Sunday, December 6, 2020

Jennifer Koh wraps up her examination of solo Bach juxtaposed with modern works

 The "Bach & Beyond" series that the wide-ranging American violinist Jennifer Koh launched in 2012 has

Jennifer Koh explores Bach et al.

now finished with the third and final album (Cedille Records). Not surprisingly, it ends the series with distinction, setting on two discs J.S. Bach's solo sonatas Nos. 2 and 3 beside (respectively) Luciano Berio's "Sequenza VIII" and John Harbison's "For Violin Alone."

To get to the Bach performances first: It's amazing how much lyricism she finds in the music. All the contrapuntal implications don't swamp the elucidation she gives to the composer's melodic savvy. Each sonata contains a demanding fugue, and there Koh clearly lays everything out, line by line. Her rhythmically secure playing avoids suggesting that her approach is either too calculated or too swayed by the moment.

In the fugue movement of the A minor sonata, I  hope it's not too fanciful to hear in the repeated two- and three-note figures that seem to answer the unfolding of the main material an independence of utterance that evokes the call-and-response patterns of much black American music. 

It's as if Bach predicted how a kind of bounce off short response figures helps animate the tune (in fugue terms, the subject). The analogy took shape for me after I heard an NPR interview with blues scholar Peter Guralnick, who traced the origin of Ray Charles' breakout hit "I Got a Woman" to a song by a black gospel group (the Southern Tones, "It Must Be Jesus") that had a similarly brief vocal response to fill spaces between lines of the tune.

What's relevant here is that Koh gives integrity to even momentary changes in register and weight to each response to the "call." These support the overall structure while not disappearing within it. When they are repeated or slightly varied, they retain the individuality with which they were first uttered.

And when echo phrases are part of Bach's organization, as in the Allegro movement that concludes the A minor sonata, Koh doesn't overemphasize them. It's sufficient to hear what their expressive intention is without having the contrast highlighted. She avoids the kind of stress that Glenn Gould, with characteristic severity, would have called "theatrical." She concludes the A minor with an apt maestoso broadening of tempo that only a prim musical Puritan could object to.

The C major sonata, placed at the end of the second disc, includes a more challenging fugue. Having heard this sonata numerous times in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, I can say it's not unusual for a performance to betray the effort needed to maintain clarity and avoid roughness. I'm reminded of the perceptive comment of a renowned concert violinist whose name escapes me: "Whenever someone comes up to me after a concert and says, 'I could tell you worked really hard on that,' I know I've given a bad performance." No suggestion of such risky brinkmanship is evident in Koh's superb playing of this fugue.

Now to the companion pieces: Berio's "Sequenza," one of a series for solo instruments, develops from digging into "A" and "B," and those two pitches exfoliate over the work's 15-minute, 40-second span. There is  shrewdly distributed ornamentation off such initial hard hitting, and eventually lyrical effusions. Especially exciting is an ascent to a perpetual-motion  episode with harsh punctuation before the etude-like composition concludes.

Harbison's piece, a survey of readily appreciable short forms identified by the seven movement titles, will have broader appeal, no doubt.  Like Bach, Harbison necessarily drives home his main points with sequences and echo phrases, as in "Dance 1."  After an exquisitely phrased, wistful "Air," then a "March" whose insistent, accented line has pauses suggesting an ironic commitment to martial values, Koh illuminates "Dance 2." This one suggests choreography, evoking balletic extensions, turning, leaps and, with accelerating passagework, sweeps across the stage. The movement could well be taken up by dancers, although an imaginative choreographer might draw much inspiration from the entire suite.

Until then, this world-premiere recording ought to impress the armchair listener with the zest and commitment evident in Koh's performance. "For Violin Alone" may be destined for long life even if the recital stage remains its only venue — given an artist of this caliber. And the three "Bach & Beyond" albums will endure as a recording project at the heights of 21st-century violin playing.



Saturday, December 5, 2020

'Wonderful Life' senses the heartbeat of a beloved movie in IRT's streaming holiday production

George Bailey's life is under angelic supervision. 

The fast-paced backstage summary of Indiana Repertory Theatre's new production of "This Wonderful
Lfe" introduces virtual audiences both to the material, already familiar to fans of the movie "It's a Wonderful Life," and the play's sole actor here, the protean Rob Johansen. The performance is accessible online through January 3.

Johansen, as the expression goes, needs no introduction, particularly to IRT audiences who have seen him in 48 company roles up to now. So all will recognize the actor's characteristic manner of bringing everything in his performances forward in intimate connection with an audience. It bursts forth from the start, as WFYI-TV's cameras follow him from dressing room through corridors and via stairways onto the main stage. All this revs up the nostalgia engine while he is rattling off bits from the script, inviting the viewer to become nearly as breathlessly committed to the story as he is.

As a movie, "It's a Wonderful Life" captured American feelings of hope and renewal after the rigors of World War II. A small-town businessman who as a young man yearned to put his life upon the world stage grows into a thoroughly domesticated good citizen of Bedford Falls: George Bailey becomes associated with readiness to do good as he matures. Soon we are made aware that Johansen, under the scrupulous direction of Benjamin Hanna, is effectively populating Bedford Falls with the Dickensian vividness of his characterizations.

Bailey on the brink of a bad decision.

Physically and vocally attuned to such requirements, Johansen also never moves us far from the heart of the story.  We are drawn from the way George's progress is checked by some crucial accidents into the threat posed by the town's chief mover and shaker, the banker Mr. Potter. Naturally, all the goodness that seems so abundant in Bedford Falls is subject to Johansen's gift for nuance and differentiation; but so is the abiding evil summed up in Potter. In a riveting impersonation, the actor makes his features gnarled, his glare menacing, and his postures snakelike. 

We sometimes speak of great screen actors as having a love affair with the camera. Though necessarily Johansen has to be a screen actor in a virtual presentation marked by IRT's usual thorough professionalism of design, he remains a stage artist extraordinaire.

It's a compliment to Johansen's performance that he puts across 100 minutes of narrative and 30-character portrayals as if he were onstage before theatergoers filling the IRT's seats. The nuances and subtleties are as indelible as the huge, space-filling moments. The camera is doing its job perfectly, but in the best sense, Johansen ignores it. He plays to the back row as fully as to the front row, just as he does in crowded theaters. The bliss of our experience of "This Wonderful Life" is that we are all in the front row, feeling every line and gesture imprinted on our attention and absorption in the drama.

Of course, the supernatural element in the story shapes its meaning. The flashing of lamps in George's environment represents the angelic planning of a mission to save him, with apprentice angel Clarence supervised by well-established senior colleagues, Franklin and Joseph (a trio voiced, but not embodied, by Johansen). That sets up the play's narrative, all under the actor's superb command, dipping into and out of the lives of everyone concerned. Johansen's evocation of the film's star, Jimmy Stewart, is unassailably right, yet without excessive mimicry.

Bailey's suicidal despair one Christmas Eve gets corrected by a revelation of what Bedford Falls would have been like had he never been born. His wish for that fundamental avoidance is granted provisionally. The vision is enabled by Clarence, working to earn his wings with an earthly intervention that will allow one good man to realize how essential his existence has been to the promise of this wonderful life. Steve Murray's adaptation and IRT's production reaffirm that promise, a balm for this time of global anxiety and doubt.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]









Saturday, November 14, 2020

Drive it and park it: Indy Jazz Fest starts virtually with "Garfield Park Sessions: Celebrate Naptown"

The tour de force finale of the Indy Jazz Fest premiere

We have all adopted adjustments to doing our usual jobs since mid-March, and blogging about musical events is no exception. Mine is a labor of love, which eliminates the kind of stress that paid jobholders are feeling.

The necessary idleness has not hurt me as much as it has the many excellent people who make their living, at least in part, from music. So I leaped at the chance Friday night to cover the opening of the 2020 Indy Jazz Fest, well documented on video in daylight performances and in warmer weather at Garfield Park. The MacAllister Amphitheater was the audience-free site for the parade of local bands, with a lot of mix-and-match among the personnel.

Among the pleasures, since I've brought up the site (of which I have a firm memories of concerts and plays in those fabled pre-pandemic days), was the camera work. There were recurrent shots from above the amphitheater looking toward downtown; they were breathtaking. It was the Indianapolis musical version of looking from a ventricle into the central heart.

