Sunday, September 30, 2018

Kenny Banks Jr. launches Premiere Series of American Pianists Awards

Kenny Banks Jr. works the room from the bench.
The jazz phase of the American Pianists Awards has got into a judgment phase after its recent Jazz Pizzazz introduction. A three-man jury (Phil DeGreg, Matthew Fries, and Scott Routenberg) began its work Saturday night. Their critiques will feed into overall evaluation of the competitors as the contest reaches its April culmination.

Kenny Banks Jr. was the first of five finalists who will be heard in monthly outings through February at the Jazz Kitchen, accompanied by bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps.

Constantly relating to the capacity crowd and getting positive feedback from it, the 30-year-old Atlanta resident displayed his command of the full piano keyboard, focusing on a penchant for instrumental color.

He also showed an affinity for medleys and original pieces that took the shape of tone poems for piano trio. He brought his assisting musicians — local stars in their own right — with him so faithfully throughout Saturday's second set that one might think they'd been working together a few months, not just a few days. (Like his peers in this series, Banks was linked to a local high school for three days before the Premiere Series event, so his comfort with the community and fellow musicians had some time to take hold.)

Still, the rapport with his trio mates was uncanny. The trio delivered a vivid weather report in "Sunshine After the Rain," a happy concoction of thunder, showers, drizzle, and clearing skies. Coordination seemed as intact as it had been just before in a more serious piece, "Cry for Diversity."
That was a complex, probing work with sudden tempo shifts and expressive turnarounds.

Even the tried and true was turned into something not tired, but still true, when Banks led the trio into "Tea for Two," an evergreen nearly a century old. The familiar melody was both teased out of shape and straightened out. The performance featured an estimable bass solo. Opportunities for Phelps to display his artistry were never lacking, surely making his many Indianapolis fans grateful.

Considering its assertive title, "This Is America" seemed as diffuse as its subject. Maybe that's just the way Banks thinks it should be. But despite quotes from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and, in a hushed coda, "America the Beautiful," the work didn't speak in a focused way, despite the cohesiveness of the performance.

More unified was the set-ender, a sensitive mash-up of Malotte's "Lord's Prayer" and Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood."  The gentle noodling pattern in the treble that the composer brought to the latter in a famous recording with John Coltrane made several appearances. This helped give a more reflective cast to the Malotte favorite, which is always in danger of giving its performers a sugar buzz. Clearly adept at balancing his material, Banks made the tunes' partnership work well in an original blend. And this kind of thing certainly comes off best when you have partners of the caliber of Tucker and Phelps fully on board, as they unfailingly were.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Hey Joe, Where You Goin' With That 'No' Vote in Your Hand?

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Meta-elementary: IRT's 'Holmes and Watson' presents Conan Doyle's pseudo-posthumous sleuth

Uneasy visitor: Watson is apprehensive when served by the Matron as Dr. Evans watches.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was forced by public demand to keep Sherlock Holmes in the game, and that interest has not waned considerably in the almost nine decades since the author's death. It's left to literary discipleship of the sort Jeffrey Hatcher exercises in "Holmes and Watson" to keep the legacy fresh in the 21st century.

Perhaps we're nostalgic for the extraordinary ability to figure things out by deduction and observation, assisted by such primitive technology as the telegram. Nowadays, it's still hard to figure out what's what, but that's not for lack of information. It's the technological overload that may have diminished our rudimentary ability to use the skills that were Sherlock Holmes' stock in trade.

Hatcher's one-act thriller, which opened Indiana Repertory Theatre's 47th season Friday night,  suggests at first that Holmes' unique acumen died with him. The focus is on Watson, his venerable assistant, to ascertain that the detective is either dead after a final struggle at Reichenbach Falls with his nemesis Moriarty or lives on as one of three lunatics confined at a remote asylum off the coast of Scotland.

Watson, played with solid, likable, common-sense steadiness and resolve by Torrey Hanson, has a stake through his own writing in believing the great detective to be deceased. Summoned to the island, he's justifiably on edge in his initial conversation with Dr. Evans (Henry Woronicz), who runs the asylum, and in brusque, unsettling encounters with the staff, an Orderly (Ryan Artzberger) and a Matron, after he arrives. His joke about feeling like a character in a penny-dreadful falls flat — it will be much later before we learn what makes it so leaden.

In a world where people can visit Holmes' abode as a museum on Baker Street in London, as if the detective were a historical figure, the lines between fiction and reality are constantly rubbed out and redrawn on the Holmes estate. Hatcher's play revels in the perpetual ambiguity.

Risa Brainin directs a cast exhibiting delightful poise and patience in letting the complications of Hatcher's tale tangle and untangle. We see things through Watson's eyes for quite a time into the play. When Jennifer Johansen as the Matron repeatedly fixes a dour, crooked-neck stare on the visitor, for instance, like Watson we think what a weird woman she is. Later we will learn what her gimlet-eyed appraisal means.

The surprises are eventually cataclysmic. They come at us with the overlapping and overturning of information we have processed incompletely all along. They are like the stretto conclusion of some crazy fugue. In introducing the characters thus far, I could have set any of the names and epithets between scare quotes; everyone turns out different from how he or she is initially presented.

That includes the three inmates, identified as Holmes 1, Holmes 2, and Holmes 3: The first, volubly
Watson sizes up the first claimant to Sherlock Holmes' identity.
contentious and fussily rational in the performance of Michael Brusasco, comes across like a Sherlock Holmes tribute artist. Dismiss him or not?

Perhaps Nathan Hosner as the straitjacketed Holmes 2 — shaggy, full-bearded, and straitjacketed — comes too close to the madman stereotype to be believable as Holmes, so we cleverly think he must be the one. But wait: that's just the kind of false clarity that mystery writers (and magicians) love to deceive us with. We latch onto the obvious and stride down perceptual blind alleys.

 Finally, the "Holmes and Watson" audience gets the blank-slate Holmes 3 – Rob Johansen in a zombie-esque, catatonic condition, apparently impervious to every external stimulus. How to break through? Watson is at first as stymied as we are.

The play encompasses other scenes vividly recalled by characters, including contrasting accounts of the fateful final meeting of Holmes and Moriarty shown up high toward the rear of the stage. There are also scenarios of intrigue at parties on the Continent that bear on the story of Holmes' apparent demise. It appeals to the English mind to imagine that people relate differently to each other over there, and that only Anglo-Saxon brass-tacks thinking can sort things out. We get fitful glimpses of such mysteries to help prepare us for the realization that the path through to the truth will not be easy.

Robert Mark Morgan's set takes advantage of the fact that the asylum is a former lighthouse. Thus the
Holmes 2 gathers his thought as Watson looks at the aperture image.
sweeping curves are germane to both the setting and the lack of right angles in the action. The curves are used to encompass an eyelike outlook, in which some of the audience's crucial views are widened and narrowed to a distant perspective, as if through a camera's aperture. Michael Klaers' lighting design impresses the resemblance upon us.

The setting on a remote Scottish island takes in the cultural stature of that country— its wildness, its wealth of stark legends of shape-shifting and perpetual conflict  — well known to native son Conan Doyle. Some of our operative fanciful language is Scottish in origin: there is "glamour" (originally associated with the occult), also "uncanny" and"eerie." At the same time, Scotland is associated with strict application of reason, sometimes reductive, through such philosophers as David Hume and Adam Smith and the Calvinistic proprieties of Presbyterianism.

It's worth remembering that a blend of these qualities sets up a novella as canonical as the Sherlock Holmes stories: "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, " by the Scots writer Robert Louis Stevenson, adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Hatcher and presented under Brainin's direction  by IRT in 2012. The transformation of identity so frightening in that story becomes kaleidoscopic in "Holmes and Watson." The patterns don't clarify until the kaleidoscope stops turning at the very end. Just like the toy, that's fun along the way, and fun when it stops.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, September 28, 2018

At stake in Indy Bard Fest's 'Merchant of Venice': A pound of flesh, boatloads of treasure, fungible spirit

"The Merchant of Venice" is a problematic play primarily because of the anti-Semitism so prominent in it. But its difficulties go beyond that important quality. Indy Bard Fest opened a production of Shakespeare's play Thursday night at Indy Fringe Theatre under the direction of Doug Powers.
Shylock readies the knife to exact his revenge.

