Sunday, October 28, 2018

Catalyst Repertory's 'Popular Monsters' scratches the dark underbelly of popular culture

The tawdry dreams of Hollywood can at least be admired for influencing the culture top to bottom.
'Popular monster: A veteran horror-film star in a heyday role.
Some illusions stay tribal; others are pervasive. As a Tinseltown striver, if your niche is in the basement rather than the penthouse or an oceanside estate in Santa Monica, you still know the rules by which the game is played. The fact that it's the same game at all strata doesn't make it any easier.

The setting of "Popular Monsters," a one-act drama by Lou Harry, is the cluttered office of a marginal horror-film magazine of the same title. It looks both lived in and worked in, with neither characteristic dominating more than simply the hang-out function that takes over for the play's four characters. The set, in this Catalyst Repertory production at the Irvington Lodge, is unfortunately lit in a way no actual room ever was, with floor spots throwing large overlapping shadows high on the wall.

On the other hand, there's a surrealist vibe at work here. Harry brings his encyclopedic knowledge of film and TV and a knack for skewering careerism even as he showers pity upon those caught up in it. The dialogue is witty and observant, but the pathos in the lives of a has-been workaday actor, the cynical publisher-to-be of "Popular Monsters," a nervous reporter for the magazine and obsessive fan of the genre, and his concupiscent sort-of girlfriend and spicy antagonist comes to the fore. There are frequent references to role-playing in the dialogue. This goes beyond the Shakespearean all-the-world's-a-stage set piece. It's more like the pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray in the Beatles' "Penny Lane," who "though she feels as if she's in a play, she is anyway."

Revelations about the characters are skillfully placed. Two separate theatrical touches were properly arresting and well-timed: when the graying star pounds on the door he has exited moments before and when the drunk magazine honcho emerges zombie-like from the bathroom. The audience becomes uncomfortably put in the position of Greg, the fan-reporter, who is eventually so bewildered by what he's learning that he doubts whether the table he puts his hand down on is really a table. Surrealism a la Magritte is a close relative to the fantasies that Hollywood has created with technological help for more than a century. It is aptly suggested as "Popular Monsters" writhes toward its conclusion.

In the first scene, embarrassed to the point of ineptness, Greg is interviewing Efrem Knight, a horror-film star scraping by after his heyday. As played by Tom Weingartner, Greg comes across as the stammering nebbish he turns out to be throughout. Under Zachariah Stonerock's direction, the trait may have been overdone. Yet Weingartner's delivery was always intelligible, given the near-inarticulateness of his character. If only Jamie McNulty as Knight had been heard as distinctly. I liked the world-weariness he projected and the defensiveness we eventually understand the reason for. But, despite displaying the acerbic wit of a bargain-basement Lady Bracknell, he often sounded like a man talking to himself.

The same near-inaudibility overtook Elsa, the reluctant scion of the "Popular Monsters" business in the wake of the impending death of the man she calls father. Stunning in the earlier scenes, whether bossy or drunk, Miranda Nehrig sounded depleted in Elsa's long, climactic speech near the end. True, the character is disburdening herself of some soul-searing stuff. But I wondered where the self-possession we'd seen earlier, however undercut by desperation, had disappeared to.

Alexandria Miles carried a lot of the repartee responsibility with panache. She could always be heard; she put across Shawna's decisiveness and perspicacity consistently, though the character is as needy in her own way as the other three. Yet her performance caused me to wonder if the show's pacing was designed to be so relentless. No beats or pauses in the script? Maybe not.

But I've always thought that when stage characters fire off zingers or make snappy comebacks, you should get some sense that they're fast thinkers and not merely articulate automatons. It's OK that the literacy level of the dialogue is lofty: it's remarkable, though not implausible, that when Elsa nails Knight with the information that he will never play King Lear, she uses the fivefold "never" of the mad king near the end of Shakespeare's play. Countless other allusions to TV shows and movies were lost on me, but at least I felt I was being invited into an authentic milieu — intense and believable, even though steeped in the Hollywood phantasmagoria.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

A frequent ISO guest brings along his orchestral survey of the Ring Cycle, and Watts plays Mozart

With a substantial arrangement of "Der Ring des Nibelungen" on a program conducted by the
Much-admired guest conductor brought his Wagner along.
conductor who made it, something to balance all that powerful Wagner needed to be chosen.

Jun Märkl presides over that achieved balance this weekend in two Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts, the second of which starts today at 7 p.m. The foreboding woven into a masterpiece that is technically a comedy made for a substantial start to Friday's Hilbert Circle Theatre concert, as Märkl and the ISO opened with the Overture to "Don Giovanni."

The vigor of those first commanding chords was a bit smudged, though the vigor remained as the texture fortunately cleared up. A charismatic bad actor gets his comeuppance in the opera; in this program, the moral import of such music is confirmed by Wagner's interpretation of Germanized Norse mythology in his great operatic tetralogy.

The program's first half is completed by the return appearance of a distinguished guest pianist, further helping to indicate that Mozart's presence on the program could not be taken for mere prelude. Andre Watts impressed his personality upon the Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, K. 271, but not through any kind of distortion. Using the score but clearly familiar with everything on the page and what he wanted to do with it, Watts kept the attention fully engaged. He even made the minuet interruption in the finale work at quite a slow tempo. It seemed excessive, but the rapport with the accompaniment was air-tight, and we were invited to reflect on the composer's risk-taking more than the performers'.

Andre Watts shone in Mozart's earliest major piano concerto.
This is the earliest of Mozart's piano concertos still to be in the mainstream; it's also the longest. To have an old master at the keyboard offering his interpretation is thus fully appropriate. Mozart's short life belies the maturity he was able to show at a stage when most creative artists are still developing. Thus, it was striking how well Watts played the second-movement Andantino, almost as a portrait of an old man looking back on life. The autumnal quality not only suited the season — October having taken on characteristics we tend to associate more with dreaded November — but also provided fresh insights into the breadth of Mozart's lyrical expressiveness.

Watts' digging into the cadenzas in the second and third movements put the finishing touches on a colorful performance. His trills have always been a marvelous aspect of his technique — I remember how full of character they were at the end of the second movement of Beethoven's Fourth Concerto here two years ago. This time, they were exciting right after that minuet episode in the finale, and also as a capstone upon the weighty second-movement cadenza.

So, impressiveness before intermission served to whet the appetite for the conductor's voiceless vision of the Ring. The composer himself reluctantly conducted excerpts in the concert hall, always wanting his music to be known at a time long before recording and when there were fewer concerts than today. Märkl's arrangement puts aside greatest-hits excerpting the tetralogy's best music; the 45-minute arrangement is reverent about the progress of the drama as expressed instrumentally. Some will miss "The Ride of the Valkyries," perhaps, and of course vocal highlights like Sieglinde's "Du bist der Lenz" and Siegfried's "Nothung, Nothung, neidliches Schwert" were wisely omitted.

With the ISO expanded so that the stage had to be extended, Wagner's scoring was intact throughout, without idiomatic links newly composed to smooth things over. There was a patience about the integrity Märkl has preserved that was immediately evident in the prolonged depiction of the Rhine waters gradually illuminated by dawn breaking far above. That's how the whole business gets under way in the original, and anyone familiar with it could feel right at home. The anvil-pounding of the Nibelungs slaving away under the harsh regime of Alberich stood out, and the feature that drives the action — the gnome's curse on the ring of the title — makes its mark.

"Die Walküre," the most psychologically complex of the four operas, was fairly represented without onstage characters, and the emergence of Siegfried in the opera named for him climaxes in the final opera's spectacular Rhine Journey and the circumstances that lead to the hero's death and funeral. Loaded as it is with the deliverance of all the resolution promised by the first three operas, "Die Götterdämmerung" fulfills the demise of the gods' realm reflected in its title as Valhalla is consumed by the fire that Brünnhilde's immolation has fanned.

