Saturday, March 26, 2022

"The Reclamation of Madison Hemings' at IRT: world enough and time to assess Thomas Jefferson

At a crucial point in Charles Smith's new play, which opened Friday night in an Indiana Repertory Theatre world-premiere production, a distant view of Thomas Jefferson's plantation home of Monticello dissolves in a wash of cloudy atmosphere.

Well designed at every turn, "The Reclamation of Madison Hemings" is notable in part for the projections design of Mike Tutaj. In what amounts to what the Greeks called the perpeteia, a turning point in the circumstances of the title character, Monticello vanishes. For a time, a grayish-brown celestial stew pervades the backdrop, suggesting a J.M.W. Turner painting and symbolizing the obscurity into which Madison's quest to reclaim his identity has fallen.

At Monticello Israel and Madison consider their paths forward.

The downstage action involves Hemings shooting a blind, starving mule whose braying has annoyed him and the more crucial collapse of an axle on the wagon onto which Thomas Jefferson's aging son has loaded items from the decrepit landmark, intending to take them to home and family in Ohio. 

Both actions frustrate the better-adjusted ex-slave Israel Jefferson, formerly the distinguished proprietor's footman, who has returned to Virginia to find a long-lost brother. It's a bleak November in 1866. 

The milieu is vividly embodied through Shaun Motley's stark scene of trees, dirt, and underbrush,  Christopher Kriz's sound design (the thunderstorm will knock your socks off), and Jared Gooding's lighting. Dana Rebecca Woods' costumes represent both characters well from the top down: Israel's wide-brim slouch hat over against Madison's black top hat. The hugely indebted ex-president is 40 years dead, and legacy hunting of a complicated kind is on the agendas of both Israel and Madison.

Under the direction of Ron OJ Parson, Brian Anthony Wilson as Madison Hemings and David Alan Anderson as Israel Jefferson forge a believable, acutely intimate, somewhat long-winded partnership of considerable complexity. Genuine camaraderie breaks through from time to time amid sharp goading, mental sparring, tears, and shouting. They draw upon their common, though differently founded, experience at Monticello in its long-ago heyday. Israel feels he properly owns his former identity at the top of the household pyramid, and that the continued subjection of blacks to whites after slavery must be prudently accommodated. Bitter to the point of madness, Madison tries to maintain a fragile idealism about African-American prospects as his white father's hypocrisy and its long-range effects haunt him.

As with the country today he did so much to found, Thomas Jefferson combined an Enlightenment sensibility with adherence to the custom of elites everywhere to make their lives easier by dominating others. If that required chattel slavery in that time and place, it was firmly kept in force amid white, propertied men's cries for liberty. Charles Smith has engaged imaginatively in complications of Jefferson's character and its effect on both his play's characters, who are rooted in historical figures with more of a written record than most others of their status. 

The enthralling semi-fictional Jefferson that Robert Penn Warren created in his book-length poem "Brother to Dragons" can remind us of what provides a through-line in the story Smith tells: "Too much crowds in / To break the thread of discourse," Jefferson says, "and make me forget / That irony is always, and only, a trick of light in the late landscape." 

Madison Hemings has to deal with being the offspring of the president and his enslaved mistress Sally. His focus, whose significance comes out in a verbal game he plays with Israel, is on what he can see and what lies to hand around him. His contempt for that blind mule unable to find its way to a grazing place confirms his preference for seeing over hearing. Israel says he would make the opposite choice: hearing connects us with people, vision with things, he points out.  

Smith has titled his program note "Names," in which he demonstrates that so much of what endures about people is their names. Memorialization of black names has advanced in recent decades. Near the end of the play, there's a stunning recital from both men of names of enslaved friends and family. Madison's preference for seeing and Israel's for hearing blend as each name said into thin air brings forth to them images of the named people, excavated from the vaults of memory.

This episode as the play winds down gave me chills. I recalled my solitary visit decades ago to George Washington's plantation home, Mount Vernon. Though there were plenty of visitors around that day, I was nearly by myself as I stopped to gaze over the slave burial ground. About twenty feet away from me a middle-aged black man was doing the same thing. We were the only ones there for several minutes, leaning on a railing. What we were looking at was bare of any markers; it was a squarish plot of weedy grass.

"Not even their names!" the African-American visitor was saying aloud. The exclamation point fits, even though he kept saying it softly. "Not even their names!... Not even their names!" I wondered if I should say something sympathetic, but I couldn't think of anything. 

Forty-five years later, I'm hearing his voice. And I still can't think of a response to that stranger that would have avoided banality or what we today might call virtue-signaling. I've concluded it was enough that for a little bit I had the poignant good fortune of being schooled in Black pain.

The schooling can be resumed for IRT's public as art imitates, shadows, and underlines life in "The Reclamation of Madison Hemings."

