Monday, May 25, 2020

Summertime Blues, a 2020 version

Memorial Day weekend is the traditional start of summer, but oh! what mixed messages this year as the USA approaches a...

Posted by Jay Harvey on Monday, May 25, 2020

Saturday, May 16, 2020

'Blended Lineage': David Bixler's mixed results in suite on theme of tribes

Current political and social commentary tends to tsk-tsk at "tribalism," suggesting a regression from civilized norms.  Pushing back against such connotations, alto saxophonist David Bixler leads a five-man group he calls the Bixtet, supplemented by a string quartet, in a commissioned work on the theme of tribes.

"Blended Lineage" (Red Piano Records) is a 34-minute suite in which the composer's forces are well-
Composer-saxophonist David Bixler
distributed, but sometimes seem to be searching for musical substance. Bixler has said he deliberately accentuated the positive (to use Johnny Mercer's phrase) in writing the work. The ferocity and insularity of tribal identity clearly held little appeal to him.

Ensemble virtues fade a bit into the background in the finale,"My Soul Swoons Softly," a phrase borrowed somewhat disconcertingly from James Joyce's eulogistic short story "The Dead." Bixler makes this summing-up an alto-sax showcase. That cuts against the ensemble focus of the rest of "Blended Lineage," but it's meant to emphasize the personal import of the theme.

Even when the string quartet sits out, in "Motherland," the suite usually maintains a nifty balance of instruments. Thus, in "My Soul Swoons Softly," the way the strings seem to be coming in from a distance may well be an artistic decision rather than an engineering flaw. I guess it's designed to represent the soul's soft swooning, a risky area for music to settle into, but a plausible foray here.

Here's a contrast: In the suite's opening section, "Origins," the string quartet partners steadily with Jon Cowherd's piano after the deliberately careful jelling of the material. Bixler's tone is reflective, soft-edged, and verges on the lugubrious.

The positive message becomes more explicit in "Motherland," a tribute to Bixler's Wisconsin heritage. There's energy in the theme that the alto sax shares with trumpeter Mike Rodriguez. The open-road feeling evokes for me memories of motoring along the rolling farm country of the state with my wife and her mother (both native Badgers). The tune's ending kicks up agreeably.

My favorite track is "Trenches," where both the theme and its treatment are edgy. The trenches of the  title allude to the life of musicians, often struggling to maintain a foothold, especially since mid-March. I like the way the anxiety of that lifestyle is both tamed and projected through the music. The Rodriguez solo in particular displays the mood. The strings seem more than window dressing, and there's some fine interplay near the end in patterns placed on top of Fabio Rojas' drums.

Luke Sellick completes the Bixtet personnel on bass. The string quartet comprises Judith Ingolfsson, gold medalist in the 1998 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, violinist Heather Martin Bixler, violist Josh Kail, and cellist Rubin Kodheli.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Putting a long-form feeling into compact new works: Sebastien Ammann's 'Resilience'

Sebastien Ammann shows off his keyboard chops chiefly in the title tune of his new CD. But
it's his composer-bandleader acuity that moves his band, Color Wheel, into applying its own signature to "Resilience"  (Skirl Records) and making the band memorable.

Sebastien Ammann contemplates form and space.
The Swiss keyboardist wrote seven of the nine pieces on the recording. Each piece establishes itself; it sets down on a firm footing right away. No wonder he's attracted to the direct quirkiness of Carla Bley's "King Korn Revisited,"  the more notable of the two borrowings.

I found the pensive, diffuse work called "The Traveller" a bit inclined to woolgathering, but the personality behind it was clear. This band, often making a point of individualism, still seems well matched internally. Besides Ammann, they are Michael Attias, alto saxophone; Samuel Blaser, trombone; Noah Garabedian, bass, and Nathan Ellman-Bell drums.

Blaser has a liquescent tone and an immense reach of range and expression. His solo on "Untangled" is masterly, especially in the way it leads into the ensemble's re-entry. I like the way he seems to sum up everything about "The Traveller," too, giving coherence to the piece's peregrinations.

"Afterthought" allows lots of room for Attias' sometimes assertive, sometimes inquisitive alto sax, and Ammann's eccentric but generally apt accompaniment patterning comes off very well here.

"Pedestrian Space" is something we all need in these social-distancing times. The nervous energy of the percussion figures finds Attias and Blaser's adroitness giving an amusing urban profile to what comes close to barnyard noises we haven't heard since the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. This is whimsy taken to an offhand application of virtuosity. The whole CD manages to present an appealing blend of sophistication and naivete.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Bob Dylan said a mouthful in 'Subterraean Homesick Blues"; here's a mouthful of Covid-19 stuff: 'Subterranean Homeland Blues'

Surterranean Homeland Blues

Tony’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
Donald’s tweets won’t relent
Bragging about the government
Doctor in a white coat
License out, laid off
Said he’s got a bad cough
All his chips are played off

Look out for Covid
You gotta stay hid
No one knows when
You can come out again
Keep at least six feet away
Don’t look for a new friend
Reopen protester among armed men
Wants 11 explanations, you only got ten.

