Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Petri dish of a play: Small-town Texas grows a peculiar culture in Beef & Boards' "Greater Tuna"

It's tempting to read into the production of "Greater Tuna" on the cusp of the New Year a politically
Townsladies Vera and Pearl look down witheringly on the deceased Judge.
tinged scaling back. It feels like a narrowing in ambition, scope, and humanity from the company's counterpart at the turn of last year, the somewhat perplexing but captivating murder-mystery-comedy "Shear Madness."

Seen Saturday night at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, "Greater Tuna" winds down the farcical elements to a couple of virtuoso displays in the realm of caricature, handled with energetic abandon by B&B favorites Jeff Stockberger and Eddie Curry.

It's difficult to put aside the play's barrage of comic barbs directed at small-town life, particularly with conventionally benighted Texas as the exclusive target. Urban for almost my whole life, I may appear oddly ill-at-ease about the dismissal urbanites often direct toward America in the boondocks. "Greater Tuna" occasioned much discomfort on that score.

Bertha (Eddie Curry) upbraids Charlene (Jeff Stockberger).
Framed by claustrophobically folksy broadcasts from the local radio station, with its puny wattage in the high three figures, "Greater Tuna" presents a series of mostly noisy, often bizarre characters who rarely stray into intelligence. Frankly, with the dubious exception of some vengeful scheming by Tuna's juvenile delinquent, the town's residents are dumb as rocks. And I'm entertaining the possibility that I've just insulted rocks.

Okay, that personal cringing is out of the way. Main thing on the positive side: Stockberger and Curry managed wholeheartedly the rapidly shifting parade of characterizations, aided by four dressing assistants.  That crucial team took a well-deserved curtain call, having helped the co-stars manage wig and garb changes. Continuity was partly assured by patches of offstage dialogue, yet the split-second slides from one character to the next owed much to this assistance as well as the actors' adroitness.

The show that tourists crane necks to see at Munich's New Town Hall.
Playwrights Jaston Williams, Ed Howard and Joe Sears have threaded aspects of two dozen characters' lives through one another, so a kind of narrative skein emerges that stands out much more in Act 2 than in Act 1. Nonetheless, the individual portrayals the two-member cast etches so vividly tend to dominate. Each short scene seems to occupy its own circumscribed and ridiculous universe.

Looking at each scene with fascination (if not as much amusement as intended, however)  brought to mind the experience I had more than a half-century ago in Munich, gazing up at the town-hall clock and watching figures appear and disappear in mechanical succession. That parade of life-size figures also tells a story, but it tends to pale before gawking tourists' fascination with the spectacle itself. What wonder will pop into view next? That's what kept me focused on "Greater Tuna," even as its broad-brush travesty of small-town life rarely tickled my funny bone.

Sheriff interrogates Stanley Bumiller.
Stockberger directs the show, and part of his distinction as Curry's partner is how fully he plays off the other actor's strident housewife Bertha Bumiller to individualize her three children: the dog-smitten Jody, the whiny high-schooler Charlene, and the untamable bully and ne'er-do-well Stanley. True, Stockberger's success doesn't achieve the theatrical magic of allowing us to see him as three real young people, but it certainly hits the mark in rendering three-dimensional caricatures of difficult children.

The play has moments of pathos that suggest a claim to emotional depth. But the playwrights don't seem to have wanted to do more than sketch in the perpetual small-town seesaw between loneliness and true community. And this production is probably unassailable in going for the hellzapoppin flexibility of the company's two seasoned comedians. That's where the heart of "Greater Tuna" beats most strongly.

The rest of the 2018 season is 100 percent musical theater, running from "Mamma Mia!" through "Elf: The Musical."

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Uncle Dan & Sophie Jam: Talk about the 'big break' for writers and musicians — with musical accompaniment

Students of evolution often focus on apparent "big leaps" in species or generic development. For
Sophie Faught, David Linard, and Dan Wakefield discussed "big breaks.'
individual human beings, such giant steps forward also attract peculiar focus.

Over the course of a career or lifespan, the hugeness of such leaps may turn out to be more apparent than real. Nonetheless, assessments of where and when My Big Break occurred can yield insights as to what constitutes a milestone for each of us. For writers and musicians, identifying the "big break" can prove to be definitive to shaping their public identity.

An exercise in this process took place in a comfortable format Tuesday night at the Jazz Kitchen, when the "Uncle Dan and Sophie Jam" program concentrated on the "big break" theme. Contributing to the discussion were the title personalities — saxophonist Sophie Faught and writer Dan Wakefield — as well as a former colleague of the saxophonist's, pianist David Linard, special guest for the second show in this series.

Linard used to play in Faught's group at the Chatterbox Jazz Club downtown. He has gone on to a New York career, traveling often with Sammy Miller and the Congregation. The individualistic drummer heads a band that revives a theatrical kind of good-time jazz long ago represented by the likes of Louis Jordan, Louis Prima, and Cab Calloway. The deceptively raucous ensemble has twice appeared to receptive Indianapolis crowds since Linard joined the group.
David Linard at the piano, with bassist Nick Tucker, drummer Kenny Phelps, and saxophonist Sophie Faught.

Wakefield, an Indianapolis native venerated as a returning celebrity author-journalist, told the most riveting story. He has a long career to draw upon, but what he believes got him his big break was wangling a position as the Nation magazine's correspondent  to cover the Emmett Till murder trial in 1955. The lighthearted mood shifted to a somber hush as Wakefield recounted his experience at a trial that freed the accused killers, made the 14-year-old Till a martyr of the burgeoning civil-rights movement, and attracted international attention.

Moving from their playing positions to a table at one side of the stage where Wakefield sat, the young musicians shared their stories. Faught posed questions to both men in an informal but well-designed program that also included relevant musical interludes.

Linard recounted that several years ago his plans to do graduate study near his Indiana home shifted suddenly after he visited relatives in New York City and was persuaded to see if he could get admission to jazz studies at the Juilliard School. Though he was past the application deadline, his audition impressed program director Carl Allen — despite Allen's withering comment after Linard offered a solo blues ("This is grown man's music") — enough to ease Linard's way into Juilliard and the Big Apple scene.

Faught got her break as a new student at Indiana University, when trumpeter Nicholas Payton came to the school, heard her play and asked her class status. "Freshman," she said. "Not for long," he replied, and soon after hired her to join his band, which toured the country and appeared in much-anticipated celebration of the second great Miles Davis Quintet that Payton staged at Lincoln Center.

Recalling on Tuesday the nervousness she felt before entering the hall, she proved ready to take on the Wayne Shorter role, and the quartet played "Nefertiti," a slow version with lots of melody, in tribute to that association, and later Shorter's "Footprints." In contrast to Linard, she eventually determined that the New York life wasn't for her ("it didn't feel like home"), and she has returned to her Hoosier roots.

To start off the first set, the band played "Royal Garden Blues," indicating Linard's successful study of stride piano. It was among the styles he mastered as a graduate student while forging his own approach to jazz piano as a professional. A winsome rendition of "Voyage," a piece by Linard's Juilliard teacher Kenny Barron, was also part of the first set. To show how well he's steeped in pre-jazz roots of the music, Linard took a reflective trip through Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More."

Along with "God Bless the Child," a song associated with Billie Holiday that the band played after Wakefield's searing narrative, "Hard Times" emphasized the sobering process of using all sorts of experience to make possible those "big breaks," as well as all the times in between.

[Photos by Norbert Krapf]

Friday, December 22, 2017

Indianapolis Symphonic Choir presents its annual "Messiah" in the Palladium, with four guest soloists and conductor

For certain music-lovers, Handel's "Messiah" can trace and illuminate a lifetime. Its meanings — both musical and religious — are likely to change over many years of exposure. Some of its solos and choruses are staples of Christmas programming in many churches during this season. I first thrilled to "The trumpet shall sound" in the early 1950s when the bass soloist at the church my father served as organist-choirmaster sang it at Easter.
Michael Christie led a lively, supple account of "Messiah."

