Thursday, November 27, 2014

Gary Varvel cartoon controversy displays intolerance and failure to understand the art of the editorial cartoon

When Gary Varvel's regular cartoon feature in The Indianapolis Star depicted his response to President Obama's executive order on immigration, I was farther away in this hemisphere than I've ever been: Argentina.
Cropping focuses on the cartoon's controversial elements; a Norman Rockwell inspired grandma (gray hair in a bun, etc.) is not shown here, but the multigenerational whiteness of the family strikes a familiar chord.

It was a good place to confirm my perspective on the historic establishment and movement of cultures in North and South America. The takeaway message for this monolingual WASP: Rule, Hispania! Western Hemisphere history is overwhelmingly the result of conquest directed from the Iberian peninsula long before the first permanent settlements by the Northern Europeans whose descendants are about to begin their Thanksgiving feast in Varvel's cartoon. The midsized inland city — San Juan — where my wife and I were visiting our son was founded in 1562 — four-and-a-half decades before Jamestown, more than a half-century before Plymouth Rock.

Though Argentina in particular isn't adding to the pressure to reform immigration law and policy in the United States, many people born between there and here who share its language and aspects of its culture are now part of our society. Congressional inaction on how to give some de jure status to the de facto participation in American life by these millions forced Obama's hand. I fully support what he is doing to bring order and rationality to deeply rooted realities.

So I disagree with Varvel — as I have so often — on the political point he seems to be making. But I do not share the view of many of his critics that this cartoon is racist. I think labeling it or its creator with the r-word shuts down discussion and, more crucially, misunderstands the nature of Varvel's art.

The figure below is a scruffy progenitor of the cleaned-up Frito Bandito (above) long used to promote corn chips. Note that the commercial caricature's teeth are whiter and straighter, the mustache is thinner and styled, and the sombrero is intact. 

First of all, stereotypes are vital to the way editorial cartoons convey their meaning. Varvel has been hammered for his depiction of the man leading his children (apparently) through the dining-room window. Clearly, the family is meant to be seen as Mexican or Central American. If the baseball cap and the Pancho Villa mustache clearly signal this identity, it is a fairly gentle representation, certainly not as much of a demeaning caricature as, say, that notorious cartoon commercial shill, Frito Bandito.

The word "stereotype" has acquired a bad reputation, but the problem with stereotyping is not that it is entirely false or necessarily vicious; rather, it is a narrowing of perspective isolating certain perceptions about a group of people. It keeps us from appreciating the variety within the group being identified. Even so, it is vital to the way editorial cartoonists make their points within the single-panel confines of their genre. Favorable and unfavorable stereotypes may exist side by side; they used to be quite blatant, and figures were often slapped with labels to underline the identification, as in the 1940 cartoon (below right). The Nazi soldier is a huge, slumping monster; the Scandinavian maiden, virginal and natively costumed. The rape subtext is clear. Stereotypes are essential in conveying the message — dehumanizing the enemy, making his prey seem to cry out for our protection.

Varvel is quite clever at creating his own stereotypes or iconic signifiers of the politicians and activists he draws so well.  In Varvel's world, secular ACLU lawyers tend to offset their balding pates with short ponytails; they look ridiculous — that's the point. The cartoonist's visual mockery ranges from  exaggeration to winking fancifulness: Obama's ears are nearly as big as Dumbo's. Bill Clinton was always hilariously depicted in boxer shorts decorated with red hearts.  B. Patrick Bauer, the Indiana General Assembly's former Speaker of the House, dependably wore an askew toupee with the price tag attached. This is in the tradition of Herblock's decades-long depiction of Richard Nixon with five o'clock shadow; the cartoonist ceremoniously gave the controversial politician a clean shave after Nixon became president. (In retrospect, the stubble should have stayed.)

For several hours before the Star took down Varvel's cartoon, the undocumented immigrant dad had his mustache erased in a vain attempt to quell the outrage. The cartoonist was thus deprived of an essential element in conveying his message. The immigrants who are mostly the focus of dispute over immigration policy do come from the Hispanic countries south of the U.S. border. That identification was essential in order for Varvel to raise his objections to Obama's action. The Thanksgiving feast host's words in the cartoon bubble also make clear that Varvel's quarrel is with what Obama did. There is nothing in Varvel's art to suggest he is against Latin Americans.

The family's entrance through an open window instead of the front door emphasizes what Varvel sees as some immigrants' illegal intrusion into American society. Such imagery has to be part of the shorthand necessary to editorial cartooning. The unexpected guests couldn't be depicted showing up at the front door, as someone suggested in one of the many online comments it has been my depressing duty to read in studying this brouhaha. A front-door entry would convey legitimacy, which Varvel and those who think like him are at pains to withhold from undocumented immigrants.

