Sunday, August 18, 2019

Crowded third Indy Fringe Festival day: Series of four shows, ending in mind games

The people in "Orgasmo Adulto" are clownishly at odds with the world.
Individuality throbs with lapel-tugging insistence at the Indy Fringe Festival, so it's not untypical that three of the four shows I saw Saturday afternoon and evening were solo showcases.

The exception, which was welcome to me for its boisterous variety and consistent nose-thumbing at social norms, was NoExit Performance's "Orgasmo Adulto Escapes from the Zoo," a collection of short pieces by the late Italian radical couple Dario Fo and Franca Rame.

The troupe is fully invested in the Fo-Rame style of theatrical provocation and stylization of props, gesture, and costuming derived from commedia dell'arte.  There is no character development or nuance; rather, there's character exposure with heavy, thick outlines around the monologues. Carrie Bennett plays "A Woman Alone" who's kind of an oversexed, imprisoned version of Lucille Ball ditsiness. Religion and politics are tossed together and upended from the same apple cart in Am Elliott's portrayal of "The Freak Mommy."

Since the actors differ from piece to piece and are subsumed in production elements, you'll get a strong sense of NoExit's collective achievement even before the show's finale, "We All Have the Same Story." There, director Beverly Roche narrates a fairy tale from an outsize book while a cast of four mimes a liberally scatological story. Messiness is crucial to the action, much of which is meant to be appalling. The line between parturition and defecation is blurred, for one thing. Shape-shifting and juvenile humor abound; the very idea of innocence and happy endings, so crucial to the bedtime story genre, is shattered. The shock to the system is well-earned and well-rendered by this production.

My afternoon began with "Vixen DeVille Revealed," in which comedy burlesque is presented through a mix of performance, searing autobiography, and motivational speaking. Cat LaCohie is a fast-talking, foul-mouthed British comedienne who has fashioned a show that's both uplifting and down-and-dirty. The technical side could have been better in some respects, chiefly the video segments in which images and words on the right side of the screen were missing. Audience participation plays a role in allowing Vixen to deliver lessons in the magic of performance and the performance of magic. Having recently moved through recovery from a shoulder injury, I was particularly touched by the performer's story of the much more serious one she rebounded from.

Fringe solo shows tend to compel us to bond with the performer's story, allowing for whatever degree of tale-spinning works for him or her to keep the entertainment value uppermost. The tension we might feel with memories of strangers bending our ear with personal sagas on long flights is part of what such shows both work with and work against.

With that in mind, I was enthralled by "Adventures While Black in Great Britain," torrentially delivered in Les Kurkendaal-Barrett's monologue. The frame tale of his husband's struggle for approval from an immigration official worked well as a device for placing the performer's sojourn with his new British family in context. The complexity of misadventures and bonding was vividly presented; he made strong narrative order, complete with deft mimicry, out of the disorder of his UK experience. He exulted in the outcome, and he persuaded us to feel the same.

After having my inhibitions shattered by "Orgasmo Adulto Escapes from the Zoo," it was relaxing to end my Fringe day with "Brain-O-Rama: Mentalism and Mischief" by Kevin Burke. Burke paced his show well, and responded expertly to audience participation of both the solicited and the spontaneous kind. Any heckling he got was gentle and basically friendly; I have a feeling he could have readily dispatched the hostile variety.

He projected a guy-next-door persona as an offhand master of magic and mentalism. He played with the audience's reluctance to get involved, yet seemed to draw out the best sort of participation from his ad hoc assistants. The mood stayed buoyant and supportive — and mildly naughty. Just as we often say about gifts that are unwanted: It's the thought that counts. In this case, however, the gift of "Brain-O-Rama"  turned out to be exactly what I wanted.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Second night Indy Fringe Festival 2019: Stunning 'Beyond Ballet' at the District Theatre

Indianapolis Ballet extends a beckoning index finger by titling its Indy Fringe Festival show "Beyond Ballet."

The hint is that whatever the general public's vision of ballet may be, chances are it's too narrow. Perhaps a seductive "come on!" is called for with the promise that the show indeed stretches beyond ballet.

Of course, given the informal audience poll that founding artistic director Victoria Lyras conducted Friday night, just about everyone occupying seats at the District Theatre Main Stage had previous experience of actual ballet. Presumably, familiarity with the range of dance coming under that heading nowadays is extensive among savvy Fringers.

Nonetheless, the emotional payoff of this year's showcase of brief ballets is vast, given the variety among the half-dozen pieces presented.  The technical virtuosity of the company was as impressive as the dancers' expressive range.

The droll finale of "Mountain Medley" in "Beyond Ballet."
Comic gifts were amply displayed in "Mountain Medley," a piece of deliberately Alpine kitsch in costuming and recorded accompaniment — the yodeling virtuosity of Mary Schneider across familiar excerpts from "Carmen" and the "William Tell" Overture, among other sources. Paul Vitali's choreography implied a scenario of rustic wooing gone amiss (or maybe "gone a-Ms." given the  work's amusing feminist triumphalism).

These high spirits were re-engaged in the program finale, but without as much full-bore zaniness. The point of "Too Darn Hot," the Cole Porter song inspiring the exuberance of Scott Jovovich's choreography, was the collective yearning both to escape and yield to excessive urban heat in the time before air conditioning. The ensemble moved from impersonating wilted subway straphangers to throwing off all restraint as mating-minded young people eager to get their groove on despite the high temperature. The coordination of jitterbugging moves and suggestive poses, flips, and twirls was astonishing and invariably looked all-out and all-in. The buoyancy and athleticism was unceasing and flirted with the audience's nascent apprehension that everything might come apart. It never did.

For more abstract and emotionally conflicted representations of youthful energy, the program offered Roberta Wong's "Strange Idea," choreographed to the pungent guitar-playing of Charlie Ballantine. On Friday, the double-cast piece offered Shea Johnson, Chris Lingner, Jessica Miller, and Kristin Toner in a brief tone poem of movement encompassing both predatory and cooperative movement. The dancers leaped, stalked, and swooped in patterns that seemed to represent aggression partially tamed by an abiding desire for mutual engagement.
Exultant virtuosity in "Don Quixote" pas de deux

The historic ballet legacy of the romantic era got representation in the Marius Petipa "Don Quixote" pas de deux,
in which Lingner indicated this company's versatility at its peak. He partnered Yoshiko Kamikusa in the formal arrangement of a duo introduction and a coda framing two pairs of solo variations. The couple's opening presentation was astonishing enough to draw a sustained ovation, setting up individual showcases of mounting intensity and brilliance. Both dancers managed not only the flair and precision required, but also projected extraordinary joy in their partnership and the astonishment they were creating in the audience.

Lyras had her choreographic acumen on view in two contrasting pieces: the bright "Allegro vivace," to crystalline piano-and-orchestra music of Saint-Saens. The formal interaction of the corps with the featured couple (Kamikusa and Riley Horton in the performance I saw) looked unfailingly natural and presented testimony to the integration of main roles and the ensemble. The romantic costuming was heart-melting and almost mouth-watering, long skirts contrasting aquamarine in half the dancers with a sort of raspberry sherbet hue in the rest.

"Miroirs," Lyras' other "Beyond Ballet" contribution, presented still another aspect of her dancers: the ability to present unwavering steadiness in a slow piece. The music was by the contemporary exponent of "spiritual minimalism," Arvo Pärt. The mesmerizing, sustained flow of the work, with solo cello and harp in the musical foreground, owed much to the ensemble's way of making difficult bends and extensions look as free of tension as the more centered and upright positions. To bring off episodes of muscular stress as naturally as relaxed moments can be entered as evidence of the high level of expertise Indianapolis Ballet has achieved. The Fringe Festival is much richer for its participation.

[Photos by Daniel Axler]

Friday, August 16, 2019

My opening night of Fringe Festival 2019: Approxima Productions' 'Vinny the Pooh'

Most of us can readily come up with favorite first lines of novels we liked. For me, such sentences succeed in catching the attention as well as, retrospectively, hinting which way a work of fiction is headed. They form a kind of aura around the experience that glows to the end.

