Sunday, October 24, 2021

Wry trombone musings from Ed Neumeister Quartet in 'What Have I Done?'

 Clown and sage, pixie and guru, loyal frontline Horatio to a thousand jazz Hamlets, the trombone has led

a protean existence in the music's century-plus history. Those several personas — except the farfetched Shakespearean one — are suggested by veteran trombonist Ed Neumeister in his quizzically titled new CD, "What Have I Done?" (MeisteroMusic).

The question resonates in common usage as an expression of regret and remorse, but also as a way of probing the mystery of our acts, particularly in creative fields. One answer to the question in this case is that Neumeister has given his quirks and splendid imaginings prismatic emphasis through his choice of sidemen. The disc displays pianist Gary Versace, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Tom Rainey as vital participants in the leader's self-portrait as a composer; it also gives everyone brief cameos tucked in between the eight major statements in the form of six  showcases titled "Pickled Ginger."

That's just part of what he and his companions have done. As the first track indicates, there's a varied path for each piece. "Riverwalk" has a broken-up, plunger-muted line from the trombone, supported by the others. It's rhythmically intricate, like much of the music on the disc. After a typically fresh bass solo from Gress, the ensemble comes back, with trombone and piano in sync. Near the end, the trombone is featured on open horn. 

The contrast of the two trombone timbres is essential to several other pieces. There's a touch of trombone double-tracking in "Gratitude," placing Neumeister in dialogue with himself. 

 The leader's jumpy muse settles down contemplatively every now and then: "Acclamation Park" presents the trombone in a lyrical mood, with sustained, open-horn blowing. 

Other pieces favor Neumeister's chameleon side, presenting several faces in succession.  I don't know if the track titled "Ridgewood" refers to the Bergen County town I remember as an idyllic suburb where my father grew up and we often visited relatives in the 1950s, but in any case Neumeister suggests an edgier location. After a rhythm-section intro, the leader enters with a growling plunger solo. Later Versace lays down a piano solo that becomes torrential in places. After the final ensemble statement, there's peculiarly choked, sotto voce muttering from the trombone, suggestive of both weeping and chuckling. Neumeister is inviting you to decide which.

 After the last "Pickled Ginger," an ensemble statement, comes a relaxed, flowing "Chill'n," which builds excitement logically before another chiseled bass solo yields to some fragmentary band phrases.

The title tune, coming as a kind of summation as the last track, is a reserved lament of sorts. It opens with a muted unaccompanied cadenza; it devolves toward an abstract quartet feature, briefer than any of the tracks that aren't "Pickled Ginger" miniatures. It leaves open the nagging question of what he has done. For this listener, he's provided intrigue and satisfaction alike in a well-integrated quartet setting.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Unhappy alliance: Bard Fest's 'Antony and Cleopatra' focuses on dysfunctional love at the highest level

Cleopatra in a moment of tender devotion to Antony

Trimming Shakespeare, a customary practice, works toward producing a playable reduction of the original, sensitive to modern attention spans and the wish to privilege dramatic flow above all. Casting may force the combination of some minor roles, the elimination of others. 

It's also a way of putting a director's vision  of the play in the foreground. Ryan T. Shelton, who directed the Improbable Fiction Theater Company's production of "Antony and Cleopatra" for the 2021 Indy Bard Fest, says in a program note that "the idea of romance" took precedence. Several performances remain in the schedule at the Cat Theatre in Carmel.

It's hard to imagine a version of this unique tragedy that didn't privilege the romance between the title characters, but what becomes of secondary interest in this show is the political matter of Roman imperial security after the assassination of Julius Caesar. The triumvirate that emerges after civil war is destabilized by one of its members' infatuation with Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt. The flow and ebb of that relationship is in a sense all we need to know about what happens.

And where power politics is involved, as we've learned down the ages up until today, developments are peculiarly resistant to human control. Fortune takes charge — a force in Shakespeare hardly ever in the hands of the Christian God, and not applicable in the world of ancient Rome, perhaps much to the playwright's relief. Accordingly, in this production, the gossip about the romance that sets all the action in motion is trimmed out of the first act, which opens with a soothsayer's visit to Cleopatra's court.

As Cleopatra's attendant Charmian indicates, the fun of predicting the future and throwing all one's fondest hopes forward is how people prefer to address the determining role of Fortune. And that scene comes to mind again when Marc Antony, in serious decline as warrior and leader, ends this production's first act by saying: "Fortune knows we scorn her most when most she offers blows."

Never something to put faith in, Fortune bends the way the adulterous misalliance of Antony and Cleopatra surges and falls apart. Seen  Friday night, the first and last scene of the first act frame the dramatic situation impressively. When the romance then is reduced to embers along with the political ambitions of its protagonists, the survivor Cleopatra sets this seal on what her lover has said about Fortune and its reductive effect: "We have no friend but resolution and the briefest end."

The process was traced with great energy in the performance I saw. The intensity of Afton Shephard's Cleopatra and Darin Richart's Antony rose sometimes to frantic heights.  The words, though mastered in the abstract, needed more clarity in the major roles. Great waves of emotion swept over the action whenever Shephard and Richart were onstage. That produced a unity of effect, but with some smudging of particulars. A note of wonder, for instance, on the void Antony's death has left for Cleopatra, might have worked better than a sobbing delivery of her "And there is nothing left remarkable beneath the visiting moon."

Words had that deliberate clarity more consistently in Thomas Sebald's portrayal of Octavius Caesar, the triumvir who ends up triumphant. But then, the role calls for the uncompromised view that Sebald delivered. A political animal has advantages in matters of power that divided temperaments can never command. Fittingly, the actor gave special weight to pauses in Caesar's speeches that the production needed.

Richart registered the enormity of Antony's realization of his losses in battle through a fatal lack of good judgment. But if his Antony had recalled what made him great in the eyes of his countrymen (episodes depicted in "Julius Caesar") in something other than shouting, the devastation he feels might have made more impact. Antony's inevitable pathos tends to overcome even a full-fledged interpretation.

Furious Cleopatra makes a messenger regret his duty.

Aptly costumed at each stage, Shephard was very explicit in tracing the transformation of Cleopatra from girlish novice in the affairs of state through her warrior pretensions to something approaching wisdom as she nears the end.  Her teenage giggling as she tells her women that Antony likes to call her "his serpent of old Nile" was a nice touch.

Cleopatra's temperamental exercise of absolute power (while she still had it) was volcanic: the queen does not like any hint of bad news, and messengers suffer accordingly. But there is more to her than anger-management issues. There were aspects of Shephard's performance that movingly reminded me why Cleopatra is sometimes considered Shakespeare's greatest female role. 

Supporting and minor roles were serviceably filled, with Craig Kemp's Soothsayer standing out, particularly when the actor also played a justifiably nervous, abused messenger and, finally, the rustic purveyor of the asp the queen has ordered for her exit. The director understandably would like the audience  to see that Kemp is doing more than playing several small roles; he's also continuing as the Soothsayer in all of them. Anticipatory peering into the whims of Fortune is a vocation for all of humanity: That may be the lesson this "Antony and Cleopatra" offers within the storms of its legendary, world-shaking romance.

[Photos by Rob Slaven]

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Harlem Quartet displays its breadth with a program of Schumann and contemporary Cuban works

The Harlem Quartet, with an assertive mission of expanding string-quartet repertoire and audiences, gave a bright, energetic sample of its work Wednesday night in a program divided between a romantic masterpiece and a group of new works by a guest pianist, brother of its first violinist.

Aldo Lopez-Gavilan writes music of florid surfaces and emotional depths. The five pieces that he and his string-quartet colleagues played after intermission at the Ensemble Music Society concert fill wide canvases with color and rhythm. Often they elaborate on repeated figures, resembling jazz improvisation over a hypnotic riff. The pulsating energy of dance music is never far from the surface.

Harlem Quartet with pianist Aldo Lopez-Gavilan (second from left)

Lopez-Gavilan's music often makes pictorial points, suggesting scoring for movies running only in the composer's mind. Such was the impression given by the first of the set that the ensemble offered a near-capacity audience at the Glick Indiana History Center. That was a musical cityscape of London, England, in its contemporary reality of ethnic diversity. Becoming familiar with the city's 21st-century neighborhoods, the  quartet began a multi-year residency in the British capital in 2018.

