Thursday, March 31, 2016

'To Know, Know, Know Him Is to Just Get Used to Him": Republicans try to accommodate themselves to Donald Trump's likely nomination to head their ticket

Although next Tuesday's Wisconsin primary may check his momentum somewhat, Donald Trump appears to be unstoppable on his...

Posted by Jay Harvey on Thursday, March 31, 2016

Highlight of Butler ArtsFest's first weekend: Premiere of James Aikman's "Peacemakers" with the ICO and soloists

The crowning achievement of James Aikman's residency with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra so far is likely to be the premiere of "Peacemakers" at a Butler ArtsFest concert on April 15.

This 80-minute "filmic oratorio" gathers together portraits in music and pictures celebrating the legacy of world figures who worked toward peace — work that was cut short by assassination for many of them. In a recent interview, the composer said the idea for the new composition came to him on a solitary walk along Lake Michigan in 2010.

Jamie Aikman was moved by the lives and words of great world peacemakers.
"I thought of everyone who had worked steadfastly for peace and has been assassinated," Aikman said. "Looking for peace is a dangerous business. I thought, 'Let's keep this idea (of peace) alive — use their words in a piece of music."

Initially, the composer planned a work for chorus and orchestra. But the opportunities for a breadth of collaborations started to creep in. This particularly interested ICO executive director Elaine Eckhart, who sees the completed work as divisible into its 15 "modules" (or sections), performed in various combinations, and has invited dozens of Indiana orchestras to send representatives to the concert in Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts.

"This will be a fine educational tool," she told me. "We will be working on marketing it in future years. The ICO is adding to the body of literature for small orchestras."

The completed work, to be conducted by ICO music director Matthew Kraemer,  uses two local choirs — Encore Vocal Arts and the Indianapolis Children's Choir — and four soloists: Dan Tepfer, American Pianists Association Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz (2007), mezzo-soprano Kathryn Krasovec,  sitarist Robert Spalding Newcomb, and jazz saxophonist Rob Dixon. Prerecorded, Indianapolis native George Shirley, a prominent operatic tenor in the 20th century's third quarter, will narrate words of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who made peace with Israel, as well as Yitzak Rabin's final speech. "Invictus," a poem that inspired Nelson Mandela during his most difficult years, will also be given voice by Shirley.

Video imagery by Mike Halerz, with whom Aikman worked when he was on the University of Michigan music faculty, will accompany all modules. Aikman's other heroes, besides Sadat, Rabin, and Mandela, are John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Jimmy Carter. The long-range stature of these people, together with their crucial role in the modern era, ensures that "Peacemakers" reinforces this year's ArtsFest theme, "Time and Timeless."

The Indianapolis-born Aikman has had his composer-in-residence status with the ICO since 2013. He had a major work, "Triptych," given its premiere and recorded last year as a tribute to former music director Kirk Trevor in his final season on the podium.

The different sections of the work are more unified by the theme "Peacemakers" than musically, except for a few motives and a modal reference in the Gandhi section, the composer said. Aikman makes each part stand on its own, introduced at the premiere by Steven Stolen, tenor and longtime nonprofit-organization executive, with a spoken biographical overview.

The work uses few extended techniques for either singers or instrumentalists. A couple of examples: In "Gandhi," the cellos and double basses sustain a drone for five minutes; the module also incorporates the sitar soloist. And in "Eleanor Roosevelt," the orchestra musicians say a few words of text in interplay with soloist Krasovec and the two choirs.

"Peacemakers" uses its expansive resources with great variety, sometimes paring away everyone but one or two players. "John F. Kennedy" is a piano solo, accompanied by a video of Kennedy's visionary American University Commencement speech in 1963. It is followed by "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., " with Shirley's narration supplemented by the live component of Tepfer and Dixon in duo.

Of his chosen heroes, Aikman said: "I know none of these people need my music. But if I can direct people toward their concepts, then I've done what I wanted to do."

He also pointed to the thoroughgoing use of video imagery as a major aesthetic value of any work he writes for large forces from now on.  "I don't think most people today have the attention span for a long piece of music without the visual aspect," he said. "I won't write another piece for orchestra without it."

Monday, March 28, 2016

A gift from his Texas days, U Indy's Freddie Mendoza issues Los Jazz Vatos CD

Freddie Mendoza, with his "other" horn
When he taught in Texas before coming to the University of Indianapolis last year, Freddie Mendoza was a major composing/performing/arranging force in the band Los Jazz Vatos. The release "El Jefe" (Lounge Side Records) is a great exhibition of this sextet, with a few other musicians making cameo appearances.

The arrangements are meaty, and everyone crafts solos that get right to the point. The title tune, one of Mendoza's, yields to a Jimmy Shortell trumpet solo that is fully in the spirit of the tune. The ensemble works together cohesively, and the conciseness of the soloing never sounds offhand or short on ideas. It's the essence of what's meant by the kudos "taking care of business."

The label's name seems to be addressed in "Ted's Groove," in which the hot temperature of "El Jefe" is lowered to a cool lounge atmosphere. Its four-to-the-bar swing indicates immediately that the band enjoys a North American groove just as much as it feels comfortable in a Latin-jazz idiom.

Mendoza's trombone soloing particularly caught my interest. A Latinization of "Cantaloupe Island," the Herbie Hancock classic, features one of his fiery solos. "Lindo San Anto" offers a particularly catchy display opportunity for Terry Bowness on piano. The keyboardist seems just as much at home on organ: His wailing phrases punctuate the blasting band assault in "6th Street Messin' Round" over drummer Ernie Durawa's New Orleans-style shuffle pulse.

Mendoza leads the charge in Arturo Sandoval's "Conjunto," with added percussion from Jose Galeano and a particularly captivating tenor-saxophone solo by Steven Vague.

Mendoza's "Jay Jay's Blues" (which has got to be a tribute to Indianapolis' J.J. Johnson) closes out the disc, featuring particularly burning work from Mendoza and trumpeter Shortell. For sheer cheesy fun, Shortell picks up the accordion on "Laredo Rose' as Bowness pours on the organ sentimentality.
Justin Mullens waxes mythological in "Cornucopiad."

Another brass player, this one a specialist in the French horn, has an odd concept album on BJU Records. Justin Mullens' "Cornucopiad" is a blend of mythologically inspired originals, several standards, and short linking material for just his horn and Pete Thompson's guitar.
The effect resembles — in a less gruesome way — what it's like to read Ernest Hemingway's "In Our Time," with its short prose sketches, many of them violent, interspersed among the short stories.

As with Hemingway, the sketches (on "Cornucopiad," the horn-guitar bits) seem drawn from a related but separate part of his artistic sensibility.  Mullens shows off his many-splintered tone on an instrument unusual in jazz. Right off the bat (in Freddie Hubbard's "Hub-Tones"), he's fluent, energetic and quite creative in his sense of ensemble. He doesn't ignore the horn's classic woodsy lyricism; it comes to the fore in "You Stepped Out of the Dream."

The guitar-French horn interaction is fundamental to "Amalthea," one of the disc's enchanting originals. Peter Hess' bass clarinet is plangent and evocative in another Mullens piece, "The River Horn." Throughout, the rest of the band is also rich in sonority and balances the leader's individual timbre expertly: Chris Cheek, alto sax and clarinet; Ohad Talmor, tenor sax, Desmond White, bass; Matt Ray, piano, and Marko Djordjevic, drums.

