Saturday, December 31, 2016

Defying us delightfully to make sense of it, 'Shear Madness' opens the 2017 season at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre

Mikey (in barber chair) and Nick (standing next to it) interrogate suspects Tony (from left), Barbara, Eleanor, and Eddie.
My perverse response to "Shear Madness," the popular whodunit that opened Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre's 2017 season Friday night, is that I was left with more questions about the murder victim than about the four suspects' talk and behavior.

Isabel Czerny, a concert pianist who apparently was seeking to revive her career,  lived upstairs from a hairstyling salon on Massachusetts Avenue. (The setting and dialogue of Paul Portner's long-running show are conventionally altered to localize each production.)

Typical of the genre, one character is more blatantly put forward as a suspect than the others, but is usually not the perpetrator. I can't tell you if this convention was followed or violated on opening night, because the gimmick of "Shear Madness" is that the audience is brought into the investigation and votes at each performance for its "whodunit" candidate. The cast then plays out one of four endings, depending on audience choice.

The one character who stands out when it comes to motive is Tony Whitcomb, the flamboyantly gay proprietor of the salon. He hates Isabel's continual practicing, focusing on her beloved Rachmaninoff. He seems desperate to get her to desist by any means necessary.

My first question is why a piano upstairs is so disturbing when Tony has programmed old pop hits during business hours. We assume this is constant and loud; for the sake of hearing dialogue, however, the soundtrack is cut off for most of the action. But Daniel Klingler, as the fiercely buoyant, outsize, easily distracted Tony,  grooves to the beat comically in the opening scene before the dialogue takes over. Tony's recorded preferences would seem to have no trouble dominating the salon's atmosphere.
Salon boss Tony Whitcomb and his assistant show off their new aprons.

It's also irritating to him that she plays bits of pieces, working some passages over and over, but not the whole piece. So I wondered why someone trying to revamp a professional career would never do a play-through. In practice, pianists woodshed difficult passages, or those that pose interpretive problems, but that's not all they do.

Then there's the question of the cassette player that the murderer turns on after the deadly deed to make it seem as if Isabel is still at the keyboard. A cassette player, as everyone will remember, has questionable fidelity, especially at loud volume. How could its Rachmaninoff not sound different from "live" playing at a concert grand, even heard through the ceiling?

Isabel's long-ago breakdown, as described by Tony, seems wildly improbable: a kind of hysterical paralysis in mid-performance, both hands having floated upward and gotten stuck high above her head. True, the comic-whodunit genre doesn't owe much to realism, but this description makes it hard to believe that Isabel is anything more than a wraith to hang a plot on.

As to her character, it's not clear to me whether Isabel was passive-aggressive, oblivious to the discomfort she was causing her neighbor, simply obsessed with resuming her career and thinking of nothing but her music, or cruelly manipulative. (The last possibility moved front and center according to the conclusion played Friday.)

I must give up on Isabel, after two more observations:  I have a sense, based on some Rachmaninoff browsing at home, that she was working on the first movement of the Rachmaninoff's Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, op. 36.  The movement is headed  "Allegro agitato," and a mood of agitation is essential to the play.

Overcome by the bloody scene upstairs, Barbara faints.
Moreover, she shares a surname with a famous pianist-composer of history, Carl Czerny, who has been described as "a man of sour disposition who disliked children and therefore did nothing but write etudes." Tweaked a bit, the description applies to Isabel, whose etude-like focus bothers Tony as much as Carl's useful etudes have annoyed generations of burgeoning pianists.

The cast is marvelous at keeping the pot boiling. Directed by Eddie Curry, they pop into and out of the salon, which is splendidly designed and lit by Michael Layton and Ryan Koharchik, respectively. Much of the cast's business and dialogue is puzzling, fragmentary,  and intended to distribute red herrings liberally. All of it generates plenty of questions that Jeff Stockberger, as police lieutenant Nick O'Brien, commandeers from the stage and gathers during intermission, when I overheard several pointed observations directed at him. In the second act, when O'Brien further questions the four suspects (with the audience's help), they present more fishy explanations than a Kellyanne Conway news conference.

Nathan Robbins is Mikey, O'Brien's boyish, wide-eyed sidekick. Jenny Reber plays the flighty and flirtatious Barbara DeMarco, Tony's assistant. Antiques dealer Eddie Lawrence (Michael Shelton) is surreptitiously involved with her, and his customer status is somewhat dubious. Eleanor Shubert (Suzanne Stark) is a highbrow Carmel socialite, a regular who deigns to venture below 96th Street to get her hair done, placing her on this occasion uncomfortably in the middle of a homicide investigation.

I may have made "Shear Madness" seem more complicated than it's supposed to be. As the malapropism-prone Barbara says: "It's not rocket surgery." But delightful as getting all tangled up in the play is, it tends to spur questions so profusely that you become doubtful of what you've seen and what you've been told — and how to process it all.

To quote Barbara again: "I think I have ambrosia." Perhaps that will become a common complaint in today's post-truth environment.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The baton will be in new hands: Carmel Symphony Orchestra is well advanced in artistic-direction change

 The new year will bring a change at the top of a premier Hamilton County arts organization.
Alan Davis continues to head the CSO until a new conductor is in place.

The Carmel Symphony Orchestra is preparing to enter its next phase in choosing a successor to David Bowden, its artistic director for 17 seasons.  Bowden continues to hold positions with the Columbus Philharmonic, which he founded 30 years ago, and the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra.

The longtime relationship ended so suddenly over the summer that publicity materials about the current season were mailed out with Bowden's name prominent on all the CSO's major concerts. His final appearance on the schedule was a Nov. 12 performance of the Verdi Requiem.

But a long process of consideration of Bowden's tenure, much of it involving personnel confidentiality, led the orchestra's board to decide on a process to find his successor.

Alan Davis, executive director of the orchestra over the entire Bowden era, continues in that position until the selection process is completed in early 2017, postponing his retirement at the board's request.

What is the board looking for? In an interview, Davis said many of the requirements are in line with what Bowden provided: good public engagement with audiences ("keeping a community feel") and a genuine interest in eclectic programming.  Beyond that there's the expectation  that the guest-artist roster will be wider and that a more consistent acknowledgment of the job's parameters will be observed.

As of last month, there were 12 semifinalists — a field that is being narrowed to three or four this week. The search committee of 11 (four musicians, four board members, and three community "at-large" members) began its work last summer. It received 130 applications. Operating with orchestral music-director experience as a prerequisite, the committee mailed a questionnaire to 30 applicants. The dozen who survived that step are participating in Skype interviews scheduled to be finished before New Year's Day.

Those several who emerge from that process will be invited to guest-conduct the Carmel Symphony. Davis hopes that scheduling permits those conductors to lead concerts in the second half of the current season: Feb. 11, March 11 and 26, and April 8. Some program changes have been made to the announced schedule. Soloists will remain the same. The public will definitely be in on the fact that the new maestros will be vying for the artistic-director appointment.

Salary range could not be divulged, but Davis said it falls within the recommended compensation (by the League of American Orchestras) for artistic directors of orchestras of similar budget size to Carmel: $550,000 to $850,000.

Pleased by the heavy initial response to the CSO's conductor search, Davis said: "We know that people did online research. The job posting had links to the Palladium, and that was a selling point. It's been a great artistic growth factor for us." The orchestra has been one of the Center for the Performing Arts' resident companies from the outset. During concert weeks, it gets three rehearsals in the Palladium before performing its concert there. "We've doubled our audience at the Palladium," he added.

Davis said that the goodwill from the community has been a boost as the CSO makes this transition. "We like the Carmel Symphony for what it is," is how Davis sums up the city's supportive mood. "We hope it doesn't change."