Eric Stark, director of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, once told me he had given up trying to schedule "Messiah" in the season for which it was intended. Its bulk and sheer emotional weight is appropriate to spring performance. Well, fans of the piece learn not to be sticklers, and we return to it again and again in Advent, where just the first of the oratorio's three parts is at home.

This weekend's two performances by the choir Stark has so ably led for so long enjoy the extra splendor of presentation in Carmel's Palladium. Four soloists, the choir, and the Indianapolis  Symphony Orchestra are conducted by Michael Christie, music director of the Minnesota Opera. (He shares an extramusical commitment with Stark: both are volunteer pilots for Angel Flight Central.)

George Frideric Handel
As heard Thursday, the soloist contingent reflected the conductor's inclination toward opera — least so with the soprano, Christina Pier, who was oratorioly expressive without dramatic emphasis. There was nothing unidiomatic about male alto Lawrence Zazzo, tenor Miles Mykkanen, or baritone Alexander Elliott, I hasten to add. It's just that the way the men put across their solos brought characterization to the forefront gesturally, vocally, and in facial expression. All four soloists ornamented repeated phrases and cadential figures confidently and tastefully (as did trumpeter Conrad Jones in the magnificent obbligato to "The trumpet shall sound"). Apart from a few cracked notes by Mykkanen and Pier's tendency not to open her mouth sufficiently, they were consistently a joy to hear.

The choir was responsive to Christie's supple, lively direction. He took pains not to present the choruses as monoliths — a temptation easy to yield to in a masterpiece that resembles  a sculpture garden. He imparted dynamic variety throughout. Musically it mostly made sense, even if it sometimes came close to contradicting the text: After the men's thundering "The Lord gave the word," for instance, it was peculiar to hear "great was the company of the preachers" delivered like a secret. "Hallelujah," the ultimate in monolithic choruses, featured the conventionally soft "The kingdom of this world is become," but elsewhere there were also crescendos and diminuendos applied, to slightly woozy effect. Yet I saw the point of inserting those hairpins: no matter how loftily we praise God, we're still only humans, aren't we.

Some blurriness in "And she shall purify the sons of Levi" was whisked away by the time of "For unto us a child is born" arrived. It's not the first time in my experience that the former has served as calisthenics for the latter in Part 1. "And the glory of the Lord," the choir's initial number, had a nice swing to it. In fact, animating rhythms both gentle and vigorous seemed to be a Christie specialty. The orchestra often played with a kind of lilt, most conspicuously in the Pastoral Symphony and in some accompaniment passages. Also giving solidity and sprightliness to the ensemble were Charles Manning (organ) and Thomas Gerber (harpsichord).

For some reason, though I'm much less a Christian than I was when I first encountered "Messiah," I've become more desirous of hearing the complete piece in concert. That rarely happens, presumably a matter of avoiding overtime pay for professional ensembles. So I get wistful about what's left out, particularly in Part 2. The most jarring cut in this program is the elimination of two tenor recitatives and two arias separating the choruses "He trusted in God" and "Lift up your heads."

The missing Old Testament texts, to which Handel set some of his most piercing music, are of course to be interpreted as depicting Christ's sufferings, according to what's called topology. To shortchange the afflicted Jesus, bound temporarily for torture, death and hell, and announce dismissively, "Enough of that! Let's welcome the King of Glory, mobilize the great company of preachers and spread the gospel," is kind of painful — on both theological and musico-dramatic grounds. And the chorus suddenly seems bipolar, switching from "turba" nastiness (the angry mob familiar from the Bach Passions) to angelic voices of praise.

The cut further tends to push the import of Part 2 too heavily in the direction of "Hallelujah," which admittedly everyone in a "Messiah" audience has been panting for, awaiting the chance to stand up as George II did more than 250 years ago. (In the late 18th century, a German soprano soloist who kept her seat for that chorus was hissed by the English audience. Not rising for "Hallelujah" is a venerable antecedent to NFL players taking a knee during our national anthem.)

Though briefer, this version's "most unkindest cut of all" in my view was the elimination of the middle section of "He was despised," an alto aria that Mykkanen performed in effective operatic style, but without the scarifying energy of "He gave his back to the smiters," which ends with a passage that once amused me in the throes of immaturity: "He hid not his face from shame and spitting."

Handel had a special feeling for this aria, I believe, channeled through his admiration for the singer who premiered it: the charismatic Susannah Cibber, who was primarily a singing actress of great renown and some notoriety in her personal life. I also find this aria the crux of the oratorio's daring blend of human pain and the promise of divine glory.

It's rare to hear a performance that seems of both this world and the next. When you do, you've gathered into one place both the mystery and majesty of "Messiah."  But you need that middle section, with the strings flailing like whips and the soloist waxing specific as to just how the hero was "acquainted with grief."

It sticks with you, making "Hallelujah" many minutes later feel that much the greater. And why wouldn't you want to get that much more out of the Hallelujah Chorus than you already do?

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Eighth Blackbird gets its Irish up for "a cantata in doublespeak" on Cedille Records

Michael Maccaferri of Eighth Blackbird and guest vocalist Iarla O Lionaird
Having reached its majority and recently given its name proper capitalization, Eighth Blackbird continues to stake out new musical territory with its recording of "Olagon." It's a cantata by Dan Trueman and Paul Muldoon that bridges modern and ancient Ireland and its two languages of English and Irish.

The instrumental ensemble, founded in Chicago in 1996, here forges a mesmerizing bond with Irish vocal soloist Iarla O Lionaird to put the new work across memorably in a two-disc set (Cedille Records).

The "doublespeak" reference in the subtitle has to do with the the two languages drawn upon for Muldoon's text, reflecting the old European tradition of macaronic poetry most widely known in some of the poetry used by Carl Orff in "Carmina Burana" as well as in the Christmas carol "In dulci jubilo."

"Olagon" skirts the boundary of cantata and oratorio. There is a kind of narrative that might move it toward oratorio, but that lies in the deep background. The thematic textual unity of the cantata form is more to the point in this work. To quote Eighth Blackbird's program note: "It is based on the legendary Irish tale Taiin Boi Cuiailnge, which tells the story of a brutal war — the result of a dispute between warrior-queen Medhbh and her husband Ailill. When Ailill offends Medhbh's pride by declaring his wealth superior to hers, Medhbh forsakes him and enters into a violent conflict with those around her."

Muldoon draws out the conflict between Medhbh and her husband, abstracting it but still celebrating it (with typical Irish ambivalence) in verse that carries stylistic overtones of both flippant doggerel and traditional balladry.

Trueman's  music sometimes settles into the pulsating drive of Celtic music, but often hangs somewhere aloft, with long drones, squalls of dissonance, and moaning shifts of timbre and texture from the ensemble. Riding on top is O Lionaird's intense, precisely ornamented vocal line, shifting fluidly between Irish and English. Guest vocalists contribute support in several sections, emphasizing the communal nature of Irish story and song.

The text, like the music itself, time-travels with a naturalness that preserves the shock of variation between modern-day Ireland, particularly the social dislocation caused by the boom-and-bust cycles of the nation's recent history, and Taiin Boi Cuiailnge. The common thread is an obsession with prosperity and pride as well as the woes of loyalty and betrayal.

Though there is no explicit debt to the late English poet Geoffrey Hill, the tectonic shifts of time upon well-known terrain recall the abrupt shuttling in "The Mercian Hymns." The humor that such juxtapositions generate in Muldoon's verse draws upon the "Irish bull" tradition. Nonsense and plausibility, gossip and retribution jostle rowdily to convey meaning.

The work's characters are likely to  haunt you even if you can't understand them and they remain wraith-like. The atmosphere of lament — the waste of bitter conflict so embedded in Irish history — finally prevails.

