Saturday, September 30, 2017

'Amazon' is a new version of an old song pitching woo to the giant online retail monster

Swing fans remember the Benny Goodman Quartet's exciting version of "Avalon," but this new song parody adopts the wistful approach of the Al Jolson original to focus on the Fishers-Indianapolis pitch to Amazon to locate its massive new headquarters somewhere around here.

ISO Classical Series gets under way with sparkling Gershwin, deep-delving Tchaikovsky

Jean-Yves Thibaudet is fully engaged with Gershwin's Concerto in F.
The two lengthy works on the first program of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Classical Series are masterpieces about which their composers were doubtful. (No such doubts seem to have clung to the creation of the program's first piece, Mozart's "Magic Flute" Overture, of which the ISO delivered a statuesque, well-thought-out performance.)

It's hard to imagine, especially with the ISO's scintillating performances Friday evening of Gershwin's Concerto in F and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E minor, just what vexed their creators.

But Tchaikovsky wrote that he felt he had to prove with the work that he wasn't played out as a composer, and he allowed that maybe the resulting symphony had merit. After its premiere, however, and a performance he conducted in Prague, the always self-censorious composer said "there is something repulsive about it."

Gershwin, by contrast, had a background in popular music to overcome (in the minds of some, including hidebound critics). His earlier "crossover" hit, "Rhapsody in Blue," had not been orchestrated by him, so he studied hard to learn the technique for his more ambitious three-movement concerto. Even his forte — writing memorable melodies — was in doubt: In retreat at Chatauqua, N.Y., in July 1925, he wrote a friend that he was " the God of Melody to please be kind to me and send me some hair-raising 'blues' for my second movement."

Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie-Woogie"
The god came through, as Friday's audience at Hilbert Circle Theatre heard. That marvelous tune for solo trumpet, felt-muted, was enchantingly played with a sweet, but not excessive, vibrato from one side balcony, then another, by principal trumpet Conrad Jones. More amazing was the absolute rapport displayed throughout between piano soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and conductor Krzysztof Urbanski.

Thibaudet has a knack for the American vernacular, particularly the interplay between jazz and classical piano. He has issued a stunning CD with interpretations of the music of Bill Evans, a venerated jazz master. The accents characteristic of Gershwin can be neither slighted nor pounded out to deliver an idiomatic performance of the Concerto in F.  And Thibaudet's touch seemed just right for the piece; nor did he short-change the tender and filigreed passages.

The coordination between keyboard and podium was spiffy at all points. The finale, which the composer described as "an orgy of rhythms," had all its roiling energy in place. The pulsating mosaic moved with both energy and logic, in the manner that those brightly colored squares seem to move in Piet Mondrian's famous painting "Broadway Boogie-Woogie."

Astonishingly, a member of the august New York critical community named Lawrence Gilman found the concerto "conventional, trite... a little dull." The New York Times' Olin Downes was even harsher, but I bet the most hurtful response to the high-energy composer was to have his music called dull.

Some classical musicians were likewise unimpressed. An account of Gershwin's meeting with the Russian composer Alexander Glazunov after the premiere of Concerto in F was a blow to the American's ambition. Through an interpreter, Gershwin expressed an interest in studying orchestration with Glazunov, who responded in a way the interpreter couldn't bear to translate: "He wants to study orchestration, but he knows nothing about counterpoint." No Glazunov-Gershwin lessons ever happened.

Glazunov had a point: The accompaniment throughout Concerto in F is long on color and rhythm, somewhat deficient in  providing independent lines that fit with the main material. No such charge can be leveled against another consummate tunesmith, Glazunov's eminent countryman Tchaikovsky. Though Glazunov's personal loyalty was to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, all Russian composers knew how much the international stature of their music was linked to Tchaikovsky, particularly the lyrical component.

You can hear, for  example, such contrapuntal richness between the two appearances of the "Fate motif" in the second movement, just how much attention Tchaikovsky lavished upon detail that was more than ornamental. Urbanski drew from the orchestra a high degree of definition to all the score's treasures. Though attention is properly focused on such glories as the French horn solo, which Robert Danforth played with a full-blooming security Friday night, there is so much more to admire.

The Fate motive, especially when it ascends to unprecedented heights in the finale, is sometimes taken as a sign of Tchaikovsky's submission to an implacable force of largely negative significance. I rather hear it in terms of his being reconciled to something that goes beyond the individual will and experience. In this respect then, the ghostly appearance of that motif near the end of the third-movement waltz carries notes of reconciliation and quiet acceptance.

The Fifth Symphony was introduced to the world in November 1888. Maybe Tchaikovsky found "repulsive" having to submit to the Fate he holds up so magnificently in the E minor symphony. But Fate was for him something like Robert Frost's "My November Guest." The first and last stanzas of that early poem are germane to how we  can profitably sink into the atmosphere of Tchaikovsky's Fifth.

My Sorrow, when she's here with me
   Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
   She walks the sodden pasture lane.


Not yesterday I learned to know
   The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so
    And they are better for her praise.

Tchakovsky's Fate, like Frost's Sorrow, is a companion that allows the artist to deal with bleakness by finding it better and more beautiful than previously thought. And that greater purpose can be usefully extended to us as well, especially through splendid performances. The praise of a creator's companion pain can mysteriously result in the reader's or listener's  pleasure.

Friday, September 29, 2017

IRT's "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" moves us to a place where few of us have been

There's a charming clumsiness about the title of Indiana Repertory Theatre's season-opening show. Quite subtly, it ushers
Christopher confronts the London Underground in his search for his mother.
audiences into a different way of looking at the world, a clumsiness that speaks to both the maladjustment and insights of autism.

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" sounds like genre fiction, and indeed there is an air of murder mystery about how events unfold at first from the discovery in an English middle-class garden of a dead dog with a pitchfork in its side. By the end of the first act of Simon Stephens' play, however, the "whodunit" aspect has been settled. We are left with a deeper focus on the pathos of autism and its effects on those who have the condition as well as on their loved ones.

Mickey Rowe is the first American actor with autism to play the role of Christopher in this deeply affecting drama, charged with surrealism in its sights and sounds so as to bring us more truly into the hero's private world. Apart from his strict tastes in matters of food and color, Christopher is a brilliant 15-year-old, fearful of strangers and subject to meltdowns when stressed or overloaded with sense impressions.

To follow up on his discovery of the handsome black Labrador's body, Christopher assigns himself the task of finding the killer, recoiling from the hysteria of Mrs Shears, the pet's owner, while pressing forward. That is enough to start him on a journey outside his comfort zone. To have a goal unconnected with his specialized knowledge of mathematics and outer space conflicts with the extreme presentism of his condition. If asked "What are you doing?" an autistic person is likely to answer, "Talking to you."
Christopher (Mickey Rowe) and his mother (Constance Macy).

Supported by every aspect of the production, Rowe takes us deep inside an outlook as hemmed in by private rules and boundaries as any we might imagine. The social cues that most of us learn to process in the normal course of development are not something Christopher can initiate or respond to. Those private rules are always being violated, because they are not how the world runs.

The style of the production will seem avant-garde to some patrons. I cannot otherwise account for several walkouts I noticed at Thursday evening's performance. I've never seen the like at an IRT production. The show's method of telling Christopher's story is wholly consonant with who he is, however, and aids our understanding at every point. The line between theater's conventional presentation of an illusion and the reality it draws upon is crossed and recrossed.

Thus I can't help thinking that the production's way of communicating Christopher's habitual disorientation was uncomfortably disorienting to some. That's a crucial measure of the show's success under Risa Brainin's direction and the design team of Russell Metheny (scenes), Devon Painter (costumes), Michael Klaers (lighting), Todd Mack Reischman (sound), and Katherine Freer (projections). Michelle DiBucci's original music, a boat with a Glass bottom, completed the atmosphere.

Rowe's fascinating essay in the program book reminds us that "autistics use scripts every day," and thus the everyday life that most of us carry out "off book" is a continual challenge to them. In "Curious Incident," then, we are necessarily in a world that blurs accident and organization, inadvertence and intention.

