Monday, November 26, 2018

Fonseca Theatre Company: 'Hooded' shows so much of what's hidden from Americans

Is it a violation of the conventional prohibition against spoilers in a play review if the revealed scene is the first one?

I'm choosing to think the ban doesn't apply in the case of  "Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies," which has one more weekend to run in a Fonseca Theatre Company production at Indy Convergence.

A stern cop confronts Marquis.
So I'm dismissing spoiler etiquette here. The scene is too wonderful a way of placing the play's contradictions about race in capsule form. It's when Warren Jackson as an officious police officer strides onstage to order the audience to turn cellphones back on, put the ringers at their loudest, and feel free to text or take calls during the show. There's also some strong advice to laugh only when a certain ceiling light comes on in the course of the performance. Immediately, a projection on the room's east wall gives the audience opposite instructions.

This white liberal complied with the initial order, then dutifully saw that he'd been played and followed the projected demands instead. Score one for Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm's caustic two-act comedy when it comes to plopping theatergoers into their discomfort zone. That's territory that the production's audiences (four performances remain) have to get used to — and it's not likely to be the same zone for blacks and whites.

Tru (Joshua Short) has lessons to impart.
To begin with, two young African-Americans get into mild trouble in separate incidents, and share a cell as the play begins: Tru had been loitering, but carries the burden of being pegged as a ghetto thug; the squeaky-clean Marquis has trespassed on a lark at a cemetery with two white friends, fellow private- (or maybe charter-) school classmates who eluded capture. The irony of the young men's different degrees of victimhood under the heavy hand of racism immediately springs into action. It will dominate everything that happens.

Ben Rose directs a highly committed, mesmerizing cast led by Chinyelu Mwaafrika as Marquis and Joshua Short as Tru.  Mara Lefler plays Marquis' suffocatingly well-intentioned mom. The thoroughly acclimated classmates headed for a painful epiphany are played by Patrick Mullen, James Banta, Ivy Moody, and Dani Morey. The playwright toys with conventional high-school attitudes and social friction insightfully. And there's plenty to spur a blend of nervous and carefree laughter.

Light-skinned Marquis is the adopted son of upper-middle-class white parents; Tru comes from a single-mom household in a dicey inner-city neighborhood. Thrown together accidentally, they end up as schoolmates, but Marquis' most crucial education is extracurricular, as Tru works through both the spoken and the written word to bring him around to embracing his essential blackness.

Tru tries to distinguish among the three preppie friends.
Though he thinks he fits in at Achievement Prep, wearing the uniform and glossing over how much he's different from his fellow students, Marquis gradually learns, under the persistent nagging of Tru, the persistence of the color line. The most harrowing scene has Tru trying to force Marquis to call him "nigga," which comes out of the reluctant student's mouth "nigger," resulting in a spelling and pronunciation lesson that speaks volumes about the difference between an identifier of brotherhood and the unspeakable white insult we have learned to paper over as "the n-word."

James Baldwin once summed up America as "a society much given to smashing taboos without thereby managing to be liberated from them," which might well serve as a proof text for "Hooded," almost as much as the handwritten notebook Tru thrusts upon Marquis titled "Being Black for Dummies," after the mass-produced advice-book series. A set of taboos in one culture may be a survival guide in another. Familiarity with them turns out to sustain little hope of liberation, however.

When "Being Black for Dummies" falls into a white boy's hands, things can only go wrong, leading to a denouement in which Marquis' fate is strapped onto him like a straitjacket. Though it's frequently funny, "Hooded" demonstrates that there's no avoiding the serious back story behind Marquis' playful pose earlier of "Trayvoning," sprawled prostrate on the floor with a bottle of sweet tea and a bag of Skittles nearby.

Could the dream of a man with the Christian name of Martin be snuffed out by the murder of a boy surnamed Martin? "Nobody knows my name," runs the prophetic title of the volume of Baldwin essays (from which I've taken the above quote) that I bought as a naive teenager nearly 60 years ago. My high regard for the dust-jacket photo has been enhanced by the experience of "Hooded."

[Production photos by Ben Rose]

Sunday, November 25, 2018

'A Christmas Carol' at IRT: Scrooge can hardly wait to be released from life-forged chains

The first time I saw the Indiana Repertory Theatre production of "A Christmas Carol" with Ryan Artzberger as Ebenezer Scrooge, the old skinflint's awakening to new life struck me as revelatory.

Self-made: Scrooge in his counting-house, unknowingly chained.
Back then, there was Scrooge's stunned pause as he processes the new person he has been granted the opportunity to become following the Three Spirits' visits. As much as I still cherish that image — with the giggles coming on gradually, with the casting off of long-practiced misanthropy taking on the aura of transfiguration — I welcome the quickened pace of the new production's final moments.

Under Benjamin Hanna's direction, there's something like the flicking of a switch between sobs and giggles as Scrooge seizes upon the rare good fortune of making good on what he has just learned. As seen opening night Saturday, Artzberger's Scrooge throws himself immediately into the joy of childhood freshly available to him. The transformation is more physical than I remember it, matching in ebullience its vocal expression. Scrooge says "I don't know what to do," but he really does, as he eagerly assumes his new role.

Jacob Marley's ghost offers a dire warning.
This strikes me as a persuasive change, despite my fond memory, when I recall that Charles Dickens shows us a man ripe for conversion from the Ghost of Christmas Past on. Stephenie Soohyun Park's cavorting in the role foreshadows Scrooge's at the end, a man liberated enough to roll down a snow-covered hill and, ignoring the "fourth wall," playfully toss a generous handful of the faux flakes into the front row.

What Scrooge resists is the painful vision of his life's barrenness at all three stages, not the sense of what is required of him going forward. That he readily apprehends, but the visits to his past, present, and future are necessary to flesh out the new knowledge. This production's blink-of-an-eye Scrooge conversion has had a long foreground.

The triggering Christmas Eve visit of Jacob Marley's ghost has a brief, scary epilogue (among the few things the stage production leaves out): the unwelcome vision of a restless crowd of paltry souls not able to redeem their lives' misdeeds, but condemned to a pointless, shackled afterlife. As if weighted down by mental as much as physical chains, Charles Goad in the role once again flawlessly pointed the way to the miserable path an unchanged Scrooge must follow. No wonder Scrooge is already harboring the cure for his disease.

All the cast except Artzberger is pressed into service in several portrayals.  Changes of costume and makeup are brought off as if effortlessly. The merging of scenes, with new wonders and peculiarities coming into and going out of view, is delightfully smooth. Tom Haas, whose untimely death in 1991 cut short one of several in the history of distinguished IRT artistic directorships, shored up the shifts in action by adapting the original skillfully.

