Thursday, September 29, 2016

A reflection in song on presidential Gary Johnson's memory lapses: "So Forgettable"

Montrose Trio, a new group made up of veteran musicians, helps two groups open their seasons

Out of one of the most accomplished string quartets of the 20th century came the newly minted Montrose Trio, which opened the seasons of two venerable Indianapolis music organizations Wednesday night.
Montrose Trio: Martin Beaver, Jon Kimura Parker, and Clive Greensmith.

After 44 years, the originally all-Japanese Tokyo String Quartet disbanded in 2013. The next year, two of its last members — Martin Beaver and Clive Greensmith — decided with the Tokyo's frequent collaborator on piano, Jon Kimura Parker, to form a new piano trio.

To bring the group to Indianapolis so early in its history had something to do with Beaver's status as a laureate in the 1990 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. So the competition, which for many years has also been a concert presenter, teamed up with Ensemble Music Society, whose history is rich in exposing local audiences to the best small ensembles in the world, to get both their seasons off to an excellent start.

The second half of the concert, in the Grand Hall of Indiana Landmarks Center, was devoted to Brahms Trio No. 1 in B major, op. 8. Despite the low opus number, this piece is a notable example of the composer's extreme self-criticism. Brahms' 1889 -90 revision is the version that performers have championed, as it is two-thirds as long as the original and is thus believed to come across better in performance. No one ever faulted Brahms for being too concise.

The Montrose Trio played the work with firm insight into its stirrings of passion, checked by emotional reticence and Brahms' well-practiced formal restraint. The forces gather magisterially in the first movement, which opened with Greensmith's sturdy, soaring cello melody. The overall glum mood of the piece is lightened in the Scherzo, to which the players gave free play. When the Scherzo theme returns after a rustic-flavored trio, it was subtler, as if chastened by the Trio's too explicit sojourn into high spirits.

Balance among the three players was exemplary. The sober cast of the music was confirmed twice at the ends of the middle movements, when the strings held their final notes using no vibrato. The finale displayed a broadly applied magnificence, with something of a dance feeling in its more vigorous portions. Such concentrations of energy were put forth confidently but remained held within the sobriety of the whole work.

More extroverted passion came through in the concert's opening work, the Trio No. 2 in B minor by Joaquin Turina. The outer movements begin slowly, with introductions designed to showcase better the fast music's exuberance. The lyrical import of the Spanish composer's work brought forth nicely arched phrases from the string players. The muted tremolo passages for the strings in the second movement supported the piano's central message well. The finale developed an almost strutting sense of self-possession, even triumph.

As companion in the first half, the Turina's serious yet extroverted mien was balanced by the youthful humor and blithe display of extraordinary skill in the young Beethoven's Trio in E-flat major, op. 1, no. 1.  True to this subgenre's conventional designation as "piano trio," Parker's piano was properly the instigator and chief exponent of the work's material.

The Montrose Trio's range of expression allowed it to explore the developing composer's wit and depth. The finale had a chromatic playfulness and a mixture of pauses and brief exchanges reflecting the humor of his short-term teacher Joseph Haydn. (The finale from one of the older master's C-major trios, offered as an encore, confirmed the influence.)

The slow movement's theme foreshadowed a characteristic of Beethoven in a lyrical mood, with signs of hesitation in the first part of the theme yielding to more flowing material. A classic instance of this is the quartet "Mir ist so wunderbar" from "Fidelio." Melodies came hard to Beethoven, as scholars have found from study of his sketchbooks, and it may be a psychological reflection of this that many of his tunes begin with an oddly beguiling tentativeness.

This quirk is well-reflected in the B major trio's slow movement, but the piece's superior appeal lies in its untroubled panache, which the Montrose Trio fully projected. And its droll touches were particularly natural to Parker, whose many achievements on his own include collaboration with Peter Schickele on the P.D.Q. Bach concoction Concerto for Two Pianos vs. Orchestra, with its punning movement titles "Shake allegro," "Andante alighieri," and "Presto chango."

Monday, September 26, 2016

Henry Kramer opens Premiere Series of participant concerts in quest for APA's Classical Fellowship

Henry Kramer played Mozart, Haydn, Ligeti, Chopin, and Ravel impressively.
An unannounced switch of program order in Henry Kramer's recital Sunday afternoon resulted in thunderous applause after the first movement of Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2, op. 35.  Perhaps some people thought they had just heard Ravel's "Ondine," which was originally due to follow the opening piece, Haydn's Sonata in E major, Hob. XVI:31.

I'm not one of those death-to-those-who-applaud-between-movements purists, though I prefer not to. But it wasn't necessarily out-of-place for the Sonata in B-flat minor's "Grave. Doppio movimento" to get such an ovation at the Indiana History Center, considering the command that Kramer displayed.

Admirable was the steady balance of left and right hands, which share material fiercely in dubious battle to the very end. (And by "dubious" I mean "of uncertain outcome," as John Milton used it in that phrase, later borrowed by John Steinbeck as title for a labor novel.)

Poise was evident throughout the solo portion of the program, which followed the format so successful in the past of presenting a competition finalist unaccompanied in the first half of a concert and as concerto soloist after intermission.  Kramer, a 29-year-old doctoral student at Yale and already a much-laureled artist, is the first of five finalists in the Premiere Series of the American Pianists Association.

After all five have notched separate one-week visits here and been judged accordingly, they will come together  in April for Discovery Week, during which their skills as chamber musicians, voice collaborators, and new-music interpreters will be assessed,  then the Gala Finals of concerto performances with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. APA has devised a season-long formula for piano excitement.

Returning to the Chopin sonata: The Scherzo intensified the juggernaut feeling, its grim humor relieved by a lyrical episode that Kramer didn't seem at all eager to abandon. The funeral-march movement, whose theme has been parodied in pop and folk culture ("Where will we all be a hundred years from now?"), had a steadiness and sobriety that never faltered. The enigmatic finale rippled from Kramer's fingertips with the sotto voce direction faithfully sustained.

Kramer seems a natural dramatist at the keyboard, but without indulging in false, or even overplayed, gestures. The patrician sensuousness of Maurice Ravel's music, in "Ondine," for example, won't allow it. There is room for dramatic flair in the gathering force of the French composer's evocation of a water nymph. But the glittering atomization of her allure, before and after she makes the pitch (in the poem that inspired the composer) to a mortal to become her husband, has to appear as a substantial attraction and threat. And so it did here.

Four selections from Gyorgy Ligeti's arcanely devised but thoroughly listenable "Musica ricercata" brought the solo recital to a close. The etude-like pieces were notable for Kramer's independence of hands in the "Cantabile molto legato," his control of accents in "Vivace. Energico," and the sturdy whimsy of "Vivace. Capriccioso."  Apt tone and voicing of chords were consistent.

With the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra onstage under the direction of Matthew Kraemer, Kramer applied his superb skills of articulation, dynamic control, and overarching insight to Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503. By the end of the marvelous finale, I became convinced I had met an actual person, or a plausible hologram of one. Later at home, I opened my "Mozart Compendium," a guide edited by H.C. Robbins Landon, to come across this as the first sentence of a brief essay on the concertos: "The anthropomorphic qualities of Mozart's solo concertos invite comparisons with his operatic and concert arias."

Strong stuff to apply to an abstract instrumental work, I know, but this performance put a three-dimensional personality before us. I see a kingly figure, accustomed to command but also sensitive to other natures, capable of entertaining second thoughts,  and aware of his own vulnerabilities. The trumpet-and-drums majesty of the first movement, which in this concert had already been heralded by the orchestra's performance of the overture to "La Clemenza di Tito," becomes less insistent in the finale, which has so many other charms to put forward.

These are expressed through an abundance of cunning interactions between piano and orchestra, to which this performance stayed well attuned. Flawless juxtaposition of major and minor modes — a characteristic underlined by Kramer's choice of cadenza — suggested a self-possessed person's transitory mood shifts. The lovely dialogue between piano and the lower strings late in the finale resembled the private conference of a ruler and his wisest counselors. Then, after the pianist's last statement, the public face of the ruler is authoritatively displayed in the trumpet-and-drums vigor of the final measures. This performance set such a Sarastro before us, and we were inclined to nod in respectful acknowledgment — and be delighted to do so.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Everything looks rosy as ISO celebrates 100th birthday of its home, 200th of its state

The feeling of a community resting on solid foundations energized the atmosphere Sunday evening as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra presented its Opening Night Gala concert at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Jack Everly as he appears on ISO website.
It was Jack Everly's show. A conductor from Richmond who is used to occupying the spotlight,  which he does affably and without a touch of the grandiose, presenting himself to the ISO's blended audience and several dignitaries whose presence was acknowledged by CEO Gary Ginstling from the stage.

