Tuesday, February 28, 2017

IVCI laureate brings Finnish music to local attention, is joined by Ronen musicians for Brahms

To the casual American music-lover, the Finnish contribution to classical music is usually summed up in the work of Jan Sibelius. But the cultivation of music in Finland over many decades since Sibelius has produced a wealth of worthy successors, as well as superb players and conductors nurtured by the nation's outstanding music education.

Jaakko Kuusisto was one of the 1994 laureates.
Monday night in the Laureate Series of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, Jaakko Kuusisto furthered our acquaintance with this phenomenon. A laureate in the 1994 IVCI, he has amassed many other honors since, including impressive credits as a composer and conductor in addition to his violin-playing.

The first half of the violinist's program at the Indiana History Center was all Finnish, starting with the founding father, Sibelius (1865-1957). Five Danses Champetres, played with Chih-Yi Chen at the piano, made for an expansive curtain-raiser as well as a charming exposition of Kuusisto's fitness as a fiddler.

Sibelius yielded with some reluctance to the recognition that a concert violinist's career was not in the cards for him.  But, as is generally well-known from the repertory staple of his Violin Concerto, Sibelius wrote so naturally for the instrument that he fused his compositional gifts readily with his insider's performing knowledge.

Danses Champetres shows him in his lighter mood, evoking 18th-century French garden parties in a series of sprightly dance-based duos. Throughout, an instinctive feeling for contrast is evident: Pizzicato phrases lie adjacent to bowed playing, double stops come into play unobtrusively, and the music, with the piano underlining the festive mood and rhythmically enlivened atmosphere, is demanding mainly in the gracefulness required to make the variety of timbre and articulation seem unforced. Kuusisto conveyed the right kind of virtuosity, with idiomatic support from Chen.

The two were also partners in the guest artist's "Volo (Light)," op. 23. About 10 minutes long, the work resembles the opening and closing of a large aperture, suggesting the subject of light as everything from glaring to dim. Perhaps twin apertures is the more accurate concept, since each instrument goes its own way to a considerable degree. Kuusisto showed a sensitive, even witty feeling for the radical difference between violin and piano. Especially striking were dramatic rests before what seemed like a final flourish in both instruments, but turned out to be a climactic episode leading to mutual subsiding; then came a final widening of the apertures to end the piece.

Kalevi Aho is one of Finland's established contemporary composers, becoming gradually better known in America and the rest of Europe. His "Solo 1 (Tumultuos)" for unaccompanied violin cast in bold relief the strong individual voice Kuusisto already has in his compositions. The contrasting styles made Aho and Kuusisto a stimulating program choice.

Jaako Kuussisto, Charles Morey, David Bellman, Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, and Amy Long played Brahms' Clarinet Quintet. [Photo by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]
Aho focuses on kaleidoscopic shifts over a long span. The piece opens with slow-moving phrases revolving around a static tonal center. There's little shimmer at first in this non vibrato start, but the line is gradually decorated, then intensified. A steady, laconic staccato pulse becomes characteristic, but it's often interrupted by vigorous figuration that moves to the forefront the tumult of the title. The work ends in a splash of virtuosity. Kuusisto played "Solo 1" with the same burnished, centered tone and natural command of expressive and technical variety he displayed in the concert's other Finnish pieces.

A staple of the chamber-music repertoire occupied the rest of the concert, bringing onstage a representation of the IVCI's concert partner, the Ronen Chamber Ensemble. Playing first violin, Kuusisto was joined by violinist Charles Morey, violist Amy Kniffen, cellist Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, and clarinetist David Bellman for Brahms' Clarinet Quintet in B minor, op. 115.

The five-way partnership sounded well-honed. In the first movement, phrases that dip in ardor and volume close to the vanishing point proved a harbinger of the sensitively performed slow movement. Bellman's tone featured feathery pianissimos against the muted strings. The quintet avoided any sign of impatience or unevenness as it unfolded Brahms' calm, rhapsodic scenario.The compact Scherzo found the ensemble in a well-executed dancing mood, and the finale — a set of variations, a form of which Brahms was an absolute master — confirmed the wisdom of this series' practice of bringing back IVCI laureates to collaborate with some of the area's top professional musicians.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra announces a star-studded 2017-18 season

"America's diva,"  soprano Renee Fleming, will highlight the new season of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, in the
annual Gala Opening concert. In both the classical and pops series, 2017-18 will feature an A-list roster of debuting and returning guest artists.

Renee Fleming will grace the Opening Night Gala concert in her ISO debut.
With music director Krzysztof Urbanski on the podium, Fleming will make her ISO debut on Sept. 23, performing pieces that were not part of today's announcement. She is the type of American opera star that Americans like — personable, down-to-earth, and versatile. If opera had quite the cachet it had in the mid- to late 20th century, hers would probably be a household name, as was the beloved Beverly Sills.

But Fleming moved closer to that exalted status when she sang the national anthem at the 2014 Super Bowl. In her principal claim to fame on the opera stage, Fleming established her reputation a few decades ago with acclaimed performances, dramatically and vocally acute,  embracing a range from Handel to Strauss. She has also recorded popular music in a voice suitable to the genre.

Two special events have been announced, representing the ISO's wide  range. "La La Land" may have been a wrong-envelope victim at last night's Academy Awards, but it is still a movie with a huge amount of buzz. It will be featured, with composer Justin Hurwitz joining principal pops conductor Jack Everly onstage, as the ISO accompanies a showing of the film Sept. 13.

Justin Hurwitz, "La La Land" composer
The other "special" is a "Bon Voyage Concert," representing a local presentation of what the ISO will offer in the 2018 SHIFT Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.,  during a mini-residency there. On April 11 at Hilbert Circle Theatre, Urbanski will conduct performances of two works from his native Poland, Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto and Penderecki's "Credo." Returning to the ISO schedule will be cellist Alisa Weilerstein in the former piece; the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and the Indianapolis Children's Choir will be essential partners in the Penderecki.

Alisa Weilerstein will be part of ISO's D.C. mini-residency.
Among the highlights in the Classical Series is a focus on Mozart's final year (1791) in the annual "festival" bracketing of concerts — this time moved from mid-winter to the end of the season (June 1-2 and 8 and 10). The works will be the Austrian composer's Overture to La Clemenza di Tito, the Piano Concerto No. 27, and the Requiem the first weekend; a concert presentation of "The Magic Flute" on the second. Popular guest artist Emanuel Ax and the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir will be involved. The cast for "The Magic Flute" has yet to be selected.

Besides Ax and Weilerstein, returning guest artists include baritone Thomas Hampson, mezzo-soprano Kelly O'Connor, violinists Joshua Bell, Karen Gomyo, Augustin Hadelich, and Vadim Gluzman; pianists Yefim Bronfman, Kirill Gerstein, Garrick Ohlsson, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Anna Vinnitskaya. Along with debut pianist Alon Goldstein, Ohlsson and Vinnitskaya will be featured in a one-weekend traversal of all five Prokofiev piano concertos (Nov. 17 and 18).

Gustavo Gimeno will be among first-time ISO guest conductors.
Conductors making their ISO debuts include rising star Karina Canellakis, Gustavo Gimeno, Bramwell Tovey and Nikolaj Znaider. Returning podium guests will be Andrey Boreyko, Hans Graf, Michael Francis, Nicholas McGegan, Jun Märkl, and Matthew Halls.

ISO principals in the spotlight will be concertmaster Zach DePue and cellist Austin Huntington as soloists in Brahms' Double Concerto (Nov. 9-11), under Urbanski's baton.

Notable new and modern music will be represented by an ISO co-commission, Andrew Norman's Violin Concerto (with Jennifer Koh the soloist), and also James Macmillan's "Sinfonietta" and Wojciech Kilar's "Orawa."

On the Pops side, Everly has programmed a return guest appearance by Broadway star Audra McDonald (Feb. 9 and 10), Tony Award-winner Kelli O'Hara in a Rodgers and Hammerstein program, an accompanied showing of the film "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," a pops series debut (though he hosted the 2016 Yuletide Celebration) by Indianapolis' "The Voice" champ Josh Kaufman, and a Simon & Garfunkel tribute concert, among other events.

