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]