Saturday, November 30, 2019

Bryan Fonseca reclaims his Christmas vaudeville innovation for his new company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, November 28, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 25, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 24, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 23, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Monday, November 18, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Photo by Rob Ambrose]

Sunday, November 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 16, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 14, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Photos by Sarah J. Slover]

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Photo by Sarah J. Slover]

Monday, November 11, 2019

Clarinetist-composer Frank Glover's thoughtful new recording supersedes 'Third Stream'

Frank Glover as composer, bandleader and clarinetist built a short discography on Owl Studios early in the century that displayed him as an integral figure in an extension of jazz into contemporary sensibilities with a fresh way of blending improvisation and composition. His could well be the best possible advance on such mixing since the somewhat staid, tentative outreach toward a jazz/classical liaison decades ago by such well-schooled musicians as Gunther Schuller, John Lewis, and J.J. Johnson.
Frank Glover lends urgency and fresh chops to the clarinet

The new recording, like Owl's "Politico" and "Abacus," displays the cinematic flow of Glover's compositions — quick cuts, dissolves, panoramas and close-ups — as well as sensitivity to movement that allows a wealth of imagery to come to the listener's mind. "Two contemporary ballets" is the descriptive phrase Glover applies to both works. The emotional palette evident in them complements the technical mastery that gives it vital expression.

The brand-new recording, finished about three months ago, applies his muse to the special medium of jazz quintet and string quartet in a blend over which his clarinet holds sway. Pianist Zach Lapidus, a former colleague of his here who now lives in New York City, is an essential contributor to the music.

With technical expertise applied by Aireborn Studios and mixing handled at Bloomington's Airtime Studios, "lūmn" and "mīm" (Glover's special revision of the words "lumen" and "mime") give a fresh view of his artistry. The shorter work, "mim," provides the disc title. It's available on CDbaby, Spotify, and iTunes. Glover also welcomes  inquiries and responses to the music at (Now living near Bloomington, the clarinetist can be heard heading a small group on the third Friday of every month at Chatterbox Jazz Club in downtown Indianapolis.)

Glover told me he's worked on both pieces over the past five years. He has no choreographer or ballet company in mind as he sends the disc out into the world. He was mainly thinking of small-scale circuses and their variety of acts ("more like the circus underground"), as well as the music of Toru Takemitsu, film noir, and the films of Akira Kurosawa. Much of this influence, he admits, is not readily companionable with jazz clarinet. Yet he makes the tributaries flow nicely into an idiosyncratic mainstream. Dance is the ghost in the machine. Simple melodic notions hold their own against dissonant figures, agitated rhythms, and competing tonalities.

Soon into its launch, "lūmn" conjures up the march, with a processional feeling that also incorporates repetitive jazz licks. There are sudden rushes of intensity, and smoothly managed shifts away from those bursts of galvanic energy. The scenario, while not specific, suggests that nostalgia as well as fresh perspectives are infusing the behavior of the central characters (delineated by clarinet and piano).

"Mīm" is more playful, more dependent on its creator's jazz side, and feels compact after the expansiveness of "lūmn."  The heightened feeling suggests the desperation of thwarted desire, recalling 20th-century masterpieces like "Petrushka" and "The Miraculous Mandarin." Glover rides herd over complex textures, with melody and rhythm subject to manifold layering and shifts of focus. With Richard Dole conducting, there is plenty of opportunity for the string quartet to soar and seemingly comment on, even argue with, the hyperactivity of the jazz group, though the strings sometimes can't resist joining in with abandon.

The bracketing of these two works on the same disc affords fans of this musician's past achievements to stay current with his fecund muse. The performances seem fully committed to honoring the craftsmanship that enables Glover's artistry to make his balletic inspirations substantial. Third Stream, eat your heart out!

Saturday, November 9, 2019

ISO's French connections: Urbanski crowns the month's first Classical Series program with Debussy

The last time Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Krzysztof Urbanski collaborated in an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra
Jean-Yves Thibaudet: In the driver's seat for Ravel and Connesson
program, the vehicle also hinted at warm Franco-American relationships in music.

Then there was a meeting of minds around George Gershwin's Concerto in F. As the program note of this weekend's concerts makes clear, Gershwin and his older French contemporary Maurice Ravel had a mutual admiration society, though their acquaintance was slight, centered on a New York meeting in 1928. A common interest in jazz and in melody helped to bond them. Thibaudet, himself an exemplar of Franco-American amity, maintains personal and artistic homes in Los Angeles and his native Lyon, France.

Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major opened the concert Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The program, also including works by Guillaume Connesson and Claude Debussy, will be repeated at 5:30 this afternoon. In the Ravel, the pianist displayed a pronounced affinity for snappy rhythms and fast tempos (in the outer movements), and a melting lyricism in the Adagio assai.

His affinity with American jazz icons (he has made recordings focused on Bill Evans and Duke Ellington) may account for some of his behind-the-beat phrasing in the slow movement, a feeling of holding back while not dragging the regular pulse, which is known in European classical music (Chopin especially) as rubato. That movement also featured a tremendous, well-managed crescendo and a lambent English-horn solo by Roger Roe.

In the finale, alert staccato bursts from the orchestra complemented Thibaudet's own liveliness. The Presto pace was maintained pedal-to-the-metal, with some bone-rattling accents. The bustling first movement concluded in a downward rush all around that was just flippant enough to be witty rather than dismissive.

Thibaudet returned to lend his gift for dispatching fleet figuration and climactic cannonades to a contemporary French piece, "The Shining One," by Connesson, who's just shy of 50 years old. Modernism having presented a cornucopia of orchestral riches in the past century, today's active composers have plenty to draw upon when they move beyond it and give respectful attention to other cultural matters. In this case, it's the genre of the fantasy novel, specifically "The Moon Pool" by Abraham Merritt.

Some treasures of modernism, as well as a few antecedents, are enumerated in Marianne Tobias' program note for "The Shining One." Over the course of nine lively minutes, ending in a brouhaha for everyone, it was impossible to trace on a single hearing just who ranks highest among Connesson's precursors. If a pattern of allusiveness can be found, it adds up to a musical profile that seems paradoxically individual.

"The Shining One" is the second Connesson piece ISO audiences have heard this year. Of the first, "Les cités du Lovecraft," I wrote: "Vivid novelties, often violent and spectacular, were always striking the ear, but there was something naggingly overripe about the piece." Fortunately, this weekend's Connesson isn't long enough to become naggingly overripe. But there was a plethora of ear-striking that held the attention.

After intermission came one of Urbanski's triumphs interpreting standard repertoire. "La Mer," Debussy's three symphonic sketches (as he described the work), received a richly detailed performance that had all the sweep and majesty of its subject that one could ask for. It may have been misunderstood when it was new because Debussy's idiom had not been fully absorbed and some listeners were expecting a more obviously pictorial treatment of nature's most abundant feature and source of the planet's life.

Hokusai's "Mount Fuji," which enchanted Debussy.
I've long considered "La Mer" to be unique among works inspired by nature and keen to raise images in our mind's eye. What's unique is how emotionally engaging it is. It may be because it's more a parallel to the sea than an evocation of it. Plenty of listeners may by now enjoy reminders of the title in what they hear, but I like the purity of its layout, its intensely interwoven structure, its opaque and translucent sonorities, and the odd sense it gives that Debussy has created an ocean to place on an equal footing beside the one made by God or whatever natural forces may be responsible.

Friday's "La Mer" moved me on its own terms. Not only did it vividly suggest the sea's motion and shifts in its sunlit radiance and wind-driven temperament, the performance was sculptural as well as dramatic — like the breaking wave caught with its foamy fingers about to pounce on the shoreline in the print series by the Japanese artist Hokusai that inspired Debussy during the composition process. This allusion came through with particular strength in the finale, "Dialogue of Wind and the Sea."

In an age when plastic snags in the maws and gullets of sea creatures and in microscopic form stretches throughout the ocean-derived food chain, when appalling masses of human waste float across sluggish expanses of seawater, when the rising oceanic temperature distorts nature in such a manner that sea turtles have become too overwhelmingly female for the species to survive, we will always have Debussy's sea. It may be a matter of increasing poignancy whenever the work is performed this well that we will no longer have the Creation's sea existing simultaneously in anything close to pristine condition.

Friday, November 8, 2019

On and on it goes: The bafflement of Ukraine resembles an out-of-luck junkie's search for coke

ATI's 'Alabama Story' has a happy, book-positive ending, subject to history's editing

History may not really repeat itself, but it tends to self-amplify. Issues and personalities, shifting cultural values and resistance to change, the opposition of bigotry and tolerance, keep recycling. Progress, however defined, is inevitably compromised and flecked with unwelcome reminders, sometimes freshly outfitted to accommodate revived prejudices.
Group portrait of the living past: actors Cameron Stuart Bass, Maeghan Looney, Don Farrell, and Cynthia Collins as characters in "Alabama Story."