I also enjoyed views of the sort that would have been much different, or unavailable, from audience seats, however much we might wish for a return to that vantage point. I liked Everett Greene's animated expressions during his performance of Horace Silver's "Senor Blues," especially with glimpses of tenor saxophonist Sophie Faught's radiant smile in the singer's direction. I usually avoid punning on people's names, but we might as well collapse his name into "Evergreen" at this point — so ageless does he seem.

The camera loves some soloists more than others, which will inevitably be the case. I'll give this show's top honors for the love affair between camera and singer to Rebecca Rafla for her performance of "You Stepped Out of a Dream." In sight and sound alike, this was memorable. The rendition itself stepped out of a dream.

It was also thrilling to catch a side view of the front line as the Indy Jazz Collective strutted its way through the legendary Pookie Johnson's "Going to the Avenue": four horns (two tenors, trumpet, and trombone) in the front line, that juicy ensemble sound powered by Jared Michael Thompson, Rob Dixon, Mark Buselli, and Freddie Mendoza. 

Finally, with the addition of Faught and alto saxophonist Amanda Gardier, six horns! That was in a Rob Dixon finale called "Soul Talk," and it certainly did preach righteously, with a phalanx of stars behind the horn folks: guitarists Ryan Taylor and Charlie Ballantine, drummers Richard "Sleepy" Floyd and Carrington Clinton, keyboardists Steven Alexander Jones and Steve Allee, and bassist Brandon Meeks.

Reviewing an anthology of performances remotely can't follow the usual protocols of full-canvas journalism. So I am making choices here that aren't meant to disparage any player or performance I don't mention. Besides, I'm fond of a Ralph Waldo Emerson description of his reading habits; "I read for the lustres," he said. Well, I listen for the lustres, particularly with the festival format, and those sparkling moments will differ from person to person. Here's another literary reference that might  be helpful: Of daffodils in the familiar poem of that title, William Wordsworth wrote in the last stanza: "They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the  bliss of solitude."

Some of what is flashing upon my inward ear in solitude this morning: Complementary solos, as in the way Dixon followed up Gardier's luminous alto in "Strange Idea," a wry modal original that Ballantine wrote for his band and has recorded on his new album "Vonnegut." In the same piece, there was a compelling contrast between a raving guitar solo and its soft answers from piano and bass.

Another one: Thompson and Premium Blend performing Taylor's "In the Lac," highlighted by Gardier's lyrical but never wispy alto solo, a deft episode of trading fours, and a great ending with simultaneous blending of forces throughout the band. Here's an early float in the lustre parade: the kind of energizing transition between solos that's often obscured by an applauding audience was fully audible in the way Faught took off from the burning suggestions of Joel Tucker's guitar solo.

A kind of collective lustre was the opportunity to study different keyboard styles, particularly in close-ups of hands doing their individual things in black and white: Steve Allee, Steven Alexander Jones, Kevin Anker, Pavel Polanco-Safadit. The Indy Guitar Summit offered similar opportunities to appreciate Ballantine, Taylor, and Tucker in succession. On a smaller scale, but with explosive impact in "Soul Talk," how could you top the look the show afforded of the different drumming styles of Clinton and Floyd, in full cry, meshing simultaneously in a risky format of the sort that split up the classic Coltrane quartet.

Well, that's about enough. My bad penmanship is forcing me to leave out amplifying a few of my notes, but that's no great loss: What does "career or dinner good" (my best guess) mean, with a little star beside it, in my entry for Indy Guitar Summit's "I Hear a Rhapsody"?  Who knows? 

Again, I'm out of room here to mention more good impressions, whether or not they're reinforced by legible notes. Here's hoping we all get many opportunities to listen for the lustres live before too long, preferably without masks, etc. In the meantime, may both the careers and the dinners of Indy Jazz Fest musicians offer good sustenance. The public can get its fill by connecting to the remainder of the concerts through the web site.


Monday, November 2, 2020

'Present Company' should not be excepted if you seek a new pianoless jazz quartet

Peter Hess with his other instrument: bass clarinet

 Jazz musicians who play non-keyboard instruments probably don't have anything against pianists, but now and then they form bands that don't include them and achieve either enduring or occasional good results.

A new entry in that niche field is the Peter Hess Quartet in "Present Company" (Diskonife Records). The disc comprises seven originals (by Hess, with a couple of collaborations thrown in) that make the most of the tenor saxophone, trombone, bass, and drums makeup of the band.

The arrangements are lustrous individually, with clever distribution of material among the four musicians. The unaccompanied bass intro to "The Net Menders" yields to a soft-spoken, hymn-like theme for the horns.

 Subsequently, we have some bowed bass from Adam Hopkins as commentary on what he has said before; then the horns (Hess, tenor sax, and Brian Drye, trombone) get wilder. I don't know if there's a biblical subtext here, but there came to mind the biblical scene as Jesus recruits his disciples from men about to cast nets into the Sea of Galilee, promising "I will make you fishers of men." The mission's promise of both solace and turmoil to come is reflected in the music.

I may be reading too much into this; by the same token, I might be reading too little into "Engines," which despite its title is the only track on "Present Company"  that spends too much time ruminating. What are these engines up to?  There is no groove to catch here, it seems, though drummer Tomas Fujiwara is a reliably steadying influence. That seems only proper for an excess of rumination. The track chugs along without generating a great deal of interest beyond the obvious compatibility of the players with one another.

Otherwise, the vibe is inviting throughout, and the themes are presented across a spectrum of the group's four primary colors. As perhaps with "Engines,"  ironic humor may well be the deliberate message of "When to Move," the piece that closes the disc. At the start, the horns are deliberately shaky, as if to mimic the hesitancy behind many real-life decisions of "when to move." The music gains assertiveness, establishes a reliable pulse, and heads toward a confident conclusion.

This is a set worthy of its parade of predecessors, from the Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker archetype on down through various modernist bands that make complete statements without the piano's inevitable tendency to dominate.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Comfortable in New Orleans: Cyrus Nabipoor leads quintet in 'Live at the Marigny Opera House'

Cyrus Nabipoor is now based in Portland

A young trumpeter based in Portland, Oregon, with a strong sentimental link to New Orleans (he's a magna cum laude graduate of Loyola University), Cyrus Nabipoor took a quintet into the former church in 2019 to play his compositions for a concert audience.

"Live at the Marigny Opera House" ( documents that comfortable hometown visit to a cultural venue that was a Catholic church from 1853 until the diocese  closed it in 1997.  In its repurposed function, it has been called the Marigny Opera House since 2011

For 144 years, the Marigny was a church.

The resonance in the recording is slightly churchy,  and the setting seems copacetic for the music. The venue's original use is alluded to in "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out," one of two tunes borrowed for a concert otherwise featuring Nabipoor compositions. 

The comfort zone is settled into, but there's no resting in the hackneyed for these adept musicians. "What Is This," which opens the disc asking that perpetually valid question, alternates fast and slow sections smoothly. The introduction to Nabipoor's solo trumpet is inviting, and tenor saxophonist Brad Walker is at ease over the horn's full range, favoring occasional deep dives into the low register.

The front line is quite compatible in ensemble, whether playing the theme in unison ("Hipody") or in close parallel harmony a la Mexican pop (Javier Navarrete's "Pan's Labyrinth Lullaby," introduced by the leader's unaccompanied bugle-call evocations). 

Spirited humor bubbles to the surface easily in "Huckleberry Madness." A country barn-dance atmosphere casts occasional glimpses toward some guitar shredding from George Wilde, whose playing increasingly embodies the "madness" in the title. Wilde settles for an accompaniment role in the set-closer, "NOK Blues." Its skipping bounce tempo folds in successive, bright solos from Nabipoor, Walker, New Orleans double-bass fixture James Singleton, and drummer Brad Webb, offering a parade-ground summing up.  