The pianist often provided himself with vigorous solo excursions, thickly harmonized and comprising lots of filigree of almost architectural heft and detail. That reached its apogee in the capricious finale "Pan con Timba" (translated for his hometown audience by cellist Felix Umansky, with the composer's help, as "Bread With Who-Knows?") 

Lopez-Gavilan's  thoughts as a composer go from the intimately personal, as in the fraternal tribute "Eclipse" (featuring first violinist Ilmar Gavilan) to the cosmic, as in the intricate space-travel conversation he sets up in "Talking to the Universe."  In "Aegean Dreams," the composer establishes a reflective scenario with a long initial passage in string harmonics, rippling piano underneath, that yields to a wistful viola melody, tenderly played Wednesday by Jaime Amador. 

For an encore, the group offered an interpretation of a piece it is justified in staking claim to: Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train," which is how you get to Harlem, as the lyric says. The performance featured improvised solos that generated responsive applause from the audience in the jazz manner.

The five musicians established their bona fides in the program's first half, consisting of Robert Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-flat major, op. 44. With second violinist Melissa White, the ensemble worked smoothly together, with slightly too much individuality of tone in some places. But the unanimity of effect was obvious throughout, led  by the sparkle and drive of Lopez-Gavilan's piano, no more so than in the Scherzo (third movement).  

Especially noteworthy was the group's ability to contrast the work's different thematic areas, with slight tempo adjustments: the doleful march profile of the second movement was neatly backed away from in the second theme without impairing the music's integrity. 

The ensemble regularly imbued transitional passages with suspense as the momentum built, particularly in the first and final movements. It amounted to a fresh, exciting interpretation of familiar music that suggested how adventurous the Harlem Quartet is comfortable being.



Sunday, October 17, 2021

Everything is in alignment as Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra returns to public concerts at the estimable Schrott Center

Notes of triumph without the kind of exaltation that came more easily to Beethoven than it does now still prevailed in Michael Schelle's "Resilience," a three-movement concerto for the unusual duo combination of viola and cello in the solo roles.

A Schelle-Beethoven polarity was bracingly established in the first half of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra's return to the concert stage Saturday night at Butler University's Schrott Center.

Butler's longtime composer-in-residence has engaged with Beethoven directly in his prolific career, most memorably in the 1995 solo piano piece "Hammerstein," both a send-up of and a salute to the creator of 32 immortal piano sonatas. There is a wealth of parody, pop-culture commentary of edginess and charm, and unbuttoned cleverness throughout Schelle's music.

"Resilience" puts aside mere cleverness (which Schelle will probably never abandon, and would never consider "mere") to wax autobiographical and elegiac on the theme of war and hard-won recovery from its horrors and losses. 

Matthew Kraemer, ICO music director

It made an eminent centerpiece for a program that ICO music director Matthew Kraemer titled "War in Music." Schelle's 2015 composition wasn't overshadowed by either Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture or Haydn's imperishable "Drum Roll" Symphony (no. 103 in E-flat). The other piece on the program was an enriched pastel  tone poem titled "The Banks of Green Willow" by George Butterwortth, whose development was cut short by his battlefield death as a British soldier in the First World War.

The first movement of "Resilience" opens with a Schellean "Schreckensfanfare," as the dissonant launch of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony finale was dubbed by Richard Wagner. The expanded resources and harmonic language of the 21st century permit a more shattering representation of mass terror in such a sonorous explosion. But more personal, intimately expressive music, much of it embodied in the solo instruments, lies at the heart of "Dachauslieder." Schelle traces that to his experience visiting the site of the Nazi death camp at Dachau, Germany, several years ago. There he came across a fragmentary song written on a wall that, after a long gestation, he brought to rebirth in adapted form for the first part of the double concerto.

Michael Schelle rubs shoulders with Beethoven, Haydn.

The partnership of the solo instruments — more than capably represented here by two musicians associated with the University of Michigan: violist Matt Albert and cellist Joshua DeVries — conveys much of the piece's all-embracing message in intimate terms. Schelle is playing serious games with the huge macro/micro polarity of the total-war experience, and thus also with the traditional concerto contrast of solo instrument(s) and ensemble. 

He extends this into the second movement, "Rising Sun, Falling Sky," which passes for a slow movement, though without the usual emotional relief of concerto movements in the middle position. The focus turns to Japan, the homeland of the composer's wife, Miho Sasaki. The cataclysm suffered by Japan that ended World War II, in which Schelle's father served, is seen as a concern both in its actuality and as a motivator of a difficult nostalgia. There was some fine highlighting of solo instruments in the orchestra, especially bass clarinet and harp. There are delicate tints in Schelle's palette as well as bold, even garish colors.

In the final movement, a tone of aftermath, indefinite and conflicted about its healing potential, is established and maintained. "Blast of Silence" reinforces the fraught journey the orchestra and two soloists have made up to this point. Viola and cello are like twin witnesses to some of the most consequential challenges of the 20th century. Different responses to such challenges are suggested by contrasts within the duo, such as the viola's putting forth sustained lyricism while the cellist delivers hard, snapping pizzicato notes. After sustained applause for the piece, the composer and the soloists, Albert and DeVries returned to the stage  to play a delightful  encore, a faux-naif evocation of folk music, especially its plucked instruments: Caroline Shaw's "Limestone and Felt."

From the start Saturday night, it seemed evident everything about the ICO was in apple-pie order as it resumed its concert presence in its accustomed home. The acoustically splendid Schrott allowed for a varied display of precision, starting with  the Beethoven overture's sense of foreboding, then armed struggle leading to the hero Egmont's death, emerging with a famous turnaround to the prospect of victory over Spanish control of the Low Countries during the 16th century. Balances were exemplary, with the exception of some excessive brass stabs underlining the triumphant music.

Haydn's "Drum Roll" symphony offered a flamboyant example of a work more than living up to its nickname: there was greater ad libitum treatment of the opening and once-recurring timpani solos than I've ever heard. It made for an especially striking introduction to the unusually designed work, one of Haydn's "Salomon" symphonies named after the impresario who enlivened Haydn's senior years with commissions for the receptive English public. Mastery was a given, and the old man delivered.

The performance hit the highest level of the ICO's achievement in recent years. Tempos were justly set and carried through evenly and spiritedly. The symphony's most notable design miracle, Andante piu tosto allegretto, with its compositional zest given patient variation form, received an inspired level of attention to detail that flowed from the podium throughout the ensemble.

I spoke above about Schelle's cleverness as a composer, which is never in doubt but which can't well be applied to "Resilience" without somehow diminishing it.  In any case, I'm sure the living American composer doesn't mind yielding the palm in cleverness to his illustrious Austrian predecessor. Such a performance as Haydn's 103rd enjoyed Saturday night more than proved the point, to the great credit of Kraemer and his orchestra.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

The ISO welcomes a Hungarian violinist to lend soloistic pizazz to its 'Greetings from Hungary'

The second installment of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's thematic programming in its 2021-22 Classical Series takes audiences to Hungary this weekend.

Kristof Barati played two pieces inspired by Gypsy music associated with Hungary.

Of course the travel theme has to be interpreted liberally to take in music merely  inspired by that of the destination, as is the case with two violin showpieces featured on the program. And composers have always moved around from time to time: you have many instances like the masterwork that concludes "Greetings from Hungary." It's music which comes as much from wartime New York City, especially given how touching a story there is behind the creation of Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.

The Hungarian master, one of a broad spectrum of European artists and intellectuals displaced by World War II and fleeing to the United States, was slowly dying and in need of artistic and personal validation in the country to which he had fled. So, as the program note explains, the commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation came as a life preserver, and made possible Bartok's last completed work.

Guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto, whose principal professional work is as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, smartly led the demanding but gratefully written showpiece for orchestra to conclude Friday night's ISO concert at Hilbert Circle Theatre. (It will also end this afternoon's repeat presentation of the program.)

Lots of care was taken with the melodies that keep poking through the busy texture in the first movement.