So, like many people, I admire "Call me Ishmael" ("Moby Dick"), but also a few others that don't seem stagy but are still resonant throughout the adventure of reading. Hence, "They threw me off the hay truck about noon" ("The Postman Always Rings Twice") and "Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo" ("A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man").

That choice brings us neatly to early childhood. Another first sentence that's stuck with me (full disclosure: I returned to the text to get it right) is the way A.A. Milne's "Winnie-the-Pooh" starts: "Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin." It's funnier in German, a translation of which I read aloud with other members of my foreign-study group on a German train in 1965. A nearby passenger had a hard time suppressing his giggles.

The line-up for a trenchant spoof of a children's classic.
The opening of "Winnie-the-Pooh" provides the only clue you'll need to know how "Vinny the Pooh," an edgy romp that debuted at the Indy Fringe Basile Theatre Thursday night, comes out. The bond between Christopher Robin and his teddy bear is upheld. But "Vinny"'s violent, witty progress toward that denouement departs in every respect, mostly stylistic, from the affectionately rendered puzzles and predicaments of Milne's faux-ursine hero. It's comedy tonight from Approxima Productions, but the Milnean whimsy now wears brass knuckles.

Christine Kruze wrote the play in an artfully jumbled reworking of "Godfather" themes pressed into a distorted "Winnie-the-Pooh" mold. For Eeyore's missing tail, for example, we have the missing eye of Eyesore (Clay Mabbitt), who grosses out the hard-bitten assemblage by provocatively raising his eye patch. Rabbit (John Kern as Stagger here) hops about vigorously, but mostly because he's a cokehead. Piglet (Kelsey VanVoorst as Sniglet) is a bear's best buddy, all right, but in the worst way, bitterly overcompensating for being little.

All the characters are twisted toward barbed promotion of their agendas and ruthlessness in carrying them out. As "Vinny-the-Pooh" keeps adjusting its shoulder holster, a sudden lip-locking smooch is as likely as a sucker punch or a savage beating. Alliances are fragile, and, as usual, there is no honor among thieves. The unanticipated arrival of Christa MaBobbin (Morgan Morton) on the scene soon moves the turmoil toward the kind of sorting out that crime fiction dependably provides.

Serenely perplexed by the gangland machinations, yet well aware he's continually in danger, is Vinny. His sweet tooth helps ensure a connection with Milne's Bear of Very Little Brain. He's played to the hilt by Steve Kruze, with a nice blend of cluelessness and apprehensiveness, decked out in shorts that match his sport coat and an East Coast mobster accent that's echoed by his fierce pal Sniglet. The pair are under the maniacally watchful eyes of Franga (Carrie Ann Schlatter) and her intrusive hand puppet, with the warlord unintelligibility of Scowl (a ferocious Joshua C. Ramsey) adding another layer of mystery and menace.

The mob's capers are undercut by ceaseless internal divisions and perpetual rivalry with another gang, whose distinguishing features the playwright has borrowed from "The Wind in the Willows." I had to wonder if Kruze was incapable of trimming out any of her verbal or physical inspirations or simply had to have every last one. But finally I decided that the show works best as an overstuffed pincushion of threat and zaniness. And the cast was certainly up to the writer/director's frenetic pace and forcefulness. Kudos also to Kruze for not literalizing the parodic elements.

In less than an hour, "Vinny the Pooh" skillfully hammers the funny bone. When we strike the one in our elbow, we wonder how the physical funny bone got its name. This play works that odd intersection of painful buzz and wry amusement. And, despite the vast dissimilarities, at the end Edward Bear goes bump, bump, bump back up the stairs behind Christopher Robin.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Brutal, intense '1984' represents full-length debut of Monument Theatre Company

Among dystopian novels, "1984" seems to be the most enduring. The fantasy elements may be more deftly
Nathan Thomas plays the aggrieved victim of state terrorism in '1984.'
brought off in Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and in Yevgeny Zamyatin's "We," but George Orwell's novel of a totalitarianism more widespread than ever has captured the collective imagination better.

True, there's a certain dutifulness about the book's case against oppression and a dearth of pure literary magic in the storytelling. But, as has been commonly asserted, no 20th-century writer more than Orwell has had so thorough a set of insights into politics in the modern era. And all of that vision is bluntly, almost obsessively, detailed in "1984."

The production of a stage adaptation that opened Friday night at Indy Convergence ramps up for the stage the novel's atmosphere of paranoia and all-encompassing oppression, which has wowed countless readers for 70 years.

David Ian Lee directs Michael Gene Sullivan's play in a production for the Monument Theatre Company. a new professional venture based here. There's not much let-up in the intensity as the cast of six represents Orwell's vision of absolutism undergirded at every turn by modern technology. The availability of private lives to the state through constant spying is updated here with the ubiquity of iPhones. These devices we can't seem to do without are under state control, like everything else in the dystopian meganation Orwell dubbed Oceania.

The production's dialogue is rapid-fire and usually thundering, punctuated by four Party Members' throwing of metal chairs and hurling to the floor the trailing shackles that bind Winston Smith, the novel's miserable hero. Nathan Thomas gave a highly keyed-up performance that maximized Smith's aggrievement and fear, his facial expression knotted and his voice quavering, pleading, whining. In the leading actor is concentrated all the dire effects of a menacing, all-powerful government.  Thomas' performance summed up the victimization of everyone, including those ostensibly favored by Big Brother.

That is evident in the performances of Smith's minders and interrogators, who also wander in and out of the hero's almost hallucinatory memories, enacting them in devastating fragments. The playwright thus effectively represents the erasure of private lives in Oceania. The official bullies are played, in an often alarmingly menacing way, by Riley Leonard, Raven Newbolt, Kim Egan, and Deont'a Stark. The Party Members serve the state through constant dehumanizing pressure on Smith, guided by a frequently heard but never seen "telescreen" announcer (Karen Sternberg).

But there is no one more effective among Smith's tormentors than O'Brien, whose appearance in the second act rings with unmistakable authority as Winston Smith is moved to the final stage of forced ideological conversion. This character, whom Smith had taken for a like-minded lover of liberty, was given an authoritative portrayal by Michael R. Tingley. Though this role is  especially crucial to the finishing off of Smith's independence, I would have liked to see its flickers of humanity more evident among the Party Members. One of the fascinating things of any fiction based on a "what-if" premise is how well it makes people caught up in a counterfactual scenario seem like us. Clearly, functionaries of an oppressive state participate in their own dehumanizing, but I think a few more touches of ordinary humanity among the Party Members might have served to make Winston Smith's plight even more moving.

Caleb Clark, who co-founded the company in 2016 with Maverick Schmit, is responsible for "1984"'s design of set, lighting, and sound. All elements worked well together, and were thoroughly taken advantage of in Lee's turbulent but well-knit direction of the show.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Pianist Zach Lapidus pays us a visit and revives the trio format he enjoyed during his time here

Zach Lapidus put together his formerly active local trio for a reunion Wednesday night at the Jazz Kitchen.

Zach Lapidus's brief return to Indianapolis was a welcome highlight.
The New York musician, who spent several years in Indiana (first at Indiana University, then based in Indianapolis) after his youth on the West Coast, always had something original to say at the piano. When he reharmonized familiar pieces, he made alter egos out of the originals. He moved into the front rank of Indiana jazz pianists with two finalist finishes in American Pianists Association competitions.

In reconnecting with the musicians he appeared with regularly at the Chatterbox, the pianist created the impression of a still-active working band. You would never know there'd been an interruption in their collaboration. Bassist Jesse Wittman and drummer Greg Artry displayed instantaneous rapport with the pianist in one set of nine tunes.

"Wig Wise" (known from one of just about everyone's favorite piano-trio albums, the Ellington-Mingus-Roach "Money Jungle") displayed a rapport that included more than capable support for the solos. Solo spots were rather a continuation of true ensemble playing with a foregrounding of the soloist, particularly Wittman. And the convention of exchanges with the drummer was brought off without cliches.