The conciseness with which the quintet states its case is admirable. There are a few times that the pieces seem to conclude too abruptly ("NOK Blues" is an exception), but that practice offers welcome relief from the norm of the stretched-out small-group jazz common over the past half-century.  The ingratiating melodic profile of Nabipoor's music and its avoidance of overstatement make this an attractive disc.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

In 'If Time Could Stand Still,' Gregory Tardy sums up mature viewpoint as a faith-based family man

Gregory Tardy and his band etch midlife testament.
 Many of us in and out of the arts have taken on what passes for wisdom with the need to reduce normal activity as the pandemic rages. For a mature jazzman like Gregory Tardy, this summing-up in midlife is captured by "If Time Could Stand Still" (WJ3 Records).

Though recorded in 2019, the release of this disc last month is timely, as the music's reflectiveness suits the universal pause button that Covid-19 has pressed for everyone. Now at his home base in Tennessee, the tenor saxophonist went into a Brooklyn studio with his quartet (Keith Brown, piano; Alexander Claffy, bass; Willie Jones III, drums) for a program of all originals, except for the standard "Everything Happens to Me." (Trumpeter Alex Norris guests on two of the eight selections.)

At 54, Tardy has behind him a wealth of collaborations in the wide jazz world, with associations including Elvin Jones, Andrew Hill, Tom Harrell, Nicholas Payton, and Bill Frisell.  To cover the borrowing first, the bandleader exhibits his steady lyricism in "Everything Happens to Me," showing superb control in the suspenseful end of the bridge section and attaching a measured, but passionate, solo cadenza as the track concludes. The ironic perspective of the lyric is lightly worn.

The biblical reference in the opening track, "A Great Cloud of Witnesses," is brought forward by the positive stain of religious faith throughout the music. The groundedness of Tardy as man and musician is evident in the title track: "If Time Could Stand Still" is not swamped in nostalgia as the title might lead you to suspect, but rather generates a poised ballad feeling of taking stock, with a display of Tardy's pure sax tone communicating emotional commitment as well.

Further declarations of enduring values come with "Absolute Truth," a neo-bop venture with two horns in the front line, and a second partnering with the dazzling but never gaudy Norris in "The Message in the Miracle." The spiritual heritage with which Tardy identifies gets a punning salute in "I Swing Because I'm Happy," an effervescent piece whose momentum gets individual pushes from Brown's piano solo and Claffy's well-recorded follow-up. The inspiration for this project that Tardy gives explicitly to Willie Jones III is confirmed by the drummer's sensitivity throughout.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Dance Kaleidoscope sends a new set of performances out into the world

It's a been a long wait to see performing artists onstage at full strength in freshly minted performances. That's what Dance Kaleidoscope is offering to patrons through Oct. 31 with an artfully filmed program at its usual home, Indiana Repertory Theatre. 

Puccini People Plus brings together a full-length piece from 1992, Puccini People, supplemented by excerpts from Food for Love, a work created for DK's residency 19 years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and three solos by Jillian Godwin, the company's senior dancer, who is retiring after 17 years.

Using mainly familiar arias from Giacomo Puccini operas, artistic director David Hochoy has built gut-wrenching solos deliberately removed from their operatic context. Puccini had no equal in making memorable art out of needy, emotionally wounded characters, and in this quality Hochoy finds common ground with the originals.

Emily Dyson: A joyous leap of materialistic zest

Even the blithest selection, Quando men vo (informally known as Musetta's Waltz) from La Boheme, shadows its comedy with hints that the coquette's self-involvement makes her clumsy and pathetic. Emily Dyson carries off the portrayal with amusing aplomb, mostly among a clutch of shopping bags. 

In contrast, Paige Robinson makes graceful the costuming handicaps of crutches and a stabilizing boot to transmute the imploring O mio babbino caro (from Gianni Schicchi) into aspirations of healing.

The work opens with the stunning, superbly controlled dancing of Kieran King to Vissi d'arte, the heroine's complaint in Tosca about the trials of the artistic life — never more relevant in general terms than now. The dancer's floor-bound twists and turns are lighted by Laura E. Glover with riveting attention to musculature in extension, evoking the sinewy exuberance of Auguste Rodin's sculpted figures. 

Kieran King embodies the pathos of artistic struggle.
A soaring declaration of determination against formidable odds has made Nessun dorma a media crossover hit, a token from the classical realm boosting the odd fad of YouTube "reaction" videos. The tenor aria from Turandot  has been boldly turned into Puccini People's one duet, a fierce mixture of bonding and antagonism performed vigorously by Cody Miley and Marie Kuhns.

Various other burdens of Puccinian solitude are given new choreographic outfitting in performances by Aaron Steinberg, Aleksa Lukasiewicz, and Manuel Valdes. A kind of stately danced curtain call by all the dancers is accompanied by the magical Humming Chorus from Madama Butterfly. Hochoy drapes an ensemble veil of serenity over an array of personal conflicts, highlighting the pathos of Puccini in his own way.

Aspects of Jillian Godwin's incalculable benefits to the company over the past couple of decades are thrust forward in this show by her appearances in three solos. The Hochoy version of the Janis Joplin song Me and Bobby McGee dates from before Godwin joined DK, but she has made it representative of the funk and spunk she brings to pieces based on pop culture. I remember particularly the pizazz of her contribution to Super Soul nearly nine years ago. She can make angularity look flowing; her sharp rhythmic sense inevitably links to the more rounded parts of the choreography. 

Jillian Godwin reaches for the stars

There's a lot of that quality in a more triumphant vehicle, That's Life, a landmark of late-career Frank Sinatra. But in this case, the bent-forward clutching postures of Me and Bobby McGee get an expanded spectrum; the clutching becomes a credible reach for the heavens and an answer to the low points the song alludes to, set to a massive beat. The third showcase displays her lyrical side: Puccini People Plus opens brightly with Something's Comin' (from West Side Story), in which a Godwin anthem of danced anticipation should set anyone's heart-strings in sympathetic vibration.

The Food for Love excerpts allow the program to end buoyantly (except for a poignant encore, Edith Piaf's Non, je ne regrette rien,  dedicated to the memory of the late philanthropist and DK supporter Christel DeHaan). Masked and gorgeously costumed, the DK dancers create a cheering, multifaceted finale. My good mood was undercut, however, by private, irrepressible bursts of fury at this pandemic, which has ruined so much around the world, especially where leadership has failed to respond adequately. Among other effects, it has kept away what this company has to offer when it's right in front of us in three vibrant dimensions. Reunion with such experiences at IRT is sure to come someday. 

In the meantime, feel free to go to the website to purchase access to Puccini People Plus anytime through the end of the month. Then you can sing your own Vincero, vincero! in empathy with the marvelous Dance Kaleidoscope.

 [Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]

Sunday, October 18, 2020

As a particularly challenging winter approaches, release of a new "Winterreise" is timely

 In a time when we are drawn into the maelstrom of our individual emotional centers, finding human interaction risky and often ill-advised, Winterreise, Franz Schubert's most inward-looking song cycle,

has a unique appeal in the year of the plague.

The settings of 14 songs by Wilhelm Müller, composed in the next-to-last year of Schubert's life (1827), still have a chilling valedictory effect, thanks to their inspired fusing of words and music. Winterreise  is especially welcome in a Music@Menlo release performed by Nikolay Borchev and Wu Han.

The Russian baritone has taken the measure of the footsore progress of a trudging wayfarer who's trying to actualize a death-wish that has burgeoned from the failed love affair referred to in the opening songs. Winterreise is the embodiment of all failures of the sort that seem to sum up personal existence whenever the heart's deepest desires are thwarted. 

Often known as Die Winterreise, the song cycle has by common consent dropped its title's traditional article (Die = the)  to emphasize the composer's intent to universalize its emotional heft. Its particulars (solitary wandering in a snowy pre-industrial landscape under the burden of despair) have an uncanny connection to feelings of isolation that may overtake anyone from time to time. We may all find ourselves on a "winter journey" shortly, with a great variety of diminished resources for dealing with it.

The pianist Wu Han, co-founder with her husband, cellist David Finckel, of the Music at Menlo festival  in the Bay Area, is an extraordinary partner for  Borchev. Together, they make especially vivid the more restless songs, such as Die Wetterfahne (Weather Vane) and Auf dem Flusse (On the Stream). Both songs are notable for the protagonist's identification with the phenomena he encounters on his lonely trek. Representations of peace like Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree) tend to be imagined sources of release from life's troubles. Making more explicit all the interior drama is an outstanding feature of this performance.

