Saturday, April 30, 2022

Actors Theatre of Indiana puts its shoulder to the wheel with 'Working'

"Something to Point To" the cast indicates in the finale
Chicago radio guru Studs Terkel could talk to anybody, and just about anybody seemed to pour secrets and out-loud perspectives into his tape recorder. His receptivity and shrewd selection of the results generated several books, one of which is bluntly called "Working." How do Americans earn their livings, and how do they feel about it? he wanted to know.

An updated musical version with the same title concludes Actors Theatre of Indiana's 2021-22 season at the Center for the Performing Arts' intimate Studio Theater. With a host of  mostly well-known songwriters underlining his perspectives, the show makes clear that Terkel's sympathies, though they covered the spectrum, could fairly be described as left-of-center. He cast a jaundiced eye at the upper crust and tended to find virtue, often wrung from necessity, in the lives of the working class and those struggling to climb the social ladder as white-collar serfs.

The politics behind different levels of work life are mostly implied. Today's polarization complicates the simpler picture that Terkel documented in the 1970s, but the difficulties of finding job satisfaction remain in the midst of sporadic optimism and pride. The rousing "Brother Trucker" (by James Taylor) and the blithe sauciness of "It's an Art" (a celebration of waitressing by Stephen Schwartz) lifted the spirits on opening night, thanks to their staging and solo turns by Allen Sledge and Cynthia Collins, respectively. Collins was positively balletic while putting across the song.

Social satire was occasionally sharp, as the side-by-side perspectives of a fund-raiser and a hooker revealed in antiphonal monologues by Collins and Lillie Eliza Thomas. Mixed success finding bliss at the lower end of the wage scale was summed up in the portrait of a burger-flipper occasionally permitted to escape by delivering orders and getting a nice tip: "Delivery." Adam Tran occupied the solo spot in a number  that typified the production's skillful blending of individual skills and ensemble aplomb.

Don Farrell is all nerves as a press agent

Don Farrell vividly represented personal testimony loaded with ambivalence as an ideologically driven finance capitalist and a harried press agent. Like many workers, he realizes that he is only good insofar as he makes other people look good. In monologue and song, Aviva Pressman described repetitive soul- and body-damaging work in a suitcase factory, which led into an ensemble she headed: "Millwork," another Taylor creation. The staging, with chiaroscuro lighting of the chorus in the background of Bernard Killian's industrial set as Pressman's worker poured her heart out, was among the show's most moving episodes Friday night.

"Working" doesn't go on and on, fortunately, though I felt the show could use an intermission. All the songs, especially when given choreography at a high level by Carol Worcel, struck home. Movement among Killian's raked platforms was smoothly coordinated under the direction of Lysa Fox; everything flowed. "Cleaning Women," highly derivative of Motown girl groups, made its point trenchantly, but Micki Grant's song was not impressive.

Work that produces something tangible gets the show's final paean. Along the way, the pathos of care-

Allen Sledge tells about the satisfaction of fighting fires.

taking jobs earns a sincere salute for contrast. Collins' portrait of a public-school teacher was rather crisp and shrewish, perhaps raising the useful point that even undercompensated jobs are sometimes filled by worn-down people who may not ever have been up to the task. 

At the end, "Something to Point To" had the full cast celebrating valuable work that is often quite anonymous. As long as the building is not razed during the builders' lifetime, there stands an achievement in bricks and mortar to be praised by its builders. Still, pride has often led America to go off the rails, as Terkel always recognized.

In 1971, while he was working on "Working," Terkel came to Flint, Michigan, to see a stage version of his best seller "Division Street America." Interviewing him for the Flint Journal, I asked him what had changed about the U.S. since that book had come out in 1965. 

"The 'We're number one' feeling is very important to Americans, but that outlook won't work any longer," he told me.

What will take its place? I wondered. "Doing something good," he said. "Doing something you like to do and are good at. In the past, man's work was making things. Now the technology can make things. We've got to redefine work. And we've got to ask some of what the scientists call impertinent questions about set values."

Now, I don't believe in the afterlife and this is merely a rhetorical query, but in light of seeing this gripping show in 2022, I wish I could ask the master interviewer: So, Studs, how're we doing?

[Photos by Ed Stewart]

Friday, April 29, 2022

Escaping narrow representation in art and life: Phoenix's 'No AIDS, No Maids' opens


At home with bright decor, the Moderator scrutinizes her prospects.

The questions that "No AIDS, No Maids" raises create a kind of pre-echo  that anticipates the personal issues raised by Dee Dee Batteast, the playwright.  Society's current irritations about race and sexuality are percolating
in our minds from the start; how they are handled in this one-woman show follows closely behind.

The new Phoenix Theatre production  reflects the show's origins in a fringe festival (Washington, D.C.'s). Befitting the one-hour limit of the format and each show's need to register quickly with potentially distracted audiences, there's a message, pointed and definitive, to match the fringe-theater vibe. The title signals it in absolute terms. The author underlines it in censorable fashion with the subtitle: "Stories I Can't F*ckin' Hear No More." 

Performed by LaKesha Lorene at the Phoenix, "No AIDS, No Maids" is explicit and forceful in delivering Batteast's hostility to stereotypes and suspect narratives in popular media about gay men and black women. The gist of her objections is that as film, theater, and television characters, those populations are present only to project their heart-rending victimhood and their usefulness to white heroism, allyship, and openness to crossing barriers (to a limited extent).

When narratives about these historically marginalized people enter the mass media, they are often without personal histories, making their portrayal functional and in a certain sense transactional. Imagine what that does to the mere marketability of black and gay actors and to the opportunities to develop their craft. Lorene makes clear her need, voicing the playwright's insight, to be done with accepting limitations on the portrayal of black women; she leaves the gay-white-male battle to others. The history that concerns Batteast runs from the stern, maternal, heart-of-gold  slave, whose icon is Hattie McDaniel (Mammy in "Gone With the Wind"), up through countless maids and best buddies of contemporary white heroines. No more Scarlett's dearest friend, in other words, is what this play proclaims.

Batteaste's agenda necessarily engages the thorny matter that conventional narratives are inevitably flawed by bias, and therefore only "lived experience" provides the credentials for telling a story. I'm flatly opposed to such a restriction, and it's stunningly popular on social media. Yet I can acknowledge the justice behind her objections to the dominant manner of assigning roles: how little it reflects reality, how much it affects employability. 

There's a poignant scene in which an offstage voice, presumably of a casting director, needles the auditioning Moderator enacting a hairdresser into ever-harsher depictions of the expected strong-black-woman attitude. The presumed effect is to insist that aspirants who fit

The Moderator in lecture mode discourses on deficiencies.

the announced racial requirements model anything they try out for along certain narrow lines. Roles that are more freely conceived from the outset outside the strereotypes may not be available.

