Monday, June 28, 2021

Mini-recitals by five APA finalists precede announcement of top prize to Kenny Broberg

Perhaps falling in love with the Three Tenors as a toddler inclined Kenny Broberg toward fascination with immediate appeal through music. It may have planted the seed for the kind of direct communication that won him the Christel DeHaan Fellowship of the 2021 American Pianists Awards Sunday afternoon.

Kenny Broberg displayed direct insights on way to Fellowship.

The biographical tidbit was part of a series of video sketches and on-site remarks by co-hosts Sylvia McNair and Terrance McKnight about the five finalists in the American Pianists Association's concentrated classical competition. An unusually large audience (in immediately post-pandemic terms) at Indiana Landmarks Center waited in suspense for the jury's decision along with, thanks to live-streaming, a worldwide audience of indeterminate size.

Before the big announcement, itself preceded by speeches of thanks and congratulation, the finalists played brief solo recitals that should count as the Awards' performance finale, not the concerto round of the night before (as I said in my post about that event). My take on those performances is elaborated below, uninfluenced by Broberg's eventual victory.

Doré's depiction of Paolo and Francesca
I'll start with him, however. His account of Franz Liszt's "Dante" Sonata concluded the mini-recital series. I was impressed by his ready grasp of the music's drama, which derives from the effect of reading the ill-starred love story of Paolo and Francesca and their punishment in Hell as described in Dante's "Inferno," the most vivid part of the epic poem titled "The Divine Comedy." The episode has tugged at the heartstrings of several composers; Tchaikovsky's best tone poem is arguably "Francesca da Rimini."

Avoiding the temptation to overcolor the music, Broberg went right to the heart of the conflict and the illicit lovers' suffering. He conveyed a sense of the geography of Dante's hell, the jagged terrain reflecting the loneliness and torment of souls assigned to  its inhospitable circles. The work requires a unique structural sense, something to me evoked by the engravings of Gustave Doré in one of his most potent series of literary illustrations. This is music that needs its gradations of black and white outlined and its blended grasp of motion and emotion, as in Doré's evocative engravings.

Liszt's romantic extravagance and feeling for dynamic movement had opened the mini-recitals with Mackenzie Melemed's playing of "Funerailles," in which funeral ceremonies are caught up in martial splendor. The dramatic and lyrical sections were well-defined and compellingly contrasted.

Spotlighting other impressive interpretations: The vigorously articulated gusto of Dominic Cheli's performances of Brahms' Rhapsody in E-flat major from op. 119 and Scriabin's Fantasie in B minor, op. 28 highlighted the contrast between the composers' way of handling thick textures. Cheli's  solid balance of harmonies in the Brahms was exemplary; in the Scriabin, without blurring, he applied lots of pedal, which worked to maximize the way sporadic gatherings of energy become convulsive in the Russian mystic's music.

The pedal was judiciously applied to help make the most of Sahun Sam Hong's artistry in Chopin's Scherzo No 2 in B-flat minor. In the main material, the sound was a little dry, which worked well to bring out the piece's rhythmic clarity; as the work progressed, Hong thickened the sound, using the pedal more liberally. His account amounted to the afternoon's  best performance of mainstream repertoire.

My fascination with Michael Davidman, so pronounced in an earlier report, continued in his playing of short works by Albeniz, Rachmaninoff, and Saint-Saens. He seemed to have a distinct plan for every bit of decoration and scrap of melody in Rachmaninoff's "Lilacs" and the French composer's Etude in the Form of a Waltz. Throughout, the tone was ravishing: irresistibly, I recalled Virgil Thomson's description of the Philadelphia Orchestra's string tone 80 years ago when it was first developing its sound under Eugene Ormandy. Thomson's New York Herald Tribune review said "the suavity of it" seemed "a visual and tactile thing, like pale pinky-brown velvet." 

That strikes home as part of Davidman's brand. But the Saint-Saens is borderline salon music, though at the difficult end of the spectrum. Without knowing anything about the jury's deliberations, I was tempted  to wonder if questions about Davidman's limitations of artistic temperament rose in its collective mind. Significant parts of the repertoire may not be to this gifted pianist's liking: I have a hard time imagining a Davidman "Appassionata" Sonata or his Brahms "Handel Variations." 

But well-equipped, flexible young artists like any of these finalists have ways of defying predictability. And that's part of what the American Pianists Awards are devoted to revealing. May their success long continue, even past the estimable artistic directorship of Joel Harrison, who is about to retire.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Playing well with others: American Pianists Awards puts finalists in collaboration

The chamber-music and concerto phases of the 2021 American Pianists Awards have necessarily been squeezed into one concert each, meaning that much of the repertoire was trimmed down to a movement or two per pianist. The second concert presented the finalists working with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Gerard Schwarz; on Friday each had been joined by the excellent Dover String Quartet at the Indiana History Center.

The competitive aspect of the quadrennial classical division (every other two years is devoted to jazz) of these well-heeled contests has thus been given a focus with pluses and minuses attached. A concert artist, especially in collaboration, develops a concept of a chosen piece that brings out his or her personality across the spectrum of a composer's unified creation. Nonetheless, a movement of significant length is also a unit of creative and interpretive achievement, and listeners (including the jury) don't have to divide their impressions over two or more concerts per genre, as was the APA's pre-pandemic custom.