A recently signed contract, with terms reached early and not against a play/don't-play deadline, shows ISO's musicians a way out of the shadows of a difficult contract that forced them to lose professional status with a tightened schedule and smaller paychecks. Things are looking up.

Everly knows how to shape pops programs. His gala choices were mixed, but with popular appeal guaranteed. Guest stars included some local connections in an aura of glamour: Broadway star Megan Hilty, local (and internationally recognized) operatic soprano Angela Brown, actor and activist George Takei, Pink Martini director Thomas Lauderdale, and ISO concertmaster Zach De Pue.

Everly was characteristically an amusing, informative host. He knows apt historical tidbits and shares them: George Gershwin's first song was written in 1916,  the year the Circle Theatre opened as a movie theater (it would prefix its name with "Hilbert" in 1996). The song, a recorded snatch of which was played for the capacity audience, bears the cheeky title, "When You Want 'Em, You Can't Get 'Em, When You've Got 'Em, You Don't Want 'Em." A sentiment we can all get behind at certain points in life, I suspect.

Megan HIlty sang Cole Porter.
The Gershwin tidbit set up Lauderdale's guest appearance as soloist in "Rhapsody in Blue." Lauderdale brought to the piece an evocation (whether deliberate or not) of the song-plugger brashness of the Tin Pan Alley that Gershwin entered as a teenager. I prefer my "Rhapsody" performances with more accuracy and finesse, but the spirit of the piece from before it was considered a classical milestone was intact. The orchestral accompaniment followed suit with appropriate flair.

Gershwin in a different mood, and in his most mature phase, was represented by "My Man's Gone Now" from "Porgy and Bess." Brown's performance was exemplary, well-sung and thoughtfully acted as the lament of Serena for the loss of her husband in a fight with the villain Crown.  The Indianapolis soprano had earlier helped Everly open the concert with a generally straightforward performance of the national anthem.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" was the first song I ever heard Megan Hilty sing, in a broadcast of the U.S. Open tennis final several years ago. She has the same knack in concert of putting vocal music across that she displayed for ceremonial purposes then. She represented Hoosier native Cole Porter in four songs, giving apparently full, authentic versions of "Anything Goes," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "So in Love," and, after some banter with Everly, "Always True to You in My Fashion." Hilty enunciated the text and lent it some extra twinkle, supported by excellent arrangements.

The other major songwriting Hoosier, Hoagy Carmichael, had a place on the program in an orchestral arrangement of "Stardust." It's been said that the two melodies that constitute this song cover the gamut of the classic American popular song: the wistful and the assertive. Both shone in this performance, which followed a clever Everly arrangement of movie themes in celebration of the theater's history. Bookended by Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," the pastiche included samples of "Lullaby of Broadway," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Psycho," "A Hard Day's Night" in the parade of hits.

The ISO's concertmaster, now clean-shaven, showed his panache as soloist in Saint-Saens' "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso." De Pue's radiant performance appealingly balanced light and shade, though it was taken a mite too fast for everyone to seem quite comfortable. The other classical composition to make an appearance was "A Lincoln Portrait" by Aaron Copland, featuring Takei doing the solemn, thought-provoking narration, consisting mostly of the sixteenth president's golden words. A special treat was to get first exposure to the playing of the orchestra's newly hired principal trumpet, Conrad Jones.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Don't know much about history, or swordfighting? No matter, as Indiana Repertory Theatre opens with "The Three Musketeers"

Stage combat has a way of distracting me, but only momentarily. When it is well done, as it is in Indiana
A "Three Musketeers" swordfight: You'll put the nagging question aside.
Repertory Theatre's
new production of "The Three Musketeers," the question keeps popping up: "How do they do that?"

In magic shows, that's part of the entertainment, the wonder of the genre. Watching a drama with fight episodes is a different matter. If the question keeps nagging at you, you're of course removing yourself from the dramatic illusion you should be embedded within.

It's funny that technical wizardry, which may be even more mysterious to the outsider, rarely poses this problem. Consider Ann G. Wrightson's lighting design for this show, the way it seems to mold figures sculpturally. It's lighting that gives extra animation to motion onstage, of which there is plenty. Like the model she cites as inspiration, Rembrandt's "Night Watch (The Company of Frans Banning Cocq)," she has light and shadow play around moving figures, deepening upstage into silhouette. The effect in Rembrandt's case is that Cocq's men seem to advance toward you out of the still canvas. Maybe that's what provoked a paranoid vandal to slash the 1642 masterpiece several years after I saw it at the Rijksmuseum in 1966. Asking oneself how it's done, with either Rembrandt or Wrightson, tends to arise in retrospect.

Nonetheless, marveling at fight direction and its execution is a good problem to have when it is so thoroughly part of the drama as it is in Catherine Bush's stage adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas' novel. Rapiers, even blunted ones, seem capable of injury. When they clash, blades slip and slide off each other. How can that be controlled? How can those viciously thrown punches never really land, as they appear to? How do heads that snap back and bodies that fly sprawling to the floor escape injury? (Admiring kudos to "Musketeers" fight director Paul Dennhardt!)
D'Artagnan and the Three Musketeers sing their motto: "All for one, and one for all."
At opening night Friday, "The Three Musketeers" wove the violence smoothly into the story of the French kingdom's struggle to become centralized in the monarchy. That process was to come to full flower with Louis XIV, the successor to this story's Louis XIII. At the heart of the conflict is the wandering affection of Queen Anne, who has formed a romantic liaison (more certain here than in history, apparently) with a foreign aristocrat, Lord Buckingham of France's traditional enemy, England. Louis XIII has allowed his narcissism to move into the void of a marriage without an heir. Questions of treason necessarily bob up from the depths.

The loyalty of Cardinal Richelieu to the king has taken the form of general repression and a personalized consolidation of power against which the honorary troop of royal musketeers, especially the three comrades of the title, vows opposition. Keeping the churchman from besmirching the queen becomes their cause, and that of D'Artagnan, the rustic nobleman eager to join their company. Bush's adaptation reduces or irons out some of the complications of the original. Underhanded tricks and daring rescues, conflicting loyalties and verifiable suspicions, coincidences and subterfuges — all keep the plot at full boil.

Cardinal Richelieu in nefarious conference with Milady de Winter.
I can hardly believe I followed the plot competently when I read the novel in my early teens. What has stayed with me was my first exposure to the secular influence of the religious hierarchy in regimes of aligned, though often irritated, church-state direction. Richelieu is a villain well worth hating in the Dumas fictionalization of 17th-century royal friction, and I was appalled at his lack of more than perfunctory attention to his Christian faith. I had a lot to learn.

Henry Woronicz directs IRT's production, which has a cunning, imperious portrayal of Richelieu by Dan Kremer as one of its virtues.  Among the others is the spinetingling, "bromantic" rapport among the title characters — each with his own reasons for being an independent thinker and actor — by Ryan Artzberger (Athos), Nathan Hosner (Aramis) and David Folsom (Porthos). They are impulsive and quick to take offense, weapons drawn, as D'Artagnan (Jeb Burris, radiantly soulful and smitten) discovers soon after coming to Paris with an era-appropriate vision of conquering the big city.

Shedding his bumpkin status quickly, D'Artagnan becomes enmeshed in the fight to rescue his beloved, Constance (ingenue-to-the-hilt Amanda Catania), and earn the favor of the musketeers and their advocate, Monsieur de Treville (Robert Neal at his booming, blustering best). The alienated king and queen are poignantly at odds in their separate worlds as played by Charles Goad and Emily Ristine. Villainy more lurid than Richelieu's is given lip-smacking flair in the performances of Rob Johansen as Rochefort and Elizabeth Laidlaw as Milady de Winter.

