Thursday, March 4, 2021

Returning to the concert stage, Pacifica Quartet offers Shostakovich and Fanny Mendelssohn for Ensemble Music Society

 Familiar visitors  to Indianapolis, the Pacifica Quartet on Wednesday helped revive the local concert

Austin Hartman, Mark Holloway, Simin Ganatra, and Brandon Vamos

scene under the auspices of the Ensemble Music Society. Implicitly saluting Women's History Month, a little-known work by Fanny Mendelssohn opened the program, followed by one of the more important pieces among Dmitri Shostakovich's 15 string quartets.

The Pacifica, resting on a quarter-century foundation, continues its residency at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music. The personnel with which it made its reputation in the last decade has changed; since 2017, violist Mark Holloway and second violinist Austin Hartman have upheld the ensemble's reputation alongside two of the original members, first violinist Simin Ganatra and cellist Brandon Vamos.

Out of an abundance of pandemic caution, I caught the performance via live stream. A small audience was present in the concert hall at Indiana History Center. The event marked the Pacifica's first in-person concert since last March, Ganatra gratefully informed the two audiences in post-concert conversation.

To get the special qualities of taking in such a concert remotely out of the way first: It's an adjustment to blend the visual and aural concert experience virtually. The camera work (by CameraMusic) was adroit but necessarily partial to providing visual variety. Besides the three close-up angles (first violin, viola, and second violin and cello), there was a full-frontal view of all four musicians. I preferred that one, despite the slightly obstructed (by equipment) view, so that seeing what everyone was doing matched what I was hearing. 

There were occasional lapses of synchronization between sight and sound, whose technical basis escapes me. Finally, I came away with a few questions about ensemble balance, wondering, for instance,  if electronic projection of the sound through my home computer magnified the viola (especially, but not solely, at the beginning of the Shostakovich quartet's second movement). All in all, I was grateful for the opportunity Ensemble Music and two partner chamber-music societies provided.

On to the music. Fanny Mendelssohn's String Quartet in E-flat appealed to the Pacifica, the first violinist said post-concert, because its lack of a sturdy performance tradition allowed the group to approach it as a new score. Relative lack of advocacy by other ensembles cleared the way for the Pacifica to forge a fresh interpretation.

The serious demeanor of the first movement, underlined by imitated phrases passed around, gave away to some lightening of texture and mood toward the end; it almost seemed too concise. The Allegretto that followed displayed some of the characteristic animation and tidy organization of music by the composer's brother, Felix. But the finale confirms the greater influence of Beethoven, with many free-running passages contrasted with majestic long notes showing an assertive individuality that Fanny was not allowed to develop over a restricted career as short, but not as illustrious, as her brother's. 

The third-movement "Romanze" had a "sighing" cast in the abundance of downward phrases in both melody and accompaniment; it struck me as the most successful movement of the four, reflecting the composer's predilection for song forms. The Pacifica's sensitivity to dynamics was good but somewhat neutralized, I suspect, by the leveling effect of microphones.

Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 3 in F major, op. 73, is a grandiose, effective exhibition of his complex emotional temperament. Its stature is comparable to another much-admired work, No. 8 in C minor, also in five movements. The earlier work was produced after the composer and his nation had passed through the crucible of the Second World War. The composer was well along in his conspicuous career, already marked by having run afoul of the Soviet authorities in the 1930s. In this work, the full technical aplomb of mature Shostakovich is linked to a rich expansiveness throughout.

I like drier renditions of this music, but the Pacifica's more outwardly expressionistic interpretation also suits it. Shostakovich is a composer with a puzzling variety of openness and irony, much light and shadow when it comes to heartfelt anguish set beside full-throated affirmation. Sometimes the affirmation is striated with mockery, as in the Third Quartet's marches.  He was a competent melodist, but in a spikier vein than his older contemporary, Prokofiev. The Pacifica quite evidently loves those melodies, as well as the intensity of mood. 

