Monday, June 26, 2017

Stagger Lee was one kind of legendary rascal, Jared Kushner is another

2017 Early Music Festival caps its opening weekend with music of three faiths from medieval Spain

Conspicuous signs of past tolerance in one place across the three Abrahamic religions are eagerly cultivated in today's cultural climate. Many people look for models of this kind of thing, rare though they may be.

Another configuration of the Peabody Consort, with director Mark Cudek playing a hand drum.
Without becoming overtly political about it, the Peabody Consort put together a program focusing on the example of King Alfonso X of Castile, known as "El Sabio" (the Wise) in large part for his cultural magnanimity. 

In the latter half of Moorish settlement in the Iberian peninsula, Alfonso reigned from 1242 to 1284. His court assembled "Cantigas de Santa Maria," a large anthology of songs to the Virgin Mary. The king also promoted scholarship in Toledo to explore and preserve the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish cultural heritage represented among his subjects.

Selections from the cantigas were the linchpin of the Peabody Consort's concert for the Early Music Festival. Both the musicians and the organization are directed by Mark Cudek, who participated mostly on several percussion instruments. His colleagues were Brian Kay, oud, and Niccolo Seligmann, vielle, playing relatives of the lute and the fiddle, respectively, and a notably stylish and expressive soprano, Julie Bosworth. 

Guest artist Daphna Mor filled out the ensemble on recorders and ney, an end-blown Middle Eastern flute played at an angle. Kay and Mor also sang one piece each: Kay's performance of a nostalgic Arab song, "Nassam Alayna el-Hawa," was a concert highlight, as was Mor's vocal solo in a Jewish holy song of praise, "Tsur Mishelo."

The chiaroscuro effect of vocal and instrumental music gave extra color to the carefully organized program. The cantigas segment showed some of this music's range, with Steven Rickards' Echoing Air Vocal Ensemble supporting Bosworth in the refrains. 

Their pure, floating vocal timbre as a group perfectly complemented the soloist's more penetrating lyrical agility, exquisitely phrased. Her mastery of the intricate lines in "Cristo e nato" by Laudario di Cortona and the challenging range of the Arabic love song "Mwashsha" were just two demonstrations of her integral value to Peabody Consort music-making.

Cudek arranged for three local readers to put music from each religious tradition in context and then read relevant prose or poetry. The Rev. Robert A. Schilling read Gonzalo de Berceo's comical, didactic parable of "The Inebriated Monk"; Michael Toulouse read a rapturous poem full of sensuous detail by the Muhyi al-din Muhammad ibn Ali ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240); Cantor Judy Meyersberg enthralled the Indiana History Center audience with the ecstatic spirituality of "The Soul," by Moshe ibn Ezra, who died about 1138.

The program featured many opportunities to appreciate the control and flair of their instruments by Kay, Seligmann, and Mor.  The finale, an exuberant narrative hailing the birth of Abraham from the Jewish perspective, soared in the refrains — joined by everyone onstage plus some members of the audience. The first half had ended with similar exultation in a ballad, with oud, vielle, and recorder solos tucked in, of St. Basil's resistance to  threats by the Roman emperor known as Julian the Apostate. 

Apostasy comes in for divine retribution in all three faiths covered in this program. I wouldn't doubt that everywhere you look, you can find common themes in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but rarely outlined as entertainingly as in this concert.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

BOBDIREX production of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame": Ringing the changes on diversity and acceptance in medieval Paris

However adept the Disney organization has proved over decades of storytelling, sometimes the moral clarity of the result,
Jacob Butler lends overwhelming pathos to the title role.
particularly in the animated, full-length features, can be too glaring. Yet dividing the world into good people and bad people is seductive when we tell stories, as we keep discovering in the "good-guy-with-a-gun" simplifications of today's raging Second Amendment debate.

Adapted for the stage with real people in the roles, as BOBDIREX is now doing in its annual production at Marian University, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" preserves the broad, heavily outlined representation of the Disney film characters: The bell-ringer, marginalized and mocked because of birth deformities, learns courage; the intrepid "queen" of medieval Paris' despised gypsies who helps nurture his feelings of worth even as she gains his trust by opposing his protector, a corrupt and concupiscent representative of both the law and the church.

These three characters are all sturdily portrayed in the second-night performance I saw Saturday night. Jacob Butler is outstanding as the hunchback Quasimodo, brought up in cathedral isolation and shedding his submissiveness with difficulty to assert his full humanity in song and dramatic stature. Bill Book is his protector and nemesis Frollo, the archdeacon of the Notre Dame cathedral, driven by a need to control that turns sociopathic. Shelbi Berry plays Esmeralda, prize trickster and entertainer of the furtive gypsy population, blending pixieish charm and a ferocious drive toward justice and dignity.
Esmeralda wows the crowd at the Feast of Fools.

Director Bob Harbin seems always to get powerful actor-singers in the main roles. But he is also Indianapolis theater's Cecil B. DeMille, with touches of Robert Altman. He has a history of getting large casts, solidly accompanied, to put across shows with swirling coordination and a degree of commitment that approaches spontaneity in effect, even though it has been carefully prepared. With choral oomph applied to some of the show's music by conductor Trevor Fanning's facility at developing choruses (he's on the faculty at Cathedral High School), the atmosphere of the medieval church flourishes on a plausible fantasy level.

The flexible, idiomatic, to-the-point songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz help hold the narrative together. The pit band displayed both heft and subtlety. The production's amplification was a little overpowering in the full-voice ensemble numbers, but otherwise both spoken dialogue and songs for soloists and small groups came through well. With essential assistance from the costumes, the choreography (Stuart Coleman) particularly in the Feast of Fools revelry early in the first act, brims with razzle-dazzle and a well-managed intricacy that suits the ensemble's range of body types.

Clerical errors: Frollo seeks divine help in a dubious cause.
Among those appearing in supporting roles to particularly strong effect was  Keith Potts as Clopin, master of the revels, gypsy honcho, and the story's most prominent narrator. You felt you were always in good story-telling hands with Potts' Clopin leading the way. Logan Moore plays the stalwart army captain Phoebus, who, believably entranced by Esmeralda, is gradually won over to the small, undeterred opposition to Frollo. His tenderness about the wound he had suffered in a second-act fight was inconsistent, however. Heroism, once it clings to a character, seems to rise above all hurts, I guess.

The Gargoyles, those decorative cathedral sculptures of grotesque mien, function according to Disneyan whimsy as prodding friends of Quasimodo, who alone is able to talk with them and see them as animate beings. With adept costuming simulating their stony bodies, these amusing companions at the cathedral's summit received lusty, droll portrayals by Curtis Peters, Matt Rohrer, and April Armstrong-Thomas.

Some of the fantasy elements the story requires work well in this production without elaborate technology: the flash and burst of brief fire indicates that gypsy sorcery has been applied where needed. The staging of (spoiler alert!) Frollo's dispatch off the Notre Dame roof was managed well without advanced gimmickry; on the other hand, Quasimodo's rescue of the condemned Esmeralda was a little too understated and low-key, given the flashiness of the production as the whole — you had to imagine why Quasimodo really needed that bell-rope.

Though the story leans toward simplified problems and solutions, it's enthralling every step of the way. When it comes to emotional nuance, I found the scenes in which Esmeralda and Frollo confront each other electrifying. There are dark sides to both characters (not just the archdeacon) as well as humanity (not just the gypsy). Book and Berry were equal to offering characterizations as rounded  as the script allows. So many of the griefs other people harbor are hidden in our interactions with them; Frollo and Esmeralda come face-to-face with the grief behind each other's bristling facade.