I'm not familiar with the vocal tradition O Lionaird represents, but I'm guessing that performances that don't include singing as idiomatic and enthralling as his would fall well beneath the abundant charm of this recording.

On the other hand, Eighth Blackbird fuses so well with any music it takes into its wide repertoire that, given the right collaborators, "Olagon" might attract enthusiastic audiences anywhere it comes up on the group's schedule, far into the future.  Publicity material included with the recording mentions two engagements featuring the work on Eighth Blackbird's early 2018 concert schedule: Feb. 22-24 in Princeton, N.J. and March 23 in Richmond, Va.  Lucky are the adventurous music-lovers to whom these performances will be accessible.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Hour When No Sex Comes In: a dystopian anthem spurred by the ongoing sexual-assault crisis

The Hour When No Sex Comes In Make us each a sandwich, please, with lots of ham and cheese, And serve tomato soup from a large bowl, When the devil comes to dine, make sure the long spoon’s mine: I’m told he has designs upon my soul. And when I heard Old Scratch, I knew I’d met my match Because he shared his plan most diabolical; With every word he said, the hair upon my head Was standing at attention — every follicle. He said I’m just in time to counteract the crime Of behavior that’s so often predatory: I’ve a universal drug that will neutralize the tug Of desire that destroys the way to glory. And the whole human race will shelter in place Free from the threat of sexual attraction; The terror of the hunted will be chemically blunted, The hour when no sex comes in. And all the victims laugh as they frolic on the path Once cleared for men with every rub and grope; There’ll be chaste hugs galore, air kisses by the score As libidos sink beyond the range of hope. And the population boom will implode around the world When humanity slides into stagnation; Chastity’s blank flag will be everywhere unfurled As all salute the end of propagation. It seems that men with power have stained their shining hour In fits of entitlement delusion; There may be no escape from the culture of rape Till Eros slinks off sulking in seclusion. Some will say it’s global madness, a revulsion from sin Others say it must be something in the water: Nonetheless, the lustful choir will haste into the fire Like a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter. And pornographic ploys will bore all teenage boys, As men they’ll never know what they’ve been missin’ Women pinch themselves and squeal, and they’ll know that it’s for real The hour when no sex comes in. The universal mood will delight in solitude ‘Cause we know that men won’t ever stop desiring, So the drug works, squelching lust, and the chain of life goes bust And extinction seems a fate well worth admiring.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

'The Ballad of Jimmy Levine" borrows an old Irish tune to address the implosion of a musical career

The Ballad of Jimmy Levine Jimmy Levine was a prodigy born, A musical rose with no evident thorn, But as his career was on the incline A secret life led Jimmy Levine. So Jimmy Levine as a rising star Goes to music camps where young men are: He knows so much, his art is so fine: “I’ll use it to advantage,” says Jimmy Levine. He joins the Met, a conductor of taste; The baton he favors is below the waist. He gives old operas a bright new shine: “I’m a golden boy,” says Jimmy Levine. Jimmy Levine has the singers’ love: “So sensitive, we just work hand in glove.” Another sensitivity he works to refine On the bodies of boys, does Jimmy Levine. When the Brahmins in Boston wanted somebody new They had to have Jimmy, though the rumors flew. “If we offend the maestro, he might decline!” So the symphony board went with Jimmy Levine. Old Jimmy Levine won’t do what he oughta: He’s gone to the bridge, and jumps in the water; Denying it all, gives the downbeat sign: “There’s mud on the bottom,” says Jimmy Levine.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

'Fellow Travelers' recording confirms my positive impression from its staged premiere

Given that the romantic emphasis of opera tradition needs new arenas if the genre is to have current vitality, "Fellow Travelers" stakes out a strong claim.

First performed in Cincinnati 18 months ago, the opera now enjoys public permanence in a sensitive new recording on Fanfare Cincinnati (the recording wing of Cincinnati Opera, the work's producer). Adapted by Gregory Spears and Greg Pierce from a 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon, "Fellow Travelers" tells the story of a promising but doomed love affair between two men in an era when homosexuality in government was among the red flags lofted by Cold War paranoia.
Hawk (Joseph Lattanzi) eyes Timothy (Aaron Blake) on park bench at Dupont Circle.

Sometimes called "the lavender scare," the labeling of homosexuals as security risks was part of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's intense campaign against communists and others thought to be undermining the republic. "Fellow Travelers" views the peril through an intimate lens. Pierce's libretto sets characters before us who sum up the spectrum of attitudes toward same-sex relationships in the welter of careerism and self-righteous posturing that characterizes Washington, D.C., to this day. The two central characters have their mutual attraction fatally compromised by the reigning atmosphere of repression in the early 1950s.

I saw the second performance of "Fellow Travelers" at the Aronoff Center for the Arts. Visually and acoustically, the production carried the feeling of chamber opera, and that intimacy has been preserved in the recording. The listener must supply the subtle cross-cutting of action and memory that director Kevin Newbury managed skillfully on the stage. But following the libretto, plus noting  the skillful linking of the two planes of action by Spears' music, should remove any confusion for those who know only the two-CD set, which comes from the premiere performances.

The score, indebted to neo-classical Stravinsky, is less angular than the master's and more reliant on flow than the feeling of a mosaic. The opening scene, when Hawkins Fuller (Joseph Lattanzi) opens up conversation with Washington newcomer Timothy Laughlin (Aaron Blake), establishes a steady pulse, with brief phrases of ornamentation around it. As the sophisticated Fuller draws out the shy Laughlin, there are hints of the contrast in their personalities that stood out for me on repeated hearings: After the departing "Hawk" advises the squeaky-clean Tim to "finish your milk," you hear a sarcastic dig from the orchestra.

Later, a blossoming duet illustrates the lovers' different responses to their first sexual experience. Timothy, grateful that Hawk has opened up a job for him as a Michigan senator's speechwriter, and working to keep his religious qualms at arm's length, rhapsodizes; his partner celebrates "you and me and the boys." The following scene, a monologue for Timothy alone in a church, has some piquant, warm writing for woodwinds as the vocal line signals that the provincial young man is feeling more rapture than the conviction of sin he has been taught.

Strains in the relationship play against a backdrop of the interrogation Hawk undergoes as his promiscuity has aroused official suspicion. His loyalty is under question by Timothy as well. In a scene focusing on the lovers' first spat, there's a significant pause in the musical flow when Tim says to his lover: "You could learn a thing or two, Hawk." It's a clever signal by Spears and Pierce that Tim's naivete is not ironclad, and his moral compass, while no longer pointing toward Catholic doctrine, is firmer than Hawk's. That discrepancy will prove to be the undoing of the relationship.

The slide projection of the lavender scare's victims in the last scene is of course not available to CD listeners. Yet the larger milieu, and the threat that McCarthyism posed to so many people, is indicated by the party and senatorial office scenes. These episodes generate an extra stir, a frisson of excitement, in the orchestra, which seems to be under conductor Mark Gibson's superb control. The dramatic import of the singing comes across in all roles, and the cohesiveness of voices and accompaniment never slackens in this recording.

Yet there is restraint even when the scenario opens up into the larger world. It's an effective reminder that gossip, despite its connection in Washington to large-scale trends and events, operates close to individual lives and does its damage there. The creators of "Fellow Travelers" have managed to keep the focus on the central relationship and not been tempted toward spectacle, even with the opera's setting in the nation's capital at the height of what has been somewhat operatically dubbed "the American century."

Monday, December 4, 2017

Bloomington visitors celebrate Reformation anniversary with examples of its musical legacy

Concentus, a choral and instrumental ensemble of Indiana University, capped three performances labeled simply "Reformation" Sunday afternoon at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, supplemented by Alchymy Viols and special guest, cornetto
Dana Marsh led Alchymy Viols and other Early Music Institute musicians last year at a courthouse concert in Bloomington
virtuoso and scholar Bruce Dickey.