The production has three playing areas, with two screens high above for projecting video clips and memelike still photos with verbal punches included. MeJah Balams' set design is splendid, focusing on a home environment on one side, a high platform on the other for delivering some quasi-academic messages. Sound and projection designs by Matt Tibbs  compatibly carry the production far beyond the fringe-festival norm. Tonie Smith's costume designs include a vital, sharply satirical "minstrel" outfit in which Lorene can mock neo-vaudeville expectations of 21st-century black performers. 

Laura Glover's lighting lends a touch of spectacle and dramatic nuance to the central virtue of the show: Lorene's riveting portrayal, especially her physical self-assertiveness and her penetrating eyes (relevantly highlighted in the script). If you attend "No AIDS, No Maids"  between now and May 22, it's in more than one sense that the actor will seem to look right through you.

[Photos by Gray Dragon Photography]

Thursday, April 28, 2022

In love's service, a world of deception and manipulation: Southbank's 'Twelfth Night'

Musical theater steeped in rock and soul genres seems a natural way to adapt 'Twelfth Night." Southbank Theatre Company's new production enters lustily into this version of Shakespeare's manic Illyria, the setting of a comedy of mistaken identities, both deliberate and accidental. 

With music and lyrics by Shaina Taub, based on the conception she forged with Kwame Kwei-Armah, the show is a surprisingly successful adaptation of a mature Shakespeare comedy far from the two-dimensional framework of the early "Two Gentlemen of Verona," which received successful musical treatment a half-century ago.

In a preview performance Wednesday night on the Playground at Indy Fringe, the cast directed by Max McCreary had the momentum right for the frantic action, with the ancient mask of comedy firmly in place. The catchy songs help the story float along and conveniently keep the play from going too deep into the verbal weeds. 

Failing suitor Sir Andrew confronts skeptical clown Feste.
The deeply informed literary critic Harold Bloom, who tended to be disappointed by staged Shakespeare that seemed to him to get something wrong, remarks in his essay on "Twelfth Night" that "the fault of every staging...I've attended is that the pace is not fast enough. It ought to be played at the frenetic tempo that befits this company of zanies and antics." 

Opening tonight and running through May 8, the Southbank production has it right — buoyed by Taub's songs and their usually crisp and lively delivery at the preview.  Much of the show's comic energy was concentrated brightly in the roles of Sir Toby Belch (Mark Cashwell), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Kim Egan), and the wooing-resistant Olivia (Natalie Fisher).

Only in some of the subtler musical links —and perhaps sometimes imprecise due to a face-microphone cutout — did the coordination and vigor falter between voices and instruments. The seven-piece band, placed to one side next to the IndyFringe van, upheld its crucial end of the musical bargain under the direction of keyboardist Ginger Stoltz. The ensemble songs clicked, prepared by choral director Brad Thompson and underlined by Dani Gibb's choeography.                                               

Noblewoman Olivia is resolved to turn down suitors.

The self-absorbed, lovesick Duke Orsino's famous opening line, "If music be the food of love, play on" appropriately gets collective celebration in song, as if Taub considered that to be the Bard's invitation to lend her creativity to his play. Why not? After all, its subtitle, "What You Will," constitutes an authorized "whatever," an emoticon shrug, endorsing just what both players and audience may choose to make of it. 

Later, after the rare tenderness of the disguised Viola's conversation with Orsino (nicely played by Michelle Wafford Mannweiler and Dave Pelsue), her rhetorical question "Is this not love?" is picked up in a soulful solo by Feste (Paige Scott) that eventually turns into an anthemic ensemble. The song's assertion of what real love is, topping all the shenanigans and the misplaced affections, sets up the finale, in which even the "horribly abused" puritan Malvolio (fiercely embodied by Hannah Boswell), who has departed the stage in fury, is welcomed back into the Illyrian fold.

The song promises happiness to anyone who can see themselves in others and is able to

Mutually lost siblings Sebastian and Viola find each other.

welcome differences. It recognizes that we are all subject to deception, some of which we bring upon ourselves. It's a nearly utopian vision of the reality that might be seen as an emendation of Malvolio's apothegm "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them" if we tolerantly substitute "foolish" for "great(ness)."  

That theme of universal acceptance was given memorable permanence in an older rousing finale, the chorus that ends Verdi's "Falstaff" and points out "Tutti gabbati!" (all are fools). In more forgiving guise, the theme extends the sort of universal embrace that, by the laws of comedy, even severe killjoys like Malvolio can open their arms to.

It's not our reality today, of course, and it calls to mind what date the Christian observance of Twelfth Night ("the twelfth day of Christmas") falls upon: January 6. Hmmm — January 6. Rings a bell, doesn't it? All are fools, indeed.

[Photos by Rob Slaven]


Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Distinguished oboist raises profile of modern works with piano in 'When There Are No Words...'

 The subtitle "Revolutionary Works for Oboe and Piano" could be slightly misleading, but it's in the good cause of showing how different composers respond to threats at the micro and macro levels.

"When There Are No Words..." (Cedille Records) gathers 20th-century pieces that deserve a hearing not because they are in themselves revolutionary, but because they seem to upset any pristine apple carts that purport to advance music in some kind of pure, self-referential condition.

Alex Klein works well with pianist Phillip Bush.   

Alex Klein, principal oboist emeritus with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and now holding down the first chair in the oboe section of the Calgary Philharmonic, teams once again with pianist Phillip Bush to put across a program of music by Paul Hindemith, William Bolcom, Pavel Haas, Benjamin Britten, Jose Siqueira, and Klement Slavicky.

In addition to the wide spectrum their styles cover, the six composers faced challenges from the world outside music either insofar as their attitudes toward disturbing events shaped their creative activity or their lives were altered, damaged or even destroyed by direct threats.

Hindemith's Sonata for Oboe and Piano leads the program off. The German composer's sturdy, personal manner of neo-classicism is demonstrated in two movements, the first functioning as a kind of prelude to the expansive "Sehr langsam," which is only "very slow" in parts. It mounts to a majestic conclusion that can be interpreted as defiance of the Nazi regime that forced Hindemith's exile and his eventual resettlement in the United States. 

Pavel Haas' Suite for Oboe and Piano, by a victim of the Holocaust, brings out especially well the vivid interpretive personality of  this duo. The "Con fuoco" middle movement  is intense and contrasts the two instruments agreeably.  Bush, a 1983 fellowship winner for what became the American Pianists Association, is especially impressive in putting across this music.

Bolcom's "Aubade" sums up in six minutes a pensive salute to daybreak in a time of anxiety (1980) in which the anxiety is both represented and kept at bay. The writing for oboe seems punishing in its demands, which Klein surmounts readily against an accompaniment of chords and arpeggios from the piano. 

Benjamin Britten's pacifism was continually at odds with the warlike world he lived in. "Temporal Variations" covers his ready response to musical forms and styles that his extensive gifts allowed him to address in brief form. His "March" here is as sardonic as his friend Dmitri Shostakovich often was when his muse turned martial. There are nine delicious bagatelles in this set. The duo is adept at catching each mood in its cameo form.

