Monday, October 31, 2016

The Wee Trio goes on tour, picking up a fourth player when it can, behind "Wee + 3"

There's nothing especially diminutive about the three men in their mid-30s who make up the Wee Trio, which will play the Jazz Kitchen on Nov. 9.

The group chose its name with a touch of humor (including a nod to Nintendo's Wii game, new at the time). The  original billing of the group with the names of its members — James Westfall, Dan Loomis, and Jared Schonig — was too cumbersome to last for long.

Rapport from the get-go: Dan Loomis, James Westfall, and Jared Schonig are the Wee Trio.
"But I don't know if we ever saw the group from a long-term perspective," the vibraphonist told me in a phone interview last week. "We played together a few times and found we had the same language in common to a T. So we said, 'Let's try to play a few gigs.'"

Bassist Loomis and drummer Schonig went back several years — to student days at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. —  before the Wee Trio first got together in Brooklyn, where the two Eastman grads lived across the street from Westfall.

All had strong affinities with pop music that they applied to their first efforts as an ensemble. Subsequently, all members have created the bulk of Wee Trio repertoire. In the beginning, however, "I brought in some Nirvana songs," Westfall recalled, "and Dan has a love for country-and-western music. We actually did a country gig together and played some Merle Haggard songs."

One of several CDs the Wee Trio has released is a David Bowie tribute called "Ashes to Ashes." The tight blend of bass-drums-and-vibes has also established itself on disc with"Capitol Diner," volumes 1 and 2, a live album, and now "Wee + 3," which has just cleared the first hurdle on the way to a potential Grammy Award. The "3" in the title refers to the fourth musician on most of the tracks. Each of the three guests plays three original Wee Trio tunes with the group. They are pianist Fabian Almazar, guitarist Nir Felder, and star trumpeter Nicholas Payton.

The guests fit the Wee Trio hand-in-glove each time they appear on the new recording. In a video made to promote the release, Westfall says the pieces were all written with these particular guests in mind. He compares the procedure to the time-honored practice of Duke Ellington, who showcased the personalities of his sidemen when arranging and composing for the band.

That aesthetic is hard to fulfill on the road, Westfall said, while also promoting the new disc. In several places, local players have been found to fit the right slots in the new compositions. Otherwise, unless one of the original guests is available, the Wee Trio draws on its substantial repertoire as a trio.

Indianapolis is in luck, however: Matt Pivec, director of jazz studies at Butler University and an excellent composer and saxophonist, will be sitting in with the group in its Jazz Kitchen appearance.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

How much more do we need to know to feel OK about a Clinton presidency and the Clinton Foundation?

Another song parody, this time turning toward Hillary Clinton and the fog of war about the Clinton Foundation and what it might owe to donors as well as to explaining why Bill Clinton got richer off it.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Raymond Leppard returns to the podium to conduct a regular-season ISO concert

Apart from an appearance a year-and-a-half ago, Raymond Leppard is rarely evident leading the Indianapolis
Symphony Orchestra in the regular season. Now holding the title of conductor laureate, Leppard is fondly remembered by many for his 14 seasons as the ISO's music director.

He was a fixture in a special concert that he created to give the orchestra a respite from about two dozen "Yuletide Celebration" concerts each December, but he decided the 2015 concert in that annual series would be the last and gave it decent burial

This time around in front of the orchestra he led between 1987 and 2001, "one is the loneliest number," as the old Three Dog Night hit has it. Friday's concert featuring Leppard and guest soprano Rachele Gilmore was a one-off. There is no repeat performance today — rare on the Classical Series season schedule.

Though I resist thinking of these blog posts as part of the ISO's marketing efforts, I'm sorry that what follows isn't in some small way a consumer advisory. The soprano is well worth hearing, and Leppard displayed some of his old magic in repertoire he loves dearly. If you didn't catch it Friday, you won't.

The first half was all-Mozart. The first few measures of the "Marriage of Figaro" Overture were at stage-whisper level, a very effective reminder of the piece's theatrical purpose. The line of both themes was kept smooth, with enlivening accents. A major crescendo leading to the climax was not just an episode of excitement, but seemed to justify and lift to a higher level everything that followed. The effect reminded me of something concertmaster Zach DePue once told me about working under Leppard: that by the end of each concert everything the musicians were asked to do made sense and revealed just how and why they had carried out Leppard's intentions.

The most accomplished symphony Mozart wrote in his teens (OK, the "little G minor" [No. 25] is a contender as well) followed. Detailed and well-shaped, the outer movements were zesty and vivid without any signs of being overstressed. The Andante unfolded like a dream, which doesn't mean it was blurry or unfocused. The vigorous minuet blended the qualities of naivete and nascent bravado convincingly. You can think of this movement as Cherubino music — prophetic of the lovelorn youth about to be packed off to the army in "The Marriage of Figaro." That kind of charm undercut by anxiety came through in this performance.

Rachele Gilmore, soprano, sang Dupard and Mozart with the ISO.
His mobility severely compromised by age, Leppard had to be led on and offstage at the start of each half. He remained seated at the podium between selections. Gesturing toward the wings, the conductor welcomed Gilmore to the stage for "Exsultate, jubilate," a motet for soprano and orchestra that requires clarity, accuracy, coloratura gifts and a devout expression of praise throughout.

This soloist had those qualities, sporting a bright, polished tone, with a special gleam and power kept in reserve to use as needed. The voice lost its luster down low somewhat, but those passages were few. In the aria preceding the brilliant "Alleluia" that ends the piece, Gilmore gave particular breadth and warmth to the caressing phrases (sung in Latin, of course) "You console the griefs which make the heart sigh."

She returned in the concert's second half for three songs by Henri Duparc, one of the major composers of the French art song. The melodie genre tends to carry the French love for a declamatory style in musical texts; you get the feeling no tune would satisfy a French composer if it did not mainly draw attention to a song's words. Both accompaniment and the voice itself carry out such duties in "L'invitation au voyage," "Au Pays ou se fait la guerre," and "Phydilé." Gilmore's voice floated with a focus on meaning over the pastel accompaniments, keenly joined in Leppard's hands to her singing.

The full orchestra assembled for the program finale. "Cockaigne Overture," Edward Elgar's affectionate portrait of London at its cheeriest and most life-affirming, wrapped things up splendidly.  All the programmatic episodes were robustly characterized, with an especially well-pronounced blaze of glory in the military-band evocations. The rush to the final double bar displayed the deceptively offhand but scrupulous mastery Leppard typically brought to ISO performances during his heyday here.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Retro technology and the spirit world: Phoenix Theatre premieres Tom Horan's "Static"

Only people absolutely certain of their rational powers can totally dismiss the reality of ghosts. Lacking such certainty, I'm agnostic to this extent: Experience of "the spirit world" must be granted validity as an alternative way of looking at life.

If you're in full possession of your faculties, such an alternative may present itself to you in moments of vulnerability. Thus, some are more susceptible than others. To anyone else, including those who come to ghost stories for entertainment, a willingness to suspend belief is as useful as the conventional suspension of disbelief.
Walter and Millie engage in a series of tense communication trials.

A complicating factor in Tom Horan's "Static"is the presence of a deranged main character. But the genre allows ghost behavior to be off kilter, and Millie is one of two ghosts painfully revealed to Emma, a young woman who, as the curtain rises (figuratively) at the Phoenix Theatre, is unusually susceptible yet reassuringly sane. Impulsive and tightly wound, she has bought an old house in the neighborhood she grew up in as a surprise for her fiance, Owen, an unusually flexible fellow willing to accept this as their new home.

Jeffery Martin's set brings a well-organized but suspiciously manic milieu to the couple's task of clearing the place out. The walls are cluttered with framed photos, post cards, stuffed animals crowded along a lintel, some vintage barometers— a mind-boggling assortment of things belonging to the previous residents, Walter and Millie, who died there mysteriously with all their stuff in place.

With his suspenseful alternation of present and past planes of action (about 20 years apart), Horan presents us with the methodical Walter, gingerly managing his disturbed wife and curating the couple's collections, and sets that relationship alongside Emma's tense curiosity about the contents of the home she intends to share with the skeptical but patient Owen.

