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]