Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Petri dish of a play: Small-town Texas grows a peculiar culture in Beef & Boards' "Greater Tuna"

It's tempting to read into the production of "Greater Tuna" on the cusp of the New Year a politically
Townsladies Vera and Pearl look down witheringly on the deceased Judge.
tinged scaling back. It feels like a narrowing in ambition, scope, and humanity from the company's counterpart at the turn of last year, the somewhat perplexing but captivating murder-mystery-comedy "Shear Madness."

Seen Saturday night at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, "Greater Tuna" winds down the farcical elements to a couple of virtuoso displays in the realm of caricature, handled with energetic abandon by B&B favorites Jeff Stockberger and Eddie Curry.

It's difficult to put aside the play's barrage of comic barbs directed at small-town life, particularly with conventionally benighted Texas as the exclusive target. Urban for almost my whole life, I may appear oddly ill-at-ease about the dismissal urbanites often direct toward America in the boondocks. "Greater Tuna" occasioned much discomfort on that score.

Bertha (Eddie Curry) upbraids Charlene (Jeff Stockberger).
Framed by claustrophobically folksy broadcasts from the local radio station, with its puny wattage in the high three figures, "Greater Tuna" presents a series of mostly noisy, often bizarre characters who rarely stray into intelligence. Frankly, with the dubious exception of some vengeful scheming by Tuna's juvenile delinquent, the town's residents are dumb as rocks. And I'm entertaining the possibility that I've just insulted rocks.

Okay, that personal cringing is out of the way. Main thing on the positive side: Stockberger and Curry managed wholeheartedly the rapidly shifting parade of characterizations, aided by four dressing assistants.  That crucial team took a well-deserved curtain call, having helped the co-stars manage wig and garb changes. Continuity was partly assured by patches of offstage dialogue, yet the split-second slides from one character to the next owed much to this assistance as well as the actors' adroitness.

The show that tourists crane necks to see at Munich's New Town Hall.
Playwrights Jaston Williams, Ed Howard and Joe Sears have threaded aspects of two dozen characters' lives through one another, so a kind of narrative skein emerges that stands out much more in Act 2 than in Act 1. Nonetheless, the individual portrayals the two-member cast etches so vividly tend to dominate. Each short scene seems to occupy its own circumscribed and ridiculous universe.

Looking at each scene with fascination (if not as much amusement as intended, however)  brought to mind the experience I had more than a half-century ago in Munich, gazing up at the town-hall clock and watching figures appear and disappear in mechanical succession. That parade of life-size figures also tells a story, but it tends to pale before gawking tourists' fascination with the spectacle itself. What wonder will pop into view next? That's what kept me focused on "Greater Tuna," even as its broad-brush travesty of small-town life rarely tickled my funny bone.

Sheriff interrogates Stanley Bumiller.
Stockberger directs the show, and part of his distinction as Curry's partner is how fully he plays off the other actor's strident housewife Bertha Bumiller to individualize her three children: the dog-smitten Jody, the whiny high-schooler Charlene, and the untamable bully and ne'er-do-well Stanley. True, Stockberger's success doesn't achieve the theatrical magic of allowing us to see him as three real young people, but it certainly hits the mark in rendering three-dimensional caricatures of difficult children.

The play has moments of pathos that suggest a claim to emotional depth. But the playwrights don't seem to have wanted to do more than sketch in the perpetual small-town seesaw between loneliness and true community. And this production is probably unassailable in going for the hellzapoppin flexibility of the company's two seasoned comedians. That's where the heart of "Greater Tuna" beats most strongly.

The rest of the 2018 season is 100 percent musical theater, running from "Mamma Mia!" through "Elf: The Musical."

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Uncle Dan & Sophie Jam: Talk about the 'big break' for writers and musicians — with musical accompaniment

Students of evolution often focus on apparent "big leaps" in species or generic development. For
Sophie Faught, David Linard, and Dan Wakefield discussed "big breaks.'
individual human beings, such giant steps forward also attract peculiar focus.

Over the course of a career or lifespan, the hugeness of such leaps may turn out to be more apparent than real. Nonetheless, assessments of where and when My Big Break occurred can yield insights as to what constitutes a milestone for each of us. For writers and musicians, identifying the "big break" can prove to be definitive to shaping their public identity.

An exercise in this process took place in a comfortable format Tuesday night at the Jazz Kitchen, when the "Uncle Dan and Sophie Jam" program concentrated on the "big break" theme. Contributing to the discussion were the title personalities — saxophonist Sophie Faught and writer Dan Wakefield — as well as a former colleague of the saxophonist's, pianist David Linard, special guest for the second show in this series.