In a Franz Kafka letter I happened to read just before attending "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," he writes: "...if I were to cast myself down before you and weep and tell you [my griefs,] what more would you know about me than you know about hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful. For that reason alone we human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to hell." This arresting sentiment is oddly embodied  in Esmeralda's canniness, compassion and instinct for self-preservation, set against Frollo's studied uprightness (at war with his lust) and mania for control. These qualities crackled in the performances of Berry and Book.

Both Esmeralda and Frollo stand before the hell in the other person, a hell that's more "hot and dreadful" in the archdeacon than in the gypsy. Only one of them can be the salvation of the hunchback, and it has to be the one for whom hell is kept more at bay. Some happy endings are not as clear-cut as Disney storytelling would like them to be. Even so, Quasimodo retains more of a vision of heaven at the end, thanks to the moral imbalance between Esmeralda and Frollo. The positions of all three with respect to one another are superbly realized in this intense, full-hearted production.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Cincinnati Opera's 'Frida': Artist who represents much to so many wanted only to represent herself truly

Outstanding portrayal: Catalina Cuervo as Frida.
In a pre-performance talk about his opera "Frida" Friday night in Cincinnati, Robert Xavier Rodriguez identified the appeal of his subject across a spectrum that doesn't necessarily include opera buffs: the feminist, visual arts, LGBT, leftist, Latino (specifically Mexican), and disabled communities all claim a piece of the Frida Kahlo phenomenon.

Rodriguez's 1991 musical survey of the artist's life (1907-1954) transcends these pigeonholes, fortunately, even while it benefits from association with them. Importing a Michigan Opera Theatre production to the Jarson-Kaplan Theater at the Aronoff Center, Cincinnati Opera displayed this transcendence mainly in the performance of Catalina Cuervo in the title role. Whenever you can make a deeply flawed character lovable onstage, you've achieved something special.

Cuervo displayed a strong voice in all registers, leaning with special vividness toward her lower range. She was steadily thrilling as she sang, but she also mastered the dramatic requirements in her spoken voice and folded both kinds of vocalism into a full-size charisma. She was complemented in her portrayal by the larger-than-life performance of baritone Ricardo Herrera as Diego Rivera, thus presenting a double portrait of the 20th century's most fascinating couple in the arts. Who can compare? F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were sozzled suburbanites in comparison, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner victims in different ways of ruthless art ideology and marketing.

 Diego Rivera (Ricardo Herrera)  holds forth
Rivera remains the artist of broader genius, which "Frida" commendably acknowledges. But she never settled into a role as "Mrs. Rivera," even from the time she first set her sights on the already famous master. Separating herself from her dutiful peers early as a schoolgirl, in one of the opera's many clearly drawn scenes, Frida Kahlo overcame both the handicap of polio and  horrifying injuries in a bus-tram collision to wring art out of both her extraordinary intelligence and the richness of her emotional and sensuous life. Intimate connection with Mexico's most celebrated artist was a cornerstone of her hard-won progress.

Frida's striking imagery — so much narrower and more personal than Rivera's in large part — is tellingly communicated in the hypnotically compelling stage picture (Monika Essen's design). The tangle of dead tree branches, the anatomical detail of breasts and heart, the monkeys, a giant moth, and a large weeping eye dominate the set in perfect balance.

Conceived in two acts encompassing 13 scenes, "Frida" inevitably has aspects of "A Beginner's Guide to Frida Kahlo," which may tempt some in attendance to wonder if they are witnessing a stage version of a PBS documentary. Rodriguez's roiling music and its embrace of so many styles, from opera to Broadway, from folk music to cabaret, are part of the reason "Frida" escapes such limitations.

In addition to a harvest of blatant ensemble verve, the small orchestra, conducted smartly by Andres Cladera, delivers bouquets of piquant solos, with instrumentation tweaked toward the vernacular with the inclusion of prominent parts for Spanish guitar and accordion.

The quality of the performances, mainly Cuervo's, completes the assurance that we are not just witnessing a lively checklist of Kahlo episodes: Her radicalism, her health challenges, her liaison with Rivera, the couple's contrasting responses to Rivera's American opportunities, the infidelity on both sides, involvement on entirely different footings with the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and the American film star/art collector Edward G. Robinson. Jose Maria Condemi's fluent stage direction is largely responsible for knitting the narrative together.

Masked dancers, calaveras stylized after Day of the Dead traditions, open the show and are later vital components of Frida's post-accident aria, "Death dances around my body at night." Frida remains heroically resistant to allowing her near-constant pain and visions of death to limit her ambition or energy, much of it sexual as well as artistic.

Diego (third from left) succumbs to the allure of New York as his wife resists it.
There are strong anthemic renditions of folk-like ensemble songs, notably "Viva Zapata" early in the opera, suggesting the challenge to Rivera's position on the Mexican left that prompted him to work abroad. Satirical numbers also pop up in the explicit manner of Broadway, such as the breezy self-involvement of the New York beau monde, capped by advice the show's Rockefeller gives to the artist: "Let your art tell the people what we want them to think."

Frida's pushback against this directive is more explicit than her husband's. She wears a lavishly colorful traditional dress and headpiece to a formal party and parries socialite comments snarkily. Diego's subtler resistance involves his inclusion of a portrait of Lenin in an expansive mural painting commissioned for Rockefeller Center that was canceled unfinished. (Though his objecting benefactor is not explicitly identified in "Frida," it was future New York governor and U.S. vice president Nelson Rockefeller.)

Worth noting about Friday's performance in addition to the starring couple is the excellence of Benjamin Lee as Alejandro, Frida's first lover, and the poignantly isolated and libidinously needy Trotsky, and Reilly Nelson as Lupe Marin, Rivera's  peppery, sensual and eventually discarded second wife as he solemnizes his soul-mate attraction to Frida in effervescent nuptials.

Whatever the decline in mutual commitment that was to come subsequently, this potpourri of musical-stage richness makes it unmistakably clear that Diego and Frida were perpetually meant for each other — in their tumultuous world and the one beyond. "Frida" memorializes handsomely a unique contribution to modern world art. So let Kahlo be iconic to various communities; she resists compartmentalization. Her overall significance goes well past any such sorting out. This opera is ample testament to that.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

Friday, June 23, 2017

'The Golem of Havana': The imagination and moral choice confront national crisis

Reminders that art is not just a leisure activity or an outlet for self-expression are always welcome. With stunning effect, "The Golem of Havana" delivers an assertion that art may be crucial to survival — both physical and aspirational.
Rebecca reads from her booklet to the distracted Maria.

Rebecca, born in Havana to Jewish parents who escaped the Holocaust, is a young teen caught up in her artistic imagination applying the folkloric figure of the golem to superhero adventures. The graphic novel she's created represents the concrete expression of her adaptation, but the spiritual resonance of the golem for her becomes all-important in the Phoenix Theatre's production of a musical set in 1958 Cuba.

The 24th of July Revolution is about to sweep away the old order just as Pinchas Frankel, a tailor forced to flee wartime Hungary with his wife, Yutka, is poised to establish his own shop. Their lives are complicated unforeseeably by the involvement of their maid Maria's son, Teo, in the revolutionary cause. Rebecca's idealism about life and art inevitably draws her to the young fighter on the run, and the family is sucked  into a national maelstrom.