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Steve Allee and four fit friends get the Christmas weekend off to a fine start at the Jazz Kitchen

Plenty of revelers presumably caught up with other Christmas activities filled the Jazz Kitchen Friday night to hear a first-class local quintet led by pianist-composer-arranger stalwart Steve Allee.
Steve Allee gathered some compatible company.

Allee, whose son David established the Northside club 22 years ago and runs it with a keen business sense, was at the keyboard presiding and acting as master of ceremonies. Joining the pianist were tenor saxophonist Rob Dixon, drummer Kenny Phelps, and brothers Nick (bass) and Joel (guitar) Tucker. With their careers at different points of longevity, all are well-known here, with a history of taking care of business on the bandstand. Allee is a past master of this kind of professionalism, and continues to wag a warning finger at Father Time.

I learned from Joel Tucker that the smoothly working quintet had no rehearsal, depending instead on the rapport they've shown with one another in various combinations over the years. This meant the chugging introduction in the minor mode that introduced "Winter Wonderland" was the product of Allee's spontaneous mind, not collective wood-shedding. It rolled out beautifully as the tune took over, with blue tinges in the snow, thanks especially to the guitarist's solo.

From the non-seasonal standard repertoire, Allee called "You and the Night and the Music." Rob Dixon contributed the initial solo — so well placed and paced, so typically comfortable at the fast tempo. And there was such feeling poured into the bassist's solo that I felt he had a particular "you" in mind, and the night and the music would take care of themselves.

Speaking of Nick Tucker, it was a pleasure to notice the crowd's quiet during his solos, a continuation of its appreciative behavior throughout the set. Neither in his ballad "Bye Lula," nor in Joel's "Shakshuka," was there more than a rustle of conversation when he occupied the spotlight. It was a great refutation of the cliche that everyone talks during bass solos, memorialized in the above cartoon.  Duke Ellington is said to have referred to bass solos as "the commercial." But they are well worth listening to when they have this adeptness.  "Shaksuka" (the title, my son William informed me, refers to a Middle Eastern stew that is served sizzling in a skillet) ended with exciting exchanges between Allee and Phelps, who was in an extra-exuberant mood behind the kit.

The set was bookended with hits from the Fifties — Horace Silver's hard-bop classic "The Jody Grind" and the evergreen set-closer called "The Theme," taken at a medium-bounce tempo.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Pianist Eugenio Urrutia-Borlando and friends play Mozart, Schubert, and Poulenc

Eugenio Urrutia-Borlando opened a three-concert series.
Artistic vision in a musician can be evident in more ways than through performance itself. It is also signaled by the boldness of scheduling a series of concerts without institutional or organizational support.

Both are qualities that Eugenio Urrutia-Borlando, a Chilean-American pianist and former student at Butler University, displayed in the opening concert of a collaborative series at Indiana Landmarks Center. It was the first of three concerts scheduled for the center this season.

The Grand Hall had a small but appreciative audience Monday night to hear Urrutia-Borlando in performances of Mozart and Poulenc with professional wind players, and of Schubert with pianist Royce Thrush.

He showed himself to be a pianist of impeccable taste and authority, and, as might be expected from the choice of repertoire, thoroughly collegial.

The concert opened with Schubert's Fantasy in F minor for Piano Four Hands in a solid, well-articulated performance. Of the four movements played without pause with some recycling of material, a procedure that was to inspire Franz Liszt, the Scherzo came off particularly lively and unified in effect. In the finale, especially when the fugal writing gathers climactic strength, more purposeful thundering in the bass would have been welcome from Thrush to match Urrutia-Borlando's brilliance in the primo role. Considered as a whole, the performance rang true to the spirit and wealth of detail in this masterpiece.

Collaborating with instruments making up the conventional "woodwind quintet," the pianist offered the cheeky, lightly sentimental modernism of Francis Poulenc in his Sextet for Piano and Winds. The boulevardier spirit of the French composer, sassy and self-possessed, was fully engaged in a performance with Alistair Howlett, flute; Jennifer Christen, oboe; Richard Graef, horn; Mike Muszynski, bassoon; and Sam Rothstein, clarinet. All are Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra members except Howlett, a professional freelance musician and teacher who has played with the ISO.

The rhythmic and harmonic jumble of the opening movement maintained the right coordinated momentum. It entertains a delightful cluster of ideas that the ensemble managed well. The second movement (Divertissement) is chaste in comparison, displaying the tender touch with which Poulenc leavened his occasional bumptiousness. And the finale had the kind of majesty that is more explicit in the composer's sacred music, with a stateliness near the end that was reminiscent of Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments.

The Poulenc indicated something about the pianist that got further exhibition in Mozart's Quintet for Piano and Winds, K. 452, a work making use of all the Poulenc players except the flutist. (Mozart's often-reported disdain for the flute stems from one dismissive remark in a letter to his father when the young man was annoyed by certain flute-related obligations; so it should not be taken as a Mozartean principle.)

Compared to the sextet, the quintet's greater alternation of piano and wind sonorities, with some question-and-answer effects cleverly brought to the fore, emphasized how closely Urrutia-Borlando's attack matched the way wind players project individual notes and connect them in phrases.  Rhythmic sparkle and a kind of on-top-of-the-beat oomph were common coin among the five players Monday night. This shared feeling did much to put across the close partnership inherent in the musical materials.

It made me curious to hear how this pianist might vary his touch and phrasing when working with string players. And of course there are many fine examples of quartets and quintets that could be awaiting his sensitivity and insight in future series carrying his name. With worthy colleagues like these, the concert invited the listener to anticipate such collaborations eagerly.

Monday, December 19, 2016

'Tragical-comical-historical-pastoral': Donald Trump, a cut-rate Hamlet, tries to figure out in which direction his destiny calls him

Almost a year ago on this blog I put forward the theory that Donald Trump's campaign was based on a variation of dialectical
Beneath the confident exterior, what gnawing Hamlet-like difficulties for Trump?
materialism, the philosophical underpinning of Communism, insofar as he was proposing a synthesis out of liberal thesis and conservative antithesis. I called it dialectical Trumpism. Its rather feisty utopian message generated the populism that the President-elect now seems to have abandoned. He is embracing elites he once scorned, even though he continues to reject others.

It's increasingly evident to me that his words and behavior are focused not on any ideology, but on his narcissism. He's betraying desperation about how to ascertain what will keep his greatness intact. Approaching the rigors of the presidency, he unconsciously invites charges of inconsistency and incoherence with his rallies, Trump Tower meetings and, above all, his Twitter battles. It's a price he will pay with an increased show of bravado. But something is gnawing at him from within.

So now we have a creature we can call Trumplet, a figure constantly struggling to see if the presidency will adequately reinforce his greatness or obfuscate it, diminish it. Indecision vies with dogged ignorance in a struggle to blaze a path forward for himself. Could being "presidented" actually be a step down?

What follows borrows the model of Hamlet's most famous soliloquy in an attempt to peer inside Trump's tortured mind, using his recent contradictory tweets about the Chinese seizure of a U.S. drone as a spur for the occasion. His back-and-forth on the issue has been trumped, as it were, by China's agreement to return the drone. (The Trump neologism "unpresidented" is a word the Bard might have coined.)

The dramatic genre in which such a soliloquy might take place is definitively identified in the Polonius quotation above.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
        — Hamlet, II, ii

O, woe is me / T' have seen what I have seen, see what I see.

