Sunday, May 30, 2021

Home burial: In 'The House That Jack Built,' a riven family struggles to find closure — or not

The experience of having streaming access to theater under the current pandemic conditions presents nagging temptations to critic and patron alike.

Granted media access to cover Indiana Repertory Theatre's season, I have a time-limited opportunity to see such a show as "The House That Jack Built," a new production of playwright-in-residence James Still's 2012 drama, the first of a prize-winning trilogy. A paying patron might well take advantage of repeat viewings, in whole or in part. For me, it's almost a matter of conscience: Shouldn't I allow myself only one real-time exposure to a play before writing about it, just as I would have to do when I used to attend opening nights in person?

But then, memory is imperfect and first impressions have an unevenness or a teasing ambiguity to them. Why not go back and firm up anything that might be blurry in recollection? Isn't that more responsible? Exit full-screen mode, take the mouse and swipe left, picking up an episode or two in order to put your interpretation on solid ground.

Converted and expanded from a shed, the house is a ready host.

The  dilemma seems especially pronounced in the case of this play, in which a family struggles with both good and bad memories and the difficulty of exorcising unwelcome spirits. They have come back to the rural Vermont dwelling of the title, whose named figure is missing in a manner we learn about far into the drama's intricate progress. It's a Thanksgiving celebration set in the year Still wrote it. That means there are ritual aspects to the observance that resonate against unresolved difficulties among the host and her guests. Russell Metheny's set leads the blend of sight and sound that offers the promise of hard-earned domesticity under threat.

A British transplant of receding celebrity as a cookbook author, Jules (Jennifer Johansen) lives there, missing Jack most crucially, yet ready to exercise her culinary skills for family once again. She has taken up with Eli (Aaron Kirby), a young man who a while back drifted into the area from the west and lacks her thwarted sense of purpose. The relationship rubs her sister-in-law Lulu (Constance Macy) the wrong way, but then, lots of things do. 

Apart from being settled into marriage with fellow academic Ridge (David Shih), a math professor who's just been promoted, Lulu is at perpetual loggerheads with her mother, Helen (Jan Lucas), who lives nearby and seems annoyingly open to fresh starts in life and impulsive behavior. Airline rescheduling has kept one expected guest away, but otherwise the family is tensely ready to feast together. Outside, there's a cranky neighbor apt to train his rifle on wanderers and a seasonal Green Mountain tendency to thick morning fogs. The house is, ironically, a kind of refuge.

Sisters-in-law Jules and Lulu bond outside over a joint.

This seems a good place to mention one instance where I resisted the temptation to rewind. Ridge is a bluff, hearty fellow buoyed by his fresh professional boost to department chairman. When Helen says something characteristically opinionated — "I think style is the man, don't you agree?" and adds that men are ruined "when they peak too soon," Ridge's reaction startled me. 


Shih's expression was among many instances of astutely calibrated responses throughout the cast, as directed by Janet Allen. I thought he

Ridge comes across as witty, confident, hiding vulnerability.

made Ridge seem stricken by Helen's provocative insight, but maybe I was reading into it; perhaps Ridge is simply thinking, "Hmm, I hadn't thought of that" or even "Well, that's just like Lulu's mother." I wanted to play that fairly minor moment again, but resisted. I'm leaning toward interpreting the character's sudden emotional pallor as indicating he has been deeply shaken by Helen's remark. It's certainly part of Still's brilliance as a playwright to plant landmines cunningly and have them triggered in due course. I choose to think this was one of them, skillfully detonated by Shih under Allen's guidance.

Here's what "The House That Jack Built" underlines: Everything in both the light-hearted and the wounding moments can be traced back to Jack's absence. There are ample signs that none of the characters has found the freedom to move forward. The cliche of finding closure is a goal they may have given up; closure for them is probably illusory, just another bad or simply fruitless choice. As survivors struggling to help themselves, they seem variously blocked from helping one another. 

I was reminded of two bits of popular literature, both relevant as touchstones but philosophically daunting when applied to "The House That Jack Built": One is the English nursery rhyme of the same title, a cumulative song that used to enchant kids with the surprising lessons of cause and effect. The other is "Home," a sentimental dialect poem by Edgar A. Guest beginning "It takes a heap o' livin' in a house t' make it home." 

Looked at through the prism of this play, neither text is as playful, instructive, or blatantly sentimental as usually known. They are both nightmares of determinism, in which homes and houses inevitably provide scenarios for mocking free will and prioritizing the adamant way things are. Acceptance of what is given is the ground rule. And because Jack's absence rests on a larger disturbing event, the play is a dark reminder that it will always be difficult for individuals to shape what happens to them, either at or away from home, and to discover how they can transcend it. 

After much tribulation, the Thanksgiving feast gets under way.

Fortunately, and without overstressing the point, "The House That Jack Built" indicates that the best way forward is through love. In life we don't get the advantage of playback anyway, because even our fondest, most secure memories may be traps, inhibiting growth.

Through this season-ending production, Still and IRT's production have sprung those traps for us and Jack's family. The final toast around the Thanksgiving table confirms the possibility of a healthy escape.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]


Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Creative new-music interpreter Ursula Oppens turns her attention to Laura Kaminsky

The high arts have recently been taken to task because new "product" sometimes fails to indicate how

Laura Kaminsky draws upon nature and human events.

engaged it is with present difficulties of consuming interest outside the arts. Does new art deserve a place in our current conversations if it follows self-contained agendas?

It's not easy to specify what responsibility creators or performers must shoulder in order to indicate that they, too,  furrow their brows about world issues before sending new material out into that world. It's a bonus when they can show that their extra-musical concerns are vital in shaping new works.