[Photo by Zach Rosing]


Tuesday, March 22, 2022

' Songs of Japonisme' surveys musical 'East Meets West' expressions of the early 20th century


Cover art is nearly as enthralling as the music.

Though the repertoire on this disc (Sheva Productions) might seem to occupy a small niche, there is an astonishing range of style and language (musical and verbal alike) over which Sahoko Sato Timpone and Kenneth Merrill show a ready command in "Songs of Japonisme."

After Japan opened to the West in the mid-19th century, there was plenty of mutual regard between Japanese and European/American cultures before the disruptions and hostility of World War II. Japanese poetry was often translated, and its visual arts effected a strong influence on modernism that extended to decor and fashion as well.

The mezzo-soprano and pianist recorded this imaginative collection of songs in 2018 at Purchase (N.Y.) College. The opening work includes the only other performer besides the duo recitalists: clarinetist Andy Biskin. Yoritsune Matsudaira's song "Asakusa Overture" reflects the degree to which there was some pre-war Japanese interest in new American music on the popular side of the spectrum. A good approximation of jazz is evident in this cabaret-like song. This kind of outreach is less characteristic of the disc as a whole, however, which embraces the art-song aesthetic.

The unforced lyricism of Kiyoshi Nobutoki's three songs adheres more closely to a desire to capture something essential about Japanese poetry and making sure the music reflects that. Two of the three are sad poems in which the vibrato Timpone produces is too pronounced, despite the evidence  of her expressive engagement with the piece. Some of this manner of vocal production slightly mars the music elsewhere on the disc, yet my main impression is of a singer who seems at home in several languages and phrases sensitively across her range. She's responsive to styles as diverse as that of Bohuslav Martinu, the eminent Czech composer who's represented by seven song settings under the collective title "Nipponari."

In the Martinu set, some of the piano introductions and interludes have the kind of expressive breadth you can find in Schubert's songs. Such well-defined settings, capably colored and paced by Merrill, afford the singer richly suggestive backdrops. The agitation at a revelation of lost love in "A Look Back" is stunningly displayed. A comparable mood of recollection has the piano anticipating or echoing the vocal line in "A Memory"; it's an outstanding representation of the high quality of this partnership.

Also evocative is Joseph Marx's "Japanisches Regenlied," a hymnlike composition with a raindrop figure predominating in the accompaniment. A pointillistic accompaniment to a song by Francesco Santoliquido in "Petits Poemes Japponais" suits well a sketch of evanescence that contrasts snow with plum blossoms. There is little space allowed for sentimentalizing such poems. Both the Japanese and the European composers represented avoid such emotional underlining. The performers in this well-researched and -performed recital recognize such restraint, embodying it without being too stoic.

The two tracks concluding the disc run in a different direction. There are matters of explicitly disturbing quality in two contrasting treatments of an ancient Japanese story involving the vanity of love and a violent outcome; the performers offer straightforward depiction of the mortal costs involved.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Musical outreach of substance: Sphinx Virtuosi play the Palladium

 There's no need to subscribe to a blanket assertion that "music is a universal language" to concede that

With a flourish, Sphinx Virtuosi conclude a piece.

there is always more work to be done in expanding its realm. In classical music, up to now, the most conspicuous representation of non-white composers and performers  has stemmed from east Asia, particularly Japan, Korea, and China (including Taiwan). 

The Sphinx organization, founded in Detroit in 1997, has made strides toward making the aptitude and interest of black and Hispanic musicians more evident and available to the public. That was the import of Sphinx Virtuosi's appearance Saturday night at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel.

The 17 members of the string ensemble now on tour seemed to revel in the acoustics of the Palladium. That affinity was noted by Tommy Mesa, the principal cellist, in remarks to the rapt audience before he played Andrea Casarrubios' "Seven" to open the concert's second half. The piece is both a meditation on and a tribute to the nurses who worked at risk and toward exhaustion in the early stages of the pandemic when Covid-19 hit New York City particularly hard. 

The work Mesa commissioned seems to be typical of Sphinx's commissioning of new pieces that both advance composers whose backgrounds match the Sphinx vision and relate to the experience and culture of African-American and Latina/o musicians. In Mesa's performance, with scordatura tuning in which the lowest string was shifted from C to B, the deep extra resonance of the shift made more definitive seven plucked notes representing the daily moment of evening applause that New Yorkers gave outside hospitals to thank front-line nurses. 

The piece was rich in string-crossing patterns and other sorts of persistent scene-setting. The delicacy and expressive range of the cello got thorough display, with an emphasis on deeply reflective textures,  yet with restless anxiety never far in the background. Mesa gave a  mesmerizing performance, sitting center-stage on a platform under a bright spotlight.

