Wednesday, December 26, 2018

For "Sonic Creed," Stefon Harris puts together a mellow program featuring his regular band Blackout

The vibraphonist Stefon Harris has helped extend the historical roster of major jazz stylists on mallet percussion.
Cover art: The severe visual presentation  seems at odds with the music inside.
This year he has released "Sonic Creed" (Motema) with his band Blackout, and is touring on the strength of the album. He will appear at the Purdue Jazz Festival on Jan. 18; and, as a solo player and working with students, at Butler University April 3 and 4

"Sonic Creed" represents him in mid-career (he's 45) as a receptive bandleader with a way of showcasing multiple lines, many of them rhythmic, simultaneously — but without clutter. The catchy Bobby Timmons/Oscar Brown Jr. song "Dat Dere," opens this disc amiably but with distinction.

In the front line, Harris and saxophonist Casey Benjamin display a compatibility that runs throughout the program. The two don't shy away from melodic invention, they are assertive without aggressiveness, and they complement arrangements that leave so much to the percussionists (Terreon Gully and Pedrito Martinez).

I could do without the atmospheric "Let's Take a Trip to the Sky," which features the floaty vocalism of Jean Baylor, but just about everything else sounds attractive. "Chasin' Kendall" has some flavorful bass clarinet by Felix Peikli, who supplements Benjamin in the reed department on most tracks, and a warm, cogent marimba solo by the leader.

Benjamin is outstanding in Horace Silver's "Cape Verdean Blues," a slightly exotic blues with a rhythmically unconventional profile. The percussionists forge a brilliant partnership in "Song of Samson," and a sweet-toned   Benjamin highlights Abbey Lincoln's "Throw It Away." "Gone Too Soon" is a striking conclusion to the program as Harris concocts a Michael Jackson tribute duet with the up-and-coming Joseph Doubleday on marimba.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Protean pro-modern violinist Jennifer Koh displays her affinity for Kaija Saariaho

The close relationship of American violinist Jennifer Koh and Finnish
Jennifer Koh displays her affinity for a contemporary Finnish composer.
composer Kaija Saariaho is in evidence with the title's mathematical precision in "Saariaho X Koh" (Cedille Records). 

The multiplier effect (interpret "X" as "times") rules, as Koh continues on this release to display her receptivity to repertoire off the beaten track.  Saariaho's closeness to visual phenomena saturates her compositions. 

The longest of the chamber-music works on this recording is "Light and Matter," for which Koh is joined by Anssi Karttunen, cello, and Nicolas Hedges, piano. The rumbling start doesn't signal menace so much as potential, and the work opens up toward the individuality of each instrument. Colors and shadows, briefly isolated, imprint themselves as essential. The music brings to mind Shelley's "life, like a dome of many-colored glass, stains the white radiance of eternity," where "stains" leans less toward the negative meaning in favor of the variegated hues that bring fullness to life.

"Cloud Trio" over the course of its four movements has a sweetness that
Kaija Saariaho's compositions are inspired by natural phenomena.
adheres to Saariaho's music, but never congeals it. With violist Hsin-Yun Huang and cellist Wilhelmina Smith joining Koh, the performance pushes the score through the occasional harshness of the third movement to the calm of the "Tranquillo" finale, in which short solos are like confirming check-ins from each instrument.

I find most disturbing the disc's longest work, "Graal Theatre," in which Koh is accompanied by  the 20/21 Ensemble of the Curtis institute. The two-movement piece is weighed down by the outsized, display-oriented accompaniment in the first movement. It's like a trap for the soloist, who becomes a caged curiosity, reminding me of Kafka's "hunger artist" (but in this case, both overfed and undernourished).  

The second movement allows the soloist more freedom, opening with a cadenza that presages good things. There's more of a feeling of partnership and a translucent quality to the orchestration. The composer writes that she at first imagined the violinist as the main character in a play, then left that image behind as she wrote. I'm afraid the first movement still suffers from a stifling kind of overdramatization. The finale is more revelatory of Saariaho's truer genius, and links this flawed concerto more firmly to the chamber pieces that make the rest of the disc worth hearing.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Movie dreams: What might be real-world consequences of stories that fire our imaginations?

