Saturday, April 30, 2016

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's INfusion Music Fest raises environmental consciousness while putting forward unusual repertoire

To launch a weekend like no other in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's history, the INfusion Music Fest  came up with a cabaret setting in the Hilbert Circle Theatre's lobby for a concert featuring Time for Three.

Th original Time for Three, together for the last time this weekend.
It was a nod to the future of a new kind of ISO outreach. For Time for Three, it was also a fond look at the string trio's history. The group is ending an era here this weekend, as ISO concertmaster Zach De Pue leaves the trio he helped found in order to concentrate on his ISO duties. Taking his place will be another violinist, Nikki Choi, also an alumnus of the Curtis Institute of Music, where Time for Three was formed 15 years ago.

With its original membership of De Pue, violinist Nick Kendall and double bassist Ranaan Meyer, it has been a good run locally. In its history as resident ensemble here with the ISO, Tf3 has premiered new works by William Bolcom, Jennifer Higdon, and Chris Brubeck, each one drawing upon a different patch of the vernacular spectrum.  In addition, it has developed its own repertoire, captured in several recordings, and made countless local appearances.

Its INfusion show Thursday night added to the trio two adept musicians steeped in collaboration with it: keyboardist Joshua Fobare and drummer Matt Scarano. The five were featured in a piece they wrote together a while back in Colorado, "Summer Fusion."

It was a genuine quintet highlight of the rapturously received lobby performance. But there were also some of Tf3's "greatest-hit" arrangements and original compositions: Meyer's "Philly Phunk," Kendall's "Roundabouts," Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Occasionally, Fobare and Scarano would "sit out" to allow the pure Tf3 sound to get the spotlight.

There was a movement, "Big Wood Reel," presented as a tantalizing preview of Tf3's performance with the ISO tonight of its suite, "Elevation: Paradise." As a further indication of the trio's essential role in the INfusion festival, Kendall and Meyer leaped onstage to help Ben Folds deliver an encore Friday night, when the ISO concluded an adventurous program with Folds' piano concerto, the composer at the keyboard. De Pue assisted in the rocking extra from his concertmaster's chair.

Folds' three-movement piece betrays a desire to pack just about any idea that came his way into a big statement. The opening movement in particular, overplaying its introductory hand, took too much under its wing to leave a coherent impression. There were soaring strings in a personalized late-Romantic idiom to start things off, but the piano entrance meant a turn to the forcefulness of the composer's rock background. A solo cadenza, seemingly at midpoint, was also torrential, then surprisingly, after a floating viola-cello melody morphed into a waltz, we looked out on new terrain.

The second and third movements seemed much better integrated. Folds gave the piano a nice, sparsely harmonized tune to dominate the slow movement. The finale was a perpetual-motion whirlwind of piano-and-orchestra energy; the abruptness of the ending amounted to a welcome touch, as it indicated that Folds didn't feel it necessary to maximize the spectacle he'd already presented. As a composer, Folds displays here a taste for percussion as a coloristic element. He also indulges that taste with some inside-the-piano passages, from glissandos to partially stopped notes (a struck key with the corresponding string pressed down by the other hand).

Jayce Ogren, the festival's guest conductor, also conducted two environmentally conscious pieces to make fast the connection between music and the environment that's INfusion's raison d'etre. The more substantial of them was John Luther Adams' "Become Ocean," winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the inspiration for a gift of $50,000 to the Seattle Symphony by Taylor Swift.

Lasting just over 40 minutes, "Become Ocean" uses a large orchestra to create an uninterrupted tapestry of swelling and diminishing sound, with no variation in tempo and no figures, motifs, or themes designed to stand out or generate new directions. The orchestra choirs of strings, brass, woodwinds (each with individualized percussion underpinning) hold a steady, unvarying course that seems to symbolize the ocean as a vast force that basically doesn't need and can't account for human activity. "Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean — roll! / Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain," Lord Byron sang.

Massive indifference to mankind's existence, insistently expressed, comes through, though not with the hostility evident in the art of another shore-dwelling creator, the poet Robinson Jeffers. In other words, there's nothing outsized in the sound of this music that wasn't outsized to begin with. The world doesn't need more than one composition like this, but "Become Ocean" is sufficient and even necessary in these imperiled times.

Steven Mackey's "Urban Ocean" has some of those swelling and subsiding phrases that parallel "Become Ocean," but it's splashier, much more frisky and playful. Its 10 minutes seemed a little too long, oddly, but maybe having the perspective of John Luther Adams' piece didn't work to its advantage.

With just a few hours remaining, there's a host of talks by co-presenters, in addition to lobby displays, that as a whole make INfusion a don't-miss event on this weekend's busy calendar.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Jeremy Denk at the Palladium: A syncopation survey, followed by Schubert to the max

Encountering massive change to the printed program was hardly surprising at Jeremy Denk's solo recital Sunday afternoon at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel.

The protean pianist, a cunning interpreter of mainstream masterpieces as well as a deep delver into more obscure repertoire, did some shuffling with the order in the first half and, after intermission, replaced his original Haydn-Beethoven-Schubert design with the monumental Schubert Sonata in B-flat, D. 960.

Jeremy Denk: a master of Schubertian rhetoric, among other things.
A provocative commentator on music both on- and offstage (his blog, think denk, is a must-read, but does not seem to be current), Denk was a lively guide to the bulk of the recital's first half. The curtain-raiser is well worth mentioning right away, however: He captivated the Palladium audience with his performance of J.S. Bach's English Suite No. 3 in G minor.

Highlights included the Courante, with every voice immaculately set forth and balanced against its fellows; crisp, dancing accounts of the two Gavottes, with the intervening Musette given so much character it almost stole the show; and the Gigue, which managed to be — suitably — both insouciant and mysterious. A younger Bach specialist has achieved renown for ingratiating Bach playing that's almost salon-ish, but Denk has no truck with that kind of thing. (He returned to Bach for an encore, showing with one of the Goldberg Variations that Bach's reflective side needn't be limp.)

The seven pieces that followed constituted an idiosyncratic collection of real ragtime, funhouse-mirror ragtime, shirttail-cousin ragtime and proto-ragtime pieces. The last-named category was occupied by the Elizabethan master William Byrd's Pavan and Galliard in D minor (from "Lady Nevell's Book"). Denk reveled in the thickets of ornamentation and the occasional rhythmic offcenteredness that allowed him to claim the work as ragtime avant la lettre.

The expatriate modernist Conlon Nancarrow tested the controlled independence of Denk's hands with Canon, in which tempo discrepancy is the main generator of this difficult exercise in the imitative form. The relation to ragtime lies in the contrast of right and left hands and, especially here, in the complexity of rhythmic displacement — the tugs and pushes, the constant messing with the beat. Denk aced it.

The classic "Sunflower Slow Drag" of Scott Joplin and Scott Hayden launched the series charmingly. Like many pianists since the dawn of ragtime, Denk ignored Joplin's directive that ragtime should never be played fast. To a limited extent, the warning — like Beethoven's metronome markings — can be worth ignoring, and so it was here. The gentle side of the genre that Joplin took pains to promote was updated superbly by William Bolcom in his "Graceful Ghost Rag"; Denk summoned the spirit genially, and (unlike Shakespeare's Owen Glendower), it came when he did call for it.