The Varvel cartoon controversy seems to indicate a sad, narrowing trend of permissible discourse in America. Cries of "offensive" and "inappropriate" — and particularly the loose application of the "racist" label — tend to rule out of bounds creative expression that ought to be seen in a larger context. That context was glossed over in the public apology offered by Varvel's boss, Jeff Taylor.

On  this blog, I am a relentless defender of the arts.  I see Varvel's Nov. 21 cartoon as the latest example of his skillful expression of political viewpoints that are almost invariably opposed to mine. But this piquant drawing, like most of his work, falls well within the conventions —  including technical aplomb, symbiosis of word and image, communicative power, and conciseness — of the art form to which he has long contributed with distinction.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

'German lives matter': Shedding light on crowds and conflict in music and the real world through the prisms of Nuremberg and Ferguson

What a kerfuffle I got into when I objected to the interruption of a St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert by demonstrators protesting the police shooting of Michael Brown! It was especially galling to some on Facebook that I posted my change of mind about the incident a day after saying it was an honor for the orchestra to be deemed relevant enough in today's world to attract protesters.

The much-dreaded rioting in the streets that marked the aftermath of the fatal August incident recurred spectacularly last night after a grand jury determined there were insufficient grounds for indicting the Ferguson police officer who killed Brown.

Police and protesters act out their roles in the aftermath of the grand jury's decision..
Now, in response to that mass lawlessness,  I'm ready to suggest that the SLSO be proactive in reaching out in good will to the community, specifically inviting the demonstrators back to Powell Hall with the hope that this time they will stay to listen.

And what will be on the program? Setting aside the impracticality of my selection, I maintain that the riot that ends the second act of "Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg" plus the protagonist Hans Sachs' monologue early in the third might be about the best that classical music has to offer on the subject.

There is precedent for the tumult Wagner brings to a peak in the second-act finale. Choruses in Passion settings called "turbas" allowed such composers as J.S. Bach to indulge a dramatic flair that the formality of musical settings of the Gospel narrative otherwise discouraged.

"Turbulent" derives from the Latin word for crowd ("turba,") and these choruses vividly contrast with stately Passion chorales and heart-wrenching arias in presenting uproar, specifically in opposition to Jesus during his final pre-Resurrection days. A short example that's better known than the vivid turbas in Bach's St. Matthew and St. John Passions will be heard often next month, when choruses throughout the English-speaking world bark out "He trusted in God, that he would deliver him, let him deliver him, if he delight in him" in performances of Handel's "Messiah."

The brawling that concludes Act 2 of "Die Meistersinger" is entirely a secular matter, springing from an aesthetic and personal dispute between Sextus Beckmesser, a foolish pedant, and his fellow mastersinger Sachs as Beckmesser attempts to perform a clumsy original song without interruption. Their noisy argument brings out the Nurembergers, including members of and adherents to competing guilds, and disorder piles up in delicious confusion.

Eugen Gura as Sachs contemplating eternal folly.
I'm not suggesting any but the roughest of  parallels between the operatic melee and the Ferguson disorders (which many brave residents tried to forestall, by the way).  But if a semistaged version of the Nuremberg riot were linked (after the Night Watchman's brief coda of consolation) to Sachs' reflective monologue "Wahn! Wahn! Ueberall Wahn!," a worthwhile lesson could be imparted that might make a small contribution to the healing Ferguson sorely needs now.

I'll quote Peter Branscombe's translation in part: "Madness! Madness! / Everywhere madness! / Wherever I look searchingly / in city and world chronicles, / to seek out the reason / why, till they draw blood, / people torment and flay each other / in useless, foolish anger! / No one has reward / or thanks for it: / driven to flight, / he thinks he is hunting; / hears not his own / cry of pain / When he digs into his own flesh / he thinks he is giving himself pleasure! / It is the old madness, / without which nothing can happen / nothing whatever! / If it halts somewhere in its course / it is only to gain new strength in sleep: / suddenly it awakens, / then see who can master it!"

Digging into our own flesh: Ferguson burns on Nov. 24.
You'll note that Sachs acknowledges the role of conflict in fomenting change. He deplores violence's  perpetual energy and (as the monologue continues) resolves to apply himself in transforming wasteful struggle into a perpetual good. Sachs' interests in the process are laden with cultural patriotism, which comes to the fore in his concluding warning and the opera's final chorus.