"Based on a true story" or some such phrase has practically become part of the marketing brand for a number of feature films. Apparently it's difficult to make up stories and commit them to the big screen, or even to adapt a novel for cinematic purposes. Best to raid the preserves of truth, which clings to its hard-won reputation of being stranger than fiction.

As a result, after the denouement, filmgoers get a few paragraphs of reading material, sometimes accompanied by still photos, informing them of what the movie's raw material disgorged in the years following the events just enacted for them. I find this both satisfying, insofar as it provides closure, and frustrating, as it deflates the narrative for which I've suspended my disbelief for over 90 minutes or so.  Those who read lots of about movies before they arrive can process "based on a true story" better than I. The feeling struck home for me first at last year's "Hidden Figures." This year, having taken in "Green Book," "The Happy Prince," and "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" in quick succession, I got my just deserts for having so little knowledge in advance: I had to balance entertainment against education, always a difficult act, and process the emotional payoff.

When I went to see "Green Book," for instance, I knew that Don Shirley was a real mid-century pianist on kind of the jazz-classical cusp, somehow the black counterpart of Peter Nero.  But I assumed the character "Lip" who drove Shirley around the South during the Kennedy administration had been invented on the model of the Italian-Americans whom Spike Lee made so much responsible for racism in "Do the Right Thing" and "Jungle Fever." What a surprise to find out Shirley's chauffeur in his bold excursion through Jim Crow Dixie was indeed an unpolished urban Italian-American who had worked as a bouncer at the Copacabana!

Now I feel a need to take some favorite fairy tales from my childhood and supply them with postscripts that appear to ground them in reality. You can imagine the films as Disneyfied or in fresher adaptations, with homage paid to verisimilitude after the director has said "That's a wrap!" for the last time. Then, for the viewer's reading pleasure, this kind of epilogue:


After the wedding, Cinderella settled into domestic life in the palace, eventually giving birth to five children and raising them with the conventional assistance of servants. She then had the leisure to devote herself to female empowerment campaigns through her Cinder-hello! Foundation. Her two stepsisters abjured the company of men after their rejection by the Prince and went into business together making ornamental glass slippers, selling them to tourists who flocked to the kingdom in growing numbers.


After a hundred years the land near the enchanted castle had been developed. Its upper-crust neighbors agitated to have the castle removed and its surrounding forest of brambles cut down. Following extensive litigation, the bramble forest was hacked away and the castle turned into condos, developed by descendants of the prince (now prosperous citizens of the republic that had succeeded the monarchy) who had ended the spell by planting a kiss on Sleeping Beauty.  The spindle on which the princess had pricked her finger many years before was installed for public admiration in the foyer entrance to the Narcolepsy Institute downtown, where it remained until fire destroyed the building in 1892.


The troll's surviving family filed a wrongful-death suit, which came to nothing, against the largest of
the Gruff brothers. He had founded a martial-arts studio, Gruff Enuff, as a result of his fame.  Relationships among the three brothers deteriorated, especially since the stout brother who finished off the troll had been set up fraternally for a grisly fate. The two thinner brothers, though given to sporadic quarreling and raising old resentments, opened a restaurant together on a manmade island surrounded by a moat and accessed by three bridges, with troll statuary installed next to each. Being goats and accustomed to eating anything, they created a menu boasting "ultimate fusion cuisine." After many years of catering to well-heeled gluttons, they adopted this slogan: "Trolling your appetite since 1908."

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Blue Violet out of Chicago: The American muse expresses itself in violin-piano duo's survey

Blue Violet Duo has a mission to represent American music that leans toward the amiable side in
Louise Chan, piano, and Kate Carter, violin, explore American music for duo.
"American Souvenirs" (self-produced, distributed through CD Baby).

Kate Carter, violin, and Louise Chan, piano, have a partnership that finds joy in these interpretations of Norman Dello Joio, William Bolcom, John Adams, and Paul Schoenfeld.

The compositions come from various segments of  conservative modernism. The mood ranges from nostalgic to the contemporary American scene. Nostalgia, artfully resurfaced, animates the closing composition, "Four Souvenirs" by Schoenfeld. The idioms the composer draws upon are signaled by the movement titles: Samba, Tango, Tin Pan Alley, and Square Dance. The choice of the word "souvenirs" prepares the listener not to expect more than affectionate reminders of four treasured popular musical idioms native to the Western Hemisphere. This is light music that lives up to its function.