So, except for two compact works in concerto style, the last two nights concentrated the attention in ways

Gerard Schwarz was concertos' guest conductor

that asked us to forget about movements that were not played. On Saturday at Hilbert Circle Theatre, we heard the first movements of three Beethoven concertos, plus two complete works that fit within the roughly 20-minute portion assigned to each participant: Cesar Franck's "Symphonic Variations" and Franz Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major.

Taking the complete pieces first, Kenny Broberg followed up on the unity and firm ensemble sense he had displayed in the first movement of Brahms' Piano Quintet in F minor with a scintillating account of the Franck, a work that mounts through richly lyrical treatments of its theme onto the kind of Second Empire thrust Franck was capable of in the concluding Allegro non troppo, supported incandescently by Schwarz and the ISO. 

Inevitably, the mind's ear went back to a Franck composition more explicitly indicative of the composer's career as an organist, the first movement of the Piano Quintet in F minor, which Michael Davidman played with the Dover. I had not heard Davidman's solo recital for the competition, so was enthralled by his playing for the first time Friday.

I don't know how much today's burgeoning pianists and singers listen to their recorded legacies, but Davidman certainly sounded familiar with the French tradition of piano-playing, exemplified by Alfred Cortot, Marguerite Long, and Robert Casadesus. Trying not to make too much of comparing present-day concerts with historic recordings, I am yielding to that temptation here: the anonymous liner-note annotator to my LP of the Thibaud-Casals-Cortot performance of Mendelssohn's Piano Trio in D minor concisely nails the French pianist's special qualities: "intense sensitivity and ample yet varied tone."

The delicate force of Davidman answering phrases to his string colleagues' "questions" as the Franck got under way was captivating. His accents, when called for, were impressive, ringing out without overemphasis. The facility in rapid passagework was unstinting and always under control, yet with the flair of spontaneity. I was looking forward to appreciating Davidman's own "intense sensitivity and ample yet varied tone" in the Liszt concerto, and I was not disappointed. 

Michael Davidman shares wide performance experience with his competition colleagues.
The "ample yet varied tone" noted in Cortot's playing to me means applying that amplitude where called for, yet having more than one way to play at any dynamic level. I heard that in Davidman's Liszt. Many phrases, including some of the most gossamer quality, I wish I could preserve in perfect memory, like those insects in amber you sometimes see. 

The evenness of touch sparkled, but special emphases were not ignored. There's a left-hand line as the second-movement melody unfolds that, in this performance, had an uncanny richness of tone, as if a master baritone were singing it. The excitement of the "Allegro Marziale animato" was introduced with masterly suspense, and the thrills of that finale seemed truly earned by the "intense sensitivity" the pianist had displayed previously. This was not adventitious excitement applied out of nowhere; it had been present, thanks to Davidman's acuity and interpretive elan, from the start. All told, and given the simpatico accompaniment and the orchestration's brilliant variety, this was one of the best concerto performances I've heard in recent years.

No, I'm not going to advocate for Davidman as rightful winner of the Christel DeHaan Classical Fellowship to be announced this afternoon. I'm a little wary of musical competitions, though this one is well-run and, as a music journalist, I've been appreciative of their publicity value: they attract audiences, they attract money. May the excellence of these five young pianists in this showcase usher in significant careers all around; they deserve to be heard.

Of the rest of Saturday's program, I'll admit to a long-standing regard for the Beethoven Fourth as my favorite. Dominic Cheli's performance of the G Major's first movement opened with a thorough gentleness that was matched by the orchestra's response. I was impressed by his shapely legato touch and his apparent acknowledgment that this work foreshadows the romantic century, especially in the solo concerto form. Cheli's cadenza seemed to encompass all sides of the music, with some detectable, idiomatic  enlargement of one of Beethoven's versions.

Beethoven's C minor concerto, the Third, is suffused with the earnestness of middle Beethoven. It might not have been to all tastes that Mackenzie Melemed, with his spidery touch and nimbleness of phrasing, brought out the lightness of the solo writing, loading most of seriousness onto the cadenza. I found this well-founded, mood-lifting approach a relief, partly because the Third is my next-to-least favorite of Beethoven's mighty five. 

Yes, the "Emperor" is the beast in the room. It received a respectful, appropriately insightful account of the solo role by Sahun Sam Hong. Still, this masterpiece rubs me the wrong way, partly because its greatness absorbs all interpreters and even beats down admiring listeners. Individuality of expression from the piano and the robustness characteristic of the orchestra accompaniment add up to an excruciatingly detailed landscape painting. 

Tolstoy, like Beethoven, painted on huge canvas.

Putting one's concerto all into this one mighty movement subsumes just about every interpretation. It's as if the philosophical and historical position of the E-flat concerto both props up the individual and sets him firmly into a huge context that's larger than any one pianist — or any one of us, frankly. That makes this work worthy of its nickname, but it's not an ideal contest piece, despite Hong's evident commitment to it. 

The "Emperor" could be regarded as the "War and Peace" of piano concertos. It doesn't matter whether you're Napoleon (central to the generation of both works) or Prince Vasily or a foot soldier. As Tolstoy implied, a  remote, all-powerful god is in charge. In this concerto, Beethoven is that controlling yet oddly remote deity. We are accustomed to looking up to him in such a position. So, in the best sense of reviving the concert scene, exposure to three of his concerto first movements in the contest's final round is not regrettable, despite my imperial reservations.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Dance Kaleidoscope members create works of thanks for what endures post-pandemic

The geometry of living too close: Sarah Taylor's "feast."

 In "Acts of Gratitude," seven members of Dance Kaleidoscope take turns introducing new dances created around their grateful feelings. It will remain online through June 30.

