Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Making good decades later on his 1990 Gold Medal, Pavel Berman plays concert for IVCI

Pavel Berman divided his program between violin recital and chamber music.
Thirty years ago, Pavel Berman, a participant in the third quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, had come out of the soon-to-dissolve Soviet Union illustrating all the careful preparation and solid technical grounding the West had come to expect of musicians steeped in the rigors of Russian training.

The 20-year-old violinist captured the Gold Medal and has returned to Indianapolis just once since then. In the meantime, he has enjoyed years of experience as concert artist and teacher. For about eight years starting in 1998, there was also considerable experience on the podium leading an orchestra he had founded in Lithuania.

On the evidence of his appearance in the IVCI Laureate Series Tuesday night, Berman has put the time since his triumph here to good use. He has put a masterly finish on his impressive command of a variety of repertoire during two intense September weeks three decades ago.

The first instance of that mastery came as the Laureate Series concert opened with Cesar Franck's Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major. With Chih-Yi Chen at the piano, Berman gave a performance notable for never peaking too soon, yet not selling short the carefully distributed emotional impact of the four-movement work. His tone had steadiness and depth. He and the pianist displayed a good sense of pacing, and their well-coordinated insights into the familiar piece had the effect of making the warm ovation at the end seem truly earned.

For an exhibition of greater color and virtuosity, Berman and Chen rounded out the program's first half with Pablo de Sarasate's "Carmen Fantasy." Thirty years ago Berman delivered an impressive account of this showpiece in the competition. On Tuesday night, I liked the deeply felt "fate" music toward the start, and the Habanera had just the right insouciance and drive. The more virtuoso episodes, presenting the Seguidilla and the Gypsy Dance from the parts of Bizet's "Carmen" representing the tumultuous abandon of Spanish gypsy life, had a few passages of blurry harmonics as demands on the violinist grew. On the whole, however, the performance had both clarity and bravura energy.

After intermission, the participation of the Ronen Chamber Ensemble came to the fore. Chen remained the pianist for Gian Carlo Menotti's Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, and Ronen co-founder David Bellman joined Chen and Berman. The first movement of the charming work featured lots of nimble exchanges among the instruments. Menotti's supple phrasing and melodic gift, known mostly from his many operas, were in evidence here. Dynamics were well coordinated among the three players, especially in pianissimo passages in the second movement. Adept fugal writing took over as the finale got under way, and the music seemed to evoke the saltarello dance music of the composer's Italian heritage.

Bellman and Berman welcomed a host of players, including co-founder and cellist Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, for the last work on the program, Franz Berwald's Grand Septet in B-flat major. The ensemble included Emilee Drumm, viola; Ju-Fang Liu, double bass, Mike Muszynski, bassoon, and Richard Graef, horn. The Swedish composer displays a conservative style, as if early Beethoven had seemed a style worth drawing upon well into the 19th century. The work features an arresting super-fast section in the middle of its slow movement; the resumption of the slow music thus conveyed a feeling of welcome relaxation. The bustling finale, remarkable mostly for its high spirits, had a piquant aspect in its repeated two-note blasts of horn in the midst of smooth-running energy from the other six players. The performance set a bright seal upon a concert that felt like a celebration — one reaffirming the first-class legacy of "the Indianapolis."

Monday, January 27, 2020

Nearly 30 years after winning the Gold Medal, Pavel Berman returns to Indianapolis for only the second time

Having just turned 50, Pavel Berman has firm plans for the next phase of his career. In a brief, rare visit to the United States, the gold medalist of the 1990 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis is back in town under IVCI auspices to appear in its Laureate Series Tuesday night at the Glick Indiana History Center.

Consistent with his wish to put the violin at the center of his activities and to explore a variety of music for this instrument in combination with others,  the violinist has established the Pavel Berman Ensemble near his home in Italy, where he's lived for many years. From that base, the ensemble will undertake short European tours.

Pavel Berman has focused on teaching as well as performing over the past 30 years.
"We will play pieces like Tchaikovsky 'Souvenir de Florence,' a Brahms sextet, Schoenberg's 'Verklaerte Nacht,' and also baroque concertos," he said, adding that the programs will feature him as soloist in virtuoso pieces, like the Sarasate "Carmen Fantasy" included in Tuesday's program.

The IVCI Laureate Series concert here will have that sort of variety. He's working again (as he did in his last Indianapolis appearance nearly 18 years ago) with the Ronen Chamber Ensemble. With that venerable group, he will play Grand Septet in B-flat major by the Swedish composer Franz Berwald and, with co-founder David Bellman and pianist Chih-Yi Chen, Gian-Carlo Menotti's Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano. With Chen he will perform a staple of the violin repertoire, Cesar Franck's Sonata in A major.

For nearly a decade at the turn of the century, he focused on conducting, chiefly with an orchestra he founded in Lithuania. He appeared as a guest conductor elsewhere, too, but eventually decided to bring his concentration to bear mainly on the violin, his first musical love since early childhood. "I was glad to pick up that experience," he said about conducting during a rehearsal break at the history center, "but I decided I wouldn't be able to pursue the violin the way I wanted to unless I put conducting aside."

His decision to focus on his own playing plus teaching became recently unmistakable with the publication of instructional and performing videos on the the Caprices of Nicolo Paganini. Those 24 virtuoso works are known to every advancing violinist, and have long been a staple of the required IVCI repertoire. On his web site, Berman performs many of them accompanied by a string orchestra.

He is active now in northern Italy, living in Milan and teaching in Lugano. He teaches advanced students there, most of them Italian. One of the things he generally finds missing among rising young talent is "general culture — you can't rely just on musicality to get the music right. You have to understand what it's about." He emphasizes that more than knowing the styles of great violinists of the past is essential; so is reading: "To play Schumann well, you have to know Hoffmann, Schiller, and Heine, too," Berman says.

The once-young violin virtuoso, now an accredited maestro, added that the decline of faith has cost society and young violinists some intimacy with classical music, as it was standard cultural equipment for the great composers of the past. Of Jewish heritage himself, Berman emphasizes that it is not a matter of adopting Christian belief, but of becoming acquainted with the milieu and shaping values of traditional religion as practiced in Europe, both Jewish and Christian.

At the same time, he is an advocate of new music, even if it largely emerges from a secular perspective. "Every art has to develop and be contemporary, so new music is needed," Berman said. "The repertoire we already have is great, but you need to go ahead."

He doesn't envy the situation contemporary composers face: "It's difficult for composers to write something innovative and important, but that also can be received with enthusiasm by the general public." The decline of journalistic coverage of classical music has also hurt the viability of the art form. He is not among artists who claim to disdain and ignore published criticism. "I always read everything," he says. "I believe in facing opinion, and it's something where presenters can see if they could take a chance on an artist. Now it's 'my ignorance equals your knowledge!'," Berman said with a mocking smile.

Getting down with upscale: 'Salt Pepper Ketchup' tackles urban gentrfication

In its current production, Fonseca Theatre Company has made a chamber opera out of the spoken word on the topic of gentrification. It's a hard-hitting blend of arias and ensembles, punctuated by violence of language and action.

Josh Wilder's "Salt Pepper Ketchup" has just another week to go at the company's cozily proportioned new home on West Michigan Street. This kind of show, at home in Daniel Uhde's set design, benefits from the compact focus the space lends to the action. At FTC's Christmas show, I had serious doubts as to whether the space available would ever see any sort of variety show with humor, song, and dance seemto be at home: Pizazz with its shoulders scrunched barely works.

That remains to be seen, of course, and I trust Bryan Fonseca's imagination to to come up with solutions more than my mere speculation as FTC builds a production history. For the time being, however, "Salt Pepper Ketchup" seems both snug and explosive in telling the story of an ambitious Chinese-American restaurateur's struggles to build on the foothold he and his wife have secured in a gritty Philadelphia neighborhood.

The rescue of such neighborhoods often involves unexamined notions of progress. They tend to blur any distinction between left and right as America struggles to make its big cities viable for everyone. In "Salt Pepper Ketchup" the tensions around a challenged community's upgrade have reached the boiling point. In this show, they are concentrated in an eatery, carrying the bravado-charged name of Superstar, that its proprietor proudly calls "a Chinese joint."

