Saturday, January 31, 2015

Two popular Russian masterpieces constitute Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's second midwinter festival program

With the music director taking off the middle week of "Fantasy, Fate and War: A Midwinter Russian Music Festival," a near-exact contemporary of his mounts the podium of the Hilbert Circle Theatre to conduct works by Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky.

Han-Na Chang makes her ISO debut.
Han-Na Chang is also a colleague of Krzysztof Urbanski's on the artistic side of the Trondheim (Norway) Symphony Orchestra. After making a sensation as a precocious concert cellist, the South Korean musician switched to conducting in her late teens, and most of the 32-year-old maestra's career has been devoted to wielding the baton. Since last season, Chang has been principal guest conductor at Trondheim, where Urbanski was appointed chief conductor in 2010.

On Friday night, Chang made her Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra debut. She showed herself to be a thoroughly schooled conductor with pinpoint control over what the musicians in front of her were doing. In Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E minor, she put her characteristic nervous tension and quick reflexes to good use in eliciting from the ISO an electrifying performance of a popular favorite.

Her background as an instrumentalist must have contributed to drawing a deep, solid tone from all five string sections. The moody introduction to the famous horn solo in the second movement (played with sterling clarity and warmth by Robert Danforth) was richly evocative. When the cellos got their turn at that horn melody, they made it just as memorable. The string sections also led the way in the flexibility Chang encouraged via a more thoroughgoing adherence to the "con alcuna licenza" direction at the head of the movement than one often hears. There was thus appropriate "license" that moved well beyond the floating horn solo.

String articulation was at a high level in the waltz movement, and at the start of the finale, it was startling to hear so much earthy Wagnerian pomp in the opening measures. The heaviness fit, somehow, in music never far from looming Fate, despite the Russian composer's well-documented dislike of Richard Wagner's operas.

Tempo shifts later on were generally well-managed, though one acceleration made so abrupt a contrast  it came out jumbled at first. Chang's quick, sometimes large gestures led to a broken stick early in the finale, and she finished without interruption clutching its stub in her right hand. Such an accident and the vigor that caused it couldn't distract from Chang's continually demonstrated ability to forge a unified performance. She always seemed attentive to the passing of similar material among orchestral choirs, especially in the first movement.

Before intermission, Chang was joined by another ISO debutant, pianist Vadym Kholodenko, gold
Cliburn gold medalist played Prokofiev with panache.
medalist at the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition. His previous Indianapolis appearance was in a solo recital last March.

Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, a work almost as popular as the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, made up the concert's first half. Characteristically barbed and angular, it makes room for a swelling romantic melody in the finale that lines it up spiritually with concertos by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.

It displayed Kholodenko's keen feeling for evenly voiced chords, melting lyrical tone, polished passagework, and displayed his acute rhythmic sense. The composer's sardonic humor wasn't shortchanged by either guest; they worked together well.

Kholodenko, full of ideas of his own, never allowed them to run away with him. His partnership with the ISO was steady and inspired throughout. Called back for an encore, the Kiev native played Henry Purcell's Ground in C minor, a restrained, inward-looking contrast to the effervescent concerto.

Monday, January 26, 2015

A spiritual conquest, a musical milestone: Indy Jazz Fest celebrates 50th anniversary of 'A Love Supreme'

"He that hath ears to hear, let him ear."
 -- Jesus

This is the first blog post I've ever opened with an epigraph from the Bible, but it seems fitting when addressing "A Love Supreme," the John Coltrane masterpiece that enabled him to set a seal upon his spiritual journey away from addiction and his musical journey away from standard musical forms.

Rob Dixon plays "A Love Supreme" (photo by Mark Sheldon)
And the quote also applies to the importance of the tenor saxophonist's outreach to listeners. He was not the only musician in the post-bop era to see the need to reverse the narrowing of the jazz fan base. But he was the most suited to the task — at least in this ambitious sense: "When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hangups."

Evidence is that the 1965 recording indeed reached well beyond the typical jazz audience, and in fact inspired the establishment of a church in Coltrane's name in San Francisco. However you process its spiritual message, "A Love Supreme" is a successful long-form composition as well as a capacious vehicle for personal improvisation.

Rob Dixon and his colleagues revealed both sides Sunday night at the Jazz Kitchen in an Indy Jazz Fest production. The tenor saxophonist led a band including players worthy of paying this golden-anniversary tribute to Coltrane's recording: pianist Steve Allee, bassist Jim Anderson, drummer Steve Houghton — and, expanding the original concept in a manner Coltrane himself toyed with, adding a fifth player, in this case trombonist Wayne Wallace.

