Tuesday, January 30, 2018

You'll be so glad we made it (the wall) — just give him, give him some money!

The Wall Back in the campaign Trump could always raise a cheer When he said he would keep Mexicans from coming over here; Most undocumented now are visa overstays Not illegal border crossings like in the wetback days. But you’ll be so glad we made it, so glad we made that wall! You gotta give him some money, give him lots of money ‘Cause they won’t pay. He said it would be beautiful and cost a pretty penny He said he’d take their pesos, but they ain’t giving any; The wall’s a high priority, so what can he do But make the nation great again and send the bill to you? You’ll be so glad we made it, so glad we made it. You gotta give him some money, give him lots of money, ‘Cause they won’t pay. He wants to go to Congress and get ’em all on board Take one or two Corinthians to help him praise the Lord; Compassionate as hell, he’ll remind the DACA gang That bell in Philadelphia broke the first time it rang. But you’ll be so glad we made it, so glad we made that wall! You gotta give him some money, give him lots of money ‘Cause the Mexicans won’t pay.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra and Sean Chen make the most of ongoing collaboration

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart's 262nd birthday provided the marketing oomph for the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra's concert Saturday night at Butler University's Schrott Center, but the present-day
collaboration with Sean Chen, 2013 Classical Fellow of the
American Pianists Association, claimed equal prominence.
Sean Chen shone in Shostakovich.

The latter took the form of Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1, op. 35, a perky composition that showed off Chen's facility and rhythmic acumen. The theatrical spirit of the first and fourth movements hark back to the young composer's jobbing in movie theaters during the silent era. The flair of such accompaniments is underlined by the demanding role for solo trumpet.

Chen's solo partner was John Rommel, longtime member of the Jacobs School of Music faculty at Indiana University. The trumpeter's outer-movement brilliance grabbed most of the attention, but the muted lyricism of the slow movement also drew excellence from Rommel. Silent during the brief third movement, the trumpet often leads the charge in the finale.

The work is very much a piano concerto and not a double concerto, however. The sparkle required of the pianist is continual. Being forceful is a given, but simply banging it out would spoil the playfulness of the music. Chen avoided any hint of the stressful or imposing: As a man and a composer, Shostakovich endured enough stress and impositions from the Soviet state. He could often be blithe, as he is in this piece, though the strain of it all is never far below the surface.

Matthew Kramer conducted a performance that brimmed with aplomb. The ICO music director opened the concert with a few oral program notes about the new piece, Chen-Hui Jen's "in eternal dusk," a commissioned work from last year. (It's probably too late to wish composers would get over lower-case titles; it looks as if they all have hired Don Marquis' archy the cockroach as secretary.)

The 13-minute piece starts out with a promising distant rumble, somewhat like the dawn opening of Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe," but at the other end of the day. The gathering darkness only deepens, however, as long notes are sustained and blended across the ensemble. A dream scenario covers the whole, with a gradual lowering of pitch levels and the insertion of unpitched breathing through wind instruments. Those exhalations are the last thing you hear — the ultimate niente.

The common-time meter seems more a convenience for ensuring the ensemble stays together, rather than suggesting any regularity of pulse. Moment-to-moment contrast is rare: at one point, wispy high-pitched sounds set against the inexorably deepening timbres bring to mind the sea interludes from Britten's "Peter Grimes." As with many dreams, the work's progress was both puzzling and captivating; it forced you to hang onto whatever gestures toward coherence you could in order to make sense of it all.

After intermission came the birthday blowout, Mozart's crowning symphonic achievement: No. 41 in C major. Chen had offered a prelude to it after the Shostakovich: his own arrangement of the Overture to "The Marriage of Figaro." If he did not pack every note of the original into his solo version, he came close, and it was all brought off with his usual elan.

As for the symphony, I enjoyed the prominence of trumpets and timpani in the first movement. It is this music that earned K. 551 the nickname "Jupiter," because its majesty seemed godlike to the work's early hearers. But it would have been fitting for the same instruments to have dialed it back more in the finale. Essential as trumpets and drums are to underlining and punctuating the Allegro molto, in this performance they sometimes covered the rest of the orchestra.

Every detail deserves to be heard. Mozart is so resourceful with all his material in this movement that you don't want to miss a single phrase or figure. If we are making analogies to the divine, they apply best to the fourth movement: Just as the Judeo-Christian perspective sees every bit of the Creation as essential to God's plan, so is there no phrase without purpose here. Nothing counts as transition; everything works. Mozart meets our astonishment with the irrefutable arguments of Jehovah to Job.

That said, the second and third movements were well put together, effectively paced with phrases well rounded off. The slow movement had the sustained songlike quality specified by the "cantabile" direction at its head. The birthday treat of this performance was just about all one could ask for.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

I Got the Tariff! crows Donald Trump, protecting domestic manufacturers while putting solar installers' jobs at risk

Indianapolis Symphony concert with two fine singers: Mahler and Beethoven in relaxed, nostaglic moods

Music full of allusions and references to the real world makes up this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts. Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony — the closest he wrote at considerable length to "program music" — is the concert companion to Mahler's Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, with the excellent guest soloists Thomas Hampson and Kelley O'Connor.

The notion that what's sometimes known as absolute music (the opposite of program music) is vague
Thomas Hampson brought his well-schooled baritone.
in comparison was dispatched by Felix Mendelssohn long ago, when he declared that, on the contrary, music is characteristically better and more specific than words for expressing feelings. About his Symphony No. 6 in F major, Beethoven took pains to anticipate this viewpoint in suggesting that "people will not require titles to recognize the general intention to be more a matter of feeling than of painting in sounds."

Krzysztof Urbanski conducted a warm, illuminating performance of the work Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The feelings were fully engaged, though of course listeners who gravitate toward pictorialism are justifiably charmed by the piece. On the other hand, Claude Debussy, who was briefly a music critic, was among those who, even today, think less of the "Pastoral" for what they see as its literal references. "Unnecessarily imitative," the French master sniffed, focusing on the bird calls at the end of the second movement.