It may never be settled how much Shostakovich's compositional profile was shaped by repressive circumstances and to what degree what you hear is simply what you get of the "real" man and what he might have produced anyway under less frightening conditions. Tuesday's performance of the Shostakovich F major quartet allowed the mystery of this music to be illuminated, if not settled. The Pacifica, having recorded the whole cycle for Cedille in the past decade with its earlier membership, is entitled to have the way it has staked claims to this body of work fully acknowledged and admired.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

IVCI renews its Laureate Series with silver medalist Tessa Lark's homage to Fritz Kreisler

Famous for his eminence on the concert stage for most of the 20th century's first half, Fritz Kreisler also had a career notable for two major interruptions. Thus in a sense it was natural,

Fritz Kreisler has unique charisma among violinists.

given the interruptions the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis has had to navigate during the pandemic, for the resumption of its Laureate Series to pay homage to the illustrious Austrian violinist-composer.

As a performing artist, Kreisler (1875-1962) was sidelined twice and rebounded both times. The first was a cataclysm that affected millions, World War I, when the burgeoning virtuoso rendered army service and largely laid the violin aside. 

Tessa Lark exhibits wide range of musical  interests.
But the bulk of his fame lay ahead of him, with a level of concert and recording activity only to be interrupted by a serious traffic accident in New York City in 1941. His recovery from this potentially career-ending mishap gave him a late chance to sustain his reputation. He hadn't many years left, though, and his impact remains centered in the period between those two interruptions.

Performing in the great hall of  Indiana Landmarks on Feb. 23, Tessa Lark, silver medalist in the 2014 IVCI, paid homage to Kreisler with the assistance of Amy Yang.  The concert can be watched online through March 5 via the website. 

The program, which emphasized the lighter side of a spectrum in which Kreisler was at home, had enough weightiness to allow the opportunity to enjoy the expressive and technical range of Lark and her duo partner, pianist Amy Yang.

The expansive Fantasy in C major, D. 934, is one of Schubert's masterpieces for violin and piano, opening with a somber meditation that seems to come from a depth recalling "Winterreise" (a song cycle written in the same year). On balance it's a work of considerable flair and high spirits, though the somber episode is recalled effectively just before the rousing finale. The interplay of violin and piano is relentless, requiring a spirit from both players that needs to seem more spontaneous than relentless as it flashes by.

Lark tells the audience at the outset that she "grew up with" Kreisler's recording of the work. That familiarity is well-represented in this performance. The violinist's lyrical acumen was evident from the start, and the partnership reached a glorious peak in the theme-and-variations Andantino, the third of the interlocking four movements. A more informal piece by Schubert, a ballet Kreisler arranged out of incidental music to "Rosamunde," brought forward Kreisler's affinity for earlier composers, which he indulged in to the extent of applying other composers' names to a variety of his own short works.

The audience is treated to the vivacity of the Lark-Yang rapport from the start, with Bela Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances, an arrangement of six piano pieces. The violinist  carries the tunes forward idiomatically, as the instrument's sound reminds us how much it is at home  in other genres. With her performing interest in bluegrass and jazz, Lark's musical activity outside classical music confirms that breadth and versatility.

Kreisler received the mantle of violin succession from Eugene Ysaye, who dedicated to him the fourth of his six sonatas for solo violin. All those works are well-known to IVCI fans, since the competition's founder, Josef Gingold, an Ysaye student, placed them in the participants' repertoire from 1982 on. Lark played Sonata No. 4 with a fine steadiness of passion and lyricism. Her double-stopping was immaculate, as both simultaneous voices kept focus and integrity. The pacing and textural openness of the Sarabande exuded particular charm.

Joined again by Yang, the violinist concluded the recital with one of the most famous of those gentle hoaxes, Praeludium and Allegro ("in the style of Pugnani"). The dashing recitative-like music between the work's major parts had the right intensity, and the coordination of the players was exemplary. That piece was preceded by Kreisler's "Berceuse romantique," as fetching a lullaby as you might imagine, and his arrangement of Dvorak's "Songs My Mother Taught Me," in which some unobtrusive Kreislerian slides and Lark's rapid, sweet vibrato gave an essential Viennese lilt to the performance.


