Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Jennifer Koh details her zest for musical collaboration in the two-volume "Limitless"

Based on a recital project that the violinist Jennifer Koh completed last year, "Limitless" gathers her duo performances with eight contemporary composers (Cedille Records). The result is both a tribute to a virtuoso's magnanimity and to the inexhaustible expressive possibilities of the solo violin.

The two CDs cover immense territory of artistic perspectives and partnerships in sound. Koh has long had notable breadth in her repertoire, much of it generated from commissions and specialized projects. Growing up in a Korean-American family accustomed to poverty and mistreatment, the violinist in "Limitless" draws explicit acknowledgments from several of the composers of her resilience and the artistic value of surmounting prejudice and marginalization.

In that vein, the most challenging piece for me was "Give Me Back My Fingerprints," a closely interwoven duo with vocalist Du Yun that features the composer's raw voice, plaintive and deliberately hard to interpret. The result is a 9 1/2-minute fusion of the piece's two disparate components. Thus it represents what "Limitless" is all about while not amounting to a stainless success on its own terms.

More appealing is Koh's work with Qasim Naqvi, using the modular synthesizer, in a brooding, recitative-like piece called "Banquet," which seems to eschew  development for the sake of gradually spreading the focus of each instrument while preserving some rapport between them.
Jennifer Koh extends her reputation for well-grounded novelty in "Limitless."

Its manner of blending of different sound-worlds is taken to a broader canvas in "Her Latitude," with electronics by Wang Lu, which brings real-world sound sources ranging from Buddhist chanting to the tolling of bells and struck earthenware. The composer  is forthright in a program note about her admiration for Koh and the difficulties of adapting triumphantly to an alien culture while bringing forward her family heritage.

Another exotic influence lies behind Nina Young's "Sun Propeller" for violin and electronics, which is said to be inspired by Tuvan throat-singing. This is the two-disc set's only work that keeps striking me as too long, though there must be some complexity responsible for its expanse that justifies it. On the other hand, I was charmed by the three songs in which Koh is paired with Lisa Bielawa's soprano. Called "Sanctuary Songs," the composition is buoyant and defiant of threats to its theme of protection. I just wish the texts Bielawa uses had been included in the booklet.

Tyshawn Sorley's medittative use of the glockenspiel complement's Koh's violin superbly in his "In Memoriam Muhal Richard Abrams," in honor of a central figure in Chicago's free-jazz history. Another musician with a jazz pedigree working with Koh was Vijay Iyer, who is represented by four brief tone pictures titled "The Diamond." The imagery suggested by an old Buddhist text,"The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion," is looked at through four natural and mental phenomena, each fittingly embodied by "Limitless'" most conventional duo, violin and piano. The gift for evocative miniatures based on sense impressions in abstract music reminds me of Michael Colgrass'  "As Quiet As."

Missy Mazzoli is the only one of Koh's collaborators represented by works that have been done by others. But both benefit by the generosity and commitment typical of Koh's artistry. "Vespers for Violin" has the subtlety and quest for peace of evensong, with the amplified violin given an aura of gentle distortion as some of its gestures resonate against a tapestry of electronics. "A Thousand Tongues" takes off from a mordant poem by Stephen Crane that deals laconically with truth and lies. There is some wordless vocalizing added to Mazzoli's piano, which is subject to electronic washes and tremolo-like commentary.

The one tongue that speaks truth is dead in the poet's mouth, the text says. But there is nothing dead about the piece Mazzoli has built upon Crane's cynical foundation. More important, there is the unmistakable voice of artistic truth speaking clearly throughout "Limitless."

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

In the affirmative: The Yes! Trio delivers 'Groove du Jour'

CD cover: Avital (from left), Jackson, and Goldberg
The exclamation point in this piano trio's name carries a lot of weight. The assertion of the right to swing without  apology or compromise is basic to the ensemble concept that pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Omer Avital, and drummer Ali Jackson bring forward in "Groove du Jour" (Jazz & People).

The French label has captured this forthright American piano trio in a host of originals plus a jazz favorite, Jackie McLean's "Dr. Jackle" and the Great American Songbook standard "I'll Be Seeing You." The trio's approach to that Sammy Cain and Irving Kahal song etches the group's profile indelibly: lots of underlining the groove, a bluesy cast to the melodic treatment, and the dominance of the drums.

After a dreamy start, this "I'll Be Seeing You" wraps up the wistful feeling with a high-register bass solo, then becomes increasingly funky. Jackson lands on two and four with authority as the performance is infused with triplets in the manner of a classic r&b ballad. The unresolved ending represents the whimsical feeling that often inflects the original compositions as well. Throughout the arrangement, the Yes! men virtually rewrite the song's next-to-last phrase "I'll be looking at the moon" as "I'll be landing on the moon."

About that percussion emphasis: Fortunately Jackson is a resourceful drummer who tweaks each piece in a different direction, not by bashing his way forward to grab attention. The variety coming from the trap set may seem to direct the proceedings, but the piano and bass contribute essentially throughout.

Avital struck me as the most intriguing composer of the three: In the fast blues "Muhammad's Market," the drums again shoulder their way forward like Trump among world leaders in that famous group portrait. But ego seems less a factor than an imaginative feat: Souk meets soul, you might call this one, and Avital gets the credit for novel tone-painting.

The interplay among the three is always respectful, yet edgy. You get the feeling that Jackson, Avital, and Goldberg thrive on the kind of collegiality that never submerges competitiveness. This makes for an exciting collective statement that allows "Groove du Jour" to make its mark in the perpetually crowded field of the jazz piano trio.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Samuel Torres accentuates the positive with 'Alegria'

The Colombian percussionist Samuel Torres brings to the delightful genre of the "little big band" (10 players, in
Samuel Torres displays imagination from congas to ensemble.
this case) a sensibility rooted in Latin rhythms and song forms and fully conversant with his desire to present jazz with a sunny face in "Alegria" (Blue Conga Music).

The title means "joy," and Torres has the imagination and skill as both composer and bandleader not to allow the positive vibe to mean thin comfort food. There's plenty of sustenance on hand over the course of eight tunes.

Torres resists the piling-on that's sometimes part of the Latin jazz genre. The pieces are assertive, with pungent soloing, but the gestures of invitation are consistent. Having sidemen of the expressive range of Marshall Gilkes, trombone; Joel Frahm, saxophones, and Luis Perdono, piano, certainly helps.

The importance of dance in the popular culture of Latin America comes to the fore in the compositions and the catchy pace each tune establishes.

When there are shifts in the presentation, the effect is smoothly managed. "The Strength to Love" puts a churning rhythmic background behind an introspective melody championed by Perdono's statement on Fender Rhodes. The band comes in with an exciting long crescendo to back up Frahm's tenor solo.

"Barretto Power," honoring the congas master and Latin-jazz hero Ray Barretto, has such pleasant surprises as the muted trumpets placed after a series of solos. Ivan Renta's baritone gives special oomph to the performance, which embraces crunchy harmonies and a disjunctive melodic line topping an infectious beat.

"Little Grasshopper," a salute to the children Torres teaches, gives an essential role to the kalimba (African thumb piano). Renta lofts an amiable flute solo over the texture.

The title tune is predictably a lift to the spirit, chugging along without a care in the world. This is a well-integrated disc, modestly touched by novelty, that seems to accomplish everything it aims at.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Dor Herskovits' 'Flying Elephants': Eclecticism raised to the intense level of a manifesto

Dor Herskovits takes artistic breadth seriously.
In the debut recording of his quintet, drummer Dor Herskovits has created a true album — to revive that nearly discarded description of what was once applied to 78s in bound paper sleeves in unified packages for our grandparents.