Fortunately for her ability to resonate with the Zeitgeist, composer Laura Kaminsky explicitly cites matters like climate change and social unrest as formative. This alone can't justify performers taking up her music, but it must help. 

The movements of nature, particularly water, can readily be given musical expression, sweeping before them the flow of human events as well. That's somewhat the procedure of "Alluvion," the piece commissioned for the current Classical Awards of the American Pianists Association. In a program note accompanying the APA's online content about the competition, Kaminsky writes this about "Alluvion": "I write a lot of music that comes from visual and nature imagery or political and social imagery. In a way, this piece has the turbulence of some of the climate changes that we are experiencing. But it also has some of the turbulence we are dealing with in the social/political landscape."

Ursula Oppens has long championed new music.

On a new disc from Cedille Records, a variety of Kaminsky music involving piano has been issued under the title "Fantasy: Oppens Plays Kaminsky." Anchoring this attractive program is the veteran new-music specialist Ursula Oppens.

The piece that lends its name to the disc title is most nearly comparable to "Alluvion," because it's also for piano solo. Unlike "Alluvion," "Fantasy" bears fewer of the hallmarks of a competition piece; that is, it takes its time making its points. It declines to enhance a contestant's weaponry.


It is also not brand-new (2007-2010), yet bears the stamp of Kaminsky's style in her more recent works: brooding and dashing by turns, it glories in the connectedness that the piano has evolved both vertically and horizontally over its three-century lifespan so far. 

"Fantasy" opens thoughtfully, pausing now and then as it gathers strength. It is anti-display to a degree. Early on, we hear a kind of relaxed counterpoint. This music is not out to prove anything. When repetition comes up, it's frankly designed to impress itself upon you, but never obsessively. There are toccata-like passages well into its 20-minute length; slow music that ensues uses the sustaining pedal lightly for controlled resonance. Touches of Schumann in his galloping mode come into play, as does a toying with abruptness reminiscent of the German composer, but not with his attention-deficit disguising.  

For a compact exhibition of Kaminsky's responses to 21st-century life, other listener tastes might be better addressed by "Reckoning: Five Miniatures for Piano Four Hands," with Oppens joined at the keyboard by Jerome Lowenthal. Ambivalence is embraced by such titles as "Majestic. Yet." and "Hurtling. Still," and the finale, "Forward. Yet." Even the punctuation hints at the way each quality addressed in these duets has its own emotional asterisk. The self-contained pieces acquire greater significance because of the set's astute organization: I was especially charmed by the progression represented by the third through fifth pieces: "Reverie," "Divided" and "Forward. Yet." With Goethe, Kaminsky seems to declare: "Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach!,  in meiner Brust" (Two souls reside in my breast). The balance given the original line by that central "ach!" is also the balance rapturously wrung out of Kaminsky's music.

The disc opens with the composer's Piano Quintet, in which Oppens is joined by the Cassatt String Quartet. The portentously titled "Anthem" gives us a first movement that initially evokes folk music, yielding to a busy, syncopated background framing a gradually assembled line of long notes.

Cassatt String Quartet collaborates with Oppens.

Its declarative solemnity is deepened in the second movement, "Lamentation, coming into light," another Kaminsky title advising the listener not to expect all of one thing. Until the movement's seraphic ending, the piano dominates, with the strings contributing an oddly affecting pathos on top of a piano part that has introduced itself at the outset deep in the bass. The mounting intensity is patiently developed, with the string quartet proclaiming definitively its essential contribution to the piano's argument. The finale, "Maelstrom, and..." makes out of the title's ellipsis the reality in auditory terms that there's more in a whirlpool than meets the eye. The partnership is impeccable.

Finally, Piano Concerto, which comes in at about the 20-minute length of the quintet and "Fantasy," has an explicit natural referent: sunlight on the waters of two rivers, the Neva in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Hudson, as seen from Kaminsky's studio window in the Bronx. The glints and sparkles evident to the eye are translated into orchestra sounds with an almost lavish flavoring of percussion, including wood blocks, gongs, and vibraphone. Every percussion instrument seems to have its essential voice in producing the cumulative effect. Though there is no quoting of previous music that I could tell,  there were passages suggestive of Mussorgsky's "Dawn on the Moskva River" (especially in the gradations of morning light on the water) and Smetana's "Moldau" (in a river's constant motion quickening now and then toward agitation).  Almost paradoxically, patterns seem to emerge in a context of lack of pattern — just as water and light in nature often appear to us in delightful self-contradiction. 

The Arizona State University Orchestra, conducted by Jeffery Meyer, acquits itself handsomely in accompanying the always adaptable, insightful playing of Oppens, who is a past master at making new music her own.  Kaminsky seems to have been well-served by this disc, as is the cause of contemporary music to which the pianist has contributed so much for several decades.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Finalist solo recital series opens brilliantly with Mackenzie Melemed

 American Pianists Association has adapted its presentation of finalists in its 2021 Classical Awards to our

Mackenzie Melemed opened the APA recital series.

troubled times, with live-streaming of the solo recitals in addition to the opportunity to attend the performances in person.

The first of the series was Mackenzie Melemed's appearance Sunday afternoon at the Indiana History Center. The presentation clearly brought forward the finalist's musical personality while not greatly refracting a variety of music through a distorting individualized prism: The distinctiveness of Bach, Bartok, Schumann, and Laura Kaminsky (composer of the competition piece) was projected throughout with unflagging commitment and deep understanding. 

Hearing it online, I was especially interested in what Kaminsky's "Alluvion" sounded like, in light of a recently received compact disc focusing on her piano music in the estimable interpretations of Ursula Oppens. I will post a review of "Fantasy: Oppens Plays Kaminsky" (Cedille Records) soon.