Jose Siqueira's loyalty to his Brazilian homeland was tested by political turmoil in the 1980s, and his life ended in exile soon afterward. Three Etudes is a buoyant expression of an imaginative world free of oppression, with a playful cast overall. The piano writing has a bell-like clarity and verve.

 Slavicky's resistance to communism in his Czech homeland ended his career. His music in the Suite for Oboe and Piano recorded here is free of constraints, other than the dirge-like overcast of the "Triste"movement. Otherwise, the message is resilience, nowhere more triumphant than in the finale, "Bacchanale rustico." It springs free of all constraints, and the virtuosity of pianist and oboist couldn't come across any more splendid than it does in concluding this cherishable program.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Memory and legacy: 'The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin' comes to IRT after two-year pandemic delay

Harry Chin uses talismans of his heritage to learn from its ghosts.

We've all become used to documentation for the sake of safety and access. Since the pandemic, proof of vaccination has become the "open sesame" to let us into many places we could formerly enter for the price of admission or without charge. Ever more official credentials are required to allow us to vote. Only the arena of guns seems to have been cleared of most legal obstacles in recent years.

Imagine the attempt to live securely as an immigrant when your right to be in this country was subject to close interrogation, with wrong answers  speeding you toward deportation. This is the odd legacy that, in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act, complicated the already fraught adjustments  that immigrants from China had to make here between 1882 and 1943. Legal requirements to admit getting around the law prevailed until 1966. Family life was subjected to sanctioned disruption as it had not been since the days of slavery.

This kind of history (well outlined by Richard J Roberts in the program booklet)  frames the action around "The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin," which the Indiana Repertory Theatre opened last weekend in a production that the pandemic delayed for two years. Its full-fledged realization alone is a worthy sign of the mixed recovery American culture has enjoyed this year.

 Jessica Huang's moving, occasionally perplexing play makes a bold choice in telling the story in

Sheila and her father talk tensely about moving.

fragments and vignettes woven together in arrangements as graceful and significant as Chinese calligraphy. These potent strokes are dramatically wrenched out of chronological order so that the title character's struggle to forget what he has to and remember only what's unavoidable and well-practiced takes hold. 

Huang used a real man's story as the basis for a complex family drama. Her artistic method allowed her to dig deep into the effects of displacement on one man's life. One event and mental disturbance after another blocks access to an acceptable identity as a hyphenated American ready to find a balanced way forward. The playwright's manner of presentation reflects that, and Jaki Bradley's direction manages all the shifts of time and place seamlessly.

The theme of uprooting is steadily symbolized by the placement of suitcases and other portable items around three sides of the IRT's Upper Stage. A large globe in low relief dominates the backdrop, telling us that an influential but empty world awaits those who can't find their place in it. A section marked by latitudinal and longitudinal lines opens from time to time to provide another playing area for a ghostly visitor.

Shouldering the main character's burden with a gathering insight we come to share, David Shih plays a needy immigrant who works his way up from the kitchen of a Midwestern Chinese restaurant. He makes his peace with its Americanized specialty of "chow mein" and a dyspeptic boss from another

Yuet, the wife he left behind, confronts Harry.

Asian country. Marginalization, supported by racism, narrows Harry's freedom of action all along. His difficulty with language is portrayed with pained earnestness in Shih's portrayal. Continually disoriented, Harry Chin succumbs to the temptation of marriage to a white American woman when his former family life in China seems unrecoverable. With one year as a widower, he lives in a tense holding pattern in their daughter Sheila's crowded apartment.

Among the show's many technical and design wonders is the front end of an era-appropriate Buick that starts up mysteriously in the garage of their home. Its immediate discovery by Sheila functions like Chekhov's gun: Displayed or mentioned in the first act, it's used to fatal effect in the third. But again, the event and its meaning are lived and understood in both directions. As puzzling as its mere presence and the mysterious triggering of its ignition are, the auto introduces us to the play's theme of haunting.

Working through her own identity as a now-motherless half-Asian American, Sheila is given delicate grace and resolve by Allison Buck. Anne Bates pours both ingenuous passion and tortured zest into the high-strung second wife, Laura. Stephenie Soohyun Park masters both the gulf and the resemblance between first wife Yuet and the daughter from that marriage, Susan. Sam Encarnacion and Linden Tailor each fulfill a couple of crucial supporting roles, giving them impact and fully individualized stature.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote that "life can only be understood backwards, but it must  be lived forwards."

The climactic scene of "The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin"

When you're as haunted as Huang's hero is, life must be lived forwards and backwards at the same time, with the hope that understanding may eventually result. "Haunting is helping," the playwright reminds us in her program note, echoing one of the play's lines. The helping is accomplished with a visual confirmation at the end -- the crown of the tech and design team's adroitness.

 "The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin" carries fragility in its title, and also the impervious strength of documents in highly evolved societies. "Papers, Papers!" Gian-Carlo Menotti's Magda cries in despair in "The Consul."  But more important at length is the persistence of dreams and  — to evoke the master surrealist Salvador Dali — memory. Its acceptance is the key to the resolution promised at the end of Huang's surrealistic play, and delivered beautifully by IRT's resurrected production. 

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra strings get a showcase in concert featuring a rising cello star

Music produced out of despair at wartime destruction with an overlay of shame made the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra's performance of Richard Strauss' "Metamorphosen" timely Saturday night.

World War II was more of a cataclysm than Russia's current assault on Ukraine, so analogies must be tentatively applied. Strauss' reputation, long under a bit of an unjustified shadow because he remained in his native Germany throughout the Third Reich, has always had the benefit of reconciliation with the civilized world, thanks to this expansive showcase for 23 strings. Charles Conrad's program note sets Strauss' lack of complicity with the Nazi regime in a true light, without forced special pleadings.

ICO music director Matthew Kraemer capped a program featuring an excellent soloist – cellist Sterling Elliott — with the late Strauss work, the long-honored composer's response to the devastation both caused and endured by his homeland. The variation of texture and rhythms, applied to a handful of thematic elements, makes the nearly half-hour piece pass with bittersweet pleasure. The ICO strings rose to the occasion with firm ensemble, precise definition of phrases, and warm tone throughout.

Sterling Elliott soloed in Haydn.
Before intermission, concertgoers who substantially filled the Schrott Center at Butler University were treated to a performance of the pre-eminent cello concerto from the Classical era: Joseph Haydn's in D major. Elliott, a young, much-laureled cellist who's a master's degree candidate at the Juilliard School, displayed a warm sonority, what seemed like an instinctive feeling for drama and contrast, and technical aplomb. His first-movement cadenza was an admirable example of cadenza-playing that confirms the significance of the themes and figures that inspired it. 

