Thursday, February 28, 2019

'You're Invited!" is the ISO's shout of welcome to the 2019-2020 season

Beethoven's 250th birthday will be observed next year.
The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra will be explicit about embracing the role of host next season. It's developed the marketing slogan "You're invited!" for pops and classical concerts at Hilbert Circle Theater, its home on Monument Circle since 1984.

At a reception for donors and other supporters this week, the orchestra unfolded its schedule for 2019-2020, with a number of novelties in addition to reliable repertoire for arousing the public interest. Long ago an ISO staff member told me, off the record, that the industry standard of attracting 2 percent of the public to any year's total of symphony orchestra offerings seemed a remote goal. "Around here," he lamented, "I wonder if 1 percent is more realistic."

So there's an understandably constant battle to keep as much of the central Indiana populace interested as possible. Who knows what will work, especially in rapidly changing times with so many entertainment options? As Ludwig van Beethoven, whose 250th birth anniversary will be widely celebrated next season, once closed a letter to his publisher, Breitkopf and Hǟrtel: "I no longer expect anything stable in this age; one can be certain of nothing but blind chance." Today, he might have added the shoulder-shrug emoticon.

The weary composer was referring to international politics, not music; in the winter of 1809, Napoleon and Austria had just concluded hostilities, which Beethoven called "this dead peace." But his skepticism could be applied to both politics and art, covering our own day as well as his. The ISO can't afford to leave to blind chance the fulfillment of its musical mission, however. 
The ISO music director will be heavy into Beethoven next season.

And so in 2020 we have the novel and the reliable approaches blended around Beethoven himself. When the New Year dawns, the ISO will launch a survey of the first five symphonies under the baton of music director Krzysztof Urbanski (Jan. 20-25).

 Since Beethoven's music has never left the mainstream, calling special attention to it has to involve more than revisiting it. The ISO's innovation is to place a newly commissioned work on each Beethoven program; the living composers who'll rub shoulders with the birthday boy are Nathaniel Stookey, Hannah Lash, Dejan Lazic, Huw Watkins, and Katherine Balch.

And next season will  end with two weekends of Beethoven concerts, also conducted by Urbanski. The first (May 28-30) will bring in two veteran guest artists, Yefim Bronfman and Emanuel Ax, as soloists in the five Beethoven piano concertos. 

The second (June 5 and 6) will be devoted to "Missa Solemnis," Beethoven's grandest work for chorus and orchestra, with four guest soloists and the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir. The ISO brochure has devised an odd rubric for all the Beethoven concerts: BTHVN 2020. I'm not sure how you say that; I guess you're just supposed to look at it and supply the vowels in your head. 

Other major works in next season's second half will acquaint ISO audiences with prominent conductors in concerts focusing on some major 20th century masterworks: Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" (Gustavo Gimeno), Feb. 27-29; Mahler's Fifth Symphony (David Danzmayr), March 13-14; and Hindemith's "Mathis der Maler" Symphony (Ruth Reinhardt), March 19-21. 

Those concerts will be bookended by excursions led by a couple of other guest conductors (Marc Albrecht and Jun Mǟrkl, respectively) through a couple of 19th-century masterpieces: Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" (Feb. 7-8) and Mendelssohn's "Elijah" (March  27-28). 

Other notable events on the season will be spotlights on three of the ISO's young principals: Conrad Jones will be featured in Haydn's Trumpet Concerto April 16-18; cellist Austin Huntington will be one-third of the soloists in Beethoven's Triple Concerto Jan. 17-18; the others will be pianist Lazic and violinist Benjamin Schmid. Jennifer Christen will have the soloist position in the Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto May 7-9 when Edo de Waart is the podium guest.

Other living composers represented outside the Beethoven symphony survey include Jennifer Higdon, with "All Things Majestic" (Oct.10-12), conducted by new music specialist Robert Spano; Anna Clyne, with "The Midnight Hour," conducted by Reinhardt, and Guillaume Connesson ("The Shining One") in an all-French program conducted by Urbanski (Nov. 8 and 9). The ultimate in the living-composer category as far as age goes will  be Alma Deutscher in the opening-night gala on Sept. 14; the 14-year-old wunderkind will also be represented as a solo violinist and pianist. 

The new and less-familiar music on the season will be balanced by many well-known works, part of the ongoing push to find what will draw in audiences — starting with subscribers, of course, but also driving music lovers to the box office to buy single tickets.  The most eyebrow-raising of the warhorses is perhaps Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," presumably in the overfamiliar orchestration by Maurice Ravel, to lead off the Classical Series under Urbanski's baton (Sept. 20 and 21). The comfort-food menu will be joined by Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, with Julian Rachlin the soloist.

Pops maestro Jack Everly has put together a season with several surefire hits, spotlighting Broadway, cabaret, and television stars Leslie Odom Jr. (Jan. 31-Feb.1), Ann Hampton Callaway in a Linda Ronstadt tribute (March 6 and 7), Lea Salonga (April 24-25), and Mandy Gonzalez (June 12 and 13). 

Everly's encyclopedic knowledge of the field  comes into view in the season-opener, "Vienna to Broadway" (Oct. 4 and 5), which will trace how popular operettas laid the roadbed for an American innovation, musical comedy. Everly will also be on the podium (April 3 and 4) for "West Side Story in Concert," with a highly anticipated cast not to begin settling until August.

The ISO's dip into more contemporary popular culture — a notable feature of the "Symphony on the Prairie" series at Conner Prairie — has a place in the downtown series with a tribute to Journey, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac "and more" on May 15 and 16. Similarly, the season "specials," in addition to the annual "Yuletide Celebration" and the Opening Night Gala, will extend the popular accompanied flm series this summer with "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2" (June 21-22, 2019) and "The Little Mermaid" (July 19-20).  The film series proper in 2019-20 offers the following: "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi" (Sept. 27-29), "Psycho" (Oct. 31), "Casablanca" (Feb. 14-15) and "Mary Poppins" (May 2 and 3).