Cultural appropriation — that bugbear of today's regressive leftists — was a refreshing tributary to the classical mainstream in the 20th century. Paul Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky put the innovative American genre through their personal filters with, respectively, "Ragtime" (from "Suite 1922") and "Piano-Rag-Music."  Denk's delight in shaping refined, articulate noise served both pieces well.

The first half closed with Donald Lambert's ragging of the Pilgrim's Chorus from "Tannhauser," a riproaring send-up of the foursquare tune. In Denk's hands, the arrangement came off less as mockery than as a revelation of another aspect of the melody, sped-up and riding confidently over a jumpy "stride" left hand.

Schubert: Ethos and pathos
Ancient rhetoricians held up two main proofs of their arguments, ethos and pathos. "Proof" means a test, not a slam-dunk substantiation. Franz Schubert's instrumental music — especially the Great C Major Symphony, the string quartets, and the piano sonatas — seems particularly understandable in that way. By "ethos," the Greeks meant a demonstration of the speaker's character, an indication of his worthiness to be believed and his credentials for bringing an audience around. "Pathos" is the appeal to the emotions that can't be separated from getting any point of view across successfully. It's why the philosophers were suspicious of rhetoric as insufficiently devoted to reason.

The expansiveness of the B-flat major sonata, Schubert's last, sets forward his ethos. He is asking the audience to indulge in his broad view of life, the splendid horizons that keep receding, using the argument that taking such a stance is necessary in art. Ethically considered, there should be no hurry about this. But his gift as a melodist enables him also to demonstrate that the ethical long view is inevitably challenged by the pathos of continual change. Thus, tunes are interrupted, occasionally divided, shifted in register, and subject to major-minor swerving and suspenseful pauses.

This is powerful rhetoric for pianists who are patient and conscientious in laying it out, and Denk never faltered in urging the argument upon us. In terms all its own, the four-movement work, lasting 35-40 minutes generally (I didn't time this one), makes the rhetorical case for Schubert's art as well as anything he wrote.

Basically, this sonata puts an eloquent spin on the ancient dictum: Art is long (ethos), life is short (pathos). No one could have stated that with more poignant majesty than Denk did via Schubert on a pleasant spring afternoon in Carmel.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

All-French program by Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra features a rare Wurlitzer display on the classical series

Paul Jacobs stuck to the French theme in his encore, too: the popular Widor Toccata.
Local organists swelled the concert audience at Hilbert Circle Theatre Friday night as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra welcomed Paul Jacobs as featured soloist in Alexandre Guilmant's Symphony No. 1 for Organ and Orchestra.

Jacobs is prominent for his Grammy Award (the first for an organist) and chairmanship of the organ department at the Juilliard School. The vehicle for his ISO debut this weekend (the program will be repeated at 7 tonight) is a towering example of the French romantic organ tradition. That's the most substantial school of organ composition since J.S. Bach, who was a school unto himself.

Laid out in the conventional three movements, with grandeur the keynote to the first and third and a meditative respite in the middle, the work made a powerful effect Friday. Jacobs' command of the Wurlitzer's resources was immaculate.

The clarity of articulation in the outer movements went a long way toward maximizing coordination with the orchestra, which was under the baton of guest conductor Matthew Halls. The statement of the first movement's main theme on the pedal board was authoritatively outlined. Of course, there was plenty of opportunity for the breathless thunder of organ and full orchestra as well. The third-movement climax evoked the Napoleonic splendor that dominated the serious side of 19th-century French music.

Matthew Halls: Engaging notes from the podium.
The blend of reed stops chosen for the Pastorale: Andante quasi allegro set the stage for the delayed entrance of the orchestra woodwinds. The second movement also had some lulling string-section responses to the organ's wistfulness.

Halls is a Baroque specialist from the United Kingdom, his perch in this country being the Oregon
Bach Festival, where he succeeded founder Helmuth Rilling as artistic director. But his crisp podium style seemed to work well with the more highly colored and rhythmically fluid repertoire he brought with him this weekend. He also talked concisely and informatively about three of the pieces before each performance.

An early work by Olivier Messiaen opened the concert. "Les Offrandes oubliees" moves without let-up or apology onto the high ground of the composer's firm Catholic faith.  A triptych of orchestral reflections on the meaning of Christ's sacrifice, "The Forgotten Offerings" (to give its title in English) seems precocious for a 22-year-old, despite earlier benchmarks of compositional savoir faire notched famously by Mozart and Mendelssohn.

There's an absolute confidence in Messiaen's mission-driven handling of the orchestra: The penetrating, sustained outburst in the middle is rhythmically spicy in a way that set a pattern for the composer's mature manipulation of rhythm as a structural element. The finale is prayerful and sonically chaste, focusing on violins and violas, who were fully evocative under Halls' control Friday. The opening presents two layers of slow music, strings contrasting with winds, that readily achieved an anxious unity.

After intermission, Halls led the ISO in two well-known works, even if Darius Milhaud's "La Creation du Monde" is so mainly for its historical importance. For jazz fans, the 15-minute work feels like the most authentic among "classical" compositions in evoking early jazz. A reduced orchestra, somewhat similar to dance bands from the Palm Court heyday until the swing era, presents a balletic creation-myth scenario, well explained by Halls before the performance.

Excessive resonance in the rambunctious portions of the work, the fugue in particular, was its only shortcoming. The big pluses were Mark Ortwein's gently moaning saxophone solos, with additional showcases for Jennifer Christen (oboe) and Samuel Rothstein (clarinet) capably delivered. The hushed ending perfectly captured, in jazz-inflected terms, a prelapsarian Eden.

The concert closed with a poised rendition of Maurice Ravel's Mother Goose Suite. The five pieces were deftly detailed here. As cleverly orchestrated and buoyant as anything the composer ever wrote — and there's lots of competition in those areas from other Ravel works — the suite received a subtle performance in terms of color and dynamics. Everyone's childhood should have such magic in it.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Relying on folk memory for material, 'Leyenda' extends Phoenix Theatre's connections to the local Hispanic community

Well-known for connecting with the cutting edge of mainstream American culture, the Phoenix Theatre in "Leyenda" turns to a significant minority culture as both a resource and a target.

Written by producing artistic director Bryan Fonseca and playwright-in-residence Tom Horan, the show, which opened April 14, draws upon Hispanic folklore of the Western Hemisphere. Much of it is apparently familiar to the growing Indianapolis population that shares that heritage.

In Thursday night's performance, this material came alive in a manner that ought to draw in everyone. The stories that people tell everywhere literary self-consciousness is absent have a first-hand acquaintance with magic. But, as "Leyenda" shows in several places, the supernatural doesn't enter everyday life for entertainment, but for instruction.

The show is structured in a continuous 90-minute span, with a framework tale of the type many traditions have generated: A storyteller preserving her life and earning a monarch's love through her skills, triumphing over a history of executed predecessors whose appeal proved to be no guarantee of survival. Horan and Fonseca lay out the tales with a suspenseful break in each, to be resolved later.

The people tend to know that a broad spectrum of luck shapes lives, though cleverness is frequently useful in that effort. You have to know the limits of good fortune and not forget to be grateful.