With everyone splendid and dashing in Devon Painter's costumes, the production revels in the elaborate plush of Hollywood historical dramas. Props and architectural elements move smoothly into and out of place as if in a cinematic "dissolve." Barry G. Funderburg's music provides not only the equivalent of title-music magnificence (evoked perfectly in the modern era by John Williams' "Star Wars" march), but also snatches of underscoring for moments of menace and outright violence.

Bush's stylized dialogue abounds in the crisp elegance, bon mots and full-paragraph speeches (with handy revelations and confidences) so essential to the formula. Woronicz allows his cast to project the lines in a manner more acceptable to our grandparents than it has been for many years on either stage or screen. Pregnant pauses, verbal thrusts and parries, a heightened tone in speaking of love and war alike — such traits were exhibited as if natural, which they are in this type of play. Everyone stops well short of hamming it up.

The whole package will have you putting aside the "how do they do that?" question for the most part. Your pulse will race as the fights break out and conclude, and you'll recognize that all such long-ago battles and florid intrigues can bear the imprint of real human passion when credibly presented. This production makes you ready for them. En garde!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Before Peter sang "I've gotta crow": Phoenix Theatre opens season with "Peter and the Starcatcher"

In "Peter and the Starcatcher," there is no call to the audience to assert its belief in fairies as a device for setting up a happy ending. That heart-tugging moment in J.M. Barrie's play becomes, in this prequel to "Peter Pan," an unspoken creed, the foundation of its magical properties.

The implied, fresh proposal in Rick Elice's play is to avow a belief in friendship, even such an unlikely one as that between a nameless orphan boy and an aristocratic girl.

Phoenix Theatre  opened its production of "Peter and the Starcatcher" Thursday night on the Russell Stage. It's an adventure at sea, animated by piratical plotting, exotic destinations and stratagems to reach them, mix-ups of cargo, crews, and captives. All of this bodies forth in an elaborate blend of drama and narrative, some of it involving choral speaking, making the show a fine-tuned ensemble triumph.

Bryan Fonseca directs a large cast loaded with familiar Phoenix faces and voices that delightfully channel the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson upon which Elice based his play. Songs by Wayne Barker, performed to recorded accompaniment, are threaded throughout. As seen Thursday, they galvanize the stage action and enhance its charm, but not to the extent that "Peter and the Starcatcher" can be considered a musical.

What stands out most is the vigor and comic brio of the spoken  language. It ranges from the billing and cooing of Alf and Mrs. Bumbrake (Michael Hosp and John Vessels Jr.), through the fraught and tender dialogue of Molly Aster, the precocious upper-class daughter Molly (Phebe Taylor), and the Boy who becomes Peter (Nathan Robbins), to the preening grandiloquence (flecked with puns and malapropisms)  of the pirate chief Black Stache (Eric J. Olson).

Molly is doubtful of the attention she'll get from the smitten Mrs. Bumbrake.
James Gross' shipshape set brings us on board immediately in the first act and easily suits the more abstract realization of Mollusk Island in the second, introduced to us with a Busby Berkeley-style mermaid chorus. This is where the magic of "star stuff" is usefully deployed with heroic pluck to defeat the island's predatory monster and neutralize the dastardly designs of Black Stache.

In the technical department, the production comes up to the mark in both acts through the work of Jeffery Martin, Zac Hunter and Tom Horan. Emily McGee's virtuoso gamut of props and costumes — comprising upper-class Victorian garb, tattered hand-me-downs for the orphan boys, fanciful approximations of native island outfits, and pirate haute couture for Black Stache— complete the picture.

The story falls into place unerringly from among the scattered elements at the outset. Some imaginative assembly is required, as in all good stories for all ages. The grown-ups faithfully represent traits that cause the Boy who will become Peter to hate them all.  The quest for leadership among the childhood peer group, finessed by the feistiness and special powers of Molly, stops well short of a "Lord of the Flies" outcome. Our sympathies, as Barrie himself ordained in his original, remain steadily with the younger generation.

Peter considers the view he's getting of matters from Black Stache.
The ensemble strengths are so consistent in this show that it's almost misleading to highlight outstanding individual performances, but I shall mention a few nonetheless. His voice ranging from shouts to soft insinuations, Olson was in full command of his character's balance of the menacing and the ridiculous. Ian Cruz's brilliant evocation of Third World resentment as Fighting Prawn struck all the right notes of caricature as well.

Phebe Taylor's Molly had the consistent zest and resoluteness the character needs to make the starcatcher device much more than a handy advantage over her peers. Finally, I have to say that, after several shows, there's something about seeing Nathan Robbins onstage that just makes me happy. Even when he plays characters with a dark side (as in "Hand to God"), he embodies the irrepressible tendency of youth to find a way to come out on top, to crow his triumph aloft and encourage everybody to share in it.

"Peter and the Starcatcher" in this production sounds the notes that led early reviewers to rebuke those who looked down on the original as a children's play. "Fools and slow of heart!," wrote one of them in the Boston Transcript (1929), the favorite newspaper of the Boston brahmins: "It is middle age's own tragicomedy— the faint, far memories of boyhood and girlhood blown back in the bright breeze of Barrie's imagination." In this show's prequel scenario, the breeze may waft over a longer distance and with more madcap gusts, but it still touches our 21st-century cheeks, some of which will doubtless bear the trace of tears at the end.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Punctuating Beethoven: Michael Schelle's new piano piece sweeps away hints of satire or parody

Here's a novelty: A concert review that starts off with a disquisition on punctuation, and then covers only one of the works performed. But bear with me, because what appears to be throat-clearing turns out to bear directly on what to make of a particular new piece.
Michael Schelle, perhaps contemplating Beethoven at the piano.

Among the many uses of the comma is to set off words in direct address. Often these are names, but not always ("Comfort ye, my people," for example). Our informal age often trims out commas, nothing worth much tsk-tsking if ambiguity isn't the result.

There's no confusion when it comes to a title such as "Happy Birthday Wanda June," the new opera premiered at the Schrott Center for the Arts last weekend in an Indianapolis Opera production. There's only one way to read the title, even though the poignancy of Wanda June's untimely death would be more subtly underlined if the comma were used. The inscription in icing on the top of her birthday cake would then be directly addressed to the little girl who didn't live to be thus addressed. In its written matter, sometimes Indianapolis Opera used the comma, sometimes it didn't. I was likewise inconsistent in my posted review.

That brings me to Michael Schelle's "Roll Over Beethoven," the work I enjoyed most (as well as the newest) in Tuesday night's Butler Faculty Composers concert, which opened the Duckwall Artist Series at Butler University. The identical title in a defining rock 'n' roll song by Chuck Berry never appears with a comma after "Over," even though it is clear that Beethoven is being addressed posthumously, as is Tchaikovsky in the next line of the chorus: "Tell Tchaikovsky the news."

Young Beethoven, before life tried to roll over him.
Schelle's following suit may not have involved conscious thought about whether or not to insert a comma in his title (modified in his online catalogue with an added "2.0"). But its omission — especially after hearing the piece in a stunning performance by Jim Loughery — opens up some mostly dark interpretations of the verb phrase "roll over." It goes beyond Berry's suggestion (grammatically speaking, in the imperative mood) that it's time for Beethoven to roll over in his grave at his music's displacement by rock 'n' roll.

Instead, it expands the imperative to include... whom? Mike Schelle? Mass culture? In other words, who is being told to roll over Beethoven, like a steamroller over asphalt or a tank (Happy 100th birthday, tank!)  over rough terrain?

Brooding over this question for two days has little to do with a wish to appoint myself punctuation cop. More interestingly, the ambiguity — is the composer instructing himself to roll over Beethoven, or is he telling Beethoven to make way for Mike Schelle, as Berry told the German master to make way for rock 'n' roll? — rests on the cusp of what Schelle has accomplished in the new piece.

Prompted by the new piece itself, let's interpret the title as not needing the comma. To start with, Ludwig van Beethoven is the archetype of the suffering artist. In his life more than in his art (where he was lionized from his young adulthood until his death), many things rolled over Beethoven. Not as clouds roll over us on a windy day, but in that steamroller or tank manner. There was a host of maladies, topped by the crucial loss of hearing.

