Thursday, March 30, 2017

A stretch for Ensemble Music Society: Arditti Quartet plays works from the past three decades

The Big Bang Theory applied to the string quartet would probably identify the triggering event as the works of Joseph Haydn. Without pressing the analogy too hard, the music offered Wednesday evening by the Arditti Quartet and Eliot Fisk represented the genre's development from that mid-18th-century point, through galaxies too various to describe briefly, to the phenomenon of musical supernovas.

The Arditti Quartet specializes in new music.
Just as accumulated gravity too massive for a star to contain results in its explosion, so did the exploratory reach of the string quartet genre bring its tightly organized discoveries to the point of violent expansion in the modern era. What may have appeared to some Ensemble Music Society patrons as anti-musical about much of the program can be credibly understood and valued as confirmation that the musical universe is ever-expanding.

It's self-limiting for a listener to describe the works of Philippe Manoury, Gyorgy Kurtag, Hilda Paredes and Helmut Lachenmann  — the bulk of the Arditti Quartet's program — as "experimental." I think it was Edgard Varese who rejected that label from the composer's point of view: It's the listener who must experiment, he said.

Other instruments, singly and in combination, have been subject to the gravitational pull of the evolving string quartet. This fact also was underlined by the concert at the Indiana History Center, which had as centerpiece a 2016 work for guitar and string quartet, "Son dementes cuerdas," by Hilda Paredes. The composer's program notes suggest the interest that idiomatic styles are juxtaposed and contrasted, and similar techniques, such as glissandi, are presented to expose differences in timbre between guitar and string quartet.

Master guitarist Eliot Fisk was on hand to join violinist Irvine Arditti, Ashot Sarkissjan, violist Ralf Ehlers, and cellist Lucas
Eliot Fisk is well-known for the range of his collaborations.
Fels in the piece. Variegated textures were quickly brought to the fore, and the interaction of the five players often had the effect of one new instrument with five constituents. To return to the astronomical analogy, the binary star system of guitar and string quartet in this work exchanges so much gravitational energy that something new and far-reaching is born. In light of this analogy, the subdued ending of the work seemed very much in order.

The concert opened with Fisk's solo appearance, playing Sequenza XI, which Luciano Berio wrote for him in 1988. As with other works in this series, Berio suggests a narrative through episodic scrutiny of a solo instrument's capabilities. With evident mastery of tone and articulation, Fisk played a piece that went from the thumping resonance of the tambour technique, with its evocations of flamenco guitar, through all kinds of guitar idiosyncrasies, tied to a common thread throughout. The resonance achieved kaleidoscopic breadth, with surfaces ranging from matte to glossy (to borrow terms from painting), and suggestions of other instruments ranging from drums to flutes. Again, a quiet ending seemed to display a mind at rest after considerable adventures.

At the other end of the program came the most challenging piece, Lachenmann's String Quartet No. 3 ("Grido").  The nickname is Italian for "shout" or "cry." Just as a shout or cry varies along a spectrum of explicit and implicit meaning, so does this lengthy work preserve an ambiguity about what differentiates music from noise. I found this a wholly coherent work despite the tension between music and noise — a tension which is probably perpetual. It stems from the expressive range of the human voice among the phenomena of song, speech, and vocal expressions that are neither.

Thus we heard groans, whimpers and something like stomach rumblings or creaking branches in the wind. Extended techniques made sporadic and conspicuous appearances, such as a different kind of "up bow" from the cello (literally up in the direction of the scroll). Traditional ways of playing string instruments, such as harmonics and tremolos, were presented in new contexts. There was unity between musical content and style in a way that made them less separable in the mind than normal.

More approachable expressively was Kurtag's "Officium Breve, in memoriam Andreae Szervanszky," because recognizable  features of elegiac music were never far from the surface. Tempo variations sounded very much within the postures of lamentation. The concert's one extended episode of tonal music near the end put a seal upon this moving tribute.

Structurally, the Kurtag piece was close to Manoury's String Quartet No. 4 ("Fragmenti"), which it otherwise didn't resemble. Both works use fragments of different lengths. Manoury has a more radical notion of what these fragments are meant to convey. They hang together to the degree that any miscellaneous collection proclaims a personality. We all have them around the house, probably. Manoury put his into music. This was the least engaging work on the concert to me. Its continual muttering and sorting, and the vast differences in length from one variation to the next, didn't represent much beyond watching an artist putter around in his workshop.

Nonetheless, the concert as a whole has to be accounted one of the most striking presentations of recent years in the excellent Ensemble Music Society series. We can always gaze in wonder at the usual musical stars in the heavens, but discovering supernovas can reliably move us us to a different level of awe.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

ISO opens up wide 19th-century vistas in pairing Mendelssohn with Bruckner

Violinist from Seattle is ready for the world stage
The last time Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra audiences heard Mendelssohn's beloved Violin Concerto in E minor, I was at pains to avoid sexist implications in describing the character of the solo playing. This weekend's soloist, like last time, was a young woman who delivered a robust interpretation. With Simone Porter Saturday night, the ISO accompanied a similarly bold, astonishingly ferocious account of the work at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

I found it wholly winning, even though at the very start I wondered if there would be too little phrase-to-phrase definition: The familiar phrases were welded into place. Before long, however, more suppleness became evident. The interpretation never lost its solidly constructed quality, but there was so much more.

In the first-movement cadenza, the soloist set up a kind of internal dialogue that recalled J.S. Bach's strong influence on the fellow Lutheran (through family conversion from Judaism) who revived the St. Matthew Passion publicly as a young man. From there, the transition re-admitting the orchestra was smoothly handled, though the soloist's acceleration momentarily threatened to leave the accompaniment  behind.

In the Andante, her tone remained firm as every ounce of lyricism was wrung from the music. Intensity was brilliantly distributed across the performing forces. At about the point a spooky transitional passage led into the galloping finale, it was clear something miraculous was happening: Porter was showing us Mendelssohn's daimon — his personalized divine spirit. Every great creative artist has one, but Mendelssohn, even at his best, is often admired for being marvelously facile, impeccably well-mannered, and craftsmanlike. And that can seem enough, even as he is commonly held to fall short of the transcendent quality readily sensed in Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, among precious few others.
Matthew Halls

Parker showed herself to be a performing artist with something else another Greek word properly describes: charisma. The unity of her stage presence with her musical ideas and execution raised her debut appearance with the ISO to a memorable experience. There were some brilliantly articulated phrases in the finale, with bowing choices that seemed like a departure from the norm, and always suited her fresh apprehension of the Mendelssohn concerto. The overall effect amounted to a renewed and deepened view of the piece.

The program's other work showcased the gifts of the guest conductor, with which ISO regulars were already acquainted. Halls led a warm, well-proportioned account of Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 in E major. At 65 minutes, the performance neither dawdled nor seemed pressed to move along. And the mood, despite the central position of an Adagio mourning the death of Richard Wagner, whom Bruckner idolized, was overall joyous. There was even a lightness of effect that speaks volumes about the simple optimism of the Catholic faith that carried the Austrian composer through frequent disappointments in both life and art. Halls drew this quality out; you didn't have to wait for the peppy Scherzo to find it.

How is this possible in a composer so often associated with hard-to-digest heaviness, with the ponderous side of a late Romanticism that seems ill-suited to our restless age?

I might bring in another composer of distinction influenced by Richard Wagner, the Englishman Edward Elgar. On the score of his Second Symphony, with its own memorial movement (dedicated to King Edward VII) Elgar inscribed a quotation from his countryman Shelley: "Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight." The dark vision of that short quote permeates Elgar's stirring work. In contradiction, the Bruckner Seventh is almost a creedal assertion that delight never goes away. But it's the kind of delight that rests assured in divine providence, in the composer's certainty that the promise of heavenly life offers delightful comfort to the temporarily earth-bound.