'Zodiac': Reaffirming the special gifts Mary Lou Williams brought to jazz piano and composition

Worth a reconception as well as revival in its own right, Mary Lou Williams'' "Zodiac Suite" is a landmark long-form composition in jazz history. Chris Pattishall, a fellow pianist of this pioneer among nonsinging female jazz stars, has assembled a small group enhanced by tasteful sound design and programming from Rafiq Bhatia.

Mary Lou Williams focuses her attention.

No matter what your orientation may be to astrology (mine is quite faint), this music is worth attention for its stylistic breadth and a daring (for jazz) variety of tempo and texture, often within one of the composition's twelve "signs." Pattishall and his band (Riley Mulherkar, trumpet; Ruben Fox, saxophones; Marty Jaffe, bass; Jamison Ross, drums) put forward a fresh vision of this peculiar milestone.

Williams  (1910-1981) is among the jazz luminaries shaped by Pittsburgh, active from her teens and first attracting widespread attention as pianist-arranger for the eminent '30s band Andy Kirk and the Twelve Clouds of Joy. In 1946, three "Zodiac" movements were performed in Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic, a landmark in the sporadic history of classical institutions' attention to jazz.

From the opening notes of "Taurus," with a stately, emotionally reserved piano setting the pattern, the suite moves into personalized representations of the jazz styles Williams grew up with.  The electronic intrusions into the texture pay tribute to the elaborations that the composer gave to the blues-based short forms that enabled her and her bands to earn their daily bread.

Immediately, with the subsequent exploration into "Gemini," there is more contrast, with abrupt cutoffs and the emergence of new rhythmic patterns.  In the course of the suite, the popular ballad style is exploited. In "Leo," perhaps one of the more explicit nods to the sign's astrological character, fanfares with snare drums come to the forefront. "Virgo" proceeds at a relaxed medium-pace tempo, its form mimicking the 32-bar structure of Great American Songbook standards.

"Libra" is a concise piano showcase. A surprise in "Scorpio" is the way a wash of dissonant sound intrudes on the theme, which then restarts.  The piece sounds a bit like a Thelonious Monk tune, choppy in phrasing but quite logical in aggregate. Williams as a performer had avant-garde tendencies, and the impression that she is pushing the boundaries in "Zodiac" is marvelously represented in the ensemble's playing. 

The interaction between Pattishall and his bandmates sustains the piano-inspired nature of what Williams created nearly eight decades ago. In the inspired re-creation helmed by Pattishall, the sound palette is briskly exploited and colorful, and the full spectrum of heavenly bodies and their relevant characteristics is sustained through the penultimate "Pisces" waltz and a skipping-around ensemble finale in "Aries." 



Friday, February 19, 2021

Denver's tight, puckish Jazz WORMS turn again, 'Squirmin'' into the 21st century

A band with a regional reputation strains to stay together if it includes players good enough to attract the attention of musicians elsewhere. And the local stars often get anxious to apply their skills to new contexts. In the fluid world of jazz, compatibility can't ensure group longevity.

This Denver quintet regrouped decades after its heyday.
This seems to be the case with the Jazz WORMS, whose unusual name also justifies puffing up into an acronym. The members are Andy Weyl, Keith Oxman, Paul Romaine, Ron Miles and Mark Simon (the surname initials in this order yield the band's creepy-crawly moniker). Active in Denver in the 1980s, the  five players have regrouped to play a batch of eight originals, just released on Capri Records under the title "Squirmin'."

Their musical profile is immediately evident in the pieces' tight organization, which fortunately doesn't go so far as to inhibit the spontaneity and fun that pervade the arrangements. The first track is "Launching Pad," sporting a frisky melody from which the band launches and relaunches, with a few flourishes tucked in as cornetist Miles and tenor saxophonist Oxman lead the attack. The rhythm section (pianist Weyl, bassist Simon, and drummer Romaine) is clearly about collaboration as well as support.