The concert opened with the full ensemble playing a celebration of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," often called the black national anthem, by Xavier Foley, the youngest composer represented Saturday night. Foreshadowing of the tune's famous phrases poked out of the busy ensemble  before the violins stated the theme against a rippling accompaniment. This representation of anxiety was painted with a broad brush, as the composer wants the famous hymn to be placed against American polarization and the nation's unfinished racial business.

The work exemplified Sphinx Virtuosi's unanimity of articulation and a sonority richly projected into the hall; the center-rear position of two double bassists was especially thrilling.  From there, a few historical pastels by black composers of early 20th-century fame —one American, one British— made a pleasant impression: the second movement of a string quartet by Florence Price (1887-1953) and two of "Four Noveletten" by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912).

I found the Price work in this performance to have plenty of "cantabile" but insufficient "andante" — the walking pace that easily decelerates into an "adagio" here may have sapped some of the music's charm. Coleridge-Taylor's noveletten (a designation borrowed from Schumann) conveyed a narrative charm, especially with the long-phrased romantic melody the composer devised for his "Andante con moto." The piquant punctuation of both pieces by tambourine and triangle, played by one of the first violinists, gave the music full-bodied character.

Jessie Montgomery, like Foley a former Sphinx member, had the concert's most daring work. "Banner" moved a string quartet into concerto prominence for a rough, wide-ranging, ambivalent tribute to the U.S. national anthem. Using one word out of the song's title, "The Star-Spangled Banner," opened up the expressive range by implication, because a banner proclaims a cause and a point of view, probably a partial, even narrow one. Folk songs and other national anthems were alluded to: Mexico's got extensive exposure, starting with concertmaster Patricia Quintero Garcia's solo. 

There were aspects of a funeral march in one memorable episode: Dissonant viola clusters imitated snare drums, and double-bass thumps put the gravity of bass drums underneath the ensemble. "Banner" was not without its signs of uplift, and the work honored distantly, but unmistakably, Francis Scott Key's textual celebration of endurance and aspiration.

Latin America came in for celebration  after the solo cello piece. Brazil's Ricardo Herz was represented by two dance-focused pieces, "Inocente" and "Mourinho," in which complex rhythms played conventionally were supplemented by well-distributed hand slaps on the instruments. 

The stimulating concert concluded with the driving bravura energy of the "Finale furioso" movement of Alberto Ginastera's Concerto for Strings. The fury was passed around the ensemble under just enough control to keep the gauchos evoked from falling off their horses onto the pampas.

Monday, March 14, 2022

APA presents Sara Davis Buechner: A unique journey through music and life

Buechner confirming score affinity.

Way back in 1981, in the infancy of the American Pianists Association, then based in New York City and called the Beethoven Foundation, three pianists shared the top prize. One of them then had the identity of David Buechner. 

But in a process she has since described and talked about in detail, Sara Davis Buechner started and completed a transition. As a transgender woman, Buechner has built a substantial teaching and performing career.

On Sunday afternoon, in an engagement former APA artistic director Joel Harrison described as long overdue, Buechner played a recital that confirmed the early promise of her artistry, this time under the auspices of the APA in its longtime hometown, Indianapolis. 

A large crowd assembled at the Glick Indiana History Center to express its enthusiasm at what the recitalist had to offer. It was an unusual program leaning toward the lighter side. In its diversity of technical and expressive demands, the music was substantial enough to represent her interpretive breadth and just about as much charm and wit as she put into her remarks from the stage.

A feeling for Baroque "terraced dynamics" applied to the piano animated the start of the Minuet from "Berenice," a Handel transcription by one of her teachers, Mieczyslaw Munz. With its tastefully applied gingerbread figures near the end, there was a nice segue into Mozart's Sonata in B-flat major, K. 333. The tonal palette showed variety, and her taste for  resonant acoustics reminded me of her early Mozart disc, recorded in the unparalleled warmth and clarity of Tarrytown (N.Y.) Music Hall for Connoisseur Society (1994).

Whenever Mozart's muse seems to change direction or emphasis, Buechner was there. The chromatic passage in the slow movement was effectively heightened for contrast. The remarkable third movement made its entrance soft-spoken, then got brighter without glare. That finale's dramatic flourish near the end, so characteristic of the composer in his maturity, came center stage with plenty of style. 

Always on the lookout for underrepresented repertoire, Buechner brought the performance up to intermission with Five Spanish Pieces by Federico Longas, a 20th-century Spanish master of conservative bent. Her mastery of resonance is worth a mention here, even though it involves only how she treated the pause between the second and third pieces: hesitating just enough before releasing the sustaining pedal, then timing the silence proportionately before launching into the folk-like "Catalana."