One of those birds is a cuckoo, whose two-note call is best known from cuckoo clocks. A peculiar instance of literalism links both works on this weekend's program: In one of the Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the cuckoo proposes a singing contest between himself and a nightingale. Few would doubt the outcome of such a competition, but the cuckoo, having chosen an ass as judge, is awarded the palm. With falsetto followed by nasal braying, Hampson's rendering of the last line (in translation) was typical of his lively interpretation: "Cuckoo, cuckoo! Heehaw!" (The ass is a stand-in for critics, as the creature is also in Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals." I will drop this train of thought here, lest I come to resemble the transmogrified Bottom the Weaver in "A Midsummer Night's Dream.")

The baritone shared the work's vocal duties with mezzo-soprano O'Connor. Both lent full expressiveness to their songs, which are fortunately allowed space for texts and translations in the ISO program book. Some shadowy projection afflicted the end of Hampson's "Sentinel's Nightsong" and O'Connor's extended turn on the word "Haide" (heath) in "Who Thought Up This Song." Otherwise, both singers sounded vocally secure.

Kelley O'Connor was a fine vocal partner.
Hampson was outstanding in "St. Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fish," under excellent control through most of the "Nightsong," vivid in "Praise of Lofty Intellect" (the one with the singing contest), defiant in "Song of the Persecuted in the Tower," and extraordinarily moving in "The Drummer Boy." The cycle in these concerts ends with Urlicht ("Primeval Light"), which Mahler fans are more accustomed to hearing from a female soloist in the "Resurrection" Symphony. But why shouldn't a man confront the interfering angel as much as a woman in that transcendent song, especially when it's done this well?

O'Connor was particularly impressive in the eerie song "The Earthly Life," which has the fateful grimness often found in folk poetry, as well as the captivating "Rhine Legend" and the well-characterized dialogue assigned to solo voice, "Labor Lost." As an encore, the singers were well-matched in an actual dialogue song from the cycle, Trost im Unglück,  a romantic battle of wits.

What stood out in the "Pastoral" Symphony were the steady tempos throughout and the keen judgment of winds-and-strings balances. Movement by movement, these things as well: the evenness of the repeated figures in the first movement, the subtly impelled "scene by the river," the party spirit that animates the third movement, the pacing and varied intensity of the thunderstorm, and the authentic atmosphere of pious sincerity in the finale.

That's the peasants' hymn of gratitude to God for their having come through the storm intact and perhaps imploring divine mercy for whatever sins they may have committed in the third movement. The orchestra's sins were minimal to non-existent. Heehaw!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Land of a Thousand Chances: But the Dems could run out of them if they keep giving in as they did over the weekend

Land of a Thousand Chances (one two three, it’s on the GOP) The shutdown? Trump should own it Paul Ryan can’t condone it Mitch says, See you later! He’s a turtle-alligator. They’re on an ego trip: Did Dems’ backbone slip? Have you heard the rumor? Someone gamed Chuck Schumer. Oh-Oh Hey! Na-na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, na-na na-na-na-na Say it one time (Repeat) Whoa! We’re gonna shake the caucus It may get kind of raucous Got to protect the dreamers From Republican schemers! If they want another shutdown We’ll bring it to that nut clown: As for McConnell’s promise, We’re a righteous doubting Thomas. Wow: Hmm. We’re not feelin’ all right You know we’re still ready to fight! Na-na-na-na How to get Congress back If we can’t sustain attack? How much to compromise To stay strong in voters’ eyes? Let’s get down to work Let’s dance, not twerk: Let’s defend DACA In the spirit of Barack-uh!

Monday, January 22, 2018

Pinchas Zukerman plays and conducts a concert by touring Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

The Royal Philharmonic made its second visit to the Palladium Sunday.
One of the most colorful figures in 20th-century British music founded the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946, and an international star of similar celebrity to Sir Thomas Beecham is its 21st-century principal guest conductor.

Pinchas Zukerman was center stage, on and off the podium, for the RPO's concert Sunday evening at the Palladium. The Israeli musician, long identified as a major concert violinist and violist, has followed the path of many aging instrumentalists adding to their reputations by picking up the baton. (A younger fiddler of special interest hereabouts, Joshua Bell, has twice appeared at the Center for the Performing Arts with split responsibilities in front of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.)

This is the second time Zukerman and the RPO have visited Carmel. The program had the same concentration on the Austro-German mainstream in 2014. I cited Zukerman's "pearly tone and ingratiating flair" in reviewing his performance of Brahms' violin-cello concerto with his wife, Amanda Forsyth. This time, unlinked to a lesser player, Zukerman as soloist was able to stand out all the more.

To Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219, he brought the same kind of smoothness and blithe mastery. A few of the rapid figures seemed a little offhand, but Zukerman mostly stayed on the good side of casualness. He imparted a kind of youthful vigor and unpretentiousness to this product of the 19-year-old composer that even much younger violinists sometimes miss.

Mozart supplied no cadenzas and "holds" (Eingaenge is the German word, indicating brief unaccompanied passages for the soloist leading back into the score). I couldn't identify Zukerman's, but they were cogent and, where appropriate, florid. There was a puckish Bach quotation in the Eingang leading back into the minuet just after the Rondeau movement's "Turkish" episode. The latter, by the way, was treated with less exoticism than one sometimes hears, but the contrast with the main body of the finale was still well-defined.

The orchestra was a sympathetic partner throughout the work, which brought the concert up to intermission. The program began with an extra-dramatic account of Weber's Overture to "Der Freischütz." The pauses were richly suspenseful, especially the one before the exciting conclusion in the major mode. After a brief early burble, the horn section was superb.