Double stops were assertive and the contrasts of register in the finale were especially thrilling. Intonation was dead-center, with very few momentary exceptions in rapid passages. Elliott's expressive command of everything in the solo part was never in doubt. Kraemer and the orchestra sounded fully in accord with the soloist, who seemed eager to keep coordination focused. Such forthright artistry begs to be encountered again. 

The concert opened with an almost brand-new work by the Scottish composer Anna Clyne. "Sound and Fury" (2019) draws its title from the famous soliloquy in Shakespeare's "Macbeth." The words were projected through the hall's audio system at the piece's climax. 

The work's orchestration was notable for chilling sweeps of marimba. The perpetual-motion orchestration at first seems overstated, but the composer's attempt to convey Macbeth's turbulent mental state is indelibly represented by the swirling strings. Later, fanfare figures recall the tragic hero's past martial success — the pathway to his overweening ambition, galvanized by his wife toward multiple murders.  

A hymnlike episode sets up the recorded narration beginning with separated repetitions of the word "tomorrow." The music's suggestion of Shakespeare's imperishable words — how the relentless pace of time wears away everything we try to hold onto — was slightly disturbing. It was also satisfying to regard such a truth at arm's length through the scrim of arresting music.


Saturday, April 23, 2022

'Scheherazade' holds ISO audience in thrall in 'Greetings from the Middle East'


Ruth Reinhardt impressive in warhorse and  exotic pieces

For all the comfort food Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" provides to the appetite for music that stimulates the pictorial imagination, it is also an exhibition of genius in orchestration. The Russian composer wrote a book on that subject, a kind of inside-baseball landmark of the craft he put on public view so often. 

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's return to this masterpiece Friday night, under the guidance of guest conductor Ruth Reinhardt, painted its essence in vivid colors. Conspicuous excellence in the solos threaded throughout the 50-minute expanse lifted the Hilbert Circle Theatre performance to the cheering ovation it deserved at the end. 

Chief among them, of course, is the concertmaster's impersonation of the title character, the sultana who spins tale after tale to forestall her fated execution by a jealous husband. 

In that role, Kevin Lin shone throughout. His initial solo was a blend of Scheherazade's teasing and caution, holding back slightly on forward momentum in recognition of the heroine's precarious prospects for survival. It was loaded with the sultana's cagey blend of trepidation and calculation. That was shadowed effectively in ensemble statements of the melody in "The Sea and Sinbad's Ship."

 At length, especially in the second movement, originally titled "The Tale of the Kalendar Prince," one solo or duo turn after another captivated the attention:  Ivy Ringel, bassoon! Jennifer Christen, oboe! Robert Danforth, horn! Austin Huntington, cello! Samuel Rothstein, clarinet! Diane Evans, harp! Conrad Jones, trumpet! Karen Moratz, flute! (I've just exhausted my yearly supply of exclamation points, under severe restriction for old writers.)

There are forthright sectional showcases as well, giving a foretaste of a more abstract orchestral showcase to come, Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. "The Young Prince and the Young Princess" (third movement) was beguiling. The finale, a triptych ("The Festival at Baghdad —The Sea—Shipwreck"), brought percussion virtuosity to the fore. Reinhardt's command of the variety of texture and rhythm seemed both absolute and ingratiating. Brass are vital to conveying the sultan's menacing control as well as, later,  the festival zest and the shipwreck episodes that make quite a tone-painting spectacle before the work resumes the gentle "once upon a time" feeling of its opening measures.

Janna Baty makes her ISO debut this weekend.
Before intermission, the audience was treated to two pieces by contemporary composers of Middle Eastern background that are new to the ISO. The more substantial one, Reza Vali's "Folk Songs" (Set No. 10), brought the composer, who's based in Pittsburgh, here to share in the applause. The four pieces in the set gave substantial work to the guest soloist, mezzo-soprano Janna Baty. She needed the substantial chest voice such admired colleagues of her vocal range as Marilyn Horne used to display. For the most part, she brought it fully into play, singing in Farsi, the foremost modern descendant of Persian. She had variety of timbre to apply as well. The orchestral accompaniment was substantial and varied, nicely modulated from the podium. 

At intermission, Vali explained to me his focus on Olivier Messiaen in the third piece of the otherwise folk-music-based set. The movement was striking in its sepulchral use of percussion, including stopped piano strings, gongs, and soft-spoken chimes; the rest of the orchestra sat silent. Vali admires Messiaen as one of only three spiritual composers in classical-music history. Apart from other aspects of spiritual depth Vali acknowledges in other composers, his small series of spiritual champions begins with J.S. Bach, skips ahead to Anton Bruckner, and ends with the deeply Catholic French composer (1908-1992).

The other pieces in the set reminded me somewhat of other composers. To set a poem in which a lover anticipates the return of his beloved, there was distinctive Mahlerian yearning, with the soloist's melodies outlined by the orchestra. For the exuberant passion of "Song from Luristan," there were touches of the lush infatuation characteristic of Canteloube's "Songs of the Auvergne." In the finale, "Popular Song from Tehran," the influence of Bartok could be discerned, especially in how the angular melody was handled in accompaniment. This may seem to suggest an excessively derivative composer, but the beneficent shadows of other music aptly dappled what struck me as a shrewdly judged, personalized canvas.

Avner Dorman's "Azerbaijani Dance" opened the concert (as it will this afternoon's identical program repeat) with a hard-charging display of foot-stomping energy. Despite the overriding pulse, there was evident complication of the rhythmic profile that the ISO seemed to have under control. Amid the roars and smears that varied the texture, there were also interesting reprieves by intense, but softer, passages of treble sounds, including muted trumpets.

The new experiences afforded by the program's first half enabled "Greetings from the Middle East" to give an authentically exotic flavor to the ISO's season-long "postcard" series. That helped the familiar "Scheherazade" sound fresher than ever.








Thursday, April 21, 2022

Charles Mingus at Ronnie Scott's: Another fascinating Resonance reclamation project

Major-label fadeaways from jazz decades ago can explain why a 1972 engagement of the Charles Mingus Sextet at Ronnie Scott's fabled London club has remained hidden till now.

Columbia Records, at one time a stellar presenter of jazz, started overemphasizing the bottom line under Clive Davis, and the temperamental genius of the double bass and extensive small-ensemble music was among the victims. The gig was expected to generate the next Mingus album on Columbia, but Davis put the kibosh on that plan.

So runs the narrative that's part of the abundant gathering of reminiscence and analysis that fills the booklet accompanying a new three-disc set: "Mingus: The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott's" (Resonance Records). LP versions will become available Saturday on Record Store Day.

The range of energy, commitment, and insight from Mingus and his sidemen, chiefly alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, is impressive. In his remarks to the audience, it's clear the sometimes cranky, even volcanic, bandleader feels at home at Ronnie Scott's. The gig was expected to produce the next Mingus album on Columbia, but the corporate shift put the kibosh on that plan.