The challenges of the probably waning pandemic, including restraints on working together for over a year, have to be put in the context of rehearsing in the company's new home and readying programs for a return to in-person performances. Thus, joy and pain are inevitable companions in the process, as they have been for most people in our collective sojourn through maximum uncertainty.

The show illuminates a wide swath of personal responses, each set upon a chosen number of colleagues. Not surprisingly, the responses are heavy in terms of seriousness. The choreographers and their peer group have been particularly challenged, because young people's years of greatest energy and productivity have had a time-out imposed on them. This is not an encouraging time for blithe spirits.

The dances thus struggle with opposed notions of freedom and limitation, isolation and community, trying to achieve equilibrium. Naturally, some of the struggles predate the pandemic. As introductory comments make clear, the choreographers are often coming to terms with what has shaped how they are. In order for gratitude to be kept in focus, resources carried from the past must be examined, sometimes celebrated, along with prospects for future fulfillment. 

As fledgling choreographers, there is immersion in techniques they are familiar with through practice and observation, all put in service to emotional expression. Many of the gestures are lyrical and imploring: arcing arms, lots of bending and quasi-crawling, earnest maneuvers of attraction and repulsion, interwoven patterns as well as wary stances across the distances afforded by DK's home stage at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

 The look of each show is substantially enhanced through the glow and design acumen of Laura E. Glover's lighting. We see that in the way the circle five dancers form at the start of Natalie Clevenger's "sakebu" (a Japanese word meaning "call" or "shout," lower-cased by Clevenger's preference) expands into circular floor patterns that help anchor an increasing variety of movement.

After displaying a verbal eloquence that matched her choreography, Paige Robinson shows in "Beneath the Embers" how the free-floating tolerance of childhood relationships can give way to setting apart those whose identity is made to seem alien because of body-image issues. The isolated figure among the five in this piece eventually benefits from the coalescence of her early companions around her in a salute to her freedom. 

In a more explicit celebration of individualism, Kieran King's "Be Deviant" gives his three dancers personal  dialects in a common language of self-definition. The onstage collapse before the blackout has a fine ambivalence to it. On the other hand, Manuel Valdes' full-company "Reflections of the Wounded" passes through agonized stages (peaking in Kieran King's solo) to emerge in a cleansing ritual to music explicitly suggesting born-again baptism. It's a notable manifestation of joy, even as it retains the seriousness of all seven pieces. 

Evidence of wit would have been more welcome, as it occupies much of the aesthetic terrain of dance, and we got it in Sarah Taylor's "feast." That doesn't mean that levity bubbled up in this enthralling work, though. The poet W.H. Auden memorably reminds us that wit requires a combination of imagination, moral courage, and unhappiness. Humor may live close by, but wit is the watchful landlord of a large building in which humor is an unruly tenant. 

What I loved about "feast." was its witty take on family relationships, life among intimates at close quarters as the pandemic mandated. Starting and ending with five dancers seated around a table, making robotic angular movements of head and torso, this was a witty piece. How are these people coping? Not well. They may be passing food in an imitation of community, but they are self-focused; communication is nervously caged and looking for outlets. 

The piece quickly expands into giving twitchy, individual life to each of these automatons. One by one, they take solo turns on top of the table after the dining tableau breaks up and a wealth of faux-awkward interactions ensues. The tension is richly varied. I never felt there was any transitional padding, and I actually became interested in all five dancers as characters, even though this is not a story ballet. The music had the insistence and repetitive impact of minimalism. 

From its one-word lower-case title and definitive appended period on, "feast." is a bright showcase of serious wit. It has wit's genius of looking at the same situation in complementary, if contradictory, ways. At length, it is also grimly funny. So, yes, it too can be counted as an act of gratitude. The whole program, in addition to artistic director David Hochoy's confidence in his dancer-choreographers, deserves our gratitude in return.

[Photo by Freddie Kelvin]

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

APA Classical Fellowship Awards finalist Kenny Broberg puts indelible personal stamp on two Russian works

Once I found a home radio with truer fidelity, I was able to engage with APA finalist Kenny Broberg's full
artistry as the current competition's series of five solo recitals came to an end. It was my debut catching up to the series in Tuesday evening radio programming.

Kenny Broberg started with Beethoven, ended with Scriabin.
WFYI-FM's hourlong broadcasts of the five recitals can be a bit disconcerting, I found out, in the tiny separation they permit between selections. Artistic director and CEO Joel Harrison announces the program at the start; then listeners must be alert to separate each piece from its neighbor. The ear can do this before the mind does. When the commissioned work, Laura Kaminsky's "Alluvion," stepped aggressively on the

heels of a Gabriel Fauré barcarole, I was startled.

Otherwise, the difficulty was purely local for me: I couldn't get a sense of Broberg's qualities during the first piece, Beethoven's Sonata in A-flat, op. 110, because of veiled, anonymous radio sound that made it seem that a machine, not a person, was generating the performance. Pacing, including tempo adjustments, and dynamics (to a degree) could be apprehended, but the all-important matter of touch was almost impossible to discern. Thus, no comment here on Broberg's Beethoven.

I was stewing about fairly covering the recital via an inadequate radio during the Fauré piece, so won't comment on Broberg's performance of that, either. In the kitchen, I found a better radio through which to hear "Alluvion." Here's an interesting thing about competition pieces: Once you've heard them a couple of times, a third rendition can seem commendably clearer and better focused, as Broberg's did. But I have to wonder if my growing familiarity with the new piece may be responsible for such an impression.  