        —  Ophelia, III, i

[Enter Trumplet, alone.]
To be great, or not to be great
Again forever, that is the question.
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The arrows of unpresidented fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by tweeting, end them. To die or tweet.
No more, and by a tweet to say we end
Or dilute the heartache and the natural shocks
That Trump is heir to; to die or tweet.
To tweet, perchance to dream — ay, there's the rub,
Believe me, folks: for in those tweets what dreams
May come, when shuffling off to Washington,
Must give us pause; there's the respect
That makes calamity of such a long campaign.
For who would bear the whips of Vanity Fair,
The media's wrong, proud Democrats' contumely
(A word I do not love, so National Review-ish),
The insolence of pundits, and the spurns
Reported of electors who may balk,
When he himself might his quietus make
By turning huge jobs over to Mike Pence.
Who would inconvenient burdens bear
To grunt and sweat (and I am not in shape,
To be honest with you), but that dread
Of not being great again, a country
From whose bourn no traveler returns —
Just look at the George Bushes — puzzles the will
And has me gladly meet with Kanye West
Instead of working hard (no photo ops!).
Thus fear of being too unpresidented
Is sullied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
Which I'm not used to, so that my outrage
At China 'cause they took away our drone
Had its currents turned awry, and lost
The name of action: Let them keep the thing!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

With ISO in the pit, 'The Nutcracker' gets full-scale treatment as drama and dance in Indianapolis School of Ballet production

Balletomanes and newcomers alike throng to "The Nutcracker" this time of year all around the country. But it's a safe bet that, unlike most ballets, some of the music is already familiar even to first-timers. 

So it's more than academic that for its 10th-anniversary presentation of the work, the Indianapolis School of Ballet dancers are being accompanied by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of associate conductor Vince Lee, to give Tchaikovsky's score a freshness that the most accomplished recorded version can't match.

Victoria Lyras, ISB founder and director, directs the production, which includes George Balanchine choreography for the grand pas de deux in the second act. Her vision of the show is large-hearted —generous with dramatic gesture as well as balletic finesse and detail.

This is the type of nutcracker, traditional in Germany, that figures in the ballet.
The first of three performances Friday night at Old National Centre quickly brought the audience into the cheery holiday atmosphere of an upper-class 19th-century German home, after the original story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. It's an inviting first-act scenario that this production presents: The Christmas Eve party at the Stahlbaums derives its setting from the Morris-Butler House a few blocks from the site of the show.

Evidently amplified in a fortunately natural-sounding way, the orchestra played the overture as the guests gathered, first seen outside the home, then in the lofty living room as servants finish bustling about and start gathering coats as the adults and children assemble for fun. ISB resourcefully uses a large number of adults and children to suggest an effervescent social occasion while lending it enough formality to make extensive dance use of such beloved music as the March, with the girls doing a ring-dance.

Herr Drosselmeyer's mysterious command over the real-world and dream-world events of "The Nutcracker" is acutely represented in the performance of Paul Vitali. He displayed both charisma and, in working to revive the damaged Nutcracker doll, a gift for comedy. This was a distinguished, elegant portrayal of the venerated friend of the family (originally the children's godfather) who introduces life-size gifts that emerge from decorated boxes: The dances of the Columbine and Harlequin dolls, and especially Cory Lingner's snappy Soldier Doll, raise the party's excitement level.

The Nutcracker (Noah Trulock) engages the Mouse Queen in a sword fight as other mice look on.
Before the most dramatic feature of the ballet occurs, Friday's performance moved with an enchanting sweep and a coordination that always engaged the attention. That dramatic feature is, of course, the battle scene between the toy soldiers and the mice, with the forces led by the Mouse Queen (Patricia Johnstone) and the Nutcracker (Noah Trulock, dashing but somewhat hampered by a large costume head that affected the end of his solo turn). Such surreal moments were managed as conscientiously as the flow of the party scene had been earlier.

The Snow Scene, which provides a magical transition before the Land of the Sweets takes over the second act, was attractively staged, overcoming the inevitable letdown in the accompaniment, where the women's voices were synthesized. The scene focused on Hannah Schenk's Snow Queen and Jacob Taylor's Snow King, with her dancing seeming lighter and less earth-bound than his. As an ensemble, the Snowflakes helped prepare us for the show's movement into a world far beyond the Stahlbaum living room and deep into Clara's dream.

The balletic high point of the second act was the precision and flair of Olivia Hartzell's Sugar Plum Fairy, from the character's famous dance featuring the bell-like celesta right through the climactic Grand Pas De Deux, in which she was exquisitely partnered by Dustin Layton as the Cavalier. The Waltz of the Flowers lay at the ensemble pinnacle of what this production has to offer. Movement of the Flowers was so well-regulated from front to back and side to side, but in a way that flowed and never seemed mechanical. The passing into and out of prominence of Hannah Schenk as the Dew Drop Fairy could not have been a better illustration of how to set an expert soloist against a well-prepared ensemble.

As for the character dances that Clara, winningly danced by Josephine Kirk throughout, watches from a place of honor: Trulock (on loan from Dance Kaleidoscope) formed a nimble partnership with Abigail Bixler in "Chinese Tea."  Alexandra Jones, in one of the double-cast roles, made the most of every moment in the languid "Arabian Coffee." Lingner, so effective as the Soldier Doll in the first act, returned to be dazzling in the Russian Trepak. Four aptly costumed young women put across "Spanish Chocolate" fetchingly, and, in the performance I saw, Sydney Williams charmingly led a trio in the sprightly "German Marzipan."

Costuming, lighting and sets unfailingly served the dancing that everyone came to Old National Centre for — even if it's true that Tchaikovsky's music will always remain a huge part of the attraction whenever "The Nutcracker" is performed. For that reason, the Indianapolis School of Ballet and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra have forged a partnership well worth experiencing this weekend.

Monday, December 12, 2016

"Strong in new Arms, lo! Great Handel stands": Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra presents 'Messiah' under new maestro

Alexander Pope's praise of Handel, quoted in the above headline, refers to the composer's shift from opera to oratorio. The
Matthew Kraemer led a forthright peformance of Handel's "Messiah."
Italian opera in which Handel made his reputation in London was derided as an unintelligible exoticism, and its vogue soon declined. Turning to oratorios — narrative-based but unstaged and using English texts and more choral singing — was a shrewd career decision for Handel, an antidote to the "dullness" Pope saw taking over England.

Down to the present day, that move has ensured the German-born composer's immortality with English-speaking audiences, though it's become focused on just one of the oratorios: "Messiah."

In recent decades, Handel's Italian operas have been successfully revived here and there. But they are unlikely ever to challenge the pre-eminence of "Messiah" among all his other compositions that use words to communicate.

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra has re-entered the tradition of "Messiah" performances that remain so strong throughout the high-culture Anglophone world. Sunday afternoon at Tabernacle Presbyterian Church, Matthew Kraemer, ICO music director since last year, conducted a winning performance of the work with a 64-voice chorus comprising Encore Vocal Arts and the church's Sanctuary Choir.

A nice feeling of anticipation took hold immediately, with a well-shaped Overture. Tenor John McVeigh's approach to "Comfort ye" and "Ev'ry valley" (the initial recitative-and-aria combination through which the soloists present themselves) was commanding, though the promise of comfort in the recitative prematurely took on more of the transformation asserted in the aria. In subsequent appearances, McVeigh was especially impressive in the final phrases of the recitative "Thy rebuke hath broken his heart" and in the warning notes of the aria "Thou shalt break them." Success in the latter is important in heralding "Messiah"'s most popular chorus, "Hallelujah."

That chorus came through handsomely there, with the overlay of ICO trumpets. At other places, particularly in rapid passages, the sound was a little light, even skimpy — notably, "And he shall purify" and "For unto us a child is born." The tenor section, on the weak side there, had a few smooth and steady moments later, especially reinforcing the reassuring mood of "Their sound is gone out" during that chorus' second clause, "and their words unto the ends of the world."