All this is conceived of as a unit and works as such. Wagner's thoroughgoing use of leitmotiven  
means that audiences unfamiliar with the staged original are aware, thanks to the arranger-conductor's scrupulous work, of the music's cohesiveness because of the reappearance of the tetralogy's most significant short melodies as part of the tapestry into which they are woven.

It was interesting that the conflagration that consumes Valhalla was less moving to me Friday than I remembered it being the one time I saw the Ring (Seattle, 1976). This had little to do with the ISO's performance, I think, but more because the stage picture of the great structure's ruin arouses mixed feelings. Without it, you can concentrate on what "Der Ring des Nibelungen" really means: the loss that the music depicts becomes less important than the peace that finally succeeds all the hatred, jealousy, and greed the drama has engendered and portrayed so thoroughly.

The music overlays the drama, as Wagner always intended, and the heroine's sacrifice suggests that a new order privileging love will emerge. To have that abstractly presented by Wagner's huge orchestra frees the listener from the drama and puts him or her on a new plane where it is not as important to be moved as to arrive at a new understanding. Kudos to Märkl for bringing that understanding to Indianapolis, and drawing from the ISO such a fine realization of it.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Dance Kaleidoscope gets assistance at the keyboard for 'Music of the Night'

Dance Kaleidoscope company puts out a nighttime vibe in "Duke's Place."
The title of Dance Kaleidoscope's current show is likely to stir to life an earworm — the title character's seductive song from "Phantom of the Opera."

But "Music of the Night" has been borrowed, not from Andrew Lloyd Webber, but to apply to a program mostly devoted to George Gershwin and Duke Ellington, whose music inevitably suggests nocturnal romps and reveries.

Ellington was once asked to explain how he habitually got by on four hours sleep a night. "I sleep fast," he replied. Daylight held no terrors for the jazz master, however. Another time, when he and a friend stepped outside a club long after closing and looked up to see a gray bank of clouds, his companion said: "I hope tomorrow is a good day." Duke, at the time afflicted with age-related health problems, came back suavely with this: "Any day I get up is a good day."

So, we've got a sermon text. Guest choreographer Cynthia Pratt illustrates it with a new work, "Duke's Place."  Laura E. Glover's lighting emphasizes nighttime's reduction of color to black and white as the dozen-strong company goes through some vivacious movement, with the ensemble in close order always being its home base.

The first part of the work is set to the inviting vocal of Louis Armstrong in the album he made with Ellington. The text gives night-owl specificity to an old jam-session favorite, "C Jam Blues." What we saw in Thursday night's preview at Indiana Repertory Theatre was a scintillating piece for people who sleep fast and presumably believe that any day they get up (without feeling worse for wear) is a good day. That was the reassuring message I took especially from the colored circles, which began appearing during Missy Thompson's solo, as they pulsated overlapping across the stage, settling auras upon the dancers.

A revival of Hochoy's 2007 "Sophisticated Ellington" occupies the program's second half. The DK artistic director favors somewhat blowsier, more elaborate versions of familiar Ellington tunes than I prefer, but the important thing is what kind of arrangement inspires the choreography that Hochoy wants to present. Emily Dyson's solo to "Mood Indigo" was appropriate, though I missed the spare, groundbreaking harmonies and tone colors of the small-scale original.

On the other hand, Hochoy's decision to make of the swing-dance favorite "Perdido" something contrary to the style's conventionally smooth, swirling couples was inspired: Starting with the men, dancers step sideways in coordinated arm-flapping from the elbow, facing front — postures  rarely seen when stompin' at the old Savoy, I'm pretty sure. There were couples crawling across the stage floppily like mating insects and many other drolleries, accompanied by the heavily accented tune. In "Sophisticated Lady," with the focus on one couple (Dyson and Timothy June), again as humor was brought into the choreography, Hochoy wisely omitted a version with the poignant lyrics, allowing the piece to focus on the sophistication of an evolving relationship in which the lady dominates.

The program opened with several pieces featuring 2007 American Pianists Association laureate Eric Zuber at the piano, which was placed in front of the stage. "Three Preludes" (2002) showed Hochoy's sensitivity to both the dashing quality of Gershwin's solo piano music and its fondness for filigree. The slow middle prelude was kind of haunting as it featured a tentative quality to the dancing and a precise evocation of how we look about cautiously when entering new situations.

Eric Zuber and Jillian Godwin got the musician-dancer partnership just right.
"Fascinatin' Rhythm" revived a 2002 work featuring six Gershwin songbook versions for solo piano. They were played with exemplary style by Zuber; the dancing at this preview was sometimes brilliant, sometimes a little rough. Jillian Godwin took full advantage of a solo opportunity in "Do It Again" in which her partnership with the guest pianist seemed perfect. The onstage partnership of Marie Kuhns and Timothy June had comical flair in "Oh, Lady Be Good."

After the curtain closed, providing respite for the dancers, Zuber offered a sprightly, idiomatic version of one of Claude Debussy's character sketches, "General Lavine, Eccentric." The side trip into the French impressionist composer (an influence on both Gershwin and Ellington, by the way) also included the ballet "Clair de Lune," from Hochoy's 1993 "Seasons." This early piece vividly reflects the Martha Graham influence that remains strong in DK under his leadership.

The four female dancers move together and apart, sometimes fused in a kind of tower of homage to the full moon as projected on the backdrop. The gestures are angular and sustained. It's a piece suggestive of pagan ritual as well as a representation of the Earth's ever-changing satellite. It was beautifully played and danced Thursday. So rich in artistic representations through the ages, the moon is also the touted companion of everyone who, like the Duke, sleeps fast.

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Slide pride: Trombone ensemble makes debut at the Jazz Kitchen

Quite a lift was given to this former trombonist when a phalanx of a half-dozen sliphorn maestri sailed into "Jeanine" to launch the debut set Tuesday of Bone Appetit, an Indianapolis-based trombone band, at the Jazz Kitchen.

Though jazz trombone ensembles have popped up around the country over the years, I had never
Personal treasure:The mother of them all. My copy is  in glorious mono, with co-leader Kai Winding's first name deliberately misspelled "Kay" for the sake of rhyming with J.J. Johnson's nickname.
heard one live. I've nourished my interest by plopping onto the record player from time to time this 50-some-year-old LP with the imperishable cartoon cover by Arnold Roth.

Bone Appetit in rehearsal for its only scheduled gig up to now.
Put together by bass trombonist Rick Balek, with musical direction by Freddie Mendoza, Bone Appetit also includes tenor trombonists Chris Van Hof, Ryan Fraley, Rich Dole, and John Huntoon, with a rhythm section consisting of Scott Routenberg, piano; Jesse Wittman, bass; Patrick Wright, guitar; and Cassius Goens III, drums.

That rhythm section, though mostly hidden from the sizable audience by the trombonists, was no slouch. They put up a fine intro to Willie Maiden's "A Little a Minor Booze," and after an ensemble statement, Routenberg an aptly atmospheric statement.

Then,  following Van Hof's estimable high-register solo, Wright delivered one of several of the set's best solos. For me, his outing on "A Shade of Jade" clarified the piece for me. Goens contributed thunderous but uncliched drumming behind the ensemble riffs near the end of "This Is a Test."  And in the solo-chocked set finale, "Get Out and Stay Out," Wittman's stood out for its bluesy pizazz before he shared the spotlight with Mendoza alone. Bone Appetit's music director offered stunning virtuosity in this fast blues before the ensemble took it out.

Several arrangements emphasized the fine blend of the group. "Pure Imagination," a song from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," was a model of precisely phrased chords, with no solos. "Low Motion" also had the rhythm section retiring briefly from the stand to emphasize Bone Appetit's ensemble rapport.

