Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Guess He's Not On Our Side: A Response to Garry Trudeau's Criticism of Charlie Hebdo and His Narrow View of Satire

Guess He's Not on Our Side (with apologies to Bob Dylan, but not to Jane Pauley's husband)
Posted by Jay Harvey on Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Inspired by Garry Trudeau's puzzling speech at the Polk Awards Ceremony on April 10, 2015

Monday, April 27, 2015

Theatre on the Square's 'Rapture, Blister, Burn': 'Who's gonna shoe your pretty little feet?' updated

"I don't need no man," is the woman's firm answer in the folk song quoted above, which is played over the sound system before the show and between the acts of "Rapture, Blister, Burn," a deep-delving comedy about contemporary relationships between the sexes, now at Theatre on the Square through Saturday.

As a social movement, American feminism has not been able to come up with so categorical a  dismissal of the male sex, tempting though that must be at times. It's probably more vital for women to advance their interests and accommodate their longings to the male power structure in their actual lives. Besides, the Woody Guthrie song is about a particular rejection; it's not a policy agenda, though it may do as a pleasant fantasy.

Gina Gianfriddo's play probes the vulnerability of Catherine Croll (Carrie Ann Schlatter), a romantically unattached feminist scholar who takes time out from her celebrity as a public intellectual to come home to her mother, Alice (Bridget Schlebecker), who is comfortably on the mend from a recent heart attack but still the center of her daughter's loving concern.

Also in unsettling proximity in the New England college town are Don and Gwen Harper (Clay Mabbitt and Kimberly Ruse-Roberts), a couple whose academic and personal lives were joined with Catherine's before she shot to fame as author of a couple of buzzworthy books armed with provocative subtitles. The three have a history, of course: Years ago, Gwen took advantage of Catherine's professional ambition to steal Don away from her and domesticate him after a fashion. Glad to shed academic rigor, Gwen as homemaker is a nattering control freak of the kind often found among recovering alcoholics. The marriage is in deep trouble, so now Gwen and Catherine seem to have a secret pact to violate the Tenth Commandment.
Avery shares her millennial perspective with Catherine and Alice.

To go much further into this juicy tangle would be to enter spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that the play's other character, Avery Willard (Megan Medley), initially tangential as the Harpers' regular baby sitter, becomes a crucial, salty-tongued dispenser of wisdom and tough love, balancing Alice's gentler but equally clear-eyed approach.

And the way Gianfriddo suggests Catherine's rescue is fascinating, giving satisfying momentum to a play initially overloaded with searing, witty, sociological talk. After Don, a laidback college dean of mildly disreputable habits, arranges for Catherine to teach a summer course that ends up with just two students enrolled — Avery and Gwen — we sense that feminist theory will run aground on the rocks of unfinished emotional business.

Rob Johansen directs an alert, edgy cast capable of rendering this high-stakes, five-way conversation about commitment, life goals, ambition, and female identity in an entertaining way. Sunday's performance of "Rapture, Blister, Burn" made clear to me how sadly essential it is for women to think of their lives in terms of market value when their sense of themselves doesn't gain traction until it goes in another direction entirely. Men, to their detriment, often feel they need only solid market value to be certain of their personal worth. When Don breaks through this trap in the second act, it's a revelation.

The old model of small-town college life consisted of a male hierarchy ornamented by "faculty wives" whose scant power to manipulate forced them to become either shrews or shrinking violets. Now the zeitgeist is whispering: O Woman of Academe, close thy Edward Albee ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?") and open thy Sheryl Sandberg ("Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead")! Neither text — one bitter, the other cheery — does more than hint at a path to the general fulfillment promised by feminism, wracked as it is by class and race divisions, on top of the old pornography and sexual-expression wars. (The essential-reading list in this play offers the dizzying polarities of Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly.)
Opening scene of "Rapture, Blister, Burn": The Harpers deal with Catherine's return.

TOTS' wide stage, divided into three playing areas for "Rapture, Blister, Burn," makes where you sit in the theater especially interesting. With a seat toward the front of the center section but at the Mass Ave end, I took in the first scene, playing well to my left, at an oblique angle, trying to pick up what the awkward conversation among Don and Gwen and Catherine was all about.  This had me feeling like an eavesdropper, which must have shaped my response to the play's slowly revealed secrets.

In contrast, when Don and Catherine reignited their mutual passion on the patio of Alice's house right in front of me near the end of Act 1, I sensed firsthand the heat sparking the play's title. Patrons seated far to my left must have felt like voyeurs. This Hitchcockian "Rear Window" aspect of the production is a special quality of the play's being staged at TOTS, and one of those delightful extras of attending theater.

(Photos by Zach Rosing)

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Indianapolis Symphonic Choir premieres an Arab-American composer's plea for peace

Mohammed Fairouz, composer
Mohammed Fairouz is a prolific, widely admired composer who seems determinedly engaged with the world outside music — particularly the world of his heritage, the Middle East. He has used the Psalms common in the wider religious heritage of the Abrahamic religions as a basis for an oratorio, "Zabur," which was premiered Friday night at the Hilbert Circle Theatre.

The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir presentation, conducted by its artistic director, Eric Stark,  also included the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Indianapolis Children's Choir. With elaborate tilling of the ground for a new commissioning project (detailed in a short video shown before the concert), the ISC connected with the 29-year-old Arab-American. His interest in outreach plus a remarkable resume clearly led to the expectation that the new work would have an aura of community-building wrapped up in an artistically comprehensive package.

Truth be told, "Zabur"'s chief quality is its intense sincerity. The layout of the piece, whose title is Arabic for "psalms," spans the region's history and religious expression, focusing on appeals to the Divine Ruler for relief from the conflicts of secular rulers; hence the initial use of Psalm 2, familiar to oratorio-lovers from its setting in Handel's "Messiah."

Two psalm settings in Arabic (Psalm 102 is the other) frame dialogue between a Syrian blogger, Daoud, and his companion, Jibreel. Their names are Arabic versions of the monumental figures they represent: David, ancient king of a united Israel, to whom the Book of Psalms is traditionally ascribed; and the Archangel Gabriel, God's busiest and most exalted messenger.

Daoud and Jibreel are trying to communicate to the outside world from a bomb shelter in Syria, where families including small children are confined under life-threatening conditions. Their project is to take their acknowledgment of God's supremacy as a vehicle for turning suffering into art; mere social-media journalism is insufficient.

That's where these two figures join up with Fairouz's mission as a composer. A cynic might wonder if it's a little vain for a composer to insert his work into this appeal for divine mercy. When Daoud sings, "Suddenly I feel as though I may be able to raise my voice louder and more fully, and actually make the entire world hear my voice," has the composer stepped in as a ventriloquist?

"Zabur" brings to the fore powerfully the human need to cry out from the depths, to borrow language from Psalm 130.  That expression is particularly moving at the point when the shelter's children lift their voices in a series of questions, asking for Daoud's help in conveying their distress. Fairouz seems to have an intuitive feeling for the human voice, which is evident in the solo voices — baritone Michael Kelly (Daoud) and tenor Dann Coakwell (Jibreel) — as well as the choral writing.

Fairouz's style rests on certain aspects of minimalism, but he inflects this with sudden departures from repetitive patterns as well as decorative gestures that tweak those repetitions. "Zabur" is often comforting, despite the portrayal of conflict and privation: The massed singers' anguished "Ah!," plus instrumental clashing, opens the work and recurs before the second psalm setting, which concludes "Zabur." Arabic being completely unknown to me — and since the original is set in that language's  alphabet in the program booklet — it was hard to judge just what Fairouz was making of the text when; a phonetic version in our alphabet placed next to the translation would have helped.

I caught this for sure in the music: a timeless feeling accompanying the text's praise of the eternity of God was evident as the piece approached its conclusion. Its floating choral unisons recalled two works the program notes specifically acknowledge: Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" and Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms." I left more persuaded by the depth of Fairouz's feeling for the  significance of what he addresses in the new oratorio than by the music itself.