From the heyday of segregation, "Alabama Story," the current Actors Theatre of Indiana production, revisits a controversy of the 1950s. Seismic shifts in the advance toward racial justice marked a decade in which the Old South sought to hold on to the ideology of segregation. Suddenly a children's book by Garth Williams moved to the forefront of culture wars because of the happy union it depicts of one black and one white rabbit.

Kenneth Jones has fashioned a hard-hitting drama out of the heroism of an old-maid librarian (the stereotype phrasing is deliberately adopted) who resisted a campaign against the inclusion of "The Rabbits' Wedding" on the state's public library shelves. As seen in the Studio Theater Thursday night, Cynthia Collins portrays Emily Wheelock Reed as a flinty defender of the right to read, exercising her full powers as head of the Alabama Public Library Service Division. Books deemed notable by the American Library Association were recommended to Alabama librarians for acquisition, making "The Rabbit's Wedding" a political hot potato. She is supported uneasily but steadfastly by an assistant, Thomas Franklin, played both awkwardly and gracefully by Samuel L. Wick.

In her high-ranking position, Reed was subject to the Alabama legislature's influence, represented here with booming self-assertion by Don Farrell as state senator E.W. Higgins. The play holds Reed up as a warrior against unexpected hostility who turns out to display a good measure of compassion as well as  shrewdness. Sixty years ago, the controversy about the book went national and a little bit international, weakening the bulwark of enforced segregation partly because of the absurdity of seeing "The Rabbits' Wedding" as propaganda for race-mixing.

The play has a parallel story in which a black man, Joshua Moore, who went north from Alabama to pursue a career in business, returns to assist the civil-rights struggle spearheaded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  
As he passes by a "whites only" park bench in Montgomery one day, he recognizes a white childhood friend, the flirtatious and lonely Lily Whitfield, sitting there reading. They had grown up as neighbors on her father's estate, run on the old plantation model, a faux-idyllic arrangement shattered one evening by an indiscretion  prompted by the "poor little rich girl."

This makes for a provocative theme that may explain some of the erosion that the Old South was soon to experience. Though civil-rights agitation against Dixie norms was essential to change, departures in the privileged class from segregationist orthodoxy probably occurred because the reigning bigotry didn't suit everyone in the dominant group. Lily, played with fast-paced fragility and irrepressible yearning by Maeghann Looney, is shown to be isolated by her status and thus capable of feeling the disdain normally directed at the less privileged. Her evolving sympathy, rooted in fond memories of an odd fantasy bonding with Joshua over the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris, symbolizes the slow dissolution of inherited prejudice.

The playwright shows Lily has more than a few blind spots and a conveniently faulty memory, but she becomes an inadvertent "fifth columnist" in her homeland's epochal struggle. I felt the chemistry of the interracial relationship was somewhat one-sided, with inadequate reciprocity from Cameron Stuart Bass as Joshua, but the mutual attraction and the obstacles it raises came across anyway.

Directed by Jane Unger, the production consistently projects simple, enduring humanity. The documentary-like presentation of the opening scene and several others is expertly managed. The dramatic conflicts are clearly drawn. The initial meeting in the librarian's office with the senator includes exquisitely timed hesitations and practiced gentility on the part of Don Farrell as the politician warms up the threat machine. 

He will stride into further prominence as the spark plug of censorship, backed up by the White Citizens' Council and fashioning an idiosyncratic profile in courage despite the misgivings of a senior senator and mentor, played by Paul Tavianini in one of several minor roles. His major appearance is as the folksy author/illustrator of "The Rabbits' Wedding," Garth Williams. 

The celebrity author's narrative and commentary provide a ready vehicle to carry "Alabama Story" forward into our hearts, with R. Bernard Killian's scenic design and technical direction once again supporting the ATI players expertly. It's not just the set's glowing bookshelves that emphasize the importance of wide, devoted, exploratory reading  — it's everything about this moving story and its characters.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

American Pianists Association celebrates a major milestone of its history putting young pianists in the spotlight

Reaching across four decades of piano music in Indianapolis, on Wednesday the American Pianists Association brought back at Indiana Landmarks Center six of its top  competition winners to celebrate its 40th anniversary.

For a long time, the APA, established in 1979 as the Beethoven Foundation, de-emphasized the competitive aspect, preferring to present its participants to the public as festival programming from which honors happened to emerge.

