Saturday, March 28, 2020

The voice of GPS: If only we could humanize it more (An Automotive/Theatrical Fantasy)

Adam Crowe and Lauren Briggeman
I don't know how many of you have had trouble with the GPS voice, but I have, and it's become a cryptic companion whose word is mum. I feel dependent on it when I'm going to a new place and need navigational help. If I'm traveling alone, it's an especially essential tool. But I have to hear it.

In my new car, I can only get it to work on the first step of the directions I've entered. Then it clams up, and I must steal glimpses  of the screen to see where I am.

Fortunately, we took Susan's car on a trip to Dallas to see our son Theodore about a month ago, in what now seems like another world. Her vehicle has a larger, mounted screen on the dash and presumably reliable voice support.

But in leaving the city from our hosts' home, we got turn-by-turn vocal directions that took us through urban-sprawl hell. We must have entered an instruction to avoid highways. We faced the prospect of driving a thousand miles back to Indianapolis on two-lane roads, with occasional four-lane relief.

Obviously, we had to override the original itinerary, and in the process we thoroughly confused GPS. Supposing we had now stipulated a speedier way home that would give us plenty of freeway time, we were corrected several times in a row by the GPS voice: "Proceed to the route."

You know the voice, perhaps: sturdy, self-possessed, emotionally neutral — a program designed to represent the objectivity of the ever-changing map on the screen. But after several times of being corrected, I was muttering: "I'm on the damn route!" And I was sure that the neutral tone of Ms. GPS had changed. On each repetition, there was something a little sharper about it, an unmistakable timbre of reproach, it seemed to me.

It's true, I still appreciate the voice's pronunciation of "route" to rhyme with "flute." My spoken language was shaped by formative years in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where "route" never rhymed with "out," as it does in the Midwest. In the pre-interstate era, the word was heard a lot from my driving parents, and always sounded like the start of "Root, root, root for the home team."  Besides, everyone knows the song "Route 66," written by a fellow Lancastrian, Bobby Troup. You don't get your kicks on ROUT 66, even in the Midwest.

But I digress. Shortly after returning home, my arts blog assigned me to cover "The Agitators"' at Phoenix Theatre and "The Cake" at Fonseca Theatre Company. The cast of both productions featured actors whose voices I've long admired. I don't like lists of favorites, but I will say that I've always relished the voices of Lauren Briggeman and Adam Crowe. Over the years in a number of roles, they are alike in my experience in displaying firm projection, good diction, and emotionally rich voices at the lower end of their gender ranges.

Neither early March production was the best I've ever seen these two actors in, but it didn't matter. The unwarranted "Proceed to the route" scolding still stung, so an idea jelled in my head. With the choice GPS offers of a male or female voice, why not have both? And why couldn't they be Crowe's or Briggeman's? They would be programmed of course to match what the GPS voice already gives me, like "In a quarter-mile, turn left at Lee Strasberg Parkway" (or whatever). But the added benefit would be an authoritative, low-register voice with a touch of human warmth, a gift for achieving instant rapport via the most straightforward, practical text — a rapport I already treasure in their onstage performances of more engaging words spoken in character.

Then, in addition to most of the time when my driving matches what GPS has
in mind for me, I would never hear "Proceed to the route" the same way again. It would be more supportive, dagnab it, without a hint of disdain. Or so I imagine it.

And if I deliberately chose to override it, in my mind's ear I could hear, right after I had ignored Lauren's or Adam's "Proceed to the route," something like "Oh, OK, I see what you're doing. That'll work. Safe travels!"

That's all I have to say on this odd subject in this difficult time of limited travel.

 Proceed to the route, everybody.

If the relaxation of COVID-19 guidelines gets real specific, freedom may promote love on the street where you live

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Dayna Stephens, a saxophonist with a personalized advance on mainstream

The Dayna Stephens Trio gives itself inviting room to live up to the title of its new CD. A cherished American word is summed up by that Lady in the Harbor. Her face and headgear are gently mocked in the cover art of "Liberty" (Contagious Music).

With astute colleagues Ben Street, bass, and Eric Harland, drums, the saxophonist ranges over a stimulating set of original compositions, each of them showing how expansive three musicians without the bedrock of a harmony instrument can be.

Dayna Stephens: Exploring wry eddies off the mainstream
The leader sometimes sounds like a man seeking direction but determined to find his own path. This is all to the good, because the quest turns out to be  well-founded. "Lost and Found" is a track that obviously sums up the journey, with the leader setting aside his usual tenor to take up the baritone.

Stephens' sure-footed phrasing, sometimes surprising in its odd balances, inevitably makes sense once the listener gets the feel of the contexts the trio is laying out. There are varied rhythmic patterns that manage to cohere in the cartoonishly titled "Kwooked Stweet," a contrafact on John Coltrane's "Straight Street."

With affectionate parody, in "Loosy Goosy" Stephens the composer sometimes toys with the 32-bar convention of American popular song. More common is for him to lead his trio in forms more personal and harder to pin down.

An example is "The Sound Goddess," which sounds like an essay masquerading as a narrative. Long saxophone phrases dominate the performance, yet Street and Harland always sound as if there's room for them in the foreground, too.

"Wil's Way" ends the infectious program (don't be spooked by the label name!) with a perky tribute to a friend of the bandleader. The account features a particularly witty Street solo, followed by fruitful exchanges between the ever-imaginative drummer and his bandmates.

The Dayna Stephens Trio indeed seems at liberty to do just about anything it wants, and bring it off. In this time of confinement, that's something to celebrate.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

"Two Cigarettes in the Dark" glows in the tenor partnership of Keith Oxman and Houston Person

A shrewd one-tenor, two-tenor dynamic gets handsome display in a new Keith Oxman CD featuring veteran Houston Person. And there's the added variety of two juicy guest appearances by vocalist Annette Murrell.
Annette Murrell sings two songs on Keith Oxman CD.

"Two Cigarettes in the Dark" (Capri Records Ltd.) starts off by showcasing the saxophone dialogue with the evergreen Frank Loesser song "I've Never Been in Love Before."  At 84 when this recording was made in late 2018, Person contributes the wisdom of the ages, balancing Oxman's buttersmooth phrasing with a more pungent sound.

The partnership always sounds natural: The tenormen share space compatibly, and the way Person sets the tone for Murrell's sojourn through "Everything Happens to Me" speaks to his fruitful experience over many years with singer Etta Jones. Murrell spreads her wings in "Crazy He Calls Me" as well.

Houston Person feeds wisdom of the ages into Oxman quartet's mastery.
When the hornmen work at length together, as in tenor giant Hank Mobley's "Bossa for Baby," there are no blips or jerks along the way. Oxman's nicely floating solo, reminiscent of Stan Getz's landmark bossa nova splash into pop stardom, yields to a Person showcase featuring a brief, rare quotation ("Sunny"). When the tune comes back, Person displays his adeptness with brief fills between the leader's phrases.

On this track, Jeff Jenkins' deft, fluttery piano solo complements his boss' approach. Oxman typically sounds relaxed, and even when he imparts some intensity to his solos, he keeps them on a low simmer that suits his style. He inevitably sounds comfortable throughout his instrument's compass. The producer left in an apt remark of Person's at the end: "Yeah, that's just raggedy enough to be good." Precisely!

Oxman's originals are bracing and have a little bit of that appealing raggedyness to them as well. "Murphy's Law Impacts L.E.A.P.," a title with no doubt an interesting story behind it, has a consistent, conventional focus with some interesting turns to it. Paul Romaine's drum solo, concentrating on toms and cymbals, invigorates the peroration.

Jenkins contributed a tune, "Wind Chill," with an unforced boogaloo vibe that's meat and drink not just to guest star Person, but also suits the whole group. The pianist seems to have fun tweaking his own melody. Person is also in his element in Johnny Griffin's "Sweet Sucker," in which bassist Ken Walker takes his only solo, a comfortably grooving excursion that sets up a series of tenor exchanges before Person and Oxman ride through the outchorus in smart style.

This is a release that shows the continuing strength of imaginative mainstream jazz, and rewards close listening.