In director's notes, Powers addresses the complicated nature of what is ostensibly a comedy – which means not only funny lines, of course, but also that the love relationships overcome hurdles and are solid by the end. Powers has added a complication that undercuts the comedy — which is already undercut by the figure of Shylock the moneylender and the bigotry he occasions and responds to. That complication, supported somewhat by the text, is the same-sex attraction of Antonio, the merchant of the title, and his financially embarrassed friend Bassanio.

In the first scene for Antonio and Bassanio alone, the actors Ryan Ruckman and Zach Taylor throw themselves explicitly into the mutual passion of the otherwise socially upright Venetian gentlemen. There is no ambiguity here, and we presume that Bassanio's course toward marriage with the nubile Portia makes him authentically bisexual, besides being social-climbing. I'm still trying to  understand what this emphasis, perhaps not otherwise explainable as a mere bromance, contributes to the play. I acknowledge that it helps to underline Antonio's self-declared sadness, as well as adding poignancy to his isolation at the end. But it veils what seems to me Antonio's representative "Venetianness" — materialism and a "not-our-kind-dear" attitude toward outsiders.

Emily Bohn as Portia has her day in court.
Apart from that, the overall vigor and clarity of the portrayals — particularly Ryan Reddick as Shylock and Emily Bohn as Portia — lay bare the basic problems of the play and effect stageworthy solutions, for the most part. Budget constraints may have prevented the show from looking richer, but here's the rub: To me, Shakespeare's Venice is all about wealth and exclusiveness. Status depends upon honoring both values loyally, even though there is plenty of discontent threaded throughout the characters. The production could use more glitz.

Yet this raises a problem that goes beyond anything this production is responsible for. While the main
characters invite us to see them as multifaceted, I don't find much humanity in them. Portia may be held up as a conspicuous exception, and she must be a delight to play. Bohn is always the focus in every moment Portia is onstage. Constrained by her late father's strictures on how she should choose a husband, Portia is admirably restive and wants to assert herself. But she's mainly a cleverer version of the Venetian ideal: Hold close to your prejudices and focus your attention on how to satisfy your every want, mainly the material ones. Her famous courtroom appeal to the value of mercy is manipulative, of course.

The complicated plot is strung upon three overlaid stories of folktale-like simplicity: the bond that Shylock insists upon literally (the famous pound of flesh for Antonio's failure to repay an interest-free loan);  the stipulated choice among three metal caskets offered to Portia's many suitors; and the solemnized gift of rings with their testing of the faithfulness of Portia's Bassanio and her maid Nerissa's Gratiano. These are all presented well in this production (Duwan Watson Jr. was superior vocally and in facial expressiveness as the Prince of Morocco). My one quibble is the censoring of Shakespeare's line for Portia after she dismisses the Moorish prince: "Let all of his complexion choose me so." I can't fathom why "discernment" was substituted for "complexion" in a play seething with bias. Clearly Shakespeare's Portia is relieved she won't have to marry a black man.

Reddick's Shylock as I viewed him adheres to my conviction, following Harold Bloom, that the fierce usurer and offended father of the absconding Jessica is a comic villain. The character is endlessly interesting, but mainly because the Bard makes such excellent work out of a figure clearly designed to resonate with the conventional anti-Semitism of his time. What makes many people justifiably nervous is that Shylock has resonated with anti-Semites ever since. Reddick never strayed into sentimentalizing the Jew. His Shylock is amusing in his singlemindedness, which may have ample justification but comically does him in. It's uncomfortable to join the gabby Gratiano in his taunting after Shylock gets his courtroom comeuppance, but I'm willing to go there.

I'm left with one further puzzlement: In the last act, the intensity of the spat between the eloping couple — Lorenzo and Jessica (Lexy Weixel's shrewish ranting was impressive) — seemed overdone, and obscured some of the play's best, most expansive poetry. There must be a reason for it that lies somewhere within the difference between Doug Powers' understanding of "The Merchant of Venice" and mine. So be it: The artistic vision has priority over the critical response, and deserves to have the attention and respect of audiences at the remaining six performances. Let Bard Fest's public decide. The show is good enough that the opportunity to do so is worth it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Unaccustomed as I am to defending Gary Varvel, I'm moved to do so again

Some of the people foaming at the mouth this week over Gary Varvel's cartoon depicting Christine Blasey Ford before the Senate Judiciary Committee have spiced their indignation by harking back to a Varvel cartoon in the Indianapolis Star that showed an apparently Mexican family invading a WASP home during Thanksgiving dinner.

Back then I made an extensive defense of Varvel and his art here, while indicating my long-running disagreement with his politics. Since this is an arts blog, I think an arts-based defense is germane; I do not address the column-writing he has since added to his arsenal.

I will quote the conclusion of that Nov. 27, 2014, post for those not inclined to click on the link above:

The Varvel cartoon controversy seems to indicate a sad, narrowing trend of permissible discourse in America. Cries of "offensive" and "inappropriate" — and particularly the loose application of the "racist" label — tend to rule out of bounds creative expression that ought to be seen in a larger context. That context was glossed over in the public apology offered by Varvel's boss, Jeff Taylor.

On  this blog, I am a relentless defender of the arts.  I see Varvel's Nov. 21 cartoon as the latest example of his skillful expression of political viewpoints that are almost invariably opposed to mine. But this piquant drawing, like most of his work, falls well within the conventions —  including technical aplomb, symbiosis of word and image, communicative power, and conciseness — of the art form to which he has long contributed with distinction.

Varvel's boss is now Ronnie Ramos. His apology, like Taylor's, was also disinclined to defend creative expression, especially if it seems likely to offend. It must be the sort of thing expected of corporate bosses. What should be defended by arts advocates like me will continue to have my support. The Star's readers deserve better than undercutting a provocative editorial cartoonist.

Monday, September 24, 2018

'Building the Wall': Fonseca Theatre debut production outlines the moral end game of current immigration policy

To paraphrase an old anti-war question: What if they built a wall and nobody came?
Confrontation across the table: Clay Mabbitt and Milicent Wright play antagonists in "Building the Wall."

That's the question that hangs in the air at the conclusion of  "Building the Wall," a one-act play by Robert Schenkkan now being presented as the Fonseca Theatre Company's

inaugural show. The production, seen Saturday night, continues weekends through Oct. 7 at the new company's temporary home, Indy Convergence. 2611 W. Michigan St.

Fresh as yesterday's headlines, "Building the Wall" takes a plausible look behind the facade of the Trump administration's messy approach to dealing with illegal immigration, including separation of families and their indefinite detention. It's fair to say that a prejudice against legal immigration as well has taken hold.

Could this enforced attitude result, by accident or design, in our country's becoming a place no one wants to come to? Even worse, is there already an Americanized "final solution" in the works?

As Gloria, a history professor, and Rick, a convict, Milicent Wright and Clay Mabbitt work through a narrative that explains how a Make America Great Again true believer has landed in prison for a crime that we only gradually learn about. The prologue to the revelations consists of extensive sparring over their respective stances in today's world. Rick plays defense well in response to Gloria's aggressive inquiry: How did this family man, this lover of order painstakingly building a career in security, end up in an orange jumpsuit baffled by what he sees as his victimization?

Looking in the same direction, seeing things differently.
That the playwright makes Gloria a historian rather than a journalist invites the audience to take a retrospective look at events that are happening, or are imagined to be happening, right now. Such a  perspective is unsettling. The prospect, however, is clear: The moral cost to the United States of a repressive attitude toward the influx of immigrants is incalculable. The intensity of Schenkkan's stageworthy responses to matters that should shame our country is evident from his much-laureled "Kentucky Cycle," which won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for drama. "Building the Wall" similarly wants to hold our heads close to the mess we've made, like a dog being house-trained.