Jonathan Shames stressed the newness of Copland.
But a focus on winners was inevitable, partly as a way to drive audience and donor interest in the organization. So that's where the spotlight shone at the APA's first "Grand Encounters" concert of the 2019-2020 season. To emphasize the legacy, two of the six pianists brought back to town were the pioneers in their two categories: Jonathan Shames (classical, 1981) and Jim Pryor (jazz, 1992).

Their appearances were notable for the projection of personality. In both cases, there was a strong retrospective flair to their recital choices and how they performed them. Shames chose to present an Aaron Copland work on the high plain of modernism, Piano Variations (1930). This work was the summit achievement of a composer who later founded a more palatable "Americanist" subgenre, perhaps in response to the populism generated by the Great Depression.

On Wednesday, Shames' performance maximized the dissonance and shattering resonance of Copland's angular theme and its variety of treatment. Other interpretations known to me have connected the work more purely to the tradition of piano variations, perhaps wanting to show its heritage from Beethoven and Brahms. I found the Shames version also respectful of the structure, but more vivid in color and accent than the recordings I know best, by Beveridge Webster and Leo Smit. It was a performance of avant-garde mien honoring the composer of whom the conductor Walter Damrosch had said from the podium several years earlier about about the aggressive modernism of he Organ Symphony: "Within five years he will be ready to commit murder."

Aaron Diehl played Lewis and Williams.
To music lovers more attached to the Copland of "Appalachian Spring," "Rodeo" and "The Red Pony," Piano Variations may seem more like a period piece than a milestone of American modernism. With due respect to them, I want to bracket Jim Pryor's performance of three pieces with a comparable period flavor in the jazz genre. Pryor is known among followers of APA contests as the man who beat out the since-eminent Brad Mehldau. His amiable stage manner and nostalgic evocation of jazz piano history showed its  survival value Wednesday night.

Pryor opened with an original composition honoring the muse of Paul Laurence Dunbar, a short-lived black poet whose output, like Robert Burns', was divided between dialect poems and verse in standard English of a romantic, lyrical sort. "When Malindy Sings" falls into the former category, and Pryor's work evoked the steady faith of Dunbar's lady and the respect her singing earned her. He then turned to Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz," giving a dance-like nimbleness to the tune that refreshingly went beyond the waltz form without abandoning it.  He closed with the Ellington evergreen "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."

The program's other jazz winner, 2011's Aaron Diehl, went for a subtler, softer representation of his gifts. Hushed sonorities dominated his more substantial selection, two movements from Marianne Williams' "Zodiac Suite," with the climax, "Virgo," affording the audience excursions into the brighter side of his palette. He had reintroduced himself to the Indianapolis audience with John Lewis' tender "Milano"(after a cheeky turn at the center's organ for the start of J.S. Bach's best-known organ piece).

1993 winner Lori Sims opened the concert with a riveting account of Chopin's Polonaise in F-sharp minor, op. 44. It seemed overpedaled at first, but soon settled into a more balanced proportion of sound production, from nuanced and reflective to the martial vigor of the main theme. Thomas Rosenkranz, who captured honors in 2003, was another fully invigorated performer as he delivered a knotty etude by Gyorgy Ligeti. Its influence, of simultaneous voices and rhythms meshing despite centrifugal forces, could be detected in his original variations on one of the best-known Beethoven variation movements, the Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony. I liked the way he had figuration spin out from the theme in an integral manner, and with such stylistic excursions as a loping jazzlike episoide.

Popular 2017 classical winner Drew Petersen sat down beside honorary chair Marianne Tobias for a couple of four-hand Slavonic Dances by Antonin Dvorak. The coordination, especially with tempo adjustments in the Allegretto grazioso (Dumka) in E minor, op. 72, no. 2, was alluring and exquisitely managed. Petersen returned in the second half to show some of his range in expressive clarity, rhythmic zest and a feeling for color with performances of Debussy's "Clair de lune" and the knuckle-busting fugal finale of Barber's Piano Sonata in E-flat minor.

His performance was a microcosm of the variety of excellence APA has brought to the fore over the past four decades. It's an achievement well worth celebrating.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

You are what you drink: 'Vino Veritas' probes marriage's deep secrets

A comforting cliche about successful marriage is that it's not two people looking into each other's eyes, but two people looking in the same direction.

David MacGregor's "Vino Veritas," Phoenix Theatre's current production, reveals that Lauren and Phil started out with the deep mutual gaze common to many couples falling in love. But what emerges in this sometimes disturbing two-act comedy is that the essential looking in the same direction can gradually ossify into tunnel vision. Then neither may notice that the outlook has become wall-eyed or cross-eyed. They look off elsewhere,
Lauren makes pitch for quaffing an exotic wine to husband and guests on Halloween.
and the binocular focus turns dangerously blurry.