Linard used to play in Faught's group at the Chatterbox Jazz Club downtown. He has gone on to a New York career, traveling often with Sammy Miller and the Congregation. The individualistic drummer heads a band that revives a theatrical kind of good-time jazz long ago represented by the likes of Louis Jordan, Louis Prima, and Cab Calloway. The deceptively raucous ensemble has twice appeared to receptive Indianapolis crowds since Linard joined the group.
David Linard at the piano, with bassist Nick Tucker, drummer Kenny Phelps, and saxophonist Sophie Faught.

Wakefield, an Indianapolis native venerated as a returning celebrity author-journalist, told the most riveting story. He has a long career to draw upon, but what he believes got him his big break was wangling a position as the Nation magazine's correspondent  to cover the Emmett Till murder trial in 1955. The lighthearted mood shifted to a somber hush as Wakefield recounted his experience at a trial that freed the accused killers, made the 14-year-old Till a martyr of the burgeoning civil-rights movement, and attracted international attention.

Moving from their playing positions to a table at one side of the stage where Wakefield sat, the young musicians shared their stories. Faught posed questions to both men in an informal but well-designed program that also included relevant musical interludes.

Linard recounted that several years ago his plans to do graduate study near his Indiana home shifted suddenly after he visited relatives in New York City and was persuaded to see if he could get admission to jazz studies at the Juilliard School. Though he was past the application deadline, his audition impressed program director Carl Allen — despite Allen's withering comment after Linard offered a solo blues ("This is grown man's music") — enough to ease Linard's way into Juilliard and the Big Apple scene.

Faught got her break as a new student at Indiana University, when trumpeter Nicholas Payton came to the school, heard her play and asked her class status. "Freshman," she said. "Not for long," he replied, and soon after hired her to join his band, which toured the country and appeared in much-anticipated celebration of the second great Miles Davis Quintet that Payton staged at Lincoln Center.

Recalling on Tuesday the nervousness she felt before entering the hall, she proved ready to take on the Wayne Shorter role, and the quartet played "Nefertiti," a slow version with lots of melody, in tribute to that association, and later Shorter's "Footprints." In contrast to Linard, she eventually determined that the New York life wasn't for her ("it didn't feel like home"), and she has returned to her Hoosier roots.

To start off the first set, the band played "Royal Garden Blues," indicating Linard's successful study of stride piano. It was among the styles he mastered as a graduate student while forging his own approach to jazz piano as a professional. A winsome rendition of "Voyage," a piece by Linard's Juilliard teacher Kenny Barron, was also part of the first set. To show how well he's steeped in pre-jazz roots of the music, Linard took a reflective trip through Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More."

Along with "God Bless the Child," a song associated with Billie Holiday that the band played after Wakefield's searing narrative, "Hard Times" emphasized the sobering process of using all sorts of experience to make possible those "big breaks," as well as all the times in between.

[Photos by Norbert Krapf]

Friday, December 22, 2017

Indianapolis Symphonic Choir presents its annual "Messiah" in the Palladium, with four guest soloists and conductor

For certain music-lovers, Handel's "Messiah" can trace and illuminate a lifetime. Its meanings — both musical and religious — are likely to change over many years of exposure. Some of its solos and choruses are staples of Christmas programming in many churches during this season. I first thrilled to "The trumpet shall sound" in the early 1950s when the bass soloist at the church my father served as organist-choirmaster sang it at Easter.
Michael Christie led a lively, supple account of "Messiah."

Eric Stark, director of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, once told me he had given up trying to schedule "Messiah" in the season for which it was intended. Its bulk and sheer emotional weight is appropriate to spring performance. Well, fans of the piece learn not to be sticklers, and we return to it again and again in Advent, where just the first of the oratorio's three parts is at home.

This weekend's two performances by the choir Stark has so ably led for so long enjoy the extra splendor of presentation in Carmel's Palladium. Four soloists, the choir, and the Indianapolis  Symphony Orchestra are conducted by Michael Christie, music director of the Minnesota Opera. (He shares an extramusical commitment with Stark: both are volunteer pilots for Angel Flight Central.)