The focus was naturally on Dixon as the leader and latter-day representative of the sainted Coltrane. It will be no surprise to report that he did a creditable job of both re-creation and fresh exploration. After his opening rubato cadenza, the band launched into the theme of the first part, "Acknowledgement," wisely foregoing the vocal repetition of the title's gently rocking four-note pattern.

By the time of the prayerful fourth section, "Psalm," it was evident in every phrase that Dixon was a steady pilot whose destination was assured, no detour ahead. He had charged in with gusto after Houghton's splendid solo introduction to "Pursuance," just as focused as he  had been in navigating peaks and valleys earlier, then soaring above the plains below. The combination of freedom and security sometimes took the breath away, as if you were watching one of those IMAX films that put you in the cockpit, zipping around rock formations and skimming the treetops.

Familiar as I am with both the Dixon and Allee styles, it was a treat to hear their well-established personal language tweaked slightly to evoke the styles of both Coltrane and his pianist, McCoy Tyner.
The first reminder from the keyboard was the placement of tremolos behind Wallace's agile solo in "Acknowledgement." In "Pursuance" the pianist got closest to the real McCoy, thickening the texture while keeping a few basic rhythms hard-hitting and full of momentum.

Anderson sometimes had the crowd spellbound with his sensitively wrought, sometimes witty bass solos. Wallace sported a free-floating style, pungent but never overbearing, that made an effective contrast with the forcefulness of Dixon's style.

The evening went beyond "A Love Supreme," whose effective conclusion interpolated the hymnlike "Alabama"  (a good fit with "Psalm").  Two of the extras made a nice pair, and for me the evening could well have ended there: the gentle respite of "Central Park West" (dedicated to the memory of Cynthia Layne) followed by the burning "Impressions." The encore, "Tenor Madness," was a bit of a letdown; but then, encores often are, seeming to cling to the main event for dear life.

"Impressions" featured a smooth but jumping Wallace solo; subtle three-way interaction in the rhythm section, and a well-designed and -executed episode of "trading 8s" with the drummer.

Now about that epigraph. I'll leave to the preachers any conclusive expounding on its meaning. I believe Jesus' direction cuts two ways as far as significant music is concerned. One way is the way of invitation: what is offered to be heard can be heard and understood by everybody.

The other way is more difficult, as so many of Jesus' sayings are: You have no excuse not to get the message in some fashion that suits who you are. Responsibility is involved. You can hear it? Then you can "get it." Barriers down. Go there.

Thus, the open invitation to take in this music also sets up a challenge to hear what it is all about, what it may mean beyond the bounds of entertainment. I think Coltrane is saying that you are free to adopt his spiritual pathway or not; it's made explicit in the poem he wrote for "A Love Supreme." But in some fashion you are charged with absorbing this music into your deepest self. Otherwise, you are not really hearing it. Dixon and his confreres were true to such a mission Sunday night.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Returning to his "second home," Zach Lapidus plays an enchanting Premiere Series concert for the American Pianists Association

For about six years, Zach Lapidus brought his own Portlandia vibe, transmuted and refined by an Indiana University jazz education, to the Indianapolis music scene — with wonderful results. I think I first heard him with Frank Glover outdoors on an electric piano at Eagle Creek Park.  The pleasant setting was far from ideal for appreciating a new player, but Lapidus struck me as someone special.

From promise to mastery: Zach Lapidus conveys certainty and adventure.
Twice during his time here (2008-2014), he was chosen to be a finalist for the Jazz Fellowship Awards, competing for the title of Cole Porter Fellow of the American Pianists Association. The second time was for the current competition, at which I was one of the preliminary judges.

Saturday night was my first chance to hear any of the finalists in the Premiere Series of trio performances at the Jazz Kitchen. One more series concert in the same club setting remains — Kris Bowers' on Feb. 28.

The whole series benefits from the services of two outstanding colleagues for the pianists — bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps.

It's hard to know how to sum up the excellence of this particular trio. Lapidus leads the way with an approach that's clearly the product of a thorough grounding in jazz piano, yet adroitly swerves away from sounding overstudied, so that being in the moment can thrive. Thus, he may have surprised himself in "Yesterdays," the Jerome Kern standard that opened the trio's 90-minute set Saturday.

He said to the audience afterward that he had intended a more restrained interpretation of the song, but let loose because being back in Indianapolis let him "feel like I got out of prison" — a typically challenging New York apartment-dwelling milieu that he's trying to escape in search of more agreeable digs.