A full schedule, with all dates and repertoire, can be obtained by visiting the ISO website. Patrons can renew subscriptions before April 28 by phone [(317) 639-4300], by mail or in person at the Hilbert Circle Theatre box office.

APA's Premiere Series concludes Sunday with another remarkable finalist

Alex Beyer put a personal stamp on a varied program Sunday afternoon.
It's expected that the American Pianists Awards in classical music will present pianists fully capable from a technical standpoint. And it's even the norm that appropriate interpretive ideas will be applied to the repertoire, even if they amount to no more than conventional wisdom.

But it always seems a gift when yet another finalist comes along with a real personality to express in the Premiere Series recital/concerto format. Personality is always a treacherous quality to assess in an art form so dependent on tradition. It can be summed up as the ability to project an individualized approach to the music that brings its essence forward without distortion, misreading or sensationalism.

That's what Alex Beyer rewarded a sizable audience with in the Indiana History Center's Basile auditorium Sunday afternoon. Amply recognized internationally already, the 22-year-old Beyer exhibited an incisive but not brittle attack, flexibility of tempo without giving the impression of waywardness, and an immense, cannily applied dynamic range.

This was evident from the start in the substantial Prelude movement of Bach's English Suite No. 6 in D minor. Beyer made no bones about offering a thoroughly "pianized" interpretation of the most illustrious Baroque composer — a man who may have had slight acquaintance with early pianos but wrote for the instrument's predecessors. Beyer eschewed simple contrast of dynamic levels from one phrase to the next in favor of dynamic variety that was amply multifaceted according to the rhetorical sweep of the piece. There were long crescendos and diminuendos that made sense and were steadily subject to the pianist's control and expressive purpose.

Opening a Rachmaninoff section in the same key was a daring indication that Beyer, despite his piano-specific concept of Bach, knows the difference between the 18th-century German and the 20th-century Russian. In three Etudes-tableaux from op. 33, Beyer submitted fully to the propulsiveness and wide palette characteristic of Rachmaninoff. The clarity and dash of his playing, already on display in Bach, was given free rein here: the dancelike yet somewhat martial No. 4 (Moderato in D minor), the whirlwind No. 5 (Presto in E-flat minor), and the comprehensive No. 6 (Allegro con fuoco in E-flat major), which ebbed and flowed with tidal certitude reminiscent of Beyer's way with Bach.

The Gordian knot of the program's recital portion was Schumann's Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp minor, op. 11.  Certainly difficult to play and difficult to interpret, the rather sprawling four-movement work attained genuine cogency for me in Beyer's performance.

Schumann famously yoked his divided nature (when he was mentally healthy) to an interior partnership between personalities he named Eusebius and Florestan. Eusebius was the reflective, calm self; Florestan, his restless, exploratory character. Beyer's F-sharp minor sonata took the tack, especially in the first movement, of putting Eusebius definitively responsive to the urging of Florestan. I didn't feel the pianist was impatient with Eusebius' inwardness: the second movement, titled Aria, gave him a respectful outing.

So it was really a balanced interpretation, but definitely one responsive to Florestan's urgency, as if this side of Schumann were continually muttering to the other: "Get on with it, will you?" As a result, the Scherzo sounded fleet, carefree, a little "Eusebian," yet gladly impelled by the dominant restless partner. This movement has an odd episode that seems to make fun of an Italian opera recitative, complete with chordal punctuation: what's that doing in a piano sonata? Beyer handled that brief excursion as a caprice, which is a better way to deal with Schumann puzzles than straying into mysticism. His was an admirably clear-eyed interpretation, without being in any sense blasé.

After intermission, the usual curtain-raiser for the finalist's concerto performance came off delightfully. Matthew Kraemer conducted the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra in Rossini's Overture to La Scala di Seta (The Silken Ladder). Sunday's account had plenty of zest and some perky oboe solos by ICO principal Leonid Sirotkin.

When Beyer returned to the stage for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, he showed his mastery in full partnership with Kraemer and the ICO. The dynamic and tempo variety owed more to insight than willfulness. The rapport with the orchestra was well-prepared: The way the orchestra led into the first-movement cadenza had genuine suspense, setting the stage for Beyer's turn in the unaccompanied spotlight superbly.

Beyer made the Adagio moto sound like one of Beethoven's most inspired slow movements; the more-than-usual amount of pedal in the final phrases created a magical effect. The wickedly fast tempo taken in the Rondo finale seemed to suit this outstanding finalist's temperament, without a hint of resembling the colloquial bat out of hell — or, since it sounds better in P.D.Q. Bach's Italian — come un pipistrello dall' inferno.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Indiana University mounts a solid, atmospheric and fully engaged production of Benjamin Britten's masterpiece

Richard Smagur as the defiant, isolated fisherman Peter Grimes.
In an especially poignant passage in Alban Berg's "Wozzeck," an opera Benjamin Britten admired and pondered while composing "Peter Grimes," the title character  muses aloud that when he and others of his class enter heaven, they will probably have to lend a hand with the thunder. He's a common soldier dominated by a nagging captain and a crackpot doctor, and like Grimes, he's destined for a tragic end.

But Britten's hero thinks very little about his fate in heaven, and regards thunder and its attendant meteorological challenges as well beyond his control, either in this life or the one to come. That's conventional wisdom for seafaring communities. The rough fisherman that librettist Montagu Slater fashioned from the sadist in George Crabbe's poem "The Borough" finds the suspicion he arouses in his fellow citizens as implacable as any natural foe. He is less deserving of his outcast status than the town is guilty of its susceptibility to prejudice and half-truths. Both his status and the English fishing village's guilt prove durable.

Indiana University Jacobs School of Music's new production of "Peter Grimes," one of a mere handful of operas premiered since World War II to have entered the international repertoire, emphasizes the firmness of the Borough's hostility to the coarse, hulking Grimes, a near-hermit nursing outsize ambitions and scornful of his neighbors' tattling narrow-mindedness. The opera skillfully sketches the peculiarity of certain inhabitants — the drug-dependent town gossip Mrs. Sedley, the hypocritical Methodist scold Mr. Boles among them — but any individuality must normally be subsumed in conformity.

Stage director Chris Alexander underlines the collective excellence of Walter Huff's large chorus by having the villagers gesture and react in coordinated fashion. Starting with the Prologue, an inquest into the death at sea of Grimes' boy apprentice, the chorus moves as a unit. Where there is hubbub, it's unanimous, down to shushing an interruption of the coroner Swallow's assumed formality. Grimes' bitterness about the procedure is immediately evident as the groundwork of his demise is laid. In a later scene, the villagers frolic somewhat grotesquely, briefly breaking out of their regimentation, to move about the stage like figures in a Bruegel painting.

Alexander occasionally moves the villagers as a massed unit down to the lip of the stage, nowhere more impressively than in the magnificent Handelian chorus "Who holds himself apart" in Act 3, capped by a shift in Patrick Mero's lighting design that throws their shadows upon the background. We are meant to see, as his allies Ellen Orford and Captain Balstrode remind him, that Grimes can't expect to win over the Borough, whose perennial existence is ruled by the uneasy truce daily life must make with the ungovernable sea on which all depend. The final chorus reinforces that creed, as the sighting of a sinking boat, unreachable, is obliviously taken as just another rumor. The Borough has defended itself on its own terms.

As seen Saturday night, there was more than physical stature to put the title character in bold relief against his social background. Richard Smagur displayed a voice that soared and raged, a glowing tenor that remained firm yet revealing of Grimes' anguish. His physical carriage made him appear to loom over his fellows even while steadily sinking under the weight of lifelong disappointment and alienation.

The social stratification that arouses unambiguous sympathy for the plight of Berg's Wozzeck is not part of Grimes' burden, since the Borough hierarchy is minimal. His failings, which Smagur represented well, are bound up in a quest for success beyond the Borough norm. The apprentice death under investigation has stemmed from an attempt to get rich from a London sale. The long voyage was stymied by bad weather and the exhaustion of the water supply amid an abundance of caught fish.