For complete information and to feel you have personal confirmation that, indeed, "you're invited," go to the ISO website.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Half-dozen strong John Fedchock band plays the Jazz Kitchen

Veteran bandleader and superlative trombonist John Fedchock
As adaptable as local sidemen can be working with traveling guest stars, it's always a  great treat to hear a strong, seasoned working band on the Jazz Kitchen stage.

On Sunday night, it was the John Fedchock New York Sextet on  the bandstand for one generously proportioned set. Led by a highly respected trombonist whose New York Big Band has long been a magnet for the top players in that perpetual jazz center, the small group shows the same sense of scale, balance, and inspiration as the large ensemble.

The arrangements were illuminating and well-grounded, and the solos followed suit. That was evident from the opening number on — "This Just In" (a tune built on the harmonic structure of "Just in Time"; a contrafact, as the bandleader explained). I especially liked the logical progress of tenor saxophonist Tom Christensen's solo, and the neat yet adventurous episode trading eights between drummer Dennis Makrel and the front line (trumpeter Mike Rodriguez in addition to Fedchock and Christensen).

Whether reconstructing such a standard or building a fresh approach to an original melody, Fedchock's arrangements displayed zest and cohesiveness. His setting of "Nature Boy," played without the introduction, was something you could sink your teeth into. Concise solos were distributed around the band, with the trombonist offering the first of several marvelous statements.  His agility and fertile imagination rolled out time and time again: The trombone line leapt between registers with ease and sometimes packed in well-timed filigree. You had the feeling you could look at a transcript of a Fedchock solo, and if no name were attached to it and it were displaced an octave higher, you'd have a hard time guessing the instruments or the player.

The whole band naturally produced fresh perspectives, as in Fedchock's "Not-So-New Blues," for which bassist Dick Sarpola set the tone, telling a story according to the Lester Young gospel.  The performance also featured a witty piano solo by Allen Farnham, a Fedchock associate for over 20 years, and a characteristically tasteful and inviting one by Rodriguez. And though it's somewhat formulaic, here and elsewhere in the set, there were exchanges with the drummer that invariably displayed the men's ability to say something cogent in miniature.

With Rodriguez picking up the flugelhorn, the band presented a gentle close-order drill in Fedchock's arrangement of Tom Harrell's "Moon Alley," the harmonies glowing right through the repeated final phrase. I was also struck by the leader's setting of "Days of Wine and Roses," which had an uncanny big-band feel to its voicings, yet was perfectly well-designed for this six-piece group.

I took exception only to the Fedchock version of "Giant Steps." It seemed a tricky revision of the John Coltrane original, and it lost me much of the way. The tune's famous shifts of harmony sounded blurred in a rather glib rethinking of the tune. Maybe I'm a 21st-century version of a "moldy fig," but I kept missing the classic approach to the piece in which its harmonic low hurdles are easily cleared by good players, but at least evident. Some of the soloing suited what I'll admit might have been my onrush of nostalgia:  Christensen evoked the seminal Coltrane style, and Farnham's solo settled for a while into a left-hand pattern reminiscent of McCoy Tyner's in the Coltrane quartet hit "My Favorite Things." Finally, Mackrel seemed to be channeling some of Elvin Jones' rhythmically spread manner in his solo. After all this, the outchorus made more sense. Yet I'm tempted to retitle Fedchock's "Giant Steps" something like "Giant Glides."

But this response amounts to one muted raspberry amid my huzzahs for this expert group and gratitude for my good fortune in hearing it live.

[Photo: Chris Drukker]

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Third time's the charm?: Emmet Cohen returns as APA jazz finalist, a position he first held in 2010

Local fans of the quadrennial American Pianists Awards in Jazz have had the opportunity to become familiar with Emmet Cohen over a longer time than usual.
Emmet Cohen in a portrait reflecting his impulsive and thoughtful sides.

At 29, the New York-based musician is back for the third time as a finalist in the quadrennial American Pianists Association jazz competition — unprecedented in its history, according to APA CEO and artistic director Joel Harrison, who introduced Cohen Saturday night at the Jazz Kitchen.

The Miami native concluded the Premiere Series, in which the APA presents five finalists in trio settings over the course of a season, accompanied by local musicians Nick Tucker, bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums. From here on out, the contestants will be judged during Discovery Week in April, with the result that one of them will be named the Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz and thus taken under the APA wing for two years.

Heard in the second of two sets, Cohen struck me as more focused on distributing his ample resources cleverly than he had in an Eskenazi Health performance four-plus years ago. Sometimes it seems that, whether a musician is in competitive mode or not, unaccompanied excursions can bring out displays of virtuosity that may slightly obscure a pianist's control and depth of personality. I was impressed by Cohen then, but a combination of further seasoning plus the collegial trio format seems to have inclined him to "load every rift with ore," to quote John Keats' advice to his fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Like so many up-and-coming jazz pianists since the bebop era, Cohen is encyclopedic in his coverage of historical styles and subgenres. His musical literacy seemed to embrace Claude Debussy in an impressionistic original, "In a Dream."

The knowledgeable centerpiece during the second set was his four-part tribute to Cedar Walton, an eminent pianist-composer who died at 79 in 2013. Cohen and his bandmates found original ways of finding the core of four Walton tuens: "Hindsight," "Holy Land," "Dear Ruth," and "Mosaic."  The trio's accounts were fully individualized as well. The value of honoring the past, less by mimicry than by reshaping its gifts to the present,  was intensively engaged. There were firmly rooted solo displays from both Tucker and Phelps, plus a crowd of deft two-bar exchanges between piano and drums.

Cohen's sense of fun as well as another part of his heritage came into view with "Hotsy Kaddish," a setting in different tempos and moods of a Jewish prayer. The pianist's rhythmic acuity was particularly in evidence — the performance really jumped. That exhibition by the excellent trio amounted to a well-coordinated prelude to the set's lickety-split finale, Cohen's arrangement of the chordally animated "Braggin' in Brass," an early Duke Ellington showcase for his seminal big band.