Farmer discusses good fortune with chicken.
That is beautifully illustrated in the story of "The Emerald Lizard," when a farmer prudently uses a monk's mysterious gift — a reptile that becomes a gem — to achieve a certain level of prosperity,  but no more. A. J. Morrison plays the savvy farmer, Paeton Chavis the grumbling chicken urging him to maximize his profit. The farmer intuitively uses his surplus wealth to return an emerald to the monk in gratitude. What happens next is a moving example of "paying it

The stories take place on a set of stone benches arranged in a circle, with large diaphanous curtains suspended from the flies that are sometimes used to mark off divisions that complicate the action. Bernie Killian's set works with the warm, glowing light design of Jeffery Martin. Emily McGee's costumes — particularly a two-person, wearable Buzzard puppet and a menacing Bogeyman capable of haunting anyone's dreams — were idiomatic and visually exciting.

Keith Potts and Bridgette Richards in "Leyenda"
The script is partly in Spanish, translated from Horan's lilting English by cast member Bridgette Richards. The bilingual aspect is embedded just enough to lend the stories authenticity of sound and meaning — especially the haunting "Hearts of Fire," with choreography by Mariel Greenlee carried out with ample pathos by Morrison and Jean Arnold.

The control-freak monarch who's eventually defeated by the storyteller's courage and love got a fierce yet vulnerable portrayal by Keith Potts. All the role changes were managed smoothly, with an especially charismatic zest from Chavis. The show's humor was further underlined in Potts' performance as "the Buzzard Husband" in a tale showing the perils of laziness and the perennial desire to be something you're not meant to be.

Folk wisdom tends to emphasize the importance of knowing your place in life. But this show also stresses the freedom to imagine something better, freer, more glorious and the value of investing some emotional energy in that realm. It's charming to note how nicely balanced a sense of restraint and wishful thinking can be in tales that have survived many generations and lend themselves to such piquant theatrical retellings. "Leyenda" suggests an enchantment it does not fully own, and that's a good thing. The enchantment is free-floating and immortal.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Milicent Wright as today's newly arrived urban American: A timely reminder of immigration and identity in IRT's "Bridge & Tunnel"

Milicent Wright as Pakistani-American host of a poetry cafe.
When emcee Mohammed Ali tells the gathering at a poetry cafe in the New York borough of Queens about the success of the "I Am a Poet Too" project, he notes with pride in Pakistani-accented English "how much we had grown from the word of mouth."

He is talking about the Bridge & Tunnel's open-mike evenings, but he could also be describing the American narrative. How we tell our individual stories is essential to telling the nation's story. "The word of mouth" is key to our growth, though we have often resisted it.

I usually keep this blog free of politics but I can't avoid remarking on the coincidence of seeing "Bridge & Tunnel," in the middle of its run at Indiana Repertory Theatre, on the same day the presidential candidate notorious for anti-immigrant views visited the city and the day before his closest rival stopped by.

How far from the skepticism and hostility of the Donald Trump and Ted Cruz presidential campaigns is Sarah Jones' focus on immigrant lives and the stories of adjustment to life here they have to tell!

Partisans of the two Republican candidates will insist that they are open to legal immigration, but the severity of their viewpoints on the issue contrasts with this one-woman show's openness to the advantages new arrivals bring to this country.

Milicent Wright plays 15 characters, moving from one to the other with slight but defining changes of props and costume in full view of the Upperstage audience. In Wednesday's performance, her comfort in the roles was absolute. But it was more than a matter of being at home with the Bridge & Tunnel people; it was the actress' embrace of them and embodiment their individuality. It felt as though she had spent years being each one.

Her command was evident from the exuberant way into the milieu the playwright provides: Loud, effervescent Ms. Lady, a self-described homeless usher for Bridge & Tunnel, bursts onto the scene, congratulating a latecomer on his choice of seat before sweeping down a side aisle and welcoming everyone. Wright is irresistible initiating this kind of group hug, but it's far from the only note she sounds in interpreting the urban American symphony.

Wright's Lorraine Levine shares a piece of her mind.
In the course of the next 90 minutes, she displays a range that includes awkwardness, bitterness, and embarrassment as well. Several aspects are concentrated in the character of Mohammed Ali, a bluff, hearty accountant by profession who's fond of corny jokes, one-liners he footnotes with "That's a good one." Jones gives the character nuance by indicating in cell-phone conversations with his wife that the family is facing security issues shadowing his conviction that he's fully American.

Like him, nearly all the characters are immigrants, or have the immigrant experience indelibly stamped upon them. Especially memorable in the latter category is Lorraine Levine,  a Jewish grandmother who delivers a hilarious piece on being deferred to on public transit when all she wants is to be able to define herself in her own way — like everybody else.

Identity politics has come in for a lot of scrutiny as well as self-promoting bluster nowadays. For the immigrant, proclaiming an identity that defies stereotyping is often a full-time pursuit. It animates the pained, satirical rap of Bao Viet Dinh, a Vietnamese-American running down the pigeonholing of East Asians as forever exotic and irredeemably different. (A Star reporter with that heritage was asked at yesterday's Trump rally: "How long have you lived in this country?")

The most moving monologue delivered by Wright in the performance I saw displayed the cultural shock of Pauline Ling, forced to redefine family not only by the conventionally narrow American definition but also by challenges to traditional definitions she has brought with her from China. The rhythm — the sheer, sad music — of Wright's delivery of Ling's halting speech from note cards was reinforced by the way director Richard Roberts has her move about Gordon Strain's set. Each of the characters has his or her own movement vocabulary to go with verbal idiosyncrasies.

Allen Hahn's lighting makes the threadbare cafe setting look both challenging and cozy, a perfect complement to the show's message. Amid the pathos, there's an abundance of humor, from a Russian immigrant's amazement at what passes for contemporary poetry in his adopted homeland to the edgy self-awareness of a black rapper using the open-mike format to put his brand forward amid strangers.

Strangers are the only hope for eventual acceptance here for many new residents, since Jones indicates they have either come to the U.S. alone or feel enough isolated that they are moved to try their luck connecting through poetry. The rapper uses "You know what I'm sayin'?" as both a refrain for his message and a self-conscious way to plead for understanding, knowing that it's a cliche of his genre.

It's what all these vivid characters are asking, along with the emcee's self-conscious nudge: "That's a good one." This show's a good one, and that's no joke.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Eroica Trio, with the ISO's Cathryn Gross, performs a kind of centerpiece for Butler ArtsFest

Eroica Trio: Sara Parkins, Erika Nickrenz, Sara Sant'Ambrogio
It's fatuous to claim that all religions are one, skipping blithely over vast gulfs of theology and doctrine, but it's at least worth considering that the mysticisms of the major religions occupy a common realm.

And one of the common goals of mystical search is union, or just dialogue, with the eternal, with whatever lies supreme over our time-bound world. As a devout Catholic, Olivier Messiaen knew where to find such an apprehension of the universal passage into timelessness: the Book of Revelation, interpreted through the mysteries of his faith and his exploration of modes and new ways of organizing rhythm.

The ecstasy, the violence, the universal peace, and the sensuous richness of that biblical vision he put into music of glaring, heart-piercing originality while confined in Stalag 8-A during World War II. One of the most famous premieres in modern music took place in that concentration camp. He called the work Quartet for the End of Time.