Fonseca positions his actors at either end of a long table, office-furniture-neutral and suggestive of the
prison setting, with a pitcher of water and two empty glasses in the center. It's a while before anyone takes a seat in the chairs at either end, indicative of the tension that envelops the drama from the start. It's an event when Rick pours himself a glass of water and drinks from it. There is well-judged movement of the actors in the course of the show — none of it extraneous, all of it visually captivating enough to convince us that we're not watching what might better have been a radio play. The audience sits on two sides  of the playing area parallel to the table length.

Mabbitt successfully inhabits a character whose intelligence has guided his career to a position of dizzying responsibility. But Rick is caught in a trap running a detention center without adequate official support. His moral imagination has been hemmed in by Trumpian ideology; the playwright gives him a real basis for his political stance, fortunately, but it hardly prepares Rick to face the requirements of his job. For a while, his chosen profession had seemed like an honest way of putting his belief in American sovereignty and security in practice. Eventually, his beleaguered conscience must yield to the insane pressures that result from an ill-conceived policy.

Gloria brings all this out of Rick until his defenses are in tatters. I question the rigorously tendentious manner of this character, who acts prosecutorially, despite the obvious fact that Rick's crimes are being officially punished as we watch. Despite Wright's steadily persuasive performance as a black woman well-practiced in the rigors of professional survival, I wanted the character to stand for more than a representation of liberal talking-points on immigration, coupled with her dogged pursuit of answers from a felon with much to answer for. Schenkkan has Gloria offer a painful vignette of her childhood in which a cop's racist insult left a mark on her soul, and we're grateful to get that. It means she doesn't simply stand for generic opposition to the inhumane course of U.S. treatment of immigrants and refugees. But I wish there were more to her as a character.

Despite the unfolding drama's focus on Rick, the pacing of the interview is given maximum dramatic impact through the persistence of Gloria's inquiry, reinforced with research paraphernalia — notebooks and folders and a recording device. The audience is teased into a horrific realization
of Rick's crime's enormity, and the calibrated agony that Mabbitt brings to his portrayal elicits a degree of sympathy for him that is meant to be rather embarrassing to feel. And Gloria's being appalled by what she's learning becomes, through Wright's performance, our shock as well. (Unfortunately, ceiling fans on high setting masked some of the dialogue at first.)

"Building the Wall" addresses the logical progress of an inhumane immigration policy that one hopes will be derailed somehow. The improbability of that is reinforced by the play. Schenkkan can be criticized for singlemindedness and hyperbole, I suppose, but the drama is worth taking in as an antidote to our toxic tendency to turn aside from the conditions it describes.

The production succeeds also as a way to underscore Fonseca's predilection, long pursued at the Phoenix Theatre, for new plays that are topical, edgy, and dramatically gripping. Add to that his commitment to diversity and you have in this new venture heartening prospects for the values he has long brought to the Indianapolis theater scene.

[Photos by Ben Rose]

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Indy Jazz Fest sets up its festival-ending block party with a spiffy Cabaret concert

Guest artist Sean Jones takes care of business as  bandleader Steve Allee looks on.
Finding the "big beat" theme attractive as the Indy Jazz Fest draws to a close, the Steve Allee Big Band welcomed a mid-career star trumpeter, Sean Jones, to the bandstand at the Cabaret Friday night.

The concert was focused on a celebration of Freddie Hubbard, born here 80 years ago and commonly boosted into the pantheon of Indianapolis jazz musicians.

Of the three names occupying the top niches in the Indianapolis wing of those who made their first splash in the middle decades of the last century, Hubbard in my view doesn't have the same luster as men who advanced their instrument in jazz as much as trombonist J.J. Johnson and guitarist Wes Montgomery.

His greatness has a lot to do with timing and the way he fitted smoothly into one of the the music's most fruitful eras, especially as represented on the Blue Note label. And two of the monuments of the avant-garde, John Coltrane's "Ascension" and Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz," featured the burgeoning talent of the precocious Hubbard. He is a figure to reckon with on so much of the 1960s forward-looking mainstream, and briefly showed in the subsequent decade that he had something to contribute to "fusion" before that sub-genre washed out.

At any rate, he is worth celebrating as a player and writer with unimpeachable Hoosier roots, but it's difficult to understand the aura that surrounds him as a crucial influence. Jones pegs Hubbard as such a figure, and he is not alone in this estimate. Sometimes I'm inclined to sign on to such kudos, and I leaned that way in my review of this festival's opening night. Nonetheless, though I never heard Hubbard live, it was more fun to get a lot of Sean Jones Friday than it was to imagine up there on the Cabaret stage the ghostly reappearance of the man he was celebrating.

Jones displayed a wider expressive range than his hero. His technique seemed more solid than what I hear on Hubbard's records. (If you choose to play so many high notes, shouldn't you split fewer of them?) Maybe it's a matter of standing on the shoulders of a giant, but I liked the way Jones made the most of his high regard for Freddie: He was never wedded to lots of notes on fast pieces ("Bird Like"), but throughout found a way to vary any approach deep into Hubbard territory with something of his own, more understated and patient.

That showed up on a favorite Hubbard composition, "Little Sunflower," in which Jones launched his solo in the low register, coloring it with some half-valving. Gradually he became more flamboyant, somewhat in the Hubbard manner; but he never abandoned an apparent interest in finding something fresh to say in the piece, giving it a bluesy cast without distortion. The tone for this first-class statement had been set by Freddie Mendoza's trombone solo — smoothly laid out, trying a little tenderness, but still assertive.

Jones' work with the band was thoroughly sympathetic and supportive of the first-class arrangements, several of them by bandleader Allee. "Red Clay," from the cusp of Hubbard's transition away from hard-bop into a more marketable idiom, was fun to hear. The catchy tune has an unfortunate way of reminding me of Bobby Hebb's pop hit "Sunny," which was paraphrased in several solos, but it's one of the Hubbard originals that helps keep his flame burning brightly.

The 17-piece band distinguished itself in its lead-off performance of "The Song Is You," in a jumpy arrangement that had the virtue of putting the ensemble through an aerobic warm-up. It incorporated burning features for altoist Michael Stricklin and drummer Steve Houghton (who throughout both sets displayed all one might ask of a big-band percussionist).

Subsequent challenges were met in the solos and the multifaceted group presence along the way; backing riffs behind the soloists were always exciting and to the point. Another standard, "You've Changed," was a miracle of tone color shifts, framed by bass clarinet and four flutes at start and finish.

After "The Song Is You," Jones was onstage pretty consistently, always focused and stylistically adept. Among the many concise descriptions of Hubbard, the guest trumpeter exemplified the one Wynton Marsalis offered as an obituary — "exuberant." Jones never strayed into anything resembling the wicked phrase Whitney Balliett of The New Yorker once hung on the Indianapolis icon: "glassy vacuity."

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Friday, September 21, 2018

Phoenix Theatre sets sail on the mainstream with "Bright Star"

Small-town young folks Alice and Jimmy Ray bond over an icebox
To open the 2018-19 season, the first in its four decades as an alternative theatrical mainstay without Bryan Fonseca at the helm, Phoenix Theatre has made the canny choice of mounting a show with name recognition and an explicitly old-fashioned approach to storytelling.

It's also a musical — a genre that has yielded big hits in the Phoenix's recent history. Thursday's preview performance of "Bright Star" on the Russell Stage at the company's expensive new home, 705 N. Illinois St., played to a full house, and tonight's show is a sellout.

Suzanne Fleenor, a Phoenix founding member, directs the show. She draws from the large cast a full measure of commitment and  likability to this "very sincere, non-cynical, non-ironic show," in the words of co-creator Steve Martin, who collaborated with Edie Brickell. The working partners fashioned a story out of a bizarre incident at the turn of the 20th century, when an infant in a valise was found abandoned near a Missouri railroad track. Who discarded the baby and why was never known.

