Saturday, March 31, 2018

Celebrating James Still's 20 years as playwright-in-residence, IRT brings back "Looking Over the President's Shoulder"

One hopes Indiana Repertory Theatre, in the 500th production of its history, can attract a young crowd to the 20th-century American history play James Still has put together from the memoir of Alonzo Fields, White House chief butler to four presidents.

"Looking Over the President's Shoulder" also had David Alan Anderson in its sole role in 2008. In its opening-night reprise Friday on the Upper Stage, murmurs of recognition from the audience were frequent as Anderson's Fields plumbed his capacious memory for anecdotes of chief executives from Herbert Hoover through Dwight Eisenhower and the times they helped shape and that shaped them.
David Alan Anderson as Alonzo Fields

In a span of consequential years from 1931 to 1953, Fields also had the opportunity to store up impressions of Great Britain's king and queen and its most famous prime minister of recent history, Winston Churchill. And among celebrities ranging from Hollywood's Errol Flynn to Marie Dressler, one White House visitor had for him particular resonance, both literal and metaphorical: Marian Anderson.

The Indiana-born Fields, raised in a self-sufficient African-American small town, harbored serious ambitions to make a career out of opera and concert singing, much like the famous contralto. His nurturing upbringing gave him a resilience that stood him in good stead when he felt that accepting an offer to join the White House staff was prudent as the Depression tightened its grip on most Americans. The dream sustained him, however. And of course he had first-hand knowledge of racism apart from the public sphere in which Marian Anderson encountered it. His way forward was to be the best kind of servant in the most prestigious job, drawing upon both patriotism and personal pride.

Fields has a lot to say, and it would have felt tedious for Still as playwright to lard his script with explanations. Nor would it have been appropriate for him to range outside Fields' point of view: When the butler praises Franklin Roosevelt for his evident conviction that "the White House belonged to all the people," the unbidden rejoinder that comes to mind — "except for Japanese-American citizens on the West Coast" —  must be dismissed. "Looking Over the President's Shoulder" is only in part a history lesson; it is principally a studiously yet vividly limned portrait of a remarkable historical figure.

Three years ago, I said of the actor's performance in IRT's "What I Learned in Paris" by Pearl Cleage:  "Anderson adds to his admirable record of filling to the max portrayals of men to be reckoned with." He extends that record here. Directed by Janet Allen, he is reflective and boisterous, acutely observant and wryly amused, as the narrative requires. He is a deft mimic: I won't soon forget his Eleanor Roosevelt or his Churchill (though I wonder if the real Churchill had such trouble standing erect).

Spare, elegant, and leaving lots of room for the audience's imagination to fill the gaps, Robert M. Koharchik's scenic design was eloquently supplemented by Chris Berchild's projections of historical photographs behind Anderson. A period chair for each of the presidents Fields served was brought into place as the show progressed; each of them carried a marvelous aura given substance by the actor's well-modulated words. Recorded music and sound were timely and just as restrained as they needed to be: Fields' reminiscences, as molded by Still and interpreted by Anderson, rightly commanded the stage. (It's rare when a spoiler comes in the form of a design element, so I won't describe the stunning one in the final scene. Suffice it to say that a concluding  ex machina doesn't always have to be a deus.)

As I watched, the unwelcome mental distraction of the current Chief Executive that troubled me from time to time is no fault of this amazing production. And allowing for the degree to which the shrewd, buoyant personality of Fields idealized Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower somewhat — with Truman held in justifiably high regard — "Looking Over the President's Shoulder" bears the stamp of genuine experience. It will bring substance and dignity to set against understandable suspicion among younger baby boomers, millennials, and Generation Whatever that the Oval Office has become the center ring in a dismal circus.

[Photo by Drew Endicott]

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Pushing back against the Russian pushback against the West's response to its assassination policy

Positively Death Street You’ve got a lot of nerve agent to deploy And you feel free to use it when it suits you To take out enemies abroad you will enjoy Until the world community aims and boots you. You’ve got a lot of nerve saying all of them are louts When over two dozen nations move against you; You seem offended by diplomatic ins and outs With fair retaliation that’s incensed you. You say the poison came direct from Porson Down Whose targets were an ex-spy and his daughter, But you had the means to kill in nearby Salisbury town; Can’t you see your argument won’t hold water? You’re not the only nation to target foes abroad — Israel and the United States have done it; But all your cries of innocence are nothing but a fraud: You launch a war, then you pretend you’ve won it. The UK got a taste of how you carry out revenge When you killed Litvinenko in ought-six; You make up narratives that say as little as Stonehenge, But they’re too clumsy to hide your deadly tricks. Every force exerted has an opposite force that’s equal, Says the third law of motion from Isaac Newton: Russia shot the original film, now here comes the sequel And the bright marquee still carries the name of Putin.

Flutist Mayu Saeki gently wipes the dust off the politically charged word 'Hope' in new CD

Mayu Saeki got her start in American jazz with Chico Hamilton.
Her publicity reflects such admiration for the sound of Mayu Saeki's flute that it refers to her by the quaint term "flautist."

Despite the Brit-inclined choice of term for a person who plays the flute, there is a particular elegance and tender force about how she sounds on "Hope" (BJU Records) that, as far as I'm concerned, entitles her to call herself a flautist if she prefers.

The fact remains that she commands the purest and most sustained sound on the jazz flute of anyone since the heyday of Hubert Laws. Besides, the Japanese-born New Yorker is also a skillful composer with credible aplomb in various styles.

The disc launches invitingly with "Dilemma," which despite its title seems a carefree blues with no dilemmas in view. Saeki leads a cheery statement of the theme that  sets up the solos, starting with an exciting repeated-note pattern from pianist Aaron Goldberg.

Keyboard duties on the disc are divided between Goldberg and a student of his, Nori Ochiai. Over the course of a CD lasting less than 50 minutes, just six tunes are featured. But this is not unwelcome, as so many jazz CDs today seem longer than necessary. With Saeki throughout the program are Joe Sanders, bass, and John Davis, drums.

The title song shows off Saeki's nicely sustained phrasing. Goldberg fleshes out the interpretation,  varying from a gently romantic introduction to a solo that puts a lot of skipping energy into the tune. That episode is nicely energized by complementary rhythmic elan from Davis on brushes and the dependably adept Sanders. The bandleader turns to the shinobue on "Soshu-Yakyoku," an explicit salute to her heritage, with the bassist underlining the atmosphere with an arco excursion.

Two Astor Piazzolla compositions contrast Saeki's approach to her instrument. She is heard on piccolo to lift the floating feeling of "Oblivion." The unison launch of "Libertango" for flute and bass is attractive, and Saeki displays a variety of tone here, with some staccato playing that showcases her articulation. She never just settles for a stab at such notes. There is nothing breathy or overassertive about the playing. The lyrical imagination of this fine flutist is consistently displayed. And, besides her exquisite technique, she always has something to say.

Monday, March 26, 2018

IRT will launch its 2018-19 season with a mysterious look at the Sherlock Holmes legacy

Indiana Repertory Theatre has announced a new season that will capitalize on the perpetual interest in Arthur Conan Doyle's master detective, Sherlock Holmes. It's Jeffrey Hatcher's look at the character's legendary power well after the sleuth's death, focusing on Watson, his sidekick, investigating the claims of three inmates at a remote island asylum to be Holmes himself.

"Holmes and Watson" will run from Sept. 25 to Oct. 21. It's part of a tradition that has attracted audiences to IRT and other theaters in recent years, said executive artistic director Janet Allen at a media lunch last Friday. "Adaptations of fiction have been a big thing with us over time," she said.

The play will be  followed by a production that's closer to the gritty side of contemporary urban reality. Dominique Morisseau's "Pipeline" (Oct. 16-Nov. 11) draws its title from the often observed tendency of young black men to fall into an inevitable channel toward incarceration, as well as the way education similarly channels marginalized young people before their potential is realized. The hero's mother struggles to get her troubled son pointed toward a better future. Allen saw its premiere at Lincoln Center last summer and knew she wanted it for IRT, she said.