In Schelle's piece, I sensed in its congestion of sounds, its unremitting clangor, the maddening onset of tinnitus and other symptoms of the deafness that overcame the composer. Zeroing in on the interface between life and art, the Beethoven work most strikingly recalled in Schelle's "Roll Over Beethoven" is the "Appassionata" Sonata (No. 23 in F minor, op. 57).

And what was rolling over Beethoven circa 1805 when he wrote this work, which was given its appropriate nickname by the composer's publisher? Besides the overshadowing triumph of deafness, there was the conquest of Vienna by Napoleon's armies in 1804, throwing Beethoven's revolutionary fantasies into a cocked hat.

Middle-period Beethoven is where the crux of Beethoven's attempt to master his fate finds defeat and mastery in greatest contention. Schelle finds and wrestles with a key example of this struggle in the "Appassionata," a work that signals its gloom in the drooping theme at the outset of the first movement. But Schelle's focus is on the coda of the finale, a Presto launched by two firm fortissimo chords that give way to agitated staccato eighth notes.

When we hear the "Appassionata" in performance we are already near exhaustion from the finale's rigors. Just before the coda, these are compounded by Beethoven's direction to repeat the second half of the movement, a device so unusual that Donald Francis Tovey, in his edition of the sonatas, puts "(Beethoven's)" right above the repeat sign, as if to say: "Pay attention — this unconventional instruction comes straight from the master, not from me or other editors."

Thus delayed, the coda is one of numerous places in Beethoven where we are tempted to think: "Come on -- can he really be doing this after all he's put us through?' Another place is the feverish lead-up to the recapitulation in the first movement of the "Waldstein" sonata, a near-contemporary of the "Appassionata,"with its driving, recurrent "duh-duh, dah-duh-duh" in the left hand.

Schelle's piece pays tribute to the over-the-top aspect of Beethoven, which is inescapable, and sometimes off-putting even to accomplished musicians. Raymond Leppard once confessed to me he had to get over his early dislike of Beethoven: "I thought of him as here's this German always coming at you."

Schelle has a habit of taking a humorously jaundiced view of cultural icons, so I have to allow that his "Roll Over Beethoven" may be a wicked parody of Beethoven's hyper-insistent manner. There was an unmistakably manic quality in Loughery's riveting performance — what good fortune it is for Schelle to have such a capable champion of his piano music! But I choose to take this "Roll Over Beethoven" with its tag of "2.0" as something of a salute to a man and artist who refused to be rolled over.

In his discussion of the Heligenstadt Testament, Beethoven's unposted letter to his brothers written in 1802, Maynard Solomon, the composer's shrewdest and most stimulating modern  biographer, analyzes how Beethoven dealt with the interface of his deafness and his art from then on. Mastery of his musical voice seemed to emerge, both in fact and in his attitude, from his hearing loss: "As his shift in style asserted itself and the advances in his art were consolidated," Solomon writes, "the symptoms themselves receded from him into a different perspective and were no longer the subject of lamentation."

The shift in style produced the "Appassionata" and, in the same year, his only opera "Fidelio," whose two most important moments are an aria sung in a dungeon and the eventual rescue of the prisoner unjustly held there. Beethoven would probably have endorsed Ralph Waldo Emerson's declaration in his diary, after the death of his favorite son: "I am defeated all the time, yet to victory I am born."

I choose to interpret Michael Schelle's concise dynamo of a tribute in "Roll Over Beethoven" as a reminder that nothing — not Napoleon, not ills of the flesh, not the threatened status today of high culture, and fortunately neither Chuck Berry nor the estimable Schelle himself — can roll over Beethoven.

Ravi Coltrane: No second-generation jinx here in saxophonist's return visit to the Jazz Kitchen

Ravi Coltrane played the Jazz Kitchen Wednesday.
Since his last Indy Jazz Fest engagement, Ravi Coltrane has crossed the half-century threshold. Time not only heals all wounds, as the adage has it; it also helps put a monumental inheritance in perspective. I have no idea if Coltrane has old wounds in need of healing, but it's a certainty that distance from his father's heyday is useful in revealing his artistry to a public that is in part attracted to both his names.

John Coltrane had a fondness for improvising over modes, and Ravi displayed that as well Wednesday in the second set of his quartet gig at the Jazz Kitchen in front of a full house.

But the manner (less legato stream-of-consciousness) and the tone are different, particularly when Ravi picks up the soprano saxophone. No one can escape the fresh life John Coltrane brought to the soprano more than 50 years ago. The revelation can be summed up by John's playing of the title song on "My Favorite Things," which showed that the soprano can sound like a world-music instrument: hearty and shawmlike, especially in ornamentation.

For his second selection Wednesday, Coltrane turned from tenor to soprano. There was a long pause as everyone riffled through the sheet music for what the quartet eventually played, so it would have been nice to be given a title after all that suspense. Oh well. It was a pleasure to hear the leader underline the full range of the instrument, just as Ravi does when he plays the tenor. Fans doubtless noticed his well-supported fondness for the lower instrument's deepest register.

There's been one personnel change since Coltrane's 2013 appearance here. Orrin Evans now occupies the piano chair. A chameleon player, he can at one point sound like Thelonious Monk, at another more in the neighborhood of Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan. He always seemed to have a manner suited to the situation at hand. In the one announced piece of the second set, Charlie Haden's "First Song," Evans shifted in his solo from a more straightforward interpretation of the lovely tune to a hushed episode of delicately voiced chords.

That set up a dramatic shift to a final pumped-up treatment of the tune, drawing heavy lifting from all four players. Coltrane put a deft cap on the performance by setting lots of sustained trilling against Johnathan Blake's long roll on the tom-tom. Blake, by the way, sounded much more nuanced and flexible than I remember him being three years ago.

As for the bassist, who seemed to be playing on a plateau of pure joy, there were two wonderful solos. His bold tone, picked up perfectly by the sound system, was well applied to a parade of fresh ideas on the (unannounced) fun, upbeat number preceding the "First Song" finale. Appropriate as it is for a bassist to get a showcase on this attractive ballad by a bassist to whom Coltrane paid tribute in his introduction, Douglas didn't lay down anything perfunctory. He played as if he owned the piece, providing a pivot for that marvelous Evans solo and the final rave-up mentioned above.

No longer merely his own man, Ravi Coltrane has become the 21st-century Coltrane worth knowing on his own terms.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Chicago's Lincoln Trio spotlights "Trios from Our Homelands"

'The Lincoln Trio bows toward three heritages.
In their latest Cedille recording, "Trios from Our Homelands," members of the Lincoln Trio look across the water to countries central to the heritage of each. They share the advocacy with equanimity  through the strength of their performances.

The project yields a program consisting of works by Rebecca Clarke (England), Arno Babajanian (Armenia), and Frank Martin (Switzerland), acknowledging the origins, respectively, of cellist David Cunliffe, pianist Marta Aznavoorian,  and violinist Desiree Rustrat.

Performances are exemplary. I was happiest to make the acquaintance of Clarke's Piano Trio, which dates from 1922. Untouched by the modernism that was then ascendant, the 241/2-minute work makes its most impressive statement in the first movement, Moderato ma appassionato. The respite provided by the second movement seems genuine; and it is most welcome, because the finale, while still gripping, becomes grandiloquent.

Ramping up that kind of feeling is a specialty of the Babajanian, which opens glumly, soon introducing portents from the piano that indicate the expansive development to come. There's plenty of sweetness tucked in amid the dramatic episodes. In general, while the Lincolns doubtless bring this off convincingly in concert, the piece wears its heart on both sleeves. That stamps it as being a little too unrestrained in showing off, and thus a bit wearying.

The modest tribute to Ireland that Martin offers in his "Trio on Popular Irish Melodies" offers a happy contrast to conclude the disc. The Swiss composer's three-movement tribute is infused with the spirit of folk dance. By the time you get to the third movement, you come to understand how this methodical composer got swept off his feet by the material, which carries its native Irish charm lightly and persuasively.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Indy Jazz Fest double bill: Directors Jazz Orchestra, followed by hometown return of Phil Ranelin

Phil Ranelin is one of few active musicians with a Wes Montgomery connection.
To feel welcome, he had some formidable company who've made careers in his hometown. It was enough to make Phil Ranelin a congenial boss of the bandstand during an Indy Jazz Fest showcase Monday night at the Jazz Kitchen.