Mexican conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto

Sometimes that busy texture sounded a little blurry; the lower strings could have been clearer at the point where the trumpets insert their characteristic melody. The movement ended powerfully, however, and with a unanimous force that showed up when called for later. 

What followed, a movement Bartok called a "game of pairs," was tightly delivered in its rhythms, with instrumental colors as bright and distinct as those in a Piet Mondrian painting. It could have displayed a more playful attitude, however, in line with the movement description; fortunately the bassoons caught the cheeky humor best.

The contrast with the  third-movement "Elegy" was nonetheless significant, because Prieto there drew forth a rather searing account, sharp-angled and forceful.  In fact, the performance recalled for me some of those bleakly sonorous Shostakovich slow movements; the association is not off-base, perhaps, as Bartok seems to have had the Russian composer in mind with the brief teasing passage in the "interrupted intermezzo" (the fourth movement). This has often been pointed  out as a parody of a phrase endlessly repeated in the "Leningrad" Symphony, where the Russian composer may have been doing some sardonic recollection of his own ("I'm Off to Chez Maxim's" from Lehar's "Merry Widow.")

The cleverly designed "Intermezzo" proceeded in a colorful if poker-faced manner until a raucous bass-trombone glissando effectively summed up the concise movement. The finale was notable for much excellent playing, with the fugal passage for strings being especially well-pronounced. Still, there were moments in the onrushing passagework where more violin precision would have been welcome. But the sweep and vigor of the fifth movement's well-distributed climaxes were irresistible, a reinforcement of my love for this work since my teenage years. 

The foreground for the pleasure I took in it Friday was a couple of radiant performances by guest violin soloist Kristof Barati. Starting with Ravel's "Tzigane," the mid-career Hungarian violinist gave evidence of a commanding presence. His big tone comprised a variety of expressive touches; his left-hand pizzicati were crystalline, for example. Once the orchestra joined him after the piece's unique unaccompanied introduction, it was clear he had a symphonic conception of the work that worked really well with his orchestral partners. At a nod from Barati, Prieto invited ISO harpist Diane Evans to take a well-deserved solo bow.

In Pablo de Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen," Barati's figuration, delicately balanced against the melodic argument of the piece, was exquisitely controlled. The tempo flexibility of orchestra and soloist was without flaw in suggesting the spontaneity and passion associated with Gypsy life.

The program opened with Miklos Rosza's panoramic showpiece, "Three Hungarian Sketches." Concertmaster Kevin Lin had some crisply and evocatively turned solos. There was lots of faithfully recalled local color over the course of the three movements. Orchestral display, though vivid, was notably less marked by genius than the Bartok piece that came after intermission. 

Rosza may have made his main bid for immortality in Hollywood, but in his concert music he had a film composer's magpie gift for collecting wisely and pertinently. And his devotion to his home turf must have  never left him. In addition to its wealth of detail, this piece had the kind of full-orchestra warmth,  especially in the second sketch, "Pastorale," that would have been right at home in a climactic 1940s movie scene. Though not a great piece of music, "Three Hungarian Sketches" made for a perfect opener to this broad-based musical travelogue.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Looks inward in colorful settings characterize Jon Gordon's 'Stranger Than Fiction'


Jon Gordon's sax rides upon arrangements.

Full-canvas coverage by small bands seems to bring Jon Gordon's musical ideas to fruition, if "Stranger Than Fiction" (ArtistShare) is any indication. A set of 10 pieces, a few of them terse, fill a recording in which downward-trending melodies are perked up by animated treatment, keyed to the airy vigor of Gordon's alto saxophone.

The arrangements never wander, and the constituent voices are always clear. Endings are neither overstated nor collapsed into fade-outs, which almost always strike me as the result of indecision.

The opening track is especially arresting, in that it shows how much Gordon's arrangements enjoy laying out instrumental voices: "Pointillism" indicates its link to Georges Seurat's innovation in painting by building a crescendo across the ensemble in which every strand gets prominence before the tempo becomes regular and fast. As in the French master's art, precisely applied dabs of color work together to make a cohesive whole.

Gordon likes heavy bass patterns, as with double bass,  bass clarinet,  and piano sometimes laying down a unison riff and setting the groove.  The leader's agile alto sax rides atop firm but lively foundations. You get the sense that Gordon is always at pains to resist any signs of complacency or standing pat. Yet the vivacity is restrained and may seem lacking in emotional fervor to some.

Gordon's  concern for instrumental independence in ensemble doesn't mean he's stingy with solo space for others than himself. He's particularly generous in allowing pianists Will Bonness and Orrin Evans to shine. But why is there no identification on the jacket of the guitarist who solos so well on "Bella," a tender love song? On the same track, a rare bass solo (by Julian Bradford) is matched as well by a distinctive Evans turn in the spotlight. Notice should also be taken of two fine solos in "Modality": Derrick Gardner's on trumpet and Alan Ferber's on trombone.

The disc ends suitably with "Waking Dream," introduced by hypnotizing harmonies in stately tempo and later highlighted by a searching sax-piano dialogue. The whole piece feels like a tidy coda to a cool, captivating set of midsized-group jazz.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Have any good books read you lately? IRT's 'The Book Club Play' probes more than amuses

The Book Club suddenly becomes aware they're on camera.

It would be kind of la-di-da to open a blog post with a couple of epigraphs, so I'll get my thoughts on Indiana Repertory Theatre's "The Book Club Play" started with two quotations that might serve the same purpose. The first is also the title of a volume, published more than 40 years ago,  of essays by Marvin Mudrick, a fiercely independent literary critic. It poses a perennial, but seldom asked, question: "Books Are Not Life But Then What Is?"  

The other is from a letter Franz Kafka wrote in 1904, containing an even more arresting thought: "Good Lord, we could be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to." After a few more startling insights into the kind of books the budding genius thought people need, Kafka's letter hits a climax which Borders, now defunct, isolated on those complimentary bookmarks you used to get: "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us."

I'm tempted to think Karen Zacarias based the second act of her wrenching comedy on the first Kafka excerpt I've used here. But the axe-and-frozen-sea image and the Mudrick title together are enough to embrace the relationships that settle and unsettle the play's six characters. Book clubs implicitly echo Mudrick in refusing to regard what we read, especially if it deeply affects us, as snuggling in some precious cocoon of experience apart from our everyday lives as imperiled Monarch butterflies.

The living room at Ana and Rob's Midwestern home in the last decade is where Kafka's axe is at first avoided, then both deftly and clumsily swung, with purpose and effect, on some interior frozen seas. What a pleasure, by the way,  to gather at IRT  and feast your eyes on Junghyun Georgia Lee's comfortable set, under lighting invitingly designed by Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein! As the action unfolds, it will magnify the irony of the setting. You think at first it will be like E.E. Cummings' milieu of "Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls." But no, the furnishings you don't see are partial, and the souls must fend for themselves.

Ana (Andrea San Miguel) has applied her controlling personality to leading the group. Such a person is among the dangers of book-club culture you can find in the online literature. Others are rules for deciding what books to read, how to assign responsibility for choosing the books, welcoming guests, vetting new members, and dealing with someone's inevitable failure to get through the assigned book (Rob, played doggedly and quizzically by Sean Davis, is practically a non-reader who turns out to be quite capable of literary engagement). 

These all have their bearing on what happens in "The Book Club Play," of course. The play's ingenious notion behind these common issues is that this book club is being recorded on reality-show terms by a Danish film maker who wants to produce a documentary on a 21st-century American cultural phenomenon. The meetings of this book club are under uninterrupted surveillance by the camera.

Will welcomes identity crisis as Ana looks on.

Clearly this ratchets up the self-consciousness that may well overtake ordinary book clubs. Participants get to know each other, whether the chosen reading matter is light or heavy. If novels are the focus, as they often are, responses to style, characterization, plot, and setting all clamor for individualized attention. Taste tends to be a cover for deeper matters. In "The Book Club Play," the inevitable wish to censor or alter what is said surfaces from time to time, with abrupt changes in spontaneity (there are some great "freezes" in this show) as the monster technology's power is recognized.

The commentary offered by the characters is supplemented by having five of the actors (all except Andrea San Miguel) also cast as "Pundits." Given somewhat satirical cameo monologues like those breakouts from the old "Laugh-In" show, these characters are nothing like the Book Club people we come to know. They have various other connections to books, from scholarly to retail. 