Previously, there had been both wit and tenderness suffusing the Hoagy Carmichael evergreen "Two Sleepy People." The trio's repeated pause between "Here" and "we are" in the song's first line was an especially droll touch. The set began with Cohen's unaccompanied soloing in Scott Joplin's "Original Rags," which was restrained and respectful of the pre-jazz idiom, but never staid or academic. One of Ellington's Shakespearean turns – "Such Sweet Thunder," a portrait of the warrior Othello — then brought the trio on. It opened, naturally enough, with some tom-tom drum rolls — sweet thunder indeed — and gathered bluesy energy from all three musicians as it swept across the battlefield.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Austro-German concentration: One full-length ISO concert this weekend, featuring two young guest artists

It was meat-and-potatoes repertoire for the first short Classical weekend of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's 2019 schedule — an Austro-German focus with three of the four pieces well-known.

Conductor Christoph König's career is based principally in Europe.
Friday's concert at Hilbert Circle Theatre, reviewed here, will not be repeated; a partial preview was offered in Thursday's Coffee Classical series, conducted by Christoph König, music director of the Solistes Europeens Luxembourg. For both concerts, the guest soloist was mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught, also making an ISO debut.

The Irish singer put across a steady interpretation of Gustav Mahler's "Rückert Lieder," five songs set to poems by the 19th-century German writer Friedrich Rückert. Her voice blossomed expressively at the right times, though more intensity was needed at the climax of "Liebst du um Schönheit." The missing fiery glow was supplied in the final song of the set, "Um Mitternacht," where she applied gloomy intensity  to the second verse (a partial translation: "No star in the entire mass smiled down at me at midnight"). The transfiguration of the lament in the last verse, made stark and mighty by the composer's focus on winds and percussion, was majestically handled by voice and instruments alike.

König and the orchestra opened the concert with a well-modulated reading of Richard Wagner's "Meistersinger" Prelude. The stately beginning was kept from sagging, and the light-hearted march characterizing Nuremberg's apprentices contrasted well with the procession of the town's august master singers. The Prize Song featured a string accompaniment of surpassing delicacy. As the themes are recombined in glory, the ISO and its suave guest conductor rose fully to the occasion.

As a student musician long ago, one of my fondest youth-orchestra memories was rehearsing and playing for a loyal public Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 459 ("Unfinished"). In the middle of those wonderful trombone chords in the first movement (I played second trombone), I inevitably thought: "Hey, maybe I'm meant to do this for many years to come." I was wrong about that, but this music is so seamless a blend of means and ends that even a fledgling ensemble can take pleasure in preparing it. The ISO's account was many levels higher, of course, with well-shaped phrases, pinpoint dynamic contrast, and balances that strongly carried the music's strong yet tantalizingly ambivalent message.

Speaking of nostalgia, here's a double dose: With "Der Rosenkavalier," Richard Strauss as opera composer pulled back from the asperities of "Salome" and "Elektra" for an elaborate, retrospective interpretation of upper-echelon 18th-century Vienna. The complicated plot surface is rooted in canny characterization, full of intrigue and awash in emotion. All of it eventually amounts to the age-old comedy resolution: the love that is meant to be is firmly asserted after all barriers are struck down.

The other nostalgic thread pulled by this performance of Strauss' orchestral suite from the opera connects to an old New Yorker cartoon that may have been evoked for others in the audience as well. In addition to its sweeping waltz episodes and recollection of  the opera's bustle and confusion, the suite climaxes in  uplifting reminders of the last act — especially the trio for sopranos in which the aging Marschallin gives up her romantic dream for the sake of a young couple, followed by that couple's simple duet of mutual devotion. "Der Rosenkavalier" thus emphasizes at the end the virtue of accepting what must be; magnanimity is tinged with regret for the loss of what might have been. A secular peace which passeth all understanding can be glimpsed.

No wonder cartoonist Edward Frascino's bedridden middle-aged man, tucked under blankets and looking haggard, makes this request of his wife, standing nearby: "I know the doctor said this is only a bad cold, but in case he's mistaken I'd like to hear side eight of 'Der Rosenkavalier' one last time."

For all those fond of the "Rosenkavalier" side eights in their LP collections, as well as those who know the opera fully staged, this performance probably delivered the goods, allowing for the absence of glorious singing and lavish sets and costumes. The horn section played with healthy bravura, the soloing was first-rate — especially from guest concertmaster Stephen Tavani — and ensemble unity and verve were unfailing once the introductory measures jelled. And the love music produced that dependable catch in the throat.

So yes, when in doubt, put on side eight!

Friday, February 22, 2019

Going wild with Wolfie: Dance Kaleidoscope's 'Funny Bones' features a new suite, 'Merry Mozart'

As David Hochoy told a preview audience at intermission Thursday evening, Mozart is a notoriously difficult composer to set choreographically.  He's too perfect, Hochoy explained, so that there's not much left to fill in in dance terms.

Add to that the difficulty of coming up with amusing choreography that succeeds, and you realize that Hochoy and Dance Kaleidoscope are putting forward a big self-challenge this weekend with "Funny Bones" on the upper stage of Indiana Repertory Theatre.  Committed by this program to tickling those funny bones, what does the trick?  Precise timing helps immeasurably, Hochoy's mentor Martha Graham told him long ago. DK has learned that lesson well.

Approaches to injecting dance with humor were undertaken by members of the troupe in the program's first half, reprising the troupe's contribution to the 2018 Indy Fringe Festival. After intermission the showcase was focused on Hochoy's new work (though the program pinpoints 2001 as its origin), "Merry Mozart."  Eight excerpts from the Austrian genius' oeuvre are pressed into unconventional service for the piece, framed by full-company settings of the "Marriage of Figaro" Overture and the Serenade in D ("Serenata notturna").

Plenty of humor adheres to Mozart in and out of his music. His letters are full of jokiness, some of it coarse. The dramatic tension of "Amadeus," the play and movie exaggerating the rivalry between the upstart prodigy from Salzburg and the imperial court composer, Antonio Salieri, rests largely on the older man's dismay that an ill-mannered buffoon has been unfairly the beneficiary of divine favor.