Christmas Present is decked out for the season.
Narrative and dialogue flow into and out of each other, holding us spellbound. I always love to hear — it's a sensuous pleasure, like stroking fine velvet — the choral-speaking passages, the antiphonal delivery of some lines, and the original's blend of community and individuality through actual voices. Settings in Dickens notably take on personality, and the units brought into view in this show — some of them in miniature — approximate that vividness. A few well-placed traditional carols decorate Dickens' literary one.

It would be unwieldy to single out individual performances in detail, but besides Park, Goad, and Artzberger, I want to mention Scrooge's beatific, long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit, as interpreted by Rob Johansen, whose double takes alone must surely reach the back row; the Christmas Present and Mrs. Fezziwig of Milicent Wright, a dependable source of Christmas cheer and vivacity at every turn; Reggie White, mainly as the buoyant, optimistic nephew Fred; and Aaron Kirby as the subtly narrowing Young Scrooge, forging the chains in life the grasping miser will eventually shatter.

What the literary scholar Harold Bloom says truly of the massive "Bleak House" applies also to what happens in the compact "A Christmas Carol" and in this production's fine realization of it. For me, the insight explains what I always find moving about the novella, one of the great moral tales of our literature: "Trauma recollects forward; every remission from it brings on tears of relief and joy."

Few among us are without some form of trauma, self-inflicted or otherwise, and from blessed periods of remission. And yes, the tears of relief and joy will sometimes be ours whenever we see or read "A Christmas Carol" and take advantage of its invitation to recollect forward. The invitation is extended at IRT through Dec. 23.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Who's superstitious? Maybe not the new Phoenix, as it debuts its 13th annual "Very Phoenix Xmas" production

Curiosity is the mother of superstition, probably. If you believe you can protect yourself against
Momentarily sedate, eight female actors make up the "Merry Superstitious" cast.
exercising too much curiosity, you may adopt practices or sayings with the supposed supernatural power to ward off bad luck or bring on good fortune.

Phoenix Theatre grabs that bull by the horns in titling its 13th annual variety show "A Very Phoenix Xmas 13: Merry Superstitious." Many theatergoers besides me will attend the company's first version of its 13-year-old Yuletide production in its new venue with a surfeit of curiosity. How will "A Very Phoenix Xmas" look and feel and sound there without the guidance of Bryan Fonseca? (His founding artistic hand was removed from the tiller last spring; he's now steering a new theatrical ship out of a west-side harbor.)

The short answer is that the new production connects with tradition in its sometimes sharp-edged mirthfulness as well as its touches of tenderness: Tom Horan's continued assistance curating the show helps.  My curiosity was settled satisfactorily on a number of counts; the tradition continues in reasonably good shape. It flows nicely in a balanced way, the sketches and songs arranged so as to give each one maximum impact.

Still, Phoenix's long-term security may be in need of any number of helpful superstitions, in addition to more rational assurances of success. When it comes to where you grab that bull, there's always the risk suggested by the fabled Sam Goldwyn malapropism: "We got to grab the bull by the tail and look this problem squarely in the face."

Ben Asaykwee, a master of many locally staged revels, is at the helm of "Merry Superstitious." His directing style is to push cabaret-style production toward the grotesque, hedged round with emotional warmth. This makes the smartly put-together show clever about softening its punches. You get the fun of being jolted without harm, as with the padding on bumper cars. He contributes several clever songs, one of them (in the satirical "North Pole News") a parody pastiche presenting a twitchy DJ's introduction of new pop arrangements of some holiday songs everyone has grown tired of. In the ensemble songs on first hearing, some of the lyrics escaped me. Vocal harmonies tended to be warm and precise.

Speaking of escapes: One of the Asaykwee originals, a production number ending the first act,  intricately designed and vigorously brought off by the eight-woman cast, largely went over my head, it pains me to admit. It's a mash-up of plot and visual elements from "The Shining" and "It's a Wonderful Life." I've not seen either film, though I know a little about each. Those who know much more than I will get a kick out of "It's a Shining Life," judging from the response of Friday's opening-night audience.

With a stylized Nativity Scene behind them, cast opens Act 2.
The technical adroitness of the production team hit a pinnacle with "Poor Boy," using a Freddie Mercury song to range over a Nativity Scene backdrop as the cast sang ensemble and solo passages. Supplementing and sometimes replacing the original image was a kaleidoscope of abstract patterns, from full screen down to spotlighted faces. Ben Dobler's sound and projections design is pressed into extraordinary service in the Russell Theater, and throughout the show, the other designers join him in bringing much splendor it. They are Gordon Strain (scenic) Laura Glover (lighting), Courtney Frederick (costumes), and Danielle Buckel (properties).

The writing varies, arguably dipping a bit from previous productions. I missed the brilliance of Mark Harvey Levine's sketches, many of which I hope have found homes elsewhere. This year, the shortest sketch was mercifully so. A scene for three witches called "Conjuring Christmas" was a triumph of staging, costuming and cackling performance, but seemed lengthy, driving home its point well before the end. Irreverence ruled in the opening sketch depicting a spat between Mary and Joseph, but this note has been sounded several times before in Phoenix Xmases past.

Lou Harry's "Shep (or Mutton in Common)" gives away the author's fondness for puns in the subtitle. A stressed shepherd is being grilled  by a cynical investigator post-Nativity on the whereabouts of the flock between fields and stable. Rarely has the 23rd Psalm been exploited as both alibi and character witness so pertinently as the shepherd does here.

Steffi Rubin's "Christmas Unspectacular (Featuring the Tantalizing Tappers of Tremont Terrace)" signals a verbosity and love of alliteration that the sketch itself fortunately doesn't illustrate. Yes, a lot of words are used among several members of a once ambitious dance troupe at a tense reunion, but most of them sparkle. This is a well-written sketch, full of dance lingo, but authentic in ways that go beyond genuine shop talk.

Zack Neiditch's "Abby & Abbey's Best Christmas Pageant Ever" presents an amusing, research-rich take on the origins of familiar Christmas traditions through the two ebullient emcees' unfiltered middle-school imaginations. The sketch suggests that the spirit of the Indy Fringe Festival seems alive and well in the off-season.

The cast brings such sustained panache to the show's comedy and smidgen of pathos that it would be laborious to single out individual contributions. In a "Very Phoenix Xmas" first, it's an all-female lineup, comprising Frankie Bolda, Tiffanie Burnett, Jaddy Ciucci, Shawnté P. Gaston, Sarah Hund, Jolene Mentink Moffatt, Phebe Taylor, and Jenni White.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, November 23, 2018

Rachel Barton Pine turns her lavish, expert attention to black American composers

As she informs the listener in her program notes to "Blues Dialogues," Rachel Barton Pine is a Chicagoan whose interest in the city's musical roots go way back, including a fervent affinity for the blues that she's long cultivated in addition to her classical training and achieved artistry.

Another perspective: Rachel Barton Pine displays her classical/blues chops.
In "Blues Dialogues: Music by Black Composers" (Cedille Records), she provides an extensive overview of works, some of which she has helped bring to light, for both violin alone and with piano accompaniment.