Mudrick's reminder that, without books, it might be hard to define life (at least in places where leisure and literacy are common)  applies to the Pundits. Mudrick was among an eccentric lot of public intellectuals of literary bent who emerged in the past mid-century, a constellation also including Leslie Fiedler, Richard Kostelanetz, Seymour Krim, and Benjamin DeMott. Genre fiction and American mythologizing tendencies were meat and drink to them, as highbrow notions of the canon unraveled amid Cold War anxieties and pop-culture marketing. General anxiety and pop-culture domination have only metastasized since then.

The play's structure had me lost in admiration. I was fascinated by the relief the Pundits give to the living-room embroilment and the way omnipresent reality TV affects the action. I parted company, oddly, with the hilarity generated by the actors under the direction of Benjamin Hanna and the complementary response of the audience, which reveled in the facetiousness. Don't get me wrong: this is a comedy with a considerable amount of laugh lines, and director and cast seem at one with it. But the play's deeper exploration resonated more with me.

Alex (Adam Poss) is the provocative new member.

On opening-night Friday, the actors reveled in broad comic interpretations steeped in TV sit-com aesthetics. The gestures and movement, the exaggerated pitches of voice in some cases, called forth a legacy now so well-stocked that someday "I Love Lucy" may be regarded as a comedy of manners. 

The characters have appealing aspects stamped upon them, but the only one I liked was the newcomer, Alex (Adam Poss), who despite the provocative turn he gives the club is an island of calm self-possession. Everything about him eased my mind. Kudos for the rapport and individual vividness lent to Will (Will Mobley), Jen (Emily Berman) and Lily (Cassia Thompson), but they all (along with hosts Ana and Rob) seemed exhausting bundles of nerves and needs. 

Across the back of the set there are impressive white-on-black projections of words from the considered texts. Mike Tutaj's work helps keep the show's ostensible subject clear, central, and vibrant.  Passages from "Moby Dick," "The Age of Innocence," "The Return of Tarzan," and "Twilight" indicate the varied progress of seriousness and tone represented by the books considered. The effect of "The Da Vinci Code" is particularly explosive.

The characters, for all their psychic tangles, are somehow as involved with these books as they are with one another. That's likely part of the allure of actually existing book clubs, especially given that they aren't subject to the compulsory filmed scrutiny Zacarias devises for her clever play. 

It returns me to Mudrick's challenging question, slightly recast: If books are not life, then what the hell is? And in the background, the secular Saint Franz is still muttering: "Good Lord, we could be happy precisely if we had no books." 

For us readers, the only rejoinder to that echoes Jack Benny's patrician indignation: "Now, wait a minute!" Then you're ready to attend "The Book Club Play," and if you laugh more than I did, that's a bonus to the thrill we share in just being back at the IRT.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Monday, October 11, 2021

Purely unacademic: Edward Albee's epic four-character drama inaugurates Bard Fest series

 The striking way "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" opens establishes the play's atmosphere of

A successful marriage may be two people looking in the same direction, but not in the case of George and Martha.

foreboding about as effectively as the first scene of "Hamlet," with its edgy nightwatch tension on a castle platform at Elsinore.

Stumbling into their home from a late-night party at the university president's house, George and Martha  also stumble into a pop-culture dispute about movies. Many couples have had such conversations at a trivial level. With George and Martha, they strike deep. The failures of memory and a feisty lack of interest in each other's focus, whether it be momentary or permanent, offer a dark foreshadowing of the more tangled, confused narratives of a troubled marriage. The ghost of Hamlet's father has nothing on the unmet need of this academic couple for a private seminar on their relationship.

New faculty wife Honey is bubbly to a point.
  1. That's what ensues in the course of three hours in Edward Albee's enduring drama, which opened over the weekend in an Indy Bard Fest production initiating the Shakespeare-based theater festival's broadened expanse. Seen in Sunday's matinee (three more performances remain next weekend), "The Prestige Project" launch immediately caught the convulsive spatting of the middle-aged couple. A much different younger couple will soon be drawn into the vortex.

"Has this thing appeared again tonight?" we might ask rhetorically, echoing the arriving watch in "Hamlet." Indeed, it has, and will not be laid to rest. Nan Macy and Tony Armstrong build unerringly on the haunting of the George-Martha relationship by unresolved issues of power, prestige, fidelity, self-esteem, and fulfillment. The fact that Martha has sprung upon George news of her invitation at her father's party to a new faculty couple is the first indication that she is accustomed to asserting marital control. But over the long haul, it's a bravura dance on shaky ground.

Albee was a young master at peeling away facades of stability, here creating loads of unsettling dialogue that draw upon his absorption in Theatre of the Absurd. No one can resist provocation, it seems, or yielding to the abandonment of decorum under duress. The playwright warmed up to this sort of thing in his fizzy chamber play "The Zoo Story."  The flippant, banal misunderstandings and non sequiturs Albee must have learned from Ionesco get their personalized marching orders in this masterpiece.

In "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" the dissection is brutal and sustained. When Nick and Honey

Nick restrains Martha's attack.

enter, it's obvious that Honey's facade offers much less protection than Nick's. Matthew Walls and Afton Shepard play the new professor and his fragile wife with a sure sense for how young marriages and young careers feel their way in new situations. 

There's a tradition to uphold in such institutions, but the human cost is often untidy. A small New England college is seen as carrying the burden of a frayed civilization, so it's too bad the serviceable set at the Cat can't accommodate the appearance of overloaded built-in bookshelves. But that's a slight sacrifice, and Albee doesn't stipulate a milieu so detailed.

Director Matthew Socey moves the cast around the living room with a chess master's instinct for dramatic strategy and the tactical idiosyncrasies of the characters. Everything the actors say and do projects the post-party's emotional turmoil, which  begins in games, moves through a kind of demonic possession, and ends in sacramental resolution.

Macy's performance Sunday had the sensuality Martha needs. She's more than the reflexive bullying and braying she denies. The parry and thrust of marital conflict seem to suit her, allowing her to be forthright about her readiness to misbehave and to emasculate her husband. Macy modulated the ferocity just enough to prepare us for the revelation of her hidden agenda under George's vengeful manipulation.

The lies and memory games intensify as the older couple embroil Nick and Honey in their dysfunctional relationship. Armstrong's characterization of George had well-distributed notes of fury that burst fitfully through his repressed demeanor. Holding in his resentments in an attempt to adjust to professional and personal failure, this George sometimes spoke too softly to be clear (in Act 2 especially), but the tension of his self-restraint always came through.

Walls delivered a full-spectrum performance in which the well-mannered Nick is gradually goaded into competition with George and drops his evenness of temper in frustration with his ditsy, unstable wife's behavior and his hosts' uproar. Shepard  gave a good portrait of naivete unraveling, nudged by a weak constitution and shrill alarm at Martha and George's open warfare.

Excessive drinking has a lot to do with how the four characters become more unbuttoned, vulgar, caustic and self-revealing. All that letdown was credibly handled and never rushed in Sunday's performance. The long show presented an obvious challenge to the actors, but it was the consistent control they maintained that made this disturbing play hold up as a classic of modern American theater in this production. 

[Photos by Chapital Photography]

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Fatal stars fall on Alabama: Phoenix Theatre reopens with desolate, hopeful 'Alabaster'

Going back to the city's concert halls and theaters these days feels like entering a medical facility. As necessary as the protocols are for arts presenters getting back up to speed, I've felt both apprehensive and excited on the way in: mask in place, vaccination evidence at the ready. The healing implications of art have rarely been so clearly outlined.

June makes Alice's job a little harder as Weezy looks on.

This was particularly brought home to me attending "Alabaster" at Phoenix Theatre Saturday night. The National New Play Network's rolling world premiere of Audrey Cefaly's searing drama places us in an atmosphere of suffering and deep privation. The difficult work of healing is held out, but withdrawn or compromised or mystified along the way. Of the four female characters, the focus of the process is June, the only survivor of her family's and its farm's devastation by an Alabama tornado. Recovery from severe physical injuries has left behind stalled recovery from emotional wounds.