Finally, the New York Standards Quartet celebrates its tenth anniversary on "Power of 10" (Whirlwind Recordings). The bassist, Michael Janisch, is new to the ensemble; the three original members build on their well-honed rapport with the standards that give the group its name: "Embraceable You" really gets a new look, invested with new ideas. "Lush Life," such well-worn terrain for jazz musicians, draws from saxophonist Tim Armacost an amazingly inventive solo.

"Hidden Fondness" is a clever contrafact based on "Secret Love," the work of pianist David Berkman. A concise account of "Polkadots and Moonbeams" poses Armacost and drummer Gene Jackson in conversation to conclude the disc.

 Happy birthday, gentlemen!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

'Playing the Fool in the Land of Raul' — it's a gas, gas, gas (though it may distort your sense of history)

What happens when the Rolling Stones play a free concert in Havana? For one fan, a bizarre comparison touting the gig's historical importance. My oh my, I feel a song coming on!

"Playing the Fool in the Land of Raul": a commentary in song, inspired by the first song in the Rolling Stones' Havana...

Posted by Jay Harvey on Sunday, March 27, 2016

Friday, March 25, 2016

Trump vs. Cruz has gotten so nasty I felt a song coming on; since I call it "They Do Run Run," the inspiration should be obvious

It may be time to crystallize the mud wrestling match of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in a song of my own devising in a performance at the classic karaoke level. They do run run, don't they?

Posted by Jay Harvey on Friday, March 25, 2016

EclecticPond's 'Prometheus Bound' takes Aeschylus up to the Age of Snowden

Ancient Greek religion and its Roman offspring have been both puzzling and fascinating to most of what is  quaintly called Christendom. That tradition, with its fallible, squabbling gods, perpetually interfering with human lives in a way that makes Jehovah look standoffish, seems to defy piety.

Once those stories and the complexity of divine natures were turned to artistic purposes, however, they came alive as material that speaks to our dilemmas, right up to the present day. This pertinence is what drives the adaptation of Aeschylus' "Prometheus Bound" that EclecticPond Theatre Company is presenting through April 3 at the Wheeler Arts Community.

Hephaestus secures manacles on the prisoner's wrists.
Carey Shea, the production's director, had the provocative notion to make Prometheus' offense against the divine order — bringing the gift of fire to humankind — the archetype of the 21st-century exposure of government secrets represented by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden. Fire, the mythical origin of technological progress, is well-suited to symbolize the sharing of knowledge that contemporary electronic media make possible.

Wherever there are secrets closely guarded by the powers that be, ordinary folks are certain to be taken advantage of. In the fifth century B.C., in the only surviving play of his Prometheus trilogy, Aeschylus makes of divine peccadilloes the stuff of tragedy for mere earthlings. Thus, the playwright himself was a kind of fire-bringer, a forethinker, to use the two most common Promethean epithets.

What the play provides — and, despite the updating, Shea commendably uses a dignified, stately translation — is an examination of self-sacrifice for the greater good. The action of the play is stunning, but doesn't move forward in the way playgoers have come to expect. Prometheus' visitors help reveal his plight and elicit explanations from him in a manner that uncannily parallels the Book of Job.

Chained to a rock in the original, Prometheus (the name the internet hacker Alexander Sarkos goes by) in this version has helped develop the surveillance program Firenet. He is a rebel who turns his back on the National Security Agency, in whose employ he helped develop the program, and is punished by imprisonment, cozily enough for Hoosiers, in Terre Haute's federal facility. The remote, lofty geography of Prometheus' confinement is conveniently suggested by the meaning of Terre Haute, "high ground."

Specially created TV newscast segments fill in the modern referents the production needs to bridge the 2,500-year gap. The story is consistently secularized, as Zeus is no more than a vengeful autocrat, trying to hide his misdeeds by lashing out with an authority compounded of lightning bolts, earthquakes, the thuggish messenger god Hermes, and total control of what is laughably called the criminal justice system.

Bradford Reilly plays Prometheus with an air of calm, sturdy defiance.  His performance Thursday evening conveyed the idea of a brilliant malcontent who's in it for the long haul. There was an attractive self-righteousness about the hero's rhetorical defense, complete with a rising tone of indignation that his obvious benefactions should be held to deserve such protracted suffering.

He knows things about his former boss that give him a little leverage, but Aeschylus never suggests that the hero will be able to turn the tables. The play ends in cataclysm, with flashing lights and wailing sirens; Thomas Cardwell's set and lights and Tristan Ross' sound contribute mightily to the show's effect and the success of its archaic/contemporary blend.

Aeschylus' Chorus becomes a TV reporter in ETC's "Prometheus Bound"
Onstage, Ross strongly defined two contrasting roles: the vain, slick lawyer Oceanus and the reluctant warden Hephaestus, nicely drawn from the lame Greek god of the forge. Taylor Cox was aptly blood-curdling as both a hostile prison guard and, in a climactic scene, the brutal Hermes.

The crucial importance of the chorus in Greek theater has been smoothed out and made less static by its representation as a sympathetic reporter. In today's typical manner, Ann Marie Elliott delivered on-air commentary on Prometheus' plight outside the hero's cell in addition to gathering information from in-person interviews. 

The Wanderer (Io), a refugee, tells her harrowing story.
The role of the nymph Io, often called the Wanderer, ingeniously becomes a refugee in this production, attracting suspicion wherever she goes. That's an up-to-the-minute touch, of course. Driven batty by Zeus' stalking interest in her, Io was vividly characterized by Elysia Rohn. Perhaps the least susceptible to adaptation, the role has frequent references to Io's being plagued by stinging insects.

This is a little confusing in the modern context; in the original, Io has had the indignity of being disguised as a heifer to fool Hera, Zeus' wife, about the god's interest in her. Then she has to leave home and submit to the Hera-imposed gadfly nuisance forever. The Greek gods couldn't harm each other directly, so their payback was visited upon unlucky mortals.

Even though this is considerable baggage for the role of Io to carry, it can readily be interpreted as an indication of how unrestrained, unjust power can drive its victims mad. And what could make this fine production more contemporary than that?

Monday, March 21, 2016

Assisted by Indianapolis Symphony musicians, Garrick Ohlsson graces the season for the second of three times

As Garrick Ohlsson's solo recital here last fall demonstrated, he is a pianist with the verve of a youngster and the good manners and elegance of a venerable master.

These qualities were also evident here Sunday in collaboration with four members of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, in a co-presentation with the American Pianists Association in Indiana Landmarks Center's Grand Hall.

Garrick Ohlsson will return to town in June as a concerto soloist.
Major works for piano and strings were the focus. Both of them are complex, generously proportioned pieces in four movements: Beethoven's Trio No. 6 in E-flat, op. 70, no. 2, and Brahms Quintet in F minor, op. 34.

Among the large Brahms legacy of compositional second thoughts, the quintet began life as a strings-only work, then passed through a two-piano version that attained some currency among Brahms' friends for several years.

What the composer seems to have been seeking was an instrumental combination that would honor the strength of his ideas, especially their intricacy and contrasting quality. So it is what we might call his third thoughts about the composition that have come down as the masterpiece that made up this concert's second half.

In Sunday's performance, the expansive first movement set the tone, displaying glowing rapport among Ohlsson and violinists Zachary De Pue and Peter Vickery, violist Mike Chen, and cellist Austin Huntington. There were wonderfully expressive solo phrases passed around between the strings, notably Huntington and Chen. The blossoming lyricism characteristic of early Brahms begins to undergo sublimation in this period (the 1860s), as counterpoint and rhythmic complexity come to the fore.

