Saturday, February 28, 2015

20th-century American music, never a surefire draw on symphony orchestra programs, earns its keep on the ISO schedule this weekend

Jeffrey Kahane displayed flair and sensitivity.
The odd absence on most American orchestra schedules of American music has been a puzzle to me ever since the bicentennial boomlet of that repertoire in 1976.  Naively, I thought widespread acquaintance with American composers would whet the appetites of managements and audiences alike to wave the flag, musically speaking, and everyone would benefit year after year.

It never happened, though the market allure of world premieres has swelled the number of fresh commissions from composers with a social security number. What about those deuxiemes, those troisiemes, and so on? Better not ask.

Well-known names and familiar pieces from the American catalog can still bring out the crowds, however, as was evident at Hilbert Circle Theatre Friday night, when guest artist Jeffrey Kahane played and conducted an all-American concert with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Kahane, appearing for the eighth time as an ISO guest over a 32-year span (as he told the audience at the outset), practically pulsated with enthusiasm throughout the program.

To turn at once to the evening's tour de force: He conducted from the keyboard George Gershwin's Concerto in F.  A great deal of orchestral and pianistic activity overlaps in this old favorite, so Kahane was busy. Between standing up to lead the tuttis and sitting back down to resume his solo duties, he also needed to turn pages in the score and flip his tails out of the way whenever he dropped back quickly to the bench. A sensible short jacket would have taken away one part of the show, which was great fun to watch.

Beyond that, this was an electrifying performance. The rhythmic elan was unceasing, a naturally applied element that unified piano and orchestra with hardly a lapse of coordination. Especially impressive was the middle movement, insofar as it seemed a great adventure throughout, like a brisk walk around and about Manhattan.  The fast episodes burst naturally out of the bluesy main material, which featured excellent trumpet solos and the delicate moan of oboe against clarinets.

The huge ovation that followed the last booming chord unsurprisingly blended admiration and sheer astonishment.

Matters had been no less expertly brought off in the concert's first half. The intricate perpetual-motion machine known as "Lollapalooza," a jumpy, clattering curtain-raiser by John Adams, required maximum alertness. One false wind entrance near the end marred what seemed to be a thoroughly engaged account of the work. The music is typical of the composer's "enhanced minimalism," in which repeated short structures are subjected to virtuoso tweaking, this time resting on the "beat" of the word "lollapalooza."

What a perfect segue the Adams provided for Leonard Bernstein's Three Dance Episodes from "On the Town"! The opening movement dialed back the relentlessness of Adams' procedures to the Broadway sass of Bernstein in his formative years as a composer. But the kinship seemed unmistakable. There are hitches and jazzy arabesques throughout the three pieces, with considerable relief in "Lonely Town," featuring a plaintive English-horn solo. The last episode, launched by the dependably cheeky E-flat clarinet, featured a take-no-prisoners alto sax solo by the redoubtable Mark Ortwein.

To demonstrate that he is more than a one-man pep band, Kahane drew from the orchestra a wonderfully textured account of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" suite to end the first half. The segments of the Martha Graham ballet for which Copland provided such an eloquent setting were richly characterized. The suite displays Copland's durable knack for sensing what will go over with concert audiences; he removed all the boring bits from the original, "Ballet for Martha."

In this performance, the suite's concluding measures created a hushed atmosphere of peace in an idealized rural setting, with the orchestra putting forth the kind of true pianissimos the current music director, Krzysztof Urbanski, and his predecessor, Mario Venzago, have worked on achieving.

Fitting right into the evening's high spirits, the post-intermission video interview with principal tuba Anthony Kniffen presented a charming portrait of a light-hearted expert on his heavy, deep-voiced instrument. He came across as articulate, devoted, and unpretentious about his art.

After the video finished, when associate concertmaster Philip Palermo went to the piano to sound the tuning note, Kniffen rather than the first-chair oboist was the first to match it from deep within the orchestra. For a moment, it was all about the bass.

Friday, February 27, 2015

First Wes Montgomery Tribute Award presentation and concert rescheduled for March 29

Steve Weakley is first recipient of a new award.

Ralph Adams has long tended the Indianapolis jazz garden, making sure local talent both past and present is properly nurtured and remembered. His latest venture is to hold up the Wes Montgomery legacy as a way to honor outstanding local contributors to the music.

Wes Montgomery (1923-68)
The inaugural award goes to Steve Weakley, a veteran jazz guitarist whose work around the city is well-known. Adams, in cooperation with Chef Joseph's, Indiana Black Expo, Stuart Mortuary, the Indianapolis Recorder, and Jazz-City Internet Radio, will present Weakley in concert, fronting a quartet, at 6 p.m. March 29 at Chef Joseph's, 115 E. Ohio St. The event, originally scheduled for March 1, had to be postponed because of the wintry weather.

Advance tickets, $12 each, are available online +Eventbrite
Admission at the door, which opens at 5 p.m. Sunday,  is $15.

Joining Weakley will be Kevin Anker, organ; Richard "Sleepy" Floyd, drums, and Rob Dixon, tenor saxophone.

Montgomery, the best-known of a fraternal set of jazz musicians that included bassist Monk and pianist-vibraphonist Buddy, is remembered in part for the brevity of his professional career — snuffed out prematurely like the lives of too many important jazz musicians. Just 20 years after earning professional credibility on the road with the Lionel Hampton band in 1948, the guitarist died suddenly of a heart attack in his hometown, Indianapolis, which continued to be his home base after his international fame was established.

With his brothers and other Naptown notables including the late pianist-organist Melvin Rhyne, Montgomery contributed to the substantial reputation of the Indiana Avenue jazz scene in the 1950s.  A famous phone call from touring saxophonist Cannonball Adderley from an Avenue hotspot to his label boss, Orrin Keepnews, got the guitarist signed with Riverside Records, where he made most of his outstanding recordings. He is remembered for his fertile single-line solos as well as his signature long-running octave phrases.

His career in the 1960s was marked by what many have lamented as a distinct commercial turn, though there are outstanding monuments to his genuine jazz playing available on Verve.  His technical facility, melodic gift, and the amiable, relaxed nature of his style lent him viability as a pop-jazz star in the last year or so of his life.

A Mexican symphony orchestra is welcomed with consular recognition and an enraptured audience to Carmel's Palladium

Enrique Bátiz elicited splendid playing from his orchestra
The homeland salute was reserved for two spacious encores, but there was no doubt about hemispheric solidarity with the Mexican diaspora Thursday night at the Palladium, when the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico played a well-received concert under the baton of its founder, Enrique Bátiz.

Opening speeches including  bilingual welcomes by the Center for the Performing Arts' CEO, Cuban-born Tania Castroverde Moskalenko,  and Jorge Sánchez, Mexican consul in Indianapolis. About those encores: The concert's soloist, guitarist Alfonso Moreno, offered a tender Mexican love song, Un Viejo Amor, accompanied by several of the string players. At the end of the printed program, Bátiz led the orchestra in a long, splashy evocation of Mexico, followed by a rousing salute to the host country in the form of John Philip Sousa's "Liberty Bell" march.

The announced program comprised a first half with the musician's cultural connection to Spain intact.  Joaquin Turina's Danzas Fantásticas is a tripartite survey of Andalusian dance forms, imaginatively combined and transformed. It's a tidy suite that put the audience on notice that the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico's sound favors breadth and splendor. The performance also showcased superior solo playing, of which sometimes amazing exhibitions were to come later as well.