As Steven R. Cerf pointed out in the essay "False Dawn" (Opera News, Jan. 16, 1993), Sachs' address to his fellow Germans was often cut in Metropolitan Opera productions during the same era the Nazis were exalting it as support for their imperialist, racist program. Wagner's well-known and oft-proclaimed anti-Semitism seemed to lend proleptic support for this malign interpretation.

But in context, Sachs' "Wahn! Wahn! Ueberall Wahn!" monologue joins with the opera's finale to say that integrity is the watchword for all progress, reconciliation is a worthwhile agenda, and traditional values are a reliable but not exclusive guide to civic peace. Shared values undergird the hope that new ways of acting and thinking will be adopted for the benefit of all.

The citizens of Ferguson, civilian and law-enforcement personnel alike, are perhaps not hearing their own cries of pain as they play their accustomed roles. As far as race is concerned, maybe no Americans are hearing those cries properly.

"German lives matter," Wagner's philosophical cobbler is saying, in effect. "Black lives matter," the protesters shouted in October as they left the hall without staying for Brahms' German Requiem. With my fantasy concert in mind, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra could proclaim musically that all lives matter — aided by a nasty genius' masterwork.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Musical memories (chiefly acoustical) of San Juan, Argentina

Back blogging after a two-week hiatus, I want to convey my impressions of the music I heard in Argentina — not so much as a critic of performances but of the places where performances happen.

Mozart Requiem rehearsal with local choir (supplemented only at final rehearsal by singers from Buenos Aires).
Specifically, I set down this paean to the Juan Victoria Auditorium in San Juan, Argentina, where I heard,  in addition to an abundance of student performances, two concerts by the Symphony Orchestra of the National University of San Juan. My wife, Susan Raccoli, and I were visiting at the invitation of our younger son, William Harvey, concertmaster since last spring of that orchestra and violin teacher at the university.

Soprano sang arias by Gounod and Bellini.
I was thoroughly charmed by the acoustic environment of the concerts, a week apart (Nov. 14 and 21). I found it hard to stay away from rehearsals for the second program, which comprised Mozart's Requiem and three arias performed with the orchestra by one of the guest soloists, the enchanting Veronica Cangemi, who hails from Mendoza, the province just south of San Juan, and enjoys an international career. No matter where I sat, the sound was generous and enveloping, but never glaring. Clarity was unrelenting, exposing errors as much as excellence. But the hall itself fortunately maximizes excellence.

I have an obvious conflict of interest in connection with the Nov. 14 concert, at which William was the violin soloist in Edouard Lalo's "Symphonie espagnole." Connoisseurs of conflicts of interest will understand that I'm reluctant as well to review the second concert, in which William sat in his customary concertmaster position.

So let me attempt to get outside my comfort zone — since I'm not well-versed in either architecture or acoustics — and sketch in what I think contributes to the splendor of this hall. The room contains a thousand seats, divided into three long sections by two side aisles, each with 48 steps. It's an interior room, so the artificial lighting has to rely on reflection off the blond wood and not on any natural light.

The layout could be a fire marshal's nightmare. Though the side aisles are reasonably wide, there are only two exits at the back of the hall for the audience, and two more on either side of the stage for the use of musicians and stagehands. This physical plainness presumably simplified the acoustical design. And when you look overhead, there is an elegant coffered ceiling, with no supplements such as adjustable acoustic clouds or, as in the Ruth Lilly Hall at the University of Indianapolis' DeHaan Fine Arts Center, curtains.

Side wall detail, with break between smooth and uneven pattern in center of photo
The sound doesn't have any irrelevant extra places to eddy into,  in other words. Smooth, curved walls project from the back of the stage, where the wall is topped by organ pipes. When the walls reach the audience, they break into a checkerboard pattern of large rectangular panels about an inch-and-a-half thick that provide a low-relief effect. There is a slight wave to  the side walls that further enhances distribution of the music.

Sr. Juan Victoria (for he was the architect, and the hall was named for him) extended the purity of his conception to the stage. The risers from side to side are permanent. Emmanuel Siffert, the orchestra's excellent director, told me that the physical
Emmanuel Siffert has improved San Juan orchestra in short order.
inflexibility is somewhat regrettable from an artistic standpoint. With a full complement of string players, there is no choice but to situate wind and percussion instruments a level or two higher. The chorus (when needed) occupies the remaining risers up to the back wall. From stem to stern, it's an unfussy, almost unadaptable design.