This ensemble showed lively reverence for all aspects of the work. Ohlsson's phrasing and warm tone seemed to inspire his one-time-only colleagues. Transitional phrases that link the jostling main material were full of suspense. There was good unity of tone and balance throughout. These qualities were sustained to the end. The gathering intensity of the finale was especially well-controlled, yet lent a feeling of spontaneity that is among the more attractive qualities of this scrupulous composer at his best.

Before intermission, the Beethoven trio (with Huntington and De Pue) gave the audience more exposure than the ISO's Hilbert Circle Theatre audiences have had so far to the orchestra's excellent new principal cellist. In exchanges with piano and violin as well as combined energy, the cellist's playing had a collegial purity that raised him to a level compatible with his more experienced partners.

The trio lent animation and lilt to the work's occasional suggestions of folk music as well as to its Haydnesque wit. Such lighter touches are in the service of a carefully crafted structure and an expressive depth that can be counted equal to the very best of Beethoven. This ensemble kept all that weight well-balanced, delivering a delightful performance. The insights and sheer humaneness of the guest artist were crucial to that effect.

[Photo by Kacper Pempel]

Indianapolis Opera's "Mansfield Park": Giving voice to the love affairs of the landed gentry in the Regency period

"Mansfield Park" seems an apt symbol of Indianapolis Opera's change of focus and direction: Keep the professionalism intact, but apply it in more contained ways, using fewer resources, to works without conventional marquee appeal.

'Mansfield Park' cast sings a choral resolution of the matter.
The run of this 2011 opera in its U.S. premiere finished Sunday at Butler University's Schrott Center. Jane Austen has a different kind of marquee appeal, and it's a safe bet that people who had never heard of the opera's composer, Jonathan Dove, were drawn to take a chance on the operatic realization of one of the English author's six novels.

Within its carefully set limits, "Mansfield Park" is a work scrupulously attentive to the social resonance of a properly contracted marriage in Regency England. This operatic adaptation, with a libretto by Alisdair Middleton, has a similar conscientiousness about bringing forward the Austen story — and not just the story, but her manner of telling it.

What the characters say to each other, they sing with clarity and elegance here. The author's voice in the novel is often represented by the cast used as a chorus, no more tellingly than in the final scene, which expounds on Austen's opening of her last chapter: "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery." The destined match of Fanny Price, the outsider at Mansfield Park, and Edmund, the sensitive, eligible younger son of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, is to take place as relationships among the characters get sorted out on various planes of happiness. Period furniture and costumes, together with silkscreen panels that drop into place from the flies, make the atmosphere complete.

Aunt Norris delivers a trenchant opinion; Lady Bertram and her pug receive it.
There is some good individuation of vocal styles: Music for the nattering Aunt Norris moves at a rapid patter suited to her hypercritical nature; it lay trippingly on the tongue of Donata Cucinotta Saturday night.

 Mary Crawford, a scheming newcomer hoping for a place in society along with her brother Henry, typically had lines that vaulted upward. Her social climbing was thus well represented in the performance of Leah Bobbey, who was also the most adept in facial expression.

The high baritone of Gregory Gerbrandt, along with his dignified carriage and genuine sensitivity, suited the role of Edmund. Representative of the kind of conscience that's firm but never ossifies, he is suited by an innate lack of snobbery to appreciate the genuineness of the taken-for-granted Fanny, a role radiantly filled by Kate Tombaugh. In her performance, Fanny's vulnerability and sturdy integrity were both brought into play through a voice that rang true in every situation.

Sir Thomas Bertram takes a firm hand with Fanny Price.
Barbara LeMay's Lady Bertram, a character somewhat to one side of the action, forever cradling her beloved pug, reflected the generational divide well, but the weight of tradition is carried by the lord of the manor, Sir Thomas. That role was commandingly filled by Scott Hogsed, who rose to the edge of villainy in a scene denouncing Fanny for refusing Henry Crawford's proposal of marriage.

Crawford's smug opportunism was caught in the mellifluous lyric tenor of Brett Sprague. More vain and less competent among the ambitious young men in the world of "Mansfield Park" is Mr. Rushworth, played amusingly as a nervous twit by another tenor, Ganson Salmon.

The self-centered Bertram sisters were portrayed vividly by Stephanie Feigenbaum (Julia) and Samantha Lax (Maria). These were not cookie-cutter villainesses like Cinderella's ugly stepsisters, to whom they are somewhat parallel in this realistic Cinderella story.

The singers and two pianists at one keyboard (Allegra Sorley and Oksana Glouchko) were coordinated suavely from a conductor's pit by Matthew Kraemer, music director of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. Stage direction by Karen Carpenter remained happily free of cloying artifice, though the milieu offers temptations to overdo the gestures and poses that suggest themselves in such a story, particularly when the audience's sympathies are consistently wooed by Fanny's naturalness.

The music varies subtly to suit each "chapter." There's some lovely a cappella writing in the final scene that allows for a summing-up that seems to float above the action, like Austen's omniscient narrator. Repetitive figures in the accompaniment recall John Adams from time to time, though the suppleness and buoyancy of Benjamin Britten's vocal writing are also keenly felt as a salient aspect of Dove's style.

The accents and shapeliness of phrasing throughout made the singers easy to understand. Middleton's text gets consistently suitable responses from Dove, whether we are hearing soliloquies or vocal ensembles. "Mansfield Park" immerses us in a social world that seems remote from our time and place, but does it so gracefully and unironically that we never doubt the problems of real people are the focus, given music that illuminates their characters and relationships.

[Photos by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The ISO's singular concert this weekend: Outsize display of dance, comedy, and phenomenal playing by a clarinet virtuoso

Concertos for solo instrument and orchestra have a long history of being opportunities for display by the soloist.  Many such works in the Romantic era have been interpreted as contests between soloist and orchestra. The work given its American premiere Friday night at an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concert was more like an effusive game under the spirited officiating of guest conductor Santtu-Mathias Rouvali.

Kriikku made an indelible impression.
And it was a game that guest artist Kari Kriikku won in a walk — and a dance, and a shuffle, and a slide or two, in addition to some amazing clarinet-playing. The Finnish musician commissioned a Clarinet Concerto from his countryman Kimmo Hakola in 2001. As he noted in a preconcert interview by Blake Schlabach, ISO assistant principal trombonist, the score was a mystery to him until Hakola at length delivered it to him. There had been no consultation or collaboration along the way.

Hakola must have known something about the commissioner's personality, however. As played at the Hilbert Circle Theatre in the ISO's only offering of this program, the work is full of whimsy and humor, most of it focused on the soloist. The first clue that something more than superlative playing would be involved in the audience's first acquaintance with this work (and probably also with this composer) came when Kriikku held up a finger (signaling "wait!") in the middle of a first-movement cadenza that required a page turn.

There had already been lots of high spirits in music characterized by churning energy chock-full of syncopated figures. From the soloist, both before and during that cadenza, we got lots of loud, high-register staccato patterns, great interval leaps, "growl" tones, tremolos, and chirps. The continuity of all these elements was secure, the spirited delivery of them immaculate. In the third movement, the soloist turned around and feigned impatient jealousy of ISO principal clarinetist David Bellman, who was given some of Kriikku's material during an orchestral tutti when the soloist was idle.

The second movement, "Hidden Songs," provided a respite, but still brought out virtuosity from the clarinetist in the
Santtu-Mathias Rouvali, also from Finland, also made an ISO debut.
wide variety of dynamic level in the solo lines. There was a lovely passage for clarinet and harp against sustained harmonics from the first violins, succeeded by chimes and a folksong-like episode, which showcased Kriikku's most lyrical playing.