Moreno's sturdy, soulful account of the most famous of guitar concertos — Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez — followed. A nimble player in the outer movements, his singing tone in the work's frequent melodic moments actually benefited from not being too pristine.  It had a folk-inflected vigor, with a little roughness at the edges, and a winning soulfulness.

As for the orchestra, a lovely four-note French horn phrase between the long English-horn solos in the well-known slow movement indicated that more good things would be heard from this player in Brahms' Symphony No. 3 in F major, which occupied the concert's second half. The assertive launch of the first movement, however, tended to confirm my impression that absolute precision is not a priority with this orchestra. Unity is a concept that, on the evidence of this concert, is designedly an overall achievement — more a matter of leaning into the sound and expression of musical paragraphs than making sure each "sentence" is neatly finished.

The exposition was repeated, which allowed the music to become a little firmer and conform more to the international orchestral standard. The horn section came through handsomely as the piece proceeded, and  the bassoons were also superior, soaring and creamy-toned.  The ensemble unity was remarkable in the finale, considering the slight imprecision that had been more characteristic earlier. True, the interpretation did not represent the last word in expressive warmth, but it was always sonorous and well-balanced.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the choice of two of three works with quiet endings was a deliberate way to highlight the high-energy first encore, putting a firm "made in Mexico" stamp on the orchestra's debut appearance in this area. From the standpoint of showmanship, such programming savvy achieved the desired effect with the audience.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

A dream of master sleuthing: IRT's production of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'

R. Hamilton Wright and David Pichette have hatched a dream about "The Hound of the Baskervilles," and the current production at Indiana Repertory Theatre is a deft interpretation of it.
Before the triggering event: Sir Charles waves off servant's assistance on the treacherous moor.

What the playwrights have done with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous tale resembles one kind of dreaming that fascinates us: the way our unconscious often crafts a scenario that takes what we know about people, mixes in our suppositions about and impressions of them, adds a considerable amount of bizarre behavior that makes more sense than it should, then delivers us dry-shod on the shores of consciousness oddly refreshed and amused.

When the dreamed-of genre is famous detective fiction, it's a sure bet that the deliverance will be tidier than the outcome of most dreams. In the Wright-Pichette adaptation, the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes are intact, though the playwright team's dream initially presents him bored with exercising those skills on crimes unworthy of him.

Watson (Matthew Brumlow) and Holmes (Marcus Truschinski) confer.
As seen Wednesday night, Marcus Truschinski's crisp fretfulness in the role strikingly laments the triviality of the demands made upon Holmes, and he has a temper. He bickers with Dr. Watson (Matthew Brumlow) more as a colleague than the occasionally dense underling we know from Nigel Bruce's film portrayal opposite the suave Basil Rathbone.

Veteran IRT director Peter Amster draws performances from the protean cast of nine that allow Wright-Pichette's cluttered dream to fall into place. My problem with the show is that I seem to be viewing all the competent, smoothly integrated action through a scrim. I use the term figuratively, because the look of the production (including startling, apt projections) is everything it should be: moody, evocative, technically deft, and in full partnership with the lighting and sound design.

The scrim I'm suggesting is a slight barrier — a dimming effect — that the story and the way it is told sets up between the acting and the audience. I'm not objecting to the fun that Wright-Pichette have with aspects of the Holmes persona. The legend permits teasing, and this treatment of it avoids campiness. That's why the self-referential interpolation by Brumlow of the line "The game's afoot" (with the parting shot that he always wanted to say that) fits right in. (Brumlow starred as an actor famous for portraying Sherlock Holmes in last year's IRT production of "The Game's Afoot.")

It's part of our collective dream of this master detective that his reasoning and observing powers border on the preternatural. The information Holmes gathers in the first scene from superficial scrutiny of James Mortimer (an excitable Ryan Artzberger) through the window of his Baker Street flat satisfies something everyone wishes for. If we suspected a stranger were shadowing us or simply about to come into our lives, wouldn't we like for even a momentary glimpse to jump-start our knowledge of him? Frankly, even out of idle curiosity, we often find ourselves wanting to know a lot more about people when it's none of our business.

Raw nerves are exposed as Sir Henry's dinner party concludes.
Holmes is a mighty character with worldwide appeal because of such normally unfulfilled desires. The Wright-Pichette dream is fully sensitive to that. But the authors are too fond of complicating the scenario Doyle left them with. I'm still trying to sort out the negative energy released at the end of the dinner party that the Baskerville heir, the ill-at-ease Canadian Sir Henry (Eric Parks), hosts.

I suspect that the playwrights relished the chance to have so much hostility displayed just to keep the audience guessing about the source of evil adding to the setting's atmosphere of foreboding. It's a somewhat mechanical set-up for the surprises in the play's final scene, which have that piled-on quality I've alluded to about dreamland.

Henry tries to comfort Beryl: If only he knew why that's impossible.
I'll admit I'm far from the ideal audience for detective fiction, whether written or staged. Part of me doesn't want things to fall into place. And I get embarrassed when my deductive powers are so far behind the detective's. Here, for instance, when it's pretty obvious how to answer the crucial question "Who released the hound?" late in the third act, I'm still wondering if it's a character I haven't seen yet. This makes no sense when there's a cast of nine (also including Mark Goetzinger, Robert Neal, Constance Macy, Will Mobley, and Cristina Panfilio) and you can eliminate the fleeting impersonations of ticket agents or porters taken on by actors who are all accounted for in the scene in front of you.

For better or worse, I'm a self-confessed aesthete, even though  I'm painfully reminded of Stephen Spender's warning (in his analysis of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock") that "aestheticism is the last refuge of the ineffective." Detective fiction, on the other hand,  is all about effectiveness. What pleases its fans is the intricacy and final unambiguity of its puzzles.  "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is a fantasy reined in only by the superficially unlikely triumph of logic and ratiocination. The style that suits it doesn't have much room for the three-dimensional richness of the best art.

Within its limits, the fantasy-in-a-lock-box now gracing IRT's mainstage is undeniably effective. But it's the effectiveness of a kind of dreaming I'm unable to fully sympathize with when it's so spookily paraded before me. The show's appeal is, you might say, elementary. But that's all it is.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Trombonissimo: My choice of 10 great trombone moments from the orchestral literature

I can't let the memory of last weekend's final measures from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra fade any further without lifting up the wonderful trombone glissando — a French/Spanish version of Walt Whitman's "barbaric yawp" if ever there was one — in "Feria," the festive conclusion of Maurice Ravel's "Rapsodie espagnole."

As I said in my review, just a couple of raucous smears evokes the suggestion that collective good times are about to get out of hand — as they often do when people pour into the streets to party. Then the piece ends, at just the right time.

Cologne Cathedral: Musically, it calls for trombones.
As a former trombonist, I count this moment among ten touchstones for my instrument in the orchestral literature.  I offer here nine others to suggest the marvelous ways composers characterize the trombone. Its voice is essential to so many pieces, though trombonists typically make do without the near omnipresence of their horn and trumpet cousins. Great composers make sure the trombones never wear out their welcome.

Here's another favorite glissando (a natural move in playing the slide trombone, but best used sparingly). This one has a more purely comic purpose: the double guffaw in between two statements of the "interruption" theme in the "Interrupted intermezzo" movement of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. That lively intrusion is generally taken to be a parody of the obsessive first-movement "invasion" theme in Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony, which the ISO played to great acclaim earlier this month. Bartok puts a cap upon his use of the device with a "that's that!" glissando for trombones sweeping up to the piece's final chord.