On to Nikolai Medtner's Sonata in A minor, op. 30. A Russian composer of German heritage, the latter affinity was overemphasized abroad, much to the pianist-composer's annoyance. His Russianness was a proud part of his identity, and was recognized as such in his homeland during his lifetime, which extended into the most fraught era of the Soviet dictatorship. Broberg brought forward the Russian feeling of the sonata's anxious, questioning melody. The melancholy behind the relentless energy of the mature Rachmaninoff is adumbrated here, and the recitalist projected a sure sense of it.

The one-movement sonata was succeeded by a more idiosyncratically modernist Russian piece, Scriabin's Sonata No. 5, also a one-movement work. Along with the more familiar Ninth Sonata ("Black Mass"), No. 5 became well-known chiefly through the advocacy of Vladimir Horowitz. I wish Broberg had displayed more insight into the frequent "sotto voce" passages in this work, which are so essential to the esoteric hints characteristic of Scriabin. 

The score is full of unusual directions, asking for "languid" or "caressing" expressiveness, for example. Broberg was up to some of them, none more crucial than the requirement to play "ecstatically" at the climax. What listener can be sure that such emotional projection has been achieved? It sounded pretty much within Broberg's abilities, with all elements of the texture in balance. Especially impressive was the headlong Presto rush in the last sixteen measures. It must seem to sweep everything before it and somehow summarize the restive spiritual searching of the whole piece. Broberg did that creditably.

The end of this week's contest offers expanded chances for in-person access to the finalists' chamber-music and concerto skills. The organization's website has full details. To be announced Sunday afternoon, the fellowship recipient is assured of the APA's wonted tender loving care, including several concrete forms of career boosting.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Mark Masters sets down new arrangements of classic Ellington charts

Mark Masters displays comfortable artistry.

An arranger with fresh ears for classic jazz and Great American Songbook sounds, Mark Masters here takes on a landmark Duke Ellington band of 80 years ago. The ensemble is often labeled the Webster-Blanton band, and Masters' aim was to see if 21st-century magic could be wrung from some of the ensemble's most famous tunes with new personnel and different settings. 

The Mark Masters Ensemble has already displayed the bandleader's arranging skills with CDs devoted to new treatments of Alec Wilder's songs, Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," and the music of trumpeter Clifford Brown, like Blanton a rising star cut off in his prime.

"Masters and Baron Meet Blanton & Webster" is the mouthfilling title of the new disc (Capri Records Ltd.), and the second name refers to plunger-trombone master Art Baron, an Ellington alumnus. He lends some authentic solo flavor to the arrangements; another stalwart whose name didn't fit into the title (though it deserves to) is the veteran trumpeter Tim Hagans.

"All Too Soon" may be a lesser known Ellington composition to introduce the set, but significantly it helped usher in tenor saxophonist Ben Webster to the Duke's wide public, which had already been cultivated in the area of tender balladry by altoist Johnny Hodges. In a clever stroke that sets a seal on the arrangement without overelaboration, it ends with the ensemble tooting half of the song's first phrase.

On the other side of the hyphenated nickname for that Ellington era (1940-42) was the short-lived bassist Jimmy Blanton, who innovated the crucial voice of the double bass in giving harmonic heft to big-band rhythm sections. Masters salutes the Blanton legacy by allowing prominent recorded space, in both background and foreground, for bassist Bruce Lett, not only on "All Too Soon" but also in Billy Strayhorn's "Passion Flower" and "Take the 'A' Train."

The latter piece, the band's signature tune, is well set up by Lett's fills between phrases before he takes his solo. Three other features are worth noting: Masters streamlines the famous melody, leaving out a few notes without sacrificing its obvious identity; elsewhere, he approaches a tune obliquely, as in "What Am I Here For," but then chooses to have the familiar melody stated at the outset (Danny House's clarinet in "Perdido"). 

The second special thing in the "'A' Train" arrangement is the comfortably wide-ranging trumpet solo. Unlike some other Ellington trumpeters I could name — and who would be without them, really? — Hagans eschews a preening, showboat approach to soloing, here and wherever else he moves into the spotlight. 

Still, he displays an individuality worthy of the principal guest star, trombonist Baron, who is at his best, whether muted or not, in "Ko-Ko" or "In a Mellotone," where he makes a lively response to every sax section call. Finally, there is deft, rifflike insertion of phrases in "'A' Train" from the evergreen "Exactly Like You." That amounts to a wry commentary on a set that, for all its evident respect for the original, is to its credit not exactly like the Blanton-Webster band, but creatively swerves away from it.



Monday, June 21, 2021

Lincoln Trio celebrates two well-rooted conservative Chicago modernists

 The adept Lincoln Trio — violinist Desiree Ruhstrat, cellist David Cunliffe, pianist Marta Aznavoorian —   has borrowed the muscular rhetoric of Carl Sandburg's poetry in titling its new Cedille release "Music from the City of Big Shoulders."

The Lincoln Trio adds to its attractive discography.

The disc comprises two big-shouldered works by 20th-century composers who were born or made their names in Chicago: Ernst Bacon (Trio No. 2) and Leo Sowerby (Trio [1953]). Both men achieved wide-ranging musical careers, each with a Pulitzer Prize composition to his credit.

The Bacon recording is a world premiere. The Sowerby I know from a recording made on the New World label decades ago; there it is paired with a piece for the same instrumentation by the teenage composer. The earlier piece displays a tendency to ride hard on his materials, a doggedness that persists in the piece on the new recording. Fortunately, the material is more distinguished in the 1953 piece. But the adolescent drive to show off craftsmanship remains; the inspiration in the work under review is at a higher level over the course of three expansive movements.