The third movement, Allegro Farara, surprised everyone in part when the soloist did some tap-dancing steps, generally in a folk-dance style, but also moving his ankles in a side shuffle of the kind James Brown used to display, with a few glides a la Michael Jackson. That followed a rush offstage, probably to change shoes, as Kriikku pretended not to have all the music that he needed on his stand. His miming was at a Charlie Chaplin level, and not overdone, unless you insist that your concerto soloist should never show off. But then, without showing off, what would the prevalence of concertos in symphony concerts amount to?

The finale opened with a shout from the orchestra, and then it was off to the races for everybody. It should be made clear that Hakola has created more than a jokey kind of piece. He uses the orchestra imaginatively, and the tricks he puts the soloist through are mainly in the service of clarinet virtuosity at a level that few artists are capable of.

The concert opened with "Cataclysm," an eight-minute score that's this year's winner of the Marilyn K. Glick Young Composer Award.  Written by Daniel Temkin, the work traces dream states, according to the composer, and appropriately with low, shadowy sounds, soon to pull into well-defined shapes, some of them massive.  The swift accumulation of sensory overload is effectively managed, and mounts to a climax that is well-crafted, not just noisy in the service of the composition's title.

After intermission, Rouvali led a precisely detailed performance of the program's one mainstream work. It's not one often heard, but Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 4, op. 29, is much admired for its individuality and restless movement among key centers. Expressively, it skirts the personal expressiveness of Romanticism, even if the work — 100 years old this year — incorporates conflicts of such intensity that World War I must have been on the composer's mind. The work's title, "The Inextinguishable," is confusing because the adjective suggests it's a nickname of the symphony, like Schubert's "Unfinished" or Beethoven's "Pastoral." Instead, "Inextinguishable" is a substantive, indicating the life force, and much of the work's struggle represents it's triumph over negative forces.

All sections of the ISO played with animation and a kind of edge-of-the-seat commitment under a conductor so explicit in every gesture that he made the ISO's artistic director, Krzysztof Urbanski, look vague in comparison (which he isn't!). Hands and arms were always in high positions, rhythmically on the mark, indicating something new in every measure, which must have made Rouvali easy to follow.

The sad thing about this concert is that it was a one-off, and you can justifiably ask what marketing advantage is gained by scheduling single classical concerts that have no possibility of doing word-of-mouth business at the box office for one or two iterations. It seems likely there would have been plenty of buzz this weekend about the ISO's elfin  guest soloist and spectacular guest conductor.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Composer of 'Mansfield Park' discovered the novel 'asked itself to be made in the opera'

Jane Austen's powers of observation, her sense of humor, and her nuanced delineation of character suggest some of the difficulties — and temptations — of adapting her novels for the stage.

Jonathan Dove feels 'Mansfield Park' told him it needed an opera.
Opera, which enforces refinement and concentration on sources from prose fiction, is a hard taskmaster for anyone tackling such a project. But Jonathan Dove and his librettist, Alasdair Middleton, took on the challenge with "Mansfield Park."

According to the English composer, interviewed at the Basile Opera Center on Monday: "'Emma' and 'Pride and Prejudice' are the Austen novels I liked most. But I never heard music with those books. But there was something incomplete about 'Mansfield Park.' It asked itself to be made into an opera."

Dove, in town for the American professional premiere of the work by Indianapolis Opera, explains it this way: Fanny Price, the heroine, is an outsider who has been treated by "Mansfield Park"'s film adaptation as an Emma or Elizabeth Bennet —members in good standing of the landed gentry in Regency England whose independence is asserted from that status. In fact, she is harder to get to know than those forthright characters and not treated well by everyone in her milieu.

That difference helped the story suggest operatic possibilities to Dove: "There are close parallels with the Cinderella story," he pointed out, "and you know you can tell that in the course of an evening."

Dove was further inspired by the intimacy of Austen's setting, having long ago been intrigued by Pavilion Opera, an English company, taking operas into the stately homes of England and presenting them with piano accompaniment. That influenced his creation  in 2011 of "Mansfield Park," with instrumental assistance limited to two pianists at one keyboard. Since the plot of the novel involves a project to stage a play, in which everyone but Fanny is swept away, the creative spark for the new opera was almost inevitable.

The composer, prolific in a wide variety of musical genres, also reflected the influence of the intimate setting in how he chose to write for voices. "You get the kind of intimacy that you don't get in conventional opera," he said. "There are different scales of singing — it's not Verdi."

Dove uses his 10 singers in continual ensemble and solo textures. "It's the kind of sound world Jane Austen would have recognized," he said,  though he emphasizes that his music doesn't ape early 19th-century musical styles. His inspiration, he adds, is the Stravinsky of "The Rake's Progress," but without explicit referents to the musical manners of the period. Each of the two-hour opera's 18 scenes is conceived as a "chapter" — 11 in Act 1, seven in Act 2 — with its own musical character.

Inspired as an opera composer by  Benjamin Britten and John Adams, he is particularly admiring of his countryman Britten. "You can always understand what people are singing — it's all very natural in Britten," Dove said. He has no need to compose without being certain of performance, he said, particularly with opera. And he feels fortunate not to have to supplement his composing with teaching or conducting.

And his procedure in composing an opera? "When I'm writing, I sing all the lines, trying to find the accompaniment that suggests the emotion. I want to feel the energy that's needed (from the accompaniment) to match them. I can feel what happens in the music over time."

For the listener and operagoer new to his work, Dove closed with these words of advice. "My music doesn't need any preparation," he said reassuringly. "There's nothing to be afraid of. You should be able to enjoy the whole thing on first hearing."

And, no doubt, root for the outsider Fanny Price to find happiness at Mansfield Park.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Chamber music rapport at the summit: Lincoln Center ensemble visits Indianapolis, thanks to the Ensemble Music Society

At the highest level, chamber music before the public pushes to the top the traditional small-group configurations: piano trio, wind quintet, string quartet.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center group that appeared here.
This keeps a lot of masterpieces before music lovers, but may leave many worthy pieces for other than conventional combinations out of consideration. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is a long-running corrective to such exclusions. It can also explore musical forms that adapt well to smaller ensembles, such as concertos.

Two of those made up the bulk of the Lincoln Center group's concert Wednesday night at the Indiana History Center. In its next-to-last offering of the 2015-16 season, Ensemble Music Society filled the hall for a program of Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn.

The concerted works included Rondo in A major for Violin and Strings, D. 438, which the precocious Franz Schubert wrote for his brother Ferdinand. Sean Lee was the soloist, backed by a string quartet composed of violinist Benjamin Beilman and Kristin Lee, violist Richard O'Neill, and cellist Nicholas Canellakis.

The Rondo tune had an Italian flavor, influenced no doubt by Mozart's Italian-language operas. The soloist managed its long-breathed elegance well, his lean tone well-suited to an outpouring of classically flavored melody, with limited opportunities for showmanship. Lee's colleagues were fully congruent with his controlled lyricism.

Contrast that with the outsize display in Mendelssohn's Double Concerto in D minor for Violin, Piano, and Strings.  Also the product of a precocious teenager, this expansive three-movement work has the composer working his palette and formal mastery adeptly. Beilman was partnered in the solo role by CMS artistic director Wu Han at the piano.