A more oblique take on Americana, with the theme of America hitting the road, is the choice of Adams in "Road Movies." The personalized form of minimalism that Adams has developed over four prolific decades gets an intimate duo representation here in "Relaxed Groove," "Meditative," and "40% Swing."

The disc starts off winningly with Dello Joio's "Variations and Capriccio." The first movement shows consistent ingenuity in making the most of its simple theme through the variation technique. The second has the zestful flavor of an excellent dessert wine.

The piece I'm likely to return to most often is Bolcom's Second Sonata. It covers the most terrain of anything on the program. The composer has always seemed exuberantly restless, and seeks to keep listeners surprised a little off-guard; this sonata is in that vein. "Brutal, Fast," the second movement, follows hard on the heels of the floating "Summer Dreams." A winsome slow movement sets up the classic-jazz-inflected finale, "In Memory of Joe Venuti."

Each of the four compositions bodies forth a distinctive personality. In every case, Chan and Carter display solid partnership and show insight into and sympathy with what the composers represented are about. Violin and piano tone alike is of a superior order, and the affection the duo surely has for these pieces is evident in the warmth and vigor of the performances.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

'The Nutcracker' thrives in Indianapolis Ballet production

The opening scene of Indianapolis Ballet's 12th annual "Nutcracker" production subtly reinforces a down-to-earth community feeling of a ballet whose fantasy and dream elements make it ideal for the season, and not just for its Christmas-season setting.

Clara looks on as the Nutcracker directs soldier platoon's attack on mice.
We see at first the gradual gathering of guests outside the upper-middle-class Stahlbaum home, site of the family's Christmas Eve party.  We can admire the naturalness of the casual, friendly interaction of adults and children before much dancing of any kind has taken place. Tchaikovsky's music has already exerted its charm, of course, starting with the perky overture. Everything that we see and hear is inviting and rests on common ground — a generous invitation to the wonders that follow.

It is to the credit of James Leitner's direction that the company conveys such a sociable atmosphere, and when the action moves inside and Drosselmeyer's godfather magic starts taking over, the transition toward fantasy seems entirely natural. As little as a narrative thread has to do with "The Nutcracker," what there is of it was firmly delineated on the show's opening night at the Murat Theatre, Old National Centre.

The pivotal center of the action depends a lot on how Drosselmeyer is played. A balletically centered interpretation is essential, but so too is dramatic insight. Paul Vitali, the company's artistic director, offered both. The magical powers Drosselmeyer commands are carefully husbanded in this production. The suggestion that he may have some connection to dark arts is effectively muted.

We see mainly an eccentric, avuncular Drosselmeyer in close but mysterious connection to the festivities. He moves with ease among the host family and their friends. That he also represents a world apart allows him to plausibly usher the dreaming Clara into the Land of Sweets, where her delight can fuse with ours after the trauma of her broken, then mended, nutcracker gift. Vitali's broad gestures and swooping elegance expressed both his affection for making a Christmas party extra special and his readiness to trail mystery in his wake. Clara, as danced by Josephine Kirk, perfectly represented the vehicle for his generosity and capacity to evoke wonder. That carried right through the finale, where Clara's central position sums up the tribute that the panoply of character dancers offers to childhood dreams.

Staging of ensemble numbers was astute at several points, starting with the battle of mice and toy

Snow King and Queen:Christopher Lingner and Yoshiko Kamikusa
soldiers. Thorough costuming and disguises didn't mask the fitness of Greg Goessner and Leonard Perez for their leadership roles as, respectively, the Mouse King and the Nutcracker. In a much different ensemble victory, the crossings and branched movements of the Snowflakes in the scene that ends the first act created splendid patterns in white that mimicked the geometry of real-world snowflakes, and complemented the stunning precision and dash of Christopher Lingner as Snow King and Yoshiko Kamikusa as Snow Queen.