It's not easy to give a thorough survey of the rewards to be had on this generously proportioned CD. Starting with Indianapolis' own David N. Baker, Pine looks back to the godfather of African-American classical music, William Grant Still, and up to Daniel Bernard Roumain, a composer in his 40s whose "Filter"  brings to the acoustic violin some of the borderline noise, flash and slash of Jimi Hendrix's guitar.

What's amazing is that none of the performances seems to have a once-over-lightly dutifulness about it. Pine shows as much technical and emotional investment in getting these scores right and making them her own as she had done with J.S. Bach and Antonio Vivaldi. Here, the assisting artist in pieces requiring the piano is Matthew Hagle.

The endless adaptability of the blues form is well recognized in various types of American vernacular music. It may come as a surprise that composed music — awkwardly fitting under the rubric "classical" —  can also accommodate the blues when sensitively treated. That's why Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson's "Blue/s Forms" for solo violin shoots to the top of this CD's repertoire for me. Also vying for first place: The well-regarded 20th-century composer Noel Da Costa is represented by a suite, recorded here for the first time, that makes more abstract use of African-American idioms: "A Set of Dances for Solo Violin."

Another unaccompanied suite that grips and holds the attention is Dolores White's "Blues Dialogues." The use of the violin's infinite ability to slide and decorate a line is thoroughly exploited in all of these blues-centered pieces. For a concise encapsulation of one aspect of the blues tradition, it would be hard to find a piece more smile-inducing than Errollyn Wallen's "Woogie Boogie."

But just after it comes Billy Childs' "Incident on Larpenteur Avenue," a searing personal response — program music for an atrocity: the shooting of the lawfully armed motorist Philando Castile by a suburban Minnesota policeman in a 2016 traffic stop. The shock of the incident has been absorbed into a musical fabric that is thoroughly convincing in artistic terms. Such a piece seems the best kind of confirmation that the larger world can be transmuted into high-level art by a skilled composer and such an insightful performer as this violinist.


Sunday, November 18, 2018

ICO patrons get a chance to hear a stellar principal player in a major concerto

Anton Stadler was a bit of a mess as a person, but as the premier clarinetist of his day he made posterity lucky in the music his excellence as a musician drew from his friend Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791).
Eli Eban is also acting principal of the Israel Camerata/Jerusalem.

Among the the results is perhaps the greatest wind-instrument concerto, the one in A major for clarinet, K. 622. Eli Eban, distinguished professor of clarinet at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, played the work at the peak of magnificence Saturday with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, of which he is principal clarinet. In the Schrott Center for the Arts, music director Matthew Kraemer conducted a program that also included Mendelssohn's "Trumpet" Overture in C major, op.101, and Luciano Berio's "Rendering," a restoration, with linking original material, of sketches for Franz Schubert's Tenth Symphony.

The concerto is one of the marvelous products of Mozart's last year, completed between two other miracles: "The Magic Flute" and the Requiem. It's hard to imagine such work stress (and the health problems that were to kill him by the end of the year) yielding such deathless benefits, but that's among the wonders of genius.

Not much is known about Stadler, though he earned the disapproval of Mozart's family, for reasons probably including his failure to repay an unsecured loan of 500 gulden. Michael Steinberg points out that sum was more than the composer's normal commission for an opera. The composer's affection for Stadler was undercut by the realization that, as he wrote his wife in October 1791, Stadler "is only a little bit of an ass, not much, but that [Franz Süssmayr, who completed the Requiem after Mozart's death] — well, yes, he's a real ass."

This old gossip is related here mainly to underline the way artistry can supersede personal flaws. In this case, with a work that explores the instrument's deepest range in addition to exploiting Stadler's feathery pianissimos, Mozart handed something special down to posterity, available for personalizing to any clarinetist who can manage it, as Stadler presumably did.

Eban more than managed it; he brought out the work's stature in chamber-music terms, working hand in glove with the accompaniment. The orchestra is simply strings, with pairs of flutes, horns, and bassoons. It showcased the soloist well, who never forced a note or executed an unbalanced passage. His breath control yielded supple phrasing; even the longest stretches of rapid notes in the finale were brought off neatly. On top of Eban's thorough command of the piece, his performance was freighted with the human warmth that makes Mozart's best music so appealing when played superbly. For an encore, the word's literal meaning "again" held sway, and Kraemer led Eban and the orchestra in a long excerpt to the end of the second movement.

The concert opened with a precocious work by Mendelssohn, an overture whose nickname points to the prominence of its hearty brass fanfare at beginning and end. There is a wealth of contrasting material, including an exhibition of the teenage composer's knack for counterpoint and a theme that breathes the Black Forest atmosphere of Weber's "Der Freischutz," a sensation at the time Mendelssohn composed both this overture and the incidental music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The ICO offered a well-balanced, colorful account.

Completing the focus on the southern end of the German-speaking world was the Schubert-Berio "Rendering," the three movements that Berio concocted in 1990 out of Schubert's Tenth Symphony sketches, with linking material reflecting the Italian composer's stylistic predilections. The result is kind of a two-century teeter-totter, with what sounded like a new direction the Viennese composer was taking from the Great C major Symphony (No. 9) linked by sometimes unsettling, sometimes dreamlike washes of modernism usually keyed to the ethereal sounds of the celesta.

"Rendering" is a challenging novelty of the kind that speaks to the ICO's artistic growth under Kraemer's direction. The performance was also a suggestive tour of the connection between the fragility of artistic achievement — sometimes seen retrospectively and deceptively as a series of imperishable monuments — and life's uncertainties. In fact, there's more than a hint in even great art of a tendency to vanish as unaccountably as large loans of money to the likes of Anton Stadler.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

I've Got a Feeling Jeff Flake will change his mind again before he retires

Indiana University production of "Hansel and Gretel" appeals to all ages in Clowes Hall performance

The challenge to innocence is a big driver of folktales, so think of the potential resonance now when exaggerated fears of childhood dangers have influenced parenting as never before.

That means "Hansel and Gretel," an old German story given to world literature by the Brothers Grimm, loses some of its quaintness whenever a production of the Engelbert Humperdinck opera takes the stage nowadays.

It's doing so this weekend — the second of two performances is this afternoon —in a show trucked in from Bloomington, where the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Opera Theater mounted an updated production of "Hansel and Gretel" and debuted it at home just before Election Day.
Brother and sister apprehensively face a night in the dark woods.

Double-cast from the Jacobs School's wealth of sturdy young voices and conducted by Arthur Fagen, Friday's performance in Clowes Hall displayed the sureness of Opera Theater's customarily high production values and detailed acting-singing. What follows covers the cast of the Nov. 2 premiere; at today's matinee, all roles will be occupied by different students.