Violin and piano are joined at the hip as a duo, often out on their own, free of ensemble support. Cadenzas for the solo instruments burst in flower out of nowhere. Lots of textural contrast is joyously indulged in throughout the work. Beilman, whose honors include an International Violin Competition of Indianapolis bronze medal (oddly unmentioned in the program bio), showed the polish and elan I remember him exhibiting as a contest participant in 2010.

For all its dazzle, the piece has surprising emotional depth at times, such as a lyrical episode for the violin with anxious piano tremolos in the first movement. In its expressive breadth and flashiness alike, this little-heard composition was astonishingly effective as the concert's entire second half. The enraptured audience called the visitors back for an encore, the Scherzo from Dvorak's Piano Quintet.

The concert's one established masterpiece opened the program: Mozart's Piano Quartet in E-flat major, much the lesser-known of the two he wrote for the combination of piano, violin, viola, and cello. Taking the exposition repeat in the first movement emphasized the work's drama, which overall is more restrained than that of its familiar G minor cousin, because the development explodes with strings in unison, succeeded by a piano statement in the minor mode.

Wu Han, a sensitive and enthusiastic force at the keyboard, led her colleagues in mastery of the work's charm, humor, and resourcefulness. The ensemble was fully up to projecting what Eric Blom (referring to the finale of the "Jupiter" Symphony) has called Mozart's "clairvoyant virtuosity." This quality came through in the group's pinpoint rapport and smooth articulation of the work's genius.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Another set of Republican primaries, another lurch forward toward the nomination of Donald Trump. The GOP looks deep into its soul (covering a soul classic along the way) for an explanation

Faced with the prospect of uniting behind Donald Trump, the GOP establishment channels its inner Percy Sledge (not easy to find!) to deliver this soulful lament.

Posted by Jay Harvey on Wednesday, March 16, 2016

At Indiana Repertory Theatre, August Wilson's cycle of plays set on The Hill aims for 'Fences' once again

Steeped in recorded blues and black gospel music when the stage action pauses, Indiana Repertory Theatre's "Fences" has parallels to music in its fondness for refrains as well as free fantasias. Characters spin stories of ambition and survival into the ether, but also find themselves repeatedly grounded, serving detention in the school of hard knocks.

Troy Maxson and Jim Bono share laughs and booze after work.
In his 2012 direction of IRT's "Radio Golf," another in August Wilson's 10-play cycle of 20th-century life in a Pittsburgh district called the Hill, Lou Bellamy displayed what I called "an almost symphonic feeling for contrast." By that I meant a way of pitting opposite themes against each other and achieving the kind of challenging moral blend characteristic of Wilson's work.

As seen Tuesday night, there's an exuberance about this process that was immediately captured as a laughing Troy Maxson (David Alan Anderson) and his best friend Jim Bono (Marcus Naylor) tumble upon the scene of the Maxson home. The show's period-perfect residence is designed in exquisitely crafted detail by Vicki Smith and lit in warm, carefully shopworn tones by Don Darnutzer.

Bellamy's hand is again sure in this production. The stubborn vitality of urban black life, existentially hemmed in by racism undergoing slow, wrenching change in 1957, was immediately engaged. In such straitened circumstances, bitterness can be held at bay for a while, but the effort is too much for Troy's  anguished, forceful personality. He clings to the myth of lower-middle-class values, the rewards attendant upon hard work and family, but his past struggles feed a larger myth: the professional baseball stardom he feels might have been his.

In his front yard, Troy Maxson relives baseball glory for his wife, Rose.
Anderson's physical and vocal poise, confidence, and energy as an actor can threaten to turn his cast mates into iron filings patterned around his magnet. Directorial brio and the vividness of the other performances maintain the show's ensemble feeling, however, particularly Kim Staunton as Troy's wife, Rose. Wilson never sets up an important relationship that he doesn't wring dry;  much is demanded of Staunton, particularly in the second act, when the family fabric comes unraveled.

Troy's ferocity and determination to command his own little world came through consistently in Anderson's portrayal. It particularly underlined the pathos of his son Cory's situation; he's thwarted by his father's penchant for control and eventually driven from home. Edgar Sanchez modulated his rage well in the role of the normally compliant Cory, as the teen is goaded to rise violently against his father's emotional abuse.
Raynell (Elise Kelisah Benson) and Cory (Edgar Sanchez) share memories of a father and his song.

Yet in what he says about his past, we learn enough about Troy's vulnerable nature, a fragility he works to keep hidden with bluster and bullying, to wish Anderson showed it more. When Cory tries to find out why his father doesn't like him, for example, Anderson's Troy vociferously dismisses the question mockingly and indignantly.

Visual evidence that Troy is truly taken aback by the question, that it gives him pause and takes the shine off his bravado, was lacking. It's at least an arguable nuance of the character Wilson created. In some sense, therefore, as captivating as Anderson's cyclonic virtuosity is as Troy Maxson, the role of Roosevelt Hicks, the amoral up-and-comer in "Radio Golf," seems more perfectly suited to him.

Marcus Naylor gave a best-friend authenticity to Jim Bono, and reflected how painfully his loyalty was tested to the breaking point by Troy's straying nature. James T. Alfred performed buoyantly as the jazz-musician son of Troy by a different woman, and Terry Bellamy bewildered and delighted as Troy's brain-damaged brother, a gentle street peddler and self-appointed guardian against the hounds of hell.

In the last scene, Elise Keliah Benson as Raynell, the result of Troy's unfaithfulness, tenderly suggested the persistence of hope for this family. Symbolized by the fence that at length encloses the front yard, the solidity of a household that Troy helped create as well as damage endures.

So does his song, in the voices of the half-siblings Raynell and Cory, about the faithful hunting dog Blue, who treed possums in a hollow log and even on Noah's ark. The tragedy of Troy Maxson is that he was just as determined as Blue, but much less adaptable. Previously presented by IRT in 1996, the story strikes home once again in the current production.

[Production photos by Zach Rosing]

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Reading as a useful check on action: Actors' Playground brings Winnie Hoffman's "Choice" to Indy Reads Books

For the theater community, saving money is just one of the attractions of a public play reading. Indispensable as a production team is for real theater to take place, the cozy minimalism of a reading jettisons that requirement.

Constance Macy and Jen Johansen played middle-aged journalist friends in "Choice."
With Indy Actors' Playground at Indy Reads Books, a further attraction is the actors' selection of scripts to present. There is an investment by the selecting actor and his/her colleagues in putting across dramas they love to an audience of devotees. Pure collegiality joins forces with skill in acting with the voice alone, with a minimum of gesture.

Balancing this advantage, the actors accept the artificiality of holding notebooks and sitting in a row, working within these constraints to bring the work off as authentically as possible.

The March presentation on Monday was Winnie Hoffman's "Choice," selected by Constance Macy and read by her and six collaborators —  five playing characters (a couple of them doubling) and one to read stage directions. It was fascinating in a work with some essential spatial and temporal virtuosity written into it to witness the dialogue hot potato being tossed so expertly. One crucial scene in the second act has two conversations proceeding antiphonally, upstairs and downstairs, in the household of the beleaguered magazine journalist, the play's main character.

Dialogue at cross-purposes is threaded throughout "Choice," with jagged interruptions and initially well-lit trails that peter out. Jumps and cuts in continuity become almost hallucinatory. By fits and starts, we learn about the journalist Macy played and her difficulty separating the subject of a long celebrity profile from eerie personal parallels. Besides that, Hoffman, who wrote the book for "Wicked,"  makes the most up-to-date use of iPhone communication imaginable; texting is crucial to characters' interaction and several dopey miscommunications worthy of Ionesco or Beckett.