The trombone is capable of so much expressively. Here are my other favorites, with brief commentary attached:

3. Picking up the "Feria" note of overflowing high spirits, the coda of Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in D major, where I like to think the trombones kick up all the energy. Then they are given an unaccompanied sustained chord near the very end, between full-orchestra punctuation points. Thrillsville!

4. Trombones are good for transforming musical material introduced by other instruments into something that promises to deliver great excitement. When Berlioz wants to repurpose the Benvenuto Cellini love theme first stated by strings in the "Roman Carnival Overture," he places it over the initially soft return of the saltarello pattern and gives it to the trombones, of course. Goosebumps assured!

5. Wolfgang Mozart does something similarly dramatic, but in a sacred context, in his Vesperae solennes de confessore. The trombone writing is wonderful throughout, but let me direct your attention to the fugal movement, "Laudate pueri," where the trombones help the men introduce the subject. The psalmist's text thereby becomes not just an invitation to praise the Lord, but a command to do so. Blame (or credit) the trombones!

6. Mozart is not a composer readily associated with trombone glory, perhaps, though operagoers thrill to its accompaniment of the ghostly Commendatore in Don Giovanni. I'm leaving opera literature out of this list, however, because instrumental reinforcement of a dramatic situation is too hard to consider in isolation. Let me hold up instead a solo passage (more than a moment, it's true): the obbligato threaded along the vocal solo for bass in "Tuba mirum" from the Requiem.

Something that always excites me about this music is its poised declamation of the Last Judgment, in contrast with later, also wonderful (but noisy) settings of the same text by Berlioz and Verdi. When that Last Trump sounds, Mozart seems to be saying, it won't necessarily be all about the tumbling, writhing and rising figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It will be a somber event out of time, because God has all the time in the world. In other words, it will be as it is in Mozart, guided by a stately trombone.

7. Ravel's "Bolero" — thanks to its application to a sex scene in a forgettable movie some years ago — has unnecessarily erotic implications for today's audiences. But until the swelling repetitions discharge into the splendor (with that key change!) of the end, the attentive listener should not fail to notice the music's peculiar dignity and restraint. The sensuousness is held in check by this quality, no more so than in the high-register trombone solo placed just after some woodwinds have their say. Just one glissando helps underline the sensuousness, by the way, and lofty dignity rules when the solo is properly played — sostenuto, with its marcato accents scrupulously observed.

When all hell breaks loose in "The Miraculous Mandarin," the trombone is there.
8. Did sex rear its ugly head?  OK, here's another Bartok example where the temptation of carnality applies: "The Miraculous Mandarin," a ballet-pantomime more controversial, and for longer, than Stravinsky's notorious "Rite of Spring." The figure in the title is less lustful than emotionally needy, however. He's apparently deathless (much to the consternation of his would-be killers) and really just wants love. When the girl posing as a prostitute in this lurid scenario gauges the intensity of the Mandarin's interest, she is horrified. After her seductive waltz climaxes, a muted trombone enters with a ghastly snarl, introducing a climactic chase that ends in the Mandarin's release from his earthly trials only when the girl finally pities him. So, that forceful, muted outburst is both Freudian and pivotal, and it's a trombonistic masterstroke.

9. How about a symphonic structure actually expanded to permit a showcase for the trombone section? Oh, the glory! The movement marked "Solemn" in Robert Schumann's "Rhenish" Symphony (No. 3 in E-flat major) reflects the composer's admiration for the Cologne Cathedral.  For centuries, this Gothic structure has been the most imposing landmark near the shores of the storied Rhine River that lends the symphony its nickname. An architectural masterpiece and trombones — a natural match, it seems to me.

Spruce Goose aloft: Sound accompanying takeoff in "The Aviator" may have borrowed from Beethoven's use of trombones

10. Finally, everyone knows Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor. To the casual listener,  the first movement (or at least its four-note motif) is iconic. But the work's genius partly relies on the wonderful suspense as the third movement yields to the climactic fourth. And when that note of triumph is sounded, the trombones are right there — for the first time in the score. There's nothing like it: You feel your spirit taking off.

Speaking of which: Years ago, after seeing the movie about Howard Hughes called "The Aviator," I mentioned to my son Theodore how impressed I was that speakers from the theater's four corners were finally engaged to represent the sound of Hughes' dream aircraft "the Spruce Goose" roaring down the runway. The sound of planes flown earlier in the film had come from near the screen.

"That was like when the trombones enter in the finale of Beethoven's Fifth," I marveled. Theodore  said he guessed I was the only person who would notice such a parallel. Really? I thought. Well, why not? I'm a trombonist, after all.

Besides, trombones have had a longer ride than the Spruce Goose.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Real Group represents pop harmony vocalism polished to a fare-thee-well at University of Indianapolis

Anders Jalkeus (second from right) was replaced here by Janis Strazdins.
In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Christel DeHaan Fine Arts Center, the University of Indianapolis welcomed a vocal ensemble celebrating its 30th anniversary to grace the Ruth Lilly Performance Hall.

Nearly all its 500 seats were filled Sunday afternoon as the Real Group, an amiable, well-honed quintet from Sweden took the stage with an ethereal vocalise. Hand-held microphones — their blend exquisitely engineered — are an essential ingredient of the sound, with occasional assistance from an electronic sequencer.

The latter device gave a nice overlay to the singers' harmonies in "Words," an original song that opened the show. The power of words in English — both sung and spoken — gave the three Swedes, one Dane and one Latvian (substitute bass Janis Strazdins) immediate rapport with the audience.

The patter, the arrangements, the fluid movement around the large stage — everything was polished and snazzy.  There were touches of gentle satire — male voices dominated the quizzical scrutiny of men's dilemmas today in "The Modern Man" — but more often we got tuneful messages from the mellow side: Errol Garner's "Misty," RG member Katarina Henryson's "Commonly Unique," RG tenor Morten Vinther's paean to soprano Emma Nilsdotter's son "Lucky Luke."

I understand the Real Group's range includes Scandinavian folk songs and classical pieces, but Sunday afternoon we heard just one of the former from that end of the spectrum. The prismatic pop music emphasis included international icons Michael Jackson and George Michael, in addition to a tribute to the late Swedish singer Alice Babs ("Scandinavian Shuffle") among the group's own songs.

There was some comparison of the Real Group in publicity for this concert to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross of hallowed memory, but I picked up little jazz feeling from the quintet's performance. They displayed rhythmic acuity, joined to accurate intonation, and the vocal interaction was nimble and texturally diverse. For example, Anders Edenroth sometimes switched mics, one presumably allowing him to shore up Strazdins' bass more, the other favoring the upper portion of his range.

The Real Group knows its stuff, all right. There's not a hair out of place, musically speaking.

They reminded me of the Hi-Lo's, an all-male quartet highly regarded in the 1950s and '60s for their smooth execution of clever arrangements, drawing mostly on Great American Songbook pop. Like the Real Group, the Hi-Lo's had a jazz-inflected style with perhaps a little too much polish to remain interesting over the long haul. Admittedly, it's hard to argue with a career long haul of three decades. But for me, one concert's worth was sufficient.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Indy Jazz Fest's 'Vision of the Visionaries' suggests the glories of the African-American musical heritage

Anticipation was nearly enough to carry the day. So last night I posted a link to a WISH-TV  feature on this Black History Month presentation by Indy Jazz Fest, masterminded by saxophonist Rob Dixon, leading a quintet supplemented by two vocalists and a poet.

