Saturday, February 26, 2022

Guest artists dominate (and literalize) ISO's 'Greetings from Germany'

Putting teeth into it: Kevin John Edusei

Though the chief work on this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Classical Series is the orchestral crown of Johannes Brahms' long residency in Vienna,  his Symphony No. 4 in E minor owes its introduction to the world to the conductor Hans von Bulow's connection with Meiningen, Germany, and its famous orchestra. Advocacy of baton-wielders has long been central to new music's success.

Further underlining of the authenticity of the program's "Greetings from Germany" title is the presence of two superb German guest artists: Kevin John Edusei, conductor, and Maximilian Hornung, cello soloist. Both are making local debuts, and the return of either to the Hilbert Circle Theatre stage would be welcome. The one repeat of Friday's program will be this afternoon at 5:30.

Edusei favors an unconventional seating for the strings that is said to be widely preferred by German conductors. Left to right toward the front of the stage are first violins, cellos, violas, and second violins. The double basses are behind the cellos, roughly at a ten o'clock position from the podium. 

Giving constant attention to the advantages of this arrangement would have meant not seeing the forest for a grove of trees. But I noted especially a lovely episode near the end of the Brahms second movement, when the lower strings support with a parallel line the violins' final iteration of the theme. There were other moments when I could tell that cellos and basses, facing forward, were projecting more clearly than normal. Bravo, too, for the seating's encouragement of presumably deeper listening among the players to adjust to environmental tweaking.

Stepping back to take in the larger picture: Edusei's manner with this beloved symphony is less angular than some, but still vigorously pronounced. He finds the flow in Brahms' often widely spaced melodies and spiky rhythms. The flow got a little cluttered with detail at one point in the first movement, but otherwise this performance was well-knit. 

The emphasis on flow was not too soft-textured to keep the work's attention-getting accents and abrupt shifts from making their points. The way the timpani hammered home the last measures of the first-movement coda in a sense anticipated the almost unrestrained power of the brass in the finale. Yet Edusei was never averse to bringing out the kind of Brahms magic that is often called "autumnal" in his later works. A delicately shaded transitional passage toward the first-movement recapitulation was a case in point in Friday's performance.

The concert's first half opened with the novelty of "Drei Walzer" (Three Waltzes) by Wolfgang Rihm, a contemporary German composer quite explicit about his admiration for Brahms. The slow middle waltz toys with inhibiting the momentum characteristic of the waltz in order to evoke Brahmsian tenderness. The first of the set, Sehnsuchtwalzer, carries in its title the German word for "yearning," a mood that sometimes reached heroic stature. German notions of the blend of heroism and yearning may have a troubling history, but everything was benignly laid out here. 

The last waltz signals its meaning with a title meaning "urgent waltz," and the expressive terrain has a wealth of melodic charm and sudden intensity. The orchestra seemed to manage the breadth of expression quite well under the guidance of a conductor who clearly believes in his eminent countryman's lighter, quasi-improvisational mood. 

Known to our grandparents chiefly as a composer of operettas, the Dublin-born Victor Herbert was a German composer who developed as cellist and composer rather quickly.  On Friday, his Concerto No. 2 in E minor enjoyed its second 21st-century performance here, this time with Hornung as the star.  Affable and energetic in manner, Hornung is a brawny cellist, nimble as all get out when he has to be, as in the finale. As concerto soloist he could make predecessors all the way from Mstislav Rostropovich to Zuill Bailey seem  almost pallid and shy in comparison. 

Well-matched with the accompaniment, Hornung made the unfamiliar concerto easy to love, especially since there are touches of Herbert's operetta genius in the buoyancy of the finale's main theme. For an encore, Hornung and the orchestra got even more bubbly, putting across the fey charm of Herbert's "Punchinello" with witty panache. 

All told, these "Greetings from Germany" almost book your flight for you and underwrite your hotel stays.