With a book by Michel Hausmann and music and lyrics by Salomon Lerner and Len Schif, "The Golem of Havana" offers a cohesive view of history's grip on questions of personal and family success. Directed by Bryan Fonseca, the cast smoothly melds ensemble and individual songs and dialogue to tell the story. Rebecca's golem is represented as a hulking, humanlike figure, traditionally conceived of as made out of clay or earth, that pops up from time to time in projections (by Izzy Rae Brown) of the girl's drawings. It focuses Rebecca's belief outside traditional religion that a protective spirit can be appealed to and may solve real-world problems.

The bromance of Pinchas and Arturo proves to be fragile.
The golem's success in this show is decidedly mixed, just as the benefits and evils of the Fulgencio Batista regime were followed by the benefits and evils of Fidel Castro's victory. The effects of that earth-shaking change have been a major Western Hemisphere preoccupation of the United States since 1959. Moral clarity in the show goes up to the point of reinforcing family unity and the virtue of courage, but not much further.

The songs are supported in this show by a five-piece band placed above and behind the set. Bernie Killian has created a simple, evocative set, with a Cuban-tile patterned floor backed by a row of Romanesque arches to form an arcade, which is a secondary playing space, along with an area representing a back room in the Frankel apartment. The accompaniment was varied, colorful, and often brash. Well-projected as it was, it occasionally covered the singers; spoken cues were sometimes audible on opening night. Laura Glover's lighting was eloquent in rendering both sunshine and shadow, the reality that glares and the reality shrouded in mystery.

Accepting a cigar from a dictator has consequences.
The girlish charm that Lydia Burke brought to the role of Rebecca was consistently appealing. I kept wrestling with the notion that she looked a little too old for the part. This may have to do with a nagging hunch I had that the show's creators thought of Rebecca as a reincarnation of Anne Frank. There was the same awakening toward maturity, a warm sympathy for humanity, an unquenchable idealism — and a need to record it all. The Frank family's years of hiding in Amsterdam spanned their diarist daughter's ages of 13 to 15; late adolescence is a different world. The similarity of last names reinforced my impression, with another name chiming in: that of Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of "Man's Search for Meaning." If there's anything dominating Rebecca's character and artistic obsessions, it's her search for meaning.

The wounded Teo ponders his next step.
But in a world where middle-aged actresses can believably (sometimes) play Shakespeare's Juliet, I must set these minor misgivings aside. Burke owned the role: Her singing tugged at the heartstrings, and she seemed to understand the character as resting on a fulcrum with naivete on one side, indomitability on the other.

One of the strongest  numbers in the show was a trio for Rebecca, her father Pinchas, and Maria. Eric J. Olson's Pinchas and Teneh B.C. Karimu's Maria were also consistently well-sung and played insightfully. Olson conveyed the tailor's perseverance  and trusting nature sympathetically. His duets with his Cuban friend Arturo (an exuberant Carlos Medina Maldonado) were among the show's other musical highlights.

Karimu registered the pain of Maria's constant anxiety about the well-being of her son, off fighting in the Sierra Maestra range and in constant danger. Her address to the gods of her heritage, drawn out because of her rapport with the questing Rebecca, had the ring of authenticity about it. That cultural foundation was echoed and completed by her son Teo in a scene with Rebecca. Ray Hutchins plays Teo with the kind of bitter resolve out of which revolutionaries are made (and which enables them to accept its atrocities). Teo's honoring of his mother's faith is a pro forma matter, but Hutchins put it across as part of the young soldier's essential connection to his people.

As Yutka, an even more conflicted character, Lori Ecker had the right haunted quality; the circumstances of her sister's loss to the Nazi takeover of Hungary weigh on her. The character is complex in ways that the show's creators draw out in an unsettlingly shorthand way, but Ecker made sense of it all.

Paul Nicely should also be mentioned for his suave, subtly menacing performance as Batista. Pinchas rises surely enough, thanks to Arturo, to get the assignment of fitting the dictator for a new suit. Their scene together had a finely strained camaraderie to it Thursday.

Pinchas' ascent to a high-status opportunity on the eve of the regime's collapse symbolizes the mixed blessings the golem of Havana bestows. It's a figure enlivened by Rebecca's devotion and artistic skill, but off the page never subject to her control. Her fashioning of this god of the household in both images and narrative is achievement enough. That's what art does, and it's no small thing.

[Photos by Ed Stewart]

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

"The Trial": Franz Kafka's incomplete novel is nicely rounded off by Philip Glass's music in Opera Theatre of St. Louis production

The Philip Glass compositional procedure — which he concisely sums up as "music
Joseph K.'s upended world in "The Trial" pauses for a portrait.
of repetitive structures" — seems a natural fit for the worldview of Franz Kafka. The short-lived Jewish citizen of Prague, who wrote in German, defined the cryptic, justice-challenged dilemmas of modern life for the 20th century in fiction with the force and mystery of parables.

Glass felt he should someday write an opera based on "The Trial" shortly after first reading it 60 years ago. The Opera Theatre of St. Louis production, an American premiere, confirms that affinity. The naturalness, the "everydayness," of Glass's music — its buoyancy, its dogged continuity, its jog-trot tempos, its textural variety — suit Kafka, with one big difference: "The story is so dark that you can't tell it that way," Glass is quoted as saying in the June issue of St. Louis Magazine. "It has to be burlesqued."

The original, private readers of "The Trial" are said to have found it hilarious. Glass and his librettist, Christopher Hampton, plumbed the story's depth and pulled the mockery to the surface, originally on a four-company commission that premiered in 2014. The OTSL production, directed by Michael McCarthy, picks up and amplifies that interpretation expertly.

The score is a soundtrack, a tapestry lying behind the isolation of Joseph K., the assistant manager at a bank, from everything he took for granted in his life, down to the landlady who always brought him his breakfast. The performance I saw Saturday night, suavely conducted by Carolyn Kwan, had to deal with some absences in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra that layered unscripted absurdity upon the intended kind: The most evident substitution had repetiteur Adam Nielsen at the piano laying down the work's opening pattern instead of the score's cello. But the coordination with the stage was so acute, and the work of the replacement musicians so creditable, that no sign of anything amiss came across to the audience. 

The ability of this "Trial" to rise above any sudden difficulties was centered on the performance of Theo Hoffman as Joseph K. We anticipate that the solidly placed citizen of an unnamed city is about to experience disruption when we first see him flopping briefly and spasmodically toward wakefulness at daybreak. We guess, correctly, that Hoffman is going to embody Kafka's hapless hero down to his fingertips. And yet he is also Everyman. A lot of us wake up this way, after all: a few twitches, a thrusting out of arms and legs from beneath the covers, the head raised jerkily, the eyes blinking into alertness.

Joseph K. in his nightshirt tries to deal with two arresting officers.
Hoffman connects this initial impression so smoothly to the anxiety that is about to engulf Joseph K. that we are uncomfortably and unswervingly sympathetic to him. It starts with his first shock of the day: his arrest by two stout minor court officers, inspired in this production perhaps by Mack Sennett comedies, complete with handlebar mustaches and risible officiousness. (Other characters later appear in phony beards out of the silent-film era.) We remain caught up in Hoffman's brilliant portrait of a bright fellow, comfortable with who he is and at first suspecting a co-workers' joke, thrown into totally murky circumstances. 

He moves with hyperactive, ineffectual curiosity, becoming acquainted with the apparent ubiquity of a justice system that has trapped and confounded him. And so he remains until his final swift demise at the system's functionaries. Just before that, after asking himself a series of sensible questions, in the novel Joseph K. concludes: "Logic is doubtless unshakable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living."  Hoffman was that man, finding the emotional core of the piece throughout. He  displayed a well-projected, scrupulously phrased baritone that never wavered among all Joseph K.'s adventures. The will to live is absolute; only his logic fails him.