The suite concluded with "Aragon," Longas' version of the bravura characteristic of the region's signature dance form, well-known from the aragonaises of Bizet's "Carmen" and Massenet's "Le Cid." Her performance drew an instantaneous pre-intermission standing ovation from the audience. 

The second half launched amiably into Buechner as composer, with "A New York Sketchbook." The three short pieces covered a lot of ground, from the inviting "Riverside Park: Sunday Morning," through "Waltz for Aline," her tribute to a friend who lived on West 72nd Street (a few blocks south of my first home on West 77th), to the raucous glow of "El Paseo del Bronx" (The Bronx Step), where the Dominican and Puerto Rican cultures of her neighborhood then prevailed. She now lives in Philadelphia.

To end with, the recital went back to a major composer, George Gershwin, represented by something characteristic but not so well-known, his early acoustic recordings and piano rolls of pieces he worked out in his head before they ever saw print. I liked the way his melodic flair sang out in this performance. And Gershwin's characteristic accents, linked to syncopated rhythms of the popular music then emerging in Harlem, were neither overstated nor veiled in bashfulness.

Buechner's cheeky manner came out in spoken form one final time before she pretended to be reluctant to play an encore ("it's not in my contract") then presented Chopin in his most modestly pastel manner with a "contredanse." It was a case of not allowing the encore to contradict the engaging manner of anything in the printed program, but to confirm it all as graciously as possible. She was clearly ready for her first martini.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

ISO's latest 'Greetings': Japan as East-Meets West symbol and as cultural appreciation

This weekend Jun Märkl returns to the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's artistic advisor with an appropriate program, given his German-Japanese heritage: "Greetings from Japan" continues the "postcard" theme of many Classical Series concerts in 2021-22.

A favorite of the opera repertoire is being marketed as the program's chief attraction. Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," represented here by its third act, with vocal soloists from Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, has lately had a swirl of controversy connected to its patronizing  (some would say racist) attitudes toward the Orient, as well as to questions of proper casting. 

Jun Märkl: Three aspects of Japan's musical presence.
"Butterfly" makes me squeamish because of its long signaling of the title character's victimhood; hearing or even thinking about this opera repeatedly drains my sympathy for Cio-Cio-San. The man who betrays her, American naval Lieutenant Pinkerton, is a cad from the start, and his eventual remorse rings hollow. Some glorious music and the colorful way it's laid out across the score somewhat redeem the lachrymose weight of the action.

Japonisme, the cultural movement that followed the opening up of Japan to the West in the 1850s, produced the stories on which Puccini based his opera and generated a European fad for Japanese art and decoration. So it's a period piece — always a dangerous category for a work of art to fall into. Japonisme also tossed up the delightful Gilbert & Sullivan operetta "The Mikado," which lies under much more of a shadow than "Madama Butterfly" and I suspect is rarely staged nowadays.

On Friday evening, in the second of three presentations (the series concludes this afternoon at 5:30), the performance was thoroughly effective in giving the orchestra writing more stature than it usually receives from the opera house pit. Märkl had the orchestra in magisterial form in the Intermezzo, which introduces the final act. Effective in its initial ominousness, the music gradually lightens into a depiction of daybreak. The abandoned geisha, hopeful of Pinkerton's good intentions after many signs of disappointment, seems to bathe emotionally in the warmth for a while. 

Vocally and dramatically well-suited to each other, soprano Alejandra Villareal Martinez and mezzo-soprano Deepa Johnny put across the clash of realistic and romantic outlooks that Suzuki and Cio-Cio-San divide between them. The reappearance of Pinkerton (Michael Deshield) and the U.S. Consul Sharpless (Jeremiah Sanders) sets up the final break between Cio-Cio-San and her dreams. When staged, there is a plethora of sightings and vanishings among the characters, including the brief but crucial entrance of Pinkerton's "real" wife, Kate (Antoinette Pompe van Meerdervoort). Most poignant in any staged version is the product of the geisha/navyman union, a toddler named Trouble, and his mother's farewell to him.  The mute role indeed causes trouble in many productions, as it must be played either by a child who is normally too big for a three-year-old or by a sizable doll in swaddling clothes, as in a Nativity pageant.

Wisely, the child figure was simply omitted in this semi-staged version. The sacrifice is that the mimed action involving the child comes off as purely legalistic, with the signing and exchange of adoption papers that will allow Trouble to be raised by the Pinkertons in America. It is left to the music to fully convey the wrenching emotions that accompany the forced parting of mother and child. She presses to her bosom a small cloth doll (resembling the "poppet" one might see in a production of "The Crucible") and commits hara-kiri, followed by thunderous orchestral stabs and offstage cries of "Butterfly!" from Pinkerton.

Highlights of the singing were a magnificent trio for Pinkerton, Sharpless, and Suzuki and a solo outpouring from Cio-Cio-San, given more than sufficient brilliance and passion by the featured soprano.