I once attended a lecture by the much-admired Kurt Vonnegut in which he plotted on a white board the movement characteristic of some literary predecessors' work. Variously up and down went each line on a simple graph from the meeting of the x and y axes, each representing a writer's typical story trajectory on a scale of happiness and misfortune. After drawing his suggested lines for a couple of other fiction writers, Vonnegut said: "And here's Franz Kafka." The line began below the x-y intersection, then plunged downward off the chart. 

That's Winterreise. The verse, and thus the meaning of the songs as performed, sticks closely to the journeyer's despair as reflected in what he sees along the way. These songs have hardly a hint of escape or relief, except for the kind of delusion that overcomes the man near the end (Die Nebensonnen [Mock Suns]). There is no metaphysical aspect to these songs; German spiritual romanticism is deliberately hemmed in by text and music alike.

The performers have to settle into the bleakness of the cycle and find variety within the music's shades of gray. Borchev and Wu Han do that superbly. For comparison, the benchmark performance of this music on record is the 1962 collaboration of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore. The pianist is deferential to the singer there, perhaps to a fault; Wu Han is more expressive, without overshadowing the singer. Fischer-Dieskau dares a wider dynamic range, and if I were to fault Borchev in that area, he is less observant of the very soft singing sometimes called for. I will give him high marks for his projection of the cycle's raw emotion; there is in Fischer-Dieskau undeniable commitment to the songs' expressive meaning, but he is slightly patrician in manner. 

This new recording can be recommended without hesitation for its strength of artistic vision and  the unshakable rapport of the artists. And coincidentally, since the Menlo festival like so any others is in pandemic-forced suspension, this 2019 performance is a beacon for our troubled times and the need to resist through art the narrowing of sensibility that threatens all of us now.

Monday, October 12, 2020

International Violin Competition of Indianapolis mounts a revised season, pandemic-delayed, live and live-streamed

Making an adjustment rare for a local music series, the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis

has mounted a six-concert series that will kick off with the popular trio Time for Three on Jan. 26, 2021.

A new concert site for the 2020-21 series is the Madame Walker Theatre, 617 Indiana Ave. Audiences in attendance will be limited to 140 for each concert, each beginning at 7:30 p.m.

Time for Three, which for a decade was the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's official ensemble in residence, will bring its diverse repertoire of music for string trio to the series. It was founded by three students at the Curtis Institute of Music about two decades ago by violinists Zachary DePue and Nick Kendall and double bassist Ranaan Meyer. DePue, former ISO concertmaster, has had two successors in Time for Three, currently Charles Yang. 

Tessa Lark is also an accomplished fiddler.  

On Feb. 23, "Homage to Kreisler" will bring back 2014 silver medalist Tessa Lark, with Amy Yang at the piano, in a tribute to the early 20th-century concert violinist-composer Fritz Kreisler.  The duo will play Schubert's Fantasy in C major, Bartok's Roumanian Folk Dances, and Eugene Ysaye's Sonata No. 4, an unaccompanied violin piece dedicated to Kreisler.

An 80th birthday gathering for Jaime Laredo on March 23 will salute the IVCI artistic director with guests including laureates Jinjoo Cho (2014 gold medalist), Shannon Lee (2018 laureate), Malcolm Lowe  (retired concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), violists Yu Jin (ISO principal) and Steven Tenenbom (Orion String Quartet), and cellists Sharon Robinson (Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio) and Keith Robinson (Miami String Quartet). 

Kyoko Takezawa won IVCI gold medal at 19.

A different kind of crossover string trio will pay a visit April 8. Dreamers' Circus, which specializes in traditional Scandinavian folk music, with added aspects of classical and jazz, will make its local debut. Formed in 2009 in Copenhagen, the ensemble comprises Rune Tonsgaard Sorenson of the Danish String Quartet, pianist Nikolaj Busk and citternist Ale Carr. Its music it prefers to categorize as beyond genre.

The first IVCI I covered was the second such contest, held in 1986. That year the gold medalist was Kyoko Takezawa,  an intense, detail-oriented violinist who has found room in her career for return visits to Indianapolis, several times as 

a member of the IVCI jury. With Chih-Yi Chen at the piano, the program will include Bloch's "Bal Shem" Suite, Saint-Saens' Sonata No. 1, Chopin's Nocturne in D-flat, op. 27, no. 2, and Beethoven's Sonata No. 10 in G, op. 96.

Concluding the 2021 series, which normally would have straddled this year and nearly the first half of next year, will be "French Soundscapes," with 2018 bronze medalist Luke Hsu and another laureate crowned in an Indiana competition, Melanie Laurent (2019 USA International Harp Competition gold medalist) in music by Ravel, Saint-Saens, Ysaye, and others. Also participating will be the venerable Ronen Chamber Ensemble of Indianapolis.

Single tickets for in-person concerts are $30-40 ($25-$40 seniors, $10 for students). Subscription information can be obtained at the IVCI website.  Virtual tickets are $15-$20 for adults, $10 for students.  All tickets may be purchased online at







Saturday, October 10, 2020

'Cheap Thrills': On the right side of Rick with the South Florida Jazz Orchestra


Rick Margitza occupies center stage in "Cheap Thrills," the unprepossessing title of a worthwhile set of his compositions and arrangements on Summit Records. The opportunity, fully taken advantage of, is a release by the South Florida Jazz Orchestra, directed by Chuck Bergeron.

All the saxophone solos on the nine-piece program are taken by Margitza, who got international exposure as Miles Davis' tenorman in the late 1980s and has been largely independent since. He provided the SFJO with all the arrangements, which are witty, expansive, and stylish in the modern big-band tradition. The touches of virtuosity required of the ensemble are handily dispatched. 

Margitza seems to like to lend a swiss-cheese texture to his charts; there's a lot of staccato bounce to such pieces as "The Place to Be" and "Premonition," keeping the sections on their toes. The rhythmic profile is lively but not overbearing, though I felt the languid samba cruise through "Embraceable You" to close the disc was a bit tedious, except to display as a farewell gesture Margitza's graceful facility as a player. The form of his writing is far from predictable; he allows himself one blues, which galumphs happily and seems to salute a canine companion: "45-Pound Hound."

Guitarist John Hart and trumpeter Brian Lynch are guest soloists, providing cameo highlighting to add to the attractiveness of this release. When Margitza solos, he doesn't play second fiddle to anybody. That's not a matter of being dominant and aggressive about what he has to say. It's more a matter of saying something apt and, not surprisingly, appropriate to the settings he has designed for the band. "Brace Yourself" is a good example; Margitza's excellent solo is by no means topped by John Yarling's drumming showcases, and there are two of them.

There's also the ensemble virtue of end-to-end composition. A track's typical wrap-up doesn't depend on an out-chorus largely repeating what we heard at the beginning. There's new stuff: "Walls" opens with hymnlike solo tenor and trombones; then it hits its stride. After a riveting piano solo by Martin Bejerano, the shift into the final ensemble choruses brings into play a fresh imaginative take on the material.

If the cleverness is sometimes stretched out a little too much — I had had quite enough of that big dog before "45-Pound Hound" reached the final double bar — on the whole the set is properly effusive and celebratory of both the band and the honoree: the protean Rick Margitza.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Accordionist-pianist Ben Rosenblum stays aloft in 'Kites and Strings'

There's no tangle ending up in Charlie Brown's nemesis tree when it comes to the musical deftness displayed in "Kites and Strings" (One Trick Dog) by Ben Rosenblum's Nebula Project.

This is a well-designed set of balanced ensemble jazz, with solos inserted aptly. When Rosenblum reaches far afield for material — as in a folk song picked up from a Bulgarian women's chorus recording and a tune from Brahms' Fourth Symphony — he always makes it suit the players and the sound terrain that his band calls home. Same with his visits to the Leonard Bernstein and Neil Young songbooks.

Besides the leader, the group consists of Jasper Dutz, tenor saxophone and bass clarinet; Wayne Tucker, trumpet; Rafael Rosa, guitar; Marty Jaffe, bass, and Ben Zweig, drums. For the two borrowed pieces, Rosenblum brings in Jeremy Corren as pianist for the Brahms and Bulgarian tracks. Cameo guests add rich flavor to "Bright Above Us" — trombonist Sam Chess and vibraphonist Jake Chapman. (Separately, the trombonist and the vibist also guest on one other track each.)