The 77-year-old trombonist, just inducted into the Indianapolis Jazz Hall of Fame,  led a set that felt like a homecoming reception. The band personnel is well-known to local jazz fans: Clifford Ratliff, trumpet; Rob Dixon, saxophones; Kevin Anker, piano; Thomas Brinkley, bass; Greg Artry, drums.

Long active in Detroit and Los Angeles, Ranelin on Monday night displayed his crisp, explosive trombone style in a comfortable context, focusing on energy and rapport more than precision of ensemble.

All the solos were strong in a selection from Ranelin's 2004 "Inspiration" CD. Dixon switched to alto, to follow Ratliff cheerfully in the series; Ranelin was at his assertive, sometimes lyrical best, and Anker and Artry brought up the rear of the parade commendably.

The band opened with a number based on "Sweet Georgia Brown." So many contrafacts have been mounted on that evergreen I won't hazard a guess as to the title. It was a hearty romp, in any case. The solos were bookended by  exuberant, jumpy trombone-drums duets.

The most attractive original was "Reminiscence of Wes." The tune is an illustration of a characteristic of Montgomery's composing pointed out in an IJF panel discussion Saturday by Monika Herzig: "strong and groovy." These tend to be catchy, solid tunes that don't encourage players to go all over the place, but to honor the theme with original thoughts. The composer did that Monday night in his solo: well-articulated, with short phrases wryly accented. Ratliff followed suit. In between came a Dixon solo that, to my ears, was profuse and unfocused. It could have gone with any number of tunes. Not up to his usual standard, which was well-represented elsewhere.

The only near-breakdown in the normally expert pickup band came in Ranelin's "Muy Erotico."  I was starting to think the title might be Spanish for "Where's the bridge?" as the performance flailed a bit to seat harmonically the contrast with the "A" section. After the bass solo, the rendition finally jelled and carried the sensuous piece through happily to the final chord.

The evening opened with the Directors Jazz Orchestra, familiar to swing-dance fans in Indianapolis from its appearances in Fountain Square. It grew out of Anderson, is now centered in Pendleton, and carries its founders' wish to play together outside the classrooms. Most of the members are public-school music teachers at the secondary level. Under the direction of Chris Taylor, the ensemble — about 20 strong in this appearance — offered a generous sampling of some of the standard arrangements in its book.

Vocalist Rachel Hochstetler, an elementary-school music teacher, was a welcome guest vocalist on the bandstand in songs ranging from "Orange-Colored Sky" to "Cry Me a River." The latter, though well-sung, lugged a bombastic arrangement that competed with the singer more than it supported her.

The hefty sound the band was capable of generating got a full exposition in Charles Mingus' "Better Get Hit in Your Soul," incorporating a display of brief solos and an exciting buildup punctuated by hand claps. The ensemble was challenged to stay together in "Home Again." The finale, "April in Paris," might have been a far cry from the machine-tooled Count Basie sound, but it brought cheers from the crowd with the expected threefold repetition of the grinding coda, with its crowning trombone-section smears.

Monday, September 19, 2016

"His Wild Statements": An attempt in song (a blend of an interpretation by Susan Boyle and the Rolling Stones original) to peer into the mind of a Trump loyalist

Eminent visiting guitarist fronts a dynamic quartet at the Jazz Kitchen

Russell Malone was also among many guitarists paying tribute to Wes Montgomery.
The Jazz Kitchen and Russell Malone made their mutual admiration society publicly evident early Sunday evening. The nonverbal results were evident throughout the guitarist's first set.

David Allee, the club's proprietor, introduced the quartet by saying he'd long wanted to bring Malone to the Jazz Kitchen. And between selections in that initial set, Malone returned the compliment, saying he'd wanted for years to play the Jazz Kitchen.

The full house was the beneficiary. The band Malone heads is tight-knit. Formidable in the background and capable of taking attractive turns in the spotlight were bassist Luke Sellick and drummer Willie Jones III. In the second tune, Cedar Walton's "The Rubber Man," an episode of trading eights with the drummer indicated Jones' knack for following a tune's implications rather than just making a splash. This skill, also displayed in his solos, is one that some drummers don't bother to develop.

Malone's partnership with pianist Rick Germanson, a past winner of the American Pianists Association's jazz fellowship awards, was unerring and mutually inspiring. After his imaginative solo on "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry" capped by a florid coda evoking French impressionism, Germanson was lavished with praise by his boss. "After that, I'm going to let you buy me a drink," Malone joked.

The two men share a fondness for varied textures, for quotation and allusion, for melody, and for harmonic exploration. Take Malone's one original in the first set, the meltingly tender "Love Looks Good on You." Malone's tone was at its most liquescent.  His willingness to become soaringly sentimental was reflected in a solo with close harmonies, somewhat like Marvin and Tammi in "You're All I Need to Get By" or, derivatively, Peabo and Celine in "Beauty and the Beast." Germanson echoed and extended this kind of sugary soulfulness in his solo. It was totally fitting, never overindulged.

A large part of successful small-group playing is tempo selection, it seems to me. The tune has to sound right from the "head"  through the solos to the outchorus. That means the leader has to set a tempo that is likely to show off everyone to his best advantage in solo spots whose actual content he has no way of knowing. If the tune is borrowed from the book of a master singer, that's a good guide, though not compulsory.

"Witchcraft" had just the right pace, recalling Frank Sinatra's tempo. With that kind of relaxed momentum behind it, the Malone quartet's version could hardly go wrong. Once again, Germanson and Malone complemented each other with suggestions of "locked-hands" chordal playing. Germanson elaborated on this approach, unfurling extended tremolos in both hands that brought Oscar Peterson to mind. Bassist Sellick fashioned a melodically creative solo, too.

In Jerry Goldsmith's "Your Zowie Face," Malone nodded toward the legendary guitarist's son Robert when he gave some vigorously stroked Wes touches to his solo. Germanson followed suit, punningly, with allusions to another "Wes" — the Randy Weston of "Little Niles" and "Hi Fly" — during his witty turn in the spotlight.

Everyone steamed gloriously in the set-closer, Freddie Hubbard's "Sweet Sue," whose recurrent double-time episodes were especially well-managed. Then, pumping up the volume, with Germanson laying out, Malone and the rest of the band unleashed some assertive blues to elicit a huge ovation in gratitude for two hours of stirring music. This guest probably would be welcome back anytime.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Guitarists come from near and far to celebrate Wes Montgomery at Indy Jazz Fest

At one of several panel discussions distributed over the course of a long day of music Saturday at IUPUI,
Wes Montgomery, the most important jazz guitarist since Charlie Christian, is the 2016 Indy Jazz Fest focus.
moderator Kyle Long asked the three musician panelists to identify what they found most distinctive about Wes Montgomery, the innovative jazz guitarist who called Indianapolis home throughout his brief life.

The Indy Jazz Fest's busiest day got  under way in a room renamed "The Hub Bub" after an old Indianapolis bar where local jazz history was made. The answers Long received covered several notable aspects of Montgomery's artistry that are still revered nearly 50 years after his death here while in his middle 40s.

Bill Lancton praised Montgomery's legacy of relaxed soulfulness. Another fellow guitarist long active here, Steven Weakley, said: "Wes knew how to tell a story." Pianist-bandleader Monika Herzig shared her belief that "the tunes he wrote are so groovy and strong."

All of those merits could be found somewhere in performances that day in the IUPUI Campus Center.
The influence of Montgomery (1923-68) is freely acknowledged across the fraternity of American jazz guitarists, even those whose personal contributions have been distinctive for years.

Perhaps the three traits cited by the Hub Bub panel were best illustrated by a spirited trek through the Wes classic "Road Song," three or four versions of which I heard Saturday. The one that stands out in my mind was played by a band with a four-guitar front line consisting of Russell Malone, Henry Johnson, Dave Stryker, and Fareed Haque. The exemplary rhythm section consisted of Rick Germanson, piano; Luke Sellick, bass, and Willie Jones III, drums.

The theme was stated with forthright elan, and the succession of solos had that special storytelling quality.  The groovy heart of Montgomery's best compositions is of course a natural feature of "Road Song."  And these four guitarists — the rhythm section concurring — sported both the relaxation and the soulfulness that Lancton (himself capable of both qualities) cited in the panel discussion.