In the Great American Songbook jazz favorite "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," the arrangement had little solo passages threaded through the ensemble. It was notable for making nice textural contrasts among the trombonists, as well as for Dole's time in the spotlight. There was a beautiful soft crunch of harmonies as the piece slowed down toward the double bar.

"My Favorite Things," a "Sound of Music" favorite, was treated to a whole-hearted uptempo romp. I'm reminded of what a Down Beat critic wrote long ago to end his review of John Coltrane's classic album by that name: "If these are really his favorite things, it's easy to see why." I could say the same of what Bone Appetit offered Tuesday night on its maiden voyage: If these were really their favorite things (so far at least), it was easy to see why.

White Rabbits on a Wall: A tribute in song to a mural controversy

Hail to the artist's naughty vision Which bothers some, and others find so funny: Art has a way of opening division — This time, bunny gets it on with bunny. Once again we see the leaves are turning, Overnight the temperatures grow colder; Suddenly we meet new ways of learning Beauty's in the eye of the Beholder.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Adagietto Ad Libitum: A response in rhymed couplets to a notorious concert incident

Adagietto Ad Libitum
Gustav Mahler knew conflict, but was spared fisticuffs and rustling bags.

As fraught as the race between Senator Cruz and Beto
Was a dust-up in Sweden that marred Mahler's Adagietto:

That a fistfight ensued because of a chewing gum wrapper
At a classical concert might baffle the best handicapper.

What could be the odds that a gum bag thrown to the floor
Would generate blows once the music went some minutes more?

The snack-deprived woman's resentment was too great to tally,
But she showed some restraint throughout the awesome finale
Then slapped the bag thrower in a vigorous improvised stretto,
Annoyed at her neighbor's rash act in the Adagietto.

He fought back, arousing the woman's companion as well,
Who punched as commandingly as "der grosse Appel"
Had begun Mahler Five well over an hour before,
Thus putting to rest, or at least somewhat muting the  roar,
That classical music resides in a prettified ghetto:
Lo, worldly strife can invade the sublime Adagietto!

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Bassist-led trio sweeps along easily on 'Tailwind'

Bruno Råberg came to the United States to refine his education in the 1980s after having gotten a firm
Bruno Råberg chooses sidemen well.
foundation in his native Sweden and elsewhere in Europe.

He has made good as both teacher and performer, and his nearly all-original program on "Tailwind" (Red Piano Records) indicates significant compositional skills and a way of giving simpatico bandmates good material to cultivate and help him harvest.

Råberg's compositions are well-designed for himself and his two sidemen, pianist Bruce Barth and drummer Adam Cruz. He has a gift for melody, which is most prominent in "A Closer Look"; as a song, it could be a late addition to the Great American Songbook, just awaiting lyrics.

The bassist's gift for creating tunes also comes up in his solos, as in the slow waltz titled "Paris Windows." His inviting ruminations nicely set up  a delicate outing by Barth, and the drummer's subsequent solo has like-minded riff support from piano and bass.

He deserves kudos for an in-tune statement of the theme using the bow on "Here's That Rainy Day," the disc's one borrowed piece.  Too many jazz bassists' arco excursions expose some difficulty staying on pitch. The leader also takes a good plucked solo, and there's enough inspiration left over from that side journey to inspire an original sequel, "Rainy Day Farewell."

The title piece has an episodic structure, but avoids giving the impression of wandering. It has the feeling, as the title suggests, of being propelled forward by new encounters along the way. Not to minimize the value of Cruz, but Barth is essential to realization of Råberg's book throughout.  "Lone Tree Hill" is a prime example: The piano is alone at first, setting the solitary mood; there's good extrapolation of the leader's ideas in Barth's solo before the trio settles back into the theme.

"Song for Dolphy" takes a germinating idea from an Eric Dolphy recording to construct an easygoing piece, introduced by unaccompanied bass, with some heating up in the middle. The fills by Cruz near the end against a piano vamp are exciting, and there's lots of prominent bass over the piece's course.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

IRT stirs the urban cauldron in production of Dominique Morisseau's 'Pipeline'

Nya expounds upon Gwendolyn Brooks' famous poem.
There's so much to unpack from the mega-bookbag of public education in large cities that it's little wonder that "Pipeline" strains under the burden.

Dominique Morisseau's one-act drama opened Friday night at Indiana Repertory Theatre. The style of the production is impressive,with projections to the rear and side of the stage giving the feel of turmoil and blurred personal identities in a big-city public high school. The sound design reflects the mass of signals we live among today — from the clicks of texting to class start and dismissal bells. It also represents emotional triggers for the main character, a hard-working teacher and single mom played to the hilt by Aimé Donna Kelly.

Nya is trying to save her son, Omari, from expulsion at a suburban private school, to which her ex-husband, Xavier, is paying tuition for him. The couple had one child before they split up, and for Nya, it's as if all her focus on being the best teacher she can be rests upon her investment in Omari. Successful executive Xavier's investment is rather more distant. When the crisis is at its most acute, they can barely come to terms with the best way to proceed.

"Pipeline" is thus essentially a family drama that uses its central crisis as a mirror in which the audience sees the conflicts between what the characters are accustomed to and what they aspire to. Specifically, it takes the deprivations and inadequacies of public education and the neighborhoods that feed it to force audiences to question if society is doing enough to keep one generation after another of African-Americans from sinking into further marginalization. The pipeline of the play's title is the school-to-prison channeling of legions of young black men. So the answer is: Of course

Laurie shares her frayed commitment with Dun and Nya.
Directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, the IRT production is fast-paced and exudes confidence about its central focus. Nothing about Friday's performance threatened to lessen the intensity or drift into side issues or ambiguity. Sometimes this laser-like beam of relevance made the central character hard to figure out: Nya seems simultaneously a master teacher and a woman about to shatter under stress. It was puzzling to see the granular detail with which she had her class respond to a Gwendolyn Brooks poem in an educational environment we are meant to see as dysfunctional. In other scenes, the characters of Dun, a security officer, and Laurie, a battle-scarred middle-aged colleague of Nya's, convey in no uncertain terms that the school is broken.

Nya's lecture on Brooks' "We Real Cool," an almost scholarly examination of how the poem looks different as printed by a major publisher and a street-level shoestring operation, is hard to accept in its context. The poem stands for the unconscious expression of truants in a pool hall about their wasted lives, and thus it resonates with the downward path the troubled Omari seems to be on. Omari's echoey recitation of the poem behind his mother at work was a fine surrealistic moment.

But I'd like to see Nya's other lesson plans. She must be a miracle worker in the classroom to lay this kind of exposition upon high-schoolers and have them respond raptly. The emphasis on "We Real Cool" brings up another problem with "Pipeline." Brooks has placed "we" at the end of each line, where it sticks out right after the rhyming word. The poem thus indicates a collective decline among young men, without adequate role models, succumbing to peer pressure. In contrast, Omari's
difficulties seem to have individual roots; that's what mainly confirms "Pipeline" as a family drama. What we are left to fill in is any evidence that his contemporaries, past or present, are dragging him down.

Of course, he's now in a private school among privileged kids. He's got a saucy girlfriend, Jasmine, who balances where she comes from with where she finds herself now. He's having a hard time doing that. What puts him on the brink of expulsion, and perhaps a criminal charge, is his assault upon a teacher who's questioning him too closely about Richard Wright's "Native Son" on a day when he's depressed and feels like a fish out of water. That scene is assembled through dialogue recalling the incident, which is not staged. What's presented to us is the aftermath of one of those last-straw events that many have gone through, though rarely in such a potentially game-changing way.