Bill Simmons' direction puts a premium on the animating mystery. It's a quiet play, on the whole, and pauses in the dialogue echo the script's scrutiny of how we communicate, especially when the gaps are partly connected to technological glitches. Emma's cellphone contact with Owen when she's working alone in the house suffers interruptions, but those pale beside the episodes of static in the cassette tapes she's going through, including some crucially incomplete dialogue between Walter and Millie. The latter holes in the taped archive derive from Millie's traumatic muteness. Only the matching of the right Walter tape with the right Millie journal achieves a breakthrough.

A quest deeper than normal: Emma's persistence wins over Owen.
As seen opening night Thursday, Chelsey Stauffer brings the right edginess and focus to the role of Emma, nicely balanced against Ben Schuetz as Owen's more offhand curiosity and buy-in  to his fiancee's project. Jolene Mentink Moffat achieves a tour-de-force of wordless three-dimensionality as Millie; one scene where her eyes widen in horrified recognition chills me even now as I recall it. Rich Rand caught the mild-mannered thoroughness and desperate patience of Walter perfectly. In a brief scene as a little girl visiting Walter and Millie, Eliot Simmons was quite convincing.

Lacunae are common in some of the most venerated texts of Western culture: The Dead Sea Scrolls and the works of the Greek poet Sappho are defined in part by what scholars have to supply to make them intelligible. More to the point, indications of suppression, distortion or decay plague modern media, from the 18-and-a-half-minute hole in the Nixon tapes to the current dribs and drabs of sensitive information on the Clinton campaign, the apparent work of maliciously selective Russian hackers. And for many years, documents that reporters pry from government agencies through the Freedom of Information Act are often heavily redacted. The human animal is a relentless censor.

Horan seems to suggest that the way we preserve events is helplessly mired in the selectivity of our media. The basis of Emma's search is the collection of cassette tapes Walter amassed. Many of them capture sounds as painstakingly as the physical objects with which he's cluttered the house. We accept the fact that a recording of a dripping faucet or a tree full of birds is only part of those phenomena in reality. Walter does as well, but he has an agonizing reason for accumulating such evidence. His quest is to wrench Millie from an attachment to things; her fixation stems from a family tragedy cleverly withheld from the audience until near the end. Only proliferation of material evidence can provide a healing distraction, he figures.

"Static" reinforces the notion that our past is inevitably subject to editing. Studies I wish I could cite here have shown that even the memories that seem clearest to us change each time we recall them. We redact our own memories, whether we want to or not. In doing that unconsciously, we create a  host of ghosts. A riddle that Walter poses to the visiting neighbor girl tempts the audience to think in materialistic terms, and we get blocked. The right answer turns out to be immaterial, yet central to everyone's experience. It, too, is a ghost.

It's striking that, instead of blackouts, Bryan Fonseca's lighting design throws a lattice pattern over the set between scenes. Unlike many manmade structures set in context, a lattice creates a regular framework for what lies behind it. The dark pattern of crossed lines is complemented by the light pattern of squares. This echoes visually the poise of the two worlds juxtaposed in this show. Reality is the uneasy yet oddly stable relationship between what lies on the other side of the framework and the framework itself.

Whether or not you "believe in" ghosts now seems beside the point, doesn't it?

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Monday, October 24, 2016

The other part of "Finding Home": Indiana's bicentennial has a second, closely related celebration at IRT

Jan Lucas and Tim Grimm lead an ensemble song in "Finding Home."
Near the end of John Bartlow Martin's painstaking 1947 study, "Indiana: An Interpretation," the prolific midcentury reporter writes that "America is full of people like the Hoosiers,"and "America is a larger Indiana."

That might seem like the sort of sweeping summary authors use to give their books a more comprehensive stance than they would otherwise have.  But I think it applies particularly to an underlying theme I detected in "Gold," the second of two shows called "Finding Home: Indiana at 200," which premiered at Indiana Repertory Theatre Sunday afternoon.

A tendency embedded in the American experiment to spoil Paradise finds expression in "Hoosier Cannonball," among many deep-grained songs in old-timey style created by Tim Grimm and performed in both shows by him and his family quartet (with the addition of fiddler Katie Burk). The serpent in the American tree has always had a long list of temptations, and Americans dependably keep checking items off.

Madame C.J. Walker (Kim Staunton) exults in her business success.
Even more than its companion "Blue," which opened last Friday, "Gold" emphasizes the difficult search for justice that societies founded upon its promise have to undertake. Yet even as many kinds of unfairness happen and may be exposed, there is likely to emerge the myth of a golden age fiercely tended by the dominant group.

As a title, "Gold" refers to one of the colors of the Indiana flag. But the susceptibility of something precious to tarnish extends a warning against complacency to Hoosiers. When writ large, the warning seems applicable to the whole country. As Robert Frost wrote in his sententious gem of a poem, "Nothing Gold Can Stay": "Nature's first green is gold, / her hardest hue to hold."

Yet the essential optimism of those who fight to assert their place in the American scheme of things indicates their ability to think golden thoughts, too. Shari Wagner's monologue for Madame C.J. Walker, passionately portrayed by Kim Staunton, brims with confidence in the broad meaning of creating and selling hair-care products and other cosmetics to black women. The entrepreneurial spirit, among Hoosiers and their fellow Americans alike, often has a saving idealism to partner with naked ambition.

Mark Goetzinger as Louis Shapiro
Hoosier pride is compounded of many instances of individual pride, like that expressed by Louis Shapiro nearly a century ago as he frets over the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in his beloved adopted hometown. Mark Goetzinger had a winning solo showcase (written by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso) as the delicatessen founder in his shop, touting his corned beef and America with equal verve. This was among many well-judged individual portraits, directed by Peter Amster,  which had pride shading into bravado even as they justify their appeal to our sympathies.

You might feel some of that, surprisingly, in the ingratiating bumptiousness of David Hoppe's portrait of John Dillinger. The perpetual tug of fame and celebrity on Americans often gathered up criminals in the early decades of the last century. Michael Joseph Mitchell was a pepperpot of bravado as he roamed the stage, replicating Dillinger's  fast-paced dash from state to state ahead of the authorities.

They would have to find Dillinger in Chicago indulging in his movie-watching passion before bringing his career to a violent end. Hoppe's way of capturing the glow of fame, in whatever manner it's pursued, displayed the same knack he showed in a full-length one-actor play of recent memory, "After Paul McCartney."

Another writing triumph in "Gold" was the contribution of Dan Wakefield, one of an elite company (is it more than two?) of literary stars from Indianapolis to have a city park named after them. With the loving attention to detail comparable to the James Joyce of "Dubliners," Wakefield made a basketball memoir that proved in performance to be another feather in the cap of cast member Goetzinger, who made the name-and-places-rich monologue seem entirely unaffected and spontaneous.

"Finding Home" is likely to stick in the memory for any number of small details that can stand for great swaths of experience: In "Blue," Madge Obertholtzer's odd timing for trying on hats in Susan Neville's sketch of her victimization by Klan boss D.C. Stephenson.  In "Gold," the scar on black businessman John Freeman's leg, crucial in preventing his being tossed into slavery and decisive in his decision to leave Indianapolis for Canada (Maurice Broaddus' work, starring David Alan Anderson). Also, a double portrait of two brave women by Lucrecia Guerrero and Neville, the lovely Victorian finery (among Ann Sheffield's costume designs) worn by DeLanna Studi and Jan Lucas, lending visual poise to the determination with which Albion Fellows Bacon and May Wright Sewall carried themselves in struggling for social progress.

Writers of distinction are the chief carriers of our cultural and historical memories. They are the basis of "Finding Home"'s success, the foundation upon which the wizards of IRT have conjured this indelible parade of Hoosier distinctiveness. As the Grimms sing simply in a musical portrait about another great Hoosier writer: "We know all about it / because Ernie Pyle was there."