The Mingus fan will be comfortable as well about what's been brought to light. Producer Zev Feldman has brought about another worthy unearthing of a jazz treasure. More requiring the indulgence of fans is Mingus' declared strategy of providing the most openness and surprising variety to spur his sidemen to the greatest creativity. Mingus always took his chances that strategy would pay off more often than not. "Organized chaos" was his preferred phrase, and the listener's tolerance for excursions into chaos will affect the enjoyment. 

Charles Mingus in his heyday.

Mingus' designs here as in the rest of his discography reflect a lifelong devotion to the music of Duke Ellington. Though venturing into his own version of free jazz, in 1972 the composer and inspirer of his sidemen had no qualms about reaching into the heritage, just as Ornette Coleman and the Art Ensemble of Chicago did in their own ways. Nearly a hundred years ago, Ellington closed off the social commentary implied in "Black and Tan Fantasy" with the first part of the famous melody in Chopin's "Funeral March" Sonata.

Thus, this collection includes an extrapolation of "When the Saints Go Marching In," titled "Pops" after Louis Armstrong's nickname and his informal manner of address to just about everyone. There are also brief visits to old jazz standards ("Ko Ko" and "Air Mail Special") to help anchor the band and the audience in tradition.

At their best, a Mingus band always feels like a real community, prizing individuality in a collective context. Thus, quotations in solos seem less like personal indulgences than a facet of group rapport. In "Mind Readers' Convention in Milano," Jon Faddis goes into Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts" not only for the tune's sake but also to acknowledge his debt to the bebop trumpet master. Elsewhere there are long, almost medley-like strings of tributes to familiar music in the bassist's own solos. The center tends to shift: there's often a kind of centrifugal force at work in a Mingus band performance. This piece throws off little bits of the theme as it goes along.

Ellington's habit of prizing his sidemen's sound and phrasing in original compositions is carried out well in the originals Mingus chose at Ronnie Scott's. There's a great version of "Fables of Faubus," somehow cohesive despite its 35-minute length. Musicians not well known to me are in this band, and they are often spectacular. Besides McPherson, mention should be made of distinctive pianist (and occasional vocalist) John Foster and drummer Roy Brooks, who contributes one of the set's unexpected delights in "Noddin' Ya Head Blues" with a witty solo on musical saw. It belongs in the Musical Saw Hall of Fame. But that's just a by-the-way gem in this glittering treasure chest.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

A tradition on a weekend saturated in tradition: Steve Allee Big Band at the Jazz Kitchen

 It was no April Fools' joke but a harbinger of long-term survival in a tough business when the Steve Allee Big Band inaugurated the Jazz Kitchen on April 1, 1994.

Steve Allee taking care of business at the keyboard.

The ensemble headed by the master bandleader and father of proprietor David Allee has made an annual tradition out of lighting the birthday candles at the now-venerable jazz club with hot music.

On Saturday night, the Jazz Kitchen's properly focused observance of Jazz Appreciation Month continued with the highly anticipated return of the senior Allee's 17-piece ensemble. Catching the second set, I was moved by the concise attention to history, with shoutouts to significant contributors, shared from the bandstand in remarks by Steve Allee and club manager Frank Steans.

Allee has long acknowledged his forebears on the Indianapolis music scene in his compositions. Both people and places are worth commemorating musically, he has long felt. Thus the set opened with "Hubbub," a tribute to an Indiana Avenue nightspot of the same name from that artery's heyday as an entertainment attraction in the black community.

The hallowed masters of that scene got props as well when the band launched into Russell Webster's "Four Hours of Dreams," a ballad with heft, and later with Allee's arrangement of Claude Sifferlen's "Zebra 3," a rare original by the sui generis teacher of Allee and many others of local repute. The rendition was loaded with the harmonic adventurousness typical of Sifferlen's piano playing.

Allee applied the nostalgic touch lightly, and there was never any doubt that music would take priority. He let the music explain itself, so there was nothing to get in the way of savoring the kind of swinging chorale he set up, with  the rising lines of "Pure Spirit." If it was not conceived with the Easter spirit in mind, it might well have been: The sax section rolled the stone away with muscular adroitness. Chip McNeill's tenor-sax solo had flamboyance from the outset. Before he was done, the afterburners had kicked in. On baritone sax, Ned Boyd generated the same sort  of heat with his steady-burning solo on "Zebra 3."

It would be hard and almost beside the point to call attention to all the good solos. The main thing was how they fit into the context of Allee's busy, pungent arrangements. In intricacy, power, and coherence, the Steve Allee Big Band is the local — and still active — counterpart to the fabled Thad Jones-Mel Lewis ensemble that long held down Monday nights at New York's Village Vanguard.

Sure, there were signs this group could benefit from a more regular performance schedule, but so many of the members have academic schedules to meet hither and yon — there were several jocular references in member introductions as to who merited "Doctor" before his name.

Everyone's credentials seemed self-evident, however, right through the set finale, titled "Uncle Bernie" after an Allee kinsman who lived outside New Orleans and gave young Steve some crucial exposure to the foundational music scene there. It opened with zesty parade-ground patterns from Steve Houghton's drums, then set off on its jaunty course, including a witty alto solo by Dr. Matt Pivec of Butler University.  Academic jazz at its best has long since acquired street smarts. And post-graduate seminars for the public have been in the curriculum at the Jazz Kitchen for 28 years now.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]            



Saturday, April 16, 2022

Originality and internal rapport: Sean Imboden brings his new band to JAM celebration

Sean Imboden (upper left) led a new group.

Sean Imboden
has displayed his remarkable gift for composition and leadership of large-ensemble jazz, so great things could be expected out of his appearance Friday night heading a new sextet. The group was part of an intensification of special programming at the Jazz Kitchen to help put across Jazz Appreciation Month locally in a way only the city's principal venue for the music can do. 

It's rewarding to hear new ensemble jazz with well-distributed solos set in the midst of structures that do more than nail down the "head" at the beginning and end of a string of solos. The sextet offered a generous set playing such music, with John Raymond on trumpet, Joel Tucker on guitar, Cassius Goens III on drums, Nick Tucker on bass and Steve Allee on piano.

There were also unusual shifts of meter and more than the usual rhythmic complexity. Yet it was all very attractive at first hearing and didn't require deeper understanding of how it was put together in order to come across well. I was fascinated by the interludes separating solos in "Portal Passage," for instance, an Imboden original placed in between two others from his workshop: "Fire Spirit" and "Above the Acorn Trees." 

The way the rhythm section was mixed in an early episode of "Fire Spirit" sounded blurry, but otherwise all the strands were clear, and the internal compatibility jelled quickly throughout. Each musician seemed ready to set his solo in context: Allee's calm, chordal solo in "Portal Passage" had just the right reflective touch, and Raymond's solo after the leader's in Gilad Hekselman's "Verona"  was brilliantly put together, with a combination of florid and impactful phrases that brought Randy Brecker to mind. The brothers Tucker were front and center (with Allee and Raymond sitting out) during a quartet rendition of Pat Metheny's "Last Train Home."