Pence comes blank-faced
Always close to Trump placed
Giving the boss praise
Presidential hopes raised
Trump says that many say
Must resume by end of May
Keep America great, hey!

But look out, kid
Don’t matter what you did
Try to blame the Fake News
Why lead? Just refuse
Can’t be a shipping clerk
Got duties?  Try to shirk
Stand still, don’t twerk
Stay aloof, that’ll work.
You don’t need the media
To know which way the wind blows.

Ah, get sick, get well
Little tracing, hard to tell
What policy will sell.
Lie hard, truth barred
Many ventilators fail
Governors turn pale
Time to bail, let ‘em wail
Look out for Covid, it wants to get rid
Of insiders, outsiders, health-care providers
Don’t worry ‘bout the gene pool
Many more folks to fool
Keep the same leaders
In virtual theaters.

Ah, get born, keep warm
Is that a fever or romance
Learn to dance, get fixed in politics
All the messages are mixed
Please Trump, please Pence, they’re adrift
Can’t heal, try to shift
Three years in the White House
Feeling slighted, he’s miffed
Look out till we’re rid of the evil Covid
Better jump down a manhole
Of isolation lighting candles
Chill in pajamas, wear old sandals
Can’t keep up with all the scandals
Public health don’t work
Cause the vandals took the handles

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Making a political point through abstract music: What to make of 'Hypocrisy Democracy'?

Dave Glasser's privileging of political unease, a feeling shared by many nowadays, struggles for musical expression in "Hypocrisy Democracy" (Here Tiz Music).

The alto saxophonist builds on the jingle-jangle of his unusual title to set down a critique of the system that both sustains and undermines us. It's not irrelevant that he's the son of Ira Glasser, former  executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. That connection also boosted his musical interests insofar as, through the jazz commentator and Bill of Rights defender Nat Hentoff,  he met and studied with the late Lee Konitz, a key figure in jazz alto sax independent of the pervasive Charlie Parker influence.

The music carries no text, so associations with the bandleader's political perspective must be gleaned from the composition titles, where those apply. When I hear "Justice," for example, I'm not sure how justice applies to the music. My main complaint on musical grounds is that many of the tracks seem evasive, despite the evident rapport of Glasser with pianist Andy Milne,  bassist Ben Allison and drummer Matt Wilson. I often get the feeling that there's a drive to resist whatever implications a given tune sets up.

This persists despite Glasser's declared interest in rooting his music in the jazz heritage. This is explicit in "Dilemonk," a slow bluesy piece including a definitive Allison solo. The Thelonious Monk misterioso vein is evoked, though I was puzzled by the news release description of the approach as "skulking."

Dave Glasser has an agenda.
Glasser's unforced lyricism and abstract inventiveness clearly draw upon the Konitz influence with his solo in "Coffee, Dogs, and Telelogs." There's a rare use of paraphrase ("Fascinating Rhythm") in, unfortunately, yet another example of a piece seemingly trying to escape itself. Another nod to tradition is "Revolver," whose form derives from the Great American Songbook and whose essence seems to be Rodgers and Hart's "Lover."

A pleasant surprise is the inclusion of the Disney favorite "It's a Small World," for which Glasser turns to flute. The interpretation is rooted in Glasser's memory of struggle to be musical as a little boy (the program note in this case is illuminating) and coming out on top. The performance is gratifyingly centered, and not just because it's based on a quite familiar tune. I also liked the direct tribute to his mentor, "Glee for Lee," harmonically untethered but not irresolute,  in the best Konitz tradition.

A prominent statement from Glasser on the jacket is worth an eye-roll: "My hope is this recording will stimulate thought and converse towards a more peaceful, sustainable existence." Make of that what you will, but Glasser's music, though conflicted, is not without charm, with a lot of credit going to his capable bandmates.

I was even delighted by Glasser's company name (Here Tiz), reminding me of a less complicated jazzman of long ago, Fats Waller. Introducing "Moppin' and Boppin'," the inimitable singer-pianist says: "Want some more of that mess? Well, here 'tis. Zutty [Singleton], take over. Pour it on!" That's the kind of spirit I think most fans want more of from jazz, and less musicianly ax-grinding.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Alto saxophonist Michael Thomas explores the 'Event Horizon'

An "event horizon" is the theoretical place beyond which matter in space vanishes into a black hole. It's a clever title for an expansive exercise in small-group acoustic jazz: Stay just this side of the devouring nothingness and you have exciting matter to deal with, intelligible but on the edge.