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Sunday, October 23, 2016

'Rocky Horror Show' gathers the faithful at the Athenaeum

Scott Keith as Dr. Frank 'N Furter.
The curtain speech is on the screen high above the Athenaeum's Basile Theatre stage, the iconic scarlet lips mouthing the usual welcome and warnings to turn cellphones to vibrate and place them at the pleasure zones of your choice. Uh...what?

OK, that's not quite the conventional pre-show advisory, but then, the presentation is "The Rocky Horror Show." That perdurable send-up of science fiction and horror movies of a couple of generations ago, linked to a pounding rock score and saturated in pansexualism and the pleasure principle, is back.

Zach Rosing Productions has again brought the Richard O'Brien musical to the downtown landmark designed by Kurt Vonnegut's grandfather, and so it goes. At the second performance Saturday, all cylinders were firing as the sturdy vehicle roared round its twisted track. It is scheduled to continue in that manner through Oct. 29.

The band's volume, with the vocal amplification on top, obscured many of the lyrics. But this is the kind of show where, if the verbal specifics aren't clear, the general sense of them is both well-known and almost instantly catchable. And given the setting, with Rathskeller entertainment thumping through walls and floor from below, dialing up to "11" in the theater is practically mandatory.

Wide-eyed Brad and Janet at the castle entrance.
The technical wizardry is keen and elaborate. As usherettes, Claire Wilcher and Erin Becker introduce the audience to the generating genre as a montage of film clips shudders behind them in retro black-and-white splendor. From then on, the spell is complete, from the wedding party that the innocents Brad and Janet leave to go visit their old science teacher Dr. Scott on into the thunderstorm and car trouble that dump them at the doorstep of Dr. Frank 'N Furter's castle. And that's just the crisply executed first quarter-hour.

We are guided through the story by the narration of Adam O. Crowe on screen, properly portentous, with the gravitas of Eric Sevareid and Vincent Price combined, at the desk of a dark-wood-paneled library. As apt as his solemn presence is, we are never long distracted from the lively unfolding of the onstage action, keyed to Scott Keith's virtuoso impersonation of Frank, cross-dressed and bearish, both needy and commanding. His chief victims, the flashy Eddie and the paraplegic Dr. Scott, had unquenchable vivacity in Joanna Winston's performance.

The mad scientist's household, filled out with adherents (or are they virtual slaves?) outfitted in inspired motley by Peachy Keen Costuming, cavorts around him, usually in the striking patterns of Mariel Greenlee's choreography. Everyone's excited by the imminent debut of Frank's creature on the slab in the lab. Brad and Janet are assured they are uncommonly lucky to be there, as the anthemic "Time Warp" rips from every throat. The nerdy ingenues, played with apple-cheeked earnestness and growing astonishment by Tim Hunt and Betsy Norton, are soon to sink, with their standards in shreds, into the Furter milieu.

Rocky, his dim-bulb mind compensated for by the radiance of his hair and physique, comes sweetly alive in the performance of Joe Doyel. The title character brings out most of the free-floating lustfulness of his creator, but not all of it, as Brad and Janet are soon to discover. There are no boundaries in this world, except the perennial one of deciding who's in control. That turns out to be the ostensibly loyal servants Riff Raff and Magenta, roles boldly etched and executed by Craig Underwood and Claire Wilcher. The climactic scene of vaporizing violence  is typical of the coordination and verve the production team brings to this show, from director Zack Neiditch on.

Castle denizens celebrate life, both natural and artificial.
The peculiar charm of "Rocky Horror Show," apart from its campy take on the movie subgenres that inspired it, owes a lot to the funhouse-mirror distortion of 1960s idealism in the decade that followed. At its most naive end, there's the boundary-free utopia of John Lennon's "Imagine." I see also in the background the controversial application of Freudianism to modern history by Norman O. Brown in "Life Against Death," once a fashionable intellectual puzzler that suggested universal victory over repression could be achieved.

What Freud identified as the polymorphously perverse sexuality of infants, seeking gratification wherever their developing senses lead them, might be extended into adulthood, Brown proposed in a book he later substantially repudiated.  Nonetheless, such a fatuous dream seems to energize "Rocky Horror," with a sci-fi escape tacked onto the end.

The hold the Frankenstein story continues to exert owes much to Mary Shelley's awareness that evil lies in the vain attempt to engineer life, not just in the experiment's monstrous result. O'Brien's fizzy concoction is rooted in the same awareness, though the audience is spared having its nose rubbed in it. The raucous fun rules, right from the wink-wink, nudge-nudge of the mad scientist's name.

The soporific crooner Perry Como might be rolling over in his grave when I admit here to being reminded of his hit song, the part that goes: "Hot-diggity, hot-diggity-dog, what you do to me, when you're holding me tight." Dr. Frank 'N Furter exerts such a grip in this buoyant production. Don't stop at putting your phone on vibrate. Power it down, and let "The Rocky Horror Show" power you up.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, October 22, 2016

'Finding Home: Indiana at 200' — IRT displays a Hoosier cornucopia of song and vignettes

The niftiest thing about Indiana Repertory Theatre's bicentennial observance is not that the job of sifting submissions from Hoosier writers has been so smoothly integrated into two shows, but that the balance of celebration and friendly criticism is so keen, affectionate, and deft.

Here I cover only the "Blue" show, which opened the run Friday night. The "Gold" version, with 70 percent new material, opens Sunday afternoon. Mentioning everything even one of these shows contains would be cumbersome, but I will say that all the "Blue" sketches "worked," and that balance of pride and finger-wagging was also carried through in the original songs Tim Grimm performed with his family, plus fiddler Katie Burk.

Through narrative elements as well as his music, Grimm gives "Finding Home" a solid, inviting continuity. Integrating a show emphasizing Indiana's "who-knew?" diversity and friction-filled history must have been a Herculean labor. But what's delivered to the audience is mostly fun, romping around Robert Mark Morgan's detailed, folksy set, including emblems of Hoosier history in a floor collage.

A rousing song led by Tim Grimm is one of many ways the show salutes our 200-year-old state.
What human community doesn't look askance at people who don't seem to belong? The way Indiana shares that trait with people everywhere has an irony rooted in its name. "The land of Indians" had uprooted the native peoples from their land by the 1830s, the show informs us. That's pretty quick work for a state cobbled out of the wilderness (which was also briskly cleared away) in 1816.

"Finding Home" also seems universal in showing how difficult progress is, whether it involves overcoming resistance to using actual science to spur pharmaceutical advances (there's a crisp Eli Lilly/G.H.A. Clowes sketch by Jennifer Blackmer)  or breaking the gender barrier at the Indianapolis 500 (Tom Horan's wonderful ensemble piece about Janet Guthrie for the cast's women).

It's tempting to see those outfoxed or set aside by history as villains in retrospect. Some can be fairly identified as such, though the nastiest of them (in a sly stroke) is the Kentuckian who seeks to disrupt the Underground Railroad in Bennett Ayres' sketch. But you also have to see resisters as defenders of good, settled ways of life slow to innovate, like the young farmer tempted to join the Ku Klux Klan in Donna L. Reynolds' piece.

You may have to examine times when you chose closed-mindedness in your own life. The thoughtfulness threaded throughout this long show is as integral to it as the fun, such as the high-spirited ensemble kudos for Hoosier food and the Indy 500 in songs by Tim Grimm and Jan Lucas.

Finding home with difficulty: James Dean visits his high-school drama teacher in Fairmount.
The profoundest of the thought-provoking sketches is Sarah Layden's description of the ostracism Ryan White suffered dealing with AIDS acquired through a blood transfusion in the early days of the scourge. David Alan Anderson plays a high-school classmate of the Kokomo teenager, whose valiant struggle attracted worldwide attention and brought celebrities to his Indianapolis funeral in 1990.

Anderson's performance captured the halting self-appraisal a searing, guilty memory often arouses in us. He seemed to float above Layden's words in an atmosphere of reminiscence and regret that felt fully authentic. I mean this in the best sense: The actor was engaged with the text, responsive to its narrative element, while also transcending it as the speaker seeks atonement for his youthful lack of empathy and support.