If you see the Spirit of Delight as a constant companion (not a rare visitor) as Bruckner did, it's clear the Seventh's fortified brass proclamations come from the same source as the Scherzo's peasant dance and the winged solos in flute and oboe that fleck the Adagio. Halls and the ISO put this spirit in the forefront. Those of us who can't share Bruckner's faith can nonetheless find in performances like the one Saturday an answer to an apparent mystery:  A symphony lasting over an hour, with formidable peaks and misty valleys, freighted with earnestness and requiring sustained attention (including the effort to ignore a ding-a-linging cellphone) can seem thoroughly delightful.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

'Man of La Mancha' rounds out the change-driven Indianapolis Opera season

Sancho Panza, as the knight's squire, and Don Quixote set out on their adventures.
One of the great bromances of literature takes life onstage in a production of a celebrated musical this weekend at the Schrott Center.

In "Man of La Mancha," the buddy road trip of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is necessarily shrunk from Miguel de Cervantes' trailblazing novel to some of its essentials by Dale Wasserman and his songwriting collaborators. It's being presented through Sunday to end the 2016-17 Indianapolis Opera season.

The insight of Wasserman to thread the author's real-life difficulties through the story of the deluded knight makes the prize-winning adaptation a hymn to idealism summed up in the show's hit song, "The Impossible Dream."

The opening-night performance Friday held the banner aloft in the Schrott's intimate setting, giving a chamber-opera feel to this rendition. The adventures are largely centered on the inn that the deluded knight mistakes for a castle. The "Moorish Dance" episode is cut, and a couple of projections serve to render Don Quixote's visions, including the famous tilting at windmills.

New IO general director David Craig Starkey directs a cast headed by David Malis as Cervantes/Quixote. Once you get used to a stout Don Quixote and a slender Sancho Panza (Scott Wichael), the partnership works pretty well. John Clanton conducts the small, lively orchestra. Ensemble work was well-coordinated and the sung finale,  returning to the "frame" setting of a Spanish prison after Cervantes is led away for questioning, is a stirring reprise of "The Impossible Dream."

The show's underlined message, depicted most movingly in the conversion of the maid-of-all-work (some of it on her back) Aldonza from bitter skepticism to belief, is that often brutal reality needs to be opposed by something finer. The tipping point, however, is when notions of those fine beliefs overtake the believer.

 "Vice, death, poverty, disease, are grave subjects and grieve us," wrote Michel de Montaigne, a near-contemporary of Cervantes, in a late essay. "We should have our souls instructed in the means to sustain and combat evils, and in the rules of right living and right belief, and should often arouse it and exercise it in this fine study. But for a soul of the common sort  this must be done with some respite and with moderation; it goes mad if it is too continually tense."

The Padre (Joseph Levitt) and Antonia (Marci Jackson) proclaim their concern.
Don Quixote has no moderation and is continually tense about his soul's mission. The character rightly needs to appear somewhat ridiculous to "soul[s] of the common sort." Both Cervantes' work and Wasserman's adaptation tease the audience to consider that most of us are not much different from the family of the old country gentleman Alonso Quihana, who are embarrassed at his self-enthrallment by chivalric fiction and his subsequent quest to revive outmoded manners. The song "I'm Only Thinking of Him," well brought off in this production (especially by Marci Jackson as the niece Antonia), clearly invites us to examine the social pressure to conform — even in our own distracted times.

Malis' performance mostly presented the Don as a solid, good-hearted citizen with an eccentric hobby —  a knighthood reenactor. Though we are meant to be won over to the visionary hero eventually, just as Cervantes'  fellow prisoners are won over by his narrative, this Don Quixote could have used a more maniacal quality. Karen Mushegain's fiery, expressive Aldonza had to resist the knight-errant's concept of her as the lady Dulcinea almost entirely on the supposition of his playing a cruel trick on her. The eye-rolling attitude that drastic eccentricity usually arouses was best expressed by Christopher Burchett as the Innkeeper, who politely humors Don Quixote, deftly parrying his delusional thrusts.

The Muleteers prepare the violate the already much-abused Aldonza.
The goofiness of the deluded knight's mission is summed up in this production mostly by Wichael's Sancho, a sensible as well as sententious fellow willing to serve a man who takes him out of his dull rustic routine. The leading edge the squire provides in the comic song "A Little Gossip" was a highlight. Other singing peaks included Aldonza's "What Does He Want From Me," which, like Mushegain's vocal command in the deathbed scene, was more striking here than in the character's searing song of self-description, where clarity faded somewhat (partly from the orchestra's covering her). Malis allowed his well-seasoned baritone to blossom in "Man of La Mancha" and "The Impossible Dream," though he didn't project as well when called upon to use less than his full voice, as in the start of the latter song.

Nathaniel Hein has a nice little showcase in the barber's song. Rafael Porto shone as the self-important Dr. Carrasco, who, as the Captain of Mirrors, delivers the Don's poignant comeuppance. Joseph Levitt displayed the clergy's conventional probity, leavened with tender regard for the knight, as the Padre.

The Muleteers exhibited solid vocal and dramatic teamwork. The distressing sexual assault on Aldonza was a more effective display of fight choreography than the rather paint-by-numbers battle in which Don Quixote and his two allies vanquish their tormentors at the inn. Yet that was the scene in which Malis' comic gifts achieved a rare triumph, as the Don flails in ineffectual menace, his head covered by a bucket. When he removes the unwanted head covering, he looks around with a trace of self-satisfaction worthy of Sir John Falstaff. It was good to see the Don as a figure of fun in a portrayal that leaned a little too much toward the blandly avuncular.

[Photos by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]

Thursday, March 23, 2017

"Krapp's Last Post": The legacy of Samuel Beckett as reflected in today's online connectedness

[The following playlet was inspired equally by Samuel Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape" and a "Fresh Air" interview with Adam Alter, author of "Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked."]

A late evening in the future. A small room in Krapp's home, with a plain wooden table front center and one chair behind it. A floor
From a production of "Krapp's Last Tape," by Samuel Beckett.
lamp should be behind the table and to the left, as though to illuminate an area that's never occupied. There's a small refrigerator toward the rear of the stage, plugged in.

Elderly man moves downstage from the back. Hair gray and mussed. He's casually, even shabbily, dressed: scuffed tennis shoes, blue jeans, pullover sweater with a tear at the neck, nondescript shirt.

Before sitting down wearily at the desk, takes iPhone from right jeans pocket, holds it up momentarily like a chalice, stares at it, then sets it down. Takes a granola bar out of jeans' other pocket, sets it on the table to his left. Sits down. Glances warily at iPhone. Pause. Then to the granola bar. Picks it up, unwraps it slowly. Places one end in his mouth. It sticks out like a cigar. Sets wrapper down and smooths it out. Turns back to iPhone, picks it up. Suddenly remembers he has a granola bar in his mouth, so he sets iPhone down again, bites off part of the granola bar, then sets the rest down on the wrapper.

Picks up the iPhone, swipes to Facebook app as he chews his bite of granola bar. Sighs heavily.

Voice [all words whenever they follow this stage direction should be read by a hidden offstage voice, representing Krapp's reading from the iPhone screen to himself]: What's on your mind?

Krapp: Always the same question. (Pause.) Should ask Siri. (Presses home button.) What's on your mind?

Voice: Who, me?

Krapp (Groans. Presses home button again. Louder): What's on MY mind?

Voice: Interesting question.

Krapp: That figures. Dodge the difficult ones, she does. The obscene ones, too. So they tell me. Doubt that Alexa's any better.  A real catfight, though, those two. And they slut-shame Cortana, I understand. (Pause.) Facebook knows it's my birthday, so here I am, like clockwork. Check my feed. My Facebook friends. How many? 223! (Pause.) Could I name 50 of them, even. Gun to my head. Many people I've never met. Friends (Savoring the word.)  Friends. (Pause.) Here's a status report.