The concert here, conducted by Dana Marsh, was a well-assembled sampler highlighting milestones of early Baroque music as developed by German Protestant composers. Protestantism turns 500 this year. This program's  music reflected the influence of Italian masters  — much of it firsthand in a tradition notably extended through Handel and Mozart — of choral and instrumental textures and expressive splendor on musicians from the other side of the Alps.

Indiana native Bruce Dickey now lives in Italy.
Foundational at the start, the concert opened with Martin Luther's "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" (A Mighty Forgtress Is Our God), with settings by Caspar Othmayr and Michael Praetorius indicating how interpretation of texts became embedded in German composers' treatment of them, in contention with the chorale mainstream. Satan's"great strength and much deceit" (in their German equivalent) is repeated at greater volume. The solo soprano's entrance in the second verse underlines human helplessness in this battle against "the old, evil enemy" before introducing humanity's advocate, Jesus Christ, who will turn the tide of battle.

Solo singers and the 18-voice choir displayed their unity and precise balance throughout the program, which showcased, with the insertion of interludes, the guest artist Dickey, whose mastery of the cornetto was on conspicuous display throughout. The cornetto is a wooden trumpet with a cup mouthpiece and a sound that has some of the articulate force of its brass successors but whose construction brings to the fore a mellow, sometimes plaintive tone.

It had the latter quality particularly in a solo piece with simple organ accompaniment by the 16th-century composer Ascanio Trombetti. More central to its tradition, and fully displaying Venetian splendor, were a couple of canzonas by Giovanni Gabrieli for two cornetti, three sackbuts (early trombones), organ, and strings. This music is usually heard today arranged for modern brass ensemble. Dickey was also in the spotlight with the program's other cornettist, Etienne Asselin, as their complementary voices were positioned on either side of the organ, played by Ken Yeung.

Heinrich Schütz found particularly stimulating his studies with Giovanni Gabrieli, bringing back to his homeland inspiration for  music that has led to his reputation as the major German composer before J.S. Bach. Performance of his "German magnificat" was one of the most impressive demonstrations of the performers' collective strength under Marsh's guidance. The meaning of the text was put across eloquently in the successive entries of the lines about the generations who will call Mary blessed. When God scatters the proud, the crucial word "zerstreuet" is repeated forcefully. When the Almighty leaves the rich empty, or sends them empty away (as the King James Bible has it), the scoring is bare. With the doxology tacked on to the end of Mary's song of praise, extra majesty pours forth from singers and orchestra alike.

Sometimes Schütz micromanages the texts effectively. When "Unser Wandel ist im Himmel" (Our pilgrimage is to heaven), the opening line ascends tortuously. At the end, a clear distinction of "weak" and "strong" expressivity occurs on the words "untertänig" (subservient) and  "machen" (make), respectively.

The climax of the concert was radiantly presented with the performance of Praetorius' complex setting of "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme," with its well-placed high points of majesty, ending with an unstinting song of praise. Without any sign of forcing, the glory highlighted by the text was evenly produced at the summit of the musicians' well-honed blending. Finally, a wonderful Schütz setting of Psalm 150 highlighted the composer's resourceful imagination. The praise is antiphonally presented, and the tone pictures are vivid as the litany of praise proceeds: The sackbuts are of course prominent when praise by brass instruments is indicated.

All instruments gain in prominence in the next few lines, and the evocation of the dance yields a dance-like animation. Particularly clever is the way voices and organ are poised in resonant alternation to render two lines relating to cymbals, which can thus be evoked without any futile attempt at mimicry. For the very end, there was a smooth transition into a speedier tempo and rocking triple meter for the concluding "Alleluia!" This quincentennial observance could hardly have ended better.

[Alchymy Viols photo by Tae-Gyun Kim]

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The rogue who celebrated himself as Master of the House in 'Les Miz' can't hold a candle to Time's wannabe Person of the Year

Person of the Year Welcome to all, losers as well: Salute the President, isn’t he swell! As for the media, fakers and crooks: We sure don’t need ya, we hate your looks: As for this gent, it’s quite evident No American should resent that he should be… Person of the Year! Why not jump the gun? He knows he deserves it more than anyone. Person of the Year! Wants that cover slot: Time has featured him before, so now, why not? Everybody loves an Alpha male, Every woman’s groping friend: He’ll do just what he pleases, And Jesus! He won’t need ‘em in the end. Person of the Year! He’s the people’s choice In some echo chambers he’s the only voice: He alone can fix it: make the nation great. Taking care of poor folks? — that’s the nanny state. The Times and CNN’s the enemy: But they hang upon his every tweet: Though he’s gotten twice as wordy, Lordy, how he knocks them off their feet! Person of the Year! Why not jump the gun? He knows he deserves it more than anyone. Person of the Year! Wants that cover slot: Time has featured him before, so now, why not? Time says he’s mistaken; their pick will come December 12th But Donald isn’t patient, he’d sacrifice a Haitian for himself! [pause] Native code-breakers, he loves you all (That’s Andrew Jackson up on the wall): The President shares his Pocahontas slur: It’s not about you — it’s him, and sort of her. Sure, your goose was cooked, your bounty turned to gruel; Your ancestors were rooked so whites like him could rule. Riches are forthcoming, wealth beyond belief; He’s your benefactor, though he seems a thief: In his tiny hands lies your destiny: Is there anyone more qualified than he… You’re better off than Muslims, whom he’s bound to libel, Retweeting hate videos: Quick, run for your Bible! Person of the Year! Quick to catch your eye, Go beyond just browsing, be prepared to buy: Savor his selection by a magazine that’s fake. You say you’ve had too much of him? Give me a break! Never mind how much trouble other people say he’s in He’s got lawyers on the double, Sorting campaign rubble, Neutralizing General Michael Flynn. Person of the Year! He’s the people’s choice In some echo chambers he’s the only voice: He alone can fix it: make the nation great. Taking care of poor folks? — that’s the nanny state. He hates athletes who kneel when Old Glory unfurls: Government’s his oyster, and he’s collected all the pearls. Person of the Year! Quick to catch your eye, Go beyond just browsing, be prepared to buy: Savor his selection by a magazine that’s fake You say you’ve had too much of him? Give me a break! He doesn’t know shit from shinola So he ratchets up our fear Make way for his base to extol a Bloated orangy rock ‘n’ roller He’s infectious like ebola — this Person of the Year.

Friday, December 1, 2017

With distinction, Dance Kaleidoscope joins other performing arts organizations in mounting a seasonal program

The mystery and the fun of the season make up Dance Kaleidoscope's new program, which marks a return for the
contemporary-dance troupe to a Christmas show after many years. "A World of Christmas" opened Thursday evening on Indiana Repertory Theatre's Upperstage and plays there this weekend and next.

Irresistible: The exuberant company representation of a Hawaiian song.
It was gratifying to see a work revived from David Hochoy's early years in his fruitful tenure as DK's artistic director. His setting of Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols" was first staged 20 years ago. As he told the audience in a question-and-answer session during intermission, "there's a lot of Martha Graham in it." He was not far then from his employment as a dancer and rehearsal director with this seminal figure of his art form, and her enthralling gift for representing ritual has come down to Hochoy as part of the Graham legacy.

Britten's setting of old English carols for boys' choir and harp is a rare example of Christmas music I never get tired of. Oh, I suppose hearing it every day from Advent through Epiphany would become tedious. But it is one of those nearly perfect Britten compositions in which his prodigious technique and his inspiration are in perfect sync.

The words of the carols are properly somewhat distant from what we see in Hochoy's setting, but there is a fine congruence between them that allows the music to flower wholly in dance terms for this gifted company. Indeed, gifts are the keynote: a sculptural gift  created by Herron High School students is carried by each dancer in procession down the theater's aisles and set down in front of the square stage. At the end, the gifts are placed onstage by the troupe before it leaves (to Britten's recessional music). The items are bathed in light as if to indicate that the ritual of gift-giving has been made subject to a peculiar blessing.