The familiar production of "A Christmas Carol" will follow Nov. 17-Dec. 26. Ryan Artzberger will again play Ebenezer Scrooge in this annual fixture of the IRT schedule. Allen defends the IRT's 23-year devotion to the show, derived from the Charles Dickens novella, in terms not only of the money it  brings in, but also the exposure to theater it provides to many people unused to the experience and  the show's patented multigenerational appeal.

2019 will be welcomed (Jan. 8-Feb. 10) at the IRT with "Every Brilliant Thing," by Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, It traces a boy's attempt to come to terms with his mother's repeated suicide attempts by making a list of "every brilliant thing" that might be brought to bear to prevent recurrences. Despite its theme, Allen described the contemporary British play as "wildly funny."

"The Diary of Anne Frank," like "A Christmas Carol" a repeat production not on the subscription schedule, follows Jan. 25 to Feb. 24. It will be co-produced with the Seattle Children's Theater.
of which Courtney Sale, who was associate artistic director at IRT for three years, is artistic director.

From Feb. 23 through March 24, a musical for young children under the "Exploring Stages" rubric will be staged: the book series Elephant & Piggie's "We Are in a Play!" has script and lyrics by Mo Willems and music by Deborah Wicks La Puma.

Returning to the subscription season, Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House Part 2" (March 12-April 7)  takes Henrik Ibsen's classic up 15 years after Nora slams the door on the domestic life that has confined her. It deals with her both hilarious and harrowing return to her family. It's set in the late 19th-century period of the original but with modern language.

With "Amber Waves" (April 2-28), playwright-in-residence James Still has expanded a one-act play into a full-length drama to take a place in IRT's long-running Indiana Series. It concerns a family on a small Indiana farm that has fallen on hard times.

The season will end April 23-May 19 with Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's sprightly 1930s comedy "You Can't Take It With You," a Pulitzer Prize-winning work with a large cast of characters, many of them eccentric, that is mostly known via Frank Capra's film version.

Season tickets are now on sale at the IRT box office. Single tickets will go on sale in August.

'I Dreamed a Dream' about the difference between "rightfully" and "rightly" — that is all

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Indianapolis Opera's 'South Pacific': Balancing warily on the border between American musical theater and the operatic heritage

Enough U.S. opera companies have incorporated outstanding representatives of American musical
theater in recent years to make the Indianapolis Opera's productions ending the last two seasons no anomaly. Still, a company with such a small annual number of shows risks the appearance of diluting its brand.
Her fellow nurses help Nellie Forbush proclaim her resolve to "wash that man right out of my hair."

The emphasis on name recognition in part must explain the 2016-17 schedule's concluding with "Man of La Mancha," and the current one with "South Pacific," which opened Friday night at Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts. To end the just announced 2018-19 lineup we'll have "Camelot"; preceding shows will be a presentation of Indiana University Opera Theater's "Hansel and Gretel" and, as the only locally generated production from the opera repertoire, "La Boheme."

In hiring a professional orchestra and not miking the singers, as director A. Scott Parry proudly points out in his program notes, Indianapolis Opera has at least brought the Rodgers and Hammerstein favorite within the operatic orbit. But it must still be asserted that even the greatest examples of the Broadway musical rest on an artistic foundation of a far different order from opera.

Tropical romance: Emile woos Nellie.
For instance, in the musical you can't get past the tendency of ensemble numbers and even solos to end with an applause-soliciting wide-open pose. And there is a tradition of larding the group songs with choreography, sometimes rudimentary for the sake of underlining the pizazz the song has already established, as in "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair." In opera, even the convention of applauding arias rarely makes singers' tableau-like acknowledgment of the ovation acceptable. In musical comedy, it's a given.

This production dutifully makes the most of the showstopping moments. And from the overture on, the musical-comedy genre always holds up its big tunes —  "South Pacific" is rich in them — in a way that opera is less inclined to, despite the popularity of "highlights" recordings. More crucially, the ability of opera singers to create and sustain characterizations in spoken dialogue is tested by a show like "South Pacific." Many operas, of course, require stem-to-stern singing.

IO had various degrees of success with these mixed responsibilities. Brian Banion displayed sterling vocal qualities as a singer Friday night. When speaking he usually maintained the French accent Emile De Becque has to have. But I felt the characterization lacked an aura of mystery essential to the role. De Becque is not only a South Pacific plantation owner jealous of his freedom from a shadowy past in his native France. He also has a distinct guardedness about his private life as a result. He opens up to Nellie Forbush because he's in love with her, but he's still an exotic enigma to her in a nearly romance-stifling way. Banion made him too much a stiff-necked libertarian, swayed by love but in essence too simply proud.

Banion also was responsible for overstating some of the role's vocal glory, though perhaps in the prescribed Broadway manner. He planted his feet and flung his arms wide as "This Nearly Was Mine" rose to a climax. There's no question of De Becque's intense feeling of loss at this point, but the song ought to sustain a reflective glow right through to the end rather than court the audience's favor.

Banion's voice was fully equal to the role's demands, and for a bass-baritone he had a surprising degree of security in the upper range, positioning his voice well each time he chose the high-note ending of "never let her go," the last line of "Some Enchanted Evening."

Group hug: Bloody Mary exults in the romance between Liat and Lt. Cable.
The other leading role, that of Ensign Nellie Forbush, was taken by Christina Overton with a welcome measure of ingenue charm. But her vocal projection was inconsistent: "Cock-Eyed Optimist" went in and out of intelligibility, as did "I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy." The character may be a self-described hick, but in performance Nellie needs to command a considerable supply of Broadway "belting."

Consistency was the watchword of Lyndsay Moy's portrayal of Bloody Mary. Her spoken dialogue was clear and so was her singing. She projected the character's hustle and boisterous self-regard, right down to Bloody Mary's signature cackle. In "Bali Ha'i," the character's respect for her Tonkinese culture came through superbly in both voice and gesture.

Major supporting roles included Grant Knox as Marine Lieutenant Cable, with an exemplary rendition of his romantic solo "Younger Than Springtime." That number follows an amazingly brief love-at-first-sight scene with Bloody Mary's daughter Liat (Gretchen Adams) — a challenge to make dramatically convincing. He put a fair measure of remorseful sarcasm into "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," the second-act song that highlights the show's attack on racial prejudice. To embody Cable's spy mission on the island and its fateful launching in the second act needed a more steely characterization, however.
Billis and his buddies lament the absence of somebody "to put on a clean white shirt for."

Bradley Kieper got only a limited chance to display a fairly mighty tenor (a bit of "Bali H'ai"), but
was otherwise the comic schemer Luther Billis to the nth degree. He was the more than adequate focal point of "There Is Nothing Like a Dame," seconded by a small but effective chorus of sailors, and he helped Overton bring off Nellie's raucous Thanksgiving-show number "Honey Bun" with his burlesque impersonation.

Keith Chambers conducts the production. On Friday, his support of the singers was well-illustrated by the deftness of the accompaniment to "Some Enchanted Evening." The small but polished orchestra created just the right atmosphere to evoke the charm of Bali Ha'i (the island as well as the song). Choruses of nurses and sailors were vivid and well-coordinated.

With three sell-out crowds this weekend, "South Pacific" has already filled the IO goal of getting butts in the seat (to use a favorite marketing term usually brought up in private conversation). But the show is loaded with the demands of its genre, which were fulfilled only in part on opening night. And the larger question remains: How much is putting on Broadway musicals the proper business of an opera company?