The concert's second half consisted of Dvorak's Symphony No. 7 in D minor. Several commentators lavish praise on the work, and I have to respect more knowledgeable observers than I. Sunday's performance was enthralling, it's true, and Zukerman elicited the sort of emotional warmth from the score that's so characteristic of the Bohemian composer.

But much of the piece seems merely workmanlike. In the finale, despite the blend of dark and light feeling (the latter represented by a theme with charming folk elements) the impression of filling out a pattern often threatens to dominate. The best stuff is in the Scherzo; in this performance, the springiness of the ensemble, with its trenchant accents, was especially attractive.

I have to be grateful, at least, that Zukerman and the RPO didn't feel obliged to present a greater masterpiece from Dvorak's symphonic oeuvre — the "New World" Symphony. Visiting European orchestras have a long history of regarding the Dvorak Ninth as an obligatory hostess gift when they travel to America. Leave it at home, please: we know it pretty well here.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

John Beasley's MONK'estra: Wondering if the Thelonious Monk legacy is in good hands? Well, you needn't (mostly)

MONK'estra maestro John Beasley
I found several of the band's videos on YouTube a thrilling indication of what I would be likely to hear in its Carmel appearance, so my anticipation ran high at the outset of MONK'estra's concert Saturday night at the Palladium.

In many respects, I was rewarded with more opportunity to delve into the cleverness and surprise threaded through Thelonious Monk compositions in bandleader John Beasley's arrangements. But I came away wondering if the personnel changes that are a necessary evil in this kind of project —  where participants tend to have so many other professional obligations — were responsible for a certain lack of focus.

Thankfully, however, my impression was confirmed that MONK'estra does not fall into the "tribute band" box. That has to be stated up front. Nor do its surface and in-depth pleasures seem to depend on the kind of tribute programming that has generated so many recordings in recent years, as well as the "repertory" emphasis best represented by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in the Wynton Marsalis empire.

Not to put down tributes, though the plethora of them (always with an eye to the box office) is wearying. And Marsalis's Monk album is quite good, though probably too tidy for some listeners. It shows that Monk's uniqueness as a composer is not hermetically sealed, but responds well to various skilled approaches. Beasley's is among the very best: He's got his quirks, but they are not the quirks of an amateur or someone merely lost in devotion to the master. He's insightful, even visionary, about the uses of a large ensemble in shedding new light upon the Monk canon, even such relative obscurities as "Skippy" and "Gallop's Gallop."

But a small indication of the variability in the 15-piece band's performance as it goes around the world came with Beasley's difficulty getting members' names right in the course of the program. The young bassist, given to me secondhand but ultimately from Beasley's representatives, was Ben Shepherd. At one point Beasley called him that; elsewhere, Ben Williams (who indeed has been a MONK'estra bassist, according to the website).

"I should have a trio," Beasley joked at one point after one of his sideman name stumbles Saturday night.

Ah, but Beasley has some great concepts to apply to Monk's music, and he hires capable musicians. I lost the thread during "Criss Cross," whose wildness seemed fairly untethered to the tune. But the ensemble largely jelled throughout the show. Some blends didn't quite come off, prompting the suspicion that the afternoon sound check hadn't ironed out all balance issues.

And sometimes Beasley puts a perfect backdrop behind unconventional soloing. The best example was during the linked arrangements of "Ugly Beauty" and "Pannonica," a showcase for lead trombonist Ed Neumeister, who minced, growled, pleaded, and whimpered creatively throughout a plunger-muted solo. As bizarre as the solo was, the accompaniment in pastels felt comfortable with it.

Some other solos were illuminating, especially in other ballads: trombonist Eric Miller's in "Crepuscule for Nellie" and the leader's turns on melodica during "Ask Me Now" and on piano, with hints of "'Round Midnight," to introduce the encore "Blue Monk," which Beasley dedicated to Indianapolis trumpet master Freddie Hubbard (1938-2008). Beasley is quite an imaginative pianist, who honors Monk in part by not aping his keyboard style in the slightest.

Eventually, every band member had at least one solo. Of the four trumpeters, only Brian Lynch took care of business consistently and cohesively ("Evidence" and "Brake's Sake"). A couple of saxophone turns by Greg Tardy and Oliver Santana made sense to me. On the whole, solos featured a fair amount of generic bluster and scatteration, generating whoops from the crowd.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Garrick Ohlsson adds familiar luster to ISO's all-Russian program

The way Russian classical music burst into the repertoire and now enjoys unshakable prominence
Garrick Ohlsson played a scintillating Tchaikovsky First.
somewhat resembles how bitcoin has muscled in on conventional currencies.

But there is nothing "virtual" about the permanent appeal of the nation's music, despite the distortions it endured throughout the Soviet era, on the world's concert stages. What started with Mikhail Glinka in the mid-19th century soon flourished in the output of "the Mighty Five" and a composer more than equal to all of them: Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. More star Russian composers emerged in the 20th century, some of them self-exiled from their homeland.

The welcome presence of Garrick Ohlsson as guest artist Friday evening playing the best-known Russian piano concerto assured the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra of a large, receptive audience at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The performance of Tchaikovsky's B-flat minor concerto, tightly coordinated by music director Krzysztof Urbanski with the orchestra, presented the elder-statesman American pianist in typical form.

The well-known first-movement introduction featured both fire and reflection from all participants. In the main body of the Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso, there was exquisite matching between soloist and orchestra, especially in the second theme. When it came to the climactic cadenza, Ohlsson imparted such variety of color that it was almost like hearing a second orchestra.

That sensitivity to timbre made the slow movement especially winning, complemented by one of the concert's many excellent solos from orchestra principals, that of oboist Jennifer Christen. Ohlsson invariably added to the richness of his palette a firm sense of balance that had both thunderous and tender passages speaking with full eloquence. In the finale, the measured build-up to the apotheosis of the lyrical theme from both soloist and orchestra lent multiple thrills to the work's climax.