It's likely that Lapidus often changes his mind or surprises himself with the direction a particular performance goes. When the New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett indelibly called jazz "the sound of surprise," he didn't mean only for the listener. "Yesterdays" moved from amiable pep to a heavy four-four groove, an organic but startling transformation.  That feeling was well established by the time Phelps confirmed it with a sudden precisely timed outburst to mark the end of Tucker's straightforward solo.

Long admired for his astuteness with harmonies that both startle and confirm, Lapidus knows how to caress a melody as well. The second tune, "Nobody Else But Me," brought that gift to the fore. Jobim's "The Waters of March,"  with its more fragile melodic atmosphere, also allowed the pianist to draw deeply on this gift.

But there was no more magical display of it than in the set's encore, "I'll Never Stop Loving You."
Introduced as a tribute to the much-loved local singer Cynthia Layne, who died last week, this interpretation properly adhered to the enchanting tune, draping its phrases carefully over the harmony, almost as if Lapidus were also projecting Sammy Cahn's lyrics: "The night doesn't question the stars that appear in the skies / So why should I question the stars that appear in my eyes?"

Layne had that kind of effect on people, and it's fair to say the trio's performance secured a place among the best of the many posthumous musical honors she will continue to receive. Many people will never stop loving her.

The set earlier moved fruitfully among several Lapidus originals.  There was "Stray," a whimsical sort of march that flirted with disorder. There was an ingenious mash-up, as he fused Wayne Shorter's "Vonetta" with an almost Whitmanesque evocation of the night, titled "While Brooklyn Sleeps,"  that eventually, high in the treble, conjured up birds out of Messiaen.

The trio kept the intensity high while having fun with an Ornette Coleman-inspired blues,  "This Is Their Music."  Some avant-garde takes on the blues seem to want to escape from the essential blues feeling, but this one never abandoned the form's expressive roots.

Another inspiration derived from the eccentric Japanese author Yukio Mishima, for whom Lapidus came up with a mosaic of frenetic rhythmic patterns linked to Phelps' protean percussion skills. Recurring aggressive episodes evoked the doomed author's nostalgia for samurai culture. This is music that forces recognition of jazz's ever-widening horizons.

And that raises a point that the APA Jazz Fellowship Awards continually makes unavoidable. Jazz contests, as they become ever more firmly established, threaten to engender their own "competition style" — just as classical contests may have done. In jazz, that takes the form of showcasing a pianist's encyclopedic knowledge of more than a century of jazz piano, extending back to ragtime.

Stanley Crouch, a shrewd listener though an unkempt writer about the music, praised this approach in the epilogue to his 2006 book "Considering Genius" in assessing Bill Charlap: "He, like a number of the younger players who have come forward over the last fifteen years or so, calls upon all of the styles of jazz at will, which gives a greater breadth of rhythm to their phrasing and a much more varied harmonic base to their work."

Charlap is one of five judges of this year's final round on March 28. There's a history to uphold here, I suppose. But I like the fact that Lapidus breaks the mold of learned (two syllables, please) pianists. His knowledge of the tradition may be as deep as anyone's, but I don't hear in his performances a constant tinkering with it — clever historical parody.  Breadth of rhythm to his phrasing? Check. Varied harmonic base? Check. It's all there in Lapidus, without his having to "call upon all the styles of jazz." Nuts to that! This shouldn't be Jazz Appreciation 101.

What the music needs is not an endless supply of knowledgeable practitioners, but people whose knowledge is so deeply ingrained with what they have to say for themselves that the listener always receives something that advances the music. Of course, such gifts are rare and not always easy to recognize. And I don't mean to disparage mastery of the Charlap kind.

But the Lapidus kind is closer to what we mean when we correctly apply the oft-abused word "genius."

Friday, January 23, 2015

Standard Operetta Procedure? Air on the Snide of Caution? (Time to Punt: A Football Fantasy)

Following the Super Bowl, New England Paidtotryit Coach Bill Hellichecked is slated to take on a new role — in a production of GoOnDoused's delightful operetta "Deflater Mouse."
Coach points the way toward an operatic turn.

It will be the controversial coach's debut on the opera stage,  the Pretentious Roman Numeral Opera Company producer-director announced at a news conference yesterday.

"Are you sure you've found the rat singer for the role?" a famed sports columnist asked incredulously.