The hero at every turn encounters people who know more than he does, or at least want to give him that impression. The droll fellows who arrest him are played and sung with fizz by Joshua Blue and Robert Mellon. They are typical of the rest of the cast in also being required to take on other roles: Mellon presents with stunning finality the absurdity of K.'s situation as the Priest in the opera's climactic cathedral scene. And Blue is a bundle of feckless energy as the groveling businessman Block.

 A femme fatale on his lap leaves Joseph K. still clueless.
As in dreams, people whom Joseph K. recognizes in one context have to be accepted as looking eerily just like someone else encountered in another. These singers were unfailing in carrying out the chameleon changes on and around Simon Banham's bland yet imposing set. It's basically a large squeezed diamond shape center stage, backed by a gray wall with hidden openings through which both crucial and trivial vignettes play from time to time. 

Sofia Selowsky and Susannah Biller are the cast's two women, occasionally called upon to represent erotic distractions to the hero as well as the objects of other men's lechery. They are also a landlady and a neighbor, respectively, and as such have no siren function to perform (though Joseph briefly misinterprets the neighbor's interest). They are simply fixtures in the hero's normal life who have somehow become inscrutable as he sinks further into the dilatory but crushing claws of the system.

Also well-suited to flesh out the fullness of K.'s plight was Matthew Lau (performing with a freshly injured shoulder on Saturday night) as both the Inspector who informs the hero of his legal difficulty and K.'s Uncle Albert, the type of nattering, censorious relative who functions in this story somewhat like the biblical Job's "miserable comforters."

Keith Phares was responsible for much of the performance's persistent comedy as the lawyer Huld, self-important and indulging in semi-invalidism. Brenton Ryan was notably animated as a mad-artist caricature, the painter Titorelli, mysteriously well-connected with the legal system but, of course, absolutely unhelpful to Joseph K.

In short, "The Trial" amounts to a concise and vivid musical representation of Kafka's enigmatic book. The puzzlement remains, but in this guise also amuses in all its dark effervescence. K.'s bafflement becomes ours, though the panache of Glass's music allows us to keep enough emotional distance to position comedy above dread. While honoring Kafka's uncanny prophetic spirit as embodied by OTSL, we cling to the hope we also can keep real-world distance from such a plight as Joseph K.'s.

[Photos by Ken Howard]

"The Grapes of Wrath": Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents a new version of a 2007 opera by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie

The Joad family, piled into a jalopy truck, heads for California.
John Steinbeck's epochal novel "The Grapes of Wrath," rooted as it is in the dislocation and social upheaval of the Great Depression, carries a particular aptness into our 21st-century obsession with the haves-havenots gulf and mass refugee movements.

So it's more than for the sake of life support for Ricky Ian Gordon's 2007 opera that a new version, shortened and more focused on the central characters, is on the Opera Theatre of St. Louis' current season in its home at Webster University in suburban St. Louis. 

Linked indelibly to Michael Korie's resonant libretto, the work deserves wide circulation. In the revision, the cast remains huge, and demands on the singers are unrelenting and must be smoothly joined. The perseverance amid the growing desperation of displaced farmers has to remain uppermost, relieved by a few tender or comical lines and episodes.

Seen at a matinee Saturday, "The Grapes of Wrath" takes the gritty realism of Steinbeck's story seriously and minutely as it concentrates on the Joad family of Oklahoma, trekking westward to California with many others from the Dust Bowl. The staging fans out from the libretto's cinematic succession of brief scenes to the social panorama of uprooted Okies, betrayed by misleading promises of work designed to drive down the cost of their labor, all reasonable ambition suppressed by growers and henchmen. Continued privation is the refugees' lot as their visions of life in an earthly paradise are destroyed like surplus fruit in lush valley orchards.

Ma Joad (standing left) sings of the devastating drought in opera's first scene.
James Robinson's stage direction and Allen Moyer's set, which anchors the action to variations on the initial soup-kitchen milieu, give the flavor of a pageant to the story, as if the Joads' adventures were being recollected and relived by a huge touring company (complete with stylized violence). This decision seems both practical and suggestive of the story's larger meaning. It has parallels with the "newsreel" manner of presentation pioneered by John Dos Passos in the "U.S.A." novels. 

There are touches of symbolic action and satire that add variety to this essential style. After the first-scene chorus lamenting the drought, most of the soup-kitchen diners blow on their bowls as if to cool the soup. Dust rises up in scattered bursts.
Shortly thereafter, in a complicated chorus reflecting the heartless eviction of farm families by the powers that be, a row of female bank tellers rotely describe their jobs with identical piggy banks lined up in front of them.

Here the short line lengths and emphatic rhythms elicit from Gordon a four-note motif that recalls Beethoven's Fifth. It suggests the distancing effect of decisions that are driving the Okies off their land, expressed by the repeated "It's not my fault." Impersonal fate is evoked, as in Beethoven's offhand remark (sometimes taken too seriously) that his famous motif represented "fate knocking at the door."

Normally, Gordon's music favors a billowing arioso style, with the orchestra under Christopher Allen's precise direction supporting the singers with sometimes crunchy  harmonies (the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is in the pit). Vernacular music is brought into play where appropriate: a diner waitress' song (sung with sassy gusto by Jennifer Panara), contrasting the hapless Okies with good-tipping truck drivers, has a tidy Tin Pan Alley verve.

There are a couple of songs set comfortably in ragtime form, and the lapsed
Connie and Rosasharn have dreams of stable family life.
preacher Jim Casy (brilliantly portrayed by Geoffrey Agpalo) introduces himself with an irreverent blues. When the lyricism thins out along with the Joads' fortunes at the very end, daughter Rosasharn's partial reprise of "One Star," originally a love duet with her now absconded husband Connie (Andrew Lovato), recalls Americanist-era Copland, with a gently rocking orchestral accompaniment in the concluding measures.

As the expectant Rosasharn, Deanna Brewick performed with soaring honesty some of the opera's most heart-wrenching music. In the Gordon-Korie interpretation, the character who frets so often in Steinbeck's novel has more prominent nobility, somewhat undercut by her persistent all-American materialism. But her final act, one of the best-known endings in American fiction, lifts her up indelibly in the opera as well.

It would be hard to improve on the steely resolve and maternal solicitude of Katharine Goeldner's Ma Joad. She looked totally capable of braining her fractious son Al (Michael Day) with a bucket, yet she's also the expedition's bedrock of compassion and the voice for family unity. She is given a moving catalogue aria in the first act that blends both material and spiritual values as part of the Okies' identity: "Years is us," she sings, but so are "buckets, ropes, and canvas," a copy of Pilgrim's Progress, sewing odds and ends. The aria's themes are later echoed in chorus, as the hopeful exiles proclaim that Route 66 is "us," too.

Casy (Geoffrey Agpalo) and Tom (Tobias Greenhalgh) chew the fat.
As central son Tom Joad, Tobias Greenhalgh conveyed a stalwart, salt-of-the-earth quality, making much of his second-act aria of promise, "I'll be there." I found him less able to convey Tom's seething impatience with his lot and the bitterness that eventually overturns his resolve to control his temper. As the oldest son Noah, Hugh Russell sang with sturdy pathos an extended soliloquy preceding the character's suicide by drowning, which is tenderly accompanied by a recollection of Ma's long-ago lullaby ("Simple Child") to her developmentally disabled son.

Levi Hernandez played Pa Joad as a force almost as stalwart as his wife, yet inevitably in her shadow. Robert Orth presented his usual vivid take on an oddball character — the anxious, fitfully solicitous but mainly self-absorbed Uncle John. Burdened by alcoholism, he is still capable of creatively dealing with the family's final disaster as a downpour and flood surge around the survivors. 