Cheryl Sparks' costumes — white and flowing, formal yet timeless — seem just right for both the vigorous and the contemplative movements. Space is never an alien element in Graham-inspired choreography; it's always embraced, commanded and filled by every gesture. This imposes reverence upon the design, in that even movement that emphasizes struggle (though that's at a minimum in this piece) takes in the world through which it passes and makes it in some sense holy.

"Wolcum Yole!," the cheerful first piece after the procession, places the 10 dancers as greeters of the season as well as of each other, establishing a feeling of community thoroughly at home in the Christmas season. As the work unfolds, the audience is brought into a balanced presentation of both individual and collective celebration. Caitlin Negron has the spotlight in a solo to the carol partners of "That Yonge Child" and "Balulalow," with the climactic, spinetingling line "The knees of my hert sall [heart shall] I bow." Back-to-back showcases for the women ("As Dew in Aprille") and the men ("This Little Babe") are well-judged. Vivacious choreography never loses its duty in this piece to represent formal devotion.

Suggesting the glory that was Graham: A transfiguring moment in "Ceremony of Carols."
The interlude harp solo is the occasion for a fine duet by Timothy June and Mariel Greenlee. That segues into "In Freezing Winter Night," with the company creating a breathtaking vehicle for a Greenlee solo in which, with her colleagues' unstinting support, her feet never touch the ground. The well-designed tension of this episode never had a hint of shakiness or strain Thursday night. This was crucial for representing the one place in "Ceremony of Carols" in which heaven and earth, including the contrast between the infant Jesus' humble condition and the promise of his kingship, is juxtaposed. We are reminded that the justification for such extreme inequality of circumstance is not of this world, despite what today's political climate seems to recommend.

The work ascends from this mystery into the pure praise of "Deo Gracias," with the company in full celebration, putting a seal on the exuberance first established by "Wolcum Yole." The conveyance of the gifts to the place where the givers had just been was one of those still moments, without a human being in sight, that paradoxically hold up what dance at its best has to offer.

Emily Dyson put detailed expressiveness into a Norwegian song.
After intermission came "World of Christmas Kaleidoscope," a series of short pieces assembled over the span of 1994 to this year by Hochoy, with the superb team of Laura E. Glover (lighting) and Sparks (costumes) allowing the troupe to live up to its name in the heartiest international way. Barry Doss designed the whimsical costume for Greenlee in a solo as a street-wise Sugar Plum Fairy, with such fey touches as a glitter-covered ball cap worn backwards and, on her back, gauzy fairy wings.

Hochoy distributes eminence adroitly among his dancers, but it's such a pleasure to see Greenlee move into a position of dazzling virtuosity and charm of the sort once represented by Liberty Harris. Capable of statuesque charisma, tragic resonance, pizzazz, and saucy humor, both dancers have created many indelible DK memories over a span of three decades. What a tradition!

Tragic resonance got a rest in this show, and after her solo, Greenlee was mostly engaged in displaying signs indicating the national settings of "World of Christmas Kaleidoscope"'s component dances, though she joined in company numbers, including the blissful finale,  "Silent Night," preceded by a raucous Hawaiian neighbor, "Mele Kalikimaka."

The audience gets to appreciate the rest of the troupe in such solos as Stuart Coleman's, to Elvis' idiosyncratic version of "White Christmas," and Emily Dyson's in a buoyant dance to a Norwegian song, "The Bells Are Ringing."  There was a proper touch of effort and struggle in a Spanish song depicting Mary and Joseph's search for lodging in Bethlehem, danced in complementary light and shadow by Negron and June.

Company triumphs included the droll, gaily costumed, reindeeresque "Here Comes Santa Claus" (the Elvis version again), the evocations of the black church in "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," and, on a smaller scale yet sublimely peppy, a version of "O Holy Night" from Benin (danced by Coleman, Negron, and Paige Robinson) and the reggae-flecked Jamaican declaration, "All I Want for Christmas," featuring Brandon Comer, Aleksa Lukasiewicz, Manuel Valdes, and Marie Kuhns in a cumulative portrayal of spontaneous, mutually supportive energy.

It was the sort of piece you wish could go on forever, but its actual length was surely just about right. And "just about right" is a holiday truth, seasoned with understatement, that's applicable to the whole show.

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Escher String Quartet ascends to the heights of Beethoven in Ensemble Music concert

The Escher String Quartet offered two Viennese classics plus Ades.
"Allegro con spirito" is the movement direction that was clearly embodied as the Escher String Quartet played the first measures of Haydn's String Quartet in G, op. 76, no. 1, on Wednesday evening.

There was plenty of spirit, plus an admirably robust sound, which prevailed throughout the work. Presented by Ensemble Music Society, the American ensemble, in residence at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, projected a variegated, sympathetic concept of Haydn at the top of his form in the genre he practically invented.

The large audience in the Basile Auditorium of the Indiana History Center took to the Eschers immediately as a result. The warm rapport thus established helped sustain its obvious fascination with the late-20th-century piece that followed, "Arcadiana" by Thomas Adès. The English composer wrote this at the beginning of an illustrious career that has carried him to the forefront of contemporary music in the United Kingdom.

The seven-movement suite presents an astonishing variety of idealistic evocations of
The French artist Poussin painted "Et in Arcadia ego" in 1637-38.
journeys to better places of the imagination. These depictions are inevitably shadowed by the death we all know to be our lot, as summed up in the Latin title of Nicolas Poussin's painting, "Et in Arcadia ego," with its central tomb in an idyllic pastoral setting. The work was a specific inspiration for the fourth movement of "Arcadiana." Nicholas Johnson's detailed program notes set every movement of the 20-minute piece in attractive context.

It's remarkable that so young a composer was able to reach out to so many styles of musical expression and fold them into his own language. The hints of older music, sometimes approaching quotation, seem much more successfully bound into something fresh than a few American composers (George Rochberg and Jacob Druckman, for example) achieved while high modernism, keyed to serialism, began breaking down as orthodoxy several decades ago. The wispy phrases of the finale, "Lethe," toy with the polarity of memorability and forgetfulness — an opposition that gives substance to all journeys we may undertake to Arcadia away from this life.

M.C. Escher's "Relativity": Games of perspective

The Eschers lived up to the Dutch artist they honor in their name with the well-knit manner in which they addressed the complexity of perspectives in this work. And all three of the pieces presented harness the centrifugal forces within them to produce coherent narratives, on all of which this quartet shone a bright light. Unanimity of concept and execution characterized the concert, though the Escher lacked the exquisite, unshakable balance of the Danish String Quartet that EMS presented last month.

The most extensive illustration of the Eschers' estimable skills came after intermission. It was Beethoven's Quartet in A minor, op. 132. The formally innovative work features a lengthy slow movement illustrating the composer's gratitude at recovery from a severe health crisis reflective of the horrendous burdens besides deafness that bedeviled Beethoven late in life.

The changing meaning of the two-part process of devout thankfulness and regained strength as the movement proceeds is vital to any performance.  The Eschers showed themselves remarkably patient about illuminating the transformation of the two themes into a conclusive outpouring of gratitude. 

The other four movements also had a complementary vigor and unhurried tension and release about them. Though the ovation was sustained and vigorous at the end, there seemed to be a general understanding that no encore was needed or even appropriate after such a performance of such a work.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Happy reunion: Ronen Chamber Ensemble meets UIndy's Faculty Artist Series

The  sizable 20th-century ensemble pieces that ended each half of Monday night's collaboration between University of Indianapolis and the Ronen Chamber Ensemble presented a polarity that might be found throughout the history of music.