Omari, rescued at last, presents his list of needs.
Such matters are vividly presented, and Cole Taylor's Omari is nicely judged between teen confusion and rage. Renika Williams' Jasmine was his stubborn opposite, both jealous and protective. She is almost a match for Nya, who applies emotional thumbscrews forcefully in one of Kelly's most electrifying scenes. André Garner plays Xavier with an air of self-assurance, settled in his life path and showing firmness as negotiator with his ex-wife, but a man not prepared for Omari's sustained, accusatory rant, which was Taylor's peak moment Friday night. Constance Macy and Toussaint Jeanlouis fully projected characters of contrasting temperaments — his involved but laidback, hers weary but still combative — equally caught up in the high school's dysfunction.

"Pipeline" wrestles admirably with major social problems, exposing the barrenness of some of the "betterment" options offered to traditionally oppressed and neglected communities. It avoids being too abstract about them by focusing on a mother and her son, but some loose ends remain. The style, with its coruscating speeches and surrealistic presentation, works well, thanks to some well-coordinated design contributions by Junghyun Georgia Lee, Ari Fulton, Xavier Pierce, and Reuben Lucas.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, October 18, 2018

New York Standards Quartet continues to display its oblique mastery of familiar songs

You can tell from the first track of "Heaven Steps to Seven," the New York Standards Quartet's jokily
The New York Standards Quartet specializes in reorienting familiar tunes.
titled new recording, just what the four have in mind with some well-known tunes from the American jazz and popular songbooks.

Track 1 is also a Leonard Bernstein centennial tribute as it subjects "Tonight" from "West Side Story" to the NYSQ's signature treatment of well-known tunes (the ones from the jazz catalogue will be less familiar to the mainstream listener) in new ways.

Listening in order, you can quickly get a dose of the jazz-standards side of the quartet. First there's a bop-centered run through Charlie Parker's "Cheryl," focused on saxophonist Tim Armacost at first, with Gene Jackson's steady, splashy drumming gradually joined by bassist Ugonna Okegwo (since the recording he's been replaced by  Daiki Yasukagawa), then pianist David Berkman.

Great American Songbook standards like "If I Should Lose You"  are especially susceptible to NYSQ arrangements, in that conventional harmonies provide a familiar launching pad. You can call up the standard chord progressions in your memory of other performances, but here altered harmonies rule the roost. The jumpiness of this arrangement reverts to a relaxed four-to-the-bar swing once the piano solo starts. But the mediated vision of this song remains with you.

Sometimes an arrangement will put accents in different places, but they usually seem logical. A case in point is Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye," with its four successive accents on the ending of the song's first two phrases (e.g., "I die a little," with every syllable except "I" emphasized).

Two complaints: Although a standout in Bud Powell's "I'll Keep Loving You," on Porter's "I Love You," Okegwo's bass is underrecorded; secondly, Gene Jackson's typical emphasis on cymbals seems excessive in Horace Silver's "Peace," but is just right on the concluding track, Herbie Hancock's "Eye of the Hurricane." Moreover, as if to make up for past obscurity, the bass comes through fine behind Berkman's enchanting solo during the disc's affectionate farewell.

This quartet is learned in the best sense of the term. The musicians, led by the boldness of Berkman and Armacost, know the tradition thoroughly. (No one will miss the CD title's pun on Miles Davis' landmark version of Victor Feldman's "Seven Steps to Heaven.") What they bring to it is always refreshing without verging into bizarre novelty.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The persistence of the jazz/poetry connection: Pianist Helen Sung collaborates with Dana Gioia

Avoiding subcultural status when you practice an art that you believe deserves a major cultural position can be more than a matter of frustration. It can produce fresh new work, as in "Sung With Words" (Stricker Street Records).

Dana Gioia attracted unusual attention in the niche genre of essays about poetry when he wrote "Can Poetry Matter?" for the Atlantic years ago and attracted a tsunami of responses.

Since then, he has been George W. Bush's director of the National Endowment for the Arts and took
The cover of the new CD, an outgrowth of a mutual interest in jazz and words.
advantage of the position to make poetry and other arts matter more than they normally do in public life. With this recorded collaboration with Helen Sung and her band, Gioia has revived the practice of poetry recited to jazz accompaniments.

New public outlets for poetry are a consistent interest of the poet/teacher that has received enthusiastic support from a productive young pianist/composer, working with an excellent band: John Ellis, saxophones; Ingrid Jensen, trumpet; Reuben Rogers, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums, and Samuel Torres, percussion.

"Sung With Words" is an attractive blend of spoken poetry, songs related to the original poems, and instrumental commentary on Gioia's verse. The poetry strikes the ear first— conversational, relaxed as it sits easily in the poet's voice — inviting us  to return imaginatively to a little mecca of West Coast jazz, Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse. "Meet Me at the Lighthouse," Gioia says, in an inviting tone at  quite a remove of hipness from Robert Frost's "The Pasture." With a sly hint of ushering us into something disreputable, he wants the listener to "savor the smoke of that sinister century."

An advocate of accentual verse, Gioia in such lines (here heightened by alliteration) signals his receptivity to the rhythmic impulses and variations of jazz players. The depth of the poetry is immaterial: most of it is on the slightly heightened street level of popular songs. The final song urges a friend to "say what you mean, and mean what you say." If you vocalize those words, you automatically come up with a pattern that Sung uses in her concluding piece, "Mean What You Say."

Dana Gioia continues with missionary zeal to advocate for poetry in the public square.
This is one of the most easy-to-assimilate parts of the collaboration. There's also the social commentary of "Pity the Beautiful," whose shorter lines similarly guide the musical expression. This poem also has a Frostian analogue, "Provide, Provide." Both poems outline the decline of glamour with age and neglect. The folksinger Dave Van Ronk long ago set to music Frost's poem ferociously.

Gioia sometimes slows the pace and lengthens the line, as he does in "The Stars on Second Avenue." This gives Sung the inspiration for a slow piece, and the opportunity for one of the featured singers (Jean Baylor) to display her casually appropriate phrasing and wistful tone.

In the other direction, Gioia channels a significant accentual-verse ancestor, John Skelton (1463-1529), with short rhyming lines that have come to be known as Skeltonics. There's a lot of literary sophistication in verse that proves to be quite immediate to the listener, an indication of how sensible this Gioia-Sung experiment is. Can jazz with poetry matter? Can poetry with jazz matter? Definitely, "Sung With Words" replies unpretentiously.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Bernstein at 100: Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra presents a centennial tribute

A young Bernstein with two of his constant props: a score and a cigarette
My only memory of Leonard Bernstein in concert is oddly focused on the curtain calls at the end.
It was at the Meadow Brook Music Festival in suburban Detroit during what was probably his last tour with the New York Philharmonic in the frenetic but sadly declining years before his death in 1990.

After a program I've forgotten (except for his Overture to "Candide," throughout which he shimmied more than conducted), the celebrated maestro stepped off the podium and shuffled eagerly among music stands and chairs, hugging and kissing every member of the orchestra, all of them standing, some more comfortable than others with the extended public display of affection. ("Being kissed by him was like an assault by a sort of combination of sandpaper and sea anemones," the stage director and "Beyond the Fringe" co-creator Jonathan Miller once said.) The audience continued to applaud, probably sharing my amazement.

It's an indelible memory, and at the time I was caught between feeling he was overcome with love for the musicians and the less positive impression that he was really putting his stamp on them, signaling for one of the last times: "The New York Philharmonic is mine, mine, mine!"

The year has been rich in centennial tributes to Bernstein, a musical colossus who put his stamp on whatever he touched from mid-century almost until the new millennium. The conductor and educator roles had to die with him, though there is a rich legacy preserved on YouTube.  The composer can be well-represented, though, and that's of course how the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra paid tribute over the weekend.