Dance Kaleidoscope members cavort in "Merry Mozart."
The Mozart shelf of operatic masterpieces is loaded with comedy.  Much of it still plays well today, even though it carries the imprint of racism and sexism. The comedy is often darkened with as much mastery as the funny business: "Don Giovanni," despite murder, seduction, and ghostly retribution, has "dramma giocoso" on its title page. The notches in the rakish hero's belt are lip-smackingly detailed by his servant in the first act. Oh, what #MeToo foreshadowing is there!

In "Cosi fan tutte," we are asked to enjoy a cynical wager in which the male lovers are persuaded to disguise themselves as rival suitors in order to test their ladies' fidelity. "Women are like that!" runs one common translation of the title. And thankfully there's no "Albanian Lives Matter" movement around to object to Ferrando and Guglielmo's broad ethnic caricaturing of the purported suitors.

The exotic is made fun of, not surprising considering the Mozartean public in Prague and Vienna, with racial stereotyping: Lustful, conniving black men get their comeuppance — Osmin in "The Abduction from the Seraglio," Monostatos in "The Magic Flute."  Directors today must lose sleep over how to honor Mozart's sense of humor without tossing box-office-killing poisoned flowers at the audience.

I point this out to underline how successfully Hochoy has celebrated Mozart's sense of humor through finding cues in the music that are life-affirming, that celebrate the buoyancy of the music without sugarcoating or cliche and probably without giving offense. Conflict, as in the delicious interplay of Jillian Godwin and Cody Miley in what Hochoy does with "Non piu andrai" from "The Marriage of Figaro," moves toward resolution and achieves it in a way that will have you saying to yourself, "Well, of course!" The martial energy of the aria is celebrated through gestures and floor-hugging movement of advance and retreat, as well as via an abundance of amusing question and answer.

Hochoy works enchantingly with couples in a few other places: It was charming  to see Mariel Greenlee and Brandon Comer — both not long ago on the DK disabled list — back onstage and tenderly partnered in the slow movement from the sublime Clarinet Concerto. The tension of seduction, evenhandedly thrust forward and resisted, was well counterpointed in Emily Dyson's and Timothy June's duet to "La ci darem la mano" ("Don Giovanni").  Solo piano music suited the bright intimacy that Aleksa Lukasiewicz and Stuart Coleman achieved in another section of the piece. Laura Glover's lighting and Guy Clark's costumes were always apt across the wide musical spectrum.

Some sketchy appreciations of the first half follow: Cut-ups and putdowns, preening and withering,  showing off and just showing up — what suits youth better than their conventional gatherings, whether on the playground (Manuel Valdes' "Recess") or at a high-school rite of passage (Paige Robinson's "Prom")?

Extraterrestrials pay a visit in Missy Thompson's "Out of This World."
Popular culture is rife with humor, sometimes deliberate, sometimes accidental (though the signature of "camp" is often discernible). The program has Missy Thompson's horror-film and sci-fi mash-up, "Out of This World," to delight our sensitivity to assorted baskets of improbables (to vary a phrase from the last presidential campaign).

Speaking of that campaign and its results, Jillian Godwin joins creative forces with the antic muse of Randy Rainbow for "Commander of Cheese," brought off vigorously by five dancers allowed to escape the choreographic corral but perhaps demonstrating that lip-syncing inevitably distracts from the type of illusion dance is best at. The bounds of anarchy are  also approached satirically in Timothy June's "Naptown Misfits," the title characters lovably awkward and idiosyncratic at every turn.

Kids being kids on the playground in "Recess." Don't we miss it!
Dance's peculiar range of illusion is trimmed down in the solo Stuart Coleman fashioned for Paige Robinson in "BruBlech." The choreographer takes from the bouncy, asymmetrical energy of Dave Brubeck's "Unsquare Dance" just what he needs to provide a neat showcase for the witty soloist. At the ensemble end of the humor spectrum were the opening and closing pieces of the first half: Brandon Comer, assisted by Guy Clark costume designs at their most flamboyant, salutes the genius of Broadway in his version  of "Don't Tell Mama" from "Cabaret," making the most of the clever lyrics in a well-structured piece.

And, sending the audience out to the interval with visions of real-world hassles transformed by dance was Mariel Greenlee's "The Waiting Game." This examination of how ordinary people react to having to wait among strangers to get waited on somewhere (that's all of us, and almost every day) externalizes feelings of impatience and self-regard that we usually mute in public.

It was striking how thoroughly the waiting experience was not simply converted into physical expression by the eight dancers,  but also individualized from the ground up and made both amusing and revealing. It was as if dance should be considered basic to processing "the waiting game" and not just a way of representing it. Dance can fill no higher function than to seem more essential than decorative, especially when making us laugh, and "The Waiting Game" is commendably dedicated to the proposition.

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Cedille Records: Lipman recital brings wider recognition to star violist, with the bonus of an APA laureate's piano assistance

A combination of well-known music and novelties puts an extra shine on the luster of Matthew Lipman's debut recording on Cedille.  Optimistically titled "Ascent," it has the locally significant enhancement of accompaniments by his duo partner, Henry Kramer, a laureate in the 2017 American Pianists Association competition.
Matthew Lipman received a coveted Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2015.

Concert artists playing the viola are relatively rare, and the instrument's central position in the symphony orchestra and string quartet only allows its familiarity to extend so far. As a solo voice, it mimics the cello in its low register and as it ascends, it sounds like a beefier violin." Ascent" is a good name for the recording, and not just because various versions of rising, in spirits, pitch, and movement, bear central significance to the program.

By the time the listener reaches the last track, Lipman's arrangement of Franz Waxman's "Carmen Fantasie," there has been ample evidence of the violist's virtuosity, in addition to the solidity of his six-year partnership with Kramer. The program note deftly indicates the naturalness of the viola in fleshing out this sketchy (but essentially pertinent) portrait of one of the most well-loved mezzo-soprano roles, the Spanish gypsy torn between commitment and freedom. (The range in Spain is plainly the refrain.)

