Monday, February 29, 2016

Recorded in central Indiana using a host of Hoosier musicians, "Steal Away" showcases an adept jazz singer, Erin Benedict

Secure singing from a jazz vocalist has to rely more than pulling tricks out of a bag. There's security of intonation, for one thing. Then a feeling for rhythm that doesn't require adherence to the accompaniment, but always knows its place in relation to it.

Singer Erin Benedict and pianist Gary Walters.
This is what is available from Erin Benedict on "Steal Away," a disc recorded last year in Alexandria at the Gaither Studios (Straight Tone Music). The accompaniments have a quartet core, led by Gary Walters at the piano. Arrangements take in a string orchestra and a big band, sometimes in combination. There are flavorful sax solos along the way by Michael Stricklin.

The singer has a degree from the Manhattan School of Music and, while in New York, found work as a backup singer. Now in Indianapolis with her family, she can frequently be heard in Second@Six presentations at Second Presbyterian Church. That's where I first encountered her two years ago in a Shrove Tuesday concert.

Thoughtful in the breakup ballad "Where Do You Start," ardent in "How Deep Is the Ocean," pious in the title song, the beloved spiritual, Benedict is right at home in a variety of material. She inhabits the words. The second and third songs alone provide an apt comparison: "You Must Believe in Spring" is wistful and full of hope, which is enhanced by a kind of jazz bel canto as Benedict scats along with a solo flute. "Old Devil Moon" follows, opening with a plucked bass line the only accompaniment to Benedict's surely placed voice. The four-to-the-bar swing suits her as easily as the Latin pulse that "You Must Believe in Spring" settles into.

Here's something about singing well that is sometimes as forgotten in jazz-pop vocalism as it is in opera. As a young opera singer in Russia, Feodor Chaliapin sought a stage actor's advice about a role he wasn't sure was right for him. The actor mocked opera singers' habit of finding every role they're engaged to play unsuitable; the opposite, he said, is more likely to be the case: "I believe you are not suited to it," the actor said, then demanded: "Read it to me."
Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938)

Chaliapin was confused, the anecdote in "Man and Mask" continues. Was he supposed to read aloud the Pushkin poem that gave rise to the opera? No, the actor replied: "Read it as you usually do — by singing it." What the actor meant became clear after the basso complied by singing the aria that was troubling him.  The translator of the Chaliapin memoir pinpoints the difficulty a little confusingly, as the actor responds this way: "The intonations by which you interpret your character are false."

We are used to  thinking of intonation as being true to pitch, neither above nor below it. In that conventional sense of intonation, Benedict is unassailable. The "intonations" Chaliapin was instructed to correct meant matching the tonal requirements of the vocal line to the meaning of the text.

The songs on this CD aren't opera roles, of course. Interestingly, the only song whose style Benedict violates is the one opera aria: "I Loves You, Porgy" (the second word sung as "love," as is often the case with singers uncomfortable with dialect). I don't get here the fulfillment of the Russian actor's "read it to me" advice; the overblown soaring of Benedict's voice works against the meaning of the text, a plea whose passion should be somewhat abashed as Bess implores Porgy's protection.

On everything else, Benedict's "reading" skills are  intact. You can delight in her accuracy — the usual sense of "intonation" — as well as in the meaning she grasps in one song after another.

To paraphrase Chaliapin's coach: The intonations by which she interprets the character of nearly every song here are true. Along with the spiffily played, imaginative arrangements, that well-honed knack makes "Steal Away" a gem. Beautiful in and of itself, Benedict's singing is also vitally informed by her reading.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Silk Road Ensemble brings its lively blend of musical influences to the Palladium

The Silk Road Ensemble was founded by Yo-Yo Ma.
With its changing personnel and diverse repertoire, the Silk Road Ensemble is like a world traveler that remains confidently itself in any number of guises. One of them showed up at the Palladium in Carmel Saturday night to share its broad vision of world music with a large audience.

The program began with a spatially representative performance of this musical hands-across-the-sea concept: Coming down each side aisle toward the stage where their colleagues were assembled, together Cristina Pato played her gaita (Galician bagpipes) and Kojiro Umezaki his shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) in a piece with the symbolic Esperanto title of "Vojo" (meaning "way" or "road").

The intertwining of these two distinctive voices set a pattern for the concert. The pattern had more to do with honoring various origins of the music. Silk Road Ensemble does not seek to puree all its influences into something indistinguishable, but to allow world traditions to meet on common ground.

One of the most all-embracing pieces was "The Latina 6/8 Suite," a commissioned work based on an idea from Pato, who introduced it from the stage Saturday. The piece uses different dance idioms with a 6/8 meter in common. The performance swept toward an exuberant fandango conclusion, having provided the occasion for a plaintive viola solo by Nicholas Cords and a sprightly duet for gaita and double bass.

Pato's hearty sense of building excitement into her solos, her brightly flowering melodies and acute rhythmic knack added up to a reliable source of pleasure in Silk Road's presentation. Just as vividly engaged and notable for his stamina and clarity of tone was clarinetist  Kinan Azmeh. As a composer he was represented by "Ibn-Arabi Postlude," in honor of a Sufi Muslim poet, and "Syrian Improvisation," co-written with bassist Jeffrey Beecher.

He was also responsible for the group's encore, "Wedding," which traced the snowballing revelry he said was characteristic of weddings in his homeland, Syria. "They are loud and long," Azmeh said about those celebrations. Musically, the 10-member ensemble captured those qualities in the rapturously received encore.

To open the concert's second half, Umezaki proved to be an animated storyteller, illustrating the interplay between folk traditions in music and narrative. The other bookend for the second half was "Khabiel," from John Zorn's "Book of Angels," arranged by Pato. The piece included a shimmering spectrum of improvisational flights. The percussive emphasis was spicy and consistent.

It made for a flavorful follow-up to  Giovanni Sollima's "Taranta Project" in the concert's first half, which featured a virtuoso display of hand percussion, with the player using his body as the resonating instrument, by one of Silk Road's two percussionists.

That feature was an example of the individuality showcased by Silk Road. But there's no doubt the band focuses more attention on the variety of instrumental texture that it achieves, expertly balanced, from the variety of strings, winds, and percussion that it features. Smart lighting helped highlight the musical focus as the concert proceeded.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

TOTS grips family values by the throat in Tracy Letts' 'Killer Joe'

The first scene of "Killer Joe" gets right down to work. And there is no let-up.

Over the next hour-and-a-half, the blackouts between scenes are both a theatrical convenience and chance for a rapt, sometimes appalled audience to catch its breath. I often had to remind myself to exhale at Theatre on the Square Friday night.

Tracy Letts, a playwright whose rising star became a place to watch in the theater heavens with "August: Osage Country," was on to something in his first play. He was prophetic of a situation this political year has brought into the mainstream: People searching for personal advantage tend to suppress the hard work of examining their desired future in detail. Instead, they will press forward by exploiting weaknesses in their opponents. If you stand in the way, prepare to be obliterated. They will work behind your back. They will also get in your face.

Neither in a nation nor in a family is the modus operandi likely to come out well. In that first scene of TOTS' "Killer Joe," director Lori Raffel pits Sharla, the second wife of Ansel Smith, the ineffectual head of a trailer-park household outside Dallas, against Chris, Ansel's aimless but headstrong son.

Profane energy of anger and insult gushes from Stage Two's shallow set as Chris self-servingly describes the spat with his mother that's just led to his being kicked out again. He can't do that, of course, without gratuitously berating his stepmother in the grossest possible terms.