Ensemble shout-out to food includes Jackson Grimm and Jan Lucas.
You know how in a dream you are sometimes lifted out of yourself, observing, while also being inside your skin doing something (usually trivial, silly or puzzling)? This was like that, but on the most serious, real-world level. I won't soon forget how well-judged Anderson's management of talk and pauses was, how precisely he expressed the anguish of assessing a past moral failure without chewing the scenery.

That made his final gesture —  of placing a hand gently on Ryan's jacket, draped over a pizza parlor chair, then sitting down —  a mute blessing that ennobled all the words that had gone before. The cliche of being able to hear a pin drop applies to the silence of the IRT Upper Stage crowd here; the sketch was well-placed before the comforting and upbeat finale.

There is so much else that could be praised about this bicentennial hootenanny and history lesson — and such commitment and skill in the parade of portrayals directed by Peter Amster, but I want to mention only three more: DeLanna Studi's performances in James Still and Anne Garcia-Romero's riveting story of Princess Mishawaka and Bruce Hetrick's narrative of the Deer Lick Creek Massacre, genuine Hoosier episodes in the dreary, depressing advance of injustice toward native peoples across the continent; and Michael Joseph Mitchell (Eugene V. Debs) and Mark Goetzinger (James Whitcomb Riley) in Dan Carpenter's uproarious flight of fancy involving two Hoosier icons in their cups.

Some of the Hoosiers I have known since coming here in 1986 are no longer among us to enjoy
"Finding Home." I have put together an imaginary guest list to occupy some of the seats between now and Nov. 13. At the top of it are the names of Lawrence "Bo" Connor, who hired me at The Star, and Frances Linthecome, on whose memories Still drew for one of his evocative Indiana plays and whom I got to know at church.

You will have your own list, I'm sure.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, October 21, 2016

Dance Kaleidoscope opens its season with 'Moving Sculptures'

"Pictures": Statuesque, with a soupcon of risk
The Dance Kaleidoscope program title really popped for me in the final appearance of the "Promenade" in Maurice Ravel's orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." That's the episode where the recurrent theme of the suite is recast in a spooky minor mode. In David Hochoy's choreography, there is a stunning parade of couples — the men lifting the women — that moves slowly and individually across the Upper Stage of Indiana Repertory Theatre, where "Moving Sculptures" continues through Sunday.

The three-dimensionality of the paired dancers is vivid and monumental under Laura E. Glover's lighting. The movement is stately yet loaded with tension, because the lifts are formed so as to look precarious. They are actually more secure than they appear, given the troupe's usual professional aplomb.

Hochoy gives himself the freedom both to stay close to the pictures that inspired Mussorgsky and to move away from them. In this case, the sepulchral nature of this episode, following as it does in the spirit of "Catacombs," is set aside in favor of asserting the majesty of dance in fresh configurations, presented slowly enough to appreciate as a celebration of life (ironically the phrase often used today in ceremonies honoring the deceased).

First performed by the company in 2010, "Pictures at an Exhibition" was a pleasure to revisit. The visual splendor of the production couldn't have been more apt to the topic. The dancers enter slowly to the "Promenade" theme, looking around as if struck by amazement at the exhibition. DK  dancers can even walk in wonder and make you feel it.

The costumes of Cheryl Sparks, with their lavish touches of tattoo art, get a boost into fantasy in the pulse-pounding "Hut of Baba Yaga" miniature, when two caped male dancers acted as deft superheroes, with the rest of the company masked. The movement was spidery and full of sharp-angled turmoil, evoking the nightmarish realms of Hieronymus Bosch. Glover's lighting seemed to draw inspiration from both comic books and the colors of Fauvism.

In the finale, "The Great Gate of Kiev," the protean panache of Glover's lighting for DK reaches a peak. I don't think the recorded sound needed to be so loud, so it's a tribute to what there was to see onstage that I was able mentally to dial that assault back a few notches. In listening to this oft-performed work, I have never been so moved as I was Thursday by the two subdued episodes meant to depict the chanting of priests in the dedication procession. The lighting switches to an all-absorbing purple as the women move in ceremonial fashion, calmly contained in a bubble of piety, before the golden outburst of exultation resumes. Bells herald the theme's final repetition, as dancers rock side to side like giant clappers, the whole stage ablaze.

A couple of episodes that Hochoy has kept close to the description of the original pictures still left him lots of imaginative room. "The Gnome," meant to show a confined, misshapen creature, brought out a display of unhackneyed grotesquerie. It was probably not mistaken to detect some of the trapped postures of love in this episode.

"The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in Their Shells" was suggestive just enough of its subject to feel comic without becoming Disneyesque. The division of the troupe in two, one moving stolidly, one in near-stationary contrast, marvelously suggested the passing of an ox cart in "Bydlo"; Glover had another lighting triumph here, the figures dappled and flecked with earthen tones, with some highlighting evoking the dramatic illumination of Mannerism.

A couple of solos are worth mentioning: Timothy June's in a group setting of "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle" and Noah Trulock in a version of the Promenade that he danced with as much flair as I remember ever seeing from him.

I thought he was spectacular all evening, frankly. His acting chops were the focus in "Lake Effect Snow," a 2014 work for DK by Brock Clawson. The work, a kind of Bildungsroman of a young man's adjustment to and acceptance of his uniqueness, uses the motif of Trulock on a bench facing upstage and the gesture of an around-the-shoulder embrace, with his or another's arm occasionally extended around the empty space beside him. A variety of partners encounter the protagonist, and something like a Greek chorus of dance commentary comes into and out of view. There are striking blackouts and the use of isolating light patterns.

Stuart Coleman in "Lake Effect Snow," a reprise of 2015 DK premiere.
Dance is not naturally suited to opening up the interior life, though Clawson's work has plenty of precedents in that regard. Nonetheless, "Lake Effect Snow" is a notable example of  how choreography can be as sensitive to mental and emotional intimacy as related dramatic arts.

His language for the dancers is replete with torso twists, abrupt downward plunges, arms flung outward at the elbow, and other sudden changes of angle. The solitary character seems to be both dreaming these people and experiencing them physically. Other people's relationship to the protagonist is often kept in suspense or presented as shaded by ambiguity and double-mindedness. The outlook seems to me skillfully balanced between pessimism and optimism. That makes the mystery at the heart of "Lake Effect Snow" rewarding to come to terms with.

The program opens with a setting of Rimsky-Korsakov's stirring "Capriccio Espagnol" for about a dozen of Indianapolis School of Ballet's female dancers. Victoria Lyras' choreography had an agreeable in-and-out flow of ensemble and solo movement. The soloists replicated the score's wealth of instrumental solos. The well-known work gathers orchestral force through sweeping triple-meter variations into an intense double-time stretto, by which stage these excellently trained young dancers didn't appear to have much left. But the showcase for them was worthwhile, and they acquitted themselves well.

[Photos by Chris Crawl and Freddie Kelvin]

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Recipe for excitement: The Cookers play the Jazz Kitchen

What a delicious thing to contemplate and enjoy! — The Cookers at the Jazz Kitchen. I almost had the idea that maybe Jolene Ketzenberger or Liz Biro should be covering the gig. But there I was, so

Decades of experience come together around original charts, first-rate together and singly.
we'll go with a translation of the appetizing names over to the music right away here. In the first set, while a torrential thunderstorm presided outside, the septet that has energized small-group acoustic jazz anew set out a compact feast for a decent-sized crowd, considering the weather.

In his opening statement to the band's enthusiasts, spokesman and trumpeter David Weiss called it "the smallest crowd we've ever played for," which seemed an unnecessarily dour way to begin. It was like a preacher opening his sermon complaining about sparsely filled pews. What are the people in attendance supposed to think? "Are we being bawled out for those who stayed away?"

The Cookers deserve to bring in housefuls of fans, of course. Besides Weiss, there is a personnel list of head-spinning authority and experience: tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison joining Weiss in the front line, and a rhythm section consisting of veterans George Cables, piano; Cecil McBee, bass, and Billy Hart, drums.