Paul argues the case for the new co-op as the Wus' path to success.
John Wu, played  by Ian Cruz, realizes that the American dream is expensive, but he has a strong enough sense of the bond he has built with his black neighbors to be skeptical of the promised benefits of change. Those have been extended to him by Paul, an agent for an upscale co-op making headway nearby, in the midst of ominous signs that the area could be boosted beyond the means of its residents. Robert Negron plays the role with blinders-on, gift-of-gab smoothness, invested in the message of health and collective decision-making well beyond the point of forging genuine connections with the target demographic.

Directed by Tom Evans, the show stokes the tensions expertly. There is a pervasive lack of trust: Mr. Wu, responsive enough to the neighborhood to keep his prices low and to include in his limited menu such departures from authenticity as chicken wings, knows the need for a Plexiglas barrier to separate customers from the kitchen and for a dining-room security camera, even if it doesn't work. Long suffering under her husband's reflexive sexism, Linda Wu, played by Tracy Herring with a nice balance of frustration and easily kindled upward mobility, brings out the family-disintegrating potential of abrupt social change.

CeCe, portrayed with sass, hope, and energetic skepticism by Chandra Lynch, is a single mom open to improvements in her surroundings. She is a potential ally of the resistance, but clearly not likely to undermine innovations if they appear to benefit her. Holding on to the neighborhood's current condition despite its deficits are Tommy (Chinyelu Mwaafrika) and Raheem (Aaron "Gritty" Grinter), an edgy duo who mesh well in this production. They are somewhat offset by Boodah, a homie more into meditation than payback, interpreted as a questionable guru by Dwuan Watson Jr.

The interaction of the four black characters amounts to a neatly painted group portrait representing a community used to getting the short end of the stick. They have understandable difficulty interpreting the arrival of the glitzy co-op and ancillary projects like condos and coffee shops as anything but reverse white flight. Except for Boodah, they are prone to letting their short fuses get touched by flame. More willing to be unnerved by neighborhood hostility than the tightly focused Paul, Megan (Lexy Weixel) represents the cluelessness of white-led do-good projects that have focused financing behind them. Understanding their milieu definitely comes in second. 

"Salt Pepper Ketchup" is a title that identifies the usual condiments that come with a Superstar takeout order. They symbolize the ordinariness of down-at-the-heels urban life, thrown in along with fortune cookies. That life's stability was perhaps never a sure thing, but the promise of sudden change turns out to have at least as much threat behind it as anything that will serve the perpetual appetite for hope. Even those of us in more stable circumstances respond to hope's hunger pangs: "Salt Pepper Ketchup" vividly outlines the compromises and risks that people under the constant challenges of poverty and racism routinely face.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Aggressive title aside, ICO's 'Dominance and Defiance' could have won anyone over

Her full investment in a recent concerto was evident.
The Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra on Saturday weighed in with the obligatory tribute to Beethoven in his 250th anniversary year, but the performance of the Symphony No. 8 in F major, op. 93, conveyed much more than a sense of obligation.

In common with the other two pieces on the program at Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts, the Beethoven salute had a feeling of genuine commitment, even touches of rapture. Matthew Kraemer conducted an account that was straightforward, free of mannerisms, and responsive to the work's variety of texture and mood.

The notable replacement of the conventional slow movement by an "Allegretto scherzando," with its pervasive ticking, was droll enough to avoid the purely mechanical. The look backward to the minuet, which Beethoven had earlier transformed into third-movement scherzos, had simply the touch of nostalgia at which the ICO hinted in its concert marketing. But clearly the work overall could not be confused with the burgeoning genius of the late 18th century. It is a fit companion to the landmarks of the seventh and ninth symphonies.

The finale alone is proof enough of that. The "Allegro vivace"  may be the most remarkable example of Beethoven's ability to maintain a through line of focused energy despite complexity of rhythm and adventure among tonalities. It certainly foreshadows aspects of Igor Stravinsky. There ought to have been more precision from the violins at the very start, but Kraemer's honing of pace and exactitude ruled the day as the movement proceeded.

The ICO strings took advantage of the music director's showcase for them in Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony for Strings in C minor, op. 110a. Dominated by slow movements (there are three Largos), the five-movement arrangement by Rudolf Barshai of the composer's eighth string quartet was tenderly and powerfully played. There was excellent soloing from assistant concertmaster Sarah Page and, in the finale, a steady, keening high-register solo by principal cellist Marjorie Lange Hanna.

Amy Porter, the concert's featured soloist, seemed at one with the third work, Michael Daugherty's "Trail of Tears," a concerto for flute and orchestra. She premiered the piece a decade ago, and has clearly achieved a close identification with its astonishing interpretive and technical demands; she has recorded it with the Albany Symphony Orchestra. The music is a deeply felt evocation of the pain and persistence of Native Americans upon their forced removal from the southeastern United States nearly two centuries ago.

Extended techniques are exploited, but without overreliance on trickery. Conventional flute tone production is important to convey reflectiveness, including hints of sacred practices, as well as exuberance and assertiveness, notably in the multi-metered finale, "sun dance." Bent notes, like sighs or exhaustion, lend pathos to the score, and there is also flutter-tonguing and forceful blowing without sounded tones.

I heard no American Indianist cliches. The orchestration is immensely varied, with conspicuous percussion involvement. "Incantation," the second movement, cast a particularly hushed spell. Porter's appearance with a modern piece in which such embedding of the guest artist with the vehicle shone so brightly seems to me a high point in the ICO's recent history.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Fraternal twins: Beethoven's fourth and fifth symphonies bring the first chapter of ISO's 'BTHVN2020' to a close

So, here we have it: the classical-music icon, the work that could be identified by the packed-together name "Beethoven'sFifth," the musical objective correlative of triumph, and our grandparents' indelible notion of a Victory Symphony, because its generating motif of three short notes and one long one corresponds to the Morse code for "V."

During World War II, that famous beginning was officially Allied propaganda. But it was already well-known, and has thus come to symbolize classical music to many people in blissful ignorance of all that the term embraces.  It probably still tops "O Fortuna!" from "Carmina Burana" and "Nessun dorma" from "Turandot" in terms of mass familiarity. Yet it's a remote monument to many who are otherwise wholly at the mercy of pop culture.

Once, as a young teacher, I exposed my high-school English class to the opening of Stravinsky's "L'histoire du Soldat," with recorded narration, hoping to drive home a lesson about being tempted by the Prince of Darkness. The object of study may have been "The Devil and Daniel Webster," but I've forgotten, and it doesn't matter.

One rough-hewn lad sneered audibly as the first phrases of the small-scale theater piece wafted into the classroom: "What is this — Beethoven's Fifth?" The two works have nothing in common, but the student's impulsive plastering a Beethoven's Fifth bumper sticker on Stravinsky was sufficient to stigmatize it as having stature, perhaps, but irredeemably alien.

If the bulk of the populace is unfamiliar with anything beyond the world-famous motif and snatches of the first movement that ensues, exposure to the full Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op. 67, is necessary to absorb the impact of victory in the abstract, rendered in musical specifics by the spooky transition to the finale and its sudden outburst in a stalwart C major. T.S. Eliot coined the phrase "objective correlative" to designate "a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of [a] particular [emotion]" in literary art. Nothing fulfills that role better for the emotion of triumph in music than Beethoven's Fifth.

Leonardo Di Caprio as Howard Hughes in "The Aviator"
Part of the effect comes from the addition of three trombones to the orchestra in a symphonic first as the last movement begins. In the performance the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra gave Friday night, we had already heard the thrilling effect of "natural" horns and trumpets in the prior movements. With trombones lending a heraldic note to the full ensemble (with the sonic spectrum widened further by the addition of piccolo and contrabassoon), we inevitably get the "ah-ha! we have arrived!" feeling. And that was fully present in Friday's performance.

I once made a whimsical analogy to this stunning onset of the finale after I saw the film "The Aviator" in the movie theater. To underline the triumph of Howard Hughes' "Spruce Goose," an experimental aircraft that went aloft on top of a host of failures, the soundtrack took on, with the plane's roaring takeoff, a new dimension as speakers all around magnified the sound that had come from up front only. The effect was transcendent. "Just like the finale of Beethoven 5!" I exclaimed to my bemused elder son.