No such problem accompanied my experience  of Gabriel Fauré's Requiem after intermission. In his  preface to "Choral Masterworks: A Listener's Guide," Michael Steinberg straightaway adopts the phrase "a religion-loving atheist" to describe himself. I would own up to being "a religion-wary agnostic." Like Steinberg, however, I can freely admit often being transported by sacred masterpieces, and Fauré's is certainly one of those. Belief is provisional, in my case, but feels genuine while I'm hearing a fine performance of it.

Apart from a brief trumpet-organ kerfuffle in the "Introitus: Kyrie," this was a magical rendition. There was sensitive orchestral playing; the lower strings were having a good night. The choir displayed its most radiant tone and purest diction, the baritone soloist (Kelly again) dispatched "Hostias" and "Libera me" with the non-operatic intimacy the composer wanted, and the soprano solo ("Pie Jesu") was acceptably handled by eight ICC members.

The concert came full circle with the finale "In Paradisum" and its reference to the hoped-for angelic  guidance of the departed souls into the holy city of Jerusalem, whose status was conferred long ago by the legendary King David, Farouz's Daoud. Even more worth noting, in light of my self-description above, is the effect "In Paradisum" had on me. So I want to end this post with the lovely, and most revealing, final paragraph of Steinberg's essay on Fauré's Requiem. I can never read this paragraph without getting chills:

"Once I was giving a preconcert talk on the Fauré Requiem in the beautiful Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts, and as I came to the end, I heard myself say something I had not planned to say, and not remotely thought about. I found myself remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian who was executed in 1945 for his involvement in the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. A priest walked with him to the place of execution, and Bonhoeffer parted from his companion with the words: 'In five minutes, Father, I shall know more than you.' And I said that this music tells me Gabriel Fauré already knew."

Friday, April 24, 2015

In pursuit of the White Whale: NoExitPerformance enters the maelstrom of 'Moby Dick' — and survives

Stage adaptations of monstrous, venerated literary works are not as rare as one might expect. The challenge to extract theatrical values from famous prose narratives is irresistible, and instant name recognition of the adapted material amounts to a marketing boost from the get-go.

NoExit Performance, valiant and imaginative among the smaller theater organizations in town, entered the second and final weekend of its "Moby Dick" production Thursday night at the Wheeler Arts Community just south of Fountain Square.

Julian Rad's adaptation of Herman Melville's leviathan book hits all the major themes, judging from my memory of having finished reading it in January. (My first reading was in my teens; this time, I was appalled to see the word "omit" penciled in on the first page of each chapter that digresses from the main narrative thread — and ignored that immature directive.)

The nearly abstract look of the set, which is also turned to practical use, supports the show's larger themes.
To be sure, some important elements have suffered shrinkage, but they are there in outline: The  initially rough friendship between the narrator, Ishmael (Rory Willats), and the exotic harpooner Queequeg (Max Jones) — mysterious and profound and resonant with homoerotic overtones — isn't fully fleshed out. Father Mapple's sermon,  probably the most famous homily in fiction until the hellfire-and-brimstone clerical rant in James Joyce's  "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," is missing — though the enlisted crew here sings a solemn pre-voyage hymn that serves a similar purpose. The leisurely grandiloquence of Melville's language, even some of its humor, is preserved in generous voice-over use of Ishmael's narration.

With the inspired direction (including apt choreographic ornamentation) of Michael Burke, this version both haunts and excites. It is noisy and energetic, infused with demonic possession in the person and influence of Captain Ahab, who is determined to turn the hard business of whaling into the even harder mission of personal revenge.

Burke has woven into the show recorded atmospheric music, sensitive to the changing moods of hope, fear, bravado and dedication to work that run throughout the doomed crew. After a crew member is lost overboard, a substantial portion of Gorecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" makes for a perfect aural background. Ryan Mullins' set design is a richly suggestive backdrop of sails and rigging, with weather-worn wood representations of various shipboard surfaces in the foreground.

Best of all in this adaptation, as seen Thursday, was one of the quiet scenes, a colloquy between Captain Ahab and his skeptical first mate, Starbuck (Scott Russell), in which the nagging desire for a settled life on land preoccupies both men. What emerges here and in one of his raging speeches is Ahab's sense that his quest to kill the whale that cost him a leg and has caused legendary havoc to whalers the world over is out of his control. His mania is driven not merely by willful stubbornness but by destiny. Melville's questioning of free will is a notable philosophical source of energy in "Moby Dick," and all who see this show risk having this unsettling question raised in their own comparatively quiet lives.

Bill Wilkison displayed volcanic rage as Ahab, here holding his customized harpoon.
There were times I cringed at the predominance of uproar in the show, in that I couldn't make out lines that were lost in the shouting and soundtrack. I concluded that the raucous blur was Burke's  deliberate choice, even though a little less roaring on the part of Bill Wilkison, who played Ahab with startling force, would have been helpful: There are ways to express fury at less than top volume. But for so many words to be lost in the general tumult mirrored the underlying theme of the Pequod's being in the grip of something inhuman and elemental.

However much visitors to this show may sense the value of this choice, they are sure to notice the cast's fervent portrayal of these hard-working, poorly paid men submitting to the voyage's business purpose. The wasteful commerce of whaling is part of humankind's grim history according to which every energy source ever mass-produced has despoiled the environment and endangered human life. Whaling was sustained by the demand for whale oil, the main source of pre-electric illumination in American homes. Food extracted from a whale kill was eaten on board; it was valueless as cargo in the era before refrigeration. Secondary booty included whalebone, used primarily in women's corsets, and spermaceti, a source of cosmetics. Ah, vanity!

In this context, Ahab's insane quest is almost as defensible — when you take the long view — as the attention to duty that Starbuck tries to uphold. For most of us, Starbuck's values are good enough: They support life, however meanly or shortsightedly, and they encourage a sense of connection to the human world beyond ourselves. Ahab, of course, is in thrall to something larger — how to get back at the universe for making all of us so vulnerable. It's a losing battle, of course, and we're better off not going there, except in the imagination that this production so vividly embodies.

Yet we're all in the same boat, too. Among this production's moving scenes is the last thing you see — the curtain call, no solo bows, with the cast all in a line, Ahab among his fellows.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Musings about jazz — related to the new Palladium season and to the American Pianists Association — as April, officially Jazz Month, draws to a close

Out on a limb, in the spirit of jazz, I'm going to start this post with a retrospective judgment on the outcome of the 2015 Jazz Fellowship Awards of the American Pianists Association.

I say "out on a limb" — and I hope without sawing off the part I'm sitting on — because I missed both the semifinals and finals in person due to an out-of-town trip. And I didn't hear all five of the Premiere Series sessions earlier this season at the Jazz Kitchen, either.

But, thanks to the Eskenazi Health series of solo mini-recitals plus my YouTube viewing of the March 28 finals, here are one fan's impression of the far-and-away winners. And I'm focusing on how the finals struck me (throwing some earlier impressions, when available, into the mix). The Hilbert Circle Theatre event presented the five young men in two outings:  one song accompanying Dianne Reeves, the other selection an arrangement played with the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra.

No pianist comps behind a singer better than Zach Lapidus.
For accompanying Dianne Reeves, the best of the lot was Zach Lapidus. The way he played "Infant Eyes" (Wayne Shorter) in collaboration with the singer was something special.  Down Beat's correspondent called it "lapidary" (was the pun worth it?), but my metaphor would be drawn from quite a different realm — not stone-cutting, but gardening. Lapidus and Reeves worked the garden of "Infant Eyes" with botanists' commitment, patience and know-how. I can't imagine from what depths the pianist was drawing his chords and phrases, but it was as though he was Reeves' doppelgänger — like a parallel self of the singer's, but expressed through the piano at the same time she was working her vocal self.

For working together with the BWJO, my choice is Sullivan Fortner (who in fact won the
He meant him: Sullivan Fortner played 'I Mean You' like nobody's business.
fellowship). Their performance together of Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You" was the swingingest thing I heard on the whole program. Fortner had plenty of chops to display, but his performance didn't seem to be about that. His interaction with the band didn't slacken for a second. His rhythmic acuity was marvelous, and the jumpy intensity of Brent Wallarab's arrangement (plus the band's performance) was matched at the keyboard beat for beat. Fortner was the only finalist I had not had the pleasure of hearing at all before my YouTube acquaintance with him at the finals. If he played like this every time out, no wonder he won.