About "Alluvion," the composer favors a romantic treatment of the instrument without having to indulge in a wispy, retrospective neo-romanticism. Kaminsky revels in the flowing qualities of the piano techniques perfected by Chopin and Liszt, composers who created a language that worked against the anti-sustaining quality of piano sound, making indissoluble connections of melody and phrasing, building new forms of coherence as classical structures receded. 

 "Alluvion" opens with stentorian rumbling in the bass, soon takes into its purview a wide spectrum of registers and then brings everything into focus in the middle range. Figuration is florid, but the surefooted way new episodes find their expressive center remains constant. The work is colorful and comprises lighter textures as well; its expressive breadth feels no need to take in extended techniques or much pedal-enabled resonance.

Of the rest of the recital, there was stirring directness and clarity to Bach's Partita No. 1 in B-flat major, which opened the recital. Melemed displayed fine articulation of ornamental aspects and a sure sense of structure, with dynamics and tempo adjustments scrupulously detailed, yet stopping short of romantic intrusions. The balance of legato and staccato playing in the minuets was astute, and by the concluding gigue, it became clear that the super-speedy tempo would proceed with as much steadiness and directness as everything that had preceded the finale.

Bartok's Suite, op. 14, opened up new expressive possibilities for Melemed's artistry. The trenchant sonorities were crystal-clear, with occasional explosiveness. The rhythmic acuteness of the performance never stinted, and Melemed was able to avoid mere feverishness when it came to brightening the accented terrain. The "Sostenuto" finale, the composer's  effective way of mitigating his characteristic spikiness while summing up the heft of the preceding movements, was movingly rendered.

A seasoned ability to handle accents within a texture came through as Schumann's Symphonic Etudes gathered torrential strength in its final pages. Among the work's difficulties near the end is having to rattle along at fortissimo while finding ways to make the accents even louder, yet not weighing down the momentum. Such demands seemed easily under control in Melemed's performance. Any terrors the work held for him had long since been laid to rest in his preparation. 

It's notable that when Vladimir Horowitz spoke to Leonid Hambro of performing challenges that required sheer luck to come off as well in concert as they had in practice, a passage in Symphonic Etudes was what he cited. According to what Hambro recalled for Horowitz biographer Harold C. Schonberg, the titan of 20th-century piano said: "I practiced this passage, and I practiced, and when I would go to play I could never guarantee that I would play it right. When it came out right I was just lucky."

I have no idea if Melemed worried over the same passage or other places in this study-entangled set of variations, but Sunday's performance suggested that luck and preparation may have been working hand in hand to produce the indubitable success with which Melemed capped his recital.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Steeped in Big Apple small-group jazz, mid-career pianist makes bandleader debut

Ray Gallon brings well-honed  preparation to his debut.

With a resume including alliance with a wide range of jazz instrumentalists and singers, Ray Gallon has arrived at a signature style at the piano that prizes melodic invention and absorption of tradition in service to originality.

The works for piano trio on "Make Your Move" (Cellar Live) not only offer showcases of his elegantly surefooted articulation and skill at subordinating improvisation to composition, but also emphasize arrangements that ensure prominence of bass and drums. His compatible colleagues are David Wong, bass, and Kenny Washington, drums — like Gallon, both native New Yorkers.

Gallon's originals often have pre-existing songs in mind, and their conceptual freshness makes the new pieces occupy parallel terrain to what inspired them. The mainstream style sets some performances in the context of small-group swing, such as the disc opener, "Kitty Paws." The Gallon piece called "That's the Question" immediately suggested its potential adaptation as a jazz "vocalese," perhaps for a group like Duchess. (Once I read the accompanying press release, it turns out a solo vocal version with lyrics has already been done.)

Gallon's role model in jazz piano is explicitly Hank Jones, with one of the disc's originals ("Hank's a Lot") being a tribute to the esteemed maestro. The medium-tempo swing evokes Jones well enough, and Gallon's touch is also reminiscent of the Jones manner. 

But there are also hints of Thelonious Monk's eccentricity and innovative rhythmic breadth. Like Monk, Gallon draws deep from the Great American Songbook while also taking into account a quest for formal novelty. "Out of Whack" is such an instance here, and I also hear the Monk influence in the disc's title track, where conventional phrasing is subjected to harmonic surprises. In exchanges with the drums near the end, there are near-quotes of Monk's "Misterioso." More explicit bebop inspiration is elsewhere to  be heard in these fetching performances.

The pianist's melodic emphasis is seconded by bassist Wong, who takes a most tuneful solo in the slow blues "Craw Daddy." Wong is typically capable at getting straight to the point and delivering a tidy solo, as he does in "Hank's a Lot." And Washington consistently lives up to Gallon's praise of the drummer in displaying a "remarkable arrangement-oriented concept, his ability to bring every detail to light."

The disc's two standards depart somewhat from convention while respecting the originals: Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays" settles into a hard-driving groove, powered by Washington. The return to the theme is particularly deft, and the other standard — Victor Young's "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance" — also displays the trio's internal rapport in the way it gradually gathers force after Gallon's ruminative,  unaccompanied introduction. 


Sunday, May 16, 2021

Swept up in the spirit of the dance, ISO continues 'Spring Inspirations' with Joshua Weilerstein

Joshua Weilerstein, ISO guest conductor 

Constrained though its concert presentation has to be because of the pandemic, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra nonetheless can do its part to sweep aside continuing anxiety, given its renewed vim after 14 months away.

On Saturday night, Joshua Weilerstein, conducting the orchestra in the second "Spring Inspirations" concert marking its return to performance for audiences at its Hilbert Circle Theatre home, brought that spirit of revival and zest to a concert capped by Beethoven's ecstatic Symphony No. 7 in A major. Like its predecessor on Thursday, the concert was dedicated to the memory of philanthropist Christel DeHaan.