The Jazz Kitchen accommodated a decent-sized crowd, though (he told me after the first set Saturday) it fell short in Dixon's estimation, given the amount of publicity he had devoted to it. He had more than a bright idea going for him in the verbal-musical blend.

In my anticipatory post, I used the word "glory" in a conscious echo of the acclaimed song in Oscar nominee "Selma" and alluding to the epochal Civil War movie from 1989. But I hedged a bit, given such lofty comparisons, by adding that hints of glory would be enough as "Vision of the Visionaries" unfolded.

And those hints of glory were delivered in due course. But I see this program's potential as being much more, with the mere hints eventually discarded and full glory achieved. And if Dixon gets the multimedia dimension of "Vision of the Visonaries" in place (bad weather prevented the Cincinnati-based designer of that dimension from making the gig), this program would be well worth refining and adapting to a variety of venues.

I will take participating poet Alyson Horton's reminder that "black history is American history" as my watchword here. That means that we don't have to quibble over who is entitled to weigh in on this topic.

And however that equation is interpreted, it could have been threaded more conscientiously throughout the program, especially in the verbal segments. The interpenetration of white and black musical activity could well be followed through with accurate historical appraisals while still putting the main focus on black contributions.

Brenda Williams testified to the meaning of the blues.
There was no need, for instance, to hear from the stage suggestions that Billie Holiday wrote "Strange Fruit," especially not with the legend that it arose from her personal experience attached. In fact, the song was brought to her fully formed by a Brooklyn teacher named Abel Meeropol, who wrote under the name Lewis Allen, and Holiday made it her own. Isn't that enough?  It would have been in this show, had the song been sung complete, ending with the searing words " "...and such a bitter crop."

Bashiri Asad instead offered a version that lingered on the first of three verses. This is not a song with any expendable text, unfortunately. A version later Saturday evening was promised from Brenda Williams, and I would hope she knows the song all the way through. She certainly raised the temperature and shouted out the words clearly in "Stormy Monday," a rendition tough enough to nail the blues heritage in one fell swoop; trumpeter Marlin McKay's solo was less flamboyant but seemed just as deeply felt.

The Jewish-black cultural nexus was strong in the "Strange Fruit" era. The bond was also suggested in  McKay's account of the Benny Goodman band's westward tour in 1935. That's when the "sweet" charts that bulked large in its repertoire failed to connect with young people and the "hot" pieces took over, ushering in the brief reign of jazz as America's most important popular music.

McKay mentioned Fletcher Henderson and Goodman's adoption of the black bandleader's arrangements, but I think the connection could have been made even more striking with explicit acknowledgment that bringing black dance music into the mainstream was the key to the Swing Era's creation.  Instead, the commentary focused too much on Goodman's emergence into the limelight, as he left behind the "Let's Dance" radio show that had not been renewed when the future King of Swing headed west, only to hit paydirt in California.

Anyway, Saturday's  music was a strong basis on which to hang the narrative thread, which varied in focus and quality.  There was a strong groove laid down by the rhythm section — Steven Jones, keyboard; Kenny Phelps, drums; Andre Artis, congas — for both of the first two extended pieces. Dixon and McKay in the front line led the charge through the introductory number and an earthy one focused on the thwarted history of reparations, tracing it back to the withdrawn promise of "40 acres and mule" that, if fulfilled, would have given so many black families a start toward achieving the American Dream.

Asad returned for a rousing "When the Saints Go Marching In,"  with a segue into a McKay original in the authentic "second-line" spirit. The singer's best outing during the first set was a song he seemed better suited for than "Strange Fruit" — the Sam Cooke hit "Long Time Coming," which made a thought-provoking conclusion to the first installment of "Vision of the Visionaries."

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra spotlights two 20th-century composers of extraordinary verve and color

Miguel Harth-Bedoya worked wonders with Strauss.
D. Kern Holoman, a conductor-scholar not overly given to gushing, calls the Marschallin-Octavian-Sophie trio near the end of "Der Rosenkavalier" "one of the loveliest passages in all music."

Many music-lovers would be inclined to agree, adding perhaps the concluding duet in which Octavian and Sophie celebrate their hard-won love. Both episodes were highlights of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's performance of the "Rosenkavalier Suite" Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Among the characteristic waltzes and other love music, along with the rich comic portraiture of the awkward Baron von Ochs, this is certainly one of the most pristinely evocative suites drawn from any ballet or opera.

Guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya elicited from the players about as perfect a characterization of it as could be imagined.  The teasing eroticism of the slow waltzes, the exuberant mastery of accelerating waltzes, the unique voicings of the Presentation of the Rose music — everything was in place.

If the aforementioned trio and duet stood out as special, they did so fully in context. The opera's droll ending is exquisite, but in this concert setting of the opera's highlights, so is the blazing coda.

I recall an old New Yorker cartoon from the LP era, with a wan-looking old man in pajamas saying to his wife: "I know the doctor says this is just a slight cold, but just in case, could you put on Side 8 of 'Der Rosenkavalier' one more time?" Exactly.

Twyla Robinson offered inspired interpretations of Ravel and Strauss.
Something of that radiance visited the generously talented Strauss in his songs, five of which were sung before intermission by Twyla Robinson. It's worth singling out "Morgen," partly because it shares the atmosphere of romantic bliss with the last scene of "Der Rosenkavalier," and partly because it featured a sublimely sustained and quietly intense violin solo by associate concertmaster Philip Palermo.

Robinson seemed quite suited to these songs, whose overall tone is reflective. She avoided overloading them with emotion; the feeling appropriate to each grew from within. This worked particularly well with the one-line refrain of "Allerseelen" (All Souls' Day) — the German for "as once in May." The final iteration of that line was filled with breathtaking ardor.

The soprano was also a treasurable soloist in Ravel's "Sheherazade," a rarefied set of interpretations of the imperishable storyteller's magic to sensual texts by Tristan Klingsor.  It may be slightly discomfiting in this age of ISIS atrocities to share the Orientalist speaker's eagerness (in "Asie,"  the first song) "to see smiling assassins, the executioner cuts an innocent neck, with his great curved Oriental blade."

But this shock actually helps the listener settle into the dated exoticism of both the text and the music across the perfumed breadth of the work's three songs. From the orchestra there were some heart-tugging solos, despite some below-pitch playing in the flute's lower register, and some nicely regulated ensemble outbursts.

The concert opened with an energized performance of Ravel's "Rapsodie espagnole," deficient only in not providing as hushed a pianissimo (particularly in the opening "Prelude a la nuit") as the ISO is capable of.  The duetting clarinets and bassoons in that movement were delectable, however.

The dance forms of the concise middle movements — Malagueña and Habanera — were gracefully brought off. And the finale, "Feria," vividly conveyed the idea of a gradually exuberant folk celebration, right up through the rambunctious trombone-section glissando at the end. To borrow a phrase from another musical genre, this moment always suggests there's a riot goin' on — or about to be one.