Musings on the edge: saxophonist Michael Thomas
In the case of Michael Thomas' "Event Horizon," that edge is the Jazz Gallery in New York City, where the two-disc set was recorded last August and produced by the bandleader and Jimmy Katz, the photographer and guiding light behind Giant Steps Arts.

Eight original compositions, three of them prefaced by solo-instrument introductions, make up the program. Thomas displays a light hand compositionally, putting just enough distinctiveness into the themes to allow improvisation to flow freely from there. He enjoys the services of Jason Palmer, a trumpeter who has just issued his own two-disc set on the label, to bolster the front line. Backing them up are the bassist Hans Glawischnig and the drummer Johnathan Blake. Blake's project for Giant Step Arts, titled "Trion," was my introduction to Katz's worthy venture last year.

Thomas' compositions are gentle hooks for extensive improvisations, principally from the bandleader and Palmer. Glawischnig provides a reliable harmonic foundation, animated by rhythmic verve; he duos fruitfully with the bandleader in "Drift," then takes a meditative solo that stays consistently within the pulse.

Especially vital is the remarkable percussion energy and wisdom of Blake. His partnership with Thomas in several places brings out the keenness of the saxophonist's imagination. Considered as a duo, they sometimes drive each other to swing like mad, starting with the program-opener, "Distance."

Of the entire program, I found only "Chant" somewhat tedious, though Thomas' nearly four-minute solo intro gave me fair warning. It struck me as very fluid practice material, glibly tossed off, and when "Chant" follows, the saxophonist maintains an etude-like focus. Despite the length that Thomas permits himself and Palmer, so that variety can emerge, this was the only track where I feared mere note-spinning was about to take over.

"Dr. Teeth," the closest the band gets to a down-home feeling, is a witty, oblique reference to the late Dr. John and the New Orleans "second-line" vibe. Everyone blazes away, yet the internal rapport of the group never falters. The Thomas-Palmer partnership is perhaps at its must lustrous here, but frankly there are very few lapses from the high level the band achieves throughout more than 90 minutes of music. There's a lot of poise to tingle the listener's nerves at this event horizon.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Happy 250th birthday, darn it all! Gilmore Festival presents Jonathan Biss livestreamed in three Beethoven sonatas

Among the cultural trashing that the current Covid-19 pandemic has added to its overall toll is the
scanting of celebrations of Beethoven's 250th birthday.

Jonathan Biss comes to Beethoven with a high degree of preparation and insight.
Just yesterday, we learned that the elimination of all Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra activities through September 17 meant that an appropriate observance to end its Classical Series — May and June weekends of the piano concertos and the "Missa Solemnis" -- had to be wiped from the boards. Some observers have said, at least since the 200th death anniversary in 1977, that concert life is already a perpetual Beethoven festival, but there's something poignant in the fact that, on a milestone anniversary,  the greatest example of a composer whose adult life was cast in the deepening shadow of deafness cannot be heard now in concert.

So the opportunity not to rely exclusively on recordings during the global health crisis depends on livestreaming such as what the Gilmore Festival offered Monday afternoon in a home recital of three Beethoven piano sonatas by Jonathan Biss. The eminent concert artist, born in 1980 and hailing from Bloomington, was honored by the Gilmore's Young Artist Award in 2002 and has gone on to  a career marked recently by his recording of all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, works represented as well on the international concert stage before the coronavirus shut everything down.

The May 4 recital comprised three challenging works by Beethoven: Op. 7 in E-flat, by reputation the knottiest of the composer's early sonatas; the great cresting of his middle period in op. 90 in E minor, and the first of the troika at the summit of Beethoven piano sonatas, op. 109 in E. In his spoken introduction to the program, the recitalist declared from the piano bench that the final piece almost defeats any attempt to embody its sublimity in words. And Biss is no slouch when it comes to verbal eloquence about music and the life of a musician. (The biography on his web site is a sufficient example, with an opening paragraph I can confidently describe as unique in its genre.)

I will take a cue from the pianist and not offer a full-throated critique of Monday's performance. I could tell a lot about both the instrument and how much at home Biss felt performing on it, but I'm not too confident that my tiny iPhone speaker conveyed a more than adequate impression to me. It was evident that aspects of Biss' artistry were fully intact: the apt weighting of phrases, the rhythmic acuity, the technical panache, and an overall interpretive elan that seems naturally to tap into the music's significance. Biss perhaps would echo a predecessor's championship of the core repertoire, with Beethoven at the center: Artur Schnabel said that he wanted to devote himself to "music better than it can be played."

The second-movement climax of op. 109 was overwhelming, and I'm not referring to how it nearly overwhelmed my iPhone. But before those memorable final moments made their impact, I also enjoyed subtler excellences. To go back to the beginning, there was an eloquence to the rests that separate the recurring phrases in the theme of op. 7's slow movement. The weight and timing Biss lent to them  made the accents in the subsequent dotted figures all the more impressive, creating a unified effect this pianist seems to have no trouble producing.