Katharine Balch's "impromptu" would be worth hearing again.
Apart from a discordant blast when the horns began their fortissimo fanfare, the performance jelled agreeably. I enjoyed the unhurried pace Urbanski allowed for the oboe cadenza (famous in part for Peter Schickele's sports-commentary parody shouting in amazement at the player's seeming to wander off the field). In the second movement, signs of Urbanski's interest in parallelism (a la Toscanini) more than stacking sonorities came through expertly. The scherzo had just the right blend of "bite" and cautious feeling its way forward.

The concert opened with the first of two commissioned pieces, Huw Watkins' "Dawning," a ruddy-cheeked miniature saluting the sunny mood of the Beethoven symphony it was meant to be a companion to: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major. Bright woodwind answers to string phrases in the opening movement were especially attractive in Friday's performance. There was a smoothness throughout and rewarding efforts to impart a glow to the score. In the finale, a consistently powerful motoric drive provided contrast, foreshadowing the overall impact of the iconic Fifth that followed intermission.

The companion piece to that symphony was Katherine Balch's "impromptu," a wholly stimulating exercise in well-linked fragments, sometimes coalescing in recognizable suggestions of the C minor symphony's first movement harmonies. I don't care for the fashionable practice of lower-casing composition titles; other than that, Balch's response to her commission was properly arresting and worth hearing again. I hope that opportunity presents itself to audiences beyond this weekend's — though their reward is already great with the featured celebration of Beethoven's 250th, which will continue later this season.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Polish orchestra visits, with a much-laureled Western Hemisphere conductor on the podium

Giancarlo Guerrero showed his pizazz and control.
I kept resisting comparisons to Leonard Bernstein that popped up in my head as I watched Giancarlo Guerrero conduct the NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic Thursday night at the Palladium. But images of the venerated American conductor leading his New York Philharmonic are still vivid to me several decades after attending their concert at the Meadow Brook Music Festival near Detroit.

Gesturally flamboyant and with an astute actor's range of facial expression, Guerrero had tempted me to draw the parallel throughout the scheduled program of Szymanowski, Bartok, and Brahms. But it was his showmanship in the two encores that cemented the comparison.

Just as Bernstein had stood vibrating and twitching while the orchestra with which he made his reputation dashed off his Overture to "Candide," Guerrero set aside conducting in all but a few places during predictably spirited accounts of Dvorak's Slavonic Dance No. 8 and Johann Strauss Jr.'s Thunder and Lightning Polka. In both cases, orchestras well attuned to the maestro could manage to run the course on autopilot. Guerrero went a step beyond during the Strauss romp, mugging, cuing the audience to listen for the thunderclaps (bass drum rolls),  and looking skyward to make clear the mimicry of Mother Nature clearing her throat. Then he led the concertmaster by the hand off the stage, the universal signal that the evening's revels were over.

Guerrero and the large Polish orchestra (he also is music director of the Nashville Symphony) certainly presented a spectacular calling card after taking the stage. Karol Szymanowski, the first widely acknowledged Polish master composer after Chopin, was represented by his Concert Overture in E major,  op. 12. He was clearly feeling his oats in his early 20s, and wrote this piece as if he were keen to sow some. The piece manages to be tidy while also bursting at the seams. The program note justly acknowledged the influence of Richard Strauss' thick but lively manner in his symphonic poems. In the main theme, I also heard something like the buoyancy and uplift characteristic of Edward Elgar, though it could be his English contemporary was not known to the young Pole. Shifts from heroic to lyrical moods were managed neatly throughout.

In the course of the program, it was a pleasure to take in the excellence of the orchestra—the strong profile it presented in brief wind solos, the solidity of the strings, and the particularly zealous playing of the timpanist, who helped put a seal on the powerful conclusion of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C minor. One of the few flaws I noticed in the NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic Thursday was the blurred onrush to the coda that sets up the C minor symphony's peroration. The excitement was not affected, but the coordination suffered. There was also a partly muffed entrance of the trombones as the long introduction to the first movement approached its end. The overall level of the performance had both the needed gravity, ingratiating zest, and the full-bore representation of the Brahmsian sound, including what one music critic once informally described to me as "Brahms' stomach rumblings." (Contrabassoonist, take a bow.)

Much used to be written about the timbral differences between European and American musicians, though the  internationalization of classical music has muted such contrasts recently. Attempting to be alert to them, I noticed mainly that the oboe and English horn had a darker sound than I usually hear from our orchestras. And that bold timpanist produced a sound that seemed different, especially resonant even when the dynamic level was fairly low.

Piotr Anderszewski, the piano soloist, achieved a strikingly unified partnership with his countrymen in Bela Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3. In the first movement, the tonally firm lower strings coordinated especially well with the piano, and the back-and-forth ending was delightful. Guerrero and Anderszewski achieved exquisite poise in the Adagio religioso second movement, with the pointillistic effects of a characteristically Bartokian "night music" episode delivered gracefully. Anderszewski's crisp articulation gave extra animation to the finale, and the orchestra matched him in crispness and momentum.

Guerrero, whose career distinctions include six Grammy Awards, is well enough his own man not to need comparisons with Bernstein, of course, whether favorable or not. There are distinct differences just from a visual standpoint: He is less focused on shaping filigree than Bernstein was, and he thrusts his hands high with an often clarifying, less ecstatic angularity. In the Brahms, he eschewed score and baton. He oozes self-confidence and, what is even more valuable in conductors, genuine mastery. That was generally the rule in this splendid concert.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

In-the-moment done deals: The joy of an Indy Actors' Playground cold reading

For years, two critiques of theater by famous novelists have stuck in my craw, and I can't say that either one is easy to dismiss. I can minimize them, though. So I was happy to be confirmed in my belief in the viability of stage drama by the richness of Indy Actors' Playground's January "cold reading" last night. Attempts by John Updike and Martin Amis to disparage theater rest on two different foundations, both of them worth considering, yet faulty.

Lou Harry and Paul Hansen, co-masters of these long-running revels, once a year depart from the format of a reading chosen by one actor, who selects a cast of fellow readers; then the ad hoc troupe comes to the Playground with minimal to no rehearsal.  In IAP's "cold cold reading," actors are invited to participate by the founders and handed an envelope with their parts marked. It's showtime. Until a given signal to begin, they don't know what's inside.

Monday's show, an amusing but overstuffed travesty of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," with an overlay of satire aimed at British pop culture of the late 20th century, required a cast that spilled over the sides of Indy Reads Books' cozy stage. The actors had me believing in an inherently incredible spoof. Through them, I knew these people, even they were the most transparent of caricatures.

A significant part of the entertainment was the opportunity to be awed by how thoroughly trained actors can puff life into characters they've just met. Believable impersonations, instantaneously realized, resulted. An actor's imagination and his/her ability to convert its work into a simulacrum of reality on the spot partakes of the miraculous in my admittedly skeptical view of miracles.

Venue for a miracle: The bookstore stage for Indy Actors' Playground
Of course, there's usually years of training involved. As with most advanced skills, there was surely in everyone onstage an early knack for getting it right, which they built upon. And there's current involvement in theater to keep the requisite chops fresh and applicable to new teams and new roles, not to mention the stress of door-opening auditions. As among classical musicians, there are variations in the poise and accuracy of sight reading among artists. Usually   adequate rehearsal (with coaching and direction, where necessary) eventually puts them on the same level playing field before the public.

But I'm continually struck by the snap-crackle-pop of impersonation. The great drama critic Max Beerbohm always referred to actors as "mimes," a word we too exclusively apply to pantomime, the wordless artistry of Marcel Marceau and his descendants. But "mime" also draws upon the origins of the word in ancient Greek and Roman shows of simple, often ridiculous imitation. There's a comic aspect to pretending to be another person, a kind of parlor trickery, even if the vehicle is tragedy.

This potentially uncomfortable basis of the art provides a way in for the scorn of Amis and Updike.  The American author died in 2009 after a staggeringly prolific career as an honored man of letters. Somewhere he says that theater rests on the weak basis of making scrupulously prepared utterances and actions seem to be spontaneous.