A tune titled "Lickety-Split" doesn't mean the quintet charges off madly in all directions. Rather, it's a spiffily coordinated ensemble that opens up the way for definitive bass and piano solos. (Oxman's in this cut has touches of etude-like note-spinning, but I liked his freewheeling solo turn in "Launching Pad.")

Miles' cornet sounds comfortable on a mellow plateau in the aptly titled "Balladesque," and the flexibility of the band is evident in some cornet-drums and bass-drums exchanges in "The Chimento Files." This blues with a novel melody has a deft momentum, but there is no feverish pressing forward. "Wheaty Bowl," a tribute to a pet bird, features amusing quotes from Charlie ("Bird") Parker in the course of its stop-start theme.

The alertness with which such tricky melodies are dispatched, as in "What If All?," reminded me of a short-lived group called the Jazztet, which 60 years ago included precise ensemble playing in pieces like "Mox Nix" and "Bean Bag." (That band, led by Art Farmer and Benny Golson, also featured a trombone voice, but the analogy holds to some degree. In the recordings I have, both the Jazztet and the Denver quintet display a unity of attack and a harmonic focus that dependably set up concise solo displays well.)

The Jazz WORMS here indicate that a revival project among musicians with strong personal and professional roots can make a fresh showing, almost like a gathering of youngsters eager to make its mark and exhibit its internal rapport. May the WORMS continue to squirm!

Friday, February 12, 2021

Yoko Miwa and her trio seek to reaffirm the power of jazz joy

The veteran pianist-educator Yoko Miwa explicitly lines up behind the mission of emphasizing the joy of jazz in her new trio recording, "Songs of Joy" (Ubuntu Music).

With Will Slater on bass and Scott Goulding on drums, she has assembled a program of originals, plus a

Yoko Miwa is on the Berklee School faculty.

few pieces from across the pop-jazz spectrum. I would advise the listener not to locate a specific effusion of joy in each of the 11 selections, however. 

"Largo Desolato" sounds neither especially slow nor desolate, but it's intended to evoke "the unnaturally empty streets of New York City at the height of the pandemic," in the publicist's language accompanying my copy of the release. "The Lonely Hours," another Miwa composition, has a somber memorial tinge in carrying out its dedication to her late father, who died in Japan after the pandemic made visiting impossible. The joy must be embedded in a daughter's fond memories.

On the whole, however, the disc presents an uncomplicated approach to its ruling mood. The pianist has a gift for making melodies glow naturally, which stands her in good stead for Richie Havens' "Freedom" and Billy Preston's "Song of Joy." Her interpretive imagination creates something fresh out of Thelonious Monk's "Think of One," as the jaggedness of Monk's performances gives way to a smooth puttering about by the trio, with some deft changes in harmony from the original.

Miwa has a hard-working left hand, often elaborating on the sketchiness characteristic of many jazz pianists. In "Freedom," this replicates the grinding assertiveness of a Havens performance of his signature tune. Normally, she is after true balances, with the left hand moving effectively in answer to the definitive right, as in the deep-grooving "Small Talk" and Duke Jordan's "No Problem."

The trio sounds thoroughly seasoned as a mutually responsive unit. There are several fine bass solos and particularly good showcases for both sidemen in "Tony's Blues." In the set finale, "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," Brad Barrett replaces Slater for an extended exhibition of bowed bass. The performance is overextended, given the relatively pallid material. But it only slightly detracts from the pizazz of the rest of the program.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

'Tuesdays With Morrie' underlines the importance of maintaining connections

 Indiana Repertory Theatre has found ways to push safely back against the constraints imposed by the

Mitch (Ryan Artzberger) and Morrie (Henry Woronicz) form an indelible bond. 

pandemic. It has faced in a magnified sense the squeeze all theaters are feeling. Its art form normally requires in-person audiences taking in the artistic depiction of human interaction at close quarters. Now small casts are advisable, and coordination with video camera experts is mandatory.