Goens got a chance to unleash tumult as Metheny's "Bright Size Life" got started against a bass-and-guitar pattern. During Raymond's understated solo, there was ample chance to admire the drummer's sensitive accompanying. Goens' show of power at the start seemed just as fitting as the way he enhanced what his colleagues were doing in their solo turns.

The set ended with a catchy Imboden original, "The Closer," whose infectious melody and rhythmic zest suggested it could be adapted for festive dancing in the street. But for sitting-down pleasure in a packed club, it made for a wonderful finale to an exhibition of some of the best in original local jazz.

[Photos by Rob Ambrose]



Sunday, April 10, 2022

At Jazz Kitchen, Melissa Aldana shows well-honed focus on tarot and personal insight

Melissa Aldana solos (backed by Abadey).

Melissa Aldana is among the jazz musicians who have taken the lingering pandemic as the catalyst for new music to make up for the decline of working before the public. As often in normal times, going into the studio with the creative result has taken on special importance before going on tour.

The 31-year-old tenor saxophonist, a native of Chile, likes to base her compositions on cultural influences outside music. From "Visions," the Motema CD that first acquainted me with her music, she turned from visual art to the esoteric mysteries of tarot, a kind of playing card long regarded as a way to seek personal direction into the unknown.

The occult can be a spur to art regardless of a creator's depth of belief. Tarot weaves its way into T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," and occult knowledge had a long-lasting effect on W.B. Yeats' titanic poetic career. 

For Aldana, "I took the lockdown as an opportunity to learn more about myself through the process of learning tarot," she explains in a program note to her new CD. Some of the tunes she wrote about the tarot's 27 major arcana are the unifying theme of "12 Stars," the musician's Blue Note recording debut. Touring on that album, Aldana headed a quartet Saturday night at the Jazz Kitchen.

The first set  opened with the a revisit to her personal journey's outset. They are the same pair of compositions that launch "12 Stars."  Clearly, "Falling" and "Intuition" are designed to mark the progress of reconstituting a life after the global blow of March 2020 and finding internal resources to apply to recovery. 

As performed by Aldana here, with Mike Moreno on guitar, Pablo Menares on bass and Kush Abadey on drums, there was likely deliberate tentativeness about the first piece, and a little more "falling off" from some notes than is customary in the saxophonist's firmly centered playing. "Falling" made a good opener for a set, as it seems a way of getting used to the room and the audience.

The group's fitness for the gig and the music was hardly in doubt, however, even through the probing nature of the leader's playing in "Intuition." As a sign of gathering confidence, Moreno brought hints of funkiness into his solo, which was an apt touch. Aldana soon poured forth her admirable sound, always expressive and comfortably well-integrated, with no need for squeaks, squawks or split tones. That was particularly notable when she moved into the higher range, where she got what she needed out of reaching up and linking the heights to the central and deep parts of the tenor's compass.

When more high-register playing marked her playing in "The Bluest Eye," it was a tribute to the search for identity in Toni Morrison's novel of the same title. Surging energy from Abadey at the drums confirmed the nervous, skittery response to what Aldana calls society's indoctrination of maturing girls about beauty — the shaping theme of Morrison's story.

Especially impressive and for me the set's ensemble highlight was the ballad "Emilia," with its tonal variety (more chords from the guitarist and ringing reverberant accompaniment toward the end), as well as the set's only bass solo, a plangent, tidy statement by Menares. 

Abadey's vigorous opening cadenza on "Los Ojos de Chile" helped put across Aldana's version of a protest song about conditions in her homeland. Nuance entered when the band joined in and stated the theme, but everyone subsequently stepped forward to underline the social-justice message.  What sounded at first like the out-chorus led to further soloing, with an ensemble sound that remained vigorous and forceful till the end. 

The combination of exuberance and control characterized the whole set. Aldana's engagement early in the club's observance of Jazz Appreciation Month deserves kudos.

[Photo by Rob Ambrose]

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Beethoven's Ninth: Uplifting masterpiece for Urbanski's return to ISO podium


Krzysztof Urbanski in action as music director

The key to the transcendent feeling that overtakes Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor in the fourth movement is the vigorous response of the lower strings to brief recollections of the first three. I've never heard such ferocity in that episode as that produced by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's cellos and basses Friday night at the urging of Krzysztof Urbanski in the former music director's return to Hilbert Circle Theatre.

During the tremendous ovation the performance received at the end from the capacity audience, the four vocal soloists and the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir received due and repeated recognition. But the conductor pointedly cued a collective solo bow from that string contingent. It called particular attention to an interpretive detail that was characteristic of the appropriate stress Urbanski elicited from time to time during the performance, the first of two this weekend.

The significance of this expressive fury shouldn't be overlooked.  Is Beethoven rejecting the message of the mixed tragedy, solace, and uplift of the preceding music? A better answer than the "no" anyone might consider is that the  lower strings' retort is intended to point the way to the crowning message of the work: Universal joy conferred by unearthly powers can be the promise of human life.

In today's context, this is not the joy promised by countless products of commercial culture. Nor is it a synonym for happiness, which is so subject to shifts in human disposition. When the bass soloist (Daniel Okulitch in these performances) puts a cap on the lower strings' complaint by recommending more pleasant and suitable tones to assuage the anxiety of the movement's opening discord, he is carrying forth the composer's vision (via the poet Friedrich Schiller) of an emotion underlying all creation.

Hard as it may be to believe in this vision, Beethoven demands that we consider it. Thus, I have a hard time accepting, despite some scholarly advocacy, the substitution of "Freiheit" (freedom) for "Freude," as Leonard Bernstein did in 1989, using the Ninth to celebrate the destruction of the Berlin Wall as the Iron Curtain collapsed. The substitution was understandable at the time, but the word "freedom" has been subjected to so much misuse in cultural politics since then that "joy" conveys a transcendent reality and an enduring value much better.

Similarly, the recent ballyhoo about Marin Alsop's editing changes to the work, which her Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is performing this very weekend, offends me less as a self-appointed gatekeeper of "purity" than because it fails to accept the greatness of the original within its limitations: the obvious focus on men, including the luck of those who find good women to help them celebrate; beyond that, the proclamation of universality in music that doesn't attempt to be universal beyond the clever "Turkish march" borrowings as the tenor solo (well projected by Dominic Armstrong) emerges. 

This only proves that musical masterpieces are both of their time and, by common agreement, for all  time. We need to come to terms with perpetual uneasiness about the  concept of immortality in products of mortal minds. Alsop's attempt  to inject 21st-century sensibility into music nearly 200 years old is questionable, and to suggest that Beethoven would approve is flimsy speculation. 

The work thrives because of what it really is, not what it implies. To show this off it's best to have the kind of program companion provided in these concerts: a new work commissioned by the choir and dedicated to Urbanski by the French  composer Guillaume Connesson. It's called "Heiterkeit" (Serenity), a dappled setting of texts by a Beethoven contemporary, Friedrich Hölderlin, with a  backstory amply described in Marianne Williams Tobias' program note. If only the audience could have been provided with texts to aid its understanding of the premiere!