I was struck by Tucker's tart but cheery tone, which gets a good outing initially in Rosenblum's cruising tribute to Cedar Walton, "Cedar Place."  The disc's characteristically deft management of solo and ensemble contributions is illustrated here, and also shows up significantly in the title track. It's neatly put together and conveys a soaring feeling appropriate for "Kites and Strings."

Dutz's bass clarinet lends heft to the arrangement of "Halfway to Wonderland," coursing nimbly along the bottom. The accordion leads significantly throughout the band's take on Brahms, with the soft-spoken piano solo setting up Rosenblum's enchanting solo turn on the accordion.

Bernstein's "Somewhere," another rare borrowing for Nebula Project, enjoys a straightforward treatment of the melody. As the emotion swells, there is some heat applied to the trumpet solo, heaven-storming guitar from Rosa, and a good display of Rosenblum's piano chops. Nothing is overstated.

For any of his originals, the clever Rosenblum seems to be careful not to gild the compositional lily, even given the anthemic veneer of "Bright Above Us." The temptation is most yielded to near the end, but gets checked convincingly by what follows. 

It's the bop-derived "Laughing on the Inside," which goes from direct high spirits into a slow, rocking groove that suggests that crying on the outside is also involved. "Izpoved," the Bulgarian folk song, dispenses with drums entirely to present the band in luminous, pseudo-chorale formation.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Jorge Federico Osorio gathers his own anthology of French music, centered on Debussy

A native of Mexico who is now successfully based in Chicago (faculty member at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts),  Jorge Federico Osorio recalls encountering French piano music as a child, hearing his mother play it. Later he studied in Paris with Bernard Flavigny and Monique Haas, refining his aptitude for that repertoire at the start of his career. A new recording crowns that durable acquaintance.

"The French Album" (Cedille Records) is set up as a program that rewards hearing it as if in recital. The disc's design is just part of the attraction. There is also a recording acoustic that's just resonant enough to flatter Osorio's glowing touch. Best of all, there is the pianist's mastery of balance and tone, applied to an intuitive understanding of the music's meaning.

The program opens and closes with the two most familiar pieces to bring forward the ancient dance form called the pavane: Gabriel Fauré's piece of that title and Maurice Ravel's "Pavane pour une infante défunte." The bulk of the program consists of Debussy preludes, with two of them separated as a pair to emphasize their thematic connection with other Spanish-inspired music, introduced by Emmanuel Chabrier's deft "Habanera" and followed by Ravel's  exuberant "Alborada del gracioso" and his classically restrained tribute to a deceased Spanish princess (not one in particular, but an evocation of the era in which such a royal child once lived).

Apart from a distinctive reading of the familiar "Clair de lune" (from "Suite Bergamasque"), the Debussy selections come from his two books of preludes. The close-to-definitive recorded versions of this music remain Walter Gieseking's performances, which have an uncanny richness of color despite their decades-old monaural sound. But Osorio is no slouch in this essential department. I was charmed by his rendition of "Voiles" (Veils/Sails) and moved by the rightness of tempo and the weight given to chords in "La Cathédrale engloutie" (The Sunken Cathedral).

Osorio brings forward the hints of modernism in "La terrasses des audiences du clair de lune" (The Terrace of Moonlight Audiences), and he limns the narrative and pictorial progress of "Les collines d'Anacapri" (The Hills of Anacapri) perfectly. Such contrasts are also made more vivid than usual by Osorio in "Alborada del Gracioso" (Morning Song of the Jester), whose rapid repeated notes sparkle and whose contrasting faux-maudlin tune evokes a slightly daft street singer. 

Ravel's essential classicism is well-defined in his pavane, which plays off the sensitivity displayed earlier on the disc with three florid yet well-grounded pieces by Jean-Philippe Rameau. Osorio takes some of the shimmer off his tone to render the Baroque master brightly and idiomatically. Further mastery of Debussy is evinced in a show of flamboyance with the quiet swagger imparted to "La soirée dans Grenade" (Evening in Granada) and the pyrotechnics judiciously applied to "Feux d'artifice" (Fireworks).

Friday, October 2, 2020

Bassist Michael Feinberg writes pieces for places he wants to memorialize

What a jolt to encounter, given the firestorm out of the failure to bring charges against the police officers who killed Brionna Taylor, the dense assault of "Louisville" as the opening track on Michael Feinberg's "From Where We Came" (SteepleChase)!

The deft arrangement for a five-piece band with two star saxophonists in the front line was written as a tribute to Muhammad Ali's hometown. The piece is especially notable for Dave Liebman's fiery soprano-sax solo and the way it subsides into the reflective clarity of Gary Versace's piano turn. It's inevitably a case of "sting like a bee" juxtaposed with "float like a butterfly." 

It's just accidental that the piece and its performance here come off with the ferocity of America's unresolved racial issues. The more positive meaning of Feinberg's intention when he gathered his band for studio sessions in October 2019 is also unmistakable.

The leader kicks it off with a double-bass cadenza; when the theme is stated, it has the kind of roominess that mimics Ali's agility as a prizefighter. Other pieces bespeak the place-centered inspirations that generated them, but there's no tone painting beyond the abstract portraiture Feinberg has designed for each piece and its honoree.

"Pontiac," for example, which has Elvin Jones in mind because the drummer came from that Michigan city,  features lots of tenor sax from Noah Preminger. And Liebman gets another good showcase in a duo with drummer Ian Froman, alluding to the three-sax Elvin Jones band that Liebman once belonged to.

 "Hamlet" refers not to Shakespeare's Danish prince but to the North Carolina town John Coltrane hailed from. A modal piece with the bass and saxes in unison, it recalls, with its slow blues feel, one aspect of the musical foundations that Coltrane made use of. The neighboring piece, "East St. Louis," pays tribute to Coltrane's boss in the 1950s, Miles Davis, and is even bluesier than 'Hamlet." It features another memorable solo from Liebman. There's an apt duo episode, this time between Preminger and Versace, with bass and drums then joining in behind the tenor's ongoing charge.

The disc ends with a tribute to Charles Mingus: "Nogales" refers to the Arizona town out of which  Mingus escaped, going first west, then east, to make his reputation.  For his fellow bassist-bandleader, Feinberg gets things started with a restless introduction. Before long, simultaneous, wailing solos from the saxophones help amplify the surging theme. The Jazz Workshop spirit remains alive.

Typical of the whole disc, Feinberg thus ends with an appropriate tribute, offering a personal slant to an honoree's idiom. Geography is destiny, perhaps, and oh, the places he's been!




Monday, September 28, 2020

Rudresh Mahanthappa helms the Hero Trio in his first recording of others' works

 With his Indian heritage having guided much of his original music, Rudresh Mahanthappa is thoroughly

steeped in the music he heard in his youth growing up in Boulder, Colo. There he acquainted himself with the American musical mainstream, later refining his jazz chops at Berklee College in Boston and emerging in his own right as an educator directing jazz studies at Princeton University.

The facetiously named (and costumed) Hero Trio is serious about applying heroic bravado to pieces by Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman (the leader's alto-sax messiahs) and others on "Hero Trio" (Whirlwind Recordings). The Coleman piece, "Sadness," is taken out of tempo throughout, and represents how firmly Mahanthappa and his mates (bassist Franḉois Moutin and drummer Rudy Royston) can hang together while still projecting individuality.

 As an arranger, Mahanthappa is unusually creative. The old standard beloved of our grandparents, "I Can't Get Started," is treated with respect despite eschewing its conventional chord changes. Without the harmonic motion of the original, the Vernon Duke tune becomes even more meditative and sheds new light on the song title.

Similarly insightful, the trio's "I Remember April" opens with a pointillistic introduction, as if distant memories were gradually being assembled. When the melody emerges, it's with quick, buoyant confidence. A more unusual choice, perhaps, is an adaptation of the Johnny Cash hit "Ring of Fire," which has a distinct Sonny Rollins feeling. It's as if Mahanthappa is paying tribute to the saxophone giant who put a fresh stamp on "I'm an Old Cowhand" and other unlikely songs. And the pulse seems to echo music of the Caribbean island culture that lies in Rollins' background.