Come rain or come shine, we must all stay true to our loved ones as we constantly complain of COVID


Monday, March 9, 2020

APA presents Alessio Bax: 'Italian Inspirations' from a pre-COVID-19 peninsula

Alessio Bax conveyed "Italian Inspirations"
Substituting for the previously announced recitalist, Alessio Bax quickly whisked away any shadow of replacement status in a brilliant piano recital Sunday afternoon at Indiana Landmarks Center.

The third program in American Pianists Association's "Grand Encounters" series this season adhered to the theme "Italian Inspirations."  The recital was rooted in Italian musical sources or generated from the the legacy of two notable Italians, St. Francis and Dante.

A theme made famous by Arcangelo Corelli but not originating with him has nearly pan-European provenance. "La Folia," as applied after the model of the Italian baroque composer's violin piece of that title, was worked into a masterpiece for solo piano by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The result, Variations on a Theme of Corelli, brought Bax's recital up to intermission.

It was characteristic of Bax's playing that he used the sustaining pedal in masterly fashion. He had control over a variety of colors in the course of  the 20 variations. There was an evocation of bell-ringing dear to Rachmaninoff's muse and there were evanescent passages suggesting mist rising over the Russian steppes. A bounding "hunt" variation hinted at Schumann, but the idiom was clearly the Russian composer's own. A more familiar work, his piano-orchestra Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, was brought to mind in several places: There was even an adept lyrical manipulation of the theme, though its magic is far from the indelible beauty of the Rhapsody's 18th variation. Bax conjured every bit of it, however.

Both his limpid phrasing and the organization he brought to complex textures were hinted at in J.S. Bach's version of Alessandro Marcello's Oboe Concerto in D minor. The second-movement theme had the lift of well-supported singing, with the left hand subordinate but never in danger of vanishing. Counterpoint in the Presto finale always displayed a clear outline.

Italian modernism, in the form of a set of miniatures by Luigi Dallaspiccola, opened the recital's second half. In Quaderno musicale di Annalibera, fragmentary and disjunctive melodies unfolded with unerring connectedness. Linked voices in different registers consistently cohered. Near the end, shading of tone color conveyed the painterly effect of chiaroscuro. The final movement, subduing some of the composition's rigorous profile on display earlier, was haunting and subdued.

Bax linked two programmatic Liszt works to bring the recital to a rousing conclusion. "St. Francis of Assisi's Sermon to the Birds"  offered a view of saintly absorption in nature's wonders. The delicate chittering and chirping at the start was soon underlaid with mid-range melodicism. Unsurprisingly, Bax showed his affinity for characterization of both winged and earthbound characters alike. The pulpit is more like a round table: birds and man seem more in colloquy, praising their Creator.

"Apres un lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata" is one of the Hungarian composer's major lengthy works. It focuses mainly on the story of the adulterous Francesca da Rimini in the Inferno portion of Dante's epic poem, "The Divine Comedy." There are episodes that bring in the work's other two parts as well, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Bax offered an interpretation that used lots of pedal, but as was already evident from his performance up to that point, he always knew what to subordinate and what to emphasize. Nothing was messy; there was no empty grandstanding. His articulation was so commanding that the most intense torrents of sound never came off blurry, even with the extra resonance he applied. Bax made the work's occasional silences stunning in emotional effect. As memorable as the recital had been before the Liszt diptych, it attained particular luster at the end.

Both his well-focused energy and his knack for exquisitely proportioned tone painting were confirmed by two encores: Brahms/Cziffra/Bax's Hungarian Dance no. 5 and Scriabin's Prelude for the Left Hand.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

In Fonseca Theatre Company's 'The Cake,' one of the fronts in today's culture wars is examined on a private battlefield

Della dreams of success with her cakes in "The Great American Bake-Off."
Two clashing aspects of American freedom receive scrutiny in "The Cake," a hard-wrought comedy by Bekah Brunstetter currently on the Fonseca Theatre Company stage. If your religious views incline you to reject homosexuality, you may not want your business to endorse its expression. If your identity cries out for free exercise, you are not likely to accept barriers placed in its way.

The show avoids the legal side of the struggle around gay marriage, famously sanctioned by the Supreme Court but subject to pushback from businesses catering to weddings when their owners object. Is religious freedom at stake, or simply the privilege of bigotry? More than that question is aired in "The Cake": Private struggles with identity, friendship, and down-home versus big-city values are woven into a tight fabric by the playwright. The cast negotiates the issues with speed and fervor under the direction of Jordan Flores Schwartz.

Della (Jean Arnold) is the proud proprietor of a thriving bakery in a North Carolina small town. She is an effervescent advocate for her craft and her cake mastery, with enough ambition to place quite a lot of weight upon her chances in culinary competition on TV. The suave on-air host, voiced by Dwuan Watson, commands respect and offers encouragement as well as correction and constant challenge to mere contestants. He's interactive to a fault. In sum, he is a kind of celebrity Jehovah, and Brunstetter uses the resemblance imaginatively as a creative prod.

We first see Della on a prideful talking jag, which we process as a soliloquy until the lights go up on Macy (Chandra Lynch), seated on the other side of the stage furiously taking notes for reasons unclear to both the audience and Della. It turns out Macy is doing some scouting of the business to assess how receptive Della may be to making a wedding cake for her and Jen (Kyrsten Lyster), a hometown girl who came out after self-exile to the big city, where she and an African-American Brooklyn sophisticate met and fell in love.

Della defends her traditional beliefs, manifested at the start as she puts finishing touches on a Noah's Ark cake with edible animal representation. But she is malleable and warily capable of honoring her deep-rooted friendship with Jen; she just can't find room in her schedule to bake the couple's wedding cake. Her susceptibility to having her mind changed contrasts with her husband, the rather stolid plumber, Tim (Adam O. Crowe). The heterosexual couple's  troubles with intimacy turn out to suggest a path forward, which allows "The Cake" to reach a positive resolution at the end of its uninterrupted 100-minute span.

I wish the playwright had resisted the sex-farce schemes Tim and Della set up to overcome their
Macy and Jen talk about plans for their big day.
difficulties; the slapstick is discordant. And she can't seem to hold back from presenting Della and Macy as polar opposites in all respects: The homespun baker reads the Bible, the prickly outsider reads Richard Dawkins. They are at fiercely opposite poles on acceptable foods and the culpability of the corporate food culture. Macy rattles off a litany of mainstream evils when it comes to what we eat for comfort and nurture. I think their apartness in all respects is overdrawn.

At least that leaves us in no doubt as to what Jen must overcome in normalizing a same-sex wedding in her conservative hometown. You get the feeling that Della would be the least of her problems in such an environment. Yet certainly not everything is smooth between the prospective brides. It would have been good to feel that the romantic ardor of Macy and Jen was as firm as the ferocity of their lovers' quarrels. Lynch and Lyster were at their best Saturday night when their characters were mad at each other. That they were also mad for each other was muted in comparison.

Some shortcomings of "The Cake" can be ascribed to the playwright. The director drew from the cast lively execution of all the roles, with the main performance flaw being an almost unrelieved rapidity. Nuance of pacing comes up now and then over the course of the action, but the norm is for lines to almost tread on each other's heels. Facial expressions are quick to register emotion, but the performance needed more breathing room.

The one place this seemed crucial was when Macy enters the shop just as Jen is breaking down emotionally over the gulf between her and Della. "Are you OK?" she asks immediately. Jen soon exits in distress, and Macy and Della get into a major airing of their differences, the bulk of hostility coming from Macy. It would have been great to have her suspicions register visually before she asks if her fiancee is OK. Taking in Jen's evident misery, then pausing to shoot a dagger-like look at Della before she utters a word, would have put a foundation under the torrential set-to that follows.

Bernie Killian's set design is quite serviceable. The plainness of the bakery feels right for a milieu out of which Della's large visions of prize-winning cookery can be launched. Through scrims on either side of a center door, bedroom scenes involving both couples can be played. Bryan Fonseca's lighting design precisely guides our views of each area. In keeping with the fast tempo of the dialogue, the production's technical aspects seemed to go smoothly.