The concert opened with an overture in symphonic form by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a composer sometimes called "the black Mozart." He is among the composers of color lately being brought to the fore in the intensified diversity quest that pervades the world of classical music.

His Overture to "L'amant anonyme" (The Anonymous Lover) is worth programming as representative of the vigor and adaptability of the classical style apart from its "big three" (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven).  The fast-paced finale introducing this comic opera found the violins scrappy on their return to the main theme, but otherwise the performance seemed solidly put together. 

Following up on his prominence Thursday in Richard Strauss's op. 7 Serenade,  in Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin" Nathan Hughes contributed his penetrating, well-shaped sound as the ISO's first-oboe guest. His regular job is the similar post with the long-idled Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. 

Under Weilerstein's baton, the shadowy as well as the brightly nostalgic aspects of the score were illuminated across the four movements. Hughes was particularly effective leading the way among the winds in the Minuet.

After a blurred initial chord, the Beethoven symphony quickly became shipshape in this performance. Conducting without score, Weilerstein imparted a young adept's vigor to the work from the onset of the main theme, which follows a lengthy, portentous introduction. Accents became precise and stunning, a feature that nearly overwhelmed the performance in the Scherzo and finale. But the performance communicated high excitement throughout.

The strings showed aplomb in putting across the expressive variety of the second movement, which was given its proper Andante (roughly, "walking") momentum. Understandably, perhaps, the horns had not yet attained their wonted midseason consistency. The Scherzo displayed an acute rhythmic profile in this performance, and its contrasting Trio was not overloaded with dignity, as one sometimes hears.

Weilerstein was clearly making his interpretation all of a piece. Robustness got the upper hand, and if the last movement crowns the composition as "the apotheosis of the dance" (a phrase that has attached itself like a barnacle to this mighty ship), there was a relentless, mounting energy that suggested foot-stomping vitality. 

As indicated by the occasional windmill motion of his left hand, Weilerstein was also drawing forth the music's vertiginous quality — the sense that a dance's dizzying exuberance is nearly out of control. The balance was pretty well maintained; I'm recalling two famous poems in which this vertical/horizontal combination of keeping the beat throbbing and being whirled around vie for supremacy: William Carlos Williams' "The Dance" and Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz." 

Its few flaws aside, this was for me the most stirring, most youthful concert performance of a Beethoven symphony since I heard Michael Tilson Thomas in Miami Beach conduct the New World Symphony in the Fifth nearly 20 years ago. Such an unexpected reminder of a past peak concert experience is always welcome, as is the mere presence of the ISO in action once again.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra makes a long-delayed return to concert performance

Raymond Leppard, the late conductor laureate of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, used to speak
from the stage of music the ISO was about "to play to you."

Guest conductor Peter Oundjian

The phrase, a British usage among those the naturalized American citizen delightfully retained from his native England, seems particularly apt when considering the ISO's return to performing in front of an audience seated in its home hall, Hilbert Circle Theatre.  "Play to you" emphasizes the directness of communication to be treasured especially now; it's as straightforward as "talk to you." The concert-giving norm can be glimpsed as the pandemic gradually comes under control. It's for us as well, of course, but seems especially to us as it resumes.

With guest conductor Peter Oundjian on the podium Thursday night, the ISO played to us actually (and virtually via livestream)  for the first time since March 2020 — 429 days, by the reckoning of James Johnson, the orchestra's CEO, in remarks beforehand.  So regrettable was such a long hiatus that I found pleasurable even orchestra members' conventional noodling and individualized warming up as socially distanced patrons took their seats. And when concertmaster Kevin Lin guided the tuning, it was almost balm to the ears.

The concert was dedicated to Christel DeHaan, a loyal patron of Indianapolis arts who died last year. Thursday's program was in pandemic trim, with no intermission, lasting under 90 minutes. Four works displayed the orchestra in mostly complete form, with two of them from the core repertoire: Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture and Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor. In between came showcases for strings and winds: George Walker's "Lyric for Strings" and Richard Strauss' Serenade for 13 Winds, op. 7.

In normal times, the Strauss would have been presented from the front of the stage, where the ensemble could be fully visible. Fortunately, audibility was in no way compromised as the wind players performed with views from the main floor partially obstructed by their string colleagues, seated downstage and awaiting their turn to shine in the Walker piece. 

Strauss was already channeling his father's profession as a horn player at the start of a long composing career that was to include an array of horn glories. The ISO contingent met the mark along with the nine woodwind players. The principal oboe leads a splendid phalanx of instrumentalists; in this pert performance that role was capably filled by Nathan Hughes, first oboist in the idled Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He's among the teachers of Jennifer Christen, the ISO principal who's now on maternity leave. Until she returns, local oboists will be first-chair guests for several concerts.

Walker, an African-American master composer who died in 2018, wrote "Lyric for Strings" to honor his grandmother. It was most fitting to include in a concert with the memorial aspect of this one. The piece is tender and assertive by turns, perhaps representing facets of the composition's honoree. It unobtrusively highlights the different sections of the string choir, but the overall impression is of affectionate unity; I liked the way the final phrases were gently isolated to amount to a benediction.

Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture belongs to incidental music for a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that pays respects to a hero of 16th-century resistance to Spanish tyranny in the Netherlands. Egmont was a nobleman torn between two versions of patriotism — strains on his loyalty and honesty that may distantly foreshadow struggles today to sort out conflicting obligations of patriotism in this country. The count, despite his devotion to the Spanish king, was executed for opposition to the repressive way Spain was governing his homeland. 

Thursday's performance highlighted the stern atmosphere of foreboding at the start of the overture, then made much of the dramatic tension that Beethoven's interest in the subject drew from him at a high level of inspiration. Oundjian elicited from the orchestra a particularly suspenseful, very slow anticipation of the fiery, triumphant coda. 