A deft decision to revive Bernstein's 1951 chamber opera, "Trouble in Tahiti," paid off in the semi-staged production's second performance Sunday afternoon at the Schrott Center for the Arts. The work bears the sarcastic influence of Marc Blitzstein, a good friend of the composer whose stage works contain vivid critiques of American society. Bernstein works here to create an emphasis on the rosier possibilities of American life, at the outset of a decade that was indeed his, his, his — when he became a household name through televised Young People's Concerts, crowned as the Kennedy era dawned by "West Side Story" in 1961.

One failed marriage is the focus of "Trouble in Tahiti''s critique of American life in the 1950s; the satirical element is fleshed out in a vocal "jazz trio" that comments on the troubled couple and their outwardly comfortable lifestyle. In that respect, "Trouble in Tahiti" is like a more tuneful, more desperately wistful version of the story Richard Yates tells of marriage on the rocks in "Revolutionary Road." The 1950s, presumably the era alluded to when today's promises to "make America great again" are held up, was a time both hopeful and repressed. Prosperity and the sanctification of middle-class life comforted those in a position to enjoy the benefits, but high expectations were often undercut by private misery.

The Jazz Trio helps elevate Dinah's impression of the cheesy movie she just saw.
"Trouble in Tahiti" focuses on the dysfunctional marriage of Sam and Dinah in a well-to-do East Coast suburb. The characters are shallow, to be sure, as they are focused on themselves and seem clueless about what makes a marriage work; their only child, never seen and referred to distantly only as "Junior," suffers their neglect.

What makes the piece succeed is the bumptiousness, comic high spirits and deeply embedded pathos of Bernstein's score. As a result one finds Sam and Dinah's unhappiness moving despite not feeling much sympathy for them. Kara Cornell, soprano, and Christopher Burchett, baritone, poured considerable energy, high definition and vocal splendor into the roles.

There were times when their amplification seemed unnecessary, given the Schrott's excellent acoustics and the singers' operatically robust voices. On the whole, however, the microphones probably improved the balance with the onstage ICO. The Jazz Trio — soprano Vandi Enzor, tenor Andres Acosta, and baritone Thaddaeus Bourne — moved featly about the stage and sang in close-order drill like vocal Blue Angels.

Matthew Kraemer conducted the ICO's season-opening Bernstein tribute.
Matthew Kraemer conducted the performances, with stage direction by Richard J Roberts. As seen
Sunday (the 28th anniversary of Bernstein's death), the two must be credited for what struck me as a thoroughly integrated partnership of musical and theatrical panache. The marvelous inspirations of lighting designer Laura E. Glover completed the picture, which was properly ornate, amusing, and campy in the show's sixth of seven scenes, "Dinah at the Movies."

That lavish, flamboyant number — representing the wife's escape from her domestic concerns to a celluloid melodrama of the same title as Bernstein's opera — brought out Cornell's peak performance, just as Sam's proud solo in the gym, exulting in his trophy-winning performance in a handball tournament, represented the summit of Burchett's. The stubborn self-indulgence of both characters gives them a rush, but the finale holds out only a fragile prospect that their relationship will strengthen.

The concert opened with a peppy but measured "Candide" Overture, one of the great American symphonic gems of less than five minutes' duration. Thankfully, the piece was not taken insanely fast, so the fitness of the ensemble was showcased rather than stretched to the breaking point.

Lucian Plessner plays his arrangement of tunes from "West Side Story."
What followed was a Suite from "West Side Story," which remains Bernstein's most widely known achievement as a composer, as arranged by the guest soloist, Lucian Plessner, for guitar and chamber orchestra. Besides a drum set, the work is efficiently scored for strings and just three solo wind instruments: flute, trumpet and horn. Plessner and the orchestra worked smoothly together through a chronological selection of tunes from the classic show, going from "Cool," the finger-snapping gang self-assertion, through "Somewhere." The suite emphasizes the show's amiable side and heart-melting lyricism, which helped shed light on the foreground of "West Side Story" in the little-known "Trouble in Tahiti."

The German guitarist's appearance was in observance of the 30th anniversary of Indianapolis' Sister City relationship with Cologne, Germany. Also giving a sense of occasion to Sunday's concert was a proclamation by Mayor Joe Hogsett, delivered in person, of "Lucina Ball Moxley Day."
Mrs. Moxley, like Bernstein, is a centenarian — but a still-living one who was fortunately present to receive the honor.  She has long been known for her services to music as both pianist and philanthropist. A birthday reception in her honor followed the concert.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Do You Hear the People Shout? Yes, of course you do, and they are a reliable presidential rally ego boost

Bang for your bucks: ISO presents a recent percussion concerto, flanked by Kernis and Prokofiev

Matthew Halls: ISO's adept, well-liked guest
Matthew Halls, a British conductor of astonishing virtuosity just in his Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra guest appearances, returns to the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium this weekend in his second ISO engagement this year.

This time the program is all 20th- and 21st-century music, with two of the three works composed by living Americans. On Friday night, the audience also got to savor the return appearance as an ISO guest of Colin Currie, a 42-year-old Scottish percussionist. The vehicle was the program's centerpiece, "Switch," a percussion concerto by another relative youngster, Andrew Norman (39).

In continuous motion, Currie ranged across the stage extension, which was crowded with a host of large and small instruments. "Switch" grabs the attention from the start, because the percussion-dominated introduction comes from orchestra section players. After a few moments, the soloist makes his entrance up a short flight of stairs, house right, and gets to work.

Percussionist Colin Currie, with tuned gongs across the top
Whether everything fell into place over the work's 28-minute course is hard to say on first hearing. Currie has played the work about 15 times, and there were obvious points of synchronization between soloist and accompaniment amid the welter of sound, so I'm confident that Friday's performance was shipshape. Furthermore, Halls' command of a great breadth of repertoire is a matter of record, and his batonless conducting seems unfailingly precise.

Currie's athleticism was tested in the concerto's first section, with a xylophone and two octaves of Almglocken (cowbells) taking up lots of space, and several cymbals and drums bunched at one end just to the right of the podium. In that forest of things to bang and stroke, there were a few rarities, notably several empty tin cans. Volume and timbre were explored extensively by soloist and orchestra until arrival at a peaceful plateau: An orchestral piano solo outlined a widely spaced melody that seemed to set the course for everything that followed.

To the sounds of that wistful piano, the soloist crossed over in front of the conductor, and his contributions on that side became more isolated and deliberate; "Switch" briefly left its video-game spasmodic layout to become contemplative. A shimmering wind chorale cemented the mood. There would be a return to the noisier, more diffuse side of the sonic spectrum, but the piece arrestingly came to a  thoughtful conclusion with Currie's return to the conductor's left. A suspenseful piecing-together of a short tune on tuned gongs hanging from a rack made for a haunting conclusion, after which the soloist – his frenetic bounding and sideways-slipping almost a distant memory — slowly walked backstage.

Norman's "Switch" opens up a secret garden of percussion, with the solo virtuosity displayed by Currie seconded by the orchestra in an unpredictable, nearly disorienting partnership. The work was refreshingly highlighted by its program companions: Aaron Jay Kernis' "Musica Celestis" for strings and a 20th-century masterpiece, Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, op. 100.

Kernis' piece seeks to represent the music of angels, which necessarily comes from the imagination's furthest reaches. The work, drawn from a string quartet, is much more effective with more strings, especially with the addition of double basses. The leadership of guest concertmaster Jeremy Black was crucial to the mesmerizing effect the piece made. Halls' management of the 12-minute work was sculptural. It grew properly animated when the work's middle section offered a reminder that when we hear from angels, it is no excuse to snooze.

After intermission came one of the 20th century's most prominent symphonies. Prokofiev, fabulously gifted and by temperament a canny opportunist, is much less hallowed for the nature of his adjustment to the Soviet regime than his younger contemporary Shostakovich. This work came out of the latter part of World War II, when the Russian homeland had already suffered gravely. The third-movement Adagio, a peculiar slow movement with restless undercurrents, best reflects the unsettling era that birthed it. Halls and the orchestra brought out the sense of suffering as well as the composer's irrepressible cheekiness.