The program will be repeated tonight in the ISO's 317 Series in a concert at Avon High School.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ronen Chamber Ensemble celebrates Black History Month at UIndy

Gregory Martin (from left), David Bellman, and Ingrid Fischer-Bellman.
The absence of co-founder David Bellman was felt keenly, but the Ronen Chamber Ensemble forged ahead with the planned program largely intact Monday night at the University of Indianapolis. It was a rare occasion to focus locally on chamber music by African-American composers in honor of Black History Month.

The Voices of Worship Choir from the university was on hand to wrap things up in spirited fashion with two gospel numbers under the direction of Geoffrey Kelsaw. No mention was made of the reason for Bellman's absence; his mother died a few days ago, and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra principal clarinetist was in Albuquerque.

Consequently, Ronen's part of the program required the elimination of a movement from David Baker's Duo for Clarinet and Cello, a Ronen commission. Also, Christina Martin substituted in the clarinet chair for a performance of Anthony Kelley's "Grist for the Mill" (for flute, clarinet, cello, and percussion).

"Grist for the Mill" is a witty, unpretentious two-movement work, with an array of percussion accessorizing the jazz-inflected combo of flute, clarinet and cello. Jimmy Finnie of Indiana State University supplied the percussive decoration (including the lion's roar, a delight for all ages — in small doses) for the smoothly working ensemble of clarinetist Martin, cellist Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, and flutist Tamara Thweatt.

That plus the Voices of Worship selections constituted the second half; the first was dominated by  Gregory Martin, UIndy faculty pianist and composer. Last year he became Ronen co-artistic director with the founding Bellmans.

Martin played three solo pieces by 20th-century black women. Julia Perry's "Prelude for Piano," Betty Jackson King's "Spring Intermezzo," and Margaret Bonds "Troubled Water" made a sonata-like whole, with the pastel lyricism of the King piece bookended by the moody yet inviting Perry and the bravura reworking of "Wade in the Water" by Bonds to conclude.

The concert opened with a four movement work in the same vein — respectful interpretations of the rich "Negro spiritual" heritage by Undine Smith Moore under the title Afro-American Suite for Flute Cello, and Piano. Thweatt, Fischer-Bellman, and Martin gave a winning account of the piece, which included the haunting voice of the alto flute to distinguish the slow movement, based on "Who's That Comin'." Also admirable was Fischer-Bellman nicely turned statement of the melody, with its imitation of characteristically black vocal ornamentation.

After Thweatt tastefully read Ntozake Shange's "I Live in Music," Fischer-Bellman and Gregory Martin closed the first half with the slow movement of Baker's Sonata for Cello and Piano.  It features substantial unaccompanied recitative-like episodes for the cello, which  Fischer-Bellman wonderfully projected into the sympathetic environment of Lilly Performance Hall — offering a great reminder of the Indianapolis-born cellist-composer's abundant contributions to both jazz and contemporary classical music.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Canadian sextet wows the listener with the smooth flight of 'Turboprop'

It's not your average sextet that can find something fresh to say about both Claude Debussy's "Cathedrale engloutie" and Charlie Parker's "Red Cross" without violating the spirit of either original.

Ernesto Cervini is a drummer-composer of merit.
That achievement is part of the appeal of "Turboprop" (Anzic Records), a new CD release by drummer-composer Ernesto Cervini. Among the 10 tunes, two others are by other composers — the movie song "Cheer Up, Charlie" (from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and Keith Jarrett's "Windup." Both sit comfortably among the six Cervini pieces, with "The Windup" making for an exhilarating finale.

The Canada-based ensemble's effervescence never gets bedraggled. The coordination is superb, and the instrumental blend holds firm. From the outset of Cervini's "Unnecessary Mountain," an urgent but understated drum pattern sets the tone for the whole track — and, it turns out, for the disc as well. Picking up "Turboprop"'s aeronautical theme, "Fear of Flying" introduces a slightly menacing ostinato to cast a spinetingling shadow over this drum feature.

Cervini's colleagues make the most of several showcases. In addition to Adrean Farrugia's flavorful piano solo in "Red Cross," there's Joel Frahm's high-profile tenor-sax outcry in "De Molen." That piece incidentally puts together several independent lines so exuberantly that simultaneous improvisation is suggested, though the freewheeling counterpoint may well be within the arrangement.

Tara Davidson's long-breathed alto saxophone gives a necessary lift to "Unnecessary Mountain." Trombonist William Carn leads the way tenderly in "Cheer Up, Charlie." The group's reliable bass line is maintained by Dan Loomis.

I found only "Three Angels," perhaps weighed down by its dedication to the memory of the leader's three nieces, to be a little limp in purely musical inspiration. The other original ballad, "Marion Theresa," also dedicated to a relative, is built upon delectable harmonies, threaded throughout upon Cervini's masterly brushwork.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Marcus Roberts Trio displays delicacy and panache in Clowes Hall concert

Marcus Roberts represents the creative mainstream of jazz piano.
Brought into the international spotlight by Wynton Marsalis three decades ago, Marcus Roberts has taken an independent place as one of the defenders of jazz tradition in the Marsalis vein — illustrating how a personal style can meld with the mainstream heritage, reinforcing it among contemporary listeners.

On Friday night, he headed a trio of fellow Southerners — Thaddeus Exposé substituting on bass for regular Rodney Jordan — at Clowes Hall. The program, with a couple of episodic originals nestled among a raft of standards, went down easily with an appreciative audience.

By the time of the encore, a deep-delving slow blues, there was ample evidence that the group rapport, with longtime sideman Jason Marsalis (younger brother of Wynton) on drums,  had been forged to communicate clearly to the casual and devoted jazz fan alike.

Roberts has in common with a few eminent blind jazz pianists a silky touch that rivets the attention. He is a persuasive advocate of pianissimo — a relatively rare dynamic level in jazz. (In the small blind-jazz-pianist category, I'm thinking in particular of Art Tatum and George Shearing, though generalizations need to be resisted, considering there is also in this subcategory the pile-driving New Orleans blues/jazz pianist Henry Butler.)

When he applied his ruminative style and that distinctive touch to "Answer Me, My Love" (inspired by the Nat 'King' Cole version of this much-recorded song), a hush fell over the audience. He husbands his keyboard heat carefully, turning it up under the concert finale, "You Are My Sunshine."
He introduced it as a folk song, and indeed the trio played it like an uptempo take on the comfort food of Americana. Roberts' fleet-fingered manner intensified during his solo, with a skittery pattern of staccato chords in the treble taking the breath away.

Otherwise, there were several juicy plums plucked from the nurturing grove of the Great American Songbook, including "Just the Way You Look Tonight," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," and "Oh, Lady, Be Good."  On one of them, Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love," Marsalis was featured.

In this solo and others, as well as in his deft accompaniments, Marsalis gave a textbook illustration of the durable New Orleans drumming tradition — those churning parade-ground figures, always resting on the bedrock of march music. Roberts' onetime boss Wynton Marsalis has also long favored percussionists exhibiting those crisp, interlocking patterns, from Herlin Riley through Ali Jackson.

As a composer, Roberts typically shows an affinity for episodic forms, with lots of tempo changes that require pinpoint coordination with his sidemen. The trio showed its adeptness in a tribute to Jelly Roll Morton, "The Spanish Tinge." Like other long-form compositions, the piece displayed Roberts' encyclopedic knowledge of jazz piano. Fortunately, he usually personalizes this knowledge so that the result is more than academic or nostalgic. So it proved Friday night, even in the academic setting of Butler University's venerable showplace.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra conductor laureate Raymond Leppard forced to withdraw from engagement next month for reasons of health

Notice of a Classical Series change  just came from the ISO this afternoon. We wish Raymond Leppard a return to good health soon.