"What harbour shelters peace" and "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades," the two numbers for the tenor lead that characterize his abiding loneliness, were performed with feeling and clarity Saturday night. But crowning Smagur's fitness for the role was the mad scene, a tour de force both vocally and dramatically. He showed that the fisherman's rage and self-pity, so evident before, were a spent force, and only his despair was left. Lyrical pathos proved just as much the tenor's strong suit as what Smagur had evinced earlier, when Grimes' vaunting demon was in charge. (The production in the Musical Arts Center is double-cast; a different cast will be on hand Friday, and the one I saw will appear in the final performance March 4.)

Ellen Orford (Christina Nicastro) in a typical position vis-a-vis townspeople suspicious of her defense of Grimes
A stroke of genius during the mad scene involved the supertitles. In a use of technology to reinforce operatic meaning,  the screen goes blank for the first time (excepting the atmospheric orchestral interludes). Suddenly, even if we had only occasionally glanced up at the projected text, we were at one with Peter Grimes in his miserable isolation. The Wagnerian concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk now includes judicious supertitle suspension.The scene was played behind a scrim, uniting the seaside fog with the fisherman's mental distraction.

Vincent Festa as the self-styled evangelist Boles.
Bucking the town's congealing rejection of Grimes are the widow Ellen and the retired merchant-marine officer Balstrode. Christina Nicastro sang the sympathetic role with the necessary patience and ardor. Her aria "Embroidery in childhood" was rich in retrospective lilt. It was matched, partly through sensitive staging, by her earlier implied rebuke to the townspeople applying Jesus' warning against sinners casting the first stone. As she sang in gentle self-justification, the citizens who had confronted her gradually pealed away,  impervious to her argument, leaving her alone.

Balstrode was stirringly played as a plausible moderating influence on his fellow citizens, as well as the only man with a chance of checking Grimes' drift toward doom, by Daniel Narducci. Of the other male roles, I found particularly vivid Vincent Festa's characterization of the feverish Bob Boles, no subscriber to the Methodist temperance pledge in one amusing scene, but otherwise boiling over with jeremiads against the official piety represented by the rector Adams (Thomas Drew). In the silent roles, Mitchell Jones as the inebriated Dr. Crabbe displayed the acrobatic proprioception of the great silent-film comedians; Niccolo Miles was the hapless, brutalized apprentice, cowering competently but without the continual trembling, even shuddering, that would best have suited a portrayal of pure victimization.

Mairi Irene McCormack projected both the neediness and drug dependency of Mrs. Sedley, a widow standing for the opposite effect of widowhood from the charitable spirit Ellen Orford embodies. McCormack's mezzo-soprano could have used more "bite" and penetration, though she reflected the gossip's meanness well. Another mezzo, Gedeane Graham, was a bulwark of bluff accommodation and business savvy as the publican "Auntie," with Rebekah Howell and Therese Pircon as her Tweedledee/Tweedledum "nieces."

Auntie,  Nieces and Ellen Orford sing of the trials the men in their lives subject them to.
Among the sweet respites from the rush toward vigilante justice was when these three singers joined with Nicastro in what is effectively a trio (the "nieces" sing mostly in unison) bidding farewell to the headstrong male posse. "From the gutter, why should we trouble," with a barcarole-like accompaniment dominated by flutes, is a conscious descendant of the sublime "Soave sia il vento" in Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte."

This was among the highlights of Arthur Fagen's conducting. So were the famous interludes, four of them known separately to concert audiences. The fulcrum of these wordless representations of the unfolding action is the Passacaglia, named for the form in which a short, repeating pattern in the bass is subjected to variation above it. It's perfect to represent what abides in the human and natural setting of "Peter Grimes," while the variations — starting with a viola solo, beautifully rendered Saturday night — sketch in the emotional turmoil overlaid upon the Borough's complacent foundation.

The late Robert O'Hearn's wonderful set and costume designs are revived for this production. They are evocative without clutter or overemphasis. The way the simple buildings seem to squat, embedded in their shore neighborhood shoulder to shoulder, suggests coziness and an ethos of self-protection. I'm not sure why the program places the action "at the end of the nineteenth century" when the original setting is tersely described as "toward 1830." I didn't detect any updating in this production.

The costumes look inspired by the pioneering early Victorian photography of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson — including the charming fashion detail that rough-and-tumble English fishermen sometimes favored stovepipe hats. There was no evidence in the production's lighting that electricity had come to the Borough, though that may have been still true in the late 19th century. I'm no expert, but it certainly appeared as if O'Hearn had centered his vision of the show in the period the libretto stipulates. Even the mocking of Boles' anti-establishment Methodism seems more at home in the 1830s than the 1890s.

In any case, the provincial grip that small communities everywhere have on larger-than-life misfits is a timeless theme that could hardly be more memorably handled on the opera stage — both by Britten and Slater as well as by this stunning production.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

ISO delivers handsomely for another guest conductor, and two-piano splendor energizes the audience

The Labeque Sisters wowed the crowd in Poulenc's two-piano concerto
The pre-eminent duo pianists of the day excited the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra audience Friday night in the only full-length performance of this weekend's Classical Series program.

The schedule yields to the music of Queen tonight, but last evening Rossen Milanov reigned over a concert of music by Toru Takemitsu, Francis Poulenc, and P.I. Tchaikovsky at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The Bulgarian conductor, now music director of the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony Orchestra,  opened with the Japanese composer's quarter-hour evocation of an imaginary garden rooted in his love of real ones.

"A Flock Descends Into the Pentagonal Garden" offers a wide spectrum of orchestral sonority, distantly derivative of Debussy's manner of prioritizing sound and avoiding cadences and development. Forging a style of his own, Takemitsu, who died 21 years ago,  represented the first internationally successful blend of Japanese sensibility with the Western symphony orchestra.

Guest conductor Rossen Milanov was effective throughout the concert.
The brief outbursts were well-managed in this performance, subsiding into gentle textures, cumulatively amounting to what Takemitsu described, according to Marianne Williams Tobias' helpful program note,  as a "shifting panorama of scenes." The precise way in which orchestral color is distributed seemed fully responsive to Milanov's guidance. Well-knit in all respects, the performance had stunning "markers" of its divisions in the solos of Jennifer Christen, oboe, and Roger Roe, English horn.

An extensive display of Milanov's insight, rhythmic sweep,  and attention to detail came after intermission, with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 in C minor ("Little Russian"). The nickname is not an affectionate diminutive, but an old designation (Little Russia) for Ukraine, whose sovereignty has recently been subject to the Russian bear's clawing.

Everyone's favorite Russian composer drew upon folk songs; in the first movement, his way of digging into the material is repetitious and fairly unimaginative.

The performance Friday was set on its course by an extensive, warmly played horn solo (Robert Danforth) before the "Allegro vivo" main section took over with its sophomoric handling of the generating folk song. This is certainly music that even a novice symphony goer would have no trouble following to the lively end. The finale, while also able to communicate immediately and forcefully, is treated in a more sophisticated way. The contrasting material is more interesting and woven into the galvanic energy of the movement, with its signature splashes of brass and percussion.

As heard Friday, the middle movements were both lively and under firm control. The second, "Andantino marziale, quasi moderato," indicates by that heading its delicately executed march character, given touches of wit up through the final bar. The Scherzo, a fleet affair, was nicely brought off Friday, with solid playing throughout the strings.

The weekend's guest soloists were Katia and Mariella Labeque, a two-piano team with an international reputation going back decades. Born in Bayonne, France, they have the unanimity as a team expected of specialists in their precise art. The vehicle here, a popular one among duo pianists, was Poulenc's Concerto in D minor. The outer movements glory in their immediate impact, and the Labeques were off to the races from the start. The middle movement focuses on a beguiling Mozartean theme, reflective of the composer's love of the 18th-century Austrian.

Despite his formally and harmonically conservative style, Poulenc's spirit and manner were fully 20th-century, and the sorts of contrasts this piece embodies have a restless modernist quality about them. The music is by turns charming, nose-thumbing, reflective, iconoclastic, flamboyant, attention-grabbing and glib. His devout Catholicism doesn't make an appearance in this music, except obliquely. "Gay and direct," a favorite Poulenc description of his music (credit again to the program note), describes the man himself, with the first word carrying today's exclusive meaning. Without the preening outrageousness, Poulenc is sort of a Milo Yiannopoulos among composers of his era.

