Sunday, April 30, 2017

"Dial 'M' for Murder": IRT makes good connection to classic suspense drama

I try not to be a hoarder of printed matter, but theater and concert programs will tend to mount up over a full schedule of attended performances. Among the programs I find hardest to recycle are Indiana Repertory Theatre's. Glossy, informative, and well laid-out, they get my attention from cover to cover (OK, I only glance at the list of donors, vital as they are).

Police detective (second from left) shares his thinking about the murder with Max Halliday and the Weddices .
Particularly worth saving and occasionally revisiting are the brief statements by IRT production teams, as well as the behind-the-scenes interviews. Oh, and the director's essays, and the dramaturg's, and of course executive artistic director Janet Allen's.

For Frederick Knott's "Dial 'M' for Murder," I was especially fascinated by what scenic designer Kate Sutton-Johnson had to say. She focuses on one crucial visual element: "the upper surround (which we've dubbed the 'mega-cornice' [that] sits above the apartment, separate but echoing its architecture."

This "echo" receives projected black-and-white film images during the phone calls that are essential to the story. We see partial facial features of the person at the other end of the call. Just to see the scheming Tony Weddice's eyes close briefly when he learns from his panicked wife, Margot, that his hired killer has himself been killed by the intended victim speaks volumes.

James Still directs the production with his usual sure hand. But I'm tempted to go on and on about the space in which the suspense drama takes place. The scene is a posh London flat in 1952, when Britain was beginning to feel its oats once again after the dark night of World War II. That upper surround signals both protection and looming menace — perfect for a play that centers on a frayed marital bond heading toward a final rupture.

Sutton-Johnson describes the projected images as "featur[ing] odd angles, odd scales, and odd croppings, creating in the
audience a subtle sense of discomfort or imbalance as our story unfolds."  True enough, but I detected discomforting angles and dimensions in the designed room as well. Everything about the space works to reinforce the dramatic milieu.

What could possibly go wrong?: Tony and Max will go out to a stag dinner, Margot will stay home scrapbooking.
The range of scale is impressive: huge curtains to the audience's left covering glass doors opening out onto the terrace; to the right upstage, the set-back entrance to the apartment, allowing for silhouetted figures when the door is opened, as well as for such details as Detective Inspector Hubbard's deliberately picking up unseen the wrong topcoat on his way out. And out the door, our eyes are drawn to the carpeted staircase and the pivotal hiding place of the latchkey. Placement of props also reinforces the drama: the fatal scissors are picked up by Margot about as far as possible from where they are normally kept. Curtains, key, scissors: all crucial items, large and small, are where and what they should be.

The Weddices' apartment bespeaks wealth and glamour, the superficial glow of well-appointed domesticity. The story undercuts this almost immediately, as we learn of Tony's lingering resentment of Margot's unfaithfulness, particularly with an American friend, Max Halliday, on top of the subtle humiliation of his being a retired tennis star living off his wife's wealth.

Matt Mueller conveyed the smoothness with which Tony launches his scheme, and his attention to detail, which helps him
Tony Weddice tightens the screws on Captain Lesgate to rope him into his plot.
manipulate an old college acquaintance, Captain Lesgate, into accepting the rub-out assignment. His performance Saturday evening morphed skillfully into Tony's badly nicked savoir-faire ending in his undoing. As Margot, Sarah Ruggles reflected the wife's guilty conscience, nervousness and mounting puzzlement at the plot she is subjected to. Frankly, I felt she did much more with the role than Grace Kelly in the Hitchcock movie. (Lindsay Jones' music and sound design was at least the equal of the film's, by the way.)

As Captain Lesgate, Steve Wojtas fully lived up to the play's portrait of a man with a checkered past backed into a corner and recruited to carry out a master manipulator's revenge. As the dogged detective, IRT veteran Robert Neal displayed his usual command of the kind of role where determination and an imposing intelligence tramples every obstacle.

Christopher Allen reflected Max Halliday's controlled anxiety and discretion, qualities that burst free in the second act into a seasoned mystery writer's confidence that he has the perfect solution for rescuing Margot from her doom. In the play's height of dramatic irony, he outlines the plot Tony had indeed tried to carry out. It's a shame the actor muffed another touch of irony, a first-act line crucial to the play's meaning: "In stories things turn out as the author plans them to....In real life they don't — always."

The accidents of real life are this play's topic, insofar as the most well-studied plans rarely yield perfect results. Nothing that our intelligence and intentions, whether for good or ill, propose is adequate for what life is likely to produce. This production drives home that lesson with consistent flair.

If a tightly plotted suspense play seems too artificial, it may still be unwise to shrug it off as unrelated to how we who are not murder-minded actually live. I'm reminded of the wonderful title of a collection of literary essays by Marvin Mudrick: "Books Are Not Life But Then What Is?"

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, April 29, 2017

"Mozart and Salieri": An old legend of fatal musical competitiveness gets resuscitated in ISO commissioned work

Composer-pianist Dejan Lazic
One of the puzzling aspects of Dejan Lazic's "Mozart and Salieri" is the scheduling of the work's premiere by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra as a one-off.

Friday night's concert at Hilbert Circle Theatre offered the public the only chance to hear the guest pianist's symphonic poem. The entire program was thematically tight, giving historical context to the  rivalry between Wolfgang Mozart and Antonio Salieri in imperial Vienna of the late 18th century.

Contemporary accounts of Mozart's final days in 1791 differ widely. The murkiness was given a taint of mischief by the mortally ill composer's suspicion that he had been poisoned. No one on his deathbed can be held responsible for fearful thoughts. But the aged Salieri, many years later, sank into senility and expressed guilt at having caused Mozart's death.

On this thin thread Alexander Pushkin hung a brief play that inspired Lazic to cover the possible crime in abstract orchestral terms. The result took up about the last half-hour of a long Classical Series concert. The second puzzle for me is the motivation for focusing on a dubious legend — even though both Lazic and ISO music director Krzysztof Urbanski made clear in remarks to the audience that the story has no credibility — and thus adding weight to a historical rivalry that might not have been that intense, let alone murderous. Peter Schaffer's play "Amadeus," later made into a popular film by Milos Forman, went far enough in that direction.

The gist of this long-ago artistic vexation was the wonder of genius showing up in a  human vessel unworthy of containing it. In the craggy, scowling face of F. Murray Abraham, who played Salieri, that's the crux of "Amadeus."  Lazic has put together the opposition of genius and well-rewarded mediocrity in his piece, but that eternal seesaw was better represented by the concert's first half. That's when Urbanski followed up a scintillating performance of Mozart's teenage miracle Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183, with Salieri's Sinfonia in D ("Veneziana").

In the latter pastiche that the senior composer put together mainly from operatic melodies can be heard music suited to Imperial Vienna. It's trimly put together, ingratiating, and given appealing but never startling variety in dynamics and texture. The finale, for instance, is full of effects and not much substance, polite and courtly. The second movement foregrounds the composer's Italian origins, with a secondary melody that would sound quite at home (with a text) coming from a tenore di grazia on the order of Tito Schipa or Cesare Valletti.

The Mozart symphony, especially in the kind of insightful performance Urbanski conducted, has the hallmarks of genius throughout. The ISO played the piece in a manner that highlighted its cunning rhetoric: the question-and-answer phrases, the layered echoes and near echoes, the way phrases "talk" to each other. The burgeoning opera composer is reflected in this abstract work. I'll bring up just one detail that only a composer far above Salieri's capability could manage: The first movement, after its syncopated energy, its flashing contrasts and the excitement so well elaborated in the development, comes to a perfect ending. Mozart takes the foot off the accelerator without compromising any of the power he has unleashed; and yet the final couple of measures don't seem abrupt. There's no feeling of "how do I stop this thing anyway?," but rather a compact wrapping up that might well have had the establishment darling Salieri ruefully shaking his head.

To start the second half, the more adroit side of Lazic was presented as soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major. Lazic's performance came up to the very edge of affectation, but I found it a model of individuality and gracefulness. The singing tone was pronounced in the sublimity of the Andante movement. The unity of expression between piano and orchestra attained extraordinary heights in the finale. Lazic played his own cadenzas and "holds"; the cadenzas, especially the one in the first movement, gave a foreshadowing of problems I found with "Mozart and Salieri."

Put positively, Lazic certainly made full use of all the first-movement material, even overlaying one of the themes on another. The cadenza was cluttered but powerful, as was "Mozart and Salieri," but less impressively. His third-movement cadenza was less of a show-off matter, though it was too heavy at first; fortunately, it lightened up most of the way and truly reflected the nature of the finale.

"Mozart and Salieri," according to the composer's written and oral program notes, is designed to reflect the contrast between genius and mediocrity. But any contemporary composer might well have a problem adequately representing Mozart's genius, and Lazic fell somewhat short. It's true there was some evident contrast, especially with the opening Salieri music — baleful and ominous. To suggest mediocrity is no problem, if craftsmanship and a feeling for serious mockery are there. Lazic's music had those qualities, but the presentation was excessively barbed.

The quotes of some famous Mozart motifs and tune excerpts were hard to pick out, especially in passages devoted to Pushkin's Blind Violinist. Concertmaster Zach DePue expended considerable effort in his Scene 1 solos, which reflected the piece's mood of conflict. But I missed evocations of the familiar Mozart arias "Voi che sapete" and "La ci darem." The hidden nature of those quotes was another puzzle, given that in this scene Pushkin's Salieri is supposed to wonder why Mozart isn't offended by a street musician's rendition of his beautiful melodies.

Lazic draws a lot of variety from the orchestra. He's fond of extreme registers: piccolo and contrabassoon make conspicuous appearances. Piano, Mozart's major instrument in his maturity, wove major strands through the ensemble fabric, as played by Lazic. The orchestration is aggressive and impacted. I found the respite of the "Interlude" before Scene 2 most welcome.There was a flair for the dramatic evident in that scene depicting Mozart's death throes and Salieri's sorrow, expressed through a long buildup of overwhelming force, "thus creating the feeling of ultimate chaos," in Lazic's words.

Another big crescendo toward crowded full-orchestra terrain takes place in the Epilogue, which I think is intended to represent "that death is not eternal oblivion and that it is nothing to fear." This triumphant mood was hard to distinguish, except through a noisy maestoso grandeur. But to my ears and on first exposure, this symphonic resuscitation of a discredited story about artistic competitiveness taken to a criminal level was not worth the attempt.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Ancient pillar of strength resists psychological erosion and finds love in "Mad Mad Hercules"

On the national stage (with one local iteration) we had "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson." Now we have a world premiere, from NoExit Performance in association with Zach Rosing Productions, called "Mad Mad Hercules." If titles with a repeated modifier applied to a deeply flawed hero become a thing, we may eventually have something like "Grabbing Grabbing Donald Trump."

Hercules has attributes of both those American presidents in Bennett Ayres' play, which I saw Thursday night at IndyFringe
Cerberus, the dog of Hades, is eager to spoil Hercules' final labor.
Theatre.  The strongman of ancient Greek mythology has the additional burdens of a drinking problem and a conflicted sexual identity on top of the traditional baggage of impulsiveness, anger-management issues, and moral indebtedness.

Played with headstrong verve and widely scattered disdain for social norms by Ryan Ruckman, the muscular hero is shown chiefly undertaking his famous Twelve Labors, imposed by the supercilious King Eurystheus as penance for having slaughtered his wife and children in a mad rage. The insane act was due to the sorcery of Hera, the wife of Zeus (Tony Armstrong, aptly thunderous) nursing a permanent grudge against her husband's infidelity, which resulted in Hercules. The Olympian queen, in Dena Toler's performance, coos at him with unctuous solicitude blended from modern self-help literature and Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude.

Hercules listens glumly to the officious instructions of Eurystheus.
Ayres underplays Hercules' guilty conscience in order to lay emphasis on the hero's hatred of his stepmother. He is not favorably disposed toward Eurystheus, either, and their mutual insults are rank and raunchy. Josiah McCruiston, gliding about the stage in crown and robes as though they justify his every word and gesture, filled the royal role capably. Like most people conscious of their god-given good fortune, the king carries out his assigning task with lip-smacking cruelty.

So Hercules properly bears the two "mads" of the title — the insane kind and the angry kind. What saves him is the initially unpromising development of a partnership and romance with Iolaos, a farmhand assigned to accompany Hercules on his labors as a kind of minder. Nathan Thomas gave a full measure of fretfulness to the role, trying to restrain the hero's worst impulses. But Hercules brings off a number of the labors with the sort of luck he feels he can take full credit for, the way spoiled children often do far into adulthood.

The chorus looks on as Iolaos figures out the best way to protect himself and his charge.
A turning point is when Iolaos assists Hercules with the multi-headed Hydra, cauterizing one neck after another once Hercules has lopped off the head, thus preventing a new head's growth. And when Hercules captures the stag with golden horns in one of the show's loveliest scenes, his sensitive side emerges out of all the bluster. Then it only takes the pair's being grossed out by the sexual overtures of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (comically rapacious in Beverly Roche's performance) to help establish a full erotic bond between Hercules and Iolaos.

In fleshing out this relationship, Ayres has borrowed the cliche of many a romantic comedy, most of them heterosexual, in which an incompatible couple scraps from the first, only to find out that being joined in a common cause overcomes all obstacles to love. There's an undercurrent in popular culture of male bonding taking an erotic turn through shared adventure, as hackneyed Batman-Robin jokes make clear.

Athena, studious goddess of wisdom
In my prepubescent innocence, I always thought the Lone Ranger and Tonto made a cute couple, as played in those unforgettable low voices by Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. But most such partnerships resist that kind of chemistry; "Brokeback Mountain" could wait.  I never saw a hint of it in, to stick to the Western genre, the relationship between the Cisco Kid and Pancho. On the other hand, the concluding guffawing tags of each episode — "Oh, Pancho!"  "Oh, Ceeesssco!" — can easily be imagined crowed leeringly by the sombreroed buddies after a night of exuberant love-making.

At any rate, the love-interest innovation works in this show. It creates some development in a myth treatment that might otherwise be merely episodic. Hercules' long-desired transfiguration at the end cuts off the love affair, but there would hardly be any other way out.

The imaginative and technically astute use of light and sound, the elaborate use of three-dimensional and  shadow puppets, and the wide, always suitable range of costuming were unfailing, brilliantly realized in this production, directed by Zack Neiditch and produced by Zach Rosing.  Indeed, I'm not sure what the purpose of the Chorus' lines casting doubt on the show's production values was. To disarm criticism? Well, consider me disarmed.

I'm also doubtful whether references to contemporary popular culture — "The Gilmore Girls" and Trisha Yearwood — add anything to the show except a gag line or two. But I liked the satirical thrust at self-absorbed graduate students in chorus member Devan Mathias' cameo appearance as Athena. Maybe when you're tweaking a story thousands of years old, it's advisable to insert some unrelated fun to indicate the timelessness of the story. Brute male strength and assertiveness always need to be leavened by intelligence and love so that whatever the gods have handed you in life doesn't determine everything you are.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

1998 IVCI Laureate Svetlin Roussev returns for a recital capped by music from his native Bulgaria

The patrician manner that Svetlin Roussev displayed in Schubert's Sonatina in D major, D. 384, stood him in good stead for the
Svetlin Roussev and Chih-Yi Chen evinced a well-honed musical partnership.
much different second work on his recital program Tuesday with pianist Chih-Yi Chen at the Indiana History Center.

The late romantic flowering evident in Eugene Ysaye's Sonata No. 2 for Solo Violin ("Obsession") requires some reining in to help clarify its debts to both J.S. Bach and the "Dies irae" chant melody beloved of several composers. There's more than a glance backward in the "obsession" the four-movement piece has with those two sources. So for all its outsize virtuosity, scrupulously clean playing helps enormously. This is very rooted music, and that quality alone makes it seem obsessive.

Tidy yet amply expressive playing is what Roussev, a laureate in the 1998 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, demonstrated consistently in a program that went from Schubert and Ysaye through bonbons by Tchaikovsky and a substantial French violin-piano sonata to Pancho Vladigerov's "Song" and "Rhapsody Vardar."

Roussev champions music from his native Bulgaria, and Vladigerov is regarded as his most eminent countryman among composers. "Song" has the pentatonic flavor familiar to music-lovers from the folk-influenced music of the Hungarian Bela Bartok. In this performance, Roussev and Chen made the most of its flamboyant climax (which ventures far outside the folk inspiration), moving from there to settle down in well-coordinated fashion. The composer at his most flagrantly patriotic was represented by "Vardar," a showpiece requiring seemingly unstoppable fast fiddling, with lots of rapid tremolo passages and a general atmosphere of dancing ecstasy.

The "wow" factor of the rhapsody helped account for the return of the duo for an encore, another Bulgarian piece: "Sevdana," by Georgi Zlatov-Cherkin.

As for the excellence of the duo earlier, Gabriel Fauré's Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in A major, op. 13, gave extended evidence of a solid partnership. I would have preferred a hair less swiftness in the "Allegro vivo" movement, which would have brought out its charm more and not so conspicuously challenged the duo's togetherness.

The other three movements were unexceptionable in their display of unity and interpretive elan. The chromatic surges in the opening movement were passionately well-judged.  Dynamics were wonderfully coordinated in the slow movement, especially near the end, with its relaxed diminuendo passages. The tension generated in the finale before the final outburst indicated how well the two musicians were of one mind about the score and its intended effect.

Not overlooking the excellence of Chen's contributions, I want to concentrate particularly on the violinist for the remainder of this post. His articulation was immaculate in the Ysaye sonata. The string crossings were clean; the near-ferocity of those phrases remained under control. It was admirable how Roussev seemed to place the Bach quotes within parentheses, as if setting the table for a lavish feast. Similarly, the frequent tweaking of "Dies irae" throughout projected the melody well without overshadowing its surroundings.

The chordal suggestions in the third movement Sarabande were firm and well-voiced; the near-the-bridge phrases in the finale had just the right wraith-like tone. This was an "Obsession" that found that quality in the music without having to convey the impression that the performer was obsessed to the point of mania. In both the way he carries himself and his mastery of a wealth of violin technique, Roussev bears fair comparison with Jascha Heifetz.

Tchaikovsky's Melodie in E-flat major, Valse Sentimentale, and Valse-Scherzo underscored that patrician manner mentioned earlier, with hand-in-glove accompaniments from Chen. His ardent low-register tone in the "Melodie" was exquisite. In none of the three pieces did Roussev feel the need to give way to anything schmaltzy. His studied but never stiff approach to these lovely pieces still gave him lots of elbow room for putting across their instant appeal. And the audience responded with obvious joy.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Handling the moral balance of payments: Complications of the attempt are probed in Phoenix Theatre's "The Open Hand"

College roommates Freya and Allison, now upwardly mobile urbanites, bond over lunch.
"The Open Hand" starts out like a high-strung comedy, but with a disquieting pact between two women, friends since college, that proscribes birthday celebrations and the exchange of gifts. This meeting over an expensive lunch, with the pact fraying,  soon spirals into a complication mysteriously twisted by coincidence: One of the friends has to leave suddenly to keep an important appointment; then a stranger pays the check when the woman left behind discovers she's without resources and can't reach her husband by phone. A downpour threatens to leave her both sodden and saddened, when the man hands her his umbrella.

Contemporary urban life in Robert Caisley's play is predicated upon self-interest and the expectation that all generosity must be reciprocated. Allison (Leah Brenner), the beneficiary of the stranger's paying it forward, is obsessed by that need. Disguising his good deed from her husband Jack (Jay Hemphill), whose professional culinary ambitions are all-consuming, is a mistake destined to be compounded. In gratitude, the good stranger, the solidly named David Nathan Bright (Charles Goad), must be invited to an intimate two-couple get-together that no one is allowed to call Allison's birthday celebration. This could be the creepiest birthday party since Harold Pinter, the playgoer might be entitled to think.

Happiness must be doled out in Allison's world, and what produces it must be measured and entered into the moral ledger. Her calculations infect her best friend, Freya, as well as Jack, and the pressure to weigh all life's moves accurately brings Freya's Todd, a car salesman, to the breaking point. Balances must be struck and calibrations checked. Caisley has set up an anxious display of the commodification of thoughts and acts, particularly between intimates. It's a process that's wound ever tighter until the market collapses, with shattering effect. In the worldview Allison sustains, with buy-in among all four, acts of generosity, never free and unattached, are assigned an exchange-value. Karl Marx would have understood.

The Phoenix Theatre production opened over the weekend; after attending the Sunday matinee, I felt as if I'd been to church again — but this time had snatched a few bills from the collection plate, then tried to return them without detection, felt gratitude about not being noticed (combined with guilt), then added a few more dollars before wondering how much would amount to overcompensation. Is this any way to live? Do we have any choice? "The Open Hand" may leave you wondering if your gratitude has been conditional all along, if your basic selfishness has been evident to everyone you know, if charitable acts are bound to be misunderstood unless the motive and the back-story are transparent. That's ironic, about which more below.

Dale McFadden directs the cast with his usual, fine-textured attention to detail. Nothing seems to happen or be said that is not in some sense the expression of every character onstage. This is true especially in the early scenes, when the playwright appears to be taking delight in having the audience share in the mystification that besets the characters. Sometimes, just when we think we are most focused, we are most susceptible to distraction.

Only David Nathan Bright is self-possessed. In the steady openhandedness of Goad's portrayal, he carries the aura of a visitor from beyond. McFadden has the other actors picking up adroitly on the brittle nature of intimacy, which always wants to know more, because knowledge seems so much better than faith. But only ignorance enables faith to become stronger, as Montaigne said long ago; what we know for sure is forever dependent on testing it against what we don't.

Awaiting a late arrival, the host couple and Freya get to know a mysterious benefactor.
And Allison knows next to nothing about David, a fact that really irritates Freya, who, as played by Julie Mauro, conducts a hilariously intrusive interview with the distinguished-looking gentleman when he arrives at the apartment.

Freya's faith in her friendship with Allison is already under strain, to which is added her being on tenterhooks about snagging a high-end international wine job. Well, there's also some difficulties in her marriage, all of which Mauro conveys as being under quite tenuous control. The bluffly macho Todd (Jeremy Fisher) sells luxury cars, but his job insecurity under a toxic boss will have an explosive effect in the climactic party scene.

Todd meets David Nathan Bright in the worst way.
That scene cannot further be described, but its aftermath entails Allison's long-suppressed confrontation with her past and the crumbling of the protective edifice she has built at immense psychic cost. Though hints of her vulnerability have been evident all along, what underlies it has to be brought into the open by David. I doubt I've ever seen on an Indianapolis stage a more astonishing transformation than what Brenner achieved here; physically and vocally beside herself, Allison stands before us at the end, probably capable of setting her life on a new footing, moving toward health after the abscess has been lanced.

"The Open Hand" is finally a comedy, though the laughs come early and somewhat under shadows. But it takes a place in the prevailing Judeo-Christian mode of irony, which Western culture has inherited in uneasy partnership with the Greek mode of tragedy. The ironic mode has made our stage comedies richer, and it has given us a more capacious understanding of life's sadness. Despite Shakespeare, the tragic view of life sits uneasily with us, leading to the frequent misinterpretation of "Hamlet" as a portrait of indecisiveness.

Though there's nothing explicitly religious about "The Open Hand," it rests on the foundational irony of Christianity derived from Jewish religion. Our expectations are thwarted; what we do and what happens to us is an endless struggle between our faith and our knowledge. Attempts to resolve that conflict through striking out on new paths sometimes dazzle us beyond anything we may have anticipated, as for Ruth in the Bible, whose famous decision is crucially referenced in this play's final scene. We can't be sure of success, because the accumulation of discouragements compels us to ask, with Job, the ironic question: "Why is light given to a man whose way is hid, and whom God hath hedged in?"

"The Open Hand" provides an extraordinarily moving answer to this question. Furthermore, the production is a technical marvel, with several evocative sets (Jeffery Martin) constructed on a turntable, furnished (and its actors outfitted, by Emily McGee) with just enough signs of material striving and accomplishment to reinforce the play's context of interplay between the open hand and its all-too-frequently closed opposite, between the lighted way and the one hidden or hedged in.

[Photos by Joe Konz]

Sunday, April 23, 2017

With visceral impact and artistic imagination, SF Jazz Collective blows through town on the first of two nights here

Rising out of the San Francisco Jazz Festival more than a decade ago, the SF Jazz Collective has made its mark by gathering
SF Jazz Collective: Eubanks, Calvaire, Wolf, Jones and Sanchez (standing, from left); Penman, Simon, Zenon (seated, from left)
top-drawer musicians into ensemble work periodically, focusing year after year on the work of the music's major figures and touring with it.

This weekend the current tour is playing a couple of nights at the Jazz Kitchen. I heard the first set of the first night Saturday; the program was centered on the legacy of Miles Davis. Typical of the group's creativity, the program also included original compositions, as well as members' arrangements of the trumpeter's works.

To present its calling card, the octet opened with "All Blues," a perennial favorite that has been taken up by many artists. This arrangement, by pianist Edward Simon, wound its way into the theme obliquely. It featured the grandiloquent vibraphone playing of Warren Wolf, and ended in a long coda with lots of nimble ensemble tags periodically inserted.

SF Jazz Collective arrangements typically avoid any "tribute" genuflections toward the honoree's manner of performance. This is particularly evident in how they handle their borrowings from pop heroes such as Stevie Wonder, as a three-disc issue from 2011. And the solos take off  from the new arrangement more than from the original, which puts everything the band is likely to play in its own universe.

This was amply evident in the second Davis number, "Joshua," a Wolf arrangement distinguished by Simon's cogent piano solo and the rip-roaring exuberance of trumpeter Sean Jones. "Milestones" brought front and center the arranging aptitude of bassist Matt Penman, with another indication of the fresh distribution of solos characteristic of the band. This time around, saxophonists Miguel Zenon (alto) and David Sanchez (tenor) were showcased.
Shields Green, an enslaved rebel

Among the attractive originals, trombonist Robin Eubanks introduced "Shields Green," a piece named for a participant in John Brown's 1859 raid on the weapons factory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now in West Virginia, and spelled without the apostrophe). The historical context drew from Eubanks a rootsy sound, anchored by regular finger snaps in which the composer encouraged audience participation. Simon turned from the grand piano to a synthesizer to make the accompaniment moodier. Eubanks took an extraordinarily agile solo, expressing his own voice but bringing to mind the virtuosity of one of his Indianapolis trombone heroes, J.J. Johnson.

Just as exciting and multifaceted a new piece was Jones' "Hutcherson Hug," named for the late Bobby Hutcherson, a vibraphonist who was a charter member of SF Jazz Collective. It presented a rare reflective episode in the first set, its gentle waltz theme elaborated in an expansive solo by Wolf, Hutcherson's successor as Jazz Collective vibist. Though the band gives him lots of company in this respect, Wolf is particularly outstanding in rolling out phrase after phrase with nary a stale idea or cliche to be heard.

The set closed with drummer Obed Abaire's "One Eleven," a complex, high-energy work full of cross-rhythms — naturally featuring a drum solo, but so much more than an excuse for percussion display. Like everything this band plays, the collective idea in its name always seems to be more important than anything close to individual grandstanding. When individuality is called for, there is no shortage in the supply, but the collective remains uppermost.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Urbanski puts an aptly severe stamp on the consolations of the Brahms Requiem

Collaborations between the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra — two organizations with
Expert choral preparation: Eric Stark conducting in rehearsal
a long history together but structurally independent — are always eagerly anticipated.

Not too many years ago, we heard John Nelson, who considered sacred music for chorus and orchestra a specialty, lead the same forces in Brahms' "German Requiem," which ISO music director Krzysztof Urbanski conducted Friday night. The warmth the former music director imparted to the music on one of his rare returns was expected, and welcome.

But I also found attractive Urbanski's more chaste concept of the oratorio, with warmth being a standard quality of the ISC under the guidance of Eric Stark. Thus, there was nothing lacking in the consoling atmosphere essential to the work. Yet there was also no overemphasis on its color or drama; spectacle is best left to the liturgical requiem settings by Verdi and Berlioz. A rare exception: the end of the sixth movement, with its text being familiar from the culmination of Handel's Messiah, certainly sounded more "fortissimo"  than Brahms' typically restrained "forte." Indeed, the extra oomph may have encouraged a premature outburst of applause from parts of the audience that hadn't read their program notes. There was one more movement to go, of course, and its subdued quality is essential to the work's meaning.

On the whole, Urbanski was scrupulous about dynamics and tempos. He didn't apply unindicated ritards to concluding measures and he kept the occasional glow of brass subsumed within the orchestral fabric. The flow  of relatively independent lines, as in the fugal conclusion of the movement that aroused an intrusive ovation, was kept clear, with no orchestral detail allowed to poke out. The ISO's current music director favored a rhythmically enlivened interpretation, to which the large chorus was unfailingly responsive.

The oratorio's moments of excitement are judiciously placed, and conductor, chorus and orchestra rose to those occasions when required in the first of two performances under Urbanski's baton at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The "drama" in Brahms' Requiem is simply a matter of the contrast between mourning and sobriety on the one hand and the promise of relief and causes for celebration on the other. The overall tone never departs far from lightly theological reminders of the brevity of human life in the embrace of an overarching deity whose supremacy guarantees that loss and mourning are not what life is about, despite appearances.

This is a good place to raise a few oddities about the projected English translation of the scriptural excerpts chosen by the composer from the Luther Bible, the traditional standard for German Protestantism. It was a little jarring to appreciate baritone soloist Michael Kelly's extensive solo in the third movement ("Herr, lehre doch mich"), with its anguish vividly expressed, while reading a translation of the opening lines that appeal to God to teach the psalmist that "my life has a purpose, and I must accept it." This sounds kind of Rick Warren-ish or New Age-y to me. Where's the death anxiety? The context requires something on the order of the King James Version's "Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is, that I may know how frail I am." Or, to more directly render the German version: "...that my life has an end, and I must go hence."

The translation used seemed to be either too literal or too liberal, and more or less reliant on the Authorized Version,  but inconsistent about it. It was amusing later (to me, a former trombonist) to read the supertitle of Judgment Day being announced by "the last trombone," when the trumpet is of course the instrument all scripturally familiar English-speakers associate with the event famously prophesied in I Corinthians.

While on the subject of guest soloist Kelly, who struck the right note emotionally in both his solos — the worried one at first, the prophetic one later — there was an odd moment in the sixth movement when he kind of snuck back from his chair to the front of the stage, after the chorus had shouted about the resurrection of the dead, to indicate the meaning of all that with the words "Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written," by way of introduction to the chorus' thundering questions: "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" It was a startling effect, reminding me of when the immortal Oliver Hardy used to re-enter a scene he'd just left in a huff, wagging a forefinger and saying sternly: "And another thing..."

This weekend's soprano soloist, Christina Pier, was quite effective in her one appearance, the fifth movement's "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit."  I liked the way she regulated and intensified the fervor of certain words, to make the divine promises of "Trost" (solace) and "Freude" (joy) seem all the more real.

Stark's chorus performed with its usual polish and, as mentioned above, warmth of expression. I missed more tenor strength here and there, but particularly one place where a strong tenor section seems essential. That's in the opening movement, when the tenors are the first choral section to follow the sentence subject "They that sow in tears" with the radiant predicate "shall reap in joy." That very phrase is key to the uplift promised in this beloved work, and to hear it sung anything less than robustly detracts a little bit from a rendition of the Brahms Requiem. Nonetheless, this performance was one to treasure, right up through the final hushed iterations of "selig" (blessed).

Friday, April 21, 2017

HART emerges into a new phase as Indianapolis Shakespeare Company

In its ten-year history, Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre has secured for itself a firm niche in the Indianapolis theatrical
Vision-bearer for Indy Shakes: Diane Timmerman

What a concept!  With three principal pillars of financial support, the organization has been able to offer one Shakespeare production every summer — fully professional, and free of charge to audiences at White River State Park.

Now, in search of a more forthright identity and eager to avoid further confusion in the public mind with the Heartland Film Festival, the company, headed by Diane Timmerman, has recast itself as the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company and given itself a nickname, Indy Shakes.

It has a new website and this year will continue the tradition that gained many fans under its previous name on July 27, 28, and 29 with "As You Like It," directed by company member Ryan Artzberger.

I will not wax rhapsodic about that supernal comedy here, as Artzberger did so far more authoritatively and directly Thursday evening at a Cyrus Place fund-raising event inaugurating the company's next stage.

To prepare himself to make his local directorial debut, Artzberger told the gathering, he sought advice from directors this season at Indiana Repertory Theatre, where he frequently performs. He said what they offered him boiled down to advice that, to best meet the difficulties of readying a production as director, he should "keep returning to what you love about the play."

He proceeded to enumerate what he loves about "As You Like It,"  and my notes are too sketchy to do justice to what he said.
Ryan Artzberger as actor at work in a HART production at White River State Park.
But I remember how he lifted up the fact that its central character is a woman and how the play compares life to theater, and, significantly, that it rejects building walls as opposed to "building a longer table." There were about a dozen points in all.

All of these insights were enough to add to my eager anticipation of this show. I also think, without much to back me up except my own imagination, that the play's central character, Rosalind, is one of two Shakespeare women it's impossible to imagine being played by a boy, as female parts always were in Shakespeare's time. The other is Cleopatra.

There's something so essentially female — and thus, to this man, strange, attractive and extraordinarily rich and exotic — about Rosalind and Cleopatra as to make any production of "As You Like It" or "Antony and Cleopatra" worth going to great lengths to see. And here's a potential great one of one of them in the offing.

Before Artzberger spoke, Timmerman mentioned Indy Shakes' long-range plan to find another home besides White River State Park, which has many advantages but continues to run into the increasingly packed schedule of music shows at the Lawn nearby, plus the unavoidable effect of the audience having to look into the sun for the first act. Another park might serve as the company's future home, or a place in the redevelopment of the idle GM Stamping Plant nearby, she said.

Oh, and there have also been interruptions from fireworks at a not-so-idle site nearby, Victory Field. Timmerman credited Artzberger with being the most resourceful actor at taking note of the Indianapolis Indians feature during performances while remaining in character.

All kidding aside, Timmerman said that the "organizational infrastructure needs to be brought up to the artistic level." Well, given what we've seen in the latter category over the years, that's a lofty goal indeed, and should keep her and her board busy.

Charles Lloyd and his simpatico colleagues, aptly dubbed the Marvels, deepen his legacy in Palladium concert

Charles Lloyd has pursued his own brand of "fusion" for several decades now. It shows no signs of being dated, as demonstrated by the saxophonist-flutist's concert Thursday night at the Palladium.
Charles Lloyd has mesmerized audiences for decades.

He connected with massive rock audiences in the 1960s, but it was through the lyricism and open-endedness of his music, not through the kind of high-octane outreach that borders on pandering. We won't make jazz that will furrow your brow, he seemed to promise.

That seems to be his approach still in 2017, as the 79-year-old musical guru from Memphis tours with the Marvels, an ensemble fully in tune with his spacious, enveloping approach to making jazz that endures. Maybe Lloyd's floating discourses sounded even better with cannabis once upon a time, but who needs artificial stimuli when a master is at work, rooting his unique message in many years of pertinent communication?

The personnel of the Marvels amounts pretty close to an all-star aggregation.  Yet nothing heard in the Carmel concert was really about stardom, despite the presence of Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal-steel guitar, Reuben Rogers on electric bass, and Eric Harland on drums. Sure, there were solos, with some predisposition, naturally, to showcase the leader. But in a real sense, Lloyd and the Marvels are an incarnation on their own terms of the Weather Report watchword: Everybody solos, and nobody solos.

The music exploited the guitar-rich texture of the band without overloading it. When it comes to the fusion label, the outreach is more toward genre than instrumentation. What I heard at this concert (regrettably, I arrived late) had the quality and straightforward address of folk music, principally from the Caribbean and the Southern U.S.  Pedal steel is of course heavily associated with country music, but the band's grasp proved to be unconstrained by generic limits.

The knock on Lloyd used to be that he played tenor in a kind of watered-down John Coltrane manner. This description woefully shortchanges his individuality: He gets around the horn with some of the "sheets-of-sound" breadth of Coltrane, but the sound and the dynamic variety is his own. The ornamentation is fluttery and deftly applied. He measures out intensity judiciously, and doesn't go in for honking, squeaking or split tones.

You can relax as you listen to him, which doesn't mean the effect is bland. Lloyd doesn't sound like anybody else, really. His style partners particularly well with Frisell, a master of atmosphere who calmly and consistently rejects placement in any particular bag.

The other players proved equally compatible. Rogers avoided funky-bass cliches, interacting smoothly with Frisell and giving unforced stature, sweetness, and clarity to the music's foundation. Leisz applied the keening, flexible line of his instrument subtly but with crucial import as a lyrical complement to the leader. Harland could lay out a groove or become almost painterly in the way he used his drums and cymbals. And a further grace note to the band's sound was Lloyd's deep-dyed songfulness when he picked up the alto flute.

The Marvels: For once, a band name that may be an understatement.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Maria Schneider communicates her vision to Butler students in ArtsFest program

Maria Schneider with one of her Grammy Awards.
Sensitive to the environment in more than her declared values, Maria Schneider is an active birder in addition to being a celebrated composer and arranger working with distinction in the jazz orchestra idiom for more than 20 years.

The Minnesota native, honed by close associations with Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer in early adulthood, was a guest of Butler University's jazz program this week, capped by a concert appearance Wednesday night at the Schrott Center.

She led the Butler Jazz Ensemble, a big band under the direction of Matt Pivec, at a concert that was preceded by a wide-ranging conversation with Rich Dole. a trombonist and teacher who was to provide a vital professional voice on bass trombone at the concert. That's where the interest in bird-watching was addressed with enthusiasm.

Dole's musical contribution came during a performance of "Bird Count," an up-tempo blues with which Schneider said she used to conclude Monday night performances by her orchestra at Visiones in New York City. The Butler student musicians gave a good account of the piece, with the patented Schneider slip-sliding harmonies and section glinting off section as the catchy theme and related choruses churned along. It was up to Dole to take the final plunge into the bass-trombone basement at the end, and he made it thrilling.

To start things off in the Schneider segment of the program, there was the aggressive "Dance You Monster to My Soft Song," titled after a Paul Klee painting that captivated the composer many years ago. The delightfully prickly piece brought forth barbed splendor from the band; particularly spicy were the drumming of T.J. Schaff and a muttering electric bass solo by Isaac Beaumont.

Schaff was impressive as the drummer in another 1994 Schneider composition, "Green Piece," and seemed particularly responsive behind Sam Turley's tenor saxophone solo. The performance also featured a well-judged piano solo by Michael Melbardis.

The best extended solo was contributed by Zack Weiler on baritone saxophone, who made a poignant showcase for his instrument and for Schneider's reflective side on "Walking by Flashlight," an instrumental version of Schneider's setting of a Ted Kooser poem, which the guest artist read before the performance. That was the most recent (2013) Schneider composition, and made for an effective contrast to a second 1994 "monster" piece that preceded it, "Wyrgly," which featured outstanding solos by tenor saxophonist Eric Wistreich and Jake Small's buzzing, roaring, wailing rock-inflected guitar.

The whole set of five pieces, whose renditions drew lavish praise from Schneider, gave ample evidence of her qualities as both composer and teacher. Her music tests developing ensembles and provides encouraging settings for  student soloists learning to make their way distinctively. "I give people interesting things to play in solos that will carry the piece to an interesting place," is the way she put it in her chat with Dole.

Before Schneider's entrance, Pivec guided a peppy old-school flag-waver by Fletcher Henderson, popularized by the Benny Goodman band 80 years ago, called "Wrappin' It Up." That followed brief sets by two student small groups sketching in classics from other eras: Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite" and "Billie's Bounce," Benny Golson's "Stablemates," and Roy Hargrove's "Strasbourg-St. Denis."  Giving an extra measure of professional polish and energy to their performances was veteran Indianapolis saxophonist Rob Dixon.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

With alarming resonance for today, TOTS has a political drama covering 30 years up to 2009

Calm before storm: Colin Ferris arrives at his mother's Georgetown home with his fiancee, Anna, welcomed by his aunt Jean.
What may have caused the collapse of an elite political class — self-appointed guardians of liberal democracy — receives family-drama scrutiny in "The City of Conversation."

Theatre on the Square has a production of the Anthony Giardina play on Stage 2 through April 29. The show takes a distinct turn toward melodrama in the unpalatable choice presented to the main character, a Georgetown hostess connected to Kennedy Democrats in their waning days. Nan Macy plays Hester Ferris over three decades of unsettling change. The character will not seem particularly sympathetic, even to avowed liberals of 2017, because she's distinctly a snob with blinders on about the fault lines in American society that were to elevate Ronald Reagan to the White House and now — dare we say it? — Donald Trump.

But to mention No. 45 gets us a bit ahead of ourselves. "The City of Conversation" doesn't flash forward past the inauguration of Barack Obama in his first term. There's a note of hope for the now-elderly Hester Ferris; a devastating family rift has been partially healed and the political pendulum seems to have swung back in her direction.

This production meets the challenge of sketching in the inside-the-Beltway tensions between the twilight of the Carter presidency, through Reagan's heyday at the time of the fight over the Robert Bork nomination to the Supreme Court, and up to the high point of the "audacity of hope." The Bork controversy of 1987 represents the milestone past which bipartisanship went into free fall.

It's certainly the fulcrum of this play's action. To sum up without getting cumbersome (a trait "The City of Conversation" doesn't entirely avoid), in 1979 Heather son's Colin is transforming himself from a young liberal firebrand to a Reagan conservative with the help of his wife Anna, a strong-minded young woman who takes a seat on the Washington merry-go-round more adroitly than her husband. Brought home fresh from study abroad at the London School of Economics, where she met Colin, she displays her moxie at a dinner party with Hester's beloved Chandler Harris and his Senate colleague George Mallonee. Her usefulness in the ascendancy of outsider conservatism, fueled by youthful energy, is confirmed. Heather already feels sidelined by what she takes to be a redneck regime after the glory days of Northeastern liberalism.

What emerges eight years later is a showdown between the peppery Hester and the savvy Anna over the Bork nomination. The production reminds us of the heavy artillery liberals brought to bear against Reagan's nominee with a recorded excerpt of Ted Kennedy's anti-Bork speech, which led an eventually successful charge against the nomination.

The TOTS production, directed by Jenni White, has its work cut out for it. The playwright borrows his title, we learn in the course of the play, from a description of Washington, D.C., by the novelist Henry James. This is a clue to Giardina's dialogue style, which has many Jamesian touches. It's not that he doesn't draw the characters realistically; it's simply that they tend to express themselves at the highest level of articulateness. The trouble with talky plays is that, however strongly the cast inhabits the characters and their motivations, their elaborate speeches can easily sink of their own weight.  Some of the pacing thus seems balky, and the cast is hard-pressed to match the emotional impact of what the characters have to say with their rhetoric.

Giardina is clearly trying to bring even millennials toward understanding the relevance of long-ago political celebrities and their causes. He is intense about detailing the personal costs that people often have to pay when they engage in political battles in which both careers and family life are at stake. There's a ton of name-dropping in the script, and it's packed into the dialogue in a clear attempt to indicate how the people you know and what they can do for or against you are all-important in Washington and its once-influential Georgetown section.

Shouldering most of these burdens creditably are Macy as Hester, Carey Shea as Colin and Colin's son Ethan as a young man, and Emily Bohn as Anna Fitzgerald. They have their hands full trying to keep Giardina's sparks flying. A long second-act dialogue between Hester and Anna takes forever to build (at least as seen Saturday night) and by its climax, the audience is likely to feel wrung out by all the liberal-conservative jousting for mortal stakes.

In that sense, there is a good deal of success to be credited to this production. Maybe we are supposed to feel wrung out, but in a dramatically positive way. Yet the turning point in this central battle is frankly melodramatic: private relationships blow up over public matters — a temptation of many fictional attempts to deal with capital controversies. On the plus side, the audience is likely to be grateful for an explosion so clearly defined after having to engage with so much talk leading up to it.

TOTS' choice of this play in our fraught political atmosphere makes sense, and a lot of its impact is certain to be the parallels audiences will naturally draw with the seemingly unbridgeable divides of the Trump Era. Sad!

Ball State jazz professor Scott Routenberg issues a fetching trio CD

Scott Routenberg
The "shuffle" button on any CD player I've owned goes untouched. With recordings, I'm pretty much a stickler for the chosen order, just as I am with books of short stories or volumes of poetry. I figured the authors (and people they trust, or editors who are paid to be trusted), have a reason for a particular order and believe that the work of art they are delivering is best appreciated in that order. The same with jazz CDs; with classical CDs, it's out of the question that multi-movement compositions should ever be subjected to "shuffle."

So, I must enter a quibble about the track order, and (in the case of one piece) even the inclusion of a particular track, of Scott Routenberg's excellent CD "Every End Is a Beginning" (Summit Records). The Ball State University professor has released here the work of his current trio, including drummer Cassius Goens III and bassist Nick Tucker, and  in every sense  I can recommend it heartily.

If explicit dedications to family members can be illuminating, I would like to have heard "Polyglot," a tribute to his multilingual wife, open the CD.  Its four cycling chords frame a lot of variety, including choruses in which a driving tempo is relieved by four-to-the-bar swing. It's the sort of piece that one can clearly see enfolds the complexities of one's life partner. And "Polyglot" is a fine introduction to the rapport of this quartet. I say this even though the coda, with bass and piano in a repeating frame of mind as Goens' drums drive mightily forward, seems too long. But it would be easier to take this as the opening track than it is in second place, where it rubs shoulders with the also relentless "Melt." The latter is a different kind of composition, more explicitly blues-based, but I'd like to hear it separated from "Polyglot."

That's why I think "Florian," dedicated to the composer's son, with its affectionate mood and simple high-register lyricism, would have been perfect in second place on the CD. "Polyglot" would make for a better introduction to this able group.

From that point comes a parade of pieces whose order is unexceptionable, notably the title track with its amiable, countryesque feeling and the elaborately "clocky" "Tempus Fugit." This is very adept trio playing, and writing that suits the personnel. As the disc moves toward its second half, there are some very striking pieces. The glinting verve of "Seven Shooting Stars," a good example of a fast tune with a stop-start theme that allows all three musicians place a premium on nimbleness, is capped by another one of those codas, but variations in the piano riff make the addenda seem more directed toward a goal.

Then comes "Embrace," just about perfect as a representation of ballad playing for piano trio. With Goens' sympathetic brushwork and a Tucker solo one would like to put in a gold frame, Routenberg spins out long, logical phrases with plenty of emotional impact behind them. The performance has a transparent, spacious quality. These musicians sound supremely patient with the material and with each other.

By reading the program notes, I gathered that two tracks away — ending the disc — was another ballad. "'White Veil' will have to be awfully good not to be overshadowed by 'Embrace," I said to myself. Well, it isn't, and I've listened to it a couple of times. It seems kind of "afterthoughty." It drifts pleasantly enough and has characteristic Routenberg touches, the kind of mulling over that allows all manner of prettiness to be mounted upon it.

The piece that comes in between — Björk's "Joga"—  is a wholly successful jazz appropriation of a modern pop tune. I like the richness of the patterning from all three players, especially Goens' drumming, which sounds roughly as if tissue paper had been placed on the heads. This choice and its arrangement amounts to an arresting departure that works well.

To sum up about track order: Either "Embrace" or "Joga" would have made a great ending to "Every End Is a Beginning." But maybe I ought to muse on that title some more.  For the time being, though, "White Veil" tempts me to hit that "shuffle" button to see if I could enjoy it more someplace else in the program. Otherwise, I will just have to get used to the given order, and the completeness, of what the Scott Routenberg Trio has provided.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Spoofing the vanity of opera singers, 'Too Many Sopranos" takes the stage at Butler ArtsFest

For the self-obsessed diva of legend, the phrase "too many sopranos" translates to "two sopranos." The outsize egos of women (and men) gifted with extraordinary advantages in the vocal department have long been part of the international opera scene. Fandom has fed them. Just as President Trump likes to speak of "my military," a diva may well talk about "my Carmen," "my Traviata," etc. And she doesn't just mean how she does the leading role. She means the whole production.

Eddy and Macdonald: Icons made fun of in "Too Many Sopranos."
There is room for just one luminary at a time in the estimation of many stars — and their fans. The castrati of the 17th and 18th centuries attracted maniacal devotion. One aristocratic lady added to acclaim for one of them with the near-blasphemous shout: "One God, one Farinelli!"

The stories are legion. Richard Tucker upbraided a newspaper interviewer who claimed to be a big fan for insufficient representation of the tenor's discography in his record collection. "You are not a true Tucker fan," sniffed the feisty bantam from Brooklyn. And then there are the schedule-shattering star indispositions: a critic of my acquaintance once joked that he used to think "Teresa Stratas" was Greek for "to be announced."

"Too Many Sopranos" is an operatic confection shifting this interplay of egos to the hereafter. In Butler Opera Theatre's current production at the Schrott Center for the Arts, the student cast goes full bore into the caricature portrayals — particularly the sopranos I saw opening night Friday: Julia Gries as Dame Doleful, Whitney Cleveland as Miss Titmouse, Chloe Boelter as Madame Pompous and Andrea Tulipana as Just Jeanette.

With music by Edwin Penhorwood and libretto by Miki Lynn, "Too Many Sopranos" involves the divas' deal with St. Peter to recruit more men for the heavenly choir so that the ladies can each have the niche in paradise they so richly deserve. They are charged with going down to hell to rescue male singers, who tend to disproportionately end up below. To be successful, that effort will require one selfless act — a tall order for the egotistical divas. Laurel Goetzinger directs the show, drawing from her singers performances that do justice to both their voice types and the characters' individuality. James Caraher is the program's artistic and music director.

The rivalries made explicit in the first act seem to draw upon the pitched battle for pre-eminence between Madamoiselle Silberklang and Madame Herz in Mozart's "Impresario."  And in the second act, when a sweet romance that's blossomed between Just Jeanette and Nelson Deadly promises to fulfill the selfless-act requirement, they have to undergo a trial of their worthiness, like Tamino and Pamina in "The Magic Flute."

But "Too Many Sopranos" is borderline farce, and Nelson and Jeanette simply must stay awake for an hour while listening to
Did actors nod off when he spoke?: Orson Welles, director.
the droning instructions of Orson, a stage director whom Penhorwood and Lynn have probably assigned to hell to settle personal scores. The character names underline the satirical and cultural resonance of the show, particularly when photos of Orson Welles, Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy are projected on the backdrop.

Tulipana's Jeanette is fully invested in the ingenue portrayal, with a certain sparkle in her facial expressions and both sincerity and clarity in her singing. The other divas are sometimes stunning in ensemble and occasionally so in solo passages as well. Cleveland tosses off the coloratura type with flashes of brilliance. Boelter, with very explicit costuming boosts, has the stateliness and ferocity of Brunnhilde. Gries projected the gloomy charisma of any number of tragic opera heroines. I did think, however, that when Dame Doleful sang of her signature "moaning and sighing," we could have had a touch of the estimable Joan Sutherland's moaningly blurred diction, but that's not an easy trait to imitate.

Alana Jones measured up in a crucial supporting role as the Sandman, and Sarah Miller was amusing as an off-pitch, eye-candy soprano warbling "Caro nome" from 'Rigoletto" into the ears of a long-suffering tenor, Enrico Carouser,  costumed as the Duke of Mantua, nicely portrayed by Benjamin Holbrook. Other men taking care of the comic business and singing well were Patrick Lord-Bemmert as a Mephistophelean bass envious of tenors, Malachi White in a flowery impersonation of an Eddyesque tenor, and Jeremiah Marcele Sanders as the commanding figure of St. Peter, a role also involving a large portion of spoken dialogue.

Sung text is projected in surtitles, which is helpful. The sets (by Bart Simpson)  for heaven and hell are neatly coordinated with Cathy Sipe's evocative lighting design.  Guy Clark's costumes flesh out the operatic and otherworldly visual cliches that are vital in putting across the amusing superficiality of the story and its satirical thrust.

The music, conducted with elan by Matthew Kraemer,  is voice-friendly and true to the operatic styles that "Too Many Sopranos" subjects to mockery.  The small orchestra supports the singers efficiently, with flecks of wittiness throughout. Penhorwood's music in the second act is excessively dependent on tango numbers, however, or maybe upon that Argentine dance's close relative, the habanera. Carmen, who sings the most famous habanera in opera, is spared the work's satire; there are apparently not too many mezzos in heaven. But then, one of the most flamboyant Carmens was the soprano Maria Callas.

Stereotypes have a nagging persistence about them. This show has a lot of fun with that perennial fact and its manifestations in the world of opera..

Friday, April 14, 2017

Am I sensitive about aging? Only when someone two years younger than I is called "aged" — this is a kind of protest song

An aged, aged man Last night I wasn’t dreaming when I heard a lawyer vow To get due justice from United For his client, Dr. Dao. For his client, Dr. Dao. That battered doctor on the plane Is all of sixty-nine; So when his lawyer called him “aged” Some of his pain was mine, Some of his pain was mine. The word burned in my hairy ears, And through my brain did run: With “aged,” death had found his sting, For I am seventy-one, For I am seventy-one. Next time I fly, please keep an eye On a passenger soon to be “late”; Don’t leave that aged, aged man A-sitting at the gate. A-sitting at the gate. He’ll muse upon the White Knight’s song That’s known as “Haddock’s Eyes” And plead with youngsters everywhere: Don’t scorn, empathize! Don’t scorn, empathize!

Anne Mette Iversen expands quartet to get two horns in the front line for "Round Trip"

Out in the open: Anne Mette Iversen with her quartet.
The most striking thing immediately about "Round Trip" (BJU Records) is that bandleader-bassist Anne Mette Iversen eschews the usual way of combining trombone and tenor sax in a small group. Typically such a presentation is muscular with the two horns acting as a phalanx, warm and assertive.

In "Round Trip" Iversen has Peter Dahlgren on trombone to play lines typically in counterpoint with the sax— freewheeling, sometimes joined at the hip, sometimes not. This provides an unexpected openness to the ensemble, signaled right off the bat by the title tune. Dahlgren is the "+ 1" filling out the ensemble known here as the Anne Mette Iversen Quartet +1, whose other members besides the leader are John Ellis, tenor saxophone; Danny Grissett, piano, and Otis Brown III, drums.

Iversen's originals don't allow the ears to settle into any particular combination among the five musicians. Trombone and drums get "Segue" under way, and after Ellis' and (outstandingly) Grissett's solo, the piece moves into exchanges between piano and tenor sax. Ellis' ease in all registers gets extensive display in the rubato opening of "Wiinstedt's View," a floating ballad featuring Dahlgren's poised, at-home-up-high trombone.

The bassist imparts to her group an open feeling through her writing. In "December Light," the unison line etched by the horns blossoms into a feeling of reaching out as the piece proceeds. There's a sense of throwing off constraints without the need to go "outside" as far as harmony and articulation are concerned. A rare solo by the leader distinguishes "Scala," in which everyone moves together as an ensemble. The Iversen showcase is well-placed: "Scala" is Italian for "ladder," and of the instruments involved here, the double bass most resembles a fretless (or rungless) ladder.