About 75 singers — a combination of a local and a Buenos Aires choir — participated in the Requiem. This seemed an ideal size for the hall and for Mozart. At their most strenuous moments, the choristers didn't overpower the orchestra. True, they were often not the last word in subtlety, and somewhere on my long wish list of performers I might like to hear at Juan Victoria would be a choir with a sweeter tone, where appropriate.*

Throughout, I was impressed at the proportionality of the sound: Successive moments of contrast came across in the proper relation to one another. You could be aware not just of louds and softs, but of the roles dynamic and textural contrasts play throughout — presumably in the mind of the composer, and expertly drawn from the musicians by Siffert.

One example here will have to suffice, from late in the Mass: "Agnus Dei" (possibly more Franz Xaver Sussmayr than Mozart, but surely enlivened by the ghost of genius) opened with the choir's vigorous "Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world" with imploring violin phrases clearly delineated, as if to set up the choir's humbly intoned next phrase, "grant them eternal rest."  That was then echoed quietly by clarinets and bassoons. Those three stages of expression are all there on the page, of course, but the hall gets some of the credit for giving them appropriate meaning and stature in the Nov. 21 concert. The rest goes to Siffert and his orchestra; and then the rest — from this quarter at least (see full disclosure above) — must be silence.

*Also among my Juan Victoria fantasies would be a solo piano recital, a concert by a first-class string quartet or a brass quintet, and a contemporary-ensemble performance involving spatial separation of the musicians — maybe something by eighth blackbird. And who knows how music needing restrained amplification might come across? Juan Victoria may just have to book Roomful of Teeth.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg lends a touch of eccentricity to disciplined Russian orchestra's Palladium concert

At this late date, it may seem like the crudest kind of piling on to add my tongue-clucking voice to the extensive critical commentary on Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's stage appearances and musical interpretations. The American violinist has been before the public since she was barely out of her teens, and she is now 53.

Only a hard heart could be totally unsympathetic to her, ever since the kitchen accident she sustained as a rising star that sidelined her career and threw her into suicidal depression years ago. Still, we are left with what to make of the kind of impression she made Friday night at the Palladium in a guest appearance with the touring Moscow State Symphony Orchestra.

An artist's having surmounted personal struggles can never be the whole story. The main focus has to
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg: A diary approach to Bruch
be on what the artist delivers in one particular performance after another. What Salerno-Sonnenberg presented as soloist in Max Bruch's Concerto No. 1 in G minor here was puzzling and fitfully distracting.

The anxiety about the health of classical music has recently reached fever pitch. Back when Salerno-Sonnenberg was forging her reputation as a free spirit and exporting it to the mass public in the course of several appearances on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, she was symbolic of a new classical spirit overflowing with personality. Her early career thus attained a weight and breadth that helped tamp down the controversy about how she chose to represent the music — and how she looked when doing so.

Wearing a red blouse and sparkly black trousers, Salerno-Sonnenberg was a full-bore performer  from top to toe in her Carmel engagement. By the finale, she punctuated tutti passages (when the soloist is idle) with a bit of disco swaying to the beat. In the first movement, she chose to play along with the violins in the tuttis, an unusual choice in a romantic work. Her shoulder-length hair, in need of one, possibly two, barrettes, regularly flopped into her face and had to be swept back. The pained intensity of her facial expressions — once regularly commented upon by critics — seemed a minor matter in comparison.

More stoic performers can sometimes strike the public as stuffed shirts. This violinist is definitely at the other end of the spectrum. The projection of a strong personality is not out of place in classical music. But the irony is that a performer bent on demonstrating she is "really into the music" may render the audience less so. The audience, I suspect, becomes more "into" the soloist's being into the music.

So what about her concept of the Bruch? Salerno-Sonnenberg took to an extreme the composer's qualms about calling this piece a concerto rather than a fantasy. There's such a seductive, free-flowing layout, especially in the first two movements, that the soloist felt free to indulge in lots of introspection. Much of this came through in extreme dynamics, mostly at the soft end of the spectrum. The first-movement entrance of the violin — marked "forte" in the score I have — came out as a pianissimo tendril.

Extremely soft playing was frequent elsewhere, sometimes in cadences whose near-inaudibility weakened the line's structural integrity. Salerno-Sonnenberg's overall approach, combined with a tense, fast vibrato, amounted to a "Dear Diary" interpretation of the Bruch G minor. Conductor Pavel Kogan was hard-pressed at times to keep his mighty orchestra from covering the soloist. Still, there seemed to be a remarkable meeting of the minds in this performance,

That can be put forward as a credit to Kogan's control of his disciplined Russian ensemble. The string sections (the listed names totaled more than I could see) were larger than we are used to hearing in this sadly reduction-in-force era for American orchestras. The full-orchestra sound Friday was immensely powerful, with strings in such numbers making a more than adequate counterweight to brass and percussion. Woodwind voices were more individualistic than we are used to hearing in the best American orchestras, but their coordination was so perfect that the result was a keen blend.