George Frideric Handel
As heard Thursday, the soloist contingent reflected the conductor's inclination toward opera — least so with the soprano, Christina Pier, who was oratorioly expressive without dramatic emphasis. There was nothing unidiomatic about male alto Lawrence Zazzo, tenor Miles Mykkanen, or baritone Alexander Elliott, I hasten to add. It's just that the way the men put across their solos brought characterization to the forefront gesturally, vocally, and in facial expression. All four soloists ornamented repeated phrases and cadential figures confidently and tastefully (as did trumpeter Conrad Jones in the magnificent obbligato to "The trumpet shall sound"). Apart from a few cracked notes by Mykkanen and Pier's tendency not to open her mouth sufficiently, they were consistently a joy to hear.

The choir was responsive to Christie's supple, lively direction. He took pains not to present the choruses as monoliths — a temptation easy to yield to in a masterpiece that resembles  a sculpture garden. He imparted dynamic variety throughout. Musically it mostly made sense, even if it sometimes came close to contradicting the text: After the men's thundering "The Lord gave the word," for instance, it was peculiar to hear "great was the company of the preachers" delivered like a secret. "Hallelujah," the ultimate in monolithic choruses, featured the conventionally soft "The kingdom of this world is become," but elsewhere there were also crescendos and diminuendos applied, to slightly woozy effect. Yet I saw the point of inserting those hairpins: no matter how loftily we praise God, we're still only humans, aren't we.

Some blurriness in "And she shall purify the sons of Levi" was whisked away by the time of "For unto us a child is born" arrived. It's not the first time in my experience that the former has served as calisthenics for the latter in Part 1. "And the glory of the Lord," the choir's initial number, had a nice swing to it. In fact, animating rhythms both gentle and vigorous seemed to be a Christie specialty. The orchestra often played with a kind of lilt, most conspicuously in the Pastoral Symphony and in some accompaniment passages. Also giving solidity and sprightliness to the ensemble were Charles Manning (organ) and Thomas Gerber (harpsichord).

For some reason, though I'm much less a Christian than I was when I first encountered "Messiah," I've become more desirous of hearing the complete piece in concert. That rarely happens, presumably a matter of avoiding overtime pay for professional ensembles. So I get wistful about what's left out, particularly in Part 2. The most jarring cut in this program is the elimination of two tenor recitatives and two arias separating the choruses "He trusted in God" and "Lift up your heads."

The missing Old Testament texts, to which Handel set some of his most piercing music, are of course to be interpreted as depicting Christ's sufferings, according to what's called topology. To shortchange the afflicted Jesus, bound temporarily for torture, death and hell, and announce dismissively, "Enough of that! Let's welcome the King of Glory, mobilize the great company of preachers and spread the gospel," is kind of painful — on both theological and musico-dramatic grounds. And the chorus suddenly seems bipolar, switching from "turba" nastiness (the angry mob familiar from the Bach Passions) to angelic voices of praise.

The cut further tends to push the import of Part 2 too heavily in the direction of "Hallelujah," which admittedly everyone in a "Messiah" audience has been panting for, awaiting the chance to stand up as George II did more than 250 years ago. (In the late 18th century, a German soprano soloist who kept her seat for that chorus was hissed by the English audience. Not rising for "Hallelujah" is a venerable antecedent to NFL players taking a knee during our national anthem.)

Though briefer, this version's "most unkindest cut of all" in my view was the elimination of the middle section of "He was despised," an alto aria that Mykkanen performed in effective operatic style, but without the scarifying energy of "He gave his back to the smiters," which ends with a passage that once amused me in the throes of immaturity: "He hid not his face from shame and spitting."

Handel had a special feeling for this aria, I believe, channeled through his admiration for the singer who premiered it: the charismatic Susannah Cibber, who was primarily a singing actress of great renown and some notoriety in her personal life. I also find this aria the crux of the oratorio's daring blend of human pain and the promise of divine glory.

It's rare to hear a performance that seems of both this world and the next. When you do, you've gathered into one place both the mystery and majesty of "Messiah."  But you need that middle section, with the strings flailing like whips and the soloist waxing specific as to just how the hero was "acquainted with grief."

It sticks with you, making "Hallelujah" many minutes later feel that much the greater. And why wouldn't you want to get that much more out of the Hallelujah Chorus than you already do?

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Eighth Blackbird gets its Irish up for "a cantata in doublespeak" on Cedille Records

Michael Maccaferri of Eighth Blackbird and guest vocalist Iarla O Lionaird
Having reached its majority and recently given its name proper capitalization, Eighth Blackbird continues to stake out new musical territory with its recording of "Olagon." It's a cantata by Dan Trueman and Paul Muldoon that bridges modern and ancient Ireland and its two languages of English and Irish.

The instrumental ensemble, founded in Chicago in 1996, here forges a mesmerizing bond with Irish vocal soloist Iarla O Lionaird to put the new work across memorably in a two-disc set (Cedille Records).