We receive this sort of setup as a white-trash comedy at our peril. TOTS has a history with such shows, but "Killer Joe" is a different animal. In part, the decline of our public conversation in this year of decision helps the drama become an "All My Sons" for our time: An ethical floor has collapsed beneath our feet; we're down in a dank cellar groping for understanding and desperate rescue. (Marco Rubio understands this situation in his ongoing mud-wrestling with Donald Trump.)

Siblings at loose ends: Dottie and Chris try to envision the future.
The Smith family, prodded by Chris — who turns out to be as clueless as his father — engages an undiagnosed
psychopath, a Dallas cop with a rub-out sideline, to master its fate. By the time Killer Joe's part of the deal has been carried out, and the unaware Chris tries wriggling out of the deal, the cop has long had the upper hand with the Smiths.

He's gotten unrestricted access to Chris' inhibited sister, Dottie, as a "retainer" fee because the family can't pay him up front. On the radio in this scene, you can hear a preacher emphatically reassuring the faithful: "You have legal authority over the angelic realm through Jesus Christ."

It's one of several scenes that strike particularly deep. The irony of the sermon excerpt the audience overhears is that worldly authority is now vested in the most aggressive, ruthless and goal-oriented among us. And the realm they rule over is thoroughly secularized and fragmented. Holding sway over the angelic realm means about as much as building hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place, with currency of like worth (except to believers). Dottie's modeling and martial-arts fantasies are one way of dealing with the discrepancy.

Ben Asaykwee is hypnotic as Killer Joe. When his voice rises to fury, as it does in the most astonishing fight scene at close quarters I've ever experienced in the theater, it exposes the bitterness that has driven Detective Joe Cooper to work both sides of the law.  Normally, the voice is steady and commanding. Asaykwee faces the audience in many of Killer Joe's speeches, but his steely gaze and chilling voice have the same impact as when he full-frontally directs them at the Smith family.

Killer Joe (Ben Asaykwee) looks at — and through — Sharla (Lisa Marie Smith).
Nate Walden and Lisa Marie Smith build well on the opening scene, where they go at each other unrestrained as Chris and Sharla. They are "Killer Joe"'s most calculating characters, each headed for a violent comeuppance. The performances Friday had moments of coarse humor that were perfectly judged amid the eventually overwhelming pathos.

Dan Scharbrough lends his stature and booming voice creditably to the role of Ansel. Those qualities are poignant in light of the father's feckless command of his family. The disdain in which everyone holds Ansel's ex-wife creates the opening the schemers need to set their dark plans in motion.

Killer Joe is dealing from the bottom of the deck, however, though even he seems in danger of losing control in the final scene, when Dottie leaves for the bedroom. Her move is decisive, and is handled with excruciating tension in this production. Rising to heart-rending independence in Jaddy Ciucci's riveting performance, Dottie may have shed her oppression and marginalization. Who knows?

It's a mirror image of the trick moment in horror films, when you're dying to warn an endangered, sympathetic character: "Don't go in there!" Here the horror is in the room Dottie is leaving, however, and we don't know what we want her to do. It seems like the longest walk ever. When she returns moments later, everything turns out as right as it's going to get in this badly damaged world.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, February 26, 2016

Dance Kaleidoscope plucks flowers from the folk-rock 'revolution' of the '60s and '70s

David Hochoy takes a chance in presenting programs of dances set to well-known music. It probably works out well in marketing terms, Dance Kaleidoscope hopes, as it did with "Super Soul" in 2012.

Only a choreographer as secure in his vision as Hochoy, however, could hope that his concepts and the work of his troupe won't come across as mere accompaniment to well-remembered and well-loved pop songs

In the jingle-jangle morning: Timothy June in "Mr. Tambourine Man."
In Thursday's opening performance in the two-weekend run of "Voices of a Generation: The Folk/Rock Revolution" at Indiana Repertory Theatre, the hazard was largely avoided. True, there's the further challenge of looking back four and five decades for musical material while counting on putting younger butts in the seats. I believe dance excellence should be enough to attract all generations, whatever the music, but it may not be. Familiar musical hooks may well be indispensable to long-term success, assuming DK keeps its artistic standards high.

With several contributions from guest choreographer Nicholas Owens, Hochoy has assembled dance interpretations of 17 songs — a harvest of inspiration that will force me to pick only a few pieces for comment. From the free-form individuality of "The Times They Are A-Changin" through "Turn, Turn, Turn," a swirling, collective statement to the Byrds' hit version of Pete Seeger's song, the show was both a challenge and a treat.

Why a challenge? The meaning of popular music for the generation spotlighted was unsettlingly diverse: Visions of happiness were presented as enjoy-it-while-you-can moments, almost resisting the temptation of getting sentimental about it. Conflict was both low-key and dour on the one hand (Simon and Garfunkel's "Dangling Conversation") and confrontational and menacing on the other (Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" and Richie Havens' "Freedom"). A rock critic of the time truly said that the era's typical song lyrics "see the rose through world-colored glasses." But the rose was really there.

Owens' graphic style was displayed in the ferocity of "For What It's Worth," relieved immediately afterward by the reassurance of "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Far apart in the course of the song, two human bridges are formed, one traversed confidently, the other crawled across. The famous recording swells to anthemic grandeur, but Owen's steady vision indicates that the promise of community and mutual support is hard to deliver. How much more so it seems to be today!

Is there anything she can't do?: Mariel Greenlee in "Twisted."

In 2014, I lauded the reprise of Mariel Greenlee's "searing solo to 'Losing My Mind,' displaying her as a technically pure dancer as well as an adept tragedienne." Hochoy always sees other possibilities in his outstanding dancers, and so went against type with Greenlee in fashioning Joni Mitchell's "Twisted" for her in this show.

Technical purity was shooed out the door, and the song's comical craziness jerked the dancer into humorous dishevelment from first to last. Every gesture told: You can embrace crazy, you can keep it at arm's length; you're just as crazy either way. Not surprisingly, Greenlee proved as good at one end of the expressive and technical spectrum as she so often has at the other.

The program's other solo involved Brandon Comer, back from an injury, in Simon and Garfunkel's "59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)." It was breathtaking to see this dancer seeming (at the risk of sounding blasphemous) to have the whole world in his hands. The space defined by those arced, stretching arms and striding, gliding legs was all-encompassing. It was like seeing Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man*  getting his groove on.

The musical era of "Voices of a Generation" worked on ways to blend the influence of the folk revival and the multifaceted stage of rock music after it learned to drop the "'n' roll" part. It didn't want to assault you, this program suggests, with the exception of the one-of-a-kind Nina Simone in "House of the Rising Sun" (treated with single-minded vigor by Owens). It was suspicious of leaders, but it kept coming up with them. Hochoy's treatment of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" injects more than a little magic into that ambivalence. "Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters," would be Dylan's hard-edged advice not long after.

Owens' most magisterial piece was his seven-man interpretation of "Homeward Bound," a Simon and Garfunkel song that puts the search for settledness foremost, as long as the opportunities for adventure and self-discovery have been adequately explored. In the closing tableau vivante, Noah Trulock's half-dozen confreres point the way forward — and upward.
The final image of "Turn, Turn, Turn" in DK's new show.

Hope similarly animates the program's finale, "Turn, Turn, Turn." Seeger's adaptation of Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes surmounts the succession of time's vagaries with "a time for peace — I swear it's not too late." It's an idealist's way out of the quagmire in which the Bible's most pessimistic book is set. Memorable in so many ways, Ecclesiastes doesn't want to place its bets on any aspect of human existence. It both recommends laughter and calls it foolish.

In setting this sobering balance, Hochoy allows himself to be more literal than usual, but I think the lyrics compel a visualization of antithetical actions across the breadth of time. You have to show there's a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together, and put corresponding movement of the contrast in the context of time's flow. There's plenty of company along the way, well in advance of Seeger's dream of peace at the end (when Laura Glover's lighting design projects a large peace sign onto the Upperstage floor).