The ancients used a device of rapidfire dialogue (line-by-line alternation of speakers) known as stichomythia. Hoffman revs up this engine with lots of overlapping dialogue, as if linearity needs to be beaten down and pulverized in order to understand the way we live now. There are other precedents in how dialogue comes at us in the films of Robert Altman and in Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil."

Bringing up cinema, with its indulgent, lavish use of space and scene — the cast of "August: Osage County" chewed so much scenery it must have affected Oklahoma crop yields that year — raises another basis for commendation of Monday's reading.

The acting riveted the attention, no more so than when the middle-aged friends played by Macy and Jen Johansen have a bristling argument of the kind that usually separates people forever. The actors were, of course, sitting side by side holding notebooks. And yet every word in that passage struck home Monday night. They had to make the space between them bristle, and yet there was hardly any space.

Even when a director serves a play well, there's a sense in which the creativity poured into the rehearsal process challenges the play. A particular staging always finds a fresh way of supplementing the playwright's words, including those in stage directions. The effect, if it's done with skill,  both supports the play and talks back to it.

In that respect, Shakespeare is at once the most venerated and most criticized playwright who ever lived. And I mean "criticized" by the people who love his works and put them onstage. Even playwrights much more explicit in their stage directions are inevitably commented upon by insightful productions.

Brothers in crisis: Edmund (left) and Jamie Tyrone in Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
Take the verbose Eugene O'Neill, for example. "Long Day's Journey Into Night" last summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival glossed the final scene, a long monologue by the drug-addicted Mary Tyrone, tweaking the final tableau beyond O'Neill's text. Where the original says of her two sons "Edmund and Jamie remain motionless," this production had Edmund, the younger son, break down sobbing. Then, curtain.

The character most moved by Mary's illness was modeled, the play strongly hints, on O'Neill himself. To show Edmund losing it instead of being numbed by despair drew attention to the compulsion the playwright must have felt to redeem and transfigure his family's suffering somehow. The result was his masterpiece; the OSF wanted the audience to grasp that connection. The choice upheld at the end the compassion repeatedly thwarted in the autobiographical text.

No such directorial fillips, whether germane and inspired or otherwise, come up in a public reading. You get instead a kind of purity about the spoken words as interpreted by good actors. The play's possibilities as fully staged drama float overhead and stir the imagination. The players' sacrifices can seem worthwhile. So it was with "Choice" this month in its Indy Actors' Playground realization.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Two guest soloists provide extra focus for ISO's Hispanic program

Andrey Boreyko is music director of orchestras in Belgium and Naples, Fla.
Ethnic themes  are a dependable way of focusing attention on Classical Series programs. This weekend the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra turns its attention to Spain and one of the countries that emerged from Spanish settlement in the New World.

Andrey Boreyko is the guest conductor, and both major works (in concerts Thursday and Friday nights and this
afternoon at 5:30) have  capable soloists: Mark Kosower, principal cellist of the Cleveland Orchestra, is featured in Richard Strauss' "Don Quixote." and mezzo-soprano Barbara Rearick is the soloist in Manuel de Falla's "El amor brujo" (Love the Magician).

Friday's Hilbert Circle Theatre audience was boosted in its response by the presence of the high-school musicians in the Honor Orchestra of America, one of three ensembles that are part of Yamaha's Music for All National Festival. The Honor Orchestra played a short concert before the ISO, and will be featured just after the professional orchestra's concert today.

The enthusiasm was predictably torrential after the performance of Estancia Suite, op. 8a, by Alberto Ginastera, a 20th-century Argentine composer whose centenary is being celebrated this year. You can hardly come up with a classical piece more likely to have you dancing in your seat than the suite's concluding "Malambo," which ended the concert.

The ISO's performance Friday was its first in nearly 50 years of music that celebrates dance types in the composer's homeland. The suite rises inexorably through celebrations involving agricultural workers, a calming "wheat dance," and cattlemen before it attains an orgiastic summit in the finale. The braying horns and onslaught of percussion, brought together in clangorous ensemble with mounting frenzy, characterize a testosterone-fueled gaucho dance that juggles meters and rhythms with abandon.

Estancia capped a concert that included another dance-based composition, the Spanish composer Falla's interpretation of a scenario in which a man's deceased first wife haunts his new relationship. An exorcism clears the way to joy for the new couple, with love indeed being the musician, as the title says. Rearick interpreted the singer's role in four of the work's movements with the "Spanish passion" promised in the ISO's publicity. Her weighty voice projected the Spanish text with conviction, elucidating love's dangers and sorrows before ending with a brief, radiant salute to dawn.

The instrumental portions were smartly evocative, from the familiar "Ritual Fire Dance" through such
Mark Kosower etched the Don's dreams and defeat well.
spooky episodes as "The Magic Circle (The Fisherman's Story" and "Midnight (The Magic Spell)." Of the ISO principals, Jennifer Christen handled superbly the multiple demands the work makes on the oboe to point up the composition's shimmering, mysterious atmosphere.

"Don Quixote" is perhaps the most substantial, as well as the most picturesque, of the Strauss tone poems. Its wealth of thematic material and the unabashed realism of its tone painting allow it to communicate much about Cervantes' masterpiece. The adventures of the "man of La Mancha," as a latter-day Broadway hit calls him, along with his sidekick Sancho Panza, were focused on Kosower's insightful portrait of the knight as Strauss interpreted him.

The unusual seating arrangement of the ISO for these concerts, with the first and second violins divided on either side of the conductor, helped clarify the work's thick orchestration of. In addition to a few violin solos by Philip Palermo, acting principal violist Mike Chen was central to Kosower's achievement in the sprightly way he embodied the long-suffering peasant who tries to keep Don Quixote somewhat acquainted with reality.

It's a losing battle, as the music and the novel make clear in their own ways. The episode in which a flock of sheep is scattered, with dissonant "baas" from the winds, provided a piquant glimpse of livestock in panic. In Strauss' time, such symphonic realism was almost scandalous. Another vivid comic touch in Friday's performance was provided by a sinking tuba phrase, followed by an equally dejected contrabassoon, at the end of Don Quixote's failed attack on a pilgrim procession.

Some of the most affecting music in the score is the lengthy Variation III, Strauss' most expansive representation of the Don's "impossible dreams." Swelling phrases that capture the knight's illusions foreshadow the kind of music Strauss was later to write for "Der Rosenkavalier," once he had  checked the modernist tendencies he exercised so memorably in "Salome" and "Elektra."

After the rich bassoon duet (representing a couple of conversing monks) came an impressive account of Don Quixote's final conflict, in which the Knight of White Moon meets him on his own fantastic terms and sends him, sore and despondent, back home. The orchestra's steady pulse, bulked up massively,  underlines the quester's return to reality and final musings on his deathbed.

This soliloquy was particularly well-rendered by Kosower. His last phrase, opening with a death-rattle vibrato, sank dully through a downward glissando into the devastated relief of nothingness. The orchestra's concluding benediction then crowned a rendition that showed how eloquently a solo cello can stand in for one of world literature's most memorable figures.

Friday, March 11, 2016

At the Phoenix Theatre, Steven Dietz's new play shows where strained family values and cult allure meet "On Clover Road"

Stine tells Kate how the mother-daughter reunion must go down.
It's not hard for a parent's idea of the relationship with a child to overtake the actual relationship. So much idealism is invested in it, along with the expectation – even the duty — of control. When the disparity becomes too great, what's really going on between generations can be totally obscured, leading to a sudden family rupture.