A stranger enters June's paltry life of suffering because she has opened herself up to a high-profile New York photographer's project of documenting scarred women. Working out her own issues of personal loss, Alice spars with June. Putting their dukes up, two self-guarded women move combatively toward mutual understanding, then intimacy. The dialogue is sometimes cryptic and tensely spaced, sometimes caustic and overlapping. Director Jolene Mentink Moffat draws from her cast ceaseless virtuosity of pacing and intensity.

Cefaly is attentive to multiple ironies. The action and setting are carried to the brink of allegory. Alabaster is a small city south of Birmingham. The name inevitably brings to mind the most delusional line in "America the Beautiful": "Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears." And you can find out about the human cost of Alabama tornadoes since 1950 with an interactive map published by the Montgomery Advertiser: currently the death toll stands at the biblically suggestive 666. 

The playwright is cagey about the pace and extent of revelations. Sometimes they spill out, sometimes they are oblique to the point of bafflement. Thus the unmistakable spiritual side of "Alabaster" is hidden. It is perhaps best represented by the character of Weezy, even though she tells us right off that she's a goat.  She is also a neighbor, whose check on June is divided with attention to her dying mother, who's observant but incapable of intelligible speech. In a program note, the playwright explicitly states: "She is an instrument of the  Divine."

In Weezy there are suggestions of ancient cultures: she is a Greek chorus addressing the audience, and her role on the farm draws upon the tradition of Roman household gods (Penates) who were thought to offer protection for rural families around the hearth. Similarly, her way of healing June's woes is slow to take shape, though it's constant insofar as she habitually challenges the bereft young woman's defense mechanisms. That task, which is fortunately advanced by the mission-driven energy of Alice, is more than hard. Simone Weil, the World War II-era French Catholic ascetic and icon of suffering, wrote something that illuminates this kind of difficulty. It also sheds light on Cefaly's anti-realistic style: "Impossibility is the door of the supernatural," Weil says. "We can only knock at it. Someone else opens it."

The paintings that June makes on wood salvaged from the destroyed barn arouse Alice's professional

Bib (Jan Lucas) grooms June (Maria Argentina Souza).

interest. Empathy grows as well between them, as Alice is trying to keep herself together in part to resume a well-established career while applying her skills to documenting female suffering. Yet she unwisely pushes careerism on June — the need to get an agent, to market her art: "That's how it is," she explains. June scoffs: "Gravity is how it is," she shoots back. 

But gravity had proved not so basic when the tornado struck, a fact constantly before the audience with various household items and portions of wall suspended above the stage. The show includes one tremendous flashback to June's darkest day.

Saturday's performances had extraordinary force. Lauren Briggeman brings to the role of Alice a well-honed gift for playing women whose practiced strength barely hides profound vulnerability. That may be why her performance in the title role of Phoenix's "Typhoid Mary" has stayed with me so well since 2015. 

Maria Argentina Souza's June walks an even riskier line, because the character is not able to justify her isolation to herself; her immersion in loss fails to point a way out of bereavement. June's hostility and nihilism had a kind of fierce nobility in Souza's portrayal, even as it turned believably toward the prospect of renewal. 

Joanne Kehoe's Weezy, a mediator by nature, reflected an odd but convincing death-in-the-midst-of-life poise. As Bib, Weezy's mother, Jan Lucas shuffled about with meek eloquence amid a litany of wordless moans, cries and babble. At one point, however, and I say this stepping close to dreaded spoiler territory, she bursts into the beloved gospel song "I'll Fly Away." It's in character, of course, but to get to hear Jan Lucas in her other professional metier gave goosebump joy. 

Such moments are few in "Alabaster," but what else is there provides occasion enough to look for further such occasions. It's part of what healing means.

[Photos by Gray Dragon Photography]


Friday, October 8, 2021

Parody genius: Randy Rainbow brings his Pink Glasses Tour to the Palladium

Satirist appeared live to an almost full Palladium.

 At the top of full-canvas political song parodies sits Randy Rainbow, who came to the Palladium Thursday night with a four-piece band behind him to accompany his singing. There were intervening monologues displaying  his pinpoint comic timing, and of course costume changes involving glittering suits and extravagant feather boas.There were also plenty of excerpts of his immense video archive, a YouTube sensation since 2016.

The date is significant, of course, because that was the year the apparently unlikely candidacy of Donald Trump took off, swaggered through the Republican primaries, and was crowned with his stunning election to the U.S. presidency. Rainbow had already acquired a niche in celebrity-linked video sketch comedy, which he recapped in the autobiographical part of his show here. But Trump unleashed from him a flood of inspired original parody versions of tunes mostly from the Broadway stage. Rainbow's time had come.

Like many of us, he was clearly relieved by Trump's failure to win a second term. It's no surprise that his Pink Glasses Tour show is largely retrospective, however. The Rainbow archive of Trump administration mockery is rich and part of our cultural history now. Furthermore, as Rainbow's version of "The Trolley Song" indicates, there's a host of Trump Republicans still creepily carrying the banner forward.

While it was understandable that clever Trump lip-syncer Sarah Cooper gave up her routine this year, the fuller scope of Rainbow's satire has had staying power, as the Palladium show demonstrated. His fans will no doubt look forward to updates of his sly, winsome, expertly detailed commentary. 

Perhaps a song will address President Biden's habit of romancing the calendar: setting a Fourth of July goal for 70 percent US Covid-19 vaccinations (unrealistic when it was set and failed) and a 9/11 20th anniversary commemoration by withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan (moved up to Aug. 31, stranding many, in a bungled compromise with the Trump-Taliban deadline). There will be new material, we can be sure, not all of it centered on Republican power plays and "alternative facts."

Rainbow's security about his brand has led to frank merchandising — pink glasses and a forthcoming memoir, naughtily titled "Playing With Myself" —  as well as an offhand acknowledgment of mistakes. He entered his opening song at odds with the band, ad-libbed "I'll find the key later," then joined forces with the quartet long before the finish.  

Later, he showcased his premature infatuation with Andrew Cuomo, then governor of New York, with a love song that the tour presentation of it crumbles on-screen. He was not alone in admiring Cuomo's superficial leadership during the pandemic's first year before all the governor's predatory behavior came to light. "That one came back to bite me," he said, adding a body part to his rueful admission.

Rainbow talked naughty, as we knew he would, and his lyrics were more unexpurgated in person than on the screen, whenever they were shown. They could be better understood when onstage delivery was doubled that way, thankfully. The amplification was intense when he was singing, and his lyrics-writing skills, explicitly admired by Stephen Sondheim among other experts, deserved more clarity than they often got Thursday evening.

The comedian affected genuine surprise at getting such a warm reception in central Indiana. But no dig at the Former Guy and his adherents went unappreciated here. The chief Hoosier enabler, Mike Pence, was described as the Dance Captain of the Covid-19 Task Force and otherwise skewered as a secret Grinder visitor. The ambitious Pence's subsequent shrugging off of the mortal danger he faced on January 6 might well be the target for a future Rainbow song.

My admiration for Rainbow has a personal component, which I have saved mentioning till the end of this review. For many years, going back to (speaking of Pence) the  2015 RFRA controversy, I have put up on my blog ( about 200 low-tech song parodies linked to Facebook and occasionally YouTube. My maiden voyage was a parody of "Gary, Indiana" from "The Music Man." It did pretty well for a plain a cappella video unassisted by any technical magic. 

But I should say that if Randy Rainbow is the big leagues in this field — say, the New York Yankees of the early 1950s — I'm some distance below the minor leagues. Call it the "bush league" or even the shrub league. I've been attracted by the availability of karaoke versions of popular songs and my fondness for mimicking the rhyme schemes and text structures of the originals as I vent about political and cultural matters. I've surprised myself by how many pop songs, from rock to show tunes to the Great American Songbook, I'm familiar with. I get a charge out of doing these as a writer; the performance aspect is mediocre to worse. I could have improved some of them, discarded others. But there they are.

So it was a pleasure to be in the presence of a full-spectrum master of the genre Thursday night.

Monday, October 4, 2021

We love a piano: Five pianists of distinction help APA welcome back its public

American Pianists Association, poised on the brink of a new era with a new CEO and recent evidence that it can run one of its competitions under pandemic constraints, opened its 2021-22 season Sunday afternoon presenting a spectrum of young pianists it has honored over the years. "Welcome Back!" shouted the program title.