The studied aspect of theater erected an obstacle for Updike, even though he wrote a sort of playable play about the only president to come from the author's home state of Pennsylvania, James Buchanan. To Updike, theater's artificiality was insurmountable and false to life. What characters do and say in a novel or short story takes place in a perpetual present; readers and re-readers make it happen as they proceed through the text. Dialogue and action in a staged play happen within a span of time — a span that's replicated and similarly filled more than once, for audiences, by people assigned to represent events and utterances that pretend to be unpracticed. How can that be anything like life?

The parlor-trick aspect of acting also bothers the Englishman Amis, but mainly as a way to cast into suspicion the whole theatrical legacy. Amis heaps disdain upon a playwright's collaboration with a host of others; the playwright necessarily distances himself from the lives he purports to represent. There are too many others involved. Amis seems to be asking, Where's the artistry in that? "All he has done is finished the dialogue; and, as any novelist knows, compared to the other exertions of fiction the demands of dialogue are negligible."

The essay in which this appears seconds Vladimir Nabokov's own dislike of theater, despite the book under review being a volume of  the Russian-American writer's early plays. Amis makes an exception for Shakespeare, but for him it's an exception that proves a dismal rule. In a typically vivid comparison, Amis explains: "The fact that Shakespeare should have been, of all things, a dramatist is one of the great cosmic jokes of all time — as if Mozart had spent his entire career as second wash-board or string-twanger in some Salzburg skiffle troupe."
Voices of the opposition: Martin Amis (above) and John Updike

It's an amusing but nonsensical analogy, really. But novelists, who are apt to exaggerate the heroic loneliness writing fiction, may be peculiarly susceptible to it. They may play well with others, but working well together is beyond the pale. In his Paris Review interview, Ernest Hemingway said truly that "the most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in shock-proof shit detector," but its mechanics tend to break down when applied to one's own work, as his did. Novels aren't workshopped or devised, and more's the pity, perhaps. (Hemingway came up with a provocative, short closet drama about the Crucifixion, "Today Is Friday.")

Another prolific English novelist, Anthony Burgess, suggests in "Nothing Like the Sun" that Shakespeare yearned to be a lyric poet, but resorted to the theater as a fallback career choice. Hmmm....did we really need more of  "The Phoenix and the Turtle" or "The Rape of Lucrece"?

So there you have it: Drama is either a slender reed, always propped up, crafted by committee, and on the brink of wilting and withering in the garden of art (Amis) or it's a scam, since everyone knows that the mimicry is basically contrived deception, at too far a remove from how people actually talk and act (Updike).

To me, though readers' theater is not the ultimate expression of its art form, it may indicate how lifelike working unprepared from a script can be. It largely sidesteps the objections of Amis and Updike. Except for the interaction happening immediately before us, it reduces collaboration to a minimum. It brings to the fore the sprightliness of the text itself, thus coming close to the immediacy of spoken dialogue in real life. Nonetheless, while the perspective of good readers' theater may win this argument, it remains rudimentary to the greater glory of full-fledged theater.

Novelists, I love you, but please tend to your knitting. I'll still often want to drape myself in the finery of theater, in its blend of natural and artificial fabric.

Monday, January 20, 2020

IRT's 'Morning After Grace' brings some unresolved difficulties of older lives to the fore

Angus and Abigail confront the meaning of their night together.
Some people feel a calling to be helpful to others. Some feel a calling to have others help them. Often they are the same people, which gets complicated. There was a lot of this in my generation, where my place was at the front end of the life stage that grips the three characters in "Morning After Grace," a knotty comedy by Carey Crim now in production at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

We mixed up selflessness and selfishness, imagining we were tearing down walls. Let me tell you a story: In graduate school, I joined a T-group, shorthand for a sensitivity training group, which enjoyed a vogue in the late 1960s. We went deep into each other's lives in regular meetings, guided by a professional counselor. A half-dozen or so of us anxious scholars, approaching the end of the paid-for sessions, were feeling incipient separation anxiety.

The bond we were so certain of had been created and sustained largely through Myron's gentle professionalism. One of us had a bright idea, outside the scheduled session: "We've all become good friends, and Myron is as much of a friend as anyone," she said to unanimous agreement. "Why don't we keep going as a group, and ask Myron to continue with us?"

The idea should have appalled the rest of us, but it didn't, not openly at least. It meant we would no longer pay Myron. Surely this wise, older guide was such a great, open-hearted soul that he would go along. We presented her idea to him at our last scheduled session. Somehow he declined so gracefully that the nervy idea vanished into thin air, with no evident hard feelings. But we had crossed a line, and no one spoke up to object to the cheap, unethical ploy. The world revolved around us, and all barriers were to be demolished through the force of our wry idealism. The fact that Myron was credentialed and paid to be as good as he was shouldn't matter, right?

OK, boomer.

That phrase, which tersely sums up the occasionally just critique of my generation by millennials, could well function as a dark subtitle for "Morning After Grace." The play throws together three professionals, retired or close to retirement, heading toward the Biblical limit of three score and ten. One of them, Abigail, still practices her profession of grief counseling, but she is called to be helpful in this play to assist resolution of her own griefs as well as those of her one-night-stand lover, Angus.

The key departure from what my T-group asked of Myron is that this is a voluntary application of Abigail's skills
Pot party: Climax of the funny stuff in "Morning After Grace"
that goes well beyond her three master's degrees and the fact that her professional bond with the third character, Ollie, focuses on the death of a pet. The raucous comedy set-up is rich at first, including a hilarious marijuana episode as the second act gets under way, but the darkening of the palette is expertly applied under Janet Allen's direction.

All three of these sympathetically portrayed people have self-work to do. The most real assistance any of us can make use of is probably through actual relationships, with payment in terms other than financial. Like every generation before or since, the one that came of age during what has been called "the American high" had to learn this. But it was our fault we forced ourselves to undergo greater disillusionment. We thought life was all about gift exchange, but we wanted that tilted toward our advantage. It's "easy to be hard," the song from "Hair" warned us; but we mocked it (at least the guys did) as "It's easy to get hard."

Henry Woronicz plays Angus displaying his usual gift for keeping a character's mask in place until it has to be thrown aside. He has crudely followed his wife Grace's funeral with an impulsive hooking up with Abigail, an accidental guest at the ceremony who nurtures a deep need to get back into action, her husband having dumped her. "Funerals are our singles bars," Angus says flippantly. Like Abigail, he also pursued a "helping profession," but in contrast to her, his work as a human-rights lawyer seems no longer pertinent. He lives in a blandly gorgeous dream condo, which scenic designer Bill Clarke has captured to perfection, as far as I can tell.

Angus' privileged status has some parallels with Abigail's life, though she has the advantage of relevance that retirees often struggle to sustain. As played by Laura T. Fisher, her wit and gift for repartee are linked to a firm notion of self-worth, undercut though it is by unmet emotional needs. Abigail's emergent vulnerabilities were poignantly delivered in the January 19 performance I saw.

Privilege is most compromised among the three charaacters in Ollie's situation. Hobbled by a hip injury, he is a former major-league baseball player further challenged in status by the sexual orientation he must keep hidden from his homophobic father, a nursing-home resident in Arizona. Ollie is also black, and commendably the playwright has little need to underscore that disadvantage on the top of the other. Compared to Abigail and Angus, he has the benefit of a stable, long-term relationship. Spats with James, his unseen partner, arise from his stark reluctance to come out to his father. Joseph Primes' performance was classy and resilient, revealing Ollie's eventual triumph of grace under pressure, thanks to Abigail and his own inner resources.

Evoking that Hemingway phrase brings me to the significance of the characters' names. "Angus" appropriately suggests anguish; the two hard consonants near the front of "Abigail" hint at her toughness, though the way the name softens and its sharing of an initial vowel with "Angus" gets at her tenderness. "Ollie" is deceptively soft on purpose, I believe, with a touch of irony. And how differently we would process this play if Angus' deceased wife were named Betty or Lauren! Grace is a quality that needs to emerge eventually from the play's roiling conflicts. It carries religious weight, so it is not absurd that Abigail's bringing up her clients' reports of butterflies or birds accompanying bereavement is confirmed by a cardinal's appearing to Angus through the skylight in the second act. Someone sitting near me said "Oh, no!" when this happened, but it worked.