The performance sparkled and surged, and Milanov handled the accompaniment  duties with elan. The Labeque sisters responded to the ovation with an encore, Philip Glass's "Four Movements," a spectacle whose power snowballed in a blaze of tandem piano virtuosity.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Joe Lovano Quartet fills the room and our warm February souls at the Jazz Kitchen

Joe Lovano, looking like the chairman of the board.
Coming into the Jazz Kitchen on a beautiful unseasonably balmy Saturday evening to hear the Joe Lovano Quartet provided a layer of further relief.

The early set by the veteran saxophonist dispensed not only balm, however, but also a bracing sort of liniment that stung before it soothed. An older sax master, Sonny Rollins, offered a musical caution about global warning several years ago. But sometimes you just have to enjoy the late winter gift of 60-degree temperatures, set aside thoughts of planetary danger, and just take in the music.

Lovano's protean style and wealth of invention skirts the edge of glibness, but there's always enough in his solos and the unity he has nurtured in his bands over the years to keep the music fresh. With a short introductory cadenza as a kind of throat-clearing, Lovano and the band launched into some bluesy oratory with the leader's composition "Fort Worth."

Now, Fort Worth is a homespun Texas city that nurtures its cowboy heritage reasonably well, but I assume the title is applicable to what Lovano does because Fort Worth is the hometown of Ornette Coleman. The theme is down-home, casual about chord changes, and saturated in country blues, and thus is a durable tribute (you can hear it on at least a couple of Lovano CDs) to the apostle of free jazz.

Lovano's solo was cogent and vigorously focused, but his young pianist Lawrence Fields, besides being undermiked, was somewhat slow to roll out his ideas, then reluctant to release them.  His improvement in the course of the set was dramatic. By the third piece, "On This Day, Just Like Any Other," he was hitting his stride, moving things along smartly. He sounded both fully relaxed and generously motivated in the last two numbers, a Wayne Shorter tune and Tadd Dameron's "Hot House."

The set's second piece,"Our Daily Bread," gave the capacity crowd the first extended exposure to bassist Peter Slavov, vivaciously interactive with Larry Istreli's pistol-shot drumming. This band can fill in a broad canvas without seeming to turn aside to touch up an unrelated watercolor. In other words, it can  establish a ballad feel on a piece like this, work it up to a midtempo swinger and, with the leader as inspiration, turn a reflective mood into a more playful one, as Lovano did in his second solo. Yet it all hangs together, and declines to ride madly off in all directions, unlike Stephen Leacock's Lord Ronald.

The sixth tune, the aforementioned "Hot House," came off like something you might hear in a second set. The quartet was fully at home and reacting well to its enthusiastic reception. The conventional device of exchanges with the  drummer, delayed until this piece, was unusually high-profile and concise. A chorus or two with just Lovano and Istreli made an exciting interlude just before the quartet chimed in for the out-chorus.

We may all be living in a hot house with a sense of foreboding, but we might as well catch a little fun as the glaciers calve and the polar ice caps melt. The Joe Lovano Quartet is among the vehicles to carry us away from worry for a while.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

An elder statesman among conductors works wonders with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

Realizing that I was out of town when the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra last played Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat ("Eroica"), I unfortunately can't comment on how different Friday night's performance under the baton of Edo de Waart was
Edo de Waart, this weekend's guest conductor.
compared to Mario Venzago's in 2014.

But it was soon evident as the first movement got under way at Hilbert Circle Theatre that de Waart was drawing something of significant contrast to the Beethoven styles of Krzysztof Urbanski,  Venzago, or Raymond Leppard — the current ISO music director and his two immediate predecessors.

I've never heard the ISO sound quite like this in core classical repertoire, and it's almost frustrating to try pinpointing the differences, which were all to the good. There was a glow and warmth to the first movement that avoided overheating. The sound was full and commanding, without excessive upholstery. In "The Symphony: A Listener's Guide," Michael Steinberg complains of conductors "whose attitude of reverence and awe before A Great Classic leads them into 'monumental' tempi" that seem to justify early critical carping that this trailblazing symphony was inordinately lengthy, even unendurable.

While grandeur was never far from the vision de Waart imparted to the ISO, the performance never took on any rigidity of the kind summed up in Steinberg's capitalized phrase "A Great Classic."  This was a supple interpretation whose dynamics and tempos seemed to grow from within.

The structure of each movement — particularly the first and the fourth — was delineated without any evidence of micromanaging. I think Beethoven meant for his audience to see both the forest and the trees. The "greatly compressed motif cells" (Maynard Solomon's phrase) in the opening movement, for example, were given a clarity that was nevertheless nestled in the fabric of the whole. The tidiest movement, the Scherzo, had the requisite panache, including the three-horn magnificence of the Trio section. The "funeral march" second movement sounded properly like the best thing of its kind ever created, music that Richard Wagner sought in vain to equal in his heroic funeral music for Siegfried.                 

The finale was not taken on the power trip some performances can't resist. It's obvious Beethoven is treating his much-loved theme to a kind of apotheosis, but why clamber up Parnassus heedless of the terrain's special beauties? De Waart never let the cumulative insistence of the material take over. He invited the orchestra to bask in the spectrum of Beethoven's variation treatment, and it did — from march to caprice to "Hungarian" dance to the flaming coda.

The overall progressive development of the ISO is not to be slighted, even though the vacancy issue must continue to be addressed. Nonetheless, while acknowledging the contributions of the three music directors already mentioned, what a guest conductor of de Waart's stature can lend to the ensemble speaks not only to his gifts but also to the flexibility any major orchestra needs to display. When the ability to adapt in repertoire the players know thoroughly is exercised this well, the result encourages enthusiastic patronage and brightens the future.

De Waart opens this weekend's programs (the series concludes at the Palladium Sunday) with the significant but rarely heard "Symphonies of Wind Instruments" by Igor Stravinsky. Twenty-some musicians are required for the 1920 work, heard here in its 1947 revision. Friday's performance sparkled, but showed the need for a little more rehearsal. At issue is not how well the performance hung together; it did that, but there's a host of challenges in blending so much instrumental diversity in unconventional ways.

Saxophone virtuoso Timothy McAllister
The work's peculiar title indicates the composer's interest in elaborating on the roots of the word "symphony": a sounding together. Declaring himself — in an annoying watchword of modernism — uninterested in expressing emotion, Stravinsky still managed to come up with a chastely moving tribute to Claude Debussy, as was commissioned from him. But the main focus is on a constant shifting of ensemble colors across a range of short themes that owe much, including their Russian character, to "The Soldier's Tale," "The Wedding" and even "The Rite of Spring."

Though Stravinsky disdained the organ ("The monster never breathes!" he once said), I often think that this work should come across as if one instrument were parading all these different sounds in front of us, like a finely registered organ. Friday's performance was fairly shipshape, but the score's challenges are huge. To give just one example, in one of the passages just after another repetition of the work's signature herald-like motif, three flutes have a showcase marked mezzo forte ("medium loud"), joined near the end of the seventh measure by a large proportion of the band playing piano ("soft"). If the large group does not play softly, it of course will tend to obscure the flutes. Not having a phonographic memory, I won't try to assert how close Friday's performance came to Stravinsky's demand here, but I had the sense that overall blend and balance were not all they could have been; maybe just two more concert performances will meet every requirement.

The novelty in this weekend's program is John Adams' Saxophone Concerto. To play the solo part, the ISO enjoyed the participation of the alto saxophonist who inspired the composer to create the piece, Timothy McAllister.  The soloist's playing was equal to the unrelenting nature of Adams' writing — to its bursts of lyricism and controlled feverishness alike. His tone remained pristine and properly centered throughout. The orchestra supports him after the Adams manner of repetitive elements that change direction much more freely than the minimalism with which the composer was associated long ago.

The first movement creates the illusion of rising continually, yet somehow remains grounded, like a tethered hot-air balloon.
The soloist is set against an instrumental texture that owes something to a style of Weather Report, and indeed that seminal jazz-fusion group's saxophonist, Wayne Shorter, was an acknowledged influence on the composer. The surprising breadth of Shorter's phrasing — his way of leaving a notion incomplete in one place only to answer it satisfactorily later — was represented  excitingly in the solo part.