The most exciting moments came when the guitarists "traded fours" a couple of times through the song.  The transitions were smooth and spontaneously linked to what had come before, while heightening the exuberant feeling. The whole exhibition seemed to confirm the camaraderie often observed among guitarists and their buoyant emotional investment in connecting with audiences.

Other highlights from Saturday afternoon:

*Peter Bernstein's intricate, winning, jewel-like solo interpretation of Montgomery's "Mi Cosa"

*Fareed Haque's brightly interwoven lines, well-articulated despite his stout tone, in the Thelonious Monk ballad everyone plays, "'Round Midnight"

*Henry Johnson's expert evocation of the Montgomery trademark style, featuring octaves and a softly burred, thumbed melodic line, in "West Coast Blues," another Montgomery evergreen

*Returning Indianapolis master Royce Campbell's charming, deceptively offhand rendition of "Days of Wine and Roses"

*Bobby Broom's tightly wound recasting of "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" — that buggy was moving!
Pat Martino: He learned the importance of presence.

*The venerated, and venerable, Pat Martino's set, including the way his fleet passagework and slightly biting tone was lavished upon Wes' "Twisted Blues." The performance, like the whole set, was stunningly backed by organist Pat Bianchi and drummer Carmen Intorre. Besides the 72-year-old maestro, the guitarists they accompanied were Bernstein, Stryker, and Campbell.

In the panel discussion he took part in, moderated by Stryker and also including Bernstein, Martino noted usefully: "The culture has changed. When I started, the bands sometimes played seven sets a night, seven days a week." Musicians coming up were steeped in the life, learning on the job from their elders.

After citing the host of stars and their accomplished sidemen who filled the Atlantic City clubs back when Martino got his start as a teenager, he observed: "So many things were happening with such strong people that you learned a lot about the importance of presence, how to make an impression....It had nothing to do with the study of music; it was the enjoyment of life itself."

As the rookie in a star-studded R&B band led by Lloyd "Mr. Personality" Price, Martino knew what was required: "When it came time for the guitar solo, it had better be interesting."

Saturday, September 17, 2016

"Happy Birthday, Wanda June" sings a song all its own, with native son Kurt Vonnegut straddling the here and the hereafter

Something I heard Kurt Vonnegut say long ago on a literary visit to the University of Michigan has stuck with me. I'll have to paraphrase it: He was recalling time he spent at the Iowa Writers Workshop. At the social gatherings at the end of each day, he noticed a difference in gregariousness between the poets and the novelists.

The poets were chattering merrily away, while the toilers in the vineyards of prose fiction drew apart individually, musing and fretting. "The novelists were trying to figure out where the next chapter was going," Vonnegut said, while the poets were happy putting the day's work aside. "Poets — crazy people," he added with a slightly disdainful twinkle.

Harold Ryan works to impress his future wife Penelope, in her carhop phase.
I've sometimes wondered what the playwrights were like, if there were any in attendance at those parties. My guess is that they would be somewhere in between the poets and the novelists — making small talk while trying out different voices in their heads, then retreating into themselves wondering at how to give life upon the stage to what they had just heard themselves saying.  Playwrights must be like Dr. Frankenstein trying to juice a labful of monsters into life, the novelists like the scientist designing an experiment or expatiating a theory. And the poets? Knocking off a few more Boris Karloff bobblehead dolls, Vonnegut might say.

Vonnegut clearly preferred to be Frankenstein at the chalkboard or the desk. As  playwright in "Happy Birthday Wanda June," he seems not to have been able to choose between giving his characters independent lives and making sure each was an aspect of Vonnegut/Frankenstein himself. That was evident in last week's professional/student reading of the play at the Schrott Center for the Arts.

Antagonists to the end, Harold Ryan and Dr. Woodley move toward a deadly climax.
How fortunate that, posthumously, "Happy Birthday Wanda June," the season-opening production of Indianapolis Opera, has been given coherence and lyrical heft by Richard Auldon Clark, a friend of the writer who responded to Vonnegut's instinctive sense that the play deserved to be an opera. At the opera's premiere Friday night, also at Schrott Center, the bloom emerged from the tight bud of Vonnegut obsessions: war, machismo, hypocrisy, lifestyles with blinders on, illusions of both secular and sacred provenance. And of course, death — on a seesaw with horror at one end, relief on the other.

Play and opera, closely linked despite the latter's shrewd trimming of the former, have to do with the return home of war hero and adventurer Harold Ryan to his big-city American home, only to find his wife beset by a couple of opposite-pole suitors: a vacuum-cleaner salesman afflicted with hero worship and a sentimental pacifist doctor, the Ryans' family physician. Ryan has returned from exotic climes and challenges with an old pal, Col. "Looseleaf" Harper, a bundle of nerves and regrets stemming from his having dropped the bomb on Nagasaki.

Clark's score is a judiciously balanced amalgam of irony and passion. He is alert to Vonnegut's saving grace of humor. A perky, borderline banal tune for clarinet and other reeds keeps recurring. Snatches of march (possibly including some quotations, but none which I could identify) keep coming to the fore in various guises. Smirking tributes to Harold Ryan's values abound. There are also cannily distributed glissandos in passages where uncanny and startling elements emerge.

The most useful contribution of the operatic genre to what Vonnegut wrote is to make certain set-pieces full of attitude come alive as the utterances of real people. This adds to the emotional impact of, for instance, Penelope Ryan's assertion of her dignity as she notifies her long-absent husband of her transformation, as well as to Looseleaf's aria of remorse for his role in bringing World War II to an end in an act of state-sponsored terrorism that it's still controversial to acknowledge. There's also a spectral glow in the string writing for the monologue for Ryan's deceased third wife separating the second and third acts. The harmonic language is wry, the phrases often laconic and abupt, in ways that parallel Vonnegut's prose.

With the insights of stage director Eric Einhorn to enhance such features, the premiere performance made the characters much more than representations of aspects of American life circa 1970. A less capable cast under less sure-handed direction might have rendered the long final act tedious, with family tensions and the threat of violence a little too overbearing. But again, the heavy pall of cruelty and retribution is part of the heritage of opera, we need to remind ourselves, and Vonnegut's insight into his play's operatic potential is worth honoring.
Clark's score has conferred that honor successfully.

Matthew Kraemer conducted the capable cast and the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra with well-coordinated flair. Attention to detail, sometimes mind-boggling in the orchestration, was acute throughout.

Wanda June (Stephanie Feigenbaum) exults in her heavenly afterlife.
The cast knew what they had to do, and seemed fully invested in the show both dramatically and vocally. Jake Gardner maintained stunning bravado with the right hints of vulnerability as Harold Ryan. Hanna Brammer aroused our sympathy as the self-possessed but understandably distracted Penelope. When she declares at the end of Act 1 that no one here is of any earthly use to anyone else tonight (I'm paraphrasing again) to the sound of chimes, I was moved in a way I doubt would have been possible in a spoken presentation of the play.

Branch Fields lent his basso to a credible impersonation of a man undone by the fragmentation of American life in 1970 and memories of what he did in the summer of 1945. Brett Sprague gave nuance and glorious tenor vocalism to the role of the hapless vacuum-cleaner salesman Herb Shuttle, and John Cudia evolved from overgrown flower child to an upstanding, if doomed, hero as the other suitor, Norbert Woodley.  Kristin Gornstein made a charming, poignant impact in the pants role of Paul, the Ryans' vexed teen-age son.

A crucial aspect of the action comes from the world beyond, a heaven that clearly was also beyond Vonnegut's capacity for belief. His well-known religious skepticism has rendered for us a paradise populated by rollerskate-wearing, shuffleboard-playing deceased souls. It's a paradise of bland pleasures flecked with the occasional harmless disaster, such as the tornado that the third Mrs. Ryan (given a fine tipsy lilt by Jill Gardner) tells us about.