As for the finalists I have not mentioned, they may have what's needed for careers in the music, but they impressed me mostly as knowledgeable assimilators, fleet of finger and stylistically savvy. In other words, worthy of their competition eminence but likely little more in the long term.

On to one of the series announced Monday by the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel: I'm looking forward to most of the 2015-16 season there. I'll even get my hopes up for pianist Ramsey Lewis, insofar as he's  said to be celebrating his 50th anniversary of eminence, ever since he rose to fame with his jazz-lite style for "The 'In' Crowd" and "Hang On Sloopy." His professionalism is dependably smooth, unruffled and amiable, and with luck his program will avoid the easy way out he's taken in ending two previous engagements I've heard — a long, retrospective medley of his musical origins in Chicago's black churches. Sure, it's great he sees fit to honor his roots, but he can roll this stuff out by the yard, and it all sounds pretty glib after a while. Lewis will appear at the Palladium on Jan. 9.

Before that, I look forward with interest to hear how the Bad Plus — a trio that lays down the densest textures imaginable for the combination of piano, bass, and drums — accommodates a fourth player: saxophonist Joshua Redman, who (setting aside his star status) is not exactly a shrinking violet on the bandstand. That program opens the Palladium series on Oct. 18.

Violinist Regina Carter and pianist Kenny Barron turned out one of the best jazz duo recordings of the 21st century so far way back in 2001. I've sure got their Nov. 21 Palladium date penciled in on my calendar.

The star combinations continue when guitarist John Scofield adds luster to the Joe Lovano Quartet on Feb. 6.  Scofield has applied his substantial skills and distinctive sound across a broad spectrum of mainstream to jam-band expressions; the equally malleable veteran saxophonist should make an impressive partner for him in the front line.

Based on the versions I heard the Butler University Jazz Ensemble play in opening for the Christian McBride Trio during the recently concluded Butler ArtsFest, I'm eagerly anticipating the bassist's big-band arrangements as performed by the band he wrote them for. The Christian McBride Big Band comes to the Palladium on March 4.

Closing out the series is the San Francisco-based young-star ensemble, gifted both in arranging and soloing adeptness, known as the SFJAZZ Collective. The group was consciousness-expanding enough making creditable jazz statements out of the songs of Stevie Wonder a couple of seasons ago in this series. This time they will do something all their own with the songs of Michael Jackson.  Look for them nearly a year from now, on April 8, 2016.

The full fifth-season lineup in all the series at the Carmel showplace is available here.

Two worlds of J.S. Bach are sketched in Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra concert

The marketing image Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra has associated with "J.S. Bach: Sacred and Secular, Vocal and Instrumental" is a good deal jazzier than that sober concert title.

J.S. Bach: Baroque dude
It's worth noting that the composer's artistic profile finds more consistent expression across the sacred-secular divide than the jarring superimposition of shades, stingy-brim hat and hipster facial hair on his image suggests. But contemporary marketing follows its own laws, and if it can attract more people to two repeat performances elsewhere of Monday night's program at the University of Indianapolis, more power to it.

The 11-piece ensemble, exuding neatly deployed energy and refinement throughout, was led by its artistic director, Dutch-born early-music flute virtuoso Barthold Kuijken, who was also soloist in three of the four works.

The program's centerpiece for exhibiting the skills of both Kuijken and the band is the Orchestral Suite in B minor, the most sparingly orchestrated of Bach's four ensemble suites on the French model: solo flute, strings, and continuo are displayed across seven movements. An elaborate opening "Ouverture" is succeeded by shorter dance movements, in this case ending with the charming "Badinerie."

Monday's performance of that finale was cheerful, but a little staid. If any piece of music illustrates the "lighter and more humorous way of thought" Bach was capable of (according to an obituary quoted in the program), it's this movement, which goes over best when it sounds more playful.

Overall, the suite was quite attractively, if sedately, performed. Particularly admirable were the phrasing and balance of the Sarabande, and the slight billowing to the dynamics that enlivened the slow dance. The Ouverture showed immediately the rapport between Kuijken and the ensemble in tempo shifts as well as the clarity of all instrumental voices.

Augusta McKay Lodge is a master's candidate at IU.
Secular pieces dominate the program — no surprise considering that the presenter is an orchestral organization; Bach's religious music, with exceptions like the organ chorale preludes, requires singers. The most satisfying such piece Monday night was the Violin Concerto in A minor, with Augusta McKay Lodge, winner of the IBO's 2014 concerto competition, as soloist. Apart from a burble in the first movement, her performance was outstanding: animated, well-ornamented, radiantly in tune. Her evenness of phrasing, with no drooping at the ends, was particularly commendable in the Andante.

That contrasted with the concert's vocal soloist, soprano Julianne Baird, whose phrases tended to swell and fade internally and sometimes go into hiding at the ends in the sublime cantata "Ich habe genug" (with Kuijken's flute playing the oboe obbligato). In the first recitative, she often sounded breathy, as though she were conveying a secret rather than proclaiming sturdy faith in the expectation of heavenly reward.

There was no fading in the second recitative, fortunately, and the concluding aria indicated that her passagework was accurate and her intonation sound. But the hide-and-seek projection of the text was disconcerting: In a line like "Hier muss ich das Elend bauen" (here I must build, or cultivate, misery), for example, you don't want the word "bauen" to vanish (as it did), because the line is such a striking image of the text's world-weariness. To be condemned to grow a crop of misery — what a fate! We want to hear about it — sustain those phrases, please.

The program's novelty, the secular Italian cantata "Non sa che sia dolore," returned Baird to the stage, where both the pluses and minuses of her "Ich habe genug" performance were evident. From the opening Sinfonia on, the piece was indeed striking for what Kuijken's program note called its "very progressive Italianate style." The Vivaldian colors, lavish decorative writing for flute and voice, and the tone painting (especially in the final aria's supple rhythmic evocation of a boat gently rocking on the waves) indeed revealed an uncharacteristic side of Bach, if not one quite captured by that retro-Blues-Brothers poster image.

The program will be repeated at Franklin College on Wednesday and Indiana Landmarks Center Thursday. See the IBO website for details.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Shadows over paradise: IRT's 'On Golden Pond' is a comedy about loss held off

Few serious family comedies of the past 40 years have held the stage as successfully as "On Golden Pond." Indiana Repertory Theatre's season-ending production of the Ernest Thompson play supports its durability, thanks to a unity of vision and a stylistic restraint that avoids underlining the story's sentimentality.

Those of us who have never accumulated a half-century of memories about an idyllic summer home are ready to experience them vicariously as soon as we lay eyes on Robert M. Koharchik's set — sturdy, rustic, lived-in and backgrounded by a glimmering vista of sky and water. Whatever may threaten Norman and Ethel Thayer's continued happiness in their lakeside Maine home we are rooting for them to keep at bay.

Norman Thayer ignores Ethel's steady enthusiasm.
Trouble is, one of those threats is Norman's attitude as the couple return to their spacious, memento-rich cabin for another summer. The shuffling patriarch's mind is bent on his demise — an old preoccupation, according to Ethel. As his 80th birthday approaches, however, his vitality is sapped by enough health worries to justify this tendency. His caustic humor serves as the perfect accompaniment to a twilight he can't possibly welcome (who does?).

The role has always struck me as problematic. The character gets lots of laughs, some of them guilty pleasures, as you could tell by a few "oohs" from Sunday evening's audience. He's not evil, but he's fairly unlikable, and an actor has to do more than bask in the wisecracks to make the second-act pathos come through.

Norman is resolutely loved by his wife, despite her recurring exasperation, but seems bereft of other social connections. Ethel is an optimist forever caught up in the romance of long summers in the domesticated wild — the language of the loons, berry-picking adventures, delight in wildflowers. Norman has shed some of his old pleasures, or is only ready to indulge in them haphazardly. He is lucky to have her, but the audience is steadily invited to believe he doesn't deserve the luck.