The ballet's other notable duo — the Cavalier and the Sugar Plum Fairy — bookend Act 2's character dances and were capably presented Friday by Riley Horton and Kristin Toner. The stately onset of the Pas de Deux yielded to the panache of the variations, including the Sugar Plum Fairy's ethereal, celesta-accompanied magnetism.

The idiomatic choreography and costuming for the character dances worked hand-in-glove. The athleticism required for the Russian Trepak got single-dancer focus in Khris Santos' performance, set against an ensemble of young women whose dancing both complemented and contrasted with the soloist's. The Lingner-Kamikusa duo richly deserve singling out for their mastery of Arabian Coffee: The sinuous precision of her dancing,  meshed with lifts and catches that were so smooth and fluid they seemed to suspend gravity, made for a memorable showcase. Chinese Tea, as danced by the evocatively costumed Abigail Bixler and Greg Goessner, caught the spirit of the music without settling for the "yellowface" stereotyping that has recently come under fire in other productions.

Management of the accumulating second-act forces in the finale could hardly have been more uplifting and exciting. Something more captivating than a choreographed curtain call was achieved by the staging, and with the orchestra continuing its colorful account of Tchaikovsky's score under Vince Lee's baton, the full splendor of "The Nutcracker" was brought home. And after all the sugary visions,"home" is the underlying theme of the story and this production's realization of it.

[Photos by Moonbug Photography]

Friday, December 7, 2018

Dance Kaleidoscope's holiday glow: A world tour of Christmas, plus a celebration of Hanukkah

Dance Kaleidoscope's resumed tradition of adding year-end holiday luster to its season is back, wearing a splendid two-piece suit: "Let There Be Light (The Story of Hanukkah)" and "World Christmas Kaleidoscope: A Celebration of Christmas Around the World."

Themes of challenge and restoration abound in 'Let There Be Light.'
The program, titled "Home for the Holidays," opened Thursday night on the IRT Upperstage. Both works are the creation of DK artistic director David Hochoy, the latter adapted from last year to fit the current company; "Let There Be Light" revives a 2003 piece.

The Hanukkah narrative thread, which is fleshed out in a program note, is applied with a deft touch in "Let There Be Light," yet with more than sufficient emotional impact. The foundational event of the sacrifice Abraham was prepared to carry out of his son Isaac has a poignant position in the middle, with Manuel Valdes in the role of the intended sacrificial victim.

DK dancers lively up themselves in the reggae-styled "All I Want for Christmas."
The connection to the Hebrew texts Leonard Bernstein used in his "Chichester Psalms" is also subtly applied to the psalms of praise and complaint that the composer set. For accompaniment, Hochoy chose a more fully orchestrated and mixed-chorus version of Bernstein's original, which has the effect of emphasizing the communal import of the psalms more than their personal expression. It's a smart choice, because an imperiled, unified community and its survival against large odds is the holiday's central theme in celebration of the Maccabees' successful struggle against oppression 2,500 years ago.

The transition between an intact community to one aware of its vulnerability was neatly etched as free, flowing gestures and movement gave way to more angular, shielding types. The setting for three of the company's men of Psalm 2 (known in English and to fans of Handel's "Messiah" as "Why do the nations rage?") matches the music's militancy with the rise of Jewish resistance.

Eventually, as the persistence of a people's faith gains the upper hand, there is the tender, reverent processional with one lamp (a live flame carried by Timothy June Thursday night) carried onstage and becoming the basis for the Hanukkah lighting of a central menorah. The simple, ritualized piety was underlined by Laura Glover's delicately shaded lighting upon Cheryl Sparks' timeless costumes. The saving of the much-damaged temple celebrated in the Hanukkah story puts special significance behind the program title "Home for the Holidays."

In the second half, the balance of drollery and devotion was sustained through a panoply of deft choreography and the idiomatic, sometimes spectacular costume designs by Sparks, Barry Doss, and Lydia Tanji. To incorporate the troupe's name into the piece's title has never been more appropriate: Kaleidoscopic is the best description of both the music and the dancing.