The Israeli musician, now living in Boston, thinks of "Flying Elephants" (Endectomorph Music) as an integral artistic package, in which the music one hears connects essentially to poetry and artwork in the booklet. The 10 pieces the quintet plays aren't so much a suite, though, as signposts on what Herskovits conceives as an artistic journey. If you fly with his notions as well as his elephants, what results is a new concept of Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk applied to original 21st-century jazz. For better or worse, "Flying Elephants" is an album.

A totemic pachyderm from Herskovits' Facebook page.
I found that the music led me to desirable mental places that the other artistic materials didn't support. Poetry and visual art may serve vital purposes for the composer-performer and his colleagues, but the music can stand on its own. It is free-ranging in its sources and analogues, and some knowledge of what may strike the ear as miscellaneous is occasionally helpful, particularly with the title track. The internal rapport of the group is solid.

The evocations of Thelonious Monk in "Recursion" are delectable and smoothly brought to the foreground, with some wry bowed bass from Max Ridley. The leader's approach to the drum set is remarkably fresh: The gradually assembled solo he lays down in "Recursion" displays his keen ear and sense of pacing.

Making a piece work out of material that rubs up against its neighbors seems to be a habit with this group: The quirky, almost hesitant start of "Magenta" morphs into a guitar rave-up by Caio Afiune, before relaxing the tension in a poky conversation focusing on saxophone (Hery Paz) and piano (Isaac Wilson). The different tempos work well together, and instrumental color — here and elsewhere in the album — contributes vitally to the mosaic.

It's hard to distinguish genuine feeling from mockery at times. But that shouldn't be a problem in what might be dizzyingly called our post-postmodern era. "Sob" features a (satirically?) moody guitar and Paz's wavery, moaning saxophone. "Bangin'" goes to the outside from the start, then draws in iron filings around a post-bop magnet in the front line, with great variety in Herskovits' drumming.

A few tracks feel fragmentary ("New fashioned") or simply vague ("Water"). Even the disappointments in this set are central to the spirit of jazz, which tries things out when it can avoid proceeding by rote. Yet Herskovits may make excessive claims for the overall result: you can't "un-read" such braggadocio as this from the press release: " is fresh, original and has many layers one can enjoy as the music is explored deeply."

The truth of such an artist statement necessarily must be left up to the listener. This one was charmed  by the album.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Dover Quartet adds pianist for quintet to crown concert for Ensemble Music

Ensemble Music president John Failey took note of the unusual placement of the society's second concert of the season Wednesday as he introduced the Dover Quartet to the audience at the Glick Indiana History Center.
The Dover Quartet, shown here in a New York radio studio appearance

Finding a date, he said, to bring to town this string quartet, based at Northwestern University, and the busy Israeli-born New York pianist Inon Barnatan meant the holiday-season scheduling of a program without a whiff of Christmastide about it.

Inon Barnatan was crucial to an outstanding Shostakovich performance.
No matter: Despite the minor mode signaled in the title, the piece bringing the five players onstage had the catchy tunes of the Scherzo and the Finale to buoy the spirits. Dmitri Shostakovich, who husbanded his cheerfulness carefully and sometimes wryly, sent the capacity crowd away happily via this stellar performance of the Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 57.

Barnatan sparked the rendition, and ignition was assured from the opening piano statement on. After the hard-hitting first movement, a slow fugue amply underlined the tension the Soviet composer usually kept under precise control. The performance of the second movement evinced his patented long-suffering patience as it unfolded.

The flashy Scherzo was well-articulated and rich in dynamic contrast. After the slow Intermezzo, the transition to the Allegretto finale displayed masterly suspense. As the expansive work reveled in its conclusion, the pianist's bright tone was dazzling and the string players matched his brilliance in the course of a movement dominated by a peppy march.

Before intermission, the Dover Quartet — violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw — played a fascinating work by Shostakovich's friend and younger contemporary Benjamin Britten. Written shortly before "Peter Grimes," which made the British composer's international reputation, the Quartet No. 1 in D major bears in its first movement signs of the lyricism and eeriness of that opera. There was abundant rhythmic acuity and sensitivity to Britten's wealth of color in the course of the four movements. I especially enjoyed how the individualistic gestures that burst forth in the third movement, "Andante calmo," seemed to prime the pump for further, coordinated lyricism. The elfin zest with which the finale was dispatched was among the concert's notable marvels.

The Dover launched its appearance with an impulsive but well-knit account of Beethoven's Quartet in F minor, op. 95, dubbed "Serioso" after a word in the heading of its third movement. The atmosphere suggested by the word was sustained, even through the lickety-split coda of the finale. The dour feeling of the slow movement, with its downward sliding phrases, had notable sweetness from the first violin and striking plangency of viola tone. The transition to the namesake "serioso" third movement was excellent, a foreshadowing of the connections the quartet was to forge along with the pianist in the Shostakovich.

Who needs Christmas music two weeks before Christmas? was my probably irreverent response to this captivating concert.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Lean in the forces at work, 'Messiah' at Second Presbyterian has just the right girth and a nice array of soloists

Michelle Louer showed "Messiah" mastery in sophomore outing with the IBO.
Last year's initial collaboration on Handel's "Messiah" between the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra and the Beecher Singers of Second Presbyterian Church was so satisfying I just had to return for the deuxieme Sunday afternoon.

It was well worth it. Buoyed by Second Presbyterian's fine acoustics, the 15-voice choir and the 18-piece orchestra (for the most part no larger than the body of singers, since timpani and two trumpets are sparingly used) worked seamlessly together, as they did in 2018.

Director Michelle Louer's selection of soloists from the choir seemed even more inspired than it did last year. And there was plenty of mostly secure ornamentation in the solos, often with an apt flourish at slowed final cadences, starting with tenor Blake Beckemeyer's picturesque "rough places" in the oratorio's first aria.

The performance enjoyed the contributions of a fine male alto, Michael Walker. He was robust in all registers, especially in his initial appearance, "But who may abide." He displayed a particularly luminous tone, weighted with just enough pathos, in the work's alto showpiece, "He was despised."

Nearly three hours after his first appearance, Walker sounded a little too gentle in "If God be for us," the work's last aria, which heralds the formidable choral package of "Worthy is the Lamb" and "Amen." The choir was evidently not tired, as the assertive "Blessing and honour, glory and power" section had all the might anyone has any right to expect, and the complex "Amen" was sturdy and well-balanced from first note to last, the orchestra following suit.

The only soloist returning from last year, bass Samuel Spade, was again forthright and impassioned in "The trumpet shall sound" and the recitative that introduces it. This time I didn't hesitate to notice that he poured as much conviction into the aria's middle section, with the solo trumpet's radiant obbligato suspended, as he had in the main material, where his dotted-rhythm treatment of the tune upon its return shook with portent.

The other soloist in his voice class, Jesse Warren, gave more than adequate warning of the miracle to come in the early recitative "Thus saith the Lord." He doubled down on that hint of ferocity in "Why do the nations so furiously rage together" in Part Two.

In the brief, dramatic Nativity portion of "Messiah," the sequence for soprano was brightly managed by Paulina
Title page of the 1902 score (as reprinted in 1942) that I inherited from my father, a version beloved in the early 20th century, since superseded, including elimination of the inauthentic definite article in the title.
Francisco, climaxed by the brilliant chorus-orchestra partnership of "Glory to God," with the crowning splendor  of the IBO's pair of "natural," valveless trumpets.

A well-matched duo of Amanda Russo Stante and Erin Twenty Benedict made the linked arias "He shall feed his flock" and "Come unto Him" fully complementary. Reverent fervor suffused Caitlin Seranek Stewart's performance of the beloved aria "I know that my Redeemer liveth," with a few off-pitch notes of little account.

A virtuoso sequence of pain and glory, from "All they that see him laugh him to scorn" to "But Thou didst not leave his soul in Hell," was spectacularly brought off by tenor soloist Gregorio Taniguchi. Beckemeyer returned shortly thereafter to display the advantage of presenting soloists of different expressive capabilities as he sang the tenor recitative and aria that immediately precede the Hallelujah Chorus.