Lipman and Kramer sweep invitingly through the fantasized medley. The "fate" music sounds quite idiomatic on the viola; the penetrating harmonics serve the introduction to the Seguidilla particularly well. Throughout, the viola's character across its wide range is well exploited.

Among the disc's other works are two with special claims to attention: One is a short, slight piece by Dmitri Shostakovich, discovered decades after his death in 1975. Impromptu for Viola and Piano, op. 33, focuses on the most solid part of the viola range.  The conservative material has a couple of harmonic twists that will evoke the composer's better-known work, but the expressive spectrum is conservative and romantic. It's a good encore piece for those rare occasions in which a violist plays a recital or one of the relatively few worthy concertos for the instrument.

A centerpiece of such a recital might well be Robert Schumann's "Marchenbilder," op. 113. These four "fairy tale pictures" (to translate the title) lie at the heart of the composer's familiarity with fantasy, aspects of which are inseparable from the mental illness that killed him. Lipman and Kramer maintain a firm partnership while fully characterizing the pieces — slowing the tempo together at apt points, displaying their rhythmic acuity (in "Lebhaft"), and modulating foreground and background responsibilities in the agile "Rasch."  The finale, with its evocation of folk music, is remarkable for the steadiness with which Lipman enunciates the sotto voce melody.

Composer Clarice Assad
The other notable piece in terms of news value is a Lipman-commissioned work from the Brazilian-American composer Clarice Assad.  "Metamorfose" is programmatic to the degree that its two movements represent a familiar transformation from caterpillar-in-chrysalis to full-fledged butterfly.

The tentative cast and mood of confinement in "Crisalidas" suggests the insect in chrysalis. Tense harmonics come in to hint at the aspirational progress of the butterfly's development, which will burst forth in "Danca das Barboletas." But that's only after a calm, free opening section yields to a rhythmically enlivened, fast shimmer of piano chords and the emergence of viola assertiveness in a robust dance that brings forward the vernacular of the composer's homeland effectively.

"Ascent"'s other work by a living composer is Garth Knox's "Fuga libre," an unaccompanied piece assembled initially from fragments that bear increasing expressive heft. Double stops and more intense figuration enter the picture, along with pizzicato. The freedom implied by the title gradually overcomes the structure, and there's an episode with imitation feedback of the sort popularized on electric guitar by Jimi Hendrix.  As this subsides, there is a more wispy use of fragments before linked repeated figures set up a strong climax.

That kind of expressive freedom remains more within a romantic context in the disc's opening work, Phantasy for Viola and Piano, op. 54, by the English composer York Bowen (1854-1961).  Attractive in many respects, the composition strikes me as too diffuse, but some scattering of inspiration perhaps fulfills the "fantasy" assignment Bowen undertook for a 1918 competition. It was still a distinct treat to become acquainted with a composer previously unknown to me, and the duo acquits itself marvelously well in following every twist and turn of the heart-on-sleeve score with technical and expressive unanimity.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

IRT's 'Diary of Anne Frank': The memorial voice from the annex still sounds its notes of resilience and hope

Diarist Anne exults in her spring awakening.
"The Diary of Anne Frank," besides being a monument to human resilience under monstrous threat, is in its very
title a tribute to the power of words. As full of life as the Amsterdam teenager evidently was before she and her family were rousted out of their hiding place for transportation to the death camps, it's what she left behind on paper that has hewn her path to immortality.

This is the miracle of the document that has given the world the most focused and celebrated account of the Holocaust. As  staged by the Indiana Repertory Theatre, the full humanity of a couple of Jewish families in hiding, joined by a dentist forced to separate from his Christian wife, continues to stand for whatever bulwarks can be erected against obliteration and oblivion.

Those bulwarks are not as strong as most people might like them to be, as the current resurgence of antisemitism makes clear. And what Anne Frank's diary has to say to the living may not be as important as the memorial value of her writing. Life against death is the enduring tension of "The Diary of Anne Frank," especially since the writer's ebullience and idealism are so well embodied in Miranda Troutt's performance, as seen Saturday evening.

The vitality poured into the main role and set against both the perseverance and despair of the hideaway's inhabitants prompts us to endorse everything about Anne Frank, whether it's the ache and confusion of puberty or the passion to learn and forge realizable dreams about an imagined future life. Janet Allen directs a production (co-produced with the Seattle Children's Theatre under the artistic direction of former IRT associate director Courtney Sale) that grapples with the range of stress and solidity of eight people's enforced isolation, protected by two sympathetic Dutch gentiles.

Up and across Bill Clarke's sturdy and subtly worn-looking set, the cast moves with a naturalness that mimics
Returning to he hideaway after the war, Otto finds Anne's diary.
ordinary household tasks even while it underlines the annex dwellers' tortured awareness of the shelter's fragility. German occupation of the Netherlands has forced Jews into situations like the Franks' and the Van Daans', though most lack any kind of safety as the Final Solution spreads and clamps down along with Nazi conquest. More than two years of confinement comes to a sudden, violent end; for once, with such a well-known story, there's no need to avoid spoilers.

Played with dogged steadiness, a portrait of hard-won self-control, Otto Frank (Ryan Artzberger) is left at the end to deliver the only survivor's account of what happened to the others shortly before the war's end. This speech is an elaborate mass obituary; the pages he finds scattered on the floor require no more spoken words as the lights come down.

I was reminded of the title character of "The Ghost Writer," Philip Roth's sensitive short novel in which Anne Frank emerges as a wraith-like eminence reflecting on her masterpiece with conviction, but also thinly veiled despair: "The improvement of the living was their business, not hers; they could improve themselves, if they should ever be so disposed, and if not, not. Her responsibility was to the dead, if to anyone — to her sister, to her mother, to all the slaughtered schoolchildren who had been her friends. There was her diary's purpose, there was her ordained mission: to restore in print their status as flesh and blood...for all the good that would do them."