Unwilling grandfather prepares to toss the valise from a train.
From that event, Martin and Brickell came up with a story incorporating a lovely coincidence that  resolves the mystery of a fictional young World War II veteran's origins. Martin was at pains to make clear to Stephen Colbert in a TV interview the distinction between the event that inspired the show and the story that the co-creators came up with on their own. It's impossible to get at what generated "Bright Star" while being scrupulous about spoiler alerts, so I won't try.

But I will honor the suspense that the story builds up about the veteran, Billy Cane, who nurses post-war literary ambitions, and the lit-mag editor, Alice Murphy, who encourages him with a good dose of tough love.  The North Carolina setting provides the opportunity to link to the great era of Southern literature, and Martin (I suspect) is responsible for the name-dropping nudges — Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and others.

It's peculiar that Cane tries to impress Murphy with what purports to be a letter of endorsement from Thomas Wolfe: Would a literary ephebe within hollering distance of Asheville not know that Wolfe died seven years before the 1945 setting? Alternatively, would he plausibly expect to fool the head of a prestigious regional literary journal?  Murphy quickly sets him straight. (Martin's fascination with Wolfe also shows up in the set piece of an angel gravestone in the first scene, calling attention to the death while Billy was abroad of the woman who raised him along with Daddy Cane. Anyone not immediately reminded of "Look Homeward, Angel" has some catching up to do.)

I attribute the literary allusions to Martin because of the comedian's record of having extensive knowledge of literary culture. That brings up a more important point: It seems the show's book is chiefly the work of Martin, with the songs co-written, generally to Martin's tunes and Brickell's lyrics. The result, while mostly unified, tilts the dialogue toward wittiness and the song texts toward plainness. Brickell displays an almost monosyllabic naturalness in her lyrics that makes Oscar Hammerstein II look sophisticated in comparison.

The creative seams in "Bright Star" show, in other words. The overall feeling of secrets and prejudices yielding to the power of love is a constant, however, underscored in abundance by  the  songs. The production embraces the show's sincerity. Even the minor characters are vividly portrayed. Fleenor, perhaps encouraged by the original script, has allowed some character responses to be exaggerated, evoking the successful, time-tested formula of Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre. With or without hyperbole, the performances place a premium on instant communication.
One of the staging triumphs is a party scene celebrating strong drink.

There are of course too many songs. The first act in particular seems cluttered with them. Fortunately, the bluegrass style is adroitly established and sustained by a nine-piece band under the direction of Brent E. Marty, placed directly behind Rob Koharchik's evocative set. As a choral ensemble, the cast is stunning. We certainly hear from it often.

There is much admirably coordinated choreography, designed by Carol Worcel. Production numbers are so common that a duet between proper father and wayward son Dobbs (played by Charles Goad and Patrick Clements, respectively) stands out as a welcome relief in the first act. In the second, so do Clements' anguished solo as a man paying dearly for a youthful indiscretion and a show-stopping showcase for Molly Garner as the lit-mag editor with a heart-rending past. I liked the balance of song and story-telling as the show moved toward its conclusion, with all the hoped-for romantic knots finally tied up in the tradition of comic opera and musical comedy alike.
Rousing finale: Everything comes out all right at the end.

So pleased do they seem to be about working together that Martin and Brickell lose emphasis on making their presentation anywhere near as lean as the story's essence. Fleenor has followed their lead with gusto, and that's all to the good: "Bright Star" doesn't allow for anything half-hearted. There are a few wonderful coups de theatre, especially in the second act. When the old valise is brought out of storage at the Cane home, Alice's double take of recognition was spine-chilling. And Daddy Cane's revisiting the time he found the abandoned satchel and its contents while hunting frogs at night, enhanced by some of Laura Glover's expert lighting, could hardly have had more resonance.

"Bright Star," whose title is certainly an allusion to John Keats' famous sonnet, has the same penetrating yearning for steadfastness as the poem. Through song, dance, comedy, and pathos, the Phoenix show addresses everyone's desire for an identity and purpose worth clinging to, and for the promise of the kind of settledness and stability that sorts out all the negatives and neutralizes them.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Monday, September 17, 2018

Indy Jazz Fest: Brazilian trio joins with adept clarinetist, after Indianapolis saxophonist's quintet opens

Something of a novelty still, a double bill at the Indy Jazz Fest featured two female wind
Anat Cohen has played in a wide variety of musical contexts, but is especially fond of choro.
instrumentalist bandleaders. Jazzwomen with marquee names have historically been singers or pianists.

The headliner Sunday evening at the Cabaret was Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen, who would be the first to admit that the Trio Brasileiro is not her band, but one she is always eager to collaborate with in pursuit of the Brazilian genre known as choro. Introducing the evening of stimulating music was local saxophonist Amanda Gardier, who definitely is the head of her band, a quintet specializing in her compositions, many of which are on her first CD, "Empathy."

Amanda Gardier, in a Mark Sheldon portrait.
Gardier's style on the alto sax is smoothly produced, with a fluid, well-centered tone. Her phrasing is flexible and carefully placed over her rangy themes. She played five songs, sticking in one favorite standard, "I'll Be Seeing You." The familiar tune helped make the audience aware just how comfortable the personnel is in each other's company: Her sidemen are Charlie Ballantine, guitar; Jesse Wittman, bass; Clay Wulbrecht, piano; and Chris Parker, drums.

The ballad "Smoke" is a good place to single out Gardier's composing acumen. Its long, looping phrases embrace a relaxed mood capably. As a player, she carries a showcase for herself superbly, while as a rule the quintet on Sunday presented a balanced, unified front to the enthusiastic audience, though bass and drums tended to remain in supportive roles.

Gardier's "Two Sided" concluded the set, with Wulbrecht setting the tone with a piano solo chordally based somewhat in the Latin style in contrast to his usual affinity for single-line soloing. Ballantine's resonant guitar playing sounded particularly inspired in this tune, and the ensemble settled into a strong coda that made for an ideal conclusion for her Indy Jazz Fest debut as a leader.

Trio Brasileiro was formed in 2011, but the brothers Lora have been playing together for a couple of decades.
Sitting in tall chairs lined up as if for a panel discussion, Cohen and Trio Brasileiro launched into a tightly coordinated set that paradoxically communicated relaxation and jigsaw-puzzle affinities at all tempos.  Trio Brasileiro had its own history well-established before the clarinetist became an occasional partner. Its well-attuned members are brothers Douglas Lora, guitar, and Alexandre Lora, pandeiro (a hand frame drum similar to a tambourine), with Dudu Maia, mandolin.

A combination of well-known choro pieces and Cohen's compositions in the genre made up the program. There were occasional chances for showcasing something other than the full combination, such as clarinet-pandeiro and guitar-mandolin duets. They confirmed that compatibility among this expert personnel can be cut all sorts of ways.

To end the set, the joy and near-combustible energy of team sports in soccer-mad Brazil got an extensive exposition (complete with a momentary group imitation of the "flopping" phenomenon) in the aptly titled "1-0." That's a not uncommon final score of the kind that makes some North Americans shy away from the world's most popular sport. There was nothing to shy away from in the effervescent appeal of Cohen and Trio Brasileiro at the Cabaret Sunday night, however.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

International Violin Competition of Indianapolis: Final concerto performances and announcement of the finalists' award positions

2018 Laureates: Anna Lee, Shannon Lee, Ioana Cristina Goicea, Luke Hsu, Risa Hokamura, Richard Lin.
It was no sure thing to guess ahead of time how the jury would rank the six finalists in the 10th Quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. Personal impressions gathered of the young finalists at each stage are incomplete, as my attendance this year amounted to less than half of the performances, though I heard just over half of the 38 participants from Sept. 2 through last night.

I will focus here only on the three finalists who performed concertos at Hilbert Circle Theatre Sept. 15 with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Leonard Slatkin, who is probably the hands-down elder statesman of American maestros.

Slatkin's firm, unflashy control had much to do with what made bronze medalist Luke Hsu's performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major acceptable. This is a great work by a favorite composer of many, but one to whom I'm largely unsympathetic. So, fortunately, Hsu's performance was riveting, but partly for the wrong reason: It was quite headstrong. There was tempo-pushing from him that a lesser maestro than Slatkin might have had trouble with. The excitement thus generated was somewhat unnerving.