An outstretched hand, fingers apart, has to be his father's way of making contact with Christopher.
The shock of recognition this play forces upon us is that normality moves all of us close to the autistic world now and then: We rehearse what we are going to say, we seesaw between what we want and what others expect of us, and we become rattled in strange environments that don't easily permit us to get our bearings. The spectacular London Underground scene, with its rush and blur of action, its bristling indifference and pervasive pollution of sight and sound, was usefully disturbing: "I've been there," I thought, yet without anything like Christopher's desperate, methodical search for his mother, who has moved under duress from the family home in middle-size Swindon to London, about 80 miles east.

Christopher's detailed writing about his life is redirected toward dramatic presentation with the encouragement of Siobhan, his nurturing, insightful teacher, given steadiness and compassion in Elizabeth Ledo's performance. With their offstage voices,
multiple roles for six of them and their deployment shifting scenery and props, the rest of the cast keeps reminding us that to the autistic, other people are mainly emblematic of threats and challenges in the environment. They are figures merely, or metaphors, and thus (in Christopher's blunt view) lies. How theatrical!

Besides Siobhan, the two constants in Christopher's world are represented by the two actors who inhabit one character each: his parents, Ed and Judy. The anxiety and constant pressure of bringing up a severely autistic son has told upon them in drastic ways. Robert Neal and Constance Macy embodied the physical and psychic ache of conveying intimacy to a son who helplessly makes intimacy next to impossible, thus putting his parents' bond in deep peril.

Rowe's vocal tone and physical grace in representing Christopher's vexed self-assurance and awkwardness seemed magical. And when the spine-tingling happy ending, which I of course can't reveal, is capped by the boy's unanswered question to Siobhan, we feel an odd confidence that we know the answer. But that's only because we have been led so masterfully by this production toward experiencing a different order of reality, one that like our own is undergirded by love.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, September 28, 2017

La Belle Dame Sans Merci: A beloved ballad modernized for the digital age

John Keats (1795-1821)
John Keats wrote about a "knight at arms" (alternatively a "wretched wight") in thrall to a mysterious female spirit he called La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

After too much time wasted on my iPhone one day, I felt like that lonely fellow, somewhat drugged by fleeting digital attractions and a little depressed, alarmed at the pull of these devices, satisfying but ultimately alarming.

Where have I found in my reading such a dangerous pull toward separation into a fantasy environment  whose haunting peril is lent such mastery? There was one source only on which to attempt a modernized reflection on such matters.

So I've updated  the English poet's visionary ballad "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"

Well, what can mess you up, old guy,
     Alone and palely loitering?
Your iPhone hosts a flock of tweets
     And no birds sing.

So what's your trouble, lazy man,
     So haggard from long scrolling?
Your count of "likes" is mounting up;
      There's little trolling.

Yet there's a shadow in your mind,
       Dull anguish on your how,
You've clicked on many a faded post
        Hours up to now.

The muse of social media
       Visits you, a child:
She leads you on, the hours fly,
      And her eyes are wild.

She tempts you onto Instagram
     And haunts Facebook and Twitter;
As you keep browsing your news feed
      Her wild eyes glitter.

You serve her bounty with your time,
      She makes the world seem new,
She is La Belle Dame Sans Merci:
       She loves you true.

The links you visit, shares you press,
        Thumbs-up and hearts you've posted:
Are those from friends known in the flesh
         Or merely ghosted?

A dream of connectivity
         With horrid warning wide
Has me in thrall; I wake and find
           No life beside.

And that is why I sojourn here
          Like millions; it's a thing
To tap and drowse: What's on our minds
          When no birds sing?

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Drew Petersen launches his residency at University of Indianapolis with a recital

Drew Petersen played an all-American recital.
It was a kaleidoscope of interpretations that struck the ear most when in April the finalists in the American Pianists Association's season-long contest played Judith Lang Zaimont's "Attars," the commissioned work of this year's classical piano competition.

And that was just one of the ways in which Drew Petersen made his mark on his way to winning the 2017 contest. Despite my reluctance to choose favorites while a competition is in progress, Petersen had won me over last January with his revelatory performance of Robert Schumann's problematic "Humoreske."

The announcement of the Christel DeHaan Fellowship win brought news of an additional honor for the APA winner. On Monday night, Petersen launched a two-year residency at the University of Indianapolis with a solo recital in the Lilly Performance Hall of the DeHaan Fine Arts Center. The arrangement will bring him to the Southside campus for one week each semester through the 2018-19 school year for lectures, lessons, master classes, and performances.

Monday's all-American program opened with "Attars," which quickly confirmed the richness and depth of his playing. The five movements of this dappled evocation of essential oils test a pianist's skill at imparting pastel colors to an instrument inherently percussive. Petersen displayed the knack; Zaimont's score aspires to a synesthetic blend of olfactory and auditory impressions. The bluesy quality and the relaxed pulse given to "Musk," the second of the attars represented, was especially inviting.

Something in "Pink Lotus," a hymnlike quality, foreshadowed much of the atmosphere of "The Alcotts," a movement from Charles Ives' embrace of New England's transcendentalist heritage, Sonata No. 2 ("Concord, Mass., 1840-60"). Petersen displayed his skill at layering sonorities, so that some of Ives' brief quotations and paraphrases of 19th-century parlor piano had a veiled quality. It was as if they were summoned up through the scrim of fading memories. The signature motif of Beethoven's Fifth recurs, less "fate knocking at the door" than fate closing the door softly behind it.

American impressionism from a less magpie sensibility ended the recital with the short-lived Charles Thomlinson Griffes' Fantasy Pieces, op. 6.  The "Barcarolle" rocked back and forth with a tenderness as pungent as a gondolier's song. The central piece, "Notturno," the most deeply impressionistic of the three miniatures, featured a hushed ending that took the breath away. "Scherzo," the finale, was most thickly scored, yet its galloping rhythm remained firmly etched.

Two encores from Gershwin were offered, starting with Earl Wild's sugary etude transcription of "The Man I Love," its romantic haze quickly counteracted by a brisk, agreeably insouciant performance of a Prelude.

The substantial center of the program, divided sensibly by an intermission, consisted of Samuel Barber's Piano Sonata, op. 26, and Elliott Carter's Sonata (1945-46). The Barber benefited from a rare endorsement by Vladimir Horowitz, which helped underpin the composer's claim to a solid place in the repertoire apart from the modernist mainstream. Not that his sonata ignores the bracing dissonance and formal complexity that people generally associate with 20th-century music; there is a torrent of competing voices in the Allegro energico first movement, characteristically brought to clarity by Petersen.

The Tchaikovskyan spirit of the second movement was put through a modern American filter, with blues and Great American Songbook touches evident in its toccata-like sweep. Petersen's patient elucidation of the slow movement, Adagio mesto, was exemplary, with another Romantic carryover — apt rubato discrepancies between the right and left hands.

Something mischievous in me almost wishes the Barber sonata ended there, that it could be contemplated as a magnificent torso, a Winged Victory for our times.

But Barber, inheriting the 19th-century habit of putting the most virtuosic and expressive weight on final movements, chose to end with a fugue. The form is fine in its place, but its place doesn't strike me as right for the mid-20th century. However, the choice is fully within Barber's retrospective manner, and, to be sure, he knew how to play the master craftsman. Each time the subject came up, Petersen pointed the way brightly. The theme's rhythmic profile was always precise and snappy. The stretto marshaled a final rush of energy, with a big crescendo toward the end. Yes, we are properly wowed, Samuel.

Though there's much of Elliott Carter's music I can't claim to understand, his pursuit of an individual path just a few years before Barber wrote his sonata is much more attractive to me. His Sonata is a worthy monument, worth repeated hearings, in a career that always prized innovation, but without gimmickry or outre stuff on, around or near the keyboard. Petersen's performance gave plenty of room to the spacious layout of the first movement in particular; he was attentive to the interplay between sustained notes' resonance and freshly struck notes.

The second movement shows that Carter had not shed his "Americanist" sensibility entirely. The open spaces of Aaron Copland are suggested, and the younger composer had not set aside repetition as firmly as he was about to in the Cello Sonata or, especially, in the groundbreaking First String Quartet.

Nonetheless, the listener to the Sonata is unlikely to feel that Carter is much interested in looking backward, because he bends every reminder of what he previously did, or what his colleagues were up to, toward new ends — new ways of making music's chief solo instrument speak and avoidance of its well-worn pathways of eloquence. The work ends not with spectacle, but on an even rhetorical plateau. Away with inherited devices, formulas, structures! I took pleasure from Petersen's way with both Barber and Carter, but the latter piece was (and remains) a lot closer to my heart.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Reformation at 500: Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra and the Beecher Singers celebrate a half-millennium of Protestantism

 Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra at work; the photo from its website shows different personnel, in part, from Sunday's concert.
A little over a month from now, half a millennium will have passed since Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church
door in the German city of Wittenberg.