It's one of the great musical statements of victory over obstacles; in high school, I remember seeing at school a United Nations film that used the overture to highlight the world's problems of poverty and strife, yielding as the coda rushed forward to potential triumph over all the troubles. Ever since, I've found it impossible not to be stirred by this piece. In Thursday's context, the ISO adumbrated a different kind of victory, for which the pandemic-weary human community is no doubt hoping. 

Mozart's G minor symphony is another universally acknowledged masterpiece. Its appeal to me among his late symphonies has worn thin over the years. The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, whose challenging perspectives about music have been preserved in interviews, essays and radio broadcasts, judged the piece worth nothing more remarkable than that amazing fit of near-atonality just before the finale's development gets under way. My view is closer to the consensus. Still, the innovative murmur with which the work opens and the somewhat dogged treatment of the main theme ("It's a bird, it's a plane, no, it's Mozart") have lost their thrill. 

Nonetheless, Thursday's performance featured a nice display in the second movement of the way a repeated two-note figure — sometimes going up, sometimes down —varies in expression from a nonchalance that is close to salon music to a tragic series of sighs. Mozart, the ace opera composer, thus comes through here in the emotional variety he was supremely capable of embodying within a unified work.

A botched horn re-entry was the only flaw in the Andante's performance; the horns made up for that in the hearty glow they lent to the minuet-and-trio third movement. The finale has that shocking bit Gould admired so, but it also, in this performance, brought to the fore the music's rhythmic nimbleness under Oundjian's direction.  The violins sounded good, and flashes of contrapuntal mastery were most welcome as the performance moved toward an exhilarating conclusion.

As Mayor Joe Hogsett told the audience at the outset after being introduced by Johnson: "Our community has been at a crossroads, and we have chosen the path of preservation that leads to character." * Those words are a good enough seal to put on the ISO's welcome return to the concert stage. A different classical program might well confirm that impression in Saturday's "Spring Inspirations" concert.

  *Maybe those words were "a good enough seal" because they appear to have been borrowed by the mayor from lines spoken by Al Pacino in the film "Scent of a Woman," according to a May 26 IndyStar story by Amelia Pak-Harvey (no relation).

[Photo by Sian Richards]


Saturday, May 8, 2021

IRT presents 'Mrs. Harrison': Two women reconnect across a racial and proprietary divide

'Mrs. Harrison': Classmates' encounter reflects uneasiness from the start.

The great American literary critic Lionel Trilling somewhere observed that we are read by the books we read.

He was presumably talking about the great novels upon which he focused his best work. The statement, typical of Trilling's moral earnestness, can readily be applied to the plays we see and the stories that are told to us. Both present us with narratives, imaginatively peopled, in a linear form that we process over time.

And if we are somehow read, or seen, by such art, it must mean more than a recognition that we sympathize with one or more characters, or find that the story strikes deep. It must mean that what is being presented is interpreting our lives in some way, that we are the object of some scrutiny instead of being just a witness, however sympathetic. We end up with a version of ourselves that we perhaps had never acknowledged. What we stake out as essential to our experience may not be the whole story, we learn.

In "Mrs. Harrison," the new two-character show that Indiana Repertory Theatre is live streaming through May 30, the cumulative weight of R. Eric Thomas' play is that similar, but crucially different, stories close to the characters are working upon each woman. It's clear as well from even the brief summary that IRT offers potential patrons that a serious discrepancy about the significance of life material that both characters lay claim to will emerge.

Holly, a white standup comic turned storyteller, is struggling to keep more than a foothold in her profession. In career terms, she's ironically marginalized. Aisha, a black classmate who has found significant stature as a playwright, is comfortable but somewhat guarded about her established status. The women meet ten years after graduation at a class reunion. Holly wears her name tag; Aisha has not applied hers because her glamorous outfit is silk (costume designer: Alexis Carrie).

Laughter gets Holly and Aisha used to their reunion

Thomas has cleverly placed the action in a setting where the real-time lack of an interruption is quite plausible: a well-appointed lounge for faculty women (designed for IRT by Regina Garcia) at their distinguished alma mater. Outside as rain patters down, the rest of the class is congregating, with predictable reunion awkwardness, under a tent.

Mikael Burke directs the show with a sure instinct for getting his actors past the girl talk and the occasionally tense probes Holly makes toward Aisha. When they were friends negotiating a fraught play-writing class, Holly once told Aisha a story that we learn has shaped every aspect of their relationship. We know that a confrontation with racial dynamics is going to surface, and it's explosive when it does. For a while, and thanks to the WFYI cameras' well-modulated use of close-ups, midway perspectives, and full-stage views, we see a spellbinding spectrum of parry-and-thrust from Celeste M. Cooper as Aisha and Mary Williamson as Holly.

At first, I wondered if Williamson was playing Holly as too much a collection of attitudes and gestures, hairtrigger mimicry and self-justification, and if Cooper was overemphasizing a blithe self-consciousness displayed largely by protective giggling and a rising celebrity's studied presentation of casualness. It turned out these suggestions of hyperbole are just right for the roles. The audience is willy-nilly confronted with questions of who's telling the truth: Why is there such an edge to Holly's professed admiration for Aisha's work? Why does Aisha seem so forgetful or evasive about their faded friendship? 

Maybe the play is reading us all along. I'm skeptical of the ability of any American playgoer to be absolutely color-blind when a bi-racial show doesn't seem to focus on race — at least, like "Mrs. Harrison," not right away. Thomas plays skillfully with this kind of resistance.  An audience's response to Holly's and Aisha's dishy career talk is bound to be colored (pun deliberate) by the characters' identities.  