Much-admired for his harmonic acumen, Lapidus is also an extraordinary exponent of melody. He approaches a tune like a singer, stretching that emphasis even through episodes that could only be pianistic.  That was immediately evident Wednesday in the standards "You Go to My Head" and "It Could Happen to You." In the latter song, after an unaccompanied intro, the pianist's solo was fresh and inspired. When he yielded the spotlight to Wittman, Lapidus' accompanying had lively but never intrusive presence. Artry's showcase illustrated that here's a drummer who plays the song, not just the drums.

The vocal instincts behind Lapidus' playing were also prominent in "There's a Lull in My Life," which was  among the ballads featuring a fine, nuanced ending. This trio never seemed to be haphazard about concluding a piece.

Classic bebop was among the styles the group managed with expert familiarity as it offered Charlie Parker's "Scrapple from the Apple" just before the set's one original, "You'll Be Sorry." As a composer, Lapidus here displays a suite-like sensibility: The work was by turns marchlike, rhapsodic, and obliquely melodic. Tempo shifts were part of its smoothly handled variety.

David Berkman's "Fairy Tale" offered Wittman an extensive outing in several episodes, with good interaction between him and his colleagues. The trio managed several shifts in dynamics expertly. The performance also featured Artry's strong, imaginative solo on brushes.

In town to participate with reedman-composer Franklin Glover on a new recording, Lapidus made room for a couple of "live" appearances, and the city's two main jazz rooms and their audiences — the Chatterbox and the Jazz Kitchen — were the beneficiaries.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Summit Performance Indianapolis' 'Mary Jane' displays parenthood put to the ultimate test

Any parent can justly claim that parenthood is challenging, but some who take on that role with the same optimism as their peers find themselves not merely challenged, but in a perpetual iron man contest. There's no victory in sight, and the competition is mainly internal.

Amy Herzog's "Mary Jane," the second full production of Summit Performance Indianapolis, is in the middle of a three-weekend run at Phoenix Theatre. The title character is a single mom to a toddler who can't toddle, a severely disabled boy whose needs are daunting and whose "good days" are a matter of luck and unceasing commitment.

When we first see her, she's talking a mile a minute to her apartment building's super, Ruthie, who's trying to fix a stopped-up kitchen sink. The thought crossed my mind: Oh, watch out!  This is going to be one of those protagonists we need to get over being annoyed with, but she'll grow on us. We'll get used to her. She'll win us over. On and on she goes to Ruthie: something about being fascinated with break-dancers in the subway; this is someone hyperexcited about her observations. Another quirky heroine?

But Herzog has created a character who, in Bridget Haight's performance Friday night, is almost instantly lovable, despite her complexity. Her level of self-sacrifice is a given, yet it's more than the default setting of the drama. The audience constantly learns more about Mary Jane, and our understanding becomes something we feel we've almost lived with. That's an illusion, of course, and harboring it is almost an insult to anyone seeing this show who may actually face the kind of demands Mary Jane responds to so heroically.

Under Lauren Briggeman's direction, the play quickly pulls us into its emotional vortex. There seems to be no manipulation or theatrical arabesques about either the raw material or its handling. Underscored by this production's no-nonsense scenic design, Herzog presents the realities of nurturing a seriously ill child in detail: the constant monitoring, the exigencies of treatment, fine-tuning levels of medication, crisis management, scheduling issues and agendas, the disruption of all other aspects of the primary caretaker's personal life, the extreme difficulty of self-care.

But underlying it all is a mother's love: Alex is never seen in "Mary Jane," but he shapes every aspect of Mary Jane's experience. He draws from her a commitment deeper than most love relationships. Her ex-husband failed
Maura Lisabeth Malloy, Nathalie Cruz, Bridget Haight, Jan Lucas, and Kelsey Johnson.
to adjust to the shock and is long gone. Mute and physically disabled in the extreme, Alex is his mother's anchor and tutor, a perpetual-motion fitness machine for her character, her most enduring test of life's worthiness.

Haight's mastery of the role extends to every facial expression and the moments of awkwardness and frustration that interrupt her relentless interaction with the world. The rest of the cast of course is charged with meeting Mary Jane's ferocity and resolve with portrayals that give her something firm to play against. They are just about flawless at every turn. Each of them takes on two roles apiece, and none of those eight characters is sketchy. All are instrumental in fleshing out Mary Jane's story, whether they are mitigating her challenges, bringing her up short, or putting her through empathy calisthenics.

As Sherry, a home nurse whose devotion to the case extends well beyond her shifts, Nathalie Cruz represented crucial support as someone whose manner is both professional and affectionate. As Kat, a music therapist at the hospital where Alex has become a familiar patient, Kelsey Johnson shifted adroitly from a temperamental flightiness and tendency to treat her work as a job bound by scheduling to bonding with Mary Jane, in one of the show's most intense scenes.

As Chaya, a tough-talking New Yorker in the hospital waiting room, Maura Lisabeth Malloy helped move Mary Jane's pathos onto a more clear-eyed level of compassion as a mother in the same situation, but reliant on her religious community for sustenance as well as an intact family including healthy children. She is an aid to a delicately introduced spiritual dimension in "Mary Jane," which prepares for the final scene, in which Jan Lucas as a newly minted Buddhist monk serving as a hospital chaplain visits the care-worn mother. Someone once said, "If a man learns theology before he learns to be a human being, he will never become a human being." Mary Jane got the order right.

We learn by now Mary Jane has her own health demons to contend with. Plot is not an important element in the play, so I feel somewhat free from the need to avoid spoilers. The last scene is so beautifully staged (with lighting by the ubiquitous genius Laura E. Glover) that I might forgivably at least mention (without detailed description of the symptoms) that the heroine's chief demon is migraine.

The show's finale illustrates an insight that Guy Davenport mentions in his essay on Michel de Montaigne, the great 16th-century French writer. The serendipity of reading brought this to me the day I saw "Mary Jane."  Referencing Montaigne's persistent battle with kidney stones, Davenport observes: "With the occlusion of the body there is an anesthesia of sensibilities." Physically occluded by migraine, her situation administers this anesthesia symptomatically to Mary Jane at the very end.

Nature has come up with a respite for this plucky woman that she fully deserves, despite its disorienting effects. "Mary Jane" deserves our attention as well, continuing the remarkable launch Summit Performance Indianapolis has made with two outstanding productions in just two years.

[Photo by Raincliffs Photography]

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Tucker Brothers celebrate release of their third recording, 'Two Parts'

In concentrating on music from "Two Parts," their quartet's third recording, Joel and Nick Tucker showed two sizable Jazz Kitchen audiences how their music continues to advance.

As heard in its second set Saturday night, the Tucker Brothers made clear that an expanded sound palette — keyed to Joel's guitar — is a vital ingredient in this musical growth. The disc's title track amounted to a climax of the set. It lives up to its binary suggestion in stating a reflective theme at first; with the launch of a blazing guitar solo it moved onto a plateau of intensity. The tension was resolved by a sort of anthemic ensemble at the end.
The band is Sean Imboden, Nick Tucker, Joel Tucker, and Brian Yarde.

The set's one standard, Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark," followed immediately. I haven't quite resolved what the onset of this piece was working to establish. I first caught the melody from Sean Imboden's tenor sax coming in at the bridge. The bulk of the performance united the ensemble in a calypso arrangement that was quite fetching.

A pair of contrasts was fused at the start with "Warm Heart," awash in atmosphere, following by "Sundancing," which opened up into cogent solos by the guitarist, Imboden, and bassist Nick Tucker.  The band was clearly primed for some vigorous hiking as it launched into Nick's composition "Lifely." There was a good deal of stretching out after some bluesy musings coalesced to acquire irresistible forward momentum. Joel's solo was quite assertive, flashy but cunningly crafted. Then the brothers'  two-note repetitive figure punctuated Imboden's limber solo.