Moutin puts a fruitful line in contrapuntal dialogue with Mahanthappa's alto in Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed." And Royston is key to unifying a spirited dash through Charlie Parker's "Barbados" mashed with John Coltrane's "26-2." The performance is raving but coherent, thanks in large measure to the drummer.

The trio's unanimity passes another test glowingly in the stop-start patterns of "The Windup" by Keith Jarrett. Funky without cliché, the performance features the bandleader at his most explosive and a powerful Moutin solo.

It took me a while to get used to Mahanthappa's sound, but the nuances became evident amid all his powerhouse playing. But no repeated listenings were needed to be immediately charmed by the Hero Trio's romp through Charlie Parker's "Red Cross." Mahanthappa's arrangement brings in supportive independent phrases as commentary, somewhat reminiscent of the function of tropes in medieval liturgy.

From his own playing as well as his inspired adaptations of material by other musicians, Mahanthappa has fashioned a winner with his two masked men. The Hero Trio may be having fun with its name, but it also has the right credentials to inspire hero-worship.


Saturday, September 26, 2020

Mark Masters Ensemble pays tribute to a songwriter's songwriter, Alec Wilder

Admired for  understated elegance and seductive pathos, the songs of Alec Wilder can be treated imaginatively without a sung word. That's what "Night Talk: The Alec Wilder Songbook" (Capri Records) exemplifies, thanks to the responsive arrangements for jazz octet by Mark Masters and the showcase solos of baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan.

The Mark Masters Ensemble also includes Don Shelton and Jerry Pinter, reeds; Bob Summers, trumpet; Dave Woodley, trombone; Ed Czach, piano; Putter Smith, bass, and Kendall Kay, drums. The set of nine tunes ends with Wilder's best-known song, "I'll Be Around." Setting this love ballad at a fast tempo makes clear Masters' declaration of independence from convention.

The smooth integration of Smulyan's agile, deep-toned instrument  and the ensemble is immediately sealed on the opening track, "You're Free." Masters never fails to give both the band and the featured soloist essential material to indicate that no one is restricted to accompaniment functions alone.

There's always careful attention to Wilder's supple phrasing. In Masters' arrangements, the tunes always

seem to breathe with a relaxed pulse. "Don't Deny" is a good example of how the cleverness of the setting is never allowed to swamp the melody. 

The band moves with the easy swing of the master interpreters of the Great American Songbook. "Moon and Sand" is a dreamily paced samba exercise; Smulyan's soft-focused tone leads the way, which doesn't keep him from kicking up his heels in the solo.

Solo outings for other players move the spotlight off Smulyan occasionally. I especially enjoyed Woodley's soaring trombone in the song "Ellen," which ends in appropriate bass-and-brushes murmurs before the out-chorus. In "Baggage Room Blues," there's practically a round-robin format to expand the conversation. Short solos are especially effective in the peppy "Lovers and Losers."

  With extensions of his legacy as well thought out and executed as this one, the music of Alec Wilder will be around for a good long time.


Friday, September 18, 2020

A different view of late Billie Holiday: Blake and Correa revisit "Lady in Satin"

For a novel, probing look at what is often considered the pathetic swan song of a great jazz singer, Ran Blake and Christine Correa, a piano-voice duo of uncommon mutual sympathy and daring, revisit Billie Holiday's "Lady in Satin," an LP the tortured diva made with strings in 1958.

It's an attempt to take a frankly oblique examination of material that, for most fans, deserved better than "Lady in Satin" in any fantasy vision they may have had of Lady Day growing gracefully into the late middle age she wasn't destined to have. 

"When Soft Rains Fall" (Red Piano Records) contains a dozen songs associated with the singer in her decline and earlier, plus a solo piano version of Bernstein's "Big Stuff, " a vocal solo on Herbie Nichols' "Lady Sings the Blues," and Blake's composition to Correa's recitation of a Frank O'Hara poem, "The Day Lady Died."

The reigning question is: Can you make art out of a landmark of extreme vulnerability without seeming ghoulish? I think the answer is yes, to the extent that at the core of Billie Holiday's art is an ache of vulnerability that came through even when her voice was strongest, in the 1930s and '40s. So, when here phrases take on a questioning quality, even when fully supported, there is a sense that a breakdown is being bravely staved off. There's no hint of mockery, but of the most empathetic sort of tribute.

Correa is an inspired interpreter, with both rough-edged and stalwart aspects to her instrument. She can interrupt phrases boldly without suggesting that she is haphazardly piecing together a vocal mosaic. The separation of lines in "I'm a Fool to Want You" doesn't sound arbitrary, but instead serves as an indication that the difficulty of honest expression — of owning up to conflicted feelings — is being addressed in a triangulation of song, singer, and pianist.

In "You've Changed," there is both resignation and disheartened protest in a song that Holiday had interpreted truly but more sturdily much earlier.  Correa's final reiteration of the song title is sustained through a kaleidoscope of vocal color; this is the kind of touch that stays with you, and isn't shadowed by artificiality.

In Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well," Blake sets out on his own at first, with left-hand rumblings of fragile self-assurance and the pedal liberally applied. This gives the irony of the lyrics full play, and his accompaniment continues its soft plodding under the stiff-upper-lip pep talk of Correa's singing.

There is perhaps rather banal poetry in the bridge of "For All We Know" as it lays out its philosophy — "For all we know this may only be a dream. / We come and go like the ripples of a stream" —  but those lines are emblematic of the entire program. What Blake and Correa have done on "When Soft Rains Fall"  is recount the recurrent dream of Billie Holiday's art the way it came through as a tragic finale. And they do it evoking the transient but memorable feelings that accompany the experience of watching those ripples on a stream, even when the former purity of that stream must be recalled with effort and imagination.



Monday, September 14, 2020

Butler University launches a survey, under many hands, of the Beethoven piano sonatas in toto

In a live stream Sunday night from the Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall on campus, Butler University got its survey of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas under way

"Beethoven @Butler"  has some market zing in these troubled times because of the title's fortuitous alliteration of school and composer, whose 250th birth anniversary is taking a place in a year that can't end too soon for many of us. It's gratifying to herald this series as among the few local new presentations of classical music, pinned to a significant historical milestone, under an official aegis during the pandemic.

Here's a response to Sept. 13's performances that, despite some reservations, I intend to be an encouragement to anyone who reads this blog to virtually attend the rest of the series.

In the first flush of his boom times in Vienna, where the young German had relocated from his hometown Bonn, Beethoven's early piano sonatas came in a relative rush. The "Waldstein" Sonata, which capped the Sept. 13 program, was written only eight years after the titan's genre debut with three Opus 2 sonatas (No. 1 in F minor and No. 2 in A were featured on the series premiere). Professor Kate Boyd pointed out that amazingly brief span in her introduction. 

Robert Satterlee's performance of the F minor sonata was sober-sided and minimally inflected. It was largely true to any concept that one readily forms of a youthful work, but I thought an interpretation of more distinct character was needed. There were a few glitches and wrong notes, which made a considerable difference only in a blurred rush at the very end, which Eric Blom deftly described as "a few bars of brilliant triplet arpeggios tacked onto [the recapitulation] as a coda." 

Wrong notes were also sadly an occasional feature of Kent Cook's more idiomatic interpretation of the A major sonata — though not enough to throw the performance off track. The Scherzo and Trio came off best. 

After two performances with such finger faults, I began to wonder if pandemic-mandated masking might be to blame; I've noticed myself that peripheral vision, which I had always thought of as registering to either side, also is in play at the top and bottom of the periphery. Looking down may thus not be quite as instantly accurate when your nose and mouth are covered and cloth high up on your cheeks.  I'm guessing that knowing a piece thoroughly is no guarantee that a slightly obstructed view of the keyboard will not play hob with precision.

That's my supposition, at any rate, though my inability  to notice it at all marring Shuai Wang's performance of Op. 53 in C major (the "Waldstein") forces me to wonder if masks are an inevitable obstacle that musicians must learn to live with over time. But her performance moved well past the effortful onto the plane of the heroic sublime. That is the "Waldstein"'s home terrain — an "Eroica" for solo piano.  The work's expressive exuberance in the outer movements sometimes yields performances that suggest "I'm keeping up with Beethoven as best I can here — you gotta admire the effort."