Friday, February 25, 2022

In 'Skeleton Crew,' Motor City woes surface in a break room where other breaks open up

Faye feels at home in break room.

Banter among co-workers favors superficial joking, but over time can reveal personalities with a full range of ambition and peril. In Dominique Morrisseau's "Skeleton Crew," the joshing, gossip, and needling in the break room take place against a context of auto-industry shrinkage in Detroit that threatens jobs and the identities linked to them.

Summit Performance Indy opens a run of the hard-wrought comedy tonight at Phoenix Theatre's Basile Stage. Seen at dress rehearsal Thursday evening, the production elaborately ties together the playwright's crowded assemblage of insights and escape routes among four factory workers. 

Between scenes, the repetitive routine of machines and workers is seen pantomimed through a translucent wall of glass. Credit to MeJah Balam's scenic design and Laura E. Glover's lighting for juxtaposing the two sides of life on "the floor." Reminders of the assembly line are never far away from the break-room interactions of veteran Faye, foreman Reggie, and competent but differently motivated young line workers Shanita and Dez. Moving into the foreground for them all is the threat of plant closings in an anxious domestic auto industry.

Chatter about work-life balance in society tends to focus on the middle class, which is always poised to claim it against pressures that threaten its collapse. For blue-collar workers, the play instructs us, work and life are less in balance than they are perpetually locked in a struggle for survival and meaning. These Detroiters have a sense of their own worth, but are long past expecting that sense to be confirmed by their employers or the larger world. 

Director Melissa Mowry allows the cast to own all dimensions of Morrisseau's characters in full. These are not sketches, and the task of making them full-bodied was obviously challenging: they have a lot to say, and the layers must be peeled away. But through gesture and facial expression — there are times when you just want to study those looks amid the profusion of passionate and wistful words — the actors put nuanced shading into what might have been stark line drawings if the production did not go beyond its obligation to "represent."

Dwandra Nickole's Faye seems to own the place from the moment she walks in as the play opens. Her wisdom is obliquely but generously applied in the course of the first act.  She's guarded in ways that break down in the second act. Initially she has warned: "Leave me to my own stink and don't go trying to air me out." When Faye's vulnerability becomes more explicit, Nickole displayed a heart-rending command of Faye's revelations and neediness.

Reggie warns Dez he better get his act together.
This union activist has both personal and professional links to Reggie, played with a steady but aggrieved feeling for both justice and upward mobility by Daniel A. Martin. Characters caught in between two conflicting statuses are catnip to a playwright's exercise of virtuosity, and Morrisseau's control is obvious in the depth and anguished poise of Martin's portrayal.

Akili Ni Mali is charming as Shanita, a worker who actually believes in her contribution to car
manufacture and links it to her idealism about the prospects of the child she is carrying. 

Shanita gets acquainted with Dez's perspective.

Also capable but much more restless and cynical about life is Dez, one of those young men who forever stray into trouble and grow a hard shell of resistance even as they seek an escape. Kerrington Shorter projected Dez's street smarts as well as his veiled openness to being believed in if given the chance.  That quality makes credible the development of his friendship with Shanita, once their customary exchanges of suggestive remarks and barbed retorts give way to the need to face reality. 

Here's the reality: All around these characters are ghosts of shuttered car factories, and they are the skeleton crew rattling in the closet of American prosperity. Their fates become vital as the play progresses toward an affirmation of human connectedness, despite the fated disintegration of their lives under the system they serve. That affirmation makes this searing drama finally a comedy, emblematic of an aspect of contemporary life in which removal is more common than renewal. In this production, it's a diary of ordinary lives as firmly purposeful and focused as a stamping plant.

[Photos by Emily Schwank]

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Toward midweek: Local jazz friends debut quartet focusing on leading guitarist


Nick Tucker (from left), Kenny Phelps, Steven Jones, Charlie Ballantine

They've all performed in various combinations before, but the quartet that Charlie Ballantine put together for two sets at the Jazz Kitchen Tuesday night was a new group. It made its debut in sets that relied on jazz standards and Great American Songbook items. 