After the ballad "Paisley," the band took up another original, though one not on the just released recording: "Rhythm Changed."  It deserves a place somewhere in the quartet's discography to come. This piece is a lively derivative of the bebop style, with fast-moving unisons in the theme and a lot of tricky phrasing. The band seemed to be up to the close-order drill. Such a romp readily welcomed the exchanges with drummer Brian Yarde that ensued. This episode yielded to a drum solo that avoided the obvious yet honored the idiomatic drive of the composition.

The Tucker Brothers is much more than the sum of its "Two Parts."

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Multidimensional tragedy 'Hamlet' marks a new venue for Indianapolis Shakespeare Company

Hamlet (Lorenzo Roberts) peruses the skull of the court jester Yorick.
No character in the brisk two-hour rendition of "Hamlet" in the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company production (at Riverside Park through next weekend) is allowed to go on too long. Rarely has Polonius' sententious "brevity is the soul of wit" been so much the watchword.

Judicious cutting, some of it inevitably regrettable, has taken considerable amplitude out of Shakespeare's longest play. Yet, as seen Friday night in its second performance, the show is clear-cut and well articulated. The production never generates puzzles of its own making. If we would pluck out the heart of its mystery, we probably fail even when we ponder the original text. There is no finality when it comes to "Hamlet" interpretation on page or stage.

Ryan Artzberger directs a version in which one scene nearly treads on the heels of the next. (Dear me! The review is barely under way and already two allusions to the text have bubbled unbidden to the surface. No wonder a newcomer to Shakespeare is said to have complained that his major plays are a bunch of familiar quotations.) The rapid pace may well be what Shakespeare's audiences were used to, even when they had the leisure to take in four hours of action with minimal scenery and natural lighting outdoors, depending instead on verbal cues the playwright readily supplied.

I admired the clarity and punch the cast gave to the lines and action, from Lorenzo Roberts' portrayal of the title character at his most impulsive and conflicted on down through the ensemble. The thorough professionalism of the company's free public presentations on outdoor stages continues to be upheld. You can come to this "Hamlet" with next to no preparation or familiarity and take away an authentic experience of the play's complexity as well as the changes it rings upon the near-forgotten subgenre of "revenge tragedy."

The only important major excision is the thorough muting of the military theme. Power politics beyond the Danish court hangs over the action, but you'll get little here about the monarchy's past and present difficulties with Norway. Though the dimensions of this international strife make the hero's opposition to his uncle Claudius more complicated, this production insists that we concentrate on how he handles the charge from his father's ghost to avenge the senior Hamlet's murder. The production's ghost is spooky enough on each of his appearances, but the "warlike form" observed by the first witnesses is discarded. So is the existential gravamen of the hero's final soliloquy, in which he compares his cause to "the imminent death of twenty thousand men" in battle.

It's certain that you can't reduce a play by half and find everything you've left out truly expendable. I won't deny the effectiveness of how this production concludes, but it removes one aspect of the final tragedy: The extensive slaughter at court, with the Norwegian general Fortinbras coming upon the scene and learning from Horatio about the Danish demise, has settled the political tension in Norway's favor. That something rotten in the state of Denmark has finally suppurated.

Artzberger has given lots of the traditionally male roles to women, most startlingly Horatio, the action's most elaborately drawn witness and Hamlet's loyal, somewhat colorless best friend. The role is among several examples where pronouns are changed to match the gender identity of the actor. Mehry was more moving as Horatio than Hamlet's buddy often seems, so the switch may be felt as an advantage. Also, with a female Horatio, the character's tendency to "mansplain" is off the table, in part through the reduction of his/her speeches.

King Claudius is scrutinized by his nephew.
Roberts may have scanted what is often taken to be a more reflective Hamlet as the play progresses and the hero's dismal prospects become clearer, despite his narrated derring-do on the way to what King Claudius intends to be the prince's fatal exile to England. His intensity nonetheless involves audiences at this stripped-down version more thoroughly, perhaps. As the usurping monarch Claudius, Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha seemed at first too obvious in his bravado, as if he didn't care that those close to him might become as suspicious as Hamlet. As the villainous monarch feels his scheme closer to collapse, the portrayal became truer. As his queen and Hamlet's mother, Jen Johansen hid the character's vulnerability well under a facade of entitlement until the scene with the prince in her chamber exposes Gertrude's shame in a nice balance of desperation and maternal love.

In other major roles, the first family at court was well represented by Joshua Coomer's Polonius, played as a borderline-useless counselor and control freak with an increasingly loose grasp; LaKesha Lorene as Ophelia, trying to be a worthy lover and daughter at the same time — an impossible task in this context, resulting in her touchingly well-modulated mad scene; and Ryan Claus, chafingly dutiful as Polonius' son Laertes and finally stirred to an overwhelming rage to get back at the prince he takes to have destroyed his family.

It's hard to help conceiving of the meddlesome roles of the almost interchangeable Rosencrantz and Guildenstern without thinking backwards from Tom Stoppard's late-absurdist take on them, but in this case  it works well in the flibbertigibbet performances of Zachariah Stonerock and Scot Greenwell.

Rob Koharchik's jagged, abstract set design looks both menacing and truly royal, complementing the modern-dress costuming. It is deliciously lit by Laura Glover, with the effect being mesmerizing as the sun sets (and you can finally see the actors' facial expressions as well). Todd Mack Reischman's sound design completes the production team's excellence in representing a modernist aesthetic that enhances the timeless appeal of the story instead of competing with it in the interest of a sham up-to-dateness.

[Photos by Julie Curry]

Friday, July 26, 2019

A protest song: I'll have no truck with any Honkie Trump Women!

Cincinnati Opera's 'Porgy and Bess' underlines its operatic stature with conviction

Opera companies in recent years have broadened their reach across the range of musical theater, so that
In the title roles, Morris Robinson and Talise Tevigne displayed  threatened ardor.
"Sweeney Todd" and "Oklahoma!" have entered their schedules largely without objection.

"Porgy and Bess" was a pioneer in this outreach, and its struggles in the first few decades of its existence are especially revealing of the cultural need to erect boundaries. In the case of this 1935 masterpiece, the effort caused compromises in how it was presented and questions about its legitimacy. Its music came from the pen of a popular songwriter, after all, and its songs held sway over other values in its early history.

Cincinnati Opera has joined the widening company of operatic organizations to respect George Gershwin's score, complete with its complex accompaniments, vocal recitatives and thorough linking of material. (Its track record over a 99-year history includes a 2012 "Porgy and Bess," and browsing for musical theater through  the program book's  production history reveals outings for Loesser's "The Most Happy Fella" and Willson's "The Music Man" decades ago.)

As seen Thursday night in the second of four performances, the 2019 "Porgy and Bess" upholds the work's claims to immortality. The opera has a few scraps of the theatrical equivalent of genre painting, to be sure. There are signs, probably exaggerated by some of the its detractors, that atmospheric shreds and patches like the street cries are distractions. And the work's hits, starting with "Summertime," will always stand out to "Porgy and Bess" audiences not only for their intrinsic merits, but because of their familiarity out of context.

The main set, a Southern ghetto called Catfish Row, looked barely fit for habitation.
This production makes a point of linking all the material, and in particular it highlights the opera's unusual emphasis on community. Stage director Garnett Bruce (with original production credits to Francesca Zambello) knits the large cast together well, down to several cavorting kids. Catfish Row seemed like a place of genuine bonding, though partly a unity enforced by racial segregation and poverty.

I found Peter J. Davison's set more dilapidated than it needed to be; we are supposed to see the set of apartments around a courtyard as being an official building abandoned by the white power structure; it should look worn, but not almost war-torn. His set for Kittiwah Island, the barrier island to which Catfish Row residents escape for a church picnic, was puzzlingly modernist. Design elements often moved to the stage of symbolism. The bright red light behind the set that blazes up when Porgy declares "I'm on my way" and leaves to find Bess seemed to signal conflagration more than hopeful promise. A balance of realistic and symbolic elements was struck in the hurricane sequence, fortunately, with design and stage direction fully complementing the music. The lighting was flecked with lightning flashes amid roiling waves of gray and black.