In the first two concerts of this season, the orchestra has sounded louder than ever to me. This can be thrilling, but also rather daunting for listeners in seats close to the stage. I'm not sure if some adjustments to the subtle electronic enhancement of the hall (a feature ever since the Circle Theatre, now 102 years old, became a concert hall in 1984) are responsible or not. Maybe I should consider myself warned by the old rock-concert fans' slogan: "If it's too loud, you're too old."  Ouch!

At any rate, Friday's performance was splendid in many respects. (The loudness was almost painful as the first movement bawled out its final measures.) The finale, as expected, struck me as particularly marvelous. Prokofiev's sheer ingenuity is fully in evidence. Such a clever fellow, one often thinks: he manages to keep the peppy theme almost constantly in view, but it never becomes tedious — particularly when the conductor is as sensitive to the movement's variety as Halls was. Everything burbled along like a fantastic machine.

No wonder the work was accepted in the dour Soviet Union as an affirmation of the human spirit, and then quickly captivated the world. In the right hands, such affirmations can be effective with only small suggestions of profundity.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Ronen Chamber Ensemble launches season with Sister Cities theme

A background of flags offered an unusual visual enhancement to the Ronen Chamber Ensemble's season-opening concert Wednesday night in the Hilbert Circle Theatre's Wood Room.

Sextet acknowledges applause at conclusion of Ludwig Thuille piece.
The display signaled the theme of season-long programming related to Indianapolis' Sister Cities, eight of them to date. Two were represented by composers featured at the concert: Campinas, Brazil, by Jailton de Oliveira; Northamptonshire, United Kingdom, by Malcolm Arnold.

The program was filled out by a substantial, evocative Sextet for Winds and Piano by Ludwig Thuille and Robert Schumann's Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, op. 63.

The concert's first half put the formidable flutist Alistair Howlett in three different contexts. He had the honor of enunciating the program theme unaccompanied  in "Sertonancias" No. 2 for solo flute. Essentially a lyrical piece with some well-placed interruptions of its flow, the roughly five-minute work held the interest without working too hard at it. Howlett's performance was charming.

Arnold's "Divertimento" op. 37 spread some more charm around the room. Its six movements, crisply characterized as they followed the movement headings, were played with exemplary coordination and vivacity by Howlett with oboist Tim Clinch and clarinetist David Bellman, who co-founded the Ronen series decades ago with his wife, Ingrid Fischer-Bellman.

Particularly revealing of the characteristic Arnold wit were the second movement, "Languido," whose relaxed phrasing had its hints of laziness underlined by close harmonies — as if the instruments couldn't be bothered keeping "personal space" between them — and "Maestoso," a march upheld with fanfare gestures that became tricky and frolicsome before righting itself near the end.

Ludwig Thuille: Quite the 'stache!
The cast of players expanded to six for the sextet by Thuille, a late 19th-century composer from Austria.  Joining the Arnold trio musicians for the performance were Gregory Martin, piano; Robert Danforth, horn, and Mark Ortwein, bassoon.

The transalpine position of Thuille's Tyrol comes into play in this four-movement work; it breathes Italian air. More substantially in evidence is his association with Richard Strauss and other composers centered in Munich. The opening movement is tidily crafted, its gentle, compact melody subject to substantial stirring-up in the middle. This is well-schooled, mainstream romanticism that was brilliantly set forth by the ensemble.

The second movement, like the first, opens with a horn statement — in this case, it's a full-blown melody, nicely stated by Danforth. Immediately evident was the connection with the Strauss family (Richard's father was a distinguished player of the instrument, and horns are a spectacular presence in many of the younger Strauss' works). The tune becomes somewhat anthemic, with a steady accompaniment pattern in a meter and tempo hinting that the movement could be seen as a shirttail relative of the Pilgrim's Chorus from "Tannhäuser."

A charming "Gavotte" third movement draws upon music-making of both city and country. Martin's variable tempo in an episode spotlighting the piano had a Viennese lilt to it. The finale was an attractive gigue, with some lively chromatic games applied to the thematic material.

After intermission, a more conflicted piece in a more conventional chamber-music set-up concluded the program. The Schumann trio emphasized the string-instrument side of the Ronen artistic profile. Violinist Joana Genova joined Martin and Fischer-Bellman. The fairytale aspect of Schumann came out in the first movement. Also evident there was something of a disparity between violin and cello, with Genova's playing vigorously projected and overshadowing the cello.

Characteristic dotted rhythms in the second movement were pronounced but not made too jagged, which helped them fit in better with their surroundings.  The slow movement, with its suggestions of a Bach aria (as the pianist pointed out in oral program notes), got off to a tentative start in the soft violin solo. The finale had lots of heft lent to its full-ensemble passages, spearheaded by Martin's vigorous, all-defining treatment of the piano part.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

No pondering weak and weary here: Dynamic 'Cabaret Poe' takes the stage at Phoenix Theatre

Few major American literary figures can be as oddly irritating to read as Edgar Allan Poe. The thick, morbid texture of his prose both enhances and nearly stalls the narrative drive of his tales. As for the poetry, it is sometimes hard to get past the tightly wrought jangling of meter and rhyme to be sure of the substance beneath all the spun sugar. Still, he's an institution: even his besotted demise after brief residence in Baltimore was enough, many years later, to get one of the city's sports teams named after his most famous poem.

Ben Asaykwee, fortunately, has sailed past what seem to be the treacherous shoals of Poe's literary output. His "Cabaret Poe," a Q Artistry production celebrating its 10th year with a run at the new Phoenix Theatre, allows the author's fans to indulge their passion while those less enchanted by all things Poe can enjoy the canny balance of tribute and mockery presented in the two-hour show.

Asaykwee and his muse wormed their way into Poe through "Annabel Lee," whose rivetingly staged performance as an Asaykwee solo is a highlight of "Cabaret Poe." The poem struck the multifaceted theater artist deeply more than a decade ago, and he came up with music to go with it. From there, Asaykwee has said, he found enough inspiration in Poe's fiction and poetry to result in a full-length original stage production, which he has presented annually in October for the past nine years.

With its sepulchral lighting, varied dramatically from time to time, deaths-head makeup and fussy vintage costuming for three speaking characters, plus a black-clad Shadow Dancer, "Cabaret Poe" keeps the audience's eyes riveted on the succession of scenes as much as its ears are engaged by the hypnotizing clutter of Poe's language and Asaykwee's cunningly embedded music. The staging of "Annabel Lee" makes memorable the creepy eroticism of the poem, in which the first-person narrator recalls his doomed romance with the poem's deceased subject. Poe thought the most poetical subject of all was the death of a beautiful woman.

The cast's other speaking/singing parts are named for two of those eerie beauties — Morella and Berenice — whose names are titles for dry-run efforts leading up to what Poe considered his masterpiece, "Ligeia." Asaykwee has given the male role the name of Zoilus, after a young plague victim in the prose-poem "Shadow — A Parable." Death calls the shots, as usual. But vitality outplayed it Saturday in the performances of Renae Stone, Julie Lyn Barber, and (as the wordless Shadow Dancer) Rebekah Taylor.
Ben Asaykwee's protean original makes itself at home at the Phoenix

Asaykwee weaves into the Poe-saturated verbal texture of the show the informality and cheekiness of the cabaret genre. He doesn't overload the show with larky asides and strenuous send-ups of the original stuff. "Cabaret Poe" reflects genuine belief in the seriousness of Poe's writing, even while it doesn't get dead-serious (the term is deliberately chosen) about it. The pinpoint sound design helps.