The final moment of "O Holy Night"
With Jillian Godwin displaying sharply defined limberness and comic virtuosity, the suite was launched by the solo "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy."  Balletic turns were mixed in with flung arms, shoulder shrugs and concise jerkiness to spice up the fun in one of Tchaikovsky's most beloved "Nutcracker" numbers. Fun was multiplied in the reindeer mimicry of the company's "Here Comes Santa Claus" as sung by Elvis Presley, and in the imitative ornamentation Stuart Coleman exhibited in a solo setting of Elvis' "White Christmas" recording.

It's difficult not to mention everything, but I want to highlight the reggae-intensive "All I Want for Christmas," in which Valdes was joined in succession by Cody Miley, Godwin, and Marie Kuhns for a salute to Jamaica. It was a riot of individuality pulled together in an exuberant common cause. Also: the plaintive "Nadal de Luintra" from Spain, with Aleksa Lukasiewica and Timothy June as Mary and Joseph in search of Bethlehem lodging, and a setting from Benin of a somehow fully reverent but never cheaply worshipful "O Holy Night," stunningly performed by the gesturally precise trio of Coleman, Lukasiewicz, and Paige Robinson.

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Thomas Hampson focuses on Chicago composers as he furthers the American art song

There is a cornucopia of pleasant surprises available about the American art song in Thomas
Thomas Hampson has steadily promoted the vitality of the art song.
latest recording, "Songs from Chicago" (Cedille Records).

For keeping interest alive in a 20th-century original, the lifelong Chicagoan John Alden Carpenter, the CD makes its mark particularly with his settings of poems by Langston Hughes and especially by Rabindranath Tagore, whose cycle "Gitanjali" accounts for one-third of the hourlong program, with sensitive assistance at the piano by Kuang-Hao Huang.

It's Hampson's debut on the Chicago-based label, which is still under the direction of its founder, James Ginsburg, son of the most widely beloved Supreme Court justice. The performances on "Songs from Chicago" are immaculate. "Gitanjali" is a richly perfumed set of prose poems in a style that is too florid for our era, perhaps, but Carpenter's musical response to them is like a preservative that makes them seem fresh.

Radiant piano chords introduce the first line of one of the songs: "I am like a remnant of a cloud of autumn uselessly roaming in the sky, O my sun ever-glorious." You need the insulin of music to moderate the sugar high of those words, and Carpenter supplied it. There's no sense that the composer intended to introduce the slightest irony behind any of Tagore's prose-poems, however. It's his very commitment to the texts that enabled him to supply settings of consistent enhancement throughout the 23 songs (plus a spoken prologue and epilogue).

Carpenter is also represented here by three of his "Four Negro Songs" to Hughes' poetry. Authentic, zestful appreciation of the African-American heritage is a feature of both the compositions and Hampson's performance of them. "Shake Your Brown Feet, Honey!," a celebration of vernacular dance, is performed jauntily by the duo. Hampson cannot be accused of adopting a blackface style, I believe, but is simply being true to both Hughes' idiom and Carpenter's effusive setting. He is no more required to be black to sing these songs authentically than he would need to be a despairing,  love-sick German youth to put across Schubert's "Winterreise."

Most effective from the standpoint of the classical art-song tradition are seven songs by Ernst Bacon to well-chosen excerpts of Walt Whitman poetry. Hampson's sustained phrasing is well-deployed here, especially in "The Last Invocation." The singer's ability to put some heft into his middle and upper register without straining comes through in "Darest Thou Now, O Soul."  Bacon's music strikes me sometimes as a little tendentious and "forced," but it must be hard for composers to avoid that whenever they set Whitman.

It's hard to account responsibly for everything on this disc, but I want to single out the expressive tone of anger Hampson commands so well in Margaret Bonds' setting of one of Hughes's most anthologized poems, the one beginning "I, too, sing America. / I am the darker brother." Also worth highlighting is the sustained feeling of veneration that Hampson and Huang achieve in Florence Price's "Song to the Dark Virgin," a Hughes poem of more than usual mystery.

The whole disc gives a boost to the need not to overlook the art song when it comes to celebrating our musical heritage. Popular song by no means tells the full story of the American experience.