An actor playing the old man has to respond to subtle indications that Norman isn't as irredeemable as he seems. With a history of being hard on the couple's only child, Chelsea, and his somewhat disdainful treatment of her persistent local suitor, the mail carrier Charlie Martin, Norman is secretly fighting to stave off death and find new reasons for living. In Robert Elliott's performance, his persistence is believable and even becomes worth cheering for.

Darrie Lawrence's portrayal of Ethel was capable of eliciting the audience's sympathy with her
Norman (Robert Elliott) sizes up Bill Ray (Ryan Artzberger).
reclamation project. Also crucial to it is a surprise juvenile house guest, Billy, the son of Chelsea's latest beau, a Los Angeles dentist named Bill Ray. Ryan Artzberger's performance was a nuanced study in awkwardness exacerbated by Norman's goading, turning into a display of grit that impresses his tormentor. Winningly played by Griffin Grider (who could have used a bit more California sass, however), Billy appeals to Norman's desire for new experiences he can believe in and lend some direction to. The teen is a willing pupil, yielding to the charm of the place and his crusty mentor while the dentist-boyfriend and Chelsea head off to Europe.

Working her way toward an equilibrium that has eluded her into middle age, Chelsea eventually steels herself to turn into Norman's loving daughter. Constance Macy's performance nicely modulated the strain imposed by Chelsea's return to Golden Pond, encountering all the old difficulties with her father and tempted to think nothing can change.

Charlie Martin reminisces with Chelsea and Ethel.
Yet change is always possible despite the odds. The production, under the direction of Janet Allen, creates an exciting tension as it seems to whisper "too late, too late." But there is something in Elliott's Norman Thayer that echoes the final lines of Randall Jarrell's poem "The Woman at the Washington Zoo." Lonelier than Norman, she silently implores the animals she sees around her for transformation — just as Norman extends a mute appeal to the Golden Pond loons and the other flora and fauna that so excite his wife: "You know what I was,/ You see what I am: change me, change me!"

Punctuating his memories with an infectious chuckle perfectly rendered in Charlie Clark's buoyant performance, the Golden Pond mailman suggests another lesson. If you can mark a few occasions in your life when you felt really special to people— as Charlie did decades ago whenever he brought the day's mail to the girls' camp down the pond — you've got the resources you need to change for the better, or simply accept the way things have turned out. IRT's "On Golden Pond" packs enough wisdom along with its fun to fill any summer you may have in mind, no matter where you spend it.

[production photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Complexities of the German symphonic tradition sketched in ISO concert at the Palladium

Christoph Altstaedt, ISO guest conductor
All-orchestra concerts have a reputation for not drawing as well as concerts featuring guest soloists, and that truism seemed to be the case Friday night at Carmel's Palladium.

Lots of empty seats did not keep the fascinating program on paper from being brought to life well. Young German conductor Christoph Altstaedt, bouncy yet reserved, led the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in pieces by Bach/Webern, Richard Wagner, and Felix Mendelssohn.

Some American sass was contributed by Stephen Bachicha, a composer associated with Rice University in Houston and the winner of this year's Marilyn K. Glick Young Composer's Showcase. Bachicha was on hand to acknowledge the applause after the ISO performed his "Allusions, Illusions & Delusions."

Companion to bustling strings in new work.
Bachicha's lively melange of salutes to composers he admires ("allusions") and a bumptious phantasmagoria ("illusions and delusions") was thoroughly entertaining. It scorned points of rest or second thoughts; it was a mover and shaker from first to last. The meandering flugelhorn melody that helps tie the piece together was a bit hard to follow on first hearing, so my sense of the work's cohesiveness remains somewhat vague. But there were lots of moment-to-moment thrills: How often do you hear a fugato episode for strings punctuated by the slapstick, for instance?

But back to the major focus of the program, which will be repeated tonight at the ISO's home, Hilbert Circle Theatre in downtown Indianapolis. Felix Mendelssohn was a devoted Lutheran; his wealthy family's conversion from Judaism was effected in his early childhood. Of course, his heritage did not save his reputation during the Nazi era, and gentile musicians the world over were among the many
Leipzig's Mendelssohn monument (restored)
music-lovers who deplored the pulling down of Leipzig's Mendelssohn monument in 1936.

His background may have something to do with the consensus that, among his two major oratorios, "Elijah" is a better piece than "St. Paul." But then, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) has more good story material than the New Testament. There is no reason to question that what was originally a prudent decision to convert had by the time of the brilliant composer's adulthood been thoroughly absorbed.

His "Reformation" Symphony (No. 5 in D major) ascends to an expressive summit in the finale, with a chorale on "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," introduced with warm expressiveness in Friday's performance by principal flutist Karen Moratz. Despite the way the strings (with the basses in their old Nelson-Leppard-period placement) settle into a complacent, jog-trot fugue before the peroration, the performance Altstaedt conducted at the Palladium made a good case for taking the work seriously and setting aside the composer's reputation as a lightweight.

Among the other nicknamed Mendelssohn symphonies, the D major will never replace the "Italian" or the "Scottish" in the public's affection. Still, it is full of lovely, well-managed material, particularly in the concise middle movements, which were scrupulously sculpted by the batonless Altstaedt. The seriousness of the more capacious first movement was never in doubt in this interpretation, and helped the work demonstrate how well it deserved its place among Bach and Wagner.

In fact, Wagner was an early admirer of Mendelssohn, particularly his conducting. Some of this admiration was surely connected to the rising opera composer's desire to have Mendelssohn's influence behind a Berlin production of "The Flying Dutchman." The elder composer was hardly fresh in the grave, however, before Wagner wrote his notorious essay "Jewishness in Music," a landmark of cultural anti-Semitism in the Austro-German world that was to come to full toxic flowering in the 1930s.

But late Wagner, in the form of "Good Friday Spell" and the Prelude from "Parsifal," was an inspired complement to the "Reformation" Symphony in this concert. The music's religiosity, cast in the form of the most advanced "endless melody" Wagner ever fashioned, bloomed impressively in the friendly acoustical environs of the Palladium. Altstaedt got consistent warmth from all sections of the orchestra, with every phrase linked to its neighbor.

What cast Mendelssohn as a conservative at a time when Wagner entertained revolutionary pretensions was in part his devotion to music of the past. The J.S. Bach revival was largely to his credit, and this lifting up of German art at the instigation of the scion of a prominent Jewish family  ironically triumphed in the long run. Anton Webern, whose politics in the Nazi era are not above reproach, saw his music as rooted in a tradition that Mendelssohn (as conductor) had much to do with restoring to health.

Webern's arrangement of Bach's ricercar "a 6 voci" from "The Musical Offering" is a peculiar fruit of his connection to that tradition. Its distribution of Bach's material around the orchestra emphasizes the independence of the strands that the original setting blends. You can see how everything works in  Webern's setting, which reminds me of a huge, transparent plastic model of the internal-combustion engine placed on a rotating pedestal in AutoWorld, the failed tourist attraction in my hometown of Flint, Michigan. Pumping pistons, sparking spark plugs, rhythmically sliding valves, rising and falling camshaft — everything was there, lofty and well-lit.

That's the kind of tribute Webern makes to Bach's music. The ISO played the piece well except for a few inadequately sustained phrases. And the arrangement has survived longer than AutoWorld (opened in 1984, demolished in 1997), which gives hope for art over expensive civic boosterism. But that's fortunately not an even contest, is it?

Friday, April 17, 2015

Playing on the nerve ends, which music does best, Butler's ArtsFest delves deep with a program of musical monodramas

Ministering to minds diseased: My pre-concert talk for Butler ArtsFest's "Stark Raving" program

 Method — and something beyond it — goes into operatic madness

More explanations for the increasing oldness of the core opera repertoire could be put forward and defended than there is time for here. But it’s doubtful that strong claims can be made for permanent additions to the canon since World War II except for Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” whose protagonist, by the way, perfectly illustrates how readily being an outsider shades over into outlaw status.

Many viable operas have been composed in the past 70 years, but for various reasons composers’ interests often have tended elsewhere. One direction in the 20th century was for composers to opt for portrait sketches in a cabaretlike or music-theater format, with instrumentalists cast as characters, doffing their role as accompanists.