I've concentrated on soloists here because their variety and fitness for an array of tasks in this performance worthily reflected Handel's own practice of deploying more than the four individual soloists stipulated by the score. The ensemble opportunities came off creditably as well, but to admire how tastefully ornamented solos needn't get in the way of the direct, declamatory style proper to oratorio singing deserves extra consideration.

And nine adept soloists drawn from a choir of 15 — amazing: another "Messiah" miracle!

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Story line is imported into 'A Very Phoenix Xmas," as a venerable tradition of comedy and song continues

Let me back into this review of "Winston's Big Day (A Very Phoenix Xmas 14)" by relaying a story about me that might honestly cast light on my perspective, which entered its second weekend Friday night at Phoenix Theatre.

Years ago, when I was still on the staff of the Indianapolis Star, an editor and I conferred about an upcoming story. The subject of a personality piece was under discussion, and, to indicate the importance of the feature, my boss informed me: "He's really a rock star."

I knew the description was intended as a figure of speech, because whoever we were discussing did not perform rock music for a living, as far as I knew. But my immediate response to the editor's description was probably stunned silence, because I was thinking: "Really?!  What did he do?"

With ample support, Winston (Dave Pelsue) morphs into the rock star of his dreams.
Turns out the identifying phrase was meant to impress me positively, and the editor proceeded to fill me in. But "rock star" immediately evoked irresponsible sexcapades (as the gossip columnists used to say), drug use and rehab, trashing hotel rooms and other misbehavior that I assumed were typical of rock stars. Why would anyone want that? Wouldn't that pall after, say, six weeks?

I'm from Flint, Michigan, where Keith Moon, drummer of the Who, once drove a car into a motel swimming pool. This famous incident penetrated even my profound ignorance of the rock scene 50 years ago. And it was in line with how I came to think of rock stars, because I'm not a fan of the music and, as a newspaperman in the arts wing, had gleaned bits on the misbehavior of some of its performers,

So along comes the new Phoenix show using a North Pole elf's dream of becoming a rock star as a device to give continuity to the series of songs and sketches. That means that even though I've learned to think that being called a rock star is meant to be something desirable, it was still an effort to see Winston's quest to escape Santa Central and get into Falalalapalooza (I hope I've accurately counted the syllables) as a worthy innovation for this series of Yuletide shows.

We go to the theater in part to be drawn into lives that are unlike ours, so I became slightly sympathetic to the character Dave Pelsue played so energetically. I couldn't quite hold onto that sympathy over the course of two hours, but it's clear the audience (whether rock fans or not) is being engineered to cheer Winston on. Saddled with a last-minute assignment to command Santa's sleigh, guided by the super-fey reindeer Rudolph (Ramon Hutchins), Winston has to master self-doubt concerning both the unexpected worldwide gift-delivering gig and the career he hopes to make in music once he sheds his elf persona.

While I endorse the vision of Chelsea Anderson and  the work of Xmas 14's roster of creators and production team in finding a way to get past the literal sketchiness of its predecessors, the new version of a tried-and-true production depends too much on razzle-dazzle to hide the threadbare story. It's a visual-vocal-instrumental extravaganza that admittedly entertained me along the way, even as I was processing the difficulty of caring much about Winston and Rudolph. At least the distractions were rich: The ensemble — Nathalie Cruz, Andrea Heiden, Jan Lucas, Pearl Scott, John Vessels, and Justin Sears-Watson — proved fit for every turn and twist of scenario.

The finale, "Believe in Yourself," fell into place with a finality that was predictable a mile off. Achieving durable self-esteem after a clutch of struggles is the trajectory of a significant part of recent musical theater.

I probably enjoyed too much Jen Blackmer's sketch involving a small-theater troupe rehearsing in the cold a holiday show designed as a multi-culti smorgasbord in which everyone honors his/her/its/their identity in excess and still goes away hungry. The parodic element, a survey of playwrights and theatrical genres both ancient and modern, was carried off well. But it went on too long.

Youth's texting mania, set as "#repost #xmasmajik" by Riti Sachdeva  at a school holiday dance, also was clever and well-designed. Its scrutiny of social-media isolation and occasional genuine connection had a nice flow to it.
The satirical thrust of Zack Neiditch's sketch on how everyone gets drawn into holiday marketing was keen. Anderson's direction of such pieces was boldly over-the-top, rich in caricature of gesture and voice — matched by the lighting, costumes, and sets.

The limits to the charm "Winston's Big Day" exerted on me go beyond my indifference to rock-star ambitions. Comparing this show to Fonseca Theatre Company's new version of the kind of production Bryan Fonseca pioneered for the Phoenix more than a dozen years ago, I suspect that the supply of irreverent brilliance about the Christmas season may be exhausted. Culturally, on the Santa side, once you get past S.J. Perelman's "Waiting for Santy" and David Sedaris' "Santaland Diaries," there's not much more in the stocking. On the Jesus side, fortunately in an era that may be beyond redemption, the birth of the Redeemer gets a pass in "Winston's Big Day."

Maybe I've had enough of churning up cheekiness about the holiday. As the ratbag mom Mandy says to the Three Wise Men mistakenly ready to worship her son in Monty Python's "Life of Brian": "Go and praise someone else's brat, go on."

And, if it's to your taste, rock on.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Songs of love: Mitzi Westra performs music by her husband, Frank Felice

Mezzo-soprano Mitzi Westra
The American art song hangs on to a corner of high musical culture, and there are so many distinguished examples of it that you have to wonder what market forces keep its profile so faint across the land.

An unusual example of a local composer providing a set of art-song showcases for a superb singer came our way Tuesday night at Butler University, when Mitzi Westra, assisted by Greg Martin at the piano, performed music of Frank Felice, a composer on the faculty and the mezzo-soprano's husband.

The Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall was nearly full for the program. I suspect that the gratifying attendance can be attributed not only to the strong reputations of performers and composer, but also to the excitement among many music-lovers at the prospect of a December concert with no connection to Christmas.

Three song cycles and a setting of a Hildegard von Bingen antiphon made up the program,  representing Felice's work over a 30-year span. The opening cycle seemed to reflect an expressionist aesthetic, perhaps attributable to the relative isolation of the young composer in eastern Wyoming in 1989. Felice's program note on "Four Songs of Jennifer Haines" indicates more than a simpatico relationship to Jennifer Haines Bennett's texts, since he also tweaked her verse to give more thematic unity to the cycle.

The four resulting poems, freshly assembled for the sake of the music, are full of youthful self-doubt and a lively curiosity about changing emotional states and a refusal to be weighed down by them. In the song settings, both piano and voice are given moments of intense flair, which Martin and Westra proved fully up to making the most of. I've always admired the range and subtlety of Westra's expressiveness: There was lots of it in the diminuendo last phrase of the first song, "A Wind Burnt Spot in the Dream" — "Is there always hope?" the singer asked with a credible tinge of skepticism.

Composer Frank Felice makes a case for the viability of the American art song.
A more playful side of Felice's muse comes through in "Letters to Derrick" (1995), a loosely assembled series of  excerpts from correspondence by Tammy Cutler Reanda. The work was written on a commission from baritone Derrick Pennix, the recipient of letters from Tammy, a young friend whom he had met on a cross-country bus trip. Westra's precise singing, a treasure on a technical basis alone, never wavered in expressive extras, like the shrug she applied to the lines apologizing for taking so long to write, or the edge of ferocity, in gesture and tone, she lent to Tammy's change of mind about a young swain: "At first, I thought he was cute and nice but then he got annoying and wouldn't leave me alone."