"The Cake" affords a welcome opportunity to realize that beneath every major issue convulsing dialogue in the public square lies a host of personal difficulties that ordinary people have to work through, hoping that love and understanding will eventually triumph.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Everybody'll get the fever? Who knows? A warning in song, with historical/literary examples

IRT's 'Murder on the Orient Express' moves smartly on a snow-stalled track

Even people not enamored of detective fiction can get caught up in seat-of-the-pants sleuthing when reading or watching a carefully shaped who-dun-it. It's amateur night, and in the case of "Murder on the Orient Express," the payoff is likely to reward all guesses as to the real perpetrator of the crime.

I hope this doesn't violate spoiler etiquette, or to indicate that an unusual play-within-a-play device is involved — also, a train-stopping snowstorm in 1934 Yugoslavia as the Orient Express travels from Istanbul to Western Europe. The setting, exotic in time and place to today's audiences, is a kind of edge-to-edge red herring, as a cosmopolitan cast of characters is at length revealed to have crucial associations in common.

Andrew May as Agatha Christie's oddball detective hero, Hercule Poirot.
Indiana Repertory Theatre's production of the Agatha Christie mystery, as adapted by Ken Ludwig, rewards all hunches as it concludes. But still, everyone is likely to admire the process that allows Hercule Poirot's ratiocination to succeed. The Belgian detective, a fastidious professional prone to unpredictable flare-ups of temper and a characteristic gasping laugh, has amusing charisma and command to boot as played by Andrew May.

The Orient Express is legendary in the history of passenger railroading. Its luxurious appeal is recreated spectacularly for IRT's OneAmerica Mainstage by Robert M. Koharchik, with the action occurring across several compartments, each moving to a central position on a turntable as needed. The wintry world outside is brilliantly suggested through L.B. Morse's projections and Michael Klaers' lighting. Near the end, staging puts the suspects in isolated spots to illuminate how Poirot fits each piece into the homicide puzzle.

Devon Painter's costumes outfit all characters with an individualizing zest. We are prepared to believe anything about them even before a gangsterish American known as Samuel Ratchett (Ryan Artzberger) is found gruesomely murdered. Risa Brainin has directed the cast to inhabit every eccentricity and soul-defining trait peculiar to each character. Ken Ludwig's farcical gift is a carefully stirred-in sauce, held in check to allow the Christie flair for cat-and-mouse revelation of motive and secrecy to dominate the flavor.

The following assessments are offered on the basis on the show's opening night March 6. The train's
Countess Andrenyi, Poirot, and M. Bouc examine a clue, a stopped pocket watch.
excitable director, functioning as a sidekick for the detective, stands in for the surprise any of us may feel when jobs we are well-prepared to handle are overturned by stunning circumstances. Monsieur Bouc had the requisite brio and bubbling spontaneity in Gavin Lawrence's performance.

As Colonel Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham, Ryan Artzberger and Nastacia Guimont displayed the mutual protectiveness typical of couples pursuing a clandestine affair, with an overlay of Scottish volatility in the colonel. Katie Bradley brought mysterious pathos to the role of a medically trained Hungarian countess, and Dale Hodges embodied a more prickly kind of aristocrat — her costume and makeup both marvelous — as a Russian princess in exile, looking as if she could easily step into a more famous role, the rich old lady in Duerrenmatt's "The Visit," another Central European train drama. Her traveling companion, a nervous-Nellie missionary called Greta Ohlsson, had a suitably ingrained touch of caricature in Callie Johnson's performance.

Jennifer Joplin was alluring and brassy as the flamboyant and available American divorcee Helen
The detective has something to tell the entire group of suspects.
Hubbard; Aaron Kirby as  Ratchett's secretary Hector MacQueen vividly occupied the opposite end of the self-assurance spectrum. After his brief role as a doddering waiter in Istanbul, Rob Johansen moved readily into the nervous energy of the train's eager-to-please conductor, Michel.

"Murder on the Orient Express" is the sort of production you can breathe in as soon as you set your eyes on it. Subsequently, you will put aside your best guesses with difficulty, knowing the genre subjects the innocent viewer to tantalizing, misleading clues. In the meantime, you can feast upon characterizations in an elaborate bygone setting loaded with humor and, crucially, memories of the disturbing puzzle hinted at before any of the actors appears, the triggering event for all that follows, voiced from offstage. That will help you applaud the rare justice that emerges just before the final curtain. And there's so much else to enjoy along the way.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, March 6, 2020

'The Agitators': Phoenix presents a history lesson that struggles to convey emotional meaning

Our ancestors who pressed for social change wielded a two-edged sword: Without social media to aid them or
A spellbound Susan B. Anthony recalls the musical passion of her fellow agitator, Frederick Douglass,
resist them, they depended on retail politics. That's all to the good, as we have been frequently reminded as our customary primary process awkwardly unfolds. 

Public lectures were a performance art in which personalities and issues fused in the public square. Activist intellectuals had to travel without conveniences and lecture without microphones. Their persuasive powers couldn't be developed and exercised without hospitable venues and outlets for the printed word. One feels that only people of extraordinary gifts of energy and focus could thus distinguish themselves and engage the public. An indignant Twitter presence was unavailable to them, and they couldn't rake in vast sums bloviating on cable TV.

That's the milieu in which Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony moved and excelled. Their sometimes combative friendship as advocates for progress over many 19th-century decades provides the material for "The Agitators," a two-act drama by Mat Smart now on Phoenix Theatre's Russell Stage.

As seen Thursday night as the production entered its second weekend, the play rests on the capable shoulders of just two actors: Jerome Beck and Lauren Briggeman. Directed by Mikael Burke, the actors have to negotiate a script heavily weighted with exposition and rhetoric. The human dimension is brought out in performance, but the mantle of educational theater is draped heavily over the action. 

It's both an opportunity and a burden, The two figures represent the American struggle to achieve equal justice under law, which continues today to vex the progress of women and black people. So Douglass and Anthony are necessarily symbolic figures, and the production honors that stature even as it reveals their personalities, their domestic arrangements and their pastimes.

By habit I resist "working up" my knowledge of historical figures who are given dramatic treatment. I think the playwright should have a certain amount of latitude to depart from strict adherence to biographical facts. The play's the thing, after all. Since seeing "The Agitators," I've simply sought to put a foundation under what the play gave me by drawing upon a few relevant scraps from my personal library.

So I confirmed that the agitation practiced by the Anti-Slavery Society with which both the white feminist and the black ex-slave were associated devolved into disagreements about mission. These came to a head after the Civil War, as "The Agitators" crisply sets before us, in the struggle to frame and pass the 15th Amendment. The right to vote was extended to ex-slaves and, by implication, all men of whatever race. Women continued to be excluded, so the price of agitation necessarily had to involve where to stake the claims of progress, and where to wait. 

Which was the fundamental block to achieving the American dream: white supremacy or male supremacy? The intensity of resolving such matters blazes forth as one scene succeeds the next in the second act. The denouement of this tension is subtly moving, and the final scene puts a blessing upon the unlikely friendship as Anthony speaks over Douglass' grave. As the lights fade, in the background the ghostly escaped slave and liberation spokesman embeds in the anti-slavery suffragist's memory his beloved violin-playing.
Frederick Douglass in 1870

Douglass had several other wrangles with white abolitionists that necessarily have to be left out of a two-character drama. I'm glad that some of his ferocity, which may still be applied to the persistence of racism today, is conspicuous in Beck's portrayal. I have a few quibbles with how he inhabits the role visually, however. I doubt the kind of haircut Beck's Douglass displays was possible before the electric razor. 

It's not that actors playing historical figures should be the spittin' image of the original, but Douglass' leonine mane is famous; so is the fact that his full head of hair had turned white by his early 50s. I think aging could have been signaled more authentically in this production, and not just by Douglass' needing to be helped up off the floor by Anthony at one point. 