The Lincoln Trio fully engages with the "Slow and solemn" instruction heading the first movement, but it is careful to acknowledge that the spirit of song underlies everything and must be lifted up. There is gravity without excessive weighing down, which makes the movement's 14-and-a-half-minute length inviting, especially since the darkness brightens and acquires energy along the way. 

"Quiet and serene" (the second movement) allows the musicians to shed light on the emotional spectrum available to this composer at slow tempos. The Lincoln Trio's very patient unfolding of the material relieves the impression that Sowerby was a little too self-indulgent here. The finale ("Fast, with broad sweep") opens with the piano rumbling along in triplet rhythm as violin and cello enter in unison, their broad melody later joined in irresistible forward motion by the piano, confirming a headlong march that accelerates near the end. 

Though I'm without extensive knowledge of either composer's output, I suspect that Sowerby rarely worked with the concise, stimulating variety that Bacon shows in his six-movement Trio. The slow first movement, impressive in its pacing and airy texture, shifts in its second part to "deliberate march time." Both featured composers thus indicate an affinity for marches that now seems somewhat old-fashioned, and suggests no modern master more than Shostakovich. 

But Bacon is content to let the mood pass, yielding to "In an easy walk" (third movement), in which a walker swinging his arms comes readily to mind, perhaps breaking into a jog before the easy-walk music resumes briefly at the end. There remain a "Gravely expressive" fourth movement, in which cello melodies come naturally to the fore; a rushing, syncopated "Allegro" that touches on Chicago's bustle and jazz heritage; an aptly titled "Commodo" movement to move relaxation back downstage, and, finally, "Vivace, ma non presto," which deftly passes back and forth suggestions of two Italian triple-meter forms, the tarantella and the barcarole.

Recording quality is well-defined without isolating the instruments unduly. In drawing attention to this music, the Lincoln Trio is clearly of one mind, even when, in these fetching works, the two honored composers are of several minds. Nonetheless, their distinction as minor American masters is most capably presented in "Music from the City of Big Shoulders."

Monday, June 14, 2021

Four pianists cap Jazz Kitchen's three-day tribute to the late Chick Corea

Chick Corea (1941-2021)

In a recent online gathering of active jazz stars, Patrice Rushen identified Chick Corea's signal contribution to the music as a balance of precision and spontaneity.

Preston Williams welcomed Rushen and a range of other luminaries to "Jazz Talk" shortly after Corea's death in February. As Rushen indicated, the honoree's  compositions have an open-ended feeling enfolded in well-focused structures.

 It's true that the open-endedness sometimes took over, lending Corea's vast output an encyclopedic, come-one-come-all quality. But that was the result of his ceaseless curiosity and receptiveness, which drew from Williams' Zoom-assembled panel unanimous praise.

That means, I would guess, that there are very few Corea "completists" — fans who find everything he did to their taste. As the great New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett once noted in introducing his jaundiced view of a Corea set in a 1981 festival: "Chick Corea changes his musical address every year or so." Not every jazz fan can enable his/her musical GPS to make satisfying visits to all those places.

The way four pianists (with assisting bass and drums) handled this range at the Jazz Kitchen Sunday evening was to focus the set on unaccompanied solos from each man, fanning out into trio turns, plus quartets with acoustic and electric keyboards blending from two sides of the bandstand. Finally, there was a perhaps predictable but undeniably exciting finale, with everyone onstage for a romp through "Spain."

Precision and spontaneity thus had plenty of room to find the right balance, and the result was both steady and affectionate. Steve Allee presided, with assistance from Scott Routenberg, Steven Jones, and Shawn McGowan. Bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Cassius Goens anchored the ensemble throughout, sitting out the solo numbers.

McGowan's mini-set near the top of the show encapsulated the Corea spectrum: "You're Everything" from the early Return to Forever repertoire and "Bud Powell" from a generation later, a tune reaching back to honor one of Corea's keyboard heroes, the high priest of bebop piano. The latter performance showed McGowan to be as at home on the acoustic piano as he was in the chime-like gloss, shimmer, and ping of the electronic instrument. 

Steven Jones displayed his unaccompanied chops in "Oblivion," a Powell composition admired by Corea. The assertive grand-piano style  Jones applied to the piece was welcome and idiomatic in expressing the confidence Powell mustered in his best music, which always stood in poignant contrast to the disarray of his personal life.

A couple of Corea's catchiest melodies — "Armando's Rhumba" and "Windows" — received winning solo interpretations by Routenberg and Allee, respectively. The relative ceremoniousness of the early "Tones for Joan's Bones," with Allee in trio format displaying his attractively voiced feeling for harmony, heralded the evergreen "Spain," with Jones and McGowan wearing their electronic keyboards and Allee and Routenberg seated at their instruments. 

Everyone soloed in between repetitions of the famous two-part theme, and Goens crowned his astute work throughout the set with forceful yet varied soloing before the final chorus. "Spain" set a seal upon the Jazz Kitchen's imaginative mini-festival celebration of a true jazz hero, who is now safely installed in the music's Valhalla.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

ISO closes its severely shortened 2020-21 concert season with distinction

 It has been quite moving to hear and see the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in its home once again, particularly so Friday in the prominence its concert gave to two of its musicians to get the public exposure they deserve.