The opera is heavily orchestrated and uses some aspects of Richard Wagner's complex style in a way that's readily intelligible but slightly surprising as applied to such a simple story: Peasant siblings misbehave, are sent into the forest to fetch food, lose their way, go to sleep, wake up near a gingerbread cottage and are captured by a child-eating witch, who at length receives her comeuppance. The children are found by their anxious parents amid general rejoicing, supplemented by some of the crone's suddenly liberated larder of baked but uneaten victims.

Eleni Taluzek (Hansel) and Jennie Moser (Gretel) made the title characters the emotionally co-dependent if squabbling brother and sister to which Humperdinck gave lots of music in flowing arioso style. A major exception is the charming number in which Gretel teaches a dance to Hansel, and of course the imperishable Evening Prayer. Throughout the show, the two sopranos conveyed in voice, gesture, and movement the siblings'  juvenile energy, naughtiness, fearfulness, and eventually triumphant daring. Their Mother's first-act lament for her sorry lot is accompanied with Wagnerian pathos.

Sung in English with supertitles above the stage, the production never allows for a moment's confusion or obscurity for an audience of all ages. The rhymed couplets in Cori Ellison's translation are clever, but a bit stilted when the dialogue is serious. In the third act, the punning about the Witch's preferred diet is well-suited to the translation's near-doggerel.

Darian Clounts as the Witch showed flair at least as funny as it was scary.
The Witch, played with comical flair by Darian Clonts Friday, gets a lot of the best lines. The only problem is that the rollicking verse makes the Witch more amusing than stage director Michael Shell seems to have intended (according to my interview with him). Costuming and staging of the Witch's fraught interaction with the kids were marvelously detailed, but it's unlikely any younger audience members had even a momentary scare.

The Evening Prayer and Dream Pantomime, a high point of the show both musically and theatrically, were wonderfully realized through Thomas C. Hase's lighting design. The immortal work on sets and costume design by Max Rothlisberger (who died in 2003) has been supplemented in the costume area by Mark Frederic Smith and Dana Tzvetkov.

Brother and sister are charmed by mysterious dancers at night.
The whole team, with choreography for six sylph-like dancers by Christian Claessens completing the enchantment, is responsible for the magical second-act climax. In the third act, there is more magic to come, much of it pyrotechnical, before all the children and  Hansel and Gretel's parents join in a chorus of pious gratitude, swelled by the adept orchestra.

This cast has Geuna Kim as the Dew Fairy and Mandeline Coffey as the Sandman, attending briefly on the lost children with melodious reassurances in Act 2. The parents — Father heartily celebrating his good fortune in town at first, Mother fretful and scolding — were sung in well-projected fashion by Jeremiah Sanders and Hayley Lipke.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Danish String Quartet returns amid lots of buzz from last year's Ensemble Music appearance

To deal with the novelty first: Hans Abrahamsen's String Quartet No. 1 ("Ten Preludes") gave the evening's best indication that even when the Danish String Quartet is presented with a miscellany of demands for the four players, they remain unfailingly a unit.
The Danish Quartet, solidly unified in performance, indulges its individualism here.

The group appeared again Wednesday in the Ensemble Music Society series at the Indiana History Center, 13 months after they made a sensational local debut.

EMS President John Failey noted from the stage how unusual it is for this presenter to invite an ensemble back so soon. But the wisdom of the decision was evident in the difficulty of finding any of the Basile Theater's 290 seats empty as the concert started.

As for the work by the Danish composer Abrahamsen (b. 1952), it consists of a series of short pieces promising development of some sort but never allowing it to take place. The idioms mastered in the course of the work extend across the variety of writing for two violins, viola, and cello. Though the players seemed to be pulled in different directions, they sounded comfortable as a team throughout.

In "Ten Preludes," there are buzzing tremolos, skittering gestures suggesting mice in the woodwork, striking unison declarations, unsteady exchanges of syncopated passages, and a final prelude of hymnlike solace that suggests all's right with the world. I heard fleeting stylistic allusions to the Second Viennese School (chiefly Arnold Schoenberg), to the "night music" of Bela Bartok, and to the kind of across-the-board digging in we find in Shostakovich's string quartets. Resolution of mood and harmony was almost always suspended.

So, when it came to opening and closing the program out of the First Viennese School (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven), the unified presentation of the DSQ rested upon a foundation most congenial to showing that it is indeed "indivisible by four" (to borrow the title of Arnold Steinhardt's memoir of the Guarneri Quartet).

The unity that violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard, and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin typically display is the product of coordination through time and tone alike. The cellist plays like a violinist, in the sense that his bow control is capable of the delicacy and near weightlessness of his violin colleagues; the middle voice of the viola stays thoroughly in the same spirit. In Haydn's String Quartet in C major, op. 20, no.2, which opened the concert, you never got the sense that in every breast there was a soloist ready to burst out. No individual voice stuck out, whatever the temporary prominence of its material. Every fluctuation of tempo, as in the third-movement minuet, was unanimously executed.

After intermission came one of those middle-period Beethoven pieces that represent the ingenious bridge he laid down between the past and the future of his art. His Quartet no. 7 in F major, op. 59, no. 1, opens with what is inevitably called a square melody in the cello which is then treated to startling contrasts as well as reaffirmations. In every respect, especially in the delightful second movement, you had the illusion of hearing one instrument play the music even while looking at four of them hard at work.

The slow movement can try a listener's patience. It really sinks into its somber mood — one of the cases where a composer's life experiences at the time seem to have influenced what emerged from his pen. The Adagio is certainly overstated in how it handles two themes at length, twinned in sadness. Another example better known to the general public is the third movement of the Ninth Symphony. In both cases, their effectiveness is something we feel partly in retrospect after the finale gets under way; when we're in the midst of it, we can hardly keep from looking for the exits.

In the symphony, the initial statement famously doesn't offer any relief at first; in the case of the quartet, the lifting of spirits is immediate. There's a wonderful transition to it as well, which the DSQ managed superbly. The borrowed Russian theme then gets the ultimate of Beethoven's virtuosity, and the players were up to the task. The performance Wednesday made it a special treat to experience the music's complete banishment of dark clouds. The reigning zest prepared us for the serenity of a Carl Nielsen song that the ensemble offered as an encore.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Ronen Chamber Ensemble's season-long 'sister cities' theme visits Piran and native son Tartini

With two outright masterpieces shoring up the program, the Ronen Chamber Ensemble held on to its celebration of Indianapolis' Sister Cities with a salute to Giuseppe Tartini, a native of Piran, Slovenia (known as Pirano when it was part of the Venetian empire of his day (1692-1770)).

The Concertino for Clarinet and Piano is Gordon Jacob's arrangement drawn from a couple of Tartini violin sonatas. It was played with the zest of a well-prepared appetizer to main courses of Mozart and Beethoven on Tuesday night at Indiana Landmarks Center.