The IRT show fulfills this tribute, though the company's purpose is at least in part to enlist the living in
Mrs.Van Daan enthralls Anne speaking fondly of the old days.
rededication to empathy and idealism, to "never again" commitment. The way the stage version  — by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (in an adaptation by Wendy Kesselman that honors the unexpurgated diary that Otto Frank was too squeamish about) — does this is to dramatize the characters' flaws as well as strengths. We feel both the devotion and the mutual irritation in the relationship of the Van Daans, who are given the right blend of pathos and irascibility by Constance Macy and Rob Johansen. In Benjamin N.M. Ludiker's performance, their son Peter nicely evolves from shyness and hostility to a hesitant romantic rapport with Anne.

The Frank family weaves several strands of counterpoint around the dominant melody of the precocious diarist. Hannah Ruwe is the bright older sister Margot, an unabrasive role model for Anne; Betsy Schwartz plays the doting mother, punctilious and partial to Margot, fighting to beat back her deepening pessimism. Michael Hosp projects a fretful air of displacement and gradual accommodation as the dentist Dussel.

The group's Dutch helpers, righteous friends and protectors who shoulder a different kind of risk in keeping the eight secluded Jews from official notice, convey trustworthiness and compassion in the performances of Sydney Andrews as the beloved Mies and Mark Goetzinger as the more anxious Mr. Kraler.

The show's visual and auditory impressions give precise reinforcement to the dire circumstances. The inhabitants listen to the radio for war news, poignantly celebrate Hanukkah with makeshift gifts, try to keep their hands off each other's throats in some cases and in others continue to learn and grow and cultivate outside interests even as they are being shut off from outside freedoms. Andrew Hopson's sound design, with recurring lamentations of solo cello, grimly yet amusingly evoked a cartoon I recently saved.  He also makes effective use from time to time of Arvo Pärt's meditative "Fratres."

The overall effect of the IRT's totally involving dramatic package is, as the pained words Roth puts in Anne's mouth remind us, less didactic than restorative.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Reclamation project: The Adderley Brothers in their heyday, "Swingin' in Seattle"

Northwest passage: CD cover of Adderley gig
One of the exciting historic jazz releases of 2019 so far has been a selection of pieces from four nights of two gigs Cannonball Adderley and his quintet played for radio broadcast at Seattle's Penthouse in 1966 and 1967 (Reel to Real Recordings).

It was the era of "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," the infectious groove work of Adderley's pianist, young Joe Zawinul, that was to lift the alto saxophonist into a high plane of popularity that in some ways obscured the gifts he was to bring to the alto saxophone — separating that instrument finally from its modern-jazz bondage to Charlie Parker.

"Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" is mercifully absent from this disc, but Zawinul is on hand, lending grit and lyricism all his own to band. Of course, the front line enjoys the partnership of Cannonball and his brother, cornetist Nat.  Filling out the band is Victor Gaskin, bass, and Roy McCurdy, drums.

Co-producers Zev Feldman and Cory Weeds have preserved the folksy, flavorful stage commentary by the leader, which helps communicate the intimate club feel. But the musical rewards alone are sufficient: Nat and Cannonball are tightly coordinated partners as the tunes are enunciated. There's always a piquant contrast in their soloing: Nat, despite some lower-register growls and a gift for shooting aloft unexpected flares, is generally understated. His muted tone is exquisite, and his solos (on "The Girl Next Door," for example) make a firm impression, but in a more insinuating manner than his brother's.  Cannon inevitably has the band's firm purchase on sheer exuberance.

It's fun to hear Zawinul,  soon to become hugely influential as the co-founder of Weather Report, lay out some signature improvisations. His accompanying is first-rate, on a level with Herbie Hancock's of the same era, and unfettered by cliches. Gaskin is well-recorded, and always makes the group's harmonic foundation indelible. McCurdy displays consistent drive, but now and then his ceaseless accenting habit calls too much attention to itself.

"The Sticks" is a Cannonball original that shapes the direction the Adderleys were soon to go in as they gathered  a mass audience for their version of downhome hard bop.  For melodic charm, there's nothing much better on the disc than "The Morning of the Carnival," a melody from the Brazil-centered film "Black Orpheus."  The saxophonist plays with more vibrato than usual, but avoids the sentimentality that weighs down the showcase he gives himself on Leonard Bernstein's "Somewhere."

His "Carnival" solo reaches to the fierce edges of the melody; when it occurs to him to paraphrase "Yankee Doodle," of all things, he lifts the piece to a shout of hemispheric solidarity.

"Swingin' in Seattle: Live at the Penthouse (1966-67)" ends with a bop-inspired crowd-pleaser, "Hippodelphia." It's the sort of torrential long-form performance would soon dilute the Adderley legacy, perhaps, but a recording like this helps establish how much substance there was to his artistry.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Indianapolis Quartet comes to the north side with a Butler University composer's work

Based at the University of Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Quartet introduced itself to the north side.
Despite the advice of St. Paul, we don't necessarily need to "put away childish things" if they can deliver retrospective benefits once we're all grown up. That was amply demonstrated by the Indianapolis Quartet's performance of Frank Felice's "Five Whimsies for Non-Grownups" at the ensemble's Butler University concert Tuesday night.

Felice, associate professor of composition, theory, and electronic music at Butler, based the work on five of his favorite children's books, each of its movements titled by a quotation from the book. "Five Whimsies" is the product of a commission from the New Century String Quartet in 2010. All sorts of credit must go to the composer for taking a risk that "whimsy" deserves stature as a formal label in the tradition of a capriccio.

Frank Felice spake again as a child in "Five Whimsies."
The music indeed makes the most of its whimsical genesis. In this performance at Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall, visual support was provided by slides projected on a screen behind the quartet illustrating each whimsy: a cover shot and the relevant inside page for each book did the trick.

"I'm in the milk, and the milk's in me," from Maurice Sendak's "The Night Kitchen," shows a contented lad inside a bottle of milk. How sensible it seemed, then, to hear a wash of imitative phrases passed around the quartet, suggesting the mutual absorption of child and beverage. Similarly, squeals counterpointed by anxious tremolos conveyed "Two weeks passed and it happened again" from Chris Van Allsburg's "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick," as it echoed the picture of an alarmed man raising a chair overhead and looking down at a lump under the rug.