Allowing for that, Hsu launched the work attractively. The depth of tone in the soloist's opening statement, plus an overall gravitas in Hsu's manner, evoked favorably the legacy of David Oistrakh. The first-movement cadenza was cleanly articulated, though maybe a little too dogged. The second movement brought forth a rich, loamy lyricism, the rise and fall of Hsu's phrasing sounding quite natural. But the finale confirmed the impression that Hsu was a little too much on his own track to be an entirely convincing concerto soloist.

A much different impression was created by Anna Lee (fourth-place laureate) in the Mendelssohn Concerto in E minor, op. 64.  She wrung all the passion out of the music — a quality it can be easy to short-change in Mendelssohn. More important, she was a fine partner with the orchestra in a piece that must be counted the perfect violin concerto: It has no empty display, yet the writing for the solo instrument is never diffident and always speaks with authority. The wind chords in the background of the soloist's suspenseful conclusion of the slow movement amounted to a great illustration of this concerto's' unfailing balance of forces.

Exemplary partnership was also exhibited in sixth-place laureate Shannon Lee's performance of William Walton's Violin Concerto. The work puts a premium on seamless dialogue between violin and orchestra. In the first movement, for example, any conspicuous orchestral challenge to the soloist is reserved for martial rambunctiousness near the end. Across three movements, the music takes in a wide variety of tempos, textures, and emotional terrain. It is nonetheless among the more soft-spoken violin concertos, and that quality suited Lee's temperament. Her playing sounded a little undernourished overall, but the interpretive approach seemed unerring and sympathetic to her style.

The other three finalists, and their positions, are Richard Lin, gold medal;  Risa Hokamura, silver medal, and Ioana Cristina Goicea, fifth-place laureate. Their awards and various special prizes will be presented starting at 5 p.m. today at Scottish Rite Cathedral.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

High distinction at a late hour: Three finalists inaugurate IVCI romantic/modern concerto phase

My responses to the first night of finals Friday at Hilbert Circle Theatre followed a pattern established by how the same three International Violin Competition of Indianapolis participants struck me at the first night of Schrott Center for the Performing Arts presentations Wednesday.

I'm wary of being quick to confirm first impressions, and I've always been reluctant to pick favorites to win the quadrennial contest. For one thing, I heard less than half of the performances this year, so it would have been useless to have set up a bracket.

Ioana Cristina Goicea: Mastery in Shostakovich.
Wednesday's program offered an unavoidable basis for comparison: Richard Lin, Risa Hokamura, and Ioana Cristina Goicea all played Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219.  At that concert, Goicea overcame my tendency to be a little weary hearing the same piece a third time on the same evening. As I noted in my previous post, she found more personal meaning in the piece than the others, but without distorting anything.

On Friday, with guest conductor Leonard Slatkin on the podium leading the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Goicea gave the most astonishing account of a core-repertoire concerto here in memory. I hesitate to proclaim my memory thorough enough to be certain of this, but I am struck by how completely she got to the essence of a difficult work.

At the beginning of last year, Zach De Pue, then ISO concertmaster, played the Shostakovich First on the regular season. The performance was moving, largely successful, and rich in evidence of deep commitment. I would set Goicea's distinctly above it.

"Nocturne: Moderato" opens the concerto with a special challenge: Can understated, slowly unfolding music grab and hold the attention as the first movement's unconventional structure is deliberately laid out? Goicea's playing was fully equal to giving a resoundingly positive answer. Her tone was steady, glowing but not too shiny. It seemed the perfect way to captivate the audience for the rigors to come.

The soloist gets to dig in with the arrival of the second-movement Scherzo. Goicea was incisive and in control, with pinpoint rhythmic articulation enabling the violin to hold its own against a busy accompaniment. On to one of Shostakovich's greatest achievements — the third-movement Passacaglia and Cadenza. The Russian composer often seems to me self-indulgent in his slow movements. This one combines formal and orchestral ingenuity in a manner that moves the whole work onto a high spiritual and aesthetic plane. There's no feeling of wallowing.

Slatkin's stature as a seasoned maestro came to the fore in maintaining balances throughout. The way English horn and bassoon come in to anchor the violinist's signature treatment of the passacaglia theme was spine-tingling. Goicea's solo cadenza was remarkably intense, yet imbued with a wide spectrum of color. The "Burlesque" finale worked out all the preceding "dark night of the soul" moods while retaining the notes of desperation and sardonic humor that lend a picaresque quality to Shostakovich's fast movements.

Everything fell into place; it was the kind of performance that made you feel privileged to be there. It was 10:30: A two-and-a-half-hour concert suddenly didn't seem too long. I don't like to talk of "definitive" performances of a piece of music; it makes any further performances by anyone seem superfluous. Let's call this one "essential," in that it represented so completely what this great work is all about.
Maestro Slatkin: Besides the centennial birthday boy, he's America's other superb conducting Leonard.

Elsewhere, we heard another exhibition of youthful ardor from Risa Hokamura, this time in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major, op. 35. I have to admit I can't do full justice to her achievement because the piece, like most of Tchaikovsky, no longer resonates with me.  There were indications, not just because of her sigh of relief at the end, that the work tires her somewhat. I suspect, though, that further seasoning will make her revisiting of this repertoire staple more than satisfying to those who like Tchaikovsky more than I do. 

As he had Wednesday, Richard Lin opened the concert with an appealing interpretation, technically self-assured and artistically valid — this time of Max Bruch's "Scottish Fantasy." Orchestra and soloist established the nostalgic atmosphere immediately. Lin allowed the phrases limning each of the borrowed Scottish tunes to blossom. He handled slight ritards in the second movement adroitly and put a nice finish on it. He displayed good rapport with ISO principal harpist Diane Evans; the interaction was capped in the finale, which vividly presented the designated "warlike" (guerriero) profile before recalling the first-movement tune hauntingly.

Tonight the other three finalists will be heard from, and I will try to give the Tchaikovsky concerto its due. I never tire of the Mendelssohn, fortunately, and William Walton's concerto will be a pleasure rarely encountered in comparison to its companions on this much-anticipated program. Shortly afterward, the medalists (first, second, and third place) will be announced. Those prizes and a host of others will be presented Sunday evening at Scottish Rite Cathedral.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Indy Jazz Fest opens its "Big Beat" year with Freddie Hubbard tribute

Few careers in jazz have jump-started as dramatically with a move from the Heartland to the Big
Pharez Whitted: A voice of his own as he preserves Hubbard legacy.
Apple as Freddie Hubbard's.

As a young trumpeter, Hubbard was fondly remembered in his hometown by a host of fans — including the much younger Pharez Whitted, scion of the Indianapolis-based Hampton family. Twenty-two years his senior, Hubbard blazed a trail for jazz trumpeters in the first post-bop generation and beyond. In his early 20s, he was a fixture at Blue Note for several productive years in the 1960s, showing up every time with indelible things to contribute to some of that decade's most enduring releases.

Whitted, now a fixture in the Chicago jazz scene, stood shoulder to shoulder with Hubbard years ago when an "alternative" jazz festival took the stage in Fountain Square. At the time, Indianapolis' favorite trumpet-playing son was technically hobbled by lip trouble that nearly ended his career. His legacy still burned bright, however, as it does today.

Whitted and six Indianapolis colleagues and old friends displayed that for about 90 minutes Thursday evening at the University of Indianapolis as the Indy Jazz Fest launched its 10-day run around the city. Supporting him were Rob Dixon, saxophones, and Ernest Stuart, trombone, in a formidable front line. Behind them were Reggie Bishop, keys; Steve Weakley, guitar; Jon Wood, electric bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums.

Focusing on Hubbard's hits in an 80th birthday tribute, as Whitted told the audience, only a small sampling could be offered. Tunes from the controversial CTI catalogue opened the show. CTI was a heavily marketed label that for Hubbard started a move toward fusion; for many listeners, it represented a slippery slope from the peak of his early mastery.