The combined singers made the most of the mob's dismissive ferocity in "He trusted in God, that he would deliver him." The sense of finality without forcing was secure in the concluding "Amen" chorus. The singers conveyed well the mystery of messianic sacrifice in "and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all." And the chorus's first appearance, "And the glory of the Lord," was notable for clarity and balance. At other times, individual voices, particularly among the men, stood out a little more than they should have.

Trumpets in the gallery, underlining the choral message, gave an effective indication of the celestial outburst of "Glory to God" during the Nativity narrative that provides the main excuse for this Lenten oratorio to be customarily performed during Advent. The orchestra was in fine fettle throughout. Its accompaniment to the aria-cum-chorus "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion" was especially animated and precise. The sense that authentic good news was being shared was unmistakable. (Recitative accompaniment was consistently responsive and accurate, by the way.)

Of the other three soloists, Timothy LeFebvre's baritone was unusually suitable for his solos, perfectly placed.  A bass-baritone can be more effective in capturing the feeling of the early recitative and aria focusing on the contrast between darkness and light, but LeFebvre was in his element in "Why do the nations" and "The trumpet shall sound."

Soprano Sari Gruber had a bright, expertly ornamented command of "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!" She subtly varied her voice  between reporting the angel's appearance to the shepherds and quoting the angel. It was an unwelcome surprise for her to be introduced with the aria "But who may abide the day of His coming"; I have a personal preference, for dramatic reasons, for the soprano soloist being withheld until the Nativity portion. But, like most of the variants one encounters in "Messiah" performance, this one is also sanctioned by the composer,  like the untypical 12/8 meter of "Rejoice greatly."

It's almost embarrassing to admit that what I looked forward to most about attending this "Messiah" was again hearing mezzo-soprano Mitzi Westra in the oratorio's great alto solos. Exquisitely well-trained and under control, her voice has a kind of unvarnished purity that one hesitates to call "plain," but, if so, it's a plainness in service to the music's emotion, and thus without affectation. I found it unbelievably touching from the recitative "Behold! A virgin shall conceive" — which is the centerpiece of the topological meaning of "Messiah," its assertion of Old Testament prophecy of Christ's coming — through the duet with tenor "O death, where is thy sting?"

Her manner in "O thou that tellest" seemed to me to inspire the orchestra, though I may be reading into it. At every point when she sang, I felt I was getting insight into Handel's heart: In "Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened," in "Thou art gone up on high," and particularly in "He was despised." In that aria, with its "B" section detailing the torture of Jesus, Westra seemed to be applying the text's particularities to the appalling practice of torture in our own time upon so many innocent and marginalized people. To blend the intimate with the universal message as well as she did struck me as magical.

One more related note on the meaning of "Messiah": The decision to cut one number  before "Worthy is the Lamb," while not disastrous, had the effect of reducing the rhetorical punch of the piece toward the end. Omitting "If God be for us"  removes part of the justification for praising the subject of the last chorus and, indeed, of the whole work. It is admittedly a small matter of regret in the context of a fine performance.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Bad Plus at the Jazz Kitchen: Painting to the edges

When you pop some other piano trio into the CD player on the way to hear the Bad Plus, you get a new perspective on the uniqueness of this one.

Meeting of the board: Anderson, Iverson, and King make up the Bad Plus.
I won't name the contemporary pianist, bassist and drummer I was listening to in the car, because my purpose is not to toss everyone else into the tub of the conventional. I will say it was a first-rate ensemble, whom I would bet the big-eared Bad Plussers admire.

It's just that, unsurprisingly, no other jazz piano trio sounds remotely like the Bad Plus, as far as I know. It's one of those groups the jazz fan can identify from merely — what? 15 seconds, 10 seconds? Five seconds of listening? The original compositions are on the solid side of weird and its adaptations of modern pop that have brought the trio so much attention manage to be both respectful and iconoclastic. "And here we test our powers of observation," as a song title on "Give" (2004) has it.

The sound is mixed very carefully, as you can tell from the group's recordings. So it was at the Jazz Kitchen, too.  Reid Anderson's bass sounded plangently upfront, sometimes reinforcing the piano's bass line, often bursting free.

Pianist Ethan Anderson never dominated, which traditionally is not the case: Many such groups even carry the pianist's name. He could be laconic and soft-spoken, in "1972 Bronze Medalist" reminding me of  John Lewis in the Modern Jazz Quartet, but also florid and harmonically complex.

A powerhouse drummer, Dave King is also capable of sounding prominent at any dynamic level, because his patterns, sometimes wispy or fey, inevitably complement what else is going on. In Saturday's second set, he cut loose mainly in a shattering arrangement of Barry Manilow's "Mandy," turning a cymbal vertical on its stand and inadvertently flinging a drumstick somewhere among the front tables.

Grandiose at the start and moving into a churning groove, "Rhinoceros Is My Profession" was typical in both its title and the music itself of Bad Plus's finely honed quirkiness. "Overqualified," is how spokesman Anderson described the rhinoceros in question, in characteristically droll remarks from the stage. Similarly, a Bad Plus song can seem both overdetermined and comfortable in the neighborhood of free jazz. Its take on Ornette Coleman's "Street Woman" honored that master in addition to putting as fresh a stamp on it as the group did upon Peter Gabriel's "Games Without Frontiers."

The Bad Plus pays a lot of attention to endings. They are like those abstract expressionists who fussed about the edges of the canvas as much as the center. There is no such thing as an out-chorus: The men sometimes offer a heavily punctuated coda, but often tease the listener about just where they will stop. This is part and parcel of their time-tested method of seeming to assemble an arrangement out of scraps, notions and doodads. They make everything fit; King in particular is superb in fashioning apt transitions between one pattern and the next.

The audience seemed to me younger than the usual Jazz Kitchen crowd for a touring acoustic group. The response to every tune was warm and sustained, with a minimum of mindless whooping. The fans were unusually attentive, a tribute to the mesmerizing power of the band. In quiet passages, the only chatter evident came from the bar in the next room. The music can sometimes try the patience, as its forward momentum becomes hard to discern. Where are they going with this? one wonders.

But everyone learns to settle in and process the ineffable Bad Plusness. It's a formula that has brought international success for nearly two decades to a trio like none other. You sort of know what you're going to get, yet Iverson, Anderson, and King don't seem to have become set in their ways. It's always a pleasure to have them stop by for a spell. And what a spell it is!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

When you're a thin-skinned businessman-turned-politician about to ascend to the presidency, you still Gotta Flame Somebody

A Bob Dylan gospel-rock classic adapted in an attempt to detail the endless stream of Donald Trump tweets and other counterattacks whenever he senses he's not getting all the respect that's due him.

Six monuments of 18th-century ensemble music are performed with elan at the Palladium

It's the best-known failed job application in musical history.

In 1721, J.S. Bach gathered six of the best concertos written out of his secular duties at the court of Anhalt-Cothen and sent them to the Margrave of Brandenburg, a Prussian province near Berlin. The result? No reply and, scholars think, probably no performance of them there.

Almost ever since, because at least the margrave kept his copy, the Brandenburg Concertos have represented the height of Bach's ensemble music outside his sacred works. They were performed Friday night at the Palladium by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, a modern-instrument ensemble.

If the musicians are stylistically sensitive, this music is perfectly satisfying in modern dress. As rewarding as I've found original-instrument renditions in recordings directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, I prefer in particular the use of the type of flute everyone knows today in Concerto No. 4 in G major, which concluded the concert here in fine fashion.

When the flutists have the sterling tone and control of phrasing  displayed by Sooyun  Kim and Tara Helen O'Connor, the effect is thrilling. It's gratifying to have their lines top the ensemble texture, though some will prefer to hear recorders (the flauto dolce known to Bach) nestled in the fabric along with the solo violin. Kim and O'Connor also evinced thorough rapport in all elements of their role, including rhythmic precision and dynamics.