"I'm sure I can count on you to puntificate about this, Mr. Doyel a la Carte," said the impresario, emphasizing the prefix. "You'll do it with your usual savoy-fair, of course.  You've had us at fourth down so many times, but we're not as detached from reality as you might think: We've got good field position; we're first-and-tenuto."

"But can Helichecked even sing?" another reporter asked the grim ex-repetiteur, Surly Rude Offbingo.

"We thought of him at first in a major role, like Prince Alloffkey," Offbingo intoned. "But  singing a mezzo part is not his forte, I'll admit. So we're casting him as Fraudsch, the jailer. That puts him close to where he should be, and it's a speaking role."

"But, judging from the way he talks to the press, Helichecked can't even speak very well," Doyel a la Carte pointed out. "It seems, Surly Rude, like you're taking your opera company from bel canto to Bill-can't-do."

"Look, it's 'Deflater Mouse,' it's funny business all the way through," Offbingo rejoined. "Who knows funny business better than Bill?  He'll squeak by."

Another scribe spoke up: "He can't sing at all, and he doesn't speak too well, yet you're taking a chance with him in your penalty-might production of the current season. Seems like a GoOnDoused grave turnover situation to me. Why?"

"It's a big game-ball, no doubt," Offbingo conceded, "but risk is meat and drink to an opera man. I know you media don't care a beanie about opera, and you won't cut Bill any slack for going beyond normal.

"But that's what the Pretentious Roman Numeral Opera Company is going with. Every Paidtotryit fan will be thrilled. If we get great box office with this, we'll bring him back next season in 'A Mashed Ball.' That's why we're hitting the bottom line with Hellichecked."

Surly Rude Offbingo paused, looked around the room superciliously, then said with a smile:  "So, OK, I get it: He can't sing at all, and he fumbles when he speaks."

Another pause. "You can call it the less air of two evils. See you at 'Deflater Mouse.'"

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Icarus Ensemble flies high at the Jazz Kitchen, offering samples of its forthcoming CD

You can depend upon a jazz group like Icarus Ensemble  to grow artistically as a matter of course: Its members have such a wide range of musical influences and active involvement with the classical tradition that the quintet's continuing creativity is assured.
Mark Ortwein (from left), Peter Hansen, Deane Franke, Gary Walters, Jon Crabiel

The band's internal rapport naturally grows with experience together, even though they are pulled in many other directions as teachers and performers (three of them as members of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra). In a generous first set Monday night at the Jazz Kitchen, Icarus sounded better than ever.

The five musicians are trained in preparing concerts conscientiously. But what's more important to convey a genuine jazz feeling is an informality and spontaneity that can advance the collegial conversation.

After the group's pianist, Gary Walters, opened with a solo tribute to the late Cynthia Layne ("Sophisticated Lady"), that ensemble meld of precision and looseness was immediately apparent in a relaxed Walters original, "Oopsy Daisy."

The group's compositional profile — the Theme from "Black Orpheus" was the set's only non-original —is conspicuously three-dimensional. The witty asperity of "Schizoid" emphasized qualities in the solo playing of its composer, Mark Ortwein, who brought both electric bassoon and soprano sax into intense play during the set.

"Widow's Walk," the penultimate piece, opened with an intriguing violin cadenza by Dean Franke that quoted (according to my son, William) Heinrich Biber's path-breaking passacaglia, then moved to a delightful climax as Ortwein suggested rock-guitar shredding on his plugged-in bassoon. "Widow's Walk" also included Jon Crabiel's well-constructed percussion solo, which was notable for its incorporation of smooth pianissimo rolls.

The set finale put on display the amiable muse of Peter Hansen, the group's bassist, who opened his "Groovin' 2.0" with a long solo, assembled from short bits by the miracle of electronics.  That piece, as well as his "Merry-Go-Round"  and the set-closing "Circle Dance," showed his compositional chops to be in order and cunningly conceived for Icarus' strengths (even though the latter began life as a work for the Ronen Ensemble).

The richness, variety, unfussy structure, and sense of fun communicated by this band raises high hopes for the long-anticipated recording it will release officially in its March 8 return to the Jazz Kitchen.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Psalm-thing else: Butler jazz professor heads a quartet of local stars in an album of originals

It's rare for musical compositions based on the biblical Book of Psalms to be free of verbal references. But Matt Pivec, Butler University's director of jazz studies, links his purely instrumental music on "Psalm Songs" to his fondness for that book — so extravagant in its intimate communication with God, so dependent on turning devotion into enduring words of praise and complaint. Not necessarily, Pivec seems to be saying with his saxophones and all-star rhythm section,

His brief booklet note with this 2013 recording links his inspiration to the Psalms' references to the natural world "in all its dimensions — power, beauty, destruction, creation, strength and fragility." Quite a burden for a jazz record to bear without sounding strained and pretentious! But the saxophonist and his colleagues on this project are straightforward, focused, imaginative, and nimble  throughout the seven tunes.