Frederic Chiu's link with APA goes back decades. 

Earliest honoree in the group that took the Indiana Landmarks Center stage one by one was Frederic Chiu, who won his award in 1985, when APA was known as the Beethoven Foundation. Chiu grew up in Indianapolis and studied with the fondly remembered Dorothy Munger. He provides a kind of role model of building a career as a concert pianist imaginatively and interactively.

Among his distinctions Sunday, he used a chair rather than an artist's bench, a touch of individuality that also made him stand out at the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where a number of observers (including me) thought he deserved to advance further than the jury decreed. The chair was presumably not a factor.

On Sunday, Chiu brought the program up to intermission  with his canny arrangements of two movements from Sergei Prokofiev's popular "Lieutenant Kije Suite." He has had a long affinity with Prokofiev's music, given permanent status by his attention on recordings to lesser-known works of the Soviet master. "Romance" and "Troika" are two catchy, melodic excerpts to which Chiu has honored Prokofiev's mastery of both solo piano and orchestra. The rat-a-tat-tat of the "Troika" was crisply represented by his nimble right hand. Chiu opened with Debussy's "L'isle joyeuse," full of picturesque virtuosity that Chiu exploited naturally toward a quasi-orchestral breadth.

One of the most often-transcribed early pieces in the core repertoire is Bach's "Sheep may safely graze," originally a soprano aria. Spencer Meyer, the next-most-senior awards winner on the recital, presented an inviting performance of it, the melody boldly highlighted and a touch of mannerism about his interpretation. He concluded with a sometimes brisk, thoughtfully punctuated, and firmly projected performance of Chopin's Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor.

Dan Tepfer, 2007 Awards winner during one of APA's jazz years, also turned to Bach. From "Goldberg Varations," he presented the Aria and several variations of the composer's own. This well-schooled musician received much acclaim for his 2011 CD of the complete work, with his improvised variations following Bach's. I continue to view the project with a jaundiced eye, believing this Tepferization to be better suited to instructional purposes than  the concert stage. It was mildly rewarding to note how he treated the second variation Sunday, dropping the left hand deep into the bass and making it more subtle, like a jazz "walking bass." In the recording, he foregrounds the somewhat stalking nature of Bach's bass to deliver a rather galumphing march that comes close to mockery. Maybe varying what he does, from veneration to parody, is essential to Tepfer's defense of his project, but artistically it strikes me as neither fish nor fowl. 

Kenny Banks Jr. was the other APA jazz luminary represented in "Welcome Back!" A 2019 finalist, he has a tendency to spread his interpretations of an announced source into other music. He is an instinctive suite-maker who fashions medleys or melanges on the spot. This was evident in his Indy Jazz Fest performance two weeks ago in Garfield Park.  On Sunday, he gradually got around to the announced Hoagy Carmichael evergreen "Georgia on My Mind," then largely left it behind to spin out his thoughts on "Get Happy." I admired his wit and resourcefulness, but rather missed better focusing.

Joel Harrison has concluded two decades heading APA.
Wrapping up the show was another Kenny, APA's most recent honoree, 2021 Classical Awards winner Kenny Broberg. He opened with a spectacular performance of Scriabin's Sonata no. 5 in F-sharp major, getting its flashiness and impulsiveness right but somewhat shortchanging the mystery the score demands almost impossibly at times: How do you play a brief high-register figure "ecstatically"?  Staying balanced on such interpretive ledges must not be easy. He moved to a less well-known Russian composer, Nikolai Medtner, with solid performances of two "Forgotten Melodies," "Primavera" and "Danza festiva," displaying rhythmic acuity and evenness in defining the dense textures without blurring.

After such a lavish treat of jury-approved pianism, there was a long, well-deserved collection of tributes (including a mayoral proclamation and a gubernatorial Sagamore of the Wabash award) to APA CEO Joel Harrison, who retired in July after 20 years of guiding the organization. Peter Mraz, his successor, introduced him for some humble expressions of gratitude. There was also, appropriately, more piano-playing: two commissioned works performed by the composers. Tepfer played a well-designed, three-movement piece that seemed too long for the occasion; 2013 Classical winner Sean Chen offered "Daydream: Steps," a sweet, sentimental piece in pastels, relieved by vigorous passages. Affectionate representation of honoree Harrison was evident in both pieces: Qualities of  calm and intensity alike carried out necessary roles in helping the APA compile a praiseworthy history, and the legacy Harrison has shaped seems poised to continue its vitality.


Sunday, October 3, 2021

Personal and political intersections: Storefront Theatre closes out its vivid production of' '1980'

Wary of weighing in on a theater production in its next-to-last performance, I nonetheless accepted director Ronan Marra's invitation to see "1980: Or, Why I'm Voting for John Anderson" Saturday night at Storefront Theatre of Indianapolis.

Will, Robin, and Kathleen look over an itinerary.

I've been curious about the Broad Ripple company, which has occupied space along a partly unoccupied southern stretch of Broad Ripple Avenue since 2019. The spacious underground home of the company has a performance space that suited this play's  bare-bones campaign-office setting. I look forward to seeing how it might suit much different presentations; technically, the place seems up to speed as far as lighting is concerned. The audience sits on opposite sides of the playing area. I chose the north, and wish I'd thought to move to the south for the second act to check how well the cast was playing to each.

Patricia Cotter's script takes in a wide range of cultural and political issues, some of which continue to drive conversations and divisions forty years later. The comedy is richly mordant and reflects the confusion of the four characters as they try to square personal turmoil with their political dedication to the independent presidential campaign of an Illinois congressman.

Will and Brenda get better acquainted.
Anderson was a lodestar for voter disaffection with American politics in the wake of Watergate. To bring race and class and (dimly) identity politics to the forefront indicated the gathering storm that engulfs us today. What constitutes "victory" in a quest to counter the dominant two-party system has long been an issue apart from the ones I've mentioned. No wonder the shadow of personal failure also hangs over Cotter's four young characters, ages 19 to mid-30s. Anderson was like a steady, wise dad — "Father Knows Best" on the stump.

It serves little purpose, given the show's last performance this afternoon, to venture into detailed scrutiny of what I saw Saturday. Into a barely functional Boston office comes a representative of Anderson's Chicago office, unannounced and thus immediately productive of tension and racialized  resistance. Will (Jamaal McCray) exacerbates the power play between staffers Brenda (Bridget Haight) and Robin (Chelsea Anderson) and raises the tremulous anxiety of Kathleen (Carly Wagers), who's joined the crew for academic credit.

All the cast, especially the women, had their portrayals keyed to a high pitch vocally and gesturally. They were camera-ready in the sense that, though thoroughly stageworthy, they could have worked well in close-ups and from other camera angles. Physical carriage is vital to individualizing characters, and this production is attentive to it. Seen in full, the cast was impressive in how well-integrated the characterizations were, and how smoothly dialogue and movement worked together. 

Because of how the relationship between Will and Brenda develops, it would have been good for the woman's Boston accent to be more consistent, since Will early on voices his annoyance with how he hears Bostonians talk. Of course, he has more substantial issues to deal with, but the troubled Brenda could have usefully sounded a little more alien to the skeptical Midwesterner who rattles her already shaky world. The language gap is among the disturbances in their first encounter and would have been worth sustaining after the other awkwardnesses were overcome. In romantic comedy, which "1980" is in part, meet-cute resonance never fades.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

On our home turf: Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra re-establishes itself as Classical Series opens

If we remain conflicted about immigration, our nation can at least greet people who are already American citizens with a hearty "Welcome to the United States of America."

At any rate, that's the inarguable welcome the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra extends to its audience as it opens its 2021-22 Classical Series this weekend at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

ISO guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya

Maybe it takes thematic programming to make such a declaration sound less jingoistic than it might otherwise. The season rolls out from here with a strong international emphasis; concerts in the series  focus on a range of nations elsewhere. In two weeks, Hungary occupies the spotlight, followed by England in November.