[Photos by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]

Friday, March 23, 2018

Grace notes of grief and healing: "Appoggiatura" completes IRT's mounting of a James Still trilogy

Travel is broadening, runs the cliche, but it can also be narrowing — sometimes in a positive way. For the unconventional family group in "Appoggiatura," upon its disheveled arrival one recent June in Venice, a sentimental journey is roughed up against the nap of the fabled Bride of the Sea only to find a magical payoff at the end.

Marco and Aunt Chuck have a heart-to-heart at a Viennese fountain.
In James Still's poignant comedy, the tug of memory — with two older adults focused on the deceased love of both their lives — competes with the slightly shabby charisma of the Italian port city, whose water-laced geography is perpetually both an attraction and a challenge. At first, flooding and a power outage combine with the modern traveler's curse of lost luggage to pose threats to the trip. The optimistic Helen's happiness is challenged, and deepened is the dour mood of the man for whom her late husband Gordon left her. The ex-rival is known to her and the party's third member, granddaughter Sylvie, as "Aunt Chuck." Those annoyances fade, and one of them is crucially mitigated late in the show.

The Indiana Repertory Theatre is presenting the third part of Still's trilogy (in previous seasons, IRT has staged "The House That Jack Built" and "Miranda") as part of its celebration of his 20th season as playwright in residence. The observance is also taking the form of an encore production of "Looking Over the President's Shoulder," which opens next week.

Peter Amster directs a versatile cast, playing characters with an almost down-home appeal, despite the exotic setting. The family intimacy, in which hard-won affection must compete with fulfillment of diverse personal agendas, is brightly sketched in the opening scene by Susan Pellegrino (Helen), Tom Aulino (Aunt Chuck), and Andrea San Miguel (Sylvie). Still's writing is glinting and fast-paced; exposition is distributed with a skilled hand. Helen's willful cheeriness encompasses reading aloud snippets of local color from Venetian history. She's attempting to distract Aunt Chuck from his grumpiness and Sylvie from her default position of just going along with her elders as she tries to find herself.

The widow Helen (right) encounters Gordon and her younger self.
Progress from this shaky start will be found through a mix of tourist misdirection and serendipity. A deepening of self-knowledge, through both imagination and coming to terms with the hands life has dealt, generates change even more crucially. The comedy of international travel is sketched by Marco (Casey Hoekstra), an inexperienced Italian travel guide with rudimentary English hired via e-mail,  and secondary characters representing a host of cicerones, played by Andrew Maher, Paul DeBoy, and Katrina Yaukey.

The trio also functions as street musicians wittily and magnetically woven in and around the action. They are outfitted to a virtuoso turn by Tracy Dorman's costume designs, contrasting with the casual, travel-worn attire of the central trio, Marco's on-the-cheap debonair style, and the evocative, dressier fashion of a time long past for San Miguel as the young Helen and Hoekstra as the young Gordon.
Street musicians provide a sidewalk cafe patron with a reflective song.

It's worth pausing to mention a couple of characteristic Still touches that can sound sappy when singled out, but that work so well in context. In "April 4, 1968," it was the moment when the black family and their accidental white guest suddenly clasp hands while sitting on the couch. In "Appoggiatura," it's when the young Helen impulsively hugs the laptop, a device totally strange to her, at the end of a Skype call. An explanation would give too much away, but it's a precious moment.

Lee Savage's scenic design, with elements that move to suggest different sites around the city, basically serves to document the time-worn facades of Venice's canal-fronting structures. Alexander Ridgers' lighting slices in from the side or emblazons the scene all around, depending on the precise location and time of day. Still's incorporation of Skype chats and iPhone signaling is made smoothly manifest throughout the production, typically rich in IRT marvels.

A gondolier poles his way along, with passengers Aunt Chuck and Marco.
The Italian title, drawn from a musical term, is explained both in the company's promotional video and briefly in the show itself. In music, an appoggiatura is a kind of auxiliary note in a line that receives various degrees of emphasis in delaying the conclusion of a phrase. It's an embedded emotional tug that, expanded for dramatic purposes here, signals a reluctance to let go. When a playwright shows he has something fresh to say about love and loss, much of his success is assured. So it is with  "Appoggiatura."

And the best example of the title in the play's context comes in the gondola scene, where Aunt Chuck is inspired to burst into "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Marco and the gondolier join in with the Italian version. And where Marco finishes with "life is but a dream," his gondola companions end that last line with the Italian for "dream" —sogno — two syllables, of which the first one is an appoggiatura note. It's a perfect illustration, both of the device itself and of the play's meaning.

[Photos by Ed Stewart and Zach Rosing]

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Jemal Ramirez and his band romp through 'African Skies'

The cover of San Francisco-based drummer's new CD.
With a basis of public-school responsibilities for his day job, drummer-bandleader Jemal Ramirez makes musical points in the public sphere in addition to his vital work in music education.

His latest CD, "African Skies" (Joyful Beat Records), finds him anchoring his usual quintet, notable for the inclusion of the perpetually relevant vibraphonist Warren Wolf. But it's also important to emphasize, on the evidence of this disc and its predecessor, "Pomponio" (2015), that the Ramirez band is a real team. Star power is not what keeps both discs worth hearing. It's the collective energy and program choices that bring out the cohesiveness of the ensemble as well as the solo chops within.

Variety in unity and vice versa: In "Latina," for example Howard Wiley's alto solo heats things up feverishly before Wolf's canny vibraphone notions cool things down. Yet Ramirez's drums keep things simmering behind the vibes, so that the overall performance maintains consistent fervor.

Nonetheless, I can't resist drawing special attention to Wolf. As he rides the Latin pulse of "A Good Time," for example, how deft he is at coming up with little bits of original melody to tie together his ideas! When the band comes in behind his inspired soloing, the effect is electric. There's also a good tenor solo from Wiley.

And, though the contributions of trumpeter Mike Olmos are cogent on four of the 10 tracks, there's a progression evident to my ears from Olmos' rather generic solo on "It Always Is" through the more focused playing of pianist Matthew Clark to Wolf's unerringly eloquent solo. Then, having a high plane of pertinence behind it,  the ensemble erupts in a wild coda with simultaneous improvising by the horns.

The teamwork at its lyrical best comes through in "A Long Way Home," an original ballad by Wolf, Wiley, and Ramirez, with atmospheric mallets on tom-toms setting the mood and smooth soprano-sax lyricism from Wiley complementing the estimable Wolf. The vibist gets a soulful showcase to himself in "Save Your Love for Me," which follows immediately.

The group confidence is illustrated by how securely the band plays around the familiar tune of "Speak Low" before Wolf states the theme. This is a band (bassist John Shiflett is fundamental to its success, too) that's comfortable in its skin and able to communicate the fact without special pleading or bizarre trickery.

Why do stars fail in Indiana (and so many other places)? Nighttime competition from light pollution

Sunday, March 18, 2018

All-orchestral program focuses on guest conductor's affinity with three eras

No concerto soloists required guest conductor Matthew Halls to share the limelight in this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts.
Halls: British conductor makes his mark here.

The British conductor proved worth the focus as he led Saturday evening's program of J.S.Bach, James MacMillan, and Jan Sibelius at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

MacMillan is a prolific Scotsman who seems to have increased presence on American concert programs recently. In February I heard the American premiere of his Trombone Concerto in a Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert. I found the work so exciting that I'll admit paying insufficient attention to the Tchaikovsky "Pathetique" Symphony that followed intermission. I like that piece well enough, but MacMillan's arresting musical rhetoric still had command of my mind. (The conductor, Gustavo Gimeno, will make his ISO debut here in April.)

MacMillan's Veni, veni, Emmanuel, a percussion concerto, has been performed twice in Indianapolis — once with its dedicatee, Evelyn Glennie, as soloist, then by Colin Currie. And one of his string quartets has been chosen to mark the last Juilliard Quartet performance of first violinist Joseph Lin this spring in New York. He will be succeeded by Areta Zhulla.