There are moments of relaxation in the course of two long movements. The finale, with its spiky energy from soloist and orchestra alike, drew more on early bebop pioneers, specifically Charlie Parker. This was a style in which rests and abrupt breaks in the line take on structural importance. After meeting so many requirements so well, McAllister still seemed to have fresh resources to bring to bear on the second movement's climax. I'd love to hear this piece again before too long.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Letter from the Earth: Phoenix Theatre nails the Deity in "An Act of God"

Not sure what the technical glitch (clearly intentional on the part of the Phoenix Theatre tech team) was that gave an opening-night audience "legendary local character actor" Scot Greenwell as an emanation, or incarnation, or embodiment of God Himself in "An Act of God" Thursday night.

You'll have to forgive me for my confusion on how to describe the substitution. Human theological language is mostly opaque to me. I should say right off that, coincidentally, I was there as a representative of regular blog critic Jay Harvey. As an angel, though not among the higher orders — my application to either Dominions or Thrones is under consideration — I am pretty well qualified to stand in for any human observer of the celestial scene. I daresay Harvey cannot make that claim.

First off, I have to declare that David Javerbaum, the author of "An Act of God," has some startling insights and intuitions about Himself. You can see for yourself on weekends through March 12 at the Phoenix, whose current home used to be a church. I find that charming, given this production.

Scot Greenwell convincingly doing some God-splaining.
And Greenwell is a dead ringer for God. Of course, since man was made in God's image, just about anyone would be, right? But that gets into theology, and I've already implied I would avoid that as much as possible. So let's just say that Greenwell is outstanding in a play in which Himself tirelessly presents a revision of the Ten Commandments and talks at great length about his motivation and achievement. He wraps things up by presenting an entirely new vision of Creation, which I guess quaint human custom would advise me not to reveal here. God Himself hasn't always been conscientious about spoiler alerts. Not that I'm bragging.

Under the direction of William Fisher, the actor exerts a firm hold on our attention from the start. He certainly held mine, and I'd never conceived of Himself being anything close to "legendary local character actor" Scot Greenwell. This is part of the magic of theater, which God in this play assures the audience he loves. People eat that kind of thing up: If they know God loves what they love too, they feel reaffirmed. The audience couldn't have been happier at the end, though I wonder if the final divine directive was bound to co-opt the slightest resistance. But my lips are sealed.

Greenwell is given lots to say, and he seems fully invested in all of it. As God, he has His moods, and He has a sense of humor, with great timing. Irony is not His strong suit, yet 21st-century humans like to interpret a lot of what God says and does ironically, and Javerbaum plays to that tendency brilliantly. When I'm sent down here on my occasional errands, distinguishing between irony-impaired and irony-dependent people is the hardest thing I have to do.

Archangel Michael won't take divine guff.
Everybody knows from Genesis that God is quite verbal. He felt the need to announce a lot of what He created over those six days, and unless He meant for us angels to overhear him, He was talking to himself, or Himself. Subsequently, as the Bible records, He chose His words carefully but always had a way of making them stick. Presented with an opportunity to justify divine injustice, He went on and on to Job (the play reminds us), becoming as beside the point and abrasively defensive as Kellyanne Conway.

Yes, I'm up on current events and pop culture,  as is Javerbaum's God. Omniscience entails an allusiveness as extensive and au courant as Shakespeare's. (They're neck-and-neck as to who has more footnotes.) The play's God also presents an up-to-date take on the first human beings — not particularly clearing anything up, but rather setting perpetual confusion upon a new platform, IMHO.

Archangel Gabriel attends to the sacred text.
Himself's talk about His "mysterious ways" seemed a little smug and evasive to me, but we hear that in Heaven all the time. It's one of the God cliches He says He hates. That wasn't the only point during Thursday's performance that I heard low murmurs of agreement from the audience. And there was plenty of laughter, too. This God really likes his human creatures, wants to amuse them when appropriate, and seems in this play to blame Himself for many of their failings. Well, it's about time, a survey of my colleagues might find. Just sayin'.

Michael certainly thinks so. Played here by Joshua Coomer, the patron angel of Israel tightens the rhetorical thumbscrews on Himself several times, with understandable frustration, even ferocity. Once, he gets a wing lopped off for his pains. He is of course in character to bring up the Holocaust, among other ills besetting the Creation. Nimble Michael also fields questions from the audience, which have an inevitability to them. It's nonetheless risky, as when the current U.S. President calls on reporters not from FoxNews or Breitbart.

In contrast, Gabriel (Michael Hosp) stays at an onstage lectern, some distance away from blowing the last trump (I've picked up the nasty human habit of naughty puns). He's devoted to the Good Book and the Heavenly Record. At the end of the show, the archangels join Himself in an uplifting trio that conveys God's parting message.

These dutiful, slightly edgy inner-circle angels have been splendidly outfitted by Sara Gable on a multilayered set (designed by Phil Male, and lit with just the right amount of dazzle by Michael Moffatt).  Michael is more working-class celestial; Gabriel projects archangel chic. White dominates, of course, and the apt accents and exquisite detail on all three figures made me feel right at home.

Questions and issues that have vexed human beings for millennia are addressed with magnanimity. Impressively, Himself takes a detour through the Valley of Tender Parental Regard in talking about Jesus, his headstrong middle child. On the whole, though, Himself is currently miserable. If He wrote a personal ad to humanity, it would no longer say "ISO LTR." Yet every time there's a one-night stand, a new cult religion gets founded.

But you'll have to discover for yourself why God might come to such a wary, weary conclusion. It will be worth your while. Speaking personally, this show put me in touch with the better angel of my nature. Maybe I could even make Seraphim! That would be awesome, if you'll allow a rare, suitable use of that word.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Butler University Theatre opens a resonant "Glass Menagerie"

Butler's Wingfield family in "The Glass Menagerie"
Background music is part of the scenario Tennessee Williams stipulates in "The Glass Menagerie," the 1945 drama that made his reputation.

In Butler University's production of the play, the overheard accompaniment varied in appropriateness; there were some puzzling anachronisms. But particularly exact and evocative of both the era and the mood was Billie Holiday's recording of "Crazy He Calls Me," played before the first words came from the stage.

The romantic devotion the song addresses is never realized by anyone in the Wingfield household in a lower-middle-class apartment in St. Louis. But the fierce wistfulness of the family matriarch, Amanda, is caught particularly in these lines:  "The difficult I'll do right now / The impossible will take a little while."

Wounded by the early departure of her handsome husband and the father of her now-adult children, Laura and Tom, Amanda does the difficult daily. That means keeping her son on track, correcting his manners and nurturing the conventional ambitions she imposes on him, while  pressuring her painfully shy daughter to develop a few modest pink-collar skills on the way to a proper marriage. Pathetically, she tries to bring in a little money selling magazine subscriptions by phone, flattering her customers with effusive sympathy for their woes.

Seen in a preview Wednesday evening in the Studio Theatre, the show reinforces in several respects the distortions of memory and the way fantasies sustain the will to go on, grasping to transcend real-life constraints and inhibitions. There is choreography, for example: Dance takes wing to elaborate upon Amanda's memories of being an attractive Southern belle, and later to allow Laura's imagined release from her shell, spurred by a sympathetic conversation with the Gentleman Caller. The former seemed to put forward an overly Oedipal interpretation of the mother-son relationship, but was well brought off. More poignantly, the Laura/Caller dance projected an attractive young woman, moving free of lameness and blossoming under the male attention she misinterprets.

Director Elaina Artemiev displays an imaginative latitude in fleshing out the playwright's assertion (through Tom as narrator) that the story is not told realistically. There is occasionally bold separation of actors, turning Rob Koharchik's unit set to advantage, as some conversations take place as if symbolically underscoring the way each Wingfield, though crucially bound to the others, lives in an individualized world. Tom seeks escape from a dead-end job at a local warehouse, Laura retreats into her collection of glass animals, and Amanda attempts to keep her sugary, vinegary temperament in control while clinging to the hope that the impossible will take just a little while.