Assertions of the true nature of penitence, in Luther's view, and thus the young priest's objection to the Roman Catholic Church's sale of pardons ("indulgences") were only the starting point (Oct. 31, 1517).  His quarrel with Rome lasted several years and involved a few more provocative writings before the breach became final with Luther's excommunication and Christianity's most consequential schism.

How appropriate, then, that the concert presented Sunday at Indiana History Center by Indy Baroque and the Beecher Singers (of Second Presbyterian Church) opened with the best-known concerto by J.S. Bach, "Brandenburg" No. 5 in D major!  Why appropriate, considering that the music is so buoyant and sunny? Mainly because the concerto form rests on contention, or, in the quaint language of the editor of the score I own, is "rather like quarreling individuals forced to discuss their troubles with one another."

Discussion of religious troubles led to a permanent break in Christianity. In music, the strife — within the music, it should be emphasized — is resolved pleasurably by the skillful composer. The solo concerto rubbed shoulders in its infancy and youth with the concerto grosso, designating a small group of soloists accompanied by a larger group. The full group is covered by the word "tutti" to emphasize the collective spirit toward which all that contention aims. The accompanying group is also referred to by another Italian word, "ripieno," which on the modern-instrument LP through which I first came to love Brandenburg No. 5 was translated literally as "back bench."

I loved the common-coin sense of that term and the way it points to the contrast between the solo group and the rest of the musicians onstage. The Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra chose to have the "ripieno" represented by one to a part: violin, viola, and — as a sort of mediator, the continuo players: cello, violone and "cembalo concertato" (to identify the harpsichord when it is not featured as a solo instrument).

The gain in the IBO version is that there is likely to be less need of a conductor and the textures will be more transparent. The disadvantage is that those contrasts between foreground and background become less obvious. The listener has to concentrate to notice the contest: that the "orchestra" exerts its force repeatedly in the first movement while the solo players cavort in material derived from the theme that keeps returning. Eventually, the somewhat competitive display of flute and violin among the soloists (here, the well-coordinated Leela Breithaupt, flute, and Jennifer Roig-Francoli, leader) yields to the long-admired harpsichord cadenza, putting that soloist on top of the heap. 

The cadenza was played Sunday with a good sense of drama and niftily placed ornamental touches by Thomas Gerber. Ensemble unity and the common sense of purpose shown by the soloists were remarkable throughout. The pace of the second movement was most suitable; the direction at the top (affetuoso) says only how the music should be played (warmly, tenderly) not how fast it should go. Roig-Francoli and her colleagues chose the tempo well.

In the finale, the soloists get to gambol with the music at the outset, letting the "tutti" component tag along in a companionable manner that nonetheless preserves the competitive nature of the concerto form.

The rest of the program involved the Beecher Singers. Conducting the vocal ensemble, sometimes without instrumental accompaniment, was its director, Michelle Louer. The program was well-planned and balanced. 

Michelle Louer conducted the Beecher Singers and Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra.
A modern Bach tribute, an arrangement by Knut Nystedt of "Komm, süsser Tod" that both honored Bach and shifted vocal lines to shed light upon the emotional range of even his small-scale choral works, was refreshing. It was placed between Dietrich Buxtehude's "Mit Fried und Freud" and Felix Mendelssohn's "Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich" — works that spotlighted significant Protestant composers who came slightly before and well after the foremost one: J.S. Bach.

It was regrettable that the soprano soloist in the Buxtehude was deficient in German diction and vocal projection, but the bass soloist Samuel Spade was excellent. The Nystedt arrangement directed focus upon the secure intonation of the Beecher Singers in an a cappella piece characterized by close harmonies. That firm pitch sense and tidy phrasing also came through in a 16th-century Scottish Psalter setting of Psalm 133 ("Behold, how good and how pleasant"), which was used as a processional for the 11-voice ensemble.

Georg Philipp Telemann had the kind of public accessibility enjoyed by neither Buxtehude nor Bach. His cantata "Herr, wir liegen vor dir," displays his love of instrumental color, such as the paired flutes in the opening chorus. Soloing was brightly accomplished: the soprano aria with text (translated) of "Such righteousness as I own for myself is but a foul cloak" had its humility underlined with violin and viola pizzicatos. For pure, Handelian vigor, there was hardly a place more exciting in the whole program than the "rage" aria for bass, "Away, ye sins, do not grieve me!" It conveyed the feeling that for the truly righteous, sins don't stand a chance of taking root.

After intermission came a richly descriptive Bach cantata, "Christ lag in Todesbanden," an early composition with a crowning position in this program in part because it uses a text by Luther. In seven-line stanzas, each completed with "Hallelujah!," Luther meditates intensely on the meaning of Easter as proof that death is not final, but a transition into glory for Christian believers. 

The emphasis on the various emotions of this realization is complete: There's a dramatic line interruption after the word meaning "nothing" in the line "Nothing remains but death's form." In the next verse, the way the singers toss around the word "Spott" (mockery) illustrates that death is being made fun of conclusively. All this was feelingly performed, with fine solos by the bass, soprano Leah Crane, mezzo-soprano Mitzi Westra, and tenor David Smolokoff.

It's unavoidable to see in Luther's words the background of some of his insights in his digestive troubles (about which he wasn't secretive). The "bonds of death" immediately cited in the first line suggest the costiveness that plagued Luther. Earthly life is death's realm, and the prophecy of bodily death being itself devoured and gobbled up by eternal life is celebrated in just those terms.

For Luther, human existence requires the laxative of divine grace to be tolerable, and significantly, that grace is cast in terms of an Easter feast of nourishing food — presumably the kind that gets the soul's bowels to move: "Faith will live in no other way," exults the last line. Salvation is in large part the promise of relief.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

America's diva lends elegance and sparkle to ISO's Opening Night Gala concert

It's not often that a serious new work is the main feature of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's annual Opening Night Gala
Renee Fleming, known the world over, made her local debut Sunday.
concert, but so it was Sunday evening when Renee Fleming sang a three-year-old song cycle by Kevin Puts, "Letters from Georgia."

The 45-year-old composer was in attendance for the local premiere of his setting of letters by the 20th-century master painter Georgia O'Keeffe. Beforehand, he was brought onstage for a brief conversation about his composition with conductor Krzysztof Urbanski, who must be credited with having achieved a heightened comfort level speaking to audiences from the stage as he begins his seventh season as ISO music director.

It was remarkable from the Hilbert Circle Theatre concert's first notes that the orchestra was in a mood to bring an extra glow to songlike music. The aura of the guest star must have been working to account for the lyrical portions of Leonard Bernstein's Overture to "Candide" having such a firm, blossoming sound. Not that the dominating peppiness of the much-loved piece was absent, but a collective, coordinated relaxation into the work's melodic richness was evident.

Moments of lyricism impelled from within fill the five-part cycle. They helped establish the atmosphere of O'Keeffe's beloved Southwest in the first song, "Taos." The composer's subtlety in broadening the texture, sometimes thinning it out to encompass paradoxically both breathlessness and deep breathing, is displayed again and again. In "Taos," the lengthened phrases of "I just feel so like expanding here — way out to the horizon" were given sufficient amplitude by the soprano soloist and from the podium.

There were many touches of humor in "Violin," when the artist confides her roughness practicing that instrument, an offhand confession underlined by scratchy solos in this performance by Zach De Pue, who was probably thinking back to the grin-and-scratch directive under which he performed as a five- and six-year-old with the family band.

When putting some anxiety into his music, Puts shows restraint. There's a large, swelling sound from the soloist that Fleming handled smoothly at the start of "Ache," the third movement. And, without shifting the mood, dialing back the accompaniment to a piano in the second paragraph of O'Keeffe's love letter worked very well. Then the stage is set for a natural gathering of intensity as the movement reaches its climax.