From the outset, in "As Far As the East," it's easy to find the quartet's music-making infectiously swinging.  Putting his sticks aside and focusing on tambourine, Kenny Phelps lays down a winning groove. The catchy theme, allowing modal exploration, receives a delightful exposition from Pivec and the rest of the band: Steve Allee, piano, and Frank Smith, bass.
Matt Pivec directs jazz studies at Butler.

Pivec's tone on tenor is robust but never overbearing. He has a singer's knack for melody that he sustains throughout his soloing. Without interruption, the second track — "One End of the Sky" — opens up with an indistinct pulse that becomes four-to-the-bar swing. All four players seem to have a fine sense of proportion and put genuine cogency behind their solos.

Phelps' percussion choices are often inspired — soft-headed sticks, then likely a bell tree, on "Whiter Than Snow," for instance. He has a great solo near the end against piano chords. Allee's earlier solo shows the same feeling for melody the leader displays. The tune's intensity never goes out of bounds; a gentle mood obtains throughout. "Can't Take It With," with a recurring phrase that fits the title, sports a catchy pulse with Phelps' typical sensitivity to tone (here, the interplay of rim and small-cymbal patterns).

"Like the Cedars" takes a bebop approach, but in a relaxed vein, its unison tenor-piano line unfolding easily. Pivec plays the way he writes, his solos evincing a fine breadth, rangy without showing off. Of his compositions, I found only "Days Gone By," despite the surface allure of Pivec's floating soprano, somewhat directionless — until a pointed Allee solo pulls it into shape.

The disc's finale, "Head and Beard," has a theme characterized by separated two-chord phrases. This allows lots of space between the tune's main elements, showcasing a dappled ensemble sound in which Smith's bass takes on welcome prominence. The title puns upon Eric Dolphy's eccentrically striding Monk tribute, "Hat and Beard," though Pivec doesn't parody that tune. He's got something else in mind, quite possibly a tribute to the generative Psalmist himself.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Diavolo shares some of its danced wonders of space and structure at the Tarkington

We spend our lives in and around enclosed, manmade structures without thinking very much about how buildings mold and direct our physical selves.

Diavolo, the dance company from Los Angeles whose tour stopped at the Tarkington this weekend, makes art out of that relationship. The program subtitle attached to the troupe’s name — “Architecture in Motion” — opens up the possibilities.  Buildings rock, it turns out — and not just in earthquakes, but in our internalized experience of them.

The final moments of Diavolo's "Fluid Infinities"
Human techniques of both movement and structure blend toward artistic harmony in Diavolo’s work. Large set pieces, as virtuosic and unconventional as the performers’ interaction with them, are an integral element of the choreography. As one of the dancers said in a Q&A session after Friday’s performance, “the set is our 11th dancer.”

Each work is developed from the concept of Jacques Heim, Diavolo’s founder-director, through dancers’ interaction with the set. “Go see what you can do with this,” is how the dancer summarized the charge to Diavolo at a work’s outset.

Friday evening’s audience saw two of the results: “Fluid Infinities” and “Trajectoire.”  The latter piece made for an extended, breathtaking display of Diavolo’s strenuous art. A large, rolling structure — a sturdy “ship” in cross-section with a smoothly curved keel and a flat deck having removable fences at each end — is the platform for a dizzying exhibition of control, balance, and trust.

Mastering the tilt: Diavolo dancers in "Trajectoire"
The ten dancers, in kaleidoscopic combinations at speeds keyed to the “Twentieth First Century Galleon” and their coordinated direction of its rocking motion, slid on and off the deck and shifted their weight in movements that combined sheer physics with graceful flair.

When the galleon was moved 90 degrees so that its side-to-side motion became back-and-forth, further expressive tension was introduced as dancers appeared and disappeared according to the vigor of the galleon’s tilt.  The work ended with a woman’s solo on the uptilted deck, indicating in its lyricism after so much expenditure of energy what the program note called “the transcendence of the human soul against all odds.”