I don't know if Hochoy went back to Ecclesiastes for choreographic ideas, but two passages besides the ones Seeger used leap out at me now. The first is particularly suited to dance, even though repetitions of "Turn, turn, turn" in the song may also account for what the audience sees. Ecclesiastes 1:6 says: "The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits."

This is perfect as a descriptor of the parting and coalescing movements of the company in Hochoy's setting of this song. The other passage gets at its emotional heart, helped by Guy Clark's costumes. Ecclesiastes 3:9-11 says:"Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor. for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?"

Amen to that. "Voices of a Generation" generates that kind of heat, and deserves to overlay any nostalgia those who attend may harbor for the songs by themselves.

[*This link provides good information on Vitruvian Man; I was more amused than annoyed by the decision to redact his privates.]

[Photo credit: Crowe's Eye Photography]

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Concerto confrontation: Zuill Bailey vs. David Finckel: The Dvorak cello concerto

One of the hallmarks of a masterpiece is a range of valid interpretation by superior musicians. After considering the companion piece on a new disc, I want to offer some head-to-head comparisons of a couple of recordings of Antonin Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B minor.

ArtistLed is a venture of cellist David Finckel and his wife, pianist Wu Han, designed to focus on musician-approved recordings in an era when so many aspects of classical recordings are diffuse or ill-conceived. Marketing, repertoire choice, engineering — the whole package has frequently had what might be called the ungainly camel result: a horse designed by a committee, as the old joke goes.

An enhanced reissue of Finckel's recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto and Augusta Read Thomas' "Ritual Incantations," both with the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Felix Chiu-Sen Chen, has just been made available. Recorded in 2003, the performances are astonishingly bright and well-articulated.

David Finckel brings freshness, urgency to Dvorak concerto.
The well-established American composer Augusta Read Thomas is a creative force with a fresh lyrical language that's put to work summoning who-knows-what marvelous spirits in "Ritual Incantations." The piece draws from the soloist an urgency matched by the excellent Taiwanese orchestra. Every passage seems steeped in an untrammeled venture of exploration. Listeners will be easily engaged by this three-movement piece, but prepare to be emotionally wrung out in the course of the 14 minutes.

The feeling of urgency in Finckel's tone derives from a kind of narrow focus. Its richness is under pressure, but doesn't seem inhibited, thanks to nimble articulation and a ringing, extroverted vibrato. This, along with a balanced recording, makes his Dvorak concerto — the best, by common agreement, of the works for solo cello with orchestra — a strong contender for top consideration among the many available.

I'll choose to compare it here with just one that will be of special interest to readers of this blog: the 2012 Telarc release featuring Zuill Bailey with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jun Märkl.  As a remastered recording, the ArtistLed CD bears evidence of scrupulously engineered balances and the sort of clarity that is beyond the likelihood of a concert-hall experience.  Concert-hall naturalism is a will-o'-the-wisp, of course, but seems a little bit more the goal of  Telarc's Bailey/ISO.

Zuill Bailey's version is full-throttle Romantic.
Telarc's engineers, and perhaps the artist and conductor as well, were after warmth with this piece. That open-hearted expressiveness seems to go naturally with Dvorak, and the sometimes recalcitrant Hilbert Circle Theatre is coaxed into responsiveness. But I'd have to say that the crispness of the TSO/Finckel recording removes the veneer of this piece for me. Some listeners might decide the almost martial profile of the orchestra's introduction in the finale is off-puttingly Mahleresque, but I found it stirring. Oh boy, here we go, I thought.

On the whole, the Taiwanese orchestra articulates in a more pronounced manner than the ISO. The abundance of brief solos interacting with the cellist matches the featured instrument in clarity and "presence." In the ISO's first-movement introduction, some of the dotted rhythms are played in the jazz manner: a triplet with the first two notes tied, creating a 2/1 proportion instead of the 3/1 that's notated. This may be deliberate — a romantic inflection — because Märkl is not a sloppy conductor.

What about the soloist? I find Finckel's sobriety of tone a moving partner for that intense vibrato. The full emotional spectrum is covered. I like Finckel's intimacy as opposed to Bailey's magisterial quality. The second theme in the first movement is much more gripping as he plays it than it is with Bailey.

Another key emotional moment for most lovers of this work is the lengthy lingering of "memorial" music near the very end — the composer's tribute to the woman it's said he wished he had married.

As the episode winds down, Bailey has a truer pianissimo, it seems to me, and the ISO matches him. It's a heart-tugging passage, dear to the heart of all who love this piece, but I find the Finckel/TSO performance less sentimental. It's easy to sink into the soft side of Dvorak and feel that you've delivered everything the music is about, because there's so much in it that's plain lovable.

Finckel and Chen resist that temptation: The memorial mood is underlaid with a tension borrowed from the movement's predominant, martial vigor. When the cello finally swells — Finckel's crescendo is superior here — the orchestra re-enters full force in the ArtistLed recording and sweeps through an almost frenetic "Allegro vivo" to the final double bar. Some listeners may find this ending brusque and glaring, but it thrilled me no end.

Keep that ISO/Bailey Dvorak in your collection, but make room for the TSO/Finckel version!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

At University of Indianapolis, Ronen Chamber Ensemble raises the flag for music as a pathway to knowledge

Music continues to fight for its life in public education, though few of its enemies use the word "frill" anymore. In higher education, music's stature is more secure.

John Berners, composer of "Praeludium"
In the annual collaboration between the Ronen Chamber Ensemble and the University of Indianapolis, the opportunity to put music forward as a branch of knowledge is inescapable. It was more pronounced than ever Monday night in a program called "Science, Math & Music."

With pop culture having pegged music as entertainment only, the art's ancient links to the nature of reality (including the abstract, internally consistent reality of mathematics) are often obscured. Gregory Martin, artistic director of Ronen along with founders David Bellman and Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, was at pains to restore that link as it has been forged from ancient times to the present day.

He wrote a script, chock-full of scholarly references, that was  delivered by Stephen Spicklemire, UIndy professor of physics and astronomy, among a range of musical examples. Martin is an adjunct instructor of piano at the university.

The overall effect was necessarily academic. And the point was underscored elaborately, if not always in a manner that was easy to follow. A two-piano arrangement of "Jupiter" from "The Planets" by Gustav Holst made a grandiose conclusion to the concert, though the uneasy fit of science and art was perhaps unintentionally reinforced.  Holst was inspired by astrology, a specialty that makes any of the science about our solar system's largest planet irrelevant.

The Pythagorean harmonic ratios that Johannes Kepler applied to planetary motion, helpfully detailed on a supplementary handout, showed an intersection of science and music that concerned Holst not at all, as far as I can tell. Visions of orderliness in the universe will always be with us and we certainly benefit from their exploration. But Holst saw Jupiter in temperamental terms, as "The Bringer of Jollity."

In the midst of its jolly energy, the big tune at the center of "Jupiter" has stirred people to put words to it. One set of those words is a favorite Catholic hymn that was thundered out at the recent funeral service for Antonin Scalia, whose 30-year tenure as associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court provided many demonstrations of how questionably notions of order may be founded. One man's idea of time-tested order is many other people's idea of narrow-minded inflexibility.

Music finally has to rest upon its emotional appeal. That's what wowed the audience in the "Jupiter" performance by Martin and Jonathan Mann. Earlier, the primary position of order in 20th-century music was represented by a movement from Anton Webern's Quartet for violin, clarinet, tenor saxophone, and piano.