"Friends," the penultimate song, is fully understated in its projection of loneliness, with brief solo passages for De Pue (this time allowed to move beyond scratching to his customary lyrical aplomb) reinforcing the feeling of isolation. The movement ends with quietly interwoven clarinets, wondrously played in this concert. "Canyon" is a finale without any obvious feeling of triumph, yet it ascends to convey the artist's seasoned acceptance of life's fragility amid the inexhaustible beauties of sky and prairie.

The ISO's fitness for the occasion was further signaled in its adept coloring of the many exciting contrasts of texture and feeling in Verdi's Overture to "La Forza del Destino." Again, the swooning episodes were vividly rendered, making the storm-and-stress portions sound all the more invigorated.

The Verdi served to enable Fleming to rest a little after the Puts work and to change gowns. She continued to make a firm impression in three selections from other Italian opera composers: Arrigo Boito, Giacomo Puccini, and Ruggero Leoncavallo.

The distracted mental state of Marguerite in "L'altra notte in fondo al mare" from "Mefistofele" was precisely projected, as the aria showed off the expressive weight of Fleming's low register. "O mio babbino caro" from "Gianni Schicchi" brought out an amazingly girlish sound from the 58-year-old soloist, ending with a marvelously held "pieta." After a picturesque rendition of Leoncavallo's "Mattinata," it was time for some encores.

Fleming was generous in response to the tumultuous ovation. The Song to the Moon from Dvorak's "Rusalka" was wistful and crystalline, and "I Could Have Danced All Night" paid a forward tribute to Fleming's Broadway debut next year, with the soloist enveloping the hall in extra charm as she invited an audience singalong.

But the biggest pleasant surprise of the evening was her imaginative take on Gershwin's "Summertime," with some variation on the original line quite appropriate to the idiom. Her phrasing was exquisite, especially near the end, when I detected from Urbanski's body language that he was as blown away by her performance as I was.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra adds to its distinguished record with the premiere of 'The Gennett Suite'

Over its 23 years of existence, the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra has accumulated an impressive record as a repertory band with a difference — an ensemble with as much in the way of creative as re-creative credentials.

The latest in its too infrequent schedule of concert appearances came Friday night at Indiana Landmarks Center on the penultimate day of the 2017 Indy Jazz Fest. Brent Wallarab, the co-founder and chief arranger, conducted the first performance of "The Gennett Suite," a celebration of a historically significant record label based in Richmond, Indiana. The outgrowth of the Starr Piano Factory, Gennett in its heyday also had a New York studio (Duke Ellington was among the future stars to have recorded there). Yet the discography of its home studio in the eastern Indiana town is quite distinguished on its own.

It was that activity in the early to mid-1920s that is highlighted in Wallarab's stunning three-movement suite, which puts some
Mark Buselli directs jazz studies at Ball State University.
of Gennett's famous first recordings in totally new contexts, with tight harmonies, a smattering of dissonance, and occasional bitonality. Because the first Gennett issues came in 1917, Wallarab's suite is primarily a centennial tribute to an early label, short-lived but significant; the updating of the Gennett sound is of course an unquestionably right decision.

The year 1917 turned out to be an important milestone for jazz, worth observing 100 years later. Not only were Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Ella Fitzgerald born in 1917, but Storyville (New Orleans' red-light district) was closed down then, prompting a migration of important musicians northward, where they established themselves in Chicago. Among them were Joe "King" Oliver and Louis Armstrong, making the recording opportunity Gennett extended to them practicable. Indiana-based musicians were also attracted to the opportunity to get their music preserved nearby while it was fresh.

Retired as a professional trombonist, Brent Wallarab focuses on  arranging and education.
Coincidentally, since our subject is recording, the first jazz record was made in January 1917 in New York, by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. A cut-up sort of ensemble whose legacy was tarnished by one of its leaders' inaccurate and probably racist claim that jazz itself originated with him and his colleagues, the ODJB today is practically a footnote in jazz history.

The whole matter of race and the "invention" of jazz is also clouded by the stance of Jelly Roll Morton, who is honored in the third and concluding movement of "The Gennett Suite." Morton's importance to jazz far exceeds the ODJB's, but as a proud Creole and reflective of New Orleans' virtual caste system, he was disdainful of black musicians. And he, too, thought he had invented jazz.

Gennett specifically marketed some of its product as "race records," and thus (unsurprisingly) there's no escaping the role of race in the popular arts, marketing divisions and so many other kinds of division in American society.

Now that Jelly Roll has come up, let's start with that finale, which involved fleshing out two famous Morton tunes from the piano solos that Gennett recorded on two successive days in July 1923. It's one of the particularly inspired portions of the suite. The slowing down of "King Porter Stomp," permitting the opportunity for the arrangement to build from Luke Gillespie's opening solo, was a great stroke. A hint of the heat to be put under the arrangement at its climax came in Rich Dole's glowing trombone solo. Jeff Conrad's muted trumpet solo and some soaring work by Tom Walsh on soprano sax were further high points. Then all was prepared for the last tune, "Grandpa's Spells," to bring the whole suite to a brilliant end, capped by a tense pause followed by a couple of full-ensemble blasts.

Walsh had another exciting solo in the first movement, Part 2, on "Chimes Blues," with a pertinent use of "stop-time" ensemble work, in which the tempo is maintained with regular ensemble punctuation behind the soloist marking the way forward. The wonderful band buildup behind Walsh's dialogue with trumpeter Jeff Conrad included duetting imitation and contrast. Part 3 also had some impressive soloing in dialogue, from trombonists Brennan John and Tim Coffman. The vehicle was the evergreen "Dippermouth Blues."

From the first, it was clear that Wallarab would want to do more than bring forward old music spookily preserved in musical formaldehyde. The creative arranging that has contributed so much to the stature of the BWJO — and the eagerness of many musicians over the years to participate in it — was fully in evidence in "The Gennett Suite." Interplay among the sections sometimes involved real counterpoint, with lines poised against each other more than momentarily. No inspiration was allowed to get stagnant through repetition or the manipulation of cliches. The listener was able to find bursts of familiarity continually enlivened by new contexts.

Wallarab told me after the concert that further performances of "The Gennett Suite" are not scheduled, and no recording is planned. His hopes lie in that direction, of course, and so presumably do those of many who heard the premiere Friday night. At least some sense of the permanence of Wallarab's contributions to jazz in the area, and those of his colleague and BWJO co-founder Buselli, was provided to the appreciative crowd by the induction of both men into the Indianapolis Jazz Hall of Fame.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Not quite for kids, Phoenix's 'Fun Home' is still a family show for all kinds of families

The saddest stage of memory loss is probably when family memories disappear. It's a sure bet you'll be able to test your hold on your
Alison at work on words and drawings from life.
own — the good ones and bad ones alike —  if you go to "Fun Home," the award-winning musical now making its local debut in a Phoenix Theatre production.

The unique appeal of this show is that its evocation of family life is specific, even peculiar, and at the same time contains so many circumstances of family life in general to speak to. Based on the graphic novel of the same title by Alison Bechdel, "Fun Home" is set in a small Pennsylvania town. Provincialism provides ballast for the risky cosmopolitanism of Bruce and Helen's marriage, but also exposes its fault lines. Bruce is a pillar of the community — a whiz at home restoration, a high-school teacher, and the proprietor of a funeral home. He's also subject to fits of temper and more damaging difficulties with self-control.

Bechdel's autobiographical narrative, focusing on what she learned about herself and her parents' troubled relationship, is shot through with her artistic as well as personal development. This has landed her in the thumbnail-sketch position of "lesbian cartoonist," as she sums up at one point when contrasting herself with her father. They are alike in both harboring same-sex attraction and thus struggling to resolve identity issues.

Alison's resolution occurs in college; Bruce's never arrives, from which difficulty his tragedy ensues. To give depth to this story, with its layers of mystery and revelation, Alison is given threefold representation. Small Alison displays the rambunctious tomboy, sensing her orientation early; Medium Alison is a college freshman resisting who she is and dreading coming out to parents she sees as repressed (Helen) and controlling (Bruce).

The design of the show is winning, because the significance of art and the powers of observation that an artistic sensibility requires provide framework, impetus, and setting for Alison's maturation. Lisa Kron's book balances the stages of Alison's awareness adroitly; the three-way division of the character allows the mature Alison to observe and comment on her younger selves. Her awareness of Bruce's hidden life becomes part of her insistence on establishing personal integrity. That project never took hold in the divided consciousness of her father.