On Thursday and Saturday, Halls led Sinfonietta, a 19-minute work whose title betokens both one-movement form and a reduced orchestra. Apart from strings, a wide variety of instruments is represented by a single voice each. A keening soprano saxophone makes an initial impression over a lighter-than-air string accompaniment. The calming mood lasts for just long enough for a fortissimo rip in the fabric to shock the ears.

That interruption turns out to be persistent, soon becoming both florid and chaotic. It's as if Charles Ives had wandered into Stravinsky's "Shrovetide Fair" ("Petrushka") and became disoriented by funhouse mirrors. Typical of the MacMillan works I've heard, there's a nurtured beauty that has to contend with threats and challenges. In this case, the ethereal music returns, taking on an even higher place in the heavens, as it ends with a repeated utmost-octave note from the piano. The effect was marred Saturday night by an ill-timed cellphone ring from somewhere in the audience.

Until last September, Halls was artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival. From what I've read of his dismissal, he may have been a victim of an oversensitive aspect of the #MeToo movement. Management responded at first to a ridiculously exaggerated report of a joke Halls made to a black soloist, but was mainly pushed to push him out by a few "hostile work-environment" charges, accounts of which don't give much basis for coming down definitively on the side of either party. A settlement proscribes both the OBF and Halls from further comment in self-defense.

This is by way of introducing his genuine claim to conduct Bach with a modern orchestra. The great Baroque composer tends to be overlooked in symphony schedules, a consequence of the triumph of "authenticity." The neglect goes back many decades, and explains why Leopold Stokowski felt compelled to orchestrate some of the Saxon master's music. The vogue for these transcriptions has long passed; the ISO last played the 1922 Stokowski-Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor in 1973.

Judging from the response Saturday night to the ISO's performance of that magnificent organ work, such arrangements come across well and have merits far from the shadow of travesty they're sometimes represented as being under. The audience ate this one up. Much credit goes to Hall's astute management of balance and tempo. The broadening near the end of the fugue complemented the splendor of the orchestration. Throughout, Halls displayed insight into the peculiar blend of spectacle and probity that could well sum up the imposition of Stokowski on top of Bach.

The concert opened with a crisp, lively account of Bach's Orchestra Suite No. 3. There were signs of struggle as the ISO fought to maintain the fast pace Halls set for the fast section of the Overture. Concertmaster Zach De Pue handled the violin solos with aplomb. And the ISO's trumpet section sounded brilliant wherever it was required to shine.

Halls had the well-known Air, the suite's second movement, nicely modulated with reduced strings the first time through, then supplemented by the full complement. The Bourree seemed to test the orchestra again, but the rapid pace certainly set up the quick segue into the concluding Gigue well.

After intermission came the "in-between" selection: the personalized late romanticism of Sibelius' Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major. The mastery of tempo fluctuations Halls displayed in Bach served him well here: The transition to Presto, then more Presto, in the first movement was precisely judged and quite exciting.The second movement is pervaded by subtle shifts that were handled adroitly in this performance.

In the first movement, where the composer seems to be working out a few ideas that can take you a while to realize aren't introductory but substantive, the initial phrase of the horns was somewhat tentative. But the wind band soon sounded self-assured. Sibelius' writing for winds often seems to be a little precious, self-involved, somewhat boutique-y, like something you might find in the Carmel Arts District.

But such stuff is part of the Sibelius signature. The music historian Jan Swafford makes the witty comment that, like Dylan Thomas' poetry, Sibelius' symphonies sound greater than they are.  That thought struck me in the evanescent second movement, with its fleeting sentimentality and hints of Brahms and even Puccini. After that allure, what does it all really amount to? Pure Sibelius, for sure.

The finale was taken at a rapid clip, and the strings' sotto voce scurrying sounded really unified. All the colors in Sibelius' rather restrained palette were brought into view vividly. Halls handled the momentum of the last movement quite well, as its expansive lyricism and a catchy, pervasive rocking figure moved to a climax amid the scurrying. Never have those drastically spaced final six chords made more sense to me as the perfect way to punctuate and bring to finality all that roiling energy.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Herald of spring: Well-seasoned quintet jazz from tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel

Out of a project inspired by a Tchaikovsky suite for solo piano, saxophonist Ben Wendel was inspired
Aaron Parks (left), for whom Ben Wendel's "November" was written.
to write a piece for each month of the year, dedicating each to a musician he admires. As a jazz specialist, the writing was a launching pad for duo performances incorporating improvisational  freedom, in which each honoree participated as a performing partner with Wendel.

Expanded to a quintet format, the compositions became the basis for Wendel's "Seasons" band, which played two sets Friday night at the Jazz Kitchen. Filling out the group were some illustrious young players, with a locally boosted star, Aaron Parks, at the piano. Parks was 2001 Cole Porter Fellow of the Indianapolis-based American Pianists Association. Other "Seasons" personnel: Gilad Hekselman, guitar; Matt Brewer, bass, and Kendrick Scott, drums.

Textures of Wendel compositions are dense, but the group's internal rapport ensures that everything flows. For example, "November," written for Parks, allowed the pianist to wax introspective in an unaccompanied introduction. When the full band came in, there was an ingrained moodiness to the material, with Scott laying down a propulsive backbeat. That encouraged bluesy inflections in the solos, which were interspersed with ensemble returns. It was down-home goes to graduate school. The performance ended with a long diminuendo as a four-note tag marked the settling down.

Wendel sounded comfortable in all ranges of his horn, and folded into his playing a wealth of curlicues and flourishes. "May" displayed the positive buoyancy of his muse, with lots of ornamentation. Hekselman's solo took an exotic turn. The general favoritism toward up-tempo pieces was interrupted by "August," with its long tones and a sparkling Parks solo niftily accompanied by Scott's hand-drumming.

"October," written for Hekselman, gave the timbre-sensitive guitarist a chance to make a gamelan-like excursion in his solo that soon morphed into an Afrobeat vibe as the ensemble entered. "July" was notable for a titanic yet coherent bass solo, as well as for a tasty coda punctuated by Scott's precise patterning on rims.

The last piece of the first set was the one tune not taken from Wendel's "Seasons" project. "Unforeseeable" started with crisp solo drums and cymbals, with Brewer soon putting a foundation underneath the percussive churning. The piece drew hearty applause and whoops and demands for an encore. That entailed a return to the monthly theme, as "April," written for the drummer Eric Harland, was put on display, with naturally a more intense focus on the estimable Scott.

Relaxed and amiable in his bandstand manner, Wendel draws from his sidemen the same attention to taking care of business that he demands of himself. No one stays idle for long in this band, yet the listener doesn't get the impression of clutter. The sound is high-powered, but there's always something new to absorb and enjoy. Whatever the season, this isn't the sort of impactful music that tempts you to say: "OK, very good — now give me a break!" It's rather like: "Let's have some more."

Time is on somebody's side, but french fries are right on the side of a burger order

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Networking magic helps save joint Ensemble Music Society/IVCI concert at Landmarks Center

Last weekend's wintry weather on the East Coast took an unexpected toll when pianist Joseph Kalichstein fell on ice in New York and suffered a broken arm.

Jaime Laredo, Sharon Robinson, Soovin Kim, Gloria Chien
This forced some quick action on the part of the two venerable musical organizations behind the highly anticipated Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio Tuesday night at the Indiana Landmarks Center.
Fortunately, a married couple with International Violin Competition of Indianapolis connections was available to fill the date along with the married couple that constitutes two-thirds of the scheduled trio.

2002 IVCI bronze medalist Soovin Kim and pianist Gloria Chien were brought into play with violinist/violist Jaime Laredo, president of the IVCI jury, and cellist Sharon Robinson as collaborators on a new program in the IVCI's Laureate Series. The concert, dedicated to the late IVCI patron Andrew Paine, was co-presented with Ensemble Music Society,

Music involving all four musicians opened and closed the program, both featuring Laredo on viola, his secondary instrument. In Mozart's Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat, K. 493, it was immediately evident that the concert's replacement pianist was much more than a desperate substitute for Kalichstein. Chien characterized the first movement beautifully, controlling pace and tone in a way that solidified the ensemble; a move into the minor mode was expertly judged, with a slight slowing and dynamic variety signaling a shift in direction.