Ludovic Morlot will return to the ISO for the fourth time in the past decade.
"INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra announced today that Conductor Laureate Raymond Leppard has had to withdraw from his concerts on March 13-14 due to health issues. Maestro Leppard will be replaced by conductor Ludovic Morlot, who serves as Music Director of the Seattle Symphony.

Due to the change, the program will now feature Berlioz’s Overture to Les Francs-juges (Judges of the Secret Court), Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand with pianist Bertrand Chamayou and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. The pre-concert presentation of the Honor Orchestra of America will continue as scheduled.

Maestro Morlot’s last appearances with the ISO were in 2007, 2009 and 2011."

German quartet that memorializes a French composer returns to Ensemble Music Society series

The  Fauré Piano Quartet has impressed the Ensemble Music Society before, and its return Wednesday night drew a capacity crowd to the Indiana History Center's 300-seat Basile Theater. 

The Fauré Quartet showed its mastery of its namesake composer.
There was no room for disappointment in a program that held up the gold standard of this sturdy, but small-scale, genre of violin, viola, cello and piano. A work by the ensemble's namesake crowned the concert: Gabriel Fauré's luminous Quartet in C minor,  op. 15.

Fauré's chaste, animated style — which enabled even his work for larger forces to retain a chamber-music intimacy — was superbly represented here. The work is a model of smoothly connected inspirations, in which each phrase nestles next to its fellow, and none goes wasted.

Coherence is both emotional and structural, as the first movement demonstrated Wednesday. The second movement, a tasty Scherzo, presented a conspicuous indication that there's a special way of playing compatibly with strings that pianists engaged in "pickup" groups often fail to manage.

It's more than just trying to be conscientious not to lord it over one's string colleagues. It's a matter of finding the right dynamics, the right articulation and the right kind of phrasing to complement the strings. Dirk Mommertz had the essence of his role firmly in hand. Pianists have to deal with the fact that, in terms of sonority, the piano and string instruments are uneasy partners. In spite of that, many fine works have been written for the combination of keyboard and two or more strings. So the repertoire is tempting to many players who don't make a specialty of the piano quartet.

Mommertz showed the knack. Often, as in the C minor quartet's scherzo, the piano is required to lead the way, stating matters first and providing a unifying force. The pianist's skill at doing so was a notable element of the finale of Richard Strauss's early Quartet in C minor, op. 13. He was able to state phrases due to be echoed by his string colleagues — violinist Erika Geldsetzer, violist Sasha
Frömbling, and cellist Konstantin Heidrich — in an authoritative yet string-friendly manner.

That Strauss quartet, new to me, was a revelation of the precocious gifts of a composer later to be best known for his tone poems, operas and songs. There is the familiar overripe lyricism (third movement) and the effusive wit, flirtatiousness and Black Forest magic (the second-movement scherzo). With its huge dynamic range and abrupt contrasts expertly managed by the  Fauré, the opening movement displayed the protean master of symphonic scenarios to come. Throughout were foreshadowings of the Straussian operatic brand of nostalgia for the baroque and classical periods tucked into sometimes lush romantic textures and gestures: The composer of "Der Rosenkavalier," "Ariadne auf Naxos," and "Capriccio" is embryonic in this score.

The concert opened with an example of strictly held, freeze-dried romanticism from our own era by the contemporary German composer Volker David Kirchner. The eight-minute work was tensely launched in pianissimo terms, every sound under careful control. Near-the-bridge tremolos signaled a build-up of intensity. A gently swaying theme, with fragmentary interruptions, characterized the whole. Its rigid understatement made Kirchner's Piano Quartet No. 1 less something I would want to hear again than it was a perfect curtain-raiser for this particular program.

The Quartet's web page (English version) has an amusing typo that death-of-classical-music whiners might call a Freudian slip: A sentence that enumerates some of the group's concert activity claims its success in "getting children exited in chamber music." After taking delight in the Fauré's arrangement of Mussorgsky's "Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells" (from "Pictures at an Exhibition") — presented as an encore — I'm doubly sure that the right word is "excited"! (As of today, Feb. 13, it's been fixed.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

New ISO season includes an all-star September Gala concert and maestro's 'dreams come true'

Krzysztof Urbanski stands by as Gary Ginstling talks about 2015-16.
With representatives of the media and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra community forming an appreciative audience, the ISO's chief executive officer and two staff conductors publicly presented the 2015-16 season Tuesday morning on the stage of Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Music director Krzysztof Urbanski, who added to his international luster the other day when he received the Leonard Bernstein Prize, a German award linked to the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, spoke of dreams come true here.

One of them will be the opportunity to work with Emanuel Ax as soloist in a Beethoven piano concerto Sept. 18 and 19, when (unusually) the Classical Series will open before the traditional Opening Night Gala (which features Urbanski with Joshua Bell and Time for Three). Ax, long a popular guest artist here, was the soloist in a recorded set of Beethoven piano concertos Urbanski remembers purchasing in his teens — "one of the first music I bought," as the Polish maestro put it.

Besides Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto, the program will contain Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor.  Known for his affinity for large-scale, important yet somewhat splashy pieces, Urbanski  said he considers Mozart the most difficult composer to bring off well — hence his delay in challenging himself with the Austrian classicist.  This will mark the first time Urbanski has conducted the ISO in Mozart, helping to fulfill one of his twin programming goals — to play what is good for the artistic development of the ISO and Urbanski himself. (The other goal is "diverse programming to meet the expectations of our audience.")

Other aspects of the new season that excite Urbanski:

*the chance to replicate here a collaboration with Dejan Lazic, a pianist he admires enormously, on the two Brahms piano concertos. Precedent for the two-weekend Brahms collaboration with Lazic came with the Trondheim, Norway, orchestra of which Urbanski is chief conductor.(Lazic attained some notoriety last year when he attempted to have the Washington Post remove from online a mixed review of a solo recital he gave in the capital long ago; he invoked the European Union's "right to be forgotten" strictures on social media.)

*the opportunity to combine "the two things I love the most: music and science" in "Out of This World," the annual, three-weekend midwinter festival that this time will also involve the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and popular guest conductor Jun Markl, stretching from Jan. 22 through Feb. 6. Urbanski will conduct the outer two programs, one using music included on the Voyager "Golden Record" that has been going far out into space since 1977, the other honoring music from "2001: A Space Odyssey," the Stanley Kubrick film that Urbanski calls "one of the greatest movies I've ever seen." The Voyager program comprises two perpetually mind-blowing compositions, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."

Also notable next season will be the ISO debut of Menahem Pressler, the nonagenarian pianist and distinguished professor of music at Indiana University; violinist Caroline Shaw, a Pulitzer Prize-winner whose new violin concerto is an ISO co-commission; an "Organ Spectacular" in April featuring soloist Paul Jacobs, and popular guest pianist Garrick Ohlsson in the only Urbanski-led program focusing on composers from his homeland (Chopin and Szymanowski), the season finale in June 2016.