The Eroica Trio devoted the second half of its concert for Butler ArtsFest Tuesday night to this composition, assisted by Cathryn Gross, assistant principal clarinet in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. At the very start, "The Liturgy of Crystal" plunges the listener into a new world. Indeed, even long acquaintance with the Quartet for the End of Time makes each performance seem like an encounter with new music.
Cathryn Gross joined the Eroica Trio for Messiaen.

The quartet of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano is divided and occasionally reduced to its components over the course of eight movements. The composer explained the choice of eight as symbolizing the day beyond the seven in Genesis that encompass the labor of creation plus a day of rest. Time in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is set in motion by those seven days. Messiaen sets about elucidating the eighth, leaning on the disturbing splendors of Revelation and its assertion of God's love beyond time.

Tuesday's performance was astonishing for its fervor and clarity. The second movement, "Vocalise, for the angel who announces the end of time," had trenchant melodies in unison for the strings, punctuated by piano chords. Sara Parkins and Sara Sant'Ambrogio shifted smoothly to the heavenly chant of violin and cello before the thundering conclusion.

Other than the piano (which Messiaen played at the premiere), the players get solo showcases. The
clarinet's is unaccompanied, an extended vision of time trying to snare timelessness, called "Abyss of  the Birds." Gross' firm command of the solo line showed a tremendous range of volume and color, every phrase of which seemed to build a case for the inevitability of timelessness' triumph. The prospect is celebrated in the next movement, an Interlude that Messiaen called a scherzo, the lightest movement in the piece and saucily brought off by the ensemble.

Sant'Ambrogio's intensity in "Praise to the eternity of Jesus" sustained a tenderness that helped point up the contrast with the following movement, "Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets." The group  gave a coruscating account, its command of the peculiar rhythmic patterns precise and solid. Its tone maintained luster through all the strenuousness. And the more kaleidoscopic seventh movement that followed paved the way gloriously for the finale, a showcase for Parkins, accompanied by Nickrenz, that seemed to drape an aura over the stage that persisted after the last lofty note.

Quartet for the End of Time was an inevitable choice for an arts festival called "Time and Timelessness." What theme could be roomier? Here is a piece that grapples directly with the incompatibility of the two. The meaning of "days" in the Creation story continues to divide believers: How can an eternal Creator put in a day's work? Or  take time off after six of them?

Humans feel time inexorably even when we have no standard for knowing what it really is. In secular terms, the Big Bang may be a necessary theory not so much for scientific reasons, but because we can't understand events at all unless we posit a First Event.

We frequently complain of running out of time, yet we can't run out of Time. Even so thorough a religious thinker as John Milton got confused. In timeless Eden, his Adam begins a marvelous love poem to Eve like this: "With thee conversing I forget all time." It's a post-Edenic sentiment. How can  Adam forget what he never knew?

Messiaen looked at the omega instead of the alpha to resolve this dilemma. In this life, we can only submit to praise for the end of time, because (in his view) every universal purpose is thereby fulfilled and our petty strivings are subsumed in bliss — for the faithful, that is. That's what this piece of music says, and fortunately, we don't have to weigh how much or how little we believe that in order to enjoy it, especially in such a stimulating performance.

The first half of the concert included the visiting trio's performance of Jose Bragato's arrangements of three pieces by Astor Piazzolla. The much-loved "Oblivion" occupied the central position, bookended by two movements of  "The Four Seasons of Argentina" — Autumn and Spring. In those pieces,
the insinuations of the tango amid the riot of dance rhythms and tunes were attractively presented. This is music that seems to flaunt the allure of life free of oppressive morality, devoted to curiosity, pleasure, and boldness. It was thoroughly charming.

Music of a  far different atmosphere opened the program. The Eroica Trio played Anne Dudley's arrangement of the famous Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for solo violin by J.S. Bach.  It is not a version to prefer to the original, but it certainly was stimulating not to have to focus on the efforts of one musician to bring off its majesty and expressive breadth. All its riches benefit from being occasionally distributed and highlighted in this manner, as the Eroica women demonstrated brilliantly.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

ArtsFest's 'Time and Timeless' theme reaches its full romantic extent in 'Song of the Earth'

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
The long view of life and death in Gustav Mahler's symphonic song-cycle "Das Lied von der Erde" (Song of the Earth) can remain intact even when the dappled, endlessly evocative orchestration is reduced to one piano, as it was Monday night in a Butler ArtsFest concert in the cozy Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall.

That's the case when the demanding, often entirely exposed, accompaniment to the cycle's two singers is played as well as it was  by Anna Briscoe. She accompanied tenor Thomas Studebaker, assistant professor of voice at Butler, and Jane Dutton, associate professor of voice at Indiana University, in a performance that often captured the score's full poignancy.

Love of life, in both its sensuous and transcendent aspects, is undercut by certainty of its transitory nature. The prevailing outlook of Hans Bethge's German versions of Chinese poetry runs throughout the six songs. Despite changes of mood and imagery, the poems are saturated with the feeling that pleasure is fleeting and loneliness persists until the end.  That struck home with the Austrian composer, who felt isolated and beset despite his fame as a conductor and who carried a well-founded sense of premature doom with him to his death at 50.

Dutton, a soprano who made her reputation as a mezzo, has enough weight left in her lower range to sound at home in this work. Most demands are put on the voice expressively in the finale, "Der Abschied" (The Farewell), and she was very steady technically and covered a wide range of expression. With Briscoe's help, she rendered the tone-painting of this song's haunting descriptions of nature.

The parting of two friends in the poem's long final section was impassioned without overstatement. The separated repetitions of its final word "ewig" (forever) had heart-tugging immediacy, particularly given the delicacy and rhythmic security of Briscoe's playing. There were a few lapses in German diction, but the singer's emotional investment and dynamic control were exemplary.

I wish I could say such variety was a feature of Studebaker's singing. A magnificent instrument, more than filling the hall, was displayed overpoweringly. The phrasing was well-supported, the text was firmly enunciated — and it was almost invariably loud. The first song, "The Drinking-Song of the Earth's Sorrow," is a subtle piece of music that Studebaker performed with a consistent boldness and not much subtlety. The refrain, "Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod!" (Dark is life, and so too death), needed some darkness of timbre to convey resignation — a muted quality that never came through.

The brightening of his voice in an unabashed celebration of drinking, "The Drunkard in Spring," went partway in capturing the zest of inebriation. But it could have had more sass and buoyancy without descending into vulgar caricature. Apart from the lack of dynamic variety, "Von der Jugend" (Of Youth) was Studebaker's most satisfying interpretation of the three songs for tenor, thanks to the nicely sustained phrases.

But one comes back again to Briscoe's sterling work ("Of Beauty" would not have lived up to its name with a mediocre pianist), which went far to banish regrets that the orchestra accompaniment had to be put far in the back of the mind in order to appreciate this performance for what it was.

Monday, April 11, 2016

"Now You See Us" from Butler Ballet: Dance from three choreographers that immerses itself in and out of time

Movement expresses everything we do and much of what we say and think. When formalized and filtered with skill for dance purposes, the result is often illuminating.