The slow-fast-slow-fast layout of the work made for satisfying contrasts of textures and tempos for the duo of David Bellman and Gregory Martin. The clarinetist's passagework was unfailingly smooth and even in the Allegro molto; in the other fast movement, a sometimes brutally rapid finale, the difficulty for the clarinet to match the notes-per-second capability of the violin occasionally became evident.

Zachary DePue, Gregory Martin, and Ingrid Fischer-Bellman
Pianist Martin, often the workhorse of recent Ronen programs, was back in a more challenging role for Beethoven's Piano Trio in B-flat, op. 97, ("Archduke"). He was joined by violinist Zachary DePue and cellist Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, Ronen co-founder. The coordinated "singing" tone all three players produced in the Andante cantabile was a high point, though the pace lagged here and there into what felt like "adagio."

The second-movement Scherzo was lent some appropriate notes of mystery and suspense. In the finale, however, there was suspense at a couple of points that didn't strike me as germane. Holds (or fermatas) at transition points aren't meant to imply a brief rest before the next phrase, yet twice — at the initial Presto and then where the tempo picks up to piu presto (faster)— this trio inserted a pause. It may have been a deliberate interpretive choice, but to me authentic Beethoven excitement is the suddenness with which he changes or intensifies the mood (sometimes by one accented chord). There was a note of staidness about the finale that could have been at least partially wiped away by going "bang!" into those Presto passages. Indeed, the whole performance could have used more sparkle.

The highlight of the concert occupied the entire second half. Though the omission of Mozart's name
The ensemble acknowledges applause for its Mozart performance.
from the printed program was never explained, it was indeed his Serenade in C minor for wind octet, K.388, that brought onstage eight accomplished wind instrumentalists for a brightly engaging performance of the four-movement work.

With the main voice being the first oboe's, it was fun to hear Jennifer Christen in performance again during a time when she's been on maternity leave from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, where she is principal oboist. Joining her were Bellman and Samuel Rothstein, clarinets; Crystal Barrett, second oboe; Mike Muszynski and Kelly Swensson, bassoons, and Robert Danforth and Julie Beckel Yager, horns.

The vigor and attractiveness of the composition's themes and its tightly organized blend of high-profile melody and sweetly balanced accompaniment were firmly in place. The piece becomes especially winning with the emphasis on counterpoint in the canonic minuet-and-trio movement; variety of texture also comes to the fore there, which was brilliantly outlined by the ensemble. In the fast-paced finale, only some brief slips in coordination in the main theme's return detracted from the ensemble's excellent account of the work, which deserved to be credited in print to the apparently forgotten genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Monday, November 12, 2018

When the rain comes, our president needs to stay indoors and let others celebrate First World War sacrifices

For 'The Mutilated,' NoExit Performance finds itself at home in the Propylaeum Carriage House

Not as bloody-minded as the title might have you thinking, "The Mutilated" is one of Tennessee Williams' explorations of the challenges life keeps posing to wholeness and healing among the largely self-wounded. The wounds go deep, but are more felt than seen.

Williams was never one to soft-pedal his development of a theme, and the title of this 1966 drama serves to direct our attention to the secrets, hurts and shame of its main characters, who bring up their mutilation often. It's a cat fight in which both protagonists seem to have lost several of their nine flea-bitten lives.
Venting in the park: Trinket Dugan tries to exorcise her demons.

Female bonding is probably more durable than the kind men practice. Male friends would walk away from each other for good if they got on each other's nerves the way Trinket Dugan and Celeste Delacroix Griffin do in "The Mutilated." But the boil infecting their old friendship is lanced finally by a miracle; it's heralded in a song that the supporting cast gathers several times to sing like a "Threepenny Opera" anthem. It's Christmas Eve, and the holiday's mixed messages finally tilt toward the sacred one.

Ryan Mullins, artistic director of NoExit Performance, deftly directs that slice of humanity surrounding co-stars Gigi Jennewein and Beverly Roche as the flawed and flailing friends in a seedy part of  "the Quarter" in New Orleans, a city that haunts the Williams oeuvre. The Carriage House at the Propylaeum is the site for the peripatetic NoExit Performance to stage "The Mutilated."

There's nothing seedy about that place, but the presence of a balcony around two sides of the room evokes a prominent architectural feature of old New Orleans, even if it's used here mostly for interior scenes and not lacy ironwork on the outside. The slipshod attempts of Trinket and Celeste to decorate their lives and hide their mutilations are nicely suggested by their attire and by the set's furniture and a number of smaller props — a blend of deliberate reinforcements and haphazard acquisitions. Kipp Normand seems not to have missed a thing in his design.
Beverly Roche and Gigi Jennewein play two friends on the outs.

Jennewein's scene alone, as the faux-genteel Trinket shrieks her determination to shed an identity as "Agnes Jones," a kind of professional pseudonym she shares with Celeste, captured the blend of comedy and pathos that "The Mutilated" is rich in. I enjoyed the large-scale ranting she drew upon, suitable to the role as a cover for Trinket's guarded vulnerability at the margins. The portrayal was complemented by the more rambunctious injured energy of Beverly Roche's Celeste, freshly sprung from the hoosegow and open in her loutishness and amorality. There was no let-up or let-down in the sparks that flew between them in the show Sunday evening (it runs through Nov. 18).

Both Trinket and Celeste strive, often ineptly, to assert how much more they deserve than what they've been  given. Williams works, sometimes too obviously, to allow us to locate a basis of decency in people struggling for respectability without being certain they deserve it, and who tend to undercut their own efforts. The drama lies in their hunger for it. That appetite is faithfully presented in this show, whose touches of garishness and overstatement fall well within the Williams norm.

Matthew Walls and Mark Cashwell make for a believably roughneck pair of sailors on illegitimate shore leave, complicating the women's lives. Zachariah Stonerock plays the phlegmatic desk clerk at the hotel where the two women have been longtime residents, trying to shrug off their mutual hostility. A rogues' gallery of minor roles is capably filled by Doug Powers, Dan Flahive, Abby Gilster and Elysia Rohn, who also constitute a vocally fit chorus singing occasional commentary to a tune by Ben Asaykwee.

[Photos by Daniel Axler]

Stage director of the opera "Hansel and Gretel" has vision of both realism and mystery

The happy ending of Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel"
The outlines of the German folk tale about what can happen to curious, naughty kids when they wander off into the woods are well-known.

The Engelbert Humperdinck opera is less familiar, and the composer's name to many brings up a late- 20th-century pop singer rather than a German composer (1854-1921). "Hansel and Gretel" (to use its English title, since it will be performed here in English) comes to Clowes Hall this weekend in an Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Opera Theater production.

Michael Shell brings an extensive resume to IU.
The lost children's "evening prayer" is a familiar tune — its greatest hit — in an opera mostly credited with being an extension of the innovations that Richard Wagner brought to the genre. Use of short melodic bits called "motives" (or "motifs," after the German word Leitmotif) tie the music to the action in a way that "number opera" structure, with its clearly distinguishable recitatives and arias, can't manage. The orchestral texture is thick and flowing.