This show had a number of big solo voices to set against the large chorus, whose role is continual and naturally supports the feeling of community that "Porgy and Bess" evokes so well. Morris Robinson exhibited a well-crafted heroism as Porgy, clearly projecting a spirit capable of overcoming his disability through sheer grit. Hobbling energetically about on a crutch, he was surely challenged to maintain vocal steadiness under such a handicap. The end of the show, which perhaps understandably dispenses with the goat-cart Porgy calls for, has us imagining the hero heading north toward New York with no transportation more reliable or speedy than his crutch. It sort of highlights the metaphorical import of moving toward the Promised Land, and thus reinforces the show's frequent resort to the power of faith.
Jake and Clara are a faithful couple whose doom lies ahead.

Talise Trevigne brought to the role of Bess enough sauciness and an image of amorality that her heroine's susceptibility to bad influences was always evident. The flexibility of her soprano helped underline the volatility of the character; her diction lacked the clarity displayed in the other prominent roles, however.

Reginald Smith Jr. put power and resolve into the role of Jake, the loyal husband and fatefully determined fisherman, while Janai Brugger as Clara represented the force of stability anxious to hold safety and family uppermost. The role has the advantage of introducing the show's biggest hit, "Summertime," and Brugger made the lullaby a moving anthem of survival and triumph.

Another vocal showcase goes to Serena, a role taken nobly by Indra Thomas and favored with the heart-piercing solo "My Man's Gone Now."  She's also the bedrock of the community's vigorous piety. Her rebuke of the picnic's frivolity targets the impiety of Sportin' Life, the dope peddler who leads Bess astray and preaches the famous sermon,"It Ain't Necessarily So."

Limber-limbed and vocally insinuating, Frederick Ballentine Jr., made this comic villain a larger-than-life
Sportin' Life advises the faithful that "it ain't necessarily so."
illustration of the wiles and woes of temptation. He was amusingly resisted by the stalwart cook-shop keeper Maria, whose thunderous rap-style challenge to Sportin' Life was one of the show's comic high points.

Sportin' Life is multi-dimensional in comparison with the other main bad guy, the ruffian stevedore Crown. Nmon Ford made up for a physical stature more ordinary than both Porgy and Jake by the way he carried himself and his vocal and dramatic security. Ford's performance made Crown a worthy nemesis to the honest citizens of Catfish Row, whose vices are summarized principally in the opening scene, when the men's well-staged crap game is counterpointed to Clara's blissful "Summertime."

David Charles Abell conducted, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra gave luster to the astonishingly varied accompaniment. Abell had singers and orchestra drawing out phrases when appropriate, but the momentum never flagged. The gospel-infused choruses jumped with vivacity and conviction. The saturation of faith and music that the show's creators availed themselves of as the opera took shape in South Carolina consistently rose to the top of the action.  Choristers and principals alike left no doubt that "Porgy and Bess'" operatic stature is well-deserved.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

Monday, July 22, 2019

Cedille's 'Silenced Voices' highlights chamber music by Holocaust victims

The muse that visited the composers in this well-founded anthology of string trios was a restive one, looking over her shoulder.
Black Oak Ensemble in a "Silenced Voices" performance

And no wonder: Each of the creators represented in Black Oak Ensemble's "Silenced Voices" (Cedille) was among millions bedeviled by the Nazi program of Jewish extermination. Only one of them escaped with his life; the other five died in the camps. For them, anxiety in music could hardly be a matter of aesthetic choice alone.

Of course, the stylistic variety of 20th-century music has to account for much of the individuality evident in these compositions. The fate of the European Jewish community, however, understandably looms over this program and how Black Oak Ensemble's excellent performances are likely to be received today. In support of the recording, the trio is performing "Silenced Voices" in concert around Europe, climaxed by a performance next month at a music festival in Terezin.

Dick Kattenburg's "Trio a cordes" opens the disc. Fleeing detection after the German occupation of the Netherlands, the composer may have been informed upon, leading to his demise in 1944, presumably at Auschwitz. The string trio is a youthful work, resting on a persistent lyrical impulse holding sway above a  disturbing undercurrent. It covers a lot of ground within a span of less than five minutes.

For serious, classically based formal mastery, the disc's best piece is by Hans Krasa, an established composer when he was imprisoned in the Czech town of Terezin, then transferred to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. His buoyant aspect is represented by "Tanec," a catchy, energetic piece with singing melodies riding on top. The formal mastery appears in the innovative Passacaglia and Fuga, which successfully cover a wide range of expression. This breadth is expertly displayed by the cohesive group — Desiree Ruhstrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello, and violist Aurelien Fort Pederzoli.

The disc concludes with the longest piece and the one by a composer also Holocaust-imperiled, but who survived in the Netherlands and thrived there after the Second World War, dying in his mid-80s in 1989. Geza Frid's "Trio a cordes," op. 1, stems from his young adulthood under challenge in his native Hungary/Romania.  The late romantic feeling of the slow movement has as companions a playful opening Allegretto and a vigorous Allegro giocoso all'ungherese. True to its heading, the finale presents an authentic-sounding Hungarian profile. Throughout, the Black Oakers exhibit precise dynamic control and rhythmic elan.

The spirit of having to face enforced silence as a composer comes through alarmingly in Paul Hermann's "Strijktrio," which sounds atonal at first, yet moves through a freely rhythmic and restless landscape to find a tonal center at the end. It's not reading into the music too much to find strategies of desperation and escape fruitfully embodied in it.

Also impressive is Gideon Klein's Trio for Violin, Viola, and Cello, a piece in three movements with a Bartokian atmosphere at first. Looked at one way, Klein seems somewhat uncomfortable with the theme-and-variations form in the second movement. But this may be counted a plus insofar as he meant to suggest that large contrasts best suit the 20th-century apprehension of inherited forms. In any case, Klein's snuffed-out creativity parallels that of his companions on this disc, prohibited (or, in Frid's case, stalled) from natural development in both life and art by a historic mass atrocity.

Monday, July 15, 2019

'Viva Vivaldi IV': 2019 Indianapolis Early Music Festival reaches peak of the Italian High Baroque

To paraphrase the slogan in a series of local hospital ads, Antonio Vivaldi is more than his "Four Seasons."

Han Xie, festival guest soloist
That set of four violin  concertos, long subject to industrious redundancy on recordings, is just a picturesque fraction of the Italian master's huge output. Why  should those concertos be entirely overlooked in a concert built on Vivaldi's popularity, which largely rests on them with the music-loving public? Unthinkable!

So the Indianapolis Early Music Festival's "Viva Vivaldi IV: Motets, Arias, and Concerti" on Sunday featured the "Summer" concerto, with soloist Han Xie and the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra, to bring the tribute concert up to intermission at the Indiana History Center.

A native of China, Xie joined the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in 2017. His training at the Peabody Conservatory took in a burgeoning acquaintance with the baroque violin. In this guest appearance, his approach to "Summer," whose programmatic content is anchored in a sonnet like its other companions in the "Seasons" set, was restrained but still colorful.  The detached phrases, thoroughly synchronized with the IBO and concertmaster Allison Nyquist, suited the seasonal character later immortalized in song by Nat 'King' Cole as lazy, hazy, crazy.

Vivaldi's craziness is largely centered in the finale with its thunderstorm and hail onslaught. The ensemble texture was thickened appropriately by theorbo player William Simms picking up baroque guitar.  Xie and the band thoroughly dug into nature's outburst. Also admirable was the performers' artfully blurry yet detailed depiction of insects annoying the poem's tired shepherd yearning for a few moments' rest.