The performances travel this varied terrain — part pasture, part minefield — most capably. "Mrs. Harrison" perhaps entices us to examine whether the stories that we feel define us are entirely genuine. Studies have shown that we tend to revise even our strongest memories each time we recall them, especially when we share them with others. Interpretation becomes part of whatever the experience "really" was. 

Don't be surprised if you find yourself read by "Mrs. Harrison" almost as much as Holly and Aisha are read by their overlapping, clashing stories.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, May 7, 2021

For the in-person part of its May Music Festival, EMS ends triumphantly with Ying Quartet's Beethoven

 Surely in the top rank of violinists to come out of Indianapolis, Robin Scott returned this week under

The Ying Quartet celebrated return to live action here.

Ensemble Music Society auspices as first violinist of the Ying Quartet. He's held the position since 2015, about as long as his two immediate predecessors combined. 

His presence nowadays has an air of permanence about it, as only founding member Timothy Ying played with his siblings in the eminent American string quartet longer than Scott.

Certainly the mutual rapport of the players was evident in performances Thursday evening of two major Beethoven string quartets: Opus 59, No. 3 ("Razumovsky") in C major and Opus 131 in C-sharp minor. The response of the pandemic-restricted audience at Glick Indiana History Center was ecstatic.

To take up the less problematic work first: the Third Razumovsky is an elfin, volatile delight. The tense first-movement introduction gives little hint of the buoyancy to come, but it was fully engaged in by the Ying ensemble. Similarly, the hushed coda of the third movement was carried out with due solemnity before all shadows were swept away by the whirlwind finale. That Allegro molto inevitably has an airborne quality, but I noted with particular satisfaction the way the Ying Quartet found subtleties and textural variation without allowing the energy to slacken. 

This performance went far to dispel the unpleasantly dizzying effect a film of this movement once had on me. It was part of a feature on the Guarneri Quartet of hallowed memory. Seeking a visual counterpart to the music's galvanic momentum, the cameras revolve around the quartet in a headlong rush to complement what the players are producing. It reminded me why I've never gone in for amusement-park rides that operate in a similar fashion. All the excitement needed can be heard in what the Ying did while I was watching Scott, second violinist Janet Ying, violist Philip Ying, and cellist David Ying from a stationary position.

In his ingratiating remarks from the stage before the performance, Scott mentioned at the end that "the Beethoven quartets need no explanation." There is ample truth in a reminder that music designed to communicate gets much of its meaning across without words, even to attentive first-time listeners. So I'm quite at peace with any musician's making such a statement, but it's a tad ironic in this case, especially where Beethoven's late string quartets are concerned.

Brooklyn Rider waxed poetic.

This one, in seven linked movements, has occasioned an abundance of explanation. Some claims made for it put the C-sharp minor quartet on the loftiest spiritual plane. In notes to its 2012 recording of the piece, Brooklyn Ryder refers to the work's "near-impossible musical juxtapositions," alluding no doubt to such matters as the tempo fluctuations in the finale, where "a tempo" sits cheek-by-jowl  with "ritardando" repeatedly. The Ying players made sure such variations were there without suggesting that Beethoven just couldn't make up his mind. Everything cohered; a confident spirit prevailed. I especially liked the way the final three chords of equal value were enunciated without sounding like a trivializing "cha-cha-cha."

The music also puts in close proximity the simplest, catchiest tunes with gnarled passages and insistence on exploring the hidden implications of the main material. I imagine Beethoven saying, in the course of the 40-minute work but especially in the seventh movement: "It's really all about simplicity, isn't it? But life keeps throwing complications at us. We must learn to handle them in order to understand that fundamental simplicity." That must be why Brooklyn Rider notes: "Beethoven forces us to rise to no less than our full potential, to interact with each other and society on equal terms, to love and to be vulnerable." A guide to how to live our lives? Really? It's a hard notion to dismiss.

So potentially tangled are the music's inner workings that a full chapter in "The Art of Quartet Playing" is devoted to how the Guarneri arrived at their interpretation of the piece, including decisions to tweak Beethoven's directions in order to improve balances. The irrepressible Guarneri seems to have tied itself in knots over op. 131, then untied the knots. Presumably the Ying did the same, though not every ensemble gets into the weeds the same way.

Interviewer David Blum ends his book with post-performance responses of Guarneri members to that problematic finale: "Savage — utterly savage," "grotesque and wild," "a demonic dance — and yet, what wonderfully tender moments, what an enormous emotional range!"

I hesitate to ascribe similar summings-up to the very able Ying musicians, but I'll leave the Guarneri violinists with the last word, which I trust may apply to what last night's audience felt as well: Arnold Steinhardt: "He's shaking his fist at destiny. It's terrifying — but suddenly everything is released and it overflows with joy, with ecstasy."  John Dalley, less loftily, but still somehow apropos: "You want to bark like a dog." 

Kudos to Ensemble Music Society and the Ying Quartet for addressing our spiritual and animal natures alike.

[Photo by Tim Greenway]

Pianist Noah Haidu continues to apply his own style to that of revered pianists

Last year, there was "Doctone," a much-admired tribute album devoted to Kenny Kirkland as a composer.

Noah Haidu shows how personal and fresh paying tribute can be.

That allowed Noah Haidu to effect an homage that gave free rein to his own manner of jazz piano.  This time around, a new recording is another oblique way of avoiding mimicry: Haidu honors Keith Jarrett by revealing how inspiring the retired pianist's trio style has been for him, especially when playing standards.

Kirkland, whose most notable late-career association was with Branford Marsalis, died at 43 of congestive heart failure in 1998; Jarrett, who turns 76 tomorrow, has announced his retirement after suffering two strokes. In "Slowly: Song for Keith Jarrett" (also a Sunnyside release), Haidu pares the assisting personnel down to bassist Buster Williams and drummer Billy Hart and eschews electronics. 