The opening work, set to Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 3, also ends with a female solo. “Fluid Infinities” pits the troupe — arriving as if after a space voyage in a transparent cylinder — against a half-sphere, or dome, whose surface is dotted with holes of different sizes. There’s more emphasis on individual confrontation with this set than in “Trajectoire.”

Collective interaction seems to be won with difficulty, after the piece becomes familiar to each struggling dancer in turn. They seem swallowed up into the holes, they pop out of them, they clutch at the surface and grasp for secure handholds. Occasionally, the dome seems to grab them. Over time, the half-sphere shifts and becomes more hospitable to the human intruders. The set undergoes beautiful shifts of illumination and orientation toward the movement.

The vocabulary, like a multi-lingual text, grows more expansive and nuanced, as if representing an increase in understanding. Knowledge of the world through physical interaction becomes the triumphant message of the last scene, as the cylinder vehicle is hoisted through one of the holes and the female soloist inside looks curiously around.

The audience gets the sense that it has witnessed more than an ingenious use of customized architecture. Having involved dancers’ interplay with shadows and the dome floor’s mirrorlike surface, something greater about self-knowledge has been communicated. It’s the soul’s reward for mastering a challenging experience in a strange environment.

That’s the basis of all learning, or it should be. What a joy it is to have such a lesson imparted wordlessly through Diavolo’s imaginative combination of architectural device and strong, precise movement.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Kate Boyd piano recital at Butler University: Embracing the long reach of Romanticism

Kate Boyd, associate professor of piano, Butler University
Anticipation of a Butler University professor's solo piano recital undoubtedly built all the more after illness forced postponement of her scheduled December performance to Tuesday night.

The 140-seat Eidson-Duckworth Recital Hall was filled by the time Kate Boyd opened her program with Schubert's Sonata in A major, D. 664, op. 120 (the "little" or "lesser" A major, as it's sometimes known). In its new position, the recital gave immediate stature to the post-holiday resumption of the city's classical-music season.

Boyd's fitness for an expressively challenging program was nearly immaculate. She imaginatively shaped both parts of the recital: the Schubert sonata anticipating Alban Berg's in the first half; a Chopin group of A-flat major pieces foreshadowing Sergei Prokofiev's wartime masterpiece, Sonata No. 7 in B-flat major, after intermission.

The slight awkwardness of Boyd's oral program notes somehow added to the charm of her interpretations. To prepare listeners for the atmosphere of foreboding in Berg's op. 1, for instance, she reminded her audience that "Freud was going on" in the Vienna of the composer's early maturity, when the sonata was composed. Indeed the good doctor was!

Boyd kept the lines clear against the threat of harmonic entanglement in a score that veers conclusively toward tonality. The style peers forward to new ground eventually surveyed systematically by Berg's teacher, Arnold Schoenberg.

In the borderlands the Berg sonata wanders, the frequent looks backward to  old Vienna never seemed cursory in this performance. The shadows largely sublimated in the adventurous score are those of St. Stephen's Cathedral and the imperial city's byways, not those of skyscrapers and angular machinery yet to come. Modernism was held at arm's length here, no more so than in the breathtaking final measures, where Boyd managed a creditable diminuendo from pianissimo to triple piano.

The Schubert sonata had displayed her exquisite dynamic control and flair for melody. Everything was put into proper relationship, the pedaling leaning toward the "dry" side in a way that complemented the hall's resonant acoustics. The phrasing was buoyant and spoke to the songfulness everywhere evident in Schubert's instrumental music. A few smudged phrases in the finale did little to mar the impression.

Her Chopin group — key-signature cousins in different short forms — displayed internal rapport. A mesmerizing Impromptu, op. 29, was followed by the snap and elan of the Mazurka, op. 59, no. 2. Its rhythmic dash gave way to a display of keenly voiced chords in the Prelude, op. 28, no. 17, setting up as a finale the Grande Valse Brillante (op. 34, no. 1). Again, we were treated to Boyd's gift for sustaining a melody, in addition to her well-honed, unforced feeling for the tempo rubato so essential to this music. She held some of the title's brilliance in reserve, too, distributing it judiciously.

"Another piece in A-flat" constituted Boyd's announcement of her encore, the Chopin Etude (op. 25, no. 1) focused on a steady rippling effect in both hands topped by the right's simple melody, which floated effortlessly in the recitalist's performance.

The Chopin bouquet of expressive and technical skills was arranged to totally different effect in the Prokofiev sonata, whose bravura finale made it a splendid program-ender. It's not hard to come across performances that treat this "Precipitato" movement as nothing but precipitous, even brutal. Boyd maintained her poise throughout.