Phoenix founding member Suzanne Fleenor directs the production, which benefits immeasurably from Cynthia Collins' portrayal of Alison. On opening night Thursday, Collins wore Alison's years of painful and triumphant self-knowledge authentically. Experience, ultimately liberating but sporadically shattering, seemed etched in her face. Kron had the brilliant notion to cross the temporal planes at one point so that the middle-aged Alison is riding in a car driven by her father in place of the Medium Alison she was at the time, hoping for a frank talk with Bruce about sexual identity. The full ache of this unsatisfactory conversation came through in the scene, keyed to the song "Telephone Wire."

The songs (by Kron and Jeanine Tesori), with accompaniment by an ensemble upstage and aloft, reflected well both the intimate and exuberant moments of this peculiar household's life, carried out in a museum-like setting keenly represented here by Jim Ream's elaborate, looming set. The  musical style is a mix of arioso and set-piece songs, quite well-paced and able to highlight the emotional temperature of the action at every point.

Though many songs that can stand alone have come from the musical stage, I prefer to receive them as necessarily embedded in the drama and serving as integral a purpose as, say, the set and lighting (credit to Jeffery Martin here). So, one reason why the show's hit "Ring of Keys" works so well as Small Allison's wide-eyed prepubescent realization of her identity is that the melodic line has little pauses before each item the budding lesbian cartoonist admires about the deliverywoman she sees one day. What she sees and what she feels are well-joined in "Ring of Keys." The song serves the drama impeccably. Its rendition opening night by Amelia Wray was, like her whole performance, winning in every phrase, gesture, and facial expression.

Centering Ivy Moody's performance as Medium Alison was another ideally placed song, "Changing My Major," an ecstatic celebration of first love. Something about the staging here, however, was a little off-putting. The college student's new girlfriend, Joan (given worldly wise acuity by Teneh B.C. Karimu) was partly in view on the bed behind Medium Allison; the unevenly covering blanket may have been an accident. In any case, it seems to me we should hardly have been aware of the actual Joan so that we could sink into Medium Allison's erotically charged description of her.

The songs reach deeply into the characters, such as Helen's "Days and Days" (strongly rendered by Emily Ristine) and Bruce's "Edges of the World" (a high point of Eric J. Olson's performance). They also take detours into pizazz, such as the three kids' mock commercial "Come to the Fun Home" and the full-company fantasy production number, "Raincoat of Love." Kron and Tesori give their regards to Broadway just enough, stopping short of anything that would  undercut Alison Bechdel's absorbing story. This virtue is capped by the beautiful trio that ends "Fun Home," sung by the three Alisons. With their arms spread wide, you are likely to feel they are inviting you to spread your arms as well — if only in memory.

{Photo by Ed Stewart]

Thursday, September 21, 2017

'Loyal Cuban guy' proud of his American success as 'straight-ahead jazz drummer' makes Indy Jazz Fest visit

Ignacio Berroa spent ten years as Dizzy Gillespie's drummer — a hiring milestone for the superstar musician who had long the Jazz Kitchen,  Gillespie didn't engage him to play Latin percussion, but to be the sole man behind the trap set driving his band no matter what the musical idiom.
Ignacio Berroa focuses fruitfully at the Jazz Kitchen.
cultivated the fusion of Cuban music and bebop. As Berroa put it plainly Wednesday night when he brought his Cubop Quintet to

In its short first set as part of the 2017 Indy Jazz Fest, the quintet sailed through a half-dozen tunes associated with Gillespie, who came into his own with the birth of bebop in the 1940s and remained active until shortly before his death in 1993. Near the end, as was clear in a Clowes Hall appearance I reviewed for the Indianapolis Star, he had next to no breath support for the instrument on which he remains one of the handful of major innovators. The 19-year-old Indianapolis festival has taken note of the birth centennials of Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, and (somewhat meagerly) Thelonious Monk.

Berroa's group sounded fully compatible Wednesday, projecting the self-confidence of a much more seasoned ensemble. Musical director John Zappa played a blazing trumpet, nimble like Gillespie's but with a stinging tone effectively recalling Indianapolis' own Freddie Hubbard.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with him in the front line was J.D. Allen, a tenor saxophonist whose playing ranged over the instrument's entire compass; he was thrilling in the lower register, and generally eschewed the piercing, partly shredded sound at the top, except for "A Night in Tunisia" — giving free rein to a notion that ought to have been resisted. His solos generally followed the reassuring Lester Young dictum: "Tell me a story."

Hard-digging pianist Mike Darrah showed lots of rhythmic punch throughout the set. I liked how he helped define the rhythmic contour through slight hesitations punctuating the line. I treasured his Monk-like solo on "Ow," one of the few Gillespie tunes I'm certain was played in the first set. There were no tune announcements except before the one that didn't need it: the finale — "A Night in Tunisia."

I connected with Gillespie's "Ow" in part because of its basis in the chord changes of "I Got Rhythm." That Gershwin song has more abundant "contrafacts" (the term used for jazz melodies based on other songs) than any other. I thought I was hearing "Whispering" as the underpinning of the next-to-last piece, so I'm guessing that was "Groovin' High." Dizzy Gillespie is part of the wide spectrum of my jazz listening, but I often come across familiar music that I can't put a name to. That's how things stood Thursday night; the first three pieces I'm not about to hazard a guess about. Contributions and corrections are welcome!

"Salt Peanuts," one of the few Gillespie tunes I never fail to recognize (who can forget President Jimmy Carter's rendition of the refrain during a jazz celebration at the White House?), was quoted briefly in Darrah's solo in the opening number.

Bassist Aaron Jacobs stayed mostly in the background, but seemed to be lending unerring support to his colleagues.

Berroa took his only extensive solo to launch what I think was "Groovin' High," starting on tom-toms and cohesively expanding his patterns to the whole kit. His accompaniments were always geared to what the sidemen were doing. I particularly liked his vigorous comping — always complementary, never dominating —  behind Darrah on "Tunisia," a predictably high-spirited version that ended on notes of splendor in out-of-tempo cadenzas by Zappa and Allen.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The President Addresses the UN General Assembly, the world gasps

I've used this tune before, but it really fits well in responding to Donald Trump's blustering address to the United Nations the other day. To be sure, there's a bad moon rising.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Randy Brecker: Indy Jazz Fest welcomes back to Naptown a durable trumpeter-bandleader-composer

Randy Brecker and I are contemporaries, so it was a coincidental boost to my mental hold on youth to appreciate how robust a
Portrait time at the Jazz Kitchen: Kenny Phelps (from left), Rob Dixon, Randy Brecker, Nick Tucker, and Steve Allee.
trumpeter he remains after decades before the public.

The trumpeter turns 72 at the end of November; I dialed up that number on Sunday at the Jazz Kitchen, where Brecker was the Indy Jazz Fest's guest star with a band of local all-stars known as the Indianapolis Jazz Collective.

A clever composer with a puckish sense of humor, Brecker opened his first set leading the quintet through his "There's a Mingus Amonk Us," the punning title reflecting inspiration from 20th-century jazz titans Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk. Both the bassist and the pianist were highly influential to jazzmen during the formative years of Randy and his brother Michael, a powerful tenor saxophonist who died 10 years ago.

The tune starts out Monkish, with quirky harmonies and short phrases, then easily passes into the smoother but characteristically rambunctious style of Mingus. There were solo choruses all around, then exchanges — first eight bars each, then four,  between the hornmen and pianist on one hand, the drummer on the other. This is often the kind of format that pick-up small groups employ to get everyone used to each other; it quickly appeared that minimal rehearsal beforehand had been sufficient to get the band into high gear.

Brecker obviously admired his sidemen for the occasion: tenor saxophonist Rob Dixon, pianist Steve Allee, bassist Nick Tucker, and drummer Kenny Phelps. He expressed his pleasure in between songs along with a few brief stories on his works' origins. "Shanghigh," for example, not surprisingly came out of an experience involving recreational drugs in China. Disco music was involved at the time, and so this peppy piece proceeded over a a steady disco beat.

Dixon, playing a horn new to him while his regular axe is in the shop, sounded remarkably at home. Though he always sounds like himself, he seemed to be channeling the Brecker brothers' roots in Philadelphia r&b and back beyond that to John Coltrane (who was based in the City of Brotherly Love for a while). There were "sheets-of-sound" aspects in his solo that channeled early and middle Coltrane, modified by Michael's bar-walking affinity for funky pop, a genre adapted profitably for jazz in the 1970s by the Brecker Brothers band.