The more uproarious side of the sportive Felice gets an outing in "Sporting Life," with the juxtaposition of styles the composer alludes to in a program note whose touchstone is Charles Ives.  In the cheer-leading for Chicago sports teams that pervades the text, there is a headlong Ivesian acceleration near the end of short excursions through ragtime and march forms. And in "Last Lines," there is a clever evocation of music-box patterns from the piano as Tammy wishes Derrick Happy New Year.

There are fewer parodic elements in the outstanding duo Felice has written on a familiar text, Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." This poem has been treated by several composers, because its matter-of-fact rhetoric takes in a series of oblique, surrealistic ways of evoking the blackbird. I thought there was a touch of mordant fantasy in Felice's setting of "XI," which opens like this: "He rode over Connecticut / in a glass coach." Something about the anxiety hinted at in the accompaniment brought to mind Schubert's "Erlk├Ânig."

That may have been an association I imported to what I heard; the main point to emphasize is that there was tremendous variety in Felice's music that suited the restless innovations in Stevens' cubist poetry. And it was carried through by both musicians on stage. Especially effective was when the mezzo-soprano moved to the end of the piano opposite the keyboard and sang toward the strings, which resonated wonderfully as Martin applied the sustaining pedal. This gave Stevens' text a genuine gloss of a kingdom of artifice like Yeats's Byzantium. I also admired Felice's good taste in judging when to repeat words and when to present the text without doubling back.

The recital ended with Felice exhibiting another mode with the newest work, "O Virgo Ecclesia." The piano writing turned more chordal, with no filigree. And the majesty of Hildegard's plea for the salvation of the Church was unstinting. There is a dynamic shift toward mystery at "Salvatoris" (Latin genitive, "of the Savior"), managed breathtakingly by Martin and Westra, before the work ends with "unde filios illius requirit" (and therefore seeks your children), a long phrase well-sustained, despite one of the less open vowel sounds. It reminded me of the beauty of the last line of "Thirteen Ways": "in the cedar-limbs."  The same vowel was negotiated  and held without strain or excessive closing, and thus it perfectly introduced the hymnlike manner with which the piano concluded the piece. There seemed to be lots of student singers in the audience, and I trust they took note.

All told, this was a recital not to be missed. My favorable impressions of Mitzi Westra go back to 2013, at least, and I am well past denying that I'm a fan. But I hasten to add kudos for Greg Martin and for the adroit, sensitive, and fully persuasive manner of Frank Felice in keeping the American art song alive in the 21st century.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Bryan Fonseca reclaims his Christmas vaudeville innovation for his new company

If you can imagine "A Very Bryan Chrystmas" as Santa Claus, you might find that what Clement Clarke Moore painted poetically for all time as a figure "chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf" has slimmed down and  become a little less jolly.

Unlike the "Very Phoenix Xmas" series that filled our stockings a dozen times at the Phoenix Theatre under Bryan Fonseca's inspired direction, the adaptation of the format that the Fonseca Theatre Company opened Friday night renders the Santa spirit as a slender, slightly clumsy fellow who distributes his gifts less lavishly and not quite so merrily.

"Last Minute Shoppers," a new work by Mark Harvey Levine, has the Magi making last-minute decisions
With support for his multicultural ambitions in theater, Fonseca has brought himself up by his bootstraps to establish operations  on the city's west side, enlisting some outstanding, loyal talent to help realize his dreams after his departure from the downtown institution he co-founded.

Some of that talent is evident in this show, and fans of the show's predecessors will be happy to see a new piece by Mark Harvey Levine and the return of Tim Brickley as music director, as well as the onstage contributions of Paul Collier Hansen, Jean Arnold, and Phebe Taylor, whose previous associations with Fonseca include other shows besides the annual Yule bash. The production team includes some old Phoenix hands as well.

"Washington in Winter": Family troubles and awful weather interfere.
That aspect of the show brings "A Very Bryan Chrystmas" within striking distance of the Phoenix Xmases of old. But the stage is more confining and there is less amplitude in the half-dozen sketches. As before, topical references are strongly underlined. Satire crackles, and sentimentality provides a reliable figgy pudding.

Eric Pfeffinger's  "In the Same Country" has two shepherds, biblically "watching over their flocks by night," differently interpreting the angelic announcement of the Savior's birth. The one played by Hansen is aggressively skeptical, alert to the possibility of social-media fake news from above, while Dorian Wilson's is more openly curious to find out what might be awaiting them in that Bethlehem stable.

But there were moments throughout the show that made the new pieces feel like works-in-progress. I'm not sure if rehearsal time was inadequate (many professionals might say, Well, it always is), but now and then the actors didn't seem quite comfortable with each other. "Washington in Winter," a playlet by Cassandra Rose of Los Angeles that serves as the staged finale, focuses on an intriguingly stubborn contemporary re-enactor of George Washington's crossing the Delaware River to surprise the Hessians on Christmas Day 1776. But he has family troubles that his determination to portray the general's brave assault on the enemy makes poignant. I liked the piece's potential to shed light on domestic Christmas woes from an oblique angle, but I think it had an unwelcome layer of awkwardness in Friday's performance.

Where applicable, the humor in some of the sketches might have come across more sharply if more confidently and spiritedly played. A test of sketch comedy expertise always has to be how quickly the cast dons each piece of gay apparel (in the old meaning) before doffing it to assume the next character in the next sketch. This skill varied over the course of the performance, from actor to actor.

Jonathan Stombaugh assisted the musical cohesiveness of the well-placed songs both vocally and instrumentally. (Some of the group's vocal harmonies needed further work, however.) Moreover, in a John P. Gallo sketch he contributed one of the show's most full-throated portrayals as the astonished victim of a satanic Christmas party ritual. Keyed to his character's desperation, the piece gained cohesive energy from the extraordinary vigor of Stombaugh's performance. The cast jelled around it, making it the sort of no-holds-barred achievement that many patrons will remember from the best of Phoenix Xmases past. Maybe by next year, even given the compactness of the FTC stage, we will be able to enjoy a "Bryan Chrystmas" in which the Santa spirit has regained its conventional girth and drollery.


Thursday, November 28, 2019

In memoriam Raymond Leppard: Out of a vast recorded legacy, here are five personal favorites

The late Raymond Leppard, ISO music director from 1987 to 2001.
I was visiting our son William and his wife, Areli, in Mexico when news came of the death of Raymond Leppard, conductor laureate of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Upon my return, I figured that a personal remembrance for this blog would be posted too late.  But yesterday I decided that perhaps a retrospective look focused on recordings of his in my collection might be appropriate. Maybe some of my readers have these, as well as others that I'm choosing to overlook in order to bring out succinctly aspects of the Leppard legacy I most admire.

His learning was immense, but lightly worn. He was a man of strong opinions on music, and, to a journalist covering him, was ceaselessly quotable. He considered France an unmusical nation; he thought Charles Ives an incompetent composer. He maintained that the works for large orchestra by the likes of Richard Strauss, Anton Bruckner, and Gustav Mahler were inappropriate for the ISO's home, Hilbert Circle Theatre.

In salty language, he once scorned the mood swings evident in Mahler's music, and I believe programmed only the gentle Fourth Symphony during his 14-year tenure. Of contemporary music, he said: "There is so much crap — pretentious nonsense" and "I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole." Puzzlingly to me, he declared that Stravinsky could "communicate" (high praise) and Schoenberg could not. He deplored sensationalism: Leonard Bernstein's style was anathema to him, and he considered one year's Side-by-Side Concert repertoire choice, Respighi's Roman Festivals, noisy trash.

Here's my list of five Leppard recordings in which his taste and skills shine with particular brightness. The first
four are Philips LPs with the English Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble with which he made his reputation in his native Britain. The fifth one is the only example of his recorded work with the ISO that I return to with pleasure.

Grieg: Peer Gynt Suites nos. 1 & 2; Norwegian Dances
The performances show thorough respect for the original, modest muse of the 19th-century Norwegian master, and are typical of Leppard's sensitivity to ensemble balance and emotional weight, always well-judged in his work with the ECO.