The tension in the second act becomes nearly unbearable. The director's pacing has a masterly appropriateness;
Angus' defenses collapse as he comes to term with his wife's death.
the silences that mark Angus' pain are deafening. There was audience reaction: someone started applauding in anticipation of the final curtain, short of the play's necessary resolution. And, unprecedented in my theater-going experience, a man in my row left in front of us within ten minutes of the true ending. Nothing can break the theatrical illusion more thoroughly than someone even momentarily blocking your view. I tamed my annoyance by speculating that he had a really urgent call of nature. Then I hoped that if he had been triggered emotionally he might get the kind of help that eventually benefits Angus. Earlier, my own feeling at the successive departures of Ollie and Abigail in the second act I will credit to Crim: It was "please don't go" and "please come back." They did go, and they did come back. I had been on the floor there with Angus.

I'm also grateful to the playwright for not larding her script with topical Baby Boomer references. "Morning After Grace" doesn't need them. We don't have to hear the grief counselor talk about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, or the ex-Tiger allude to Stormin' Norman or that hoss Kirk Gibson as he mimicked pulling a chain-saw rope while rounding the bases. In "Morning After Grace," we are placed in the now of life's approaching twilight and asked to understand the power of grace as it may come to us, whatever generation we identify with.

Mine may deserve such grace more than my T-group had any right long ago to implore a professional counselor to abandon his standing in order to answer our illegitimate "calling" to him to be friends. The way he answered that request has given me space to generate my own reproach.

So thank you, Myron.

And I'm sorry, Myron.

OK, boomer.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Summit Performance's 'Be Here Now': An eerie comedy about how we shape identity and construct meaning

Carrie Ann Schlatter is one of several actors Indianapolis is fortunate to have who trigger our empathy the moment they appear onstage. In "Be Here Now," the Summit Performance production I saw Saturday night at the Phoenix's Basile Theater, it happened again. I thought: I don't know what is going on with this character, but I'm there.

Bemused co-workers Patty and Luanne listen to Bari's perspective.
That was in the first scene, when the voice of Georgeana Smith Wade as a yoga instructor booms the play's title, a phrase associated with a book by the late self-help guru Ram Dass, then proceeds with patiently intoned instructions. Schlatter's Bari, the troubled heroine of Deborah Zoe Laufer's play, is not having it. Two fellow practitioners, who we soon find out are her co-workers at a small-town "fulfillment center" (wrapping up various gewgaws, gimcrack and mass-produced talismans to be shipped out upon order), are fully invested in yoga.

My yoga skepticism may have played a role in my immediate sense of connection to Bari. Recently dealing with a bout of sciatica, I've resorted to exercises found online. One of them calls for you to face upward, lifting your upper body, while shoulders and feet are planted on the floor, then lower your back "one vertebra at a time."

I was perplexed. How can anyone do that? I asked my wife, who has had some yoga experience. It's just yoga-talk, she explained to me: for you it means to gradually lower your back onto the mat. Oh. No need to train my discs to march downward in single file, then. Good.

Well, there's quickly a lot more to learn about Bari, and she spills her guts at the shop to Patty and Luanne. One of the peculiarities of "Be Here Now" is that it violates our notions of "fulfillment centers" as soul-crushing factory outposts of the Amazon behemoth. I had no idea there are boutique-sized fulfillment centers in small towns. So as they carry out packing duties, involving such deceptions as removing "made in China" labels from items marketed as authentically Tibetan, the three women dish cozily about romance and the meaning of life.

Patty and Luanne, members of the same large family who gave their surname to the town Cooperville, find their faith in astrology and Christianity, respectively, shored up by mood-lifting medication. Bari rips the Coopers' manufactured happiness from a stance of militant atheism. She's an academic ABD (all but dissertation) in philosophy, her graduate-student teaching duties in suspension for the time being. We are asked to believe that her teaching specialty is nihilism, from which she keeps no scholarly distance whatsoever. It seems odd that an adjunct instructor would be given the narrow focus of nihilism rather than, say, Introduction to Philosophy.

The play gives me a few problems, but the production is top-drawer in all respects. Schlatter not only delivers on the spectacular impression she made in Summit Performance's 2018 maiden voyage, "Silent Sky," in a much different role; she also keeps us fascinated even as we're getting a bit tired of the role's longwindedness. The other three players sustain our attention and earn our trust as well: Cynthia Collins as the assertive shop manager Patty, Zariya Butler as the perky ingenue Luanne, and Ryan Ruckman as Mike, yet another Cooper, who's been set up by his relatives to meet Bari as a way to lift her spirits. Maybe she will find that life isn't pointless, after all.

Bari is dubious as she attempts to lend a hand to Mike's sanding of a discarded chair.
Mike comes on as a man used to non-attachment to humanity, but even in his laconic manner with Bari at first, not incapable of sympathy. He is blunt and terse in expression and mainly interested in keeping his eye peeled for discarded items that he can put to use building houses out of junk.

One of the puzzles of the script is that neither he nor Bari ever uses any other word for this raw material than "garbage," which of course covers what we also call junk or trash, but extends to food waste as well. I'm guessing that the playwright wanted the notion of the stuff we throw out to have the resonance of what quickly decays and attracts maggots and rats: the physical evanescence of life in spoilage. Of course, Mike's garbage has to be barely diodegradable, so that it can be the basis for his constructive visions, coveted examples of which have stunningly brought him today's pot of gold for creative types — a MacArthur fellowship.

One begins to wonder which of his interests, as well as this family-built town of the same name as a pioneering American author (whose father established the real Cooperstown), may have literary forebears? Is Mike the playwright's version of James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo, the hero of several novels collectively called "Leather-Stocking Tales"? Mike's primitive lifestyle, his rejection of big-city ways, and other disciplined attributes come close to the Oxford Companion to American Literature's description of Natty: "Generous both to friends and to enemies, he possesses a simple staunch morality, and a cool nerve and never-failing resourcefulness."

Mike turns out to have guilt-steeped reasons for leaving New York City. That puts his search for life's meaning on a much different plane from the James Fenimore Cooper character.  Those reasons help explain chinks in Mike's "cool nerve" as he must decide how to deal with Bari's recurrent seizures, which present her with ecstatic visions of the peace and harmony she is incapable of realizing in her everyday life. These spells are beautifully manifested outside Bari's head in the sound and lighting design (Lindsey Lyddan and Laura E. Glover).

Directed astutely by Amy Lynn Budd with Lauren Briggeman's additional direction, there's a striving quality to "Be Here Now" that makes it endearing even as it puzzles. Its style may be derived, like so much modern drama, from  Chekhov's gentle comedies of ordinariness and its disappointments. It's a realism tweaked by visionary outbursts that draw upon the expressionism of Strindberg.

Coopersville is a modern town in many respects — everyone but Mike has an iPhone — but also resembles a timeless folk community. How come Mike and Bari plan to meet for lunch at a restaurant that's closed, and in a later scene, is confirmed as having been abandoned? Doesn't everyone nowadays check restaurant hours online beforehand? Word of mouth seems to be the major medium of communication, even though emergency calls and contemporary brain surgery play crucial roles in the plot of "Be Here Now."

It may be helpful, if not a further distraction, to evoke a book by an older counterculture contemporary of Ram Dass, Alan Watts, who 50-odd years ago wrote "The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are." Both Bari and Mike seem victims of this taboo, alienating them from their real identity. A long-undiagnosed illness and a horrible accident played their separate parts in erecting each individual taboo. At the end, their mutual need to come to grips with who they are makes this  a peculiarly fraught romantic comedy.

It also bears signs of wanting to be allegory, a form best known in the English-speaking world through John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress." This pious dream fantasy had pride of place alongside the Bible in Protestant homes for over two centuries. Modern allegorical novels (though they are also serious literary parodies) include John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" (the Cain and Abel story) and Jane Smiley's "A Thousand Acres" ("King Lear").

The way the three women speak to each other in the shop makes them emblematic of contrasting views of life's significance; they are fully embodied in performance, yet seem rather two-dimensional. Then you have contemporary terms of art that could almost be Bunyanesque locations, symbolizing major way stations of pilgrimage that deserve capitalization. The unfulfilled Bari works grudgingly in a Fulfillment Center; Mike has had his big-city career in Mergers and Acquisitions destroyed, and must concoct mergers and acquisitions of his own. He has been forced to escape the metropolitan Vanity Fair just as decisively as Bari's pilgrimage has led her into the Slough of Despond, where guilt and self-hatred swamp her.