Martin's script properly placed Webern's personal, concentrated use of the 12-tone method of composition in the context of nature.  The performance, unfortunately, failed to take advantage of the naturalness of Webern's phrasing, however disjunctive his distribution of pitches may strike the ear. I hear Quartet as a piano quartet, with the other instruments either anticipating or following up on the piano.

This performance — by Martin, along with clarinetist Bellman, violinist Philip Palermo, and tenor  saxophonist Scotty Stepp — interpreted the work as completely heterophonic: Each instrument seemed isolated in its own sphere, four overlapping monologues. The playing sounded well-coordinated and dynamically alert, but missed orientation around the piano, which would have indicated Webern's link to his musical heritage.

The concert had a distinguished new work in the middle. UIndy professor John Berners' "Praeludium" is a well-integrated composition, about 11 minutes long, for a string quartet (divided spatially in pairs) plus flute, clarinet, harp, and piano. Paul Krasnovsky conducted the ensemble. The piece was conceived in homage to the most learned composer of all, J.S. Bach.

Berners' imaginative use of the ensemble, including canonic imitation and other contrapuntal devices, made his homage more than skillful tracery. It was bracing to feel how the texture varied, opening up and closing unpredictably (at least on first hearing). Dynamic and registral extremes seemed well-designed, surprising but not arbitrary. The work's energy calmed near the end, ushering in a contemplative spirit of the kind never far from Bach's artistry, even at its most complex.

Elsewhere, Martin was Jayna Park's partner for a stirring performance of Bela Bartok's "First Rhapsody." The violinist captured the folk-dance rhythms vividly in the two-movement piece, with particularly fiery, incisive playing in the second. In the concert's one solo, the hard-working pianist made a good impression in a more suitable style for him with Debussy's "Sunken Cathedral" (La cathedrale engloutie).

The concert opened with a lively reading of the Rondo from Mozart's "Kegelstatt" Trio in E-flat major, K. 498. Martin, Bellman and violist Mike Chen lent appropriate contrast to the episodes, and made the climactic return to the rondo theme thrilling. It was a useful reminder of why such a pseudo-scientific idea as "the Mozart effect" could get a foothold before it was exposed as a pleasant whim.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Dance Theatre of Harlem brings its warmth and sparkle to Clowes Hall

Buzzing with anticipation as the show began late to accommodate late arrivals, a packed Clowes Hall Saturday night reflected the special aura Dance Theatre of Harlem carries with it.

What the audience was treated to over the next two hours displayed the classically rooted skill and energy that aroused interest from the company's origin in 1969 and first flourishing after the turn of the decade.

Lindsey Croop graduated cum laude from Butler.
My new girlfriend (now my wife) and I attended a well-attended performance by the emerging company in 1970, when DTH was engaged by the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in western Massachusetts. Since then, the company has had financial problems resulting in a serious hiatus (2004-2012), making its current personnel and repertoire feel new. The whole program on this tour stop, for example, consisted of pieces created for or adopted by DTH  in the past four years.

Saturday's performance opened with the newest, "Divertimento," a crisply executed, expansive work for three couples that amounted to an anthology of Russian ballet focused through the sensibility of choreographer and costume designer Elena Kunikova for these half-dozen DTH dancers. The Indianapolis audience immediately got a view of Lindsey Croop in her return to the campus from which she has a Butler degree in dance-arts administration and journalism.

The six dancers,  distinguished subtly to illustrate three aspects of characterization in classical ballet, worked well in solos and variations, with particular sparkle in episodes for the three men (in which a large gray cloth was introduced), followed by the three women. The spinning movement in the finale, with Mikhail Glinka's music reaching the height of effervescence, was exhilarating.

One of the recurrent circle formations in "Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven."
At the somber end of the company's presentation here was the oldest piece, Ulysses Dove's "Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven." A 1993 memorial to some of the choreographer's friends and family, the work, subtitled "Odes to Love and Loss," used memorial music — Arvo Pärt's "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten" — with special insight and patience.

 The choreography varied from angular, frontal postures suggesting ritualistic aspects of grief to more flowing, curvy movement indicating the emotional turmoil of loss. The white-clad dancers moved periodically into a clasped-hands circle, representing both the community of mourners and the felt community between the living and the beloved dead. Pärt's chime-drenched score, with its recurrent silences, was poignantly underlined by the intense interaction of the dancers, moving between the isolating and supportive aspects of bereavement.

A Philip Glass composition, undergirded by repetitive counting and given extra cohesiveness through a formal voice-over recitation describing a romantic park-bench idyll, flowered into something more expressive in Helen Pickett's "When Love," danced by Stephanie Rae Williams and Da'Von Doane.  I can see why Glass' style is attractive to choreographers: Its "beats" are clear, providing a stable basis to work against, and it is almost a blank slate expressively, allowing for maximum creative input that avoids vying with the recorded score. (Almost all the music on Saturday's program was too loud, by the way — the Glass in particular.)

Finishing the program was "Vessels," a four-part "cyclic journey" by Darrell Grand Moultrie, set to Ezio Bosso's minimalist-style music. This full-company ballet seemed a bit diffuse, frankly, though it certainly accomplished the purpose of providing a rousing display and a suitable conclusion.

The costumes had both lightness and brilliance, and much of the partnering reached the summit of virtuosity and coordination. Particularly fetching was one couple — Choong Hoon Lee and Ingrid Silva — who simply looked made to dance with each other. They were aptly a highlight of "Vessels"' final episode, "Abundance." And abundance was indeed an enduring impression to take away from this show.


Saturday, February 20, 2016

Very recent music is the centerpiece of this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony concert

Young composers are creating works that show the influence of pop music and electronics — which in turn means exploiting the access everyone has to all music nowadays.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra played this weekend's sole Lilly Classical Series event Friday night with compositions by two young women who represent this openness to a postmodernist aesthetic.

Sarah Kirkland Snider
The works were paired with pieces by established composers, chosen by the living composers, to make for a satisfying program conducted by Edwin Outwater. It's only regrettable the concert was a rare one-off on the ISO schedule.

Three songs from "Unremembered," an expressively expansive song cycle by Sarah Kirkland Snider, featured Shara Worden on the first half. The singer and the composer have collaborated before on "Penelope."

Worden made a strong impression nearly two years ago with the ISO soloing in Henryk Gorecki's wildly popular "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" (Symphony No. 3). She is billed in the program as a soprano, though that classically trained register was the focus mainly in a prelude to her "Unremembered" outing Friday: The prelude was the last song in Franz Schubert's "Winterreise," "Der Leiermann" (The Organ-Grinder), with Sylvia Patterson Scott at the piano. But the full range is available to her, and was used to great effect in Snider's piece.

Snider's 13-part composition, set to poetry by Nathaniel Bellows, blends prerecorded tracks with live vocalism and a resourceful use of the orchestra. In the three songs performed Friday, so much more of the orchestral accompaniment stood out compared to the versions I heard online, where the mixing board seems to be in charge. In "The Swan," a piano interlude effectively heightened the tension of the first two stanzas, and the ascent into Worden's upper range, heralded by an orchestral crescendo, made vivid the swan's destruction by a truck backing up. The appearance of the swan in death was underlined starkly by the two unaccompanied words concluding the song: "Undone embroidery."

"The Guest" opened the selection of excerpts, with repetitive woodwind figures at the start marking the report of the guest's disappearance. The electronic overlays became intense as the song proceeded, with passages in canon in the final quatrain. Most explosive was the final selection, "The Witch," with the orchestra bursting into bouts of virtuoso ecstasy.

Snider's choice of a work from the mainstream was "The Oceanides" by Jan Sibelius. It's an abstract tone poem focusing on the sea nymphs of Greek mythology. Put together out of a few thematic gestures more than real themes, it gradually makes a transition from the ocean as both calming and sprightly before the sea's full force emerges in outbursts of trombones and horns (which I thought could have been even huger in this performance).