Miguel Harth-Bedoya, a Juilliard-trained native of Peru and conductor laureate of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, is the guest conductor of a program energetically introduced in a sparsely attended concert Friday night. Here's hoping a followup at 5:30 this afternoon draws more people. The music offers a rare chance to explore mostly 20th-century American repertoire in a concentrated form.

The featured soloist is another musician to whom America has extended a warm welcome: Augustin

IVCI gold medalist Hadelich returns as ISO guest artist in Barber concerto.

born in Italy to German parents and also a Juilliard alumnus before the top prize in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis helped propel him to eminence in 2006. He's been well-received in Indianapolis ever since he advanced toward the IVCI gold medal 15 years ago. Having creatively addressed the restraints of the pandemic with online master classes and recitals, Hadelich is well-positioned to resume his celebrated career as the plague recedes.

Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto, op. 14, the most popular of American violin concertos, was the program's centerpiece. Hadelich weighted its predominant lyricism effectively in the first movement, offering a nice anticipation  of the tension that takes over  at the general climax. This was an earnest interpretation, in which the beauties of the second movement, so variously expressed by both soloist and orchestra, coalesced in a gloriously legato full statement of the melody. 

In this work Barber made the case for personal advocacy of romanticism in a period when a modernist aesthetic was gaining ground. The finale is famous for its sudden outburst of taxing perpetual-motion drive, dispelling the ruminative mood. Despite some quivering in precision between orchestra and soloist, the Presto movement made its exciting points, no more so than when the violin's prevailing eighth-note triplets intensify into sixteenth notes, a pattern that gives the illusion of scarcely believable acceleration toward the final chord. The resulting ovation gave Hadelich the opportunity to present a deep-dyed encore that adhered to the concert's theme: "Louisiana Blues Strut" by the black American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004).

Works of two other black composers bookend the program. Friday's concert introduced us to the 25-year-old Kevin Day, whose "Lightspeed" resembles the Barber finale insofar as its excitement is keyed to fiery temperament and devil-take-the-hindmost dash.  I found its brief turn to an episode of relaxation unconvincing, because Day's purpose was clearly to give the ensemble as much free rein as possible: that's what its three-minute length was all about.

Ending the program was music by a composer well-known to anyone with a historical view of jazz piano.  James P. Johnson, champion of the "stride" style of a hundred years ago, was represented by an overemphatic piece for orchestra titled "Drums." It lives up to the impact of its title, as principal timpanist Jack Brennan demonstrated remarkably well Friday night. From ominous soft thumping to thunderclaps, the timpani portray something elemental in black American music that the orchestra elaborates through blues-saturated phrasing. At the climax, there's a tremendous full-orchestra unison statement that is almost too much for its context, but on the other hand seems consonant with what Johnson wanted to convey.

Before a fruitful visit to Aaron Copland terrain after intermission, Harth-Bedoya and the ISO inserted a fey sample of Jennifer Higdon's "Dance Card" series, this one convincingly called "Jumble Dance." A little more sharp angularity was called for in Friday's performance, but the scoring is so well-articulated that the contrapuntal elbow-jabbing still came through well. 

Copland, who advocated so explicitly for getting the music of him and his contemporaries into American ears, is  a major presence in "Welcome to the United States of America." He came into his own  as a young man and middle-aged maestro, tempering his 1920s brashness somewhat while never abandoning a responsibility to speak to his homeland in a personal voice that summed up his homeland's energy and freshness.

It was good to hear "Quiet City" again on an ISO program, especially since my memories of what Conrad Jones' predecessor in 2014 did with it are not pleasant. Paired as soloist with Roger Roe's excellence on the English horn, Jones delivered a clear, smoothly enunciated performance; he allowed what Copland wrote to carry the poignancy of the dramatic situation that inspired the piece. Only one soft entrance, in response to an English-horn phrase, was slightly rough. Roe, as expected, proved a perfect partner for Jones, and Harth-Bedoya managed the ISO string ensemble deftly. 

Copland's Symphony No. 2 (Short Symphony), with its difficult early history, is easy to like in the context of this generally jumpy program. The work demonstrates how readily Copland could project his characteristic calm through his music. When something spiky and aggressive occurs to him, it appears before the audience in plain clothes, without emotional baggage.  

The pointillistic first movement, dealt with well Friday in its tightrope accenting, sounded as if it never should have given orchestras in the 1930s so much trouble. In the second movement, the way the harmonies move  smoothly confirms the value of Copland's lessons in harmony with Nadia Boulanger when the budding composer was barely out of his teens. The spaciousness of Copland's writing in "Appalachian Spring" and other scores of his "Americanist" period is adumbrated here. The ISO showed a firm grasp of the brief solos and evanescent combinations of instrumental voices in the finale, which suggests further foreshadowing — of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, which will be heard at the next national stop, Hungary, two weeks from now. 

For the time being, though, it's all about American glory, even at its most bumptious.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Hoosier violinist is vital to success of 'Within Us' by Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge

 In addition to the well-crafted band arrangements of "Within Us," the silver-anniversary recording (Mama Records) by Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge is welcome for the generous spotlight shone upon Sara Caswell, a violinist with a prominent Indiana University pedigree, trained early in classical music before she went through IU's renowned jazz curriculum created by David Baker.

Sara Caswell makes major contributions.

She gets several solo outings in the course of the eight pieces, some of them setting the stage for Owen's extensive ensemble thoughts. She introduces the deliberations of "Trail of the Ancients" with trenchant musings, and when a regular tempo is established and guitarist LaRue Nikelson sets a pattern, she supplements his recurring contributions in deft phrase endings. Later, Caswell soars, and the tasty voicings for the ensemble make a perfect setting.  After a guitar cadenza, there are exchanges between the two soloists to put a cap on a memorable performance. In sum, brevity as well as extrapolation are her soul of wit.

Solo distinction from others is a feature of the disc immediately, as soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson and first-rank vibraphonist Warren Wolf lead the charge through Chick Corea's "Chelsea Shuffle."

The tidiness and individuality of nearly every solo make up for what often struck me as a longwindedness in the arrangements that didn't always sustain interest. To my ears, "Apalachicola" and "The Better Claim" fall into this category. It's not that I can't pay attention for about 10 minutes to new music for big band, but that I felt here and in a few other places that Owen's exhilaration in the quality of his players got the better of his judgment. Gil Evans was the pioneer of this sort of thing several decades ago.

There's no doubt, however, that Owen has earned the loyalty of good players who appreciate when a well-designed ensemble shows them off at their best, and even when they take their places in the collective mix. Clay Jenkins' bright trumpet solo in "Milestones" manages to pay tribute to Miles Davis without imitation. It's set up by the band's fidgety romping through a riff until the familiar theme is nimbly laid out.

The band's rhythmic acuity is well displayed in "Sparks Fly," with closely aligned short phrases bursting out, punctuated by group glisses. The sparks are genuine. The title piece features a reflective piano solo from Per Danielsson, unaccompanied at first, then subtly reinforced by the band. The  ensemble sounds relaxed and probing at the same time. Rex Wertz's tenor-sax solo is rhapsodic. 

The performance aptly reinforces the note of hope Owen found in a quotation from Albert Camus that provides the title of both this piece and the disc, which was recorded last May. It says, in part: "In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm" — words worth applying to a project conceived and executed during the pandemic. Owen himself must be a kind of existentialist sage.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

A jazz club in Mexico City: Fausto Palma and Petra

Five days in Mexico City offered a chance, hosted by my son William, to visit Zinco Jazz Club in the central historic district. If you're a jazz fan in Mexico City with time to spend away from the many attractive tourist sites, check out the Zinco web site for its varied schedule of performers.

Fausto Palma covers a wide musical sweep.
Multi-instrumentalist Fausto Palma and Petra, a quintet, presented a varied opening set Saturday evening. The club's atmosphere embraces low lighting under a low ceiling, and the cozy vibe is inviting. Palma and his men played original music keyed to his mastery of several string instruments whose provenance is wide and cross-cultural.

The leader began by featuring the oud, a Turkish lute, and we also heard numbers focusing on a close relative of the Indian dilruba, called sarangi. Palma's virtuoso shredding of the electric guitar early in the set brought to mind the personal expansion of the Jimi Hendrix style that John McLaughlin achieved to great acclaim decades ago.