I had no such sardonic thought in listening to Ms. Wang. There was sufficiently bright contrast in dynamic levels when called for, even at headlong pace. The effect of surprise was maintained; accents and articulation were unfailingly crisp. The tension imparted to the glissando passage just before a sustained trill announces the peroration of the finale was spine-tingling. Triumph was unblemished throughout.

The whole performance whetted the appetite for revisiting the series and taking in how a host of pianists will make their mark in this repertoire.



Sunday, September 13, 2020

Dover Quartet sets forth initial contribution to the interrupted Beethoven celebrations with 2-disc set of op. 18

Some well-seasoned music lovers have expressed something like relief at one silver-lining  development

out of the Covid-19 disaster: we were spared an excess of an already overprogrammed master composer.

Yes, you've surely noticed that the pandemic has wiped out special celebrations of Ludwig van Beethoven on the 250th anniversary of his birth. Anniversary-prone symphony orchestras in particular had this thematic element obliterated from their schedules, along with everything else they had planned. 

I, for one, have regretted not getting a chance to attend a "Missa Solemnis" performance in June, which would have been among the twlight landmarks of Krzysztof Urbanski's tenure as music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Recordings, especially of chamber music, can be dropped into the market no matter what, of course.  And among the benefits during these pinched times is putting on disc contemporary interpretations of the sixteen Beethoven string quartets. Pentatone released an eight-disc set of them all with the Miro Quartet, and I reviewed it here just as the current year began without looking as dismal as it has become.

Now the Dover Quartet has entered the lists of a planned full cycle with Beethoven's calling card in the rapidly evolving genre of the string quartet: Opus 18. The Dover's mastery in these six quartets shows itself in its commitment to a young composer's bold way of making his mark on a form and a style he had inherited from Mozart, Haydn and lesser luminaries. The music is rich in personality and mastery of form as played by Joel Link, Bryan Lee, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, and Camden Shaw.

Notable is the pathos that this ensemble finds sometimes even in music of headlong energy. Tempos are generally on the fast side, but quite well-judged and flexible. Slow movements are not slighted in the achievement: In the Adagio of Quartet No. 1 in F major, tempo shifts give the music almost an "ad lib" feel at times. This suits the succession of tragic surprises of the young lovers in the tomb scene of "Romeo and Juliet," which Beethoven said he had in mind while composing the movement.

Spontaneity can be felt just below the surface of well-coordinated interpretations. For emphasis and to add a note of suspense about what's to come, the Dover sometimes slackens the pace judiciously. The practice may not follow directions in the score, but occurrences fall well within responsible interpretive boundaries.

When the outline of the music allows light to shine on a Haydnesque texture, the Dover keeps those lines vivid.  The less genial side of the emergent genius is given a patrician cast that manages to avoid glossing over it. Crucial changes of direction in the finale ("La Malinconia") of No. 6 in B-flat major are delicately, yet firmly, handled. Beethoven's characteristic "sforzando" outbursts have the right stunning effect, but without roughness, as in the assertive first movement of No. 4 in C minor.

The sound is satin-smooth, and the recording quality preserves a blooming resonance of the sort that might well be heard in a first-class concert hall. There is real space around it, neither too dry nor too glossy. But best of all are the many indelible indications that the Dover Quartet has fresh insights for our time into a body of work that a certain musical newcomer to Vienna first confronted the public with 22 decades ago.



Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Sexual politics and the fledgling IndyShakes production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

In this time of artistic privation, many of us can be grateful for the Indianapolis Shakespeare
'A Midzoomer Night's Gream" is this year's stand-in for a post-pandemic production.
s placeholding virtual production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," converted technologically as an appetizer for the 2021 season into a tasty "A Midzoomer Night's Dream."

An hourlong version of the Bard's most magical comedy can be accessed through the company's website through Sept. 12. Directed by Lauren Morris, assisted by Ryan Artzberger, the Zoom version necessarily is heavily cut and requires some stitching together to draw in the skeins of the zany plot. Bottom the Weaver is the presiding spirit of this "Dream" in more ways than one.

Most stage productions of this play strike me as posing the most athletic challenges Shakespearean actors face. The cavorting and confusion involving the four young lovers in the forest near Athens mimics the craziness young love often takes on: rich in jealousy, the waxing and waning of passion, and a readily aggravated tendency to feel wounded or abandoned. "A Midzoomer Night's Dream" is full of apt technical tricks, moving squares of each actor around the screen to represent changing alliances and confrontations.

Trying to allow for some of the deep cuts in the script is difficult, and I can only hope much of the original will be restored by a full stage production in 2021. Even so, IndyShakes has embraced trimming the Bard closely as a defensible practice in reaching out to outdoor summertime audiences. This was unavoidable in its coming up with a two-hour version of "Hamlet" in 2019.

In a follow-up dialogue after "Midzoomer" runs its course, Morris and Artzberger explain their approach, defending the gender looseness in particular.  In one case, reassigning sex roles works quite well; in another, it fails. Let me explain.

To account for the failure first, I take nothing away from the excellence of the actors portraying Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen. The royal couple's resort to magic in advancing each side of their quarrel drives the madness that overtakes Demetrius, Lysander, Hermia, and Helena — lovers who are already blocked in the "rational" world of Athens by the legal sway parents in many traditional societies hold over marriage.

Jen Johansen and Constance Macy seem thoroughly invested in the bitter rhetoric and deft schemes of their characters, but I miss the sexual politics that Oberon and Titania are clearly meant to pursue. (Even their liines were exchanged in a few places, as though they were interchangeable figures like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.)

Authenticity nerds are free to remind me that all parts in the productions Shakespeare knew were played by men and boys. But that was more a matter of required practice than any gender fluidity espoused by the playwright. And the Oberon/Titania set-to is one his most memorable presentations of the eternal battle of the sexes; it may lack the humane gravitas of the conflicts in "The Taming of the Shrew" and "Much Ado About Nothing," but its male-female chess game is vivid and essential.

I thought the casting of Claire Wilcher as Nick Bottom was an inspired choice, however. The weaver's eagerness for a theatrical outlet and susceptibility to transformation, in addition to his sheer comic exuberance, suggest an amplitude greater than any conventional identity Bottom may have superficially. He is fundamental as well as superficial,  both in terms of the addled myth-play the Athenian tradesmen are preparing and the accidental role he must play as an ass, the temporary love-object of Titania.

I intend no comment on Wilcher as a person to claim as kudos that her skills and energy, the pitch of her voice and the way her facial expressions don't fall into either male or female stereotypes make her ideal for a gender-neutral portrayal of Bottom. The character can be fairly androgynous in interpretation, with no violence done to what Shakespeare has set down on the page. (I wish the directors had not felt it fitting to change Bottom's pronouns to she and her, however.)

When magic imposes an asinine character on Bottom, his susceptibility to a range of sensual pleasures (often given hints of sexual attraction in full performance) evokes something that suits an androgynous interpretation: Freud's theory of a polymorphous-perverse stage of infant development, in which physical pleasure later channeled sexually is initially spread over the entire spectrum of sensation. Shakespeare seems to foreshadow this insight (though I believe it's not much supported by post-Freudian psychology) in having the transformed Bottom so open to fantasy indulgence. And his curiosity is fully awakened: note how he wants to know something about each fairy assigned to cater to him.

The same openness is characteristic of the normal Bottom.  He seems to know more about the craft of theater than any of his tradesman fellows. His pushiness about taking on any or all of the roles in the Pyramus and Thisbe travesty is less a matter of ego than temperamental breadth. Wilcher portrays this expertly. Her performance struck me as indicating a recurring habit of Shakespeare's: talking about theater and acting in a way that works his profession into the action. Bottom is thus a tribute to the mutability of actors, their necessary penchant for what John Keats termed "negative capability," He cited that as a useful inclination for poets to take on characteristics of people and even other beings and things in order to render their reality.