For an encore, the pianist underlined the "greatest-hits" status of the programmed work with Sergei Rachmaninoff's most popular piece (which as a concert pianist the composer came to dread playing): the Prelude in C-sharp minor. Ohlsson made it sound fresh.

The program, to be repeated at 7 p.m. today, opened with Polovtsian Dances from Alexander Borodin's opera "Prince Igor." Like the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto, this work falls rather indisputably into the "warhorse" category. But there's lots of life in the old nag when it is spurred with the excellent horsemanship it enjoyed on Friday. The dignity and self-possession of the dances that precede the whirlwind finale were well-judged. The interpretation showed this much-loved work is not all about the orchestra making a big splash, though that quality is characteristic of the suite, from the flamboyant woodwind solos on.

The program's second half consisted of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6 in B minor, preceded by Urbanski's commentary on the composer's difficult, lifelong adjustment to Soviet repression. Even when Shostakovich played the jester, there was sadness underneath. The conductor illustrated the point with a slide projection of a Polish painting showing a traditionally costumed jester slumped in a chair, his face clouded.

The huge slow movement that opens this symphony at first suggests the world-embracing breadth of Mahler; the unison theme in violas and cellos has the expansiveness of late Mahler, say, the unfinished Tenth Symphony. But that is soon undercut, and much of the music broods. All his life, Shostakovich wanted to think large and feel free, but inhibition often inflects his compositions. After his precocious First Symphony, self-consciousness bedeviled him. The ISO displayed the divided mind of a flawed genius with elaborate care.

The short second and third movements go from the somewhat conflicted high spirits of the Allegro on the way to a Presto that Urbanski quite understandably said resembles music for the circus. Before the exuberant climax is reached, there's even a lumbering episode that evokes dancing Russian bears. The piece doesn't quite "work" as a symphonic unity, except in the sense that it is, as Urbanski suggested, a self-portrait. This performance was loaded with spectacle and, more important, insight.

Relative latecomer though it is, Russian music has held its value. The truth of that could be brought up close to the present if we were able to hear more of, say, Schnittke and Gubaidulina, on American concert stages. Nonetheless, the mainstream represented by this program remains satisfying.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Coming to the Palladium: MONK'estra bridges the mid-20th-century innovations of Thelonious Monk to the present

John Beasley saw lots of creative room for himself in Monk's music.
Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) left many compositions that were as idiosyncratic as his piano playing. But that body of work  turned out to have spurred the imagination of many younger musicians in the three-and-a-half decades since Monk's death. His inimitable quirkiness has had surprising adaptability.

Groups larger than the quartets that Monk usually worked with have tackled the repertoire before, shedding new light on it: Hall Overton and Oliver Nelson applied their arranging skills to Monk's music with mixed success for bands of at least 10 players.

Last year was Monk's widely celebrated centennial, and a carryover into the new year will be the visit of the 15-piece band sailing along on the strength of Volume 2 of its self-titled series, "Monk'estra." The ensemble will come to the Palladium Saturday night.

A few years ago, pianist-composer-arranger John Beasley tried out composing software new to him with a Monk tune, "Epistrophy." He went on from there to find Monk's music a fertile field for his imagination to play in. There have now been two Monk'estra recordings, the second of which was released last fall.

In a promotional video interview for Vol. 2 (Mack Avenue Records), Beasley has cited Monk's sense of humor as a particular spur for his own creativity. "It totally made me smile," he recalled about his deep plunge into Monk's works. Moreover, his technical and stylistic variety, which Beasley compares to the art of Pablo Picasso, provides "an open door for musicians to stretch out."

Beasley himself stretches out from time to time, making quite a romantic statement on melodica (a kind of end-blown small keyboard instrument) for "Ask Me Now."

When he sticks to his main instrument, piano, he manages to find new aspects of Monk with a style that doesn't ape the master's. His unaccompanied introduction to "Evidence" is a case in point. It's sweeping and reflective,  making an effective contrast with Beasley's use of the band, once it enters. The breaking-up of the theme is quite drastic, and the recording shows off the ensemble's pinpoint coordination, so that the rests are really well-integrated.

That well-honed command of Beasley's arrangements also comes through in "Skippy," after a long synthesizer solo. The different tempos are acutely well-managed. This kind of performance moves the ensemble well to "the outside," and comes across as an exhibition of the avant-garde implications of Monk's music.

But the master's humorous, relaxed quality is not overlooked: One might well leave the Palladium Saturday night humming the tune of "Little Rootie Tootie," should that show up on the set list. In any case, it's likely that fresh perspectives on Monkiana will be well in evidence at this much-anticipated concert.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Dreams deferred in a classic representation: IRT opens 2018 with 'A Raisin in the Sun'

It's hard not to wince a little at a common rhetorical flourish of well-meaning politicians in response to the latest racist outrage in word or deed: "That's not who we are."

Well, now that everyone agrees that the last presidential administration, through no fault of its own, didn't herald a "post-racial society," maybe we can also concede that American racial attitudes across the spectrum are indeed part of who we are. The regrettable portion of those attitudes — attitudes that impede progress toward justice and peace — are not who we should be, hopefully not even who we want to be.

But the reality is undeniable, and that's part of what makes "A Raisin in the Sun" a play worth producing in 2018. The opening-night performance Friday at Indiana Repertory Theatre proved the point upon our pulses, upon our hearts. Displaying incisive precocity, Lorraine Hansberry larded her family drama with many strong hints of the way things ought to be in America of the late 1950s.

Yet she finally comes down on the side of laying the situation out for us in all its complexity. She spares little in her examination of black aspirations and illusions as well as the blocking effects of white racism. Long ago, Thornton Wilder said in his Paris Review interview something that can be applied to Hansberry's achievement: "The theater is supremely fitted to say: 'Behold! These things are.' Yet most dramatists employ it to say: 'This moral truth can be learned from beholding this action.'"