For the first time out, the quartet seemed thoroughly attuned to each other, as if they had everything to suggest a well-honed ensemble except originals. 

No surprise about that rapport, once you learn who accompanied the guitarist in two well-designed sets: Steven Jones on piano, Nick Tucker on bass, and Kenny Phelps on drums — something of a local all-star lineup.

This was enough by itself to promise something extraordinary. And, from "Alone Together" through Clifford Brown's "Sandu," that's what a large weeknight crowd got. There were fresh colors applied and each tune's personality imaginatively engaged with. "In Walked Bud," a Thelonious Monk favorite, had a sly, strolling quality from the muted resonance Ballantine gave to his introduction. The ensemble got into the walking mood with a combination of stroll and Nawlins shuffle. Ballantine hit his stride in his solo after the band's full statement.

The fast and funky "When Will the Blues Leave?" displayed  the exuberance of the players, with some massive 12-bar exchanges with the drummer. Phelps was sometimes in a torrential mood, especially at the end of each solo episode, energizing the near-capacity crowd.  Jones cast his entire solo in fleet octaves: a single-line melodic chain doubled at the octave. 

A wry take on "How Deep Is the Ocean?," the imperishable Irving Berlin evergreen, was followed by a thumping "Four on Six," a Wes Montgomery classic; Jones turned in a chordal solo as if he were a different piano player. Tucker's bass solo, typical of his generous, all-over inventiveness, turned wailing near the end — and how often do you think of an upright-bass player as wailing?

The second set, with hardly a patron choosing to exit the room, was just as fulfilling.  Charlie Parker's "Steeplechase" and Wayne Shorter's "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" further displayed the quartet's mastery of signature styles. Ballantine and Jones soloed with particular distinction in Ellington's "U.M.M.G," which the composer introduced to Dizzy Gillespie, sitting in with the band, on the 1959 LP "Ellington Jazz Party" (one of the first records I bought for my burgeoning collection as a teen). 

"Sandu" brought things to a finish, taken in mid-tempo style, with Tucker staying in touch in deft accompaniment to Phelps' soloing. This was an example of jazz brotherhood at work that was characteristic of the whole show. No one got in anyone else's way, and every member's strength was maximized by the strength that his mates brought to the bandstand. 

[Photo by Rob Ambrose]


Saturday, February 19, 2022

Con brio: Focus on Italy in ISO's Classical Series features principal violist

German composer-conductor Matthias Pintscher
 The welcome return of Matthias Pintscher as guest conductor to the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium set up expectations of insightful and fully characterized performances. Those expectations were met Friday night in a concert also bringing to the fore the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's principal violist, Yu Jin.

Pintscher seems to have an immense interpretive range, suggested by two previous appearances with the ISO. Though there has been an unsurprising emphasis on the Austro-German tradition, his 2017 debut with the orchestra climaxed in  a vivid performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances."

This weekend Pintscher guides the ISO on a transalpine journey titled "Greetings from Italy," which will be repeated this afternoon at 5:30.  In Friday night's performances of Rossini, Mendelssohn, and Berlioz, he got detailed but unfussy results in a manner that was neither choreographic nor excessively sculpted. His rhythmic control was unfailing, yet he displayed a keen fondness for lyricism and tender effects. A prolific composer himself, he projected a rapport with each of three distinct composer personalities.

The blitheness of Rossini's creativity, well described in Marianne Williams Tobias' program notes, means that the well-known episodic layout of the Overture to "The Barber of Seville" is bound to set pulses racing in an atmosphere of spontaneity. Though the music alludes to none of the opera's tunes, a secondary theme in the violins had a full measure of vocal suggestion in this performance. In some of the fast music, the orchestra was still feeling its way somewhat, but kept rising to the occasion.

In Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony (No. 4 in A major, op. 90), the opportunity for songful expression was taken advantage of.  Well-managed crescendos always seemed to swell from within, rather than being externally applied. The wind choir was dependably solid.  The second-movement painting of a pilgrim procession was not so solemn and poker-faced as in some versions; Mendelssohn may have been a North German, but he was a cosmopolitan receptive to shining other lights upon religious observances when the milieu offered them. 

The third movement was exquisitely balanced, and the finale made the most of the cheek-by-jowl partnership of the saltarello and tarantella dance forms. The playing at great speed attained full confidence under the flawless authority of Pintscher's conducting. If Mendelssohn gloried in both the bucolic and urban sides of Italian life, he was always somewhat unsatisfied with a work that found immediate success with audiences.

The personality brought into lengthy focus by Lord Byron in "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" was of a much different order. Hector Berlioz, a composer whose nerves always seemed a-tingle to Romanticism, found a unique way of responding to the Englishman's poetry. His focus on the viola as a solo instrument in this work doesn't dress it in conventional concerto garb. The soloist is an observer impersonating Byron's fictional Harold, sometimes taking in scenes and people in near-silence.

 Yu Jin has been ISO principal violist since 2017.
Byron created no Byronic hero in this poem, in contrast with his Manfred, fully fledged in narrative and given appropriate musical stature in Tchaikovsky's "Manfred" Symphony, which was splendidly recorded by Raymond Leppard and the ISO in 1994. "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" broods a lot more than "Harold in Italy, which ends with so much elaborate revelry among colorful brigands that the viola has little to do.

Byron's poem is substantially vexed by the decline of Rome and disdainful of its gladiatorial heyday. It ends in relief with an ode to the ocean and its power over human vanity and pride. (This was before we spoiled even that huge part of the natural world with plastics.) Childe Harold seems glad to be done with taking in the human scene through restless travel; Berlioz, on the other hand, was happy to use the reflective figure of Harold and his wanderings in Italy to paint a postcard series all his own.

Soloist Yu Jin, with instinctive mastery of her role, immediately struck gold in the first movement. Her tone was molten and tender as needed and her performance quickly established an individuality and brilliance such that one never regretted the unconcerto-like layout of the work, with its absence of a bravura cadenza and a flashy solo finish. Bravura matters are left to the orchestra, especially in the finale, and the ISO's deep-delving brass were up to the challenge.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Burning questions: IRT's 'Fahrenheit 451' gets to the core of cultural transmission

Current attempts in state legislatures to regulate school libraries and narrow the range of available books give Indiana Repertory Theatre an obvious pitch for its production of "Fahrenheit 451," a stage adaptation of Ray Bradbury's novella about a society where books are banned and their readers are rooted out.

The firemen maintain book-burning order in a future society.

I'm a little cool to the genre of which Bradbury was a master. Stories predicated on a "What if...", where what fills in the space after "if" is a contrary-to-fact situation that governs the story, require a whole-hearted acceptance of the underlying condition controlling the characters. 

I'm not a stickler for realism, but stories that presuppose a fundamentally different reality tend to cast people totally within its shadow. Allowing for my reluctance to readily accept "what-if" premises, a society in which book-burning is a matter of firm policy can clearly focus the attention of all literate people, as "Fahrenheit 451" has since its publication in 1953. 

The bleak future the book depicts, presumably America projected from television's early heyday toward a technocratic dystopia, is elaborated in stunning detail in the production, which I saw via live-stream February 15. Bradbury is believed to have been inspired by Nazi book-burnings — communal celebrations in part, sometimes fueled by a fireman's kerosene. In 12 years, the practice consumed an estimated 100 million volumes in Germany and the European countries the regime came to occupy.

A five-person IRT team is responsible for creating a milieu in which book-burning is so embedded in the establishment that a cast of five, focusing mainly on one character apiece, is sufficient to represent what has become of human life at large. In this world, the party atmosphere of Nazi book-burnings has given way to routine authoritarianism. TV walls provide bland visual overload to maintain stability; efficient crews make house calls to quickly reverse the effects of suicidal overdoses. William Boles' scenes put nature at a distant remove. Sleek surfaces and geometric shapes rule, with the main contrast being lofty towers of flame. Fire is a tool of authority and a threat to any challengers.