Both actors conveyed a feeling for the passing years in their carriage, but I wonder if some noticeable whitening of Douglass' hair might have been possible in a brief offstage moment. I remember learning somewhere that Douglass is believed to have been the most photographed American of the 19th century. That puts an admittedly extra responsibility on producers when it comes to representing him onstage.

Speaking of representation, Inseung Park's set design is required to look like various settings, both rural and urban, both grand and modest. Lighting and sound design (Zak Hunter and Michael Lamirand, respectively) lend crucial assistance to the necessary illusion. But I was persistently puzzled by a large fluted column, conspicuously slanted, on one side of the stage. Obviously, its position challenged the realism of the story (as did the
Partially demolished building along US75 near downtown Dallas.
contemporary pop recordings heard when the stage was idle). Perhaps I was susceptible to it because I have just returned from a visit to the Texas metropolis where the "Leaning Tower of Dallas" has become a temporary sensation. But of course that phenomenon is accidental, and this show's leaning column is assuredly not.

I'm going to assume the Phoenix's tilted pillar was meant as symbolic of the classical verities, on which the American public was founded, .having acquired a precarious slant in the course of our nation's troubled 19th century. If that's the case, the way Beck and Briggeman played these two American heroes justified that gravity-challenged architectural detail in the set design.

Monday, February 24, 2020

'Primary Colors': A trumpet-keyboard duo recording that stretches into sonic experimentation

Sometimes cleaning out a basement yields more than junk or sentimental knickknacks. John Vanore, whose
career as trumpeter also rests on the little big band he directed called Abstract Truth, dug out some cassette tapes he made with keyboardist Ron Thomas in the mid-1980s.
John Vanore revived duo sessions

Digitizing  these sessions and making them public has yielded "Primary Colors", three-quarters of an hour's worth of stimulating dialogues between Thomas and Vanore. The live studio recording is subject to some overlays and occasional expansion of the natural resonance of the acoustic instruments; recording and mixing credit goes to Terry Hoffman.

At the forefront are Vanore's horns — the trumpet and its mellow-voiced cousin, the flugelhorn — with most of the keyboard variety enabled by synthesizer and studio legerdemain, like the cymbals that decorate the opening track, Thomas' "Final Dawn." The moody, restless accompaniment complements Vanore's lyrical tone, and the long-phrased ballad setting exhibits his comfortable control. Both horns get some simultaneous interplay in Lionel Richie's "Lady." The piano is loaded with extra resonance, and overall the treatment seems a trifle aimless for the sake of sound. Fortunately, the disc's sonic woolgathering is confined to "Lady."

The most extensive outreach works pretty well in Vanore's "Origins of Rude," a salute to Miles Davis' funky electronic period. The foreground is cluttered over a bass ostinato, and Thomas sports an electric harpsichord timbre. The highly charged mix eases up as it goes along, becoming less aggressive before subsiding into a fadeout.

I prefer the more mainstream side of these dialogues, though it must be conceded that adventures in studio experimentation rooted in jazz of 35 years ago lend this disc an inviting novelty.  Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays" finds the duo conventional in delivering a straight-ahead performance, with the freshness contributed mainly via a "hopping" treatment of the familiar melody. Vanore's crisp articulation is notable, but he doesn't allow that to lead him toward overaccenting the line. He displays a good low register, and here and elsewhere seems quite comfortable all along the spectrum of both instruments, confining higher blasts to "Origins of Rude."

Vanore is imaginative in a rubato solo cadenza to launch another evergreen, "Secret Love" (Sammy Fain, Paul Francis Webster), alluding to the melody slyly before falling into tempo with Thomas's assistance and delivering the theme. After solos, the two come up with an attractive coda that amounts to the perfect exit line for "Primary Colors."

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Carmel Symphony Orchestra, Actors Theatre of Indiana join forces in Sondheim's 'dark operetta'

If you have a good feeling about Valentine's Day, you might well think of it as having its own season — a small
Sweeney Todd (Don Farrell) sings in praise of his "friends," the razors of his trade.
one, of course, and not for the sake of florists, candy sellers, and greeting-card makers, but all for love.

So maybe Friday night, a week after February 14, I was still basking in its glow, oddly enough, to take in "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" as a love story. Love thwarted and violated, love enduring in distorted form, love misapplied and criminally directed. Love, the companion of lies and madness. Love emerging somehow from dire threats, triumphing against all odds.

What Stephen Sondheim called his "dark operetta" enjoys a semi-staged production, whose second and final performance will be tonight at the Palladium, with Actors Theatre of Indiana in collaboration with the Carmel Symphony Orchestra. Coincidentally, the performances come the weekend after the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's accompanied showings of "Casablanca," whose score by Max Steiner is one of the film classic's glories. "At the age of ten, I was more a fan of Korngold than of Kern, more of Steiner than of [Richard] Strauss," Sondheim writes in his enthralling volume of self-commentary and second thoughts, "Finishing the Hat."

In other words, as a child, the major creator of American musical theater in the late 20th century found neither stage musicals nor classical music as attractive as movies. And that interest had something to do with the pervasive underscoring in the classic film scores by Steiner, Erich Korngold, and Bernard Herrmann. It carried over into Sondheim's 1979 masterpiece (to Hugh Wheeler's book, derived from Christopher Bond's play, with Jonathan Turick's orchestrations), which is so magnificently represented in the Carmel production.

Thus it's a signal achievement that the splendid Carmel Symphony occupies most of the Palladium stage and that such care has been lavished upon the music under the dialogue as much as on the songs. Janna Hymes, the CSO's music director, conducted a fit and febrile rendering of the score, well-coordinated with the cast, supplemented in song, chiefly "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," by the black-robed Indianapolis Arts Chorale in the gallery.

The portrayal of the title character by Don Farrell had a dark charisma that never flagged. The hypnotic intensity of "My Friends," the barber's paean to the tools of his trade, united the character's weird obsession with razors to nostalgia for his old life in London and the bitter retribution he plans to exact for his forced exile years before. "He handles them as if they were sacred objects and sings softly," the stage direction reads. It was one of many moments when Farrell completely inhabited the demon persona essential to the role.

This is vital, because though the show has loads of humor (much of it gruesome) and barbed commentary on social injustice rivaling "The Threepenny Opera," it is fundamentally a serious examination of love gone haywire. The former Benjamin Barker was a family man, no doubt about it. London's upper crust, personified here by a lecherous judge, has decreed that the happiness of the lower orders may be obliterated with impunity, and the barber and his young family are this story's hapless victims. Now with a new identity as Sweeney Todd, the convict returned from Australian exile is ready to set matters right after his own fashion.

Mrs. Lovett envisions life by the sea, but Sweeney Todd's vistas are sepulchral.
Broadening his quest for vengeance after an accidental failure to slit the judge's throat, Todd resolves to subject any and all customers to the closest of shaves. In the equivalent of an operatic scena titled "Epiphany," Todd's demon takes charge, and Farrell's performance of this number was a highlight of Friday's performance. It properly cast a shadow over the mirthful duet that follows, "A Little Priest," in which Todd and the seedy pie baker Nelly Lovett celebrate with punning amusement the expansive business they intend to set up, rendering serial murder into a marketable viand.

Richard J Roberts' stage direction seethes with appropriate action in both numbers. Throughout, his skill and imagination certainly push the "semi-staged" description past the halfway point; a walkway around behind the orchestra gives the action breadth, but most of it takes place right before us on Paul Bernard Killian's appropriately sketchy set, in which the tonsorial parlor, the restaurant, and the basement kitchen are necessarily set side by side. We have to imagine the operation of gravity (the physical kind), though the gravity of the Todd/Lovett scheme is never in doubt, as dispatched customers are dumped down the chute past the dining room and into an ever-stoked baking oven.

Judy Fitzgerald embodies Mrs. Lovett in all her loquacious Cockney verve and resourcefulness. Love is the engine driving her involvement with the touchy Todd, and Fitzgerald caught both the sly temporizing and the shabby dreams that motivate the amoral baker. Every telltale facial expression and gesture was delightfully in place. The other ATI co-founder, Cynthia Collins, plays the Beggar Woman whose real identity hovers ghost-like over the plot. Her sporadic intrusions onto the scene, with her mental distraction hinting at the bad business afoot on Fleet Street, always brought goosebumps.