On the one hand, the exploratory, extroverted muse of Luciano Berio was represented by his "Folk Songs" (1964). On the other, there was the focused expression of singular personality in Francis Poulenc's Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet (1931). It's almost tempting to put forward an analogy to the ancient Greek aphorism made popular by the 20th-century thinker Isaiah Berlin: "The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing."

The fey charms of Poulenc's music don't sit easily with the idea of knowing "one big thing," but the variety he pursued thrives within a small range, bound on one side by his religious devotion, with its touch of sentimentality, and on the other by his insouciance and boulevardier brio. He made those discrepancies work within a personal style; to his credit, Poulenc thus can be said to know one big thing, and know it thoroughly.
Berio group (minus percussionists Jack Brennan and Terence Mayhue and cellist Ingrid Fischer-Bellman): Vu Nguyen, Emilee Drumm, Heaven Fan, Tamara Thweatt, David Bellman, Mitzi Westra.

Despite the stylistic focus, the sextet turns up one surprise after another — the total held within prescribed limits, however. Each movement (especially the first) has sharply contrasting material to explore, set amid those side-slipping tonalities and cheeky dissonances that make the Poulenc manner seem meandering, even random, but turn out to establish a jaunty hedgehog-like purposefulness. The piece was brightly performed by Gregory Martin, piano, with the conventional instrumentation of the wind quintet: flute (Tamara Thweatt), oboe (Pamela Ajango), clarinet (David Bellman), bassoon (Mark Ortwein), and horn (Darin Sorley).

For a composer to communicate a personality may be more important than evidence that new terrain must be explored. Poulenc thus survives within an enchanting eddy off the modernist mainstream. Berio is more a part of that mainstream, but he never sounds settled within even the new conventions of his time. He was a fox. "Folk Songs" satisfied me much more than the Sextet; it simply draws more deeply from the well-nourished iconoclasm I find exciting about 20th-century music.

In this work, Berio not only paid tribute to his flesh-and-blood muse, the soprano Cathy Berberian, but also drew his selected folk songs from the aesthetic of recordings more than actual field work of the kind for which Bartok and Kodaly were famous. Further evidence that he was not interested in anthropological authenticity is that two of the songs in the middle have his original melodies. The instrumental settings suggest both the uniqueness of folk ensembles and the unconventional chamber-music combinations of high modernism, filtered through a monaural recording ambiance.

On Monday, Vu Nguyen led a lively, glinting performance of the suite. Berio's choices in the accompaniment grab the attention without detracting from the vocal solo. Harp is especially prominent, with the other instruments showcased to varying degrees and with an uncanny rightness of blend. The instrumental codas always sound like the songs' last (and best) word.

Mezzo-soprano Mitzi Westra invested each song with appropriate expressiveness (though the absence of texts, or even descriptions of them, withheld meaning to a significant extent). I would have liked a more nasal, almost forced and nonclassical quality in a few of the Mediterranean songs and the concluding Azerbaijan Love Song. Remember that Bulgarian women's choir that was such a hit years ago? Something similar in solo terms might have been more idiomatic here and there, even though Westra conveys pretty convincingly everything she puts her voice to. The initial two songs in English of Appalachian provenance set the stage for the kind of sincerity and plainness that seem to spark Berio on his merry way with this deep-grained material.

The program also included a Ronen commission in its first performance. Matthew Bridgham's "Avon Yard" directs the quartet
A view of the Avon railyard from the Ronen's visit there.
of Ronen co-founders David Bellman, and Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, cello, together with Martin and violinist Joana Genova,  to vary their sounds from unpitched to "somewhat pitched" to "clearly pitched" in evoking the CSX railyard in Avon, Indiana. The quartet's members visited the railyard as part of their preparation for a work calling for "guided improvisation."

The 12-minute piece must be the most intimate, subdued evocation of railroad matters ever attempted in music: No "Pacific 231" here. More like Michael Colgrass' unrailroad-like "As Quiet As," but less self-conscious. It's a loosely assembled soundscape of cars trundling slowly amid the yard's other mechanical sounds, all at the hushed end of the sound spectrum, culminating in a lulling medley of pitched fragments — a novelty well-positioned on this program.

The concert opened with Arvo Pärt's "Fratres," probably the Estonian composer's most famous work. It's both durable and fashionable in a personalized spiritual manner. It exists in several settings, evoking a monastic procession with a repeated theme subject to both simple and fancy variation. Genova and Martin were the simpatico partners in a performance that gained assurance after the violinist's somewhat ragged string-crossings in the first part. The varied articulation called for later was more stably achieved. This is one of those pieces in which, if the audience gets the impression that one or more of the performers is working really hard, the desired effect is lost.

I don't know about Bridgham, having heard only "Avon Yard," but Pärt is definitely a hedgehog.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Funnier by the dozen?: Phoenix Theatre adds to its 'Xmas' legacy with the final Park Avenue installment

This is an era of disbelief and unbelief, much of it political. A certain Twitter user can't be believed any more in 280 characters
Paul Collier Hansen's Santa casts a skeptical look.
than he could in 140. Tax reform that is purported to help ordinary people but glaringly favors corporations and the very rich ratchets up the general skepticism.

But the difficulty of holding onto something enduring is part of the age-old Christmas brand, so the holiday fits right in. The challenge extends from "the reason for the season" that's often thrown in our faces right through the values that are wrapped up in gift-giving — a legacy aimed at our wallets as much as our hearts.

So it's little wonder that "A Very Phoenix Xmas," the Phoenix Theatre comedy-variety show that just entered its 12th season, puts a lot of the fun it stirs up squarely on the problem of whom and what to believe in. To start with, there's the inevitable encounter with the illusions of childhood about Santa Claus and how to keep them intact at all costs.

That pops up early in "Up to Snow Good," directed and curated by Bryan Fonseca and Thomas Horan. It's virtually certain that when a married couple connive at canoodling on Christmas Eve, believing their young daughter to be asleep, they will be totally unnerved by something extraordinary.

Here it's the crashing descent of Santa down their chimney, instantly limp and comatose. The sketch is rich in physical comedy as the couple try to animate the elfin corpse after their curious daughter rushes in from her bedroom. The amazingly supple Rob Johansen sustains a believably limp Kris Kringle while the parents wrestle with how to dispose of the body — just as parents have from time immemorial struggled with how to dispose gracefully of the legend.

The sketch draws a lot of its energy from the parents' desperation to spare the child the horror of realizing her globe-trotting benefactor may be out of commission now and for Christmases yet to come. Physical comedy is quite prominent in "Up to Snow Good," as is a variety of choreography designed by Mariel Greenlee. As usual, Greenlee adjusts her ideas to the varied dance skills of the Phoenix Xmas cast to show them off well.  The only number that puzzled me was the unconventional pas de deux set to "I'll Be Home for Christmas" — flowing when subject to shadowy illumination, static when fully lit in front of a white backdrop. I infer that the words that follow the title — "if only in my dreams" — are being realized to illustrate the contrast between really being home for Christmas and only dreaming about it.

Reconciling being in a setting you love versus just imagining it is just another way of posing the credibility problem that the holidays push to the forefront. "Up to Snow Good" uses as framework for the sketches a prime milieu for skepticism: the usefulness of higher education when judged against the hype that surrounds it. In this case, it's the University of the North Pole, touted, with sometimes transparent falsity, in a series of monologues interspersed throughout. The monologues are mostly clever and delivered with spirit, but I wonder if this setting needed a sketch of its own to launch the production and tie everything together more substantially.

Shermy (Nathan Robbins)  broods on his marginalization as a classic comic strip's only Jewish character.
Several sketches have been revived from previous Very Phoenix Xmas shows, including the final outburst of raucous comedy, "The Things They Merried," Eric Pfeffinger's representation of the "war on Christmas," with Johansen as a kind of alt-right militarist leading the charge against the largely secular retail behemoth. The rapid-fire exchange of platitudes and insults is vigorously staged with simulated combat niftily sustained until it reaches a conclusion worthy of being recounted in heroic terms by the Christmas-touting militiaman to his grandson.