IRT's "Tuesdays With Morrie," the stage adaptation of a memoir by Mitch Albom, is available via streaming through Feb. 21. Indirectly defying COVID-19, intimacy is a given in this story of the close relationship between a sociology professor dying of ALS and a successful sportswriter who nearly two decades earlier had been a student of his at Brandeis University. 

Mitch has reneged on a promise to keep in touch with his favorite teacher, Morrie Schwartz, as he makes a wrenching career change before finding his niche as a fiendishly busy columnist for a Detroit newspaper. Ever the competitor and perhaps out of mingled guilt and recalled affection, Mitch takes the cue of media-star attention to Morrie (Ted Koppel's Nightline)  to reconnect with the professor he honors with the sobriquet "Coach." They settle on Tuesdays for regular meetings, with Albom taping their conversations as Morrie's wit and wisdom are gradually compromised  by his physical decline.

Anyone with access to IRT's production has to accept that we see the two characters as if through a multi-layered scrim. There are two detailed real people, one of them still living, behind the characters, who are created for the stage through the collaboration of Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher. The result is mediated by   Benjamin Hanna's direction of this production and the interpretation of two seasoned actors: Ryan Artzberger (Mitch) and Henry Woronicz (Morrie). 

Both actors are gifted at depicting change and vulnerability in the characters they play. At the IRT, I remember Woronicz especally for his performances as the Poet (a kind of time-traveling Homer) in "An Iliad" and of  a troubled abstract-expressionist painter in "Red."

In comparison, Morrie is a steadier and more grounded character, whose depths have access to dependably cheerful ways of looking at things. Woronicz  plays him as someone who can process suffering better than most of us are capable of, and that brings the character the stature he must have to avoid sentimentality. A striking early scene, which a close-up allows the viewer to savor, drives home what it must be like to receive a doom-laden diagnosis. The temporary collapse of Morrie's positive apprehension of life is remarkably conveyed in this scene. From then on, though, Woronicz's Morrie is largely able to resume his life-affirming mentorship of Mitch.

Reprising his 2007 UpperStage portrayal, Artzberger is tasked with presenting a more subtly developing character over time. In roles I've seen, he is best at grappling with uneasiness and shades of vulnerability that may allow the kind of near-transfiguration he presented the first time I saw his Ebenezer Scrooge in IRT's annual "Christmas Carol." More solid, unswerving characters sometimes elude him, in my view. He does awkward just about better than any local actor, but years ago his Iago in the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company's "Othello" was inappropriately, awkwardly comic, as if single-minded villainy (even if there's no better role than Iago for presenting that quality) cramped his style.

His Mitch is rightly judged, however. His impressionable student is captivating in his readiness to be molded by someone as fit for mentorship as Morrie. The boyish awkwardness is endearing, and when  Mitch exhibits confidence, it is early on mainly at the piano (with Gary Walters ghosting for the actor) as his post-graduate aspirations to a jazz career are sketched. The death from cancer of an encouraging uncle sends the young man scurrying to find a career home in journalism.

In the later reconnection between professor and sportswriter, Artzberger puts on steely professionalism and turf-guarding rigor in scenes that emphasize aspects of Mitch's character that Morrie is always prepared to cajole him away from. The uncertainty then is largely repressed, flaring briefly in a scene in which Mitch denounces the relevance of love to a good life. 

"Tuesdays With Morrie" underlines the truth that there is still much learning to be done, and the receptiveness of the pupil gradually carries the play's weight as the teacher sinks toward death in everything but his indomitable spirit. The poignancy of the relationship, heightened by the authenticity evident in the performances, makes this show a tonic for all our imperiled hopes as the pandemic's second deadly year gets under way. 