From a stage director's perspective, "number operas are more challenging," said Michael Shell in a
phone interview last week, between the production's premiere in Bloomington and its transfer to Indianapolis for performances Friday and Saturday. In contrast, "this is never vocal calisthenics for showing off the voice. You can tell a very economical story when the music just keeps going. Ultimately that's better storytelling."

Shell just joined the faculty of IU's Jacobs School of Music this fall, specializing in opera and musical theater. With "Hansel and Gretel," he inherits a production that first saw life on campus in 1982. He and the production team have made a few changes, some technical, some aesthetic.

"What we did this time was on a fairytale-esque scale," he explained, alluding its source in the Brothers Grimm classic. "Prior productions were not looking at the grittiness; the whole family is pretty poor. They had been pristine-perfect in their clothing. There's a little bit more realism, in a way." He also rejected making the Witch the "broad comic character" of some versions, where "you weren't really scared of the Witch, and it seems kind of cruel for Hansel and Gretel to kill her."

Of course, Shell can't go all the way in the direction of realism, for the story is rife with the supernatural and the fantastic. There are the nocturnal visits to the weary siblings by the Dew Fairy and the Sandman, who are conceived in gender-ambiguous terms here. And, he said, there's no stinting of the show's climax: the explosion of the Witch's oven and the liberation of her prior victims from their gingerbread transformation: "As much as we can do, we have the explosion and lots of fireworks, then a very sweet kind of whimsical way in which the gingerbread children appear."

Shell singled out from his collaboration the meeting of minds he had early in the process with lighting designer Thomas C. Hase. "I wanted to create an atmosphere of mystery, where you discover a lot of different things," Shell said, and Hase's lighting ideas were "exactly in line with what I was hoping for....It's all in the story: innocence and foreboding. It's a natural thing to balance that."

The fashion of using an opera's overture or prelude to present a stage picture mimicking the action to come did not appeal to Shell. "The set does not allow for that," he said, and "it's better for the audience to sit there and let that time pass. It's a gorgeous score, and I didn't feel the need to put something on view."

He preferred stronger visual impressions to be made once the opera gets under way, as in the Act 1 finale. That's when Hansel and Gretel are sent off to the woods on a chore and their parents realize they are in danger from the Witch who lures children into her cottage and bakes them. "We've done a few different things with that: There's a strong foreshadowing of what's going to happen, that there's a passageway into another realm....I tried to understand the opera the way it is."

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Gold medalist Hadelich returns with a Bartok concerto, and the ISO tackles the thorny Shostakovich Fourth

The two major works on this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program are near-contemporaries, both products of the 1930s — the 20th century's most disturbing decade (if we exempt the two World Wars).
Augustin Hadelich played Bartok superbly.

Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4 in C minor had to wait until 1961 for its first performance. Spooked by official backlash to his edgy opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," he prudently withdrew a work also saturated in scorned modernism.

Bela Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 2 (the composer objected to the numbering, because he felt his first violin concerto didn't represent him well) premiered in Amsterdam without its composer's attendance. The turmoil in Europe had prompted his self-exile to the United States, where he died in 1945.

Krzysztof Urbanski conducted both works Friday night at the Hilbert Circle Theatre in a Classical Series concert. Soon the orchestra will begin its monthlong wallow in profitable "Yuletide Celebration" performances. The ISO's music director is not scheduled to return until Jan. 10.

This weekend's concerts benefit from the return engagement of Augustin Hadelich, who won first prize in the 2006 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. The Italian-born son of German parents, who finished his training at Juilliard and since 2014 has been a U.S. citizen, has an extensive repertoire and is known for polished, intense performances.

His playing of the Bartok concerto Friday lent further support to this reputation. Much of the soloist's music, especially in the first movement, has an insinuating quality. It threads its way among an arresting accompaniment. Hadelich's playing was suavely in accord with the mood, yet never lacked assertiveness. The evocations of Hungarian folk music,  particularly in the finale, were lent a peasant heartiness, recalling the manner in which the violin introduces itself in the first movement. Lyrical passagework in the second movement was adroitly handled, on top of string tremolos and washes of harp and celesta. There was plenty of zest and color in the orchestral accompaniment throughout.

Rapturously received, the soloist returned for an encore. Just about everyone knows it: Paganini's Caprice No. 24 — heard often in the IVCI before and since Hadelich got his gold medal, and also subjected to rich treatment by other composers. His may have been the best performance of this chestnut I've ever heard. The cleanliness and flair of the dazzling pizzicato variation alone was unforgettable. His overall approach was supple and imaginative, just as it had been at great length in the concerto.

Modernism now represents an era and an empire, extensively colonized. In the Soviet Union, the label was almost literally deadly. "Bourgeois formalism" was among the ideologically loaded terms applied to music that challenged the understanding and didn't allow Russian ears to lie back in easy chairs, to borrow a snort from Charles Ives.

Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony is still a challenge for contemporary audiences, who have never been anywhere near the demands of "socialist realism" and forced to admire the emperor's old clothes. In three movements, with the first and third constituting the great part of its hourlong bulk, his opus 43 presents the young composer at his most adventurous and daring, stubbornly modernist in inclination, though entirely innocent of the innovations of Arnold Schoenberg that shaped musical modernism in the West.

The piece doesn't always "work," yet the performance Urbanski led Friday had multiple glories and displayed a fine management of its succession of surprises and whims. A wit once described his own wife as having "a whim of iron," and Shostakovich shows such obdurate loyalty to odd notions in this symphony that the patience is often tried.

I try to resist composers' strictures on their rivals, past and present: A listener's investment in music is of a wholly different order from a creator's. But I can't help recalling that the firmly opinionated Pierre Boulez, who represented a much different modernist track, once described Shostakovich's music as "nothing but cliches." At his furthest modernist stretch, as he is in this symphony, the cliches are thrown into the harshest light — those dance and march rhythms ridden to a fare-thee-well, that manipulation of texture to make climaxes as lurid as possible, and those disconcerting swerves into something offhand and banal before another plunge into deep icy waters.

The scattershot impression of most of the first movement, for which the astute Michael Steinberg recommends the old-fashioned term for development of "free fantasia," seems to be the main point it has to make. I could never make sense of it all, though portions were thrilling enough. There are too many effects without causes. Thinking of it as a free fantasia helps.

At his best, in some of the chamber music and the Fifth and Tenth symphonies, Shostakovich's effects always sound "earned." You can trace them back to their causes, even when they may be irritating, as they are in the "Leningrad" Symphony (whose endless march Bartok made fun of briefly in his Concerto for Orchestra). In the Fourth's finale, as played Friday, there was some of this firm linkage of cause and effect, though the Shostakovich cliches abound.