Other revivals worth seeing again involved technical triumphs, such as the large puppets representing Nativity figures for the song "Don't Eat the Baby." The scene gives audiences the ultimate unstable stable behind the Bethlehem inn, and goes as far in the direction of irreverence as anything in "Up to Snow Good." Maybe Fonseca's conception of mashing up two familiar Hallelujahs, Leonard Cohen's and G.F. Handel's, justifies its place largely for the sake of balance.

Mark Harvey Levine has over the years has represented the summit of the show's comical charm. This time he reappears as the  writer of the new "Requiem for Shermy," a tribute to a briefly used and early discontinued "Peanuts" character, and the reprise of a brilliant parody of "Les Miz" songs. That's set predictably amid discontent and turbulence among the elves and reindeer and titled "Les Miserabelves," a rambunctious sketch that rousingly ends the first act.

Besides Johansen, the fit and effervescent cast includes Jean Arnold, Paul Collier Hansen, Andrea Heiden, Carlos Medina Maldonado, Devan Mathias, Gail Payne, and Nathan Robbins.

As many people try to keep their cynicism at bay, "Up to Snow Good" in one sketch locates that pervasive feeling at its source: the Twitterstorms of the current occupant of the Oval Office. "'Twas the Tweet Before Christmas," by Michael Hosp and Jeffrey Martin, indicates what we can continue to expect as the tweets of resentment, revenge and meanspiritedness accumulate, subject to "fake-news" analysis and questions clumsily batted away by the administration's time-servers
and sycophants.

Sadly, there are more than chestnuts roasting on an open fire this season; the truth is burning up as well. "Up to Snow Good" will allow you to feel the warmth generated by that fire more positively, even if some of your cherished beliefs get scorched.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Delfeayo Marsalis has a pal (or two) in Kalamazoo

Delfeayo Marsalis is the third-best-known Marsalis brother, and that seems a
Paisley on steroids: Sharp dresser Delfeayo Marsalis
distinction worth having. As he and his first-rate siblings settle comfortably into middle age, they still benefit from the early tutelage they received from their father, Ellis, who has frequently joined them onstage and for recordings.

In "Kalamazoo," (Troubadour Jass Records), we get to hear what happened when the trombonist-bandleader, now 52, took his quartet to Western Michigan University for a concert in April 2015. Besides his dad on piano, he brought along bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Ralph Peterson. In the course of the concert, Marsalis has a couple of WMU jazz students sit in on an original blues, "Blue Kalamazoo" — vocalist Christian Diaz and drummer Madison George. The comfort level is high.

It's an ingratiating set, full of well-known pieces, except for that localized blues and Delf's "The Secret Love Affair," a midtempo work to a Latin pulse that leaves a pastel impression. The standards include one that's standard only in the ears of the nation, not on the jazz bandstand: the "Sesame Street" theme.

For that, Marsalis mutes his trombone and growls in his solo. Elsewhere, he's featured on open horn, where he is equally clever. For the children's TV show theme, Peterson supplements his attack by striking tiny cymbals, and the quartet frolics along, right through the whimsical coda. 

Ellis quotes "It Ain't Necessarily So," and seems to have had little restraint in indulging the habit that evening. The peak comes during his solo on "It Don't Mean a Thing," when we hear bits of "Joshua Fit De Battle," "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby," "Blue Skies" and "Swinging on a Star." I like the senior Marsalis' straightforward, old-fashioned style, but the quote machine overheats now and then.

The pianist gets a nice feature on "If I Were a Bell" as his son sits out. Of course, in this case, starting out by evoking the Westminster chimes is pertinent. The track is notable as well for a splendid bowed Veal solo, accompanied by the bassist's vocal at the unison in the manner of  Slam Stewart. 

Peterson does imaginative work throughout. He lends extra perkiness to a slow, nearly 10-minute version of "Tin Roof Blues." That's not to say the performance would otherwise have been boring. The rapport between Ellis and Delfeayo is particularly fine here. The trombonist (whose first name is accented on the second syllable on his website, on the first by his publicist) treats himself to a couple of quotes ("Willow Weep for Me," and "Mona Lisa") in an exemplary solo. Ellis juxtaposes both leaping and smoothly melodic phrases during his turn in the spotlight.

Peterson does some fine work on brushes behind Ellis on "My Funny Valentine" and "Autumn Leaves." Veal's exchanges with Peterson smartly set up a good drum solo in the latter number. 

The set ends with loving treatment of a song that will probably always carry a deep meaning for the stellar Crescent City family: "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?"  

'Deed they do.


Monday, November 20, 2017

Sean Chen explores some musical byways in solo recital for APA at Indiana Landmarks Center

An out-of-the-way first half set the stage for more familiar repertoire by Maurice Ravel in the second half of Sean
Sean Chen brings the little-known to light.
Chen's recital Sunday afternoon at Indiana Landmarks Center.

The popular 2013 winner of the American Pianists Association's classical competition began with little-known, substantial works by two unconventional, early 20th-century composers: Nikolai Medtner of Russia and Federico Mompou of Spain.

Catalonia has been much in the news lately with an independence movement that has roiled Spanish politics. Mompou was a Catalan who seemed independent of everyone, countrymen or not. An entry in the 1954 edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians makes him seem like a mystical hermit out of J.R.R. Tolkien. 

There may not be any account of a composer in that venerable reference set more bizarre, in which Mompou's music unleashes a host of literary references from the writer, including Robert Browning, Sir Thomas Browne, Thornton Wilder, and Enoch Soames. The last-named author, an imaginary poet created by Max Beerbohm, is quoted favorably to shed light on Mompou as if Soames really existed. And I'm still trying to wrap my head around the meaning of this citation: "A French critic once said that some of [Mompou's] music could be dictated in words without making use of any conventional music-writing method." That may be a kind of reverse Zen koan. Or maybe Method acting applied to musical composition.

This fragrant essay, which carries a whiff of parody about it, applies mostly to Mompou's miniatures. Chen offered an extended work, Variations on a Theme of Chopin, to open the recital. Harder to follow than many sets of variations rooted in 19th-century style, the variations depart capriciously from the theme, the simple, forthright Prelude in A major, op. 28, no. 7. Everything converges in a wild blend of majesty and headlong energy in the 12th variation, a "galope" followed by an epilogue. There a reverant seal is placed upon the theme, which will never be the same for me after this performance.

The Classical Fellowship winner of four years ago then turned his focus to the individualistic but less eccentric Medtner. Chen typically displays the power and accuracy of his contemporaries, but there's a special quality — a personal flair — that lifts his performances above today's steely-fingered norm. That came out in Medtner's Sonata-Ballade, op. 27. The potential clash of song and structure in the first movement was finessed in a well-ordered performance with thoughtful layering of the material. The second movement is all tension and anticipation, leading to a stormy fugue in the finale. Chen's hypnotizing interpretation of the piece made it seem well worth encountering more often.

The picturesqueness of Ravel's "Miroirs" is classically conceived, despite the highly colored treatment of such subjects as "a boat on the ocean," "moths," and "sad birds." By that I mean that the titles do not invite us to find programmatic content in every measure. Mompou might inspire literary fantasies, but Ravel in this set of charmers doesn't invite us to conjure up any more images than those suggested by the five titles. 

The individual pieces essentially show what the piano can do as put through a Ravel filter, with the subjects in the titles suggestive, but not explicitly detailed.  Changes of meter, precise pedaling indications, and some drawn-out dynamic shifts over rapid figuration carry the message in other than visual terms.

For example, after Chen caught the rhythmic sparkle and dash of "Alborada del gracioso," the most intensely choreographic piece in "Miroirs," the attention to resonance and the feeling of music coming through at various distances put the listener in a vastly different world for "La vallee des cloches," the final piece. 