Zach De Pue introduces duo with Ahrim Kim.
Pops maestro Jack Everly was also on hand Tuesday to discuss such highlights of the Pops Series as his first time working with country singer Kenny Rogers, a celebration of the Frank Sinatra centennial with Tony DeSare, Frankie Moreno and a female vocalist yet to be named, the return of the eclectic, Hoosier-founded 12-piece ensemble Pink Martini, and a "Cecil B. DeMille, cast-of-thousands" finale, dubbed "A Choral Spectacular!," with Everly conducting the ISC, the Indianapolis Children's Choir, and the Indianapolis Men's Chorus.

Ginstling also announced that there will be four "Happy Hour" concerts in 2015-16, as the string ensemble Time for Three continues its residency with the ISO; the continuation of the 317 Series taking HCT classical programs into the metropolitan area, with Duke Energy as the new title sponsor, in Hendricks County and Greenwood; and the 20th anniversary of the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra, newly armed with a title sponsorship from Roche Diagnostics.

A musical interlude was provided by concertmaster Zach De Pue and acting principal cellist Ahrim Kim with the Handel/Halvorsen "Passacaglia," whose light-and-shade parade of variations on a brief bass line indicated by the title seemed concisely symbolic of the variety and wonder of the new ISO season. Unspoken at the main event was the challenge of filling a number of vacancies in the orchestra, which is currently below its contractual strength of 74 and has several musicians in "acting" capacity filling titled chairs.

Loving surface as well as depth: Silver medalist of the 2006 IVCI graces the Laureate Series at the Indiana History Center

A satisfying program has to be measured by how satisfyingly it is performed. By that measure, Simone Lamsma's recital with pianist Rohan De Silva Tuesday night was entirely successful.

Simone Lamsma returned to Indianapolis Tuesday night.
The 2006 silver medalist of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis was presented by that organization in music of Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Part, and Schumann at the Indiana History Center.

Lamsma's sound and assertiveness acquired prominence as the concert proceeded. Across that spectrum, she almost always made the right interpretive choices. Her projection was well-defined without becoming coarse, and the partnership with De Silva was exemplary from the start.

The work that first emphasized shifts of dominance from one instrument to the other was Mendelssohn's Sonata in F major. Lamsma and De Silva smoothly exchanged the Allegro vivace movement's material, rising to an intense yet gracefully brought-off climax at the end. In the Adagio, more expressive warmth was evident from the violin, making up for a deficit in that quality in the last of Dvorak's "Four Romantic Pieces," which opened the concert.

The finale was launched at a blistering pace, but neither artist seemed in danger of getting burned. The partnership held steady, and the performance retained some of the coolness that always seems to run through Mendelssohn's music, usually to its advantage.

In fact, by intermission the Laureate Series program had taken on an attractive quality of promising deeper rewards thereafter, having surveyed music with attractive surfaces in the first half. The Dvorak set presented simple, straightforward pieces without jarring contrasts. Lamsma's tone was mellow, sort of woody in a good sense, a bit clarinetlike. The reflective quality of the pieces stayed uppermost. The Mendelssohn sonata is brighter, more facile, somewhat surfacy — but calling upon  technical panache and suggesting a wider emotional range.

With Arvo Pärt's "Fratres" — the Estonian composer's most popular work, which he's fashioned in several versions — we get into deeper territory. The title, using a French word to denote monks ("brothers") in procession or perhaps contemplation, opens up vistas that don't depend on any particular pictorial or religious significance. It is clear, the way the rhythmic and harmonic planes of the compositions are arranged, that both agitation and Alpha-wave calm are to be encompassed by the performers. Even in the feverish string crossings of the unaccompanied violin prelude, ecstasy is foreshadowed.

Pärt has compared the work's effect to "light going through a prism," and the light metaphor suggests what "Fratres" has in common with Schumann's Sonata in D minor, op. 121, which ended the program. Both works are inward-looking, but communicate effectively enough to allow even the unprepared listener inside. Illumination is sought from a source available to all of us, but immediately available in these works as if prismatically.

In Wallace Stevens' late poem "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour," the first stanza runs: "Light the first light of evening, as in a room / In which we rest, and for small reason, think / The world imagined is the ultimate good." As Lamsma's playing attained special brilliance through the crucible of "Fratres," in the Schumann the radiance was vividly shared in what, again borrowing from Stevens, felt like "the intensest rendezvous."

The third movement, with its intimate pizzicato opening, unfolded in this performance in a distinctly narrative manner, full of character, tension-and-release and other hints of storytelling — so close to the indelible nature of this most literary of major composers. I liked the well-knit achievement of all four movements; when the music was fast, the momentum was urgent and controlled.

Schumann suffered from increasingly severe bipolar disorder, but even late in life could occasionally put his demons under a common harness. Lamsma and De Silva demonstrated that he does so in this work, letting his "interior paramour" exert her charms just as strikingly as Part does from a firmer spiritual center in "Fratres."

What a spellbinding experience — worth leaving aside any further words from me and turning to the conclusion of Stevens' poem:

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Indianapolis Opera looks in new directions under a new general director, Kevin Patterson

Kevin Patterson, a veteran opera administrator who grew up here and graduated from Warren Central High School and Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, is the new director of Indianapolis Opera.

Kevin Patterson now heads Indianapolis Opera
Patterson has been charged by the company's board to "make a successful opera company," he told me this morning, speaking by phone from IO's offices. "We need to get back on our feet, and build this company again."

The company failed to complete its 2013-14 season, canceling the final production (Benjamin Britten's "Albert Herring"), and making structural changes that caused the departure of artistic director James Caraher within a year of the dismissal of executive director John Pickett. Since then, fundraising and marketing research resulted in the process that led Patterson to return home in a newly created position: general director.

"The current financial situation is that all of our debts are paid," Patterson said. "We're in good shape financially. I've told the board: The only way you make money in opera is don't do any. It's not a moneymaking proposition; you can't just sell tickets and cover your costs."

The advantage to "lying fallow," Patterson went on, is that the opportunity arose to remake the company's programming. "We don't have to do things in either Clowes Hall or the Basile Opera Center," he said. "And we have the opportunity not to think of a traditional season of November to April; we're interested in becoming a year-round organization."

Patterson promised that by early March, public announcement of company programs to take place before the end of the year will be made. "We're going to look at the repertory with a view to matching it to our audience," he predicted. The result may make Clowes Hall, where Indianapolis Opera has traditionally placed its fully staged productions, "a distant option." Other venues, in addition to the company's home at Basile Opera Center, are likely to include Scottish Rite Cathedral, the Pike Center for the Performing Arts, and the Schrott Center (Clowes' new neighbor on the Butler University campus).

Patterson comes back to Indianapolis after holding executive positions with opera companies in Pittsburgh, Austin, and Anchorage.  During two seasons in Alaska (2012-2014), in which he moved from Anchorage Opera consultant to its  executive director, he resolved its debt issues, he said. Patterson parted ways amicably after letting the board know he wanted to return to Indiana. Though they loved Alaska, he and his wife have a 10-year-old daughter, a violinist and competitive swimmer, and thought relocation here would be more suitable for the family.

"Now that we have addressed our behind-the-scenes issues," said Arnold C. Hanish, Indianapolis Opera board president, in a prepared statement, "we have attracted a respected and experienced Hoosier arts leader to bring us back to the stage."

Patterson summed up the result of recent research, both from an outside firm and through Steven Stolen, a veteran local musician and arts manager,  like this: "The audience wants quality. People want to get out of having a formalized season. And we have a sizable segment that wants to have more than the standard fare. And they want to see other venues, and  have different experiences."