Allegorical language can be catching. So I will conclude by easing my Pain of Puzzlement down upon the Mat of Understanding. I've done it numbering one Interpretive Vertebra at a time here as the Belabored Back  laboriously descends. To everyone else who sees "Be Here Now," I wish a Gentle Lowering. I think you'll find it an exercise worth undertaking. There are laughs along the way, the enthrallment of mystery, and relief at the end.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Week #2 of "BTHVN2020": Sublime Eroica, revealing Triple Concerto, zesty new piece

It took me a week to discern that the sculpture under the name of the honoree in the  Hilbert Circle Theatre lobby
Krzysztof Urbanski: Led an "Eroica" of lasting stature.
was not abstract and Calderesque but a portrait in floating white shapes of Ludwig van Beethoven himself.

Such is the price of glossing over some details while focusing on others — which may indeed deserve your focus, but still.... Why not pay attention to everything? one asks oneself as age forces the realization that there is not much time left.

The music on offer this weekend (there's a repeat this afternoon, which I heartily recommend) captivated me thoroughly, apart from mild annoyance that there's too much note-spinning in the finale of Beethoven's "Triple" Concerto, which occupied most of the first half of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's program.

Dejan Lazic: His commissioned piece captures Beethoven's rowdy side.
My attention was riveted from the start: A helpful introduction to the commissioned piece, Dejan Lazic's "S.C.H.E.rzo," was happily given by the composer and ISO music director Krzysztof Urbanski in dialogue from the stage. The work itself, adhering to the roughly five-minute limit required of the new works, offered a rousing peek into one aspect of Beethoven's soul: his sense of humor, rambunctious and sometimes puzzling to his contemporaries. "An unlicked bear," his older contemporary Luigi Cherubini called him.

Lazic builds his piece on the German musical spelling of the first four letters of the word "scherzo," the designation of those movements through which Beethoven pioneered the boisterous change he imposed upon the conventional symphonic minuet. The commissioned composer also transforms material from the program's linked work of the master, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat ("Eroica), and weaves it in various guises into his structure. It's an intricate piece, but it immediately gets across.

The genius to whom the world is paying tribute on the 250th anniversary of his birth delved into music's meaning with a novel blend of expansiveness and concentration, as well as the technical and expressive skill to give order to his wild imagination. But the wildness sometimes issued in social behavior in which rage often rubbed shoulders with rough drollery. Lazic has captured some of this, while honoring such strictly musical applications of Beethoven's personality as its sudden surges of force. Along the way, there is a relaxed, almost lush episode, and near the end the orchestral piano attains prominence, as if Lazic were honoring an eminent concert-pianist predecessor. In the last few measures, I heard (whether they're intended or not) suggestions of Ivesian nose-thumbing.

Austin Huntington: Primus inter pares in Beethoven.
Lazic then appeared in his concert-pianist persona to take on the fluent role of supporting soloist for violinist Benjamin Schmid and cellist Austin Huntington. Beethoven's piano-trio set-up, with the orchestra supporting more than interacting, was an innovation in the first decade of the nineteenth century. As Marianne Williams Tobias' program note points out, the Triple Concerto has endured disdain often since then. And as I said above, despite an energizing change of meter near the end and the appealing vivacity of the Polish-inspired theme, the third movement is somewhat tedious.

I admired the way the soloists worked together throughout. The initial impression that Lazic was being
overassertive faded in the course of the three movements. Particularly striking was Huntington's engaging manner with the prominent cello part. In the second movement, Urbanski drew from the strings a hushed introduction that seemed perfectly designed to match the style of their ISO colleague. The smooth elegance of Huntington's playing was a hallmark of the performance. especially in lyrical passages.

One way to come at the revolutionary aura of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony may be to reverse an old description of another revolutionary work, Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," as the 20th century's "Eroica" Symphony. Wind the clock backwards, and think of the German composer's Op. 55 as the 19th century's "Rite of Spring" and you may be able to reset your ears to appreciate how groundbreaking the "Eroica" was for its time, how it may have seemed both endless and lawless to conservative ears.

Urbanski led a performance that both saluted the work's edgy quality, its bold push against "enoughness," and honored its claim to be a symphony for all time in addition to its own. In the first movement, what Friday's performance did was to make the "subito" dynamic shifts sound not just sudden but also essential to the fabric. The momentum was firmly set, and those "sforzandos" stuck out of the seamless texture without poking holes in it.

By the time the ISO reached the finale, nothing had been amiss apart from imprecise work in the violin sections as the Scherzo: Allegro got under way. That may have been forced by the sudden emotional and technical adjustment required by the contrast with the preceding movement (about which more to come). The Scherzo in particular displayed the glory of the natural horns in the famous Trio section; here was the woodland flavor of the original instrument, a timbre (shared by four horns in Friday's performance) speaking of the hunt and other outdoor signaling functions of the brass heritage. The effect was spine-tingling.

Speaking of physical reactions, however, it almost embarrasses me to report that I was near tears throughout the second movement, headed "Marcia funebre" (funeral march). The theme was stated with such poignancy and its dynamics observed so scrupulously that something approaching sobs of grief could be readily felt in the performance. The emotional immediacy was evident in every phrase. Everything sounded under exquisite control, but in a masterly design, emotion doesn't need to take a back seat in a performance of such well-judged detail.

I couldn't help thinking back to listening to the radio on Nov. 22, 1963, when I was a college freshman in Kalamazoo. The classical station played the first part of the "Marcia funebre" in between reports from Dallas. I remember how wrenching it was for the broadcast to cut away from Beethoven to the latest bulletin just as the music switched to the major mode — for heroism, especially when it demands the ultimate sacrifice, needs both what was lost to be mourned and the meaning of the loss to be celebrated. That's the balance this movement exemplifies like no other piece of music. The solo oboe introduces that episode, and at the end Jennifer Christen deserved the first solo bow, after Urbanski took his, for her excellence here and elsewhere in the "Eroica."

The march form is inevitably part of what warrior culture has left us. We may mourn all sorts of deaths, but death in battle has a stature, represented ritualistically, that even pacifists find hard to dismiss. And, true,  Beethoven's progeny left all sorts of monuments to the pain of death and the promise of transcendence, even when neither explicit heroism nor the carnage of war is a factor.

But you can take your cornucopia of symphonic requiems, your Strauss "Death and Transfiguration" and your Mahler "Resurrection" Symphony and put them in a respectable bucket, and the liturgically and programmatically free "Eroica" will still tower over them. As Aaron Copland said in one of his marvelous little books: Beethoven is a great man walking down the street; Mahler is an actor portraying a great man walking down the street. Nowhere is that great-man status truer than in the "Eroica."

And on a day in which we learned that our current commander-in-chief blasted his generals as "a bunch of dopes and babies," I'm sure I'm not the only one who needed a Beethoven Third (particularly a "Marcia funebre")
of this quality —  of this abundance of passion, insight, poise, and rectitude.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

'Music made him' and he made music for Indianapolis: ISO pays memorial tribute to Raymond Leppard

For me as an arts reporter, Raymond Leppard was a dream source. Affable and accessible in person, sometimes
At his start here: Leppard at Circle Theatre
to the discomfort of his administrative counterpart, he was always good for an informed, candid opinion about the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and the broader situation of classical music in the late 20th century. He thought that "Yuletide Celebration" and most contemporary serious music each in its own way detrimental.

Insight into why his accessibility was so delightful  over the nearly nine years I covered the ISO part of his career was confirmed by several speakers at "A Celebration of Raymond Leppard," a memorial tribute program Monday at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The conductor-scholar-harpsichordist died in October at his Indianapolis home.

Several people who knew him much better than I spoke at the nicely planned, extensive combination of words and music. As ISO CEO James Johnson said in wrapping up the ceremony, all the musicians and crew gave of their time to celebrate the beloved maestro, who was born in London in 1927. Leppard, after making his international reputation mainly conducting the English Chamber Orchestra and preparing baroque operas, had an immediate impact on our orchestra, Johnson said, when he began his music directorship in 1987. He continued until 2001, when he was named the ISO's only conductor laureate to date.