Outwater also showed his conducting chops in the mainstream selection by the program's other composer, Caroline Shaw. It was Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn." The opening chorale was stated with scrupulous warmth. The horns came through in the second Vivace; there was nice dynamic variety, sensitively managed, in the Andante con moto, and solid balance and expressive dignity among all sections in the finale.
Caroline Shaw is the youngest composer ever to have received the Pulitzer Prize.

Having performed a co-commissioned new piece moments before, Shaw returned to the stage to explain her Brahms selection, which she first enjoyed as a player as a teenager. Her musicianship is broadly based, as is indicated not only by her presence on this concert as both violinist and composer, but by her membership in the prize-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth.

The composer's dedication to music of the past goes way back to the Renaissance, but her "Lo," a piece for violin and orchestra Shaw declines to describe as a violin concerto, recalled in many places the playful mixture of simplicity and complexity in a colonial American idiom that Henry Cowell exploited in his "Hymns and Fuguing Tunes."

In the course of the two-movement piece — the ordering "I. II. III" on the program's title page, with no words after any of the Roman numerals, is mystifying — the orchestral role is sometimes laconic, sometimes outspoken about insisting on the solo instrument's partnership. Shaw played with the assurance that any aspect of musical partnership her compositional muse comes up with is fine with her.

The solo part, not strictly notated and thus an enduring mystery to the conductor (Outwater admitted), varies from steady, unromantic lyricism expressed in long note values to episodes of feverish string-crossing. I must admit I couldn't pick up the baroque dance forms mentioned in the program notes. They may be there as structural scaffolding not intended to be perceived.

I have no idea what the "millennial-friendly dialect" that one critic said Shaw is speaking might be. I suppose I will have to discover a Fountain of Youth before I become conversant in it. This was at least a work worth hearing again, however.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

America's Trial by Trump: The Sermon on the Stump

The solid support Donald J. Trump is gathering in the GOP primary campaign is often expressed in terms more appropriate to the anointing of a savior.

If there aren't explicit religious connotations in the loyalty he inspires, there seem to be persistent signals from his fans that what he represents is independent of ideology or traditional political allegiances. It's all about him, which is the way he likes it; his savior status carries with it no claim of divine endorsement. That is among the many qualities that set him apart from a certain illustrious predecessor.

That charismatic forerunner had his Sermon on the Mount, opening with the Beatitudes. A Trump knockoff of the famous homily would have to be called Sermon on the Stump, opening (naturally) with the Anathematudes. In context, it would be preceded by some cheerleading, led by Sarah Palin, to warm up the crowd, something like this:

"One Corinthians, Two Corinthians, Three Corinthian boys!
Four Corinthians, Five Corinthians, let's make some noise!"

Trump opens his sermon with the Anathematudes.
(The Donald takes the stage, his hair blowing in the breeze like a twitchy squirrel's tail.)

Cursed are the poor in spirit, for they are low-energy losers.
Cursed are they that mourn my popularity, for they must not want to make America great
Cursed are the merciful, for they want to admit Mexican rapists and Syrian refugees to
            the United States, even though some of them must be Muslim terrorists.
Cursed are the pure in heart, because they don’t get why we need waterboarding —
            and worse — to win the war against ISIS.
Cursed are the peacemakers, for they don’t care that our military is a disaster.
Cursed are those which are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for they probably deserve it,
            and most kinds of righteousness have nothing to do with the art of the deal.

(Cheers swell from the throng)

You are the salt of the earth — I thank you, I love you, I love you!
But if the salt loses its savor, that's what you get when you vote for Ted Cruz.

(Loud booing)

You are the light of the world, as long as my poll numbers hold up and you turn out to vote for me,
     even without your doctor's permission to leave your sickbed.
Your righteousness, if that's your thing, must exceed the righteousness of the scribes of the media
     and the Pharisees of the incompetent political class.

(Shouts, including expletives)

And I say unto you, do not swear at all, except for vulgarities about my opponents, which I will 
     pretend to reprimand you for, then repeat.
But let your assertions on my behalf be a simple Yea, Yea, and for my rivals be Nay, Nay.
     Vote for Trump is what I'm saying. Details to follow.
You have heard it said to love your neighbor AND to love them that hate you.
     Who does that? Are you nuts? We will defeat our enemies. We will bomb the you-know-what out
      of them. Meanwhile, keep your eye on that neighbor, too.

When you support my campaign, remember: I don't need your money, I need your votes.
So send a trumpet before you in the streets, get your friends and neighbors to vote for me,
     unless they're losers. In that case, I'm sorry to say, you will need new friends and neighbors.

And when you pray for my victory, do not use vain repetitions, like Marco Rubio.
And when you fast — but why would you want to do that?
     Fasting makes you low-energy, like Dr. Ben Carsick, who looks too queasy to ride in the back seat
     of this bumpy primary road trip, with me in the driver's seat. He'd be turning pale, if he could. Ha-ha!

(Raucous laughter) 

Go ahead and lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, even as I did. Don't worry about moth and
     rust corrupting them. There are products that can take care of that.

And when you speak up for me as the next President, let not your left hand know what your right
      hand is doing. I've followed that practice for years, going with whichever hand is playing to my 
      advantage at a given time. Like I said, details to follow.
I lost hundreds of friends in 9/11. I have thousands more. Those were a drop in the bucket.

You need to take thought of raiment, of course. Get a bespoke tailor, unless you want to buy your              suits off the rack. 
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin.
They just grow — absorbing nutrients from our American soil, using our resources, our sun
       and our water. Probably an invasive species, like those immigrants and refugees.
Trump casts scorn upon the lilies of the field.
Who needs them?

(Rapturous applause)

And why consider the beam in your own eye, when you're able to stick a mote in your brother's eye?
It can be fun. He'll start blinking and looking wounded, like Jeb Bush. His mom'll take care of it.

And all things whatsoever ye would that men should do for you, do for yourself before they change their minds. 

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in Republican sheep's clothing but inside are ravening
     wolves who believe in government doing your thinking for you, who believe in eminent domain
     (though that's done me some good now and then).

Whosoever believes these words of mine, and does them, I will liken him unto a man that builds his
      house upon a rock. The rain comes, and the wind blows, big deal — maybe it's climate change,
      maybe it isn't — and the house still stands, unless my lawyers follow soon after to put one
      of my deals over the top.

That's the American way. Then, if I may be politically incorrect, your ass is grass. Thank you!

(Sustained applause and waving of placards and "Make America Great Again" caps)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Back in action: Icarus Ensemble, after a hiatus of about two months, returns to the scene

With his well-stocked stand of reed instruments in a commanding position onstage, it was evident that
Reeds at the ready.
Mark Ortwein had returned to jazz after a medical hiatus, enabling Icarus Ensemble to rejoin the musical scene.

Put into play in the course of a first set Monday night at the Jazz Kitchen, the instrumental armory took on the aura of a Burning Bush of inspiration. But then, all five members of the band proved capable of bringing down stone tablets from the musical Sinai they mount whenever they hit the stage.

With co-founders Peter Hansen on bass and Gary Walters on piano, Icarus delivered ten easy-to-follow musical commandments while I was there. The gang of law-givers also includes drummer Jon Crabiel and violinist Dean Franke.

The first set rested on the firm foundation of its self-titled 2014 CD. Material for a follow-up is still
Icarus Ensemble: Building a charming book and playing as a unit.
being gathered, and some of it was on exhibit Monday night. That started with Hansen's "Is That Your Toaster?" (which sounds like a Bad Plus song title), an attractive piece with a bridge that eased its way through unexpected keys, but not enough to sound wayward.