The bulk of the composer's 500-plus concertos are for the violin. Grove's Dictionary's Vivaldi article tells us the solo instruments ranking next highest in frequency are bassoon, cello, and oboe.  No bassoon in the spotlight was represented Sunday, though the program notes mention that the Oboe Concerto in A minor is based on a bassoon piece. That  work opened the program, with Kathryn Montoya as soloist. Her tone was on the acerbic side, and a few notes in running passages didn't sound fully, yet the zest and rhythmic dash typical of the composer came through. The staggered ensemble entrances in the finale served as a reminder that Vivaldi occasionally indulged in the joys of counterpoint, though he was far from the specialist in it that Bach was.

The other concerto brought IBO member Joanna Blendulf to the fore for a Cello Concerto in F major. The  sequential writing so beloved of the composer came out of the gate breathing fire in the first movement. The slow movement was attractively scaled back to accompany the soloist with theorbo and second cello. The piece was neatly dispatched, though to me it represented the vast plateau of Vivaldian ordinariness.
Esteli Gomez is a returning guest artist of the Early Music Festival.

Finally, it was a treat to hear again soprano Esteli Gomez in three works for voice and ensemble: two sacred motets and an opera aria. Vivaldi's skill in tone-painting — so much a part of the popularity he enjoys via "The Four Seasons" — was evident especially in the aria "Zeffiretti, che sussurate." The whispering little breezes of the title are nicely suggested by the two violins in close harmony. The text's depiction of love's voice being reflected in various aspects of the pastoral scene was echoed by the adroit dialogue of voice and instruments. Gomez's ornamentation, especially in the elaboration of the opening material, had consistent radiance and precision.

As for the motets, in "In Furore in lustissimae irae," her expressive variety  between representing God's fury with sinners and a sinner's plea for mercy was especially vivid. In "Nulla in mundo pax sincera," she managed the interval leaps well in the evocative line (here in translation) "Amidst punishment and torment lives the contented soul, chaste love its only hope."  The recitative was demanding after its own fashion, with melismas tossed off in the singer's urging us to flee the world's deceitful snares. In both motets, the virtuosity she exhibited in the concluding "Alleluia" movements was astonishing.

Vivaldi, whose reputation has never quite amounted to master status, was nonetheless well served by performances that represented his enduring attractiveness. And yes, he is certainly more than his "Four Seasons."

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Early Music Festival heads into final weekend honoring Leonardo da Vinci

"The World of Leonardo" extends to our world in surprising ways, such as the record-setting sale of his painting
"Salvator Mundi" at auction for $4.5 million a year ago November.

Leonardo Da Vinci's high-priced painting "Salvator Mundi."
The work was among the screen images that enhanced a concert featuring a host of musicians, including members of the locally based Alchymy Viols and Echoing Air, and two dancers. The program was conceived and directed by Mark Cudek, artistic director of the presenting Indianapolis Early Music Festival, and Phil Spray, who guides Alchemy Viols.

The program was focused on Leonardo's enduring genius, a legacy also represented by two other images much imitated and admired: "The Last Supper" and "Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)." But painting was only a small part of his multifaceted genius. His inventions, many taken by their creator only to the design stage, were far-reaching, anticipating technological advances centuries in the future. Several were presented for viewing in the Indiana History Center lobby as realized by students under the direction of Woody Bredehoeft,

The music drew upon dance, song, and sacred forms of the 15th and 16th centuries. The social purpose of dance in Renaissance Europe was embodied in Catherine Turocy's stately choreography for costumed dancers Kali Page and Joe Caruana. Complementary movement in and around the ensemble was well-conceived so that neither dancers nor musicians were distractions for the other. The resulting balance could thus be seen as well as heard.

Esteli Gomez, a soprano who added so much to Ensemble Caprice concerts for the festival in 2015 and 2018, was featured in frottole (secular songs) by several composers, such as the melodiously named Bartolomeo Tromboncino and Marchetto Cara. Her idiomatic rendering of tremolos in Tromboncino's "Ostinato vo seguire," an assertion of the value persistence in love, was among her many stylistic triumphs.

She is an expressive singer without mannerisms that might obscure her technical security. This was a useful display of versatility in numbers that, for all the similarities they share in creative milieus and forms, span a wide range of secular and sacred purposes. With the assistance of three male singers from Echoing Air, Gomez made special the celebrated "Puer natus est" of Heinrich Isaac, an a cappella Gregorian chant setting.

The instrumental ensemble was notable for its pinpoint coordination and the occasional virtuoso spotlights shone upon its adept members, especially lutenist Ronn McFarlane.

Phil Spray came forward at several points in the program to deliver spirited reminders of Da Vinci's genius and notable incidents of his life, several of which have come down to us through Giorgio Vasari's landmark biographies in "Lives of the Artists." That's the source of the Leonardo death narrative, with the artist being comforted in his final moments by the King of France, his most illustrious foreign patron. Leonardo's hometown of Florence had become a less welcome place to him, according to Vasari, because of a bitter rivalry with Michelangelo.  In Vasari's telling, piety overcame the artist during his final illness — a reminder that Leonardo's stature as a secular saint to posterity is far from the whole story.

Given that Vasari ends his account with praise chiefly for the knowledge Leonardo imparted about the anatomy of humans and horses, a dance-based program was an obvious emphasis for a concert evoking the setting of his innovations. Not everything could be covered, so why not stress form and its physical components as brought forth musically? Any one of several directions could have been taken to honor Leonardo on the 500th anniversary of his death, and this one seemed a most natural and well-executed choice for the 53rd annual festival.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

A power trio with no keyboard needed: Blake-Oh-Potter's 'Trion'

Drummer Johnathan Blake is the leader of this two-disc trio outing
Oh, Blake, and Potter take care of business at the Jazz Gallery.
recorded in early 2018 at New York's Jazz Gallery, and I had little reason at first to believe it would be consistently enthralling.

There's no "chordal instrument," as the publicity for "Trion" makes clear, and thus the harmonic component — while apt to be hinted at by tenor saxophone, bass, and even the drum set —would be muted or absent. My familiarity on record with the three players, especially Chris Potter, raised my expectations somewhat. But two hours of tenor-bass-drums music?

Knowing that the work is supported by the nonprofit Giant Step Arts, produced by Jimmy Katz, which is designed specifically to give public exposure to commercially doubtful but artistically worthy projects in jazz, seemed encouraging. It turns out the "wow" factor is pretty consistent on "Trion."

"Trion" exposes many revealing aspects of individuality wedded to Blake's trio concept. At the same time, there's next to no going along for the ride. Linda May Han Oh might perhaps be expected to recede in comparison with the powerful contributions of Potter and Blake.  But I didn't get the feeling that her presence was simply foundational and intended to suggest harmonies. And her solos are superb: In "Synchronicity 1," she displays a great instinct for linking registers and binding together her solos. 

Like her bandmates, she has an unerring way of folding one rhythmic pattern into the next. Near the end of the track just cited, she engages in genuine dialogue with the drums, with neither player just toggle-switching. Coherence is never in doubt, despite the music's amplitude.

Each disc opens with a torrential yet subtly varied Blake solo. The repertoire mixes originals with others' tunes, among which the most famous is Charlie Parker's "Relaxin' at Camarillo." There the bop language is spoken fluently, especially keyed to the well-schooled Potter. Here and elsewhere, he's always refreshing what he sets out on the table, like the chef at a high-end buffet restaurant.

Potter's "Good Hope" lives up to its title with pervasive references to South African music. Blake inserts bright, peppy kicks behind the sax. I enjoyed the ethnic flavor of his blend of muted hi-hat cymbals plus high-pitched toms. He heats up as Potter settles into a short repeated figure. Near the end the buoyancy and freedom of the first part is re-established. 

This is a release you may well feel rewarded listening to one track at a time, hitting the "repeat" button. But it probably won't disappoint if you play both discs all the way through in one sitting. You won't want to assign yourself some simple task at the same time. This isn't background music.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

I'm Counting On You (The Census Citizenship Question Song)

Jory Vinikour states the case for the modern harpsichord concerto

Much admired for his recorded contributions to the core harpsichord repertoire, Jory Vinikour in a new Cedille release displays the viability of the major 18th-century keyboard instrument in a mainstream modernist context.
Jory Vinikour is a prolific recording and concert artist.