In other roles, Mathew Conwell and Elizabeth Hutson gave the right optimistic ardor and youthful energy to the nearly doomed couple displaying the hopeful side of love. Their singing was of a buoyant piece with their  ingenuous portrayals. Tim Fullerton presented a looming figure of menace as the corrupt, lascivious Judge Turpin, with Michael Elliott as the complaisant Beadle, a minor official in a position to create major trouble for the meat-pie business. Mario Almonte III rates a mention for the comic gusto he brought to the role of Adolfo Pirelli, a Todd rival and snake-oil charlatan who's made short work of. His murder spurs the new business and allows it to pick up the services of the simple-minded Tobias, played with nuanced pathos by David Cunningham ("Not While I'm Around" is perhaps the show's one breakout song, though it's much more affecting in context).

On a technical note, the face microphones are of course necessary to allow the cast to project above the orchestra. That's a given: The problem is that some of the patter-song lyrics get blurred, though Mrs. Lovett's mostly come through heroically. More crucially, Sondheim favors spotlighting individual contributions in choruses, and these almost never stand out: The street brouhaha around Pirelli and the later meat-pie raving of satisfied  diners ("God, That's Good!") are rather stewed together, and the audience can be only partly aware of this particular recipe in Sondheim's master cookbook.

For the most part, the seasoning is piquant and judiciously applied throughout.  The cinematic progression of scenes consistently catches one up in the music as well as the story. Sondheim's final word on the work, which this production honors expertly, runs like this: "What 'Sweeney Todd' really is is a movie for the stage." As such, it's every bit as much a love story — in its own weird way — as "Casablanca." Season's greetings!

Monday, February 17, 2020

Bass player Max Gerl, heading quartet, salutes Georgian capital in 'Tbilisi'

The Georgian capital is spelled two different ways on the jacket for this
Bass is the place: Max Gerl shows mastery of plugged-in and unplugged kinds.
disc (Dolfin Records), and I chose to go with Tbilisi, which online occurred more than "Tblisi." The three I's have it. 

That's the only conspicuous error in this release on a Dallas-based label. The music inside is engaging. Max Gerl is a bassist of great facility and expressive range, especially on the electric instrument.

 "Tbilisi" as a title tune on this short disc shows off his colleague on tenor sax, Aaron Shaw, in busy dialogue with drummer Mike Mitchell. When it's time for the leader to take the spotlight, his drive and wealth of fast-paced ideas are immediately evident.

Gerl's acoustic bass states the tune of "It Happened to Me" and the piano sits out for a while while the trio fills the room edge to edge a la Ornette Coleman. Paul Cornish makes up for lost time once the piano gets involved.

On "Suntrip,"  Shaw's tenor, whose distinctiveness I admire for the most part, reveals a limitation in tone for this kind of cosmic exploration. He displays a broad sound that suits the piece, but little depth. Three monstrous Coltrane-like dimensions are called for in this sort of thing, and Shaw doesn't command them. 

The finale, "Counter," opens with a short figure introduced by the piano, joined hand-in-glove by the sax; then it settles into a heady pace sustained by the quartet in full cry. There's another fine solo by the leader, his electric bass unfolding phrases in nimble octaves. The pianist picks up on the obsessive nature of the tune's opening figure in his solo. The ensemble restates the head material, and, though I'm normally no fan of fadeouts, resorting to that practice here seems just about right, giving the listener a chance to exhale.

It may be more a matter of taste than a persistent flaw that the recording quality seems acoustically flat and unresonant. There are silences that don't hang in the air naturally, as if the engineer intentionally cut the microphones right after a note's release. Fans of the piano may particularly be aware of its shallowness and lack of tonal bloom. If you adjust your ears to that quality, however, there is much to enjoy musically over the course of this concise program.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The system in a closed car: Monument Theatre Company presents 'Dutchman'

Lula (Dani Gibbs) feeds Clay (Jamaal McCray) the forbidden fruit in America's lost Eden.
Traveling by myself, I once toured George Washington's estate, Mount Vernon, on a warm day when the grounds were streaming with visitors. You could have private moments outside or join a crowd lining up to go through the living quarters and other buildings. I was standing looking at the slave burial ground, and about thirty feet away a solitary black man, surveying the same scene, was musing wearily aloud: "Buried without their names — they didn't even leave them with their names."

Wanting to say something  sympathetic, I halted because it would sound like a lecture. It would have come across as "white-splaining" for me to say something about the system that worked those departed against their will and beyond their control, then buried them unidentified. It would have sounded insensitive to ask the rhetorical question: how could the owners of these people have memorialized them as individuals when they had been considered property all their lives?

When he still used his birth name LeRoi Jones, Amiri Baraka wrote "Dutchman," the white-hot one-act play that Monument Theatre Company is presenting at Indy Convergence through next weekend. The play homes in on a subway confrontation between two young people, a black man and a white woman. But it is caught up in the larger symbolism that relationship implies, and it has much to say about the system that has extended from slavery through its aftermath, up to the present day.

Jones was attracted to the larger implications of American race relations, which fed acute suspicion of the integrationist mindset. Shortly after "Dutchman" he left behind his bohemian lifestyle and Jewish wife to embrace black nationalism. He had been the foremost African-American ornament in the literary counterculture, and his drastic shift in priorities made him something of a Lost Leader, to borrow Robert Browning's designation of the aging Wordsworth. Jones' poetry, having shown signs of a whimsical, fragmented identity, became an explicit revolutionary tool, in Baraka's view and that of his associates. It also veered into anti-Semitism, which was to interfere with honors some felt he was entitled to later in life.

But the same system held sway throughout Baraka's evolution; the author's perspective on it changed. The changes are adumbrated in "Dutchman." Wrestling with myths that are part of racial oppression, Jones upends the dangerous stereotype of the rapacious black male lusting after white women. In this play, Lula is the sexual aggressor while Clay, the middle-class student in suit and tie, is uncomfortably cast as the victim of her desire. Her temptress style is symbolically linked to another myth: Eve, partaking of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden and persuading the first man to share in what became known as the original sin. Apples are munched with gusto as the dialogue gets under way, soon to be discarded as the interplay becomes more explicit.

"Dutchman" has the feel of a work in which the author is working something out for himself, based on his experience in and out of books and art.  The characters are vivid stand-ins for perspectives that have long shaped American race relations. Clay's occasional references to Jews hint at what became explicit animosity in Baraka's poetry. Clay's celebration of black musical icons — Bessie Smith and Charlie Parker — chafes at white fans' absorption of them and their likely misunderstanding of their cultural significance. Jones worked these themes hard in two 1960s books of sociology and music criticism: "Blues People" and "Black Music."

Directed with admirable focus and momentum by Shawn Whitsell, Jamaal McCray and Dani Gibbs handle well the range of exhibitionism and reserve the characters go through, provoked by each other and (more important) America's unresolved racial divisions. Fewer instances of the mocking chuckle or snort Lula tags onto nearly everything she says at first would have been welcome, but there is no question the character came on as a full-throttle femme fatale.

Counterpointed to her in the performance I saw Saturday are the caution and curiosity of Clay, obviously brought up to safeguard upward mobility while steering clear of white supremacy's obstacles as much as possible. He is goaded about his name, his fashion sense, his manners, and his social position. When he explodes, Lula falls silent; Gibbs' facial expressions aptly altered between pouting and fear. And McCray intensified his portrayal to make Clay's vision of murder credibly linked to his freedom. "Dutchman" suggests that neither incremental change nor righteous violence is the path forward.

Lacking the presence of a crowd of subway passengers onstage, the production's audience becomes fellow travelers. If you sit in a conspicuous place, you may find Clay in your face and tearing your program (standing in for the script's New York Times) from your hands, as I did. In a play so obviously symbolic, like a lab experiment in racism, the feeling that this drama is playing to an empty subway car is not a major issue. The battle is joined, and just before the final blackout, Lula is preparing to snare another victim (Deont'a Stark).