The sidemen get some compositional exposure, with Hart's "Lorca" being the most impressive, enfolding the disc's best distribution of solos. On this track, Williams breaks free of occasional intonation problems that dog his fat sound in "Rainbow/Keith Jarrett," the disc's most explicit tribute to the honoree after "Slowly," Naidu's reflective, unaccompanied salute to Jarrett. The bassist's best solo comes in the disc finale, the evergreen "But Beautiful."

Soft and slow, the performance shows the virtues of not overdoing it when a melody is as firmly expressive as Jimmy Van Heusen's. It needs no heightening of intensity, but rather steady restraint and whole-hearted ensemble engagement. Even more winning, the trio's interpretation of Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind" shows the trio to be expressively of one mind. 

The disc's other standard, "What a Difference a Day Makes," reaches out for that intensity, though a long outchorus and coda successfully avoid the temptation to go full Oscar Peterson. This indicates that Haidu's familiarity with jazz piano's historic breadth doesn't mean he has to parade it; a brief quotation of "I'm  Beginning to See the Light" is sufficient. What remains is an evocation of Jarrett's best manner of going deep more than wide.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Two guest ensembles meet in the middle of EMS' May Music Festival

 The venerable local impresario for visiting chamber-music groups has boosted a return to classical concerts for in-the-hall audiences  by welcoming the Horszowski Trio and the Ying Quartet this week. 

Ying Quartet returns for the first time since Robin Scott joined.

Ensemble Music Society set a three-day festival on the fulcrum of a joint appearance by both ensembles Wednesday evening at the Glick Indiana History Center. The groups shared the stage at the intermissionless concert for Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's expansive, passionate Septet, following the Horszowski's luminous account of Beethoven's Piano Trio in E-flat, op. 97 ("Archduke").

The Horszowski Trio is festival guest in Zwilich and Feldman works.
The landmark Beethoven work, which occupies the summit of music for the combination of piano, violin, and cello, gave the guests a chance to show their command of mainstream repertoire. The night before, the Horszowski had met the unorthodox challenges of Morton Feldman's 1980 Trio. In its second EMS appearance, a different kind of virtuosity was on display: flow, momentum, expressive unanimity, nimbleness, formal command.

The "Archduke" launches with some assertive piano in isolation, underlining the dominance of the keyboard instrument throughout a genre pioneered by Joseph Haydn. Rieko Aizawa proved herself to be an artist with a wide, appropriate range of expression. Initially, however, the piano's resonance was too bright and forceful, such that the string players risked being covered. Lowering the lid slightly for the Zwilich was a wise move, and ensemble balance was further restored by the piano's position behind six string players instead of just two.

The trio's partnership was solid, nonetheless, and the wit and variety of the work's three voices was unstinting. Aizawa's lightness of touch animated the second-movement Scherzo, leading the way but with evident adjustment to the hall's piano favoritism. Expressively, violinist Jesse Mills displayed a dry, precisely judged manner. Cellist Ole Akahoshi put forth a warmer but still patrician sound, somewhat reminiscent of Bernard Greenhouse, cellist in the Beaux Arts, the most eminent American piano trio in its heyday decades ago. The Horszowski made the most of the sprawling lyricism of the third movement, Andante cantabile, and wrapped things up triumphantly in the finale, capped by a speedy, well-integrated coda.

The festival's Venn-diagram programming overlapped the skills of both guest ensembles with the Zwilich Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet. The work juxtaposes the constituent forces immediately, the string quartet getting the long notes; the trio, short ones in a restless pattern. Thematic material and its harmonic treatment brought to mind Russian or Bartokian forebears. The second movement, slyly headed "Quasi una Passacaglia," announces its intention to digress from the old passacaglia form now and then, and does so wholeheartedly. The forces are combined and recombined in all sorts of ways. Balances intact, the seven players appeared to have mastered the relevance of every digression as well as the power of the generating theme, with its broad reach majestically realized.

Zwilich reasserts her Americanness in the blues-inspired third movement, "Games." The harmonies have a jazzy flavor, and syncopated textures tuck in blue notes. There are call-and-response patterns in a nod to other aspects of Black-derived music. The playfulness of these borrowings fulfills the movement's title.

The extensive tone-painting and vigor up to this point tended to make the "Au revoir" finale, admittedly on first hearing, seem too long. By turns stormy and sentimental, this was definitely an emotionally complicated goodbye. (It was complicated in another sense by the pianist's successful struggle with page turns.) The Septet nonetheless succeeds in its effusive celebration of bringing two venerable chamber-music formats together for one grand purpose. It deserved its fulcrum position in this most welcome festival.

The Ying Quartet, with Indianapolis' own Robin Scott in the first-violin chair of what originally was a ballyhooed ensemble of siblings, returns tonight to wrap up the series with an all-Beethoven program.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Ensemble Music opens three-day festival with a Morton Feldman challenge

Among the signs of concert revival in Indianapolis is the splash Ensemble Music Society is making this  week with its May Music Festival. 

Jesse Mills, Rieko Aizawa, Ole Akahoshi

The plunge was bracing enough as the festival opened Tuesday evening with a performance of Morton Feldman's "Trio" by the Horszowski Trio. The listener was as much exposed as a perceiver of musical meaning as the performers were charged with delivering a score that, in this performance, requires a two-hour span. 