Let’s briefly consider a couple of noble ancestors: The violin helps portray the Soldier in Igor Stravinsky’s “Soldier’s Tale” (1918); the nature of the violin’s dominance — walking music, marching music, and its diabolical possession at the climax — changes according to what happens to the soldier. And the quasi-instrumental use of the voice (Sprechstimme: a cross between song and speech) in Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” (1912) makes it basically a verbally adept but partial representative of Pierrot, whose fragmented personality is embodied in a mix-and-match ensemble of instrumental components: its eight instruments play together only in the last of its 21 numbers.

Peter Maxwell Davies in his Expressionist period
Why opera reached a crisis has something to do with the evolution of musical language away from its communicative clarity toward a more ambiguous and sometimes apparently hidden relationship to emotion. Someone hostile to the music that resulted, the most formidable American newspaper music critic in the second half of the 20th century, put it like this: “Opera is probably the most visceral form of music. But the anti-Romantic movement that came into being after World War I despised Romanticism and its gestures.” The New York Times’ Harold Schonberg went on to say, in 1976, that “a visceral element is beginning to creep back into music,” and he specifically mentions Peter Maxwell Davies, who “has taken a direction that hints at a future kind of lyric drama in which intellectuality and visceral impact come together in an exciting mixture.”

The mixture in Davies’ case can be seen in his use of parody and quotation, which is frequent in “Eight Songs” and many other works. It goes beyond what’s widely recognizable through quotation of something familiar to medieval and Renaissance formal practices. This is learned music applied to emotionally intense ends. If the visceral element is retained, the composer’s language can be organized according to his knowledge of ancient procedures, stylistic devices, and forms that interest him. But these cannot be regarded as the be-all and end-all of his job. He must have something beyond his learning and the skill to apply it in order for his compositions to live.

“Certain relationships of pitch seem to be innate in all animals, including man,” writes George Martin in 20th-Century Opera: A Guide. “The distress peeps of little chickens, for example, are composed of descending phrases, while rising phrases predominate in peeps of pleasure. The same general contours are present in man’s sounds of distress and pleasure, and a style of music that too frequently ignores such a basic postulate of communication through sound seems unlikely to last for long.”

Predominant ways to organize music in the 20th century did not always yield results that could be depended on to reflect a story’s emotional trajectory. Following Schoenberg’s systematization of his swerve away from tonality, modernist control of compositional procedures to the nth degree excluded allusions to music as experienced in the protagonists’ lives. A crucial aspect of portraiture through music was cut off.

The pathos of mental disturbance could be expressed without such references under an Expressionist aesthetic, such as the one that governs Schoenberg’s “Erwartung” (1924).  And, true to that philosophy, “Eight Songs for a Mad King” and “Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot” are sometimes acknowledged as the high points of Davies’ Expressionist period, in which he painted on a broad canvas, using a full, historically informed palette. Thus, stammered syllables, such as Miss Donnithorne’s “ca-ca-ca-cake,” can be read as both Expressionist utterances and as parody of the repeated-note tremolos at cadences in 17th-century vocal music.

These two Davies works may be considered a sophisticated elaboration of “the distress peeps of little chickens.” But they depend in part on pre-existing musical referents. So does “Pierrot Lunaire,” which has three movements that mock the most popular dance form of the pre-World War I era, the waltz. “Eight Songs” draws on Davies’ knowledge of centuries of upper-class English vernacular music, as well as the operatic and oratorio styles, chiefly Handelian, predominant in George III’s time. The piano-bar and ricky-tick treatments given “Comfort Ye” also show that anachronism usefully can symbolize the disintegration of a personality. “Miss Donnithorne’s” distortions of sentimental Victorian ballads, whose original effectiveness rested on settling middle-class listeners in their comfort zones, likewise carry that message, surely more than thoroughgoing modernist procedures would.

Maybe the mockery goes further. Richard Taruskin, in his Oxford History of Western Music, paraphrases with approval another writer’s opinion that “Eight Songs” can be interpreted this way: the mad King, “a once-powerful figure rendered impotent…might…be a metaphor for the dogmatic inelasticity of modernism, rendered impotent and irrelevant in the face of the egalitarian plurality of styles that was ineluctably emerging in the wake of the sixties.”

This might seem farfetched, but remember: the King is presented as a frustrated cross-species music teacher. His “I shall rule with a rod of iron” could be applied as the motto of post-war Darmstadt, from whose annual new-music festival total serialism exercised its midcentury sway, a rule divided, with another center of orthodoxy lodging in American universities.  That reign was brief in light of the pluralism that has since overtaken music and the marginalization of even this pluralistic landscape, a patch of countryside lamely dubbed “classical music.” The pathos of rule yielded by force is reflected in the “rod of iron” line, delivered in a weak falsetto and nearly coincident with some serious violin abuse — ironic in that it alludes to “Messiah’s” fierce, destructive aria “Thou shalt break them.”

The final song, spoken dramatically with only a few "extended" techniques, has the vocal soloist regarding the king with pity, as if from the outside, but we can’t be sure he is not formulating an autobiographical sketch as a posthumous fantasy. The composer wants us to entertain the possibility that the voice we’ve been listening to is someone pretending to be George III.  “I am weary of this feint,” runs a mysterious line in the King's fourth song. Melodically, the line sounds to me like the work’s closest approximation to “Lunairean” Sprechstimme. Is this a clue, deliberately clad in the Expressionist garb of the work’s precursor?

Davies’ notes for a piece of the same year (1969), “Vesalii Icones” (Images of Vesalius), include an explanation why its finale, “Resurrection,” imagines the Antichrist rising from the tomb to place a curse on all Christendom. “Some may consider such an interpretation sacrilegious,” Davies writes, “but the point I am trying to make is a moral one: It is a matter of distinguishing the false from the real, that one should not be taken in by appearances.”

We’ve all experienced things turning out far differently from what we had every right to suppose. Usually, we regain our balance and move on. How much the worse here! George III, ruler over a rising imperial power, despite that little setback in the American colonies, in captivity has been brutalized and alienated from nature, human society and specifically the court.  Miss Donnithorne, the focus of what was in her era the summit of every woman’s experience — her wedding day — is deprived of that honor without warning.

The result isn’t pretty. The emotional mess embedded in the music has sometimes been reflected in visual messes in the staging of both works. The late Andrew Porter preferred an early production of “Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot” “in which the unfortunate lady burst from the moldy wreck of her giant wedding cake.” A Paris production of “Eight Songs for a Mad King” under the direction of David Freeman piled upon the scenario’s scenes of verbal and physical violence a simulation of George III signing the walls of his cell with his own excrement. You can’t get more visceral than that.

Gaetano Donizetti crafted the classic bel canto mad scene.
The tidier presentation of madness in 19th-century operas also has its messy, disjointed qualities, however. Forced to abandon her intended lover for an imposed marriage, then persuaded by a forged note to find her beloved false, the heroine of Gaetano Donizetti’s opera "Lucia di Lammermoor" gets the classic mad scene after her offstage murder of the husband she never wanted. Making allowances for the expansion of the musical language since then, we can understand Donizetti’s mad-scene music as parallel to how Davies writes for Miss Donnithorne and George III. In “Evenings at the Opera,” Jeffrey Langford describes Lucia’s music this way: “Short disjunct phrases of little or no tunefulness create a melody that continually breaks off its direction, interrupts itself, and essentially has no continuity.”

A mad scene’s “aberrant music,” as Langford calls it, means a departure from what the audience expects — a formal and expressive anomaly, a breach of convention. It’s worth noting that just before Lucia, disheveled and bloodied, appears to the stunned wedding crowd, the chaplain Raimundo relates the murder scene he has just witnessed in a beautiful, well-rounded melody that the chorus of guests matches. Why such horrors told in such a placid way? So that Lucia’s music is that much clearer as an aberration when it bursts upon us after she descends the stairs.