I want to end by citing the start of the op. 90 finale, which at first disturbed me. The composer specifies "not too fast, with a very vocal style of playing" and the opening is marked "dolce" (sweetly). At first, Biss' presentation seemed too assertive — where is the singing quality, I wondered, where is the sweetness?  As the movement progressed, I felt Biss's performance grew into meeting that requirement, and there was no dearth of vocal style.

The change turned out to be more apparent than real. In retrospect, I happened to think that Beethoven's lyricism is always highly wrought, and a performer's being forthright in stating it doesn't violate what the composer seems to demand when he's in a tender mood. His sketchbooks indicate how hard satisfactory melodies came to him, and his final thoughts about a melody always seem unveiled and a bit bold, even if "dolce" may have been running through his mind.

I thought of a minor but telling example: the way an aria briefly emerges, something that could almost be sung by Florestan, as a secondary theme is briefly elaborated in the "Waldstein" sonata, just before the sunny Rondo finale begins. So, in op. 90,  everything Biss does in bringing out the melodic line in its first appearance seems consistent with his overall interpretation. Beethoven was thus properly saluted here as he was in the whole recital. And as a listener, among a presumably worldwide audience, I came away feeling a guest at this year's unusual Beethoven birthday party, thanks to Jonathan Biss's authentic invitation.

Monday, May 4, 2020

"Goldberg Variations / Variations": Revisiting Dan Tepfer revisiting J.S. Bach

Nine years ago, I reviewed for the Indianapolis Star a recording by the 2007 American Pianists
Dan Tepfer sits atop his study of "Goldberg Variations" and variations of his own,
Cole Porter Fellow Dan Tepfer titled "Goldberg Variations / Variations." The title's  forward slash and  repetition of "Variations" said succinctly what this recording was all about: The original Aria and 30 variations on it that came to be known by a student's name had each of those variations followed by Tepfer's improvised variation on what Bach wrote.

I very much disliked the idea and its execution, though I found a saving grace to the extent that Tepfer's idea (and maybe this actual recording) might be useful as a teaching tool. I wish I could find that 2011 review so I could learn just how wrong I was about the work's public viability. I must have been wrong, because "Goldberg Variations / Variations" was greeted with a chorus of praise. And it took a favored place in Tepfer's repertoire — a 2013 performance of it at the genre-busting showplace Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan brought kudos from Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic of the New York Times.

He called Tepfer's performance "riveting and inspired." I can sort of agree with that after listening to Sunday's account by Tepfer of his bold idea, livestreamed from his Brooklyn apartment. The pianist was to have been in Indianapolis yesterday afternoon under APA auspices to play "Goldberg Variations / Variations" at Trinity Episcopal Church, and I would have been there.

Why? Because the set is undeniably riveting. If you love Bach's masterwork, you will be on the edge of your seat waiting to learn, after each variation, just what Tepfer will make of it. That was true today, and so it was when I reacquainted myself with the CD last week after not having slipped it into the player since 2011. As for "inspired," well, sure it is: I can't imagine someone undertaking such a project and carrying it out time and again in a phlegmatic frame of mind.

Another irritation I can't get rid of: LP of "Four Organs"
Finally, for the listener, Tepfer's "Goldberg Variations /Variations" is at least a memorable experience. It's not one of those "meh" records you lightly discard when you're trying to downsize. At the same time, unfortunately, it is one of the most irritating recordings I own, right up there with Steve Reich's "Four Organs" and Kenneth Gaburo's "Lingua II: Maledetto." After today, I'll admit, the irritation receded somewhat. I'll keep all three recordings until they cart me out of here — they're just memorable, and that is a quality that sticks.

In the current case, I was listening Sunday for signs that Tepfer's background as a jazz pianist would bring fresh insights to J.S. Bach. They could be expected to show up in the pianist's improvisations as well as in his traversal of the original, I figured. I have often been struck by the wide gulf between the jazz and classical aesthetics, and the piano is the ideal instrument on which to observe it. I have known too few people who find both genres congenial. Tepfer clearly does, and the way he plays the Goldberg Variations displayed his classical chops and interpretive affinity well.

Once long ago, when using the men's restroom at a break from a Leon Fleisher masterclass at the University of Michigan, I was disheartened to read an anti-jazz scrawl on the wall, scorning the very presence of jazz instruction at a university. OK, so what? Restroom walls are the precursor of social-media trolling. But I suspect one side looking askance at the other may remain a general phenomenon in the public square.