At first, Hart's drums were too high in the mix: You rarely hear drums covering a tenor-sax solo!  The situation was brought into balance by the second number,"Beyond Forever," a piece by Cables, and it was a pleasure to re-encounter his characteristic blend of down-home feeling and lyricism  (with some fine in-the-pocket drive in Hart's playing) and also the fluidity and note-spinning agility of Harrison.

A Billy Harper composition, "Croquet Ballet," touched on the refined pulse associated with the second word in the title, and featured ensemble passages in between the solos.  The coda settled into a repeated figure for just the four horns, always precisely timed, with variations in notes dropping out without disturbing the pattern's contour. It was witty, beautifully harmonized, and a further sign of the band's excellence and internal rapport.

The set finale, Freddie Hubbard's "The Core," presented the first solo opportunity for the thick-toned but ever adroit McBee (though his role in the rhythm section was always worth noticing) as he introduced the rambunctious theme. The propulsive Hart, a relentless generator of dense textures nimbly set down, got an extensive solo into which he poured a wealth of ideas, astonishingly accented and presented with consistent focus.

The next-to-last piece, Harper's "If One Could Only See," was introduced by a limpid Cables solo.  This rendition centered on a showcase solo by Henderson, who showed off his ability to maintain a line even while he found ways to shake it up consistently to let any hint of cliche fly away.

It was typical of how these adept players approach their work. They made the boundary between tight ensemble and pungent soloing seamless. It's no wonder that there's more than all-star status to explain the Cookers' stature: They are making new music that keeps extending the legacy that can already be credited to them as individuals.

One just doesn't get the chance to hear a seven-piece touring band of major players often. The Cookers would be welcome back to Indianapolis anytime; perhaps with better weather and fewer folks settling in at home for a presidential debate, they'd pack the house.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"Everybody Must Get Trumped (Rainy Day Women #8 and #28)": a pre-debate special, interpolating "A Trump Portrait" and a salute to the Nobel lit prize winner

Is there anything the Republican presidential candidate and his adherents won't take offense at? This song runs through a considerable list of how you can get "Trumped," but -- heaven help us! -- it could have been even longer.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Bard Fest: From Catalyst Repertory, a searing 'Coriolanus'

"When a play has become a classic in drama," Max Beerbohm wrote in 1898, shortly after becoming theater
Taylor Cox as Coriolanus, a warrior brought up to cherish his wounds but resist being fawned over because of them.
critic of London's Saturday Review, "it ceases to be a play." What he meant by that is partly what drew me to single out "Coriolanus" from among the three offerings in Bard Fest: A Shakespeare Festival, which takes place between now and the end of the month in Carmel.

Beerbohm explained that being regarded as a classic in literature can't hurt the work, but if it is frequently staged, the drama is subject to so many comparisons and reminiscences of other performances that everyone involved feels tested and trapped. Its life as a text to be played is sapped in the audience's mind by ghostly repetition.

Now, Beerbohm's memory was superior to mine, and he moved in a theatrical environment where seeing multiple productions of the same Shakespeare work posed a real challenge. Nonetheless, his point rings a bell with me. I had never seen "Coriolanus" enacted before but knew it only from long-ago study in school, then rereading it just before I took in Catalyst Repertory's opening-night performance Saturday. Apart from the theater of the mind, "Coriolanus" in sound and sight physically before me was an exciting prospect. (The festival, at the Carmel Theatre Company's cozy home, also includes productions of "King Lear" and "Twelfth Night.")

This late tragedy has a strong reputation, but it is not popular with audiences and, several sources tell me, is infrequently produced. For this reason, but also for its involved, context-specific language, it is not a source of "familiar quotations." Its hero, a military man of peculiar intensity, is unlikable in the extreme. He can be admired for knowing his own mind and sticking to its dictates, but he offends our notions of loyalty, patriotism, and the need for leaders to have the common touch. A modern conservative academic whose name escapes me has observed that a huge proportion of Western literature, from Homer on, has rested upon military values — a fact that makes the kind of war-averse people who study literature squeamish. That could be a factor too in this play's unpopularity.

A bromance in blood: Coriolanus comes over to the enemy, Aufidius.
Shakespeare's tale from ancient Rome (through a source he often depended on, Plutarch's "Lives") places us in a time of turmoil on the Italian peninsula, when Romans were challenged by nearby rivals. The tiny state was imperiled by internal conflict as well, somewhat familiar in its modern counterparts, between upper and lower classes. This production has to make do with minimal suggestions of a restive, uncouth urban mob, but our imagination can fill in the crowds. The menace they present is constantly on the mind of the war hero Caius Marcius, who acquires the honorific surname "Coriolanus" after an amazing conquest of the enemy town Corioles.

Taylor Cox, his apartness signaled in the flesh by sleeve tattoos, plays Coriolanus. His spirit of independence and defiance (eventually of the patricians as well as the plebeians) never flags. He roars Coriolanus' unbending disdain for the populace, which is suspicious of his military exploits and holds him responsible for elevated grain prices that have put them close to starvation. The show's First and Second Citizens (Ryan Reddick and Tony Johnson) represented the rebellious mood stoutly, though physically they aren't quite the picture of privation.

The rock excerpts used as brief interludes between scenes capture Coriolanus' single-minded ferocity and, even when they are more reflective, serve to underline the timeless struggles the story illustrates. It was slightly disappointing to hear music as underscoring for the play's most famous speech, beginning "I banish you" and ending "There is a world elsewhere," as the hero leaves Rome. I had looked forward to taking in Coriolanus' declaration of banishment as a relief from his usual ranting and delivered without accompaniment. Costuming is a mix of warrior chic, a contemporary range of casual and dressy, and the plausibly ancient and classic. The set is a wall of drab panels, and lighting is put to work resourcefully to isolate different playing areas.

The second act offered a change of vocal tone and texture that the first act needed more of. The turn of events toward tragedy as the hero in exile comes into focus allowed for more nuance in Casey Ross' direction. I liked the contrast in style between Cox and Ryan Ruckman as Aufidius, Coriolanus' chief opponent on the side of the Volscians who bedevil Rome. Coriolanus and Aufidius have a kind of bromance in blood: Each represents to the other the warrior ideal; they are two of a kind, and their kind is rare. But since this is Coriolanus' tragedy, not Aufidius', the Roman hero proves to be more vulnerable.

Mother knows best: Volumnia reminds her son of their unshakable bond.
That crucial weakness is largely due to the outsize influence of his mother, Volumnia, played with fiery resolve by Nan Macy. Volumnia has a couple of huge speeches in the latter half of the play, a challenge to any actress and to an audience's attention. These came off well. Through gesture and diction, Macy provided some of the show's most memorable moments: I'm thinking of her chilling reminder to her son, "You're my warrior!" and to her embrace from behind as she emphasizes that Coriolanus had sucked valor from her breasts.

Credit the cast with consistency in giving expression sentence by sentence to their lines, although everybody seemed too tightly wound. I would like to have heard sense applied more often to the arc of a speech, so that it wouldn't have seemed that the actors were concentrating only on being vigorous and intelligible. Macy shaped her speeches so, and in portraying the general Cominius making the case for Coriolanus to be named consul, so did Tony Armstrong.

Matt Anderson, when he allowed himself to settle into the role of Coriolanus' father-figure Menenius, had it when he tried unsuccessfully to arrange a meeting with the hero in exile.  Ruckman displayed the knack occasionally as Aufidius, though his characterization leaned too much in the direction of a hard-bitten cynic talking to himself. As the tribunes who plot to undercut Coriolanus by arousing the populace's resentment, Paige Scott and Matt Walls were effective, but depended more than necessary on touches of melodrama to signal their nastiness.

All told, the keyed-up energy of the show I saw suits the story. Production values seem to reinforce the fact that, although the pathos of Coriolanus' situation is genuine as the tragic conclusion nears, the play focuses on insight into warrior culture, the moral quandaries it tosses up, and its perennial trouble adjusting to the political culture it inevitably helps to shape. The production gets enough things right that you won't want to miss out on that rare  chance to see "Coriolanus" in the flesh, wounds and all.