The "doublespeak" reference in the subtitle has to do with the the two languages drawn upon for Muldoon's text, reflecting the old European tradition of macaronic poetry most widely known in some of the poetry used by Carl Orff in "Carmina Burana" as well as in the Christmas carol "In dulci jubilo."

"Olagon" skirts the boundary of cantata and oratorio. There is a kind of narrative that might move it toward oratorio, but that lies in the deep background. The thematic textual unity of the cantata form is more to the point in this work. To quote Eighth Blackbird's program note: "It is based on the legendary Irish tale Taiin Boi Cuiailnge, which tells the story of a brutal war — the result of a dispute between warrior-queen Medhbh and her husband Ailill. When Ailill offends Medhbh's pride by declaring his wealth superior to hers, Medhbh forsakes him and enters into a violent conflict with those around her."

Muldoon draws out the conflict between Medhbh and her husband, abstracting it but still celebrating it (with typical Irish ambivalence) in verse that carries stylistic overtones of both flippant doggerel and traditional balladry.

Trueman's  music sometimes settles into the pulsating drive of Celtic music, but often hangs somewhere aloft, with long drones, squalls of dissonance, and moaning shifts of timbre and texture from the ensemble. Riding on top is O Lionaird's intense, precisely ornamented vocal line, shifting fluidly between Irish and English. Guest vocalists contribute support in several sections, emphasizing the communal nature of Irish story and song.

The text, like the music itself, time-travels with a naturalness that preserves the shock of variation between modern-day Ireland, particularly the social dislocation caused by the boom-and-bust cycles of the nation's recent history, and Taiin Boi Cuiailnge. The common thread is an obsession with prosperity and pride as well as the woes of loyalty and betrayal.

Though there is no explicit debt to the late English poet Geoffrey Hill, the tectonic shifts of time upon well-known terrain recall the abrupt shuttling in "The Mercian Hymns." The humor that such juxtapositions generate in Muldoon's verse draws upon the "Irish bull" tradition. Nonsense and plausibility, gossip and retribution jostle rowdily to convey meaning.

The work's characters are likely to  haunt you even if you can't understand them and they remain wraith-like. The atmosphere of lament — the waste of bitter conflict so embedded in Irish history — finally prevails.

I'm not familiar with the vocal tradition O Lionaird represents, but I'm guessing that performances that don't include singing as idiomatic and enthralling as his would fall well beneath the abundant charm of this recording.

On the other hand, Eighth Blackbird fuses so well with any music it takes into its wide repertoire that, given the right collaborators, "Olagon" might attract enthusiastic audiences anywhere it comes up on the group's schedule, far into the future.  Publicity material included with the recording mentions two engagements featuring the work on Eighth Blackbird's early 2018 concert schedule: Feb. 22-24 in Princeton, N.J. and March 23 in Richmond, Va.  Lucky are the adventurous music-lovers to whom these performances will be accessible.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Hour When No Sex Comes In: a dystopian anthem spurred by the ongoing sexual-assault crisis

The Hour When No Sex Comes In Make us each a sandwich, please, with lots of ham and cheese, And serve tomato soup from a large bowl, When the devil comes to dine, make sure the long spoon’s mine: I’m told he has designs upon my soul. And when I heard Old Scratch, I knew I’d met my match Because he shared his plan most diabolical; With every word he said, the hair upon my head Was standing at attention — every follicle. He said I’m just in time to counteract the crime Of behavior that’s so often predatory: I’ve a universal drug that will neutralize the tug Of desire that destroys the way to glory. And the whole human race will shelter in place Free from the threat of sexual attraction; The terror of the hunted will be chemically blunted, The hour when no sex comes in. And all the victims laugh as they frolic on the path Once cleared for men with every rub and grope; There’ll be chaste hugs galore, air kisses by the score As libidos sink beyond the range of hope. And the population boom will implode around the world When humanity slides into stagnation; Chastity’s blank flag will be everywhere unfurled As all salute the end of propagation. It seems that men with power have stained their shining hour In fits of entitlement delusion; There may be no escape from the culture of rape Till Eros slinks off sulking in seclusion. Some will say it’s global madness, a revulsion from sin Others say it must be something in the water: Nonetheless, the lustful choir will haste into the fire Like a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter. And pornographic ploys will bore all teenage boys, As men they’ll never know what they’ve been missin’ Women pinch themselves and squeal, and they’ll know that it’s for real The hour when no sex comes in. The universal mood will delight in solitude ‘Cause we know that men won’t ever stop desiring, So the drug works, squelching lust, and the chain of life goes bust And extinction seems a fate well worth admiring.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