The quartet — Zachary DePue and Joana Genova, violins; Michael Isaac Strauss, viola; Austin Huntington, cello — pursued Felice's whimsical expressions with vigorous commitment. It was a sign of the bright profile the musicians gave to each movement that "Great yawns are in blossom" (from "The Sleep Book" by Dr. Seuss) wasn't in the slightest soporific. After a sweet cello solo got things started, a viola passage nurtured another yawn blossom, and the ensemble's fine blend eventually found a snoozy resolution with a "good night" in harmonics.

"Five Whimsies" amounted to a fitting vehicle for the Indianapolis Quartet's first performance at Butler University. The Felice piece was substantially bookended by string quartets by Haydn and Mendelssohn. Opening the concert was the Austrian master's "Lark" Quartet (op. 64, no. 5 in D major).

After the work took flight living up to its nickname in the first movement, the Indianapolis Quartet showed its internal sensitivity with effective changes of pace at phrase ends in the "Adagio cantabile" second movement. Tempo adjustments weren't overdone, but put into service of the prevailing lyricism. The minuet movement was  taken quite fast, pressing forward as if in anticipation of the "scherzo" designation that the minuet was to grow into; for many years, symphonic minuets were played too slowly, historians tell us. This one was properly brisk, with some bracing dynamic contrasts emphasized in the Trio. The fleet finale featured well-judged balances between the violins and the lower strings.

The Haydn quartet stemmed from a milestone year for the composer, 1790, as Haydn found release from aristocratic service to become a celebrated freelancer. Similarly, though the milestone was much less favorable, Mendelssohn's Quartet in F minor, op. 80, comes from his milestone year of 1847, which marked his premature death, preceded by that of his beloved sister. The F minor quartet is filled with tension and turmoil, commonly said to reflect Felix's mourning for Fanny. It's also been interpreted as the composer's premonitory sense that an era of classical restraint was about to end, because 1848 was to mark revolutionary upheaval across Europe.

Acceleration toward the end of the first movement was unanimously handled, capping the almost non-stop tension. The equally disturbing second movement established the uncanny atmosphere of someone walking in on a temper tantrum and perhaps tempted to beat a hasty retreat; lots of weight was loaded onto the foreboding Trio in this performance.  I liked the buoyancy given to the third-movement respite from all this; the quartet did not press, but let the music float whenever it could. With the tension resuming, the finale seemed to indicate that moments of relief from extreme stress can be strategic; there was a sense of spontaneity, as if the musicians were figuring out how to build up to the next fit of released energy. They always succeeded, and the performance ended in a galvanic coda, hinting at a transcendence Mendelssohn was not to find in this life.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

'The Ballad of Klook and Vinette': Fonseca Theatre Company stages a song cycle embedded in a searing narrative

Dwuan Watson and LeKesha Lorene play deeply committed lovers.
Unlike another famous ballad that strikes deep into black folklore, "The Ballad of Klook and Vinette" is not about love gone wrong through any doomed straying on the part of one partner.

"Frankie and Johnny" offers a timeless warning of the sometimes fatal consequences of infidelity. In contrast, Ché Walker's emotionally involving story of African-American lovers in the contemporary big city describes a strong romance that goes wrong because of an external threat and bad luck.

The bond that Dwuan Watson and LaKesha Lorene forge in this one-act drama with music has the audience pulling for the romance's staying power. The Fonseca Theatre Company's first show of the New Year is a love letter whose power will extend through Valentine's Day weekend at the company's temporary home, Indy Convergence.

Walker's script is often ornate, weaving together high-flown talk with street vernacular, including tightly packed hip-hop rhymes and alliteration. Sometimes the stylistic breadth seems to override character delineation, though Bryan Fonseca's direction keeps the story anchored in plausible people.

To launch the action, there's a meet-cute in a juice bar, and mutual attraction quickly attains a laser-like focus. The actors' body language, quasi-choreographic now and then, displays the complexity of the bond between a middle-aged man with a checkered past and a young woman torn by self-doubt and apt to undercut her potential as a writer and a human being. They are good for each other; love helps both Klook and Vinette draw on their most positive resources to support what is best in the other.

From time to time, Klook and Vinette give vent to their feelings in song. The songs, by Aroushka Lucas and Omar Lyefook, are deftly accompanied in this production by guitarist Tim Brickley and keyboardist Jon Strombaugh. Some of the songs are melodically sturdy, like the crucial "Am I in Your Heart?," while others are designed almost as accompanied recitative, joined informally at the hip to spoken dialogue. At Sunday afternoon's performance, the rapport between singers and accompaniment struck home. Even the finale, a duo reprise of the song we first hear as Klook's solo, made the impact it needs to, though the tune is slight.

Bernie Killian's set design, given extra significance by Fonseca's lighting, is an uncluttered arrangement of two straight-back chairs and a matching wood table.  The sunlight streaming in through Venetian blinds is an effect that reinforces the hope sustaining the relationship, even though that hope is shadow-striped and eventually snuffed by a creepy outsider's interference in the lovers' lives. Laurie Silverman's costuming, especially of Vinette, heightens the contrast between the worker-bee mentality of Klook and his insecure girlfriend's upwardly mobile fashion sense.

The melding of diverse personalities, so vital to so many kinds of relationship, comes through winningly in Lorene's and Watson's performances. The script juggles a variety of attitudes and conflicts with occasional awkwardness, but the solid romantic foundation of "The Ballad of Klook and Vinette" is never in doubt. To borrow a line from a much different tragic ballad: "O Lordy, how they could love!"

Saturday, February 9, 2019

An old saxophone master with an influential sound heads a top-drawer quintet at the Palladium

David Sanborn has one of the most distinctive sounds among veteran jazz saxophonists. That has helped give
him a saving difference from the "fusion" genre with which he has been associated by reputation since the 1980s.

He brought a quintet with heavy-hitting integrity to the Palladium Friday night. The new group, with a crackerjack rhythm section backing up a front line of trombone joined to the leader's alto sax, exemplifies the authentic jazz tradition of a small-group dynamic that relies on the maximum individuality of its members.