"A Raisin in the Sun" essentially forces audiences to face what the Younger family will face in its hard-won escape from the Chicago ghetto, despite Walter Lee Younger's assertion of his manhood at the play's end. What keeps the family's dreams intact is inspiring, but our minds race forward to the challenges, some of them internal, that will remain with the Youngers after they move. At the same time, the play never turns its back on moral truths.

Walter Lee Younger explains his dreams of a better life to his son.
Sensing that Wilder wanted to reject the kind of drama that proposes such truths, his interviewer asked if drama should thus be art for art's sake. "Experience for experience's sake — rather than moral improvement's sake," the playwright-novelist retorted.

"A Raisin in the Sun" offers a clear-eyed view of experience for multitudes in what has been called the most segregated city in the northern United States. Open housing may have weakened some of the barriers by now, but "moral improvement" on either side of the racial divide remains an open question. Experience for experience's sake is what Hansberry confronts us with.

The IRT's production of "A Raisin in the Sun," directed by Timothy Douglas, makes its main characters representative of African-American experience while not turning them into allegorical figures. Tony Cisek's set honors the particulars of one family's life, while its background of shadowy stairways suggests both paths to elsewhere and an elaborate treadmill — like the architectural conundrums in the art of Piranesi or Escher.

 Chiké Johnson as Walter Lee, bedeviled by his subordinate position at home and at work, reflected the man's passionate imagination, a quality that sometimes plays hob with judgment and responsibility. He expressed the conflicting forces within Walter Lee steadily — forces that are for the time being reconciled in the difficult choice he makes for his family in the last scene.

Against the odds, Lena keeps the family centered.
The fact that he isn't the "head of the household" is the source of the play's titanic tug of war between him and his mother, Lena, the tenant of record in a crowded apartment. which also includes Walter's feisty younger sister, Beneatha; his wife, Ruth, and their 10-year-old son, Travis. Quite a crew to function as a role model for! No wonder that the pressure causes him to go off the rails before he digs down to find his spiritual center.

Kim Staunton's performance had an easy mastery about it. Her Lena is no stolid "earth mother" type; the despair that overcomes her briefly was infused with energy Friday. She's formidable in her own way, a picture of indomitability. Physically, she has a bit of matronly heft, but moves like a woman used to the hard work she's had to do all her life and ready for more. She's the keeper of the family flame, as well as of a scraggly potted plant that symbolizes her dogged optimism. There are some scenes in which Lena holds sway while seated, and it's to Staunton's credit that she projects the same air of command and moral consistency whether or not she's standing.

As Ruth, Dorcas Sowunmi rightly paid most of the school-of-hard-knocks tuition the Youngers seem to owe forever. Beneatha represented one kind of lofty escape from those realities in Stori Ayers' performance. She reflected it in the character's professional ambitions, her flighty range of hobbies, and her Afrocentrism.

Beneatha shares her brother's tendency to construct a rich fantasy life, which complicates her relationships with two men: the dicty George Murchison, heir to a ghetto fortune, and the brilliant Nigerian student Joseph Asagai, from whose mouth come Hansberry's juiciest satirical thrusts at African-American life. These minor but crucial roles were well-filled by Jordan Bellow and Elisha Lawson, respectively.

Completing the Younger family circle is Travis (Lex Lumpkin). Some of his vocal delivery seemed flat and studied, but that's in comparison to the naturalness and communicative force of his facial expressions and mannerisms. When he shoots a skeptical look at something his father says, it both hits its mark and flies across the theater.

The Youngers meet Mr. Lindner, who brings an offer from their prospective new neighbors.
The climax of Friday's performance also foreshadowed Walter Lee's change of heart about how to react to a neighborhood association's attempt to keep the Youngers from moving in. Johnson captured  his character's frenzied demonstration of the groveling gratitude he planned to exhibit for the promised bribe. You felt in this scene the long history of blacks' adopting attitudes of subservience for both the entertainment of whites and survival among them.

I liked the chances that Johnson took making the scene resemble overacting, because it paradoxically became all the more authentic. He indicated that Walter Lee was both sincere in his grotesque act and capable of seeing how ridiculous it was: he was pointing the way toward freedom even as he seemed to be acknowledging the strength of his shackles. This is what Johnson's performance underlined: The shame and humiliation the United States has visited upon minorities definitely belong to "who we are," but so does the promise of something better for everyone.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, January 12, 2018

Of generation and degeneration: Phoenix's 'Halftime With Don' goes deep in NNPN rolling world premiere

Brain-damaged ex-NFL star Don Devers (Bill Simmons) rests uneasily.
The label of "America's Pastime" passed from baseball to football late in the 20th century, and one of the era's major comedians, George Carlin, suggested part of the reason when he compared the language of both sports, wittily placing baseball in the nation's pastoral past.

But recently seismic shocks to the 21st-century solidity of NFL pre-eminence, from civic blackmail by owners to players "taking a knee" during the national anthem, have rattled the sport. Among the most concerning, reaching down into youth football, are the health consequences of repeated hits, especially concussions resulting in brain damage and long-term deterioration of character.

In "Halftime With Don," Ken Weitzman reaches into the topic of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) and comes up with a drama that, thankfully, doesn't make a fetish of topicality. Crucially, it's a family drama with added resonance from the phenomenon of fan hero worship. CTE shapes the action, but the play avoids getting down into the documentary weeds.

It grinds our emotions into the turf of athletic suffering and persistence, yet heroically presents the
struggles of its main character in a transformative context. The retired NFL defensive back, Don Devers, is well beyond healing, but an extra-medical attempt to rescue him from dismal isolation becomes oddly restorative for three others.

Stephanie (Lauren Briggeman) is desperate to reconnect with her dad.
That attempt is carried out by Ed Ryan, a nervous fan who's tended the flame of admiration from afar since boyhood; his expectant wife, Sarah, who has wangled an audience for him with the athlete as a birthday present, and Devers' daughter Stephanie, who has made that freighted gift possible in a desperate ploy to get access to her father as she prepares to deliver her own child without any close support.