Voice: Thanks for all the many prayers and well wishes. Gramps came through the procedure OK, considering, and is now resting comfortably. We are hoping for the best. Welcome your prayers and...

Krapp: Oh, this is a long one. On it goes (Scrolls down, browsing hastily.) Well, I'll like it. (Pause. Staring at screen, he reaches for granola bar, takes another bite, sets it down.) Or a smile emoji, maybe? (Pause.) The old man may be near death. Should I be smiling? (Pause.) "Like" it is. Means I'm glad to hear from you, basically. And he had a full life, whatever that is. And whoever you are. (Pause.) OK, now what's on my mind? Ah. (Types.) I heard the other day that "World of Warcraft" is a weaponized game. A hundred million people play it worldwide. They form guilds and go on missions. (Stops typing.) Why post this? Never played the game. Facebook friends, some may be into gaming. Or their kids must be. I'm warning them not to become addicted, right. (Pause.) Or else I'm implying they, or their loved ones, are already addicted. Criticize a friend's leisure pursuits. Not good. Might start interesting comment thread, though. (Pause.) Check my settings. OK, not "public," just "friends." Damage control. Maybe only "certain friends." Then I gotta choose: who's in, who's out. (Waves a hand dismissively.) Keep it public. No man is an island.

Voice: You have memories today. (Pause as Krapp scrolls down a bit.) Digital media allows you to exist in the world without being inventive, except in extreme cases as when someone playing Pokemon Go walks into traffic.

Krapp: How long ago was Pokemon Go hot? Look it up. (Types keywords, waits briefly.)

Voice: Initial release date July 6, 2016.

Krapp: Seems it should be longer ago. Not like memories of women who once let you get close to them. Always seem recent, those. Tactile. Yet somehow far away, too. (Pause. Looks off into space.) But all these fads recede at warp speed. Unless you're into the fad, I suppose. (Pause. Sings, slowly.)

            "It's been a hard day's night, I've been working like a dog. It's been a hard..."

(Pause. Realizes he has forgotten the next line.) Look it up. (Finds lyrics to "A Hard Day's Night.") Yes, of course. (Sings.)

           "I should be sleeping like a log."

Surprising I forgot that. How many rhymes for "dog"? Not many. Fog and bog, too. Then there's blog, don't remind me. Curious idea, though: "Sleeping like a log." Where's that come from? Like "happy as a clam." I've always wondered. How does anybody know? Ought to look up "studies of happiness in clams." (Pause.) Bah! Maybe later. Someday.

Voice: You have memories today with....

Krapp (interrupting): Oh no. Not her. But who is...? Oh, I became friends with her three years ago. Married now, I would guess. Or came out as a lesbian. Which today could also mean she's married, of course. (Pause.) Can't let down fellow players in the game. You feel bonded. Remember that detail from the guy I heard interviewed. On the radio. Told the whole world that Pokemon Go players sometimes walk into traffic. Ghastly scene, that must be. He's the one who talked about "World of Warcraft." Said a football player got into it off-season. Can't imagine people dividing their lives into seasons that aren't fall, winter, spring,  summer. But your athletes do. Pizza boxes stacked to the ceiling. Never left his room. Ordered in. Got fat and doughy. His skin changed. I forget exactly how. But it wasn't good. I should have linked to the interview. (Looks down, scrolls.) What's this?

Voice: The average human attention span today is 8 seconds; 10 years ago, it was 12 seconds. The average goldfish has a nine-second attention span.

Krapp (shaking head): Can't say how I got any friends, or likes, the way I used to post. Fragmentary. No wonder I preferred Twitter. Even there I hated to link. Imposing on people: you have to read this! (Raises voice.) This is part of who I am, and you follow me on Twitter! (Pause. then quietly, as if hurt.) So you ought to read this. It's only fair. Where were the retweets? Where are the snows of yesteryear? But I should have provided links more often. That's only fair, too. Frustrate people, and they're on to the next thing. Every time.

Voice: Moment is an app that quantifies your use of your smartphone. Wastenotime sets a limit on your use of the iPhone.

Krapp: Did I ever download those apps? Seems too late now. (Gets up, stares into space, finishes eating granola bar. Turns and walks back to refrigerator, opens it. Gets out a can of beer, comes back to table. Sits down, pops tab, takes a sip. Looks at screen.)

Voice: Which character in a film noir is most like you? Take this quiz.

Krapp: Do I want to know this? Haven't seen much film noir. "Maltese Falcon," "The Big Sleep." (Pause.) Twitter scared me, because you have to do short bits. And I think in short bits. Always have. Made me self-conscious. I felt mocked. I kept the account, though. Followed thousands of accounts. Oh, Twitter was just made for you, my wife used to say. She was nuts. The most obvious things to her passed for great insights. (Pause. Drinks.) That was one of them.

Voice: With a behavioral addiction, the brain looks similar to a heroin addict's. The same pleasure centers are affected. The physiological response pairs with a psychological need. A digital-media addiction seeks to fill that gap.

Krapp: Something about dopamine released. He went into that, too. This natural thing — chemical — in the brain. All about pleasure. They had to give it a name that sounds so stupid. (Drinks beer again, sets can down with finality.) Dopamine: makes people feel stupid about pleasure. Why? (Sings again, slowly.)

             "But when I get home to you, I find the things that you do, will make me feel all right."

Voice: On July 18, 1993, the New York Times published a letter by Martin Baker of Philadelphia, asserting that the plays of Samuel Beckett are, quote, metaphorical displays of spiritual decay, unquote. And here's what he said after mentioning some instances of this decay, quote: We do, do, do, because if we pause we'll have to listen to the quiet pace of actual living, and listen to what we have to say to ourselves and find we have nothing to say, unquote.

Krapp (standing up, beer in one hand, iPhone in the other): Long time ago, 1993, and that was way before the Internet. There's plenty to say now. What was I thinking to post such a thing? Already faded testimony.  I must have saved a newspaper clipping. Thought the letter to the Times spoke to my, my what? My condition. (Pause. Sits down, types.) Had he lived long enough, Samuel Beckett could have been what they called "a design ethicist" at Google. Make sure their games and things would do no harm. He had the grasp for it. Well, they fired the design ethicist, I heard.  The actual one. (Pause. Resumes typing.) Spiritual decline, people don't know what that is. The Monopoly people put up an online survey to ask people which token they would get rid of. So they junked the thimble, then people went wild, upset. Surveys! Connectivity isolates, really. The more you ask people things, the less they feel their voice is being heard. (Stops. Looks his post over, clicks "post".) If no man is an island, that means there are no more islands. Everybody landlocked with everybody else.

Voice: A professor asked his class, How much would you pay if I took your phone away? To get your phone back, how much would you pay? They would pay a lot, it turned out. He was shocked. One student replied: If you'd pay me enough to buy another phone, yes, you could have this one. (Pause.) Consider the lilies of the field.

Krapp: I could do that. Neither toil, nor spin. That's the life, dealing with everyone face to face, so you could compare them with the people you once knew. Settle accounts. No spiritual decay. Or at least slower. (Pause. Sits down again. Starts typing.) I had her tears on my handkerchief. Hours later, I could still taste the salt. (Drinks the last of the beer. Resumes typing.) But the chance of happiness not worth going back, just to play the thimble. There are such options now. (Long pause.) Like Solomon in all his glory. Strike out overland for the shore. Must be real islands left somewhere. Time to put out to sea. That's the ticket! (Clicks "post." Holds phone up, chalicelike as at the beginning. Powers down, lays iPhone on table.)