Monday, December 3, 2018

A tidy 'Messiah' treated expansively in an inaugural Second Presbyterian and Indy Baroque collaboration

Long after George Bernard Shaw deplored the ungainly size of Victorian-era performing forces in "Messiah," fans of Handel's oratorio now usually encounter one of two correctives: Large choruses, well-trained, have become adept at surmounting the choral difficulties and, on the other hand, small vocal ensembles — Shaw wished for "a chorus of twenty capable artists" — have gained greater acceptance in concert and on recordings.

The latter course was smartly chosen by Michelle Louer of Second Presbyterian Church in two
Michelle L. Louer conducted trim, fit forces.
performances over the weekend in collaboration with the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra. She conducted the trim vocal and instrumental forces in an insightful and fully expressive, but resolutely unshowy, concert Sunday afternoon at the church.

Going Shaw's wish several singers fewer, she had trained the church's 15-voice Beecher Singers to meet Handel's demands expertly. More important, the chorus size suited well the chamber-orchestra accompaniment, which sounded more subtle and caressing with "period" instruments than modern ones. And the vocal soloists were drawn from her choir, so that in neither appearance nor sound was there any danger of grandstanding.

This set-up, and several other choices regarding the distribution of solos and the relative novelty today of a chorus appended to the duet "How beautiful are the feet," was explicitly to honor the Dublin premiere in the spring of 1742. There were also interpretive choices that, despite the church setting and the pastor's welcoming prayer, re-established "Messiah" as what its devout librettist, Charles Jennens, frankly called "a fine Entertainment."

That reminder has to be set against Jennens' clever arrangement of biblical texts that follow the practice of typology, the supposed foretelling in the Old Testament of the foundational Christ narrative in the New. This once was basic to Christian use of the Hebrew Bible in sermons and religious education. The King James Version I was given as a boy is loaded with epigraphs intended to guide pious reading, stretched to the maximum typologically by such nudges as glossing the erotic imagery of the Song of Solomon to illustrate "the mutual love of Christ and his church," for instance.

Yesterday during the performance's second intermission,  a gentleman sitting near me, alluding to the typology, marveled that "Messiah" seemed to him "the Christian ISIS — so fanatical!" There is thus room for the oratorio to be taken as an extreme profession of faith as well as a fine entertainment. Because of its glorious music, "Messiah" seems to rest comfortably on that rich double meaning: still, Hector Berlioz, no stranger to religious grandiosity himself, thought the "Amen" finale blasphemous; like many others, I am always satisfyingly "entertained" by it, as I was Sunday.

In any case, contemporary American performances of "Messiah" tend to be well past the Victorian era's "Messiah" elephantiasis, summed up as "a case of sustained enormity" by the scholar Richard Luckett. This had several conspicuous advantages in what I heard Sunday. The opening chorus of Part II, "Behold the Lamb of God," is often performed somberly as a heavy invitation to get our frowny faces on in preparation for arias and choruses referencing the Passion of Christ.

On Sunday, the pared-down choral force and a slightly animated tempo for "Behold" served as a reminder that "Messiah" bears essentially glad tidings of a sacrifice designed to "take away the sin of the world." A lighter choral texture also invites reflectiveness on the listener's part. A little later, after the straying-flock imitation (pointedly effective Sunday) in the first part of "All we like sheep," the reminder that "the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all" sets us right on the reason for the season — especially when we remember that the oratorio is weighted toward the events that culminate in Easter, the season of its premiere. Call it fine entertainment or a confirmation of faith, it worked.

Large choruses that are conscientiously prepared can make more of dynamic contrasts, and with luck they don't have trouble staying together in fast passages. The thousand-voice choruses of Shaw's day prudently slowed, sounding "lumbering" in the process. Only the last syllable of "purify" (in "And he shall purify") sounded effortful to me in this performance. And, in "For unto us," I liked the way each section followed the sinuous path to the summit of "born" accurately without planting the flag, as it were.

Sometimes a large choir's loud-soft displays don't particularly put across the text: In the "Hallelujah" Chorus, why is "The kingdom of this world is become" sometimes rendered in hushed tones, with a big crescendo on "is become" to herald the Lord's eternal reign and a resumption of all the hallelujahs? Is the kingdom of this world a secret? None of that push-pull was evident Sunday. The Beecher Singers were far from monochromatic, but the small choir refrained from showing off spectrum extremes. "His yoke is easy, and His burden is light" was a great instance where loud-soft shadings were effectively displayed.

The Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra was a treat to hear. It played the "Pifa (Pastoral Symphony)" without a conductor, and with a buoyancy and alertness that indicated the shepherds about to be startled were indeed "keeping watch over their flocks by night," not sleeping. There were choruses to which the ensemble contributed some deft shaping of phrases, such as those between lines of text in "O thou that tellest good tidings of Zion." I found sufficiently descriptive the angry, murmuring bustle of the strings during the bass aria "Why do the nations" — even without the bite that modern instruments give to the accompaniment. The same goes for the "refiner's fire" passage in the early bass aria "But who may abide."

As for the soloists, Louer spread the responsibilities around, mostly to great effect. First off was the strong projection and expressiveness of David Smolokoff in the tenor recitative and aria that immediately follow the overture. If the tenor isn't good in those two pieces, some of the life of any "Messiah" to follow is quickly siphoned off. Not to worry in this case, and Smolokoff was just as convincing with the dire picture of divine wrath in "Thou shalt break them," effectively setting up the triumphalism of "Hallelujah."

I can't single out everyone, but in terms of fitness of a particular solo voice to a particular task, I must mention tenor John Brewer in the Part II group of recitatives and arias starting with the poignancy of "Thy rebuke hath broken His heart." Also, the brilliance and good-news spiritedness of alto Mitzi Westra in "Thou art gone up on high," bass Samuel Spade's deep-delving contrasts of light and darkness in the recitative and aria preceding the "For unto us" chorus, and baritone David Rugger's richly suggestive, dramatic "Behold, I tell you a mystery." It made for a fine introduction to the work's longest aria, "The trumpet shall sound," which never fails to be soul-stirring, even when processed through a secular sensibility like mine.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The President of Russia and the Saudi Crown Prince have a fall guy in common; they'll be together wherever they go

Keelan Dimick brings APA's Premiere Series to the halfway point

Keelan Dimick (from left), Nick Tucker, and Kenny Phelps engage a Premiere Series crowd.
Now living in Miami, Keelan Dimick has a beneficent form of "Iowa stubborn" in his makeup: He is a devotee of transcendental meditation — not an obvious foundation for a 27-year-old jazz pianist-composer.

Born in Fairfield in the Hawkeye State, Dimick is the third finalist this season to present two Premiere Series trio sets at the Jazz Kitchen on his way to the American Pianists Awards' "Discovery Week" in April, when the new Cole Porter Fellow will be selected and given a valuable career boost.

Freely acknowledging the gifts meditation has showered upon him, Dimick introduced several originals in the second set by crediting their creation to the practice. Fairfield, as he told the Indianapolis Star, is something of a TM center, and the pianist has been acquainted with the therapeutic/spiritual discipline since childhood.

Accompanied by bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps, the pianist displayed a secure, flowing right-hand touch. He seems to be stingy with ornamentation for its own sake, but applies it selectively.  His rhythmic acuity was unfailing, and his range of inventiveness stayed broad yet efficient. The left hand typically lent harmonic support, but sometimes poked forward prominently as in "Deep in Cerebration."

That composition illustrated a characteristic freshness, particularly with its stop-start surprises and fondness for episodic form. Toward the end, he moved effortlessly into repetitive octave patterns of the kind often favored by Latin-style pianists.

His personalized approach to others' works — from a bebop classic to Joe Sample's "Street Life" — revealed a gift for adaptation that never meandered. His one unaccompanied solo, "All for One," was extensive but neatly turned out, a gentle samba flecked with harmonic eddies off the mainstream.

Dimick gave ample space to both sidemen and fed eagerly off their inspirations. The set finale was a whimsical medley opening with a couple of secular Christmas tunes and moving definitively into a substantial original, a tribute to the late piano master Mulgrew Miller.

Once again, the APA seems to have come up with a worthy contender for its next big jazz prize.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Bells to the forefront in guest pianist's Butler University recital

The Advent season bears unmistakable associations with bells and their sounds' heralding function.
Tuyen Tonnu, a guest at Butler, focused on solo piano music evoking bells.
So the calendar bears an appropriate resonance with the theme of Tuyen Tonnu's piano recital Friday evening at Butler University.