This was true of all the soloists, together with their accompaniments, as the 20 musicians transferred in and out of prominence — a couple omnipresent, some only heard from in one concerto — in the course of the two-hour concert. The rapport was striking from the outset in the virtuoso complexity of Concerto No. 1 in F major, with solo roles for two horns, three oboes, and (most prominent) violin.

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center: Not the same personnel, but the ensemble set-up for the first Brandenburg Concerto.
And for instrumental color, none of the concertos is more illustrative than the finale of No. 1 in F major, with its lilting trio, pulsating polonaise, and a sort of "hunting" episode for horns and oboes, troweled successively and expertly into a captivating minuet. This showed the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at the top of its game.

Of course, any traversal of the half-dozen masterpieces has to be notable for two solo turns that have lifted a couple of the concertos into separate performances in concerts including other composers. One of them — the trumpet of Concerto No. 2 in F major — requires a specialist in the clarino trumpet, a high-register instrument originally valveless. It inevitably dominates in the outer movements, though three other soloists are featured; here again, the use of the modern flute is preferable to me, as it evens out the solo group somewhat, in contrast to the soft-spoken recorder Bach knew. Trumpeter David Washburn did not disappoint.

The other highlight, with a first-movement tune so beguiling that it was even adapted by an art-rock band decades ago, is the enthralling harpsichord cadenza of No. 5 in D major.  This was brought off Friday evening with an admirable feeling for structure and slight tempo fluctuations by Kenneth Weiss. Among many satisfying moments in these concertos, I've always had the feeling that the bass line that strides majestically upward in the cadenza's peroration, just after a climactic flurry has swept the keyboard, is an assertion — desperately needed nowadays — that all is right with the world.

Of Concerto No. 6  in B-flat major, which brought the concert up to intermission, it's worth mentioning that the music's emphasis on lower strings seems more sprightly than dour when the viola parts are taken by such masters as Che-Yen Chen and Paul Neubauer. In the higher part, Neubauer showed himself to be about the most lyrical viola player imaginable; Chen was excellent  as principal viola in the fourth concerto.

The concerto-for-orchestra-style work is No. 3 in G major, for strings only, batting around a wealth of material in the outer movements, which are separated by a pair of slow chords (here with the violinist decorating the first one, as usual). The launch of the first movement was not rock solid, but jelled before long. Like all the fast movements in the concert, it was taken at a rapid clip. With that one exception, there wasn't a moment when such speed seemed too reckless for players as individually expert and finely coordinated as this bunch.

He may have been as stonily unresponsive as many prospective employers are today, but somehow Christian Ludwig, margrave of Brandenburg three centuries ago, found a way he could never have imagined to ensure his immortality.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Freed from little Clara's spell: Drosselmeyer tries to rule the fantasy roost in NoExit Performance production

I was present as the second  weekend of NoExit Performance's current production got under way, but feared I had come into something with so long a foreground that I might never catch up. Eventually I felt as cozy as an orange in the toe of a Christmas stocking.

The company's oblique take on "The Nutcracker" goes back several years, but was unknown to me before Thursday night at Big Car Tube Factory's performing space in the facility's chilly basement. So oblique is the continuation of the offbeat tradition
Individuality challenged: Production number with Drosselmeyer at the center.
this year that the printed program has that title crossed out and replaced by the words "Drosselmeyer Presents: Another Twisted Classic."

The twisted classic brought out for NoExit Performance dissection turns out to be "A Christmas Carol." To say so is hardly a spoiler, I feel, since the production sends up the very idea of spoilers, suspense, expectations, and continuity. Even the curtain call convention is mocked, with just three cast members participating and Drosselmeyer's chief nemesis, the Mustached Man, inert on the floor and rolled offstage after everyone else has left.  Dick Scratchit, a lowlife Drosselmeyer hireling, springs up from his seat in the audience to perform that humble duty.

Drosselmeyer is wrenched from his crucial role in "The Nutcracker" ballet, where he is variously played by elderly non-dancers as somewhere on the spectrum of kindly to creepy. He's a godfather who bestows Christmas gifts on the children of the household, Clara and Fritz. Clara's nutcracker has been broken by her naughty brother, and as she sinks into sleep, her dreams call up a restored toy who becomes a prince leading her into a parade of wonders capped by the marvelous ballet and music of the second act. That's the story everyone knows, and that reminds NoExit Performance of something completely different.

Ryan Mullins directs the show and plays Drosselmeyer. As the creator of this full-fledged oddball, he seems thoroughly at home in the mime makeup, the eyes and mouth darkened for the sake of emphasizing his controlling nature and fear of surprises, his hunchbacked frame slinking about, his voice barking orders and complaints. His character's fears are well-founded, as the Dickens classic worms its way into the show with ghostly visits.

Well before those, we've been introduced to the Scratchits. While in "The Christmas Carol," Scrooge's clerk Bob Cratchit is firmly under the miser's thumb, the parody character here, together with his conniving sidekick daughter, is an indication that Drosselmeyer is losing his grip. Impeccably costumed and made up, Aaron Beasley plays him as a louche '80s character somewhat on the order of Christian Bale in "American Hustle." Callie Burke-Hartz is the adaptable Tiny Tim stand-in, always with a new handicap to trot out somewhat on the order of Fagin's boys in "Oliver Twist."

With boisterous sound design by Zach Rosing and choreography by a four-woman team, Drosselmeyer's attempt to get a
The richly bedizened ensemble of "Drosselmeyer Presents: Another Twisted Classic"
rehearsal under way — or, having belatedly noticed the audience, an actual show — suffers continual interruption and subterfuge. Beverly Roche's costumes for the ensemble are garish and puffy, making them as cartoonish as possible as they thwart the old man. Michael Burke, with extra stuffing fore and aft, is the egregious drag queen Ginger, the smiling spirit of Drosselmeyer's disintegration as a control freak. Georgeanna Smith Wade plays a more benign force behind Drosselmeyer's fading grip on his world as the effervescent Sparkle.

NoExit Performance's connection to the audience when I attended evoked the tradition of classic burlesque or the English music hall. Those bygone theatrical genres seem to have been far from the manner of the "interactive" or "audience-participation" notions of some theater today. The bond is less self-conscious and more a matter of wild-party cheer than bland good will. The contrast with conventional theater, even of a fairly looselimbed kind, couldn't be more pronounced. For comparison, the literary critic Edmund Wilson, reviewing burlesque at New York's National Winter Garden in the 1920s, described the audience as "keenly appreciative, and the house peals with easy thunder more infectious than the punctual crashes uptown."

How much do you love me?: Drosselmeyer can never be sure.
That's what you get at "Drosselmeyer Presents: Another Twisted Classic," though not without a little somber relief from the "easy thunder." When the drama turned dark for a stretch in the second act, a hush settled over the raucous crowd. A giant rod puppet, manipulated expertly by the ensemble, confronts Drosselmeyer with his cruelty and control-freakiness. Mullins advises the audience in program notes that Drosselmeyer deserves to be brought up short, so we are prepared for his comeuppance.

You have to consider where he comes from: a ballet in which he is a nonentity after getting the action started — a work that is a perennial audience favorite even though it's a washout dramatically after the first act, as well as one in which (except in some revisions), the star ballerina  doesn't even appear until the second act. Is "The Nutcracker," more popular in America than any other ballet, a mockery of its own genre?