When the narrator of "The Fall of the House of Usher" talks about riding horseback up to the mysterious residence, the offstage band strikes up a loping cowboy-style tune. It takes the edge off the story's typical Poe emphasis on foreboding: "...with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit."

"Insufferable gloom" is Poe's stock in trade, of course. I was happy to see the cast strike a spoofing
A page from the "Cabaret Poe" coloring book on sale during the production run.
note at the start of the second act with an extended riff on "The Premature Burial." This story opens with an excessive underlining of its theme. There is so much throat-clearing on the horrors of being buried alive that you wonder if there's any point in telling a story about it.

This gets at one of the things that's regularly wearying about Poe: He tells you so elaborately what you are supposed to feel about the scenario that you can feel stifled and closed in.  It's like — well, like being buried alive, or being walled in, or having a knife-edged pendulum closing in on you. Those comparisons aren't idly chosen, as Poe readers will know.

"Cabaret Poe" shows us that such flaws on the page open up all sorts of dark glory when staged with imagination and verve. Asaykwee's cabaret songs are both woebegone and manic as the occasion warrants. Spoken and musical segments flow nicely, with the cast moving deftly and adjusting props from one episode to the next. They make this unsettling oddball author seem like a master entertainer. Whatever credit Poe himself deserves for creating enduring literary entertainments, Asaykwee raises them to the next level, in which theatrical heightening and panache lend them new poise, zest, and balance.

Republicans rest upon lawyers, guns, and money: A song that Mitch McConnell and Chuck Grassley could be singing

Saturday, October 6, 2018

ISO Classical Series begins: A good ride through the Brahms First, Shostakovich adding flame decals

Krzysztof Urbanski shored up his success in major works of Johannes Brahms Friday night as he led a revelatory reading of the Symphony No. 1 in C minor to open the Classical Series of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

The ISO's music director adds to distinguished Brahms performances.
He has programmed the two piano concertos (Dejan Lazic the soloist in both, and Andre Watts on hand for 2014 performances of the second), the double concerto with two ISO principals last November, and the German Requiem in April 2017.

Of the four symphonies, the ISO music director got good results with the Fourth in 2014. His way with the Second and Third symphonies will be eagerly awaited this season; the Fourth will make a return visit as well. Certainly there was nothing to quibble about under the magic touch Urbanski brought to Brahms' long-delayed debut as a symphonist.

Material that made its way into the 1876 C minor symphony can be dated back a decade and a half before the premiere. The intention to write his first symphony goes back to the composer's early 20s. So it may not be too much of a stretch to say that what Urbanski accomplished with his orchestra Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre was to find the youthful Brahms in the finished masterpiece of his maturity.

The earnestness of the first movement, established with the opening gestures and steady timpani pattern, did not become too heavy. The music unfolded in animated fashion, with good forward motion that was varied at cadences and significant changes of direction. The second movement floated charmingly, with fine solo work from oboist Roger Roe and guest concertmaster Susie Park.

In this performance, the way solo lines interweave to launch the third movement moved to the fore the charming side of Brahms — the "ungruff" aspect sometimes undervalued, but well-known from the Liebeslieder Waltzes, the late piano pieces and elsewhere. The young Brahms, something of a dreamboat as a young man, in contrast to the stout, bearded Viennese celebrity of his premature old age, definitely came through as the finale got under way.

In the long introduction, the famous horn call sounded boldly, as if heard over mountain passes: The composer himself once quoted it in  a birthday card to Clara Schumann, comparing it to an Alpine horn. The evocation of wide vistas adheres naturally to it. I remember from long ago a scene in the old TV show "Bonanza," with Hoss Cartwright gazing out over the mesa; the underscoring quoted that passage.

Urbanski intensified the tempo as the movement developed its main theme, which was immediately compared (to the composer's annoyance) to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" melody. This lent an attractive air of triumphalism to the tune, which transitions from hymn to anthem. The return of the horn call near the end becomes ecstatic, and in this performance was perfectly judged for maximum effect.

Dejan Lazic: Pianist brings pizazz and wistfulness to Shostakovich.
I should think a further advance on Urbanski's presentation of repertoire staples would have made this weekend's concerts an obvious candidate for marketing focused on the Brahms symphony. Instead, the concerts have been labeled "Jazzy Shostakovich." A promo on WFYI-FM touted the ISO's program only as "a couple of  Shostakovich works," with no mention of the Brahms. I'm further puzzled by my failure to find any suggestion of jazz in either "Festive Overture" or the Piano Concerto No. 1 for Trumpet and Strings, op. 35. Perhaps we have reached a point culturally where Shostakovich is a bigger draw than Brahms, but you wouldn't know that from the huge ovation the First Symphony received Friday night.

Nevertheless, the sprightly concerto also made a strong impression. Dejan Lazic, who seems to be Urbanski's favorite pianist, was in his element projecting the score's wit and verve. He made the contrasting second movement sound better than it is, and that's a good thing. A certain degree of yearning sentimentality fools the ear into believing Shostakovich is being profound here.
ISO principal Conrad Jones: Nearly flawless

The only flaw was a slightly smudged trumpet entrance at a point where the brassy partner's return is eagerly anticipated. Otherwise, Conrad Jones' performance of the glittering solos complementing the piano was first-rate — his low register was especially beguiling. And who could resist his contributions to the circusy finale, with its frenetic fanfare figures helping piano and orchestra bring everything to a riotous conclusion?

As close to cliche as the fourth movement is, its quality — along with all that precedes it — is far superior to the potboiler Festive Overture. True, the aptly named piece fulfilled the function of a seasonal curtain-raiser. Its noisy energy is nearly relentless, except for some delicate episodes that Urbanski and the orchestra lent full support to. It deserves the chance to be trotted out on occasion — rarely and in the right place, as it was here.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Ben Wendel: Tracing the seasons in jazz, month by month, through original compositions

Ben Wendel responds to the seasons.
Nature lay at one's doorstep a dozen decades ago, when Peter Tchaikovsky wrote his piano suite "The Seasons," and the changes of season were something you couldn't help feeling through your senses. Today the seasons, despite alarming meteorological events, are more likely to imprint themselves upon us city-dwellers through our appointment calendars and celebrations.

That raises an interesting question of interpretation when listening to "The Seasons," saxophonist Ben Wendel's new recording (Motema), for which Tchaikovsky was an inspiration: Do human or natural events have the upper hand in these 12 compositions, each titled after a month of the year and arranged chronologically? Maybe Wendel had very few programmatic intentions, so what I sometimes hear as abstract commentary on the weather is a reflection on that month's holidays (where applicable) or simply the deeply personal place of each month in Ben Wendel's life.

On the whole, I like the balance of compositional and improvisational heft in these 12 pieces. Here and there, Wendel may suppress his spontaneous personality in favor of putting the composition foremost. But in those cases, as in "February," he has a sideman ready to take up the slack, as guitarist Gilad Hekselman does here.

"January" has a tentative feeling, so I'm guessing winter weather is less in the background than the self-questioning that transition to a new year imposes upon us all. "March" opens up space for extensive piano ruminations by Aaron Parks, who captured the American Pianists Association's Cole Porter Fellowship here in 2001.  Other members of Wendel's adept quartet are Matt Brewer, bass, and Eric Harland, drums.

"April" gets frisky with indications of spring's outburst. There's more percussion presence, and the late guitar entrance is like the onset of buds becoming blossoms. A favorite track after a couple of listenings to "The Seasons" is "May," with its leaping, sassy theme and ornamented line. It's all nicely tied together, and is perhaps the disc's best indication of the band's high comfort level.

Comes "June" and one finds more resonance around the sax, and something of the lyrical effusions of the unanchored kind long evident in the playing of Jan Garbarek. "July" is more relaxed, but "August" moves the listener back into ECM hot-air-balloon stuff. Yet fans of this and of Wendel's playing in particular will be grateful for the exhibition he provides himself here.