Among music critics, the divide is certainly notable, with a few exceptions such as Mark Stryker,
Harold C. Schonberg, a formidable critic and piano expert, had no use for jazz.
formerly of the Detroit Free Press, and Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune. Harold C. Schonberg, Tommasini's predecessor by a few critical generations at the Times, once told me and other young critics how an editor had assigned him to go to the Newport Jazz Festival, back when the Times lacked a jazz specialist. "I remember listening to a pianist named Erroll Garner; he was trying to play octaves," Schonberg said disdainfully. "Later I learned he was supposed to be a big deal. The next day the Times hired John Wilson ."

Schonberg just didn't like jazz, he said in informal conversation later. Knowing he had special knowledge of the piano, I asked if he was familiar with Art Tatum, thinking of the uncanny evenness of Tatum's runs and their precise insertion into the melodic line. Schonberg shrugged; he hadn't heard of Tatum. Later, in his admiring biography of Vladimir Horowitz, the esteemed critic mentioned the reclusive Russian going to a jazz club occasionally to admire Tatum's art.

Murray Perahia saluted jazz pianists' harmonic sense.
And the eminent master pianist Murray Perahia once gave an interview to an English journalist frankly admitting that jazz pianists are steeped in harmony to a degree many classical musicians are not. Perahia mentioned working with a violinist he chose not to name who wasn't aware what key the music was in during a passage it would have been useful to the partnership for the fiddler to know. A jazzman would have known, Perahia suggested pointedly.

So there is plenty respect to take into account. The Tepfer project has earned it from both sides. Furthermore, APA's  enduring advocacy of both jazz and classical piano is essential to its distinguished brand. Even with his habit of vocalizing, especially in his improvisations, Tepfer seems to salute both branches of his art, represented at their most extreme in vocal self-accompaniment by Keith Jarrett and Glenn Gould.

"I came at that music so tangentially," Tepfer admitted in last Sunday''s livestream chat with 2020 APA competition finalist Dominic Cheli. But, thanks to Tepfer's skill and study ("a project that took me over," he said), the tangent has made a mostly unerring line to the sacred circle of J.S. Bach. That's evident in how well Tepfer handles what Bach wrote. His tempos are varied and well-judged, he has a sure sense of how to apply color, the ornaments and rhythms are crisp, and the interpretations are as spirited as the improvisations that follow. He clearly wants to get pure Bach across, not just use it as a launching pad for Tepfer skyrockets.

Nonetheless, it is hard to sustain admiration for Bach's "argument" — the manner in which he orders his variations and the way they speak to one another — when it is regularly interrupted by spates of Tepfer. And I missed the repeats, though that would have made the recording (and any concert version) twice as long. Not marketable, not even artistically advisable — but still....

There is inevitably some unevenness in the quality of improvisation: What seemed yesterday like an adroitly used "walking bass" in the left hand of the second variation / variation sounds lead-footed and plodding on the recording.

But there are differences, too, that speak favorably to some of the excitement of jazz — "the sound of surprise," in Whitney Balliett's immortal phrase. Tepfer's take on the sixth variation in the recording has a sotto voce intimacy; on Sunday — wow!— his improvisation on the same variation featured tone clusters and more pedal than Tepfer's norm. The color contrast was exciting. I would judge either approach a success in context.

Here's a long coda of Beethovenesque proportions. I want to close by mentioning a few other ways this seasoned jazz pianist makes good use of his background. He catches the martial nature of Variation 9 by becoming more explicitly militaristic in his personal treatment, complete with suggestions of drum rolls. One hears the kind of "spread rhythm" in which pulse expands into  texture, the legacy of Elvin Jones that any number of today's "sons of Elvin" have mastered.

Variation 13  is modified in a manner hinted at propheticlly by Bach to approximate how a jazz pianist approaches ballads from the Great American Songbook. There's some significant foreshadowing of "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," which Tepfer explicitly references in the final improvisation, following Bach's quodlibet model of restricting to one main focus the practice of assembling snippets of well-known tunes, here a folk song titled "Kraut und Ruben" (cabbage and turnips). A modern use of this kind of medley enjoys restoration of its lighthearted spirit in P.D.Q. Bach's "Quodlibet for Small Orchestra."

But Tepfer's entire manner as he spins out his take on Variation 13 enters the reflective atmosphere jazz pianists create when they deal with such songs as "I Thought About You" or "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." I enjoyed also Tepfer's suggestion of bop phrasing here and there, an occasional use of "space" a la Miles Davis, and, in addressing the formidable challenge of Bach at his most astonishingly chromatic (Variation 25) a surefootedness about passing through key centers that seems to honor John Coltrane.

On the other hand, there were several improvisations in Sunday's performance where Tepfer seemed to be searching for direction, never quite wresting meaning out of the materials. One of those came near the end, in the Variation 27 Tepferization. But it was succeeded by a strong finish: Clanging bells being evoked in the Variation 28 improvisation, picking up on Bach's 32nd-note figures, and a deft, sprightly turn at boogie-woogie piano in the next improvisation, with Bach's Variation 29 coming in between and seeming a credible shoulder-to-shoulder partner. Finally there was in the Variation 30 improvisation a fitting prelude to the concluding reprise of the Aria. The pianist crafted a poignant, sidelong tribute to the Cole Porter of "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," with the first part of the title phrase repeated lingeringly and some inside-the-piano plucks decorating a high-register Tepfer farewell to his improvisations.