Before intermission, Märkl led the first ISO performance of "Circulating Ocean" by the contemporary Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa. At just over 20 minutes, this compelling soundscape evokes the volume (in the senses of loudness and bulk alike), motion, immensity, and surface sheen of Earth's largest body of water — a defining aspect of nature for all residents of Hosokawa's island homeland.

Märkl has recorded the work with a couple of European orchestras whose performances can be heard on YouTube, and his introduction of "Circulating Ocean" here was assured, vivid, and continuously placed under exquisite control. Swells and subsidings of ensemble sound had an almost sculptural firmness.

The concert opened with a nice contrast: a superficial yet deftly engaging evocation of  Japonisme in musical form: Saint-Saëns' overture to a one-act  opera called "La princesse jaune," op. 30.  A special feature of the performance was Roger Roe's evocative English-horn solo, which earned the solo bow that Märkl accorded him.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

As serious as WHOSE life?: Experiencing Frank Glover's Free Jazz Trio

Steve Allee and Chris Parker backed up Frank Glover in free jazz.

 While I awaited the start of a set of free jazz at the Jazz Kitchen by clarinetist Frank Glover, accompanied by Steve Allee at the piano and Chris Parker at the drums, news popped into my iPhone of the death on Feb. 8  of Ron Miles. Born in Indianapolis, Miles was a cornetist/trumpeter long active in Denver, where he often partnered in small groups with tenor saxophonist Fred Hess, who predeceased him in 2018.

Miles and Hess were provincial exemplars of regional small-group acoustic jazz with free-jazz influences. I knew their music only through several recordings made in this century's first decade. The influence of jazz without set tunes and patterns, and absent steady tempos, chord progressions and bar lines, extends to musicians (like this Denver coterie) who feel that the expanded horizons of free jazz are invitations to come up with unconventional frameworks for improvised music. Frameworks of some kind are established — not that this guarantees the music's merits beyond absolute free jazz.

What Glover's trio offered was a personalized version of the original free-jazz impulse to hit the bandstand and simply allow the rapport among the musicians to direct the music's course. Decades of experience clearly gave catalytic energy to what the veterans Glover and Allee offered, and Parker is a much-admired young player who seems to be a quick study and has imagination to spare. The interplay worked on some level. For just over an hour Wednesday evening, the trio played to a rapt full house.

Another former Hoosier, John Litweiler, helped me understand free jazz through his "The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958" (1984). Further insights have been gained, focused almost exclusively on Black musicians (Steve Lacy being a notable exception) in Valerie Wilmer's feisty, illuminating "As Serious As Your Life" (1977), whose title I've adapted to headline this review. In doing so, I intend to question the communicative purpose and result of free jazz. It was evident that the Glover Trio's music connected with the crowd; now and then, it did with me as well.

But I'm left with the suspicion that free jazz is a workshop concept. Musicians can test to the ultimate how well they listen to each other and how responsive they can be in the moment. Of course, jazz musicians are used to doing that, whether they are playing "Stella by Starlight" or "One Up, One Down."

The claims made for free jazz are sometimes baffling, however. Wilmer, a white Briton, racializes everything, linking what happened in free jazz to Black struggles for freedom in society. Litweiler also focuses on Black musicians, but he sometimes seems to find the music an excuse to write well about it. At the end of his book, he rises to rhetorical grandstanding, suggesting that free jazz can alter human consciousness above all other modern innovations, whether technological or spiritual. 

How does understanding, and even liking, any kind of music alter your consciousness about anything outside music itself?  Beats me. I'm with W.H. Auden, who once declared "Poetry makes nothing happen" and Oscar Wilde, who proclaimed "All art is quite useless."

I have no idea if this trio subscribes to the idea that free jazz is as serious as your life, or my life. To some degree, it's serious to the musicians, possibly up to the level of life itself.  But for every moment I enjoyed, there were times I was simply at sea. 

On the one hand, Allee seemed to know what he was doing, as he typically does. At other times, he sounded merely tentative, as though any guess as to what to play next would be as valid as his more assertive passages. Parker moved adeptly around the drum set and brought into play a tambourine and a string-instrument bow drawn upward on a cymbal's edge. That's all well and good, and added color and texture. As to the context of everything he did, that was anybody's guess as to its suitability.

Glover began with mutterings in multiphonics, executed confidently. His technique for producing multiple tones at once, largely woody and buzzing, seemed secure and was employed often throughout the performance. I noticed that his multiphonics occurred in slow music, which made me wonder: Is this the emotional weight multiphonics carries, to evoke mysterious or reflective moods only? Or is it that multiphonics simply don't work if the player attempts to go fast? Or is there no particular meaning as to when they are employed and they are just another facet of the variety available to the clarinet, and a freakish one at that?