After the slambang climax, the settling down into delicacy keyed to the celesta and the emotional ambiguity of mood at the end is quite effective. There's enough merit in the whole thing that it's not absurd to suppose Urbanski programmed it because, as he said in a promotional video posted online, it's his wife's favorite symphony. The outsized orchestra required made the most of the extremes and almost everything in between. There were several outstanding solos, including one from this weekend's guest concertmaster, David Friedlander of the North Carolina Symphony.

Igor Stravinsky, whose modernist path was different from Boulez's, Schoenberg's, and Shostakovich's, is represented in this program by the sprightly curtain-raiser of "Scherzo a la Russe." As authentic an avatar of modernism as anyone, Stravinsky never abandoned his affinity for the arch-romantic Tchaikovsky, his greatest Russian forebear. This five-minute piece, buoyantly played Friday, is one of several examples.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Combined presentation: Michelangelo String Quartet visits, bringing back 1982 IVCI gold medalist

Michelangelo Quartet was founded in 2002.
Every seat filled in the Basile Theater of the Glick Indiana History Center is no surprise when it comes to a combined presentation such as the Ensemble Music Society and the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis offered Wednesday night. Both have large, loyal audiences on their own, so their collaboration can be expected to work such wonders.

Bringing the two venerable organizations together was the appearance of the Michelangelo String Quartet, featuring an IVCI laureate from the inaugural contest in 1982: Gold medalist Mihaela Martin in the first violin chair. Her usual colleagues are also on the faculty of the Kronberg Academy. Second violinist Daniel Austrich, sidelined by illness, was replaced by Kronberg student Stephen Waarts, who was an IVCI semifinalist in 2014. The ensemble's other members are Nobuko Imai, viola, and Frans Helmerson, cello.

Stephen Waarts filled in for Daniel Austrich.
One of the most popular quartets from the Classical period — Haydn's No. 5 in D major, op.64 ("The Lark") — opened the concert. The foundational era of the genre tended to spotlight the first violin, so Martin's vigorous, persuasive account of the first-movement melody that gives the work its nickname  was immediately showcased. The more restrained Adagio was nicely shadowed, and the balanced presentation by all four players was confirmed in the forceful, zesty minuet movement.

My almost late arrival required sitting in the front row, an unprecedented experience for me. Certainty about the group's blend and balance cannot be confidently stated. Thus, what I've said so far and what's to follow is an attempt to account for being so close. That also means compensating imaginatively for the impression that four instruments made upon me more separately than is usually the case.

I was struck by the vivid emotional impact that Smetana's Quartet No. 1 in E minor ("From My Life") had on me — perhaps in part a function of my proximity to the players. There was heart-stopping poignancy to the Michelangelo's playing of the third movement, Largo sostenuto. What preceded it had been gripping enough, with the only sustained high spirits outlined in the second movement, Allegro moderato a la Polka.

I found the opening movement somewhat akin to a serious biographical essay more than impassioned autobiography; it was well laid-out, but the emotional force behind the music seemed to be taking a while to jell. Fortunately, any emotional neutrality was swept away definitively by the  finale, with its graphic indication of the composer's sudden deafness (signaled by the tinnitus suggestion of a sustained note in harmonics from the first violin).

After intermission came the stylistically diverse tapestry of Bartok's Quartet No. 1 in A minor.  The slow first movement made a cohesive impression, despite indications of the young composer's attempts to find musical terrain he could lay claim to,  while at the same time emphasizing the independence of the Michelangelo's four voices. A suspenseful transition, unbroken, to the accelerating second movement was dramatically dispatched. The finale brought its firmly outlined folk-music elements to the fore; the ensemble's performance was bright, well-coordinated and appropriately textured.

Called back for an encore, the group presented the slow movement of Dvorak's Quartet in F major ("American") with attention to its many hints of homesickness and receptivity to foreign surroundings that are characteristic of all the Bohemian composer's works from his U.S. sojourn.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

APA Premiere Series, Part 2: Billy Test displays a genial, searching mentality in originals and trio leadership

Billy Test is anchored temporarily in Cologne, Germany, an Indianapolis sister city.
In trio performances, some jazz pianists give in to woolgathering when they improvise, letting the bassist and drummer take care of keeping the pulse. This habit can project their personality distinctly.
But except in the hands of genius, the result may have the listener longing for more centeredness, especially in repertoire from the Great American Songbook.

That explains why I was taken immediately by Billy Test as he opened his first set Saturday night in the American Pianists Awards' Premiere Series at the Jazz Kitchen. The vehicle of choice was Cole Porter's "All of You," with Test laying down an unaccompanied introduction before bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps joined in.

The scope of Test's intro was admirable in itself, but after the trio launched into the tune by the most durable Hoosier songwriter ever, there was even more to like. The pianist waxed rhapsodic in his solo, but maintained time and style with his colleagues. He never forgot to swing, and he landed on cadences and significant phrase ends with the precision of a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier.

Tucker took the first of several fine solos in the hourlong set, played before a capacity crowd. Phelps, on brushes, contributed tasty exchanges with the APA finalist near the end. Test was surpassingly generous to his excellent sidemen, both well known to jazz fans around here. Tucker played the melody line of the set's first original, "Spinning," in flawless unison with the pianist, then had another significant solo, faithfully playing upon the long phrases of Test's composition.

Better than any pianist I can recall in this series since Adam Birnbaum, Test was excellent at partnering intensely with Phelps. After some back-and-forth in the psychological tour de force of "Mother's Day With Freud," with Tucker mediating creatively in between, Phelps delivered a fiery solo, punctuated by a rare shout of "Ow!" during the brief pause he allowed himself. He may have been venting and sublimating some id energy (Freudian terms aren't amiss in this case) recently stirred up by a devastating fire at his studio. It was good to see him back behind the kit exhibiting his usual sensitivity and measured storminess.

Late in the set, there was just one other item from the mainstream popular repertoire: Frank Loesser's "Never Will I Marry."  Test gave an amusing, erudite account explaining the song's obscurity before the trio got down to business with it. The performance spotlighted the tenderness of his tone and his pearly ballad touch.

Test took a far-ranging solo in Richie Beirach's "Soul," sometimes piquantly adding a harmonizing line in the right hand. He played one unaccompanied original — "To Be," dedicated to the phenomenal Egberto Gismonti — never losing focus as the texture thickened, tossing off repeated-note passages and cascading runs.  The set concluded with another original, the oddly named "Stagnant Waters," featuring more of that fascinating interplay with Phelps, another masterly Tucker solo, and a beautifully shaped coda.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Jan Lisiecki, piano soloist with the ISO, probes to the heart of the Grieg concerto

Stories of masterpieces underappreciated when they were new are always good for poignancy and reassurance that now we know better. But some favorites still today were introduced to the world and quickly found favor.