Lexi Rohrer, playing Amanda, probably didn't need a dialect coach to emphasize the matriarch's Southern roots; she hails from Lexington, Kentucky. Beyond the idiomatic accent, she creditably created the illusion of a middle-aged, careworn woman. I'll admit I thought her sashaying and fluttery gestures in Amanda's reminiscence of her belle-of-the-ball youth were excessive, but then it struck me that the distorting mirror of Tom's memory means that his mother needn't be played with stylistic restraint or consistency. People we have mixed feelings about tend to be recalled with their features and idiosyncrasies exaggerated. It was thus quite striking that the scene shortly afterward, with Amanda returning home grim and humiliated by the discovery Laura has been skipping classes in stenography and typing, presented a much different person, with all the flutter and well-honed gracefulness gone, and defeat stamped on every feature.

Jeffrey Bird played Tom, a touch self-satisfied in retrospection — a trait that I thought worked: Though Tom's feeling is genuine for his sister and mother, it has been refined by distance in time, place and perspective. In the scenes where Tom is fully in his recalled past, Bird showed an appropriate range, flaring up at his mother or playfully chatting with Laura after a night on the town. Everything about the character came together in Tom's final speech, which I've always considered the most beautifully poignant narrator exit in 20th-century American literature, along with the last page of "The Great Gatsby."

Kallen Ruston's Laura conveyed better through her facial expressions than her voice Laura's fragility, but her look and sound worked together well enough to convey the tender heart of the action. As the Gentleman Caller, Ian Hunt projected the buoyancy and good nature of Tom's co-worker, a dinner guest of whom far too much is expected. It's a difficult role, in that we have to see him as sympathetically sincere, even if he may have self-consciously worked on being well-liked to further his ambitions, rather than someone toying with Laura's affections. A wild analogy: the Gentleman Caller must not seem Eddie Haskell-ish, smugly leading either Laura or Amanda on. Hunt skirted the edge of such a characterization, yet helped keep the poignancy of the situation mostly intact.

The black-box environs probably presented no practical way to lend enough symbolic stature to the family's crucial missing member, but it's no small matter to mention in conclusion that the framed portrait of the scapegrace father ought to be much larger — if only for the sake of reinforcing the memory exaggerations this  production otherwise represents admirably. He stands for the endless "little while" that doing the impossible can take. It's a feature that's made this play classic in a nation devoted to fresh starts and second chances.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

'Flynn Is Out the Back Door': An upbeat revision of an old favorite celebrating the departure of Trump's national security adviser

Duchess brings its three sets of vocal cords and six old and new ears to bear upon a varied vocal repertoire

Duchess is a vocal trio whose vocal discipline never smothers its direct appeal.
Jazz vocalists who push scatting and vocalese (new lyrics on old tunes and solos) to the sidelines are fairly rare, particularly when they combine in groups.

Thus Duchess, which on the recorded evidence has a keen jazz sensibility, also draws on an old pop tradition represented by the Andrews Sisters, the Boswell Sisters, and the Mills Brothers. In the trio's second recording, "Laughing at Life" (Anzic Records), the blend is seamless and invigorating. Projecting the lyrics with verve and clarity seems to be a watchword with Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou. At the same time, they negotiate clever arrangements with agility and true pitch.

The tempo shifts in "Everybody Loves My Baby" are thrilling, particularly with a couple of lickety-split choruses (to Duchess lyrics)  that are the last word in precision. This song also enjoys idiomatic help from clarinetist Anat Cohen. The selection of guest stars on the disc is unerringly right; besides Cohen, there's the sly, inventive trombonist Wycliffe Gordon,  licking his chops to savor "Stars Fell on Alabama" and "Creole Love Call." Cohen is also featured on the perpetually wistful "We'll Meet Again."

Each of the three singers handles a solo turn more than capably: Cervini on Cole Porter's ode to flirtation, "Give Him the Oo La La," Stylianou on the moody Newley-Bricusse number "Where Would You Be Without Me," and Gardner animating a high-kicking tour through Ray Charles' "Hallelujah I Love Her (Him) So."

The nucleus of accompaniment — pianist Michael Cabe, bassist Matt Aronoff, and drummer Jared Schonig — is always firm in support of the songbirds. Occasional supplementary zest comes from guitarist Jesse Lewis (his acoustic solo on Vet Boswell's "Dawn" is exquisite) and tenor saxophonist Jeff Lederer. The latter contributes some flavorful roadhouse deep-fry to the first track, "Swing Brother Swing."

Enthusiasts of close-harmony vocal jazz and classic pop will find every part of that repertoire range well-covered. To mention just two adjacent tracks: Porter's imperishable "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" yields to one of Johnny Mercer's inimitable novelty numbers, the teasing portrait of an artistically self-directed ecdysiast, "Strip Polka."

The nonesuchness of Duchess is evident throughout "Laughing at Life," whose title tune alone is a great pick-me-up in these difficult times.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Israeli guitarist finds simpatico quartet in his American home base with "The Village"

Born in Tel Aviv and trained in jazz on a scholarship to the New School, Yotam Silberstein has been a rising star on the
"The Village" is Yotam Silberstein's fifth recordings as a leader.
international jazz scene for about a decade. Like many Israeli jazz players who've become known in the West, Silberstein is unusually open to making the music truly multicultural in addition to putting a personal stamp on it. It sounds entirely natural and inevitable the way he goes about it.

On "The Village" (Jazz+People) he has the advantage of putting his fleet, melodic guitar style into a thoroughly compatible quartet context. His pianist, Aaron Goldberg, is often paired with Silberstein on this disc in unison statements of the tunes, most of them originals.

The partnership is subject to all kinds of steeplechase challenges, in songs like Carlos "Negro" Aguirre's "Milonga Gris," Lennie Tristano's "Lennie Bird" (a "How High the Moon" contrefact featuring lots of guitar-piano counterpoint) and the leader's own aptly named "Changes," a composition that seems as loaded with harmonic shifts as Coltrane's "Giant Steps."

Goldberg is a deft accompanist, with an even touch, as well as a soloist given to single-line soaring that never seems desperately in search of new ideas. The quartet is completed by bassist Reuben Rogers, set a little low in the mix but obviously contributing much to the texture, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, who's a focused whirlwind in the extra exposure he gets on Silberstein's "Albayzin," a piece inspired by a visit to Granada, Spain.

The title song brings it all back home, being a tribute to Greenwich Village, which Silberstein describes as "a very important place for me... musically and spiritually."  But the guitarist-composer says he also means to refer to the way music has become a global village. The piece picks up speed and energy as it proceeds, as if to fulfill the all-embracing insistence of this extravagantly gifted guitarist's muse.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Heading a quintet, Canadian sisters Jensen explore "Infinitude" in new CD

Ingrid and Christine Jensen commit to a personal outlook with "Infinitude."
"How are we going to dive into his pool and swim together?" is the question Christine Jensen posed on behalf of herself and sister Ingrid as they approached the small-group CD project that's just been issued: "Infinitude" (Whirlwind Recordings).

The Canadian sisters — saxophonist and trumpeter, respectively — in fact keep their heads above water, and dive deep when they feel like it, in these ten tunes, most of them originals. To continue the water analogy, however, there is some drifting toward the end of the CD. So I re-listened to "Infinitude" in a couple of separate sessions to make sure it wasn't just my attention that was drifting in the last few tunes.

I want to get the discouraging words out of the way quickly, because I believe "Infinitude" presents a fresh, unified vision, with an intimacy that would be evident even if this quintet's front line weren't so closely related. And the other three musicians display particular sensitivity to that vision, especially guitarist Ben Monder. Bassist Fraser Hollins and drummer Jon Wikan (Ingrid's husband) complete the group. Everyone sounds at home in the sisters' atmosphere.

But "Hopes Trail" is both glum and bombastic, and "Trio: Garden Hour" features intrusive guitar mutterings around Ingrid's melody line. "Margareta" kicks up somewhat, giving its waltzing blandness a little extra flavor. That segues into "Dots and Braids," whose overlong introduction eventually yields to a theme where a pulse establishes itself with an odd reluctance.