Beyond blues-inflected note-spinning, it's not hard also to see the influence of the British guitarist, who rose to fame as a key Miles Davis sideman, in another way: Palma fronts a quintet with the same instrumentation as McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, as heard on "Birds of Fire," for example. It consists of violin, keyboards, electric bass, and drums surrounding Palma.

Like McLaughlin's band, Petra's is centered on the leader, obviously to bring each of his several instruments to the forefront. That's all to the good, but at one point between numbers, I stage-whispered to my violinist son: "It's time to give the violinist some!" By a kind of banal telepathy, I suppose, the very next piece included a violin solo, which was zesty and cunningly phrased, drawing applause from the packed room. 

There were brief showcases for the other sidemen as well. Each of them had his role to play in supporting Palma with clarity and consistent rapport. Zinco's sound system was well-regulated, so that even the loud music never got blurred or deafening. The set offered an attractive vista of the multi-ethnic possibilities within the jazz world; such outlooks have become more common given the music's global outreach.



Monday, September 20, 2021

IU's season-opening production of 'The Magic Flute' brings forward Mozart's music with some dramatic shifts

Tamino and Pamina reach trial's final stage.

To begin with, Monostatos would need his comic villainy whitewashed. It was easy to assume this in advance of attending "The Magic Flute" in Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music production, which began a two-weekend run Friday night.

And so it was. The reigning Priest of the Sun's bad hire could no longer whine about his blackness or his ugliness, as the libretto to Mozart's masterpiece has it. In an era where it is controversial to darken the features of a white tenor singing Otello, there would be no way to adhere to the original in that respect. 

But more central to the story is the way it upholds patriarchy, albeit of an enlightened and ethical kind. There are hints of  IU's different direction well before the arch-villainess Queen of the Night and her adherents are symbolically embraced in the realm of her nemesis, Sarastro. That's the staged equality of this production's final scene, capping director Michael Shell's up-to-the-minute interpretation.

In 2021, clearly enlightenment needs to presume that higher levels of humanity are accessible to everyone. Even the undeniable musical contrast between the bass Sarastro, who sings the only music that could be imagined to come from the mouth of God (according to George Bernard Shaw), and the dazzling, vengeful coloratura flights of the Queen can't be allowed to resulting in her utter vanquishing at the final curtain. Resolution must be complete and supportive of a truly enlightened outlook, as I read Shell's version. Men and women need each other on equal terms — a swerve away from the opera's message that they need each other under the guidance of men.

'That woman': The Queen of the Night in her element

Confirmed by the surtitles, a priest's early warning to Tamino  against submitting to the wiles of women needed to be pinpointed as a demand to resist "that woman," the Queen of the Night. The production goes far to remove gender bias. In one of the choruses, the white-robed women protest against their exclusion with waving fists. The choral singing was splendid Friday night, by the way.

Fortunately, the vital thread on which the contemporary interpretation hangs is the authentic elevation of Pamina, the Queen's daughter, to worthy partnership with the prince Tamino as he seeks admission into Sarastro's order, motivated by his love for Pamina. That's in the original libretto,  part of impresario Emanuel Schikaneder's chock-a-block mixture of high-mindedness and buffoonery. The character is clearly special, and Tamino couldn't have come through his trials without her devotion; but in this production, she is also an avatar of powerful sisterhood.

Not surprisingly, then, this Sarastro combines nobility with — in the spoken English dialogue — an occasional offhandedness. When one of the priests questions why the amiable, loutish bird-catcher Pagageno is being allowed to undergo trials along with the idealistic Tamino, Sarastro says that's just for fun. And why not? The pair are just accidental companions, and life's variegated way of throwing people together is a major driver of the "Flute" plot. Hints of quasi-divine capriciousness are not out of place, as Jehovah illustrates time and again in the Old Testament.

The cast I saw set Yuntong Han and Ian Rucker as the unlikely partners-in-hazing to which Sarastro's order has assigned them. Stress at my late arrival caused by travel difficulties from Indianapolis was relieved by Han's smooth, ardent performance of "Dies Bildness ist bezaubernd schön," the first music I was able to hear after hasty seating at the Musical Arts Center. (Han would prove impressive both vocally and dramatically in each subsequent appearance.)

I'm sorry I missed Papageno's zesty song of self-introduction, "Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja," which I suppose must have been captivating, based on how well Rucker threw himself into the role.  Of course, not hearing the expansive, deftly foreshadowing overture was also regrettable. If Arthur Fagen's sensitive handling of the orchestra subsequently was any indication, it was a kaleidoscopic delight as an introduction to the rites and revels.

Papageno and Pamina compare notes.

Rucker's portrayal included the most of several tweakings of the spoken dialogue toward modern colloquialisms. The Shickaneder spirit ruled in such revisions; Mozart's friend and collaborator always had his finger on the popular pulse. The theatrical Singspiel tradition that the composer enhanced when working with his native German meant he never disdained lowbrow stuff. Some of his letters are notoriously smutty. One can only write one great Requiem, after all, and Mozart's efforts toward a comedy embracing his Masonic values had to be interrupted by that mysterious, sacred commission. To the dying composer, one task was probably a welcome relief from the other. 

Visually, the production fills the capacious stage with authority; there's no doubt about the solidity of the Sarastronian infrastructure. Temple and vaulted hallway vistas are imposing along the back. Of the special effects, only the attraction of beasts and birds to Tamino's flute seemed wispy, as the projected birds flitting about looked more like wind-blown leaves. (Lighting, set and projection designs were the work of Mark F. Smith and Ken Phillips.)

In contrast, the Queen of the Night is treated to star-flaming dazzle, accompanied by a brilliant full moon, for her iconic aria in the second act. Elise Hurwitz handled its demands capably, and carried herself with authority in the spoken dialogue as well. When the Queen's realm collapses, the lighting design remarkably represents the impact  of its downfall. If she had to suffer such a spectacular defeat, she probably deserved the salvation that this production extends to her at the end.

IU's Three Spirits: Always good for a bit of intrusive wisdom

There was a "steampunk"  or graphic-novel flamboyance about some of the costuming. It vividly depicted Monostatos and his creepy, skittering henchmen, as well as the retro-urchin look of the original's Three Boys. They supply warnings and advice to the three adventurers, move about on a unique wagon cycle, and represent a kind of streetwise spirituality, delightfully sung by three sopranos and thus rechristened Three Spirits. More substantial trio work for sopranos (of which the Jacobs School has long had dozens at a time) was given well-blended assertiveness by Giuliana Bozza, Jessica Bittner, and Catarine Hancock as the Three Ladies.

Jenna Kreider's Pamina suited Shell's concept of a woman sure of her place in Tamino's progress, but her voice was a little less suited to project vulnerability and self-doubt. "Ach, ich fűhl's,"  the tenderest lament, had a steely core to it, which could be arguably defended as representative of this crucial character as she works her way out of victimhood with both natural and supernatural help. 

The height difference between Rucker and the Papagena he is cast with, Adriana N. Torres Diaz, is exploited amusingly in their reunion duet, which earned the opening night's biggest ovation until the final one. Another worthwhile episode of hilarity was the coordinated dancing of Monostatos and his men once the glockenspiel Pagageno carries cranks into operation and defuses their menace into a helplessly silly departure.

How seriously we are to take Sarastro's priests and hirelings, given that their boss is only intermittently lofty in demeanor, remained a question to me. As delivered, some of their spoken dialogue seemed sarcastic, some merely earnest. The Speaker (Edmund Brown) was rather neutral in his brief sung conversation with Tamino. The two Armored Men had their slight but aptly severe roles sung with coordinated fervor by Cody Boling and Drew Comer.

Here and there, slight coordination problems between stage and pit popped up, but on the whole action and music were well-integrated. "The Magic Flute" is in an odd way perpetually avant-garde, despite its Singspiel heritage. There's nothing like it in today's core opera repertoire, and IU's production really believes in "The Magic Flute"'s oddities as well as its majesty. It delivers an interpretation duly adjusted to modern tastes but respectful of the work's permanent brilliance as well. Two performances remain next weekend; the opening-night cast returns Saturday, with the September 18 cast reappearing Friday.