Franke burned the toast invitingly in his solo, followed by Ortwein and Walters. The coda really took off. That prompted a settling down for Walters' "IzzyBaby," whose steady patter of eighth notes provided a calming backdrop for the nimble theme, presented in both unison and close harmony by soprano sax and violin.

The Icarus Ensemble is building quite a formidable book of tunes.  Melodies like "IzzyBaby" and an untitled Hansen piece with a deep-dyed folklike theme are not just solo vehicles. They also open up opportunities to reconfigure the ensemble through arrangements, which sound as fresh as the tunes themselves. I can think of a few jazz celebrities who, as tunesmiths, can't boast the success that this band already can.

Ortwein's first outing on bassoon didn't register well because of amplification difficulties. The instrument was fully in the mix the second time out, on a reflective Walters composition whose title I didn't catch. He turned to bass clarinet profitably on that solemn untitled Hansen original mentioned above.

With its calculated, tongue-in-cheek dissonance, Ortwein's "Schizoid" is one of the most striking Icarus Ensemble pieces. On Monday night, its performance was especially cheeky. The hushed passages between solos lent suspense. The solos themselves were outsize — imaginative and almost manic. Walters seemed to be channeling McCoy Tyner, Hansen contributed one of his more exuberant arco solos, and Crabiel laid out a timbrally adventurous statement, moving from tintinnabulation on cymbals and triangle to hand-drumming episodes.

Ortwein's new piece, "Lunar Love," found Hansen in an especially expansive mood. Expressively, his bowed solo, which started by foregrounding the tune's hints of tango, seemed to take in every which way of looking at the moon from "I'll Be Seeing You" to "Pierrot Lunaire."  Typically, much of what Icarus Ensemble has on offer is comfortable music, but these gentlemen also never want listeners to take things too easy. They seem to have found a good balance.

Monday, February 15, 2016

'Whatever gate you're granted': Cardinal Stage's vivid, heartrending production of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'

Unaccustomed as I am to reviewing only half a play, the second act of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" impressed me so much Sunday evening that I'll gladly come to terms with the bleeding chunk that was handed my wife and me — through no fault of either Cardinal Stage or us.

McMurphy and Chief Bromden do the old folk rhyme that supplies the title.
Allowing for bad weather wasn't able to go so far as to allow for somebody else's accident on the way down to Bloomington. Late entrances place latecomers squarely onstage, I'd been warned, so we stood in the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center's third-floor hallway through most of Act 1.

An invitation to sneak in behind the actor playing Randle P. McMurphy about 20 minutes before intermission was momentarily tempting. But though I love theater, coming under the seated audience's gaze like new admissions to the mental-health facility of Ken Kesey's imagination was a deal-breaker on several counts. I declined Mike Price's kind offer, which might have had a trace of impishness behind it.

Dale Wasserman's adaptation of Kesey's novel, a cultural benchmark of the 1960s, is both tender and searing. Directed by Randy White, this production ranges over Mark Smith's well-appointed, blandly institutional set with gusto. Glad to stay seated throughout intermission, we had plenty of time to take in the set's features, angular and modern, under bright lights connoting both the pretense of healing and actuality of strict control, while recorded entr'acte music brought back the decade's ambiance.

I'm trying not to sound snobbish in bringing forward the pertinent fact that I had not heard such songs as "White Rabbit" (Jefferson Airplane), "Tales of Brave Ulysses" (Cream), and "Get Off of My Cloud" (Rolling Stones) since they were new, before there was a "classic rock" bin to dump them in. Sometimes turning away from the pop culture of your youth can be rewarding; in this case, hearing these songs decades later made seeing the stage version of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" especially exciting and fresh for me. It helped imprint the story of the gambler, scamp and trickster McMurphy and his fellow patients on the nerve-ends, where it belongs. It seemed to carry this reminder, also from a period song: "When the music's over, turn out the lights." Absolutely.

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is not a period piece, but it inhales deeply the atmosphere of its decade. Kesey was born 10 years to the day before I was. Elvis was in his birth cohort. Martin Luther King Jr. was six years older, and Ornette Coleman was born a year after him. Jerry Rubin was three years Kesey's junior, John Lennon younger by five years. These men and many others shaped my generation's early maturity.

Kesey's novel, prefaced by the author's "Sketches" in the edition I own, includes this telling sentence: "You get your visions through whatever gate you're granted."  Who does the granting was at issue then more than ever. It was an era when many of us suspected that we would not be allowed to find out who we were. Sure, it was paranoia, but it was our own. The choice of gates through which we might get visions often seemed destructive or just too narrow. Maybe the best path was supposed to be the one without visions.

The atmosphere of control that threatened to make our relative material prosperity meaningless is encapsulated in the facility where the novel's narrator is confined. He is a Native American known as Chief Bromden who pursues his tattered visions amid a group of voluntary and involuntary refugees from the larger world.

Kesey's choice to make the apparently mute Chief the novel's articulate first-person narrator is
Nurse Ratched (Constance Macy): Her disapproval can be lethal
moving, but more than a little troubling aesthetically. I won't go into that here, but I will say the stage version puts all the patients' stories on a different level of heartbreak. It evens out the collective struggle against the rule of Nurse Ratched, played with steely severity (eventually almost unhinged) by Constance Macy. To be mean in this role is not enough; a more deep-delving rigor suggesting how formidable guardians of social order can be is a quality she also commanded. A frown from Ratched has to be as effective as a riding crop, in part because it's backed up by more painful weaponry.

I'm sorry I missed how well this regime — and the patients' individual strategies to cope with it — was established in the first act, but I'm betting it was as sensitively handled as it proved to be in the second. The freedom with which the actors established the threatened individuality of each of the patients was almost uplifting. As Chief Bromden, Jeremy Proulx's performance had the wounded stature it needs; he was indeed as big as McMurphy encourages his character to be.

The gang plans a party, which will turn out to be McMurphy's undoing.
The Chief's interaction with Price's McMurphy amounted to a fraternal bond twisted by the system into a Cain-Abel tragedy. McMurphy is both genuinely compassionate and self-centeredly crafty as Price plays him — a galvanic force throughout the second act, which opens with an off-the-rulebook basketball game that's exuberantly staged, then quashed with vigor.

Chances are the Combine, the nebulous force of social control always alive in Bromden's mind, is still in charge, though in some disarray. Punitive approaches may be outmoded in mental health, but they have taken a computer-driven hold on education and the workplace. That's just part of what makes "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" worth staging in 2016.  Identity politics now promise an avenue of good visions for everyone, but lots of people seeking their own way still get stuffed into old pigeonholes.

That's why it was diverting for me to eavesdrop on a conversation between two younger men at intermission. Spurred by the music being played, they were talking about some of the old bands. Of the Rolling Stones, one of them said dismissively: "It's all about misogyny." The other replied: "Well, that was like part of the times then."

Good thing we don't have to worry about that anymore.

Kesey dedicated his novel "To Vik Lovell, who told me dragons did not exist, then led me to their lairs." Ladies and gentlemen, there is still room on the next tour. And "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" plays through Feb. 28.

[Photos by Blueline Media Productions]

Saturday, February 13, 2016

A slow waltz in unpleasant tribute to the coarsening of political discourse by Donald Trump and his supporters

A slightly scatological song in trumple time inspired by one presidential candidate's epochal coarsening of political discourse

Posted by Jay Harvey on Saturday, February 13, 2016

With the ISO, Jack Everly masterminds a smooth-flowing centennial tribute to Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra in the recording studio.
Pops programs that are well put together and flow with savoir faire come dependably from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's principal pops conductor, and the meticulousness of Frank
Sinatra in the recording studio provides a legacy that deserves nothing less.