The flute becomes a character in the course of the scene, anticipating the instrumental partnering Davies embeds in his works. Lucia’s music has sporadic smoothness, chiefly when she recalls a couple of phrases of her love duet with Edgardo; otherwise not. There are calmer moments in “Eight Songs” and “Miss Donnithorne,” too — momentary bounces off the trampoline of a desired reality, presumptively rooted in truth or at least in reasonable anticipation of truth: a stable kingship, a happy marriage.

Davies’ king thinks he has a different spouse, and so does Donizetti’s Lucia. Miss Donnithorne’s bridegroom seems simultaneously present and absent; all time has been sucked into the black hole of her wedding day.

The mental wanderings have physical analogs in all three cases. Staging can reinforce the significance of each character’s disoriented journeys in what the audience sees as well as hears:  Stephanie Von Buchau recalls the spellbinding Metropolitan Opera debut of Joan Sutherland in the role in 1961, “turning upstage during the mad scene so that some of her utterance sounded like echoes.” For a Lucia so transcendently achieved, phrases of the mad scene can well be echoes because they give back to her pale reflections of truth, which, as the interwoven flute voices remind us, she has no way of separating from her fantasies. Both Davies pieces end in diminishing repetitions that function as such echoes.

This truth/falsehood dilemma has its most famous stage incarnation in the character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, determined to distinguish between appearance and reality, smart enough to do so, and willing to give over every earthly advantage in order not to be deceived. Despite his crippling doubts and occasional cruelty, he is a healthy character in an unhealthy situation.
Tom Stoppard (about the time of RAGAD)

In this passage from “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” (1967), Tom Stoppard’s comic riff on Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet’s advantages in comparison with King George and Miss Donnithorne become clearer. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are talking with a character called the Player: 

ROS: Hamlet is not himself outside or in. We have to glean what afflicts him.

GUIL: He doesn't give much away.

PLAYER: Who does, nowadays?

GUIL: He's—melancholy.

PLAYER: Melancholy?

ROS: Mad.

PLAYER: How is he mad?

ROS: Ah.  (To GUIL.) How is he mad?

GUIL: More morose than mad, perhaps.

PLAYER: Melancholy.

GUIL: Moody.

ROS: He has moods.

PLAYER: Of moroseness?

GUIL: Madness. And yet.

ROS: Quite.

GUIL: For instance.

ROS: He talks to himself, which might be madness.

GUIL: If he didn't talk sense, which he does.

ROS: Which suggests the opposite.

PLAYER: Of what?

     (Small pause.)

GUIL: I think I have it. A man talking sense to himself is no madder than a man talking nonsense not to himself.

ROS: Or just as mad.

GUIL: Or just as mad.

ROS: And he does both.

GUIL: So there you are.

ROS: Stark raving sane.

Madness, as presented by Davies and Donizetti, represents an absolute inability to make such distinctions as those Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are trying to puzzle out about the Danish prince.  Their investigation has no firm grounding: “One acts on assumptions,” the Player reminds the hired busybodies just before the passage I’ve quoted.

In “Eight Songs for a Mad King” and “Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot,” Davies wants to put the audience close to the horror of a conclusive inability to discern the truth and come to terms with it, especially after the depletion of all power to expect and enjoy deserved happiness. Sanity — stark raving sanity above all — is no option for King George or Miss Donnithorne. Their situations say that, and their music proclaims it indelibly.

Or so we have to assume.

(Delivered at Schrott Center for the Arts, Butler University, April 16, 2015. Thanks to JCFA dean and ArtsFest artistic director Ronald Caltabiano for the opportunity)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Butler ArtsFest: Angela Brown, our hometown diva, puts a "mad" program of opera excerpts over the top

Always reliable in delivering the utmost to her public, Angela Brown presented an operatic recital at the Schrott Center for the Arts Tuesday night that included strenuous grappling duets.

Angela Brown (photo: Roni Ely)
A well-attended presentation of this year's Butler University ArtsFest, "Angela Brown and Friends: Mad Scenes!" took in music from the core opera repertoire, including "Tosca," "Aida," "The Flying Dutchman," and "Porgy and Bess."

The Indianapolis-born soprano, who finished her formal education as a graduate student at Indiana University, brought to bear the savoir-faire acquired in an international career together with her well-schooled natural gifts. The "mad-scene" theme cast a wide net, including mad passion and simple anger.

She was assisted by soprano Jane Dutton, tenor Thomas Studebaker (director of Butler's opera program), baritones Darren Stokes and Galen Bower, and pianist Kelleen Strutz (a Butler alumna). All the singers and the pianist came up to Brown's professional level, so that the effect was not of a diva plus dutiful attendants.

Something of a signature role is that of the captive Ethiopian princess Aida in Verdi's opera of the same name. Brown's "Ritorna vincitor!" on Tuesday displayed her clarion high notes, warm, sustained phrasing and a range of expression supported, for example, by an impressive chest voice. About the latter quality: When she sang the lines about Aida's heart being crushed beneath the anguish of divided loyalties, you could feel the weight in the heft of her lower range.

Stokes made his first appearance of the evening as Amonasro, putting pressure on his daughter to honor her homeland by betraying her lover.  He projected nobility and anger in an intense dialogue with Brown as Aida; I missed notes of pathos and nostalgia, however.

After Brown's heartrending "My Man's Gone Now," Stokes' second appearance of the evening captured all aspects of his character, Bess' domineering lover Crown, the villain of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess." This replaced the scheduled love duet of the two title characters, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now." I inferred that vocal ferocity comes more naturally to Stokes; at any rate, he and Brown certainly conveyed the roughness of mutual desire when one of the parties has misgivings.

Brown also wrestled with Bower in a long selection from "Tosca" leading up to the heroine's iconic aria, "Vissi d'arte."  Bower conveyed the cynicism and practiced manipulativeness of Scarpia capably, and Brown modulated Tosca's internal conflict with mesmerizing skill. Her "Vissi d'arte" was practically the program's highlight for me, eclipsing even "Ritorna vincitor!"

The diva took an offstage rest to allow Dutton and Studebaker to perform the Erik-Senta dialogue from "The Flying Dutchman," in which it becomes clear that the young woman is a lost cause to real-life love because her infatuation with a picture of the mysterious title character rules her heart.

Dutton was convincing in the implausible fixation of Senta on the pathos of a portrait; Erik is a character in the tenor line of earnest, ineffectual lovers traceable to Don Ottavio in "Don Giovanni." As such, Studebaker put as much oomph as possible into Erik's vain attempt to warn Senta away from the doom that appears to await her with the Dutchman.

To conclude the program, Brown performed three prayers from Richard Danielpour's "Margaret Garner," a 2008 opera in whose world premiere the Indianapolis soprano starred. Particularly impressive, largely because of rising phrases in the piano accompaniment that were aptly prayerful, was "He Is By."

Maintaining the showmanship that had also marked her off-the-cuff program notes from the stage, Brown ended the recital with a lightly crooned, though semi-operatic, interpretation of "My Favorite Things" from "The Sound of Music."

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Lady, Be Better Than Good: The steep climb to respect of American jazzwomen is documented on film

Chances are that the International Sweethearts of Rhythm or Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears will never be subject to the perpetual nostalgia-tripping that the Glenn Miller Band enjoys.

Kay D. Ray (left), with the film's narrator, Patrice Rushen.
For one thing, the tributes would come too late, and they would probably be seen as sexist. But, as Kay D. Ray's 80-minute documentary, "Lady Be Good: Instrumental Women in Jazz," makes clear, a lot of big-band history involved all-female ensembles, and along the way, there were many individuals who demonstrated that women on the bandstand shouldn't be restricted to their warbling sex appeal.

The film was shown at Central Library Monday afternoon, preceded by an appetizing mini-set by the Monika Herzig Quartet. With the tireless advocate for jazz in Central Indiana and women's contributions to it at the keyboard, the group was capably filled out by Amanda Gardier, alto sax; Jennifer Kirk, bass, and Arianna Fanning, drums.

In commentary after the showing, Herzig echoed a complaint that Regina Carter made in an interview published in "Jazzwomen: Conversations with Twenty-One Musicians" (2004, by Wayne Enstice and Janis Stockhouse): At a new gig, a woman among male sidemen will find questions addressed to them instead of her. "And it's my band!" the violinist exclaimed. "I always have to prove myself."

