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.

 

[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.