Also notable in "Shanghigh" was the firm yet understated underpinning Phelps gave to Tucker's solo. The coming-together of disparate experiences continued with  "O Corko Mio," an attractive piece written by Brecker's wife, Ada Rovatti, an adept saxophonist who's part of the trumpeter's regular touring band. The theme is rooted in aspects of Irish folk music, the band having been working in Ireland at the time she wrote it. In one of his well-articulated solos, Brecker drew on both the florid lyricism of his wife's Italian homeland and the modal characteristics of the Celtic tradition. I liked the witty manner with which Allee climaxed his solo with chiming chords. Phelps followed with an effervescent solo before the end.

Brecker graciously included a piece each by Allee and Dixon. Allee's "Ebony" had the urban elan of his memorable compositions for "New York in the Fifties," the TV realization of a Dan Wakefield memoir. Dixon's enchanting "Twilight Dusk" brought forth from the saxophonist a solo that made his ownership of the material crystal-clear. There was some simultaneous improvisation in the hornmen's paraphrased return to the tune near the end.

In between, everyone got a chance to stop reading charts to offer "Body and Soul," which drew particularly rich lyricism from Brecker. The well-received set ended with a romp through Brecker's "Free Fall," which righted itself superbly after a false start.

Apart from his well-preserved chops and the oomph and brilliance that continue to come out when he plays, Brecker also struck a chord with me when he made gentle fun of the ubiquitous shortening of the city's name to "Indy." "We used to call it Naptown," he said in his first spoken interlude to the full house. He used the old nickname without a trace of disparagement, but accompanied "Indy" with a little eye-rolling. Exactly!

"Naptown" never implied that Indianapolis suffered from narcolepsy, I believe, while "Indy" always sounds a  bit like baby talk to me. Hey, I'm an old man. I don't have to make my peace with "Indy." So, kudos to the Indy Jazz Fest for bringing Randy Brecker back to Naptown.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Dr. Lonnie Smith heats up the Jazz Kitchen to complement the current weather's warming trend

The distinctive Hammond B-3 master out of Buffalo, N.Y., made a return visit to the Indy Jazz Fest two years after his
Dr. Lonnie Smith takes care of business with evident joy in IJF appearance.
last engagement, distributing fitful elegance and pervasive powerhouse effects during a second set Saturday at the Jazz Kitchen.

Dr. Lonnie Smith, with a title that has become part of his name and an honorific by extension of the high regard in which he is held, brought his touring trio to the Northside club for two sets.

He mingled with patrons between sets, and cemented his rapport with the public during a climactic piece in which he walked the aisles playing his growling, rumbling, wailing electronic cane.

These were characteristics of his appearance in 2015 as well, when, I must admit, my overall impression was more favorable. Introduced by Tony Monaco, an Ohio organist with quite a local following who shared this weekend's "Organ Summit" festival programming, Smith and his trio presented an emotionally expansive but tidy hourlong set to conclude his latest appearance here. The organist is on tour with guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Xavier Breaker.

The trio opened with "Mellow Mood,"  a cumulatively fiery piece that (Smith admitted with a chuckle) didn't stay true to its title, not that anyone minded. It proved an exciting opener, with Kreisberg's long-lined solo yielding to Smith's overarching mastery. He has a way of driving a figure almost into the ground just before he varies it. At his best, Smith has a superb feeling for dramatic effect: In the second number, "Alhambra," he made the most of an upward-creeping pattern on the bridge. His solo reflected that later in gargantuan terms, rumbling up from the depths of the keyboard. The trio put together a climax as if out of nowhere, capped by organ trills, before moving into double time near the end.

Smith erects signposts on the way to key changes that build audience anticipation. Surprises abound when a ballad is undertaken; the fourth song in the set, for instance, metamorphosed subtly when Breaker introduced a strong backbeat pattern.

Stretching his audience's ears considerably, Smith turned to other electronic keyboards for a long introduction to a fast-moving piece. The introduction — with its drifting, otherworldly manner and crunchy harmonies, through which was threaded a synthetic muted-trumpet solo — sounded like a lost Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration from a couple of galaxies over.  Then, after the aforementioned ballad, Smith ended the set with his "cane scrutiny" number before returning to the Hammond B-3 to wrap things up.

Good showmanship, as usual, from the doctor. But to me there was less clarity than on the Dr. Lonnie CDs I'm familiar with or to the best of my concert recollection from two years ago. Some of the reliable mannerisms of his style seemed more to be felt than firmly etched this time around. Though not lacking in energy and flashes of imagination, the hard-hitting Breaker didn't strike me as an ideal partner for the guitarist, who was always intense but a model of debonair control. Fortunately, Smith was able to mediate between them with an old pro's zeal and savoir-faire.

The trio worked compatibly enough, but not at the same high level as formerly. Yet, with a half-century career for him to build upon, there can be no doubt that experiencing Dr. Lonnie Smith is like visiting a monument — the kind that will never be removed from its pedestal.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Saturday, September 16, 2017

A view past identity politics toward an embrace of difference: ATI's 'La Cage aux Folles' conveys the impact with glitz and authenticity

Power couple: ZaZa (Don Farrell) and Georges (Bill Book)
The conservative politician concerned to impose his narrow vision on society is a fixture of America today. In "La Cage aux Folles," he gets his comeuppance in a manner consistent with the score-settling gusto typical of French farce. That harks back to the play upon which the Harvey Fierstein/Jerry Herman musical of the same name is based.

But the 1983 musical comedy that opened Actors Theatre of Indiana's season Friday night at the Center for the Performing Arts' Studio Theatre  has a more satisfying theme than the just deserts visited upon self-righteous bigotry. And that is the enduring vitality of relationships built on mutual acceptance, but ultimately resting on a foundation of willingness to change as a result, to love beyond what you are used to.

Set on the French Riviera in the not-too-distant past, "La Cage aux Folles" is at the edge of seeming dated, except for the energy it puts into what's required to live authentically outside "the norm" (the scare quotes seem inevitable). The nightclub of the title, its brand built on the zesty naughtiness of performers in drag, rests upon the professional and personal romance of proprietor/emcee Georges and Albin, who as ZaZa is the multifaceted marquee name of La Cage aux Folles.

Georges' early liaison with a woman, an affair he chooses to characterize as accidental, resulted in a son, Jean-Michel. Raised largely by Albin, he's now about to definitively express his heterosexual identity by marrying the nubile Anne, independent-minded daughter of the aforementioned conservative politician and his officially dutiful wife. The conflict that puts the fizz in this highball is a meet-the-parents visit that would make the demonstratively gay Albin an encumbrance, imperiling the match's prospects of success.

The resolution of this dilemma is of course anything but smooth. It demands much from everyone in the know about the host household — expressed with saucy resistance by Jacob, Georges' maid/butler, and with a nagging campaign by the desperate Jean-Michel — but largely falling upon Albin's sleek, vulnerable shoulders.

Don Farrell sounds all conceivable comic notes of the character, as well as the pathos of the self-sacrifice Albin is called upon to make. His performance as ZaZa of "I Am What I Am," an adaptation of the brilliantly staged earlier production number "We Are What We Are," made for a rousing finale to the first act on opening night.

Farrell's ZaZa impersonation, winsome and provocative, was striking enough to render his scenes as Albin — hissy fits and
In the end, the enduring partnership of Albin and Georges is reaffirmed.
pained tenderness alike —  thoroughly credible. The portrayal contrasted appropriately with the blithe accommodation Georges is accustomed to make between his public and private selves in Bill Book's polished performance. The discrepancy between the drag queen and "the plain homosexual" (Georges' self-description) was believably bridged by the genuine rapport that Farrell and Book projected under Larry Raben's astute direction.

With the central relationship so well defined in this production, the show's underlying theme thrives both beneath and beside the manic comedy and vividly costumed and choreographed representation of La Cage's entertainment product. Kudos to Stephen R. Hollenbeck and Carol Worcel, respectively, crowned by the spectacular wigs and makeup of Daniel Klingler, who also plays Jacob.