That takes care of the last four cuts; the first six find the five-way rapport more creditably deployed. "Blue Yonder" has a floating theme that introduces Christine's sax, meandering but in a firm, inner-directed manner and exhibiting an easy command of different registers. Monder's guitar sounds like a mysterious sound emanating from a cave — and I mean that in the best sense; it fits.  "Swirlaround," another Christine original, swirls around slowly but with a firm sense of direction; it's a gentle maelstrom. There's a little more blur from the guitar than suits my taste, but the piece holds up well, and features fine playing from Ingrid.

Ben Monder's "Echolalia" is a spirited number, with more good Ingrid, plus Monder at his most cogent. Christine's "Octofolk" finds the composer and Monder mutually inspiring one another, but what does it say, finally? I found it a foreshadowing of the disappointments in the last half of the disc. "Duospace" provides the best exhibition of the group's admirable trumpeter, and "Old Time," a Kenny Wheeler tune, is perfectly placed to show that this band can rare back and get a down-home groove going. The piece fits well within the overall ensemble concept, nonetheless, and is particularly welcome before the program threatens to bog down.

 "Infinitude" may not have horizons quite as wide as its title implies, but it searches those horizons with a solid commitment to making new discoveries and personalizing the world it finds.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

With Neil Simon's "Rumors," Civic Theatre revels in a garden of spin and hearsay

So 20th century: Leonard Ganz  and Chris Gorman try to consult a doctor.
Falsehoods seem to be in full flower these days. But who's pointing fingers?

In "Rumors," Neil Simon puts concatenations of lying, innuendo, and "fake news" through close-order drill. There's no larger message here, because the community that comes under scrutiny is merely a daft selection of well-connected, well-off New York City people trying to squelch an embarrassing event: the attempted suicide of the city's deputy mayor.

In 2017, public embarrassment may have become as passe as telephones with cords on them. The spiraling black cord on the cast page of Civic Theatre's "Rumors" explicitly acknowledges the quaintness of Simon's farce. It's kind of charming to take a look into the not-so-distant past and realize how dependent so many cultural artifacts are on the restricted ways people once communicated. (I find the ruse that the singer of Irving Berlin's "Change Partners" uses to steal another guy's dance date especially delightful: "Ask him to sit this one out and while you're alone / I'll tell the waiter to tell him he's wanted on the telephone".)

Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre's production of the 1988 play was in its second weekend when I saw it Feb. 10. Charles Goad directs a cast as funny as it is fulminating. The triggering suicide attempt is itself ridiculous, the wound being a bloodied earlobe and the real explanation for it lying at the bottom of a continuously stirred stew pot. The scenario is that the incident has sidelined the deputy mayor and his wife on the evening of a party they're hosting to celebrate their tenth anniversary.

Guests gather two by two, bringing their own agendas with them, and  gingerly come to grips with the situation, hiding the truth or rubbing it to the merest nubbin of itself. They also indulge in extraneous gossip and social game-playing that collectively confirm Simon's talent for keeping any number of circus plates spinning in the air.

Leonard Ganz (Parrish Williams) has things pointed out to him by wife Claire (Carrie Schlatter).
Kim Ruse and Clay Mabbitt play the Gormans, a couple of lawyers wrestling with the dubious distinction of  being first on the scene. On Friday, they were wound up to a high pitch of comic stress. When financial advisor Leonard Ganz and his waspish wife Claire arrive, they are already on edge after a traffic accident that turns out to reveal something about the absent hosts.

Parrish Williams, playing a financial adviser with a low annoyance threshold, particularly raised the bar of exasperation and desperate improvisation, and Carrie Schlatter as Claire tossed in some of the gossip stew's more pungent spices.

Marni Lemons bubbled and fretted deliciously as the Cookie Cusack, a celebrity chef plagued by back spasms. Her husband, Ernie (Trevor Fanning), was amusingly adaptable in being pressed into kitchen service while trying to make sense of everything, taking a kind of psychologist's busman's holiday. He has some phone interference from his therapy group, an odd bit of scheduling that nonetheless serves the playwright's purpose of maximizing confusion.

There's even more phone interaction with the personal physician of several of the guests, as well as of the indisposed host.  Eventually, no one wants to answer the phone. Such scenes are unimaginable among today's iPhone-carrying population. I envision younger Civic patrons musing about how strangely people lived back in the day, just as I used to marvel at my father's stories of the iceman coming by to replenish the icebox.

Joanne Kehoe plays a cop trying to get straight answers from frazzled party guests.
The other couple is the quarreling Glenn and Cassie Cooper, striking sparks in the performances of the real-life married couple
Steve and Christine Kruze. In the last act, Joanne Kehoe, assisted by Joe Aiello, burst upon the scene as partner cops trying to get to the bottom of the shenanigans.

Farcical dialogue owes a lot to the ancient formula the Greeks called stycomythia — a technique of rapidly alternating lines that eventually became more at home in comedy than in serious drama. It can be difficult for actors to get the pace right: It must move along quite lively and yet not seem mechanical; the audience must believe characters could actually be saying these things in response to each other. This cast mostly had the back-and-forth down authentically; I felt there were only a few times when I sensed the engine humming along above what was being said.

In two places, when a character reports having "heard an enormous" loud noise, the interruption by another character at the word "enormous" was slow. The dramatic effect of an interrupted line is lost if there's any pause at all before the interruption. These were minor slips, but one of the problems of low comedy is the high demands it places on group technique.

In nearly every respect, the Civic cast spiritedly met those demands so as to keep the distinctive Simon pot simmering. The actors were dressed in wigs (where apt)  by Debbie Williams and formal party wear by Adrienne Conces in order to cavort all the more incongruously on Ryan Koharchik's chic, geometrically well-proportioned set, complete with the farce genre's required multiplicity of doors.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, February 10, 2017

Taking another little piece of your heart: Pop divas' appeal gets dance expansion in an evocative DK program

Dance Kaleidoscope lives up to its name in a particularly focused way with its current show, "Divas." There are choreographic interpretations of a kaleidoscope of female pop vocalists spread over a generously proportioned show.

Seen Thursday night at Indiana Repertory Theatre, "Divas" offers a welcome return visit to the short pieces workshopped at the Indy Fringe Festival last August. Each of the nine was created by a DK dancer in tribute to a different entertainer, as represented by one recorded song. The production's second half presents extended views of Janis Joplin (by artistic director David Hochoy) and Aretha Franklin (by Nicholas Owens), using their recordings of several songs each.

This should be a wildly popular show, if only because  memories of this music are so strong with so many people. I come at these recorded songs with faint familiarity, on the whole, and try to get as much enlightenment about the various styles and attractiveness of these 11 divas through what I see onstage. The attempt worked some of the time Thursday night.

Even so, it can fairly be said that popular art attempts to meet its audience much more than halfway. Its appeal must be immediate and visceral, and marketability is necessarily a value.  No kind of pop artist embodies these requirements better than the star "girl singer."

The problem with taking music that has decisively won over the public and interpreting it through dance is that the connection is already complete, because the pop product has done its job. Avoiding superfluity, the choreographer has to find room within a particular song for some kind of expression that adds beauty and energy to the song, and doesn't just accompany it  — or, even worse, simply recall it pleasurably for its fans, with some visual enhancement.

When I do not know the music, there's a kind of open doorway for me to enter into a dance interpretation of it. That's one advantage of ignorance. But it keeps coming up against the assertiveness of pop vocalism over the past 60 years, which seems to proclaim that everything worth experiencing in a piece of music is RIGHT HERE, and for all time. And so I wonder: "Is all the music has to say already there in what I'm hearing?"

The troupe works hard throughout the program, and there is nothing superfluous about their efforts from a performance standpoint. Energy meets energy: When Janis Joplin proclaims her neediness in "Cry Baby," Hochoy's  dance designs have three couples replicating the emotional struggle vividly.

Jillian Godwin in the Janis Joplin spotlight in DK's "Divas."
Joplin, apart from being a founding member of  "the 27 Club," represented during her short lifetime the perils of taking it to the edge. I like a little more repression in my performing artists, as long as the artistic expression is outstanding; in the Joplin department, for instance, I favor Scott over Janis.