'The Ballad of Jimmy Levine" borrows an old Irish tune to address the implosion of a musical career

The Ballad of Jimmy Levine Jimmy Levine was a prodigy born, A musical rose with no evident thorn, But as his career was on the incline A secret life led Jimmy Levine. So Jimmy Levine as a rising star Goes to music camps where young men are: He knows so much, his art is so fine: “I’ll use it to advantage,” says Jimmy Levine. He joins the Met, a conductor of taste; The baton he favors is below the waist. He gives old operas a bright new shine: “I’m a golden boy,” says Jimmy Levine. Jimmy Levine has the singers’ love: “So sensitive, we just work hand in glove.” Another sensitivity he works to refine On the bodies of boys, does Jimmy Levine. When the Brahmins in Boston wanted somebody new They had to have Jimmy, though the rumors flew. “If we offend the maestro, he might decline!” So the symphony board went with Jimmy Levine. Old Jimmy Levine won’t do what he oughta: He’s gone to the bridge, and jumps in the water; Denying it all, gives the downbeat sign: “There’s mud on the bottom,” says Jimmy Levine.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

'Fellow Travelers' recording confirms my positive impression from its staged premiere

Given that the romantic emphasis of opera tradition needs new arenas if the genre is to have current vitality, "Fellow Travelers" stakes out a strong claim.

First performed in Cincinnati 18 months ago, the opera now enjoys public permanence in a sensitive new recording on Fanfare Cincinnati (the recording wing of Cincinnati Opera, the work's producer). Adapted by Gregory Spears and Greg Pierce from a 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon, "Fellow Travelers" tells the story of a promising but doomed love affair between two men in an era when homosexuality in government was among the red flags lofted by Cold War paranoia.
Hawk (Joseph Lattanzi) eyes Timothy (Aaron Blake) on park bench at Dupont Circle.

Sometimes called "the lavender scare," the labeling of homosexuals as security risks was part of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's intense campaign against communists and others thought to be undermining the republic. "Fellow Travelers" views the peril through an intimate lens. Pierce's libretto sets characters before us who sum up the spectrum of attitudes toward same-sex relationships in the welter of careerism and self-righteous posturing that characterizes Washington, D.C., to this day. The two central characters have their mutual attraction fatally compromised by the reigning atmosphere of repression in the early 1950s.

I saw the second performance of "Fellow Travelers" at the Aronoff Center for the Arts. Visually and acoustically, the production carried the feeling of chamber opera, and that intimacy has been preserved in the recording. The listener must supply the subtle cross-cutting of action and memory that director Kevin Newbury managed skillfully on the stage. But following the libretto, plus noting  the skillful linking of the two planes of action by Spears' music, should remove any confusion for those who know only the two-CD set, which comes from the premiere performances.

The score, indebted to neo-classical Stravinsky, is less angular than the master's and more reliant on flow than the feeling of a mosaic. The opening scene, when Hawkins Fuller (Joseph Lattanzi) opens up conversation with Washington newcomer Timothy Laughlin (Aaron Blake), establishes a steady pulse, with brief phrases of ornamentation around it. As the sophisticated Fuller draws out the shy Laughlin, there are hints of the contrast in their personalities that stood out for me on repeated hearings: After the departing "Hawk" advises the squeaky-clean Tim to "finish your milk," you hear a sarcastic dig from the orchestra.

Later, a blossoming duet illustrates the lovers' different responses to their first sexual experience. Timothy, grateful that Hawk has opened up a job for him as a Michigan senator's speechwriter, and working to keep his religious qualms at arm's length, rhapsodizes; his partner celebrates "you and me and the boys." The following scene, a monologue for Timothy alone in a church, has some piquant, warm writing for woodwinds as the vocal line signals that the provincial young man is feeling more rapture than the conviction of sin he has been taught.

Strains in the relationship play against a backdrop of the interrogation Hawk undergoes as his promiscuity has aroused official suspicion. His loyalty is under question by Timothy as well. In a scene focusing on the lovers' first spat, there's a significant pause in the musical flow when Tim says to his lover: "You could learn a thing or two, Hawk." It's a clever signal by Spears and Pierce that Tim's naivete is not ironclad, and his moral compass, while no longer pointing toward Catholic doctrine, is firmer than Hawk's. That discrepancy will prove to be the undoing of the relationship.