So the maestro status of Jack Everly is extended this weekend with four "Sinatra Tribute" shows at Hilbert Circle Theatre, two of which remain. As Everly said near the start of Friday night's concert, the Rat Pack image of the most influential American pop singer of the 20th century "is just the surface."

In his spoken commentary, the conductor wasted little time in biographical matters. It was gratifying that he mentioned one pertinent fact: Sinatra's milestone departure from employment by Tommy Dorsey to go out on his own was announced in a broadcast from the Circle Theatre in September 1942.

Sinatra's career as a solo act thrived for a while on a tide of bobbysoxer enthusiasm, but dived notably around 1950 until remarkable success in movies set him on the comeback road. One of those films came up in Everly's podium remarks, but properly the focus was on the recordings and concerts, chiefly from the Capitol and Reprise years and the Las Vegas heyday.

Jack Everly: Master of the revels.
The film was "Guys and Dolls," the 1955 cinematic version of the Frank Loesser stage musical. A guffaw from the audience when Everly mentioned one of Sinatra's co-stars indicates how much the icon of the Great American Songbook is indelibly a classical artist. Besides Marlon Brando, Sinatra did "Guys and Dolls" with the gorgeous Jean Simmons. The name, of course, sounds like "Gene Simmons," Kiss frontman with the prehensile tongue. You can readily see the jarring cultural disparity here.

The ISO enjoys the services for this show of three competent singers who, of course, may not have the Sinatra charisma but on opening night exerted plenty of stage appeal on their own. Frankie Moreno's first appearance, with "It Had to Be You," was a little pallid, as his top notes didn't have the bloom of the Master.

Later he more than made up for this, with "Let's Face the Music and Dance" followed by "One for My Baby." The latter he identified as his favorite Sinatra song, and he sang it like he meant it, with poised, soulful piano support from Gary Walters. (It concludes Side 2 of my favorite Sinatra album, "Only the Lonely." Ol' Blue Eyes once told his simpatico arranger, Nelson Riddle, that he wanted "some Brahms in bar 8," and my guess is that you're hearing the result in the orchestral introduction to the title track.)

After intermission, Moreno showed his powerfully exhibitionistic piano chops in a duet with Tony DeSare on the old standard "All of Me." Two gentleman songsters out on a spree at one keyboard had the capacity audience cheering. If this novelty act seemed a departure from the program's main focus, those of us with long memories probably recalled Sinatra's cameo appearance in Mike Todd's "Around the World in Eighty Days," as a saloon pianist who turns around just long enough to flash the most famous 1950s grin after Eisenhower's.

Moreno was also the inevitable choice on this program to sing "That's Life," a credible venture by Sinatra to the edge of rhythm 'n' blues. In place of the funky organ and background vocals in the original, Moreno pulled out a harmonica and nailed a blues chorus, complete with Elvis-like leg spasms. The whole package suited the song's insouciant philosophy well.

DeSare's vocal instrument is more classically crooner, and he used it stunningly in "It Was a Very Good Year" and "I Have Dreamed," set to wonderful arrangements by Gordon Jenkins and Riddle, respectively.  The orchestra played these, and everything else, marvelously.

Liz Callaway, the third guest vocalist, held the audience spellbound in "Time After Time," featuring a limpid fluegelhorn solo by Joey Tartell. She blended hand-in-glove with DeSare in the classic Sinatra duet, "Something Stupid."

The Theme from "New York, New York" was predictably in evidence at front and back ends of the show. A medley titled "Frank and the Pack" closed the printed program with all three singers hard at work, folding in snippets of such Sinatra hits as "Come Fly With Me," "I've Got You Under My Skin," and "The Best Is Yet to Come." The Chairman of the Board was clearly calling the meeting to order.

Oh, and that Circle Theatre departure from Tommy Dorsey that Everly alluded to? Sinatra's farewell performance with the band before he passed the torch on-air to Dick Haymes was "The Song Is You."

 In this centennial tribute program, Everly and the ISO extend to their audiences a spiffy reminder about Sinatra's place in popular culture: The song was he — or, less formally and perhaps after a few drinks — the song was him.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Dick shtick: Phoenix Theatre mounts a world premiere sending up pulp fiction and film noir

Do you dream in color?

The cliche question, a juvenile puzzler, must be answered in the affirmative as we grow up and realize that the peculiarity of our dreams pushes mere color to the margins — though it's assuredly in the picture. In the dreams of film noir, however, black and white and gray inevitably rule the roost.

And part of the genius behind "Pulp," a two-act comic thriller by Joseph Zettelmaier that opened Thursday evening at the Phoenix Theatre, is how it looks. This production has you on the edge of your seat as much for its lighting and set design as its plot and characterization.

To start with, the montage of scenes from old movies that plays against the backdrop when there's no stage action places you in that black-and-white cinema world. On top of that, though, the light that slices sharp-angled across the sets, turning a kaleidoscope of conflicting brightness and gloom, may induce flashbacks in almost anyone who knows old movies.

Cranston-Smith and Ellery believe they've found a clue.
Jeffery Martin, as lighting designer and technical director, helps Bernie Killian's four-part unit set really pop in its lived-in, substantially furnished way. Killian mutes his palette to keep the audience's flashbacks to that black-and-white world intact. Both men visit conclusively the world of film-noir dreaming, and it's a wonderful playground for a story of murder, chicanery, and romantic obsession.

Bad for each other, good for each other: Desiree St. Clair (Angela R. Plank) and Frank Ellery (Eric J. Olson).
Bryan Fonseca directs this National New Play Network "Rolling World Premiere" production. Heading the cast is Eric J. Olson as a private investigator (PI, or, in outdated slang, a dick) out of the Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler mold. The persona taking the form of Frank Ellery in this play, like all the characters, simulates three-dimensionality, but only the way a hologram simulates human beings of substance. The other characters all toil in the pulp vineyards, their lives fully absorbed in the worlds they create.

There's Bradley Rayburn (Joshua Coomer), a high-strung space cadet plying the sci-fi end of the trade; Walter Cranston-Smith (Michael Hosp), eagerly mining the rich vein of cloak-and-dagger heroism with alter-ego intensity; and R.A. Lyncroft (Ian Cruz), attempting self-therapy ambivalently through stomach-turning horror fiction.

But it's the fourth client of the late Bernard Walcott, the agent whose gruesome murder Ellery is hired to solve, who raises the temperature of the detective's dour, clay-cold professionalism. Romance specialist Desiree St. Clair (Angela R. Plank) is a dame with an agenda, a type so suitable to the genre that she has been mocked by no less a professional than the humorist S.J. Perelman. Skewering the pop culture of his day like nobody's business, Perelman caught the sex-role sentimentality of detective fiction in such pieces as "Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer": "Her eyes were tragic pools, a cenotaph to lost illusions."

S.J. Perelman (1904-1979)
The temptation to quote Perelman is well-nigh irresistible, but it affords me the opportunity to praise Zettelmaier for being derivative in the best way. There is the offbeat, sophisticated comparison (Perelman here): "I waited the length of time it would take a small, not very bright boy to recite Ozymandias, and, inching carefully along the wall, took a quick gander out the window." This kind of thing can be found sparkling through the masters. In "The Big Sleep," Chandler describes an old man: "[A] few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock."

Zettelmaier features Ellery's almost pathological eye for detail, a legacy of fictional detectives from Sherlock Holmes on down. Spotting a suspicious character two blocks away through that window, Perelman's gumshoe observes: "He wore a size seven dove-colored hat from Browning King, a tan Wilson Brothers shirt with pale-blue stripes, a J. Press foulard with a mixed red-and-white figure, dark-blue Interwoven socks, and an unshined pair of oxblood London Character shoes."