The performance continued to be well-knit throughout: the pauses in the progress of the Larghetto were well-matched, and the slow tempo handled with no slackening of interest or forward motion. Chien also set forth the brilliance of the finale in a spirited performance with touches of humor, such as the brief grace-noted exchanges with Kim.

The concert concluded with a piece of French romanticism in full flower. The essence of Gabriel Fauré's small-scale but cogent intensity came through in the Scherzo of his Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, op. 15.  Plucked strings accompanied the piano in the elfin main theme, and the quartet captured well the subtle shift in the Trio section, with the strings muted. In the course of the performance, there were phrases for the viola performed in a way indicating Laredo is not a full-time violist. On the whole, this was a well-integrated, glowing account of the work.

A four-movement duo, with Laredo on his primary instrument, gave the star couple in the program a showcase. The quirky modernist Erwin Schulhoff, whose promise as a composer was snuffed out in 1942 in a Nazi death camp, got a rare outing in Indianapolis.  The violin-cello duo presented a composer attracted to middle European folk music, especially its dance rhythms, and also under the influence of Debussy's outreach beyond conventional phrasing and harmony. Passages in harmonics set up an ethereal feeling that made the first movement's peaceful ending logical. The embrace of gypsy music in Zingaresa: Allegro giocoso was rousing, and the contrasts in the finale, with motoric and songlike episodes negotiated smoothly, displayed an undimmed elan.

As a specific tribute to Paine, a banker long associated with the violin competition, Robinson and Chien played Fauré's enduring Elegie, op. 24. Robinson's large tone was nicely controlled, and the passionate weight of the middle portion was molded with a good feeling for balance by both players. The cellist's bow speed on the last note slowed expertly to allow the tender, elegiac conclusion of the piece to ring out and make the memorial dedication special.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Venus of Willendorf: The escape from Facebook purgatory of a 30,000-year-old femme fatale

Venus of Willendorf, the Venus of Willendorf! The sculpture that Facebook found naughty: Her head is covered, her face is a blank, And her flank is not the slightest bit lank. Venus of Willendorf, that ancient unthrillin’ dwarf, A maid who today would cool lust: Her Stone Age suitors have crumbled to dust, And not a la mode is her large, sagging bust But to censor all nudity is a policy must. Says Facebook of Venus of Willendorf! We might all speculate why this is her fate After being herself for so many years Few people can see why her anatomy Should encourage a bunch, if any, fears. Venus of Willendorf, the Venus of Willendorf, That Paleolithic playmate When a man of today sees her mottled complexion It’s not likely he will get an erection! Venus of Willendorf, how could such a figure morph Into a new source of desire? She speaks of fertility from head to toe But you’d have to be Paleolithic to know What she stands for means she is ready to grow The population of Willendorf! This less than five-inch-tall figurine Is far too symbolic to be obscene. So let the offended forgive the offender For exhibiting her Stone Age pudenda. She has not survived just to greet you, She’s from ages before hashtag MeToo; She can’t be harassed, even if you tried: She was made just to be objectified. Venus of Willendorf, how could such a figure morph Into a source of desire? She speaks of fertility from head to toe But you’d have to be Paleolithic to know What she stands for means she’s ready to grow The population of Willendorf!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Honoring the ruling aesthetic of today's symphonic repertoire: ISO plays Beethoven and Dvorak

This weekend's program in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Classical Series sits squarely upon the mainstream repertoire. Despite many exceptions, that means the 19th century. Concerts comprising Antonin Dvorak and Ludwig van Beethoven hold up the values and procedures we have come to identify with Romanticism.

I may be in the minority in thinking that the greatest period in classical music was the 20th century. Nonetheless, I still hold the music of its predecessor dear, and a program consisting of Beethoven's "Coriolan" Overture and Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor and Dvorak's Symphony No. 7 in D minor is not a ho-hum occasion for me. I'm no cookie-cutter modernist nerd.

Nonetheless, Friday's concert under the baton of ISO music director Krzysztof Urbanski reminded me of the comfortable world within which so many music-lovers (symphony patrons in particular, not so much solo recital and chamber-music devotees) prefer to dwell. And it worked to the disadvantage of Dvorak, whose D minor symphony struck me as essentially a period piece.

The performance was lively and apparently deeply felt. The work is skillfully constructed, even if its themes are pedestrian. There are some startling details in harmony and rhythm from time to time. The Scherzo has charms that tell fitfully across the decades. But Dvorak, though here in full control of his means and ends, doesn't necessarily speak to our time. Beethoven still does.

Yefim Bronfman's return as an ISO guest artist was most welcome.
What do I mean by "period piece"? In music, it's a piece so thoroughly of its era in layout, rhetoric, and manner of expression that its pertinence to people living in 2018 is somewhat questionable. It can be brought forward now and then without harm, maybe even with new insights. But without  digressing into list-mongering, to me the Dvorak Seventh is less essential today than either his eighth or ninth symphonies (as overplayed as the latter is), and belongs on the shelf along with, say, Wagner's "Lohengrin" and Saint-Saens' "Egyptian" piano concerto. I could well add a handful of 19th-century violin concertos that remain alive largely for the display of present-day virtuoso fiddling.

The Dvorak Seventh is saturated with earnestness from stem to stern. So is the Beethoven piano concerto that Yefim Bronfman is playing with the ISO this weekend. But the C minor concerto is a work of genius, with charms and forcefulness alike that remain striking today. Dvorak was among countless composers who swam in the tide that poured from Beethoven early in his century, in this work and many others.

I liked the way Bronfman banked his fires in the first movement. He held something in reserve, but didn't understate so severely as to seem indifferent. He knew when to give a trenchant turn to a phrase or a cadence. His trills sparkled. Moments of introspection — and we know from the sketchbooks how Beethoven slaved over his songful inspirations — always seemed to provide an authentic look into the composer's soul.

A hush settled over the  Hilbert Circle Theatre audience in the second movement. The floating feeling of this Largo didn't entail a hint of shapeless drifting apart: Urbanski's coordination of the orchestra with the ever-responsive Bronfman never faltered. Largo is the slowest common tempo designation; the performance proceeded as if the movement couldn't be taken a jot faster and retain the same integrity. In the finale, each episode built logically upon what preceded it. Transitional passages were perfectly matched to the main material. Bronfman's shift to the rollicking Presto that wraps everything up was exhilarating. Called back for an encore, the pianist offered a luminous account of Debussy's Clair de lune.

The program opened with a crisp, dramatic account of the "Coriolan" Overture. Here's a work that offers another point of comparison with a Koch Classics ISO recording under Raymond Leppard's baton, like last week's Overture, Scherzo and Finale by Schumann. Not to devalue what Leppard accomplished as the ISO's fifth music director, but the orchestra has improved notably under his two successors: Mario Venzago and Urbanski. Friday's performance had a more genuine tension than the CD account because it was interpreted with a new suppleness and tonal richness, qualities that the passing years have fortunately brought to the ISO.

Literature dates faster than music, on the whole. The play that inspired the "Coriolan" Overture is a period piece; Shakespeare's play on the same Roman figure survives because it has so much to say about leadership, which can be both super-competent and tragically stubborn.  Despite its coldheartedness, "Coriolanus" speaks to the 21st century. We don't have a contemporary Coriolanus in this country now, but a tragedy based on a different set of failings might be unfolding. The best we can hope for is that this presidency will someday also be regarded as a period piece. In the political sphere, that kind is even less worth revisiting than the likes of the Dvorak D minor symphony.