The slide projection of the lavender scare's victims in the last scene is of course not available to CD listeners. Yet the larger milieu, and the threat that McCarthyism posed to so many people, is indicated by the party and senatorial office scenes. These episodes generate an extra stir, a frisson of excitement, in the orchestra, which seems to be under conductor Mark Gibson's superb control. The dramatic import of the singing comes across in all roles, and the cohesiveness of voices and accompaniment never slackens in this recording.

Yet there is restraint even when the scenario opens up into the larger world. It's an effective reminder that gossip, despite its connection in Washington to large-scale trends and events, operates close to individual lives and does its damage there. The creators of "Fellow Travelers" have managed to keep the focus on the central relationship and not been tempted toward spectacle, even with the opera's setting in the nation's capital at the height of what has been somewhat operatically dubbed "the American century."

Monday, December 4, 2017

Bloomington visitors celebrate Reformation anniversary with examples of its musical legacy

Concentus, a choral and instrumental ensemble of Indiana University, capped three performances labeled simply "Reformation" Sunday afternoon at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, supplemented by Alchymy Viols and special guest, cornetto
Dana Marsh led Alchymy Viols and other Early Music Institute musicians last year at a courthouse concert in Bloomington
virtuoso and scholar Bruce Dickey.

The concert here, conducted by Dana Marsh, was a well-assembled sampler highlighting milestones of early Baroque music as developed by German Protestant composers. Protestantism turns 500 this year. This program's  music reflected the influence of Italian masters  — much of it firsthand in a tradition notably extended through Handel and Mozart — of choral and instrumental textures and expressive splendor on musicians from the other side of the Alps.

Indiana native Bruce Dickey now lives in Italy.
Foundational at the start, the concert opened with Martin Luther's "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" (A Mighty Forgtress Is Our God), with settings by Caspar Othmayr and Michael Praetorius indicating how interpretation of texts became embedded in German composers' treatment of them, in contention with the chorale mainstream. Satan's"great strength and much deceit" (in their German equivalent) is repeated at greater volume. The solo soprano's entrance in the second verse underlines human helplessness in this battle against "the old, evil enemy" before introducing humanity's advocate, Jesus Christ, who will turn the tide of battle.

Solo singers and the 18-voice choir displayed their unity and precise balance throughout the program, which showcased, with the insertion of interludes, the guest artist Dickey, whose mastery of the cornetto was on conspicuous display throughout. The cornetto is a wooden trumpet with a cup mouthpiece and a sound that has some of the articulate force of its brass successors but whose construction brings to the fore a mellow, sometimes plaintive tone.

It had the latter quality particularly in a solo piece with simple organ accompaniment by the 16th-century composer Ascanio Trombetti. More central to its tradition, and fully displaying Venetian splendor, were a couple of canzonas by Giovanni Gabrieli for two cornetti, three sackbuts (early trombones), organ, and strings. This music is usually heard today arranged for modern brass ensemble. Dickey was also in the spotlight with the program's other cornettist, Etienne Asselin, as their complementary voices were positioned on either side of the organ, played by Ken Yeung.

Heinrich Schütz found particularly stimulating his studies with Giovanni Gabrieli, bringing back to his homeland inspiration for  music that has led to his reputation as the major German composer before J.S. Bach. Performance of his "German magnificat" was one of the most impressive demonstrations of the performers' collective strength under Marsh's guidance. The meaning of the text was put across eloquently in the successive entries of the lines about the generations who will call Mary blessed. When God scatters the proud, the crucial word "zerstreuet" is repeated forcefully. When the Almighty leaves the rich empty, or sends them empty away (as the King James Bible has it), the scoring is bare. With the doxology tacked on to the end of Mary's song of praise, extra majesty pours forth from singers and orchestra alike.

Sometimes Schütz micromanages the texts effectively. When "Unser Wandel ist im Himmel" (Our pilgrimage is to heaven), the opening line ascends tortuously. At the end, a clear distinction of "weak" and "strong" expressivity occurs on the words "untertänig" (subservient) and  "machen" (make), respectively.

The climax of the concert was radiantly presented with the performance of Praetorius' complex setting of "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme," with its well-placed high points of majesty, ending with an unstinting song of praise. Without any sign of forcing, the glory highlighted by the text was evenly produced at the summit of the musicians' well-honed blending. Finally, a wonderful Schütz setting of Psalm 150 highlighted the composer's resourceful imagination. The praise is antiphonally presented, and the tone pictures are vivid as the litany of praise proceeds: The sackbuts are of course prominent when praise by brass instruments is indicated.