Orth sang the justification of John's action beautifully. The symbolism is rich throughout this inspired scene: The Oklahoma drought has been left far behind. Its drastic consequences have now met the rising of California waters, and the diminished yet undefeated family refuses to go wholly under.

[Photos by Ken Howard]

Monday, June 19, 2017

'Titus': Opera Theatre of St. Louis' eye-opening production of a political opera

You might call Mozart's last opera, "La clemenza di Tito," a case of Roman imperial
The title character of Mozart's opera rules in the shadow of the imperial eagle.

intrigue and love tangles — with lots of fuzz.

Fired FBI director James Comey recently testified "there should be no fuzz" on the matter of Russian interference with our presidential election last November. To borrow that homespun description, there seems to be nothing but fuzz about this opera's complications during the reign of the Emperor Titus in first-century Rome. Ambivalence runs riot; deadly alliances shift abruptly. 

But the Opera Theatre of St. Louis' current production shows the substance beneath the fuzz, with the peerless assistance of Mozart's music, draped upon a Metastasio libretto set to music many times before the Austrian genius put his seal upon the opera seria subgenre. 

Clarity is tantalizingly delayed in the story of a decently inclined emperor's effort to
Vitellia longingly contemplates the empress' crown.
settle upon a bride while ruling successfully over a restive populace bedeviled by intrigues that flare into civil war by the end of the first act. The turmoil on which "Titus" focuses concerns Vitellia, daughter of Titus' deposed predecessor, who is twice blocked in her expectation to be the new imperial consort.

The show is notable especially for company devotees as the last production for Stephen Lord as the company's music director. After this season, the veteran maestro will shift to his specialty of nurturing young singers for OTSL with the "emeritus" honorific added to his job title. How fitting that a Latin designation marks this transition when the vehicle is "Titus" (the name OTSL has given the opera in Daniel Dooner's new translation)! Of his conducting in this performance, the smooth coordination of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with singers, particularly in the accompanied recitatives, stood out.

The production's setting is not rigorously ancient Rome — specifically, 79 A.D., when the year's big news was the destruction of Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. That event prompts one of several demonstrations of Titus' humanity, as  he directs imperial funds toward survivor relief. This "Titus" also suggests the nascent USA of the late 18th century, with the main symbolic link to ancient Rome being the eagle. In American iconography, the bird clutches arrows in one talon, an olive branch in the other, looking toward the latter as an indication that the republic prefers peace.

Leslie Travers' set design is dominated by a huge, fierce eagle, constructed in several parts and raised and lowered on wires to suit the action, about which more later. These Roman citizens wear long black coats, knee breeches, powdered wigs and tricorns on their heads. The overlay works pretty well, especially if one accepts the prospect that even the young American republic bore signs of imperial ambition, which in first-century Rome had been largely realized as memories of its republican heyday faded. (See Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," a New York production of which recently occasioned much malicious misunderstanding.)

The singing was firmly centered and well-projected throughout the cast. Supertitles accompany the arias, but not the recitatives, which varied slightly in intelligibility. In the title role, the tenor René Barbera was steady and vigorous, yet with a fine lyrical bloom to his voice. A character known for one trait above all else is hard to make fully human. But this Titus was a relentless and believable exponent of clemency. Well into the second act, his good nature has been sorely tried to the point of confusion, as he admits in a passage that drew sympathetic laughter from Friday's audience.

Vitellia knows how to use Sesto's devotion to her.
The proximate cause of most of his difficulties — the jilted, vengeful Vitellia — was portrayed with vocal and dramatic mastery by Laura Wilde. Her great second-act aria, notable for its basset-horn obbligato (played brightly from the the pit by principal clarinetist Scott Andrews) and its tremendous range, came off splendidly.  It gave the impression that Vitellia had finally grown a sense of perspective, guided by the moral example of the emperor she is finally matched with.  Also fascinating, and staged a bit bawdily, was her seductive first-act explanation of ambition to Annio and Sesto (both "trouser roles," the latter originally for a castrato). They are young men harboring romantic and career desires of their own under difficult circumstances. 

Cecelia Hall staunchly fulfilled the considerable requirements of Sesto, a gentleman deeply conflicted between his friendship with Tito and his love for Vitellia. Enlisted in a plot he is horrified to undertake, Sesto has resonance with political time-servers in every era, up through the present day. How much service toward what cause are they prepared to offer, and at what cost to their poise and integrity? As Sesto leaves Vitellia on his deadly errand, he sings an emotionally rich aria (with another virtuosic clarinet obbligato); Hall was equal to the piece's contrasts and mounting excitement.

Emily D'Angelo was particularly impressive as Sesto's friend Annio, in love with his buddy's sister Servilia, sung with ingenue pertness by Monica Dewey. Annio has a showpiece in the second act that concentrated D'Angelo's keen articulation and a vocal timbre that was believably masculine without strain. The half-dozen solo roles were completed by bass Matthew Stump's ringing Publio, prefect of the Praetorian Guard and thus a key member of Titus' small, increasingly overwrought inner circle.

Staging by director Stephen Lawless was flawlessly linked to the set design and movement. Offstage choruses and entrances and exits of the Roman citizens always had unity and power. The stage pictures were striking and apt. That magnificent eagle, merely glimpsed at first in partial lighting of legs and talons that made them seem abstract, suddenly becomes concretely visible with the initial entrance of Titus and the chorus accompanying it.

As Titus' reign is threatened, the eagle separates into parts and is ominously lowered.
With the cataclysm that ends the first act, the stage is aglow with fires in the capital, ashes keep drifting downward, and the eagle is fragmented, earth-bound and tinged a cold, metallic gray. The glum finale provides a stark warning of the perils of a civil order's collapse. The chorus points outward, implying the culpability of the audience in this decline.

Lovers Servilia and Annio are caught up in the fiery civil conflict.
Such a gesture has been effective in productions of "Sweeney Todd" (the lunatics' chorus "City on fire" near the end) and also, more comically, in the farewell ensemble reminder in Verdi's "Falstaff" that "all are fools" (tutti gabbati). "Titus"' finger-pointing amid the ashes and the wreck of venerated icons captures 2017, somehow; it made for a timely OTSL vision that will long stay with me.

In the course of the second act, the eagle is lifted and reassembled for the most part. Yet the arrows and the olive branch remain on the floor, suggesting that the imperial eagle can't be restored in all its former significance even after power centralized in a good ruler has been reaffirmed. The final chorus, with the emperor's splendid assertion of control, offers the promise of a happy ending (essential to the opera seria tradition).

But when the noble Titus doffs the imperial wreath and slips on an eagle mask for the final chords, we sense a chilling affinity with Louis XIV's "l'état, c'est moi." In both art and life, admiration and apprehension of strong leadership will always be uneasy partners in statecraft, this thought-provoking production reminds us.

[Photos by Ken Howard]

Thursday, June 15, 2017

CD review: A revelatory Schumann pianist, winner of a major Canadian competition

Luca Buratto: An affinity for Schumann.
You expect musicians heavily involved with a particular composer to express their closeness to what they're working on. When such expressions are linked to marketing, even in the low-key manner of a publicity release, the affinity can hardly be expressed too strongly. The bear hug seems entirely natural.

Still, when Luca Buratto, the most recent laureate of the Honens Piano Competition (2015), writes that "the music of Schumann has become almost an obsession with me — a kind of religion," some forgivable hyperbole might be suspected.