So, on balance, I got more out of my return visit to this project. It's still a somewhat irritating listening experience. The whole kit and caboodle may be worth more study by jazz and classical pianists than it can ever be recommended for listeners. The art is there, but the instructional heft of the project seems dominant in promising any longevity for it.

And it's likely I may play my "Goldberg Variations / Variations" CD a time or two more than I will ever put my LPs of "Four Organs" or "Maledetto" on the turntable. Some kinds of irritation are oddly more rewarding than others.

Friday, May 1, 2020

The Berlin Philharmonic's 2020 European Concert was one for the memory books

Up betimes, as Samuel Pepys used to say, to catch the European Concert of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Kirill Petrenko is the music director of the Berlin Philharmonic.

This annual event, celebrating 30 years and normally traveling to distinctive European cities for the orchestra to perform, this time had to stay at home, the Philharmonie in Berlin, and make other adjustments under the unique mandates of the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic. The 2020 concert was scheduled to have taken place in Tel Aviv, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the collapse of another horror.

This was the first live concert I've "attended" in months, shared with many around the world through technological miracles that are helping us stay in touch in this severely isolating era. It was worth being up at 5 to see and hear small contingents of the BPO play to an empty hall under the direction of Kirill Petrenko.

Pepys, the diarist of Restoration England whose intimate chronicles  of the 1660s include details of the plague in London,  provides premonitions of life under Covid-19. The 2020 European Concert was thoroughly under the spell of the pandemic, yet somehow transcended it. Petrenko nodded to the concertmaster instead of shaking hands. The musicians maintained social distance, placed judiciously along three stage tiers. They had been tested for the virus beforehand, the broadcast host informed us.

The concert's first half didn't require changes beyond spacing. It was a triptych of pieces for strings (plus claves as sole percussion in "Fratres" by Arvo Pärt).  "Fratres," a contemporary hit in several versions, has never sounded so moving as it did here. The deceptively simple representation of a procession of monks gained something uncanny in this set-up.

The program benefited from a bracing piece between "Fratres" and the equally solemn, tunefully restrained "Adagio for Strings" by Samuel Barber. It was Gyorgy Ligeti's "Ramifications," a tightly shifting soundscape in which thematic clarity is jettisoned in favor of textural intensity. It was amazing to hear the effect of such a performance hanging together as it must in spite of a seating arrangement that threatened to overemphasize individual voices.

The familiar Barber was given an admirable interpretation. The great high-register climax was not overstressed, as it is in some performances that flip the piece's memorial import, suggesting the wrong kind of climax. I also liked the prominence of the viola countermelody early in the performance, which reminded me of how well Krzysztof Urbanski brought out that passage with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra several years ago.

A brief intermission offered viewers a well-done film documentary of the European Concert's three-decade history, following which was a greater challenge for the musicians: a chamber-orchestra version of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4. Erwin Stein's arrangement was insightful and true to Mahler's idiom in a modestly scaled work that had to be even more modestly scaled here.

Especially effective was the reading the chamber orchestra gave of the Adagio, said to be Mahler's favorite of all his slow movements. The two keyboard instruments used, piano and small organ, helped flesh out the harmonies, with the organ especially useful in enveloping the solo winds in a sostenuto atmosphere. Episodes in the minor mode were particularly trenchant with these reduced forces.

The finale, a setting of a blissful vision of heavenly feasting, capped the performance in a manner that makes this symphony a favorite of many who normally despise Mahler for lack of restraint and emotional elephantiasis; it was the only Mahler symphony the late Raymond Leppard ever programmed in his long tenure as the ISO's music director.

The solo soprano, Christiane Karg, put across the song that dominates the movement as if well aware of her worldwide audience; the empty hall did not tempt her to mute her expressiveness. I loved the reverent hush with which she sang, and Petrenko lingered on, the line "Saint Martha shall be the cook." Saint Martha, Michael Steinberg explains in his masterly essay on this symphony, "is the patron saint of those engaged in service of the needy."

So the reference to her in Mahler's Fourth took on special meaning, since the concert was dedicated to refugee children suffering particularly from the extra burden of the pandemic as they shelter indefinitely on a Greek island. The musicians had waived their usual compensation to contribute to UNESCO aid for these victims, and the audience was invited to consider similar donations.