That's what Kate Hunter faces  in "On Clover Road," Phoenix Theatre's latest National New Play Network "rolling world premiere" production. A single mom keeping personal demons at bay, she has been searching for her runaway daughter for four years. The daughter, Jessica, has been taken up by a religious cult, and, at the end of her rope, Kate engages an "exit counselor" to get her back.

Steven Dietz applies his skill at dramatizing deeply conflicted emotional states to the vexed topic of runaway children and the cults that feed on their emotional needs.  How free should a teenager be to forge bonds to replace shattered family connections? How inviolable is an adolescent's independence,  given her susceptibility to coercion far more absolute than what she endured at home?

At an abandoned motel along a road probably made redundant by a nearby interstate, Kate has to submit to Stine, the man she's hired for the kidnap caper and subsequent deprogramming. Jen Johansen captured Kate's wariness and the stress of her embitterment. The portrayal of a woman trying to build up strength in all her weak places, while mustering the severely threatened strength she has already, was unerring.

Under Courtney Sale's direction, the tension between the desperate mother and Stine is wound up to the snapping point from the start. Rob Johansen sounded the right notes of command, shot through with evidence of Stine's woundedness.  On opening night Thursday,  it was impressive how much we felt the manipulative deprogrammer's neediness in the way he moved and in everything he said. Being a control freak with a personal agenda is no easy gig. Stine's elaborate plan to return the girl to her mother bears all the hallmarks of the depersonalization that cults exercise upon their initiates. Only gradually will we understand how deep that ironic resemblance goes.

Girl and woman look for evidence of a bond broken long ago.
Judging from three other Dietz plays I remember seeing, the playwright has a knack that goes beyond a good storyteller's getting us to keep wondering what will happen next. From that plateau of curiosity, Dietz ratchets up our interest by keeping both his characters and the audience off-balance. We are compelled not only by a need to know what happens next, but also by gnawing on a concern that can be put like this: "What I thought just happened turns out not to have been what really happened." The audience is thus often put on the same footing as the characters: In "Becky's New Car," we participate in the heroine's decision-making. In "Rancho Mirage" and "Yankee Tavern," we share in the characters' confusion; we are being jerked around, but Dietz is a neat enough craftsman not to leave a mess behind.

There's not much I can say about Mara Lefler as the Girl without treading on spoiler territory. She was wholly persuasive after Stine has thrust her into the scene, hooded and vulnerable. She resists Kate's maternal overtures, reflects cult brainwashing, plays mind games with her that promise both reconciliation and permanent alienation. When we finally learn the purpose of this mind-boggling range of behavior, Lefler's skill in encompassing it all seems particularly astonishing.

As Harris McClain, the cult leader, Bill Simmons comes on as soul-dead confidence man, soft-spoken
Flask dance: Cult leader brings to meeting a tool of his trade.
to the point of inanity, but with the core of resolve that a man filling lost souls with questionable substance has to have. A gift for gimcrack theology that rationalizes rejection of all past ties helps, complete with stipulated stages of advancement toward spiritual perfection. When this facade cracks under pressure, the fault lines run all the way through. Simmons' performance made that clear.

"On Clover Road" takes place in a symbol of American fondness for travel and the transitory nature of our places of rest along the way. Near the start, Kate gazes at the stripped-down room and remarks that it looks like the place misery was born. Jim Ream's bland, brutal set says it all: Misery, even more than evil in Hannah Arendt's famous formulation, is banal.

The Girl recalls long-ago Christmases at the Hunter home, when she had to wrap her own gifts from Santa. And before that, when her long-gone father loved to sing "Good King Wenceslas" in contrast with her mother's fondness for "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Mom's favorite celebrates a special place of comfort and revelation; the other, the adventure of going out of one's comfort zone to find meaning.

"Good King Wenceslas" returns at the end of "On Clover Road." It may have the strongest ethical message of any Christmas carol, and no theology (thank God!). Its last verse is about the challenged security of leading and following once you leave the warmth of home. It's also about authority and trust, which in family affairs remains a live issue, far beyond the circumstances of an obscure king's charity on St. Stephen's Day, in dialogue with his anxious page:

Sire, the night is darker now,
And the wind blows stronger,
Fails my heart, I know not how —
I can go no longer.
Mark my footsteps good, my page,
Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Remember when a hippie band asked us if we believed in magic? That may be necessary in 2016 for anyone to believe in voting.

For anyone appalled by the tone and substance of the presidential campaign so far, this may indeed be the Year of...

Posted by Jay Harvey on Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Monday, March 7, 2016

Eric Lu concludes the solo piano-recital series "Grand Encounters" with power and panache

Successful in the jousting universe of piano competitions, Eric Lu has crowded a host of honors into his teenage years.

Eric Lu studies at the Curtis Institute.
Sunday afternoon at Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall of Butler University, the 19-year-old American pianist showed much of the sturdy, agile command of the mainstream repertoire that contest winners must have. But he gave evidence of something more, too: He seemed to have ideas about Chopin, Bach, and Schubert that he unfailingly applied with imagination and a valiant spirit.

The American Pianists Association presented Lu at the conclusion of the 2015-16 "Grand Encounters" series of solo recitals. He did not seem out of place under a banner that has also included Garrick Ohlsson and Frederic Chiu this season.

EDRH is an acoustically bright room. However thrilling that can be when the performance level is this high, it made it hard to be sure of Lu's gifts at the quieter end of the dynamic spectrum. But his control of loud-soft contrasts was secure. In Bach's Overture in the French Style, for example, he approximated the standard of "terraced dynamics" while not being so chaste about it that he declined to shade dynamics for expressive effect.

Especially delightful was his suggestion of the harpsichord's lute, or buff, stop in the second Passepied and Gavotte. This gave a winning balance to those movements, and lent the repeats of the first Passpied and Gavotte a particular sparkle. The "French style" the composer showcased in this suite moves ornaments to the foreground, and Lu played them with plenty of snap and rhythmic acuity.

He did not allow them to interfere with the characteristic rhythm of the complex Gigue. He took the option to play eighth notes evenly as written, starting with the Courante. That choice seems to suit the piano better. Despite his penchant for outlining the independence of phrases, the lyrical flow of the Sarabande was not shortchanged. The majestic Echo finale had a bold, forthright quality, snug with all the right hints of the brief "shadows" that give the movement its title.

The big contrast with the Bach in the recital's first half was Chopin's Barcarole in F-sharp major, op. 60.  This is where Lu immediately indicated his sensitivity to dynamic contrast, despite the hall's tendency to boost every note. His interpretation, while coherent, seemed a little vague in places. I took this to be a deliberate choice, since Lu's concentration and evidence of planning were never in doubt. In a barcarole, however,  the 12/8 meter should be felt without let-up; it's a boat song, after all, and the steady, gentle lapping of waters underlies it. Yet the individuality he gave to the piece was admirable. You never had the feeling that he'd stopped by the Chopin Barcarole secondhand boutique and made off with a bunch of trinkets once owned by other players.

Right after intermission came Schubert's Sonata in A minor. In the first movement, there was considerable light and shade, indicating Lu's mastery of the lively milieu. Strongly defined accents marked the Allegro giusto's progress through one of those foreboding marches that are among Schubert's influences on Mahler. Lu's scrupulously even voicing of chords helped bind everything together.