Friday, March 9, 2018

In the last production in its church home, Phoenix Theatre mounts a racially charged comedy

You can make a stage play rich in silliness, but if its humor is focused on America's continuing racial divide, the silliness will evaporate like alcohol in a recipe. The matter of race is what imparts the full flavor; the fun adds a desperately desired zest.

"Fairfield," by Eric Coble, is such a play. Seen at a preview performance Thursday night on the Phoenix Theatre's Basile Stage, the two-act comedy delved deep into the contemporary American dilemma. But it rose to a climax of pure farce, and — for both good and ill —  never quite transcended a certain sit-com superficiality.

The title denotes an elementary school in a "liberal suburb," the program tells us, during Black History Month. By the end, the annual dedicated focus on African-Americans seems to be occupying the longest month rather than the shortest.

Over the intercom, Principal Wadley tries to exert control.
Careerism in public education today works to assert itself against a confusing social milieu. In "Fairfield" the initial clash on that score is between Mrs. Wadley, the school's thoroughly assimilated black principal, and first-year first-grade teacher Laurie Kaminski, a white liberal of more unbounded enthusiasm for the celebration than prudence might dictate. Wadley would rather rainbow-wash the observance, which puts her at the edge of inappropriateness just as much as Kaminski's screwball lesson plans put her.

Milicent Wright gives to Wadley a cheerful, stentorian authority. The character's facade will eventually shatter as things go awfully wrong at the school. The cheerfulness will fade, and her response to an incident in Ms. Kaminski's classroom will eventually defenestrate her instincts toward moderation. Also reduced to tatters is the idealistic banner lofted high by the first-grade teacher, played with an overflowing ebullience by Mara Lefler.

First-grade teacher Laurie Kaminski has some explaining to do.
More than 50 years ago, Stokely Carmichael wrote something still painful to read for its relevance today: "White America will not acknowledge that the ways in which this country sees itself are contradicted by being black." You can resolve contradictions that arise from different points of view, but not the kind that are part of identity. Yet that seems to be the attempt that's become institutionalized in the nation's public schools during February. It's a heroic effort, but it also raises so many discrepancies between intention and action, perception and reality, that comedy may be a useful way to shed light upon them.

Coble achieves quite a lot in that direction. The dialogue is witty and often laced with irony. Characters tie themselves in knots to make it evident they are on the side of the angels. Sometimes they seem closer to the fallen angels at home in Dante's hell, to which Coble makes a couple of allusions. Two couples emerge as the center of parental anger at the turmoil that grips Fairfield. They carom between offensive and defensive positions stemming from a classroom fight between their sons.

The parents of a son involved in a classroom fight confer at home.
Dwuan Watson and LaKesha Lorene play with fiery gusto the African-American parents proud of their status in the comfortable suburb, but anxious about signs that the incident may undermine it. Doug Powers and Jean Arnold are the reasonable-sounding white parents whose goodwill is fragile and often frustrated. (Powers and Watson are absolutely assured in crucial secondary roles they take on — Powers as the nervous district superintendent, Watson as a distant relative of the principal whom she brings in to offer a student assembly historical perspective, and who turns out to be an unreconstructed Black Panther.)

Both couples are at odds internally as the tension increases; both try to free themselves from
The other couple mulls over a proper response to the problem.
stereotypes with the same flailing failure as Br'er Rabbit punching the uncommunicative tar baby. I've deliberately chosen an un-p.c. comparison to point up the kind of identity contradictions Carmichael was so insightful about. In their updating of the Uncle Remus story, the Disney folks turned the tar baby into some kind of frosting-heavy cake, as I recall, to avoid giving offense.  Br'er Rabbit would get sticky, but not stuck, punching a gooey cake. His getting stuck is the point of the story. And getting stuck is what happens to the characters in "Fairfield."

I'm tempted to think Coble might have chosen the name of his school, and his play's title, from the most famous phrase in the Middle English poem "Piers Plowman." There William Langland's narrator awakens from a dream (he thinks) to see "a fair field full of folk." From that sight (and site)  the allegorical poem is launched and the dreamer adventures among these folks as they fan out across the landscape into all the joys and troubles that are the human lot in life. At its best "Fairfield" wants to present a vision of all good things that may lie ahead of us along the bright horizon; but, in racial matters, it shows we can't yet resolve all the contradictions as we drag our identities behind us.

At the other end of seriousness, the script has touches that I think of as laugh-track lines. These are
The principal is in the hot seat as her boss upbraids her.
gags that aren't exactly implausible but seem to be included for the guffaw effect. The yellow flag went up for me when Principal Wadley, in an opening scene introducing to an all-school assembly the wonders of Black History Month, brings up the word "diverse" to make sure the kids know what she wants to celebrate. One of the kids misunderstands, and she says in response something like, "No, not perverse, that's something else." I don't think even a bright smart-aleck of tender age would have shouted that. It was one of several places where I felt the comedy was at a sit-com level. If something clever or sizzly occurred to Coble, in it went.

Ansley Valentine directs this adept cast, which is occasionally required to stitch together line fragments and overlapped dialogue with the precision and speed of tennis doubles teams volleying at the net. Moving in and out among Zac Hunter's set, with its large, pale, geometric forms dominated by a tower of letter blocks, the actors are nearly flawless, with one exception: An odd paradox about farce is that when the action turns chaotic, the actors have to work with machine-tooled precision. At the preview, this cast wasn't quite there yet in the astonishing final scene. The violence looked approximate; everything in the play that led up to that was spot-on, however.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Freddie Mendoza heads a quartet, with an academic colleague sitting in

The trombonist from Texas who has in recent years made his mark on the local jazz scene, anchored by academic positions — first at the University of Indianapolis, now at Ball State University,  put together a quartet for a Jazz Kitchen engagement Wednesday night.

It's good to have Freddie Mendoza come down from Muncie now and then for such gigs. His Indianapolis-based collaborators on the bandstand this time were top-drawer players: pianist Steven Jones, bassist Brandon Meeks, and drummer Kenny Phelps.

Jones in particular is infrequently a Mendoza sideman, but his adaptability was quite apparent. I want to single out "Here's That Rainy Day" to honor the freshness and aptness of his playing, starting from the compact introduction he offered to a ballad showcase for the leader. Mendoza's soloing was consistently well-judged, with florid touches yet always a clear direction to it. Jones' solo followed in the same spirit.

Freddie Mendoza (Mark Sheldon photo)
Slow tunes that are receptive to a medium-bounce tempo also bring out the best in Mendoza. He showed a sure feeling for the possibilities in "I Hear a Rhapsody." There was almost a choppy feeling to the way he sliced-and-diced the song's phrases, but it worked. His high regard for the tune was evident, and there was a fittingly rhapsodic touch to Jones' solo. Meeks took a solo highlighting his relaxed, unforced agility.

A Cannonball Adderley blues, "Spontaneous Combustion," got the first set off to a lively start, with solos all around and zesty exchanges with Phelps — turns of four bars each for trombone and piano, eight for the drummer — before the final strut through the melody.

Mendoza welcomed to the stage his senior Ball State colleague, trumpeter-flugelhornist Mark Buselli, who immediately grabbed the bull by the horns in Wayne Shorter's "One by One." His coruscating solo shot off sparks that further energized the already engaged Phelps. Buselli caught his breath, then stayed in the front line for Duke Ellington's eloquent "Angelica," with suitable solos all around and a tender, loose-limbed coda.

Buselli was to return to the stage for the last two numbers, most welcome for his simpatico manner of fitting into the quartet. In "The Girl from Ipanema," he briefly suggested that the young lady consider taking the "A" train. Phelps accompanied Meeks' compact solo with some tasty rim work. The set ended with Kenny Barron's "Voyage," with hot solos from the horns and Jones going a bit "outside" — an uncharacteristic excursion that worked. Exchanges with the perpetually interesting Phelps moved the tune, and the set, toward a satisfying conclusion.