The promise in the work's final lines is well-suited to the world's need to sustain hope, both for the resumption of public artistic events and for true solutions to the current plague: "Die englischen Stimmen / Ermuntern die Sinnen! / Dass Alles für Freuden erwacht."  (The angelic voices gladden our senses, so that all awake for joy). May it be so.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

An amazing Chicago chamber-music group, Civitas Ensemble, sheds light on contemporary Chinese composers

With direct heritage embedded within it, the Civitas Ensemble devotes itself to a fascinating program
The Civitas Ensemble comprises three Chicago Symphony members and a Chicago pianist.
of music by living Chinese composers in "Jin Yin," which embraces all the selections in that choice of title, which means "golden tone."

A Cedille Records issue, the project was generated by Civitas founding member Yuan-Qing Yu, Shanghai native and assistant concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Her Civitas colleagues are cellist Kenneth Olsen and clarinetist Lawrie Bloom, also CSO members, and pianist Winston Choi.

Three guests join the band for the first composition, "Five Elements" by Zhou Long. The performance signals the flexibility of the group, as Yihan Chen (pipa), Cynthia Yeh (percussion) and Emma Gerstein (flute and piccolo) are indelibly integrated. The elements, each with its own  characteristic movement in this piece, are metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. The grouping, analogous to the four elements believed to have composed the universe in ancient Greek thinking, draws from Zhou Long music suggestive of its physical constituents without seeming to go off in five peculiar directions. The piece speaks with one voice, thus confirming the time-tested belief in a unitary creation.

"Metal," sharply percussive with well-designed clanginess, yields naturally to the next movement, where percussion is also prominent in "Wood" through the voices of xylophone and wood blocks. A focus on organic sounds is set in a perpetual-motion framework. "Water" seems to carry a French influence without leaning on Debussy and Ravel, who composed some of the most enduring water-based music. Crescendos and diminuendos mimic the element's flowing quality, and there's some lovely cantilena from cello and violin; the spirit of water nymphs inhabits the music. "Fire" shoots sparks and is restless rhythmically, blazing up from time to time. "Earth" seems to reflect places of both barrenness and growth. Without explicit tone-painting, "Five Elements' is freshly evocative.

Chen Yi's "Night Thoughts," whose title evokes Elliott Carter's monumental "Night Fantasies" for solo piano, is more simply laid out than the American composer's piece. Its randomness is a pleasant illusion, for the piece seems deftly organized. The new work is a 2019 adaptation for piano, violin, and cello. Its inspiration from a short atmospheric Tang Dynasty poem suggests free-floating mental activity. Calm prevails, as opposed to Carter's extremely knotty, often overwrought depiction of worry, ironic bypaths, and disturbing illusions. "Night Fantasies" suits the current time of Covid-19 nocturnal anxiety, but "Night Thoughts" is probably the piece we need more now.

Vivian Fung's "Bird Song" for violin and piano similarly doesn't piggyback on Western musical portraiture of our feathered friends. Its compact blend of the trilling charms of bird song and sudden fierce hubbub in the trees and bushes pulses with original life. As ornithologists remind us, the chirping and tweeting we often sentimentalize are actually declarations of avian territoriality, and there's a lot of that in Fung's music.

Lu Pei's "Scenes Through Window" encompasses an even wider range of experience, taking in highway travel while listening to rap with the unlikely addendum of looking out over a peaceful vista from an Indiana mountaintop. (It's thrilling to have Indiana mountaintops acknowledged in this fetching piece, because it's not among the features of the Hoosier State that often come to mind.)
Gerstein returns as guest artist for a piece that remotely suggests John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" the difference being that Adams seems to be looking more under the hood, whereas Lu Pei is glancing out a car window at landscapes rushing by. That yields naturally enough to the pastoral vision with which the piece ends.

Concluding the disc is a spiritually ambitious composition by Yao Chen called "Emanations of Tara."  The piece offers prismatic aspects (with an authentic grounding in guest Chen's pipa) of a traditional Chinese deity. With a less abstract piety, perhaps, and of course a more extensive exhibition of timbres, the work may be seen as an East-glimpses-West companion to Messiaen's "Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jesus" for solo piano.

 Again the resemblance is not explicit. Like all the works here, there is a sturdy independence and interpretive vigor in the music's links to the outside world, including other music. And the Civitas Ensemble performs with unparalleled vivacity and commitment to representing five composers of distinction.

Come to Me, My Disinfected Baby, an insane Trump-lover sings to his domestic partner

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Standalone eminence: Trumpeter Jason Palmer and his band present lost masterpieces in another form

More than 50 years ago, I took advantage of temporary residency in the Boston area to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for a chamber-music concert. It seemed  an unusually welcoming institution, redolent of Boston Brahmin culture, with a stunning collection of masterworks hanging on its walls. I remember the visual art better than the music a half-century later.

A famous unsolved art heist 30 years ago last month deprived the Gardner museum of some of its most august possessions —13 paintings by such masters as Degas, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. A fixture in Boston jazz, trumpeter Jason Palmer memorialized the theft in "The Concert: 12 Musings for Isabella," recorded last May at a New York hotel and issued now by Giant Step Arts..