The pianist, associate professor at Illinois State University, rang the changes on the theme —from Oliver Knussen to Modest Mussorgsky. The composer whose aesthetic rests squarely on bell and chime sounds, the Estonian Arvo Pärt, was not represented, but the survey was nonetheless far-reaching and suggestive of the many ways tintinnabulation can serve the art of music.

The most obvious link is that, like bells, the piano depends upon striking and the subsequent fading of the sound produced (sustained or snuffed by the pedal in the case of the piano). Tonnu seems to be an artist particularly inspired by sound, and is likely to be a rewarding Debussy pianist as well.

It's not surprising that the repertoire on this recital has little to do with development in the traditional sense, because the manipulation of a piece's material serves how we process resonance and repetition instead of the rhetorical structures of the classical tradition. In this program, the most traditional piece, Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," subjects the recurring Promenade theme to varied treatment. But otherwise each "picture" is a self-contained miniature, with the program's thematic emphasis delayed until the finale, "The Great Gate of Kiev."

Immediately inviting was the diptych Tonnu designed to open the recital, contrasting Oliver Knussen's "Prayer Bell Sketch," op. 29, with the "Noel" movement of Olivier Messiaen's "Vingt regrards sur l'enfant-Jésus." The discrete temple-bell sonorities of the former piece, written in memory of Toru Takemitsu, contrasted with the cathedral-tower clangor of the French composer's music, typically rich in overlaid sound. (The British composer-conductor Knussen, by the way, will no doubt inspire memorial pieces himself, as he died in July, contrary to the printed program.)

The durable George Crumb  was thus the recital's sole living composer, due to reach 90 next year. "A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979," generated by admiration for pictures much older than the ones that fueled Mussorgsky's imagination, is based on a couple of frescoes in Padua painted in 1305 by Giotto. The seven-part suite takes off from the generating idea to explore Christmas mysteries. It made use of strummed and stopped piano-string sound fused to keyboard playing, in a way reminiscent, though less flamboyant, of Crumb's "Makrokosmos" suites.

The lyrical outreach of the suite is modest to begin with, after the transfiguration implied by "The Visitation," the opening movement. The bell theme is pronounced as the suite gets under way, followed by the gentler lullaby and retrospective "Shepherd's Noel." "The Adoration of the Magi" is one of those glorious star-sparkled Crumb excursions, succeeded by the brightly accented vigor of "Nativity Dance," to which Tonnu lent an extraordinary sensitivity to the spectrum of attack and release. Strummed strings accompanied a muted application of the Coventry Carol ("Lullay, lullay"), typical of Crumb's gift for apt quotation.  Again, there was reinforcement of the recital's theme in the finale, "Carol of the Bells," capped by a fully indulged long fadeout.

The recitalist's affinity for the program's least-known composer, Hans Otte, was displayed in two movements from "The Book of Sounds." Through arpeggiation in the first and bell-like resonance in the second, the music invites the listener to be "at one with the sound," as Tonnu said in her oral program note. The work seemed a rather dogged illustration urging us to recall, as it did at least for me, W.H. Auden's reminder in his elegy for W.B. Yeats that "poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valleys of its saying." Otte's music strives to make the listener comfortable lingering in the valleys of its saying. I had a little trouble lingering there.

Of Mussorgsky's suite, not much needs to be said. It was distinctly a plus that Tonnu's playing didn't bring to my inner ear Ravel's too-familiar orchestration, except for the mischievous ghost of the muted trumpet nattering like the beggar in "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle." I particularly admired the piano-centric lyricism she imparted to "The Old Castle," with some detachment applied to the melody that set aside the memory of Ravel's mellifluous saxophone solo.

Her emphasis on Mussorgsky's spiky harmonies upheld his unconventionality, which is sometimes misinterpreted as amateurism. The Promenade variation in the sepulchral "Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua" was marvelously detailed and a thoughtful prelude to the tumult of "The Hut of Baba-Yaga," which featured Tonnu's similarly thoughtful transition back to the main theme. And, of course, nothing was skimped in evoking Russia's enchantment with bells in "The Great Gate of Kiev."