Their identification as key parts of the ISO's artistic mission has been interrupted by the pandemic's "Babylonian Captivity" of the orchestra — in which its vitality away from its real base, the Hilbert Circle Theatre, also entailed the inability to exercise its artistry as an ensemble and host of usually excellent guest artists.

I speak particularly of associate, now resident, conductor Jacob Joyce and concertmaster Kevin Lin. Joyce was on the podium for a program nearly up to the exposure the orchestra enjoyed, concert after concert, before March 2020. 

The lack of an intermission, part of the COVID-19 restrictions on public indoor events, has forced some shrinkage. Yet this weekend's two concerts, which wrap up the core 2020-21 season, come close to restoring  an approach to "the old normal." Last chance to get that feeling for the time being? Today at 5:30.

Joyce opened the concert, shaping the music batonless, with Haydn's Symphony No. 85 in B-flat, the most buoyant and ingratiating of the Austrian composer's Paris symphonies. Especially effective was how the orchestra treated the second-movement "Romanze," a set of variations on a French tune so appealing that it is said to have been a favorite of the ill-fated Marie Antoinette. 

Kevin Lin displayed the influence of one of his teachers, master of  Romanticism Aaron Rosand.     

Dynamic contrast in echoing phrases helped make the movement seem especially indicative of Haydn's ability to communicate with unforced charm. Joyce drew a relaxed suavity from the orchestra that seemed to send a message of welcome to the necessarily small audience. There were tempo adjustments in the Trio of the third movement's Minuet that verged on the cutesy, but this impression may have been the result of incomplete unanimity: How much do we slow down here? Which notes should be slightly extended before the Minuet returns?

Lin came into play with Max Bruch's Violin Concerto in G minor, the most enduring of its composer's considerable output. Without seeming to patronize it or giving it a critical pat on the head, this is an adorable concerto. It has authentic Romantic heft without seeming conflicted about it. Its tunes and the aptness of the  way they're decorated are unstinting, and the orchestration supports the soloist well without dominating the partnership.

This weekend's soloist, who was to return in comradely fashion to sit in the concertmaster chair for Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite, brought an individualistic glow and personal warmth to the piece. His tone displayed a suitable variety, yet the through-line was an intimacy and revelatory quality that made the solo violin's role feel operatic, but as much recitative as aria. 

Lin played palpably like a colleague among colleagues, and his mutual rapport with Joyce was evident. I was impressed with how well the considerable acceleration near the end of the finale held together, creating an excitement that was never slapdash.

The concert closed with one of the most popular showpieces of early 20th-century music for orchestra: the 1919 suite Igor Stravinsky made of his "Firebird" ballet. Major episodes of the ballet took their wonted, vivid places in this performance, The Infernal Dance was predictably menacing and energetic, making an apt followup to the tender music of appeal and resolution that signal the Prince's eventual use of the Firebird's magic tailfeather to free prisoners of the evil Kaschei's spell.

I want to single out among this performance's highlighting of Stravinsky's superb color palette the playing of Ivy Ringel, who's among the newer members of the ISO's principal contingent.  I don't think I've ever heard the bassoon solo in the Lullaby that heralds the final celebration more beautifully played. It seemed both technically perfect and infused with true emotion. It was a reminder that even a fairy-tale ballet can speak to reality-bound listeners when the music for it creates its own magical connection. Ringel's solo drew richly from that magic and allowed the triumphant final episode to be all the more thrilling.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Dominic Cheli brings extra flamboyance to his solo recital in APA's competition finalist series

Dominic Cheli put together a captivating recital.

 Sunday afternoon in the American Pianists Association's Classical Awards recital series, a cleverly designed program helped Dominic Cheli showcase his enormous facility and power without overemphasizing them.

Daring to put other modern pieces alongside the competition piece, Laura Kaminsky's "Alluvion," was one striking decision. In his evidently large-scale investment in music by Leslie Adams and Carl Vine, Cheli displayed his gift for finding the distinctiveness of lesser-known works. 

Along the way he placed the first of Alexander Scriabin's "Two Poems," providing an enchanting contrast to the galvanic splendor of Vine's Sonata No. 1. About 16 minutes long in this performance, the one-movement sonata moved from a tolling-bells episode into a whirlwind toccata, folded in a subdued respite, then moved back into complex virtuosity that left its mark on an ensuing slow melody near the end. No register of the instrument was left unexploited, and the variegated textures were always solidly balanced.

The piece made an effective successor to Adams' songful "Etude No. 2," which in itself occupied far different terrain from "Alluvion." Cheli's approach to Kaminsky's composition brought out its rhapsodic qualities, aided by more pedal resonance than I was aware of the first time I heard it.

The recital opened at the basis of piano repertoire today: J.S. Bach, whose keyboard music the world has become quite used to hearing on the modern piano. The hit mid-20th-century interpretations of Glenn Gould, rapid and spiky, leading to more restrained ways of finding Bach idiomatic, exemplified by Andras Schiff and others, have encouraged an enthusiastic "who needs harpsichords?" attitude toward this repertoire. 

Thus, there's room for such interpretations as Cheli offered of the French Suite No. 5 in G, which he played in a nuanced, slightly affected manner that nonetheless shed appropriate light on the music. The suite's movements were treated somewhat like "character pieces," which is not out of line considering the various dance forms from which they are derived. There were slight hesitations in the cadences, some question-and-answer coloring of passages akin to one another, and, in the Sarabande, even Chopinesque rubato. I found all of this tasteful and well-considered, though not totally appealing. Cheli's straightforward playing of the concluding Gigue was a reassuring drawing together of his expansive approach to the suite as a whole.

Nothing was more satisfying than a full display of the extraordinary virtuosity and lyrical heft already foreshadowed by the other pieces when Cheli concluded the recital with Liszt's "Reminiscences de Don Juan." It's one of many notable operatic paraphrases that the Hungarian virtuoso concocted not only to show himself off, but also to familiarize European audiences with music they may have heard about but perhaps had never heard.

 Mozart's "Don Giovanni" notably is an opera in which the atmosphere around the title character is more important than anything having to do with his dramatic vocalism. Liszt naturally was attracted to the demonic energy of the murdered Commendatore's reappearance as a stone statue to set up the notorious rake's comeuppance. Cheli's left-hand strength got ample room to project the foreboding of the opera's denouement. How could a composer so fascinated with sin as Liszt resist putting such music at the beginning? Well, of course he couldn't.

Immediately, the pianist's keen sense of drama and the suspenseful way Liszt handles transitions shone from episode to episode. The seductiveness of "La ci darem la mano" and the nonchalant bravura of "Fin ch'han del vino" followed in due course, both tunes fervently elaborated. Cheli's figuration had the right spine-tingling effect; his octaves were torrential yet clearly articulated near the end. He lent an ominous calm to the final measures, in which Liszt recalls the Commendatore's promise to attend the Don's falsely triumphant feast. Cheli's performance not only stood on its own as a well-executed spectacle, but also confirmed the intelligent design of his program.

The performance can be visited again at 8 p.m. Tuesday in a WFYI-FM broadcast.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Peter Oundjian steps in again as ISO's abbreviated concert season nears an end

Peter Oundjian, ISO guest conductor

With pandemic-related travel restrictions keeping Krzysztof Urbanski, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's outgoing music director, from putting a cap on his ten-year tenure, Peter Oundjian has stepped in once again.

In two appearances at Hilbert Circle Theatre this weekend (the second one starts at 5:30 p.m. today), Oundjian enjoys the onstage company of returning concerto favorite Garrick Ohlsson as soloist in Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor.

Heard in the ISO program's debut Friday night, Oundjian confirmed the directness and vitality of his conducting, not only in his sensitive partnership with Ohlsson but in the intermissionless concert's concluding work,  Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E minor.

An acknowledged super-interpreter of Chopin's music ever since he won the Polish competition named for

Once again, Garrick Ohlsson shines in Chopin.

the composer in 1970, Ohlsson offered a mellow, luminous account of the concerto. Everything about it seemed keyed to the piano's thoughtful entrance in the first movement. It was assured in being somewhat understated, in contrast to the orchestra's uncertain introduction at its outset.

The orchestra gained stature in its accompaniment role as Ohlsson laid out his pearly lyricism, always well articulated. In the second movement, the pianist was not excessively concerned with ringing out those octaves in the treble above orchestral tremolos, the way one often hears. Chopin's command of the orchestra never seems distinguished, but Oundjian elicited from the ISO vivid tone colors where they could be found, as in the particularly Polish, rootsy episodes of the rondo finale. Everything served to allow Ohlsson the space he deserved to inflect every measure of the score with his idiomatic mastery.

A flubbed horn solo introducing the denouement of the last movement fortunately faded in memory by the time in the Tchaikovsky Fifth when Rob Danforth stated indelibly the imperishable melody of the Andante cantabile second movement (which to our parents and grandparents surfaced as the pop hit "Moon Love"). Oundjian had the lower strings set down a soft, throbbing introduction to that tune, which helped it make its wonted, passionate impression. Subsequently, the movement's cameo portraits of wind instruments moved into and out of the spotlight glowingly.

Pacing throughout the symphony, which is so compellingly varied amid the riot of orchestral color and melodiousness, was first-rate. Oundjian's gestures looked clear and no-nonsense, all of them calculated to produce rhythmic impact and to raise the work's dramatic profile as high as a unified flow might allow.

The waltz movement locked into an authentic lilt, and in the shaping of its winning phrases, the violas were especially adept. The finale featured such an array of variation in texture and dynamics that the repeated "Fate" theme never became tedious. Every time it burst into prominence, it felt welcome, largely because the movement's variety had been so scrupulously served. It was a treat to hear our local orchestra in full cry once again, and the musicians sounded as if they were relishing the opportunity.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Living up to his medal-winning manner, Luke Hsu puts a personal stamp on an IVCI recital

Making an individual impression on listeners can't guarantee thorough satisfaction, but what Luke Hsu showed in the 2018 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis had the merit of not sinking into a competition-friendly style that wouldn't allow him to stand out. His technical aplomb was linked to a surging expressiveness that compelled notice and won for him the contest's bronze medal.

2018 bronze medalist Luke Hsu put together a winning program.
What I remember from how he played there, as well as from a return recital of medalists in 2019, seems to have been slightly chastened and given more focus, to judge from the Laureate Series recital Hsu presented Thursday evening at Indiana Landmarks, with  Chih-Yi Chen at the piano. 

Perhaps the enforced idleness of the pandemic has lent him perspective without neutralizing his personal engagement with the repertoire. And the elimination of "contest nerves" presumably has helped in lending mellowness and plasticity to his playing. It may also have tempted him to be a little long-winded in oral program notes from the stage, however.

I found only the opening of the program's most familiar piece, Brahms' Violin Sonata in D minor, to sound slightly bland at the start. The performance quickly took on  personality and put across the music's ingratiating vigor, calming down effectively near the end of the movement without losing the main point.