"20th-Century Harpsichord Concertos" puts the Chicago native in front of the Chicago Philharmonic under the direction of Scott Speck for four such works. The well-recorded program includes the premiere recording of  Ned Rorem's Concertino da Camera, an early composition (1946) by one of the outstanding living American composers, who's now 95.

The Concertino is a frisky piece, starting with a Poulenc-like outburst of urbane nonchalance. The first movement boasts many tempo shifts and becomes almost theatrical in its pixieish variety, with winds predominating. The flute leads the ensemble in a sostenuto texture for the slow movement, with a delayed harpsichord entrance introducing a steady eighth-note pattern. The lyricism has the full flavor of youth about it. The finale, which sustains a skipping, animated 6/8 meter, is offhand, clever, and concise.

Vinikour has become quite the advocate for Victor Kalabis's Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings, the longest work on the disc. He dedicates the recording to the memory of the composer (1923-2006) and his harpsichordist-wife Zuzana Ruzickova. In the first movement, the predominant mood is restless and assertive, flecked with dissonance. The harpsichord is well-suited to filling out a cluttered texture with patterns that would become tedious if assigned to the piano.

Every piece included makes the point that putting the harpsichord in combination with modern orchestral instruments is not some sort of time-travel essay.  It's rather a matter of answering the challenge of finding a new language for characteristic harpsichord sonorities — including its doubling and buff-stop idiosyncrasies — to be expressed with proportional accompaniment.

In the Kalabis, the solo-ensemble chatter in the finale, Allegro vivo, is thrilling, especially when it takes an inward turn to accommodate a violin solo near the end. This concerto often presents an aggressive front, but its overall demeanor deftly blends solo self-esteem with collegiality.

The disc opens with Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings by the short-lived Englishman Walter Leigh (1905-1942). The work is likely to remind the listener of a Bach concerto at the outset. Then it settles into a neo-classical vein, with a plethora of sequences that manage not to wear out their welcome over a three-and-a-half-minute span.  The slow movement has the charm of a modal English folk song about it, and the sharply accented Allegro vivace finale underlines the virtue of compactness when the generating material is modest.

Concluding the program is Michael Nyman's unconventional Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord and Strings, which builds a pedestal on which to place a memorial tango. The amplification doesn't much alter the unmiked instrument's sound, but rather sets it in low relief against the strings. The most delightful aspect of the piece is the way the central tango is succeeded by a solo cadenza. That high-profile episode is then capped by a jazzy "post-cadenza" movement, with the exuberance spread all around.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Guitarist John Scofield returns within a year to harvest a Combo 66 crop again

He declares his affection for Indianapolis each time he brings his band onstage, if memory serves. So it's no surprise that, for an A-list jazzman, John Scofield has come here fairly often. And it's our good fortune.
The patriarchal pose suits old maestro John Scofield just fine.

The latest gig is another two-night stand at the Jazz Kitchen. He is returning with his Combo 66 quartet, drawing on memories of his first appearance here with the same personnel last fall. His sidemen are Gerald Clayton, keyboards; Vicente Archer, bass, and Bill Stewart, drums.

I'm not especially partial to guitarists, but I find Scofield always worth hearing. Unless his personal collection of licks and cliches is so vast I can't remember them, he seems remarkably free of working a groove or a melodic idiosyncrasy to death. Saturday night's first set was no exception, even though the set list overlapped what he had to offer when I heard the band in October 2018.

I will avoid recycling the well-meant but rather flimsy literary analogy I came up with last time. I will stick to music and avoid comparisons even to other guitarists. If Scofield can always bring something fresh, I should try to honor that in my own way.

Again, he's conversant with a host of musical styles, adapted with unmistakable individuality. Clearly, he still nurtures an autumnal affinity for country music, a specialty he honed with considerable success in a 2016 Impulse release, "Country for Old Men." The genre allows him to inject a smoky baritone personality (think George Jones or Johnny Cash) into his playing, and the bent timbre of the pedal steel guitar can be referenced fruitfully as well. The blues is no stranger, either.

As the 70-minute set worked toward its conclusion, there was a lengthy excursion into the melancholy side of country with "Hangover."  Scofield passed through episodes of strumming, upper-range quaver, and keening lyricism, especially in his second solo, building upon Clayton's moony, swooping organ solo and the lightly applied funk suggestions in Archer's outing.

That led up to a finale whose title I didn't catch. Clayton returned to the piano, revealing with consistency that there are wholly different ways in which the conventional keyboard instrument shines in contrast to the organ. Stewart, as his long association with Scofield illustrates, hangs with the guitarist idiomatically at every turn; he never sounds like a mere timekeeper when the music draws upon rural inspirations, for example.

Scofield turned his soloing into an exhibition of vernacular electric-guitar styles. It was a personal application of what Duke Ellington used to call "the wailing interval" when introducing a Paul Gonsalves showcase. This was how Scofield roused the crowd at the end of his first set last October, and if some want to disdain that as "playing to the gallery," let them. I think it illustrates his masterly way of constructing a set. Wailing works! You can trot out all the subtlety and nuance you want along the way, and this guitarist wrote the book on much of that. But it never hurts to ramp up the energy in sustaining your friendship with local fans, as Scofield and Combo 66 should continue to do tonight.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

ACRONYM displays upper-case excellence under Early Music Festival auspices

Taking it to the streets: ACRONYM presented "Dreams of a Wounded Musketeer."
Opening the second weekend of the Indianapolis Early Music Festival with a program titled "Dreams of the Wounded Musketeer," ACRONYM went from a 17th-century response to foreign musical and martial influences to the rigors of full-fledged battle, which is given the ultimate in picturesqueness in the "Battalia" in D major by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, a major composer of the early German Baroque.

Threats to a fictional "wounded musketeer" are used as a programmatic device to link short compositions known to 17th-century Viennese musicians and their audiences. The program notes speak in his well-informed, sometimes anguished voice. Viennese in those days looked with anxiety to the east, whence Ottoman attacks and invasions emerged. "Battalia" is a concise, rich collection of depictions of occasionally undisciplined soldiery, both at war and during lulls and leisure from it, who were charged with defending the Holy Roman Empire.

ACRONYM's program-ending account of "Battalia" differs from those of other early-music ensembles whose recordings I'm acquainted with. Some of the details as far as ensemble balance, "special effects," and the doleful ending in particular must be a matter of adaptation for today's performers. Last night, a pizzicato snap on the double bass concisely represented the soldier's demise, all dreams ended. An earlier episode of soldierly revelry has been compared in its chaos of contradictory musical statements to Charles Ives. There must be considerable interpretive freedom suggested by the scores.

"Battalia" in ACRONYM's performance had the precision and panache of everything that had preceded it, starting from the piece alluded to above, "Sonata Jucunda in D minor," which carries an "anonymous" label with the parenthetical suggestion that it is the work of Biber or his teacher Johann Heinrich Schmelzer.

Schmelzer was represented with certainty by his "Serenada in Mascara in A," a catchy representation of a masked ball. The dotted rhythms animating the simple theme displayed how close "classical music" in its early phases was to ordinary life, at least as ordinarily lived among society's upper crust.

The 12-person string ensemble, anchored to a central harpsichord and portative organ in a continuo role,  now and then performed at slightly reduced numbers according to the needs of a particular piece. The music was loaded with abrupt shifts in texture, occasionally in meter and tempo as well. There was a wealth of piquant overlapping and imitation of melodic lines among the four violinists, always grounded in support from middle- and lower-voice strings, which included viola da gamba,  lirone, cello, bass, and the skyscraperesque plucked-string bass lute called the theorbo.

ACRONYM was formed in 2012 specifically to play Johann Pezel's "Opus Musicum Sonatarum," a chaconne from which brought the concert's first half to a close at the Indiana History Center. Three violin soloists were featured in highly individualized episodes, which decorated the underlying chaconne with a variety of emphasis. The triple meter characteristic of the form helped ACRONYM impart a real swing to the music.