In Baltimore, the idea of a new piece to set beside the Ninth also was followed— the work of the young Indian-American Reena Esmail. With the addition of a rapper and an African drum corps to the Beethoven Ninth, the concerts there this weekend come close to a new-music showcase. That aside, let's let worthy old music stay old without apology, and apply our 21st-century artistry toward having it speak to us in terms of our lives.

The excellence of the ISO's Friday concert was confirmed from the start of the Beethoven. That's when "there is only darkness over the face of the deep," in the words of English music scholar Basil Lam. The pacing and tone of these early moments were under superb control Friday night. Throughout the first movement, short wind phrases were made to sound essential in putting the strings' theme across.

With Jack Brennan's timpani leading the way, accents in the second-movement scherzo had an unabashed assertiveness to them, put in relief by the easy, well-supported flow of the contrasting Trio. The slow movement, leisurely and suggesting a heavenly abode that was to be displayed explicitly in the finale, was subtly impelled forward. 

Eric Stark directs the Indianapolis Symphonic Chorus.

The feeling of any collapse of tension was avoided; that wouldn't have been the kind of contrast Beethoven's design calls for. The second violins and the violas gave a fresh character to the movement's secondary theme. About the Adagio's vision of peace there's something slightly anxious, which emerges in a repeated trumpet fanfare near the end.

Without excessively anatomizing the finale, it should be noted that the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, trained by Eric Stark, gave its usual sturdy account of the choruses. Expression was forthright: "Do you apprehend the Creator, World?" they shouted. Balances were always assured, and the tone soared, even into the punishingly high reaches of the soprano part. 

The guest vocal soloists meshed well as a group. In addition to Armstrong and Okulitch, they were soprano Joelle Harvey and mezzo-soprano Renee Tatum. The quartet  made such a complementary force to the massed voices that they well deserved to overlay the choir's thrilling peroration. It's the singing that at length reverses the order of the Schiller line and upholds full-force the spiritual import of the work: transcendent joy is the beautiful spark of everything godly.



Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Building upon 'Visions,' Melissa Aldana looks within on '12 Stars'

Creative artists have had all sorts of responses to the pandemic. Especially crucial has been having to address the difficulty of securing work as performances dried up, starting two years ago.  When they were not bringing their art to the public, they had more time than usual to go to the woodshed and work on new paths forward.

Melissa Aldana looks out from a position of self-trust.
Melissa Aldana, whose 2019 CD "Visions" stemmed from her responses to visual art, chiefly that of Frida Kahlo, has drawn on a different inspiration this time. "12 Stars" draws upon tarot cards, as a way to learn about individual destiny and choices. Both directions, toward interpreting either the Mexican artist or  tarot,  require engagement with a special symbolic world.

The tenor saxophonist, born in Chile and now living in Brooklyn, has a group on this recording that's different from this tour, coming here at the end of the week. 

When she plays two sets at the Jazz Kitchen on Saturday night, two musicians continue as the basis of the rhythm section: bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Kush Abadey. The recording features a quintet consisting of Sullivan Fortner, a 2015 American Pianists Association laureate, and guitarist Lage Lund, who is also the bandleader's collaborator in "12 Stars"' compositions and arrangements.

Fortner adds major value to "12 Stars," playing with flow and wit, and it will be interesting to see how the omission of his deft interpretations of the music at the piano is compensated for. Replacing Lund, Mike Moreno has considerable creative heft to lend to Aldana's group on guitar; in 2015, his leadership on "Lotus" impressed me. So the music here should be both a showcase for the leader and a clarifying exhibition of her ability to assemble a compatible group of colleagues.

As I noted with "Visions," on "12 Stars" her tone is well-integrated in all registers. She gets around the horn not only with facility, but also with a knack for making such well-traveled displays sound  significant. In "Intuition," for example, a piece she says in a note is about trust in oneself, the searching feeling of her improvisational phrases always sounds grounded in an identity that indicates self-acceptance and a basis for proceeding.

The three-quarter-hour program of eight originals ends with the succinct title tune, named for the number of stars in the crown of tarot's Empress card. Whatever your relationship
to occult matters, this music has a candid appeal as an established young star continues to show her mastery.


Monday, April 4, 2022

A long time to come into the sun: St. Lawrence String Quartet covers Haydn's opus 20

The St. Lawrence Quartet in a soberer setting

Making something extra special for the local return of the St. Lawrence Quartet had to take into account the disruptions of the pandemic. But four years after the idea came forward at the instigation of John Failey, a concert covering Joseph Haydn's epochal six quartets designated Opus 20 came to fruition Sunday afternoon.

The cool, sun-drenched April day turned out to be perfect for the presenting Ensemble Music Society to take up temporary residence at the Woodstock Country Club. On the program, aptly enough, were all six of the so-called "Sun" quartets. The nickname derives from the title-page illustration of a 1779 Amsterdam edition of the masterpieces, seven years after their composition.

An ensemble with a distinctive profile involving extraordinary collective elan, this quartet seems well-positioned to extend its reputation for capturing what's essential about Haydn's foundational contribution to the genre. In Opus 20, the individuality and brilliance of the Austrian creator abound, and, with its electrifying internal rapport, the St. Lawrence Quartet represented Haydn's essential qualities fully over the course of three hours (with two intermissions during which refreshments were served).

Though sometimes put in an alcove of honor by posterity, representative of classical restraint in music, Joseph Haydn was seen by his contemporaries, both fellow composers and music-lovers, as a modern composer of unusual breadth and power. The first biographical account, by G.A. Griesinger in 1810 (the year after Haydn's death) has this account of his music: "Original and abundant ideas, deep feeling, fantasy wisely controlled by penetrating study of the art, skill in the development of an idea basically simple, calculation of effect by a clever distribution of light and of shadow, pouring forth of the slyest humor, an easy flow and free movement — these are the qualities that distinguish Haydn's earlier and latest works alike." 

All those facets were illuminated in the visiting quartet's representation of a string-quartet output that paralleled the "storm and stress" era in Haydn's symphonic writing. First violinist Geoff Nuttall overflowed with enthusiasm in oral program notes that expanded upon his succinct notes in the printed program. He was inspired by both the "how-to-listen" and "why-listen" sides of audience appreciation.

Looking backward as well as forward, Haydn revived counterpoint, giving it a fresh expressive manner, and pioneered new textures in string quartet writing. The wit often pointed to in his music was sometimes rather unbuttoned for a master seen as the epitome of classicism. The unconventional accents in the minuet movement of No. 4 in D major, for example, make this much-honored, often sedate dance form quite undanceable, as Nuttall pointed out before the second part of Sunday's concert.