Stop me before I quote more! Whether or not he is acquainted with Perelman's faux-purple prose, Zettelmaier is clearly in touch with the passions and predilections of the pulp genre itself and the movies generated from its tawdry satisfactions. And he finds such humor in drawing upon the tortured imaginations and self-consciousness of literary hacks down the ages that all five characters float effervescently toward the show's shattering climax (kudos to sound designer Tom Horan). After that, there's a beautifully measured, wisecracking coda for Ellery and St. Clair, now lovers, which ends the show in perfect tribute to the genres that inspired it.

The performances are acutely perched upon the characters' genuine emotional needs and sometimes torturous back stories. Most poignant of them is Ellery's, bitterly recalling the turn of events that forced him into hard-luck detective work after prominence as a pulp-novel cover artist. That's where his fondness for color and fantasy had blossomed, some distance from the world drained of color, even if uncomfortably drenched in intrigue, that he now inhabits idiomatically in "Pulp."

[Production photos by Zach Rosing]

Sunday, February 7, 2016

ScoLo flight at the Palladium: Top jazz quartet plays two generous sets

With a history together reaching back over 25 years, Joe Lovano and John Scofield brought their current combination of forces to the Palladium Saturday night, playing two sets for a large crowd.

John Scofield, Lewis Nash, Joe Lovano, and Ben Street at the Palladium.
Joining the guitarist and saxophonist onstage were bassist Ben Street and drummer Lewis Nash, who replaced the announced percussionist, Bill Stewart. Much of the material was drawn from the leaders' current recorded collaboration, "Past Present," the source of a couple of current Grammy nominations.

Often Scofield and Lovano set out the tune in tight unison, but that was only the most obvious indication of their meeting of minds. On their respective instruments, both men displayed the ready-for-anything fluency that is notable in their styles. They handled exchanges and contrapuntal passages expertly; in fact, intense musical telepathy was characteristic of all four musicians.

The leaders avoided leaving an impression of glibness, because they reined in flights of fancy when the impulse struck them. Their solos typically explored wide terrain, but never aimlessly. They regularly rounded off their turns in the spotlight with a satisfying, conclusive phrase or two.

Their partners in this effort supported this kind of balance of freedom and restraint. Street was solid in the accompaniment role, as alert bassists have to be, and he exhibited a forthright personality in solos as well. The group's man on sound represented him beautifully. In all registers, the bass tone came through both fat and clear. The second piece in the first set, with a harmonized bluesy theme, drew from Street a solo statement so rich, funky, and well-articulated that it might have been the envy of any electric bassist in the  audience.

That same number offered a fine exposition of Lovano's style, which bears signs of the gutsy "bar walker" style of his youth. He's built so much on top of that, however, that keeping the blues alive in his solos never seems to limit him. When he ascends into the high register and flavors the line with split tones and semi-squawks, he gives the impression of simply extending the relaxed flow of his playing through an altered technique.

Scofield presented his trademark sound consistently, sometimes finding it useful to import the spicy dissonances of his 'comping into his solos. The lines were beautifully shaped, even with the wealth of staccato accents he gave them. The lyricism on Saturday night never abandoned his playing, with somewhat less of the "squinchy" tone evident on many of his recordings. I hasten to add that Scofield's squinchiness is fine with me; it's vinegary and bracing.

Exchanges with the drummer were always welcome. And in his solos, Nash sounded to me free of cliches.  Maybe they are his own cliches, but his mastery of the kit always seemed fresh. Drummers who favor lots of splashy cymbal work lose me; Nash worked his cymbals economically. Show-off passages of rapid cymbal interplay were crisply limited, and he added whimsical touches on the hi-hat to punctuate solos often based on bass drum and toms.

Variety in the mostly original set list was considerable. After intermission, the quartet opened with a poised jazz waltz, which featured a well-regulated diminuendo at the end. The band closed its rapturously received performance with "Chariots," a catchy, chugging blues original featuring some more of Lovano's keening, high-altitude playing. I'm betting it left everyone aloft in spirit, floating up near the Palladium ceiling.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and its maestro do a final space walk before returning to Earth

With "The Cosmos in Music" as its midwinter festival, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and its public seem to have come a little closer to knowing its first 21st-century music director. Almost paradoxically, it's taken a three-week musical exploration of outer space for audiences to get down to earth with him.

Krzysztof Urbanski: Star-gazimg through music.
Of course, Krzysztof Urbanski's predecessor, Mario Venzago, ushered us into the present century, but the current maestro, just 33 years old, is fully a child of the millennium. Thus, it seems particularly fitting that he not only came up with the three-program "Cosmos" exploration, but that it was capped by the performance of music from "2001: A Space Odyssey."

In 1968, when Stanley Kubrick's film was new, 2001 seemed a visionary benchmark in human progress. Looking back today, the year is more darkly associated with the events of Sept. 11.

Urbanski said last spring when announcing the 2015-16 season at Hilbert Circle Theatre that, since boyhood, he has been "inspired by the cosmos, the stars, and astronomy." He also praised "2001: A Space Odyssey" in terms he echoed in remarks from the podium Friday night. "It's one of the greatest movies I've ever seen — a very philosophical movie."

Thus, the festival was appropriately capped by music Kubrick used for his cinematic inquiry into human origins and development, as seen from a universal perspective. The centerpiece had to be "Also sprach Zarathustra," Richard Strauss' interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche's tortured examination of human destiny and purpose, as reflected in the legendary religious figure Zoroaster.

Poster for a pathbreaking movie
One of Strauss' biographers has this to say of how the work starts: "The bombastic opening fanfare — trivialized and commodified by popular culture — is Strauss's best-known passage, even if the listener may never have heard of the composer." Between those two dashes lies limitless disdain for the use to which Kubrick put that fanfare. For Urbanski, probably, the fanfare is ennobled, as one masterpiece is linked to a later one, yielding the added benefit of the near-capacity audience at Friday's concert. Is this trivialization? Commodification? We had better make the best of it, then.

The ISO's performance moved from that noble beginning with great clarity in all the work's episodes, depicting the hero as a representative human quester over his proper place in the universe. The ongoing struggle with nature ends equivocally, with an unresolved contention between the pitches C and B. Particularly effective episodes were the slow fugue, beginning in the lower strings, and the "Dance Song" portion with the composer's buoyant gift for personalizing the Viennese waltz. Solos were brought off with idiomatic zest, none more so than concertmaster Zach De Pue's.

"Also sprach Zarathustra" inspired the young Bela Bartok on a compositional career that became one of the 20th century's most significant. A later Hungarian composer, Gyorgy Ligeti, wrote "Atmospheres" in perhaps his most extreme exploration of breaking down the symphony orchestra into its constituent parts and recombining it. Everyone in the large orchestra has something distinctive to contribute, and the piece, with its keen gradations of dynamics and slow-motion, evolving sonorities, came off impressively Friday night.

The strings were featured in mildly modernist lyricism of Aram Khachaturian's "Gayane's Adagio" from the ballet "Gayane," given a poised yet intense reading. The first half concluded with a display of the most enduring succession of waltz melodies in a single work, Johann Strauss Jr.'s "On the Beautiful Blue Danube." If the Danube River, at least as it flows through Vienna, is less blue and beautiful than it once was, it retains those pristine qualities in this music. Under Urbanski's guiding hand, tempo fluctuations and the balance of both lingering and forward motion were exquisitely brought off in Friday's performance.

This is a program with a vast expressive and technical range, befitting its connection to a movie best described by a vogue word of its time: mind-blowing. It was played in that spirit, and it brought with it particular insights into what makes Krzysztof Urbanski tick.