Mozart and Haydn: Arias, cantatas and songs
No singer compatriot of Leppard's was more congenial to him than Dame Janet Baker, a mezzo-soprano with a well-honed voice fit for the expressive qualities of 18th-century music that Leppard expertly championed. A special treat is to hear him on Side Two as fortepiano accompanist to Dame Janet in Haydn's "Arianna a Naxos" (the final aria may have you weeping for the abandoned demi-divine maiden) and two Mozart songs. On the other side, he conducts the ECO for the mezzo's riveting performance of two arias from Mozart's "Il Clemenza di Tito" and the Haydn cantata "Berenice che fai."

Handel: Ariodante
Among Leppard's Handel recordings, I'm partial to this opera because the story doesn't rely on the interference of witches and fairies, which can be tiresome. But more pertinent to this survey is that the LP set shows through the prism of many voices Leppard's sensitivity to singers. They loved him: in an interview I can't put my hands on now, Frederica von Stade (the ISO's gala opening guest one year) couldn't have been more effusive about her joy in working with the maestro. Baker takes the title role here, but I want to single out how supportive the accompaniment is under his guidance in two contrasting arias with other singers: Dalinda's insinuating "Apri le luci, e mira" and the King's celebratory "Voli colia sua tromba" — and those come up in just the first act. How rewarding it must have been to be soprano Norma Burrowes and bass Samuel Ramey with the lift of such collegiality!

Handel: Water Music
The Saxon who transplanted himself to England, generating an implausible vogue for Italian-language opera and later the more long-lived genre of the English oratorio, wrote music that suited Leppard's suave sympathy with Handel's public resonance in his adoptive homeland. There are many recorded versions of these subtle and ceremonial suites, but this one has durable appeal. Leppard was somewhat less persuasive with Handel's fellow German and contemporary J.S. Bach; a reviewer whose name escapes me pegged Leppard's interpretation of the Brandenburg Concertos as "salonish," which I find sadly fitting. Salon music, by dictionary definition, "usually denotes undemanding compositions...of a lightweight character and designed for private amusement." Not so Leppard's Handel.

Schubert: Grand Duo (orchestrated by Leppard), Overture in C major ("in the Italian style"), Symphony No. 3.
I once asked Wynton Marsalis (who recorded three 18th-century trumpet concertos under Leppard's baton) what he treasured most about his association with the conductor. The trumpeter, since focused exclusively on jazz, quickly replied: "Raymond Leppard taught me more about phrasing than anyone." I mention that here because the arrangement Leppard made of the Grand Duo, a large-scale Schubert piano duet, is of magisterial importance in how well it converts piano phrases, with their inevitable decay of tone, to strings and winds. That allows Schubertian breadth to draw on new sustenance, especially in the first movement. The music cries out for this treatment: Leppard's "Grand Duo" deserves to be performed at least as often as Schubert's Ninth Symphony. It's the most valuable of the CDs Leppard made with the ISO on Koss Classics.

Sing out, comrades! Here's an anthem for our side in the Trump-declared War on Thanksgiving

Monday, November 25, 2019

Tucker Brothers' 'Two Parts' displays across-the-board input for original jazz

Giants in jazz have received due acknowledgment across the years, but it's worrisome too much evaluation of excellence in the music has focused on star-worship, or at least ceaselessly holding up individual contributions.

That's all well and good, and I'm as much an advocate as anyone for knowing who calls the tunes, signals solos and return to the heads (where applicable), and who the sidemen are and what musical contexts they can successfully adapt to. But there's some danger in aping the pop focus on "icons" and casting in the shadow ensemble virtues that make groups with common, well-honed experience preferable to pick-up bands, no matter what expertise each component brings to the table.
The Tucker Bros. put it all together in "Two Parts."

The band's the thing, in other words. And in the way the Tucker Brothers' quartet coalesces in recordings or on the bandstand, we have a local object lesson, in 21st-century terms, in what makes a particular  collection of musicians sizzle. It's been a core feature of the music since New Orleans evolved something edgy and hip out of dance and parade numbers.

"Two Parts" is the latest CD and vinyl release from the compatible foursome consisting of Nick Tucker, bass; Joel Tucker, guitar; Sean Imboden, saxophone, and Brian Yarde, drums. This group works so well together that it can take four guest musicians (on four different tracks) into the fold without diluting its identity from what it has on offer in the remaining five pieces.

Original music again carries the palm. The compositions appear to be conceived from the ground up to make each player essential. No one fades even momentarily across the nine  pieces. That doesn't mean the listener can never relish when one player stands out for the time being. It's just that you're always reassured that the showcase is part of a larger display that sets and maintains the tone. Accompaniment patterns never seem carelessly chosen just because they "fit."

Joe Zawinul said memorably that Weather Report was a band where everybody solos and nobody solos. Outside that particular jazz-rock fusion vibe, in a less aggressive, more acoustically centered manner, the Tucker Brothers also picks up on that share-and-share-alike aesthetic, though conventional soloing is not discarded. There is a strong melodic cast to the music, and the tunes are rich in "hooks," those memorable gestures that are regarded as so crucial in pop music, whose market demands that it come across immediately. Without stressful exertion, the compositions tend to embrace variety without sounding scattershot.

I particularly enjoyed the relaxed forward momentum given to "October Third," which accommodates some push as it proceeds. Nick Tucker's bass solo has lots to say, not just as a jumping-off point, but as a crucial piece in an attractive puzzle. When the band regathers its forces to conclude, it has built on Nick's eloquent outing.

The title piece is especially effective in coming across as a unified statement, rather than a bipolar entity that the listener must labor to put together. And without getting particular about the value of guests Amanda Gardier, Ellie Pruneau, Walter Smith III, and Elena Escudero, every one of them seems essential to the pieces that feature their artistry.

"Two Parts" marks a scintillating advance for a band already well-woven into the Indianapolis jazz tapestry.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra puts a principal in the solo spotlight, along with an IVCI medalist

The marquee composition on an Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra program waggishly titled "Czech Mates" was composed by a North German who settled in Vienna and looked eastward musically now and then.

Marjorie Lange Hanna's  ICO tenure is as long as anyone's.
Johannes Brahms' Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra has a Hungarian flavor in the finale, which puts it roughly in the neighborhood of the Czech homeland of Bohuslav Martinu and Leos Janacek, two other composers featured in the November 23 concert at Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts.

The remaining piece comes by its Czech associations through its nickname: W.A. Mozart's "Prague" Symphony (No. 38 in D major, K. 504). The nickname is authentic, unlike many such monikers, in that it was composed for
its premiere in the Bohemian  city where the Austrian composer's later work was well received.

Andres Cardenes, 1986 IVCI bronze medalist.
For the solo roles in the Brahms "Double," the ICO had the partnership of Andres Cardenes, who won the bronze medal in the 1986 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis and went on to a distinguished career, and Marjorie Lange Hanna, principal cellist and charter member of the 34-year-old orchestra. The concert's position on the IVCI Laureate Series helps account for the near-capacity audience in the 475-seat Schrott.

After a commanding orchestra statement to launch the work, a cello solo — directed by the score to resemble a recitative  — came off less declamatory and assertive than usual. It was a soberly careful introduction to the dialogue of the soloists, who set out some nicely dovetailed phrasing in the course of the opening movement. The slow movement featured artfully "sung" contributions by the solo partners, and was notable for outstanding wind playing.

In the outer movements, excessive vigor from the four horns, placed along the stage's back wall, became an issue in the acoustically sensitive hall. There were momentary coordination problems between soloists and ensemble; to some extent, they may be traced to the work itself, which one commentator delicately suggests throws up "acoustical obscurities in one or two places."