Mullins and his mates realize that Drosselmeyer was created to vanish like the Cheshire cat, but with more of a grimace than a grin. Self-threatened by dissolution, the show has him wrestling with the perennial dilemma of those who take the stage in anything from "Hamlet" to "Another Twisted Classic": How to attain personal fulfillment, at the height of control, while giving audiences what they want. That's why performers bow at the end. They are saying to their applauders: "We've given everything to make all of this be as good as we can make it, but you're in charge. It means nothing if you don't approve." Drosselmeyer, like Scrooge, has to have his hardheartedness chipped away from him by the prospect of despair and meaninglessness. The audience pulls him back from that brink. It's as good a Christmas lesson as any.

[Photos by Zach Rosing and Big Car]

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Far out: A new voice in political jazz — Thelonious Trump

Thelonious Trump: Not known for pulling punches as he gigs his way to power.
The sense that Donald J. Trump occupies a parallel universe as he moves into the center of the power arena suggested to me that, if he were an eccentric jazz musician instead of an eccentric politician, he might be a kind of weird analogue to the sainted genius Thelonious Monk (1917-1982).
Thelonious Monk: Sheds light posthumously on president-elect.

So I offer this set list from the forthcoming debut in the nation's capital of Thelonious Trump, helpfully annotated for the uninitiated, with the corresponding Thelonious Monk compositions in brackets.

"Blue Trump" [Blue Monk] — a celebration of the artist's decisive ability to turn crucial blue-trending states in his favor.

"Bright Pennsylvania" [Bright Mississippi] — a jaunty tribute to one of those battleground-state victories, tipping the Electoral College toward him.

"Hack 'n' Sack" [Hackensack] — a tune delving into the strategy of taking advantage of what Russian hackers accomplished on his behalf, enabling the surprise sacking of the Democrats' star quarterback, Hillary Clinton.

"Let's Fool One" [Let's Cool One] — a song of triumph, the "one" being the USA collectively, particularly the pundits and pollsters who never thought Thelonious Trump could come out on top.

"PanDONica" [Pannonica] — hymning narcissism, and the pleasures of filtering all reality through one's own eminence and obvious superiority

"Evidence?" [Evidence] — the question mark is enough of a variation of the Monk title to signal the nation's emergence into a fact-free post-election paradise.

"Error Knell" [Eronel] — a mock-dirge for the reign of fact and the habit of acknowledging mistakes — both obstacles, now neutralized, to the advance of Thelonious Trump.

"Hell You Needn't" [Well You Needn't] — this aggressive uptempo tune stresses the importance of not forgiving people who haven't been nice to you, unless you can "play" them, as in the case of....

"Mittsterioso" [Misterioso] — a meditation on the protracted is-he-in?, is-he-out? status of  Mitt Romney as secretary of state nominee.

"Rudy, My Dear" [Ruby, My Dear] — a cheeky, deadpan-humorous piece addressed to Mayor Giuliani, preparing him for a letdown in his search for a job in the new administration.

"Bum's-Rush Swing" [Bemsha Swing] — a high-spirited number airily dismissing the swarm of criticism that has dogged the artist for years, one of which involves the rancid sexism of...

"Ugly Booty" [Ugly Beauty] — a musical waving off of outrage at Thelonious Trump's rejection of some sexual-assault charges on the grounds that the complaining women were unattractive, and thus not worthy of his attention.

"Epistrophywife" [Epistrophy] — a tender ballad in praise of  third wife Melania, the kind of woman who (for now) has the artist's loyalty and commitment.

"Straight, No Recount" [Straight, No Chaser] — Thelonious Trump's slam-dunk argument that, despite his earlier assertions that the election system is rigged, it's now disgusting that anyone should pursue recounts for any reason.

"'Round Midnight (Hillary Concedes)" ['Round Midnight"] — a self-satisfied ballad recalling the time of day that his much-derided opponent threw in the towel in the early hours of Nov. 9.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A member of the current APA jury, Lori Sims plays a captivating program of French and French-influenced music at Butler University

Norman Lebrecht, the provocative British blogger and aggregator, recently posted a brief essay asserting that Claude Debussy wrote music without meaning, music that's just about the notes. I found the rant rather opaque, because I had no way to engage with Lebrecht's position besides disagreeing with it.

And nearly seven decades ago, in an often useful book titled "The Literature of the Piano," Ernest Hutcheson said something not so dismissive, but still meant to put Claude de France in a box: "Debussy's music delights, fascinates, amuses. I have not heard its most ardent admirers claim that it ennobles."

Lori Sims' French program was a special treat.
It's safe to say that innovators in the arts are always found to have something missing. What they lack often turns out to be what they have deliberately left behind in order to innovate. So we are dealing with a circular argument that, in the case of Debussy, simply has to be put on a shelf when considering how Lori Sims played the second volume of Debussy preludes Monday night in Butler University's Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall.

In town to serve on a three-member jury for the Premiere Series of the Amerian Pianists Association, Sims has long been on the piano faculty of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Near the start of her career, she was one of three Beethoven Fellows chosen in 1993 under the APA's  differently structured predecessor competition.

On Monday, she offered not only a well-judged exposition of the 12 pieces, but also one that was thoroughly felt. I dare say that her performance was even ennobling, as well as having those other qualities Hutcheson was happy to identify. Debussy's directions are quite detailed, except for pedaling. She was scrupulous about the former, illuminating and apt with the latter. From her realization of the extremement egal et leger  instruction at the head of "Brouillards" to the distant quotation of "La Marseillaise" in "Feux d'artifices," everything was as it should be, as fine as anyone might imagine it.

Eidson-Duckwall is a lively hall, which means that every sound from a solo piano can flex its muscles. It was amazing how detailed and varied the palette of Sims' interpretation was. You could have anticipated problems at the softer, more "impressionistic" end of the spectrum, but her playing there was just as full of character as in the flashier pieces. The ideal of "a piano without hammers" was bodied forth in "Feuilles Mortes," just as the piano's percussive qualities were lent some display room in "La Puerta del Vino" and "General Lavine - eccentric."

Humor in that piece and in "Hommage a S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C"  bubbled forth, with the latter taking on the requisite ruddy-cheeked quality in celebration of Charles Dickens' "Pickwick Papers" as "God Save the King" was quoted at the outset."La Terrasse des Audiences du Clair de Lune" was spellbinding, typical of the way the unique character of each prelude was both sturdy and three-dimensional. Music without meaning? I don't think so.

After capturing probably every heart at the sparsely attended event by opening with a glowing account of the familiar "Clair de Lune," Sims turned to the contemporary composer David Colson, a colleague at WMU,  for "Three Transcendental Preludes." The poetically titled works owe an acknowledged debt to Debussy as well as to Olivier Messiaen and George Crumb. They reflected such influences without being submerged in them, however.

A striking impression was made by "I saw an Angel," the second one, with its thundering reminder that angels are messengers with not always comforting messages. This one would be a terror atop a Christmas tree. The performance was capped by "Above His moons and its waters, He watches, smiling as it gently rains," which called upon the recitalist to whistle — which she did with sustained accuracy and breath control — and to strum and pluck inside the piano. These are techniques that can be used in fresh ways, not just as if royalties had to be paid to George Crumb. And so they were here.

The first half closed with Regard de l'Esprit de joie from Messiaen's ecstatic 1944 suite "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus." The toccata-like piece, with complex rhythms and a transcendent layering of material to near overwhelming effect, drew from Sims a full exhibition of her technical and interpretive strength. A portrayal of divine joy from a composer who took his faith with utmost seriousness requires no less than what the pianist brought to it to shake skepticism to its core.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Last APA Premiere Series concert of 2016 brings Texan Sam Hong to the Indiana History Center

Sam Hong is now a student of Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Institute.
Variations as a roomy, attractive compositional form blossomed as the piano came into its own in the 19th century. The piano is the ideal instrument for fitting a host of ideas concerning color, texture, expression, and rhythm onto a thematic template and expressing it through one interpreter.