The pushes and pulls of identity in "Anamnesis"
Contemporary dance works focusing on journeys of identity and mood shed such a light in a Butler ArtsFest program presented Sunday afternoon by Butler Ballet in the Schrott Center for the Arts. As is true with concerts in the new hall, dance seems right at home there as well.

Student Savannah Dunn, who gets a BFA degree from Butler this year, was responsible for the first piece, "Women," which creatively uses dialogue from four Hollywood movies to shape the choreography. As dramatized in the movies, the image of women —  their desires and frustrations, the worlds they order and the worlds where they are ordered — is the subject. Six dancers (four women, two men) carried out Dunn's vision memorably.

The artificiality of traditional Hollywood comes through in the opening poses and frequently provides the vocabulary throughout the piece. The choreographer's sensitivity to the rhythms of movie dialogue, with its pregnant pauses and modulated rants and reflections, was acute.

She successfully blended the emotional impact of the chosen words (from Al Pacino, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and Katharine Hepburn) with those rhythms. This had the impact of quite mature commentary on both the stereotypes of women and resistance to those stereotypes, cast in suitable dance terms and well executed by the sextet.

Respite from the tensions of the first piece and the complex forces in the finale, Leslie Telford's "Anamnesis," was provided by David Ingram's "Kapnos," which received its premiere Sunday. Using the Greek word for "smoke" as its title, the dancing is all smoothness and insinuation. It was effectively performed by nine women on a stage that gloried in Laura E. Glover's lighting design. Wes Montgomery club recordings of "What's New" and "Misty," with stage "smoke" adding to the atmosphere of relaxed evenings on the Avenue, provided the musical setting.

Ingram opens the work in silence, with a gradual series of shifts into motion by the grouped, facing-forward dancers before the music begins. As the program note says, this reinforces the idea of "a new world of dance where time is no longer relevant." Supported by the Indiana Arts Commission, "Kapnos" was admirably independent of "jazzy" ideas, with everything the dancers did seeming to respond to the music as if in a parallel world of curving introspection. That quality is probably more a feature of low-key nightlife (in which Montgomery made his reputation here) than the cliche image of boisterous good times might suggest.

In "Anamnesis," an ensemble of nearly two dozen embodies an ambitious realization of the self-scrutiny that people form out of their experiences, memories, and wishes. One dancer (Candace Gordon) portrayed what seemed to be the elemental self, with the rest, similarly costumed, trying to hem in and otherwise control her movements with fragmented energy. The movement was pushed to the brink of incoherence. It always kept adjusting its focus, but the focus was maintained.

The sound element is made up of a rapidly recited poem and a pulsating electronic track, which accompanies an orderly yet unpredictable sequence of ensemble movements that take in the whole stage. There is hardly a moment of stasis. The company sweeps from side to side. It poses obstacles to the solo dancer's attempts to find her own way. Yet it also sometimes seems to support and assist her struggle for integrity. As seen in this performance, "Anamnesis" was an emotionally striking dance essay on the problems of identity and wholeness each of us must resolve.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Butler ArtsFest: Organist Cameron Carpenter paints with a full palette at Clowes Hall

Cameron Carpenter: Tireless evangelist for the organ
What confronts you at a Cameron Carpenter recital is immediately irresistible. The whole set-up of the International Touring Organ made for him by Marshall & Ogletree: the monster console and the distribution of eerily illuminated speakers connote spectacle.

His brisk entrance, before he even sits down on the bench, and the look: Stylized mohawk hairstyle, looking more aesthetic than alpha-male, the richly worked texture of his purple suit, the shoes with disco-ball glitter on the heels.

As I said: irresistible — at Clowes Hall Saturday night in a Butler ArtsFest presentation. Then, of course, there's the music itself and the flair of his performance, the boundless digital dexterity, and the richness with which he registers everything at the command of his hands and feet. All of that is extra-available visually from other angles as projected on a large screen overhead.

In witty, erudite remarks from the stage, Carpenter reinforced his commitment to the instrument and his fascination with its seemingly infinite capabilities. In performance, this simultaneous attention to detail and scope never let up Saturday evening.

As his first selection, the Prelude to "Die Meistersinger" illustrated the controlled flamboyance of the Carpenter style. Every motive and melody was clear: the fanfare, the prize song, the processional — the marvelous integration of Wagner's substantial music-drama in a 10-minute masterpiece. The peculiarity of the organ's timbral variety, far exceeding the orchestra for which Wagner composed, oddly underlined the fact that "Die Meistersinger" is a comic opera.

The joke goes that German humor is the world's thinnest book, and it's true "Die Meistersinger" carries the composer's heavy agenda of musical progress. But the Prelude is sublimely happy, even amusing in its juxtaposition and resolution of contraries. You could call up the chattering of the apprentices in the processional music, for example, in Carpenter's performance.

The organ's breadth offered new insight into other works, as Carpenter transcribed them. The "Allegro molto vivace"  (third movement) of Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony had its scherzolike opening reinforced by having all the scurrying figures focused on one pair of hands. The march that takes over had all the grandeur one could ask, with a booming pedal tremolo heralding the climax. And because the movement was presented in isolation from its fellows, for once it was absolutely gratifying to applaud at its conclusion — a temptation that symphony audiences are rarely able to suppress; the "Adagio lamentoso" follows, a famously unconventional departure from symphonic form.

Often Carpenter's transcriptions bring out new sides to a piece, but this perspective is not without sacrifice. He fully exploited the organ's storytelling potential in his version of Schubert's "Erlkonig," but I would submit that characterizing the father, the distraught son, the supernatural menace and the galloping horse through the organ's vividness minimizes some of the scenario's frightfulness.

The original will always have the advantage of the solo human voice and Goethe's text, of course. But there's also, especially in a concert performance of the original, the inevitable sense of strain and effort the listener feels in the pianist's having to sustain all that galloping, mostly in the left hand. Oddly, despite Carpenter's virtuosity, the organ has a way of abstracting human pathos, putting even sheer muscle work at some remove. The organ hooks into our emotions, but in an inevitably inhuman way. "The monster never breathes," as Stravinsky famously said. Carpenter's "Erlkonig" seems a graphic-novel adaptation of the song, or an anime sketch.

The organ's improvisational legacy was brought into play with a fantasy Carpenter concocted on Henry Mancini's "Whistling in the Dark." Carpenter holds the theater organ in high regard; indeed, he credits that branch of organ history as his initial inspiration for the musical path that has brought him fame. The Clowes audience heard dazzling versions of "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and, as encores, "The Stars and Stripes Forever" (with the first presentation of the piccolo strain delightfully on the pedals) and "Nice Work If You Can Get It."

J.S. Bach was properly held up as the all-time summit of Carpenter's craft and art. His three Bach items — the symbology of the Trinity did not escape the atheist recitalist — were capped by a magisterial performance of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. Again, clarity in presenting its constituents was uppermost. In some passages, I missed hearing the structural framework being partly obscured by the figuration. But it's an article of faith for Carpenter to unpack the "horizontal" crowding of material in favor of a more "vertical" display of the elements Bach wove into the texture.