The Overture-Fantasy "Romeo and Juliet" opened the concert — fiery and tender, as appropriate. It would be hard to hear sharper rhythmic definition in the "conflict" episodes than was evident in this performance. Accents of foreboding made the introductory material especially thrilling. The love theme, among several Tchaikovsky melodies that have attracted pop composers, was beautifully laid out by English horn and violas.

After intermission came the tumultuous and innovative Fourth Symphony (in F minor, op. 36). The kind of sprightly playing that was later confirmed by two contrasting encores was foretold in a well-knit account of the Scherzo, with its pinpoint, dynamically subtle string pizzicati and the cheery unanimity of the wind instruments. The outsize emotions of the first and fourth movements were fully engaged, but at no sacrifice of ensemble unity. In this repertoire, at least, the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra under Kogan's direction sounded solidly world-class. And with Salerno-Sonnenberg in the spotlight, the visiting musicians showed they could be gracious hosts as well.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

'Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone' -- maybe I wasn't there to begin with, and if I was, I was golden

Claude Arpeggio knew that a musical career in the mid-21st century required a lot of image upkeep.

From Claude Arpeggio's hands, nothing but brilliance.
It became the main focus of his life, and in the late digital age, it often seemed like a losing battle. An image of brilliance — matching his own frank concept of himself as an artist — had to be secured.

Extensive training, constant practice, and what he flattered himself was artistic insight could take a concert pianist only so far. If any nay-saying showed up in an online search for "Claude Arpeggio," there was no telling how much damage it might do. The possibilities ate away at Arpeggio.

He could look back on the precedent several decades earlier when a pianist named Dejan Lazic used the European Union's assertion of "a right to be forgotten" as justification for asking the Washington Post to take down a less than enraptured review of his recital.  The floodgates of image control had opened since then. No longer was it sufficient for a publicist to pluck positive phrases from reviews and lard them throughout program biographies, where they were eagerly picked up and reprinted by concert presenters.

No matter how well his practicing had gone, Arpeggio trudged away from the keyboard after preparing a concerto or a recital program. He felt ready to give his best, but he was steeling himself against misery.  He fussed in advance over how depressed he expected to be if any response to his performance carried even a hint of disapproval or boredom.

It would be there for all time, of course. Sometimes it came from one of the few remaining professional music critics at the media companies still quaintly tied to newspapers. More  often the source was the uncontrollable blogosphere and comment threads  populated by snobbish trolls. If it marred his professional image, what right did it have to be available to all comers forever?

Intermission chatter could be threatening.
And now that Google Glass had yielded to even more wearable technology, some of it internalized and embedded, the average listener's thoughts during intermission — not to mention what in former times was gossip and the private exchange of quips or sneers — might also be added to a searchable open book on a performing artist. The dilemma: Could a public career be sustained on the artist's privately held terms? Could "image" be protected as something inalienably one's own?

"Do you think Arpeggio really understands Schumann?"  "That encore was too long, and he sounded tired." "He's having to cover those left-hand octaves with more pedal than ever, did you notice? Why doesn't he just practice them more?"

The record was accumulating. Arpeggio could depend on a full schedule of performances, fortunately. He could take comfort in being "well-thought-of," but what faint praise that amounted to!  The more he performed, the more there were comments winging their way around the Internet and its cyber-successors. And they would always be there, the image-burnishing ones alongside the iconoclastic, the skeptical, the disparaging.

Arpeggio finally hired a lawyer, someone who gradually found ways of having "the right to be forgotten" increasingly established internationally for performing artists. This wily attorney, Cecil N. DeSist, was able to get scores of mixed to negative reviews and stray comments taken down. Rumors that a whiff of sulfur lingered after he left a room didn't faze the pianist.

DeSist became so good at positive image reinforcement that Arpeggio found a new reason to be depressed: His resume began to have notable holes in it. Out-and-out raves became the only publicly available accounts of his artistry. A stunning recital in 2019. A performance of "fully achieved mastery" in 2027.  Fresh, brilliant insights into a warhorse concerto in 2031.

What had Arpeggio been up to? people began to wonder.  And when DeSist cowed music-lovers into  deleting any slight demurrals they may have posted — a near-universal practice by 2045, in many formats — this formerly prominent pianist became something of a will-o'-the-wisp.

People who continued to flock to Arpeggio's performances would soon forget they had been there, particularly if there was anything they disliked, even mildly. His greatest fans — those who felt he could do no wrong and never said a discouraging word about him— became uncertain they had ever heard him. They might bring out a concert program from, say, January 2041, as certain proof that they had been in attendance.