The other major work, the Mozart symphony, enjoyed a brisk reading. Its panache was brightly outlined in the first movement, a busy well-integrated Allegro whose texture foreshadows Mozart's most awe-inspiring symphonic construction: the finale of the "Jupiter" Symphony. This "symphony without a minuet," as it is often identified, featured a slow movement that in this performance unfolded eloquently. Initially, however, there seemed to be disagreement as to how much the first phrase's tempo should slacken for the sake of expressiveness toward the end. The finale was an exemplary summing-up of the work's many strokes of genius.

The short works gave a pleasant substantiation of the "Czech Mates" concert title. Martinu's Overture, H. 345, benefited from music director Matthew Kraemer's placement of first and second violins opposite each other. The retrospective nature of the piece was underlined by a concerto grosso texture, with an adept solo group keyed to the playing of concertmaster Tarn Travers. After a momentary lull in the middle, the work gathered energy until it projected a rather forced majesty in conclusion. No doubt that contrivance helped make this piece a worthy curtain-raiser, however.

After intermission came the Janacek Suite (Serenade) for Orchestra. op. 3. Bracketed by a couple of "con moto" movements were a brace of soft-spoken movements, with some attractive harp enhancements to the composer's peculiar brand of lyricism. The work was performed at the polished level, with  nicely distributed instrumental colors, that the ICO has proved regularly capable of under Kraemer's baton in its copacetic home base.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Indianapolis Jazz Collective pays sizzling tribute to the master drummer/bandleader Art Blakey

Art Blakey said many good things, but among them was not "Music washes away the dust of everyday life."
Yet a concert in centennial tribute to the drummer-bandleader Friday night at the Jazz Kitchen accomplished
The Indianapolis Jazz Collective played an Art Blakey tribute show to a packed house.
such a cleansing for me and the capacity audience, swelled by supporters of the sponsoring Indianapolis Jazz Foundation.

The misattribution of the original thought of Berthold Auerbach, a 19th-century German writer, sometimes sticks "from the soul" in the middle of that quotation, as usually translated. Blakey would have endorsed the complete version, too, and the band led by Rob Dixon put substance behind it in a generously proportioned first set.

(The Auerbach quote has great legs, having been attributed to Pablo Picasso as well — and even, thanks to appropriation of the writer's last name, to the immortal Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach. Can't you just hear him coming up with this in pure cigar-chomping Brooklynese: "Like I was saying to Cousy the other day...."?)

In any case, after a week weighed down, for me and many others, by the sometimes depressing, sometimes inspiring, House Intelligence Committee impeachment hearings, the soul-washing power of good jazz was balm with a beat, doing business as the Indianapolis Jazz Collective.

Kenny Phelps was on drums and, true to his virtuosity, he tweaked his style toward signature Blakey elements —  bass-drum bombs, spine-tingling tom or rim accents, and flurries of snare-drum patterning. He channeled the master especially well in Wayne Shorter's "Free for All" and Benny Golson's "Blues March." As Blakey always managed to be while asserting himself behind the kit, Phelps was predictably supportive of his bandmates.

Besides tenor saxophonist Dixon, they included Steve Allee, piano; Nick Tucker, bass; Freddie Mendoza, trombone, and — a special treat in returning to his hometown from his base in Chicago — Pharez Whitted, trumpet.

The trumpeter got a showcase in a standard well-known outside the Blakey orbit, as the rest of the front line sat out. "I Thought About You" brought out a characteristic Whitted feature in ballads: the ability to sound centered on the material while tucking in all manner of florid ornamentation of the melody. Heart and brain were clearly working in sync.

I also admired the trumpeter's forcefulness in such a piece as "Blues March," where he projected power through his horn without directing the bell right into the microphone. Most trumpeters in jazz history have had such strength as part of their brand, and Whitted, by avoiding overamplification, amazingly capitalized on his grasp of the instrument's legacy since the days when Buddy Bolden's trumpet was said to have been audible on waves of natural air for many Crescent City blocks around.

Allee's solo in "I Thought About You" had an expansiveness to match Whitted's. Though he has for many years spoken with his own voice at the keyboard, I detected in his beautiful solo aspects of his mentor, Claude Sifferlen, as well as of the deft filigree of Erroll Garner, who happens to have been a Pittsburgh friend and contemporary of Blakey's.

As a soloist, Dixon never seems to hold back, though he knows when to wow the crowd and when to build toward wowing the crowd.  Like the classic Abstract Expressionist artists, he often paints edge to edge in his solos, as in Bobby Watson's "In Case You Missed It." Mendoza displayed golden tints in his soloing, and balanced staccato stabs and smooth phrases expertly. The ever-reliable Tucker never seemed overshadowed by his normally last position in the solo order; he put a cap on that with the evening's final solo in the band's excellent series of them. The vehicle was the stompin' evergreen "Moanin'."

The ensemble sound was generally firm, sometimes jelling a little more definitively after the solos in the fast numbers, especially in Wayne Shorter's difficult "This Is for Albert." But the commitment to the Blakeyan energy was unfailing. Besides, here's something Art Blakey did say: "Jazz is not clinical. It's not like that. Jazz is born by somebody goofin'. So if you feel that band hasn't got that looseness, they're not creating."

This was some good goofin', but it was so much more than that. It had  something to do with washing away that dust.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Monday, November 18, 2019

Jason Marsalis at the Jazz Kitchen: Vibraphonist from a famous family re-creates a famous combination

Jason Marsalis took care of business with his Goodman-inspired quartet.
Explicitly moving forward and backward over time in his set list, Jason Marsalis played an illuminating program with his quartet Sunday night at the Jazz Kitchen.

The 42-year-old vibraphonist (also known as a drummer through such connections as the Marcus Roberts Trio, heard at Clowes Hall in 2015) immediately paid tribute to the Benny Goodman combo of sainted memory in taking the stage.

Hallowed names of Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, and Gene Krupa were invoked to refurbish memory lane at the start. With Joe Goldberg on clarinet, Kris Tokarski on piano, and Gerald T. Watkins on drums, Marsalis resurrected "After You've Gone" and "Sweet Sue, Just You" flawlessly to open the show.

Spiffy coordination, a wealth of improvisatory ideas, and flashiness linked to a heart-tug or two ruled the performances in the manner of the model quartet of the late 1930s. Using soft mallets in "Sweet Sue," Marsalis distantly evoked the Guy Lombardo version of the song. Watkins' ricky-ticking on rims behind Tokarski's solo was just this side of corny. But it was the best kind of touchstoning.

The adroitness of the players was exhibited in "I Surrender, Dear," another evergreen, with lots of smoothly traded solo spotlights in different parts of the song, "A" section to bridge and back again. At the end, a florid unaccompanied cadenza by the leader confirmed his expert manner of sounding straightforward and flamboyant at the same time.

Newer tunes stretched the musical boundaries somewhat, though brother Wynton's "School Boy" and Jason's own "The Virtue of Patience" reached comfortably back to older styles, with two-beat swing occupying the foreground. The latter piece was a salute to Thelonious Monk, the bandleader informed the audience — a tune that started to work best in that capacity when he found a slower tempo for it. Sashaying harmonies linked the melody to the Monk idiom as the piece loped along.

Another innovative master, Ornette Coleman, received honor in the quartet's treatment of "Tomorrow Is the Question," with the skipping insouciance of the original well replicated. A more eccentric innovator, largely untouched by fame, was brought forward as the quartet threaded its skillfully pointillistic way through fellow New Orleansian Rick Trolsen's "Blues for Man's Extinction." Marsalis' two solos — one with two mallets, the second with four — were outstanding.

The old Bobby Hebb song "Sunny" was notable for Goldberg's low-register solo, and its succession of key changes was patterned smoothly on the original. The four-to-the-bar moderate swing tempo was of course second nature to this elegant group. And among many signs of the band's compatibility, there was superb interaction between Goldberg and Marsalis in Bill Bruford's "Either End of August."