Carpenter may dissent from Bach's devout Lutheran dedication of his music "soli deo Gloria" (to the glory of God alone), but he made a good case for locating the organ's glory in its universal reach, its amalgamation of sense experience and technology, regardless of the presence or absence of a Creator worthy of worship behind it all.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Blowing in from the Windy City: Pharez Whitted and Kurt Elling collaborate with Butler University jazz groups

Jazz has gone to school for decades, and while there is debate about how much institutionalization is good for the music, there's no doubt that more well-schooled musicians have been brought into its purview than since the Swing Era. And there is much to teach and a lot of pleasure to give beyond the seminar-like jam sessions of yesteryear — a perspective germane to this year's Butler ArtsFest's theme, "Time and Timeless."
Kurt Elling shone a light upon Butler ArtsFest's jazz offering.

Butler University jazz displayed its current level of accomplishment Friday night as the 2016 Butler ArtsFest presented trumpeter Pharez Whitted and singer Kurt Elling fronting student musicians at the Athenaeum.

Opening the concert before a large, boisterously enthusiastic crowd, Indianapolis-born Whitted paid tribute to three homegrown giants of 20th-century jazz in a set featuring two student combos: Wes Montgomery, J.J. Johnson, and Freddie Hubbard.

The first group set Whitted against an expert rhythm section, with the guest artist joined in the front line by tenor saxophonist Sam Turley and trumpeter Kent Hickey. Hickey proved an adept enough player not to seem superfluous when compared to Whitted, though the latter displayed the benefit of his many years of tending the jazz flame and knowing just how to fan it into a blaze when needed. Hubbard's "Sky Dive" was a standout in this regard.

Tight arrangements like Johnson's "In Walked Horace" presented the group's hard-bop (honoring
Horace Silver) bona fides capably. A fresh rhythm section helped Whitted close his set with deep-dyed bluesy performances of Montgomery's "Mr. Walker" and Johnson's "Jay Jay."

Elling, previously seen here at the Jazz Kitchen and Indy Jazz Fest, clearly relished his opportunity to bring the big-band arrangements in his book to this gig. He burst onto the stage, after Butler jazz director led the Jazz Ensemble in an instrumental introduction, with Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out." His voice's greater power and breath control made Elling's version superior to the original. The performance featured a toothsome alto-sax solo by Daniel Karr.

As Whitted had with the combos, Elling worked on keeping the energy level of the accompaniment high — and drew the response he was after.  His set was well-designed, with lots of contrast, including plenty of challenges for the student musicians. They were quite ready for them all, both as an ensemble and as soloists, especially saxophonist Turley.

Elling's tireless baritone, with its falsetto and scatting abilities brought into play selectively, lit up the hall. "I Like the Sunrise" and "Tutti for Cootie" were two selections from the Duke Ellington repertoire with an outpouring of gusto from guest artist and band alike.

In his long spoken introduction to "Lil Darlin'," Elling traced the force of heritage that lies behind the arrangement he presented. He put lyrics to bassist Ray Brown's introduction to the tune, joining them in mood and spirit to Jon Hendricks' vocalese on John Clayton's slyly poky arrangement of Neal Hefti's composition for Count Basie. The list of credits is illustrious indeed. The constellation winked from celestial regions in this performance.

Elling's originality shone through every phrase of the evergreen "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," which had an outstanding solo by pianist Michael Melbardis. The high-octane set ended with a multifaceted arrangement of "Nature Boy," starting slow and moving dramatically to a rapid pace, as if to celebrate the timeless nature of the wisdom the song celebrates.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Butler ArtsFest launches with a concert featuring phenomenal bel canto tenor from Anderson

Butler ArtsFest, now in its fourth year, has been scrupulous about highlighting local arts talent while simultaneously lifting up the resources available at its host, Butler University.

Lawrence Brownlee sang arias by Donizetti, Rossini, and Bizet.
The launch of the 2016 festival Thursday night took this emphasis to a new level, with a guest star from the international stage who also has a strong Central Indiana background: tenor Lawrence Brownlee, an alumnus of Anderson University.

He lent star power to a concert focusing on the Butler Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Richard Auldon Clark, at the Schrott Center for the Arts. From the first notes of Brownlee's first aria — Una furtiva lagrima from Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore" — it was clear we were hearing exceptional singing. His reputation in the bel canto repertoire has been solidly lustrous for about a decade, so anticipation ran high. It was not disappointed.

Una furtiva lagrima is perhaps the most familiar item for tenors in Brownlee's specialty, hallowed in the public ear from recording's early days by Enrico Caruso's version. It was striking how immediately Brownlee's voice suited the hall. He used it with exquisite control, allowing the melody's lyricism to bloom without forcing. His mellifluous tenor was evenly produced from top to bottom. The full, rounded phrases were invariably well-knit, one with the other.

Something more strenuous came to the fore with the complex Terra amica from Rossini's "Zelmira," which in performance opens up opportunities to show the tenor's skill in ornamentation. Brownlee's decorative instincts seemed sound and quite tasteful. The voice moved easily to keep the focus and momentum of the melodic line intact.

His return in the second half dialed back the strenuous demands met in Terra amica, until he was called back for an encore after the orchestra's performance of Ravel's "La Valse." There he ascended the heights of virtuosity with the formidable Ah mes amis from Donizetti's "Fille du Regiment," with its repeated high C's, always exciting to hear and difficult to bring off without barking. And Brownlee heroically avoided such barking, earning another standing ovation.

The scheduled part of the second half featured Brownlee in Je crois encore from "The Pearl-Fishers" by Bizet and Spirto gentil from "La Favorita," another Donizetti gem. Both were dispatched in masterly fashion, with fine support from the orchestra.

Without Brownlee, the orchestra's part of the program ran a vast gamut. The aforementioned "La Valse," introduced by Clark from the stage unambiguously as a response to the destruction of Old Europe by World War I, was a display of the student orchestra at the peak of alertness, aggressiveness and cohesion.

True, the performance projected an air of being a carefully constructed mosaic; all the little bits stood out, and were for the most part firmly in place. The whole thing hung together mainly through the gathering of youthful energy toward a common goal, whipped into ferocious reality by Clark's fervor on the podium.

The rest of the program underlined the second part of the festival's 2016 theme, "Time and Timeless."
Music, a time-bound art, has difficulty suggesting timelessness, but fairly successful attempts have been made by the three American composers included in the concert.

First we heard Alan Hovhaness' "Mountains and Rivers Without End," for 13 precisely distributed wind and brass players plus harp (superbly performed by a professional, Wendy Muston). A lengthy display of the incomprehensible vastness of the natural phenomena of its title, it worked alternatively on large and small scales. In the latter category, there were admirable low-key episodes focusing on two instruments each: clarinet and tubular bells in one, glockenspiel and trumpet in another. These moments were tucked in among representations of nature's infinity projected by trumpets, trombones and percussion, with a woodwind trio in the middle painting in miniature.

The timeless feeling of a big city at rest through the night is captured in Aaron Copland's "Quiet City." In this performance, solo trumpet and solo English horn, placed against string orchestra, were capably played by Wesley Sexton and Mallory Bacon, respectively. The BSO's strings were at their best here.