Yet the recording that accompanies these words of devotion bears him out. Hyperion has released his all-Schumann disc, and it's a stunner. The Italian-born and -trained pianist seems to be channeling the troubled avatar of 19th-century Rhineland romanticism.

The Honens prize is prestigious and well-heeled, established by a Canadian philanthropist, Edith Honens, in 1991 with a $5 million endowment and based in her hometown, Calgary, Alberta.  The city is a sophisticated metropolis on the prairie (population: 1.24 million) and well-situated to be the base of an international piano contest held every three years and open to pianists between the ages of 20 and 30.

The program here is a substantial challenge. The problematic Humoreske in B-flat major, op. 20, opens the CD.  The trail was blazed for me toward appreciating this lengthy, occasionally unfocused work by Drew Petersen's performance during the American Pianists Association Discovery Week in January. Petersen went on to win the APA Classical Fellowship and is well launched into his four-year tenure.

Humoreske is a mixture of Schumann excellences and eccentricities— there's a darting energy, sometimes suddenly turned inward, but often effervescent.  Granted, it's a little short on melody and cohesion. What is remarkable in Buratto's performance is how he manages to make variations in tempo and dynamics seem to emerge from within the music rather than be imposed upon it. This kind of shift comes upon the listener such that you wonder if it's a caprice of the performer; you look down at the page, and it turns out to be right there in the score.

That improvisational illusion is entirely proper to Schumann, it seems to me. "Organic" is a much-overused word in praising artistic achievements, but where structure and melodic riches don't seem to be of overwhelming importance, the ability to make a composition seem substantial and well-considered by bringing out how it grows and pulses from inside is much to be prized.

After a well-chosen palate freshener, the Blumenstück in D-flat major, op. 19, a more controlled masterpiece fills the latter half of the disc: Davidsbündlertänze, op. 6. This expansive piece, the product of great care by a composer expressing contrasting sides of his own personality, is quite well delineated here. Those aspects, represented as the flamboyant Florestan and the reflective Eusebius, are contrasted in successive movements and sometimes combined and played off each other in the same section. Buratto clearly admires and yields to the bipolarity of this music. He immediately catches and sustains the mood characteristic of each turn of the Schumannian kaleidoscope.

Buratto's whole-hearted investment in the adventure of Davidsbündlertänze is evident in every phrase. And his ability to make Humoreske sound better than it probably is must be applauded.  If this is an obsession, it has proved to be — unlike most obsessions — more of a blessing than a handicap.

Texan-turned-Hoosier trombonist confirms his bona fides locally heading a quartet

Freddie Mendoza put together a quartet in short order to fill an open space on David Allee's schedule. So the Ball State University trombonist and teacher came up with adept confederates to play the Jazz Kitchen for his debut there under his own name Wednesday night.

Freddie Mendoza first came to local attention directing jazz studies at the University of Indianapolis.
In the concise first set, he showed his mastery as both leader and colleague with pianist Scott Routenberg, also a BSU faculty member; bassist Jesse Wittman, and drummer Kenny Phelps.

For the latter half of the set, Mendoza was joined by an old collaborator from his former home base in Austin, Texas: Stanley "Cool Pops" Smith, a clarinetist and vocalist with deep Indianapolis roots as musician and producer. Smith told me he used to bring in some of the most eminent Indianapolis musicians to the old Hummingbird Cafe on Talbot Street, including Pookie Johnson, Russell Webster, and Jimmy Coe.

In Austin for more than 20 years, they were busy bandmates, playing a slew of weddings when they weren't doing jazz gigs. Smith has moved back to Indianapolis, and the connection seemed natural enough for him to sit in with the expert, if hastily assembled, quartet. The set ended with a laid-back country blues, featuring an amiably grainy Smith vocal, capped by a formidable front line of clarinet and trombone.

Smith first came onstage to lend some clarinet luster  to "It Had to Be You," a standard in which Mendoza showed off his vocal chops. The lyrical side of his trombone playing was displayed in his solo, which sat neatly in between solo outings by Smith and Routenberg. When Mendoza returned to singing to close out the song, he varied the tune agreeably to define the difference  between a jazz vocalist and an ordinary Great American Songbook exponent.

Two all-instrumental standards formed the first half of the set. "I Thought About You" was launched comfortably at a medium tempo and moved into first-rate soloing by Mendoza and Routenberg. Behind the pianist, Phelps' accompaniment featured several intense turnarounds toward the ends of the bridge and the main section that helped punctuate the performance. There were lively eight-bar exchanges toward the end, a feature of pick-up small groups that never gets old when players bring freshness to their eight-bar mini-solos, as Mendoza, Routenberg, and Phelps certainly did.

"You and the Night and the Music" showed off Mendoza's crisp articulation as well as the steady flow of his ideas. He can weave in rapid figuration without overdoing it or giving the impression that he is all about display. Wittman's bass solo made a firm statement that echoed the florid but not flimsy character of Routenberg's statement. There was another episode of "trading eights" with the drummer that was nicely finished off in diminuendo before the return of the theme for the last time.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

CD review: 'Straight-ahead' jazz is capable of a fresh approach to the well-known past

At the imaginative forefront of NYSQ: Tim Armacost
Complaints that there's too much recycling in jazz, in part the product of the separation of some players into "contemporary" or smooth jazz, plus marketing favoritism toward vocalists, plus a wealth of tribute concerts and CDs   — all have contributed to a perception of the music's balkanization in a sprawling village of gated communities.

But the agenda of the New York Standards Quartet moves free of the retread stigma and dead-end vistas. The "standards" it specializes in aren't simply treated to serial disquisitions on a tune's chord changes. Instead, the seasoned ensemble — Tim Armacost, saxophones; David Berkman, piano; Daiki Yasukagawa, bass; Gene Jackson, drums — reimagines the tunes to make them fit the personalities of the players and the rapport they unfailingly display as a unit.

At least that's the case on "Sleight of Hand," a new release on Whirlwind Recordings, poised to be released about a month before a busy July schedule of touring Japan, the bassist's homeland. A follow-up to the group's "Power of 10," "'Sleight of Hand" gets its name from the disc's one original, written by the pianist. And even that is a shirttail descendant of Gershwin's "But Not for Me."

From the start, the quartet's resourcefulness and depth of connection to these tunes are evident. Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes" shows Armacost and Berkman at their most fluent and imaginative at a rapid tempo. The mellow side of the NYSQ is brought into play with "I Fall in Love Too Easily," with Armacost's soprano sax sitting out the first chorus before making the most of a delayed entrance. Jackson's drums are quite the spur for an increase in the tempo after the regret implied in the song's title has been fully addressed.

An inviting bass cadenza launches Hank Mobley's "This I Dig of You" attractively. Armacost is at his most forceful in a tenor solo, exhibiting a classic bop style, quite personalized. Berkman is outstanding during his turn in the spotlight.  There's a nifty drum solo before the outchorus.

Indications of the attentiveness the NYSQ pays to its arrangements can be summed up by the lovely "Detour Ahead," with its sensitive coda. Even the fadeout ending (never a favorite device of mine) seems appropriate for "Lover Man," unconventionally fast-paced, the rhythm section alone having taken care of business at first.

This simpatico group, without becoming stodgy about it, is unabashedly precise and intentional about putting its own stamp on the jazz and pop standards that are its mother lode. If it occupies a cul-de-sac, it's one that many listeners won't hesitate to visit.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

ISO displays fine partnership with Indianapolis Symphonic Choir in music of Orff and Bernstein

Chances are few people would be aware of the complexity of the Middle Ages if "Carmina Burana" had not been written and gone on to achieve worldwide popularity over the past eight decades.

