Saturday, December 18, 2021

'Fiddler' without voices: Kelly Hall-Tompkins takes a holiday

 Part of the aura of "Fiddler on the Roof" into which Kelly Hall-Tompkins stepped about five years

Kelly Hall-Tompkins

ago is its status as an enduring monument of the American musical stage.

In the title role, the violinist's association with a revived Broadway production of the 1964 hit musical has resulted in a clutch of arrangements (hers and chiefly Oran Eldor's) showcasing her virtuoso skills, usually with the accompaniment of accordion, double bass and guitar.

The instrumentation keeps the folk flavor of the Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick music intact. It also reflects the sensitivity, wit, and pathos of Joseph Stein's book and its rootedness in stories by Sholem Aleichem about village life of Jews living under tsarist rule just after the turn of the 20th century.

In a touring presentation Thursday night at Madam Walker Theater Center, Hall-Tompkins sailed through a selection of the musical adaptations she commissioned and, in the case of "If I Were a Rich Man," created herself. The International Violin Competition of Indianapolis presented "Fiddler's Holiday: Expanding Tradition" in its Laureate Series.

After a kind of overture in the form of Eldor's "Rhapsody and Scherzo," with quotes from "Sunrise, Sunset" and "To Life"  lending most of the musical substance, the ensemble launched into "Matchmaker, Matchmaker." Hall-Tompkins' fleet adeptness and savvy ornamentation were convincingly exhibited in that overture. In the song of the milkman Tevye's daughters hoping for the best results from their required arranged marriages, the violinist's grasp of emotional nuance moved front and center. The characters' various forms of wishful thinking came through in her performance.

Many members of the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra attended, and family groups were common among the enthusiastic attendees. That fact would have made welcome a little more context in Hall-Tompkins' remarks from the stage. As well-known as "Fiddler on the Roof" is, some brief orientation to what the songs express could only have enhanced the audience's enjoyment. 

It would have been especially useful in Hall-Tompkins' spoken introduction to the duet of Tevye and his wife, Golde. She advised the audience to listen to how she would play Golde's startled "Do I WHAT?" response to her husband's question: "Do you love me?"  Hall-Tompkins' rendition of that line was superb, but I wonder if those unfamiliar with the story line realized that Golde is not expressing skepticism that Tevye is lovable. She's amazed at the question because theirs was an arranged marriage, according to tradition, and love's relevance to the lifelong bond in shtetl culture was an innovation in that milieu.

For that reason, the song "Tradition," which sets the social parameters of the whole show, could have been given more attention in "Fiddler's Holiday." No one expects an instrumental presentation of songs to fill in all the blanks (of either lyrics or plot), but this concert might have taken Hall-Tompkins' obvious love of "Fiddler on the  Roof" to a more evident level. And it could have all been handled by a few more oral program notes. 

Near the end were a couple of nods to the holiday season, sprightly versions of "Here Comes Santa Claus" and "Jingle Bells." A lively side trip to another show drawing from the same cultural well was the nostalgic "My Mother's Menorah" from "The Odd Potato," by Gail C. Bluestone. 

This was among the tender aspects of solo violin playing in which the legacy is rich. Also moving as an indication of the soloist's investment in her material was how she played "Anatevka," "Fiddler on the Roof"'s farewell to the community from the inhabitants forced into exile. Throughout this song and others, the alertness and feeling for color displayed by guitarist Stephen Benson, accordionist Joshua Camp, and bassist John-Paul Norpoth put Hall-Tompkins in the best light, in which she shone.


Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Dover Quartet continues its fresh perspective on Beethoven's string quartets

It's good to follow what the Midwestern-based Dover Quartet has to say definitively as it makes its way through the Beethoven cycle for Cedille Records. A couple of months ago, "Volume 2: The Middle Quartets" was issued, and I've just gotten around to listening to the three-disc set thoroughly. The experience sustains my initial reaction to the Dover's expressive unanimity and technical élan.

Here's part of what I wrote the first time I heard the Dover Quartet in person two years ago at a concert presented by Ensemble Music Society:

"The Dover launched its appearance with an impulsive but well-knit account of Beethoven's Quartet in F minor, op. 95, dubbed Serioso after a word in the heading of its third movement. The atmosphere suggested by the word was sustained, even through the lickety-split coda of the finale. The dour feeling of the slow movement, with its downward sliding phrases, had notable sweetness from the first violin and striking plangency of viola tone. The transition to the namesake 'serioso' third movement was excellent, a foreshadowing of the connections the quartet was to forge along with the pianist in the Shostakovich [piano quintet, with Inon Barnatan ]."

The Cedille performance of that work concludes "The Middle Quartets," which are presented in chronological order. Those "downward-sliding phrases" are illustrative of the Dover's pinpoint intonation, and apply well beyond the first violin (Joel Link). Articulation is at the same high level with this ensemble, and accounts for its security in the Allegro coda of the last movement, whose main section carries the description Allegretto agitato. That direction serves as a warning, and behind the innocent-looking designation heading the coda is the requirement to play it as lightly as possible. 