[Photo by Zach Rosing]

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Of "poetry and power," Robert Frost and his inaugural successors have thought big

On that uplifting day of January 20, someone near and dear to me texted for my opinion of

Amanda Gorman causes sensation with "The Hill We Climb"

Amanda Gorman's performance of her poem at the Inauguration, and what I thought of "The Hill We Climb" itself.

I replied that it suited the occasion, yet seemed too oratorical for my taste. I became more aware of its integrity and skill as poetry once I saw the text: The tone is well-measured, intense, and appealing, and the rhymes (ranging from true rhymes through "slant"or para-rhymes, to assonance [matching vowel sounds]) ring out, sometimes in close-order drill, sometimes more spread out. There's alliteration and the line parallelism known in rhetoric as anaphora.

But oratory still seems the main category of discourse in which Gorman's poem takes its historic place. And of course her delivery and poise — her very presence — displayed mastery, a splendor that amounted to more than her bright yellow coat. She put "The Hill We Climb" across expertly, as so much chatter and media coverage over the past ten days have attested.

While it once seemed a compliment to mention that "The Hill We Climb" suited the occasion, I've since decided it really did not. But the same charge could be leveled at all the poems delivered at presidential inaugurations since Robert Frost, with the sun in his eyes, recited  "The Gift Outright." None of what audiences heard from poets at these august ceremonies has addressed the country in terms of the transition to a new presidential term.

Ironically, the poem Frost wrote for the 1961 inauguration of John F. Kennedy and intended to deliver was so focused. You can find it in the much-honored poet's slim final volume, "In the Clearing." That day's blinding sun forced Frost to recite from memory the older poem. 

Crafted expertly in the loose unrhymed iambic pentameter ("blank verse") of which Frost was a master,"The Gift Outright" is a little embarrassing today, as it celebrates ambivalently the America of white settlement and implies that "we" had ownership of the continent without the means of identifying with what we owned and truly knowing what it was  and by implication what we were as a nation. It is an insightful vision from a certain narrow perspective, parenthetically conceding the violence required to oust the land's original inhabitants. The poem oddly makes early Americans seem shy about taking over the land, when in fact the British crown's restrictions on westward settlement are among the complaints in the Declaration of Independence. (" was ourselves / We were withholding from our land of living / And forthwith found salvation in surrender.")  I can hear Native Americans' rejoinder: "It was OUR surrender, white man, and you found only YOUR salvation!"

Sixty years ago, Robert Frost struggled to read his new poem as the new president looked on.

That's  enough about "The Gift Outright," which accidentally set a pattern for subsequent words of poetry uttered from the Capitol steps on wintry Washington days.  Frost took a retrospective look, but he presented a vision of America that floated free of the occasion.  In the new, longer poem he intended to deliver, he addressed that occasion quite suitably. "For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration" opens with a deft expression of gratitude for the yoking of politics and poetry that the invitation signaled.  There is a thumbnail sketch of the historical circumstances and the idealism that Americans link to their country, a wry reflection on the Latin phrase on the dollar bill and what it may require of us ("'New order of the ages' did we say? / If it looks none too orderly today, / 'Tis a confusion it was ours to start / So in it have to take courageous part.") An allusion to Kennedy's book "Profiles in Courage" is deftly placed without flattery, and the poem moves to its conclusion acknowledging America's superior place in the family of nations (highly questionable today) and lands squarely on the portent of the ceremony itself, heralding a "golden age of poetry and power / Of which this noonday's the beginning hour.")

Despite hints of the crackerbarrel perspective that endeared him to generations, the poem Frost prepared for Kennedy's inauguration is a sophisticated interweaving of American idealism and the ongoing work of making our national experiment successful, holding up the presidency as the chief exemplar. Look through the inaugural contributions of Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Richard Blanco, Elizabeth Alexander and now Amanda Gorman and you find little sense of what America's Chief Executive is all about, how it is an office that fleshes out our hallowed documents' promises and obligations by putting one man (so far!) in a position of power that almost contradicts the people's sovereignty over all. 