Carl Orff, a German composer of a personally secretive nature who is almost as well known as a trailblazing music educator as for this work, got from Goliard poetry that had been stored at a monastery in Bavaria glimpses of medieval counterculture that nearly everybody has taken to their bosoms ever since. There is a pagan celebration of nature in bloom, considerable irreverence toward kings and priests, a celebration of lasciviousness and heavy drinking, and other age-old, ineradicable deviations from uprightness.

All this is subjected to sonically varied but basically simple musical treatment: lots of repetition, short phrases, unfashionable adherence to tonality, and in places almost as much overloading of rhythmic accents as today's hip-hop. As such, the cantata is looked down upon by many devotees of classical music, some of whom declare they'd rather never hear it again.

But here it is as the centerpiece of the final weekend in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's 2016-17 Classical Series. The piece is supremely effective, and it's hard to deny that much 20th-century music — even that representing the highest level of compositional skill and resourcefulness — has remained ineffective with the public. 

Krzysztof Urbanski has four performances of Bernstein and Orff this weekend.
Effectiveness in this case means absolute suitability of means to ends: Orff's music, driving and lyrical by turns, achieves an amazing symbiosis with the Latin and medieval German texts. This was illustrated throughout the ISO's second performance of the cantata Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre; the schedule offers a rare instance of the ISO's repeating the same program three times in as many days.

Krzysztof Urbanski conducted a performance in which sustained attention to rhythmic clarity was evident both vocally and orchestrally. Once again, collaboration with the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, with Eric Stark celebrating 15 years as its artistic director, was exemplary. Only when the men were enumerating different kinds of people they were toasting in drink did I detect some blurring; despite the bibulous context, even such passages should be well-defined. Otherwise, the choir's singing shone like fine crystal in sunlight. There was extra choral focus put upon phrases that benefit from staccato articulation, starting with the crying out against cruel Fortune in the familiar opening (and closing) chorus, "O Fortuna." Later on, members of the Indianapolis Children's Choir gave an extra-youthful lift to some of the amorous music.

Baritone soloist Jochen Kupfer
The production benefits from three excellent soloists. Most of the responsibility falls to the baritone, Jochen Kupfer, who is making his ISO debut. Deft as both actor and singer, Kupfer commands the torturous falsetto required in the self-pitying aria, "Dies, nox et omnia," seamlessly joined to his normal voice. He had earlier shown the bravado of another category of drunkard, the feisty take-on-all-comers type, in "I am the abbot of Cockaigne" (to translate from the Latin). There was also some comic byplay with concertmaster Zach De Pue (coincidentally winner of this year's Patch Award) involving snuck shots of mock-Schnapps across the podium. 

None of this business, as suitable as it was, ought to detract from the likelihood that Kupfer is the best baritone soloist the ISO has invited since Thomas Hampson several seasons ago.

The tenor soloist, Vale Rideout, sang with desperate appeal the demanding showpiece — a monologue by a swan being turned on a spit and feeling the fire — from several places in the stage terrace and among the choir. 

Soprano soloist Lauren Snouffer grew into her role after a bland initial appearance, ending gloriously with a strong declaration of love in the altissimo range to bring the cantata up to its splendid choral culmination, "Ave formossissima" and the unforgettable "O Fortuna."

The companion piece on this program is Leonard Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms," a thoroughly religious expression drawing on several Psalms in their original Hebrew. (I'm not sure why the ISO is promoting "Carmina Burana" as "both sacred and profane"; I find nary a touch of the sacred about it.)

The Bernstein piece featured a children's-choir member soloing in the second movement. Camden Zetty performed superbly in lines drawn from the 23rd Psalm, probably the best-known of the book's 150. 

The interpretation Urbanski fashioned overall was as sensitive to the varied moods of the Psalmist (reinforced by Bernstein) as Orff was to the panoply of profane emotions, just as heartfelt, that permeate "Carmina Burana."

Friday, June 9, 2017

Youth under pressure in Summer Stock Stage Eclipse's 'Spring Awakening'

Melchior (Joey Mervis) and Wendla (Paige Brown) are about to awaken.
Ten years away from its New York premiere, "Spring Awakening," a musical version of an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, shows no sign of becoming a period piece.

That's to its credit, as well as that of a new production by Summer Stock Stage, introducing Eclipse, the alumni component of the teen-focused theater training program. With its rock-inflected songs by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, "Spring Awakening" is sort of immune from aging. This is despite its being set in a provincial German town in the 1890s (as the program reminds us).

The show imbibes at the fountain of youth, and that's its secret: As long as young people feel oppressed and misunderstood by their parents, teachers, and preachers, this heart-wrenching drama with impactful songs ought to find receptive audiences on both sides of the generational divide.

Armchair sociologists can doubtless point to the loosening of adult control as among the radical differences between the here and now and small-town Germany of a century-and-a-quarter ago. But there are plenty of disturbing parallels as well. The new production, which I saw at IndyFringe Theatre as its second of three weekends got under way Thursday evening, makes no bones about the strictness and narrowmindedness under which Wedekind's adolescents are forced to find their way.

This production features vigorous, superbly balanced ensemble singing.
This is vividly demonstrated by Jeanne Bowling's costuming — thorough modest femininity for the girls, school uniforms requiring jackets, ties and juvenile shorts for the boys —  and the repressive severity of the adults in their lives as played with sometimes delicate, sometimes rough menace by Equity actors Charles Goad and Constance Macy.

Summer Stock Stage artistic director Emily Ristine Holloway directs the show, heading a team in which Bowling's musical direction and Cherri Jaffee's choreography work together to consolidate and crystallize the cast's youthful energy and burgeoning skills. The reflective songs ending each of the two acts represent the determined idealism of young people coming into their own, with the finale underlining how hard-won that effort is.

They were notable among the show's well-balanced ensemble triumphs, at the feisty end of which were the schoolboys' first-act outburst, "The Bitch of Living," and the full-company, rocking-out protest in Act 2, "Totally F***ed." (Singing apostrophes would be no easy task; I've edited the title for the sake of this family blog.)

The leading roles, bringing together the rebellious intellectual Melchior and the repressed, curious Wendla, are charmingly undertaken by Joey Mervis and Paige Brown. Each has a showcase of self-introduction that struck gold immediately in Thursday's performance: Wendla's "Mama Who Bore Me" and Melchior's "All That's Known." Mervis also brought a secure falsetto to apply judiciously to a couple of Melchior's solos. The couple's growth into painful self-knowledge, including the sexual awakening that lies behind the show's title, was both sensitively and intensely handled.

Moritz (Matthew Conwell) expresses his unease in song.
Supporting roles of significance were also confidently carried out. Matthew Conwell played Moritz, a nervous schoolmate of Melchior's headed toward academic failure and total tailspin. His "Don't Do Sadness" poignantly provided insight into the kind of teenage mind that struggles to discover positive options when the walls appear to be closing in.

As the runaway Ilse, Elizabeth Hutson presented a striking contrast in outlook, suggesting how to wrangle success in the school of hard knocks, even when you have to carry a couple of "incompletes" into the next semester. Hope Fennig made the most of Martha, an abused girl completing the play's circle of doom (a Wedekind specialty, as any opera fan familiar with Alban Berg's "Lulu," based on two Wedekind plays, can attest).

Speaking of doom, the climactic scene in the graveyard, with Melchior having escaped a brutal reformatory in hopes of a reunion with Wendla, was impressively staged, thanks to a particularly evocative instance of Michael Moffatt's lighting design.