Some of that legacy — ranging from the slight to the substantial, from the compact to the expansive — formed  the solo half of Sam Hong's Premiere Series concert Sunday afternoon at the Indiana History Center. The American Pianists Association is bringing to town five finalists, one of whom next April will win the fellowship in its 2017 awards.

The 22-year-old Korean-born Texan showed the near-capacity audience in the Center's Basile Theater that he had more than obvious ideas about what makes variations so compelling for the attentive listener.

One of the most formidable of such works — Brahms' Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, op. 24 — brought the concert up to intermission. The second half featured Hong with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37.

Hong offered a beguiling account of the Brahms, forging emotional connections with its variety. He seems to have a keen sense of time and pacing. By the time he got to the fugue, he was set on resisting the need to crown what had gone before with anything too grandiloquent. There was a variety of momentum and dynamics that checked the fugue's juggernaut feeling quite successfully. He gave the illusion of having more in reserve even at the very end.

At the outset, Hong favored a dry presentation of the theme, but proved to be more of a colorist as the work proceeded. A tolling-bells variation benefited from more lavish use of pedal. His technical command was secure, with crisp articulation dominant. He was always sensitive to rhythmic figures that go so far in giving each variation its own character. The octaves were stunning, and rolled chords rang out.
I would have liked more scaling back expressively to a feeling of naivete in the "musette" variation and in a few of the others, however.

Incisiveness and well-proportioned rhythms were well applied to the opening work, Aaron Copland's Piano Variations. The most enduring of the young Copland's  pieces, this 1930 elaboration on an angular theme bears many hints of the "Americanist" Copland to come: sonorities of sculptural vividness, with strong contrasts of register and an open harmonic palette that were later to reveal him as an unlikely but successful tone-painter of rural and Western America ("Appalachian Spring," "The Tender Land," "Billy the Kid," "The Red Pony," etc.).  Hong offered a lithe, sharply etched interpretation that made the 10-minute piece take on the breadth of the Brahms in comparison.

In between came Beethoven's charming Seven Variations on God Save the King, an easy-to-take-in representative of the variations form. It benefits from having a familiar tune, and the contrasts among the variations were competently set forth in this performance. The slight pauses Hong put around the variation in minor mode were an effective touch.

After Matthew Kraemer led the ICO in an alert performance of Beethoven's "Coriolan" Overture, Hong returned to the stage for the C minor concerto. The collaboration was crowned with success in the Rondo finale. Superb rapport between soloist and orchestra gave the movement an extra playfulness that is not always evident, the theme being all business with a tincture of sternness. 

The coordination was conspicuous earlier as well. Hong's unaccompanied statement at the start of the Largo movement was properly hushed, and set up a distinctive feeling of partnership with the orchestra, especially in such chamber-music episodes as the floating bassoon-and-flute dialogue against the piano's triplets and sextuplets.

The first movement was properly spirited and smooth-running, although the hectic quality Hong brought to the cadenza seemed excessive. But, with velvety trills, he made the way it subsided before the orchestra's re-entry convincing. It was among many signs in the concert that Hong is a well-equipped virtuoso with dependable insight about the expressive context of everything he plays.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Theatre on the Square has a "naughty" yuletide show to go with its "nice" one

No American growing up with what used to be called the commercialization of Christmas can fail to be familiar with holiday stress. That's the aspect Theatre on the Square focuses upon in "A Christmas Survival Guide," which just opened on the Mass Ave theater's Stage Two.

Apart from brief allusions to a few traditional carols, the show doesn't touch on any particular attitude to the holiday's religious meaning. TOTS flags it as "naughty" not because it ever tiptoes up to the edge of sacrilege, but rather for some slight bawdiness and a smattering of four-letter words, none of which is "yule."

Levi Burke accompanies Eric Brockett in his  Mrs. Claus persona.
As seen Friday night, the blend of song and dance and a notable comic sketch proceeded smoothly, anchored to a busy tapestry of piano accompaniment and comic participation by music director Levi Burke, plus voice-over excerpts from the putative self-help book of the title, full of the kind of fatuous or obvious advice common to its genre.

A woman shares her Christmas woes with a couple of companions, whose nature won't be revealed here, in a hilarious sketch fully exploiting the madcap talents of the show's other male participants, Josiah McCuistion and Eric Brockett. Let's just say that three different perspectives on what provides Christmas joy are put forward — with considerable clashing.

There's an extended suite of songs by the effervescent McCruistion expressing Santa pride as the consummation of elfin dreams. Then he's joined by cast members Gabby Niehaus, Shauna Smith, and Anna Lee less than twenty feet from stardom as backup singers, helping Santa strut his stuff soulfully as perpetual master of the revels.
The "Survival Guide" girl group: Gabby Niehaus, Shauna Smith, and Anna Lee.

In the middle is a segment presenting one of the women as a particularly needy adult. That points to a perennial Christmas down side — grownups have no Santa to sugarcoat the season for them. That's why some have to turn for comfort to actual sugar, a fact that comes out in a lively song parody called "The Twelve Steps of Christmas."

Tireless at the keyboard, Burke supplements the gang of five, who are onstage almost continuously. His piano playing is nimble and spirited, with some slapdash moments that can be partly excused by his adoption of the manic personality he shares with the cast. Director Lori Raffel had the further inspiration of having the stage manager, Nikki Sayer, interact with the main quintet in ways that involve more than the need to move furniture and props into and out of place.

There's also a brilliant torch song for Mrs. Claus performed by Brockett and a clever role-reversal performance of what's called here "the date-rape song" — "Baby, It's Cold Outside," with the girl an insistent seductress and the guy protesting that he really can't stay. There are other lively tweaks of convention: The bouncy enthusiasm for old-fashioned dashing through the snow that goes with "Sleigh Ride" deliberately runs off track. Similarly, the ensemble's "Silver Bells" makes it clear that urban Christmases in the cell-phone era aren't quite the sparkling winter idyll the song suggests.

Chapter by outrageous chapter, the guide proceeds boisterously and with well-knit variety for 90 minutes without intermission.  Late in the show Friday, there were oddities of pacing and texture that made a few numbers feel like finales that turned out not to be. The actual finale, a reprise of "The Man With the Bag" (choreographed by Jan Jamison) didn't have the bang-up confidence and pizazz that reprises need to have to justify their one-more-time placement.

Still, there's every chance that "The Christmas Survival Guide" will leave most audiences' rosy cheeks with deepened laugh lines between now and Dec. 23.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, December 2, 2016

Hay that creaks, eyes that lift altars: How contemporary dance helped me to be a better reader of poetry

You must tread carefully when it comes to conclusions about how different arts reinforce each other. Just because you find different art forms stimulating hardly confers the right to smudge the integrity of each simply because you find the mutual influences you may detect fulfilling.

With that caveat, I have to declare that a piece Dance Kaleidoscope has put on two of its programs has helped me find a way through a knot that afflicts the interpretation and enjoyment of poetry. The dilemma is how to read a kind of fused image that showcases both stasis and motion. 

Choreographer Brock Clawson
I didn't see this for a long time, until memories of a DK guest-choreographer premiere came back in a new light. Originally, Brock Clawson's "Lake Effect Snow" struck me in my blog review for its look inside the emotions of a protagonist (danced by Noah Trulock) as both actual events and dream-states influence him.

That's one kind of fusion that this piece encompasses superbly.  But "Lake Effect Snow" has also stayed in my memory for the way it covers a spectrum ranging from stillness, or minimal motion, focusing on the protagonist, to rapidly paced movement — some involving him, some of it for the ensemble— in whole or in part. With its narrative emphasis, "Lake Effect Snow" enfolds within its movement vocabulary the progress of time itself. But stillness, especially with the solo dancer seated on a bench, his back to the audience, or in fleeting arm-around-the-shoulder hugs with another, is a crucial part of a narrative that privileges change. And a wonderful unity is achieved.