A weather-related postscript: In one of his remarks between tunes, Mendoza took note of the snow starting to fall and the forecast for a bit more to say that he didn't know of any snow songs that weren't related to Christmas, and it seemed way too early to go there. I immediately thought of three, and this morning I double-checked the lyrics online to make sure there was nary a Yule mention in them. I've sometimes wondered why "Winter Wonderland," "Frosty the Snowman," and "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" are heard among the glut of Christmas carols and secular songs every year, then vanish. And I believe, though I can't call up examples, that jazzmen have sometimes enjoyed playing them. They are all kosher for seasonal performance, the season being winter, not Christmas. Then there's a fourth song, but it's become tref — "Baby, It's Cold Outside." We'll let that date-rape classic disappear even when it's still cold outside, out of respect for the #MeToo movement.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Second Presbyterian Church brings back the eminent choral conductor Joseph Flummerfelt

About a year ago, a mainstream Protestant church along the Meridian Street corridor welcomed Joseph Flummerfelt  out of retirement to lead a major composition for chorus, vocal soloists, and orchestra. On Sunday another such event about 15 blocks north similarly featured the native Hoosier as guest conductor.

The 2017 event was at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, and the vehicle was Joseph Haydn's "Lord Nelson" Mass. Yesterday Ludwig van Beethoven, who acknowledged Haydn as a master, was represented by his Mass in C major, op. 86. Flummerfelt led the Sanctuary Choir of Second Presbyterian Church, with orchestra and guest soloists, in a concert with that work as the sole piece.
Joseph Flummerfelt, revered choral conductor

An orchestra of contracted local professionals, dubbed the Festival Orchestra for this occasion, accompanied the voices. When the solo quartet is used, it is woven in and out of the choral texture, with an intriguing lack of showcasing.

What is striking about the piece is evident immediately. Though the program note correctly situates the work in Beethoven's middle period, the first movement, Kyrie eleison, seems to pay a debt of youthful gratitude to Haydn, Beethoven's teacher for a short time in Vienna.  There is a further look backward in the lovely writing for wind instruments as the Sanctus gets under way — to Haydn's Harmoniemesse, written several years before and so designated because of the prominence it gives to winds.

The church choir seemed adequate to its varied tasks, responding well to the variety in dynamics that Flummerfelt called for in the Kyrie. The vigor and coordination in the fugal conclusion of the Credo were exemplary, as were the short Hosanna endings to the Sanctus and Benedictus. Momentary weaknesses cropped up here and there, as in the choir's tentative first "miserere nobis" in the Gloria.

There are several places where Beethoven's inclination toward humanism helps the Mass in C speak to a broad spectrum of theologies. The composer who so memorably set text telling us that surely there must be a God above the stars (the Ninth Symphony) had an enduring sense of transcendent reality. Yet that famous finale is firmly based on the achievement of joy in this life. And in Beethoven's other major late work using chorus, Missa Solemnis, the final movement asking God to grant peace includes a startling disruption by martial music. Beethoven knew firsthand what it was like to live in a city pummeled by a military siege.

The humanist message was well conveyed in this performance. The emphasis on "passus" in the Credo holds up Jesus' taking on human suffering, as noted in the program. But also stressed by repetition is "bonae voluntatis" in the Gloria, stipulating that people of good will are most deserving of peace. And, particularly as sung by soloists Alejandra Martinez, Mitzi Westra, David Smolokoff, and Zachary Coates, the quartet texture in the Credo on the incarnation line ("et homo factus est") brought to mind the tender quartet in the opera "Fidelio," "Mir ist so wunderbar." Life in the here and now, shot through with an idealism that was sadly remote from how Beethoven often behaved, was of abiding concern to Beethoven the creative artist.

This performance covered for the early 21st century all salient aspects of the Mass in C major — both as an expression of Christian faith and an assertion of Beethoven's genius in finding new musical meanings in a text well known to him and the audiences of his time.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Never on Sunday Never More! (celebrating the discarding of an Indiana blue law)

Fringe Festival ballet in the off-season: IB's 'New Works Showcase'

Among the many burgeoning local arts groups given the chance to hone their craft at the annual IndyFringe Festival has been Indianapolis Ballet, now becoming full-fledged on the basis of a thriving school headed by Victoria Lyras.

Tango pair: Chris Lingner and Kristin Young Toner
Underlining the productive liaison, IB's "New Works Showcase" has taken up residence at IndyFringe's Basile Theatre the next two weekends, exhibiting up close the breadth of the company from apprentice to professional levels.

The centerpiece of the program is an expansion of Lyras' excursion into the tango. Working from a suggestion of Fringe director Pauline Moffat, Lyras has developed a suite of ballets based on that celebrated Buenos Aires dance form, whose artistic claims were most notably put forward by Astor Piazzolla.

"TangoX6" shows Lyras' tango inspirations in full flower, now a bouquet of six dances ranging from solos and duets to the full company of about a dozen dancers. The suite has characteristics that are a gratifying aspect of Lyras' choreography: There is never a wasted gesture or a gratuitous variation. You might think that of course that's easy in a program of short works. But it's not hard to come across ballet or modern dance that settles into a groove or seems etude-like even within a short range.

At the other end is choreography that can be so energized by the music that it launches a huge arc that can feel snipped off when the music's over. Lyras' work errs toward neither extreme. The six parts are concise and telling each in its own way, and in full tribute to the expressive range of the tango. The variation in tempo, the rhythmic spectrum — from sharply defined and abrupt to smooth and flowing — and the shifts in ensemble texture are all complemented in these dances.

I particularly admired the pathos of "Imperial," a solo both plaintive and assertive by Kristin Young Toner. "La Cumparsita," a wonderful duet for Toner and Chris Lingner, saluted the traditional close-quarter precision of authentic tango. There was excitement in the sudden, swooping lifts and dips the couple executed, and the flair of leg movements such as quick kicks from the knee out to the side. Another duet explored the slow side of tango: Xavier Medina and Camila Ferrera gave a sustained lyricism to Piazzolla's famous tune "Oblivion." And there were three ensemble dances, each of them exhibiting the controlled flamboyance of the tango in a different way.

The program's first half includes another look at the Lingner-Toner partnership. "Habanera" made a contrast to the immediate rapport of the tango duet. Set to an instrumental version of Carmen's declaration of independence in the Bizet opera, it made much of a push-pull interplay of resistance and attraction, like that between the gypsy and the soldier foreshadowing the opera's tragic outcome.

Four's company: In "The Meeting" three friends gradually welcome a newcomer.
In "New Works Showcase," Lingner is also giving the premiere of a solo he learned at the Cincinnati Ballet but never got a chance to present publicly, according to Lyras' oral program note: "Prohibition Condition" is a cocktail send-up of the reality and the fantasy of inebriation. Staggering, eye-rolling and mimicked belching are niftily threaded throughout a dance that also puts a premium on well-controlled spins and leaps. Lingner's comic virtuosity in this work by James Cunningham was first-rate Saturday night.

The apprentices got things off to an attractive start with Roberta Wong's ballet to "Take Five," the
theme song of the classic Dave Brubeck quartet written by its alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond. The five dancers coalesced around the tune at beginning and end. Brief solo and duet turns were suitably folded into Joe Morello's drum solo, as Brubeck's piano vamps in the background. The collegial zest of the music was matched by that of the IB dancers. "Take Five" set the stage for the  concise, fully formed communicative force of everything on the program.

It remains to mention the comedy-of-manners charm of "The Meeting," by associate artistic director Paul Vitali. The crisp narrative outlined by the four dancers, beautifully costumed in summer dresses, traces the gradual inclusion of a reserved stranger into a circle of three friends. A movement from Claude Debussy's string quartet provides the soundtrack to a happy tale of welcoming. "The Meeting" is a delightful caprice whose initial hint of social isolation is then neatly countered in movement and gesture as the trio of friends gets to know the new person. If only all social bonds could be so gracefully formed!