The show gains a lift above the story's gloom because of the positive grip on maturing life that the music embodies. In that respect, one of the great pluses of this production is the excellence of the band, with Nathan Perry and Matt Mason on keyboards, Matt Day on guitar, and Tyler Shields on drums.

[Photos by Michael Camp]

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The doctor is in: Peter Erskine brings his Dr. Um band to the Jazz Kitchen

Peter Erskine tends to business heading Dr. Um at the Jazz Kitchen.
Durable as a performer and educator, long past his early flashes of worldwide fame as Weather Report's drummer, Peter Erskine dependably delivers in any musical context he places himself in.

Saturday night it was time for him to demonstrate that once again at the Jazz Kitchen. He returned to the Northside Club leading the quartet he has dubbed Dr. Um: saxophonist Bob Sheppard, bassist Benjamin Shepherd, and keyboardist John Beasley join the drummer in this venture, which is supported by two CDs, the latest of which is "Second Opinion" (Fuzzy Music).

This is a seamless ensemble, with alert coordination in such matters as a unison statement of the theme by synthesizer and sax in Beasley's "Lost Page," which opened the first set Saturday. In the churning "Hawaii Bathing Suit," a droll Erskine original, the coordination heated up, driven particularly well by the New Zealand-born bassist's nimble fingers. Erskine took his most extensive drum solo of the set here.  He's a supremely efficient drummer. Every lick tells. For all that he throws down upon his drums and cymbals, you get the feeling that nothing is extraneous.

In terms of pure post-bop agility, there was nothing the quartet managed better than the way it took command of Shepard's "Solar Steps," which featured the composer's roiling tenor sax solo and a florid turn by Beasley on piano.

"Hipnotherapy," whose punning title reflects an old habit of Erskine's (I've long been tickled by "I Hear a Rap CD"), brought forth lots of virtuosity from the pianist and set the stage for the blues-drenched set-closer, Beasley's "Eleven Eleven," which opened with a fruitful bass-drums dialogue, then fairly burst its seams with all-over energy. Erskine got fairly loud about it, but characteristically never flailed or bashed in the manner of some drummers when they want to convey excitement.

Always a musician whose alliances have suited him over the decades, Erskine is a fixture on the West Coast (clued by his reference at one point to "Car-MEL," the roundabout city to Indianapolis' north) whose travels into this part of the country are welcome and worth taking note of. His collegiality is notable, and behind the kit, he seems consistently comfortable in his skin — and with his skins.

[Photo by Gene Markiewicz]

Saturday, June 3, 2017

ISO moves toward season's end with glowing accounts of Wagner, Schumann, Mahler

All the romantic baggage Mahler's First Symphony carries — much of it provided by the ambivalently program-minded composer himself — cannot obscure the fact that it is a masterly harbinger of modernism in its attention to gestural detail, timbre, and expressive weight fused with pure abstraction.

In this work, played Friday night by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under the baton of music director Krzysztof Urbanski, the clash of pictorialism and elevated musical meaning is nowhere better illustrated than by the contrabass solo that opens the third movement. Ten years ago, when Ju-Fang Liu was just a few seasons into her tenure as the ISO's principal bass, her performance of that solo got national attention when the New Yorker's Alex Ross, in an account of visits he'd just made to hear several orchestras in the heartland, praised her by name for dispatching it "as elegantly and hauntingly as I've heard it."

Friday night she did it again, and I would add that the way she launched the movement, which uses the melody of "Frere Jacques" in the minor mode, helped set aside the composer's casual mention of a satirical painting titled "The Hunter's Funeral Procession," obsequies led by animals —  the work's most controversial episode when it was new nearly 130 years ago. That image has had a little too much influence on how concertgoers process what they're hearing. The direction Mahler provides at the start is simply "Feierlich und gemessen" — a phrase that can be variously translated, but forthrightly says that a ceremonious, measured, reserved manner is what's wanted. Liu provided that once again, with no inflection toward anything ironic or cutesy. It was well-projected from the back of the stage, with true intonation, soft yet self-assured. It set the movement's agenda with magnificent restraint.

Mahler's Symphony in D major, for all its collective force and evocations of wide natural vistas, is a treasury of significant details. One of my favorites is the way the violas herald the final climax in the last movement. After Mahler provides us with the glimpse of the heights in view after the hellish launch of the finale, there's a lingering passage of recall in which the orchestra brings back a few lovely melodies. The mood of recollection is dispelled by a brief outburst from the violas, which  is elaborated and stirs the orchestra to forward-looking action. It's as if the section is goading its colleagues: "It's all very nice here on the foothills of Parnassus. Now, let's climb!" The figure has to be played with extraordinary urgency to function as the start of the work's tremendous peroration, which is capped by a horn chorale, bells lifted. Urbanski got the requisite "bite" from the violas, led by Mike Chen.

Guest artist Inon Barnatan
The conductor drew from the ISO similar luster in many other places. The onset of the song theme in the first movement, "Ging heut' Morgen uebers Feld," followed gently upon the introductory material. Such welds were always firm and naturally produced in illuminating a composer often caricatured as subject to mood swings. I don't think that quality dominates Mahler's music, though it seems to have been a nagging feature in his life, dogged as he was by well-founded premonitions of death. In this performance, dynamic control was responsive to Mahler's extreme demands, particularly toward the soft side. In only a few places did sustained tones not hold evenly. The overall achievement was astonishingly consistent, from full-bodied vigor to the most delicate tracery.

A final note with an odd Indiana connection: The mastery already evident in Mahler's first symphony is more than a matter of his absorption of musical values through his work as a conductor. And it turns out that four early Mahler symphonies, now forever lost, seem to have preceded the masterpiece the ISO is revisiting this weekend. They were played in piano reduction by Dutch conductor and Mahler advocate Willem Mengelberg and a friend sometime after the composer's death, following their discovery in the archives of the Carl Maria von Weber family. Where? In Dresden, Germany, a charming city destroyed by Allied firebombing in early 1945. That was the same strategically gratuitous cataclysm that was eventually to shape the literary career of a Hoosier prisoner of war by the name of Kurt Vonnegut and lead to his greatest work, "Slaughterhouse Five." Art, both in the disappearance of some products and the emergence of others, is ineluctably affected by awful events.

The weekend's program (to be repeated in Hilbert Circle Theatre at 5:30 this afternoon) opens with Wagner's "Forest Murmurs," an orchestral extrapolation from "Siegfried," the third opera in the "Nibelung's Ring" tetralogy. Wagner's orchestration and harmonic adventurousness were among his influences on Mahler. The combination of inspiration from nature and a flair for the dramatic reappropriation of themes and motives in different contexts is a quite evident force in this music, which got Friday's program off to a tidy, well-propelled start.

The program's guest soloist is an Israeli pianist engaged as a replacement for the indisposed Bertrand Chamayou. Inon Barnatan, who came through Indiana last fall to play a recital at Purdue University, is making his ISO debut with Robert Schumann's Concerto in A minor.

This is one of the few warhorses I never tire of hearing — though I suppose if it were imposed on me daily for a couple of months it might begin to pall. On Friday, Barnatan gave a forceful, precise account (apart from a few passing slips in the finale) of this evergreen work. His rhythmic snap and accuracy seem to have made him easy to accompany; there was certainly no lack of rapport with the orchestra,  and his tone was well-defined and full of variety. The interplay with assistant principal oboist Roger Roe, so pervasive a feature of the first movement, was delightful. The accompaniment shone with a kind of glinting pointillism in the second movement. The finale, in which the way transitional material and a certain amount of "throat-clearing" becomes as fascinating as the main argument, was exquisitely balanced throughout.