It was obvious she treasures the work's lyricism — its episodes of the nostalgia she spoke of from the stage — as much as its plangent bells, brisk marches and assertive fanfares, its pianistic ordnance and rat-a-tat-tats. The contrasting episodes in the restless opening movement were so heart-stoppingly indulged in that its momentum was decisively checked —a daring interpretive decision that proved quite persuasive, like the entire recital itself.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

'Southie pride' comes up against the contrast between aspirations and reality in IRT's 'Good People'

Margie (Constance Macy) asks her boss, Stevie (Nick Abeel), for another chance.
National awareness of South Boston probably peaked in the mid-'70s, when court-ordered school integration met its most agonizing Northern test and exposed angry resentment that a community's cohesion was apparently being sacrificed for a doomed social experiment.

David Lindsay-Abaire's "Good People" doesn't restrict itself to the aspects of "Southie" resistance that can glibly be ascribed to white racism. The play, which opened Friday at Indiana Repertory Theatre, instead focuses on an American dilemma even more intractable: the traps of social class in a society that prides itself on classlessness.

The largely Irish-American neighborhoods of a city long in the grip of patrician Yankees have a history that tends to confine them to the working class and its rough-and-tumble power struggles. With less social mobility than  ever before, America is in danger of setting in stone the kind of stratification that makes Margie's challenges in "Good People" representative of at least a large plurality of the population.

The amazingly seamless design of the production, presented in association with Geva Theatre Center of Rochester, N.Y., allows Margie's story to develop with unforced eloquence, in settings ranging from a crowded apartment kitchen to a bingo parlor to a well-appointed suburban living room.

Mark Cuddy's direction of the cast shows a mastery of dramatic texture. When appropriate, one speech (delivered in flawless Boston accents) treads on another's heels. These are not people accustomed to tactfulness or deference to delicate sensibilities. At other times, you could cut the awkward or tense silences with a knife; much of the show's humor is generated by a character's afterthoughts revising something just said. Over it all is poured the thin sauce of Southie gossip, scheming, and identifying "good people" from the other kind.

Margie is by consensus one of the former. In comparison with her caustic pal Jean and with Dottie, her grasping, comically dense landlady, she is a secular saint. Having raised a disabled daughter alone and struggling to maintain a marginal lifestyle for them both, this smart but ill-schooled middle-aged woman is at the end of her rope as the play opens.

What a good person will do when desperate is painful to watch, but Constance Macy's performance Friday movingly combined grit and vulnerability. It also embodied a large portion of Lindsay-Abaire's gift for humor wrenched from trying circumstances. Fired in the first scene for repeated lateness by her compassionate but helpless supervisor Stevie (Nick Abeel), Margie assesses her options and, encouraged by Jean, decides to see what an old boyfriend who escaped Southie to become a successful physician can do for her.

Jean, Margie, and small-time entrepreneur Dottie are bingo regulars.

The constraints on life in South Boston make bingo a favorite pastime. Recurrent scenes in a bingo hall, with the diseembodied voice calling the squares, weave a thread of hopefulness through the play. Good luck is elusive, but in "Good People" hope is in endless supply, except for those whose losses — through addiction or crime — are final. Ironically, the good doctor has a lock on a corner of the hope market as a specialist in fertility treatment. More than a modicum of good luck, as Margie pointedly reminds him, has released him from Southie purgatory.

The expansive second-act scene in Dr. Mike's suburban home had touches of genius in both design and execution.  The doctor's gracious wife, Kate, exudes hospitality for Margie partly in an attempt to cover over an interrupted conversation with her husband about marital counseling. Nicole Lewis' performance moved from an abundance of hand and arm gestures to draw back physically as her curiosity is hurtfully satisfied by Margie. Sean Patrick Reilly's role as the doctor becomes a triathlon of emotional rigors as Mike's pretenses fall apart. And Margie maneuvers the conversation with an abundance of street smarts that vie with her woundedness. All told, all the emotional air is sucked out of the room at times, only to be exhaled in paroxysms of venting by all three characters.

The doctor is in: There's more going on in this tight-lipped moment than it appears.
That the heart of the play is here does not detract from the sometimes toxic exuberance of the Southie holdouts played by Peggy Cosgrave (Dottie) and Dee Pelletier (Jean). And Abeel projected the decency that remains as a lodestone of character among durable people with a minimum of real choices.