But they often found little evidence that it was part of a full Arpeggio season. Had they imagined it? So what if they had kept a program? Printed programs had become an anachronism, usually run off by the handful as a souvenir or a joke. His fans'  memories of perfection became washed out, wilted under the dull glare of uncertainty.

DeSist tried to improve upon his success securing Arpeggio's selective "right to be forgotten" by extending similar services to other clients. The artistic world was full of potential for him. But in order to protect his first client, he was unable to demonstrate how useful his services had been. The outside world could see nothing but a long, oddly broken record of Arpeggio's success on the concert stage.

Arpeggio's publicists were annoyed that they could no longer cherry-pick reviews for juicy blurbs, because complete reviews were unavailable unless they were packed with unstinting kudos. Arpeggio's shining image was becoming indistinguishable from obscurity.

Arpeggio continued to pay DeSist a hefty retainer. And he told himself that his image, as represented by scattered raves over three decades, in fact was sterling — just what he always felt he had a right to. But then he couldn't help noticing repeated references to himself as "the right-to-be-forgotten warrior." His reputation became crowded with such phrases. He decided these were clouding his image and had to go.

"This fight is getting too much attention," he told his attorney. "Do something about it, Cecil. I'm an artist, not a controversy."

DeSist had an inkling that to go after such published references to his client as a newsmaker would diminish his own marketability. If Arpeggio's image had to be cleansed of references to the struggle they had undertaken together, where would DeSist's new clients come from? Yet he had to acknowledge that the more Arpeggio's success in controlling his image was known, the more persistent curiosity about what must be forgotten would increase.

The lawyer, whose power was assuming diabolical proportions,  reluctantly started exerting pressure to suppress references to the fight for the right to be forgotten. One court judgment in his favor went beyond his fondest hopes: The ruling not only expunged references to Arpeggio's lengthy cultivation of a positive image, but also declared it was impossible that such a person ever existed. The right to be forgotten had become absolute.

Attorney Cecil N. DeSist's office in palmier days.
So when Arpeggio died — no one knew if or how much his powers had declined —  DeSist was forced to respond to the occasional journalist's or music-lover's inquiry by denying  there had ever been a concert pianist named Claude Arpeggio. From a high-profile lawyer, DeSist himself sank into obscurity, piecing together a threadbare living drawing up trusts and wills.

He ordered Arpeggio's family to deny any relationship to the pianist and, if pressed, to proclaim their unawareness of his existence. Then he married the widow and adopted the children, which provided some cover. But he still had to turn aside unwelcome displays of curiosity. The effort was unrelenting.

"Didn't you use to be Claude Arpeggio's attorney — that pianist who never gave a bad performance?" he would be asked occasionally by a visitor to his shabby office.

DeSist would look at his interlocutor levelly, then scoff lightly. "That would be an enviable position to be in,  wouldn't it? Never a bad performance? Everyone slips up now and then. There couldn't have been such a person, could there? And by the way, it may be illegal for you to suggest there ever was."

The visitor would stare at him briefly, then look away, flustered.

DeSist would then appear to relax, but in truth he never enjoyed a relaxed moment again. His eyes  drifted upward to a wall calendar. Wall calendars had become a popular retro product, like turntables.  The page, topped by a serene photo depicting mountaintop removal, told him it was August 2047.

He was not a religious man, but he had begun to entertain apocalyptic thoughts. "Surely these are the end times," he announced wearily to himself.

He looked up at his visitor in alarm.  Did he hear that? Fortunately, DeSist had remembered to turn off his Brainbook share function. Many people had gotten careless about that. Privacy was so 20th-century, and connectivity had long ago banished civility, except for the automatic kind the lawyer found himself extending to his infrequent, annoyingly inquisitive visitors.

"Now," he would say brightly, "let's talk about updating that will of yours, shall we?"

Monday, November 3, 2014

Reductive jazz, with mixed results: Pared-down Trio Triveni has lots of tricks up its sleeve

Trumpeter Avishai Cohen's cogent trio with bassist Omer Avital and drummer Nasheet Waits has just brought into the public square "Dark Nights" (Anzic Records).  Trio Triveni chooses to offer quizzical invitations into a type of ensemble that has a hard time justifying the full investment of a listener's time and attention.

What is this odd trio's 3rd CD all about?
The rather dour flash and gaudy introspection of the first several pieces on "Dark Nights" failed to engage me.  Eventually, I admired the teasing hurry-up-and-wait push-pull of a Cohen original, "The OC." I needed something more than a blues-saturated nod to Charles Mingus represented by "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" to be convinced of what Trio Triveni can do when they aren't putting their best foot forward on the leader's compositions.