Almost contemporaneous with "Dutchman" is a Jones novel titled "The System of Dante's Hell." It's not a good novel, but a lively (and deadly) pastiche of scenes from the Newark ghetto of Jones' background — a kind of Dostoyevskyan notes from underground. But the title and some aspects of its structure reveal the author's consciousness that the system was rigged against black people, and that the pathology had been internalized.

Whether enslaved or subsequently, African-Americans still wrestle with a vast conspiracy against their full humanity. The man I wished I'd spoken to at Mount Vernon focused on the visible lack of this recognition at the slave burial ground, but I suspect he knew deeply what a major part of his own living heritage that anonymity was. Jones/Baraka chafed against the system that kept the conspiracy alive; he went in a direction it may be presumptuous of me to call wrong. But he continued to pursue a struggle that had a strong sense of justice behind it. If you attend "Dutchman," you will be powerfully forced to examine the myth he applied to that struggle.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

ISO Film Series: Reveling in Max Steiner's score for 'Casablanca'

Filling the Hilbert Circle Theatre to the rafters, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra presented its first film accompaniment of the New Year Friday night to a showing of the classic "Casablanca."
Max Steiner conducting a studio orchestra in one of his scores.

Some people put the 1942 movie near the top of their  favorites. It must also be near the summit of any list, if anyone has bothered to count, of widely known lines and phrases from the script. It's a love story nuanced and genuine enough  to suit Valentine's weekend (there's another showing tonight) and also pertinent today as the free world largely dreads a shift toward totalitarianism.

Jack Everly conducts the ISO's performance of the movie's music, featuring one of the prolific Max Steiner's most memorable scores. A native of Austria, thoroughly trained and lauded in music from his youth, the immigrant Steiner pioneered symphonic scoring for motion pictures shortly after the Silent Era. "King Kong" (1933) is often mentioned as a milestone in a specialty that was developed by many others as well for about three decades. The 1960s saw a shift to pop music and electronic scoring that has sustained itself for the last half-century.

Steiner made full use of two tunes he didn't create, cued by their full versions in the movie: "La Marseillaise," the national anthem of the French republic, and "As Time Goes By," a philosophical love song from 1931 by Herman Hupfeld. The latter is the signature "our song" of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), whose interrupted romance in Paris drives the plot of "Casablanca." It's sung, initially to Rick's displeasure, by Sam, who left France with his boss to become an entertainment fixture at the piano of Blaine's new club, Rick's Cafe Americain, in Casablanca, Morocco.

But Steiner also exploits the melodies motivically, after the example of Richard Wagner. This means a familiar phrase may act as a jog to the memory (leitmotif) and also as a reminder of the central love affair's fragility, how subject it is to undermining. Turmoil caused by Nazi Germany's wartime conquest of its neighbors involved millions, and one of the ethical triumphs of "Casablanca" is its recognition of this, however much we may want to focus on Rick, Ilsa, and Ilsa's husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). As Rick puts it, in one of the film's memorable lines: “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

Thus, a cadence from the Hupfeld song will sometimes end wryly, quizzically or portentously in a harmonic shift. The swelling notes of romance, so well played Friday as centered in the ISO strings, are rarely given a blithe setting — chiefly in the flashbacks to Rick and Ilsa's happy times in Paris. Steiner's score is adept in "uh-oh" moments, as when Ilsa unexpectedly enters Rick's Cafe Americain, surprising the proprietor, who famously laments later while binging: "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."

From the time she enters the club through her departure, the underscoring is superb in conveying the unsettling effect of a reunion Rick never expected and never wanted. But something approaching closure, a staple of fiction on the screen or on the page, will not be denied. And from the first scene on, the exotic milieu is conveyed by Steiner's occasional suggestion of Arab music, recurring when the action briefly moves to the Blue Parrot, a rival nightclub, where the manipulative owner Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) swats flies when he's not scheming.

As directed by Michael Curtiz, the macro and micro worlds continually intersect in "Casablanca," and Steiner's score reflects the mingling. When the band strikes up the Marseillaise to drown out a fatherland song by a Nazi contingent under Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), the orchestration grows in full glory to supplement the on-screen singing. It's one of the most moving episodes in the film; it never fails to be spine-tingling even when you can see it coming. It's especially so with a "live" orchestra. And it must be said that the subtitles throughout are valuable, because you can hardly expect actual onstage musicians to somehow fold their sound under the dialogue as it would be when "Casablanca" is seen with the soundtrack as originally recorded. You're there to hear things you might not have noticed via video or in the movie theater.

The whole of the second act, when the cat-and-mouse game between Rick and Capt. Renault, Casablanca's prefect (Claude Rains), moves toward a climax, is a masterly landscape of musical suspense. In one of classic Hollywood's most memorable finales, the plane bearing Viktor and Ilsa away takes off in the fog, as Rick and Renault fade from view, walking along the tarmac, contemplating the beginning of a beautiful friendship, free of the troubled wartime city. The orchestra swells, as only it can when present before us, while our view cuts to the quaint projection of "The End" on the screen.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Dance Kaleidoscope celebrates love of country and those other kinds, too

"American Valentine" is how the holiday weekend is being celebrated by Dance Kaleidoscope on the main stage at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

The title encapsulates the balance of the program's two acts between the "Our America" celebration by the company's dancers in pieces designed for last year's Indy Fringe Festival and diverse DK repertoire dances by artistic director David Hochoy and two guest choreographers under the title "Facets of Love."

Jillian Godwin's "A Home for All" exemplifies the choreographer's distrust of barriers.
We are accustomed to thinking of "anthology" as a designation for a collection of literary pieces. However enthralling such volumes can be, they are a product of selections marketed around an attractive theme. "American Love" is an anthology that returns us to the word's roots, from the Greek meaning a gathering of flowers. The organic imagery is important, because this program is a fragrant bouquet of diverse lived experience expressed in dance form.

Bouquets have long been a major feature of Valentine's Day, but this gathering of cultivated tributes to love deserves to move to the front of the display. In the dancers' half of the program, idealism rules the day. This is clear from the spoken introductions to each piece, testimony to the choreographers' remarkable verbal eloquence, which almost matches the kind they have set upon their colleagues.

I want to hold up some of the stronger impressions "Our America" made on me as "American Love" premiered Thursday night. The lengthy title of retired dancer Mariel Greenlee's show-opening piece, "We hold these dream to be self evident," signals its blend of one of the Declaration of Independence's most famous phrases and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" 1963 speech at the Washington Mall. The choreography puts equal stress on the holding and the dreaming in a freshly ceremonial way.

Pointed social commentary vitalizes a few of the current DK dancers' creations. As it did memorably at its Fringe premiere, Missy Thompson's "The Jones Effect" skewers the "keeping-up-with-the-Joneses" consumerist drive while not getting silly about it. Social regimentation, often entered into voluntarily, is reflected in movement in which nonconformity vies with individual self-assertion.

The satirical element reminded me of a 1960s wall poster, crowded with identical hippie figures, marching in lockstep under the slogan "Protest Against the Rising Tide of Conformity." It was a dig at a widely seen poster carrying the same slogan, with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez posed on either side. The American reality has long been stocked with competing stances on that idea; nearly everyone is inclined to assert themselves until they realize they are doing so a little too much.

Similarly juxtaposed viewpoints clash in Manuel Valdes' powerful "In the Midst of a Storm." Six drab-garbed
Kaleidoscopic patterning: Taylor and King duet.
women move under oppression in the opening scene, their individuality muted, only to then declare their liberation, their limbs free and with skirts emphasizing freedom of movement. In "A Home for All," Jillian Godwin has used a long piece of fabric to represent a wall whose initial dividing function among a large group is ambiguous, eventually closing in around one dancer expressing resurgent determination to rise over the barrier.