Collaboration will be part of the picture, he added. On-site educational programming for midtown neighborhoods will be one significant use of the Basile Opera Center, 4011 N. Pennsylvania St. "It will become more of a creative place," Patterson said of the company's home. "Those kinds of broad concepts have been a great advantage to opera companies, regardless of where they are. Too often they have missed out on the idea that out of opera so many other kinds of arts emerge."

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Indianapolis Symphony's Midwinter Festival presents a tremendous finale with the Shostakovich Seventh

A charming footnote in "Musicophilia," one of Oliver Sacks' fascinating books on oddities of neurology, makes short work of the legend that Dmitri Shostakovich got so close to danger during  the siege of Leningrad that he sustained shrapnel injuries to the head that assisted his composing.

The leading U.S. news magazine invents a war hero.
The brain can produce musical hallucinations by various means, including injury. Supposedly, the Soviet composer in the aftermath of service as a fire warden accessed musical inspiration by tilting his head in a certain way: Music would pour in. Sacks suggests that the story was an outgrowth of the government's exaggeration of Shostakovich's involvement in the defense of what is once again St. Petersburg.

What we heard Friday night from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra at the Hilbert Circle Theatre is most likely the result of normal hard work, skill, and inspiration. Some of it may have arisen before the Nazi invasion of the homeland that was briefly Germany's ally. Most was put in final form while the war against the invader raged, at a safe distance from the action.

Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 in C major, the "Leningrad," had never been performed by the ISO until this weekend. That contrasts with the 70-minute work's enormous popularity during World War II, where the legend of the composer's personal sacrifice as well as American attempts to become comfortable with our new Communist ally led both to a Time magazine cover and 62 wartime performances of the work by U.S. orchestras. Before the war ended, according to Michael Steinberg, the great C major symphony had vanished from the repertory; American audiences preferred the Fifth, as they have ever since.

Krzysztof Urbanski led an overwhelming performance of the "Leningrad" Friday night, preceding it
Dmitri Shostakovich in uniform, far from one of the battles.
with an extensive demonstration of its themes, their development and repurposing in the course of the work, and the significance of it all. It was clear that he sees the Seventh in explicitly programmatic terms, though his analysis avoided sentimentalizing the music.

Nonetheless, his interpretation — masculine and feminine themes contrasting at the first movement's outset, but clearly defined, complementary and offering a pacific prewar portrait of the city, then undergoing devastation at the onslaught of the "invasion" music only to emerge wounded, elegiac — stood in sharp contrast to that of Russell Scott Valentino, chairman of the department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures at Indiana University.

In "First Mondays at the ISO" Feb. 3, Valentino belittled the notion that "the victory of light over darkness" (Time's phrase)  is what the symphony is about— at least insofar as it depicts Leningrad's holding out against great odds, thus giving hope to the Allies when the war seemed to be going Hitler's way.

He urged the Wood Room audience to consider Stalin's hatred of Leningrad and his persecution of artists and intellectuals there (including many of Shostakovich's friends) as the real-world foreground to what emerged as the Seventh Symphony. Viewed that way, the composition is a paean to the city and its heroism in the face of much more than the German threat. "Stalin was as responsible for as many deaths in Leningrad as Hitler," Valentino said. The city's wartime trials by a foreign army amounted to a costly, ironic "reprieve" from Stalin's domestic paranoia.

Accordingly, the "invasion" theme that squats foursquare on the first movement's development is more a portrait of the insidious control totalitarianism has over the populace it rules: It creeps in, selects its first victims unpredictably, then clamps down on everybody. Valentino believes the invasion theme is too gradual, too banal to depict the formidable German enemy. The fact that brass-intense dissonance nearly overwhelms the march tune is a sign that a brutal government engaged in a struggle against another brutal government results in even-handed ruin for ordinary people.

Regardless of any anti-Soviet message in the score, Urbanski and the ISO treated it all with expressive breadth and dignity. I particularly admired the noble tone of the viola-section melody in the third movement and the oboe and bass clarinet solos over delicate accompaniments in the second. Also well delineated in Friday's performance: the scoring of the obsessively repeated invasion theme that's nearly as ingenious as that of Ravel's "Bolero," which it resembles in its protracted crescendo over a nonstop snare-drum pattern.

In context, and whatever it means, the nine minutes of obsessive hammering at one's sensitivities is an artistic triumph. True, it is likely to create as persistent an "ear worm" as you've ever had, turning any listener into a prospective patient of Dr. Sacks'.  But it helps make the final triumph in the last minutes of the fourth movement justifiably hard-won, where an unclouded major chord emerges only at the very end.

If we're hearing victory in music, most of us want it established somewhat sooner, as in the glaring D-major peroration of the Fifth Symphony. Then again, that victory is harder to believe in than the one that claws its way to the summit of this wartime masterpiece. However you may tilt your head, the spirit of Shostakovich wants you to share in Leningrad's struggle in outsized musical terms. There's one more chance to do so, as Urbanski and the ISO play the piece again tonight at the Palladium.

A different kind of clarinet concerto reaches for the sublime in A Far Cry's 'Dreams & Prayers'

A Far Cry is the oddly named string chamber orchestra with a high degree of polish and sense of adventure to it that will appeal to many.  Based since its 2007 founding in Boston, it's now up for a classical Grammy Award for "Dreams & Prayers" (Crier Records).

A Far Cry seeks a niche all its own in the chamber-orchestra gallery.
The 20 musicians include International Violin Competition of Indianapolis' silver medalist Tessa Lark and other fine string players of her generation.

Regardless of whether "Dreams & Prayers" gets the award for best chamber music/small ensemble performance, those curious about or already familiar with the group can catch it at the Palladium on March 27, when it will appear with pianists Leon Fleisher and Katherine Jacobson. The program includes the piano duo performing Mozart with the orchestra.

Curator and Crier member Miki-Sophia Cloud says that the new disc explores "music as a passageway between the physical and the divine as expressed over the mystical branches of three faith traditions and 1,000 years of history."

The centerpiece of this project is Osvaldo Golijov's "Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind." The dreaming, praying man was a rabbi named Isaac who lived in Provence in the 13th century. Golijov has drawn upon the intensity of the klezmer clarinet tradition for this five-part suite. The interaction between clarinetist David Krakauer, an expert in this style, carries the listener's attention forward. I find the result a little wearying, most likely because a mystical experience, even when put in musical terms, cannot easily be shared on the level of significance at which it happened.

I found the music for string orchestra alone more engaging. To end the disc with the "Heiliger Dankgesang" from Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor, op. 132, was a powerful inspiration.  This enthralling movement gains much from being presented by an enlarged ensemble.

The other new work stems from Muslim spirituality — Mehmet Ali Sahlikol's "Vecd," a Turkish word referring to a state of rapture or ecstasy.  The work establishes well the spiritually centered mood early on before accelerating with patience and intensity so as to approximate the conditions favorable to the formal meditative movements of the Sufi whirling dervishes.

Opening the program is a piece by the 11th-century Benedictine nun Hildegard von Bingen, arranged by A Far Cry.  Her music has been heard more through recordings than any other composer of the early Middle Ages. "O ignis spirus paracliti" has the purity of intonation and the lofty phrasing that makes this vocal music work in a setting for string instruments.  It amounts to a beautiful curtain-raiser to the spiritually wide-ranging program offered on "Dreams & Prayers."