This set-up not only allows Sanborn to maintain his stature away from "smooth" jazz, but prudently gives a few concessions to age insofar as the 73-year-old maestro can husband his resources.  In two sets before a large audience at the Carmel arts palace, Sanborn poured out his patented intensity and sassiness in measured amounts. Perhaps the phrasing is less torrential these days, but the signature tone remains deeply rooted and readily inviting: the hallmarks of his popularity continue to stand up against Father Time.

A pensive David Sanborn
His able colleagues were trombonist Michael Dease, keyboardist Andy Ezrin, bassist Ben Williams, and drummer Billy Kilson. The hard-bop niche formula — nicknamed T 'n' T for front lines consisting of tenor sax and trombone — is tweaked to a higher register in this group. Dease's mastery of the trombone's upper range made him a compatible partner for Sanborn's alto. With his butter-smooth facility and soft burr to his tone occasionally recalling Slide Hampton, Dease also provided a contrast with the leader's aggressive, if amiable, style. He got a showcase cadenza in Marcus Miller's "Moputo," unaccompanied in a series of challenging sequences and quasi-vocal smears that delighted the audience.

That piece, which ended the first half, also featured the idiomatic command of keyboards displayed by Ezrin, who did so much with his rhythm-section partners to lay down an infectious groove that set up Dease's solo. The bassist had already exhibited his solo chops in a florid solo on Michael Brecker's "Half Moon Lane."

After intermission, Ezrin and Williams were Sanborn's sole partners in a pop-song adaptation, "All in the Game."  The Sanborn ballad style, which has been aptly described as heart-wrenching, was extensively deployed. His playing aroused my mixed feelings about quotes in jazz solos, however; incorporating the first phrase of "It Might As Well Be Spring" a couple of times was clever, but a more extensive quotation from "When You Wish Upon a Star" toward the end seemed to bury the less-familiar tune ("All in the Game") under one that's in everybody's ear-worm supply.

Another Brecker piece brought back the full quintet, very nifty in the abstract theme, which takes an oblique approach to its harmonic underpinning in the manner of the Ellington classic "Cottontail."  The changes were fully embraced by the time the solos rolled out. The late Roy Hargrove's "Spanish Joint" was a tidy delight, and the announced last number, "On the Spot," rewarded the audience's evident enthusiasm for Kilson's drumming with plenty of room for him to vary his patterning from understated triplets to a full-on funky display.

Again, it was a wise indication that, no matter the eminence of the star-leader, the band's the thing in a satisfying jazz concert. And this band is about much more than an old-timer's vanity. That's a minimal element in what Sanborn has to offer, as was underlined by his amusing, often self-deprecating, oral program notes.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Italian conductor makes US debut here with program of Respighi, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich

Daniele Rustioni displayed exuberance and discipline in US debut.
Last spring after an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concert, I modulated my overall praise of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony, one of his most popular works, with some quibbles about parts of it, starting with the first movement. I can be more wholehearted about the Third (in A minor, op. 44), though it doesn't reach the totally disarming, energetic heights of the Second.

The A minor puts a nice cap on the full ISO program this weekend. The second performance will be at 7 tonight. Guest conductor Daniele Rustioni, appearing in the United States for the first time here this weekend, conducted Ottorino Respighi's "Fountains of Rome" to open the Hilbert Circle Theatre concert Friday; filling out the first half was Dmitri Shostakovich's Cello concerto no. 21 in E-flat, op. 107, with Julian Steckel the soloist.

The ISO and Rustioni had the opportunity to prepare the Rachmaninoff symphony as the sole work on Thursday's Coffee Classical Concert. The score has some tricky rhythmic matters for musicians to navigate amid the sort of transparency that Rachmaninoff didn't command in earlier works for orchestra. This meant for a few shaky moments, evanescent as bubbles, in a generally splendid reading Friday.

The A minor stems from 1935-36, and my preference for it has to do with that late-refined transparency and the way the restless, soul-stirring quality of the Russian composer's best music in this work seems less freely indulged and more subject to bold shadings and abrupt inflections. Those seem to turn Rachmaninoff into something of a modernist-at-a-distance. The surprises pop up initially in the first of three movements, but under the control Rustioni evinced, everything flowed without jolts.

Guest concertmaster Yuna Lee's brief solos were a highlight of the second movement, as was the deft generation of the almost elfin "scherzo" episode that takes over the movement's second half before yielding to a compact reminder of how it all started. Tempo flexibility was a hallmark of the well-structured finale, with such brief, germane inspirations as the "Dies irae" reference (an old friend of the composer's) and a tidy fugal section. The energy accumulates without wasted motion in an assertive, brassy coda.  Friday's audience was charmed by the dash and brilliance of that conclusion. Rustioni shared the acclaim generously with the orchestra, soloist by soloist, section by section.

Julian Steckel brought plenty of brio to the diverse demands of Shostakovich.
To open the program with "The Fountains of Rome" allowed the audience an introduction to the effusive conductor's management of orchestral color. The views of four Roman fountains at different times of day were splendidly portrayed. The expressive import of dawn's hints (the Fountain of Valle Giulia) yielding to the illumination of full morning (the Triton Fountain) was vivid. "The Fountain of Trevi" basked in a midday glare that evoked its close tone-poem relatives in "The Pines of Rome" and "Roman Festivals." The hush of dusk completed the four-part picture hauntingly with the Villa Medici Fountain at sunset.

German cellist Julian Steckel completes the ISO guest list this weekend. Friday, in Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto, his playing was rightly heavy with emotion, but never leaden. That stood out especially in the lyrical second movement, which gathers up strength from the vigorous first movement — exceptionally well-coordinated Friday — to shape the work's summit: a substantial solo cadenza. Its feather-soft opening seemed to have a steel quill at its center. The episode rose to a deftly tossed-off virtuoso climax, featuring lots of precise fingerwork and some spotlessly struck passages in harmonics. These helped to emphasize the eerie isolation of the solo instrument before the orchestra, attentively guided by Rustioni, resumed its simpatico partnership with him in the finale.