Blackout. Curtain.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Double silver: Two competition medalists share an IVCI Laureate Series concert

Tessa Lark and Peter Klimo won major international awards in 2014.
Two substantial sonatas for violin and piano occupied conspicuous positions at either end of a recital presented Tuesday night by Tessa Lark and Peter Klimo. Richard Strauss' youthful E-flat major sonata, op. 18, brought the event at the Indiana History Center to a rousing conclusion. Sergei Prokofiev's Sonata No. 2 in D major, op. 94a, opened the concert, presented under the auspices of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.

As accomplished as the Strauss sonata is for a composer who had so many great works ahead of him, the music bursts at the seams. It's no surprise that, at 23, the future master of opera and the symphonic poem wrote no more chamber music after this sonata. In their performance, Lark and Klimo forged a strong partnership that acknowledged the score's superheroic reach, reveling in the variety of expression and musical material. The unusually titled slow movement, "Improvisation," displayed the right atmosphere of spontaneity and even capriciousness. The finale, with its vaulting rondo theme, surged and subsided in turn and put a seal on the partnership of silver medalists in two 2014 compeititions: Klimo won his prize in the Franz Liszt in Utrecht; Lark, in that year's IVCI.

My impression of the Prokofiev performance was somewhat less favorable. Nothing failed the violinist technically (except for some smeary ascending figures in the Scherzo); indeed, the wide intervals in the slow movement's melody were managed smoothly and with keenly felt lyricism. But her intensity seemed somewhat unidiomatic. Though Lark and Klimo worked together well, it sounded as if the pianist had a more appropriate light touch.

Prokofiev's romanticized modernism is not always in sync with artists of unabashed romantic temperament; there's a touch of irony about him, a holding of emotion at arm's length.  Temperamentally romantic is the kind of violinist Lark seems to be. Her encore, an arrangement of a Mendelssohn "Song Without Words" offered in tribute to Josef Gingold, whose Stradivarius is on loan to her through IVCI, was sufficient indication of that. And that confirmed the flair she exhibited for Fritz Kreisler's "Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta," where she captivated with gorgeous low-lying melodies at the outset.

Back to the Prokofiev sonata: It's salutary to remember that the work was originally for flute and piano. I'm allowing for the possibility that Lark knows that version. I'm just saying that as a listener the temporal priority of the flute version is not irrelevant. The floating, buoyant sound of the flute leaves an imprint on a work that of course is fully acceptable in the latter version. Admittedly it's an open question: Should violists working on Brahms' two sonatas for their instrument with piano know the clarinet-piano original? Should cellists understandably attracted to the version Jules Delsart made of Cesar Franck's violin sonata have the sound of the original somewhere in their heads? I think the answer is "yes," even though the three examples I cite were either penned by the composers and/or approved by them for publication. Thus, they don't need to stand in the shadow of the originals, but the originals must somehow be part of the interpretive process that (in order) violinists, violists, and cellists undertake.

As for the rest of the concert, Lark showed she's by no means hemmed in by romanticism in her performance of Telemann's compact unaccompanied  Fantasia No. 4 in D major. Both that Baroque work and the Kreisler are on a forthcoming CD spotlighting fantasias, a program likely to display the attractive breadth of Lark's playing.

Klimo offered two unaccompanied pieces. One of them, Liszt's "Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude," put forward expansively his prizewinning affinity for the Hungarian composer. The work requires a patient sojourn through the mystical side of Liszt, whose life and music encompasses so much of both heavenly and hellish perspectives. There's a wealth of delicate figuration that has to be brought forth with as much significance as the broad theme that prefigures the kind of "endless melody" for which his son-in-law, Richard Wagner, was famous. A luminous devotion to Liszt-at-prayer seemed complete in Klimo's performance.

The other piece was Marc-Andre Hamelin's sly, effusive tribute to Domenico Scarlatti's binary keyboard sonatas, Etude No. 6 in D minor. Sharing a birth year with Tuesday's birthday boy, J.S. Bach, Scarlatti poured out freshly designed masterpieces by the dozen while serving the Spanish court. Hamelin's witty replication of his model's style, spiced with dissonance (including tone clusters) and repetitive figures, was boldly yet tidily stated in Klimo's performance. Besides its usefulness as a complex etude, the piece seems to comment on the intricacy of serving royalty successfully during its European heyday.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"Row After Row": The 51st state of professionally led readings in the Indy Actors' Playground series

The enthralling series of actor-selected plays read for small audiences at Indy Reads Books marked No. 51 Monday night.

Indy Actors' Playground, a project shepherded by Lou Harry in partnership with, at first, Bill Simmons, now with Paul Hansen,
brought forward Rob Johansen's choice of "Row After Row," by Jessica Dickey. About once a year, I seem to quell anxiety about reviewing a presentation clearly marketed as recreation for the local acting community. That seems right, I guess, though I've enjoyed a few other readings I decided not to blog about. My previous Indy Actors' Playground posts, one from 2015, one from 2016, can be accessed here and also here.

Johansen has a knack for finding the grotesque charm in obsessed characters, and so he does as the intensely committed, detail-obsessed Civil War re-enactor Cal in "Row After Row." With the able assistance of Jen Johansen and Mike Floyd, who have similar time-traveling, character-shifting requirements, the three actors fold into the performance intermittent portraits of people caught up in the bloody, consequential events at Gettysburg in early July 1863.
Jessica Dickey, author of "Row After Row"

Dickey mines a lot of the comic disconnect between nerds and the real world in the early scenes of this one-act. Cal needs lessons in perspective and civility from his uneasy pal Tom in treating Leah, whose initial offense is having taken a seat at their favorite table before the men arrive at a Gettysburg bar for post-reenactment refreshment. The dialogue bristles with tension that entangles sexism and authenticity. Leah holds her own from the start, and eventually Tom has one of those "bursting" moments of a quiet character that make drama so exciting.

When Civil War actuality washes over these characters. they embody people that resonate somehow with their 21st-century selves. Dickey manages this quite well. The wartime dialogue, while fiercely reflective of war's epic distractions from normality, attains a lyricism reminiscent of the Civil War poetry and prose of Walt Whitman. Particularly vivid is Cal's transformation into General Longstreet, the Confederate leader caught up in one of Robert E. Lee's colossal mistakes that's become known as Pickett's Charge.

"Authenticity ain't cheap" is a line in the play that comes to mean not only the outsize financial costs of this hobby but also  the psychological price of toggling between two worlds — worlds of jarring contrast that happen to occupy the same turf more than a century-and-a-half apart.

A recent study I heard about (on NPR, naturally) contrasted the wartime memories of veterans afflicted with PTSD and those who saw combat but remained free of that illness. Over time, the latter group put their memories in the context of bonding around a common effort, with a glow of heroism. Each time their reminiscences were recorded, they changed in this rosy direction. The accounts of PTSD sufferers, however, always remained the same, in harrowing detail. It's also been established that all memories of people roughly within the mentally healthy spectrum are unconsciously revised with each retelling. It's no figure of speech to say we are truly authors of our own lives, even as we believe we're being honest about them.

Dickey's Civil War re-enactors exemplify this habit within the conventions of the exacting discipline of historical re-enactment. Through the participants' expensive hobby, the exhilaration and terror of warfare resonate with their personal fears, hang-ups and the tenuous promise of joy and fulfillment. Grounded in this reality and neatly balanced between comedy and pathos, "Row After Row" deserves to be staged here.

Monday, March 20, 2017

St. Paul's Music brings a distinguished conductor back to the podium for Haydn's "Lord Nelson" Mass

Peril in the wider world often has an impact on artistic creation. When Joseph Haydn composed his Missa in angustiis (a title
variously translated as "Mass in Time of Fear," "Mass in Time of Peril," "Mass Amidst Difficulties," and "Mass in a Time of Anxiety"), Napoleon was on a roll and was about to conquer Egypt.