That theme is the hard-won but essential respect that intimacy requires if it is to last. Not the kind of contractual respect summed up in the Aretha Franklin hit, but rather something Feierstein articulated in the final scene of his near-masterpiece "Torch Song Trilogy." when the hero Arnold's mother defends how she raised her children: "I wanted them to respect me because they wanted to."

Les Cagelles, the resident troupe supporting ZaZa, frolic in "La Cage aux Folles."
In "La Cage aux Folles," the respect finally comes to Albin because the other characters, chiefly the single-minded Jean-Michel, want to extend it to him. If you have to call it the show's message, OK — it's a message. It comes through in Georges' wonderful second-act solo,"Look Over There," later adopted by Jean-Michel after the pivotal production number "The Best of Times."

Sean Haynes is an earnest Jean-Michel who moves from self-absorbed plotting to a genuine change of heart. Throughout, Jerry Herman's songs both sparkle and stick in the mind and heart. Directed by Levi Burke, they are brightly performed in this production, with well-coordinated accompaniments from an offstage band that is sometimes a little too insistent. Wishing to avoid a check list covering the whole cast, I need at least to salute the well-integrated vigor of everyone's acting, singing and dancing.

Long before "La Cage," an influential book by sociologist Erving Goffman, "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life," used theatrical analogies to demonstrate how direct interaction between people makes us all not only actors but also playwrights and, to a considerable degree, the burgeoning production team of a perpetually workshopped project. We act as the persons we believe we are in part to shape others' responses to us and to create compatible environments for the selves we inhabit.

That truth is fully fleshed out in "La Cage aux Folles" with this production's smoothly interacting backstage and onstage milieus and a degree of character development that goes well beyond farce. The audience itself balances on this fulcrum as the truth enunciated by "Torch Song Trilogy"'s Ma hits home: We can't demand respect for who we are; we have to find ways to persuade other people, especially those we care most about, to want to respect us.

It's all show biz, but, given these terms, what's so bad about that?

[Production photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, September 15, 2017

Themed 'Hip Then, Hip Now,' Indy Jazz Fest looks to past glories while asserting present ones as well

Rob Dixon was bandleader and emcee as Indy Jazz Fest 2017 got under way.
Thelonious Monk's enduring companion and patient wife, Nellie, once said memorably of her often cryptic genius husband that he had "a marvelous sense of withdrawal."

Apparently, that trait applies posthumously as well, at least as far as the 2017 Indy Jazz Fest is concerned. As the 19th annual festival got under way at the University of Indianapolis, Monk was withdrawn from what had been advertised as a tripartite tribute concert to the birth centennials of three jazz giants. The other two are Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, who were duly celebrated in a 90-minute concert of generally high quality at the University of Indianapolis.

1917 is to jazz what 1685 is to classical music's baroque era, when three geniuses first saw the light of day — J.S. Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Domenico Scarlatti.

Mark Buselli was occasionally Dizzyesque.
Program length may have been a consideration, yet it seems the unique pianist-composer — whose contributions to the music are still widely enjoyed and take many developing musicians profitably to school — could have been troweled into the program somewhere. His best-known piece, "'Round Midnight," might  have gotten an outing. If a quirky masterpiece like "Criss Cross" had been considered a little out there, one of his funky-sided tunes, like "I Mean You," would have been a natural. And if "'Round Midnight" had been the choice, there is a natural tie-in to one of the other honorees, because Gillespie contributed material at the beginning and end of the song that is usually considered an essential part of it, the way Barney Bigard's original clarinet solo in "Mood Indigo" became fused to the Duke Ellington composition.

I'm sure this excellent sextet knows its Monk: saxophonist Dixon, trumpeter and congas player Mark Buselli, trombonist Ernest Stuart, pianist Steve Allee, bassist Nick Tucker, and drummer Kenny Phelps. We heard good things from them in the Gillespie numbers: Buselli's plunger-muted solo in "Birks Works," following upon Allee's tidy, deep-rooted blues playing; Stuart's exuberant showcase in "Manteca," setting the stage for a delicious congas-drums duet bringing forward the excellence of the Buselli-Phelps partnership; and tenorman Dixon's  forthright staking of claims on "Groovin' High" territory.

Yvonne Allu held up the Ella end of the tribute concert.
True, Stuart sometimes sounded unfocused and scattered in his soloing, especially on "Groovin' High." And Tucker's typically alert work on bass came across somewhat blurred — the well-managed sound system still has disadvantages in the Ruth Lilly Performance Hall where jazz is concerned. Tucker was clearest, joined to the subtlest of Phelps accompaniments, in "Birks Works."

Nonetheless, the pacing and variety of the show worked well, with instrumentalists taking turns sitting out now and then. There were several beautiful endings, drawing hushed audience responses before the applause.

The Ella portions of the concert were competently handled by vocalist Yvonne Allu.  She has a heavier instrument than Ella's, but she deployed it tastefully.  I missed hearing a few scat choruses on "How High the Moon," where Fitzgerald was accustomed to showing off her virtuosity.  But Allu went briefly into scatting elsewhere, and her spontaneity reached in the direction of Fitzgerald's genius for paraphrasing a melody. "Summertime" really rocked, and "Night and Day" featured an exquisite partnership between the singer and Buselli's flugelhorn.

As an ensemble achievement, "Manteca" came across a little lead-footed, though it always stirs up excitement. More cohesive, in part because the composition has a more interesting structure, was "A Night in Tunisia." Ahead of a performance late in his career with the United Nation Orchestra (whose drummer, Ignacio Berroa, brings his band to the festival next Wednesday at the Jazz Kitchen), Gillespie hilariously (and accurately) said of his classic: "It has withstood the vicissitudes of the contingent world and moved in an odyssey into the realm of the metaphysical."

No one could have put it better. And whatever that description may mean, the Indy Jazz Fest Band seemed to embody it Thursday night, no more so than in the flamboyant break with which Buselli launched his trumpet solo — Dizzyesque to the nth degree and harking back to a similar break taken in the golden age of bebop by Gillespie's confrere, Charlie Parker. That's metaphysical, bruthuh!

[Photos by Mark Sheldon]

Monday, September 11, 2017

Clarity, insight, and power: Nikita Mndoyants, 2016 winner of the Cleveland International Piano Competition, plays a 'Grand Encounters' recital for APA

Among other accomplishments of his recital Sunday afternoon in the Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall at Butler University, Nikita Mndoyants shared a fresh outlook on the much worked-upon 24th Paganini Caprice. Long a favorite of composers to rhapsodize upon and submit to variation, the last number of the violin virtuoso's Op. 1 had the Mndoyants stamp put upon it a decade ago, according to the American Pianists Association's "Grand Encounters" program book.

Nikita Mndoyants played a brilliant solo recital Sunday afternoon as APA's guest.
The winner of the 2016 Cleveland International Piano Competition showed his gifts as a composer, too, when he returned to the stage after intermission to play his Variations on a Theme of Paganini (2007). Launched with isolated notes abstracted from the theme, the work soon lands on the familiar tune, but quickly springs free of literalism.

There is obviously no need to mirror what has already been done memorably by Rachmaninoff, Lutoslawski, Brahms, and Liszt, even with novel harmonies.

So Mndoyants sets a free fantasy upon the melody, using its contours and characteristic rhythmic flow with great originality. He looks askance at it even as he celebrates it. There is a quasi-fugal episode and other indications that the composer-pianist knew how to apply a wealth of techniques to familiar material.

But what was most striking to me was Mndoyants' evident insight into the embedded mood of Paganini's original: The first part of the tune is brightly assertive; the second half is veiled in mystery, swirling downward as if in counterstatement to what precedes it.  Mndoyants has something to say that's more than clever; he pays tribute to the caprice's immortality. The composition shows what makes the 24th Caprice a permanent, tantalizing icon, like the Mona Lisa. What's more, Mndoyants' piece ends with — what else? — a capricious flourish. All in all, quite an accomplishment for a teenage pianist-composer.

Also impressive was the second half's companion piece, the formidable Eighth Piano Sonata (in B-flat, op. 84) of Sergei Prokofiev. Mndoyants made sense of the sprawling, knotty first movement, Andante dolce, in a way previously unavailable to me as a listener. Despite the heading, the movement isn't predominantly sweet; it presents a host of vexations to both pianist and audience. Mndoyants laid everything out clearly. The long, sinuous phrases that justify the "dolce" directive were nicely proportioned and wonderfully balanced. The work's greatness is unmistakably established in a performance of this sort, though the slow movement, Andante sognando, strikes me as unworthy of it. Despite its imaginative treatment, the theme itself is sentimental, close to salon music.