Two works whose history begins with "instant-hit" status form the bulk of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's program this weekend. Music director Krzysztof Urbanski is back on the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium to conduct Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in D major and Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor. To open the program, he swings to the much less familiar: "Polymorphia" by his Polish countryman Krzysztof Penderecki.

Jan Lisiecki, now 23, in a publicity photo from a few years ago, when he was building a reputation
For the Grieg concerto, a much-admired pinnacle of Romantic contributions to the piano-and-orchestra genre, he and the ISO enjoyed the presence of Jan Lisiecki in the solo role.  A young Canadian of Polish extraction, Lisieki showed himself Friday evening to be a pianist of personality and authority.

Those qualities in concert artists are sometimes confused. To put a personal stamp on familiar repertoire is one thing; to execute it authoritatively requires considerable respect for what's on the  page and possession of the technique and insight to put it across.

Lisiecki's performance satisfied on both counts. He commanded a broad dynamic spectrum, with louds and softs that never sounded arbitrary. The cadenzas in the first and third movements roared definitively when they needed to. The perky finale displayed Lisiecki's clarity and rhythmic sharpness. The sound was always brilliant without being clangorous. As the slow movement in particular showed, he can impart a nice ring to a melodic line. The tone was always attractive, with purposeful pedaling. (A Grieg miniature, "Arietta," offered as an encore, confirmed the sensitivity of the guest artist's touch.)

The concerto accompaniment fully complemented the solo playing. The cello-and-flute conversation in the first movement lingered plaintively before the energy that is conspicuous from the work's very beginning was gathered up again. The Andante maestoso peroration, so much a signpost of this kind of concerto as it sums things up, resulted in a (for once) fully justified standing ovation.

The concert (like the repeat at 7 p.m. today) opened with an early work by Penderecki — 10 minutes of timbral exploration for a large body of strings. "Polymorphia" brings an enthralling display of percussive taps and furtive squeals, sliding, and muttering out of the ensemble. All of it was well-managed by Urbanski, who offered beforehand a charming, illustrated introduction to the work.

After intermission, Urbanski's season-embracing survey of Brahms symphonies continued with the Second, the sunniest of the four. Brahmsian gravity is never far away in the course of the work's 40-minute span, but I'll admit to a bias in favor of performances that emphasize its lightness and high spirits without distortion. Unaccustomed as I am to bringing my record collection to bear on concert reviews, I've long been enamored of an old Philips LP with Pierre Monteux conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in the Brahms Second.

I suspect some listeners might suspect that account of being close to salon music, but Monteux and the LSO have plenty to say that sounds echt-Brahms to me. I'm declaring this bias mainly to praise Urbanski's rendition of the symphony Friday night. I felt he kept the textures clear and never scanted the gentleness and good humor that often bursts into play.

The gravitas of the Austro-German tradition as represented by Brahms made its considerable points as well. The character given to the work initially by the timpani (the estimable Jack Brennan) underscored its seriousness from the start, but there was also the right amount of lighter-than-air playing, as in Rob Danforth's soaring horn solo near the end of the first movement.

The second movement, perhaps a tad too slow (Adagio without the score's stipulated "non troppo"), had its pauses well-judged and its shadowy suggestions well-defined. The third movement heightened the colorfulness not often judged to be a salient Brahms quality — tutti bravi to the woodwinds.

In the finale, it was a slight pity the sotto voce start was ill-defined, but at least its reappearance was in sharper focus. Light and shade were effectively distributed over the course of the movement, capped by that magnificent coda, with a clarion descending phrase passed from winds to violins, and the trombones outstanding at the very end. I remember a perhaps slightly inebriated major patron of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, sitting near me at a Ford Auditorium concert long ago, responding to the final chords with a loud "Yes, sir!"

I can't say it any better than that.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Uncle Dan & Sophie Jam: A season closes out for the retrospective blend of music and chat

Dan Wakefield's got a bunch of stories; Steve Allee and Sophie Faught give him full attention.
We're always learning, but some people are lucky enough to encounter mentors early who put a special stamp upon what the learning process yields. Teachers in formal and informal situations alike point out the stepping stones toward  individual success. Their teaching often reaches beyond their specialties, extending to wider horizons.

The final session this season of "The Uncle Dan & Sophie Jam" at the Jazz Kitchen Wednesday night gave a free rein to such memories for host Sophie Faught, jazz saxophonist and composer; guest Steve Allee, pianist-composer-bandleader, and writer and co-host Dan Wakefield.

Wakefield, who put post-World War II Indianapolis on the fiction map with "Going All the Way"* and has had a variety of titles since, remembers the lift he got as a Shortridge High School student helping sportswriter Corky Lamm of the Indianapolis News with game stats.

His first byline for the Indianapolis Star was an account of an Industrial League championship game between the Allison Jets and the Link-Belt Warriors. The first boost? Handing the story in and watched the legendary Bob Collins scrawl in one of those soft-lead pencils across the top: "By Dan Wakefield."

For Faught, nurturing her development as a jazz saxophonist in her teens, it was Harry Miedema, then the jazz teacher on the University of Indianapolis faculty, who "let me know he expected I could play jazz with other people." Later, she would pick up intense instruction from David Baker, Indianapolis native and founder of jazz studies at Indiana University. "I would have three-hour lessons at his home," she recalled. "Then I would go back to Harry and we would digest all that — Harry was the enzyme."

"We learn from our connections with other people," Allee said. He named trumpeter-bandleader Jim Edison, who taught him the ins and outs of preparing ensemble performances, and Claude Sifferlen, a fondly remembered visionary pianist with whom he studied privately.

"He never told me what to do or how to play," Allee said. "He would just start playing, [having] asked me to stop him whenever I had a question." Sifferlen exposed Allee, the first musician in his family, to a wide variety of music, from Chick Corea to Bela Bartok. Also mentored by Sifferlen, Faught remembered something the pianist told her and other fledgling teen players long ago at the Jazz Kitchen: "The space between the notes is more important than the notes you play."

Typical of the neat organization of the "Jam" series, musical selections were inserted at appropriate places. Sifferlen's originality was poured spontaneously and almost exclusively into other people's compositions, but he did come up with a half-dozen original pieces, all of them cryptically titled "Zebra." Faught and Allee played "Zebra #3." Like Sifferlen's improvisations, it presented an angular, but coherent, melody, with the accompaniment pattern nervous but thoroughly unerring.

The first piece that gently interrupted the three-way conversation was "My Shining Hour." Like everything that followed, the song was vigorously laid out, with pungent solos. Faught's strong playing belied the fact that she's expecting her second child in December. Time away from the bandstand after the arrival is the reason the Uncle Dan & Sophie Jam ended for this season on Wednesday.

Resuming her seat at the discussion table, she said aptly:"The song is about rising to the occasion."

*Wakefield will host a showing of  the movie made from the novel on at the Propylaeum at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 26. He will introduce the film and answer questions after the screening. More information and tickets: