robert Schumann's controlled-bipolar Quartet in A major, op. 41, no. 3.

Starting with the Schumann, which had the second half of the program at Indiana History Center to itself, the Ebene Quartet exemplified the French virtues of clarity and order. That didn't keep them from emphasizing the German composer's skill at projecting the two contrasting sides of his personality, however. The daydreaming first-movement themes, for example, are at times supported by lightly agitated accompaniment, at one point briskly syncopated.

The startling vigor generated in the theme-and-variations second movement was fully engaged. At the other end of the spectrum, the oddly endearing lyricism of the slow movement — surely loaded with the hazards of dullness in merely dutiful hands — captured our rapt attention. That sustained vitality made the sometimes frenetic finale all the more exciting.

Sitting first chair, violinist Pierre Colombet's patrician, commanding tone successfully embraced the work's passion, just as it had been a model of classical restraint in the Mozart quartet. He changed places with the Ebene's other violinist, Gabriel Le Magadure, for the Mendelssohn piece. Le Magadure's more melting sonorities and  gift for caprice were perfect to bring forward the "Ist es wahr" quartet's youthful abandon. He was especially effective in the Intermezzo, with a theme that — like an  Irving Berlin tune — gives the miraculous impression of having always "been there."

I enjoyed the dignified stature of  Mathieu Herzog's playing whenever it stood out from his colleagues'. His manner was well-suited to the viola's more typical middle position aiding the ensemble bond. But it was fun to hear him enunciate the "bridge" melody in the encore, the Ebene's refreshing arrangement of Errol Garner's "Misty."

Cellist Raphael Merlin was remarkable as he epitomized the Ebene's consistent grace. He had the most efficient performing motion, with nothing extraneous or wasteful, of any cellist I have seen since Janos Starker. Yet he was fully capable of contributing a mighty baritone voice when the ensemble was in full cry.

In the Mozart, while I liked the understatement given the harmonic tension in the first and second movements, the "Andante con moto" seemed too slow. At that pace, a less precise and coordinated group would have sounded listless, but the Ebene removed itself comfortably from that danger.

Occupying the highest plane, if the most sustained excellence has to be mentioned, was the Mendelssohn performance. The work is one of the most ambitious examples of the fully formed teenage composer's genius. Without magniloquence or preening, the young Mendelssohn could display his astonishing gifts with exquisite craftsmanship and a daring insouciance. And the Ebene proved itself fully up to such a display as this work almost uniquely affords.

Rock solid, or awash in nostalgia and imitation? Perspectives from Jimmy Rushing and Harold Bloom

Among the comments on my "Rage Against Rock" rant, a post I relinked to the other day, was a fascinating recommendation from a local musician I respect. He said I should  give a listen to a band called Deerhoof and its song "Chatterboxes."

Having done so, I feel once again the sorrows of most pop attempts to play upon feelings. Here's part of why I don't listen to today's pop music, even at the exploratory fringes: It tends to be derivative in ways that seldom give much room to original expression, either vocally or instrumentally. In "Chatterboxes," during the first few minutes of its chattering guitar textures, I was immediately put in mind of a 1977 recording by performer/composer Allan Bryant called "Space Guitars: Music for New String Instruments" (CRI).

Nothing wrong about having new music remind you of old music, but I suspect Deerhoof is considered innovative in its realm. So much for that.  I don't know if the band knows Bryant's work, and, true, instrumental texture and patterning similarities don't constitute plagiarism.

On the vocal side, this instrumental pitter-patter undergirds a wistful female vocal intoning in oddly accented English a text that I could make little sense of till I looked it up online.

Pause here to consider some wisdom that's as applicable to the performing arts as to literature. "As fools of time," Harold Bloom says toward the end of a  brilliant lecture on Shakespeare delivered at Yale University in 2012, "we are all of us agonized lovers, fantasizing fictions of duration that, if they are jealous enough, become our own bad poems or stories."

Harold Bloom, plausibly listening to "Chatterboxes," but probably not.
For Deerhoof in "Chatterboxes," the "fictions of duration" are rich, thrown backward into a past not so much remembered as mistily evoked, and in fairly trite ways. "In pencil lines of ages past," the lyric begins, "Idea maps were being drawn / over the world."  True enough, a universal process of fledgling understanding, tentative ("pencil lines") and provisional, starts the parade of nostalgia.

The birth of the oral tradition as the recollection of maternal voices, dependably "fantasizing fictions of duration," implants "storytime in your wildest mind": "Mother to child, / singing a long song."  Of course it's a long song, since it lasts far beyond the physical experience of hearing it in infancy. And it tends to overdetermine later, ostensibly mature interpretations of life.
Jimmy Rushing

These formative experiences shape life's journey, unsurprisingly expressed by Deerhoof in obsolete, hackneyed metaphors: "Set sail, seaworthy vessel. Fill your hold with the sound / Of daughters and sons / Wagging their tongues."

The din raised by these voyagers (now we see what all that fuzzy guitar chaff is for) is then sentimentalized as dream-stuff, even as its transmission is given durable form. The song ends: "Written down in ink so clear / Voices of a yesteryear / Dreams are whispered in an ear."

This is certainly the uprearing of excessive jealousy Bloom speaks of. In Deerhoof and so much bad art, it expresses in pain and wistfulness a futile resistance to being time's fool. The resistance is too limp and passive to be heroic. So the expression of it descends swiftly into the category that the Bloom quotation's last six words bluntly identify.

Pop consists of countless musings that are all too jealous of time's inevitable thievery. The results are the bad poems and stories of pop lyrics, going all the way back to Tin Pan Alley. Even lyrics far better than those of "Chatterboxes" can be buried in the sentimentality and overlayering of pop singers. Then again, an undistinguished set of lyrics, such as those to the obscure song "The You and Me That Used to Be," can be held back from the dustheap of "our own bad poems and stories" by the right performers.

I turn to that song because of its late-in-life rendition by one of my favorite jazz vocalists, Jimmy Rushing, on an LP of the same title, recorded with stellar jazz backing less than a year before the singer's death in 1972. Like Louis Armstrong, Rushing always sang with individuality and feeling, but he didn't emote. Nor did he act superior to a song's emotion, so that even with inferior songs, Rushing's exuberance was never ironic.

If Professor Bloom's warnings about the toll we pay for being the fools of time are true, Rushing had an instinctive knack not to give in to trite expressions of that predicament. Questionable material can thus yield a straightforward, if temporary, victory. And so it does here.

The voice is buoyant, tinged enough with regret to represent the lyrics well,  but cresting the wave of nostalgia for bygone days that a couple in love spent watching movies, visiting the zoo, and "paying a man a dime to watch the moon". Rushing's well-worn voice drapes itself casually over the lyrics, falling a bit off phrase ends as if to indicate: "Well, those times were all well and good, and I sort of miss them, but the important thing is we had them and, though we're done with them, I wonder if you ever give them a thought, too."

When his voice rises in the chorus at the very end, it's to indicate as much triumph as any of us can have over the fondly recalled past. "The You and Me That Used to Be" could surely be sung wallowing in its regret for lost pleasures, but Rushing manages to evoke those pleasures without becoming entangled.

An instinct for unfussy interpretation, honed on the fertile Kansas City scene of the 1920s, somehow meets the truth of an aged professor's aphoristic wisdom about time and art. I don't often find contemporary popular music equal to such a surprising and enlightening conversation.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Most formidable pianist-Hoosier-by-adoption Andre Watts returns to the Indianapolis Symphony schedule

Serious, substantial music generated an abundance of joy at Friday's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concert.

The performances of Andre Watts at the piano and Krzysztof Urbanski on the podium get the credit for spanning such a wide expressive range so well. Works as enthralling as Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major and Dvorak's Symphony No. 7 in D minor don't play themselves, so interpreters of this stature, buoyed by an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in fine fettle, are required to seal the deal.

The world-class 67-year-old pianist, approaching a decade of service on the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music faculty, is a Hoosier by adoption — luckily for us. He has been in the public eye and ear for as long as the Rolling Stones, and produced much better music. His performances carry an elder-statesman veneer without scanting either freshness or depth.

Andre Watts is always welcome here.
After a spate of smudged chords in his opening cadenza, Watts could do no wrong Friday night. He played with accuracy, authority and energy, while bringing to the fore the delicacy and sweetness the score requires.  His trills were thundering or gossamer as the occasion demanded. In the fourth movement, the evenness of the passagework and the lightness with which he brought off all the filigree helped characterize the piece's mercurial breadth.

Yet most of the performance's excellence was collaborative. All string sections acquitted themselves well, the timpani were top-of-the-beat and robust, the winds vivid and flavorful.  In the Andante, the lovely chamber-music passage of clarinet, bassoon and piano just before the solo cello returns with its movement-defining melody could have coaxed tears from the most stoic of listeners. And those cello solos unfolded with silken individuality as played by this week's candidate for the first-chair position.

But finally, what the classic music analyst Donald Francis Tovey wrote about the last movement of the Brahms Second could be applied to this performance of the whole piece: "There are no adequate words for it (there never are for any art that is not itself words — and then there are only its own words)." A cautionary note for all critics! (On a less exalted note, Charles Schulz in "Peanuts" once had Lucy complain about a tune she couldn't get out of her head. Schroeder replies that he's experiencing the same thing, and asks: "Is it that part in the Brahms Second where the piano goes deedle-deedle-deedle, and then...?" As I recall, in the last panel, Lucy stomps off, exclaiming: "I can't stand it!")

After intermission came the soberest exposition of Dvorak's symphonic genius.  The D minor symphony doesn't seem to me as glum as the program book's notes characterize it, but the music is imbued with a seriousness that has its moments of deep shadow. Still, the exhilaration of inventiveness and color keep breaking through.

I'll start with some small indication of the burgeoning greatness of Urbanski as a conductor: the way he handled the off-balance opening of the third movement.  There seemed to be no awkwardness about how the strings responded to the subtle gesture with which he got the music going. It was almost a shrug, but it was clearly the product of careful communication. It was enough to set the whole movement's graceful mood and give an air of relaxation to its frequent billowing and subsiding.

In the first movement, Urbanski got the orchestra to outline the hierarchy of the main theme's components. The dynamic variety throughout was impressive. In the finale, the dramatic tension of its structure was fully exploited. Brahms, who sensibly admired Dvorak enough to get the Bohemian composer carried by his Berlin publisher, often moved in a similar emotional world. But he never orchestrated this resourcefully and clearly. Illustrating that fact was among the triumphs of the ISO's performance, which hopefully can be duplicated in the program's repeat at 5:30 p.m. today.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Touring orchestra from Israel performs with mixed results at the Palladium

The Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel moved quickly to the top of the metropolitan heap in the area of giving local exposure to international representatives of the performing arts.

Sometimes this exposure helps confirm the value of what we have locally, among other benefits. It also offers a benchmark — either higher or lower on the scale, according to taste — of how standard repertoire pieces are treated today.

That was one positive part of my mixed response to the appearance of the Haifa Symphony Orchestra Wednesday night at the Palladium.  The concert had moments of coordinated energy, an arresting interpretive flair (especially from the piano soloist) and, it can't be denied, the ability to arouse audience enthusiasm.

But in works by Weber, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven, the Israeli orchestra's performance also displayed stodginess and imprecision and, to zero in on the most persistent example (the horns), technical inadequacy. As conducted by Boguslaw Dawidow, the Polish principal guest conductor appointed in 2012, the ensemble may fairly be described as provincial. Experience together was evident, but not on as thoroughly a high plane as one might have hoped.

Execution at the front of the string sections was satisfactory, but only the cellos and basses sounded consistent front to back. I have no clear impression of the violas, but the violins seemed woolly, soft-focused. That impression struck home immediately in the curtain-raiser, Weber's Overture to Euryanthe, where the dogged shakiness of the horns also made its first appearance. Their tone was shot through with burbles and flecks; confidence and clarity didn't emerge until a passage  in counterpoint with the oboe late in the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor.

Boguslaw Dawidow conducted the Haifa Symphony Orchestra in Carmel.
After intermission, in Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A major, the horns typically lagged behind.  True,  there was a ray of sunshine in the horn's second-movement solo. But by the last movement, the blurring and burbling had returned.

Dawidow didn't seem in firm control in this masterpiece; the finale, in order to feel properly on the edge of abandon, paradoxically needs a much firmer hand than it got from him. I longed for such pulling together as appeared after the first Trio statement in the Scherzo, but it was not often in evidence. A premature violin entrance and an unsynchronized oboe melody that didn't right itself until the cadence also permitted a less than positive impression of this orchestra to take root in my mind.

And it was that impression I left the hall with, since I didn't catch the two encores a fellow concertgoer later told me about in an instant message: a song from "Schindler's List" (featuring violist Avshalom Sarid) and "The Stars and Stripes Forever."

Returning to the Tchaikovsky concerto, chock-full of catchy tunes and keyboard spectacle, there was palpable sympathy between podium and piano, which was commanded with aplomb from straight-back chair by Roman Rabinovich. But it was in the service of an interpretation that favored an overload of pedal. Even in the romantic repertoire, my taste leans toward the "sec," to borrow a wine term. Rabinovich had a lead foot, even allowing sustained harmonies to become discordant before releasing the pedal to give room to new material.

His agility, articulation and nimbleness were admirable, so it was clear he wasn't using the pedal to cover a multitude of sins. But he had a bad case of "jangle fever." Apart from a mannered, precious  quality in lyrical passages (the cadenza went limp in places), there was commendable brio and eager commitment in his performance. Called back for an encore, Rabinovich offered a variegated Prelude in D-flat major, op. 28, no. 15 by Chopin. With its glowering middle section in the minor mode, the choice suited the soloist's evident predilection for extremes.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The International Violin Competition of Indianapolis puts charming musical partnership on the Indiana History Center stage

Augustin Hadelich, gold medalist in the 2006 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, has made good on the award in many ways. One of them is the conspicuous variety of musical contexts  in which he appears that do much more than put himself on the touring-virtuoso pedestal.

With the Spanish guitarist Pablo Sainz Villegas, he has recorded a disc named for the finale in a program the IVCI presented Tuesday night at the Indiana History Center, "Histoire du Tango." And Sainz Villegas and Hadelich have a multimedia recital in the works (adding pianist Joyce Yang) for the Kennedy Center in April called "Tango, Song, and Dance."

For the near-capacity audience here, the guitarist and violinist displayed duo sensitivity of a kind that could have you thinking they'd been performing together for decades, but both musicians, in their 30s, are way too young. The repertoire leans toward the slight side, but when the partnership is as simpatico as this one,  a lofty musical stature is achieved.

Taking the last piece first, Astor Piazzolla's "Histoire du Tango"is a four-movement tone poem in which the raw, simple dance form that emerged in the brothels of turn-of-the-20th-century Argentina goes through different stages of sophistication to end up as contemporary concert music.  And much of that development can be credited to the composer of this piece.

It's a deft excursion through the characteristic dance form, with witty commentary on the social uses of the genre. Something elemental in the first movement ("Bordel 1900"), with the guitarist tapping out rhythms on his instrument in likely imitation of dancers' feet, conveyed its lowest-common-denominator appeal. By the time the tango moves to "Cafe 1930," there's an emphasis on lyricism and a setting conducive to conversation.

That's a far cry from the brittle sophistication depicted in "Nightclub 1960," where the need for tango musicians to penetrate the haze of well-lubricated chatter and anticipated hook-ups is displayed. The finale, depicting tango in today's concert-hall setting, had Hadelich and Sainz Villegas exhibiting their tango rapport in the disjunctive phrases and rhythmic displacements of high-art modernism.

Augustin Hadelich
Pablo Sainz Villegas
The program also included solo showcases for both musicians. Hadelich's was the formidable sixth Sonata for Solo Violin by Eugene Ysaye, whose music is well-known among IVCI followers because the competition's founder, Josef Gingold, was a student of the Belgian violinist-composer. It was the program's most removed from the cultural and sound world of the guitar, yet not without some links to that world.

Hadelich made the most of the connection. Often one hears performances that emphasize the rigorous accents and virtuoso cragginess of the music, as in the flawless rendition by 1986 IVCI silver medalist Leonidas Kavakos on his debut CD. But Hadelich found the sensuous through-line in the piece, including its Latinesque playfulness. That aspect is centered in the score's "Allegretto poco scherzando" section, which relaxes into a habanera rhythm. The performance overall was enchanting.

The program's only living composer, Tunisian Roland Dyens, was represented by a droll guitar solo ("Tango en Skai") meant to seem offhand but probably quite difficult to bring off technically. Its frequently shifting sonorities — stopped chords placed adjacent to ringing ones, filigree next to plangent melodies  — were projected with clear articulation and interpretive aplomb.

Sainz Villegas earlier held the audience spellbound with Joaquin Rodrigo's "Invocacion y Danza." The first part was a haunting recitative with crystal-clear harmonics; the concluding dance presented a flurry of infectious rhythms and tremolo-laden tunes.

The concert opened with five of Manuel de Falla's "Seven Popular Spanish Songs," in which the duo's well-honed collaborative spirit was demonstrated. The piano is usually heard accompanying the violin in performances of this music, but Tuesday's performance showed how rooted in guitar characteristics is Falla's writing for keyboard. Especially fetching was Hadelich and Sainz Villegas' hushed reading of the lullaby, "Nana."

Niccolo Paganini initially studied the mandolin before becoming the first outsized virtuoso in violin history, and he wrote naturally for the guitar. Sonata Concertata in A major is one of several of his works for violin and guitar. It's rooted in his temperamentally conservative nature as a composer, though as a performer he paved the way for everything associated with musical romanticism. It was typical of this duo's polish that the lighthearted nature of the music was emphasized without trivializing the composition. It seemed altogether natural that the artists would turn to Paganini once again for their encore, "Cantabile."

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Phoenix Theatre show offers gritty look at the urban context of the "hope and change" election

In the down-at-the-heels environment of Trip's Garage, an Obama election poster strikes an optimistic note. But the poster,  toward the rear of James Gross' set in the Phoenix Theatre's "North of the Boulevard," is taped into place to hide splits in a tree-damaged wall that the proprietor can't get any insurance relief to repair.

Trip similarly is challenged to patch up his care-worn optimism and the goodheartedness that spurs him to open his auto-repair shop to a come-one, come-all Christmas party every year, despite being taken advantage of by street people stuffing snacks into their pockets. In the course of Bruce Graham's play, he becomes as desperate as the people who regularly hang out at the shop to move "North of the Boulevard" — to a neighborhood that still offers the promise of the American dream.

Bear (Ben Rose) tells Zee (Rich Komenich) how things look to him.
The play, which opened over the weekend in a Midwest premiere production at the Phoenix Theatre, spares no comfortable bromide about American progress and civic rectitude from withering scrutiny.

Bear, a black security guard with street smarts as well as the kind that accrue from curiosity and self-education, reflects an earned skepticism. Larry, who works at a substandard nursing home, tries to keep bitterness at bay with flashes of compassion and fledgling political ambitions. His wastrel father, Zee, is a lost cause, a center of toxic vitality rapidly running out of resources.

These four characters fill the scenario fit to bursting with profanity-laced arguments and insights on race, family and the corruption of business and government as of December 2008.  The mess lies all around them, and lack of money blocks all attempts to improve their situation. The shocking conclusion to the first act opens up an unimagined possibility of escape; the second act consists in consideration of the moral and legal dimensions of yielding to temptation. Trip's uprightness is battered by a family crisis resulting from an unprovoked neighborhood assault on his teenage son. The outcome makes it clear that no one whose horizons are so hemmed in by forces beyond his control can easily avoid succumbing to them.

Bryan Fonseca directs an expert cast, acting from depth as well as a sense of their characters' raw nerves. As the audience is getting to absorb the cluttered detail of the set, including a customer's car on which precious little work is done, the opening scene flies by in too much of a hurry. The dialogue is paced like a revving motor, and though the four men are not the taciturn type, Saturday's performance took a while to steady itself, as a spate of minor line flubs also indicated.

Trip (Bill Simmons) assesses Bear's scheme for a McDonald's cup-sticker fortune.
Bill Simmons' performance as Trip was weary, wry and capable of revealing what happens to a friendly, trusting man when circumstances keep hobbling his survival skills. In the second act, what happens to the tacky Christmas tree he's assembled yet again is indicative of the strain he's under from trying to persevere. Playing the loudmouth outcast Zee, who long ago abandoned keeping up appearances, Rich Komenich gave the character a flicker of likability amid a blaze of viciousness as noxious as a fire in a tire dump.

Ben Rose put some delicacy into his portrayal of Bear. This is a man who knows how to adjust his responsibilities to accommodate his own pleasure and quest for advantage. A student of "The Tao of Pooh," Bear adopts a simple watchword: "Use what you got." In contrast, Larry (Joshua Coomer) wants something more than what he has, and can't wait to get rid of what life has handed him; his rage and zest for vengeance finally get a vehicle he thinks suitable. At the final curtain, that looks as doubtful as just about anything else in these men's lives.

Some will see "North of the Boulevard" as an impossibly retro play, despite its in-your-face language and probing of several current American sore spots involving race, opportunity, and social control. But this kind of kitchen-sink realism, which has the audience almost literally believing it's looking through the fourth wall, seems a good style for such a play's themes. There's an almost claustrophobic feeling to these characters' lives, and we are clearly meant not just to sympathize with them, but to feel as entrapped as they are. If we are fortunate enough in our real lives not to be caught in such snares, we benefit imaginatively from breathing the dank, fumy atmosphere of Trip's Garage for a couple of hours.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

ISO's 2014-15 season will include a Midwinter Russian Festival, Classical Series returns by two former music directors

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and music director Krzysztof Urbanski will begin their fourth season together next Sept. 14 with an Opening Night Gala featuring one of the most acclaimed of current American concert pianists, Jeremy Denk, playing Beethoven's Concerto No. 1 in C major.
Jeremy Denk will be the gala guest soloist.

The Hilbert Circle Theatre gala is one of eight programs with Urbanski on the podium. Two of them will have the 31-year-old Polish maestro giving extra star power to three successive weekends with a common theme, titled "Fantasy, Fate and War: A Midwinter Russian Festival."

Philippe Quint will be guest soloist in Aram Khachaturian's Violin Concerto the first weekend (Jan. 23 and 24), in a program also including the Rimsky-Korsakov favorite "Scheherazade." The concluding program, with just one performance (Feb. 6), will have Urbanski conducting the first ISO performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 ("Leningrad").

Han-Na Chang will make her ISO conducting debut.
The middle program (Jan. 29-31) will not lack for star power, however. Vadym Kholodenko, winner of the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, will be featured in a performance of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto, with which he wowed the final-round audience in Fort Worth last June. Also making an ISO debut in those concerts will be conductor Han-Na Chang, a South Korean who made quite a name for herself as a concert cellist before picking up the baton.

Raymond Leppard, ISO conductor laureate, who has been regularly seen conducting the orchestra only in the annual Classical Christmas concerts, will return to the subscription season with an all-orchestral program of Mendelssohn, Sibelius and Elgar (March 13 and 14).

Leppard's successor as music director, Mario Venzago, will appear Nov. 20 and 21 in a program highlighted by Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony and featuring percussion superstar Evelyn Glennie in the U.S. premiere of Anders Koppel's Concerto for Aluphone and Orchestra. (The Aluphone is a new mallet-percussion instrument.) That's a rare instance of contemporary music on an ISO program next season; John Adams' "Lollapalooza," to be played on all-American programs conducted by Jeffrey Kahane in late February, dates from 1995. (For the first season since he became music director, Urbanski will not conduct the ISO in a piece from his homeland.)

Other highlights early in the season will include the appearance of Shai Wosner, a pianist whose scheduled ISO debut in October 2012 had to be canceled because of the lockout that preceded agreement on the musicians' current contract. On Sept. 25 and 27, he will play Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor with the ISO.

Mozart aficionados will be able to feast on concerts Oct. 16-18, when Nicolas McGegan returns to the Circle Theatre podium for a program including the Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major, with Augustin Hadelich as soloist. Hadelich won the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis in 2006 and has since gone on to a major international career.

Shai Wosner will play a Mozart concerto.
The season's other violin soloists will be ISO concertmaster Zach De Pue (March 19 and 21) in the Samuel Barber concerto and, making her ISO debut, Arabella Steinbacher in the popular Mendelssohn concerto (May 7-9). The latter program brings back a well-received guest conductor, Jun Markl, in a program featuring Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique."

Other guest-artist debuts next season: conductor Matthew Halls (Oct. 10-11), in a program whose centerpiece is Mozart's "Requiem," with the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and four soloists yet to be announced; pianist Alice Sara Ott, in an all-Beethoven program featuring the  Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor (April 10-11); conductor Christopher Altstaedt (April 18) in a concert highlighted by Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 5 ("Reformation"); and conductor Cristian Macelaru (May 15-16) in two concerts featuring Stravinsky's setting of a Russian folk story called "The Soldier's Tale," with text by native son Kurt Vonnegut (May 15-16).

Urbanski comes front and center to end the season the first two weekends in June with major works: Mahler's Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor (June 4 and 6) and Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor ("Choral"), with the Symphonic Choir and four vocal soloists yet to be announced (June 12-13).

The Pops season, under the direction of Jack Everly, will open Oct. 3 and 4 with "Classical Mystery Tour: 50 Years of the Beatles." Other highlights include a program featuring Broadway star ("Wicked" and "9 to 5: The Musical") Megan Hilty (Nov. 7 and 8) and tribute concerts to Marvin Hamlisch (Oct. 24 and 25) and Simon & Garfunkel (Jan. 16 and 17). A "by-popular-demand" component of the new Pops series is a return engagement by saxophonist Kenny G (May 1 and 2.)

Also announced today is the four-concert afternoon family series, "symFUNy Sundays," which will open Nov. 9 with "The Life and Times of Beethoven," featuring Michael Boudewyns as narrator with a vaudeville-inspired approach.

More information on the seasons is available on the ISO website. Eight-concert, 14-concert and 18-concert subscriptions are available.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Lively orchestral breezes from Brazil's Bahia blow into the Palladium

By the time 21-year-old student conductor Yuri Azevedo bounded onstage at the Palladium Thursday to lead his Bahia Orchestra Project colleagues in three encores, the center of musical energy had long since passed from standard repertoire into music reflective of the characteristic rhythms and melodies of Latin America.

The printed program had concluded with two movements from "Bachianas Brasileiras" No. 4, by the chief Brazilian composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Arturo Marquez's shining tribute to his Cuban homeland's "danzon" rhythm, "Danzon No. 2." That primed the pump for the exuberance to follow.

And there was choreography — standing, swaying, dancing — to match the high spirits in performances of such pieces as the "Mambo" from Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" and the pop standard "Brazil," made famous by Frank Sinatra. The performances were a little loose in terms of precision, but electrifying in the sharpness of their accents and their irresistible momentum.

Ricardo Castro, founder-director of  Bahia Orchestra Project
At the top of an organization modeled on Venezuela's El Sistema, the Bahia ensemble took the stage at 100 strong, conducted (until the encores) by its founder and artistic director, Ricardo Castro. Their calling card to a somewhat sparse audience didn't distance them much from their main strengths, however: Youthful passion and conflict (Bahia age range: 12 to 28) are memorably focused in Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture."

Castro elicited from the large ensemble the crucial atmosphere of foreboding in the opening pages of the score. The love theme introduced by English horn and the violas was taken quite slowly, its lush overflow of feelings well sustained. The representation of the Capulet-Montague feud that dooms the young lovers crackled, and their apotheosis in the final measures soared in fullthroated lamentation.

The  only discordant note was some tuning difficulty in the winds, marring their hymnlike statement early on. This flaw turned out to be centered in the principal flute, as there was some below-pitch playing in  exposed passages in the second movement of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major. A characteristic strength of the Bahia Orchestra Project turned out to be the confidence and individualistic vigor of solo wind playing, however: In that same "Adagio assai," for instance, the English horn and bassoon solos were forthright. The cheeky E-flat clarinet in the finale helped shape its atmosphere.

The concerto's solo role was taken by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who adjusted to some tempo imprecision in the orchestra without ever breaking stride. His interpretation seemed as wholehearted as it would have been in collaboration with a topnotch professional orchestra, to which his international stature entitles him. His playing was rooted in the French idiom; as Castro pointed out in a preconcert interview, Thibaudet's teacher studied with Marguerite Long, for whom Ravel wrote the piece. The guest soloist's performance brimmed with delicate lyricism and firm articulation, classically oriented while at the same time full of 20th-century verve.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet
The concert had two showcases for solo piano. After intermission, Castro conducted a performance of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" from the keyboard. Confirmation of the high profile of the Bahia Orchestra Project's winds came immediately with the famous upward swoop of the clarinet — a sensational opening from the time of the work's premiere 90 years ago Tuesday. That deftness was underscored by the companionable, sassy muted trumpet.

Castro's rapport with his musicians was evident throughout, as was his fitness for this piece. With success as a concert pianist in Europe before he turned his attention mainly to the Bahia Orchestra Project in his hometown of Salvador, Castro didn't settle for being flashy in this crowd-pleaser. The long, ruminative piano solo before the famous romantic tune is introduced by the orchestra was expertly proportioned, its bluesy baritone-range solo piquantly sung out.

The Bahia Orchestra Project can be justly celebrated not only for the opportunities it gives at home to a range of Brazilian youth from all social classes (4,000 is next year's anticipated enrollment), but also for the stamina and elan it can display in concert near the end of a two-and-a-half-week North American tour. And its Carmel visit also allowed five members of the orchestra to do what they're used to doing in Bahia: coach younger players. They are scheduled to work with eighth-grade string players at Creekside Middle School today.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Rage against rock -- a personal odyssey

My first financially rewarded piece of music criticism earned me a quarter, long before I ever thought of doing it professionally.

I was about 10 years old and visiting my mother's family down in Virginia, grouped around a huge family reunion.  They were all Southerners except for her, and my impression of my second cousins was how different they were. I was told how Lee could have won the Civil War if not for the Yankee blockade of the Confederacy's ports (Happy Birthday, Abe!). I was laughed at for unwittingly using a basement bathroom at my hosts' home  that was intended for the exclusive use of the "colored" maid.

One of my cousins showed me his record collection, including a single of Elvis Presley singing "Blue Suede Shoes."  But he insisted it was Carl Perkins singing.  I looked at the label: Carl Perkins' name was in parentheses right under the song title, in small print. Below that, in larger type, was "Elvis Presley."

"It's Elvis singing," I said with some assurance. "The name in parentheses — that's the guy that wrote the song."

I asked him to look at the 45's flip side; I've forgotten what the song was, but there was a different name in parentheses. Elvis' name was below that, again in larger type. "I suppose you think that's not Elvis singing this one, huh?" I asked my second cousin.  He didn't have a ready answer, but he insisted it was Carl Perkins singing "Blue Suede Shoes."

We agreed to bet, and we'd let an adult settle it.  The next day, my young relative grudgingly handed me a quarter. "My dad says that since you're our guest, you're right.  Here's your money."

I accepted the coin with some misgivings, as I hadn't really proved anything — beyond the iron law of Southern hospitality. But I'd undoubtedly won: Here was this huge Elvis fan somehow thinking that Carl Perkins was singing "Blue Suede Shoes" exactly like Elvis.

From this encounter, I started forming an impression of the denseness of the music-loving public that has always stood me in good stead. Also, about how musical taste trumps other unshakable values: My prejudiced cousin was just wild about Little Richard.

But the purpose of this post is to address my own prejudices, not his. For instance, partly through attendance at family reunions (including conversations like the one above) and partly through media saturation, I concluded that people who spoke with Southern accents were dumb. I am not proud of this. The assumption persisted until college, when I  heard  a philosophy professor from the Deep South lecture on Kant. How you could ever elucidate the Categorical Imperative in a sorghum-thick drawl astounded me.

I also passed through a period of infatuation with some pop music in my late teens and early 20s, before growing out of it. I then formed the prejudice that anyone my age who continued to like rock and its relatives into adulthood was probably not very smart. Then, amazingly, I got to know intelligent rock fans, and another unfounded prejudice needed to bite the dust.

OK, intelligent people can like rock. I've processed that. But I still look at them across a great cultural gulf — just as I did as a youngster at my Dixie-touting second cousins. At the folks who gushed over the Beatles' 50th-anniversary broadcast, for instance. Or someone like Frank Felice, who's presenting "An Evening of Progressive Rock Music" at Butler University on Feb. 25. Felice, a guitarist and composer on the Butler faculty, knows more about music than I ever will, as does his rock-admiring colleague Michael Schelle. R-E-S-P-E-C-T, to quote another shrieker I can't stand.

You can't account for taste, but I have to extend respect to genres that are alien to me, and to at least some of their admirers.  Still, I may try to see rock as anything other than clownish, vulgar or pretentious, but I can't get there. As a cub culture reporter at the Flint Journal, I was once sent to cover a double bill of Yes (one of the bands Felice's program is featuring) and the J. Geils Band.  Very different kinds of bands —I  could easily recognize that —but in me exciting about equal amounts of revulsion.

I find I can best accept rock as being a loud, larky paean to irresponsibility and volume-driven faux ecstasy. There are two rock LPs in my record collection (and none in any other format): The eponymously titled Presley debut on RCA Victor (which opens with "Blue Suede Shoes," by the way) and Warren Zevon's "Stand in the Fire: Live at the Roxy." Both men died messy, premature deaths from living the rock 'n' roll dream.

One of two rock albums I own.
 I listen to one or the other of these albums every five years or so as musical caricature.  If they appeal to my sense of humor, I can't dismiss them utterly. I agree with the late LeRoi Jones'  jibe at white rock groups as "minstrel-show" acts, applying musical burnt cork and singing "ain't" more often than they would ever say it. OK, maybe that makes it art. I mean, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau didn't have to go wandering off lovelorn into the snow to effectively interpret "Winterreise," did he?

I can't stand much rock in any case, but when it takes itself seriously, it's a crashing bore: In Flint, when for a while The Journal didn't have a rock critic on staff, new LPs would cross my desk (when the copy boy didn't steal them and sell them out of his trunk). I took home Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA"; I kept it around long enough to learn it was one of his big hits. But it was as tedious to listen to as, oh, Dan Tepfer's Goldberg Variations/Variations, to draw an example from another genre out of thin air. I discarded "Born in the USA" some time ago: The Boss, no loss.

So, health, prosperity and good fortune to the musically adept who also happen to like rock. I doubt you'll see me at "An Evening of Progressive Rock Music." At least, I harbor no prejudice any longer.  Well, maybe just a little.

And, cousin, how I wish I could give you back your quarter!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Gabriela Lena Frank returns to Indianapolis for an enthralling showcase of her compositions

A great example of cross-cultural interaction brought Gabriela Lena Frank to town in 2009 for the premiere of an extended piece, "Peregrinos," commissioned by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. It was the culmination of a two-year residency that was documented by PBS, and interaction with the Indianapolis Latino community was crucial to the work's creation.

A more modest occasion, but significant for the insights it gave into the intimacy and expressive range of Frank's music, was the climax of her residency at the University of Indianapolis Monday night. The concert at the Christen DeHaan Fine Arts Center focused on works for one to three players.
Composer Gabriela Lena Frank

Frank's greatest achievement is to personalize her deep-seated connections to ethnic musical traditions, particularly those of Latin America, through a sophisticated command of resources associated with classical music. This was especially notable in the one solo piece of hers presented Monday night: "Sonata Adina," performed by UIndy faculty pianist Minju Choi.

Its four movements are much more than picturesque in obvious ways; a better clue is her statement: "There's usually a story line behind my music — a scenario or character." The scenario here is the Andean folk music whose family legacy for the composer comes through her grandmother Griselda Cam.

Frank seems to go deep within the generating scenarios (described in program notes for each of the movements) to the musical fundamentals. The sounds of the instruments — guitars, marimba,  drums and flutes or pipes — are channeled through the piano. The textures are dense and rhythmically impelled. Choi's performance was dazzling, requiring an extraordinary expenditure of energy nicely regulated to suggest the exuberant virtuosity of native ensembles playing music close to the performers' hearts.

Choi was joined by the composer in a movement from a sonata for piano, four hands: "Sonata Serrana" No. 1. This "Adagio for Dusk" used repeated-note patterns in a reflective way, as if to stitch together an aria for keyboard out of figuration.  Ringing sounds and tremolos predominated. Near the end, both tempo and dynamic level diminished as if in a slow dissolve toward silence.

Four out of seven "Suenos de Chambi: Snapshots for an Andean Album" indicated that a more literal basis for the roots of Frank's music can also produce an original response. It's not necessary to know the work of Amerindian photographer Martin Chambi (1891-1973) in order to connect to the impressions presented with so much evident rapport by flutist Anne Reynolds and pianist Sylvia Patterson-Scott.

Competitive wit and companionable tension are embraced in "P'asna Marcha," inspired by a picture of Peruvian women dancing for each other while balancing large poles on their hands. The piano solo that followed, "Adoracion para Angelitos," memorializes the kind of photography that used to be known in this country as well — a flowery portrait of a dead child. As performed by Patterson-Scott, Frank displays a fresh elegiac language in this piece. I was also impressed by the nimble articulation of Reynolds' flute, enmeshed in a wealth of propulsive piano with thundering bass notes, in the finale, "Marinera." Named after a popular Peruvian dance, the movement ended in a variegated spectrum of tremolos.

Frank's inspiration from out-of-the-mainstream culture is not confined to folk music of the Americas. To conclude the concert, "Seven Armenian Songs" was spotlessly performed by violinist Robert Simonds, percussionist Bonnie Whiting, and UIndy guest soprano Tony Arnold. The singer displayed the same fearless engagement with language and Frank's unconventional idiom that she had in  unaccompanied music of intricate pointillism performed before intermission: two of Georges Aperghis' "Recitations."

The seven 16th-century poems set by Frank range widely over a woman's fantasizing about love, religion and nature. The composer has achieved a rich chamber-ensemble parity among violin, percussion and voice. While the text awakens the governing spirit of each poem setting, the instruments never seem confined to dutiful support of the singer.

In the percussion department, for example, marimba, triangles, cymbals and bass drum are given an independent character just as significant as the soprano's. The music sounded difficult enough without ever verging into the sort of spectacular display that would end up obscuring the intimate lyric poetry.

Frank serves the sources of her inspiration without being either irritatingly demure or wanly folkloric. In this concert, her music laid claim to superior stature and personality. And it did this to a degree that must be the envy of many of her contemporaries wandering in the vastness of postmodernism.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Martha Graham Company presents a distilled 'Clytemnestra' at Clowes before New York sees it

Comfortable for touring and thus able to meet audiences halfway anywhere it goes, the program the Martha Graham Dance Company brought to Clowes Hall Friday night seemed especially appropriate to renew old acquaintances with fans and to communicate its legacy to newcomers.

The Messenger of Death ominously pins Clytemnestra's cape with his staff.
The centerpiece was what artistic director Janet Eilber called a "distilled" version of Graham's interpretation of the character of Clytemnestra and the horrific events covered in Aeschylus' "Oresteia" trilogy.

With the helpful addition of supertitles, Graham's narrative, focused on the murderous Queen of Mycenae, was communicated concisely. That way, the dancing remained free to focus on the choreography's symbolism and emotional import.

Halim El-Dabh's mercurial score, often dissonant and free-floating, seems to tap archaic roots as well, particularly in representing Clytemnestra's screams at her prophetic vision of her murder and in chorus-like narrative lines near the end. Today's association of ancient Greek art with cold white statuary cannot long remain intact once we are forced to confront the raw feelings, power plays, and sexual politics vividly dramatized by Aeschylus and interpreted by Graham in the dance terms she invented. Accordingly, the music helps paint those elements with the same sculptural clarity as Isamu Noguchi's design.

Like the music and the decor, the staging presented Saturday dependably balanced expressiveness and formality.  The sacrifice of Iphigenia, the royal daughter, was movingly presented — an important triumph in this show, as it is the triggering event for the queen's murder of Agamemnon upon her husband's return from the Trojan War. In the retrospective opening scene, Clytemnestra's protest against her destiny in the Underworld had just a modicum of deference to its lord, King Hades, while boldly asserting justifications for the acts that have confined her there. She is still every inch a queen.

Katherine Crockett, commanding the stage from her eyes down to her feet, kept the focus unimpeded on Clytemnestra as both ruler and avenger. Her characteristic gait left no doubt, kicking the lower legs outward, making the part of her dress close to the floor swirl authoritatively.

As King Hades, however, Ben Schultz was fully representative of that monarch's control of the afterlife, declaring checkmate over all human ambitions. The interplay between the two dancers set the stage for the surprising sympathy Graham intended to evoke for Clytemnestra.

By the time of "Clytemnestra" (the original 1958 version is modern dance's first full-length ballet), Graham had long since evolved a personal choreography equal to the ancient classics, to which she was often attracted. Friday's performance by the current company preserved her ways of representing abstract and impersonal fate while at the same time embodying the individualism of strong figures, particularly female. It could hardly escape notice, for instance, that the conspiracy between Orestes and Electra to avenge their father's death is impelled by the drive of the daughter, as danced by Blakely White-McGuire, toward that goal. This in no way diminished the concentrated intensity of Abdiel Jacobsen's final dance as Orestes.

Supporting figures never seemed peripheral in this performance. Action that's guided by forces beyond human control brings to the forefront such characters as the Messenger of Death and, on the earthly plane of action, the Night Watchman who announces Agamemnon's fatal return.  Both roles were memorably filled here by Lloyd Knight and Lorenzo Pagano, respectively.

On the group level,  the leaping, thrusting menace of the Furies furthered the work's theme of vengeance, as embodied by six of the women. And in one of the solo highlights, PeiJu Chien-Pott projected the anguished foresight of Cassandra, doomed to see the future but not to be believed; again, like Crockett in the title role, this was a gripping, unified portrayal from the eyes on down, with crouching, turning and grasping standing for the seer's desperate search for credibility.

With well-knit excerpts from "Appalachian Spring," broadly familiar because Aaron Copland's attractive score is in the symphonic mainstream, the company asserted the rootedness of Graham's technique and artistic vision in American themes. After all, she was — a minor but striking biographical detail informs us — a direct descendant of Miles Standish.

Eilber's onstage commentary quoted liberally from Graham's letters to the composer while he was preparing what he reverentially titled "Ballet for Martha." The excerpts were tantalizing, but the work's thin narrative leaves it with considerable integrity even in excerpted form. This was especially true given the radiance of Mariya Dashkina Maddux's Bride and the muscular dash of Lloyd Mayor's Husbandman.

Both comedy and menace infused Maurizio Nardi's portrayal of the Preacher.  His adoring female flock of four women, in virginal white as if to sublimate their desire for some of the cleric's earthier charisma, bent like willows in the wind to his gestures of  exhortation. Nardi, who had earlier shown his sensual grace  as Clytemnestra's lover Aegisthus, was likewise seductive here.

The whole company rollicked in the finale, a setting of three Scott Joplin compositions carrying the title of the best-known of them, "Maple Leaf Rag."  With a narrow trampoline as centerpiece, the work celebrates ordinary affection and extraordinary virtuosity. Witty and precise, Ying Xin and Lloyd Knight were the central duo in this comic extravaganza for couples, counterpointed by the choreographer's  dead-serious persona, portrayed by Katherine Crockett.

This late piece of a nonagenarian choreographer's infrequent sense of fun included fleeting self-mockery, much of it keyed to the billowing-costume side of her visions for female dancers. This was brought off with poker-faced elan by Crockett in several wheeling trips across the front of the stage.

Graham's farewell to her art made for a fitting farewell to Indianapolis by this company after a weeklong residency here, part of it designed to get the revised "Clytemnestra" ready for prime time in the company's hometown. We were lucky to be the beneficiaries of a masterwork's fine tuning.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Eli Degibri represents a further advance for Israeli musicians in jazz

"Twelve" takes its title from the fact that the recording was made in Tel Aviv on 12/12/12. But there is nothing wheel-spinningly repetitive in Eli Degibri's music-making. The tenor saxophonist has a highly compatible quartet, with teenagers Gadi Lehavi (piano) and Ofri Nehemya (drums) complementing veteran bassist Barak Mori and the bandleader.

"Twelve" continues to display the fecundity of Eli Degribi.
Plus Loin Music has issued Degribi's first disc since he returned to his native Israel. His compositions are catchy and dare to be melodically forthright. He is capable as a soloist of staying loyal to the simplicity of his melodies but also getting a bit fancy with them, too, as on "New Waltz."

To study what he and the band bring to their musical excursions, it might be advisable to focus on the eight-minute excursion through the standard "Autumn in New York." You get the sense that more than chord structure is being kept in mind by everyone; rather, the performance is made memorable by incorporating something closer to the essence of the melody and what the song's most sensitive interpreters bring to it.

Among the originals (all tracks except "Autumn") there is particularly ingratiating swing and energy in "Mambo." The opportunity to give vent to their Latin souls finds the band alert and agreeably twitchy, reveling in the tempo changes and occasional pauses in the tune's ongoing rush.

Degribi brings in a charmingly rough-edged vocalist, Shlomo Ydov, for an original tango-infused ballad in Spanish, "Liora Mi Amor." The arrangement is novel yet direct in expression.

There is a wordless chorus to offer a gentle culmination to the disc's final track, "The Cave," on which Degibri plays mandolin.  These departures from the quartet sound don't seem forced or gimmicky, but extend the impression of naturalness the saxophonist and his band convey.

This is Degibri's sixth CD, and he lays down every compositional or improvisational thought like a veteran —a musician with plenty of fresh resources to draw upon.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Snide alert: An insider's view of a popular manner of contemporary poetry that goes down like a mango smoothie and has you feeling good about yourself

My M.O.

(A candid revelation in quiet couplets about how to pursue and promulgate a certain kind of poetry, following what could be called the off-the-rack Ferdinand-the-Bull aesthetic.)

Hello, there, reader!  I’d like to invite you
Into my poetry, which speaks plainly

And with a bemused tone of wonder and
Appreciation of the natural world

As it dances with us in our ordinary lives.
This is my inexhaustible modus operandi.

It’s a living, of sorts. My poems dependably display
Sensitivity and the rewards of paying attention

To such things as the minute devotions of a grasshopper,
A pond’s stillness, and something cute about waterfowl.

Reading my poems is always an invitation
For you to be sensitive, too.  I want to say

That you can be as sensitive as I am,
Though of course I got there first, as the poet

Who is so plainly sensitive, and published. But if
You read my poetry aloud in gatherings of folks

Also honing their sensitivity, you will be ahead
Of them as you intone my articulated virtue

Of being in the moment, at peace, paying attention
To insects, plant life and such, being homely about

The lessons they have to teach us. First, find your own

Then you and I can be quite sensitive together,
Once you understand my M.O., don’t you see.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

In stage adaptation presented by IRT, Kurt Vonnegut meditates on love, its risks and sometimes compromised rewards

Kurt Vonnegut: A friendly, sidelong glance at love.
There's no place like home, fortunately. As an installer of triple-insulated windows and bathroom fixtures (including fancy tub enclosures), John keeps his customers' home life physically secure. But he has no more clues as to securing home psychologically than most of us.

So it goes, as the formulaic Kurt Vonnegut verbal shrug has it.

John and other inhabitants of North Crawford, Indiana, in the early 1960s don't have many bulwarks against being inundated with doubts, apart from knowing each other well in the kind of small town of which Hoosier legends are made.  That, and the outlet  of the Mask and Wig Club, a community theater company, at whose headquarters "Who Am I This Time? (and Other Conundrums of Love)" takes place.

Aaron Posner's adaptation of three Vonnegut short stories sits comfortably on the cast of Indiana Repertory Theatre's production, which opened this weekend under the direction of Janet Allen. Robert Neal plays John with a folksy but never cloying offhand wisdom and resilience.

Long ago as an AWOL soldier (played by Zach Kenney), John did something bold to win his bride, an episode fictionalized and distanced in the first playlet, "Long Walk to Forever," but has settled into a life that knows the best way forward is to make do as well as possible with the resources you have at hand.

Kate uses air quotes to explain theatrical passion to Helene.
When (in the title playlet), he finds himself suddenly required to direct  "A Streetcar Named Desire, " it's clear his Stanley Kowalski will be the painfully shy hardware clerk Harry Nash (Matthew Brumlow),  a Mask and Wig Club mainstay who fully inhabits every character he attempts from the start. But the need for an alluring Stella puts John up against the town's shortage of attractive young women. Resourcefulness wins out, however, as he talks a newcomer — repressed phone-company functionary Helene (Liz Kimball) — into auditioning.

Harry's overeager co-worker Verne (Ryan Artzberger) grudgingly takes on supporting roles, John's wife Kate (Constance Macy) is dependably adequate to the fluttery flamboyance of Blanche DuBois, and the show is off to the races. The most hilarious of the subtitle's "conundrums of love" inhabit this centerpiece as the magic of amateur theater peels away the stars' inhibitions. The centrifugal force of their passion amusingly threatens the show's cohesiveness; the pacing and energy focused on that process was one of the IRT production's chief delights Saturday evening. It was an ensemble tour-de-force.

If Harry and Helene never run out of scripts whose love interest they can embody, their post-"Streetcar" marriage will be a happy one. As we see them mimicking Algernon Moncrief  and Cecily Cardew in the final scene, however, we can't be too sure, though of course the importance of being earnest is duly underlined.

Vonnegut's manner of characterization privileges situation over personality, which makes him an incorrigible farceur even when the flavor of his stories is unnerving or sentimental. So in "Who Am I This Time?" he plays with the transformative artificiality of the stage. If two people (almost caricatures) with mental blocks against romance can be galvanized with the kind of charge Tennessee Williams gave to the Kowalskis, anything is possible.

The Vonnegut message: We muddle through in matters of love; we make do with what we have. The songs that dot the production emphasize the provisional, hopeful nature of love. We may not have much to work with at times, but we keep on trying, runs the theme.
Unhappily married to a star, writer bonds over booze with John.

So much of Kurt Vonnegut is grounded in Mark Twain, I couldn't help thinking of a macabre minor tale by the 19th-century master. Called "Amelia's Unfortunate Young Man," the sketch purports to be the author's response to the plight of a young woman whose betrothed has endured a succession of maiming and disfiguring accidents and illnesses. She has written Twain for advice.

Should she marry him after all this horrendous diminishment of the man she fell in love with? "It is a delicate question," the author deadpans. "It is one which involves the lifelong happiness of a woman and that of nearly two-thirds of a man, and I feel it would be assuming too great a responsibility to do more than make a mere suggestion in the case."

A Vonnegut screenprint: "There Is a Ceiling on Human Thoughts"
He makes the suggestion anyway, and Twain's mock-delicacy imbues the comic spirit he passed on nearly intact to Vonnegut, who added whimsy, not always to the benefit of his art.  (Russell Metheny's set design, by the way, is soaring, abstract, practical, Vonnegut-inspired but nearly free of whimsy. Bravo!)

In the finale, "Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son," a more obvious mismatch than Amelia's exposes the shallowness of a Hollywood glamour queen (Carmen Roman) who has decided to move with her writer's-block-afflicted fifth husband (Artzberger) away from Tinseltown's phonies to North Crawford.

The breakup of the writer-diva marriage bursts unavoidably around John, who's installing a customized bathtub enclosure in the discordant home. Here is where the acting and direction triumph over the material, because the drunken bonding between the writer and John rests on the brilliance Artzberger and Neal bring to it. The rapprochement between the writer and his bitter cadet son (we can infer he's at Culver Military Academy) is something the audience dearly desires. But it feels as weak dramatically as the eventually resolved spat that the binge generates in John and Kate's marriage.

Still, this kind of thing is very much what makes Vonnegut popular. People like his whimsical way of fleshing out this entertaining reassurance: You take what you get and you're nudged to apply your best efforts toward making it better. If it turns out not so well, there's always an amused, not too shabby way of looking at it that's open to you.

As Twain advises Amelia about her multiply damaged fiance: "Give him ninety days, without grace, and if he does not break his neck in the meantime, marry him and take the chances." In other words, it may be too much to expect that two whole people come into any enduring, close relationship.

That's Vonnegut on love all over. It's a good enough stance for the IRT to feel amply comfortable about in this buoyant show.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

ISO musically conquers Europe's storied mountain range to launch the Strauss sesquicentennial

It's little wonder that "An Alpine Symphony" doesn't come up often on symphony orchestra programs. The huge forces Richard Strauss calls for militate against busting the budget to program the 50-minute work.

And, frankly, descriptive music so elaborate does not enjoy the greatest prestige among music-lovers. Yet perhaps the huge body of evocative film music composed since the work's premiere in 1915 contributes to "An Alpine Symphony"'s favorable reception on the rare occasions it's performed.

Another unspoken obstacle: If you want to worship nature in symphonic music, you've got to be more explicit about the spiritual payoff, as in several symphonies by the composer's contemporary, Gustav Mahler. Strauss (1864-1949) simply applies his genius at orchestration to a day in the Alps, devoid of resonance any larger than one man's encounter with a mountain. But what resonance that is!

Krzysztof Urbanski reaches for the summit with Strauss.
At any rate,  it won't raise eyebrows that this masterpiece (there, I've said it!) was performed for only the first time in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's 83-year history Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre. Krzysztof Urbanski, returning to the podium for the first time since November, crowned his first program of the New Year with a stimulating interpretation, grandly picturesque and balanced between the polarities of natural phenomena both large and small.

Urbanski has declared his love for scores of majestic sweep and stunning deployment of the full orchestra, and nothing fills the bill better than the "Alpine."  Yet you could be forgiven for wondering if he programmed the work mainly because its emotional center, the episode that depicts reaching the summit, features a rapturous oboe solo. That would mean it would be more than adequately played by the first principal Urbanski has hired, Jennifer Christen. And that was true Friday night, the solo heralding the brassy outburst that fills out the rest of Strauss' summitry.

The 22 divisions of the uninterrupted tone poem were signaled by words (Straussian subtitles) projected on a large screen at the rear of the stage terrace. That way everyone knew — to mention one hard-to-detect example —  just when "Wandering by the Brook" yielded to the splashes of "At the Waterfall," and when that passage enfolded a legendary "Apparition."

Other highlights: the grippingly entangled "Through Thickets and Undergrowth on the Wrong Way" passage, among several fine displays of the expanded horn section; the lush mystery of the massed strings at "Entry into the Forest"; the imitation of staying on one's feet while crossing ice by bassoons and horns during "Dangerous Moments";  the tense, lovely wind colors that precede the spectacular storm depiction heightened the tension. The return of "Night" in the final measures provided a needed sense of relief, as well as asserting the removal of human action from nature's realm. As we are learning today rather alarmingly with the apparent effects of climate change, nature is still boss.

Dejan Lazic evinced his mastery of Liszt with the ISO.
The distorted human realm of Henrik Ibsen's "Peer Gynt" drew from Edvard Grieg incidental music not fully adequate to the poet-playwright's bizarre vision of a rogue's adventures. But it's so thoroughly charming that two "Peer Gynt" suites have been embraced by concert audiences for many decades. Urbanski opened the concert with "Peer Gynt" Suite No. 1.  Particularly successful were the logical, detailed dynamic shifts in "Aase's Death" and the vivid counterpoint of bowed and plucked strings in "Anitra's Dance."  The finale, "In the Hall of the Mountain King," after an awkward, unbalanced start, quickly gained cohesiveness and menacing strength as it accelerated to a scary conclusion.

That convulsion of frightfulness set the stage for a performance of Franz Liszt's compact mini-concerto "Totentanz."  The German title is usually left untranslated, but the music alone delivers all we need to imagine of what a "Dance of Death" should sound like. Liszt apotheosizes the medieval chant "Dies irae" in this intense, florid set of variations for piano and orchestra. Throughout a quarter-hour of palpable, well-regulated horror, there was substantial rapport between Urbanski and guest soloist Dejan Lazic, a formidable Croatian pianist now living in Amsterdam.

For an encore, Lazic moved toward the serene, contemplative side of Liszt, his reworking of the tune "Gondoliera" from the Italian volume of "Years of Pilgrimage."  In both aspects of the protean composer, Lazic proved more than adept. He offered  impressive displays of agility, crisp articulation, haunting charm and an inexhaustible supply of sheer power.