All instruments gain in prominence in the next few lines, and the evocation of the dance yields a dance-like animation. Particularly clever is the way voices and organ are poised in resonant alternation to render two lines relating to cymbals, which can thus be evoked without any futile attempt at mimicry. For the very end, there was a smooth transition into a speedier tempo and rocking triple meter for the concluding "Alleluia!" This quincentennial observance could hardly have ended better.

[Alchymy Viols photo by Tae-Gyun Kim]

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The rogue who celebrated himself as Master of the House in 'Les Miz' can't hold a candle to Time's wannabe Person of the Year

Person of the Year Welcome to all, losers as well: Salute the President, isn’t he swell! As for the media, fakers and crooks: We sure don’t need ya, we hate your looks: As for this gent, it’s quite evident No American should resent that he should be… Person of the Year! Why not jump the gun? He knows he deserves it more than anyone. Person of the Year! Wants that cover slot: Time has featured him before, so now, why not? Everybody loves an Alpha male, Every woman’s groping friend: He’ll do just what he pleases, And Jesus! He won’t need ‘em in the end. Person of the Year! He’s the people’s choice In some echo chambers he’s the only voice: He alone can fix it: make the nation great. Taking care of poor folks? — that’s the nanny state. The Times and CNN’s the enemy: But they hang upon his every tweet: Though he’s gotten twice as wordy, Lordy, how he knocks them off their feet! Person of the Year! Why not jump the gun? He knows he deserves it more than anyone. Person of the Year! Wants that cover slot: Time has featured him before, so now, why not? Time says he’s mistaken; their pick will come December 12th But Donald isn’t patient, he’d sacrifice a Haitian for himself! [pause] Native code-breakers, he loves you all (That’s Andrew Jackson up on the wall): The President shares his Pocahontas slur: It’s not about you — it’s him, and sort of her. Sure, your goose was cooked, your bounty turned to gruel; Your ancestors were rooked so whites like him could rule. Riches are forthcoming, wealth beyond belief; He’s your benefactor, though he seems a thief: In his tiny hands lies your destiny: Is there anyone more qualified than he… You’re better off than Muslims, whom he’s bound to libel, Retweeting hate videos: Quick, run for your Bible! Person of the Year! Quick to catch your eye, Go beyond just browsing, be prepared to buy: Savor his selection by a magazine that’s fake. You say you’ve had too much of him? Give me a break! Never mind how much trouble other people say he’s in He’s got lawyers on the double, Sorting campaign rubble, Neutralizing General Michael Flynn. Person of the Year! He’s the people’s choice In some echo chambers he’s the only voice: He alone can fix it: make the nation great. Taking care of poor folks? — that’s the nanny state. He hates athletes who kneel when Old Glory unfurls: Government’s his oyster, and he’s collected all the pearls. Person of the Year! Quick to catch your eye, Go beyond just browsing, be prepared to buy: Savor his selection by a magazine that’s fake You say you’ve had too much of him? Give me a break! He doesn’t know shit from shinola So he ratchets up our fear Make way for his base to extol a Bloated orangy rock ‘n’ roller He’s infectious like ebola — this Person of the Year.

Friday, December 1, 2017

With distinction, Dance Kaleidoscope joins other performing arts organizations in mounting a seasonal program

The mystery and the fun of the season make up Dance Kaleidoscope's new program, which marks a return for the
contemporary-dance troupe to a Christmas show after many years. "A World of Christmas" opened Thursday evening on Indiana Repertory Theatre's Upperstage and plays there this weekend and next.

Irresistible: The exuberant company representation of a Hawaiian song.
It was gratifying to see a work revived from David Hochoy's early years in his fruitful tenure as DK's artistic director. His setting of Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols" was first staged 20 years ago. As he told the audience in a question-and-answer session during intermission, "there's a lot of Martha Graham in it." He was not far then from his employment as a dancer and rehearsal director with this seminal figure of his art form, and her enthralling gift for representing ritual has come down to Hochoy as part of the Graham legacy.

Britten's setting of old English carols for boys' choir and harp is a rare example of Christmas music I never get tired of. Oh, I suppose hearing it every day from Advent through Epiphany would become tedious. But it is one of those nearly perfect Britten compositions in which his prodigious technique and his inspiration are in perfect sync.