In the slow movement, Lu represented well the characteristic way this composer's bedrock lyrical impulse suffers interruptions, as though the inclination toward song had to feel its way. There was a touch of the heartsickness so characteristic of Schubert in Lu's performance. The finale, fierce in its technical demands, evinced Schubert's knack for weaving strong delineations of character into such expansive movements. Given a longer life and less bad luck with librettos, Schubert could have been a major opera composer.

The program circled back to Chopin to conclude. Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante, op. 22 featured nicely projected middle-register melodies in the first part and, in the bravura latter part,  boldness in maintaining the polonaise rhythm throughout amid its luxuriant surroundings. The final measures put a glittering cap on a masterly recital that revealed more than a few elements of wisdom beyond the recitalist's years. Called back for an encore, Lu offered the balm of Alexander Siloti's arrangement of Bach's Prelude in B minor.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

ISO's Russian program reaches the heights with Bianconi and Urbanski

So much attention is  paid to Dmitri Shostakovich as a Soviet composer that it's all too easy to underestimate his identity as a Russian composer. It's not irrelevant in listening to or discussing his music to consider his integrity resisting the system that made life difficult for him and his countrymen over several decades. But his roots are in Russian soil. There's no such thing as Soviet soil.

Placing a major Shostakovich work (Symphony No. 10 in E minor) against one by an older contemporary who chose exile instead of
Philippe Bianconi was supreme in Rachmaninoff.
uneasy accommodation to the regime illuminates the Russian character of both him and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Melodies often speak volumes within a narrow range; release is often as important as attack from phrase to phrase. There is an Oriental cast to many of them, as was suggested by revelatory oboe, flute and bassoon solos in the first part of the Shostakovich finale.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra this weekend is making the Rachmaninoff-Shostakovich juxtaposition work well in three concerts conducted by Krzysztof Urbanski, its music director, with Philippe Bianconi as guest soloist.

In Friday's concert at Hilbert Circle Theatre, Bianconi gave a stunning account of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor. He linked both the livelier and more melancholy themes to the composer's temperamental dourness. When a Rachmaninoff melody soars, it still seems to be looking back at something that had to be left behind. As Bianconi played it, the great arc of piano melody in the second movement, for instance, grew naturally out of the faint pulse and drifting quality of its initial statement.

The gathering of an animated spirit in the middle evolved naturally into a cadenza that's far from a display vehicle, as the soloist was well aware. Bianconi always insisted that the piano as a concerto voice retain some diffidence amid all the virtuoso elan that Rachmaninoff could command as well as anyone. The call to order of crescendoing piano chords at the very start never stinted on majesty, but it also avoided hinting at any vainglory to come.

The orchestra was thoroughly congruent with the expressive breadth of Bianconi's playing. Urbanski shaped the "paragraphs" neatly in the opening movement. In the second, the re-entry of the violins after the cadenza supported the guest artist's subtlety. The first statement of the contrasting theme in the finale — long ago repurposed as a popular song called "Full Moon and Empty Arms" — not only had poise as stated by the violas and solo oboe, but also featured lovely support in hushed phrasing from the horn section.

For an encore, Bianconi confirmed his aptitude as an old-school romantic with Chopin's A minor Mazurka. Phrasing was supple, including nicely judged rubato playing. An apt player of this repertoire is often praised for having a singing tone; Bianconi not only had that, but exhibited the equivalent of a skillful singer's vocal coloring as well.

Not having a phonographic memory, I can't claim to know that Urbanski's account of the Shostakovich Tenth Friday was better than what they achieved in this work four years ago, when they were new to each other. But I'm almost certain that's the case. The confidence he seems to have instilled in his principals, and often section by section, was evident repeatedly Friday night. Every passage had integrity and the breath of life to it, and was well linked to its surroundings.

There was the poignant theme for solo clarinet near the beginning, later stated by the bassoons just as soulfully. There was sturdy balance in the strings throughout, but especially during the five minutes of eloquent dreariness with which the finale begins. And when that lengthy episode is past, there ensues some of the best-orchestrated fast music Shostakovich ever wrote for symphony orchestra.

The full palette is exploited, its colors applied at breakneck speed, and — in this performance — solidly put into place. Those listeners who become impatient with Shostakovich in his circusy moods (even when they seem ironic) will find nothing to object to here. The ISO capped its performance of this masterpiece with brilliant confirmation of how firmly the rapport with its seventh music director has been established.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Silver medalist Stefan Milenkovich returns in IVCI's Laureate Series in duo with accordionist Marko Hatlak

Marko Hatlak (left) and Stefan Milenkovich played an informal concert for IVCI.
Stefan Milenkovich remains the youngest person ever designated a laureate in the history of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.

At 17, the Serbian-Italian violinist took the silver medal in the IVCI, and everyone was impressed with the teen's aplomb, interpretive vigor, and the fine finish of this artistry. He has progressed smoothly into an adult career, anchored a position as associate professor at the University of Illinois, and has developed a wide range of active musical interests.

One branch of those interests has placed him since 2011 in a musical partnership with Marko Hatlak, a Slovenian accordionist who has also been his collaborator in tango ensembles.

Tango was the bedrock of a duo recital Hatlak and Milenkovich presented to a sold-out Cook Theater audience Tuesday evening at the Indiana Landmarks Center. As practiced by Astor Piazzolla under the designation "nuevo tango," the dance form evolved into a concert-ready genre.

This was demonstrated at this recital by the three-movement "History of Tango," which brought out Hatlak-Milenkovich's stylistic breadth in addition to their unvarying rapport and expert command of their instruments. The first movement had sort of sizing-each-other-up exchanges characteristic of the male bravado that apparently lies at the heart of street postures that evolved into tango.

The second movement was especially effective in showing how precise the duo could be in evoking the flexible tempo of "nuevo tango." There was lots of ritenuto, with coalescing in tempo as well as accelerating. Hatlak's supporting harmonies were effective in defining changes of mood. "Nightclub," the final movement, created a reflective late-night atmosphere, incorporating a vigorous middle section.

Piazzolla's "Oblivion" made for a haunting follow-up to the historical survey represented by the three-movement piece.

The duo began the recital as it ended it. The encore, "Siciliano" from J.S. Bach's Sonata No. 4 in C minor (originally for violin and harpsichord), gave ample evidence of the duo's poise and coordination. The sound of the accordion in the harpsichord part was not as much of a novelty as the use of a piano can be, particularly when played on the verge of eccentricity as it is in the old Jaime Laredo/Glenn Gould recording of these Bach sonatas.

Beginning the second half, each musician had a solo turn. Hatlak's French musette had virtuoso dash throughout. The left hand skated over the keyboard in fast triplet rhythms, while the right commanded the buttons to provide a bass line that ventured up and down in orderly fashion.  Milenkovich played a classic display piece, Fritz Kreisler's "Recitativo and Scherzo," with a keen sense of drama in the first part and irrepressible brio in the scherzo. His tone was evenly produced, with seamless bowing and flexible dynamics.

A highlight after intermission was a showcase for Hatlak, a Macedonian "Gypsy Song" that the accordionist also sang, inviting audience participation in a simple, repetitive refrain. Vittorio Monti's "Czardas," perhaps the "greatest hit" among representatives of that Hungarian genre, was treated to piquant, sometimes amusing variations by the duo.  After elaboration of the introductory material, it was off to the races, with plenty of agility on display from both men.

Before the encore, Milenkovich and Hatlak played "Taraf" by Richard Galliano, a wondrous exhibition of precision virtuosity and blithe energy that left the capacity crowd overjoyed.