Reaching back at the end to ancient Dixieland (though that term is somewhat in disfavor among "trad"-oriented musicians), the quartet played a hearty, well-knit version of "That's a Plenty," which hails from ragtime and the march genre in its succession of "strains." I marveled at the way Marsalis draped rhythmically contrasting phrases over the infectious beat in his solo. But there were marvels all around in the course of this memorable engagement.

[Photo by Rob Ambrose]

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Indianapolis Opera stages a buoyant, sturdy "L'Elisir d'Amore"

Nemorino and Adina negotiate their way toward love, using Dulcamara's car as a prop.
The definite article has been lopped off the English title in Indianapolis Opera's publicity for its production of Gaetano Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore," but that's pretty much the extent of any damage to the amiable 1832 romantic farce that the company is offering to open its 2019-2020 season. The production of "The Elixir of Love" (sung in Italian, with surtitles in English) has one more performance at the Tarkington in Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts.

There's some mild updating that allows for an outreach to the Indianapolis brand of motorsports: A vintage car comes onstage as the quack doctor Dulcamara makes his entrance, pushed by Indycar driver Zach Veatch, appearing in his opera debut and probably happy not to have a singing role. The sets and costuming looked cozy and idiomatic. The action now takes place in 1910, and the canny heroine Adina is here a cafe proprietor rather than a wealthy farm owner.

The dramatic difference in social position between her and the awkward swain Nemorino is thus muted. But the difficulty in making smooth the course of true love holds up, and much credit goes to the singers filling those roles, tenor Jesus Garcia and soprano Ashley Fabian. They are well supported, like the chorus and the other singers in named roles, by a usually adept, crystal-clear orchestra under the experienced hand of Alfred Savia.

Musically, there was little to cavil about in Saturday's performance. True, the vigorously deployed baritone of Ethan Vincent shot up above pitch at the end of Sergeant Belcore's entrance aria, and the opening chorus of Act 2 was a bit of a jumble on both entrance and exit. Otherwise, this was a fully rewarding performance.

The singing was generally enhanced and the comedy underscored by the director's notions: It was amusing to see the busboy Nemorino sing of unrequited love while absentmindedly emptying a salt shaker with his gestures, for example. But I could have done without the series of toilet trips by the village women as Gianetta's relaying some important gossip is hindered.

On the whole, whatever A. Scott Parry inserted by way of business hewed to the spirit of the piece. The movement always made sense, and there was even some incidental usefulness of the vintage racecar in the first act. In Act 2, the women in on the secret of Nemorino's unexpected wealth worked believably on gaining his interest, despite his having tippled too much of Dulcamara's elixir. The scene was among the delightful episodes in staging that neither undercut nor overloaded the ample comedy embedded in the music.

Alfred Savia is a well-established conductor around Indiana.
The duets had plenty of pizazz. Nemorino and Dulcamara conveyed the twinned energy of dupe and deceiver in "Obbligato! obbligato!" The brief buffo duet that Adina and Dulcamara, the con man who is richly hyperbolic in Gary Simpson's portrayal, present to an appreciative audience of villagers had the right travesty brio. The opera's turning-point, as Adina convinces Dulcamara that true love requires no magic potion, was brightly staged and sung.

Indeed, Fabian's Adina, after an impressive start, seemed to get even warmer and more agile as those qualities were needed in the second act. Her interactions with Garcia's Nemorino presented a credible push-pull of attraction and indifference. Garcia left no holds barred in the gusto with which he tackled the role of a naive lover taken for a simpleton who seems to gain in intelligence the more he learns about love. His singing of the opera's perpetually worth-waiting-for aria, "Una furtiva lagrima," had the requisite ardor and was exquisitely shaped.

Vincent's Belcore consistently projected the personality of a type inherited from ancient Roman comedy, the miles gloriosus or "braggart captain" (though he's only a sergeant). His forceful baritone and cock-of-the-walk carriage made him a believable rival — and an initially successful one — to Nemorino. Katherine Fili sparkled with her pert singing in the supporting role of Gianetta, who busies herself tidying up after Nemorino in the first scene and gradually assumes the time-honored function of soubrette.

Like everyone else, her suitability was exemplary. In short, the show never had to run even one lap under the yellow flag.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Urbanski introduces ISO patrons to a colorful 20th-century symphony

Early in his tenure as music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Krzysztof Urbanski put his stamp
on programming with the inclusion of music from his homeland, Poland — just as one of his predecessors, the late Raymond Leppard, included more English music than ISO patrons had been used to hearing.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996)
Now in the twilight of his time at the ISO's artistic helm, Urbanski this weekend sheds light on a little-known countryman who was a citizen of the Soviet Union for most of his life. Mieczyslaw Weinberg was previously known to me only by one work, his sixth string quartet, as performed by the Pacifica Quartet in its series of Cedille recordings, "The Soviet Experience."

Taking in the symphonic Weinberg at Hilbert Circle Theatre with previous knowledge of this particular string quartet revealed to me the signature style of an inviting musical mind. Symphony No. 3, op. 45, is a lavish, unexpected exemplar of the ISO's current slogan, "You're Invited." I would describe the style as emotional, mercurial, briskly wide-ranging, and both restless and persistent in its hold on the listener's attention. Everything works, and there is about it neither doctrinaire modernism nor yearning for the past. The huge ovation that greeted its final ensemble shout, a confirmation of well-stated brass glory, indicated how grateful Friday's audience was for the invitation.

That string quartet I'm familiar with is colorful enough, to be sure. Taking advantage of the symphony orchestra's broad palette, Weinberg in this work actively distributes his material around from section to section, soloist to soloist. There is a kind of "concerto for orchestra" display about the piece. A lofty flute theme over a rustling accompaniment gets things started, and among the rewards of the first movement is a feverish, thickening assembly of forces, with a violent cast to it, that manages to allow room for a waltz with a memorable oboe solo. A striking episode leading toward the end relieves all the tension that has been wound up in an almost prayerful way.

This weeekend's soloist, Anna Vinnitskaya, took command of the Brahms Second.
The score is rich in folk-music suggestions. The clearest sort of fraternal feeling with a Soviet composer emerges in the third movement, where a quiet, low-lying theme ascends in both pitch and intensity to the neighborhood of Shostakovich, as in the slow movement of his well-known Fifth Symphony. Possibly a North American premiere, this Weinberg outing deserves a substantial endorsement from the public at today's repeat (5:30 p.m.).

The Weinberg certainly held its own in a concert featuring one of the most formidable and admired of piano concerotos, No. 2 in B-flat major, op. 83, by Johannes Brahms. Urbanski conducted with evident rapport for the guest soloist, Anna Vinnitskaya, a Russian pianist of stamina and vigor sufficient to bring off the work creditably. In the first movement, often her properly loud playing — from the initial fiery outburst on — seemed overloaded with accents. The authoritative touch she applied to the piano part could have been firmly asserted without quite so much highlighting. But the forcefulness never seemed mechanical.

She certainly had a range of sonority at her fingertips over the course of the 50-minute work. There was a nice flow to her phrasing, and by the Andante, it was evident that she didn't find the concerto's lyricism an unwelcome arena for expression. She was fully engaged with the composer's tender side, which was indelibly put forth in the initial butter-smooth solo (and subsequent revisitings) by principal cellist Austin Huntington. Particularly gratifying was Vinnitskaya's light touch and almost elfin manner when the finale shifts to zesty triplets, as Urbanski guided an accompaniment that had complementary nimbleness.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Spectacle of 'Parsifal' links firmly to musical excellence at Indiana University

Environmental consciousness has been raised across the world in recent years, so it should come as no surprise that the relationship between human and natural health gives an extra layer of pertinence today to Richard Wagner's "Parsifal."
Parsifal (Chris Lysack) regards the recovered sacred spear under eyes of Kundry (Renee Tatum).