Fourth of July oratory, cast in an array of variable poetic competence, is what six poets across the span of sixty years have offered. Sentiments meant to inspire Americans have been expressed in personal terms six times. I don't mean to say that inaugural poems are mere variations of one another, but they are invariably lofty appeals to our better selves, with the accidental exception of "The Gift Outright,"  which mainly looks backward. "For John F, Kennedy His Inauguration" could have been a model, but circumstances obscured it.

What is the presidency's relationship to the nation? What do we celebrate when we inaugurate a new presidential term? Amanda Gorman makes one allusion to such questions in raising the specter of January 6. For a poet who once told an audience that all poetry is political, in "The Hill We Climb" she turns aside from politics at a time when the institution that brought her to an international stage is endangered more than ever before by the stubborn fantasies of the office's immediately previous occupant.

"There is a call to live a little sterner, / And braver for the earner, learner, yearner,"  Frost writes about our form of government in his undelivered inaugural poem. It's the kind of couplet Gorman could endorse, I suspect, in part for the kind of cheek-by-jowl rhyming she sometimes favors in her own work. Uniquely, Frost puts the president at the apex of this call to live.

For his successors, in contrast, "we" is the hard-working pronoun in all their poems. The better angels of our nature are called upon to flap their wings to a frazzle. Walt Whitman is the bardic spirit behind these effusions. There are new versions of the characteristic Whitman lists and snapshots from the common life of Americans. From the Obama era, they fill up Richard Blanco's "One Day" (2013). and Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day" (2009).

There is the explicit geographic expansiveness from the Good Grey Poet as well as that

Maya Angelou bade us good morning in 1993.

envisioned by Woody Guthrie and  Martin Luther King Jr., (Gorman). There are sermonizing answers to rhetorical questions (Miller Williams, "Of History and Hope," 1997), also a Whitman trait. Maya Angelou, besides Frost perhaps the most widely admired of Gorman's predecessors, draws upon the Psalmist as well as Whitman (especially his roll calls of ethnic diversity) in "On the Pulse of Morning" (1993). Angelou's impressive adaptation of mythology and natural history is weakened at the end by this sappy verse:

Here, on the pulse of this new day

You may have the grace to look up and out

And into your sister's eyes, and into

Your brother's face, your country

And say simply 

Very simply

With hope —

Good morning. 

Gorman similarly tells us what we should do and the grace we may have, though our assignment is only distantly related to government and the chief executive. She abandons the metaphorical meaning of her title (the phrase comes up once in the poem) and sets aside imagery of hill climbing to lift up rising from those very hills (specifically "the gold-limbed [does she mean "limned"?] hills of the west"). 

That line is in a climactic series of anaphoras prophesying emergence from the "never-ending shade" she evoked darkly at the beginning of the poem. "And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it," she informs us, echoing and superseding  Frost's "The land was ours before we were the land's." Possession precedes knowledge, wonderfully enough. But where Frost stakes claims to mere land on our behalf, Gorman boldly asserts our permanent capture of light. She ends her poem so specifically identifying Americans with light that she thumps home shopworn biblical promises ("you are the light of the world") to that effect, "if only we're brave enough to be it." 

This is a form of bravery beyond that which will allow our government to succeed, to "build back better," in the poetically unwelcomed newcomer's phrase. The nation that Gorman has assured us isn't broken, but unfinished, apparently has little to do with how we are governed. In the young poet's view, and in the tradition of inaugural poetry she inherits, it has to do with a kind of grace or wish-fulfillment we seem to have access to through our inherent goodness, the variety of our lives and the promises we make to ourselves. To me, that isn't enough — or in another sense it's too much — to adequately come to grips with the meaning of presidential succession, especially at a time when that is being so ominously challenged and resisted. Like Angelou, the celebrated Amanda Gorman has wished us a gauzy good morning.