There's sly wit behind the title of "The Ballad That Would Not Be," insofar as the music seems to be reaching toward a ballad that's never fully formed. A long piano solo toys with this burgeoning idea, and would try the patience if the title hadn't already disarmed criticism. "Red Hairpins" closes the disc; it's the longest piece, with heavy percussion display from Brown over a laconic piano riff. The ensemble re-enters with some brisk staccato statements, and before you know it, the Anne Mette Iversen Quartet + 1 has made a graceful exit.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Laurence Hobgood and two young colleagues play a fascinating trio set at the Jazz Kitchen

A commanding presence at the keyboard, Laurence Hobgood is not otherwise much given to commandments. Distinguished
Besides his activity as a gigging pianist, Laurence Hobgood devotes much time to writing.
for collaboration as an arranger and composer, the Chicago-based pianist was long known as the artistic right-hand man to the singer Kurt Elling. One is not concerned with handing down stone tablets when one consistently has "plays well with others" checked off on the report card.

Hobgood borrowed Ten Commandments language for last year's trio release, "Honor Thy Fathers," taking it on a Midwestern tour that brought him and two young sidemen to the Jazz Kitchen Wednesday night. The title indicates the series of tributes the CD contains to mentors, often pianists, who have been available to Hobgood either personally or by reputation and recordings. In the long set he offered with colleagues Ben Ralston on bass and Stephen Boegehold on drums, the pianist invariably passed his homages through a personal creative filter.

For example, he prefaced a performance of "Give Me the Simple Life" with a brief demonstration of how Oscar Peterson used to play it in the Canadian's signature manner of juggernaut swing. Then Hobgood proceeded to offer a much different approach, not nearly as thick-textured as Peterson's, with a touch of bitonality and, after the bass solo, a long coda in which the trio shifted into a loping meter evoking cowboy songs, in an obvious nod to the song title.

Speaking of (and through) other genres than jazz, Hobgood is invariably fluent. He declared his loyalty to jazz updates of the post-Great-American-Songbook repertoire before using a reflective opening cadenza to set up the trio's performance of "Wichita Lineman," one of  Glen Campbell's huge hits.

It's likely that Hobgood's rapport with the late Charlie Haden stemmed from his openness to musical traditions outside the jazz mainstream. One of the Jazz Kitchen set's most attractive pieces was "The Road Home," a tribute to the bassist who embraced both his country musical roots and the post-bop avant garde.

"The Road Home" has a strong, funky bass line (thundered out nicely by Hobgood and Ralston) underlying a tune that rolls out like a country ballad. Hobgood's tribute insight is well-grounded: In some sense, all of Charlie Haden derives from his solo on "Ramblin'" with Ornette Coleman in 1960's "The Change of the Century." He quotes, or at least paraphrases, "Ol' Dan Tucker" near the end of this solo, and the reference amounts almost to an artistic credo, in light of the bassist's subsequent career.

Other tributes using other artists' tunes had the same independence. Stevie Wonder's "If It's Magic" was treated to a lickety-split treatment, fully engaged with the tune but very much tailored to this trio's virtuosity. Ralston tossed off some great fast-walking accompaniment, and Boegehold contributed a typically protean solo.

Hobgood seems to like long codas, and they have the effect of extending the affection offered by his statements and elaboration of the main theme. The tribute to Ahmad Jamal focused on "Poinciana," the nimble version that stands out for most people from the best-selling "Live at the Pershing" LPs.  The trio continued its creative approach through all the repetitive figures of the coda, keyed to more adept drumming by Boegehold. Nat "King" Cole was saluted with a soaring version of "Straighten Up and Fly Right."

And in this time when so many are seeking "Sanctuary," the trio offered Hobgood's hymnlike composition of the same name. The tune itself opened its arms wide, and the trio's dynamic shading was admirable. Hobgood casts a wide net, and the catch is abundant.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Dame Evelyn Glennie, a percussionist with a unique story, is guest artist at Butler ArtsFest

Evelyn Glennie last appeared in Indianapolis in 1998.
The nature of musical performance as focusing on keen hearing is self-evident. The career of Dame Evelyn Glennie is a testament to a larger meaning of music as tactile and spiritual. Given the swift, progressive loss of her hearing as a child (total since age 12), she found a way to distinguish herself as a percussionist, expanding the very idea of hearing, and keeping her artistry before a worldwide public.

Almost 20 years ago, her performance of "Veni Veni Emamanuel" with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra acquainted me with the special magnetism of a Glennie performance. The piece is by her Scots countryman James MacMillan.

For her second visit to Indianapolis, Glennie played the composer's transcription of Jennifer Higdon's 2005 Percussion Concerto with the Butler University Wind Ensemble. (Colin Currie played the original version with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which co-commissioned it, about a dozen years ago.)

The work calls for the soloist to show a range of tone control as it starts with a marimba cadenza. The transition to vibraphone
was arresting as the ensemble joined in. Directed by Michael Colburn, the performance spotlighted the charismatic zest typical of Glennie's performances.

Performing barefoot and relying on the senses of sight and touch to fill in the gap left by her auditory deficiency, Glennie is capable of not only keeping her rhythms precise — her dialogue with the percussion section at midpoint was thrilling — but varying as well dynamics and tone color. An outsize cadenza on tuned drums moved the performance of Higdon's concerto to a climax.

Before Dame Evelyn came to the Schrott Center stage, Colburn conducted a performance of Gustav Holst's strolling "Hammersmith: Prelude and Scherzo," op. 52, that proved to be an aptly conservative program companion to the Higdon concerto.

The first half opened with another illustration of the program title "Dialogues, Debates, and Dichotomies" with the stinging, somewhat facetious energy of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Overture to "The Wasps." The Frank M. Hudson transcription was wholly winning and idiomatic as performed by the large contingent of student musicians.

For the concert's other 21st-century representation, the ensemble played Steven Bryant's involving suite inspired by the poetry of W.B. Yeats, "Ecstatic Waters." The piece proceeds from an evocation of primordial nature, keyed to the lower instrumental voices, and proceeds to a tense stage of conflict with technology. There's a lot of musical chatter, eventually yielding to a clarinet solo that brings in a steady pulse under the ensemble, fused to computer sounds. In the long run, flute sonorities cap the piece and the calm of Yeats' "Spiritus Mundi" achieves some sort of synthesis of the contest between nature and technology.

"Dialogues, Debates, and Dichotomies" had more than alliteration to offer in upholding the mission of the annual Butler ArtsFest.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Drew Petersen wins the 2017 American Pianists Awards' DeHaan Fellowship

Drew Petersen, winner of the 2017 Christel DeHaan Fellowship.
The  2017 American Pianists Awards' top prize — carrying a $50,000 cash prize and entailing much career assistance over the next two years as Christel DeHaan Fellow of the American Pianists Association — went Saturday night to Drew Petersen, a 23-year-old from Oradell, New Jersey,  and a master's degree candidate at the Juilliard School. The announcement capped two days of "Gala Finals" with five candidates for the award each playing a major concerto.

After three public series of events over the past seven months, Petersen and four other young pianists were assessed by three juries, culminating in Discovery Week, which included a new-music recital, a song recital, and chamber-music performances in addition to the concerto evenings at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Petersen impressed me with a strongly projected performance of the commissioned work, Judith Lang Zaimont's "Attars" on Tuesday night at the University of Indianapolis (which now gets to call him artist-in-residence starting in September).

At Christ Church Cathedral on Wednesday, he gave a superb account of a two-movement Beethoven sonata (No. 22 in F major, op. 54) that displayed an astute individualism with integrity and insight. Even more impressive were the heights to which he and the Pacifica Quartet took Franck's Piano Quintet in F minor at the same concert.

Most daring and commanding of all was Petersen's playing of Prokofiev's thorny Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra on Friday, playing under the direction of Gerard Schwarz.

Though he approached everything he played with evidence of thorough preparation, there never seemed to be anything rote or mechanical about his playing. He should confer further honor upon this splendid Indianapolis artistic tradition.