Occasionally the trio would get into a groove with somewhat familiar characteristics. Then the groove would be abandoned. Was there a collective feeling that a groove is boring, or even a fear that the musicians would find it too attractive to continue in that vein if they didn't soon move on? At any rate, the trio spent a lot of time out of the groove, in what jazz musicians sometimes call "rubato," in which phrases float untethered and don't settle into any tempo. This is part of what underlines the notion of "free," as such playing does in all too many solo introductions and codas in conventional jazz.

A significant evocation of earlier music was when Glover would bring up the four-note signature phrase of "A Love Supreme," the highly venerated John Coltrane piece. Not a bad idea, but what did it mean in these surroundings? One often hears it quoted in solos, because it's such a treasured anchor, and it shifts readily over the middle range of any instrument, subject to infinite sequences, if desired.  Glover knew when to move on, fortunately. But here it had something of the feeling of a magnificent torso without limbs. I could find more relevance in a soloist's "Love Supreme" quotation in such a standard as "Falling in Love With Love," where Coltrane's interval skips would make a nice contrast to the song's repeated notes. And there's that title resonance, too.

Oh, please think outside the box for once! I can hear someone saying. I will grant free jazz a certain integrity, though I can't always grasp it. In the introduction to "As Serious as Your Life," Wilmer tells an anecdote about a country blues musician of whom an admiring colleague said: "Shorty's a real free-form guitar player; he don't play nothing right!"

Well, despite my questions about the import of what they did, let me end by saying that, whatever it might have meant, Glover and his bandmates seemed to play lots of things right Wednesday night.

[Photo by Rob Ambrose]

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

The better part of Russia: Danish trio plays trios by Arensky and Shostakovich


Danish trio: Jens Elvekjaer, Soo-Kyung Hong, Soo-Jin Hong

Never strangers to living under the thumb of autocratic rule, Russians managed to absorb enough influence from Western arts to evolve styles of their own that have contributed to the European mainstream. 

Their composers were able to look inward without becoming hermetic. The foot in the door was the French language, which was historically preferred at court and among the upper class. In music, Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) paved the way.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) remains the prime example of cagey resistance, with a soupcon of accommodation, to the narrowing influence of repressive aesthetics in modern Russian music. A compact foreground for the conflicted modernism that bore prolific fruit in his compositions was the coming of age that classical music in Russia enjoyed in the late 19th century. Its crowning achievement was Tchaikovsky's. Among the lesser lights in the Romantic flowering of Russian music was Anton Arensky (1861-1906), whose enchanting trio is companioned by two Shostakovich pieces in a new release.

Trio Con Brio Copenhagen gathers piano trios by both composers from Orchid Classics. The program's stunning capstone is Shostakovich's Trio No. 2 in E minor, op. 67. You are likely to run into that work much more often than the disc's curtain-raiser, a trio titled "Poeme" that a love-smitten Shostakovich wrote at 23. In between comes Arensky's Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, in which the pianist drives the action and the strings are strong partners, both decorative and substantial.

"Poeme," while full of engaging moments and a clear melodic and dramatic profile, might strike the listener as too loosely organized. It helps to realize that the student Shostakovich was under the influence of montage techniques in use among filmmakers, according to the disc's program note. 

Without such formality, basic materials for an effusion of romantic love might well feel diverse and capable of frequent interruption. The reflective episodes, as well as the dashing ones, indicate the burgeoning talent and expressive heft of a composer still widely celebrated and performed around the classical world. The capricious layout of the work engages Trio Con Brio Copenhagen fully. No abrupt turn is taken in a dismissive manner; the music is played with more maturity than it may deserve. 

Still, it's refreshing to have it on the same disc as the E-minor work, which ends in an expansive Allegretto that seems both sly and tentative at first, later rising to assertive, passionate heights. It opens with pizzicato strings against staccato figures in the piano, taken with a total commitment to the score's soft dynamics. At length, Shostakovich takes all three instruments to extremes of dynamics and register, and Trio Con Brio Copenhagen is fully responsive.

The intimately associated Danish trio (the pianist and cellist are married; the cellist and violinist are sisters) has an appropriate light touch in the scherzo movement (Allegro con brio). The players understand Shostakovich's mordant humor, and regard it, along with the short Largo that follows, as a double prelude to the intense Allegretto. The finale migrates from a wispy opening through a forceful climax before a quiet conclusion that seems to blend relief and exhaustion. The exhaustion is an interpretive matter, of course, as the players seem to have energy and commitment to spare.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Fonseca Theatre's 'Mud Row' a generational family drama that generates too much for its package

My recent acquaintance with the work of Dominique Morisseau took on seminar status with the opening night Friday of her "Mud Row" at Fonseca Theatre. Another of her plays, "Skeleton Crew," is halfway through its run at Phoenix Theatre in a Summit Performance Indianapolis production.  For a short time, then, local theater-lovers get a chance to compare two Morisseau plays and two ways of doing them.