The Dover can be both light and agitated when need be, and the end of this quartet is as exciting as this set's predictably exuberant Allegro molto finale of Op. 59, No. 3 in C major. I don't think I've ever heard a performance of this movement so fast and so secure. 

Dover Quartet makes its distinguished way through Beethoven.

It's also worth mentioning the emotional weight given to the relatively slow movement of the same piece, Allegretto ma non troppo.  The recording quality is so good that cellist Camden Shaw's defining pizzicato has a resonant "ping" to it where even good recordings render those steady plucked notes as a kind of "thump."

 The movement contains a ruminative contrast introduced by the cello, which almost characterizes the quartet's deep voice as the music's counterpart to the sly philosopher Don Alfonso in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte.  (While Beethoven endorsed the enlightenment values represented in that opera, the prim moralist in him disapproved of the libretto, along with that of Don Giovanni. My comparison would not have amused him.)

It's clear that the Dover believes in every moment of this music. The longest slow movement of the volume, the Molto adagio of Op. 59, no. 2, has no hint of slackening, which makes every measure of it fascinating. The group's rhythmically well-pointed finale leaves something in reserve for raising both dynamics and tempo at the Piu presto conclusion. 

In the "Harp" Quartet (op. 74 in E-flat major), the Dover illuminates Beethoven's increasing confidence in treating the four instruments orchestrally from time to time. The build-up of texture and tension, with the recurring harp suggestions lending extra color as well as the work's nickname, is remarkable. Beethoven was working on the music to "Egmont" at the same time, as the booklet notes point out, and his way of suggesting drama in abstract music is evident here, as well as in the first movement of op. 59, no. 3. 

The composer, somewhat blocked in his mastery of music for the stage (in part because of his ethical strictures about librettos), in his middle period comes up with abstract, instrumental music as implicitly stageworthy. The Dover is alert to such implications. Even its handling of transitional material in the C major quartet has a gestural freshness to match what seems to have been Beethoven's urge to give dramatic character to the genre. 

His mounting success in doing so somewhat explains why Beethoven quartet cycles (the Dover has done three in concert) are a recurring feature of chamber-music productions today.  It also lends the promise of monumentality to this ensemble's project of completeness for Cedille. I will await the late quartets with much interest.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Adam and Sully: Two-piano format can work smoothly when jazz musicians establish rapport

Adam Birnbaum recalled in an interview for American Pianists Association that his lessons with established master Kenny Barron  used to consist of student and teacher each seated at his own piano in Barron's studio just playing through songs. Explicit teaching came mainly in the form of Barron challenging Birnbaum to pick up tunes he didn't know as Barron glided through  them.

The teaching that took place was by example, mutual regard and spontaneous modeling. Even when two pianists are on an equal professional footing, the learning and teaching can go back and forth as an audience is being entertained.

That's the premise that was carried through to fruition in "Adam & Sully," part of the Grand Encounters series of concerts the APA is presenting this season. Suitable to the genre, this encounter took place at the Jazz Kitchen, home for many years for the piano-trio and solo phases of the APA competition in jazz. Birnbaum won it in 2004; Sullivan Fortner, his partner in Saturday's concert, took home the Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz in 2015.

The APA had two Steinway grands brought in from Chicago for the duo encounter. Brilliant and responsive instruments of no discernible difference, they seemed perfect vehicles for this inspired partnership of contest winners from two generations (in the concentrated manner of musical generations).

In the second set, after one of Duke Ellington's lesser-known tunes, featuring extensive exchanges of building materials, the Earl Hines classic "Rosetta" showed the duo's fondness for offbeat accents working against but not obliterating the reigning pulse of the rendition.

After a twinned journey through George Shearing's "Conception," it was time for  back-to-back solo outings. Birnbaum showed a patient approach to "Body and Soul," allowing the tune time for him to open up to his interpretation, with its florid right hand contrasted to poky left-hand chords. 

When it was Fortner's turn to solo, he opened with some "chimes" high up  on the keyboard. That suggestion of  holiday cheer was soon shadowed by some brooding upon the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which proceeded reflectively. The treatment suggested an ironic flip of the title, somewhat on the order of Barbra Streisand's half-century-old take on "Happy Days Are Here Again." Fortner built toward a complicated bridge near the end, putting a cap on the emotional complications of this holiday season.

Benny Golson's "Whisper Not" brought the duo back in sync, with a steady tempo inviting both men to supply their own "walking bass" accompaniments. There were some zesty four-bar exchanges along the way. The announced finale was Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" (with no attempt to render trumpet's whinny at the end). There were a few episodes where I felt the pianists were essentially "playing the changes," but their imaginations would then regain control. Fortner's is of a particularly elfin kind: He brought in some Latin style,  paraphrasing "The Peanut Vendor" for a while. It all seemed to work, though there is precious little snow in a peanut vendor's milieu.