The "book people," toward whom the central fireman, Guy Montag, moves as he questions his assigned role, are contrasted with the duty-bound fire crew. Izumi Inaba comes up with garb that takes off from aspects of firefighters' gear on the one hand, and, on the other,  rough approximations of homeless renegades in disguise for those surreptitiously upholding the written word. Sound, lighting and projections make a seamless fit in the work of Kevin O'Donnell, Michelle Habeck, and Rasean Davonte Johnson, respectively. 

Benjamin Hanna directs the show with concern for clarity and unambiguous highlighting of the central theme; Tim Decker and Amir Abdullah are mentioned below. Here I want to single out, in their clarion representation of their principal roles, Jennifer Johansen as Mildred, Montag's troubled wife; Henry Woronicz as the rebel sage Faber, and Janyce Caraballo as Clarisse, Faber's granddaughter, who spurs Montag's inclination to explore what lies outside his fire-setting duties.

Tobias Andersen's stage adaptation of the original preserves Bradbury's narrative voice, in much the same way as IRT's perennial hit version of "A Christmas Carol" folds Charles Dickens' storytelling into the dialogue and action. This procedure likewise reinforces the didactic power of both stories. In "Fahrenheit 451," passages of choral speaking in the first scene emphasize the foregrounding of lessons to be imparted. 

Beatty shows Montag his collection of proscribed books.

Beatty, the fire-station chief, has a couple of forceful monologues that are lessons in the rationale of the book-ban mandate. He lectures the wavering Montag on pre-ban society's divisiveness, which had been generated by different groups' objections to offensive reading matter. 

Why encourage the erection and maintenance of intellectual silos? He would have  endorsed what the Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan once wrote (in a book!): "Electronic technology fosters and encourages unification and involvement."  

It's in pursuit of collective societal rigor that book bans have often served authoritarians. Well before technology made replacement of literacy possible, newly ascendant regimes have seen destruction of books as necessary to validate them. Matthew Battles, in "Library: An Unquiet History," mentions an ancient  Chinese emperor's elimination of private libraries and sometimes of their scholars, followers of the Koran in Islam's early days burning rival texts, Spanish conquistadors getting rid of Aztec books that could have helped them to administer the lands they had conquered.

Tim Decker's intense portrayal of Beatty was a well-rounded study in fanaticism desperate to enforce any unity that might be forged around the suppression and destruction of texts. "It is only in a literate culture that the past's inconsistencies have to be accounted for, a process that encourages skepticism and forces history to diverge from myth," scholars Jack Goody and Ian Watt have suggested. It's salutary to remember that insight as the best check against both excessive veneration of historical figures and the contrary urge to obliterate their statues and names on buildings. Decker's Beatty is at pains to keep post-literate controls intact, suppressing his hypocritical inclinations.

The choice of Amir Abdullah to play Montag was an inspired one. It goes far beyond the established interest that theaters have in diverse casting. For the message to get out, not just to student audiences, that book literacy is in everyone's vital interest seems to me crucial. It's not just tokenism; it's of symbolic importance that Abdullah, thoroughly fit for this role, is the central member of this cast. The world of "Fahrenheit 451" seems constrained enough as it is. Just one constant reminder that the decline of literacy is not a white problem puts immeasurable relevance into this production. 

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Lonely island: Phoenix Theatre premieres 'Love Bird'

Nigel pitches woo to an unresponsive girlfriend.

Phoenix Theatre feathers its nest with a gentle, intense spectacle about love for this Valentine's season, through Feb. 20. Solitude is in some sense the condition all of us share, but loneliness is a menacing distortion.