The space in which the action of the opera takes place is particularly germane to Indiana University Jacobs School of Music's production of the work, which received its second of three performances Wednesday evening at the Musical Arts Center. S. Katy Tucker's set and projection designs brilliantly enhance the significance of the action and the primacy of a timeless arena for salvation.

The quest to restore health to a community threatened by human weakness and the black magic of Klingsor retains its centrality, but the theme of restoration in the wider world also receives emphasis. In the last act, the approaching spring gradually diminishes the natural bleakness at the same time that Parsifal's heroism and spiritual awakening bring vitality back to a damaged brotherhood, with the Spear repossessed and applied to the long-unhealed wound of the ruler Amfortas (Mark Delavan). The gray, low-lying rocky landscape is relieved by the greening of the horizon and the projection of budding foliage on the scrim fronting the stage.

In the opening scene, the bleak isolation and remoteness of the Grail Knights' community is signaled by the domination of huge trees harboring deep shadows.  A fresh disturbance brings the hero Parsifal onto the scene, as he has shot down a sacred swan regarded as one of the community's mainstays, a deed that would seem arrogant were it not for Parsifal's deep-seated ignorance. Contrition and stern schooling will soon follow.

One of stage director Chris Alexander's triumphs is his management of the collective indignation that galvanizes
Gurnemanz and the  bed-ridden Amfortas  confront physical and spiritual pain.
the knights, led by the veteran Gurnemanz (Kristinn Sigmundsson). Indeed, all the scenes of collective energy, whether amusingly though forebodingly secular (the Flower Maidens' wiles in the second act) or exalted (the first-act Sacrament that Parsifal observes without understanding and the Good Friday climax in Act 3) offer the appropriate affirmation of community. In an opera focused on the struggles of a handful of main characters, the social context — remote as it may be to 21st-century understanding — is never overshadowed.

As for those guest principals, there was hardly a sign of weakness in singing or characterization throughout the work's four-hour span. Parsifal (Chris Lysack) credibly emerged from his "fool" carapace to attain the status of champion by the last act. Initial bewilderment, particularly well-etched in the awe-inspiring scene change in the first act as Gurnemanz guides him from the forest to the domed hall, recedes.  His performance early on had just a few notes of comedy that helped engage sympathy for a hero who, like many of us, takes a while to rise to the occasion of an unlooked-for personal challenge.

Klingsor holds forth from his castle, seeking to weaken the Grail Brotherhood.
Sigmundsson's performance had the requisite gravity and sturdy embodiment of the threatened knightly virtues. The contrast, vocally and dramatically, with the other main bass role (with the contrast written in musically, thanks to its baritone colors), was acute. Delavan's Amfortas was moving and effective, sounding genuinely anguished in the long monologues the suffering knight delivers in the first and final acts, with no sacrifice of tone or pitch.

The role of the villain bass Klingsor was filled  vividly by Mark Schnaible. His instrument was slightly grainy, a suitable quality for his overburdened character, and he sang with creditable clarity despite the horned mask the production called for.

The magician's power had the right domineering quality, especially when positioned confidently in his castle, the centerpiece of which was a large turntable. Of course, the villain's limitation is his famous self-wounding —the result of his failure to purify himself for the brotherhood — that drives his malevolence. (My impression of this pathetic character will forever be associated with a remark Michael Steinberg once made to me at a training institute for music critics: he rejected a New York competitor's avoidance of contact with musicians for the sake of professional purity, calling it "the choice of Klingsor." Ouch!).

Tatum's Kundry was a richly nuanced portrayal,  making sense of the tension between the worlds of virtue and vice as conceived within Wagner's peculiar representation of Christianity. She moved gracefully and purposefully in such a way as to reinforce Kundry's divided nature – whether she was more under the spell of Klingsor as temptress or as a penitent seeking expiation for her age-old sin of mocking Christ.

Her wind-swept entrance in the first act, accompanied by some near-miraculous technical effects, did not yield to anticlimax as Tatum's well-grounded performance took shape. (The recovery of the sword from Klingsor, however, seemed a regrettable concession to practicality: Parsifal simply wrenches it from Klingsor, rather than taking advantage of its suspension in mid-air after the villain flings it, as the libretto states.)

The crucial contributions of the Knights, the Flower Maidens, and other choral forces, also including offstage voices of celestial import, were unfailingly well-balanced and rich in tone.

Arthur Fagen conducted, illuminating the complex score and supporting the singers well.  Tempos were neatly judged and given a lot of flexibility in reflecting the action. The orchestra presented the Prelude in exemplary fashion; the music brings to the fore all the material that will be developed later, as billowing clouds introduce us to Tucker's video virtuosity.

Particularly impressive was the string tone in Act 3; from the first measures onward, it had an almost supernatural glow — well-suited to the drama's ascent to its high plane of redemption and serenity in the final half-hour. The physically constrained world of "Parsifal," true to the space-time blend touted by Gurnemanz to the hero as the authentic realm of Grail magic, has taken on renewed health in an arena beyond both geographical and chronological bounds. We can only wish for our diminished world a similar environmental benediction.

[Photos by Sarah J. Slover]

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

In a bicentennial celebration, Indiana University revisits its legacy of presenting Wagner's 'Parsifal'

Richard Wagner was a child when Indiana University was founded in 1820, not a prodigy on the order of his
The Flower Maidens work to get the attention of Parsifal (Chris Lysack)
near contemporary Mendelssohn, and in fact requiring many years to secure his reputation as a musician to reckon with.

The connection between his eventual eminence as a ground-breaking composer and the educational establishment's growth over two centuries runs through IU's history of mounting his last opera, "Parsifal," almost annually from 1949 to 1976. After 43 years of turning its attention to other operas, IU is observing its bicentennial with a new production of the work on the current season.

It opened last Sunday, where it will be repeated Wednesday (when I will see it) and conclude Saturday night at the Musical Arts Center on the Bloomington campus. It is being directed by Chris Alexander, whose extensive credits in Germany preceded multiple engagements by the Seattle Opera and other American companies. "Parsifal" is the fourth IU opera production he has directed.  Jacobs School of Music professor (and Atlanta Opera music director) Arthur Fagen will conduct. Katy Tucker, with a host of New York City video and scenic design credits in opera and other productions, is the set and projections designer.

Leading roles are taken by guest artists. Chief among them are Chris Lysack (Parsifal), Mark Delavan (Amfortas), Mark Schnaible (Klingsor),  Kristinn Sigmundsson (Gurnemanz), and Renee Tatum (Kundry).

The work was from its origin on restricted for public performance to one venue: the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, where it began life as the theater's dedicatory work, embargoed elsewhere in order to pay off the composer's debt to his patron, Ludwig II. It broke free of those confines gradually, finding great receptiveness elsewhere in the 20th century, starting with the Metropolitan Opera in 1903.

Its incorporation of old Christian legends and its emphasis on the necessity of redemption has led to its description as a religious opera, but many think the phrase "an opera about religion" more accurate. Its literary sources are transmuted by the librettist-composer into an ethical and spiritual exploration of the difficulty of expiating sin and helping to save an endangered community through selflessness and compassion. It has overtones of racial-purity themes that have contributed so much to Wagner's negative reputation. But many feel it transcends its focus on a restricted sphere in order to underscore a wider message.

That's not to say "Parsifal" doesn't delve deeply, however, into disturbing matters that both attract and repel. The late philosopher Brian Magee, referring to Wagner's art in general, talked about its persuasive power, which "Parsifal" exercises in abundance. ( "Nothing in the world has made so overwhelming an impression of me," Jan Sibelius said of it.) Magee points out that Wagner's works "give us a hotline to what has been most powerfully repressed in ourselves and bring us consciousness-changing messages from the unconscious." Unsettling though that insight may be, the majesty with which it is expressed in "Parsifal" makes the opera suitable to be part of IU's 200th birthday party.

[Photo by Sarah J. Slover]