Thursday, January 21, 2021


Saturday, January 16, 2021

Embracing the new era, Dance Kaleidoscope posits 'A New Dawn'

Masked and with touching mostly proscribed by pandemic protocols, Dance Kaleidoscope has expanded its art for the era of video streaming with a two-work program titled "A New Dawn." The world-premiere pieces draw from the limitations imposed by Covid-19 to send a sinuous message of hope and new spheres for creative expression.

With supple, well-coordinated camera work by WFYI-TV, the company is shown in its usual performing space, the main stage of Indiana Repertory Theatre. Visual components that make the choreography appeal to the senses (on screens through Jan. 24) come from the troupe's veteran lighting designer, Laura E. Glover, and costume designers Guy Clark and Cheryl Sparks.

Natalie Clevenger in a "New Dawn" scene 
Guest choreographer André Megerdichian, a former DK member, has compared his habitual way of unifying his ideas for a piece to attempting to assemble a satellite out of stray pieces gathered in outer space. The new work has that pieced-together quality with evidence of a personal signature throughout, fashioned far beyond thin air. 

"Communal isolation" is a phrase he came up with in an interview with DK marketing director Paul Hansen; it's fleshed out in "Belly of the Whale." The whale is the global leviathan that has ingested and holds all of us, in Megerdichian's view. And I think he is on to something: The elements we have to hand, anything accessible, are what we fashion in order to get our lives to cohere when so many resources are unavailable to us. "We are all in this together," the cliché we got used to as a rallying cry throughout most of 2020, inevitably highlights isolation as much as community in Megerdichian's choreography.

The ensemble comes on to a march that morphs into a calypso. Concentric circles of light on the stage imply patterns that take in whatever unifying features they can. There's a dramatic shift at a point when an onstage costume change, freeing the dancers from robe-like confines, is initiated by a solo female dancer. The music, with its minimalist pulsations, suggests through the dancers' rising, reaching, and falling gestures our mirrored attempts to fight mental and physical claustrophobia. Near the end, the ensemble gathers facing forward standing like a chorus; against an instrumental drone, the dancers seem to be uniting around a ritual, as one dancer on the floor mimics cleansing motions. In the finale, everyone enters in a processional, with raised arms crossed at the wrist. The accompaniment is lighter, dominated by harp, but are the wrists bound or are they ritualizing acceptance of temporary limitations, with figures standing tall in readiness to once again reclaim their wonted freedom?

Stuart Coleman's "Hindsight/Blindsight" locks into a personal narrative of the year just past. The work's three sections clearly point to a linear view of the Covid-19 experience: "What We Thought Would Happen," "What Actually Happened," and "What Happens Next."  Much of the music of John Psathas chosen for the work draws heavily upon Bela Bartok, particularly the sonic aggressiveness of his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. The first part sets ensemble coordination in contrast with small-scale opposition to any movement toward consensus. As in the past, I like the abundance and flow of Coleman's choreography. Though it's chock-full of ideas, things meld gracefully without mere busywork. Transitions that seem abrupt all of a sudden look logical and better prepared for than we had any reason to expect.

In his interview with Hansen, Coleman admits to being an instinctive planner, and his imagination

Stuart Coleman's solo in his "Hindsight/Blindsight"

fortunately allows him to keep the plans from becoming a series of set-pieces. In this piece, patterns emerge in the ensemble out of ostensible incoherence. The dark costumes and sepulchral lighting
in "What Actually Happened" allow for the emergence of individual enlightenment, represented by Coleman himself "taking a knee" for about eight minutes until one dancer of the group presents himself in suffering postures to the spotlighted dancer. The mass dawning of social conscience is encapsulated.

The encounter generates Coleman's graceful solo, again full of ideas but never blurred with padding. "What Happens Next" opens up vistas of a better future. The ensemble spreads its wings; ecstatic whirling galvanizes the company. Outsize energy with explicit optimism makes for the kind of finale that would surely bring a live audience immediately to its feet at the end. Maybe "Hindsight/Blindsight"'s  deuxieme  in the not too distant future will create such a rousing scenario. We can only hope. A new dawn must be coming.

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]