The importance of fully functioning peripheral vision in matters of the heart is underlined as this comfortably situated middle-class couple welcomes a neighboring couple into their home for an intimate prelude to a large, traditional Halloween party. Neighbors Ridley and Claire, with more profound fissures in their relationship, have dimmer prospects for healing as the evening ends with the party skipped.

What exposes the ruptures in both marriages is a mysterious blue wine Lauren has brought back from South American travels. By local legend, its consumption provokes truth-telling. "In vino veritas," the ancient Romans said in reference to a significant effect of inebriation. This blue wine makes the romp of truth inevitable.

Before the shared wine does its thing, the complicated swerve that Lauren and Phil's life together has taken is suggested as you walk into the Basile Theatre and take in Zac Hunter's expansive set, a well-appointed living room with an unsettling profusion of messy kid traces. Child-rearing is just one aspect of the alienation the couple feels: Lauren, played with brassy exasperation by Carrie Schlatter, is upset by a disorderliness that Phil, suffused with overeager blitheness by Wolf J. Sherrill, shrugs off.

But the marital friction that's plain in the first scene is more than carping without context. Lauren has an unfulfilled adventurousness that the superficial placidness of family life, supported by a photography business focused on weddings and child portraits, has suppressed. Phil is the picture of nonchalant adjustment; we eventually find out why he's easily moved beyond his youthful derring-do with cameras in exotic climes.

At first, however, we get two clever, articulate people sparring in a manner that has become habitual. It's the timeworn stuff of barbed household comedy: Is this an update of "The Honeymooners" or "I Love Lucy"? For a while, I worried that director Bill Simmons allowed his actors to set too brisk a pace, foregrounding the repartee excessively. Later, in retrospect, it became clear that the fast tempo helps to highlight the need of both husband and wife to conceal loads of appalling emotional weight. We eventually learn why Lauren and Phil are both looking in crucially different directions. The poet W.H. Auden says somewhere: "Wit is a combination of imagination, moral courage, and unhappiness." All three qualities emerge at various rates from the crucible of Lauren and Phil's  desperate wittiness.

The wine-altered Claire, costumed as the Virgin Queen, tees off on the gathering.
The performances of Schlatter and Sherrill evolve accordingly. In the second act, as revelation piles on revelation, fueled by exotic wine,  individual needs come to light in all their rawness. At the same time, the host couple's mutual devotion shows unmistakable signs of endurance.

What do Ridley and Claire have to do with this? They are not just a more explosive example of marital discord, extrapolated to almost farcical effect. They are also cheek-by-jowl rivals as parents and citizens, and thus test cases for the adequacy of well-off suburban life. And the guard rails are down.

As Ridley, Michael Hosp displays  a risible type of arrogance that blends the masterful physician and the pretentious oenophile. He is a foil for Claire's obsessive concern with her Halloween costuming skills, the mask she annually puts on to help redirect unmet emotional needs and once again snag the top party prize. The pathos and fun that Sarah Hund put into her portrayal — all the while costumed as Queen Elizabeth I (except for a manic disrobing episode) — were endearing.

There is hardly a subject that fails to come up as the couples open the floodgates. They scrap about their children, their parents and in-laws, and all manner of social and religious values. Sexual eccentricity (as seen from the norms of respectability) blasts into the foreground. Hypocrisy follows like a yapping dog at heel. As the second act unfolds, the sadness of dysfunction and loss rubs shoulders with hilarity.

The set-up of the powerful wine is fortunately signaled in the first act by bursts of lighting and sound effects (designed by Michael Moffatt and Tom Horan). Thus we are constantly reminded of the unrealistic trigger of action and dialogue that are grounded in realism. Despite the fancifully demonic wine, there is something that, amid the laughter, "Vino Veritas" may have to tell all manner of long-running domestic partnerships. Most of us just have to hope we don't need to get blotto in order to confront the truth about ourselves and our partners and, with luck, build new stability upon it.

[Photos by Michael Drury]

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Time for their closeups: ISO members get solo opportunities in 'Cinematic Symphony'

A fine example of the mastery that Jack Everly brings to pops programming at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is the way he connects what a symphony orchestra does to a wide swath of popular culture.