[Photos by Gary Nelson]

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra pays visit to the Viennese classics with two guests

My most recent encounter with the art of Marc-Andre Hamelin was on disc, but it was enough that, taken together with his performance Thursday morning at Hilbert Circle Theatre, to confirm his fitness for any assignment at the keyboard he gives himself.

With the Pacifica Quartet, he gives a masterly performance of Leo Ornstein's spiky quintet for piano and strings (Hyperion). But under consideration here is his latest concert appearance with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra — the first of two in a weekend engagement split in half by the intrusion of "A Tribute to Prince" tomorrow. The Coffee Classical Series concert used a Haydn opera overture as a curtain-raiser for the Piano Concerto in D major, Hob. XVIII:11.

Marc-Andre Hamelin continues to show the breadth of his musical interests.
Bernard Labadie, a fellow French Canadian, conducted the concert, which also included Mozart's Symphony No. 39 in E-flat, K. 543.

The founders of what became known as the Viennese Classical School couldn't have less in common with the Russian-American modernist Leo Ornstein, but Hamelin's suitability at both poles — and in between — has also been displayed in previous ISO appearances.

Hamelin's playing had loads of personality — in fact, an apparent blend of the composer's and his own. His cadenzas in the first and second movements lent further insight into the ingratiating concerto, on which he was sympathetically supported by Labadie and the orchestra. 

In the Vivace movement, Hamelin paralleled Haydn's wit with his own, especially in a cross-hands passage in which assertive phrases in the bass genially answered open-ended statement in the treble.  In the second movement, an extended meditation on the Un poco adagio material served as a reminder that Haydn could be as deeply reflective as his younger countryman Mozart. The finale was taken at breakneck speed, with its untamed sources in Eastern European folk music brought to the fore without apology or let-up. Hamelin has such familiarity with unfamiliar repertoire that he can bring out eccentricities that help define a piece of music without importing eccentricities of his own.

Bernard Labadie displayed his full-spectrum intimacy with Haydn and Mozart.
The concert opened with the Overture, or Sinfonia, to one of Haydn's now-neglected operas, "L'isola disabitata" (The Desert Isle). There was bite in the fast music, befitting its place in the composer's Sturm und Drang style, with unfettered emotions reflecting the rational 18th century's counternarrative of "sensibility." Labadie particularly made the most of the delicate minuet contrast just before the vigorous fast music recurs to punctuate the end of the piece. Like many of Haydn's dance movements, a country flavor clings to it.

With Mozart's E-flat symphony, the rapport between the ISO and the conductor, seated and batonless, was fully confirmed. The interplay between winds  and strings was poised and mutually respectful under Labadie's command. It was fun to hear a couple of assistant principals playing first-chair: clarinetist Samuel Rothstein and flutist Rebecca Price Arrensen.

With this concert, I was struck anew by a difference between Haydn and Mozart. In Haydn, contrasts of material are pronounced for the sake of projecting engaging, piquant dialogue; in Mozart, contrasts are embedded in the unified flow of the complete expression. Where Haydn says, "Here's some commentary on what I just said — isn't conversation fun!," Mozart is saying, "Here's something to think about in which all contraries are resolved in the course of being stated."

Haydn achieved a three-dimensional quality in his instrumental music more than in his operas, perhaps because opera characters attain fullness only in relationship to each other and to the stories they inhabit. Mozart did the latter superbly a half-dozen times in works that still hold the stage. Nonetheless, Haydn overall remains unfairly neglected, probably more than any other first-rank master. The mutual respect they expressed deserves to be echoed down to the present day and reflected in concert programs like this one.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Another listen: "Zabur" is now out on CD and about to be performed in Carnegie Hall

The oratorio composer has an advantage over those working in other genres — including himself when he is not
Eric Stark will conduct "Zabur" in Carnegie Hall, as he did here.
all about oratorio-writing. He can create characters in action who are mainly defined by his music, with hardly any mediation by "staging."A point of view toward his material emerges more naturally as the product of his engagement with the text. The oratorio is a public musical genre loaded with the creator's private concerns.

The sacred oratorio addressed the faithful through musical settings of vivid, often familiar, stories and venerated testimony. Maintaining that legacy in the 21st century, the Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz fashioned "Zabur" out of a personal need to express the sorrow of today's Middle East conflict in terms that seek to bridge the three Abrahamic religions, and by implication reach out to all of humanity in a plea for peace, rooted in biblical psalms.

The work was premiered by the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, which commissioned it, in the spring of 2015. You can read my review of the first performance here. On Sunday, the choir along with Bel Canto and Cantante Angeli of the Indianapolis Children's Choir, supported by one of two original soloists plus a NewYork instrumental ensemble, will give "Zabur" its New York premiere in Carnegie Hall.

This seems the right time to revisit the composition, with the impending public release of the Naxos recording of the original performance, recorded at Hilbert Circle Theatre. Besides the participating choirs, the premiere featured the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, with tenor Dann Coakwell and baritone Michael Kelly as soloists. The combined forces were conducted by ISC music director Eric Stark, who will be on the podium Sunday as well. Stark's commitment to the score shines through, and he draws sterling work from the choir he regularly helms as well as from the superbly trained ICC. The ISO handles its assignment conscientiously, and the tenor and bass soloists convey the urgency and rapport of the two main characters.

"Zabur" is Arabic for "psalms," two of which (2 and 102) are here set in Arabic in contrast to the English text (by Najla Said). The latter consists largely of dialogue between characters called Dahwoud and Jibreel. The place is a shelter in a besieged Middle Eastern city. Dawoud is an Arabic version of the name David, the putative author of the Bible's book of Psalms. In "Zabur" he struggles with writer's block in a situation in which his vulnerability is crushing. Jibreel, a companion with angelic significance (his name means Gabriel) persuades him to open up his blocked expression by reaching out to others also confined in the shelter, particularly the children.

The immense contribution of Psalms to the poetic and spiritual heritage of the West can hardly be overestimated.
In "The Shadow of a Great Rock," the literary critic Harold Bloom cites the scholar Herbert Marks in identifying two features of Psalms worth recalling in assessing "Zabur." One is that these lyrical poems are totally without irony:  no image is put in service of a voice that ever means something other than what it says. The other is that the psalms are nearly unique in the degree to which the speaker's vulnerability is exposed.

This is the basis of Fairouz's work. But I can't quite get past the difficulty that what emerges with Jibreel's help is, effectively, this composition itself. Dawoud's vulnerability is the vulnerability of the blocked creative artist. That gives "Zabur" a self-congratulatory feel that's more than a little disturbing. The rapport with the text that inspires the composer is too close for comfort, despite the universal appeal of the shelter dwellers' plight. Is this Fairouz's "Song of Myself"?

Mohammed Fairouz makes a grand statement.
Fairouz puts such self-regard at the service of a scenario that involves the fatal dashing of the sheltered inhabitants' hopes; the shelter is destroyed. But the libretto carries a miracle: These victims rise in the lofty final scene, an expansive setting of Psalm 102. In asserting the eternal majesty of God in contrast to human vulnerability, the psalm rests on a faith that not even the obliteration of the faithful can destroy. That supports what is meant by the psalms being "untouched by irony," in Marks' phrase.

Fairouz's music reaches toward a final synthesis here. The launch of Psalm 102 is cast in orchestral terms reminiscent of the start of Philip Glass' "Akhnaten." A feature of much of Glass' music is the trampoline effect of a repeated ornamental figure bouncing off a plain bass note or chord sounded at regular intervals. In "Aknaten," the figure is ascending, befitting the opera's celebration of the sun; in "Zabur," the figure, though placed above the trombone-flavored ostinato, drifts downward, which is apt for the cataclysm about to occur.

Philip Glass
I was impressed by Fairouz's virtuosity with orchestral color. And appropriately, there is no showing off about this, given the pallor and even gloom of the setting. He keeps his music centered on the voices and the human situation of confinement and suffering. He writes music on which the  text sits well and with variety. The most moving of his inspirations is the chorus for children as they suggest what wishes of theirs they would like to have addressed in Dahwoud's work. Repetitive figures keep underlining the minimalist heritage, but the composer feels free to break out of such patterns frequently.