Nonetheless, "Povo" (from "Sky Dive") and the title tune on "First Light" started things off handsomely, with lots of open space for solos all around.  Ruth Lilly Performance Hall can easily seem overloaded as a jazz venue, even when the amplified sound is well-managed. Certainly this band made its presence felt fully. Ensemble passages nonetheless were just tightly woven enough to cohere and give the solos something to hang their hats on.

"Straight Life" was launched with a blistering exchange between trumpet and drums, as on the record. Phelps is far from being an exponent of thunder and scatteration like Jack DeJohnette, but he churned up a storm nonetheless to match Whitted's outbursts. Once everyone's attention had been so riveted, the performance featured a fiery trombone solo and a Whitted excursion that started with sly understatement and got progressively hotter.

Everyone's favorite Hubbard ballad, "Little Sunflower," was introduced by fey mutterings from the bass guitar, decorated by Phelps. The tune was stated with tender restraint, and the solos largely followed suit, with Dixon's soprano-sax ruminations, stretching phrases imaginatively athwart the original tune, standing out. A nice coda with simultaneous improvisation rounded it off.

What left me wanting a bit more was the ensemble's excellence in the finale, "Bird Like." Stuart set the tone with the first solo: for all his usual exuberance, I don't often hear that an overarching vision is characteristic of the trombonist. This solo, in contrast, built sensitively — it achieved the time-tested Lester Young standard: It told a story. From then on, we heard excellent Whitted, then some especially cogent Dixon, joined eventually by the other horns coming up with a riff that had the bop-inspired tune looking backward to small-group swing. Capping it all was some delectable playing in the spotlight by veteran guitarist Weakley.

So, that turned out to be all from the Indy Jazz Fest Band to launch the festival. The dictum "leave 'em wanting more" was certainly laid down with authority.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

IVCI finals: Bright prospects emerge immediately in Mozart and Kreisler performances

Why not open the next phase of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis with a little splash, some celebratory sounds independent of the strivings of youthful fiddlers? And so it was.

The upbeat first movement of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, dashed off winningly by the East Coast Chamber Orchestra, provided the perfect introduction to the start of the Classical Finals at one of the city's best concert halls, the Schrott Center for the Performing Arts at Butler University.

ECCO is the accompanying ensemble for the second time at the Classical Finals, where one of Mozart's violin concertos or the Haydn No. 1 in C major must be chosen. A bonbon added to these performances is the choice of one of several Fritz Kreisler encore pieces, with string-orchestra accompaniments arranged by Jaakko Kuusisto. The conductorless ensemble's playing was consistently lithe and well-coordinated.

Ioana Cristina Goicea at the semifinals, with Chih-Yi Chen at the piano.
The six finalists show their mettle in this repertoire over the course of two evenings. On Wednesday, we heard their performances of the same concerto — Mozart's No. 5 in A major, K. 219. This lack of variety, whatever the delights it provided with the opportunity for minute comparisons, was an accident of the IVCI's policy to preserve the performance order that was decided by a random drawing at the beginning of the month. As participants are eliminated, juxtaposed survivors sometimes present the same pieces in their programs.

I expected to be receiving the third performance of the same work a little dully by the time Ioana Cristina Goicea of Romania took the stage after intermission. Surprisingly, everything about her performance was refreshing and kept my attention alive. What made this possible built upon my impressions of the previous interpretations by Richard Lin and Risa Hokamura, which also had welcome aspects of individuality in addition to their thorough technical preparation.

Richard Lin: Attractive stage presence
Lin, a 27-year-old Taiwanese-American with a distinct charisma that should serve him well whatever further success he has in this competition, went first. He presented a stylish version, with some personal inflections applied to repeated figures in the second movement and perky iterations of the third-movement Rondeau theme. He also individualized the episodes, making the overall result directly appealing.  The same manner, with a touch of humor, made his Kreisler piece, Tambourin Chinois, the best of the evening's encore pieces.

Hokamura is a diminutive Japanese with the distinction of being younger (17) than Mozart was (19) when he wrote five violin concertos in  1775 during his Salzburg years. She had a startling abundance of firm glow in her sound. Her playing was powerful and reflective of the music's reaching out in youthful vigor; the first movement cadenza was both sweet and steely.

After a bobble early in the second movement, she quickly resumed her customary panache. With the orchestra's help, Hokamura had a captivating way of rounding off cadenzas and fermatas in reintroducing the tutti.Yet it might have been that momentary slip and her self-assurance in going back to her high standard that checked my admiration of her performance.

Risa Hokamura made the most of tonal beauty.
Suddenly, her charm seemed studied and a little bit too much in the groove as the concerto moved toward its conclusion. I began to think the question guiding her was something like: "How beautiful can I make my violin sound in this music?" Brava to a developing musician who might need a little more seasoning to bring more out of the music as she advances.

Goicea, on the other hand, seemed to be asking, "What does this music mean to me?"  As a listener, hearing a solo instrumentalist focused on something more than beautiful sounds is always more thrilling. Goicea went tastefully to the edge of romanticism in the slow introduction (before the Allegro aperto). Her cadenza was thoughtfully played — more than a shining byway off the main road. Phrases similar to each other were played slightly differently in the second movement, but I didn't detect any affectation. The variegated finale was fully engaged with: the long episode sometimes identified as "Turkish" had a wildness that is probably more accurately considered Hungarian — music near to Goicea's roots.

The recurrent accented tutti, which I sometimes enjoy hearing with cellos and basses adding a percussive effect with the wood of their bows, had no "col legno" touch in any of ECCO's accompaniments Wednesday evening. Goicea's performance could have used this complement to the freewheeling spirit she displayed.

Apparently the col legno indication can be traced back to the composer, but editors have suppressed that indication in most editions until recent times, according to Michael Steinberg's "The Concerto." I wonder if it was ruled out by the competition to avoid even the slightest overshadowing of the soloist. In any case, Goicea's free spirit in the Mozart was confirmed further in her encore-piece choice, "La Gitana" (The Gypsy), and the untrammeled manner she brought to it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Semifinals end with bursts of passion and insight from IVCI participants

It took me longer than it should have to understand what the commissioned piece of the 2018 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis was all about.  I kept getting oriented favorably to William Bolcom's Suite No. 3 for Solo Violin without solving its puzzles.

Fortunately that difficulty was cleared up Monday night, thanks to IVCI director Glen Kwok's courteous gift to me of a score (which I had neglected to notice was among the items for sale at the merchandise table in the Indiana History Center, where the preliminary and semifinal rounds took place Sept. 2-10).

My belated acquaintance threw some retrospective insight over interpretations I encountered earlier, and it certainly made me a better-informed listener when I heard the last two participants give their semifinal recitals Monday night. The work is shot through with improvisatory hurdles and rewards, so that any notions about interpretation go way beyond what a conventionally settled score would mean to each violinist. Resourcefulness and plain daring take on more importance than ever under such demands.
Shannon Lee: Personalizing Bolcom

On Sunday evening, Shannon Lee's version of the Bolcom featured a personal cleverness and spontaneity that came through even though I was then acquainted with the score.  And for imaginative use of quotation that fit into the suggestions the composer makes as jumping-off points, there was something immediately engaging about Luke Hsu's use of the start of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" and Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony in a Monday afternoon performance I caught via live-streaming.

And on Monday night, with the score in front of me,  there was something magical about the dashing and poignant episodes alike in Anna Lee's performance. (Hsu and both Lees were passed on to the final round, the world learned shortly after Lee's recital ended the semifinals: joining them as finalists are  Ioana Cristina Goicea, Risa Hokamura, and Richard Lin.)

Her whole semifinal recital that concluded the semifinals was inspired, with the proportion of challenges for the pianist at the extreme: Chih-Yi Chen was a capable partner in sonatas by Saint-Saens and Beethoven as well as the colorful "Fantaisie Brillante" of Jeno Hubay. The last-named treats popular excerpts from Bizet's "Carmen" in a more high-flown, decorative manner than other more often played "Carmen" spectacles  by Franz Waxman and Pablo de Sarasate. It begins with the common frame of the Fate motive and ends with the Gypsy Dance; in between the Habanera and a full portrait of Escamillo are set before us.