I got the uneasy feeling while thinking about the excellent "Skeleton Crew" that Morisseau may have a tendency to overload her characters, shining lights on racism through them. Directorial control is essential in maintaining forward momentum and making sure so much information out of the characters' mouths feels essential in portraying talkative people rather than creative self-indulgence or padding. "Skeleton Crew" was subject to such control, fortunately. 

My second "seminar" session was more revealing about how thoroughly Morisseau applies her insights about the status of Black America to the characters she creates. "Mud Row" is clearly more challenging as far as reining in the playwright's excesses is concerned.  In both plays,  Morrisseau wants to use her characters as prisms through which major social issues involving race can be refracted across a full spectrum. In "Skeleton Crew," the issues center on the declining Detroit auto industry. In "Mud Row," the historical threats to cohesiveness in the Black family are wrapped up in housing discrimination and the persistent difficulty of passing on a legacy of even modest wealth and real property. 

Frances is shocked at evidence Elsie has been abused.
Furthermore, Morisseau roots these challenges in both family history and contrasting ideas about Black America's progress. Two sisters hold opposing views: Elsie's (Jacqueline Owens) is idealistic and founded upon W.E.B .DuBois' "Talented Tenth" advocacy, yet troubled by harmful liaisons;  Frances (Lakesha Lorene) believes struggle is necessary for advancement and casts a skeptical eye on the value of upward mobility absent pressure upon the white establishment; even activism with nonviolent tactics earns her scorn.

It takes a while to register the different time strata of these two sisters' story and that of a pair of sisters two generations away with far different attitudes about the disposition of Grandma Elsie's house not long after the matriarch's death. Though much of the use of an upstage screen, including recurrent montages of family photos, is good, slide projections that include views of old Indiana Avenue are misleading. It's obvious this production wants to pick up on Morisseau's determination to link the individuals she presents with national social issues. The play's setting is West Chester, Pennsylvania, a prosperous small city near Philadelphia in which Blacks are restricted to a neighborhood known as Mud Row.

The house poses a question of  inheritance for the successful Regine (Aniqua Sha'Cole), but it's also the

Regine and Davin are used to building upon success.

place that the drug addict Toshi (Anila Akua) and her boyfriend, Tyriek (Brenton Anderson), have appropriated as squatters. She has put aside her rootless ways, she says, and sees the place as a way to focus her life securely. Urban development has posed the question of whether the house can be saved at all. A parking lot is planned for the location, once appraisal is out of the way. Regine and her husband, Davin (Marcus Elliott), enter the home to form their own assessment of its condition and value. They notice signs that someone else is living there. The suspense and even comic possibilities of the two couples' use of the place are touched on, but could have been exploited more fully.

Toshi and Tyriek have issues to settle about stability.

The cast works hard to embody all facets of six characters in conflict with each other and with the system that has determined so much of their lives. I'm sure credit must go to director Josiah McCruiston for the full-on commitment he has elicited from the cast in putting the characters across.  I don't intend to label the performance I saw with a new title: Six characters in search of a director. They clearly had guidance insofar as their investment in their verbally rich, varied roles is concerned.

But the directorial hand could have been firmer and more resourceful. Allowing for the health-conscious disturbance of the stage illusion by face microphones and clear mouth shields, there was too much dialogue delivered at fever pitch and at unvarying close quarters. The confrontation of Regine with Toshi early in the second act was relentlessly toe-to-toe; their second long conversation was much more flexibly handled. The near-fatal tussle between Tyriek and Davin near the end of the first act had the right close-quarters mastery, though.

When you have such an appropriate set — Bernie Killian's design was sadly uncredited in the printed program — use it for more than places to stand amid its furniture and exit and entry points. Far too many hand gestures pervaded the performances, and more ways ought to have been found to convey vocal intensity without pumping up the volume. On the other hand, soft, tender or reflective dialogue, while welcome and suitable at times, unfortunately ran into problems of intelligibility in part because of those face shields.

What I see as flaws, however, are attached to a script that seems unwieldy, for all its relevance to what the playwright wants to say. It's not for nothing that August Wilson has immortal status in the history of Black American theater, despite his verbosity: his play's narratives and their construction are spellbinding, and he folds his sense of the woes and triumphs of the Black experience into the characters' lives. I've rarely felt that Wilson was spinning his wheels or mounting a soapbox, using the characters as handy workhorses for his message.

In launching its 2022 season, Fonseca Theatre Company has placed this production first to sound the theme of healing. This fractured family is indeed in need of a healing that comes through over the course of "Mud Row." Luckily the difficult convalescence is forcefully presented, but it has a lot of underbrush to clear on its journey. True, some of that tangled vegetation was already there in the text
before McCruiston and his cast got to work. Nonetheless, the show champions that work with spirit and impact.