Besides his debt to minimalism, Fairouz owes much to the comfortably animated vocal styles of Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein. Yet another sticking point for me is the breakthrough moment when Dahwoud lets Jabreel read the passage in his notebook starting "In the beginning you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands." The passage, from Psalm 102, is set to a tune that, in its melodic contour and pattern of syncopation, resembles calypso, of all things. That high-spirited Caribbean music seems wrong for what Fairouz intends at this point. In subsequent uses, the calypso features of the tune are flattened out and the rhythmic profile eased, fortunately, as the music becomes otherworldly.

Bernstein looking Beethovenish.
Bloom says of the Psalms: "They pray for a God both more effectual and compassionate than reality can bestow." That assessment probably seems harsh to the faithful, but it rings true. It's confirmed by the way "Zabur" opens, with a cacophony of choral anxiety — a foreshadowing of the shelter's destruction near the end. Reality bestows neither an effectual nor a compassionate God in this piece, but there remains invocation of a presiding deity, an eternal being worthy of worship and wonder. But Fairouz wants to emphasize the human connections forged under such extreme conditions — and the transcendent possibilities of those connections.

A few instances of composers  going outside their normal idiom to emphasize disorder and upheaval blazed trails for the anguished opening of "Zabur." Everyone reading this is familiar with the Schreckensfanfare as the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony gets under way — the loud dissonance heralding the eventual arrival of a positive message that dismisses the negativity of the opening. Much later, in Bernstein's "Mass," the initial outburst of 12-tone music (amplified by speakers around the hall when I attended the premiere in 1971) foreshadows the upheaval the Celebrant will face. "Sing God a simple song," he croons, interrupting the human katzenjammer. He will later suffer for this placid message, smashing the Host in despair over the people's wrangling while celebrating Eucharist. Like Fairouz, Bernstein in "Mass" congratulates himself on his ability to suffer, yet rise above the battle to effect a final reconciliation through his alter ego, the Celebrant.

Music deliberately appalling at the start of "Zabur" is one indication of Fairouz's effective way of grabbing an audience's attention and bending it toward his message. I just wish the message didn't seem to amount to this: The saving grace of Middle East destruction, as well as of the meaning of psalms in the modern world, must be the emergence of such a work as "Zabur." The piece (plus the effort it took to realize it) is worth celebrating, but probably not at the level on which it seems to place itself.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

An update of "The Times They Are A-Changing" to help us get through the rest of the 2016 campaign

The Campaign Soon Will Be Ending Come gather, good citizens, and rest from the fray, The election will happen four weeks from today, We’ll cry “Let us vote!” and then “let us pray”: We’re well past the point of offending, So the most welcome word is for this song to say: The campaign soon will be ending! We’ve put up with this nonsense since early ‘15 The surge of each candidate – what did it mean? They made their crude pitches and littered the scene With Facebook rants, ads, and tweets trending: Now just two are still upright, but one is obscene: The campaign soon will be ending! The movement for Bernie was more than a cult Though it sometimes resembled one, stirring tumult Provoked by Debbie Wasserman Schultz; Party fabric sure needed some mending: Still, Dem voters may split off or stay home and sulk — The campaign soon will be ending! The Republican crowd made many jaws clench: Shallow on the field, not too deep on the bench: Their ideas were merde (pardon my French!) Their credentials were full of pretending: Now the ticket top stinks, they can’t wave off the stench: The campaign soon will be ending! “The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast”: Captain Ahab has nailed the doubloon to the mast The White Whale of Destruction blows cold from the past, While the future toward justice is bending: Does it mean this election could well be our last? The campaign soon will be ending!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra season-opener: Classical Vienna revisited, with a mashup appetizer

The imperial city of Vienna, reduced in the 20th century to the incubator of Nazism and now a bit player on the European stage, has its musical legacy always at hand to command respect and silence detractors.

It's where Matthew Kraemer, entering his second season as music director of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, studied conducting. From its heritage, he drew the ICO's first program of the 2016-17 season, heard Saturday afternoon in Schrott Center of Butler University.

The chief examples of Viennese musical culture included were Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, op. 19, and Schubert's Symphony No. 2 in B-flat, D. 125. The key identity goes partway in explaining the resemblance of the two works. Chief is the ebullience and youthful energy evident both in the German transplant Beethoven's concerto and native son Schubert's compact, captivating exercise in symphonic form.

Christopher O'Riley was the ICO's first guest artist of the season.
The concerto had as soloist Christopher O'Riley, nationally known as host of "From the Top," a public-radio program showcasing the best young classical musicians. Notably garbed in a black frock coat, O'Riley played with a dry, yet singing tone. buoyantly supported by the orchestra. His articulation was generally fine, though some passages in the fast movements were slightly uneven, unbalanced. He took Beethoven's hard-won melodic gift seriously in the second movement. It was a sober, forthright interpretation, wanting only a certain sparkle.

The Schubert symphony is notable for its driving momentum. Even the minuet seems to be in a rush. In Sunday's performance, the variations movement (Andante) burbled along like a tributary of the Danube. Kraemer kept the outer movements'  lickety-split tempos under control, and the hard-working strings were almost always on target.

In the first movement, the transition from the Largo introduction to the Allegro vivace was uncommonly smooth. Principal oboist Leonid Sirotkin got a well-deserved solo bow for his playing in the Trio (as he had after the concerto at O'Riley's suggestion to the conductor). All the wind players did well, though the brass sounded too prominent in the vigorous tuttis.

The curtain-raiser was refreshingly off-beat: HK Gruber, a descendant of the composer of "Silent Night," wrote his "Charivari" to poke serious fun at Viennese complacency and love of Gemuetlichkeit, that comfortable, culturally validated social feeling with a tendency to avoid facing unpleasant matters.  The contemporary Austrian composer grafted a variety of tumult upon Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Perpetuum Mobhile," an 1861 polka designed to go on forever, as its name suggests.

That juggernaut quality accommodates both a witty take on Viennese pleasures as well as the proposition that all the fun may be a noisy, eventually ineffective cover for serious matters. The score passes around a wealth of material, much of it to the percussion and brass, so "'Charivari" allowed the full ICO to show off in ways that Beethoven and Schubert never dreamed of. The bursts of cacophony were cleverly threaded into Strauss' tunefulness, complete with tributes to the waltzes that constitute Strauss' entire reputation today. The high spirits were infectious, but they also begged to be viewed askance in this clever pastiche. "Charivari" made for a zestful introduction to the alt Wien of Beethoven and Schubert.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

All-Prokofiev program highlights interpretive and technical brilliance of guest soloist Hilary Hahn

Not many composers are considered able to hold enough interest to merit a symphony program of their music only, without the flavoring or contrast another composer might provide.

Hilary Hahn has figured in some high-profile ISO concerts.
The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's first classical weekend featured only Beethoven, a choice quite common when one-composer concerts are designed. This weekend's choice — music by Sergei Prokofiev — is more unconventional. Critics and music-lovers generally may have personal limits on how small a circle of composers is worthy for this kind of program.

Prokofiev makes it, in my opinion, for his amazing fecundity, his tunefulness, the sprightliness of his rhythms, his adept orchestration and his free and unexpected movement among tonalities. A totally self-assured composer, he was also a somewhat arrogant, unsympathetic man, of which more later. My breadth of interest is pretty wide on the topic of one-composer programs, but it's more a question of marketing. I would draw the line at some who are appealing in certain works but somehow a little too narrow in their expressive "signature" and technical variety, such as Varese or Sibelius.

The first advantage of this one-composer program to attract people is the presence of Hilary Hahn as a dazzlingly persuasive advocate for Prokofiev's first violin concerto (D major, op. 19). On Friday night, this major artist made her first return trip to the Hilbert Circle Theatre stage since she played the opening gala concert of the 2013-14 season; her ISO appearance before that, in 2009, had her premiering Jennifer Higdon's violin concerto, which went on to win the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.