Poetry, like dance, is also linear. But dance has the advantage, when it is as skillful as Clawson's piece, of telling a story in contrasts of movement and stasis that make sense in more than the practical sense of husbanding dancers' energy and giving them and the audience "paragraphs" into which the choreography's discourse falls. Even more important, its handling of time can be more natural, especially because lyric poetry,  while the reader takes it in over time, is a block of unmoving words you can readily come back to. Poetic imagery has to do extra work, sometimes by fusing different sense impressions to represent both what we see as portraiture or still life and what we move through. This can cause problems for interpreters.
Swinburne: Can sandals be bound over speed?

One of those problems spurred this essay. A vastly experienced literary critic allowed himself to be tripped up by what he found in one poem, only to praise the same kind of device a few pages later. Terry Eagleton, in "How to Read a Poem," heaps scorn on a stanza of Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Atalanta in Calydon," introducing it as an example of the poet's "worst":

Come with bows bent and with emptying of quivers,
     Maiden most perfect, lady of light,
With a noise of winds and many rivers,
     With a clamour of waters, and with might;
Bind on thy sandals, O thou most fleet,
Over the splendour and speed of thy feet;
For the faint east quickens, the wan west shivers,
     Round the feet of the day and the feet of the night. 

In a brief analysis, Eagleton notes with asperity that "the narcotic music of the words works to muffle the meaning." But only by taking the most literal view of Swinburne's imagery can the critic find this stanza short on meaning. "It's hard to see how you can bind on a sandal over speed," he says, also scoffing at the last line: "How can day and night have feet?"  

Yet, less than ten pages later, in the course of praising the unconventional form of
Robert Lowell's creaking hay got a critic's approval.
Robert Lowell's "Mr. Edwards and the Spider,"  Eagleton incidentally admires the same kind of fused image he deplored in Swinburne (1837-1909): "The homely image of the hay creaking to the barn, where the  imaginative masterstroke of 'creaking' redeems what might otherwise prove too banal a phrase, comes wrapped within a highly sophisticated manipulation of metre." Here's the stanza: 

  I saw the spiders marching through the air,
  Swimming from tree to tree that mildewed day
      In latter August when the hay
      Came creaking to the barn. But where
        The wind is westerly,
  Where gnarled November makes the spiders fly
  Into the apparitions of the sky,
  They purpose nothing but their ease and die
Urgently beating east to sunrise and the sea....

How can hay creak? one might ask if one were echoing Eagleton. And can't you indeed bind a sandal over speed, if "speed" is understood as being a potential quality of a runner's stationary foot, soon to move fleetly in one of mythology's most famous foot races? In the same way, the hay being moved to the barn is itself motionless and noiseless, but on a wagon moving into the barn, it takes on the "creaking" of the vehicle hauling it. Lowell (1917-1977) has fused sight and sound.

It is somewhat forced but not false for poetry to do something that dance accomplishes naturally. In a continuum, the meaning of a dance piece's still moments is caught up in episodes when there is quite a bit of movement. Sometimes stillness and movement are simultaneous, as they are at various points in "Lake Effect Snow." Together, they help create the work's significance.

Before leaving Swinburne, it's worth noting that Eagleton scorns the stanza's next-to-last line, dismissing the language about east and west at opposite ends of daytime as "merely verbal counters to shuffle around in place of genuine observation." In fact, the progress of time is one of the main ways we measure motion, so that using fragile descriptors for dawn and dusk emphasizes the brief temporal hold each phenomenon has on our experience of days: Phenomena that are "faint" and "wan" in snapshot perceptions can, under the spell of passing time, also quicken and shiver. "The passage is full of florid gestures and empty of substance," says this learned critic, in my view missing the point.
Hart Crane: Much to explain.

This kind of fused image is not hard to find in poetry. Hart Crane (1899-1932), a poet whose complexities both excited and baffled his contemporaries, used one in the middle of "Voyages: II," and explained it in an essay, "General Aims and Theories." The phrase is "adagios of islands" in this stanza:

And onward, as bells off San Salvador
Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,
In these poinsettia meadows of her tides,--
Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,
Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.

Crane wrote: "The reference is to the motion of a boat through islands clustered thickly, the rhythm of the motion, etc." Obviously, the islands are stationary. Assigning a slow tempo to them is really placing them in relation to the observer's being on a boat moving slowly among them.

Crane was a poet with a lot of explaining to do, some of it forced on him by editors and patrons. An anthologized exchange of correspondence in 1926 with Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine, offers many fascinating insights into Crane's procedures, including what I am calling fused images, where two different kinds of perception are blended. Here's the third stanza of "At Melville's Tomb":

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars. 

The third line, Crane wrote Miss Monroe, "refers simply to a conviction that man, not knowing perhaps a definite god yet being endowed with a reverence for deity  — such a man naturally postulates a deity somehow and the altar of that deity by the very action of the eyes lifted in searching."

"Lift" is a powerful verb, because it involves both movement and exertion. It's no accident that lifts are such an important feature of both classical and modern dance. It also has symbolic import, suggesting ascent to some element or realm above this world. Crane makes the word work extra hard here, because it is actually the eyes that lift their gaze aloft in search of a deity. Here that motion fuses with the stationary heaviness of altars in the actual world.

Robert Frost preferred unfused imagery.
Some poets are averse to this kind of verbal welding. They may want to contemplate the yin/yang of stillness and movement, but they prefer to set them side by side, as Robert Frost (1874-1963) does in "The Most of It.

He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff's talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush—and that was all. 

There are bookends of stillness around the extraordinary movement described here. The concluding bookend is particularly powerful in that it suggests that the meaning the human observer wants so badly to extract from nature seems both final and questionable. In between falls this narrative of a powerful creature emerging from the lake, past the man on the "boulder-broken beach" and into the woods. 

If he were not temperamentally opposed to what he might have seen as a blurring of experience instead of feeling a duty to clarify it, Frost might have worked on an image like the buck lifting the lake (where the lake is a metonym for the "crumpled water" it's pushing), or perhaps (to bring in the element of sound) booming the lake as it emerged from the water. Frost's poetry is instead full of clear-eyed contrasts of stillness and motion.

Fused imagery is thus not for everyone. And the temptation to contrast something seen as still, as if in a mental photo album, with the motion it represents may mislead a lesser poet.

Rod McKuen: Definitely not going with the flow.
Many years ago I dipped into Rod McKuen (1933-2015), hugely popular at the time, to find this prose-poem passage. I just now located it again online, since I don't have any of his books. Here's McKuen: "I have no special bed. I give myself to those who offer love. Can it be wrong? Lonely rivers going to the sea give themselves to many brooks in passing. So it is with me...."

No, it isn't, Rod. He's so anxious to show his willingness to merge with others — it's an almost creepy sort of intimacy with McKuen — that he reverses nature by having rivers flow into tributaries, rather than vice versa. A poet may thus confuse himself  in searching to fuse something still (the river system as a structure, as if seen statically from above) and something moving (actual river flow). So may a critic (Eagleton on Swinburne) in trying to apprehend this sort of imagery.

Such fusion is entirely natural to dance, particularly in works with an implied narrative. Clawson's protagonist in "Lake Effect Snow" owns his solitude and his quiet moments in addition to episodes that engage him actively with others. It's all of a piece.

Dancers don't flow into tributaries, and they may well bind sandals onto speed.

A reader of poetry can learn much from dance, and come back to poetry with renewed insight and appreciation.