Fortunately, Frank Foster's "Shiny Stockings" did it for me.  It is an oblique interpretation of a tune better known in big-band outings (starting, of course, with Count Basie). Waits proves to be a wizard on brushes, and Avital's solo favoring high positions on the fingerboard is wryly glitzy and memorable. I was amply amused by the trio's suggestion of big-band strutting toward the end.

When Cohen invites his sister Anat to lend her fetching clarinet playing to his "Old Soul," the program reaches its peak — almost too late, as it's the ninth of "Dark Nights"' 10 tracks.  Keyboardist Gerald Clayton is also on hand. The upshot, frankly, is that I'm more engaged by Trio Triveni here when a guest or two is on board.

The disc ends with another standard, "I Fall In Love Too Easily," a lovely melody nicely understated by the band. But I wondered if, despite Trio Triveni's internal rapport, everything really hangs together in the sparse trumpet-bass-drums atmosphere. Or is "some assembly required" in the listener's imagination, maybe involving more work than I'm inclined to undertake?

Omer Avital draws deep on heritage.
Cohen is a protean trumpeter with much to contribute in somewhat larger ensemble settings. He's a giving and creative sideman, as is shown in a Motema release under the guidance of his Trio Triveni bassist, Avital.  Titled "New Song" after one of the most appealing tracks on the disc, this quintet release is a high-status program of the new Israeli-rooted jazz.

There are some mighty tributaries feeding into the contemporary Israeli mainstream. On this disc, they are principally Latin and blues. The rolling, infectious pulse of Israeli folk music gathers into itself many aspects of Latin jazz: Pianist Yonathan Avishai incorporates the clangorous Latin keyboard style seamlessly into such an Avital original as "Avishkes."

Plenty of room for funkiness in Avital's muse is taken advantage of by such pieces as "Marcoc" and the provocative set-closer, "Small Time S---."  Drummer Daniel Freedman rolls out catchy patterns, using a variety of timbres over the course of the program. He always deploys them in a straightforward manner, showcased with particular flair on "Yemen Suite."

In addition to Cohen's spirited trumpet, Avital enjoys the services of tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm in the front line. Frahm can sometimes cut loose with authority, as he does in "Sabah El-Kheir," but mostly he's an unflashy player with lots of stirring ideas.

Jazz has long been linked to vernacular dance forms, but if there's one nagging doubt I have about "New Song," it's that the music is so charged with folk influences that it almost seems incomplete without having dancers to accompany. It's encouraging that jazz has become such an accommodating international language that the best jazz musicians the world over can represent their own cultures in it. But much of "New Song" suggests the music might as well be the spur to — and the setting for — choreography with deep roots.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Inspiration cuts 13 ways in adventuresome string quartet Brooklyn Rider's new recording

Brooklyn Rider: They got whole worlds in their hands.
Having taken its name from an early- 20th-century movement inspired by artistic cross-fertilization, Brooklyn Rider has made an album out of a series of new works inspired by a wide variety of artists.

The expressionist "Blue Rider" group brought a fruitful interdisciplinary vigor to the pioneering work of Arnold Schoenberg and Wassily Kandinsky in the early 1900s. The string quartet Brooklyn Rider has used its extensive network of champions and collaborators to assemble 13 new works in which the chosen composers salute artists they regard as inspirational, ranging from James Brown to Igor Stravinsky, Chick Corea to John Steinbeck.

In the 21st century, confidence about the future domination of any given artistic tendency is probably misplaced. As shown by these works, stylistic diversity is now cutting-edge. Across the wide variety represented in "Brooklyn Rider Almanac" (Mercury Classics), the only discernible trend is toward the deliberate, unironic infusion of vernacular elements, particularly as to rhythm and harmony, in composed works that fit under the awkward rubric of "art music."

Glen Kotche's "Ping Pong Fumble Thaw" (inspired by German electronic-music artist Jens Massel) was adapted from a minimalist piece for solo drum kit. Its performance here has that tight-knit energy always characteristic of Brooklyn Rider, playing as one despite the ping-ponging of notes across a nervous landscape.

Bill Frisell's "John Steinbeck" creates a hazy atmosphere typical of Frisell's jazz guitar playing and studio wizardry, while saluting with a drifting expressive warmth the novelist who brought California's fertile Salinas Valley into national consciousness.

Sometimes I found the pieces too cute and self-conscious to  justify their length. Christine Courtin's "Tralala" precisely represents the way in which she wants to salute Igor Stravinsky, but it seems to settle for a faux-naivete whose charm wears thin before its seven-minute duration expires. Greg Saunier's "Quartet, Parts One and Two" toys with string nasality delivered in extended snorts, separated by pauses whose significance remains beyond me.