The Pezel displayed the unity and zest that seems to have carried such a large early-music group intact over the seven years since its founding on the narrow, but obviously sustaining, fulcrum of a single work. From there this expert band has spread its reach to explore the wealth of music that enabled the more familiar High Baroque to emerge and flourish.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Roses and swords: Cincinnati Opera's 'Romeo and Juliet' adds splendor to love/feud polarity

Balcony scene: "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?"
Although Charles Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette" is no operatic obscurity, chances are many patrons of its production this weekend by Cincinnati Opera are familiar mostly with Shakespeare's romantic tragedy.

This company is up to its 23rd and 24th performances of the work (the first having been in 1922), which speaks to the durability of the French opera on its own. And the current co-production with Minnesota Opera gives many reasons to see "Romeo and Juliet" through the Gounod prism — with its characteristic sweetness, stageworthy majesty and forthright lyricism.

As seen Thursday night in the magnificently renovated Music Hall, "Romeo and Juliet" focuses on the symbolism of overwhelming love between "star-crossed lovers" challenged by an implacable feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. As everyone knows, miscommunication involving fatal and faux-fatal potions dooms the lovers, already challenged by Romeo's exile from Verona for having killed Juliet's cousin Tybalt.

Romeo (Matthew White) tries to separate Tybalt from Mercutio.
Gounod and his librettists make the death-eager hostility of Tybalt very nearly the fulcrum of the tragic action. So I will delay commenting on the principals. It's fortunate that Cincinnati Opera has an excellent Tybalt in Piotr Buszewski. It rests on this character to trumpet the Montague scion's intrusion on a Capulet party as a supreme insult and to stoke the interfamily bitterness more than either patriarch does.

The collective hostility is muted by the opera creators' elimination of Shakespeare's street brawl at the start. We get a sumptuously staged masked ball to launch the action, with the foreboding element of Tybalt's exposure of the party-crashing Montagues. Strenuous and intensely focused, Buszewski's Tybalt drives the action right through to his swordfight with the effervescent Mercutio, whose death Romeo immediately avenges by stabbing the Capulet hothead. With his dying wish that Juliet marry the somewhat wooden wooer Paris, the operatic Tybalt complicates matters beyond the grave.

The expansiveness of Matthew Ozawa's stage direction works magic whether the performing space is full of people or restricted to the title characters. It complements the wonders of William Boles' scenic design and the kaleidoscopic variety of Thomas C. Hase's lighting. Large, sculptural roses suspended above the stage change colors to suit the mood, from blood-red to ashen. Rows of white swords are often superimposed on the backdrop to contrast with the outsized blooms.

Ending Act 3 in the original, the grandest of grand-opera finales allows the striking visual effects (swords and roses vying for supremacy) and the music to come together impressively. The doubly fatal swordfight issues in the Duke of Verona's appearance, together with what feels like the entire
Nicole Cabell displayed Juliet's sudden maturity.
Veronese citizenry, in a chorus confirming Romeo's banishment and lamenting the irreparable rift in civic life. Conductor Ramon Tebar's exuberant control of orchestra and chorus made this scene one that will likely be deposited in the memory banks of many, to be withdrawn whenever they feel the need to answer the question: Why do you go to the opera?

Now for the principals.  Nicole Cabell captured aspects of her character that commentators on Shakespeare's play have noted: Juliet is more intelligent than Romeo and matures with stunning quickness. Cabell's soprano has a suitably worldly-wise sound. Juliet's  passion doesn't remain girlish for long. In fact, Juliet's initial effusion — the waltz "Je veux vivre dans ce reve, qui m'enivre," one of the score's "greatest hits"— didn't sound as natural Thursday night as Cabell did in the later duets with Romeo. She really blossomed as completely as the production's rose imagery with the advancement of the plot toward its tragic conclusion.

Matthew White, a handsome tenor with the look and a few vocal hints of Wagner's Siegfried, was a Romeo who repeatedly excited the audience.  (Special praise to him for stepping into the production on short notice.) His phrasing was fully sustained and the tone imbued with fervor. I found his performance of the great aria at the start of the balcony scene, "Ah! leve-toi soleil"  moving but a little under strain technically. In terms of pure loveliness, a hallmark for tenors in French opera, he didn't have lots to offer. But his performance was vivid and always displayed thoroughly credible rapport with Cabell. This came through time and again, from the lovers' initial meeting at the masked ball, through the balcony scene (with the symbolic splendor of a large coffered picture frame around Juliet), the nuptials, the night of consummation, and on to the tomb scene.

Mercutio extols the power of dreams in the fairyland of Queen Mab.
In other roles, baritone Hadleigh Adams deserves kudos for his irrepressible bonhomie as Mercutio, fun-loving in his interplay with Romeo and aptly imaginative in the "Queen Mab" aria. With his comfy bass timbre, Kenneth Shaw projected the humane warmth and partisanship on the lovers' behalf that Friar Laurent needs to have.  Catherine Keen had the matronly vigor and steadiness, even when teased by Capulet comrades, that Juliet's nurse requires to anchor the action somewhat in the real world. And in another one of the opera's few lighter moments, Reilly Nelson shone in the solo spotlight as Romeo's page, Stephano.

The second and final performance of "Romeo and Juliet" will be Saturday night. It's likely that something new in this time-worn story will be found by anyone who attends.

 [Photos by Philip Groshong]

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Premium Blend is well-suited to its rising jazz profile

Having caught the first of two sets Premium Blend played Saturday night, I feel compelled to mention the ensemble's virtues as well as its "Vices."

"Vices" is the name of its new recording, available via streaming only. The physical CD, as bandleader Jared Thompson suggested from the Jazz Kitchen bandstand, is so 20th century. (Naturally, I have thousands of them.)

Thompson solicited compliments on his new suit, with the band name fixed inside the jacket. He got them. The music on hand was just as suitable, especially to the musical spiffiness of the quartet: Thompson, saxophone; Ryan Taylor, guitar and repertoire-builder along with the leader; Steven Jones, keyboards, and Brian Yarde, drums.

Premium Blend lived up to its name at the Jazz Kitchen.
As to those virtues, this is a steadily cohesive band, with an original book loaded with catchy tunes, arranged to showcase the group's unity as an ensemble as well as the solo skills of its members. Especially impressive was the avoidance of unaccompanied drum solos in the set I heard; Yarde's solo space featured enlivening punctuation by the band, which afforded plenty of opportunity to appreciate his control and fiery virtuosity. Extended drum solos, tempo shifts all over creation, with everyone just looking on are proven applause-generators, but it's a relief to be free of them now and then.

Rob Dixon, the oft-cited "mayor" of Indianapolis jazz, sat in on alto and soprano saxes for several pieces. Thompson cites him as a mentor, yet it was evident that each man has his own style. In general, the tenor saxophonist was more florid, though always capable of making a point, not scattering the seeds of his inspiration on stony places. Dixon was just as intense, but somewhat less inclined to release flurries of notes. Both men displayed hearty, well-centered tones. Raggedy saxophonics are overrated.

They were solid partners in stating the themes. Doing so when Dixon was not onstage was the responsibility of Thompson and Taylor in unison. Accompaniments for the two-sax front line were almost always well-judged. An exception was Thompson's "Affirmation," when the thickness of background patterns was a bit too much to allow Thompson to stand out. The texture was scaled back somewhat for Dixon's solo — accidental or in tribute to the old master?

I admired Jones' facility and spicy flavors at the keyboards, including an instrument devoted to laying down nimble bass lines.  Taylor in his solos was skittery, facile, drawing the listener in and yet able to vary guitar color outwardly, as he did when intensifying his sound for a moody piece titled "Torment."

The tune didn't come close to stressing the darkness Thompson mentioned afterwards until near the end. However you interpret it, it's a safe bet Premium Blend is not focused on tormenting its audiences, but rather dispensing well-coordinated musical pleasure. Despite the new release's title, this band keeps any vices at a safe distance. As usual, virtue is its own reward.