Hochoy addresses Joplin's burning excessiveness, though he ends by celebrating positive effort ("Try Just a Little Bit Harder"). He gives the persona specificity in casting Jillian Godwin as a Janis stand-in, who threads pathos into her characteristic pizazz. She is gloriously costumed by Guy Clark, and presented onstage alone for "Me and Bobby McGee," with its hanging-on-for-dear-life coda, enhanced by Laura Glover's complementary lighting. Two songs set on the company bookend the new work. Especially admirable was the nice flow and contrast of foreground and background in "Move Over."

The ecstatic climax of Timothy June's "Enlightenment."
Owens' "Franklin" presented me immediately with one of those I-can't-get-past-the-music barriers. The choreography was zestfully responsive to the treatment of "You Are My Sunshine," but I find little genuine in this arrangement, which distorts the tune with an aggressiveness that runs counter to the lyrics. Owens' piece hits its stride in a setting for two couples (Caitlin Negron and Stuart Coleman, Emily Dyson and Phillip Crawshaw) of "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman." By the time "Respect" came along two songs later, handclaps from the audience welled up, fortunately subsiding in order for an attractive company setting to make its impact. There was a welcome spaciousness in Owens' handling of large numbers of dancers I've sometimes missed in the past.

Renewing acquaintance with the nine short pieces by DK dancers was fun. My impressions from last summer are here. This time around, I found especially beguiling the use of gauzy shawls for the five women in Missy Trulock's "Edge of Seventeen" (Stevie Nicks), their exchanges so mutually supportive in an era when even more rampant misogyny than last summer pollutes the cultural atmosphere: "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted."

More eloquent than I remembered it was Marte Osiris Madera's "Fragmented Dreams," set to Celine Dion's performance of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." Tenderness without sentimentality ruled in a piece with no extraneous gestures, no
padding just because the tempo was slow. And there was the sparkle of Aleksa Lukasiewicz's dance to "Don't Rain on My Parade," with Barbra Streisand spitting out the lyrics and Stuart Coleman's choreography replicating her vocal jabs and uppercuts. And I can't bear to leave out the sweet little comedy of Timothy June's "Enlightenment," a full-hearted response to Shirley Bassey's "I Am What I Am." Four  costumers were involved in outfitting the dancers in a work of almost cinematic dazzle, with the dancers proving fully up to coming across as comedians.

The first time Janis Joplin appeared on my radar was a half-century ago when I went to see "Monterey Pop." She performed a blues cover that would have been interesting to see a Hochoy treatment of: "Ball and Chain." Though my interest in her proved to be short-lived, I was struck by the balance of reflective lyricism and scorching anguish in Joplin's performance. And as her last notes are swamped in festival applause, the camera focuses in on Mama Cass Elliott, mouthing "Wow!"

In "Divas," there was a similar haunting variety in "Surrender," an almost daring blend of concentration and dispersal of dancers in Mariel Greenlee's choreography to Nina Simone's singing of "Wild Is the Wind." Simone's enveloping phrasing and a huge tone that varies from operatic to gutbucket was mirrored in the delineation of passion — "its unique ability to transport and overwhelm," in the choreographer's words — that "Surrender" sets before us.

I'm not a huge Simone fan (again, that sort of devotion can get in the way if you're trying to focus on dance), but she has a symbolic importance to me that Maya Angelou has for a lot of other people. So, there's that. But there's also a certainty that Greenlee, with striking commitment to her vision, is meeting the audience halfway, but no further. The work thus lets you in, eliciting your own response to the theme rather than imposing one on you. At the same time, you're not having to fill in blanks. Everything is there, thanks to the dancers and the choreographer, ready for you.

In short, when it comes to "Surrender," I'm with Mama Cass: Wow!

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Durable wind quintet from Germany pays a return visit to Ensemble Music concert series

BPWQ: Walter Seyfarth, Andreas Wittmann, Fergus McWilliam, Michael Hasel, and Marion Reinhard.
Anticipation ran high before the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet's return visit to Indianapolis under the auspices of the Ensemble Music Society: Single-ticket sales were three times above normal over the weekend before its concert Wednesday at the Indiana History Center.

The ensemble's local debut was 18 years ago, and, with just one change of personnel since, the BPWQ included Indianapolis on its current U.S. tour — even gracing us with the American premiere of a work it commissioned from the Finnish composer Kalevi Aho.

The quintet had the capacity audience in the palm of its hands from its initial entrance right through the encore, a lighthearted arrangement of old American tunes, chiefly by Stephen Foster.

The concert opened with one of three pieces Wolfgang Mozart wrote late in life for a mechanical device known as a clock organ, after the similarity of its mechanism to a clock's. Its arrangement (by BPWQ flutist Michael Hasel) released the charming piece from its obsolete-contraption imprisonment to flesh-and-blood musicians. The liberation was well worth the effort, given the ensemble's sturdy blend of timbres and the way Hasel had distributed the material among the quintet.

Like the other two pieces Mozart wrote on commission for the device, K. 594 displays the mature composer's deft chromaticism (in the opening Adagio) and the focus on contrapuntal texture (in the Allegro middle section) Mozart explored under the influence of the antiquarian patron and amateur musician Baron van Swieten.

The Organ Fantasy in F minor made (1790) for a smooth appetizer before the main course, Aho's Wind Quintet No. 2 (2014). The expansive piece almost hides its difficulties well: In the first movement, the players negotiated daring leaps of register within a lyrical framework. The second-movement "virtuoso toccata" (in the composer's phrase) moved on a high plateau of perpetual-motion virtuosity,  capped by Hasel's piccolo, which provided a droll ending. Well-coordinated accents punctuated the ceaseless up-and-down lines.

Something more grounded hovered over the slow movement, with its deeper timbres — alto flute, English horn, and clarinet in A make decisive appearances — and thickened sonorities. Here's where Aho's description that "it's almost like a symphony" seemed to apply best. The gathering intensity was welcome, as the piece drifts a little tediously before its "symphonic" episode, topped by a somewhat pompous unison passage. The finale, dancelike with a triple-time swing and brief, cheeky solos, had a competitive aspect that the quintet emphasized with gusto.

All told, the Aho work amounted to a refreshing rethinking of the combination of flute, oboe, horn, bassoon and clarinet (plus appropriate doubling). Gone were the serenade-like, outdoorsy reflections of the genre ably represented by Franz Danzi. Aho offers a release from the ensemble's traditionally attractive but superficial appeal. He both individualizes the instruments in new ways and throws them together in unconventional combinations. The constituents are given a high degree of independence as well.

After intermission came two classics of the genre, drawing upon wind-quintet conventions but full of individualistic personality. Darius Milhaud's suite, La Cheminee du Roi Rene, is derived from a film about an early Renaissance count (not really a king) from the composer's beloved native region, Provence. In seven short movements, the diversions and leisure activities of Rene d'Anjou are portrayed, with a middle movement slyly alluding to the composer himself at home. The BPWQ gave special splendor to the opening procession ("Cortege"), setting up a properly cinematic presentation of aristocratic Provencal life. The hunting song ("Chasse a Valabre") had particular zest; its variety was well delineated and lent an extra dollop of wit.

As for Carl Nielsen's Wind Quintet, op. 43, there's hardly a composition by the Danish composer that is more comfortable with its ambitiousness and is always arresting in its manifold charms. The hearty vigor characteristic of the BPWQ sound was keenly deployed throughout the performance: Andreas Wittmann's assertive but never harsh oboe tone is a key factor. That bold ensemble sound could also be savored in the muscular trilling in the first movement.

The boisterously comic variation for clarinet  and bassoon in the finale was wonderfully set forth by Walter Seyfarth and Marion Reinhard. The variation for solo horn had superb bravura in the playing of Fergus McWilliam. Collectively, the hymn theme was effectively varied between its initial appearance and its luminous concluding statement.

EMS  President John Failey, in his introductory remarks, hinted that positive audience response might lead to a third appearance by this outstanding ensemble in 2019, when it will next tour the US. Such feedback should have no trouble quickly accumulating, based on the way the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet played Wednesday evening.