Obviously, that's an actor's metier. And it has great resonance with Shakespeare's practice as a playwright. Serendipitously, that was driven home to me soon after I watched "A Midzoomer Night's Dream" when reading an essay by William Hazlitt, one of the best 19th-century literary critics. In his essay on "Troilus and Cressida," he compares Shakespeare's treatment of characters in that ancient story with Geoffrey Chaucer's.

Of the medieval poet, Hazlitt says: "He is as deeply implicated in the affairs of his personages as they could be themselves...Everything with him is intense and continuous — a working out of what went before." But here's the contrast. "Shakespeare never committed himself to his characters. He trifled, laughed, or wept with them as he chose. He had no prejudices for or against them; and it seems a matter of perfect indifference whether he shall be in jest or earnest....He saw both sides of a question...and he was at once an actor and spectator in the scene. If anything, he is too various and flexible; too full of transitions, of glancing lights, of salient points."

This apt description could apply to a host of Shakespeare's characters, from Hamlet to Bottom. I loved the richness of Wilcher's performance and, though the directors seemed to want to follow that actor's self-identity, I think the performance works so well as gender-neutral (so, leave references to Bottom the way the text has them). Suddenly we see Bottom as Every Person at His/Her/Its Best — open-minded, open-hearted, less likely to make narrow claims of ego and ideally susceptible to an expansive view of life's variability.

It's not just Bottom's dream that "hath no bottom," as the restored Bottom muses. It is Bottom in all respects: one of Shakespeare's essentially minor characters who represents nothing less than human nature, especially as it's available to any talented, well-trained interpreter.

IndyShakes has a host of those, and I await the 2021 staged production both eagerly and apprehensively.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

IndyBaroque launches its season with music roughly contemporary with European settlement here

A special anthology in my decades-old LP collection is the Smithsonian's "Music from the Age of Jefferson." I had just played the record again a few days before attending the opening of IndyBaroque's 2020-21 season Friday night at the IndyFringe Pocket Park.
IndyBaroque Chamber Players launch a season at Indy Fringe.

The link is an intriguing one in these troubled times, and one must walk a tightrope sometimes defending the establishment and persistence of European culture in the New World. I have no problem with acknowledging that in moral terms: the civilization I most identify with has deep-seated problems. Sure,  I listened without apology or private embarrassment, and read the extensive notes to this recording from the 1970s, but it inevitably springs to mind that the Age of Jefferson, specifically as embodied in the man himself, was sustained in large degree by chattel slavery.

There's no mention of that in the text accompanying the Smithsonian collection, and that omission was not untypical four decades ago. Everyone knew what enabled Thomas Jefferson's lifestyle and the cultivation of its material and even its spiritual health, but only recently has the attention perhaps been overriding, threatening to inter the living good along with its hardly dry bones.

Similarly, as Tom Gerber delivered his oral program notes about music in the New World in the early years of the territory that became Indiana, he took pains to indicate that what became the Hoosier state was certainly not empty of human activity and settlement. It was the homeland of the Miami and several other tribes, gradually marginalized through aggressive settlement, disease, and displacement by treaty or otherwise. The well-assembled program is titled "When Indiana Was Young II," and the series continued Saturday in New Albany and will conclude tonight at the T.C. Steele Historic Site in Brown County.

The program that a quartet of the IndyBaroque Chamber Players is offering this weekend to launch IndyBaroque's 2020-21 season consisted of music that may have been performed in the 18th century by and for European settlers east of here and some who ventured west into our neighborhood. It was presented to the delight of Friday's small, enthusiastic audience without any claims that a little-known aspect of "Hoosier culture" was being brought forward. And perhaps that historical perspective was particularly germane since the European art upon which IndyBaroque draws was minimally available in early Indiana, and aspirational at best.

The choice of music leaned heavily toward French culture, as the 17th and early 18th centuries on this continent were significantly shaped by French exploration and trading. The process was cut short by the English victory in the Seven Years' (or French and Indian) War, whose outcome concentrated French dominance in the Canadian province of Quebec. The legacy has been fiercely protected there to this day; I was once caught up in Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day celebrations in Montreal and can attest to that.

Accordingly, the ensemble — harpsichordist Gerber, plus Sarah Cranor, violin; Leighann Daighl-Ragusa, flute; and Erica Rubis, viola da gamba — launched the program with a pair of noels by Michel Corrette, a charming composer whose life spanned most of the 1700s, and who was later heard from Friday in the more substantial Sonata for Violin and Continuo in D minor.

Discreetly amplified to accommodate the outdoor setting, the quartet was judiciously balanced. Pieces that used just two or three of the players were likewise heard in their proper proportions, and coordination among the players displayed the attractiveness of the repertoire superbly. Flute-violin articulation was well-matched in the Gigue that concluded a selection from Jean-Joseph Mouret, a composer best known (though not by name) as the composer of the Masterpiece Theatre theme.

I enjoyed the exhibition accorded the viol player Erica Rubis in the aptly titled "L'Ameriquaine" for her instrument and harpsichord by Marin Marais, a 17th-century composer who got a bump in recognition nearly three decades ago as the subject of the movie "All the Mornings of the World." The piece had the bumptious, go-your-own-way creative push that probably was designed to capture qualities of the New World that kept generating Old World curiosity about the continent it was busily conquering.

Substantial trio sonatas by G.F.  Handel and Carl Friedrich Abel, both notable as Germans who made successful careers in London, led up to the surprising treat of Gerber's presentation as a singer in a couple of anonymous compositions once known in the musical theater scene of Williamsburg,Virginia (a proto-Broadway in its heyday): "Matrimony in Fashion" and "Over the Hills and Far Away." Accompaniment, including the singer's keyboard, was neatly fashioned to allow the texts to be heard from Gerber's ingratiating voice.

A final affirmation of the connection of all this to local history (sung by Gerber a cappella) was Father Jean de Brebeuf's text to what has become known as "the Huron Carol." As a finale, its inclusion may have been the most uncontroversial way in which the often vehement encounter of contrasting cultures could be presented. It was a reminder that while issues of settlement and conquest will always be with us, there has sometimes been sweet harmony in the result.

Friday, September 4, 2020

'Hug,' the Matt Wilson Quartet advises — throw caution to the winds

Working closely together for many years, drummer Matt Wilson's quartet has earned the right to
Matt Wilson shows personal style in how he dresses and how he plays.
thumb its nose in these socially distanced times with "Hug" (Palmetto). In the midst of pandemic constraints, you can wrap your arms around this one, though it rewards sitting-up-straight attention as well.

This is a companionable set of originals and well-curated borrowings from the jazz repertoire, including Charlie Haden's "In the Moment" and Dewey Redman's "Joie de Vivre."  There's also a trip into a comfortable pop hit of yore, Roger Miller's "King of the Road."

And there's a bit of satire in the choice of Sun Ra's "Interplanetary Music" grafted onto some Donald Trump riffing titled "Space Force March." It all sounds natural, not reaching out for the lovably eccentric. And it makes for a good musical riposte to one of the President's vanity projects.

The players, always sensitively supported from the percussion section, are Jeff Lederer, reeds; Kirk Knuffke, cornet, and Chris Lightcap, bass. The program opens with the deep groove of Gene Ammons' "The One Before This," in the course of which the ensemble's penchant for compact solos is displayed. What follows takes the upbeat mood in another direction: Abdullah Ibrahim's "Jabulani" is notable not only for its catchy theme, but also for the bandleader's spot-on interaction with the bass player. The airy nonchalance of Afropop is nicely approximated here.

Later on the disc it's evident that the band is not focused exclusively on party music. "Every Day With You" is a Wilson original — slow, reflective, but never sagging. Fresh arrangements of timbres and textures come naturally to this quartet: "King of the Road" gets down-home from the start in Lederer's clarinet, with Knuffke's cornet coming in a little later with an overlaid solo line. Wilson puts down the sticks to hand-drum in a duo with the bassist, once again displaying the pair's mutual rapport.

There's a little additional humor when clarinet and cornet are in counterpoint in the original "Man Bun," a jaunty number that salutes that fading male hairstyle, with the band capping the piece by shouting together: "Check that man bun out!"

The punning title "Sunny and Share" suits a quartet excursion into territory first explored by Ornette Coleman at the start of his career some 60 years ago. There's a perpetual avant-garde out there that is always ready for a new examination, and the Matt Wilson Quartet offers it here magnanimously.