Joseph Flummerfelt conducted the 'Nelson' Mass.
The work speaks to us to today mainly because its forcefulness is joined to a high level of inspiration from a master musician widely regarded in 1798 as Europe's best composer. After  Lord Nelson commanded a decisive naval victory over Napoleon's forces where the Nile empties into the Mediterranean, the work was performed in his honor when the British war hero in 1800 visited the Esterhazy palace where Haydn had been profitably situated for decades. Nelson's name became attached understandably to a piece whose Latin title has proved resistant to a definitive English translation.

St. Paul's Music at St. Paul's Episcopal Church presented the work under the direction of Joseph Flummerfelt, a  choral conductor renowned chiefly for his many years as artistic director and principal conductor of Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. Now retired, the Vincennes native and DePauw University alumnus lives in Indianapolis. Flummerfelt's Westminster position and the excellence of his choirs made him a frequent collaborator with many eminent conductors, including Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Masur, and Riccardo Muti.

Sunday afternoon's performance captured the splendor of a work the pre-eminent Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon called "arguably Haydn's greatest single composition." The scoring has no woodwinds in the original, though a flutist, two oboists, and a bassoonist were used at St. Paul's in the "normalized" version often heard, and the organ part scrapped. The result brings trumpets and kettledrums to the fore.

His patron's downsizing of the Esterhazy orchestra is said to be responsible for the unusual absence of horns and woodwinds, and it perhaps encouraged the composer to give a military cast to his setting to reflect the peril, fear, difficulties, and anxieties of his title. The strings could fruitfully have been a little larger, but on the whole the liveliness and contrapuntal richness of the accompaniment came through adequately. The arching violin lines in "Et incarnatus est" were nicely defined.

St. Paul's Choir made a unified impact, and showed its capability to remain balanced across sudden dynamic shifts, such as that between the hushed first part of the Sanctus and the exultant lines beginning "Pleni sunt coeli." The opening "Kyrie" was sufficiently powerful, and the "Gloria" ecstatic. The rhetoric of praise in the two lines beginning "Laudamus te" received soaring commitment from the sopranos. Evidence of thorough preparation by St. Paul's staff directors was consistent; a slightly ragged cutoff in the "Amen" concluding "Quoniam tu solus" was the performance's only rough spot

The temptation to prefer operatic voices in the solo parts is not misplaced, I think. Sacred music in Vienna's Classical era was heavily under the influence of Italian styles, which tended toward a flamboyance unknown in the North German heritage best represented by Bach. Flummerfelt's soloists embodied the operatic style well, except for the most dominant one, soprano Tabitha Burchett. A fuller blossoming quality would have been welcome, something on the order of what we heard from mezzo-soprano Rachel K. Evans, tenor Bille Bruley, and bass Jonathan Bryan.

Before the "Lord Nelson," the choir had a showcase of its own, Mozart's "Ave verum corpus," in which its warmth of expression and fully supported phrasing suited the motet's sublimity. That was preceded by a clergyman's welcome, whose genuine hospitality seemed unnecessarily intensified by his insistence that the concert was being presented as an act of worship in which the audience was a participant. A concert of sacred music will of course communicate something extra to believers, but can best be taken in on its artistic merits by everyone else. A church's musical outreach to the larger community deserves gratitude, but not an implied commitment in return to its institutional mission.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Grappling with the question of "Shostakovich triumphant" at an ISO concert

Joshua Weilerstein: Affable, capable and with a message to deliver.
Guest conductor Joshua Weilerstein, slender, boyish and wavy-haired, gave a little speech from the podium Saturday evening before he led the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in D minor.

It's bold to put into words the effect one wants to have on an audience before delivering the effect musically, but conductors like to try it with problematic pieces. Mario Venzago made a habit of such explanations, and Krzysztof Urbanski, his successor as music director, has gotten more comfortable doing so.

The talk was quite apropos, as the Shostakovich Fifth emerged out of social and political conditions unimaginable (so far!) to Americans today. How to take it for what it meant in 1937 can provide guidance to its significance in 2017. In brief, Weilerstein described the work's origin as the composer's attempt to remove himself from danger, and keep at least his career alive, after having displeased Josef Stalin with an edgy opera premiered the year before. And he ended up trumping Stalin (pun unavoidable), or did he?
Influential LP cover (not my copy, which was monaural, and has gone missing)

The oft-quoted subtitle, now believed to have been provided for Shostakovich, not by him, usually runs like this: "A Soviet artist's creative reply to justified criticism." Until the publication of Solomon Volkov's "Testimony" in 1979, a book purported to be the composer's memoir, the humility in that subtitle was taken at face value, and the music's progress from difficulty through despair to triumph was seen as self-evident.

Volkov had Shostakovich saying "all my symphonies are tombstones," and the ending of the Fifth is supposed to convey forced joy. Like so many other listeners, I took the work as a successful apology subsumed in a patriotic statement, monumental and artistically worthy (though Shostakovich has long had eminent detractors, like the late Pierre Boulez, who dismissed his music as "a bunch of cliches").

As a teenager, I owned and often listened to Leonard Bernstein's recording with the New York Philharmonic and readily subscribed to the "self-evident triumph" interpretation. His tempos were on the fast side (except for the Largo, of course), and though I no longer have the LP, I remember his approach to the second movement (Allegretto) was buoyant and bouncy, not sardonic (as Weilerstein described it, proceeding to elicit such an interpretation).

In those days, one often listened to records while gazing at the cover art. In this case that was a photo of Bernstein gripping the hand of the composer after a performance of the work on the Philharmonic's Soviet Union tour. And the normally dour Shostakovich is smiling! So I naively identified happiness as the work's authentic, hard-earned outcome. Besides, I was already familiar with the equally genuine ascent toward transcendent joy in the symphonic tradition launched by Beethoven's third, fifth and ninth symphonies.

I now mostly accept Weilerstein's conviction that any triumph that emerges in the work is of the nose-thumbing variety. What a self-absorbed tyrant may take for a celebration of life in his country is, in this view, a surreptitious assault hammered home at an unsuspecting philistine autocrat. In this regard, it's pertinent to note that one commentator on the work, D. Kern Holoman, renders the famous subtitle as "a Soviet artist's practical creative reply to justified criticism." In the context of all I've just said, the word "practical" speaks volumes.

The ISO played the piece with its recent adaptability to visiting maestros fully in evidence. The long, slow opening of the work managed to convey tentativeness emotionally without being tentatively executed.  When the piano and low horns bring on the fast tempo, the effect was galvanizing. In the Allegretto, the way small figures are flipped around (the flute seems to go  "yoo-hoo!") had the sardonic quality Weilerstein had promised, particularly in the horn melody.

After the Largo rises to a huge climax, the return to the movement's opening mood was as enchanting as the memory of a disturbing dream. The string sections' command of pianissimo has been well taught them by Venzago and Urbanski. The general onslaught of the finale was quite rapid, but flexible; perhaps Raymond Leppard's attention to the movement's tempo shifts was more scrupulous (in the version included in the "Indianapolis On-the-Air" series), but Weilerstein didn't just plow ahead. He avoided broadening the tempo at the very end, a mistake that tends to emblazon that face-value notion of socially acceptable triumph. The music surged forward, and for me, the composer saves his flipping off of the Soviet leader for when the bass drum underlines the timpani at the very end: "This is for you, Uncle Joe!" And so it was played Saturday night, triple forte but in effect as loud as possible.
Renaud Capucon could hardly have been more suitable to render Bernstein's "Serenade."

The concert's first half confirmed the guest maestro's affinity for modern music. The Shostakovich Fifth was the program's oldest piece. In 1954, Leonard Bernstein wrote "Serenade After Plato's Symposium," a top-drawer reflection for violin and orchestra based on the most substantial Platonic dialogue. (The Republic is in dialogue form, but only as a formality; the liveliness of actual conversation adheres to Symposium, a dinnertime chat in depth about love.)