With Stuart Duke's inspired lighting design to help, we also meet on heavenly terrain the title character, a 10-year-old girl who was run down by an ice-cream truck on her birthday (lent a lively juvenile cuteness, complete with lisp and squinchy, pop-eyed expressions, by Stephanie Feigenbaum) and baritone Galen Bower as the vigorous Nazi war criminal Major Von Koenigswald, one of Ryan's more deserving victims. The careful, upright survival of this trio on roller skates is obviously hard to credit to anything in the normal training of an opera singer. Clearly, Vonnegut's heaven cheekily subscribes to the theology of Universalism: no soul is more damned or blessed than any other. Jesus Christ and Hitler alike are shuffleboard fanatics.

Finally, it's worth mentioning a set imaginatively representing the trophy clutter of the Ryans' apartment. Cameron Anderson had the great notion of suspending racks of antlers over the stage at various heights. They are both emblematic and menacing, especially when lowered at the very end. A large tiger hide hangs in the center over the living-room couch. Shakespeare was once disparaged by a rival as having "a tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide." The new opera reverses the insult with the plangent symbolism of the tiger's hide and the effusiveness of its player's heart — the authentic spirit of opera, larger than life and somewhat to one side of it, with fresh blood pumping through its arteries.

[Photos by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Home cooking: Indy Jazz Fest 2016 launches with a party at Indiana Landmarks Center

Just as
the bourgeois adopted
the lyric-winged piano of Liszt in the court at Weimar
for the solitude of his
aeried apartment,
Harlem chose
for its cold-water flat
the hot-blues cornet of King Oliver
in his cart
under the
El pillars of the Loop. 

-- Melvin B. Tolson (1898-1966), from "MU" ("Harlem Gallery")

The festival logo, as projected onto the floor of Cook Theater, Indiana Landmarks Center.
I open this brief welcome by quoting a stanza from a remarkable African-American poet who flourished in
the 1930s. The excerpt reminds us that art always has a home, however much it may transcend it. It grew up someplace, it was nourished there, and the conditions of the life surrounding its gestation and maturation shaped it before it was adopted elsewhere in both venerated and distorted forms.

This seems a good thing to remember as the Indy Jazz Fest gets under way, honoring native son Wes Montgomery this year. What poets and biographers may accomplish to set art in context is beyond those of us who just like the art. 

Who's to say that many fans of this vital jazz guitarist, people who've never come here, who live abroad, can't get just as much out of what Montgomery gave to music as Hoosiers, even those familiar with the old neighborhoods and the heyday of Indiana Avenue? 

By focusing on perhaps the most eminent of all jazzmen who've come from the Circle City, this year's festival revels in home truths. There is of course a lot of jazz to hear that bears the influence of many other places and of masters who had little or nothing to do with Indianapolis. But the dedication of the festival's longest stretch of music— Saturday at IUPUI — to a wide spectrum of active guitarists from around the country makes the hometown theme particularly relevant.

Thursday night at Indiana Landmarks Center, the festival's "Let's Get Excited" Party got the 10-day festival off to a roaring start. There were short speeches by Wes Montgomery's son Robert and festival mastermind David Allee.

A donors' band with a couple of professional ringers got the music started, and after a break the Indianapolis Jazz Collective hit the stage with three well-chosen pieces.

With saxophonist and Indianapolis' "jazz mayor" Rob Dixon presiding, the ensemble — which also included bassist Nick Tucker, guitarist Joel Tucker, trumpeter Marlin McKay, pianist Steven Jones, and drummer Kenny Phelps — represented the best of its kind locally. Montgomery's popular standard "Road Song" opened the set, everyone sounding relaxed and collegial.

The Tuckers' "Dye the Water Green," from their outstanding CD "Nine is the Magic Number," had the two horn men stretching out over the fast, pattering beat. Dixon's soprano sax was lofty, and McKay's muted trumpet was calm, steady and almost ethereal.

The set ended with McKay's neo-hardbop "Three Peas in a Pod," a vigorous but never overdriven number recalling the classic era of Blue Note and the likes of Lee Morgan.

Such comfortable mastery without a hint of the routine is just part of what we have to look forward to over the next ten days. No one should miss connecting with something on the schedule.


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Zach De Pue begins a new phase as he starts 10th season with ISO

Zach De Pue is at a crossroads with bright prospects.
Zach De Pue is about to celebrate a round-number anniversary as concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and the start of his 10th season here is a milestone also opening up a new path for him.

He announced a change of direction about a year ago, when he began a phased departure from Time for Three, the string trio he founded with fellow students at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.  "A classically trained garage band" is among the more enduring phrases that describe the ensemble he launched with Nick Kendall, violin, and Ranaan Meyer, double bass. The repertoire is rich in classical-pop mash-ups, and the stylistic range is immense, from baroque to bluegrass.

Continuing in residency with the ISO this season, Time for Three Thursday will introduce to the Happy Hour at the Symphony audience its second successor to DePue: Charles Yang. The first, Nikki Choi, put in a season with the group before winning the concertmaster chair in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

I asked De Pue if he misses Tf3 yet. He quickly replied, "I'll always miss it. It was a fantastic, storied chapter of my life."

Besides the exposure to a different type of audience in many places here and abroad, Time for Three benefited De Pue artistically: "One of the biggest things I take away from that experience is the natural ability to groove with two other human beings." But he realized his duties as ISO concertmaster were getting in the way of full commitment to Time for Three, including composing and arranging for the group. "I was reliant on the guys to create parts for me, and I hated to see that part of the event go for me."

As that particular scene recedes into DePue's past, he will be heard with renewed focus on his classical side. He's particularly looking forward to being the ISO's soloist in Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, op. 99, at two concerts in January. Next Monday, he is a featured soloist in the annual "Gala Opening Concert,"  conducted by Raymond Leppard, in the University of Indianapolis' Faculty Artist Series. With UIndy faculty violinist Austin Hartman, De Pue will be heard in "the Bach Double," as J.S. Bach's Concerto in D minor for Two Violins and Orchestra is commonly known.

As first violinist in a new string quartet (as yet unnamed), De Pue and his colleagues will present concerts at UIndy in November and March. Other members are Hartman, ISO principal cellist Austin Huntington, and former ISO principal violist Michael Strauss. Pianist Orly Shaham will be the special guest Nov. 7, joining the quartet in a performance of Brahms' expansive Piano Quintet in F minor, op. 34.

De Pue's week of galas will be capped by another annual showcase: the ISO's Gala Concert on Sept. 24 at Hilbert Circle Theatre. De Pue will join nationally known guests Megan Hilty of Broadway fame, Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini, operatic soprano Angela Brown, and actor George Takei under the baton of ISO pops maestro Jack Everly, who is conducting an ISO gala opening concert for the first time. "It's a versatile program, and I'm excited about it," said De Pue, who will play Saint-Saens' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso with the orchestra.

"It's Jack's first gala, and he's taking full advantage of the opportunity," he continued. "This concert will make a statement to the community"  about Everly's value to the organization. De Pue predicts the Classical Series audience will love Everly as much as the pops audience that knows him well.

De Pue came to Indianapolis from the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2007. He developed a close relationship with then-music director Mario Venzago. He worked with Leppard, Venzago's predecessor (subsequently named "conductor laureate"), in the annual Classical Christmas concerts presented at Scottish Rite Cathedral, a series that ended last December. For the past several seasons, he's been the right-hand man to Krzysztof Urbanski, the ISO's music director since 2011.

He makes this thumbnail comparison of Urbanski and Leppard, two men significantly separated by nationality, age, experience, and temperament. "Krzysz is thoroughly listening to the orchestra in rehearsal,"  De Pue said,  "trying to fix 15 things at once. He's got an incredible set of ears. I try to keep up with his speed and facilitate things: He gets exasperated easily, and I want to deliver for him at the highest level of playing. He has matured, after finding his ground, and knows how to work with the ensemble."

Turning to the 89-year-old Leppard, De Pue said: "Raymond is an incredible artist. Every performance I've been part of with him has been special. I would always think by the end that I understood completely how we did. He always knew what it would take (because of) his incredible experience with the ECO [English Chamber Orchestra], building it from the ground up."

Still a young man at 36, De Pue is now in the position of elder to many in the orchestra, and not just because he occupies the concertmaster chair.  Many new ISO members are in their 20s. "It's a huge relief to have a nice core group of young players who can make incredible music at a high level," De Pue said with typical enthusiasm. "It's cool for me to talk to those guys who are coming to us."