Jack Everly, the canny maestro of ISO Pops
Unfailing in his geniality and expertness as podium host, Everly on Friday night conducted the ISO in a Pops Series concert putting musicians in the spotlight as soloists for "Cinematic Symphony." The alliteration of the title is a handy reminder of the history of symphonic scoring as essential to the movie experience. In recent years, those textures have largely yielded to electronic scoring and pop songs. The symphonic bond dates from the "silents" era, when D.W. Griffith — a pioneer in this aspect as in so many others in the art of film-making — began the tradition of commissioning musical scores to accompany films.

It's a shame this practice, which became indelible once moving pictures found their voice, is associated with "The Birth of a Nation," a Griffith masterpiece that defended the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. The close-up, though not a Griffiths invention, was something else popularized in his movies, including this silent epic whose sympathetic view of the defeated South goes well beyond "Gone With the Wind."

Mark Ortwein soloing in John Williams' "Escapades: Reflections"
Musical closeups spotlighting ISO members provide the theme of "Cinematic Symphony," which will be repeated at Hilbert Circle Theatre tonight. The selections, some of them in fresh arrangements, bring to the fore both hummable and musically intricate melodies that convey another function of music in movies: emotional highlighting. "The music sets the mood for what your eye sees; it guides your emotions; it is the emotional framework for visual pictures," Griffith once said, according to an illuminating article in American Heritage.

Sometimes, it can even stand on its own, as it is asked to do in these concerts. Besides, music designed from the start for concerts has long been brought into movies, such as "Nimrod" from Elgar's "Enigma Variations" used in the war-and-rescue drama  "Dunkirk." Everly inserted this soothing episode Friday night as a memorial to the late ISO music director, Raymond Leppard (who was also an occasional film composer).

When heard independently, film music has riches you may be only dimly aware of in the theater.  In these concerts, for example, you can enjoy the smooth phrasing, sustained through a climactic crescendo and diminuendo, that bass trombonist Riley Giampaolo brought to Ennio Morricone's love theme from "Cinema Paradiso." And the emotional framework that Griffith found essential holds up away from its visual context when such selections are so well-chosen and well-played.

Yet context is something a skilled composer can suggest without trying to approximate music from the film's era, as Everly explained in introducing a love theme from Miklos Rozsa's score to "Ben Hur." Associate concertmaster Philip Palermo played it eloquently, with the accompaniment sounding vaguely Middle Eastern and the tune delicately decorated with arabesques.

And something of the mystery and identity shifts of the hero in "Catch Me If You Can" was caught  by Mark Ortwein's involving and involved saxophone solo, "Escapades: Reflections."  Principal cellist Austin Huntington displayed a warm, intimate sound with sensitive dynamic variety in Sayuri's Theme from "Memoirs of a Geisha."

The concert got off to a gleaming start with the prominence of first trumpeter Conrad Jones, outlining the menace and majesty of Nino Rota's score to "The Godfather." Jones did his first solo in a side balcony, then moved down to the stage to pace a bit thoughtfully between solo episodes full of dramatic portent (Waltz and Love Theme).

Its juxtaposition with the first of several orchestra selections included without a spotlighted soloist was well-judged, speaking to the infinite variety of movie entertainment. It was a rambunctious arrangement of "Comedy Tonight" (Stephen Sondheim) from  "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." The percussion section cut up farcically, and the closing measures were topped by a quote from  the end of "Til Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks." It was a subtle reminder that the last laugh is usually a prelude to something not so funny.

A couple of duets presented different aspects of musical partnership. In Morricone's "Gabriel's Oboe"  (from "The Mission"), the poignancy was tenderly divided between principal oboist Jennifer Christen and her section's associate principal, Roger Roe, playing English horn. A mock rivalry, with a host of apt stage action, was set up as Sherry Hong, violin, and Yu Jin, principal viola, played John Williams' adaptation for "Scent of a Woman" of an old Carlos Gardel tune. The performance had a number of droll virtuosic touches tending to suggest a reigning competitiveness between the soloists.

In truth, the only competitiveness music exercises in this arena is perhaps with the medium of film itself. There has always been a tussle between music as the film world's hired musicians think of it and what directors and producers want to use it for. As thoughtful as his endorsement of movie music was, Griffith also said, after an argument with a music director who struck him as too purist, "If I ever kill anyone, it won't be an actor, but a musician."

Perish the thought! Unlike the discarded movie diva in "Sunset Boulevard," the ISO musicians were truly ready for their closeups, not clinging to sepia delusions of grandeur a la Norma Desmond.

[Concert photo by Austin Money, from Mark Ortwein's Facebook page]