The five-movement piece is probably Bernstein's most accomplished piece, not counting his stage works. Guest violinist  Renaud Capucon seemed the ideal interpreter. From the opening notes of Phaedras: Pausanias on, his playing emphasized a kind of classical restraint while enfolding the sort of extroverted warmth characteristic of Bernstein. His tone had stature and consistency. He seemed to display the French temperament of holding emotion within bounds without veiling it. The contour of the melody in the first movement called to mind the music Bernstein was to write for Maria in "West Side Story" just a few years later. The way the slow movement (Agathon) ended was a breathtaking achievement. The jazzy revels in the finale as Alcibiades and his buddies crash the party sparkled, and Capucon's dialogue with the solo cello of Austin Huntington in that movement couldn't have been truer to Socratic give-and-take.

To open the concert, John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" introduced the vast canvases painted by Bernstein and Shostakovich with compact energy. The 1986 piece is an exhilarating five-minute ride. It's the kind of work about which it's hard to know when it is about to go off the rails. It's pretty clear it didn't, but any close calls will have to remain the performers' closely kept secret. It prepared the large, enthusiastic audience for just about anything. And that's exactly what they were to get, in good measure.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Gary Burton and Makoto Ozone mark the end of an era at the Jazz Kitchen

For a half-century, Gary Burton created and upheld a personal style as well as a high standard on his instrument— one perpetually out of the mainstream in jazz, despite stellar contributions 70 to 80 years ago by Red Norvo and Lionel Hampton.

Gary Burton and Makoto Ozone are capping 34 years of playing together.
The vibraphone, fluently broadening its textural richness with his four-mallet technique, has had no more durable a proponent than Burton, born 74 years ago in Anderson and, as of March 17, ending his U.S. career in his home state in a duo appearance with pianist Makoto Ozone at the Jazz Kitchen.

The first set Friday night found the well-established Northside club packed, with an audience including Burton's longtime manager, Ted Kurland, from Boston. At the end of the set, Lewis Ricci of the Indiana Arts Commission read a proclamation from the governor that in effect put a localized Gary Burton layer over St. Patrick's Day. And Jazz Kitchen proprietor David Allee presented the retiring star with a framed color photograph of the musician in action a number of years back at the Indy Jazz Fest. The honors were the icing on the cake of the warm reception the duo got from the crowd.

The Burton-Ozone partnership goes back 34 years, the Japanese pianist noted in remarks from the bandstand. Soon after Ozone's graduation from the Berklee College of Music, where Burton enjoyed a long run as a faculty member, he started working professionally with the vibraphonist. The rapport, brought up to date by the current tour, of which Indianapolis was the final stop, was evident from the first phrase on.

In a phone interview I conducted with Burton last week, the older musician praised Ozone for the breadth of his musical interests and the great range which that has given their collaboration over the years. A sign of that Friday night was their arrangement of the first movement ("Prelude") of "Le Tombeau de Couperin," an inspired match of Ravel's flowing music to their respective instruments that wove into the original some improvisation that didn't violate the idiom. It was one of the few successful attempts to give a jazz spin to a classical piece that I've heard in years.

When you focus on just two instruments in a jazz group, you can appreciate how well they are able to import variety and contrast all the more. In a performance of James Williams' "Soulful Bill," for example, the relaxed waltz feeling to the theme is able to take in an intensification that serves the tune well. Ozone's comping kicked this performance into high gear without pushing back against Burton's lyricism. Both players made a few of its phrases really pop toward the end, without damaging the unity of the piece's mood.

The one "American songbook" standard the duo offered was "I Hear a Rhapsody," but there was also an old jazz number associated with Benny Goodman that had both players taking flight. "Opus 1/2" gave special opportunity for Ozone to solo, paying tribute to his jazz pianist father — Goodman's no. 1 fan, according to Burton's introduction. This was a fleet swinger, so typical of the Goodman small groups, that Ozone made the most of, exhibiting nonstop virtuosity of ideas and execution.

Also fetching was a Burton original in tribute to Astor Piazzolla, the Argentine master of "the new tango" with whom the vibraphonist worked in mid-career. The duo shepherded the gentle tune astutely, fashioning a nice diminuendo, with some piquant harmonies at the end. For contrast in this well-designed program, there was a slow blues from Ozone's pen: "Test of Time," in honor of Oscar Peterson, had the duo digging deep and rocking the room, an effect heightened by a key change introducing Ozone's solo.                 

Before the boppish encore, the duo closed with Ozone's "Times Like These," a thoughtful composition with an expansive theme that offered both players lots of room to generate flurries of notes. This exquisite partnership will move on to Japan soon for 10 gigs set up before Burton's decision to retire from music-making. After those performances, the influential musician-bandleader-educator will leave music for good, citing health reasons and thus indicating the good sense that has sometimes eluded other venerated musicians who continue well past their prime. Veneration for Burton will be held in place by performances maintaining his high standards to the very end.


Friday, March 17, 2017

In 'Sex With Strangers," literary careerism threatens to founder on shoals of lust and ambition

Olivia and Ethan bond over writing....
The only time I got an author's autograph in a cheap paperback was when Kurt Vonnegut signed my just-purchased copy of "Mother Night" in an Ann Arbor bookstore.

The book disappeared from my collection decades ago, either lost or just unreturned by a borrower — I forget which. But a warning in Vonnegut's introduction to the paperback edition has stayed with me. After doubting that his books usually had "morals" (I think several can be teased out of the Hoosier Aesop's oeuvre, actually), the author put "Mother Night"'s this way: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

I've always loved the boldness of that first clause: It's not "we will be taken for what we pretend to be, so..." but the absolute "we are what we pretend to be." Either formulation might well apply to Vonnegut's hero, who signs on as an American spy to broadcast on behalf of the Nazis and is unable to shed his success in that role in his post-war life.

The weight of that advice hits home in the course of Laura Eason's "Sex With Strangers," which opened in a Phoenix Theatre production Thursday night. Ethan barges in on a small writer's retreat in Michigan, late for his reservation on account of a blizzard. Immediately he's in conflict with Olivia, an anxious novelist, devoted to the printed word on paper, with a mixed record of success, deep into serious work on her new novel. Flummoxed by a storm-related interruption of connectivity, he nonetheless gains the upper hand at first. He's pumped up about his online presence, cresting on top of billowing numbers and consequent celebrity as the author of memoirish fiction, or fictionalized memoir, titled "Sex With Strangers," being just what it says it is. She's flailing somewhat in self-doubt, fretting over mediocre sales and lukewarm reviews.

..but of course that's not all.
With Ethan, the vexed Vonnegut question is, What is he pretending to be? Is he totally invested  — as an outgrowth of who he really is —  in recollections of predatory sexual behavior, counting on enough women also eager to memorialize their encounters with him to extend his celebrity? Or is he a diamond in the rough, his libido caught up in the viral, readymade marketing of Smashwords and KDP, but yearning for a reputation of old-media respectability in a new-media environment.

Angela Plank and Brandon Alstott are the couple at the center of this intersection of sexual and literary attraction, directed by Bill Simmons with symphonic sensitivity.  The play at first seems like a duet for bagpipes and kazoo, or a playground teeter-totter with the bully holding one end down periodically to disconcert the hapless kid high up on the other end. Ethan dominates at first, pressuring Olivia to call him a dick (she does) and otherwise exhibiting the control that whatever's new and daring always has over the conventional.

Indeed, for a while I was worried that the interview rhythm in the dialogue would weigh the relationship down more than advance it. But Olivia's personal agenda emerges, despite her initial distaste for Ethan. And before long, they get it on, sort of fleshing out the title of Ethan's claim to fame. A mutual respect is crafted from some pretty unpromising material; each seems to find a neediness in the other ready for them to satisfy. Both are guarded about their work, for different reasons.