The words of the carols are properly somewhat distant from what we see in Hochoy's setting, but there is a fine congruence between them that allows the music to flower wholly in dance terms for this gifted company. Indeed, gifts are the keynote: a sculptural gift  created by Herron High School students is carried by each dancer in procession down the theater's aisles and set down in front of the square stage. At the end, the gifts are placed onstage by the troupe before it leaves (to Britten's recessional music). The items are bathed in light as if to indicate that the ritual of gift-giving has been made subject to a peculiar blessing.

Cheryl Sparks' costumes — white and flowing, formal yet timeless — seem just right for both the vigorous and the contemplative movements. Space is never an alien element in Graham-inspired choreography; it's always embraced, commanded and filled by every gesture. This imposes reverence upon the design, in that even movement that emphasizes struggle (though that's at a minimum in this piece) takes in the world through which it passes and makes it in some sense holy.

"Wolcum Yole!," the cheerful first piece after the procession, places the 10 dancers as greeters of the season as well as of each other, establishing a feeling of community thoroughly at home in the Christmas season. As the work unfolds, the audience is brought into a balanced presentation of both individual and collective celebration. Caitlin Negron has the spotlight in a solo to the carol partners of "That Yonge Child" and "Balulalow," with the climactic, spinetingling line "The knees of my hert sall [heart shall] I bow." Back-to-back showcases for the women ("As Dew in Aprille") and the men ("This Little Babe") are well-judged. Vivacious choreography never loses its duty in this piece to represent formal devotion.

Suggesting the glory that was Graham: A transfiguring moment in "Ceremony of Carols."
The interlude harp solo is the occasion for a fine duet by Timothy June and Mariel Greenlee. That segues into "In Freezing Winter Night," with the company creating a breathtaking vehicle for a Greenlee solo in which, with her colleagues' unstinting support, her feet never touch the ground. The well-designed tension of this episode never had a hint of shakiness or strain Thursday night. This was crucial for representing the one place in "Ceremony of Carols" in which heaven and earth, including the contrast between the infant Jesus' humble condition and the promise of his kingship, is juxtaposed. We are reminded that the justification for such extreme inequality of circumstance is not of this world, despite what today's political climate seems to recommend.

The work ascends from this mystery into the pure praise of "Deo Gracias," with the company in full celebration, putting a seal on the exuberance first established by "Wolcum Yole." The conveyance of the gifts to the place where the givers had just been was one of those still moments, without a human being in sight, that paradoxically hold up what dance at its best has to offer.

Emily Dyson put detailed expressiveness into a Norwegian song.
After intermission came "World of Christmas Kaleidoscope," a series of short pieces assembled over the span of 1994 to this year by Hochoy, with the superb team of Laura E. Glover (lighting) and Sparks (costumes) allowing the troupe to live up to its name in the heartiest international way. Barry Doss designed the whimsical costume for Greenlee in a solo as a street-wise Sugar Plum Fairy, with such fey touches as a glitter-covered ball cap worn backwards and, on her back, gauzy fairy wings.

Hochoy distributes eminence adroitly among his dancers, but it's such a pleasure to see Greenlee move into a position of dazzling virtuosity and charm of the sort once represented by Liberty Harris. Capable of statuesque charisma, tragic resonance, pizzazz, and saucy humor, both dancers have created many indelible DK memories over a span of three decades. What a tradition!

Tragic resonance got a rest in this show, and after her solo, Greenlee was mostly engaged in displaying signs indicating the national settings of "World of Christmas Kaleidoscope"'s component dances, though she joined in company numbers, including the blissful finale,  "Silent Night," preceded by a raucous Hawaiian neighbor, "Mele Kalikimaka."

The audience gets to appreciate the rest of the troupe in such solos as Stuart Coleman's, to Elvis' idiosyncratic version of "White Christmas," and Emily Dyson's in a buoyant dance to a Norwegian song, "The Bells Are Ringing."  There was a proper touch of effort and struggle in a Spanish song depicting Mary and Joseph's search for lodging in Bethlehem, danced in complementary light and shadow by Negron and June.

Company triumphs included the droll, gaily costumed, reindeeresque "Here Comes Santa Claus" (the Elvis version again), the evocations of the black church in "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," and, on a smaller scale yet sublimely peppy, a version of "O Holy Night" from Benin (danced by Coleman, Negron, and Paige Robinson) and the reggae-flecked Jamaican declaration, "All I Want for Christmas," featuring Brandon Comer, Aleksa Lukasiewicz, Manuel Valdes, and Marie Kuhns in a cumulative portrayal of spontaneous, mutually supportive energy.

It was the sort of piece you wish could go on forever, but its actual length was surely just about right. And "just about right" is a holiday truth, seasoned with understatement, that's applicable to the whole show.

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]