Among the speakers was Marianne Williams Tobias, a pianist and the ISO's program annotator. Indirectly she supported why it was such fun for me as a journalist to meet with him or call him up: "Raymond had no nostalgia," she said, remembering his assertion that "I have always wanted to do what I'm doing now." That seemed to extend even to giving interviews, fortunately.

His spontaneity from the stage, where he spoke often at concerts but usually not too much, came to mind when Tobias recalled his taking questions from the audience at the Thursday night launch of classical weekends that used to be a regular part of the ISO schedule.

I remember that once when an audience member introduced a question by identifying himself as "a casual listener," Leppard pointedly advised that he was against casual listening. The maestro did that in such an offhand way that I suspect the questioner was not offended. Leppard then answered the question, whatever it was.

The program opened with a speech by Dr. John Bloom, the man who anchored Leppard's personal life and helped make the health challenges of Leppard's later years endurable and presumably pleasant, since the maestro was someone accustomed to taking pleasure in life. As his husband, Bloom made that more achievable. Kind, funny, brilliant and generous were some of the words Bloom brought forward as among those frequently applied to Leppard. A statement sketching in her friendship with Leppard was read on behalf of businesswoman-philanthropist Christel DeHaan, who was unable to attend.

Musically, some of the late maestro's gifts were detailed by Christopher Slapak, a member of the ISO board of directors and intense Leppard fan from his English Chamber Orchestra heyday. Leppard's strengths as performer and interpreter, chiefly of 17th- and 18th-century music, were clarity, ensemble unity, and rhythmic liveliness, the speaker said.

Major soloists expressed joy in working with him; Slapak mentioned oboist Heinz Holliger, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and violinist Cho-Liang Lin. In a typical mood of gentle self-deprecation, Leppard once admitted to Tobias: "I never had any wish to be a conductor; I wanted to be with people, and I'm very bossy."

Music was kept near the forefront of the program in performances of a Schubert piano-trio movement by musicians from the University of Indianapolis, where Leppard was artist-in-residence for many years; the movement "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations, with the ISO conducted by current music director Krzysztof Urbanski, and Mozart's "Ave verum corpus," with pops maestro Jack Everly conducting the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and the ISO.

Leppard, who titled his memoir "Music Made Me," seems to have exemplified a quotation I've always enjoyed from somewhere in the works of the 18th-century poet-lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who had no use for music. Despite their positions as Englishmen on opposite sides of that particular spectrum, Johnson once  identified the key to happiness as "the disposition to be pleased." I've always admired that reminder that happiness is not a solid achievable goal in life, but more like an attitude that dependably allows room for it to prevail. That may be enough of a definition to be certain that, over the course of his 92 years, Raymond Leppard was a happy man.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Indy Jazz Foundation ramps up impresario role with recording project, 'The Naptown Sound'

For two nights running this weekend, the Jazz Kitchen played host to a gathering of many of the top musicians in Central Indiana to showcase "The Naptown Sound."

The umbrella term may suffice to build interest in a recording that's set to emerge from four sets Friday and Saturday, with sponsorship from Indianapolis Jazz Foundation and Yats, the local Creole restaurant chain whose mother ship has long docked just south of the jazz club on College Avenue. Certainly the live performances themselves must have advanced the cause.

Attending the first set Saturday, I found there was just enough design to the program, but not too much to seem to inhibit spontaneity of either performance or response. The Indy Jazz Collective got things going, with its flexible size pretty much at a comfortable maximum. The front line of leader Rob Dixon and Sophie Faught, tenor saxes, trombonist Freddie Mendoza and trumpeter/flugelhornists Marlin McKay and Mark Buselli, made sturdy work of "Millions," composer Dixon's wry, hard-grooving tribute to casinos and the millions of dollars that vanish there.

With a rhythm section of Steve Allee, Nick Tucker, and Carrington Clinton, the ensemble shored up the end of each solo with a repeated tag, propelling the next individual statement. The tune has had widespread exposure  thanks to "Coast to Crossroads," Dixon's 2018 trio recording with Charlie Hunter and Mike Clark.

Pianist Allee brought to the stage a tasty blend of adventurous harmonies and funky feeling. The veteran bandleader-pianist later headed a group in a romp through his original, "Yummy," a tune with lots of space in it. The performance featured a typically appealing Dixon solo. The backing for McKay's ruminative flugelhorn solo was smoothly understated, yet insistent, from Jon Wood's bass guitar and Kenny Phelps' drums. Adjustment that showcased soloists well seemed to come naturally to this band.

Wood's sound and well-articulated lines enhanced the guitar triumvirate paying tribute to Wes Montgomery with the demigod guitarist's "Road Song."  The guitarists — Ryan Taylor, Joel Tucker, and Charlie Ballantine — showed both their distinctiveness and respect for the sainted master. Also making the memorial connection come alive was the elaborate  zest of Kevin Anker's organ-playing.

The Tucker Brothers' quartet: Nick (from left), Joel, Sean Imboden, and (hidden behind Imboden) Brian Yarde.
A pickup band of distinction proved to be the Ball State Connection, which in jazz studies director Buselli's "The Trouble With Triplets," evoked the relaxed swing of classic hard bop. The composer's plunger-muted solo was a highlight of the performance.

Some grounding in bop was evident in the Tucker Brothers' appearance. The quartet has been remarkably cohesive in a series of recordings and frequent concert dates over the past several years. They proved their mettle in the tricky "Rhythm Change," notable for a fleet, well-integrated guitar solo by Joel Tucker.

Another highlight on the occasional reflective side of the set was Sophie Faught's duo with Allee in her shapely ballad "Song of the Snow Belt." That was immediately preceded by Jared Thompson leading his own sax charge at the head of his quartet, Premium Blend. The band opened space near the end for an exuberant accompanied solo from drummer Yarde. The other vitality-infusing members are keyboardist Steven Jones and guitarist Taylor. The set closed with one of the Naptown Sound program's successful blends (also premium, you might say), a blues also bringing Taylor, Wood, Clinton, and Anker to bear on the mood of celebration.

[Photo by Rob Ambrose]

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Putting on their anniversary best: ISO opens a long-running celebration of Beethoven

In the lobby, his name in all caps hangs above a white-cloud sculpture seemingly inspired by Alexander Calder's mobiles, the work of a University of Indianapolis art-department team. The pre-concert crowd milled expectantly around, swelled by infrequent symphony attenders drawn by the name and music of the honoree.
Beethoven aloft: The Hilbert Circle Theatre lobby

The occasion was Friday's launch at Hilbert Circle Theatre of BTHVN2020, the vowel-less, freeze-dried signal for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's celebration of Ludwig van Beethoven's 250th birth year. Just add passion and preparation and stir.

But how should an observer proceed? How to welcome the inevitable celebration in a focused manner as BTHVN2020 gets under way? I feel somewhat akin to Stephen Leacock's Lord Ronald, who after a quarrel with his father "flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions."

Here's part of the problem: It has been brought up on previous Beethoven anniversaries (significant round numbers commemorating birth and death [1827]) that the world's orchestras in effect offer a perpetual Beethoven festival in their regular programming.

The best honor, the estimable critic Michael Steinberg decreed half-seriously in the Boston Globe at the 1970 bicentennial, might be not to play Beethoven for a year. Recently the Chicago Tribune published an essay by a feminist musicologist on the same theme, with no tongue-in-cheekiness about it: Replace Beethoven with new music for a year, she urged. And Norman Lebrecht, international star music blogger, viewed the possibility with a predictably jaundiced eye.

A moratorium is beyond the pale when so much of symphony-orchestra health nowadays is tied to marketing: Beethoven sells. And musicians are careful to avoid trumpeting any suggestion they are tired of him. The late Raymond Leppard (who will be given an ISO memorial tribute at 5 p.m. Jan. 13 at its home) was being characteristically frank when he admitted to me long ago: "I thought of him as here's this German always coming at you."

Yet Leppard, surely not driven by marketing but by artistic vision, offered ISO patrons a well-conceived "Young Beethoven" festival thirty years ago. And the composer's Symphony No. 2 in D major was the vehicle in that festival by which Leppard drove home to me what he had accomplished since assuming the music directorship in 1987. This is, in part, what I wrote in my Indianapolis Star review: "Emotionally, the performance maintained almost flawlessly a balance between intensity and charm. The cohesiveness Leppard has imparted to the ensemble can now serve larger expressive natural as to sound spontaneous."