Reasserting timelessness' large scale was the metaphysical perspective of Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question." The universal scale was underlined by the positioning of solo trumpets around the hall, taking turns articulating the question. The reiterated question — whose five notes I choose to hear as "What does it all mean?" — was played at different dynamic levels each time, perhaps indicating the variety of man's nagging insistence on getting satisfactory replies from a puzzling cosmos. The piece invariably is thought-provoking, and was particularly so in the context of this stimulating festival's ambitious reach.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Some solo violin brilliance gives way to a nine-blossom bouquet in joint presentation of IVCI and Ronen Chamber Ensemble

From Haoming Xie, violin showpieces plus chamber-music meat and potatoes.
A formidable 19th-century violinist who found time to compose prolifically provided a brilliant capstone to Tuesday's concert featuring Haoming Xie, a 2010 Laureate of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, in a co-presentation with the Ronen Chamber Ensemble.

Louis Spohr's Nonet in F major, op. 31, had Xie in the principal chair for a four-movement piece offering continual interaction between his violin and the viola of Li Li, the cello of Andre Gaskins, the double bass of Ju-Fang Liu, the oboe of Jennifer Christen, the flute of Tamara Thweatt, the clarinet of David Bellman, the bassoon of Kelly Swensson, and the French horn of Darin Sorley.

That's about the largest feasible ensemble falling under the one-to-a-part rubric of chamber music. Spohr manages this combination with no hint of unwieldiness, except perhaps in the finale, where he turns aside from what sounds as if it will be a Beethovenesque coda and keeps on going. His feeling for Beethoven was oddly old-fashioned, favoring the titan's early stage, even though late in life Spohr embraced Richard Wagner's music. As a composer, he was stubborn in both taste and procedure, going his own way in a manner a little too dogged and unimaginative to assure his music of immortality.

Nonetheless, the Nonet is a delightful work that was played with admirable unanimity for a group necessarily unique for this occasion. Its abundant exchanges of motivic material have plenty of variety, sometimes opposing winds to strings, sometimes high to low registers. Like the other, relatively few pieces by Spohr I'm familiar with, the music is easy to follow at first hearing. In fact, you would almost welcome the opportunity to be brought up short or thrown momentarily. It doesn't happen.

For his resistance to the broader musical currents of his era, his craftsmanship, his fecundity, and his individuality, Spohr is kind of like a 19th-century Paul Hindemith — but with more charm. An expansive Scherzo in the Nonet, for instance, featured two highly characterized trios. The second of them, led by the woodwinds, had a fetching chromatic line that put color in the nonet's cheeks. The finale, whose phrases suggested the buoyancy of comic opera, or perhaps one of those perky ensembles for a corps de ballet, was delightful despite its protracted search for an ending.  When that arrived, it sounded  predictably emphatic and foursquare. Like Hindemith, Spohr encourages no doubt that you're on solid ground.

The concert's first half included pianist Hyun Soo Kim, a colleague of Xie's at the Cleveland Institute of Music, as the violinist's partner. The duo played three chestnuts: Tchaikovsky's Valse-Scherzo, Chausson's Poeme, and Wieniawski's Polonaise de Concert. The Tchaikovsky curtain-raiser emerged  none too promising at first: Xie's tone was somewhat dull, especially in double stops. Fortunately, it gained brilliance as it went along. The pair were fully in sync, flexible of tempo, throughout.

The high polish and glowing warmth of Xie's tone was evident in the Chausson, and stayed unflappable under the technical variety of the Wieniawski. Xie's harmonics were particularly secure and gleaming. A specialist in collaborative piano, Kim seemed especially supportive and inspired during this work.

Contrast in the midst of these offerings was provided by Khachaturian's Trio in G minor for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano. Ronen co-founder and artistic director Bellman joined Xie and Kim for the performance. Apart from a long, last note in the second movement hit below pitch, Xie's excellence was sustained, and coordination of the three instruments held steady.

The work blends suggestions of Armenian folk music with sophisticated impressionism (the latter being notable especially at the outset). Other aspects of modern French music, particularly the springy boulevard step of Poulenc, made faint but suggestive appearances, notably in the peppy Allegro movement in the middle.

It's always a pleasure to have the IVCI draw on its huge list of supremely capable violinists to enliven the Indianapolis concert season with its Laureate Series. And the pleasure was renewed Tuesday night at the Indiana History Center by Xie and his collaborators.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

"On, Wisconsin" is given a touch of melancholy in observance of today's GOP battle between Trump and Cruz

A famous fight song, repurposed as a dirge, in honor of the Badger State's GOP primary today.

Posted by Jay Harvey on Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Monday, April 4, 2016

'Scattered' -- a jeremiad on the overconnected world we've immersed ourselves into online. We're all scattered!

Feeling the overload of too much digitized life, my concentration isn't what it used to be. The old mental focus is scattered, scattered. I turn for help to an unusual source (for me).

Posted by Jay Harvey on Monday, April 4, 2016

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Indianapolis Symphonic Choir's 'St. John Passion' opens Heaven to us, closes Hell

Strait is the gate toward salvation, the Christian message reminds us, especially in the Protestant tradition, which proclaimed salvation by faith alone.

Yet J.S. Bach makes the opening movements of his great cantatas and the Passions so inviting, it's as if the door to paradise had been flung wide. Though difficult of access in actual life, the musical path to the paradise Bach establishes repeatedly welcomes sinners of all stripes.

Lilly Performance Hall, with projected cameos of the composer, at the performance's conclusion.
There's the brass-and-drums splendor that launches "Gott, der Herr, ist Sonn and Schild" (The Lord God is Sun and Shield), which I particularly enjoy for its accidentally Handelian cast. And there's the intricate double-choir opening of the "St. Matthew Passion"  — an invitation to mourn, with interposed one-word questions, both set against a chorale of boys' voices pleading for mercy. The layout indicates the expansiveness, in text and expression alike, of Bach's better-known Passion setting.

This gift for immediate summation is the case, certainly, with "Herr, unser Herrscher" (Lord, our master) in the "St. John Passion." So I thought Saturday night as Eric Stark led the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir in that opening chorus, accompanied by the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra, at the DeHaan Fine Arts Center of the University of Indianapolis.

We know immediately what we are headed for: an emotionally wrenching account of Jesus' last days on earth, redeemed through the Savior's sacrifice by the promise of eternal life to believers. That first chorus sums it up: the intertwined oboes, their long phrases throwing out passing dissonances, indicate the agony to come against the steady pulse of the other instruments.
Eric Stark (shown conducting the ISC with the ISO).

 The choir overrides this unsettling backdrop with a majestic hymn of praise. Among several deft
interpretive touches was the sudden drop in dynamics with the plea to "show us through your Passion that you...have been glorified." Humiliation and glory exist side by side in this narrative with commentary, starting with that microcosmic first chorus.

The performance upheld the juxtaposition wonderfully, in both solo and choral statements. Michael Linert, as good as any male alto I ever expect to hear, was brilliant in his first aria, "Von den Stricken meiner Sünden," with the two oboes enriching the texture in a reminder of "Herr, unser Herrscher."
Evelyn Nelson's first solo, "Ich folge dich gleichfalls," had exemplary, well-governed fervor. The soprano's final showcase, "Zerfliesse, mein Herze" (Dissolve, my heart), likely intended to sound despairing to the point of fainting, simply came across as weak.