Chen turned to the purely abstract Ravel to end the program: the Toccata from "Le Tombeau de Couperin." Ravel's chaste manner of using accents and the subtle variations in dynamics were scrupulously represented in Chen's fleet performance, mounting inevitably to the triple forte final measures. Justifiably called back for an encore, the recitalist offered an effective contrast — his introspective adaptation of the "Adagio ma non tanto" movement of Bach's third violin-keyboard sonata.

A new U.S. senator?: Shelter from the storm is the offer Alabama seems to have extended to Roy Moore

Come In, Roy Moore, We’ll Give You Shelter from the Storm

‘Twas in another lifetime, while building his career
He got no satisfaction without a nymphet near.
It only came out later he was running true to form.
Come in, Roy Moore, we’ll give you
       shelter from the storm.

So many teenage girls he tended to appall
They banned this creepy lawyer from the Gadsden shopping mall.
Do you think he was a predator? Well, you’re getting warm!
But ’Bama voters want to give him
      shelter from the storm.

He grew his base when he defied two orders from the court
Not to make the halls of justice a Ten Commandments fort.
There’s nothing that can stop him, no matter how he’s warned.
So Alabama’s poised to give him
       shelter from the storm.

Of politician sex offenders, he’s offended most:
His victims’ testimony was printed in the Post,
But that’s just propaganda, made up, it don’t inform,
Us Alabama voters offer him
       shelter from the storm.

Defenders thump their Bibles and search it for a text
To justify behavior that has so many vexed;
They cite Joseph and Mary, to whom was Jesus born;
Come in, they say, Roy Moore, and take
      shelter from the storm.

The Alabama governor amplifies the shout
To put a child molester in, keep the Democrat out:
The public good’s dispensable, we have a brand-new norm:
Come in, Judge Moore, we’ll give you
      shelter from the storm.

Across the land, the people wake, call monsters to atone;
When you hurt women, girls, or boys, you must stand alone:
But here in Dixie, we close ranks behind him, we’re not torn!
Come in, Judge Moore, our votes will give you
      shelter from the storm.

Be loyal to the creep you love’s the new GOP tenet
And come December 12th, they’ll send Roy Moore to the Senate:
Endorse the Christian predator, don’t mind the nation’s scorn:
The judge won’t budge if he is given
      shelter from the storm.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Indianapolis Opera trains its renewed bright lights upon a repertory staple, Verdi's 'La Traviata'

The production of "La Traviata" that local opera fans are seeing this weekend at the Tarkington in Carmel reflects the collaborative mood of Indianapolis Opera's new management. It got some seasoning in Evansville first, just over a week ago,  with orchestra and chorus members from that city. Today it concludes a three-day stand at the Center for the Performing Arts.
Violetta (Emily Birsan) gives vent to her joie de vivre at a Paris party.

The production team stayed intact, headed by Jon Truitt as stage director, Alfred Savia as conductor. The Evansville conductor, familiar to Indianapolis audiences through his association dating from the 1990s with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, wanted to revive opera in Evansville, where he's led the Evansville Philharmonic for decades.

It looks as if there will be a continuing link between opera there and opera here every other year, according to IO's general director, David Craig Starkey. Truitt, who had directed opera at the University of Evansville and now teaches at Ball State University, felt the same about boosting opera in Indiana's southernmost big city. His friendship with Starkey through staging operas in Asheville, N.C., is now bearing fruit here.

As seen Saturday night, "La Traviata" has its essentials intact. The production sits well in the intimate space of the Tarkington. Much of its success came from the scrupulous pacing of the music under Savia's baton, using adept local musicians. I wish the preludes to the first and third acts could have proceeded without the formal choreography that accompanied them; it would have settled the audience into the pathos of the story without the implication that abstract dance movement for three couples adds something pertinent.

There are some cuts to bring each performance within a three-hour limit, as well as to concentrate the story on the three-way relationship among the initially shy but increasingly ardent Alfredo, the stylish but consumptive courtesan Violetta whom he loves, and Alfredo's provincial father, Giorgio Germont. Although understandable from a cost and staging standpoint, the elimination of the costumed gypsy dancers and imitation bullfighters at the second-act party was regrettable.

Something of the extravagant frivolity of the Parisian beau monde was thus not impressed upon the audience — a milieu in contrast with the tension between the financially stressed young lovers and the resistance to their romance by Alfredo's dad. A supertitle reference to "the maskers" whose appearance party hostess Flora anticipates remains as a ghostly reminder of the omission. The ensemble singing, prepared by longtime IO chorus director John Schmid, is good enough to offer partial compensation for the trimmed revelry. In Act 1, the chorus also did much to establish Violetta's tinselly world and her illness-dogged place in it.

Violetta and Alfredo start feeling mutual attraction in Indianapolis Opera's "Traviata."
The stage picture is especially weak in the second-act party scene as well, since the backdrop — including a gnarled tree — is identical to the scene before it, set in the expensive country estate that the lovers occupy to test and enjoy their fraught affair. That's where their love is threatened on a couple of accounts: its debilitating costliness and family opposition to the liaison between the passionate, profligate scion and "the fallen woman" (one of a few reasonably accurate translations of the opera's title). The roiling clouds behind the action don't quite make the estate look like bucolic bliss, but with some shifting for the last act, they can be taken as an abstract symbol of Violetta's inevitable fate: succumbing to tuberculosis in Paris at the very moment of reconciliation with the junior and senior Germonts.

Emily Birsan put a glorious stamp upon all aspects of Violetta — the first act's  high-spirited coquette with a soul, the self-sacrificial heroine of Act 2, and the fading flower showing a few bursts of vivid color of Act 3. If some of her high notes overshot the mark in "Sempre libera," for the most part her coloratura remained brilliant and well-honed. Her Violetta projected reciprocal interest in Alfredo despite herself; the conflict within the character was managed well. I liked the touch of her twirling a camellia as she contemplated continuing her freedom untrammeled by true love, then dropping the flower upon hearing Alfredo's offstage declaration of love.

She was touching in responding to the initially fierce Germont in Act 2, and put much apt variation in her vocal production to register the searing cost of the sacrifice the protective old man is demanding of her. "Dite alla giovene," Violetta's plea to have what she is doing for the Germont family known to them, wrenched the heart as it should. The ebb and flow of Violetta's energy, both vocal and physical, was exquisitely managed in the finale.

Gregory Turay's Alfredo was appropriately diffident about launching the drinking song he is asked to supply in the first act. It was one of the few indications of the hero's shyness, and it was well worth establishing, because his long-nurtured infatuation for Violetta soon sweeps everything else away as the fires of love are stoked. Turay colored and softened his capable tenor marvelously in duets with the soprano, but more variation of timbre and volume elsewhere would have been welcome. White-hot passion, ironically enough, doesn't have to be monochromatic to be felt as such.

As Germont, Christopher Burchett came across as what's been called "the heavy father" type as he meets Violetta for the first time in Act 2. The characterization softened as the conversation went along, and his somewhat reedy baritone became more attractive. His plea to Alfredo later in the act, "Di provenza il mar," had the flavor of both Germont's paternal provincialism and his heartfelt need to console his son for the breakup the old man has engineered. Thus his near-sobbing delivery of the second strophe didn't seem out of place.

Of the other roles, I was struck by the sincerity and compassionate ring that Oliver Worthington gave to Doctor Grenvil and soprano Shannon Paige Christie to Annina, faithfully attending the dying Violetta and helping to establish, before the repentant Germonts rush in, that the admirable courtesan is nowhere near as friendless as she has supposed. Her final cry of "Joy!" lifts up all Violetta's awareness of her protracted suffering to a transcendent plane and, as performed Saturday night, sent out the indelible message that joy in life is all the more precious for its evanescence.

[Photos by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]