In the second movement, Hsu displayed through his phrasing and winsome tempo adjustments how much the North German composer had absorbed of his adopted hometown of Vienna. That brought this repertoire favorite fully into the program's theme: the atmosphere of the Austrian capital at the turn of the 20th century. The explosive outbursts of the finale got whole-hearted commitment without losing a whit of clarity.

Two influential figures of Vienna in the late stage of romanticism were represented before the Brahms. The first was Alexander Zemlinsky, whose 1896 Serenade in A major opened the program, and then a prodigy later known, after emigration, for his Hollywood scores, Erich Korngold. 

A certain amount of affectation suits the music of fin-de-siecle Vienna, and Hsu provided that, with idiomatic concurrence from the pianist. In a suite from his incidental music to "Much Ado About Nothing," op. 11, Korngold exercised the pictorial verve and representation of fleeting emotions that were to serve him well in his movie career. Abrupt changes of direction in "The Maiden in the Bridal Chamber" and "Scene in the Garden" were linked suavely in the duo's performance. When the music to Shakespeare's comedy called for a narrower range, as in a dogged march's satirical thrust at the officiousness of Dogberry and Verges, Hsu and Chen sounded fully engaged with the Korngold wit. The suite ended brightly in a nimble "Masquerade: Hornpipe."

The Zemlinsky Serenade featured an especially attractive slow movement, with a bit of showiness in the violin melody that suggested inspiration from opera or the florid type of art song. At leisure in putting forth the music's expressiveness, Hsu even simulated the vocal technique of messa di voce, where the singer expressively raises and lowers the volume on a single held note. The rhythmic trickiness in the finale, with its recurrent pauses and charging forward, found the duo fully in accord.

The spooky Nocturne and headlong Tarantella (op. 28) of Karol Szymanowski (whose Viennese experience was the least of the four composers, concentrated in several years before the outbreak of the First World War) concluded the program. The color palette was broad, and the energy generated and sustained in the bulk of the piece swept all before it. The resulting big ovation drew from violinist and pianist a tasty bonbon by Fritz Kreisler, "Schön Rosmarin."

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Jacob Joyce helps assure continuity as new ISO season takes shape with a push toward normality


Making a step forward to help the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra solidify its artistic side for the 2021-22 season, associate conductor Jacob Joyce takes on the title of resident conductor. Details on the new season were announced today, and are accessible by linking to  the orchestra's website. (As of June 3, he was tapped to conduct two ISO concerts next week that were to have been under the baton of Krzysztof Urbanski, the departing music director. The ISO announced that travel restrictions related to the pandemic forced Urbanski to cancel his farewell appearances in Hilbert Circle Theatre.)

Jacob Joyce: new ISO resident conductor
A representative of the under-30 generation now making its mark in classical music, Joyce has been been on the conducting staff since 2018. He told me that his new position essentially continues the duties of the job he was hired for three years ago.

The difference is that the need for continuity needed to be shored up in the absence of a new music director — during what the young conductor describes as "a semi-vacuum of artistic leadership." Urbanski's tenure ends this month; a frequent ISO guest conductor, Jun Märkl, has been engaged as artistic advisor. There is another important transition on the artistic side: director of artistic planning Katie McGuinness has departed to take on a similar post with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.


"I will be able to advise the new director: what we need to do going forward, what to improve," Joyce said. Assuming the present format continues, even with some expected relaxation of Covid-19 protocols, the resident conductor "will do a lot of Discovery shows, Side-by-Side, family shows," plus a subscription concert in 2021-22, he told me. Some vacancies, including three principals, will need to be filled as well, a decision in which Joyce expects to take part.

Joyce has already made his mark in expanding the ISO's virtual programming. That has provided a major link to the past, given the orchestra's idle condition from March 2020 until last month. He masterminded and hosted the Christel DeHaan Virtual Baroque Series, which placed a small contingent of ISO members onstage to present music from the 17th and 18th centuries, repertoire that most symphony orchestras have largely withdrawn from in recent decades. Yet the emphasis is also meant to build on the legacy of Raymond Leppard, the conductor laureate of the ISO who died in 2019.

Besides conducting the ensemble, Joyce presented onstage commentary, and in music of Handel and Pachelbel, played principal second violin. Patrons might be hearing more of that from Joyce in the years to come: "To be honest, that's kind of a secret hope of mine: to play and conduct from the violin." 

Of the Virtual Baroque Series, Joyce summed up its success this way: "We got a lot of views. One of the goals was to show off the talent to the community outside Indianapolis," he said, "and the feedback was overwhelming and encouraging." 

Virtual connection with a potentially global audience is an aim the ISO shares with many orchestras today: "Orchestras are shifting to that in addition to live concerts. It's building your brand online. We want to share the quality of our musicians with as many people around the world as we can, because we have something special to offer."

Joyce extends that to a hope that the audience for classical music will expand, a theme he has tried to build on through another of his innovations — the ISO podcast "Attention to Detail." 

"People are looking to get back to live experiences," the conductor said, "and I think we will see new people coming out because the pandemic has increased people's appetite for live experiences. We will have to keep thinking about ways to keep [the orchestra] relevant to people's daily lives."

Joyce insists that can be done "while keeping the integrity of the music. It's not about dumbing it down for people, but how do we brand it. Classical music is a thought-provoking medium, but one that anyone can engage with."

To get that across to a wider public is "the persistent challenge facing all orchestras."

This Yale graduate with a bachelor's degree in music and economics (his master's is in violin performance) probably has a brass-tacks sense of how to help the ISO cultivate that wider public.