When the inevitable encore came, it was in the form of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," given anthemic treatment in which Fortner's introductory hint that the audience to join in at the end was ignored: people wanted to hear Fortner sing it. He did that in a crooning yet slightly jolly manner touching upon Dizzy Gillespie's and Louis Armstrong's vocal styles.  The duo's commitment to the perpetual hit amounted to a respectful account, while not being afraid to steer clear of the secularized reverence often draped over the song. 

"Adam & Sully" was a delightful late addition to 2021's return to live performances locally, but it was also live-streamed for homebodies. It seems all our lives have become combinations of on-the-town and stay-at-home experiences. This was a good one.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Steve Allee's commissioned program builds on legacy, displays vision

The music offered in "Steve Allee: Vision and Legacy" rests firmly on both parts of its title. The longtime Indianapolis pianist-bandleader brought to the public Friday some new compositions and arrangements that showcased the best (and best-prepared) version of his big band within recent memory.

The official poster alone was tantalizing enough.
Allee's customary acknowledgment of those musicians, friends, and relatives who helped him develop
here moved front and center. "A Tribute to Indianapolis Jazz Mentors" was the show's all-important subtitle. The vision proceeds from there. His gratitude was infectious, and was returned by the near-capacity audience at the event presented by the Indy Jazz Fest and the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation.

The Schrott Center for the Arts at Butler University proved to be the ideal setting to represent the full scope of Allee's imagination, in addition to presenting his selection of musicians in the best light. 

Anchoring the rhythm section: Jeremy Allen and Steve Houghton

To start with one of his long-term colleagues right off the bat: I've never heard Steve Houghton's drums in a setting more conducive to displaying his excellence than I did Friday night. But everyone sounded splendid, and every instrumental voice could be heard along a full spectrum of soft-spoken to stentorian.

A short video bringing Indianapolis' heyday as a jazz center up to the present preceded the performance. Context therefore didn't have to depend entirely on the music to be evident. But of course what followed from there provided the most essential context: proof of the vitality and habit of looking forward that are characteristic of Allee and a host of other musicians from hereabouts. The cameo use of a couple of guest soloists — clarinetist Frank Glover and tenor saxophonist Sophie Faught — confirmed that the local scene has a history of developing significant stars to brighten the Indianapolis galaxy. 

Each guest had a solo spot: Glover's sinuous and multiphonic intensity was featured in Allee's arrangement of one of the "Zebra" pieces by the venerated pianist Claude Sifferlen, a mentor to both Glove and Allee and a regular performing partner of the clarinetist's until shortly before Sifferlen's death in 2010. 

Sophie Faught brought lyrical heft.

Faught brought her romantic effusiveness to bear upon Allee's urgent "A Prayer for All," which opened with a scene-setting unaccompanied solo by band bassist Jeremy Allen. The crowd was rapt throughout, refuting the derisive cliche that nobody listens to bass solos. Maybe Allee's kicker on his introduction to the piece was responsible: "We all love bass solos," he said.

Both guest soloists fronted the full ensemble for the concert's only other piece not by Allee, Freddie Hubbard's "Hub Tones." The pace was almost frenetic, but remained under control in Allee's suave arrangement. Hubbard's compositions were almost as influential as his trumpet-playing, and "Hub-Tones" marked a real advance of the bebop language. Friday's ensemble was fit for such a challenging finale, and was "braggin' in brass" with a mastery as complete as what I've heard the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra  deliver in Duke Ellington's piece of that title. 

Not only were blend and a full palette of colors important in some of the arrangements, but whenever the tempo quickened, the on-point precision, as in the repeated staccato phrases of "Spangalang," was remarkable. That winning piece, perhaps based on (to my ears, at least) the evergreen "Cherokee," featured blistering solos by saxophonist Mike Stricklin and trumpeter John Raymond. 

Something of a personal credo in these difficult times may lie behind "Truth Be Told," a typically reflective, then buoyant, Allee original. Allen's bowed bass at the start lent gravity to the ensemble introduction. When the assertive theme got under way, Anson Banks' plunger-muted trumpet inserted plaintive commentary. Especially admirable was the brief triplet-laced ensemble build-up to the solos, starting before Rusty Burge's vibraphone statement and recurring to welcome Rob Dixon's tenor sax, then Sandy Williams' guitar. The work amounted to a plea that "truth be told" in today's world, as well as a declaration that it must be.

 The "legacy" launching pad for the concert was established with substance in "Mickleyville," a tribute to the southwest Indianapolis neighborhood where Allee was first exposed to recorded jazz at his grandparents' home. Then came "Hub-Bub," a salute to one of the fabled "Indiana Avenue" clubs, though this one was on North Illinois Street. The piece tucked in some inviting interludes, like whispered conversations, in between the strutting and noisy club-life cheer. 

Like so much of Allee's music, it painted a picture even as it gloried in the pure, non-referential splendors of a well-designed composition, faithfully executed. You came away from such a performance with the satisfied assurance that a kind of milestone in Naptown jazz history had been crossed. The old nickname "Naptown," by the way, carries no implication that Indianapolis is a snoozy place. This concert may have permanently put that false reputation to rest. We can only hope.

 [Photos by Rob Ambrose]