[Photos by Ankh Productions]

Friday, March 4, 2022

Dance Kaleidoscope continues extending promise of post-pandemic brilliance with "Edge of Innovation"


Strength and precision: Emily Dyson aloft in "iconoGlass."

"Edge of Innovation" as a title readies Dance Kaleidoscope audiences for the two new works that make up the first half of its current program at Indiana Repertory Theatre. But the crown jewel in the show, which runs through Sunday, is a 1998 David Hochoy piece I've now written about three times.

"iconoGlass" hasn't lost its stunning quality for me. It is so vivid a realization of a choreographed response to the music of Philip Glass that it tempts me to think there is no better way to listen to Glass than when it's accompanied by DK dancers presenting Hochoy's choreography. I don't remember the 1998 premiere, but have been thrilled by seeing the work in 2013 and 2015.

In intermission remarks Thursday evening, artistic director Hochoy admitted that a creative spur with "iconoGlass" was to make a piece that would push his dancers to their limits: The edge of innovation in this case was to be, to the performers, also the edge of exhaustion. Extensive changes of personnel since this century's mid-teens again confirm that this modern-dance troupe retains its virtuosity and freshness.

The "repetitive structures" on which Glass builds his compositions run along a spectrum that encompasses both formal and spontaneous moods. Why choose between Apollo and Dionysus when you can call upon both gods, using Glass' minimalism as a vehicle?  That's what the choreography does here: Hieratic poses and a ceremonious mien consort with restless, flowing movement. The music, of course, models that combination. The worlds of both the mystical opera "Satyagraha" and Glass's pop side come into play. 

Without producing the impression of continually interrupting himself, Hochoy in "iconoGlass" brings his

Stuart Coleman and Paige Robinson in "iconoGlass."

lyrical gifts to bear, sometimes momentarily, upon movement that is relentless, varied and requiring pinpoint precision. The work is full of interactions that, if they looked just a little bit off, would fail utterly. "iconoGlass" is unfailingly unified, with Thursday's performance fused perfectly with Cheryl Sparks' costumes and Laura E. Glover's lighting. 

All four professional performances of "Edge of Innovation" have prelude exhibitions of DK's ensemble classes. This outreach development has been facilitated by the troupe's having its own home with studios where its educational side can flourish. Thursday's was Ballet to be succeeded tonight by Hip-Hop, Saturday by Jazz, and Sunday by Junior ensembles.

The program opened with a new work by Justin David Sears, artistic director of the Phoenix Rising Dance Company. "CULTURESCAPE" presents its mission in the all-caps title, and Sears' program note centers the work's import on "breaking rules," as Sears told Thursday's audience — rules that direct young people's search for identity along approved channels and discourage forging individual identities. I have a feeling those rules already are in decline across society, but there's no doubt that youth are still being imprinted to different degrees by needlessly narrow perspectives from family, school, religion, and peers.

Seeking identity to believe in: "CULTURESCAPE"

In any case, Sears' choreography tends to crowd how he represents individual struggles for validation. The troupe displays a broad variety of movement, broken down and sometimes echoed from dancer to dancer. There is arresting choreography on the complications of seeking identity: mimicry of convulsions and other involuntary or forced gestures: lots of round-the-head arm movement — a kind of boxing-in of personal space to emphasize separation — and other ways of communicating the struggle of individuality to emerge. 

There's so much to take in, but the troupe's command of its varied tasks keeps the centrifugal force from getting out of control. When the search moves toward fulfillment, six of the cast of eight present a model of unity around a shared goal. The scattershot feeling of "CULTURESCAPE"'s long first section is cast aside for ensemble cohesion and closing the space.  The two most vigorously individualized dancers join in the implied celebration. Moving beyond regimentation wins the day.

With Dance Kaleidoscope taking the stage, guest choreographer Lalah Ayan makes a nice bridge between

Justin Rainey and Kieran King in "Age of Agile."

the two locally generated pieces. "Age of Agile" reflects some of the pressures to own one's space that "CULTURESCAPE" focuses on, but with freedom as a keynote from early on. Buoyancy is never deflated. The governing pace and the abundance of stage crossings suggest that the space is infinite, that what we see on the One America Stage is just a cross-section of a dominant agility celebrated in the title. 

We are invited to imagine it goes on out of sight beyond the wings. There are leaps and lifts punctuating a wealth of running. The ambiguity between running from something and running to something is piquantly balanced. Laura Glover's distribution of light and shade in enchanting patterns complements the work's vitality, which we in the audience are invited to catch "on the run," taking delight in it as it passes.

[Photos by Lora Olive]