The ISO has built upon those strengths with Leppard's successors. On Friday night, Krzysztof Urbanski drew from the orchestra a full-fledged celebration of the composer's path to revolutionary status. It brought forward Urbanski's strengths as an interpreter, particularly with respect to balance and momentum. Like Arturo Toscanini, whose recorded set of Beethoven symphonies still stands as a milestone, Urbanski thinks of lines running parallel in Beethoven. The hints of the romanticism that was to be in full flower by mid-century mustn't be forced to bloom in performances weighed down with glutinous profundity: Beethoven is not Schumann.

I thought particularly in the second movement that the young German, who had studied counterpoint with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger at the recommendation of Joseph Haydn during Beethoven's early Viennese period, displays how he'd internalized his lessons with personal mastery. The prolific composer Albrechtsberger is known today only as one of Beethoven's teachers, a small collection of masters who, unsurprisingly, found him hard to instruct. (The first time I'd encountered the name was in a "Peanuts" cartoon, thanks to Schroeder.)

Beethoven's willfulness and iconoclasm can be discerned in several places in this weekend's program, which besides the Second Symphony comprises Symphony No. 1 in C major and two new works commissioned for the occasion:  Nathaniel Stookey's "Spire" and Hannah Lash's "Forestallings." The First Symphony has some famous novelties, notably the teasing start of the finale (alertly rendered on Friday). I sensed that Urbanski finds the music preparatory to more characteristic Beethoven. The performance was nimble, if a little too weighty in some full-ensemble passages. The interplay of winds and strings, especially in a slower-than-usual "Menuetto" third movement, was delightful.

Still, I think both the wit and the unleashing of orchestral might were especially scintillating in the D-major Symphony. The admirable Hoosier-trained maestro Kenneth Woods, in his blog ranking of Beethoven symphony finales, puts its "Allegro molto" movement near the top, next to the august No. 9.  He finds No. 2's conclusion both funny and "rude": "the main theme is a sort of deranged musical fart joke," runs Woods' memorable assessment.

Urbanski may not have been aiming at that effect, but it certainly could be applied to how Friday's performance proceeded, right through the Bronx-cheer-like buzzing in the coda, which the conductor summoned up with wildly waggling fingers. Here was music that almost matched Urbanski's hyperbolic image, delivered in an oral program note from the podium, of Beethoven trashing the mansion of Western music, presumably like certain rock bands once vandalized hotel rooms.

In the two new works, there was more a feeling that musical tradition, altered but not ruined by Beethoven, was worth a centered approach. "Spire" opens with a low-register murmur that  brought to mind the episode in Elgar's "Enigma" Variations in which a steamship's whir is evoked. The impression is dispelled as the texture gradually becomes thinner and the tessitura shifts upward. It amounts to a meditation on that teasing scalar passage in the First Symphony's finale. "Forestallings," whose title suggests the push-pull between Beethoven's impulsive gestures and checks he often put on the music's forward thrust, was also attractive, if rather more laconic. There was an impression I can't quite shake (drawn mainly from her video statement) that the composer felt constrained by the five-minute limit in the commission.

Clearly I have not felt such constraints here, and there is more I could go on about: the gleaming contribution of the horns and trumpets, heard in their valveless predecessors in this series of concerts, and my favorable first impression of the ISO's just-announced new concertmaster, Kevin Lin, who's in place this weekend as one of a long series of guest concertmasters.

However, though by no means out of a Ronaldian fit of rage, it seems I've already ridden madly off in all directions. Beethoven will do that to you.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Dance Kaleidoscope displays perfect 2020 vision as it opens New Year with 'La Vie on Broadway'

It was fun to revisit the mixed messages about love and related struggles in "Piaf: A Celebration" as Dance Kaleidoscope put a jaunty cap on "La Vie on Broadway" Thursday night on Indiana Repertory Theatre's Upperstage.

"Piaf: A Celebration" was introduced by David Hochoy and DK at the 2011 Indy Fringe Festival, and was notably revamped for a much different stage and milieu in 2017, as it was zestfully repeated in Carmel at the Tarkington (Center for the Performing Arts).
Street scene: The troupe opens David Hochoy's  "Piaf: A Celebration."

A wry observer of her beloved Paris as well as a commentator on personal vicissitudes, Piaf sang her songs in a distinctive throaty voice, which often managed to sound both strained and nonchalant. This odd blend of qualities comes through in Hochoy's choreography, which draws upon Piaf's distinctive style wittily and insightfully.

The raucous comedy of "Bravo Pour le Clown," with the tossing about of large rag dolls and Jillian Godwin impersonating a central one of them, was delightful. Godwin, a past master of sharply defined rhythms and striking angularity, gets to dance as if she didn't have a bone in her body. The effect is drolly magical.

The company's stamp is evident from the start as Parisian mores are displayed in "La Goualante du Pauvre Jean." There's plenty of respect for the demotic origins of Piaf's art as the suite salutes the City of Light's sometimes seedy night life, full of half-hidden private soap operas and the haze of Gauloise cigarettes. Hochoy's way of honoring his musical sources while presenting a fresh vision of them is in full force here. Formality is mocked and celebrated in ballroom-dance parody before the set concludes with a return to the initial ensemble look for a brace of Piaf classics, "La Vie en Rose" and the triumphant defiance of "Non, Je Ne Regrette Pas."

Before intermission came the new work, with choreography divided between artistic director Hochoy and company member Stuart Coleman. The program book has wisely devoted a page to an interview with Coleman, who  explains his contributions to "Give My Regards To..." (The ellipsis, of course, stands for Broadway in the famous song by George M. Cohan). The interview also reflects Coleman's modesty, charm and esteem for both his material and his colleagues. Thursday night's intermission Q&A feature with Hochoy and Coleman also brought these qualities to the fore.

Marie Kuhns in "Burn" threatens to become a permanent memory.
Everything of Coleman's in "Give My Regards To..." was stunningly effective, embodying his ideas about the music and the drama behind it. The range was immense, from solo to ensemble, with a blend of small ensemble and serial solos in the rocking "Goodbye Until Tomorrow" (from "The Last Five Years"). Two pieces from "Hamilton" exemplify the spectrum within which Coleman seems to work comfortably. "The Room Where It Happens" is a dizzying exhibition of the company's strengths in mastering complex assignments, from revelatory mime to flashy technique.

Also from the Lin-Manuel Miranda hit musical is the bitter lament "Burn," set as a perfectly balanced solo for Marie Kuhns and danced with consummate skill.  She carried out Coleman's plan with the kind of controlled dramatic lay-it-all-on-the-line vividness for which the recently retired Mariel Greenlee was well-known. Signs that DK's legacy is robust despite the departure of highly regarded dancers are among the rare wide-world causes for encouragement as the 2020s begin.

"Give My Regards To..." concludes with Coleman's daring choreographic endorsement of the life-affirming "You Will Be Found." I say "daring" because Coleman risks an appearance of sentimental posing in the recurrent embraces he assigns the dancers. On reflection, I think this serves to celebrate the "Dear Evan Hansen" song directly and not be satisfied with an oblique treatment of its openheartedness. This kind of anthemic piece is an old staple of the Broadway musical, the archetype being "You'll Never Walk Alone" from "Carousel."  (I can almost hear a mash-up in my head of the two songs, but lack the skill and motivation to attempt one for the Rodgers and Hammerstein show's 75th anniversary.)

Speaking of classics,  to open "Give My Regards To..." Hochoy set a modern arrangement  of "O What  a Beautiful Mornin'" from "Oklahoma!" for a substantial part of the company. Here he shows his usual knack for alluding to a musical style without being literal about it or a song's lyrics. He's not the type of choreographer who muses: "How specific do I want to be with the line 'The corn is as high as an elephant's eye'?"  There's no mickey-mousing about his work, but there's no coasting, either, waiting for the next good idea to emerge. Occasional nods to prairie barn dances or a mounted cowboy's brief salute from the brim of his ten-gallon hat do the trick. Also impressive is the idealism and fervor of the solo he has made for Kieran King, who danced "Bring Him Home" in a manner that frankly moved me more than the song ever does in its "Les Miserables" context.

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]