The first hint of flirtation, where a real connection begins, is adeptly handled. The opening-night audience appreciated, as I did, a gesture that brings Olivia forward as someone who is going to deal with this new acquaintance somewhat on her own terms. Walking in front of Ethan at the end of the initial flirtation, OIivia casually flips her hair back. I don't know if the gesture's in the script or not, but it's perfect.

When the bulk of scenes start taking place on Olivia's home turf, a book-laden apartment, her path forward becomes clearer. It's strenuously nurtured by Ethan, but true to his nature, he pushes his advantage too far. And that gives the play its classic peripeteia — the turn of events that sets up the final situation between the two author-lovers. There's some ambiguity about that situation I won't reveal here; let's just say it has to do with the mystery contained in Vonnegut's warning.

The prolific playwright/director's knowledge seems encyclopedic about a cutthroat world in which literary stature is complicated by shifts in marketable media. Yet she never loses sight of the particularity of this couple's quest to understand each other, both as lovers and colleagues. The performances are true to that difficult process in all respects. Lauren Kreigh's costume designs deserve special mention in truly reflecting the couple's evolving relationship. The music of Prince is evocative in the interludes.

Integrity is not easily defended in many professions, but especially in one where status is so difficult to acquire, maintain and interpret. In the first volume of Paris Review "Writers at Work" interviews, Nelson Algren made a crude comparison that has stuck with me (his writing is loaded with crudeness that sticks with you). The streetwise Chicago bard distinguishes between books a writer writes for himself and those he writes for readers, meaning the market.

"If the book were your own, you'd be satisfied just to have the guy walk down the sidewalk and fall on his head. In a reader's book, you'd have him turn a double somersault." In this play, Ethan comes from the double-somersault world, Olivia from the fall-on-head one. "Sex With Strangers" suggests that this polarity will never be resolved, among either readers or writers. When the writers are also lovers, it's not only their characters who suddenly fall or turn acrobatic.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The birth of musical nationalism in the far north: Sibelius' "Kullervo," performed by the Minnesota Orchestra

Nationalism without tears: Jean Sibelius as a student in Vienna
Jean Sibelius, a composer so central to the national consciousness of his homeland, found that closeness a little uncomfortable with the huge success of "Kullervo," a sprawling symphonic poem with chorus and soloists based on the Finnish national epic, Kalevala.

He is said to have withdrawn the work from circulation shortly after its much acclaimed Helsinki premiere in 1892, though portions of it were heard over the next several years. Commentators differ on this decision and its motivation, but it's been credibly said that Sibelius' desire to build a reputation beyond Finland caused him to distance himself from the 80-minute work. And he did indeed become internationally admired, even if his best-known work, ironically, is the short symphonic poem "Finlandia," with a hymnlike melody known worldwide.

Revived in complete form in the 1970s, "Kullervo" was previously known to me in a 1995 Chandos recording by Danish forces (with two Finnish soloists) conducted by Leif Segerstam. Newly recorded and issued on the Swedish BIS label, "Kullervo" is performed by the Minnesota Orchestra (which recently emerged from a dark night of the soul caused by inept, shortsighted management), with music director Osmo Vänskä conducting. He enjoys for the occasion the participation of fellow Finns: soloists Lilli Paasikivi, mezzo-soprano, and Tommi Hakala, baritone, plus the stunningly accomplished YL Male Voice Choir.

I won't dwell here on many aspects of the earlier recording that still appeal to me. The sound is somewhat clearer, with less warmth than the new version. But as I understand the work, warmth is not the highest virtue in interpreting this remarkable music. The 25-year-old composer makes musically epic the tragic story of a vengeful warrior hero consumed by guilt for seducing a maiden who turns out to be his sister. Sibelius works with the heritage of musical romanticism idiosyncratically, and there is a kind of abstractness and straightforwardness about his treatment of the story that makes the musical handling more properly bardic (an adjective often too loosely applied to Sibelius's symphonies). His approach here is opposed to the Byronic effusions of Franz List's symphonic poems, for example.

Osmo Vänskä is a homegrown Sibelius advocate.
I can't fault Vänskä's interpretation of music he knows so well, and I'm reviewing without a score. I just feel a little coldness of manner, a proto-modernist emotional distance, suitable for the story — and for its abstract meaning of the folly and confusion of primitive warfare and missions of vengeance. And I'm not trotting out the Arctic Circle cliches common in discussing Sibelius in bringing up the relative coldness of Segerstam's version. The slight burr of the Minnesota sound may be attributable to the hall or the tastes of the recording engineers.

Vänskä and the Minnesotans are particularly impressive in the second movement, "Kullervo's Youth." especially in the sturdiness and billowing shapeliness of the string phrasing. The third movement, "Kullervo and His Sister," introduces the two soloists and the chorus. The narrative element is central here, expressed in an expressively repetitious yet inexorably advancing text. The Finnish poetry, though probably totally unfamiliar to Americans, will connect with those who know Longfellow's "Hiawatha," since the American poet borrowed the meter from "Kalevala." The effect of this meter in our language has been both mocked and admired; Longfellow was an expert metrical technician.

The soloists are vigorously capable of representing the two main characters (plus the first two maidens the hero encounters before the fateful meeting with his sister). The listener feels in the grip of ancient passions and the force of destiny, to borrow a Verdi opera title.  The YL singers produce some of most forceful, unified male choral singing you are ever likely to hear. They return in the finale, which is overloaded with the young composer's feeling his oats rather too strenuously, as he underlines overemphatically the bitter tragedy of Kullervo's shame and suicide.

The Finnish men return in the concluding item in the second disc, a rousing performance of "Finlandia," singing the text later added to Sibelius' immortal tune. The fast orchestral portions of the work are dispatched with rare illumination and energy, qualities that no doubt combined with the audience's love of that big melody to draw a huge ovation from the February 2016 audience in Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall.

The first part of the Disc 2 is a new work, commissioned by the orchestra: Olli Kortekangas' "Migrations," conceived as a companion piece to "Kullervo" — it makes use of the estimable Paasikivi and the YL Male Voice Choir, singing an English text by the Minnesota poet Sheila Packa. "Migrations" handles movingly the ambiguity and tension of movement across national borders — a network of issues even more timely than when this piece was completed in 2014.

Nationalism is also timely, and it's further ironic that nationalism hung like an albatross around the neck of Sibelius' posthumous reputation. "In 1965," wrote Harold C. Schonberg in his "Lives of the Great Composers" (1970), "the centenary of his birth arrived with all the force of a feather against an iron anvil." Near the end of his chapter "European Nationalists," the estimable critic comes to a more charitable conclusion: "In years to come the chances are that the music of Sibelius will occupy a more prominent place than it currently does." If that's true — and Schonberg's prediction is getting a bit long in the tooth — no small part of that prominence will be due to the advocacy of Osmo Vänskä and his hardy Minnesotans, as evidenced in this recording.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Knock, knock, who's there: The madcap romantic intrigue of IRT's 'Boeing Boeing'

The spacious, well-appointed set Vicki Smith has provided for "Boeing Boeing"  conveys the impression of cultured, calm
What a playground! The set of "Boeing Boeing" is redolent of au courant living.
modern living. It turns out the spaciousness is a clue not only to the occupant's high-end status in life, but also to the room needed for the physical action taking place there, complete with strategically placed doors.

Indiana Repertory Theatre got its production of the Marc Camoletti comedy going over the weekend, and the cavorting typical of farce gets the needed room to romp. The Calder mobile suspended from the apartment ceiling is the show's least mobile element.

As seen at Sunday's matinee, there was no let-up in the high pitch of both dialogue and movement in the story of a wealthy bachelor's scheme for keeping alive liaisons with three "air hostesses" — each of whom thinks she's his fiancee.