Long ago, my graduate-school participation in a Boston-area summer program included some Southie kids. We would talk about what they liked in contemporary life. In the long heyday of pop music's British Invasion, I remember the boys' favorite band tended not to be the Beatles, nor even the histrionically disreputable Rolling Stones. (The girls thought the Dave Clark Five and Herman's Hermits were cuter.)

The restless boys preferred Eric Burdon  and the Animals, the band that did "We've Gotta Get Out of This Place." The second line after the title goes "If it's the last thing we ever do."  There you have it: the love-death music of the generation that roiled Southie in the 1970s, a harbinger of the age we're now living in, when even white-skin privilege too seldom rewards beaten-down hope with good luck and means of escape. That "Good People" is more than staged sociology on this theme is a credit to the playwright's feeling for real people and the graceful energy of this production.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Louisville lives are focus of search for identity in Phoenix Theatre's "River City"

Score one for any spouse who can end a marital spat by saying to his partner: You're not so special. You're the least special person I know.

That's the effective tactic Javier employs in defusing his pregnant wife's articulate tantrum about the decidedly mixed joys of biracial status in America today.

In "River City," a poignant comedy by Diana Grisanti that opened Thursday night in a Phoenix Theatre production, Mary is determined to give birth in the Louisville of the title as part of her quest to reconnect with family roots. She sees being considered "special" — a designation reflexively employed by her adoring white mother, Ruth — as a burden that separates her from her black side.
Javier and Mary have issues to negotiate.

Her recently deceased father, whom she barely knew, has left behind some puzzling mementos, and she feels rootless in Chicago, where Javier is making a name for himself as a trendy master of  Mexican cuisine. In Louisville a generation before, we learn, the charming uncertainty bedeviling the hero, Mary's father Edward, helps explain why his daughter knows so little about him and his parentage as she moves to Louisville to find out more.

Grisanti's play is the latest Phoenix offering through its National New Play Network membership. The "rolling world premiere" also has productions in Charlotte, N.C., and Tucson, Ariz.

The playwright, who holds a residency at a Louisville theater,  handles different places and time levels smoothly. Dale McFadden's direction at the Phoenix solders every transition firmly into place on the split stage.

Sister Alice coaches Edward on preparing for job interview.
The unit set is a bit puzzling at first, with its brick walls interrupted by jagged areas of scratched plaster. But if you take off your realistic glasses and see it as symbolic of Mary's scarred and interrupted family story — one rocked by social upheaval and urban decay — Jeffrey Martin's design  cumulatively enhances the drama.

The Phoenix production is precisely cast, right down to both visual and vocal racial and ethnic
authenticity. Two actors are double-cast, and they embody contrasting characters with distinction. I found A.J. Morrison to be more comfortable as the awkward government clerk helping Mary follow the paper trail than he was as the priest who heads the Catholic orphanage. Exercising his authority, he dismisses the independent-minded Italian nun who has been helping Edward thwart attempts to transfer him to another home. Father Schroeder's ferocity at the role's climax wasn't as convincing as his mere sternness had been. Julie Dixon brought stature and humanity to the role of Sister Alice, Edward's stalwart protector. In the lower-key role of Ruth, she was a compassionate counterweight to the anxious Mary.

Whitney and his son have contrasting perspectives on success
The pacing and dynamic variety of Edward's scenes with his father, starting with their first tentative meeting when neither is aware of the other's true identity, were superb. They were among the high points of well-managed portrayals by Matt Herndon as the curious, energetic teen and Ben Rose as the skilled radio-repair-shop manager, Whitney. The man who turns out to be Edward's father tries to keep bitterness at bay as he runs his ailing father's business, then struggles to maintain it on his own as a symbol of neighborhood pride and survival. By the time Mary locates him, he's a defeated man, a cog in the corporate wheel, yet his essential decency and tenderness are intact. In Rose's performance, Whitney seemed fully ready to close the circle on his granddaughter's quest.

The loving but conflicted couple Javier and Mary displayed genuine rapport in the performances of Mauricio Miranda and Kayla Carter. The playwright may have overloaded their dialogue in the interests of showing how intelligent and complex these characters are, but Miranda and Carter tossed off the difficulties with aplomb.

Both acts, however, were laboriously launched with dramatically essential but cluttered dialogue, delivered without much breathing room. Grisanti displays in "River City" a keen sense of dramatic momentum, but the power packed into the way she opens each act seemed barely under control. The eventual payoff is intense and moving, however. Those of us with less tangled questions about our identity are brought into the orbit of "River City" with humor and sensitivity.