Similarly, Herzig recalled that after first coming to this country from her native Germany, local sidemen asked her then-boyfriend (now husband), guitarist Peter Kienle: "Does she want us to play on this tune?" while Herzig was standing right there being ignored.

The film weaves together still photos and film footage with charming "talking heads" — an immense range of interviews with elderly female musicians, both notable (Marian McPartland) and obscure — to illustrate what a premium was placed on looking good over playing well. Yet playing well was required of women even to stand a chance of being taken seriously. In the opinion of such eminent male chauvinists as Artie Shaw, that chance ranged from slim to none.

Ray told the Central Library audience she has struggled for a couple of decades not only to compile the interviews but also to get rights to the film clips and recording excerpts.  She started out by uncovering the genius of Mary Osborne, a guitarist inspired by Charlie Christian who was widely admired in her day and who led a successful trio and was featured in several name bands. I think Osborne deserves a spot in Sony's four-disc anthology, "Progressions: 100 Years of Jazz Guitar" (2005). Does she get one? What do you think?

The film goes on to shed more light on other female stars, including Mary Lou Williams and Dorothy Donegan. But "Lady Be Good" is especially valuable for delving into the joy and struggle of women instrumentalists in an era of pervasive sexism that still managed to find places for the best of them, even if they are forever unlikely to inspire ghost bands.

Monday, April 13, 2015

By ones, twos, and threes, Butler musicians 'embrace the outsider' in an afternoon ArtsFest concert

Pieces that have in common only that they seem to come from outside the mainstream don't lend themselves easily to generalization.

As "Embracing the Outsider: Chamber Music" unfolded Sunday afternoon at the Schrott Center for the Arts, the program's aptness for the theme of this year's Butler ArtsFest, "Outlaws & Outsiders," was evident. The works belonged together mainly because they showed how vast a terrain "outside" can be. A fresh "inside" was thus created only by their presence in the same concert.

Pianist Anna Briscoe
The oldest work, Henry Cowell's "Homage to Iran," was part of the American composer's gradually influential attention to non-European music. Using two Western instruments (violin and piano) plus a hand drum, Cowell laid out his alternately lyrical and perpetual-motion tribute in exotic terms. The piano, with repeated notes inflected by hand-stopped strings, is frequently the drum's percussive partner, as the violin states a melody that is otherwise unsupported.

It was a pleasure to hear this novelty played collegially by Larry Shapiro, violin; Anna Briscoe, piano, and Brandon Lee, percussion.

Briscoe took a solo role in two pieces by Tania Leon, a fashionable contemporary composer who draws on her Afro-Cuban roots characteristically in her compositions. With musicological commentary by her husband, Butler professor James Briscoe, the pianist played two pieces from the '80s, "Momentum" and "Ritual."

The commentary indicated the assimilated ethnic elements in Leon's music makes it more "Earthian" than anything else. "Momentum," which the composer reported "came in a flash" to her in the course of an afternoon, indeed sounded somewhat offhand, less considered and cohesive than "Ritual."

The open, freely expressive feeling was attractive, but the work's climax seemed too reminiscent of the concluding pages of Stravinsky's "Sacrificial Dance," the final episode of "The Rite of Spring." A repeated four-note blues phrase that rides atop a frenzied rhythmic mix has analogues in four- to six-note phrases (without anything bluesy about them, to be sure) that pound along toward "Rite"'s final upward sweep.

"Ritual," a slightly shorter piece, struck me as less derivative, less episodic, more surprising, more unsettling (in a good way), and more capable of representing a composer who exemplifies, in James Briscoe's phrase, "the Western mind merging with an African body-consciousness."

Piano music of different aims and procedures came just before intermission, when Kate Boyd and John Glennon sat down at two different pianos, one of them tuned a quarter-tone flat, for John Corigliano's "Chiaroscuro." Radiant, majestic music at the outset, from Boyd's "normal" piano, was answered by slightly sour echoes and paraphrases from Glennon's. Eventually, the tuning discrepancy was made especially piquant by alternation of the "same" single notes.

Kate Boyd, with John Glennon, gave a cabaret feel to altered tuning.
In the work's final portion, Boyd launched into "Old Hundredth," which the composer surely chose not for any religious reasons but because its stately progression of chords supporting the familiar melody includes no passing tones. With everything serving harmonic propriety as generally understood, the quarter-tone-flat contributions quickly become disconcerting. Wincing, Boyd motioned Glennon over to her piano; as a result, "Old Hundredth" gets treated to different tonalities, but less soured by discordant piano tunings.

Feeling his oats, Glennon slowly moves Boyd off the bench, leading her to take up a position at his mistuned piano, and the two ride off into the off-kilter sunset together. The difficulty of hearing anything "right" when normal tuning is dispensed with makes creating a comic scenario like this one a sensible course, which Corigliano commendably follows — and which Boyd and Glennon deftly carried out.

The concert opened with a tribute to a jazz diva who was always an outsider. Billie Holiday made more of that status than the truth could bear, as her sensational autobiography suggests. But undoubtedly she had a troubled life, marred by abuse both self-inflicted and lavishly supplied by men close to her.

A Dutch composer named Jacob ter Veldhuis, or Jacob TV, composed "Billie" for a recorded, electronically manipulated track, using Billie Holiday's spoken words, blended with  a live alto saxophonist. Heidi Radtkee Siberz was Sunday's capable performer, smoothly synchronizing her instrument's gently impelled phrases with the recording.

This live/taped sort of thing had a brief vogue in the 1960s, chiefly through the "Synchronisms" series of Mario Davidovsky. Another American composer, the eventually more eminent Steve Reich, lies in the background of "Billie." Jacob TV uses the implied pitch contours of Holiday's speech to generate melodic motifs and rhythmic energy, the way Reich did in "It's Gonna Rain."

"Billie," in both its pathos and its surprisingly appealing intricacy, goes beyond these influences. It's a buoyant work of underlying sadness. When we can make out Billie's taped recollection of getting to sing "as I wanted to sing — so I sang and everybody loved me," we have a touchstone of the spoken-sung continuum in her art and the blend of glory and vulnerability she experienced in her short life.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Old friends combine in first-time trio as Christian McBride visits Butler University

Christian McBride showed his expertise at Butler.
Thoroughly adept musicians who have proved themselves individually and in groups over many years unsurprisingly jell quickly in new combinations.

It wasn't startling, then, to hear unalloyed excellence from the "new" Christian McBride Trio Saturday night in a Butler ArtsFest concert at the Schrott Center for the Arts.

The genial bassist, a virtuoso of deep pizzicato sound and ingenuity, brought to the stage an old Philadelphia friend, pianist Orrin Evans, and a veteran collaborator, drummer Carl Allen. "This is a world premiere trio," McBride announced, taking charge after a guest appearance with the Butler Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Matt Pivec.

Evans proved capable of being effective in a conventional jazz grouping where the bassist is the boss. Pianists normally predominate in what are usually called piano trios, but Evans was neither too deferential nor helplessly in the spotlight. Without being overemphatic throughout, he set the approach to the trio's first number, which turned out to be "Autumn Leaves," with oblique, "outside"  statements that McBride and Allen joined in full colloquy.

McBride's lengthy cadenza, out of tempo and unaccompanied, opened a deep-dyed "Blue Monk." Apart from the evident three-way enjoyment of getting into and sustaining a slow groove, the performance was notable for a real blues solo on the drums. Not just a drum solo at slow tempo, mind you, but a well-phrased representation of the blues on unpitched percussion.

Allen is a master of timbre, whose technique encompasses a flexible foot on the bass-drum pedal that creates a full-spectrum effect. Tom-tom accents are judiciously applied. His use of cymbals is relatively restrained, but always to the point. Exchanges with McBride and Evans always found him coming up with something new, in "Bernie's Tune" and a concluding fast blues as well as in "Autumn Leaves."