Earlier Lee had played a marvelous Saint-Saens sonata, whose outsized monumentality, bravura and a touch of sentimentality (in the second movement) seemed to suit her at every turn.

Shannon Lee brought Sunday's recitals to an end, with Akira Eguchi at the keyboard. Her showpiece was Eugene Ysaye's Sonata No. 5 for solo violin, a two-movement descriptive work to which she brought a full palette of colors: those of dawn yielding to the rhythmically varied hues of folk music. Earlier, her bold choice of the thorny, thoroughly idiomatic Sonata No. 2 by Bartok was brought off with aplomb in her and Eguchi's performance.

What else stood out for me from my two evenings of semifinals attendance?

*Mayumi Kanagawa's  haunting, smoothly directed account of Ysaye's Sonata No. 2, its tribute to J.S. Bach definitively overshadowed by an extended treatment of the medieval Dies irae chant melody.

*Ji Won Song bringing the audience one of the semifinals' best Beethoven sonata performances: No. 7 in C minor, op. 30, with Thomas Hoppe at the piano. The duo's rapport was immediately evident. There was lots of oomph in the Allegro con brio, then the kind of lyrical treatment of the Adagio cantabile that made Beethoven seem to be as natural a tunesmith as Schubert. The two subsequent movements maintained the illuminating high standard of the first two. I've got a hunch this performance has a chance to receive the competition's Beethoven Sonata award, one of a host of special prizes that will be presented along with the Medalist and Laureate awards on Sunday.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Commissioned piece vies with evergreens in IVCI semifinal round

Public interest in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis naturally intensifies when the semifinal round takes the stage. It's a natural result of the narrowing field, when a vicarious spirit of competition begins to vie in audiences' hearts with the artistic merits of what they're hearing.

Those merits have a way of coming to the fore in the semis, especially with the added novelty of the chance to compare interpretations of a new piece. For the  2018 IVCI, that piece is William Bolcom's Suite No. 3 for Solo Violin, a special commission in the tradition of the contest's nine predecessors, each of which was graced by a different world premiere in 16 performances. (To celebrate its 10th running, the IVCI has issued a compact disc of the nine pieces, as performed by 2014 gold medalist Jinjoo Cho.)

An unusual feature of the new work is a movement the composer has designated as optional. Of the eight semifinal recitals at the Indiana History Center played so far, I've heard half of them. Only one included "Accretive Variations," as Bolcom titles the suite's fourth movement. The composer told me here Friday that the optional designation is not a version of aleatoric thinking, in which a piece of music is equally valid within two or more choices available to the performer.

No, it's a matter of length, he said, and his willingness to accommodate the designated 75-minute
Richard Lin: Charisma to burn
span allowed to semifinalists. Other repertoire choices available to the contestants can put the squeeze on that maximum length. If his work survives on concert stages beyond this competition, Bolcom made clear to me, he expects "Accretive Variations" always to be among complete performances of the suite.

I was grateful to  hear the whole piece in Saturday afternoon's first recital. Richard Lin played it with the same elan he gave to the six required movements. The emotional and technical expansiveness of this Third Suite is considerable. The breadth of expression is compactly presented, considering the work's 12- to 15-minute length. More important, the variations movement — built upon a deliberately banal theme — sends up the whole idea of variations structure somewhat. And the tune's simplicity helps the suite link to Bolcom's robust sense of humor and the welcoming attitude his work has long displayed toward all kinds of music.

"Blake used his whole culture, past and present, high-flown and vernacular, as sources for his many poetic styles," Bolcom wrote in program notes for the Naxos recording of his monumental "Songs of Innocence and of Experience," a celebration of the English poet's all-encompassing vision. The sentence could pretty much sum up Bolcom, too: refreshing the heritage seems more important to him than either turning it upside down or venerating it, particularly a narrowly conceived "classical" part of it.

He has a frank love of the naive as well as the sophisticated, an affinity expressed in the different ways each of the new suite's movements addresses the breadth of fiddling, from Bach to salon music. Songs of innocence and experience pervade Bolcom's work: What might better be a "Graceful Ghost" (a rag that's Bolcom's most famous short piece) than a haunting blend of those polarities? One of his significant song cycles, "Open House," celebrates the poetry of Theodore Roethke, whose verse ranges from nature mysticism to near baby talk, sometimes in startling combination. Graceful ghosts are all over the place in Bolcom's music.

Lin displayed a sure sense of direction and just the right amount of irony to confirm that the Bolcom Third Suite is a piquant addition to the IVCI 's distinguished history of commissioned works. 

Moreover, it was a treat to hear  from him a different virtuoso arrangement of themes from Bizet's "Carmen" than the usual Waxman and Sarasate versions. Jeno Hubay's "Fantaisie Brillante" made for a dazzling, seductive conclusion to his recital. And his Ravel Sonata found new aspects of the blues idiom in the second movement, ending with a sexy shimmy (a musical effect, not something in the violinist's body language, I hasten to add!).

Fumika Mohri: Taming Beethoven's monster.
Other highlights from the two afternoons of semifinals I've heard:

*Fumika Mohri's stunning presentation Saturday of  Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata (No. 9 in A major, op. 47), a work often avoided in this competition's semifinal round. It asks quite a bit of the pianist to set the tone, and the grandeur of the piano part asks quite a bit of the violinist as well, insofar as he or she has to display a vigorous personality to avoid being overshadowed. At first, Thomas Hoppe's approach seemed rather mannered, striving for dominance in expression; gradually, I warmed to it. It became evident how much it was in sympathy and support with Mohri's playing. That particularly characterized the variations movement, after which the Presto finale sent everyone off to intermission with hearts racing.

*Saki Tozawa's shrewd and passionate account Friday of Francis Poulenc's Sonata, with Hoppe at the piano. She seems to have internalized the fragile lyricism of second movement thoroughly, so that its lightweight nature did not become frothy. As for the finale, there can't be too many instances of a movement being headed "Presto tragico," but here is its perfect representation. Both performers conveyed the feeling of tragedy in a lightly ironic manner, as if some self-regarding hero were conferring tragic stature upon himself after a hasty, frenetic career.

*The keen rapport of Rohan De Silva with Gyehee Kim in Fauré's' Sonata No. 1 in A major. The work's range of emotion and conceptual breadth were addressed at every point by these polished duo partners. The heart-on-sleeve expressiveness and brio of another French composer, Saint-Saens, in "Introduction and Rondo Capriccio," proved to be an ideal follow-up to the Fauré sonata, thus giving the recital the kind of flashy brilliance that people have a right to expect by this stage of the IVCI.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The charm of the third time: IVCI preliminaries move toward their conclusion

For me, the preliminary round of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis ended Tuesday afternoon, though today there are nine more of the 38 participants to be heard. The jury's selection of 16 semifinalists is expected about 8 p.m. today.

Like the rest of the public, I have the option to take advantage of live-streaming for the remaining prelim recitals. I might check out some of them, but of course there's no substitute for being there. That was driven home to me by the last recital of the day Sept. 4.

Galiya Zharova: Exemplary bow control
The live-streaming experience can provide an excellent perspective on the participants, but I might have missed what stood out most Tuesday afternoon if I'd taken in remotely the prelim recital of Galiya Zharova of Kazakhstan. In the course of her performance, I almost put aside "large-picture" artistic considerations. They seemed to be well-served in any case by her exemplary bow control. And that's what I focused on. Her bow arm was beautiful to watch, note after note. I could have admired its steadiness and consistency for longer in another piece of music beyond the scheduled program. Maybe IVCI patrons will get to see for themselves in the semifinals.

It took a while for it to dawn on me. In retrospect, the oft-heard Adagio from Bach's Sonata No. 1 in G minor presented an interpretation that only bowing under precise coordination could have managed: The melodic line was sustained and soaring, while the harmonic underpinning was never scanted in the slightest. (Her performance offered a partial corrective to my full praise of the harmonically understated way Fabiola Kim played the Adagio the day before.)