As Don, Bill Simmons adds to his record of searing Phoenix portrayals of complex characters. The coherence he gives to the portrait of a disintegrating personality is remarkable. The seesawing between mental clarity and "nobody home," between frightening violence and relaxed, playful amiability, consistently bears the ring of truth. In Thursday's preview performance, he wrung the withers nonstop.

Most of Don's mood swings are visited firsthand upon Ed, played with feverishly managed anxiety and a firm sense of duty by Michael Hosp, whose face registered every nuance of the put-upon journalist's resourcefulness and often appalled spontaneity.

Explosive friendship: Ed and Don bond over Pop Rocks and Coke.
Weitzman's title plays upon the huge best-selling memoir by sportswriter Mitch Albom, "Tuesdays With Morrie," which comes up in the Don-Ed dialogue. But the heavy irony is that "Halftime With Don" alludes to the play's upcoming Super Bowl halftime and the miserable athlete's dark plans for that event, not the gentle wisdom of Albom's dying former professor.

The scoop Ed has envisioned as he tries to graduate from unread blogger to celebrated sports scribe is quickly thrown into peril by his unstable subject. The access Don grants comes with a heavy price, and Ed's stress goes through the roof. Also tested is his relationship with his sweet, supportive wife (Chelsea Anderson), contrasted with the salty cynicism of Stephanie (Lauren Briggeman). The women's unlikely but undeniable bond was beautifully realized in Thursday's performance.

Many new plays with a dark atmosphere hit notes of comedy along the way. I admired Weitzman's ability to fleck the dialogue with humor. Even more successful was how well he individualized the characters. Each talks differently, and yet he doesn't indulge in either cleverness or purple patches for any of the four. The characters are three-dimensional without excess coloration.  And, as directed by Bryan Fonseca, the cast inhabited them with abundant vivacity that never chewed the scenery. Which, by the way, consists of two sets (Don's home and Stephanie's apartment), marvelously designed by Daniel Uhde, in opposite corners of the Basile Theatre.

Among the foliage of Post-It Notes with which Don habitually decorated his locker as a player, whose successors now serve to jog his decaying brain as he sits moping and pained in his recliner, is one Ed has held onto for years. It's the source of his admiration for the football star — sort of his "Rosebud" — an encouraging reply to the fan letter he wrote as a bullied, fatherless fat kid with a stutter: "Your greatest moment is yet to come."

He also liked Don's habit of giving a hand up to any wide receiver he'd just upended, asking if the opponent was okay and promising him more of the same next time. In that context, it's worth recalling a real-life wide receiver's answer on last weekend's "Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me," when Peter Sagal, the host, asked him if he recalled any trash talk with the defensive backs who would be trying to bring him down as soon as he caught a pass.

"No," replied Hall-of-Famer Jerry Rice. "I just look at the defensive back and I say, 'You done.'"

"Halftime with Don" is the heart-piercing story of a man who keeps hearing the ghostly, agile wide receiver in his head stage-whisper, "You done." It's a judgment that few of us, never likely to be subject to the hurts of Don Devers, are ever willing to accept. The spirit of resistance to that voice deserves to be incarnated as well as it is in this production.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Sunday, January 7, 2018

All about the base: A maestro attuned to 18th-century symphonic origins returns to the ISO podium

Nicholas McGegan brought 18th-century expertise to the podium.
A glorious cul-de-sac in the history of the symphony orchestra was paid a visit to open Saturday's concert by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

With the Hilbert Circle Theatre audience swelled by the unusual scheduling of this weekend's only full-length classical concert (Friday evening was taken up with a special pops engagement), Nicholas McGegan returned as guest conductor to lead off with the open-air splendor of George Frideric Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks."

Among active conductors, McGegan is probably the most expert Handelian. The first part of his re-engagement Thursday morning did not afford the Coffee Concert audience the opportunity to receive the maestro's calling card. The full program made up for that before taking in Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Haydn.

Born in Saxony, Handel transplanted himself to England for most of his career, where his fame rested on opera and oratorio genres that McGegan has done much to revive for our time. Contrasts of texture and variation in dynamic plateaus add expressive heft to the dance forms Baroque composers inherited and that Handel raised to the heights of royal tribute. In the "Fireworks" suite, instrumental colors are brought to the fore against the overall context of massed ensemble sound. The symphonic principles of thematic contrast and interaction had yet to be worked out.

The rhythmic profile has to be kept clean and lively in music loaded with reinforcements. McGegan elicited the crucial potency and variety in the five movements. Those qualities are front-loaded in the lengthy Overture, with its trumpet-led calls to attention worthy of a royal celebration. Particularly striking and crisp was the contrast between trumpet and drums on the one hand, woodwinds and horns on the other, in "La Rejouissance," the next-to-last movement. The finale featured a piquant juxtaposition of two minuets, broadening and gaining majesty toward the end.

If the program had a theme, it could be identified as the romance between German-Austrian composers and England. Felix Mendelssohn made a number of visits there in his short life, the elderly Haydn gloried in English hospitality that got his creative juices flowing there, and Handel, as already mentioned, became fully at home during the reign of the first two Hanoverian kings. Mozart visited London with his family as a young prodigy. What a fertile field! England practically invented the public concert and the middle-class concertgoer, though royal and aristocratic patronage was still a must there as on the Continent.

Mendelssohn's "Hebrides" Overture, the product of the German native's visit to Scotland, opened the concert's second half. A child of the Romantic era with a patrician restraint that looked back to the 18th century, Mendelssohn in this evocative piece stirs up some of the wildness of a Scottish seascape. McGegan led a neatly lyrical performance that surged and billowed when called for.