Three other pieces focused on celebration: Aaron Steinberg's "Boatman's Dance" used Aaron Copland's folk-song setting to shape an exuberant, idiomatic work for two couples; Paige Robinson's  "Open Horizon" uses part of Ferde Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" to send three women in circling energy about the stage like Botticelli's 'Three Graces"  animated, following the concentrated force of a violin cadenza interpreted with her usual intensity by Jillian Godwin; and the finale, Stuart Coleman's "Kaleidoscope." The work outfits a sizable ensemble in glowing pastel colors that contrast from dancer to dancer. The lively score by Peter Boyer, in a compound meter (3-3-3-2) well-designed and -executed, has a charming respite in the middle, a duet featuring the deft partnership of Kieran King and Sarah Taylor.

The second half brought forward in concentrated form several displays of Hochoy's imagination as applied to the theme of love over the years. The capstone was the "Fire" movement from "The Four Elements," one of the most expansive and emotionally charged of the artistic director's more abstract pieces, joined at the hip to music.

Set to a pulsating performance by Tito Puente's foundational mambo band,  "Fire" is also a sublime representative of the collective wisdom of Hochoy and his longtime collaborators, lighting designer Laura E. Glover and costume designer Cheryl Sparks. The ensemble unity of the current DK company is as good as ever, and its virtuosity in this piece is relentlessly exercised. What a steady blaze in our hearts this piece stoked beyond all the flickering love cliches that light up Valentine's Day!

Earlier in the program, the audience is treated to a few incandescent duets by Hochoy. Each had its distinction. "Some Enchanted Evening" put Aaron Steinberg in sympathetic partnership with Sarah Taylor, who made the most of Hochoy's exalted concept by seeming to float on winds of enchantment. Less ethereal duo performances included the steamy "Seasons Tango," to music of Astor Piazzolla, danced by Marie Kuhns and Stuart Coleman, seasoned with a drizzle of wit. To amend the J. Geils song title, love also winks.

Guest vocalist Doug Dilling sings "End of the World," danced by Stuart Coleman and Kieran King.
To start the program's second half off in the mood of classical romance, Hochoy has brought back his "Romeo and Juliet" balcony scene as a vehicle for Aleksa Lukasiewicz and Kieran King, to which they bring both ardor and nobility. For a dynamic prelude, he uses his setting of the Montague-Capulet street brawl that symbolizes the feud making the love affair so dangerous. Hochoy's humor, a resource he can draw upon with the same degree of commitment, is showcased in "Stand By Your Man," an updated version of the eternal triangle, with Missy Thompson, Manuel Valdes, and Aaron Steinberg drolly effective. Guy Clark's costumes are rightly a lampoon on country chic. Obliquely, the setting undercuts the retro sexism of Tammy Wynette's singing.

Hochoy's guests vary the program even from a style as capacious as his: Cynthia Pratt moves across a spectrum of three duets in "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." The versatility of the choreography for three couples both celebrates the song's message and usefully relieves the Roberta Flack recording of some of its iconic dead-seriousness. And for a sassy contrast, another three couples cavort zestfully to Michael Jackson's performance of "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)," as choreographed by Nicholas A. Owens.

"American Valentine" is a true anthology. The kind you might find delightful to read is another matter entirely. This one blooms through Sunday. Take time to smell the roses.

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]

Monday, February 10, 2020

Zaniness rules in Civic Theatre's 'Much Ado About Nothing'

The director's note in the "Much Ado About Nothing" program book gets directly to the historic significance of the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre's current production.

It's the first full-length Shakespeare production ever for the company that began life 105 years ago as Indianapolis Civic Theatre, Emily Rogge Tzucker notes. The second performance I saw Saturday night revealed a production approach that spoke to Civic's broad appeal to its loyal public: Go deep on occasion, but bring instantly communicable theater values to the fore.

When it comes to comedy, underline it and maximize its connection with ordinary feelings. Give it a look that's strong on style: With scenic and lighting design by Ryan Koharchik, this production basks in Southern California sunlight, with a curvy stucco house front in Mission Revival and topiaries artfully placed around the yard — the home of media mogul Leonato (the play's governor of Messina). The action has been updated to right after World War II, placed for us immediately after a pre-curtain Swing Era soundtrack by interpolated radio patter from a deejay who calls himself "Billy Shakes." Multiple adjustments have to be made subsequently in the audience's mind: references to armor, swords, princes, and lords remain in the text, as they must.

Civic's "Much Ado": Benedick and Beatrice mix repartee with true romance.
Though the playwright drew upon ancient stories of marriageable women unjustly accused of infidelity, with the mistake eventually corrected for the sake of a happy ending, "Much Ado About Nothing" has long charmed readers and playgoers with its livelier subplot. So it's no departure from the play's essence that the feisty relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is foremost in Civic's production.

Antagonistic at the start, with every conversation striking sparks, the poor little rich girl Beatrice and the young officer Benedick eventually cast aside their warrior masks to reveal their true love. Each prompted by friends to be certain of the other's devotion, they are also moved by how the straightforward love of the young aristocrat Claudio (Nicholas Gibbs) and Hero, Leonato's daughter (Carly Masterson), has become undone by a plot against their marriage. Once that's set right and the villainy exposed, the well-practiced mutual resistance of Benedick and Beatrice falls away.

John Kern and Sara Castillo Dandurand are the unlikely lovers in roles that have provided a durable rom-com model for generations, fed by Hollywood. The director acknowledges this as the chief motive in her change of setting. Her interest in projecting that initial hostility was evident in the performance I saw, but some reluctance to let the witty dialogue carry the burden was also evident. Beatrice's barbs draw friendly laughter from onlookers, which makes them seem like the heroine's partisans and turns Benedick more into the butt of her
jokes. That adds to an imbalance that Shakespeare put there, insofar as the lady is the stronger character. Why not let the barbed badinage stand on its own two feet?

Fortunately, Kern's portrayal is strongly defined, making Benedick's path toward romantic ardor believable despite the obstacles he has long placed in it, with Beatrice's eager help. Dandurand's asperity in her role is vivid and fierce, despite the way its verbal splendor is partially masked by stage laughter. The director moves Benedick and Beatrice plausibly with respect to each other; the ambivalence is there as they lock in visually even when they seem most at odds.

Among the host of male roles, most stalwart in their representation of authority and "man-splaining" are Leonato and Don Pedro, prince of Aragon, as played by Tom Beeler and Joshua Ramsey. Darby Kear crisply sounded the master note of villainy, an unrewarding two-dimensional role, as Don John, Pedro's resentful brother and engineer of the plot against Hero.

Exposing the plot through happenstance is the slapstick team of Dogberry, Messina's master constable, played to the hilt by Kelsey VanVoorst. Dogberry and his/her bumbling assistants in the town's night watch are not the most inspired representatives of Shakespeare's low comedy. I can understand why a broad interpretation is tempting, but dialing down the ridiculousness might serve this production better. Malapropisms, a chief ingredient of Dogberry's buffoonery, are tedious on the page but can feel jolly good on the stage, especially as satire on officious types puffing up their minor status. In this performance, however, the word play is buried under well-designed but excessive physical comedy. The irony of a bunch of incompetents uncovering a scheme their clueless betters are unable to detect is delicious enough.

Another aspect of cartoonish stylization makes more sense, however: scenes in which Benedick and Beatrice
Male quintet bonds over "Sigh No More," a Marty-Shakespeare instant hit.
separately overhear their friends proclaiming their rivals' secret devotion. Eavesdropping juicing the plot is a hoary staple of stage drama (including the tragic instances in "Hamlet" and "Othello") and it probably deserves the kind of elaborate send-up the director gives it here. Other blithe touches that worked well were the ensemble tango early on and the celebratory swing dancing at the end. And Brent E. Marty fashioned a cute pop tune for a guy vocal group to go with Shakespeare's "Sigh No More," led by Jonathan Doram as Balthazar.

These were sort of secondary delights that served the main thrust of the production well. It's just that underneath there seemed to be some anxiety about how little the audience would understand unless the stage business was unrestrained. Yet the play's very title is a warning to anyone tempted to question details of an entertainment as well put-together as this one.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Stature over statuettes: ISO guest conductor generates a mighty 'Symphonie fantastique,' rising soprano is illuminating

How far in advance a Classical Series program dominated by Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique" was scheduled on Oscar weekend isn't known to me, but it was a masterstroke on the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra season.