He gives some credit to ISO management (headed since 2013 by Gary Ginstling) for attracting good young players, in light of the fact that contract concessions the musicians made several years ago set the ISO's compensation back among the nation's year-round orchestras.

 "Players coming in have a lot of hope and a lot of opportunity," De Pue said. "One of the major concerns in 2012, '13, and '14 was that we would not be able to get good players. They are bringing a telltale sign that the orchestra is heading in the right direction. Once again it's a really wonderful place to make music as artists — and stay here."

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Three weeks into his position as UIndy director of jazz studies, Mark O'Connor introduces himself as player-composer

Mark O'Connor just joined the UIndy faculty.
The veneration that Thelonious Monk inspires in jazzmen often takes the form of compositional portraits of the pioneering pianist (1917-1982). To start his recital off Monday night at the University of Indianapolis, Mark O'Connor chose fellow saxophonist Johnny Griffin's "A Monk's Dream."

It is an easy, strolling medium-tempo piece with a bit of a shrug in its step, and it provided a fine introduction to  the university's new director of jazz studies, as well as something to make his new collaborators comfortable. They had no trouble finding a good comfort level: O'Connor himself seems to be an approachable colleague on and off the bandstand. Plus, they are among Indianapolis' best: pianist Steven Jones, bassist Nick Tucker, and drummer Kenny Phelps.

Griffin's number could be described as an Impressionist portrait of Monk, in contrast to Eric Dolphy's "Hat and Beard," an old favorite of mine, which is Cubist. But enough about painting! Back to the music.

O'Connor led the quartet through seven pieces, displaying his compositional chops as well. We heard the lovely ballad "Quiet Snow," with its gently arcing phrases and evocation of whiteness (talking Mother Nature here, not race!). The tenor saxophonist's solo showed his security in all registers. He put fairly large interval leaps in his solo without disturbing the lyrical line. His well-schooled tone had an abstract, slightly wistful quality in the high register, recalling the altoist Lee Konitz. Fluttery tremolo flourishes as O'Connor wound down his statement evoked drifty, swirling snowflakes.

Another natural phenomenon, the mirage, is dealt with more figuratively in O'Connor's piece of that title. The tempo is fast, the form intricate: "They nailed it," O'Connor said afterward of the rhythm section's performance of what he described as just about the hardest piece he's written. O'Connor showed off the heartiness of his horn's middle range, and his articulation was marvelous.

A couple of other O'Connor originals ended the recital. In "Suspended Reality" (the title work of one of two CDs for sale in the DeHaan Fine Arts Center lobby), Phelps' characteristic responsiveness came to the fore. He caught on to the leader's solo quickly and complemented its energy and rhythmic profile. The finale was "Blues for Ethan," a jumping number that brought out O'Connor's whimsical side. Solos from Tucker and Phelps were astonishing in cohesiveness without clutter as the performance approached its conclusion.

Bulking up the concert's middle were a couple of chestnuts: "East of the Sun"  and "Chelsea Bridge." The former standard brought to O'Connor's mind his debt to Stan Getz, who recorded the song in a manner fondly recalled by the recitalist nearly 60 years ago with the Oscar Peterson Trio. After Jones' reflective rubato introduction, the quartet settled into a lope through the melody. Tucker's fine solo was a notable feature. If the influence of Getz was particularly evident, I sensed it especially in O'Connor's extension of the song's final cadence, which sounded like a conscious salute to the master.

I've rarely taken as many notes on a single piece at a jazz concert as I did for the quartet's rendition of Billy Stayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge." But I'm not going to dump them all here, you'll be glad to know. I just want to say how much I admired the variety of texture exhibited, the logical contrasts between the song's "A" section and its bridge, and Jones' effective balance of filigree and chords in his solo. Oh, and kudos for O'Connor's exceptionally creative soloing, bringing new perspectives to the tune, including a spellbinding long coda that was gracefully capped by his expert mates.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Go, go, Donald J. Trump: A snide endorsement of the GOP candidate in a manner that makes a few flaws seem heroic

(And notice that the kazoo solo strikes a blow for the authentic-instruments movement)
The text:

Donald J. Trump
Back before he got well-known for making scenes,
He was a humble multimillionaire from Queens
In New York, New York, you're either champ or chump;
He knew which one he was, did Donald J. Trump:
He didn't like to read, which everyone can tell,
But he could make a deal just like a-ringing a bell!

Go, go, go, Donald, go
Go, go, go, Donald, go
Go go, go, Donald, go
Go go, go, Donald, go
Go go, Donald J. Trump.

He came into Manhattan with 12 million or so,
His dad gave him the knack for making it grow.
Deals were just as good as his lawyers said:
If you tried to make a fuss they would cut you dead.
You're hit hard? Hit back harder, he learned from Roy Cohn --
Then the host of "The Apprentice" came into his own!


He hired foreign workers, took his brand abroad,
Set up a university some say was a fraud,
Gave 25 grand to Florida's AG;
She said,  "Move along now, there ain't nothing to see."
He likes his women to be either flexible or hot:
Now is that an American guy thing or what!

He tells it like it is like the downhome folks;
He isn't really nasty --  you just don't get his jokes:
Let's put him on top; he don't need no credential.
Let him be who he is, we'll call it presidential:
And soon his name will be up on the White House in lights
Saying Donald J. Trump -- all right!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Imagine if all the "thou shalt nots" had been communicated to Moses' people via Facebook. Oh, the comments!

Stone tablets are heavy: What if Moses had posted them on Facebook?
After a certain amount of exposure to social media, you develop your own directives to yourself on how to use them. You can call these commandments, because they are laws you would like to follow to maximize the role of your pleasure working with your conscience in staying positive.

That resolve weakens if you regularly go into comment threads, however, particularly those generated by controversial issues. Even occasional succumbing to curiosity about comment threads can make you feel bad. So I formulated this personal  commandment (usually observed): "Thou Shalt Not Read Comments Online."

That got me to thinking:What if Moses had put the Ten Commandments as received from God on Facebook, and what if his people had been able to share their thoughts and opinions on the new laws via comment thread? I won't reproduce Moses' original post, which can be read in Exodus 20:1-17.  But here is some of the discussion the Ten Commandments might have aroused:


A strong list! Now we finally have something to hold us together. Way to go, Moses!


OK, but I see a lot of godly vanity here. Look how it starts out. It's all about Him, isn't it?


What did you expect, moron? It's Jehovah's LAW! He has to establish his authority. Sheesh!!


And give Him props for warning Moses to keep the rest of us away. This is a god who's earned our respect, don't you think?


Word! There are some confusing things here, though. Like, how am I supposed to keep my cattle from working on the Sabbath? Too much detail in this commandment, IMHO.


The devil's in the details, bro! You figure it out.


Just sayin' people can keep the Sabbath, though it won't be easy. But to get cattle not to work? How do you know if cattle are working or not working anyway? They're just cattle.


LMAO! BTW, I love that if I honor my parents, I'll live a long time.


Yeah, what's with that? Notice there are no rewards mentioned for not killing or not committing adultery.
Couldn't Moses have negotiated a few more goodies to incentivize us?


Moses is a nebbish, let's face it. What I want to know is why Aaron didn't handle the negotiations?


Look, bozo: Jehovah says up front he brought us out of Egypt. Who can forget that? That's all the reward we need, He thinks. Aaron is a slick dude, but go easy on Moses, for Christ's sake!


Don't be getting all proleptic on us, desertpup! Let me add: After the waters closed over the Pharaoh's men, we were fed in the wilderness, remember.


Yeah, but only after Jehovah heard our murmurings, as Moses called them. It was an acquired taste, manna was.


Kvetching comes natural to us. It's in our blood. A god who can't deal with complaining Jews would be a loser.


All right: Let's talk about bearing false witness. If there's an evil guy in our midst -- and I'm sure we could all name names -- I want to be able to bear false witness against him. Any kind of witness should be OK — true, false, whatever. I mean: Jehovah doesn't have to live with this kind of guy. He's so high and mighty sometimes it drives me crazy.


That's his prerogative, I guess. OK, redsearighteous, and how about that no-coveting thing at the end? That'll never fly. Coveting makes us human. Jehovah can scare us good, but sometimes he just isn't relatable. I'm suggesting we ignore that one. What's the worst that can happen?


You shouldn't ask.