Karen Gomyo played stylish Mozart.
The concert's other guest was Karen Gomyo as soloist in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major. Playing the tutti passages as is customary, in solo passages, Gomyo presented smooth phrasing, an even tone and straightforward songlike appeal. Her first- and second-movement cadenzas (Mozart left none) were resourceful in making use of all the material; the moodiness of the first one seemed wholly apt. Collaboration was on point throughout; the "Adagio" movement poured liquid gold.

I'm no fan of lists or picking favorites: A spectrum of better and worse surely exists, but why be choosy about great stuff? That said, two of the greatest symphonic finales in the Classical era conclude Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony (no. 41 in C major) and Haydn's "Drumroll" (No. 103 in E-flat). They are based on totally different approaches to last-movement structure, both loaded with genius (which, despite our President's claims, tends to have an unstable quality): Mozart's synthesizes a wealth of themes and forms; Haydn's takes one theme and exploits it magnificently.

McGegan led a wondrous performance of the "Drumroll," which gets its name from the odd opening of a timpani solo, following by the orchestra's dour slow introduction to the peppy Allegro con spirito. The composer didn't indicate how he wanted that solo played. I have one recording that foreshadows how the orchestra enters by starting from nothing and building, and another that opens with a teeth-rattling fortissimo and gradually subsides. ISO principal timpanist Jack Brennan chose a third way that was quite effective: "hairpins" — soft to loud to soft.

Other highlights: Concertmaster Zach DePue's glowing solo in the variations movement and the eloquence of the Trio in the third-movement minuet. And then there was that finale!  I saw a couple of patrons leave up a side aisle just after it started. I wanted to say to them: "Hey, it's none of my business, but you really ought to hear this. You're unlikely to encounter so much tension and release and receive so much emotional payoff from such ingenious concentration on a few phrases as you will right here. Oh well, have a nice day."

As Michael Steinberg, a commentator on symphonic matters without equal in the late 20th century, once said with pardonable exaggeration, alluding to the nickname of Haydn's 94th symphony: Every Haydn symphony is a surprise symphony.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Free from its bootleg history, "Wes Montgomery in Paris" comes to proper realization on Resonance Records

Wes Montgomery in Paris, 1965
In his only appearance in the French capital, Wes Montgomery (1925-1968) found a receptive audience at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees on March 27, 1965, just over three years before his death from a heart attack in his hometown of Indianapolis.

An ORTF recording from that concert is about to be released in its pristine, official version after decades of bootlegged releases, with proceeds going to the Montgomery estate. Resonance Records is behind the official release, produced by Zev Feldman; a two-LP gatefold set was issued at Record Store Day's Black Friday event in November.

Montgomery, here at the height of his powers and close to the big divide in his career between his classic and commercial styles, is at his most relaxed and inventive throughout the two-CD set under review. He heads a quartet thoroughly adept at showcasing him, though a friendly tension gets under way between the guitarist and pianist Harold Mabern.  Mabern's energy is unstinting, and sometimes he's up to Montgomey's level of inspiration, as in "Here's That Rainy Day,"

The rest of the quartet, while not anonymous-sounding, is primarily supportive: bassist Arthur Harper and drummer Jimmy Lovelace. Lovelace worthily commands attention during a series of exchanges with Montgomery and Mabern near the end of "Jingles." (An unexpected resemblance in Mabern's solo here is to Dave Brubeck's penchant for heavy block-chord patterns placed in syncopation against the beat.)

Tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin joins the quartet for three numbers: "'Round Midnight," "Full House," and "Blue 'n' Boogie." Griffin is at his most heartily florid, particularly in "Full House." Not that what the quartet does on its own needs any lifting, but the formidable young tenorman heightens the buoyant spirit of the set.

A favorite of guitarists ever since he introduced it,  Wes' "Four on Six" opens the program. Montgomery's variety of attack is immediately on display in his solo, with plenty of exposition of his seminal octave technique, then a climax in a parade of rambunctious chords. The indefatigable Mabern rains down phrase after phrase in his solo. The amiable rapport of the quartet is underlined by an easygoing coda.

John Coltrane's "Impressions" draws a concentrated, yet relaxed, display of Montgomery virtuosity. His solo is fiery and inspired, more than simply intense. Stylistically, you can hear some foreshadowing of the "shredding" and jazz-rock fusion guitar that flourished years after his death. And he displays a way of repeating a figure just enough to establish a groove before varying it, so you never suspect he's running out of ideas.
Harold Mabern, the sole living representative of the 1965 concert

Mabern can't always summon up such variety and freshness: On his own tune "To Wane," his doubling down on a series of hard-charging left-hand chords becomes tedious. The fast romp is keyed to Mabern from the start, but Montgomery is the clear star of this performance. Never the showoff, however, the guitarist remains the composer's attentive partner, sometimes in rhythmic lockstep with the pianist, while varying his tone color so as to keep the excitement fresh.

The overall excellence of this concert is likely to leave the listener with confirmation of Montgomery's genius. He seems to be having a good time, just pouring forth a rich succession of ideas about the music, getting all fancy and dazzling while creating an uncanny illusion of effortlessness. Though he went commercial toward the end of his too-brief career, he was from first to last a natural artist when it comes to welcoming the affection of all kinds of listeners to his music. That appeal is ceaseless throughout the Paris concert.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Zach & Zack continue their blend of spectacle and dramatic insight with 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'

Tim Hunt as Hedwig commands the stage.
The expansion of perspective that theater offers is a stretch that comes close to snapping at times. It can amount to extreme yoga of the soul. That's how "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" struck me when I saw it for the first time Thursday evening in a Zach&Zack production.

The sometimes strident but at length heartbreaking musical by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask runs weekends through Jan. 14 at the Hedback Corner Theatre, home of the long-running Epilogue Players, a company claiming "a special regard to the inclusion of the senior members of our community."  So I was more in tune with the venue than the vehicle last night. Nowadays everyone is gingerly about calling old people old. In the spirit of the full exposition of personal identity in "Hedwig," I embrace it. So here's an old, cisgender, straight white male's take on the show.