The work carries a scenario of cinematic breadth and intensity. It's a landmark in the repertoire, an amazing composer debut in the symphony form, which Hector Berlioz shattered here and subsequently. In the same decade Berlioz departed this life, another norm-busting French composer entered it: Claude Debussy once said there was no excuse for the symphony after Beethoven's Ninth. At the tender age of 27, Berlioz anticipated that sentiment, embodying it uniquely in "Symphonie fantastique."

The imaginative transformation of a love affair suffused with idealism (and eventually to result in a disappointing marriage), the Fantastic Symphony set the stage for a host of "symphonic poems" and more formally conventional works that fulfilled the promise of romanticism throughout the 19th century. Narratively scrupulous pieces of minor importance, such as Dvorak's "Noonday Witch" and "The Water Goblin," are still worth hearing, and for even more literalism, sometimes overstuffed and vaunting, there's a host of viable Richard Strauss pieces.

Marc Albrecht makes his ISO conducting debut this weekend.
The Berlioz stands out not only for its pioneering status, but also because it seems to predict cinematic techniques, from panorama to close-up. It is both a character study and a fever-dream, and that's how it came across Friday night. It goes beyond the picturesque, and it overmasters any conceivable movie version. It subsumes the very idea of representation that movie scoring must serve.

It was last heard here nearly five years ago, in a dramatically highlighted interpretation led by Jun Märkl. Friday night's was under the baton of an ISO-debut guest conductor, Marc Albrecht. It had a somewhat more introspective cast and broadened its horizons almost hesitantly in approaching the tumult of the last two movements, "March to the Scaffold" and "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath." "Scene in the Country," a slow movement that can seem finicky and tedious in uninspired hands, held the suspense that had been generated by the first two movements; much of the credit must go to Roger Roe's plaintive English-horn soloing.

Is there to be fulfillment of the lover's irrepressible passion? Well, as just about everyone knows, the upshot is conclusively the opposite – a hell of murderous rage and nightmarish retribution. It's movie music avant le lettre — movie music that doesn't need a movie, whose sound blends both visual and psychological components.

Berlioz himself might be the subject of a biopic, but it probably wouldn't be a good one. How many of them are? I can see an actor capable of rendering outward a clutch of internal torments, someone like Jude Law, who was so good as Thomas Wolfe in "Genius." It would have to be an actor capable of making the composer's outbursts believable, someone who could put genuine passion into such incidents as the time Berlioz, in the audience for a performance of "Der Freischutz," stood up and shouted: "You don't want two flutes there, you brutes. You want two piccolos. Two piccolos, do you hear? Oh, the brutes!"

Julia Bullock got inside the Rimbaud/Britten mystery.
Harold Schonberg relates the tale in his "Lives of the Great Composers," along with Berlioz's account of the difficulty of writing prose, which he did superbly, yet often staring at a blank sheet of paper that seemed to refuse his every effort to begin: "I felt simply overcome by despair. There was a guitar standing against the table. With one kick I smashed it in the center." Two pistols hanging on the chimney seemed to tempt him to a final rash act, Berlioz goes on. "At last, like a schoolboy who cannot do his homework, I tore my hair and wept with furious indignation." Berlioz was someone who wrote his life, while living it, in lurid colors. Fortunately, he was able to render some of that in music that has captured imaginations ever since.

Not being subject to an editor's deadlines or the rages of genius, I will press on here, wanting to recommend tonight's repeat of the program, especially for the performance of Julia Bullock in Benjamin Britten's song cycle, "Les Illuminations." This song cycle, an ingenious setting with string-orchestra accompaniment of poetry by Arthur Rimbaud, brought from the young American soprano an interpretation that seemed to make the weird imagery sensible and emotionally compelling. Just as he would in the Berlioz, especially with the strings, Albrecht showed a knack for drawing out significant phrasing. The accompaniment thus became as expressive as the vocal line, which Bullock projected with clarity and urgency.

The program opened with "Le Tombeau de Couperin," a masterpiece for small orchestra by Maurice Ravel. Its four cunningly shaped movements are notable for the sonorously noble and vivid wind writing (chiefly solo oboe, beautifully played by Jennifer Christen). It was as if Albrecht was able to present as a calling card his careful but lively ability to manage how instrumental choirs balance and offset one another in well-designed music. Ravel was a more polished craftsman than Berlioz, but the interpretive elan so useful in the later work was not out of place in rendering the special, red-carpet Fantastic Symphony that followed intermission.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Ensemble Music series: Polish string quartet works with Canadian pianist for sublime Dvorak

A string quartet of four young Polish musicians with a French name honors the traditional role of the Greek god Apollo as inspirer of the muses. Stravinsky's 1928 ballet, "Apollon Musagète," was later given a simpler title, "Apollo." Through his jealous championship of the lyre, the god has been celebrated as the divine force behind all music for strings.

Apollon Musagète reaches beyond the core repertoire, including work with Tori Amos.
The ensemble has extended the aura of that association, building an international reputation since its founding in Vienna in 2008. Wednesday evening the quartet played a program of Dvorak, Suk, and Schubert under the auspices of the Ensemble Music Society at the Glick Indiana History Center.

The high point involved a collaboration with Canadian pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin, who distinguished himself in the quartet's homeland as silver-prize winner  at the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. An expansive piece that remains at the summit of the repertoire for the combination of string quartet and piano, the Dvorak Quintet in A major, op. 81, enjoyed a luminous, supremely well-balanced performance Wednesday.

The Bohemian ethnic brand got startling prominence in the two middle movements — Dumka: Andante con moto and Furiant: Molto vivace. You rarely hear the slow-fast contrasts of Dumka episodes so sharply characterized in both mood and tempo as they were here. The rapid Furiant, in alternating meters, was consistently energized by accents and restless figuration. The pianist's sparkling tone matched the string players' glimmer and glow. And as the finale made clear — when I couldn't take my ears off the pianist, as it  were — Richard-Hamelin had an exquisitely balanced tone: great independence of finger meant that the proper weight was distributed among the notes of every chord. If Apollo was the inspirer of the muses. Richard-Hamelin seemed to be the inspirer of Apollon Musagète in this piece.

A Dvorak appetizer was offered by the quartet just before intermission. Two waltzes from Op. 54, originally piano pieces, were brightly played, given as much personality as their unpretentiousness deserved. Tempos had a plasticity well suited to the adaptable dance form the music celebrates. In the mostly headlong second waltz, the teasing push-pull of eastern European folk music, in which slowing cadences often set up fresh outbursts of energy, was charmingly rendered by the flawlessly coordinated foursome.

Josef Suk studied with Dvorak.
Bohemian roots of a much different sort nourished the program-opener, Josef Suk's Meditations on an Old Czech Hymn, "St. Wenceslas." The somber piece, with its carefully generated climax, emphasized Apollo Musagète's unanimity of phrasing and its balanced, eloquent yet restrained tone worthy of a fine choir.

There remained an oblique salute to the city of the quartet's origin: Vienna, as Apollon Musagète exhibited the burgeoning genius of Franz Schubert in his first string quartet (in G minor/B-flat major, D. 18). The work of a teenager — a prolific native son and, as it turned out, one without much of a life span to spare — it opened in an atmosphere that seemed a foreshadowing of the Suk piece. The first movement quickly brightens, however, and the quartet exhibited its well-considered distribution of melodic and ornamental features. In the second movement, first violinist Pawel Zalejski's serene, muted statement of the melody floated in unruffled grandeur.

The group's other members, speaking musically with a common mind here and elsewhere, are Bartosz Zachlod, second violin; Piotr Szumiel, viola, and Piotr Skweres, cello. The three musicians whose instruments can be played standing did so, and the advantage was palpable. They wore identical purple plaid suits; there was considerable discussion during intermission about why the cellist was not similarly dressed. It turns out that Skweres' luggage did not arrive with the others'.