Unaccustomed as I am to musical skinny-dipping, I found the experience both inviting and enthralling on the one hand, trying and exhausting on the other. Often I was riveted by every note and gesture; elsewhere, I confess, I kept fighting to stay focused and avoid mental wandering. Despite the invariably slow tempos and soft dynamic levels, it's to the credit of Feldman's characteristic procedures that I was never close to falling asleep; the performers as well stimulated my attention by their constant fidelity to "Trio"'s soft-spoken surprises and changes of direction. Violinist Jesse Mills, cellist Ole Akahoshi, and pianist Rieko Aizawa brought off something heroic in music that eschews heroism.

A line from an unusual source stimulates my attempt to find adequate words to report my experience last night at the Glick Indiana History Center. The first song in "The Mikado," Gilbert and Sullivan's popular but recently controversial operetta, is Nanki-Poo's ditty introducing himself as "a wandering minstrel I, a thing of shreds and patches." The best thumbnail description of "Trio" may be that it is a thing of shreds and patches. By that I mean that, however successfully it coheres, it is compounded of brief patterns and (in a word often used in describing the abstract expressionist art that often inspired Feldman) gestures. Furthermore, to borrow an insight from Nicholas Johnson's excellent program notes, it "seems to be questioning the nature of virtuosity itself."

So the listener must work to exclude loading too much meaning onto any episode or phrase, either in

Morton Feldman (1926-1987)

isolation or in aggregate. There seems to be no rhetoric in this music. Clearly, "development" has been jettisoned. It is almost perilous to apply any words to "Trio" in an attempt to tease out its meaning. About 70 minutes into Tuesday's performance, I noted that certain figures seemed cryptic, particularly when the sustaining pedal is called for from the pianist. But then I thought: If what I just heard is cryptic, that means it's hiding something. There's a deep structure, to borrow a term from linguistics. But is there? Maybe everything that paraded before the respectful audience has the self-evident plainness indicated by the old computer acronym WYSIWYG.  Except, in this case, what you hear is what you get. Maybe interpretation stops and ends there.

In remarks from the stage before the performance, Mills gently warned: "The way one perceives the sound is as important as the sound itself." Such guidance may be in part responsible for my perceiving a "scherzo"-like episode about halfway into the performance. That was succeeded by a static sojourn: the slow movement? Nah, too short, too fragmentary! 

Clearly I was borrowing perceptions applicable to other music. The second stanza of Nanki-Poo's ditty comes to mind in ways both applicable and not to "Trio": "My catalogue is long / through every passion ranging. / And to your humours changing / I tune my supple song." Passion is irrelevant in Feldman's music, but the rest of the stanza oddly supports the composer's artistic credo: suppleness, changing humors, a long catalogue of gestures — it's all there.

The neutral "affect" of the piece is carried out through many non-vibrato phrases in the string instruments and the frequent use of harmonics (those extra-high notes produced by a light-touch technique), thus avoiding the emotional heft and nuance of the core violin and cello registers. And chords, occasionally suggested by the strings' double stops but more naturally by the piano, are almost exclusively dissonant, rarely accented, insofar as they are unresolved and don't seem to point to any resolution. 

So even when the harmonies are not abrasive by conventional standards, they still swim around in a vast sea of dissonance. This keeps dissonance from indicating any degree of emotional tension or disturbance. "Trio" explores other kinds of disturbance entirely, and that pretty much centers on the listener's degree of accommodation to what Feldman's music is all about. 

After two hours and seven minutes, one has either made such accommodation or the experience is lost on one. I am mostly confident I landed on the former side: I was beneficially disturbed and almost enchanted by the work's distant evocations of "ballads, songs, and snatches / And dreamy lullaby!" That's Nanki-Poo again, and admittedly it may more closely be me than it is Morton Feldman.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

In "Nascentia," saxophonist Steve Slagle celebrates renewal of hope, creativity

"Nascentia" means birth, and what has happened through a lengthy pandemic gestation is a slew of new

Steve Slagle heads compatible pandemic studio band.

works from saxophonist Steve Slagle, who gives a new disc that title after its centerpiece suite.

He has a great ensemble to help him put it across, with a rhythm section (present throughout the disc) of Bruce Barth, piano; Ugonna Okegwo, bass, and Jason Tiemann, drums. He fills out the front line of horns with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and trombonist Clark Gayton. 

"Nascentia" is in five parts, with the full band up to the hopeful, vigorous task in the odd-numbered sections, with short interludes for drums, then bass, in sections 2 and 4. The suite tails off somewhat in the finale, which is letdown from "All Up in It" (No. 1) and "Agama" (No. 3), partly from Slagle's decision to do without the trombone. That makes for a questionable imbalance in an otherwise attractive multi-movement piece.

The ballad "Who Compares to You?" is a quartet breather, with Slagle poised against the rhythm section, but Pelt is in such good form on this disc that I missed him here: in "New Note," for instance, he's consistently fiery without ever overblowing. I hear him on this date as more comfortable than he has sometimes seemed on discs under his own name.

The fast tempo of "New Note" suits Barth better than the ballad, for this pianist can be inclined to overdecorate if the pace permits it. He's a cogent fast-tempo soloist and accompanist. There are some good exchanges with Tiemann, an imaginative drummer from Louisville who occasionally played in Indianapolis before re-establishing himself in New York.

"I Remember Britt," the only piece not by Slagle, makes quite a nice display out of Harold Mabern's tune, with a melodic Pelt solo and some idiomatic playing from the leader on his other instrument, flute.

The optimism apparently animating Slagle as he looks ahead (like all of us) to resumption of normal activity is captured immediately in the disc-opener, "We Release." It amounts to a credo, making for a fine introduction to the suite in which Slagle places so much of his hopes for going forward. In the theme and interludes, he's double-tracked on alto sax and flute. The melodic flow is rich in his alto solos,  and accompaniment patterns are comfortably anchored in an effusive boogaloo churning. "Release" is clearly the message.