K.T. Peterson's "Love Bird" draws its inspiration from the widely publicized true story of a solitary bird drawn to a small island off the coast of New Zealand and fixated on courting a group of concrete imitations of its kind.

The gannet's courtship in vain ended with the bird's death in 2018. Other gannets lured to the island in an attempt to restock the seabirds were not deceived, but Nigel stayed and persisted in his attempt to woo a mate. In extravagant style well-supported by Phoenix's technical team, two actors embody in human terms Peterson's spun-off rhapsody on the ways the need for love can overcome all sorts of discouragements.

As seen February 11,  the production enchants even as it initially baffles. Jolene Mentink Moffat directs with a sure sense of the play's fantastic style. Scot Greenwell plays Nigel, the island's lone human inhabitant, until Norman (Bill Simmons) arrives on the scene, fulfilling a long-smoldering ambition for closer acquaintance that had germinated in the workaday environment each man has left behind. Both characters have birdlike characteristics, as if both love and the misery of its absence force us out of ourselves into a potentially sustaining otherness. Beck Jones' costume design is redolent of birds and Robinson-Crusoe-like craftsmanship alike.

Nigel tries to process his island visitor's extravagance.

Nigel and Norman astonish each other — an effect audiences are certain to experience as well. Nigel has fashioned for himself two girlfriend figures out of scraps washed up on the shore of the desert isle he calls home, given substance and jerrybuilt integrity in Kyle Ragsdale's set design.  One of the "girls," dragged out of a cramped cave for his attempts at engagement, is standoffish and emotionally remote, which doesn't surprise us but nettles Nigel no end. The other, attached upside down to a tree, is apparently capable of dialogue but prone to argue. In other words, each represents a different type of familiar dead-end relationship. 

Greenwell managed Nigel's verbose opening monologue with unceasing virtuosity. The echo chamber all lonely people design for themselves is highly resonant in his case; strident outbursts and raucous giggles find the actor adept in all vocal registers. His whole-body characterization includes shuffling, jogging, and idiosyncratic dancing. 

When Norman comes on the scene, a different set of physical and vocal characteristics are basic to Simmons' performance. Gestural allusions to the life of the stage and a flamboyant oratorical manner occasionally subside to such reflections as "Maybe there's a whole lot of the best in everybody we just aren't seeing because...we're not looking."  The newcomer rants as well, and when he focuses on his purpose for being there, shouts his growing love for Nigel in the midst of two blazing thunderstorms. 

The weather events are a synesthetic triumph of Jordan Munson's sound and Michael Moffatt's lighting designs. The classic theater representation of raging in the teeth of nature is of course the maddened King Lear on the heath. Of Shakespeare's four major tragic heroes, Lear is the one without a trace of erotic drive. But "Love Bird" is a comedy, and Eros is the god or demon motivating both Norman and Nigel. Love is the destiny of both men, and their weirdness cannot obscure that goal. Nigel's girlfriend charades are as futile as Norman's hilarious recital of the "fun facts" he once spouted to his peers in a futile attempt to be one of the cool kids.

Not knowing of K.T. Peterson's inspirations for this sweet, daring play beyond the poignant seabird story, I found oddly suggestive of "Love Bird"'s meaning a villanelle by Theodore Roethke called "The Waking." It would be awkward to quote in full here, but the first six lines point the way into the elaborate interior lives Norman and Nigel are both struggling to reach beyond: "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. / I feel my fate in what I cannot fear./ I learn by going where I have to go. / We  think by feeling. What is there to know? / I hear my being dance from ear to ear. / I wake to sleep and take my waking slow."

In a sea-girt world of detritus, spiritual driftwood, and castoff odds and ends shored against ruin and subject to  the violence of nature,  Norman and Nigel work out a way to set love at the center. Following the repetitive demands of its form,  "The Waking" reassuringly ends, perhaps with epigraphic force for this production:

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.

What falls away is always. And is near.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I learn by going where I have to go.

[Photos by Gray Dragon Photography]