Enter, gratifyingly, the motoric drive and buoyancy of the finale. Mndoyants' rhythmically crisp and dynamically varied performance was delightful.  Even in the most finger-busting toccatalike passages, he displayed an uncanny variety of touch. You never got the feeling he was just barreling through all the excitement. The audience's tumultuous approval elicited two Baroque encores: Rameau's "Le rappel des oiseaux" and Purcell's Ground in C minor.

In the first half,  Mndoyants' mastery had already been quite evident. He brought an extra buzz to intermission conversation with a spectacular performance of Liszt's "concert paraphrase" of Wagner's Overture to Tannhäuser. The Pilgrims' Chorus, one of the noblest tunes in early Wagner opera, ranges from stately and pious to overwhelming in its first appearance. But that proves to be just a warm-up for the hurricane force (I wonder why that image popped into my head) of its return. The returning pilgrims have brought from Rome the green, leafy miracle of the Pope's staff, signaling Tannhäuser's rescue from the sensuous distractions of Venusberg.

Liszt, with his sharp sense of the tussle between virtue and vice (his girlfriend, Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, was trying to extricate herself from a failed marriage at the time), certainly wanted to bring the full resources of the piano to his future son-in-law's depiction of the conflict. Mndoyants was equal to the task of representing the music's daunting spectrum of emotion and sonority.

The recital opened with Beethoven's Six Bagatelles, Op. 126, a set of miniatures hard to encompass with any brief description — music expressing the stubborn freedom of the prematurely aged composer,  totally bereft of hearing beyond what his imagination could produce for him. At first, the live acoustics of the Eidson-Duckwall seemed to require more of a scaling back from Mndoyants than he was willing to provide. The necessary adjustments were made by the third bagatelle, and its soft-spoken fleetness was fully engaged. The ebb and flow of dynamics in the sixth piece sounded fully responsive to the environment. Like just about everything else in this recital, the performance confirmed the pianist's fitness for whatever he applies himself to.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Catalyst Repertory takes us to hilarious and heart-wrenching mistakes by the lake in "The Seagull"

Fascinated like everyone else by sobering reminders that nature is still in charge, I happened to have as the last image on my iPhone before the start Friday of Catalyst Repertory Company's production of "The Seagull" a short video of the Angel of Independence monument in Mexico City. A tall structure of the type represented locally by the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, it was swaying metronomically from the effect of the huge earthquake hundreds of miles away.

The metronome divides time in adjustable units to aid musicians. We invented time and devices to measure it to order our response to natural cycles and events. Inevitably, they now chop up our workaday lives to the millisecond. The world of "The Seagull" lies in the peculiar suspension of time that Anton Chekhov was so good at populating.

Set by a Russian lake at the turn of the last century, "The Seagull" situates a few seismic events in the midst of anxiety about what to expect from the passage of time. The play is saturated with the sense that things are happening elsewhere or in a vaguely sensed future—  or were missed in a regrettable past. The characters nurture fleeting hopes and frustrations in a superficially idyllic setting  far removed from the original timeless paradise: Eden before the Fall.

Would-be actress Nina, thwarted by her family, is fascinated by the bitter idealist Treplev.
Casey Ross' direction is responsive to the Chekhovian pace. Opening night at Grove Haus, despite the inevitable distraction of the former church's stained-glass windows and the set's indications of a tight budget, conveyed the atmosphere as well. Life in the country pushes to the forefront card games, long walks, and fishing, but also flashes visions in restless heads of a more significant life. Loving the right person, pursuing the right career are matters that leisure tends to throw into high relief, often making it less relaxing than it should be.

Treplev (I'm using the program's versions of character names) is a morose, struggling writer attempting to break free of his actress mother's eminence by trying to realize new artistic forms. He may have a smidgen of talent, but he has no resources and not much of a foothold on life. Arkadina (his mother's pretentious stage name) is vain about her importance in conventional theater and fixated on the trappings of success, which include a prolific writer, Trigorn, whom she's taken on somewhat anxiously as her young lover. Visits to her brother Sorin's country estate accentuate her buoyant self-regard, in contrast to Sorin's dour semi-invalidism, represented well (though sometimes inaudibly) by Dennis Forkel.

Always "on," Arkadina holds forth expansively, as Dorn and Masha listen.
Eleven months ago in Carmel, Catalyst patrons got to take in Taylor Cox and Nan Macy in the much different son/mother conflict of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus."  Both actors benefit from the less heightened language of Chekhov's play. When they needed to rise to levels of shattering emotional distress in "The Seagull," the contrast from their characters' steadier moments (of which Treplev has few) presented them more three-dimensionally. Their long verbal duel after Arkadina has solicitously tended to Treplev's superficial head wound (from an ominous suicide attempt) was riveting, and set against their better selves.

Thomas Cardwell, trailing clouds of glory behind him as the debonair Trigorn, projects the self-confidence of a man accustomed to trimming his sails to the prevailing winds. Someone once said, if you can fake sincerity, you've got it made. Cardwell's Trigorn is a master, no more so than in a long dialogue with the ingenuous would-be actress Nina, played with admirable delicacy, veiling fierce desperation, by Ann Marie Elliott. Strongly discouraged from pursuing her dreams by her father and his second wife, two unseen characters of formidable influence, Nina latches on to Treplev's fey avant-gardism at first, despite her well-grounded sense that the figures he sets up for the stage are lifeless. His mood swings become truly alarming, and given Nina's misadventures after leaving her hostile parents, fully shatter her.

Treplev works under a dangerously intense light.
This brings up a risk that Chekhov cultivated: daring the audience to find his characters, in their banality and outsize passions alike, tiresome at length. The production fully embraces that risk, and the long, bitter dialogue between Nina and Treplev near the end prompts the thought: These people and their problems are tedious. I believe arousing such reactions in the audience is something Chekhov turned to advantage. Real people are, after all, often tiresome. I think this legacy can be seen in the works of two recently deceased American playwrights, among others: Sam Shepard and Edward Albee. (Who has seen even a good performance of "The Zoo Story" without wanting to scream?) We are fascinated by the people in "The Seagull" partly because they threaten to wear us down as well as one another.

In Nina's full-spectrum meltdown, I also found notes appropriate to many portrayals of Ophelia's mad scene in "Hamlet." Elliott credibly presented a pulverized personality, like Polonius' daughter distributing flowers. There are a few outright indications of Shakespeare's masterpiece in "The Seagull" that have been noted by others before me, including direct quotes. The parallels, tweaked just enough and spread around different characters to avoid parody, are too plentiful to go into here. But they are there from the first scene, when the lovelorn schoolteacher Medivenko, played with exquisite awkwardness by Bradford Reilly, asks the bored Masha (Emily Bohn) why she always dresses in mourning clothes. When we first see the main characters in "Hamlet," the question of the hero's persistent black garb is also raised.

"The Seagull" also has a Polonius character, the physician Dorn (played with smug sensitivity by Craig Kemp). Because this is a comedy, believe it or not, Polonius survives, his good advice consorting easily with his fatuousness. And in Cardwell's Trigorn, more than a few accents of the smarmy, masterful King Claudius are displayed. In the staging of a fraught conversation between Arkadina and Trigorn, with the aging actress clinging to her lover's leg, I felt I was seeing in satirical terms Hamlet's conception of his mother's pathetic devotion to the usurping king.

Ross took chances with the play's foundation in comedy, but they always worked. Antony Nathan's Shamrayeff and Kyrsten Lyster's Paulina are the obstreperous servants of comic tradition. In this production, Treplev's shooting down of the gull has the artlessness of cheap farce about it. The symbolism he attaches to his act is thus firmly undercut by the ridiculousness of his self-delusion as a world-changing artistic innovator. He's a nebbishy Hamlet fit for a revenge comedy, a one-man circular firing squad.

The Earth continues to move, as it always does, the Angel of Independence sways upon her foundation, and there is no world for us without time and its catastrophes. It may not take a gratuitously shot and stuffed bird to remind us of that, but "The Seagull" helps.

[Photos by Gary Nelson]