Dann Coakwell, a tenor required to sing three arias in addition to being continually at the forefront as the Evangelist, brought clarity of projection and full-throated emotion to his role. The scholar Walter Emery faults Bach for inviting the Evangelist to emote, calling it vulgar. Few commentators link Bach and vulgarity in the same sentence; today's concertgoers probably love the fact that so much of the Passion's passion is invested in the Evangelist. When Peter cries bitterly, you could hear it in Coakwell's performance; when Jesus is flogged, you could feel the lash flaying tender skin.

The two basses, vividly used in dialogue between Pilate and Jesus, were well characterized by David Rugger and Daniel Lentz, respectively. You always had the sense that something of great moment was happening between them. The human drama is heightened because the Gospel of John, notoriously, lets Pontius Pilate off pretty easy in the drama of Jesus' trial and crucifixion. The text's repeated labeling of the bloodthirsty, anti-Jesus people as Jews has had something to do with Christian prejudice over the centuries.

Yet, in the "St. John Passion,"  it's clear the connivance of Jesus' countrymen in his execution under Roman rule is meant to have a moral lesson for Christians in any era who hear this music. Saving your collective skin, as Jesus' people did in giving him over, doesn't count if you lose your soul. And that warning applies to collective and individual "skins" for all time. As one of the chorales pleads, drawing a lesson from Peter's threefold denial of Jesus, "Whenever I have done something evil, stir my conscience!"

One of this work's commentators takes it to task for choruses that are too long. Stark's control and the choir's discipline never gave that impression. Only the soldiers deciding to cast lots for Jesus' cloak rather than cut it up seem to ponder their decision excessively. But Bach had something interesting going on in this chorus that he couldn't bring himself to end too soon.

Nothing essential to the chorus' role seems to have escaped Stark's attention. They are crucial actors in both narrative and commentary. They are defiant shouting to Pilate: "We are not permitted to put anyone to death." When they call upon Jewish and Roman law to force the Roman governor to take the course they want, Bach gives the choir suggestions of fugue, that legalistic musical form.

The final chorus, "Ruht wohl," pours balm over the mourning for Jesus. The first time the "B" section came up, it was a little foggy, but the fog lifted the second time the opening of the gates of heaven was described. That's just as it should be; ditto for the plea for mercy in the concluding chorale. Stark hushed the choir for "let my body rest in its little sleeping chamber, completely in peace, without any sorrow and pain," then directed a slowing of tempo and slight increase in volume for the next phrase, "until the Last Day." This performance, from first to last, elaborated upon those lines' mixture of sorrow and promised elation so wonderfully foreshadowed in "Herr, unser Herrscher" — a Bach touchstone.

The orchestra sounded fine, with excellent work at the small organ by Thomas Gerber, seconded in the continuo role by principal cellist Christine Kyprianides. Her section mate, Erica Rubis, lent lovely support on viola da gamba to the tenor aria, "Erwäge, wie sein Blutgefärbter Rucken" (Consider, how his blood-tinged back) — the sort of text Emery found "disgusting." To be sure, there's more than a touch of the "Passion porn" of Mel Gibson in this work, but so much more of exaltation. That's the note that was sounded most enduringly in Saturday's performance.


Saturday, April 2, 2016

In Prokofiev, James Ehnes wows an ISO audience as much as 'The Great Gate of Kiev'

One of the few quotations from a musician I've saved comes from James Ehnes, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's guest soloist in an all-Russian program this weekend.

James Ehnes soloed in Prokofiev.
It's advice for violinists (yet applicable to all musicians), but I like it especially because it's a beautiful piece of rhetoric. Its balanced cadences have their own music, and seem a perfect fit for the kind of poised musicianship the Canadian violinist exhibited Friday night in Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 in G  minor.

"If you're practicing for clarity, you'll build strength, and strength will build speed," Ehnes said. "But if you're practicing for speed, then you're never going to build the strength that will lead to clarity."

The Greeks called such a device chiasmus, but never mind. The wisdom in those words came through in Ehnes' performance, which was capped by an astonishingly poised, almost patrician display of virtuosity in his encore, the Presto finale of Bach's Sonata No. 1 for Unaccompanied Violin.

The man from Manitoba indicated from the first phrase of the concerto his measured, vital approach to music, the firm singing quality of his tone, and the polish and lilt of his phrasing. Never expressively neutral, Ehnes nonetheless balanced the tenderness and bravura that Prokofiev's work is full of in the most eloquent manner.

Perhaps influenced by his ambivalence about returning to his native Russia and the duty he undertook to please the Stalin regime through it, Prokofiev here tempers his characteristic brashness with some of his most fetching melodies. Ehnes displayed full-bodied lyricism in the slow movement, with long, well-connected phrases, defined scrupulously.

The returned expatriate could never entirely suppress his muse's brightest-guy-in-the-class high spirits, of which the second violin concerto offers ample proof. The bumptious finale is a particularly fine example, with its cheeky trumpet-violin duetting and its fresh use of percussion, castanets and bass drum in particular.

Hans Graf, this weekend's guest conductor, fashioned a responsive accompaniment from the podium. He had opened the concert with three short character pieces by Anatoli Liadov, one of Prokofiev's teachers at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. The young composer, self-confident and bristling, once said that if he'd shown his early compositions to Liadov, he would have been kicked out of class.

In "Baba-Yaga," "The Enchanted Lake," and "Kikimora," the senior composer set down evocations of folklore that have plenty of life and mystery about them. They are firmly in the 19th-century field of program music, where picturesqueness in well-orchestrated terms was a high value, particularly as Russian composition was coming into its own. Prokofiev, particularly in his barbed early years, was working out of a different bag entirely.

The galloping rhythms of "Baba-Yaga" offered an intriguing contrast with use of the same raw material that we'd hear from Mussorgsky in "Pictures at an Exhibition." "The Enchanted Lake" sent up mists from a glowing surface, with harp and wavering string figures. Roger Roe's English-horn solo highlighted the slow music of "Kikimora," whose title figure represented a menace that came alive as the fast section was launched.

After intermission came the familiar Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's solo piano suite, memorializing his short-lived friend Victor Hartmann, an architect whose show of meticulous sketches inspired a musical work of genius. There were a few fine solos, from Marvin Perry's broad, inviting statement of the "Promenade" theme to Mark Ortwein's nostalgic alto-saxophone solo in "The Old Castle."

The initial picture represented, a fantastic "Gnome," fully illustrated Ravel's idiosyncratic gift for tailoring piano music (in other works, his own) in splendid orchestral outfits. In this performance, pacing was superb throughout. "Bydlo," a panoramic genre painting of an ox-cart lumbering by, moved with the inexorable pace of primitive transportation. The frolicking children in "Tuileries" couldn't have been more mischievous and animated.

The grandiose finale, "The Great Gate of Kiev," had its majesty evenly distributed — nothing peaked too soon. The "chanting" interludes for winds calmly represented the somber imprimatur on civic life extended by the Russian Orthodox Church. Like everything Mussorgsky turned his hand to, it was a touch of Old Russia that Friday night was well realized by the ISO. But its survival for audiences since 1922 has depended upon that bygone culture being seen through the filter of the canny Frenchman Ravel.