Palmer enlists major young talents to help him present a dozen original compositions, each one based on now-lost Gardner holdings, whose empty frames hang to represent the loss to this day. Besides the leader, the players are saxophonist Mark Turner, vibraphonist Joel Ross, bassist Edward Perez, and drummer Kendrick Scott.
Rembrandt's "A Lady and Gentleman in Black"

The pieces are generously proportioned, with lots of solo room for the participants. None of them is a noodler or a time-server. There is some treading water, to my ears, in Ross' long vibes solo during Degas'
"Cortege aux Environs do Florence," but that's a rare stretch of tedium.

Unlike some jazz that has been generated by admiration for other art forms, the compositional heft never threatens to bury the improvisations. There seems to be a formal regard for the paintings, though I've only looked at a few online. The structures avoid reliance on obvious jazz patterns, and the solos don't sound confined by the writing, but clearly complement it.

The solos in Palmer's piece on "A Lady and Gentleman in Black" are quite free and have the three-dimensional fullness of the figures in Rembrandt's painting. Typical of the performances, there is little evident attempt to mimic the subject matter or to weave in cultural allusions specific to the artworks.

Palmer and his mates deserve credit for their commitment to the independence of 21st-century acoustic jazz, as the inspiration is elaborated through fresh musical means, not "art-appreciation" tribute. Turner deserves to be singled out, because here as elsewhere in recordings I'm familiar with, his phrasing and wealth of new ideas allow him to stand out from the abundance of distinguished tenor saxophonists who continue to pour forth.

Guided by Palmer's genius, the quintet takes pains to stand parallel to the artworks with its own kind of mastery. The temptation to honor the subject matter of a painting such as Rembrandt's "Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee" is resisted, for example, though the complex rhythmic pattern laid down by Scott's drums conveys the turbulence and unease of the Biblical anecdote. Ross' solo, this time compact and to the point, may be interpreted as Jesus' terse reassurances to the frightened disciples.

But no listener should feel buttonholed by Palmer's insistence on a particular interpretation of any of the paintings. The quintet's salute to masterpieces unlikely ever to be recovered deserves a place of honor all its own.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Gabe Terracciano brings subtle fire to the jazz violin in a small-group context

Essential as it is in classical music and invaluable in such other genres as bluegrass and gypsy, the violin has a
Gabe Terracciano, bandleader-composer
long, honorable history in jazz, with enough practitioners over the past century that it has accommodated a wide range of styles. There's the proto-crooning of Joe Venuti, the florid exuberance of Stephane Grappelli, the tart, funky humor of Ray Nance, and so on.

Gabe Terracciano was a violinist new to me when I received "In Flight" (Red Piano Records) in the mail. His compositions display a personality as individual as his violin-playing. Six pieces make up this disc, generally focused on a  pianoless quartet: besides Terracciano, guitarist Adam Rogers,bassis Matt Pavolka, and drummer Matt Ferber. To bookend the date (Jan. 30, 2018), there are two extra players for the title tune and the fetching "Alfie's Lullaby." They are Dave Pietro, alto sax, and Mike Rodriguez, trumpet.

A soft-spoken player, generally, Terracciano stresses his lack of bluster with his matte tone, largely free of vibrato.  That quality, combined with his feeling for space between phrases in the ballad "When I'm in Your Arms Once More," makes him seem a bit like a violin version of early (i.e., still playing standards) Miles Davis. 

Guitarist Adam Rogers displays a similar personality, in "Way Off" taking a cue from the bandleader's introspective manner to exhibit fleetness in shadow. It's also worth noting in this track that the violinist sometimes kicks up his heels, applies some vibrato and dares to be flashy. He does this in a way that avoids being flatly self-contradictory.

He's a witty composer, as "Pundit" makes clear. It's deliberately glib, as if inviting debate and questioning while being assertive. The saxophonist makes one of two non-sextet appearances in this piece, working in sync with Terracciano.  Rogers, sometimes  mysterious though simpatico in accompaniment, is allowed to flourish in his solo here, seeming to inspire a little extra oomph from the violinist. The two are also extroverted in tandem in "Case in Point."

Listeners are warned to  be patient as the opening track, "In Flight," takes its time about taking off.  A languid violin intro leads to some trumpet-violin dialogue before the the moody violin becomes  airborne. There's a crowded outchorus that turns out to lead to an effective violin-dominated coda. Nothing is forced to happen too fast in "In Flight." Make sure your seat backs are up, your tray tables in fixed position, and take it easy. It will be a good flight.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Proceed to the route, everybody.

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

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Dayna Stephens, a saxophonist with a personalized advance on mainstream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, March 9, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 8, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 7, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Photos by Zach Rosing]