What struck me as worth hearing in concert someday? Rubin Kodheli's "Necessary Henry!," a zesty tribute to the intricate jazz compositions of Henry Threadgill. Its bluesy feeling across a generous registral palette is overlaid with changing meters; its abrupt ending seems definitively Threadgillian. Also piquantly evocative of its source, and not in a slavish manner, was Vijay Iyer's "Dig the Say."  With its kaleidoscopic treatment of rhythm, including repetitive figures meant to energize the listener like the Godfather of Soul, the work raises to an exalted level the music of James Brown.

The folksiness of other pieces, like Aoife O'Donovan's "Show Me" (inspirational source: Faulkner) and Padma Newsome's "Simpson's Gap" (inspiration: Australian watercolorist Albert Namatjira), conjured fresh enchantments and didn't overstay their welcome. But I liked even more such compositions as Daniel Cords' "The Haring Escape" — i.e., compositions that neither struck me as puzzling nor reminded me too much of other genres.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

With memories of a choir-intense 'Requiem' still fresh, the ISO turns its attention to instrumental Mozart this weekend

Center Grove High School will be the lucky site of the next "317 Series" concert by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, thanks to the knack for Mozart displayed by guest artists Augustin Hadelich and Nicholas McGegan Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Both the violinist and the conductor have appeared with the ISO before, but Friday's concert was the 
Nicholas McGegan brought out ISO's Mozart potential.
only full-length all-Mozart program starring them at the orchestra's downtown Indianapolis home. The customary Saturday-night classical follow-up is being skipped to accommodate the new run-out series' "Greater Greenwood Program One" Sunday afternoon. (Spillover Halloween chills are on tap tonight at the Hilbert as the ISO accompanies the movie "Psycho.")

To focus on the batonless conductor first: something magical happened throughout the concert's second half. One of Mozart's great symphonies, composed in haste 231 years ago this weekend in the Austrian city from which it takes its nickname, demonstrated McGegan's great gifts.

Performance of Symphony No. 36 in C major ("Linz") was so well put together, shot through with light and bounce, that isolated foibles weighed minimally in the scales. The first and last movements are particularly notable for their variety of theme, texture, and timbre. They illustrate the mature composer's genius for combination and contrast, a way of making fresh material seem the most natural possible choice in its surroundings. That genius came through Friday.

Buoyancy seems to adhere to McGegan's music-making, as does a feeling of spontaneity. On the whole, in the "Linz" the ISO sounded like the Mozart orchestra Raymond Leppard tried to fashion over the course of 14 years as music director and only sporadically achieved. The difference speaks to changes of ISO personnel since then, as well as gains in precision and responsiveness spurred by his successors, Mario Venzago and Krzysztof Urbanski. McGegan took full advantage of that potential to elicit a memorable performance.

The concert-opener was effective as a way of raising the curtain, if much less an illustration of Mozart's skill at synthesis. Rarely can you apply the word "bombastic" to Mozart, but it sort of fits here.  In the opera seria genre he inherited for "Idomeneo," ballet numbers were typically part of the work's concluding flourishes. Often they were the work of another composer besides the one who set the text itself to music, but Mozart was proud of the opportunity to take on the task himself here. This is showy music, full of youthful vigor, but somewhat on a lower level than the best of "Idomeneo."

Augustin Hadelich: Vivid in Mozart.
After K. 367 fulfilled its mission, Hadelich came onstage for two works. He made quite a showcase out of the Violin Concerto No. 4 in D,  K. 218, playing the "tuttis" along with the orchestra. The pace was brisk: I wasn't convinced the "grazioso" (graceful) designation on the concluding rondo was well-served at the tempo Hadelich and McGegan chose.

The violinist's tone and articulation were bright and well-pronounced. Hadelich's original cadenzas were chock-full of zesty quotes and paraphrases from the score; the one for the second movement seemed a little too long, however.

The Rondo from Serenade No. 7 in D major ("Haffner") provided the occasion for further solo virtuosity from Hadelich. The teasing hesitation before each return of the rondo theme provided great interactive fun between soloist and conductor. The composer's wit and fecundity were well served. You could sense McGegan's lively imagination as a collaborator and, most especially, someone able to channel the overflow of high spirits and cleverness Mozart never ran short of until his final illness and premature death.

In response to a second whooping ovation, Hadelich offered Paganini's Caprice No. 9 as an encore — glib, undercharacterized, and a bit scratchy. If only this welcome ISO appearance by the 2006 gold medalist of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis had ended with his scintillating Mozart!