By the time Zharova got to her Mozart sonata (K. 305 in A major), there was a fitness to every stroke that made everything coalesce, especially the theme-and-variations movement. Short and long strokes alike had the requisite speed and pressure for their contexts. Never stingy about full bowing where appropriate, she didn't waste motion, either. (She could do no wrong at the tip.) Zharova's flexibility and the consistency of her tone meant she could adjust the tempo and phrase weight in the Paganini Caprice No. 17 to make the music speak more eloquently.  I hope some student violinists were there, or saw enough of it live-streamed to be inspired and informed by a demonstration of exquisite bow control.

The afternoon started with something distinctive from another participiant — neither an advantage nor a drawback: Hannah Cho's instrument had a tone I can best describe as "woody."  Of course violins are made of wood, but here was a violin that almost got back to the roots of violin sound. It came through immediately in her Paganini caprices, which interpretively were characterized by a too studied approach, especially No. 4, which seemed to sprawl. The idiosyncratic sound lent her Bach (Grave and Fuga from Sonata No. 2 in A minor) a "period" patina. It was a pleasant feature in the first movement of her Mozart sonata (E minor, K. 304) and established an intimate, congenial, almost folksy atmosphere in the minuet finale.

Shannon Lee: An invitation to the dance.
Ji Won Song's Bach (the Adagio and Fugue from G minor sonata, again) was poised and warm in the first movement, but a little too mighty throughout in the fugue. Her encore piece was the rare choice of Sibelius' "Romance," which showed off a lower-range tone that would be the envy of another rarity: a true vocal contralto. Also admirable was her Paganini Caprice No. 21, with its passionate operatic-duet main episode, and, within, lots of nimble, steadily produced spiccato (bouncing bow in one direction).

I may have been getting jaundiced by the time Hiu Sing Fan's Bach came up, since it was yet another traversal through the Adagio and Fuga from the G minor sonata. The playing became labored before the coda. But it was fun to hear his performance of the frequently chosen No. 11 Paganini Caprice with the yearning melody that opens and closes it given more sentimentality than the norm. A little schmaltz can be welcome if the material seems to suit it.

Tuesday afternoon's fourth performer, Shannon Lee, displayed a personal style that served her well in each of her four selections. She always seemed to know the effect she wanted, and delivered consistently. Her Paganini No. 3 was an unhackneyed choice with virtuosity to spare, starting with exceptional octaves and trills. The Allemanda and Corrente from Bach's B minor partita, each with its Double sidecar, had a choreographic flair.

Authentic evocation of the dance dependably lifts the spirits during the rigors of the preliminary round — all of which will yield the 10th quadrennial's "sweet sixteen" tonight as  the competition enters its second weekend Friday.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The second afternoon of IVCI prelims: the challenges and rewards of 'one more time'

During an intermission in the preliminary round of the last International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, I got into a fascinating chat with a new fan of the contest. He had convinced himself that the range of repertoire choices facing participants was too liberal. So he put across to me a rather startling viewpoint: the young violinists should be required to play exactly the same pieces.

My mind reeled, as I thought of the bludgeoning that the ears and sensibilities of jury and audiences alike would be subject to.  From the Bach unaccompanied repertoire, for example, all 40 participants might be judged on how they played the monumental Chaconne from the D minor Partita. No more electing a multi-movement Partita sampling, like the Allemanda and Double, Corrente and Double from the B minor suite.

I think the friendly conversation was pitched upon an analogy to sports competitions. That kind of comparison is always tempting to make when it comes to musical contests. Like most analogies, it breaks down pretty quickly when we consider that what is at issue is artistry. So, from the repertoire list, all the violinists and their teachers get to choose what compositions they feel closest to, as well as the order in which they will present them during the prelims. That's as it should be — we're not about deciding who's baking the best gingerbread men from the same recipe and merely assessing the effect of different cookie-cutters.

Fumika Mohri: Setting a Bach standard
With a performance order determined by lot, a miniature version of what my interlocutor stoutly preferred can crop up. On Monday afternoon, audiences gathered at the Indiana History Center had the opportunity to be stimulated — or perhaps anesthetized — by four performances in successive mini-recitals of the first two movements of Bach's Sonata No. 3 in C major, the Adagio and Fuga. To contemplate listening to nothing but that brief slow movement and the substantial fugue that follows gives me the willies. But repetition that doesn't go overboard can be illuminating, whether the music repeated is already known to the listener or not.

For me, the standard to meet was set right off in Fumika Mohri's performance, so much so that I had to resist prejudging the afternoon's other Adagio and Fuga performances. At the end, I felt confirmed in admiring the one presented first. To start with, Mohri handled the slow movement with a light but firm touch. She kept the melodic line uppermost, soaring and sustained, through the harmonies that support it; they lent direction and substance unobtrusively. Her vibrato was varied, adding an extra expressiveness.

But it was in the ten-minute fugue that she really offered something special: The momentum was firm but never mechanical. She privileged both light and shade in her performance. Even at his most formal, Bach had an unparalleled knack for representing both the vulnerability and strength of life, sometimes shoulder to shoulder. We hear certainty and doubt explicitly in the vocal and choral works, but amazingly also, as here, where there are no words to reinforce such an interpretation. It's as if the composer is pointing to the vivid interrelatedness of life's contrasts, sometimes in neighboring phrases, saying: "Yes, this — but also this." Mohri illuminated this emotional canvas in every detail. In sum, I never expected to hear a performance of this Bach fugue that would bring me close to tears. But this one did.

Of the others, let me briefly say that Risa Hokamura's narrative style in the Adagio, with the harmonic building blocks more emphasized, was also persuasive, and her Fuga showed a good feeling for structure and consistent attention of making the fugal voices clear. Elli Choi's Adagio was more studentlike, with a few touches of poignancy; in the fugue, she knew where the main interest lies at any given point, but the interpretation was a bit "road-mappy." Kyumin Park's version was built from the ground up, the fugue a  little stolid and tedious at length. His sound was somewhat monochromatic.

So, where did these players excel in their programs? Hokamura in two Paganini caprices — she nailed the interval leaps of No. 2 and found a light, sunny approach to No. 11 that worked well. The main thread of any musical argument in these showpieces always glowed.

Park was best in his Mozart sonata (in A major, K. 305), though the relentless assertiveness of his playing was relieved mainly by good dynamic control in the Theme and Variations second movement.

Choi gave the afternoon's best performance of the other selection the audience heard four times: Chopin's Nocture in C-sharp minor, as arranged by Nathan Milstein. I had just been charmed by her Mozart sonata and impressed by her fiery command of the fifth Paganini caprice, so I was expecting the picture would be well completed by her thoroughly lyrical and nicely paced rendition of her chosen encore piece.
SongHa Choi: Holding back just right in encore piece

Other highlights:
*The rhetorical coherence and balance of Misako Akama's Paganini Caprice No. 23 and her thoroughgoing rapport with pianist Thomas Hoppe in Mozart's Sonata in A major.
*The poise of SongHa Choi's Allemanda and the excitement of her Corrente in those movements (with a "double" variation tagged to each) from the Bach B minor Partita, in addition to a well-judged account of Wagner's "Albumblatt" (as arranged by August Wilhelmj), with the intensity held back until the point where it would count the most: good judgment not to peak too soon.
*Mohri's choice of Nathan Milstein's  "Paganiniana," variations on the 24th caprice, new on the repertoire list this year. Compared with the variations treatment Paganini himself gave to his famous theme, this version is more about public spectacle resting on the already spectacular original. Milstein had the whole 19th century to draw upon for his exploration of violinistic effectiveness: To have for instance, a "forest murmurs" trills variation succeeded by a brassy fanfare episode that then yields to a sentimental salon-music excursion is part of a delectable smorgasbord — a microcosm of the fare the prelims offer in abundance, even allowing for considerable repetition. Who would want nothing but repetition when there are such delicacies to savor?