Matt Schwader is Bernard, the raffish bachelor, who finds his romantic spinning-plates act upset by changing international airline schedules and unforeseen in-flight difficulties. That alone modernizes the story, which is set in Paris of the early 1960s.

Robert and Bernard share their delight in Bernard's cleverness.
The story is told as tastefully as possible, with its amoral sexual adventurism filtered through the shrug of French sensibility. The disapproval registered by Berthe, Bernard's French maid, rests on the grounds of nerve-rattling inconvenience, not the scheme's impropriety. She must adjust meal preparation on a moment's notice to suit the nationalist appetites of her boss's American, Italian, and German girlfriends, who have been stunningly and distinctly outfitted in Mathew LeFebvre's period-true uniforms.

This is part of the tradition of farce, as is running the genre's comic complications through the wringer of the protagonist's
mother wit: Thinking fast is more important than thinking well. The disaster waiting in the wings is always itching to steal the show. It's staved off for a while with the help of Bernard's old friend Robert, loyal and resourceful despite his endearing clumsiness. It helps that Robert, an old-fashioned Wisconsinite on the loose in Paris, is somewhat envious of Bernard's juggling act, being himself on the lookout for close female companionship.

Bernard's stewardess stew is turned down to a palatable simmer by the end. It's a credit to Laura Gordon's direction that the concoction threatens to boil over throughout. Schwader's voice and movement vary between playboy self-assurance and shrill desperation, but he still effects a contrast with the flibbertigibbety desperation of his buddy, whose portrayal by Chris Klopatek had the antic supplement of virtuosic physical comedy.

The anxious Gretchen puts the squeeze on Berthe.
Aspects of that skill were occasionally evident throughout the cast. The touch of movement and fight coordinator Rob Johansen was clear: the appearance of throwing oneself into a comic role, skirting physical danger and maximizing laughs, never stinted. He's been up to that mark himself when wearing his actor's cap. Just as scrupulously, the four distinctive accents (plus mainstream American) sounded well-honed under the guidance of vocal and dialect coach Kathy Logelin.

Because of Berthe's continual presence onstage, Elizabeth Ledo was put under the most extensive strain to sound authentic. She winningly supplemented the accent with skeptical grimaces, faint sneers, and double takes on a spectrum that went all the way up to Bernard's getting on her last nerve.

It's hard to overestimate the commanding effect of Hillary Clemens as Gloria, who reflects the playwright's view of American curiosity, feminism, and wretched taste in food. The same pitch-perfect quality went into Greta Wohlrabe's stentorian command of the ostensibly proper but deeply lustful Gretchen, a Lufthansa Valkyrie. And Melisa Pereyra's fiery, suspicious Gabriella applied consistent pressure to Bernard's artful deceptions.

"We are experiencing some slight turbulence, so the captain has turned on the seat-belt sign" is among the cliche communications common in the occupation now called flight attendant. "Boeing Boeing" experiences extreme turbulence, yet makes a smooth landing. Along the way, a seat belt would only constrict your belly laughter. It's time for a little wing-walking, people!

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Gary Burton rounds out a half-century career in American jazz Friday at the Jazz Kitchen

 Because personal expression, involving composition on the spur of the moment, is essential to jazz, people like to claim a
Makoto Ozone and Gary Burton are touring together for the last time.
certain honesty is basic to the music.

Where that is most questionable may lie in the difficulty about being honest about aging. Jazz shares in common with other forms of entertainment a strong reluctance to leave the scene. I recall Dizzy Gillespie shaking a "rain stick," hitting the floor with it while doing simple dance steps, at Clowes Hall; all he could do with the trumpet was puff a few woolly notes at a time with his bell into the microphone. Quite a falling off from his quondam brilliance!

Gary Burton remembers seeing B.B. King toward the end of his life: "I loved him dearly. It was a sad evening and he was a shadow of his former self." And Lionel Hampton, the jazz pioneer on Burton's instrument, the vibraphone, was so afflicted with arthritis late in his career that he barely showed what he was known for, Burton remembers.

That route is not for Burton, the Indiana-born four-mallet genius, who is nearing the end of a half-century career. Born in Anderson 74 years ago, Burton got a national reputation as jazz was challenged by the dominance of rock in the late 1960s. He maintained that career through many years of being heavily involved in jazz education. Now, with longtime collaborator Makoto Ozone at his side, he's wrapping things up.

Two shows at the Jazz Kitchen Friday evening will constitute his last American engagement. Then he will travel to Japan, Ozone's homeland,  for 10 concerts that were set up several years ago, before Burton decided to retire. Speaking last week from New York City, where the last U.S. tour was under way, Burton told me: "I don't want to become one of those aging musicians who keep on playing past their peak," he said, adding: "There is little to no precedent for retiring."

He was keenly aware of the norm for many years before he came to a different conclusion. After a major heart operation four years ago, he started noticing the decline in his musical gifts. The first to go was his perfect pitch, the relatively rare ability to identify any note by letter designation upon hearing the given frequency for that note. He had had it since he was 6, and suddenly it was gone. Then there was trouble sight-reading (being able to play a piece of written music at sight), followed by difficulty memorizing, a core skill of jazz musicians.

"It started to happen frequently when I was playing," he said. "I'll forget where I’m at in a song, and it'll take a few seconds for me to get back where I should be. I’ve had a handful of these calamities and it unnerves you, shakes you up. It was a new issue to deal with, and it was time for me to know when to step back."

He had retired from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, after more than 30 years as faculty member and administrator. He continued to do some coaching and master classes, and the performance worries carried over to his teaching: "I had to make lists of what to talk about," Burton said. "The concentration thing started to be happening."

Burton enjoyed a stellar performing career, attracting notice when he was still in his teens. In his early 20s, he recorded an album titled "Duster," which represented the genesis of jazz-rock fusion. The late guitarist Larry Coryell joined him in the front line, with Steve Swallow on bass and Bob Moses (for the recording, Roy Haynes) on drums. It was that group I heard in 1967 in one of my first visits to a jazz club, the Club 47 in Cambridge, Mass., just a few blocks from Harvard Square. Its music policy also leaned toward folk: Joan Baez and Tom Rush got their starts there.

The Grammy-winning vibist also collaborated with Keith Jarrett, Stephane Grappelli, Carla Bley, and Chet Atkins early in his career. Later associations with Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla and versatile guitarist Pat Metheny have also been notable milestones. His association with Ozone goes back 35 years; the other pianist most frequently represented on his recording and performing schedule has been Chick Corea.

Burton makes this comparison: "They're very different, so there's different material. Makoto and I play a much wider array and types of music; we play old jazz from the 1930s, classical pieces. I’ve never played with anyone who has so much range, so we can explore together." After his Berklee years, Ozone joined Burton's band in the 1980s. Since then, the Japanese pianist has settled down in Japan, and has also concentrated more and more on classical music. He had a three-week window in his schedule to join Burton in the U.S. before the Japanese tour wraps things up for Burton. He says he plans to drop music for good; he has no desire to continue playing or teaching privately.

Asked what he wants to be remembered for — and he certainly will be remembered — Burton identified several things: the four-mallet technique, "blending popular music with jazz," and playing concerts as a duo: "It was a rare thing when Chick and I started playing duets....Those are some things I'm proud of."

In the course of his multifaceted career, Burton has been impressed by the spread of jazz throughout the world. "When I started, the majority of the audience was American and in the big cities," he noted. Similarly, jazz education has spread all over the world. When he started out, the American options for academic jazz numbered two: North Texas State University and Berklee.

Being part of such a global scene makes bringing it all back home all the more special, he said.  "I feel this is the end," said the vibes star, who now lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "The U.S. is the part of the world where I play the most. I started out in Indiana and I’m coming back."

And he'll be able to say he kept his honesty — on and off the bandstand.