"September" finds the quartet in a funky mood, getting back to business, and the piece is just the right length, "October" doubles down on the bluesy feeling. With the coming of "November," is there a weather commentary in the grayness of mood I hear? Regardless, it's a good sort of gray, with lots of Parks setting the tone. It's the kind of piece that, were there still a fair number of jazz radio stations around, might be marketed as suggested for radio play.

"November" is a winner, but the year's last month seems to find Wendel of a mind to pack everything in. Is "December" hinting at exhaustion amid all the year-end excitement? Well, let's leave it at this: even to have such questions continually alive in the listener's mind points to the attractiveness of Wendel's ambition as both composer and bandleader. And his mates help him deliver his impressions handsomely.

[Photo by Josh Goleman]

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Guitar maestro John Scofield wraps up a two-day stand at the Jazz Kitchen

John Scofield displaying his old-maestro focus
More than once during his first set Tuesday night at the Jazz Kitchen, John Scofield took to the mike to express his affection for Indianapolis and the club hosting his two-day visit.

It sounded genuine, and in response it's obvious that local jazz fans should be grateful for his fondness for playing here. He commands top dollar at the door, and it's unusual for the club to book non-fusion musicians for more than one night.

Not surprising: Scofield's stature has been lofty for many years. Richard Cook and Brian Morton, the brilliant co-authors of "The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD," summed it up in their fifth-edition introduction (2001) to their survey of Scofield recordings, saying the Dayton-born musician is "seen by many as the quintessential, most widely read and flexible contemporary jazz guitarist."

"Most widely read" in this context alludes to Scofield's broad sensitivity to the subdivisions of jazz in his era. He draws upon genre tributaries  naturally and submits those influences to both a compositional gift and a tone unique enough to have brought from British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage a symphonic tribute, "Scorched," for jazz trio and orchestra.

That work emerged from Scofield's golden decade, the 1990s, when his recorded output alone covered a wide field, from bitty funk convulsions with Medeski, Martin and Wood to intriguing ballads and up-tempo originals exploring new post-bop terrain. The set I heard Tuesday featured distant allusions to that range, with some refinement of his sound indicating an autumnal mellowing (he's 66) that should not be taken to mean he's run out of things to say.

He seemed inspired by his current band, which is anchored by drummer Bill Stewart, a colleague for a couple of decades. The "Combo 66" ensemble is filled out by Vicente Archer, bass, and Gerald Clayton, piano and organ. It's difficult to slice and dice the interaction of the four, which was indivisible Tuesday night. There were moments, like the tight rapport between guitar and organ on "Can't Dance," that called attention to dialogue. On the whole, however, even in a borrowed ballad like Shania Twain's "You're Still the One," the focus on the bandleader never reduced the work of the  three sidemen to merely competent support.

This quality owes much to Scofield's conciseness, his avoidance of prolixity. That never crowds out his colleagues. In that respect, he stands in contrast to his near-contemporary, Pat Metheny — also widely admired and deft at bridging genres. To stretch the point a bit, where Metheny is Walt Whitman, Scofield is Emily Dickinson. Scofield can gesture toward the former poet's breadth, but his tendency is to make cogent points without putting himself on display at length.

For that reason, I like the more abstract side of Scofield's artistry, which was presented in originals during most of the set. The climax of this aspect was a new piece by Stewart, titled "Band Menu" (unless it's "Banned Menu"), in which a pulse emerges from out-of-tempo episodes. The bedrock is a four-note motif with a pickup that has melodic implications — meat-and-potatoes fare for Scofield.

In an interview, Scofield once said to me before appearing at Indy Jazz Fest that he cultivates a manner at festivals that speaks in a more public voice than his club appearances. It's there that he connects with his funkier side and punches the tone forward a little. This is how Combo 66's first set concluded Tuesday night.

I'm far from snobbish about this side of Scofield. He's a perfect judge of building a set to keep an audience engaged, and this worked marvelously. Moreover, he can dip into his blues-rock chops without indulging in cliches, though I'll admit my ears haven't been saturated with lots of blues-rock playing. But I venture to say that at that end of the spectrum, Scofield can probably give aspiring blues-rock guitarists lots of lessons in non-shredding, purposeful, fresh playing. Doing so Tuesday night, he was expertly supported by the band, with great contributions from Clayton and Stewart.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

UIndy's Indianapolis Quartet adds two guests for performance of a milestone sextet

In 1964, I took my small collection of classical LPs to Kalamazoo College to play from time to time
Indianapolis Quartet: Huntington, DePue, Genova, and Strauss.
on my record player. One of them was a recording of Arnold Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night." I not only loved it for itself, but also for the bridge I interpreted it to be back to the 19th century. My adolescent tastes focused on the 18th and 20th centuries: I had heard too much Chopin and Rimsky-Korsakov on my mother's stereo.

So imagine the thrill of hearing the 1899 sextet in concert for the first time Monday night, more than a half-century after I came to love the recording.  That guaranteed that the Indianapolis Quartet's appearance on University of Indianapolis Faculty Artist Series would be a red-letter day on my schedule. And the ensemble's performance, with the addition of violist Atar Arad and cellist Eric Kim, never disappointed.

A nearly unprecedented example of program music for a chamber ensemble, "Verklärte Nacht" traces a poem by Richard Dehmel more through emotional than narrative development. It's a conversation between two lovers on a moonlight walk. She confesses that she is carrying another man's child. He says that his love for her will transfigure the threatening unfaithfulness scenario into a higher plane, and they will raise the child together.

Soon to establish a musical revolution, at 25 Schoenberg had absorbed the late-romantic language, largely self-taught and heavily influenced by the Wagner of "Tristan und Isolde." The remarkably fluid yet unified sextet pushes out from the stability of tonality. At the dawn of the 20th century, the Austrian composer was to work toward a way of structuring music without key centers, eventually systematizing. You can hear the shifts in constant motion, an insightful  representation of the challenging terrain the poem's lovers have to negotiate.

I've always liked how much there is going on from moment to moment in this piece. There is a wealth of contrapuntal interplay among the six musicians, but it serves purposes far beyond academic design. Any hierarchy of voices, though pronounced, is temporary; the Indianapolis and its guests fashioned a balanced reading. It was moving and well-defined,  never woozy.

In the program's first half, another far-seeing composer was represented by a quartet from his young maturity: Beethoven's Op. 18, No. 4 in C minor. The expressive contrasts in the first movement are remarkable, and the Indianapolis Quartet made the most of them. The honeyed allure of the second theme was set against the earnestness of the main material, an exercise of serious business in one of the composer's signature keys (shared by the  Fifth Symphony and the Third Piano Concerto).

In the second movement, the quartet was scrupulous about similarly articulating the many short phrases they shared. These four (Zachary DePue, Joana Genova, violins; Michael Isaac Strauss, viola; Austin Huntington, cello) have clearly developed an unshakable musical rapport. Periodic releases of tension were nicely judged. In the minuet third movement, the last reappearance of the main material had an effective ghostly cast. The finale, launched and sustained capably lickety-split, ought to have been taken a bit slower: The ratcheting up to Prestissimo near the end was almost imperceptible, because the main tempo had already put the musicians near the edge.

A diffuse but appealing quartet from the late 1990s filled out the program. Robert Paterson's String Quartet No. 1 ("Love Boat") was marked by ample drollery and stylistic breadth. The second movement, titled "Logy," had the most outsize showmanship, with its evocation of a country-fiddling porch jam session, opening with Strauss' vigorous strumming. Genova and Huntington sailed into a sentimental waltz, and soon DePue was playing the composer's interrupting mother. The programmatic content was affectionate and high-spirited. The remainder of the piece varied in interest: the slow movement wallowed somewhat, but the finale gathered the quartet's forces effectively to deliver a pastiche of polka and personality.