In the St. Lawrence's performance, the firm bond between emotion and rhythmic precision in the fugal finale (one of three in the set) of No. 6 in A major turned out to be characteristic of the five pieces to come as well. That introductory reading of the Opus 20 quartets forced the listener to get used to the hyperphysical way of delivering the music characteristic of Nuttall and, to a lesser degree, his second-violin colleague, Owen Dalby. With Nuttall, one foot or the other would often leave the floor briefly, there were torso twists, and facial expressions ran the gamut. At the restrained end of the spectrum was violist Lesley Robertson, as cellist Christopher Costanza mediated between the two extremes within histrionic norms.

Soon I concentrated visually on the rest of the quartet, catching the first violinist only in my peripheral vision. That worked slightly, as I could infer how Nuttall was moving from the intense focus I could hear in how he played. That's all to the good; observing performers' body language is part of the joy of concert-going, and when it borders on distraction, you can intuit it. And it's worth emphasizing that the whole quartet sounded musically engaged in a common purpose around whatever the scores seem to suggest. Nuttall's characteristic dynamism betrayed him only a little bit in the last of the quartets, during the minuet of No. 2 in C major, when his intonation lost some of its pristine quality. 

"Affettuoso" (tender, warm, emotional) as a direction for two of Haydn's Opus 20 slow movements points the way toward the deepest reaches of Haydn's temperament, which attains sublimity and simplicity alike in the cavatina of No. 5's third movement. In that movement, part of the genius is the relevance of the gingerbread figuration that persistently decorates the plaintive melody. It's a way of saying that sometimes beneath the most direct lyrical expression lies a tangle of complicated emotion. 

In that connection, it's worth remembering a provocative arts op-ed in the New York Times  during the lavish bicentennial observances of Mozart's death in 1991. "Those who began to call Haydn and Mozart Classical were motivated not only by admiration and the desire to cultivate and preserve their music, but also by conservative anti-Romantic feelings," James Webster writes. 

Later in the 19th century, he goes on, the idea of a classical  style was given granitic firmness by anti-modernists. As can be observed today, cultural politics often shifts our understanding  of an art's essence. Thus it used to be with "Papa" Haydn, though the truth of his originality and spirit of adventure is easy to appreciate in such performances as the St. Lawrence offered here of the "Sun" quartets.

The likes of what the Ensemble Music audience heard should not be taken as a species of California dreaming by the Stanford University-based group.  Haydn himself said that he was forced to become original in isolated service to his patron at the Esterhaza estate far away from Vienna; he certainly knew how to take the cue and let his genius run with it. The St. Lawrence rates high among musicians who can represent that for our times.




Saturday, April 2, 2022

Glitch of the birds doesn't keep ISO concert from taking flight

Joshua Weilerstein whipped up energy with a purpose.

The last time the Sibelius violin concerto was played in an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concert, the choice of symphony on the program also ended with several widely separated orchestral stabs. But there aren't many other resemblances between William Walton's First Symphony and Jean Sibelius' Fifth.

Both are important landmarks in their composer's careers. The better-known Sibelius at the end of Friday's program (to be repeated at 5:30 this afternoon) put a crown upon the Finland installment of this season's thematic series of "postcards" from different nations. The representation this weekend had those two Sibelius works companioned by a slight piece of picturesqueness by Ida Moberg ("Sunrise") and Einojuhani Rautavaara's "Cantus Arcticus." 

The secondary works reinforced  Finnish admiration for nature in the northernmost parts of the planet. Guest conductor Joshua Weilerstein even read a long diary entry by the country's musical icon celebrating the inspiration he got from swans as he wrote his Fifth Symphony. The finale of the three-movement work encapsulates what buoyed Sibelius creatively about the swirling energy of large flocks of the white birds, with a triumphant hymn set on top. 

As notable as that conclusion is, the Sibelius Fifth shares with two other great 20th-century fifth symphonies a distinctive way of concluding the first movement. Dmitri Shostakovich Fifth's opening statement, complex and anxious, ends with celesta and strings quietly meditating with either relief or gentle questioning the path forward. The first movement of Sergei Prokofiev's Fifth wraps up with grinding, chromatic determination.

A third way shows up with Sibelius in the earliest of the three Fifths. As played Friday in Hilbert Circle Theater, it had such thickened motoric energy in the final measures that when it ended, there was a "Wow!" or two  and an outburst of applause that was unique from this audience. The smallish crowd was normally respectful of the much criticized tradition of saving the ovation until the end of a multi-movement composition. It was a model audience, in fact, rapt during the music and generous with applause and shouts at the end.

Weilerstein was a dependable catalyst for the orchestra's outpouring of vitality. More than that, he was sensitive to the modernist foreshadowings in this century-old piece, leaning into the momentary  dissonances. He reveled in the fragmentary phrases that somehow Sibelius bends toward coalescence and, in the second movement, showed an extraordinary feeling for changes of tempo and texture. His athleticism on the podium didn't seem to be about empty showmanship, but was rather attuned to musical events both big and small. By the time that famous punctuation-with-pauses was nailed down to cap the concert, he had the audience in the palm of his hand.

Such traits served him well in guiding the accompaniment to Alexi Kenney's soloing in Sibelius's sole concerto. Kenney's interpretive approach emphasized a smooth, patrician manner, precise about phrasing yet able to wax passionate. The orchestral tuttis billowed and soared. 

As with the last interpretation of the work here (the soloist was James Ehnes), in the Allegro ma non tanto the "but not too much" was ignored. This made several upward sweeping phrases of great rapidity a bit approximate in Friday's performance. The musicologist Donald Francis Tovey's oft-quoted description of the finale as "a polonaise for polar bears," while not definitive, properly suggests that there ought to  be a lumbering quality to the triple-meter dance that Sibelius constructed.

Alexi Kenney: a smooth Sibelius violin concerto, with oomph. 

But the appeal of Kenney's performance was sustained, and his technical security was nearly absolute. The composer's best melody, nearly on the same level as that in "Finlandia," shapes the second movement; Kenney and the orchestra were fully responsive to it. A pleasant surprise came with the encore: Weilerstein left the stage and returned with a violin of his own. He and Kenney then played a delightful duo among  Bela Bartok's many for two violins: "The Bagpipe."

The evening's other surprise was totally unplanned. The electronic bird calls essential to Rautavaara's "concerto for birds and orchestra" could not be lined up on cue. As the delay began, the visiting maestro told the audience "our birds have gone silent," soon adding, with deft comic timing: "Tomorrow we'll bring live birds." Electronic order was eventually restored, though the balance of orchestra and birds, particularly in the finale "Swans Migrating," was overwhelmingly weighted toward the swans. Maybe the balance was better in the balcony. Rautavaara's writing for the orchestra honors the birds of the Arctic Circle, in any case, and never tries to cage them.

The concert opened with a lulling tune offered to honor Ukraine in its current struggle to resist Russian aggression. It was "Melody" by Myroslav Skoryk, a Ukrainian composer, and served its purpose well.