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Bruch, Mahler, Schumann, Strauss: The heart of Austro-German romanticism in the ISO's short weekend

Hans Graf achieves good results as the ISO's podium guest.
Something about the outreach into new realms that the Romantic revolution made possible encouraged composers to look closely at the end of this life and the possible bliss to come hereafter. Beethoven's Ninth encouraged all sorts of visionary thinking, and music is arguably a better vehicle for that kind of thing than its sister arts.

It's astonishing that the 19th-century Austro-German tradition, which is at the heart of the repertoire even today, has several examples of musical ruminations on death and the hereafter from the pens of young men. On Friday the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra played one of them: Richard Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration," a product of his symphonic poem phase — an outward-flung tendril away from classicism using words as a shaping force behind the music.

Longtime favorite guest conductor Hans Graf led the performance to conclude the Hilbert Circle Theatre concert, which also included works by Robert Schumann, Max Bruch, and Gustav Mahler. The program will not be repeated.

The precocious Strauss hit his stride early, and as a genre the symphonic poem has his brand stamped upon it. The explicit literary scenario here traces the sinking toward death of an ill creative artist. His demise is interrupted by recollections of youthful struggles and triumphs, the account of which loads the score with some burly symphonic spectacle before mortality exacts its inevitable toll and serenity suffuses the whole. Only Strauss could have turned dying into something so picturesque.

The skillful concoction moves some listeners to tears, the way another composition by a near-contemporary, Mahler's Symphony No. 2 ("Resurrection"), does dependably. Mahler wrote that monumental work in his late 20s and early 30s; Strauss turned out "Death and Transfiguration" at 25. At the same age, and roughly a generation later, Arnold Schoenberg wrote his "Transfigured Night," a work for string sextet, at the tail end of High Romanticism; the younger composer's secular idea of transfiguration hangs upon a couple's achieving a new paradigm for their troubled romance.

Mahler's and Strauss' pieces rest on an implicitly sacred foundation, without spelling out Christian redemption. That ideological plane is the province of requiem settings, in which the 19th century was peculiarly rich. Yet music can paint "the peace which passeth all understanding" especially well, and the transfiguration part of Strauss' work was particularly well rendered on Friday. It was so from the moment a rising four-note phrase first takes on the character of a motif. The phrase is capped by a sigh of sorts, but often appears in a form that invariably brings "How Dry I Am" to mind.

Also admirable in this performance was the depiction of the man's ominous weakness at the beginning. It emerged as if out of nowhere, resting upon the subdued timpani pulse laid down by Jack Brennan. As the performance unfolded, Graf managed well the shifting planes of expressive intensity.

Vadim Gluzman played the durable Bruch G minor.
The second-half companion to "Death and Transfiguration" was Mahler's "Blumine," a wisp of lyrical inspiration that featured Conrad Jones' solo trumpet in this performance. This first-chair player is in his second season with the ISO. On Friday, the steadiness and sweetness of his tone and phrasing were positively Hersethian, than which I can think of no higher praise. The piece itself is a tender trifle, but made an effective prelude to the weightiness of the Strauss.

The concert's first half was distinguished by the return guest appearance of Vadim Gluzman as soloist in Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor. Gluzman has a rich, almost earthy sound, smoothly produced with evident confidence and consistency up through the high register of his instrument. His playing had a singing luster even in the double-stopping vigor of the finale. The performance was marked by seamless rapport between podium and soloist. The accelerating rush in the final measures was expertly coordinated.

Coordination was a little bit off in the Scherzo of Schumann's Overture, Scherzo and Finale, which opened the concert. Effectively a symphony without a slow movement, the piece jelled in the Overture, showing a flexibility and zest not adequately captured in the ISO's Koss Classics recording made long ago with Raymond Leppard at the helm.

The blurring in the Scherzo when Graf pushed the tempo forward cleared up well toward the end of that movement. The finale featured well-pointed dotted rhythms and an ensemble shine that held aloft the typically feverish good cheer of this bipolar composer — another genius in the Austro-German tradition with an often gloomy literary bent.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Butler's "Midsummer Night's Dream" is a starlight express train through a topsy-turvy world

There's nothing topical about the frothy unreality of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" — except for the
fact that we all live in an extremely unsettled world where nothing rests on a firm bottom for long.

And that gets at the very deliciousness of the one-night-only performance of Shakespeare's comedy at Clowes Hall Wednesday night. The buoyant Bottom the Weaver is the central character in a play whose cast is potentially huge, thanks to four different levels of action representing three distinct communities. At whatever scale it's presented, a good Bottom is essential, and this Butler University production fortunately had one.

True, the scale of this show was small: a 90-minute adaptation by Diane Timmerman, who chairs Butler's theater department, was the vehicle. Supporting actors to flesh out the fairy entourages of Oberon and Titania and populate the Athenian court of Theseus and Hippolyta were held to a minimum. More crucially, four cast members playing the mixed-up lovers also did yeoman service in the jerrybuilt troupe of city tradesmen who wax theatrical to help Theseus and Hippolyta celebrate their fraught nuptials.

The theatrical concentrate thus offered needed only the additional ingredient of production spectacle to result in a full-flavored dish. A "Midsummer Night's Dream" without glimmer, glow, and sparkle would be almost as much in error as one with an indifferent Bottom the Weaver.
It had those qualities in abundance, thanks to an expert design team featuring the star quality of Rob Koharchik (set), Ryan Koharchik (lighting), and Guy Clark (costumes). Bright points of light suffused the backdrop, and small lights on poles subtly marked off areas of action. A large piece of gauzy white fabric hid fairies, sleeping lovers, and the fatefully anesthetized Bottom, and was shifted about the stage adroitly as needed. Corbin Fritz's sound design supplemented what we saw, never overloaded, but rich in such touches as wordless gibbering for the fairies.

Hermia's lunge toward Helena is caught in mid-air by the male swains as Oberon looks on.
Jeffery Bird was Butler's Bottom, and aptly the focus whenever he was on stage. I couldn't see the point of his singing a bit of Adele's "Hello," but let that pass. And some of his best lines were trimmed, as were such set pieces as Theseus' speech highlighted by "the poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling," etc. I'll admit that cuts in Shakespeare are always like pepper thrown in a critic's face: He must sneeze. It's inevitable. Readers are invited to roll their eyes and say "Gesundheit!"

That aside, I found Timmerman's version preserved the essentials. Constance Macy's direction, among other virtues, had the student actors scrupulous about saying verse naturally. They are helped in this play, of course, by the playwright's genius at conveying real feelings in rhymed couplets. Still, the cast is to be commended for the clarity and naturalness of their iambic-pentameter delivery.

I also admired the director's cultivation of an acting style far from the realism in which most drama saturates us. None of Shakespeare privileges a realistic approach, despite the depth, truth, and variety of the emotions so supremely expressed. But this play in particular, with its transformative spells and flower juices and its wealth of contradictions, malapropisms and bafflements, suggests a physical approach to the nth degree.

Thus, in their set-to the young men adopted ninja posturings, and the mismatched couples quarreled, flailed,  and clung, and sometimes ended up in heaps and clusters. There were quasi-balletic leaps and catches. Haley Loquercio (Hermia), Sarah Ault (Helena), Isaiah Moore (Demetrius), and Ian Hunt (Lysander) managed all this while projecting their lines well (assisted by today's essential face microphones).

Among the most inspired latter-day appropriations  of the oxymorons and synesthesia characteristic of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is Duke Ellington's titling his Shakespearean suite "Such Sweet Thunder." That phrase could well sum up the achievement of Butler's production of this foundational dream play. All the hassle, the roiling romantic spats, mistaken identities, and misalignments carried the disturbing force of thunder, yet sweetness seasoned everything.

[Photo by Brent Smith]