McBride modestly introduced an extended arco treatment of Wayne Shorter's tribute to his daughter, "Miyako," which had only a few out-of-tune notes in the trio's calmest offering among the half-dozen tunes it played. Jazz bassists whose plucking always sounds on target sometimes go awry when they pick up the bow: The peerless Ray Brown takes a short arco solo on an old Oscar Peterson recording I own that causes me to wince just thinking about it. McBride's outing was at the top end of this (in his field) uncustomary technique.

The guest artist's praise of the Butler Jazz Ensemble was more than dutiful. It was well-deserved. The disciplined big band's set featured several McBride arrangements, all of them well-conceived and -executed. Vocalist Chloe Boelter made much of the bassist's sensitive setting of "The More I See You," rising to a climactic final chorus without becoming facilely emotive.

Pivec opened the program by leading the band in Ellington's kaleidoscopic riff piece, "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue."  Sam Turley put a few hints of Paul Gonsalves, the Ellington sideman who owned "the wailing interval," into a lengthy solo without being too imitative. Two percussionists were in the pocket with a good approximation of that relentless Sam Woodyard drive. All the horn sections placed their frequently staccato phrases with precision, and the whole performance hung together splendidly.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

With rising star Alice Sara Ott, Krzysztof Urbanski and the ISO mostly hit the mark with an all-Beethoven program

Despite his aptitude for works that make a splash (like the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony earlier this season), Krzysztof Urbanski's keen musical intelligence won't allow him to think routinely about the meat-and-potatoes repertoire.

So it was Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre, when the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's music director led an all-Beethoven program, with a touch of young-star quality added in the local debut of pianist Alice Sara Ott.

Alice Sara Ott played the majestic Third Concerto
The German-Japanese pianist, playing barefoot, was the soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor. Her interpretive manner was primarily seductive and lyrical. It was also robust when called for (particularly in the cadenza Beethoven provided) and dreamy in the cloudy spiritual depths of the Largo.

Though her rhythmic sense was incisive, there was an odd lack of synchronicity sometimes with the accompaniment, though Urbanski gave every indication of being attentive to the soloist. In temperament and style, Ott and Urbanski seemed to have the necessary rapport. but the result in concerted passages simply wasn't always evident to the ear. The exciting Presto coda to the finale wrapped everything up grandly, however.

Rapturously received by the large audience, Ott answered the ovation with an encore, Schumann's Romance No. 2 in F-sharp minor, bringing to the fore her introspective flair once again.

Programming a guest artist after intermission has its risks, though I found the program order quite logical. The departure of a significant minority of the audience after Ott's appearance still left many ticketholders to enjoy the Leonore Overture No. 3, op. 72a. Dramatically over the top, this most-performed of the four overtures Beethoven wrote for his sole opera, "Fidelio," confirmed Urbanski's gift for getting his musical insights realized in sound.

The unusually flexible range of dynamics — contrasts extraordinary even for Beethoven — came through. So did a steady sense of all the terraces of expression and forward motion the work embraces.  The strings were firmly centered in living up to the overture's scenario, and led the charge into the full-orchestra crescendo that climaxes the overture. A summit as effective as this one could only have been achieved by modulating the earlier peaks, which the ISO did superbly. An added note of drama, reinforcing the announcement in the opera of a tyrant's downfall, was the positioning in different places of offstage trumpeters for the two "rescue" fanfares.

The concert's first half consisted of Symphony No, 8 in F major, op. 93. Patronized for many years for its position between the immensity of the seventh and ninth symphonies, the eighth is not lesser Beethoven by any means. Perhaps its touches of drollery work against it, as well as a refusal to be portentous: The work begins with a clear statement of the first theme, without the fuss of setting the stage.

Urbanski had no trouble giving all elements of this enchanting symphony their due. The humor of the second movement, a lighthearted tribute to the inventor of the metronome,  was not scanted in Friday's performance. "Beethoven without his humor is as inconceivable as a humorless Shakespeare," wisely wrote the English musical analyst Donald Francis Tovey. Well, some people (not I!) cringe at Shakespeare's humor, too. Tastes in jokes are as individual as tastes in food.

The third movement is Haydnesque, with a difference. There are signs of both tribute and iconoclasm in the way Beethoven handles the symphonic minuet tradition, and both polarities were honored in Friday's performance. In the finale, question-and-answer phrasing was scrupulously observed, and episodes near the end of stop-start momentum and adventures among key centers were exuberantly carried out.

The program will be repeated at 5:30 p.m. today. Worth noting in ISO news is that despite her having joined the chorus against Indiana's original Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Audra McDonald has kept her commitment to appear with the orchestra on April 25. Also, in other Broadway guest-artist news, F. Murray Abraham has been forced to withdraw from his narrator's role in Stravinsky's "Soldier's Tale," leading to its replacement by Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony and Variations on a Rococo Theme May 15 and 16. At those concerts, conductor Cristian Machelaru and cellist Johannes Moser will be making their local debuts.

Friday, April 10, 2015

'Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea' answers the siren call of the sunken past

Dontrell reads a letter from his grandfather that had been hidden in a pair of boots

If we didn't hide the most crucial clues to who we are, it's possible our hold on everyday life would be more tenuous than it usually is. Plumbing the depths of identity is not for the faint of heart, "Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea" seems to be telling us.

In the National New Play Network "rolling world premiere" that opened Thursday at the Phoenix Theatre, the title character can't let those clues lie dormant in dreams. They must be acted upon. His grip on the life he lives in a prickly, stressed-out family is less than firm, so he's already in the habit of addressing a featureless future on a handheld recording device.

The bright 18-year-old has won a full scholarship to Johns Hopkins University in his hometown of Baltimore. It's a big deal to his family, but to him it stands in the shadow of his need to get in touch with something deeper, looking in both directions from the present. Dontrell, played with calculated gusto and spidery industry by Eli Curry, wants to bend the real world to his quest.  If he can't know what the future holds, he can at least store electronically what he'd like it to know about him.

That aspect of Dontrell in the early part of this 90-minute one-act makes the character seem merely eccentric. Yet it's clear the ancestral tug of the haunting dream he keeps talking about grounds him in something serious and central to the African-American heritage. The past, with the ocean to the east  bearing so much painful history, can't be left alone.

Drawing on the historical sorrows of so many lives lost or maimed in the Middle Passage while the slave trade was plied between Africa and America, playwright Nathan Alan Davis has put a heavy burden of recovery on Dontrell's shoulders. He's a true naif, open to experience, ready to suffer in order to dare big. Like Tennessee Williams' Kilroy in "Camino Real," he has "a heart as big as the head of a baby." In its florid rhetoric and tortured vitalism, Davis' writing overall seems to owe a significant debt to Williams, too.

Passages of choral speaking and sound effects from the cast, plus  its near constant presence onstage,  underline Dontrell's entanglement with others. His deceased grandfather was certifiably crazy, yet remains an indispensable spur to the quest. His father, Dontrell Jr. (Ben Rose), is self-indulgent and not too keen on being someone worth looking up to. Mom (Milicent Wright) is controlling and abrasive, yet spiritually sturdy.

To balance Dontrell's oceanic thinking, younger sister Danielle (Paeton Chavis) tempers her feistiness just enough to know how to navigate the family waters.  A streetwise older friend, Robbie (Ollice Nickson), provides a counterweight to Dontrell as a household satellite with continual access. An impulsive, nearly fatal decision to teach himself to swim in order to search the deep water brings Dontrell into the life of Erika (Ann Marie Elliott), a lifeguard who enables him to extend his quest, joining him in it even as she wrestles with her own identity.

His cousin Shea (Dena Toler) is a grounded young woman, a guide at the city's aquarium. As such she is a link to Dontrell's ambitions, an upbeat character who really believes her scripted injunction to visitors: "Prepare to be amazed." Dontrell's preparation, as well as his eventual amazement, goes way beyond the norm.

The play catches itself up in identity matters that touch the heart but take a while to bear fruit. It requires the dialogue-free final scene, a technical tour de force for the Phoenix production team (with choreography in the West African idiom by Ronne Stone), to extend a hand of blessing over all the roiling conflict inside and outside the young hero. Under the direction of Bryan Fonseca, so much has been contributed by the cast's efforts up until then that you can't doubt there's plenty worth blessing.