Those high-profile engagements perhaps explained the hefty attendance Friday night and the enthusiasm of the audience, in which youth were prominent. Dazzling in a floor-length gown with a gold paisley pattern, Hahn rewarded the post-concerto ovation with the gigue from Bach's E major partita.

As for Prokofiev, she hit with absolute assurance the contrast between the "dreaming" and "narrative" portions of the first movement, ascending sweetly into the empyrean in the final pages.

The way she dug into the Scherzo, particularly fulfilling the directive to strongly accent repeated staccato figures in the lower register, set the pulse pounding. The stately progress into the fanciful rhetoric in the latter half of the finale, the kind of unhackneyed fantasyland Prokofiev commanded so well, was characterized by Hahn's glittering trills as the orchestra seemed to float the accompaniment in some of its best playing of the evening. Her supple phrasing and a tone that can be both robust and tender were evident throughout the performance.

From the same year as the D major concerto (the epochal 1917 in his homeland) came Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony, his sporty evocation of the late 18th century with enough original touches that it has gone over well with modern audiences without sounding derivative. Music director Krzysztof Urbanski led a performance that gained strength and assurance as it went along: The opening gesture, recalling the "Mannheim rocket" of the early Classical period, came off with almost as much fizzle as sizzle. But the second and third movements were notable for their poised, authentically gentle quality — all the more surprising in the gavotte, which is sometimes stomped through with too much irony.

Prokofiev as a young man, about the time of the Russian Revolution
Authenticity raises difficult issues with Prokofiev, who continually flirted with parody and disingenuousness in his music. His creative art was his lifelong focus, stemming from his conservatory days as a talented wise guy. The issue becomes more serious than a matter of old gossip. Many creative artists have had unattractive personalities and been alarmingly inattentive to or dismissive of anything outside their art. On the literary side, William Faulkner in his Paris Review interview said an artist must let nothing stand in his way, and be willing to sacrifice his mother, if need be: "The Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies," the novelist memorably declared, though his selection of the humane John Keats as representative of such ruthlessness was certainly odd.

Prokofiev came back in mid-career to the Soviet Union after successful sojourns in the United States and France. Perhaps he was just homesick, perhaps he found competition with fellow emigre  Igor Stravinsky insupportable. He was certainly naive as to what the Stalin regime would require of him and his fellows. He saw a couple of collaborators disappear, without evident alarm. He took up with a woman more in favor with the regime than his wife. The moral culpability that can be charged to him for his survival efforts formed the crux of the musicologist Richard Taruskin's centennial takedown  of Prokofiev in a 1991 New York Times article.

Taruskin focused his screed on "Alexander Nevsky," the 1938 film score that has endured as a tremendous concert piece. Its tale of Russian heroism clearly served Stalin's need to rally his people around a historical example of strong leadership in the face of foreign threats. Why should "Alexander Nevsky" be performed nowadays? Taruskin lamented, going on to bring in a couple of other questionable examples and asking: "The real question is, can we say no to Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini and yes to Prokofiev, Orff and Respighi?"

Oh dear! What to do with the ballet "Romeo and Juliet," a scintillating suite from which Urbanski conducts in this program's second half? It comes from the mid-1930s, when Stalin's stranglehold on his countrymen was undeniable. The ballet had a host of non-political (perhaps) production problems, but the fact that it arose when  Prokofiev was making his peace with the regime may cast it in the shadows.

My vote is for music to be performed if it has something to say to us still, despite any unsavory aspects of its origin. I think concertgoers should understand what they're hearing, and by "understand" I mean be aware of the music's context. Prokofiev's life, despite the distance his genius places between him and us, offers lessons in how complex it is to negotiate in the public sphere one's private interests whenever political conditions make honorable behavior difficult. How would we act if forced to make our way in a society turned evil?

So the suite from "Romeo and Juliet" deserves its claim on our attention, as Friday's performance proved. It immersed us again in Shakespeare's familiar story, while its ingenuity as music for dancers was consistently upheld. Particularly effective was "Juliet as a Young Girl," a portrait enlivened by those side-slipping key changes Prokofiev was so good at (also evident in this program's other two works)." The Death of Tybalt" can hardly fail to be a startling depiction of violence, and so it was Friday. The two final movements — the ceremonious "Juliet's Funeral" (the scene in which Juliet is assumed to be dead, but isn't really) and "Death of Juliet" — were as moving as the corresponding scenes in Shakespeare's romantic tragedy. This score makes its own argument to be heard. The fact that such arguments are inevitably self-contained will always disturb some people, and we should honor the possibility that they have valid reasons to be disturbed. But let the band play on.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

"Pence in Vain" Revisited: The GOP candidate for vice president sings the blues, with a glimmer of hope at the end

Richard Sussman's 'Evolution Suite': A cosmic outlook expressed in a classical-jazz blend

Richard Sussman is a master of electronics in "Evolution Suite"
It's a little hard to take in music that makes great claims for unifying mankind, yet creating such music has been
an ambition occasionally reaching toward fulfillment at least ever since Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Jazz has made some forays into social statements, many of them from black musicians asserting a claim to move beyond oppression or marginalization, such as John Carter's "Castles of Ghana" and Max Roach's "Freedom Now! Suite." But I can't recall an attempt to address the universe and what it may be tending toward besides Richard Sussman's six-movement "Evolution Suite" for jazz quintet, string quartet, and electronics.  The breadth of Sussman's ambition makes me uneasy, yet the musical result is largely convincing.

Recorded last December at Symphony Space in New York City, "The Evolution Suite" (plus "Prevolution," a kind of prequel of related material bringing up the rear) displays the composer's acute sense of how to blend electronics with two contrasting small groups: the Sirius Quartet (the conventional two violins, viola, and cello) and a quintet consisting of an also conventional (from the bop and hard-bop eras) set-up of trumpet, saxophone, piano, bass, and drums.

Sussman manages the piano and the electronics.  The movements are "Into the Cosmic Kitchen," "Relaxin' at Olympus," "Nexus," "Music of the Cubes," and, after a drum solo introduction, "Perpetual Motion." The composer's statement about his work is considered so crucial to its understanding that it appears twice in the accompanying booklet: "By combining jazz improvisation and many diverse rhythms and instrumental textures from throughout the world with contemporary classical music, I feel we can more truly reflect and more strongly connect with a wider cross-section of the multi-cultural society in which we live."

I found the music easier to absorb than this statement about it. For one thing, I didn't hear that rhythms and textures "from throughout the world" are evident in "The Evolution Suite." More fundamentally, a creative artist ought to find his diverse sources of inspiration worth using for the sake of his own self-expression, not because diversity can be assumed to appeal to or represent our society's many cultures. There will be many people acquainted with Sussman's influences individually who won't find his combination at all satisfying. And if he uses words to clarify what he's all about, an artist has to come at the public with an explanation of where his vision came from, without presuming to think those sources are used in a way that are bound to appeal to everyone.

Having gotten that out of the way, this disc struck a sympathetic chord with me. Sussman's use of electronics is smoothly integrated into the acoustic texture. In "Music of the Cubes," for instance, the emergence of ensemble material out of a background of electronic buzzes and whirs has an exciting inevitability, despite the sonic difference of the sources.

Soloing is distributed shrewdly over the varied ensemble backdrop. Electric violinist Zach Brock is on hand to ride the elliptical orbit of a comet in "Nexus." Saxophonist Rich Perry exhibits a wry lyricism nestled in the lofty ease of "Relaxin' at Olympus."  Trumpeter Scott Wendholt is both intense and sprightly in the opening and closing  movements. The composer himself contrasts a rich palette of electronics with a characteristically laconic style at the piano. Moments of outstanding display also come from bassist Mike Richmond and drummer Anthony Pinciotti.

"The Evolution Suite" may not persuade you necessarily that its ambitious program is adequately expressed. But even if you set Sussman's philosophical breadth aside, it deserves respect for informing a satisfying, broadly achieved musical statement well worth hearing on its own terms.