Its peculiar charm owes much to how well the production team works together to put the glitz and the pathos on an equal footing. Headed by director Zack Neiditch and producer/sound designer Zach Rosing, the small army of skillful designers, builders, managers, operators, and so on sets this production on a first-class level. What a way to get 2018 theater in Indianapolis off the ground and soaring!

Glam rock to the max: Hedwig and the Angry Inch   
Visual stimulation is constant, from the seven (did I count 'em all?) TV screens conveying "housekeeping" info at first, then supplemented by cameos by a couple of well-known local actors not in the cast to acclimate the audience to what they are about to experience. Matthew Ford Cunningham's lighting has a rhythm and color all its own, both angled and blindingly direct. Hedwig's band, sporting bizarre character names but no spoken lines, is a constant presence. Its sound enters and goes out in blazes of glory, under the musical direction of keyboardist Jacob Stensberg.

Hedwig is a struggling entertainer adjusting to U.S. life after an escape from East Germany that required a sex-change operation, whose failure puts him/her in perpetual sexual limbo. The rock drag-queen persona adopted as a result is witty, angry, and morose in well-defined autobiographical monologues between songs. In the title role, Tim Hunt, his eyes flashing and glitter-lipsticked mouth pouring forth confidences, anguish and quips, wins the audience over immediately. The role requires an illusion to be placed firmly upon a basic illusion — one keyed to the character's difficult survival. This layering was acute in Hunt's performance, across a well-managed spectrum of intimacy and flamboyance.

The other key role, mostly silent except for some crucial singing that graduates from back-up at the show's climax, is that of Yitzhak, Hedwig's husband. Given glowering overtones of resentment in Kate Homan's performance, Yitzhak is a former drag queen commanded to abandon minor-league stardom in order to accompany Hedwig and assist her show as prop master, dresser, and supporting vocalist.

The tension between Yitzhak's grudging loyalty and Hedwig's authoritarian flair played out richly until the latter's breakdown near the end, making the show's end obliquely uplifting. The turn of events was aptly piercing at the preview I attended, as was Hedwig's chafing alliance with Johnny Gnosis (also a vivid aspect of Hunt's performance), an arrogant rock star whose songs, stage name, and self-confidence she had supplied uncredited.

Hedwig's physical sacrifice carries historical irony in that the wall dividing East from West Berlin came down after the mutilated entertainer had fled to the West as the wife of a man who soon abandoned her. I saw the divided city just a few years after the wall went up. The common identity of the people on either side didn't matter; their actual lives and surroundings were entirely different.

I remembered this while listening to "The Origin of Love," Hedwig's song drawn from the notion in Plato's "Symposium" that the human race had been split from its original genderless unity —  a myth wonderfully rendered in this production by Michael Runge's animations as Hunt sang. Everyone is seeking wholeness once they become aware of being incomplete, whether the cause is natural or artificial. This is Hedwig's story, and to some degree it's also the story of anyone seeking love and a life of integrity. "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is thus more universal than it seems at first blush. Bring on that soul yoga!

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Tucker Brothers visit their local inspirations and draw something new from them

Kara Tucker's painting of Nick and Joel Tucker playing at the Chatterbox Jazz Club represents the
The Tucker Brothers at the Chatterbox.
honing of their craft that many local jazz musicians have been able to accomplish at the famous Mass Ave bar for several decades.

The emphasis in "Writing Prompts," the brothers' new CD, is the push toward mastery the brothers received from such figures in Indianapolis jazz history as David Baker, Wes Montgomery, and Freddie Hubbard. The first-named, the longtime director of jazz studies at Indiana University, was particularly influential in directing and shaping firsthand these young musicians' skills.

"Blues for D.B.," in the middle of the program on "Writing Prompts," salutes both Baker's roots and his coming-of-age trombone skills in bebop, which influenced his jazz composition and performance (on cello) to the end of his life in 2016.  In this piece, the blues framework is fast-paced and invitingly oblique. Joel Tucker's guitar particularly nails the tribute. And after Sean Imboden's tenor-sax statement, bassist Nick Tucker contributes an authentically blues-based yet rangy solo.

The band gives attention to melodic virtue, whether the melody fully deserves it or not. On the plus side is the opening number, with sax and guitar playing in unison on "West on Henderson," charging ahead on the strength of drummer Ben Lumsdaine's introduction. The vibe is alert, but casual -- which is kind of a key to the band. Solos are well-integrated: In "West on Henderson," check out the smoothness with which Joel's melodic solo continues sparingly underneath as pianist Evan Main moves to the forefront.

Sean Imboden's tenor sax is unusually full-throated and declamatory on "Standing Rock," which feels like a hastily sketched portrait but is also complete as it stands: Why put arms on the Venus de Milo? The tune takes a pointillistic approach to its wide intervals, but the connections between pitches are put into place with the firmness of mosaic tiles. Imboden's usual tone, linked to a fertile mind, is otherwise somewhat on the reserved side; it's perfectly suited to "Bye Lula," a glum ballad.

Even the band's less successful pieces are drawn into focus at some point. "Writing Prompt 2 (Pensive Moments)" moves right along but becomes kind of drifty. The track is rescued, to my ears, by a keenly focused bass solo, rhythmically interesting and melodically coherent. In Lester Young's terms, it tells a story — and by the time it occurs, we really need to hear one.

This band can at its best encompass a range of feeling within one piece without sounding haphazard or directionless. The way that "Writing Prompt 1 'Amity,'" the final track, heats up as it goes along is exemplary, against which Main's reflective piano solo suggests another path without laying down contradictions.

"Writing Prompts" continues to document the progress of a cohesive band that enjoys a lively fund of imaginative resources to draw upon in both composition and performance.